“Okay, so tell me again why this is a good idea?” Keelio muttered, skeptically eyeing the crowds around him and his small group. Ryan snorted, slinging an arm around Lee’s waist and grabbing Keelio’s hand with the other. It wasn’t unwelcome, considering how many people were around them preparing to enter the arena. The crowds were noisy and people were brushing and pushing against others without thought, the entire area full of laughter, people exchanging bets, and last-minute ticket sales from scalpers.
“Cause you’ve been here a whole month and you haven’t seen a single pro-bending match, which should be a literal crime. Channing, I can’t grab you, hold onto me so I can pretend I’m bringing you with me.” Channing rolled his eyes but indulgently reached out to pinch the edge of Ryan’s shirt. “Close enough!”
“There are so many people here,” Keelio sighed, though he’d known he’d lost the moment Ryan had gotten him out of the apartment. The food vendors were all flooded, and although Ryan had wanted to grab some drinks before they went inside, he’d give up when he realized how long he’d have to wait. Now, the four of them were just trying to push their way through all the lines to get inside the actual arena.
Ryan laughed as Lee smiled, signing quickly.
That’s the point! A match would be boring without a huge audience. Channing snorted.
“You just like that you can make all the noise you want.” Lee flushed a bit but shrugged, hardly denying the accusation. He had brought his own noisemaker, after all, so it was a bit hard to argue. Ryan smirked.
“Like you’ve got any room to talk, you scream the loudest.”
But only for the ones with muscle, Lee teased with a big grin. Channing huffed at that and flicked his hand dismissively.
“Whatever. Let’s just get to our seats before things get too crazy.”
“I think it’s too late for that,” Keelio muttered under his breath.
“Who’s even fighting?” Keelio asked when they finally got to their seats, the four of them settling against one another as they tried to figure out how to get the best view.
“The Xiao Yao Zebra Frogs and Lao-Ling Weasel Snakes,” Channing said, needing to raise his voice to be heard over the cacophony of fans gearing up for the match and the opening announcements.
Who do you have money on? Lee asked, the only one who didn’t need to worry about being understood as long as the others were looking at him. Of course it would be an easy thing for everyone else to sign as well, but they were far from proficient like he was and would be more than a bit clumsy if they tried it for the whole match.
“No one, betting on pro-bending is a fool’s gamble and totally immature,” Channing said seriously. “I think that the Zebra Frogs are going to win, but I have absolutely not put money on anything.”
It’s just an expression.
“I totally have money down on the Weasel Snakes, though,” Ryan said with a crooked grin. Channing’s mouth dropped and he launched into a lecture about the dangers of gambling as Lee turned to Keelio.
How are you doing? Is it too crowded or anything? Lee asked. It was a question backed by genuine care and concern, Keelio knew. His anxiety had a tendency to spike when in large crowds and unfamiliar places, but Channing and Ryan had taken the outside seats, which left them arguing around the other two, and kept Keelio from being right next to a stranger the entire time. So Keelio only gave a thin smile.
“Yeah, I’m good. Just not exactly my thing, you know?” Lee nodded.
I get it. But you’ll have fun. We’ll get dinner after so don’t fill up on snacks, he warned with a stern expression that made Keelio laugh softly.
“No problem, I won’t. Who do you think is going to win?”
I’m not sure. The Zebra Frogs are a whole new team this season, so I don’t know much about them other than that they’re winning a lot. But the Weasel Snakes have a really good waterbender. Plus, he’s handsome. Lee added with a conspiratorial smirk. Keelio gave a startled laugh at that as Ryan leaned closer, apparently having seen the comment.
“Hey, don’t forget about the other two. They’re all total beasts. And he’s not that good-looking,” Ryand added with a slight grumble that made Keelio laugh more fully as Lee tried to look like an angel.
“Yeah, but the firebender gets flagged basically every match and the earthbender is definitely more brawn than brain,” Channing added dismissively, completely missing the secondary conversation.
“Well it’s going to be a tough match no matter who comes out on top, both teams are on a streak this season. Hey, lychee juice over here!” Ryan suddenly yelled, raising a hand to get the attention of the passing vendor he’d seen walking by on the stairs. Ryan threw a few yuan coins and the vendor tossed the bottle, which Ryan caught easily and opened with his teeth.
