The words “Under Construction” taunt Lena, as she peers pathetically into the closed café which has become a staple in her life and the sole reason she’s allowed Jessica to talk her into taking an afternoon break and a walk (doctor’s orders be damned). Even the promise of the premises reopening in two days does nothing to lift Lena’s mood, as she stares inside like a child forced to window shop at a chocolate store. She inhales deeply and swears she can smell the arabica as the roasting machine is dismantled before her eyes. RIP.
There’s no vigor in her step, as Lena drags herself along her well-worn path back to the office. Is an afternoon without a perfectly prepared cup of coffee really worth living? Probably not, but Lena’s lifelong companion, a steady level of ennui that’s left an emotional footprint in Lena’s heart best depicted by the visuals of Kansas in the Wizard of Oz, isn’t as important as finding an injection of caffeine prior to her 2 PM board meeting. Without it, she’ll have her mind on murder and murder on her mind. Truthfully, even with it, her mindset will be the same, but the combination of exhaustion and a growing headache might well trigger her latent ‘stabby-stabby’ Luthor gene.
“L-Corp, Lena Luthor’s office. This is Jessica speaking. How may I assist you?” Jess replies professionally, picking up on the first ring.
“Jess, it’s Lena. I need… Wait, doesn’t caller ID tell you it’s me who’s calling?”
“Of course it does, Miss Luthor?”
“Then why did you answer the phone like that?”
“It’s company policy. Would you like that amended?”
Lena pinches the bridge of her nose as she sighs. “Never mind. Jess, the café was closed. I need a cup of coffee.”
“I’m so sorry, Miss Luthor. I should have verified there was no change to their usual schedule before you wasted your time.”
“Jess, stop. You’re in no way responsible for this. I’m coming up on L-Corp now. Just have one waiting on my desk by the time I get upstairs. There’s no way I can face the board without,” the reflection off her building of a waving flag emblazoned with a single, oversized bean causes Lena to stop and turn, “coffee.”
“Of course, Miss Luthor. It will be waiting for you.”
How long has a coffee shop been across the street from L-Corp, and why is Lena only noticing it today? She walks the same path most days except on the weekends (although she spends most of those at work), yet she’s never given this place a second glance. It seems a more efficient option than putting on sneakers and walking a half mile, each way, to her usual place. The coffee can’t be that much better at another café.
“Maybe the flag’s new.”
“Oh, that’s all Jess. I’ll be there in a few minutes. Thank you.”
Lena allows the promise of caffeine to lead her across the street to a place called ‘Roasted’ which, besides the waving flag, does not otherwise advertise its purpose. An odor like coffee blasts Lena in the face as she enters
“Welcome to Roasted,” says the bubbly brunette that greets Lena at the counter. “You’re new, aren’t you?”
“I feel very old,” Lena mumbles before flashing her best business smile and replying, “I’m a first time customer, yes.”
“Well, that’s awesome,” says the barista with entirely too much enthusiasm to be faked. If not for the refreshing sincerity, it would be annoying. “What can we get you today, ma’am?”
“Coffee large, black, hot, to go, please.”
“Really?” It’s either Lena’s raised eyebrow or general ‘I would cut a bitch’ demeanor that has the woman nodding and grabbing a cup. Either way, she’s getting her coffee without further discussion, and that deserves a reward, so Lena shoves $5 into the tip jar and waits. She doesn’t have to wait long for the full coffee cup to be exchanged for her credit card which is run through but held tauntingly out of reach on the other side of the counter. “Oh, I almost forgot. New customers get a free baked good. What would you like?”
Lena wiggles the fingers on her extended hand back toward herself. “Just the coffee, thank you.”
“Really?” The woman says again, but this time the incredulous tone is gone, and a sudden disappointment takes over and extends into the words, “but my friend and I make them. They’re really good. I promise.”
What kind of a monster would disappoint such an eager young woman? A Luthor, that’s what, and that’s the kind of person Lena has promised herself she will never be. “Ummm, a shortbread cookie, please,” Lena says after examining the selection of fatty danishes and frosted goodies and finding the one that would least offend her inner critic.
One cookie on a napkin, along with her credit card, is placed on the counter. The barista, Nia based on her name badge, stares so hopefully with a ‘look at the grade that I got on my test, Mother’ expression that Lena can’t refuse and takes a bite. The cookie is warm and slightly soft without being undercooked. It’s a bit sweeter than what Lena has grown accustomed to, but it’s not unpleasant. Overall, if she grabbed this from the dessert buffet at a function, she’d be pleasantly surprised.
“This is excellent.” The resulting smile would be worth it even if it wasn’t true.
“Thank you. We make a selection, fresh several times a day. You just missed the lunch rush so good timing. They’re actually more popular than the coffee.”
“Well, that’s a surprise. Have a nice day.”
“You too. Hope to see you back soon. Have a great day.”
Lena is halfway to the door when she takes a sip of her coffee that only years of etiquette training allow her to swallow instead of spray across the room. So many questions, from ‘Why didn’t Jess tell her about this place?’ to ‘How can the coffee in a café be less popular?’, are immediately answered by her rebellious taste buds. The liquid is such a curious mix of dishwater bland and bowels of Hell burnt acridity that she stills, waiting to see if that voice inside her that’s screaming, ‘Poison,’ is right, and this is the way she dies.
Thirty seconds later, Lena is willing to admit she’s being melodramatic, and she, if not all of her taste buds, will survive this harrowing experience. She pulls back the lid of her cup, half expecting to find a dismembered finger bobbing within the pitch (none is present), and chances a sniff. It smells burned and not just conference reheated. This is beans straight from the crematorium, charred beyond recognition of their original nature. This liquid is only good for two things: cleaning the grout and serving to her mother (though it may have already been used for the former).
“Is everything alright?”
Lena nods at the barista, fully intent on dropping this abomination in the nearest trash receptacle on her way back to work, but she simply can’t let it go. The knowledge that someone after her will share in the fate she just suffered tugs at Lena’s carefully nurtured morality, so she heads back to the counter. “Actually, is a manager available?”
