by Mari Ness
Don’t fall in love with a mortal, everyone told me, over and over. They’re unreliable. Deceitful. Unstable. Sickly. Greedy. And no matter how much you might think this one is different, that this time it can work out, it never, ever does.
I’d grown up hearing all the warnings, all the stories. We even, after The Incident with Aunt Motte, had it written in cobweb hangings all over the mushroom walls. I repeated it gleefully and dolefully and calmly and excitedly and in about eighteen hundred other different ways, and repeated it again when my cousin fell in love with the ballet dancer and when another cousin fell for a Victorian poet.
Unfortunately, none of those warnings accounted for coffee.
Yes, coffee. I’d fallen in love with the stuff back in the 15th century or so, when my mother had sent me off for a bit of foreign polish in what was then the Crescent Court – a kingdom of Jinn, Irshi, and other mystical and unsavory types that more or less adjoined the Ottoman Empire, when it felt like being more or less near the earth, of course. (When I was there the court spent most of its time up in the clouds.) The court was renowned not merely for its ability to rise up into the sky at will, but also its shimmering buildings of moonstone and starlight, its quiet fountains of diamond juice and emerald wines, the carpets woven of music and the beds woven from birdsong.
I didn’t get to experience much of that, of course. What my mother called “foreign polish” turned out to be cleaning magical chamber pots (yes, fairies have those sorts of needs too, and contrary to what you might have heard, it doesn’t all smell like lilacs and roses) and potion bottles and stitching up cobweb and moonlight gowns. The pile of cobweb repairs in particular was so massive I despaired of ever getting through it; I eventually resorted to tricking some spiders into just weaving some more stuff for me and throwing a glamour over it, hoping no one would notice. They didn’t. And no, not because they were all glamoured by some form of fairy hashish. That’s just vicious gossip that came out after someone broke Titania’s nail when she was on some sort of state visit there. No, the real reason, as I found out later, was that cobweb clothes were a new thing for Turkish fairies – well, new in fairy terms – just introduced two hundred years earlier, so none of the fairies had learned to tell – yet – the difference between real spider webs and spider webs replaced with a bit of spider glamour.
But I did get to try out the coffee. It was a new thing, brought in by the fifth daughter of the seventh daughter of the seventh daughter of the Starry Sultan, who was trying to distinguish herself from all of the other little daughters. It didn’t work for her – fifth daughters have about the same position in the world of faerie as I do, which is to say, none, whoever our mothers are – but it did work for me. Before I returned – my mother having realized that cleaning magical chamber pots really was doing nothing for my spellwork or my poetry or even my linguistic skills – I gathered up every coffee bean and bit of ground coffee I could find and smuggled it back with me. I figured with a single coffee bean I should be able to enchant moonwater to taste like coffee. At least a little bit.
And I couldn’t.
No matter what I did, I couldn’t manage to make a single decent cup of coffee in the fairy realms.
I tried everything. Moonspells. Starspells. An enchanted harp that, once turned on, would. not. stop. singing. (I finally had to turn it over to a mortal palace, though contrary to what you might have heard, the resulting declarations of war were in no way my fault.) Bribing witches. (No, I’m not going to tell you what happened to my hair afterwards.)
Coffee could just not be made in the fairy realms. Not proper coffee. It had a mortal magic I could just not replicate.
It was so frustrating that I had to drown my sorrows in mortal coffee, and a lot of it. (No, not wine. Contrary to what you may have heard, fairy wine doesn’t make you forget anything. Fairy wine just makes the ground not want to be by your feet for a little while, which can be a bit uncomfortable for mortals, especially the mortals who have decided to wander under the hills. Fairy cake, on the other hand – well, that depends on who is eating the cake, but I have seen some strange things, let me tell you, and I was there for the great Frog Clowns incident, so I know strange.)
