Disclaimer: The legal representatives of the writer hereafter referred to as Authoressinhiding have advised her that it is in her best interests to post a statement warning readers that she has no real power or control over any fandoms, characters, or settings in this story. Not even her original ones. They were stolen by pirates from Madgascar.


"Could you tell me what's the best thing to order here?"

Finley looked up from his book to size up the new customer. The girl was in her late teens or very early twenties. She had short, spiky brown hair and bright brown eyes hidden behind glasses that had seen their fair share of abuse. The girl was wearing jeans, converse, and a Star Trek t-shirt. Finley relaxed. She was a normie.

"Our fried green tomatoes are always excellent," he said noncommittally.

She made a face. "I don't feel like tomatoes. Anything else you'd recommend?"

"I probably shouldn't tell you this, " Finley raised his voice ever so slightly, "but our cook makes a mean peanut butter and jelly sandwich."

Curses and loud clattering noises rang out from the kitchen behind him. Finley grinned, satisfied, then turned his attention back to the customer. "What's your name, Miss?"

"Why? It's Sara."

"Sara. Nice. Usually we get girls with five middle names in here. Then it's harder to make suggestions."

"Oh?"

"For example, Miss Sara the Trekkie, I bet you like broccoli cheddar soup."

"What the – "

Finley laughed. "It's a talent I have. Bernie!" he called over his shoulder to the cook. "I need a B.C. for a Sara!"

"Five minutes!" yelled a woman's voice.

"Bernie makes everything from scratch," he explained, seeing Sara's confused look. "She's the cook – and owner – of The Lucky Cat. I'm Finley, by the way. We're too cheap an establishment to spring for fancy silver-plated nametags."

Sara smiled tentatively; Finley's grin was infectious. Glancing about The Lucky Cat, Sara admired its cleanliness. She had entered the café because it was the only restaurant on the block that looked to promise food both edible and affordable. Now that she was inside, she liked it even better.

A lean calico cat slunk out from behind the bar and slowly meandered to a worn cushion set by the door. It settled itself on the cushion with an air of infinite superiority.

"Sara, I'd like you to meet Rosalind, Bernie's pet."

"The Lucky Cat?" Sara guessed.

"Yep, that's her. Although I swear it should be The Bad-Tempered Cat. Rosa can be quite the pain." Finley shut his book. "I'll be right back. Just let me put this up." He strolled over to the large bookcase set in one wall.

Sara took full advantage of the opportunity to check Finley out. He was nearly six feet tall with a long ponytail of fiercely red hair. A plain white t-shirt and dark jeans couldn't hide a spare frame covered with lean muscle. He seemed to be several years older than she was, but she couldn't tell.

"I'm twenty-seven," he answered her unspoken question, returning to the bar.

"How did you … ?"

"Psychology major." There was that brilliant smile again. "I'm pretty good at reading people."

"Order up!" A cloud of yummy-smelling steam preceded the bowl of soup into the room.

Finley took the soup and set in on the counter before Sara. "That'll be four thirty-nine."

The girl hastily dug in her Cheshire Cat messenger bag for a duct tape wallet. She pulled out four ones and two quarters with a mournful air.

"Hate saying goodbye to your money?" the man teased, popping open the cash register to retrieve her change.

"I always spend it faster than I earn it," she replied dejectedly and slid her rear end onto a bar stool. "I don't know where it runs off to."

"Here's your receipt, and eleven cents is your change." Finley handed the girl a penny and a dime. "Want a roll?"

"Huh?"

"Of course you do. Bern! Roll!" he hollered back into the kitchen. More curses followed, then a roll hurtled through the small window between the kitchen and the bar. "Thanks, Bernie!" Finley caught the flying food easily and placed it beside Sara's bowl of soup.

Slightly startled, Sara stared at him, mouth hanging open. Noticing, Finley smiled. "Dig in. I promise it won't eat you."

Embarrassed to have been caught in such an awkward moment, Sara hurried to comply. She shoveled down soup as fast as she could without burning her mouth. At first she did so to hide her mortification, but once she actually tasted the soup, she ate even more ravenously.

"This is amazing!" she blurted between bites, taking her roll and dipping it into the broccoli cheddar delight. "Absolutely amazing! And this roll is incredible!"

The bartender nodded, amused by her enthusiasm. "Bernie knows what she's doing, that's for sure."

"Is everything here this good?" Sara asked when she next surfaced for air.

"More or less, yeah. It depends on your tastes, what you like and don't like, that sort of thing."

"How did you know I liked broccoli and cheddar soup?"

