“Yancy. Yancy. Yancy. Wake up.”
Yancy, his face crushed into the dent in his pillow that he spent an unholy amount of time the night before shaping into perfection, cast his groggy mind around for a suitable reply.
“Fuck you,” he moaned into his pillow.
He could almost hear Raleigh’s smirk, the bastard. “Come on, big bro, we’ve got to get the shop open.”
Again, Yancy waded through the swamps of his mind for a response. After a long moment, he stumbled upon one.
“Fuck you,” he said, “with a shovel.”
With an exaggerated sigh, Raleigh moved around to the foot of his brother’s bed, took a firm grasp on the sheets, and pulled. The obscenities flying out of Yancy’s mouth as he clung desperately to his pillow, body recoiling from the brisk morning air, did nothing to diminish the shit-eating grin on Raleigh’s face.
“Did you kiss our mother with that mouth?” he asked.
Yancy, finally sitting upright, his hair pointing in all directions, gave his younger brother a withering glare and halfheartedly threw his crushed pillow. It missed. “Hey, your prom date didn’t complain.”
Snickering, Raleigh beat a retreat from Yancy’s cramped room and slid down the stairs banister, hopping to a stop at the back door, which had a shadow in the frosted glass window. Someone knocked tiredly on the door, and Raleigh threw it open.
“Asshole!” he heralded.
Chuck Hansen winced at Raleigh’s upbeat tone and shuffled inside the cramped space, dragging a dolly of stacked pink boxes along behind him, wheels banging over the sill in a familiar way. “I swear one of these days you’re going to say that when opening the door and it’s gonna be my dad on the steps,” he said, Australian accent thick with sleep, “and he’s gonna put your lights out.”
Raleigh walked in front of Chuck, flipping on lights as they entered the coffee shop behind the front counter. The sunlight was dim and cold. The door that banged shut behind them had, at one point had a sign that read “EMPLOYEES ONLY” but at some point along the way of their ownership had a piece of paper tacked over it that read “BECKETS ONLY”.
“Well, I’m comforted that you’re not your dad.”
“Heh, that makes two of us.” Chuck dragged one hand down his face and waved a clipboard in Raleigh’s direction. “Sign for the delivery. And get me a coffee. Dick.”
Raleigh scribbled his name on the dotted line and turned to fiddle with the row of machines against the wall, steering clear of where Chuck kneeled to deposit the baked goods from the boxes into the display case. As they readied the shop for opening, there was a loud rapping at the glass door.
Raleigh checked over his shoulder and then jerked his head towards the door. “Let him in, will you?”
Chuck gave an exaggerated sigh and vaulted over the counter. “Anything for you, fuck-face.”
“Pencil-dick!” Raleigh returned, and then held his tongue as Chuck unlocked and opened the door for a short man in a wrinkled white shirt and crooked tie. He wore a leather jacket, tight jeans, and thick-rimmed Ray-Ban glasses. He also carried a suitcase in one hand a faculty ID badge for the local college clipped onto his belt.
“Thanks, Smaller Becket,” he said to Chuck as he hustled inside.
“Don’t insult me,” Chuck huffed, and pointed at Raleigh, rolling his eyes behind the counter. “That’s a Becket.”
For a moment Newt Geiszler looked back and forth between the two young men, opening and closing his mouth. Raleigh decided to help him out.
“What can I get you, Dr. Geiszler?” he asked. “You’re in early today.” He placed Chuck’s to-go cup on the counter and the young man leaned around Newt to get to it, taking a long and relieved drink. He then slumped back behind Newt to watch the show.
“I have an early meeting with the Bio department. Can you imagine? On a Friday and everything,” he replied, shuddering, and walked up to the counter, “And how many times to I have to tell you to call me Newt?”
“Yancy’s policy,” Raleigh said with an eyeroll that told exactly what he thought about the older brother hopping around upstairs making loud noises as he struggled into his clothes.
“Anyways I need my usual, and Hermann’s got an early morning study… thing set up with his students, so I’ll get whatever gross water thing he normally gets too.” He sounded utterly confused as to why someone would exert energy over their students instead of their personal studies. He himself never held study sessions and even cut the occasional class for the purpose of bettering his own research.
“You mean Earl Grey?” Raleigh suppressed a smile and Chuck made kissing faces behind Newt’s back.
“It’ll take a few minutes; I only just got the machines going. It’ll take them a moment to warm up.”
Newt let out a loud breath. “Alright. I’ll also have… what is that?” he squinted at the glass confection case. Raleigh jerked his chin towards Chuck, signaling his entrance to the conversation before turning his back to beat the coffee machine into submission.
“Strawberry tart,” Chuck pointed at the case with his free hand, naming the goodies one at a time. “Banana bread. Pound cake. Blueberry muffin, cranberry muffin, cinnamon muffin.”
Newt thought deeply, moving his weight back and forth from foot to foot. The man, even without his coffee, seemed to run on a different energy system than most humans, keeping him in a constant state of existence that Chuck once perfectly described as “Billy Mays-like”. “I’ll have one tart, too, Smaller Becket.”
Raleigh good-naturedly took one out and placed it on the counter, where a to-go cup of Earl Grey with a dash of cream was waiting and then went to work on a caramel macchiato with double vanilla and an extra shot of espresso for Newt.
“Want me to put in on your tab?” Raleigh asked over his shoulder.
Newt opened his mouth to answer, paused, and then smiled. “Put it on Hermann’s tab,” he said, and then added, “And add a cinnamon muffin.”
Raleigh cracked a smile. “Sure.”
Chuck slipped behind the counter once more to finish emptying his packages of fresh baked goods. While they worked, Newt chattered aimlessly about things that neither young man paid any attention to, filling up the air with sounds of his own voice, which acted almost like a lullaby to him, calming down his physical motions.
He stuttered to a stop, making both Raleigh and Chuck look up.
Standing at the door, peering inside through the glass, was a man with a sharp, knife-like jaw and a well-tailored gray suit. He cast his eyes about the small shop, in a way that made the hairs rise up on the back of Raleigh’s neck. It was almost as if he was measuring the store’s interior floor.
The man saw that he had an audience of two young men behind the counter and one stunned-looking grunge professor, and left with a final calculated look.
“The fuck was that,” Raleigh said bluntly. Chuck shrugged.
Raleigh handed Newt his order, and then was nearly pitched over the counter by the empty jug of orange juice chucked at his head by Yancy, finally emerging from the upstairs apartment, his hair still damp from the shower.
“Language,” he chided, trying and failing to look less pleased with himself at catching his younger brother unawares.
“Some guy just came around, checking the place out like it was a car dealership,” Raleigh snapped, rubbing at the back of his head. “Wearing a nice suit.”
“Frankly I’m not interested in his suit. Morning, Dr. Geiszler.”
“Newt!” Newt muttered as he walked out. “It’s Newt!”
Chuck looked at his watch. “I should get going,” he said.
“Tell Herc I said hey,” Yancy called out as Chuck dragged the now empty dolly behind himself towards the back entrance. Chuck responded with a grunt and a raised hand over his shoulder.
For as long as the Becket Brothers had the coffee shop Gipsy Danger Café (it came with the sign and they didn’t have the heart to change it), the Hansens had the bakery next door, Striker Eureka Bakery (they shrugged when asked about the name), and they formed a symbiotic relationship that worked perfectly for both of them. They sold the Becket brothers a selection of baked goods that they didn’t sell from their own store, and on afternoons, a menu for the Becket’s drinks was placed on the counter for the bakery, urging the customers to go over one storefront while their order was being prepared or heated up.
Raleigh and Yancy busied themselves with setting up the shop in the dim early morning light, taking down chairs from tables, polishing fixtures, and setting out their hand-drawn specials board on the sidewalk outside. Raleigh leaned against it after he had propped it up, squinting through the morning haze as the street woke up around him. A park was directly across the street, with the row of shops on either side of him. He waved to a terrifyingly large man with a dark beard and blond hair, just on the other side of the Hansen’s bakery, which was still shuttered up, presumably with both father and son in the kitchen, working to set up their displays.
Aleksis Kaidanovsky waved back to Raleigh, propping the door of his and his wife’s music store open with a fragment of brick that Raleigh could believe he had broken himself.
“Becket!” He turned at the call, and saw one of the three Wei triplets standing in the doorway to their gym, which took up three complete storefronts next to the coffee shop. He judged by the sunglasses propped on his shaved head that it was Hu.
“Morning!” Raleigh replied.
“When your brother stops riding your ass, you come by and sign up for the basketball tournament next month!” It was not a request.
Raleigh laughed. “Sure thing, Hu!”
The Wei triplet laughed and shouted inside a long string of Chinese into the gym, which was met with a loud and angry crashing of equipment. Loud exclamations of what could only be Chinese expletives followed. The Wei triplet laughed in response. He then smiled at Raleigh.
“I bet Hu that if I wore his sunglasses you’d think I was him!” he explained with a cheeky grin. “I just won twenty bucks!”
Raleigh winced. “Sorry, man!” he called out. The Wei triplets had owned the gym for as long as Raleigh could remember, and he had learned how to play basketball at a young age on their indoor court. And yet he still could not tell them apart physically. Chuck liked to joke that they themselves probably didn’t even know who was who.
The Wei triplet laughed. “It’s cool. I’m Jin, by the way. The short one.” And with that and a final wave, he laughed his way back inside, the CLOSED sign now flipped to OPEN. Raleigh gave a small huff, stirring a few hairs on his forehead. He always walked away from conversations with any of the Wei triplets feeling like he had been used. Even when bets weren’t involved, the triplets all had an eerie level of understanding between them that made a conversation with more than one at a time seem superfluous.
Shaking himself a bit, Raleigh went back inside, and Yancy was behind the counter, thumbing through their mail. Raleigh vaulted over the counter, settling on top of it comfortably. He attempted to sneak a look at their mail and Yancy made a noise, holding the papers out of view.
“People’s food goes there,” he said, and gave his brother a sudden but gentle push to get his butt off of the counter. Raleigh slid to his feet, reading the mail over Yancy’s shoulder.
