“You’re young, but you’re smart. I can see that none of this is making you quake in your lacy panty set. But keep in mind that all that means is I’ll expect no less of you than the other women working in the trenches with you. Morning rush can be crazy, but afternoons can be just as bad. Closings aren’t a cake walk, either -- you’ll be expected to put in some time with the hard physical labor. We square?”
Carol was tall, broad through the shoulders like an athlete, and with the sharp eyes and biting tongue of a drill sergeant. Kate was looking forward to working for her.
“Yes ma’am,” Kate replied. It took some work to earn Kate’s admiration, but Carol, owner, manager, and chief caffination officer of Tailwind Coffee, had it. Carol smiled at her newest charge.
“Good. Natasha will be keeping an eye on you for now. You requested mostly afternoons and closings so you’ll be working with her and Jess or myself, mostly. Any reason for the scheduling request?”
“The women’s team gets range time in the mornings. I schedule my classes for mid day so I’m done by early afternoon.”
“Range time?” Carol asked, perking up. “Riflery?”
“Archery,” Kate replied with a smirk.
Carol glanced over the physique of her new hire, reassessing her strength in a few moments, and tipping her head back as though something was suddenly clear. “That’s how you found out about the position.”
“Clint’s my trainer,” Kate agreed. “I think he likes reliving the glory days, now that he’s mostly on the sidelines doing PT for the has-beens and injury rosters.”
“Barton’s a good man. He’s an idiot, but a good man.”
“Don’t I know it,” Kate agreed.
Being squished into a hundred square feet of working space with people tended to build kinship, if not close friendship. The satisfaction of working with people who were all willing to bust their asses made the hard work tolerable, and at times, enjoyable. When they were snickering over a particularly difficult customer or spitballing ideas for the next sugarbomb of a frappe, it almost felt like she was part of something bigger.
Settling into work at the coffee shop was alternately harrowing and slow as hell. Kate grew friendly with Jess within a few days of working with her, but Natasha still remained aloof and enigmatic. Carol was an easy, if taciturn, sort of boss: she would much rather glance meaningfully at something that needed to be cleaned than spend the effort reprimanding Kate.
Clint stopped by most afternoons, and aside from the first couple of times when she was sure he was checking up on her, it was comfortable. He chatted with Carol about flying and god knows what, and he flirted with Jess like it was his job, and he was utterly, devastatingly respectful of Natasha. There was or had been something going on there, Kate was 90% sure, and whatever it was or had been, Clint had probably fucked it up. He was an amazing mentor, a fabulous coach, and had one of the most profoundly intuitive understandings of the workings of the human body that Kate had ever encountered, but when it came to more-than-friend relationships, Clint was a flaming shitstorm.
“Hey there, girly-girl,” Clint greeted. He crinkled a smile at Jess -- the sort of smile that Kate knew put jelly in the knees of unsuspecting women -- and turned a much less lethal version of the same on Kate. “What’s on the menu today?”
“We’ve got a brownie-nut latte we’ve been trying out,” Kate replied, glancing up at the menu board. “Aaand a dirty chai-splosion. I don’t know what’s in that but it kinda sounds like bodily functions gone wrong.”
“Would you quit telling people that? It’s a confetti—” Jess broke off with a sigh. “That’s it, buster -- that’s what he’s getting.”
Kate shrugged at Clint, who paid and stepped to the side to allow the person behind him to order.
Kate felt the heat of Carol’s gaze drilling through her. She surreptitiously glanced over her shoulder while pounding grounds out of the group, and saw that Carol was not in fact looking at her, but had her eyes fixed on a customer. He was a tall, clean-cut black man in motorcycle leathers with the sharp look of someone freshly pressed from the military mold. Carol was very slowly running her tongue over her lips, eyes intent on the hapless man. Her tongue tip traced over her bottom lip, which she sucked between her teeth in an expression that was sheer pornography. Kate wiped down the steam wand and drip tray while trying to covertly watch her boss eyefuck a customer so thoroughly the man would be feeling it tomorrow.
Jess handed the guy his coffee and rang up the next customer, oblivious to the goings on behind her. Carol’s eyes followed the (admittedly cute) biker butt until it marched out the door. Her gaze turned abruptly to Kate.
