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nothing's quite as sweet

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I'm cutting corners to find out
what your name might be
Digging through the trash to get
your grande cup of coffee
You're sweet as maple
You’re sweet as maple
Nothing's quite as sweet 

Hayley Kiyoko, Maple

 

***

 

“Kogane. You burned the coffee again.”

Keith’s head snaps up from whatever zoned out daze he’d been in. Sure enough, the massive brewer has begun to smell, and he inhales the heady scent of coffee with a tinge of something just slightly off, A.K.A. slightly burned, A.K.A. slightly charred. Which means it’s essentially the equivalent of drinking ash in a cup, if he were to serve it.

“Shit. Fuck. Sorry, Pidge.” He flicks the brewer off. “Late night.”

“And early morning, from the looks of it,” Pidge says from where they’re perched on the counter, the heels of their Chuck Taylors drumming against the cupboards. “When was the last time you showered? Or like, slept, for that matter?”

“Uh. That depends. It’s Friday, right?”

“Monday, but go on.”

“Shit,” Keith says again, allowing himself the explicit embarrassment of knowing he had to be looking pretty bad, if Pidge noticed.

He thought he’d covered the whole “unwashed hair” thing with the bright purple Galra Grinds cap, and the whole “hasn’t slept in thirty-six hours” thing with a triple shot of espresso on his break. It figures that the watered down, overpriced beverages of this shitty coffee shop wouldn’t be enough to sustain him. Especially not on the first week back to classes for the university, which means there’d been a line out the door since opening at five in the morning, being that this was the only coffee shop within walking distance of campus.

“Don’t worry, dude,” says Pidge. “I got it.” They hop off the counter and go about making a new pot of coffee, carefully sifting the dirt-like mix with the allotted amount of scoops and tap water filtered in. It makes Keith want to cry just a little bit, or maybe gag: all that untapped potential with the state-of-the-art brewing utilities laid to waste by a shitty company policy and an even shittier ratio of blend to tap water.

Fuck, Keith hates his job.

Working at Galra Grinds—or as Keith likes to privately refer to it, Evil Satanic Corporate McShitty-Coffee Soul Sucking Hell— feels more like indentured servitude than an actual job. Keith would know better than anyone. He’d been awarded the “Galra Grant,” a scholarship partnered with the local university that allowed Keith to attend law school free of charge in exchange for working 20 hours per week at the Galra Grinds coffee shop just off campus.

What was pitched as an Extremely Fortuitous Opportunity™ turned out to be the stupidest decision of Keith’s entire life, including dropping out of law school after the first semester. Galra Grinds abuses its employees horribly, and since those employees are all students desperate enough to endure any sort of torture to avoid crushing student debt, they get away with it.

Keith could quit—probably should quit. After all, he’s not technically a student anymore. He could quit, except for the entire semester’s worth of student debt he has yet to pay off. Besides, there’s always the possibility that he could regain his metaphorical balls and go back to law school. It’d be foolish to completely throw away that opportunity, just in case he decided to not be a fucking loser and get his fucking law degree.

He could quit, but it’s not like he’s got anything going on in his life besides working at Galra Grinds. And he may be a law school dropout, but there are still undergrad loans to pay off. Not to mention the skyrocketing rent in his tiny flat. Not to mention he doesn’t know what the hell else he would do all day.

It sounds horrendously pathetic, but this job is all he’s got going for him. Keith Kogane wakes up in his shitty apartment, goes to work at his shitty job, tries not to think extensively about his shitty life, and that’s pretty much it.

***

The rest of the day passes in a bleary eyed blur, not so unlike all the days before it and all the days that will likely follow. Keith wishes he could say it was a good day, but there’s no way of knowing because toward the end of the shift he’s so tired he might be shaking, and Pidge keeps nudging him in the ribs to keep him from nodding off at the register.

It’s late afternoon when he finally gets off, and Keith honestly wishes he could march straight into his coffin.

At one point, Sendak—the Corporate Manager, or as Keith likes to call him, Satan’s Lapdog—actually decides to show up to work. Keith takes his position at the register as Pidge ducks into the back, pulling their hat low and claiming the need to go to the restroom. It’s only then that Keith is wide awake. He forces on a blinding smile and tries his damnedest to double check that he’s cleaned all the tables.

Sendak doesn’t really stick around—he never does, bastard that he is—just barks at Keith to clean the tables better and to smile more, and threatens to dock his pay. It’s par the usual exchange with Sendak, so Keith isn’t all that bothered. He can endure the fifteen-minute visit that happens every few days, that rare occasion when Sendak decides to actually do his job.

When Pidge emerges from the bathroom, they’re a bit pale. “Thanks for covering my ass,” they mutter, grabbing their bag out of the locker.

“Don’t mention it,” Keith responds. “Thanks for not letting me fall asleep at the register.”

They bump fists, because that’s probably the one good thing about having a shitty job: the relationships you form with the people who are stuck alongside you.

And then, finally, his shift is over, and it’s like shedding a layer of dead skin, peeling that hideous purple apron off himself and leaving it behind.

Keith grabs his stuff out of his locker, steals the bag of discarded scones (that are in reality completely edible but deemed to be thrown out), pours the day’s leftover cream into his thermos, shoves everything into his backpack, and heads out to the alleyway. Scarlet, his beloved motorbike named for the sheen of her paint coat, is waiting for him.

This, the drive on Scarlet going to and from home, is probably the high point of Keith’s day. The air is crisp, laden with that certain scent that marks the changing of the seasons, and he breathes it in, grateful for something that doesn’t reek of coffee. He clambers onto Scarlet and tears out of the alleyway. Can’t drive away fast enough.

When he pulls up to his first stop, corner of 9th and Main, the homeless man asleep on the bus stop bench raises his head and smiles, all yellow teeth and kind eyes, swarthy skin from being outside through all kinds of weather.

“Hey, kid.”

“Hey,” Keith says, stilted, because no matter how many times he does this, he still feels like it’s the first time, and he shouldn’t be here. “Uh. So it’s blueberry scones on the menu today. They’re a little dry, but—”

“Thanks,” the man says. Keith doesn’t know his name, but he’s brought him leftover food from Galra Grinds every single day he’s managed to sneak it out without Sendak noticing. That somehow makes him feel like more of an asshole than he probably should. Employees are supposed to put all leftover food and cream in the trash, no exceptions. But Keith knows for a fact that those scones are just as edible, stale or not stale, because they were never that good to begin with.

Smiling happily, the homeless man grabs a few scones from the bag, walks back over to his blanket and the bench, and bites down with gusto. A plume of black smoke drifts by as the bus passes, and Keith lingers awkwardly for just a second too long, and then gets back onto Scarlet with a wordless nod, driving off.

He makes the stops until he’s run out of scones, hitting up the lady who sits outside the library steps, the man in the wheelchair with a “God Bless America” sign outside the market, dozens more after that. They all say thank you like Keith has done something decent, and Keith feels like an asshole every time.  However, by the time his bag is empty, he feels a little bit better, a little less like the dirty gum scraped off someone’s shoe he was feeling akin to at work. So he heads home.

There’s not much to Keith’s tiny flat. It’s got a bed and it’s got a roof, so it’s the Ritz compared to what others have. That’s what Keith tells himself, at least.

He opens the fridge, stomach growling hungrily, aching from all the earlier espresso with no actual food to counter it. He should have saved one of the scones himself, but he figures they needed it more anyhow. It would be great to sink his teeth into an entire fucking pizza at this point, but all he has are the singular can of horseradish and singular can of black olives that sit in the otherwise empty fridge. He doesn’t even like olives, what the fuck.

Groaning, he settles for a very long, very hot shower instead of a full stomach. This, of course, reveals his decided lack of hot water, along with the realization that he hasn’t paid his latest gas bill. If all else fails, at least he’ll be clean.

After a very short, very cold shower, Keith pulls on his warmest sweatpants and ironically owned university sweater, and heads back to the kitchen. He pointedly ignores the growing stack of bills sitting on the kitchen counter, all the while trying to remember if he actually did pay the gas bill or not.

He washes one of the many dirty dishes in the sink and pours the cream into it, lifting the window that leads onto the fire escape. Teeth chattering from the frigid shower and the nippy air combined, he sets the dish down, and waits perched on the windowsill.

The first cat hops onto the fire escape gracefully, which is somehow always a shock given how high up Keith’s apartment is. It blinks at Keith before bending down and lapping out of the dish, tail swishing as it does, and he knows others will soon follow.

It’s difficult to track exactly when Keith started feeding the neighborhood strays. He thinks it was a decision fueled by some sort of mental breakdown toward the end of his law school career, if memory serves correctly.

It had been snowing. It had been 5am. Keith had been awake for three days and miserable for six months when he’d started leaving out cream for the neighborhood cats. He tells himself that it was a procrastination technique, anything to avoid studying, but sometimes it feels like part of a larger ache inside him. The part that only really talks to customers and coworkers. The part that never checks his phone because he doesn’t know anyone who would text except to get a shift covered.

Whatever reason he started it, leaving out leftover cream for the cats became enough of a routine that when he didn’t, they yowled for hours. They interchange in breed, and size, and number, but they’re always there: tabbies and calicos and shorthairs alike, gathered on his fire escape and ignoring him entirely to go straight for the milk.

One day, he thinks, watching the sun sink beneath the silhouette of the city, bundling further into the warmth of his sweater. One day things will be better. One day I’ll want to go back to law school. One day I’ll be a lawyer. One day I’ll be successful and have money.

One day I’ll be happy.

But it’s been over half a year since he dropped out of university, and Keith’s starting to wonder just how far off one day is. If such a day even exists.

He waits until the dish has been licked clean, then heads back inside, setting it on the counter. It’s with sweet, sweet relief that he crashes down on the box spring he’s got in the corner of his loft. He allows himself the fleeting fantasy that tomorrow will be the day that life goes on the upswing, and passes out.

***

It’s miraculous, really, how a full night’s sleep somehow only serves to make Keith feel more exhausted when he wakes up for work the next day. He tries to indulge himself a bit, wake his sluggish body up. A little sunrise yoga, a stop by Jamba Juice for a green smoothie, small attempts to feel like a functioning adult rather than a barely animated corpse. Yet by the time he rolls into work, there’s an exhausted twitch in his eye, and he’s hungry again. Always one step forward, two steps back, it seems.

They’ve got him opening with Shiro, the General Manager. Shiro looks just as wrung out as Keith, but he smiles and waves and tosses an apron at Keith’s face with a soft thwap.

“Suit up. There’s already a few people outside ready for us to unlock the door.”

“And good morning to you too, Captain,” Keith teases, swinging the apron over his head, tying it in the back. “You gonna tell me to get down and give you twenty?”

“Don’t tempt me.” Shiro grins back, filling the display case with today’s fresh baked (i.e., dry and prepackaged) goods and checking the temperature of the coffee (i.e., watered down coffee-flavored mix).

His prosthetic is bothering him again; Keith can tell by the way Shiro avoids lifting his right arm above his head, keeping movement limited to small tasks, light weights. Captain Takashi Shirogane, of honorable discharge and Purple Heart recognition. It’s a testament, once again, to Galra Grinds’ abhorrent treatment of its employees, that Shiro is not offered the type of health benefits that allow him to get fitted with a better prosthesis. Or afford a therapist for his PTSD.

Keith doesn’t know much about Shiro other than before the war he had a right arm, and after the war he did not. There are details, though, that have slipped out through the cracks of his boss’ incredibly kind and stoic presence. The dark scar across the bridge of his nose. The shock of white hair in his bangs. The way he sometimes breaks into a sweat when a car backfires in the street, or a customer slams the door to the shop just a little too hard. Keith doesn’t bring up those details, in the same way that Shiro never pesters Keith about dropping out of law school or working so many double shifts.

As far as boss-employee relationships go, it works for them.

“Need some help?” Keith asks, casual enough that the meaning is up to interpretation.

“Nah.” Shiro waves him off, and pointedly lifts a tray with the prosthetic as if to assure him. “I’m good. Go set up all the chairs. Then drink some coffee, will you? You look like you need it.”

Guess the yoga and the green smoothie weren’t enough to cover up the whole “36 hours” thing, then.

Grumbling, Keith gets to work.

***

The morning passes easily enough. Morning rush is always a bitch, and Keith’s still yawning at the register in between customers, but no customer screams at him, and he doesn’t burn the coffee. All things considered, it’s an okay day. A good one, even.

There’s no telling when he decided to set that bar so low. Jesus Christ.

By noon, the hustle and bustle has settled back into the regular routine, Keith at the register, Shiro making drinks behind him.

“Welcome to Galra Grinds.” He layers on his best Customer Service voice, eyes down as he sorts the change in the register, “What can I get you?”

“Well, actually I was just—hey!” the customer exclaims loudly, startling him. “I know you!”

Keith looks up. The customer—a guy roughly his age—is staring at him with rapt attention. And Keith may have forcibly blocked the entirety of high school and college from memory, but he knows with one glance: he would have remembered meeting someone who looks like this.

Keith doesn’t really have a type. But if he did….

“Um. You do?”

“We haven’t met officially,” the guy says, smiling and leaning against the counter, “But I’ve seen you from the bus, giving out food to the homeless guy at the stop. I’d recognize that mullet anywhere.”

Keith’s hand jumps to his hair in reflex, feeling simultaneously dragged for his hairstyle and embarrassed for being seen feeding the homeless. For some dumbass reason he wants to blurt something in defense of himself like I got a bad haircut against my will or it was a one time thing with the homeless man, but it doesn’t matter. The guy’s already moving on, thrusting a hand forward. Not to shake, but to offer up a stack of flyers.

“The name’s Lance. I work across the street over at the Cat Castle shelter. I was hoping to put up some flyers on your counter or on your bulletin board? We’re trying to fundraise. See, we’re a non-profit no-kill shelter and we subsist on donations. We’re hoping to generate a bit more support through local businesses, and that begins with advertising. Is your manager around?”

Lance says all of this rather fast. Keith’s still stuck deciding whether or not he should try and apologize for his hair. He’s distracted by the sound of a loud clatter as Shiro drops something in the sink before turning to face Lance.

“I’m the manager,” he says. “You said you’re from the Cat Castle. Is that where Allura works?”

Keith is distracted, but there’s no missing the odd emphasis on the word “Allura” as if the person this name belongs to is either someone absolutely terrifying or awe inspiring. Judging by the pink in Shiro’s face, Keith figures it’s a combination of both.

“Yeah!” Lance grins. “She’s the boss lady!”

Keith raises an eyebrow at Shiro in question, which only makes Shiro flush even more, even as he ignores Keith and says, “Yeah. Go ahead, anything to help the shelter. You can leave some flyers on the counter for customers to grab, and hang some up on the bulletin board too. Anything for the cats.”

“Awesome! Thanks, dude!” Lance bounces over to the bulletin board, pulling tape out of his jacket and beginning to post the vividly colored flyers.

Keith raises an eyebrow. “Anything for the cats?”

“Shut it,” Shiro says, not unkindly, cheeks still rosy.

A gaggle of noisy theater majors come in and beeline for Keith. He runs through their orders on autopilot until the hubbub has died down again, and then he looks up to greet the next customer only to see that Lance is standing there. Smiling. Again.

Keith’s hand twitches again as he shoves down the urge to fix his hair. They stare at each other for an awkward beat as Keith waits for an order.

“Um. Can I get you something?”

Lance tips forward to lean against the counter again, smiling. “You can get me anything you’d like.”

Keith blinks at him. “We have small, medium, or large.”

“Oh. I. Uh.” Lance steps back from the counter, scratches at the back of his neck. “Small latte, please.”

“Coming right up. That’ll be 6.99.”

“Jesus.” Lance roots around in his pockets for change. “The things we do for caffeine.”

Money and latte are exchanged. Lance closes his eyes and takes a deep inhale of the steam rising from his cup, as if it actually smells good. Who knows, maybe it does to him. Keith knows a caffeine addict when he sees one.

“Welp. Thanks for letting me put up the flyers!” he says to Shiro, “Stop by anytime if you wanna visit the cats. And you,” he says, turning, “thank you for the latte. Keith.”

It takes Keith a solid ten seconds to figure out that Lance had known his name from the gigantic fucking nametag pinned to his apron. By the time he blurts, “YEAH YOU TOO HAVE A GOOD DAY,” like a fucking idiot, Lance is already out the door.

***

Keith coasts throughout the rest of the day feeling uncharacteristically decent, which basically means that every single second spent behind the counter is not complete and utter agony. When the midday rush ends, he reaches under the counter and gropes for his bag.

With Sendak around, it’s impossible. He once straight up fired a barista for breaking menu protocol and making stronger coffee when a customer asked for it. Even with Shiro, it’s a risk by proxy. But by this point in the afternoon Shiro is looking drawn and tired enough that he won’t even notice, as he cleans empty tables and runs the dishwasher.

No customers in line. No one coming up for refills. Coast clear.

Keith slips the bottle of amaretto syrup from his bag, along with a small Tupperware of cinnamon.

Despite the fact that Galra Grinds really does make the shittiest coffee, it has nothing to do with the actual access to resources. The company actually uses excellent suppliers for coffee beans; they just water down the coffee so much that its flavor and effects are halved. The Galra Grinds handbook—with stringent must-be-followed recipes and mandated disgusting mix-ins and artificial flavorings—is the problem. You add Mixture A to B Amount of water, heat for C minutes, and there you have it. Premium, overpriced garbage.

It was out of desperation, really, that Keith began experimenting with his own drinks. Most days he doesn’t have the time for it; he just mainlines espresso and resists the urge to gag.

But right now? He’s got time.

Keith doesn’t even put thought into measurements or amount. That’s the best part of it: the letting go, making coffee by feel rather than handbook. He makes the coffee dark, pours the amaretto as it percolates, steams the milk just right, adds a bit of condensed milk to sweeten it slightly. Pulls the mortar and pestle out to grind the cinnamon, just a dash, to finish it off. He’s not even exactly sure what he’s making until he’s trying it, humming contentedly at the flavor.

Coffee the way it should be. Savory. Fragrant. Smooth.

There’s steamed milk spilt on the counter, coffee grinds crunching under his shoes. Sendak would be shitting himself if he saw the mess Keith made. He can’t help but feel just a bit proud of it.

He sighs a bit into the drink, sipping in intervals as he begins to clean up.

***

It’s six a.m. on a Wednesday, the sky just beginning to go pale with dawn, and Keith is carrying a trash bag of old coffee bean sacks and empty milk cartons to the dumpster out behind the shop, and that’s when it happens: he hears it.

He stops. Listens. And realizes that no, he didn’t imagine it, there really is some sort of— mewling is the only word that comes to mind, meowing but tinier, and then he’s dropping the trash bag and standing on his tiptoes to peer over the lip of the dumpster and— 

“Oh, what the fuck,” he mutters, because there’s a pillowcase at the bottom of it, soaking up garbage slime. The end is tied off. The pillowcase is wriggling. “What the fuck.”

It takes a solid five minutes to get the pillowcase out of there, because Keith hates his life but he doesn’t hate it quite enough to willingly crawl into a dumpster and smell like rotten milk and old coffee grounds for the rest of the day. He ends up jerry-rigging a sort of fishing pole out of an old wooden crate, lifts the pillowcase out slow and careful.

The mewling grows louder. Keith lowers the pillowcase to the ground and hovers over it, practically wringing his hands, because what the fuck, there’s gotta be at least three kittens in there. Just judging by the wriggling. He can see their little bodies pressing against the fabric, worming over and around each other, trying to find a way out.

Who leaves kittens in a dumpster? Kittens, literally the definition of a helpless baby animal? Who does that? He crouches down and resists the urge to poke at the pillowcase. Seriously, who the fuck, because Keith doesn’t know much of anything about kittens or cats or animals in general but he does know that kittens need, like, vaccines, and lots of milk, like from the mom cat, and also probably physical contact? That’s a thing, right? Wasn’t there that one study with the baby monkeys and—oh god, kittens totally need all of that stuff.

“How much do vaccines cost,” he mutters, grabbing fistfuls of his hair. “Oh my god. What do kittens eat.”

Cream?

“Okay. Okay.” He flounders for a moment and then just scoops up the pillowcase in one go, trying like hell not to jostle them too much. Then he abandons the trash bag and just makes a break for the shop. It’s still empty; Pidge won’t be in till 7:30 and Sendak never comes in before noon, so Keith’s able to stash the kittens in the storage room between the fridge and the bean sacks while he figures out something to put them in that isn’t a fucking pillowcase. It ends up being the box their mocha powder comes in. He shoves the powder cartons under the counter, stuffs his hoodie and an extra apron into the bottom of the box, and only panics for like three minutes before he puts in the pillowcase and unties it.

Five kittens spill out.

Keith slides down the fridge onto the floor.

Five kittens. They look like maybe they didn’t come from the same mom cat—they’re all sorts of colors, and two are way fluffier than the other three, like pretty much just puffballs with noses. Their tails are smaller than his pinky finger. They’re so little that it looks like they probably can’t even walk yet; they squirm over each other and blink in the dim fluorescent light, but they aren’t trying to stand up or climb out of the box.

“Okay,” Keith says, and takes a deep breath. “Okay, guys. It’s, uh, it’s gonna be fine. I’m Keith. I’m gonna get you some—yeah.”

He gets up and pours some full fat cream in a bowl. When he puts it in the box, one of the kittens brushes against his hand.

It’s so soft.

And warm.

He touches it again, so so gently, just the tip of his finger against its tiny fishbone ribs. He can feel its heartbeat.

It squeaks and he yanks his hand back so hard that he actually falls over against the fridge. That one squeak seems to set them all off again, a chorus of little high-pitched mews that definitely will be audible from out front.

“No no no,” he hisses, “no, c’mon, let’s all be quiet now, okay? Please?”

If anything, the mewling gets even louder. Only one of the kittens has discovered the cream, a little tabbyish one.

“Guys,” Keith says desperately, and that’s when he hears the door jingle out front. He tosses an empty bean sack over the box and just barely manages to scramble out to the counter as Pidge ducks beneath it, headphones blasting something that sounds like what would happen if old school Evanescence fucked a chainsaw. For once, they look more exhausted than Keith.

Pidge glances up at him. “Holy eye baggage, Batman. You look even worse than I do.”

Or maybe not.

***

The kittens do not stop mewling. All morning. There’s only so many times Keith can fake a coughing fit, run the bean grinder, or talk loud enough that Pidge, whose eardrums have been thoroughly destroyed by a weird mix of screamo and High School Musical, tells him to pipe down.

“CAN YOU PASS THE STEAMER,” he shouts around 2 p.m., getting like three weird looks from the customers but successfully drowning out the latest crescendo of pitiful mews. “AND ALSO THE SOY—”

“That’s it,” says Pidge. “What the hell is your deal today, Kogane?”

“Nothing. Pass the steamer. And also the—”

“Soy milk, yeah, here. And it’s totally not nothing. Have you suddenly gone deaf or something?” They stand on their tiptoes to squint up into his face, pushing their glasses up their nose. “Hellooooo. I usually have to tell you to stop mumbling. Are you the real Keith? Were you replaced by an alien?”

“You could at least try not to sound excited about that idea.”

“Whatever, I know you own X-Files boxsets. Don’t think I don’t know you’re trying to distract me.”

“Nothing! My deal is nothing!” He steps around them and busies himself with the steamer, pouring an inch of milk foam onto a cappuccino. Here’s where I’d sprinkle cinnamon on top, grab the wand and draw a leaf or a bird or a cat—

He looks up and sees Lance on the sidewalk outside.

“Cover for me,” he yelps, shoving the cappuccino across the counter; he doesn’t wait for Pidge’s response before he’s barreling into the storage room and grabbing the box of kittens. They squeak again when he lifts them, and he says, “Sorry, sorry, it’s fine, good kitties,” and runs back out front again, ducking under the counter and sidestepping a gaggle of teenage girls and then he’s out the door with a jingle of bells, the cold wet September air slapping his cheeks. Lance is standing in front of Roscoe’s Pizza with his earbuds in, hands in his pockets, rocking back and forth slightly like he’s thinking or dancing or—something.

Keith skids to a stop in front of him and gasps out, “I HAVE CATS.”

Lance stares at him. “That’s—nice,” he says.

“No,” Keith says, extremely aware that he blushes when he gets flustered and also his hair is sort of damp and sticking to his temples, and also he totally forgot to wipe the streak of matcha powder off his cheek. “No, like, here, I have them here in this box, I found them in the dumpster, and, and I gave them some cream but I don’t have the money for vaccinations and also sometimes I forget to eat and I haven’t paid my latest gas bill and I definitely cannot take care of five kittens. I can’t.”

“How do you forget to eat,” says Lance, and then, “In a dumpster? God, who does that,” and then, “Okay dude, I’m gonna need you to take a deep breath.”

Keith takes a deep breath.

“All righty,” says Lance, rubbing his hands together. “Let’s see ‘em.” He grabs the coffee bean sack and slings it over his shoulder like a waiter with a dishtowel and looks down into the box, and Keith never really knew what it means to say someone’s face lights up, but now he knows: Lance’s face lights up like he’s got a star in there instead of a brain, like, his eyes are huge and bright and his mouth falls open and even the freckles on his nose seem to stand out more. He looks up at Keith, still gaping.

“Are they okay?” says Keith.

“Keith,” says Lance, “Keith, my dude, my man, these are the cutest kittens I have ever seen. Straight up. I’m gonna say it again so you really absorb the significance of this. I work in a cat shelter, I have probably seen upwards of 47 million cats in my lifetime, and these are the cutest kittens I have ever seen.”

“So they’re okay?”

“I can’t be sure until we check them out at the shelter, but they look fine to me.” Lance reaches in and pets one of them, no hesitation, running his finger along its spine. “Jesus, they’re young. Two weeks old at most. They were in a dumpster?”

“Behind the coffee shop,” says Keith, scowling at the memory. “I had them in the back room, but um, I can’t actually keep them there—”

“No, yeah, I’ll take them to the shelter.”

“Okay,” Keith says, feeling his whole body slump with relief. “Okay, yeah, that’s—good, yeah.”

“Yup.” Lance takes the box, still gazing down at the kittens. He’s grinning, teeth sunk into his bottom lip. “Wow, they’re so cute? Hunk, he’s my best friend slash coworker, he’s gonna explode when he sees these little guys.”

Keith nods. Without the box in his arms, in front of his body, he feels suddenly uncomfortable. He crosses his arms, stares at the sidewalk under his shitty regulation sneakers.

“Oh,” says Lance, “one more thing, just FYI, the whole ‘cats like cream’ thing is a myth, it’s actually not too great for them.”

Keith stares at him.  

“It’s not a big deal!” Lance says, apparently noticing the absolute wordless horror on Keith’s face. “Just upsets their tummies a little. They’re basically lactose intolerant once they get off their mama’s milk.”

“Oh my god,” Keith says, burying his face in his hands. “Oh my god, I poisoned them. I had them for like four hours and I poisoned them.”

“You did not poison them,” says Lance. “At the worst they’ll just have really watery poop, which, I’m on poop duty tonight so thanks for that, but it’s seriously fine. No biggie. You did all the right things, dude, with the box and the soft lining and not separating them and stuff. Kudos.”

Keith peeks through his fingers. “And you’ll take them to the shelter?”

“Yup.” Lance hefts the box in his arms, smiling down at the kittens. His nose is pink from the cold. “But you know, you totally owe me one.”

“Okay,” Keith says slowly. “What do you—?”

“I’ll see you ‘round,” says Lance, flashing Keith one last smile, and then he turns away and heads back down the street toward the shelter, whistling a song Keith can’t name.

***

The next day is torture, and not just because four separate people request a frappucino and then get pissed when Keith explains very calmly that Galra Grinds is not a Starbucks. It’s torture because he’s just sitting there, watching the stupid cutesy purple clock, trying not to think about the tiny two-week-old kittens and what they’re doing and if they’re still okay.

(He may or may not have spent a solid forty-five minutes Googling “is dairy bad for cats” last night.)

(It is.)

During the slow hours after the morning rush, Keith comes this close to calling the shelter and asking about the kittens. He actually goes so far as to look up the shelter website and dial the number—and then Lance answers the phone, like, “Hiya! This is the Cat Castle, what can I do ya for?” and Keith slams the phone down so hard it falls off the receiver and dangles. It earns him yet another weird look from Pidge.

He’s aware that he could just go over to the Cat Castle on his break, walk right through the front doors, but something about that seems—complex. Too much. It wouldn’t just be a simple matter of crossing the street, it would be an emotional obstacle course: the idea of going to a strange new place, inserting himself into a new space, dealing with Lance or his coworkers or whoever else is there. Too much.

Keith has always functioned better when left alone. He knows logically that not everyone is like that, but he still can’t quite get it through his head.

So he gets through the rest of the day on autopilot, mixing powders like some kind of bullshit chemist, warming up stale scones, selling 10 cent bagels for $4.50, trying not to look as strung out as he feels.

At 5:01, Lance waltzes through the door.

Keith is half turned away from the counter, squirting two (2) pumps of caramel syrup into a latte, and then the bells jingle and he looks up and. Lance. He’s got this massive blue scarf around his neck, the ends trailing behind him. There are pom-poms on it.

“Hi!” says Lance.

“Kittens,” says Keith, and then mentally slaps himself upside the head and adds, “Uh, how are they, are they good?”

“They’re good,” says Lance. “No diarrhea, which personally I was really happy about. Last night we gave them a bath and a flea wash and started bottle feeding them on a strict schedule, so yeah, they’re great. Thanks for bringing them to me, bro.”

“You’re welcome, bro,” Keith deadpans.

“Anyway. I believe we agreed that you owe me one.”

“Did we?”

“So how about a drink?” says Lance, waggling his eyebrows.

“Fine,” says Keith. “What size?”

Lance gives him a significant look. “No, like, a drink. Like a drink drink.”

“Yeah,” says Keith. “I understand the concept. It’s literally my job. Small, medium, or large?”

Lance seems to deflate. “Medium,” he mumbles. “Um, just a latte.”

“Great.” Keith rings him up and grabs the milk; Pidge is on break, so it’s all him. He’s about to make a regular latte—weak espresso, milk, that’s it—and then he stops.

Sendak isn’t here.

“Hey,” he says to Lance over his shoulder, heart pounding in his ears. “Are you a hardass about your coffee?”

“Uh,” says Lance. “I don’t…think so?”

“Cool.”

Keith gets a new espresso shot brewing, about twice times the ratio of espresso to boiling water that the Galra Grinds employee handbook recommends. While it percolates, that satisfying puttering drip-drip noise, he reaches under the counter and grabs two containers from his bag. 

Cinnamon sticks. Piloncillo.

He heats up the milk, drops in a cinnamon stick and a sliver of piloncillo and lets it sit. Then the espresso’s done and he pours it into a medium cup, letting the smell hit him: deep black coffee, strong enough that he can taste it on the back of his tongue, sweet and earthy. He tosses away the cinnamon stick away and pours the cinnamon and sugar-infused milk into the cup, then the milk foam, then he shakes ground cinnamon over top and swirls the last of the foam, drawing a messy but recognizable bird.

He shoves the latte across the counter at Lance, not meeting his eyes. “Here.”

“Ooh,” says Lance, picking it up, “cool hipster art, that’s neat— oh my god.”

Keith waits, nearly vibrating with tension.

“Oh my god,” says Lance again, and takes another sip. His eyes are huge. “Oh my god? Oh my god. Keith.”

“What,” says Keith.

“This is—okay, did this place switch ownership in the last 24 hours? Did you get bitten by a radioactive barista? Because this is the best latte I’ve ever had. This is orgasmic.”

Keith coughs. “Um.”

“Holy balls,” says Lance around another long sip. “What is in this? Also, follow up question, how do I get fifty gallons of it? If I have to sell my soul to the coffee gods, I’ll do it. Who needs a soul.”

