Coffee Shop AU! Idea from james-baeder & auchen over on tumblr & used here with permission! Thank you guys!
The endless stream of names echoes around Liz's ears as she mechanically works her shift at the coffee shop, exhausted from class at the academy but pushing through anyway, preparing lattes and macchiatos, bagging danishes and croissants, meaningless names swirling in the air all around her.
One by one, the never-ending procession of customers approach her register, all the same type of person no matter the age. There's twenty-somethings like Liz with tassels on their loafers and purses worth more than her rent, rude business men and women paying more attention to their cell phones and blackberrys, overworked assistants close to tears from reading out coffee orders on crumpled pieces of paper, all of them blurting out their order impatiently, with not a care for anyone but themselves.
The boring, repetitive routine weighs on Liz, putting her mind to sleep and, not for the first time, making her wish she was in class, her profiling brain being challenged instead of completely numbed by the parade of monotonous coffee drinkers and the same bland routine.
Ice. Flavoring. Milk. Coffee. Topping. Repeat.
The soft, deep voice, so unlike the impatient calls of the baristas around her, grabs her attention immediately. Liz looks up sharply from the register and right into the face of the next person in line. The very handsome face of the next person in line. The person who just said hello instead of impatiently blurting out their order.
"Uh, hi," she responds, peering disbelievingly at the lined, tan face, deep green eyes, and mouth curved up in a pleasant smile. He looks to be in his early forties with closely shorn hair and definitely expensive clothes, but lacking the visible sense of entitlement that usually comes with them. "What can I get you?"
"Well, I was hoping you could help me on that front," he says pleasantly. "I can't quite decide, so I was wondering…what would you recommend?"
Liz blinks, a little taken aback. She can't remember ever getting this request before. Her usual customers have no interest in her preference, and their orders are all the same, boring sugar-free coffees that she always makes.
But this mystery man is standing in front of her register, waiting patiently for her to emerge from her stupor and answer his friendly question.
"Well," she muses out loud. "I'm partial to the caramel macchiato myself, but you don't have to -"
"That sounds perfect!" he interjects politely. "I'll take a large. And what do you recommend on the pastry front, I'm feeling rather peckish…"
He peers curiously into the long case under the counter, taking in all the different options with a boyish sparkle in his eyes that makes Liz smile despite herself.
"The cranberry apple muffin is one of my favorites," she says, grinning.
The man looks up at her, meeting her eyes with a broad smile.
"I'll take two."
(And his smile is so genuine and pure that she feels it warm her from the inside out, her mood improving all at once in a delightful burst.)
"Coming right up!" Liz chirps happily, grabbing a fresh coffee cup from the dispenser next to the register. "And can I have a name for the order?"
"Kenneth," he answers promptly, and Liz writes it neatly on his cup, putting a little curl on the 'K' because she likes how it looks.
(But as she glances up to look at him for his name, she thinks she catches the smallest hint of a twitch under his left eye, a tiny little tick that nudges her growing profiling instincts. But, after marveling for a moment, she pushes it aside quickly. Because who would lie about their name for a coffee order?)
So, Liz quickly prepares his coffee, bags his muffins, and brings it over to where he's leaning patiently against the pickup counter, subtly standing out from the crowd of people on their phones and bluetooth ear pieces, though Liz gets the sense that he's trying very hard to blend in.
(And she takes an extra second or two to admire the fedora held casually in his hand and the length of his suit-clad form, noting the expensive fabric and how it clings in…all the right places.)
And he takes just a millisecond too long to turn at the clearly audible sound of his name, poking at Liz's instincts once again, but she ignores it in favor of absorbing his beautiful smile as he takes his cup and bag from her.
"Thank you," he says sincerely, and she can only nod and smile back, a little paralyzed by the intensity of his attention.
"My pleasure," she murmurs, and if she's laying it on a little thick, she doesn't care. "Have a nice day."
"And the same to you -" and he looks pointedly down to her name tag, which clearly spells 'Elizabeth', as he tucks a five dollar bill into the tip jar at the same time. "- Lizzie."
And then he's gone, sailing out the door, disappearing as suddenly as he appeared, taking most of the good cheer he brought with him, leaving Liz with just enough that she thinks she can get through the rest of her shift.
What a nice surprise.
It's a week of boring, identical customers before he shows up again, on the same day and nearly the exact same time of his first visit.
(And she tries to tell herself how unlikely it is that he was hoping she would be working.)
When Liz looks up into his happy face, she can't help the natural smile that blooms across her own. His apparent zest for life is infectious.
