Michael Clifford, the town witch and most eligible bachelor, announces that he'll only date the person who manages to get the key from around his cat's neck. Luke Hemmings, the awkward local photographer, keeps accidentally running into the cat, even though he knows he has no chance with Michael.
Luke enters the diner with a pep in his step, feeling better than he has in a long time. It’s been a great day, the kind that can only be ruined by a genuine catastrophe, and the odds of that occurring between dinner with Ashton and going to bed tonight are slim. He had a shoot earlier with a new set of parents and their adorable little girl, and although the baby spent a lot of time crying, shoots with infants are his favorite. The pictures are going to turn out amazing, and he can’t wait to edit and print them. He’s been sleeping a lot better this week than the past few months since Michael gave him a sleeping potion, and his favorite coffee shop still had a chocolate chip muffin in stock when he stopped by earlier. By the time he slides into the vinyl booth and grins at Ashton, he’s genuinely considering asking Michael out when he stops by his shop later, because it’s the kind of day where everything seems to be going right.
“Did you hear the news?” Ashton asks, pushing a drink towards him and leaning forward discreetly. Luke usually gets the same soda and food order each week, so Ashton always orders for him if he arrives first.
“What news?” Luke asks, taking a sip and relishing in the explosion of carbonation on his tongue. This diner has bendy straws, which is another delightful bonus.
“Michael isn’t accepting suitors anymore. He threatened to hex anyone who asks.”
Luke’s heart sinks.
“Really?” he asks. Ashton gives him a sympathetic smile and nods.
“He seems pretty serious. Apparently he’s already followed through.”
Luke’s heart sinks even lower. He pushes his drink away, carbonation and bendy straws losing all of their luster with one simple piece of information.
“I’m sorry, Luke. I know you liked him.”
“Yeah, me and everyone else,” he says, running his finger through the condensation left on the table from the path of his glass.
Ever since he hit an appropriate age, Michael has been the most eligible bachelor in the area. He’s a witch, which is already rare, but he’s extremely powerful on top of that. He has blonde hair with dark scruff around his face and black tattoos swirling in intricate patterns around his arms and legs, but his most striking physical feature is by far his enchanting green eyes. Luke could happily spend hours trying to find the words to describe their beauty, but Michael has infinite positive qualities outside of his captivating looks. More than his physical features, Luke loves his heart. He has a wicked sense of humor and knows how to wield sarcasm, but he never takes jokes too far. He won’t put up with any shit, but he’s also known for giving away small charms or doing simple spells for free if he overhears someone complain or learns about problems through the grapevine.
His words get mushy when he’s excited, he blasts rock or EDM music while he makes his potions, and he always makes Luke double-check the price total of his order at the register because he doesn’t trust himself to do simple math right. Luke has had a crush on him since the first moment he stepped through the door of his shop.
Michael has been dealing with pushy, ambitious suitors for years. Supposedly, one woman went so far as to obtain an illegal love potion from another witch and try to use it on him. Luke can’t fault him for throwing in the towel, he just wishes he had waited one more day so Luke could shoot his shot.
Maybe this is better than getting rejected to his face, even if it doesn’t feel like it right now.
“Hey, there’s still hope!” Ashton says. He reaches forward and takes Luke’s hand across the table, giving it a little shake. “He gave his cat a key to the shop and said that whoever gets the key also gets his heart. So you still have a chance!”
Luke furrows his brow.
“That poor cat,” he says, thinking of the beautiful black cat that he sometimes sees lounging around Michael’s shop, although he always ducks away before Michael comes to the front to help him. “Everyone is going to be hunting him.”
“Yeah, but think about what will happen if you’re the one who catches it!” Ashton says with a bright smile.
“I don’t think I’m the type of person he wants to catch his cat.”
“Come on, Luke. He’d be lucky to have you,” Ashton says gently. Luke shakes his head.
“I don’t want to talk about it anymore,” he says. “How was your day? How was work?”
Ashton sighs, but dutifully switches subjects. Luke does his best to listen and not sink into his head while he picks at his meal. He even lets Ashton order him dessert, wanting a slice of cake to drown his feelings in before he has to muster up a smile for Michael in his shop.
He might not be able to ask him on a date, but he still needs to refill his sleeping potion.
“Chin up, Luke,” Ashton says after he pays their bill. “You’re a cat -ch.”
