Actions

Work Header

Common Ground(s)

Chapter Text

It had rained the previous night, and Angela had fallen asleep to the sound of it pattering on her roof. Now the fresh, earthy smell of it filled her nose as she fiddled with her keys to unlock the door. The handle was frigid this early in the morning, coated with small beads of moisture; Angela patted her hand dry on her coat as she shouldered open the door.

A pale shadow detached itself from the store’s corner at the sound of the shopkeepers bell. It trotted across the floor to rub against Angela’s legs, mewing plaintively and blinking wide, blue eyes.

“Hello, dear.” Angela bent down to sweep the cat up into her arms. It meowed again. “Yes, yes, I know,” she soothed.

The door jingled again, and Angela glanced over her shoulder, shaking some hair out of her eyes. “Lena, good morning.”

“Morning!” Lena beamed, reaching out to give the cat a pat; it pricked its ears and glanced around. “Morning to you, too. Have you been terrorizing any of the plants?”

The cat mewed and swished its tail.

“I’ll go feed her.” Angela set the cat on the ground and disappeared into the back of the shop.

The cat looked from the door, to Lena, again to the door, and back to Lena.

“Don’t look at me like that,” Lena said, sternly. “We both know you’re not allowed back there.”

The sound of food in a bowl lured the cat away before she could begin pawing disappointedly at the door.

The shop opened for business at 6:00 in the morning, but as bad as Lena was at being anywhere on time, she was speedy when she wanted to be. She usually had just enough time to down a cup of coffee and pat the cat—a gentle, but lively seal point by the name of Missy, before her shift. Lena always thought that a name like “Latte” would have been more appropriate, considering her cream and coffee color (and the nature of the store!), but Angela had always been attached to calling her ‘Missy.’

That didn’t stop Lena from trying though. “You know, boss, we could have it both ways.”

“What?” Angela, in the middle of sipping a coffee herself, gave Lena a curious look.

“I mean, ‘Missy’ is usually short for something, right?” Lena dug her fingers into the cat’s scruff. Even Angela could hear her purring.

“Ah, you’re still going on about that?” Angela shrugged. “It’s usually Melissa.”

“Or, or…” Lena help up a finger. “Miss…” She trailed off. 

Angela raised an eyebrow. “Miss?”

“I dunno, Latte. Or something like that.”

“Miss Something Like That.” Angela grinned. “Artistic.”

“You know that’s not what I meant!”

“Do I?” Angela eyed the clock, and emptied her cup. “We should get back to work.”

“Yeah, okay.” Lena reluctantly hopped to her feet, deciding not to press it.

Angela made her way to the sink. “And Lena…”

“Yeah?”

“Just ‘Angela’ is fine.”

Lena grinned. “Sure thing, boss.”

* * *

It stayed cool and dimly overcast the entire morning, a gauzy mist swirling over the ground; the forecast had predicted rain. The café was a cozy respite from the chill—invitingly warm and well lit. The plants arranged both inside and out gave it a slightly whimsical air, as did Missy perched by the window, watching passers-by. 

It was always slow in the earliest hours of the day, before most people had properly woken up, but those that were up and about seemed well pleased to come inside for a cup of something hot, and perhaps a quick bite to eat to start off their day.

In other words: business was good.

By the time peak hours rolled around at roughly midmorning, the air had warmed up enough to thin out the mist, and some light had broken through the dark, grey sky. The scent of coffee, sugar, and chocolate wafted through the air. Angela took a moment to retie her hair and bask in the comfort of her domain. It was bustling. A quiet bustle, to be sure, but a bustle nonetheless. Good . Angela allowed herself a small glow of satisfaction. She smiled, looked around, and was pleased to see a few regulars.

“Good morning, Winston.” Angela made her way to a table in the corner. She nodded. “Mei.”

The two, who had been chatting animatedly over the contents of a thick book, broke off their conversation. Angela glanced at the book; it was large, a fact belied by the fact that Winston himself was even larger. He tended to hunch down and curl in his shoulders in a bid to make himself look smaller, but it only worked a little bit. Mei still only came up to his shoulder. He adjusted his glasses and dipped his head. “Angela! Good morning.”

“Already in the books this early in the morning, are we?”

“Sorry, Angela.” Mei, sipping her usual cup of green tea, ventured a small smile. “You know how it is sometimes.”

“Mm. Well, if you ever need fuel for all that work…” Angela cocked an eyebrow. She grinned. “I’m glad to see you two around.”

“Happy to be here. It’s good coffee weather,” Winston replied.

Mei nodded along. “How have things been?”

“Good.” Angela looked out over the shop again. “Business has been good.”

Winston raised his eyebrows just slightly. “Still worrying over that, Angela?”

Angela drummed her fingers on the tabletop. “Not worrying.” She glanced out the window and frowned vacantly.

Winston hesitated, then cleared his throat. “Well, don’t let us take up too much of your time.”

Angela shook herself out of her reverie. “Yes, of course. While I’m here, can I get either of you anything?”

The two exchanged a glance, and shook their heads. “We’re fine.”

Angela nodded. “It was nice talking to you. Good luck at work, you two.”

“Likewise, Angela.” Mei gave her a small wave as she walked away.

Angela looked over her shoulder when she reached the counter. The two were already engrossed in another deep conversation. Mei took a long drink from her cup, tapping a pen on the book, and Winston pushed his glasses up his nose, murmuring something in reply.

“They seem to be in good spirits, don’t you think?” Lena said. She nodded at the corner. “Don’t see the big guy up this early all that often. Only wakes up for real important things.”

Angela gave her a bemused look. “Like peanut butter cookies?”

“You know it!” Lena elbowed Angela in the side. “Now, you done standing around chatting to people or what? Come help me!”

“Lena…”

Lena stuck out her tongue and immediately turned around to ring someone up. Angela snorted.

* * *

Emily showed up in the late morning, during the quieter hour after the morning rush and before lunch. Lena liked to argue for the virtues of brunch, but Angela thought that Lena was privately glad to have that lull in her work day. It gave her and Emily time to swap banter, or simply enjoy each others’ company.

“Oh Angela,” Lena said, looking up, “we’re running low on a few things.”

“Coconut milk and change, specifically,” Emily chimed in.

“And cat treats!”

“Lena!” Emily whirled around to face her. “Have you been feeding her extra?”

“No!” Lena held up her hands and put on her best innocent face. “She’s just smart, that’s all! Got into them when I wasn’t looking.”

All eyes turned to Missy, who had an altogether far better innocent face than Lena did. She blinked, slowly, and flicked the tip of her tail.

Angela gave the cat a stern look. “That’s bad for you, you know.”

After a minute, Emily sighed. “She’s hard to get mad at. We should store them more securely. Get a tin with clasps, or something.”

“I’ll think about it.” Angela disappeared into the back, and re-emerged shortly with her jacket. “Are you two alright here?”

“Perfectly fine, Angela.” Emily gestured around at the people in the shop—a couple of students with some loose stacks of paper and a variety of books, two men with newspapers having a quiet conversation by the window, and a woman tucked into the corner with a laptop. “It’s hardly rush hour.”

Angela had to resist making a snide joke about leaving the two of them together alone, but that wouldn’t have been fair. “I’ll be right back.”

There had been a smattering of rain in the late morning, but, thankfully, it had not persisted. There were even a few wide breaks in the clouds now, white beams of sunlight peeking through the cover to glisten on the wet stones and plants on the street.

There weren’t many people out and about, and it didn’t take Angela long to pick up the supplies she needed—coconut milk, chicken-flavored cat treats, and a glass jar with a locking lid (Angela didn’t actually know if cats could taste metal, but she figured it was polite to be sure). She felt only slightly silly about it—no doubt a cat would struggle to open even a regular lid, but Missy was smart. Some small part of Angela didn’t put it past her.

A quick stop by the bank, and Angela was on her way back, one hand holding a bag, the other tucked into her pocket. Angela kept her head down, idly watching the ripples as she stepped through the puddles left on the ground from the recent rain. The water reflected a silvery, faint image of the sky when it was still, but glittered in the light when disturbed, and somewhere in the eaves of a nearby building, a bird was whistling. The air was fresh, and the rain had made the lavender that lined the streets particularly bright and lush. Now would be a good time of year to buy some new plants herself, Angela mused, and some new pots to go along with them: perhaps some extra to grow a new arrangement or two. Something accented with yellow or orange would be nice, especially come autumn, and it was always quietly rewarding to watch the arrangements grow, and be able to cycle them between her home and her shop as space dictated. She had plenty of offsets to work with…

Two things about cobblestones, especially ones that have been smoothed through years of traffic: they become slippery when wet, and they are uneven; uneven enough to catch and trip someone not paying attention. These two factors warranted some caution, particularly when one wasn’t paying attention to exactly where she was going.

Angela brushed by someone walking in the opposite direction: a brush, nothing more, but it was just enough for her to lose her footing. As Angela stumbled, she threw out her hand to try to balance herself, especially against the weight of the bag. One misplaced step to try to correct herself slipped, and the tenuous balance was tipped. Angela instinctively closed her eyes and braced herself, a small yelp escaping her lips.

Suddenly, someone caught her hand. Angela blinked open her eyes. “Tha…” She trailed off, looking around to meet warm brown eyes.

“Are you alright?” Fareeha Amari cocked an eyebrow. She pulled Angela upright. “That was close.”

Angela could smell a faint hint of cinnamon on Fareeha’s clothes. She stiffened from the proximity, her heart still beating quickly from the adrenaline. 

She took a step back. “I’m fine.”

Fareeha’s eyes flicked to the bag in Angela’s hand. “Running some errands today? What a coincidence, I’m—”

“I don’t need your help,” Angela said shortly. She shouldered by, drawing her jacket closer around herself against the sudden chill in the air.

“Well alright,” Fareeha turned to watch her go, a trace of confusion in her voice. “Have a nice day.”

Angela didn’t respond. There were two coffee shops in the square, after all. One was Angela’s pride and joy. The other, directly opposite, was owned by Fareeha Amari.

 


 

“So,” Fareeha said. “I ran into Angela today.”

“Oh yeah?” Lúcio didn’t look up from the espresso machine he was cleaning. “How was she?”

“Oh, you know.” Fareeha shrugged. “The usual.”

“Aw man.” Hana tilted the screen of her laptop down. “Sorry about that.”

Brigitte, sitting next to her, chimed in. “That’s not your fault, is it?”

“I mean, I guess. I just feel like… you know.” Hana shrugged. She looked out across square. She shook her head, and checked the time. “I’ve got some things to do; probably shouldn’t stick around for too long…”

“Most of us have some things to do too,” Fareeha commented wryly.

Brigitte stood up hastily, clearing her throat. “Right! Um…”

Hana glanced up, watching her hurry away. “I mean, if you guys actually need any help…”

“Then I’d have to pay you.” Fareeha poured herself a cup of coffee, thick and dark, and took a sip.

“Ah, darn.” Hana frowned. “Can’t really take another job right now… And as much as I like you guys, Angie’s got a cat.”

Fareeha raised an eyebrow. “‘Angie’, is it?”

“Yeah.” Hana shrugged. “‘Angela’ is a little bit long, don’t you think?”

