Summer smiles as Leo and Aria approach. “What can I make for you two?” she asks brightly, all shiny retail machine.
“How about some time?” Aria asks, just as brightly.
Summer glances around, not sure how to answer for a moment. “You guys have run up a big enough tab, they won’t mind if I give good customers some extra service, I guess.”
Aria rolls her eyes - still playing this game? - but Leo is too wrapped up in Menagerie problems, and perhaps in post-unmasking shock, to notice. She guides her two friends off to one side, so they can talk without being overheard.
“So. Barista, huh?” Leo’s a lost cause for the moment, so Aria must gamely try to draw out Summer.
“Y-yeah. I might have a new roommate, but I won’t be on the lease,” Summer answers. She realizes what she’s saying, and hastily amends herself. “By my own request. I don’t want to be tied down to any one place.” Honestly, she doesn’t think this is an improvement.
Aria’s smile grows softer, more reassuring. Should I try pulling her back now? Or is it too soon? Too soon, she decides. “They must be paying well, if you’re able to make rent here.”
“It’s near one of the Nukemaster sites. Remember that guy, from ten years ago? The whole neighborhood has been certified clean of radiation, but people are still afraid of living there. So rent stays low.” Summer shrugs.
Aria tries a different tack. “So this’ll be where we can find you, then.”
Summer realizes she’s stuck. “Um, yes.” She starts to make an excuse of some kind - maybe having a variable schedule, maybe something about not bugging the employees during work hours - but Aria cuts it off with a stern shake of her head, followed by a smile. The two girls awkwardly exchange understanding glances, Summer appreciative, Aria compassionate. It would have been worse if we had to actually say it. I’m glad we can come visit her here.
“Oh!” Summer pats down her pockets, comes up with a USB thumb drive, and hands it over. Aria takes it, and looks up curiously.
“Levitation schematics,” Summer explains. “Jason and I built our initial shell out of a floating combat drone, right? Zero propellant second-generation EMdrive. I reverse engineered it, in case I wanted to plug it into the carbon shell. That uh, that might take some work. So, maybe you want to try it yourself? You and Otto, of course.”
Aria pockets the drive and nods. “I know he’ll love it. And I will, too.”
“It was only fair,” Summer demurs. “You two, you put so much effort into this body, I had to pay you back–”
“You didn’t have to do anything.” It’s the first thing Leo’s said. At first, Aria isn’t sure how to read his tone of voice. Is he rejecting the gift? His next action clears it up completely. Leo reaches out, taking Aria and Summer both in arms, hugging them tightly to him and each other. He buries his head against both girls.
“I’m grateful for this,” he whispers. “But if I’d built that shell and I never saw you again, I’d still consider it a good use of time. It’d break my heart to not see you, but if that’s what you needed… then I’d support you. I need you both, but what I need more is for you both to be happy.”
Aria watches Summer’s face crinkle up in an attempt to stem the flow of tears, and feels her own follow suit in empathy. All the work she thought she’d have to do, to carefully maneuver Summer into understanding how welcome she is, becomes unnecessary. Leo’s simple, naked show of vulnerability is piercing her to the core, and Aria suddenly feels fresh gratitude for her best friend and partner. It won’t be sufficient, but it’s enough for today.
The three separate only when they’re sure they won’t all start bawling in the coffee shop, though none of them are eager to show their face to outsiders just yet.
“We’ll be by here a lot more,” Aria promises. “Girls night out. Just you and me, if you want.”
Summer wipes her eyes with her apron. “It’s… it’s okay if Leo wants to come along, you know.”
Aria looks carefully at her - are you sure? - and reads Summer’s silent acceptance from her face. The girl clearly isn’t over whatever just happened to her, with Jason, with the Sepiaverse, and Aria can see emotion still writhing behind her eyes. Fixing this problem is still a long way off. But the foundation is firm.
author: Bill G.