Luke rolls his eyes, but the pun prompts an involuntary smile. He can always count on Ashton to do his best to cheer him up, and he tries to carry that with him as he makes his way down Main Street.
Michael’s shop always looks tantalizing and enchanting, but especially now, with the sun dipping low in the sky and everything painted golden with a hint of pink. The shop itself is a red brick place on the corner attached to a boutique next door, with a dark purple awning and an old, ornate wooden sign hanging above that reads Clifford Magic in big, swirling letters, with Spells, Charms, and Potions of All Kinds underneath. The windows have the same thing printed on them in purple, and the displays house various plants, vials, and cryptic-looking ingredients.
Luke usually walks right in, but today he hesitates by the door, reading the notice posted there on regular old printer paper.
It’s exactly as Ashton said. Michael Clifford has forcibly removed himself from the market to everyone except the person who catches his cat.
A small movement catches the corner of his eye in the window. The cat in question freezes from his spot amongst the items in the display, one foot raised. His clear green eyes stare at Luke unwaveringly.
Luke has always thought that the cat’s eyes look remarkably similar to Michael’s. He hasn’t seen the two next to each other to compare, and it’s not uncommon for witches and their familiars to share more attributes than just their particular brand of magic, but it strikes Luke every time he sees the cat.
The animal shifts, causing the sunlight to glint off the gold key attached to his collar. Luke doesn’t get a good look at it before the cat leaps away, disappearing deeper into the shop.
Luke pulls the door open, bell tinkling above him to signal his arrival into the crowded space. The inside of the shop is atmospherically dim, with glowing objects stacked on shelves and jars forming pyramids on tables. There’s always at least one old, yellow light bulb burnt out somewhere in the store, and Luke can never place the sweet, vaguely dusty smell that permeates through the air.
He makes his way to the table where Michael stocks sleeping potions and looks for the one Michael suggested for him last time, but in a bigger size. They come in different strengths and help in different ways depending on if the taker has nightmares, insomnia, or if environmental factors like noise are keeping them up, but Luke knows his prescription from last time. He finds the one for insomnia at the strength he needs and picks up the thin vial. It’s small enough to easily fit in his hand and sealed at the top, blue liquid swirling hypnotically inside. All he needs is a few drops in his tea each night for restful sleep.
“Hey Luke,” a voice says right by his ear. He jumps and drops the vial, fumbling and flailing and generally making a fool of himself until he finally manages to catch it.
“Stop doing that, you asshole,” he whines while Michael cackles. His dark hoodie makes his pale skin and light hair stand out even more in the dim shop, although it could be the faint shimmer of magic on his skin making him seem luminous instead. His laugh is wild and uninhibited, and Luke flushes at the sound, either from embarrassment or pleasure at causing it.
He doesn’t mind when Michael laughs at him. He likes being the source of his happiness.
“You’re so easy to sneak up on,” Michael laughs.
“I could’ve dropped this and broken it,” he says, brandishing the vial. Michael shrugs.
“I wouldn’t have made you pay for it, don’t worry. Did it work last week?”
“Yeah, thanks. This is the most rested I’ve felt in months.”
“Good,” Michael grins. Luke automatically mirrors it, then spends a beat too long smiling at Michael without saying anything.
“Can I help you find anything else?” Michael asks, just as the silence starts to roar in Luke’s ears.
“Uh, nope! That’s it today!”
“Cool, I can ring you up, then.” Luke follows Michael to the register and hands over the vial, then his credit card. He cranes his head to try and catch a glimpse of the cat while Michael completes the transaction, but he seems to have disappeared.
That’s probably a good thing. If Luke were him, he’d lay low, too.
“Here you go. Have a good day, Luke.”
“Thanks, you too,” he says, taking the sleeping potion and his receipt. He gives Michael a smile, but it fades as soon as he leaves the store.
He hopes the sleeping potion works against a broken heart. He doesn’t want to be up all night thinking about how he even has less of a chance with Michael now than he ever did before.
Luke doesn’t catch a glimpse of the cat for another three weeks, although he sees evidence of him everywhere. He trips over traps set up at various points in the city, and Michael had to make an announcement after the first day that anyone who brings physical harm to the cat will get hexxed. Still, evidence of people’s efforts to capture him litter the town. According to Ashton, Michael incinerated a few traps that he deemed too close to the shop.