“Not really,” Brigitte replied. “It’s just three syllables.”

“Like ‘Lú-ci-o’,” Lúcio said. “Or ‘Bri-gi-tte’. Or ‘Fa-ree-ha’. Or—”

“Lú, Brig, ‘Reeha.” Hana counted on her fingers. “Next.”

Brigitte snorted. “You’d be the type of barista to get everyone’s names wrong.”

Fareeha took another sip of coffee. “Technically not wrong .”

“Just different! See, she gets it.” Hana pointed triumphantly.

“Correction: you’re both wrong.”

Hana shook her head. She closed her laptop fully, and began to pack it away. “Well, I’m off. You guys should stop by sometime! Keep me company during my shift.”

“I don’t know…” Lúcio frowned. “Your boss is kind of scary.”

“She is not! I’ll have you know that she’s a very nice woman,” Hana snapped back indignantly. “Just… I don’t know, determined.”

“But—”

“You can pet the cat,” Hana said.

Brigitte immediately perked up. “I’m interested.” After a moment, she sheepishly threw Fareeha a look. “I mean…”

Fareeha raised an eyebrow. “I’d be interested in petting a cat too.” She bowed with a theatrical flourish. “You have my blessing.”

“Cool.” Hana downed the rest of her cup, looped her bag over her shoulder, and stood. “It was nice talking to you guys!”

“Yeah, you too.” Brigitte waved her off. She checked her watch, and Fareeha silently dipped her head and turned, her attention shifting to other matters.

* * *

Zarya came in when Brigitte left, early in the afternoon. She exchanged nods and a few short pleasantries with both Fareeha and Lúcio, but much like her shift, Zarya was quiet. 

She was a good friend of Fareeha’s—they worked out together on their days off, and occasionally late at night after closing. They were sometimes joined by Brigitte, which prompted jokes from and about Lúcio regarding the fact that he was the only one of the people working during the weekdays that didn’t go to the gym. He took the teasing in good stride though, so Zarya got along well with him. For the most part, however, he was fine with being a little less talkative in the afternoons.

After she’d met him, Zarya had once mentioned to Fareeha that she liked the “frog boy”. Fareeha had to inform her that he was, in fact, 26. That didn’t really change Zarya’s perception of him.

Starting in the afternoon and extending throughout the evening and into the night, the earthy smell of coffee in the air was steadily replaced by the more delicate, herbal scent of tea. Business slowed as the light streaming through the windows shifted from the golden light of the afternoon sun, to the reds and pinks of the sunset, to the soft orange beams of the evening street lamps.

Closing was a well-worn routine by now. Conduct a walkthrough, do any preparation required for the morning, make sure all food is stored, sweep, mop, take out the trash, wipe down and straighten out the furniture, take inventory, count money, close and lock the register and safe, file receipts, check and lock the cabinets and windows (which were already locked, since it wasn’t the sort of weather where it would be a good idea to open them in the first place), make sure all the electronics were turned off…

Fareeha checked the time, and waved her hand. “You go on ahead. I’ll do the final walkthrough.”

Zarya frowned. “You’re sure?”

“I’ll be fine. Make sure the employee door is locked.” Fareeha took a deep breath. “I just need to think for a few minutes.”

There was a quiet moment, as Zarya considered arguing. Then, she shrugged, and silently departed, leaving Fareeha alone. 

She stood where she was for a long minute, leaning against the countertop, and then slowly, carefully, began to walk around for a last inspection, trailing the tips of her fingers over the wood grain of the tables. It was well and dark outside, the moon blotted over by the clouds. Fareeha stopped by the windows to observe herself, appearing as a dark shadow against the lights reflecting on the windows.

Fareeha took a moment to collect her thoughts and turned away. She dropped some extra sunflower seeds into the hamster cage, carefully made sure the cover and the panels were securely latched and locked, did one last walkaround, and finally turned off the lights.

Fareeha turned her keys in the door, listening for the click. She tried the handle, just to make sure. Locked. She circled around to the front of the store, and tried the front entrance as well. Locked. Satisfied, Fareeha hefted her bag, and began to make her way back home, guided by the light of the street lamps.

It hadn’t started raining yet, thankfully, though that wouldn’t last for long, judging by the thickness of the air. Fareeha looked around, and cocked her head; the night was unusually quiet and still. At this time of year, there were usually moths fluttering around the lamps, or crickets chirping in the shadows, but tonight they were nowhere to be found. Fleeing the impending rain, most likely. Fareeha decided she should probably follow their example.

The wind was picking up. It was a cold breeze, whispering through the leaves of the ivy crawling over some of the walls, ruffling the tops of the shrubbery, and rippling over the puddles. Fareeha pulled her coat closed and ducked her head.

There was a loud, decidedly un-windy rustling in the bushes. Fareeha stopped in her tracks, eyes searching the darkness. She could see only faint hints of the shapes beyond the circle of lamplight. Her skin prickled. The rustling came again.

Before Fareeha could call out, a pale, four-legged shape slipped out of the bushes and darted into the path in front of her. She squinted, trying to make out any more details. Two round eyes glowed in the dark, like coins catching the light. Fareeha warily took a step back as they came closer. The last thing she needed was to get bitten by some rabid animal, alone, on the way home from work.

The thing that stepped into the light was not quite what Fareeha expected. It was a cat; medium-furred, and tan, with dark brown extremities. Seal point, Fareeha remembered. It had wide, stormy-blue eyes and a blue collar.

Fareeha blinked at the cat. It blinked back. After a moment of hesitation, she crouched down, holding out a hand, and it approached, sniffing at her fingertips. “Hello,” she said, quietly. “What are you doing out here? Don’t you know it’s going to rain?”

The cat blinked again, and suddenly mashed its head into Fareeha’s outstretched hand, rubbing its cheek along her palm. “Oh..!” Fareeha wasn’t quite sure what to do, but she tried her best guess. She curled her fingers, tentatively giving the cat some scratches on the cheek, and behind the ear. The cat began to purr vigorously.

Emboldened, Fareeha kept going. The cat twitched its whiskers and leaned into her hand. “You’re friendly, aren’t you?” Fareeha sighed. She withdrew her hand and stood, almost reluctantly. The cat circled her feet and meowed plaintively.

“I have to go home.” Fareeha pointed sternly at it. “And so do you. I wasn’t joking about the rain.” She dusted herself off, and began to walk away.

A few street lamps later, she looked back. The cat sat down and gave her an innocent look, and Fareeha frowned at it. “Go on,” she said. “Go home.”

The cat didn’t move. Fareeha resumed walking, turning a corner and looking back again. The cat was still following her. A gust of wind whirled around Fareeha’s shoulders, blowing through her hair, and she shivered. The cat crouched down and curled its tail around itself, staying still as Fareeha watched it.

Another cold gust, and Fareeha gave in. “Alright, alright,” she grumbled. She walked over and scooped up the cat, hugging it to her chest. “Let’s get you inside for the night.” The cat nestled into the warmth of her jacket and started purring again.

Fareeha held it carefully as she hurried home. It wasn’t too far away, but by the time she opened the door, she could already feel cold drops of water beginning to fall. The rain rapidly swelled to a steady tapping on the windows as Fareeha pulled the door closed, shaking droplets out of her hair. She dropped the cat on the floor, and it beelined towards the couch, settling down on the back of it and turning to stare outside, ears pricked.

Fareeha shook her head, turned on the lights, and went to put the kettle on. She shrugged out of her jacket, hanging it up by the door, and seated herself at her small kitchen table while she waited for the water to boil. The tapping on the window turned into steady drumming, the view outside blurring into patches of dark blue and points of yellow, water sluicing across it in diagonal rivulets. Fareeha started some paperwork, and the cat alternated between watching her and watching the rain.

The whistle of the kettle stirred both of them out of their trances. Fareeha got up to make a cup of tea, and the cat crouched down on the chair next to Fareeha’s, paws tucked neatly beneath its chest, watching over the table as Fareeha moved around.

Fareeha stopped when she spotted it, considered it for a moment, and then sat down again. She put her cup on a coaster and reached over to give the cat another pat. “My mother would have liked you,” she told it. She brushed her thumb over its forehead. Fareeha took a sip of tea, and dug her fingers into the cat’s scruff. She rubbed its neck. “Brigitte would too. They’re both cat people, you know.”

The cat turned to look at Fareeha. She caught its eyes, and frowned. “Me? I don’t know.”

Fareeha took another long drink, and sighed, pushing away the pen and papers. She couldn’t really focus on the work right now. At least none of it was urgent.

She instead regarded the cat thoughtfully. “Who are you, anyways? You have someone to go back to, right?”

The cat, naturally, repositioned its leg instead of responding.

After a while, Fareeha finished her tea and closed her eyes for a long moment. “Let’s call it a night, and we can get you home in the morning, deal?”

The cat blinked slowly in reply.

“I’ll take that as a yes.”

Chapter Text

Fareeha intended to sleep after finishing her herbal tea.

But.

And there was sometimes a but.

An urge seized her half-way through the cup, one that if ignored would persist through the night and wouldn’t allow for a wink of sleep. It was a maddening compulsion to work out, and heed its call she did. She slipped into her gym gear, went to the living room, and was off to do a bit of late-night calisthenics.

As she did a succession of jump squats, Fareeha was reminded to be ever grateful she lived in a house. If she lived in a flat, if she had downstairs neighbors, they surely would’ve filed numerous complaints against her by now.

Correction, against her and her newfound roommate.

Mystery cat, as she had settled on calling her (she had yet to figure out her name), had fed off her energy and was now trying her best to mimic Fareeha's every movement and then some. When the little bugger did a backflip, a bark of a laugh escaped her.

“Slow down, bud. Slow down or you’ll hurt yourself.” She suggested softly, grinning as the cat carried on without so much as an ear twitch to her gentle chidings. Fareeha shook her head and bent down once more, enthusiasm stupidly emboldened. “Well, I ain’t losing to you.”

***

Missy might not be in the café.

Angela checked underneath the chairs, the little hideaways she loved and as far as sections of the café the cat wasn’t allowed to be. She beckoned for her loudly in that certain tone of hers that Missy understood meant serious business, and when still she didn’t turn up a trickle of apprehension seeped into her; a concern that only grew and solidified the moment she pulled out her last resort and no little pitter patter of feet came running to her still. Her lips thinned, for in her hand was Missy’s favorite treat and the girl has never passed an opportunity for it.

She looked out the window gravely. The rain was hard last night, it wasn’t good weather for Missy to have ventured out – dangerous, even. Angela hadn’t forgotten what happened last time.

Quickly, she turned the signage to ‘Closed’, threw on her coat and left, intent to find her cat.

***

Fareeha hugged the cage tighter to her chest.

“No. Bad girl.”

In hindsight, she realized it wasn’t the best idea to bring a cat into the same quarters as a hamster, but it wasn’t like she had a choice. It was too early to take her to the local animal shelter and she couldn’t very well leave her home unattended. If last night’s antics taught her anything, it was that mystery cat had the propensity to become quite the mischievous cat.

“I said no. Stop eyeing him.”