"Hi there!" she greets, eyes skimming over him from the top of his fedora to what she can see of his gorgeous deep blue suit from her spot behind the counter. "What can I get for you today? Caramel macchiato and two cranberry apple muffins?"
"You remembered," he says, clearly surprised, his eyebrows raising slightly on his forehead.
"I'd be hard-pressed to forget one of my own go-to orders," Liz quips, maybe flirting just a little. "And, in my experience, most people are creatures of habit."
Kenneth smiles back, chewing slightly on the side of his mouth before he answers her.
"Perhaps most people," he agrees lightly. "But I try my best never to order the same thing twice. So, what would you recommend for today, Lizzie?"
Liz laughs breathily, wondering at his interest in her opinion, which doesn't seem to be a simple lack of familiarity with the menu. He appears, for all intents and purposes, genuinely interested in her preferences.
"Hmm," Liz muses for a moment, thinking of what she would order today, were she on the other side of the counter with him.
(A strangely appealing thought.)
"A vanilla bean frappuccino and coffee cake, I think."
"That sounds lovely."
Liz beams, delighted by this unique (and handsome) customer, and she grabs a cup for his coffee.
"And a name for the order?" she asks politely, though of course she remembers his name as well, how could she forget that of all things, and she's already looking forward to writing a curly 'K' to start 'Kenneth' before he can even say -
Liz stops short, eyes flicking upward from the cup to meet his, feeling her brow slightly furrow in confusion, because he definitely did not say Kevin last week, there's no way -
(And the longer she peers at his expression, the more she can see him trying to smother that odd twitch under his left eye, his smile turning more strained and tense by the second, and she frowns a little more because, well -
She likes his face much better when it's relaxed and carefree.)
"Kevin," she repeats slowly, trying to keep any skepticism out of her voice, breaking eye contact with him and quickly finishing the pretty letter 'K' she'd started with a scribbled '-evin', and she swears she can see his shoulders slump in relaxation out of her peripherals.
"It'll be just a sec," she tells him, carefully cheerful, and he nods gratefully, moving away to stand by the pickup counter.
As Liz hurries to prepare his drink, she can't help but grin to herself because, as unlikely as she thought it was, she was right last week.
This mystery man has something to hide.
And she supposes she should care more that he's very obviously giving her fake names, especially with his clear anxiety that she might call him out on it, two things that combine to tell her he's not doing it just for fun. She absentmindedly adds vanilla syrup to his cup, wondering why on earth he wouldn't want to give his name at a coffee shop, of all places. Perhaps he has an odd first name he doesn't care for, like 'Eugene' or 'Guy'. But, as Liz adds a little extra whipped cream to the top of his drink, she wonders idly if he's got more dangerous secrets than an embarrassing first name, but quickly decides that she doesn't really care either way.
He's the most interesting thing that's ever entered this coffee shop and spoken to her like she matters.
(And it doesn't hurt that he's incredibly handsome.)
Liz hands him his cup and bag and they complete the same ritual as last week, him thanking her profusely with a warm smile, Liz blushing slightly, and him stuffing a crisp bill in the tip jar.
A ten this time.
Interesting. And generous.
But then, to her surprise, he doesn't leave right away as he did last week.
He takes a seat at a table instead, removing his coffee cake from the bag, and sipping his drink experimentally. Watching out of the corner of her eye, Liz can't help but giggle to herself as his eyes widen at the taste of his frappuccino, he surreptitiously licks some whipped cream off his upper lip, and quickly takes another sip.
Liz's stomach does a little flip.
He likes it.
She smiles to herself and turns to take the next order.
But, even as she continues to ring up and prepare orders, Liz keeps her eye on her mystery man, noting the more subtle things that set him apart from her other, much less interesting customers.
The way he picks a seat facing the door. The well-practiced way his eyes scan the room every few minutes. The newspaper and pen he produces from his coat. The way he finishes the crossword inside in under fifteen minutes.
The way he sometimes glances up at her and she can't look away quickly enough, her accidentally caught staring at him, feeling a blush coloring her cheeks, and him smiling at her, not seeming to mind her attention.
The way he throws away his trash and even wipes off his table with a napkin when he's done, and then…the way he simply vanishes, Liz too busy with an impatient older woman at the register to actually see him leave, only turning to suddenly find him gone, his table clean and empty.
Her heart sinks slightly at the sight.
But, most interesting of all, is the way he leaves his newspaper behind, still open to the crossword puzzle. And on her break, Liz can't stop herself from wandering over to look at it, admiring all the neatly completed little squares. That is, until one line of bright red capital letters jumps off the page at her.