When Luke does run into the cat again, it’s when he least expects it. He packs one of his cameras and a sketch book into his bag, then sets off for the woodsy area behind the studio. On occasion he’ll take shots of clients back there, but they mostly stick to the garden where there’s natural light for portraits, so Luke has started thinking of the forest as his own special place. There’s a clear area near the stream that’s the perfect size for him to sprawl out, and Luke likes to pretend he’s a wildlife photographer or that he can draw and head there to relax.
Except this time, there’s already someone else there. Luke freezes at the sight of the cat caught in a crouch, key conspicuously hanging from his collar, eyes fixed unwaveringly on Luke.
For an eternity, neither of them move.
“Sorry,” Luke says finally, voice abrasive in the otherwise quiet space. “I didn’t know you’d be here. I’ve never seen anyone else here, actually.”
The cat blinks at him.
“Can I sit?” he asks, gesturing to his usual patch of grass. The cat doesn’t say anything, because he’s a cat.
“I usually come here to clear my head and relax, so I won’t bother you, don’t worry. It’s a nice spot, right? Nice and quiet.” He carefully lowers himself to sitting, then snorts.
“Sorry, it’s usually quiet. I mean, when I’m not talking. I ramble when I’m nervous.”
The cat blinks at him again, still crouched over his paws like he’s ready to spring up at any moment. Luke rubs a hand over his face and groans.
“I’m monologuing to a cat.”
He glances at the cat, realizes how that came across, and throws out a placating arm. The cat flinches.
“I mean, no offense,” he cringes. “I know you’re a magical cat, so maybe you can understand me, in which case this is even more embarrassing, and I’m going to stop now and let you get back to whatever you were doing, although I really hope it wasn’t hunting because I like all of the wildlife here and I don’t want you disrupting the ecosystem.”
He takes a deep breath, cheeks stinging with embarrassment even though the cat is the only one here to witness his awkwardness.
“Please don’t tell Michael about this,” he says. “If you two have some sort of magic communication thingy, he doesn’t need to know how much of a disaster I am outside his shop, too.”
The cat tilts his head, bright green eyes questioning. Luke’s not sure what the answer is supposed to be, so he opens his bag and pulls out his sketchbook. Maybe he can use this opportunity to practice his live animal sketches.
When he finally finds a pencil and looks up again, the cat is gone.
Luke sees the cat more frequently after that. He doesn’t see him when he stops by the shop to pick up his potion and awkwardly exchanges a few words with Michael before running, but he swears he catches glimpses of him from the corner of his eye just about everywhere else. He sees more and more evidence of people trying to catch the cat as well, although no one has been successful.
Luke thinks the cat is far too intelligent to fall for any of the primitive traps he’s seen. He also can’t imagine Michael actually being willing to marry anyone who hurts his familiar. If someone truly loved Michael and was willing to put in the work he deserves, they wouldn’t try to catch the cat, they’d befriend it. Sure, it would take a lot longer, but Luke thinks it’d be better for everyone.
Because of that, sometimes Luke trips the traps he sees. He’s not sure if that’s technically allowed, but he hates the idea of the poor cat making a mistake one day and getting hurt because of it. There’s no formal competition, so it’s not like a referee is going to jump out of the shadows, give him a foul, and shame him in front of the whole town. He just has to be sure he doesn’t get caught. He doesn’t want any of these hunters to turn their traps against him in revenge.
This trap snaps shut with more force than he anticipated, and he yelps in surprise. He’s glad that no one is here to witness it, but his hopes of getting away discretely are dashed when he turns around to find the cat staring at him.
“Uh,” he says intelligently.
“Meow,” says the cat.
“Don’t tell anyone,” he begs. He and the cat seem to be accumulating secrets between them at an alarming rate.
“Meow,” the cat repeats.
“I just don’t want you to get hurt! Some of these traps are really dangerous. I know you’re smart enough to avoid them, but we all have our off days.”
The cat meows again, taking one step toward him. Before he can come any closer, he whips his head to the side, every nerve on alert, then bounds off in the opposite direction. Luke doesn’t stick around to see who or what spooked him. He takes that as his cue to leave and speedwalks back to Main Street.
Luke sees the cat more often than he sees Michael, it seems. The cat shows up at Luke’s spot in the forest more frequently, inching slightly closer each time while Luke rambles about the most recent batch of senior portraits he’s taken, a new song he’s fallen in love with, or Ashton’s latest attempts to push him out of his comfort zone. The cat always listens intently, gazing at him with his chin resting on his paws. Sometimes he doesn’t talk and they coexist in silence instead. Luke’s sketchbook fills with little doodles of the cat in various poses surrounded by leaves. Most of the other pages include continuously improving sketches of Michael.
