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the art of rolling milk

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Minseok double checks the emblem above the door of the coffee shop—a delicate and curling E—before pulling the door open and stepping inside.

Immediately, his senses are assaulted with the smell of brewing coffee wafting in the air, the sounds of espresso machines steaming milk, the quiet din of patrons as they spread about the tables. His eyes dart from one corner of the coffee shop to another—by no means large but not tiny either—flicking over the brass and gold light fixtures dropping from high ceilings, the exposed brick walls and granite countertops, the dark stain of the counters and chairs, and the neat and delicate handwriting on the chalkboard menus. Absent were the long group tables, the outlets and laptops, the bookcases stuffed with random “vintage” items and books no one had ever read, the mismatched—“quirky”—furniture that so often littered modern coffee shops. In their place were small tables, hard chairs, “for here” mugs, and baristas with actual crisp and pressed collared shirts.

Taking a few bold steps further into the shop and towards the small display of bakery items, Minseok was relieved to see that there wasn’t the usual popular assortment: cake pops, cupcakes, doughnuts, French macarons for crying out loud. The selection, instead, was limited, and that drew an appreciative nod from him.

This place, known by regulars as simply E’s on 5th, lacked the minimalist, modern flare of so many of its contemporaries, but that was sort of the point. E’s was unapologetically opulent, old world, and very much against anything trendy or modern.

It, in short, had potential.

As Minseok approaches the counter, a young man with a sharp jaw greets him with a simple hello and an expectant look. Minseok notices that absence of a pitch, the lack of a nametag, the fact that the boy behind the counter isn’t hovering over a register screen.

“Hi,” Minseok puts on his best smile, wanting to impress. “I’m here about the pastry chef position? I have an interview with Hani at 11.”

The young man’s face brightens with recognition. “You must be Minseok. Hani’s been expecting you.” His eyes scan over Minseok’s form but don’t reveal anything. “Did you want something to drink? It’s on the house.”

In truth, Minseok isn’t a coffee person, but at the cost of offending his potential future employer, he quickly asks for a cup of their house brew. “Excellent choice,” the boy approves and somehow Minseok feels proud of his selection. The barista then gestures for him to take a seat while he prepares the coffee and lets his boss know of Minseok’s arrival.

Choosing a table around the counter and in the back corner, he settles into his seat, fingers brushing over his portfolio in his lap as he waits. In the background, he hears the faint vibrato of cellos filter through the shop’s sound system. It is a familiar concerto, and in the almost hidden corner he feels transported to a faraway world where time passes slowly. He smiles to himself, feeling the charm of the place. It’s just a moment, however, before a figure rounds the corner, a slender frame easily balancing a tray with his cup of coffee in one hand and holding a slim folder in the other. She offers him a smile as she approaches his table. “You must be Minseok. I've heard a lot about you.”

Minseok exhales, stands, and offers to assist her in some way, hands gesturing between the objects in her hands, but she declines politely and encourages him to seat himself. He watches her as she effortlessly deposits his mug and saucer on the table, arranging the handle just so, before seating herself with unconcealed grace, placing the folder neatly in front of her.

To be quite honest, Minseok is a little unnerved. In their email exchanges, he hadn’t expected that the owner of E’s would be, well, a young woman. A very attractive young woman whose eyes didn’t shy away once as she held out her hand for him to take. He has an inkling of a feeling that there's more to this coffee shop than he expected.

“Nice to meet you. I’m Hani.”

 

 

 

On his first official day of work, Minseok wakes at fifteen past 3 in the morning. He’s anticipated his alarm, his nerves getting the best of him, and he keeps an eye on the clock as he sits down to a hot mug of tea and some toast. Breakfast was usually a luxury, but it was one that he could afford that morning. Finally, at twenty to the hour, he leaves his apartment and walks the fifteen minutes it takes to arrive at E’s.

When he gets there, the coffee shop is still closed, dark save for a few dim lights scattered throughout the interior of the store. He doesn’t have keys, so he waits by the door, bouncing on the balls of his feet while pulling his coat tightly over his body to keep warm.

“Sorry to keep you waiting.” Minseok gasps and jumps at the voice, not having registered the soft footballs behind him. In the darkness he can barely make out the surprise on Hani’s face. “I didn’t mean to scare you.”

But Minseok assures her that he wasn’t scared—not at all—he just hadn’t heard her approach, and it surprised him. Hani doesn’t say anything but he can see her mouth pull into a small smile as she unlocks the door and disables the alarm.

“I didn’t think you would open,” he says as they flip on lights and head to the small break room in the back of the shop. He watches as she struggles a bit to shrug off her coat but manages to pull it off before he can offer to help her. Minseok reaches for his chef’s whites hanging on a nearby hook. “It’s kind of dangerous, don’t you think?” Sure, the shop was on a busy enough street during the day, but at night and early morning, it was nearly abandoned. Who knows whom she could encounter on the walk to work?

Hani just shrugs her shoulders, her hands reaching for a black apron and tying it around her slim waist. “I like the quiet,” she says as she passes him and slips out the door.

Taking it as a hint that she would prefer to work in silence, Minseok finishes buttoning up his chef’s jacket, smiling at his name embroidered next to the coffee shop’s logo, and doesn’t attempt any more conversation as he goes about his tasks.

 

 

 

They settle into a routine by the end of the first week.

If he arrives first, he waits patiently by the door, eyes trained down the street until she rounds the corner of the building and they exchange good mornings while she unlocks the door. She takes care of the alarm system while he gets the lights, and they stand silently next to each other as they don on their respective uniforms before parting ways and going about their separate tasks. Hani was in charge of brewing the coffee and preparing the shop for open, while he fired up the ovens and went about baking their pastries and breads.