YOU HAD ME AT HELLO.
Her handsome mystery man starts to come in every week, always on the same day while Liz is working her shift. He now sticks around in the coffee shop to enjoy his beverage and food for at least an hour, sometimes even more. He always brings a paper, a crossword, or a word search, something to keep his mind occupied while he eats.
(He doesn't like being bored either.)
And every week, he asks Liz what he should order. And every week she recommends something different, and he's always thrilled to try something new, the most open-minded and adventurous eater she's ever seen in the shop.
One week, it's a blueberry coffee and a chocolate chip scone.
The next week, a peppermint latte and a cinnamon bun.
Next, hot tea and a bear claw.
And he faithfully tries them all.
(Although Liz is secretly on a mission to find his favorite, wondering when she will finally pick the thing he orders twice, while at the same time afraid he will stop coming when she finally runs out of new things to serve him.)
But the best part is that every week, without fail, he gives her a different name.
It's become something of a game between them. Liz asks for a name every week, her pen poised above his cup and her eyebrow raised, while the mystery man pauses just a moment too long, his mouth turned up in a tiny grin, meeting her gaze pointedly with eyes sparkling, and very deliberately gives her a new name. Liz knows he's aware of his little lies, a new one every week, and he seems to appreciate her quiet acceptance of his little eccentricity.
And while she's certainly curious what his real name is, she likes that they have a little secret, something known only to the two of them, and she has no problem referring to him privately as 'Mystery Man'.
It suits him.
(And the strangest thing is, even though she doesn't know his name, she feels oddly as though she knows everything else about him. He's the most familiar stranger she's ever met.)
During his second month of coming to the coffee shop, Liz decides to take her break while he's there, nibbling happily on a slice of key lime pie and hard at work on the day's crossword. She tries to be sly about it, nonchalantly wandering over under the pretense of wiping down the table next to his, and peeking over his shoulder at his unfinished puzzle. He's tapping his pen lightly on his newspaper, squinting at twenty-three across, whose clue reads 'the study of crime, criminals, and criminal behavior', eleven letters, last letter is 'y' -
Well, that's convenient.
Mystery Man looks up at her, eyebrows raised and in the middle of a sip of this week's hazelnut cold brew. He swallows quickly.
"I beg your pardon, Lizzie?"
Liz moves closer to needlessly straighten the empty chairs at his table.
"Twenty-three across," she clarifies, gesturing to his paper, and wondering too late if he's the type that likes to figure it out alone or fail. "Sorry, it looked like you were stumped, so I took a peek. Do you mind?"
He glances down at his paper and then back up at her, a little smile curling his lips.
"No, not at all, Lizzie, thank you," he says, and, privately relieved, she waits patiently while he fills in the word with his neat script. "I'm impressed. How did you know that, if I may ask? I was wracking my brains."
Liz chuckles, a little flicker of pride lifting her chin. "That's what I'm studying."
For a strange moment, he just stares at her.
"You're studying criminology?" he repeats blankly.
"Yes," she confirms, a little uneasily, confused by his reaction. "Criminal profiling, actually, at Quantico. I graduate in a few months."
There's another beat of silence before he reacts in yet another way she doesn't expect. For some reason, the knowledge of her soon-to-be profession seems to greatly amuse him and, all of a sudden, he lets out a deep belly laugh, accompanied with a smile so broad and beautiful that it physically takes her breath away.
(For some reason, she's managed to surprise him.)
The wonderful sound of his mirth hangs in the coffee-scented air for another long moment while he stares at her, some odd emotion that she doesn't recognize taking slow possession over his face.
(She thinks it may be…adoration. But that wouldn't make any sense.)
"Well, congratulations," he finally murmurs, sincerity ringing in his tone, despite the smile still lingering on his face. "That's quite an accomplishment."
"Thank you," Liz says, a little breathless and confused, before she shakes herself and checks her watch. "Well, my break is over. Let me know if you need any more help."
And Liz heads back to the counter, swaying her hips as little more than usual as she goes.
(And she can feel his admiring eyes on her long after he finishes his pie.)
It doesn't take long for him to invite her to sit at his table on her breaks, encouraging her to rest her feet for a few minutes, and she does so happily, excited for the opportunity to talk to him, those fifteen minutes in the middle of his weekly visits becoming the highlight of her busy schedule.
He remains incredibly friendly, polite, and kind, and Liz remains desperate to find out more about him.
(Her Mystery Man is an enigma that she wants nothing more than to solve.)
