Note: I saw a prompt. I liked it. I wrote a bunch of it. Decided I hated it. Deleted some. This is better. I hope.
Apologies for any formatting oddities. Grammarly thinks it's funny to mess with me.
Hisui watched smoke curl from the stranger's cigarette with longing. No. She was passed this! She was! Her fists tightened in her pockets and she sucked in a deep, frigid was so much better than summer. It felt cleaner somehow.
Finally, the bus squealed to a halt on the curb and the man flicked his half-spent cigarette into the gutter. For a fleeting moment, Hisui contemplated the absolute horror of fishing it out and smoking it down to the filter. What would her father think of it?
That's unfair, the quiet voice in her head warned.
"I know," she whispered, her words fizzling in a puff of breath. On impulse, Hisui spun on her heel before boarding the bus. She'd walk home.
Flakes of snow dusted the sidewalk in front of her but she didn't regret turning away from the bus until the toes of her boots were glistening with slosh. The pizzeria sign at the end of the block was missing a neon red Z and, on yet another impulse, Hisui took a sharp left inside.
A gust of warm air carrying the aroma of tomato sauce and freshly baked bread kissed her face. Only two of the five tables were occupied. Behind the counter, a young man leaned over a laptop and notebook. His eyes were glued to the screen but his hand scribbled on the pages of his notebook as if on autopilot. Hisui's stomach rumbled and she thought it wouldn't be too bad of an idea to eat before walking the rest of the way home – or making the smarter choice of calling her father's driver.
He didn't notice her until she pulled off her gloves and the charms of her bracelet clicked against the formica countertop. When he finally glanced up, he seemed startled by her presence.
"Oh," he said, closing his laptop. "Sorry, I didn't realize anyone had come in."
"No?" She grinned and stuffed her gloves into her coat pocket.
"There's a bell above the door."
"Well –" He had a dimple in his left cheek when he smiled. "I've conditioned myself to ignore the bell."
"Should I come back? You look kind of busy."
"Nope." He pushed his laptop and notebook aside. "I am at your service."
Hisui glanced over the menu before leaning on the counter. The way he grinned at her like she was the only person in the restaurant was utterly disarming. A part of her she'd tried to bury along with her mother twinkled in her chest. She cleared her throat and tried to focus.
"I'll have a single slice, no cheese, and –" She paused. Pizza wasn't her thing. "That's it, I guess."
"Really? No cheese?" He asked, reaching up to grab the pencil from behind his ear.
"I love cheese but it doesn't love me." The laugh bubbled free before she could stop it.
"That's a shame."
"It is but I guess one person can't have it all." Hisui bit her lip and her eyes fell to the scratched countertop. She seemed to be wallowing without really meaning to.
He leaned forward and crossed his arms directly in front of hers. She thought about inching backward but couldn't bring herself to do it.
"I've never done a pizza with no cheese before," he said conspiratorially. "You sure you just want the sauce and crust?"
"Some spinach might be okay. Or olives?"
"I can do both." His smile was even more impressive up close. "Have a seat."
"Here? At the counter?"
He shrugged and nodded to the three highboy chairs on the far end of the counter near the kitchen. "Why not?"
"You don't think you'll…" She faltered.
"Have a rush?" The cashier laughed and tied an apron around his waist. "Not a chance. We're alone now and it'll stay that way until closing."
Hisui hesitated and glanced behind her. The previously occupied tables were now empty.
"Oh! I hadn't noticed."
"No?" He disappeared around a corner to pull a small pan from the drying rack. "There's a bell and everything."
She flushed with embarrassment and slid onto one of the tall chairs. "I guess I get your point now. The bell is pretty easy to miss."
Most of the kitchen was visible from the counter and she couldn't help but become engrossed in the process. She watched him toss a wad of cling wrap into the garbage and deposit a bowl of dough on the stainless steel cooking space. The muscles in his forearms flexed under his skin as he smoothed the dough into a mostly round, flat shape. There was something mesmerizing about the repetitive motions of the heels of his palms pressing into the dough over and over.
He worked quickly and it was the startlingly red color of the sauce that snapped her out of staring.
"Just spinach and olives, huh?"
"Why don't you pick? As long as there's no cheese, I'm flexible."
When he glanced up at her, the dimple in his left cheek made another appearance. Hisui propped her chin on her crossed arms. She liked his smile and the easy way he spoke to her – so completely unlike anyone in her family home or the giant labyrinth of her father's offices in the government building. Finally, he spun around and slid the pan into the ovens that lined the opposite wall. The dirty apron he tossed into a bin before rejoining her at the counter.
"Did you really make a whole cheese-less pizza?" She asked. "I only needed one slice."
"I like to save some of the dough they make in the mornings for the end of my day. I'd have made a whole pizza regardless."
"You didn't have to sacrifice your meal for me."
"I won't call it a sacrifice if you don't take it to go."
Hisui smirked and pulled a credit card from her coat pocket. She slid it across the counter. She half expected him to recognize the name – but if he did, he didn't show it. His eyes only briefly inspected it before pushing it back toward her. The smile on his face never faltered.
