Keith doesn’t just wake up one evening and think, “I’ll start working the night shift at my mom’s cousin Ulaz’s bodega on Atlas Street,” but that’s what ends up happening anyway. His mom moves him in with Kosmo’s help, the dimension-demon lugging Keith’s two laundry bags through the mirror portal set up in the upstairs living quarters with long-suffering equanimity and the promise of a smoothie once the task is complete. Keith signs the employment agreement for the Bodega of Marmora in blood (a formality; he doesn’t have anywhere else to go, really) and pages through Ulaz’s three-ringed binder of bodega guardian duties. Krolia makes up the spare futon and unpacks Keith’s clean laundry, storing it in a zippered bin with a speaking look in Kosmo’s direction. It’s a bit rich; Krolia has nearly as much fur as Kosmo does, and she lives on the physical plane more often than not. Kosmo is probably not going to shed on anything important.
That furred gene seems to have skipped Keith, who looks human. The only tell he’s got is a little flick at the corner of each eye, like permanent eyeliner. And the sharper-than-human teeth: but not a lot of people see those. Keith’s not a smiler.
Keith’s half-Galra. He’d prefer not to think about it, but the longer he works in the vicinity of magic, the more obvious it becomes to even casual shoppers. Energy breeds energy and his nonhuman traits are bound to show up more frequently the longer he works at the bodega. It would be one thing if he weren’t also part-Gorgon, but he is — that trait manifested as a glacial, resting bitch face instead of cursing all who gaze upon him to stone, which is probably for the best, since he’s going to be working in a customer service position. The combination is volatile and, frankly, it’s still pretty new information.
So far, Keith has noticed he turns slightly purple when he’s feeling emotional and that his spit glows in the dark. He’s a little nervous to check any other bodily fluids. The spit thing was the major selling point for Ulaz, who tried to add a clause to Keith’s contract about providing potions ingredients until Krolia intervened. Instead, Keith’s agreed to spend most of his time off-shift wandering the foothills in search of quintessence-saturated lichens he can fob off on insistent customers in lieu of his hair (Keith’s hair is human. It’s not made of snakes. This is apparently a novelty for part-Gorgons).
Really, he takes the job in order to run away from the unknown — in order to find himself. It frightens him to think that one day he might wake up and be a completely different person to the outside world, and still be the same Keith inside, hidden from view. At least this way he can panic about the future while also saving up enough money to — he doesn’t know what, yet. But Keith will think of something.
Krolia sets both hands on his shoulders once she’s finished unpacking his clothes and stares down at him. Keith thinks she’s trying her hand at comforting him.
“You can leave the bodega any time you want,” Krolia reminds him, in the way of someone conveying information with a lot of indecipherable subtext. Keith’s not sure he can leave, not in any permanent way. “The whole territory falls under an agreement Ulaz made with the rabbits who live in the foothills, and any foraging you need to do to replenish stock is considered acceptable activity.”
“But no hunting,” Keith says. The rabbits have been more than clear on that point: Keith can pick up a fair amount of plant life and make deals with the creatures that live in the foothills and up the sides of the mountains that surround the small city, but he’s not to spill the blood of a living creature. Fortunately the bodega has a supplier who drives in from the other side of town at least once a week, so there’s no need for him to go vegetarian.
“No hunting,” Krolia agrees. She glares in Kosmo’s direction; the dimension-dog yawns widely and phases halfway out of the physical plane, so they can see the shimmering outline of the kitchenette through his head. “You know how to reinforce the wards in the shop?”
“I even know how to make the Square reader work with magic when the wi-fi goes down,” Keith assures her. He hasn’t known his mother for long and he already feels responsible for her anxiety and leaving him again. But Keith wants to deepen his own sense of his abilities, and Ulaz is paying him on top of supplying the room; the binding agreement is a very gentle form of indentured servitude (“an apprenticeship,” Ulaz had stressed, mostly to make Krolia stop glaring at him), and the shop is a good in-between space for a young man to figure out what he wants to make of himself.
Besides, he has a roommate: Kosmo manages the bodega during the daytime and provides endless telepathic commentary on the space mites that have been petitioning Ulaz to let them set up a tent city in the spare pantry. Keith hasn’t met the space mites yet, but Kosmo has assured him that they’re like a smaller, more annoying Studio Ghibli creation. It’s possible they don’t tase good, either, but Kosmo’s too polite to say so in front of anyone who’s agreed to the ‘no hunting’ ban.
“If you need anything,” Krolia tells him, her eyes yellow and bright, “call for me. Spit on the floor and say my name, I’ll come for you.”
Keith’s still not used to the magic spit development. It’s gross. “I thought we were on the same cell phone plan.”
“I never remember how to answer tick messages — “
“— Text messages. But the fluid of love and unity binds us, Keith. You don’t even have to draw a calling circle.”
Kosmo borks gently, a reminder that he can ooze from the bodega to wherever Krolia’s spending her extremely billable time as a nonhuman rights lawyer on Alpha Centauri.
Keith’s looking forward to having Kosmo as a roommate. So far, he seems more practical than most members of the magical-galactic community.
“I’ll let you know if I need anything,” Keith says. He even means it; despite years of managing on his own, he’s grateful for the chance to get to know his mother. In a lot of ways, it’s like catching glimpses of his pa again. He can see pieces of himself in Krolia, and it makes Keith realize how much he’s like his father, too.
Krolia leaves a quarter-hour before Keith’s first shift at the Bodega of Marmora. It’s enough time for him to gulp a cup of tea and don his many-pocketed work apron before thudding down the stairs to the storefront. The evening seeps by, punctuated by customers clumping in the tiny aisles and examining jars of coconut oil stacked atop cans of corn smut and oversized bags of dehydrated mandrake roots. Around three in the morning, Keith even has to restock a wire rack of periodicals. He can’t read the cover, but the white-haired woman in the photo uses expansive hand gestures to micromanage how he refills the insert. Stars: they’re demanding no matter where you are, really.
