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Coffee's for Closers

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    Grande white mocha latte. Steam milk to the third line, four pumps of syrup, two shots of espresso, put on a sleeve, pour the milk, whipped cream, lid, hand it off, next. Kid’s hot chocolate. Steam milk to the bottom line at one-twenty seven degrees, two pumps mocha, one pump vanilla, pour the milk, whipped cream, lid, hand it off, next. Venti iced caramel macchiato upside down with coconut milk and an extra shot. Pull two shots of espresso into each teacup, six hits of vanilla in the cup, espresso over the vanilla, coconut milk to the top line, ice to the rim, caramel drizzle of seven vertical, seven horizontal, two circles, lid, hand it off, next. This is literally the only thing running through Virgil’s mind anymore.

    Alright, maybe not the only thing. There is the odd customer who gets annoyed at receiving a small cup when they asked for a tall, because ‘I thought tall meant large!’ and Virgil has had just about enough of people not understanding the price difference. There’s also a regular here and there that hands off their reusable cup with a grin, so he can fill it with caramel and decaf and nonfat milk for the regular’s wife, and the guy can get a tall pike place roast with caramel syrup in a grande cup, and Virgil can hand it off and feel proud of himself for knowing a regular’s order so precisely. Oh, and lest we not forget the ever-present parents thinking it’s cool to let their toddlers run wild and knock down his signs and spill drinks everywhere because ‘it’s okay, honey, he gets paid to clean that up!’

    Okay, so there are several things running through Virgil’s mind right now. At this incredibly specific moment, one of those several things is the fact that he only has to survive twelve. More. Minutes. With the literal worst coworker on the face of the earth. He can’t speak to the quality of workers beneath the earth’s crust—sorry, team members— but for air breathing losers such as he, his buddy here just. Takes the damn cake. Stole the candles. Blew out his wish. On his birthday. Without a birthday gift. Spit on the frosting. Grabbed two chunks with her bare hands. Ate them like a toddler. Complained when she was the only one eating cake. Took the cake anyway.

    Virgil doesn’t particularly care for cake.

    “Hey, how’re you doing?” Kim asks the next guest, plastering the absolute fakest smile Virgil has ever seen on her face. Like, he’s pretty sure it’s bordering on genuine. That’s how fake it is.

    Virgil doesn’t particularly care for Kim, either.

    “I’m good, how’re you?” the guest replies, staring up at the trifold menu and holding up a line of seven people behind them because they didn’t have the foresight to decide on a drink during the fifteen minutes they spent in line. “I’ll take a grande salted caramel mocha.” Virgil ignores Kim as she delivers the spiel about the limited supply of whipped cream, instead focusing on the measurements of all the drinks waiting to be finished. Sure, he admires that one lady for getting eight shots of espresso—he could definitely do with some of what she’s having—but her drink is doing a terrible job of holding up the line when their dinky little store only has one mastrena.

    Ten minutes.

    “Venti double quad for Debra?” Virgil calls, ignoring the line of drinks that haven’t been claimed yet. Seriously, if these people are as intent as they seem to be on getting out of here quickly, you’d think they’d jump at the chance to take their drinks. Virgil doesn’t really care either way, as he only has to survive nine more minutes.

    “Hey, we need a milk run before tomorrow,” Virgil tells Kim, shuffling down the line of drinks. To be fair, they’re moving much more quickly now that the whole espresso machine isn’t focused on one drink from five minutes ago. “Want me to do it?”

    “Ugh, yeah,” Kim groans, rolling her eyes. She waves off the concerned look from the next guest, eyeing Virgil’s obscenely long queue of drinks. “I’ll finish those up, you go get the milk, peace out in ten?”

    “Something like that,” Virgil agrees, topping off the last row of grande hot chocolates. “You know where the button is for extra help?”

    “Duh, of course I know where it is.” Rather than give a sarcastic remark to her attitude—which is what he wants more than anything—Virgil smiles brightly, pushing his way past the swinging door and straightening the hat that never sits quite right on his head. In the near back, he pulls out his constantly dying phone to snap a picture of the barren fridge. All the way to the back of the main store and into the freezer, he trundles one of the squeaky-wheeled carts between the aisles, dodging oblivious mothers and manspreading dudes with man-buns and ratty tennis shoes.

    “Okay, twenty two blue, five pink, seven red,” Virgil mumbles to himself, double- and triple-checking the picture to reassure himself of what they need. “Maybe just seventeen blue, five pink, five red.” These corrections continue as he sets about pulling every jug he can find from the crates, absently tugging down his sleeves as the cold sends goosebumps skittering over his skin. “Two more red, maybe a few half and half?” Thinking back, he’s pretty sure corporate didn’t ship any half and half this week, either. Sunday’s gonna be a blast. “Still no heavy whipping cream, no surprise there. The rations thin. The plot chickens.” Allowing himself a small laugh at his own nonsense, Virgil backs the cart out of the fridge and deepens his chronic slouch to put more force behind the wheels. They squeal and scream in protest as he shoves the— trolley? Is that what they call it? —back to the front, practically spilling it everywhere as he swerves around a narrow corner to avoid a stray child pinballing off the end cap displays.

    Finally at the near back again, Virgil fights with the cart to get it through the doors and over the floor mats covering the little alley, very nearly ramming his head into the sink when the wheels free themselves with no warning. “Okay, freakin’ ow, ” he mutters, rubbing the bruise on his side from the impact. “Whatever, just a few more minutes, and I can go somewhere that doesn’t totally suck or drain the life from its patrons.”

    True to his word, Virgil eventually succeeds in restocking the rest of the milks, popping his head out to check on Kim’s status in regards to whether she’ll survive the next three minutes. One severely long line that’s steadily trickling out, most of them with drinks in hand, and if the flurry of legs outside the shuttered window is anything to go by, another slam is hot on its heels. Virgil tosses out a flippant farewell to Kim and makes a break for the punch clock, having absolutely no desire to stick around for the hell that awaits.

    “Okay, cool, cool, love driving in the rain, favorite part of my Saturday,” Virgil sighs, glancing at the window. If nothing else, should customers not be deterred by the weather? Seriously, just go home. Go home!

    Of course, no one is listening to Virgil’s complaints. All too aware of this fact, he rolls his shoulders forward to shrug on a hoodie over his work-mandated black shirt— at least the uniform doesn’t suck, he supposes. Flipping his hood up to protect his hair and tucking in his earbuds, Virgil strolls out into the clogged aisles of people and things, easily blending in with the other loners that would rather be literally anywhere else, were it not for their families dragging them along. Virgil has no such ties, and accordingly escapes from the store with ease.

    And no, he won’t lie—Virgil absolutely walks slower in the rain to the beat of the song in his ears, and he absolutely imagines some cheesy pathetic music video happening around him, and he absolutely would deny that if you confronted him with it.

    By the time Virgil reaches his car—neon blue, mind you, because it was the cheapest model he could afford—his hoodie is sopping wet, and he has had just about enough of this whole ‘existing’ nonsense for today. But no, no, he wants to go to that new cafe one of the regulars told him about. Stupid stubbornness. Of course, he’s too stubborn to get rid of it. So. On he drives.

    You might think this is where the stars align—where Virgil stumbles his way into a warm cafe from a cold car, where he bumps into his soulmate on first sight, where he knows in an instant that this is where he belongs, that this new place is the home he was always meant to find.

    You would be wrong.

    “Damn broken phone,” Virgil scowls, shaking his phone as the screen refuses to wake up, despite being at a solid seventy percent. He keeps his gaze toward his shoes and the tiled floor beneath them, pressing the home and lock buttons harder than he probably needs to. “If anyone dares to so much as look at me the wrong way, I am chucking you out the window and letting you electrocute yourself like a tiny toaster in the rain.”

    “—Upside down, iced, and pick your poison for the milk,” the person waiting at the register is saying, leaning forward as if they have all the time in the world. Virgil’s frown deepens as the person starts to socialize with the barista.

    “Ah, Roman? I believe there might be someone waiting behind you,” the barista says, their voice carrying over past the pompous person that’s basically a wall at this point. As the guest scuttles away to wait for his drink, the barista beckons Virgil forward, saying, “sorry about him. Never seems to understand that other people occupy this world besides himself.”

    “It certainly would appear that way, wouldn’t it?” Virgil says out of the corner of his mouth, not looking up to meet the barista’s eyes. Regardless of whether they’re the social type, he isn’t about to find out the hard way. The hard way being the only way, of course. Virgil does not want to talk to this person, is what he’s saying. “I’ll just take a small of whatever the cheapest thing you have is that isn’t brewed coffee. Please.”

    “Sure, that’ll be one fifty.”

    “Keep the change.” Virgil passes over the first crumpled bill he can find in his pocket—a five—and moves for a table around the corner of the bar to wait. According to that regular, the baristas here are competent enough to hunt down the guests when their drinks are done. So. Hiding around the corner. His modus operandi.

    The worn chair at a table for two is more than welcoming enough, offering a decent view of the crying clouds outside and the over-soaked flowers decorating the windowsill. Virgil dusts off the plum colored seat, which probably used to be plush when it was new—at this point, it’s so well-loved that there can’t be more than an inch of fabric separating Virgil’s rear from the wooden underside. He tucks one leg beneath himself, propping the other foot along the reddish brown window edge. The beaten-up greys and purples of his sneakers offer a painful contrast to the flowers, shining dull under the relentless rain.

    “Hey, haven’t seen you here before,” a new voice says. The same guy that was bugging the barista plonks himself down across from Virgil, pressing his nose to the window. What was his name, Ho Man? “Did the rain scare you away from a main chain trash place like Starbucks?” Rather than dignify him with a response, Virgil holds up the too-small black cap he’s supposed to wear to work. Proudly displayed in white stitches is the Starbucks logo. The way Ho Man’s face turns beet red as he fumbles to cover up the mistake is almost enough to make Virgil laugh. Almost. “Okay, wait, I didn’t mean—it’s not like I wanted to—obviously I don’t disrespect your profession—not that it’s like you have to have it! I mean, unless you like it, but I didn’t want to assume—that’s what they always say about assuming, isn’t it, ass out of you and me, right?”

    “Yeah.”

    “Okay, yeah, yeah, cool! I, uh, I’m just gonna—I’m gonna go sit over there now.” Ho Man jabs his thumb back over his shoulder, loudly scraping his chair back under the table as he stumbles over his own feet in a mad scramble for the front area of the cafe.

    “He seems fun,” Virgil mumbles to himself, resting his chin on a knee and pressing his forehead to the window. Out in the parking lot—if you can even call it that, it’s basically just ten rectangles that happen to be outlined in white—his car looks incredibly crowded in. Neon blue trapped by dark greys and flat reds, all of them reduced to shields sending rain shooting to the concrete.

    A few tables away, Ho Man has plonked himself at a bigger table, facing off with someone turned away from Virgil. They certainly seem to be in deep conversation about something, but Virgil doesn’t care enough to figure out what, much less elaborate on it. To drown out the light conversation of a considerable amount of quiet patrons around him, he digs his laptop out of his shoulder bag and unfolds it on the table. In any fantasy story he’s ever imagined, this is probably the part where his one true love appears in the vacant chair across from him, reaching out to close the laptop and reveal sparkling blue eyes that dance like the stars on a dark and clear night.

    Yeah, no thanks.

    “There you go, cheapest thing we’ve got that isn’t brewed coffee,” the barista says, appearing very much in Virgil’s field of view to hand over a ceramic mug decorated with tinier cups in every shade of blue and purple. “Apple cider with cinnamon and caramel.”

    That’s the cheapest thing you’ve got?” Virgil sputters in disbelief. “That’s, like, four bucks at a chain place.”

    “I’m sorry, I hadn’t realized we were on par with a ‘chain place,’” the barista replies, making air quotes around the words. “Anyway, make sure you return the mug when you leave. If you take it with you, bring it back next time for a refill, five cent discount.”

    “Seriously? Cool,” Virgil says, reaching for the mug as the barista turns away. “Seems like a good way to encourage people to steal the mug if you ask me, but alright.” The barista hesitates, looking from the bar to Virgil and back. No guests demanding service. Without asking permission or begging forgiveness, the barista slips into the seat across from Virgil. “Yeah, sure, have a seat.” Virgil closes his laptop, bringing the mug to his lips.

    “So I’m not even going to ask whether this is your first time, since it’s pretty obvious,” the barista says. “For one, you didn’t even make eye contact when you ordered your drink, which, okay, rude , and for another, you don’t know the system with the mugs, not to mention that you didn’t even say hi to—”

    “Yeah, yeah, cool, great, can I just enjoy my cheap drink in peace here?” Virgil interrupts. He certainly wouldn’t admit it if this guy asked, but it’s better than what they make at Starbucks. “Yes, my first time, I don’t like eye contact, I certainly don’t like conversation—actually, come to think of it, I have a long list of dislikes, and you are quickly working your way to the top. Please go away.”

    “My name’s Remy.” The barista sticks his hand out, prompting Virgil to merely stare at it with thinly veiled disdain until he retracts it with an awkward laugh. “I run this place with my brother, since he bought the building when the lister needed to move before the taxes got too high, and he pulled me in on the deal for my sparkling charisma—”

    “Of which you have none.”

    “—and because he likes dealing with the numbers more. He’s actually sitting right over—”

    “Don’t care. Why are you sitting here?” Remy wags a finger at Virgil, biting his lower lip and puffing out his cheeks. “Spring a leak much?”

    “Mostly ’cause I was bored. You seem interesting, I don’t know. Thought I could educate you on the mystical ways of how we don’t go bankrupt from people stealing our mugs.”

    “Okay, yeah, sure, cool. Great. Educate away. Special tip, though? You kind of suck at educating so far. Like, a lot.”

