Fresh Ground

There's been a Starbucks in the lobby of Stark Tower since it was first opened to the public. The Starbucks stayed there when most of the tower renovated into Avengers Tower, and it stayed when Stark moved the primary Avengers operations upstate. It's a corporate-operated joint, that 'Bucks. Every employee is trained and approved by Seattle's Most High, because heaven-fucking-forfend that anyone in that tower be treated even an inch outside of party line. The coffee is fresh and hot, the employees in their clean green aprons have the right smiles, the cookies are as fresh as the factory can deliver them, and its top of the line, designer-signed chrome and wood furnishings are spic and span clean at all times.

Corporate can't figure out why, all this borne in mind, that particular Starbucks isn't outshining every other location on the planet. It does all right, of course. Especially around fall, when the new batch of interns and tech kids out of college throng into that mighty beacon of the kingdom of Stark. It makes banger bucks off the I HEART NY tourists that get bussed in to see if they can spot one of the more telegenic Avengers in the lobby.

They never do, although Avengers still often come to live and work in that tower for a while before disappearing again. But hey, at least the tourists can get that fresh Pike's Place.

. . .

Exit the lobby of Stark Tower. Go up half a block north, cut through the unnaturally clean and secure alley on your left, watch for the sign above the window. Can't miss it. It used to be the top of one of those old, wood-slat picnic tables, and it's still splintered up from its decades in Central Park. The paint splatters that cover it now are that purely riotous Sixties psychadelica aesthetica that can make you grin to see it. Stare at it all a moment and you'll realize it's actually congealing into an image. A giant chicken head is staring at you above the door of Roostercomb Coffee, staring through you, and that gimlet eye, painted a jet black fit to piss off Anish Kapoor, is either high as fuck or it's seen some shit. Maybe both.

Go through the door. They're open at least 18 hours a day and sometimes the full 24, and try to not smack into the lead IT guy for Stark Tower, who's leaving after picking up his sixth double espresso of the morning. He's drinking Kicking Bird Black, a fair-trade espresso bean sourced directly from Venezuela and its hand-roasting is overseen by a Cherokee granny who lives over in the Village. IT guy's probably been awake for at least 33 hours straight, because God knows what Stark did to the latest security upgrade. It's Pepper's show in that tower these days, but Stark is still and forever the tommyknocker in the wires.

IT guy will swing by you, praying out loud that he doesn't see Tony himself, because he might not be able to keep from decking Tony high on the cheek, where the latest iteration of the Iron Man tech means this poor dude would just break his hand. That's your only hurdle. Go in. Enjoy the local artisan decor and old comfy furniture. Be nice to the employees, because your fate is now in their hands.

. . .

Kyle is manning the second espresso machine while keeping an eye on the first, and Brandy is finishing a caffeinated milkshake over by the cold-counter. Not a frappe. An actual milkshake blended with cold brew, tossed with dark chocolate chips, folded into a base of local, small-batch vanilla gelato, and finished with a spoonful of hand-whipped cream and a crown of three small blueberries.

It's not for the customers. They don't have the time or the supply to be making these things during morning rush, although the vanilla gelato is for sale in small scoops with the chips as an optional topping. Brandy just really needs some breakfast, it's been a shitty week at home, and she hates muffins, even the fresh ones Jorge makes for both them and the tiny bakery next door that basically uses the coffee shop as its public outlet. Frankly, it's just a treat yourself kind of morning.

Brandy takes a huge suck off the straw and feels her headache start to finally recede. She yells towards the back, not unkindly. "Hey, new girl!"

"Yeah?" The voice wavers. It's not the acoustics.

"Ready to face the world?"

"…No."

"Good answer." Brandy's voice lowers as she wipes the side of her finger off on her apron, avoiding the hard fabric peek of her good binder by instinct. She doesn't turn around. "Kyle, she's gonna need a cappuccino before the rush really kicks in."