In the numb, hopeless hour before the sun rises, Keith’s brewing himself another cup of tea — a bitter herbal blend labeled digestif this time, mostly for a sense of novelty — when he hears a polite tap on the walk-up window. No one’s used it yet tonight, but Ulaz had mentioned it was for special orders. Keith smooths his apron, already stained by a rogue bottle of black walnut ink and a sloppy hot dog order, and runs a fingertip along the sill to reduce the opacity of the ward.
There’s a man standing outside. Not just a man; a vampire. He’s got an umbrella opened to shield himself from the frankly obnoxious full moon and his fangs protrude just enough to leave little indentations in the skin of his plush lower lip. Keith doesn’t generally pay much attention to other people’s lips, plush or otherwise, but this man has enough presence that it feels natural to make an exception. He’s very handsome: excellent cheekbones, a wickedly cool jacket, impeccable posture.
If pressed, Keith wouldn’t know why he’s so sure the man’s a vampire, even taking the fangs into consideration. There’s a subtle kind of energy radiating off of him. It’s more than the prosthetic arm that looks like it’s made of black moonlight. The man has presence. He’s got to have unbelievable control over himself, too, because even though he must be a powerful vampire — most vampires don’t bother to visit convenience stores during a full moon, the reflected sunlight can be too bright for their skin unless they’ve lived a couple of decades acclimating to it — Keith doesn’t feel uneasy. He feels a little warm, actually, but mostly curious. He wonders what it would be like to feel that confident in his own skin.
“Hello,” the vampire says. His voice matches the rest of him, in that Keith wants to listen to whatever he’s got to say. “You’re new, aren’t you. I’d remember seeing you before.”
“It’s my first night,” Keith says.
“Fresh blood,” the vampire says dreamily. Keith can tell that’s he doesn’t mean it in a creepy way — his face is open and strong and kind, battered by a heavy scar that crosses the bridge of the vampire’s nose. As a rule, vampires don’t heal from physical damage very well; something about needing fresh blood to knit their skin back together, and with the way the blood donor circuit works in town, most vampires don’t like to risk running headlong into the limits of community goodwill. The man at the window has the look of someone who could inspire an awful lot of goodwill, though, which makes the scar tissue seem friendly. Maybe Keith’s more tired than he first thought.
“Ulaz is a good judge of character,” the vampire continues. “I’m sure you’ll do fine. Are you going to invite me in?”
The bodega is heavily warded and the front door doesn’t have a welcome mat. The stories about vampires are true: most of them aren’t powerful enough to enter where they haven’t been invited, which, in an era where big-box stores have started getting rid of their frontline greeters, has got to make shopping kind of a hassle. The bodega carries a lot of inventory, but Keith knows for a fact that there are some things it makes more sense to pick up at Walmart. For everything else, there’s Amazon.
“I can help you from here,” he says, instead of issuing an invitation. Keith doesn’t have fur, but the hair at the back of his neck is starting to stand at attention. If it results in a bad Yelp review, well: Keith can handle Ulaz’s disappointment, but he’s willing to go with his gut in this situation. His gut says: pay attention. Still, he can bend a little. “I’m Keith.”
“Keith,” the vampire says. “You can call me Shiro.” Shiro twirls his umbrella idly; the underside of the canopy depicts a miniature night sky, complete with occasional blinking satellites. There’s no moon in that sky. Shiro’s white hair shows to fine advantage against the backdrop.
Keith tries to focus on the ribs of the umbrella in lieu of staring at Shiro’s face — the constellations are in a confusing jumble, laid out in configurations that don’t share an actual hemisphere — but he doesn’t quite manage it. They end up making eye contact. It should be uncomfortably intimate, but it’s not. Keith kind of enjoys the way the murk of the night starts to fade, allowing him to get a better idea of Shiro’s eye color (grey. Keith’s never cared about anyone’s eye color before, but, well — he did come here for a new experience).
“Your eyes glow,” Shiro says.
“No they don’t,” Keith answers, breaking his gaze to sip at his tea. It’s oversteeped and undrinkably bitter, but he pretends it’s perfect. “They reflect light, it runs in the family. Sorry. I didn’t ask what you wanted.”
“Just looking for now,” Shiro says, even though he can’t see much over Keith’s shoulder. The shelves in the shop are a mess of convoluted inventory, no rhyme or reason at all. “It’s getting early. I’ll see you around, Keith.” He turns to go, then spins back on his heel. “Do you work tomorrow night?”
“Every night except Wednesdays,” Keith says. He feels stupid immediately. It’s the first rule of retail: never tell a customer your schedule.
“Then I’ll see you again soon,” Shiro tells him.
“I didn’t even help,” Keith mutters. Shiro doesn’t seem to hear him; he’s already walking briskly down Atlas Street. Of course he is. Dawn is coming.
When Keith stumbles back upstairs, Kosmo takes one sniff at him before nosing him into the shower. Fair enough: the magic-smell of the bodega takes some getting used to, and Kosmo can scent every customer Keith talked to during the night, including the hitchhiker from the far side of the Milky Way who wanted skunk cabbage kimchi to go with their packet of ramen. Keith now knows that the Bodega of Marmora is famous in certain circles for its stock of in-house kimchi. Apparently the way Ulaz slices the cabbage is a revelation.
“I didn’t know that ‘eye of newt’ was a real flavor,” Keith grouses over the hot water. “Or that people made kimchi out of skunk cabbage. It’s not even black and white! It just smells bad!”
Kosmo makes an exaggerated vocalization in order to keep up his end of the conversation. Keith appreciates that his roommate can walk through mirrors and still manages to have boundaries about sharing a bathroom.
“No, nothing notable,” Keith replies. He shuts off the water and presses his towel hard against his face. “Met a vampire.”
Kosmo appears in the shower almost instantly, claws slipping in the puddle that hasn’t yet gone down the drain.
“You’re blocking the door,” Keith says. Kosmo huffs at him until Keith begrudgingly wraps his towel around his hips and extends his unblemished hands: no bite marks. “He was polite. I didn’t invite him in. Didn’t actually sell him anything, either. Do we carry donor blood products? What cooler are they in?”
