Obligatory Fanfic Advisory: Despite the relative tameness of this first chapter, subsequent chapters and development of the story will contain disturbing and uncomfortable themes. This work of fiction is written by an adult for an adult audience and I refuse to give warning for content that some readers might find offensive. You as the reader are responsible for determining your own level of discretion and have the freedom to turn back at any time. As the late author Oscar Wilde once said, "There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all."

A barista's morning begins early, when the traffic lights are still blinking red and yellow and before the Stamford Journal arrives. He sips his first cup of coffee while barreling down the empty business interstate, taking the second downtown exit, and wheeling into a dim parking lot behind the row of buildings on Sprague Street between Fourth and Fifth. For him, coffee is not for alertness at some ungodly hour, but more for the principle of it.

He sets to his routine, just as always: count tills out of the safe, warm the coffee shuttles, fire up the espresso machine, batch beans, and stock the condiment bar. As he pulls chairs from off top the tables, he makes note of details the evening crew might have missed, such as trash not taken out or the light bulb that burned out above the counter. Of course he'll have a word or two later, because these details should never go unnoticed.

It is with detail, efficiency and ease of skill that he can provide coffee to the masses with consistency and excellence. That is the barista aesthetic.

As the sun peaks down the length of Sprague Street, he straightens his tie as he greets the first customer of the day. "G'morning, sir, what can I get for you?"

A middle-aged business man grabs a local paper from the rack by the door in an automatic fashion, ignores the chipper reception, but decides to save his response for when he reaches the counter. As he offers the paper to have it scanned, he takes one look at the barista's hands and sneers. He mumbles, "Large coffee too," having found reason to skip the formalities.

The barista notices the scowl this older-looking sir gave him, but that's not going to affect the responsiveness of his service. He turns after pouring coffee into a paper cup from the shuttle and remarks, "Today's brew is our Stamford city roast, a well-rounded—"

"Great, how much?" He pulls a five from his wallet and lets it flutter to the counter between them. The barista blinks at it, then raises his gaze and flashes a very pointy smile. Whatever sentiment that may hide behind that service industry facade is probably less than pleasant, as one can imagine, and this barista in particular happens to possess a laughably vicious imagination.

Plucking it up he answers with an even-toned, "Three eighty-eight," and makes a point to hand him the change like a polite gentleman. "Cream and sugar's on the side there, have a blessed day."

From the brief touch of handing back the dollar and twelve cents (which he decided to hold onto instead of putting it in the tip jar), the barista learns this man had hit the bottle hard the previous night. His wife had caught wind of his affair, from whispers of it over Sunday brunch with friends after church, to make matters worse. He had left for the office early just so he didn't have to deal with seeing her this morning. The smell of whiskey and shame is in acrid contrast to the cafe's pervasive coffee smell.

He doctors up his coffee with the Sweet n' Lo, not without splashing a bit of it on condiment counter and deciding he can't find the time to clean it. However, he does find the time before leaving to snap, "You should clean up those finger nails of yours, if your job is to serve people. Who manages this place anyway?"

The barista points with one of those black-nailed fingers to a placard above the condiment area that reads, "Catspaw Coffee Shop and Roastery, est. 1997, Sebastian Michaelis, owner and manager, awarded 'Best of Stamford-Newark'" then points to his name tag.

Barista is a perfectly curious occupation for one as curiously perfect as Sebastian Michaelis. Knowing his preference for order, routine, and his custom of fulfilling any task by way of effortless pageantry, it's quite understandable how that role would just agree with him. After all, it took a full century for him to find something he could settle into after the termination of his previous employment.