Kyle's hand slaps out towards the correct machine, deftly yanking the last cup out and going into cleaning mode. He's ambidextrous, and he worked at a different coffee shop out in Hell's Kitchen last year, a place that went under when they realized they were fraudulently laundering Fisk money. He told the Roostercomb owner, Dell, these two facts at his initial interview, and Kyle had a new job before he could finish checking off the 'I Am Not A Felon' on the boilerplate background check thing she'd shoved at him.

It wouldn't have mattered to Dell if Kyle had been a felon or not, incidentally, the background check is more of an honesty detail. There's a guy that comes by at second shift, six days a week, and his record is weighted down with two drug convictions and a non-violent theft that he did for more drugs, and since Dell gave him a chance, he's been clean. That was four years ago, and the guy's getting married next month, and the shop is going to close for the day so everyone can go.

Kyle finishes the cappuccino and dusts the foam with a little mocha powder. Not standard, but he likes the depth it adds to the brew, like a signature all his own. He shoves it to the side, gently, his off hand already prepping another espresso that's been chirped at him from Avi over at the register. He barely sees the dark brown hand wavering out to take it, and then the other, cupping it for balance.

New girl has a minor anxiety disorder. Dell didn't make a thing out of it, it's a therapy job sort of deal. But jesus, thinks Kyle, her first shift's the seven AM patented Starkrush? Well, if she can take it, she can take anything. Dive for the deep end, gal. We'll watch out for you.

Kyle takes half a second to glance at the new girl, seeing the signs of a fresh short-chop and eyes that haven't slept much in a small, dark face. "Vonne?" he asks by way of introduction.

"Hi," says Vonne, though it's more like a squeak.

"You got this. Starting with Avi?" His other hand slams through the routine, as if his hands were separate from him. He juts his chin at the register. Vonne nods at him. "Piece of pie. The new registers are easy. I'll teach you how to do lattes after the lunch rush."

"Okay." He watched her turn around, heading for the pair of slick new machines - Starktech, and they don't ask how Dell got a good deal, and Kyle is suddenly in shadow. His hands pause in mid-action, as if the eclipse that has swallowed the coffee shop is an omen that must be witnessed with a full and focused mind.

It is, actually. Kyle looks up, and up, into the face of a grinning slab of walking Kobe beef somehow wearing a denim jacket. "Hi," he manages. Kyle has seen Thor in the shop at least a dozen times, and it's a fucking stunner every single one. "The usual?"

There's dead silence behind him. The ladies are painfully aware of their guest. Jorge was apparently in the back again, because now his head has poked out to see the Avenger.

Personal sexuality does not matter as much as usual when in Thor's presence. Preference goes out the window.

It's fucking Thor.

"Hmmmm," says Thor, and he squints up at the freshly chalked menu. "I would like to try…"

Kyle's first job was at a McDonald's, and usually by this point, his soul would have left his body because he knows it's taking someone a minute and a half to order the same ten piece McNugget combo they always get or whatever, but this is Thor, and Dell tells every new hire the story about how she had to walk him through what a latte was while Tony Stark grinned fit to eat the band in the background. Thor is an alien, and a god, and an intensely pleasant guy, and the entire staff of Roostercomb would crawl over broken glass to make sure he got the best fucking mocha on Earth if that's what he wanted.

"Oh. The holiday menu." Thor enunciates the word 'holiday' with rhythmic bardic verve, as if the word were an Asgardian stallion racing freely through a field of wheat. Kyle is pretty sure he's straight. He is, at this moment, like all the other moments he waited on Thor before, not that straight, and the word makes his knees wobble a little. "Is the maple latte too sweet, good Kyle?"

Kyle, like the rest of the staff, doesn't wear a nametag. Kyle knows what the sound of the harps in Heaven sound like. He puts himself together, sounding partially normal. "I've got a twist on it where I sprinkle a little bit of the caramel salt on top. Cuts the sweet part of the mix, but the maple comes out really strong."

"I like it! Let's try that in a grande." The deyyy part of the word drawls like forbidden honey. There's a man in a black suit behind Thor, Kyle suddenly realizes. Here with the Avenger. The man looks like he wants to die, right here, right now. Thor turns towards him. "Lo-Er. Agent Locke?"

