As Thade rubbed down the steam wand after preparing the drink order he was currently working on, Del came up from behind and tapped his back. “Counter,” he mumbled.
“Hm?” He was in the middle of serving. He couldn’t take the register just yet. “I’m —” He looked as he replied, and immediately stopped talking.
A group of guys was waiting for someone to take their order, but one of them stood out. When Thade first saw him come into the coffee shop, it was because of the scrolling tattoo that extended from the edge of his lip to just under his chin, a feature of Maori culture. Over time, though, Thade noticed other things. How bright his smile was, how energetically he spoke - and a few weeks ago, how he came in holding hands with a guy.
That should have quashed the excitement he felt whenever the customer came in, but it didn’t. Instead, he started to feel bold. This guy was seeing someone, and he was gay — he was safe enough to practice flirting with. This guy was always flirting with everything that moved in the shop, it seemed like. Thade could try a line, get shot down, and it would be fine. Pain from rejection would be a good teacher. Maybe he could finally get the courage to flirt with real prospects in other places.
Thade took a breath. “Okay. Can you…?”
Del took the coffee from his hands, cool as ever. “On it.”
“Thanks.” He wipes his hands over his apron, threw on his customer service smile, and went to the register. “Hi!” he chirped. “What can I get started for you all?”
The target of his practice affections broke forward. “Hey,” he said in his accented voice, “can I get two medium Americanos, a large mocha, and a flat white with caramel?”
“Sure!” Thade tried to not think too hard about the way ‘caramel’ played on the guy’s tongue as he punched the order in. “Anything else?”
“You got any day old stuff?” He arched one eyebrow and smirked hopefully, focusing his warm brown eyes on Thade.
Thade chuckled, in part to get his nerves to settle. It wasn’t working very well. “Sorry, no.” *Oh crap*, he realized. *Order’s coming to an end. I shoulda said it first thing! I —*
“Eh,” the man shrugged. “I’ll take a muffin anyway. Whatcha got?”
*Yes!* “We have blueberry and chocolate.”
“Oh, chocolate, easy.”
Thade could have guessed. It was a little sad how much he knew about this guy’s order. Of the four drinks, Thade knew the flat white was the one he would be drinking. Whenever he came in after lunch, he would most likely either order a grilled cheese or a lemon pound cake, depending on how much he was complaining about classes with his friends. If it was late at night, Thade would have one of the rare chances to see him alone, and it would be for a black coffee, nothing else, to help him get through whatever project he was working on.
All learned for a guy who had a boyfriend. *I am a particular kind of sad,* Thade thought as he went to get the muffin.
But that was just it. He couldn’t keep pinning his hopes on long shots and using that as an excuse for why he wasn’t coming out. If he could just get rejected, he’d know what that was like, and the rest of his burgeoning dating life wouldn’t feel so terrifying. *Just do it, just do it, just do it…* “Hey,” he said, trying to keep his voice from cracking, as he placed the muffin in a bakery bag, “um, I really like your moko.”
This customer was always attentive, but the way his eyes snapped back onto Thade caused his heart to skip. “Yeah?” He grinned broadly. “Thanks!”
“Um —absolutely.” This was not a rejection. The guy seemed outright excited. *Duh. I haven’t actually said anything to reject yet, stupid.* Thade smiled back as he handed him the muffin.
“Not many people in the States actually know what this is.” The customer took the muffin and handed Thade his card, maintaining strong eye contact.
“Really?” Thade could believe it. He didn’t know until he researched it for this exact moment. “That’s kind of sad.”
“Agreed.” He set his hands on the counter and leaned forward, still grinning. “You work here a lot, don’t you,” he looked down at his name tag, “Thade?”
“Ah, yeah.” Thade chuckled, and glanced at the credit card he’d just swiped. “Cassian. That’s a really cool name.”
“Thank you.” Cassian’s grin only seemed to be getting wider. If this was rejection, then it was the most fun Thade had ever had at failing something. “You go to school here?”
“Oh, I did. I will. I’m going to again.” Thade laughed, though he felt his composure starting to crumble. “I’m taking the semester off to work. Paying my own tuition, so I’m trying to build up some funds so it won’t be as stressful later.”
“Fair on you. No scholarships?”
“Oh, yeah, I have scholarships! But y’know. College is expensive. I don’t wanna get drained.” Thade needed to make a more decisive move. He couldn’t be turned down if he never offered anything. But talking to Cassian felt so easy.
“I hear that!” Cassian laughed as he tugged on his earlobe. “A night out’s enough to knock you flat on your ass.”
