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The Happy Hedgehog

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"Weren't you complaining about hedgehogs on Insta? Those hobbit motherfuckers?"

You give him a look of mock innocence and he returns you a mock scowl. "Those were badgers. Not a'tall the same thing. Hedgehogs are tiny wee things that curl up in a little ball when they're afraid."

He mimes the curling-up of a small creature with his long fingers, holding the other hand cupped as if to contain a frightened, prickly animal. You grin, he grins back, and he pulls up the cuffs of his jeans to show you the world's boniest ankles, wrapped in gray-green socks.

"Wore me merch," he says, kicking up one foot. The socks are decorated with little hedgehogs curled around coffee mugs.

"Those are the cutest things!"

"Shh!" He throws one finger to his lips, eyebrows shooting. "Having it known that I wear cute socks would, ehm, destroy my sexy rock star brand, yeah?"

A bell jingles pleasantly as he opens the door of his favorite coffee shop for you, the one whose merch he wears, the place he'll get in the car and drive to because he likes their coffee and their oat milk just that much. You're not thrilled at the idea of oat milk, but you are thrilled to have a coffee date with Andrew at the Happy Hedgehog.

A delicious aroma of strong coffee and sweet pastries hits you, along with an ironically familiar tune--Andrew's voice wafting from the ceiling, singing "As It Was". A large and gleaming case of beautiful baked goods draws you forward as if hypnotized. Along with the muffins, scones, and croissants you expect to see in a coffee shop, there are incredible multi-layer cakes crowned with strawberries or sprigs of lavender or figures of chocolate, oblong things sprinkled with what looks like pumpkin seeds, coconut, and--rose petals? and deep glistening tarts in a rainbow of fruits.

While you're standing there speechless by the display, building up a mouthful of saliva, the barista comes out from behind the till and embraces Andrew. He introduces her to you as the owner, and you shake her hand and notice that her apron is decorated with the same cute hedgehog design as Andrew's socks. You decide you really need a pair of hedgehog socks of your own.

"Ooh, your hands are cold!" the owner says, bustling back to her place behind the counter. "What can I get you this afternoon, luvs?"

You’d like to prank Andrew by ordering a pumpkin spice latte, but you’ve already heard the semi-serious speech about how this is not a chain and everything is unique to the shop and you should probably order the chai unless you really feel in the mood for coffee. So rather than wasting the shop owner’s time, you ask for a large chai, whole cow’s milk, please, and a pain au chocolat.

You rub your hands together as Andrew orders his coffee, a slice of cake, and a plate of some other goodies. Your hands are cold; not that it’s necessarily colder here than back home, but there’s a dampness to it, a freshness. It’s only September, but Ireland feels deeper into autumn than where you came from. But the rest of you is warm enough, even though the shop doesn’t feel heated. And Andrew is a big fan of handholding.

The two of you settle at one of the little wrought-iron tables in the corner, Andrew taking his beanie off, you undoing your scarf and unbuttoning your jacket. For a moment you cradle your cup of chai in both hands, breathing in the spicy fragrance, letting its warmth permeate your fingers, before picking it up to take a sip. It’s delicious, just spicy enough, and slides down your throat in way that invites the bite of flaky croissant you send after it.

Andrew, smiling, flourishes a fork over his cake. “Grab a bite of this if you want. And try some of these, too.” He pushes the plate of extra goodies toward you, then carefully runs his fork through the chocolate-creamy-fruity layers of the cake.

You concentrate on your pain au chocolat and your tea and on watching him eat. It’s an experience that’s borderline arousing. The way he opens his mouth and closes it around the laden fork; the way the tip of his tongue darts out to flick at a little bit of whipped cream; the way his eyes close as he slowly chews and savors; the hint of a smile as he swallows. He’s a deeply sensual person who revels in the taste of food, the texture of a fabric, the scent of the wind, the pleasures of sex, and you love that about him.

“How is it?” He gestures with his fork at your cup and plate. You have to shake yourself a bit.

“It’s very good!” You point at his cake. “May I?”

Instead of handing over the fork as you expect, he slices off a bite and offers it to you with a teasing smile. He’s not usually quite so… overt, in public. Ireland doesn’t seem to have paparazzi everywhere, at least not in the highways and byways of County Wicklow, but still, people know who he is. And people talk.

You put all of that aside and lean forward, opening your mouth. Andrew feeds you the slice of cake, and you find your eyes closing just as his did, as the flavors melt over your tongue… whipped cream and chocolate ganache, spongey cake and orange liqueur.

“Wow,” you manage, after you’ve swallowed the deliciousness and followed it with a reverent sip of chai.

“Yeah.”

You wind up ordering a second chai as the two of you get to talking. You mention you saw a friend post a poem by Heaney on Facebook. He tells you about finding a couple of vintage vinyls of Billie Holiday in a dusty book-and-antiques shop he visited with his mum. The oblong things covered in chocolate and sprinkled with pumpkin seeds, coconut, and rose petals turn out to be date bars, and they are almost better than the cake. Andrew buys a couple more to take with and stashes the bag in one of his voluminous pockets.

“I want a pair of socks,” you say, and insist on paying for them yourself (since he treated for the yummies). You walk out with two pairs of Happy Hedgehog socks and a green travel mug.

Andrew takes your hand as you wander down the sidewalk to where he parked. His hands are often cold, but not right now; maybe it’s the warmth of the coffee, the cake, the shop. You’re warm and full and ogling the neighborhood like any American tourist when suddenly he tugs at your hand and you stumble together into a narrow alley.

Before you can speak, Andrew pulls you into his arms and kisses you. His lips are chapped and his mouth is sweet and dark, coffee and cake and chocolate, and you burrow into his coat as he devours your mouth, leaning against the stone wall. You know his skin is warm under all his layers of clothing and his hair is warm and fragrant under his hat, but all you can do right now is kiss him back and lay your hand on his cheek, across bare skin and soft beard.

You’re breathless when he lets you go, and so is he. He licks his lips as if to taste you and chai and coconut and date one last time.

“So how fast do you think you can drive back to your place?”

He laughs out loud and takes your hand again.