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A Man About A Bicycle

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“What do you mean I need a license to drive a motorcycle?”

Lio crossed his arms, petulant as he stared down at Galo, sitting in the driver’s seat of his own vehicle.

Galo blinked up at him, for once seemingly lost for words. The genuine shock wormed it’s way past Lio’s indignation and melted the stern expression on his face, letting it fall before it sprung back up in frustration. Brows knit he looked down to the floor, feeling the same pent-up form of confusion and anger he’s been feeling more and more since the departure, no, the loss of the Promare. Every since that day he’s felt like he had been walking the world blind, never knowing where the holes in his knowledge lay until he fell right through them. He felt stupid for it, but there were so many things that weren’t relavant to him as a Burnish, or just as a man on the run.

Don’t touch plates and bowls right out of the microwave.

You need a job to get money to survive properly.

Use a cup sleeve when you get coffee.

You need proof of education, not just the assurance that you know things.

Wear sunscreen outside in the summer.

Leader of a terrorist organization doesn’t count as job experience.

Everything is so much colder, so much hotter, and so much more complicated than Lio had ever expected a real, normal life to be.

“Hey,” Galo interrupted, grinning reassuringly as he reached out to place a large, gentle hand on Lio’s shoulder. “It’s ok! You can ride with me for now! We’ll figure it out!”

Lio sighed, deflating as he shrugged away from the hand and got on the motorbike behind Galo. “I can’t call you every time I need a ride. You have a job.” He fitted the spare helmet on and wrapped his arms around Galo’s impossibly slim waist. “And a life,” He smirked. “Presumably.”

Galo started the bike and pulled out from the station’s parking lot. “I do to have a life!” He laughed, “And driving you to and from class is part of it now!”

Lio hummed with distracted agreement.

“And going shopping with you, and hanging out at the station after work, and helping Lucia test things with you, and helping the rest of the Burnish with you-”

“Alright, I get it. You have a life.” Geeze. Did he really spend so much time with him? Lio thought. Well, it made sense, he was either with Galo or doing school work pretty much every waking hour worth mentioning. It would make sense that, therefore, Galo didn’t really have a lot of time for anything else but work and him. A squirmy sensation of unease settled over his spine, reminding him how much he was taking away and how instinctively wrong it was. He was so used to giving and giving without question, taking up as little space and as little resources as possible to leave more for his people. Now he had the slightest excuse to receive in turn and already he was being selfish.

He needed to fix this. Immediately.

---

Galo sat in the garage after his shift, black paint smudging his pants and arms as he inspected his work.

“Whatcha got there?” Aina said, announcing her presence as she leaned over him to look over his handiwork.

“My old bike.” He shook the can of spray paint and gave it another blast.

Aina sat next to him, “Isn’t it a little small for you?”

He nodded emphatically. “Way too small! I’ve had it since I was a kid.”

“And you’re painting it because…?”

“Oh! It’s for Lio.”

Aina laughed, clapping him on the back as she let the humor wash over her.

Galo stared at her, questioning and at least a little hurt.

“Oh.” She paused. “You were being serious.”

He nodded. “Is… Is there something wrong with it?” His lower lip stuck out in what was dangerously close to a pout. “I painted it black and magenta and cyan and everything! Those are like all his favorite colors!”

“Galo, he just… How do I put this?” She tented her hands in front of her face. “Lio does not seem like the kind of person who would ride a bicycle. Especially not as his main form of transportation. I mean…” She chuckled humorlessly, “He likely isn’t all that concerned about his carbon footprint and all that.”

“Well! He can be the judge of that.” Galo popped onto his feet, capping the spray paint. “Lio said he wishes he could have his own motorcycle again and drive around. But he’s too busy with the Burnish and taking night classes trying to get his G.E.D have much time left for getting a driver’s license right now. So, for now-” He pointed the can to the bike.

Aina shrugged her shoulders, seeming to give up. “Whatever. Speaking of your boyfriend, shouldn’t you be picking him up from class like a half hour ago?”

“He’s not-” A glance at the clock. “Oh my god he’s gunna kill me!” He tossed the can of paint to Aina as he sprinted to the parking lot. “HIDE THE BIKE FOR ME! I’ll be back!”

--

The community college had been pretty damaged by the almost-end of the world. The entire gymnasium was rubble and only half the buildings had electricity yet. Most of the decorum that Lio imagined it once had was all but chipped away by the overzealous resetting of the Promare. But, in some way, it was comforting to see. Almost endearing. The Promare had tried their best to leave the world intact, borrowing from Galo’s desire to protect and save, but what they, or maybe what Galo, included as being worth saving was a bit lost in the details. So, in the end, everywhere he looked Lio was reminded of them both.

And how lonely it was to be without.

He sat in the lobby with his notes balanced on one knee, headphones on to drown away the sensation of being alone with his own thoughts. They were yet another thing he had Galo to thank for. Respite from the all-consuming silence of his own mind

He checked his phone for the time. 9:45. Almost an hour late. That wasn’t like him. Lio nibbled absently on the string of his hoodie, sending another text.

[class is out]
9:05

[where are you?]
9:22
[are you ok?]
9:29
[please tell me you’re alright and you just forgot]
9:45

Exhaling hard through his nose, he put his phone away in exchange for his notes once more, knee bouncing so hard he could barely read what he was looking at. Galo was fine. Galo was always fine. What would even happen to him? It’s not like he would have actually burnt to a crisp in a fire, or crashed his bike, or done any of the millions of things that Lio was now intimately aware that the human body was vulnerable to.

His phone buzzed and he nearly flung it to the floor trying to pull it out of his pocket.

[so sorry!!! I’m outside!!! Please forgive me!!! I brought donuts!!! 😭😭😭]

Lio sighed, the tension in his chest unfurling as he packed his bag and headed out to the pickup loop.

Galo was standing beside his bike, waving Lio down frantically. He waved through the glass door before pushing outside, the night chill like needles through the fabric of his hoodie. He hissed, but kept moving anyway, watching as Galo started jogging towards him.

“I am SO SORRY! I totally lost track of time and then I felt bad so I went to grab you something to eat because I figured you’d be hungry and I am so so so late-”

Lio held out a hand to stop his tirade. “Galo. It’s ok, I’m just glad you are okay.”

