The Amnesty Cafe was a charming, cozy place, nestled in the equally cozy town of Kepler, West Virginia. It was popular with tourists during the leaf-watching and skiing seasons, and --situated just far enough away from the Green Bank telescope to be allowed to have Wi-Fi-- it was a well-loved respite for the locals as well. The little cafe did well for itself, though it wasn’t just the internet access that people came for. The food was lovely, the staff were kind, and the coffee was legendary.
The latter was mostly in part due to the head barista and assistant manager; anyone who entered the shop could instantly tell put every ounce of care into his craft. All the locals knew him only by Barclay. What his last name was, no one could really say. He’d never provided it in introductions, but most found it didn’t particularly matter.
He was tall and scruffy, with big hands and shoulder-length hair generally pulled into a messy bun, and he had a way of making everyone who ordered a drink from him feel like they’d just received something truly special. His lattes were immaculate, his chai was divine, and he made everything with the utmost care. No one in recent memory had received a drink from Barclay that they didn’t enjoy.
He wasn’t the only one behind the magic, of course. The shop was owned and managed by one Madaline Cobb. Most were baffled that she was so rough around the edges for how charming her shop was, but no one could deny she did it well. She was, after all, an old mountain girl. She was the sort who could give you love and support just as quickly as a kick in the ass depending on what you needed. She looked out for her employees and didn’t hesitate to boot troublemakers out. The customer might always be right in some places, but not Amnesty Cafe. If you wanted to eat there, you had to earn it by being civil.
As such, it was also no surprise that Amnesty had become something of a safe haven for folks who might have it rough in the rural mountains of West Virginia. Kepler was a little more open-minded, what with its frequent ski tourism and the type of folks who came with it, but you only had to drive out of town ten minutes to find yourself amidst cow pastures, backroads, and rednecks.
So Ms. Cobb, who many affectionately called Mama, had a habit of taking in strays. Many of her employees were folks who had nowhere else to go, who struggled with fitting in with the surrounding rural community. She paid everyone well enough to get by on their own, frequently made sure they were fed and had what they needed, and worked to make sure they knew they had a social network they could count on.
Because of this, there was something of a rumor that Amnesty Cafe was more of a charity than a business. Many speculated that the shop didn’t make enough to fully fund the cost of a living wage and that Mama was getting income from somewhere else to support them. Of course, no one dared talk about it within earshot of her, but there would always be rumors.
And while Barclay might have been the star of the show, it took much more than just him to make the cafe tick. The rest of the staff were just as much what made Amnesty Cafe feel like home. Many were trained in multiple areas, but they definitely had tasks they succeeded best at.
Their newest addition, a young woman by the name of Aubrey Little, seemed to settle best at the register, always bouncy and excitable. However Barclay couldn’t deny, she was learning quickly how to make drinks with a certain flare under his tutelage. Apparently, she also had a magic act that she worked on the side, so she picked up fewer hours than the rest to pursue her dream, but she was always a joy to be around. And if the pictures she showed them on her phone were anything to go by, her pet rabbit was adorable.
Dani could do a little bit of everything and was frequently willing to slide into whatever role was needed of her, something Barclay always appreciated. However, she did her best work baking, frequently finding new recipes to make for their baked goods case. Barclay was fairly sure she was the only one in town who knew how to make vegan cookies, which many of the tourists appreciated.
Where Aubrey was perky and bright-eyed, Dani was laid back and easy to get along with. They balanced each other well and Barclay suspected there might be something between them, but he wasn’t about to bring it up in case they hadn’t realized it yet. Better to let crushes figure themselves out.
The back of house was Jake’s domain. He’d started as a busboy and dishwasher, but had very quickly become enamored with the brewing processes and bean roasting, which--after being taught under Barclay’s skilled hand--they’d let him take over just this last spring. He was also good to fill in on register, if a little overexcitable. Apparently, he into extreme sports in his off time, often coming to work on his skateboard. The kid had somehow managed to adopt old-school skater lingo that he used on a regular basis despite it being 2019.
Moira handled financials and orders, frequently holed up in the back office, but she readily slipped in to help when she had a minute, or if there was a heavy rush. She was definitely the more quiet sort, but charming and had a love for music, always encouraging young artists to put up flyers for their shows on their community corkboard. She played the piano for the local choir and community theatre in her off-time. Barclay had been to a few of the performances.
They all had their reasons for finding their way to Amnesty Cafe, but no one could deny that they were right where they belonged.
To Barclay, this was home. Sure, not everything was perfect; but then, nothing ever was. But it was good enough, and he was content here. Sometimes he wasn’t sure if being a barista was really his true passion, but he enjoyed it immensely and doing it right felt good, so he wasn’t going to complain. He hadn’t really had any goals before settling here so it was the best he had.
He’d traveled a lot before settling in Kepler. After getting top surgery, the final piece of his personal transitional puzzle, he’d found himself aimless and unsure of what to do with himself. For so long his goal had just been to feel like he belonged in his own skin and he hadn’t planned beyond that.
So he’d taken to the open road, living out of a camper van and roughing it, taking gigs where he’d found them. It hadn’t been the worst, he’d seen a lot of interesting things and had a lot of stories to share, but after a while, a body got tired of sleeping in a different bed every night, or not in one at all.