“What do you think?” Luke asks, showing the cat a page of his cat sketches. The cat cocks his head and takes a few curious steps forward
“Mrow,” he says.
“I’ll take that as a shining endorsement,” Luke laughs. “Maybe I’ll bring my colored pencils next time and try to figure out how to color your eyes. You and Michael have really pretty eyes, did you know that?”
The cat meows again, sitting up tall and preening. He’s a truly stunning creature, with his smooth black coat and bright eyes. Luke knows that his sketches will never perfectly capture him, but he’s enjoying the challenge.
“Michael?” someone calls nearby, disturbing the serenity of the forest. Luke glances at the cat quickly, but he doesn’t scamper away like Luke expects him to. Instead, he meows, and a moment later someone stumbles into the clearing.
“Oh,” the man says, straightening. Luke recognizes his curly black hair from Michael’s shop, which he sometimes covers if Michael is unavailable. What makes things stranger is that the cat, who Luke has ever seen be friendly with a human in his entire life, immediately trots over to him and twines himself around the man’s legs, purring loud enough for Luke to hear.
“Hello?” he asks, brow furrowed. The man–Luke is pretty sure his name is Calum–picks up the cat, who continues to purr and rub the top of his head against Calum’s chin.
“Sorry for barging in,” Calum says, trying to twist away so he can speak without getting a mouthful of fur. “I was just looking for Michael. I need his help in the store.”
“And you thought he’d be in the woods behind my studio?” Luke asks, tilting his head, eyebrows knitting together.
“Well, yeah,” Calum says, like it’s obvious. He offers no further explanation.
After a beat of them staring at each other, the cat meows.
“I thought he doesn’t like people.” Luke gestures to the cat, who has managed to wriggle out of Calum’s hold and drape himself around his shoulders. From the grimace on Calum’s face, his claws are digging in.
“He knows me,” Calum sighs. “I’ve known him as long as I’ve known Michael, and he knows I’m not after the key.”
“Why not?” Luke asks. Calum laughs.
“Mate, Michael’s basically my brother. The last thing I want is to marry him.”
“Meow,” the cat says definitively.
“Oh,” Luke says, feeling a blush heat his cheeks. He forgot that just because he and half the town are in love with Michael doesn’t mean everyone is. That’s good; people need friends and family. Maybe once Michael gets engaged, Luke can get over his obnoxious crush and be his friend, even if he has to watch someone else be his partner.
“Do you think… is the cat going to pick someone good?” Luke asks. Calum frowns. “I know he’s super smart and Michael obviously trusts him, but there’s a lot of people after that key. Michael won’t end up with an asshole, right?”
“‘Someone good’ meaning someone like you?”
This is the most mortifying conversation Luke has ever been involved in.
“Of course not,” he says, hunching his shoulders up to his ears. “Meaning… someone better. Someone who Michael would want.”
Calum’s expression softens. From his shoulder, the cat stares at Luke steadily. It makes the hair on his arms stand on end.
“He knows exactly what Michael wants in a partner,” Calum reassures him. “Whoever gets that key is going to be who Michael would’ve chosen for himself.”
“Meow,” says the cat.
“Okay,” Luke says hesitantly. “That’s good.”
Calum reaches up and scratches the top of the cat's head.
“Well, we need to get back to the shop,” Calum says. “See you around, Luke.”
The cat twists to keep eye contact with Luke until they’re swallowed by the trees. He can hear Calum berate him for using his claws for a few seconds until the forest descends to a lonely silence again.
Luke, predictably, jumps out of his skin at the voice, especially with it so close to his ear. Michael, predictably, laughs.
“Oh my gosh,” Luke moans, covering his face with his hands to avoid eye contact with everyone else in the coffee shop who saw him get scared shitless.
“Is this seat taken?” Michael asks. Luke peaks through his fingers to see him gesture at the other chair at his table and shakes his head. Michael kicks the chair out and plops into it, setting his coffee cup down in front of him.
“You’ve got to stop doing that,” Luke whines in an attempt to distract his racing thoughts from the fact that Michael chose to sit across from him even though there are plenty of open tables around them. “What if I had been holding my coffee and spilt it all over?”
