“Sometimes,” Michiko the Monkey Queen said after everything had been resolved, “trouble starts when and where you least expect it.”
For Michiko and her roommate and partner in adventure, Beth McGill, it started one Sunday morning while they were on their weekly walk along the trail to the Wonderland Diner and Tavern, for breakfast and conversation with their Emigre friends. The informal dress code at Wonderland was “determinedly casual”, so Michiko wore a yellow sweater and black jeans instead of her usual Monkey Queen outfit. Beth was dressed as she usually was, in blue jeans and her green army jacket, over a Widdershins t-shirt.
They were chatting idly as they walked when they saw the dwarven couple heading down a side trail towards them. “Good morning!” Michiko said.
“Good morning, Monkey Queen!” one dwarf said. “Good morning, Beth!”
“Good morning,” Beth said, recognizing Ulbricht and Magnilda from their San Francisco Giants t-shirts. She glanced at the paper coffee cups in their hands. “Where have you guys been?”
Ulbricht and Magnilda exchanged guilty glances. “Well…we were both starving,” Ulbricht said.
“And we couldn’t wait to get seated and served at Wonderland,” Magnilda added.
“And our way up, we found a new pastry cart.”
“Pastry cart?” Michiko said.
“Run by a pixie and her brownie,” Ulbricht said.
“And it smelled so good, we had to try it,” Magnilda said.
“The crullers were amazing!”
“Aye! With the cinnamon icing!”
“And the coffee!”
“Just as good as what they have at Wonderland!”
Michiko nodded as they neared the old, seeming-concealed barn. “Coming in?” she asked.
The dwarves glanced at each other. “We’d better wait,” Ulbricht said.
“Briella will get mad at us,” Magnilda added.
“The pastry chef?” Beth said.
“She’s a short-tempered one.”
“They say she puts all her sweetness into her pastry.” Ulbricht paused. “Which is why there’s none left for her customers, her co-workers, or anyone else.”
“We’ll finish our coffee outside first,” Magnilda said. Beth nodded as she and Michiko headed for the barn door.
* * *
“Are we sure this is a good idea?” Beth said to Michiko as they headed down the trail after breakfast.
“Yep!” Michiko said.
“But it’s just a coffee cart, isn’t it?”
“It is, but it’s more than that.” Michiko veered onto the side trail the dwarves had taken earlier. “We’ve resolved disputes between Emigres before. And this could become a dispute very quickly.”
“Over pastries?” Beth raised an eyebrow.
“You weren’t around for the shepherd’s pie fight a year or so back.” Michiko grinned as they neared the cart.
There were three faeries at the front of the line, but Beth could see past them to the woman who was behind the cart. She was a young pixie with chocolate skin, almond eyes, and strawberry hair and wings, wearing a blue apron over a violet dress. She worked quickly, wrapping each pastry as it was ordered, making sure to smile and thank every customer.
Beth and Michiko joined the line. Beth’s nose twitched as she smelled the fresh coffee, and she saw the brownie to the side of the cart, filling cup after cup. She was short and gray-haired, wearing a white blouse and pants, a blue apron that matched the pixie’s, and the traditional brownie shoes with curled tips.
The line moved quickly, and Michiko and Beth were soon at the counter. “Good morning!” the pixie said. “What can I—” She stopped and stared at Michiko. “Aren’t you…the Monkey Queen?”
“Yep!” Michiko said.
“Glad to meet you!” The pixie smiled. “Twenty percent off, today only. What can I get you?”
“Well, we just ate—”
“There’s always room for pastry! You’re Beth, right?”
“Umm…yeah.” Beth tried to hide her surprise; she wasn’t used to being recognized by strangers.
“Here!” Before Beth could react, the pixie had sliced off a small piece from a blueberry scone and handed it to her. “Got up at two A.M. to make those! Fresh berries too!”
“Well…” Beth stared at the scone sample. She could feel Michiko’s eyes on her, even if she knew they weren’t. Michiko had been trying to get her into shape, but the last ten pounds just wouldn’t go away, and Beth felt a mix of desire and guilt any time she saw anything less healthy than a wheat germ and kale smoothie.
“You’re new here…” Michiko said to the pixie.
“Latte. I just emigrated two weeks ago.”