"This one's on me." He laughed softly and leaned into the counter again. "Well, not technically since I do get one every day after my shift. We can decide if a pizza with no cheese is any good together."
The oven timer buzzed and he returned to the kitchen. Hisui tried to compose herself. Was she truly flirting with a guy she'd only just met? In a pizzeria? She didn't even know his name! The sound of the pan sliding onto the countertop startled her.
"Did you get lost in your head?" he asked, pushing a stack of napkins toward her.
"Just a little." Her stomach rumbled at the sight and smell of the pizza – even without any cheese. "This looks great!"
"I took the easy way out." His grin drove her to distraction every time she looked at him. "Spinach burns and you have to put it on separate so I went with this other stuff."
"I trust you." The crust was hot but the sauce was hotter. Though it nearly burned the roof of her mouth, Hisui's eyes slid shut in delight. She really did know better than to wait all day to eat – even when she was stuck in a sulk.
"It's perfect." Hisui grabbed a napkin and wiped a smudge of sauce off the pad of her thumb. "I am thoroughly impressed and satisfied. What do you think?"
"Not bad, not bad. I can do better, though."
"You think?" Despite herself, Hisui took another slice.
"Yeah, I mean this is my first crack at it. I can do better next time."
"Bold of you to assume there'll be a next time." Hisui finished her second slice of pizza and sat back against the rails of the chair. "I don't even know your name, pizza guy."
The dimple she decided was her favorite thing about his smile showed itself again as he reached across the counter with an open hand.
"Hisui." She took his hand and found it warm, and his grip firm. "But you knew that already."
"You did flash your black credit card at me, yes." His laugh was low as he arranged the two leftover slices of pizza in a takeaway box and returned to the kitchen to clean up.
Hisui heard a door beyond the kitchen open and close. Two voices – one Jellal's, and another much deeper, older voice that spoke only in Spanish – could be heard only faintly over the sound of the sink.
"Yo cerraré esta noche," the deeper voice said.
"Why?" Jellal had moved back into the kitchen but the other man was just out of view. "Don't you have better things to do? Why are you even on this side of town?"
The conversation was drowned out by the sound of clanking pans and rushing water. Hisui considered simply leaving but didn't want to end the night on an awkward note. She did want to see him again.
"Fine." Jellal's voice was firm when the water finally cut off. "Do what you want. It's not like you don't own the place."
"Quién es la chica?"
"Just a girl. Mind your own business for once, old man."
The sound of another door opening – presumably an office – muffled the rest of the conversation but when Jellal rounded the corner again he was smiling.
"Sorry about that. My dad can be, uh –"
"Unpredictable?" She offered softly.
"Yes, that." He slid both the abandoned laptop and his notebook into a messenger bag. "Do you have a ride somewhere or…"
"I'm about to text for that." Hisui spun the chair around and her feet hit the floor. "I just wanted to thank you for dinner." She hesitated and sucked in a breath. "And the company."
"Rough day?" The crossed the small dining area and paused at the front door. Hisui glanced up at the bell.
"Yeah. Just family stuff."
"Trust me, I have a Ph.D. in family stuff." His smile made her smile. "I meant what I said before. You should totally come back and try the cheese-less pizza redux."
"I think I will." Hisui closed her hand around the door handle. It was cold but she still felt warm inside. "I'll see you around, Jellal. And thank you –"
"You already did that."
"I meant for the credit card thing," she whispered.
"Ah. Well, to be honest, I get that too. I've got two, very recognizable, very pretentious last names on mine. I didn't think you'd want me to make a big deal about yours."
"You really are something else, you know that?"
"I do now."
He was so close to her she thought she could catch the scent of his deodorant – something light. She reached into her pocket for her gloves and pulled one on before acting on her final impulse of the evening. Hisui brushed the tips of her fingers over the front of his shirt before pushing the door open and stepping out into the snow.
When she returned to the pizzeria across town with the one burned out, neon red Z the bell above the door had a plastic sprig of holly attached. She tried to knock the snow off her boots at the door but left wet footprints on the floor anyway.
"You've returned!" Jellal said as she approached the counter. "I was wondering if you'd fallen off the face of the earth."
"No." Hisui laughed and took a seat in the same chair as before. "Just stuff. So much stuff."
"Understandable. Stuff can be daunting." He leaned over the counter. "Hungry? I've got something new."
"New? That sounds a little ominous."
"We'll see." His dimple flashed and he winked flirtatiously. "I hope not, though."
She watched him prepare the dough and sauce and wished she hadn't sat on her hands for three weeks. When he joined her at the counter again, his grin was wide.
"Besides all the stuff that kept you away, how's life? Better days?"
"I think so."
He was silent for a long moment. "Grief is a nasty beast."
"Yeah, it is," she whispered. Talking about her mother wasn't exactly hard. She just wasn't used to it.
"My cousin was killed two years ago. She was very much like a sister to me. It's still –"
"Difficult?" She offered with a small smile.
"You're really good at that finishing sentences thing. I like it."