“You’ll chip your teeth if you keep doing that,” Keelio warned. Ryan gave an unconcerned snort.
“Haven’t so far, but I’ll be sure not to let you know I ever do.” Keelio just sighed, not exactly sure what he’d been expecting from the other man. But then all of their attention was diverted as the lights around the arena extinguished and suddenly people were screaming their excitement as the announcer’s voice dropped into the low, dramatic timbre of building anticipation.
“And now, what we’ve all come here for, first on the field are the Xiao Yao Zebra Frogs! These are our up-and-comers for this match, folks.” As the announcer spoke, one of the stone bridges expanded out from a side of the arena to ferry across the Zebra Frogs, who were waving to the stands with huge smiles on their faces that were clearly visible even with their helmets. “Complete rookies to the bro-bending scene, the Zebra Frogs have been pulling no punches this season. With waterbender Fern, firebender Linwir, and earthbender Josie, the Zebra Frogs have made it very clear that even though this is each player’s first year in pro-bending, it will most certainly not be one to be forgotten and they’re pulling just as hard for a chance at the tournament as every other team.” There were roaring screams of approval for the Zebra Frogs as they were announced, including Channing’s enthusiastic shouts of support. The three stepped onto the field and went out to zone three to wait for their rivals as their bridge went back, leaving the field once more completely separated in the center of the arena. Then, the other bridge started moving.
“On the other side of the field, we have the Lao-Ling Weasel Snakes! With one year under their belts, this team made it all the way to the semi-finals their rookie year and haven’t slowed down at all since then! With Bijo waterbending, Redwing firebending, and Mink earthbending, the Weasel Snakes are one formidable team to go up against.”Keelio leaned forward, eyes widening a bit as he saw this new team. The earthbender was an absolute mountain, making both of her teammates look completely tiny in comparison. But then when they reached the center of the field, Keelio realized that one of them really was just short. The firebender, from the color of his belts and patches. Despite being easily the smallest on the field, he didn’t seem too worried and grinned cockily with a hand on one hip as they all waited for the match to begin. “I sure wouldn’t want to be in the Zebra Frogs’ shoes right now! But in both skill and team composition, this is going to be the closest match you’ll see this season, folks. Seeing these two teams going toe-to-toe is going to be one nail-biting match, and the question on everyone’s mind is whether the Weasel Snakes’ single year of experience will be enough to give them an advantage over the Zebra Frogs, or if maybe their previous good season will make them too cocky to face such a closely matched competitor. It’s time to find out!”
Both teams took their stances in zone three and after a long, tense moment, the whistle blew. All three elements instantly collided in blindingly fast opening moves that Keelio couldn’t even follow.
“An incredible open on both sides! It’s not surprising to see this level of aggression from these teams, but from how they’re following up I don’t think either of them expected that opening volley to be countered so quickly!” the announcer was saying as Ryan and Channing both started yelling completely unhelpful advice to their respective teams, Lee choosing to merely lean forward with wide eyes as he took it all in, apparently keeping track of what was happening much better than Keelio was. Mink was being ridiculously aggressive, sending disk after disk into the other team. Most of them were blocked, making the packed clay explode into dust and chunks that flew everywhere, but there were a few that hit the other team with enough force to make Keelio wince.
“Geez, this is way more intense than I thought it would be. Will they be okay?” Ryand snorted without taking his eyes off the match, bottle lychee juice forgotten in one of his hands.
“Trust me, they’ll be fine. They’ve got protective gear and there are healers waiting in the back in case anything goes wrong.”
But look at the match. It’s intense, but they’re so even. No one’s even taken a zone yet, Lee added. Keelio frowned, but had to admit that he was right. Bijo and Josie exchanged an absolutely brutal volley but both of them either countered perfectly or dipped out of the way, not taking a single hit despite how vicious it looked. Fern shot three quick jabs of water at Mink before firing one off at Bijo to try and help Josie, but the momentary distraction was all Redwing needed to shoot a blast of fire at her and she was shoved back several feet with the impact, her foot barely on the right side of the zone lines.
