“Martin! He’s here!”
“Shut up!” Martin raced out of the back of the coffee shop, taking a bare second to shove a cackling Tim aside before settling himself behind the register. He pressed his hands to his cheeks, checking them for a flush, and then snapped them to his sides as the door to the shop opened. “Morning!” Martin called.
Jon, dressed this morning in a green Oxford shirt and a waistcoat, his long hair up in a tight high ponytail, looked up from where he was frantically texting with both hands. “Morning, Martin.” He made his way through the tables up to the register.
“Hazelnut and passion fruit triple shot with almond milk?” Martin asked, the same way he did every morning.
Like every morning, Jon blushed. “Thank you, Martin.” He passed over a crisp fiver. Martin carefully counted out his change, which Jon dumped into the tip jar. Same as every morning before, for the past six months. Behind Martin, Sasha started making the drink.
Jon, Martin knew, worked at a nonprofit across town, the Magnus Institute. Something about teaching underprivileged children to read, and getting them set up with library cards, and the like. Melanie had gotten a job there after her eyesight had gotten too bad to pull lattes at Ceaseless Watcher, and she’d introduced Jon to the shop shortly afterward. Why Jon went to a coffee shop every morning that was on the complete other side of the city to his work, Martin didn’t know. Probably they were the only place that stocked passion fruit syrup.
“What’s this?” Jon asked, picking up a flyer from the small stack on the counter. He was still blocking the register, but there were no customers lined up behind him, so Martin wasn’t exactly going to ask him to move.
“We’re having a party!” Martin chirped, then cringed internally at himself. Jon needed three shots of espresso every morning, and Martin wanted to chirp at him before he’d even had them? Shaking himself, he went on, “Pride night, next week. Free rainbow cookies with the purchase of any drink, and we’ve got Grifter’s Bone to play.”
“Nice.” Jon folded the flyer and shoved it into his pocket.
Sasha nudged Martin and handed him a to-go cup. “Here you go,” he said, passing it to Jon.
“Thank you, Martin. And thank you, Sasha!” Jon added. He turned and made his way out of the shop.
As soon as the door closed behind him, Martin felt Tim’s arms drape across his shoulders. “Ooooh,” Tim cooed into his ear. “He took the flyer for Pride night.”
“Shut uuuuuuuup,” Martin groaned, dropping his face into his hands. He didn’t shrug Tim off, though; it was the closest thing he’d had to a hug in ages, and Tim was big and warm and heavy. “Bet he’s an ally.”
“No way,” Sasha said, shaking her head. “High ponytail, waistcoat, red painted nails? Works at a nonprofit? That boy is queer as hell.”
“Some straight men throw off the shackles of traditional masculinity,” Martin tried weakly. Tim snorted. “It’s fine. It doesn’t mean anything. He’s just a customer.”
“Sure, and I’m just a pretty face,” Tim said. He smacked a kiss onto Martin’s temple and climbed off him. Martin sighed and went back to stocking creamer.
“How was Hot Barista?” Melanie asked, dropping into the chair opposite Jon’s desk and sticking her feet onto it. How she managed to avoid knocking over his pencil cup when she couldn’t see where it was never failed to amaze him.
“Melanie, you worked with him, you’re friends with him, you know full well what his name is. And I’m asexual, I don’t see people’s ‘hotness.’” Jon tapped at the bulky letters on his keyboard, willing his ancient PC to boot up faster.
“Fine. How’s Martin The Cute And Cuddly Barista?”
“He’s fine.” Jon smacked his monitor, which didn’t do anything, but it made him feel better.
“Still got your order memorized?”
“Mhm.” Finally the login screen appeared. “Shouldn’t you be reaming out some ableist parent or other, or something else we pay you for?” Jon asked, laboriously typing in his password.
“I tried, but they’re all in breakfast meetings. I’ll try again in an hour.” Melanie thunked her feet back onto the floor and grabbed her cane. “Graham’s eating company paper again, by the way.” Jon sighed. She stood and started out of his office.
“Oh, wait,” Jon called, standing to work the flyer out of his pocket. “Ceaseless Watcher’s having a Pride night next week. I thought you and Georgie might be interested. I have a flyer.” She held out her hand and he placed the piece of paper in it.
