One of the main perks of working as a space-port officer was the coffee.
Grinded dried-up beans from a distant, backwater planet of no great import – at least not until the Galrans became aware of its exquisite cuisine, diverged from the astonishingly large variety of different planet-life that were consumable.
Imported food was rare and expensive among planets in the Empire; there was too much bureaucracy involved in transferring potential biological hazards from one eco-system to another. But the space-port was different; it was a liminal point between different sectors, where the threat of a deadly plague came up roughly once every k’nadje and every biological shipment had to be personally approved by Sendak, the commander of said port between the coffee-provider sector and the rest of the universe.
For Sendak, his position usually meant dealing with incompetence, idiocy and the lowest kind of vermin in the form of third-rate smugglers; but it also meant he knew exactly where each shipment was headed, when, under whom, and faced no surprises.
Most importantly, he knew the Altean-owned joint that just opened had coffee.
They knew they couldn’t afford to piss him off.
Though he couldn’t say he held Alteans in a high regard, the owner of the establishment, Allura Lo’keauneze, was efficient with the proper forms and permits; he expected her to be snotty and haughty, coming from a royal family recognized by Emperor Zarkon himself, but she proved him otherwise – and so he didn’t have a reason to withhold a license for opening ‘Café Voltron’ (even if the name was truly ludicrous; he hadn’t the slightest why Allura chose to spell ‘coffee’ wrong).
(On the other hand, Allura didn’t need to re-fill a single form, which made her a singular business-owner, if Sendak ever cared to admit it to himself. Which he most certainly did not.)
“Bright cycle,” the cashier greeted Sendak, exhausted but respectful, “What would you order?”
Another unexpected perk of the establishment was Keith, a young Galran who Allura chose to employ, for whatever reason. Keith was also efficient, which Sendak approved, as he realized long ago that efficient life-forms were hard to come by.
“Bright cycle,” he returned the courtesy, a small gesture which he wouldn’t have bothered with with anyone else. “Coffee, tall glass.”
Keith nodded and punched in the order automatically.
Yet another perk about Keith was his intellect; the dimwitted humans that worked alongside him always pestered Sendak with questions about the nature of the drink he ordered, asked about milk or sugar or temperature, as if his instructions were not perfectly clear; Keith was the only reasonable one among them, which was why he was the only one whose name Sendak bothered to inquire after. If he was one to pity others, he would’ve felt a small amount of pity towards the youngster, who had to tolerate such company for the better part of his cycles.
Of course, Sendak was not one prone to pity, or such other pesky sentiment.
Passing his bracelet against the scanner, Sendak waited for it to chirp in approval – debt paid in full – before bidding Keith a productive cycle and going to pick up his order.
Only one cycle, Keith was not the one in the register.
It wasn’t anyone familiar, either.
They were small, like most humans, with a turf of white fur on their head which contrasted against the rest of their pitiful black head-mane. Sendak found it oddly appealing.
“Hello,” they greeted, and Sendak squinted at them. Humans were an odd species, as they had more than one gender, and Sendak found it difficult to distinguish between those. Alteans had their face-marking, notable on their person, but humans were not the most sophisticated of species, and it showed in their evolutionary process, which seemingly halted before it reached its full potential.
“What would you like?” They asked, baring their teeth in a way which had Sendak repressing an instinctive growl of annoyance, at the question and the display both. The last cycle was hectic – a shipment of critters spilled on one of the main decks and the port was going through its fourth quarantine this refokev, which meant Sendek had many reports to go over and even more forms to issue, while attempting diplomacy with truly despicable personalities involved in current trans-sectorial-economics and galaxical politics.
Snorting loudly through his nose, he was pleased to have made the human startle. Good. They deserved it. “Coffee. Tall glass.”
The human blinked at him, before baring their teeth again.
The fur on Sendak’s arm was starting to visibly bristle; he clasped his hands behind his back, and bared his teeth back.
“Keith told me about you. Commander Sendak, isn’t it?” The human continued with their display of aggression while speaking pleasantries, prolonging eye-contact. “I’m Shiro.”
“Shiro,” Sendak drawled, already feeling spiteful enough that the answering shudder from the human caused him immense satisfaction. “My coffee.”