“Lost my job.” Latte shook her head. “How was I to know that Duke Aveno was allergic to cream cheese? Had to flee with my recipes, my equipment, and my brownie, Jo.” She pointed to the brownie, who nodded as she prepared a cappuccino.
“I applied at Wonderland as soon as I got here,” the pixie continued, “but they weren’t hiring, and the pastry chef there was so mean! So I was walking through the town with my seeming on, and I saw humans selling food from their carts, and that gave me the idea to do this!”
“Okay,” Michiko said. “I hope there won’t be any trouble.”
“We’ll try not to make any.” Latte smiled. “Sure you don’t want anything?”
“We’re fine. Thanks for your—”
“Um, Michiko?” Beth swallowed her sample. “Is it okay if I get one of those scones? And a small coffee?”
Michiko glanced at her partner. “Really?” she said.
“Yeah. Call it research.” Beth grinned.
“Coming up!” The pixie reached for a scone and a wrapper.
* * *
“I’m still a bit worried,” Michiko said. She and Beth had returned to their apartment, and they were sitting on the couch, chatting about the new Emigres.
“About the cart?” Beth asked. “They’ll be fine. That scone was delicious!”
“It was yummy,” Michiko admitted.
“And the coffee was really good! Just like at Wonderland!”
“And that’s why I’m worried. What will happen when Briella finds out?”
“I’m sure she won’t—”
Beth stopped as she heard the opening notes to “Goin’ Down”. Michiko pulled out her smartphone and tapped the screen. “Hello?” she said. She was quiet for several minutes. Finally, she said, “Okay. We’re coming.”
As she put the phone away, Beth asked, “So what happened?”
Michiko sighed. “She found out.”
* * *
“How dare she!”
Briella was tall and slender, with sharp blue eyes and long platinum blond hair done up in a bun; her chef’s hat sat on the counter in front of her. Even without makeup, and in baker’s whites, she reminded Beth of all the evil queens she had seen and read about in various fairy tales, complete with arched eyebrows. “I’m sure she—” Beth started to say.
“She thinks she’s the better pastry chef!” Briella snapped. “Can she make a scone this good!”
“I—” Before Beth could finish, the faerie had sliced a piece from a scone and pressed it into her hand.
“She is new here,” Michiko said. “She and her brownie had to emigrate.”
“She can find another job!” Briella snarled. “There must be a donut maker who needs someone to get up early!”
“No buts! Get rid of her.” Briella spun away from Michiko and Beth. After a moment, she glanced back and said, eyebrow raised, “Why are you still here?”
“Actually—” Beth swallowed her sample scone slice. “Could I get one of those scones? To go?”
* * *
“How do people stand working with her?” Michiko asked Mandy. The pixie waitress had joined her and Beth outside of Wonderland.
“The ownership seems to like her,” Mandy said. “And they dislike any turnover among the chefs. It disturbs the regulars.”
“So how do you deal with her?”
“I avoid her as much as I can.” Mandy sighed. “I’ve tried to get along with her, but she’s always so cold to me.”
Michiko frowned. “Does she have any redeeming qualities?”
“She makes great coffee.”
“Is that what matters?”
“Part of it.” Beth swallowed. “Her scones are also delicious.”
“Beth…” Michiko folded her arms.
“Research?” Beth smiled weakly.
“That’s your second one today!”
“But the first was blueberry! This one has a little lemon thing in the icing.”
“And you’re supposed to be watching your weight—”
“I saved you a piece?” Beth said quickly.
“Better.” Michiko grinned.
* * *
“She said what?” Latte glared at Michiko and Beth.
“Look,” Beth said, “we’re not agreeing with her—”
“Donuts!” the pixie snapped. “I might as well be making peanut butter sandwiches for toddlers!”
“I know you’re upset,” Michiko said. “But Briella’s been with Wonderland for a long time. She’s concerned about the competition.”
“Well, if she can’t stand the heat, she should take her oven and go home!”
“Never heard it phrased quite that way before,” Beth said.
“Maybe…you could try keeping a low profile for a day or two?” Michiko said. “See if Briella calms down?”
Latte sighed. “I’ll think about it.”
“Thanks. Let’s go, Beth.” Michiko turned and walked away.
“Be there in a sec,” Beth said. She turned to the pixie. “Is there any chance you—”
“Blueberry scones?” Latte said.