If she arrives first, then she’s already busy by the time he taps softly on the window and sends her a smile and little wave. She’ll look up from behind the espresso bar, always surprised, her hair like burnished copper under the ambient light, and she’ll wipe her hands on her apron and let him in. Sometimes she’ll even give him a small wave back as he slips by her and into the back room.

He doesn’t always open with Hani however. After two weeks of working side by side, Minseok is surprised to be met one morning by Sehun, the same young barista from before, who, in typical university student fashion, shows up half asleep and grumpy at having to wake up so early. Minseok doesn’t question it, but as he hears Sehun mutter to himself and bang around in the front of the shop, Minseok comes to the conclusion that he prefers the quiet mornings of E’s on 5th.

 

 

 

Minseok soon finds out that E’s on 5th is known for many reasons.

The first and foremost, the great coffee. It has achieved cult status in the two years since it first opened its doors. All the baristas, even Sehun, had undergone a rigorous educational experience and training under the tutelage and instruction of Hani herself, and were constantly somehow in the know with all things new or experimental in the coffee world. All of this meant that a customer could walk into E’s on any given day and have, at their disposal, a barista with more coffee and espresso knowledge in their little pinky than the collective knowledge of whole chain coffee shops. This also meant, of course, that E’s served excellent cups of coffee and espresso.

Second, it was known for its unique appeal. Some romanticized the coffee shop, praising its old world charm and calling it a tribute to a bygone age, while others held it up as symbol of non-conformity in the face of commercialization, and to others it was an example that there were still opportunities for coffee shops like E’s. It was the kind of place that popped up on coffee blogs, on social media feeds, on listicles for its specific aesthetic that just begged to be editorialized.

People flocked to the shop in a kind of pilgrimage, some in search of the famed espresso, some to sneak photos of Sehun of E’s working behind the bar, some for the ambiance or novelty of being in a place so different from the rest of the city. And not a few people came because of the head-turning roastmaster.

Although the question had presented itself in his mind, it isn’t until Minseok has been working at E’s for a whole month that Jongin, another part-time barista, fills him in on how their boss was able to open her own coffee shop at such a young age.

Jongin stands by his workstation as Minseok hand layers delicate pastry and butter to make croissants and reveals that Hani is a sort of coffee prodigy. She has an unusual sense of taste that allows her to distinguish favors more keenly than the average person, but rather than be repulsed by the taste of coffee, she instead was able to use her ability to her advantage and created a unique and prized blend of coffee while she was still in high school. Fast forward a few years, and Hani entered, and eventually won, an international coffee roasting and espresso art competition. With the money she won and the fame that came her way when a simple youtube upload of her rolling and pouring milk went viral, Hani was able to open E’s within a year.

Now, two years later, Hani herself had a small cult following of admirers, some more pestering than others, and others more obvious than some. It was completely understandable, Minseok thought as he gazed past the large paned windows that separated the front of the coffee shop from the small kitchen where he worked, eyes lingering on his boss who smiled at a regular customer over the espresso bar.

 

 

 

It’s not long before E’s on 5th becomes known for something entirely new.

Word gets out that with the hire of the new pasty chef, E’s is the spot for fresh baked croissants, creative muffin flavors, biscotti that actually won’t break your teeth, and scones that change with the day. One morning when they’re opening together, Hani enters the kitchen and leans against his worktop as he scoops batter into muffin tins.

“You’re getting quite popular,” she says and he doesn’t know exactly how to take her words. This was new. Hani never came into the kitchen to talk to him. Whatever words they exchanged were usually kept for when Minseok dropped by the office before he left for the day. For some reason, he felt her presence in his kitchen keenly, like an intruder, which he knew was ridiculous because this was her kitchen. “We have a lot of customers who are disappointed when we run out of croissants,” Hani adds.

“Oh,” Minseok pauses, brows furrowing. “I looked at the numbers you usually sold the last two years and went by that.”

“Well, the we haven’t exactly been known for our selection of bakery items,” Hani explains. “I’ve always maintained that we are a first and only a coffee shop. We’ve prided ourselves in our coffee. The food selection, I admit, was always an intentional oversight.”

At Minseok’s look of unease, Hani shakes her head and comes just one step closer. “It’s not a bad thing that you’re doing wonders in the food department,” she smiles at him and Minseok feels himself blush—either at her words of praise or the fact that this might be the first genuine smile she’s willingly given him. “I was thinking, in fact, of expanding what we offer and was hoping you had some ideas.”

Minseok lights up. “Of course!”

“Not too many new additions, please,” Hani attempts to rein in his obvious excitement. “Remember that everything should highlight the coffee, not distract from it. Oh, and none of those doughnut/croissant hybrid things, please.”

He grins at her. “I would never.”

“I thought not,” she replies, a smirk on her lips. “Send me your ideas by the end of the week, and we can chat about it then.”

“Yes, great, definitely,” Minseok nods his head vigorously as he watches Hani give him one last curious look before exciting the kitchen.

 

 

 

It isn’t much longer before Minseok is staying even later at the coffee shop, the expanded menu demanding more of his time, not that he minds. He loves baking, enjoys making delicate patisserie with his hands, and often fell into a kind of trance as he kneaded dough or whipped egg whites. It was therapeutic. It was the source of his pride.

And he likes working at E’s on 5th. Sure it isn’t as high profile as his previous jobs, but the pay is decent and he likes that he was pretty much given autonomy in the kitchen. He likes that the hours are reasonable, and he likes his co-workers, Sehun and Jongin and Solji, and even his newly hired, wise-cracking assistant Jongdae.

Once, as he is leaving for the day, he spies Hani sitting in the office, rubbing her stocking feet with one hand, and cradling her head with the other. Minseok hears her sigh heavily, sees her fingertips dig into her temples, and feels incredibly intrusive on this vulnerable and private moment. He backs away from the office as quietly as possible, but the image of his boss lingers in his mind for the rest of the afternoon.