He’d drifted into Kepler about seven years ago, where he’d had the misfortune (though looking back, he wasn’t sure if he could actually call it that anymore) of having his van break down. He’d been bumming around for gigs to pay the repair costs when he’d first met Mama.
Barclay still remembered it like yesterday, coming into the cafe after helping an elderly man haul off the old, rusty tractor parts that had been entrenched in his yard for years. Barclay been sitting at the table with a modest cup of coffee, counting his earnings and idly trying to remember when the last time he’d had a tetanus shot was, when yelling could be heard from the back of house, a man angrily stalking out, followed by an even angrier woman.
“Yeah, you better run, Gyrel! I gave you a chance, and you bring that shit in my establishment, I don’t want ya!” The man pushed out the door, the woman grabbing a coffee cup and throwing it after him. She missed, but only barely, the cup shattering in the parking lot as the man scrambled away. She took aim with another but seemed to think better of it as he disappeared out of sight before she turned her attention to Barclay. He was presently the only one in the shop, having no idea what to think of what he’d just witnessed. The woman smiled at him apologetically.
“Sorry about that, hun. Just takin’ out the trash. Asshole gets a job here, thinks he owns the place. I don’t care who you are, you start coppin’ feels of my other employees, you get the boot, the further up your ass the better.” Barclay snorted and the woman grinned, standing at his table and nodding at his cup. “Want me to refresh ya there? On the house.”
“Oh, uh... Sure, thanks.” He smiled, going back to counting his money and trying to figure out how much he had left before he could get his van fixed. Plus he still had to factor in money for the motel and food, so it seemed like he’d be here at least another month. The man groaned, rubbing his face.
“Money troubles?” He looked up again at the woman as she brought him his coffee, sighing. “Not that it’s any of my business, you jus’ seem very perplexed.”
“Naw, it’s fine. And yeah, I guess you could say that. I’ve been traveling, but my van broke down, so it’s looking like I’m going to be stuck here in Kepler for a little while until I can get it fixed. Been helping around town with odd jobs, but it can only get you so much.” He shrugged, leaning back in his chair and accepting the cup, the woman sitting nearby.
“Bit of bad luck then? Well, if there’s someone you could call, I’d be more than happy to let ya use the shop phone. I know National Radio Quiet Zone makes smartphones about as useful as a calculator out here,” She offered, Barclay shaking his head as he took a sip of his coffee. The roast was a little dark for his taste, but coffee was coffee.
“Appreciate it, but there isn’t really anyone for me to call. I’ll be fine, I’m used to this sort of thing on the road.”
“So traveling, huh? How long you been going?” The woman asked, wiping her hands on her half apron and getting comfortable. Usually, he’d assume she’d have better things to do than chat with him, but in her defense, he was the only one in the store.
“Uh.. going on a year now, I think. I’m from Washington, but I’ve been kinda all over.” He supplied, cradling the cup and hoping he didn’t smudge it. He’d washed his hands of course, but the rust clung under his nails despite his best efforts.
“Wow, long way then, good for you, getting out there and seeing the world. I traveled a good bit when I was younger myself, though on a motorcycle instead of a van. Gotta say, you’re probably a smarter man to have something you can sleep in. I’ve had to camp in some places I’m surprised I didn’t get robbed or killed or both. But, there’s just something about the wind rushing by you as you roar down the roads that just feels right.”
She chuckled, rubbing her knee. Barclay would later learn about the accident she’d been in, but at that moment he’d thought nothing of it. “Though eventually, I realized I couldn’t keep doin’ that forever... So, how’d you find your way to our little town? Kepler isn’t exactly right near the highway.”
“I was actually driving the Blue Ridge Parkway. Was hanging around Asheville down in North Carolina for a little while before deciding it might be fun to take the Parkway up to Roanoke. It was nice, lotta pretty hiking spots along that stretch, relatively quiet. I was planning on heading all the way up to Shenandoah and then head to DC for a little while because it’s pretty easy to pick up some work there, but I thought I’d make a detour out of Lexington to see the big fancy resort in Hot Springs and then the telescope in Green Bank since I hadn’t before. Engine gave up on me about two miles from here, had to get towed in.” It was bad luck, but he’d dealt with bad luck before.
“Whatcha think of Hot Springs? Last I checked, it was the resort and a whole lotta nothing else,” She chuckled, leaning on the table as Barclay nodded in affirmation.
“Yeah, for some reason I was under the impression there would be more there. The hotel was nice, it has a decent little cafe that I’m still not entirely sure wasn’t just for guests only, but I paid for my food and nobody asked, so who knows. Other than that, there was a tavern, a general store, and two golf courses. And a Subway.”
“Can’t forget the Subway. Yeah, we actually have hot springs here in Kepler, but they’re not that big and the public pools are currently under renovation. They can’t really be expanded because a lot’ve the spring’s source in on national land. Forest Service is real adamant that we keep the water source untampered with, which is fair. That said, we still get a fair bit’ve tourism for the spings, along with skiing and snowboarding on Mount Kepler in the winter.”
“And lemme guess, quite a few leafers in the fall.” Barclay mused, enjoying a little friendly conversation. It was always nice to sit down with someone and shoot the breeze after a long day, especially when you weren’t expecting it.