Liz makes a point of asking about his life, his work, himself, but every time she does, he gets strangely cagey, casually avoiding her eyes and failing to smother that tell-tale twitch under his eye, which only makes Liz's curiosity more intense.
She's nothing if not stubborn.
But, despite subtly poking and prodding, expertly working the conversation back around to him, he somehow manages to never reveal anything truly personal about himself.
Liz can only stand the pretense for so long.
"You're really not going to tell me what you do?" she asks bluntly one day, grabbing his discarded fork to steal a small bite of his cherry pie.
He watches her chew, working his mouth as he ponders her question, and Liz waits patiently.
"I'm a…businessman," he finally says, the twitch under his eye jumping to life.
"Really?" Liz questions skeptically, one eyebrow lifting at the obvious lie.
"Yes, a businessman…of sorts," he amends lightly, tilting his head and avoiding her eyes. "I travel a lot."
Liz can tell this is true, at least conditionally, so she decides to take pity on him.
For the day.
(She'll rally and attack again next week.)
"Hmm," Liz hums, tapping their shared fork lightly on the table. "Ever been to Spain?"
"Yes," he frowns slightly, as though the answer is obvious. "Haven't you?"
"No," Liz laments, a tad dramatically. "I've always wanted to go. Is it very beautiful?"
He takes the bait like she knew he would, launching into vivid descriptions of the city and Liz settles in to listen, watching him gesture widely with his hands and paint pictures with his words.
It's not the last time she gently pries about his personal life, and it's certainly not the last time he sidesteps her questions. Instead, he prefers to ask about her education, what she likes about profiling, and her hopes for her career. He always seems genuinely interested and Liz delights in sharing her passion with him each week.
Through their weekly conversations, it doesn't take long for them to delve into the deeper aspects of psychology, having friendly debates about the nature of the human mind, and it's a rainy day outside the coffee shop when he suddenly leans forward across their table, unexpectedly intense in a way that has Liz unconsciously leaning forward to mirror him as he asks her a serious question.
"Tell me about the profiling," he says, his voice low and hypnotizing, eyes burning into hers. "I'm…fascinated."
Liz props her head on her hand and boldly reaches out to take his hot chocolate from him, taking a small sip and holding his gaze all the while. She licks her lips languidly when she's done and nonchalantly passes the cup back to him. He takes it without comment, letting his fingers brush hers in the handoff and smirking at her in a way that makes her toes curl under the table.
(That's the best part about Mystery Man: when she's brave enough to flirt? He flirts right back.)
"What do you want to know?"
"I so want to know how you…see things," he murmurs, and Liz isn't sure she's ever been looked at like this before.
(Like she's the center of someone's universe.)
"Tell me my profile."
The words, almost whispered in his gravelly voice, send heat spinning through odd parts of her, like her chest and cheeks and fingertips, and she takes a moment to study him, putting together all her observations of him ever since he waltzed into the coffee shop and brightened her days.
(Because even as the rain beats down on the glass behind him, the sheets of rain and grey tinge hanging in the air creating their own personal little bubble, she desperately wants to impress him.)
So, she takes a deep breath, and takes the plunge.
"You're a loner. You stand out and blend in at the same time. You're hidden out of necessity but, at the same time, you're so desperate to be seen. You want someone to understand you, to know you on the most intimate and personal level, but you've been hurt in the past, so you're afraid to let yourself be vulnerable. That's why you give fake names and remain intentionally vague about what you do for a living. You live a life of mystery and shadow, and you carry secrets around with you everywhere, secrets that physically weigh you down. I could see it the moment you walked in here."
He's staring deep into her eyes as she speaks, rapt and transfixed by her, a faint smile present as he listens, and Liz knows in her gut that she hasn't been wrong yet.
"But you move effortlessly through life," she continues quietly. "Traveling all over the world and making friends wherever you go. You're perfectly comfortable here with your hot chocolate but you could make yourself at home in any hole-in-the-wall coffee shop in the world and, for some reason, you chose here…and I'm glad."
(She finishes her little speech with a little admission of her own because, well, fair is fair.)
For a few moments, he just looks at her, holding her gaze as the rain comes down and the coffee is poured and the names are called - none of them his - and Liz can do nothing but stare right back. By the time he finally opens his mouth to speak, Liz feels as though hours have passed during which they've grown closer, now knowing each other even better for all his wordless affirmation of what she's said. And she's sure that whatever he's about to say will be a turning point for them, their relationship, and she watches in anticipation as he takes a breath and starts to speak.