“Bills?” he asked, with a bit of trepidation, seeing how his older brother’s eyebrows were drawn together, his mouth in a tight line.
Yancy shook his head. “Nothing we can’t handle.” With a few taps, he straightened the pile of mail and moved to put it in the back room.
Raleigh watched him go, eyeing his face when he returned. “… You’re lying to me!” He sounded scandalized and Yancy sighed.
“I hate it when you do that thing,” he said, although his voice was fond. “It’s like you’re in my head.”
“What’s wrong, Yancy?” Raleigh pressed.
Yancy opened his mouth. Closed it. He wouldn’t look at his younger brother. He took in a great big breath, and as he began to make a sound, the bell above the door jingled loudly. The smell of bad cologne, sweat, and leather filled the air, and both brothers turned to see Tendo Choi standing in the doorway, panting and looking harassed.
“Beckets, I need your Wi-Fi password, STAT.” He scrambled for his usual table, shoved in the corner and not visible from the street.
“Um,” Yancy said, deciding better not to question, avoiding Raleigh’s intense look currently settled on his face. He cast his hands around near the cash register in search of the week’s list of passwords.
Raleigh gave up on making his older brother talk and turned instead to the newcomer to his territory, making a mental note to harass Yancy later, in private, when his brother was more likely to crack.
“You have to buy something first,” Raleigh chirped with a shit-eating grin. Tendo shot him a look in response that was more surprised than it should have been, considering that they had the same nearly identical conversation each time Tendo entered the store and demanded Wi-Fi.
“Black coffee, Becket-boy, with a side of password.” He had his laptop—he claimed to have built it himself—open on the table in anticipation.
“And the password for today is…” Yancy dragged one finger down the chart of the month, with lists of hand-scrawled combinations. Their router was set up on a randomizer with a different pre-set password each day, with the passwords chosen at the beginning of a thirty-day cycle. He stopped at that day’s date.
Yancy squinted at the paper. “Raleigh!” he shouted. “This is the last goddamn time I let you set the passwords.” Raleigh struggled not to laugh as he set down a mug of coffee on Tendo’s table. The man caught his eye and raised an amused eyebrow, questioning. Raleigh shrugged with a baiting smile.
“What is it?” Tendo demanded, shifting his attention from one brother to the next.
Yancy looked like he would like nothing better than a hole to open up underneath him and swallow him. Raleigh’s grin got bigger.
“It’s… ‘Yancy got a booty’. No spaces, all caps.” He shot a withering glare to first his brother and then Tendo as they both dissolved into immature giggles.
“Well, he’s not lying,” Tendo said, “And frankly with your lackluster track record you could use a bit of advertisement.” He typed in the password and immediately pulled up a command screen, fingers flying across the keyboard.
“That’s great, coming from the one guy I know to actually be addicted to casual sex,” Yancy sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose. “It is too early for this.”
“Dude, it’s like, seven in the morning,” Tendo said, and took his mug with his right hand, his left still typing readily away. Frankly, whenever Tendo would show off how he was ambidextrous all it did was creep Raleigh out. He began to sneak behind the counter.
“And have you slept at all since yesterday?”
“That’s not the point.” Tendo made a visible effort not to reach for his coffee.
The two continued to bicker pettily, poking fun at each other in the casual way that they had, and Raleigh, feeling his stomach rumble, took that as an invitation to drift slowly into the background, eventually disappearing through the back door.
The alleyway behind the row of shops was clean, and large enough for a car to pass through it. Raleigh strolled along until he came to the back door of the Hansens’ bakery, which was propped open to let out some of the heat from the great hulking ovens that were always going. The smell of sugar and baking bread burst out in an almost physical barrier when Raleigh first entered, and he stood in the open doorway with his eyes half-closed. He breathed in heavily and almost began to drool.
“God, I hate it when you do that,” Chuck said, breaking Raleigh out of his reverie. “It’s like I need to leave you alone with a tube sock or something,” he shuddered and continued his walk from the kitchen into the shop floor, a tray of croissants in one hand, held above his head. He slid the tray into their display rack and Raleigh followed like a trained dog.
Max, who was a trained dog, lifted his head when Raleigh entered and wagged his short stump of a tail. The English bulldog was sitting in his place of honor by the front door, on his small padded bed, with a bowl and water and of food within easy reach.
“Morning, Raleigh,” Herc Hansen appeared at his elbow, wiping flour from his hands on his apron.
“Sir,” Raleigh nodded in response. There was something about the ex-Air Force pilot that demanded respect, even when he had a bit of green food dye splattered on his face and his apron had ‘kiss the cook’ written on it in swirly script. Like now.
“Stopped by for breakfast, eh?” Herc watched as Raleigh’s eyes flickered hungrily towards the croissant tray. He chuckled. “Go on. We can spare you a free snack this once.”
Raleigh wasted no time in attacking the croissants, nearly knocking Chuck over in the process. He bit back his cursing, eyes on his father, and Raleigh was struck with the sensation that his presence had interrupted something he shouldn’t have been involved in.
“Wow,” Raleigh mouthed to Chuck, and his face twitched into a mask that confirmed everything. He moved past the front counter—not hopping over it like he usually would, since Herc was right there--and patted Max on the head. The bulldog gave a happy wiggle to be getting so much attention.
The morning was slow and lazy in the normal way, and Raleigh was intent on enjoying it, until he looked up from the slobbering adoration of the bulldog and saw an expensive car rolling slowly down the road, like a shark at sea. The windows were dark and tinted and he couldn’t see inside, but something told him exactly who it was.
“Hey,” Raleigh called out, and heard the sounds from the kitchen dying down as the Hansens gave him their attention, “I think that guy in the suit is driving around.”
“What guy in a suit?” Herc’s voice was gruff.
“Exy suit,” Chuck grunted, and it was only from five years of living next door to them that Raleigh could know he meant expensive. “He took a look ‘round the coffee shop like he was going out to buy curtains and needed the measurements.”
“Huh,” was all Herc said as he considered the car through the store windows. It was now nearing the Wei Triplet’s gym on the corner. Once it was past it sped up considerable until it was out of sight. “You ought to get going,” he said to Raleigh. “Your brother’s probably missed you.”
Raleigh couldn’t suppress a small sigh and he stood, brushing off his hands on his jeans. He left via the front door with a half-wave towards Chuck, who wasn’t even paying full attention, too intent on going through the mail. He removed a rather wide envelope and looked over his shoulder at his father, who was moving a rag around on the countertop, polishing it, and folded the envelope in half. Raleigh hesitated, looking in the window as he walked down the sidewalk, and saw Chuck lift his shirt and tuck the envelope into the waistband of his pants, dropping the shirt back in place to cover it. He then turned to his father, saying something, and Herc nodded. Chuck disappeared into the kitchen, probably to the apartments over the shop.
Shrugging it off as an internal strife, Raleigh kept moving, and pushed his way into the coffee shop, where Tendo was already on his third cup and arguing with Yancy colorfully about the morals behind not exclusively dating women in committed relationships. Tendo was for, Yancy was against.
“What about Alison?” Raleigh asked, jumping in headfirst.
Yancy shot him a glare while Tendo pointed at him excitedly. “Yes, exactly. Alison is a prime-o example of what I’m talking about.”
The comfort of old arguments with familiar faces surrounded Raleigh, and he prepared for another day of work.
The days moved in the same general patterns. Today was no exception, Raleigh found, creeper men in suits aside.
The normal flow of commuters on their way to work, a few at-home moms in midmorning, an intense influx of students from the college soon if not immediately after, looking disheveled and running late to their various classes. Lunch turned out to be too hectic for Raleigh to slip away as he normally did, either to screw around with the Weis or abuse Chuck, and after lunch they were swamped with students returning to study and use the Wi-Fi (Tendo, still at his table, noted smugly the amount of appraising looks Yancy’s behind was getting from young women who had asked for the Wi-Fi password).
Finally, when the influx had died down somewhat, most of the customers actively occupied, Raleigh asked Yancy for a minute to run over and sign up for the basketball tournament. Yancy, giving him a long cold look that told him he still wasn’t over the Wi-Fi incident, finally relented.
Raleigh was out of his apron in a flash, and out the front door even faster, running not to his right but to his left, into the bakery.
After checking that Herc was not at the counter and the nearest customer was listening to music through headphones, Raleigh mock-shouted, “Hey! Shit-for-brains!”
Chuck looked up and scowled as Raleigh waved madly from the doorway.
“Piss off!” Chuck called out in a stage whisper. With a frown, Raleigh stepped inside and walked up to the counter.
“Come on, we have to go sign up for the tourney the Weis are having next month,” Raleigh said, tapping the countertop. “We’ve won four years in a row.”
“I’ll sign up later,” Chuck replied, eyes shifty. “I’m not up for it now.”
“Because you’re swarmed with customers,” Raleigh quipped, pointedly looking around the mostly-empty space. Chuck bristled.
“Let it alone, okay?” he demanded. “I don’t want to go sign up for your fucking tournament right this second.”
Raleigh held up his hands. “Alright. Jesus, don’t throw a fit.”
Color rose in Chuck’s face and he looked like he wanted nothing better than to reach across the counter and break Raleigh’s nose; which he had actually done once when he was fourteen. Raleigh had tackled him across the counter and returned the favor. After that they had pushed their obvious hatred towards each other to one side in an attempt to keep them from being arrested for murder. An odd friendship that sometimes was almost broken, like now.
“Get out,” Chuck insisted roughly.
Without responding, Raleigh did so.
He let himself into the Crimson Typhoon Gym, which was half-full as it normally was around lunch. One of the brothers was at the front desk, his feet propped up and idly spinning a basketball on one finger. A pair of sunglasses was hanging around his neck, the legs secured on his temples. He noticed Raleigh walking in and grinned.
“Hey, man,” he said. Raleigh stopped at the desk and turned his head, narrowing his eyes.
The Wei triplet laughed. “It’s really me this time. Hu. Sunglasses one.”