“Oh!” Shiro broke eye-contact, and Sendak felt immediate relief that the human backed down from a fight they most certainly wouldn’t have won. No much how much he would’ve liked it, Sendak had to remind himself (at least thrice a cycle), he couldn’t rip apart other life-forms (and still keep his position and his steady supply of coffee).
His order, Sendak noted as the coffee filled his mouth on his way to another gruelling cycle, was pretty much perfect.
The next cycle, it’s Keith who’s thankfully at the register. Sendak is about to place his order, when Keith attention uncharacteristically strays; his ears perk up as a one of the four resident humans enters the establishment.
“Shiro, my man!” the human – the one that is neither too small nor too big, but still puny – calls to Shiro – apparently, his mate – settling Sendak’s inconsequential debate over Shiro’s gender.
What’s far more interesting, is how Keith’s nose starts twitching, in a blunt, public display of territorial aggression.
Offering a side glance at Keith, Sendak rumbles lowly at him; Keith jerks his head in surprise, looking straight at Sendak’s face, before diverting his eyes and offering a rumble of gratitude towards the older Galra. The humans are none-the-wiser – their minuscule ears, barely stubs of flesh on the sides of their skull, can barely detect any of the wide spectrum of waves carried across the air. Sendak always has to fight down his instinct to speak louder while in their presence and to remind himself that their hearing is sufficient, even if their conduct is lacking.
The bracelet chirps in approval and Keith does better at hiding his embarrassingly apparent displeasure at the blatant display of affection, when the loud human rubs their arms at Shiro’s shoulder and torso, then their cheeks.
Sendak sips his coffee and looks away.
Humans truly had no decorum.
“I feel like we’ve started on the wrong foot, here.”
Sendak has absolutely no idea what the human wants this time.
“I do not care for your limbs,” he bites out, his headache longing for the soothing effect the coffee has on his brain. “I care that you’d provide me with coffee. Tall glass.”
Shiro seems to flounder, before holding a single digit up. “Wait just a tic.”
Sendak has little choice but to wait, so he spends his time scanning the establishment for a flaw – any sort of flaw – that he could use to fine or shut them down for. There was always a high demand for a spot in any respectable space-port (and in some none-too-respectable ones), for it provided an endless stream of customers, never ceasing their consumption. There were lulls, of course, which Sendak always knew to seize so there’d be little to no line when he came to purchase his coffee.
(There were also the security feeds, which covered every possible angle of the port, which he had unrestricted access to from the comfort of his own office. But this was entirely irrelevant.)
Alas, Allura had done her job well; Voltron was completely without flaws. The place held every regulation in high regard. Unless one of the employees chose to pour a beaker of flesh-eating bacteria onto the polished floors, there was not much to be done.
Shiro returns with a reusable plate and a strange artefact upon it. It has a lacklustre shade of brown and is covered with a substance which reminds Sendak of the pus the psepke on his home planet used to squeeze out of their bodies when they felt threatened.
(The smell, however, is a different matter entirely.)
He frowns at Shiro.
“It’s a cinnamon roll.”
Sendak frown deepens at the unfamiliar term and he glowers down at Shiro.
“I didn’t approve any shipment of ‘cinnamon roll’.”
“Yeah,” Shiro answers, oblivious to how close Sendak is to arrest him for endangering the lives of potentially billions and sending him to slave away at the mines for the rest of his life. “I’ve made it.”
Sendak is perplexed. He studied the basics of human physiology, as he did with every life-form that boarded or crossed the port; they could hardly regenerate after sustaining injury, and couldn’t regrow any of their limbs, evidently, as a quick glance at Shiro’s right arm reassured him. Surely, they couldn’t just materialize objects out of thin air.
“Here, try it.”
“I haven’t paid for it.”
“You don’t have to,” the human dares, and Sendak barely believes it. “It’s on the house.”
Sendak narrows his eyes; though the last phrase the human spoke makes little sense, the first clarified his vile intention.
“You’d do well to remember,” he says, crisp and professional and truly abhorring the entire human-kind for the despicable act Shiro had just attempted at, “Galra would never accept bribery.”