Prior to the beginning of the twentieth century, he had spent years building up his persona with a whole host of preferences and habits, talents both natural and unnatural, styles in appearance and speech and thought. Along with this identity came an insatiable thirst to witness the products of a civilization that was churning at dizzying speed. Sebastian had come into the world by unholy means to serve a very singular purpose, as demons are inclined to do on rare occasions. Once his purpose had been completed, it was expected by the natural order of things that he should return to those infernal expanses of perpetual hollow and decay. But humans and their clever ingenuity, with combustible engines and telegraphs and electricity, then later radio, leaps in sound and video recording, the sheer boom of information and the required technology to disseminate it had him concerned that if he should leave he might miss an even more interesting development. When humans finally figured out refrigeration and air conditioning, he concluded it would be a cold day in Hell before he would go back by choice.

With all the grand wonders they conceive and the spirited efforts to make a utopia on earth, they are equally fantastic at causing a holy terror that neither angel nor demon can hold a flaming sword to. Between the long term effects of industrialization, the development of nuclear technologies, the instabilities of their own social, economic and political systems, they prove capable of destroying themselves without help from him or any other demonic personality. Their towers built on steel and glass reach impossible heights, they fly to secret corners of the world faster than even than he can travel, and develop wealth in numbers that he could never conceive. Humans achieve a level of insatiable blood lust that exceeds his own and redefine deadly sin in ways he could never inspire.

An episodic look into his existential crisis is a story best left untold, but it might have involved quite a bit of traveling and soul searching. After two World Wars, he eventually ended up state side because Americans too have a real thirst for travel and soul searching, in their own optimistic way.

On once such wayward excursion to nowhere, Sebastian was driving down back roads in some mostly forgotten country side, where delineations between county lines were swallowed up by wilderness. As he passed a dirt road on a winding two-way highway he felt a sort of itching, that prickling remnant of evil that settles on a place where someone performed some heinous act. This pattern has a way of embedding itself like a blood stain. Being the forever curious individual, he turned around and downshifted onto this overgrown single lane up the side of a hill.

At the end of it he found an abandoned church, the typical white Baptist variety, but with vines tearing at the molded siding. What few windows that managed to not be busted had a drooping, forlorn condition to them. From the outside it looked to be but one large chapel with no adjacent rooms or alcoves, a paltry building funded by a long-gone meager congregation.

Entering the structure that was still mostly sound, Sebastian understood that more than the natural wild had worked its way in. Where there might have been pews or chairs down the nave he instead encountered a large pentagram painted over the floor, not unlike his but with different sigils. In a not so distant past someone had used the church for a good old-fashioned conjuration. Judging from the claw marks on the walls, and the blood worked into the warped floor boards, he concluded that some miserable bastard had botched it by way of forgetting one crucial component.

The loss of life is a requirement for demons to even ascend to a physical plane: a soul released to carry the message and the spilling of blood to fashion a bodily form. Apparently when someone picked up a grimoire and got the bad idea, he left out this stipulation in the act of demon summoning. Unfortunately for him some nefarious brethren happened to be listening, probably showed up disembodied and pissed for not having anything to house it, and proceeded to devour the conjurer from the inside out as payment.

Besides the impulse to shake his head at the abject stupidity of some humans, Sebastian could not ignore the implications of this discovery. From his wandering experience he learned that technology prompted by an age of fervent rationalism had done a better job at stamping out superstition better than anything. Even still, there existed some pockets of belief in the developed world. He happened across the despair and bitterness that still lurked in those Civil War graveyards, the old trees that whispered stories of lynching with only the putrid swamps to receive them. He saw a star on every barn, the pig roasts of October like a final salutation to summer. He was so charmed to hear the phrase, "The devil's beatin' his wife again," during another impromptu sun shower. How they preached with such a loving fear of the devil in their churches. Sebastian in his insatiable curiosity wanted a way to sink into such a place and make residence.

