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Emily eyes the expression on my face and snorts, pushing herself out of the slouch as she stretches her arms. "At least that's one way you act like a normal guy. You're currently shell-shocked, right? The sunglasses make it a pain in the ass to tell."
I eye my coffee. Throat's still a little sore. "One, that's not a term you should toss around lightly. Two, if I was shell-shocked, I wouldn't be able to give a response."I tap out my fingers a few minutes longer. The pain's mostly gone. I risk the coffee. "And third, no, I'm not.-
She lowers her arms and goes back to slouching on the table. I finish up my coffee.
"Do you always wear them?"she asks suddenly.
I snort softly. "Kind of have to."
"You ever tried colored contacts?"Her voice is getting curious.
Without any action on my part, a frown appears my face. My fist tightens around the empty mug. "Yes,"I say flatly. "I have."
She eyes my mug curiously. It's shaking slightly. "So... they didn't work out?"
"No,"I state, my face tight. "They didn't."
There's a grin on her face. There's a grin on her face. Crap.
"How didn't they work?"
I scowl. "I'm not-"
She tilts her head. "If you tell me, I'll buy you a croissant."
"I don't like croissants,"I snap. "And don't try-
I pause. I shouldn't let myself get bribed. I should get up and-
"There's also cinnamon rolls."
My stomach growls. The stomach that hasn't had anything other than coffee for the past forty-eight hours. I sigh. "Two cinnamon rolls. And don't say you're ordering them for me."
"Still don't want spit on your food?"
I glare at her. "Oddly enough, no."
She shrugs and sits up, still grinning.
She raises her voice suddenly and I wince. "Hey! Mary!"
The big-boobed waitress sticks her head out of the kitchen. "What Ems?"
"Can I get four cinnamon rolls? I forgot lunch again."
She shakes her head, rolling her eyes. "Jesus Emily, how hard can it be to remember to eat? You wanna pass out again?"
"Hey, that only happened once!"
"And you're still paying the emergency room bill."The eyes roll again. Her head vanishes.
Though I'm not sure she can see it, I raise an eyebrow at Emily. "Emergency room?"
She shrugs. "My friends thought it was bird flu.-
"Bird flu?"I repeat.
She shrugs again. "They watch the news too much. And were kinda smoking too much reefer. So, what happened with the contacts?"
I scowl again. "Look, all that happened was that I- had a hard time putting them in."
The eyebrows go up. "How hard exactly?"
I focus on the wall to her left. The color's not exactly beige; a little too pale. "They broke."
She blinks. "They broke? That's all?"
"The first ten pairs broke."I'll leave out the two times they broke into my eye and Miriam had to remove the shards with tweezers.
She stares at me incredulously and starts to open her mouth. I shake my head. "Don't ask; I don't know why. The eleventh pair didn't break."I pause. I play with my coffee cup. "They didn't work though."
"How didn't they work?"she demands. "What'd you do, get them trapped behind your eye?"
"No."I play with my cup again; wish it had coffee in it. Or the other thing. "They didn't cover the outer color."
Next few minutes, there's just silence. I don't bother looking up. I know already. I shouldn't've let myself get bribed. I shouldn't be here.
The silence gets interrupted by the return of the big-boobed waitress, Mary. She's bearing a tray with four palm sized cinnamon rolls, a pitcher of coffee, and one cup. My eyes dart up. Pitcher. Pitcher of coffee. Something's happening that could make my life easier. Maybe God's lessened His eternal hatred of me.
Unless it's decaf.
It's gonna be decaf. I just know it. No way that shithead in the sky could let anything beneficial happen to me. It'd spoil His fun.
"Emily, here's yours,"says Mary cheerfully as she plops down a steaming, presumably spit-free cup of coffee.
She turns to me and smiles. I prepare myself for battle. "And here, hun',"says Mary with a smile I recognize from years of dealing with hormonally homicidal females, "is your coffee."She places the pitcher in front of me. I eye it. "Being as you drink so much and this old lady can't keep up with you,"she continues with her smile just the same, "I think it's better if you just have a pitcher of your own."
I make absolutely no move to help myself to the coffee. I also don't jump on her pathetic attempt at flattery.
My grey-streaked hair makes it obvious that physically, I'm at least as old as her. If not older.
As I'm not about to do anything, she fills my cup. Several moments pass. I don't touch it. A small furrow appears between her eyebrows. She makes an executive decision to ignore me and turns to Emily. "And here are your cinnamon rolls. All four of them. Did you go and skip breakfast too?"
Emily gives her a feralish grin and easily rips one of the rolls in half. "Nah. Just Mal here's hungry and I owe him a couple of favors.-
My eyes flash and I try not to stiffen. Emily catches it and blinks, trying not to stare at me. Mary just looks like she knows she's missed something but has no idea what. Time passes.