 

 

 

The following day, he finds Hani in the office once again looking over a stack of papers. When Minseok knocks softly on the doorframe, she glances up at him in surprise, wearing a pair of glasses he’s never seen before and pen hanging from the corner of her mouth.

“Um, I’m about to leave for the day but I thought you might like these,” he steps forward and sets down a plate holding two golden cookies.

“What are they?” Hani eyes the offering warily.

Sablé Breton,” Minseok replies easily. “That’s the fancy French term for what are essentially shortbread cookies.”

Hani raises her gaze to his, eyes probing. “Why are you giving me these?”

Minseok shifts his feet, unsure exactly how to reply. Because you looked like you could use a break? Because I want to do something nice for you? Because I’ve always found emotionally eating the best remedy for stressful days?

“I’m toying with the idea of adding these to the menu and want to know what you think,” he says instead.

“Oh,” Hani finally allows a smile to slip past her lips. “Thank you.”

“No problem. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“Bye, Minseok.”

 

 

 

“What’s the deal with the boss?” Jongdae asks him one day.

“What do you mean?” Minseok is in the middle of tempering an egg mixture for his frangipane crème.

“I mean,” Jongdae pauses from where he’s layering the bottom of baking tins with apples slices for the tarte tatin. “Is she single? Dating seriously or not seriously? Does she have a scary ex-husband? A car load of unmanageable kids?”

Minseok’s usually smooth whisking motion falters. “What?”

“Is. She. Taken?” Jongdae draws out each word.

“I-I don’t know,” he manages and continues his whisking. “I’ve never asked.”

Jongdae scoffs, wholly incredulous. “Are you telling me that you’ve worked here all this time and the idea has never even crossed your mind to find out?”

“I don’t pay attention to things like that.” Minseok ignores the way Jongdae is shaking his head at him, mumbling something under his breath. A thought comes to him then, and his hand pauses again as he turns to Jongdae. “Why? Are you interested in Hani?”

His assistant just looks at him like the answer should be obvious. “Do I have eyes? Yes, of course I’m interested in her,” he states. “How could I not be? She’s gorgeous. And have you seen the way her hips sway in that black skirt? Man—”

“Dating among co-workers is against the rules,” Minseok grinds out.

“I’d be willing to give up this job to have a date with her,” Jongdae grins, mouth curling up at the edges. “Hell, I’d—”

“You’re totally messing up the tatin,” Minseok scolds as he finishes his crème, settling his bowl on the counter. “Pay attention to what you’re doing, please. We’re not here to gossip all day, and especially not about our boss.”

Jongdae’s grin disappears from his face. “Alright, I get it, geez. Someone’s grumpy today.”

“Just get back to work, Jongdae.”

 

 

 

Minseok hates to admit it, but Jongdae’s stupid line of questioning has him on edge for reasons he chooses not to indulge in. Hani was attractive, beautiful even, and there was no denying that. But she was also his boss, someone he respected, and he wasn’t lying when told Jongdae that he had never thought about whether or not she was dating. He was a professional, and he wanted to keep his work relationships professional. And that meant not inquiring, not giving into work gossip, and definitely not thinking about his boss’ love life. It opened the gates to a slippery slope sliding into unprofessionalism, and he preferred not having to deal with any of that.

And yet—and yet—the conversation with Jongdae sparked his curiosity and he found himself just wanting to know, for the sake of his sanity. Minseok spent the next week quietly observing Hani, trying to pick up on clues although he didn’t the faintest idea what said clues would even look like. He knew that she was reticent, was polite and helpful to customers, but held most people at a distance. The closest he ever got to seeing real warmth to Hani was when she was with Sehun. They had been together since the beginning, and it seemed that the kid had somehow wormed his way into Hani’s good graces.

But Minseok still couldn’t figure her out. It drove him crazy that, just last week, he didn’t care at all, and now the knowledge ate at him with every passing day. Maybe she did have a husband tucked away somewhere? He knew that it shouldn't matter in the slightest to him, but for some reason, it did. Luckily, an opportunity presented itself a few days later when Jongin and Sehun joined him and Jongdae in the kitchen during their break.

“He’s here again,” Jongin sings as Sehun pokes around trying to find something he can eat.

“Who?” Jongdae questions as he adds a lemon glaze to the scones.

Luhan,” Jongin replies with a shudder. Sehun makes a face.

Minseok is at the stove melting chocolate for ganache. “Who’s Luhan?”

“Just about the creepiest guy you’ll ever run into here,” Sehun answers as he saddles up to Minseok’s side. “Unfortunately, he’s also the most persistent guy you’ll ever run into here. Totally has the hots for Hani. Also totally delusional in thinking that he has a chance.”

Jongin nods. “Poor guy doesn’t know when to take a hint.”

“What’s wrong with him?” Jongdae asks, genuinely curious and genuinely interested to find out more about Hani’s type.

“See for yourself,” Sehun gestures grandly and the four of them stare through the paned windows that look into the front of the shop to witness Hani’s stiff posture and tight smile. They also see a man with delicate features and a smug grin of self-satisfaction reach over the counter and take Hani’s hand in his.

“Luhan,” Jongin begins, “drops by the shop every so often—has been coming here for at least a year now—and every time he does he’s always looking for Hani, always trying to pressure her for a date, always mouthing off the greasiest lines ever.”

“I’ve never seen him before. No one has ever told me about him,” Minseok can’t help but let slip.

“That’s because you never ask,” Jongdae taunts. “You’re not one for workplace gossip, remember?”

Jongin takes note of the pointed look between the pastry chef and his assistant. “Well, if Hani’s not around, he usually leaves pretty quickly,” he offers. “If we see him coming, we try to warn her so she can slip into the back office and hide out for a while until he’s gone. But sometimes he slips in and she gets caught. Like today.”