“As predicted, this is one heck of a match-up! So far I don’t think I’ve seen a single serious hit on either—oh! Spoke too soon, folks! Redwing and Mink both go for Fern at the same time and force her back into zone two. Losing first ground in a fight this close is bad news, but Fern seems to be shaking it off and launching right back into the fray with a few shots of her own. Oh boy, but the Weasel Snakes have seen their opening and all three of them are trying to nail Fern down the rest of the way. Her teammates are trying to take advantage of their distraction, but how long can Fern hold her own against a whole team?” Not long, it seemed. She managed to block or dodge every attack for a solid thirty seconds before Mink and Redwing attacked one right after the other and she just couldn’t move fast enough. She was pushed back to zone one at the same moment that one of the refs flashed a yellow fan.
“Out of bounds, one zone penalty on Weasel Snake firebender!” Redwing had gotten too eager, moved up in his zone until his foot was on the zone line and it lit up red with the infraction. Redwing threw up his hands in obvious irritation and it looked like he shouted something, though it couldn’t be heard over the crowd as he moved back to zone two. After the penalty, the whistle blew again and the match resumed.
“What did I say?” Channing asked smugly, gesturing to the field to punctuate his point. “Every match, I tell you.”
Good thing he’s got Bijo to cover him, Lee said, making Ryan huff.
“I know I bet for them, but man do I hope the Weasel Snakes lose.”
“Wow, jealous much?” Keelio teased. Ryan shot him a completely unamused look.
“No, I just hate them all of a sudden. Especially the waterbender.” Keelio couldn’t help his laugh, though it was cut short when Josie knocked Bijo on his ass and Bijo flipped back up, standing on his hands for a split moment before he kicked both legs and used the momentum to spin around and land back on his feet.
“Dear fuck,” Ryan said with huge eyes as the crowd around them lost their minds in response to the move.
“What an incredible recovery by Bijo there! A truly phenomenal show of strength and agility from the waterbender!” the announcer raved. Until Linwir shot a blast of fire at Mink that made her stumble into Bijo and shove him into zone two with Redwing. Then the entire audience and the announcer cringed in unison.
“Yikes, that was a bad hit.” Then the buzzer sounded and everyone gave a breath.
“Geez, this is so rough,” Keelio said. He hadn’t realized how tense he was until that moment, when he forced himself to relax and unclench a bit.
“That’s the fun of it!” Ryan exclaimed. “Come, double or nothing on the Weasel Snakes.”
“I thought you said you didn’t want them to win?” Channing asked dryly.
“Believe me, I don’t. But I still think they’re going to, and wanting and believing are two different things.” Keelio shifted in his seat, butt already a bit sore, and just hoped that whoever won would do it quickly.
It was close, close enough that the final round came down to a tie and had to be decided by a tie-breaker. The Weasel Snakes won the coin toss and chose earth. Josie didn’t stand a chance that close, not when Mink could grapple. She got launched out in thirty seconds and the Lao-Ling Weasel Snakes officially won the match.
Which, of course, tore poor Ryan’s conflicted heart apart. The entire way out of the arena, he celebrated all the money he’d won and whined about losing his husband in equal measure.
We’re not married, Lee reminded.
“Yeah, because you’re leaving me for the waterbender!” Ryan exclaimed. Keelio and Channing both laughed at Ryan’s genuinely distraught face even as he slung an arm over Lee’s waist, rubbing his face against the other man’s shoulder.
“Guys, can we argue at the restaurant? I’m starving to death,” Keelio complained.
“Oh man, we never even decided where to go for food,” Channing suddenly realized. The four of them were squished together, shoulder to shoulder, trying vainly to all fit on the sidewalk as they made their way through the dark. The sun had set so quickly while they were inside, and it felt like they’d come out after a time warp or something.
“How about Kwong’s?” Keelio suggested.
Kwong’s! Lee signed several times in a row, fast enough that even Ryan blinked hugely trying to keep up with the blur.
“Kwong’s it is,” Channing said with a laugh. Keelio laughed softly, fondly, and bumped his hip with Lee’s. Every time their schedules miraculously lined up and the four of them went out together, they ended up at Kwong’s. Of course, they all also still pretended they might go somewhere else. But the path to Kwong’s was one they could find in their sleep, and the four leaned against and bumped into each other as they talked about the match and Ryan bragged about the money that he’d made.
Kwong’s was absolutely packed when they got there, every table taken and a group or two lingering near the front of the restaurant waiting for one to open. Keelio blinked widely at the scene.