“Ah,” Raleigh nodded, only half believing him. “You have the sign-up sheet?”
“What, no Angry Ginger Aussie?” Hu asked, and began going through papers stored under his desk for the sign-up sheet and clipboard.
“No,” Raleigh said shortly. Hu came up empty and shouted over his shoulder in Chinese. Cheung emerged from behind some machines and walked over. He smiled apologetically at Raleigh.
“Sorry man, we’ve had to do a rain check on the tournament for now. Probably reschedule it.”
“What’s up?” Raleigh asked.
The two present triplets shared a look that Raleigh could have sworn contained telepathy of some kind.
“Don’t worry about it,” Hu said.
“It’s nothing,” Cheung said. They both preformed the same waving hand gesture, almost in sync.
Raleigh tracked his eyes from one triplet to the next. “Okay…” he said slowly. “Tell me when it’s back on?”
“First thing, man,” Hu promised.
“No problem, Raleigh,” Cheung assured him.
He waved at them as he left, mind turning. From Chuck to the triplets and back again to Yancy, the day was turning out to be a bit more confusing than normal.
Yancy had his letter spread out on the countertop, wrinkled from when for five minutes he had hated it and crumbled it in a ball to throw into the trash. When the five minutes were up he had fished it out and smoothed out the bends and folds until it was flat again. He felt that by now he could recite it from memory.
The bell over the door rang, and he swept his letter off of the counter, looking up. Raleigh walked in and actually used the gate to get behind the counter rather than sliding across the top, which immediately set off red flags in Yancy’s mind.
“What’s up?” he asked, slipping the letter into the front pocket of his apron.
Raleigh’s eyebrows were touching as he made a face. “Something’s going on.”
“Things usually do go on, around here,” Yancy commented lightly.
“I’m being serious. The Weis canceled the tournament, Chuck is on his period, there’s a guy in a suit, and you…” he drifted off and looked at Yancy. “You’re hiding something from me.”
Yancy actually could not deal with this right now. A headache gathered behind his eyes like a storm cloud. “We’ll… I promise that we’ll talk about it when we close up, okay?”
Raleigh gave him a sharp look. Yancy sighed and massaged his temples. “Come on, little brother. Just this once, don’t try and read my mind.”
With a grunt, Raleigh made a face like he had tasted something sour and headed into the back room to grab his broom, sweeping up around the shop, crowded with people. Yancy watched him as he worked, occasionally pausing to squint at cars passing by, undoubtedly on the lookout for his mysterious suited man.
Yancy restrained himself from pulling out the letter, and was looking around, hungry for something to do, when the door opened once again with a loud ringing of the bell. A smile took over his face.
“Marshal!” Yancy laughed, getting out from behind the counter to meet the tall uniformed man with a handshake.
Stacker Pentecost smiled widely. “Mr. Becket,” he said warmly.
“With all due respect sir, what the hell are you doing here?” Yancy laughed. The last time he had seen Stacker Pentecost in person face to face, he had been in military school getting reprimanded for one of Raleigh’s pranks and getting a commendation for his grades at the same time.
“I have a proposition for you,” Stacker said plainly. He looked around the crowded late-afternoon shop, a few students leaving and getting replaced by office workers and teachers out from giving lectures. As he cast his eyes over Tendo, the man shrank back visibly, tilting his computer screen away from the uniformed and intimidating man. “Can we go somewhere private?”
Yancy opened and closed his mouth. “Raleigh, think you can man the counter on your own?” he asked. Raleigh made an affirmative noise, leaning on his broom. He hadn’t had anywhere near as close a relationship with Stacker as Yancy and so only acknowledged him with a deep nod.
Yancy lead the way into the back room and then up the stairs into the second floor, guiding Stacker over some haphazardly arranged clutter into the living room and kitchen combo. “Sorry for the mess,” he apologized.
Stacker looked around, not in a critical manner.
“So, what’s going on?” Yancy asked.
“I have a favor to ask of you.”
Raleigh was behind the counter, drumming his fingers and wondering why old Marshal Pentecost was talking to his brother, when she walked in.
It wasn’t that he stopped breathing… it was that breathing didn’t seem entirely necessary.
She poked her head inside the shop, looking around for a moment before fully walking inside. She wore a long dark coat belted around the thinnest part of her waist, and her hair was cropped short with two lines of electric blue along her jaw, defining it. It was a nice jaw, Raleigh thought stupidly before he mentally slapped himself.
After she finished her once-over of the people inside the shop (Tendo eyed her dark coat and again fiddled with his screen), she approached the counter. Raleigh suddenly forgot what he was supposed to open with once she reached him. Was it ‘what can I get you’ or was he supposed to welcome her to the shop first? Should he tell her hello?
“Excuse me,” she asked him in a light accent, “Have you seen a man in a uniform in here?”
“Um,” Raleigh answered cleverly. He then quickly reset. “Yeah. Marshal Pentecost? He’s upstairs with my brother.”
She looked at him more closely. “You are Raleigh Becket?” she asked, and he thought he heard a tone of surprise in her voice.
He smiled, spreading his arms. “The one and only. Do you want me to show you to him?”
She shook her head, blue hair swishing. “No, no it’s fine. I can wait.”
After a momentary pause Raleigh suggested, “Do you want to get something to drink?”
“Sure,” she agreed quickly. Her eyes moved over the sign hanging above Raleigh’s head, reading through the offered combinations and drinks. “What’s good?”
Raleigh also looked over his head at the menu, suddenly forgetting what it was they even served. “Mostly everything,” he said. “I could throw something together for you. Off the menu.”
She returned her eyes to him. They were a really lovely shade of brown. “Really?”
“Really,” he replied. “It’s no problem. Um. Coffee or tea base?” he asked, turning towards the machines.
“… Tea,” she decided. He got to work, occasionally asking her questions as he compiled a drink together with her watching his moves with her lovely eyes.
“Fruit or candy?”
“Hot or cold?”
He finished up the drink with the foam image of a crab, mostly because it was the only thing other than a starburst that Raleigh was capable of making in foam; Yancy was the one with the artistic eye, his photographs spread all over the shop. He handed it across the counter to her and leaned on it as she took her first sip.
“I’m normally good at reading people,” he explained quickly. “And I’m hoping that this works.”
She put down the cup and smiled at him. “It’s delicious,” she admitted.
His smile threatened to physically harm him, it was so wide on his face. “Great! Now you have your own signature drink, should you ever come back,” he said.
She took another long drink, but he caught her pleased smile all the same.
“What’s your name?” he asked her. She opened her mouth to answer when the door behind Raleigh with the BECKETS ONLY sign swung open.
“Mako.” Stacker’s voice was instantly recognizable. Raleigh turned around quickly to face him. He emerged from the back room with Yancy on his heels, looking far too pleased with himself. “I see you already met Raleigh.”
She answered him in a string of Japanese, which Raleigh muddled through. His Japanese was rusty. Something about her picturing him differently.
He took a leap. “Better or worse?” he asked, eyes twinkling even as he internally cringed away from his horrible accent.
Yancy choked back a laugh while Mako looked at him like she had been caught with her hand in the cookie jar. A blush crept up the back of her exposed neck.
Stacker turned to Yancy. “Mako, this is Yancy Becket, the owner of the café. Yancy, this is my daughter Mako Mori.”
“It’s nice to meet you,” Mako told him as they shook hands. Yancy returned the feelings and looked to Stacker, almost expectantly.
“Mako is going to be attending Pan-Pacific State University this year,” Stacker explained, placing a proud hand on her shoulder. She glowed. “Since I will be heading to Hong Kong for my work I wanted to introduce her to an old friend or two in the neighborhood.”
“I’m flattered you count me as an old friend,” Raleigh commented in a confused tone. His interactions with Stacker when in military school were nothing if not openly hostile.
“I don’t,” Stack said stiffly, and Yancy wiggled his eyebrows at his younger brother.
“Right,” Raleigh muttered to himself, glancing at Mako and blushing at how she pressed down a smile at his expense.
“Yeah, Herc is still right next door,” Yancy seemingly picked up their conversation again. “We’ve got a sweet town here. Privately owned businesses, good student population.”
Stacker nodded and Mako looked almost beside herself with contained joy.
There was a little bit more conversation, during which Raleigh wiped at the countertop methodically while Mako finished her drink. Then she and Stacker left and Yancy knocked into Raleigh’s shoulder with a pointed look.
“Shut up,” Raleigh said sharply. Yancy chuckled.
At the end of the day, Yancy took in the sidewalk board and locked the front door, turning the sign around. He turned on his heel, wiping chalk dust off of his hands, and collided chest-to-chest with a waiting Raleigh.
“Explain,” Raleigh said as Yancy reeled back. “Now.”
“God, at least stack some chairs first.” He hid how his heart was racing.
Raleigh gave him a look, and stacked the chairs on top of the tables in record time. He stood in front of his brother again, one eyebrow raised. Yancy sighed and dragged one hand through his hair. “Come on,” he said, and lead his brother up to their apartment, switching off the lights as he did so.
Yancy sat down in his armchair and faced Raleigh, falling into their incredibly plush couch. From the pocket of his jeans, Yancy took out a letter. He handed it silently to Raleigh and motioned for him to read.
After several long minutes Raleigh looked at Yancy.
“New York?” he asked bluntly.
Yancy nodded. “One of the best culinary institutes in the entire world.”
Raleigh looked at the letter again. “And they’re giving you a free ride?”
“Just for a semester. Six months. But still—that’s incredible. By the time I get back I could know enough for us to convert this place into a full-on restaurant. Just like…” Raleigh looked back at him. Yancy suddenly had a lump in his throat that he had been fighting all day.
“Just like Mom wanted,” Raleigh finished for him.
There was a long, pregnant pause during which neither brother could look at each other. Then Raleigh spoke up again.
“So we’re closing up for six months?”
“No,” Yancy answered immediately. “No way.”
“I can’t run the entire shop on my own, Yance,” Raleigh pointed out pettily. “It’s impossible. The load that I would have to take—“
“You’ll be sharing the load,” Yancy interrupted. “Mako Mori.”