“He’s pretty cute for an old guy,” Kate said defensively.
“I like a man who’s already got some experience... under his belt,” Carol replied, making the innuendo clear. It wasn’t that Kate couldn’t think of her boss as a sexual creature -- one look at Carol’s ass in jeans made it very clear to Kate that she’d pinch hit for the other team in a New York minute for the much older woman and not feel an inch of regret or discomfort. It was more that she preferred not to think of her boss as a deadly cougar of the urban jungle, because that just got weird.
“Training them can be such a drag,” Jess agreed without missing a beat. Kate could hear the frustrated eyeroll in Jess’ voice.
It was an unspoken rule of the service industry that casual flirting went on when it would a) earn a tip or b) result in life being easier for everyone involved. Kate was not the most gracious or welcoming person, but she knew how to whip out a good service flirt when she needed to.
Natasha had warned her in the first week of training that she would get asked out. “Every person walking through that door is looking for a hit and you are their drug dealer. “You smile, you make them feel good, you give them what they’re craving, and they think that you’re what they’re craving. Don’t mistake that for love or affection. Don’t think for a second that your relationship with them is anything more than transactionary.”
“That’s... awfully harsh,” Kate had replied.
“It’s better going in knowing the score,” Natasha had countered, expression softening just enough to scare Kate with the sincerity behind the words.
Given her early, and repeated, warnings about the amorous designs of customers, it was particularly surprising to observe Carol’s evolving... something... with the motorcycle dude. He came by on an irregular schedule in the afternoons, usually on the hot-as-hell crotch rocket, and usually in his hot-as-hell silver and black biker leathers. “His name is James,” Jess told Carol after filling his order.
“He doesn’t look like a James,” Kate commented.
“Ooh, I bet he has some sexy fighter pilot nickname like ‘Maverick’ or ‘Starbuck’,” Jess agreed.
Carol gave them both looks which, though silent, told them to get back to work clearly enough.
A few days later, Carol served James. They chatted for long enough that Natasha took over the register and Kate went on break and came back. “His friends call him Rhodey,” Carol informed them primly at their pointed looks.
“Rhodey. Rhoooodeeeey,” Kate drawled, testing out the name in her mouth.
“And?” Natasha prompted.
The fact that it was Carol who eventually asked Rhodey out was not unironic to the baristas in Tailwind. “You what?” Jess asked aghast.
“He said he liked assertive women, so we’re going to dinner.”
“But—” Jess began, obviously about to say something everyone would find awkward. Kate put her hand over the other woman’s mouth and dragged her in back for new beans for the hopper.
Carol didn’t have anything to say about her and Rhodey after their dinner date, but the fact that she stretched like a jungle cat after a good meal was suggestive enough for gossip at the shop to reach truly monumental proportions.
Kate had reached a point in her training where she no longer had to ask someone about every single thing she did, but she had to stop and think enough that it was clear she wasn’t up to full operational capacity yet. The feel of the espresso group in her hand was starting to feel as familiar as the grip of her bow, but she had by no means gained the finesse that she enjoyed with her weapon of choice.
“Hey there, Katie-Kate. You’re really getting the hang of this barista thing.” Clint settled on one of the stools positioned to allow patrons to watch the coffee being made and facilitate friendly conversation between patrons and staff.
Kate attempted a behind-the-back pass with the espresso group and fumbled it. “Futz.”
Kate and Clint shared a smirk that was equal parts self-deprecation and appreciation of the comedic timing of Kate’s fumble.
“Hey there, Mr. Kate,” Jess greeted, hooking her chin over Kate’s shoulder and leaning into her back.
“That’s Mr. Hawkeye,” Clint corrected with a lopsided grin that Kate was certain he thought was rakish. Glancing at Jess she saw the other woman agreed with her sometimes-mentor sometimes-physical therapist.
“Futz,” she murmured to herself. Kate ducked from between the googly eyes going on between Jess and Clint. She retreated to the register, where Carol was doing something bossful. “Are we the only two sane people here?” Kate asked her boss. Jess burst out laughing, and Clint honest-to-god dimpled at her.
