And then I did.
And… then this happened:
Triptych – University/Coffee Shop AU.
by J.M. Frey
(As requested by shiftingpath!)
Kalp is uncertain, but his employer says that the dark blue of his work apron makes the green striation markings around his eyes and mouth attract attention. Says that it makes them “jump out”. The manager says this as if it is a pleasant, desired thing, so Kalp pets the apron where it lays across his chest and practices his smile.
Today is Kalp’s first shift working the preparation station alone, and though he would like to practice with the foaming wand several more times, he feels confident that his grasp of English and understanding of the complicated caffeinated beverages is sufficient for the task. It is only that his finger-pads slip against the smooth metal of the prep-canister, which makes his claws shriek against the steel in a way that halts all polite conversation in the café.
Human youths turn to stare at him when he does that. It is not that Kalp is not used to the staring – his kind are not so populous that every human on the planet has seen one like him in the flesh, and so he is very used to ignoring the staring – it is that he loathes to be the center of attention because of a mistake.
To tell truths, he loathes to be the center of attention at all. The option to indulge in his preference to act in a role that is supportive, to hide among the foliage of society, as it were, has vanished. His people are tall compared to the humans, and their bodies are vibrantly coloured. Good for the world from which he came, but very poor for urban camouflage here.
Kalp spends perhaps too much of his time in the university library, in a corner that is quiet and dim, and smells wonderfully of old paper and dancing dust motes. If he closes his eyes, he can pretend that he is in the fiction repository with his intendeds. Maru would be leaning against his arm as he read from the book, reading along over his fingers, and Trus would be sprawled across both their laps. Their scents would be mingled, warm and comfortable, and the beat of their hearts would thrum against his bones, making his own stutter and skip until they were in harmony, a dance of tempo that matched and merged.
Kalp swallows hard and twists his hands in his apron to remind him of where he is. And who is not here with him. Who he will never see again.
The human female that works the cash register is late for her shift. As the manager departs, she enters from the storage entry, tying on her apron as she goes, while simultaneously attempting to tame he queue of her short, curling fur. She is quiet and kind, and her fur is a colour caught between the red sun of his homeworld, the orange sky, and the brown earth that surrounded his mothers’ vegetable patch. It looks like osaps and garden, and her eyes are the blue of his father’s skin. Her name is Gwen, and she, like him, is far from home.
Although, unlike Kalp, she is a student at Bristol University, and he merely works on campus.
“Ready?” Gwen asks, turning the key that opens the money drawer and powering up the calculating machine.
“As I will ever be,” Kalp answers, plucking the phrase from his memory of a television program he watched the evening before in his dormitory common room.
Gwen offers him a white, dazzling smile which makes his stomach warm, pats her fringe down over the scar on her forehead that she thinks he does not know about, and the manager unlocks the front door.
“Don’t get me wrong, he can be a massive prick,” Gwen says as they both tidy their stations in the midst of the afternoon lull. “But he’s a cute massive prick.”
“You mean you find him sexually attractive,” Kalp asks by way of clarification.
Gwen’s skin fills with blood, a biological response that signals either growing ardour or shame. In this case, Kalp guesses that the blush is meant to be both.
“Er, yeah,” she says. “And he’s Welsh, you know? The accent is just… yum.”
“I fail to see how an accent can be delicious.”
Gwen laughs, and it is pretty. It tingles across Kalp’s skin and makes his toes curl with ticklish delight. He’s not certain what he said that has triggered this joy in her, but he is willing to catalogue it in order to attempt it again.
“I don’t think I could explain it,” Gwen says.
Kalp takes a moment to inhale the scent of the coffee beans roasting in the back room, and folds, then refolds his cleaning cloth.
“How does one go about courting a human woman?” Kalp asks. He thinks the question is vague enough, hopes it is vague enough, that Gwen doesn’t realize that he has a very specific reason for asking. “I mean to say, how is it done usually? And has your suitor followed the basic protocol to your satisfaction?”