    “Noted. We’re small enough that we don’t get many guests, and the ones that come in pretty often usually have their own mugs reserved. Picked yours out for you when I saw you walk in. Brand new, never used. Just for you. So special.”

    “Alright, let’s lay off the dramatically short sentences, Mettaton. You still haven’t convinced me why I should care.”

    “I mean, I think you’re cute, so there’s that. Anyway, we use the same mugs for our regulars, and we get so few one-timers that we barely ever lose a cup. Even when we do, they normally come back out of guilt for keeping the cup, and get another drink at a crap discount. That’s our motto, you know? Come for the guilt, stay for the five cents you save. Well, not really our motto. We don’t have a motto. I’ve always wanted one, but we never set one in stone, since my brother isn’t exactly into all that stuff. Speaking of which, you wanna meet him? He’s right over—”

    “I do not want to meet your brother,” Virgil says. He shakes his head, trying to force his mind to register Remy’s nonstop babbling. “I literally just want to finish my drink in peace.”

    “You’ll be back,” Remy replies, tapping out a rhythm on the table. “The cute ones always come back.”

    “I have literally never wanted to come back to a place less than I do right now. Please go away.” Finally, miracle of miracles, Remy takes the hint, scraping his chair back and moving for the table where Ho Man is still chatting up whoever it is that probably doesn’t want him there.

    Alone once more, Virgil exhales, scraping off part of the dollop of whipped cream on his drink with a finger. Before the caramel drizzle can drip down his hand, he fwips it off with a sharp inhale, pretending like he doesn’t care that he’d probably be drawing thousands of weird looks if anyone were paying attention. Over at Ho Man’s table, Remy slams his fists down on the tiled surface, making the collection of mismatched mugs bounce around dangerously. Ho Man’s friend relaxes their perfect posture by half an inch before straightening again as Remy leans forward to whisper something. Virgil quickly shifts his focus to stare out the window.

    While the rain seems to finally be letting up, its aftereffects are long from forgotten. Orange tulips and red roses in the distance are wobbling on thin stems, desperately holding onto the last of their leaves as the wind does everything it can to wrench them away. Even the trees are mourning the early summer storm, their overgrown leaves tearing away and drifting across the streets to stick themselves to windows. Virgil fights back the urge to recoil as a particularly large leaf smacks into the other side of the glass, tiny drops of water peeling away to race for the flowerbed below.

    When he lifts the mug to his mouth again, it’s empty. Smalls are always so much smaller than larges. Time to go.

    “Hey, uh, where do I, um…?” Virgil calls to Remy as he moves for the door, lifting his empty cup as indication. “Like, do I just leave it on the table, or…?”

    “Just keep it,” Remy replies, waving off Virgil’s annoyed sigh. “Seriously, keep it.”

    “Seriously, no.” Rather than take the mug and run, which would be immensely gratifying if it were, you know, actually against the rules, he deposits it on the island with cream and sugar for coffee. Dammit, even their carts are nicer than the crappy little nothings that Starbucks has.

    “See you later?” Remy yells as Virgil wills the door to close faster behind him.

    “Maybe. Probably not, but maybe.” Before the bell over the door frame has even finished chiming, Virgil is already at his car, not bothering to dodge the few remaining raindrops. “Weirdo. Hate to see how much of a disaster his brother is.”

 

---------------

 

    “How long, exactly, did you talk to that poor guy?” Remy appears none too impressed by the question, much less the implication of how annoying he probably was to said poor guy.

    “Look, bro, he looked lonely, I thought I’d just pop in on his day and—”

    “And encourage him to leave my cafe without taking the mug for a discount next time? Try harder to cover for yourself. And stop calling me ‘bro,’ it makes you sound like a teenager.”

    “Alright, Logan, ” Remy retorts, letting the mocking tone dangle in the air, “FYI, I am a teenager, so lay off for a hot sec, why don’t you?”

    “I would rather not. Don’t use acronyms out loud, you sound like a preteen. You turned twenty last week. Roman, kindly refrain from displaying the inside of your mouth like that.”

    “Dude, what? Happy birthday, man! Why didn’t you tell me?” Roman demands, leaning his elbows on the table and forcefully inserting himself into a conversation where he’s decidedly not welcome.

    “I’m having a surprise party for myself,” Remy hisses in a stage whisper. “Don’t tell anyone, Logan thinks I don’t know about it.”

    “I am not planning you a surprise party,” Logan says. “There is literally not one person planning you a surprise party, in this cafe or otherwise. Go help that next guest, I never said you could take a break for this long, anyway.”

    “You aren’t the boss of me,” Remy grumbles, crossing his arms and slouching lower in his chair.

    “Technically, I am, having been the one to buy the place, not to mention that I was born first. Go help the next guest.” Logan rolls his eyes as Remy trudges over to the bar, a completely different demeanor washing over him like a wave as he steps behind the register and turns into a cheerful mannequin. Shifting his focus back to Roman, Logan presses his glasses up higher on his nose and releases a low, steady, frustrated groan.

    “Talk to me, man, what’s goin’ on?” Roman asks. “Are you really that mad that what’s-his-nuts didn’t take his mug? You didn’t even pick it out, Remy did.”

    “Mmm, no, that’s not it.” Logan rubs his knuckles against a sore spot on his forehead, considering Roman’s earnest look. “We haven’t been doing too well in sales lately, not that many new guests coming in, much less any of them returning for the discount, and I’m still waiting on your list of ideas for how to make myself more welcoming.”

    “Well, for one, don’t dump all your emotional baggage on the first person to ask.” Roman waves his hands quickly as Logan moves to get up, trying to fan whatever flames of frustration are boiling in his brain. “Kidding! Kidding, I am totally, completely, legit-ly kidding.”

    “Legitimately.”

    “Tomato, potato.”

    “To-mah-to.”

    “I’m pretty sure it’s tomato. Anyways, I did draw up that list for you, which, objectively, is the literal best thing in existence ever to be created. In existence. Ever. Objectively.” To be perfectly frank, Logan is incredibly close to shutting the cafe down and locking himself in the fridge to cool down, both literally and figuratively. Nevertheless, he endures, propping his chin on his fist and sighing heavily as Roman draws a stack of bent and ruffled papers out from who-knows-where. At the very least, if Roman’s antics don’t put him out of business, he’ll be able to end the month with a bang. Maybe.

    Roman smooths out the uppermost pages on the tiled table, letting the bottom sheets flare out like a background for the top nonsense. Pointing to each piece of paper as it comes up,  he fumbles his way through the chaos, periodically looking up to make sure Logan is paying attention. Against better judgement, he is.

    “Okay, so first off, it’s June, right? Pride month, bay-bee! Break out a new collection of mugs—”

    “I am not changing the mugs.”

    “He is not changing the mugs,” Remy seconds, returning from the last guest.

    “Alright, alright, truce, no new mugs. I know you don’t totally go for the pizzazz side of things, but—and hear me out here, just something small—we could put different colors of powder on each drink, like purple sprinkles on a latte can be called a purple drink—”

    “We cannot do that, Starbucks already has pink and violet drinks, and I will not associate with them.” Logan straightens his glasses again, pulling one piece of paper out from beneath the rest. “Are all of these ideas centered around pride month?”

    “No,” Roman grumbles, scraping about half of the papers off the table. “I do think it would be cool if you did pride stuff, though. Show support to everyone.”

    “Me, in particular,” Remy cuts in. “Show some support to my gay ass.”

    “Your ass is trans.”

    “What’s your point?”

    “I guess I don’t have one, Remy. Roman, please, if you would?” Logan gestures with his hand, indicating for Roman to find a new thread of ideas to follow. The watch on his waving wrist boasts of closing time rapidly drawing near, as a solid third of his patrons slowly head for the door, carefully selected mugs clutched between their fingers.

    “Right. Okay, so you said no new mugs, and you said no pride stuff, and you said no fun, so let me just jot that down, and we’ll keep going.”

    “I said no new mugs, I asked for different pride stuff that wouldn’t infringe on corporate coffee franchises, and fun is a subjective measurement on behalf of our patrons. Drop the attitude, or I’m cutting you off.”

    “What? No, I’m your best customer!” Roman whines, wearing a pout for a good few seconds before continuing. “I really do think some nice decorations would probably help the atmosphere, maybe string up some white fairy lights around the ceiling? I know you hate those, but they do wonders for how the interior looks once it’s dark outside. Turn off the main lights, turn on the tiny ones, and bam, you’ve got a fairytale date night. Literally.”

    “I don’t think you know what literally means.”

    “I also think you should hire me. Not with obscenely high pay, I know how frugal you try to be, but Remy and I are basically your best bets for customer service. Let me cover the shifts when he disappears for clubs and stuff, you can make the drinks as precise as you like, and I’ll chat up the guests to keep the drinks coming. If nothing else, it’ll train me for how I should exist in the real world.”

    “You’ve existed in the real world for years without working in a cafe.”

    “What’s your point?”

    Logan is very well aware by this point that the conversation is going nowhere. A few decent ideas, a few pieces of nonsense, and that’s about it. As such, he snaps the piece of paper he already grabbed, watching the top stand at attention at the peak of its arc.

    “I guess I don’t have one. Remy, please, if you would?” Struck by how he’d unintentionally repeated himself, Logan shifts his focus to the paper, blowing a long breath out through puffed cheeks. “We’re supposed to close up soon, and I sincerely do not have the willpower to do it tonight. I have way too many things to deal with behind the scenes, and I can’t just—”

    “Say no more,” Remy interrupts, plucking the paper from Logan’s hands. “Sit here, close your eyes, don’t do anything. I’ll teach Roman how to make your usual.”

    “Seven extra shots,” Logan murmurs, dropping his head to rest on the table. “Actually, make it eight. Please.”

    “Yeah, no, we’re only gonna give him hot tea,” Remy whispers to Roman, dragging him away from the table. A heavy exhale from Logan sends a few more sheets of paper fluttering to the floor. “He doesn’t get caffeine until he can go a full night without waking up to finish whatever piece of work he forgot about.”

    “And you think he can’t tell there’s no espresso in that?” Roman asks, watching Remy move as quietly as possible, considering that he’s dealing with the sound of metal on metal.

    “Oh, no, he can definitely tell. We’re both lying to each other, it’s kind of our thing, you know?”

    “Sounds like a great sibling rivalry.”

    “You could say that. Here, put these gloves on, protects from germs and junk when you’re handling the tea bag.” As the last dredges of guests file out of the cafe, most of them pausing to knock gently on the table in lieu of a soft goodbye to Logan, Remy and Roman fall into an amicable silence.

    “Maybe the pride powder would be fun?” Logan mumbles to himself, dragging his chin to his chest so only his forehead rests on the tiles. “Or I could get some food coloring, dye the whipped creams? We definitely don’t have the funds for colorful cups or anything like that, but maybe I could put a little colored dot on the bottom of each cup, have random chance dictate what color whip they get? But then I might not meet the demands, we could run out of food coloring, run out of whip, it doesn’t let me appeal to vegans or people who abstain from dairy products, not to mention that the color might leech into the actual drink. Maybe the fairy lights, just as a summer thing for softer lighting, quiet hours once they go on, I could probably get some people to do open mic stuff or something, clear out a couple tables…”

    Logan lets his words trail off at the sound of Remy plunking a drink beside his head, and while he knows very well that there’s no caffeine in the cup, he downs the whole thing in one go. Roman appears behind Remy, offering an identical drink in a bigger cup.

    “Whoa, try coming up for air bro—brother of mine. Brother. Is what I was going to say. Was brother. And not bro. Brother.” Remy excuses himself to finish dealing with closing up the bar, letting Roman reclaim his seat across from Logan.

    “Hey, buddy, you want to maybe get home, get some sleep?”

    “Yeah, probably,” Logan mumbles, not lifting his head from the table. “Still got so much to do, though. Barely even touched most of your ideas.”

    “Oh, please, you tore them to shreds!” Logan allows himself the smallest of smiles at that, shaking the back of his head and pressing his forehead deeper into the table. There’s probably a pattern of indents appearing on his skin by now. “And we didn’t even get to the best ones, which you can tackle tomorrow, after you get some sleep.”

    “Get some sleep!” Remy echoes, flitting between the sinks with every possible piece of dishware in the building. “But not at home. Go hang out at Roman’s.”

    Roman splutters indignantly, sending the rest of the papers flying. One lands over Logan’s head like a blanket. He does not remove it. “Why does he have to come to my place?”

    Although he can’t see it happening, Logan would wager a good fifty dollars that Remy has positioned himself atop one of the counters that food doesn’t touch in a dramatic pose. “Because he literally lives at work. Like, the next floor up. He needs to get some distance from this place. Plus, I mean, look at him. I’m not putting him up for the night.”

    “I’m the one paying your rent,” Logan retorts to the floor, watching his heels and toes click together.

    “You’re also the one keeping me awake at three in the morning because you had a sudden idea and are seemingly incapable of restraining yourself from writing with a squeaky marker on a squeaky whiteboard, but no one’s asking me. Just go with Roman. Roman, take him. I am not asking you, I am telling you. Take. Logan.”

    “Taking Logan,” Roman confirms. “Come on, Logan. I, Roman, am taking you, Logan. Onward, to my house, owned by a man named Roman, where I am taking Logan!”

    “Shut up, you goof.” Remy’s semi-humored tone is accompanied by the sound of what is probably a balled-up napkin punting Roman in the head, but Logan still isn’t paying enough attention to see. When he hears Roman’s chair scraping into place, he forces himself to stand on exhausted legs.

    Once he sees Logan steady on his feet, Roman shouts, “dibs on the bed!” and runs for the door. Logan offers a half-hearted wave to Remy before trudging after Roman, wincing against the ringing bell. Sure, the tea was good, but it does absolutely nothing to help his flagging energy.