Grey-green eyes dart towards Kyle, in that specific, suspicious way feds had. They get SHIELD agents into Roostercomb regularly, not that they're supposed to acknowledge that the employees know. But like any federal agency, if they're not undercover, they're not hard to spot once you know where to spot the hiding badge clip, the concealed weapon, and the shitty rented sedan outside. There is one right now, of course. Brown. Out of date. Probably doesn't even have bluetooth. Kyle feels a weird sensation drop all over his body, like being dumped into ice water. The voice is remarkably polite, though, and as liquid as Thor's. Like silver, this voice, not golden light. The sensation leaves as quick as it came. "Mocha, please. Large."

"Whip?"

Thin lips quirk in consideration. "Yes."

Kyle's hands fly into action. The ladies behind him are still dead silent. The shop is a temple to living Gods at the moment. There are over a dozen people at their tables and couches doing morning stuff but they are frozen as if time itself has stopped. Roostercomb sees Clint Barton twice a month, Natasha Romanoff probably far more often than they think because she likes to play costume games on the local businesses, and Tony Stark personally resets their wifi three times a week whether in person or remote because he likes to, but Thor's increasing visits still seem like the return of a rare comet.

"I would also like to partake of the banana bread," booms that ridiculously huge and jovial voice. Brandy practically dives for the loaf.

"The gods weep," says the agent in black under his breath, heavy and tired. Kyle pauses for a split second at it, then gets back to work. "Do you always have to be like this?"

"Like what?"

"Nevermind." The agent lifts his chin and for a second he looks partially alive. "These come from the bakery next door?"

It's the new girl that manages to speak up, Vonne. "Yes, sir."

Those sharp, glittery eyes narrow, assessing the glass case. "The muffins. You have a preference?"

"Uh. This is my first day, sir." Vonne is ashy under her skin, but she's holding together. It's brilliantly clear she's telling the truth, and that seems to somehow take some of the baked-in intensity off the man in black. "I like butternut muffins though, and the ones in that case smell great."

"Two of them. Please."

On some useful instinct, she goes to bag them up for him. Kyle's almost done with both drinks. He's added a little extra espresso to the mocha. He can read certain things about people. The man in black looks to him like an extra caffeine kinda guy.

Avi's already got the total ready, plus Kyle can tell she's hovering over the key that makes it all gratis. Dell policy. She won't discuss it, and every employee is on their honor when they tell her that a freebie is for an Avenger or for another reason. It's never abused. But the agent guy - Locke? - already has a card in hand. Avi looks at it, and at him. "It's okay, we can-"

The agent interrupts her shortly. "I'm on per diem and I'm annoyed. Take the money."

"Lo-Locke?"

The eyes roll towards Thor, who's already got a speck of banana bread hanging on his beard. "It's nothing." A graceful hand leaves a tip on the machine, then takes the two bags of muffins. Kyle can tell the tip is weirdly high, because Avi blinks at least three times. "It's just the job."

"This is about Stephen?"

"He says he's got it under control. I know he doesn't. It's going to be another giant mess. It's virtually a seasonal tradition." The agent doesn't look at the employees, who are watching the two men talk like it's a tennis match. His free hand takes the mocha from Kyle without looking at him, and he takes a sip. The pale face regards him. "Excellent," he says, with actual, if chilly, pleasure, and Kyle feels like the devil just passed his soul over and left him to greet another dawn. Definitely an extra caffeine guy.

"The good doctor is no simple fool, Loki."

Vonne's breath hitches in her throat at the name, Kyle can hear it.

"No, he's a terribly complicated fool, and I'm going to have to unknot it all before it gets out of hand." The agent looks at Vonne curiously, having heard the gasp. "Is there a problem, miss?"