Other humans may laugh and wave off his inquiry. Others have, and often do when he makes such specific requests for clarification, but Gwen merely cants her hips against the side of the counter, folds her hands thoughtfully below her breasts, and considers how to answer.
That is why Kalp is so fond of Gwen; she considers his requests seriously.
“There’s no real right way to do it. You meet, you feel an attraction – physical, sexual, emotional, intellectual – and then you … I don’t know, you do stuff together to see if you fit. You test drive each other, I guess. Sometimes that means just sex. Sometimes that means doing activities together, or sharing meals. Eventually you introduce them to your loved ones, your friends and family, and then if everything still seems compatible, you decide to make it official. Some people move in together, some get married, some have kids… it’s up to you.”
“And then you search for your third?” Kalp asks. “To form your Aglunate?”
Gwen clears her throat and looks away. “Right. No. Um. Mostly a binary system here on Earth. There are, erm, swingers. People who sleep with other people outside of a couple. And, um, what the hell’s the word… poly… poly something. Polyamorists! Anyway, people who love and –slash- or sleep with other people outside of their primary couple. But that’s not… common. I don’t think. I don’t know.”
She is shifting back and forth, moving her weight from one foot to the other, and wringing her fingers. Is she nervous? Uncomfortable? Ashamed? Confused. He wishes he could read human faces better. They are so difficult to decipher.
Kalp digests the implications of her answer for a very long moment. “You are only two.”
“Is that not…” he pauses, uncertain how to frame his question.
Gwen cocks her head to the side like one of the flying animals he has seen begging breadcrumbs in the square. “What?”
“Inefficient? Stressful? … lonely?”
Gwen seems about to answer glibly, but then tucks her pink tongue between her blunt teeth and considers. “I can see the appeal of three,” she says. “Not sure I’d ever want it for myself, but I can see it.”
“You would not want a third with you and … Basil, was his name?”
Gwen shrugs. “That’s super putting the cart before the horse. I gotta see if I can stand Basil long enough to want to stay with him, never mind figuring out what kind of relationship we end up having. But have I ever considered an open relationship? Well, no. I guess I haven’t.”
She turns away then, and Kalp sees the gesture for what it is. She is uncertain if she wants to continue in this line of conversation, and is looking for an excuse to end it.
“I understand,” Kalp says. And he does. “But, perhaps, you will think of it?”
Gwen turns to look at him, eyes going slowly round as comprehension dawns. Kalp wishes suddenly, vehemently, that he had said nothing at all. It is too soon!
The awkward moment is shattered before either Gwen or Kalp can say something that may embarrass or hurt or anger the other. The human male in question blusters in the door of the café and flops dramatically against the counter.
“I’m gasping,” he says theatrically, and Kalp watches as Gwen flushes up again and hides a smile behind an eye roll. “I had to sneak out the back door while Simmons droned.”
“If you keep drinking coffee like this, you’ll get a soft tum,” Gwen admonishes but pokes at the till all the same.
“Just more of me to love. My usual please, Divy—oh,” Basil says, turning toward the preparation station and his words grind to a stop. “Oh. Um. Hi. You’re new.”
“I am,” Kalp agrees. In more ways than one, he thinks but does not add.
Basil turns back to Gwen. “How long as she been—”
“He,” Gwen interjects. “He’s chosen male.”
“He,” Basil echoes, “He been here?”
“I have been training for one week,” Kalp answers, even though the question was rudely not directed towards him. “Today is my first day on the floor.”
Basil jerks his gaze over to Kalp, admonished. “Er. Yeah.”
“I am Kalp. You are Gwen’s suitor, Basil Grey. You are attempting to court her, which is why you are avoiding your academic duties.”
Basil splutters and his cheeks go a mottled red, and he runs one hand through his thick, ashy brown fur. Gwen elbows Kalp in the torso and Kalp merely offers them both a companionable, if slightly sarcastic smile.
She shoves Kalp down towards the till to take Basil’s tender while she works off her mortification in making his ‘usual order’, whatever that may be. It apparently involves the larges cup size and a significant amount of raspberry syrup, chocolate curls, and whipped cream.