“You can say that again. Whole gaggle of little old ladies and men pour out of their RVs to take pictures when the leaves start to change. That’s almost upon us, but we’ve still got a little green left to go. Fall and Winter tend to be our busiest time ‘round here so enjoy the peace and quiet while you can,” The woman hummed, eyeing Barclay thoughtfully as he sipped his coffee, the man getting the impression that she was mulling something over. “So, how’s the coffee?”
“Oh, it’s good! I like it.” He smiled with his rather generic compliment. There were things he’d probably do differently, but he wasn’t about to say that aloud. The woman pursed her lips.
“Mmhmm. You like it, but you don’t love it. I’m sure you’ve had worse, but it’s not the best you’ve had either, right?” Barclay blinked, a little baffled by the line of questioning and trying to figure out what the woman was going for here.
“Oh uh.. I mean.. It’s perfectly decent coffee, especially after a long day. I don’t really need anything fancy.” He supplied, sinking in his chair a little, trying to be honest without being insulting.
“But if you could do something different, what would you do? Don’t worry yourself, I won’t take offense. I’m always just lookin’ for ways to improve and you seem like a man who’s probably had a lot of coffees to compare it to.”
“Yeah, I guess I have. Well...” He pondered his cup, taking another sip and this time actually mulling over the flavor palette rather than just bolting it down. “I think you’re roasting it too hot. You really need to take the beans off the heat somewhere between the first and second crack, or just before the first depending on how dark you want the roast. I also wouldn’t use this particular variety for some of the other drinks I saw you have, but it’s fine for an americano like this.”
The woman raised an eyebrow at him, leaning back in her seat. “You seem to know your stuff.”
“Suppose I do. I worked as a barista for a while before I started traveling to pay for.. Uh.. some medical stuff, so I know my way around a good coffee.” He shrugged as the woman nodded, a look in her eyes that he couldn’t quite place.
“I gotcha. So, you got a name, hun?”
“Oh, uh. It’s Barclay.”
“Yeah, if that’s alright.”
“Don’t bother me none.” She grinned widely, standing up. “Well, Barclay, I have an offer for you. It seems we just so happen to have a job opening for a new barista and you seem like a decent enough fella, how’d you like to work here at Amnesty Cafe? Pay’s good and we could use the help. It’d give you a chance to make some money to fix your van.”
“What.. wait, really? Just like that?” He stood up as well. He was taller than the woman, but she was still very much the biggest presence in the room from the way she held herself.
“Yeah, don’t see why not. We could use someone who knows what they’re doing ‘round here, least till we can get someone full-time again. What do you say, Barclay?” She offered her hand to him, the man considering it. This could just be what he needed to get everything fixed up so he could head out again, and it would be better than living off odd jobs. After a moment, he took her hand and shook it with a nod.
“When do I start?”
“I’ll give ya a day to get yourself together and then I’ll see you Wednesday morning at 7am. Opening shift is earlier than that, but I’ll let ya sleep in while we get you trained. Dress code is casual, but not sloppy. Closed-toed shoes, non-slip if you have ‘em. And long hair needs to be pulled back or in a hat. No offensive writing on clothing, tattoos, or otherwise, but everything else is fair game. Sound good?”
“Absolutely. I’ll be here.” He was beaming now, feeling his luck turn around for once. He then remembered something rather important. “Oh yeah, I don’t think I caught your name?”
The woman smirked. “For paperwork purposes, it’s Madaline Cobb, but-” She grinned, crossing her arms. “You can just call me Mama.”
He’d stayed for a week, and then two, and then after the third, he’d made enough money to fix his van, but it was settling into fall and tourists were starting to come into town and he hadn’t wanted to leave the cafe hanging right in the middle of being so busy. And then winter came after that so he figured he might as well stay for the rest of the winter season so he didn’t have to deal with holiday traffic on the roads and could enjoy the slopes. His motel room eventually was swapped out for a short-term lease apartment and when winter was over, well..
He realized he didn’t want to leave.
He’d fallen in love with the little town and the cafe and its staff and regulars. He’d met Dani his first day of work and the two had hit it off really well, jiving about hikes and coffee as they worked. Dani was younger back then of course, barely into adulthood. She had been going through something of a witchy phase, which she’d sort of grown out of since, but still had a fondness for foraging out in the woods, and still thought graveyards were fun and spooky to hang around at night.
They’d sometimes go on day hikes together if they both had the same day off and were feeling particularly woodsy. The young woman had taught him quite a lot about what you could and couldn’t eat out in the forest. They hung out on the roof of the parking deck and shared a joint from time to time too, just talking and enjoying a little solidarity together.
Barclay remembered when Dani had come out to him; he’d vowed from then on to look out for her, and all the other queer kids who found their way to Kepler. That had been a rough night for her and he was glad he could be there, despite the circumstances.
She had been so nervous and excited one afternoon he was working with her, preening far more than she ever did. Hell, she was even wearing makeup which she never did. Barclay watched with amusement, gently nudging her with his elbow when they had a quiet moment.
“Got a hot date tonight?” He mused, teasing her gently as she blushed and fidgeted. He’d never seen her show interest in anyone before, so maybe he was just making assumptions, but the way she’d been acting the last few weeks, he could tell she was smitten, getting lost in thought all too frequently. She tried to play it cool with her response, but he could tell she was flustered.
“I mean.. It’s not a date, but... It’s not not a date either, you know?” She was scrubbing out a frothing pitcher a little with more force than was strictly necessary to try to distract herself, Barclay chuckling in good humor. “It’s been more of a crush, but I’ve decided I’m gonna be honest with my feelings, which I’m pretty sure are mutual. At least I hope they are.”