Behind Vonne, Brandy's gone deathly still. The agent looks at them both. The policy is that no one makes a thing about the Avengers, much less any celebrity or tired businessperson ordering the off-menu Death Espresso at 11 at night. It's supposed to be a safe place, a neutral watering hole where people are just treated like people. It's Vonne's first day and something about the name Thor dropped made her eyes go wide. Thor looks chagrined, like he knows he made a mistake. "I'm. Nothing. I was just coughing."

Those glinting eyes narrow again, studying her. Kyle gets that weird, chilled feeling again. "You said it was your first day."

"Yes, sir." It's quiet. Vonne looks like she's heading for a panic attack.

"Working through college?"

"Yes. Sir." It's crackling.

"What's your major?"

"Um. Criminal… criminal science. John Jay." She swallows. "I want to be in forensics."

"I see. That's a brave study." The agent is still looking at her. "The dead talk more than the living, when you know how to listen."

Jorge outright fucking drops an empty muffin pan in the back, giving away the fact that every single person in the shop is hanging on each word, including Thor himself. This is officially the weirdest morning in Roostercomb's history, and that's including the time Dr. Banner physically dragged out a crazy-looking guy in a red and black onesie while doing his best to not Hulk out.

Vonne can't say anything. The agent is still staring at her, and then he talks again. "A good school. I work with several graduates, they tell me terrorism is part of the ordinary course load these days. Horrible study. Necessary, unfortunately, isn't it?"

She swallows. "I've… I've got Terrorism and Apocalyptic Violence online."

Kyle has no idea where this is going.

"Used to be an elective. I believe it's essentially required now if you're looking at working in any major city. The variables now are… rather extreme."

"Mmhmm." She's not blinking. She looks like she's seen a ghost.

"I'm sorry," says the agent, obliquely. He hands her the second muffin he bought, as if that were his intent all along. Kyle blinks, realizing it was. "They're sending letters over to my agency, asking for some private guest speakers. I was thinking vaguely about agreeing to one. Would at least stun my coworkers, and I think I might actually have something useful to say."

Vonne is holding the muffin bag between two fingers.

The agent gestures at it. "You should have breakfast." He turns away. "Thor?"

Thor seems to shake himself, returning to the now. "Aye?"

"I've only got the rental until ten, so if you wanted that second stop, please finish standing there like a dead ox."

Thor stares at the agent, then at the employees in turn, giving them a nod that's almost apologetic. He salutes Kyle with the maple latte. "Well made, young sir."

Kyle manages a grin. The tension in the air seems to have snapped somehow, although Vonne still looks shocked half to death. The pair are almost to the door when Vonne creaks it out. "Wait?"

Kyle locks eyes with Brandy. They have never had someone go from hire to fire within an hour, and Vonne was not anyone's guess to break that streak. The tension comes right back.

"Hmm?" The agent slowly turns his head towards her. Thor's hand grabs his shoulder, like he knows the guy really well. "Yes?"

"I-. Um." It dies in her throat.

"You're going to be fine." Almost kindly now. "What was it you wanted to ask?"

"Pro… Professor Lindquist would kill to have you speak." She swallows. "I… guess he heard a rumor."

"Does he teach this not-elective of yours?"

She shakes her head. "No, he's been co-chairing the international criminal justice department, ICJ. But. He's, uh, founding the ECJ department?"

The agent is studying her, openly curious. "I assume I'm correct about the acronym."

"Mm…mhmm."

He frowns. "I'll perhaps contact him, then. What's your name?"

"Sir?"

It is oddly clear that the agent has chosen to not look impatient with her. "Your professor would no doubt like to know what helped make my decision. That will look good on your student record. I'm aware that matters to a career. Your name?"

"…Yvonne N'dambi."

"Thank you, miss." He almost grinned. "The day will get easier from here." He turned around again. "Thor!"

"What?" came the voice, filtering around the edge of the shop's door.

"You are not driving, get away from the godsdamn car."

"I am perfectly capable of-"

"It's my insurance!"

The shouting became unintelligible as the door shut.

"Oh my god," says Brandy.

"What the fuck," says Avi.

"What'd that guy tip?" asked Kyle, the espresso machines going still for once. He leans toward the register. Wordless, Avi turns the screen to show him. "Holy shit."