I became an expert. Italian coffee. Turkish coffee – from small cafes on mortal streets; I had no desire to see those chamber pots for several more centuries, thank you. Egyptian coffee. Spanish coffee. English coffee. Lattes. Espressos. I grew bold. I crossed oceans. Sought out cafes here, cafes there. Luxury hotels serving the finest in Kenyan coffee. Even civet coffee (which, I have to tell you, does not live up to its claim.) I scattered fairy gold everywhere; handed out more leaves glamoured to look like mortal money, and later credit cards, than I care to remember.
Which is how I happened to be in that little café, slowly stirring a cappuccino, when she walked in.
I knew the feeling immediately. Every fairy does. We fall in love faster than humans do, if not always for longer, and given our lifespans – well, let’s just say that I could spend the next two hours listing the names of those I’ve fallen for, and we’d still need more coffee to get through the list. I told myself this was exactly the same. Brief. Intense. Much like – I told myself this was a very clever thought – the taste of a cup of coffee.
Coffee, I thought. Drink down more coffee.
Unfortunately, this meant getting up for the coffee – and standing right next to her as she made her order.
Ok, so, maybe this wasn’t going to be brief.
I ordered mine. And then – I’m embarrassed to admit this, but it really happened – just as I grabbed my coffee, I slipped a little, and spilled some on her.
(Come to think of it, it’s just possible someone else was in that café – my type of person, if you know what I mean. I won’t say I never slip or spill things. It’s just that these days, it’s rare. I might not have gained much grace from my various visits to various courts – you don’t when you’re working – but I had learned not to spill things. Getting stuck with a seven-foot-long nose for seventy-seven years kinda teaches you to be careful with liquids.)
She in turn jumped back, and spilled her coffee. So with that, I had to go back to the counter and pull out another enchanted leaf to buy two more coffees. Well, two more cappuccinos. (No, I don’t usually carry real money around, especially these days, when in order to get money you usually have to provide various little plastic cards or at least something proving your identity, and nothing, absolutely nothing, is worse for fairies than proof. And the enchanted leaves aren’t quite as worthless as you might think – just touching one gives a mortal a little jolt of happiness, a little jolt of magic, a little jolt of luck. Which to my mind is a completely fair payment for a single cup of coffee.)
Naturally, after that, we had to talk.
We were still talking when the café announced that it was closing for the evening.
“I had no idea it was so late,” I said. That was true; I rarely notice the passage of time.
“So much for working,” she said, laughing.
She’d already slipped her computer into her shoulder bag, but she tapped the bag anyway. “I came here to try to get some more work done on some illustrations.”
“Closed,” repeated one of the café workers.
She grinned. “Day job in the morning. Maybe some other time?”
“Maybe,” I said, and felt a touch of magic settle on me.
Go, I told myself. The world had plenty of other cafes, plenty of other small towns, plenty of other places to find a perfect cup of coffee. And I really needed to go see my sisters again. And send messages to my mother.
Instead, I found myself walking in a small park nearby. The park bordered a little lake, where some water sprites were singing a moon song. I spared a moment of pity for mortals, including the mortal I had just met, most of whom would never hear it, and sat down on a park bench, near a tree that bent a single branch to touch me on the shoulder.
I meant to leave, I really did. But that park bench was so comfortable, and in the morning, the water sprites wanted to gossip. Of course. I’ve never met a water sprite who didn’t. And then it was time for lunch – gossip makes me hungry – and I spied a little bookshop that needed a visit and a touch of glamour, and then I realized I needed more coffee.
Naturally, she was already there, computer open, coffee in hand.
That was how it began.
We talked about books. Politics. History. Trees. Books again. She ranted about her day job. I could almost feel the magic leeching from my bones. I changed the subject. She ranted about it again.
“Why don’t you just do this instead?” I asked, gesturing towards the computer.
“Not good enough.”
“Oh, come on. You’ve been promising for – how long now?”
Weeks, but I didn’t want to think about that.
“Ok,” she said, making a few clicks, and turning the screen towards me. I carefully put my hands behind my back.
“You can click through,” she said.