The coffee shop seemed an obvious choice for a southern town like Stamford-Newark where its people considered it a "fetching little novelty." What a way to gain favor by offering an addictive product prepared and served in a manner that Sebastian knows best. How delicious it is that he can observe and study the comings and goings of people, how they offer up their life stories in three-minute segments, and how they keep coming back for more than just the coffee. As one who is a glutton for attention, it seems a perfectly sound means to live, for surely he could wait in the wings for one soul, some cry for desperation, someone to ruffle his feathers and have him soaring into a worthwhile contractual agreement.

The nature of the coffee shop is that one's employment is never meant to be a long-term arrangement, but rather a transition point towards something different. Sebastian reasoned he'd manage the business for a small while, sell it, and then be on his way towards that imagined ideal of contract work. Thirteen years just breeze on by, peeling paint off brick buildings and throwing rot onto rooftops. Stamford-Newark has its own natural decay rate like so many other small towns, but after a time Sebastian felt that stagnation sinking onto him, like an all-terrain vehicle that got itself stuck in the mud and doesn't have enough torque to pull itself out. On the other hand, Catspaw Coffee Shop and Roastery developed a reputation for itself in the community, a beacon of small business hope. It's not exactly Hell, but the sheer monotony of his existence makes him all the more mindful of that agitating hunger.

This sensation is at its sharpest during those early hours of the morning that play themselves out in predictable routine. Churning out lattes is a never-ending succession of pour, steam, grind, tamp, lock, pull, and pour again. The smell of coffee batches brewed one after the other lose their alluring scent and become stale in the nose until the perception of the scent is forgotten. What customers perceive as genuine conversation is really scripted verse that Sebastian has perfected through countless recitations. Among the frenetic order, he loses count of the times he has fantasized about ending this choreography in savory cataclysm, to leap on the counter, tear into screaming faces, and suck the souls from every one of them like marrow from cracked bone.

Even if the instinct to charge about like a ravenous beast enters into his passionless mind, he talks himself out of it because the payoff doesn't justify the hassle. Being unbound in contract puts him high on the Reaper's watch list. He learned some time back while raising Hell in Kansas that the States Division possesses uniquely harsh protocols in dealing with his ilk. Reapers riding farm tractors and packing firearms (standard-issue automatic assault death rifles) is his vision of a very bad day, and something he's not inclined to reenact.

Also, Sebastian has his employees to consider, which are not intolerable to have around, most of the time. A lot of people will come and go for the short term, especially in a college town like Stamford-Newark, but a few baristas manage to stick around and develop the "lifer" status. Roy has the longest track record, having been hired on when Sebastian first set up shop on Sprague and required a roaster. Little did he know that the only experience Roy had when it came to "roasting" was on a deployment to Bosnia some years back (he swears she was eighteen). Regardless of his hotheadedness and a habit of showing up to work hung over, Roy met the challenge of learning the art of coffee roasting. It took a few months of trial and error, turning several shipments into unbrewable charcoal, and Sebastian exercising an exemplary patience of not throwing the man into the roasting drum.

Roy might have been born and raised in Stamford-Newark but the others came from elsewhere and settled. The moment May-Lynn opens her mouth, out trickles a honey-sweet Mississippi drawl, and she uses it as her primary tool in the subtle art of tip flirting. She walked into the shop with only a pair of Doc Martins to her name, pleading for a job and of course Sebastian has a soft spot for the hard cases. She might have been running from an abusive boyfriend, or father, on account that whenever Roy starts into one of his tirades May lifts her glasses in response. The lady probably learned a long time ago that if there's a chance of getting hit, it's best not wear spectacles. Sebastian suspects she has a pistol holstered underneath the gingham dresses she wears to work, with no license to conceal carry.

Finn was hired as a college-kid barista, projected short-term employment, but became a one-year drop out when he discovered post-high school that he possesses the reading level of an eleven year old. Even a wrestling scholarship couldn't keep him enrolled in a four-year university. Though he was not cut out for academics, he has an uncanny ability for remembering customer's names, their drink orders, what pastry they bought last Tuesday, and when they're due for an oil change. As much passion Finn has for his job, Sebastian has to keep the man's enthusiasm to a minimum so he doesn't break things, bless his heart.

