Again, the outcome of a call for prompt words over at the Torquere Live Journal. This one is likely to be a rather extensive story. Enjoy. 🙂
* * *
It was a slow day for sales, or maybe it was a slow night. Bergen wasn’t sure anymore, his internal clock was so screwed up. It didn’t help that the new-age-y store he worked in didn’t actually have windows, what with being set up inside an old shotgun-style building that the owner insisted called to mind the “good old days” in New Orleans.
Bergen wasn’t sure he was buying that story, of course, because Federer sounded more Brooklyn than deep South, but whatever. It was enough that the man had hired him, even without ID. More than enough that Federer paid in cash, too, because God only knew how else Bergen could have worked at something that didn’t involve being naked while still staying off the radar.
Selling lava lamps, incense, quartz crystals and the occasional bong to the lettuce-and-tofu types at all hours beat the merry hell out of selling his ass. Bergen knew that much for a fact. And if his desire to leave zero paper-trail meant Federer had him working weird hours and shifts that changed seemingly on a whim, well, that was a price Bergen was willing to pay. Besides which, the little shop wasn’t that bad. It smelled nice, the powdery scents of incense dust — bergamot, frankincense, jasmine, musk and amber, along with the rest — lingering after however many years.
Bergen figured he’d kind of lucked out that Federer wasn’t the kind to use his position to get into his employees’ pants. It wasn’t as though Bergen would have had a lot of choice, but truthfully the toupee-wearing older man just wasn’t that appealing, physically.
“Lock up at eleven,” the man himself said, appearing from the storeroom and making a beeline for the door, a handful of tissues crumpled in one heavy, meaty fist. His nose, always bulbous, was red and looked sore, like it itched and had been scratched more than once. “Do me a favor, too. Write down something for me about never using that weird purple incense in the shop, okay? Seems I’m allergic.”
Bergen nodded, made note of it with the little stub of pencil he found beside the cash register. “Does it bug you in general or just when it’s on fire? Or, you know. Smoking.”
Federer snorted, heavy jowls jiggling slightly. “The fact that it’s purple bugs me enough. Just… no burning it, man.” And the guy pushed through the front door, almost swinging it off its hinges, like usual. Bergen winced as it slammed shut behind his boss with a solid, loud thud that had the wind chimes beside the door ringing away in a truly annoying mix of tones.
Another half hour or so and Bergen had made yet another circuit of the shop. He’d organized the candles by color, size and type, rearranged the small packets of herbs that he knew for a fact were bought in bulk from a grocery store, and arranged the small, faceted crystal animals on their shelf in ways that would never occur in nature. At least, Bergen had never seen a butterfly riding a platypus in quite the way he’d arranged. Not that anyone ever noticed, but still. He took his fun where he could find it.
He sold a crystal ball, five packets of “prosperity” herbs, a yarn “dreamcatcher” and one “love” candle that night. Three silver “athames” that had started life as letter openers on eBay, a wrought-iron candelabra, and two decks of tarot cards, one of which was purchased by an unbelievably preppy-looking woman in pressed khaki slacks. It never ceased to amaze him, the assortment of people who came in some days.
Bergen sighed softly as the last customers left the store, one eye locked to the clock. It was good that business had picked up. He couldn’t afford to have Federer wondering whether it was worth it to keep Bergen on.
10:48, and Bergen came out from behind the small counter, making his round of the shop again. He laughed for a few minutes when he saw the new configuration of the crystal animals because now the platypus was riding a porcupine while the butterfly was engaged in something that was likely meant to be filthy with the monkey. At least someone appreciated Bergen’s sense of humor.
10:57. The clock ticked, minute hand clicking slightly as Bergen dragged out the vacuum cleaner for the usual nightly pass over the Persian rug Federer claimed was authentic. Bergen had seen one just like it at K-mart, but he wasn’t ever going to say so. Ever.