"Lizzie, I'm -"
"Hey, Liz! Break's over!"
The loud yell of the afternoon manager startles them both and Liz draws in a sharp breath, her heart stuttering as she rolls her eyes exasperatedly at the ill-timed interruption.
"Yeah, I'll be right there!" she snaps, throwing a nasty look to the manager's back that makes her Mystery Man chuckle at her across the table and, just like that, he has her attention again. "I'm sorry, what were you -"
But the moment has passed, she can tell by the way his eyes have shuttered, all the vulnerability he had been about to share with her on a rainy day in this stupid coffee shop has disappeared, and she's left sad and disheartened.
"I should be going," he murmurs instead and she nods, crestfallen, but not wanting to push him.
He stands from the table, taking his coat from where it was slung over the back of his chair, and Liz stands as well, stretching slightly and wincing at the soreness in her feet, dreading her impending return to her boring shift without her Mystery Man there to keep her interested.
"Well, I'll see you next week then," she sighs, trying to sound upbeat, even though a week sounds like an awful long time to wait after everything that almost happened today.
"Actually," he says, and Liz's head snaps up. "I won't be in next week."
Liz deflates, her heart sinking in disappointment because, really, a whole week without him?
"Oh, is everything all right?" she asks, trying to be a mature adult and not a lovesick teenager.
"Yes," he assures her, buttoning his coat. "I have a…business meeting. Out of the country. In Turkey."
"Oh," Liz says stupidly, blinking in surprise. "Turkey. Wow. Well, when will I see you again?"
(And if she sounds a little desperate, she's starting not to care, because she has an awful feeling that his spontaneous trip has to do with her daring little profile and, oh, if she ruined this for them -)
"I'll be back the week after next, Lizzie," he assures her, smiling warmly at her before picking up his fedora from where he left it on the table. "I'll see you soon."
Not soon enough for Liz, but she decides to keep that to herself just in case she manages to scare him off even more, and he decides to stay in Istanbul just to get away from her -
But then he surprises her.
After a short moment's hesitation and an uncharacteristically nervous glance, Mystery Man suddenly leans in and presses a soft kiss to her cheek.
(On the other hand, maybe she shouldn't worry so much.)
"I'll see you in a few weeks, Lizzie."
And then he's gone, moving swiftly around her and out the door while she's still standing there with her cheek tingling and heart racing, cursing the long days that now stand between them and not looking forward to the unwanted return of her boring, normal life before Mystery Man entered the coffee shop.
And, far too late, she whispers one word to the rain-drenched window.
Liz slumps down into her uncomfortable seat in her morning lecture hall and tosses her bag into the seat next to her. Listening to the mundane babble of her fellow students around her, Liz mechanically pulls her laptop out of her bag and powers it on, preparing to take notes with a heavy sigh.
It's just another day.
But at least it's not a day of work at the coffee shop, which has felt strangely empty and cold since Mystery Man's departure. Instead, it's a day of criminal psychology class, which at least provides her mind with something to puzzle over, other than her fedora-wearing enigma.
(And at least in class, she can forget about the rather gaping hole inside her where a mysterious someone has recently -)
A familiar voice sounds from over her shoulder and she quickly moves her bag from the seat she was saving.
She watches her friend collapse his gangly form into the folding seat next to her and pull out his own computer.
"Just another day in paradise, huh?"
Liz snorts. "You got that right."
As she watches Don turn on his own computer, Liz thinks back to how they met, several semesters ago in this very hall.
She had been waiting for class to start, sitting quietly by herself, when a stranger had suddenly appeared at her elbow.
"Hi, I'm Tom. Do you mind if I sit here?"
But he'd sat down without even waiting for an answer and - with one look at his insincere eyes, big and buggy under his large glasses, and his half-grown, unkempt facial hair - Liz had instantly felt her skin crawl, her instincts loudly telling her to steer clear of this 'Tom'.
Throughout the lecture, Liz had been as stiff and cold as she possibly could while maintaining basic civility, but Tom had somehow seemed to interpret it only as encouragement, whispering too loudly, asking to see her notes, leaning too close, making annoying jokes, and, worst of all, keeping her behind after the lecture, casually trapping her in the aisle so she couldn't leave without climbing over a seat. She had eventually escaped by feigning an emergency call from her roommate but, in her desperation to get away, she had failed to notice Donald Ressler sitting a few rows above them, observing the whole thing.
(Since then, she has learned of Donald's profound sense of right and wrong.)