“I don’t see what’s so bad about the guy,” Jongdae perks up. “She should give him a chance. He’s been steadfast in pursuing her, after all. That should count for something.”

“I’m not so sure,” Jongin says as they all witness Luhan kiss Hani’s fingers. “At this point it kind of seems like he’s in it for the thrill of the chase, you know? The more she pulls away, the harder he pursues her.”

Minseok turns away from the scene in front of him. He pulls the chocolate from the double boiler, and sure enough, he’s ruined it. Irritated, he shoves the bowl at Sehun, who grins like a Cheshire cat on Christmas morning. The boy immediately dips a finger into the chocolate before bringing it to his mouth. Minseok watches as Sehun’s eyes roll up to the back of his head. “Will you marry me, Kim Minseok?” he breathes.

“No.”

“Damn it. Then please don’t quit before I do,” Sehun pouts before dipping in again. “I need you.”

“Anyway,” Minseok walks to the refrigerator to pull ingredients to start all over again. “If she wanted to give him a chance, she would have done so by now. But she hasn’t and now he’s making her uncomfortable at her place of work. He’s a pest.”

“That,” Sehun says with a mouthful of chocolate, “and the boss doesn’t date customers. Not after what happened last time.”
Jongdae all but perks up at the news and he leans in to ask, “What happened last time?”

“Some guy came in and completely charmed her. Wined and dined her and totally swept her off her feet. Turns out he was after her trade secrets,” Jongin shakes he head sadly.

“Yeah, Kris was a bastard like that, but he was so nice to look at,” Sehun sighs dreamily.

“Do you know if she’s dating anyone now?” Jongdae can’t help but ask.

Both Sehun and Jongin shake their heads. “Well, we actually don’t know,” Jongin says. “She doesn’t really talk about her personal life. As you’ve probably noticed by now, she’s a pretty private person. Even more so than when I started working here.”

“But she likes pretty boys?”

“Rich, pretty boys,” Sehun winks before returning to his bowl.

“Well, I guess that rules you out,” Minseok cuts in with a hand on Jongdae’s shoulder. And before his assistant can even open his mouth, he addresses the other two. “While this has been really fascinating, I’m sure you need to be doing something else other than freeloading off kitchen scraps. Out,” he waves off the pair of baristas with a flick of his wrist.

Jongin has to pry Sehun’s grubby fingers from the bowl and push him out of the kitchen. “Come on, Hunnie, I think Luhan’s gone now anyway.”

 

 

 

 

 

Later, when Hani returns to her office, she’ll find a small paper bag on her desk with the note, Mocha bread. A personal favorite.

 

 

 

 

 

From then on, every so often, Hani will find a sweet treat waiting for her on her desk. And every time it draws a smile from her lips.

 

 

 

 

 

It’s just a regular Monday morning and Minseok is waiting by the front door of the shop when 4am comes and goes and there’s no sign of Hani. As the minutes slip by, Minseok grows increasingly agitated and a knot forms in the pit of his stomach. At twenty after, he’s about to call her, his finger poised on her number, when he sees her skitter around the corner, coat flapping in the wind as her long legs carry her quickly toward him.

“Are you okay?” is the first thing he blurts when she’s close enough. His eyes scan over her, taking in her flustered face and checking for injuries.

“I’m fine, I’m fine,” Hani gasps between heaving breaths as she unlocks the door. “I just woke up late. Sorry.”

Minseok ignores the wave of relief that washes over him. “I thought something had happened to you.”

Hani pauses and looks at him over her shoulder. They’re standing close, probably closer than they’ve ever been. Her hair is down, long over her shoulders, and he can’t recall ever seeing it in anything over than the bun she always wore. Behind her thick glasses her eyes search his, dark and probing, and the moment stretches between them. “Nothing happened. I’m alright.”

“Glad to hear it,” he says lightly and takes a step back. “Now will you open the door, I’ve been freezing out here for like 30 minutes.”

Her laugh is beautiful, he thinks, when he finally gets to hear it.

 

 

 

Later, when Hani slips into the kitchen, Minseok is in the middle of cutting biscotti before their second bake. Gone is the flustered and frazzled woman with a roller in her bangs from earlier that morning, replaced by the familiar image of his boss—crisp white shirt, rolled sleeves, black apron over an equally black skirt, and without a hair out of place.

In her hands is a cup of coffee. As she settles it down before him, his stomach churns at the thought of having to force it down.

“I know you’re not the biggest fan of coffee,” Hani pauses and pushes the cup slightly towards him. “But I think you’ll like this.”

Minseok dusts off his hands on his apron. “How did you know that I don’t like coffee?” he asks sheepishly.

“Hmm,” Hani smiles bemusedly as she leans back against the worktop. “During your interview you took one sip of the coffee I brought you and left the rest to grow cold. Also, in all the time you’ve worked here, I’ve never even seen you touch the stuff unless you’re using it to bake with.”

“Oh,” Minseok can feel a blush creep up his neck. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to offend. I just—I can’t—I mean, the taste?” he fumbles over his words.

But Hani looks more amused than offended. “I think it’s about finding the cup that’s perfect for you. Plain black coffee clearly isn’t your drink.”

“And you think this is?” he gestures to the mug full of a dark liquid.

“Yes,” she replies confidently, eyes flashing. “If there’s one thing I know, it’s coffee.” She slides the cup even closer to him, her eyebrow raised in challenge. “I’ll convert you yet, Kim Minseok.”

Minseok can feel the weight of Hani’s impregnable stare as he brings the mug to his lips. When he takes his first sip, he’s amazed to find none of the bitterness that he associates with coffee. Instead, the warm liquid that washes over his tongue is subtly sweet and clean tasting. As Minseok marvels over the flavors and the fact that he’s actually enjoying his very first cup of coffee, he nods in appreciation while Hani grins in triumph.

“It’s good, right?”

