Some might find the constant clicking of fingers tapping keys irritating. Others might find themselves with a migraine from the non-stop ringing. These people would not find themselves answering calls from the “technologically challenged” at three in the morning.
Katie Holt found herself sitting in her cubicle doing just that. She closed her fingers over her headset’s mic. When she’d first started working at Altea Tech, she’d managed to suppress annoyed sighs. It took three days to realize that wasn’t possible. It was easier to muffle her irritated breath than hold it in.
“Pidgeon, my Internet is still down.”
She bit back a correction. “Pidge Gunderson” was the name she was supposed to use for this job. Apparently there’d been an incident a year or two back involving a dissatisfied customer and a worker. Things got heated and privacy must’ve been breached.
Unfortunately, most of her clients were hard of hearing, wrinkly, and arthritic. Some probably had white or silver hair—or were bald with liver spots. But they weren’t the type to hack into the mainframe and leak data.
“Sir, is your modem plugged in?”
She repeated her question, only slower this time. She also explained what a modem looked like and where it was probably located.
The man on the line chuckled. “It must’ve been unplugged by my wife’s cat. Thanks for your help, Mister Pidgeon.”
“No problem. Glad to be of service.” Three beeps confirmed the end of the call. Not even thirty seconds later, a new caller was on the line.
“Pidge Gunderson at Altea Tech. How can I help you?”
“Is this an IT center?” The voice on the end of the line was biologically male. If it weren’t for the panic in his voice, his breathing pattern might have made him sound like a stalker from a horror movie: Hello, Sidney. Remember me? “Dammit, I can’t even get the number for the suicide hotline right. I really shouldn’t be alive. I’ve failed. I’m a failure.”
“Hello, Mister…?” Her voice trailed off, hinting for a name.
“Takashi. My name’s Takashi.”
“Takashi,” Katie echoed. “That’s a nice name. And if it makes you feel any better, Takashi, most of my callers can’t help me much. But that’s why I’m here. To help my callers.”
Takashi laughed bitterly. “I’m beyond help. I’m better off dead.”
“What makes you think you’re better off dead?”
There was silence on Takashi’s end of the line.
“Takashi, are you still there? Takashi?” Sheer panic and terror flooded Katie’s veins, but her voice was calm and collected. “Stay with me. That’s an order.”
Katie let out a sigh of relief. He’s alive. She noticed his reply was like that of a soldier’s: immediate and disciplined. She could picture a silhouette saluting with one hand and a phone in the other.
“Pidge, if you don’t mind me asking, why are you helping me? This isn’t what you’re supposed to do.”
“I already told you, I’m doing my job. I’m here to help my callers.” She could practically see him open his mouth to reply, but she continued on. “There’s no such thing as a wrong number. And no, that is not Altea Tech’s slogan.” She couldn’t help but smile at her stupid joke. “I don’t believe in failures. I believe in opportunities. And if you kill yourself tonight, Takashi, you’re going to miss out on a whole world of opportunities.”
A reflective pause. “Is… there any way I could get your number? In case this happens again?”
I wish. It was against the rules to give out direct numbers to customers. But Takashi wasn’t a customer. Not in the traditional sense. “I’m sorry, Takashi. I wish I could do that, but I can’t. Company policy.” Katie emphasized the last two words, implying her distaste towards that rule. “But what I can do is have you call the number you dialed. Just ask for Pidge Gunderson. They should be able to transfer you to me.”
“Thank you, Pidge.”
“Any time, Takashi. Take care of yourself. That’s also an order.”
Beep. Beep. Beep.
Katie tore off her headset and covered her face with her hands. “What am I doing?” She should’ve given him a suicide hotline number. Called 911. Takashi was right—worrying about a suicidal stranger wasn’t in her job description. But what was she supposed to do? She couldn’t just leave him hanging. Especially with Takashi's reaction to calling a wrong number.
"Pidge!" One of her coworkers hollered. "I'm transferring a customer to you."
Right now wasn't the time to worry. "Okay, Keith. I'm on it." Katie slipped her headset on over unkempt brown hair. “Hello, this is Pidge Gunderson at Altea Tech. How can I help you?”
A big thank you to everyone who's commented and/or left kudos! Also, a HUGE thank you to pahndah for her incredible fan art. These are the sorts of things that keep me motivated to write.
Shiro wrenched his eyes open and reached for his ringing cell phone, knocking two orange prescription bottles onto the floor.
He’d left the phone on the bedside table—on vibrate and on sleep mode. Or at least, he thought he’d left it on those settings. Apparently not. “Hello?”
“This is Takashi Shirogane, right?”
Shiro grunted an affirmative response.
“Okay, cool. I’m Hunk. You know, the guy who interviewed you for a job at that quiet little bakery?”
Oh, right. Him. Hunk had seemed like a bright guy, totally unashamed about his (visible) love of food. Fairly anxious, but a generally good guy. Someone you’d want on your side. That was the vibe Shiro’d gotten from Hunk.
“I tried reaching you last night, but it went straight to voicemail.”
“Sorry about that.” Well, that would explain why his phone’s sound was on. He’d turned it off while contemplating how to best end his life. No interruptions that way. He must’ve forgotten to change its notification settings after accidentally calling Altea Tech and deciding to push through one more day.
“No worries. Anyways, I was calling to let you know we have an opening. Are you still interested?”
Interested? Not really. But with the stack of unpaid bills piling up in his mailbox, working in a bakery sounded great. Could be worse alternatives. “Yes.”
He probably didn’t sound excited about the opportunity, but Hunk apparently didn’t care. Too excited to have a new worker. “Awesome! When can you start?”
“When do you open?”
“In fifteen minutes. Why?”
“See you in fifteen. Thanks, Hunk.” Before Hunk could tell him he didn’t have to arrive so early, Shiro hung up. Boot camp had required him and his fellow soldiers to be ready for anything in seven minutes or less.
After two days, Shiro could do it in four and a half. Showered, dressed, and breakfast eaten. Prepared for anything.
Nowadays it took him longer than that to get ready. Strapping on his prosthetic arm took an extra four to five minutes. Technological advances at least made his arm lighter than past prosthetic models. The transition from having two functioning arms to only one had been tough. But after so many therapeutic sessions and nights of crippling phantom pains, he was grateful for it.
It was pearl-white and clearly artificial. Naïve children wondered aloud (and within Shiro’s hearing range) if he was a robot. Then Mom or Dad would shush said child and walk away with apologetic winces. (Ironically, the military-tested and -approved prosthetic’s name was the Terminator.)
In short: the loss of a limb wasn’t cheap—and neither was the price of gaining a new one.
And now he had a job. A new job. What was that it the IT chick—no, Pidge—had said to him last night? “If you kill yourself tonight, you’re going to miss out on a whole world of opportunities.”
Shiro smiled. For the first time in months, he felt like things might be alright.
He had a new job. New coworkers in a less stressful environment. An employer who wasn’t too concerned about hiring an employee with severe post-traumatic stress disorder and an artificial limb.
He had to call Pidge again. Let her know he was alive, and well, not exactly “well.” Thank her.
He had five minutes before this place opened. More than enough time to make a phone call and drive over.
“Hey, Keith, can you do me a favor?” A tall, lanky guy stepped into Keith’s cubicle. “Keith? Buddy? My man?”
Keith didn’t even look up from his monitor. He was on a roll and wasn’t going to let Lance of all people break his streak. “Hi, this is Red Rover at Altea Tech.” (Lance snorted.) “How can I help you? You want to talk to Pidge Gunderson?”
Lance cocked his head. Weird. Customers rarely specified names. “Keith, she clocked out, like three hours ago.”
Keith nodded, acknowledging Lance. (For his information. Definitely not his presence.) “She’s not here right now. You can try calling again later— “
“Much, much later. Or earlier, depending on how you look at it—”
Keith clapped a hand over Lance’s mouth and glared daggers at him. “You’re really lucky he hung up, Lance. Ouch!” Keith yanked his hand back. “I can’t believe you fucking bit me!”
“What are you gonna do about it, mullet?” Lance retorted. “‘Red Rover, Red Rover, send Allura right over’?”
“Do you mind?” The head of a mustached man with red hair popped up over the cubicle wall.
“Coran, I am so sorry you have to work next to Keith’s cubicle. This place is a pit!” Lance wasn’t wrong—files were carelessly misplaced, three-year-old sticky notes decorated the walls, and there wasn’t a framed photo in sight.
“Lance, you’re not one to talk.”
Coran cleared his throat to gain their attentions. “You two ought to be ashamed of yourselves, behaving like a pair of street urchins. We’re having another mandatory lunch meeting. You’re in luck since I packed enough food to feed an army!”
Keith and Lance groaned in unison.
“Wow. He actually made it on time,” Hunk said before biting into a scone. Pastry still hanging from his mouth, he loosely tied his frosting-stained apron behind his back. He plodded over to open the door for Shiro, resembling a dog returning a ball to his master. Except Hunk wasn’t about to let go of his half-finished scone. “Morning! Welcome to The Croissant Moon, Takashi.”
Shiro held up a hand. (Specifically, his hand. Not his prosthetic one.) “Shiro. Call me Shiro.”
“Oh. Okay, we’ll try that again. Welcome to The Croissant Moon, Shiro. Is that better?”
Hunk continued to ramble on. “Are you sure? Because I can work on that greeting. Last thing I want is for you to feel uncomfortable or nervous or unwelcome or…”
“Easy, Hunk.” Shiro knew Hunk meant well. But he hated it when people acted like this. Just because he was a disabled war veteran people bent over backwards trying to help him. He wasn’t helpless or quivering from anxiety. “So, what is it exactly you need me to do?”
“Just about everything.”
His eyebrows shot up. Perhaps Hunk was more sensitive than he’d thought. “Everything?”
Hunk nodded vigorously and put up a thumb. “Cleaning.” Index finger. “Baking.” The bird. “Packaging.” Ring finger. “The occasional delivery.” Pinkie. “Customer service at the cashier. Just what I’d expect from any worker. If that’s okay.”
The start of a smile touched the corners of Shiro’s lips. “That’s perfect.”
“Sweet. I’m gonna grab you a uniform from the break room. Keep an eye on the front for customers.”
Shiro saluted his supervisor. “Yes, sir.”
Bipbipbip. Shiro leapt up at the sound at the sound, prepared for the worst. He pivoted around on his heel to face the entrance. It… it can’t be.
Before him stood a small, androgynous person with short messy brown hair. He couldn’t see their eyes behind the reflective glare of their glasses.
His breath was stuck in his throat, rendering him unable to speak. His heart raced, thumping hard enough to feel like it might pop out of his chest. Flight or fight. He wanted to flee, but his feet were glued to the ground.
“Sorry I took so long, Shir—oh!” Hunk dropped his stack of black t-shirts on top of a counter when he saw the customer. “Long time no see! What can I do for you today?”
“Some idiots at work did something stupid, so now everyone’s being called in for a mandatory lunch meeting. Figured I might as well stop in and save everyone from our department manager’s cooking.”
“Is this the same guy who tried to make carrot cake without the carrots. Pickle cake, wasn’t it?”
Her nose wrinkled in disgust. “Yup. That’s him. So could I have… five of your best blueberry muffins? And a couple poppy seed, too?”
“Sure thing.” Hunk opened the glass display case and gracefully selected her order with tongs. “And have a peanut butter cookie—it’s on me.”
Her tiny hand—not tiny for the average human, but just tiny when compared to Hunk’s hand—slid six smoothed out one-dollar bills and crinkled twenty. “Thanks, Hunk! See you around.” Bag of breakfast goodies in hand, she bounded out the door.
Hunk re-collected his dropped pile and presented it before Shiro. “I wasn’t sure what size would be best for you, so I just… grabbed a lot of them.” He’d noticed Shiro’s stiff, uncomfortable posture. The poor guy was paler than a vanilla sheet cake. What had happened to him? “You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
For a moment, Shiro looked a decade or two older than the age on his application. “I just might have, Hunk.”
Coran’s punishment of choice: making the troublemakers sit next to one another. It wasn’t all that different than a time-out—save for one exception.
“So, just how long do I have to sit like this?” Lance lifted up his hand—and a gloved hand with it. “Keith’s hand is sweaty.”
“Speak for yourself, Lance,” Keith grumbled. “Come on, Coran, we’re not kids. Making us hold hands? This is embarrassing.”
“This? Embarrassing?” Coran scoffed. “Why, it’s not embarrassing until I pull up the office blinds! Which it appears I’ve forgotten to do.” He started for the blinds.
Lance and Keith locked wide, horrified eyes.
“Coran, have mercy on me!” Lance pleaded. If his hand wasn’t holding Keith’s, he would’ve been on the floor groveling.
Keith rolled his eyes and scowled. Pathetic. That’s what Lance was being. That, and a little amusing. Only a little. His nose twitched. “Is that… food I smell?”
“Why, yes!” Coran exclaimed. He was practically singing. “My casserole. A family recipe, handed down from my great-aunt’s great-grandfather. It’s made from-”
“Sorry I’m late!” Katie bounded into the meeting room. She set the crinkled paper bag on the table. “I brought food for everyone."
Coran’s lower lip jutted out into a pout. “But I made my famous casserole.”
“More like infamous casserole,” Lance muttered, quiet enough for Coran not to hear. Indeed, Coran’s casserole was infamous. Last time he’d made it, the few who were brave enough to take a bite ended up going home with upset stomachs. No one had the heart to tell him how horrible his food was.
“These muffins can be a side to your entree,” Katie said. Hopefully it would be enough of a compromise. An unhappy Coran meant more misery to the rest of the team. Coran meant well, but sometimes he went overboard.
“Yes, a most delightful idea! Okay, boys, you can let go now.”
So they did. Lance slid his hand down the front of his t-shirt, as if he was wiping off toxic sludge.
Since somebody had to be the mature one, Keith knew it’d have to be him. He flashed Katie a grateful smile. “Thanks for the side dishes, Carrier Pidgeon.”
“Real mature, Red Rover.” Katie dug her cookie out of the bag. “I’ll let you and Lancelot fight over the rest. So what exactly happened while I was supposed to be off the clock?” Her golden eyes glowered venomously at all three men in the room.
“Yes, boys, what happened?” All four heads turned to the source of the sultry voice: a tall, ebony-skinned, stunning goddess with an icy gaze.
Lance piped up first. He pointed an accusatory finger at the guy sitting across from him. “I knew it, Keith. You totally called her over. Nark.”
“Sure.” Keith blew his bangs away from his face. “If that makes you feel better, yeah, I totally summoned Allura.”
“Or maybe you boys—” (Katie coughed, earning her an apologetic smile from Allura.) “Sorry, Pidge. You guys forgot that Coran is my adoptive father who also happens to work at the business I run? There isn’t anything that gets past my ears. So, what happened?”
Katie grinned. “Allura, didn’t you just say nothing gets past your ears? If that were truly the case, why have them rehash their story?”
Allura’s ears (unsurprisingly) grew red at the tips. “Pidge, I say this with love: please shut up.”
Lance looked as though he was considering throwing a pick up line Allura’s way, but knew better than to do that. One sexual harassment complaint was one too many. “It all started when some moron named Keith agreed to a bet with me and lost.”
Everyone in the room groaned. Lance and Keith’s bet was just as in infamous as Coran’s casserole.
During the first three days after the data breach, Allura had allowed her employees to choose their codenames. (Hence “Lancelot” for Lance McClain. It was either that or “Lance sells lots.”) Once Lance had heard this news, he took advantage of it and made a bet with Keith. Loser had to request “Red Rover” as their codename.
“Keith, I still can’t believe you thought it was physically possible to lick your elbow,” Katie commented, nibbling on her cookie.
Allura slammed her fist on the table. The room fell silent. “So, what happened today?”
Keith rehashed the events from earlier, starting with the call from “some dude named Takashi.”
Allura leaned in closer, intrigued that a random man was trying to call Pidge. “Pidge, do you have any idea why he might’ve been calling for you?”
Katie’s mouth went dry. Dryer than the Sahara. “Earlier this morning, I received a call from him. Apparently he’d dialed the wrong number. Tried to call the suicide hotline. I think I talked him out of it, but just to be safe, I told him he could try to call me again. I… I didn’t think he’d actually do it.” Her hands balled up into fists, clenching the fabric of her oversized sweater. She looked up at Keith. “Did he sound okay when he called?”
Keith shrugged. “I guess so? He said he’d try again later.”
A shaky breath escaped Katie’s lips. It was so strange. Earlier, Takashi had been nothing more than a customer. And suddenly the thought of losing a complete stranger was… utterly terrifying.
“Allura, I’m not in trouble, am I?” Katie’s voice quavered. She couldn’t afford to lose this job. Couldn’t afford to lose anything else. Anyone else.
Allura shook her head. “No. You used your codename from the sound of things.” She ruffled Katie’s hair. “Keep up the good work.”
Shiro was grateful for Hunk. Hunk hadn’t pressed him for more information. He’d gotten up to get Shiro a glass of water. Asked if he needed a break.
The last thing Shiro needed was a break. For so long, he’d tried to push the memories back. The last thing he needed was for them to come bursting through the surface, breaking Shiro’s resolve. He had to keep busy. Keep moving. Keep pushing forward.
But still, Shiro had his concerns. Was that customer a regular? Hunk seemed to know her well. He needed to talk to someone about this. Hunk seemed like he’d understand, but… well, he’d only worked with him for half a day. I don’t want pity. I don’t want to remember.
He wanted to hear her again. Pidge. “Hey, Hunk?”
“I’m going to take you up on that break offer. That okay?”
A wide grin broke out on Hunk’s face. “Absolutely.”
Shiro dug out his phone and dialed the number again. “Hi. Could you transfer me to Pidge Gunderson?”
Much to Shiro’s delight, the worker on the other line put him on hold—apparently Pidge must’ve just come in. Never thought I’d be excited to be put on hold.
“Excuse me?” A shy young woman peeped into the boisterous meeting room. “There’s been a request for Pidge Gunderson.”
Katie looked to Allura, who merely nodded. “Go on, Pidge."
She took a deep breath before putting her headset on. “Hello?”
“Pidge, it’s me. Takashi. Um… I was calling to thank you for last night. I’m doing a bit better.”
“Only a bit?” She spoke lightly. If she put too much force into those words, it could come off as rude or harsh. Maybe condescending.
“Well, there was a bit of an incident today.” He paused, but then quickly added, “Don’t worry, it wasn’t anything too big. Sometimes… my PTSD flares up."
So she probably hadn’t been wrong about him being a military man—not that he had to be in the military to experience trauma. “It happens. Trust me, I have more experience than most people my age should have with PTSD. My father—“ Katie cut herself short. Why was she about to tell a complete stranger about her father’s experience with PTSD? Or her father at all? “He struggled with it, too.”
“How did he cope with it?”
“He didn’t.” Katie didn’t bother to mask her grief. Maybe that was why she came off as so mechanical, so… scripted the night before. Trying not to think about her father. Trying to fight off the flood of emotion. “War didn’t kill him. Depression did.”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t know. I didn’t think.”
“It’s alright, Takashi.” She was eager to change the subject. “I’m just glad you’re alive.”
“I’m… glad I called you.”
“Me, too.” Katie smiled in spite of herself. “Are you going to keep calling me?” She was curious—why her? Why not someone better equipped to handle this sort of thing?
“Am I causing you any problems at work? Because if I am, I can stop.”
Crap. That’s not what I meant. “No, not at all!” Heat rose to her face. “No, please, don’t stop. Stay in touch. Please.” Katie sounded like a needy child, pleading for Mom and Dad to stay home. But she was needy. She’d needed to save her father and failed. But maybe… maybe she could save this man.
And who knows? Maybe he knew Matt. A gamble it may be, but still, a venture worth the risk.
“Alright, then. I’ll be sure to check in. Thanks for everything, Pidge.”
Beep beep beep.
She readjusted her glasses. Maybe she was being selfish, but she wasn’t about to lose anyone else. Not again.
Not ever again.
Another day, another chapter. I've just been rolling these out.
Question for feedback: In terms of the story's pacing, am I doing OK? Too slow? Too fast? Just right? Let me know in the comments!
Hunk observed Shiro take his break from a distance. A distance of about five feet, just outside the break room door. Shiro looked like he felt much better. The color had returned to his face—or was he blushing?
“So, who’s the lucky dude? Not that I'm implying you're gay or anything. But if you are, that’s totally cool. I just call everyone a ‘dude.’”
Shiro’s face crimsoned. “She’s not my girlfriend. Just…” How could he tell Hunk about this weird relationship with an IT worker? It wasn’t like he and Pidge were friends. Not even acquaintances. This is a girl who kinda saved my life would be just as strange. He settled on “It’s complicated.”
Hunk pulled up a chair next to Shiro. “So, what’s her name?”
Hunk burst into a fit of laughter. “Dude, that can’t possibly be her real name. Sounds like a codename. A son-of-a-gun pigeon. A bird boy with a gun.”
Shiro shook his head. “Not likely. I’ve worked in the military. I know codenames.” He sighed. “Unless you’ve done top-secret government work, I wouldn’t expect you to understand.”
Hunk furrowed his brow and bit the inside of his cheek, as if he was torn between silence or saying something he might regret. “Well, as an ex-NASA engineer, I understand more than you’d like to think I do.”
“Wait, what?” Did he hear Hunk correctly? Shiro leaned forward. “Then why are you working here?”