“Yeah!” Thade laughed, even though he had no idea what the cost of ‘a night out’ would come to. “Absolutely.” He cleared his throat. “Um, so—”
“Thade.” He jumped turned his head as Adam’s voice broke through the reverie building between Thade and Cassian. “Line?” The assistant manager pointed.
His cheeks flushing, Thade noted the small but urgent group of people starting to gather. “Oh. Um—”
“No worries, mate.” Cassian tapped the counter with his fist and winked. “Catch you later.” He and his friends moved over to the pick-up area and allowed the next customer to come forth.
Thade took a steadying breath and put his customer service smile back on. Internally, he felt horrified. He never took chances with customers, but the one time he did, Adam had to catch him. *Damn it, Adam,* he thought as he cheerfully took orders. He hadn’t even managed to do enough for Cassian to give him a clear ‘no.’ *Did any of that even count as flirting? God, why do I have to suck so hard…*
But Cassian came often enough. Maybe he could try again.
He balked at the thought. He’d tried, he’d failed. He was in no mood to put himself through that again.
- - -
It was near closing of the next day when Thade saw Cassian next. He did not have his backpack or a gaggle of followers. All he came in with was a smile and a swagger.
Thade stood up from where he’d been leaning on the counter, counting seconds after wrapping up his inventory chores. He hadn’t expected Cassian to come in at this hour; normally he left at least an hour to get something done while he drank his coffee. “Hey!” He greeted before he realized his tone might be a little too familiar. “Good evening! What can I get for you?”
Cassian leaned on the counter, maintaining his smile. “Just a coffee. Medium.”
“Great.” Thade knew to select dark roast. “Anything else?”
“Alright, I’ll have it right up.” He turned to the machine and started working.
“So,” the customer said as he moved to pick-up, “how’s work tonight?”
Thade was used to some customers being friendly when it was slow. Cassian rarely came during such times, though, and if he did he was with other people. This was the sort of opportunity he should have waited for when he still had the guts. Now he was too nervous to try being rejected again. Besides, the guy seemed nice. He didn’t really want to make things awkward. “It’s good,” he said as he worked. “Not a lot of people in late on Fridays. They’re all hitting the bars.”
“Must be nice, having a moment.”
“It can be. It’s also nice being busy. Makes the time go faster.” He risked smiling at Cassian quickly. “Ah, how’s your night?”
“Mm.” Cassian shrugged, then leaned forward to set his elbows on the pick-up counter. “Quiet. Just finished a big project.”
“Oh? What’s your major?”
“Graphic design. I had to make fifty logos for my own name brand, and clean up five of them. Busted my ass.” He chuckled, and Thade grinned. “You get to ten, and you start thinking, ‘How the fuck many times can you really draw a C and a W?’ Kill me.”
Thade laughed. “That does sound rough.”
“What’s your major?” Cassian set his fist under his chin.
“Mine?” Thade couldn’t look at Cassian without risking a burn, but he was able to finish the coffee as he spoke. “Lit. Well, it will be literature. I’m going to change it from English when I get back.”
“What’s the difference?”
Thade sighed. “The difference is that English is flexible and a good base degree for pre-law. Literature is more specialized.” He forced a smile as he brought the coffee over. It became easier to maintain it when he saw Cassian smiling back. “There you go. You need anything else?”
Cassian took the coffee and set it down. “Yeah. When do you get off?”
For a second, Thade thought his ears were playing tricks on him. His shoulders jerked up slightly. “What?”
“When do you get off work? Should be soon, right?” Cassian swirled the coffee and sipped it, never breaking eye contact.
This was a prank. It had to be. Right? Cassian was approximately five thousand miles out of his league. “Uh,” Thade stuttered, completely losing any amount of cool his service training afforded him, “I have to break down—”
Del broke in from where he was mopping nearby. “I got that, Thade! It’s almost ten. You can go ahead and go.” He stared at him meaningfully and gave him an urgent nod.
Thade stared at Del. “Are you sure —”
“I’ll talk to Adam. It’s fine.”
Cassian stood up. “Great! Make yourself a drink and let’s go. I’ll pay for it if you want.”
“We get free drinks,” Del assured him.
“Even better!” He chuckled and looked back at Thade expectantly.