“Oh, um, did I do something wrong?”
Dear Lord in Heaven, how was Lillian Luthor so heartless to a child when an anxious adult softens Lena like this. “No, you were perfect. This has nothing to do with your service, I assure you.” Lena pulls out a $20 and shoves it in the tip jar like a fine for inadvertent emotional abuse. “I just have a question for the manager. It will be quick. Promise.”
After a wide-eyed check of the tip cup, Nia manages to nod and wander away to the back.
Lena finds herself alone, sniffing at the coffee again. Instead of the lightest hint of cinnamon as she usually finds, this smells more like regret.
“Is there a problem, ma’am? The manager isn’t here, but I’m the supervisor.”
“Actually, it’s this—” Oh.
Where the other barista was attractive in a harmless but not her type generic female way, this newcomer damn well may be the cutest bespectacled blonde she's ever laid eyes upon. Hairs have pulled free of a ponytail to frame a tan face. Though pursed in concern, full, pink lips take Lena a full three count to tear her gaze away from only for her to get lost in blue eyes in which she’d like to be lost forever.
The woman adjusts her tortoiseshell glasses and says, “Ma’am?”
“Oh, I’m sorry. It’s just… I um…” Lena holds up her coffee since she seems unable to create an actual sentence.
“Did we get your order wrong?” After peering into the cup, the blonde brings the coffee to her own lips, pausing for permission, but Lena is too busy staring at that mouth to do anything else. After a small sip, a crinkle appears between the blonde’s brows, and Lena just may melt at how adorable that is. “No sugar. Sorry about that, m’am. I can make you a new one. How do you take it?”
Lena’s gaze is frozen to where the edge of the pink lipstick stain on the cup touches her own ‘sinfully scarlet’ shade. Like being dragged by wild horses, Lena’s imagination takes off to parts not PG-13. It’s only when the silence becomes uncomfortable that she manages to say, “Um… black.”
“This is black.” The woman glances into the cup again. “Isn’t it?”
“Yes, yes it is,” Lena replies, having regained control of her brain that allows her to process language. “The cookie, it’s good. Delicious.”
And if Lena thought those lips looked good before, she was wrong. Even now, she’s considering and reconsidering dozens of harebrained schemes to keep that smile around.
“Golly, thanks. Nia and I, you already met Nia, she and I do all of the baking here. We both had a bunch of recipes from our moms, so we decided to try them out on customers. They seem to like them. So,” she says slowly, “what can I do for you?”
“Right, I asked for a manager. Um… can I get more cookies?”
“Oh, sure. Thanks for letting us know you liked that one. You’re a new customer, right?” As she steps back behind the counter and pulls on gloves, the woman glances up at Lena and smiles, shyly. “I definitely haven’t seen you here before. I’d remember.”
And the game is afoot.
“It’s my first time,” Lena says, feeling more confident and at home now that she has her bearings, “but it won’t be my last.”
“That’s how we trap you, the free cookie. So, just one more of those?”
“What? Oh, the cookie. No give me three… dozen. Mix and match them, please. I like to be surprised.”
“I can manage that,” the blonde says. “I’m full of surprises.”
“I bet you are,” Lena mumbles while her cookies are boxed up, so distracted by this woman that she sips at her coffee again. Unsurprisingly, time has not improved it.
Lena ends up bustling back into her office at five minutes before the board meeting o’clock.
“I thought you were coming right back,” Jess says, as she trails after Lena. “I almost sent security to look for you three different times but—”
“It’s fine. I’m fine. Everything’s fine,” Lena says as she drops the box of sweets onto the tablet in Jess’s hands. “I bought these for you.”
“Thank you, Miss Luthor. That was… very thoughtful of you. I see you already got a coffee so—”
“No, I didn’t.” Lena places the cup on her desk, twisting it so that the twin lipstick stains are shielded from the doorway’s line of sight and her assistant. “I hadn’t meant to be gone so long but I… I lost track of time.”
“For over an hour,” Jess says, suddenly very interested in the red and white string that ties the box closed when Lena glares at her. “I printed out your notes, and I had an urn of coffee sent up to the conference room.”
“Thank God,” Lena mutters, kicking her sneakers under the desk and pulling on her heels.
“I’ll get rid of that,” Jess says when Lena reaches for the porcelain mug of coffee on her desk.
But Lena takes a sip. It’s cold and not like a well-prepared cup of iced coffee, but it’s caffeine and a promise that decent beverages still exist in this world. “Bliss,” she says, entirely unironically as she relaxes at that first sip. “Where are my notes?”
Jessica holds out a file folder. “I took an opportunity to read through the contracts and add notations to the margins for your attention. Is there anything else I can do, Miss Luthor?”
“Never leave me,” Lena replies with entirely too much pep considering how she loathes board meetings. She takes a swallow of the coffee and holds up the cup as she walks past Jess. “There’s more of this ambrosia in the boardroom?”
Jess scurries after her. “Yes, Ma’am. It’s hot though.”
“Heaven,” Lena says, though her mind is somewhere else, on someone who might be an actual angel hidden behind tortoiseshell framed glasses. She means to find out.
Though L-Corp is closed the next day, it doesn’t stop Lena from heading in at her usual hour. The weekend commute is always quicker and less stressful, her chance to grab one of her numerous cars, many older-model fixer uppers that she’s fixed up, and drive herself into work. The building is abandoned except for the maintenance crew and security, but outside of a few greetings as she passes by, Lena is otherwise left unaccosted by coworkers. No one is needy, no phones are ringing, and her schedule is filled with one word: research.
It’s Lena’s ‘me’ time, the point in her week when not even Jess is around to remind her to take a break. She’ll often hunker down with a selection of protein bars, nuts, and dried fruit as she works until the sun disappears and the city wakes up for a night of fun. Then she’ll keep working. Ignoring the clock and the signals of one’s own body is half the fun of losing oneself in the research. That’s why it’s a bit surprising when the afternoon comes around, and Lena finds herself craving not tea but a good cup of coffee… or a bad one.