    “Why would I ever want to take your bed over the couch?” Logan mutters, barely stifling a yawn as he slides into Roman’s bright red car. “Moreover, you knew it was supposed to rain today. Why on earth did you not close your windows?”

    “Because I like how it looks better with the windows down.”

    “I want to make sure that you are aware that we are currently sitting on wet leather, and that your steering wheel is drenched beyond belief. Are you aware that we are currently sitting on wet leather, and that your steering wheel is drenched beyond belief?”

    “I am aware of whatever it is you just said. Now be quiet, I can’t have you talking if I want to see the road.” Logan doesn’t bother to explain just how many levels of incorrect that is, instead reclining in the passenger seat and removing his glasses to watch the lights float by in blurry spirals of red and yellow. “So how ’bout that new guy?”

    “What, the one that Remy assigned a mug to based on first sight? Yeah, no, just another guest. What about him?”

    “Well, super cute, for one, and you’ll never believe this, but he actually works at—” Roman cuts himself off, glancing at a very much asleep Logan. “Alright, fine, I won’t tell you. Let you work it out for yourself.” With that, Roman turns up the radio and hums along quietly, careful to keep the noise low, to let Logan rest. Until tomorrow, at least, when Roman has every intention of screwing with his friends’ love life.

    Come on, you’ve gotta let Roman have some fun.

 

---------------

 

    “Ma’am, I’m sorry, we really don’t have blond espresso beans here, and we don’t have blond roast, and we don’t have decaf roast, as our shipment doesn’t come in ’til tomorrow. Is there anything else we can help you with?” To tell the truth, it is taking every single miniscule last ounce of willpower for Virgil not to vault over this counter and punch the very nice lady in the face.

    “Okay, but could you just do a blond pour over?” The very nice lady seems to be getting very agitated, but Virgil very much does not care. “Like, I get that you don’t have blond roast brewed, but I’m willing to wait for a while for a pour over.”

    Virgil is incredibly close to having to physically restrain himself from saying you’ll have to wait until tomorrow, since that’s when your stupid shipment will come in. Instead, he continues, “Sorry, no, we can’t do that. No blond roast beans.”

    “Yeah, but I’m not asking for blond roast beans. I am asking for a blond pour over.”

    “Pour over machine’s broke,” Virgil finally sighs. Yeah, sure, it just takes a small filter and some hot water, but he doesn’t have the patience for this person, much less to find any missing blond beans. So. Broken and nonexistent machine.

    “Oh, well that’s perfectly understandable!” the very nice lady says. “I’ll just take a medium blond roast, then.”

    Virgil leans over to grab Kim’s shoulder, pulling her closer to hiss in her ear, “if there are any hammers in here, you need to find and hide them immediately, because it will end up inside of this lady’s skull, and it will then find mine in quick succession. Fix her situation, I’ll catch up on the hot bar drinks.” Kim nods quickly, and Virgil is half-convinced that she thinks he’s serious. Maybe he is.

    Nonetheless, he moves past her for the mastrena machine, praying for the end of his shift to come quickly and with reckless abandon. It does not.

    “Grande affogato vanilla bean frap for Jenna?” he calls, handing off the espresso-drenched smoothie. “Thanks, have a nice day.” She probably says something or other about him having a good one,  but Virgil doesn’t even bother pretending to care, already busying himself with the next drink. “Couldn’t’ve possibly picked a better day to start grinding beans slower,” he mutters, wincing against the comparatively louder screams from steaming coconut milk. Of literally all the times for the mastrena to decide that it was being too efficient with the espresso, this is the worst time imaginable—smack dab in the middle of a rush of people, none of whom understand the concept of ‘not having blond espresso.’

    “Venti iced americano in a trenta cup with extra ice for Matthias?”

    The end of his shift literally cannot come fast enough.

    “Okay, dude, I’m really trying here, but I have absolutely no idea what this says,” Virgil informs Kim, showing her the illegible box on the cup. “You need to write the order down, and when you do , you need to make it possible for the most basic computer to decipher.”

    “It’s a salted caramel mocha with two extra shots and almond milk instead of two percent for Tommy,” Kim says. It does not slip Virgil’s notice that she has to squint incredibly close at the cup for a solid five seconds to figure out what it says.

    “Awesome. Great. Try to write it more neatly next time, yeah?” Finding a rare moment of gratefulness for his constantly cold hands, Virgil presses a frozen finger to his temple as he waits for the machine to finish rinsing. Is his shift over yet?

    Miracle of miracles, his boss, Anne, pops her head around the corner of the bar. “Hey, Virge, call for you guys, I’m covering food av, can you take it?” Virgil plasters a fake smile on his face and nods, neglecting to comment on how he never agreed to that nickname as he accepts the phone.

“Gainesville Starbucks north, this is Kim speaking, how can I help you?”

“Breakfast sandwiches.”

“I’m sorry?”

“Breakfast. Sandwiches.”

“I, ah, I apologize, I’m unclear what you’re asking me.”

“Breakfast sandwiches! You got any?”

“Oh! Yes, um, we’ve got tomato mozzarella paninis, sausage egg and cheddar sandwiches, ham and cheese croissants, turkey basil—and they hung up. Cool.” Virgil nods at the dial tone coming from his hand, quirking his mouth to the side. “Just, uh, just gonna stick that right down there.” Dropping the phone on a nearby counter, he returns to the hot bar, where Kim is absolutely drowning in the chaos she caused by sucking so much.

“Virge? Seriously?”

“If you even think about calling me that, I am going to go find that hammer I was talking about and bury it in your spine.” Kim pulls her lips between her teeth and nods, turning back to the register. Sniffing twice, Virgil tops off the next round of drinks. “Salted caramel mocha, two extra shots and almond milk for Tommy?”

“Hey, Virge, over here,” Anne calls again. “Need to see you for a sec.” Virgil bites back a relieved huff for the break from Kim, instead settling for a long exhale through his nose. No, he doesn’t really care for the nickname, but he’ll suffer through it for a brief reprieve like this.

“What’s up?” he asks, leaning over the swinging door. “’Nother phone call?”

“No, it’s just—you’ve got a lot of overtime, you know that?” Virgil glances back at Kim, who is currently occupied with trying to find the serious strawberry frappuccino button.

“Frapp creme, second row, last on the right,” he calls, taking great pride in how he doesn’t roll his eyes at her. Turning back to Anne, he continues, “yeah, I kind of have to have a lot, since she’s kind of, you know…” Virgil trails off, hoping Anne is enough on his page to fill in the blanks.

“Drowning? Yeah, I noticed. You’re doing a great job carrying her, you know that?”

Virgil pokes a tongue against his cheek, unsure how to respond. “I mean, I’ve only been here a couple months.”

“You’re really doing great. Anyway, too much overtime for you, and we aren’t supposed to be letting team members have any overtime. You think you’d be good to head home early?”

“There’s nothing that would make me happier, but are you sure she’ll be okay with this on her own?”

“Definitely not, which is why I’m here. I’ll relieve your position, but you need to get going, like, now. ” If Virgil were a more confident person, he would take Anne by both hands and press them to his lips in a show of relieved thankfulness. As it stands, he snaps and offers her a pair of finger guns, skirting the swinging door and making a run for the break room before Anne can change her mind.

“No human has ever existed with a better soul than Anne,” he murmurs, punching out faster than he’d ever done so before. There’s a certain cafe he’s interested in getting to a little earlier today.

In his car, Virgil hisses lightly as he scrapes his bare wrist against the scalding metal of the seat belt buckle. Now safely secured and ready to go, he queues up the route to the cafe on his maps, bopping his head along as a song starts up on the radio. Skip, skip, skip, skip, skip, he chants in his head, getting through a solid twenty songs on shuffle before finding one he likes.

The lights of the streets, not yet bright as they battle the sun for dominance over the mid-afternoon sky, pepper the sidewalks with golden flecks between the cracks of beige and white. Virgil tilts his head to avoid the glare of the light reflecting in his eyes, skipping through his chosen song before it’s over. As he flicks on his indicator to pull into the cafe’s parking lot, he belatedly wonders whether the owners will start to think he’s weird for showing up this often. Especially that Remy guy, what was his deal?

This worry chases him past several traffic lights and more than a few concerningly fast drivers, right up to pulling into the same parking spot as yesterday—decently far from the doors, but not so far that it’d be a hassle to get there if he happened to be holding seven cups of coffee. He shifts into reverse, triple-checking that he’s perfectly within the lines before parking the car and sliding out.

A cold breeze swipes over his face, startingly out of place in the mid-June heat. Were it not for this abnormality giving him pause, maybe he would’ve gotten inside safely without drawing the attention of the silver car careening into the parking lot. It beeps brightly as it pulls into the furthest spot from the door, spitting out a driver dressed in bright blues and pale greys.

“Virge, hey, you made it! I was wondering whether you’d ever listened to my suggestions!” he calls, running over to Virgil and ignoring how his loose sleeves smack against his chin. “Find your way okay?”

“I mean, I’m here, so I guess I did.” Virgil shrugs, electing not to comment on the forbidden nickname that he would punch Kim in the face for using again. “And anyway, I always listen to your suggestions. Come here, try your usual—not a fan, by the way—and call you Pat. I’m not really one for nicknames, either, so I’d rather stick with Patton, if that’s okay with you.”

“Whatever makes you happiest!” Patton replies, taking Virgil by the hand and swinging it violently as he leads the barista inside. “So did you get to meet the owner yet, or is this your first time? I can introduce you to—”

“Pantone!” Remy exclaims, vaulting over the register counter to greet Patton. Virgil steps aside, bumping into someone’s shoulders and muttering his apologies as they leave. “I haven’t seen you around here in forever, what the heck, man? Hanging around with the cutest riffraff in town, I see.” Virgil scowls, moving for the register and scanning his eyes over the menus. Handwritten in white chalk, they look much more personal than the ones at Starbucks. Maybe not very colorful, but nice enough.

“Remy, how many times have I told you not to let any part of your body make contact with that counter? It doesn’t know where you’ve been,” someone scolds from a nearby table. The same person Ho Man and Remy were tormenting yesterday. Remy ignores them, still chatting up a storm with Patton. The person sighs, pushing back from a table covered in loose papers and moving to the register.

Virgil sizes them up as they walk, inspecting their carefully strict gait, the tie cinched perfectly around their neck, the strict khakis with only the most uniform of creases. If Virgil didn’t know better, he’d swear they were going out for a job interview at some craphole like Starbucks.

“Sorry about Remy. Little brothers, what can I do, right? What can I get started for you?” Virgil doesn’t answer, his gaze fixated on a speck of dirt marring their sharp glasses. They blink, waiting patiently and having no idea of where Virgil’s attention is directed.

Ho Man appears from around the corner, where only a few other patrons occupy the tables overlooking the windows. “Hey, it’s you! Logan, buddy, he was the guy here yesterday, the one Remy gave the wrong mug to! Wrong mug guy, this is Logan, he runs this joint!”

“Wrong mug?” Virgil repeats.

“Wrong mug,” the new person—Logan, apparently—confirms. “We carefully select mugs based on the person they go to, rather than selecting one at random like Remy does. He refuses to learn the process behind choosing mugs, so whatever he hands you, it’s probably wrong.”

“Sounds about right,” Virgil agrees, glancing back at Remy and Patton, both of whom are staring at him and giggling.

“So what can I get started for you?” Logan repeats. Virgil cocks his head to the side, considering Logan for a long moment.

“Surprise me.” Logan’s steely expression lightens for the briefest of seconds, revealing a soft grin and bright eyes. It vanishes as quickly as it came.

“I’ll have that right out for you.”

Virgil offers a small smile in return, passing over a five dollar bill and waving off Logan as he tries to hand him his change. “Just keep it.”

“We really don’t do tips—”

“Just. Keep it.” Virgil slips around the bar and moves for his seat from yesterday, tucking his legs under himself and watching Remy nudge Patton repeatedly. After a solid few bumps to the back, Patton stumbles forward, bumping into Ho Man as he curbs around the bar to straighten the creamer cart. Distracted by the way Patton’s hands flutter around his face as he talks to Ho Man, Virgil hardly notices Logan until he’s positioned himself in the empty seat across from him.

“Drink it first, then tell me what you think it is.” Logan pushes a mug across the table toward Virgil, careful to keep the motion near the bottom so it doesn’t splash. Unlike the cup covered in cups from yesterday, this one is something Virgil might actually consider stealing, if they hadn’t drained the excitement of doing so by explicitly allowing thievery.

Midnight blue and splattered with tiny white dots, this mug looks to be plucked straight from the heavens themselves. The inside offers a pale blue to offset the darkness folding in at the rim, enveloping the top of the drink’s meniscus in hues to rival the sky. Virgil traces a finger over some of the constellations skirting the outside—bright enough against the blue to be recognizable, but not going so far as to connect the dots with garish straight lines. All in all, a good mug. Maybe he will steal it.

Virgil takes a long, slow pull from the cup, pretending to be deep in thought as Logan stares unabashedly into his eyes. He holds the mug over his mouth a few seconds later, waiting for the flush in his cheeks to subside. Why couldn’t Logan have been the one to take his order yesterday?

Virgil lowers the mug, licking away the drink moustache on his upper lid and pulling his tongue back in with a pop . “First guess?”

“First guess.”

“Green tea latte.”

Logan grins, rapping the table three times. “Nailed it.”

“It’s ’cause I’m a genius,” Virgil says, lifting the mug once more. This Logan guy might keep some strange company, but he can make a mean green tea latte. “Eleven out of ten, would order again.”