“Oh yeah! I remember last year’s, it was lit. Who’s playing?”
“Some band called Grifter’s Bone?”
Melanie whistled. “They’ve gone all out this year. Perfect for you to come out to your barista to.” Jon saw her eyelid twitch behind her sunglasses in a wink. “Don’t worry, Georgie and me’ll be there for moral support.”
Jon sighed, settling back in his chair. “Think what you want. God knows I can’t stop you.”
“Love you too, Jon.”
She left, and Jon’s office settled back into silence cut by the loud whirring of his machine. He’d have to talk to Graham, again, on top of the day’s donor meetings and trying not to panic about coming out to Martin—that is, to the staff at Ceaseless Watcher. They were hosting a Pride night, so it’d probably go alright, but one could never really be sure how such things would go until afterwards.
Graham came in half an hour later, and Jon looked up from his spreadsheet to call out to him. He shuffled into Jon’s office and sat down. “Morning, boss.”
“Good morning, Graham.” Jon leveled a look at him. “Everything going okay?” Graham shifted uncomfortably and nodded, looking everywhere but at Jon. “I’ve had reports that you’re eating company paper again, Graham. Is this true?”
Graham signed. “My pica’s been acting up again. I’m working on it.”
“I understand,” Jon said. “And I trust you. But we agreed, you’d bring your own notebooks from home. We don’t have the budget to lose any paper to eating.”
“Yes, boss. I understand. Won’t happen again.”
“Glad to hear it.” Jon leaned back in his chair. “How’re the charity dinner plans coming along?”
“Good,” Graham said, brightening. “We’re up to almost £20,000 in plate sales.”
“Excellent work,” Jon said. “Back to it, then.”
“Yes, boss.” Graham stood and scurried out.
Martin pulled his phone out after his shift to see a text from Melanie. Free tomorrow? I’m craving Japanese. He sighed. Ever since she’d found out about his crush on Jon, which had been about forty-five minutes after he’d developed it, she’d demanded he buy her lunch periodically as payment for introducing Jon to the shop. Every time he considered fighting her on it, but then Jon would show up for his morning coffee in a bright yellow cardigan and Martin would cave. Fine, he texted back, and received a row of thumbs-up emojis in response.
He picked up Mexican food on the way home, in a feeble attempt to please his mother, but she just sighed when he set the bag down on the table. “Again, Martin?”
“We haven’t had Mexican in weeks!” he objected. “And I know it’s your favorite.”
“Not from Diego’s,” she muttered, poking her head into the bag. “You’d think after this many years, you’d remember.”
Martin sighed, rubbing a hand across his forehead. “Look. It’s your last night living here, and I wanted to do something nice. Can we just not fight?” She grumbled a bit but subsided in the face of tamales.
Martin lay on his back in bed that night, taking deep breaths and trying not to cry. His phone buzzed—Sasha. What time does The Harridan leave 2morrow?
Martin laughed despite himself. Don’t call her that, and I drop her off at 11am at the nursing home. Lunch w/ Melanie after
I’ll stop calling her that when you stop laughing at it. And I’m picking you up at 6pm for drinks, no excuses
Despite everything, he went to sleep smiling.
Melanie was her usual self the next day, irascible and funny and very kind about the fact that he kept tearing up midway through his sentences. “Alright,” she said after the fifth time. “Better out than in. Spit it out.”
He put down his fork. “Not in public, Melanie.”
“Yes in public, Martin!” she said loudly. He winced. “Look, here, I’ll do it for you. You feel like a shit son who can’t even take care of his own mother, right? After everything she did for you growing up, you were supposed to look after her when she got old, and you couldn’t do it. You feel like a failure. That about it?”
Martin sniffled and dabbed at his eyes with his napkin. “More or less, yeah.”
“Right.” Melanie sat back in her chair. “Do you think that about me?”
That startled Martin out of his tears. “What? No, of course—oh. Your dad. I forgot.”
“Yeah,” she said with a wry grin. “I know you did. Answer the question, Blackwood. Am I a failure of a daughter?”
“No,” he muttered to his plate.
“No! No, you’re not. You’re a good daughter who did the best she could.”
