“She’ll be great,” Theon promised, with all the unearned confidence of, well, Theon.
“She’s never worked a day in her life,” Asha pointed out. “How great could she be? And how would you possibly know?”
Theon brushed this concern off with a careless wave of his cigarette hand that left ashes on her sleeve.
“If this turns out badly,” Asha decided, “it’s your fault and I’m blaming you. Don’t think that I won’t. Those puppy dog eyes won’t work on me.”
Theon grinned. “I thought they just did?”
Asha’s answer was a huff.
“Besides, how could your coffeeshop possibly get any shittier?” he said in a very reasonable voice whose reasonableness was obviously calculated to elicit a response.
Asha didn’t give him the one he wanted. “You’re only calling it shitty because Dad left it to me.”
Theon shrugged, clearly stung. “Still shitty,” he muttered.
The green neon kraken in the store sign flickered above them as if to accentuate the point. Asha ground her teeth and made a note to herself to have it looked at. She couldn’t let the coffee shop fail. Not on sheer principle of succeeding at everything, and also not with her uncles breathing down her neck, waiting greedily for her to falter so they could snatch it from her. Well, she was not going to go gently into that good night. She was going to put up a fucking fight about it.
“Grand re-opening is next Monday. You think she can be trained in time?”
Theon flashed the grin of the smug victorious. “She’ll be fantastic.”
“What’s her name again?” Asha asked, just to be annoying, because she already knew.
“Stark,” he added finally.
“Ah,” she said, patting his disgruntled cheek. “A Stark. It all becomes clear, little brother.”
She didn’t share her brother’s fascination-cum-idolatry of the Stark family, so she just added, “If she sucks, you get to fire her.”
* * *
Irritatingly, it turned out she was very good at persuading other people to do her more unsavory side work for her.
“Why are you cleaning the bathrooms? Why do you let her do that?” Asha hissed to her assistant manager.
Qarl shrugged, unperturbed. “She handles the customer complaints.”
“That’s your job when I’m not here!”
“Yeah, but she likes it, and she’s good at it.” Qarl was a pretty easygoing guy overall, but he wasn’t a pushover. In that moment, Asha kind of wished he was.
“Good at your job,” she reminded him.
“I’m delegating. That sounds pretty managerial to me. I believed I learned that trick from . . . who was it again?” Qarl grinned.
“Oh, fuck off,” Asha grumbled.
Together they looked toward the front of the house, where they could see Sansa smiling. It was a very nice smile in an objective sense, Asha could admit--warm and sympathetic and concerned. It seemed to his just the right note with the customer, who actually walked away with both a burned hand (thanks to a cup poorly slid across the counter) and a smile of his own.
“We’ll probably need her to keep doing that as long as you can’t figure out how to roast the beans without burning them to an ashy crisp,” Qarl observed.
Damn him. He was probably right.
“I’m going for a smoke,” she muttered.
* * *
Startled, Asha looked up. “If you like,” she said warily.
Sansa seemed the type to consider tobacco and smoke gross, and that expectation was confirmed when Sansa wrinkled her nose and waved in front of her face.
“Stand upwind, Stark,” Asha said, not without amusement, and jerked her head toward her other side.
Sansa did so and clasped her hands in front of her, leaning back against the brick beside Asha. Silence reigned for a few moments. She clearly had something to say, but Asha was patient.
“So I wanted to ask you, since you’re my supervisor--how am I doing? Is there anything I could improve?” Sansa said finally.
“Sounds a bit rehearsed,” Asha observed. “Did you google ‘how to impress your boss’?”
Sansa’s pink cheeks and downcast eyes were all the answer she needed. Asha hooted.
“Don’t worry, I won’t hold it against you.”
“Thank you for that.”
“I didn’t even know you knew what sarcasm was, Stark,” Asha said with delight. “Were you being sarcastic? It’s actually hard to tell with you, you know.”
“For most people.”
“You have one of those faces where everyone believes you’re sincere, don’t you?”
“I’m not being insincere about . . . this, this job. I need--I want this job,” she corrected. Asha didn’t miss it.
“Heard about what happened to your family,” Asha said bluntly. It was hardly a secret: everyone knew the Starks had lost their fortune the year before in a single fell blow.
Sansa’s only response was a tightening of her clasped hands.
“I know, I know. Old money doesn’t talk about money, blah blah blah,” Asha said. She flicked her cigarette and lost half an inch of unsmoked ash. “I must seem terribly rude, hmm?”