Hunk slouched deeper into his chair and fitted his fingertips together. He stared through Shiro, as if he wasn’t there. “I mean, look at me. I don’t exactly look the part, do I?”
With a XXL black shirt covered in flour and a belly even an apron couldn’t conceal, Shiro had to admit Hunk did not look like the average NASA employee. Even a construction engineer for that matter. “I can’t say you do.”
“Every day, I’d go into work. Designing rockets. Going over blueprints. But I heard snickers behind my back, commenting about my weight. My diet. My appearance. It was just too much for me to handle.”
Shiro could’ve sworn he saw some other emotion flickering behind Hunk’s veiled expression. He just couldn’t place it. Perhaps there was something more to Hunk’s story than what he was hearing. He started to apologize, but Hunk raised a hand, only to let it fall back on his lap.
“I know what it’s like to be judged on appearance alone, Shiro. I understand more than you probably think I do.”
“Did you hire me out of pity, then?” His voice cracked with a mix of emotions: anger, hurt, and disappointment. He dreaded Hunk’s answer. So many employers hired veterans out of pity—especially a disabled one. For some, it was an act of patriotism. God bless America. Made for a great Fourth of July special.
“I would be lying if I said I saw past your artificial limb,” Hunk admitted. “If I said that, I’d be no different than people who say they don’t see race. But hiring you out of pity? No. I interviewed a more than capable worker.”
Shiro mulled over that. Hunk was the type who went above and beyond the call of duty to make others’ life easier. No matter who it was. He clapped a cold metallic hand on Hunk’s broad shoulder. “Thanks, Hunk.”
“No need to thank me.”
Bipbipbip! Shiro exploded out of his chair. “Sorry about that. Loud, unexpected sounds just… Well… I’ll work on it.”
Hunk dismissed Shiro’s offer with a wave of his hand. “Nah, I’ll just disable that alarm during our open hours. We’ll just have to have someone up front at all times.”
Hunk lumbered to check on the customer with Shiro in tow.
Katie hit the light switch, illuminating her studio apartment. “Rover, I’m home!”
A series of yips informed Katie that Rover was on the way. A scrappy little rat terrier mix scrabbled over the kitchen tiles. His wagging tail was practically invisible to the naked eye. He leapt up into her arms and ran his tongue all over her face.
“I take it you’re happy to see me?”
Rover whined and pawed at her face, barely missing her glasses.
“You always know when I’ve had a long day.” Katie was well aware her coworkers might find her conversations with her dog weird or silly. But for her, it was therapeutic.
She told Rover about the call from Takashi at three o’clock in the morning, the group meeting that interrupted their daily walk, and the second call. “Somehow, my father came up in the conversation. I haven’t really opened up to anyone about that before.”
Rover snorted indignantly at this.
“Okay, except for you. It’s just… I miss him. I miss Matt.” Her vision blurred. Glasses might help correct vision, but they couldn’t stop tears from falling.
Before she was even really aware from it, she was already telling Rover about her father and Matt. Rover had heard it all before, but he was a pretty good listener.
Katie had been seventeen when her father took his own life. Her father had been so proud of his children. His daughter for graduating a year early; his son for his outstanding military service. As proud and happy as Sam Holt had seemed, it wasn’t enough to keep him alive.
He couldn’t even make it long enough to see her proudly donning her cap and gown or applaud her valedictorian speech.
At first, she was angry. Angry with her father for being a coward. For leaving his family the way he did. It would’ve been better if he’d walked out on them. He'd still be part of her life. Angry that his death left her mother unable to function as a parent. For the next three years, she and Matt became parents to their mother.
Eventually, the anger dissolved into grief. Matt had been called back to fight overseas. Honorable man he was, he did it. He’d promised to stay in touch with Katie and his mother. And he did. He’d called and chatted as often as he could.
One day, the messages stopped.
No one in the military knew what had happened to Matt. For now, he was listed as MIA. Missing in action. Could be dead. Taken prisoner. No one really knew for certain. No one dared to go back and find out for sure.
“He’s not dead.” That’s what she told every soldier, every government official, every homeless vet she encountered. “Matt is out there somewhere.”
She’d already lost her father. She wasn’t going to lose Matt. And certainly not Takashi.
Katie knew this whole thing with Takashi was going to open up old wounds. Hell, it already had. Otherwise she wouldn’t be sobbing into Rover’s thin, wiry coat.
But Takashi’s calls were also reigniting an emotion Katie hadn’t felt in years. She couldn’t quite put her finger on its name. It was a strange sort of happiness that bubbled up in her chest. Sometimes the feeling made her throat tighten and her stomach upset. But it wasn’t unpleasant or unwelcome. In a way, it felt nice.
Rover licked her tears away, only making Katie cry harder.
Hunk flipped the open sign to closed. “Day one, done. Great job for your first day.”
Shiro either ignored Hunk’s praise or didn’t hear it. “Hunk? Do you know that first customer who came in this morning?” He couldn’t get her out of his mind. And for all the wrong reasons.
“Yeah. She’s one of our regulars. What about her?”
What about her? What about her? Her glasses, her hair, her smile. They were just like his. He couldn’t bring himself to even think his name, let alone say it aloud. He’d never mentioned any relatives around Shiro—an act of kindness, really. Shiro didn’t exactly have a family. It’d always been him, on his own.
“Shiro, are you alright?”
No. I’m not. I’m internally panicking because I’ll see her again. If I see her again, I’m certain it’ll trigger flashbacks. I can’t relive it I can’t see it happen I can’t do this I can’t do this I can’t I can’t I can’t I can’t I
“Perfect. Perfectly fine,” he managed through a forced smile.
“No, you're not."
Shiro was taken aback at Hunk’s comment. He ran a hand through his hair and took a deep breath. “You’re right. I’m not.”
“And why is that?” Hunk inquired.
“I…” Shiro stopped himself. He was about to break down in front of someone he’d only really just met. “I can’t talk about this.” He tore off his apron—not before untying everything—and cast it aside.
“She looks like someone you know, doesn’t she?”
Shiro froze in place, one hand on the door. The room suddenly felt hot and oppressive—not unlike the desert he last fought in. He slammed his eyes closed. Maybe that would keep the intrusive memory at bay. But he could still smell rust and iron in the air, taste the blood in his mouth, and feel the searing pain in what used to be his arm.
“Hunk, I need to go.”
“Okay. See you then.”
Shiro bolted out of The Croissant Moon. He hopped into his car—a black 2007 Silverado pick-up—and started the engine. It roared to life—the noise startled him—but he shook it off and drove into the night.
Not once did he look back. Otherwise he might have seen the sad but concerned expression on Hunk's face.
But Shiro never looked back.
Every Wednesday night after close, Allura checked her employees’ hours. Everyone was required to clock in and out with a computer program. Workers were paid bi-weekly—unless they desperately needed their check in an emergency situation. (Covering rent, insurance costs, or hospital bills.) In such events, Allura wrote them a personal handwritten check.
Allura prided herself on flexibility and diplomatic skills. Always willing to compromise—within reason, of course. She believed employees were not servants. They had lives outside of Altea Tech. For the most part, she tried to stay uninvolved. But that didn’t mean she had her concerns.
One of them being the hour logs for “Holt, Katie” over the past two days.
Allura frowned. “She was on time today.”
Coran took a sip of his coffee. (His own special homebrew, of course.) He had enough energy to fuel at least three emergency hospital generators—and that was without caffeine. “Astounding! Truly incredible! A punctual Pidge!”
“It gets stranger. She offered to cover more shifts during the day. Said she’ll attend more meetings—even ones that aren’t in her department.”
Coran patted Allura’s hand. “Now, now, m’dear, you’re worrying about the wrong things. Why don’t I go and get you a cup of chamomile tea?”
The offer was tempting, but now was not the time to be calm. “It’s because of that suicidal vet that called yesterday. I’m glad she talked him out of it, but what if his calls stop coming in? Or what if he calls, and Pidge isn't here?”
“Allura, we run a tech support center, not a suicide hotline service,” Coran said. “We can’t help everyone with everything.” He poured himself a second cup.
Coran was right—she wasn’t equipped for this sort of situation. “I started this company because I wanted to help people, Coran. Like my father did. Nearly all his extra funds went to those in need.”
“Ouch!” Steaming brown liquid stained Coran’s hands. His china cup slipped out of his grasp and shattered on the floor. “Sounds great and all, Allura, but can we start with treating third-degree burns and cuts?”
Allura tried her best to smother her laughter. Oh, Coran. “I’ll get the first aid kit.”
Luckily Coran’s burns were minor—nowhere near third-degree. Allura wrapped gauze tape over his cuts. (Again, minor.) “That hurts,” he whined.
“Stop being such a big baby,” Allura said. “Honestly, you’d think I’m the one who raised you.”
“But look at what a great job I’ve done with you!” He ruffled her silvery hair with a bandaged hand, then pulled her into a tight, warm hug. Coran’s mustache tickled her cheek as he whispered into her ear: “I’m so proud of you, Allura.”
Sleep was a slippery bastard, constantly tormenting Shiro. He needed sleep, but to sleep meant to dream. And to dream was a dangerous thing.
It had been hard enough fighting off the flashbacks on the way home from work, but he did it. He escaped their clutches once again. But just barely.
He was tired, so tired of repressing the memories. Of not looking back. Of running away from his past.
Sometimes, Shiro wondered if it would be easier to tell someone the truth of what had happened. But just who could he rely on? Who could truly know and understand the horrors he’d seen? The things he’d done? The things he’d failed to do? “I’m the only one who…” Stop. Shiro, stop it.
He felt a vibration in his back pocket and dug out his phone. No one had called, but Hunk had texted him:
“sorry i went too far after closing and i understand if u cant work here no hard feelings i also wanted to tell u can talk to me about anything even if u decide to quit. this is prolly going too far again but i think it would be healthy for u to be xposed to this customer. Shes a friend of mine whos supersmart and understanding but shes super sarcastic and sassy too.”
“Hunk: I’m still going to work. See you tomorrow.”
Another buzz, another text:
“sure thing dude! we will take it nice and slow ok get some rest it’s like 3am lmao”
Hunk was right. It was a little after three in the morning. That was the around time when he first called Pidge. He didn’t know her official schedule, but if it was somewhat regular, she’d be working right now.
Pidge swore that if one more person called about a broken monitor that was just turned off, she was going to scream. Or throw her keyboard into the trash. For once in her life, maybe, just maybe she could have a client with a challenging tech-related problem? But no, she was stuck with the elderly in severe need of hearing aides.
Lance stuck his head over the cubicle wall. “Hey, Pidge, I’m transferring your boyfriend over to you.”
Katie’s golden eyes promised Lance a slow, painful death if he;d said anything. “He’s not my boyfriend. If you’ve even insinuated anything like that to him…”
“Hello, is this Pidge Gunderson? It’s Takashi.”
Her murderous expression transformed into a radiant smile. “Yes, this is she!” She winced at her awkward phrasing. “U-um, are you alright?”
A sigh. “As much as I want to say I am… I’m not.” There was something painful in his confession. “Had a rough day at work.”
Katie considered empathizing with "I had a rough day, too.” But instead, she asked, “What made it rough?”
He was quiet for a moment. “It’s complicated.”
Katie squeezed her eyes shut and took a shaky breath. It's complicated. A phrase she knew all too well when dealing with her father’s depression and Matt’s PTSD. They always used it when they didn’t want to open up about their feelings or experiences.
“Pidge, are you okay?” Her silence must’ve concerned him. “Still there?”
“Just give me one moment. I’m not going anywhere. I promise.” Katie reached for her box of tissues—just in case she might need them. Inhale, exhale. Inhale, exhale. “Sorry about that.”
“It's okay. Say, what kinds of people call you?”
“Normally, a lot of old people. Like… seventy-five years and older.” Her lips curled into a coy (if not sly) smile. “And if I’m lucky, I get the occasional veteran.”
“Really? Where were most of them stationed? I might know some of them.”
“Korea or Vietnam.” That got a chuckle out of Takashi. Katie blushed—his laugh was cute. But now wasn’t the time for such thoughts. “Why are you still awake? It’s… late.”
“I think you mean early. It’s all about perspective, Pidge.”
“Or avoidance,” she countered. “You can’t keep dodging questions forever. You’re not invincible.”
Silence. An uncomfortable, painful silence. His answer was slow, raspy, and raw. “You don’t think I know that? If I have to go back and go through everything at once, there won’t be much left of me.”
“Don’t open up all your wounds at once. Start with something small and go from there.”
“Why are you helping me?” Takashi asked. He sounded small, lost, and confused—like a child.
She knew better than to say “because you might know something about my brother.” But this whole thing was more complex than that. This wasn’t her job. “Because I care about you.”
It was true. She cared far too much for a complete stranger. To the point where she was changing her work routine. Bending over backwards to work with him.
“Good night, Pidge." Beep. Beep. Beep.
She hadn’t heard Takashi sound so defeated. Not even on the night he first called her.
But what she didn’t hear was the spark of determination in his voice.
“Because I care about you.” That’s what Pidge had said. As much as he didn’t want to believe her reason, it sounded true. And for some reason, he cared about her. Shiro cared about what she thought and felt. He enjoyed her sense of humor and sharp wit. And appreciated her bluntness.
He sent Hunk another text before going to bed.
“You were right about that customer. She does remind me of someone. I don’t know if I’m ready to open up quite yet about everything. But you’re right. I need to get used to her if she’s a regular. Let’s make a game plan tomorrow.”
“Allura, have you or anyone else heard anything from Takashi today?”
“I’m sorry, I can’t say I have. We’ll let you immediately know if he calls.”
Katie hung up, failing to muster up an “okay,” “thanks,” or “goodbye.” She wasn’t okay. She didn’t feel thankful. Nor was she willing to say “goodbye.” Too close to “Good night, Pidge.”
It had been a little over twenty-four hours since Takashi’s last call. Maybe she’d gone too far. She’d tried to keep her bluntness in check, but sometimes it just flared up.
A paw swiped at her leg. She looked down at Rover and scratched the spot behind the base of his right ear. His ears always amused her: His left ear was always erect; the other flopped over. Her phone went off, reminding her of an important event:
Katie first found him meandering around the back of The Croissant Moon, eating a biscuit out of the cook’s hand. He'd been a matted mess of a pup. She hadn’t been able to even tell what color he was beneath the grime and dirt.
“Who’s a good boy? You are! You are!”
Katie had always known she tended to dress like a teenage boy, but she was far above the age where people babied her. (Although she didn’t look older than thirteen or so.)
The man cleared his throat. “Sorry. Talking to this little dude.”
She adjusted her glasses. “So I figured.” Before she'd realized what she was doing, Katie found herself petting a complete stranger’s dog. “Your dog is really cute.”
“Oh, no. He’s not mine. I just feed the strays leftovers. Normally I just get cats, but this dude’s been scaring them off.” He sighed. “I don’t have the heart to turn him away, but I worry about him. The cats can handle themselves just fine. But I think he’s still a puppy. Just starting to lose his baby teeth.” He rolled up his sleeve, revealing bite marks.
“Aren’t you worried about rabies or infection?”
He shrugged. “Not unless his bites break the skin. And they haven’t. Little Dude here needs a good home, but I’m not going to hand him off to just anyone.”
“Can’t you take him?”
“My apartment only allows cats. And I may or may not have more than I’m allowed.” His voice dropped to a whisper. “I definitely have more. By like, three.”
It was then Katie had decided she liked this guy. She held out a hand—a polite introduction. “I’m Katie.”
He high-fived her—not exactly the hand-shake she’d anticipated. “Name’s Hunk. I’m the do-it-all-yourself guy at The Croissant Moon. And this is Little Dude. The stray mutt who’s eaten just about all of my peanut butter cookies.”
And it was then Katie had decided this dog was destined to be hers. “Hunk, I’ll take him.”
Hunk crossed his arms. “I said I wasn’t going to give him to just about anyone.”
“As a peanut butter cookie aficionado, it would be wrong of me to leave behind another fan. And I’ll stop by at least once a week—with Rover. So you two can catch up.”
Before Katie could answer Hunk’s question, the newly dubbed Rover had already found his way into her arms—and without a doubt, into her home.
And of course, Hunk had given in and agreed to those terms.
An excited bark drew Katie out of her memories and back into her apartment. “Okay, okay. We’ll go visit Hunk.” She glanced at the calendar hanging on her fridge.
It was June 9.
Small, local businesses often have strange rituals or traditions. A local’s ice cream parlor might only be open in the summer. The local outdoor skating rink was available only in winter—save for the one day it’s an open wading pool. The Croissant Moon closed its doors early on June 9 and all day June 10.
Yesterday, Hunk and Shiro had worked out a game plan after they’d closed. It seemed more than reasonable. And of course, Shiro was off early.
Hunk didn’t believe in taking a break. Not for himself, anyways. He had to keep himself occupied. Especially today.
“Hunk, are you in?” Katie’s voice was muffled from behind the front door. “I know you’re in there.”
He practically dragged himself to open the door a crack to reply. “We’re closed.”
Rover slipped in-between Hunk’s legs. “Well, Rover seems to think otherwise.”
Hunk grudged a grin and opened the door. “I guess I could use a little company.” That, and he had to ask Katie a big favor.
“Are you doing alright?” She seated herself at the bar, leveling herself eye-to-eye with Hunk. “I wanted to stop by because tomorrow’s the anniversary of…”
He peered out of the corner of his eye for Rover. Rover stood up on his hind legs with a wet nose and forepaws pressed to the glass case. “Found your favorite, I see.”
“What is it with guys avoiding painful discussions?” Katie wondered aloud. The question was aimed more at herself than at Hunk (or Takashi, for that matter).
“Katie, you’re hardly one to talk about that.” Hunk’s usually warm and kind voice was frigid and rough. He cleared his throat when he saw her hurt expression. “Sorry, that wasn’t fair.”
“It’s alright, Hunk. I know it’s a tough time for you.”
Hunk grunted. “Hey, I have a favor to ask of you. It’s gonna sound really weird, but I really need your help.”
Both Katie and Rover tilted their heads at the same time. Katie scooted her chair closer to Hunk, squeaking with each minute adjustment.
Hunk told her a little about Shiro: what little information he had about Shiro’s deployment, his appearance and demeanor, and a hint of his PTSD.
“He tends to be very jumpy at loud noises. But when he saw…” How could he best explain Shiro’s reaction when he first saw Katie? Would it be wise to even say her appearance triggered such a strong reaction in him? “When he saw you, he froze up. Could barely even function. Since you’re a regular, he needs to get used to you.”
“Why would I trigger a reaction in him? Unless…”
Hunk knew where this was going—to Matt. It always came back to Matt.
For the sake of Shiro’s health and safety, he had to lie. And it was an unethical lie based on outdated stereotypes. A shitty lie. “I think it was more of the sight of a… girl in men’s clothing.”
“What you’re saying is that he’s transphobic? Not a fan of drag? Sounds like a top-notch employee you’ve got there, Hunk.”
“No, it’s more complex than that. I promise. But you do look like a teenage boy.” Hunk gestured at her outfit: cargo shorts and an oversized t-shirt. “Enough to set him off, anyways.”
“So what do you suggest I do? Start wearing make-up? Dresses? Just for when I come in here.”
Hunk coughed out an uncomfortable laugh.
“You can’t be serious.”
“Please? Just… for a couple weeks. Until he’s used to you.”
Katie narrowed her eyes. “You’re not trying to set me up on a blind date again, are you?”
“Absolutely not. Unless you have a thing for soldiers,” he teased.
She snorted. “It’s the other way around.”
“You’ve lost me.”
“At work, there’s this guy who—” Bzzt bzzt. It was her phone. Go figure. Katie offered Hunk an apologetic smile. “Sorry, I have to take this.” She swiveled on the bar stool to face the opposite direction. “Allura? What is it? Oh, okay. I’ll be there as soon as possible. Oh, and Rover’s coming with me.” She hung up with a tap of a slim finger.
“Everything alright?” Hunk asked.
Katie nodded. “There’s a customer I’ve been working with, and he just called. I should probably go."
“I understand. See you later.”
“No, I’ll see you tomorrow.” She saw a protest starting to slip out of his mouth. “No ifs, ands, or buts. I don’t want you to be alone.”
Hunk smirked. “Not with Shiro, I won’t be.”
Before she walked out the door, she looked over her shoulder with a wicked grin. “In that case, I’ll be dressed to the nines. My Sunday best.” Katie whistled for Rover, who happily trotted over to her side. “Until tomorrow, Hunk.”
Hunk gave a lackluster salute. “Until tomorrow.”
Here it is! The moment you've been waiting for! (Bonus points if you know what I'm referencing here.)
Before Katie entered her cubicle, wolf whistles and cat calls echoed throughout Altea Tech. And by the end of her shift, they were all stuck in her head.
“Why don’t you dress like a girl more often?” Because it wasn’t comfortable or convenient. It took too much time. She didn’t deal with her customers in person. She could show up in pajamas and not give a rat’s ass.
“Hey, I want to see that pretty smile.” Katie grimaced out of spite. She would smile when she wanted to, not at the request of a sexist pig.
“So, who’s the hot date tonight?” None of your damn business, she thought as she wrote up her third (and final) sexual harassment complaint of the day.