He doesn’t even care that she’s gloating. “You really are a coffee genius.” But Hani makes a face at the name. “What’s wrong with being called a ‘coffee genius’?” he asks.

“Being called a ‘genius’—it’s like people think that it just comes easily to me because of some innate ability. As if this has all been so easy and like I haven’t worked for…everything.” Minseok watches as she runs her fingertips along the grain of the table. He doesn’t dare say a word—dare breathe—because so much is happening all at once and yet it’s all terribly fragile and he fears shattering it with one false move. For the first time, he sees cracks in Hani’s glossy exterior, and he longs to see what lies beneath yet fears what he'll find.

“There’s an art to what we do here at E’s,” Hani is staring hard at the countertop, the edges of her mouth down turned slightly. “Being a genius or whatever, it makes us sound so…clinical. Makes what we do here impersonal and cold. As if,” her eyes flick up to Minseok’s for a brief second, “as if there’s not just a little bit of magic to what we do.”

And he maybe does know because he finds himself just the tiniest bit of very much enchanted as he stands speechless before her. Growing self-conscious under the intensity of his stare, Hani laughs uneasily. “Sorry,” she shakes her head, her hands flying to mess with her bangs. “I should let you get back to work. I’ll just—”

“Can you show me?”

Hani ceases her retreat out of the kitchen, opting, instead, to tilt her head at him in question. “Your craft,” he smiles. “Your magic.”

 

 

 

Minseok watches from a safe enough distance as Hani goes about the steps to making a proper latte, listens as she explains each machine, each process, as she describes the correct way to roll milk and what constitutes the perfect espresso pull. He also notices how Hani is delighted to have the undivided attention of a captive audience as she talks about her craft. And when she’s done, there is a beautiful latte sitting before them, a kitten decorated in the foam.

“But the drink I gave you before was made in this,” Hani pulls out what looks like a double-ended chemistry beaker. “The extraction process is different from the coffee you’d get from a regular coffeemaker, and the end result is a smoother finish. None of the bitterness and all of the floral notes.”

He takes the glass from her, turns it around in his hands. “So that’s why I liked that coffee so much. How did you know I would?”

Hani grins up at him. “And that’s why there’s magic in what we do here.”

Minseok just nods, smiling to himself, because how can someone explain the inner workings of something as illogical as magic? The moment grows heavy between them, each searching for something to break the tension when the pair is interrupted by the loud banging coming from the shop doors. There stands Jongdae, waving at them to be let in for the start of his shift. They break apart immediately, Minseok stepping away and clearing his throat. “I’ll, uh, let him in. Thank you, for sharing this with me.”

Before he turns away he thinks he sees a flush of color on Hani’s cheeks.

 

 

 

“So…anything you want to tell me?” Jongdae asks innocently once he walks into the kitchen.

“Yes, check to see if the dough proofed overnight.”

Jongdae rolls his eyes, but walks to the pantry anyway. “Not that. I’m talking about that nice, cozy little scene I interrupted earlier. You know, I almost didn’t want to go and ruin it, but then I would have been late. I’m sorry, man.”

Minseok throws flour onto the countertop to dust the surface so he can roll out the dough. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“I’m talking about you and the boss making eyes at each other!” Jongdae declares. “I didn’t know you were interested in Hani. But it totally makes sense now that I think about it.”

“Please don’t—”

Jongdae gasps. “And I’m sorry if I stepped on your toes before—you know, about me asking about Hani.” Minseok gapes, because his assistant has it all wrong, and worst of all, he seems genuinely apologetic. “I didn’t know, I swear. Sorry.”

Minseok sighs. “Jongdae, stop apologizing. There’s nothing going on between us.”

“But I saw—”

"I think we can start on that pâte à choux now, don’t you think?” Minseok interrupts as he turns towards Jongdae, a smile plastered on his face. He doesn't want to talk about what Jongdae might have seen.

Jongdae opens his mouth several times before sighing. “I’ll get right on it.”

 

 

 

On the day he doesn’t work at E’s, Minseok heads to the local park to play pick up games of soccer. That week, he finds himself heading to an indoor soccer field that is a 10-minute walk plus a 15 minute bus ride away from his apartment. Despite the knowledge of his early call to work, Minseok makes it to the field several times that week, playing several games each day.

By the time he gets home and into his apartment, there is little left for him to do but fall into bed and sleep.

 

 

 

While Hani is never late again to open the store, Minseok does notice the dark circles under her eyes, her fatigue, her distraction. He comes to find out through Jongdae, who found out via Solji, who found out through Sehun, that apparently Hani was pulling in extra hours after the shop closed, working on research and development for something new for E’s on 5th.

“It happens about once a year,” Jongin explains one morning. “Hani will work crazy hours, holed up in here for a few weeks until Bam! We get something brand new and brilliant on the menu that is a wonderful hit with customers, bloggers, coffee connoisseurs, and the like.” He lights up when Minseok slides a plate with his own pastry creation in development towards him. “She really lives up to her reputation as a coffee genius, but it also wears her out.”

Minseok thinks about the sweets he leaves her, and how inadequate they all are.

 

 

 

As predicted, a few weeks later Hani is holding evening workshops for the baristas in regards to their new ice drip extraction process. Minseok can’t help but peak into the shop as he walks by one night, and he sees her demonstrating the glass beakers and baubles that look more appropriate for a chemistry laboratory than a coffee shop.

It pays off, in the end, as the coffee blogosphere quickly catches on, and E’s on 5th experiences renewed interest from lifestyle magazines who drop in to snap pictures and take interviews. Hani is thrust back into the focus, and for a moment the whole coffee world is enchanted once again by the lovely prodigy.

Except she’s not alone.

Minseok, a mere spectator in middle of all the chaos, can only observe from a distance as Hani is joined by a young man with gentle manners and deep dimples. That’s Yixing, Sehun tells him between large bites, pastry cream on his lip. He’s the guy who helped her with the new coffee thing.