“Wow. I mean, I know this place is popular, but geez. I’ve never seen it this busy before.”
“It’s probably because of all the people that just got out of the match. Maybe not a lot of other restaurants are open this late?” Channing asked, but he sounded doubtful. Indeed, many places near the arena actually stayed open later than usual on pro-bending nights because of the business that got brought in, so it didn’t really make sense for that to be the case. But it wasn’t like anyone else had a better idea about what was going on. Not until they got inside, at least.
“Hey, Annie!” Ryan called when they got inside, waving to the familiar waitress. She looked up, startled, and then gave a slightly frazzled smile.
“Hey, boys. Sorry, I’ll be there in just a sec, I need to run by a few tables.”
“No problem, just letting you know we’re here,” Ryan said easily. Annie’s smile turned a little more relieved and she nodded before quickly winding her way through the crowded restaurant toward someone else.
She’s super stressed, Lee signed with a frown.
“Can you blame her?” Keelio muttered, skeptically eyeing the crowd. “Hey, maybe we should eat somewhere else tonight. It’s going to take forever to get a table.” Channing glanced across the restaurant and froze, eyes going wide.
“Uh, and I think I just figured out why,” he said. At his words, all three of the others followed his look and suddenly they all knew why, too. Sitting in one of the far back tables, next to one that Annie was busily clearing and cleaning for the next people, was the entire Weasel Snake team with food piled high on their table, though most of it seemed to be for Mink, laughing loudly and talking. Occasionally, Redwing would look at the other patrons who were obviously watching them and wink or wave, but the other two seemed perfectly content to ignore the attention.
“Holy shit,” Ryan breathed.
“We should definitely go somewhere else,” Keelio said with a snort.
We can’t skip Kwong’s! Lee countered, looking indignant. Channing smirked.
“You just want to see Bijo.”
And? Ryan scowled.
“Alright, well now I’ve gotta fight him for your hand.”
“You’re going to fight a professional waterbender?” Keelio asked skeptically. Ryan’s eyes widened.
“I could do it! I may not have the uniform but I could totally be a professional firebender!”
“Whatever you need to tell yourself, buddy,” Channing said, patting Ryan’s shoulder with a smug smirk. Ryan immediately socked him in the shoulder and Lee’s shoulders shook with silent laughter, eyes crinkling as he reassuringly took Ryan’s hand and twined their fingers together. Ryan huffed dramatically, playfully, but kissed Lee’s cheek and settled.
“We do need to decide if we’re okay with waiting or not,” Channing said. Keelio hummed, frowning at the groups by the front door. There were only a few, but it was already late because of the match and he did have work the next day.
But then Annie was coming back over to them, looking tired even as she smiled.
“Come on, your table’s ready,” she said. Keelio blinked owlishly at that, the others exchanging a look.
“Our table?” Keelio asked. Annie winked at him, smile turning a bit conspiratorial.
“Of course. You guys are always nice and tip well, so I found a reservation for tonight that you guys made last week.”
“But we didn’t make a—” Channing began with a frown, always the stickler, but Ryan quickly beamed.
“Why thank you so much! I can’t believe we forgot about that, you’ll definitely be getting a huge tip for remembering for us, you totally saved us a huge wait.” Annie laughed softly and tipped her head, indicating they should follow her. Keelio shrank down a bit when he felt the stares of the people who’d been waiting there longer than them but tried to ignore the prickling feeling of guilt, hurrying after his friends.
Keelio only noticed which table they were heading toward when Lee perked up in excitement. He peered over Ryan’s shoulder to see what the fuss was as Channing laughed.
“Oh, I don’t believe this.” They were getting the table right by the Weasel Snakes. Thankfully none of them were paying attention just then, Redwing laughing at something that Mink had said while Bijo just looked thoroughly unimpressed with them both.
“Dude, no way!” Ryan laughed. “This is so cool! I mean, they totally bought dinner tonight because of the money I won on them and they’re here? What a coincidence! Do you think I could get their autographs if I’m cool about it?” he asked the group quickly as they got to their table and sat down, Ryan being far too obvious in how he was staring at the pro-benders. Channing snorted as Annie pulled out her notepad, not bothering to give them menus because the group basically had it memorized anyway.