A dismissive noise; Kosmo’s already losing interest and he oozes through the fogged-up mirror over the sink, presumably on his way to the one into the main living area. His fur sticks to the glass and doesn’t rub away even when Keith tries using the squeegee his mom insisted he bring with him to the apartment.
Alone for the moment, Keith examines himself in the mirror. He wonders what Shiro saw when he looked at Keith. If he likes what he saw; if he’s going to write an online review complaining about the new night stockist at the Bodega of Marmora, the only business that’s open all night on Atlas Street..
Keith’s overthinking things. He’ll probably never see Shiro again.
The next time Keith meets Shiro, it’s a week later and he’s nearly knee-deep in mud. Keith’s looking for a meteorite Kosmo swears has landed just outside of town — apparently it’s all the other dimension dogs want to talk about, and Kosmo’s sick of the back-and-forth. The only solution is for someone to fetch it.
Keith doesn’t get the point of digging the rock out of whatever crater it has landed in just to display it at the front counter until some magical researcher gets funding to run some experiments, but foraging for shop inventory is part of the job. It’s the “Wednesday night” clause of his job, actually. The meteorite is new. Normally Keith ends up foraging for pantry ingredients or meeting with the ruling council of the extremely intense rabbit colony that has built its warren under the hills.
Keith likes spending time outside, but he hadn’t counted on coming face to face with the handsome vampire from the week before, illuminated only by the light of a waning moon. Shiro’s not holding an umbrella this time and he’s somehow managed to avoid getting mud on any part of his person aside from his boots; Keith can’t say the same. If he had expected to meet Shiro again, Keith thinks, he might have brought wet wipes along with him, or worn rubber boots. It’s not his finest hour. He’d like to make a good impression since their last meeting was on the wrong side of awkward.
“What’re you doing here?” Keith doesn’t mean to sound belligerent. It’s his default tone of voice, equal parts poor socialization and a mild, supernatural tendency towards a sharp tongue. Krolia says he has a distant relative who could cut a man to pieces with a well-chosen insult, and Keith thinks she meant it literally. He just says things and feels immediate regret.
“I’m stargazing,” Shiro says blandly, with all the grace of a man who can afford to be generous. He has no business looking so handsome and urbane standing in the middle of a field. He should look menacing. “Did you drop this?” He kicks the errant meteorite up from the mud like a grade schooler demonstrating his skill at maneuvering a hacky sack. It’s not menacing at all.
Keith just manages to snatch it out of the air. His palms smart a little at the impact and a lot at the momentary impression of the meteorite’s recollection of the fall it took from the sky: fast, faster, fire. Okay. No wonder Kosmo’s network wouldn’t shut up about it: the meteorite really is yelling.
“Thanks,” he mumbles. “And, uh. Sorry. About last time.”
It’s not clear if Shiro’s grin is supposed to be reassuring, but it is very wide. His teeth are so sharp and white that they make Keith think that fangs could be interesting, very interesting indeed.
“You remember me,” Shiro says. “I never know what kind of impression I’ll end up making, but from the look of you — I’ll count this one as A positive.” A pause. “That’s a joke. You know. Like the blood type?”
Oh no, Keith thinks, faintly. It’s a terrible pun. He can’t be real.
“Okay,” he says out loud, and tucks the meteorite into one of his apron pockets. “I’m. Not good at people.”
“I already like that about you,” Shiro says. “You know your strengths. You can always work on your weaknesses later.” His fangs are showing even more. Keith likes that, he realizes; likes that Shiro isn’t human, and doesn’t make any excuses. Keith isn’t that brave, but he’s working on it.
Here’s where Keith might, if he were someone else, offer his hand to shake. He doesn’t, in part because he’s still covered in mud. It’s inescapable. “You don’t have to say things like that, Shiro,” Keith says. “But. Thanks.”
“And you remember my name,” Shiro says. Vampires might have the ability to enchant their victims, but right now: Shiro is the one who seems enchanted. Like it’s unusual for someone to remember him. AN impossible notion: Keith isn’t sure how anyone could forget Shiro after meeting him.
“You told it to me, of course I remembered it.”
“Did I make such an impression?” Shiro takes a step forward and doesn’t sink into the mud at all, the bastard. “A good impression, I’m hoping.” Keith already knew that Shiro was taller, but now there’s some kind of magic at play, a little but of showing off: Shiro’s hovering above the ground, just high enough that his shoes don’t squelch in the muck. Keith needs to crane his neck up to keep eye contact.
“I work the night shift,” Keith points out. “Anything that happens after two a.m. makes an impression. It, um, it’s not a bad thing.” He’s — aware of how exposed his throat is like this, bare and centered in the v-neck of his shirt. It feels a little dangerous to be so on display, and yet Shiro doesn’t do much other than glance down at it before fixing his gaze back on Keith’s face.
“In that case,” Shiro says, “I’ll work to keep your attention.”
After the meteorite incident, Shiro starts showing up on a schedule. Keith doesn’t notice it at first; Kosmo points it out to him in spectacularly unsubtle fashion, drawing hearts with pointy teeth on the whiteboard they use to keep track of non-bodega groceries for the apartment. Keith’s not sure how Kosmo manages to draw an anatomically correct heart without benefit of opposable thumbs, actually, but supposes it’s magic. Everything Keith doesn’t understand is magic: his developing sense of quintessence, the way his spit can heal a paper cut if he licks the wound instinctively while rifling through the cash register for a spare sticking plaster. He doesn’t understand what’s going on between him and Shiro, and that, too, is magic.
Keith is pleasantly flustered by the realization that Shiro is coming to the bodega for the number one purpose of seeing Keith. It makes sense, in a way; no one needs as many novelty shot glasses as Shiro’s been buying (this week: a single one-ounce glass shaped like a tiny cat. It looks like it’ll break in about five seconds), and their conversations have been lasting longer and longer. Keith is trying not to like the attention. Any time he pretends to be professional and asks what Shiro needs, the answer sounds like a riddle.