The doubletake the guards at the front do at her passing just proves how unprecedented Lena’s little mid-day, weekend jaunt is. She wiggles her fingers in greeting as she passes their confused faces, smiling happily as she crosses the street in her casual weekend workwear of jeans and a button down. Her easy progress comes to a sudden end as she enters the café.
People are lined up from the register to nearly the door, and others mill about idly looking at their phones when they aren’t staring expectantly at the counter. Kara (Lena has learned the blonde’s name and several other salient facts yesterday when she was blowing off preparing for her board meeting) rushes back and forth from the register to the coffee station to the snack cases and back to the register again, fulfilling orders at an impressive speed. When the blonde catches sight of Lena and pauses in her Olympic leveling baristing to smile, Lena’s heart soars.
It takes Lena several minutes to reach the counter and catch Kara’s eye on the blonde’s next fly-by. “Are you here alone?”
“Nia has a family emergency, something about her mother. I’m not sure. No one could cover so… yeah.” Kara says before jetting away and coming back a minute later to fold a box as she prepares to fill it with sweets. “Sorry, but it’s going to be a few minutes. This is not a one person job.”
“Is there any way I can help?”
Kara’s chuckles, but instead of the light giggle from yesterday that Lena has found so enchanting, this has a touch of mania. “Sure, grab an apron. You’re hired.” When an alarm goes off on her phone, her eyes widen and she adds, “I’ll be right back with fresh muffins. Stay put everyone. It will just be a minute.” Then she’s gone into the back, leaving the storefront unattended.
Well, Kara did say to grab an apron, so Lena does. The next person waiting is getting eighteen cookies, no coffee, which Lena considers a wise choice after her experience with the brew in question yesterday. She’s watched Kara’s movements long enough, but not in a creepy way, to know where the bags and boxes are, so she slips on a pair of plastic gloves (safety first) and fills a box with cookies.
Lena glances up at prices as she hands over the container. “Eighteen dollars plus $1.35 in sales tax is $19.35.” The man holds out a twenty dollar bill, and Lena squints suspiciously at the cash register. “Um, I’m not trained to use—”
“Keep the change,” he says, slapping the bill on the counter and stepping away.
Lena places the money next to the register, then looks across the crowd that’s watching her expectantly. “Right, who’s just getting baked goods, no coffee?” Almost every single hand in the group raises. “What an intelligent group of people you are.”
From there, Lena’s plan is simple. She asks everyone who isn’t getting coffee for their order, writes them on slips of paper, checks the price, adds sales tax, and writes down the total. Then she starts filling orders. If people want to drop cash and leave without their change, who is Lena to disagree? By the time Kara comes back with a rolling cart filled with trays of muffins on it, about half of the people have left, and there’s a pile of slips with money on one side of the register and another pile of slips waiting to be processed.
“Sorry, I don’t know how to use the register,” Lena says as she hands over an order to another ‘keep the change’ customer who leaves with their baked goods. “If you show me once, I’ll remember.”
“What are you doing?” Kara asks even though the answer is obvious.
“Helping like you told me to,” Lena replies without skipping a beat. They’re out of blueberry muffins on display, so she crouches in front of the cart Kara’s brought out. “Is this tray blueberry?”
Kara nods mutely and pulls out the tray with her oven mitted hand. “Thanks.”
There’s so much relief in that one word that Lena can’t help but smile. “I also don’t know how to use your coffee maker. Show me the register, and then you can take coffee orders?”
“Are you sure because,” Kara leans in and whispers, “you don’t actually work here.”
Kara’s breath tickles across Lena’s ear, and suddenly, she’s never been more sure of anything in her life. “I’ll get you my resume later,” she whispers in return. “Now, the register?”
“Right. Of course.”
The process for using the register is simple enough. Kara does a quick rundown of each item, which aren’t particularly varied, and besides not speaking the ‘double mocha latte soy milk with a triple shot of caramel’ language of coffee, she picks up each step with ease.
“Then you hit total,” Kara says, totaling up an order. “You hit either the cash or credit button. If it’s credit, the drawer will open, but you just push it closed and run the card through here. If you hit the cash button, you enter how much they give you, hit total, and when the drawer opens—”
“Oh, it calculates tax and the customer’s change for you? Well, that just seems like cheating.”
“How else would you—” Kara glances across the slips of paper with totals, complete with sales tax, written across them in Lena’s neat handwriting. “Lady, who are you?”
“Your employee in this fine establishment.” She hands over a bag to a customer, types in the costs from memory, and runs through his card. “Thank you. Come again.”
Lena can feel Kara’s gaze on her, but after a few seconds, necessity must overtake curiosity because Kara kicks it into motion again. The duo works with an ease that’s usually born of experience, but nature wins over nurture in this case. In less than fifteen minutes, the café is empty of customers, and Kara is leaning back against the counter like it’s the first full breath she’s taken today.
“Okay, that was awful but you… You’re incredible.”
Lena can’t help but preen a bit under the compliment. She is a strong and independent woman who doesn’t need a man, but another strong and independent woman, that she wants.
“You’re like a seriously quick learner too. You must have a lot of retail experience.”
“None,” Lena replies, rather enjoying Kara’s facial gymnastics with each new piece of information that’s processed. “I’ll admit, it’s a lot harder than it looks. Maybe I need to tip more.”
“You? Nah, you’re the most generous tipper I’ve ever met. You’re just… Yeah, I got it right when I said incredible. That’s you.” There’s a line between professional and personal, between complimentary and flirting, and they straddle it for a moment before Kara steps back. “You should probably take off that apron and let me take your order… on the house, of course.”
“You’re firing me?”
“What? No, I—”
“You have someone else coming in?”
“Well, no,” Kara admits. “I called everyone. It’s almost like they don’t want to work on the weekend.”
“That is strange,” Lena admits. “Well, I have no other pressing plans and no such squabbles about working on the weekend. I assume that’s not the only rush you can expect today.”
“You assume right. We’ll have at least two more, and we might get another after dinner time too so—”
“Good, then it’s settled. I’ll work.”