Sansa was quiet for a long moment. “You’re telling the truth. I don’t mind when people are telling the truth.”
“I don’t know whether I believe you.”
She looked embarrassed. “I do try to believe it.”
“That’s all anyone can ask for, I suppose.” Asha took a long drag. “Do you like the job? Be honest.”
“Does anyone really like this sort of job?”
Asha chuckled. “Fair enough, Stark.”
“‘Stark’. You keep calling me that.”
She raised an eyebrow. “Do you want me to stop?”
Sansa considered the question. “No. I like it.” For a moment, Asha thought she was going to say more, but she did not, only repeating in a satisfied voice, “I like it.”
Asha resolved to call her that at every opportunity. “All right. Break’s over, Stark.” She stubbed out her cigarette on the brick wall and tossed it in the trash can with a pointed look, and held the door open.
“They say that kissing someone who smokes, it’s like . . . like licking an ashtray,” Sansa said, her mouth seeming to test the words as if they were unfamiliar shapes that she had never formed in that order before, and had never expected to.
“Oh? They do?” Asha raised an eyebrow. “Who do I have to worry about trying to kiss me, Stark?”
Her color heightened, closer now to red than pink. "No one."
Asha was enjoying this. "No one at all?"
"Whoever you want," Sansa corrected. "Which is none of my business."
"Why, Stark, I'm disappointed."
* * *
Theon laughed when she told him this, while she furiously smoked one irritable cigarette after another on a dirty sidewalk waiting for the light to change.
"Shut up," she snapped. It was a mistake to mention it to him. Of course he would take it the wrong way.
He only laughed all the harder.
Two weeks later, it was the lack of that same smile that alerted her a problem. At first Asha thought it was more of the same: a customer complaint, Sansa handling it. The blond boy had the arrogant air of someone accustomed to being catered to, and more than a whiff of self-important privilege. Not unusual. But everything about Sansa's posture screamed "prey animal in danger" instead of her usual aplomb, and her smile was absent.
They were speaking in hushed, tense tones, and when she drew near their voices faded.
"Everything all right?" Asha asked pointedly, looking at Sansa.
They both replied at the same time--a murmured, insincere "fine" from Sansa, and a bright, unctuous "great" from her companion.
"You're not going to call the cops," she heard the boy sneer as she walked away. "Quit pretending. You wouldn't. You're too soft."
"You need to leave." Asha got the impression Sansa had said this more than once already: it had a rehearsed feel. "The restraining order says . . ."
Asha didn't catch the rest of that, because her feet were carrying her to the back room, where she picked up the cordless store phone and returned to the front. She leaned against the counter, leveled an unmistakable glare at the blond boy, and said into the phone, loudly enough to be heard, "I'd like to report a violation of a restraining order . . ."
This was enough to make the asshole blanch and flee like the craven he was. Asha snickered after him. It was too bad the shop was nearly empty; an audience to provide a convenient laugh track would have been nice. She turned to Sansa.
Who was glaring at her.
"Why would you do that?" she hissed. "I had it under control."
Asha crossed her arms. "Because that's definitely what it looked like."
"I was fine."
"You don't look fine."
She really didn't. Even in the golden light of the late-afternoon sun, she looked pale and wan and like she was about to cry.
"Take ten if you want it," Asha said shortly, jerking a thumb toward the back.
Delicate, well-bred Sansa didn't stomp, but she came damn close to flouncing.
Wisely, Qarl had busied himself charging whipped cream canisters and pretended not to notice. When Sansa was gone, and it was just the two of them, Qarl gave her a glance laden with meaning.
"What?" she snarled.
"Jesus Christ," muttered Qarl, and quickly found something else to do.
Asha managed to wait two minutes before making a short white mocha with extra whip and heading into the back of house.
Sansa was seated at the little office area crammed into the corner. Her posture and presentation were as crisp and contained as ever, but something in her eyes had dimmed. Asha had a nearly overpowering urge to head further back into the kitchen and pretend she didn't notice. It was what she would have wanted, if she were in Sansa's position, something she barely remembered it was so long ago. But Sansa's eyes caught on hers as she passed by and a foreign feeling stirred in the depths of Asha's . . . heart or whatever, she guessed crossly. She'd thought the damn thing crusted over years ago.
Wordlessly she offered Sansa the cup.
"What is this?" She popped off the lid and inspected, then took a delicate sip. Her eyes half-closed in pleasure. "This is my favorite."