“That’s an improper fraction,” Logan mutters, but there’s a gleam dancing behind his eyes. The bell chimes over the door, drawing Virgil’s attention to where Ho Man and Patton look to be in a particularly compromising position. With Patton flattened against the door and Ho Man hovering closer than necessary, Virgil can only watch as Remy appears out of nowhere, shoving Ho Man forward without warning. Logan releases a breathy laugh as he watches the debacle—moreover, as he watches Ho Man thrust his hands out to brace himself on the wall, as well as caging Patton in around the shoulders by doing so. If this were a romance movie, they’d probably start kissing right about now.

As it is, Ho Man stammers out some excuse, cheeks almost as red as the roses smattered his white shirt. Patton only smiles back widely, not moving from the wall. If Virgil didn’t know better, he’d swear his eyes were delirious. Maybe he doesn’t know better.

“I see you understand the nonsense I’m forced to endure around here,” Logan says. “With Roman being a flirt and Remy being the charming everyman, I do pretty much everything myself. Any tips on how to better survive it?”

Virgil blinks, unsure why Logan decided to dump all this on him. At least he knows what Ho Man’s actual name is now. Full disclosure, Virgil’s gonna miss calling him Ho Man. “I don’t know that I’m your best bet for help running a small coffee shop.”

Logan huffs something close to a laugh, gnawing on the corner of his lip. “Not a problem, I’m just uncertain where to go from here, and they’re being of little help. All they’ve done is force me to get sleep and toss a couple papers about pride at me, and that’s hardly a reliable way of forming a more successful business.”

“Sleep is important,” Virgil says. “I can’t speak from experience, but I’ve heard a lot of people say so.” Still midway through processing Logan’s words, his mind catches on a certain piece of information. “Did you say papers about pride?”

“Indeed, Roman thinks I ought to spruce the place up for pride month, and he’s even managed to pull Remy into the idea. You’re welcome to help, if you want to, but there’s no obligation on your end.”

“Sounds fun,” Virgil admits, raising the cup again and startling himself as he finds it empty. “I’ll take a look, if you want to show me those papers. Oh, by the way, my name is Virgil, in case I haven’t said that yet.”

“Virgil,” Logan repeats, testing the word and rolling it around his mouth. He peels his lower lip out slowly, savoring the V, puckering his lips out around the R and letting his tongue hesitate against his teeth on the L. “It’s a pleasure. I’m sure one of the other two said it at some point or another, but I’m Logan.”

“Logan,” Virgil confirms. “So, Logan, about those pride papers and this empty mug?”

Logan stands, somehow managing not to scrape his chair as he pushes it back. Virgil attempts a similarly graceful move, wincing at the grating sound of metal on tile. “Let me get that mug from you and I’ll fill you up—do not even think about handing me another five, this one is on the house, and I am returning your three dollars and fifty cents at my first opportunity. These papers, disorganized and chaotic as they are, are the only things we’ve got in the way of ideas to drum up more business.”

Virgil seats himself at the cluttered table, grabbing a sheet at random and letting the distant clanks of Logan behind the bar fill his head. Stuff about colored whipped cream—probably too expensive, not to mention non-vegan friendly, and powdered sugar colors—kind of similar to Starbucks with their colored drink gimmicks, which doesn’t seem like Logan’s style. He pauses on the mention of white fairy lights, glancing around the room and imagining how they might look framing the windows. Maybe a little too winter-holiday for mid June, but the tackiness could very well add to the overall charm of the place. Certainly a warmth that overcrowded Starbucks stores could never hope to have. Or they could line the windows in different colors, if Logan really does want to keep with the whole pride thing, or else—

“Try that, tell me what you think,” Logan says, plunking the blue mug on one of very few clear spaces between the papers. Virgil complies, poking his tongue at a crooked front tooth as he considers the flavor.

“Tastes like cinnamon, but that’s all I’ve got.”

“Cinnamon and almond milk latte, one of our most popular drinks,” Logan confirms.

“You don’t get called out for it being too similar to the one Starbucks does?” Logan goes deathly still, an expression somewhere between fury and shock freezing on his face.

“We are nothing like Starbucks here, and I’m going to pretend you didn’t just compare me to that steaming pile of garbage.” Virgil nods, deciding this probably isn’t the best time to inform Logan about his own line of work. “Anything good come out of that disaster?”

“Maybe.” Virgil takes another swig from his mug, running his tongue over his lips and humming to himself. “The colored powders and whipped creams seem kind of impractical, but the lights and quiet-hour thing doesn’t seem to bad. You could do soft pastels for a warmer tone around the room as a whole, and different colors around each window to fit pride month. I don’t know about open mic, since that’s a lot to organize, but maybe use that empty corner on the other side of the door for some little bookshelves and comfy chairs, have a chill zone when the lights go down and the moon comes up? Oh, and this is definitely just a suggestion, so you don’t, like, have to do it, or anything like that, but it might be cool if you changed up the colors of your menu signs, so they weren’t all just white and plain. You could do one board in blue and purple and pink for bi, and another in purple and yellow and white for nonbinary, and another in pink and yellow and blue for pan, and then do a bunch of little drink drawings on all of them in every color to represent gay pride as a whole?” Virgil bites his lip, suddenly realizing that Logan is staring intently at him. Again.

“Sorry, I didn’t mean to—I mean, I wasn’t trying to—you don’t have to do all that, obviously, and it’s not like I’m forcing you to, and I wasn’t trying to—” Virgil cuts himself off, ducking his head down and hiding his face behind his mug.

“No, no, that’s great, really, I love those ideas,” Logan stammers, waving his hands frantically to shake away Virgil’s hesitation. “They’re splendid, exactly what I was looking for.” Virgil nods quickly, not coming out from behind his mug. Logan places a hesitant hand on Virgil’s shoulder, trying to offer some semblance of comfort. Against his own volition, Virgil leans into the touch, tilting his head toward Logan’s knuckles before he can stop himself. The moment his ear grazes the back of Logan’s hand, he jerks out of the seat, spilling the rest of his mug all over his work-mandated khakis.

“Oh, jeez, oh man, I mean, shoot, crap, okay, I just, I’m just gonna go,” Virgil rambles, stumbling for the door and clutching his unwittingly emptied mug tightly in his shaking fingers. Before Logan can even think about calling after him, he’s behind the wheel of his car and careening out of the parking lot, already berating himself for being such a dork.

 

---------------

 

“Where’d Wrong Mug Man go?” Remy asks, popping his head over the bar as he pauses midway through restocking the milk fridge. “Scare him off with your utter lack of charm and cold exterior?”

“A little too on the nose,” Roman calls out from his usual spot in the corner. Well, not ‘usual,’ per se—Roman can barely tolerate staying in the same place for more than a week before moving on for bigger, better seating options. He’s had much the same opinion regarding boys for as long as Logan can remember, and the selection of the week seems to be Patton on the windowsill with the Toy Story clouds mug. Practically a real-life version of Clue, with romantic motives to boot.

Remy finger guns at Roman and ducks back down to finish with the fridge. Logan blinks, the exchange flying past him as he tries to come up with a reason for Virgil’s sudden disappearance. The first person to choose his flatter tones over his brother’s exuberance, and they run away like an owl from a forest fire in the middle of Canada.

Logan has never been one for analogies.

He reaches across the counter, startling Remy in the process as he grabs for a clean rag and sanitizing spray. In no less than five minutes, the spilled latte is gone without a trace. At least Virgil took the mug with him—if nothing else, he’ll come back to return it. Maybe even to use it for that discount—not that Logan would charge him. Virgil doesn’t seem like the type to acquiesce not to pay, but Logan is the owner, so what’s to stop him from making every drink free for the short instances when Virgil shows up?

“Roman,” Logan says, “what are the odds you have some colored chalk you don’t need?”

“Fifteen out of three,” Roman calls back, not looking up from the phone tucked in his lap. Across from him, Patton mirrors the position, curled into the corner of the windowsill—not strictly a real seat, but they both seem to be making do well enough.

“So five?”

“You know that’s not what I meant. I’ve got, like, a whole crate full of art supplies that I can’t use, because someone told me not to pursue my lifelong dream of becoming the next Leonardo Dicaprio.”

“Da Vinci. And I would hardly phrase it like that—I merely suggested that, were you to aim for realism, it might be wise to avoid giving your elephants tails for trunks and trunks for tails.”

“Stop stifling my creative energy!”

“Stop stifling his creative energy,” Patton echoes. Oddly enough, Logan doesn’t feel that familiar urge to roll his eyes as he watches Roman glance up from under a curtain of bangs, staring at an oblivious Patton. He’s never looked at one of his weekly obsessions like that before. Or maybe he has, Logan doesn’t pay very much attention to that sort of thing.

“The point being, you do have colorful chalk, yes?”

“Yes.”

“Good, because I need some. Bring it in with you tomorrow, if you would be so kind.”

For reasons Logan doesn’t care to puzzle out, Roman tumbles off the windowsill, jumping to his feet and brushing off his knees as he rushes to Logan’s side. “Or,” he whispers excitedly, bouncing on his toes and waving his hands around his face, “I could run home and get them now! I could even go out to a store, buy more stuff you didn’t know you needed, spruce the whole place up! Patton could come with me!”

Patton’s head perks up at this revelation, and he pockets his phone before joining the other two. Even Remy leans over the bar, half-intruding on the conversation as he waits for the next guest to decide what they want. Logan crosses his arms, considering Roman’s eagerness.

“You know very well that I don’t trust you to decorate my cafe to your tastes, much less on your own dime.” Glancing at the menus in plain black and white, Logan does have to admit they look, well, plain. Boring. Virgil wasn’t wrong when he said they might look better with more colors. And yes, Logan would greatly prefer having Virgil here to coach him on how to properly execute the pride color schemes—Logan’s never been one for art—but Patton doesn’t seem totally hopeless. “Tell you what. I’ll close up early tonight, and us three can all go out and stock up on decorations. Keep the place closed tomorrow, and we’ll plan out how to make it look best to ramp up business.”

“Excuse you,” Remy cuts in, “but I think you mean us four. Don’t go excluding me from the party.”

“Who said you were invited?” Logan retorts. Roman stifles a snort behind his fist as Patton’s jaw drops in startlingly believable dismay.

“Logan! We have to take Remy with us, he brings half the fun! It wouldn’t be as exciting without him there!”

“Who said I wanted it to be exciting?” Logan mutters to himself, shooting a quick look toward the back of the cafe. Pretty empty, save for a couple patrons here and there nursing at their personal mugs. Casting his eyes to the ceiling, Logan pulls in a long breath through his nose, blowing it out through his lips and wondering why Virgil couldn’t be here to endure this nonsense with him. Immediately thereafter, he wonders why he wonders that. He didn’t even know Virgil’s name yesterday, why is he so set on having him here now?

Remy and Patton’s hopeful expressions drag him back to the moment—specifically, the moment where Logan is being forced to take three overgrown toddlers on a shopping spree to decorate the building that makes up his entire livelihood. No pressure.

“I am definitely going to regret this,” Logan sighs. Pretending as if he hadn’t said that, he continues, “fine, I guess Remy can accompany us. No candy, though—we don’t need to be buying food when we already have some upstairs.”

“Aha, but I have tips!” Remy declares, shaking a paper cup full of coins. “I’m gonna buy so many peanuts with these.”

“Explain how,” Roman says.

“Do not explain how,” Logan says. Not allowing either of them the chance to finish their charade, Logan turns to Patton. “You walked in with Virgil, didn’t you? Do you two know each other?”

“Something like that. I’m a frequent customer where he works.” This catches Logan’s attention. A direct pipeline to the owl that got away.

Again, Logan has never been one for analogies.

“Where does he work?”

A mischievous glint takes residence in Patton’s eye as he nudges Roman’s shoulder.  The latter snickers quietly, nudging right back as the former gets out between giggles, “that’s just something you’re gonna have to figure out on your own. The answer will shock you.”

“If he works as a clickbait journalist for Buzzfeed, I am banning both you and him from this establishment.”

“He does not work as a clickbait journalist for Buzzfeed, but you’ll never guess what he does instead!” Roman hisses in an action-star voice. “This summer, coming directly to your screens, and coming soon to own on video and DVD —” He drops his tone to an impossibly deep register while ramping up his volume, drawing the attention of pretty much everyone in the room. Patton and Remy join in on the tagline, both yelling at the top of their lungs.

“Are you quite finished?” Logan asks, wholly unimpressed. Having failed to get so much as a huff of acknowledgement, the other three sigh dejectedly and nod. “Good. Remy, finish cleaning up behind the bar. Roman, can you wipe down the tables and start stacking chairs? Patton, I know you don’t work here, but—”

“On it,” Patton interrupts, already moving toward the back to gently rouse the student that fell asleep doing their homework at a table. Morally, Logan has no problem letting people stay as long as they like, even if they don’t buy anything, but it’s a little more difficult to be lenient about that sort of thing when he’s closing up the cafe. He turns his attention back to the papers scattered across the table as the other three flit about their respective tasks, and wonders whether Virgil might try to come back tomorrow. If they close the cafe for renovations, would he even get out of his car? Or would the lack of business  and other patrons scare him off? Maybe Logan should position the other three at various seats in the back as he does all the work himself, making it look like he kept the place open so Virgil would still come in, without being terribly obvious about that being his goal all along. Of course, that brings up the inevitable he knows that I know that he knows situation, but it’s not as if—

“Hello? Earth to Logan? Paging alien squadron fleet two K four one nine oh?” Roman waves a hand in front of Logan’s face, pulling him out of his head. Before him is the only unwashed table in the cafe, still littered with papers that have yet to be picked up. The  only page that managed to find its way into Logan’s arms is the one Virgil was talking about when he made additional suggestions. Logan blinks, gathers up the rest in a haphazard bundle, and steps back to let Roman finish his cleaning.

“Can I drive?” Remy asks. He slides around the bar, dusting his hands off on his pants and tossing a dirty rag over the lip of the sink.