He tilted his head, not unlike a puppy. “Why wouldn’t I be?”

“I dunno, just-” A shiver, both natural and metaphorical, ran up his spine. He looked away, huffing out a breath. “You worried me, that’s all.”

“Liiiiiiiioooo!” He whined, wrapping his arms around him and lifting him gracelessly off the ground. “I am so sorry! I never want to worry you! I was fine! I promise!”

Lio struggled for only a moment of shock before going dramatically limp, letting the moment pass before Galo noticed his head lolling back and his spine bowing out to follow gravity’s lean. When the shouting and rocking back and forth paused Lio smirked. “You squished me.” He said in a matter-of-fact monotone. “I am dead.”

"NoooOOOOOOOOO" Galo protested, setting Lio back on his feet and earning a flat chuckle as Lio straightened back up. “You have to be alive.” Galo assured him, as if it really was a question of needing to be reminded. “Here, have a donut.” He shoved a bag into his hands. “And I brought you another jacket because you only took one. It’s under the bike seat! Here!”

Lio smiled indulgently, letting himself be lead back to the bike and then letting Galo make a show of pulling out the jacket and draping it over his shoulders.

“Better?” Galo asked, expression concerned.

“Much.” He assured, pulling out a glazed donut and taking a bite before handing the bag back to Galo.

He put it back in the side bag and waited for Lio to climb on behind him. “You still should get your own wheels soon though. This wouldn’t happen if you did.”

Lio hummed, resting his head against Galo’s back. “Agreed.” He yawned. “Can we go back to the station now? I’m cold and I’m tired.”

A pause. “Sure thing, Boss.”
---

Lio had been living at the station ever since the day they saved the world. It had been Galo’s idea, of course, because he couldn’t stand the idea that Lio didn’t have anywhere else to and Lio was too proud to take the offer of sleeping on Galo’s sofa for more than one night. He could understand that. Lio was a private person, he liked his alone time and a small corner of space to call his own. It was a luxury he had no idea how long Lio’d been without and he was not about to deny him it.

Besides, it was easy enough to push an overnight shift bed into the spare office and throw everything else into the supply closet to make room. It was small, and kind of dull, but Lio had looked at it like it was the Ritz. Like he couldn’t believe he was allowed to have something as basic as a room to call his own. So, Galo made sure to respect those four walls diligently. The station might be his place of work, but that room was entirely Lio’s.

But, it also meant Lio was almost always around. Working on the bike took time and finding time to work on it when Lio wasn’t lurking around was proving to be an exercise in working miracles.

Aina suggested recruiting Lucia which, granted, was not a bad idea. She’s probably make the bike super cool and fast and better. But, better wasn’t the point. Galo wanted to do this for Lio. He didn’t want to share it with anyone else.

But he still needed help if he was going to get it done anytime soon.

“Aina, pleeeease.”

“No! Give me one good reason I should spend some of my, very limited, free time with him?” She slammed her locker, arms crossed as she stared Galo down. “We don’t even know each other, really. I’ve literally never been in the same room with him without you.”

“That should be reason enough!” Galo pouted. Lio was part of the team now! Even if he wasn’t a member of Burning Rescue he should at least be counted as an honorary member! Or something!

 

“It isn’t.” She assured him.

Galo slowly closed his locker, giving Aina a distraught stare as he ran through his list of possible reasons. “Please?” His shoulders drooped. “For me? I really want to get the bike done and it’ll take forever if I only do it when Lio is at class.”

She paused, seeming to war with herself, before sighing. “Fine. I’ll try- but I can’t guarantee anything.”

 

----

Math was Lio’s least favorite subject. It was actually quite fair to say he hated it. He hadn’t needed math, of all things, out in the desert. It was something that had as little to do with his old life as possible. Which is to say he was fascinated but beyond infuriated by it.

His notes and textbooks were sprawled across the kitchen table, a massive beast of a piece of furniture meant to seat an entire firehouse. He could have sat so much of his team around this table. He tried to imagine it. A hall with a few of these tables, all of the Mad Burnish who survived and any Burnish who were still proud enough of their old identity to want to be seen in public with him all gathered around a huge meal. He had discovered that his conventional cooking skills were meager but he was doing his best to learn. He had no doubt that he’d be able to figure something out. That was always his specialty. Making things work. Providing. Protecting.

Now? Well, now the same things that had made him a strong leader of the Burnish made him an absolute wreck of a normal human being. Without the Promare, forced back into a society he hadn’t been properly integrated in for as long as he could remember, he was just another weak, dependant person. One who had relied so fully on their flames that without them he was floundering to cope with the gaps. What could he do for anyone else when he could barely say he was handling himself?

He exhaled sharply, leaning back in his chair and shoving his workbook away. It was only then that he noticed there was someone standing by the coffee machine, watching him.

Aina.

Lio didn’t exactly have any strong opinion on her yet other than a vague sense that he did not like how close she and Galo were. Which was something he didn’t like feeling and shoved down whenever it creeped up.

Selfish, again.

 

“Hey.” She greeted, holding up the coffee pot. “Want a cup?”

Lio sighed. “Sure.” He muttered, swinging around to face her more fully.

“Cream and sugar? Or no? You look like someone who likes their coffee black.”

He crinkled his nose. “Wrong. Both, please.”

She nodded, not commenting further as she made two cups, one pale the other pitch dark, and brought them to the table.

Lio thanked her as he took the cup. Carefully, he reminded himself. Only by the handle, test the sides with two fingertips before picking it up with both hands. Tiresome. He took a sip and scrunched his face at the bitterness, grabbing two more sugar packets and stirring them in before taking an appraising sip and humming happily.

“You’re worse than Galo.” Aina observed matter of factly, taking a sip of her own as she sat down.

“Mmm.” Lio hummed around another long sip. “I’ll take that as a compliment. Galo makes good coffee.”

She rolled her eyes, looking away as she set her chin on her hand. “I’m sure he does.” She said flatly.

There it was again. That unpleasant feeling.