“Cinnamon,” Keith blurts out, mostly just to make Lance shut up. “And piloncillo. It’s like this, this sort of raw sugar—”

Lance flaps a hand at him. “Dude, my dad is Mexican, I know what piloncillo is. I’m gonna ignore you now. This latte requires my full and undivided attention.”

“Oh my god,” says Keith. “You’re so lame.”

Lance flips him off and takes another sip, eyes rolling back in his head. Jesus Christ, Keith thinks a little hysterically, and busies himself with cleaning up all his supplies. With his back turned, he’s finally able to allow himself the tiniest of smiles.

That was the first time he’s ever let someone else try one of his coffees. And they liked it. Really liked it, judging by Lance’s continued happy noises. Keith bites his lip as he brushes up cinnamon and sugar. His heart feels caught in the base of his throat, too big for his ribs.

“Seriously, dude,” says Lance. “This is amazing. Thanks.”

“No problem,” says Keith, “um, anytime,” and maybe that, in the end, is how it really starts.

***

The next day, Lance comes in and proudly informs Keith that the kittens are completely flea and disease free and will get their vaccines at around eight weeks old. The day after that, Lance stops by and spends half an hour detailing each kitten’s eating patterns, how he and his coworker Hunk are slowly incorporating solids into the diet. Every time Lance enters the coffee shop, he brings an update and orders a coffee. And Keith tries to pretend like he hasn’t been waiting for Lance to visit since the second he got to work.

With Pidge, or Shiro, or even Sendak, lurking around the back, he can’t make Lance the drink he wants to—the drink Lance probably deserves for taking the kittens in the first place. He can’t even apologize for the coffee he does give Lance, because even though he know it tastes like shit, Lance still grins and bears it anyway.

It’s almost charming, how terrible a liar he is.

On Wednesday Keith learns that the entire group of five are all female and, like he’d thought, from different litters.

On Thursday he hears that the kittens are starting to walk around more, stand on their own, and Keith forcibly has to bite the inside of his cheek to keep from smiling the rest of his shift.

On Friday it occurs to Keith that eventually Lance might run out of updates to give him, and spends a whole sleepless night brainstorming ways to extend Lance’s visits as long as he can.

He uses the tiny amount of data on his phone to do research on kittens, comes in with memorized lists of questions just to keep the conversation going, just to keep Lance at the counter, chattering happily. He’ll ask about the kitten’s eye color, even though he already knows their eye color will be blue for the first 6-7 weeks.  Or ask about their diet, even though Lance has already walked him through it before.

It’s worth playing dumb when he’s rewarded with the way Lance’s face lights up, over and over again, right before he launches into another explanation. There’s definitely a limit to how many shitty coffees a guy can take, Keith knows.

Playing Cat Catch-Up is the only way to push back the expiration date on this. Whatever this is.   

***

He’s closing up shop on the tail end of another double, another “wake up at 3 a.m., go to bed at 3 a.m.” kind of day. There’s a twitch in Keith’s left eye and a kink in his neck from trying to find the first aid kit buried in the store-room when Pidge cut their finger earlier. He’s a bit irritated. Because it was a long day. Because Lance didn’t stop by for his coffee and cat-chat.

He’s got a bucket full of bleach water and is ready to go to town on the floor at 1:59 a.m. when the door opens. And because it’s 1:59, Keith doesn’t get to yet say we’re closed please get the fuck out.

Praying for patience, he sets the mop aside and turns. “Welcome to Galra Grinds, can I—”

“I need a red eye,” says Lance, and then, “make it a double red eye,” followed by, “actually, you know what, just start brewing the coffee and hook an IV up to it. Just do it. Just fuck me up.”

“That seems a bit extreme,” says Keith, and Lance just huffs like he’s just too tired to really commit to full laughter.

Extreme or not, Lance looks like he really could use the caffeine. The bags under his eyes have bags of their own and Keith, whose hand is already reaching for the lukewarm brew that’s been sitting out for hours, freezes.

“Long day?” he asks, hand changing directions and snatching select ingredients from his bag under the counter.

Lance slumps over the counter, face mashed and mumbling against the Formica. “Buddy, you don’t even know the half of it. We got a call around four a.m. this morning about a hoarding situation outside the city. Seventeen cats. Seventeen. None of them neutered, a lot of them sick and starving. I’ve been transporting them back and forth with Hunk all day, it’s been a nightmare.”

“Aren’t there other shelters that could help?”

“Not no-kill ones. And if we didn’t claim the cats right away, they’d be sent off to the local pound and probably get euthanized by the end of the week.”

“That sucks.”

“Yeah. I’m basically dead, but I’ve got to get to my second volunteer job in just a few hours, so there’s really no point in going to bed and what I really need, like, beyond anything, is a red eye. So until you give it to me I’m just gonna”—he drags his body from the counter to the nearest table to slump all over again—“lie here.”

“You do that.”

Keith darts over to the door and switches the OPEN sign to CLOSED, brow furrowing as he turns and devotes his attentions to finishing the drink. Lance dozes a bit while Keith reheats a fresh pot of coffee, grinds up the mocha and chocolate together, and mixes them in with the piping hot percolated brew into their largest display mug (a hideous bright purple ceramic thing available for a bargain deal of just 25 dollars!). He pours the heavy cream in last, keeping his arm steady as he does. It’s all in the flick of the wrist. Then, he swipes a stir stick from the counter, makes a few quick marks along the surface, and voila.

Lance sits up as Keith approaches, careful not to spill a drop. When Keith sets the mug down in front of him, Lance’s mouth drops open. He looks at the drink. He looks at Keith.

“Dude. I can’t drink this.”

“Oh.” Keith feels a flush steal over his face and immediately wishes the gaping hellmouth of Galra Grinds would just open up already and swallow him whole.

“No, no,” says Lance, again seeing the silent horror of Keith’s expression, “I can’t drink this because it’s so beautiful, what the hell. This belongs in the freaking Louvre.”

“It’s nothing,” Keith mumbles, and is rewarded with an indignant scoff as Lance whips out his phone to take about twenty photos of the of the small cat that Keith had etched into the cream of his latte.

“Keith. You made me a cat out of coffee. I don’t know whether to drink this or call the nearest art gallery.”

“You’re ridiculous.”

“No sir.” Lance shakes his head, “Your coffee is ridiculous. Ridiculously out of this world.”

“Well, drink it, then,” says Keith.

Lance does. His eyes flutter shut and he makes this—noise.

“Oh god,” says Lance, as soon as he’s swallowed. “I owe you my life.”

“Don’t mention it.” Keith retreats back to the mop simply so Lance doesn’t see how red in the face he is. Not that Lance would notice; he’s taking small and rapturous sips of the latte, sighing loudly and making every single second of this godawful double shift worth it in one fell swoop.

By the time Lance is coherent again, Keith has mopped the entire floor and is almost done wiping down the counters. It’s quiet, just like it is every night Keith closes, but it doesn’t feel as lonely now.

Lance breaks the silence. “Can I ask you something?”

“Shoot.”

“I swear I don’t mean to offend you, but like”—Lance holds up his mug—“I’m getting whiplash here. I’ve ordered a coffee every day this week and they’ve all been shit. I order a coffee from you and it’s…it’s heaven. It’s the best sex I’ve ever had. I could write poetry about this coffee.”

“Please do not.”

Lance laughs. “No, but really. Do you have a twin who can’t make decent coffee, or do you just really enjoy keeping me on my toes?”

Keith wrings out the rag in the sink and hangs it to dry. “Well. No evil twin. And I definitely don’t enjoy serving shit coffee.”

“So what’s the dealio?”

“My boss, Sendak? He’s pretty strict about following the Galra Grinds recipe book. Those coffees, the one I gave you tonight and the one after the kittens…those weren’t from the recipe book. They’re my own drinks. I kind of, I dunno, experiment from time to time, when Sendak isn’t around. Can’t serve them often, not when I would risk getting caught and fired.”

“They’d fire you for making your own drinks? Even if they’re good? You’re shitting me.”

“I shit you not. Welcome to the deepest circle of hell: corporate coffee shops.”

Lance lapses back into silence again, finishing the rest of his drink as Keith wraps up closing. When he swings his bag onto his shoulder, Lance is standing at the counter again.

“I’m not making you another coffee, if that’s what you’re about to ask for,” says Keith flatly. “I put enough espresso in that drink to resurrect a corpse.”

“Give me your phone.”

“What? Why?”

“So the next time your boss is out, you can text me, and I can get the goods.”

Keith stares at him. “…You mean the coffee?”

“I mean the goods.” Lance says, winking. “I don’t plan to suffer through another Galra Grinds drink. Ever. Now hand me your phone.”

After a second, Keith fishes his crappy android phone out of his pocket and hands it over, and then Lance begins entering his contact, looking giddy. “Oh my god, this is gonna be so fun,” he says. “We should have secret code! Like whenever Sendak leaves, you can text me ‘THE EAGLE HAS LEFT THE NEST’ or something.”

“Or I could just text you ‘Sendak is gone.’”

Lance gives him an unimpressed look and hands the phone back. The contact reads “LANCE!!!” with a weird cat emoji thing. It’s easily the most festive out of all twelve contacts in Keith’s phone.

“Were the three exclamation points really necessary?”

“You really don’t enjoy fun, do you?”

“What’s ‘fun’?” Keith says, and Lance grins again.

“Never mind. Too advanced for you. We’ll work up to it.” He looks at Keith expectantly, and when Keith stares back, he says, “Well? Text me! So I have your number in my phone!”

“Oh. Right.” Keith sends a perfunctory This is Keith, and Lance immediately replies with roughly eight thousand emojis: coffee cups, rocket ships, knives, poop.

“I am so going to regret this,” Keith groans, and doesn’t mean it one bit.

***

It’s not until he collapses onto his mattress at home that Keith realizes he had an entire conversation with Lance, and didn’t have to bring up the kittens even once.

***

It’s 10 a.m. on his day off, aka the one day Keith doesn’t have to be awake before sunrise, when he’s woken by the sound of his phone buzzing.

And buzzing.

And buzzing.

And buzzing some more.

He shoves his phone under his pillow. It buzzes.

He throws his phone across the room. It buzzes.

“God, shut up,” Keith mutters, rolling over and stuffing his head under the pillow. With the speed and frequency his phone is buzzing at, the coffee shop better be burning to the ground right now. Even if it is, Keith doesn’t care because Keith’s not working today.

Buzz. Buzz. Buzz.

Seven hours of sleep isn’t nearly enough.

Buzz.

Eleven. Eleven hours sounds like a much nicer number.

The small and anxious suggestion that maybe Shiro’s having a bad day or Pidge got caught starts to needle at him, enough that he’s not going to be heading back to sleep any time soon. He drags his ass out of bed and stomps across the floor, snatching up his phone.

27 New Messages

What the fuck.

He unlocks his screen, almost afraid of what’s waiting for him. Maybe the shop really did burn down.

Then he sees the telltale cat emoji.

(If his lips quirk a little, well, no one’s around to witness it.)

The first text from Lance is a perfunctory, been working all night, just hit the am. could sure use some coffee about now ;), sent around nine.

Followed by:   

 

LANCE!!! (^=˃ᆺ˂)
no but actually when are u coming in to work?? i have NEEDS

the Kittens are awake!! theyre meowing!!!

i will trade u kitten pics for coffee

ok look at it this way. i have something you want. this is a RANSOM. hand over the coffee and the kitten pics won’t get hurt. i’ll wait 

LANCE!!! (^=˃ᆺ˂)
.....ok i lied i can’t wait. LOOK HOW CUUUUUUUUUUTE :D :D :D

 

Which is followed by eight photos, all just slightly different angles of the kittens curled up in bed.

Which then devolves into individual shots of each kitten. The kittens yawning, the kittens eating, the kittens getting another bath. The kittens getting their temperature checked. Their weight gain measured. With each of the twenty-seven messages the photos morph from pictures of kittens to—Keith notices with a helpless flutter in his stomach— pictures of kittens featuring Lance. First the corner of one bright blue eye, of long lashes, as Lance holds a kitten up to the camera phone. Then his whole face, his freckles and his mouth, as he presses a kiss to one kitten’s paw, followed by his dark hair as he takes a selfie with the small Russian blue sitting on top of his head.

Keith gets to the final picture:  Lance doing some sort of bizarre, ridiculous ducking pose into the crook of his elbow, his arms angled up in the air, a kitten in each hand. His message says, hunk took this one.  Keith actually has to put his phone down and put his head between his knees so he can get a grip and pretend like he hasn’t been outright grinning for the past five minutes.

Lance is so stupid. Lance is so silly.

Lance is so fucking cute.  

Keith means to delete all the messages from his phone. He ends up saving them all to a separate folder in his photos instead. After staring at each one of them for about ten more minutes.

It takes him two hours to muster up the theoretical nutsack to text back. It takes him another forty-five minute to come up with this stunning response:

 

Keith
Exactly what are you doing in that last photo?

 

He forces himself to put the phone down and distract himself with a chore. Keith is many things, but he is not the sucker who sits by the phone waiting for a boy to text back. There are rules.

That doesn’t mean he doesn’t bolt back to the room when he hears his phone buzz two minutes later all the way from the kitchen.

 

LANCE!!! (^=˃ᆺ˂)
it’s called dabbing! you know, the internet meme thing?

i knEW that would get ur attention. do i get coffee for creativity??? :D :D

Keith
You get an A for asshole. Put those poor things down and get back to work.

 

Lance responds with a three poop emojis, which effectively puts the conversation to an end. For now. And hopefully puts those kittens in a place that’s not dangling in the air.

As it is, Keith stays in bed for way longer than he should. Stares at the photos a few dozen times. Uses the last of his measly phone data to Google what is dabbing. Bites the inside of his cheek to keep from smiling all over again.

*** 

By the end of his day off, Keith’s got about another twenty or so photos of kittens and Lance saved in his phone. He hasn’t replied often; mostly it’s been Lance double- and triple-texting in intervals. If he’s bothered by Keith’s lack of response, he doesn’t show it. Keith goes about his day: actually does some laundry, actually takes out the trash, actually goes to the store and buys some groceries, a few extra ingredients for his private coffee stash. But even with distractions, it takes great effort to pretend that every buzz of his phone going off doesn’t send an immediate thrill through him.

When he goes to sleep early that night in preparation for the 5 a.m. opening, he thinks that maybe he’ll text Lance tomorrow, offer to make him another drink. 

***

As much as Keith wants to text Lance, as much as he’s actually dying to receive more pictures and updates of the kittens, he resists. Forces himself to go through opening and morning rush without once taking out his phone. Maybe just to prove that he can. That he hasn’t reached defcon 1 levels of pathetic.

Despite Keith’s radio silence, Lance keeps texting him all throughout the morning rush, to the point where the texts feel less like updates and more like a constant stream of chatter. Aka, very similar to the average real life conversation with Lance.

“Yo, Kogane, what’s got you so smiley this morning?” Pidge asks after Keith gets one of a series of photos delicately called Dabbing with the Cats.

“No one,” Keith blurts, then, backtracking. “I mean, nothing. Thought of a meme.”

Pidge narrows their eyes. “You don’t even know what a meme is.”

“Do too,” snaps Keith, feeling petulant and cornered.

They face off for a moment, then Pidge rolls their eyes and holds out their hand. “Whatever, I’ve gotta do a software update for you on this hunk of garbage anyhow, since you refuse to buy something better. So whatever secret porn you’ve got stashed in here, I’m gonna find it.”

“I wasn’t looking at porn.”

“Uh-huh, sure,” says Pidge, typing something into Keith’s phone.

“Pidge…”

“Fine, fine, you’re not looking at porn. But your phone says you’ve used up almost all of whatever small amount of storage you have to begin with, so I gotta go through and—”

“Please—”

“Delete some of these photos—”

“Pidge, I will actually kill you—”

No response. Pidge is staring down at the phone. Wordlessly, they hold it up for Keith to see. Plastered across the screen is the entire folder of photos from Lance, kittens and all. There has to be well over fifty of them by now.

“I can explain,” says Keith, even though he’s not really sure he can.

Pidge grins mischievously. “You fucking furry. I knew it.”

“I CAN EXPLAIN.” Or, alternately, he could die. Explanations are not needed if Keith just walks into the nearest four-way intersection because that might actually be easier than explaining his secret shame folder of pictures sent from the boy who works at the cat shelter.

“What’s up, guys?” Shiro walks in from the back, drying his hands on his apron as he begins his shift. He glances over Pidge’s shoulder. “Whoa. That’s a lot of cats. Thinking of adopting, Keith?”

Pidge cackles and goes to help another customer, allowing Keith to snatch his phone back, traumatized.

Out of sheer spite, and to prove that he does have an ounce of self control, thank you very much, Keith holds off texting Lance until the middle of the afternoon. Even then, he’s sneaky about it. He makes sure Pidge is busy restocking the food display case before he pulls out his phone.

 

Keith
All right, you win. Sendak isn’t here. Stop by whenever you want & I’ll make you a drink.

LANCE!!! (^=˃ᆺ˂)
FASLDKFJAS;LDFKJASDLFKJAS;DLFKAS

 

Keith hides his smirk, tucks his phone away, and waits, eyes locked on the building across the street.

About ten seconds go by before the door of the shelter bursts open. Birds gathered on the sidewalk take off in light of Lance sprinting across the street, arms akimbo, legs a blur. The idiot narrowly misses getting hit by a fucking bus.

“Jesus Christ,” Keith mutters without meaning to, making Pidge look up. They follow Keith’s gaze, and their eyes narrow. 

Goddammit.

“Friend of yours?” says Pidge innocently.

“I don’t know him,” says Keith, even though it’s very clear as Lance explodes into the coffee shop and makes a beeline straight for Keith that he does.

Pidge just snickers. Little shit.

“You know, I was beginning to lose all hope of ever tasting your quality caffeine ever again,” says Lance, panting a little. “It was dark times. I had to use the staff coffee maker in lieu of yours. Horrifying.”

“I’m sorry for your suffering, you brave, brave soul,” says Keith. “What’ll it be?”

Lance smirks, eyes glittering. “Surprise me.”

Keith’s got a butterscotch latte ready in two minutes flat—no pumps or syrups, fresh butterscotch that he’s had on hold since he made it this morning. He’s hyperaware of Pidge’s suspicious eyes on them the whole time, but can’t do anything but act the picture of casual as he hands Lance the drink.

“First of all: this is amazing,” says Lance after a measured sip, “Second of all: I need three for my coworkers.”

“You are aware we have an entire menu of other drinks, yes?”

“Don’t insult my intelligence by assuming I would dare stoop to order that battery acid sludge.”

“All right then. Say I make you three more. What do I get in return?”

Lance opens his mouth around a smartass retort. Then smiles slyly. “I’ll take you to see the kittens.”

Keith raises a dubious eyebrow. “What makes you think I want to see the kittens?”

“I know a cat person when I see one, and you, my dude, fit the bill.”

Was that a compliment or an insult? Keith stares at him.

Rolling his eyes, Lance says, “I can’t believe I have to actually convince you to go visit baby cats. You act like it's torture.”

“I’m working,” Keith protests.

“No, you’re not,” says Pidge. “You’re overdue for a lunch break. May as well take it.” They sidle up alongside Keith, holding out their tiny hand to shake Lance’s. “Pidge Gunderson. You must be the guy whose photos are taking up most of the storage on my pal Keith’s phone.”

Oh, for fuck’s sake.

“You saved the photos?” Lance looks positively gleeful. Keith, meanwhile, wants to put his head through a wall.

“Point made,” he snaps. “I’ll go see the kittens, just let me finish.”

He whips up the rest of the butterscotch lattes, eager to get Lance away from Pidge as fast as humanely possible. Already it feels like a relationship that is bound to only spell trouble for Keith as a whole, even if all they’re talking about right now is Lance’s job at the shelter.

Three drinks and one punch out later, he’s dragging Lance out the door by the hood of his jacket, marching him away from Pidge’s all-too-knowing looks.

***

Having never been to an animal shelter in his life, Keith wasn’t really sure what to expect from the Cat Castle. The building is actually a lot more cramped than it looks from the outside. There’s a small counter at the front when you first walk in, not unlike Galra Grinds. Lance leads Keith, drinks in tow, behind the counter and in the back, which leads them to a much larger room, filled with rows and rows of kennels. It smells both sterile and homey all at once, like cat piss and cleaning fluids and vanilla air freshener. Keith wrinkles his nose just a bit.

“You get used to it,” Lance says, catching his expression.

At the sound of his voice, the entire room starts meowing, a growing cacophony that sounds a bit like the part of a horror movie soundtrack where Satan comes bursting out to slaughter everyone. Jesus.

Laughing, Lance forges a path between one of the aisles of cages, Keith trailing uncertainly behind. Cats of all ages, and size, and color. Some napping, a few hissing. He wonders how many of the strays he’s ever fed have ended up here. How many still don’t have homes.

There’s a brief pause as Lance fishes a ring of keys out of his pocket, and then he’s opening another door to another room with kennels. This one, however, is much smaller, and quieter. And instead of cats in cages, there are kittens in a small pen built in the center of the room.

“Here, I’ll take these.” Lance lifts the cardboard tray of drinks off Keith’s hands, “And you,” he jerks his head towards the other side of the room, “take the girls. Just wash your hands real quick. They’re still pretty young, fragile immune systems and all.”

Keith nods, a bit shocked that Lance trusts him enough to leave him alone with kittens. He is, after all, the dumbass who fed them cream. But then Lance pushes back out the door, and it’s just Keith and the kittens.

Well. Here goes nothing.

He washes his hands thoroughly and walks over to the pen. It’s large enough that all he has to do is climb over it and plop himself down onto the blankets and there would still be plenty of room. For now, he leans over the edge, and nearly jumps back at the five little fluff balls that come waddling over to him.  

It’s been a little over a week and they’ve already grown so much. How the fuck. In a brief moment of panic Keith considers almost leaving, but then one of the kittens—a very dark orange color, stretches its paw out between the bars of the pen to bat at Keith’s boot, releasing of a sound that’s more of a peep than a meow.

“Okay, okay, I’m coming,” says Keith in a rush, and he does. Sits right down in that pen and allows all five kittens to converge on him.

“Bet you didn’t miss me, did you?” Keith asks, dangling his fingers in front of the black one, who flops over, belly up, to try and gnaw on them. “Yeah. You’re probably better off here.”

He glances down as the runt, a tabby, stumbles around, a bit wobbly on its feet. The others follow it. There’s no helping the urge. He lifts all of them, one by one, and cradles them in his arms, and fuck, they don’t even resist, really. They all nestle against Keith’s chest like it’s the chillest thing in the world. Oh. This is our new home now? Sounds great. Their tails are skinny; their eyes are blue and just barely peeping open. They don’t even have teeth.

All of them are so tiny that they fit in his arms no problem, all squirmy and wobbly and completely helpless, mewing softly against his t-shirt. Keith doesn’t know who tied these kittens in a pillowcase and left them in a dumpster, but he hates them.

“Hey girls,” Keith whispers. “Hey. Shh. It’s alright. You’re alright. Promise.” He reaches tentatively and runs a few fingers over the black and the tabby, the Russian blue. They nudge into the contact, their little voices cracking from the effort of mewing.

He’s so focused on doling out an equal amount of affection to each kitten that he barely notices the door open. When he looks up, it’s not due to any noise made on Lance’s part, rather the sense that he’s being watched. And he is.

Back pressed to the door, sans jacket, Lance is just looking at him. Inexplicably, Keith gets the sense that he’s been caught with his hand in the metaphorical cookie jar.

“And you said you didn’t want to see them,” Lance says, smiling to himself and pushing off the wall. “Scoot over. And hand me at least two of the babies.”

“Here.” Keith scoots over, allowing Lance sits crosslegged beside him, their knees bumping, “You can have Blue. And Black.” 

“Please tell me those are placeholder names.”

“For what? This one’s Black,” Keith explains, as he hands Lance the small black kitten, “And this,” he lifts the dark grey one, “is Blue. Because she’s a—”

“Russian blue, I get it.” Lance groans. “Can’t we name them something less…generic?”

Keith gives him a Look. Lance sighs. “Guess not, then. What have you named the others?”

“This one’s Red. Haven’t figured out the other two, because they’ve got mixed colors. Maybe when their eye color comes in I’ll be inspired.”

“Out of every name in the English language. You could have chosen Lady Gaga, Elvis, Beyoncé, and instead you go with red, black and blue?”

“Yes.”

“Unreal. This debate is not over,” Lance promises, before turning to the kittens in his arms, cooing incoherent baby talk as he does so. “Did the nasty barista give you bad names? Yes he did! Yes he did.”

Keith is watching Lance watch the kittens, attentive to their every noise and movement, when the door opens again.

A big dude with hulking shoulders ambles in, clutching one of the butterscotch lattes. His eyes widen when he sees Keith. “You. Did you make this drink?”

“Uh.” Keith looks uncertainly at the guy. “Yes?”

“Okay. This is going to sound crazy, but just hear me out. I’m Hunk. And I’d like to ask you for your hand in marriage.”

“Hands off, dude!” says Lance. “I found him first. If he’s gonna make drinks for anyone, it’s gonna be. He owes me.”

“Exactly how many drinks do I owe you until the kitten debt is paid?” Keith asks, raising an eyebrow.

Lance pretends to think about it. “At least fifty thousand. So maybe when I turn…100? We’ll call it even?”

“Screw you, Lance, he’s mine,” Hunk cuts in, raising his drink at Keith. “But seriously. This is amazing. And if I can’t marry the barista, then I will marry this latte.”

Behind him, a man with a bright red handlebar mustache pokes his head over Hunk’s shoulder. “Ah!” he says, and he’s got some sort of accent, Australian maybe. “You must be the chap who makes the coffee. Brilliant stuff!”

Keith rounds on Lance, mortified. “Did you tell the entire staff about me?”

“Please, he hasn’t shut up about you for literal weeks,” Hunk cuts in, leaning against the wall. “Dr. Coran and I thought he’d lost his mind. I mean, we’ve all been to Galra Grinds, we all know it’s overpriced garbage, but Lance wouldn’t stop going on and on about the magic barista.”

“Weeks?” Keith asks Lance, raising his eyebrows.

“I’ve mentioned you once or twice in passing,” says Lance, focusing on the kittens. “Sue me! Your drinks are good!”

“Is Lance hiding him in here, then?” The room reaches what is probably maximum capacity as a striking woman enters, also clutching a latte.  “Thought so. I don’t know how to say this lightly, Keith, but you have saved lives with these today.”

She’s wearing a shirt that says “I Was Normal Three Cats Ago” and the commanding presence of her is charming as it is terrifying. This must be Allura—no wonder Shiro’s totally cowed by her.

“Uh. Thanks,” Keith mumbles, “It’s nothing, really.”

“Keith. I would pay you double the price if you made us this type of coffee every day,” says Allura, “And I have no money whatsoever to afford such a luxury. Don’t sell yourself short.”

“You’re the Mozart of coffee!” chirps Coran.

“This is nirvana in a cup,” Hunk adds.

“No, no. It’s just,” Keith scratches the back of his neck, voice feeble, “something I do in my spare time.”

“Well, you should do it full time. If the general public around these parts had access to coffee this good, Garbage Grinds over there would be out of business in seconds. No offense.” Hunk takes another drink. “God. I was starting to think Lance was losing his mind, but nope. I’m in love with this coffee. I want to buy this coffee dinner and treat it right.”

The others are all nodding in agreement and sipping happily, the warmth of their praise drifting in the air like dust, settling on Keith’s skin. Keith, unsure of what to say to that, or how to feel, focuses back on the kittens. He puts the tabby and the cream-colored one back on the blankets; they’re squirming too much to stay in his arms. Meanwhile, the one with fur the color of rust, reddish-brown and velvet soft, is still nestled up in the crook of Keith’s elbow, chin resting on his forearm, nose whistling slightly as it sleeps. Slowly, so as not to wake it, Keith runs his fingers over its back, the ridges of its tiny spine.

Truthfully, in the deepest darkest corners of his mind, Keith has thought about doing his own coffee full time. He knows he’s pretty decent at it. But what future is there in that? Galra Grinds has the scholarship that will get him through law school, and Keith will go back to law school. He’s going to be a lawyer. He enjoys making fun coffee, sure, but in the same way that old ladies like knitting, or kids collect model trains. It’s a hobby. Nothing more.

Besides, Keith is all too familiar with what happens when he tries to be competent and self-sufficient on his own terms:  a mental breakdown and tens of thousands of dollars of student debt. He doesn’t need a repeat scenario, not when he hasn’t even recovered from the first time.

“Aw, I think Red likes you,” Lance says softly, parting the clouds in Keith’s mind. He hadn’t even realized that he’d lifted Red closer to his face, just to scratch gently at the spot behind her ears.

“Uh.” Keith puts Red back down on the blankets, “Yeah. I guess.”

That weird cookie jar feeling is back, twisting up his insides. It’s so stupid, it really is, that Keith can’t just sit here and pet a kitten without getting existential about it. He’s been here too long, in this warm room, holding soft things and hearing kind words. His reality—across the street, behind the counter, following the rules—is waiting.

Break time is almost up.

“I should head back to work,” Keith says abruptly.

“Aw, so soon?” says Hunk.

“Yeah. Sorry.” Keith gives Red to Lance and clambers back out of the pen. “It was nice to meet all of you, enjoy the coffee.”

“Come back any time, Keith!” says Allura, “Especially if you happen to have any extra coffee with you. You’re welcome to visit the kittens whenever. Lance told us all about how you rescued them from a dumpster.”

“And I still want your hand in marriage!” Hunk shouts as Keith retreats. “Save the date!”

“Bye, Keith,” Lance says, unable to wave because he is now holding all five kittens in his arms. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”

Because that’s what this has become, by now. Not a “see you around.” Or a “see you when I see you.” It’s a see you tomorrow, Lance’s fixture in his life.

Keith doesn’t know how he feels about that. Only that he really, really needs to back to the coffee shop.

“Later,” says Keith, and practically dashes out of the shelter and across the street to clock in early.

He burns another pot of coffee and has to clean up a spectacular amount of vomit as the Seasonal College Plague claims its first victim. He’s certifiably miserable and sporting a low-grade headache by the end of the shift. But it feels like things are back to normal, like he’s standing on solid and familiar ground, so he takes it. 

***

Somehow, it becomes a Thing for Lance to burst into the coffee shop, drape himself pitifully across the counter, and wail, “I NEED ESPRESSO.”

And it becomes a Thing for Keith to say, “No. It’s two p.m. and you’ve had three espresso shots. You are cut off.”

Today, Lance really goes full force with the puppy dog eyes. “Please,” he says, pouting up at Keith. “Please, I’m dying. I need your magic bean powers.”

“You can have tea. Or a decaf latte. Or a plain café au lait.”

Decaf?” Lance hisses, recoiling like a vampire in sunlight. “The audacity—”

“Go away.”

“One espresso shot. I’ll let you pet the kittens for a solid hour.”

“You would let me do that anyway,” says Keith.

“Not after this betrayal!”

Keith rolls his eyes. “Have you ever considered not being a diva? Like, for two seconds?”

“I don’t know, have you ever considered not being a party pooper? Like, for two seconds?”

“I am not,” says Keith with great dignity, “a party pooper.”

“You so are,” says Lance. “You’re also a parade-rainer and a wet blanket and my mortal enemy.

“You can have a café au lait. Final offer.”

“I’ll take it, I’ll take it!” Lance yelps, and scrambles for his wallet.

So it’s a Thing.

One Tuesday, when this has been going on for a few weeks, Lance walks across the street and into the coffee shop like he just shit his pants. Keith watches him goose-step through the door, feeling increasingly weirded out, and finally just says, “Why.”

“Shhh!” Lance glances around furtively at the other customers—some frat bros shooting the shit and a girl with medical textbooks and an air of general insanity—and at Pidge, and then steps up to the counter.

And pulls a fucking kitten out of his jacket.

“What the fuck,” Keith hisses, lurching forward over the counter to, what, hide the kitten with his hands? “Lance, what the fuck, you’re gonna get me fired!”