“I… but... I… I can’t pay you. You can keep all the tips but—”
“Please, the tips are yours. I’m here for the experience. I’ll work the counter, taking orders and fulfilling them for baked goods. You’re in charge of baking, and until I understand,” Lena gestures toward the coffee makers, “I think coffee is on you.”
“Are you kidding? You’re a lifesaver. Coffee is on me from now on.”
“Don’t threaten me,” Lena deadpans. As Kara blinks, clearly processing Lena’s words, the chime over the door rings, saving them from an awkward exchange. “Customers. Let’s get to work.”
The rest of the day into evening is moments of hectic followed by calm, and Lena learns a lot about the day to day of a café. Kara is an excellent teacher, calm but also passionate, thorough yet fun. The companionship makes the day pass quickly, or perhaps it’s the companion that does that.
“Door closed and locked.” Kara slumps back against the portal, her grin silly and infectious.
“Glad it’s over?” Lena asks.
“Sort of. Don’t get me wrong. Today was a hot mess with a side of fries, but I’m just feeling really grateful right now. I’m grateful that you came along when you did.”
“You needed the help.”
“And you gave me that, but that’s not what I meant.” Kara moves to the counter, and with the sleeves on her button-up rolled to just below the elbows, her well-muscled forearms are on full display. She leans forward, weight resting on both palms and making the muscles flex. The display of power, coupled with a winning smile, are nearly as attractive as the confidence she’s exuding. “I’m really happy that I met you. You’re kind, intelligent, hardworking, and incredibly beautiful.”
It’s direct, forward in a way Kara hasn’t been yet. Lena is used to more of a game, either a dropped clue that goes nowhere or a bit of back and forth which, if she’s being honest, usually leads nowhere. This straightforward approach with its unexpected nature makes her lock up.
“Oh, crap, sorry.” Kara steps back, rubbing her neck as her cheeks color pink. “I read this all wrong. I thought—”
“You read it right,” Lena says, hurrying to cover her guffaw with the reality of their shared interest. Though it would suit the narrative of their cute meet, this little gay story in which they’re currently residing, for them to miss this connection and stall, Lena isn’t having it. Somehow, stories have happy endings despite the action (or inaction) of the protagonist, but Lena is no hero in a story, and she makes her own happiness. “Confession time, I didn’t come back today for the coffee. I came here for you. I like you.”
The encouragement is all Kara needs to lean forward again, this time with even greater intensity. “I like you too. So where does that leave us?”
This is moving surprisingly fast. What happened to the normal hopeless pining or even brazen flirting with what would end up being with the most obtuse (and likely straight) woman on the planet? It can be challenging to know what comes next when your knowledge on what comes next is more theoretical than actual.
“That’s a good question, one that we could perhaps answer together. Is everything all set here or…” The duo has spent the last half an hour or so cleaning and packing away food, though the ‘end of the night 50% off special’ that the place runs during their last hour hasn’t left much. Now it’s just the two of them, what they’ve said, and what remains to be unsaid.
“I still have some cleaning to do in the back.” Kara sighs and pushes herself off the counter, world weary with reality.
“Working again tomorrow?”
“Unfortunately, yes, and as much as I’d like to pretend I’m some kind of super woman, I’m pretty beat and have to get up early. I’ll make some more calls tonight, but it’s unlikely anyone will agree to come in on Sunday, and I have no idea what’s going on with Nia.” Kara’s brow furrows, and an adorable crinkle appears that make Lena’s finger twitch with the desire to smooth it away. “I’m really worried about her.”
The fact that after a day of covering for Nia and likely more of the same coming tomorrow leaves Kara worried about her friend and not herself tells Lena all she needs to know about the barista. Kara is as good on the inside as she looks on the outside. As Kara hoists a stack of heavy, metal trays onto her shoulder with relative ease, all Lena can think is what an extraordinarily attractive soul Kara must therefore have.
Wiping her hands on her apron, Kara returns and makes a beeline for the front door, unlocking it once again. “I don’t want to be rude, especially after all you’ve done, but I need to stack the dishwasher and get out of her on time so I don’t miss my bus. I’m afraid I have to throw you out.”
“Or you could let me give you a ride home. I’m going that way anyway.”
“You don’t even know where I live.”
“Kara, I’m definitely going your way.” Damn that smile is a nice reward.
“I need about ten minutes.”
“Perfect, I’ll just collect my things and meet you out front.”
This is hardly the first time Lena has run through L-Corp, but it may be the first time she’s done it without someone trying to kill her. The startled expressions on her security as they draw weapons and look about confirms that.
“Everything’s fine,” Lena says, as she pushes the button on the elevator for a third time. Logically, she knows that won’t summon it any faster, but she just spent half a day being a volunteer barista to help out a cute girl she met yesterday. Logic? She doesn’t know her. “I just… Everything’s fine.”
“Are you sure, Miss Luthor, because—”
“Yes,” Lena hisses out though in response to the elevator door opening not to the guard’s question. Still she gives him a quick wave, just her hand sticking out through the doorway, before she pulls it back in and takes the elevator to her lab. Once there, her laptop is shoved into her case a bit hastily, and then she’s off again. She has a deadline to keep and a lady she doesn’t want to keep waiting.
The thrum of the engine from Lena’s ‘71 Chevrolet Corvette convertible is good company for her slightly elevated heart rate, as she pulls up in front of Roasted. She has enough time to check her makeup, not awful all things considered, reapply some lipstick, and strike a casual pose before the front door to the café opens, and Kara steps out.
The bespectacled barista has a rather sizable tinfoil covered cardboard box balanced on one hip. She pauses, taking a moment to adjust her glasses, as her gaze caresses the vehicle.
It's a lovely little thing, burnt orange with only two seats and a hood that’s nearly equal in length to the rest of the vehicle. Lena spent an entire summer after she got her first doctorate working on it even though her therapist suggested she focus on her relationship with her mother instead. The car work proved to be a more cathartic process and the car itself a more reliable and enjoyable companion than her mother, so time well invested.
“Wow, beautiful,” Kara says as she pulls open the car door and slides into the passenger seat, “and the car is nice too.” It’s a bit of a line, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t work.
