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There really isn’t any choice.

Will didn’t sleep last night. No, he thinks, that’s not entirely correct. He did sleep. He slept fitfully and for roughly two hours after the first threads of sun stitched across the sky. Ensconced in work, casual correspondence and bargaining both, often overlapping, he had told himself repeatedly that he’d finish one more thing and then sleep. Just another search, quickly, and then sleep. One more email, and then, and then, and then, and finally he just stopped lying to himself and sat awake until he tipped towards the computer and jerked back awake again.

Then he slept.

Poorly.

For two hours.

So it makes sense, in a way that things can make sense and still be entirely aggravating, that he would be off-step this morning. He’d fed the dogs, at least, and there’s some reassurance in that, even though in doing so he forgot to feed himself or put the water on for coffee. No, he thinks again, also not entirely correct. He’d put the water on and forgotten about it, and by the time he remembered it was cold again and he had to leave anyway.

There really isn’t any choice.

A bell jangles his nerves as he tips the door open to the coffee shop. It’s the only one that meets his needs right now, primarily being that the shop has coffee, secondarily that it not be some corporate chain with abysmal business practices, and thirdly, that it’s only a few blocks away from his shop. It’ll do. It has to do.

The line isn’t long. The fact that there is a line is already a sign in favor of this place. Demand in a place that isn’t a franchise means good coffee, or good service, or good anything, at the very least. So he waits in line, steps up as those before him do, eyes to his shoes, then to his phone as it hums with yet another email.

By the time he is at the counter he has a headache from frowning, has planned two appointments in the next two hours and the sound in the cafe is doing his head in. Someone nearby is chewing too loudly.

“Coffee,” he says tersely, flicks his eyes up over the rims of his glasses to the man serving him and does a brief double take. Not a pimple-speckled kid paying at least some way through college - art school, in this part of town - but a man in his late 30s, well-dressed and well-groomed, and smiling in a way that is entirely too -

It’s not a smile, for starters, his mouth isn’t tilted into a smile, but Will can tell, he can feel the smile from him.

It’s unnerving.

“Just a coffee,” he repeats.

“Specificity is not the most common attribute to sleepless night owls, but have you a preference? Or is the smell of coffee keeping you standing enough?”

Will blinks, slow. He glances to either side of himself, past exposed brick and reclaimed wooden floors, past steel fittings holding up tables marked ‘no laptops’ with carefully calligraphed signs and the wiry bulbs burning dim in light fixtures above. He looks at the young man behind him, who doesn’t notice past his phone and his earbuds, and finally Will turns back to the barista.

Baristo?

Coffee-monger?

Fuck it.

“Just coffee,” Will repeats again, slower. And he knows he’s being rude, so with irritation - towards himself, mostly - he shakes his head and pushes his glasses up his nose again, adjusting the bag across his shoulder. “Ah, drip. The - you know. The pot. Please. I don’t need anything else in it -”

He hasn’t lifted his gaze again, but it lingers a little lower still to the neatly printed list of drinks and their prices.

“That can’t be right.”

The man clicks his tongue quietly as he reaches for a cup, heavy and a green so dark it’s almost black. Will parts his lips to ask for it to take away when he notices that there isn’t that option here. Apparently. He wonders if it’s too late to just go somewhere else. If anywhere else will have anything remotely resembling anything but dirty dishwater with caramel sauce.

“There isn’t anything listed for drip,” Will says at last.

“Because we do not offer that as an option,” the barista replies, head tilting and dark eyes narrowing in that strange not-smile again that sets Will’s teeth on edge. “Coffee should be brewed. Properly tended. And properly enjoyed.”

“And for people in a rush?”

“Good coffee deserves the time taken to drink it, no?”

Will works his bottom lip between his teeth and holds it there. He holds it long enough that it hurts. Holds it long enough that his lungs burn from the willpower needed not to tell this well-meaning man to go fuck himself. He drums his fingers against the counter, and slowly lets loose the breath he held for long enough to make him dizzy.

He doesn’t have to be to the shop for another fifteen minutes, and really, it’s his shop anyway, and it opens when he says it opens. He can sit and answer email and drink his coffee here and buy a franchise sludge on his way to the shop and never come to this place again. He can be polite.