Raleigh raised an eyebrow. “What about her?”
“She didn’t get accepted into on-campus housing and needs a place to stay. Stacker was also concerned about her getting a job, and I told him she could work and live here while she attended school. She’s got mostly morning classes—“
“And God knows that you never were any help in the mornings anyway,” Raleigh joked. Yancy frowned and huffed to himself.
“Anyway… she’ll be working here, and she’ll have my room. You’ll be manager; she’ll be the employee. Everyone wins.”
Raleigh’s mouth was horribly dry. “It’s always been you and me,” he said faintly.
“I know,” Yancy’s voice was strained. “But this… this is a chance I need to take, kiddo. You’ll do fine—as long as you don’t get cocky.”
Raleigh gave a bitter laugh. “You’re just leaving me, high and dry.”
“Raleigh,” Yancy’s voice was dark. “Don’t ever think that I would leave you of my own free will. You’re all I’ve got. I’ve stood by you your entire life—Mom’s death, Jazmine leaving… military school, dropping out of college… that was your choice, and I supported you. Well, this is my choice, and I want you to support me on it. Please.”
“… When do you leave?” It’s not acceptance, not really, but it was as good as it was going to get.
“… Tomorrow morning.”
“Of course you do,” Raleigh muttered, and rubbed at his face with his hands.
“I’m trusting you to get me up early enough to catch my plane,” Yancy tried to joke. Raleigh’s responding laugh was nowhere near sincere, but at least he tried.
Saturday morning, Raleigh had a bitter taste in his mouth as he parked the car in their normal space in the parking lot for the park, across the road from the shop. Yancy had been bundled off, disheveled and half-asleep, onto his plane for New York, with promises to call once he got there. For the first time in his life, Raleigh was alone.
“Keep the place going for me,” Yancy had said as he hugged his brother in the airport terminal. “Promise me.”
“I promise.” Raleigh’s voice was thick.
Yancy was five years older than him, but they had stuck together through everything life had to throw at them. Yancy even attended college at the same all-level military school they were handed over to for the exact purpose of keeping an eye on Raleigh while he went through high school hell. But then Raleigh was out and refused to go on to college. For a while their lives leaned back and forth between barely coping and happily wandering, until they found a little post-it note in their mother’s files. The coffee shop they had grown up it had not been sold on her death, like they had thought. It was boarded up and awaiting them.
Always side by side. The Becket Brothers. Tag-team fighters when push came to shove. They had each other’s back.
Raleigh let himself out of the car and walked, alone, across the street.
Mako straightened her back as she spotted Raleigh walking across the street, eyes on the tops of his shoes. She stood waiting in front of the café, glad that today was the only day of the week she didn’t have a class first thing in the morning. Then, as he got closer, she quickly adjusted her clothes, just so, making sure that she looked calm and composed when he finally looked up. He stopped in his tracks.
“Good morning,” she said, breaking the silence.
He gave himself a small shake and walked up to her, unlocking the door to the shop. “Morning,” he replied. His throat sounded sore.
“Sorry,” he apologized as he let her in. “I’m a little out of it this morning.”
“It’s no problem, Mr. Becket,” she told him. He winced.
“Please, just call me Raleigh.”
She nodded quickly. “Right. Raleigh.”
“Well,” he said, heading behind the counter. “I suppose I’ll start the tour.” She followed him into the back room that was mostly used for storage: cleaning supplies and a dishwasher with boxes of napkins and to-go cups. At the end of the room there was a door with a plate of frosted glass in it at eye-level, and directly to the right of that was a rickety-looking wooden staircase, leading very steeply up. The steps creaked under her weight as she followed Raleigh up.
“This is your room,” he said, waving hand to the room directly to the right of the staircase, hidden a bit behind it. “And that one’s mine.” He gestured to the one next to it. “Bathroom. Kitchen. Living room.” The apartment was small and cramped, the roof slanted at odd points. Mako’s room—Yancy’s old room—had a wall that was barely three feet tall because of the slant.
“It used to be the attic before we converted it,” Raleigh shrugged helplessly as she stared. He led her back down the stairs. “Um, we open at seven,” he said, “but I’m usually up at six so I can get everything set up. Feel free to tell me if I’m too noisy or something.”
The sentence settled oddly in Mako’s mind and she ducked her chin into her collar at the sudden thought of lying awake in bed, hearing Raleigh making noises in the next room.
They went back downstairs.
“The street is pretty sweet,” Raleigh explained. He led her back outside, dragging the sidewalk board out with them to set up. He pointed. “We get our baked goods from the Hansens in the bakery there. You met Herc yesterday?”
Mako nodded. After drinking the cup of heaven that Raleigh had given her, she and her father had gone next door to visit his old army buddy, a loud redheaded Australian man who gave her free pick of anything on display. The apple tart had nothing on Raleigh’s brew.
“And then on the other side of them,” Raleigh continued, “You’ve got the Kaidanovskys.” He raised a hand in greeting to a giant with peroxide blond hair as he emerged, propping the door open. The wave was returned and then he disappeared back inside.
“Music store,” Raleigh explained. “Mention that you work here and they’ll let you in on our discount.”
Mako nodded seriously, creating a list of names and shops in her mind.
Finally, Raleigh pointed down the rest of the street. “The Wei triplets’ gym. Again, mention the café and they’ll probably let you in without charge.”
She looked curiously at the large storefront, painted a bright fire-truck red, and made a note to duck in later, on her way to class if possible, and check out if they had any martial arts courses she could enroll in.
“So…” he ended awkwardly, “that’s the neighborhood.”
Finding nothing to say, Mako only nodded. Raleigh stuck his tongue in his cheek and then exhaled slowly. By an unspoken request, both of them walked back inside the shop.
“Do you have any experience working in a coffee shop?” he asked her.
She hesitated. “No,” she admitted sheepishly.
He shrugged, lifting a weight from her shoulders. “You’ll learn,” he said easily. “Ah, here. You can go put your stuff upstairs and put on this apron.”
She grabbed the apron he tossed at her with one hand and rushed to do so, throwing down her bag and coat. As she was heading down the stairs, she paused at the loud cry of “DICKWEED!”
“Jesus, Rayleigh, keep it down, will you?” was the response.
Mako continued down the stairs until she could see Raleigh at the back door, holding it open for what could only be Herc’s son Chuck as he rolled a dolly filled with pink pastry boxes into the shop. The cluster of bodies and boxes clogged the back room and blocked the staircase, trapping Mako a few steps above them. She coughed and they both looked up, Chuck a bit blearily.
“Chuck, this is Mako Mori,” Raleigh introduced her. “She’ll be working here while Yancy’s out.”
Chuck grunted vaguely in her direction and followed Raleigh to the counter, where he began to unload baked goods into the display case. Mako hesitated in the doorway, and Raleigh caught her eye.
“Uh… here,” he said, and handed her a rag. “Take down the chairs and wipe off the tables.”
She did so and went about her business, the hair on the back of her neck rising at the tense silence between the two young men, incredibly unnatural-feeling. The air was full of emptiness where it should have been full of sound.
Chuck unloaded his delivery, got Raleigh’s signature, and left.
The day was a loud flurry of introductions and Raleigh pointing Mako in the right direction. He handled the actual process of making the coffee and tea while Mako was delegated to picking up cups and wiping down tables. And she was fine with that.
Mako loved people watching.
A few other students she knew came and went, exchanging a few words with her as she worked. But for the most part Mako was surrounded by strangers. Hurried workers, mothers with children in tow, a young teenage couple who sat together and held hands under the table as they shared a hot chocolate. Mako watched them all, picturing their stories and their histories within the few minutes it took for them to place their order and receive it.
Just after lunch Raleigh called her over. “You’re doing great,” he told her honestly, and she had to smile at the glow in his eyes. His day, so far at least, was going well. Better than he expected, really.
“Thank you,” she said.
He looked around. “Normally after lunch things die down. Go ahead and take a break. Here.” He passed a mug over, and she felt warmth spread over her face at the crab formed by foam on the top. She was moving away from the counter with her prize piping hot in her hands, when the bell over the door rang and suddenly the shop was full of the noises of two people who hate each other but secretly were in love.
“It was unacceptable, unacceptable--!”
“It was a joke, Hermann, geez, keep your shirt on—”
“And you continue to disregard my opinions and grievances—”
“Your grievances are ridiculous and you know it, you’re just too invested to even admit that it was a little bit funny—”
“It was not—”
“Just a little bit—”
“Dr. Gottlieb!” Mako cut in, smiling. Raleigh had to admit he was impressed at how a simple greeting immediately defused the argument, distracting them long enough for the anger to die out.
Hermann’s eyes widened a bit. “Miss Mori!” he exclaimed, and then shook her hand. “One of my brightest,” he said smugly to Newt, who rolled his eyes.
“Every one of your students we meet is your ‘brightest’,” he muttered. “Like it’s a contest.”
There was another argument as they ordered, something about whose tab was going to bear the weight and whether Newt could have a brownie with his diet (“I wasn’t even aware I was on a diet!”) before they paused long enough to take up their usual table by the door.
“You’re in Dr. Gottlieb’s class?” Raleigh asked Mako. She nodded. “What are you majoring in, anyway?”
“Double major,” Mako answered. “Engineering and computer sciences.”
Raleigh felt his eyes widen. “Wow,” was all he could say. Mako looked pleased.
He was casting out his mind for a good follow-up question, like wow that’s incredible how did you become so smart? when the door opened and he stood straight, stiffening. Mako looked in bewilderment between Raleigh and the man who had just entered. He wore an expensive suit and his chin seemed almost knife-sharp.
With a large, white smile on his face that looked totally unnatural, he approached the counter.
“Mr. Yancy Becket?” he asked.
“He’s not in right now,” Raleigh said bluntly. “Can I take a message?”
“If you could give him this—” he placed a large manila folder on the counter, “and tell him that it is of a certain importance, then I would be very grateful.” His smile stretched. “Have a nice day.” He turned and left, leaving the folder on the countertop, with Raleigh staring at it intensely. He picked it up with one hand, hefted it, and then placed it under the counter without opening it.