“Easy, I wouldn’t have done it then,” Michael says. “I never sneak up on you if I think it could end badly.” He takes a sip of his coffee, winces at the temperature, and gestures to Luke’s open laptop.
“Editing some pictures?”
“Yeah. Just a passion project, not an official shoot.” He tilts the laptop to show him. They’re all shots from his place in the forest, a continuous effort for him to capture some of the beauty and wonder he finds there every day. He lets Michael click through them, watching carefully for every smile and blushing at every compliment.
He doesn’t remember the cat pictures until Michael lands on the first one and pauses. The cat had joined him about halfway through the shoot, creeping closer to see what Luke captured and meow approvingly every time Luke showed him the camera screen. He’s gotten more comfortable being near Luke, even playing with a fern that Luke had dangled around like a string for him to chase. When he got bored of Luke’s photography and found a patch of sun to rest in instead, Luke couldn’t resist taking a few shots, moving painfully slow in an attempt to keep quiet and let him sleep.
“Sorry,” Luke says, wondering if he should’ve asked Michael’s permission before taking the photos. “He visits me in the forest behind my studio sometimes, and he’s such a pretty cat. I couldn't resist.”
“It’s fine,” Michael says, leaning towards the computer. “I just didn’t realize you took them.”
“Well, I haven’t seen you since I did.”
“Right,” Michael says, glancing at Luke and smiling privately. “These are really good, Luke.”
“They’re my favorite in the batch,” he confesses. “I like the way the sun shows all of the different colors in his coat underneath the black. I wish I could’ve gotten a picture of his eyes, though. You both have such beautiful eyes.”
“We both do?” Michael grins. Luke’s heart thumps loudly in his chest.
“Yeah,” he says, choosing honesty over cowardice. “They’re a really beautiful seafoam green. I’ve always thought your cat has the same color, but I’ve never seen you next to each other to compare, so maybe I’m wrong.”
“No, you’re right,” Michael says. “You’re the first person to notice that.”
“Really?” Luke asks. “But you have so many admirers. Someone else has to have caught on.”
“Admirers. Sure. Except none of them seem to be interested in me as a human being with my own thoughts and feelings. That’s why I’m doing the whole key thing. It really showed me how many people were talking to me because they enjoyed my company and how many people just liked the idea of getting with a witch. It turns out that most of my conversations before this were unwanted advances and uncomfortable come-ons.”
He picks idly at the paper sleeve around his cup, frown etched into his face. Luke wants to find a way to wipe it away, but he’s worried that it goes deeper than he can see.
“Those people have no clue what they’re doing,” Luke says, resisting the urge to reach out and put a comforting hand on Michael’s arm literally seconds after he talked about unwanted advances. “If it makes you feel better, I like you as a person.”
“I know,” Michael smiles. “That’s why I’m sitting here with you instead of sulking in my shop alone. As much as I like you and you like me, I realized we haven’t talked much outside of the shop.”
“Oh,” Luke says, trying not to turn into a puddle of mush at the I like you . “What do you want to talk about?”
Michael shrugs with a small, lopsided smile.
“I didn’t think this far ahead.”
His awkwardness feels familiar and endearing. Luke likes how it softens him and puts them on a more even footing.
“Well, let’s start easy. What do you like to do? Besides magic, of course.”
Michael grins and begins talking, easily capturing all of Luke’s attention. His laptop goes to sleep unnoticed, Luke too busy snorting at Michael’s jokes and enjoying the attention when it’s his turn to speak. Michael is fun to talk to, and he’s interesting. Luke could spend weeks listening to him explain magic, but he could also spend days hearing him talk about his favorite video games, concerts he’s been to, and adventures with Calum. He's a good listener, too, asking about Luke’s family and hobbies with just as much attentiveness as Luke gave him.
The coffee shop staff ask them to leave five minutes after closing. Michael looks just as startled as Luke feels to find that hours have passed.
“You didn’t even drink your coffee,” Luke says as he shoves his laptop into his bag. Michael picks up the cup, no doubt cold and disgusting by now, and throws it directly into the trash.
“It’s fine,” he says. “Maybe I just got it so I’d have an excuse to talk to you.”
“Really?” Luke asks, following him onto the street.
“Maybe,” Michael says, giving him a cheeky grin. “You’ll have to see if I show up tomorrow.”
“What if I have a shoot tomorrow?” Luke asks.
“Yeah. But I’ll probably be here after.”