"Am I in trouble?" Vonne breathes it out.

"What's ECJ?"

"Um. Extraterrestrial Criminal Justice."

Avi, Brandy, and Kyle stare at her. Vonne seems to shrink inward. "No shit?" asks Avi.

"No, uh, shit."

"Wow," says Brandy. She's clearly and honestly impressed. "So who was that guy?"

Avi elbows her, gently. "Nix, nix."

"Yeah, but!"

Vonne shakes her head. "It's… my professor says it's super complicated. Like…" She looks helpless for a moment. "My mom nearly got killed in the attack."

She doesn't have to specify. They know. They're all old enough to know, even if they saw it between cartoons or while doing math homework. New York. The sky opening. The world changing forever.

"So… like… I want to be angry about it." Vonne is looking at the muffin in her hand. "I think I am. But I also just… want to know more. So nothing like that happens again. And Lindquist found out something weird, because he has a friend that knows a friend, and I can't tell you guys because it's government security stuff and I don't know either. I'm just a student."

"Top student," says Avi, because she can guess shit like a fucking phone psychic, only real, and always knows when Kyle's flamed out on his latest relationship. He stares at her. She stares back.

Vonne doesn't say anything to that, but her cheeks get a berry tone under the brown to say that Avi is right and she'd also rather die than admit it. "But anyway. You ever see that movie where DiCaprio is so good a con artist that he ends up working with the FBI?"

"That was a real thing, wasn't it?" Brandy takes over the espresso machine as a new customer finally braves it.

"Yeah. Frank Abagnale Jr. He still speaks sometimes. I saw him last year."

"So reformed criminals can be a useful thing. That guy was a criminal? And you recognized him?"

Vonne bit her lip. "Kinda."

"Giiiiirl." Brandy gave her the patented Brandy look. "How's he a crook that Thor knows?"

Vonne grins. It's sheepish and cute. "Because as far as I know, they're brothers."

Brandy squeaks out a noise that sounds like a thousand meet-cute fanfics come to life. Then she stops herself. "Wait. The cop is an alien ex-con."

"Er. I guess… these days he's supposed to be one of the best at making sure nothing like him ever happens again."

The group absorbs that, putting two and two together and realizing that, yes, Vonne had told them who the guy really was, and no, he wasn't dangerous anymore and was actively doing something about his crime. Brandy shakes her head. "God, I fucking love New York."

The door slams open, and a guy in a jogging outfit with, absurdly, black driving gloves lunges in. He's got one of those asshole goatees, and just enough silvering hair to look kind of peevish at all times. It's Strange. Doctor Strange. He's a regular. "Did I just miss them?"

"Yeah," says Avi. She deals with him the best at checkout. "Five minutes ago."

"Shit." He steps to the counter. "I'll uhh…"

Kyle starts dying inside. The McNugget Principle claims his soul. He takes over the second espresso machine next to Brandy, starting what he knows full well is going to be ordered. Eventually.

It takes two full minutes of mystic contemplation today. "I'll have the nonfat milk vanilla latte with two pumps, an extra espresso shot, annnnnnnd… ummm…."

"Hazelnut sugarfree," whispers Kyle to himself under his breath.

"Sugarfree hazelnut," says Strange, matter of fact. Then he jerks towards the glass case. "Ooo, the banana bread is fresh."

Avi already has a slice bagged for him. She and Kyle share a look, and Vonne is fumbling with the order screen. Odd little bump aside, she's back towards fitting in nicely, and her anxiety is settling down to more usual levels. She's faced the worst, and now the morning rush can resume. She's got this now. The deep end is no longer something to be feared. She saw a villain and a god in the flesh and helped ring up their coffee.

Yeah, thinks Kyle, knowing there's gonna be a twenty-engineer deep pile from the tower soon. It's going to be an ordinary day from here.

She wasn't certain what the future held, but coffee would be involved if she had any say in the matter. ~ Terry Pratchett

10-01-2018 - look, I just felt like it.