This was not real. Things like this did not happen to Thade. Normally, when it came to relationships, he would be left flailing, wondering how to proceed. Now someone else was proceeding for him. A stranger, essentially, but… Thade chewed on the inside of his cheek. “Okay! Gimme just a minute. Just…” He turned around and started throwing together his drink of choice. Once that was done, he pulled his apron off and hurried to throw it on the hook in the back. “Thanks, Del! I owe you!”
Del shrugged. “Not a problem. Just have fun!”
Thade grinned and waved. Del was so serious, arguably moreso than Thade, but he’d proven to be a good friend over the last few months. One of the few Thade had, but he could live with that if they were going to be of quality.
No, Thade did not need to worry about friends at the moment. What he needed to focus on was the guy walking beside him into the night. He smiled awkwardly. “I don’t normally leave work early.”
Cassian chuckled. “So I’m special, huh?”
That was not what Thade was trying to get across. Though, arguably, Cassian was not wrong. “Um. I. Well.” He finally devolved into laughter as his companion grinned at him. “I guess. Sorta.”
“I’m flattered.” Cassian nodded toward Thade’s drink. “What’d you get?”
“Oh. Chai mocha.”
“That’s not on the menu. Special perks, huh?”
“It’s easy to make.” Thade smiled. “Just ask, I’ll make you one next time you’re in.”
“Can I try yours?” Cassian looked at him with a soft, welcoming gaze. The sort that could melt most people’s hearts and beg him to take them into his arms.
Thade smiled back. That gaze warmed him from within...but it also confirmed a few things. Warmth was all he felt, even if the guy was gorgeous to look at. “Sure.” He handed him the chai, looking down as Cassian took a sip. This was the sort of moment most single people dreamed about having. Being whisked away by a beautiful stranger who looked at them like there was no one else in the world. But there Thade stood, wanting to be wrapped up in the romance of it all...and feeling nothing more than flattery.
“That’s really good.” Cassian looked at him again with those deep brown eyes.
“Thanks.” Thade still smiled as he took his drink back. Even if he couldn’t fully experience this moment for what others said it should be, the guy was still giving him a chance. That was worth something. “So!” He cleared his throat. “Graphic design. That’s a really cool major. What do you want to do with it?”
Cassian’s intense expression faltered. Perhaps he was expecting a different reaction. He recovered quickly enough, though, as he shrugged and lifted an eyebrow. “Not sure yet. I was thinking photography, touch-ups. Ugly world, though. So we’ll see. Probably advertising for a while until I can build up a clientele and work for myself.”
“Because advertising is so much prettier?” Thade smirked.
“Ha!” Cassian snapped. “Got me there. But what about you? What do you want to do with an English degree?”
“Hoo…” Thade shook his head. “Long story there… But the short version is I’d like to teach. College level if I can get my Ph.D.”
“Seems like a pretty short story to me.”
“Well, I come from a family of lawyers, and they expected me to do the same. Hence why I’m paying for my own college. Told them this past July what I want to do, and it...blew up a little.”
“Oh.” Cassian curled his nose. “Well, that’s bullshit.”
Thade wrapped both his cold hands around his drink. “A little. But...y’know, I was agonizing over it for so long, and I just… I’m glad I told them.” He smiled to himself. “So, yeah! Moved out, and I’m staying with a couple of friends on their couch to save money. I’ll start apartment hunting before I go back to school in January.”
“Why not just stay in the dorms?”
“You kidding?” He grinned. “They’re expensive! I can find a studio for way less. Hopefully, anyway.”
Cassian bumped his shoulder. “You’re way more responsible than I am! My university basically threw scholarships at me. I have no idea what anything costs.”
“Your university?” Thade asked as Cassian sipped his coffee.
“Mm. University of Melbourne. I’m on study abroad at the moment.” He smirked at Thade. “I do like it here, though.”
“Good!” He did his best to look past the sultry glaze over Cassian’s face. That was the rub of going out with anyone; having to confront the fact that he wasn’t going to connect the same way his date would. Then a thought occurred to him. “Are you seeing someone?”
It was not until Cassian’s grin refreshed that Thade realized what the question sounded like. “No, not at the moment.”
“You -” The answer was enough to surprise Thade out of his embarrassment. “Oh! I thought I saw you come in with someone a while ago. I...okay!” Well, I’m a moron. It should have occurred to him that, just because he saw Cassian with someone a few weeks ago, it did not necessarily mean that they were together now.
“You seem awfully relieved.” Cassian’s eyes flashed as he turned on his heel and started walking backward, every bit the Cheshire cat in expression and swagger.
“Oh!” Thade laughed. “No, it’s fine, I was just - ”
“Listen. You wanna go to my place?”