“Sendak isn’t here,” says Lance. “I made sure.”

“Yeah, but—”

“Keith,” Lance breaks in. “I hear what you’re saying, but also, look at her tiny little face.”

He holds the kitten up in front of Keith’s nose like Simba. It’s Blue, her fur downy-soft and clean-smelling. She gives Keith a slow blink.

“Well,” he says, “well, if Sendak comes in I’m gonna say I have no idea who you are.”

“Yup,” says Lance, clearly not paying attention. “Look at the tiny widdle face.”

Keith looks at the tiny widdle face.

It’s—yeah, it’s pretty damn cute.

That’s about when Pidge pops up behind him and says, “Can I hold her?”

“Sanitize first,” says Keith automatically.

“Here,” says Lance when Pidge is all cleaned up, passing Blue across the counter to them. “Just make sure to be careful, she’s really young—support her butt with one hand—yup, there you go. Also, this is weird, but you’re not like related to the other barista, are you? Because I swear to God you guys look really alike.”

“Matt’s my brother,” says Pidge, their face buried in Blue’s fur. “I fill in for him sometimes.”

“Fill in for him?”

“Have you ever seen the movie She’s the Man?”

Lance nods.

“It’s like that,” says Pidge. “I’m She’s the Man- ing right now. Matt is an astrophysics major and I come in whenever he’s too stressed to take his shifts. He would just cut down on hours, but then the Evil Overlord would fire his ass.”

“I see,” says Lance sagely. “Cool. Cool cool cool. You know, the more I hear about Sendak the more I want to stage a revolt.”

“Galra Grinds is the Starbucks of the West Coast,” says Keith. “They’re worth almost 600 million. Have fun.”

“They actually passed 600 million last month,” says Pidge. “Steady rate of growth. Don’t sell your shares yet.”

Lance just snorts, but Keith gives Pidge a look. “Do you— own shares? In Galra Grinds?”

“Obviously,” says Pidge, pushing their glasses up their nose. “I want to actually make money off this place.”

“No offense,” says Lance, “but aren’t you like thirteen?”

“Fourteen, small for my age, very good at slipping through certain legal loopholes. Gimme an iPhone and ten minutes and I’ll get you into the CIA. For example.”

“Jesus,” says Lance.

“Cool,” says Keith.

“Is that a kitten?” says the girl with the medical textbooks. She’s leaning way over her table to look at the counter with huge eyes. Her hair looks like maybe she’s been grabbing at it; the bags under her eyes rival Keith’s own.

Lance glances over at her and a grin curls across his mouth like unwinding ribbon. “Sure thing. Wanna meet her?”

And just like that it turns into a shop-wide lovefest. The girl coos over Blue for a solid five minutes, some of the light coming back into her tired eyes, and then even the frat bros take notice and come over to exclaim, in true frat bro style, about how Blue is hella fucking cute, dude, goddamn. Lance grabs some hand sanitizer from behind the counter and makes everyone clean their hands before they touch Blue, and then everyone takes turns petting her, holding her, and she pushes her tiny face into their chests like she’s chasing their heartbeats.

“Thank you,” the girl says after she finally begs off to go back to her homework. “Seriously, I’m pre-med and I have an exam this week and today was awful but this was like, literally better than therapy.”

“Blue the therapy cat,” says Lance, grinning, and the girl laughs. Lance’s eyes follow her when she goes to sit back down.

“How long are you on break?” says Keith, and Lance returns the full force of his attention back on him; it’s a little like swallowing whiskey or stepping into a patch of sunlight, that sort of full-body warmth.

Lance looks at the purple clock. “Oh shit. Uh, until like three minutes ago. I should get going before Allura kicks my ass. Just wanted to let Blue say hi.”

“Hi,” Keith says to Blue. “Bye.”

She wriggles a little, wrapped up in Lance’s jacket again, and Keith hides his smile behind his hand.

***

Lance starts bringing the kittens around more often, once the remaining two’s eye color settles, after Keith and Lance spend a solid hour arguing about Keith’s chosen names (or rather, Lance whines for a solid hour, and Keith ignores him). Usually just one at a time—although once he manages to stuff both Blue and Yellow into his jacket—and only when Keith confirms that Sendak is out. But whenever he brings them, the customers go nuts. There’s something about kittens that literally no one can resist, and maybe also something about Lance. He just sort of exudes the aura of someone easy to talk to, a stranger you can approach in a coffee shop to ask, “Hi, sorry, but can I pet your kitten?”

He looks like someone who will smile and say, “Dude, of course!”

And he is. He does. Keith watches it happen with college kids, professors, pre-med students and art students and who-knows students, once even a football player guy who looked like he could probably bench-press two of Lance no problem but held Yellow so, so carefully in his massive hands. Moms, dads, men in expensive suits who take a break from snapping into their Bluetooths to look longingly at the kittens, if only for a moment. The entire range of Galra Grinds clientele. Kitten lovers, all of ‘em.

One day there’s a little girl in the shop, maybe four or five years old, trailing after her mom and drinking a hot chocolate that Keith wished tasted good. When she sees the kittens, her eyes go huge.

“Mommy,” she says, “Mommy, look,” and then she’s dragging her mom over toward Lance, who’s standing at his usual spot at the counter. A few feet away, the girl stops and just stares at Green, the kitten du jour, like she’s afraid to come closer.

“Hi there!” says Lance, giving her a smile and a wave. “Her name is Green. Do you wanna say hi to her?”

The little girl nods. Lance glances at her mom, who says, “Go for it,” and then he crouches down at eye level with the girl. Keith finds himself leaning over the counter so he can still see what Lance is doing.

“Here,” says Lance. “She’s super sweet. You can pet her if you want.”

He looks up at Keith, who wordlessly passes him the hand sanitizer.

The little girl cleans her hands.

Slowly, she reaches out to pat Green’s head.

“Oh,” she says, her eyes growing even wider. “She’s so soft.”

“She is,” says Lance solemnly. “It’s ‘cause she’s still a baby and she doesn’t have her grownup fur yet. You know, I bet she’d love it if you scratched behind her ears.”

The little girl scratches behind Green’s ears. Green mews a little, nudging into the touch, and the girl actually gasps.

Later, after the little girl ( Jasmine, I’m four and three quarters years old, I turn five soooo soon ) has asked approximately eight thousand questions about kittens and kitten care and mama cats and the cat shelter, and Lance has answered all of them sincerely, taking time to think about his answers before he speaks, and Jasmine’s mom finally pulled her away with promises to come back sometime, and most of the other customers have finished their shitty coffees and filed out—

Later, Keith says to Lance, “You’re, uh. You’re good with kids.”

“Oh,” says Lance, “I dunno, I mean, I just love kids. I’ve got three little sisters—well, little as in younger, I guess Elena is sixteen now, weird—and I grew up babysitting them. Plus I nanny sometimes.”

“You nanny?”

“Sure.” He takes a long sip of his salted caramel latte, eyes fluttering shut. “Jesus, Keith, you’re magic. But yeah, just as a side job. I dunno. I like keeping busy, it helps me not get homesick.”

Keith nods. He’s not sure what to say to that, honestly. “What else do you do?”

“Shelter, nannying,” says Lance, ticking them off on his fingers, “um, I chill at this nursing home sometimes and help out there, like, just talking to the old people. I talk way too much anyway, might as well put it to good use, you know?” He laughs self-deprecatingly. “Sometimes I do kid’s parties? I play singalong songs on the guitar. But that’s like once in a blue moon.”

Of course he plays the guitar.

“So yeah,” Lance continues, scratching the back of his head. He seems uncharacteristically self-conscious, Keith notices, almost sheepish. “That’s me. I’m from a huge family, I like people, I like kids. How about you?”

“How about me what?”

“I don’t know. I could tell you thought Jasmine was adorable, which she was.

“I don’t really,” Keith starts, and then stops. “Kids are fine. I don’t—I just know what it looks like when someone is good with them. Or not. Are you done with that?”

Lance blinks and looks down at his empty coffee mug. “Oh. I guess so?”

“Cool.” Keith takes it and dumps it in the dirty dishes bin, trying to get ahold of himself. Calm down, dumbass. He doesn’t even really know what has him so on edge—talking about kids? About families? Whatever it is, he feels suddenly too big for his skin, like a jittery kind of something that wants to crawl out of his body and go howling into the dark parts of the city, the parts he’s only seen past 4 a.m. on his motorbike when he keeps one foot hard on the gas and leans way over the handlebars and lets the world blur. A kind of something that isn’t meant for quiet, claustrophobic, obsessively organized coffee shops.

His hands want suddenly to grab Lance’s empty mug and drop it on the floor and watch it shatter.

He does not listen to his hands.

“Keith?”

He turns around. “Yeah, what?”

“You okay?” says Lance, and Keith realizes that both Lance and Pidge are looking at him.

“Yeah,” he says. “Just got distracted.”

***

Mondays are the fucking worst.

Mondays have always been the fucking worst, because the strung out college kids who have either been a) partying, or b) studying all weekend need their caffeine more than ever. Mondays have always been the fucking worst, but this particular Monday is the actual fucking worst.

At some point yesterday, Pidge showed up to work with a hundred degree fever, so bad they were shivering at the register. It was very clear, despite protests, that they were the newest victim of the Plague, so Shiro sent them home. Matt had an exam to cram for, so he couldn’t come in either.

Keith, who was on a double, offered to open the next morning in Pidge’s stead. Too tired to get on Scarlet and drive home, he’d just crashed in the storeroom for a fitful and uncomfortable nap. Shiro was on the schedule too, so Keith would only need to be alert half the day anyhow.

But then Shiro showed up with shaking hands and dilated pupils and phantom pain that had him sweating and gritting his teeth even before they opened the doors. So Keith put his foot down and sent Shiro home in an Uber with the promises not to return until he truly was feeling better.

“I got this,” he’d told Shiro, like an idiot. “Go home. Rest. I’ll be fine.”

That was hours ago.

Now, it’s the middle of the morning and Galra Grinds is still packed, and it’s Keith and Keith alone, ringing up drinks and trying to make the best of the situation. The line of customers goes out the door, because Keith can only do so much. He’s been on his feet since four a.m., didn’t eat breakfast, and is quite possibly coming down with the Plague. He called Sendak to ask for backup, and Sendak didn’t even fucking answer.

Now, he’s been cussed out by two customers for fucking up their coffee orders and has had to remake over a dozen drinks. Now, every part of him seems to ache with stress, eyes stinging with exhaustion. The notion of going through another 12+ hours of this makes him actually want to cry.

It’s not until Lance comes bursting in, humming Ariana Grande, that Keith really snaps.

“Yoooo! Where is my coffee!” says Lance, clapping his hands. “We,” clap, “Are,” clap, “On,” clap, “A”, clap, “Deadli—are you alright?”

It’s telling that Lance noticed something’s wrong without Keith having to say a word, especially when Lance has a one-track mind in regards to his coffee. Keith must look awful.

“That’ll be four-fifty,” he says pointedly to the most recent customer, handing over a large iced coffee and moving on to the next. “Welcome to Galra Grinds, how can I help you?”

And then Lance hops over the counter and says, “What can I do to help?”

“Go away,” Keith snaps, swiping the customer’s credit card and handing it over with the receipt as he goes to grab coffee for the next order. “I’ve got a whole line of customers and I don’t need—”

Before he can get another word out, Lance has snagged one of the spare purple aprons from under the counter and is tying it behind his back.

Keith glares. “What the hell are you doing?”

“I’m helping you,” says Lance. “Duh. You’re swamped. I may know shit all about making coffee but I do know how to ring up an order and use a register. C’mon, let’s kick some ass.”

“You don’t work here,” says Keith, doling out another coffee, “If Sendak walks in—”

“He hasn’t yet. He won’t now,” says Lance, and then, to the next customer, “Hi, welcome to Galra Grinds, what can I get you?”

Well meaning though Lance may be, Keith feels everything in him pull tighter. He wants to strangle Lance. He wants to scream. He wants to collapse. He wants to sleep for ten years.

He wants, but for now he just stands there, like the slightest movement will send him rattling apart.

Again, Lance notices without Keith having to say a word.

“One sec,” Lance tells the customer. “We’re going to go grab some more roast from the back. Keith?”

Keith doesn’t have to be told twice. He stalks back to the store-room, fuming for reasons he can’t even explain. He doesn’t want Lance to see this. He doesn’t want Lance to see his unwashed hair or hollowed out face. He doesn’t want Lance to care enough to ask, or to try and help. He doesn’t want Lance to see any of this.

Like a big cat in a small cage, he paces back in forth in the store-room, knowing he really should be grabbing another bag of coffee mix, but kicking at a box of lids instead, feeling little satisfaction when the lids scatter and roll about on the floor.

He’d already forgotten that Lance is behind him.

“Keith, buddy, what’s wrong?”

He sounds so worried. Fucking hell.

“Everything,” Keith snaps, whirling on Lance, fisting a hand in his hair, “Shiro had a rough day and went home. Matt is at the lab. Pidge is sick and I think I’m getting it too. But there’s no one else to work this shift because Galra Grinds is the worst and Sendak never shows up so I didn’t even go home last night, because I knew they wouldn’t be here to open. I just took a nap on the fucking coffee bean sacks and opened. I’ve been awake since 4 a.m. and I haven’t eaten anything and I work all the fucking time but it’s not even worth the minimum wage because I fucking hate my stupid fucking job.”

It wells up inside him, the panic he thought he’d quashed all those months ago when he withdrew from law school. But here it is. The ugly truth beneath the surface. The lurking panic that didn’t know what it was doing but down spiraled any way. The same part of him that wanted to drop mugs just to watch them shatter. The same part of him that only felt good while moving fast, running hard, speeding down dark streets on Scarlet.

“I hate my job,” he says again. It’s the first time he’s ever said it out loud, the release of it like an anvil dropping from his mouth, the weight of it bringing his stomach sinking down to the floor. “I hate it so much. I work my ass off and I don’t know why. I honestly don’t even know why other than I don’t…I don’t know what else there is for me to do. So everything is just shit and I just. Just.”

He’s going to have a panic attack if he doesn’t get ahold of himself. He tries to breathe and it comes out like a gasp.

“Hey. Hey.” Warm hands grip his shoulders. Keith looks up at Lance, who’s offering a small crooked smile of comfort. “It’s gonna be all right, Keith. You’re not alone, okay? I’ll help you out for the rest of the day.”

Keith nods. Takes deep breaths. Makes every effort to swallow that panic and misery back down where it belonged. But it’s not working. He needs to get back to work. He needs to forget this ever happened.

He needs Lance to stop looking at him like this.

“Do you want a hug?” says Lance.

Before Keith can even decide if he does, he’s nodding.

Slowly, like he’s approaching a frightened animal, Lance steps closer and reaches for Keith. Loops his arms around Keith’s waist and pulls him in close, his hands splaying along the dip of Keith’s spine, bending forward slightly to tuck his chin on Keith’s shoulder.

It’s been a long time since someone touched Keith like this, if ever, and he stiffens. He doesn’t know how to do this. He’s never been a huggy kind of person. He doesn’t know where to put his hands or if he should move them at all. He doesn’t know if he’s supposed to say something or let the silence deepen.

But then the warmth of Lance’s chest seeps into him and Keith just. Melts. Slumps forward against Lance helplessly, pliant and scrabbling for purchase. His hands come up of their own volition to grip at the soft cotton of Lance’s hoodie at the collar, like it’s the only thing keeping him upright. He doesn’t mean to pull so hard, but Lance just inches closer, compensating for their height difference by leaning forward and letting Keith pull him down.

Before Keith even knows what he’s even doing, he’s pressing his face into the crook of Lance’s neck. Closing his eyes. Breathing in. Anchoring himself in the warmth there, in the press of Lance’s palms on the bend of his back.

Like a melting snowdrift under the touch of the sun, the tension sloughs from Keith’s shoulders with every intake of breath. Lance smells like soap. Like he actually showered this morning, which only serves to remind Keith that he hasn’t showered for days and therefore probably smells like ass. He keeps waiting for Lance to pull away, but Lance does not. Lance, rather, rubs these small and comforting circles against Keith’s back, the touch repetitive and soothing, and holds Keith even tighter.  

So Keith just breathes in the smell of Lance until he can’t smell the coffee shop anymore. Clings to his hoodie and shuts everything else out till it’s just the two of them. Just Lance’s hands on either side of his spine, just Lance’s mouth breathing hot in his hair. Just Lance being the very balm Keith didn’t even know he’d needed.

“You don’t have to do this,” Keith mutters into Lance’s hoodie.

“Hugs that last longer than twenty seconds are like, literally therapeutic,” says Lance. “It’s an oxytocin thing. So really if I let go now I’ll just be depriving us both.”

“Nerd,” shoots back Keith, who’s a bit at a loss of words for what to say to that. He settles for burrowing further into Lance’s warmth, feeling like a leech and a koala all at once. Knowing it’s pathetic, and not really caring.  

And god, it feels good. It feels so goddamn good.

He soaks up what he can. And then he forces himself to pull back, let go. Before he gets too used to it.

“Wow, you really are freezing,” says Lance. “And jeesh, yeah, maybe you are getting sick. Here.” He unzips his hoodie and holds it out for Keith.

Keith shakes his head. “I can’t.”

“Um. Yes, you can. And you will. You said it yourself—Galra Grinds is hell, and apparently hell really does freeze over. Besides, I run super hot.” He winks cheesily. Keith huffs out a laugh that’s more of a croak, it’s so tired sounding, and Lance looks worried again. “C’mon, take your apron off.”

Keith holds out his arms and Lance helps him into the hoodie, which is completely unnecessary but still nice. It’s a little big on Keith, but it’s got the same comforting warmth as when he was hugging Lance. The same smell. Keith does not press his face into it.

“There,” says Lance, smoothing down the shoulders. “Feel better?”

Keith hums, letting Lance slip his apron back on over the hoodie, tying that for him too. In the dim light of the storeroom, Lance’s eyes are dark, the freckles on his cheeks prominent in the shadows. He smiles lopsidedly at his handiwork, and Keith’s eyes catch on his dimples. His bangs are all mussed from the hug.

They’re close enough that if Keith just stood on his tiptoes, just swayed a bit more forward and pulled Lance down again, they’d be kissing.

The thought’s gone as quick as it came. Keith blinks, stunned. Why the fuck

“I think we should go out there before the customers riot,” says Lance. “I think I can hear them polishing their pitchforks. I take register, you take drinks?”

“Yeah,” Keith says numbly. “Sounds good.”

***

Lance sticks around till closing time, which means he sticks around till two a.m.; he’s the last person in the coffee shop other than Keith. He stopped working behind the counter once the worst of the evening rush died down, and he’s been sat at the same table by the window ever since, dicking around on his phone. Keith told him to go home multiple times. Lance stayed.

Finally, Keith finishes cleaning the men’s bathroom—which he always leaves for last because it’s the fucking worst—and comes back out to the front, slipping out of his purple Galra Grinds apron and flicking off the overhead lights. He finds Lance waiting at the counter for him. 

“If you ask me to make you a coffee right now,” says Keith, “I think I’ll actually punch you in the face.”

Lance rolls his eyes. “It’s two a.m., why would I want coffee.”

“Last week you literally came in at 1:54 a.m. and asked me to make you a double shot.”

“Nope,” says Lance. “Don’t remember. Didn’t happen.”

Now it’s Keith’s turn to roll his eyes. He stands there a bit awkwardly, hyperaware of the counter between him and Lance, and the fact that Lance watched him have a total meltdown this afternoon. Talk about humiliating.

“Hey, so,” he starts, “I just wanted to say—”

“Why are you here?” says Lance.

“What?”

“You said you hate this job. You said you hate this place. So why are you here?”

“Uh,” says Keith slowly, “because I need money? I need to pay rent and not starve?”

“But this is a pretty big city,” says Lance. “There are other jobs. There are like ten thousand coffee shops that wouldn’t treat you like shit. So why are you still here?”

Keith stares at him for a long moment. “First of all,” he says, feeling his blood begin to boil, “if you seriously think everyone loves their job, you’re nuts. Most people hate their jobs. That’s how it works. If nobody did the shitty jobs, we’d all be swimming in our own garbage. Do I think that’s a super awesome system? No. Do I hate capitalism? Yes. Do I regularly fantasize about saying fuck it and pulling a Henry David Thoreau and just going to live in a shack in the wilderness by myself? Yes. But I’m not gonna do that. Because I’m gonna—I’m gonna—”

“Gonna what?”

“I don’t know!” Keith snaps. “That’s why I’m here, Lance! I don’t know what I want. I—look, this time last year I was in law school.”

He stares defiantly at Lance, waiting for the look of surprise— you? In law school? Really?— but it doesn’t come. Lance just looks at him steadily, his eyes dark in the half light.

“Why law school?” he asks.

“It seemed like the thing to do,” says Keith. “Growing up, things were…complicated. Just a lot of closed doors. I always had this dream of, you know, being successful. Being somebody. I didn’t wanna be rich, I didn’t care about that. I just wanted to— stick it to everyone who didn’t believe in me. Like, become so successful that I could say, look, look at me, you were wrong about me. You were wrong.” He scrubs a hand over his face, suddenly exhausted. “So. Lawyer. Law school.”

Lance waits.

“Obviously, that turned out great,” says Keith, spreading his arms out, indicating the depressingly small, dark shop. “I didn’t even make it a semester. I hated it, Lance. I hated it so much.”

“So you left.”

“Yeah. Have you ever heard of the Galra Grant?”

Lance shakes his head.

“It’s a scholarship. Underprivileged kid gets his tuition covered by the Galra Grinds Foundation, and in return he puts in twenty hours per week at one of the coffee shops.”

“You got the scholarship?”

“Yup,” says Keith. “And then I dropped out of law school. And now I owe the Galra Grinds Foundation a semester’s worth of wasted tuition.”

“That’s why you work here?” says Lance. “That’s why you’re always here? Jesus.”

“Yeah, well. I got myself into it, I’ll get myself out.”

There’s a pause. Lance sits on a barstool and leans over the counter, chin propped up on his hand. Half his face is in shadow, the other in a warm glow from the streetlights outside.

“Sorry,” Keith says for the eight millionth time today. “Didn’t mean to—go off. Um. What’s your…?”

“My situation?” says Lance. Keith nods. “Welp, I’m twenty-two but I’m still in college because of financial reasons but also partly because I couldn’t ever just decide on a freaking major. I like everything, you know? So I’ve just been sort of taking one or two classes per semester till I figure out what I wanna do with my life. Right now I’m leaning toward either anthropology or astrophysics but honestly who the heck knows.” He huffs a little, scratching the back of his head. “Um, I work at the shelter and a nursing home and I babysit a lot. I used to work at the Air & Space Museum downtown—that was awesome. I might apply for an internship with SpaceX next semester? We’ll see.”

“What classes are you taking now?” says Keith, because he’s still trying to wrap his head around the sheer amount of stuff Lance apparently has going on.

“Principles of Human Organization: Non-Western Societies,” says Lance in a deep announcer voice. “It’s fucking rad, it’s all about ancient cultural formation in Asia and Africa and the Caribbean and stuff. Super cool. Also Comp Sci 101.”

“Wow,” says Keith. “That’s—really cool.”

“Keeping busy keeps me happy,” says Lance, and leans forward even more, peering at Keith like he’s trying to look inside him, hold him up to the light like a piece of beach glass. “Are you happy?”

“What do you mean,” says Keith, because who just asks that.

“I mean, are you happy. In general.”

That’s not a priority, Keith almost says. Instead, he keeps his face blank; he does not answer.

“Okay, here,” says Lance. “Law school sucked, sure. Now you know you don’t wanna be a lawyer. So if you could have anything in the world, like, achieve anything or be anything, what would it be?”

“I—”

“Doctor? Dancer? Acrobat? Flautist?”

“Oh my god, Lance.”

“Surfer? Teacher? Journalist? Professional blogger?”

“That’s not even a job!”

“It 100% is,” says Lance. “Get with the 21st Century, dude. Okay, let’s see. Dentist? Poet? Rapper? Bug scientist?”

“Entomologist,” Keith corrects him.

“Wait, entomologist? You want to be an entomologist?”

“No, you idiot,” says Keith. “I want to own a coffee shop.”

And then he realizes this is the first time he’s ever said it out loud. He feels his cheeks go hot and stares down at the Formica counter, avoiding Lance’s eyes. I want to own a coffee shop. Great. Dream big, Keith.

“Keith,” says Lance. “Holy fuck, that’s amazing.

“—What?”

“That’s literally so perfect? I can’t believe I didn’t guess it. Oh my god, you’d be such an instant hit. Fuck.”

“What?”

“The crankiness, the air of mystery, the, you know,” Lance waves a hand in Keith’s general direction, “the looks, plus the earth-shatteringly fabuloso coffee? I can see the Buzzfeed articles already. Hipsters will flock to you in the thousands, my dude.”

“Buzzfeed?” Keith says weakly.

“Coffee shop,” says Lance, nodding to himself. “Of course. Wow, that’s gonna be awesome. I can tell everyone I knew you back when you had a terrible haircut and worked sixty hours a week for The Man.”

“My hair is not terrible.”

“Don’t worry,” says Lance. “The retro thing is in right now.”

“You,” says Keith, “you—don’t think it’s stupid?”

“Your hair?”

“Me wanting to own a coffee shop, asshole.”

“Why would it be stupid?”

“I don’t know. It’s just…it’s hardly law school.”

“Which you hated,” Lance points out. “Dude, like, I’m not exactly the top pick for life advice, but I’m pretty sure you’re supposed to, you know, chase happiness. Choose happiness. So what if you don’t wanna be a lawyer? Most people don’t wanna be lawyers. That’s why we’re not all lawyers.

“I guess.”

“Whatever you wanna do, whatever your dream is,” Lance pokes Keith in the chest, forcing Keith to meet his eyes. “It’s important to you. So it’s important, period. And if something’s important, you put your whole heart into it.”

They’re quiet for a moment.

“That was really cheesy,” Keith says, but it comes out soft.

Lance grins at him. “I’m a cheesy guy.”

Yes you are, Keith thinks, and then, I think I like it.

***

October ends with rain. It comes in freezing cold sheets that sweep up and down the street outside; it pounds against the shop windows until Keith is sure they’ll break. The rain sends weird shadows sliding across the coffee shop walls, big magnified raindrop-looking shadows, and customers come in and shake off their umbrellas and Keith and Pidge take turns wiping up the water again and again. People order hot drinks, no more iced, and Galra Grinds sends out a promotional poster for the new Seasonal Gingerbread Latte, aka gingerbread-flavored powder. 'Tis the season.

Lance comes by the shop on all his breaks. Sometimes he brings Hunk, who quickly strikes up a friendship with Pidge that mostly involves discussing the latest breakthrough tech in robotics, particle physics, aerospace engineering. Sometimes he brings Allura, which is always funny, because the second she walks through the door Shiro goes bright red and drops whatever he’s holding. Sometimes he brings a kitten. 

But most of the time it’s just Lance. Propping himself up on the counter at eight a.m., noon, five p.m., midnight, later. Keith makes him latte after latte—finds himself using up all the data on his phone researching ingredients, coming up with new flavors. Raspberry, butter pecan, chocolate hazelnut, Irish cream, toasted coconut, spiced honey, praline, Mexican chocolate, peppermint, white chocolate lavender. He jolts awake in the middle of the night and gropes blindly for his phone, writes down a new flavor, and he wakes up in the morning to messages he doesn’t remember writing: “apple p fie,” “rum?? ????”, “koRean sweet po otato.”

He spends every scrap of disposable income on ingredients. He talks to Hunk, who according to Lance is “not even a foodie, that’s like calling Stephen Hawking a, I don’t know, a spacie. Hunk is a genius in the kitchen.”

(“Spacie,” says Keith. “Shut up,” says Lance.)

And sometimes Keith spends his breaks at the Cat Castle, sitting cross-legged in the kitten pen while the five kittens climb all over him. He learns that Yellow likes tummy rubs, Black likes gentle pets along her spine, Blue likes ear scratches, Green likes perching on Keith’s knees. (“It makes her feel tall,” says Lance.) Red just likes—Keith. She doesn’t really let anyone touch her but him.

Secretly, Red is his favorite, too.

Mid October, Lance gets into the habit of commandeering the Galra Grinds iPod. They have a Sendak-approved playlist of mindless muzak, a weird mix of classical orchestra stuff and awful 90s rock, and Lance decides one day that he’s had enough. He grabs the iPod, ignores Keith’s admittedly halfhearted protests, and two seconds later Beyoncé is singing about being crazy in love.

Then it’s revealed that “Crazy in Love” is in fact the only Beyoncé song Keith knows. Lance fakes a heart attack, refuses to speak to Keith for a solid three minutes, and then gives him a thorough debriefing of “Queen Bey’s” entire career.

After that, Lance just grabs the iPod automatically. He plays Beyoncé, Nicki Minaj, Destiny’s Child, Rihanna, Ariana Grande, the Spice Girls, old Britney Spears. Keith knows this because Lance always tells him the artist, the name of the song, and any culturally or emotionally significant context he deems necessary.

On the day he catches Keith humming Ariana Grande’s “Greedy,” Lance literally almost tears up with joy. He hugs Keith—just like that, like it’s no big deal, like it’s natural—and rambles on about being proud or whatever while Keith stands there, and keeps his hands carefully at his sides, and breathes.

*** 

Anyway.

***

It’s forty degrees and pouring rain the night Keith comes out of Galra Grinds, his eight-hour shift finally over, to see Lance standing at the bus stop. Keith squints at him, protected for a moment by the shop’s overhang. Yup, that’s Lance. He’s illuminated by a streetlamp, and Keith can tell he’s absolutely soaked.

Keith sighs, resigns himself, and races across the street.

“Hey,” he says loudly when he’s close enough, raising his voice to be heard over the downpour. He’s already halfway to drowned rat levels of wet, rain beading in his eyelashes and running down his face and soaking through his hoodie, his jeans. He shoves his hands under his armpits. “Lance.”

Lance looks up and blinks. He smiles, but his teeth are literally chattering. “Are you taking the b-bus?”

“No,” says Keith. “And neither are you. Come on.”

“What?”

“Next bus doesn’t come for half an hour, dumbass,” says Keith. “You’re gonna freeze. Follow me.”

He turns and runs back across the street without another word, without checking to see if Lance is actually following or not. He shivers, and it’s not just the cold.

When he skirts around the coffee shop to the back alley—where the dumpster is, where he found the kittens—he hears Lance’s footsteps behind him, and something unclenches slightly in his chest. The loosening of a previously contracted muscle. Lance says, “Keith, what are we doing?”

“You,” says Keith, “are meeting my girl.”

“Uh,” says Lance.

Keith goes to the back of the alley. And there’s Scarlet, chained to the drainpipe where he left her this morning, her chrome body and sleek red paint job protected from the rain by the roof of a pilates studio. He takes off the chain and stows it under her seat, digs the keys out of his pocket.

“Oh my god,” says Lance, coming up behind him. He stares at Scarlet, mouth slightly open. “Wait. Wait, is this yours? You own a motorcycle?”

“Motorbike,” says Keith. “Her name is Scarlet.”

“What is it with you and color names,” Lance mutters, but it’s betrayed by the fact that his eyes are fixed on Scarlet; he looks awed, equal parts nervous and excited and maybe even a little impressed. “Jesus, when were you gonna mention this?”

Keith frowns. “Was I supposed to?”

“Dude. Yes. This is—wow, like, wow.”

“Eloquent.”

“Fuck you,” says Lance, and then he groans, scrubbing a hand through his hair. Wet with rain, it sticks up like duck feathers. Keith’s fingers twitch. “God, of course you own a motorbike.”

“I don’t know what that means.”

“Nothing. Never mind. Wait, why are you showing this to me?”

“Because this is what you’re taking instead of the bus,” says Keith.

Lance stares at him.