“Last one of the day.” The pixie smiled and reached for a tissue.
* * *
The last of the supplies had been loaded on the cart, and Latte and Jo were pushing it along the trail towards the cabin they shared. “Latte?” the brownie asked. “What the Monkey Queen said about keeping a low profile…”
“Did you think about it?”
“Not yet. Give me a minute.” The pixie closed her eyes for several seconds, then reopened them. “Done!”
“I take it we’re not lying low.” Jo smiled.
“I’ve never backed down from a challenge,” Latte said, “and I’m not starting now. When we get home, we hit the recipe file.” She chuckled, and there was an odd gleam in her eyes.
* * *
“Beth…” Michiko glared at her roommate.
“Is it my fault the snooze button didn’t work?” Beth said as she poured coffee into a thermos.
“It worked too well! You slept an extra hour! It’s a good thing I got home early from my morning run!”
“I know, I know.” Beth pulled on her backpack. “But if I leave now, and drink my coffee on the way, I won’t be late for class—”
Michiko’s smartphone rang. She answered it, but barely got the word “Hello” out before stopping and listening for a minute.
When she finally hung up, Beth asked, “So what was that all about?”
“For starters,” Michiko said, “you’re going to be late for class.” Beth nodded.
* * *
The cart had been set closer to the trail up to Wonderland, and the line was longer than it had been on Sunday. Michiko walked up to the side of the cart. “Latte?” she said as Beth moved next to her.
“Good morning,” the pixie said. On the counter in front of her, in addition to the plates of scones, was a tray stacked with cookie bars. The customers stared hungrily at the goodies as they waited.
“This isn’t really keeping a low profile, is it?”
Latte shrugged. “Is it my fault people are drawn to what we bake?”
“I just wanted to try an old family recipe! The Anything Goes Bar!”
“Anything?” Beth said.
“Trust me. Here.” The pastry chef cut a piece off a bar and slipped it to Beth.
As soon as Beth bit into the sample, she knew she was tasting something special. The bar was the same dough used for chocolate chip cookies, but baked to a chewy texture, and there was mix-in after mix-in, chips and walnuts and pecans and more chips and, Beth swore, a macadamia nut. “Oh my God, this is so good,” she said.
“Told you!” Latte beamed as she returned to serving her customers. Michiko pointed up the trail towards Wonderland; Beth swallowed and nodded as they headed off.
* * *
Even for a Monday, Wonderland was unusually quiet. This was because both regulars and co-workers could almost see the steam coming from Briella’s ears as she paced behind her counter. “I thought you’d talked to her,” the faerie snapped.
“We did,” Michiko said. “She just…didn’t want to listen.”
“I’ve worked for years here!” Briella said. “I’ve polished every recipe to perfection! How dare she steal my thunder!”
“Like this cinnamon apple croissant!” The chef sliced a large piece off one and handed it to Beth. “I sweated for hours to get the proportions just right!”
“Briella…” Michiko tapped the counter. “I know that the thought of competition must scare you a little. But give it time. Talk to Latte. Maybe the two of you can reach some sort of agreement.”
The faerie stared at Michiko for a long moment, then nodded. “I’ll think about it.”
“Thank you. Beth?” Michiko turned towards the door.
“Ummm…” Beth grinned sheepishly. “Can I get one of those croissants to go?” Briella smiled as, behind Beth, Michiko slapped her forehead.
* * *
As they headed down the trail, past Latte’s cart, Beth could see the line had grown. “She’s doing well,” she said to Michiko.
“I just hope she and Briella can work things out,” Michiko said. “I think there could be room for both of them.”
“So do I,” Beth said as they reached a fork in the trail. “Heading back to the apartment?”
“I was actually going to drop by the faerie encampment, actually. See what they were up to, with all their…encamping and all.” Michiko blushed.
“Okay. I’d better get to class.”
“See you later!” Michiko said with a smile. Beth returned her smile as they went their separate ways.
A minute later, Michiko returned to the fork. She moved to the side of the trail, partially concealed by the trees, and waited.
After a few minutes more, Beth came walking down the trail, holding a half-eaten Anything Goes Bar in one hand and her open thermos in the other. “’Dimetrodon,’” she sang, “’they ate sharks and were ten feet—’”
“Beth,” Michiko said as she stepped out of the trees.