Mako finished her drink and retrieved her rag.
So far as first jobs went, Mako had no real complaints. Raleigh was nice and welcoming, although he seemed a bit overwhelmed at working the counter alone in the Saturday rush, but Mako was sure that soon enough she could learn how to manage and help him. Come closing he helped her stack chairs and lock up.
“Do you have classes tomorrow?” he asked as they walked together into the back room. Mako cracked a smile at the alteration to the EMPLOYEES ONLY sign.
“Yes, at eight,” she said.
He nodded. “I’ll try not to wake you up too early.”
They stood awkwardly in the hallway at the top of the staircase.
Mako was the first to find words. “Goodnight.”
They parted ways and shut themselves into their individual rooms. Raleigh collapsed with a sigh and a creaking of bedsprings that was audible through the walls, and Mako drifted off to sleep at the sound of him tapping on a calculator and occasionally muttering to himself.
Five days passed, all similar. Mako attended classes and showed up in time for the afternoon rush. At night she did her homework while Raleigh muttered to himself over piles of paper. He did not open the envelope.
To both of their dismay, they spoke very little outside the shop, and days were so frantic that Mako never once touched a machine.
They wanted to speak, to learn about each other. But there was a wordless understanding already there that neither of them wanted to break. They worked on alone, intensely aware of each other’s presence, and let their urges simmer.
Mako woke up late Wednesday night to the squeaking of wood planks. She sat up in bed and saw a small sliver of light appear underneath her door as a light in the hallway was turned on. She heard Raleigh moving around, shuffling, attempting to be quiet and then failing as he ran into some piece of furniture in the living room and cursed.
She slipped out of bed and padded to the door.
It opened with the crack facing down the hallway towards the living room, and she peeked through, seeing Raleigh on the floor between the couch and the coffee table. He held the folder in his hands.
Mako opened the door wide enough for her to squeeze through, and she approached him quietly. He glanced up and jumped a little.
“Sorry,” he said. “Did I wake you up?”
She shook her head and after a moment sat down opposite him, her back against the armchair.
“Are you alright?” she asked. He looked blankly at her. “You aren’t ready to manage the shop without your brother,” she explained. “You don’t have the patience or the organization skills. Not having him… it must be difficult.”
He gave a small laugh. “Thanks for the honesty.” With a sigh he stretched his tired muscles. He had never realized how much Yancy actually handled. Restocking, bookkeeping, repairing machines, changing the boards and the recipes, organizing their newsletter… it had him incredibly beat. His head was buzzing, and had been buzzing for five days. “But yeah, you’re right. I’m not sure how long I can handle this, but I can’t let Yancy down. I can’t.”
“What’s in the envelope?” she asked.
He looked coldly at it. “A… it’s an offer. To buy the café.” He dragged his hands down his face. “Just my luck.”
Mako made a small shrug. “Refuse.”
He nudged the letter bundle towards her. “Read it. I don’t think that they really expect me to.”
She took it and read it through. The company, one she had never heard of, was offering Yancy—more specifically, the Becket Family—a good amount of money for them to hand over the Gipsy Danger Café. But, there was an undertone of refusal leading to something much worse. It sent a chill down her spine.
“What are you going to do?” she asked. “Are you going to tell Yancy?”
“I can’t,” Raleigh replied. “This is me. He’s trusting me to handle whatever happens on my own.” Before he knew what was happening he continued to speak. “This café… it means a lot to him. To both of us. Our mother bought the place before I was even born… I grew up here. When she died we thought it was gone, along with everything else we had of hers. My sister left, my dad never was around… If I can’t keep it going on my own… it feels… disrespectful. Hell, it feels like without this place a part of me would be missing, you know? Yancy is all I had, and now he seems to be moving on. Now all I’ve got—” he cut himself off suddenly. “I’m sorry,” he chuckled.
“For what?” Mako’s voice was low and she was leaning forward with an interested look.
“We just met and I’m already dumping my entire sob story on you.” He laughed quietly.
“I understand,” she spoke up quietly after a brief silence. “When my parents died I had nothing of theirs to remind me of where I came from, who they were. When Marshal Pentecost adopted me and brought me to America I felt like part of me was missing, left behind in Japan.”
“Does the feeling ever pass?” Raleigh asked, sinking exhaustedly back into the couch, knees drawn up.
Mako didn’t need to answer. He knew.
“If you don’t mind me asking,” Raleigh spoke up, “How did your parents die?”
For a moment she was quiet and Raleigh thought about apologizing. Then, she spoke. “There was a product that was being sold in our village. Kaiju Blue. A kind of scouring soap, very potent and acidic. Like…”
“Comet? Ajax?” Raleigh supplied in a flat voice. She nodded.
“Yes. It was not safe, and my parents and many others in the village were poisoned from it. They died horrible deaths, but I was saved. Miraculously.” Her voice was bitter.
Raleigh did not apologize. They both knew how each other had heard the same empty apologies over and over again until they were near deaf. Apologies did no good.
For reasons he couldn’t understand, Raleigh said, “My mother died of lung cancer.” After he had spoken he began mentally berating himself, flinching internally. But that’s barely the same thing.
Mako reached over the table and placed her hand over his. Her eyes spoke volumes. Loss is not measured. It is the same.
Suddenly he sat up; she removed her hand. He missed it. “Did you feel that?” he asked. “Just then. I was thinking, ‘it’s not the same thing’.”
Her eyes widened a bit. “And then I—“
“You thought ‘it is the same thing’,” he said. Her mouth opened in surprise. “You did!” he exclaimed in excitement. He shifted his weight so that he was balanced on the balls of his feet, crouching. “I mean, I’m usually in Yancy’s head but I thought that that was just because I’ve known him my entire life.”
Mako leaned forward as well. “And I don’t know how I knew what you were thinking; I’m normally good at reading people but you…” she drifted off and then sat back. “You’re different.”
He grinned at her in the dimness. “I’m glad,” he said. He then glanced at a clock and cursed. Two in the morning. “I’m sorry about waking you up,” he said as they stood and made their way to their bedrooms. Raleigh left the envelope and letter on the table.
“It’s okay,” she said, and they said goodnight. He shut his door, although not completely, and Mako continued down the hall. His words were turning over in her head. Without this place a part of me would be missing. He was barely holding on as it was, and with this new threat to face…
She turned on her heel and walked up to his door. She knocked, but her hand made contact with the wood and it swung open, revealing Raleigh in the process of removing his shirt.
She stared. He stared back.
Without another word she turned and walked quickly to her room, shutting the door and leaning against it. She had forgotten was she wanted to say.
The next morning Raleigh woke up to the sound of his alarm. Had it always been that grating? He couldn’t remember. He squinted at it, looking for the sleep button, but couldn’t locate it. With a sigh he turned the alarm off and got out of bed. It turns out that late-night deep emotional conversations with a girl he barely knew and yet was strangely compatible with did not aide a man in getting a good night’s sleep.
He rubbed at his face, eyes half-shut. He stumbled down the hallway. Better to get Yancy up now so he would have time to grab a shower. “Yancy!” Raleigh slurred, twisting at the doorknob. “Yancy, get up…” he opened the door.
Mako sat up in bed.
Suddenly Raleigh was wide awake.
“Sorry! Sorry--!” he shut the door. “Sorry!” he shouted through the wood. His face felt like it was on fire. You’re a twenty-three year old man, Raleigh, he told himself. Don’t be such a preteen.
“Sorry!” he called out one more time, and thought he heard Mako laughing through the door. Raleigh immediately turned around and mounted the banister of the staircase. He slid down and stumbled as he reached the bottom. There was a silhouette in the window of the door.
Chuck looked rather abashed. “Hi,” he said.
Raleigh narrowed his eyes. “That’s the first straight word you’ve said to me in three days.”
“Don’t ruin it,” Chuck rolled his eyes. “Prick,” he added, an almost hopeful tone in his voice.
“Asshole,” Raleigh replied. His voice was almost kind. He held the door open for Chuck to maneuver inside with his dolly. As they were forcing their way through the cluster to get to the main room, Mako appeared at the top of the stairs, dressed for school with her bag on one shoulder.
Raleigh immediately launched into a string of sheepish apologies about waking her up so early, trying to explain his insomnia, and she simply cut him off, hefting her bag higher on her shoulder.
“It’s fine,” she said. “And in a way it’s a bit of a fair trade.” She looked down at his chest.
It took him a moment. Red rushed to his face and she smiled, drifting out the door. He watched as she turned right and walked down the sidewalk, on her way to Thursday classes.
Raleigh turned to Chuck, who had watched the interaction silently and was now looking at him with a blunt expression.
“Shut up,” he snapped.
“I didn’t say anything, fuck-face.” Chuck grunted and went back to work unloading the boxes into the trays.
“You were thinking something.” Raleigh frowned and lowered chairs to the floor, wiping down the tables as he did so. It was the most comfortable morning he had felt in weeks, his sleepless night notwithstanding.
Next door, Max exploded into loud, crazed barks.
“Max!” Chuck vaulted the counter and ran to the front of the shop, bursting out of the door with Raleigh on his heels. They skidded to a stop in the sidewalk, shocked.
The entire sidewalk in front of Cherno Alpha Music was covered in shards of glittering glass, the entire front window gone from the shop. Raleigh could see on the ground pieces of glass covered in paint, advertisements and displays that Sasha had painstakingly done herself. The displays of CDs and records near the window had also been smashed, a large, sizable rock sitting in the middle of a pile of glittering fragments of CD cases and snapped vinyl.
A car was speeding away.
Raleigh knew exactly who was inside.
Boredom and caged frustration pressed down Chuck’s spine as he helped the huge man that was Aleksis Kaidanovsky sweep glass fragments from the sidewalk with a push broom. Raleigh worked beside him, and inside two of the Wei brothers were helping Sasha with the crushed display cases. The tough blonde had already decided, much to her husband’s amusement, to incorporate the rock into their décor as a show of strength.