Carol glanced at Kate, then at the flirting couple with a frown. Carol’s phone buzzed, and her hand went through the motions of checking it automatically, her eyes skipping down and then pausing to read the message.
The user ID read ‘WarMachine’, and the picture was the back of Rhodey’s bike jacket. Kate groaned. “Futz.”
Clint had that look in his eye. The “I’m going to do something really stupid and nothing you say can stop me because I think it’s the right thing” look. Kate thrust out her jaw and glared at him, warning bells going off like a security breach at Fort Leavenworth. She didn’t even know what he was going to do but Clint was a master at terrible life choices and she could see him gearing up for an epic one.
“Do you want to go out some time?” Clint asked, all smooth manliness and nervous charm. Kate shot him a look of pure outraged fury. This was where she worked. Jess was her friend.
“You do not shit where you eat, Clint Barton,” she growled under her breath. Jess and Clint both managed to miss her comment.
Jess looked caught by surprise, her beautiful dark eyes opened wide and her mouth falling open in an ‘O’.
“I would say for coffee, but...” Clint pinwheeled his wrist around the coffee shop.
“I like coffee,” Jess replied, obviously a bit at a loss.
“Um,” Clint hedged.
“But that would be kind of weird,” she added.
“How about dinner?” Clint asked.
“I like that too,” Jess said with the hint of a shy smile. She had this dark, alluring beauty that drew others to her, and a charming, sultry personality that had you asking to lick her boots, please ma’am, before you realized you were completely under her thumb. She would use it consciously on the rare occasion, but for the most part, the power she exerted over those around her was completely incidental.
Kate muttered to herself while they made plans. If she was feeling better about herself, if her shoulder was working properly again, or if school was less stressful, or maybe if she’d gotten laid within the last century, Kate would have said something. She would have thrown herself on the figurative grenade that was going to be whatever happened between Jess and Clint and borne the brunt of the explosion before it had the chance to grow into a full on thermonuclear detonation. But she just didn’t have it in her to step on the little emotional seedling which had only just put out its first few leaves. Let them figure out this shit like adults.
“Carol’s gonna be pissed,” Kate said as soon as Clint had left.
“Carol doesn’t have a leg to stand on since she started boning her flyboy,” Jess replied with a satisfied air. “Come on, Clint is a total babe.”
“Hot does not equal dating material,” Kate replied. “Besides, it’s just Pavlovian.”
“He thinks he’s in love with you because you give him coffee and you make him feel good.”
Kate knew she’d said the wrong thing the moment the words slipped out of her mouth, but she didn’t have the grace or the patience to cover her mouth or apologize.
“That’s not it,” Jess protested. Kate thrust her chin out. “He’s got lots of reasons to like me. I’m a likable person.”
“And I’m sure dinner is going to be great,” Jess insisted.
“That’s not—” Jess didn’t speak to her for the rest of her shift. By the time Natasha stalked in to help with the evening shift, the silence had gone from ‘oppressive’ to ‘downright upsetting’.
The morning after the date, Kate came in to the shop to see a frustrated looking Carol in deep conversation with a serious Asian woman Kate had seen only in passing. Jess looked... She looked dreamy. Kate had seen Jess flirt a twenty dollar tip out of a regular patron before and knew the woman was familiar with wiles and the like, which made Jess’ demeanor all the more frightening.
“Bishop,” Carol called, tilting her head in a summons. “This is Melinda May. She needs an extra pair of hands for the next few weeks.”
“Oh-kay,” Kate drawled. “Any particular reason?”
“My usual extra hands got broken,” May supplied with a terse look.
“No, I meant any particular reason you’re telling me,” Kate clarified.
A look passed between May and Carol that clearly asked, ‘is she dim?’
“You’re out on loan until further notice,” Carol told her.
“You work for me, right?” Carol asked rhetorically. Kate nodded anyway. “I pay you, and you do what I tell you to do for the allotted time. Right?”
“And if what I tell you to do just happens to be do whatever she,” Carol thumbed at May, “tells you to do, then you do that.”
“I’m like, eighty percent sure that the transitive property doesn’t apply to bosshood,” Kate countered.
May raised her eyes towards the ceiling, but the tiniest hint of a smile quirked the corner of her mouth. “Look, kid, it’ll be hard work but I guarantee you will learn something and you will not be shilling for tips.”