“Exactly. And so did you. And my dad wanted to stay home. Your mum’s been scratching at the door for half a decade.” She held her hand out and Martin put his in it. “You did the best you could, Martin,” she went on more quietly. “More than anyone could have asked of you. Definitely more than she asked of you. You carried it for a long time, and tonight we’re all going out for drinks to celebrate you finally being able to put it down, and you’re gonna have a good time, alright?”
“Alright.” She squeezed his hand and let it go. “Can I go back to my katsudon now?”
Jon had been carefully monitoring Martin’s moods in the days since his mother left, but if anything, Martin seemed more cheerful when Jon came into the shop. “Morning, Jon,” he said with a wide smile. “Your usual?”
“Hazelnut and passion fruit triple shot with almond milk,” Martin trilled over his shoulder to Sasha, who rolled her eyes at Jon with a grin and set to work. “Are you coming tomorrow?” Martin said, turning back to Jon.
“To the party? Yes,” Jon said, shaking himself internally. “Georgie, Melanie, and I should be here just after work.”
“Great! I’ll be working, so I’ll see you there, then.”
“Oh. Are you not working the morning shift tomorrow?”
“Nah, I switched for tomorrow. Gonna see if I like the afternoon shift better, now that—well, now that I don’t have to be home so early,” Martin finished with an awkward attempt at his usual brightness.
“Of course.” Jon’s stomach settled somewhere about his kneecaps, but he rallied and forced a smile for Martin. “Well, I’ll see you tomorrow then.”
Sasha handed Martin a to-go cup, and Martin presented it to Jon. “See you then!” And then, as Jon was about to turn away: “Have a good day, Jon.”
Jon’s stomach shot back up into his throat, leaving a pervasive warmth in its wake. “You too, Martin.”
Jon needed the coffee more than ever this morning—it was Quarterly Report Time at the Magnus Institute. Instead of neatly printed graphs and exquisitely formatted reports, the Institute’s founder insisted on a personal, private chat with the director. Jon would cheerfully be kidnapped and tortured instead, but Mr. Bouchard insisted it was good for the company culture. Usually with an unctuous smile that made Jon’s skin crawl.
He was standing near Melanie’s cubicle when Jon arrived, a full half-hour before their appointment was set to start, and, from what Jon could hear, was talking with her about the portrayal of blindness in children’s literature. Talking loudly about the portrayal of blindness in children’s literature, and enunciating clearly. Jon winced. “Mr. Bouchard,” he cut in, rushing forward and sticking his hand out. “You’re early.”
The man oozed around and took Jon’s hand. “You know me, Director,” he said with a smile. “I never miss an opportunity to come see how the people on the ground are doing.” Behind him, Melanie was stabbing the air with a pen in his general direction. Jon bit his lip to avoid betraying her with a smile. “I can wait out here, if you’re not ready for me,” Elias went on.
“Not at all,” Jon said quickly, using his grip to turn Elias towards his office and away from Melanie, who had found her scissors and was brandishing them. “We can talk now.”
“So, Director,” Elias said, once Jon had offered him tea and settled him in the chair opposite his desk. “Wow me.”
“Well, as you know, the Institute is doing remarkably well this quarter,” Jon began. “Donations are up, higher than they’ve ever been, thanks to our new fundraising people.”
“Ah yes,” Elias said, steepling his fingers together. “Ms. Hussein and Ms. Tonner. I admit I was skeptical about the need for two roles in that position, but they do seem to make an excellent team.”
“They work well together, and there’s no denying their results,” Jon agreed. “We’re going to have a bit of extra budget this fiscal year, if everything goes the way it has been, and Daisy’s been putting together an investment portfolio for us.”
“Excellent, excellent. I’ll want to see it before anything gets invested. You understand.”
“Of course,” Jon said. “What else... We’ve made great strides in outreach, particularly among the disabled community, continuing the pattern from last quarter.”
“The delightful Ms. King.”
“Just so.” Jon picked up his notebook and flipped through it. “Oh, Graham told me just last week we were up to £20,000 in plate sales for the summer charity dinner. I don’t have a more up-to-date number on me, but no doubt that’s gone up, he’s been working with Basira on reaching the right people.”