Katie remembered why she hated wearing dresses: the attention. Both wanted and unwanted. Her dress wasn’t even all that fancy. Just the average mint green sundress and a white cardigan. Sure, it was disgustingly hot outside, but she hated exposing her shoulders. She didn’t exacty tan. If she was outside for at least ten minutes without sunscreen, she was redder than an entire bottle of ketchup squirted onto a cherry-colored canvass.
She was impressed with Lance. He hadn’t said anything gross or tried hitting on her. Although telling her she looked like a clown was mildly offensive. “Pidge, you need to lay off on the eyeshadow and blush. Purple? What are you, ten? You don’t even need that much blush.”
“Lance, if you know so much about make-up, why don’t you just do it for me?”
Lance gasped. “Really? Can I do your hair, too?”
Is he not fluent in sarcasm? She ran a hand through her hair, suddenly feeling a little self-conscious. It was so short—it wasn’t like he could do much for it. Why not? She could always fix everything he would fuck up later. “Fine.”
“Sweet! BRB.” Indeed, Lance was right back with a handful of beauty products. He didn’t notice (or pretended not to notice) Katie’s confused yet judgmental expression. “Lucky for me and you, I’m off for the next couple hours.” He handed her a wipe.
Again, Katie was lost.
“It removes all of the gunk off your face. Don’t worry, it’s gentle on skin and safe around your eyes. I use it to wash my face every morning and evening.”
She mumbled an “okay” and wiped her face clean. The once-white cloth was now stained with a couple purple smudges and caked in a deep pink. Lance was right—she’d used more blush than she probably needed.
He dropped a bottle of primer in her hands. “Rub this in on your eyelids. One small dollop for both lids is enough. I’ll take care of the rest.”
While Katie applied primer, Lance selected a swatch of pale pink eyeshadow. “So, what’s the special occasion?”
“It’s none of your business,” she snapped. Why was it so important for every person to know?
Lance wiggled a finger at her. “This is my business. This job helps me pay for my business. And since I want my business to do well, I need to know what sort of look my customer needs.”
“I’m meeting with a friend. He wants me to meet his coworker.” She mentally prayed Lance didn’t interpret it as a date.
“Sounds like fun.”
Katie closed her eyes. “Not really. It’s not a good day for my friend.”
“Mm-hm. Now, open your eyes.” Lance whistled. “Pidge, you look gorgeous.” He flipped his phone’s camera to selfie mode.
How was he already done? She hardly even felt him apply anything. Katie snapped it up into her hands. She could barely even tell that she was wearing eyeshadow, but she knew it was there. The base was a light pink—a very natural pink. But if she tilted her head, she caught a green-gold shimmer over the rest.
“That’s…” Katie gripped the fabric of her dress tightly. She couldn’t risk running her hands over her face and ruining Lance’s work. “That’s not me. I’m not… pretty.”
“You’re not pretty. Didn’t you hear me? Gorgeous.”
Her white knuckled hold loosened. She opened her mouth, but no words came out. No words could express how thankful she was—or just how confident she felt. All she could spit out was a jumbled string of questions. “This? You? I don’t? How?”
“I have four sisters. Two older, two younger. Not knowing how to do make-up or hair wasn’t an option.” He ran his fingers through Katie’s static-ridden locks. “Pidge, when was the last time you actually brushed your hair? Sure, short hair’s low-maintenance, but you’ve still gotta care for it. You’re worse than Keith.” He shuddered. “I never thought it was possible to have a rat’s nest worse than his. And yet here we are.”
That got a smile out of Katie. “You—ow!” (Lance pulled her hair a tad too hard.) “You do Keith’s hair?”
Katie heard a squeaking noise behind her. Lance must’ve shifted in his seat. “More than I’d care to admit.”
“Keith. As in the guy in the cubicle next to me? As in the coworker you hate? This is the same Keith, right?” There was no way he was talking about that Keith. No way.
Lance laughed nervously. “And I don’t hate him. It’s just…” He struggled for the right word.
“Complicated?” Katie suggested. She had a feeling his relationship with Keith was far less complicated then he let on.
“We’ll go with that,” he said, working through a knot.
“Thanks for coming in today. I’ll be sure to pay you overtime for it.” Hunk sounded beyond exhausted. Shiro could tell whatever Hunk was going through was deeper than just physical exhaustion. Something was draining Hunk of his natural, vibrant vitality. Something on a much deeper, intricate level.
Shiro dismissed Hunk’s offer with the wave of a hand. “It’s really okay, Hunk. Not like I had anything better to do today.” He glanced at the clock. “When is your friend supposed to come in?” He felt on edge.
“She’s running late—but that’s Katie for you. Sometimes I wonder how her bosses put up with her tardiness. Then again, with the insane hours she works, I don’t think they really care too much.” Hunk yawned. “I can’t even begin to imagine working a shift before three in the morning once a week, let alone three a week.”
“That takes a lot of dedication. I’m sure you know what that’s like, though.” Shiro nudged Hunk with an elbow. “Ex-NASA engineer.”
“Oh, come on,” Shiro said. “I didn’t hit you that hard.”
Hunk’s phone buzzed. He’d started keeping it on vibrate mode so Shiro wouldn’t jump every time it meowed at him. “And that’s Katie. Whenever you’re ready, I’ll tell her to come in.”
“I’m ready.” His voice quavered a little but at first, but he managed to make it sound more confident than he felt. Still, he was behind the counter, so he had more than enough distance for an exit. Hopefully it wouldn’t come down to that.
“Okay.” Hunk texted Katie back, letting her know that “the doors unlocked" and "were ready."
Shiro braced himself for impact. Ready for the fight or flight sensation. For repressed memories to flood into his mind and drown him.
Katie stepped into the room. “H-hello?” She tucked a section of hair back behind her ear. Lance really had his work cut out for him. But once he’d detangled her hair—with only his bare hands—it turned out she had more hair than either of them had anticipated. She didn’t look all that different, but Lance could at least pin it out of her face.
Shiro wasn’t prepared as he thought he was. His heart skipped a beat, but it wasn’t racing. Not hammering, about to explode out of his chest. His breath hitched, stuck in his throat. Cliché was it was, this girl took his breath away.
This was not the same person he saw on his first day of work. And yet she was. There was no denying that.
“Woah, Katie, is that you? You look amazing,” Hunk said through a lackluster smile.
Katie shrank back, like she was dodging Hunk’s compliment. Unsure of how to accept it. Her lips screwed into a shy smile. “Um… Hunk? Are you going to introduce me?” She kept her voice low and quiet.
“Y-yes!” Hunk stammered. “Katie, this is Shiro.” He sniffed the air. “Oh, shoot—I think I left some cookies in the oven. I’ll be right back.”
Shiro stiffened when Katie’s piercing golden gaze met his own. Those eyes… So much like… He slammed his eyes shut. He gritted his teeth, determined not to ruin this moment. This was a step forward. He held out a shaky hand—not his hand, so to speak.
Although she stared for a second, she didn’t think twice about accepting it. “Nice to meet you, Shiro. And thanks for being with Hunk today. The tenth of June is… it’s not a good day for him.”
“So I’ve noticed. Any idea why that is?”
It wasn’t her place to talk about it. Before she knew it, she found herself opening up a little bit to him—a complete stranger. And yet, he felt so… familiar. “I do. You’ve heard of the Voltron Project, right?”
Of course he had. The Voltron Project had been one of NASA’s greatest successes—and its greatest failure. It was a shuttle that could make it to Kerboros—Pluto’s moon—within weeks. Unfortunately, its passengers didn’t make it back to Earth. Reports stated it had some sort of error with its design and construction. An engineering-related issue. Oh, shit.
The look in Shiro’s eyes told Katie he understood. All too well. “Yeah. He closes down the shop. It’s a vigil. Helps him cope with it. That way he doesn’t open all his wounds at once, y’know?”
Where have I heard that before? For some reason, the way Katie said that… it was so familiar. “Yeah.”
Hunk coughed his way through a cloud of smoke. “I promise these cookies are still good, guys. Guys?”
Much to his surprise (and delight), Shiro and Katie seemed to be just fine. Shiro still seemed a little tense, but he was laughing at something she’d said. He didn’t want to interrupt their conversation.
Besides, he still needed to light a few candles. The crew had been some of NASA’s best and brightest. And his mistake in the construction of the engine had resulted in their deaths. They were his friends—practically family. And because of his stupid mistake, they were dead. Snuffed out. Just like that.
And yet, he could see a faint glimmer of hope in the two chatterboxes before him. Initially, he thought bringing them together might’ve been a mistake.
Hunk prayed he was wrong.
He did it. He’d actually done it. Survived an entire evening talking to someone whose appearance had triggered his PTSD. Even knowing it might happen again, Shiro wanted to see her again. And again and again.
Shiro cradled his phone next to his ear, eager to update Pidge on everything. “Hello, this is Lancelot at Altea Tech. How may I help you?"
Judging by the shout of, “Pidge, it’s your boyfriend” followed by an irritated “fuck off,” Lancelot must’ve forgotten to put him on hold. Shiro tried to bit back a laugh. Emphasis on tried.
Pidge’s greeting was slower than usual, adding an extra beat to the “O” in “Hello.” She yawned loudly. “Sorry.”
“No need. Long night at work?”
Another yawn. “Wasn’t working last night. I worked most of the day. I got off around five o’clock or so to visit a friend. How’re you?”
He was somewhere between “starved for human contact outside of work” and “on cloud nine.” He settled on a “Better than I’ve been over the last month.”
“You sound like it.” Pidge sipped on something—probably coffee if she was so tired. “Why’s that?”
“You were right. I needed to stop avoiding the past. I’ve started picking at an old wound. And because of that, I met someone.”
“Met someone?” Pidge didn’t sound tired anymore—now she sounded alert. Curious. Hungry for more details.
“She’s really smart. Like… I can’t even begin to explain to you how smart. I couldn’t do her any justice. A hardworking girl, too. Apparently she takes her co-workers’ shifts, which are ridiculously late. And if you say the wrong thing, she’ll never let you forget it. Sarcastic and smart as a whip.”
On the other end of the line, Katie fanned her heated face. So far, she fit the description. If he kept going like this, she was going to have pit stains. Even extra-strength men’s deodorant had its limits. Just get to the point. “Is that all?” she inquired, feigning indifference.
Apparently that wasn’t all. “And… she’s beautiful.” He rambled on, but she’d already zoned out.
Well, that settled it. He wasn’t talking about her. If Takashi ever saw her, he wouldn’t call her beautiful. She wasn’t an optimist—a realist, if anything. No guy at work was interested in her unless she was all dolled up. But that wasn’t her. That girl Shiro saw last night? Not her. Takashi didn’t even know what she looked like. “She sounds great, Takashi.”
“Pidge, you alright?”
Great. Just great. Takashi was a sensitive guy who could actually pick up on subtle tone shifts. The opposite of Lance. Katie wanted to tell him no, she wasn’t alright. She was all wrong. Wrong about getting involved with him. Wrong about not getting attached. Wrong about her feelings. Wrong, wrong, wrong.
“I’m just really tired, okay?”
“And she’s beautiful. But she doesn’t seem to see it. I’d like to get to know her a bit better, so we can both be at ease around one another.”
Pidge hadn’t spoken. “Pidge, you alright?” He already knew she wasn’t okay. Pidge would’ve commented at some point, cutting him short: “Okay, okay, I get it.”
But no. She just told him she was tired.
“I’ll let you go and get some rest. Talk to you later?”
Pidge hung up wordlessly.
“Need another cup of coffee? It’s my special brew.”
Katie held out her mug (it had once been Matt’s), eyes glued to the screen before her.
Coran’s jaw dropped—she actually was going to drink his coffee? Wait just a tick. She had to be sick. “Are you feeling alright? You seem a little green around the gills.”
She heaved a sigh and shrugged. She couldn’t even gather the strength to tell Coran to leave her alone. Talk about pathetic.
“Believe it or not, I’ve seen plenty of heartbreak in my life,” Coran said as he refilled her mug.
If Katie was a dog, her ears would’ve perked up, eager to hear more.
Coran returned the hot drink to Katie. Her hands curled up around the cup. In a feat that Keith and Lance would declare one of the bravest things to occur in the IT Department, Katie took a sip.
It was the vilest, foulest drink she’d ever tasted. If anyone could make coffee taste more like filthy dishwater and mold, it was obviously Coran. “Holy crow, Coran. What on earth did you do to this stuff?”
Katie’s snappy tone fell on deaf ears. Rather, ears unable to detect any sarcasm. Coran began to ramble and run off a list of ingredients. He came to an abrupt pause. “But I’m sure my coffee hurts less than a broken heart.”
She forced herself to finish it, gagging as it trickled down her throat. “It’s worse. Much worse.”
“No.” Hunk kept his eyes on the task at hand: kneading dough. It was wiser than looking at Shiro’s begging puppy-dog eyes. “I am not setting you guys up. If you want to ask her out, you do it yourself.”
Challenged accepted. “Okay. What sort of stuff does she like?”
Hunk let out an exasperated breath. “Dude, I just don’t know if you’re ready for that yet.” Shiro’s pale, horrified expression when he first saw Katie flashed through his mind. He still wasn’t entirely sure why Katie (dressed in her usual attire) set Shiro off like that. But he had one possibility in mind. And if his hunch was right, Katie was going to be heartbroken or hurt. “And I don’t know if Katie is, either.”
Shiro gritted his teeth. He hated to admit it, but Hunk was right. Eventually, he was going to see Katie in cargo pants and oversized shirts. He was going to have to take it slow. Progress to a point where Katie could look more like… Shiro blocked the name from popping up. So that Katie could look more like herself.
He had a long road ahead of him. It wasn’t going to be an easy journey. But it was going to be a worthwhile one.
“Fine. I won’t ask her out.” Not yet, anyways. “But I still need to get used to her.” That Hunk couldn’t deny.
“She’s coming in tomorrow.” Hunk filled Shiro in on Katie's weekly visits with Rover. “Hopefully Rover likes you.” If he didn’t, Shiro would have to give up on Katie. And the odds were in Rover’s favor—not Shiro’s.
“Why wouldn’t he?”
Hunk chuckled. “Let’s just say he’s very protective of Katie.”
Phone Tag has 2k hits as of today! As a thank you gift for my readers, I've spent over 7 hours writing this chapter for you guys!
...which resulted in my father telling me I should power down my laptop because doing something in excess isn't good for anyone. He then sat down at the xbox and asked me to walk my dogs. Which I did, being the dutiful daughter I am.
It was all worth it. Enjoy.
“Never thought I actually would want Lance’s expertise,” Katie grumbled as she dusted eyeshadow over a heavy eyelid. It came out too dark. Lance had been kind enough to give her the products he’d used on her for free. She wasn’t about to bother him for help again. He’d only tease her more.
“Should I top it off with the golden glimmer stuff? But what if that makes everything look more obnoxious? Or should I start over again?” A whine from Rover reminded her to stop rambling and just finish the job.
“Okay, okay, Rover. Sheesh.” Katie might have gone a bit overboard on the glimmer shadow—which actually did tone down the pink. She tucked a decorative, star-shaped hairpin into the corner of her bangs. She didn’t have much hair in her face, but it was a little cute. It had been a gift from Matt at one point.
She slipped into a pair of white chewed-up flop flops. It had been one of Rover’s favorites when he was a puppy. Naturally, they had been one of Katie’s favorites, too. But the teeth marks didn’t stop her from wearing them. “I’m allowing myself one comfortable article of clothing. Today, it’s the shoes.” She’d pulled the same dress from last time out of the closet. It was the only dress she owned, but she wasn’t about to go on a shopping spree for another one.
“Rover, wanna go see Hunk?”
The dog was way ahead of her. Rover already had his leash in his mouth. He dropped it on the floor, waiting for Katie to hook it up to his collar.
“I’ll take that as a yes.”
Hunk decided to stay behind the counter for this one. Luckily Rover liked him, but for some reason, the little dog hated most men. He growled if a man even approached him. But if a guy got too close to Katie, he would need someone to pry the dog off his pants—that, and a skilled tailor. Hunk was neither that person nor a skilled tailor. He was going to let the fresh batch of peanut butter cookies cool and watch from a safe distance.
Shiro came prepared and wore an old pair of jeans. At one point, they must’ve been dark wash, but they’d been worn out to a patchy sky blue. If it weren’t for the logo on his shirt, the apron and the broom in his hands, he looked like a very handsome handyman.
Shiro stopped sweeping and set the broom aside. The last thing he wanted to do was make Rover perceive him as a threat. The broom wouldn’t have helped him look less threatening. Not that he was much of a threat. Not anymore.
“Hi, guys.” Katie’s arms were full of a soaking wet, squirming dog. Her white cardigan was a filthy mess—and yet everything else seemed in place. “He rolled in a puddle,” she explained to the two men. “I tried to wipe his paws off before we came in. All I had was my sweater to dry him off.”
Shiro started to untie the back of his apron, which was slowly becoming as messy as Hunk’s was. He slipped it over his head and offered it with a trembling hand.
Katie quickly pulled back—nothing personal. She just didn’t know how Rover would react to Shiro. Somehow Katie’s swift movement allowed Rover to wriggle his way out of her hold. He sprang at Shiro. “Rover, no!”
Shiro slammed his eyes shut and forced himself to stay still. He anticipated Rover’s fangs sinking into his skin, but the painful sensation he expected never came. He cracked open an eye.
He saw Rover running a small, pink tongue over Shiro’s prosthetic arm—more specifically, its palm. It seemed as if he was trying to lick some sort of painful injury away. He sighed, relieved. For one, he didn’t react like the dog was an enemy, which might have led to serious injuries on Rover’s part. Secondly, Rover liked him.
A relieved smile spread over Katie’s face—and a troubled expression on Hunk’s.
“Is it okay if I pet him?”
Katie nodded. “U-um, are you alright?”
Shiro blinked—again, why did she sound so familiar? “Yeah, he didn’t bite me or anything.” He ran a gentle hand over Rover’s backside. He’d never owned a dog growing up, but had always wanted one. Maybe he’d have to look into an emotional support dog. There was something soothing about petting a dog. But of course, dogs were more work than they probably seemed. Dogs need food, water, attention, grooming—Oh, right. “Do you still want to dry him off?”
Katie hesitated to accept his offer from earlier. Finally, she spoke. “I can’t ruin your apron.”
But she let Rover destroy her sweater? As far as Shiro could tell, it was not going to come out of the wash in clean, pristine condition.
“Shiro, there are some towels in the back,” Hunk said.
For a moment, Shiro considered asking Hunk if he could go get a towel. Why him? Hunk was still behind the counter, and therefore closest to the back. If it wasn’t the protective glint in Hunk’s eye, it was certainly Katie’s response: “If that’s not a hassle for you, that’d be great.”
He shook his head. “Not a hassle at all. I’ll be back in a couple seconds.” Shiro tossed his apron over his head once more and tied it up before joining Hunk in the back room.
“So, where are these towels?” Shiro asked, only to find that Hunk had thrown one at his head. “What was that for?”
“You’re an idiot. A lucky idiot.”
Shiro was taken aback at Hunk’s words. “What do you mean?”
“You’re lucky Rover likes you. If he didn’t, you would’ve been hurt. Heck, Rover could’ve been hurt.” Hunk shook his head and sighed. “And if anything happened to that dog, Katie would’ve been devastated. Poor girl’s been through more than most.”
Haven’t we all? Shiro thought. He wanted to know more about her, but he wasn’t going to pester Hunk. Or Katie, for that matter. “Hunk, you know I’m not going to ask her out, if that’s where this is conversation’s headed.”
“You mean, ‘I’m not going to ask her out until I can handle seeing her without being triggered,’” Hunk countered. “I’m not blind, Shiro. Nor am I stupid. But it would stupid of me to set you two up.”
Because he might know what happened to her brother. Because his PTSD wasn’t going to magically disappear through the power of love. Because Katie had gone through more than enough pain in her twenty years. And if Shiro hurt her (although Hunk knew he’d never do it intentionally), it might be the last straw. “I just have a really bad feeling, okay?”
“The same feeling that everything was going to be okay with the Voltron Project?” Shiro immediately regretted what he said. He didn’t just step over a line. Oh, no. He just fired himself from a cannon and crash-landed over the borders of at least two continents. “Hunk, I—“
Hunk lifted a hand. Stop. “Give her the towel.”
Shiro slunk off, tail between legs.
“Here you go, Katie.” Shiro lamely tossed her the towel. “Hopefully that’ll be enough.”
“Yeah, that should work.” Katie got down to work, rubbing Rover’s fur like crazy. She stopped at wiping mud off of Rover’s front paw. “Hey, where’s Hunk?”
He avoided making eye contact with her. “He needed a moment.”
“Oh.” She understood—he was still mourning the Voltron crew. “Should I go check on him?”
Shiro was too disgusted with himself to even try lying to her about what had happened. “I don’t think that’s a good idea. I said something I shouldn’t have.” He laughed bitterly. “Funny how I probably lost my only friends in less than forty-eight hours.” First Pidge and now Hunk. He was pretty sure Pidge was avoiding him—she hadn’t called him back at any point in time.
Katie shook her head. She could’ve sworn she’d heard that laugh from somewhere before. “Well, you gained a couple, too. Me and Rover. Just give Hunk a little time and… room.” She’d learned it was better to say “room” than “space” around Hunk. Even if he wasn’t in the room, he was still in earshot. “I’m sure he knows you didn’t mean whatever you said.”