Asha didn't bother saying I know. She pulled out the other chair, which screeched horribly.
"If he was violating a restraining order, he was breaking the law on my property," Asha said. "I had every right."
Sansa dipped a finger in the whipped cream and swirled it around. "I know."
"And I didn't actually call the police. I was just pretending."
"I figured that out, too."
Silence reigned for a few moments. Asha was ill-prepared for giving advice of any sort other than 'punch his face in' or possibly 'shank him.' "Why not call the cops on him?"
"I didn't want to make a scene." She shuddered at the very thought.
"Making a scene might come in handy if you want him to stay away."
Sansa waved a dismissive hand. "He would find a way no matter what. He enjoys frightening me, and making me miserable."
Asha knew a few men like that, some of whom shared blood with her. Her contempt for those sorts ran deeper than the Mariana Trench. Privately she thought there was nothing particularly frightening about this rather pathetic boy, but then again sometimes you couldn't tell.
"He sounds like a parasite. Feeding on fear."
Sansa nodded. "My dad used to say that you could only be brave when you're afraid. I don't feel very brave, though."
"I don't think bravery is a feeling," Asha said, as gently as she knew how, which she suspected wasn't very, as she felt as out of place as a squid that suddenly found itself at the top of a mountain.
Sansa nodded, studying her coffee. "Well, I don't think it would have mattered much anyway," she said with a small measure of forced cheer. "He's done a hack job on my reputation, so I'm sure he would make something up about how I invited him there because I was so desperate for him or whatever. He always said his family had the cops in his pocket, too, and I knew a few that were."
"Well," Asha said, standing, "fuck the police, but take it from me, there's a silver lining to the reputation thing."
"There's a freedom to it, isn't there? If people are determined to think shit of you, then you can do whatever you want, because it doesn't really matter." Asha lifted a shoulder and grinned wide.
The smile she managed to pull out of Sansa was small, but real, and it put a spring in Asha's step.
* * *
The short-haired girl made unintelligible sounds around the pliers lodged between her teeth. Both her hands were out of sight behind the neon kraken sign, which had been flickering more than usual lately.
"I hope you're not thinking of stealing that," Asha added, tucking her motorcycle helmet under one arm. "It barely works. Hardly worth the effort."
Her only reply was a furious head-shaking, which rocked the ladder she was standing on. Asha steadied it with one hand. The girl was tall and solidly built, with black hair and a determined can-do attitude that seemed wildly inappropriate for six-thirty in the morning.
"There you are!" came a cheerful voice. It belonged to Sansa, poking her head out of the door, looking extremely bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. "I hope you don't mind. This is Mya."
Mya waved down at them. Together their combined energy and positivity made Asha feel astoundingly cranky.
"What exactly am I not minding, here?"
Sansa beamed. "Mya is my friend, and a journeyman electrician."
A loud coughing noise from above them punctuated this proclamation.
"Excuse me, journeywoman. She's picky about terminology, Mya is." Sansa winked at her, all boldness and sass.
Asha stared at her. "Is she fixing the sign? Are you fixing the sign?" She directed the second question upward.
There was a muffled reply.
"She's trying," Sansa translated. She looked brighter, happier, than she had in recent days. Maybe she'd gotten an extra shot of espresso in her mocha. Or maybe it was the presence of her friend. Asha watched as Sansa hugged the girl's legs from behind and traded flirtatious jokes with her and thought, or girlfriend.
"It's almost seven, Stark," Asha said abruptly, surprising Sansa. "What are you doing out here? Rush hour's about to start!"
Briefly, Sansa looked hurt, but the expression smoothed over so quickly she couldn't be sure she hadn't imagined it. "Yes, ma'am," she said tartly.
Asha grimaced at the form of address, which was surely Sansa's point.
"There's something on your desk for you, by the way," Sansa added in a strange admixture of airy and icy, before turning back to slip inside.
There was indeed something on her desk. It was one of the for-here cups, the one with the chipped lip Asha always drank out of. Floating on top of the latte was a squid with an enormous head and several short, squiggly arms drawn in brown and white foam. Not expert, but obviously created with care.
She was at the main espresso machine. Asha came up behind her. "Should that be our thing? Squid-themed latte art?"
Sansa shrugged without turning around.
"It's cute," added Asha.
Sansa glanced back over her shoulder as she steamed milk for a cappuccino. Her long auburn ponytail swung with the movement. "You think so?"