At eleven o’clock precisely, Bergen locked the front door of the shop. He finished vacuuming, counted out the cash in the register, then put the money and charge slips, minus his pay for the day, away in the locked box Federer kept in the bottom drawer of the desk in the storeroom… and he was free. Until one o’clock the next afternoon, anyway.
Life was… well, not good, but it was a far cry from bad, and that was enough, most days. It was about to get a bit better, though, because Bergen had a few bucks and a few hours to kill, which only meant one thing.
He was going to the all night coffee shop a few blocks over, and this time… well, maybe this time he’d actually have the balls to talk to the waiter he’d been sort of dreaming about for the last month or two. And if not… well, the coffee was actually really good there, and the cheese danish was always fresh and fragrant and just sweet enough without being too much. Just like Bergen imagined the waiter was, with his light blond hair, blue eyes, and tan. With his slow drawl that sounded like warm honey. Yeah.
* * *
“Don’t look now,” Ryan said, and Dan knew the guy was trying to sound teasing but he just sounded snide, “but your boyfriend’s here.”
God, that was just what he needed, Dan thought with a silent sigh. Ryan had somehow figured out his interest in the slender redhead who always smelled of some exotic cologne. Dan had for damned sure sniffed every bottle at the department store downtown, and none of them were right. That was probably a good thing, though, because Dan knew he would have bought whatever it was, no matter how much it might have cost.
“Oh, get over yourself,” Dan grunted as he picked up one of the trays from the counter in his good hand. “I don’t even know his name, so ‘boyfriend’ is a huge stretch.” Jesus. Just because he didn’t want Ryan, that was no reason for the guy to be nasty.
Ryan snorted and flounced off in a huff, silk shirttails flapping behind him, which was exactly why Dan had never bothered with getting any closer to his co-worker and sort-of friend. Too much drama there, just waiting to spill out at the drop of a hat… and who the hell wore silk to work at a coffee shop, for God’s sake? Aside from Ryan, of course, which… yeah. Drama, personified.
Dan sighed again, then fixed an easy smile on his face as he turned and started across the floor toward the table the guy — the not-a-regular-but-stopped-by-sometimes guy — always took. The smile became real as he got closer, because… yeah.
Slightly long dark red curls that just brushed the collar of the guy’s shirt. Gray eyes that always held just a tiny hint of fear and sorrow, though Dan didn’t know how he recognized those emotions in someone so entirely unknown to him. Long, elegant fingers that habitually shredded paper napkins, and cheekbones so sharp, Dan thought they might slice skin if the guy moved too quickly.
Yeah, he’d been thinking about the guy frequently. Like every day and night since the first time the redhead had wandered in to Sparks and ordered “Just plain coffee, if that’s okay. Black. Or, you know… really dark brown, if we’re being accurate. Um. Yeah. Just. Thanks.”
Dan was pretty sure that was when he’d first noticed the scared and sad. That noticing had mostly been hidden by the small shiver that had raced through him at the surprisingly deep but hesitant voice of the mystery man. And the redhead was still a mystery, because even after nearly three months of irregular visits to Sparks, Dan still didn’t even know the guy’s name. He was going to fix that, though. He had to, considering the way he couldn’t get the image of the guy or the sound of that soft, low voice out of his mind.
“Let me guess,” Dan said with a smile as he reached the table. “I’m putting on my mind-reading hat, and I’m betting you want… black coffee and something sweet. Am I right?” He canted his hip slightly toward the table, then rested the tray against his side. “Go ahead, tell me I’m right. You know you want to.”
There was a certain degree of shock in the gray eyes that darted to his face, but Dan had sort of been expecting that. He’d never really talked to the mystery man before, and definitely not the way he just had. Teasingly. Playfully. But he’d been waiting for the redhead to say something, do something. The irregular regular hadn’t, though, and while it was highly unusual for Dan to flirt first, he figured if he didn’t, nobody would. So.
