Friday 8:00 p.m.
As the evening sun begins to set, the town outside shifts with shadows. Across from the market square, I watch the grand oak that towers over the train station. It’s six centuries old, perhaps older. The worn rope tied to its waist marks it as sacred to Mortal eyes. But there’s a light that emanates from it, a glow that only us Fae can see. It is that energy that draws us to it. We can bask in its warmth for hours. And if we are not careful, we could forget our own names.
Oriana returns to the cafe with her old flame, the one she always visits when she returns to town. Together they are two suns burning each other up until one threatens to consume the other. But Oriana never lingers for long. It must be why they tend to converge together again somewhere else in life; different place, different time.
“Cassie,” he greets and slides into his seat at the counter. Sajja works at the bar around the corner. He makes his living mixing drinks and unloading people’s woes, quite literally plucking fear and sorrow out of their minds. It’s one of his many talents.
He adds teasingly, “Had a feeling this one was dropping by.”
“Of course. You’re a seer,” she chastises.
He shook his head and rolled his eyes as if we weren’t getting the joke. “Because you always drop into town around this time. Doesn’t take a seer to know that.”
I bite my smile between my lips and take a peek at Oriana’s flattening expression.
I break the tension as best I can. “Coffee? Tea?”
Oriana turns her head to me, darkness flattening in her gaze. “Coffee. I’m going to need it.”
Saya slips through the cafe door and I do mean slip in. She is like a small mouse sneaking into a cat’s home. But beneath that timid, mousy exterior is a powerful nymph. She owns the flower shop across the market square and her flower arrangements are considered the highest quality. Her business is always busy with orders from local shops, schools, wedding planners, and the like.
Just as quietly as she entered the cafe, she sits at the edge of the counter. Saya raises her hand and her voice is quiet and sweet, “White tea, Cassie.”
I give her a nod and begin working on the two completely opposite drinks.
Oriana ordered coffee but I know she likes a bit of spice and kick. Horchata, I decide. I’ll add a bit of cayenne pepper with the cinnamon then mix the concoction together with a lightly roasted coffee.
Saya is more delicate. She prefers floral notes like lavendar and chamomile. But this evening I choose roses for her. They’re recently cut rose buds from her shop that she’ll recognize immediately.
Just as I set the drinks onto the counter, the cafe door opens and Cero, an old friend, steps inside. And I do mean old. He’s perhaps the oldest patron of the cafe.
The cold evening air seeps in behind him and he brings the collar of his jacket closer to his neck.
“Something salty?” I inquire, leaning into the counter.
“Not tonight, dear.” He tosses a hand then grins. He throws his arms out to Oriana and they hug briefly.
“I’m glad you came.”
“Can’t miss a rare chance to drink with the queen of whiskey.”
She curtsies dramatically then falls back into her seat. “We’ll leave once everyone gets here.”
A night of drinking, I consider. It’ll be loud and Oriana will be hungover the next morning. I’ll have to prepare something to help her through it. Fruits, lots of them, with another round of cayenne peper, I think.
“You’ll have to close the shop early,” Oriana tells me and the curl in her lips is unsettling. “You’re joining us tonight. Drinking and karaoke.” Her chin rises and she looks even more smug than earlier. “I already invited people so you can’t back out of it.”
“That’s unfortunate because I already have a date. His name’s Alphonso.”
“If his last name is Mango, I swear I’ll throw this coffee at you.”
I turn sharply and lean into the counter where Saya is quietly sitting. “How’s the tea?”
“Lovely,” she cooes, her brown eyes fluttering. She’s a young fawn, gentle and wide-eyed, stepping into an open meadow for the first time. “I can almost taste the sunlight in the roses.”
“Cassandra.” My twin tilts in her chair to gain my attention and the door to the cafe opens just as she adds sweetly, “I invited people already.” Her brows wag as my eyes meet with his, realizing that this late night visit isn’t about coffee or tea.
“Good evening.” Hikari bows his head respectfully at everyone sitting at the counter.