“I dreamed there was a jar of powdered hen’s teeth crammed sideways next to a make-your-own candle kit and a gallon-sized jar of preserved fruit on a shelf in the third aisle from the snack counter,” Shiro will say, and there usually is. Shiro doesn’t actually want that jar, but it’s almost like having a nightly scavenger hunt that makes Keith that much better at the practical, store management parts of his job.
(Kosmo says that Shiro has an innate understanding of the charms of the bodega’s inventory because it’s Keith’s domain, and vampires are good at sussing out details that have to do with the great loves of their unending lives. Keith knows what Kosmo is getting at; but Keith isn’t quite there yet, so he pretends that Shiro just has an affinity for shopping local. The alternative is Walmart: the featureless demonic influence of the current age.)
He still hasn’t invited Shiro inside to shop — is still halfway sure that one night Shiro will tire of Keith’s emotional reticence and abandon the effort. It’s a self-sabotaging mindset and Keith knows it, just as much as he knows it’s going to take longer than two therapy sessions and one subscription to a pop-psychology interstellar podcast to get over the issue. It’s like developing his sense of quintessence, or even just the way the door to the kimchi fridge sticks in the humidity: it takes practice to get it right.
Keith wants Shiro’s attention badly enough that he’s skittish about it. Once Kosmo points out the pattern, Keith realizes that he couldn’t set a clock to Shiro’s nightly arrivals, but he’s not far from it. Every evening the sun sets a little sooner and Shiro wanders up to the little window to Keith’s shop a little earlier.
Keith wishes he didn’t like seeing Shiro at the window. It would make things easier. But Shiro makes Keith feel like a person who’s going to change the world; Shiro makes Keith feel like changing the world could be a fun adventure, if he set out with the right company.
“Still no welcome mat at the front door, I see,” Shiro observes. His smile is real and true: it crinkles the corners of his eyes. His smile makes Keith feel warm and visible, like he’s been invited to share a confidence. “Pity.”
“You wouldn’t keep stopping by if you liked things easy,” Keith says. And he knows it’s true as he says it: Shiro is too brave and capable to be a coward, too clever to solve obstacles with brute force. Keith knows as much from the way Shiro talks about surviving his coming of age as a vampire in a bloody empire.
“Just because I’m not afraid of a challenge doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate the finer comforts in life,” Shiro says archly. “Tea?” He offers the lid of his thermos through the window. It’s steaming faintly and smells too much like ginger for Keith to even want to take a sip; he hates the stuff.
“Can’t drink on the job,” Keith says instead, which is sort of a lie: he tests a lot of tea on the job. He sounds cooler than he means to, cooler than he actually is, and is momentarily grateful his tongue hasn’t betrayed him.
“Ah, well,” Shiro says philosophically. “One day I’ll find the key to unlock your tower.” As if Keith’s a princess. An object of desire. “But as tempting as a drink shared in your company is to me, I’m here on a mission.”
This is the fun part. Despite himself, Keith leans forward, half-flirting and half-curious. “Oh yeah? I just got a supply shipment from the next dimension over, you’ve got good timing.”
Roughly half the bodega’s inventory comes from off-planet. Keith’s never left Earth, but he yearns for space, and Shiro tells fantastic stories about life beyond the solar system — a lot of their conversations are about the stars. Not in a nebulous way (oh, Keith thinks to himself; nebula. He should remember that one. Shiro likes it when Keith tells puns, even though Keith’s not very good at making them). Shiro says he hasn’t traveled off of Earth’s surface in decades, but he has on occasion taken a turn about the galaxy. Most of those travels weren’t very pleasant. That’s why Shiro has an arm made of light from the dark side of the moon, and scars even though most vampires don’t scar at all. He doesn’t get into the specifics and Keith intuits that all of it — the arm, the scars, the way Shiro occasionally forgets to put his umbrella up when the sun starts to rise but suffers no ill-effects — is another reason why Shiro is strong, even by vampire standards.
“You’re good to talk to,” Shiro says. “Not easy. But I can hear how hard you’re listening.”
Keith is invested in listening to Shiro. He can’t say he always likes what he hears, but it feels important that Shiro trusts Keith enough to share these stories. Even the worst of Shiro’s experiences are meaningful, even if the ultimate meaning is: Shiro ended up here. Keith feels starved of meaning sometimes; but Shiro listens to what he has to say anyways. It feels good to return the favor, even with the solid framework of the building between them.
When dawn threatens, Shiro unfurls his umbrella to shield himself from the sun. “That’s my call to leave,” he nods at the horizon.
“I forgot to ask if you wanted anything,” Keith blurts out. He always forgets to ask. He hadn’t realized how many hours have passed, and once again he’s failing to sell anything from the store — his actual job.
“I’m set for the moment,” Shiro hums. “Oh, except — I don’t suppose you’ve a kiss lying about? I only want to borrow it.”
“Yes,” Shiro says. He seems more intense than usual, and the energy he’s radiating is not unwelcome. “I’ll give it back. Promise.” He leans closer to the little window, close enough for Keith to realize that Shiro breathes. It’s a wonder; Keith never thought to think about it before, if Shiro needed to inhale and exhale. Yet here he is, exhaling, and his breath smells like a long night: not unpleasant, but sharp, spiced, heavy with iron and magic and the tea Shiro’s been sipping from his ubiquitous thermos. Keith wonders if he’d like the way it tastes against Shiro’s mouth.
“The light,” Keith stammers, and he knows he’s flushing, that his eyes are needling yellow. Not human. “I don’t know — ”
A sigh, quiet and low. The slight force of Shiro’s exhale ruffles Keith’s unkempt bangs and makes the little hairs on the back of his neck stand at attention. It’s a prickly feeling, one Keith is starting to associate with Shiro’s presence.
Shiro looks disappointed. Shiro looks — Shiro looks like someone Keith wishes he could run to, just vault over the sill of the silly little walk-up window and offer Shiro as many kisses as he wanted, free of charge. Kisses with interest. Interesting kisses.