“Or am I wrong?” Dan tried a moment later, his cheeks warming just a bit as it struck him that maybe the guy wasn’t interested. Just because mystery man set of Dan’s gaydar, that didn’t mean he saw Dan as anything but a waiter, did it?
“I…” Oh, that soft, low voice was shaking. Just a little bit, but Dan heard it. “No, that’s. Yeah. Um, coffee. I. Do you have any. I mean. Cheese danish? And what happened to your wrist?” Those gray eyes left Dan’s and dropped to the ace bandage wrapped tightly around his hand and forearm, and mystery man’s brow furrowed. “It’s… is it bad?”
A chuckle left his own lips before Dan even knew it was building, and he shook his head when that suddenly sharp gaze speared his again. “If by ‘bad’ you mean embarrassing, then yes,” Dan answered, his cheeks going hotter.
“I was down at the Eagle the other night. You know, that dance club over on Fourth? Well, I was trying to get through all the guys who hang out on the stairs inside, and I still don’t know why they do that since it’s the only way to the bathroom, but whatever. Then I tripped over my own feet and caught myself on a step but somehow I sprained my wrist. So, yes. I fell up some stairs and got hurt. Who does that? Only me, apparently.” And he was babbling, God help him. Because apparently the story wasn’t embarrassing enough. He just had to run off at the mouth on the off chance that he hadn’t entirely turned off the hottie already. “Um, I’ll get your coffee, okay?”
With that, Dan turned and ran away. Oh, he was sure it looked like walking purposefully, but he knew what it really was. He was running. Shit.
* * *
Okay, that was weird, Bergen told himself with a small frown. The waiter had barely even spoken to him for months, and all of a sudden the man was acting… well, almost like he’d been flirting, right at first, which had been cool. More than cool. Then Bergen had to go opening his big, fat mouth and making the poor guy uncomfortable.
He wondered whether he’d been drooling or something, because there was no other reason for the blond to blush so brightly, even if it did look good with that tanned skin, but when Bergen had checked his face, his fingers came away dry.
He almost wanted to just toss a few dollars on the table for the waiter’s trouble and leave, but Bergen really did want coffee. And a danish. He’d earned them, damn it. But he wouldn’t be surprised if the waiter sent the other guy — the tall, toned brunette who always looked at Bergen like he was the mouse to the taller man’s cat — to bring them.
Bergen’s frown deepened, became something that felt more like a scowl than anything else, and he pulled another napkin from the dispenser on the table, fingers already shredding it, adding to the litter of paper strips already there. He should just go. Find somewhere else to hang out for a while. Maybe the park over on Eighth, though it had a reputation as a pick-up spot and Bergen really didn’t want to get caught up in that life again. Hell, the first time had been enough. Gotten so bad that he’d dropped off the grid completely, just so none of the people he’d ended up knowing back then would ever find him again. Mostly Carl Black, but the rest of them were nearly as bad, and God knew Carl wouldn’t have given up. Not after less than a year, anyway.
“I. Here. Coffee.” The drawl was less warm honey and more chilled molasses this time, but even so, Bergen couldn’t help the tiny shudder that flowed through him as he glanced up and met the waiter’s blue eyes for just a second before the man’s gaze darted away. “Uh, we’re out of the cheese but we have this like Reese’s kind of thing. Chocolate and peanut butter. Danish, I mean. Um, do you want to try that?”
Again with the weird, Bergen decided, but it was… different. Almost like the waiter thought he was the one who’d done something wrong, and… “No,” he answered slowly, cocking his head just a little. “It’s okay. Look, if I said something to upset you, I’m sorry, okay? I’m just not… I mean, I’m okay with people when I’m working and stuff, but I’m not really good at being. You know. Normal, I guess.” It was true, too, even if Bergen had never put it into words before. “I’m harmless,” he added. “I swear.”
The smile that spread over the waiter’s face had Bergen relaxing, his own lips turning up at the corners.