Minseok’s eyes flicker to where Hani and Yixing sit comfortably next to each other at a table, both beautifully groomed and styled to perfection, as an interview finishes up. A photographer then steps in to pose the pair, Yixing’s arm draped comfortably around Hani’s waist.

 

 

 

 

 

“Don’t worry, they’re just friends,” Jongin whispers next to him. “Yixing is Hani’s childhood friend. He helped her last year when we made modifications to our decanter extraction process.”

“Okay.” Minseok keeps his head down and his hands busy as he portions out dough.

“I’m just saying,” Jongin says meekly. “You don’t have to be jealous. It’s not a date.”

Minseok begins to laugh, loud and false. “Jealous? Who’s jealous?”

“You!” Jongdae yells from behind them. “You’re so jealous it’s actually kind of awful to be around you.” He shakes his head, mumbling, “So grumpy.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Minseok feigns.

Hani and Yixing were up for some fancy award, apparently, and they were going to the dinner and ceremony together like some kind of couple. Okay. Minseok was completely and utterly fine with that. And no matter what the others said, he was most definitely not jealous.

“We’re talking about how you have a crush on the boss,” Sehun says bluntly from where he’s perched on a counter. “And how everybody knows it.”

“I do not have a crush on Hani,” Minseok protests, feeling cornered.

“Yixing is a cool guy,” Jongin cuts in, looking pleadingly at Minseok. “And he really helps her out. It’s nice that she has someone to trust so that she doesn’t have to carry all the burden alone.”

Minseok finds that he doesn’t really have a response to that because it wasn’t as if he could do those things for her. Beyond being about skill and expertise—because he knew next to nothing about extraction processes—it was also about place and position. And his place was in the kitchen and his position, colleague. And that’s all they could be to each other.

 

 

 

 

 

On his walk home he passes E’s on 5th and it only takes a moment to register that something is off. It’s late, the shop having closed hours ago, and by his estimate, only a handful of hours before it’s due to re-open. But instead of the dim interior that should greet him, he’s met with the bright glare of the house lights shining like a beacon in the night.

His footsteps quickly bring him to the front doors, but as Minseok peers through them, his eyes sweeping through the space, he isn’t able to distinguish any figures, any sign of life, nor any displaced items. Swallowing the lump in this throat, his hand hesitates at the door before tugging gently. It opens easily under his fingertips.

Pulse racing, Minseok enters the coffee shop silently, all his senses on high alert as he makes his way through the front of the house. However, he doesn’t get very far before he sees a blur of movement through the paned windows looking into the kitchen. Moving cautiously, Minseok slips behind the swinging door, and his jaw drops at what he finds.

Long, toned legs peeking out from a short tight dress greet him, their owner busy poking through a refrigerator.

“Hani?” Minseok creaks.

Immediately, the intruder spins around, slamming the refrigerator door closed with her body and leaning back on it unsteadily. “Oh, Minseok, you scared me!” There’s a faint blush on her cheeks as she glances his way. “Hi.”

Minseok forces himself not to stare at her exposed shoulders, the smooth expanse of her collarbones on full display, or the enticing way black lace envelop the length of her arms, or the curves of her body as she leans against the stainless steel doors. He definitely doesn’t let his gaze linger over the red fullness of her lips.

“What are you doing here?” he asks, confused as to why she’s at the shop and in the kitchen of all places. But most of all, Minseok wondered just want was behind the sheepish look sweeping across her face. “Shouldn’t you be at that awards dinner with Yixing?”

She points to a small crystal award trophy discarded on the counter. “Yes, we went. And Yixing dropped me off at home but I just—I had a—so I came here…” Hani attempts to explain, fidgeting with her hands.

Minseok tilts his head, trying to make sense of the little pieces of information she was haltingly divulging to him. At his look of utter bewilderment, Hani huffs and averts her eyes. “I was looking for cookies,” she confesses.

“Cookies?”

Yes,” and Minseok swears he sees a pout tug down the corners of mouth. “Those fancy dinners always have the smallest portions, and I really like those cookies you sometimes leave me…”

Their eyes meet for a moment before he tosses his gym bag to the ground. “Can you give me 20 minutes?”

 

 

 

 

 

Hani is sitting on the countertop, high heels having been discarded and bare legs swinging in childlike impatience. She watches him work quietly, her eyes drinking in every movement, every flick of his wrist, every dusting of four that emerges from his fingers while Minseok ignores the flash of skin he catches from the corner of his eyes.

“What are you doing here?” Hani’s tone is openly curious as she observes him. “You’re too talented to be wasting your time making croissants at a tiny coffee shop.”

Minseok gives her a wan smile. “Are you trying to get rid of me?”

Immediately she shakes her head, “No, not at all. If anything, I’d want to keep you here. It’s just, I mean, you should be working at 5-star restaurants, getting your name out there, or even being one of those celebrity pastry chefs.” Hani’s hands fly about as she clarifies, “You’re being hidden from the world in this back kitchen when you could be doing so much more.”

“Would you believe that I actually like working here?” She looks at him skeptically, eyes narrowing.

“Well I do,” he laughs. “You forget, I did work at all those high-end places making foams and gelees and deconstructed crème brulees every night. It’s incredibly demanding and competitive, which, I think you can understand.” He turns away, busies himself with tidying up his workstation as he talks about his past. “I did want all those things once—the recognition, the bragging rights that come with working in some of the most elite kitchens.” Minseok pauses, lost in a memory, before shaking his head slowly. “But in the end, I decided that it wasn’t for me.”

“So you just gave it all up?” she asks softly.