“Yaaah!” Beth stopped, juggling her bar, trying not to drop her thermos.
Michiko caught Beth’s snack and glared at her partner. “Off to class?”
“I was still kind of hungry.” Beth blushed.
“We can’t play favorites, you know.”
“I know. That’s why I’ve been buying from both.”
Michiko rolled her eyes. “You’re late.”
“Don’t remind me. I’ll talk to you at lunch.” Beth ran off.
“Beth!” Michiko said. “Your snack…” As her roommate disappeared from sight, Michiko glanced at the Anything Goes Bar. She shrugged, took a bite and grinned. “‘Cheer up, sleepy Jean’,” she sang as she walked on.
* * *
Aloysius, the head chef at Wonderland, was tall, purple, and easily mistaken for a demon or devil when he forgot to put up his seeming. His appearance, complete with red eyes and bat-like wings, frightened many of the first-time customers, who only relaxed when they saw his chef’s hat and apron and tasted his cooking. Not many things intimidated him, but he found himself in front of one of the few that did. “Briella…” he said to the pastry chef as she stood at the counter.
“I’m not asking too much, am I?” the faerie said. “I just need some brownies here early to help me set up.”
“Are you sure this is the best thing to do?”
Briella smiled. “Trust me,” she said. Aloysius shivered.
* * *
“5:45?” Beth muttered, glancing at her alarm clock as Michiko shook her awake. “Is it trouble with the hobgoblins again? Another ogre gang? A rogue troll?”
“At this point,” Michiko said, “I’d prefer all of the above.”
“What do you mean?”
“Two pastry carts.”
Beth stared at Michiko for a moment as her brain tried to piece together what that meant. Then, she jumped out of bed. “Someday,” she said as she ran to her closet, “that’ll sound like good news.”
* * *
The trail to Wonderland was none too wide to begin with, and the throng of Emigres was spilling over to the surrounding shrubbery, trying to form two more-or-less orderly lines. The shorter one belonged, for a change, to Latte’s cart, though the stacks of chocolate chouquettes were still luring over their share of the hungry.
The other cart had a pile of pastries shaped like large oval rings. Briella was cutting slices out of the rings and handing them out to the eager Emigres. “Peach almond strudel!” she shouted. “Free samples! Courtesy of the Wonderland Diner! Home of the best pastry to be found anywhere!”
“Strudel?” Beth said. “I haven’t had strudel in years…”
She fell quiet as Michiko glared at her. “I’ll talk to her,” Michiko said.
Beth nodded. “Should I talk to Latte?”
“Try to just talk,” Michiko said.
“Right.” Beth got in the line in front of the pixie’s cart. She saw Ulbricht was near the head of the line. She glanced over to Briella’s cart, and managed to not laugh when she saw Magnilda in the line waiting for strudel.
* * *
It took some time, but Beth finally got to the front of the line. “Good morning, Beth,” Latte said.
“Hey. So what happened?” Beth pointed at the other cart.
The pixie shook her head. “Briella really wants to shut us down. I’m not sure I can keep competing with her. Try a chouquette sample?”
“Thanks.” Beth popped the pastry slice in her mouth. “This…is so good,” she said as she chewed.
“Thank you!” Latte smiled.
“The filling…the mini chocolate chips and the custard…” Beth swallowed. “I’m going to talk to Briella. Maybe we can still work something out.”
“I doubt it.” Latte sighed. “I don’t know what I’ll do if I don’t get to do this. I’ve studied for this all my life. And Jo needs this too.”
“I’m sure Michiko will think of something. She always does.” Beth paused as an idea came to her. “Oh, can I get three of those chouquettes?”
“Of course!” Latte reached for a bag.
* * *
“Monkey Queen!” Briella smiled as Michiko approached the cart. “Come for a sample?” Latte looked over and scowled as Beth walked away.
“But you must try this!” Before Michiko could move, the chef had slipped a slice of strudel in her hands. “Look, everyone!” she shouted. “Even the Monkey Queen knows who serves the best pastry!” The crowd that had gathered around Briella’s cart cheered.
Latte glared at her rival. There was a wild gleam in her eyes. “I never back down from a challenge,” she whispered. “Never.”
* * *
Michiko glared at the faerie. “I didn’t come here to choose one of you over the other!”