Keith tries valiantly not to blush. “Unless you’d rather go sit in the rain for half an hour. Your choice.”

Lance keeps staring.

“I’m being nice,” says Keith a little defensively. “Take it or leave it.”

“I’ll take it,” says Lance, and then, “um, but I’ve never ridden on a motorbike before, and also no offense but is it safe, and also where do I sit.”

“Behind me,” says Keith. “Obviously. I don’t have a sidecar.”

“Okay. And…I’ll be holding on to…?”

“Me,” says Keith.

“Cool,” says Lance. “Awesome, great. Cool cool cool cool cool. No doubt no doubt no doubt.”

“Uh huh,” says Keith, giving him a weird look. Then he shucks off his bag and switches his hoodie for his riding jacket—his favorite red and white leather jacket that he found in a thrift shop ages ago for like 10 dollars and couldn’t resist—and a pair of fingerless leather gloves with palm-grips for holding onto the handlebars. He tucks his wet hair behind his ears and looks back at Lance.

Who is once again staring at him.

“What,” says Keith.

“Absolutely nothing whatsoever,” says Lance, blinking. He laughs a little under his breath, the kind of laugh that makes Keith want to ask what the joke is. “Jeesh. Okay. Let’s do this thing.”

Keith swings a leg over the motorbike and settles himself on the seat, flexing his fingers around the handlebars. He feels instantly comfortable, instantly as close to at home as he’s ever felt in his life. He takes a moment to just close his eyes, relishing the power of the bike beneath him and the sound of rain all around, pounding against the rooftops and pouring in waterfalls from the eaves.

He opens his eyes. “Get on behind me,” he tells Lance. “Arms around my waist. Hold on tight or you’ll fall off.”

Lance makes a small nervous noise but does as he’s told.

And somehow, incredibly, it’s only once Lance is on the bike, his hips fitted to Keith’s on the black leather seat, his arms wrapped around Keith’s waist and fingers clutching at Keith’s jacket, does Keith realize this was a fucking terrible idea.

What the fuck, he yells at himself, what the fuck were you thinking, because Lance is pressed up against him in a long, wet, warm line, his chest against Keith’s spine and his arms lean and firm and corded with skinny-boy muscle beneath the soft sleeves of his hoodie, his thighs bracketing Keith’s—

Lance tips forward for a moment, getting settled. The tip of his nose is cold on the back of Keith’s neck, brushing the strip of skin between his hair and his jacket. Keith only just barely manages not to shiver.

He wants to knock his head against a wall. Lance is solid and rain-soaked and strong and he sort of smells like cats and he is terribly male, undeniably a boy, a sweet good-looking boy with blue eyes and expressive hands and a loud voice and the dumbest sense of humor and he’s touching Keith kind of all over, and Keith can feel the rise and fall of his chest when he breathes. It’s awful.

At a loss, he does what he always does when he’s feeling overwhelmed: he shoves the keys in the ignition. Scarlet comes to life beneath him and Lance; her engine purrs smoothly, which Keith is actually pretty proud of. He fixed her up all by himself. He tugs on his helmet and hands Lance the spare, flips the visor down to protect his eyes from the rain.

“Ready?” he says to Lance.

“I don’t suppose you have, you know, at least three reference letters vouching for your dedication to safe and skillful motorbiking, preferably certified by a notary public,” says Lance.

“Don’t worry,” says Keith. “I don’t crash.” And he hits the gas.

Lance yelps when they lurch forward, his arms tightening around Keith’s waist. Keith lets out a shuddery little breath at the contact, luckily too quiet to be heard over the engine, the rain, the rush of icy wind. He maneuvers the bike out of the alleyway and onto the street, onto the next street, the next, taking turns slower than he normally would so as not to totally freak Lance out. Like this, the world narrows into a collection of disparate sensations: rain on Keith’s face, wind whipping through his hair, a hot flush in his cheeks, the bike hot and rumbling between his thighs. Rainwater on the street, how he watches the sheen of it, the depths of puddles, so they don’t hydroplane. The shine of headlights coming toward him through the fog.

The world becomes: green light. Rain on his lips. Lance’s hands on his chest. Gas pedal. Lance’s breath in his ear. A crash of thunder. Speed.

Keith knows he’s grinning. He leans low over the handlebars, follows the directions Lance yells in his ear. Left up ahead, right on Fremont. They leave downtown and Galra Grinds and the university behind them and head to the northern edge of the shipping district, zipping past warehouses and loading docks along the river, the cobblestone streets bumping beneath Scarlet’s wheels until Keith’s teeth rattle in his head. The rain lessens out here, a steady fall rather than a wild downpour. Lance shivers against him and holds on tighter.

“Here,” Lance says after a couple minutes. “Up here. On the right.”

Keith parks on the curb in front of a shabby brick apartment building and takes the keys out of the ignition. Scarlet goes quiet, and for a moment it leaves Keith’s ears ringing, like his whole body misses that big roaring engine noise.

“You can get off now,” he tells Lance, who hasn’t moved.

“I think maybe my legs are numb,” says Lance.

“Here.” Keith gets off the bike and turns to look at Lance and—oh. Lance’s eyes are wide, his hair wet and completely messed up, little dark tendrils curling at his temples and the shells of his ears. His tan skin is flushed from cold, his nose red. He’s wet all over. Clothes sticking to his skin, beads of rainwater at the hollow of his throat.

Terrible idea indeed.

“Do you need, uh, help,” Keith mumbles, and Lance shakes his head. He gets off the motorbike like someone testing their sea legs on land, shaky and wobbly, tongue poking out from between his teeth. When he hops onto the sidewalk, he gives Keith a big smile and a bow.

“Stuck the landing!” he says. “The crowd goes wild!”

“Very impressive,” says Keith.

Lance flips him off. “Come inside, will you? I’ll repay you in tea. It won’t be anything like one of your lattes, but at least it’ll be hot.”

“Oh,” says Keith. “You don’t—have to—”

“Nope, shut up. Just wait out the rain, okay? It’ll probably calm down in a bit.”

“Okay,” says Keith, and follows him inside.

Lance’s apartment is small and college kid messy, two bedrooms and a kitchenette and not much else. Hunk is working a night shift at the Cat Castle, so it’s just the two of them. Keith tries not to think about that. Instead he looks around the apartment, taking note of the half-empty coffee mugs, the Chinese takeout boxes by the trashcan, the fruit bowl filled with mangoes. There are two calendars on the wall: one with hot firemen and one with baby animals.

Lance catches Keith looking at the calendars. “A staple in every home,” he says.

Keith rolls his eyes.

He stands awkwardly at the counter while Lance putters around the kitchenette. They speak only about the tea—“Green,” Keith says, and then a few minutes later, “Just milk is good”—and Keith tries not to fidget. At the end of the day, he really only knows Lance as a guy who likes cats and coffee, and Lance only knows him as the local socially impaired barista. What can they talk about, here, removed from the comfortable distractions of the coffee shop? Maybe coming inside was the second bad idea of the night.

But then Lance hands him a steaming mug, glances out the window at the rain, and says, “Wanna watch something?”

And that’s how they end up sitting together on Lance and Hunk’s ratty floral-print couch watching Rick and Morty. It’s easy to lose track of time like this, each episode flowing seamlessly into the next while the rain continues to patter against the windowpanes. It was already dark when Keith got off work; without sunlight, he finds himself sinking into the couch, finishing his tea and saying yes when Lance asks if he wants another cup, accepting a handful of microwave popcorn. Usually he doesn’t really react when he watches TV, but Lance laughs at pretty much every joke, and he keeps glancing sidelong at Keith to like, gauge Keith’s reactions, so Keith lets himself huff a little when something is particularly funny. And Lance breaks into laughter all over again each time.   

It’s easy.

It’s nice.

Then it’s midnight.

“Oh fuck,” Keith says, bolting upright on the couch. “Shit, I lost track of time—”

Lance looks over at the oven clock and his eyes widen. “What the hell, when did that happen?”

“Shit,” Keith says again. “I have to open the shop in five hours.”

“It’s still raining,” says Lance. “How far away is your place?”

“Like half an hour on my bike.”

“Dude,” says Lance. “Just stay over.”

Keith stares at him.

“Seriously, no biggie,” says Lance, getting to his feet. He stretches, elbows above his head, arching his back. “Take the couch, it’s comfy. Hunk won’t be back till like seven a.m., so no worries about spooking him.”

“I,” says Keith. “I didn’t do this on purpose. I just lost track of time.”

Lance looks genuinely surprised. “I didn’t think you did, man.”

Keith wants to say: I need you to know that I didn’t do this on purpose. This is not me worming my way into your house and your life and your friends. I do not need this. I can leave no problem and not look back. 

He wants to say: I’m not good at taking up space.

He says, “I really can just bike home.”

“Please,” says Lance. “My mom would kill me if she ever found out I let you bike home at midnight in the rain. Hold on, lemme just grab some blankets.”

What else is there to do?

Keith holds on.

***

The blankets smell like laundry detergent and closet dust and boy.

Keith pulls them up to his nose and settles into the floral-print couch and watches the crack of light under Lance’s bedroom door go dark. He looks at the ceiling, at the coffee table, at the kitchenette; the oven clock glows bright green, ticking off 12:11, 12:12, 12:13. Keith’s phone alarm is set for 4:30.

The blankets are soft and worn. One of them is what looks like a handmade quilt. There’s a patch in the corner of it, a flag with blue and white stripes and a red triangle. Keith Googles it on his phone. Cuba.

He falls asleep Googling Cuban desserts.

*** 

Sunday, the one night of the week that Galra Grinds closes early, is usually an evening spent in. But not tonight. Keith had been walking along the back alley, talking to Shiro and unlocking Scarlet for his usual ride home when Lance burst out of the Cat Shelter, hollering for them to come over and visit.

Keith had shared a dubious look with Shiro, said, “Fine, but only five minutes,” and headed over.

Three hours and two medium pizzas later, they still haven’t left.

It was supposed to be a five-minute visit. Five minutes. But petting the kittens turned into petting some of the adult cats turned into Allura casually asking if they wanted to help with cleaning the cages and, well.

Cleaning the cages turned into Hunk complaining about being hungry turned into a thirty minute shouting match over the ethics of pineapple on pizza turned into calling Roscoe’s (pineapples only on the designated Heathen Pizza for Hunk and Lance, of course). And now here Keith is, eating lukewarm pizza in the break room and marveling at what a strange turn his life has taken.

Earlier today, Sendak ripped them all new assholes for not pitching the newest Galra Grinds seasonal drink hard enough. It was a full on tirade, with shouting and spittle flying and threats of firing all of them. Keith only got through it by thinking of seven ways to hide Sendak’s body without anyone noticing. Now he’s sitting in a warm room, three pieces of pepperoni olive in him, and doesn’t feel like committing murder for the first time since six am.

“So, why cats?” Keith asks suddenly, dipping his crust in the garlic sauce.

Lance purses his lips from where he’s seated on the floor. “Hm. Dunno. I’ve always liked dogs, too, not like I’ve got a preference. In all honestly, I kind of fell into this job. I know it seems like I came out of the womb working at this shelter, but—”

“But what?”

Lance smirks. “I was coerced.”

There’s a story in the quirk of his mouth, but he doesn’t add anything else until Keith chucks his crust at him. “Tell me!”

“Well, it’s a bit embarrassing in retrospect,” Lance says, shaking his head in a self-deprecating way. “I…it was literally one of my first weeks in the city here. I was on campus, touring, meeting with a few professors to see if I wanted to take their class. So I’m walking around and I see this really pretty girl passing out flyers. And I think she’s from a sorority or something, so like, I go to talk to her, see if I can get her number.”

“And?”

“And five minutes later I’ve got a volunteer job and I’ve donated my entire wallet of cash to the cat shelter and I may be crying about the amount of stray cats who don’t have homes.”

Keith almost chokes on his pizza. “Allura? You tried to hit on Allura?”

No offense to Allura. She’s beautiful and wonderfully kind, but Keith thinks she’s sometimes kind of terrifying. Especially when she’s focused on work, or dealing with any aspect of the business. Keith can’t imagine knowing an idiot brave enough to hit on her when she’s in Mama Cat Defensive mode.

But apparently he does know one.

Lance shrugs. “I can’t be blamed. I thought she was cute! I thought I could get her number if I hung around the shelter!"

“You tried to hit on Allura.”

“I do not deny it. But it was pretty clear from day one on the job that I wasn’t her type, alas,” he sighs dramatically, “too alive and wild and free for her tastes, I think.”

“That’s gotta be it,” Keith deadpans. “But Shiro’s been making sad cow eyes at Allura for months now. Hopefully he’s more her type.”

“No kidding?” Lance leans over to snatch the last piece of pizza from the Heathen Box. “Allura’s been trying to pester me into somehow getting Shiro’s number since March.”

“Dude,” Keith says again, silly incredulous wonder building in his chest, “You tried to hit on Allura.”

Without meaning to, Keith bursts out laughing, just loses it, laughing so hard and helplessly he can hardly stand. Head leaned back against the wall. Shoulders shaking, occasionally snorting, sides aching with it. He straightens and tries to pull himself together, then remembers how Allura had shot down Lance so hard that Lance ended up being her employee, and cracks up all over again.

“Well, I’m glad someone’s finding my failed romantic pursuits entertaining,” says Lance, which only makes Keith laugh harder. “Dude, you’ve lost it.”

“Sorry,” Keith gasps, and then another fit of laughter comes over him.

Lance stands there, nose crinkling a little as he looks down at Keith. “Nah, don’t be sorry,” he says. “You’re cute when you laugh.”

Keith rolls his eyes. “Shut up.”

“Never.” Lance gathers up the empty pizza boxes, and really, it shouldn’t mean anything.

Lance is an affectionate person. It’s not a day that ends in Y if he isn’t complimenting, flirting, teasing. Not a half hour ago he’d called Hunk a “powerful and majestic stallion” and told him he “missed his musk.” He often refers to Allura as “Goddess Divine” and “Beyoncé 2.” There are people in this world from which affection is a rare occasion, but Lance isn’t one of them. His primary setting is flirt. So it really shouldn’t matter that Lance called Keith cute. It really shouldn’t. It doesn’t.

Keith takes a vicious bite of his crust and tries to stifle the laughter still inside him. Tries valiantly not to blush all the way down to his toes, as Lance whistles and hums and exists in a space that feels untouchable from all things cold and hollow.

***

LANCE!!! (^=˃ᆺ˂)
hi

Keith
Hi.

LANCE!!! (^=˃ᆺ˂)
is sendak there

Keith
He just left. We’re a bit busy though.

LANCE!!! (^=˃ᆺ˂)
ok

be right over

 

Keith stuffs his phone back into his apron pocket and hurries out of the bathroom. Pidge is on the register, Shiro and Keith on drinks. It’s cold out, so the shop is busier than usual, bustling with college kids seeking hot coffee.

Freezing wind gusts through the shop with every new customer. They’re all wearing puffy coats, scarves, knit hats, but Sendak snapped at Keith not fifteen minutes ago for wearing a beanie, so a hoodie over his purple Galra Grinds T-shirt is definitely not an option. Neither is turning up the heat. According to Sendak, anything over 70 degrees just encourages people to linger, which interrupts the flow of business. Or whatever.

The point is that Keith is deliberating over each new drink, warming his hands on the coffee-filled cup for as long as possible before he has to pass it over the counter. He’s had goosebumps for like four hours straight.

He and Shiro work in quiet tandem, passing powder containers and stirrers and the milk steamer back and forth. Shiro’s been doing well lately—fewer silent, restrained panic attacks in the storage room, fewer missed shifts. Keith knows he’s been spending more time at the Cat Castle. Maybe it’s something to do with the cats, or Allura, or some combination of both.

The bells jingle above the door. Keith turns, and there’s Lance wrapped up in that big blue scarf, his cheeks pink from cold.

“You look terrible,” Keith says when Lance reaches the counter. It’s not technically true—not technically possible, to be honest—but Lance does look exhausted, wan. “Double shot? It’s almost three and you’re not even on espresso probation yet, congratulations.”

“Oh,” says Lance. Even his voice sounds tired, all scraped-out. “Actually, can I just have tea?”

Keith stops halfway through readying the espresso machine. “No caffeine?” he says, smirking a little. “Is this The Twilight Zone?”

He waits for Lance to say something like, Wow, dude, do you have any pop culture references from after 1970, or even just Fuck you, I can quit anytime I like, but it doesn’t come. Lance just sits at one of the barstools and props himself up on the counter, chin in his hands.  

He looks—more than tired, now that Keith’s looking closely. Lance’s eyes are bloodshot. There’s a paleness beneath his tan skin like he’s sick or something.

“Hey,” Keith says, putting down a jar of looseleaf. “Are you—okay?”

Lance opens his mouth to reply but is cut off by one of their regular customers, a Poli Sci major who practically lives at the corner table. “Oh my gosh!” she says, grinning brightly as she grabs her latte from the counter. “You’re the kitten guy! Did you bring any today?”

“I,” says Lance, “I, um,” and then, to Keith’s horror, his face goes splotchy and he starts blinking rapidly. Like he’s about to burst into tears.

“One sec,” Keith says to Shiro, and then ducks under the counter partition and grabs Lance by the sleeve of his hoodie and pulls him over to an empty table by the window. “Sit,” he orders, and Lance sits.

“Sorry,” Lance is saying, wiping his eyes, “sorry, it’s fine, the kittens are fine, I should go,” but Keith stops him when he tries to get up.

“I said sit,” Keith says. “Stay there. Do that thing where you watch people.”  

Lance sniffles. “People watching.”

“That. Just—stay there. Okay?”

Lance nods and sniffles again. There are definitely tears in his eyes. Jesus Christ, Keith thinks, and hurries back behind the counter. Poli Sci girl is gone and the line has calmed down a bit, which means both Pidge and Shiro are looking curiously between Lance and Keith, but he ignores them. He brews a mug of Earl Grey, which is what Lance chooses whenever Keith cuts off his espresso intake and forces him to have tea; adds two sugars and a dash of cream and brings it back over to Lance’s table.

“Drink that,” he orders, and turns away before he can see the expression on Lance’s face.

When he goes back behind the counter, Pidge raises their eyebrows at him.

“Not a word,” says Keith.

***

When Keith’s shift ends at five, Lance is still sitting at the window table. He’s gone through two mugs of tea. Keith’s been unable to stop himself from glancing over ever now and then, and each time Lance was gazing out the window at the chilly gray street, cupping his mug with both hands, the steam rising up around his face. He’s been completely silent for like two hours, which is how Keith knows whatever happened must be really bad.

Before now, Keith hadn’t really realized that Lance’s dramatics are just that: dramatics. He never would have guessed that Lance’s sadness would express itself in silence and self-consciousness and failed attempts to hide the fact that he was crying.

Then again, he thinks as he takes off his apron, he should have realized it earlier. This is the boy who hugged him in the storage room, who worked diligently beside him for a whole afternoon just because Keith needed the help, who sat beside him and watched Rick and Morty till midnight while rain fell hard outside. Lance, when it comes down to it, is actually only loud and dramatic a small percentage of the time. It’s his presence that makes it seem like he’s always loud—how he fills the room like sunlight, like poured water.

Keith clocks out but stays behind the counter. He grabs his bag and takes out a couple containers, gets a fresh espresso shot brewing. Ignores Pidge and Shiro, who at this point are watching him openly.

Lance is still sitting at the window. Keith pours the milk foam, sprinkles it with cinnamon, and grabs a cup of black coffee for himself. He goes out to the shop floor and sits across from Lance, pushing the latte at him.

It takes Lance a couple seconds to drag his eyes away from the street. Then he looks down at the latte and laughs, a rough punched-out kind of noise. Keith had drawn a sad face in the milk foam.

“I’m gonna pay, you know,” says Lance, pulling the latte closer. “For this and the tea. Sorry, my brain just kinda—yeah.”

Keith shrugs.

Lance wraps his fingers around the warm mug, gives a little sigh. Then he raises it to his mouth and takes a sip.

His eyes go huge.

“Keith,” he says hoarsely. “What flavor is this?”

“Um,” says Keith, staring at the tabletop. There are initials scratched into it, a little doodle of a shooting star. “Flan.”

“How did you—?”

“Cinnamon and condensed milk,” says Keith. “And a bit of caramel.”

(Homemade caramel, not the shitty artificial syrup they use for the Galra Grinds drinks. But Keith doesn’t feel like mentioning that.)

“Oh my god,” Lance says, taking another sip. It’s different from all the other times he’s fawned over Keith’s lattes—he’s not proclaiming loudly about how it’s orgasmic or nirvana or The Best Latte Ever. His voice is hushed. In the November sunlight, his eyes are wide and ocean-colored. “Keith, this tastes like my mom’s flan.”

Keith coughs a little. “Cool.”

Cool, he says,” Lance mutters. “Jeesh.”

His face is still a bit ashen. There is salt-crust in the corners of his eyes.

“This one time a couple months ago,” Keith says, “I had to clean human feces off the bathroom walls. Not the floor. The walls. Plural.”

Lance looks up at him, surprised. His lips twitch.

“My first week here I actually had to kick this couple out of the bathroom,” Keith continues. “They were hooking up in there and someone complained. And when I went back there the guy was like”—he imitates a deep frat bro voice—“‘Bruh, be cool. We’re almost done.’”

“No way,” says Lance.

Keith takes a sip of his own coffee. “People seem to think we’re a Starbucks. Mostly they just order frappucinos and then get pissed when I tell them we don’t make those. But god, the Starbucks ‘secret menu’ thing, that’s the bane of my fucking existence. These people come in asking for cotton candy frappucinos or sour apple lemonade or whatever. Once this lady yelled at me for seven minutes and twenty-eight seconds because I said I couldn’t make her a venti Cap’n Crunch frappucino with a cake pop blended into it.”

“Seven minutes and twenty-eight seconds?”

“Pidge timed it.”

Lance cracks up. He puts down his latte and laughs into his hands, shoulders shaking. “Dude.”

“Yup. Customer service sucks.”

“Knowing you, I’m shocked you haven’t just punched anyone in the face yet.”

“I have phenomenal poise and self control,” Keith deadpans, and Lance cracks up all over again, snorting into his latte.

Then his smile fades. “Sorry about earlier. For freaking out on you and that girl.”

“That was you freaking out?”

“Yeah, well.” Lance takes a deep, shuddery breath. “Today we had to, um, we had to put some of the cats down.”

“You mean—?”

“Put them to sleep. Which is the stupidest way of saying it. Like, we just call it ‘sleep’ to make ourselves feel better, right? God.” He scrubs at his eyes again, blinking hard. “We just—the shelter has no fucking money. There’s too many cats and not enough room or supplies or food or medicine and, and Allura hates having to put them down, it’s awful, she was crying too and she’s like the toughest person I know. Hunk was like, sobbing. But it’s that or just dump them on the street again. There’s no shelters for a hundred miles that have any extra space, I would know, I’m the one who called all of ‘em. So. The, the really old cats, and the sick ones that aren’t gonna get better, we have to—we just don’t have the money—”

He buries his face in his hands, clearly trying to calm down. Keith sits across from him, frozen. He has no idea what to do, what to say. There’s no way to make this better.

Lance takes a short, gasping breath. “So, so I was trying to make it as—as easy as possible on them. Like. Hunk and I take turns holding them through it. And. And petting them and talking to them and making sure they’re not, not scared or anything. It’s painless, they really do just, just, you know, go to sleep, but then they never—they never—”

Keith grabs his wrist. It’s the only part of Lance he can really reach. He curls his fingers around it, feeling Lance’s warm skin and the birdlike bones underneath, the pulse point at his inner wrist. “Lance,” he says, “Lance, take a deep breath.”

Slowly, after a few moments in which Lance trembles all over, he takes a deep breath.

“Okay,” says Keith, trying like hell to remember what he learned in the single mindfulness/anger management class he took a few years back. “Now another. In four, out four, okay?”

Lance takes another deep breath. Another. Around them, the coffee shop is mostly empty; it’s rush hour outside, the street choked with people driving home, nobody stopping for coffee on the way. Pidge and Shiro appear utterly absorbed in cleaning the counters and the coffee machines. It’s almost convincing.

After a few more breaths, Lance takes his hands away from his face and looks at Keith, tears stuck in his eyelashes. His nose is running a little bit. “Sorry. Jesus. I’m a mess.”

“With good reason,” says Keith. He tries to let go of Lance’s wrist, but Lance catches the sleeve of Keith’s hoodie, a small, grounding touch. “I’m—sorry. About the cats. I didn’t know the shelter was having trouble.”

“It’s really bad,” says Lance quietly. “Allura’s already gone through her inheritance just keeping us afloat. We’re broke as fuck.”

“I’m sorry. That’s really shit.”

“Usually it’s okay,” says Lance. “We make do. It’s just, you know. Days like this.”

Keith nods. He feels stunningly inadequate. He’s self-aware enough to know that he’s not the kind of person you want to be around in a situation like this—that would be Shiro, whose presence is steady and calming even when Shiro himself is anxious, or even Lance’s friend Hunk, who Keith barely knows but can already tell is like the nicest dude ever. Keith is neither steady nor particularly nice, and he’s not good with words, at saying the right thing to make someone feel better. What makes him feel better, on the days when everything is too loud and bright and the whole world seems rough against his skin, is action and sensation and motion. Doing things with his hands. He’s not good at—comfort.

“I just feel like I should’ve been able to do something,” Lance almost whispers. “I know it’s stupid and irrational and whatever, but I feel like if I’d just done something different, or worked harder, or something, we wouldn’t have had to put them down.”

“That is stupid,” Keith agrees, which makes Lance laugh wetly. “Look, if there’s one thing I know, it’s that sometimes bad things are just senseless. Like. People leaving kittens in dumpsters or ditching their cats on the street for you guys to clean up. There’s no good—,” he breaks off, struggling to find the right words. “I guess just. You’re the people cleaning it up. Not the people, like, breaking things and making the messes. So. It’s okay that sometimes you can’t save everything. Nobody could.”

He keeps his eyes on the tabletop the whole time. He can feel himself blushing, like he always does whenever he expresses something remotely emotional or vulnerable.

He looks up when Lance tugs on his sleeve.

“Hey,” says Lance softly, so softly. “Thanks.”

“Sorry I couldn’t do more,” says Keith.

“Nah,” says Lance. He is still holding Keith’s sleeve, rubbing it like a talisman between finger and thumb. “You did all the right things. Just like with the kittens. You’ve got good instincts, man.”

“Oh,” says Keith, and looks out the window at the wide white sky.

***

Like the turning of the seasons, the subtle shift of green leaves to golden, crisp air to cold, rains to frost, something has changed between Keith and Lance.

Keith hardly notices at first, because with the beginning of November comes the holiday season at Galra Grinds, the hoards of customers clamoring to get their hands on something peppermint or gingerbread flavored.

But it’s there, in the way Lance seems to linger longer and longer in the coffee shop, sometimes spending hours at a time at the counter: begging Keith for coffee, trying to provoke Pidge into hacking the Pentagon, casually mentioning to Shiro that Allura asked how he was doing, grinning at the way Shiro turns beet red.  

It’s there in the way Lance touches Keith more often, brushing shoulders or jabbing elbows, playful, like friends do. Sometimes he’ll hug Keith just because he can, the same way he hugs Hunk or Allura. It makes Keith feel warm all over.

And it’s there in the way Keith, who used to go hours before responding to one of Lance’s texts, now replies almost immediately. The day Keith uses his first emoji, (a knife emoji, in response to Lance threatening to never let Keith visit the kittens again) Lance takes a screenshot and prints it out to hang over his desk at the shelter.

Ridiculous.

But mostly it shows in the way that Keith finds himself growing comfortable in a place that isn’t his underpaying job or his overpriced apartment. The Cat Castle isn’t exactly homey by any means, but Keith finds himself spending lunch breaks, evenings on short shift days, sometimes even whole days off, curled up in the back room with the kittens. Talking to whomever’s on shift: Dr. Coran, Allura, Hunk, Lance. Sometimes Pidge comes with him, or Shiro. And sometimes Keith shows up and finds them already taking up his usual spot in the middle of the kitten pen.

The change lies in Keith staying in one place, staying with one group of people, long enough to get to know them, to know how they like their pizza, their coffee, how they look when they’re laughing, when they’re tired. The change lies in that now, more than ever, Keith cares.

He’s not quite sure how he feels about that yet. Jury’s still out.  

The kittens are roughly eight weeks old, personalities emerging in distinct ways. Keith would be able to pick them out of a crowd of clones. Green’s a little escape artist, will climb up your pant leg like a mountain goat, get to the very top of your head and then mew innocently like she has no idea how she got there. Yellow, named for her eyes like Green, is a fluff ball that exists in only two states: sleepy and hungry. She’ll fall asleep on anything. Your shoulder, the floor, hanging off the edge of a bench. Keith’s got almost a dozen videos on his phone of Yellow nearly face planting in the food bowl, blinking sleepily as she eats. Black’s probably the calmest one of the group, a zero tolerance policy for bullshit when the other kittens tug on her ears or chase her tail. Blue’s the spaz cat, will bolt upright and sprint all over the room at random, wily and hyper, like she’s on catnip. The last to go to sleep, the first to wake up, she loves nothing more than an opportunity to pounce and play.

Then there’s Red. Keith’s secret favorite. It’s unfair to play favorites, he knows that, and always makes a point to divide his time evenly between the five of them. But Red’s probably the only cat that he hasn’t quite figured out yet. Some days she’ll be standoffish towards the rest of the kittens, bat them away when they try to play. Others she’ll be needy and cuddly and won’t let Keith put her down for the entire duration of his visit. There’s a streak of unpredictability in her that he doesn’t necessarily see in people, one that he relates to.

One thing’s for sure, though. She’s his favorite. And he’s hers.

“You know,” Lance says one day, as Keith is giving Red a head scratching that has her nudging up against his hand, “I’m starting to think that you’re using me to get to the cats.”

“Me?” Keith grins, hitting a particular sweet spot just under Red’s chin, her resulting purr especially loud. “Never.”

Face brightening with an idea, Lance pushes off the wall from where he’s watching Keith. Blue’s perched on his shoulder, her favorite roost, trying to bat away the tiny Green, who’s climbing up Lance’s jeans like a spider monkey.

“Since she likes you so much, why don’t you take her home for a night? We do kitty sleepovers sometimes, like for potential adoptees, to see how the cat and the owner get along.”

Keith stares at him. “I can’t take Red home.”

Lance laughs, presumably at the look on Keith’s face, or maybe the way Red reaches up to paw at Keith’s hand again, as if to say Excuse you, I was not done being scratched, thank you very much.

“Why not?”

Because. Keith thinks. Because I still haven’t paid my gas bill. Because I rarely have more than three food items in my fridge at once. Because the whole reason I brought the kittens to you in the first place was so I wouldn’t kill them by accident. Because you have somehow managed to miss the fact that I am a goddamn basket case.

“Because,” Keith says, “because I don’t have any cat food.”

“Nahhh, don’t even worry about that!” Lance waves him off. “We give you food, water, any supplies you’ll need for the night.”

“What if she catches something outside?”

“Well, as of about a week ago, she’s been fully vaccinated, so that’s taken care of. C’mon, it’s one night. Worst that happens is she scratches up all your furniture and you bring her back tomorrow. And who knows, you might even enjoy it.” Lance waggles his eyebrows.

Keith glances down, uneasy. Red blinks up at him, opens her mouth for a crackling meow. She’s still young, smaller than all the others except Green. She stretches her full length against Keith’s leg, kneading her claws gently in the leg of his jeans, her tell tale sign that she wants to be picked up and given attention.

He looks up at Lance. “Fine. One night. But don’t think you’re gonna trick me into adopting her.”

Lance holds an offended hand to his chest. “Me? Never.”

“One night,” Keith repeats. “One.”

Even if the night turns out to be atrocious, and Red turns out to be the demon cat from hell, it’ll be worth it for the excited way Lance’s face lights up, right before he scrambles to get together the sleepover kit.