“We need to get you an apron,” Logan replies absently, eyeing the gathering dirt stains on Remy’s thighs.

“I didn’t hear a no!” Remy singsongs, tilting his head to lean against Logan’s shoulder. The top of the mess of hair tickles along the crook where his jaw meets his earlobe, and Logan blinks as his mind unhelpfully conjures an image of Virgil in the same position under a blanket of stars. Where on Earth did that come from?

“No, you cannot drive. Give me Roman’s car keys.”

Roman emits an unholy shriek, somewhere between miffed and scandalized that Remy had managed to steal the keys to his soccer mom car. Granted, those things basically live in various spots around the cafe as it is, but still. Groaning in a pitiful attempt at getting sympathy, Remy tosses the jingling chain to Logan, who snatches them out of the air with ease. Before the owner of said keys can protest, Logan passes them on to him, biting back a laugh as Roman instinctively ducks.

“Hey! No dangerous projectiles in the house!” Roman whines. The keys hit the door and clatter to the tiles below.

“Not a house, and you don’t make the rules here, anyway.” Logan wisely keeps his gaze elsewhere as Patton makes his way to the door, grabbing the keys to pass them to Roman. Of course, the windows are reflective surfaces—this unfortunate reality fails to protect Logan from having to see how Patton’s hand lingers a moment too long on Roman’s. Honestly, the whole point of looking away was to not have to deal with their nonsense in the first place. “Let’s go.”

Lingering at the back of the group, Logan lets the other three exit before him, double- and triple-checking that everything is off, unplugged, cleaned up, closed, and generally in various states of presentable. The last thing he needs right now is for his life’s savings to literally go up in flames. Well, not his life’s savings. He’s got some common sense—everything he hasn’t spent is carefully accumulating interest in various reputable banks. So. The expendable portion of his life’s savings. That’s what he doesn’t want to go up in flames.

“What happened to ‘let’s go,’ sonny boy?” Roman calls, popping his head back in the door and making the bell chime. Logan tilts his head, wondering if anyone would ever question why he picked that bell in particular to greet his guests.

“I’m older than you.”

“Patton dared me to call you kiddo, but I thought mine was funnier,” Roman admits.

“I’m older than Patton, too.”

“You didn’t even tell me Patton’s name until last week!”

“Ever heard of barista-guest confidentiality?”

“No, because it doesn’t exist. Now hurry up and get in the car, or we’re tying you to the roof and I’m letting Patton use the backseat as his own personal lounge area.”

Tossing a sigh to the ceiling and casting one last glance at the way his cafe was always meant to be—before everyone else barges in to redecorate for him—Logan follows Roman out.

He slides into the back on the passenger’s side, not voicing his apprehension at Patton taking the front seat. That’s Remy’s seat , he thinks. Remy doesn’t seem to mind, though, already pressing his nose to the window and bouncing on the worn cushion.

“Seatbelt,” Logan reminds his brother—and the car as a whole, he supposes, as even Roman jolts to comply. “I am hereby imposing a price limit of one hundred dollars on this excursion. Anything over that will be coming off of your dime.”

“I don’t even—” Roman begins, but Logan isn’t having any of it.

“I know, I know, you don’t even work for me, but if you want to? And you want to help, shall we say, ‘spruce up the place,’ you will refrain from exceeding my budget, lest you pay the overages.”

    “If we go to the place on the corner of Eighth and Main, I’ve got an employee discount for ten percent,” Patton offers.

    “By the Texaco?” Roman punches the coordinates into the car, tapping his foot impatiently as Siri attempts to connect with his dwindling internet connection.

    “You really ought to know your way around the town by now,” Logan opines. “You’ve been to the Texaco more times than Remy’s flirted with my guests.”

    “Shut up, Logan!” Remy hisses. Were his face not pressed against the window and his shoulders hunched defensively, Logan is certain his comment would be rewarded with cheeks glittering ruby.

    “Got it!” Roman exclaims, punching the roof. “And I refilled the tank a couple days ago, which means no gas money going into this excursion! Can I get a what what?”

    “You cannot,” Logan says.

    “What what,” Patton agrees.

    “Plus,” Roman continues, shifting into drive and doing a mediocre job of backing away from the building, “with the discount, just think of how much more stuff we can get!”

    “Yay.” Logan has never known his own voice to be more flat. He glances up just in time to see Patton shoot him an apologetic look, mouthing the word sorry. He smiles as he does it, though, so Logan isn’t completely convinced of Patton’s regret.

    The excited conversation of the other three fills up the car as Logan lets his gaze drift out the window, watching the bright greens of summer flash by in bursts between the blemishes of humanity’s invasion upon the world. Traffic lights, street signs, lampposts, telephone lines, couches at curbs, discarded plastic bags, crushed coffee cups, dead patches of grass, cracked squares of concrete, buildings crawling for the skies and stretching to escape the natural world without which they could never dream of existing.

    Logan does not particularly care for the overdevelopment of what used to be a homey nook of nature around his cafe. He can hardly see the stars at night anymore, what with all the city lights pulling his eyes to the ground.

    “Beep beep!” Roman announces, punching the roof again before slipping out of the car.  Logan blinks, suddenly realizing they’d already arrived at the store. Time to suffer.

    “One hundred dollars,” he reminds the others. His words fall on deaf ears as they all sprint for the doors, chattering excitedly amongst themselves about color schemes and bargaining and how to make the most of spending every last dime they can squeeze out of Logan’s pockets. More to himself than anyone else, he murmurs, “I bet Virgil would understand the significance of imposing a spending limit before getting surprised with an obscenely high total crowning the receipt.”

    “Come on, ” Remy groans, doubling back to grab Logan’s wrist. Patton and Roman have already vanished, probably traipsing through the birthday party aisles for decoration ideas. “At least pretend you’re having fun, yeah? Show some enthusiasm for Virgil’s ideas, I bet he’d love that.”

    “When did he tell you his name?”

    “He didn’t. You used it when you asked Patton where he worked.”

    “Where does he work?”

    “If you push the price limit up to two fifty, maybe I’ll tell you.”

    “Maybe I’ll stop letting you accept tips.”

    Remy’s eyes widen slightly at that, and he wobbles on his toes before running the rest of the way to the door, waving his hands over his head. “La la la, I can’t hear you, I’m too fast for the sound barrier to keep up!”

    “That’s not how—oh, whatever,” Logan mutters. Hands in his pockets, he dips a chin to the greeters just inside the door and maintains a leisurely pace, waiting for his friends to reveal themselves. Admittedly, he’s a little impressed when he sees them next—they’ve managed to avoid getting covered in streamers and sparkles. So far, at least. Unfortunately for Logan, the night is still young.

    “Hey, what about these?” Patton asks, grabbing a pack of pride-themed playing cards from an end cap display.

    “How are those supposed to drum up business?”

    Patton shrugs, turning the cards over in his hand. “I dunno, they just look neat.”

    “Make it a puzzle,” Roman suggests, picking up a matching set. “Have different fun facts about pride history written on cards from one set, but keep out a piece of important information. Someone finds a card and can tell you the answer without having to look it up, they get a card from the deck you didn’t write on. Get a full suit, get a prize. Maybe they get all the diamonds, then they get to name a drink after themselves. Get all the hearts, they can save ten cents instead of five.”

    Logan has to admit, it isn’t the worst idea Roman’s ever come up with. The worst was probably that time with the stuffed sheep, the empty ramen cup, and the half-eaten ring pop. He shudders at the memory before relenting. “How much for a pack?”

    Patton glances at the sticker on the side, sucks a sharp inhale through his teeth, and sets the deck back where he found it. “More than it’s worth, even with the discount. Come on, I know where the shelf is for stuff we’re trying to get rid of. It’s hidden in the back so we can make more money, but who ever had fun paying full price?”

    “I did, back when it meant doing less damage to my cafe,” Logan grumbles. Nevertheless, he follows dutifully behind, stifling a snort as Roman grabs Patton’s hand and they skip—literally skip —down the aisles. Every few steps, one yanks the other to a stop, cooing over some toy or game meant to catch the eye of passing toddlers. Remy’s eyes sparkle, and he leans over to Logan when he thinks the other two aren’t listening.

    “You know,” he whispers, “I like this one a lot more than Roman’s other flings.”

    “They’ve barely been talking for more than a few days,” Logan retorts, careful to keep his voice low. “You cannot place all your eggs in the basket when the eggs don’t even exist yet.”

    “You lost me, but seriously, bro, look at them.” Tutting to himself, Logan watches the way Roman’s eyes catch on Patton more often than they catch on bargain bin attractions. “You can’t honestly expect me to believe you don’t see it.”

    “That’s hardly any of my business. All I care about is how much they’re making me spend. And what did I tell you about that ridiculous nickname? It isn’t even original.”

    “Nothing’s original, not even originality,” Remy fires back. “A redux of something that already exists is way more fun than not doing it in the first place. Or would you rather have me tell Virgil the real reason you opened up the cafe?”

    Logan yanks Remy to a stop by the neck of his shirt, balling the fabric up in his fists. “If you do that, then so help me, I will have you shipped back home faster than you can spit out that infernal nickname, and you will never set foot in my cafe again.” Remy blinks, laughs, and bops Logan’s nose.

    “I bet Virgil would think you’re cute when you get all angry like that.”

    “That’s not—I don’t—shut up!” Logan sputters. The epitome of elegance.

    When Logan’s first instinct upon releasing Remy is to wonder whether Virgil would think he looked cute like that, he knows he is well and truly screwed.

    Elegance, indeed.

 

---------------

 

    Virgil’s current favorite shift is opening. At least, that’s what he tells himself as he shows up at the ass crack of dawn for work. A solid hour by himself to get the bar set up to his liking, to work in silence without worrying about angry guests, and the knowledge that he’ll be out by noon. The turning stomach of too little sleep is certainly less than ideal, but he’s lying to himself about liking being here this early. Cut him some slack.

    “Just fire her already,” he mutters to himself, moving faster than he’d like to as he restocks the pastries. Not for the first time, Natalia closed last night, and she never does any of the shift’s duties right. Case in point, the expired pastries still being in the serving zone. The milk fridge being barren. Having less than three whips. Forgetting the refresher shaker lid in the washing machine—still dirty, mind you. Not wiping down the tables before stacking the chairs. Not washing the half and half from the little cart. A quick sniff reveals the insides to be well past curdled.

    You know, maybe Virgil just wants to gripe in general about the incompetence of his fellow team members, and it really has nothing to do with the quality of his workplace experience.

    Or it could be that he’s still reeling from the ridiculous note he left Logan on yesterday. That is a very strong possibility.

    Glancing at the clock on the register he has yet to open, Virgil weighs his options. He can either sprint for the milk fridge and pray there’s enough left to restock, or he can stay up here and try to straighten up the place for the off chance that corporate shows up and tears Anne a new one. Though he likes Anne well enough, he’d rather face the consequences of corporate’s wrath than deal with pissed-off customers who can’t have their precious two percent milk.

    Just his luck—the stock fridge is empty. This is the moment Virgil’s mind chooses to remind him that today is Monday, and that they’re supposed to be getting a shipment in later. So no half and half, no two percent, no heavy whipping cream, and an insatiable desire to go home before the whole ‘interacting with the public’ part of his shift has even started.

    As the clock ticks over to eight, his boss’s boss’s boss, Stephen, walks over with his usual fistful of crumpled singles. Virgil doesn’t even bother asking for his numbers, already keying in the discount and punching the order into the register. In the amount of time it takes him to start lingering on yesterday’s disaster, Stephen’s usual—grande mocha, no whip—is already done and gone. Whether this is because Virgil is fast with making drinks or because he’s very adamant about the masochism of reliving embarrassment is open for debate.

    Seriously, what was that? Logan puts a hand on his shoulder and gravity decides to be a little bitch, dragging Virgil’s head to the side to lean on a basic stranger? Naturally followed by the most logical reaction—dumping his entire drink all over himself. Yesterday was the first day he wore those pants after their wash, too; he can usually get three or four days out of a pair before they need to be cleaned. What a waste.

    One singular glimmer of positivity in the hellscape that is the opening shift, though, is how much faster it seems to go by on Mondays. When the mid shows up, they vanish to the back to take care of the order, so Virgil basically has the bar to himself for four hours, then the fifteen minutes of dealing with the other mid. All the better to suffer through his own blunders in peace.

    At least it’s a slower stream of guests.

    “I’ll take a trenta very berry, but with all the kinds of berries in it,” some guy with a greasy man bun says, strolling up and scrolling through his phone. Virgil nods, keying it in and going through the usual polite spiel while he waits for him to pay.

    “Anything else for you?”

    Man Bun glances up from texting, raking his eyes over the purple fading from Virgil’s bangs. “Yeah, can I also get extra blackberries—”

    “Sure.”

    “—and your number?”

    “No. Five twenty-nine.” Virgil turns his back to the register as Man Bun sets about dealing with his credit card, and wonders whether this guy’ll be a nuisance for him as he finishes the drink. “Trenta very berry, extra blackberries, have a good one.”

    Man Bun takes the cup, tearing off the straw wrapper and throwing it on the floor. Literally, the garbage can is, like, right there, dude. Don’t be an ass. “So I seriously don’t have a chance with you?”

    “Definitely not.”

    “What, are you not gay? I mean, with the hair, and with—”

    “I’m gay, just not for you. Have a good one.” To escape any further annoying questions, Virgil vanishes into the near back, organizing the drying dishes to wait out Man Bun. Once the coast is finally clear, Virgil returns to the bar, where Patton awaits with a bright grin. Fantastic.

    “Hi, Virge!” Patton calls, bouncing on his toes. He does a twirl to make sure no one else is in line behind him before propping his elbows on the counter and leaning in as if he were sharing a secret. “I’ll take a venti iced caramel mach-yeet-ato with an extra shot of eek-spresso, if you please.” With another spin, Patton nearly crashes to the floor, the weight of the bag on his back yanking him faster than he can recover from.