In the next class after that, Liz had taken her normal seat - something telling her that Tom was tenacious enough to follow if she tried to move - and had sat dreading the arrival of her unwanted admirer, just waiting for him to show up and rudely move the bag she had put there in a half-hearted attempt to warn him off. That is, until she had heard a completely different voice then the sickly sweet one she was expecting.
"Would you like me to sit here?"
Liz had jerked her head up, surprised and confused by the unfamiliar redhead's wording. "Would I…like you to sit here?"
"Yeah," he'd confirmed, a little awkward, but standing his ground. "I saw that creepy guy bothering you last class. What's his name? Jacob?"
Liz had frowned, her nerves on edge from her experience with Tom, making her defensive and jumpy, despite this guy's sincere expression.
"Something like that," she had muttered. "Look, thanks, but I think I'll be okay."
Don had lingered, looking unsure. "You sure you don't want me to…rough him up for you?"
Liz had been unable to refrain from rolling her eyes at that. "No thanks, Captain America."
Don had simply shrugged. "All right then."
But as he had turned to head back to his normal seat, his bag slung over his shoulder, he had moved out of Liz's line of sight to reveal the door to the hall where Tom was just walking in, his cold and calculating gaze searching the place until it fell directly on Liz. He had wasted no time then, striding toward her with such purpose in his step that warning shivers skittered down her spine and she was calling back to Don before she could think any further about it.
"Actually," she had said loudly, not taking her eyes off the advancing Tom, though she could see Don turn around a few seats above her out of the corner of her eye. "On second thought -"
And Don had followed her gaze to see who she was looking at, took only a beat to process the situation, and changed course without a word. Liz had quickly moved her bag from the seat next to her just in time for Don to sit down and glare pointedly at Tom, stopping him in his tracks with anger flashing behind his glasses at the sight before him. After a tense staring contest between the two men, the professor had begun the lecture, and Tom had had no choice but to find a different seat.
"Thank you," Liz had whispered, sheepish but heartfelt, slumping a little in her seat in relief, and Don had simply nodded.
(She learned later that there was nothing two-faced about Don's motives as she may have feared, he was simply motivated by a sense of duty, something that Tom would clearly know nothing about.)
Since then, Don had taken it upon himself to be her quiet guardian, keeping Tom at bay until he simply gave up, apparently deciding Liz wasn't worth the trouble, and eventually switched out of the class. As a result, it wasn't long before she and Don were fast friends, bonded over the same ambition of being in the FBI after graduation. Not long after, so grateful to Don for his intuition, chivalry, and friendship, Liz introduced him to her roommate Audrey and, to Liz's delight, they'd clicked immediately.
"So, how was your date with Audrey last night?" Liz asks Don now, grinning suggestively at him.
He tries unsuccessfully to smother a smile, the tips of his ears turning red.
"Fine, thank you," he mutters pointedly.
"What, just fine?" Liz teases, nudging his arm. "It must have been better than fine, seeing as, you know, she didn't come back to our dorm last night."
She wiggles her eyebrows at him and he rolls his eyes good-naturedly.
"Yeah, all right, it was amazing. Happy?" he snarks, over the sound of Liz crowing in delight. "Now, shut it, will you, Keen? The lecture's starting and I'm excited about today."
As the lights dim and the old projector starts to hum to life, the professor shuffling his notes in the front while the babbling in the hall starts to die down, Liz turns to look questioningly at Don.
"Oh yeah, why?"
"We're talking about Raymond Reddington today," Don explains. "You know, number four on the FBI's Most Wanted for, like, ever? I'm doing my term paper on him. They call him the Concierge of Crime, he's got this huge criminal network all over the world, it's insane, you should…"
But Liz is no longer listening to Don and his summation of the apparently world famous criminal because the ancient projector has finally shuttered on to display the first slide in the presentation, and there's suddenly a huge candid photo of the man in question staring down at Liz, bearded with long hair and sunglasses but unmistakably familiar and, oh.
Oh, she can't breathe.
"…and they say he can make anyone disappear in sixty seconds, he's got unlimited resources at his disposal, passports, IDs, weapons, you name it, and…"
And he likes cranberry apple muffins and hot chocolate and doing crossword puzzles.
"…He's almost impossible to find, they've had agents on him for, like, five years at a time with no more than passing sightings, he's like a ghost, it's unbelievable, and…"
What a surprise.
(…but is it though?)
Red shuts the car door behind him and waves to Dembe as he drives off, perching his fedora on his head and trying to smother the butterflies swirling in his stomach.
He's back from Turkey and standing in front of the coffee shop.