“It looks like you have. Even your assistant agrees with me.” She pointed to Beth as she walked up to the cart.
“Partner,” Michiko corrected.
“Well…” Beth stared at Briella. “Maybe I should try some of your strudel first.” The faerie nodded and handed Beth a slice. “My uncle used to bring us strudel from Wisconsin,” she said as she took a bite.
“And your verdict?” Briella said.
“Oh, this is so good,” Beth said. “You put just a little cinnamon in, right?”
“You could…taste that?”
“Yeah. Very subtle. Enhances the peach. Nice work.”
“Thank you!” The faerie smiled.
“But…” Beth held out the bag. “Now I want you to try this.”
Briella scowled as she pulled out a chouquette. She sniffed at it before taking a bite. Her eyes widened. “It’s…delicious,” she said as she chewed.
“I know! The custard!”
“And the pastry is so flaky!” Briella brushed a crumb from her chin. “So many chefs overlook how important that is!”
“Latte didn’t.” Beth smiled.
The faerie’s jaw dropped. “She baked these?”
Briella stared across the trail, at her rival’s cart, where Latte was handing scones and coffee to a spriggan. “I had no idea she was so good,” she said slowly.
“And you’re just as good,” Beth said. “There’s no winner here. You’re both great at what you do.”
Briella looked back at Beth. “I…”
“Can’t you two come to a compromise?” Michiko asked. “Can’t you find a way to work together?”
Briella stared at the counter and shook her head. “I’ve alienated too many people in Faerie,” she said slowly. “I can’t go back. I need this job…more than I knew.”
“But isn’t there room on your staff for another pastry chef?” Beth asked.
“No. Only one. And I can’t lose this job. It’s all I have.” Briella blinked. “I’m sorry,” she said quietly.
Beth nodded as she and Michiko stepped aside. “We should talk to Aloysius,” Michiko whispered, pulling Beth up the hill.
As they left, Briella took a deep breath. She exhaled and smiled, the doubt and ruefulness she had shown for just a minute pushed aside again. “Now, then!” she said to the crowd. “Who’s ready for strudel?”
* * *
“She’s not going to win,” Latte muttered as she watched Briella hand the last piece of strudel to Sam. The reptilian downed it in one bite and pushed the faerie’s cart towards the diner.
“She may already have won.” The pixie turned to Jo, who was emptying the coffee filters. “Our sales were down today.”
“It’s not over.” Latte turned away.
“Latte…we could always go back,” Jo said. “I know the Courts have blackballed us, but there’s always Cloudsoar or Dawnhome. We can get an assistant position, work our way up.”
“No. I never back down from a challenge.”
“But she’s beaten us with pastry.” The brownie shook her head.
“Then we’ll have to win with coffee!” Latte spun to face Jo, and her eyes gleamed with inspiration and a touch of insanity. “Get the espresso machine ready!” She laughed, and Jo shivered.
* * *
“Nothing?” Michiko asked. “No positions for her here at all?”
Aloysius shook his head. “We’ve been filled up since we took Bianca on. And there’s no budget left for new hires.”
“But she needs help!”
“What about just setting up a storefront at the pixie and gremlin apartments?”
“That wouldn’t be possible,” Scylla said, looking up from her book. “Fritz banned all food-related businesses there after the shepherd’s pie debacle.” The faerie took a small bite from a slice of strudel as she resumed her reading.
“There’s nothing we can do, then?” Beth said.
“I’m sorry, sweetie,” Aloysius said. “We just can’t help everyone who needs it.”
“Well, I’ll think of something,” Michiko said. “I won’t—”
The door to the diner flew open. “Guys!”
“Mec?” Beth said softly as the gremlin ran inside, tools rattling on his belt, panic on his face.
Mec hurried up to her and Michiko. “You guys have to get down there! Talk her out of it!”
“Talk who out of what and where?”
“That new pixie!” Mec waved his arms. “She’s gone crazy! And if anyone should know about crazy pixies, it’s me!”
“I know about it with gremlins, but ‘pixie madness’?” Michiko raised an eyebrow.
“It’s not unheard of,” Scylla said as she brushed strudel flakes off her black turtleneck. “There was that incident at the art exhibition in Cloudsoar three years back. They’re still trying to get the paint out.”
“She was overworking her coffeemakers!” Mec said. “There was foam everywhere. She was laughing and mentioned a…duodecuple espresso?”