Lio looked down to his cup, tracing the lip of the edge with a finger as he contemplated his thoughts. “I… we didn’t have a lot of stuff like this out in the Burnish groups.” He started slowly. “It was not necessary. Sugar was a waste of calories so we didn’t raid any to start, and it wasn’t available when we started sourcing our own resources. Coffee was the same. Dairy would have been fine if not for the heat.” He smiled fondly. “We tended to spoil milk just by being around it, not to mention the desert didn’t have good storage for it anyway.”

Aina looked at him, almost lost, and he simply smiled, holding his cup up. “So, I like to think I am making up for lost time.” He took a sip. “Besides, black coffee is gross.”

There was a beat of silence, then Aina started to laugh. Lio looked to her, skeptical, trying to judge the reaction.

She set down her cup and shook her head. “You two really are just alike.”

Lio chuckled dryly. “You thought we weren’t?”

 

“Oh, absolutely not!” She leaned back, rocking her chair onto two legs. “You give off a cool, calm, and collected badass vibe from like a mile away, you know? You don’t really talk much and you keep to yourself mostly, and with the way you dress and the fact that you, literally, burned the world to the ground don’t really help!”

Lio’s expression pinched, but she wasn’t done.

“Just by looks you and Galo would be two total opposites but you both have zero idea how insane you seem to the rest of the world.” She took a long sip while Lio stared wide-eyed.

“You think I’m wrong?” She challenged, watching Lio squirm.

“Uhhh…” Lio looked away awkwardly, feeling seen in a way that felt scrutinizing rather than warm and accepting. “Sure.” A beat. “I mean, no. Not really.”

A long silence fell over the table, neither of them really looking to one another as they drank their coffee in peace. Lio pulled over one of his workbooks and started picking apart the problems again with a frustrated patience. For a bit he could block out the fact that Aina was even there.

“Why don’t you wear earrings anymore?”

Lio sighed, pushing the book away again. “Why do you pay so much attention?”

She shrugged.

He deflated, leaning back in his chair. No use in fighting. “It was a fake.” He hadn’t exactly had money for jewelry and he was not about to tell Aina about the homemade solutions he’d settled on before giving up. “My ear isn’t actually pierced.”

“... do you want to fix that?”

“What?”

“I can pierce your ears. Like, right now.”

“What?!”

It was a shuffle of dismissal and reassurance that dragged Lio from the kitchen, to Aina’s locker, then to his room. By the time he was laying on the floor with his head laid on a pillow in her lap he was questioning every choice that lead up to this moment in his life.

“Are you sure this is safe?”

Aina rolled her eyes. “I used to do this at slumber parties when I was a kid.” She wiped a wicked looking sewing needle on her shirt. “I know what I’m doing.”

Somehow he doubted that. But he still accepted an ice cube from a little bowl, flinching when he felt the familiar bite to his skin, not so unlike the all consuming frost of a bullet, and held it to his earlobe.

“Hold this.”

He scowled, petulant. “I’m already holding the ice.”

“Other hand, you have two.”

Grumbling, he obliged, taking what turned out to be a lighter. He stared at it for what was likely too long, not sure how to name the constriction he felt in his chest, before Aina snapped him out of it.

“Light it, I need to sterilize the needle.”

They both looked to the lighter. “I, uh…” Lio looked to the ceiling. “I don’t know how.”

“Oh, now that’s ironic.” Aina chuckled.

He huffed, “It’s not exactly like I needed to use one, you know?”

“Ok, ok, fair. I see your point. Here.” She pointed to the wheel. “Run your thumb quickly over that part so it rolls, then hold down the button. Be careful to keep your thumb tip away from the flames or you’ll burn yourself.”

It took a few tortuous tries, each failed spark feeling like a personal affront. Was he doomed to always be without flames? Like there was some cosmic quota he surpassed years ago? It had been so easy to conjure up flaming constructs, magnificent and powerful weapons, but now even this smallest flame eludes him?

Maddening.

But made all that much more anticlimactic when the spark caught, when a dancing flame, yellow-orange and natural, lay flickering in his fingertips. It was so familiar but so hollow that it hurt. He never really knew how connected to his flames he was until they were gone. Until he was staring at this tiny, captive blaze and wishing, willing, himself to feel something more. For it to be something more.

Aina passed the needle through the fire a few times before satisfied. “Ok put it out.”

And he did.

And he felt nothing.

---

[He’s heading downstairs, either hide the bike or be ready to present it.]

Galo looked down at the neon yellow bike bell and matching horn on the floor in front of him. Panic rushed his choice as he quickly attached the bell and threw the horn to the other end of the room with a comedic crash and honk.

With that he tossed a sheet over the bike and turned just in time to watch Lio speed down the stairs, hopping two at a time. He landed at the bottom of the stairwell with a definitive slap of his boots and looked up from where he had been watching his footing to shoot Galo a glowing smile that made his heart do a series of convoluted flips.

Warm. It was all he could think of feeling when faced with that wide, overjoyed grin. Warm enough to melt all semblance of sense and reason he already struggled with. Melt away every worry he’d ever had about this. About them.

“Galo!” Lio ran up to him, practically aflame with the blinding brightness of his joy. “Look!” He pointed to his ear, quickly running a tuft of hair behind it to reveal a plain black stud earring.

“You got new earrings?” He guessed, already eager to match Lio’s enthusiasm. “They look cool!”

Lio shook his head, “Not just that. Aina pierced them!”

“They weren’t before?”

“No, the Promare healed, remember? It would have closed up. I used... “ He waved his hand dismissively. “Clip ons.”

Galo nodded emphatically. “Well, they look great!” He grinned. “They suit you!”

Lio’s matching grin lit up the whole room. “Thank you.” He looked past Galo to the covered mass of the bike. “Were you working on something? I didn’t mean to interrupt.”

 

“No, no! You’re just in time!” Galo shuffled away, scrambling behind the bike to let Lio see, mapping his curious expression as he listened diligently. “Presenting! Burnish Bike Two-Point-Oh!” He pulled the sheet off with a flourish, letting his handiwork speak for itself for only a dramatic moment while he posed before looking to see Lio’s reaction.

Lio blinked. “It’s… a bicycle.”

“Yeah!” Galo grinned, “It’s a 6 speed, 3 elevation, fully updated, completely de-rusted, custom painted bicycle.” He rung the bell. “With upgrades.”