“I don’t shill—”
“Just go with May,” Carol told her.
The first day working with Melinda May was a whirlwind -- an exhausting, terrifying whirlwind. There were terms in French and so much butter and everything that May touched turned out picture perfect and everything that Kate got her hands on turned to shit and mushy, stringy oodles of dough.
“You’ll be better tomorrow,” May promised. “It comes quicker than you’d think.”
The only reason Kate didn’t walk away, never to return to the cramped bakery quarters, was the calm surety in May’s voice. She wasn’t better at it the next day, but she was less overwhelmed and certainly more physically prepared. Over the next several days, Kate became accustomed to the almost-routine that was May’s life. They would mix the components of croissants and puff pastry dough, take a break for tea as things chilled, return to add the buttered dough to the yeasty doughs and fold it and chill it more. They would end the day forming the doughs they had made the previous day into croissants and pain au chocolates, herb twists and palmiers of various sizes. Occasionally they’d have a wild afternoon and make thousands of chocolate cigarettes on the cold marble slab to put in the pains but for the most part they started each day knowing exactly how it would go..
The regularity became routine in a surprisingly short time, so that soon Kate could recognize some random French words, knew the difference between a book and a letter fold, and could identify how many times a dough had been turned with only a glance.
Watching May work the dough was borderline erotic. The soft white folds of it turned over and over under her sure hands, her fingers working swiftly with the large soft brush to sweep motes of flour clean, her knuckles digging in to mark her turns. She did it all with an effortless unconsciousness, every motion practiced and efficient.
Kate’s mouth went dry realizing she was getting turned on by dough.
“It’s the butter,” May said without looking up.
“No, I really think it’s you.” Kate wished the words had died in her throat like they usually did. She shut her mouth with a click, flushing red. May smirked, slanting a glance at Kate. “Sorry,” Kate muttered.
May shrugged. “Baking is sexy,” she replied simply. May nodded towards the croissant cutter, which Kate scrambled to pass her..
May had run over to Tailwind to help deal with some sort of plumbing crisis, leaving Kate alone with a pile of dishes. Though she was sometimes prone to fooling around, Kate had been curious about the boxes and bins shoved above May’s work area. She washed up quickly, and pulled down the easiest to reach bin.
Inside were rows of soft silicone molds formed into sheets and an assortment of small copper molds, obviously designed for baking.
Kate played with the small copper molds, flipping one that was roughly flower shaped between her fingers. It was thin and light and yet had the weight of history and experience about it. She pulled a half dozen other molds out; all different shapes but uniformly dainty.
May walked in, stopping mid-stride upon seeing the scattering of bright metal.
“Put those away.” Her tone was a flat command.
May cut her off with a look. “Do not make me repeat myself.”
“No ma’am,” Kate agreed. She had some sense of self-preservation.
Which was why Clint found Kate in his apartment, Google image searching the pastry molds. “Those look good,” Clint said. He frowned at Kate. “Why are you in my apartment?”
“Billy got our internet put on hold.”
Kate held up her hand. “Don’t ask.”
“Does this have to do with why you have white paste in your hair?”
“That’s just--” Kate combed her fingers through her hair meeting the sticky, crusty clump that had formed when a flour poof and dishwashing met. “Oh gross. This is not what it looks like.”
Clint smirked in reply. “Some girls like that sort of thing.”
Kate blushed, thinking of the corded muscles in May’s arms and her fluid motions. “Wait -- were you lying about it not being--”
“No, eew. I’ve been at work all day and since being farmed out to the baker it’s like double workouts.”
“I’m not training you just to see you benched with overuse injuries,” Clint said, suddenly concerned. “And quit slouching with the laptop on my couch. Come on -- up on the counter.” Clint tapped the faux marble of the breakfast bar.
Kate rolled her eyes but hopped up on it obediently. Clint went through the check of her back, neck, and joints, now so familiar it was comforting. His fingers were strong and sure, ferreting out small knots of unhappy or strained muscle and soothing those where the fix was quick. Clint slapped Kate on the shoulder like she imagined he would slap the flank of an animal.