“I really don’t think that they’d want to be bothered while they’re eating,” Channing said before smiling at Annie like she hadn’t been hearing the entire thing. “Can I get a fireflake ramen with extra eggs, please? Plus a pot of tea for the table, jasmine if you would.” Annie nodded, writing it all down.
“I’ll take turtle duck stew, please,” Keelio said next, figuring they would just go around the table.
“Vegetable dumplings, with extra sauce,” Ryan said. Lee, the last to order, looked torn. Without a menu in hand he was just sort of frowning, absently tapping his fingertips against the table as he considered his options. Channing rolled his eyes grandly at this.
“He wants the bean curd puffs. Can we also get two orders of octopus fritters?” Annie laughed at the genuinely shocked look on Lee’s face, like he didn’t end up settling on the same thing every time they came. Lee’s expression turned slightly petulant as he huffed and the others all laughed, the sound bright. A few people naturally glanced over at them with the new noise, most only smiling reflexively at the public joy before turning back.
But unseen to the group of friends, all three Weasel Snakes looked over at them. Mink turned back to her food without qualm, but Redwing and Bijo’s eyes lingered for a moment. They exchanged a look. Redwing smirked and arched a brow. Bijo scowled at him.
But it was too late.
When Annie stepped away from the table and the group of friends went back to talking, apparently very heatedly discussing the best sauces for dumplings, Redwing spoke up.
“You know, the crab puffs are way better than the bean curd. Super filling and not as sticky.” The group of friends instinctively looked over at the new voice, all of their faces shifting with various amounts of surprise and delight as they realized who it was who had spoken. Of course, Ryan was the first to recover.
“A good call, but I’m not sure how much advice we should be taking from the first person to take a zone penalty in the match,” he said with a smirk. Keelio paled a bit.
“Ryan!” he hissed. But Redwing only laughed.
“Please, if I was offended that easily I’d spend all day foaming at the mouth.”
“Like you don’t?” Bijo snorted. Redwing flipped him off without turning from the other table, making Lee’s shoulders shake with silent laughter. Mink only rolled her eyes at the display.
“But I’m glad to hear that you all watched the match. It’s flattering to know I’ve got such cute fans,” Redwing said with a wink that wasn’t directed at any of them in particular. Ryan laughed at that, his eyes taking on the sort of look that was usually reserved for when someone told him that he couldn’t do something. It was a challenged, and challenging look. One that Keelio knew to be wary of.
“Oh, I wouldn’t bank too hard on that. One of us bet against you, one is half in love with your teammate, and one has never seen a match before today.” Redwing grinned, looking genuinely delighted by this new banter of theirs.
“Well, that means I’ve got one fan. I certainly know who I’m hoping it is,” he said, eyes sliding over the table and lingering on Keelio for long enough that a pink blush bloomed across his cheeks and he looked away like he hadn’t noticed the look. “You’ve already got good taste, if you’re here.”
“I’m sure they just want to eat without you bothering them, Redwing,” Bijo nearly sighed. He gave an apologetic look to the other table, and Lee lit up as he quickly signed,
It’s no problem! Then he paused and seemed to deflate a bit, giving a slightly shy smile when he realized Bijo probably didn’t know how to sign. But Bijo only smiled back, his hands moving smoothly as he replied.
He hardly needs the encouragement. Please don’t feel pressured by him. And oh, if Lee hadn’t been half in love with the man before, that would have done it. Keelio had to stifle a laugh behind his hand at the flabbergasted look on Ryan’s face.
“We don’t,” Keelio said, finally deciding to join the conversation. “Do you know someone mute or deaf?”
“Not personally,” Bijo said, “but I used to teach classes on healing, and I always found it best to make the lessons as accessible as possible. There’s no point in trying to share my knowledge if not everyone can benefit from it.” Keelio blinked owlishly.
“You’re a healer?” he asked with genuine interest. Bijo laughed, curling a hand underneath his chin, and Mink rolled her eyes.
“Yes, he was a healer long before he was a pro-bender. Says he’ll go back to it when he saves up money from this, but I think he’ll stay. He enjoys it too much, and has a temper.” Bijo seemed a bit flustered at that, clearing his throat.
“I wouldn’t say I have a temper...” he began. But Redwing laughed loudly at that.
“Please! How many times have you thrown training equipment at me?”