Mystery cat paid her no mind, far too preoccupied with the café’s smallest resident. Hammond was staring right back, curiosity reflected in his beady eyes, blissfully ignorant of how close to danger he was seconds ago sleeping pressed up to the side of the cage.

In her concentration to telepathically communicate how serious she was that Hammond wasn’t a toy, Fareeha failed to hear the chime of the front door and register that another had walked in. That is, until a distinct squeal ripped through the air. Both she and her feline friend (currently enemy) shifted their attention towards the door.

“Oh my god, it’s the café cat!” Brigitte gushed as she bounded over and scooped up mystery cat with one hand. “Hello there, dear.” She cooed and nuzzled her cheek to the cat’s own. “Look at you, you’re a taken care of baby, aren’t you? Oh your fur is so soft.”

Fareeha set the cage down carefully behind her. “Café cat?”

Brigitte nodded enthusiastically.

“Yeah! You know, from-” She stopped abruptly and her face transformed from pure joy to that of slight guilt. Her voice became a hushed whisper, laced with hesitance, “The uh, other café.”

Fareeha blinked and leaned back on the counter.

Oh…

Huh.

She crossed her arms as Brigitte’s words sunk in. What a surprising turn of events. After all, what were the chances that of all the cats in the world, she somehow ended up sheltering that woman’s cat?

Wait, hold on.

A pleasant thought crossed her mind, an idea. Fareeha smiled. She had just sheltered Angela’s beloved cat. Maybe, just maybe, she could use this as the perfect opportunity to get on the right foot with the woman.

***

Angela wiped at her eyes haphazardly for the ninth time and cursed the rain. She was already panicking about her missing cat, she was already not a morning person, and this weather simply wasn’t making her search any easier. She looked around and huffed.

Where could Missy have possibly gone?

She had hit all the regular spots the cat often strayed too and nothing, not a glimpse of her little girl. Angela glanced down at her wrist and worried her lip. Two hours, she’d have to wait approximately two more hours before the animal shelter opened.

And what if she wasn’t there? What if Missy was stuck in a ditch somewhere? What if-

Angela breathed in and out slowly a couple times to calm herself. Frenzied worry would do the both of them no good.

The shop, Angela swiveled on her feet, she’d go back to the shop. It’d be better to regroup herself in her warm café than out in the cold and drizzling rain, and if she was lucky, maybe Missy would magically be waiting by the storefront.

***

She should’ve been more specific with her prayers.

Rather than feel ecstatic when she rounded the corner and saw Missy, Angela felt peeved. Why? Because though yes her cat had returned, she was inexplicably bundled up in the jacket of one Fareeha Amari, literally tucked in with only her head peeking out from on top.

For a while Angela didn’t move from where she stood at the corner of the street, irrationally trying to will the sight in front of her away as if it were an illusion. Naturally, the sight didn’t go away, this was reality after all and Angela had to suck it up. With a grumble she walked towards Fareeha, fashioning her expression to one of neutrality best she could along the way.

Fareeha turned before she could say hello, having sensed her presence or heard her footsteps, Angela did not know, what she did know though was that when Fareeha fully faced her, then and there she thought the world unfair. Beyond the fact that she was fresh-faced and sincerely smiling before eight in the morning, the woman just looked so good for some reason. She was dressed in simple jeans and a bomber jacket (and that bomber jacket was currently misshapen due to carrying the added weight of her cat), and yet somehow she still looked so good.

It wasn’t right.

 “Angela, hey.” Fareeha greeted, beaming. “I was wondering where you were, because-”

“You found my cat. Thanks.” She interrupted, wanting to keep their interaction to a minimum, already uncomfortable. She reached out for Missy. “Come, come. Let’s go… in… side…”

Her eye twitched as Missy continually avoided her hands to nestle further into Fareeha, and softly gasped in horror when Missy dared to swat her hand away with a paw. Her cat, no worse for wear and uncaring of what she had done, simply purred and shimmied further into Fareeha’s jacket as if she hadn't just committed a great transgression.

Fareeha laughed as her cat continued to snuggle into her.

“Hey that tickles.” Fareeha giggled and gave Missy a little noogie of affection. She then looked back up at Angela and had the decency to appear mildly apologetic. “Sorry, but well, uh, y’know what they say, right?”

“And what’s that?” Angela responded robotically, far too occupied with her right hand. It tingled as she replayed in her head Missy avoiding her grasp, Missy swatting her hand, Missy choosing Fareeha over her.

Angela looked up at her nemesis. Fareeha was grinning.

“If they fits, they sits.”

***

Fareeha’s face felt hot. She briskly walked into her shop and made a beeline for the backroom, raising a hand when Brigitte tried to speak to her from behind the counter, a signal both to not ask and to give her five minutes. She closed the storage behind her softly and worked her jaw.

Why did she say that?

She descended downwards and sat with her lips pressed into a thin line and back firmly against the door. In the privacy of the dimly lit room, Fareeha sat, wishing she could turn back time.

Why the fuck did she say that?

She groaned and closed her eyes. A mistake as behind her eyelids she recalled with perfect detail Angela’s deadened expression at her remark. She let out another long and tired groan and buried her face in her hands.

Her stupid, stupid mouth.

Fuck.

***

“How could you betray me like that?”

Angela was irked, irked, by how comfortable her cat appeared in Fareeha Amari’s arms. Sure Missy was friendly by cat standards, however, she certainly didn’t like getting picked up, especially by strangers. And Fareeha was worse than that, she was a rival, an opponent… An adversary.

(Angela squashed the voice in her head that sounded a lot like Hana saying she was being dramatic)

What vexed her most though was that she felt like she knew exactly why Missy was such at ease with Fareeha. She had indeed noticed Missy had come home clean and decidedly not the image of a cat who had spent a night weathering a blistering storm outside. That implied she’d found a safe place to have slept for the night. Fareeha's home probably fit that bill well, and believing her to have stayed there for the night would help explain the comfortableness between the two of them as well. There would be time to... bond.

Angela jutted her lips, unsure of how to feel about the possibility that she may actually owe the woman and the implications that came with how quickly her cat had become taken with her – Missy rarely got along with folks that well and when she did that said something about them.

Something that Angela didn’t really feel like dwelling on.

“Missy this is all your fault.” Angela muttered as a mishmash of feelings bubbled in her, one feeling suspiciously like guilt. She bopped her cat on the head lightly and then waggled her finger at her. “Don’t go fraternizing with the enemy anymore, alright?”

***

Angela wasn’t sure why this was happening to her.

She didn’t even know that cats had a rebellious teenager phase or she would’ve prepared for it. As much as Lena and Hana and the rest of her employees mocked her for this hypothesis (“Angela, are you seriously suggesting Missy is going through some teen spirit right now? She’s 10!”), what else could explain what has been happening for the last few weeks?

Her baby was full-on rebelling.

It was bad enough that since Fareeha brought her back, each time that woman passed by her shop her cat would paw at the glass window for attention and she would have to watch the two of them look forlornly at each other, making her feel like a villain of a story keeping long lost friends apart.

What was infinitely worse though was that her cat had begun a habit of sneaking out. Missy, being the clever girl she was, quickly learned the art of agilely weaving through customers’ feet whenever they entered and exited the shop to slip through the door. The first time she ran out Angela panicked – her girl had never done that before. She was aghast once she learned where Missy was taking day trips too.

It was one thing to leave the shop, however to leave the shop to go see Fareeha Amari?

And to visit her at her shop?

Angela scowled briefly then quickly fixed her face. Glaring on the job would not help sales nor customer reviews of her café on the internet. This café was her dream and it would not be ruined simply because her cat had gone rogue.

A customer made a telltale yelp by the door. Angela sucked her teeth. This was the third time this week.

“Lena!”

“What- Aw man! Again?!”

***

Angela’s head was pulsing. The worst of the worst kind of customer had waltzed into her café today and no amount of chamomile tea could alleviate the pounding headache that woman brought with her sheer existence.

It had been some time since she had the displeasure of meeting a “can I speak to the manager” woman of that high a caliber. The woman (Aske? Ashe?) had done all she could to reduce Emily to tears for the gross objective of obtaining everything she ordered for free. If Angela had come a second later she undoubtedly would’ve arrived to the scene of a crime. Lena looked about ready to lunge when she returned from errands, standing between Emily and the woman with balled fists and tremoring with unspoken rage.

After intervening and having to talk to that horrid person herself, Angela felt beyond drained. She couldn’t wait to get home and sleep away her migraine, which was why it felt so good to finally close shop for the day.

“Hi.”

The greeting came from behind her, accompanied after by a soft mewl that Angela knew all too well.

“I wouldn’t lock up just yet if I were you.”

Angela closed her eyes briefly as a surge of frustration went through her body. She turned and bit back a sigh. Standing an arm’s length away was Fareeha Amari and her cat. Fareeha held Missy in outstretched arms, where she hovered between them like both a buffer and a peace offering, and Angela felt a sliver of reprieve at knowing the woman understood they weren’t exactly friends.

“You going to take her?”

“…Yeah. I suppose.” She avoided eye-contact as Fareeha carefully placed Missy into her arms. “I don’t know how she got out this time… Thanks.” She tacked on at the end, remembering her manners.

“No problem.”

Angela hummed and subtly side-eyed her disobedient cat. This was not what she needed right now. She locked up shop merely seconds ago for god’s sake.

And also-

She made a cursory glance at her side as she fished out her keys.

-She didn’t understand why Fareeha was staying. Instead of leaving the woman had made herself comfortable beside her, casually leaning on the wall watching as she began the process of unlocking the shutters.

It was weird.

Angela shook her head. Just focus on the lock, Angela, she berated herself internally, irritation spurred by the throbbing by her temples. The faster she did this, the faster she’d get to go home. The faster she got home, the faster she’d be able to pop an aspirin and get rid of this painful migraine.

Problem was she was running into an issue.

Angela growled, unsure of what exactly was happening and why specifically now. She’d done this a thousand times, yet for some reason she was struggling today. Perhaps it had to do with the fact that her hands were somewhat occupied by a squirming cat, or that she was feeling the pressure to do this faster because she was being watched, or it was simply that Fareeha Amari was there.

It could be all three of those things.

In any case, it only served to make her headache stronger and nothing to show for it. The shutters weren’t opening.

“Want me to re-hold her?”

“It’s fine.” She bit out instinctively. “I can do it.”

“Alright, if you say so.” Fareeha said and Angela didn’t like the bit of skepticism coloring her tone.

Skepticism that became increasingly justified as she continued to fail. Missy wriggled in her arms and Angela huffed, and paused to rub at her temples. God, her head hurt. She just wanted go home, needed to get home, and in this desperation, she swallowed her pride and keeled.

“Actually, yes. Please take her for a bit.”

“Alright. Hey there, little bug.” Fareeha raised her cat high above her head. “Upsy-daisy.”

“Missy.” Angela stated as she went back to work on reopening her shop.

With both hands free, this would be a breeze, she’d get this lock open in two seconds flat. Or not.

It still wasn’t working.

Her skin felt tight, her nostrils flared.

“Hm? What? Did you say something was missing?”