“Splendid. And I’ll make my usual calls in regards to that this weekend, so there should be an influx of new plates reserved by the Lukases and Fairchilds.”
“Oh, good, I’ll let Graham know to expect that,” Jon said, scribbling a note down. “Let’s see, we’ve had 0% staff turnover in the last quarter, and we added that extra fundraising position, so we’re fully staffed now with Melanie and Daisy here. Was there anything else you wanted to cover?”
Not taking his eyes from Jon, Elias shook his head. “My ship is in capable hands, Director, as my ex-husband would say. I trust you will continue running things with the aptitude and sensitivity you have displayed over your last two years with the Institute.” He stood.
“I’ll do my best.” Jon stood as well and shook his hand. “I’ll see you out.”
“No need.” Leaving a cloud of stale cologne behind him, Elias departed.
Jon stuck his head out of his office and, when the door shut behind Elias, snuck over to Melanie’s cuble. “I am so sorry,” he said, leaning over the wall.
“One day I’m gonna stab him and none of you will be able to stop me,” she said without turning from the report she was running her fingers over.
“I wouldn’t dare. But your first drink tomorrow night is on me.”
The afternoon shift, Martin decided, could bite him. He was a morning shifter in his bones, even without his mother’s medications to deal with in the afternoons. Besides, he’d missed his daily sight of Jon an embarrassing amount.
The afternoon shift was busy, and he was on espresso duty, and the person on the register didn’t stand aside when Jon came in like Tim and Sasha always did. It was awful. But Jon’s eyes sought Martin out as he ordered, and he actually moved from in front of the register to the pick-up area to wait for his drink. “Extra-large hot chocolate,” Nikola called to Martin, and he almost dropped the rag he was holding. What?
He could make a hot chocolate in his sleep, though, and soon enough he was passing a cup across the counter to Jon. “No triple shot?” he asked as Jon picked it up.
“Not this late in the day,” Jon said ruefully. He was wearing the most darling sweater vest, with a tie striped in black, purple, grey, and white. A small badge in blue, purple, and pink was pinned to his chest, and Martin tried not to squee at the sight. Jon took a sip of his hot chocolate and then said, “Are you... that is, are you working all evening?”
“No,” Martin said quickly. “No, I get off in half an hour. Off shift,” he added, feeling his face flush.
“Right,” Jon said. “That’s... that’s good. I’ll see you over there then?” he added, gesturing towards the party.
“See you soon.”
The next half hour flew by, with Martin only messing up one drink while peering across the shop at Jon, who was talking expressively to Georgie in the corner. Nikola gave Martin a dirty look when he handed in his apron for the night, but he just grinned at her and darted across the room.
Jon, it transpired, was explaining emulsifiers to Georgie and Melanie. Georgie threw Martin a look of gratitude as he approached and said, “Martin! Come join us. Budge up, Jon.”
“Oh, yes, right,” Jon said, scooting a little to the left on his couch to make room for Martin. Martin settled next to him. The couch was small, and Martin was big; their thighs pressed together. Martin coughed. Georgie winked at him. Jon made a little noise in the back of his throat and said, “So, Martin. Will you be switching to the afternoon shift, then?”
“Hell no,” Martin said firmly. Across from him, Melanie burst out laughing. “Morning shift for me all the way.”
“Hear hear,” Melanie crowed, raising her cup.
“Right,” Jon said. When Martin looked at him, his cheeks were flushed. “Good.”
Georgie took a sip from her own cup and gave Martin a laughing look over it. He turned to Jon. “Nice tie,” he said.
Jon somehow blushed even deeper. “Thanks.”
Out of absolutely nowhere, Tim stuck his head around from behind Martin and said, “More to the point, nice pin!” Martin slammed back with his elbow but Tim somehow evaded him, cackling.
Jon cleared his throat. “Right, erm, thank you. I’m glad you, uh, like it.”
“Oh, he does,” Tim cooed. Martin turned, grabbed hold of him, and shoved, until he gave in and meandered away, still laughing.
“Sorry about him,” Martin said, turning back to Jon.
“Oh? Do you, erm, not like the pin, then?”
“No, no! I do! He’s just, um. Anyway, you were saying something about emulsifiers when I got here?”