“Maybe next time,” Shiro says, patient as ever. “I’m looking forward to it. When you’re ready.”
“I need to learn Galra magic,” Keith calls out as he pushes through the beaded curtain Kosmo insisted they hang in the doorway. “Immediately.”
“I daren’t ask how business is, with a greeting like that,” Ulaz says. He’s unexpected, and yet Keith supposes he should have expected this. Ulaz is, after all, the owner of the bodega. He said he’d check in and see how Keith was settling, and — it seems, from the game laid out between them on the kitchen table — to play cribbage against Kosmo. Well, someone has to; Keith refuses to learn.
Kosmo fades halfway through his chair and drops down to the floor so he can shove his nose against Keith’s chest. Today he’s the size of a medium gazelle, or one of those massive rabbits. His saliva is asomatous and doesn’t leave a mark, but he somehow manages to get his teeth into the apron and tug it off, even though Keith hasn’t bothered to untie it.
“I was going to hang it up,” Keith insists. Kosmo ignores him and trundles off to some inter dimensional hamper, where all the laundry in the apartment ends up. It’s a perk. “And. Um. I don’t know what business was like before I started working here.”
“Fewer vampires,” Ulaz says. Krolia mentioned that Ulaz was a succinct sort of person; she was not exaggerating. “The wards chime every time the Champion pays you a visit.”
“I don’t know about a champion,” Keith says. “The only vampire I know is Shiro.”
It turns out: Shiro and the Champion are one and the same. Shiro is, Ulaz explains, powerful enough that the shop wards don’t keep him out and besides, Ulaz invited him in years ago. Apparently it’s a standing invitation.
While Keith ponders Shiro’s respectful distance and intimate repartee, Ulaz sketches the raw outline of Shiro’s past — the same sad stories about traveling the stars, and fighting, and loss, that Shiro has already shared with Keith, as it happens. And, though it makes Keith’s stomach squirm with embarrassment to ask, Ulaz also tells him why being Galra means that Keith can sense magic — “call it quintessence, Keith, we’re not living in a fairy story” — and why Keith’s spit glows in the dark.
“It’s not just your spit,” Ulaz says. He’s frank about it, non-nonsense: apparently running a bodega is a lot like being a healthcare provider. “Your blood and semen, too. Congratulations: quintessence runs in your veins. You’re like a battery. I suppose if we put you underneath one of those fancy club lights, you’d fluoresce.”
“Please don’t,” Keith chokes.
“It’s fascinating, when you think about it,” Ulaz continues. “Perhaps it’s the Gorgon in you as well. Normally you’d put an end to things, turn them to stone, but instead you’re like your mother. Full of energy.”
“How do I control it?” Keith asks, relieved the conversation has circled back to his main question. “So I stop turning purple and stuff.”
“That part’s not quintessence, that’s just youth,” Ulaz says. “You just need to meditate. You’ll grow into being purple. You’re already learning how to control it. Every time you serve a customer, you’re operating in a framework: an exchange of information, with you giving and taking, a well that doesn’t run dry. As far as I can tell, your power is that you have impeccable focus.”
“So I could leave?”
“Keith,” Ulaz presses a hand tenderly against his own broad forehead to soothe away a worry line, the way Keith’s group parents occasionally did whenever he got assigned to a new housing situation. “You’re not indentured, despite what the paperwork says; that’s just jargon. You leave all the time. You’re an adult.”
“Yes, and if you wanted to leave for something that wasn’t work-related, there’s no need to tell me about it.”
And that’s — helpful information to have, really.
Shiro’s more obviously attentive the next time he comes around. Keith decides that Shiro’s regard is a gift. He’s going to accept it — not just accept it. He’s going to grab onto it with both hands. He’s greedy for it.
“Lovely evening,” Shiro says. It’s not; the weather has shifted over the last week and gone cold enough that Keith has been eyeing Kosmo’s heavy pelt with envy.
“Lovely,” Keith agrees, though he’s talking about the scarf Shiro has tucked about his neck. It’s a cheerful pattern: deep plum, with little golden pineapples all over it. “Can I help you with anything tonight, Shiro?”
“I don’t suppose you have a map.”
“Why do you need a map? A map of where?”
“I need a map,” Shiro says, “because I’ve gotten lost in your eyes. They’re all the way yellow tonight, Keith. You’re getting better at moving through the change when it happens to you.”
And Keith is flattered that Shiro has noticed. That’s another change: Keith has decided that even if the way he feels is a secret — it’s not; it’s obvious, at least according to the dramatic reenactments Kosmo has been posting on whatever the dimension dog version of TikTok is — it’s not a secret that he’s keeping from himself.
“I’ve been practicing,” he says, ignoring the flirtation. Or responding to it? Keith is not all the way brave yet; he’s working up to it. “I see better in the dark.” He leans forward, out the window and into the cold and Shiro meets him. Shiro touches his nose to Keith’s nose and brings his hands up behind Keith’s ears, cupping loosely about them to keep Keith from getting chilled. His eye contact is like a caress, for all Shiro doesn’t glance below Keith’s neck. He really is a polite vampire.
Shiro isn’t flirting when he says, “I’m proud of you, Keith. Patience really does yield focus.”
It feels like how Keith imagines it would be to pilot a ship out past the edge of the atmosphere, through a star portal: transcendent. A doorway, opening.
Keith texts his mom when he gets off shift, mostly because she knows she won’t remember to look at the message.
“I’m falling in love with someone,” he writes. “He likes me back.”
Then, instead of falling into the pile of bedding he never folded when he got up, Keith pulls out his copy of the binding agreement. Fittingly, it’s in a binder.
He flips through the pages until he comes to a specific heading: MAKING MAGIC, it reads, AND GIVING NOTICE.
Keith has a goal, now. And to meet it: there’s work he needs to do, most of it on himself.