***

Red turns out to hate the transport crate a spectacular amount, and when Hunk hand delivers her to Keith’s apartment on one of his few days off, she takes off into the recesses of the apartment like a bat out of hell, looking as terrified as a cat possibly could.

“She’ll probably be freaked out for a few hours,” Hunk reassures Keith, who's already sweating buckets with the prospect of this responsibility. “But she should start exploring the space soon enough. I’d say just go about your normal routine. Try not to leave the apartment too much. Here’s her cat box,” he hands Keith a slightly fragrant box of kitty litter. “Aaaand here’s a bag of food. She’s got enough for a week, because Lance insisted she might get hungry, but really, one scoop of food tonight is all she’ll need. Sound good?”

Keith tries not to let his panic show. “Uh. I think so.”

“Look,” Hunk says, in a voice that tells Keith that he did a terrible job of hiding the panic. “Don’t be worried about traumatizing her. Red’s a tough girl. Just give her space if she wants it, and make sure she has plenty of water. Oh, and make sure she doesn’t escape; she’s kind of quick. But even if she does, we’ve chipped her. Call me or Lance if you have any questions.”

“Thanks, Hunk,” Keith says. “I’ll take care of her, I swear.”

Hunk gives Keith a look. “Dude, I know. Trust me. I wouldn’t have come down here if that weren’t the case.

“Okay.” Keith nods. “I. Okay. Thanks. Again.”

And with that, the kitty sleepover begins.

***

 

LANCE!!! (^=˃ᆺ˂)
soooooo???

Keith
So what.

LANCE!!! (^=˃ᆺ˂)
don’t so what me!! you know what!! how is my beautiful daughter red

Keith
Good, I guess. She’s still hiding under my bed. But she stopped hissing, which is good.

LANCE!!! (^=˃ᆺ˂)
yay!! she’ll be a bit wigged for a while but its totally normal, shes just gotta adapt to the new place. u should talk to her!!

don’t let your dreams be dreams

be the cat mom u wanna see in the world

Keith
Shouldn’t you be working rn?

LANCE!!! (^=˃ᆺ˂)
alas i have not had my daily dose of Magic Bean Juice so im useless

Keith
Get back to work, idiot.

LANCE!!! (^=˃ᆺ˂)
:(

 

***

 

Keith
She came out. She’s exploring all the kitchen counters as I do the dishes.

She just sat and yowled at me until I gave her a bite of my syrup and waffles?????

I googled it I know it’s not bad for cats.

Now she’s napping on the rug. Wanna see?

[IMAGE SENT] 

LANCE!!! (^=˃ᆺ˂)
!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!<3<3<3<3<3<3 :'D :'D :'D :'D

 

*** 

One night. That’s what Lance proposed. That’s what Keith agreed to. Just one.

Keith’s only up for a few more hours once Hunk leaves. He’s exhausted after his shift so there’s not really much to be done about feline entertainment. He feeds Red at seven o'clock on the dot. He cleans and refills her water bowl after each time she drinks from it, just to be thorough.

He watches her with constant vigilance.

Red has a tendency to push boundaries. Keith awkwardly tries to tell her to quit hopping on the counters every time he does something in the kitchen, but it’s clear that she’s going to do whatever the hell she wants, and honestly he’s fine with that.

It’s a surprisingly uneventful night. The great Cat Disaster Keith was braced for—a random allergy to something in his apartment, escaping through some forgotten window he’d left open, spontaneous death that he could have somehow prevented—never happens. Only one slight bump in the evening occurs when Keith takes his routine freezing shower. The second he disappears behind the curtain under the spray Red begins yowling, hops up on the toilet seat and pokes her paw at the curtain, frantic.

“What? What is it?” Keith peeks out from the curtain. “I’m fine! I just need to shower!”

Red blinks at him, tail twitching.

Keith ducks back behind the curtain, trying not to shiver, only to hear Red yowling and pawing at the shower curtain again just a few seconds later.

“Hey, Red, shhh, you’re okay,” Keith says, and starts rushing through shampooing his hair. The quicker he gets out of the shower the quicker Red will stop having separation anxiety. “Red, don’t cry, it’s okay.”

The mewing stops. The curtain stops swaying. Keith doesn’t stop talking. He spends all three minutes of his miserably cold shower talking to Red, detailing how fucking cold he is, how his dick is going to probably fall off, how he can’t wait to make a hot cup of tea after this. Any time he pauses for too long, Red picks up the worried mewing again. So he talks. And the talking does not stop, not when he gets out of the shower, not as he towels off and gets into his baggy sweater and boxers, not as he rolls into the kitchen to make his cup of tea. It’s as if now that he’s started, for the purpose of getting Red to quiet, he now can’t be quiet himself.

Other than that, though, the remainder of the evening is low-key. Keith writes down a few ideas for drinks to try on Lance and the others, makes a quick list of ingredients to grab before he goes into work late tomorrow afternoon. Red, stretching to her full length and kneading her paws a bit in the sheets, falls asleep at the foot of the bed. She blinks a bit sleepily at him as if to pointedly say lights out, fucker, and then she’s out.

So, all in all, an uneventful kitty sleepover.

Until Keith wakes up the next morning, chilly November sunlight spilling through the curtains across his face. Until he feels a significant weight on his chest that hadn’t been there when he’d fallen asleep. Until he sees Red, paws folded, curled up on his chest so tightly it’d been like a pastry chef had arranged her that way. She’s warm, her nose whistling as she breathes, and when he settles a hand on her tiny head to pet down along her back, she begins to purr like a finely tuned rotor engine, like Scarlet on a straight shot road.

An undeniable something comes to life in Keith’s chest, as if his ribs are cracking to keep the feeling contained.  He makes a helpless, adoring sort of noise. The kind Lance always makes. Absolute gibberish.  

If anyone were to ask Keith what exactly happened after that, well, he really wouldn’t be able to tell them shit.

One minute he’s there, in bed, a soft kitten purring on his chest.

The next, he’s standing in the kitchen, surrounded by a dozen bags of assorted cat toys, scratching posts, catnip, cat food, cat sand, water jugs, a laser pointer, and an empty fucking bank account. Completely unsure of exactly what just happened but unable to tamper down the urge to take out every single toy and show them all to Red immediately.

Rather than putting any thought into what this sudden fugue state means for his psyche, he makes another batch of Eggos with syrup and gives Red a few bites, talking to her as she hops up onto the kitchen table. This time, he doesn’t even bother trying to get her down.

He talks to Red through breakfast, through a cleaning of his apartment that he’s been putting off for weeks, even talks to her through morning yoga. It’s kind of hard to do a crane or a tree pose when there’s a cat twining around your legs or batting at your ponytail as you try and balance upside down, but she makes an engaging—if not distracting—yoga partner. Even if Keith has to keep stopping to pick her up and set her on the other side of the room, only to have her come prancing right back over to his side.

“How am I supposed to be finding peace and enlightenment when you won’t let me,” he complains as Red rubs against his head and flicks her tail against his nose.

He’s mid downward dog and trying to exhale positivity when he hears the awkward clearing of a throat, looks between his legs and sees—

“Lance!” Keith exclaims, swinging upwards. “Hunk! What are you guys doing in here?”

“Your door doesn’t have a lock,” says Hunk. “We knocked and it swung open. You really should get that checked out, it’s super unsafe. What are you doing?”

Keith glances at Lance, who has this weird expression on his face, like he just got hit over the head, “I was doing yoga. Or trying to. Red wasn’t exactly helping.” He glares pointedly at her, and he almost imagines the flippant flick of her tail as she turns away to sun bathe. Realization dawns. “Oh fuck, that’s why you’re here. It’s time for Red to go back. Shit, I must have lost track of time, totally forgot.”

“Nah, dude, you’re fine,” says Hunk.

“I didn’t know you did yoga,” says Lance faintly.

Keith stares at them. “Uh. Not often. But, you know, when I can.”

Keith silently prays that they don’t notice the plethora of PetSmart bags in the kitchen and the decided lack of anything else in the rest of the apartment. And then he realizes he’s wearing a ratty crop top and threadbare sweatpants, and his ponytail is messy and he’s sweaty and oh god, awesome, this is just what he wants to look like in front of Lance. Great.

He steals another peek at Lance, who’s looking around the apartment and probably realizing Keith lives like a trash raccoon. Keith personally regrets getting out of bed this morning.

“That’s cool, yoga’s cool,” says Hunk, and there’s a smile tugging at the corner of his lips, like he’s trying not to laugh, “Lance here couldn’t stop speculating, actually, what your hobbies are outside of coffee and all. Isn’t that right, Lance?”

“I was just curious!” says Lance. “You’ve been to my apartment before, so I just was wondering….”

“What you do when you’re not brewing nirvana,” Hunk finishes. “We’re kind of relieved to find you didn’t answer the door in your Galra Grinds uniform, to be honest.”

It’s weird to think about, the notion that they’ve never seen him outside of his work clothes, never even seen his life outside of that stupid coffee shop. Now that they are, he realizes that they’re some of the first, except for that one time Pidge stopped by to hack into his neighbor’s wifi for him.

As a matter of fact, Red is probably the only living thing besides Keith himself that’d been in his apartment for longer than a few hours, at most. He hadn’t even realized it until it was time for her to go.

“You can have her back.” Keith picks Red up from where she’s preening in the sun, cradling her in his arms. “I completely forgot, but it won’t take me long to get her stuff together.”

“You know what, buddy,” Hunk says, “we’ve actually got a pretty full plate today, so we gotta get going. Why don’t you bring her back in tomorrow? We promise not to charge you for it. Think of it as an extended cat-cation.”

Keith looks down at Red, belly up in his arms like a baby. She reaches out to bat at one of the escaped strands of hair from his ponytail. What a dork.

He looks up, biting down a smile. “Yeah, I think I can take her off your hands for one more day.”

Lance makes this whiney noise like he’s sort of dying, pinches the bridge of his nose between finger and thumb. Keith doesn’t know what to make of it. Red paws at his hair again, and now Lance outright grins, his eyes doing that whole lit-up thing, just like the first time, as if Keith has gone and handed him another box of kittens.

It makes Keith’s heart race, that look.  Makes him feel warm. Makes him feel like—in all his many fuck ups and general life catastrophes—taking those kittens out of the dumpster was one good thing.

“Cool,” says Hunk. “Have fun with your yoga, I’ll get Lance out of here before he busts a blood vessel. Come along, dear.”

“Bye Keith,” Lance says. “Bye Red! See you tomorrow!”

When he bounds forward to kiss Red’s tiny head, Keith’s heart only pounds harder.

*** 

Multiple days have passed, and Keith still hasn’t returned Red to the shelter.

He’s planning on it. He swears he is. There’s just a new excuse every single day. It’s not like Keith is avoiding it. That’d be crazy. That’d be kidnapping. Cat napping, if you will.

(Jesus, he’s been hanging out at the shelter too much. All of Allura’s cat pun T-shirts are getting to his brain.)

It’s always one excuse or another. If he’s not forgetting every night to pack Red’s stuff up, so each morning up there’s no time to grab it, then he’s waking up with her curled up on his stomach and feeling so helplessly cruel for even entertaining the notion of returning her that he just—doesn’t.

For how traumatic this should be, not being in her real home and all, Red doesn’t seem to mind much. She turns out to be a startlingly pleasant mix of high and low maintenance. She follows Keith when he leaves the room. Meows when he gets home. Manages to resist from tearing up most of his already shitty furniture while he’s gone. Butts her head against his hand while he’s watching Netflix, pushes against him until he scratches her favorite spot under her cream colored chin.

So out of respect to her generally pleasant behavior, Keith just…keeps forgetting to return her. It’s not like he’s doing it on purpose or anything.

Not that he’s having an easy time of convincing anyone of that.

“I’ll bring her back tomorrow, I swear!” Keith says the second Lance comes rolling into the coffee shop on a Wednesday. “I swear I haven’t lost her. She’s fine. I have photographic evidence. I just—”

“You’ll bring her back eventually,” says Lance, but there’s a something knowing in his eyes, and Keith hates it, hates it. “No worries.”

“I will,” Keith promises, and goes back to making the drink he started before Lance even entered the shop. Pumpkin pie latte.

Eventually is multiple days that become multiple weeks, with Keith keeping at bay the increasing panic that Lance will one day accuse him of being a cat burglar or something. But that moment never comes. Lance visits, gets his coffee, chatters animatedly at the counter. Keith spends his lunch breaks in the shelter. No one—not Allura, not any of them—bothers to demand why he hasn’t returned Red yet.

Out of guilt, he starts sending Lance pictures of Red, just to prove she’s well taken care of. He takes one of her napping in the sun. Another of her eating his waffles. He takes one of her standing on the bathroom sink while he brushes his teeth one night, pawing at the thin trickle of water coming out of the faucet. It’s inevitable that he ends up in the photo, frowning slightly, his hipbones sticking out beneath his bedtime crop top.

And then one more, Red curled up on his chest, half of his own sleepy face behind her.

***

 

Keith
Thought you might like these. Proof Red is alive. 

[IMAGE SENT]

[IMAGE SENT]

LANCE!!! (^=˃ᆺ˂)
FFFFFFF WTF SHES SO CUTE :')

more pls 

ps never doubted u for a second ;)️

 

***

Keith’s 23rd birthday falls on a Friday. He actually genuinely forgets his birthday is even a thing until he wakes up and notices it’s November 18th, and even then he has to think for a second, like, why does that date sound familiar?

Because it’s his fucking birthday.

Then again, it’s not like he’s ever really celebrated it. Between an unstable upbringing and the heretofore lack of a solid friend group, he’s never had anyone who might want to know about his birthday, much less do something about it. Besides, he’s never really gotten the point of birthday parties. So he got born 23 years ago today, so what? He’s done a lot of things since then that took a lot more effort.

“What’s your birthday,” he says to Red, who is perched on his chest as always. “What are you now, six weeks?”

She blinks at him sleepily.

“How about October 1st,” he says. “Start of the month. That’s a good day.”

She dozes off again.

Keith lays in bed for a few more minutes, putting off the reality of leaving the warm blankets for his freezing apartment and the freezing city and the eight hour work shift. He watches the time on his phone—one more minute, just let me stay here one more minute.

One more minute passes. Keith pushes away all thoughts of his birthday and forces himself upright, up and out of bed and into the cold, bright day. 

***

When Keith walks through the doors of Galra Grinds, he’s greeted by a long, scrutinizing look from Shiro. “Hi, Keith,” Shiro says almost carefully. “How are you today?”

“Fine,” says Keith, putting on his purple apron. “You on drinks or register?”

“Register,” says Shiro, and then, “How’s Red doing?”

“Fine. She likes the laser pointer.”

“Good. That’s good. Anything going on today?”

“Um,” says Keith. “Work. Here, in this place.”

“Anything else?”

Keith squints at him. “No?”

“Okay,” says Shiro after a pause. “Well, I’m gonna—,” he gestures at the register.

“Yup,” says Keith. “You do that.”

Jesus. He loves Shiro, but sometimes the guy is weird.

***

The weirdness doesn’t end. Keith catches Shiro—and later Pidge—whispering to each other all through his shift, and he catches Pidge on the phone in the storage room when he goes to grab more beans. When he walks in, Pidge says, “Okay gotta get back to work bye Matt,” which is how Keith knows they are not talking to their brother, because Pidge and Matt typically end their conversations with a fond bye asshole/fuck off nerd.

Pidge scurries out of the storage room. Keith stares after them, eyes narrowed.

If possible, it gets even weirder when Lance comes in that afternoon. First of all, he keeps looking at Keith like Keith is one of those tragic late night commercials about like, orphans or sad dogs or whatever. Second of all, he whispers something to Shiro when they think Keith is busy with the milk steamer, which, not that Lance and Shiro can’t interact, but it’s not like they’re best friends or anything. They don’t whisper to each other.

Keith makes Lance a classic Galra Grinds latte out of spite. Lance drinks it without a single complaint, which is probably the weirdest thing yet.

“Are you dying?” Keith demands as Lance gets up to leave.

“Not that I know of,” Lance says cheerfully.

“Is Shiro dying?”

“Nope.”

“Pidge?”

“Goodbye, dude,” says Lance, saluting him, and walks out the door with a jingle of bells.

Keith rounds on Shiro, who holds up both his hands. “Leave me out of it,” he says. “I’m gonna go grab more milk.”

“More milk,” Keith mutters. The world makes no sense.

*** 

Keith’s been home only long enough to say hi to Red and switch out his black uniform shirt with a soft gray Henley before his phone lights up with texts.

LANCE!!! (^=˃ᆺ˂)
HEY ARE U AVAIL

Keith
I just got home. Why?

LANCE!!! (^=˃ᆺ˂)
CAT EMERGENCY

CATMERGENCY

Keith
What??

LANCE!!! (^=˃ᆺ˂)
there’s a total hoarding situation downtown, i'm talking like upwards of 30 cats, and hunk isnt answering his phone and allura has to hold down the fort at the shelter and theres just all these CATS

Keith
Okay. What can I do?

LANCE!!! (^=˃ᆺ˂)
can u just bike here?? i have the van i just need an extra set of hands

Keith
What's the address?

 

Lance sends the address—it’s somewhere downtown, a few blocks south of the university.

 

Keith
Be there in 15.

LANCE!!! (^=˃ᆺ˂)
dude ur my HERO

 

Keith scrambles into a pair of jeans, grabs his keys and wallet and black cat-proof hoodie, and drops a quick kiss on Red’s head. (He has just recently started kissing her and still feels a little weird about it, like maybe it’s too much, but she doesn’t seem to mind. Also, Lance kisses the cats all the time.) “Be back soon,” he tells her. “Don’t wait up.”

***

The ride back downtown is quick and fucking freezing, wind against Keith’s face and ice slicking the streets. It’s almost eight, the magic gap between rush hour and Friday night party hour, so Keith zips along the streets without hitting any traffic.

He finds the address Lance sent him no problem, but idles at the curb for a few minutes, trying to figure out if he made a mistake. Surely this isn’t the place with upwards of thirty cats? It’s a karaoke bar.

 

Keith
You sent me the wrong address. This is a bar.

LANCE!!! (^=˃ᆺ˂)
oh sorry hold on!!

 

Keith sighs and turns off his bike, leaning back in the seat. Music pumps out of the karaoke bar, some Top 40 song that Lance can probably sing word for word, along with loud happy-crowd noises, tipsy laughter. Colored light streams out around the edges of the blacked-out windows. Keith scans the street for the Cat Castle van, but he can’t see it anywhere. Did Lance give him the wrong freaking street?

“Keith!”

Keith looks up.

And stares.

Lance is standing in the doorway of the karaoke bar, silhouetted for a moment against pulsing purple light. Then he comes forward, jogging toward Keith, and behind him are Shiro, Allura, Hunk, even Pidge, all coming out of the bar; Allura’s holding what looks like a Cosmo, they’re all grinning, and then Lance reaches Keith and throws his arms out to the sides like he owns the night or the whole world, and he hollers, “HAPPY BIRTHDAY!”

“What,” says Keith.

“Happy birthday, dude!” Lance says again, and then the others reach them and they’re all chiming in, happy birthday, happy birthday Keith, and Keith just stares.

“I,” he says. “I—where’re the cats?”

“They don’t exist!” Lance crows.

“It was a ruse,” says Allura.

“So you wouldn’t suspect anything,” says Hunk.

“What,” says Keith, “suspect what, wait, how did you all know it’s—,” he breaks off, looking between them, at the huge grins on all their faces. “What is this?”

“A surprise party, dumbass!” says Lance. “For you! This is your birthday party!”

“What,” says Keith weakly.

“I was organizing Sendak’s files this morning,” says Shiro, stepping forward. “And I saw your employee contract. With your birth date on it. I thought maybe you would mention it when you came in, but you didn’t.”

“So Shiro texts me like, Did you know it’s Keith’s birthday today,” Lance says. “And I was like, no, no I did not, because of course you didn’t mention it to anyone, which put me in a tough spot because how are you supposed to pull together an awesome party in like four hours? How, Keith?”

Keith opens his mouth. And closes it.

“But,” Lance continues. “We totally did it. Shiro found this place, it’s all ages so tiny baby Pidge can come in—”

“Eat a dick, Lance,” says Pidge.

“And Hunk and I came up with a great way to get you here.”

“Hoarding situation,” says Hunk.

“And Pidge made sure you didn’t stay on another shift, and Allura—well, you’re about to find out.”

Allura steps forward. “We weren’t sure what to get you at first, Keith. You’re a rather difficult person to shop for.”

You didn’t have to get me anything, Keith tries to say, but nothing comes out.

“So we all brainstormed. And finally we came upon the perfect gift.”

She pulls a thin envelope from her coat pocket and passes it to Keith.

Hands shaking, mind completely whited out, he opens it and takes out the single piece of paper inside. He unfolds it. 

 

CERTIFICATE OF ADOPTION

THIS IS TO CERTIFY THAT
    KEITH KOGANE    
HAS ADOPTED
      RED KOGANE      
AND WELCOMED THEM INTO THEIR FOREVER HOME.
      11/18/2016      

 

Keith reads it a second time.

A third.

On the fourth reread, he realizes his vision is blurring.

Carefully, he refolds the certificate and puts it back inside the envelope. He cannot look up at Allura, Lance, any of them. If he does, he will completely fall apart. 

“Um,” he says, and his voice comes out raw and cracking around the edges and he can’t even do anything about it. “Um. Thank you. This is—um, this is—”

He presses a hand over his mouth and turns around to face the street.

He will not start crying right now. He refuses.

“Oh my god, Keith,” says Pidge from behind him. “You sweet little possum.”

“If he cries,” says Hunk, “I’m totally gonna cry. Just warning everyone.”

“I’m not crying,” Keith says. His voice breaks.

“Oh my god,” says Hunk. “Oh, it’s happening. I’m tearing up.”

“Shut up!” says Keith.

“This is precious,” Allura whispers loudly.

Keith takes a deep breath and turns back around, wiping his eyes. He is confronted by possibly the worst thing he’s ever seen, which is his entire friend group gazing at him with expressions ranging from fond to amused to tearful (Hunk).

“It’s a good gift,” he says, and clears his throat. “Thanks.”

“Can we please just group hug already,” says Hunk.

They group hug. It is the first group hug Keith has ever been a part of, and he finds he doesn’t really mind it. He ends up squished between Lance and Hunk, with one of Pidge’s bony fucking elbows digging into his ribs, and his face is sort of pressed into Lance’s neck and he isn’t really sure who he’s even holding onto (Shiro? Allura?) but it’s—good. It’s good.

“Oookay,” Pidge says finally, and worms their way out of the hug. “Enough sappy stuff. Let’s get this party started.”

Lance cheers. Allura laughs and holds her drink in the air. 

Keith follows them all inside the karaoke bar, and he doesn’t even try not to smile.

***

They start off with tequila shots for everyone except Pidge, and go from there. The bar is nice inside, not too packed or loud or overwhelming, and there’s colored lights and a disco ball and a bunch of tables and chairs and fat, overstuffed couches all facing the karaoke stage. Allura orders the drinks, insisting that Keith not pay for a single thing tonight, and when he tosses back his shot, the tequila burns all the way down.

He hasn’t had anything to drink in—well, maybe since he dropped out of school. He simply can’t afford it, and besides, he’s never been quite low enough to feel like drinking alone.

This isn’t drinking alone. This is drinking in public, surrounded by people he trusts. The tequila tastes sharp and medicinal and honestly kind of awful, but Keith takes another shot anyway.

When he pushes the shot glass back across the bar, his arm brushes Lance’s. That’s another kind of burn.

“All right!” says Allura, clapping her hands. “Who’s up first for karaoke?”

All five of them turn to look at Keith.

“No,” he says, and then feels a bit guilty. “Maybe when I’m actually drunk.”

“Mission: Get Keith Drunk,” says Pidge. “I wanna see you sing.”

“You really do not.”

“Oh my god, fine,” Lance breaks in. “I’ll go first. You guys are so lame. Hunk?”

Hunk puts down his appletini. “The uzhe?”

“You know it, bro.”

“What’s their usual,” Keith asks Allura.

“You’ll see,” she says, and winks at him.

He only has to wait a few minutes before it’s Lance and Hunk’s turn to sing, and even those minutes feel sort of simultaneously quick and eternal; Keith has pretty much no tolerance, and the two tequila shots already have him a bit tipsy. He stands on his tiptoes when Lance and Hunk step up onto the stage, craning his neck to see which song they’re doing.

The words start scrolling.

“Wait,” says Keith. “This looks familiar.”

As he learns two seconds later, and then for the next four minutes, is that Lance and Hunk’s usual is “I Will Always Love You.”  

With choreographed dance moves.

And harmonizing.

And honestly? They’re both really good singers. Hunk has a rich, full voice deeper than his speaking voice, almost a bass, and Lance—god, Lance’s voice is smooth and light and he’s hitting some fucking Whitney Houston level high notes, like belting it out and hitting every note, what the fuck. It’s “I Will Always Love You” and it’s karaoke and it’s accompanied by ridiculous jazz hands and arm waves and once Lance even gets on his knees like he’s proposing to Hunk, but it’s somehow really good.

What the fuck.

Frankly, Keith was not expecting this. He knows that Lance plays guitar and does singalong songs for kids or whatever, but the amount of vocal talent required for “Baby Beluga” isn’t exactly astronomical.

This, however. Different story.

Pidge catches sight of the look on Keith’s face and says, too innocently, “Oh, did you not know Lance can sing?”

“No, I did not,” says Keith, and then, “I need another drink.”

Pidge snorts. Keith ditches them for the bar, ordering a third tequila shot and then a shot of vodka just to mix things up. Fuck it, today is his birthday. His friends threw him a surprise party. He’s allowed to celebrate. 

Over the next couple hours, the others all take turns on the karaoke stage. Hunk sings something called “Thinking Out Loud,” which makes Lance nudge Keith and say, “Jesus, here we go again, my boy’s about to get like fifty free drinks, he’s just so soulful,”; Pidge sings “All Star” by Smash Mouth and gets the entire bar singing along; even Shiro and Allura get up onstage and sing “Cheek to Cheek,” and simultaneously Keith learns that Shiro and Allura, though otherwise talented and capable, are both absolutely fucking tone deaf.

Lance sings the most out of anyone. He starts with “Anaconda,” which Keith actually recognizes because Lance plays it in the coffee shop a lot, and because Pidge occasionally finds it necessary to respond to reasonable questions with shit like, “I dunno, Keith, I just can’t really see that happening. I’m really busy this week, and also, jeez, my anaconda don’t want none? I mean, unless you’ve got buns, hon.”

Anyway, yeah, Lance sings “Anaconda.” There are dance moves involved. Really just an excessive amount of pelvic thrusting, in Keith’s opinion.

Then it’s “Bitch Better Have My Money,” “Baby One More Time,” that old Spice Girls song about if you wanna be my lover. Lance’s energy seems boundless, bottomless. He dances around the stage, raps and sings and gets the crowd singing along, gets people cheering and clapping and whistling.

Four shots deep, Keith can’t help but watch him. He squints, swaying slightly on his barstool, picking out all the tiny details: the colored lights playing across Lance’s face, the sweat on his cheeks and throat, the way his eyes keep finding Keith even at the back of the room.

“Hey, man,” says Hunk in Keith’s ear. “You wanna join us for the next one? We wanna get the whole gang up there.”

“What song,” says Keith. His mouth feels slow, novocaine-numb. When he smiles, it feels like dragging something through deep water.

“It’s a surprise,” says Hunk. “But I promise you’ll at least recognize it. C’mon, birthday boy.”

Smile, smile. Keith nods and hops off his barstool and grabs Hunk’s sleeve for support. They wind through the tables and climb up onto the stage, where Lance, Shiro, Allura, and Pidge are already waiting for them.

Keith grins at all of them, so big that his eyes crinkle up and his cheeks hurt. These people are miraculously, inexplicably his friends. His friends who found out it was his birthday and immediately planned him a party and got him the best present ever. His friends.

“Oh, buddy,” says Lance. “Having fun?”

Keith hides his grin behind his hands. “Uh huh.”

“Ready for some karaoke?” says Lance, and passes him a microphone.

The music starts up, the words start scrolling, and together the six of them sing “Uptown Funk.” Well—five of them sing “Uptown Funk,” with a lot of enthusiasm and dancing and giggling mid-lyric. Keith sort of sings every third word, because he’s only heard this song like once and also his brain is kind of slow on the uptake right now.

They’re a mess. A loud, laughing, tipsy mess.

It’s maybe the happiest Keith has ever been.

***

Lance, being Lance, doesn’t let Keith off the hook after one song. Three groups later, he drags Keith up onstage again, just the two of them this time. Keith tosses his fifth (sixth?) drink back before he goes, wipes his mouth, stumbles into Lance a little when they stop beneath the pulsing lights.

“Whoa there,” Lance says in his ear. “You good, dude?”

Keith grabs at Lance’s shoulder to steady himself, letting his fingers curl into Lance’s T-shirt. He looks up at Lance, knowing he’s grinning like a total doofus and unable to stop or control it. “I’m really good.”

“I guess I can see that. Oooh, here comes the song!”

He hands Keith a microphone and nudges him in the direction of the screen. The room swims a little every time Keith moves, or rather wavers, like he’s at the bottom of a pool facing upward, seeing everything through water. He blinks slowly. Oh, there go the words. Does he know this song?

Wait, he totally does know this song. He actually likes this song, not that he’d ever in a million years admit it to Lance. It’s Nicki Minaj? And someone else. Lance plays it a lot in the coffee shop, which means Keith’s had it stuck in his head for like a month.

“Bottoms up, bottoms up, ay, what’s in your cup,” Lance is half singing, half laughing, elbowing Keith. “Come on!” he says, “Sing, asshole, this isn’t a solo—shit, now I’m behind—throw your hands up, tell security we ‘bout to tear this club up—”

The words are moving across the screen really fast; he keeps trying to sing along and then the screen changes and he’s lost again. Beside him, Lance is profoundly distracting. He’s warm and his shoulder is solid under Keith’s fingers, which are still clutching his shirt, and he’s sweaty and it should be gross but it isn’t.

There, in the crowd, there’s Hunk and Pidge sharing a basket of fries. Shiro and Allura are sitting a couple tables away, their heads bent close together. Keith wants to wave, but he doesn’t have any hands free. He can’t let go of Lance’s shirt.

Oh, the Nicki Minaj bit is coming up. Keith likes that bit.

“You’re leaving me hanging, dude!” says Lance.

“Oh my god, fine,” says Keith, and then Nicki Minaj’s first yo comes on the screen, and he just sort of goes with it.

(He may or may not rap this verse to himself like, at least three times per day. Not on purpose, it just gets stuck in his head.)

By the fourth line, Lance has stopped attempting to rap along and is just sort of gaping at Keith.

By the tenth line, he’s laughing in a shocked sort of way.

After that, he just stands back and watches Keith rap his drunken way through Nicki’s verse, whooping into his microphone whenever Keith gets a line exactly right. When Lance smiles, it’s with a flash of white, white teeth. The lights keep making new angles on his face. New shadows.

The verse ends. Keith jolts back a little, startled, when the crowd roars. There is an entire bar’s worth of people clapping and cheering and wolf-whistling at him. Why would you cheer for karaoke?

He shuffles over to Lance and pokes at his shoulder. “Why are they cheering.”

“Uh,” says Lance. “Because you’re fucking awesome?”

Keith frowns at him.

“Don’t give me that grumpy cat shit,” says Lance. “You just nailed a Nicki verse. It was a revelation.”

There’s a smile playing at the edges of his mouth.

His wide, crooked mouth.

“I’m drunk,” Keith mumbles, turning away.

“Yes you are,” says Lance. “C’mon, buddy. Let’s get you some water.”

*** 

Keith spills half the water all over his shirt. He peers down at it. “Oh.”