It’s a personal challenge, Will tells himself. For betterment and peace of mind or some shit.

Will watches the man at work, measured movements both precise and serene. Will wonders what sick thrill he gets out of this, beyond puffing up his own ego, in not offering what people want and making them - god knows what instead. No one else seems upset about it. The line is nearly to the door behind him. It defies logic.

He draws a breath as the barista tips foamy milk into the mug, and sighs, plaintive. The beans better have been roasted by the angelic glow of the heavenly host, ground beneath Satan’s hooves, and brewed through the robes of Christ himself for all of this.

“What are you even making?” Will finally asks, desperate.

“Just coffee,” the man replies, a bare raising of his brow to mirror Will’s tone and temperament without being at all outwardly rude. The man glances up behind Will and returns his eyes to him. “If you would like to take a seat, I will bring it out to you.”

A pause, a deliberate withholding of breath again before Will releases it and leaves $15 on the counter, enough for the ridiculously overpriced whatever-the-fuck in that mug, and a tip. He moves to the seat furthest from anywhere. In the least passed and sought after spot, not near a window, closer to the kitchen, and with only one chair.

Though the line remains constant and - surprisingly - long, it is the man himself who brings the coffee - coffee - to Will, along with -

“Warm plum muffin with cream cheese and ginger,” the man says, finally allowing his lips to tilt as he meets Will’s drawn brows with a smile. “The polite early morning special.”

Will glances up from his phone to take the coffee, cradling it against the device with both hands and a slight awkward shift as he sits up taller in the chair from where he’d slowly slouched. He breathes in the coffee, and starts to take a sip but regards the curious pattern formed in it with milk - leaves branching outward, like a fern - with reservation.

A blink, and he lifts his eyes upward, but not past the plate.

“No,” Will says.

He receives a blink in return. “I’m sorry?”

“No,” Will says again, shaking his head and blowing across his coffee, disrupting the pretty pattern in it all at once, whirlwind-frantic to finish his coffee and get the hell out. “I didn’t order that, it - it must be for someone else.”

A hum at that, and the man straightens, he turns as though to go, and Will exhales his relief before he speaks again.

“‘Tuesday Special, a choice of the displayed pastries with any hot beverage’.” The man recites, pointing gracefully with his right hand - surprisingly, not his left, considering he wouldn’t have to cross his body to point with his left - to the elaborately decorated and beautifully penned boards both above the counter and to the side of it. Where Will had not looked.

“Perhaps you will reconsider.” The man looks to Will again, brow up. “Those are quite the favourite.”

“You have a line,” Will points out, eyes still just past the man as he imbibes… something. There’s cinnamon in it.

“Which I will attend to momentarily. I merely enjoy seeing what new clients think of my establishment.”

It’s intended to surprise, and Will registers the feeling without any more show of it than another sip. He draws his lips into his mouth, and his brow creases.

“You’re the owner?”

“I am.”

“And you call your customers clients?”

The man’s smile widens, but his eyes remain a little more narrowed. “I do.”

“I mean,” Will shrugs, rolling one shoulder. “It’s a coffee shop. It’s not like you’re a doctor. But your shop, your rules.”

“And what do you make of it?” he asks. “Of my shop. And my rules.”

Will sighs, as if it might alleviate the pressure building breath by breath in his chest, as if somehow it might ease the shrinking-skin feeling of the attention paid to him, only because - he’s certain - he was rude. He takes the plate and sets it to the table, lifting his hand again after in appeasement.

“It’s fine,” he manages, almost polite. “Honestly, thank you, I’m almost done, and -”

“You’re enjoying it then.”

Will sucks his lips between his teeth, ducking his head. His patience is unraveling, thread by thread by thread. He cradles the cup with both hands, a faded taupe color now with the milk dispersed across it.

“Honestly?” Will asks, and the man arches a brow. “I didn’t ask for milk.”

The man’s expression doesn’t change beyond a brief flicker of his lower eyelids, a very slight displeasure. There is a warming victory in that, at least, for Will. The man looks like someone who is not disagreed with often, someone who is used to being told how perfect and exceptional he is. It’s almost a thrill to bring him down a few notches, if only regarding milky coffee.