Angela’s eyes narrowed. She was positive she wasn’t using the wrong key. She color-coded her keys to make sure mistakes like that didn’t happen. Although if it wasn’t the wrong key, why wasn’t the key turning and the lock unlocking?

“Missy. Her name. It’s Missy. Not. Little. Bug.” She grunted out as she forced the key, punctuating each word with an attempt to turn. The lock wasn’t budging. Her temple throbbed harder, her aggravation grew, her headache became near splitting. She jostled the key harder, not caring if the damn thing broke in her quest to open the door.

“Missy? Your name is Missy?” Fareeha gushed from beside her in that higher-pitched, cartoony manner people often adopted for pets and babies. The sound of Fareeha’s happiness was grinding. She was in the midst of practically trying to jimmy her lock open, in the wells of frustration, and Fareeha was happy.

“Missy. Heh. More like Missile Launcher-”

Angela whipped her head to face Fareeha.

“Missile Launch- You’re so- ugh!” Angela couldn’t even finish her sentence, the aggravation that had been bubbling up insider her finally spilling over. “It’s Missy.” She hissed. “I’d never pick a name as stupid as that, you- you-” Her head was absolutely pounding- “You dolt!”

She hadn’t meant to say that.

Immediately, guilt and shame rushed into Angela at her outburst.

At first Fareeha just seemed shocked, then her expression changed and the air around her shifted, her brow drew down and the usual gentleness that cloaked her disappeared. A dour expression marred her features.

“Did you just call me a dolt?”

Angela flinched at her tone.

“Hey. I’ve always wanted to ask.” Fareeha’s voice was a low rumble. She took a step forward, eyes hard and sharp as she glowered down at her. “The fuck's your problem?”

***

Angela stared at the ceiling of her darkened room, eyes lazily tracking the slivers of light that bounced off the slats of her windows. She interlaced her hands and rested them on her stomach.

She couldn’t sleep.

She felt-

Bad.

Angela closed her eyes and sighed as the image of Fareeha floated in her head. She should’ve been afraid when the woman loomed over her, angry and done, but what had stunned her at that moment was that flicker of hurt she had seen beneath the rage.

It ate at Angela. She didn’t mean to hurt the woman. She hadn’t even meant to allow her disdain to snowball like this in the first place.

She needed to apologize.

***

Angela was hyper-aware of how suspicious she appeared, loitering at the corner of the street awkwardly wringing her hands. She was nervous though, she couldn’t help it (the double-shot espresso she had this morning was a mistake too - she regretted it). She also understood that she ought to gather her courage quickly though, because she could see a woman through the windowpane of Fareeha’s café with an eyebrow raised, judging.

This was how misunderstandings occurred.

And how she found herself in recent times landing in the town’s local gossip site probably. Whoever that anonymous blogger was, Angela had the misfortune of being their latest target for being not-so-discrete with her tired expressions at witnessing the interactions between Fareeha and her cat. They had catalogued a lot of her grimaces, made up their own story about what was going on.

Ultimately, the whole thing wasn’t a good look for her.

The worst part though was that she couldn’t refute the gossip column’s articles all that much, the things they wrote weren’t terribly far from the truth. Not that she could defend herself even if it wasn’t – the owner of that hellish purple gossip site was anonymous, and Angela wasn’t tech savvy enough to track them.

Anyways, if she wanted to right wrongs it wouldn’t be by hemming and hawing on the corner of the street and thinking about things that didn’t really matter. With a deep breath Angela braced herself and walked across the road to enter Fareeha’s café.

***

The first thing Angela noticed was how nice the place was. It was distinctly different from hers, decorated with brass items, earthier tones, and perfectly imperfect stools and tables made of repurposed wood, a departure from the neat little tables and the lighter pastel shades that adorned her grounds.

The second thing she noticed was Fareeha. The woman was behind the counter, busy whipping up a drink of some kind with a bit of a flair. She watched as she worked, fascinated. Showmanship wasn’t exactly part of the trade nor needed, or at least she hadn’t thought so, but Angela was starting to reconsider that. For a good half minute, the woman hadn’t noticed her. She continued on preparing the drink in hand with purposeful and controlled movements, and Angela continued to watch, intrigued.

And then she did, she noticed Angela, and she froze.

Angela took this as a chance to walk up to her. When she reached the counter, with more gusto than she felt she greeted her.

“Hi.”

Fareeha stared at her, unmoving.

“…Hey.” She finally uttered then held a finger up. “Hold on. I got to finish this.”

With that Fareeha turned briefly away from her to finish the drink she had been preparing. Not recognizing the concoction to be one of the traditional mixes, Angela deduced it must be some sort of special seconds before Fareeha handed it over to one of her employees to serve.

“So…” Fareeha dragged out as she approached her. She slung a towel over her shoulder and rested her hands on the counter to lean on them. Her expression was tempered and guarded as she spoke. “What can I do for you?”

“I’d like your special.” A pause. “And a bit of your time.”

Fareeha’s eyes searched hers, gauging. After a moment, she nodded.

“Okay.”

***

She was surprised Angela was here.

“It’s good.”

“Is it?”

“Yes.”

“Good.”

“Good.”

Fareeha scratched at her cheek with all four fingers, unsure of what to say next. She tilted her head up and made patterns out of nothing in the clouds above to pass time as the silence stretched.

“What are we doing, Angela?”

“We’re sitting.”

“Yeah, about that,” She took swig of her drink and wiped her mouth with the back of her hand after. “Why?”

Why are you here?

Angela adjusted to sit up straighter and there was something melancholic about her suddenly as she gazed at Fareeha. Her lips pulled slightly upwards, though stopping just short of being a true smile.

“I’ve been unfair to you.” She reached out and lightly touched her knee. “I’m sorry for being so rude.”

Fareeha didn’t say anything. While she had been expecting an apology – for why else Angela would come – at the same time she hadn’t, at least not in the depths of her heart. She was a bit struck.

“You don’t have to forgive me. No one would blame you if you didn’t.”

Fareeha couldn’t argue with her there. Angela was right, no one would blame her for not forgiving the woman. She had been short, rude and clipped to her nearly the whole time she was acquainted with her, a short and simple apology wouldn’t render all the micro-aggression null.

And yet.

Yet.

Fareeha felt herself soften as the woman continued to talk. As petty as her reasons were for being brisk with her (all because she had also set up a café? Seriously?), she sounded so genuinely and utterly remorseful that Fareeha couldn’t help a desire to forgive her.

She was a bit of a softie, sue her.

And truth be told, Fareeha also had other reasons to forgive the woman beside her.

It was silly, but she wanted to know her despite all that had transpired. Hana liked her, her cat loved her, and beyond that, she really liked what she saw whenever she had the chance to observe the woman interacting with others around town. The woman seemed lovely around everyone else, and she had a wonderful smile to boot. Fareeha caught it once in a grocery store as the woman was picking out apples and laughing with the salesperson.

She’d like to see that smile directed at her. It’d be nice.

Also, she had the funniest feeling that if they could push past the hostility, she and Angela could be fast friends. There was something about Angela that made Fareeha sure of it, she could feel it in her bones, and her intuition with these sort of things were fairly on the mark most of the time.

Fareeha set her drink aside.

“You want to start over?” She asked abruptly, interrupting Angela in the middle of her long apology. A gamble of an offer. Just because Angela was apologizing for her rude behavior, it didn’t mean that she wanted to be friends. Fareeha smiled lazily at her. “Despite better judgment, I’m forgiving you, in case it wasn’t clear.”

Angela blinked owlishly at her, like she couldn’t believe that Fareeha was giving her a second chance. In all honesty, a part of her couldn’t believe it either. If her mother was around she’d surely be glaring daggers at her for being so light on Angela.

“I’d… I’d really like that.”

Fareeha’s eyes crinkled at the honest way Angela uttered her words.

“Cool, cool.” Fareeha breathed out then cleared her throat and pretended to look introspective. “I’m sorry too, by the way.”

Angela frowned. Confusion marred her face.

“For what?”

“For stealing your cat all the time.”

Angela relaxed and waved her off. “No, its okay, I understand-”

“-And that Missile Launcher loves me more than she loves you.”

Angela stiffened. Fareeha bit the inside of her cheek. It was like playing with fire, and equally as fun.

“Take that back. And do not call her that.”

“Mm okay.” She relented, then shrugged in a blasé manner. “Only if you admit I have the better shop.”

Fareeha could feel it. Fareeha could feel it. She took a sidelong glance at Angela and it took all the willpower in her not to laugh. The woman was struggling, absolutely and irrefutably struggling not to blow up at her, trying her hardest to keep calm because she wanted to turn a new leaf between them, and to fail not two minutes after making that first step would simply not do – not in that prideful woman’s book.

Angela’s cheeks were puffed, she was pouting and Fareeha couldn’t help the easy smile that stretched on her lips as she observed Angela sulk.

Cute.

Chapter Text

Olivia took off her hoodie as she entered the café. She loved wearing them, so the autumn weather suited her perfectly. She took a glance around. Some familiar faces, some new ones, Angela busy behind the counter, Emily taking an order. But what caught her eye was Hana chatting with Brigitte, her drink just served. Curious.

It was times like these that she blessed becoming a freelance programmer. She always loved soap operas, but when it played out right before her eyes, it was so much more exciting. Whenever she could spare some time, she dove into the local gossip and blogged about it. Today was one of those times.

"Can I sit here?" she asked Brigitte, not really waiting for a response.

"Sure, of course." They both looked at her. Brigitte with her usual friendliness, Hana slightly miffed at the interruption.

She leaned forward, almost whispering: "So, what's with you two being friendly in here? Did Angela forget her no fraternisation rule?"

They both sighed. "Well, she's trying to be better about it, at least?" Brigitte replied. "The other day she came over to apologise for that whole thing. But five seconds later Fareeha decided to poke the bear. She can't help it sometimes."

"It has been a constant back and forth since then." Hana added. "Angela can't resist a challenge like that, and she's trying very hard not to be the one who blows up. Speaking of, I should get back to work. Anything you want to drink?"

Olivia got her usual, a black coffee with a dash of a local cherry brandy. Her mind was already racing with possibilities, all the directions this situation could develop from here. She got what she could out of Brigitte, then said she needed to go back to work. This was exciting.

 

***

 

Later that day, Angela went to get Missy back once again. In the square, she was met with the usual bustle. A group of Chinese tourists listened to a tour guide talk about the old town house, one of them refilling their bottle at the fountain. An American family left the gift shop, deciding where they want to write their postcards. Kids on the way home from school chased after the pigeons. A bicycle clattered and jingled across the cobbled street. Through all that, she only saw Fareeha when they stood right in front of each other, halfway between their cafés.

"Earth to Angela, have you noticed me yet?" Fareeha grinned. Missy sat in her arm, nuzzling her neck.

That must be comfortable, Angela thought. "Um, no, I couldn't see you behind the… smugity-smug." she said. Nice save, idiot.

A snort danced through Fareeha's face, pursing her lips, crinkling the nose, diverted away and released through bulged eyes. "If that's how it's gonna be, I'll just keep lil Mistletoe with me. It's not like she would willingly hang out with such a meanie."

No. Angela couldn't allow her such an easy victory. She had to stay calm. She put on her nicest customer service smile. "Ah, now you're openly trying to steal her away? I'm terribly sorry, but I can't allow that." 