“Oookay,” says Lance. “I think you’ve hit the limit.”

Keith scowls at him. “No.”

“Wow,” says Pidge, and when did they get here? Oh, and there’s everyone else. Keith smiles at them around his cup of water. “Keith is trashed. Someone take photos.”

“No photos,” says Shiro, because bless him.

“Are you having a good birthday, Keith?” asks Allura.

He nods so hard it hurts his shoulders a little. “Yeah,” he says over the music and the noise from the rest of the bar, and meets all their eyes in turn, because it’s really important that they understand how much this means to him. “Thank you. This is the, the nicest thing anyone’s ever done for me. It’s the best birthday I’ve ever had.”

“Aw, buddy,” says Hunk.

“No, really!” says Keith, tipping forward on his stool. He catches himself on Lance’s arm, leans into him. “Seriously. I never had a birthday party before.”

For a moment, they all just look at him.

Then Lance says, “Wait. What?”

“When I was seven I think my foster mom, I think she got a cake,” he says, and sighs. “I was with her for, um, six months? So the longest. But I never had a party before."

“Keith,” says Hunk. “Can I hug you?”

“Why?”

“I’m drunk. And I just want to.”

Keith shrugs. “Okay. C’mere, big guy.”

Hunk wraps him in a huge bear hug, rocking him back and forth. Keith doesn’t really hug back—doesn’t quite have the coordination or the arm span—but he gropes at one of Hunk’s elbows. It’s awesome.

They break apart, and Shiro says, “Ready to head home, Keith?”

“But I’m having fun.”

“You’ll have even more fun when you wake up in the morning hydrated and fully rested. C’mon, kiddo.”

Kiddo. I’m like, three years younger than you.”

“Five,” Shiro and Allura say at the same time, and then look at each other and honest-to-God giggle. Ew.

Keith sighs and slides off his barstool, still gripping Lance’s arm for support. They leave the bar like that, surrounded by their gaggle of friends, because Keith can’t quite bring himself either to let go of Lance entirely or just hold his hand, chalk it up to drunkenness. He stays in limbo.

Outside, the midnight air is fucking freezing. He shivers, his hoodie too thin to block out the cold, and leans further into Lance’s heat.

“Here,” says Lance, stepping away for a second, and then he’s draping his own olive green hoodie over Keith’s shoulders. Keith shoves his arms into the sleeves and pulls it tight around him. Lance’s arms are longer than his, and the sleeves droop over his fingers. Sweater paws.

He holds them up in front of Lance’s face and laughs a little. “Look.”

“Very nice,” says Lance, and then, “Shut up, Pidge.”

“Speaking of Pidgeotto,” says Hunk, “I’m going home with them. We’re gonna drunk play Final Fantasy.”

“Speak for yourself, drunky,” says Pidge, “I am a child.”

“’Kay,” says Lance to Hunk. “Have fun, love you.”

“Love you too, bro.”

Keith pokes Lance in the arm. “I don’t remember where I parked Scarlet.”

“Uh,” says Lance. “If you think you’re biking home right now, bucko, you are sorely mistaken. You’re drunk AF, I’m calling us an Uber.”

“Oh. Am I going home with you?”

“If you want,” says Lance, fiddling with his phone.

“I do want,” says Keith. “I miss Red. But your couch is comfy.”

Someone coughs loudly. Lance says, “Shut up, Pidge.

“Be good, children,” says Allura. “Best behavior.”

“Oh my god,” says Lance. “Obviously. Jesus.”

“What?” says Keith.

“Don’t worry about it. Okay, Uber will be here soon. Shiro, ‘Lura, you guys wanna tag along?”

“No thank you,” says Allura. “Shiro’s sober. He will be driving me home.”

“I will?” says Shiro, and then, “Right. Yes. Okay.” His face is bright red even in the faint light of the streetlamps.

Ew.

“Gross,” Lance whispers into Keith’s ear. Keith snickers and lets his head tip onto Lance’s shoulder, feeling very sleepy all of a sudden. But this is the good kind of sleepy—not like when he’s exhausted after a horrible eight-hour shift, just like, he’s so warm right now, and he feels safe and comfortable and happy, like if he closed his eyes right now all he’d see is gold, gold, gold.

“I can’t believe Keith turns into a cat when he’s drunk,” says Pidge from somewhere to his left. “He’s so cuddly. This is disgusting.”

“Shut up, Pidge,” Keith mumbles into Lance’s T-shirt.

“Yeah, Pidge,” says Lance. “Don’t be a hater.”

“Pidge is such a hater,” says Keith, and feels it when Lance cracks up. Lance always laughs with his whole body, eyes crinkled and shoulders shaking, like the sheer force of his laugh can’t be contained in one person. Like it reverberates around the room, sound waves or light particles or something equally powerful and invisible, and anyone it touches starts laughing too.

First Hunk and Pidge’s Uber pulls up, and then Shiro and Allura break off and head up the block toward Shiro’s car. Then it’s just Lance and Keith waiting there on the cold, dark sidewalk, the karaoke bar loud and lit-up behind them, casting half Lance’s face in pink, purple, blue light.

Keith realizes he’s looking up into Lance’s face. He’s been looking up into it for probably too long. This close together, the couple inches Lance has on him are even more obvious. Keith would have to compensate for them, get on his tiptoes or pull Lance down or both, if he wanted to kiss that sweet, laughing mouth.

Lance pulls out his phone to check on the Uber. Before he opens the app, just for a moment, Keith catches a glimpse of his phone background.

It’s Keith’s selfie. The first one he ever took. Red takes up most of the photo, but half of Keith’s face is showing in the corner, one eye and his nose and most of his smile.  

He only sees it for a second, long enough that he could have imagined it.

But he doesn’t think he did.

“Thank you,” he says quietly, staring past Lance’s ear. “For tonight. Seriously.”

“Of course,” Lance says. His voice is equally quiet, equally soft. “Everyone deserves a birthday party.”

“Yeah, well. When I was a kid—um, when I was a kid—,” Keith forces himself to meet Lance’s eyes. “I lived in a lot of places. Mostly around here. Sometimes other states. I lost count of how many houses total. I never felt like I had—you know, a family. Or a home. Like on the fucking, the fucking adoption certificate. A ‘forever home.’”

Lance swallows. Keith feels his eyes flick down to Lance’s throat and back up again.

Did Lance just move closer?

Did he tip his head down, just a little?

“It’s stupid,” Keith whispers. “It’s cheesy, I know. But I’m allowed to be cheesy, right? I’m drunk.”

“Yeah,” Lance whispers, and then blinks hard and seems to shake himself. “Right. Yes. Yeah, dude, you’re—drunk, you’re really drunk.” He steps away. “Uber should be here any second.”

“Oh,” says Keith. His entire front feels cold.

The ride back to Lance’s takes maybe ten minutes but seems longer. Keith presses his forehead to the cool window and watches the streetlights and 24-hour bodegas and brightly lit bars go past. He watches headlights smear like yellow paint across the car seats.

At one point, they turn a sharp corner and Keith leans sideways into Lance, who took the middle seat, and he just sort of—doesn’t lean back. He drops his head onto Lance’s shoulder and closes his eyes.

“You’re really warm,” he mumbles, so quiet that maybe Lance can’t hear him over the Uber driver’s jazz music. “’S nice.”

“Thanks,” says Lance, and clears his throat.

“Mm.” Keith nudges closer, curling his whole body into Lance’s. He knows vaguely that he probably shouldn’t be doing this—that he wouldn’t be doing this sober—but it’s just so good, it feels so fucking good, and Keith rarely has things that feel good. Rarely does things that feel good.

He wishes he could reach out and hold Lance’s hand. Not even hold it, just brush his fingertips along Lance’s palm, trace the lines of him like reading Braille. He settles for wriggling deeper into Lance’s hoodie. It smells like him, soap and clean laundry and boy.

“Thank you,” he says again.

“It was everyone,” says Lance. “We all made it happen.”

“But it was your idea. So. Thank you. For the best birthday ever.”

“You’re welcome.” Lance rests his cheek on Keith’s head. “And not that tonight wasn’t great, but I’m pretty sure next year we can beat it.”

“Next year?”

“Sure, dude. Unless you like, spontaneously move out of the country.”

“I won’t.”

“Then yeah. Same time next year.” Lance huffs a little. “Blow karaoke out of the water.”

Keith marvels at that idea. Same time next year. Between growing up in foster care and dropping out of law school, he’s never had a reliable next year in his life. There was never any surety in his own future, never a promise that next year would be better, or not worse, or include the same people. The same home.

“Next year,” he says softly. “Okay.”

***

Lance’s apartment is dark when they get inside. They leave the lights off; Keith holds onto the back of Lance’s T-shirt and lets Lance lead him through the living area, skirting around the couch and the coffee table.

Keith tries to go for the couch, but Lance holds him back. “Nah,” he says, “you can take my bed. I’ll take the couch.”

“What? No, ‘s your bed,” says Keith, slurring a little. “I’m the guest.”

“You’re also drunk and the birthday boy. Take my bed. You don’t wanna wake up with a crick in your neck and hungover.”

“Aren’t you drunk?”

“No,” says Lance. “I am tragically sober. C’mon, Keith, take the bed.”

Keith rolls his eyes. “Fine, if you’re so desperate to be, like, chivalrous.”

“I am. Follow me.”

He leads Keith down the short hallway and into his bedroom. Normally Keith would be looking all around, taking in the details off it, but right now it’s dark and he’s sleepy and he can’t focus on much anyway. All he can really see is moonlight slanting through the curtains, catching on books and a desk lamp and a navy blue bedspread.

Lance stops in the middle of the room, a couple feet from the bed. Keith almost bumps into him.

“Welp,” says Lance. “Here it is. Bed’s there, bathroom’s out in the hall. Do you think you’re gonna throw up?”

“No.”

“Okay, well, sleep on your side anyway.” He scratches the back of his head. “Do you need, um, pajamas?”

“I don’t like sleeping with clothes on.”

“Okay,” says Lance. “Great. Good to know.”

Oh, right, he probably doesn’t want Keith nuding it up in his bed. “I’ll leave my boxers on. Is that okay?”

“Uh huh,” says Lance.

Keith pulls off Lance’s hoodie and his own without another word, then tugs his Henley up and over his head. Then it’s his boots and socks and finally his jeans, which he leaves in a little puddle on the floor. He stretches, luxuriating in the feeling of warmth against his skin. His apartment’s heating is shit. He had to make Red a little nest right by the space heater so she never gets too cold.

That thought makes his stomach drop. “Lance,” he blurts, and stumbles forward, grabbing at the front of Lance’s shirt. “Lance.”

“Wait,” says Lance, “Keith, hold on, you’re drunk—”

“Do you think Red is happy with me?”

Lance blinks.

“Like. I got her toys and I feed her and cuddle her and everything, and she likes sleeping on my stomach,” says Keith, “but I work a lot, do you think she gets bored or sad, and also does she know I’m coming home to her? She knows she’s not abandoned again, right? Lance?”

“She knows,” says Lance. “Cats know who’s good to them, who cares for them. They trust you. They love you back.”

“Okay, because I love Red so much, Lance. I used to not really like going home but now I do. She waits at the door for me.” He grabs Lance’s face with both hands and tugs him down so they’re eye level. “Lance. I love my stupid fucking cat so much.”

“She loves you back,” says Lance. “She’s happy with you. I promise.”

“Good,” says Keith, and lets go of Lance’s face. “That’s good.”

“It is,” Lance says almost gently. “C’mon, let’s get you into bed.”

Keith goes without much resistance, clambering into Lance’s bed and curling up beneath the covers. He pulls them up to his chin and looks up at Lance. “Hi.”

“Hi,” says Lance, mouth twitching. “Tired?”

“Uh huh.”

“Sleep on your side, okay? I’ll be in the living room, come get me if you need anything. Oh—hold on a sec.” He leaves and comes back a minute later with a glass of water. “Here. Try to drink all that.”

“’Kay.”

“Okay. Goodnight, Keith.”

“Night, Lance,” Keith whispers, and closes his eyes. The last thing he feels is Lance’s hand on his shoulder over the blankets. The last thing he sees is Lance’s face—and beyond him the glow in the dark stars plastered all over his bedroom ceiling, as if something about Lance McClain is so damn irresistible that the night sky itself wheels above him when he sleeps.

Gravity.

***

Unlike most mornings, Keith wakes up with a splitting headache, a horrible taste in his mouth, and the smell of Lance’s hair. He takes a deep breath and just lays there for a moment with his eyes closed, trying to remember why exactly it feels like his head is cracking apart like an eggshell.

Then he remembers. And sits bolt upright.

He regrets it immediately, stomach lurching. “Fuck,” he hisses, looking wildly around Lance’s room. Desk, laundry hamper, bookcase, bed, bed, which he is currently in, he slept in Lance’s bed last night what the fuck. Guitar case in the corner. Stuff on the walls: a Cuban flag, a poster of somewhere called Varadero Beach, with white sand and palm trees and glittering jewel-blue water. And everywhere, everywhere, photos: Lance surrounded by girls who must be his sisters, Lance with two babies on his lap, Lance with someone who looks like maybe his grandma; ten-year-old Lance on a stepstool in a sunlit kitchen, stirring something in a red mixing bowl while a woman who must be his mother looks on with a smile.

She’s got his eyes. His nose. Despite the headache, Keith gets out of bed and inspects the photos one by one, and he sees pieces of Lance everywhere: his freckles, his sharp chin, his ridiculous laugh.

Lance mentioned he has a big family, but Keith never really thought about the truth of that statement. He knew, obviously, that Lance didn’t just spring up out of nowhere in chilly, woodsy Northern California. He looks like someone who grew up bathed in sunlight and heat, someone who carries the ocean in their eyes.

Keith knew, obviously, that Lance has a family. A forever home. He just never quite absorbed the fact that somewhere in the world there’s a bunch of people who look like Lance. Who made him and shaped him and love him and are waiting, always, for him to come back.

Oh, Keith thinks, a little numb. He turns away from the photos and checks the time on his phone. Just past eight. Shiro told him last night that he and Matt are covering Keith’s morning shift, so he’s free to go back to bed. Sleep in for once in his life. Think about how much he doesn’t really remember what happened last night after he and Lance Ubered home from the bar. He remembers—he remembers being so sleepy and so warm and so comfortable, and shimmying out of his clothes, and tipping onto the bed. He doesn’t remember much else. Literally all he can hope for is that he didn’t say or do anything completely humiliating.

(He knows he said something about—how he grew up. He knows Lance knows now. If there is a God, Lance will not look at Keith any differently. He will not show pity. If there is a God—)

Keith’s head hurts.

Instead of sleeping in, he searches for his clothes. When he can’t find them, he pulls on Lance’s hoodie and pads out to the kitchen.

Twenty minutes later, Keith has a fresh pot of coffee brewing and even managed to scrounge up some Eggos from the freezer. He’s rooting through the cabinets for peanut butter when he hears Lance wake up.

(Lance was curled up on the couch when Keith came into the living area, head poking out from beneath a thick blue comforter. Keith allowed himself five seconds of looking, and nothing more.)

When Lance comes into the kitchen, he’s got pillow creases on one cheek and his hair is sticking up in the back. He’s wearing Spiderman boxers and a T-shirt that says BAD HOMBRE and he is sleep-rumpled and soft around the edges and the sun is lighting him up from behind, kissing him gold.

“Hi,” says Keith, and Lance starts a little. He opens his eyes entirely and blinks at Keith like he’s not sure what he’s seeing.

Keith fights the urge to look down at himself. He is newly, incredibly aware that he’s wearing boxers and Lance’s hoodie and absolutely nothing else, and also he hasn’t looked in the mirror yet this morning and his hair is probably a disaster. Awesome.

He braces himself for Lance to say something about last night. Like, hey, I didn’t know you grew up in foster care, wanna talk about that for 6 hours? Or, hey, so, you totally tried to drunkenly come onto me and now I’m weirded out and I hate you. Or something.

“Hey,” says Lance. “What are you doing?”

“Coffee,” says Keith, trying not to sound relieved. “And toaster waffles.”

Lance shuffles over to the coffee maker and pours himself a cup, takes a sip.

“What the fuck,” he says.

“What?” says Keith. “I didn’t fuck it up, did I?”

“What the fuck,” Lance says again. “I make coffee on this thing like every freaking day and it’s never this good. What the fuck. How do you make black coffee taste better.”

“Forgot to mention. I did in fact sell my soul to the coffee gods.”

“Ahh. That explains everything.” Lance grabs milk from the fridge. “Want some?”

“Sure.” Keith pushes his own mug of black coffee over, and Lance comes to stand beside him, pouring the milk. Their arms brush. “Thanks for letting me stay over. Sorry I stole your bed."

“No worries. How’re you feeling?”

Keith groans. “I’ll be better after coffee.”

“And water! Drink lots of water!”

“I will, I will.”

They smile at each other. And Keith thinks—

Keith thinks, Kiss me, come on, just lean down and do it, just kiss me and don’t stop smiling and let me kiss it off your mouth, just fucking kiss me, kiss me—

The toaster dings.

“Oh,” says Keith, and wrenches himself away. “The waffles.”

“Toaster waffles,” Lance scoffs. “Toaster waffles for a post-birthday hangover breakfast. Not under my roof, Kogane.”

“Then what do you suggest?”

“Um, only the greatest hangover breakfast of all time?” He goes to the fridge and starts pulling out eggs, chile salsa, half an onion. He tosses the onion at Keith, who catches it with one hand. “Chop that. I think I’ve got some corn tortillas around here somewhere….”

“What are we making?”

“My dad’s huevos rancheros, bro. AKA the taste of my childhood. Well, that and flan and coffee and ropa vieja and then also this pizza shack on the boardwalk with these freaking life-changing garlic knots. God, I miss home.”

Keith chops the onion carefully. “You grew up in Cuba?”

“Varadero Beach, yeah. Most of my family still lives there, but my older sister’s in SoCal and a few of my cousins are in New York doing the acting thing.”

“That’s good,” says Keith. “That you’re not, um, alone or anything.”

Lance hums as he tips tortillas into a frying pan. “I mean, I wouldn’t be anyway. I’ve got Hunk and all you guys, plus the shelter, plus classes, plus my other jobs. I’m never alone. I just get homesick sometimes.”

Keith nods, not sure what to say.

“Shit,” says Lance, and turns to look at him. “Shit, Keith, I’m sorry. I wasn’t—sorry, I don’t need to talk about this shit. I just ramble. You can always tell me to shut up.”

It takes Keith a second to realize Lance feels bad for like, talking about his family when Keith doesn’t have one. “Don’t be a dumbass,” he says. “I’m not a delicate flower. I—I wanna hear about this stuff. Your stuff.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah. I mean. We’re friends,” says Keith. “Right?”

“Right,” says Lance. “Of course, bro. You done with the onion?”

“Yeah.”

“Cool, pass it over here. I’m about to show you how to make the perfect fried egg.”

***

They sit at the coffee table in the living area to eat, sunlight falling in warm squares across the table. Lance scrolls through Twitter and Keith reads HuffPost and they both just sit there in comfortable silence, drinking coffee. And Keith feels like he could do this a hundred times. A thousand. More.

He looks at Lance and feels a new sensation come over him. It’s like light sliding up your body as the sun rises outside; it’s like wading into a warm, jewel-blue ocean, stepping slowly and purposefully into the swells. It’s like the growth of a new universe inside his skin, the expansion of something beautiful and incredible and endlessly fascinating, something he could spend the rest of his life exploring and never run out of things to discover. Something that’s been inside him for a while but is only now expanding enough to make its presence known.

He looks at Lance and realizes this must be what it feels like to find your forever home.

He looks at Lance and realizes there’s a word for this.

Three, really.

I love him, Keith thinks, watching Lance’s long fingers tap against his mug, his phone, the tabletop. Perpetual motion machine, this boy. Keith loves it.

Keith loves him.

Lance looks up. Their eyes meet across the table and Lance smiles around his coffee mug, sun in his eyes. Keith thinks, I love him. Does it show? It feels so obvious. It feels like Lance should be able to read it right off his face.

But Lance goes back to his phone. Keith sits there, beginning at last to panic. Fuck, he thinks, fuck, oh fuck. There was the wading, the treading water: now he drowns.

I love him, he thinks helplessly, water closing over his head. Oh, god.

*** 

For the huge, earth-shattering revelation that it was, being the gayest and most pathetic motherfucker on the planet doesn’t really screw with Keith’s routine.

Lance, totally oblivious to the horrible ocean of angst and humiliation that is Keith’s current emotional state, continues on as normal. He stops by the coffee shop. He annoys the ever-loving shit out of Keith. He is stupid and charming and although the hours tick by just the same as before, Keith feels like he’s in an entirely different time zone than everyone around him. Days measured in texts, in conversations, in the occasional hug or pat on the shoulder that leave him reeling, breathless.

He loves Lance. It’s a fact that changes nothing. Except for the new persistent ache in him, the terrifying dependency on Lance’s crooked smiles, the way his eyes crinkle when he laughs, the way he never stops moving.

Jesus, Keith needs to get a grip.

He’s smack dab in the middle of their early evening Sunday closing—a blessed 11 p.m. rather than 2 a.m.—when he gets a text from Lance.

 

LANCE!!! (^=˃ᆺ˂)
catmergency meeting at my place tonight 8pm

Keith
Throwing me another surprise party? My birthday’s not for another year, Lance.

LANCE!!! (^=˃ᆺ˂)
i wish

but no 

this time its real. no ruse

Keith
Everything ok?

LANCE!!! (^=˃ᆺ˂)
thats what the meeting’s about. we’re not sure.

 

Keith raises an eyebrow at his phone, but resigns himself to the fact that he’s going to be there regardless. There’s no point in resisting when it comes to Lance.

He’s a little surprised when Pidge and Shiro show up at Lance’s as well. Allura, Hunk, and Lance are already there, looking somber. Like karaoke night, Keith is hit with the startling, lightning-shock realization that somewhere between finding a pillow case of kittens and here, this moment, they all became friends.

And he kind of started it.

“So,” Pidge says, perching on the arm of the lumpy floral sofa. “What’s the sitch?”

The Cat Castle, apparently, is the sitch. In a steady voice, holding back what must be heartbreak, Allura begins to explain. Keith knew it was bad, because Lance worked way too many hours for how many times he saw customers enter the shelter a day. There was no balance to the amount of cats they got contacted to take in and the amount of people taking cats back out again.

“My father opened the Cat Castle before I was born. For years it’s been the central haven for strays and unwanted cats in this city. Even after he died, we maintained that integrity of mission. But,” her voice wavers, “I’m afraid that we’re nearing the end of what has been a beautiful journey.”

“How bad could it be?” Hunk asks hollowly. “We’ve been in the hole before, but we get by.”

“It’s bad.” Allura lowers herself onto the floor, looking exhausted. “I know I may sound like I’m exaggerating, but I’m not. Even in our most successful months this year, we’ve ended up in the hole. I’ve used all my resources, all my contacts. There’s just no way around it. If we don’t figure something out fast, we’ll be closed within the next six months.”

Silence settles over the group, stifling. Keith glances around at them all. At Shiro, who’s never been calmer than the days he visits the shelter and spends time with Allura. At Pidge, who’s been eyeing Green every time they see her for weeks now, and never smiles wider than when they’re holding Green in their arms.

The Galra Grinds crew is better off for having the Cat Castle across the street. It’s selfish but true. The thought of Lance not walking in the door every day with a kitten perched on his shoulder and a twinkle in his eye—Keith can’t imagine anything worse.

He thinks of the strays on his stoop, no homes of their own but always the safety net of the shelter should something happen to them, and feels sick.

There has to be a way to save the shelter. But what? What could the shitty barista from across the street do to help?

His hands suddenly itch to make a hot latte, to soothe the dread in his stomach.

And then he sits bolt upright, mind racing.

“We use the coffee shop,” he says, mouth on autopilot. “Show the cats to customers and bring them over to hang, just like Lance with the kittens. Adopt a cat, get free coffee for a week. I can make up themed drinks, real drinks, good drinks, named after each of the cats. We circulate it, kinda like a secret menu. And all proceeds go to the shelter. We market all of this shit on social media. College students would go nuts for it.”

All of them stare at Keith. Keith stares back, because honestly? He’s kind of stunned at himself, too.

“That’s…,” says Allura. “That’s not a bad idea. Adoptions in the shelter can stress people out, seeing all the animals can make the decision difficult. But if we brought over a few cats at a time, get interest kicking—”

“We could take Polaroids of all the other cats,” Hunk breaks in. “Lay them out for temporary décor on the counter, tape them to the walls. We could even make a Facebook page. You know those food trucks that have different locations every day? Well, we could do that. Different days of the week, different cats.”

“Hunk! You’re a genius!” says Lance. “Get the white board! We gotta get this stuff down.”

Five minutes later, they’ve pulled a huge white board out of Hunk’s room and everyone’s talking over each other in the effort to get their ideas out. Everyone’s energized, a fire in their bellies, and the more bullet points they add to the list, the more they talk every idea into the ground until it’s ironed out, the more Keith thinks, we can do this. We can totally do this.

It’s a nice feeling, being able to contribute something that’s bigger than making shit coffee.

“Wait a minute.” Lance freezes halfway through yelling about social media. “Wait. What if Sendak walks in, and you guys get caught?”

The energy in the room gets sucked downwards and out like flushing a toilet.

“I know you’re trying to think of our jobs,” Keith says, “But this is more important. Like, this is bigger than Galra Grinds. I don’t know about Pidge and Shiro, but—this is important, you guys are important and the shelter is important and—yeah. So. I’m not going to worry about if Sendak sees, because he won’t. Because he never shows up to work anyways.”

It feels a bold admission, but he doesn’t regret it. They’re all looking at him the same way they did when Keith opened his birthday present, open affection that he neither deserves nor understands. He’s just doing what any decent person would do.

Shiro steps forward. “We know the risk we’re taking, Lance. But Keith’s right. We’re saving Allura’s father’s legacy, his dream. Nothing is more important, especially not Galra Grinds.”

Allura slips her hand into Shiro’s and squeezes it, eyes shining.

“Besides,” Pidge says. “If he tries to report it to Corporate, he’ll have to explain how the fuck he let this happen in the first place. Aka, fess up to never coming to work.”

Those answers seem to satisfy everyone else, and they get back to planning and talking loudly. But Lance continues to fret, walks over to sit next to Keith on the couch, turning over a blue  marker in his hands.

“You don’t have to do this, Keith,” he says in a low voice.  “If you get caught—”

“Look, it’s not like Sendak is ever there anyway. It’s the perfect opportunity, and you know it. We’re doing this,” Keith says firmly. “So shut up.”

Lance opens his mouth to argue, then closes it with a snap. “Thank you,” he says instead. “I know what a big sacrifice this is, I just. Thank you.”

Keith looks at him. “Hate to break it to you, dude, but you’re not Superman. You don’t have to save everything yourself. You’re allowed to have help.”

Head pillowed on the couch, Lance’s eyes soften, the fight seeping out of him. “No one’s ever said that to me before.”

Which is how Keith finds himself suddenly furious for anyone who’s ever taken advantage of Lance, his kindness, his compassion, his willingness to help and be useful at any point. He grapples with that fury for a solid ten seconds, before swallowing it back down and saying. “Well, someone should have.”

Their eyes lock, and then Hunk shouts, “Oi! Lance! Toss me the blue marker!” and they’re back in the fray of Operation: Save the Cats, all over again.

Before they know it, hours have passed. Keith’s legs are cramped from where they’ve been tucked into his chest, curled into the arm of the couch. The white board is chock full of lists and assignments, and the loud yelling has dwindled down into slow conversation and delirious laughter over stupid jokes, the kind that exist only at two a.m.

“Christ, I’m beat,” Keith yawns, sets off a chain reaction among the group, rippling around the circle as they’re hit with exhaustion at once. The yawns disintegrate into laughter all over again. Tired laughter, but good laughter just the same.  

“Guess that’s our cue then,” Allura smiles, rising daintily from her spot on the rug. “I’ll call Coran tomorrow and we will draw up a list of all the cats we can try and adopt on rotation.”

“Here, let me get you an Uber—,” Lance starts to say, but Shiro stands and says, softly, “Actually, I’ll take Allura home. Save you the money.”

Allura smiles shyly, tangles her fingers with his. Pidge makes a loud gagging noise, and they’re all laughing again, Shiro and Allura ducking out onto the snowy stoop, grinning and holding hands.

“Jeesh,” Lance says. “I’m so tired I could die. And there’s still work to be done in the morning.”

“At least you’re not opening in,” Keith glances at the clock on the wall, “three hours. Fuck.”

“Dibs on couch,” says Pidge, already cocooning themselves in the blankets and pressing their freezing toes to Keith’s leg so he has to get up.

“Dibs are yours, buddy,” says Hunk, standing, “I think I’m gonna crash too.”

“I’ll take a nap in the store room,” Keith says, reaching for his helmet and riding jacket. “Red’s got enough food for—”

“You,” says Lance, “are not going to ride your bike at 2 a.m. in the snow. Are you crazy? At best, you’ll freeze.”

“I can thaw in the coffee shop.”

Lance rolls his eyes like Keith is the stupidest person alive. “You’re spending the night. Not up for discussion.”

“Fine,” says Keith, earning a stuck out tongue from Lance and a getting another eye roll in return. They trudge to Lance’s bedroom, heavy footed and bleary eyed.

In his near drunken state of exhaustion, Keith had forgotten that Pidge had taken the only other comfortable place to sleep in the house other than Lance’s bed. He looks at the seemingly harmless mattress and its neatly made sheets, and tries not to panic.

“I’ll take the floor,” they say at the same time.  

“What the hell,” Keith balks, “No. I’ll take the floor, I had the bed last time!”

“You’re my guest! Get in the bed.”

“You get in the bed!”

Lance huffs, stubborn as all get out. Keith briefly contemplates curling up right there on in the doorway of the bedroom just to prove how serious he is about Lance taking the bed.

Suddenly, Lance’s posture shifts, rocking back on his heels, face going expressionless. “I mean,” he says casually, “We could both take the bed.”

Keith nearly chokes.

“I mean,” Lance adds, “it can fit us both. It’d be stupid to have one of us suffer on the floor while there is clearly room for two here. Like, in the Titanic, Jack could have clearly survived on that wooden plank with Rose. There was totally room, but noooo, he just had to be dramatic and drown. You know?” He stops, looking flustered. “Like. If that’s okay with you, that is.”

It takes the entirety of Lance’s rambling for Keith’s brain to reconnect to the rest of his body.  

“Uh. Yeah,” he says hoarsely, because it’s an actual struggle to form words at this point. “Yeah, it’s fine.”

(He didn’t mishear, did he? Lance said they should both sleep in the bed? The two of them? Two bodies? In a bed? Right?)

“Alright, cool,” says Lance. “Glad we solved that.”

“Same here,” says Keith.

“Right.”

“Yeah.”

“Y’all, I am trying to fucking sleep,” Pidge yells from the living room, startling both of them.

“Sorry!” Lance stage whispers, then, just to be extra obnoxious, “Goodnight Pidglet! Goodnight Hunky!”

“Jesus Christ, Lance, go the fuck to sleep,” Hunk hollers back.

Snickering, Lance closes the bedroom door and turns to Keith, who’s been standing helplessly in the middle of the room, shifting on his feet, unsure of what the fuck to do.

The last time he was here, he’d been shitfaced. There was no time for self-conscious fidgeting or shyness; he passed out half naked and that was all there was to it.

This is different. This is Keith stone cold sober, in Lance’s dark bedroom, with Lance. This is sharing a bed, with barely any layers of separation between them.

This is, in short, going to be the death of Keith. Mother fucker.

“You can borrow my toothpaste and mouthwash,” says Lance. “Uh, do you want some clothes to sleep in?”