Chuck had been forced to go as a representative of the bakery to help with the clean up while Herc did the morning prep work. Normally Chuck would relish any excuse to escape the stifling atmosphere of the shop and the heavy silences with his father, but something was off.
“Oi!” Chuck called out to Raleigh. “You got the time?”
“Why?” Raleigh scoffed, “You got a hot date?”
Chuck ground his teeth and gave him a look. Raleigh sighed and looked at his watch. “It’s nearly eight. Why?”
“Oh, I don’t know, Manager,” Chuck sneered, “but isn’t it a little strange that we haven’t had anyone drive or walk by in the past hour?” Both Raleigh and Aleksis shared a single shocked look. Chuck scoffed. “It’s like you two walk around with your eyes closed,” he muttered, and leaned his broom over his shoulder. Raleigh and Aleksis didn’t seem to hear him. The big man ducked his head into the store and exchanged brief words with his wife in Russian, and Raleigh began walking down the street, anger in his step.
Chuck looked over his shoulder and saw his father through the window, wiping sweat from his forehead with the back of his hand. For a moment he was tempted to make use of the emptiness and tell his father everything. He would never get a better chance.
He leaned his broom against a wall and followed Raleigh.
Chuck strolled while Raleigh raged, and so arrived just as Raleigh was kneeling, looking at the barrier of cones and signs at the end of their street.
He noticed Chuck approaching leisurely. “They blocked off the road!”
“I can see that.”
Raleigh was steaming. “They actually put in a request to City Hall to have the street blocked off for ‘repairs’. No cars or pedestrian traffic allowed for the day.” His voice was dangerously low.
“Pity,” was all Chuck said, hands in his pockets. “Looks like we’re in for a holiday.” He then blinked. “Who’s ‘they’?”
Raleigh seemed deep in thought. “Tell you later,” he brushed Chuck off, heading back towards the shops to share the bad news. Chuck hovered on the edge of the street for a few more minutes, taking in the cars rushing past just beyond it, heading off to God-knows-where.
Slowly, sluggishly, he walked back towards the bakery, his mind God-knows-where.
Mako pushed the door to the café open and paused, surprised. At first glance, there were no customers inside—all she saw were Aleksis and Sasha Kaidanovsky sitting together by a boom box that was blasting music, and the Wei Triplets were at the other end of the floor, kicking a hacky sack around. Herc and Chuck Hansen sat at the same table, not looking at each other. Chuck’s dog Max was in his lap, panting and looking very pleased to be held. It was noon, around when the shop should have been swarmed.
Raleigh, behind the counter, doing nothing in particular, looked up as she entered. “Mako!” he looked relieved. “Everyone, she’s here!” The music cut out and everyone was looking at her expectantly.
“What’s going on?” she asked, moving to the counter. Raleigh opened his mouth to answer when the door opened once again.
Tendo Choi poked his head inside, looking around curiously. “Would you believe me if I said it was a matter of life or death?” he asked sheepishly, expression hopeful.
With a sigh, Raleigh gestured him inside and he grabbed a table. Raleigh pulled out the password chart without being asked and called across the room, “‘Yancy is a virgin’. All caps, no spaces.”
Tendo typed it in and sighed. “It’s not as fun when he’s not here.”
“Tell me about it.” Raleigh’s voice was quiet. Mako lightly touched his arm. It seemed to electrify him and he stood up a bit straighter, walking around to the front of the counter, leaning back against it. Mako stood next to him, watching his expression.
“We’ve all gathered here…” he began, and then paused to gather his thoughts. Then he looked through the front window and sighed. “Christ.”
This was not getting any easier.
Newt Geiszler and Hermann Gottlieb let themselves into the shop. “I told you that they were open!” Newt was saying. Hermann winced.
“Can’t you see that they’re having a private event?” he hissed, and then addressed Raleigh. “Please excuse him, he doesn’t understand a good instructional sign when he sees one.”
“It’s not a private event,” Raleigh sighed, and nevertheless whipped up their usual order. “Just, try and stick to the background.”
“Yeah, man, sure,” Newt agreed, and dragged Hermann off to a corner where they could argue quietly.
Raleigh faced the awaiting storeowners again. “Frankly I wanted all of you to be here because last week we received an offer. Someone wants to buy the café.”
The Kaidanovskys and the Wei brothers straightened slightly, and Herc tightened his jaw. Tendo looked up from his laptop. Chuck shrugged in the silence.
“Good for you?” he tried.
Raleigh glared, but it was Herc who answered. “We’ve been approached too,” he told his son gruffly. “They left us a letter with a lot of fancy words and a big number.”
“Even better,” Chuck snarled. A bit of unspoken tension passed like lightning between his father and him. Neither said a word.
In the silence, the Wei triplets and the Kaidanovskys raised their voices, adding in that they had been approached as well with offers to buy their businesses.
Raleigh pulled out the letter and offer he had received. “I got ours last week. What about you guys?”
“Two weeks,” Jin answered. “That’s why we canceled the basketball tourney. We didn’t know if…” all three brothers shared clear look. We didn’t know if we could hold out that long.
“Three,” Sasha spoke up. She moved to sit in her husband’s lap.
“We got ours three days ago,” Herc said.
“All by the same company. Why would they want to do that?” Raleigh scanned through the letter. “There’s a threat here, and it’s obvious that they’re going to follow up on it, judging by how Cherno looks right now.” Plywood boards had been bought and nailed over the gaping hole in the storefront.
“They want all the property on the block,” Mako chimed in. “Probably to build a singular building.”
“A chain store?” Cheung spoke up. “Strip mall?”
“I did some research on the company,” Raleigh responded. “They’re a supplier, some off-brand processor of plastics.”
They all let that sink in.
“Um, if I may?” Newt spoke up from his corner table while Gottlieb tried to shush him. “Can I see that?” Raleigh handed the letter over. He read quickly, mouthing the words to himself. Then he sat up straight. “Oh my God. Oh my God.”
“What?” Mako asked. He glanced up.
“This is an associate company,” he said. “Like… Johnson & Johnson technically makes Glade, but the Glade products are all marketed under the Glade Company. This is just the name that they use when they want to buy up large pieces of property without alerting their shareholders.”
“How do you know so much about this?” Gottlieb asked him.
Newt shifted uncomfortably in his seat. “I, uh…” everyone stared at him and he pushed forward awkwardly. “Before I got my teaching job at the university I worked in the biology division of a soap manufacturing company. Testing, biodegradable science, things like that. There was this huge incident where a bunch of people were killed and they swept it under the rug, so I quit. It was shady as hell, and I even marched against them a few times before I signed on to teach.” He lifted the letter up, looking incredibly uncomfortable. “This… this was one of their associate companies.”
His sentence dropped like a stone, slamming into everyone in the room. Then, they were all speaking at once.
“They want to build a factory here?”
“What can we do?”
“Why do they want our businesses?”
Everyone was speaking at once, with Max barking occasionally, adding to the din.
Mako’s voice cut through everything.
“The name,” she demanded. “What is their name?”
Newt swallowed. His voice was barely audible. “Breach Industries.”
Raleigh felt the energy falling off of Mako as she stood there, quietly, trembling a bit. He leaned against her slightly, reminding her that he was there as she drifted. “The makers of Kaiju Blue,” she said, voice dragging out, as if it pained her.
Newt adjusted his glasses. “Yeah.” He sounded as guilty as if he had been the one in charge during the fiasco. Gottleib reached over the table and placed his hand on Newt’s arm.
They were going to move into their block, possibly setting up offices for their corrupt workers who would let a tragedy pass them by, so long as it made them money. This fact settled down around them like a poisonous cloud. Mako leaned against Raleigh, their arms pressed together, and he felt her rage, her anger. The people who killed her parents were hovering over her life like a shadow, threatening to break in.
“Holy…” Herc sat up roughly in his chair, looking out of the window of the shop. At first Raleigh thought he saw one of the Breach representatives driving by, but all that was outside in the midafternoon light was the large park across the street. “They’re not coming after us for a goddamn office,” he said.
“The hell are you thinking, old man?” Chuck demanded, looking back and forth between his father and the window, not seeing what his father saw.
“Don’t call me that,” Herc snapped. He faced the entire room. “It’s city law that any piece of public land can be purchased for private use if the homeowners and private businesses surrounding it are in agreement. They’re buying us up so they can get to enough land for a factory.” He pointed at the park. “The houses around it are easy; all rentals or owned by the bank. We’re the only ones they need to intimidate.”
“If a factory goes up here, it could ruin the entire city,” Hermann stuttered. “Emissions, ruining the nearby housing units… the university could see a drop in applicants with the surroundings nothing but ash and supply trucks.”
Everyone was shouting and talking over each other again. Raleigh rubbed his face with his hands. Mako was leaning against him and he felt like the world was hanging on their shoulders.
There was nothing they could do.
Hours of talking, with Newt sheepishly adding in details of how Breach Industries was run, and they had only one viable option: hold out, for as long as possible. But, as Cherno Alpha Music’s front window could attest to, there was clock ticking down for all of them. None of them wanted to consider how far they were willing to go to get them out of their shops.
Mako was dangerously quiet.
“Don’t do anything stupid,” Chuck said to Raleigh as he left. “I know what you’re thinking about.”
“You have any better ideas?” Raleigh cast out weakly, opening his arms.
Chuck stared him down. “I have more pressing problems at the moment.” Without another word he left, tugging Max along behind him.
After locking up, Raleigh approached Mako, still leaning against the countertop. “I know what you’re thinking,” he said quietly. She looked up at him with wide brown eyes.
“We have to stop them,” she said.
“They could destroy everything.”
He ran one hand across the familiar countertop. “I know. They killed your family, and you want revenge.”
She turned to face him. “And they are threatening all that is left of your family now.” She waved one arm out, encasing the entire shop, even Yancy, working hard a continent away so he could come back with this store awaiting him and his new skills.
“Do you have a plan?” he asked tiredly. Without Yancy to ask for advice, he felt like he was powerless, missing an arm.
