by Jess Angel
…But everything inside you knows
There's more than what you've heard
There's so much more than empty conversations
filled with empty words
You're on fire, when He's near you
You're on fire, when He speaks
You're on fire, burning at these mysteries…
–Switchfoot, "On Fire"
He was watching me again - those peculiar brown eyes that sometimes looked red when the light hit them just right. I caught his gaze.
I attempted to ignore the blush that heated my cheeks and then tucked a strand of hair behind my ear, turning my attention away from the raven-haired man sitting across the room. Focus, Lockheart. I reached for the empty coffee mugs and crumb-patterned plates, collecting them with ease.
I winced as a ceramic mug tipped over, clanking on the table surface. My eyes swept to the other side of the room.
He wasn't looking.
"You all right, Tifa?"
I gave Aeris a sheepish smile. "I'm fine. Just got a little… distracted."
Tifa? Distracted?… "Oh! Is Mr. Tall-Dark-and-Handsome here?" She whispered, her eyes darting around the tables of the café. She let out a little squeal when she spotted him.
"Aeris, quiet! He'll hear you." I lowered my eyes and lifted up a tray holding dirty dishes. "I'll be back."
She chuckled and picked up the fallen cup, placing it on my tray. "Okay." She gave me a wink. "I'll be at the counter when you do get back."
I dropped the dishes off at the kitchen and turned to exit when my manager, Cid Highwind, stopped me. "Tif, drop this off at table seven, will ya?"
"You're a peach," and with that the blond man disappeared out the double-doors to greet his usual patrons.
…Wait. I felt my heartbeat skip in realization. Table seven was his table.
He was already too far-gone to hear.
There was no way I was about to go over there…. Think, Tifa, think.There had to be some…
I went to find Aeris.
Aeris Gainsborough watched her ruby-eyed friend and fellow waitress make her approach. "I think he likes you, Tif."
"What?" I steadied the mug of black coffee I barely spilled.
"He does not."
She grinned at me. "I think you like him too."
"I most certainly do not." I gave her a frown. I barely knew the man. "Here. Take this to table seven." I presented the mug of dark liquid.
"Wait a sec." Her green eyes widened. "That's his table!"
I ignored her reaction. "Yes, yes, now go give it to him." To my annoyance she backed away, leaving me with the coffee.
"Oh no, Tifa. You're going to go right over there and give it to him."
"Aeris, please?" I offered the mug up again.
"Nu-uh." She shook her head. "What's the big deal, Tif?" I watched as a sly grin appeared. "You say you're not interested in the guy. So what's the problem?"
"He-" I paused. "He just makes me nervous."
Her emerald eyes lit with sympathy. "Ah, I see. You get a little fluttery right around…" She laid a hand on her stomach. "Here."
I gave a slight shrug. "Yeah, I guess."
"Tifa's got a crush!"
"Oh, admit it, Tif. You're attracted." Her eyes flickered towards the table across the room. "Who wouldn't be?"
I gave her a look.
"Yes, Tifa. Even I'm attracted. That new girl… the one in high school who started last week…" Her brow creased in thought. "Yuffie! She's even attracted."
I looked at her again.
I guess it wasn't that surprising.
"The difference is," she began fussing with my hair, "he's had his eye on you." I felt my name tag being straightened. I was about to protest again.
"Tifa, it's true." She smiled, "He comes in here every day you work during your shift."
"I think not." She placed a hand on her hip. "You know what else? He constantly looks at you. His eyes are always wandering somewhere in your direction. Then he starts doing whatever he does in that notebook of his." Her green orbs sparkled. "Just think. You might have something in common. You like to write."
"I'm barely an amateur, Aer. I'm no real writer. I just write for myself." My hand tightened around the mug's handle. He writes?
"Oh, don't be so modest. I love your poems!" She nudged me with an elbow. "Maybe you can share some of them with mystery man over there – once you give him his cup of Joe."
I sighed, but glowed at her words anyway. "I like them and you like them. That's good enough for me. I'm not sharing them with some complete stranger."
Oh, Tifa. "Fine. Just get the man his coffee already! It's turning cold." She shooed me with her hands.
"Oh, all right. I'm going." I slowly inched away from the counter. Oh God, here I go…
"Hi." The journey to his table was shorter than I thought.
The dark-haired man closed a notebook. Must be that infamous notebook Aeris had mentioned, I thought. He met my gaze, his eyes almost wavering. He seemed a little… startled?