“This baker is working you hard, but not bad,” Clint concluded. “When are you gonna bring me treats? Do you guys make those cake things with the berries in them?” He pointed at a lovingly-styled photo of raspberry cakes.
“Those are apparently Financiers, and no. All we ever bake is croissants and pain au chocolat and pommiers and herb twists. Every day -- same orders, same fills.”
“Mind-numbingly boring? With a side of terrifying because I’ve never done this and don’t know what the fuck I’m doing? Yes.”
“How does your baker deal with it?” Clint asked.
“She’s a fucking robot!” Kate exploded, throwing her arms in the air. “She’s an automaton without emotion or any interest in deviating from the orders.”
“Well if that’s true, how do you know she can make anything but pain au whatsits and herby twists?”
“Because I found these little--” Kate held up her fingers indicating the size of the molds. “To make those.” She stabbed her finger at the computer screen. “But I found them and I was looking through them and I swear it was like I took a piss in a holy relic or I was looking through her underwear drawer or something.”
“Or maybe you just touched a nerve,” Clint suggested.
Kate rolled her eyes. “Yeah, she had a traumatic baking experience.”
“Hey, us old folks have some weird hangups.”
Kate turned thoughtful, biting her lip gently. She began Google searches.
“Hey now, what did I start?” Clint asked, going through the routine of cleaning his warhorse of a coffee maker.
“I just realized maybe I could find where she worked before or something, if it was one of those upscale places that has chef bios.” Kate tried several permutations of search terms until she hit the motherlode: a full newspaper article about the closure of Delmun. “Holy fuck.”
“Language,” Clint admonished, but he perked with curiosity nonetheless.
“She was a late partner in a chi-chi patisserie that went under. One of the partners committed suicide and the other was arrested for tax evasion. May had served as a consultant and been brought in full time in an attempt to save the business but shit got too real. It went under. This article says--” Kate went silent, clicking through links.
“Cake Wrecks that is not,” Clint said with a low whistle.
May, younger and more carefree, stood smiling behind a pair of cake stands. One held a fruit tart, glistening with fruit that was plump and ripe and nestled in gentle swells of cream and the protective regimental march of a scalloped crust. The other held a stack of meringue and cream, different shades of chocolatey dark and covered in an elegant spiral of chocolate cigars. It was captioned as one of the winners in some sort of bakery competition in Europe.
“Shit. If she can do this, why the hell is she in some low rent hole making croissants for boutique hotels with nothing else to make them look special?”
“Maybe she’s still gun-shy from Delmun,” Clint suggested.
“Maybe that was three years ago and she should be thinking about moving on,” Kate said.
“Doesn’t sound like she’s ready. When the body isn’t willing, doesn’t matter what the heart wants.”
In a strange way, that almost sounded like wisdom.
It wasn’t so much that Clint was unfaithful: it was that he really should have been mature enough to realize he was in a relationship predicated on faithfulness. It was that Clint lacked the basic maturity circuits that enabled any mature sexual relationship to happen which involved him. It was like asking a donkey to swim; he might fake it for a while but when push came to shove, that ass was poorly equipped for the job.
Also he was a damned cheating cheater.
“Kate, I need a ride.”
The call was not expected, but it was also not unusual. Clint walked most places, took the subway, and more often than he should, took rides with relative strangers “for convenience” and needed a lift home when, invariably, something went badly.
Kate shoved the phone between her ear and her shoulder, continuing to flip through her notebook. “Where from?” She paused, checking the caller ID only to see it was local but unfamiliar.
Clint rattled off an intersection only a mile and a half from Kate’s. “Look, I would just walk, but I was going to the store and I met this girl and—”
“Oh Clint,” Kate moaned. Suddenly his dazed, breathless vocal quality made sense: Clint was all fucked out.
“They took her, alright? I think she got kidnapped, on my watch.”
Also, potentially suffering from a head injury, Kate thought. “On your—” she said, rubbing her face with her hand. “We are gonna have a talk about personal responsibility when this is sorted out.”
“Just hurry up!” Clint almost shouted, the edge of panic clear in his voice.