“Then I’ll probably stop by,” Michael says. Luke smiles and adjusts his grip on his bag.
“See you later, Luke.”
Michael turns and heads towards his shop and apartment. Luke forces himself to turn towards his own home, but he can’t force the smile off his face.
Luke and Michael continue meeting at the coffee shop over the next few weeks, and on the days when Luke doesn’t see him, he sees the cat. Various traps still lie in wait around town, but the competition has become so normalized that Luke barely notices them anymore. Michael said that he’s getting bothered less due to people losing interest, and the cat seems happier and more enthusiastic whenever Luke sees him.
The one downside to the waning competition is that Luke’s crush still stubbornly hangs on, as if fewer people liking Michael somehow increases the chances of Michael liking him. It doesn’t help that their coffee conversations feel like dates, nor that the cat has taken to affectionately headbutting Luke in greeting before scampering to a safe distance away.
Luke is going crazy. He has heart palpitations multiple times a day, which can’t be healthy. He keeps sketching Michael’s face when he goes to his spot in the forest, and the fact that he can do it so well from memory is a red flag.
He tosses the sketchbook to the side and tips backwards onto the grass with a groan, scrubbing his hands over his face. The cat meows in what he assumes is a question, and he turns his head to look at him sideways.
“This is your fault, you know,” he says mildly. The cat huffs, indignant. “Don’t give me that look. I’m right.”
“Meow!” the cat says, stalking forward. The sun manages to worm its way through the trees and glint mockingly off the key still around his neck. Luke turns back to the tree branches above him.
“I’m supposed to be over this by now!” he moans. “With Michael unavailable, I’m supposed to get over this silly crush, but now that he keeps talking to me and you keep hanging out with me here, it’s not going away! If anything, it’s getting worse! I know he’s not going to fall for me, of all people. I don’t need this false hope.”
He throws an arm over his eyes, just to be dramatic.
“I’m glad no one else has gotten the key yet,” he confesses. “I’m glad you’re waiting for someone who’s right for him. He deserves the right person. I just wish I wasn’t still holding on to the hope that it could be me.”
He exhales and listens to the wind stir the leaves above him. The cat stays unusually quiet, and he wonders if he scared him away with his pathetic pining. Maybe if the cat hates him, he can finally get it into his head that he and Michael won’t end up together.
Four paws land squarely on his stomach, making him jolt.
“Meow,” the cat says forcefully, peering at him.
“Huh?” he asks, pushing himself onto his elbows. The cat stays put, warm on his gut.
“Me-ow,” he repeats, green eyes boring into him. Goosebumps erupt on his arms, like there’s magic crackling in the air. The cat pushes himself up and sits tall, tilting his chin and giving Luke a side-eye. Luke’s breath catches in his throat.
“Are you… what are you doing?”
The cat keeps staring at him, the key hanging from his collar.
“Okay, wait. Hang on.”
Luke sits up, dislodging the cat from his spot with a disgruntled mrow . The cat rubs his head against Luke’s arm, and he flinches away from the unfamiliar sensation.
“Meow,” the cat says, tilting his chin to reveal the key again.
“Are you offering me the key?” Luke asks. The cat side-eyes him again hard, then meows once. Luke blinks.
“Is this serious? Are you going to claw my face off once I reach for it?”
The cat huffs and rubs against his arm again. Luke tentatively reaches up and runs his fingers through the fur at the top of his head, right between his ears. He tries it again, scratching a bit, and the cat leans into it and purrs.
“Okay,” Luke says, more to himself than to the cat. “Okay. This is weird. I wasn’t expecting this. I’m petting the cat. Do you let all the boys do this?”
The cat meows sharply, then presses against his hand and resumes purring with even more pointed enthusiasm. Luke gets the impression that he’s losing patience.
He tries to picture himself untying the key, then using it to let himself into Michael’s shop to show him.
He could do it. The cat is offering, and Luke would love to date Michael. He’d try his best to make him happy, and Michael makes him happy, too, if the past few weeks of the best coffee conversations he’s ever had are any indication.
He could do it, but…
“I don’t want him to be disappointed,” he says, already envisioning Michael’s polite sadness when Luke is the one to present the key. “I know he trusts you, and you obviously like me, and he at least likes me as a friend, but what if he doesn’t like me like that?”
The cat stares at him with those big, sympathetic eyes. He rubs against Luke’s side, then climbs onto his lap and settles in to resume purring.