“What?” Shiro asks, playing the part of an idiot rather well. “No, it’s–“
“Don’t attempt to appease me, human.” Sendak snarls; it’s been an entire vos’a since someone had dared to so crudely besmirch his honour, almost half a lifetime ago.
(They didn’t repeat the act, seeing as Sendak removed their jaw for them.)
“WHAT ARE YOU DOING,” Keith all but screeches, popping from the kitchen to hastily snatch the plate away from Sendak.
“Sir,” Keith breathes in shock, “you’d have to forgive him, he– humans are–“ Keith is still heaving, his eyes darting between Shiro and Sendak, ears shifting from shock to submission at each turn. “It’s– It’s customary.”
Sendak’s lips twist, making a rather ugly sneer. “I can’t say I’m surprised, for those–” he bites back an undiplomatic term, only just, “– to have bribery as on-going practice.”
“No, I’ve meant–“ Keith shoves the plate forcefully at Shiro’s hands, and steps between them, removing the offensive object from sight. “– On Earth, it is customary to offer an… offering, after you have wronged someone. Isn’t it right, Shiro?”
“What?” Shiro asks, keeping to his dimwitted act. Sendak is not fooled.
“I’ve said,” Keith pitches his voice in a peculiar way which Sendak can’t quite decipher, “Isn’t it right.” He glares at Shiro, clearly not approving of the act he had committed even while trying to defend him.
“Oh!” Shiro says, as if his mind only just finished processing the turn of events. “Yeah. Yeah, exactly.”
“And as long as Shiro is indebted to you,” Keith continues, “He must keep offering you… offerings, until you deem the debt repaid. It’s how things are done. On Earth. Where Shiro grew up.”
“Right!” Shiro adds, his comment redundant.
“And now that he had again wronged you, adding further insult,” Keith adds, “his human sensibilities force him to act in such a manner. He had truly meant no offense–”
“Truly,” Shiro repeats.
“– but he would not be released from this commitment until you’d have deemed the debt repaid in full.”
Sendak is not quick to recover from a fit of rage; the impact on his honour had been slightly softened, but his instincts call for bloodshed. Keith is surely aware; he’s displaying every possible measure of appeasement for Sendak to spare the human’s life. By right and by Galran Universal Law, Sendak is allowed to kill Shiro where he stands.
But Sendak finds Keith… rather agreeable. He has the making of a potential diplomat in him, which Sendak could use in a few more aos. It wouldn’t do to tarnish this potential path of mutually beneficial relations.
Moreover, finding humans are so easily indebted and that Sendak could have sway on their actions, was certainly worthwhile information to further explore.
In an unsettling gesture, the human bows to Sendak, exposing his back. Keith flinches back, and its only Sendak’s greater experience that keeps him from acting the same. Sendak’s rage immediately drains from him, a compulsive psychological mechanism fostered as a reaction to such an utter display of trust. Keith wisely slides away, as the display was not meant for him; Sendak lets the benefits of his internal-wiring calm his nerves further before another long cycle, before ordering Shiro to cease.
“Sendak,” Shiro speaks, while Sendak starts wondering why aren’t there any other patrons around to disturb them. “Would you please…” he halts, unsure, yet treading carefully, “… accept my sincerest apologies for wronging you, and would be so gracious to consider my offering?”
“I would,” Sendak replies, brain still buzzing with an assortment of biological tranquilizers as Shiro hesitantly sets the plate back onto the counter.
“You claimed to have made this,” Sendak picks the tribute. It sticks to his fur.
“Yeah. Its…. For eating. For Galrans, too– I’ve made Keith try some–”
Puzzled by this mysterious ability to make food, Sendak tunes out Shiro’s words; he can’t help but let his eyes quickly roam up and down Shiro’s physique, absently noting the model of his prosthetic arm looks like it was custom-made, which means it was quite costly. How could humans possibly produce food? Did they peel off parts of their skin and let those grow independently, like the cheztekcha on Avcoiic? Sendak was doubtful; the offering didn’t smell like human at all.