    “I got the yeet, but you’re gonna have to explain the eek bit.”

    “I want you to pull three shots like normal, but scream at the fourth one. Scare it into submission. Then I’ll drink it, and get the scared bean energy.”

    Virgil blinks, his pen hovering over the boxes on the side of the cup. “You. Want me. To scream at your espresso?”

    “Only the fourth one! I need the other three to be brave, so I can have the bravery in addition to the terror.”

Virgil opens his mouth, closes it, opens it again, and shakes his head. “Okay. Five thirty five.” Patton presses a ten across the counter, refusing as Virgil tries to pass back the change, and slides to the end of the bar before Virgil can force him to take his money. True to form, Patton leans over the counter to watch Virgil making the drink, scrutinizing the pouring shots. “You know,” Virgil remarks, “it’s faster to pull two and two shots than two and one and one.”

“Yeah, but then my drink would be half scared, and we can’t have that, now, can we?”

“I guess not. What if I just pull the last two into two separate cups, and apologize to one to get rid of the scared emotions?”

Patton quirks his mouth to the side and hums. “I guess that could work. Make sure the apology’s genuine though, so I can have some empathy in my drink, too. And you don’t have to actually scream at it, either—just rile it up a bit. Scare it into submission however you see fit.”

This was one of the worst possible things Patton could have told Virgil to do. The barista leans in as the second round of shots pours, putting his mouth as close to the cup as he dares. “I’m going to stand outside your house and chant ominously about your sins while pouring expired coffee grounds on your sidewalk, then I’m going to hack into your sims account, give everyone full autonomy, and age them up to the maximum elderly age possible. Sorry, other espresso—I promise your sims are safe and your sidewalk is clean. For now.”

Patton looks understandably disconcerted by the time Virgil has finished, although the latter isn’t completely convinced that what he said was necessarily scary . He hands off the drink, drenching it in far more caramel than necessary and leaving the lid off. With an unholy grin on his face, Patton brings the cup to his lips and swallows half the caramel drizzle before the scared espresso even has a chance to settle.

“So hey, are you coming by Logan’s cafe today?” Patton asks. Virgil glances at the clock—five more minutes, and no line to be seen. He swings around the bar to sit at one of the guest tables, pulling out a sharpie and setting about dating the pastries. Whoever the mid is, they didn’t bother to show up on time, so they certainly can’t be trusted to do something literally in their job description. “You kind of left in a hurry yesterday.”

“Yeah, no, I don’t need a repeat of that embarrassment. I’m just gonna go home and hide under a blanket.”

“What embarrassment? I think Logan liked talking to you, I bet he’d like to have you come back.”

“Definitely. I’m sure he’d adore talking to the guy who couldn’t even keep his drink in his mug, much less remember to leave the mug there.”

“Virge, that’s the point of the mug system. You weren’t supposed to leave the mug there.”

“It’s not the point of my system, though. Now I’m basically, like, obligated to go back and return the cup, if not use it for that discount. Not to mention—which I already did—how I literally dumped my drink all over myself. I do not want that to happen again.”

“So just don’t drop your drink, and it won’t happen again! Simple.”

“Oh, and I bet you’ll just go ahead and police Logan so he doesn’t touch my shoulder again, prompting the situation that drove me to run out in the first place.” At the way Patton’s eyes sparkle, Virgil rushes to backtrack. “Not that it meant anything! It just startled me, so I shook my hand and my drink spilled.” Virgil glances at the bar, but there’s still no guests appearing to save him from this disaster of his conversation. All the pastries are dated, too, so he doesn’t even have the excuse of occupying his hands. “I do not want to go back.”

Patton grins. “So you’re going back?”

Virgil throws his hands in the air and groans. “I’m going back.”

“Promise?” Holding back a sigh as Patton thrusts out a pinky, Virgil links it with his own.

“Promise.”

“Great! Because your shift just ended, and Logan’s keeping it closed for the day so he can do renovations. Just you, him, and a few other people for as long as we’re there, doing decorations and generally engaging in close teamwork. Forming bonds to last a lifetime.”

“You tricked me,” Virgil hisses. “You scheming snot.”

“But it worked, didn’t it? And oh, look, there’s your mid! Let’s leave.”

Virgil glares behind him, where Natalia is tying her impeccably clean apron around her waist and fastening the hat on her hair. The only reason her stupid apron is so clean is because she’s impossibly slow, so as not to get anything dirty. The one time he could use her tardiness to his advantage, too.

“Fine, whatever, give me five minutes to clock out and I’ll meet you back here.”

Patton takes another sip from his quarter-scared drink and nods. “But if you aren’t back within those five minutes, I’m gonna find your boss and file a missing team member report.”

“You don’t even work here.”

“You don’t even understand the extent of my relentless matchmaking skills.”

“Nor do I want to. See you in five.”

“Make it four.”

This is how Virgil finds himself begrudgingly driving toward Logan’s cafe, with Patton’s car hot on his heels. Clever enough, he supposes, since now there’s a literal heavy piece of machinery holding him accountable for reaching the destination he pinky promised to attend. Virgil would rather be hiding under the covers at home.

Swinging into the parking lot and taking his normal spot, Virgil wonders whether Patton would notice if he just hid out in the bathroom until everyone went home. He glances at the mug nestled in the passenger seat—secured with a seatbelt, of course—and decides against it. If nothing else, Logan would probably get suspicious about the goings-on in there, not to mention he’d be the one to have to clean it. Patton’s cheerful honk rings through the air as he locks his car, scooting over to press his nose to Virgil’s window.

Virgil raps the glass lightly, jolting Patton into taking a few steps back before he not-so-discreetly points at the door and dances on his toes. To tell the truth, Virgil is procrastinating, because he absolutely does not want to go inside and see Logan.

“Hi, Logan!” Patton calls, bursting through the door with Virgil in tow. “We’ve been waiting all day to see you!”

We? ” Virgil repeats skeptically.

“Oh, right, right, my bad,” Patton says, waving his hands sheepishly. “ Virgil has been waiting all day to see you!”

“That is not better,” Virgil mutters. He lifts a hand to his shoulder, massaging a sore spot along the slope of his neck and wishing he could be literally anywhere else right now. In an effort to diffuse the awkwardness that Logan hasn’t bothered to notice, he continues, “looks nice in here with the lights down. Kind of home-y.”

    “Indeed,” Logan agrees, balanced precariously on the second-highest rung of an unreasonably tall ladder. At its base, Roman holds the legs steady, grinning as Patton slings his backpack onto a nearby table. “Patton, I assume you brought more decorations I never greenlit?”

    “You know it.” Patton grins, upending the bag and watching every manner of rainbow trinket spill over the tabletop and onto the floor. “Okay, so see these? They look like normal food coloring, but they actually—”

    “If they sparkle or make the drink behave like pop rocks, I do not want them.”

    Patton pouts before tossing the food coloring stuff back in the bag. “Alright, well how about this one? It’s like a DIY mug for—”

    “Don’t use acronyms out loud, and I am not having mugs that guests design themselves. That defeats the purpose of my system.” Patton puts the mugs away.

    “Fine, so I also found these little mythical creature trinkets that—”

    “No.” Patton puts the trinkets away.

    “Or these things that look like scratch off tickets, but instead of the lottery, you can—”

    “No.” Patton puts the tickets away.

    “I found this book of stickers that has—”

    “No.” Patton puts the stickers away.

    “You know, I’m beginning to think you didn’t want me to bring all this stuff.”

    “I did not want you to bring all that stuff.”

    “Well, fine! I’ll just take it back home, then!”

    “Good! I do not want it here! Please remove it from my establishment!” Virgil cocks his head to the side, his thoughts catching on the mock enthusiasm in Logan’s voice. If anyone could possibly be the breathing personification of a sarcastic exclamation point, it’s Logan.

    “Can I help you up there?” Virgil offers. Logan glances down, still precariously balanced on his ladder and stretching out an arm to toss a strand of string lights over the menu boards. “You know, it might be more effective to pull the signs down and write the menu first, then tape some lights to the top, then hang them back up.”

    Thrusting out a hand for stability on the top rung, Logan lowers the spool of lights waiting to be thrown. “You may have a point. Roman, if you even think about shaking this ladder, I am going to ban you from helping any further with the decorations.”

    “Come on, dude, it’s pride month! Show some spirit!” Roman whines. Regardless, he holds the ladder steady as Logan descends.

    “I’ve already shown my spirit by deigning to allow you in my cafe while it’s closed. Don’t push your luck.” At the sound of a yelp and something crashing near the seats around the corner, Logan presses his middle finger to his glabella and groans deeply. “Remy, if you broke one of my windows, I am legally obligated to inform our parents that you are unfit to be an adult, and that I am sending you back to them, effective immediately.”

    “No, nope, everything is totally fine back here. You aren’t legally obligated to do anything whatsoever.” Remy pops his head into view, his cheeks flushed and his hair flopping into his eyes. Taking one look at Logan’s stern face and Virgil’s reserved one, he jerks his head at Roman. “Hey, wanna give me a hand back here? Your boyfriend can come too, I guess.”

    “He’s not my—” Roman begins, but Patton barrels right through it.

    “Sounds fun!” he declares, grabbing Roman by the elbow and dragging him toward whatever chaos Remy already caused. With a quick pause to point from his eyes to Virgil’s and back, Patton winks and vanishes from sight. In their absence, silence reigns supreme.

    “So,” Logan says.

    “So,” Virgil agrees.

    “How’s your handwriting?” Logan asks, clearly just as desperate to fill the awkward silence as Virgil.

    Virgil shrugs, grabbing one of many pens spilling from Patton’s abandoned backpack and twirling it between his fingers. “Not terrible, I guess. I do most of the boards where I work.” For a brief moment, Virgil wonders whether he’s ever mentioned to Logan where he works, but ultimately decides it’s not important just yet. He watches the pen spins for another few moments before continuing, “I have this style of super straight lines, though. Not exactly bubbly and inviting for your guests.”

    “My guests know I own this place. They aren’t expecting any manner of bubbliness, inviting or otherwise. Help me pull down the signs?” Allowing himself the smallest laugh at Logan’s matter-of-factness, Virgil moves for the lower right corner of the trifold board, hoisting it off the wall in tandem with Logan. “I suppose we ought to erase it first, before we go about ruining it.”

    “Do you know what kind of scheme you’re going for?” Virgil asks, shifting into decoration mode as he starts wiping off the first section. He shoves aside any lingering thoughts of yesterday’s fiasco in favor of focusing on the task at hand. Maybe if he pretends to have forgotten, it’ll be like it never happened in the first place.

    “Scheme? I was simply going to write the drink options in various colors,” Logan admits. He scrapes together a pile of chalk from a children’s craft box leaning against the bar, grimacing as he rubs the dust from between his fingers. “Unless you know of a better idea.”

    “I mean, we could do something like cold drinks here, and hot ones here, and you could have some people personalize based on this third one over here? And then, like, each third can be a different pride flag, like how I was saying yesterday—maybe make the miscellaneous board the pan flag, since it’s basically everything? Unless you don’t like the pun side of that, of course, then we don’t have to do it if you don’t want to. Or we could do the whole rainbow there, again with the ‘everything’ deal, but it might not look so cohesive as being strictly separated thirds of the menu. We don’t even have to separate by themes, if you wanted the whole menu to be just one section. Maybe we could do the bi flag for the cold drinks—if you decide to go for the cold, hot, miscellaneous boards, I mean—just because the blues and purples could go well with cold drinks, color theory and all? Or I guess there’s also the possibility of stuff like the transgender flag, or the polyamorous flag—maybe you could have a pastry menu, and put it there for a sort of pie-pi pun? I don’t know how well that one would go over, but if it sticks out to you well enough…”

 

---------------

 

    Logan props his chin on a fist, his legs crossed beneath him and his knee supporting his elbow. All of Virgil’s words are floating straight over his head, and he doesn’t even pretend to hide it, so entranced is he by Virgil’s enthusiasm. In all honesty, Logan stopped listening by the third sentence, more focused on how Virgil’s pale lips formed the soundless words, washing the cafe in an ocean of rolling tones and low asides. Not ten seconds into his rambling, Logan is certain he saw Virgil’s eyes light up, ever so slightly, at the prospect of having creative control over something so simple as menu theming.

    “Does that work for you?”

    Shit. Logan forgot he was supposed to be listening.

    “Er, I’m actually somewhat unclear on what you meant. Do you mind rewording your suggestion?”

    Virgil blinks at him, and Logan feels his soul melt—no human has a right to look that much like a confused puppy. “I don’t really know how you expect me to reword ‘I’m gonna run to the bathroom real quick while you think about which theme you like,’ but I’m certainly willing to try if you need me to.”

    “Yes, no, I mean—of course, absolutely. Go right ahead, second door on the right in the back.” Logan waves a flippant hand as Virgil pushes off from his knees, tossing a two-fingered salute to the other three working in the back. Logan has no idea what they’re doing back there anymore, nor does he really care. He’s slightly more concerned with that complete social blunder between Virgil and him. Could he have come across any more ridiculous?

    “So what do you think of Virgil, hm?” Patton asks, appearing over Logan’s shoulder. Logan flinches, sitting up straighter and nearly slamming his head into Patton’s chin. “Think he’s got a cute butt?”

    Pausing to absorb the second question, Logan wonders whether he doesn’t look too dissimilar to a computer rebooting itself. “He certainly has an ass.”

    “Do you know any other swear words?” Remy groans, trudging over and draping himself across the bar. Meanwhile, Patton is spluttering in disgust at Logan for daring to use a more crude synonym for the word ‘butt.’