“Not entirely, as you can see, I’m still in the kitchen,” he replies easily. “I don’t think I can ever walk away completely. It’s—” he glances at her briefly. “It’s what I love doing. I like working with my hands. I like stepping back, seeing something that started out as an idea in my head become a reality. It’s an amazing feeling. It’s like…like…like…”

“Magic,” Hani supplies for him, a faint sparkle in her eye.

Minseok exhales. “Exactly.”

 

 

 

“Have you ever thought of opening up your own shop? You could call it Hani’s as a tribute to me.”

Minseok laughs, unchecked and unguarded. “Maybe, in the future. For now, I just like being here. It allows me to work and be creative while at the same time, I can have a life outside the shop. I never had that when I was at those fancy restaurants.”

“What kinds of things do you do outside of work?”

“I play soccer, for one.”

A smile breaks over Hani’s face as she gestures to his attire—track pants and jacket. “Ah, is that why you look like you just came from the gym?”

He nods, leaning against the counter opposite her. His fingers tug at the ends of his limp hair before brushing them out of his eyes. “Well, I mean, I just did.”

Hani’s brow furrows. “But it’s so late?”

“I really like playing,” he shrugs in what he hopes passes as a casual and unaffected manner. He cards another hand through his loose hair.

“Our Kim Minseok,” she smiles at him fondly, “he doesn’t do anything by halves.”

The flow of conversation, the ease of smiles and laughs and looks that linger too long—the fact that they are, the both of them, so painfully aware of the other’s presence and the space they occupy—it settles in heavy and deep in his bones, sinks right into his skin and slips in much too easily pass his defenses, and Minseok knows that quickening of his pulse, the blooming anticipation and desire in his chest is a recipe for disaster.

Just then, Hani slips off the counter and Minseok has to avert his eyes from where all that black lace rides up her thighs before settling back down again. Her bare feet make no noise on the kitchen mats as she approaches him, reaching back and pulling the elastic out of her hair and letting it tumble down her neck and shoulders. “Come here, I’ll tie it for you,” she offers.

And when she’s close—close enough to touch—Minseok presses back against the counter, its hard edge digging into his back. He’s actively tried to avoid this moment. He really has.

Hani reaches up, her slender arms coming about his face and fingers slipping into his hair, and Minseok feels surrounded. His hands find purchase on the edge of the counter, and he grips it almost painfully. He can feel the heat of her body on his skin, and they weren’t even touching.

“There, done,” Hani says when she finishes, and Minseok opens his eyes. “It’s cute. Apple hair suits you,” she smiles up at him. But Hani is still close, so unguarded and lovely, and everything in him wants to lean forward and close the gap between them.

To the surprise of them both, Hani is the one who kisses him. Quick and imprecise (she catches more of his chin than his lower lip), but a kiss nonetheless. “Is that okay?” she says shyly, a blush on her cheeks belying her bold actions.

No, Minseok thinks. It’s not okay. Because now his heart is slamming against his ribcage and his lips are burning and literally everything he is has betrayed him and become greedy, wanting—needing—more more more.

“Hani,” Minseok whispers her name, one hand wrapping around her waist and pulling her against him while the other buries itself in her hair, holding the back of her head still as he brushes his lips against hers.

 

 

 

Things go from gentle to heated in mere seconds, Minseok pulling gasps and moans from Hani’s lips as he sucks bruising kisses onto her neck, her own hands pulling at his hair and the zippers of his clothes.

It’s not until they register a consistent beeping sound do they come back to themselves, Hani having somehow ended back on the countertop, laid out and with a shirtless Minseok laving at her collarbones.

“That’s the timer,” Minseok explains, voice raw as he looks up into Hani’s flushed face. “The cookies are done.”

She nods, unhooking her ankles from around his waist and sitting up while Minseok finds his shirt on the stand mixer and slips it back on. A moment later, the timer is silent and fresh baked sablés sit on the counter. The two of them stare at the cookies, the silence engulfing them.

Minseok sighs, deep and full of regret. “Hani, about what just happened—”

“I like you, Kim Minseok,” she blurts out. “So before you talk about regret and mistakes, I want you to know that I don’t regret kissing you and it wasn’t a mistake.” And that’s the second shock of the night he’s received from her mouth. “It wasn’t for me,” her voice is softer now, more gentle, as she spares him a glance, “because I like you.”

And Minseok can see her steel herself, her hands fists at her sides, and, having said her piece, he frowns at the way she squares her shoulders for whatever he might say. In truth, he’s conflicted, but it is also telling that he doesn’t want her to put her guards up around him, that he doesn’t want to be the reason for walls.

Walking to the refrigerator, he pulls out a carton of milk and takes out a couple of glasses. Pouring them each a cup, he tops them off with one of the cookies before sliding it towards Hani. But she doesn’t move, her entire persona on edge.

“Can I tell you a story?” Minseok asks before breaking off a piece of cookie and dunking it in his milk. He doesn’t expect an answer nor does he receive one before continuing. “You asked me about why I’m not working at some luxury restaurant and I told you that it wasn’t for me. That’s only a half truth.”

He takes a bit of his softened cookie. “I really loved the last place I worked. The atmosphere was amazing and I was learning a lot, and yeah, the pressure was intense but I loved the challenge,” he smiles at the memory. “And I grew close to the people there…and in particular, with one woman I worked closely with.”

Out of the corner of his eye, he can see that Hani had moved slightly closer, although she made no attempt to speak. “We ended up dating…and I trusted her,” Minseok pauses, “until we were both up for the same promotion. And I got it over her.”

“We had kept our relationship a secret, not wanting to mess up the dynamics of the kitchen or be accused of favoritism. Only one other co-worker knew about us,” he shakes his head, voice full of regret. “Imagine my surprise when I get called in by HR because a harassment claim had been filed against me…and by her, of all people. Said I was emotionally abusive and used my position over her for my personal gain. It was a mess. I was a mess. I only got out of it because the co-worker who knew about us, Suho, vouched for me. In the end, she was willing to do whatever it took to advance.”