Terminating the binding agreement he made with Ulaz and the Bodega of Marmora requires planning, none of it particularly arduous (the shop is a named entity in the manual, and after working there, Keith understands why: stocking every aisle is like facilitating negotiations in a high school model Galactic Nations meeting. There’s always some kind of side hustle to take into consideration). It also requires Keith to carve out an hour in the day, usually just after he’s watched Shiro walk away from the shop, to draw a circle in the middle of the living room floor and strip down to his boxers so he can meditate on his nonhuman characteristics.
With practice, he finds that he can identify the way certain feelings make him want to jump out of his skin, or give him a headache. Kosmo nudges the common area mirror into a spot that provides a better sightline, and that’s how Keith learns to control his little transformations. It falls apart when he gets really excited or when Kosmo throws something at him (Kosmo does not play fetch, but he enjoys throwing things at Keith, who usually will pick them up off the floor. Oh, no; maybe they’re playing fetch after all). Keith doesn’t think he’ll be one hundred percent aware of what his body does and how his body does it by the time he breaks his contract with the bodega, but he feels confident in the baseline he’s establishing.
That confidence extends outside his practice circle. Shiro takes notice.
Of course Shiro takes notice. He’s been paying close attention to Keith ever since they met.
“It’s not just the transformation, is it, Keith? You’re planning something.” Shiro hands over a to-go cup of plain hot water so Keith can doctor it up with whatever mystery tea blend he’s trying to label for the pantry. Ulaz’s little mite colony keeps rearranging the boxes and as a result the shelf tags are useless. No wonder Kosmo hates them.
“I’m learning important dates in history,” Keith deadpans. The tea blend turns the water deep red near-instantaneously. Hibiscus, maybe. Or cochineal. Keith’s not sure which would be worse.
Shiro’s response is predictable. “Can I be one of them?”
“No way,” Keith says. He risks a sip of the tea: too weak to give it a name, yet, but he is leaning towards cochineal. For a liquid, it already gives the impression of having a lot of legs. “I’d rather keep you around.”
“Good to know I’m not on a dusty shelf with a bunch of textbooks,” Shiro says. He’s lighthearted, but Keith wonders if Shiro worries about the gap in their ages.
“That doesn’t bother me. How old you are.” Looks like he’s practicing bravery again tonight. The honesty is the easy part, with Shiro. “I don’t know what I’m doing most of the time, but I know what I want.”
Keith wants, more than anything, to belong. Not just to another person, or in a particular niche in the world: he wants to feel comfortable in his skin. Talking to Shiro — it’s a comfort, honestly. For all his silly flirtations and shot glass purchases, Shiro doesn’t ever try to convince Keith to conform to a narrow idea of success, or to stop questioning what he wants for himself. Shiro makes Keith feel capable: the best, strongest version of Keith that yet exists.
“That’s good to know.” A pause, and then Shiro liberates the cup from Keith’s fidgeting hands — or maybe he liberates Keith from the tea. It’s a toss-up. “Don’t put yourself through hell, the tea’s not worth it.”
“You know what I’m saying, though.”
“Yeah. Yes. Keith,” Shiro tells him, “as long as you don’t mind me hanging around — I’ve waited a long time to meet someone who made me feel alive, if you’ll excuse the cliche. Every minute I get to spend with you is time well-spent.”
At last, Keith’s personal D-Day arrives. He doesn’t drop any hints, nothing has changed within him, so it feels like any other night shift. Except that as soon as Shiro arrives at the walk-up window, Keith is overcome: he knows he has to ask a question he’s never asked before. It’s thrilling. He can feel his whole body shivering with excitement. Autumn has come to Atlas Street over the past week and it adds a little extra atmosphere to the evening, the sense of a change in the air. The temperature is low enough that a human would have a pink nose from the cold, but Shiro is as serene and unblushing as ever. He is wearing a scarf, though — one Keith gave him in the form of gift-wrap for an entire box of commemorative Visit Ursa Major! drinking glasses.
“Shiro,” Keith says, “will you walk me home tonight?”
“I thought you lived upstairs.” And Shiro hasn’t asked to come inside, even though he could, even though he’s strong enough to walk through the wards without giving them a second thought.
Keith unlatches the bottom half of the door under the window and steps out from behind the shop wards. It’s so simple. He could have done it any time.
“That’s right,” he agrees, untying his apron and dropping it back inside. It puddles heavily on the floor with a metallic clunk; come to think of it, that chunk of meteor might still be in one of the pockets. “How about you walk me back to your place instead?”
It’s a brazen thing to say, but Keith feels electric as soon as the words fall out of his mouth. The past few months have been almost languorous, especially now that he can look back on every interaction and acknowledge that yes, Shiro has been courting Keith this whole time. There have been too many compliments about Keith’s eyes, his listening skills, his entire demeanor, for it to be anything otherwise. Keith supposes it’s a mutual feeling, and besides: he’s — not wasted, but invested so much time getting to know and appreciate Shiro.
“That depends.” Shiro’s smile is so bright. He outshines the moon — he must never need to see the sun in person, he’s luminous beyond comparison. “If you follow me home, do I get to keep you?”
What that, Shiro darts forward, faster than a human could ever hope to move, and grasps Keith’s hands in his own, clasping them to his broad chest. His hands are mismatched and lovely, proof that Shiro is touching him. The prosthetic feels cool to the touch, but Keith is sure the heat from his own hands will warm it soon. What a lovely thought: it’s like giving Shiro a present.
Keith realizes that the contact is making him turn violet with anticipation: his hands, yes, and his arms, are splotching at an uneven rate. Keith’s face is likely flushing, too, and he can see Shiro more clearly all of a sudden, meaning his eyes have changed over to better see in the dark. This time, Keith luxuriates in the way his Galra tendencies emerge when he’s aroused. His eyes especially: Keith likes looking at Shiro. Of course he likes being able to see Shiro more clearly. It makes sense to cultivate that ability, since Shiro’s a creature of the night — if Keith is going to spend time with Shiro (and oh, he wants to!), then he should adjust appropriately.