From that very moment, he can divide his life into two parts:
The first, before eating a cinnamon roll; sustaining on synthesized food for his entire life, his only indulgence some exotic powder from across the galaxy mixed with boiling water, that sharpened his senses and effects lasted considerably longer than any other drug, only finally breaking apart in his third stomach. To have access for said indulgence, he spends aos upon aos pave his way to a comfortable spot in the upper-floors of the hierarchy.
The second part was after biting into the cinnamon roll; it unlocked a hidden function of his brain, assaulting his senses and soothing them both at the same time, creating a paradox which he could blissfully bath in. It was like consuming the very essence of all that’s bright and true in life. It made Sendak feel sensations he wasn’t aware he was capable of and see colours he was not aware existed.
“How is it?” Shiro’s voice asks from a place very far away.
“Decent.” Sendak manages. “Their texture crumbles rather quickly.”
“Oh.” Shiro says, shoulders slumping slightly. “Sorry. Next cycle, then.”
Quite overwhelmed, Sendak merely turns to recover in his office, away from prying eyes, and forgoes coffee for the first time in many, many cycles.
“Bright cycle,” Shiro greets Sendak, who grunts in reply; he had longed for another cinnamon roll, and the lack of coffee in his system is making itself known through pounding his brain to mush from inside.
“I have another offering, if you would be so kin–“
Sendak waves his hand, attempting to silence the human and get his delicious food, which Shiro thankfully seems to understand.
What Sendak doesn’t understand is what’s placed on the counter.
“Apple crumb pie.”
“I didn’t approve of those either.”
“I’ve made this one, as well.” Shiro shrugs.
“So quick to abandon your cinnamon rolls?” Sendak sneers, hiding his crushing disappointment. While his curiosity sharpens as Shiro’s undocumented abilities unfold, the thought of no further cinnamon rolls in his life make the future seem dull and bleak.
Shiro laughs, rubbing the back of his neck and looking down the floor in a most-pleasing display of submission. He does that unwittingly, of course, but Sendak’s hindbrain doesn’t really care.
He bites into the apple crumb pie.
It makes the second cycle he goes uncaffeinated, too proud to head back and demand his coffee after already settling in his office. He avoids hydrating through the rest of the cycle; it keeps the glorious taste in mouth almost fresh.
By the next time Sendak visits, Keith is thankfully manning the register.
“Bright cycle,” Keith greets, “What would–
“WHAT WAS THAT?” One of the other employees, the tiny one, speaks loudly; Sendak hears them all the way from the kitchen in the back, much like they’re shouting directly into his ears. “WHAT WAS THAT YOU’VE SAID ABOUT SHIRO, HUNK?”
“I’VE SAID,” The burly employee answers, just as loudly, while Keith and Sendak both press their ears to their skulls, “THAT SHIRO IS MOST DEFINITELY SINGLE. POSITIVELY ALONE.”
“BY SINGLE,” The tiny one inquires, “YOU MEAN HE DOESN’T HAVE A MATE?”
Sendak is significantly certain they have never taken to speak in such volumes before. It would be just his luck their hearing would start to deteriorate as soon as he walked in.
“YES, I CONFIRM YOUR CLAIM. NOT SHIRO. HE’S UNCLAIMED. WITHOUT A MATE. I’D REPEAT THAT. SHIRO. SINGLE. LEGAL. AVAILABLE. FREE FOR ANYONE TO COURT OR APPROACH. AND I MEAN. ANY. ONE.”
“Coffee,” Sendak tries to hiss at Keith, but the young Galran seems rather fascinated with the topic of his hearing-impaired companions, nose starting to twitch yet again.
“YOU DON’T SAY. NOT INVOLVED WITH LANCE, OR ANY OTHER GUY, THEN?”
“LAST I’VE HEARD-“
Sendak gives up, before his ears start bleeding, making it last thing he has ever heard.
Later that cycle, after an infuriating call from a haughty supplier, Sendak thinks a cinnamon roll wouldn’t have gone amiss.
By the fourth cycle without coffee, Sendak’s subordinates cower away from him as he passes past them. He just finished dealing with an unauthorized delegation attempting to force their way into his port, and the entire thing had left him fuming, just waiting for anyone to make the slightest mistake so he could unleash violence upon their person.
“I’ve made cupcakes.” Shiro greets him, twisting his lips upwards without exposing his teeth.