Somehow, Shiro found himself smiling. Although it wasn’t what he really wanted, being friends with Katie couldn’t be a bad thing, right? “Yeah. Thanks, Katie.”
“No problem. What are friends for?”
Shiro shrugged. “I actually can’t say I know for sure. Just what are friends for?”
“I don’t know, either. I guess that’s one thing we have in common.”
“Maybe we’ll find the answer together."
Katie returned his smile. “Maybe. Just maybe.”
Thanks to battleshidge for beta reading this-- and for her awesome comments. Thanks so much!
“yo katie i really really really need ur help theres a situation at my place and oh god i just have no idea what to do pls come and help i know it’s super early in the day im sorry”
Ten o’clock wasn’t exactly what most people could call early in the day, but for Katie, it was annoyingly early. At least after a long night shift. And boy, had last night’s shift been long.
Takashi had called once again asking for Pidge. Coran picked up the call and asked if she’d wanted to take it. Pidge shook her head, trying to signal a no.
“Sorry, sir. Miss Gunderson says she’s not available to take the call.”
She had to swipe Coran’s headset and apologize profusely. For as much as she didn’t want to talk to him, she wasn’t about to let go of him, either.
Long shift aside, Katie owed Hunk. She dragged herself out of bed and started changing clothes. She hadn’t heard any hint that Shiro would be there, so shorts and tank top it was. She rammed a bare foot into her tan cargo shorts. For a moment Katie considered making toast, but decided against it. Hunk never texted her about urgent situations.
A whine at the foot of her bed reminded her of her debt once again. “I know you’re hungry. I know.” She ran a hand through her hair in the hopes of smoothing out her bedhead.
Rover followed Katie to the kitchenette, claws clicking on the tile floor. His thirty-pound bag of dog food was hidden out of Rover’s reach. It was locked up in a cabinet below the dripping faucet. Katie had refused to take any chances with Rover getting into any chemicals or other hazardous materials. Or him breaking into his dog food and eating until he was sick.
She scooped out a calculated cup and a half of food and poured it into his bowl and was sure to put the child-proof lock back on. Rover was good to go on water. Now she could go and help out Hunk.
As it turned out, Hunk didn’t live all that far from her. A five-minute drive at best. Her car sputtered to life. It sounded a bit like a dying animal, but it was used. (Or as she liked to put it, “well-loved.”) Like most things she owned, it had once been Matt’s. It smelled like coffee, oil, and freshly mowed grass. Like Matt.
Luckily she hit mostly green lights on the drive over to his apartment. The car screeched to a stop when she parked. The place was a little run down. Some of the buildings’ paint was peeling off and cigarette butts lay scattered throughout the grounds.
“Number 142, number 142.” She spoke the phrase like an echo: starting at an average volume, then fading away into her memory. “142!” The number 2 on the door was a little crooked, but it was anchored down tightly. “Hunk, are you in?” She put her hand on the door handle. It was locked.
Katie heard his heavy footsteps grow closer to the door. She squeaked when the door handle wriggled. Hunk opened the door a crack. “Thank God you made it.”
She slipped past him and closed the door behind her. “So what’s going o—ah!” A purring ginger tabby rubbed up against her.
“Pumpkin, how many times have we talked about this?” Hunk said. “You’re not going outside anytime soon. And sucking up to guests isn’t going to change that.”
Katie laughed. “You and Pumpkin sound like me and Rover. I thought I was the only one who talked to animals like they’re humans.”
Hunk rolled his eyes. “Katie, there are seven billion people on our planet. Chances are you’re not alone.” There was a clatter from the kitchen. “Zarkon, how many times have I told you, you’re not allowed to play with fine china!”
Normally Katie would take her shoes off before entering someone’s home. But if there was a shattered plate on the floor, she wasn’t about to take her chances. “So, what’s the problem, Hunk?”
Hunk pulled up two chairs: one for Katie, one for him. He took a deep breath. “So, I found this cat on the street a couple days ago. She’s really pretty. Kinda chubby. Black and fluffy and chubby. But last night, she started yowling and freaking out. Turns out she wasn’t naturally chubby.”
Katie groaned. “How many kittens are there, Hunk?”
“Five. There are five. As you already know, I am over the apartment limit of how many pets I own. And I’m almost sure the neighbors put in a complaint call over the sounds and stuff. What should I do?”
She bit her lip. “You can’t save every stray you take in.” She could already tell Hunk wasn’t going to like her answer. “You need to call the animal shelter.”
“What if I find them good homes?” Hunk looked at her with pleading, begging eyes. Eyes like Rover’s when she was eating food he couldn’t have.
“I’m certain Rover hates cats. Have you asked Shiro?”
Hunk flinched at the mention of Shiro’s name. Katie knew Shiro had been out of line, but for Hunk to react like that was… wow. Things were bad.
“What exactly happened between the two of you? I know you guys got into a fight, but over what?”
Hunk stewed for a few moments. How much should he let Katie know? She’d be pissed that he’d lied to her about why Shiro reacted, his hunch that Shiro knew Matt, and that he was trying to protect her from hurting Shiro. “Shiro wanted to ask you out. And I told him that wasn’t a good idea. I’ve been policing your interactions because I’m worried about you guys getting hurt.”
“Hunk, I may look like I’m fourteen, but I’m twenty years old. Twenty-one in a week. I’m not a weak little child who needs a babysitter. I can handle whatever it is you’re hiding from me.” She folded her arms over her chest, bracing herself for impact.
“I guess you’re right,” Hunk finally admitted after a stinging silence. “I can’t save every stray I take in.”
“Dang it, Zarkon!” Hunk shook his head. If he didn’t figure things out soon, he’d have two more broken things to deal with. And fixing broken humans was far more complicated than sweeping up broken plates. “Katie, we’ll talk later, okay? I need to figure out what to do with these kittens and stop Zarkon from destroying my dishes.”
Hunk hesitated to respond, but managed a nod. “Promise.”
He fucked up. He really fucked up. Shiro was lucky to even have a job right now. Hunk was his boss. But Hunk was also his friend. Emphasis on was.
Pidge clearly wasn’t in the mood to talk to him—she could pretend she was okay all she wanted. He wasn’t about to ask her why any time soon. It was better to run from the past, after all.
And there was no way in hell he was going to ask Katie out. Not with Hunk being in this state.
His phone buzzed. It couldn’t be Katie—she didn’t have his number. And Hunk wouldn’t give it to him, anyways.
Surprisingly, it was Hunk:
“open ur aprt door”
Shiro wasn’t prepared for whatever Hunk was going to chew him out for. He opened the door slowly, expecting the worst.
Okay, he wasn’t prepared at all for this situation.
Hunk stood before him, gesturing to a cardboard box before him. In the box was one exhausted (if not annoyed) mother cat and five nursing kittens. “They’re free to a good home.”
“I’m sorry?” Shiro blinked owlishly. “I mean… I’m sorry, too. I was out of line.”
Hunk nodded. “You were. But you and Katie are both adults. You do what you want to do. I still don’t think asking her out is a good idea.”
“And bringing me a box of six cats is a good idea?”
Hunk glowered at Shiro. “You can insult me, but you insult my friends or my cats, and there’ll be hell to pay.”
Shiro held up his hands. “Okay, okay. So what’s the catch?”
“I’m asking you as my friend—not as your employer—to take care of these little guys until there’s room at the shelter. I’ll still pay you. Overtime, even. You don’t even have to show up to work.”
Shiro bent over to get a better look at the kittens. This was either going to be the best or worst decision in his life. No pressure, right? “I’ve considered an emotional support animal. But I didn’t think it would be a litter of five cats.”
The mother hissed at him, as if offended at the lack of mention.
“Six cats, if you include Mama Bear over there,” Shiro amended.
Yellow eyes narrowed into dangerous slits.
“The relationship between humans and cats is a bond that can’t be forced,” Hunk quipped. “So, what do you think?”
Shiro hummed for a moment. “Under most circumstances, I’d say you’re crazy. But I owe you one.”
Hunk grinned from ear to ear. “I knew you’d say yes. I brought you some supplies—trust me, you’ll need them.” He plopped a giant bag of food and litter onto the floor. “I need to get the litterbox out of the car. Oh, and I hope it’s okay if you can have company. Katie’s going to stop by once a week to help you out.”
“I won’t ask her out. I promise.”
“Don’t make any promises you can’t keep,” Hunk said.
Here's a new chapter to commemorate 3k hits! (And... just a new chapter.)
“Aw, no dress today?”
Katie was back to wearing baggy t-shirts and cargo shorts. “This is what happens when your dog destroys the only dress you own.” Her tone was at odds with her cheerful expression. It just felt good to wear something comfortable again.
Keith squinted at her. “You still look a little different. Less pasty, I guess?”
Lance gasped. “You don’t recognize that handiwork?”
“No.” Keith folded his arms. “Is there a reason I should?”
“Lance did my make-up and hair,” Katie said. She was less than surprised that Keith didn’t realize Lance did her make-up. She could enter the building riding a miniature pony with a parade in tow, and Keith still wouldn’t notice. Still, the fact he noticed she wore make-up was a start.
Keith gave Lance a thumb’s up. “What’s the occasion?”
“Helping care for some kittens,” she trailed off and quietly added, “With a friend.”
“You like him, don’t you?” Keith asked. “This friend.”
Lance shoved Keith playfully. “Nah, she likes that caller. The veteran… oh, what’s his name…”
“Takashi?” Keith offered.
“Yeah, him. Don’t you, Pidge?” Lance clapped a hand on Katie’s back, nearly knocking her glasses off. “Sorry! Sometimes I forget how small you are.”
Katie repositioned her glasses. Lance was right. She liked Takashi. A lot. But he clearly didn’t feel anything towards her. “I don’t know how I feel about Shiro, but apparently he likes me.”
He was handsome and pretty smart, but what did he see in her? Why did he like her? She worked at a tech support center. Her closest friend was her dog and the guy who found Rover. It didn’t make any sense.
Lance groaned. “You should’ve told me this was a date. I would’ve gone all out.”
“It’s not a date!” Katie protested. “Just two friends with a lot of cats and good food.”
Keith and Lance eyed one another, both smiling wickedly at one another. “It’s a date,” they said in unison. “Jinx! Jinx again!”
“Lance, you lost,” Katie said.
Lance’s jaw dropped. “That is not true. I demand a rematch!”
“Not like it matters. Pidge said your name.” Keith sighed. “It would’ve been nice to have some peace and quiet around here for a change.”
It had been four days since Hunk stopped by with a cat-filled cardboard box. At five days old, the kittens still didn’t do much. Shiro wasn’t sure if they could hear yet, but their eyes were still shut. (Hunk had assured Shiro they normally open around two weeks.)
Other than the overwhelming scent of cat and sounds of hungry mews and hissing from their mother (whose name was still undecided as of yet), Shiro’s apartment was relatively unchanged. The kittens relied mostly on their cranky mother for care, so that just left Shiro to care for her.
She didn’t seem particularly keen on his help. She tossed her nose up at the cat food he offered—though Hunk said she’d wolfed it down around him. At least she had the decency to use the litterbox.
Despite this cat’s ungrateful attitude, she was somehow growing on Shiro. He found himself talking to her. Sure, she didn’t respond to him (and when she did, it was with a hiss or scratch), but it was just nice to have someone to talk to—in person, anyways.
And maybe that’d get Pidge’s coworkers off her back. “I feel kind of bad they keep teasing her whenever I call. She’s also upset with me. I can hear it in her voice. She tries to hide it, and I can tell she feels guilty about whatever’s bothering her. I don’t want to pry.”
Shiro heard light footsteps outside his door—and did he smell pizza? “May I come in?”
It was Katie. Definitely Katie. He’d recognize her voice from just about anywhere.
“Wait just a second.” Shiro got up to hold the door for her. Hopefully she’d be more receptive to being polite than his—wait, since when was the cat his?
“Come…” He faltered when he saw her. For a moment, he could hardly tell it was Katie—if it weren’t for the make-up, it might’ve mistaken her for… No, no, no. Not now.
Her voice snapped him out of it. “I, uh, brought pizza. I picked it up on the way over. All they had ready to go was pepperoni, and I was worried you might be vegetarian or have allergies…”
Shiro beamed at her. “No, it’s perfect.” He could see relief flood over Katie. She went from tense to slightly more relaxed. “How much do I owe you?”
She blew a loose strand of hair out of her face. “Nothing. It’s on me.” She set the greasy
cardboard box down on his table. “Where are the plates?”
“You didn’t buy any plates?” Shiro wore an expression of mock horror.
Katie’s face fell. “I just… I didn’t think about buying any. I’m sorry. I wasn’t thinking, I just…”
Shiro’s stomach dropped. He hadn’t meant to freak her out. “Hey, hey, hey, it’s okay.”
“Okay? How is it okay? What are we going to eat on?”
“I was teasing.” He opened a cupboard and handed her a plate. “Sorry about that. You alright?”
“Fine, I guess.” If only Shiro was one of her customers, she’d know exactly what to do. She knew how to deal with (somewhat) scripted scenarios. She was fluent in computer and dog. She didn’t know what to do in this situation. Was it a date? Was it not? Wait, she was supposed to ask how he was doing next. Why couldn’t dates be as scripted as IT customer support? “You?”
She was relieved when he didn’t press any further. “Less busy than I thought I would be.” Shiro tilted his head towards the box o’ kittens. “Mom does most of the work right now.” His voice dropped to a near whisper. “She’s a nasty grouch of a cat. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
“I don’t exactly blame her. Raising a family is a lot of work—trust me, I know.” When she saw Shiro’s confused stare, Katie clarified: “Dad died when I was just out of high school. Actually, I was graduating early. Didn’t even make it to graduation. Mom was a wreck, so my brother and I basically had to parent her.” She practically had to bite her tongue to stop herself from continuing, otherwise it’d just keep pouring out. Last thing she needed was to drown Shiro in her whole “tragic past.” And Hunk had told her not to bring up anything military-related. Matt’s disappearance? Definitely related.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t know. I didn’t think.”
Katie blinked and shook her head. For a moment, she could’ve sworn she was talking to Takashi over the phone.
“You sure you’re okay?”
“Y-yeah. I just… this sounds insane, but… we haven’t met before Hunk introduced us, right?”
He ran a finger over his jawline. “I don’t think so.”
It was a silly question—of course he had never met her. Her heart sank a little, but at least Shiro had taken a moment to think on it. “Sorry.”
Shiro cocked his head to the side. “Why do you keep apologizing?”
Because I’m nervous. I have no idea what I’m doing. Just what is this? What are we to one another? “I don’t really know,” Katie mumbled, looking away from his gentle grey gaze.
“Me, neither,” Shiro admitted. “I’m… scared, I guess. No, nervous. Maybe scared.”
“You? Scared?” Katie wondered how it was even possible for Shiro to be afraid. Sure, in life and death situations. But this? This was nothing. She was nothing compared to that. Nothing at all.
“I… you’re… I think you’re cute and smart and witty. Me? I’m… Everyone looks at me for some reason or another. I don’t know if it’s because I’m a vet or a guy with a fake limb and PTSD, or some other thing.”
Apparently even handsome men like Shiro had insecurities. “Shiro…”
“I’m not good at this whole thing, but… maybe we could hang out a bit more.”
“Like on a date?”
Shiro nodded. “Only if you want it to be one.”
Katie was stunned into silence. She was happy Shiro wanted to go on a date with her. Maybe even a little overjoyed. But he wasn’t the person she liked. But maybe, just maybe, Shiro might be a way to get closer to Takashi. Or at least make him seem more interested.
“I’d like that.”
Note: I start classes this Monday. Expect my updates to slow down.
It had been a longer day than most—or maybe a week in general. Katie’d been waiting impatiently for Takashi to call over the last few days. For some reason or another, he’d been calling less and less.
“Hello, this is Pidge Gunderson at Altea Tech. How can I help you?”
“Pidge, it’s Takashi.”
She nearly exploded out of her chair, but she forced every muscle in her body to stay still. “Long time no talk, Takashi! How are you?”
“I’m doing great, actually. I adopted a cat… well, cats for now, I guess. That’s been keeping me busy. Tell me about you.”
Katie puffed out her chest. “I’m great, too. I have a date tonight, so I’m looking forward to that.”
“Seriously?” Katie couldn’t tell if he was in complete shock—to him, a nerdy IT girl finding someone worth dating might be a shock—or if he was excited for her. “I have a date, too. We’re going to an arcade.”
Her jaw dropped. What were the odds of Takashi and her being at the same arcade location? There were only a handful in the area—but only one of them doubled as a bar. Not a bad place to celebrate a (slightly belated) twenty-first birthday. “W-well, depending on the arcade, you might owe me a drink.”
“A drink? That’s the very the least I can owe you. If I somehow manage to find you, then you can count on it.”
“Sounds like a plan,” Katie said. “Who should I look for then?”
“Don’t look. Just listen for my voice. See you later, Pidge.”
She gave a sharp salute. “Yes, sir! Have a good one. Can’t wait to see you.” Beep beep beep. She ripped off her headset and pranced over to Lance’s cubicle. “Hey, Lance, I have a—“
“Date. Say no more. I’m gonna make you look like a fucking queen.”
Katie rolled her eyes skyward. “I was going to say request before you so rudely interrupted me.”
“Which was going to lead to an explanation of the event, which is a date. Unless you’re going to correct me that it’s not a date. So, you’re going with Takashi, right? Keith, you owe me two drinks!”
She drew her lips back into an awkward grin. “Actually, it sounds like you owe Keith two drinks. I’m going out with someone else.”
“Why the hell would you do that? Date with a guy you don’t like?” Keith’s brows furrowed in thought.
Lance waggled a finger at Keith. “She’s doing what’s called ‘playing hard to get,’ Red Rover.”
“What’s so hard to get?”
Her hand slid down her face. Wrong, wrong, wrong. They were both so wrong. Keith wasn’t exactly the most socially aware person. But she wasn’t playing hard to get, either. “I’m trying to make him jealous, that’s all.”
“That’s all?” Lance whistled. “You’re playing a dangerous game, Pidge.”
Golden eyes targeted Lance. “I could say the same for hitting on every lady here in the office.” Her gaze shifted to Keith. “And Red Ranger over here.”
“That’s Red Rover to you, Pudge,” Lance snapped. “Ouch! What the hell, Keith?”
Keith had tugged Lance’s ear a little. “I can fight my own battles, Lance. And this isn’t one of them.”
A sharp inhale stopped the trio’s argument. Allura’s hands rested on her hips, making the three employers gulp. “Into my office. Now.”
Katie opened her mouth to protest, but Allura’s icy glare froze her lips together.
All three trudged out of Lance’s cubicle, one by one. Katie first, Lance second, and Keith in third. (Lance couldn’t help but reflect that maybe it would be okay if Keith was ahead of him in this one instance.)
If cleanliness was next to godliness, then Allura was worshipped by a religion at least twice the size of Christianity. There was not a speck of dust or stain in sight on her white walls, desk, or carpets. Keith stared wide-eyed, wondering if it was Allura who kept things so tidy—or if it was Coran.
“You three are acting like children. Now, I’m going to ask you what happened. One at a time. No finger pointing. Do I make myself clear?”
“Crystal,” they said in unison.
“Good. Lance, you start.”
“Me?” Lance pointed at himself. “Why do I get to go first? Keith should go first.”
Katie snickered. “You’re finally ahead of Keith. Isn’t that what you wanted?”
Allura’s fingers drummed on her desk. It was more of a clicking sound—her sharply manicured nails did the talking.
“Okay, fine, I’ll go first.” Lance mouthed a “thank you,” earning him a gentle kick in the leg from Keith. “Lance and Pidge were talking about dating and her playing… what was it?”
“Hard to get. Keith means playing hard to get.”
Keith nodded. “That. Yes, thank you, Lance. Oh, and Lance owes me two drinks.”
Her clicking nails halted. “Whatever for, Lance?”
“Well, we made a bet. Keith will say he didn’t agree to it, but that’s not true. Whatever he says, you shouldn’t believe him. After all, I am your most popular caller—“
“With the lowest satisfaction ratings, might I add.” Allura smirked at Lance, who managed a very insecure smile in return. “The bet, Lance? What were the terms?”
“I bet that Pidge was going to go out on a date with Takashi. Keith didn’t believe me. Loser would buy the winner two shots at a bar. Or drink of choice, really. For me, it’s…”
Katie dropped her gaze to the floor. Heat prickled her reddening face.
“Lance. Keith. You’re free to go back to work. No one owes anyone anything.”
The boys—although they were really young men, Allura saw them as children—pushed back their uncharacteristically squeaky chairs. They fled down the maze of cubicles as if their lives depended on it.
Allura stood up from her perch—more of a throne, really. Katie envied Allura’s confidence and to a certain degree, her femininity. She was smart, powerful, and beautiful. Probably the kind of girl Takashi liked. For all she knew, Takashi could be dating Allura.
She heard Allura pour water into a fancy china cup. “Would you like some tea? Or coffee?”
Although coffee sounded tempting, Katie declined with a shake of her head. “I’m in trouble, aren’t I?”
Allura offered her young employee a flat smile. “Under most circumstances, you’d probably be put on probation for trying to date a customer. But I know you’re one of my best and brightest. I can’t afford to lose you.”
“I wasn’t trying to date him.”