She reached over to grab Missy, but Fareeha turned away, scritching the cat's head. One indignant mouthgape later, Angela went for it again, but Fareeha kept dodging. Angela made another attack, Fareeha escaped again. This went on for a minute or two, until Fareeha had her back against the fountain.

"Hah! Caught you!" Angela grinned and stepped quickly forward. Fareeha couldn't evade in time. The reaching hands landed on her shoulders. Their faces were only a few centimetres apart. Neither of them dared to make a move.

In that moment, Missy decided she had enough of this, jumped off and vanished into the crowd. They laughed it off.

Meanwhile, in one of the streets (roads? paths?) leading to the square, Olivia was leaning out of her window, camera in her hand. How lucky that I had it ready. This is definitely going on the blog.

 

***

 

Fareeha was awaited by the grinning faces of Lúcio and Zarya. Sigh.

"You has a fun dance out there, yes?" Zarya almost shouted from behind the counter. "Not much longer until a love confession, I think."

Fareeha rolled her eyes.

"You two looked ready to devour each other!" Lúcio chimed in. "And the only thing holding you back was the people around you!"

Fareeha rolled her eyes into the stratosphere.

"As long as I can be bridesmaid I approve." Zarya gave a thumbs up.

"Ooh, me too, me too!" Lucio almost hopped.

Fareeha rolled her eyes across the universe. "Yeah, yeah, I promise. Now get back to work, you scamps!"

Their repeated poking gave Fareeha occasional thoughts about a potential relationship. She wasn't necessarily against it, but in the current situation she just couldn't see it. They had a peace treaty, yes, but Angela was still acting awkward around her. Perhaps like a hyena with a hurt pride who wants to get it back by force. And her last couple dating attempts all fizzled out, so she's not really in the mood for another one. And with both of them owning coffee shops, how could it even work out? They would constantly correct each other on how to do things. Nah, this is just too impractical.

 

***

 

Angela was fuming. Her perfectly good saturday had been ruined. She stared at her phone, at the garish purple-pink gossip site. (Of course it was Hana who sent her the link. Who else could it be.) Somebody made a suggestive photo of their collision, and wrote a load of twaddle to accompany it. A romantic relationship? With her? About as likely as moon gorillas.

"Earth to Angela, please respond." Satya said.

"What?" She couldn't hold back a little scowl.

"There are customers, and I could use some help." Satya pointed at the list of orders. A small group of tourists had just come in. Angela sighed, put her phone away and got to work.

"You … your thoughts seem busy." Satya said, never stopping her hands.

"It's that damn website again. They just keep posting this … nonsense about me and Fareeha." Angela threw her hands in the air. "I wish they would just stop, but I have no idea how to make them."

Satya thought for a second. "Maybe, if you can't stop it, come to peace with it?"

"Come to peace with lies? How is that supposed to work?" Angela squinted at her.

“No, I mean, you’re always so tense around Fareeha.” Satya said. “She made you a peace offering. You accepted it, at least with your words. But despite that, you keep acting like she’s your rival. It seems to me like your heart hasn’t accepted the peace.”

Angela raised an eyebrow. “Well, even if that is the case, how is it connected to this gossip?”

Satya shrugged. “It’s simple, really. You don’t really know how you stand with Fareeha now, because you haven’t bothered to find it out. As a result, you are insecure about it, you fall into old patterns, and whenever there’s the suggestion that things might change, you get agitated.”

Angela scoffed. “Well, wouldn’t you get agitated if they speculated about your love life?”

Satya looked at her. “You can’t stop people from talking, whether it’s on a website or somewhere else. All I’m saying is, think about how you want to act towards Fareeha. Also, your cup is flowing over.”

“Oh shi-...!”

 

***

 

Angela couldn’t sleep. It had been a busy day behind the counter, and going through the week’s finances took longer than usual. Then she drowned herself in cheap food, cheap wine and cheap TV until she felt tired enough to go to bed. Despite that, she couldn’t close an eye.

She couldn’t forget Satya’s advice. They both had cafés, on the same square in the same town. Obviously their businesses are competing for the same audience. How did she take this and turn it into personal animosity?

She sighed and went to get a glass of water. She sneaked into the kitchen, as if not to wake anyone up. Who could even hear me? I live alone. The cups clattered against each other as she took one out, and the cupboard closed with a soft thud.

Would she be equally combative if someone else opened a café there? Perhaps. She was first on the square. Seven years ago on a summer day, drizzle, the air damp from the warm pavement, that’s when she opened her café. Well, she took it over from the previous owners, but with all her renovations it felt like a completely new place. Over time it grew into a second home, just like she wanted to. Some employees went and new ones came, but the place was always full of heart. This peace lasted for five years, until Fareeha opened her place.

She went on the balcony to get some fresh air. It was surprisingly warm for the season. The street lights gave everything a pale orange shimmer, and the moon was only a few days away from being empty. A cat walked through the streets below. She sat down on her chair. The wood was slightly cold, without distracting too much.

Fareeha never did anything to attract her ire. When her coffee shop opened, she sent invitations for coffee and cake to all surrounding shop owners. She greeted with a happy smile every time. Only few people radiate so much genuine warmth. Was it jealousy, perhaps? It would be the first time Angela noticed that in herself. Perhaps she should look closer at that next time they meet.

A car drove past, twirling up some leaves. A breeze went by, giving Angela slight chills. She had to choose between listening to distant sounds and curling up under a warm blanket. She decided for the latter, to at least try to keep up some sort of schedule. Thoughts could wait for another day.

 

***

 

The next day, Angela woke up to crows and gulls screeching loud enough to hear through her windows. The sun was already rising. She looked at her phone, 7:30. A bit early for a Sunday, perhaps. She turned over and tried to nap a bit longer. A vague memory of last night’s thoughts ran through her head. Was it still actually possible to turn this situation into something more positive, with all the things she has said? Her mind kept running in circles, any further sleep was impossible. She needed to clear her thoughts. A bath? A walk? A hike? Hiking sounded good.

An hour later, with a few improvised sandwiches and other snacks, her hiking boots freed of cobwebs, standing at the bottom station of the gondolas, Angela started her ascent. The first half she will walk, the second half ride up, she had decided. That was enough exercise to get some fresh air and let all worries go out, and at the end she would still get the nice view from the top.

The forest air was still chilly from the night, softened by the scent of pine. The crunch of her gravelly steps cut through the rustling of trees. She didn’t see anyone. The enthusiasts probably came much earlier, and the families would still take some time to get their kids ready. That was fine with her.

Her mind focused on pure observation. The damp air, a hint of fog shimmering through the distance. The small brook splashing through a hidden crevice. An occasional chirp or squeak or rustle or snapping twig. The gentle waves of moss across the ground. The way her muscles balanced her across the root-riddled soil. Her breathing, the bobbing of her body, the small pearls of sweat forming on her forehead. The gentle claps of her backpack’s loose straps.

The forest opened up and ended in an instant. The sun-warmed meadow and the smell of wild flowers embraced Angela gently. She opened her jacket. As she crossed over the next ridge, she saw the gondola’s middle station coming closer. She sat down on a bench, looking over the landscape below.

There was some sense of guilt in her chest, she didn’t exactly know where it came from. Of course Satya’s comments had something to do with it, but these things don’t usually affect her that much. She would think about them for half an evening, come to a rationalisation and be done with it. What was different this time, why did it not come so easy to her? Was it possible that --

“Well, hello there!” a familiar voice said behind her.

Angela turned her head around. Of course it was Fareeha. Who else could show up for a chance meeting when she wanted to be alone. She came over and sat down.

“Why are you here?” Angela asked, an eyebrow raised.

Fareeha chuckled. “This is how I usually spend my sunday. As far as I’m aware, you’re the one invading my territory.” She took a sip from her sports bottle.

“Oh, am I now?” Angela had to hold herself back from putting scorn into her words, so it just came out kind of awkward.

“Yes,” Fareeha gestured with her bottle, “so I’m much more justified to ask about you being here.”

Angela turned, resting one arm on the backrest. “Well, you won’t believe what I’m about to say, but I’m here to do some hiking.”

Fareeha grinned. “Ah, you want to conquer the peak as well?”

“Yes, that was the plan.” No, it wasn’t, but Angela couldn’t possibly back down from a challenge like this.

“Well then.” Fareeha put her bottle away. “We shouldn’t waste too much time if we want to get there for lunch. I’m already running a bit late today.”

They continued the ascent. Angela could already feel tomorrow’s legs aching.

Chapter Text

Fareeha watched the scene before her, lips twitching upward, dangerously close to smiling. She kept a good distance behind Angela after she realized that Angela struggled to keep up with her pace. Angela took one step for every one and a half of hers. By the time Angela’s cheeks glowed red, Fareeha decided to slow it down, considerably.

And another thing.

Because Angela kept looking back every so often, Fareeha had to tone down the amusement threatening to break free. Instead, she gave a small wave and a crooked grin every time their eyes locked, pressing her lips together when Angela would snap her head forward.

With enough time between keeping up appearances, Fareeha couldn’t help her wandering thoughts. By now, they could have been friends. They should have been friends. She had always shown Angela kindness and respect. Hell, she even liked Angela’s coffee. Hana would bring some on occasion, getting a rise out of serving the “enemy’s” brew to her crew.

Angela looked behind again, frown firmly set and hands clutching hard to the straps of her bag. She kept their gaze a little longer, blue eyes narrowing at the little wave Fareeha gave. She focused forward again.

What if Fareeha got out of the coffee game? She could convert her café to a juice shop. Make some quality juice.  Peach-strawberry would be her signature drink. Then she’d only be rivals with that health food store across town and she could bring Angela some tasty juice to mend their rocky relationship. Fareeha nearly snorted at the thought.

Tasty juice my ass.

Fareeha collided with something. She stepped back, eyes growing wide when she realized she bumped into a person. Angela, who looked at her with an ever-growing frown and had her arms crossed.

“Sorry about that,” Fareeha rubbed at her arm, “I should have paid more attention.”

“You’re messing with me.”

Fareeha blink. “Uh, come again?”

Angela squirted some water from her bottle into her mouth, wiping at the corner of her lips before speaking again. “You’re faster than me.”

“Well-”

“-But then suddenly you just decide to hang back and, and...”

“Because-”

Angela lifted her arms and waved her hands in the air, “-Stare!”

Fareeha raised a hand, index finger sticking up to help prove the point she had yet to explain. “I was not staring.” A pause. “Well, maybe-”

“-You made it seem like you were running late but now it’s like you have all the time in the world.” Angela crossed her arms again. “You’re messing with me.”

Don’t laugh. Don’t smile. “I’m not messing with you.” Fareeha feigned interest in a distant tree to keep her composure under control. That pout Angela had plastered on her face made Fareeha want to grin like crazy.

“Then what are you doing?”

Fareeha blushed. All of her explanations were incriminating. I noticed you were slower than me so I made it so you didn’t have to keep up. I was thinking about the state of our relationship. I found your reactions amusing so I might have stared a bit. “Uh.”

Angela shook her head. She turned away from Fareeha and continued down the trail.