“Ugh. Yeah, I reek. Forgot to do laundry,” says Keith, because of course he can’t just say thanks and leave it at that. Because he’s an idiot. He peels his fairly disgusting T-shirt off his back and casts it aside. “Just a shirt, thanks. I’ll keep my boxers on.”

“Yeah, sure,” Lance mutters, turning abruptly away from Keith as if to give him privacy. It’s dark in the room, but Keith’s naked chest isn’t anything Lance hasn’t seen before, given that whole drunken disrobing debacle.

Ugh.

It takes Lance way longer than he should to sift through his drawers and find a T-shirt. Keith stands in the chilly room, feeling increasingly exposed: arms crossed over his chest, all but shivering until Lance resurfaces a few moments later and tosses a shirt at Keith’s head. It’s a navy blue thermal shirt that says “#1 CAT MOM” in bold font with a bunch of cartoon cats sitting on top of the letters. Keith forces himself not to laugh.

“You’re shameless.”

“Says the whipped owner of one Red Kogane,” Lance says smoothly, grinning as Keith pulls the shirt over his head. He is suddenly all too aware of the proportions of his body, the way his ribs sometimes stick out when he misses one too many meals, the pale of his skin.

The shirt is soft and well worn and the second he pulls it over his head he feels heat rushing to his face. The way Lance smells, it’s practically woven into the fabric, now clinging to Keith’s skin, all around him. Oh, god. The shirt swims a bit around his waist, another reminder of all those missed meals. He tugs at the hem, bunches the sleeves to his elbows.

“Thanks again,” he says, raising his head to find Lance standing there, head cocked slightly. His eyes glitter in the dark. “For the bed. And the shirt.”

“Don’t mention it.”

They get ready for bed in silence, Lance taking a solid twenty minutes to go through what looks like the most complicated skin care regimen Keith—who has only ever scrubbed his face with a bar of soap in the shower—has ever seen. He rinses his mouth with Listerine and figures that’s as good as he’s gonna get for hygiene tonight. Shucks off his jeans while Lance finishes up, untucks the neatly made sheets and clambers into bed.

While Lance finishes up, Keith tries, for several agonizing minutes, to slow his breathing and fake sleep. It’s late. He’s exhausted. Sleep would be great right about now. But by the time Lance pads out of the bathroom, every muscle in Keith’s body is tensed, his eyes wide open as he faces the wall opposite the bathroom. He’s aware of everything in the room, but zeroed in on only one part of it.

There’s a pause in the footfalls, a breath that could either be a shaky laugh or a tired sigh, it’s difficult to tell, and then the mattress dips as Lance slips between the sheets. The sound of tossing and turning, a pillow being punched into shape. Hair rustling on the pillow. Another long sigh, sending a puff of warm air against the back of Keith’s neck.

Out of the corner of his eye Keith can see the ceiling. All those goddamn glow in the dark stars.

Beside him, Lance lets out a yawn. And, oh god, how Keith aches to touch him.

He keeps his hands jammed underneath his armpits, determined not to move.

“Night Keith,” Lance whispers.

What if I said it, Keith wonders. What if I told you I love you. What if I turned over and put my hand on your cheek. What if I threw myself at you and ruined it all. What if I didn’t care, as long as you knew.

“Goodnight, Lance.”

He lies awake for another hour, regulating his breathing, trying to slow the thundering of his heartbeat and ignore the warmth emanating from the other side of the bed, ignore those fucking stars. He wonders about Lance’s careful, specific stillness, just inches away. If he’s faking, too. 

***

Awareness comes in increments. First: the phone going off against Keith’s cheek, second: the smell of soap, of laundry detergent, of citrus face scrub.

Third: the softness of a bed which is decidedly not his.

His eyes snap open, head lifting as one hand gropes to shut off the alarm. His other hand—

His other hand is flung out, settled, fingers curled into the fabric of Lance’s T-shirt just over his heart. The rest of Keith is pretty far away from Lance; he spent most of the night on the farthest edge of the mattress, adamant about not invading Lance’s personal space.

Yet at some point, amidst dreams, his traitorous hand has reached across the bed to grasp at something warm.

This is weird, right? This is supposed to feel totally weird? And yet.

Keith feels warm, and bizarrely well-rested, and safe.

Keith feels like he doesn’t want to get up. Lance’s mouth is soft and open as he sleeps on his back, lashes flickering with dreams. His hair is mussed a bit where it’s pressed to the pillow. Even beneath the shirt that Keith is clutching, the heat coming off his skin is undeniable. Like Lance is a living furnace, made to thaw out the worst of the cold in everything around him.

Keith would pretty much give anything not to have to leave. And that is exactly why he carefully untangles his fingers from Lance’s shirt, rises from the bed, pulls his hoodie on. There’s snowfall on Scarlet when he steps outside the apartment into the icy morning, and the ride to work is bitter and cold but Keith walks into Galra Grinds feeling a certain sort of lightness inside him. Pidge is already heating up the first brew of the day, smirking.

“Sleep well?”

“Shut up,” Keith mutters. “I’m in a rare good mood, try not to ruin that.”

“I’m afraid it’s too late for that, bucko,” Pidge cackles, holding up their phone to show a photo of what Keith knows—even from this distance—is him and Lance sleeping, Keith’s fist curled in Lance’s shirt.

“Oh, Jesus,” he groans. “What do you want, Pidge?”

“I’m not sure yet,” says Pidge. Evil. “I guess you’ll find out.”

“You’re Satan’s minion, I swear.”

“Aw, but you’re so cute! All cuddled up and gay.”

“Satan’s minion,” Keith says again, scowling at them.

“Yeah, yeah, whatever. Should I let in the mob?”

“Go for it.”

Morning rush comes and goes. Keith’s dead tired and forgets to eat again, but for the first time in a while the morning doesn’t feel disastrous. His hair’s unwashed and tied up in a ponytail again, but not because he spent the last day and a half strung out and overworked. Because he was with friends. With Lance. Keith’s still tired—Keith’s always tired—but it’s a different kind of tired. There’s no other way of putting it.

He likes it.

There’s an Ariana Grande song stuck in his head, and he finds himself humming it, half-singing it, while he makes drinks and runs the register. He chats with customers. He hands over their drinks. He smiles. There’s no helping it.

Around noon, Jasmine the five-year old (I had a Dora the Explorer birthday party with a purple cake!!!!) steps up to the counter with her mom and asks about the kittens. Keith promises her that Kitten Boy will stop by eventually and makes her a hot chocolate of his own design while they wait. He’s talking to Jasmine’s mom about her PhD, stirring Jasmine’s hot chocolate, so caught up in all of it that he doesn’t notice Lance has come in until he’s literally standing right in front of Keith.

“Here you go,” Keith says, passing drinks across the counter to Jasmine’s mom. “One hot chocolate and one mocha mint latte.” He smiles and then, focusing on Lance, feels his smile grow impossibly wide and goofy. “Look what the cat dragged in. Please tell me you brought some kittens? I’ve had like five people ask about them already.”

Lance is staring at him. Gaping at him.

Keith stares back. There is nothing wrong with his face right now, he knows it for sure. He fights the urge to check his ponytail, make sure there’s nothing horrendous happening up there, and prods Lance a little more. “What’s wrong? Cat got your tongue?”

Another beat of silence. Panic flares up, sudden and sharp, in Keith’s stomach. Something’s wrong, isn’t it? It has to be. Why else would Lance be looking at him like this, his eyes wide with shock and his mouth open and his hands hanging uselessly at his sides?

“What is it?” Keith demands. “Is it the kittens? Is it Blue? Did something happen?”

“No,” Lance blurts out, speech returning in a rush, “Jesus, I. Calm down, there’s no need to hoist yourself over the counter. I was just—distracted.”

Distracted. With the look of someone who just got hit over the head with a frying pan.

“Okay,” Keith says slowly, easing back behind the counter. “And shut up, I wasn’t hoisting.”

“Sure you weren’t,” says Lance, back to normal. “Also, I’d like to order an espresso IV. Apparently it’s gonna be that kind of day.”

Frowning, Keith turns away and makes him a latte. Vanilla bean. Plain and simple. He feels Lance’s eyes on him the whole time, not curious, not expectant, not seeking anything, really. Just—watching Keith, studying him. It makes Keith hyperaware of his body, his movements, like he’s guilty of some unknown crime.

“You’re freaking me out,” he says finally, even as he pushes the latte across the counter. “What is it? You’re being really weird.”

“Nothing, it’s nothing,” Lance says quickly. He takes the latte but doesn’t taste it, just taps his fingers on the cup and then scratches the back of his head. “It’s just. That shirt looks good on you.”

Keith looks down. And feels himself turn bright red.

In his rush to get to work on time, he totally forgot to change out of the #1 CAT MOM shirt. Lance’s shirt. He hadn’t even realized. It was just so comfortable, it hadn’t occurred to him to take it off.

The way Lance is looking at him right now, this is the best thing that’s ever happened.

“I’ll return it, I swear,” Keith says.

“Choice words for a guy who still has yet to return the cat he borrowed from me.”

(Maybe, Keith thinks, this is how things start to come back together after all they’ve done before is fall apart. Maybe one day you wake up after stumbling around alone for months. Maybe one day you wake up and you collide with a person who lets you borrow their shirts. Who throws you a last minute birthday party. Who knows how to make you go still.)

(Maybe one day you’re a mess. And then, through a series of borrowed things and happy accidents, you meet someone who doesn’t care.)

(Or even likes it.)

Lance is leaning against the counter, just like he did that first day they met.

Keith thinks of waking in that warm bed, the smell of that apartment, the smell that he’s sure is still sunken in the material of the borrowed shirt, and leans right back.

“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” he says.

“You sure about that?”

“I’m not borrowing Red at all. I have the certificate to prove it,” he says, and then, “you’re holding up the line, dumbass,” and he basks in the way Lance laughs and scoots over to the corner of the counter to rifle through his wallet.  

“Busy day?” the next customer asks. It’s this TA Keith has seen a couple times hosting office hours at the corner table. Brent? Bradley? Something like that. Keith’s never really talked to him much beyond asking for his order, but he’s feeling light enough that he goes along with the whole smalltalk thing.

“Isn’t it always?” he says, rolling his eyes. “You should see what the weekends are like. Pure hell. What can I get you?”

“Large iced Americano, please,” says Brent-Bradley.

Keith rings him up and pours the espresso, talking absentmindedly with Brent-Bradley about the cold weather, the unfairness of overpriced coffee. In all honestly, he’s not really paying attention to the conversation until—

“Hey, so, this might seem a bit forward,” says Brent-Bradley after Keith hands over the Americano. “But could I get your number?”

“Oh,” Keith says dumbly, and then, “oh.”

“Yeah,” says Brent-Bradley. He’s good looking, wire framed glasses and a cleft in his chin, kind of a Clark Kent vibe going on. It’s just that Keith had never particularly noticed him until this second because—well—he’d been preoccupied with noticing someone else.   

He does not look over at Lance. He does not.

“No,” he hears himself say, and then, “I mean. Well, I’m not—I’m flattered, I just. The thing is. I can’t. Because I—”

Because I’m into someone else.

Because I think something might be happening with this someone else.

Because I’m ass over tea-kettle for the boy who’s standing two feet away from you.

“Hey, no worries.” Brent-Bradley raises his hands in surrender, cutting off Keith’s idiotic floundering. “Guess the radar’s a bit off.” 

“Sorry,” says Keith.

“No hard feelings. But hey,” says Brent-Bradley, “If you change your mind, the offer still stands.”

“Okay,” says Keith. “Thanks.”

Brent-Bradley smiles again and heads to his usual table, leaving Keith to blush in peace. He turns back to Lance, mortified.  How much of that exchange did Lance hear? Some of it? All of it? Keith braces himself for the teasing of a lifetime.

It doesn’t come.

The teasing he’s prepared for, the tinge of jealousy he might have dared to hope for—none of it comes. There’s just Lance, standing there at the counter, a strange look on his face.

Then he looks up to meet Keith’s eyes, his jaw tight. “Keith,” he says, and his voice is stranger than his face. “Keith, I’m sorry if I ever—made you uncomfortable—I shouldn’t have assumed—” He breaks off and scrubs a hand over his face. “Shit.”

“What?” Keith asks, his insides twisting. “Wait, what? What are you talking about?”  

“Never mind,” Lance says quickly, “It’s stupid.” He pushes over a ten dollar bill and gets off his stool, avoiding Keith’s eyes. “Keep the change. I should head back to the shelter, we are super swamped today. Okay.”

And then he heads for the door.

“Hey!” Keith calls after him, scrambling and confused. “You’re coming back with the kittens, right?”

There’s something strained in Lance’s smile when he turns. It doesn’t quite meet his eyes. “Yeah, bro, of course.”

“Okay,” says Keith. “See you later.”

Lance opens his mouth like he wants to say something else, but then shakes his head a little and walks out of the door, leaving Keith wondering what the fuck just happened. Why it feels like he’s done something wrong.

***

They implement Kitty Hour the very next week, once Allura, Hunk, and Lance pick out a selection of old and young cats with good dispositions. It’s an instant hit—the college kids especially come back again and again to pet their favorite cats; most can’t afford to adopt one, but they visit and play with the cats and even bring toys and treats sometimes. Poli Sci Girl in particular shows up at Galra Grinds almost every day, and by mid-December she’s signed the adoption papers for a fat old tabby named Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler.

A few days later, both Lance and Hunk head home for the holidays, Hunk to Hawaii and Lance to Cuba. Pidge, being fourteen, already lives at home with their parents, and Shiro is apparently old friends with the Gunderson family so he stays with them for Christmas.

Allura, like Keith, has no family to speak of. The two of them get McDonald’s one night at like two a.m. after they both get off work, chill in the dark parking lot with their fries and milkshakes and just sort of exist together. For once, Keith doesn’t have to explain his aloneness to anyone. Allura gets it—steals his fries and punches him in the shoulder and doesn’t treat him like something fragile.

Keith does his Christmas shopping after Christmas, because like fuck is he gonna deal with crowds. He bikes around the fashion district and Oliver Street, wanders around a dozen little shops and boutiques and nerdy tech stores looking for presents. It’s hard. He’s never had to shop for anyone before, let alone five extremely weird, eclectic human beings.  

On New Year’s Eve, Keith treats himself to a $5 bottle of Sadness Wine. He works all day and gets drunk all night and curls up with Red to watch the ball drop on his phone.

10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1…

“Happy New Year,” he murmurs to Red, and kisses her nose.

His phone buzzes.

 

LANCE!!! (^=˃ᆺ˂)
HAPP YD B NEWY W EHYAR 

Keith
Um

LANCE!!! (^=˃ᆺ˂)
I MIJFSS HYOA U

Keith
I cant tell what you’re saying. Are you drunk?

I’m drunk and I can still type.

LANCE!!! (^=˃ᆺ˂)
KEEF

KEEEEEEEEEE E EF

KEIETHY BOY 

KEIETIH I MI FFSI S YFOUR STUPDID H AIRR AND RYOUAR SMILF E 

Keith
??? 

Drink water.

LANCE!!! (^=˃ᆺ˂)
HAPDY B NEW EY AR KEITH

ITS GONANB E SO GO OD

Keith
Ok. Go to bed.

Happy New Year, Lance.

***

In early January, the heat in Keith’s apartment finally sputters out for good. He puts on fuzzy socks and his warmest sweatpants and, after a few brief moments of panic, zips Red up inside his hoodie, a little cocoon of warmth against his chest. Her head pokes out the top right under his chin. He may or may not take some photos, because it may or may not be the cutest thing he’s ever seen.

He makes himself a peppermint dark chocolate latte and even pulls a box of gingerbread mix from the back of his pantry, because like, the holidays, and that’s what he’s doing when someone knocks on his door.

He goes over and opens it without thinking, and—

“Lance,” he says, the word half breath from surprise. “What are you doing here?”

“It was cheaper to fly back a day early,” says Lance.

He is wearing a blue sweater and black jeans and a puffy coat and a beanie and he looks, in that moment, like everything Keith wants. Lance opens his arms for a hug, just like he does with Hunk, and Keith steps into them.

The hug is careful, because of course Red is between their bodies. Lance’s hands spread out on the small of Keith’s back and Keith’s arms are around Lance’s neck, and he can’t help but think: we could kiss like this. 

In the doorway. When Lance comes home. Hello, I missed you.

They break apart.

For the rest of the afternoon, they just hang out. They make the box gingerbread and eat the whole pan between them while they watch Netflix, Red snoozing against Keith’s chest. The sun sets, and Keith realizes he has a total of three (3) food items in his entire apartment, so they order Indian food and eat it on the living room floor and just—talk. Night falls outside the windows and they talk about Lance’s memories of Cuba, the year pre-Hunk when Lance roomed with a series of increasingly weirder people, the class he’s taking this semester (Astrophysics, and apparently he’s good at it).

They talk about Keith’s childhood in the foster care system. They talk about his best years and his worst years and his one semester of law school. They talk about Scarlet and how he fixed her up himself (Lance’s eyes go huge at that) and why he likes adrenaline so much. 

They talk about big things and small things and stupid things and silly things and deeply important things. Netflix is forgotten; bedtime is forgotten; they end up lying on the carpet arguing about their personal Top 5 favorite movies and then somehow, between one breath and the next, Keith’s asleep.

He wakes up at 3 a.m., his back aching something awful, and sees Lance’s slack face just a few inches from his own. In sleep, Lance has curled toward Keith, parenthetical, cheek pillowed on his hoodie.

Keith feels sad and safe and on the edge of something. He goes back to sleep.

***

“Yo, Keith! Get me a Red’s Red Eye and a Blue’s Brew, stat!” says Pidge.

“On it,” says Keith, grabbing ingredients off the counter and getting to work. It’s chaos in Galra Grinds, but the best kind of chaos, the chaos that makes Keith feel in control. It’s ten a.m. and he’s been awake for like six hours, and this morning his water was actually shut off because he spent the rest of his paycheck on ingredients for drinks instead of bills, but he doesn’t care. Galra Grinds has been full to capacity since opening, and the crowds aren’t just here for the coffee.

Keith looks around at all the people sipping coffee and petting the latest group of adoptable cats. Everyone’s smiling, looking relaxed. They’ve got Nicki Minaj on today’s playlist and for a moment, just a moment, Galra Grinds looks like a good place to be.

“’Scuse me.” Lance bumps into Keith from behind with his hands full of trash bags. “Pardon me.”

“Watch where you’re going, dick,” Keith teases, and Lance just leans. They’ve been doing that a lot lately, leaning into each other. In some ways it’s just natural proximity, the kind that comes from being around someone long enough. In other ways, Keith notes, it feels stronger than that, more inevitable. Like magnets. Like tectonic plates.

Like gravity.

They brush against each other in the tiny aisle behind the counter, because it’s just something they do now. Keith jabs Lance between the ribs and Lance rolls his eyes, like he’s just suffering so much, and says, “Get back to work, lazy,” as he ducks toward the back exit.

Grinning, Keith turns to face the next customer.

“Well. Glad to know you’re making good use of the company’s money, Kogane.”

Keith’s stomach hits the floor.

“Sendak,” says Keith, “Sendak, I can explain.”

Words dry up for a moment as Keith stares up at the hulking, burly height of his boss. The protrusion of his belly as he leans over the counter to glower down at Keith, the smell of sweat and beer tang that seems to emanate from his greasy, sallow skin. He’s seen Sendak angry loads of times, has heard Sendak call him any amount of names, to his face and behind his back. Sendak’s an asshole, always has been. But the dickishness that usually shows itself in a snappish comment or muttered curse seems to be swelling dangerously large, tightly controlled anger that only comes across in the measured way Sendak speaks.

“I’m not sure you’re going to be able to explain why there are animals in this establishment when company policy clearly states we have a zero tolerance policy for animals, Kogane. But sure, go ahead and give it your best shot.”

Keith’s vision goes a bit blurry, his breath comes fast. Fuck. Fuck. What the fuck was there to say? The chance of Sendak walking in had been one to a million. Now, there was no back-up plan, no bullshit excuse he’d prepared. He’d been so caught up in the excitement he hadn’t stopped to think what if and have an answer to that question.

It was too late to hide the cats, hide the fact that the customers were clearly drinking non-protocol beverages. Around them, customers have started to stare. He can see Allura quietly motioning to Hunk, taking the cats and putting them back in their kennels over by the door. Keith doesn’t move, like a terrified animal afraid of provoking an attack.

He fucked up. He fucked up so bad.  

Meanwhile, Sendak snatches Keith’s most recent drink off the counter, sniffs at the steam vent.

“This isn’t any drink I recognize on the Galra Grind’s menu,” he says in a dangerously calm voice.

Dread bubbling in his veins, trying to rally, Keith replies, “That’s because it’s not. In fact, none of the drinks people have ordered in the last hour are. We’re doing a fundraiser for the cat shelter across the street and—”

Sendak whips around to the rest of the café and says. “Anyone drinking a beverage that’s not listed on the company menu is not permitted within the shop. Please take your outside beverages elsewhere, thank you.”

He sounds perfectly polite, but the customers all but run from the door. Keith doesn’t move. Just stands there. Hopes that Pidge snuck out the back and called Matt to come in stat, that Shiro doesn’t walk in just in time to see the blood bath.

But it’s with shock that he sees all of them, Allura, Hunk, Pidge, and Shiro, still in the shop after everyone else has left. He feels a sharp pang in his chest.

Allura steps forward, posture regal and polite. "Mr. Sendak. My name is Allura Altea, I own the Cat Castle shelter just across the street. I just wanted apologize for the confusion, bringing the cats here for adoption was my idea, and therefore my fault. Mr. Kogane—"

"One more word, lady," Sendak says, "and you’ll find yourself buried under the lawsuit to end all lawsuits. Get out of my shop."

“It’s not your shop,” Hunk mumbles.

Excuse me?” says Sendak. “Can you repeat that? I don’t think you’ve gotten yourself into enough legal trouble today.”

Allura steps forward, furious. “Don’t you dare—”

“Get,” says Sendak, horribly loud, cutting over her, “out. Of. My. Shop. Take the animals with you. You have thirty seconds before I call Animal Control and get every last one of these fucking rabid strays taken to the kill shelter and disposed of.” He turns on Pidge and Shiro, and Pidge ducks their head, hiding their face. “Whose idea was this? Whose fucking idea was this? Shirogane? You’re one strike from getting fired as is, I swear to God if you brought rabies in here—”

“Sendak,” Keith hears himself say. “It was me. It was my idea. I’m the one who told them to bring the cats in here. It wasn’t them, it was me, it’s completely my fault. If you’re going to be a dick to anyone, if you're going to punish anyone, it has to be me.”

Everyone stares at Keith, thunderstruck.

“Shirogane. Gunderson,” Sendak says quietly, dangerously, “why don’t you help the cat lady remove her animals from this establishment.”

It’s not a suggestion. Shiro and Pidge lift up the cat kennels with Hunk and Allura. Keith can feel their worried looks, their encouraging half smiles. He doesn’t return them. He keeps his eyes on the floor until they’ve left.

Then, it’s just him and Sendak. Anger swells in Keith like a balloon, one he doesn’t dare pop. He could do what Pidge had suggested weeks ago: threaten to report Sendak to Corporate for not showing up to work in the first place. Lord it over him. But the word ‘lawsuit’ is sunk deep in his belly, keeping him from flying off the handle. Another thing they hadn’t thought of. Another one in a million chance. Another fuck up on his behalf. He can’t say anything to Sendak, not when it could only serve to punish his friends. Not when they’ve worked so hard. He can’t. He won’t.

Keith stares back at Sendak, expressionless. Fists curled tight at his sides.  

“So, let me get this straight.” Sendak says, smiling like a shark. “Not only did you allow animals into this coffee shop. You used Galra Grinds to sell your own shitty product,” he lifts an abandoned latte from another table, “for profit?”

Keith nods, jaw clenched.

Sendak rips off the lid and spills the latté over the floor with a loud splat.  Then he takes the one off the counter, and does it all over again. Keith doesn’t move.

“Clean this fucking mess up,” says Sendak. “And maybe, if you manage to do a decent fucking cleanup, we’ll talk about letting you keep this job.”

At this point, Keith’s fucked. Nothing can possibly make this worse.

But then Lance exits the storeroom. In wake of the massive shit show, Keith had completely forgotten Lance taking out the trash. Lance, who came back inside. Lance, who heard every bit of it.

Lance, who plants himself firmly in between Keith and Sendak. Another pang goes off in Keith’s chest.

“Hey, man,” says Lance, “It was an honest mistake. Keith was just—”

“Lance,” Keith says tightly. “Stay out of this.”

“No,” says Lance. “He can’t just talk to you like that.”

"Get the hell out of here."

“You said it yourself, he’s being a dick!”

“And every second you stand in my coffee shop,” says Sendak, “is another opportunity for this dick to get your friend Kogane on back to back double shifts. So unless you want to make it worse for him, scram.”

Keith hands are shaking. He wants to hit something. He wants to scream. The way Lance is looking at him right now, Keith can’t stand it. He just wants Lance to leave. Just leave, so Keith can mop the floor and go back to making coffee and just put this wretched day behind him.

Lance steps back. “Keith, I—”

“Just go,” Keith says.

Lance goes.

Sendak lets Keith have it.

It's fucking awful.

***

By the time Sendak is finished putting Keith through the wringer—walking him through all the company policies he’s violated, all the rules he’s broken, all the ways he could be sued—the sun has already begun to sink down beneath the rooftops.

Through some combination of miracles and miserable luck, Keith doesn’t lose his job. It’s a mix of Sendak being too lazy to hire someone else, and the fact that Keith really does work more than half the available hours at the shop anyhow. He is, however, sent home for the rest of the weekend on a three-day unpaid suspension to think about the consequences of his actions and what it really means to be part of the Galra Grinds family.

Shiro and Pidge come back inside after it’s over. Keith won’t even look them in the eye, just grips the mop more firmly and puts his back into cleaning the floors until they’re spotless. With Sendak stationed at the counter, there’s no way they can talk to each other. And Keith doesn’t want to talk to anyone, really. His head is pounding. His body feels cold.

It’s over. Saving the shelter—it’s all over.

Because he was careless.

Because of him.

Once he finishes cleaning, he tugs on his riding jacket and heads out the back entrance toward Scarlet. It’s bitterly cold outside, the pale cast of lavender twilight in the sky, the setting sun hidden by gray clouds. Beyond the alley, on the street, people are beginning to take down Christmas decorations. Keith cannot wait to get away from it, to drive hard and fast until this place has disappeared behind him, far away.

“Keith.”

He’s halfway to Scarlet, groping for his helmet, and then he stops. His mouth goes dry.

Lance is there—because of course, of course Lance is there—leaning against the chipped brick wall, hands jammed in the pockets of his hoodie. The tips of his ears and nose are shiny and pink from the cold. Like he’s been out here for hours, ever since he left the shop. His cheeks and mouth are flushed and wind chapped, his hair a disheveled mess. It’s going to snow any minute, and he doesn’t even have on a hat, not one piece of warm clothing except his hoodie.

Keith loves and hates him so much he can’t breathe with it.

He swallows it down.

“What the hell are you doing here?” he rasps. “Do you want me to lose my job?”

“No, I—,” Lance fists a hand in his hair. “I was waiting for you. I wanted to make sure you’re okay.”

“Well, I’m not,” Keith snaps. “I’m not okay. Nothing is okay. The shelter is screwed, Lance. And—,” he can’t shut up, “why did you have to intervene like that? Why’d you have to make it worse?”

He doesn’t mean to sound so angry, but god dammit. The last thing he needs is for Lance to see him like this, totally humiliated like this; the last thing he needs is for Lance to know what Keith looks like right after he’s let down everyone he cares about. He wanted Lance gone, and yet Lance is here. Waiting out in the freezing cold like an idiot just to make sure Keith is okay, Keith, the person who fucked everything up. Keith doesn’t get it.

“I was trying to help,” says Lance. “You looked so miserable and he was just yelling at you.”

“Yeah, well, I don’t need your help,” says Keith, fishing in his pockets for his keys. Run, run.

And then Lance is grabbing his shoulder, pulling Keith around to face him. “Dude, will you just look at me for a second?”

“Let go of me,” Keith snaps.

“No, not until you hear me out.”

“I can take care of myself, Lance.”

Lance’s eyes narrow; he looks pissed now, pissed like Keith’s never seen. “What, was I supposed to just stand by and let your employer like, verbally abuse you?”

“I don’t understand why you couldn’t!” Keith says, words hot and sour like bile in the back of his throat. “Why didn’t you just leave, why couldn’t you just leave?” He makes a choked-off noise, suddenly furious. “But I guess that’s what you do, huh? You’ve always got to be the guy who fixes things and you’re just. Fuck, you’re always around me. You never just let things go and let other people handle them, like, Christ, why couldn’t you just let it go?”

“Because it’s you,” says Lance. “It’s you, of course I couldn’t just—Keith.”

“What the hell does that mean?” says Keith. “What, like I’m so helpless or whatever that you couldn’t let me just deal with my own shit?”

Lance rolls his eyes. “Oh come on, like you don’t know. Like I haven’t made it so freaking obvious by now.”

Keith stares at him. “I don’t. Know what. You mean.”

“Oh my god,” Lance says after a short pause, and he laughs a little, and it’s exhausted and incredulous and awful. “You’re serious, aren’t you? You’re not just—you really don’t know. Oh, holy shit.”

“I don’t know what?” says Keith.

“For fuck’s sake,” Lance says, and kisses him.

It’s just the quickest pressure on Keith’s mouth, barely long enough to even be considered a kiss, but it’s enough for Keith’s entire brain to go white with sensation. He’s can’t even close his eyes, can’t even begin to deal with what’s happening, before Lance pulls back. His eyes are wide, his mouth (his mouth) twisted.

“Shit,” he says. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have—”

(The first time Lance hugged Keith, all those months ago, the touch had shocked Keith’s system. He hadn’t known what to do with it, how to react to it; had just clung to Lance like on instinct, unthinking, fallen into his orbit and held fast.)

Keith grabs the collar of Lance’s hoodie and pulls him back down.

Keith thinks, please catch me please catch me please catch me. 

And Lance does.

And they’re kissing.

The brick wall of the building is hard and freezing when Keith’s back hits it, but it doesn’t fucking matter because Lance is warm and therefore Keith is warm because Lance has crowded against him, their bodies pressed so tight there’s no room for coldness between them, or air, or anything else that doesn’t matter as Lance kisses Keith.

And kisses him and kisses him and kisses him.

Keith lifts his chin and pushes up on his toes, pliant and eager and willing, because close isn’t close enough; nothing is close enough; he presses his whole self into Lance’s body, the curve of it, the firm hot shape, and it isn’t enough. He wants more. He wants everything. He wants Lance’s mouth, the taste of espresso on his lips, the dizzying pressure of it—he wants that mouth always, all over him, just—all over. Lance kisses like he does everything: sweet and enthusiastic and all-encompassing. He kisses Keith quick, on his bottom lip and the corner of his mouth, and then he kisses him deep and slow, maddeningly slow, sliding their mouths together like they’ve got hours, like they’re in his bedroom and not in a freezing alleyway. Lance grips the collar of Keith’s jacket and holds him still, pressing him back against the brick and kissing him the way Keith’s wanted for so long, so goddamn long. His fingers are cold. Keith can feel them through his shirt.

When Lance bites at Keith’s bottom lip, Keith gasps into it, starving. When Lance flicks his tongue over the same spot a second later, Keith chases after his mouth, pushes a hand into Lance’s hair and makes it a bigger mess, makes it his mess. His heart won’t stop crashing against his ribs.

Snow begins to fall around them, fat flakes that sting when they hit Keith’s hot face. He barely notices. He hears nothing but their breaths, their lips catching, the thundering of his own heart.  It’s like there’s nothing else in the world. Nothing but Lance’s cold hands on Keith’s collar, Keith’s arms twined around his neck. Keith wants it like this forever, god yes please more. He doesn’t want to open his eyes into anything but this.