 

Hands shoved into his pockets, he gave the bike a cautious appraisal before looking to Galo. “Is…” He pointed to himself. “Is this for me?”

Galo nodded. “Yeah!”

He tried to parse the quick flicker of emotions and expressions that danced across Lio’s features. None of them were a beaming grin or him leaping into his arms with zealous gratitude. Slowly, painfully, Galo deflated. “Do… uh... do you like it?”

Lio nodded, hand tracing the handlebars as he seemed caught up in his own contemplation. What Galo wouldn’t do to get just a glimpse into that mess of thoughts that always seemed to catch Lio at the most unexpected moments. Slowly, with a soft, genuine smile, Lio looked up from the bike. “Thank you.” He said, voice quiet.

“You’re welcome.”

Lio chuckled, almost humorlessly. “I guess you won’t have to drive me to class anymore.”

“I can still do that. If you want. I mean, I don’t mind.” Galo kicked at one of the screwdrivers laying beside the toolkit. “Really, I don’t. I…” He sighed, looking up at Lio with what he hoped was a telling smile. “I like spending time with you.”

The flash of shock, of understanding, that flickered through Lio’s eyes was unmistakable. For another torturous moment he seemed at war with himself. It was everything Galo could do just to keep himself from interrupting, explaining. Laying everything out in a torrent of word vomit, letting loose everything that has become so clear to him since that day.

He couldn’t imagine a life without him.

He wanted to spend every single moment with him.

He loved him.

“I-” Lio started, arms crossing defensively as he took a step back. “I think I’m going to move out of the station.”

“What?” Galo stepped around the bike, closing the gap even as Lio took another step to further it. “Where? Why?”

“Meis and Gueira just got an apartment in the new housing a lot of the Burnish-” He paused, brows pinched, “ex-Burnish, are moving into. Government subsidy. They offered and, well, It’s closer to the college and,” He exhaled slowly, “I just think it’s for the best.”

“Lio, no!” Galo forced himself still, not wanting to chase if Lio wouldn’t let him. “You can just forget the bike if you want, I wasn’t trying to get at anything! Nothing like that!” He reached out and stopped himself, drawing the hand close instead. “You don’t have to go. You’re always welcome here.”

Lio looked away, his voice small. “I know.”

“I don’t mind, really! Please, Lio. I want you here!”

His bangs fell into his face as he whispered again. “I know.”

Galo froze. Understanding piercing his armor like a lance. “Oh.” His shoulders shrunk, stepping away as he looked to the floor. “Ok.” He felt so small. So stupid. He always knew he was, everyone told him, but he’d never actually felt it before. To think that Lio would ever like someone like him as much as he liked him. Stupid. Stupid for hoping. Stupid for trying. Stupid. Stupid.

Stupid.

“Thank you.” A pause. “For the bike, I mean.” Lio shuffled awkwardly. “I’d understand if you don’t want-”

“No.” Galo cut him off so fervently Lio startled, and he immediately felt bad for it, lowering his voice again. “Keep it. Call it a… housewarming gift.”

The smallest hint of a smile, gone as fast as it came. “Thank you, Galo.”

“I…” Galo sighed, rubbing the back of his neck awkwardly. “I think I’m going to head home for the night.”

“Okay.”

“Have a good night, Lio.”

Galo turned away and as he heard Lio wish him a good night too he didn’t turn or wave. He couldn’t look back or he’d fall apart and he couldn’t Not for the terrible, long walk back to his bike, the longer, worse drive to his apartment. Not until he closed his door did he let the burn seep in and splinter at the cracks.

He was burning alive and there was nothing he could do about it.

Chapter Text

Lio hadn’t expected Galo to offer to help him move. He hadn’t really expected to see him at all, to tell the truth. After he left the night he’d given him the bike Lio had dragged himself up to his room and fallen into bed, expecting when the sun rose that Galo would not want anything to do with him. He was too proud to admit that he’d cried, that he’d wished he still had the power to light the whole room on fire and let every terrible impulse in his wretched soul pour out and roar louder and louder.

How pathetic was he, really? That when he finally had the strength to stop taking more than he deserved he wanted nothing more than to throw a fit?

He was better than that. Better enough to politely smile and thank Galo for the offer but, no thank you, Meis and Gueira were bringing their truck and they’d be more than capable of moving everything themselves, thank you.

Lio could never thank Galo enough. The man had breathed life back into his shriveling lungs, passed his soul back into his body through his lips, ushered the world safely into a new age of peace, and carried Lio safely across the threshold of everything before and after.

He owed him his everything.

And yet Galo kept giving and giving and giving and Lio wanted nothing more than to take. To polish off every last crumb. To feel so warm, and content, and full of every mortal pleasure. To hold, to keep, to selfishly horde.

But, who was he to receive all this goodness? Who was he to hold the sun in human form under lock and key just because he wanted? There may have been a time when he was worthy of someone who shone as brilliantly as Galo did, who embodied everything right in the world. But not anymore. The person who was worthy of him burned away with the rest of the old earth.

The person Galo had met, the person he’d SAVED, didn’t exist anymore.

He shouldn't have to be stuck dealing with whoever was leftover just because Lio was.

So instead he and Gueira were left lugging the mattress Ignis had insisted he take with him up 13 flights of steps by themselves, for the want of an elevator that was still not estimated to be opporatiable for another week. It was a small blessing that he only had two trips worth of personal belongings, but the voice in the back of Lio’s mind was keen on reminding him that Galo would have had this stupid thing up the stairs in no time, by himself, and then asked what they wanted him to do next like it had been nothing but a warm up.

They crashed the mattress into Lio’s new room, all but throwing it in a corner just to no longer be holding it up. Lio allowed himself to follow it’s dramatic decent, faceplanting with a generous bounce while he caught his breath.

Gueira laughed, “What, a few weeks and you’re already out of shape, Boss?” He said between heavy breaths.

Lio groaned, “Speak for yourself, you know we’re all weaker now.” He lifted his head from the mattress to cast an ireless glare over his shoulder. “And upper body strength was never my forte.”

“You don’t say?” Meis teased, poking his head in before hip-checking Gueira to move him out of the way while he lugged in the trash bags that held Lio’s clothes. “Could have fooled me.” He smirked.