Another head tilt, almost serpentine and the man blinks, inclining his head.

“And yet, you drank it.”

“I had no choice.”

“No?”

“No, you had already made it.”

“You could have asked me to stop and make you another,” the man points out, and any relief Will had felt in degrading his coffee just moments before fades with another rush of deep discomfort and displeasure.

“Perhaps next time,” the man continues, “I shall make you something more to your taste.” Without another word he holds out a paper bag, open, detailed carefully with the shop’s logo and a design of something akin to an old fleur de lis. The intent is clear that Will take his untouched dessert with him.

“It would be rude to ignore a client’s feedback on my work.”

Will regards the bag at great and mistrustful length before finally taking it. He sets it beside the plate and his still-glowing phone, and cradles the big green mug with both hands again.

“Are you asking me to leave?”

The question is curt and so is the perceived slight behind it, as far as Will is concerned. The man tilts his head again, a bare motion, that becomes a gentle shake, once.

“You seem to be in a hurry.”

“I am,” Will agrees. He takes another sip, hoping to appease the man who lingers, still, who lets the others behind the counter tend to easy orders. Touching his tongue to his lips, Will tastes the cinnamon again, and more. Nutmeg maybe. No -

“There’s chicory in this,” Will murmurs, pleased inwardly by the man’s brows lifting in tandem surprise at the words.

“You know your coffee.”

“I know New Orleans,” Will says, wry.

The man’s smile is back, that soft, almost profound thing that rattles Will more than he wants to admit.

“I traveled before setting my shop up here,” he says. “New Orleans I visited often, I am fond of it.”

Will just nods, contented to leave the conversation there. Amicable enough and over. He hopes that perhaps now the man will leave, return to his work and his patrons and Will can escape unscathed and unremembered. Surely there are barely-awake rude customers - clients - that come to the shop often enough to blur into one continuous line of monotony. And in truth, after several moments, the man inclines his head again, almost thoughtful, and moves back to serve the people waiting in line.

Will doesn’t turn to watch him work, he doesn’t care. His phone hums even before he can reach for it and Will returns to his comfortable slouch of indifference, sipping his coffee until - to Will’s surprise - it’s just gone, milk and all. He sets the cup down and regards the muffin suspiciously before, with a sigh, bagging it and sliding it into his satchel and standing to go.

“Next time,” the man calls from behind the espresso machine, hair in a surely orchestrated scatter across his brow. “I will find you something to make you speechless.”

Will snorts, without looking up from the jumble of his shoulder bag and the muffin bag, his phone aglow against which he jams his thumb to make it stop. He nearly topples the table, grabbing the mug to keep it all stable, flustered by himself and this whole hideous experience. Next time he’ll remember to make his own, if only for the avoidance of… this.

Even if that coffee won’t have chicory in it.

Or funny little fern patterns with milk he didn’t want anyway.

“There’s quite an assumption in that,” Will finally remarks. He doesn’t need to meet the owner’s gaze to know he’s watching him, to know his eyes have drawn up again in the corners.

“I know my clients,” he answers, amicably.

“I had one cup of coffee, that you made me, that isn’t even - nevermind,” Will mutters, shaking his head. “It was fine. Thank you for the muffin.”

The milk-foamer hisses loudly and Will’s shoulders draw up. He lingers a moment more, checking that he’s got all his things, now certainly late for the client - an actual client - who’s going to be waiting out in front of the shop with a sour expression and another card to play against Will when it comes to negotiating. He needs the book, he can’t not get it - a first edition of Cazotte’s Le Diable amoureux, 1772 with etchings by Moreau is too rare to pass up and now he’s late, because of this -

With a sigh, Will turns to go.

“Tomorrow, perhaps,” calls the owner, his accented voice carrying a purr of satisfaction.

Will doesn’t answer. Is this flirting? This persistent talking-to and… banter? He doesn’t know anymore. It’s been years, enough that to try and count them back is too depressing an endeavor for so early in the day, and if he’s honest, he doesn’t really give a shit if it is. He’s not trying to do anything but part the line and make it out the door, and ignore the taste of cinnamon still sweet across his lips.