“All that waiting has paid off,” Shiro murmurs. He leans down and kisses Keith across the mouth and draws back to speak again, too quick for Keith to kiss him back. His fangs are firm little points like this, a tease. “I’m treating this as a standing invitation. Standing, sitting, lying down — ”
“Oh my God,” Keith laughs. He can’t help himself, even though he’s a little embarrassed at how loud he sounds when he’s happy. “You’re wasting time, you could be kissing me.”
“Time spent with you is never wasted,” Shiro declares. He puts some drama into his tone, like he’s on stage and speaking to an audience. Does being the Champion count as being in show business? “Don’t you enjoy the anticipation?”
“Shiro,” Keith begs. He’s a cup running over. He licks his lower lip, a little sloppily; the saliva makes his mouth glow, just in case Shiro needs directions to get back to it. “Please, please, kiss me. Remember when you asked to borrow a kiss? I want one now, I’ll give it back.”
“Like this?” Shiro kisses the corner of Keith’s eye, then teases him by bestowing a fucking butterfly kiss, fluttering his eyelashes against Keith’s cheek. Endeared, Keith tilts his face so he can give Shiro a little eyelash kiss of his own.
It’s lovely. But it’s not what Keith was asking for.
“You could nibble,” Keith offers, hoping his boldness will serve as encouragement. “I made you wait long enough.”
“When you put it like that,” Shiro says, “I might just eat you up.”
He’s too patient to fall for Keith’s wiles (such as they are). Instead he helps Keith flip over the CLOSED sign and reminds him to leave a voice memo for Kosmo before threading Keith’s hand into the crook of his prosthetic arm. Shiro doesn’t just lead Keith to his home; he makes certain that Keith is walking in sync with him, matching each and every step. That feels like a game, actually, since Shiro’s taller but Keith’s legs are nearly as long, and by the time they’ve walked to the opposite end of Atlas Street and made a few meandering turns through a residential division, Keith almost feels like they’re dancing. An old dance: one of those stately back-and-forth line numbers from the European folk tradition.
Shiro brings Keith to the heavy oak door of a standalone house and gestures toward it. “You’re invited,” he says needlessly, as if Shiro hasn’t made a point to invite Keith into every interaction they’ve shared. The doorway is just a formality. “After you.”
Shiro’s house is clean and decorated like — well, like a page from an IKEA catalog, maybe a little nicer. Keith’s not complaining, because as soon as they’re both through the door, Shiro makes a point of kissing him properly. It’s nice that there’s not any stray furniture to bump into while they embrace. Keith busies his hands unwrapping the scarf from Shiro’s neck, nudging helpfully this way and that as Shiro returns the favor, stripping Keith’s clothes off and letting them fall into an untidy pile.
“It’s so warm in here,” Shiro says. “Can’t have you overheating.” His hands are brisk against Keith’s skin, knowledgeable without being familiar. Well: without being familiar yet. That’s coming.
Keith almost expected a compliment along the lines of, these clothes look so much better on my floor, but this is similarly, hm, considerate. “I’m feeling delicate,” he lies. Keith has never felt more alive in all his life. “Why don’t you take me to bed.”
Shiro carries him. It’s a nice touch.
It’s an expansive bed, more luxurious by far than the futon Keith’s been sleeping on ever since he started at the bodega. This, more than the house or the clothes or his general demeanor, is what proves that Shiro has a lot of lived experience. He’s not just a vampire — he’s an adult.
“Glad to see you enjoying the thread count,” he tells Keith once he’s got him laid out on the sheets.
“I’m never leaving this bed,” Keith moans, wriggling in surprised pleasure. Having lived with roommates pretty much forever — even if his latest roommate is a sentient wolf who comes from the stars — Keith’s never really indulged in lying naked in a bed before. He likes the feeling of it now, the way the fabric is soft from repeated washings. Shiro’s clearly changed the sheets in recent memory, but he’s also laid atop them; they smell like him, like the impressions Keith’s has gotten and cherished every time he leaned out of the walk-up window and the wind shifted just right. He’s unmistakably in a person’s bed, in Shiro’s bed. It’s taken a long time to get here.
Shiro seems content to let him wallow in the sensation and lets up on the kissing so he can strip off his own clothes. He settles into the bed once he’s naked, and seems delighted to have the privilege of stroking Keith’s hair back from his face.
There aren’t any lights in the bedroom, but Keith can see Shiro’s expression just fine: proud and happy. It’s a look that Keith has put there.
“You can stay as long as you like,” Shiro says.
Keith extends an arm and hooks it around Shiro’s neck, pulling so he can feel the vampire’s body pressed flush against his own. Shiro runs cool, not cold, and he has a faint heartbeat. The only real signs of his otherworldliness are the dark metal of his arm (gleaming, not glowing; Keith wants to feel it around his throat) and the way his fangs show when Shiro breathes out through his mouth. His skin is full of scars, a whole life he’s lived before Keith got to know him.
“You invited me in,” he tells Shiro, serious in a way he doesn’t intend to return from. “Good luck getting rid of me.”
That’s all Shiro needs to hear to spring into action. Once he devotes himself to Keith in his bed: it’s just a series of impressions, a whirlwind of sensation. Shiro mouths at Keith’s throat, rubs his prosthetic hard against Keith’s nipples — the fingertips are ridged, it makes sense, Shiro needs friction so he doesn’t drop things, but the feeling is obscene — and encourages Keith to bite back. And Keith does bite, messy and inelegant, following every lead Shiro lays out for him and suggesting a few of his own. It’s exhilarating, getting into bed with someone who wants him: there’s no doubt in Keith’s mind about it, from the moment they really settle into kissing to the precipice where Shiro pops open his lube and makes Keith press his thighs tight together so Shiro can fuck between them.
“You’re perfect,” he snarls, and, “tighter!”
“Like this?” Keith twines his ankles and tucks his knees, narrowing the space where Shiro has shoved his cock. It’s not wet enough yet — Shiro’s working on that — but Shiro presses his unyielding metal hand low against Keith’s belly to pin him in place. It’s almost conversational: the nudge and battery of Shiro’s body against Keith’s back, the way his own cock twitches whenever Shiro lets his fingers roam down to polish the tip.