    “You should be proud that he even knows that one,” Roman chimes in. “Why, when I first met Logan—”

    “We are not doing emotional history montages,” Logan declares, getting to his feet and waving a hand at Roman. “We are here only to improve the environment in and around my cafe, so that is what we are going to do.”

    “Actually,” Remy corrects, “I’m mostly here because I want to set you up with Virgil. He was a dick from the moment he walked in that first time, which is exactly your type.” Pointing at Logan with a wink, Remy moves to lean against the wall.

    Logan doesn’t bother to question his motives, and pretends he didn’t hear the first half of Remy’s statement. He does, however, hear the general motivation behind the words, and responds accordingly. The sly grin on his face makes Roman take a subconscious step back.

    “Oh, and you aren’t here to set Roman up with Patton?” Turning his focus on them, Logan wonders in the back of his mind whether Virgil might walk in on this. “Of course, everyone’s talking about it, Remy. Don’t you want to be the first trendsetter with the newest, hottest couple?”

    “Since when does he know what ‘hottest’ means?” Roman hisses in a stage whisper. Patton shrugs, pressing his lips together as his cheeks stay annoyingly neutral, not at all embarrassed by Logan’s tirade. “Do you think he doesn’t know?”

    “I think he doesn’t know,” Patton replies. He doesn’t even bother to lower his voice, which serves only to further infuriate Logan.

    “What don’t I know?”

    “He definitely doesn’t know,” Remy agrees, peeling himself away from the wall. “It’s almost pity full, really.”

    “You don’t know the meaning of the word. You don’t even know the pronunciation.”

    “But I know you use it on me, like, all the time, which is only that much more pity full for you.”

    “Pitiful. Like your grasp of the English language.” At the sound of the sink faucet turning on around the corner, Logan glances back at Roman and Patton, who are still whispering together intently. Patton is barely hiding his giggles. “So, tell me; what is it, exactly, that I don’t know?”

    “Should we tell him?” Roman whispers. Patton shrugs, pushing his glasses up by pressing his finger directly against the lens. Logan can feel something shattering, deep inside his innermost soul.

    “Oh, tell him, you dorks,” Remy groans. “It’s literally, like, so obvious, it’s almost sad that he hasn’t figured it out yet.”

    “Figured out what?” Virgil asks, materializing around the corner.

    “That me ‘n Patton are dating,” Roman says.

    “Duh, everybody knows that.” Glancing around, a look of concern grows on Virgil’s face. “Was I not supposed to know that?”

    “Well, actually, Logan here—” Remy begins, but with a swift smack to the arm from Logan, he cuts himself off. “Nope, yep, totally justified in knowing that. Seven out of three. Good job. So smart. We stan a clever icon.”

    “Please stop talking,” Logan says. “Can we just get back to decorating?”

    “Way ahead of you.” Virgil drops to his knees, gathering up scattered pieces of chalk and positioning the blank slates in front of him. “Did you decide which theme you liked?”

    Logan very much did not do that. “I like both the gender flags and the sexuality flags. What do you think?”

    Virgil, clearly not prepared to be in control, blinks twice. “Um. Well. Maybe we could make the first board sexualities, and the second one genders, and have each drink be a different flag based on which menu theme they’re under? And Remy likes making up drinks, yeah?”

    “Yes,” Remy unnecessarily confirms. Logan scowls at him until he disappears around the corner with Patton and Roman.

    “Cool,” Virgil continues, “So that way we can do a little of everything on the menus, and then the lights can just look nice in general, and they don’t strictly have to coordinate with the menus.”

    “Where do you work, some interior design place?” Logan asks, raising an eyebrow at Virgil’s confidence, which rapidly grows the more he talks himself through ideas. “You really seem to know what you’re talking about.”

    “Not exactly,” Virgil admits. “Where I work doesn’t really matter, though, does it?”

    “Want to work here?” Logan blurts, before immediately clapping his hands over his mouth. “Sorry, that was probably too forward. I don’t even know why I said it, I mean, look at this place, I can barely pay Remy, let alone add another hire, not to mention—”

    “You’re fine,” Virgil says absently, more focused on the menu spread. “Anyway, so the flags. Do you want to start listing off some drinks you serve, and I’ll write them on my phone, and we can just go from there to decide which drink goes with which flag?”

    Logan swallows thickly and nods, launching into his perfectly memorized list of everything he makes on a day-to-day basis. At least Virgil elected to ignore his outburst.

    As the sun makes its trek toward the horizon, shooting beams of light through floating bits of dust in the air, Logan sits back on his haunches to admire Virgil’s handiwork. For how consistently they’d been working all day, he has to admit some small amount of pride in the outcome.

    The first board, comprised of iced and frozen drinks, proudly bears all manner of gender orientation flags that Logan could find, both common and obscure. Each in bright pastels, of course, as neither Roman nor Patton had the foresight to bring darker colored chalk. The second board boasts hot drinks and sexuality flags, and despite himself, Logan quite likes the soft brightness of the middle menu. The third is still blank, with an added wooden board at the bottom to hold chalk.

    “That way,” Virgil explained, “whoever makes the custom drink of the day can draw it there, and write the ingredients without having to hunt for the chalk.” Although Logan doesn’t particularly care for letting guests take control of the menu, he begrudgingly agreed that it was a good idea.

    “You guys took, like, forever to do basically nothing,” Remy complains, now sprawled out across a table.

    “Guests eat off those,” Logan remarks, still more focused on the menus than his brother’s antics. “And you only managed to string up a few sets of lights between the three of you. I would hardly call that an achievement.”

    “Among,” Virgil corrects.

    “What?”

    “You said between the three of them. Since it’s more than two, it’s among the three of them.” Logan can’t decide whether to be horrified or enchanted by how Virgil managed to catch his own grammar mistake.

    “Roman?” Logan calls, drawing attention away from his flub. “What, exactly, might you be doing?”

    Roman merely grins in response, precariously balanced on one of the tables near the front. He lowers his hands from the upper frame of the window and jumps to the floor, trying to duck into a somersault and failing miserably. Patton giggles before helping him up and glancing at what he’d been messing with.

    “This is my cafe,” Logan reminds them, “so I believe I ought to know what you’ve done to it.”

    Offering a shrug and a wince, Roman follows Patton’s gaze to the window. “Mistletoe.”

    “Mistletoe,” Logan repeats.

    “Mistletoe!” Patton agrees.

    “Mistletoe,” Remy choruses. At Logan’s glare, he raises his hands defensively. “Sorry, I just wanted to feel included.”

    “Why, pray tell, is there mistletoe in my cafe?” Logan sighs.

    “Bitchmas in July,” Roman replies. Logan can’t decide whether to throttle him or to simply scream.

    “Roman?”

    “Yes, my dearest friend and barista?”

    “It is June.”

    “Yes.”

    “Bitchmas, as you say, is in July.”

    “Yes.”

    “June is not July.”

    “You lost me.”

    “Actually,” Patton cuts in, “I think I know why Roman put mistletoe there.”

    “Why might that be?” Logan is extremely close to tossing one of the people in this room out the window, and based solely on proximity, it very well might be Virgil.

    “For this.” With no further warning, Patton grabs Roman by the neck of his shirt and yanks him to stand behind the chair he’d been using as a stepstool. Logan hardly has the chance to blink before Patton is pulling Roman in, closing his eyes, and—

    “Yep, nope, super cool, very much did not need to see that,” Virgil announces, mercifully drawing Logan’s eyes away from the scene. “Besides that nonsense, did you guys get the lights all finished? I need to peace out pretty soon here, but I want to see the cafe in its full glory before the guests come and destroy it by existing in its presence.”

    Roman hesitates to answer, still breathless beside a beaming Patton. Remy cuts in first, allowing the other two to regain their composure.

    “We got everything done, so if you wanted to pack up whatever stuff you brought, I’ll get the last of the connections and cords all set up, so you can bask in the splendor before you go.” Leaning in close enough to whisper so that Virgil can’t hear, Remy’s breath tickles Logan’s ear. “His mug is on the side pocket of his bag. Sneak it away while I distract him, and make him a personalized drink. It’ll be totally endearing, I know it.”

    “I am not doing that.”

    Remy dangles the mug from his fingers with a smirk, thrusting it at Logan when Virgil isn’t looking. “You are doing that.”

    Logan frowns and reluctantly takes the mug. “I am doing that.”

    “Unless you want to be doing—”

    “Don’t you dare say it,” Logan hisses, snapping his head around to cast the entirety of his glare at Remy. “If you swear, in this moment, to shut your damn mouth, I will make him a drink.”

    “That’s all I want,” Remy says, dusting his hands off and tugging Virgil to stand in front of the door. The mistletoe dangles a few ominous feet away. Logan’s scowl melts into a vague feeling of contentedness as he watches Virgil taking in the unlit decorations. His hands work on autopilot, making an old favorite of his that has long since outgrown its recipe. When Remy clicks the lights on and Logan catches Virgil’s face in the light, the barista is pretty convinced he might just collapse right then and there, coffee and all.

    Framed in the soft blues and yellows of twinkling artificial lights, Virgil’s pale skin almost seems to glow against his jet black hair, a silhouette of ethereal splendor captured oh-so-perfectly for a split second, before the illusion shatters. Virgil turns to look at Logan as the latter absently slides the full mug across the counter, so entranced is he by the former.

    “You good?” Virgil asks. Logan can only manage the smallest of nods, barely capable of closing his stunned mouth as he watches the way the moonlight flicks off the purple tips of Virgil’s hair. “Dude, you didn’t have to go and make me anything!”

    “It’s one of his oldest favorites,” Remy cuts in, rescuing Logan from himself. “No, no, put your money away, this one’s on the house for helping us remodel.”

    “All I really did was draw on a couple menus,” Virgil protests. Nevertheless, he pockets his wallet and takes a hesitant sip from the mug. A beauty to rival that of his shape against the night sky lights in his eyes as he tips the mug, draining the rest as fast as he can manage.

    “Good, right?” Remy asks. Logan wonders whether his own mouth will decide to start functioning properly any time soon.

    So good,” Virgil murmurs, still holding the rim of the mug to his nose and inhaling deeply. “Smells amazing, too.”

    With a swift elbow jab to the side from Remy, Logan manages to choke out a broken “thanks,” his voice cracking on the vowel. Miracle of miracles, Virgil doesn’t notice. Or, if he does, he pretends not to, which only makes it worse—or better, Logan isn’t sure.

    “Well, uh, thank you too,” Virgil mumbles. He clutches the mug as tight as he can manage, shouldering his way out the door. Not two feet beyond the threshold of the door, he absently raises his shoulders toward his ears against a cool summer breeze.

    “Logan, close your mouth,” Roman calls. Logan moves his jaw up, realizing all too late that he’d been staring open-mouthed at Virgil for no reason. Turning his face toward Patton’s neck, Roman giggles and whispers, “he’s so head over heels.”

    “That’s an understatement,” Patton replies. “If his head is where it is now, you’d need a cinderblock and the Mariana Trench to get to his heels.”

    “That was a bit of a stretch,” Remy says. “I know you’re trying, hon, but maybe try more puns, fewer metaphors?”

    “Puns,” Patton echoes, rolling the word between his lips and chewing the n . “Pun pun pun pun.”

    “Now look what you’ve done,” Roman groans.

    “Pun,” Patton repeats, pointing up and nudging Roman to the side. Roman blinks and follows his finger to the mistletoe, which is wobbling dangerously. “Don’t think you used enough tape there, Crumb cake.”

    “Maybe not,” Roman agrees. As he reaches up to adjust the decoration, Logan’s hand thrusts out of its own volition.

    “Do you maybe want to move that over the door instead? Maybe? I mean, you don’t have to, I just—”

    “Logan’s rambling,” Remy announces. “Better do what he wants before he short circuits entirely.” Roman and Patton titter at this before the former pulls down the mistletoe, removing the old tape and producing a new roll from his pocket.

    “Thanks,” Logan sighs, watching Roman stick the mistletoe just to the right of the bell. What he wouldn’t give to be under that with—

    “Closing time!” Logan shouts suddenly, ignoring how the other three flinch. “It was all very fun and nice, but it is time for everyone to go home. Right now. Please leave. This very second. Immediately. Get out.”

    Remy exits first, followed quickly by Patton and Roman, none of whom bother trying to hide their laughter. Logan is the last to leave, still focused on that mistletoe. Still focused on who he wants to see beneath it.

 

---------------

 

    Virgil is having a bad day.

    He woke up with only two minutes to spare before having to leave for work. He stepped on poop from his neighbor’s dog when he went outside. He found a smear of mocha syrup along the seam of his pants in a very conspicuous pattern. He didn’t have any other clean pants ready. His car wouldn’t start fast enough. His USB cord to his phone wouldn’t connect, no matter how many times he turned it. His throat ached, but without a fever, he was still legally allowed to work with food. His voice was all but gone.

    Virgil wants nothing more than to go back home, crawl under a mountain of blankets, and stay there until the sun goes away.

    This would be a task much more easily achieved if Natalia would bother to show up on time. Virgil forces a tight smile onto his face as he mindlessly nods along to the latest guest’s conversation. Ten more minutes and he’ll hit compliance, which means a stern talking-to between Anne and her boss, which means a stern talking-to between Anne and him, which is basically the last thing keeping Virgil from walking out of the store right now.

    Virgil wants to go home.

    “Have you seen Natalia?” Anne asks, appearing on the other side of the bar once the line dribbles down to nothing. Virgil shakes his head, already halfway through making her usual order as she groans. “Okay, well, you’re gonna hit compliance in a second here.”

    “I know that,” Virgil snaps. “There’s not exactly a whole lot I can do about it.”

    “Mind your tone,” Anne chides lightly, and though Virgil can tell she’s kidding, he really isn’t in the mood for it today.