“Katie.” Allura’s tone was stern, but not unkind. Not to mention the fact she didn’t call Katie “Pidge” indicated a serious, honest conversation.
“I’m not big into romantic, sappy stuff. I fell asleep during The Notebook. I hate Disney princess movies because the princess knows this guy for a day and marries him in a week.”
She clasped a hand over her heart—how could Katie strike such a painful blow? “Have you not seen Frozen? Or Enchanted? Some of the more recent films have improved on that.”
“That’s beside the point, Allura. I’m not a romantic. I’m a realist. But I do like Takashi. A lot.”
She nuzzled her lips over the rim of the teacup and sipped the steaming liquid. Very princess-like, Katie couldn’t help but reflect. “As I said, under most circumstances, you’d be in big trouble. But this is a most peculiar event. I’m willing to make some exceptions to the rules, but I’m not sure which ones yet.”
Katie’s eyes widened. The frigid Allura was trying to help her? “Why would you do that for me?”
Allura set down her drink. “As I’ve said, you’re a good worker. But because of Takashi, I’ve seen you act like a human being. Not some dull, dry robot. You go off script in his calls. I’ve never heard you laugh—a real laugh. But lately, you’ve been a little down.”
“He’s clearly not interested in me. I thought at first… maybe. But who am I kidding?”
“Do you have any idea of just how beautiful you really are?”
Katie’s jaw dropped. “You… You’ve been listening in.”
“Well, we do record most calls for training purposes. Yours were no exception, of course.” She sipped her tea. “Frankly, I’m a little jealous of you.”
“Jealous of me?” Was Allura ill, or was she simply dreaming? “Of all people, you’re jealous of of me? You’re the head of this company! You’re gorgeous and strong and powerful and crazy smart and—“
“People fear powerful women,” Allura said. “I’ve been called cold, icy, and intimidating. And other… less than flattering things. But you? Katie, you’re smart, brave, and resourceful. And yes, beautiful. You’re all of those things in an approachable way. Not only that, but you’re a hero.”
Katie coughed uncontrollably. “Me? No, I’m not.”
“You saved Takashi’s life. You handled that call better than most 911 dispatchers.”
And yet this so-called hero was trying to make Takashi jealous with another guy who had feelings for her. “I’m not as heroic as you think.”
Allura’s grandfather clock tolled six. “Oh, shit. I-I mean, shoot. I’m meeting up with Shiro tonight, and I need to clock out.” She stumbled out of her chair, nearly tripping over her own two feet.
“I’ll take care of that, Pidge.”
“That won’t be necessary, Allura. I can clock out myself.”
“I already clocked you out. Go and have fun.”
“I will,” Katie said as she ran out of the office.
Allura cupped her hands around her mouth and shouted, “Make good decisions!” She collapsed back into her chair, trying to think of how she could best assist Katie in her romantic endeavors while following Altea Tech protocol.
It was going to be a long night.
“Sonic and Mario at the Drinking Games? That’s a mouthful,” Shiro remarked, wrinkling his nose at the stench of cigarette smoke. “Aren’t they worried about copyright infringement?”
“I doubt it,” Katie said. “And even if its owners were, I think they’d have no problem paying for a lawyer.” She gestured to the line in front of them. The place was going to be packed. Katie wondered if Takashi was further ahead in line—or maybe he was behind her? Still, he couldn’t be that hard to find, right?
“Good point.” Shiro squinted, trying to get a glimpse anyone who might possible be Pidge. She hadn’t exactly given him a description of what she was wearing. And with all the people talking at once, it would be hard to pinpoint her voice. “So, what should I expect when we go in?”
Based on what Matt had told her, there'd be a lot of cheap video game-themed mixed drinks and flashy 80s arcade games. But he hadn’t told her about the line or obnoxious kids cutting in line with fake IDs. “Mixed drinks and classic arcade games. Like Pac-Man. Oh, and apparently they have ski-ball.”
Sounded reasonable enough to him. “No laser tag, I hope?”
“Not from what I’ve heard. Besides, I don’t think getting wasted and running around with fake weapons is ideal. Now that would be a lawsuit to worry about.”
“And yet another good point. Katie, two. Shiro, zero.”
A muscular bouncer walked down the line with an attentive eye. He stopped to request IDs for those who looked younger. He bypassed Shiro, who looked a little older than he was. (Twenty-four, Hunk had told her.) War and traumatic experiences often aged those involved, and Shiro was no exception.
“ID, please.” Katie rummaged through her bag—nothing more than a spare laptop case—and produced her ID. The photo was almost nothing like her: her amber hair fell a few inches past her shoulders. The most compelling similarity was her eyes. Except they didn’t seem as sharp. They didn’t glare back. They seemed bright and happy. Shiro guessed she had to be at least seventeen or eighteen in that photo—she didn’t look it, of course. It was probably taken before her father died.
The bouncer eyed her suspiciously. “Kid, you can’t be more than fourteen. Go back home to your parents.”
Katie’s hands balled up into fists. “First of all, it’s parent. Second, I live on my own. Third, I’m twenty-one and probably need a more recent copy of my photo ID. But I can assure you, it’s not a fake.”
The bouncer gestured to a coworker who had a black light flashlight. He ripped it from his friend’s hands and ran the light over it. “My bad, kid.” He scribbled a “21+” on the back of her hand in black permanent marker.
Shiro, ever the gentleman, opened the door for his date. “Ladies first.”
“Actually, can we go in together?”
Ah, she’s probably nervous. “Of course.” Shiro offered Pidge his hand, who took it. Her grip was damp from sweat, but it didn’t bother him.
Better that it was her sweat than blood on his hands.
Sonic and Mario at the Drinking Games practically suffocated them. The atmosphere was hot and heavy and reeked of alcohol—and maybe a hint of body odor. The place was dimly lit, save for the rows of glowing and flashing arcade game screens.
But the smells and sights were nothing compared to the sounds. Pew pew pew! A machine spat out tokens, jingling into a cup. The Pac-Man theme blared from one corner of the arcade.
Shiro flinched or cringed at every unexpected sound. He hadn’t expected it to be so loud. And he really had wanted to go. Katie had been so excited about it—saying no would’ve crushed her. Also, Pidge was here, too. Somewhere, out in this crowded joint, looking and listening for him.
He appreciated Katie not asking if he was okay or why he was so jumpy. Still, he could see curiosity gnawing away at her. “PTSD.”
She merely nodded. Her dad tended to jump up at things like that, too. (For Matt, smells and sights had triggered his PTSD. Sounds did occasionally, but they’d tended to be very specific.) “I think it’s a little quieter near the bar.”
“Sounds like a good idea.” Logically, the bar was a sound choice for the (unusual) lack of people and unexpected sounds. And maybe Pidge was waiting for him there. He did owe her a drink, after all.
Katie weaved her way through the tangled jungle of bodies. It was easier for her than Shiro, who politely apologized for bumping into strangers. “Sometimes I forget the advantages of being small.”
Even so, Shiro still managed to stay close to her—just an arm’s length behind her. He watched Katie clamber up onto a bar stool. It was rather amusing to see her at eye level.
“Are you going to sit down or…?” she asked.
“Nah, standing’s fine.” Sitting down would only make it harder for him to try to find Pidge. “So, what do you want to drink?”
Her brother had told her that their cocktails—listed under “Ninetails” were pretty good. A little on the heavy side, but she knew her tolerance was high. But she also wasn’t a fan of sweet, fruity drinks. Matt was a picky drinker—hated most carbonated drinks, so beer was out of the question. But cocktails? Matt was all about the sweet, fruity stuff. Which tended to be more dangerous than a couple bottles of beer.
For better or for worse, Matt had given her samples of drinks once he turned twenty-one. Mom hadn’t been in a place where she could safely monitor her children. But Matt, protective as he was, supervised her very carefully.
“I’m not sure yet. I’ve been told the cocktails are great, but I don’t care for fruity drinks. I’ll probably just get a couple bottles of beer.”
“We came to a barcade with specialty drinks, and you’re just going to get a bottle of domestic beer? Not on my watch. Think you can down a shot?”
She tossed her head proudly. “Of course.”
Shiro cued the bartender to come their way. “Well, what’ll it be?” she asked.
“One Flaming Doctor Eggman.”
“Coming right up,” she said. Katie couldn’t believe how quickly the bartender worked. She let the beer tap run while she poured amaretto and rum into a shot glass. By the time she’d finished that, Katie’s pint was half full. The bartender stopped the flow of beer and handed Katie the pint.
“Oh.” Katie failed to mask the disappointment in her voice. Just how much did Shiro pay for her drink? And it was only half a pint of tap beer.
In a fantastic display of speed, the bartender lit a match and held it over the shot, which caught fire. The bartender looked at Katie as if she was completely stupid. “You drop the shot into the pint and down it really fast.”
“Not before making a wish,” Shiro interjected. “Happy birthday, Katie.”
What to wish for, what to wish for? For Takashi to notice her? Or that she’d find out what happened to Matt?
“Hurry it up,” the bartender grumbled. “There’s a line.”
Her thoughts scrambled and intermixed with one another. She dropped the flaming shot glass into the tap beer and chugged it as if her life depended on it. Once she’d finished, she gasped for air.
“How’d I do?” Katie panted. Her face was flushed from the effects of drinking and four to five seconds of improper inhalation.
“Perfect. And did you like it?”
Much to her surprise, she liked it a lot. It had tasted sweet and strangely familiar. But she’d never had that mix before. “Mm-hm. Tasted like Dr. Pepper. You gonna get anything?”
“I would, but I need to make sure you get home safely.” That, and he didn’t want Pidge seeing him under the influence. He wanted to make a good first impression for his friend.
“That’s sweet of you,” Katie said. “Think I could go for another shot.” She waved at the bartender, but Shiro took her hand and carefully pulled it down.
“I think you should wait—that was a pretty strong drink.”
Her lip jutted out in a pout. But Shiro was probably right. Matt had warned her about the dangers of cocktail-type drinks. They didn’t taste like they had any alcohol in them, but they had more than two cans of beer did content-wise. “Okay. Can we play a couple games? Like… Street Fighter? Or something two-player?”
Shiro shuddered at the thought of jumping at every little sound. But he was slowly getting used to the obnoxious sound effects. “As long as it’s not a first-person shooter game, sure.”
Street Fighter and its kin were already taken. But Ms. Pac-Man looked rather lonely in the corner. Katie suggested taking turns between plays. She graciously let Shiro go first—it would give her an opportunity to look for anyone who might be a veteran. She scanned the room for people who looked male—not that she wanted to assume anything. And maybe rugged looking.
Then again, Matt hadn’t looked very rugged or rough at all. And he wasn’t tall, either. Most people were shocked to hear he fought overseas. He didn’t look like the typical soldier. And as for Shiro, he looked more like a fighter, but he wasn’t tough, either. He was much more gentle than he looked. Takashi sounded gentle, but did he look gentle, too?
“Dammit! Stupid ghost got me.”
Katie cracked her knuckles and smirked. “My turn already?” There was a certain sort of pride—maybe even cockiness—in her stance. Joystick in hand, Katie went at it. She managed to get to the first intermission without losing a single life. And yet, she felt a pang of envy towards Ms. Pac-Man as she watched the characters run around and bump into one another. Lo and behold, Ms. Pac-Man met Pac-Man. If only meeting Takashi could be as simple as that. Some weird forces chasing her around until she bumped into him.
This is a new low. Jealous of Ms. Pac-Man.
“Dang, Katie. You’re incredible.”
She shrugged. “I guess so.” Once the intermission ended, Katie leaned in closer to the screen. Her grip on the joystick tightened. She was going to win this. For herself. For Takashi. For Ms. Pac-Man. Give everyone the happiness they deserved.
NEW HIGH SCORE.
“I did it. I beat Ms. Pac-Man.” Sweat glistened on her forehead. She wiped it off with the back of her hand and ran her sweaty palms over her shorts.
“Quick, enter your initials!”
She did: KWH. “Katie Wren Holt,” she proudly announced.
Shiro froze. Holt was a fairly common last name, right? There was no way she could be related. No way.
The score table rolled out—apparently she was in second place. “I guess that’s what I get for not getting the bonus fruits.” Her eyes widened when she recognized the initials for first place: MJH. Matt Jay Holt. “No way. My brother still beat me?” She turned around to see Shiro, who had curled up into a ball. His eyes were slammed shut, but his face was contorted in pain.
Fuckfuckfuckfuckfuckfuck I don’t need this don’t remember hold it back pull it together I need out of here I can’t breathe I can’t think I can’t fuckfuckfuck
She reached out to him. “Don’t touch me!” he shouted—more loudly than he’d intended. “I’m sorry, Katie,” he said, much softer and gentler this time. “I need to go. I don’t… I don’t feel well.”
“Do you want me to go back with you?”
“No. No, I don’t.”
Katie’s heart sank. She wished she knew what set him off like this—was it something she’d said or done? “Okay. I’ll call a taxi for myself. Text me when you get home. That’s an order.”
“Yes, ma’am.” His voice cracked. God, he hoped Pidge hadn’t seen this. She would’ve known who it was right away, he was certain of it. Or maybe she lied to him for some reason or another.
The string of “what-ifs” weren’t helping much. He felt himself slipping away into a horrific, gruesome flashback.
Once he knew Katie had left, he bolted out of the establishment. He couldn’t run away forever. Tomorrow, he was going to try to talk about it. Face it. Explain what happened. If anyone would listen to him and be nonjudgmental, it would be Pidge. She would know what to do.
If anyone could help him, it was her.
Here's to 4k hits and surviving my first week of my last year of university life.
My goal is to have it updated weekly on Sundays and/or Mondays, so keep an eye out then!
“Sorry, Takashi. Pidge isn’t here right now. Try calling again in a couple hours. Say, do you have her schedule? I can give you that if need be.”
Shiro mumbled a “thank you” and hung up on the woman with an Australian accent. Or was it English? Whatever, it didn’t matter.
A hiss followed by a weak mew from the box caught Shiro’s attention. Mama Bear—as he’d decided to call the grumpy black mother—hissed at one of her kittens. He was the smallest of the litter—the runt, no doubt.
His four siblings suckled greedily at their mother’s teats while he cried in the corner. Shiro tried to nudge the runt over to Mama Bear and the four other terrors, but she pushed him away. Did cats ever reject their young? Or was the runt just not going to make it?
He’d have to call in the expert.
“Hey, Hunk, what should I do if a cat rejects her kitten? I mean, do cats do that?”
“Yeah, they can. Why?”
“Well…” he described Mama Bear’s behavior as best as he could over the phone.
He heard Hunk let out a long sigh. “I’ll be on my way over with some bottles and formula and show you how it’s done.”
No more than fifteen minutes later, Hunk was at his door with a kennel and a plastic shopping bag close to the point of breaking open. “As it turns out, the shelter has room for Mama Bear and her kittens, but they’re short staffed on people to care for a rejected newborn kitten.”
He dropped the bag on the table and withdrew its contents: a canister of a white powder. “Once you open that, put it in the fridge.”
“What is it, exactly?” He looked at the label, but only found mixing instructions.
“Powdered formula. You can buy it at the pet store if you run out. But I have like, three of them. I don’t think you’ll run out too soon.” He popped the lid open and sniffed. Hunk gestured for Shiro to come closer and do the same.
“It smells sort of sweet,” Shiro noted.
“That’s how you know it’s good. If it doesn’t smell like that, toss it. When in doubt, throw it out.”
Shiro nodded—the last bit of advice Hunk said applied to anything in the bakery. If it seemed even slightly suspicious, it was best to toss it. “Gotcha. Anything else I should know?”
Hunk was already rounding up the cats into the carrier—an impressive sight. Shiro could never get the mother to warm up to him, let alone persuade her to move anywhere. Hunk had a gift with cats—and the occasional dog, apparently. And he could bake just about anything. Was there anything Hunk couldn’t do?
Hunk locked up the carrier once all five were inside. “You’re going to have to keep her warm. Never, ever feed her if she’s cold. You’ll need to warm her up slowly.”
“How can I tell?”
Hunk picked up the runt. She was small enough to fit into the palm of Hunk’s flour-crusted hand. “Okay, feel her paw pad.”
Shiro did—with the thumb of his hand. The little bean-like toes were smooth and soft. He had a feeling they were probably squishy as well. “It’s cool.”
“Now put a finger in her mouth.” Hunk opened up her tiny jaws with the utmost gentle touch.
“Also kind of cool.”
“Grab a blanket from the bag. Stat.” Hunk rarely spoke with such urgency, so Shiro was quick in running to the bag and back.
Hunk snatched the blanket from Shiro’s hands. He began rubbing the fuzzy black kitten slowly. “She needs to be kept warm. That’s priority.” Hunk kept the kitten close to his body—Shiro figured it was easier for her to absorb heat that way. “Shiro, can you follow the instructions on the formula container? There should also be a bottle in the bag, too.”
He followed the instructions with care, pouring the formula into a small bowl. He added water and stirred until it looked like milk—no chunks of powder and entirely liquid. He filled up the bottle and screwed on the nipple.
It took about twenty minutes until Hunk decided she was at a good temperature. Hunk made Shiro check her paw pads and mouth again. “That’s where she should be.” He handed her off to his friend. “Try feeding her.”
The kitten mewed weakly. Shiro took the opportunity of her opened mouth to offer her the bottle, which she took. He watched her suckle greedily. “When will I know she’s done? Will she make a mess or something?”
“Nope. She’ll stop when she’s full. And you’ll have to help her eliminate waste.”
As Hunk had said, she stopped when she was full.
“So, uh, how do I help her…?”
“Her mother would normally lick her genitals to stimulate them. Since we’re a bit more sanitary than that, you’ll just sort of… rub them after every feeding.”
“And how often will I do this?”
Hunk eyeballed the kitten’s size. “She’s two weeks old. Normally at one week, it’s every three hours. But she’s still pretty small, so I’d say keep it at three. You’ll want to do this like clockwork. Set timers for every three hours.”
This was going to be a lot of work.
“I know, what you're thinking. It’s a lot of work, but it’s good if you have help. Want me to ask Katie to stop by?”
“Hunk, I need to tell you something.” Shiro inhaled shakily. “Katie and I went out last night.” He slammed his eyes shut—surely he was going to get a slap across the face or something. Shiro cracked an eye open when nothing happened.
“Yeah, I know.” Hunk sounded a little disappointed, but not angry. “She said you never texted her back. And you’re not answering her calls or texts. What happened between you two?”
Shiro felt his stomach drop to the floor. He was relieved Hunk wasn’t angry, but somehow, that made him feel worse. Anger he could deal with. But disappointment? That was more difficult. “I don’t really know where to begin. Or even how to talk about it. I’ve tried blocking it out for so long.”
Hunk’s gaze fell to the tiny kitten in Shiro’s hand. “Start by talking to her.”
“But she’s a cat, Hunk. She doesn’t understand what I’ve gone through or anything. How could she make any sort of difference?”
“Have you ever seen how Katie talks to Rover?” Hunk asked. “Or how I talk to cats? They understand more than you’d think. Think of it as practice.” He patted Shiro on the shoulder. “Good luck. With a black cat, you might need it.” With that, he left.
Shiro smiled a little. Although he wasn’t from Japan, his late parents (Kyoto natives) had instilled him with the belief that black cats were good luck. (A belief that didn't translate well here in the United States.) He remembered a black beckoning cat figure in their house, with both paws up. Its color meant it would ward off evil. Normally having the right or left paw raised had different connotations of luck and success—normally with successful businesses. It was rare for both paws to be up—but it was also a protective sign.
Maybe this cat would be able to protect him somehow. Like a lucky charm. Sort of like a four-leaf clover. But with more black fur than anything else. But “clover” didn’t exactly fit her. He ran through how clover could be said in Japanese. “Kuroba.”
The kitten opened her eyes. Inquisitive golden eyes. They were brighter shade than Katie’s, but just as beautiful.
Kuroba it was, then.
Shiro took a deep breath. “Okay, Kuroba. I’ll start by telling you about him.” Shiro paused. Saying his name was the first step. “Matt. Matt Holt.” It felt like someone punched him in the gut. He fought through it as best as he could. “Matt. Matt. Matt.” He chanted the name, over and over again. Until it was no longer a name, but meaningless background noise.
“So, how did the date go?” Lance asked.
“It went well.” It wasn’t entirely a lie. Up until Shiro’s panic attack, she did have fun. “We’re trying to set something up.” That was a lie. Shiro hadn't texted her back or anything. She'd asked Hunk about it, but he didn't really know much about anything, either.
Lance swiveled his head around to make sure no one else was within hearing range. He spoke quietly—just in case. He never knew who was listening in on their conversations. “Well, Keith and I might be going out somewhere this weekend. I want to meet this guy. Think he’d be up for a double date?”
“With me and Shiro and you and—“
Lance shushed her. “Don’t say his name. Do you know what’ll happen if people find out?”
“People would make fun of us. Sure, we live in place where discrimination against gay people is illegal, but that doesn’t stop homophobia.”
Katie considered telling Lance he was already the butt of just about every joke in their department, but decided to keep that information to herself. “It’s a, uh, very tempting offer. But I think I’ll pass.”
Lance pouted, but dropped the subject.
“Pidge, Takashi’s on the line for you,” Allura called. “Line one.”
“Thanks, Allura.” Katie switched over from line seven to one. “Hi, Takashi.”