“I’m sorry,” Hani whispered, pained for his sake.

“Don’t be,” he gave her a wan smile. “It made me think about a lot of things. About how I didn’t really know her to begin with. That maybe you can never really know a person. I also thought about how crazily I had wanted success and recognition. But I hadn’t thought about at what cost. It was distasteful for me to be a part of that world where that kind of betrayal was almost expected.”

“And so you walked away.”

“And so I walked away,” Minseok nods before smiling at her. “And by fate or good fortune, I ended up here. For me, it’s not about liking you or not liking you—because I like you, a lot, and have been trying to not like you for a long time now.”

The corners of Hani’s mouth are titled upwards, even as she adorably tries hard to fight it. Minseok reaches for her hand, cradling it to his chest and drawing her near in the process. "And all of that was so stupid because being here with you, like this, is...is...and you are...” he was never that great with words but Minseok has never lamented his lack of eloquence more than right at that moment. "I just...I really like you," he manages, face aflame, and hopes that she understands what he's trying to convey. “And I-I would like to get to know you better. I don’t want to mess this up. I don’t want to rush into things again,” he tightens his hold on her hand.

"I want to get this right with you."

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

That night, Minseok learns a lot of things about Hani.

The first is that her apartment is literally around the corner from the coffee shop. He knows this because they hold hands as he walks her home.

Second, is that she has the softest bed sheets imaginable. He knows this because she invites him to stay the night (the both of them have to be at work in 4 hours and Minseok lives 15 mins away by foot), but instead of crashing on the couch like he had thought, Hani takes his hand and leads him to her bedroom.

The third thing that he learns about her is that she dislikes coffee. He knows this because she confesses that she is a supertaster—she is blessed/cursed with a superior sense of taste. And, it turns out, coffee is too bitter for her sensitive taste buds. He teases her that he’s dating someone with a super power.

The last thing he learns about her that night is that she fits perfectly into his arms (and maybe his life) and he knows this because they cuddle sweetly before drifting off to sleep.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“So, are you and Hani, like, a thing now?” Jongdae asks him 2 days later.

“Describe thing,” Minseok replies.

“That’s a yes!” Jongdae grins, toothy and wide. He drops his pastry bag and points an accusatory finger at him. “If it weren’t true you would have denied it right away!”

Minseok has the decency to blush.

“I knew it!” Jongdae slaps him on the back. “Congrats, man. I freaking knew it and hate you for lying to me, but congratulations!”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For the most part, things at work don’t change very much.

They still open most mornings together, but they now stand too close and linger next to each other too long. Ever the boss, sometimes she’ll call him into her office for a quick make-out session before kicking him out without a word or parting glance.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Something is up with them,” he hears Luhan whisper bitterly—but not really whisper—to Solji one morning as he’s walking by. “I’m telling you there’s something to their relationship.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When Sehun corners him about it, pushing him into the pantry with Jongin keeping watch, Minseok thinks the both of them have been watching far too many mafia movies.

“What are your intentions with Hani?” Sehun demands, arms crossed over his chest and Minseok has to choke back his desire to laugh.

He tells Sehun (and Jongin) that he’s very much serious about Hani, and that they’re taking things slowly. And they are. They go one dates of all kinds, Hani sometimes coming out to his soccer matches, and Minseok teaching her how to cook. While he had always been attracted to Hani, he had been hestiant, reluctant even, to admit his growing fondness for her given his past experience with romance in the workplace. But all of his nervousness and worries were for naught, it seemed, because Hani never gave him a reason to regret his choice. And he found himself growing more attached to her with each passing day. That seemed enough to appease the young baristas.

“Good, because I would hate to break your kneecaps,” Sehun says as he clasps a hand on Minseok’s shoulder. And Minseok definitely knows they’ve been watching far too many seasons of the Sopranos.

“Sorry to have to do this to you,” Jongin cuts in as they all make their way out of the pantry. “It’s just that Hani’s like a big sister to us. We don’t want to see her get hurt.”

And it’s so sweet, the way these two boys tower over him but are looking at him so contritely. Minseok doesn’t even mind the slight harassment. He gives them each a cream puff for their troubles and makes a note to tell Hani later.

"I always knew I liked you," Sehun says happily. "And not just because you give me delicious treats...but because you make Hani smile."

Jongin nods thoughtfully. "She smiles a lot more these days, and we think that's because of you."

"Right...so," Sehun clasps him on the back and puffs out his chest. "We're trusting you. Don't make us regret this."

Minseok can't help but smile. "I won't."

 

 

 

 

 

After a few weeks, Hani learns about Minseok's jealousy towards Yixing. But she reassures him that she and Yixing were really close childhood friends, and the thought of dating him was gross. Not that Yixing wasn’t an amazing catch for a lucky girl, but Hani was far too close to him now to see him as a man.

Hani kisses away Minseok’s pout and tells him not to be worried or jealous because she liked Minseok almost right away. “You reminded me of a cat,” she smiles at him. “You were just so cute.”

"Plus, you made me those amazing cookies, so how could I not like you?" she teases.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

They learn more about each other slowly for weeks and weeks and weeks.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Until Minseok has Hani pressed up against the back of her door and before they know it they’re falling into bed, a tangle of limbs, and agree that there was merit to learning things in the heat of the moment also.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jongdae takes over his position when Minseok quits E’s on 5th, much to Sehun’s displeasure but with Jongin’s good wishes.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When Minseok opens XOXO a few months later, it is to glowing reviews and an equally radiant Hani on his arm. The small patisserie was a product of his partnership with his old co-worker, Suho, who, it turns out, was wealthy beyond compare.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Years later, when asked about the key to their success—both in business and in their relationship—both Hani and Minseok agree that it takes hard work, luck, and just the littlest bit of magic.

End