“You’re a stubborn little guy, aren’t you,” Luke says with a smile, running a hand along the cat’s back. The cat shifts so the key is still easily visible, and Luke continues petting him while he lets his mind wander.
If Ashton were here, he’d tell Luke that Michael would be lucky to get him and that the cat obviously has great taste. He’s always trying to boost Luke’s confidence with ridiculous compliments like that, but he rarely has someone like Michael’s cat backing him up. Luke knows that all it took was kindness and patience, but he still can’t believe he managed to charm the cat so thoroughly. It’s almost as mind-boggling as the fact that Michael seems to find Luke to be great company outside of shop hours. He even invited him to a concert with him in the next town over in a couple of weeks, and Luke is trying to muster up the courage to bring him here, to his private sanctuary.
Michael and the cat both have been the ones to seek him out. They could’ve easily chosen a different spot in the forest or chair at the coffee shop, but they want to spend time with Luke. Maybe Michael would be okay with Luke as a partner.
If he isn’t, Luke can let him go. Michael won’t be held to an agreement he doesn't want, just like he won’t hold Luke if he needs to leave, too.
“Well…” he considers. The cat cracks one eye open to watch him. “I mean, what’s the worst that can happen? Even if he says no, at least this way I’ll have tried.”
He stares at the golden key, unnaturally shiny and beautiful in the dappled sunlight, and reaches for it. The moment his fingers brush it, the crackle of magic fills the air, wind whipping around them, the force of it pushing him flat on his back with an oof . A heavy weight falls on his lap, winding him again, and when Luke blinks to clear his vision he finds Michael peering back at him.
“You,” Michael says, jabbing a finger at Luke’s chest from where he straddles his thighs, “are too fucking self-deprecating.”
“What?” Luke asks, still grappling with the fact that Michael is sitting on him and the cat is nowhere to be seen.
“You think I wouldn’t want you?” Michael demands, poking him again. “You’re funny, dorky, absolutely adorable, and when we’re together I feel more comfortable than I am around just about anyone else. You never tried to take the key until it was offered, and you were always nice to me as a cat even though i wouldn’t let you close. Why would I give my heart to anyone else?”
Luke gapes. His thoughts feel like they’re wading through molasses in an attempt to process everything being thrown at him.
“You’re the cat?” he asks, because it’s the easiest part of that speech to respond to.
“Yeah,” Michael says with a toothy grin. “My whole family are shapeshifters, but only a few people know. Don't tell anyone.”
“Why didn’t you transform and tell me instead of letting me freak out about not being who you wanted?” Luke asks, face heating.
“Because I wanted you to go for what you want, for once,” Michael says. “And I wanted you to choose me because you want to, not because you felt pressured by me watching.”
“I wouldn’t do that,” Luke lies, even though he once did the exact same thing when asked out in high school. Michael levels him with a look.
“I do like you, though,” Luke amends. “Which you know because of the embarrassing things I said when you were a cat. I’m so sorry about that.”
“Don’t be,” Michael says. “It was cute. Seriously, you’re so fucking cute, Luke.”
“Stop,” Luke groans, covering his face, which he’s certain is tomato-red.
“Hey, I mean it,” Michael says, gently prying his hands away. “I really like you, Luke. I hope you’ll let me compliment you more now that we’re dating.”
“We are?” Luke asks, a light, undefinable feeling blooming in his chest.
“If you want,” Michael says, letting go of his wrists and drawing his hands back to himself. “You got the key. You haven’t told me to stop sitting on you yet. Unless you’re changing your mind?”
“No! No, I want to,” Luke says quickly. Michael grins.
“Good. That’s settled, then.”
“There’s something else I’ve been wanting, too,” Luke says, suddenly emboldened by the glimmer in Michael’s eyes and the intoxicating knowledge that his affections are returned.
“Yeah?” Michael asks, entire face lit up. “What is it?”
Luke pushes himself onto his elbows and swallows, mustering up as much courage as he can.
“A kiss?” he asks, heart thundering in his chest.
Michael’s grin grows, which Luke didn’t think was possible. He reaches forward to cup Luke’s jaw in his hands, sending a pleasant tingle of warmth through his nerves.
“You should always ask for the things you want,” Michael says. “So far I’ve liked all of your ideas.”
He closes the gap and kisses Luke sweetly. Everything inside of Luke settles to a gentle hum, and he knows in his heart that this is what magic feels like.