“We’re just about to head out.” Oriana spins around in her stool to face him. Her curls bounce too cheerfully at her strange game. “Cassandra just has to close up the cafe for the night.” She looks over her shoulder at me and smirks slightly.
I laugh but its breathy, the ghost of bitter humor. “Yes...” I look sharply at Saya. “But I have customers.”
“Saya, why don’t you join us?”
“Oh. I can’t.” She smiles sweetly, not a hint of diceit. “I already have plans. But next time, I’d love to. Karaoke is always fun with you.” She takes the last sip of her tea and slides out of her seat. She sets the money down and whispers shyly, “Don’t be so hard on Oriana. I think it’s sweet.”
My spine weakens. I could crumple in on myself if the cafe weren’t already filled with gawking eyes.
“Let’s go.” Oriana jumps to her feet and drags Sajja to her side.
My mouth falls open. I have a hundred protests waiting in the back of my throat but I swallow all of them. The moment my eyes return to his, the gentleness that softens my own expression, I can not turn away. He isn’t Fae, not an ounce of magic runs in his veins. But if he were, he would be a Sajja.
I round the counter and remove my apron.
“It’s cute,” he says, eyeing the blue and tan apron. “The cat’s tail... going around your neck...” His voice trails away but he’s eyeing the striped cloth and then his vision lingers for just a moment on my neck.
I chuckle a little. “I have another one. I could give you one but you’d have to work here and make coffee all day. It’s a pretty tough job.”
“Oh? I could make coffee... less than decent coffee. My tea isn’t too bad.” He throws his hands up as if it weren’t a bad idea. “Then I could steal some of your secret receipes...”
“Sure. Then get fired...” I grin teasingly then the laugh rolls out, uncontained, and his laughter joins mine.
His laugh is too warm and rich. It’s too delicious for my ears and leaves me craving for more. I’m willing to make any dumb, silly joke if it means he’ll laugh again.
“If you two want to stay here alone,” Oriana teases and cocks her head. “We can leave without you.”
I hurry towards the door, my hands burning and sweaty. “Lead the way.” I hold open the door and push my nerves down as far as I can. Oriana sashays out of the cafe first, the small group of people right behind her. I lock up the cafe, close the metal shutters, then trails behind after them.
Hikari trails behind with me, the rest of the group talking loudly about the last time they went drinking together. “Strange weather these days,” he blurts, then bites into his lower lip. “Sunny and rainy... I mean, at the same time.”
“Rainy days are very strange,” I tease.
But I must admit that it has been strange weather. It was supposed to be sunny all week but bursts of rain rolled through town a few times then disappeared. As if the rain had been summoned by someone. It’s unusual and out of place for a Fae to alter the weather in such a way. What good would a spot of rain do? Water a small garden? And who would risk catching an Investigator’s attention over a bit of rain?
I ask off-handedly, “Do you go drinking a lot?”
“No... Well, yes,” he chuckles. “For work parties and co-workers...”
I nod in understanding. “There’s a strong drinking culture here.”
“Sometimes it’s fun...”
I quirk a brow at him. “You can be honest. I won’t tell anyone.”
His tone shifts and it’s dry as he admits, “I don’t like it. It’s more work.”
A strong drinking culture, I think again and wince because I’ve seen all too well the aftermath around the train stations. I’ve seen old men sleeping on park benches because they missed the last train home. I’ve seen women comforting a friend who can’t even manage to get to their feet.
“How about you?” His voice changes, honest intrigue and interest. “Do you drink a lot?”
“Does coffee count?” The corner of my lip curls into a half-hearted smirk.
He tosses his hands half-heartedly. “Sure. I’ve heard sake and coffee are good together.”
I cry out in protest and lightly smack his arm.
He flinches away but his cry of pain is muffled by a guffaw of giggles. It is the sound children make during the highlights of a festival, a buoyancy of community spirit wraveled together, the goodness only a pure heart can release.