“I fry anything electronic when I get near it,” I said. And I do, although that’s less me, and fairies in general. Our kind is notoriously terrible with electronics, and I’m worse than most. Just passing within two feet of one can give it what you mortals call the blue screen of death. And yes, now you know where that comes from, but try telling that to whoever is handling your warranty or tech support. “You do it.”
“Ok,” she said, with a few more clicks.
Not realistic ones, mind you, but humans never get dragons right. The important thing was, they were dragons, and they glowed against her screen. A picture of what mortals think is a fairy looking up at the moon. A few pictures of bears. A squirrel. A girl reading books.
“These are really good,” I told her. And they were.
“Nah,” she said. A look of frustration came over her face. “I mean, they could be. They’re just not there yet.”
“They are good,” I said.
I was using mortal standards, of course, nothing up to ours, but by those standards, it was good.
“Seriously, you should think about showing them someplace.”
She shook her head. “Maybe. One day. It’s just – I don’t think they’re magical yet. Does that make any sense?”
A shudder ran through my body.
“Yeah,” I said.
“I dunno,” she said. “Maybe I just need some more art classes or something.”
“Or maybe you just need a little magic,” I said.
I was tempted. I was really tempted. But all of those rules flashed through my head, and instead of pulling out an enchanted leaf, I pulled a leaf out of her ear.
“Ha,” she said.
“Ha,” I said back.
And then we were back to talking about books again.
I made up stories about various mortal girlfriends. She told me about everywhere she had been: Europe, Africa, Asia, Australia. I countered with some false – and true – travel stories of my own. (Our experiences of Rome were, shall we say, very different.) She shared her music with me – or at least thought she did. I’m even worse with those so called flash drive things, or CDs; they melt away in my hands. But a bit of glamour took care of that, and I let her play some stuff for me through her laptop, though she had to keep apologizing for the terrible sound quality. (It really was terrible: apart from the cheap computer speakers, the playback was also fighting with just having me nearby.)
I’d never met a mortal easier to talk to. Never. Never felt so comfortable with a mortal. Ever. That very strangeness – not that it felt strange at all – was probably why I missed it, probably how I missed the moment when things became too right, too comfortable. It wasn’t just a touch of fairy love, or enchantment, not any more.
I had to stop it.
I smiled at her, raised my café latte, and stretched out my legs. “You know what we should do sometime?”
Her eyes narrowed a bit. I don’t think I’d ever used the words “we” and “do” in a sentence before. “No, what?”
“Go out for dinner. And then – I dunno. A concert. A walk. You know, like a date.”
Her eyes looked down.
“Oh, Andre,” she said. “I’m sorry – I should have said something before this, but I figured you’d already guessed.”
“You’re with someone,” I said.
“Well, no,” she said. “It’s just – I bat for the other team.”
It took me awhile. Then I looked down at myself, and remembered.
My fingers twitched.
I could have made her forget all that, made her forget who she was. I could have said one of those foolish things that my kind often says to humans when we cannot stop thinking about them. I could have ranted about human gender standards (it’s always tempting.) I could have told her that in my time I have loved both mortal men and mortal women, and been loved by both. I could have told her that none of that mattered.
Don’t fall in love with mortals.
I could have fed her fairy cake.
Instead, I bent over and kissed her cheek. “Sucks to be a guy sometimes,” I said lightly. “Can I get you another cup of coffee?”
She shook her head.
I smiled, because mortals smile at times like that, when they are trying to be brave, or at least trying not to cry.
I smiled, because fairies can’t cry in front of mortals, because the tears of a fairy can bring true love, and that, in the wrong time and place, can be deadly indeed.
I smiled, dropped a leaf in her coffee, and left.
At least you won’t have to watch her die, I told myself.
The next coffee I had was too bitter to drink, though at least, at the end, I had plenty of fairy tears.
I saw her five years later.
She was at one of those comic book conventions. Yes, fairies go to those all the time – especially now, when certain Exalted People – I can’t name names, you understand – want to know exactly what mortals know about us, or think they know about us, or are completely making up about us. Not that I was there for the usual spying, or even to find some art to enchant. Just for a bit of distraction.
She was there in line, getting coffee.