“Sure you did,” Sendak snorts at him, unwillingly sniffing at the air.
“Just a tic,” he heads to the kitchen to bring whatever ‘cupcakes’ is.
The main door slides open and a party of pilots drags themselves in. They give one look at Sendak, and quickly reach a group decision to live and head to a different establishment in order to feed.
“There you go,” Shiro places a tray on the counter, “A human offering of atonement, if you would so graciously accept.”
The offering includes two-dozen pieces; it’s brightly coloured, like exotic flora, and finely decorated, with distinctive alien shapes that align on the crust.
It is quickly consumed.
“Would you also like your usual order?” Shiro asks, than clarifies, “Coffee, tall glass?”
This turns to be the most productive cycle Sendak had ever since he had first met Shiro.
“Salted caramel chocolate chips cookies,” Shiro tries. He never asks Sendak if he had earned his pardon; Sendak wonders how long he can drag this pleasing privilege. “If you’d be so gracious–“
“Dry,” Sendak grumbles after eating an entire tray. “Yet I am amenable to consume further experimentation. Your slight would not be so easily forgiven.”
“Of course not,” Shiro ducks his head and rubs the back of his hand across his lips in a most wanton display which has Sendak growling before he thinks better of it.
“I’m sorry,” Shiro misinterprets the sound, “I’d try better, next time.”
“See that you do,” Sendak bites out, and makes a strategic retreat to his quarters.
It’s not often the Sendak finds himself feeling guilty. It’s a most peculiar sensation for him, as his sense of honour was impeccable.
Yet he does feel slightly guilty for his interactions with Shiro; the human is unaware of how provocative he is, and how his unshameful behaviour affects Sendak, not to mention Sendak has a clear position of authority over him. Absently, he wonders where this line of thought is headed, as he has no clear destination in mind; he simply strolls around the port, his personal method for avoiding the destruction of communication equipment by his hand.
Lost in his musings, Sendak almost fails to notice the disturbance in one of the less travelled corridors on the port.
“I’ve told you,” Shiro voice carries, sounding rather assertive, “I am not interested, Myzax.”
“Don’t be such a little qiawq, Champion,” another voice– Myzax, apparently – grunts.
“Let go of my arm.”
Sendak turns the corner prepared to pummel Myzax into the ground, but it appears someone beat him to it – he’s just in time to see Shiro perform a complicated maneuver in which he flips over an alien thrice his size, using his back to support the weight, before twisting Myzax’s limbs and locking his right arm around Myzax’s neck, as the skin beneath the metal starts to sizzle and burn.
“Shiro,” Sendak offers pleasantly, “Is this individual has been bothering you?”
The ventilated air starts smelling like roasted meat.
“He had.” Shiro replies, tightening his hold as Myzax gives a choked sound of pain.
“That’s unfortunate.” Sendak eyes Myzax as the colour of his skin changes, blotting pale. “Would you like to press charges?”
“If it’s not too much of a hassle,” Shiro says and Sendak watches, transfixed, as he twists his thighs until the limb between them gives an audible snap.
After sending Myzax to the crummiest holding cell in the port, Sendak personally sees to Shiro’s compliant; they head to Sendak’s office and he fills plenty of forms which didn’t quite require Sendak’s personal oversight. In the middle of filling the seventh copy of the fourteenth form (for archival purposes) Sendak realizes it’s the first time Shiro had spent such a long time in his presence without his usual jittering.
Shiro’s presence is… less bothersome than Sendak has anticipated (and when did he start anticipating such presence, really?). He sits quietly where he’s told, he doesn’t touch anything and he doesn’t stare. He’s actually so quiet Sendak forgets he’s even there, and before he realizes it’s the end of his shift and Shiro has dozed off in the corner. He covered up in Sendak’s official cape; it was part of Sendak’s uniform, which he kept in his office but never actually wore unless he had to, as he considered it absolutely ridiculous.
Sendak inhales deeply. The sight is so infuriatingly provocative; Galra never shared garments, specifically bedding, unless they were in a committed relationship, and Shiro dared to drape Sendak’s own clothes across his back and look so delicate and small, sunken between the red drapes of fabric–
“Sendak?” Shiro mutters quietly, rubbing his hands over his eyes, then stretching his arms above his head, all while making truly obscene sounds.