Takashi spoke faster than usual, as if he was nervous about something. She could practically hear his heart racing through the phone. (And definitely heard him trying to catch his breath.) Maybe he'd gone for a run a bit earlier?
“Pidge, I am so sorry I didn’t see you last night. I kept an eye out for you, but I just didn’t see you. Or hear you." Polite as ever, he asked about her first: "Tell me about your date.”
“My date? It was really fun. He bought me a drink, and it was actually pretty good. He’s super sweet. Not very good at arcade games, though. I kicked his ass at one of the arcade games. I had the time of my life.” She figured the more she could talk up the date, the more likely Takashi would start feeling jealous. “And yours?”
There was an uncomfortable silence. “I fucked it up."
“I’m sure it wasn’t that bad.”
“It was fun at first. But then something happened.”
Katie leaned in closer to her monitor. “What happened?”
“Something triggered my PTSD. It ended up in an ugly panic attack. I really hope you didn’t see anyone break down.” It sounded like he was trying to laugh it off.
Shiro had broken down, too—she wasn’t going to mention Shiro's issues to Takashi. That would only be cruel.
Takashi inhaled. It sounded like he had spent the last five minutes submerged in water and finally came up for air. “His name is Matt.” His voice cracked.
“Matt?” Katie echoed. Matt. He had to be talking about her brother. “Takashi, can you tell me about Matt?” Details. Katie desperately wanted details. Her hand curled itself into a tight first. So tight she felt her trimmed nails dig into her flesh.
Another painful gasp for air. “No. I can’t. I can’t.”
“Takashi. Takashi, listen to me. Takashi?”
But there was no response.
“Katie, you’re bleeding,” Keith said, pointing at her hand. Blood oozed from where her fingernails had pierced the skin.
She responded fast (and snappily) enough to give herself and Keith whiplash: “Thanks for pointing that out, Captain Obvious.”
It came out as raw sarcasm, but she really hadn’t noticed the bleeding at all. How could she have missed it? Keith was one of the most oblivious people on the planet. How was it possible that Keith, of all people, could realize that? And she didn't?
As she wiped the blood off with a gauze pad, Katie couldn't help but feel like she was unaware of something right before her very eyes.
Shiro panted. He was so thirsty—why hadn’t he packed a bottle of water? The dense humidity made breathing felt like an unbearable task.
The terrain was so hot he could feel it scorch through his thick black boots. Maybe it was because sand had somehow trickled into them? The temptation to sit down and dump whatever the hell was in his boot grew stronger with heavy footstep.
Now would’ve been a good time as any—it was quiet enough. Peaceful, even.
Shiro felt drops of perspiration ooze down his forehead. He wiped it away with a hand.
“Shiro?” A voice called out from behind him.
Matt. It was Matt. Shiro tried to call for him, but no sound came out. He squinted, trying to get a glimpse of Matt. But all of that sweat stung his eyes. This time he used his entire arm to get it out of his face. His arm felt heavy—like a pile of laundry drenched in water. But there was no water out here.
Why is it so heavy? He tried to move it, but it refused to respond. Then it clicked.
He couldn’t move his arm. It was gone.
All that remained was a sleeve saturated in blood.
Shiro exploded out of bed, gasping for air. For once, he was somewhat grateful he tended to overreact to unexpected sounds. If he’d slept through it, Kuroba would miss her breakfast.
He instinctively walked over to his closet, where he stored his prosthesis. But then he realized he’d worn it to bed. Not exactly what he was supposed to do. Every day he was supposed to take it off before bed. But since he had to set an alarm every three hours to feed Kuroba, he could doff the fake limb every other shift or so.
Shiro yawned. Between the fitful nightmares and feeding Kuroba, he hadn’t been sleeping well. If he had the choice, he wouldn’t sleep at all. The nightmares were too close to what had actually happened.
He could barely open his own eyes as he fumbled his way to the dim kitchen. He opened the fridge and started preparing a bottle for his—No, the, he reminded himself—kitten.
Shiro kept Kuroba near him as often as possible—which meant he stayed home at all times. He hadn’t gone out for at least a week. Although Hunk said it shouldn’t be much longer until he could start trying to give Kuroba wet food along with the formula. Actually, she’s three weeks old now. Hunk had said Shiro could try weaning her off of the formula then.
Still, people talked. He could hear his neighbor (and the neighbor’s boyfriend) whispers about him through the apartment’s thin walls: “Keith, I’ll bet you five bucks the guy living next door’s a recluse. I haven’t seen him in like, three weeks.”
“For five fucks? You’re on.”
“You’ve been listening to MCR too loudly on those headphones again, haven’t you?”
Shiro had tried not to laugh. (Emphasis on tried.)
Kuroba snuggled up into a thermal blanket in the same box her mother and siblings previously inhabited. Shiro had also added a heated water bottle and covered it in a towel—he couldn’t risk her getting too cold.
He offered Kuroba the bottle, who latched onto its nipple without hesitation. Her yellow eyes glittered with curiosity—almost like she was asking a question: “Tell me more about Matt.”
So Shiro did. “Matt’s my best friend. When I first met him, I thought he was a bit of a coward. But he’s one of the best snipers. One of the bravest people I know—and one of the friendliest. We were stationed at the same base, and…” Shiro felt like he was rambling on and on, but Kuroba didn’t seem to mind.
“Too bad he’s allergic to cats,” he joked. “Otherwise you guys would get along perfectly.” Shiro had to stop and catch his breath before continuing. But he didn't have to.
Kuroba slept comfortably in his hand.
Shiro hadn't even noticed she'd fallen asleep. Nor did he notice that she was heavier than she was a week ago.
“Is he doing okay, Hunk?” Katie asked. She was starting to get annoyed with Shiro. He wouldn’t return her calls or texts. But she didn’t want to barge in on him if he wasn’t ready to see her.
An alarm went off in the background. At first, it sounded like the busy signal. Maybe Shiro was trying to call Hunk? “Smoke alarm. One sec, Katie.” She heard Hunk’s heavy footsteps tumble around. “Okay, I may or may not have burnt a batch of cinnamon rolls, but more for me that way.”
"Yeah, I think Shiro's doing alright. He should be back in here in about two weeks or so. Hey, when are you and Rover going to stop by?”
Katie glanced up at the source of the voice: a rather timid looking man decked in formal military garb. He didn’t look older than twenty. But she could be wrong—after all, people constantly thought she was a high schooler. “Hey, Hunk, I’ll text you with a time and date. I have an appointment I need to get to.”
“Cool, dude. See you later.”
Katie hung up. “Sorry about that, uh…” She squinted at his name tag: “Lt. Ylvik”
“Follow me,” Ylvik said. He led Katie down the maze that was the local Veterans’ Affairs office. Ylvik tapped Commander Iverson’s door.
No response. “C-commander?” he stammered. “There’s someone here to see you.”
Something screeched against the floor—probably a chair. Although a desk wouldn’t be unlikely for someone of Iverson’s size. “Send him in,” he growled. His voice was a deep, guttural rumble.
The officer tried not to laugh when the girl standing next to him made this muscular, hulking man who had to be at least six-foot-seven flinch with only a venomous glare. “Miss Holt.”
“Iverson,” Katie replied coolly, closing the door behind her. “Long time no see.” Though she appeared calm externally, she was seething with rage. This man had kicked her out of the VA when she was seeking information about her brother, asking nearly every officer if they’d known Matt Holt.
“Must I suspend you from the premises of the VA again?” Iverson sounded weary, as if he’d dealt with a troublesome child one time too many.
She clicked her tongue. “That was for disrupting the peace.”
“You’re disrupting my peace of mind.” He settled back into his chair, trying to appear calm and collected. “Now, what brings you back here? You and I know I don’t have any information on your brother.”
Liar, she wanted to say. But she’d hacked into their system once before—unfortunately, it was true. They had no records of Matt Holt. Instead, she took a deep breath. “Would you know of anyone named Takashi Shirogane? Or know anyone who might know him?”
Iverson narrowed an eye. (He only had one eye. No one dared asked him how he’d lost it.)
Just what was this girl playing at? Why wasn’t she demanding further information about Matt? Unless somehow this Shirogane fellow was connected to Matt in some way. He leaned forward, closer to Katie. Close enough that there had to be a little less than two inches between their foreheads.
Under most circumstances, Katie might’ve shrunk back. But she stood her ground with a fiery, unwavering gaze. “Do you or do you not know him?”
Iverson drew back with a sigh. “Miss Holt, surely you know I cannot simply give you information about any veteran. There’s a process for it—and as I’m sure you’re fully aware, hacking into our database is not part of it.”
Katie swallowed hard. He knows. But then why hadn’t he reported her?
Apparently only having one eye didn’t blind him to the question forming on Katie’s lips. “I would’ve lost more than an eye if it wasn’t for your father.”
Ah. There it was. “I had no idea.” She wondered if she hacked into the system again if he’d report her. Was it really worth the risk?
“Tell me, Miss Holt: why didn’t you barge into the VA, demanding more information on your brother? And instead ask for Takashi Shirogane?” (Katie cringed at Iverson’s pronunciation: “Take-er-she Sure-oh-gain.”)
She’d learned it was usually best not to correct people, but Katie made an exception here. She slowly repeated his name, carefully emphasizing each syllable. “I met Takashi over a phone call at work,” she explained. “He was a suicidal veteran. I talked him out of it, but I told him he might want to seek help elsewhere. Only so much an IT tech support girl can do. So I wanted to stop by and see if maybe he was involved in any support groups here.”
Sure, most of what she said was a lie—but it might’ve been possible that Takashi went to seek help at some point. But she wasn’t going to bring up Matt. Matt was first priority, but if she even tried to mention his name, Iverson wasn’t going to help.
“Unfortunately we try to keep services regarding mental health strictly confidential.” The way he spoke made Katie think he was trailing off with an alternative option. She waited a few seconds for the rest to come.
So she’d have to take the reins. “Iverson, you said my father saved your life. You owe him. And as his daughter, you owe me. Is it possible at all for you to ask around during support groups? Get names, addresses, anything.”
“Was that a yes?”
“Don’t make me change my mind,” Iverson snapped. “Come back in a couple of days—but after that, I don’t want to see your face around here again, Miss Holt. Do I make myself clear?”
Katie swallowed hard before giving a firm nod. “Crystal.”
“Very well then,” he said. He snapped a sharp salute. “Dismissed.”
“Matt. Help. Someone. Please. Save him. No, take me. Take me!”
Lance glared at the alarm clock’s blinking red digits and swore through gritted teeth. “3:51 AM?” He rolled over, twisting the bedsheets. “Keith, you up?”
Why Lance did even bother to ask? Keith merely stared back at him. “Hard not to be when the neighbor’s shouting and crying out for help in his sleep again.”
For once, Keith had to admit Lance looked deep in thought: brows furrowed, forehead creased, a deep hum vibrated from his bare chest. (Or was that a rumble? Or—God forbid—a purr?)
“Fortunately for you, Keith, once I am up, I can’t go back to sleep.” Lance sounded far too chipper. Keith was suddenly grateful he was out of coffee. He and several coworkers agreed that if Lance ever had coffee before work, it would be a productive day. But not for Lance. For everyone else cleaning up all the disasters a caffeinated Lance would create.
“That’s great. Just great,” Keith grumbled as he reclaimed his side of the covers. “Please let me sleep.”
A pillow-muffled groan answered Lance’s question.
“When’s the last time you checked the mail?”
Keith lifted his shoulders in a careless shrug.
“Well, you’re no help at all.”
“Bullshit, Lance. If it weren’t for my help you’d be living on the streets.”
Lance hopped out of bed. The mattress returned to its normal state—well, normal for Keith. He didn’t particularly mind sharing his bed with Lance. After living on his own for so long, it was actually sort of nice to have someone living with him.
That, and his monthly rent was halved.
Keith let out a sigh of relief—he probably had about ten minutes of sleep until Lance pestered him again. And did he need it. He had nearly drifted off until Lance returned. “Keith, you’ve got mail!”
“Really?” Keith was mildly intrigued. But it was all junk mail. And… “Lance, this isn’t even addressed to me. Some guy named Takashi Shirogane.” He looked at Lance’s face—which was too close to his for comfort.
“Is this supposed to mean something to me?”
Lance pinched the bridge of his nose and sighed deeply. Tomorrow he’d have to tell Pidge about this. And from the looks of things, Takashi lived next door to Keith.
“Lance, what the hell are you trying to tell me?”
“I’ll explain later. Go back to sleep.”
The sky was grey with low, fat clouds. They looked heavy, as though they were going to burst and spill water at any given moment.
Coran locked his car with the click of a button. He clicked it one more time to ensure all doors were locked—and indeed, they were. He pocketed his car keys before he entered the Altea Tech building. It was open, so Allura was definitely there. He pushed his weight against the glass door.
“Pull. This one says pull.” A gloved hand reached for the handle and held it open.
Coran blushed a few shades darker than his strawberry blond mustache. “That it does, Keith, that it does. I didn’t hear you arrive.” Keith motorcycled to work on his red and black bike. Keith bragged about it being custom-built—although Coran had his concerns about its engines, which constantly spluttered and groaned.
“I didn’t drive today.” Keith crossed his arms. “Lance chickened out. He’s a worse driver than I am. And his car shouldn’t even be allowed on the road.”
“Hey, she’s only missing one rear view mirror.”
Coran sighed and left his subordinates squabbling at the door. He checked each cubicle, noting if it was inhabited. “Red Rover and Lancelot are here—just not here here,” Coran said. When he heard Lance’s winded breathing and Keith gasping for air, he knew they were in their cubicles. “And Pidge is… not here.”
He wasn’t worried about her. She was just back to her old habits of running late, that was all.
“Hey, Coran, where’s Allura?” Lance asked. “I need to talk to her. It’s about Pidge and Takashi.”
Coran gestured to her office. “Be quick about it—we’ll need our best work today since Pidge is running late.”
Katie had considered calling in sick, but didn’t have the guts to do it. She was so close to figuring this out. She couldn’t risk missing a phone call from Iverson. She knew the man well enough—if she missed his call, that was it. No voicemail, no nothing. What sort of asshole didn’t believe in answering machines?
Altea Tech could manage a day without her. It had before—why couldn’t it today? Her attendance was perfect—well, except for her habitual tardiness. But even then, Allura had made it sound like it would take something drastic for Katie to lose her job.
Allura would understand.
Instead of getting dressed for work (oversized sweater and cargo shorts), Katie just wore a pair of green and white striped lounge pants and a matching tank top. She’d already had one cup of coffee and was considering a second one. But she was taking the day off—no need for another.
It wasn’t like she was about to fall asleep anytime soon. And Rover probably wasn’t going to let her anytime soon. He strutted over to her with his leash in his mouth. “Rover, it’s raining. You hate rain.”
“Whuff,” he barked. His tail drooped.
“Aw, don’t be like that.” Katie patted her sofa—an invitation for Rover to snuggle with her.
A happily accepted invitation at that. The small dog leapt up onto the sofa and curled up beside her. He was smart enough to not go anywhere near her laptop.
Especially not when she had such a determined expression.
“I’m getting so close, Rover.” So close to finding out about Matt—and about Takashi. He couldn’t be far off. He just couldn’t be.
“Allura, I have to tell you something.”
Allura raised a brow—otherwise maintaining a deadpan expression. “Please, do. As long as I won’t have to write you up for sexual harassment.”
Lance’s lips screwed into a loose, relaxed smile. “Well, today is our lucky day—because I’ve found out some information on Takashi.”
“Really?” Now she was interested.
“Well, now that I have your attention—“ Lance took a moment to rummage through an inner pocket of his jacket. “—You might want to check out the address.”
Allura glowered. “Lance, stealing someone’s mail is illegal. You know that, right?”
“It’s not stolen. It ended up in Keith’s mailbox.”
“As I said, stealing mail is illegal, Lance.”
Lance slammed his hands down on Allura’s desk. “Listen, it’s—“
“Lance, if your hands stain my desk with dirt or something, I swear we are going to have some serious problems.”
“I’m living with Keith,” Lance whispered—or hissed. Allura couldn’t decide which one it was. “I checked his mailbox. And as it turns out, Takashi Shirogane lives next door.”
Allura squealed. “Ah, this is wonderful! Positively wonderful!” She twirled around with the utmost grace.
“Ah, well, we’re just good friends—“
“Not you, Lance! Takashi and Pidge.”
Relief loosened Lance’s stiff figure up. “Y-yeah, they’ll be great.” He was grateful Allura didn’t inquire any further about him and Keith.
“Anyways, where is Pidge at? She was supposed to cover a shift for Keith last night. She never showed up.”
“Really?” Lance said. He leaned in closer—but close enough to be respectful of Allura’s personal space requirements. (For him, she’d declared an arm’s length away was best.) “That’s not like her.”
“It’s not. She always runs late, but she always calls in if she’s sick. I’ll go talk to Coran.” She stood up—and was an inch taller than Lance.
“Since when have you been taller than me?” Lance asked. Women. They seemed like they could shapeshift with ease. He knew this already from his business on the side. But height? Well, that was new. The clicking of heels answered that question for him. “Never mind.”
Coran’s exclamation of, “Ah, there’s my princess!” shattered Lance’s reflection on the chameleon-like nature of women. “Now what brings you over here today, m’dear?”
“It’s come to my attention that Pidge didn’t cover a shift she took last night. Did she call in last night?”
“No.” Coran’s usual beaming grin twitched at the corners. He escorted Allura and Lance to Pidge’s empty cubicle. “And she’s not here yet. We’ve decided to give her a few ticks before trying to get in touch with her.”
“Someone call her.”
“I’m on it,” Keith said, making a mad dash to his own cubicle. After a minute or so, he ran back. “She’s not picking up.”
Allura bit into a manicured nail. A veil glazed over her eyes—a pair of clouded crystal balls. Something had happened to Pidge. But what? She always called in if she was sick. And she was now thirty minutes late. No call. Not picking up.
A horrified wail from Lance drew her out of her thoughts and back into the cubicle: “I can’t believe she just ruined a perfect French tip!”
French. French tips. French food. That was it. “Lance, do you know the name of the place where Pidge buys pastries for us?”
Lance’s forehead wrinkled as he thought. “I don’t. We could look up a few places online or something. Maybe the name will just come to us after a quick Google search.”
“It’s The Croissant Moon,” Keith said. “It’s local and not too far from my place. If Lance hadn’t driven forty miles per hour in a twenty-five zone, he would’ve seen it on the way over.”
“That’s it!” Lance exclaimed. “That’s the place.” He took out his personal cell phone and offered it to Allura. “You want to do the honors?”
Hunk had nearly forgotten his bakery had a landline phone. It was only when it rang that he remembered it.
“Hello, this is Allura. I’m one of Katie Holt’s co-workers. I know she’s a regular customer—your pastries are amazing by the way—and I was wondering if she might be there?”
“No,” Hunk said. “But she usually drops by at least once a week.” Wait. It had been well over a week since she’d last stopped by.
“Well, if you see her, could you please call this number back? I’ve been trying to get a hold of her and haven’t had any luck.”
“It’s—“ Allura paused. Lance wrote down his number on one of Pidge’s Post-It notes. She read it off. “Thank you.”
The line went dead.
Normally, Hunk texted first. But if she wasn’t picking up calls, she probably wasn’t going to text him. Still, calling her might be worth a try. He dialed her number (he’d memorized it by now) and crossed his fingers.
“Hi, this is Katie Holt. I’m not here right now, so leave your name and number so I can get back to you.”
Hunk hung up. What the hell was going on with that girl? Maybe Shiro knew. Hunk might not look like he was fast—physically or mentally—but he knew he was fast when it came down to texting.
“shiro have u herd from katie”
He hadn’t expected Hunk to text him anything regarding Katie. “I haven’t. Is everything OK?”
“idk shes not picking up for me or her coworkers apprtnly”
“Do you want me to call her?”
Shiro could hardly read through his contact list. The phone’s text blurred from his trembling hands. He stopped at “Katie” for a solid minute and froze. What was he going to say to her? Talk to her about? Explain to her why he hadn’t responded to her twenty-something calls and texts?
His trembling stopped when Kuroba rubbed up against him. She’d gotten so big over the last couple of weeks. It probably wouldn’t be long before he could wean her off of formula and to wet food. That also meant it wouldn’t be much longer before he’d be back to work.
Back to seeing Katie.
He took a deep breath and tapped the dial button.
Her phone was buzzing like crazy: she’d missed two calls. One from Altea Tech; the other from Hunk. “I’ll call them back,” she told Rover. “Once Iverson gets back to me.”
Her phone buzzed again. She groaned, but then saw who it was.
On second thought, Iverson probably wasn’t going to call her right then. Katie picked up the phone.
“Katie?” That wasn’t Shiro’s voice. That was Takashi. Why was Takashi calling from Shiro’s phone?
Pidge. He was talking to Pidge.
Shiro’s mouth was drier than the Atacama Desert. (Quite the feat since the Atacama is the driest place on the planet.) He swallowed and tried to figure out what the hell was going on. “Pidge, I didn’t dial the wrong number did I? I’m looking for someone named Katie Holt.”
“You’ve found her. Hi, Takashi. Or is it Shiro?”
“Well, both. Takashi Shirogane’s my full name, but I tend to go by Shiro.” Takashi had always been a mouthful growing up. So Shiro it was. “So, you’re also Pidge?”