“At the risk of making a really bad joke,” the waiter said as he set Bergen’s coffee down, “it’s nice to meet you, Harmless. I’m Dan.”
Just like that, it was… well, not easy, but not as hard, either. Bergen smiled more, took a sip from the mug the waiter — Dan, he reminded himself — had brought, then nodded.
“I only use Harmless for formal occasions,” he said, still smiling. “The rest of the time, it’s Berg. And no, not for iceberg. It’s… call it a family name. So are you sure your wrist’s only sprained? Because if it’s something worse… actually, either way? You probably shouldn’t be using a tray. That sort of makes it a two-handed job, doesn’t it?”
Dan grinned. Shrugged. “Why do I think I’m hearing the voice of experience, Berg? And yes, just a sprain. I swear, if I have one more x-ray, I’ll never father children.” Dan smirked a little, then winked and Bergen couldn’t help arching a brow. “I like kids,” Dan went on, leaning against the table just slightly. “Not enough to have actual sex with a woman, but I figure that’s what artificial insemination and surrogates are for, right? But enough of that.”
Bergen was pretty sure he was blinking. It would explain the flashing of his vision, anyway. “Um, okay? So thanks? For the coffee?” Because he didn’t have a single clue about how to respond to kids and surrogates and whatever else, and…
“Shit.” Dan muttered the word, but Bergen thought he heard something suspiciously like a groan underneath. “Okay. Look. Berg.” Dan blushed again, and this time Bergen noticed how hot it was, seeing that tinge of pink spread over the man’s tanned cheeks. “I’m not usually this… pathetic, okay?” Dan went on, biting his lip a little. “It’s just that I kind of like you, okay? I mean, I don’t really know you, so maybe it’s just how you look and the way you smell, but I’d really like to have a chance to find out, and I’m just not good at making the first move, which is why it’s taken me so long, but if I’m totally out of line, just say so and I’m babbling again! God, I’m fucking babbling!”
Well, yeah, Bergen admitted silently. Dan kind of was. Just talking and talking, but it was interesting. And sort of sounded like Dan had been waiting for Bergen to say or do something if he was interested, which he definitely was, so… “I think it’s kind of cute,” Bergen said softly, “and if it helps at all, I think you’re hot, too. So, um. We should. I mean, do you want to. We could go out sometime. Dan.”
Jesus, that wasn’t awkward. Bergen snorted to himself. No, not at all. Except Dan was smiling, which was really cool. Hot, even, now that it went all the way up to those blue eyes.
“When’s your next day off?” Dan demanded and Bergen couldn’t help his own, answering smile. Didn’t even want to help it.
“I’m usually off on Tuesdays,” he said, laughing when Dan nodded and turned. And if he wasn’t supposed to be off on the Tuesday coming, Bergen knew he’d find a way to make it happen anyway. No question.
“Ryan!” Dan called out across the nearly empty coffee shop. “You’re working for me on Tuesday!” Another smile as he turned back to Bergen and Bergen felt the heat of it immediately. Wanted to taste it on Dan’s lips, but he wouldn’t. Not yet. “There,” Dan said, still smiling. “That’s settled. We’ll do something on Tuesday. Whatever you want, okay? Because maybe we won’t get along, but I kind of think we will, Berg. I really, really think we will.”
As Bergen couldn’t deny that he thought Dan was right, he just nodded. Dan might change his mind once he found out about the things Berg had done in his triple-x-rated past, but that wasn’t something Bergen was willing to worry about just then. “I have a feeling you’re probably right,” he said, and they fell to talking about other things for a while, right up until the coffee shop started to fill, nearly an hour later, as the clubs started to let out.
“I’ll meet you here,” Dan said, pausing between counter and tables as Bergen made his way to the front door. “Tuesday. Around noon?”
Bergen laughed, nodding before he even managed to form words. “I’ll see you then,” he promised, his smile lingering as he left Sparks and started back to Federer’s shop where Bergen had a room on the second floor. Tuesday couldn’t come soon enough.