"What normal, healthy, trendy eighteen-year-old doesn't?" he said glibly. He picked up a rag from behind the bar and ran it lazily over the counter.

"I'm nineteen," she corrected sharply. "And I'm not trendy."

"I beg your pardon. Should I have said twenty? Would my guess be less insulting then?"

Sara flushed. She hadn't expected him to discern the reason behind her annoyance. "No, I… Sorry."

"And you are trendy." Finley went on to prove his point. "You wear comic-strip converse, carry an Alice in Wonderland bag, and have a Star Trek shirt. I mean, talk about product placement."

"Yeah, well, at least it's not a red shirt," the nineteen-year-old said defensively.

"Which is good, because I'd hate for you to die."

Stuffing the last bit of roll in her mouth, Sara glared at him suspiciously. Finley had turned away to rearrange the surprisingly pretty pyramid of alcohol bottles near the back wall, so he missed her evil look. Was he flirting with her? He had sounded sincere enough, but with boys, Sara knew, you could never tell.

Deceitful, confusing, immature, messy brutes, the lot of them, she thought. Bless their hearts.

Although potential flirting cheered her, she was determined to be wary. Sara did not need man trouble in her life, not with school and living expenses, and trying to find a job. Speaking of which . . .

"Finley?"

"One second. Aaaaaaahhh!"

With a great crash, the tower of glass tumbled to the floor, each bottle shattering into a thousand tiny pieces. The din was deafening. Sara leapt back, clutching her bowl. Finley quickly buried his face in his hands as the glass exploded all around him.

"Bloody h%!," he swore, stumbling away from the mess. His hands were covered with minor cuts, and a short scratch above his left eyebrow gave him a certain piratical look. "Ow, gods, that hurts." He plucked a sliver of green glass out of the back of his hand. "Go fetch me the first-aid kit? It's over there beside the bookshelf."

Sara hastened to find it, returning seconds later with a red plastic tackle box. "Here." She popped the lid open.

"Thanks." Finley looked from his injured hands to the first-aid kit and back again. "Sara, I hate to ask this, but could you help me just a little bit more?"

"Sure. What do you need?"

"Those big bandages, the antibiotic ointment, and the hydrogen peroxide, and maybe some of that – "

"How about hot water and soap?"

"Oh." Finley paused in his litany. "Yeah. That would probably be good."

"Where's the sink?" prompted the girl. "Or do you not have running water?"

He ignored the sarcasm, reluctantly venturing back behind the counter. With a few violent winces, he scrubbed his hands vigorously with soap, then water, and finally peroxide. Then he bandaged them up and put a band-aid on his forehead.

"What's going on in there?" came the rather belated bellow from the kitchen.

"I broke some bottles," Finley called back. "Nothing to worry about."

Bernie swore loudly. "One of these days, I'm going to fire you!"

Finley calmly tossed his band-aid trash in the waste bin, found the broom, and began to sweep up the glass. "She'll never do it," he told Sara conspiratorially. "Who else would put up with her?"

Shrugging, Sara returned the first-aid kit to its place. It wasn't her place to comment on his employer, especially considering she had yet to meet Bernie.

"Did you get to finish your soup?" Finley asked solicitously. "Bernie hates it when her food goes uneaten."

"I slurped most of it," she shot her soup bowl a wary glance, "but I think it might be contaminated with glass now."

"I apologize for being such a klutz." The bartended bowed with a great many unnecessary flourishes. "Will you ever forgive me, Lady Sara?"

Again with the flirting. Sara grinned back at him anyway. "Of course I will."

"Good." He sighed in pretended relief. "Bernie might not."

"Hmm. Let's see . . . You break her dishes, besmirch her good name, and befoul her customer's soup. No wonder she's tempted to fire you."

Laughing, Finley had to agree. "You'd think after five years of working for her, I'd be a better employee."

"Perhaps you might be an expert on competence, not clumsiness?"

Before Finley could come up with an appropriate comeback, the bell above the door chimed. They both turned to look at the newcomer. Wrapped from head to black leather boot tops in a dark evergreen cloak, the tall figure strode past them into the kitchen. As the door swung shut behind him, a soft, low voice asked a question.

"NO!" Bernie shouted at the top of her lungs. "For the last time, we are permanently out of Lembas bread! Now get out of my kitchen!"

The figure retreated mournfully from Bernie's domain, doffing his hood as he went. He looked up to see the others watching him intently.

"Hey, Haldir," Finley grinned. "Come to get your Lembas fix?"


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