“So, where too? I can punch your address into Wavs or—”
“Actually, I have a quick stop to make. It won’t be out of the way. I promise.”
“I have no place else I’d rather be,” Lena replies, surprising herself with her sincerity.
The quick stop is less than half a mile away. Kara directs them to pull up outside an obviously repurposed warehouse. It’s brightly lit, the clean and light paint in the interior practically glowing in the fluorescents. Cafeteria style seating is evident from the curb, but metals shutters line either side of the structure, supplying privacy and security. There’s no name on the building, but the carved face of Medusa, glaring as her snakes seem to snap in warning, is painted on a sign next to the door.
“I’ll just be a minute,” Kara says before Lena can get any more information. Then she’s off, her box cradled in her arms as she heads into the building. She pulls the door open, crying out something unintelligible and almost, but not quite, outside of Lena’s hearing range. When the door swings closed behind her, any other sound from within is swallowed.
It’s less than a minute before another woman, coming from deeper within the building, joins Kara. The newcomer, a redhead who has a decidedly non-heterosexual vibe, smiles broadly, takes the box, places it on a table, and pulls Kara in for a hug. It’s neither platonic nor sexual, settling between those levels of intimacy and landing firmly in familial (though without that ‘check for a knife in your back afterward’ level of tension with which Lena is familiar). It’s a few seconds of that with broad smiles and followed by a brief chat, then there’s a gesture from Kara which is definitely in Lena’s direction.
If it was a ‘can’t stay my ride is waiting comment’, it wouldn’t have been followed up with such scrutiny by the redhead. The top being down on the car makes Lena’s entire upper half visible even though she’s on the driver’s side. Though the car does get an appraising and appreciative look, the same and more can be said of Lena. The grin and gentle elbowing at Kara’s arm says it all, and with that encouragement (and perhaps a blush though it’s difficult to see in the dim lighting as Kara steps out onto the street), she returns.
“Okay, we’re good. I just needed too—”
“Have fun, kids!” The redhead stands in the doorway, grinning broadly as she yells out with a bit too much enthusiasm. “Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do!”
“Oh, my God. Drive, just drive,” Kara says, sinking down into the seat and burying her face in her hands.
With a laugh, Lena does just that though she has no idea where she’s going. The company is good (and a touch scarlet), and even after a long and hard day of work, this seems like a reward: driving through the city with a beautiful girl next to you. Yes, Lena could get very used to this.
“Your sister?” Lena guesses when Kara finally comes up for air and puts on her seatbelt.
“Yeah, and self-appointment second… third? Whatever… mom. Alex thinks she’s my backup mom. She thinks she’s everyone’s backup mom.”
“Ah. Sounds like a nice problem to have.”
“It is,” Kara rolls her head to the side, leaning back in the seat as she smiles at Lena, “until she gets like that. I swear, I didn’t say anything too weird about you. She just likes to embarrass me.”
“Looks like she’s pretty good at it too.”
Kara nods even as she points and says, “Make a right at the next light.”
Lena allows Kara to give directions, though with her attention split between the fairly clear streets, it’s impossible not to notice the way Kara’s hands make discreet mirrored L shapes. It’s something Lena has only seen in children before, making the letters to verify which is the actual L and therefore the left hand side. It would seem Kara has at least one fault, knowing her left from her right, though the idea that it’s a fault is quickly erased as it becomes a further endearing quality.
“So, what does your backup mom do for work?”
“Oh, Alex is a doctor, but she volunteers at Medusa’s, the local women’s shelter. I bring them leftovers after work that they can put out with breakfast. You know, just trying to do my part.”
“So you take two buses just to help out strangers in need? You’re a regular humanitarian.”
“I usually just walk over from work and catch the bus out front. The exercise is good for me,” Kara says as if Lena didn’t just see Kara working a very physical twelve hour shift. “Anyway, they’re not strangers.”
“Because you volunteer there too.” It’s not a question, and maybe that’s why Kara just shrugs. In retrospect, this is the moment Lena’s crush needs to be relabeled to ‘catching feelings’.
“Everyone needs help sometimes, even brilliant quick learners who save baristas in distress.” It’s said playfully with a little wink and a grin, but there’s a lot of truth to that statement, likely more than Kara knows. “People consider themselves independent, but we’re all interdependent. Like, you may have bought this car yourself, but it’s not like you built it. Everyone in society needs others to succeed.”
Lena doesn’t deny it. The pride of designing and machining your own car parts when they’re not available fades in comparison to helping out those truly in need. There is one thing still scratching at the back of Lena’s brain. “Why Medusa’s? Why that name?”
“Do you know her story?”
“Sure, beautiful priestess, punished by Athena for her loss of celibacy and turned into a gorgon.”
“That’s one way of looking at it. Alex says it wasn’t a punishment.”
Lena leaves room in the conversation for Kara to continue even as she tries to fill in the mental blanks on her own. Snake hair and a petrifying glare certainly seem like a punishment, though there are times in board meetings that Lena wouldn’t mind the latter.
“Alex says that Medusa was attacked by Poseidon, and when Athena saw what he did, she wanted to protect Medusa. So she gifted Medusa with the ability to protect herself from men, with the tools to make sure no one ever hurt her beloved priestess like that again. Men considered Medusa’s loss of beauty, of what they thought was attractive, as a punishment, but it wasn’t. Medusa was free.”
Stopped at a red light, Lena’s gaze locks with Kara’s. There have been enough catcalls, enough articles about her that focused not on her intellect or hard work but her appearance, that Lena can only nod and say, “Thank you for that perspective. Your sister sounds like a very wise woman.”
“I’m definitely not telling her that. Anyway, she already knows. She’s the one who tells me.”
The drive to Kara’s is brief, and by the time they get there, the somewhat somber mood is left behind. They’re both smiling, as they pull up to Kara’s quaint apartment building.
“Thanks for the ride. I’m going to go grab a shower, a pint of ice cream, and then fall into a brief coma before I have to do it all again tomorrow.”
“After you call around and get some help,” Lena reminds her.