"Must have been a lot of work." Which was about the closest Asha would ever get to an apology, probably.
"Will you get me a new bottle of cinnamon syrup?" was Sansa's only reply, but her voice had thawed considerably, and Asha knew she was all right.
Asha herself, however, was somewhat less than all right. She spent the rest of the morning watching as Mya came in and chattered with Sansa while business was slow, and then Sansa took her break with her, and they were bumping each other's shoulders and laughing and Sansa was smiling so widely her face probably hurt, and Asha had her second opportunity of the day to think to herself, fuck.
* * *
"Come again?" Qarl said.
Asha gestured expansively. "I have wants, of course. Desires, naturally. Needs, even, I'll cop to. But feelings?" She wrinkled her nose at the thought.
"Ah." There was a world of understanding in that single syllable.
She wagged a finger at him. "Don't you 'ah' me."
"That must be why you're all mopey tonight," Qarl observed with a grin. "You caught a case of the emotions, huh? Never thought I would see the day."
"The Captain Sea Bitch Greyjoy I know would just do whatever she wanted with no reservations. What happened to her?"
Asha scowled. "Who says these feelings are about someone I want?"
Qarl smirked. "You did, just now."
She stabbed an accusatory finger at her beer. "This is all your fault. I wouldn't be having inconvenient epiphanies if the haze of alcohol wasn't preventing me from fully repressing."
Qarl gently tried to pull her beer away, clearly repressing his own laughter. "You? Repressed?"
"Fucking ridiculous, right? I mean. But yeah. Some things. Some things are better left unearthed or whatever." Family things. Mom things. Theon things, sometimes. Awkward pimply teenager with a beaky nose things, occasionally. She'd gotten over that, as much as anyone ever got over that kind of thing, which was to say she never thought about it through sheer force of will.
"What's holding you back?"
"It's . . . complicated."
"Complicated like you're her boss and she's your employee complicated?" he asked.
Asha dropped her forehead into her hand. "Motherfuck, Qarl. Is it that obvious? God. No. Don't answer that."
"And"--here Qarl the Arse paused to mime writing on an invisible notepad--"how does that make you feel?"
"I feel like I'm going to murder you," said Asha flatly. "That's how I feel. You're lucky my hand-eye coordination is probably shit right now."
"You poor thing."
"There's only one solution," decided Asha.
"Let's hear it."
Asha held up one finger. "More alcohol." Another finger. "And more repression."
* * *
"That," said Asha, pouring beans into the hopper, "is really fucking annoying." They were almost done closing the store, and she wanted to go home already, after pulling a double to cover for an employee who'd called in sick.
"Severe weather warning," said Sansa. She was looking at her phone, frowning. "Tornadoes. Everybody go inside, or stay inside. That's what they're saying."
The wind was whipping fiercely outside, that much was true. The tops of the trees shook and their branches rattled with disturbing fervor.
"Sounds like it's gonna be a fun ride home."
Sansa looked up, surprised. "What? We shouldn't leave until it's over."
Asha frowned. "Are you serious? It's just a little wind, Stark."
"Which is going sixty miles an hour, and you ride a motorcycle."
"I have places to be," said Asha.
"They can wait." Sansa sounded annoyingly firm.
Asha dug out her phone. "No, they can't."
It was a long shot to call her mom and expect her to actually pick up, but Asha tried anyway. Three times, with increasing anxiety. Logically she knew Alannys never kept her phone anywhere near her person out of sheer forgetfulness that it even existed, and that at this hour she was almost certainly curled up in bed, pleasantly unaware of any potential tornadoes, dreaming of her dead sons. It didn't help.
"Pick up pick up pick uppickuppickup," she muttered under her breath. She tried calling Theon. No dice there, either, not that she'd expected any. She swore and kicked the closest target, which was one of the under-the-counter fridges.
"THEON," she said loudly into his voicemail, "you absolute fucker, I know you're not going to listen to this and it's completely pointless because I'm sure you're out getting wasted right now, but there are tornadoes and I need you to check on Mom. You fuckface shitstain." Then she hung up.
"I'm sure she's all right," Sansa said.
"Yeah, well, I'm not sure. She likes to wander outside looking for my dead brothers and the entire fucking street is full of callery trees whose limbs fall off at the lightest breeze and she forgets where she is, okay? It's not like Theon's got things under control. I can't just stay here while she might be out there." She grabbed her keys and made to move past Sansa.