“Dick.” Lio chided, rolling off the mattress to flop face-up on the floor.

He laughed. “Well, you are now officially moved in.” He walked over to tower above Lio’s crumpled body, keys dangling overhead as he grinned. “Welcome home, Boss.”

Lio reached up and took the keys, feeling that this moment would have felt a lot more reverent if not for the ache in his calves and the burn in his lungs. “Thanks.” He flopped his arm over his face. “But, you guys have got to stop calling me that. I’m your roommate now, for fuck’s sake.”

“So?” Gueira laughed, “You’re still the same Boss to us, right Meis?”

Meis chuckled, his boots clunking as he walked out into the hall. “Haven’t changed a bit.” He confirmed

Lio sighed, sitting up to look around at his empty four walls. It didn’t feel like he hadn’t changed. If anything it felt like everything had changed. Pick a point on the map of Lio Fotia and he could tell you all the ways it had shifted, sunk, or drifted away.

He did not know the stranger he saw when he looked in the mirror.
---

The station felt so empty now. It was stupid, really, because Lio had only lived there for a few months and it had never felt empty before he’d moved in. It should have felt like going back to normal, not like a profound sense of missing, of loss, that almost physically hung in the air. Everything should be fine without him. Galo knew this, but his heart could never quite seem to acknowledge that Lio wasn’t the center of the universe that everything else revolves around.

Everywhere he looked was another reminder. The once-again spare office that had been a sanctuary he’d only been invited into sparsely. The kitchen table that was once again bare and not scattered with Lio’s homework. The counters where Lio would sit like a cat and watch Galo cook or make coffee. There was not a part of this place, or his life, that Lio had not managed to change just by existing. Galo suspected now that he had no idea the effect he had on everyone. Or maybe just on him. No. Surely everyone else could clearly see how special Lio was? How could anyone look at that bright, wonderful, stubborn face and not feel fundamentally changed?

It was impossible.

“You’re doing it again.” Lucia mumbled, poking his head with a pen while she continued to type single handedly.

“Huh?” Galo looked up innocently, his inner monologue halted effectively.

She gave a side eye before going back to her work. “Moping. Getting stuck in your head.” She leaned back in her chair, giving a final tap on the keyboard before crossing her arms. “It’s not a good look on you.”

Galo sighed, running a hand through his hair. “I know. I just… I don’t know where I went wrong!”

“That’s never been a problem for you before.” Lucia shrugged, spinning her chair around and tucking her legs up to increase the speed.

He leaned forward, tucking his face into the crease of his arm with an exaggerated pout. “Well, it is now.” He closed his eyes, taking a deep breath before looking up to see Lucia examining him thoughtfully. He looked to the floor, avoiding her gaze. “I… I just really thought he liked me too.”

The thought gripped at his throat, making every breath a struggle as his emotions ran rampant. A deluge of overwhelming loss and despair he wasn’t in any way equipped to handle. The world was as wobbly and unstable as he felt and before he knew what was happening Lucia had wordlessly shoved a tissue in his face, forceful but caring. This only made the tears flow more freely, but he thanked her nonetheless and accepted the tissue, trying to clean himself up.

“I’m sorry, Galo.” She offered, already pulling herself back to her desk. “You deserve better than that.”

Defensiveness welled up in Galo’s proud heart. Better than Lio? There was no such thing!

Lucia sighed, likely seeing his expression and growing tired of his foolishness.

He was noticing that more now. How people reacted to him. Had they always been so frustrated with him?

She smiled, almost performatively. “Do you want to test out the new mods I put on the squad car? I added an 8th gear and some new sirens. Should be really flashy.”

Galo nodded. He knew his friends were just trying to help, trying to take his mind off things and make him be the carefree, happy Galo they knew. But, all he could think of was Lio.

Was he ok? Had he waited long enough to text him and ask? Would they ever text again? Were they still friends? Had he ruined everything they had not just any shot at something more than friendship? Hell.

Did he even like the bike?

--

Lio was pretty sure he hated the bike. It was slower than a motorbike. His legs and ass were constantly sore from pedaling. He swore he nearly cracked a tooth one time hitting a pothole.

Every time he rode it he thought of Galo.

The first day it poured on his way home from class he pulled over and sat on the curb, too tired and cold and frustrated to continue without first having a total meltdown. After crying and screaming and stomping around he biked the rest of the way home with a lake in his boots and about 10lbs of water in the fabric of his clothes feeling only marginally more capable of making the trek.

He immediately shucked his bag, shoes, and 3 layers of hoodies onto the welcome mat the second he slammed the apartment door shut.

“You’re home awful late!” Meis called out from the kitchen, commenting more than judging. He was good at that.

“We were about to start a search party!” Gueira piped up, a song Lio didn’t recognise creaking through the tinny speakers of the radio.

The hushed laughter between them helped soothe the worst of the edge as Lio tried not to lose his shit over not being able to pull one of his knee-high socks off fast enough, the wet fabric adhered to his skin as he sat on the floor to struggle with it. He was on his back with his foot in the air before it gave in and popped off his foot.

“Or at least go out in the truck to look for you.” Guiera amended.

Lio was starting to peel off his soaking shirt when he heard footsteps approach.

“Hey!” Meis huffed, rushing into the living room with a spatula in hand. “No stripping in the living room.” He swatted Lio’s hand with the spatula.

Lio cut him a hellish glare and Meis stepped back, admonished and averting his own gaze.

“Not unless someone’s paying.” Guiera chuckled, following Meis in. “Then that’s rent money.”

“Hmph.” Lio huffed in lieu of actually dignifying that with a response. His pants squelched uncomfortably as he sat up, sighing and letting the ire that had welled up in frustration settle into an overwhelming exhaustion and the constant shiver of cold.

Meis’ shoulders drooped, the tension of the almost-scuffle leaving as soon as it arrived. “You’re soaked.”

“It is, in fact, pouring outside.” Lio deadpanned as he stood up. “And I ride a fucking bicycle.”