There’s a look of guilt that flashes over Kara’s face before she tries to hide it behind a smile. “Correct. After those phone calls, I’m coma bound.”
“You’re not making calls, are you?”
And to Kara’s credit, she doesn’t lie. “I already left messages for people that I need help tomorrow. If they were going to respond, they would have. I only have a few part timers, and the guy who used to help out on weekends left a few weeks ago. I’m working on replacing him. Everyone that I have is a great person, but the owner can be a bit difficult, so our turnover is pretty high. It will be fine though. It’s just one more day and then—”
“What time do you open?”
“Lena, no,” Kara says, already clearly aware of the offer to come. “You were beyond amazing today, but I couldn't—”
“Teach me how to use those fancy coffee machines, and we’ll call it even. Now, what time am I picking you up?”
As abruptly as it began, Kara’s struggle against the reality of her need fades, and she smiles. “I… is seven too early? I need to bake.”
“I’ll see you at 6:59.”
There’s a quick goodbye, but when Kara moves to leave, she pauses and turns back. “Thanks for today. You really saved my ass.” She leans in, and when Lena doesn’t protest (the desire to turn in instead of away is strong), presses a kiss to Lena’s cheek. Nothing else is said as she walks away.
Lena watches until Kara is gone. With her hand on the spot where Kara’s lips were pressed, she waits until a light comes up on the third floor, even until she can see motion inside, but she leaves before a curtain can be pulled back to reveal her slightly obsessive behavior. Save Kara’s ass? Lena’s grins to herself and revs the engine. Anytime. That’s an ass worth saving.
Lena’s an early riser, so getting to Kara’s on time isn’t an issue. Getting recommendations for where to find a decent cup of coffee at that hour is, that is until she realizes she can make it at home. So with two travel cups in drink holders, Lena is all prepared when Kara launches herself out the front door at 7 AM.
“You’re timely,” Kara says. “Is that just another one of your amazing traits? Do I smell coffee?”
“You don’t get enough of that at work?” Lena holds out one of the travel mugs to Kara with the warning, “It’s hot so be careful.”
“Hot coffee? Nouveau idea.” The sarcasm only lasts for the first sip before she recoils.
“I warned you it was hot,” Lena chides even as she rests a gentle hand on Kara’s upper arm… a decidedly muscular arm under that cardigan. It takes a great deal of restraint not to squeeze. “Are you alright?”
“Oh, yeah, it was just the flavor. It tastes…”
“Bad? Good? I hope it tastes good.”
“I mean, yeah? It’s black. It is black, right, because I can’t taste any sweetner or cream so…” Kara pulls off the lid, peering into the cup. “It looks black. Why does it taste like this?”
“Not bitter? I thought coffee was bitter, and there’s no smoky flavor.”
Only Kara’s serious expression makes it possible for Lena to hold back laughter. She pulls out onto the barren street, bereft of traffic on an early Sunday after many were out late. Concentrating on driving gives her a moment to gain the serious tone she needs to meet Kara’s.
“Kara, that smoky flavor is called burning the beans.”
“Nuh-uh. They’re roasted just like the name of the café. That’s how they’re supposed to taste.” Kara peers into the cup again before taking another sip that makes her brow crinkle further. “That’s not how they’re supposed to taste, is it?”
“Let me put it this way. Do you remember when I said that eating one of your sticky buns is to food what I assume making out with Charlize Theron is to sex?”
At this point, Kara has given up on visually examining her drink. The lid is back in place, and between sips she replies, “Viscerally.”
“Well, as good as that bun was, your coffee is bad.”
“Oh, my God. That bad? Really?”
“I’m sorry to be the one to break the news to you but yes. Let me ask you something. How many repeat customers for the black coffee do you have?”
“Well there’s… there’s… oh.”
“Don’t worry,” Lena says, laying her hand on Kara’s upper arm again but this time rewarding her good deed of honestly with an appreciative squeeze. “We have the power of the entire internet behind us. We can figure this out.”
The café closes earlier on Sundays, and although it’s still a long day, it’s one that ends with Lena following Kara up to her apartment, so they can try the coffee there. Lena leaves six hours later, their cups of coffee untouched, long abandoned to cool to room temperature while other things heat up.
Though the travel time of Lena’s afternoon walk shortens to what’s needed to cross the street, the length of the break grows. A lunch with Kara, the two of them hidden away in the kitchen, talking in hushed tones when Kara isn’t dealing with baked goods, is the new normal. These lunches continue through Nia’s return from bereavement leave over the loss of her mother, and it seems Nia is happy enough to give the couple privacy even though she grins openly at Lena and sometimes even winks. Lena denies nothing.
It’s a Sunday afternoon, a full month since that fateful afternoon when Lena’s old café closed for renovations, when Kara greets Lena with a gift box.
“Open it up,” Kara says, as Lena reverently touches the bow on the white box that’s laid out on the cutting table. “I know one month isn’t technically an anniversary, and we haven’t been dating the whole time but—”
“I love it.”
“You haven’t even seen what it is.”
“Well then, maybe it’s not the gift I love.” Lena tugs Kara closer, lips slotting together as her back is pressed into the metal table. It’s an all too familiar scenario for them, one that’s led to Nia making crude remarks about culinary standards and cleanliness which are not altogether uncalled for.
“Mmmm. I love you too,” Kara replies with a final kiss. “Now open the box. It isn’t much, but I wanted to commemorate us.”
“I’m sure it will be perfect,” Lena says. A quick tug of the bow leaves the lid loose enough to be slid off and the material inside to be revealed. It’s black and brown, a poly cotton blend which though not exactly unpleasant is far from Lena’s usual finery. It isn’t until she pulls the gift out of the box and unfurls if that she breaks into a grin. “It’s an apron. Ha!”
“It’s an official Roasted apron,” Kara says, indicating the familiar logo emblazoning the front, “and this one has your name on it.” Which it does, right where one would normally find the name tag is the word ‘Lena’ in neat stitches.
“I was right. I do love it.”
“Well, try it on.”