Sansa's fingers curled around her wrist. Her grip was light, but somehow powerful enough to make Asha pause. "Something might happen to you."
"So what!" Asha snapped. Her keys rattled, and the wind outside howled.
"So what?" asked Sansa quietly. "So what if Theon becomes an only child? So what if your mother starts wandering the streets looking for you, saying your name?"
The silence that followed this was like ground zero after a nuclear bomb. Asha forced herself to breathe through her clenched jaw. Her eyes burned. It took several moments to gather herself to say in a steady voice, "That's fucking cold, Stark."
"Did it work?" There was a terrible kindness to her cruelty. Asha hated her and loved her.
"We should do something, then. I'll go crazy in here if we don't."
"What do you want to do?" Sansa's head was cocked, curious. Challenging.
Asha pushed her back until she bumped against the counter. They were nose-to-nose. Sansa's breath came out in rapid little puffs Asha wanted to capture, so she kissed her.
Sansa tasted like the artificial strawberry lip gloss she wore, and the lemon cupcakes she liked, and the faint undertones of white mocha and espresso she drank at the beginning of every shift. Asha dragged her tongue across Sansa's lower lip, then took it between her teeth, feeling Sansa's moan vibrate out of her.
Sansa couldn't decide where to put her hands, resting them on Asha's hips, her waist, her arms, her shoulder, her hair, a thousand little touches. Asha groaned into her mouth when Sansa's hand caught in her short hair and tugged.
Their aprons muffled the contact between their bodies. They needed to go. Asha slipped hers off and threw it away in the space of a second, uncaring of where it landed, and reached around to untie Sansa's.
At that moment, her phone chimed.
The sound dragged her away from her distraction. Asha pulled back reluctantly.
"Go on, get it," Sansa said breathlessly. Her braid had grown disheveled and her lip gloss was smeared. She looked perfect.
It was a text from Theon. It said, Got mom were ok. Then another message came in: Thx for the faith big sis.
A wave of relief hit, followed by a light sprinkling of embarrassment. Asha sighed. "God, I'm shit at this older sister thing."
Sansa's mouth quirked faintly. "I know what you mean."
Asha wiped at the corner of Sansa's mouth with her thumb, rubbing away the lip gloss.
"The sirens have stopped," whispered Sansa.
"So they have." Asha looked around. She was almost disappointed. "Let's finish up and blow this joint."
* * *
Sansa smiled. She had grabbed one of the outside tables. It was a nice, calm day, no sign of the tornadoes that had been imminent the night before. Her sunglasses were perched on top of her head. "I wanted to talk to you."
"What about?" Asha settled into the chair across from her.
As if to steady herself, Sansa took a deep breath. "About how I'm quitting."
Asha raised her eyebrows. "Quitting on the spot? You're not even putting in two weeks' notice?"
Sansa looked baffled. "What does that mean?"
Asha bit her lip and tried not to laugh. "It means you'll be leaving the job but continuing to work for two more weeks to let your boss find and train a replacement for you. So you don't leave them shorthanded."
"Oh. Then, yes. I want to do that. Put in my two weeks' notice."
"Noted. But I thought you needed this job. What brought this on?"
Uncertainty flitted over Sansa's face. "I was hoping you'd give me a good reference. And--isn't it obvious?"
"Isn't what obvious?" Asha tried to maintain an innocent expression, but she couldn't help but let a teasing smile slip through.
"Oh, you--you're terrible," Sansa complained.
"I really don't know what you mean. I think you'll have to show me."
Sansa's gaze darted to the windows. Then she stood up and visibly readied herself before bracing her hands on the arms of Asha's chair and leaning over to kiss her lightly. It was an awkward position, and Sansa's sunglasses fell down onto Asha's head, but they ended up laughing, so it was all right.
When they broke apart, Asha looked into the cafe. All the other employees were watching them, although several pretended not to once they were caught out. Asha waved at them with a sunny smile.
Sansa busied herself retrieving her sunglasses with a disapproving expression while Asha tried, unsuccessfully, to pull Sansa into her lap. "You're still my boss, for now. This isn't really proper."
"Fuck propriety," Asha said comfortably. "I didn't become the owner of a single shitty-ass coffee shop because I loved propriety so much. Besides, you kissed me. If anyone should be filing a sexual harassment claim . . ."
Sansa huffed. "It really doesn't bother you. What other people might think."
"I suppose," said Asha, hooking a finger into one of her belt loops, "you will just have to be brave, Stark."