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The Corner Table

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The cafe where Ora worked was near the university district, on the path between the sciences buildings and their nearest tram stop. It saw a lot of students, and sometimes professors.

Ora had been the one to suggest to the owner that they stock a few of the more prominent scientific journals, to tempt in the students who wanted to read over coffee or somewhere other than the library. The back issues were considered especially valuable, since the library didn't permit people to bring in food, but the shop naturally did. She'd heard more than one student remark that it was more pleasant to drink a cup of coffee while checking a citation than to trek all the way to the library in bad weather.

There was the professor who liked to sit by the window and grade written papers, and a pair of upper-level students who read the scientific journals on the back wall, that were refreshed each month.

The professor was Dr. Kebowo, who tipped generously and often ordered pastries to take home to his wife; the students who sat in the corner she only knew as Fehaz and Gennet, which was what they had each been called by other students who sometimes met up with them in the cafe.

Fehaz seemed to her very handsome, with broad shoulders and a ready smile when she brought his coffee. Gennet, too, gained her attention, with a determined voice and a ready wit where the journals were concerned. She had not noticed if they noticed her.

Ora had been raised as the child of a full Sixfold Blending. The mother who bore her was the Earth member of the Blending, and her Aspect had indicated who her father was, but all the members of her mother's Blending had treated her as their own child. She had been the third child born to her mother's Blending, of five, and no matter whose bodies had made them, all of them were her siblings.

Their home had been busy, noisy, full of love. She wanted something like that for herself and her lover. She wanted a home as full of love and people and life as that.

She and Ihosh had met in school, and thought they would be as close as sisters, like Tamrissa Domon and Jovvi Hafford of the first Sixfold Blending had been. But their relationship was in the end quite different, not sisterly at all, and Ihosh was not a woman, in the end. How they were together was welcome, and good. She and Ihosh had discussed things, and while they both would have liked to be part of a Blending, they were content to be alone in themselves if no others who suited them appeared.

One rainy early-afternoon, a young man with long hair and a sharp face darted into the cafe. He spent a long moment watching Fehaz and Gennet, and then he went up to the counter where she was watching him.

"Hi," he said.

"What can I get you?" she asked.

"Two coffees, please. And one of your little marzipan tar - no, hold on." He paused, tilted his head. "One almond torte, please, the one with the apricot jam. And one of the crisp chocolate biscuits."

She wrote down his ticket and he paid, and then she went about making the coffee and plating his pastries. He watched the two in the corner throughout, but occasionally he would turn to watch her. She was used to this; customers wanted to make sure they were getting what they'd asked for.

She handed him a tray with his order and said, "Thank you for coming!"

"Thank you, Dama," he said, and smiled at her. He took his tray to the table next to the one in the corner, and set about drinking one of the cups.

Soon after, a young man in the style of clothing used by mechanists for the university came in, looked around, and strode over to the empty space, sitting down.

"The chocolate's yours," said the narrow-faced customer. "The coffee might be cold; I missed that you'd miss your tram."

"It's fine," said his friend. He glanced at Fehaz and Gennet, then looked back at his friend. "Why this cafe?"

"Try the biscuit," said the friend encouragingly. A bite was duly taken.

"Ah," said the one in the mechanist's clothing. "You're right."

"Mm," said his friend happily, switching their coffees while he wasn't paying attention.

The mechanist and his friend, apparently named Tesir and Etill, soon became irregulars, coming around the same time once a week or so. She thought maybe they met there at Etill's urging.

After a few visits, they began speaking with Fehaz and Gennet, arguing genially about their different areas of expertise. All four were concerned about the use of Aspect in industry, both scientifically and so as not to exhaust the people who used their talents in their jobs, and they spent long hours debating this, drinking coffee and buying pastries and sandwiches. She kept them well-supplied.

"I always see you here," said Gennet, paying for another round of coffees. "It's been, what, six months? Do you have a name?"

"Ora," she said. "I used to go to the university but it didn't suit me. My roommate is a lab assistant, though."

Gennet nodded. "So you work here, then."

"So I do," she said cheerfully.

"Thanks for all the coffee and snacks," Gennet said.

"You're very welcome," she said.

There was a slow day. It was raining, and the puddles had built up in the streets, sloshing at the ankles in some places. Fehaz trudged in with an umbrella, pausing outside the door to lower the umbrella, then shake off the water from himself - ah, Water Aspect, then - and entered the cafe entirely dry.

"Any chance I could persuade you to do that to all the customers as they come in?" Ora joked, gathering his order.

"Ha," Fehaz said. "I can do it for Gennet, though. It would be neater - they're Air, so." He waved a hand as if a breeze were passing by. "Everything else just gets wet."

"I see," she said, smiling.

Nobody else came for a while, so she picked up one of the news journals and began to read while she waited for other customers.

After an hour of only one more customer, her lover Ihosh arrived after class.

"Oh!" Ora said. "I wasn't expecting - is everything all right?"

"It's fine," Ihosh said, clasping her hand briefly. "I'm just heading home now, that's all."

"You could stay," Ora offered. "There's going to be leftover pastries and bread, I think."

"They'll still be leftover when you get home," Ihosh said.

Etill said, "And three more, for the others, thanks."

It was considered rude to ask people up-front about their Aspect, but Ora had a pretty good idea that Etill's was Sight. He wore it casually, as if it didn't matter what people thought of his Aspect. She admired that, a little. Being unselfconscious.

"Anything else?" she asked.

He bit his lip and looked at her. "Your partner's Ihosh Diarit, right? They should come to the cafe sometime and talk to Gennet. I think they'd have a lot to talk about."

"I'll consider it," she said, meaning No. He nodded, unsurprised.

In the end, Gennet and Ihosh ran into each other anyway. Ora never exactly found out how, but they both worked in chemical laboratories, if not for the same departments, and their life experiences were similar in some ways. And soon Ihosh was joining the others in their discussions, and Ora was serving coffee and sweets to all of them, feeling very lonely indeed.

"I feel left out," she said, sitting next to Ihosh on their couch one night. "I feel like I'm not clever enough for all of you."

"Tesir doesn't have a degree," Ihosh said, not unreasonably, but she shook her head.

"I want to be part of your group. And instead I'm just waiting on all of you, like a servant."

"I'm sorry," said Ihosh.

After that, they only met up during her off hours, and in Gennet and Fehaz's apartment, where it was Fehaz's turn to make coffee. Although she did bring the day-old bread and leftover snacks.

"It's too bad we don't know of any Blendings," said Gennet. "It would be so much easier to check."

"Don't we?" asked Etill, sipping his coffee. There was a pause. Gennet was Air, and Fehaz Water; they had been a couple since soon after entering the university as students, and Fehaz was seeing Ihosh as well. Etill and Tesir, the latter aspected Earth, were together, but not exclusive, and Ora and Ihosh had brought both of them to bed a month previously, to collective satisfaction.

Tesir snorted. "Right," he said, and elbowed Etill in the ribs. "This is all your doing."

"I only expedited matters," Etill said peaceably.