They both nodded, looking to one another for a moment of silent exchange before Meis wordlessly slipped back into the kitchen. Guiera smiled, watching him go at first then turning back to Lio. “Well, when you’re ready, Meis made a fuck ton of soup and we were going to have some dessert.” He started picking up the soaked clothes, dodging Lio as he started to protest. “I need to grab one of the space heaters, I’ll tip these in the wash on the way.”

For a moment he thought to argue but the moment passed and he simply sighed. “Thanks.”

“Anytime.”

Lio smiled, if only slightly, as he walked to his room with wet feet slapping the floor all the way. He shuffled out of his soaked clothes and into a series of fluffy pajama layers, not satisfied until he was wearing every article of sleepwear he owned. Even if it didn’t draw out the chill soaked into his bones. He pulled the blanket off his bed and wrapped it over his shoulders, letting it trail behind him like a cape as he toed his way into the kitchen.

The smell of bread and butter frying pulled him like a zombie to the stove, standing next to Meis as he flipped a what looked like a grilled cheese.

“I thought you were making dessert.”

Meis nodded, lifted up the corner of one of the sandwiches stacked high on a place. “Grilled nutella and peanut butter.” He put it down and tapped the pan. “This one is an OG grilled cheese though.”

Lio raised a brow. “It is 10pm.”

“And you didn’t eat dinner before you left for class.”

He rolled his eyes, not liking the frustration burning up in his chest. “I’m fine, I brought a protein bar to class.” He wasn’t a child that needed caring for. He didn’t need their help.

“I’m making the sandwich if you want it or not, but you should eat something, Boss.” He didn’t look up from the pan as he spoke, checking to see if the underside was browned. He offered a cautiously sympathetic glance. “We may not be as hungry without a fire to feed but we should still eat.” He looked away once again, voice steady but small. “We need more than we feel we should.”

There was a sudden blast of blissfully warm air and an incessant hum and Lio looked over his shoulder to see Guiera plugging in the space heater. They had become standard in every ex-Burnish’s home. A portable lifesaver, just like the earphones and constant radio noise that they all seem to have discovered kept the silence at bay. Guiera looked up to see him staring and flashed a bright smile, to which Lio simply huffed and turned back to the stove.

He wasn’t an idiot. He knew when he was being coddled.

It was infuriating. Unnecessary. And, worst of all, he had nothing to offer in exchange.

--

“Galo. Galo!”

He blinked back to awareness, looking up to Aina as she towered over him, grease up to his elbows.

“Are you listening?” She scolded, arms crossed. “Ignis wanted me to find out if you’re done with the oil change in the squad car.”

Galo nodded blankly, gesturing to his work. “Yeah. And I cleaned out the oil pan while I was down there. It needed more than just a change.”

Aina exhaled, her posture loosening as she nodded. “Good. Thank you.”

“No problem.” Galo smiled, trying to remember how it felt when he did it without trying. Was he doing too much? Not enough? How long is a smile supposed to last? He’d never thought about it before.

Aina offered a hand, pulling him up without blinking at the smear of oil and grease. She wiped her hands on a rag then handed it to Galo as she started to move towards the kitchen. “Want a coffee?”

Coffee. Friends drink coffee with their friends. They offer, they accept. That was normal. Things were normal. He was normal.

“Sure.” He flashed a grin while absently cleaning his hands. “Thank you.”

Aina made a noncommittal noise, giving Galo a wary look that made his expression crumble. She gestured for him to sit at the table and made two cups. Galo watched her pour three sugar packets and a splash of cream into his and wondered when along the way she picked up how he took his coffee.

Lio took his one packet sweeter.

Did he know how Aina took her coffee? He didn’t think so. God, how many years had he known her and never even thought to look?

 

Two splashes of cream, no sugar.

Apparently.

She set his cup in front of him and he thanked her, and she smiled a bit in response before sitting down across from him. “Galo.” She wrapped a hand around her cup as he did the same. “I, well, the team…” She sighed. She was worried. Aina was never worried. This worried Galo. “We’ve all noticed you haven’t been the same since Lio left the station.”

The air left Galo’s lungs like a swift kick to the chest. But, no, he was fine. He recovered, put on a plastic smile; small, a thank-you-for-your-concern smile. “I’m fine.” He sipped at his coffee.

“Mmm.” Aina nodded, taking a sip for herself. “You are a terrible liar, Galo.”

“I- uh…”

“Galo.” She reached a hand across the table, resting it on his wrist as she gave him a firm but gentle look. “It’s ok. I don’t know what happened, or if anything even happened at all, but you don’t have to pretend like everything is fine. You can be upset if you are upset. We, well-” A sigh. “I am just concerned is all.” She smiled cautiously. “I care about you, Galo. I’m not asking you to be ok, I’m just letting you know that I’m here for you if you need anything.”

Warm. Aina was always so kind, and understanding, and warm- and Galo was candle wax. Melting, helplessly melting. The crooked, barely-there smile dripped away no matter how much he tried to hold it up. Lip quivering, eyes watering- he sunk into himself bit by bit and then all at once.

Aina made a soft noise and slipped her hand into his, giving a quick squeeze that Galo returned, bringing the oil rag to his face. He made a wet, pathetic sound and Aina squeezed again. A morse code of comfort and understanding.
I see you.

I’m here.

I care.

“I-” He sniffled loudly, trying to get a hold of himself before he spoke. “When I gave him the bike.” A loud blow on the rag. “I tried to tell him that I liked him, like really liked him. And he just, he just- just said he wanted to move out.”

Aina winced. Oh god, it really was that bad. Oh god. Oh no.

“That… that doesn’t make sense.” Aina muttered, almost to herself. “Galo. He clearly likes you. Like, likes you a lot.”

Galo wiped his face on the back of his hand. “I thought so too!”

“Maybe there was some other factor? Something you aren’t thinking about? Like, I mean, has he ever lived with a partner before?”

Galo sniffled loudly. “I dunno…” He mumbled, voice thick with post-cry stuffiness.

Her expression pinched. “Has he ever really been in a relationship before?”

“Dunno.”

“Galo.” She folded her hands together, leaning forward on her forearms. “Do you even know for a fact that he’s even gay?”

“I… Uhhhhhh?”

Aina closed her eyes. “Jesus Christ, Galo. You never even talked about this with him in any capacity at all, did you?”