Sebastian learned six weeks after hiring Snake that he's as sharp as a tack and took to the espresso machine faster than most anyone he's ever hired. Perhaps there exists some fierce temperament within him, buried underneath his uniquely pale complexion that has forced him into a life where he must always try to prove himself. After regarding his wide nose, prominent lips and blonde hair with incredible texture, Sebastian had to ask, "do you have albinism?" He was more concerned for any eye problems that could impair Snake's work, but turns out the chap considers that the least of his worries. Despite not being the social butterfly, he spends more time at the coffee shop than anyone, sitting in the cafe well after his shift is over. There's rumor he's working on writing a novel, but no one can actually verify that.

Like so many other late mornings, Sebastian takes over from Snake's morning shift on the bar. On week days things quiet to a crawl around eleven o' clock, so eventually May and Finn step off the floor for a break, leaving Sebastian to man the front on his own. He goes over his Monday mental checklist, payroll processed, still have to run to the bank, start on the next schedule, begin inventory count...

As he stands leaning against the counter a most refreshing smell disrupts his train of thought. It reminds him of that savory cataclysm he was fantasizing about earlier, but perhaps a little meatier, a hint of dark sweetness like molasses, and an undercurrent of sea spray, almost a sullen nostalgia.

Sebastian peers around the espresso machine in search for the source of that delicious scent and discovers a young man standing by the door, looking at the chalk board menu with deep blue eyes. He's not from around here.

"Hello, sorry if I kept you waiting," he announces as he smooths down the front of his apron. The customer adjusts the strap on his messenger bag as he steps forward in leather loafers. It seems in contrast to the standard trappings of the average college kid, book bags, gym shoes, and a perpetual state of mental disarray. "What can I get for you?"

"A cortado, please." Definitely not the standard fare.

Sebastian feels as though this might be the first genuine smile he's given all day. A demon is very capable of smiling in a genuine way, in how a smile is supposed to reach the eyes, but the effect on Sebastian is very different. How he raises an eyebrow reveals his feeling of intrigue, which is a perfectly normal reason for a demon to smile. The effect is evocative to an almost uncomfortable degree for some people.

While many others would react by turning down a gaze, he holds his chin high and flicks his bangs out of the way. "How much?"

Sebastian realizes he had not been keeping up with his script, too preoccupied with taking in lad's delicately masculine features, sharp nose set into a round face, smooth hair trimmed to frame it in a most pleasing way, soft cupid's bow, and the subtle pout of his lower lip. "Is... is that all?" As soon as the words leave him he knows it's a stupid question, with this stranger pulling the wallet out of his back pocket, showing no indication of changing his mind. Sebastian decides to switch tactics. "Will you be sitting in? Would you like that for here?"

He shrugs his shoulders in that oxford shirt. "Eh, sure."

"Coffee is more enjoyable that way, don't you think? It'll be two-fifty."

When Sebastian deposits the coins into the young man's palm, the sullen scent intensifies. He just walked from Newark University, which is about a twenty minute hike down Sprague. It's his first semester of college and he has no idea why he agreed to it in the first place. Even if the demon senses displacement, uncertainty, loneliness, the student's shoulders are held with a determination to hide such feelings. "I'll have that right out, sir, won't be a minute." As Sebastian slides to the bar he hears the clink of quarters into the tip jar and he smirks. His new customer pulls a book from his messenger bag after seating himself at a corner table. Snake scratches away in a spiral notebook and Tanaka, the landlord for the block, works his ledgers as per usual.