    “Yeah, sorry. Do you mind, uh, you know?” He tilts his chin to the next guest, as well as the cluster of families preparing to queue up behind them. Anne nods and apologizes with a laugh, scurrying off to do whatever it is she deems more important than helping Virgil to keep this line in check.

    This is the part where Virgil is supposed to launch into a spiel of every drink he makes, as well as the struggles that accompany calling out complete orders with a voice that basically doesn’t exist, but based on the morning he’s had so far? He has absolutely zero desire to get into it. Guests are rude, baby boomers are impatient, the sky is blue, Virgil is in hell, next question.

    “Hey, um, excuse me?” Some dude leans over the counter, shaking his empty cold cup at Virgil. Evidently, he did not notice the line waiting to be helped. “Barista boy?”

    Virgil glances where his name tag should be, shrugs at its absence, and nods. Yeah, that’s a fair nickname. “What’s up?”

    “You made my drink wrong.” His empty drink, that is.

    “Oh, I’m so sorry about that, did you want me to remake it for you?”

    “No, I want you to give me a refund.”

    “Sir, I—you already finished your—by store policy, I can only make you a new drink, I can’t give you a refund if there’s no drink to take back in return for the money, sorry.”

    “Yeah, but I didn’t like it.”

    “Then why did you—never mind, would you like me to make you a new one?”

    “No, I want compensation for a miserable drinking experience.”

    This goes on for some time, and while Virgil is largely skilled at keeping his composure when he has to, that’s much more easily said than done when the guest is flinging curse words at him left and right.

    “Sir, I’m sorry, it’s—there’s a long line, so unless you want to have me remake your drink for you, there’s really nothing I can do.” Angry Guest Man rips out a few more choice words before storming off, shouldering patiently waiting customers out of the way. Virgil rolls his shoulders back and moves on to the next guest, relieved when all they want is a grande mocha.

    Virgil.

    Wants.

    To.

    Go.

    Home.

    “Hey, I’m here to cover for Natalia!” Kim announces, prancing behind the bar without a hat on, as if she doesn’t notice the hold up Virgil’s dealing with.

    “Awesome. Get here sooner next time. Put on a hat—or a hairnet, I don’t care which—and start taking orders while I catch up on hot bar. We’re almost out of skim milk, and the almond milk shipment is behind today, so only offer coconut and soy milk.” Virgil tosses out orders almost as fast as he hands off drinks, waving off Kim’s bewildered demands. “I don’t care how or why Natalia got you to show up late—better than not at all—but I need you to kick into gear. I’ll get you as caught up as I can, but I’m gonna hit compliance, so savor this partnership before you’re on your own.”

    Kim bites back whatever protests she might’ve had, instead nodding and moving for the register. She plasters a welcoming smile on her face and starts chatting up the next guest as Virgil slowly but surely picks apart his backlog of orders.

    Virgil does not want to be here.

    Another guest complaining about their cappuccino not having enough foam is incredibly close to being the straw that shatters his back. Virgil bites back a groan as he gingerly takes the unlidded cup from her, nodding his apologies and profusely assuring her he’d remake it. She scowls and mutters something about hurrying up.

    “There you go, sorry ’bout that,” Virgil says, passing off the new cup.

    She removes the lid, glaring at the drink and completely ignoring the swarm of people behind her that would very much like to get their orders. “There isn’t enough foam for the caramel to sit on top.”

    “Yeah, that’s how physics—I mean, yes, my bad, do you want more caramel drizzle?”

    “No, I want you to make it right .” With no further warning, she scrapes off the top layer of foam and flicks it at Virgil, cocking her head to the side as it plops across the bridge of his nose.

    He might just scream.

    “So you’ll have me remake it, then?” Virgil forces himself to smile as she nods with a harrumph. “Right, okay, just give me a minute here, aaand—there you go.” He pushes the latest creation over the bar and comforts his shot nerves with the mental image of throwing the drink in her face.

    “There’s not enough foam.” Before Virgil can even pretend to be sympathetic to her first world problems, she dips her finger into the foam.

    And flicks this one square at his chest.

    “Anne?” Virgil’s voice is sugary sweet as Anne drifts lazily over from across the seating area, moving as if she had all the time in the world. “I’m going to hit compliance in less than two minutes, so I am going to clock out. I will not be coming in tomorrow, as I have a backlog of sick days, and I will be using one to figure out whether I want to come in the day after that. Good luck getting someone to cover for me, since it was obviously such a difficult task for Natalia.”

    “Virgil, if you don’t come in tomorrow, you can kiss this job goodbye,” Anne snaps.

    Virgil considers this, removes his hat, and places it squarely on her head. “If you want me to stay away, I’ll do so happily. In case you haven’t noticed, there isn’t a whole lot of qualified backup for you here.” Anne can only manage bewildered sputters in response as Virgil unties his apron, drapes it over a chair, and strolls off to the break room.

    Virgil is leaving this hellscape.

    “I really wanna leave this stupid town,” he sings to himself in the car, ignoring his blatantly wrong lyrics as he tears out of the parking lot. “And today, the time has come.” Ramping up his voice to little less than a furious scream, he pounds the steering wheel to the rhythm, and feels an odd lightness when he sees the empty passenger seat. For once, he doesn’t have to have the ever-present company of that obnoxious apron, wrapped up and tucked inside that ridiculous hat.

    Virgil is going home.

    At least, Virgil thought he was going home.

    No one could be more surprised than him when he finds his arms steering the car toward Logan’s cafe of their own volition.

    “Hey, Virgil, what’s going—wait, hey, you walked under the mistletoe!” Roman whines from the counter, where Remy is closely monitoring his work behind the bar. “You can’t just walk past mistletoe without a kiss-letoe!”

    “Stop talking, or that mistletoe is going up your ass-letoe,” Virgil mutters, making a beeline for the mound of bean bag chairs in the corner. A nice touch of comfort amidst the soft lighting and colorful menus they’d added yesterday. Probably Patton’s idea.

    He falls to his knees before he knows what he’s doing, shoving his face into the plasticky surface and letting the rustling beans consume his senses. He’d barely bothered to notice how loudly his pulse was thrumming through his head until it stopped, overpowered by the artificial cushion beneath him. At the sound of footsteps drawing near his head, Virgil briefly considers sweeping out a leg and knocking them to the floor. An action movie sequence fantasy at best.

    He feels them speak before any words come out, and has never felt closer to cussing out someone he met mere days ago.

    “Hey. Rough day?” By some merciful chance, it’s not Roman, or Remy, or even Patton. Logan continues, careful to keep his voice low and measured, “I get that. I had the lights turned down temporarily to test the environment in direct sunlight, but I’ll leave them down for your sake. We also received several compliments on the new menus—all your handiwork, of course.

    “Remy’s training Roman on how to make drinks right now, since I’ve heard many guests discussing how to get their friends to join them on trips here. With that kind of increase in business, I could really use his extra set of hands, no matter how inexperienced. I see you brought your mug, as well—if it doesn’t upset you too terribly, I’ve already had Remy begin teaching Roman how to make up drinks, so you might get an odd flavor combination, what with the steep learning curve and all. Roman is creative, I’ll give him that, but he’s never truly been one for understanding the intricacies of taste and texture among our staple ingredients.”

    With every word out of Logan’s mouth, Virgil can feel his mounting headache slowly, ever so slowly, draining away. In the wake of Anne and Kim’s nonsense, he hadn’t cared to notice the exhaustion, much less how severely it hurt. Even now, his pulse is pounding like a jackhammer against the roof of his skull.

    “When Remy first picked out that mug covered in cups for you, I have to say, I was horrified. As far as I could tell, it was just the first thing he grabbed, which is about as basic a tactic as any other. Your current one, with all the constellations and the blues, just felt right, if you know what I mean. Not exactly a logical way to select your mug, but I can’t really explain it.”

    “I like to call them mug-mates!” Roman announces. “You know, mug, soulmate, mug-mate?” An image crosses Virgil’s mind of throwing his current mug at Roman’s head, and he laughs. “See, Remy, told you I was funny.”

    “I hate to break it to you,” Remy says gently, “but Patton was only lying about you being funny because you suck at everything else.”

    “Shut up,” Logan singsongs, his voice achingly calm against their raising tones. In a voice that somehow manages to be even more soothing than before, almost dulcet, he continues, “most of my guests have a particular piece of clothing or accessory that stands out, matching their immediate mug. You just felt, well, different , somehow.”

    Virgil fights the instinct to flinch as he feels something come to rest against his head. A moment passes, two, before it starts to move, lightly combing through his matted hair and gently scratching at his aching head beneath. Against his own volition, a contented sigh escapes his lips. The scratching continues unaffected.

    If it were possible, Virgil would stay here, just like this, forever. Motionless in a pile of bean bags, with only Logan’s presence to remind him he still exists. Naturally, this isn’t possible, as a gentle set of three raps against the wall over his head jerks him out of his half-conscious state.

    Logan nods with a smile as a guest lowers their hand, moving for the door and stashing their mug in their bag. At Virgil’s questioning gaze, Logan raises his hands and explains, “that’s how my best guests say goodbye. The first few regulars I had liked the peaceful silence, so instead of cutting through the air with words, they’d just knock on the tables. It sort of became habit, I suppose.” Virgil glances from Logan’s mouth to his shoulder and back, releasing another sigh as the scratching shifts down to his back.

    “Feel any better?” Logan asks. His eyes are filled with a warmth that Virgil swears wasn’t there yesterday.

    “Little bit,” Virgil mumbles. “Work sucks.”

    “And where, exactly, do you work?”

    “Starbucks north.”

    The shock in Logan’s expression is almost laughable. “I have never been more disgusted with a single human being in all my life than I am right now.”

    “Yeah, that’s fair. I think I just kind of quit, though. Not exactly a ceremonious end to my shift, if you know what I mean.”

    “Rude guests?”

    “Try obscene and pathetic. One flicked her foam at me.”

    “Wait, don’t you get free drinks when you work there? Why buy my drinks when you can get stuff without paying for it at all?”

    “We aren’t, like, a chain place, since we’re owned by the department store we’re in, so we kind of follow different rules than the regular stores. I only get one grande drink per shift, and it has to be while I’m on the clock.”

    “Okay, but you can still get those drinks. Just make them on your last five minutes and walk out with them. Why bother spending money on what could be free?”

    “I’m not funneling the money I get from that place directly back into it. They are a capitalist regime based on the basic downfall of the foremost man empowering story, and I refuse to fuel their fire.”

    “How closely did you analyze Moby Dick?”

    “Sparknotes.” Virgil pushes himself onto his elbows, still savoring the feeling of Logan’s fingers gently scraping along his back. “Hey, what was that you were saying yesterday about offering for me to work here?”

    Logan’s face colors immediately, flush with about as much red as is humanly safe. “I didn’t mean to impose—I mean, er, I didn’t want you to feel like—”

    “It’s cool,” Virgil interrupts. “Anyway, were you even a little bit serious? Because I don’t really have a reference from my last place, but if you’re willing to accept a new hire with a shady history who knows how to run a coffee bar, I’m your guy.”

    Logan nods quickly, glancing back to where Roman is struggling considerably under Remy’s watch. “You’re hired. You start today.”

    “Actually, I know this is probably a bad first impression on my new boss, but do you mind if I start tomorrow? I’m not really feeling it today.”

    “Indeed, I should probably draw up the paperwork, as well.”

    The finality of this tenuous agreement hangs in the air, an oddly relaxed cloud of, well, something that can only wait to be shattered.

    Roman does a perfectly fine job of carrying out this task.

    “Logan, you’re gonna be so proud of me in a second here—I made my very first drink! Remy said I have to give it to Virgil, since you won’t take it.” Roman passes the constellation-covered mug over to Virgil, who glances warily at the murky substance rippling within. “Relax, it’s literally the easiest drink I can make.”

    “Earl grey tea,” Remy calls over. “Two tea bags, hot water, and honey. I promise he didn’t poison it.” Only after Remy’s reassurance does Virgil take a hesitant sip, admiring the flavor as soon as it hits his tongue.

    “Oh, that reminds me!” Logan exclaims, raising a finger in the air. It takes everything in Virgil not to whine at the loss of the reassuring hand against his back. “I got something as a thank you for helping us with the decorations yesterday—it’s right upstairs, actually. Just give me a few minutes, and I’ll have it right back down here for you.” As Logan rises, something jingles and clatters to the floor, escaping his notice as he moves for the door. A keyring, covered in at least ten keys and even more keychains.

    “Hey, wait, you dropped these,” Virgil says, grabbing the keys and following Logan to the door. Logan lifts his chin slightly, taking the keys and shoving them in his pocket—careful enough that they won’t fall out this time.

    “Oh, look at that,” Roman coos. Virgil raises an eyebrow, turning to see where Roman and Remy are excitedly elbowing each other and giggling. Even Patton appears from around the corner and smiles along with them—probably leaving the bathroom.

    “Look at what?” Logan asks, obviously quite finished with their nonsense. Rather than dignify him with an answer, Roman merely points above their heads. Virgil follows the motion to see the last decoration he could’ve expected in June.

    Mistletoe.

    To the tune of the other three quietly chanting, “kiss, kiss, kiss,” Virgil swallows an annoyed moan and glances at Logan, whose face somehow managed to turn an even deeper shade of pink.

    “If you don’t want to, I mean, if you didn’t, you know, feel comfortable with—” Logan stammers, every word darkening his cheeks, but Virgil cuts him off with a laugh.

    “Maybe I do want to. Kiss you, that is. I mean, if you want to.”

    “No, yeah, I mean—yes. I would like that. To kiss you, I mean.”

    Virgil’s face glows like a rose on fire. “Okay, cool, because I also want to do that. Also.”

    So he does.