Shit. Fareeha stumbled over her feet as she scrambled to catch up with Angela. She reached out and put a hand on Angela’s shoulder. “Hey, look. I’m sorry.” Relief flooded her veins when Angela stopped to listen. “I know we said we’d start over but this isn’t the way to do it.”

Angela’s frown lightened up a fraction. “No, it’s not.”

Fareeha braved a smile. “We’re almost at the peak, how about we eat lunch together and work on starting over?”

The corner of Angela’s lips twitched. She dropped her arms and let out a held breath. “Alright, yeah.”

***

At the peak, Angela found a patch of ground for her and Fareeha to have lunch. With no one in sight, it felt like they were alone. Taking her backpack off, Angela pulled out her food. Two small chicken curry sandwiches she made from leftovers, a little container of a cut-up apple, and a small bag of nuts and dried fruit to pair with the water she brought. She eyed Fareeha’s food. A big sandwich and two thermoses.

Satya’s words came to mind. Think about how you want to act towards Fareeha. The hike up there was a less than ideal show of how she wanted to act. Angela couldn’t shake off her competitive nature, to begin with. And then she got angry. But she didn’t have to stay that way, especially with Fareeha so willing to try.

“Want some?”

Angela looked up from the bag of mixed nuts in her hands at Fareeha’s question. Fareeha had a small paper cup held out for her to take. Coffee. Angela accepted the offered cup. She took a sip, enjoying the smell as the rim of the cup touched her lips.

“Still good?” asked Fareeha.

God, Fareeha was just too… Good. Angela breathed out a sigh. “Yeah.”

Silence. Thinking about how she’d act vs doing it were two different things. Angela could almost see it, the still soundwaves hanging awkwardly in the air while no one spoke a word.

And then Fareeha had to bring that up.

“Did you see the photos on that one site?” Fareeha stuffed as much sandwich into her mouth, unaware of the hanging jaw Angela sported.

“I… Did.”

“They were nice photos.” Another bite. “Don’t you think so?”

Angela felt the heat creeping up her face. Because there weren’t just photos. “About as nice as the writing that went with it.”

“Oh Angela, if you don’t kiss me right now, my heart will burst from all the pent-up love I have for you.” Fareeha put a hand to her forehead and faked a swoon. “That’s what they had me say, right?” Fareeha made no effort to hide her grin, unlike before on the trail.

“My darling, I could never leave you to such a fate.” The exaggerated words left Angela’s lips before she could truly think about what she was doing. She couldn’t help her smile when she heard Fareeha laugh at her line.

“It reads like one of those trashy romance novels set somewhere vaguely European.”

“The kind you only read by yourself at 3 AM because you know it’s bad but you just don’t care.”

Fareeha straightened up, grinning wide. “Yeah, and when someone finds it at your house, you have to lie about it being left by a friend.”

Angela checked out the space around them. She scooted closer to Fareeha and beckoned with her hand for Fareeha to lean in. Cupping her hand around her mouth, Angela spoke in Fareeha’s ear as if her words could only be heard by none other. “But then it turns out that same someone is reading that exact book.”

Backing away a bit, Fareeha looked at Angela with wide eyes and pressed lips trembling with a suppressed reaction. She leaned forward, bracing her arms against her thighs as she laughed. Tears streamed down her cheeks the longer it went on. “That-” Fareeha pressed an arm to her stomach, “that happened to me with my mother. She came to visit one day and found it on the kitchen counter. Not only had she read that one, she read the entire series. I was mortified for days.”

Maybe starting over wasn’t so bad.

Angela couldn’t hold in her laugh. In the same boat as Fareeha, Angela had to wipe at her eyes before speaking. “A friend found mine. Satya, she works with me. She only made one comment after opening it to where I placed my bookmark.”

“What’d she say?” Fareeha had her head propped up by her arm and leaned in slightly closer, eager to hear Angela’s response.

Angela cleared her throat. “I’m three chapters ahead of you.”

***

Fareeha couldn’t stop smiling. Lunch had gone great. They couldn’t stop talking once she broke the ice. She blurted the first thing that came to mind: that cheesy entry about them on that gossip site. It went surprisingly well. She thought that the hike down might revert to how it was earlier: silent, awkward, and filled with underlying tension. But it didn’t.

“So I told Missy, ‘Next time you tip over a customer’s drink, no more treats. Ever.’” Angela had stopped to wave a finger at a nearby chunk of rock to illustrate her story.

“Did she do it again?”

Angela gave a stretched smile. “She swats at sugar packets instead because she found out they crinkle.” A shrug. “It’s better than having to remake drinks.”

“My little Misfit causing so much trouble.” Fareeha laughed at the exaggerated roll of Angela’s eyes.

Angela opened her mouth, getting a syllable out before slipping on a patch of slick moss.

Fareeha’s eyes went wide. She chased after Angela’s tumbling form, grabbing onto her hand before she collided with a tree. The momentum lurched her forward but she bent her knees and dug her heels into the ground to keep her balance.

On her back, Angela had her eyes squeezed shut and her teeth clenched. Fareeha helped her up against the tree, worried eyes checking for visible injuries. A couple scrapes and minor bleeding on Angela’s arms. “Talk to me. Are you okay?” asked Fareeha.

Angela groaned.

Fareeha pulled off her bag and rummaged for the first aid kit she had. She grabbed it from the bottom of her bag with the tips of her fingers and yanked it free. “You think anything broke?”

Angela shook her head. “No, it’s my ankle. I think it’s sprained.” She untied the boot to her left foot and tried to pull it off. “Guess these old boots were more worn out than I thought.” Angela heaved out a sigh when her boot refused to budge.

Fareeha put the first-aid kit down beside Angela and reached for the stubborn boot. Loosening the laces, Fareeha widened the boot enough to pull the injured foot free. “Is it okay if I take a look?” At the quiet ‘yes’, from Angela, Fareeha pulled off Angela’s sock. Definitely swollen.

“Your foot’s not looking too good right now,” Fareeha opened her first aid kit and pulled out a roll of bandages, “but I’ll get you fixed up.” She worked on wrapping the foot, wanting to alleviate some of the pain as quickly as she could. When she finished, Fareeha had one question left for Angela. “Need me to carry you?”

Angela’s cheeks lit up red. She used the tree as support to help herself up. “No, no, I can walk.” As soon as she put pressure on her foot, she winced in pain. “As soon as I get some rest.”

Fareeha frowned. “And how long do you think that’ll take?”

“As long as it takes.” Angela sat down and found interest in the small patch of grass beside her, picking at the green blades with stiff movements.

“Angela… I’m not going to leave you here by yourself.”

Angela patted the ground beside her. “Then take a seat.”

Fareeha squatted down in front of Angela. She narrowed her eyes, staring at the defiant woman who refused to meet her gaze. “We’re getting out of here.” Her quick hands tossed Angela’s boot into Angela’s lap and then she scooped the other woman up into her arms.

“Put. Me. Down.” Angela tried to push away from Fareeha, finding that her actions practically did nothing. It was like being pelted by a teddy bear.

“Can’t do that.”

“I can walk back myself.”

“Uh-huh.”

“Fareeha.”

Fareeha stopped. She looked down at Angela and gave her a small frown. “Just enjoy the ride. We’ll be back in no time. Then I’ll put you down.”

Angela crossed her arms and looked away from Fareeha. “Fine.”

They were fine. Getting along. Having a good day. Fareeha had no idea why Angela suddenly clammed up but she was hellbent on fixing it.

“You know, if you offered to carry me, I would have said yes,” said Fareeha.

Angela pressed a hand to her face and snorted. “I doubt I could even do it.”

“Why not?”

“Just look at you.” Angela glanced at Fareeha before snapping her head back.

“Most hiking trails don’t have mirrors.”

Another laugh. “I mean, you’re built. And taller than me. And… And…”

“Incredibly good-looking?”

“Ye-” Angela slapped a hand over her mouth.

“What was that?” Angela totally said yes. Fareeha just wanted her to admit it.

“Nothing.”

“Could have sworn I heard you say yes.”

“Could have sworn I said nothing.”

Fareeha laughed and shook her head. “So, what, you’re saying I’m not incredibly good-looking?”

Angela pursed her lips and kept quiet.

“You know, silence tells me a lot.”

“Or silence is just silence.”

Fareeha shrugged as best she could with Angela in her arms. “Maybe.” Angela was a tough nut to crack. She switched tactics. “How built am I?”

Angela tapped her chest, suddenly caught in a coughing fit. “Fareeha.”

“Hm?”

“I said yes, happy? I do think you are very good-looking. Who wouldn’t?” Angela mumbled that last part under her breath.

Happy? Most definitely. But it was also Fareeha’s turn to go quiet. Her ears burned hot and her heart thrummed loudly in her throat. To say the least, Angela had caught her off guard.

***

Angela didn’t even try to hide the smirk she had at Fareeha’s silence. Served Fareeha right. Making Angela admit things she may have thought about on occasion. That is, when she wasn’t busy drumming up their, admittedly, one-sided rivalry.

Despite laughing at that ridiculous gossip post, Angela still had reservations about getting too close to Fareeha. It stirred up some feelings, feelings she very much tried to not have for Fareeha. And that was why she refused Fareeha’s offer at first. Angela had the terrifying thought that she might enjoy the experience and that certainly wouldn’t do. Fareeha proved persistent, as she always has, and there Angela found herself completely right: being in Fareeha’s arms was decidedly nice. Though, gaining the upper hand on Fareeha? Nicer.

A distant laugh brought Angela out of her thoughts. And then panic set in. They were almost at the bottom and there were people everywhere. She didn’t know exactly who posted those photos of her and Fareeha but it would be just her luck they decided to go for a hike too.

“Here is fine. I think I’m good to walk the rest of the way,” said Angela.

Fareeha raised an eyebrow. “I can take you to the train.”

Please don’t. “It’s okay, just put me down please.”

Fareeha set Angela down, keeping a supporting arm around Angela’s shoulders. “You sure you can walk?”

Angela put pressure on her bad foot and winced. She dropped her boot to the ground and gingerly slipped her foot inside, thinking that the support from the shoe might help with the pain. It helped a fraction. The best she could do was clench her jaw and bear it. “Yes, I can walk.” Angela ignored the worried eyes trained on her ankle and set on walking.

But she didn’t get too far.

Angela felt her ankle roll. Trying anything to keep herself from falling, Angela spun around and grabbed the nearest thing. Fareeha. Both of them went tumbling to the ground.

Pain. Lots of pain. But there was something else. Something soft and warm. Even with the unbearable pounding in her head, Angela managed to open her eyes. And she found Fareeha above her, eyes squeezed shut and her lips pressed against Angela’s.

Shit.

***

Olivia woke up that morning wanting to have a great day. Caught up on all her projects, she decided that some exercise wouldn’t kill her. Get some fresh air.

Or as it turned out, fresh gossip.

She couldn’t believe it. After hopping off the bus, she spotted Angela and Fareeha talking at the bottom of the peak. Olivia remembered all the buzz from her last post and grinned ear to ear. She brought her camera with her.

And what a great day she had.