Sebastian appreciates how the grinder can measure out espresso to a tenth of a gram so he doesn't have to concern himself with precision. After tamping it and locking the group head into place, the milk he pours into a steaming pitcher feels an optimal thirty-six degrees, and it produces a satisfying tearing sound when the steam flits just against the surface. He opts for a glass demitasse because the color of a cortado is an appealing feature. The boiler in the espresso machine issues its tense gurgle. Espresso streams into the glass, a rolling of sienna and umber as crema rises to the surface. With milk steamed to the peak of sweetness, foam gleams even over its surface. As Sebastian pours he tilts the glass just so, and with a controlled dip a shock of white appears over the honey brown surface. After a couple of tips of the pitcher a small tulip appears.

Only a demon can pull off that kind of pouring into a five ounce glass.

May appears from the back of house and makes a quick stretch of her arms. "Finn's coming back up too. You want us to handle it for a bit?"

With plenty of desk work to attend to, Sebastian could have just called the drink from the counter, but what's five minutes to take the drink out into the cafe? May spots the dainty cup with saucer and remarks, "That's mighty lovely," as Sebastian passes her around the bar.

The strange gentleman sits back in his chair with his book and Sebastian reads on the cover, "Fluers du mal." He thinks back to when he read such a collection of poems, for there was one that struck him in some distant age.

He looks up from his book. "Bringing it to my table? Is this the norm or am I a special case?" What a charming smile to match such a brazen question. Without a bar between them he has a clearer view of the barista's tall physique, and smirks after a quick glance at Sebastian's Oxfords peaking from under the hem of dark slacks.

Sebastian watches those pale eyes dart back and forth, and concludes it is an invitation. "I just about to head to the back to work on some rather dull, tedious scheduling... but you can be a special case if you want. I can spare a few minutes." Sebastian hands him the demitasse and saucer, and catches a whiff of honey warmth, peppered with a touch of curiosity. "Do you mind if I sit?"

He shakes those ashy locks of his and gestures to the chair, then picks up his cortado. Sebastian is accustomed to some exclamation over his artistry with coffee, but perhaps that is why the boy looks at it for a moment before the rim of the dainty cup touches his lips. He makes not a noise, but the demon recognizes a brief flutter of delicate eyelashes, and takes that as a compliment. Sebastian rests his elbows on the table, hoping to soak in some other little sign of satisfaction that may leak through such a starched composure.

"I may have found a new favorite." Surely he's referring to the drink.

"You are most welcome, young sir." Sebastian reaches across the table for the book. "It's been a long while since I've read this. Maybe I'm making assumptions, seems modern French poetry isn't the standard reading fare."

"I've studied French long enough, maybe I only care about my own standard. Besides, it's interesting."

"As much of a reason to pursue anything." Sebastian pauses in opening the book, opting instead to run his fingers over the cover that it should kick up some remnant of this curious young lad. "Are you going to Newark? Have you determined a major?"

"First question yes, second, I'm pre-law, but haven't determined my course of study." The end of how he speaks that sentence feels a little prickly. He reaches for his cup again, then eyes the name tag on the barista's apron. "Sebastian. Hmm. Something tells me you're not from here."

Sebastian has made a very concerted effort to blend in with his surroundings, adopting its dialect, behaviors and speech patterns. He learned long ago that speaking with received pronunciation is a terrible distraction during initial encounters who considered his accent "exotic." Sebastian lies and says, "I'm from here, why do you think I'm not?"

"Because I can't imagine that to be your real name. I mean, who names their kid 'Sebastian?' Unless your parents are Austrian, or German, or something." He takes another sip of his coffee. "I don't know, something about you seems..."

Sebastian bends in closer. "Seems different? Stick out in a place like this? You would know all about that." The young man after all sounded a little more generalized in his speech, like he had grown up listening to a great many different people with different modes of speaking.

"What makes you say that?"

"Because I know for a fact you're not from around here."

"Oh really?" He sets his cup down, then leans into the table as well. "What if I told you I was in fact born here?"