After the honest-to-god car chase in her little Beetle (less exciting than it sounded) and the confrontation with the girl Clint had picked up, outside a dry cleaners (just as exciting as it sounded) and the inevitable crash-and-burn comedown from all of it, Kate was ready for the quiet, busy atmosphere that embodied Melinda May and in no way contained the futz-up artist, Clint Barton.
May was tending the wet dough for croissants when Kate got in. May nodded towards the fridge and the butter blocks. Kate was sore from the scuffle with creepy ex boyfriend man, but she only nodded in return. It was possible that some cathartic butter-related violence was precisely what she needed.
The smack and thud of her rolling pin against cold butter almost sounded like the fists hitting flesh. She hit harder, folding the fat and renewing her attack.
She was breathing hard by the time she was ready to start incorporating the flour into the softened butter. She was surprised to note tears pricking at the corners of her eyes. She worked the flour in quickly with the heel of her palm, the rhythmic motion soothing.
She was angry. It was a numb sort of realization that she was watching little parts of all their lives fall to bits as they all made the wrong moves and didn’t say any of the right things. She, Clint, Jess, even May, they were all chugging steadily down paths towards obscurity and misery.
They took the usual mid-afternoon break after the yeast dough and fat doughs were mixed. May poured two healthy measures of scotch and set one in front of Kate, next to her pain au chocolat. May nodded towards Kate’s glass and raised her own to her lips. Kate sipped at the caustic, peaty stuff.
“Talk,” May demanded after Kate had dismantled her pastry and drunk most of her scotch.
“Why did you stop really baking?” Kate asked. Her emotions sometimes did that; running interference on her verbal filter so truly inappropriate or damaging things could slip by.
May’s normal expression was somewhere between ‘I’m busy’, ‘please be quiet’, and ‘I could kill you if I was so inclined’. Her expression went abruptly frigid and she downed the rest of her drink. “Sometimes you don’t realize how much your friend was holding you together or keeping you on track until they’re not there any more,” May replied. It seemed like a non sequitur, but the more Kate mulled it over the more relevant it seemed.
“I miss normal levels of fucked up Clint, and I’m scared I’ll never get him back.”
May’s eyes were impassive when she replied. “You might not.” Just hearing someone say that after all Kate had heard were platitudes or recriminations was a painful relief. When any negative thought she had allowed herself felt like a betrayal, having someone else say them was freeing. “But you’re strong. No matter what or who he fucks up, you’ll rise above it. Never let another person’s shit stick to your shoes.”
Kate thought on that over the afternoon as they folded and rested their doughs for tomorrow, shaped and filled the orders for the evening, and went through the daily motions. It was some deep rebel itch which caused Kate to fumble blindly around the top of the cupboard, hand closing over the first relatively compact non-pointy thing it encountered. She thrust her spoils deep into the pocket of her hoodie and hurried out, lest May smell the betrayal on her.
Superstition didn’t let Kate look over her pilfered goods until she was safely home. They turned out to be a set of miniature tart pans shaped like little boats, smooth edged but with an understated elegance. In spite of the fact that she had school work to do, she began looking up recipes.
May’s eyes pinched in at the bottom corners -- too reserved to be a frown, but rather a minute expression of wariness. “I made a thing,” Kate announced without preamble, holding the tupperware out as a distraction or peace offering.
May quirked an eyebrow towards the marble slab. Kate put down her offering, removing the lid. Four outwardly perfect tartlets sat in state. Kate had mangled three trying to glaze them, finally giving up. Two she had eaten, one Lucky had got to, and Clint had shoved two in his mouth before she could stop him, leaving her with her perfect four survivors out of the initial dozen.
May picked one up in her strong, thin fingers. She examined it from all angles, gaze focused on the way a strawberry tip rose from between the green hills of kiwi before breaking it in two. She glanced over the pillowy swell of pastry cream and popped one half in her mouth.
She chewed and swallowed.
Kate felt like a reality show contestant placed on the chopping block. She felt like so much more than her small fate hung in the balance.
“You forgot to add the salt.” Kate stared. “To the crust,” May clarified.
“Uh,” Kate replied.
“The pastry cream is good, though, and the presentation is acceptable.”
“Thank you,” Kate bowed her head to accept the praise. She was now familiar with the... subtle reinforcement which May preferred.