A photo of an intimate picnic. A tender moment wrapping up an injured foot. Fareeha being chivalrous and carrying Angela the rest of the way down. And of course, the magnum opus: their passionate kiss.

She had no idea if any of that was true but as soon as Olivia got home, she made damn well sure that was the picture being painted.

Post ready to share, Olivia sat back in her chair and let out a relaxed sigh as she clicked on her bright pink upload button. “I love what I do.”

Her post already generated 50 hits. She got a laugh at the heart-eyes left as comments. Some of them remarked on the nice quality of the photos. Olivia managed to get close enough to get some good shots in.  

And now that she thought about it, there was one question left unanswered.

How come they didn’t notice her?

There were plenty of times where she stepped on a twig or alerted everything within a two-kilometer radius with how loud the crunch of dead leaves gave away her position. Hell, she even slipped a couple times trying to get a good angle.

Olivia shook her head. “Too busy noticing each other.”

After replying to a few comments and stretching her arms out, Olivia got out of her chair and grabbed her hoodie. The comments were nice but the true reward was the front row seat she had to watch it all unfold.

Olivia left a note for her roommate who never left her room during the day to text her if she needed anything. That woman hardly ever spoke, was probably an assassin for hire, and Olivia would always find a strand of that long hair on the couch. But damn was she hot. So Olivia never said a damn thing when she’d get a text that only said ‘rope’ or ‘duct tape’.

“Think I’ll pop in at Amari’s first.”

Locking the door behind her, Olivia headed out with the biggest grin on her face.

 

 

Chapter Text

Angela woke up to two missed calls from Lena, one from Emily, and three texts from Hana.

Uhh Angie

Have you seen this yet?

Dread pooled in Angela’s stomach. Oh no.

She tapped the link and hastily scrolled through purple paragraphs of text, and—

Fuck.

Peppered throughout the entry were photos of that day: a picture of them eating sandwiches on the grass, one of Fareeha wrapping up Angela’s ankle, another of her carrying Angela in her arms.

But it was the photos of their “kiss” Angela lingered on. In the first, they had been captured from a profile view: Angela’s visible eye was open in surprise, lips unmistakably pressed against Fareeha’s face, in the spot where her cheek met her mouth. Fareeha’s brows were furrowed, likely in concern, though Angela could see how one might read it as passion with context stripped away.

In the second, Fareeha’s eyes were closed reflexively. Her arm was raised but cropped out of frame, leaving it ambiguous where her hand rested, but there was a lingering suggestion that it wound around Angela’s back in a comforting embrace.

Angela stared at the fine hairs that lined Fareeha’s hairline, the faint freckles visible on her own cheeks. How on earth had someone taken photos so high definition from a place far enough away Angela hadn’t noticed them?

Their timing was… as impeccable as Angela’s was unfortunate.

She knew, theoretically, that she should be angry, but at whom?

Herself? Her eyes wandered to her still-swollen ankle. Possibly.

Fareeha?

She saw her easy smiles in the back of her mind: the little spark she’d get in her eyes when she dealt out a tease or told a bad joke. Angela’s chest deflated.

No—not anymore.

An anonymous blogger with too much time on their hands?

Angela let her head fall back against the pillow and groaned in the back of her throat.

She had a shift this morning.

***

Normally, when Angela opened on Saturday mornings, she had enough time to leisurely make her own cup of coffee (and maybe play some music to pump herself up) before customers began to trickle in.

Today she barely had time to assemble the machinery before a line formed at the counter.

By 11, the line nearly stretched to the door, and she couldn’t even afford to stop making drinks long enough to bus the tables. She winced every time she fast-walked behind the counter to make an espresso shot or open a new carton of milk, her still-tender ankle protesting angrily.

During the slight lunch-time lull, Angela propped her phone up with her shoulder while feverishly wiping the counters. Mercifully, Lena picked up on the second ring.

“Do you mind coming in for a few hours?” Angela asked. “I don’t think I can handle this myself, with my ankle…”

“I’ve got ya, boss.”

Angela exhaled in relief. “Thanks, Lena.” She looked through the glass of the shop’s walls. “Is there an event in town today? I’ve never seen it this busy on a Saturday.”

“Don’t think so. Pretty sure that local blog has just given you some publicity.”

“Gopfertammisiech,” Angela muttered.

She could hear the grin in Lena’s voice. “You should go on dates with Fareeha more often.”

“It wasn’t a d—”

Then Angela paused, gears suddenly turning. The cleaning cloth went limp in her hands.  If… she frowned. Well…

Could they…?

“I’ll be there in ten,” Lena said, and Angela snapped herself back to the present.

When they hung up, Angela rung the cloth out in the sanitizer bucket and left the counter to retrieve some used dishes from the tables.

She would need to talk to Fareeha this evening.

***

Fareeha was glad she had Zarya working with her that day; the shop had been uncommonly busy in the morning and afternoon.

But before long, the sun began to set, and the dark bite of evening settled into the air. The flow of customers began to dwindle until only one woman remained in a corner, dutifully punching away on a keyboard.

As the shop fell into a habitual quiet, Fareeha had more and more time to think about Angela.

She had only just made some strides building their friendship; she had coaxed a few genuine, eye-crinkling laughs out of Angela, and the ever-present frown she wore in Fareeha’s company had noticeably softened.

But now…

She feared the chasm between them would widen again, out of her arms’ reach.

Angela tumbling downhill replayed in her mind over and over. Though she doubted she could have convinced Angela to not join her on the hike even if she’d tried, she couldn’t help but feel partly responsible for her injuries. She hadn’t been wearing proper footwear. Fareeha let herself sigh; she hoped Angela wasn’t working herself too hard today.

Zarya placed a large hand on Fareeha’s shoulder. “What’s wrong, Amari?”

Fareeha blinked, realizing she had stopped washing the dishes minutes ago. “Just… worried about Angela.”

Zarya took a moment to apparently mull this over. “I’m sure she’s doing fine, now that you kissed her better,” she grinned.

Fareeha tossed a dish towel in Zarya’s direction and rinsed a few dirty spoons before plopping them into the washing sink. She continued to absently sterilize until interrupted by the ring of the shop’s bell a few minutes later. The dishes were forgotten at the sight of a weary but purposeful Angela limping into the store.

Fareeha eyed Zarya then, who winked and waved her hand noncommittally, giving her permission to leave.

Fareeha dried her hands on her apron and fumbled to untie it before she reached the door.

“Fareeha,” Angela said, searching her eyes.

“I know.”

Angela scanned the room. “Walk with me?”

Fareeha held the door for her as they left the shop. She watched Angela limp in concern. “You don’t want to find someplace to sit?”

“Just not in the café,” she admitted quietly. “I don’t live far from here—we could walk to my apartment.”

Fareeha raised a brow. “How long is the walk?”

“Just twelve minutes or so.”

Fareeha eyed her ankle skeptically. “Let me drive you home.”

Angela’s shoulders slumped a little. “Fine.”

Fareeha opened her mouth and then closed it; she’d been prepared for a stubborn refusal. Almost afraid to say anything in case she ruined this rare moment, she helped Angela into the car silently.

After one left turn and one right, they pulled into Angela’s blue-grey apartment complex. Fareeha parked in a visitor spot and Angela pressed the button for the third floor once they got into the elevator.

Fareeha tapped her leg as they waited in silence. A dozen possibilities of what Angela might want to talk about came to her mind, none very conducive to a budding friendship. There was a very real possibility that Angela might want distance, perhaps permanently. Her heart sped up at that.

When had she become so invested in this?

She followed Angela into the hallway when they reached her floor, stopping when Angela stopped, watching her take her keys out of her blouse pocket and open the door.

She accompanied Angela inside and found a simply decorated apartment with some usual lived-in clutter; a couple of blankets were crinkled on the couch, and a few dishes were stacked in the sink. There was a faint smell of something spiced, like a candle had been left on the day before.

Missy emerged from a green-roofed cat bed and rubbed against Fareeha’s calf as they entered the living room. “I usually take her home on Friday nights and bring her back for the Saturday morning shift, but I had to leave her here today,” Angela explained. “Wasn’t sure I could handle her and the customers with my ankle.”

Fareeha pet the cat’s short fur while Angela put the kettle on. Fareeha got up from her crouch and sat down on the couch eventually; Missy hopped up and curled beside her.

“Is mint alright?” Angela asked, pouring hot water into two mugs.

Missy blinked slowly at Fareeha, as if awaiting her response. “Mint is great.”

Angela placed the two mugs on the low table in the living room and sat down on an armchair across from Fareeha.

“So.”

“So?” Fareeha ventured.

“Did you notice that our shops were particularly busy today?”

Whatever Fareeha had expected her to open with, it wasn’t that. “Yeah, actually. Thought there might have been a game going on at city centre, or a big concert or something—”

Angela swallowed her sip of tea. “There wasn’t.” Her eyes strayed to the kitchen behind Fareeha. “That blog gave us some local publicity.”

Fareeha ran a hand through her hair and laughed a little nervously, unsure where she was going with this. “I see.”

Angela fiddled with the handle of her mug. “I was thinking we could… use that publicity. I mean, competition will only grow stiffer with the American chains that have been opening in the area, and a lot of local places are struggling. It’s pretty harmless in the long run, isn’t it? And it would only help both of us...”

Fareeha blinked, and something clicked into place. “So you’re saying…”

“Yes.”

“Honestly Angela? I thought you were going to tell me you didn’t want to see me anymore.” Fareeha laughed, partly in relief. “You want me to pretend we’re publicly dating for business.”

“Yes?”

She eyed Angela sitting across from her, in a blouse with the first few buttons undone, flyaways framing her face from the bun she would have put in hours ago. She wore a small smile that was equal parts hopeful and hesitant and Fareeha was weak.

Very, very weak.

“Sure,” she heard herself say.

 

Fuck.

 ***

Angela was a little out of breath by the time she opened her apartment’s door the following Thursday; she hadn’t quite finished curling her hair when Fareeha had texted that she’d arrived.

Fareeha stood in her hallway as promised, in a black blazer, white button-up shirt, and black pants. She smiled at Angela. “You look nice.”

Angela had spent some extra time on her appearance that evening: applying her lipstick just so and rummaging around in her closet for a dress that was a little nicer than something she might normally wear. “Thank you,” she smiled, reaching out to adjust the left side of Fareeha’s collar, which was slightly folded over, taking a moment to appreciate Fareeha dressed up. “So do you.”

Fareeha waggled her brows. “Can I buy you a cup of coffee?”

Angela bit down a grin as she took Fareeha’s arm. “Very funny.”

When they left the apartment complex, Fareeha removed her arm and offered Angela her hand. Angela tangled their fingers together, finding Fareeha’s hand softer than expected.

“What hand lotion do you use?” Angela asked.

Fareeha blinked. “Hm?”

Angela couldn’t see a way to backpedal from this. Her cheeks burned. “I just mean... how do you keep your hands so soft? Mine are always getting rough and dry from cleaning the shop.”

“The key is not making the soap-water solution too strong. Strong enough to sanitize, but weak enough to not cause too much drying of the skin.”

Angela hummed, feigning nonchalance while trying to will her heartrate down. “I’ll remember that.”