"Well, I was bound to make a wrongful assumption eventually." Sebastian smirks, then looked down at "Fleurs du mal." Everything about this young gentleman holds a fascination. If he was born here, then he certainly didn't live his short life here, and he certainly wouldn't throw off this out-of-place feeling. He carries himself with a low-key sophistication, well-bred without the inflated sense of self-importance. Sebastian wants this curious fellow to be a return customer, convinced there is a complexity to him worth exploring. "I bet you made the assumption I don't know Baudelaire." He turns to a particular poem in the book, one such that spoke to him so very long ago.

"Que m'importe que tu sois sage? Sois belle! Et sois triste!" Sebastian has a deep appreciation for the beautiful, foolish, melancholy soul. "Les pleurs ajoutent un charme au visage..."

From sweet lips issue a perfect peel of French. "Comme le fleuve au paysage, l'orage rajeunit les fleurs," thus ending a stanza with a startling "you're pretty when you cry" sort of sentiment.

Sebastian can't help but stare at those blue eyes, a landscape of hidden sorrow. "So you're familiar with Madrigal Triste." Sebastian remembers when he first encountered the poem, the quiet nights reciting over and over by candlelight, the sight of a small child with tears in his eyes. Such words ring of the beauty of a soul brimming with despair, and what perfect satisfaction can be found in feasting upon it. Perhaps Sebastian has spent quite a lot of time trying to forget that aesthetic, and how it left him so bereft.

He gazes into the bottom of his glass at the last dregs of coffee. "Yes. Good poetry helps to put one's thoughts into perspective, I guess. And I like the cadence of it."

"Young man, what is your name?" Sebastian blurts out because he is certain that this person should no longer be a stranger to him, that he should have reason to exist within his realm of insignificance, if only to wash away some bit of monotony in his existence.

"Why do you care to know?"

"Because I know the names of my regular customers."

"This is my first time here."

"And it won't be your last." Sebastian pulls a drink coupon from his shirt pocket. "Your name for a free drink. Seems a fair exchange, since you already know mine."

He reaches for the card with languid fingers, brushing against Sebastian's coal-black nails, then snatches it up before either can savor the contact. "It's Ciel."

"Just Ciel? Is that like Cher?" Sebastian plucks up the card again.

Ciel reaches for it once more, but Sebastian holds it just out of reach. "No... my last name's..." He crosses his arms. "Phantomhive."

"Ah." Sebastian hands Ciel the coupon. "Well, Mr. Phantomhive, a pleasure meeting you, and I do hope to see you soon, but I have to get to that awful desk work I was talking about." He returns the book of poetry and stands from the table.

"Wait, hang on."

For the first time in their encounter Ciel reveals a real sliver of vulnerability as the chair scoots on the tile floor as he stands up. "And the next time we meet, you're going to tell me where you're really from. Because no one speaks French like that. You liar."

"Am I?" Sebastian pushes in his chair before turning to the direction of the back room. He tosses over his shoulder, "You caught me. But that information will cost you."

Ciel crosses his arms. "Name your price."

Sebastian's eyebrows shoot up at such an audacious command. "Come back tomorrow for that free coffee, Mr. Phantomhive, and I'll quote you."

"Fine, I will, and don't call me that, that was my father's name," Ciel barks at Sebastian walking away.

Of course Sebastian is well aware of Ciel's late father, but hasn't heard the name Phantomhive in a literal dog's age.

Thirteen years, to be precise.

Author's Notes

A cortado is an espresso beverage made with a double shot of espresso and an equal part of steamed milk, just enough to cut the acidity of the coffee. This differs from a caffe latte, a milk-based beverage, by having a much more concentrated coffee flavor, as the volume of a cortado never exceeds above six ounces.

The first stanza of Charles Baudelaire's "A Madrigal of Sorrow" translates to:

What do I care though you be wise?
Be sad, be beautiful; your tears
But add one more charm to your eyes,
As streams to valleys where they rise;
And fairer every flower appears

(English adaptation by F.P. Sturm, et al.)

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