He sipped his coffee heavily, like the answer lay at the bottom of the cup. “Is that a bad thing?”

“Clearly, Galo, it is.” She sighed. “Lio has been living a weird, fucked up Burnish life doing god knows what for god knows how long and has only been settling for a few months before you, unprompted and without any knowledge about his history on the topic, sprung your feelings on him.” She paused, giving him a strained look. “Lio does not seem like the type to handle feelings in a healthy way. You probably scared the shit out of him, whether he feels the same way or not.”

Scared? Lio was never scared! He was brave and kind and fearless and amazing! He fought battles and stood against the entire Freeze Force and saved the whole world! He couldn’t be scared by something as mundane as talking about how he feels! Could he?

But, then again, he had pretty much run away… As soon as he had tried to get him to open up and react honestly to his feelings and- oh my god.

He’d fucked up.

“Aina!” Galo surged forward, taking her hands in his and only incidentally avoiding spilling both their coffees. “Aina, what should I do?”

She startled, only settling after gathering herself and giving his hands a gentle squeeze. “You should give him time, Galo. If he wants to come back then he will. If you chase him he will likely keep running.” She offered him a pained smile. “You will just have to be patient with him.”

Galo nodded, fervently. Patient. Patient was not his strong suit. But! He would try. For Lio he would try anything.

-

Electro-swing played loudly in the background of the apartment while Lio read the same page of Frankenstein for the umpteenth time. He was curled up on the sofa, encased in a blanket prison with the book held overhead.

/“I do know that for the sympathy of one living being, I would make peace with all. I have love in me the likes of which you can scarcely imagine and rage the likes of which you would not believe. If I cannot satisfy the one, I will indulge the other.”/

He rolled the passage through his mind over and over, turning it this way and that. It felt right in ways he knew he didn’t want to make the connection to. But he couldn’t help but remember the feeling of losing himself to the single minded fury of losing his beloved people. The feeling of anguish and rage as he felt the screams of thousands rip through every fiber of his being and wished for nothing else but to be able to burn everything who could stand up to hurt them to the very ground. The way nothing else had ever mattered more to him in the entire world than the moment he extended part of his very soul to protect Galo from the flames.

He highlighted the passage.

“No, stop!” Guiera giggled from the dining room, in what Lio recognised was his best attempt at a whisper. The giggles continued, capped suddenly by a loud crack. “OW! Oh my god, you sonovabitch!”

Meis cackled, running out into the living room with a dish towel in hand. He vaulted over the sofa, hiding behind Lio while Guiera trailed behind him, twirling another towel into a tight, threatening whip. “Guiera, stop.” He warned, a smug grin on his face as he pointed down at Lio. “You’ll hit the Boss.”

Lio snorted, turning the page and pretending he was still reading instead of paying this scene his full attention. “If I get hit I’ll hit both of you.” He looked through his lashes at Meis’ smirk and Guiera’s scowl, smiling at the playful exchange.

They had never talked about what was clearly going on between his two former second-in-commands. It just never seemed like a conversation they all needed to have, he supposed. It was a two bedroom apartment. It wasn’t like they were trying to hide anything. They were both happy, it shone out in every possible way, and that was what mattered. If anyone deserved happiness in this world it was those two.

He played with the corner of the page, trying to find the right words for what he wanted to say. “What-” He paused, rephrasing his question in his mind. “What do you think you guys would have been doing now if you hadn’t become Burnish?”

They both looked at him with matching startled looks, stealing glances at each other before seemingly pausing to think on it.

“Well,” Guiera shrugged, sitting on the other end of the sofa. “I was still in college when I became Burnish.”

“Doing what?” Lio asked, sitting up more fully and taking out one of his earphones.

Guiera laughed. “Playing football, mostly.”

Meis chuckled, “You were failing your classes, right?”

“Oh, totally!” He leaned back leisurely. “I never wanted to be a biomedics student at all. I didn’t understand more than half of it, I hated it, and I only ever did it because my parents wanted me to do something that would end up making me a lot of money.” He stared up at the ceiling, chuckling. “I was studying for finals when it manifested. I knew that if I failed my final I was going to lose my football scholarship and have to go back home to Sydney with nothing to show for myself. And I was totally, totally going to bomb that final.” He shrugged, “So, I mean, I guess if I hadn’t become Burnish I would be back home working at a corner store with my parents constantly breathing down my neck reminding me I threw away my future so, you know, I don’t think I got a bad alternative here.”

Lio’s expression scrunched up. He wouldn’t trade having been Burnish for anything but hearing it from someone else felt almost… wrong. At the very least counter to what he would have expected. He looked up to Meis, who was leaning over the head of the sofa, smiling softly.

“I’d probably be dead.” He mused, voice small and pleasant.

“What?!” Lio slapped his book shut. Meis laughed.

 

“Yeah, most likely. I mean, I was a roadie for a band. We were on tour, also from Australia-” He reached down and he and Gueira fistbumped. “-and I was, well... I was living the fast life.” He shrugged. “Sex, drugs, and rock and roll. That was all I cared about and, I mean, I was an addict, I had no money, and I was getting in fights all the fucking time over either drugs or money or chicks or dudes and, god.” He smiled, almost fondly. “I needed to get out. To break the cycle. Becoming Burnish was my way out. I never expected it or asked for it but it, I mean,” He rested his head on his hand. “Being Burnish saved my life. The rush of the flames made withdrawl easier and literally having no choice cut all of my bad habits out of my life with time. I could focus on what mattered in my new life. Survival, the people, really big fucking flaming bikes!”

Lio snorted and Meis looked down at him warmly. “I’m alive and here to be who I am now because I’m Burnish.”

“But…” Lio let one foot slip off the sofa to set on the floor. “We aren’t anymore though.” He rested an elbow on the back of the sofa, his face nestled in the palm of his hand. “There are no Promare. There are no Burnish. There is no Mad Burnish. We’re just…” His expression pinched. “We’re normal now.”

Gueira shook his head, “No way, we’re Burnish, all right! Through and through!”

“Oh yeah. Once a Burnish, always a Burnish!” Meis nodded, grinning wildly.