“Yes,” she replied immediately, surprising him.
“Oh,” was all he said. She smiled gamely, a spark igniting in her eyes. Raleigh felt his heart rate increase.
The next day, when Tendo arrived, they wasted no time.
“Tendo, we need you to hack into a high-security company,” Raleigh said without preamble.
“No I am not!” Tendo snapped immediately, slamming his laptop shut. He then took an appraisal of the situation, eyeing Raleigh and Mako up and down. “Wait, what?”
“Tendo, we know that you’re a hacker,” Mako said, hands placed commandingly on her hips. Tendo made loud shushing noises and looked around like he expected men in suits and sunglasses could be sitting at nearby tables talking into hidden wires. Raleigh looked around with him in confusion.
“What the—who the hell are you looking for, man? We need your help.”
Tendo took in a deep breath and released it slowly, his mind turning over the problem at hand.
“Alright,” he finally said, “Whaddya need, Becket-Boy?”
Tendo looked up at him with wide eyes. “You want me to hack into one of the most secretive and lucrative businesses this side of the Mississippi?”
“Yes.” Mako nodded.
Tendo considered the two of them, standing firm side by side for a moment and then ruefully shook his head. “Why did I even bother to ask?” he wondered aloud, pulling up a new command window. “I expect free coffee for this.”
“For life,” Raleigh promised.
With a satisfied smirk, Tendo’s fingers few across the keys, typing so fast that Raleigh couldn’t keep up. Mako and Raleigh tended to the shop and customers as best as they could, but their minds were clearly elsewhere. Mako completely forgot about her afternoon class.
Finally, after three-odd hours, Tendo gestured for Mako and Raleigh to come to his table.
“I got good news and I got bad news,” he said. “Which one do you want first?”
They both looked at him.
Tendo coughed. “Okay, good news it is. I have a virus ready that will re-program their firewalls, allow anyone access. From there the information on the Kaiju Blue scandal will get out and Breach will have to shut down.”
“What’s the bad news?” Raleigh dared to ask.
“… And that’s why we need your help,” Raleigh finished. “We need another set of eyes.”
Chuck looked back and forth between them with a shocked expression, standing just inside the kitchen of the bakery. “No!” he said. “Hell no, fuck no.”
“We need your help,” Mako said. He looked at her blankly and then leaned in close.
“What’s the matter, Chuck?” Raleigh burst out. “This isn’t just for the café, this is for the bakery too. Everyone on the block is counting on this.”
“Then ask them to risk their necks, not me!” Chuck exclaimed. “If you get caught—which you bloody well will, with that horrible plan—then it’s on my head too. I can’t risk that.”
“Come on—“ Raleigh started, but Chuck cut him off.
“If you want to ruin your life for a fucking shop block, go ahead,” Chuck exclaimed. “Me? I want a life. I want out of here, and, frankly, this whole fiasco is only helping me, in the long run.”
“What the hell is wrong with you, man?” Raleigh shouted. “You’ve been an ass lately. More than usual.”
“I’ve got plans.”
“Plans that you can’t risk for the sake of an entire neighborhood?” Raleigh asked sarcastically.
“Oh, I’m so sorry that I actually have plans for my future,” Chuck responded, voice rising. His face was flushed. “I hate to break it to you Rahleigh, but I’m not some half-assed dropout like you. I don’t want to spend my life stagnating behind a fucking order window. And if helping you endangers my chances of escaping… then count me out.”
“You are letting them get away with murder because of your selfishness,” Raleigh spat.
“I think at this point in my life I deserve to be selfish about something.” He looked Raleigh up and down. Everything between them was gone, evaporated in a single second. He then glanced at Mako. “When I want to throw my life away I’ll give you a call.”
Mako started forward, words already on her lips about how Raleigh had chosen his last connection to his family over college, but Raleigh stopped her. The tension had been clear on Chuck’s shoulders when they had first entered, and somehow Raleigh had known that they wouldn’t get his help, deep down. Chuck had been getting more and more agitated recently, standoffish and rude. More so than usual. Something was wrong; but the problems at hand had been more important.
Chuck scoffed at them. “That’s right, hold back your little girlfriend. God knows one of you bitches needs a leash.”
Raleigh didn’t know what he did. All he knew was that five seconds of red vision later he and Chuck were rolling along the bakery floor, crashing into rolling trays and metal fixtures. Fists were bloodied and Chuck spat out a mouthful of blood while Raleigh felt a cut open up on his cheek.
Chuck was pulled bodily off of Raleigh and he rushed to his feet. Herc held his son back.
“Get out!” Herc shouted. With one last blistering look at Chuck, Raleigh left, Mako following behind.
Herc let his son go.
“What. The hell. Was that?” he demanded.
“What do you care?” Chuck panted, wiping blood from his chin with the back of his hand. He hunched over, wincing, and didn’t look at his father, waiting with his arms crossed over his chest.
“I care because you nearly wrecked the kitchen, and God knows how much worse you’d look if you two idiots had gotten towards the ovens. You are your mother’s son,” Herc hissed. “Try and act like it.”
Chuck swallowed heavily. “Mum would have wanted this for me,” he said suddenly. Herc froze.
“What are you talking about?” he asked, voice low and cautious.
Chuck laughed bitterly, more blood dripping from his mouth. His teeth were stained red. “Come on, I know that you know. That’s why you’ve let me sneak around without talking to you. If you didn’t know, you would’ve been suspicious.”
At first, Herc didn’t reply. Then he said, “Come on, let’s get you cleaned up.” He placed one hand on Chuck’s shoulder.
“No!” Chuck dodged him, standing up straight. “You knew. And you didn’t say anything.”
Herc feigned not understanding. Then he sighed. “… I thought that if I didn’t talk about it, it would go away. You never brought it up, I thought that you stopped--!” His voice climbed in volume.
“It’s a full scholarship to AIC,” Chuck cut in sharply. “A free ride for four years. That’s not going to just stop.” His voice was full of acid. “I work hard my entire life and I never go so much as a ‘well done’ from you, and I finally do something worth it and you just want it to go away.”
“I never thought…” Herc’s voice caught and he exhaled slowly, sliding one hand down his face wearily. “I never thought about you going to college. I thought that this place would be enough.” He moved one hand to show ‘this place’. The kitchen, the bakery, the entire business.
Chuck was shaking his head, eyes closed and lips pressed together. “It’s not.” His voice cracked. “It’s not. I want a life of my own. And, in two weeks when the bus comes I’m getting on it.” He looked at his father, defiance in his eyes and his stance, daring Herc to try and stop him. He looked sadly at his son.
“When your mother died…”
“No. Don’t…” Chuck closed his eyes and set his jaw.
“When your mother died I had no idea what I was doing. I thought that this place could keep us… it could be something withstanding. I couldn’t lose you, too. But in the… in the clusterfuck that our lives were I forgot about you.” His voice was wracked with pain that Chuck couldn’t see. He closed his eyes tighter, seeing shapes in the colors there. A hospital bed. His mother with her hair falling out. His face was wet, but not with blood.
Herc’s hand was on his shoulder again, light. Chuck cracked open his eyes.
“Come on,” Herc said quietly. “Let’s get you packed.”
An immense weight fell from Chuck’s shoulders as he and his father walked upstairs.
Raleigh’s heart was beating a tattoo against his ribs as he looked down the small incline towards the dark and closed offices.
“Come on, Mako,” he urged under his breath. She had agreed to meet him here after her one evening class got out, and he had been waiting, crouched in the darkness, for half an hour, shivering slightly in his old dark jeans and black jacket. He rubbed his hands together nervously.
They had to get into the Breach Industry outbuilding offices, find a piece of paper with the local passwords on it—not unlike their own password graph back at the café—and bring it to Tendo to finish his virus.
Raleigh jumped, and a small hand clamped over his mouth to keep him from screaming. “Calm down.” Mako’s face was inches from his own in the darkness. “It’s me.”
She removed her hand after a moment waiting for him to calm down. He was breathing heavily. “Jesus, Mako,” he whispered. She smiled, and he finally got a good look at her.
Tight black jeans, a black leather jacket that showed off her curves. Her blue highlights almost glowed in the darkness.
She watched him as he made his observations, eyes moving rabidly over her. “What?” she asked in a playful voice. “Are you going to say anything?”
He cast his mind out for something clever to say (rejected telling her he loved her) and settled on “You look good.”
She grinned and crouched on the hill next to him, looking at the offices. “This is going to be dangerous,” she told him under her breath, getting close to him to keep their voices low. “They will have security that we need to get around.”
He nodded, turning over the situation in his head. “It will be dangerous,” he said. “You don’t have to…”
She gave him a look and he chuckled. She was with him all the way. For her family. For his family.
“I never thought about the future…” he said, looking at her, glowing in the darkness, so close he could the way her eyelashes curled and how her hair brushed finely against her cheeks. Then, with a small laugh he looked away. “I have terrible timing,” he said.
She took his hand. Nothing else needed to be said.
Together, they headed through the darkness towards the building.
“Oh God. Oh God.” Raleigh’s knuckles were white on the wheel of his car, and his foot pressed the gas pedal to the floor. In the passenger seat, Mako panted and hugged the password paper to her chest, slumped low in the seat.
As they raced away through the darkness Raleigh let up on the gas pedal; it would do them no good to be pulled over now for speeding. He took in and released a few calming breaths.
“… We did it,” he said in an awed voice. He looked over at Mako with his teeth white in the darkness. “We did it, Mako!”
“Watch the road,” she suggested, a smile on her face.
He turned back to the lonely road, still smiling. “God, you were incredible,” he said. “Absolutely mind-blowing.” He glanced at her again and she was smiling at him in that private way that made his chest seize up.
He wondered what would happen if he pulled the car to a stop and kissed her on the side of the road. For a wonderfully long moment, he wondered.
Then he focused on the dashed yellow lines and pushed the thought away.
Mako waited until Tendo showed up at 10 AM and asked for the Wi-Fi password. She brought the chart to his table to show him, placing it down on a pile of papers he already had out.
