Layla would always have a soft spot for The Paper Lantern, but she did go to other places around town to eat and hang out. Caffeine Central was bright and airy, and the manager had been amenable to her suggestions about more recyclable takeaway cups. It was pretty popular with superheroes and, she was starting to suspect, supervillains. Her first mistake had been stopping to talk to Larry. She’d noticed he was there with someone, which had made her feel that it might be easier for her to have a quick catch-up with and then go her way, but then Larry had introduced her to his cousin Barry.
After just a few exchanges, Layla had realized there was something off about him. She hated judging people, but her instincts were twitching like Magenta’s snout.
He had the same kind of hair as Larry, only a shade darker, and seemed a little more intense. A conversation that should be filled with pleasantries seemed to be going another way entirely, and Larry was no help at all.
Layla turned as the doorbell jingled behind her, hoping for some sort of inspiration to walk in through the door.
“Oh, hey, it’s my boyfriend,” she said in a brighter voice than she used when talking up salads to self-described carnivores.
“Your boyfriend!?” Barry and Larry chorused, both sounding disappointed and surprised. Layla didn’t care how they felt about it, she just needed them to believe her.
“Wait, Peace is your boyfriend now!?” Larry continued.
“What kind of name is ‘Peace’?” Barry muttered, as Layla nodded vigorously, glad she’d avoided Larry since they’d graduated from Sky High, because anyone who knew her well would know she was lying. She was terrible at it, and while she and Warren were friends and colleagues when it came to saving the city, so they spent a lot of time together, Warren wasn’t her boyfriend.
She suddenly remembered something from Creating a Secret Identity Class, which had seemed like an excuse for Mr Boy to dress up at the time. The trick to making someone believe you’re someone you’re not is confidence. Sell it to the max. The Maxville, if you will.
“Got to go,” she said, hurrying away and flashing Warren a huge smile. He gave her a puzzled look, which wouldn’t do at all.
Warren was surprised. Not to see the hippie here, because this was one of her hang-outs, which balanced out that a lot of more annoying supers came here too, but she was bounding up to him, smiling as if he had reversed climate change. Did she want something?
She didn’t stop approaching, and suddenly she was pressing her lips to his, which was new and enough to make his higher brain functions just stop. He was still taking in sensations, though, and it felt good. Better than he’d ever fantasized. His arms wrapped around her reflexively.
Afraid that this would be the only opportunity he’d ever have to kiss her, Warren wanted to make it count. He upped the intensity, making sure she opened her mouth to him. She tasted like berries and something that was uniquely Layla. He could feel a pleased hum building up, and he wasn’t sure if it was hers or his.
She pulled back, breathing hard, wide-eyed and looking thoroughly kissed.
“Layla?” he asked, forgetting her nickname and ditching any cool he’d ever had in the breathless, needy way he said her name.
“Um, Paper Lantern?” she said eventually in a voice that wasn’t quite hers either. “We’re going there to meet the others, right?”
“Right,” he said. “Yes.” It made no sense, what she’d just said, but neither did what she’d just done yet it was the rightest thing that had ever happened to him. Warren would go wherever she suggested.
She grabbed one of his arms and turned him around the way he had come. As she did so, Warren thought he saw a couple of familiar faces in his peripheral vision. A little of his cynicism returned, and as Layla led him out of the coffee shop, he wondered if this had all been a performance. The disappointment he felt ignited his temper, and yet, his body was very sure that that kiss had meant something, something he wouldn’t forget in a hurry, and neither would Layla. Something that he, not the world’s greatest talker, knew they needed to discuss.
The door closed behind them, but Layla didn’t let go of his arm.
“I’m going to need an explanation before we get to the Paper Lantern,” he muttered from the side of his mouth.
“I know. And I will give it once we’ve turned a corner.” Layla leaned her head on his shoulder, meaning he could smell the fragrance of her shampoo, a woodsy scent that should have cleared his head. But he couldn’t think straight, too many ideas, too many feelings crowding in on him as they turned around the next corner. Those feelings were replaced by disappointed as Layla moved away from him. He watched her take a breath and square her shoulders.
“Please don’t tell me you were trying to make Larry jealous,” Warren blurted out.
“No, I was maybe trying to get away from his cousin Barry, who I strongly suspect is on the verge of being a supervillain. Well, a supercreep, anyway.”
“And you couldn’t come up with anything less extreme than ‘I’m on kissing terms with the next guy who walks into Caffeine Central’?” Warren asked, staring hard at her.
“No, I saw you, and I made the call.”
“To kiss me?”
“I told them you were my boyfriend, and I had to make it convincing!”
“Hmm.” Warren said, analyzing the way she’d said the last sentence, stacking it up against everything he knew about Layla, which now included how she’d responded when he’d taken control of the kiss. “I think we were convincing.”
Layla blushed, and he felt a new flicker of heat uncurl inside him.
“Remember way back when, when I accused you of doing something similar because you liked me?“
“Yes,” Layla answered in a low voice that was easy to hear, now that he’d taken a step closer to her. “Except there was no kissing then.”
“That was then,” Warren replied, and this time, he initiated their kiss.
They didn’t make it to the Paper Lantern until way, way later.