“Pidge Gunderson is a name my bosses gave me. There was a data leak not too long after I started working there. So codenames kinda happened.”
Funny, Hunk was right all along. I wonder if he knew about Katie and Pidge? That was a question he’d have to ask Hunk later. But Shiro would never hear the end of it.
“Katie—is Katie okay?”
“Y-yes. And do you have a preference?”
Normally, he preferred Shiro. But he liked the way Katie said Takashi. Correctly. For once, he didn’t have a preference. “My friends call me Shiro.”
“Am I a friend?”
There was an uncomfortable silence. Strange, given Pidge and Takashi’s complete lack of silence. “I’m sorry I never called you back after our date.”
Katie snorted—or laughed. Shiro couldn’t quite tell which one it was from her phone. The reception on her end wasn’t as clear as the calls between him and Pidge. “I’m actually used to guys not calling me back. This is actually a pleasant surprise.”
No kidding. Pleasant was an understatement for Shiro. This was incredible. Appalling. Shocking. “Glad I could surprise you.” His tone, however, betrayed his feelings. The words came out as a bland, monotonous statement. He couldn’t quite bring himself to sound anywhere near as excited as Katie. He was ecstatic to know that he’d been talking to Pidge all along. But Pidge and Katie were the same.
Meaning she’d been talking to her brother’s… “Oh, shit.”
“Takashi? Are you okay?”
“I’ll be fine. I’ll be fine.” Those three words were his mantra at this point. But repeating them over and over and over again made them mean nothing.
“You’re not fine. I’ll stop by in a little bit. Just take care of yourself.”
“No!” he shouted. “Please, not now. I need time.” Time to prepare himself for her. It was so strange. Her voice brought him comfort, but the very notion of him seeing her—no, of seeing Matt—terrorized him.
“I understand,” she said.
“I’ll call you later. I promise.”
“I’m holding you to that. Take care.”
Take care. What did she always say that to him? “Okay then.”
“I mean it, Shiro. Take care of yourself.”
He hung up.
Shiro knew he couldn’t keep playing phone tag. Couldn’t keep avoiding her. He wanted to talk to her. To open up to her. To protect her and keep her close.
It would’ve been easier, believing Katie and Pidge were two different people. If one of them stopped talking to him, he’d still have the other. But this changed everything. If he lost Katie, he’d lose Pidge, too.
And no matter which way he looked at it, losing her was inevitable.
“Take care of yourself.”
Funny. Those were the same words she’d told Matt during their last conversation. But he hadn’t hung up like that. He’d said, “I promise I will. And I’ll come home safely. I promise.”
At least Takashi hadn’t made a promise he couldn’t keep, right? But for all she knew, Matt was out there somewhere.
It took her a full minute to realize she still had the phone propped up against her ear. She saw all of her missed messages—including one from the VA. “Go figure,” she grumbled. Iverson didn’t even bother to leave a voicemail.
She decided to return the call, which only lead to an automated voice response. It took every bit of Katie’s self-restraint to stop herself from chucking her phone from across the room. An action sure to shatter the screen.
She took a deep breath. Iverson didn’t matter. His intel didn’t matter. Not anymore. She found Takashi. Everything was going to be okay. She exhaled.
Her phone rang.
“Pidge, come in, Pidge,” Keith said as he fiddled with his headset. Sure, it wasn’t necessarily going to guarantee she’d pick up or give him better reception.
Lance took this opportunity to shout into Keith’s mouth piece. “Red Rover, Red Rover, send Pidge on over!”
“If you keep opening your mouth to spew out annoying shit, I will shut it for you.”
Coran paled—such language. He took a step forward to intervene, but Allura held him back by the collar of his shirt. He glanced over his shoulder to her. She mouthed the word, “Wait.”
A cocky, crooked smirk surfaced on Lance’s face. He started to say something—something stupid, no doubt—but was stunned silent when Keith’s lips met his. (Even more stunning was the fact Lance returned it with an equal amount of frustration.)
Keith broke it off and shoved Lance aside. He might have pushed him too hard because Lance’s back hit a cubicle wall. At least he didn’t knock it down this time. “Don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
Allura clapped a hand over her mouth.
Lance raised his hands in the air, as if surrendering at gunpoint. “I know, princess. This must be very hard for you to accept that I’ve moved on from you and onto Keith. No need to be grossed out.”
A muffled snicker slipped out between her fingers. “I knew it, Coran! I knew it!”
“Wait, was I supposed to think that Lance was straight? And that Keith hated Lance?” Spittle flew from Coran’s mouth and splattered unto Keith’s jacket. “Please, it’s obvious.”
Brandishing his fist, Keith slammed on his desk. “Guys, shut up. Pidge’s picking up!”
Everyone huddled around Keith, as if he were the last (if not only) source of warmth in the glacial eighth and innermost circle of hell.
“Hello?” Katie asked. “You called?”
“Pidge, where have you been?” Coran exclaimed. “We’ve been worried sick! You hadn’t picked up or called in. Are you alright? Do I need to call emergency services? Stop by with some homemade soup?”
“I’m fine. No need to call 911. And for the love of all that is good, please do not bring me homemade food again. Ever. Coran, why are you calling from Keith’s extension?”
“Because I just put you on speaker,” Keith interjected. “Say hi to everyone.”
Katie laughed nervously. “Um, hi? Is everything alright there, guys?”
“Alright? Alright? You missed the kiss of a lifetime! And it was my kiss!”
“Lance, that is not why we called.” (Katie heard Lance whine in the background.) Allura sighed loudly. “Boys, settle down. Must I always be the voice of reason?”
A unanimous “yes” broke out from everyone on both sides of the call.
Allura cleared her throat. An attempt to regain control of the situation. “We think we found your caller. Takashi Shirogane. He—“
“Lives next door to Keith!” Apparently Lance thwarted Allura’s attempt. “Poor guy keeps us up all night with his shouting about some guy named Matt. Right, Keith?”
Matt. His name was caught in Katie’s throat. That’s right. He’d mentioned his name.
Keith yawned to confirm Lance’s revelation. “It’s so weird. The guy was completely silent until recently.”
“That’s strange.” Was it something she’d done or said? She’d never brought Matt up around Shiro. But maybe… Katie swore under her breath. “Guys, I’ll be at work tomorrow. I promise. Something came up today, and I forgot to call.”
“Stop the rambling and just take care of it,” Keith said. “Allura can cover for you today.”
“Thanks so much, guys. See you guys tomorrow.”
It had to have been their date. She might have mentioned his name in passing—how could she not have? But maybe it was more than that.
People tended to mistake her for a boy. It had gotten to the point where she and Matt pretended to be twins. They’d stopped the act once Matt had outgrown her. But people fell for it.
“Rover, he knows Matt.”
Rover ran a warm, pink tongue over Katie’s hand, trying to understand what she really meant.
He knows what happened to Matt.
She slammed her eyes shut as she remembered that night at the barcade. The flashing lights. Loud, unexpected noises at every turn. Shiro’s horror stricken face.
And I don’t know if I want to find out.
You might need tissues.
A slender finger flicked a phone screen, searching for any hint that Takashi had called her back. The screen was so clean Katie could see her reflection. She looked like—no, she was a child. Twenty-one years old, but a child nonetheless. A scrawny short kid with red-rimmed bloodshot eyes hidden behind a pair of glasses.
What did Shiro see in her anyways? Did he only approach her because she looked like Matt? Of course not, she reasoned. It’s probably the exact opposite.
Her forehead wrinkled as she kept thinking about her first encounter with Shiro—not over the phone, but when Hunk had first introduced them. That was their first meeting, right?
“Wait a second.” Rover cocked his head as if he were confused. “Hunk told me to dress up because Shiro panicked when he first saw me. Hunk knows. He knows.”
She and Rover leapt off of the sofa. Rover went to fetch his leash and offer it to Katie. When he returned, there was no sign of Katie.
She was gone.
Hunk kept tabs on everything in a small leather-bound planner: work shifts, feeding times (for his cats), pay day, and catering events. If he lost that book, he’d be good as dead. Not that he needed it—his memory was photographic. Keeping a physical copy of everything kept his anxiety at ease. That way he could cross out his unending to-do list. There was something relaxing about scribbling out a small task and watching the list shrink.
He flipped its pages open to the new week. Although Hunk considered Mondays the first day of the week, his planner didn’t. According to it, today was a Sunday, marked with a thick black circle and “BRING KITTEN FOOD FOR SHIRO’S FOSTER CAT TOMORROW” underlined twice.
With a giant bag of cat food in one arm (an impressive feat with a forty-five-pound bag), Hunk shuffled out the door—only to bump into someone. “Oh my God I am so so sorry, are you okay?” He tossed the bag aside and offered a meaty hand, only to realize he’d bumped into Katie.
“I’m fine,” she assured him. She hopped up without any assistance. “What’s the cat food for? You didn’t take in another cat, did you?”
“It’s for Shiro. He’s fostering one of the kittens. That adorable small black one. I have a feeling he’s probably gonna end up keeping her. But in other news, that kitten’s mother was adopted—and obviously all four of the others.” He chattered on about the kittens for a few more minutes, then remembered Katie probably didn’t care. “Anyways, what brings you here?”
The muscles in Katie’s face tightened. “Hunk, does Shiro know my brother?”
Hunk froze in a crouching position, arm extended to gather the bag he’d thrown moments before.
“He does, doesn’t he?”
“I don’t know for certain, but when he saw you, he said he’d seen a ghost.” Hunk rambled on, trying to either to avoid explaining himself or Katie’s wrath. It didn’t matter either way. Katie wasn’t listening to him—she was processing everything.
It all made sense now. That’s why Hunk had told her to dress like a girl. Shiro wasn’t transphobic. Never had a bad incident with a drag queen or anyone like that. It was because she looked like Matt.
Katie trembled with rage. She had every right to know this information. But Hunk lied to her. Covered it up. “Liar,” she spat. “You knew. You fucking knew.”
“I didn’t know for sure, but I sort of knew.”
“Why? Why didn’t you tell me?”
“Based on his reaction when he first saw you, I had a bad feeling.”
Her face contorted into a snarl. “Stop listening to your gut for once in your life.” She prodded said gut with a pointed finger.
Hunk winced—it hurt more than he thought it would. He backed away until his back hit his truck. A passerby might’ve thought they were about to witness a fourteen-year-old boy about to beat the shit out of a man twice his age and size. “Katie, I need you to calm down.”
“No, I won’t!” she shouted, tears rushing down her face. “You know how important Matt is to me. And you knew Shiro knew him.” Her hands clenched into fists. She knew how to fight (Matt had taught her self-defense and would wrestle her growing up), but she knew she could deliver a stronger blow verbally. Hit him where it would hurt. “Maybe if you stopped trusting your gut, your crew wouldn’t have died.”
Hunk’s expression steeled. “Katie, you need to leave. Now.” He opened the car door and shoved the bag into the passenger seat. He watched her from a rolled up window turn on her heel.
After he heard her car groan to life and rumble out of the lot, Hunk rested his head against the steering wheel and wept.
Shiro swore under his breath. They were all from Katie, with 15-minute intervals between each call.
He hadn’t meant to miss her calls. He’d forgotten to take his phone off silent after his morning routine. (Work out, feed Kuroba, feed himself, brush his teeth, shower, shave, and eyeliner if he felt like it.)
Shiro looked at the time on his lock screen—she was going to call in ten minutes or so. He could call her first, or let her call then. His phone buzzed in his hands thanks to an incoming call.
He picked up. “Hi, Katie. Everything alright?”
“No, it’s not.” She sounded like she’d strained her voice—she’d been crying. Katie swallowed loud enough for Shiro to hear it. “I know about you and Matt.”
The phone slipped out of his hold and crashed into the floor.
Katie. Pidge. He’d lost her. And without her, what else was left? Work was just something to keep him occupied—it didn’t tie him down. Give him any will to live. But those conversations he had with Pidge—no, with Katie. Those kept him going every day. And those weren’t going to happen.
Shiro collapsed onto his bed and rolled on his side, staring at his alarm clock’s digits. Then to the full orange prescription bottles. There was the solution. He grabbed both of them and wandered to the kitchen.
He poured himself a glass of water—although maybe a beer would be more effective since both prescriptions said not to mix with alcohol. Still, if he took all of the pills in both containers, they would probably finish him off.
Shiro dumped the contents of both bottles onto the countertop. Filled up one hand and downed them with water. After four full hands and swigs of water, Shiro figured he probably had a couple hours before he was gone. Buried six feet under. At peace.
“See you soon, Matt.”
“Did Katie really have to be that harsh? I mean, that was pretty awful of her. I guess she’s sorta right about me lying to her—she has a right to be angry. But that was a low blow.”
Hunk babbled to himself as he made his way up to Shiro’s floor, completely oblivious to residents’ judgmental stares.
“But, nooooo, she just had to go there, didn’t she? She did, and that was not cool. Unacceptable. Why am I friends with her again? Oh, right, because I gave her that mutt, who I really should take back since she hasn’t fulfilled her side of our promise.”
He huffed and puffed while leaning against Shiro’s apartment door. He texted Shiro to let him know he’d arrived—but no response came. Strange, since Shiro was usually quick to reply. “Call him next.”
Went straight to voicemail.
Hunk pounded on the door. “Shiro?”
Nothing. No response. No footsteps. No “Hang on, Hunk.”
Did something happen? It was so unlike Shiro to not answer right away, especially since he said he’d be home around this time today. But maybe Katie was right—he should stop relying on his gut feelings, his instincts, so much.
“Weird. Maybe he’s out and about.” He stepped away, but something didn’t feel right. He had a sick, churning feeling in his stomach—like he’d gone on a carnival’s tilt-o-whirl five times too many after eating an entire anchovy pizza. (Specifically Chicago style: deep dish. Tomato sauce on top.) Maybe that was anxiety talking. Not his gut. Two very different things.
Since it was a build of anxiety, he wasn’t about to ignore it. He knocked on the door one more time. Again, no response. Hunk decided to fiddle with the doorknob—but luckily he didn’t have to. “Guess Shiro forgot to lock his door,” he said, pushing the door open. “Shiro, you home?”
Everything looked normal—except for an empty pill bottle on the counter. “Maybe he went to get a refill.” Hunk dropped the bag to the floor. The black kitten padded over to sniff what Hunk brought. “Hey cutie, you’ve gotten so big since I last saw you!”
The cat narrowed her eyes at him and strutted back behind a counter, mewing at something behind it. He caught a glimpse of an outstretched hand at the corner—the cat was licking it. Hunk decided to get a clearer picture.
Shiro was out cold on the floor. Next to him was a bottle identical to the one the counter. Also empty.
“Oh, no. No, no, no. Shiro, don’t do this.” Hunk tried shaking him, but that wasn’t working. He reached for his cell phone in his back pocket and dialed emergency services.
“Hello? What’s the emergency?”
“I think my friend tried to kill himself. Tried overdosing on medication. I need an ambulance. Now. Please.”
“Where are you located?”
Hunk rattled off the apartment name and address—again, he was grateful for his photographic memory.
“Help is on the way. Try to stay calm.”
Calm? Calm? CALM? How could he stay calm in a situation like this? Shiro could very well be dead in an hour. Or worse yet, minutes! How fast could ambulances go? Maybe he should’ve just driven Shiro straight to the ER. Or maybe Katie could do that? She had that old rust bucket of a car. But she probably wasn’t going to pick up if he called. But she always read texts, didn’t she? Worth a shot.
He managed to calm himself down enough to text her.
“Katie come to Shiro’s apt NOW i think he tried to kill himself there are 2 empty orange pill containers and hes passed out”
“i called 911 but im freaking out and need someone here pls pls plS COME”
“OK, I’m getting in my car right now. put Shiro in a recovery position until help shows up.”
“Forget I said anything. just make sure his airway is clear. be there in 5.”
It was difficult to stay focused on the road when all she could think about was Shiro. Was it her fault that he tried to kill himself? Probably. And it was all because she’d tried to get more information about Matt. And now she was about to lose someone she really, really liked. Love, a small illogical part of her mind told her.
Still, she made it to the apartment in one piece—and apparently the paramedics had just beaten her to the punch. She saw them carry out Shiro on a stretcher and Hunk talking and walking alongside a paramedic—and she dashed to his side. No one really even noticed her until she tried to board the ambulance with him.
A paramedic blocked her way. “Family and friends only.”
“I’m his girlfriend,” she blurted out. “Hunk can vouch for me.” She looked at him with puppy-dog eyes, hoping that maybe he’d help her. She understood if he wouldn’t help her ever again—that was more than fair after what she’d told him.
“They’re dating, yeah,” Hunk said unconvincingly. But somehow he was convincing enough for them to let her sit next to Shiro on the ride to the hospital.
He didn’t look good, that was for sure. His breathing was slower than normal—although there was a moment where Katie swear she heard him say, “Matt?”
Again, he said it: “Matt, I’m so sorry.”
He thinks I’m Matt!
Katie ran a hand through his hair, no differently than if she was petting Rover. “Don’t apologize, Shiro. It’s okay.” She was trying to keep her composure, but wasn’t sure how much longer she could do it for.
“’S not okay. I killed you. I know you said I could pull th’ trigger ‘cause you were hurtin’ so bad. In so much pain ‘cause tha’ bomb went off. Lost an arm. You lost your life. ‘n’ I never tol’ anyone ‘cause I didn’t think you had a fam’ly. I met your sis, Matt. She saved my life. ‘mazing girl. I like her. I really like her. But I dun deserve her. Better off like this. Won’t hurt her this way.”
Katie knew she was crying now. She allowed herself to cry, but the loudest sound she let herself make was a sniffle. She needed him to hear what she had to say.
“I forgive you.”
“—Gane? Mr. Shirogane, can you hear me?” The voice was unfamiliar, but assertive. “Mr. Shirogane? Mr. Shirogane, are you up?” And persistent.
Shiro’s forehead puckered at the disturbance. He groggily cracked an eye open. Everything was blurry, but painfully bright. He squinted, trying to readjust to the lighting. He nodded—yes, he could hear the speaker. His throat felt dry, like he hadn’t had anything to drink in a week. His tongue ran over dry, cracked lips. “Water?” he said hoarsely, speech still slurred. “Where’m I? What ‘appened?” He struggled into an upright sitting position, but the woman before him pushed him back down with an unexpected gentleness and forcefulness.
She was less of a blur at that point. She was nearly as tall as him, wide, and heavy-set, with green spiky hair. He noticed she had some impressive scaly tattoos inked into her muscular arms and multiple ear piercings.
“I’m your doctor. Call me Shay,” she said. “You’re at the hospital. We finished pumping your stomach a few hours ago.”
He was still alive? How did he get here?
“It’s around three o’clock in the morning.” Shay must’ve been a mind-reader. “You’re lucky to be alive. If it weren’t for your kind friend and girlfriend, you probably wouldn’t be here right now.”
The kind friend was easy—Hunk. But the cute girlfriend? “I think your friend went home for the evening, but your girlfriend’s been here waiting for you this whole time, just outside yonder door. Once I exit, she’ll come in, okay?”
Girlfriend? What girlfriend? Before he could tell her there had to be some mistake, Shay had already left. He could hear her talking quietly to someone out there, but couldn’t quite tell who it was through the muffled door. Hospital rooms must have thicker walls than the ones in his apartment.
The door creaked open. Sneakers squeaked across the unnaturally clean floors, the pace picking up as they grew closer.
She said his name as if it was a breath of fresh air. “Takashi.”
“Katie?” Maybe his ears were deceiving him—they had before.
“Yeah, it’s me.” She pulled up a chair. “I’m here.”
But I saw your brother. Your dead brother. Dead because I killed him. “Why?”
Katie blinked, taken aback at the question. Not so much that he’d asked it, but she’d asked her self the same thing since the ambulance ride over. Why was she still here? Why wasn’t she angry with him? He’d killed Matt and failed to report his death. Maybe it was the fact she had closure. She knew Matt wasn’t coming home anytime soon. Maybe it was that not knowing was worse than the truth. And maybe she really had already forgiven him that.
But she didn’t ever want to see anyone in this position again. “Because you tried to kill yourself. Something my father and brother did. One of them succeeded.”
“Really? Matt?” For some reason, knowing that Matt forgave him—whether through some weird divine intervention, or if he really had died for a moment and seen his friend—made it possible for him to speak his name again. “I never would’ve guessed.” His best friend had been a happy guy. Always smiling, always positive, no matter the circumstances. “Katie, about Matt. I need to tell you…”
She held up a hand. “I know about him—I told you over the phone.”
The tenseness in Shiro’s body eased up. She knew. She knew everything and still wanted to be here. “Why?”
“My brother ended up here, too. You probably wouldn’t have met him if I hadn’t stopped him from downing his meds. He tried a couple times—never succeeded.”
Her hand wrapping around Matt’s wrist in an iron grip. Tearing him away from orange plastic containers. Fighting to get them out of his hold. Observing him with a hawk-like gaze as he took his anxiety medications. Double-checking he took the prescribed dosage. Confronting him when a bottle emptied faster than estimated. Calling ambulances. Sitting in the same position as she did now.
“I’m here because I’m tired of the people I love leaving me behind.”
“Katie, I’m sorry.” Shiro thought she looked like she hadn’t slept in weeks. Maybe she really hadn’t. Bloodshot, damp, red-rimmed eyes peeked out from their hooded lids. And he was the reason why.
