Character(s)/Ship(s): Eleven/River, Amy/Rory, OC/OC
AN: Written for EleventyFest, for juniperphoenix
His eyes are sad.
It's the third thing Megan notices after the stupid black reading glasses and the stupid red bow tie. She stumbles through giving him his change and wishing him a good day. Men walking into Hell will have better luck today, his eyes tell her.
"Thank you, Megan," he says gravely, and he leaves her an enormous tip, the kind that mean she and her flatmate Kellie will be eating sushi later instead of bad Chinese takeaway.
The man takes his tea, plain and hot, and he sits at a table by the window. Behind him, Aggie Choudhury has her headphones on whilst she studies and enjoys Java 254's free refills on regular coffees. Mr. Rahman will be in soon, ordering tea with ginger and winking at her like they're old mates. Peter Wilson from the university will be in after, ordering something expensive and difficult, then winking at her until she's uncomfortable. Ms. Foster will bring the twins by, buying herself something to fortify the coming night of teething-related restlessness from her offspring. The regulars, Megan thinks. But now it's just the sad bloke, and the low background of Aggie's iPod.
He comes again the next night. The glasses are gone, the bow tie is still there. He's got a wide grin, one arm around a gorgeous redhead with the longest legs Megan's ever seen. They take the same table he did last night, interrupting Aggie's homework with boisterous laughter. The girl's Scottish, Megan picks out, and she flirts with Mr. Rahman, who coughs and blushes and lets himself out again, and then she flirts with Peter Wilson, who seems like he'll take her up on it. Right in front of her boyfriend, Megan thinks, and she wonders. But the bloke with the bow tie and the ginger go off together, and Peter Wilson moons after her for days.
Megan comes home with stories about her customers, making fun of this one's clothes, and that one's nervous habit. Aggie Choudhury always picks the one table where Megan can best see her empty cup needing a refill. Peter Wilson always sits too close to the counter.
"But what about Granddad?" Kellie's been asking about him ever since that first night, because the bloke looked strange and the sushi tasted magnificent.
"Well, he did come back." She's not sure what to say, really.
"Did he bring his hot lady friend?"
"Yes and no." The hot ginger wasn't there tonight. Instead Granddad, as they call him, brought an older lady, old enough almost to be his mum. Wasn't no man who looked at his mum that way, though, and Megan doesn't blame him. The lady gave her a wink as they left. Megan's still a bit flushed. "New girlfriend," she says, and she changes the subject.
They come three nights in a row: Granddad, the ginger, the curly-haired cougar, and some poor bloke who looks lost. Megan's not sure what to make of them. She's got friends who are poly, sure. These four tumble and prod one another like puppies in a box. The ginger flirts with Granddad but she kisses the dour bloke. The woman with the curls and the very nice display of cleavage holds hands with the ginger, holds hands with the dour bloke, and leans over the table to offer a good view to Granddad. They're clearly tight. Megan manages to erase her mental photograph of the four of them sprawled asleep naked in a bed together, only to have it zoom into focus when she pours a refill for the ginger.
One night they don't come. Aggie takes her usual table and stays until closing. "No foursome tonight?"
"Guess not," says Megan. She's been wiping down tables for the last fifteen minutes, waiting for the clock to run out. Small talk might get her a little closer to done. "What are you studying?"
Aggie draws back. "Oh. The younger Romantic poets."
This rings bells somewhere in the dust-covered shelves of Megan's memory. "Like Byron, right?"
Aggie nods. The cork popped, Aggie chatters to Megan all about her thesis on Keats and Shelley, and Mary Shelley in the stolen summer of 1816. Megan pays some attention, not much. It's weird to see Aggie this animated about a topic. This is the longest conversation they've ever had, and she's not following most of it.
She tries to put Aggie's words together. "What you mean is that if you stick a load of people in a small space together, they'll have sex and go mad."
Aggie laughs. "Something like that." She walks Megan home, saying her flat is two streets over.
The next night, Granddad comes with the cougar. Megan makes excuses to refill his tea whenever she can. She's stretching the rules to refill the lady's triple-chocolate almond kiss but the bright, grateful smile she receives is well worth the earful she'll earn tomorrow when the receipts are checked.
Granddad has that face again as she holds his hand. "They wouldn't want you to bury yourself. You know that."
"I failed her, River."
"Amy chose. You know no-one could change her mind once she came to a decision."
"I should have talked to her more. I should have made her listen."
"She did listen. She didn't agree." River, her name is River, Megan likes that very much. River purses her lips. "You always hate it when we find someone we love more than we love you. You stomp around, you sneak away, you act like a child to prove you're best."
Megan moves away again. Poly. She thought so.
The pair of them come several times over the next two weeks. Some nights they sit opposite one another, reading to each other from old books. Romantic books, from the sounds of them, with weird adventures. Aggie turns up her music so loud Megan's sure she's going to blow out her eardrums. One night they have a row about multi-phasic wave dampeners. Granddad acts all smarter than everyone else. River does as well, and cites some expert, some Dr. Tards or something. Megan can't figure out if they're physicists or if they're those sci-fi nutters who read too much and snort at their own jokes about The Lord of the Rings.