Despite how much he's missed Lizzie while abroad, something is keeping his feet glued to the sidewalk, instead of bursting inside and sweeping her off her tired feet as he really wants to. He supposes it's his nearly crushing feeling of guilt at hiding his identity from her because, while he certainly doesn't want to, it's a necessity. He's sure that as soon as he gave her his real name, she would waste no time in calling in a tip and getting him arrested.
As well she should.
After all, any criminal psychologist worth their salt would be able to recite his extensive list of offensives at the mere mention of his name.
(And he is positive that Lizzie is more than worth her salt.)
Because of course, she's a criminal psychology student, of course she is. Of course, she wants to work for the FBI. And, of course, he's a criminal. They're natural born enemies. Because why wouldn't they be?
Fate has such a funny sense of humor.
Still frozen outside and peering through the glass, Red's heart thrills as Lizzie suddenly hurries into view, hard at work behind the counter, busy fixing drinks and fetching pastries, just as she was when he first set eyes on her. He never intended to fall for the curious barista with the observant blue eyes, but it happened all the same.
(In that way, he supposes fate isn't all bad.)
Red watches her now, sweeping away a wayward lock of dark hair that has escaped her neat french braid, and laments his lack of self control. He knows he should disappear from her life, a skill he's certainly mastered over the years, and leave the coffee shop and the little safe haven they've created here for themselves before she figures out his identity. Or worse, someone else does and the result puts her in danger.
(But he can't bring himself to leave just yet, that odd little spark that jumped to life when he first walked up to her register and heard her voice keeping him on the hook and coming back, unable to do anything but think of her and wish for the obstacles between them to simply break down and fall away.)
But, standing out here looking creepily through the glass won't do, and Dembe's already circling the block as instructed, so he might as well go in and say hello. Then, after he's heard her voice and seen her smile one last time, maybe he'll start trying to muster the strength to leave her.
So, with a deep, fortifying breath, he steps forward and opens the door to the coffee shop.
Lizzie looks toward the entrance at the sound of the little bell tinkling over Red's head and her gaze falls right on him, standing stupidly in the doorway. Red watches, breathless and almost painfully happy, as her face slowly transforms into a blinding smile at the sight of him, her eyes shining blue and teeth gleaming white as she wipes her hands on her apron and hurries around the counter to meet him.
(And her voice feels like a burst of sunlight on his cheek and, oh, he's got it bad.)
"You're back!" she exclaims, stopping in front of him and sounding a little breathless. "Did you bring me anything?"
She's clearly joking, her eyes sparkling with mirth and a smirk tugging at her lips and, while he smiles back, he inwardly curses himself for not bringing her some souvenir, like a t-shirt, or a ring, or his heart.
"When did you get back?" she asks, gently interrupting his thoughts.
"Just a few hours ago," he answers, choosing to fib a little and not tell her he came directly here from the airport.
"Oh, you must be exhausted!" she cries. "Why don't you go sit and I'll bring you something? What would you like today?"
"Oh, well, thank you," Red says, flustered by all her attention and the fact that she's so close to him after so many long days without her. "Uh, why don't you surprise me?"
Lizzie flashes him a gorgeous smile that tells him that's just the answer she was hoping for and points him to their usual table before hurrying back behind the counter. Red wanders over to his seat, moving in a warm, coffee-scented haze as he slowly removes his hat and coat, placing the former on the table and slinging the latter over the back of his chair before he sits.
(And he supposes it should be odd that he feels more at home in this coffee shop than he did at his house in Turkey, though he expects that's more to do with the company than the setting. He thinks he'd probably feel at home wherever Lizzie is.)
Seemingly summoned by his thoughts, she appears at his elbow, holding a steaming cup, complete with domed travel lid, and a large bag.
"Here you go," she murmurs, setting everything down in front of him. "Let me just finish up behind the counter and I'll take my break."
And, with a delightful whiff of vanilla, she's gone before he can say anything, his stomach growling at the smell of what she's put in front of him. Red opens up the bag to see an assortment of pastries. A cheese danish, a bear claw, and…two cranberry apple muffins.
(She remembered his favorite.)
Before starting on the food, Red turns his attention to the hot drink. He brings the cup up to his face to take a delicate sniff, the scent of coffee making his mouth water, before he inhales more deeply, trying to identify the accompanying flavor he detects. Stumped, he blows on the liquid to cool it before taking a cautious sip, and his eyes close involuntarily at the exquisite taste that spreads over his tongue.