“No!” Everyone turned towards the pastry counter as Briella bolted out from behind it, running for the door.
* * *
“Latte…” Jo wiped her brow. “Are you sure—”
“More coffee grounds!” the pixie shrieked. “More steamed milk! More power!”
“She’s overheating!” Jo pointed at the espresso machine, which was glowing and smoking. “She cannot take the strain!”
“I! Need! More! Power!” Latte ran to the coffeemaker and shoved in two more power crystals. The gleam of pixie madness filled her eyes, and she laughed hysterically.
* * *
“Duodecuple?” Michiko furrowed her brow.
“Twelve-fold,” Beth said slowly. “Four times the strength of a triple espresso.”
Scylla slammed her book shut. “No one’s tried to make a twelve-fold espresso since Howw the hobgoblin fifty years ago in the Hoblands.”
“He leveled the cafe he was in. And everything within 500 feet.”
“Lords and Ladies,” Mec whispered.
“And the Hoblands smelled like burnt coffee for a year.” Scylla shook her head.
“We’ll be safe in here,” Aloysius said. “The walls are enchanted, reinforced, the whole nine yards.”
“But Briella went out there.” Michiko jumped to her feet. “Why?”
“To talk Latte down, maybe?” Beth said as she got up. “I hope it wasn’t—”
There was a muffled explosion. “Too late,” Michiko said, running for the door, Beth behind her.
* * *
They sprinted down the trail, hoping and praying for the best as they rounded the bend, fearing the worst. They caught their breath when they saw Latte, kneeling on the ground, her head in her hands. The cart was in pieces around her, scones scattered in the dirt, broken coffeemakers behind her, a piece of chouquette stuck in her hair. “No,” she whimpered.
Briella was sitting on the ground to one side. “She…” The faerie pointed at Latte. “She…pushed me away at the last moment…before the machine exploded…”
Latte looked up, a hint of madness still in her eyes. “I just wanted everything to be…delicious,” she whispered. “Was that so wrong?”
“No.” The pixie looked over at Briella as she stood. “It’s never wrong. I know that deep down. So do you, and your brownie—” The faerie stopped and gasped.
“Jo.” Like that, the madness faded from Latte’s eyes. “Lords and Ladies, no.” She sprang to her feet and ran to the pile of wrecked coffeemakers, throwing parts and pots aside. Michiko and Briella joined her, while Beth shooed back the crowd that had gathered.
Michiko lifted an axle, and Latte knelt by a short figure with pointy-tipped shoes. “Jo?” she said, her voice shaking.
The brownie looked up at Latte. Her clothes were muddy and her face and hair were coated in ash, but she still smiled. “I saved the till,” she said, pointing down to what she had been covering. “Just like your mom would have wanted.”
Latte grabbed Jo and held her tight. “I’m sorry,” she gasped between tears. “I’m so sorry, Jo.”
“It’s all right, dear,” Jo said, patting the pixie’s back.
“No, it’s not.” Latte pulled away and pouted. “Our cart, and all our equipment…gone. We’ve lost everything because of me.”
“Not everything.” The brownie smiled. “We still have your recipes. And each other.”
“It may not be enough. What do we do?”
“Latte…” The pixie looked back at Briella as the faerie continued, “I had to start from the bottom twice. Once when I tried to break in at the Courts, and again when I had to come here. It takes time and hard work, but you can do it.”
“Not here.” The pixie wiped away another tear. “All I’m good for now is making donuts.”
“That’s not true!” Briella said. “Listen to me! Beth gave me one of your choquettes, and it was…amazing. I would have given everything to be as good at your age as you are.” She looked away. “I’m beginning to think I did.”
“Briella…” Latte smiled. “That’s the best compliment I’ve ever had. Thank you.”
The faerie blinked a tear away as she looked at Aloysius, who was in the crowd behind Beth. “Isn’t there anything we can do for her?” Briella asked. “Please?”
The chef shook his head slowly. “We just can’t hire anyone new right now,” he said. “I’m sorry.”
“Wait a minute.” Everyone looked at Beth as she continued, “You can’t hire anyone. But you can expand.”
“Look at all the room you have outside!” Beth pointed to the flat stretch near the front door of Wonderland. “There’s plenty of room for a cart! And the last few days showed that there’s enough business to support it!”