Some nights, the quiet nights Megan remembers best later, the two of them spent the evening sitting next to each other, saying very little, and enjoying the baked nibbles that go half-price after ten. Granddad jokes about being dead. River jokes about being in prison. Megan doesn't eavesdrop much.
"Thank you, Megan," River says whenever she gets a top-off. Granddad watches her with a wry grin, then goes back to watching River like she's the hottest woman in the room. The other regulars come and go. Ms. Foster is closer to Granddad's young age. Megan sees her flirt a bit to Granddad's utter obliviousness. Peter Wilson ignores them, trying first to pull Megan, then trying to pull Aggie, then successfully pulling Ms. Foster.
"He's an arse," Megan doesn't say to Ms. Foster. Aggie rolls her eyes as they leave together.
"It will never last," Aggie does say when the door closes.
They're both startled when River says, "They have four children."
Granddad raises his eyebrows. "Spoilers."
"You keep saying that. What's the harm in peeking ahead?"
They leave shortly thereafter, still quarrelling in the fashion that tells Megan the conversation is foreplay and they're going to have loads of sex now. She remembers those days, back when she and Diana were together. That draws a cloud over her evening, thinking about Diana and thinking that Ms. Foster was right now getting naked with Peter Wilson. Ick.
At the end of her shift, Aggie's still there. She surprises Megan with a gift. It's a book of poems. "I thought, since you were interested. You know. You might like it."
Reading, actual reading, looms in Megan's future whether she wants it or not. But the book looks antique, and Aggie looks hopeful. "Thanks," she says. "No one's ever given me poetry before."
That makes Aggie's face light up like a star. "Then I'll be your first."
Granddad brings Amy and their dour boyfriend the next night. Makes her own decisions, does she? Megan pays attention this time, and yes, the ginger's obviously the glue. Centre of the polyhedron, sparkle in everyone's step, that's her. Megan's a little jealous. She's never been thin and pretty, not like long-legged Amy who makes her own choices and damn the man. Her hair is too frizzy, not neat and slick like Amy's long red tresses, nor beautifully bouncy like River's haloed curls. Yet when Amy grins at her, Megan finds she doesn't mind at all.
They're going to Tokyo. No, they've just got back from Rome, and Amy is teasing her primary boyfriend, whose nickname is Stupid, about Centurions. Megan and Aggie both listen in unapologetically. Barcelona sounds nice, Megan thinks. But where is Pottervise and why are the three of them swearing never to go back?
She and Aggie come up with mad theories on their walks home. The foursome are spies. They're a secret team, and River's their boss. Megan spins an elaborate dream, where Granddad was a super-young super-spy who faked his own death. River, Amy, and Stupid are still in the business. Could be government, could be foreign, but River expects to go to prison some day for what she knows.
They're graduate students, Aggie counters, and it's all a mystery because River's not supposed to be dating any of them. Didn't Granddad call her Professor just yesterday? She's got to be a physics professor at the university, and Granddad is her post-doc. That's why they tease him and call him Doctor. They're obviously having a polyamorous affair, but Amy prefers Stupid over the two of them. Aggie will look them all up in the university online system to prove her point, but not tonight.
Megan stretches out on the bed, reading aloud:
"They name thee before me,
A knell to mine ear;
A shudder comes o'er me-
Why wert thou so dear?
They know not I knew thee,
Who knew thee so well-
Long, long I shall rue thee,
Too deeply to tell."
Aggie sighs. "Go on."
"I can't. This is too silly. It's all Dr. Seuss." Megan wilts under Aggie's glare. She's fierce about her poems, and she's cute when she's naked.
Megan looks back at the page and she recites:
"In secret we met-
In silence I grieve,
That thy heart could forget,
Thy spirit deceive
If I should meet thee
After long years,
How should I greet thee?-
With silence and tears.
Ugh. Byron needed to have more sex."
"Byron had loads of sex." Aggie buries her face in her pillow. "Haven't you ever loved someone you couldn't admit to knowing, because people wouldn't understand?"
This, Megan suspects, is less about poetry and more about why she is only invited over when Mrs. Choudhury isn't home. Secret affairs aren't as enticing when she's the secret. She sets the book down and kisses Aggie until they've both forgotten all about brooding boys.
Stupid doesn't come back. Megan doesn't notice at first. Who could, with gorgeous Amy there, or gorgeous River? She can't be expected to notice the lack of a bloke, not with the happy, warm feeling she gets because Aggie's waiting to walk her home each night. One evening, Megan goes back to the Ladies when River does, not missing the sour look Aggie shoots her.
"Haven't seen your friend lately," she says in conversation to River.
River stares at her. "Sorry?"
"That bloke. The one who looks like a kicked puppy." She doesn't want to call him Stupid. "Hasn't been in, has he?"
"No," she says, blinking, for once caught wrong-footed. "Megan, isn't it?" She's reading the name tag.
She nods, a little hurt. Last night, River called her by her name and Megan had been thrilled.
"My friends and I are a little unconventional. We may come at odd times. We may visit once and not for months after.
"You've been here nearly every night for the past month."