May nodded and swept aside the tartlets to begin the afternoon’s work.
The afternoon Kate walked in to the bakery to an obviously haggard May and a completely full dish sink. It was almost a relief to face up to non-romance problems. Streaks of flour and unidentifiable goo were smeared down May’s apron and her hair was flecked with meringue or powdered sugar, but she had this smirk that Kate had to return.
“Stella got her groove back,” Kate sing-songed.
“Shut it,” May replied, smirk widening. She nodded towards a plate. Perfect petit-fours were plated in a row, in order for consumption.
May took the first cookie off of her row. Kate followed her example, confused but willing to play along. She bit into the crisp crust and met an unctuous, soft center.
“Almond macaroon with ganache,” May explained. The second bite was all the more perfect for being able to identify the flavors. Picking up the second, May explained, “Pistachio with rose petal jam.” The macaroon was a vibrant green with a glossy pink interior. May poured two cups of tea while Kate savored that one.
“Matcha petiforole.” May nodded to the second bright green item, a perfect square of cake with a design sifted in green on light buttery yellow frosting. The cake was herbal and airy. The frosting lent an acerbic and sweet counterpoint, and there was the lightest crunch between the cake layers.
“Strawberry kiwi tart,” May introduced the final offering. They were a different shape than Kate’s had been, as Kate still had those tart molds. The crust was a shade darker, the pastry cream a hair lighter, and May had glazed each one so impeccably that the fruit glistened, pristine and unconcerned as though they might lie in their bed of cream for days and lose none of their juicy freshness.
Kate groaned, but it might as easily have been a cry. “This is how it’s done,” she said with a mouth full of crumbs.
May smirked in silent agreement.
“How could you not know that this is what you were meant to be doing?” Kate asked, finishing the tartlet in two more bites.
May snorted, sounding tired, and began the afternoon routine.
Jess had gotten to the point in her post-breakup regime where she didn’t want to see anything that reminded her of the doomed romance. Which... okay. But knowing it was normal protocol and not having feelings about it were not the same.
Kate had gleaned enough from their (admittedly brief) friendship to know that in spite of the six years of age that Jess had on Kate, Kate was by far the more experienced one when it came to non-bizarre, kind of healthyish normal leaning relationships. For as much as Kate had tried to warn Jess off and failed, she still felt some guilt at not heading the train wreck off at the pass.
Kate was out of the fray at Tailwind by the simple expedience of still being loaned out to May. In spite of that, she felt compelled to check in with everyone orbiting Jess. Carol was not the sort to have a chummy, girly heart-to-heart in addition to being her boss, but Natasha and Bobbi were perfectly willing to engage in clandestine get togethers to discuss Clint and Jess.
Natasha’s apartment was an elegant oasis in what was honestly a neighborhood so upscale it made even Kate’s blue-blooded skin itch. Bobbi had what Kate thought of as a roller derby chic: a rough and tumble hodgepodge of styles that somehow served to soften her devil-may-care reckless spark. The ladies reclined regally on Natasha’s couches with glasses of wine while Kate sat, her back rigid as Natasha corrected her in a rhomboid stretch.
“I want to be mad at Clint,” Bobbi said in a considering tone, “But that just seems like working myself up—”
“—over something you’ve already forgiven him for,” Natasha finished in a knowing tone.
“Exactly!” Bobbi agreed. “It’s not as though she didn’t have a wealth of experience with Clint to draw on,” Bobby gestured between Kate, Natasha and herself with her wine glass.
“If she had been able to look beyond the puppy love she wished she’d had she would never have needed to take our advice,” Natasha countered. “As much as a small part of me would like to blame Jess, this was all just a cockup nobody could dodge.”
“It was like the perfect shitstorm of childhood inadequacies and unfulfilled adolescent dreams that ended up with Tropical Storm Cherry.”
Bobbi cocked her head at Kate. Natasha narrowed her eyes. “That was eloquent.”
Kate drooped forward in a slump.
Bobbi raised her glass. “When the hurricane comes knocking, all you can do is point your nose in the wind and keep moving forward. To tropical depression Clint.”
Natasha raised her glass with a wry smirk. “To disaster relief.”
“And FEMA,” Kate added, raising her soda.