"Black coffee, right?" I lifted the mug slightly then automatically began to set the hot beverage down.
I jumped slightly at his voice and the black liquid sloshed from side to side, burning me. I muttered a curse under my breath.
"Are you all right?" He tentatively took my hand and then gently inspected my fingers.
"Um, yeah." I blushed at his unexpected concern. "It's not too bad." He released my hand. "Thanks."
"So, will you be needing anything else?" I watched as he reached for the coffee.
"No… Thank you."
He took a sip, and I grimaced. …He noticed my expression. "Black coffee," I replied, the dislike evident in my tone.
He raised a perfect eyebrow.
I continued, "It's just so… bleh." Well, that was articulate. "It's just so strong… bitter." I think I just insulted the man. He fixed his eyes on me again and my breath caught.
"What would you suggest?" His deep, smooth baritone voice replied.
Now that I was closer, I could see his eyes were red - a shade so dark and startling. "…Suggest?"
Did he just smile? I cursed my mind's incoherent babbling. "Oh!" It's official. I'm an idiot. "I'd recommend the famous Highwind Tea. It's not coffee, but I guarantee you'll love it." I smiled absently and placed a couple of napkins on his table, trying to keep myself from becoming further vocally illiterate. Time to get back on track, Tif. Leave the man in peace now…
"Then I'd like one of those."
"Yes." The corner of his lip quirked at the corner ever so slightly. "That is, if it's not too much trouble."
The man must think I'm an airhead. "Oh no, of course not! I just- your coffee-"
He raised a hand. "I'll pay for both."
"Oh… No! You don't have to do that." I waved a hand in the air. "I mean, it's on the house."
"…Thank you." I could only smile at him. "You're very generous Miss…" He found my name tag. "Tifa."
"Tifa Lockheart." I extended an arm. "Just call me Tifa. Or Tif, if you like."
"Vincent." He took my hand, his grip strong and warm. "Valentine."
I felt a tingle at the contact and shivered.
Or was that him?
I reluctantly released his hand. "It's a pleasure."
"…Indeed it is."
I suddenly felt faint. He lowered his gaze. And I was both grateful and dismayed. What in the world? I attempted to snap myself out of the spell he managed to weave. "So, one famous Highwind Tea special?" Vincent nodded. "Great. I'll be back in a minute."
Aeris watched my progress to the kitchen and followed me in. Here it comes…
"So?" She placed a hand on my shoulder trying to secure my attention. "Who is he? What'd he say? You two seemed awfully chatty," her voice crescendo-ed in an awfully annoying way.
"His name is Vincent Valentine, and we talked about coffee. His coffee, particularly."
"How romantic is that?" Aeris giggled and gave me a thoughtful look. "Valentine and Lockheart. You two were definitely meant to meet!"
I rolled my eyes at her.
"Oh, don't give that to me, Tifa Grace Lockheart!" She grinned. " 'Cause I certainly don't buy it."
"You're cheeks are turning pink!" she added for effect.
I glared and continued fixing up the tea, while Aeris, thankfully, managed to keep quiet for a few minutes. But even that too passed.
"So what's this?" She pointed towards my motions. "Who ordered the famous Highwind Tea?"
"He did," I mumbled.
"I said he did. Vincent." I went into explanation before she could ask. "Like I said, we talked about his choice in coffee, which led to my opinion, which led to my recommendation, which inevitably—and to my surprise—led to his order."
"You two are really hitting it off."
"Aeris, it's—it's just coffee… an-and tea for heaven's sake!"
"Aw, come on, Tifa. Don't you like him at least a little? Taking in account what you've heard and seen so far?"
I slowly exhaled and looked at my friend again. It wouldn't hurt to be honest, would it? "Okay. I will admit he is attractive." She beamed. "And… he is polite. …He has this deep and warm voice… a nice sense of humor…" I couldn't help the little smile in my voice creep in. "And he has this kind of… quiet charm. He's definitely intense but—he still manages to be unassuming and real."
"Smells nice too." I grinned. "I guess I kind of do like him." I turned to the green-eyed brunette feeling oddly content.
Her eyes were wide. "Wow."
I looked at her strangely. "What?"
"You saw all that? That Psych class, or whatever, must be something." She shook her head, rethinking. "I guess you've always been a good judge of character and personality.