“You deserve it,” Bijo said flatly. Mink nodded her agreement and pulled Redwing’s plate to her side of the table, earning an indignant but not surprised look.
“It is true, you’re the most irritating man I know.”
“I think all pro-benders have tempers,” Channing said. “It’s why you fight for a living.”
“And why you make such shitty partners,” Ryan added quickly. Keelio wasn’t exactly unfamiliar with his friends’ eccentricities, but the way Ryan was acting—and the fact that, from their shared looks, the pro-benders obviously knew what was going on—was making Keelio want to melt into the ground. He loved his friends, he really did, but he also very much hated attention and that’s all they were drawing with how they were speaking to the Weasel Snakes. It felt like half the restaurant was watching them.
“Hey Kiddo, help us push the tables together, huh?” Redwing’s voice broke Keelio from his thoughts and he blinked.
“Did you just call me Kiddo?” Keelio asked skeptically. Redwing shrugged unapologetically.
“Don’t know your name and you were all spaced out. Now come on, help us out. We’re trying to make friends, here.” Sure enough, everyone else was already in the process of getting up and pushing the tables against each other.
“Don’t let Mink near your food,” Bijo advised as they rearranged chairs to make sure everyone fit, and Mink scowled.
“I am not an uncontrolled animal!” Redwing made an uncertain noise and a so-so gesture with one hand, earning him a hard smack to the back of the head that made everyone but him laugh.
They’d been at the restaurant for over an hour at that point, and were on their second pot of tea. Food had all long been eaten, dessert ordered and shared, and now the large group was just sitting around telling stories and enjoying the unexpected company that they’d found in each other. The restaurant would be closing down soon, but none of them seemed eager to leave the little bubble of time that they’d made for themselves. It had long since gotten dark outside, and the only thing that drew their attention was when one of the staff started putting chairs on tables.
“Oh, shoot, we should probably head out, huh?” Ryan asked.
“Yes, probably,” Bijo agreed. “It’s a shame, I’ve enjoyed this.”
“Me too,” Keelio said with a genuine smile. Even he, socially anxious as he was, had relaxed bit by bit as time went on and found himself perfectly at ease with the trio, strange as they were.
“I don’t see why we can’t do this again,” Mink said.
“No kidding, I know you said that Keelio doesn’t really go to the matches, but we could totally get you guys tickets to our next one,” Redwing said with a big grin.
“Yes, dude!” Ryan laughed. “That’d be so sweet!” Channing playfully huffed at that as Lee gave excited agreements.
“Well, I’d feel bad betting against the people I’m there for,” Channing half-heartedly grumbled. Redwing smirked.
“That’s probably for the best, it’ll keep you from losing more money.” Keelio laughed brightly and Redwing’s gaze slid to him, his smirk sharpening, eyes going half-lidded.
“I’m definitely getting you guys tickets. And it would be rude for you to waste them, so you need to make sure you show up. All of you.”
“Subtle,” Mink snorted. The table jerked and Mink hissed as Redwing’s face remained perfectly impassive. “Why did you kick—?”
“Anyway, it’s late, how about you let us walk you guys home?” Redwing asked. Bijo perked at that—which Keelio personally thought was just because he seemed to genuinely enjoy helping people—and that made Ryan sit up a little straighter.
“Lee and I are good, we live together.”
“And I live far enough away that I take the tram,” Channing said. Redwing turned to Keelio, raising an eyebrow. Keelio stammered a bit.
“Oh, uh, my place is only a few blocks away, so I don’t need you to—”
“Nonsense,” Bijo said with a wave of his hand. “If it’s that close then there’s no excuse for you to walk yourself.”
“But Channing could—”
“I actually need to get home, it got way later than I thought,” Channing said quickly, smirking in a way that told Keelio he knew exactly what he was doing. Keelio could feel his face darkening with embarrassment. His friends were the worst.
“No worries,” Redwing said, “I’ll make sure he gets home safe.”
“You really don’t have to,” Keelio tried, but it seemed like the decision was being made for him as the bills were divided and paid for and the group finally made its way back out onto the street. Goodbyes were said and they split up to head for their homes. Keelio hesitated, leaving him and Redwing standing together. Redwing shoved his hands in his pockets and grinned.
“Where to?” Redwing was insisting, it seemed. Keelio sighed and decided it’d be better to go along with it, rather than start an argument or anything like that.