"Most people are annoyed." Hisui studied his face and he didn't flinch away from her gaze. "That tattoo on your face is unique."
"Unique is one word to describe it, yes." His expression turned sheepish. "You've seen it before?"
"Yeah." She remembered the media frenzy of the Heartfilia family's loss and the videos of the funeral procession. The markings on Jellal's face and his father's had been an afterthought. The senior Fernandes was a well-known restaurateur who owned several upscale locations downtown. The question of what Jellal was doing running a hole in the wall pizzeria was heavy on the tip of her tongue but she decided to save that for later. "I'm sorry for your loss."
"And I am sorry for yours."
The oven timer buzzed and his smile returned in full force. Jellal presented the pizza to her with a formal air. Hisui frowned.
"Nope!" He declared proudly. "This is Daiya cheese. It's non-dairy, soy-free, allergen safe melted shreds."
Hisui quirked an eyebrow and leaned in to inspect the slices. "I've never tried the fake cheese stuff before."
"Well, I am happy to be your first. I haven't tried it either."
"Okay then." She took a bite and realized her frame of reference for cheese was too old to really judge the fake against the real. "I like that it's so smooth. Melty."
"It's a little much, in my opinion," Jellal mused. "I think I could've gone with half the amount and had a better mouthfeel."
"I think it's fine but it's a little overwhelming at first. I haven't had cheese since I was in grade school." She finished off the slice and wiped her fingers clean.
"So on a scale of one to five, how much did you like it?"
"Mm, I'd give it a solid four. It wasn't bad at all." Hisui helped herself to a second slice but Jellal simply poked at his. "You don't like it, do you?"
"I don't think so. Too goopy. Mozzarella doesn't melt like this and it feels wrong." He glanced up as she finished her slice. "I'm glad you liked it, though."
"I've got a couple more ideas."
"So I should come back again, then?"
He smiled. She blushed.
When he slid the pizza pan across the counter Hisui could not help the way her nose wrinkled. He laughed but she just couldn't shake her disgust.
"This is almond cheese. No dairy but it's mostly almonds, water, and oil."
"Why does it look so weird?"
"Well, this is the lesser of two evils." He chuckled and ran the pizza cutter through the crust and plucked a slice from the pan. "The store-bought stuff was bright orange."
"Ew. You may as well have layered it with Velveeta."
"It wasn't appealing. So I found a recipe online and made this."
Hisui's eyes snapped up. "You… made this? Like from scratch?"
"Yeah." He shrugged and cleared his throat. She thought maybe his cheeks dusted pink but the lighting was too dim to be sure. "It wasn't a big deal. Just a lot of soaking and blending."
"Jellal," she said in a tone that had become much more familiar and easy. "You made me a fake cheese from scratch?"
"Just give it a try. I need to know how bad I missed the mark."
She laughed and took a bite. It wasn't horrible but she didn't think she liked it either. "It's…"
"A bigger mistake than anime?"
Hisui choked back a mouthful of pizza and a laugh. "A little bit, yeah."
Jellal laughed and took the slice from her. He tossed it into the garbage and disappeared into the kitchen. When he joined her at the counter again it was with what looked like a plain crust brushed with olive oil, garlic, and topped with basil. He brought a bowl of sauce separately and Hisui pushed aside the first pizza to make room.
"I think this is a home run compared to the almond cheese," he said hopefully.
Instead of his usual spot on the other side of the counter, Jellal circled around and took a seat beside her. His arm brushed hers and Hisui's heart raced. From the outside, she thought they probably appeared to move at a snail's pace but to her, it felt neither too fast nor too slow. Like the first pizza he'd made her with no cheese, only sauce it was just right.
"I wouldn't give up on the almond cheese just yet," she murmured, dragging a strip of the crust through the sauce. "It might be good with crackers."
"Probably. But they'd need to be seasoned crackers. It's hard to mix things with that stuff. The texture is weird."
He nudged her gently with his elbow. "The look on your face was worth the effort, though."
"I'm sorry I wasn't more excited." She turned to face him and felt suddenly awkward. Her hands wouldn't settle so she pressed her palms to her thighs.
"Don't worry about it. I'm always down to learn new things." He swiveled around to face her and her knees fit between his. "And this had the added bonus of making you smile. I'd say it's a win."
"I like you, Jellal Heartfilia-Fernandes." She couldn't help the smirk on her face when he laughed.
"So you figured it out did you? The whole long mess of it?" His hand slid to her thigh and their fingers twisted together. "I guess that's okay, Miss Fiore."
"I think I like the way you say my first name better."
Jellal eased off the chair and between her knees. The hand not in hers rose to her face and his fingers brushed over her warm cheeks.
"I'm glad you don't like the fake cheese stuff."
"Good, because I wasn't coming back for that anyway."
"My dad thinks I'm crazy." He was only a breath of a distance away.
"Don't show him your homemade almond cheese, he'll send you away." She felt his smile against her lips.
"Maybe I am a little crazy." When he kissed her it wasn't too fast or too slow. It wasn't too cheesy or something tacked on to the end of a bad day. It was everything and it was perfect.