Mary breaks first. "Okay,"she says slowly, "just let me know if you need anything else, alright?"She looks at Emily for a moment, half-concerned, then heads back to the kitchen. I take slow, easy breaths and push the feeling and the power back down. When I can bother to look up, Emily's staring at me the same way Mary just looked at her.
"Stupid question,"she says flatly. "You alright?"
I stare at the coffee pitcher. "Look,"I say just as flatly. "Don't ever call me that again."Without meaning to, part of it leaks into the words and I know she won't. She can't. And won't know why not or how.
"Okay,"she says, brushing it off as if it wasn't something important. Because to her it isn't and can't be anymore. "So you gonna drink your coffee or what?"
I keep staring at the coffee pitcher. "Depends. This batch as likely as the last to contain some type of bodily fluids?-
She chews on a shred of her cinnamon rolls, considering. "Actually, probably not. They don't like to use the same trick twice. It's not creative."
...Creative. Great. The past fifty years, it's never good when that adjective's used with an independent business. In this case, it means half the staff is some type of struggling artist with less talent than a methed-out P.E. major. My staring continues. "It'll get cold,"Emily cheerfully warns me after about a minute. Sugar must be taking effect for her to be so upbeat. That or she knows something about my coffee that I don't.
Never having seen her on a sugar high, I can't decide. Though I'm leaning toward the latter.
... This type of crap is why I prefer eating at chain stores this century.
And yeah, Miriam claims that they're just as likely to spit in your food and Zackary recited a list of statistics about food poisoning from them in relation to independent stores that one time we were drunk, but at least they aren't obvious about it. Feigned ignorance can be so much better than shared knowledge.
...of course, there it is. My wonderful mental hypocrisy.
Shit. I need coffee.
I finally look up from the coffeepot to stare at her; years of practice with sunglasses has me raising my head higher than normal to show where I'm looking. "Can I ask why you couldn't just take me to Starbucks?"Stupid thing to say. Take what you have and don't ask for more. I'm tired.
She glares at me, eyes flashing and part of me feels at ease. The need lessens a little; Adara or Miriam are sitting in front of me. Familiar. "What, you wanna help corporate conglomerates and line the pockets of overpaid business executives?"she demands indignantly.
"This is an independent business! It's our duty as citizens of the free market to do anything we can to help them stay open!"
I keep staring at her. It's easier than saying anything.
She deflates slightly and sighs. "Fine. Starbucks won't give me a tab and this place is cheaper."
Ah. As always with humans, it comes down to money. Not that we can really take the higher ground; with us it always comes down to power. Similar things when you consider it. Seemed similar back then, anyway.
Enough reflection. Time to make a choice. Pour or don't pour.
Coffee is right in front of me. Caffeine, alternative addiction, multi-purposed brew of life.
Problems: It may be contaminated. It may be half dishwater. It might even be the abomination that is decaf.
... only one way to find out.
I pour a cup and stare at it. Smells like coffee, non-instant, fresh brewed. Nothing floating on the surface and color isn't off.
Nothing seems wrong.
Still. I knew the look on Mary's face. Something's up.
I raise my cup, surreptitiously check the smell and surface from up close. Nothing new there. I take a sip.
... and it's decaf.
I fucking knew it. Emily watches the expression on my face as I swallow the abomination since Adara had words with me about backwashing, grab the cup and dump the remainder back into the pitcher.
"Decaf?"she asks, raising her eyebrows as I come short of slamming the cup on the table.
My gaze snaps on her. "You knew?"
She shrugs, a semi-smug little smirk twitching at the corners of her mouth. "I suspected. It's sneakily deviant."She examines my expression. It's pretty fucking far from being amused. "Do you hate decaf that much?"she asks, the vague smirk fading.
I exhale slowly. "Look. Emily. I'm here because you asked me to explain what happened back there. I'm not here to be screwed with, and I have little patience for this shit. I haven't slept in three days because I was trying to find you before the others did, and the only thing keeping me upright is caffeine. Which decaf doesn't have."I won't mention the other reason I need it.
She looks down, fiddles with part of her roll. "I'm not ungrateful,"she murmurs after a moment. Her voice is low. "I'm glad you- I'm glad I'm not dead.-
She looks at me straight in the eye, through my sunglasses. "You helped me and I won't forget it."Her gaze doesn't waver. She means it. A crooked smile appears on her face and the moment of seriousness passes. "You want my coffee? I don't think Mary was expecting it to be switched again."She offers me her cup. "Don't think it's decaf."
I hesitate for a moment, wavering. It's offered, not taken. I reach for the proffered cup. My fingers brush lightly against hers, then I'm holding it and pouring the still-steaming coffee into my no longer empty cup.
I pour her a cup of the decaf and instead of holding it out, slide it gently across the table. She wraps her hand around it and keeps eating, taking a few sips between bites of roll. I lift my cup and hesitantly sip.
My eyes drift closed. I feel the darkness sinking back down. The urge for the other thing is mostly gone. It'll come back- they'll both come back. But not now.