Barclay realized she hadn’t use pronouns to describe this person, something he’d only noticed because he’d done it so many times himself. However, he wasn’t going to point it out. If that was something she wanted to tell him, she’d do it when she was ready. Dani tucked a strand of blond hair that had escaped her ponytail behind her ear, still blushing.
“Well, that’s exciting. Lemme know how it goes.” He glanced at the clock on the wall. Dani still had about fifteen minutes on her shift, but Barclay wanted her to have this. “Hey, if you wanna get out of here a little early, I can cover for you. I doubt a massive crowd is gonna come rushing in, in the next quarter of an hour.”
“Wait, really? Are you sure?” She beamed at him, already moving to take off her apron and grab her stuff.
“Absolutely. Now get a move on.” He watched with amusement as she whirled out the door, calling after her. “Be safe! Have a good evening! I’ll see you tomorrow!”
“Thanks Barclay! Bye!” He shook his head, chuckling as he got to work finishing the dishes she’d been doing. Oh, to be that young and caught up in a crush. It’d been a while since he’d fallen for anyone. He wasn’t bitter about it by any means, but dating had always felt treacherous and risky. He’d say he was pretty good at telling when someone might be receptive to being with him, he just hadn’t had that kind of spark in a long time. But, he was content where he was and wasn’t even really sure he wanted a relationship.
That night, he’d been mopping up after shop hours in the back when he’d heard the bell above the door jingle, realizing he hadn’t locked it. Most folks around here were good about honoring a closed sign. Barclay popped his head out to let them know. “Hey, sorry we’re clos- Dani? What- Hey, are you alright? What’s wrong?”
The girl stood in the middle of the cafe, her eyes puffy and red, makeup streaked from crying. She was shaking in her green hoodie and just looked so helplessly hurt and lost, it made Barclay’s heart break. He left the mop where it was, hurrying over to her and putting his hands on her shoulders, brushing some hair out of her face. “Hey, look at me, what’s going on, Dani? Are you hurt?”
“I... She... She didn’t...” She hiccupped, shaking badly before Barclay pulled her into a big, comforting hug. Dani broke into sobs, clutching the man like he was her only anchor on a stormy sea. Barclay held onto her, letting her cry as he rocked ever so slightly to comfort her, stroking her hair until she eventually calmed down some. Gently leading her over to a table, he had her sit.
“I’m gonna make you some tea, you sit tight, okay?” He murmured, heading back over to the bar and fixing her something warm and soothing with a good amount of honey, deciding to fix himself one as well. He had a feeling they were gonna be here a while. Bringing it back over, he handed her one of the cups, which she gingerly took, before sitting with his own. “Do you wanna tell me what happened? You don’t have to if you don’t want to. I’m just as happy to sit here with you quietly if that’s what you need.”
The girl sniffed, wiping her nose on her hoodie sleeve as she clung to her cup of tea. She averted her eyes, voice hoarse and soft when she spoke. “I.. I wanna tell you, but I’m scared... I don’t want you to hate me too.”
“I’m not gonna hate you, Dani. I promise. If you’re in trouble, I can help you. If it’s a dead body though, you’ll have to let me get a shovel first.” Dani smiled a little through the tears, shaking her head as she wiped her eyes.
“Not in trouble.” Barclay had a feeling she wasn’t, and this was about the date she’d left on, but he wasn’t going to jump to any conclusions. Dani took another sip of her tea, collecting herself. “At least I don’t think I am. I was.. I was with a friend tonight and I thought.. I thought we both felt the same way and I tried to say how I was feeling and.. And it... turns out sh..she didn’t feel the same way.”
She shrunk down into her hoodie, watching Barclay to gauge his reaction. The man just gave her a sad smile and a nod. “I’m so sorry, I know how rough that can be. I remember the first time a boy I had a crush on rejected me. Of course, they uh.. didn’t really start doing that until after I’d started transitioning, but I still know the feeling.”
“Wait, you..” Dani blink, unfurling a little before she let out a choked chuckle, covering her eyes. “God, how did I not see that. Of course, you’re gay, you check out guys your age way too often. I just thought it was a dominance thing and you were sizing them up. Talk about being a useless lesbian, can’t even spot a gay guy three feet in front of her.”
Barclay snorted, reaching out to take and squeeze her hand. “Hey, to be fair, gay men are probably on your radar the least in terms of your interests, but you’re not useless, Dani.”
“But I mean, I apparently am, seeing how I couldn’t even tell if this girl I’ve had a crush on since middle school doesn’t like girls.” She sniffled, starting to cry again. “...I think... I just saw what I wanted to believe. She’s always been so funny and kind. It just.. It just really hurts. She... she looked so horrified when I told her...”
“Hey, hey it’s gonna be okay. You’re a beautiful young woman and any girl would be lucky to have you, straight people just don’t know what they’re missing..” Barclay felt for her. He knew that exact look far too well, be it from guys who weren’t gay, or from guys who were, but were repulsed by his being trans. Either way, it always made him feel sick.
He got up, rounding the table and giving her another hug. It was probably going to be a hugging kind of night, and he was perfectly ok with that. He talked it through with her about how this wasn’t her fault, and that she had a friend if she needed it. They drank their tea and when they were done, while Barclay could tell Dani was still hurting, she was better than if she’d try to handle this alone.