It's a mocha latte, complete with whipped cream and drizzled chocolate syrup under the domed lid, a concoction she's never brought him before but he instantly adores. He marvels at her choice, knowing she has no way of knowing that his sweet tooth makes chocolate his absolute favorite flavor.
What a nice surprise.
It's his new favorite.
Red takes another delicious sip, marveling at the heavenly combination of sweet chocolate and bitter coffee, swirling it around in his mouth as he lowers his cup to the table, removing his hand to reveal Lizzie's handwriting. He peers at it with a grin on his face, wondering what name she has christened him with today in lieu of a false one pulled from his imagination, what did she -
And the smile abruptly melts from Red's face.
Because there, in Lizzie's pretty script, is his god-given name.
(And oh, she certainly did surprise him.
In more ways than one.)
Lizzie choses that moment to appear, sidling up to the table and collapsing into her seat with a heavy sigh and - taking one look at his no doubt petrified expression - growing instantly serious. They sit in silence for a long moment, neither speaking, just staring at one another, Red too afraid to break the tension. When he finally feels capable of words, Red clears his throat awkwardly.
"…How did you find out?"
Lizzie looks down, fiddling with the ties of her apron.
"It was an accident actually," she murmurs. "I mean, I always knew something was off about you, obviously. But you…came up in criminal psych class."
"Ah," Red hums, the pieces coming together, despair slowly gathering within him at this, the worst case scenario, though he knows it wouldn't have been long before she figured it out herself.
(He couldn't surprise her if he tried.)
She won't want anything to do with him now.
"I recognized your picture," she murmurs, quieter now, glancing shyly up at him. "It was quite a shock to finally have an identity for my mystery man."
At her words, Red frowns, taking in her expression and her tone of voice. The thoughtful food she brought him and how happy she was to see him. And, most of all, how she apparently hasn't alerted the authorities.
"Do you…" he hesitates, unsure how to phrase his question, not wanting to presume, and desperately wanting to be wrong. "Do you…want me to stop visiting?"
To his surprise, Lizzie appears to panic slightly.
"No!" she gasps, before quickly lowering her voice with a conspicuous glance around the shop. "No. I…I was hoping we could…spend some more time together actually. That is…if you…want to."
For a second, Red can do nothing but gape at her, confused and absurdly hopeful.
"You don't mind that I'm a criminal?"
Lizzie shrugs, a playful smile growing on her face.
"You're not a criminal to me," she says. "You're just a…rather mysterious customer."
(And oh, she is the best surprise he's ever had.)
"Besides, I've always been fascinated by the complexities of the criminal mind. And the way I heard it," she continues, familiar mischief entering her eyes. "You're not giving yourself enough credit. You're no ordinary criminal. You're kind of a legend."
Red lets out a bark of laughter, in awe at her evident delight and unable to continue his joy at the fact that they might, just might, have a chance.
"Oh, yes?" he hums, easily flirting back. "And where did you hear this? Your esteemed professors?"
"No," she mocks lightly. "One of my friends actually. He's doing his term paper on you. I think he has a bit of a crush on you actually. If he wasn't thoroughly in love with my roommate, I'd say I have some competition."
(Her coy glance doesn't completely smother her uncertainty, peeking through at him and requesting reassurance.)
Red just smiles at her.
(No, he couldn't surprise her if he tried.
But he'd like to start now.)
"Would you like to go to dinner with me tonight?" he asks softly.
Lizzie's answering smile is almost blinding.
(Her unspoken yes is another surprise.)
"Yes, I would -"
"Liz! Need some help back here!"
The manager's call interrupts her and she sighs in irritation.
"I suppose that's my cue," she mutters regretfully, easing up from her chair. "No rest for the weary, huh? Hang on, I'll be back in a sec."
"All right," he says easily, and he can't contain a shiver when she brushes his shoulder with her hand as she passes him.
Red turns in his chair to watch shamelessly as she gets back to work behind the counter, marveling over this barista, this criminal psychologist, this unexpected woman who stole his heart in a coffee shop.
And a sly smile takes over Red's face as a delightful idea occurs to him.
Pulling his trusty crossword pen out of his pocket, Red snags a napkin from his bag of pastries and flattens it on the table to write '7pm' in the middle, his bold red print standing out against the stark white. He quickly rises and slides the napkin into the middle of the table where he knows she'll see it, before he caps his pen, picks up his bag of goodies and cup of heaven, and disappears.
(When he shows up to her apartment that night to take her to dinner - 7pm on the dot - she isn't surprised.
And the next morning, he brings her coffee. Mocha. With cranberry apple muffins.