Keith keeps losing his breath and catching it again, laughing at the horrible lines Shiro mutters in his ears as they rut and grind together. Shiro’s body feels good and strong against his own, no matter how they move. And they keep moving.
He stays hard for ages. Keith is sore and sloppy and overstimulated by the time Shiro lets him uncross his ankles and lie back, panting and lax and shaking. Even then, Shiro keeps teasing him, kissing him soft and sweet while he kneads at Keith’s legs, his belly, his tender neck. From famine to feast. Keith has never been touch so much and he can feel himself imprinting on it. He’s going to want this forever.
“Aren’t you thirsty?” Keith wheezes. “Thought you were a vampire.”
“I’m on top of it, don’t worry,” Shiro tells him. “Here: I’ll get back on top of you.”
And they begin again. Time hasn’t meant much to Keith since he started working nights, and he left his shift early — well before dawn. It means even less now, in this dark, safe place, Shiro teaching Keith how to arch against him — how to give and also take. The pleasure is ceaseless, giddy, a study in contrasts between Keith’s hotter body and Shiro’s cool, relentless control.
After: the sublime is followed by the crude and mundane. Shiro laughs at how Keith’s come glows in the dark.
“It’s not funny,” Keith protests, wrung out and a little self-conscious about it. He’s never actually orgasmed with the lights off before, he didn’t realize how luminous he would be. “I was born this way!”
“It’s cute,” Shiro croons. “I adore it, really. It’s like making love to a supernova. You have delicious energy.”
“I taste good?”
Shiro kisses Keith and dabs a finger in the cooling semen for a cursory lick. “It’s an acquired taste,” he admits. “The energy, though — you radiate quintessence, Keith. It’s not the first thing I noticed about you, and it’s not why I hoped you’d come into my bed, but you’re spectacular. I feel like I’ve just swallowed a whole pint of double-red. That’s barely scratching the surface.”
There’s — another avenue for exploration. Keith spreads his legs invitingly and drops back onto the rumpled pillows, lifting his chin so his neck is on display. He’s pretty sure he’s got a hickey or two; Shiro isn’t shy with his teeth, though he hasn’t broken the skin. Yet.
“I’m O-negative,” Keith says, hopefully. Everything with Shiro feels good — he’s sure this will, too.
Shiro laughs and laughs and climbs back atop him to kiss Keith before any hurt feelings have a chance to form. He’s patient in bed, too, Keith has learned: patient and single-minded.
“There’s plenty of time,” Shiro says. “We don’t have to do everything just yet.”
“But you will?”
“Keith,” Shiro says, reassuring. Not just reassuring: enthusiastic. “Absolutely, we will.”
Keith officially moves out of the Bodega of Marmora right around the winter equinox. There’s no significance to the date, not even that it’s the longest night of the year. The stars align, for lack of a better term, and Shiro walks through the main entrance and straight towards the stairs to the living quarters without even flinching at the wards.
He never needed an invitation to walk through the doorway.
Keith is already in love with Shiro — he wouldn’t be moving in with him otherwise — but the certainty with which Shiro approaches the task of collecting Keith’s belongings is another nail in the proverbial coffin. (Shiro does not sleep in a coffin, despite what Kosmo’s social media following seems to think. Shiro’s place is even less mid century modern than it was when Keith first started staying over, mostly because Keith’s the sort of person who forgets he owns a sweater unless he’s got one draped over a chair in every room. Also: all of those ridiculous shot glasses.)
Right now, it’s high noon. The sun is sharp and clear and strong, brought into immense focus by the way the temperature is dropping. There’s been an uptick in the bodega’s sales of instant soup cups and in the little widgets some people use to increase the efficiency of their heating systems.
Kosmo is on duty in the shop while Keith and Shiro work upstairs, and he keeps filtering through the mirror in the common area to check their progress.
“We’re making good time,” Shiro says, performing one last sweep of the apartment that is now solely Kosmo’s — well, Kosmo and those elusive space mites. “Not that we’re on a tight schedule. I can move about in daylight just fine.”
“I’m impressed,” Keith answers, but it’s an absent response. He’s in the middle of clearing out the drain return in the bathtub, since Kosmo lacks the thumbs necessary to operate a screwdriver. There’s no amount of quintessence that can stand up to the combination of Kosmo’s fur and Keith’s long hair. “You know, for a being who is insubstantial half the time, Kosmo sure leaves his mark on the drains around here.”
“No, I don’t know,” Shiro says. “One of the perks of living as long as I have is paying someone else to worry about plumbing for me.”
“One day you’ll have an emergency and the all-hours plumber won’t answer their helpline,” Keith chides. He cleans up the unspeakable mess and runs the taps for a minute to test the drain. “There we go. And when that happens, Shiro, I’ll save you.”
“You’ll really be saving yourself,” Shiro counters. He sidles into the bathroom and winds his moonlit arm around Keith’s sweaty waist, tucking his fingers under the low barrier of Keith's waistband. He says it’s because he likes to feel Keith’s pulse rushing through the veins in his belly, at his groin, but Keith wonders if it has something more to do with the way Shiro likes to make Keith quiver. He’s come a long way with accepting his Galra tendencies — the quintessence sensitivity has uses outside of the customer service field, thank the stars above — but Shiro’s particular hobby consists of using his whole body to make Keith so excited that his skin starts to splotch purple, his eyes needle yellow. It’s like a blush. Keith prefers to have a little privacy when it happens, in part because he becomes sensitive to light when his body adapts to life in the dark. Shiro’s a talented, dedicated hobbyist: he says chasing the color as it creeps across Keith’s body is better than stargazing, and Shiro loves the stars.
“We’ll save each other,” Keith decides. “That’s everything. Can you think of anything you want from downstairs before heading home?”
Shiro laughs at that and bends his head a bit, just enough that he can nip teasingly at Keith’s neck. A preview of prime time. He hasn’t left a mark in a while, and now that Keith’s really moving in: tonight’s the night for the actual bite. “No thanks,” he says. “I’ve got everything I need right here.”