She heaved her shoulders in a way that made it look like a task. “It’s fine. I’m used to it.” She said it like it were a scientific fact, completely devoid of emotion.
That statement sent shivers down Shiro’s spine. “Katie, you should go home. Get some rest. I’ll be okay, I promise.”
“Don’t make promises you can’t keep, Shiro.” The words hit him like a slap in the face. He deserved it—no doubt there. “Until I can fully trust you, I’m staying here.”
He wanted to ask her if it were possible for her to even afford that. He didn’t know what her salary was like or anything. She couldn’t be breaking the bank working in an IT customer support center. Hell, how was he going to afford this? He could barely afford his arm—which he then realized had been removed at some point. He looked around frantically.
“Your arm is safe,” Katie reassured him. “They had to remove it. Apparently it’s not recommended to wear when you’re asleep.”
“How can you do this? I mean, with your job and all. And Rover. You can’t just leave him at your place.”
“My co-workers are covering my shifts until then. Allura—she’s my boss—said she’ll feed Rover for me. That or Coran will. Hopefully Allura, or I’ll come home to Coran’s cooking.” She crinkled her nose. "Trust me, it sounds good until you've actually eaten one of his concoctions.
“And what about Kuroba?” He hadn’t expected to be so attached to that kitten. How could he have left her like that? “Hunk’s not going to take her away, is he?”
“My cat. Who’s going to care for her while I’m here? Or did Hunk take her to the shelter?”
Katie held up a finger as she pulled out her phone from her laptop case. “I’ll text him.” Thumbs twiddled away at the keyboard. Shiro could barely see her little fingers as she frantically texted a message at lighting speed.
“He’s probably asleep.”
A beep from the phone suggested otherwise. “He’ll said take care of her while you’re away. He said he’s going to try to register her as an emotional support animal or something. That way she can visit you while you’re here. Oh, and he’s also asking about that doctor. Shay, wasn’t it?”
His forehead crinkled in a mixture of thoughtfulness and frustration—he couldn’t piece everything together quite yet. Everything still felt a little fuzzy. Sort of like he’d woken up after being challenged to down five shots of the Four Horsemen. (Four whiskeys combined into one shot glass. A guaranteed hangover or a high chance of alcohol poisoning.) “I think so—sorry, everything’s just a blur right now.”
“To keep it brief, I think he’s got it bad for her. He’s calling her a ‘hero.’ Not because she saved you, but apparently saved him from passing out while your stomach was pumped. He nearly threw up. Poor guy has a sensitive stomach.” Her own gut churned as she remembered what she’d told Hunk the day before. Calling him out on his “gut feelings.”
But Hunk had been right. He always was, wasn’t he? He’d told her not to bring up Matt, and look what happened. She’d landed Shiro in the hospital, with extra time in the psychiatric ward.
“This is my fault.”
He shook his head. “Katie, it’s not. I’m the one who ended up trying to kill myself. You did nothing wrong.”
“If I hadn’t called you and asked that stupid question, you wouldn’t be here.”
Shiro shushed her. “No. If I’d kept my promise, you wouldn’t have ever had to make that call.”
So it had been her fault after all. Her call, her question, her obsession with finding the truth about Matt, had all lead to this.
“You’re wrong,” Katie whispered. “I would’ve asked you eventually. Hunk did the right thing, trying to keep us apart. He was right. He was always right.”
A hand circled around her skinny arm. (It was like a twig-- so thin and fragile-- but he knew Katie was anything but.) Shiro’s hand felt cold and clammy. She’d imagined that was what a prepared body at an open casket funeral felt like. Not that she'd know from personal experience.
Her mother and Matt had decided cremation was the best way to bring what was left of Sam Holt back to earth. They’d sprinkled his ashes in their vegetable garden next to the peas. They didn’t harvest them that year or those following that. Those peas had been Sam’s pride and joy—it felt wrong to remove them from the man who loved them so much.
“Hunk meant well, but he was wrong. I had to deal with the loss of my best friend, and that meant facing the facts. That one day, I’d have to tell you. But you already knew.”
A dumbstruck Katie nodded slowly. “Yeah. I did.” This was one white lie she could live with. Better to live with that than live without him.
“You know what I did. All of it. So why are you still here?”
“I already told you, stupid. I’m tired of the people I love leaving me behind. So I’m staying.” She smirked devilishly. “And what sort of girlfriend would I be if I wasn’t here?”
A blush dusted Shiro’s face in a light pink. “You’re not my girlfriend—we’ve only been on one date. And it was a disaster.”
“Well, this time we’ve had a disaster, and I highly doubt eating breakfast together at a hospital could possibly be any worse. Can't think of anything more romantic than small talk over a tray of hospital food that is somehow not as bad as Coran's cooking."
Shiro couldn’t help but grin at that. “So it’s a date?”
“Oh, it’s definitely a date."
By meal nineteen (according to Katie’s calculations, it had been three meals a day for six days including the one she was at now—not that she was keeping track), the hospital’s mashed potatoes were wearing their welcome.
Shiro had teased her by their fifth date that she should try something new—to which she’d replied, “It’s cafeteria food. You find one safe thing and stick with it. You’re one to talk, Mr. Liquid Diet. I don’t get how you can actually drink that kale crap.”
Thankfully Shay decided that same day he could eat solid foods like pasta. Something soft and easy on the stomach.
“How’s the spaghetti?” Katie asked, poking at Shiro’s meal with her fork. It didn’t look horrible, she had to admit. And the sauce actually smelled good.
She tried not to stare too much as she watched him twirl the noodles around his fork. With only one hand (he wasn’t allowed to down his prosthetic during his stay), it took him more effort. “I thought you were sticking to mashed potatoes.”
Her cheeks crimsoned, perfectly matching the steaming marinara sauce splattered over his pasta. “It’s been a week—I could try something new. A change of food—and maybe of scenery, too.”
A change of scenery would be nice, but Shiro was starting to enjoy the view of the girl sitting across from him. While he did see Matt in her, he was starting to see more and more of Katie.
Her laugh was undeniably different than Matt’s. Her honey-colored hair was slightly lighter in color and probably softer and silkier—and it was starting to grow out. He wanted to run his fingers through it and brush it out.
He loved the way she smiled and how easily she blushed at the smallest compliment. She’d experienced hardships different than Matt’s and his, but he admired her for it. She was the strongest person he’d ever met.
It’s funny, he mused. People call me a hero for fighting overseas, but that’s not true. If anyone’s a hero, it’s Katie. She’d saved his life. “I never thanked you, did I?”
“Fur whumph?” she asked through a mouthful of mashed potatoes. At this point she didn’t even feel like these were dates—and her lack of manners were starting to reflect that. Sitting across from a handsome, one-armed veteran eating mediocre cafeteria food in a hospital room felt. Comfortable, even.
“You saved my life.”
Saving his life? It’s still my fault you’re in here! That’s what she wanted to say. But Shiro had told her over and over again it wasn’t her fault. So that conversation was done and over with. “No, that was Hunk. He called 911. He’s the reason you’re alive, not me.”
“Partially. Hey, do you remember the first time I called you?”
Katie snorted—did he really think she’d forgotten? “You called a little after three in the morning. You mixed up the suicide hotline number with Altea Tech’s IT department. And I told you something stupid, like there’s no such thing as a wrong number.”
All those thing sounded about right. Except she’d left out the most important thing. “You told me if I killed myself that night, I’d miss out on so many opportunities. If I hadn’t made that call, I wouldn’t have gotten hired at The Croissant Moon. Wouldn’t have met Hunk or you. Do you understand what I’m saying?”
“Yup. If I hadn’t told you that, you’d miss out on meeting Pidge—me. And if you hadn’t known Hunk, you’d be six feet under.” She took a swig from her can of Red Bull—the third one that day.
“Easy on the energy drink. Maybe you should go home and rest.”
“Who’re you, my mom?” She downed the rest of her drink. An act of defiance in more than one way.
Visitors weren’t supposed to bring in anything from outside into the psych ward. But thanks to Hunk’s “budding friendship” with Shay (as Hunk called it), she was able to slip some things in under the radar. The only condition? Shay had to approve items in advance. Cans were allowed only if they were tossed in a discrete location. (That is, anywhere except the psych ward.)
She pushed herself out of the chair she’d been calling home from 9 to 11:30 am, 1 to 3 pm, and then 6 to 8 pm for the past week.
“Katie, where are you going?”
“Recycling bin. Be back.” Her pixyish figure slipped out of the room, out of his reach. Back to silence.
He leaned back onto the hospital bed, enjoying it while it lasted. He never really liked perfect silence—he liked some small, unsurprising noises in the background.
Shiro scrambled into an upright position upon her return. “I just realized you’re right. I’m not your mom. I’m your boyfriend.”
Katie suppressed an eye roll at Shiro’s awful joke. It was a miracle she hadn’t rolled them back far enough to see her brains by now. “Actually, I prefer the term ‘significant other,’ but I guess that works, too. Sheesh, and not once have you confessed your love to me. And you’ve had nineteen dates to get do it.”
“Twenty. It’s been twenty. I think I’ve earned the title.”
She mimicked a gameshow buzzer for a wrong answer. “Might want to double-check the math.”
“Are you not counting the barcade?”
“You are?” Even after his panic attack, he wanted to count that as a date? Really? And yet here they were, arguing over the number of dates they’d gone on. “We’re not exactly the most conventional couple.”
“You’re just realizing that now? We’ve spent how many days in a psych ward?”
“There’s no ‘we’ here. This is on you. I go home when—“
A solid knock beat against the wall. Katie looked over her shoulder. It was Shay, standing in the doorway. “Visiting hours are over, Miss Holt.”
“Do I really have to go?” Katie knew she sounded (and probably looked) like a petulant child after the best play date of their life.
Shiro faked a crestfallen expression. “Yeah. You’ll see me tomorrow morning.” At least she didn’t make a huge fuss like she had the first time visiting hours were enacted. It was an act of trust on her behalf. She trusted him enough not to do anything. (Although Shay’s presence probably gave her peace of mind.) “Drive safely. Call me when you make it home.”
“Okay, okay.” Katie didn’t bother to tell him that Hunk was the one behind the wheel tonight, but she’d still call. Like all the others, it’d go straight to voicemail. Shiro was only allowed to make a handful of calls in a single day—and not from his cell. One outgoing line, no incoming. “Night, Shiro.”
“Take care of yourself, Katie.” Shiro spoke the exact same words she’d told him over the phone.
The words made Katie feel warm inside. It reminded her of hot cocoa on after a lengthy winter walk. Matt had always mixed her a mug of it after she shoveled the driveway. “It’s my special mix,” he’d tell her. It was usually infused with peppermint—sweet but strong.
“Is that your ride?” Shay asked, pulling Katie back to reality. They stood in the hospital parking lot, waiting for Hunk to pull up to the curb. A hefty white truck with The Croissant Moon’s logo painted on one side skidded to a halt.
Hunk rolled down the window and hollered, “Katie! Shay!”
“Yup. That’s definitely him.”
Katie could have sworn she saw Shay turn red before the doctor ran back inside. Maybe Shay felt sick? Lovesick, probably. Katie opened the passenger seat door and slammed it shut once she was in. She had to appear pathetic to onlookers because it took her at least twice to hop into the car. “I hate being so short!”
“Maybe it’ll be good for you to have a tall boyfriend.”
“Speak for yourself. How are things with you and your girlfriend?” She stressed “girlfriend” in the most obnoxious way possible. An easy way to get under Hunk’s skin. (Which wasn’t a difficult task.)
A blushing Hunk took a hand off of the steering wheel to point a finger. “She’s just a hero who happened to save my friend-slash-coworker’s life. Not my girlfriend.”
Hunk cleared his throat. “So, any word on when Shiro’s getting out?”
A great question—and one Katie didn’t have an answer for. “It’s been a week, and he seems a lot better than where he was. Why? Has Shay told you anything?”
“She can’t due to confidentiality laws. Trust me, I’ve asked.”
Katie sighed. “I hope it’ll be soon.” Her eyelids grew heavy—perhaps she was more tired than she’d thought. Maybe if she closed her eyes for a few minutes…
“Me, too.” Hunk reached out for the volume knob, but stopped when he saw the steady fall and rise of his friend’s chest. Poor kid’s been through so much. Katie was no child, but he still couldn’t help but see her like a kid or a little sister.
The van slowed to a steady halt—no squeaking breaks or dying engine noises. Hunk tapped Katie on her shoulder. “Wake up, Katie. We’re here.”
Katie blinked, waiting for recognition to set in. “Sorry, didn’t mean to pass out.”
“No need to apologize. It’s been a long week.”
No need to apologize? “Maybe not for that, but for what I said before. All those horrible things. I was hurting and angry. I shouldn’t have said anything. I understand now you were trying to protect me and him. And it’s all my fault. This whole thing.”
He waved his hand like he was trying to clear the air of a foul stench. “Katie, I’m over it. If anyone needs to get over this, it’s you. You’ve forgiven Shiro. You need to forgive yourself. If it makes you feel any better, I forgive you.”
Although she couldn’t taste the words on her tongue, she’d imagine they tasted like peanut butter cookies. “Hunk, why are you so good to me?”
“You’re like a little sister. Some big brothers are stupid and overprotective of their little sisters—and I was trying to shelter you. And that was wrong of me. Like, really, really wrong. I’m not answering your question, am I?”
“No, you’re not.” Tears started pooling in Katie’s eyes—and they were starting to burn. “Thank you, Hunk. For everything.” She unbuckled her seatbelt and pushed the door open.
“Anytime, Katie. Anytime.”
“Rise and shine, Shiro.”
Shiro cracked an eye open, but squeezed it back shut. The light pouring in from the window was brighter than he’d anticipated.
“Time to get dressed. Come on, up and at it.” Shay’s smile—almost just as bright as the sunlight but not quite as blinding—was almost infectious. Before he knew it, a smile was spreading over his face, too.
He dragged himself out of bed—God, why was he so tired? It couldn’t be that early. Since when did it take him so long to get out of bed? Having two arms—one of which wasn’t really an arm, or at least his arm—really did make some of this stuff easier.
Rubbing the sleep away from his eyes, Shiro felt for a hospital gown folded on the edge of his now crumpled covers. Instead, his hand felt the soft fabric of a t-shirt—and denim. Jeans, he realized. And beneath his washed clothes was his prosthetic arm. “Shay, what’s going on?”
“You’ve been discharged.”
He was already going home?
Shay must’ve caught the question dangling off his tongue. “After seeing your remarkable improvement, I’ve decided to release you early.” She paused for a split second. “However, I wish to see you on a biweekly basis. As in every other week until I deem otherwise. Have we an agreement?”
It was more than fair. “Yes.”
“Very well. I shall see you in two weeks.” Shay scribbled something on a clipboard attached to his bed—probably checking something off or making a note to whoever cleaned the place.
Once he’d donned the prosthetic, Shiro had no issue getting dressed into his grey long-sleeved tee and jeans. He never realized how much he’d missed the damned thing until now. Tying up the hospital gown with one arm was near impossible—but luckily either Katie or Shay were able to do the job for him.
“Katie. I have to call Katie.”
“Lance, please stop torturing that poor cat.”
“Poor cat? Poor cat?” Lance cried out in indignation. “Pidge, I tried to put in a hair bow, and you know what she did? She scratched me!” He rolled up his sleeve, revealing his jagged battle scars. “Your boyfriend has horrible taste in animals.”
Katie didn’t budge from her spot on the sofa next to Keith. Even if Shiro had horrible taste in pets, he had a pretty nice selection of video games. “Sorry, Lance. I have to kick your boyfriend’s ass at Super MarioKart.” She was amazed that Shiro even had a gaming system—and even more amazed when she realized he owned a Super Nintendo. There was a decent chance it was a year or two older than she was.
“Or maybe my boyfriend will have to defend my honor,” Keith muttered as he watched the pixelated Yoshi speed over the finish line. “I don’t get it—Bowser’s actually good on the Wii version. How is it possible you win every time with that little green dragon?”
Lance’s jaw dropped. “Yoshi, a dragon? Where have you been? He’s a goddamn dinosaur. How could you not even know that, you—“ His insult was cut short by a vibrating phone on the table. It wasn’t his or Keith’s, but Katie’s.
He picked it up and slunk over to the bathroom. He answered it.
“Hey, Katie, is now a good time to talk?” Takashi. Definitely Takashi. The guy sounded out of breath, like he’d just sprinted through a 5k.
“Yo, Takashi, right? Aren’t you in the hospital or something?”
“Lancelot? Katie's, er... Pidge's coworker?”
“The name’s Lance. Lance McClain, make-up artist by day; suave knight by night.”
“Actually, I was calling to tell Katie I was discharged a week early. Is she there?”
Lance pushed opened the door a crack. “She’s currently occupied with MarioKart at the moment.” He heard Keith swear loudly and Katie proudly gloat over yet another victory. “Ooh, she smoked Keith on Rainbow Road. I don’t know how they don’t have headaches yet, playing that one on SNES.”
“Lance.” That was a warning tone.
“Don’t speak to me in that tone, young man. As one of your next-door-neighbors asked to cat-sit, I deserve better than that. Okay, but for real, just drop on by your apartment. I’m here with Red Rover and Pidge. Or Katie, as you keep calling her.”
“Yeah. Should I tell her you’re coming?”
A pause. “No. I’ll be there in fifteen.”
Beep. Beep. Beep.
“Hunk, she’s at my place—what do I do? What do I say? And her coworkers—do you think they’ll like me? God, what if she’s angry at me for not telling her? Do you think she’ll be upset?”
Hunk planted a brown paper bag in Shiro’s hands. Whatever was in it was warm. It hadn’t just come out of the oven, but whatever was inside was fresh. Shiro picked at The Croissant Moon sticker sealing its contents shut.
And I thought I had a tendency to ramble. “Dude, stop trying to open it.” Hunk’s steady hand clapped his friend’s shoulder—and his grip was iron-tight. Like he wasn’t about to let go. “I’m glad you’re alright.”
Shiro forced a smile. He wasn’t alright, exactly. By no means was he cured of his PTSD. He still had trauma to work through. “Hunk, you’re the best friend anyone could ever ask for. You’re great, you know that?”
“And so are you, Shiro.” Hunk pulled into the lot. “Give those to Katie. Go. Be great.”
Go. Be great. Hunk’s words resonated with each step Shiro took as he entered his building. Each step that took him closer to her.
His legs quavered with each movement, but he pushed forward. He was tired of running away from his past. So, so tired. Exhausted. His entire being ached from that runner’s high.
He was, in a sense—both literally and figuratively—still running. But this time, he wasn’t running away from his problems or his past. No, now he was soaring. Up into space, into the unknown.
It scared him. But a certain voice tended to help calm his nerves.
He called her. Pidge. Katie.
“Shiro? Is that really you? How are you calling from your cell phone? You should be in the hospital. Take care of yourself while I go make a call—“
“Shay let me out early.”
“She what?” Shiro smothered a laugh at the disbelief in her voice. It wasn’t fair of him to laugh at all, but he was just overjoyed.
“Open the door.” He hung up. He heard her frantic little feet scramble to the door—and there she was. Hair tousled from the wind or something—or maybe a case of bedhead. Her phone was practically glued to her ear—even though he’d already ended the call.
Her phone slipped out of her white-knuckled hold and hit the ground. Judging by the sound it made, the phone was done for. Shattered.
Shiro dropped to his knees, scrambling to pick up the pieces with his bare hands. “Katie, I’m so sorry. I’ll get you a replacement. Give me a second, alright? I—“
Her arms wrapped around him. Like a cat, she rubbed her head against his neck, along the buzzed part of his undercut. Taking in his scent, his warmth, his everything. “Takashi. You’re back. You’re really back.” Fat, hot tears rolled down her cheeks and onto his shoulder, staining the fabric of his shirt.
“Katie, your phone.”
She made a sound somewhere between a laugh and sob. “Fuck my phone. I can replace it. But you. I can’t ever lose you.” She buried her wet, smiling face into his chest.
“You’re not going to. I swear.”
“Are swears better than promises? Because you’ve been awful with those.” She wiped away a stray tear with the back of her sleeve.
“I swear I’ll keep my promises.” Shiro held out a pinkie. “From here on out. On every opportunity you’ve given me.”
She curled her tiny pinkie finger around Shiro’s. As far as Katie knew, she and Shiro’s paths were intertwined from that first call. What were the odds, that she was the one who’d pick up the phone that night? The one that ended up being the person Shiro loved? That Shiro had known Matt?
Katie didn’t know where she and Shiro would go from this moment, but for now, all she knew was that he needed her.
“I’ll hold you to that.”
A little over three months and 100 pages of a Word Document, Phone Tag is done and over with. I just wanted to take a moment to thank my readers, especially those who took the time to review and tell me just how much they enjoyed it. Ending this has been one of the hardest things I've ever done.
Special thanks goes to:
-peppermintsdicks, who ruined my life with Voltron: Legendary Defender without ever having seen it.
-my roommate/somehow best friend malikai-firelordzuko-flame, who knew I was going to kill off Matt before anyone else ever did (other than myself) and for giving me feedback and idea bounced.
-battleshidge, who always left some of the best reviews and is an amazing fic writer.
-pahndah, who made some amazing fan art and even designed The Croissant Moon's logo.
-MeisterGao, who probably will never forgive me for killing off Sam Holt.