Sometimes Kate felt as though she was perpetually sorting through the aftermath: the train wrecks Clint left behind, the broken hearts of her friends, and even more bizarre situations, like she found herself wading through with May.
Jess was angry. Jess was the sort of Valkyrie angry that lovers who had done the jilting were right to fear. She was incandescent with her hurt and her outrage and her desolation. That anger was fueled on an almost bottomless well of sadness and rejection, giving it a potency rarely seen cast in the light of a lover betrayed.
She ached for her friend and she ached for Clint and she ached with a simple, physical pain in her chest that was the bodily manifestation of the emotions she attempted to process.
“Kate, I screwed up.”
“No shit, Hawkeye,” Kate said to herself. The voicemail from Clint wasn’t exactly revelatory.
“Look, you deserve better, Jess deserves better. I think maybe it’s best if we...” Clint, on the voicemail, sighed heavily. “Tash can help with your conditioning. You got the know-how to take you the rest of the way without a—” There was a crash in the background of the voicemail. The distant shout of “Bro!” was followed by Clint’s quick, “Keep shooting straight,” and the artificial voice asking her if she’d like to replay the message.
Kate frowned and replayed it, because what the hell was that at the end?
She was dialing Clint before she had any sort of a plan. He of course didn’t pick up, but seeing as he had a StarkPhone, his username was Hawkguy, and his password was usually ‘password’, she was one FindMyPhone app from having his location.
“I gotta—” Kate threw her apron towards the laundry and hastily gathered her things. “My— Clint—”
“Slow down,” May ordered.
“Clint, and Cherry, and now his phone is in the back of futzing ‘Snow White Cleaners’ and the Latvian mafia is gonna steam-clean him to death.”
“Lets pretend that made sense. What is your plan?”
May’s interest in Kate’s plan evaporated when the dot that was Clint’s phone began to move. May threw on her jacket and hefted a marble rolling pin. “Let’s roll.”
May drove. May drove like she did everything else: with ruthless competence that set Kate’s lady bits quivering. Thus it was probably good that instead of the middle of some sort of bare-knuckled mob fight, they found Clint at the police station, under arrest and mostly in one, unbroken piece.
After that, Kate wasn’t surprised to be back at Tailwind. Carol kept an eye on her, forehead crinkled critically, mouth turned down as though thinking of something troubling. Natasha’s looks were perhaps harder, in that they were sympathetic. Her look said I’ve been taken by him too and it gets better and Kate just did not want to hear any of that because she was not Clint’s lover and she had not been dating him and having a friend -- just a normal, mentory friend who maybe she looked up to and really did respect and kinda wished she could be when she grew up, sometimes, deep down in a dark place in her middle -- let her down in such a huge, but more terribly, expected way just cut her to the quick. Clint made bad decisions. It shouldn’t be news any longer. She just... wished sometimes... she sighed.
“Hey, you look down.” Rhodey had ducked down so he could look up into her eyes.
Kate tried for a smirk but came up a little short on the sass-factor. “Large house blend?” she asked.
Rhodey frowned and pulled a sunflower from behind his back. “This was gonna be for the Captain, but it seems like you could use a pick-me-up.” He offered it to her.
Kate felt unaccountably teary at being presented with the burst of cheerful good will. “Thanks.” She took it and stuck it in her apron pocket so it bobbed at her hip.
Rhodey smiled at her as though trying to lead by example, and Kate returned the expression.
Melinda May was by no means a regular, but her showing up for a coffee was not an unprecedented event. Kate was the only person working the front, so she couldn’t exactly avoid the other woman.
“What can I get you?”
“Whatever the hell a ‘ragemonster latte’ is,” May said with a grin.
Silently May put a white pastry box on the counter and pushed it towards Kate. Kate tried to ignore her while making the green tea and lime leaf concoction, but May gave her the eye and tapped it meaningfully.
May paid silently and slipped out, eyeing her beverage dubiously. Kate looked down at the box and ran her finger over the embossed gold sticker denoting the bakery. It featured a heavy cavalry in full charge, lance lowered, and the name Pas de deux Patisserie. Kate popped it open to reveal a whole fruit tart and a note.
Thanks for putting the fire under me. MM