When she took the chart away, there was a new paper at the top of his stack. Tendo’s eyes widened slightly and he glanced at her. She nodded, and he cracked a grin.
“I knew you guys could do it,” he mumbled under his breath, and dragged the paper closer to his laptop, cracking his knuckles in preparation.
When Mako was back at the counter, she held up her fist and with a rather dopey smile Raleigh bumped it.
The next morning was Sunday. Raleigh allowed himself one morning to sleep in.
His door slammed open. “Raleigh!” Mako stood in the doorway. “Come watch the news.” He fell out of bed, tangled in the sheets, and ran with her to the living room, where the tiny television was turned on to the news.
“And today it has come to light the tragedy of deaths caused by acidic cleaner Kaiju Blue. These horrific deaths in Japan and elsewhere were covered up by the parent company Breach Industries. Breach Industries is now facing a federal lawsuit from several countries and has been shut down.”
They were laughing together, Raleigh lifting Mako up and spinning her around. She held onto him so tightly that he couldn’t breathe. And he didn’t care.
Their world wasn’t going to end.
The next two weeks were nothing but bliss.
Daily habits solidified again. Newt and Hermann showed up after lunch to argue and drink coffee, sitting a bit closer than was purely professional. Tendo would barge in at odd times and demand black coffee with a side of password. Now Mako was “Mori-Girl” to Raleigh’s “Becket-Boy”.
At night, they would pour over work together, her homework mingling with shop orders and finances, and they would sneak downstairs and make daring mixes of teas and drinks. Some of them worked out and were added to the sidewalk sign. Others had them spitting into the sink, doubled over in horrified laughter and rinsing out their mouths. They talked.
Raleigh told her about traveling aimlessly with Yancy. She told him about the beauty of the village where she was born. With her, his Japanese got considerably less rusty. Chuck came around a few times and in short, stuttering tones managed to get an apology across, with an explanation that Raleigh could buy but not fully forgive. There would always be something between them, now. Wounds that wouldn’t close.
“Good luck,” Raleigh told him. Not forgiveness.
Chuck nodded, once. “Thanks,” he replied. Not an apology.
It was as close as they would ever to the real thing, however. And two weeks passed.
Raleigh watched from the doorway of the café.
They stood side by side, echoed wide shoulders and set feet. Chuck was still a few inches shy of his father’s height, and it really showed in the early morning sun how his hair had only faint traces of his father’s red.
The bus arrived, pulling up to the corner and stopping with a hiss of released hydraulics. The door squeaked open and Chuck shouldered his bag. He turned to his father, and Raleigh could see the conflict of emotions crashing around on his face.
Herc was the first to speak. “Always having you around… I never felt it necessary… I never thought that I would regret all the things I never said.”
A small, sad smile flashed on Chuck’s face for a short moment before he sobered up. “It’s fine. I know them all.” He looked down at Max, sitting obediently by his father’s side. “Take care of him for me?” he asked, voice cracking a bit.
Herc’s answer was to crush his son in a backbreaking hug. Chuck’s hands tightened on the back of his jacket for a moment before they separated, looking like they’d been caught at something indecent. Chuck nodded once more and mounted the steps, heading into the empty interior of the bus and finding a seat.
Herc leaned into the doorway for a moment, addressing the bus driver. “Be careful,” he said, pride obvious in his voice, “that’s my son you got there. My son.” Raleigh thought he could see Chuck rubbing at his eyes inside the bus as it pulled away.
With one arm raised in farewell, Herc watched as the bus disappeared around the corner, out of sight. He then looked down to Max, who looked back and gave a small wag of his behind. Herc kneeled down and began to mechanically scratch at the dog’s ears. Raleigh had never seen an action so normal be performed with so much sadness.
Raleigh and Mako would rent giant monster B-Movies and watched them as they worked together at night. Homework and bills. Her specialty drink was placed on the menu as the Mako Mori Special.
When mid-terms came Raleigh closed the café for a day and bribed Dr. Gottlieb with free tea for a month to hold a day-long study session, with Newt sitting in the background with a muffin adding in his own opinions. When she got an A, Raleigh insisted that she tape it up behind the counter to show off her intelligence.
Herc made the morning deliveries, looking less and less downtrodden as time passed.
Before Raleigh knew what hit him, it was December and his life seemed impossibly perfect.
Except for one thing.
He still wanted to know what it would be like to kiss her.
“Kid!” Yancy exclaimed, slamming the cab door behind him. It wasted no time in taking off.
Raleigh was grinning like a fool. “Old man!” he returned, arms open wide. With a loud laugh, Yancy hugged him tight. He pushed Raleigh away and looked him up and down, hands on his shoulders.
“No missing limbs,” he observed. He looked over Raleigh’s shoulder at the shop. “And the café hasn’t burnt down. You did good, kiddo.” He slung one arm over Raleigh’s shoulder and led him into the shop, packed with people escaping the late December cold. Christmas decorations, strings of wrapping-paper origami cranes made by Mako and Raleigh late one night (Raleigh’s rather crushed ones were hidden in dim corners and behind the counter where no one could see them) pinned to the ceiling. Yancy let out a low whistle.
Mako was behind the counter, handing over a cup to a customer. As they passed, both Becket brothers snuck a peek at the design on the top. A Christmas tree. They shared an impressed look.
“Miss Mori!” Yancy greeted her warmly across the counter. “I see you’ve become quite the barista while I was gone.”
She ducked her chin into the collar of her shirt, colored with pride, and thanked him.
“Now, I was going to volunteer to help you guys out, but now that I see the shop is in capable hands, I’m going to order a chai latte and relax.” Raleigh bumped into Yancy’s shoulder as he snickered.
The day carried on as it usually did; when Tendo arrived he sat with Yancy and they caught up on what each other had been up to. Raleigh hovered nervously, wondering if Tendo would drop anything on the Breach incident, but he caught him watching and sent him a wink. Secrets were safe. Raleigh was able to relax and banter back and forth with Mako during the day, with Yancy watching contentedly.
That night Yancy helped Raleigh with reports, giving him a much-needed break and a few pointers.
Mako tried to let him have his room back and he refused. “I’d never force a lady from a bed to a couch,” he said. “I’ll be fine; God knows I’ve fallen asleep out here often enough.”
She nodded and they exchanged goodnights. Raleigh watched her head to her room and shut the door. When he looked back to help Yancy spread blankets over the couch, his older brother was looking at him fiercely, arms crossed over his chest.
“Do you love her?” he asked bluntly.
Shocked, Raleigh opened his mouth. Closed it.
Yancy smiled. “I thought so. This mental thing we have goes both ways, as it turns out.” Raleigh frowned at him.
“It doesn’t matter,” he said, and tossed his bundle of blankets onto the couch pettily still gathered.
“I think it does,” Yancy replied gently. He paused. “Do you think she knows?” His voice was carefully lowered.
Raleigh didn’t trust himself to answer, looking again down the hall to her closed bedroom door. “It doesn’t matter,” he repeated stubbornly. “’Night.”
“Goodnight,” Yancy said in an odd tone of voice, and watched as his younger brother slumped into his room, so obviously in love that it almost hurt.
The next morning, Raleigh hit his alarm and stretched, his late night conversation with Yancy weighing heavy in his chest. Did she know? Hell, he barely knew until Yancy brought it up. Did he dare to hope?
He got out of bed and got dressed, and emerged from his room at the same time as Mako. He couldn’t help but smile across the hallway at her, dressed in her work clothes. No classes; they were all out for winter break.
She smiled back and he nearly flinched, sliding down the stairs banister while she walked down the stairs in careful, measured steps. He wondered, not for the first time, what it would be like to dance with her. And, not for the first time, he shoved the thought away into a dark, deep corner of his mind.
Herc wasn’t there yet with their delivery, and they fell into easy, practiced step together, walking through the back room and into the front. Raleigh held the door open for her and she slipped under his arm. He followed just after her, and paused behind the counter with her at the sight of Yancy standing in the open space before the counter, waiting with his hands on his hips and a calculating look in his eyes.
“You’re awake!” Raleigh exclaimed in surprise and shock, immediately suspicious and looking over his brother for any sign of obvious injury. He moved to take a step forward.
“Stop!” Yancy said suddenly, hands held palm out. Mako and Raleigh paused in confusion. Yancy waited a beat and then pointed to the ceiling with one finger. Together, they glanced up.
Mistletoe. Taped sloppily to the ceiling above them. Raleigh felt his heart stop.
“There,” Yancy said, matter-of-factly. “I’ve saved you the awkwardness of finding an excuse to kiss each other. Go on.”
Raleigh looked at his brother and wondered if he could get away with killing him. He turned to Mako, color rising in his face, attempting to make some excuse on Yancy’s behalf, give her an easy way to say no…
She fisted her hands in his shirt and pulled him down to her level, kissing him. He wrapped his arms around her waist and pulled her close, their chests pressed together so that their heartbeats were felt as one.
Nothing else mattered.
Yancy left a week later, mourning the fact that he couldn’t spend Christmas with his younger brother, but secretly relieved he didn’t have to be surrounded by Raleigh and Mako being incredibly, stupidly in love with each other.
“Stay out of trouble,” Raleigh told him, laughing as they embraced at the front of the shop. A cab idled in the street, waiting.
“Hey, that’s my line,” Yancy joked, and ruffled Raleigh’s hair. “I’ll catch you later, baby bro.” He smiled widely over Raleigh’s shoulder, to the interior of the shop, dim and awaiting a new day. “I left something on the back door for you.” With that and one final embrace, he got into the cab and drove off, Raleigh waving after him.
He headed into the shop and paused, laughing quietly to himself at Yancy’s ‘gift’ before heading inside and up the stairs to wake Mako up.
When the door to the back room shut behind him, it was the same except for one small detail. A small piece of paper with a single word on it had been taped above the sign, a wedge indicating where it should be inserted in. All together, the sign now read:
BECKETS & MORI ONLY
It was a change, not a small one either, but it settled around Raleigh like it had always been there.