Her eyes widen. "Oh, I wish you hadn't told me that." She smiles weakly. "Thank you."
Megan has no idea what she means, but the water runs and they're out of the loo, and it's weird to continue your conversations out of the loo.
They stop coming.
Normally a few days go by and they come back, but a week passes into two, then three. She's met Mrs. Choudhury by this time. Peter Wilson has moved in with Ms. Foster and the twins. Still no foursome.
Aggie is more sensible than Megan, for all the poetry. "They've left town or found another coffee shop." Megan isn't so certain, not even cuddled here in Aggie's sensible arms.
"Try this," Aggie coaxes. Another old book, this one a travel journal or something. "Mary Shelley. She was hot. You'd like her."
Megan snorts, and reads aloud: "I communicated, with unlimited freedom, with one whose genius, far transcending mine, awakened and guided my thoughts. Now I am alone—oh, how alone! The stars may behold my tears, and the winds drink my sights; but my thoughts are a sealed treasure, which I can confide to none."
This stuff is depressing, but Aggie smiles whenever Megan reads to her. She likes that trade-off.
Six months pass. She's mostly forgotten Granddad and his friends. Amy's a memory of long legs. River is a fading memory of a nice bosom. One cool evening like any other, Granddad walks into the shop, Amy on his arm. Back to that, are they?
"Got your regular," Megan says breezily. Perhaps she can impress them with her memory as she pours off his tea and whips up Amy's caramel half caf half fat latte before they ask.
Amy smiles at her in delight. "Best service I've ever had. I didn't even have to..."
Granddad shushes her, his face more set. "The tea is legendary here. Best tea in England." Megan thinks that's an exaggeration, though she admits, she makes a good cuppa. Granddad says reproachfully, "I thought you might like it."
Amy accepts the latte instead and takes a long drink. "No, this is perfect."
Megan follows them. They're at a new table. She shouldn't press, but everything is all wrong. "You're not at your usual table?"
Amy says with half a laugh, "We have a usual table?"
Megan feels stupid, and she hates feeling stupid. She glances over to Aggie, but Aggie hasn't noticed the pair yet, and she's deep in her reading. "Yeah," she says. "You and River and that bloke, you sit over there. He has black coffee, River has triple-chocolate almond kiss with an extra dollop of cream. You used to come all the time."
"Who's River?" Amy asks, and Granddad pulls her away.
"Wrong appointment, sorry. Forgot. We'll be late."
Aggie glances up to see them go. "What the hell?" she asks.
"I don't know."
That's the last time she sees Granddad and Amy. At first she thinks she's offended them. Then she thinks she was right, they were spies, and they fled because she broke their cover by mentioning River. "They graduated," says Aggie, though she never has managed to find them in the student or staff directories.
A year passes. She and Aggie get a little place together. Another year goes by. Aggie's finished her thesis and is trying to find work. Megan answers an advert and becomes an estate agent. She keeps hours at Java 254 because she likes to help during the rush, and because extra money never hurt anyone. She's going to quit soon, though. Too much stress with two jobs. Once they've paid for the wedding, and Aggie starts teaching next month, they'll be fine. She offers to close for her last shift, staying after the little party and enjoying the quiet at the end of a long day. It's a peace she knows she's sacrificing for happiness.
She's about to take the machine apart for the night and clean it, when the bell over the door rings. It's been years. Megan doesn't still have a crush on a former customer. Honestly. But she smiles in delight, realising she's been waiting to say goodbye. "River!"
"Hello, Megan," she says. "It's been a while. Hasn't it?" The question ought to be rhetorical, but there's a real inquiry behind.
River's face is sad. "I thought as much. It's your last night, isn't it?"
"Who told you? Was it the Wilsons?"
River orders tea, and she holds out a thermos. "For my husband. He's going to miss your tea."
Megan thinks he ought to have shown up more often. "Oh, did you marry that bloke, then?" She's dying to know what happened to the other members of their group, but she bit her tongue and told herself not to pry.
"Short answer, yes." She curls a smile. "How is Aggie?"
Megan smiles widely. "She starts teaching next month. The wedding is December."
"I wish you'd told me sooner," River says sadly. She takes her flask back. "I always loved her poems."
Aggie's still too shy to show her work to anyone, even Megan. Before Megan can ask more, River is out the door with a soft farewell, and though Megan goes both ways down the road to find her, she never does. Curious.
By morning, she's forgotten the incident, and eventually, she forgets their faces. In December, Aggie stands in front of their families and friends, reading the poem she's written to Megan: love branches out like a flame, like a disease, we catch love from our parents, catch love from our friends, catch love from strangers who burn us brighter than stars. We catch love but cannot keep love without passing love along.
It's melodramatic, and Megan thinks it could use some Dr. Seuss, but she's never heard a lovelier verse.
They find the gift as they're clearing up before they leave on their honeymoon to Barcelona. Aggie holds out the book, horrified: no gift tag, a slim volume of poems, Keats, first edition. Some prankster has defaced the frontispiece with a pretend autograph that looks fresh.
"The nerve," she says in outrage. "It was Peter, you know I'm right."
Megan kisses her, and she keeps kissing her until Aggie forgets all about it.