Their reservation was at a nearby restaurant: one in the same square as the cafés and unlikely to be missed by onlookers. It had been over a week since the incident, and Angela’s ankle was good enough to walk the 12 minutes with minimal limping. She was glad to have Fareeha beside her, even so; her tall, muscular frame lent her an impression of sturdiness that was admittedly comforting.

It almost felt too easy to act natural: Fareeha’s hand fit comfortably in hers, and Fareeha would occasionally touch the small of Angela’s back when they broke hands to press for a stoplight.

Angela blamed the warmth in her chest on her long-standing lack of a dating life.

The atmosphere of the restaurant was quiet enough for easy conversation; they talked about business, Missy, the recent finale of a TV show they had both watched and conspired about the owner of the infamous blog.

“What if it’s someone we know?” Fareeha wondered aloud. “An inside job.”

Angela snorted, thinking about her employees. “Though Lena has been badgering me about my lack of a dating life, I don’t think she’s invested in it enough to do something like this.”

“I don’t think anyone working at my shop could be this inconspicuous. Maybe Brigitte, but.. I still can’t see it.” Fareeha bit down a smile. “Speaking of her… Hana and Brigitte are dating now, apparently.”

“Are they really?” Angela grinned. “Hana never told me.”

Fareeha shrugged apologetically. “I don’t think she expected a positive reaction.”

Angela gestured in Fareeha’s direction, laughed. “It would be hypocritical of me to say much about it now, at least openly.”

Fareeha was quiet for a moment, studying Angela as she scraped the last remnants of her risotto. “What do you like to do, Angela? Outside of work.”

Angela swallowed her spoonful of rice. “I like reading medical journals. I play the piano. I… have a lot of plants.”

“Medical journals,” Fareeha echoed thoughtfully, as if filing that away. “Huh.”

“It’s always been an interest,” Angela said. “What about you?”

“Well… I like playing basketball and the guitar, and… I’m interested in nature photography.”

Angela leaned forward as she placed her spoon down. “What do you take photos of?”

“Birds and landscapes. Sometimes people’s dogs—I’m kind of a dog person. Though Missy is an exception.”

Angela pressed her lips together. “Of course.”

Fareeha grinned. “Do you still resent me for that?”

Angela just shook her head. “Maybe one day you’ll get a dog and he’ll love me more than you. And then we’ll reach an equilibrium.”

“As long as he loved me too, I wouldn’t mind.” Fareeha licked her lips, met Angela’s eyes. “Might even mean I get to see you more.”

Angela lowered her jaw as if to speak, but unfortunately for her, words did not come out.

“Just getting into character,” Fareeha mouthed, punctuating her point with a wink.

Angela cleared her throat, trying to regain a semblance of composure as she scanned the room for employees. Fareeha had caught her off guard. “I admire your dedication,” she managed as she spotted a waiter and politely flagged him down.

The waiter greeted them as he approached their table. “Together or separate?” he asked.

“Together,” Angela said. “It’s on me.”

Fareeha met her eyes. “You sure?”

The waiter left to retrieve the bill, and Angela looked around and then lowered her voice to a whisper. “It’s for all the shit I made you put up with.”

Fareeha laughed. “I like this a lot better.” She paused, realized what she was implying. “I mean—not,” she lowered her voice, “pretending to date necessarily but,” she scratched her cheek, “I like when I can talk to you without it turning into a competition.”

“I’m sorry it took so long.” Angela’s voice remained quiet. “Thank you for being patient with me.”

Fareeha thought about all the times Angela had smiled that night, how good it felt to be the reason for them. “It was wor—”

“How would you like to pay?” The waiter asked; ah, Fareeha hadn’t noticed he’d come back.

They left the restaurant not long after; Angela stopped Fareeha at a small park on the way back to her apartment. Angela was slow and deliberate enough that Fareeha knew exactly what she was doing before she even leaned up and pressed her lips gently to Fareeha’s cheek.

She laughed into her hand almost immediately afterwards. She gestured to Fareeha’s cheek. “I’m sorry.”

“Oh.” Fareeha reached up to touch her cheek and felt the tell-tale tackiness of lipstick. Words melted before they left her brain. “It’s… okay.”

“I don’t usually wear it.”

“It looks… nice,” Fareeha managed.

Angela handed her a tissue from her bag. “Looks nice on you, too.”

Angela turned on her heel and strolled away, and Fareeha questioned multiple life choices as she smeared lipstick all over her burning cheek.

***

Everyone’s Favourite Rivals-To-Lovers Smooch in the Park…

For the first time so far the blog almost made Angela grin. A photo of a confounded-looking Fareeha with lipstick on her cheek had been captured from what looked like the other side of the street.

Perhaps Angela had enjoyed the date a little too much, but she was just… deprived of romantic affection—that was all.

“What are you smiling about?” Emily grinned, elbows resting on one of the shop’s counters. “How’s your new girlfriend?”

Angela swallowed her bite of sandwich and concealed a frown. They’d never actually agreed how far along they were in their “relationship.”

“She’s… not my girlfriend yet,” she decided.

Yet,” Emily echoed with a laugh.

Angela tapped her hands on the table, smiled distantly; guilt crept up her chest. It was sweet her and Lena were happy for her, but… she just wished it wasn’t a ruse.

For their sake.

(Of course.)

***

The shop was indeed busier than usual the day after the blog’s latest post, but Fareeha couldn’t bring herself to look at the entry more than once. She’d been trying her best to swallow the odd ache in her chest until she closed up shop for the day and got home.

“So?” Brigitte asked, leaning against the counter with her sleeves rolled up. It was nearing eight in the evening, and the day’s flow of customers was slowly dwindling.

Fareeha blinked, putting down the piece of the espresso machine she’d been cleaning. “So?”

Brigitte nudged her arm. “You’re not going to tell us about your date?”

“Date?” Lúcio popped out from behind the sink corner, the green apron he’d tied around his waist spotted with dish water.

“Haven’t you seen the blog?” Brigitte raised a brow. “The long and short of it is—Fareeha has a thing for cat women who are always angry at her.”

“She’s not… I don’t...” Fareeha took a deep breath. “Angela and I got off on the wrong foot, but... she’s a good person.” Her eyes strayed beyond the front glass walls of her shop, trying not to sound too wistful. “And I like her a lot.”

Lúcio grinned. “Sounds like ‘Reeha’s pining.”

A customer approaching the counter mercifully saved Fareeha from having to think of a reply.

***

Fareeha happened to pass by Angela’s shop on the way back from the market early the next morning.

She found herself glad she’d briefly peeked into the glass walls, as the sight currently in front of her was more entertaining than she ever could have hoped for.

Angela jumped from side to side behind the shop’s counter, rolling her shoulders in time with some silent beat. She rotated her torso and moved her forearms in a circle like wheels of a train. She then placed her arms in front of her, flipped her hands palms-up, and…

Was… she doing the macarena?

Fareeha couldn’t help her laughter when she cupped her behind with her hands and swayed. After a few moments, Fareeha waved from behind the glass sheepishly, trying to get into Angela’s field of vision.

Angela eventually spotted her, eyes widening in horror. She laid her head against her forearms on the counter to hide her face, but Fareeha could see her shake with laughter. Cute.

Once she appeared to collect herself, she walked to the door and stepped out.

“Nice moves,” Fareeha grinned.

“Didn’t think there was anyone else around,” she said, out of breath but smiling.

Fareeha pinched the collar of her shirt and lifted. “You’re not the only dolt who opens early in the morning.”

Angela laughed wryly, rubbed her eyes with a thumb and forefinger. “I suppose I deserve to be reminded of that.” She took Fareeha’s arm and gave it a gentle squeeze. “I’m behind on setting up and customers will be here soon, but… I’m sure I’ll see you around?”

“Of course.” Fareeha smiled. “Have fun.”

She took Angela’s hand and lifted her own arm above her, looking at Angela expectantly. Angela laughed when she realized what Fareeha was doing, twirling underneath with a flourish.

She placed her hand on Fareeha’s chest to study herself afterwards, lingering long enough to lean up and press a kiss to her cheek, this time sans lipstick. Her touch was soft and gentle, and she pulled away with a smile. “Just staying in character,” Angela explained, mirth in her bright, variegated eyes, and Fareeha didn’t trust herself to speak steadily.

This woman was going to kill her.

***

Fareeha’s finger hovered over the call button.

Her eyes strayed to the window. A blinking light passed over the darkened sky; a lone car swept by, and raindrops drizzled lazily down the pane.

She stared at the name on her contact list. Telling anyone else she knew would mean immediately having to give up her ruse…

According to her time app, it was 11 in the morning in Hawaii, which meant she would be awake, but not busy with lunch yet, either…

Fareeha finally tapped to dial, hoping this wouldn’t be something she’d regret.

She picked up on the third dial tone. “Well, well, Fareeha. You don’t usually call me at this time. How are you? How’s the shop?”

“The shop is great.” Fareeha slumped into the armchair in her living room. “I’ve been better.”

Ana hummed in sympathy. “What’s wrong, habibti?

Fareeha paused. “I haven’t told you much about Angela, have I?”

“Angela?” Ana asked, voice raised in interest, and Fareeha could envision her settling in with her cup of tea. “The shop-owner who doesn’t like you?”

“She runs the coffee shop on the other side of the square.” She tapped her fingers on the armchair. “Some things have… changed, between us.”

“Oh?”

“Some local gossip blog made up some story about us falling in love. Was pretty ridiculous, but it got us a lot of business. Angela had the idea of… running with it to keep increasing business, and…”

“You agreed to pretend to be with her, knowing that you already loved her?”

“Ye— No ,” Fareeha stammered. “I never even said .. .” Ana was pointedly silent, and Fareeha sighed and submitted to her fate; she had chosen to call her mother, after all. “I haven’t been able to talk to anyone else about it because everyone here is supposed to think I’m already dating her.”

Fareeha tried her best to explain the awkward saga of dating but not really dating , Angela’s rather confusing signals, the uncertainty of not knowing what was real and what was for show.

“Talk to her, Fareeha.”

Fareeha rubbed her eyes with the heels of her palms. “I know.”

A pause. Fareeha heard waves crashing in the background on Ana’s end, and she smiled despite herself; she was probably sitting on the beach.

“When did you change your mind about her?” Ana asked.

“Honestly… I never really disliked her,” Fareeha admitted. “It was more that Angela changed her mind about me. She was quite… protective of her business.”

“You should bring her over here when you start actually-dating.”

“You’re awfully optimistic.”

“You said she kissed you twice?” Ana clicked her tongue. “Hopeless.”

Technically, it was three times, but… Fareeha rubbed her temples. It was true that nobody had been around that last time; Angela couldn’t have had ulterior motives.

‘Just getting into character.’

Fareeha had said that first as little more than a thin excuse to flirt harmlessly. She wasn’t expecting to hear it mirrored back at her: after a kiss, no less.

Maybe her heart had been tainted by past dating experiences; maybe the possibility of Angela wanting to go on a real date with her wasn’t so outlandish.

Fareeha said goodnight to Ana and leaned her head against the back of the armchair. She knitted her fingers together and exhaled gently.

Maybe she could let herself hope.