I fell – yes, me, the fairy trained in about a hundred fairy courts (sometimes it feels like a thousand) – flat on the floor. When I sat up – thanks largely to what seemed like fifty mortal hands, all coated in painful metal – she was still there. I took a closer look.
It wasn’t a spell, or a glamour.
I took deep breaths. That used to be more of a mortal trick, but we’ve picked up a few things from you. Then I pushed away all of those helpful hands saying I just needed some air. And to get away from all that metal; if you ask me, the worst invention ever made by mortals was the metal bracelet, followed by the wristwatch, ducking behind a wall. And then –
A touch to hide myself from mortals. Another touch to heal my skin. And then I pulled out the little bottle of tears.
I was weak-kneed when it was done.
If she had given up, or already gotten her coffee –
But she hadn’t.
“Slow line?” I said, as I walked up, trying not to fall over.
It was easy, so easy, to talk to her. So easy to laugh. I forgot that she wasn’t a long term crony, forgot that she had already broken my heart, forgot that what I’d just done wasn’t exactly the sort of thing guaranteed to win a woman’s heart. Instead I talked. And listened. She was there, she explained, to sell the first of her fantasy prints. I insisted on going and seeing them. She told me not to bother, that they were just early efforts. I went anyway.
“Don’t,” I said, laughing, waving my hands. “I’ll check out your prints when they’re done. I fry electronics when they get near me.”
Her face darkened.
“Something I said?”
“Nothing,” she said, shaking her head. “Only – what you just said. Kinda reminded me of someone I once knew.”
I tilted my head just slightly and let a little frown appear on my face. “Boyfriend?”
She shook her head. “Oh, no.” She grinned at me. “In any case, I kinda bat for the other side.”
This time I let a larger grin appear on my face, as I tried very hard not to scratch at my bra. (Why do humans insist on wearing these things?) “Me too,” I said. I ostentatiously looked at my wrist and the watch that wasn’t actually on there, but which I’d glamoured up hours before. “I gotta go.”
“It was really nice to meet you,” she said. The sort of things mortals always say, but something told me she might actually mean it.
“Yeah,” I said. I swallowed. I usually wasn’t this nervous with this kind of thing. This bad at it. And when I have been, it’s been easy enough to say goodbye. To move on to something that felt less comfortable. Less right. I opened up my mouth to say goodbye.
“Let’s stay in touch,” I told her, tipping my fedora to her, and dropping a leaf by her coffee. A mostly unglamoured leaf. Nothing that would make her want to call me, nothing that would make her dream of me. But a leaf that looked suspiciously like a small piece of paper which just happened to have my number on it.
(Ok, well, specifically, a set of numbers that if she dialed while thinking of me would connect her phone to a tree that I use to take my messages, and yes, it cost me more in fairy gold than I want to think about, but compared to the cost of getting a cell phone every other day it was nothing, not to mention that trees tend to ask a lot fewer questions than mortal phone companies.)
And after I dropped it, I bent over, to make sure she could get a good look.
As I walked off, I could feel her reach for it, feel her staring at the numbers, feel her widening grin. And suddenly that bra didn’t seem to itch that much.
I had no idea how to tell her that. Or what she would say if I did.
Someday, I thought, someday I might just tell you what it was like to meet you, when I was mostly a man.
Yes, it was going to go badly. Yes, we were both going to get hurt. One, or both of us, might even end up bound up in a tree for a hundred years, or desperately and futilely in love with the depths of the ocean, or obsessed with making fine clothes from rough nettles. I had no idea how to tell her any of it, if I could ever tell her any of it. And yes, I was probably going to have to watch her die, knowing that no fairy could help her. But for now, it was magical, and it was enough. And with a twitch of my fingers, I glamoured up a few leaves to buy a mortal coffee maker. Never lose what started the magic, my mother always said, and I wasn’t about to stop now.
“Coffee, Love and Leaves” (© Mari Ness) was published in Issue 4 of Capricious. If you enjoyed this story, please consider subscribing to Capricious.