Lio held his hand out, palm up, and gave them a flat stare at the decisive lack of flame. He quirked a brow, challenging and questioning in the same breath.

Meis rolled his eyes. “Yeah, no flames. But, we’re still Burnish. There was still a reason we resonated with the Promare and everyone else didn’t. We all still have whatever that was in us.”

“And, even if we didn’t,” Guiera threw an arm over the back of the sofa. “We all still would have that shared experience, knowing the flames and how good it felt to burn. How much it changed your life to be hunted and out on the run.”

Meis climbed over the sofa to sit between Lio and Guira, nestled in the tangled mess of limbs. “We are all in this together, like it or not. Burnish from spark til’ ash.” He chuckled. “The world may have changed and the people who don’t know what it was like may expect us to stay quiet and try to put our history behind us. But, I mean, we’re proud to be Burnish. We were then and we still are now!”

That was… not a way Lio had looked at it before. He blinked, slightly bewildered as he looked at the expectant faces of his companions.

Huh.

“Huh.” He leaned back, soaking in the thought.

Guiera gave him his best shit-eating grin, already entirely too pleased with himself.

A moment passed, Meis slowly shifting to lean back against Guiera and letting both of their tangled legs intermingle with Lio’s in the center of the sofa.

“Hey, Boss?” Gueira piped up, waiting for Lio to hum questioningly before continuing. “What about you?”

“What about me?”

“What were you doing when you became Burnish?”

Lio laughed hollowly. “Uhh…” He tilted his head back to stare at the ceiling. “Year 4, I think.”

“What!?”

Meis sputtered, “Wait, no. Seriously? What were you? Like? Eight!?”

The ceiling was suddenly very, very interesting. “Eight, nine, ten? I dunno. Something like that.”

He could feel the weight of their questioning eyes and closed his own to block them out. Better to rip this all off like a bandaid. Get it over with. He asked and they answered so he owed them. Quid pro quo.

“I’m from England. Homeschooled. Honestly filthy rich, not gunna lie. My family was here on business and I just… lost my shit. Probobly over something stupid. I don’t remember. But, like, they couldn’t take me back.” He laughed dryly. “I was not going to make it through TSA and, like, what if I lit the plane on fire? I was a kid, I had no idea how to control myself.”

“But, I mean, hey, money solves a lot of problems… even me. So my parents just… bought a second house. Hired a nanny, a cook, a maid, and a butler to take care of me. Then they went back home and lived their lives, coming back to stay every other week.” He leaned his head back, tired all of a sudden. “Then just for weekends.”

He sighed. “Then every other weekend.”

“Then all of a sudden they just… stopped. I didn’t think much of it until the cook quit because he wasn’t being paid. Then the rest quit too. Except for the butler. He was a Burnish too, he knew he and I both had nowhere else to go. So we both stayed until there was nothing left in the house and, well, eventually someone would come to find out what was going on so, like, we packed up and left. He said he knew about a group of Burnish out in the desert and we would be safe there.”

Guiera pointed to himself. “Wait, us?”

“I dunno. Maybe? I was, like, maybe 14 by that time? 13? I don’t think that timeline pans out for it to have been you guys.” He scrubbed his face, not liking feeling this exposed. He’d never told anyone all this before. No one had ever asked.

Meis shook his head. “No, we weren’t even Burnish yet. I was 21 and Gueira had just turned 19. You’re like... what? 22? 23?”

Lio exhaled sharply, the end tinted with a dry laugh. “I don’t know, really. I think I’m 23 but I could be wrong. I lost track.”

“So, only 2 or 3 years younger than us.” Guiera reasoned.

“Give or take.” Lio deadpanned.

“So, like, what happened? How come you never mentioned this butler guy before?”

“Oh,” Lio sat up a little more, taking responsibility for the weight of gravity and reality upon him. “He burned out.”

His companions shared a tense glance and Lio offered them a sad, tight-lipped smile. It was a fact of life they all knew they’d lived with. There was not a Burnish among them who hadn’t seen someone else turn to dust and become lost in the wind.

It was quiet for a while, Lio shuffling uncomfortably as the playlist shifted to some alt rock song.

“Ramos.” He muttered.

“Hm?”

“His name.” Lio kicked lightly at Guiera’s knee to wriggle his feet underneath and seek the warmth of the hidden pocket between the sofa cushions. “His name was Ramos Salvator.” He slipped his hands into his hoodie, wrapping his arms around himself. “He saved my life. Without him child protective services would have come and found me and I’d have been just another one of Kray’s test subjects. Or have frozen to death in the icebox.”

 

“I wish I could have met him.” Meis said slowly. “To thank him.”

“Well, I mean,” Lio chuckled. “ I guess he did kind of save the world. In a roundabout way.”

Guiera shook his head. “Not what he meant, Boss.”

“Mm-mm. He saved you.” Meis pressed his legs against Lio’s, letting the tangle grow even closer. “That’s much more important.”

Lio’s expression floundered. He couldn’t imagine being important in more than a strictly political sense. He was a symbol, a pillar, a protector, a leader. Surely, that was what Meis had meant? Right?

Right?

Guiera hugged Meis closer, chin resting on his shoulder as he smiled gently, eyes bright and knowing. Seeing right through him. “Thank you for making it long enough to meet us, Lio.”

Lio.

Neither of them have ever. Ever. Called him by his name. Not since he’d become ‘Boss’. They knew his name, of course they did, he’d told them a million times. But never before had he been held at their level.

As an equal.

As a friend.

Without a fire there are only so many places for strong emotions to go. Tears were a new one for him. How funny, he thought, droplets of water beading at the corners of his eyes, to be able to feel them actually streaking down and not evaporating away.

He slipped his arms out from his hoodie and let the book fall from his lap to the floor as he crept forward. Closing the gap, he settled into Meis’ waiting embrace, sandwiching him between Guiera and himself. He nestled his face against his arm, letting the emotion seep out, raw and ugly, in liquid instead of flame. And they both let him. Quiet and comforting and present.

How long has it been since he had felt safe? How long since he had felt held? Not for lack of opportunity, but for lack of letting himself try.

But, for now, in this moment, he wanted to.

And everything felt lighter.

Chapter Text

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.

Solar powered.

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.

“Classes?”

“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.