“You’re right,” Briella said slowly. “Latte and Jo can use the cart I used this morning!”
“And they can rent the cart and the space!”
“But my equipment…” Latte pointed at the coffeemakers.
“Ahem.” Mec stepped out of the crowd. “Gremlin tinkerer here, with free time this week.” He patted his toolbelt and grinned. “I can make all that better than new. No charge, unless you want to slip me a goodie now and then.”
“So, big guy,” Beth said to Aloysius, “what about it?”
Aloysius stroked his chin. “Two things,” he said after a minute. “I want an agreement in writing, with a co-signer in case anything comes up or goes wrong.”
“I’ll co-sign,” Michiko said without hesitation. “I trust them.”
“And the two of you—” Aloysius pointed to Briella and Latte. “You’ll have to work out for yourself who’s selling what where.”
Latte looked nervously at Briella. “Well…” she said quietly.
“I have one non-negotiable demand.” The faerie folded her arms.
“And that is?”
“No more duodecuple espressos!” Briella smiled. “Nothing stronger than a triple!”
“It’s a deal.” Latte returned her smile as they shook hands. The crowd behind them, led by Michiko, applauded and cheered.
* * *
It was, as Beth put it, ridiculously early to get up on a Friday, but she and Michiko were still on their way to Wonderland before Beth’s classes and Michiko’s practice. They had hoped to be the first customers at Latte’s new pastry cart, but the line was already ten deep by the time they arrived. Latte was a-flutter with excitement as she handed out treat after treat, and Jo poured the coffee with smiles and greetings for everyone.
Briella hurried out of the diner, carrying a tray. “More lemon scones!” the faerie said as she carefully stacked them on the counter.
“Smells great!” Latte said.
“Wait until our customers taste them!” Briella smiled as she ran back in.
The pixie chuckled. She saw her next customers, ran out from behind the cart, and hugged Beth first, then Michiko. “You made it!” she said.
“We couldn’t miss your first day!” Michiko said.
“So you’re…selling her pastries?” Beth asked.
“We’ve split things up!” Latte grinned as she went back behind the cart. “She has some of my pastries and some of hers at the counter inside, and I’ve got the same setup here.”
“And,” Jo added, “I’m handling most of the specialty coffees!” She set a mug on Mandy’s tray. The waitress thanked her as she headed back inside.
“I’m so glad it all worked out!” Michiko smiled.
“I know. So…” Latte grabbed a tissue. “What are you having?”
“I…” Michiko stared wide-eyed at a tray. On it were treats with layers of chocolate chip cookie bar, caramel and peanut, and rice cereal with marshmallows, topped by chocolate candy and pretzel pieces. “What is—”
“Oh my God!” Beth said. “Are those Igor Bars?”
Latte nodded. “I found the recipe online the other night.”
“Give me two! No, four!”
“Um, Beth?” Michiko said. “Are you sure—”
“They must be mine!” Beth shouted with a big grin.
* * *
“I can’t believe you actually ate two of those,” Michiko said to Beth as they were sitting on the couch in their apartment. Michiko was watching videos on her laptop as Beth studied.
“I can’t believe I managed to save two for tomorrow.” Beth grinned.
“By the way…” Michiko looked up from her screen. “That was a great suggestion about the cart. It’s working out well for everyone!”
“Awww. Thanks!” Beth blushed.
“But there’s still one issue to be resolved.”
Michiko glared at Beth. “All the pastry you’ve been eating.”
“You’ve put on five pounds from those Igor Bars alone!”
Beth sighed. “More like three.”
“You’re supposed to be eating better,” Michiko said. “You really need to go on a quick diet.”
“Veggies and salad for all three meals. Every day for three weeks.”
Beth scowled. “That’s a little extreme, isn’t it?”
Michiko pouted. “I’m trying to help!”
“I’m a grown woman! I can make my own dietary choices!”
Michiko went back to her video, Beth to her textbook. After a minute, Michiko looked up at her friend. “Beth…”
“I don’t do salad for breakfast,” Beth said. “Two meals a day, with Sundays off.” She smiled. “Deal?”
“Deal.” Michiko smiled back as they shook hands.
Hat tip to John Kovalic and the Army of Dorkness for Igor Bars.
And our apologies for anyone this story may have made hungry.