Melanie smacked him with her cane, and Georgie said, loudly, “Hey Martin, I’ve always wondered. Why is this place called Ceaseless Watcher? Weird name for a coffee shop. Melanie doesn’t know either.”
Martin pointed at the far wall behind the register, from which loomed a graffiti-style painting of a huge, staring eye. “That. The big eye, Melanie.”
“Yeah, but didn’t you guys paint that because it’s called Ceaseless Watcher?” Georgie asked.
“Nope. It was here when Mr. Bouchard bought the building, and he liked it so much he decided to keep it and named the place after it.”
“Mr. Bouchard?” Jon said. Martin looked at him; he had a weird expression on his face. “Not Elias Bouchard?”
“You know him?”
“He founded the Magnus Institute.”
They stared at each other for a long moment. “Well, that’s... weird,” Martin said slowly.
“Maybe he just has a very diverse investment portfolio?” Jon suggested weakly. Martin shrugged.
“I’m gonna stab him,” Melanie announced cheerfully.
“Yes, darling, we know,” Georgie said, taking another sip from her cup.
In the other corner, Grifter’s Bone had arrived and were starting to set up. Next to Jon, Martin swiveled to watch them. Jon took a deep breath. Georgie caught his eye and pumped her fist in the air. Jon rolled his eyes and leaned a little closer to the man next to him. “Martin, if you’ve been working the past few hours, you probably haven’t eaten, right?”
As if on cue, Jon heard Martin’s stomach rumble. “God, yeah, I’m starving, now you mention it.”
Another deep breath. “Would you... that is, would you want to go grab a meal? With me?”
Across the table Georgie and Melanie had grown very still, but Jon barely had a thought to spare for them. Martin’s eyes were big and very, very brown, and his mouth had fallen open a little. “Sure,” Martin said, a little breathless. “That sounds great.”
“Great,” Jon echoed, and a smile split across his face. “Now?”
“Yeah, sure, now works.” Martin stood, nervously smoothing down his shirt. Jon followed suit. “Bye Georgie, by Melanie.”
“Bye, boys,” Georgie said slyly. Melanie waved, grinning.
They stepped out of the cool coffee shop into the hot June air. Jon made to keep walking, but Martin stopped. “Jon.”
Jon turned to him. “Yes, Martin?”
“Just to be clear.” As Jon watched, Martin discreetly wiped his palms on his trousers. “Is this a date?”
“Oh.” Jon blinked, the corner of his mouth turning up without any input from his brain. “Yes, I’d rather hoped so. That is,” he added quickly, “if you want it to be one.”
“I do,” Martin said, just as quickly.
They stood there grinning at each other for a few moments, and then Martin caught up to Jon and they kept walking. “What are you in the mood for?” Jon asked as they strolled along.
“Hmm. There’s a good Italian place a few blocks away. I could go for some pasta?”
Next to him, Martin cleared his throat. “Jon,” he started, hesitating a bit. “Could I...”
Jon’s stomach dropped. This was it. Martin was going to ask to kiss him, and Jon would have to say no, that he was so asexual he didn’t even kiss, and he’d have to watch Martin’s face fall, and Martin would probably find some way out of dinner and quit his job and Jon would have to find a new coffee shop and he’d never ever see Martin again—
“Could I hold your hand?”
Oh. Jon laughed in relief and stuck out his hand. “That, Martin, is definitely allowed.” Martin grinned at him and interlaced their fingers, and Jon smiled back at him and squeezed his hand.
A hundred feet behind them, Tim pulled his head back through the coffee shop door and announced to the room at large, “They’re holding hands!” A general cheer went up throughout the shop; Georgie clapped and Melanie thumped her heavy combat boots against the floor. Even Nikola cracked a smile, and that was a rare occurrence indeed.
Sasha approached him. “You know what that means.”
Tim pulled out his wallet. “I went to the ATM specially.” He pulled out a crisp twenty and an even crisper fiver and handed them both to Sasha. “Your winnings, madame.”
“Thank you, monsieur.” Sasha took the bills, folded them, and tucked them into her bra strap. “Your morning mocha’s on me tomorrow.” Tim pumped his fist into the air and slung his other arm around her shoulders.