“This way,” Keelio said, gesturing in the direction he meant.
“No time to waste, then, hm? Let’s get you home before it gets too late.”
Redwing seemed perfectly at ease following an essential stranger to their home, but Keelio was a bundle of nerves and shrank into himself a little bit every time someone recognized Redwing and waved or called out to him. Redwing always greeted them back, usually with a wink and a witty comment. He absolutely enjoyed all the attention he got, grinning widely with each recognition and gasp or congratulations. Keelio, on the other hand, was a little uncomfortable with the attention that he was earning just by being with him. He could see people noticing their proximity and could practically hear the rumors that started as they whispered, unsubtly watching him.
“You didn’t need to walk me,” Keelio said.
“I know, but it would have been rude for me not to,” Redwing said, shooting Keelio a smile. “Besides, you’re cute.” Keelio felt his face darken slightly, not only with the compliment but with how effortlessly it was given. Keelio could almost hear the implied duh tacked on at the end.
“Do you guys do this often? Because your friends offered to walk us home, too.”
“Actually, I made the offer and Bijo, bleeding heart that he is, latched onto it. Mink would genuinely never think of it. She’s convinced everyone who lives in Republic City is soft.” Keelio blinked a bit at that.
“Doesn’t… she live in Republic City?”
“Yeah, but she claims it’s only for amusement. Keeps saying she’s going to move on, but I think she’s too attached to pro bending to leave,” Redwing said with a shrug. “But what about you, hm? What’s your story? And more importantly, why have I never met you before?”
“Well, pro bending isn’t really my thing,” Keelio said with a shrug. “I’m not a bender, I’m an engineer, so I spend most of my time working. It just isn’t really my thing to spend time watching people hit each other for fun when I could be doing something productive.” Redwing pursed his lips, nodding as though he was seriously considering Keelio’s words.
“I see, I see. You’re a workaholic.”
“I am not!” Keelio exclaimed. “You just met my friends!” Redwing laughed, bumping Keelio’s hip with his own. Even though he was much shorter than Keelio, Redwing exuded so much confidence and surety that he took up far more room than Keelio would have expected. It wasn’t in a bad way, though. It was more like… like he knew what he was worth, and was going to make sure everyone else knew it, too. For a moment, Keelio found himself envious.
“Come on, tell me what you do for fun. Even in there, you seemed tense. What do you do when you want to just relax?” Keelio blinked. Redwing was looking at him, and having the other man’s undivided attention weighing on him felt like being the most interesting person in the world, even if just for a moment.
“I read, I suppose,” Keelio said after turning the question over a bit. “I like learning new things, inventing things.”
“All such useful things,” Redwing said with a dramatic sigh. “Name one thing you do that has absolutely no use whatsoever, that you just do because you want to.” Keelio was quiet, and Redwing’s smirk grew, eyes going half-lidded as he sensed a win. “Tell you what, out of the goodness of my heart, I can offer you a solution to this terrible problem of yours. I don’t know if you’re aware of this, but I happen to have access to pro bending tickets every time a certain team is playing. I can give you and those friends of yours the best seats in the house. You had fun tonight, right? Let’s do it again. Just for the fun of it.” Keelio looked at him, slowing as they reached his building. The two of them stopped in front of the apartments and Redwing looked up at them, giving Keelio plenty of time to consider.
“Are you…” No. No, he couldn’t be asking him out. That’s not what this was. Redwing had extended the invitation to his friends, too. So this was obviously a group thing, not a date thing. This wasn’t about Keelio. This totally wasn’t about Keelio. “When is your next match?” Redwing looked at Keelio with a huge, triumphant grin.
“Two weeks from now. When you get to the arena, tell the ticket seller that you’re there to see me. I’ll make sure they know to expect you.” Keelio smiled softly.
“Thank you. I’ll… see you then?”
“I’ll see you then,” Redwing agreed. “Have a good night, kiddo.” Redwing turned and started walking away, making Keelio rush to reply.
“You too. W-wait, kiddo?”
“Night!” Redwing called with a laugh, waving without turning around. Keelio could feel himself flushing again, but this time it was a softer, warmer feeling that settled into his chest and stayed all night as he tried to sleep.
What a strange man, that Redwing. But… suddenly Keelio could imagine himself going to those matches more often.