"Or maybe someone is just smitten! And you two are psychically linked!" She replied, half-serious.
I laughed. "Aeris, you're hopeless." I picked up a saucer with the freshly prepared cup of tea.
"A hopeless romantic and you know it!"
We shared a few chuckles.
I remembered the saucer's weight in my hand. "Well, I'll drop this off and-"
"You will not!" Aeris threw me one of her very rare mad looks. "You're shift—as of now—is over."
"Now, you are going to give Mr. Valentine that tea then sit down and enjoy the rest of the night with, ahem, Vincent."
"Aeris, you can't-"
"It's 8:00 pm on the dot. You're shift is officially over." She grinned, obviously smug. "So run along and finish serving your last customer and then be normal. Talk to him."
In a last ditch effort, I gave her a pout.
"Go!" And with that my 'friend' shoved me out the door. In the background, I heard a muffled "I know you want to!" before I departed.
Giving in, I straightened to my full height and made my way back to Vincent.
"Here ya go." I deposited the saucer next to the mug of black coffee. "One Highwind Tea special on the house."
He eyed the tea for a second then reached for the light drink, raising the cup to his mouth in a taste. He gave a quick sip, testing. Then he took another, seemingly savoring. Slowly, Vincent lowered the tea and licked his top lip. "Hm." His crimson eyes shifted towards me. "It's good."
I let out a breath that I hadn't realized I had been holding then smiled. "Better than that coffee of yours?"
He leaned back in his seat slightly. "…Maybe."
I wondered if he could see the question in my eyes.
Was he teasing me?
Aeris had always said I was good at reading people. But this dark-haired stranger was somehow out of reach—like he wanted to be. My eyes caught sight of that black notebook again and I decided to take a chance. "So… you write?" He followed my gaze to his book of paper.
"No." My face fell. "…I draw."
"At times, I paint," he added.
"Oh?" My eyes lit - an interest piqued.
Vincent nodded. "Since I was a child."
I rested a hand on the surface of the table and found myself taking a seat.
His red eyes searched mine. "Writing, I leave that to the more adept." His hand slid forward pushing the notebook with it. "Would you care to…?"
I eyed the cover and looked back at him. "May I?"
"Do… as you like," he said somewhat mysteriously.
I nodded then stared at the art book in contemplation. Carefully, I turned the cover away. My eyes passed over his signature marked on the inside of it. Then, I directed my gaze the first page and began to take in the images of his art…
Sketches so life-like and unbelievably real met my sight. They were mostly of city life, its people and their surroundings—faces young and old, rich and poor, the beautiful and less so in marketplaces, street corners, bars, newsstands, and charming restaurants.
Many of the later drawings were of the café. The detail in them was astounding, and I could identify each sight so clearly. On some of the pictures, quotes, and snippets of various poems relating to the art's themes were added in - by what I assumed was his hand.
He didn't write, but he certainly did read.
When I came to the most recent works in his collection, I gasped in wonder and recognition. The face of a young woman—my very own eyes—looked back at me. Lines lovingly executed made up the face I saw in the mirror every morning. They traced a body I never realized curved so sweet. I found a quote written in neat cursive at the bottom, and my voice quietly read aloud,
"She walks in beauty like the night
Of cloudless climes and starry skies,
And all that's best of dark and bright…"
He finished, "Meet in her aspect and her eyes."
"Byron," I breathed.
There was a ghost of a smile. "You read." He paused. "You write?"
"Yes, I – I mean no… Well, not really. I jot things down now and then. Just for myself really…"
"You write," he repeated.
I finally complied, grinning and nodding simultaneously in affirmation. "I write."
"Do you like them?" His eyes lowered to the drawing in front of me.
Did I like them? Was he crazy? "They're amazing, Vincent." I felt my heartbeat quicken. "I-I wasn't expecting – the ones of me." I blushed. "But I'm glad you drew them. They're… beautiful." My head tilted downwards, and strands of chocolate-colored hair fell forward. I silently stared at his skillful fingers folded on the table.
I heard him lean forward.
"Tifa… Do you know what a muse is?"
My blush deepened and I nodded, the scent of cool spices suddenly ensnaring my senses.
I felt something lightly push back my hair, sweeping a brown lock behind my ear.
Café Noir: Black coffee (French)
Final Fantasy VII and its characters © Squaresoft, Inc. n.k.a. Square-Enix, Inc.