It seems like a silly idea. Aprons are basically one size fits all, but this is a gift from Kara, one to celebrate a successful month together and, she hopes, many more to come. Lena gives a quick twirl, showing off the coverup like it’s the most expensive piece of finery in her closet. “Well?”
“You look… perfect.”
“You don’t think I’m overdressed?”
The lip bite has the desired effect, and Kara growls slightly, stepping closer again. “Definitely. The apron can stay, but everything else has to go.”
“I feel like Nia might have something to say about that. Something boring like, ‘You can’t do that where you make food.There are health regulations.’”
“Boring,” Kara agrees, dropping kisses on Lena’s throat, “so, so boring.”
At first, Lena fears using Nia’s name has summoned the barista. The younger woman’s voice is unusually loud, but it seems to still be coming from the front of the store. “Of course, Mr. Edge , she’s in the back. Do you want me to get her for you, Mr. Edge ? I can go get Kara for you, Mr. Edge, if you want.”
“Crap,” Kara hisses, nearly tripping over her own feet as she hurries away from Lena and grabs a potholder. “Anyway, that’s how we make the muffins. Any questions?”
“Um… no?” But Lena has many, not the least of which is ‘Who is the man that just walked into the kitchen?’
“Hey, Kara.” His smile is smug, as he leers at the blonde before turning the same look on Lena, the kind a horse buyer would use on a prize pony. “Who’s the new girl?”
“Mr. Edge, this is Lena. Lena, this is the owner, Mr. Edge.”
He leans closer to Lena, close enough that the Axe body spray in which he must have showered almost makes her eyes water. “My friends call me Morgan.”
“I see,” Lena says, arms crossed as she steps back. “How unexpected to meet you today, Mr. Edge.”
“Lena, we’re done in here. Why don’t you go help Nia upfront,” Kara urges.
And though her every instinct is to refuse, Lena respects Kara wishes and leaves. She’s steaming hotter than the dumplings they shared last night by the time she gets there.
“Are you alright?” Nia asks.
Lena nods, arms stiff at her side and hands curled into fists. “Is he as bad as his first impression?”
“Oh, he’s much worse.” Nia’s laugh is the humorless kind, the sort people trapped in mutual misery share to prove that it loves the company. “He only drops in once a month or so. We were due.”
“What does he want?”
“Really?” Nia wipes down a counter that clearly doesn’t need it, but sometimes we turn to what we can control when faced with things we can’t. “He’s one of those guys that thinks ‘no’ means ‘I want to be chased’. I suggested Kara tell him she trans, gave her the official green card to do so, but Kara refused. She said all of the misogynists in the world aren’t worth an ounce of the respect that the trans community deserves.”
“Ugh, she’s perfect. I should marry her.” And that’s an idea. “Should I marry her?”
“Uh… duh. What are you two waiting for? It’s been a month, and you’re not even living together.”
“Well, not officially, but it’s been weeks since she slept in her own apartment and—”
“I said no thank you, Mr. Edge!”
At Kara’s voice, Lena is nearly to the kitchen door before Nia grabs her by the apron strings and pulls her back. “I’ve got this,” Nia says before yelling, “Oh, no! I think the espresso machine is broken again. Kara, coffee emergency!”
“Again?” Kara says with a look of gratitude as she hurries into the front area. “I swear, this thing is getting as old and cranky as me. I’ll get the tool box.”
Edge leans casually against the wall, watching Kara as he says, “I hope you’re better at fixing things around here than breaking them, new girl.”
“Oh, trust me, I know how to handle a tool,” Lena replies.
The implication seems to bounce harmlessly off his ego as he pushes off the wall. “Until next month, ladies,” he says, pointing at Nia and adding, “bruh.”
Lena is several steps toward the door with a hammer from the toolbox raised over her head before Nia grabs her around the waist. “Not worth it. I don’t think conjugal visits in jail are a real thing.”
Lena could disagree, knowing far too much about the inner workings of the judicial system, but she doesn’t. The threat is real, and anyway, mindless violence isn’t how Luthors deal with things. They think very hard about their violence before they act.
Within half an hour, Lena is back in her office, stabbing at her keyboard with stiff fingers that only loosen slightly when Jess holds out a file folder.
“The information on Roasted that you requested, Miss Luthor.”
“Thank you, Jessica. I’m sorry if I was a bit terse before but—”
“It’s where Kara works,” Jessica says, as if that’s all she needed to know. “I really like her, Miss Luthor. I really like her for you.”
“Me too,” Lena admits. “Jess, how soon is too soon to propose?”
“You’re not getting any younger,” Jess says with an uncharacteristic wink, and she leaves without being dismissed.
“Cheeky. She’s not wrong, but she didn’t have to say it out loud. Well, let’s see what information we have on you, Mr. Edge.” Lena is only three pages into the file before she gives up on biting her thumb and bolts upright. “Jessica! Is this information accurate?”
Standing in the doorway to Lena’s office, Jess’ lack of an eye roll reveals her professionalism. “I’m insulted and yes.”
“I apologize. Call my lawyers.”
“They’re holding for you on line two. Is there anything else, Miss Luthor?”
“Winning lottery numbers while you’re granting wishes?”
“I hardly think you need them.” Jess snorts, as she turns to leave again. “Just propose to the girl. You’ve already hit the jackpot.”
As her door closes for the second time within a minute, Lena says, “Again cheeky, but you’re not wrong.”
Two days later, Lena is actively denying herself one of Kara’s sticky buns as she sits across from Jessica in the café, enjoying her coffee. Every time the chime over the door rings, her response is Pavolvian. She sits up a little straighter, all of her attention focused forward, but as each customer comes, the disappointment is all too real.
That all comes to an abrupt end when Morgan Edge strolls in the door. He looks around the café which has no patrons at 2:15 in the afternoon except for the ladies and one gentleman who is on his way out. He pauses by the table giving Jess a once over before clearly dismissing her.
“Hey, new girl, I’ve got a meeting with someone important who isn’t here yet. Get me a coffee. Kara knows how I like it.”
“This is him?” Jess asks.