He drove her to her apartment after he finished cleaning up shop; they’d taken the other girl’s car for their outing together and the other girl had just left Dani behind after things went south. Dani had walked all the way to the cafe to get a ride since it was closer.
Barclay walked her to the door, told her to try to sleep, and gave her his home number if she needed him. She’d given him a half-hearted smile and told him she’d try, which he knew was better than nothing.
The next day, he wore his rainbow pin on his apron, just for her. It would take her time to heal, and eventually, she did. But in the meantime, it was important for her to know she wasn’t alone.
Of course, while his little found family at the shop played the biggest role in his continued happiness, the regulars and the shenanigans of the town meant quite a bit to him as well. Kepler was a unique place, having seen the rise and fall of several trends to try to boost tourism. There was a plethora of abandoned waterparks, which was just crazy to Barclay, but not as crazy as just what they’d try to name the places. One of them was even still open, bringing in some much-needed summer revenue for the town.
What’s more, the town was surrounded by the Monongahela National Forest, which entrenched itself into the culture of the town. No kid grew up here not knowing what to do if they saw a bear or how to prevent a forest fire. Now whether they followed those teachings was a different story. Bored teens did dumb things. Thankfully to make up for it, Kepler’s ranger station was at the top of their game. Most folks could recognize their local rangers even off duty, and the more responsible adults respected the work they did to keep their forests safe.
One such ranger was one of Amnesty’s regulars; a hefty, rather unassuming man who Barclay wouldn’t exactly call friendly, but he was easy to talk to. Everyone called him Duck, though he frequently made it clear that that was a nickname, without ever offering an alternative or how he got the nickname in the first place. Barclay could only assume that just meant he liked the nickname enough not to bother.
When he came in depended on his shift at the station, but he almost always came in on the days he had work. On his early morning shifts, he’d get a pastry, and coffee for himself and whoever the poor schmuck who’d taken the overnight shift. Meanwhile, when he had the overnight shift, he’d come in in the evening and order the strongest thing they had with two extra espresso shots. It was these evenings before Duck had to go to work, but the cafe traffic was dying down, that Barclay really got to talk with the man.
Duck had lived here in Kepler all his life with his parents and little sister, Jane. He’d joined the Forest Service as a young man with little other prospects and continued his line of work for the next twenty years. Barclay didn’t know how anyone could do the same thing for twenty years, but had eventually come to the conclusion that Duck had just gotten lucky and stumbled across his passion early in life. He wasn’t the most emotive fellow, but he could tell that Duck felt strongly about what he did, protecting people from the dangers of the forest, and protecting the forest from the dangers of people.
“It only takes one young dumbass with too much time and a lighter out there in a drought like this to take out miles of forest.” Duck huffed one evening, savoring his intensely strong coffee. Barclay had taken night shifts before when he’d traveled, but he’d never needed enough caffeine to keep him awake for a week like Duck seemed to. The ranger still managed to seem perpetually weary despite this.
“Y’know, I have it on good authority from one Miss Juno Divine that you used to be one of those young dumbasses.” Barclay mused as he wiped down the tables for the evening. Duck usually hung around before he had to go in, more often than not complaining about the most recent shenanigans he’d experienced out in the woods. The ranger almost choked on coffee, looking vaguely put off.
“What? No, I was a great.. sturdy person, not... not dumbass kid with... grades that couldn’t be matched by.. fuck.. Jimmy Buffet? Little known fact about Jimmy was that he had.. just perfect grades all the time, and never did dumb things with fireworks in the woods, just like me. I was the model... uh- Okay, fine, I was kind of a high school burnout. Fuck me, I guess.”
“Did you just describe yourself as being like a sturdy Jimmy Buffet as a kid?” Barclay snorted, shaking his head. Anyone who knew him knew Duck was by far the worst liar in all of Kepler. The man couldn’t tell a tall tale to save his life. Duck’s face was red from embarrassment, as he studied a potted plant that hung in the window.
“Shuttup, I tried.”
“Dude, it’s fine. Everyone’s a dumbass at some point in their life. And look, you did alright didn’t you? Now you’re out there protecting the forest from more young idiots like you,” Barclay pointed out, pausing to stretch and glance at the clock. About an hour and a half to go.
“Well, I guess you could say that’s my secret weapon to keep those dumbasses out of trouble. Takes one to know one. ” Barclay nodded as Duck gave him a lazy, if exasperated, smile. Aubrey poked her head out of the backroom, a grin on her face. Barclay knew she wasn’t anywhere near being done with the dishes when she came over, but he wasn’t going to rag on her about it.
“Ooooh, Duck did you used to be a bad boy in high school? Was it like a punk phase or were you one of those emo kids? I bet you had piercings.” The ranger flushed even deeper, holding his hat over his face as Aubrey teased him.
“Y’all are lucky I like the coffee here, or I wouldn’t stand for this kind of harassment,” Duck harrumphed. Barclay could tell he didn’t mean it seriously though, Duck barely containing a small smile. The barista clutched his chest like he’d been shot in the heart, feigning injury.
“Oh, you foul fiend, how could you? I knew you only liked me for my coffee. And here I thought our friendship meant something,” He bemoaned sorrowfully, carrying his performance over the top. Aubrey doubled over with laughter, grinning ear to ear. Duck meanwhile just rolled his eyes but smiled nonetheless.