Sendak swallows, loudly, as Shiro’s shirt rides up until his midsection is bare, covered in sparse wiry fur beneath a sunken hole located in the centre. Was that the part Shiro was using to “make” food?
“I’m sorry, I fell asleep.”
“Sorry.” Shiro rubs at his neck again, sighing, and Sendak is about to shred his table to stardust, when Shiro drops his hand and speaks.
“Say,” he starts, his face flushing into an odd shade of pink. “Do you want to, maybe, go grab a coffee?”
“Grab?” Sendak frowns, and although the terminology is questionable, he lets the human attempt and explain.
“I mean, we can have coffee, in my quarters.” He amends, skin turning darker. “As thanks.”
“Are you ill?” Sendak voices his unexpected concern. “The skin on your face seems to experience some sort of an affliction.”
“It’s a human thing,” Shiro gestures vaguely, and Sendak notes the colour spread to his neck and ears. “It’s not contagious.”
“Of course not,” Sendak scoffs, “I would have known about it, otherwise.”
“So, coffee? If you would be so gracious.”
Sendak stands, and takes the cape from Shiro’s hands; as he replaces it on the hook, he can tell Shiro’s scent would stick into the fabric for quite a while.
“I would not be opposed to another of your cinnamon rolls.”
“I’ve got something even better in mind.”
Sendak is skeptical; there is no such thing that is better than a cinnamon roll.
(Later, but not by much, Shiro proves Sendak wrong in the best way.)
At the start of the next cycle, Lance is the first to greet Shiro.
He does that by shrieking. Loudly.
“What happened to your neck?! It looks like someone tried to eat you!”
Shiro’s eyes turn glazed, a goofy smile plastering itself on his face as he rubs his finger against the bridge of his nose and across his scar. Lance eyes widen, and he visibly cringes when he comes to realize exactly what – or whom – was responsible for the variety of colours adorning Shiro’s skin in a rosary of bruises.
“No. Nope. Forget it,” Lance says, denial fully operational as he turns to leave when Shiro opens his mouth, “I don’t want to know.”
“I do,” Keith pops out of the kitchen, ears twitching on the top of his head. “I told you it’d work, didn’t I?” He asks, rather smugly, eyeing Shiro’s neck. “Your baking is that good.”
“That you did.” Shiro smiles at the Galran, “Thanks, buddy. I owe you one.”
Shiro’s gaze follows Keith’s as Lance makes his way to the storage room, trying to make himself seem busy by unpacking boxes that could do without being unpacked for a k’nadje or two.
“I’ve heard humans are obliged to offer offerings, until their debt is considered paid in full.”
“No more than hearsay,” Shiro smirks, “You should check your sources, Keith. I, however,” his smirk widens, “heard Lance got a weak spot for alfajores, which he hadn’t had a chance to eat since he left home. He said he’d marry me, if I baked him some.”
Keith nose starts twitching sharply, a trait Shiro always found amusing; it made him seem like a baby-bunny, about to sneeze.
“What was your reply?” Keith asks rigidly; Shiro passes it as whatever causing his nose to twitch.
“He was joking, Keith,” Shiro smiles, fond, as Keith’s nose slowly stops twitching with a soft ‘Oh’. Walking past him, he rummages through one of the drawers to pull out an extra apron he kept around but never used; Keith follows, interested.
“What’s that for?” Keith asks when Shiro hands him the apron, confused.
“You’d figure out soon enough.” Shiro raises an eyebrow at Keith, challenging. “Go suit up.”
“What about the customers?”
“Hunk and Pidge would do fine.”
Hunk and Pidge do not do fine. They do rather horribly. Their coffee loses the café a score of repeat-customers, and somehow during their shift two chairs and a table break. The credit-checker malfunctions and when Hunk attempts to recalibrate it he fries a crucial component in one of the energy-boards.
All in all, their shift ends up rather poorly, much like Keith’s attempts at baking.
Luckily for Keith, Shiro owes him a debt; Keith makes almost-edible alfajores, but it’s Shiro who bakes the wedding cake for him and Lance.
(But only in the five first-times.)