Lance pulls back, pressing a few more kisses to Keith’s hot, slick mouth. He tips their foreheads together, breath coming fast against Keith’s lips, fogging in the air around them. There are snowflakes in his hair, clinging to his eyelashes. His mouth is red and swollen. His eyes are shining.

If neither of us move, Keith thinks, if neither of us says another word, we can have this. It can be just this. Just us.

Then Lance says, “Okay. Okay. Now that we’ve cleared that up, we can make a plan.”

Then Lance says, “You can stay at my place while you look for a new job. Uh, Allura can’t really pay you, but you can volunteer at the shelter, which would look great on your resumé. We’ll figure out the student loans thing. It’ll be okay.”

Then Lance says, “It’ll be fine, Keith. I’ll take care of it. Let me help you.”

Everything in Keith goes cold and stiff.

“…Keith?”

“You don’t get it,” Keith says slowly, hoarsely. “You don’t get it. I ruined everything. The shelter’s gonna go under, all those cats are gonna be homeless. Or euthanized. Allura might get sued. I—It’s not okay. You don’t get it. It is not okay.”

“But it will be,” says Lance, so sure and optimistic and Keith can’t stand it. He can’t.

The cold brick is sharp and rough against his back. Keith steps out from between Lance and the wall, putting distance between them. He looks at Scarlet. At the falling snow. At the endless, star-strewn sky. He turns.

“I’m not quitting my job, Lance.”

“Uh, what?” says Lance. “Why the hell not?”

“Because what the hell would I do? Like what am I actually qualified for? I’m a broke law school dropout with no connections. I need that job. Especially if I decide to go back to school.”

“You were never going to go back to law school,” Lance snaps, “and you know it. You hated it there, Keith. And you hate it at Galra Grinds.”

Keith reels back like Lance slapped him, panic coiling in his chest. Lance is right, of course, Keith knows he’s right, there’s no denying it. But that doesn’t make other options spring out of nowhere like magic.

“So what if I hate it here? So what if I hated law school?”

“So what?” Lance’s voice cracks. “So quit, Keith. No one’s forcing you to work here. There’s nothing stopping you. You hate it. So quit!”

“I can’t!” shouts Keith. “I’m not like you. I can’t just do whatever I want. I quit law school, I’ve quit so much shit, I can’t do it anymore. I won’t. And, god, I don’t even know what I wanna do. I don’t know what I want.”

“Okay,” Lance says, softer now, “but that’s not a bad thing. We can figure it out. Together.” He steps closer to Keith. “Just because you don’t know what you want doesn’t mean you have to punish yourself. You deserve more than this.”

“You don’t know that,” Keith says, eyes stinging.

“I do,” Lance says. He reaches out, takes Keith’s hand where it hangs at his side. Lance’s fingers are freezing but his palm is warm. He looks down at their tangled fingers, then at Keith. “You deserve to be happy,” he says. “You deserve to wake up happy every day for the rest of your life.”

He reaches up with his free hand, brushes some of the snowflakes out of Keith’s hair. In the half-dark, Keith can make out Lance’s soft edges, just like that sunlit morning in the kitchen, sharing breakfast, sharing a life, if just for a moment.

He wants so badly to believe in the version of himself that Lance sees. He wants to be the person Lance thinks he is.

He’s just not sure that person exists.

Lance cannot be responsible for the trainwreck that is Keith’s life. And Keith cannot be the asshole who breaks Lance’s heart because he couldn’t be what Lance needed. He cannot be the asshole who takes advantage of Lance’s kindness, who leans on him for support until he’s got none left to give.

Because that’s the thing, isn’t it? That’s the whole thing. Lance will take dumpster kittens off your hands, will drop everything to throw a birthday party for you, will stand outside in the freezing cold for hours just to make sure you’re all right. He will give, and give, and give.

It’s why Keith loves him. It’s why Keith can’t do this.

“Let me help you,” says Lance, and something in Keith breaks.

He wrenches out of Lance’s grasp.

“Jesus Christ, Lance,” he snarls. “You can’t just take me in and fix me up like everything else. I’m not one of your volunteer projects, okay? I’m not one of your fucking strays. I’m not yours.”

He turns, heels crunching in the gathering snow. He jams his keys in the ignition, undoes the chain, shoves his helmet on his head and he feels Lance’s eyes on him the whole time, and he doesn’t stop, doesn’t look up. He revs the engine and straddles the bike, and he does not shake, and he does not say another word.

Run, run—

“Are you serious?” Lance calls out over the sound of the engine. Keith does not look at him. “You’re just gonna leave it like this, you’re not even gonna try to talk about it? Keith, come on, this is so stupid—this is so fucking stupid—”

Keith hits the gas.

He tears out of the alleyway, tires skidding, snow flying out from beneath the wheels. He flicks down the visor on his helmet and just goes. Leaves Lance behind to stand in the alleyway, in the snow.

It doesn’t matter how fast Keith rides, how many miles he puts between him and that alley. The cold persists, but Keith’s mouth is still warm.

***

One week passes.

Two.

And Keith can’t sleep.

Not that he’s ever been that great at sleeping, but in the days after The Day He Fucked Up Everything, he pretty much just stops even trying. He gets off work at two a.m. and goes home and stays up till four and opens the shop at five. He sleeps only when he literally collapses from exhaustion, and then he sleeps like the dead. Dreamless.

(It’s made worse by the fact that he is extremely aware of three nights in recent memory that he did sleep well.)

(Don’t think about that.)

He’s a zombie. He almost passes out at work multiple times. His brain is like a snowy TV screen. He’s working fifty hours a week and remembers exactly none of it. Maybe that’s how he’s able to survive on like two hours of sleep per night—because he’s never actually awake. 

On the rare nights he actually gets home early enough to sleep a solid eight hours, he curls up in bed with Red on his stomach and scrolls through hundreds of texts with Lance. He rereads every dumb late night conversation they’ve ever had. Because Keith, apparently, is the biggest masochist in the world.

*** 

LANCE!!! (^=˃ᆺ˂)
ok here’s another one. fuck marry kill: fox mulder, a literal alien, the movie shrek

Keith
…How can you fuck, marry, or kill the movie Shrek

LANCE!!! (^=˃ᆺ˂)
sounds like a you problem

Keith
...

LANCE!!! (^=˃ᆺ˂)
 ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Keith
...I don’t want to fuck any of those options

LANCE!!! (^=˃ᆺ˂)
OOHHHH MYYYY GOODDDDD fine we can change it to “hug marry kill” how’s that

Keith
Marry Fox Mulder. Hug the alien. Kill Shrek

LANCE!!! (^=˃ᆺ˂)
nice

Keith
Fuck marry kill. Beyonce, Nicki Minaj, the moon

LANCE!!! (^=˃ᆺ˂)
………………FRICK

you’ve given me quite the dilemma here, u brilliant weirdo

 like OBVIOUSLY i want to fuck the moon

Keith
Obviously.

 

***

 

LANCE!!! (^=˃ᆺ˂)
ughhhhh ok you know that one scene in the road to el dorado

Keith
?

LANCE!!! (^=˃ᆺ˂)
like the one where the chick is clearly giving tulio a bj

Keith
??? 

I haven’t seen that movie

LANCE!!! (^=˃ᆺ˂)
what

whAT

how have you NOT SEEN THE ROAD TO EL DORADO

Keith
I don’t know, I haven’t seen a lot of Disney movies

LANCE!!! (^=˃ᆺ˂)
1. it’s not a disney movie

2. heathen

3. im literally sending you a download link right now please for the love of all that is holy watch this movie w me 

Keith
With you?

LANCE!!! (^=˃ᆺ˂)
yeah like on Rabbit, you watch simultaneously. long distance movie night

or you could come over!! hunk & i are just chillin

 

10 minutes later

 

LANCE!!! (^=˃ᆺ˂)
…keith?

Keith
Ok. I’ll come over.

LANCE!!! (^=˃ᆺ˂)
:)

 

***

Keith
There’s a new documentary on Netflix about cryptids.

LANCE!!! (^=˃ᆺ˂)
is this you asking me to come over and watch it with u

Keith
No.

LANCE!!! (^=˃ᆺ˂)
be there soon im bringing banana bread

Keith
Suit yourself.

LANCE!!! (^=˃ᆺ˂)
adorable

***

LANCE!!! (^=˃ᆺ˂)
and its just like…like i know theyre proud of me and they want me to do whatever makes me happy and right now i really Am doing whatever makes me happy, but it still feels like shit sometimes bc i feel like i should have already done something BIG and like done the mcclain name proud or w/e

which is dumb. like i know im only 22 and i have at least a couple years before i’m officially a Disappointment (ha). but still, i feel like im the only one in my family who doesnt have their shit figured out yet.

and most of the time i’m totally fine with that but

This May Shock You, but despite my hip & funky fresh exterior i’m actually a pretty anxious/insecure person?? sometimes??

Keith
I know. 

LANCE!!! (^=˃ᆺ˂)
lol thanks

(i know what you meant)

Keith
And. Yeah. Same. Less anxiety, more sort of...I don’t know. Anger. A lot of pent up shit. Sometimes I just feel mad at the whole world. 

LANCE!!! (^=˃ᆺ˂)
if it makes you feel any better at least ur anger just makes you look sort of dark & broody

in like a mr darcy sort of way

(pls tell me u know who mr darcy is)

Keith
I know who Mr. Darcy is. Jesus. 

LANCE!!! (^=˃ᆺ˂)
yah i guess that makes sense considering he was created in 1813, aka right before you stopped paying attention to pop culture

Keith
Did you just google when Pride and Prejudice was published

LANCE!!! (^=˃ᆺ˂)
fuck you

(yes)

***

Keith rereads four months of conversations. He didn’t realize quite how much he talked to Lance until they stop talking; he finds himself pulling out his phone a dozen times per day to text Lance some stupid random thought, or something he sees, or just a complaint about work. And every time he stares at the blank screen, at the text conversation with Lance that hasn’t updated for two weeks, and he feels like there’s a bag of rocks in his belly.

Two weeks and one day.

Two weeks and two days.

There isn’t even anyone at the coffee shop to commiserate with. After the Kitty Hour Incident, Shiro and Matt (and by extension Pidge) all quit. Shiro and Matt got assigned to a different Galra Grinds—inconvenient location but better management, and they won’t lose their scholarships—and Pidge goes back to filling their free time with robotics and hacking and who-knows-what instead of covering Matt’s shifts.

Shiro told Keith he could apply for a transfer as well. Keith said no.

Maybe he really is a masochist, but he gets an awful pleasure out of hating his life right now. It feels sort of like proper punishment for—

(Don’t think about that.)

Anyway. He thought working at Galra Grinds was bad before, but now it’s hell. Because Shiro and Matt are gone, Sendak is there literally the time. So not only is Sendak pissed about being forced to actually do work, he’s still furious about the Kitty Hour Incident. His new favorite pastimes are: 1. Reminding Keith how lucky he is to still have a job, and 2. Coming up with various ways to make Keith’s life harder, e.g., making him do a full clean of the bathrooms every single hour, making him sort through paperwork from the 90s for no reason, etc.

Keith does it all. Keeps his mouth shut, too, if only to not give Sendak the satisfaction of firing him in front of everyone.

Two weeks and three days. 

Keith sees Lance for the first time since—since.

It’s 10 a.m., the tail end of the morning rush. Keith glances out the window and there’s Lance across the street, Lance, hurrying toward the Cat Castle with his head ducked down. Half is face is covered with that blue scarf.

He doesn’t look in the direction of Galra Grinds. Not even for a second. He just goes into the shelter and the doors close behind him and that’s it.  

“Kogane!” Sendak snaps, and Keith realizes he’s standing stock still at the register and there’s a customer in front of him and he’s been staring.

“Sorry,” he mumbles, and gets back to work. 

***

Two weeks and four days, and Keith is ambushed.

He’s minding his own business, just getting off work after a six-hour shift, and he barely makes it two steps out of the coffee shop before Pidge pops up in front of him and says, “THIS IS AN INTERVENTION." 

“What,” says Keith, and then Shiro, Allura, and Hunk are surrounded him, literally blocking him off with their bodies. “What the fuck?”

“Keith,” says Allura, “we are concerned about you.”

“What the fuck.”

“You haven’t been responding to my texts,” says Shiro.

“Or my Snapchats,” says Hunk.

“Or my painstakingly curated memes,” says Pidge, “which is really insulting. I work hard finding those.”

“I’ve been busy,” says Keith, trying to shoulder past them. They refuse to let him through, which frankly is ridiculous. “Guys. What is this.”

“An intervention,” Pidge says again. “We are officially intervening.”

“With what?" 

“Uh, no offense, bro,” says Hunk, “but you totally broke my best friend’s heart? Like in a total jerk way? I love you, but that’s not cool. I mean it would be one thing if you really didn’t have feelings for him, but I don’t think that’s what’s going on here.”

Keith feels himself turn violently red. “I—I don’t—”

“He’s been moping,” Hunk continues. “Hardcore moping. He hasn’t exfoliated in like three days. He ate a Hot Pocket. He’s been listening to Taylor Swift.”

“He doesn’t like Taylor Swift,” says Keith without meaning to.

“Trust me, I know.” Hunk sighs and looks down at Keith with something horribly like sympathy. “Also, I want to reiterate that you were a butthole.”

Keith stares at his feet. “I know.”

“We aren’t attacking you, Keith,” says Allura. “We just want you to know that you don’t have to make yourself miserable. You don’t have to keep working for Sendak and you don’t have to—deny yourself good things.”

“Also, we’re your friends,” says Shiro. “Don’t shut us out, okay? We’re here to listen. And to help with whatever you need.”

“You can’t help with this,” Keith bursts out. “I was an asshole, yeah, I know, but—he’s trying to fix me. Or save me, whatever. Like, ‘Oh, poor little Keith the orphan, let me just turn his life into a to-do list and—and Pretty Woman him into someone different!’ He just assumed I’d do all these things, like bam, quit my job, bam, get a new apartment, just because he thinks it would make my life better.” He pauses, breathing hard. “And you know what? It probably would. But when I do things, it’s on my terms. I don’t want to be just another thing he saves. I don’t wanna be another charity case. I can’t.”

“Oh, Keith,” says Allura, and wraps him up in a hug, and that’s when Keith realizes his eyes are hot and stinging. He sniffs, too exhausted to even bother being embarrassed.

Then there’s another pair of arms around him. Another. And Keith is suddenly squished in the middle of his second-ever group hug. They’re in the middle of the sidewalk and people are almost definitely giving them Looks, but Keith really, truly does not give a shit.

“I fucked up,” he says into Allura’s shoulder. “Oh god. Oh god, he probably hates me.”

“He very much does not hate you,” says Hunk. “He’s just sad. And I’m sorry for calling you a butthole. All I got out of Lance was that something happened and now you guys aren’t speaking. I didn’t know he tried to Pretty Woman you. Lance just gets...he gets fixated on things. He tries to—”

“Save everything,” says Keith.

“Yeah. But Keith, dude, I promise he doesn’t see you as a charity case. Like. As his roommate, as the person who has been listening to him moon over you for like five months—yeah. Not a charity case.”

“It doesn’t matter now,” says Keith. “I fucked up. I ruined things. It’s over.”

“It’s not over,” says Shiro. “Keith, does Lance seem like the type of person to give up on someone after a single fight?”

“Well—no. I guess not.”

“Then have faith. It’s not over if you don’t want it to be.”

“I don’t know what I want,” Keith says.

Shiro ruffles Keith’s hair, his prosthetic hand smooth and cool. “Well. Are you happy?”

Are you happy?

(Lance, his face tilted toward Keith’s at two a.m., his eyes big and blue and solemn, looking at Keith like he’s something precious.)

Are you happy?

Are you happy, Keith? 

If you could have anything in the world, what would it be?

Keith.

Keith.

Are you happy?

“No,” Keith says, or gasps, clutching at Allura’s jacket. “No. I’m not.”

***

The next day, he makes an appointment with the Department of Human Resources at the university.

***

The next week, he meets with the Board of Directors of the Galra Grinds Foundation.  

*** 

The next week, he walks up to Sendak and looks him in the eyes and says, “I fucking quit.”

***

On April 10th, almost two months after The Day He Fucked Up Everything, Keith bikes to the Cat Castle only to see SPACE FOR RENT signs plastered on the windows.

He yanks Scarlet sideways and screeches to a stop at the curb. And stares.

SPACE FOR RENT. 

The door is propped open, another sign tacked onto it: “GOING OUT OF BUSINESS. ALL ADOPTIONS FREE.” There’s a steady stream of people coming in and out, a few more milling around, but nowhere near enough people to adopt all the cats. Especially because it looks like most are just taking photos, petting the cats, and leaving.

GOING OUT OF BUSINESS.

Not even really sure what he’s doing, Keith gets off his motorbike and heads straight for the shelter. He came down here for—nothing, really, mostly just to look and torture himself and try to catch even the most fleeting glimpse of Lance—but all that’s forgotten; he moves forward with a purpose that seems to come out of nowhere. Instinct. Gravity. He sidesteps a group of college guys and a couple old ladies and narrowly avoids bumping into a toddler, and he keeps going and pushes his way into the shelter and the air is so warm in here compared to the spring chill outside, and it smells like fur and kitty litter and a bit like Chinese takeout. It’s not a great combination. Keith fucking loves it.

Hunk and Allura are in the middle of the floor, Hunk supervising the kitty pen and Allura talking to some people. They both look exhausted. Hunk in particular looks like he’s maybe been crying, his eyes red and bloodshot.

Behind the counter: Lance. His hair is messed up and there are bags under his eyes like he hasn’t slept in days, or weeks, and he’s wearing a plain gray T-shirt and his olive green hoodie and Keith can’t breathe. He can’t breathe. Seeing Lance after such a long time of not seeing him is like cannonballing into a pool—expecting the water to be freezing cold and instead it’s warm and perfect. A full body shock, a full body heat.

Keith is moving forward.

Lance still hasn’t seen him. He’s holding Green, petting her absentmindedly while he talks to a couple customers. His freckles are standing out on his cheeks; the fluorescent lights wash him out, make him look almost ill.

Keith reaches the counter and slams both hands down on it, making the customers jump.

Lance startles and looks up, and his eyes meet Keith’s, and his jaw drops. He mouths something, maybe Keith’s name or maybe just nonsense, and Keith is going to fucking die if he doesn’t hear Lance’s voice in the next ten fucking seconds.

“I’m buying this building,” he gasps. “Lance, I’m buying this building, I want to buy it, I’m buying it. You’re not going out of business. I’m buying it.”

Lance’s jaw works for a second, and then he says, “What the fuck?”

“I’m buying this building.”

“Keith,” says Lance, his voice emotionless, “You can’t buy this building. You make minimum wage. What are you talking about.”

“Oh my gosh,” says Hunk from behind Keith, and then Allura says, “Keith?” and he ignores both of them. He can’t tear his eyes away from Lance’s stunned, incredible face.

“I went to the school board,” says Keith. “And the Board of Directors for the Galra Grant thing, the scholarship, and I told them about the verbal abuse and how we all worked way more than twenty hours a week and I had Pidge get me exact numbers from the official company employee records and I purposefully fucked up cleaning the bathrooms and got Sendak on film yelling at me and blackmailing me about the Kitty Hour thing and. And I sued. I filed a lawsuit. They just wanted to shut me up so they agreed to settle and I got a fucking ridiculous settlement package and I can buy this building with it. Lance. I wanna buy this building. The shelter can’t go out of business. It can’t.”

By now, Keith is dimly aware that all the customers are staring. He doesn’t look away from Lance.

Lance, whose eyes have grown impossibly wide, who is for once utterly silent.

“You guys can’t go out of business,” Keith says; he has officially lost control of his mouth. “I know you hate me, I know you’re mad at me and I deserve it and you don’t have to forgive me, I’m not trying to like—to buy you—or whatever—I just. The shelter can’t go out of business, it can’t, okay, it just can’t.”

“You...want to...,” says Lance slowly. “You want to...buy the building?”

“Yes,” Keith says. He’s gripping the counter so hard his knuckles are bright white. “Because this place is important, okay, it’s important. And it’s where I met you guys. And it just—god, it makes me happy, and I want to do things that make me happy.”

Lance swallows. “What else—what else are you doing?”

“I quit my job,” says Keith. “That was probably obvious. Um. But I quit my job. I paid off my loans with part of the settlement package. And I quit.”

Lance nods, looking down at the counter.

“And I’m sorry,” Keith says into the ringing silence. “I’m so sorry. I got scared, okay, I was scared, and I hate being scared, but that’s not—the point is that I’m sorry. You don’t have to forgive me, I know it’s been like weeks and you’re probably over it but I just, I miss you, I miss you so much, and I’m sorry, and I want to do things that make me happy. And the number one thing that makes me happy is being with you.”

Someone gasps from behind him. Maybe Hunk.

Lance looks absolutely thunderstruck.

He says nothing. Keith waits for a full five seconds, the last embers of his hope going cold, and it becomes increasingly clear that Lance is going to continue saying nothing. Keith feels a horrible sick heat spread across his face.

“Um,” he says, “okay, well. That’s it. Um. I’m gonna—go, I’m gonna go. Have someone call me about the, the payment. Okay.”

He turns and begins his humiliating walk back toward the doors, avoiding everyone’s eyes.

Then Lance calls out, “Wait.”

Keith freezes. Slowly, he glances back over his shoulder—just in time to see Lance set Green down and physically vault over the counter. He hits the ground hard and strides up to Keith until he’s standing just inches away, and then, oh god, and then: he brings his hands up to frame Keith’s face, his long fingers on Keith’s jaw, his thumbs brushing Keith’s cheekbones. All of Keith’s breath stutters out of him; he looks up into Lance’s face, suddenly so close, and feels something rekindle in his chest. The tiniest newborn flame.

“I’m not over it,” Lance says quietly, just for him. “Keith, I’m not over it. How the hell could I be.”

“I,” says Keith, “I, I don’t—”

“You make me happy,” says Lance. “You make me so—,” and then he tips his chin down, or Keith surges up, or both, and they’re kissing.

They’re kissing.

Lance’s hands on Keith’s face, Keith’s hands curled into the collar of Lance’s hoodie, and they’re kissing. It is sweet and firm and closemouthed. It is something Keith falls into instantly, letting his whole body lean into Lance, standing on his tiptoes to press up harder. Lance makes a cut-off noise that Keith wants to hear again and again.

Keith drags himself away, gasping, only long enough to say, “I’m sorry, I lied, you’re not number one, you’re tied with Red, sorry, I didn’t wanna put that out into the universe—,” and Lance says, “Oh my god, how could you think I could possibly get over you, Jesus fuck,” and they come back together.

“Guys,” says Hunk, after a couple more seconds of desperate kissing. “Guys, I really don’t want to interrupt, but. Y’know. There are...there are people here. Who just want to adopt their cats.”

They break apart a second time. Lance’s mouth is red and his eyes are bright and wild and he’s grinning so hard his whole face is scrunched up.

“Sorry, Hunky,” he says, never looking away from Keith. “We’ll be back in like half an hour, okay?”

“Okay,” says Hunk. “Yup. Whatever you need, dude. Super happy for you guys. Just, yeah. PDA.”

“We’re ecstatic for you both,” says Allura. “But please do not traumatize our customers.”

“Sorry,” says Keith, sounding incredibly not sorry, and lets Lance drag him toward the doors and the sunlight and the gorgeous spring. Keith pauses only once, half in and half out of the doorway, his fingers laced with Lance’s. He says, “DON’T ACTUALLY GIVE AWAY ALL THE CATS I’M GONNA BUY THE BUILDING THE SHELTER ISN’T GOING OUT OF BUSINESS OKAY BYE,” and then he waves with his free hand and follows Lance outside.

They kiss on the sidewalk, drawn together, bodies in motion, crashing into each other and kissing fiercely, Lance’s hands in Keith’s hair. They’re both grinning and their teeth click together and it’s dumb and it kinda hurts but oh fuck, oh fuck, it’s good. It feels so good.

“Will you come home with me,” Keith says into Lance’s mouth. “Not to—not like that, just, come home with me, please come home with me.”

“Yes,” says Lance, “yes, fuck, of course, we should talk, or something, fuck, I missed you so much, dude—”

“Don’t call me dude.”

“Keith, honey, sweetheart, light of my fucking life,” says Lance, cracking up, and Keith lets his forehead drop onto Lance’s shoulder and Lance runs his fingers through Keith’s hair and Keith laughs, laughs, laughs.  

 

***

 

Epilogue  

 

***

There are times when Keith stops, looks at his life, and thinks: this cannot possibly be mine.

There are times, like today, when the only reason he knows this is reality is that he has to wake up at six fucking a.m.

Five years, and Keith’s still not a morning person.

Ungodly mornings aside, though. His life is—it’s really, really good.

Opening the Cat Castle Café had been one of the most terrifying and exhausting events of Keith’s entire life. The idea of joining together a cat shelter and a coffee shop felt like it was built of flimsy pipe dreams and praying for the best. Throughout the entire process of remodeling, creating a business module, advertising, etc., the idea felt almost stupid to Keith, even if it was the only thing he wanted to do with that massive settlement package. Even if Lance assured him it wasn’t, in fact, stupid. Even if the entire gang stuck around to help make it happen. He still worried and panicked and didn’t sleep for approximately a week straight leading up until the grand opening.

(“See? I was right,” Lance had said, when they opened to a line that went out the door and around the block. “I was totally right. Suck it.”)

Yawning, sipping from his second cup of dark roast, Keith enters through the back of the shop. The early mornings are still a bitch, but thank god his morning commute is just walking downstairs. Rebecca and Tony are already at the counter when he comes in, filling the display case with fresh hot scones from the local bakery, double-checking the change in the register.

Keith says his hellos and tosses an apron over his head. Walks over to the chalkboard and writes the day’s Lance-approved special in his most stylish scrawl. Chocolate Raspberry Latte. He jots down a few more popular drinks beneath it. The secret of the Cat Castle Café is that Keith is usually willing to make whatever anyone wants—except for fucking frappuccinos. But people are always scrambling to order the special.

He doesn’t want to brag, but his coffee’s kind of a big deal around these parts, if the ZAGAT placards and the viral Buzzfeed article are anything to go by.

(The article was called, “This Adorable Gay Couple Just Opened the Best Cafe Ever, And Here’s Why You Should Be Obsessed With It,” which was a little much, in Keith’s opinion. But Lance nearly cried when the staff at Buzzfeed came to do a focus piece, and then he framed and mounted the article on the wall.)

Keith looks at the article, at the ZAGAT placard, at the consecutive yearly awards for “Best Coffee in the City.” There was a time when he would look out past the doors and across the street, where the once familiar exterior of Galra Grinds is all boarded over and covered up after going out of business. The property’s been empty for almost a year now. Rumor has it someone’s gonna turn it into a taco shop.

Once upon a time, Keith took sadistic pleasure in looking at that abandoned building.

Instead, he now lets his eyes wander the pale blue walls of his own coffee shop, over the Polaroids of the cats that have found “Fur-ever Homes,” the bulletin board of staff photos and the volunteers who work at the shelter half of the shop, of the elementary school classes that come to visit the cats.

Then, behind the counter, photos of all of them: Keith’s friends, Keith’s family. The photos crowd and overlap each other: the ribbon cutting ceremony when they began remodeling, the gang covered in plaster dust, sweaty and grinning. The gang singing at the karaoke bar. The day Allura finally proposed to Shiro and Pidge got a picture of him bursting into tears. Lance’s graduation, him hoisted above Hunk and Shiro’s shoulders, cheering. The day Hunk got hired at NASA and they all started screaming right in the middle of the morning rush. The night before Pidge went off to Stanford, all of them crowded in a booth at Roscoe’s with their arms around each other. Shiro and Allura’s wedding, the reception afterwards. Keith and Lance dancing under the twinkling lights, Keith throwing his head back in laughter, Lance looking at him in a way that will never not make Keith’s chest ache.

Then Allura comes in from the back shelter area. She flops down over the counter and squints at Keith. “Espresso, please, an illegal amount of espresso. What are you smiling about?”

Keith shrugs. “Slept well, that’s all.”

“You never sleep,” Allura says accusingly. “There are bags under your eyes.”

“Do we have cats picked out yet?”

“I’m thinking the collective Little Mix and Destiny’s Child,” she says. “Also, I know you’re avoiding the question, but I am choosing not to engage.”

“Remind me to never let Lance name the new kitten litters ever again,” Keith mutters.

“I heard that,” Lance calls from the back entrance. “And don’t you dare insult my naming abilities ever again. Jesy, Leigh-Anne, Perrie, Jade, Beyoncé, Kelly, and Michelle can hear you. Besides, you literally named our children after the primary colors.”

“Children?” Allura raises an eyebrow, and then her phone goes off. “Ooh, that’s Hunk. Shall I tell him that we all miss him?”

“Only if he promises to spill about Shay!” says Lance, ducking back out to grab the kittens. “And if you tell him that I miss him the most!”

Allura swipes at her phone screen. “Good morning, Hunk! How are you? How’s our big girl Miss Yellow-Mellow?”

Then Lance is marching back into the shop, hollering, “GET OUT OF THE WAY, SEX GOD WITH A BASKET OF KITTENS COMING THROUGH.”

He shoulders past Keith with a wink and a, “Well, excuse you,” and heads over to the giant cat tree they built in the center of the café, with branches that allow the cats to crawl all over. The back of his shirt reads “Professional Cat Herder.” Keith watches as Lance sets the kittens down, talking to them in a low soothing voice, gently lifting them one by one out of the box. He’s got his tongue tucked between his teeth as he looks down at them, waggling his fingers for them to chase.

In a few moments, the coffee shop will open, and Lance will have his hands full with answering questions about the kittens, letting potential adoptees fill out application forms, or taking donations. He’ll be on his feet for every second of the work day and the only time he’ll clue Keith in to his exhaustion is when he begs Keith for more espresso. He’ll probably start fucking with the music on the iPod again and Keith will threaten to maim him while secretly humming along to every single freaking Top 40s song.

This is mine, Keith thinks. Holy shit.

It’s going to be a crazy busy day. He knows the routine by heart, all the possible permutations in between. Keith will get coffee spatters on his T-shirt. Cinnamon and coffee grounds in his hair. Sometime between now and noon, he’ll sweep his hair up a ponytail, and Lance will make a point to kiss the back of his neck. Kyle and Casey will take over for Rebecca and Tony. Keith’s shift ends at one, but he’ll probably stick around anyway. He’ll talk with customers. He’ll take pictures of the cats. Shiro will stop by with Libby and Maddy, who will go nuts over the kittens, just like they always do.

And then, after the day has ended, and the café has closed at 8 p.m. sharp, after they’ve given away the day’s leftover scones and coffee to the local homeless shelter, after everyone has gone home, Keith and Lance will clean up together. They’ll talk as if they haven’t been inches away from each other since the sun rose. Keith will meticulously count the inventory stock, and Lance will putter around with the mugs.

And then, when they’re done, they will head upstairs to their loft, where Lance will push Keith against the door, because he loves nothing more than the way Keith smells like coffee after a long day.

Maybe they’ll make out until the cats come meowing for dinner and maybe they’ll eat whatever leftover takeout is in the fridge and maybe they’ll watch Netflix with Blue and Red curled up on their laps and maybe they’ll tumble into bed together and then, in the morning, do it all over again.

Whatever comes, Keith can’t fucking wait.

Lance hops behind the counter and slips his hand into Keith’s, eyes that same fathomless blue. “Seven o’clock on the dot. You ready?”

Keith smiles so hard his cheeks ache, so full to bursting with happiness that he’s stupid with it, he’s just stupid. The kittens are mewing, the brewers are bubbling, the air smells like raspberry and chocolate, and Lance is smiling too.

“Yes,” Keith says, and stands on tiptoes, cups Lance’s cheek and kisses that smile just to feel it widen, just to feel the way Lance leans into him and settles a hand on the small of his back. “Let’s open the doors.”