“Okay, okay, I might like y’all a bit too. But just a little. You can quit the theatrics.” Duck settled back in his chair, checking his watch, but apparently not in any hurry to go anywhere yet. Barclay moved to wiping down the counters while Aubrey sat at Duck’s table, kicking her feet under her chair. She rested her chin in her hands, watching the other man raptly.
“Sooooo, how’s your big, buff neighbor doing?” She mused, Duck leaning his head back with a groan. Barclay rolled his eyes. When Duck wasn’t bemoaning the stupid things teens did in the forest, he was complaining about his new neighbor, Minerva. According to him, she was a personal trainer who was built like a freight train and had no sense of personal space or volume control. And, apparently, she had taken it upon herself to impart her training onto Duck. Aubrey found the whole affair deeply entertaining.
“Aaaagh! Don’t even get me started.” Duck scrubbed his hands over his face, sticking out his tongue. “Get this, this morning she came over at six in the morning and insisted I come for a jog with her, all like ‘Duck Newton! It is a new day! You should join me on a light jog up Mount Kepler! It will be invigorating!’. Like... who talks like that? She insists she’s from Minnesota, but talks like she isn’t even from Earth.”
“Maybe she’s an alien.” Aubrey mused, still swinging her feet. “A big, buff alien obsessed with physical fitness and yelling.”
“Or maybe she just likes you. Did you go with her?” Barclay asked, trying to seem less invested in the gossip than he actually was. It was always interesting to hear what the townsfolk got up to. Small towns always had the most amusing gossip.
“God no. I don’t doubt a jog up Mount Kepler is a light morning warm-up for her, but if I did that, I’d die.” Duck fidgeted with the brim of his hat in his lap, shrugging. “It’s not that I dislike her, she’s cool and I wouldn’t mind getting to know her. She’s just a LOT, you know? I feel like if I actually tried interacting with her, she’d realize I’m just some guy and not a very impressive one at that.”
“She’s a personal trainer, Duck. I think she knows a lot of people who are just guys. Maybe just like... tell her you’re not that physically active, but you’d like to hang out sometime and just go for a walk or something.” Aubrey suggested, standing up. “And don’t try to make excuses, because we all know you’re shit at that. Just be honest.”
“Yeah, yeah, rub it in, why don’tcha.” The ranger checked his watch again, draining the last dregs of his coffee before getting up as well. “Alright y’all, I gotta get to work. It’s been good chattin’ with ya.”
“Aw, okay. Have a good night, Duck. Lemme know if you see any bears.” Aubrey started back toward the back room, waving goodbye to her friend.
“Thanks Aubrey, lord knows it’s gonna be a long one.” Duck pulled his jacket on, leaving a tip on the table and waving at the other man at the counter as he went to leave. “Night to you too Barclay, thanks for the joe. Don’t know how I’d get through the night without ya.”
“Night Duck, see you tomorrow. Let us know if Minerva suggests using you as a bench press or something, because that’s something I wanna see and possibly film.” Barclay grinned, nodding to the ranger as he started out the door. Duck rolled his eyes, but smiled as he disappeared into the night.
So yeah, Barclay would say he was comfortable and happy with where he’d ended up. He had good friends and conversations, and a job he found fulfilling. He’d sold his van for more practical pickup after working at the cafe for a year and his lease was now long-term. Somehow, Kepler had been right where he needed to be.
So, of course, there was always going to be something that came crashing into his life and changed everything. Well, perhaps crashing wasn’t initially the right word, but it did come into his life with an order of a caramel mocha latte. The crashing came later.
“Hey Barclay, I’m gonna head on break if that’s alright,” Aubrey told him after they’d crushed the lunch rush, taking off her apron. Barclay nodded, giving her the go-head as he slipped in front of the register in her stead. They had a few sandwiches along with drinks that brought people in for midday business, keeping them busy throughout the day. But, once the lunch rush was cleared, it was generally pretty quiet until the evening, when those who didn’t enjoy the bar environment met up for drinks and dates after work.
It was in this lull that Barclay first met the mysterious man.
He was tall, with dark, slicked-back hair and an immaculate suit. The cafe got a lot of interesting folks, and even a fair number of professionals visiting the resorts for conferences and holidays, but none of them had ever looked so well put together than this man.
His clothing fit him well to the point that Barclay suspected they might be tailored or possibly bespoke, the glimmer of cufflinks at his wrists. His face was clean-shaven, and his eyes were sharp, taking in every little detail as he stood in line behind the elderly gentleman Barclay was currently serving. And he was handsome. God, was he handsome.
Barclay wet his lips, hastily finishing up the current transaction, and telling the old man that his drink would be right out, eyes flicking back to his newest patron.
“Hey there, welcome to Amnesty Cafe, what can I get for you today?” He was grateful that his script was so ingrained that he could say it without thinking, because if Barclay had had to think in front of such a captivating man, he wasn’t sure he would have made any sense.
The man pondered the board only for a fraction of a moment before speaking. His tone was smooth and easy, not as sharp as Barclay had been expecting from a man dressed so well.
“Yes, I’ll have a medium caramel mocha latte for here, please.”