“Well, you don’t have to get me anything for assistant’s day now,” Jess says as she stands and holds out a file to Mr. Edge. “I consider this a gift. Mr. Edge, these are for you.”
“What’s this?” Mr. Edge says, flipping open the file and frowning.
“Your eviction notice,” Jess says, her smile as broad as Lena has ever seen on her face. “Your lease ended two months ago and hasn’t been renewed. Miss Luthor is exercising her clause to evict you. Don’t let the door hit you… Well, you know the rest.”
Edge’s frown deepens with each page that he reads. “What the hell is this? I was told I was meeting with the building owner, and that’s Luthor Enterprises.”
“L-Corp. I renamed my company L-Corp,” Lena stands, still several inches shorter than him even on four-inch heels but an authoritative figure nonetheless, “and this is exactly what it seems like, you getting kicked to the curb. Any other questions?”
“Your company?” Edge snorts, and as unpleasant of a sound as it is, it suits him. “No, some Luthor chick owns the place. You work for me.”
“Well, you don’t work for me, Mr. Edge. Now get off my premises,” Lena says.
Morgan Edge looks from face to face, even over to Nia at the counter who has given up the pretense of straightening up and watches the whole display with open interest. He eventually breaks into a grin, but it’s not the smirk that’s so commonplace on his face. The doubt has begun to creep in. “This is a joke.”
“Miss Luthor doesn’t enjoy humor,” Jess says.
“That’s not true,” Lena replies. “Remember when that embodiment of male entitlement in a Garanimals for adults suit, Max Lord, said he’d eat his hat if I brought the new photocell to market faster than him and for a lower price, and when we did so, you brought him a tray with utensils, condiments, and his hat on it? That was hysterical, and I very much enjoyed it.”
“That was good,” Jess says. “It was even better when you started sprinkling it with salt.”
“In the veritable wound,” Lena agrees.
“I don’t know what the fuck this is, but you ladies,” he glances over at Nia, “people aren’t getting away with it. I’m calling my lawyer.”
But Jessica is already dialing, as usual, anticipating Lena’s needs. “Commissioner LaForte? This is Jessica from Miss Luthor’s office.” Jess pauses, smiling as she nods, but her attention is clearly split between the phone call and the interloper. “Well, Miss Luthor will be glad to hear that your daughter liked them. Thank you for sharing photos from the wedding. If Miss Luthor had been in the country, she definitely would have made it, but that’s not why I’m calling. We have a trespasser at one of Miss Luthor’s properties. Could you please send a car around to Roasted, just across the street from L-Corp, to pick him up? We’d like to press charges. Thank you.” Jess hangs up, sliding her phone into her pocket as she turns her attention to Lena. “The police commissioner is calling the chief right away. We should have a police presence here in a few minutes.”
“You’re a lunatic,” Mr. Edge says, as he walks backward to the door, “a lunatic, and you haven’t heard the last from me.” Having the last word, he leaves, but like Edge himself, it’s a word that means nothing to Lena.
“Yes!” Nia whoops and rushes around the counter, wrapping first Lena and then Jessica in a hug. “You were amazing, both of you. God, I’m glad I was there to see that. That was better than a month of therapy.”
“What did I miss?” Kara stands in the doorway to the kitchen. Her sleeves are rolled up, and as she finishes drying her hands, she flips the dish rag over her shoulder. Blonde hairs halo her face, having pulled free from her ponytail. She looks a bit messy, a bit disheveled, and Lena has never been more in love in her life.
“Apparently, therapy,” Lena says.
“Lena just kicked Mr. Edge out,” Nia replies.
“But you can’t, can you? Doesn’t he own this place?” Kara asks.
“The company, yes, but this whole street is owned by L-Corp,” Lena says. “Who knew?”
“I did,” Jess says. “That’s why you pay me. Speaking of which, if there’s nothing else, Miss Luthor, I should be getting back to work.”
“Just one more minute, Jess,” Lena says. “Kara here will need some new staff, and we have to draw up the papers to move the premises to her name. Can you make some calls and—”
“Get legal to send over a contract and reach out to staffing companies for interviews? Already done.” She taps the folder still sitting on the table before snatching it up. “Anything else, Miss Luthor.”
“Wait, everyone slow down for a minute.” Kara shakes off the folder that Jess tries to hand her. “I can’t buy this place.”
“It’s a gift,” Lena says.
“No,” Kara replies, flatly. “I’m not taking a gift like this from my girlfriend.”
“That’s more than fair and exactly what I expected from you.” But Lena’s smile only grows as she pulls a small box out of her pocket and opens it to reveal a ring. “How about an engagement gift.”
“If you’ll have me,” Lena adds.
The lips that crash into hers seem like a pretty good affirmative even before, with their foreheads pressed together, Kara says, “Yes, a thousand times yes. You beat me to it.”
Nia pushes Kara playfully. “How long was it gonna take you, slowpoke?”
“I was saving up for the ring. That takes time.”
Lena pecks carefully at Kara’s lips, just one more kiss before returning to the comfort of the forehead press. “How much time?”
“Since that first day you showed up and helped me. I know I told you I didn’t say anything weird to Alex about you, but that might not have been entirely honest. When I pointed you out to her, I called you her future sister-in-law.”
And while Lena and Kara kiss again, Jess wanders off to the counter with Nia, handing over paperwork to the person she calls ‘the only other responsible adult in the room.’
“You really knew that long?” Lena asks.
“Yeah. Alex always told me not to get so busy with life that I missed the good stuff. She is very wise. You, Lena, are the good stuff, and I’m gonna wife you.”
“Wife me,” Lena repeats, and a wicked grin curls her lips. “Do you want to close early and do all sorts of things in the back that we can’t legally do once you open the business again?”
“Way ahead of you.”
Kara scoops up Lena, bridal style, walking her past Nia who grabs Jess and flees with a call of “We’re locking up!”
“You know, this is exactly where I want to be for the rest of my life,” Kara says as the doors chime, signaling privacy.
“In the kitchen of a coffee shop?”
“Anywhere with you… forever.”
And Lena couldn’t agree more.