Eyes still closed, I down the rest of it, ignoring the prickle from my still-sensitive throat. I slowly lower the cup and open my eyes.
Coffee gone, I start eating a roll. Walnuts and raisins and cinnamon. The nuts and dried fruit remind me of the past, but good memories. "Won't your waitress friend wonder why you're sitting with a guy in his late thirties?"I ask suddenly, half my roll gone. No real reason to ask.
Emily blinks, momentarily nonplussed. I store the expression for later moments of reflection- with women like her, that sort of thing's rarer than conspiracy-free governments. "What? No- I bring a lot of weird people. Last week I had Harry the Angry Robot here with me."
I just stare.
She rolls her eyes. "He's a performer who dresses up as a silver robot and attacks college students for money,"she explains matter- of-factly. I keep staring. She shrugs defensively. "He couldn't get scholarship, and he's good at street performances. And attacking people."
...When I was young, if you wanted a good education all you had to do was bring a basket of food and take an oath of chastity. Plus pray a lot and suck up to the priests.
...I guess things are more complicated these days. Probably harder to know who to suck up to.
I eat my roll.
"So,"she asks after I've finished the first roll, "what was the other thing?- I blink. My mind scrambles for a moment, then grabs hold of the train of thought that had been wandering for ten or so minutes all by its lonesome. "Huh? Oh. You like music, right? And you're good at it."
Emily stares at me expectantly for several moments after I finish. I start to work on the second roll. This one has fewer nuts. "And?" she says finally.
I shrug, put a raisin-studded chunk in my mouth. "And nothing. That's the reason."
She keeps staring.
"They were going to use me in a virgin sacrifice because I'm short, have eyes that are Ãƒâ€šÃ¢â‚¬Ëœalmost' as intense as theirs, and can carry a tune?"she demands incredulously.
I sigh. "In a nutshell... yeah."I don't blame her for being surprised. It honestly does sound incredibly stupid if you think about it out of context.
She huffs and crosses her arms in a sulk. "Not that they thought you were a virgin because of the last two,"I add. "More they thought you were a virgin with those two things. Unexpected bonus."
She starts stirring her coffee again.
As she's already drunk about half of it and hasn't added anything, I can tell it's a nervous habit.
"It has something to do with music, doesn't it,"she says suddenly. I freeze. "Your power, your gift, whatever,"she continues. "Music and intense eyes- maybe something about the color grey? It sets you apart. Makes you different. And mine are almost intense enough that some think I'm like you."
I make myself relax. I take a deep breath. I underestimated her. Women like her are often intuitive. I should go before she sees more. "Maybe."
"They weren't human, were they.-
It isn't a question. It's a statement of fact. She already knows the answer, and I can't stay any longer.
I finish my roll. "Thanks for the coffee and rolls. They were appreciated."I push my chair back and start to stand up.
"Hold it,"she says, staring at me. "You're going, and I won't ever see you again, will I? That's the way it goes, right?"
I let out a frustrated sigh. "Yes and that's how it needs to go. Listen to me Emily: this is not a game; this is not something you want to fuck around with.-
"Don't look for me or anything about this. You should be safe- what happened was a fluke, bad luck on your part. You got dragged in by mistake and most will overlook that interference."I layer the words deliberately this time. She needs to understand this. "But if you come back in on your own, you'll die."I shake my head, see a flash of silver eyes in a half-buried memory. "Too many don't consider human lives worth the shit that you produce."I stand up. "Take care of yourself. Do something worthwhile with your life- don't die before that.-
She gazes up at me. "So many things I want to ask and none of them I'll remember until they can't be said."
I give her a faint smile. "That's the way of the world, Emily. Nothing's valued until it's lost. We take all things for granted, then live in regret."I start to turn.
"Wait,"she says again, this time softer. I wait. She struggles with her words for a moment. "Coffee and cinnamon rolls don't really add up to my life. Is there anything else I can do? To make your death of those two a fair trade?-
I shrug, uncomfortable with the subject and with being in a situation where someone like her's uncomfortable. Uncomfortable passionate people are discombobulating- you're never quite sure what they're going to do next. "Just- use your life, like I said. Become a famous singer, discover a cure for whatever cancer's killing people- do something worthy of living for. And enjoy your life- too many people don't. They just wait around to die in creatively suffocating ways."
Her eyebrows twitch. "I'll do my best. But...is there anything more basic I can do? Other than enjoying life and finding something worth living for?-
"Like, maybe leave x number of dollars in a paper bag somewhere?"
I blink at her. "Why on earth would you want to do that?"
She shrugs. "It's easier to do. Takes less time too."
I hesitate. Fine then. "You planning on having any kids?"
She just stares. And stares. Then her eyes snap into action. "How the hell am I supposed to know that?"she demands. "I'm only nineteen! I-"
I interrupt. "Don't call any of them Mallory."
I turn. I walk out and don't look back.
Names have power.
I wouldn't wish my fate on anyone.
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