“Alright, one medium caramel mocha latte. Is 2% milk alright?” He’d honestly expected a black americano or an earl grey or something similar, not one of the sweetest drinks they had on the board. Guess that’s what he got for making assumptions.
“Yes, that’s fine, thank you.” Barclay rung him up with deft precision, but he was almost completely running on muscle memory. It had been a while since he’d seen someone so objectively attractive to his tastes, much less one so perfectly groomed and dressed and equally mysterious. Barclay wasn’t sure how to feel. What he did notice while trying not to ogle the man and failing was the glimmer of a badge of some sort on the inside of his jacket as he fished out his wallet.
“I need your name? For the drink?” He explained, giving his pen a little wiggle between his fingers as he watched a pensive look cross the other man’s face.
“Stern. It’s Stern.”
“Alright, Stern, I’ll have this out for you in a sec as soon as I get the fella in front of you. I’ll call your name when it’s up on the bar.” There was no way that was his first name, right? It had to be his last name, and he was just the kind of person to go by it. Because of course he was. Man looked like he’d stepped out of a James Bond movie.
“Of course, thank you.”
Barclay made his drink with no fuss, though maybe he put a little extra care into the latte art than he usually did, adding a few extra flourishes. When Stern got it from the bar, the man, while rather hard to read, looked pleasantly surprised at the presentation, going to take a sip. His eyebrows shot up and Barclay had to hold back a grin. Yet another pleased customer.
Stern had thanked him politely and tucked a few dollars into the tip jar on his way to sit down, even though Barclay was fairly sure he’d already written in a tip when he’d paid with his card. He wasn’t going to complain, however.
He’d spent the rest of the afternoon seated in one of their comfier chairs, working on his laptop. Barclay couldn’t deny that being one of the few places with Wi-Fi in town brought in all sorts, but he liked to think the drinks and atmosphere helped as well.
Then for the rest of the day, nothing else happened. Stern sat in his chair until it got dark, tucked his computer back into his briefcase and left, and Barclay thought that would be the end of that.
But then he came back the next day, around the same time, ordering the same thing, and having the same exchange at the register (sans asking his name). It continued for a week before Barclay realized that Stern wasn’t some executive just in town for a conference at the resort, he’d be gone by now if he had been. Barclay knew to start his order when he came in at this point, yet they’d still only shared a handful of short, order-related words.
He found himself more and more preoccupied with trying to figure out just who Stern was, not that he had much to work with. Stern never wore anything that indicated a company logo or any other insignia, his wallet was nondescript and he seemed to be using a company card, so Barclay could never get his first name off it. His laptop was black, bulky, and perhaps most bafflingly, --as Barclay had found out while glancing over while clearing a table one afternoon-- had one of those screens that distorted the image if you looked at it from anywhere other than head-on.
Stern was an enigma that only got more interesting as time went on. And of course, while Stern seemed to be a master of subtlety, Barclay sure wasn’t. While the man in question had never made any comment on Barclay’s snooping, the same couldn’t be said for the rest of the staff of Amnesty Cafe.
“You know checking him out all the time isn’t gonna make him spill his secrets, right?” Dani mused, Aubrey snorting behind them. They’d started teasing him without mercy after Dani had noticed just how much time Barclay spent watching Stern. The barista scrunched up his nose at her, cheeks pink.
“He’s just interesting to look at, okay?”
“Suuure he is. And the fact that he’s your type has nothing to do with it at all..” Dani looked deeply amused and Barclay knew he this was going to be the source of a great deal of teasing into the future. Meanwhile, Aubrey rolled up on her tiptoes, peering over the bean grinder at Stern.
“And you gotta admit, he is pretty weird,” She commented, dropping back down. “He’s so buttoned up and professional, and he just showed up one day. I’ve never seen him get in a car, so I guess he walks, but from where?”
“Oh yeah, Mrs. Pearson mentioned she saw a sleek black car, new model, down at Four Pines that’s been there for about a week. Maybe he’s staying there, it’s within walking distance,” Dani hummed thoughtfully, steaming the milk for the order she was working on. That seemed plausible to Barclay. Mrs. Pearson was as sharp as they came; if she said the car had been there a week, she meant it. She hadn’t been the Chief of Police for all those years for nothing.
“Who’s staying down at Four Pines?” Jake came out of the back, a bottle of Gatorade in hand. His shift had just ended, but he tended to linger when he could.
Knowing a bit about his home life, Barclay could understand why. He’d graduated from high school last year and was living with his mother. She’d raised him by herself and was always busy with multiple jobs. Plus, apparently, things had been rather tense since Jake had told her he was a boy.
“The secret agent Barclay thinks is hot.” Dani chuckled, putting a drink on the bar. Jake’s eyes widened to the size of dinner plates as Barclay covered his face with his hand.
“Dude, really? That’s sick as hell, he’s a secret agent? Who is he?” Jake peered around the cafe with all the discretion he didn’t possess, Aubrey pointing Stern out.
“He’s not a secret agent, Jake, we don’t know who he is. He just dresses up nice.” Barclay grumbled, hoping that Stern hadn’t overheard them. The last thing they needed was for a new regular customer to learn they were making up stories about them.
“Oh yeah, I see him. I dunno, dude, he definitely looks like a secret agent. I bet he has like, rad spy gear and stuff.” Jake ducked out of sight when Stern looked up, grinning widely. “Hey, we should talk to him. I think there’s some rule that they have to tell you if they’re undercover if you ask.”