Kalp leans towards Basil, conspiratorially, and whispers. “I am confident that you will be successful. She finds you cute.”
“I heard that!” Gwen snaps, but then laughs.
Kalp’s toes curl again, and then the edges of his ears join in the pleasurable flex when Basil laughs as well, his voice a deep, comfortable counterpoint to Gwen’s.
Suddenly the affection he held for one has expanded to both. They sound so good together. They are in harmony.
“Listen,” Basil says as Kalp hands him his change. “Me and the boys, we’re doing a marathon this weekend. Last free weekend before finals and boyo, you don’t want to see engineers at finals. Drink you under the table, we could.”
“I’m Canadian,” Gwen says. “I was weaned on beer.”
“Not inviting you,” Basil singsongs. “Boys only. We’re watching Lord of the Rings.”
Gwen points a finger at Basil while she juggles the powdered sugar shaker and the paper cup in the other hand. “Who says I wouldn’t like some good rough and tumble fantasy? Mmmm, Aragorn.”
Kalp enjoys films, but the one called The Lord of the Rings makes his heart ache. He cannot watch Bilbo and Frodo sail to the Grey Havens without his eyes burning so terribly that his whole head aches, and the tips of his ears scratching against the fine skin on the back of his neck. He knows not what the Grey Havens look like, but Gandalf’s soliloquy to Peregrine Took about silver glass reminds him sharply of home. The home that is gone.
It tears at something small and terrified deep down inside of Kalp that Bilbo and Frodo can go there, but he is stuck here, on this Middle Earth.
“Say you’ll come,” Basil says to Kalp, making a show of ignoring Gwen’s musings on the merits of chainmail and Elvin leggings. “Let us indoctrinate you into the great mythologies of our planet.”
Gwen snorts. “Next you’ll be telling him that the Justice League is a pantheon and Joss Whedon is a god.”
“He is. Don’t you sass,” Basil snaps affectionately.
“Here,” Gwen says, placing the paper cup filled with Basil’s monstrosity on the counter. “Now go away and stop pestering us.”
“You will come, won’t you? It’s just at my place, nothing special, but it’d be nice, yeah?” Basil asks, and Kalp, awed by this young human’s casual offer of friendship and the unlooked-for intimacy of a visit his domicile.
“Great!” Basil says. “I’ll, uh… here’s the address.” He scribbles it onto his receipt and shoves it at Kalp, watching eagerly until Kalp smoothes it out and puts it in his pocket.
“And as for you…” Basil says, then reaches across the counter to lift Gwen’s hand between both of his. He presses his face against her knuckles, which Kalp supposes must be a courting gesture, because Gwen rolls her eyes and titters. “You’re a goddess too. My coffee goddess from the colonies.”
“Right, fuck off,” Gwen says amiably. “Go back to class and build something to save the world, you geek.”
“As my lady commands,” Basil says, picks up his coffee, and sweeps out.
The tinkle of the door chime fills the silence between the empty lounge chairs for a moment.
“Well,” Gwen says. “You gonna go?”
“Yes,” Kalp says. “It was kind of him to extend the invitation and I … would like some more human friends.”
Gwen smiles and nods, and they return to their quiet, companionable cleaning. Gwen does not seem to be avoiding his gaze, nor the casual grazes that their skins make as they move around one another, and in that Kalp is reassured that his attraction has not offended or disgusted her.
He finds her intriguing and wishes he knew how to pursue her. Pursue both of them.
There is a courting shop in the city, and Kalp knows it from his daily walk home; perhaps he will stop in there tonight and seek advice. They have many sexual toys and manuals, and even a video collection. He can learn about human courting and intercourse and then, perhaps, he can begin to seduce Gwen and Basil himself.
It is a good plan, Kalp thinks as the door chime rings and the afternoon post-lecture rush begins. He tightens the tie on his blue apron and affixes his smile, and spends the rest of the day imagining a nest, with human lovers, perhaps even a child – an Aglunate of his very own.
In his mind, he gives himself over to the hope for that which he had despaired of ever having again: a home, a family, and a place where he belongs.