Jake darted out again, Barclay cursing the kid’s impulsiveness. “Jake, it doesn’t work like that, don’t bother him. JaKE WATCH WHERE YOU’RE-”
The young man had turned back when Barclay had called after him, not watching where he was going. He ran right into Stern, who’d gotten up to clear his dishes. Blue gatorade went everywhere, Stern’s cup crashing to the floor.
The whole cafe went silent, as people tended to do in these situations. The only thing Barclay could feel was a rising sense of horror.
Stern looked stunned, blue liquid soaking into his suit while Jake looked equally shocked, before floundering with embarrassment. “Dude, I am so sorry. Shit. I shoulda been watching where I was going, that was super uncool of me. Um.. shoot.. uh..”
Barclay could see Jake was struggling with what he should do, between the mess and the broken china on the floor and the man who’s suit he’d just ruined. The barista rushed over to help.
“Hey Jake, how about you and Dani go to the back and go grab the broom and mop, okay? I’ll take care of our guest here.” Jake nodded, eyes wide as he hurried into the back, Dani following while Barclay remained with Stern. He grabbed a big handful of napkins from the bar, bringing them to Stern. The other man quietly took them with a nod, patting himself down.
“I am.. so sorry about that. He’s a good kid, I promise, he’s just a little scatterbrained.” Barclay nudged the broken shards of mug out of the walkway with his shoe, grimacing as Stern had little success in soaking up the liquid on his clothing. There had to be something he could do. “I uh.. I have a sweater in the back if you wanna borrow it.”
“It’s.. alright, it happens.” Stern blinked at him for a moment, and Barclay had the distinct sense he’d just overstepped, but much to his surprise, the man just looked down to the stain on his shirt again and sighed before nodding. “If you’re sure it wouldn’t be too much trouble, that would be appreciated.”
Barclay was dumbfounded that the man had actually said yes, but nodded nonetheless, heading to the back to grab his sweater. He passed Dani and a shamefaced Jake, armed with a broom and mop, on the way.
The sweater had been presented without many words, the dark-haired man retreating to the bathroom to change while Jake and Dani cleaned up. Barclay told Jake he could leave, since he was off the clock, but the kid insisted on sticking around so he could apologize properly once Stern had changed.
When Stren came back out, Barclay had to admit, it was strange seeing the man he’d only ever seen in pristine suits wrapped is his warm, frumpy sweater, his shirt, tie and jacket draped over his arm. The barista would even dare hazard to say that he looked just like a normal guy. The sleeves had obviously been a bit too long, Stern having rolled them to his elbows, and his face was pink from having washed it.
If Barclay had thought he was attractive with his suits and mystery, seeing him disheveled and swimming in his own oversized sweater, well... Barclay knew he was doomed. He swallowed thickly before giving Stern a lopsided grin.
“Looks good on you.” He chuckled, Stern smiling back, much to his surprise.
“Thank you, again, it’s.. much appreciated. I’ll be sure to return it to you freshly washed tomorrow.” He tugged at the knit fabric, clearing his throat.
“Oh, uh.. Don’t worry about washing it, it’s all good.” Barclay rubbed the back of his neck, trying somehow to not be as awkward as he knew he was being. Jake came up beside them just in time to offer a distraction, which Barclay couldn’t be more grateful for.
“Hey uh, I’m really sorry about that Mister. I hope you can get the stain out, and I really should have been watching where I was going.” Jake shuffled his feet, ears still red with embarrassment. Stern just smiled, waving the worry off.
“It’s no issue, really. Accidents happen all the time. And I imagine I can salvage the garment with a proper dry-cleaning, so don’t you worry.” Stern’s expression was warm and understanding, something Barclay hadn’t expected. Sure, Stern was always polite in the shop, but he supposed he’d assumed a man like Stern would be more, well... stern.
Jake nodded, relieved, before thanking Stern and telling Barclay goodbye for the day. Barclay turned back to the man, an awkward silence between them before Barclay offered his hand. Because at this point, why not.
“I’m Barclay by the way. I’m the assistant manager and head barista here.”
“I uh.. I know, it’s on your nametag.”
“Oh, right.” Barclay blushed, feeling stupid for forgetting something like that. However, Stern took his hand, shaking it carefully.
“But, it’s good to meet you officially, nonetheless. Agent Stern, FBI. I’m doing some work in the area for a little while.”
Barclay’s jaw almost hit the floor. He had been a secret agent. Holy Shit.
“Well damn. Jake’s gonna flip when he finds out he spilled gatorade on an FBI Agent.” Stern smiled again with amusement and Barclay felt his heart jump just a little. Stern had a great smile.
“Oh, I’m sure it’ll be a story for the ages.” He glanced at the clock on the wall. “Well, I should be going, especially if I want to get this to the dry-cleaners. It was a pleasure meeting you, Barclay and thank you for the sweater.”
“Uh.. yeah, you too. No problem.” Barclay wiped his hands on his apron idly as Stern started for the door, giving him one last smile before he left, leaving the Barista standing in the middle of the cafe. God, what was he doing? Stern was practically a stranger and here he was, dizzy like a teen with a crush.
In his defense, Stern was pretty cute.
So caught up in his idle fantasy for the rest of his shift, it wasn’t until Barclay got home that he realized he hadn’t told Stern tomorrow was his day off.