His eyes were the first thing Emma noticed.
Blue; very blue. Striking, soft, pale blue.
So striking that she actually froze when she met his gaze for the first time.
"I've got one black coffee!" She'd called from the counter.
He was already standing there in his black suit and tie. He flashed his palm, a wordless indication the order was his. Then Emma actually looked up. Their eyes met, and Emma froze. Her brain crashed, buffered like a busted old computer. Her hand hung in the air holding his coffee, not far out enough for him to take, just enough to be awkward.
He smiled at her, a smile that was genuine rather than practiced, and his brows raised in a slight knit of concern the longer she stood in silence.
Emma cleared her throat and blinked his eyes from her mind. She willed her hand to move and shoved his coffee at him.
"Have a good day," She stammered.
"Thanks, you too."
He gave her another smile complete with a slight head tilt and walked away. Emma didn't know why she watched him go. She didn't know why, but she was glad she did, because he looked back over his shoulder when he reached the door. This time when he smiled, Emma smiled back.
"Woah, Earth to Emma!" Zoey piped up suddenly, snapping by her ear. "What was that? "
Emma shook herself back to her natural apathetic state.
"What was what?"
"Um… that? " Zoey gestured wildly to the door. "You totally short-circuited over Mr. Business back there!"
"I don't know what you're talking about," Emma dismissed, refusing to make eye contact.
Zoey crossed her arms and pursed her lips.
"Sure you don't."
"Zoey, don't you have a line of orders to take?"
The baristas stood locked in a contest of wordless wits until Zoey conceded with an eye-roll and returned to the register.
He came in again a few days later, a shift Emma was fortunate enough to be working the register for. This time she didn't freeze, though her gaze stayed weirdly locked to those eyes.
Black coffee, just like last time. Emma tried not to notice the way his fingers brushed over hers when he took it. The way his gaze lingered before he turned, looking at her a little too long.
Emma couldn't help smiling to herself as he walked out the door.
She didn't notice Zoey peeking out from the back, grinning smugly.
"Your boyfriend came in again yesterday," Zoey said.
"Ah, yes, my boyfriend whose name I don't know and who I've only ever spoken to twice." Emma snarked as she wiped down the counter.
"He got all bummed when I took his order, the asshole."
"Clearly a man of refined taste."
"Three black coffees in just over a week," Zoey remarked as though it was some outstanding observation.
"That's not weird, Zoey. People drink coffee every day."
"From Starbucks, maybe. Not from Beanies."
Emma put down her cleaner and turned from the counter to face Zoey.
"Why is this something that matters to you?" She asked, arms crossed.
"Emma, we've had plenty of hot guys and girls come to this shitty coffee shop just to hit on us. You have options, and you chase them away by being a crabby bitch. But some gangly asshole in a suit and tie orders a fucking black coffee, smiles at you once and you're head-over-heels?"
"I mean I'm literally not, but-"
"It's just… fascinating. " Zoey's tone dripped with false wonder.
Emma shot her a middle finger.
It wasn't long until he was coming to Beanies daily. Usually by himself, but sometimes he came with company. Sometimes a sweet-looking dark-skinned guy who wore one of those flat caps, sometimes a loud-mouthed, kinda creepy guy with a mustache, sometimes a pretty woman with long wavy hair and glasses. Emma honestly figured she'd have been more into the woman if she wasn't always so distracted by those stupid soft blue eyes.
She didn't get to see him every time, but it wasn't like she cared about that. Why would she? He was just another customer. A customer with a really nice smile and a cute crooked nose, and neatly-trimmed hair that fell just the right way, and soft hands that always seemed to brush hers accidentally when he took his coffee.
"Emma! Nora wants you out on the register!" One of her co-workers yelled, bursting into the back.
"I'm on break-!" Ignoring Emma's protest, the other barista grabbed her arm and flung her out to the counter. "Kiernan!"
Kiernan gave Emma a cheeky little wave and stepped into the back. Bewildered, Emma turned to the register with a huff only to spot him approaching the counter, those blue eyes lighting up when he saw her.
Of course she took his order, because what else could she do? Though the suddenness of it had Emma trying to snap back into Work Mode when her brain had settled into a break, and she found herself stammering through the interaction. His smile was patient and pleasant, though, leaving little creases around those eyes. Emma couldn't help the self-conscious little laugh that sighed from her nose, or the smile that tugged at her lips.
"Enjoy your coffee," She said.
And he said "You, too."
He blinked, realizing his mistake and immediately stiffened with a long in-drawn sigh through his teeth. Emma gave a little smirk.
"Guess we're even."
He smiled. "Guess so."
When he was gone, Emma ignored the rest of the line in front of her and stalked back to the break room. She grabbed Kiernan by the back of their apron and yanked them to their feet, dragging them out to the counter.
"You're welcome!" Kiernan sang.
"You don't have to tell Kiernan everything , you know." Emma snapped at Zoey the next early morning they opened together.
Zoey put on an innocent face. "I don't know what you're talking about,"
Emma pursed her lips. " Sure you don't."
Zoey started stocking the cups. For a blissful few minutes it was quiet, and Emma thought she'd be able to work a shift without wanting to bang her head against the wall for once.
"You know he's totally into you, too, right?" Zoey said.
Well, that was short-lived.
Emma pinched the bridge of her nose tight. "Can we not do this today?"
"Beanies doesn't get regulars, Em. Not daily ones at least, no one's stupid enough to torture themselves like that just because we're cheaper than Starbucks."
She did have a point there. Still, Emma refused to concede to anything Zoey said ever, on the grounds that she was fucking annoying and had no idea what she was talking about.
"Why are you so invested in this?" She asked.
"God, Emma, you have a cheesy coffee shop love story sitting in your fucking lap and you're not doing anything about it! It's pathetic watching you go through the motions every day when we all know you're into this guy."
"Oh, you all know?" Emma stepped forward. "And what makes it any of your business?"
"Zoey, Emma!" Nora called before the conversation could continue. "Get back here, I need to talk to you!"
Of course the first real interaction they had would start with Emma already in a bad mood. This new "Tip For A Song" policy Nora had implemented last-minute was already shaping up to be a fucking nightmare.
She'd taken a breath and put on a polite face to serve the next customer, and it was him. At first she was thankful, but then he dropped a tip in the jar. Right after that last asshole, and right after she'd just risked being fired by not singing for him. It didn't matter who was attached to that tipping arm, Mr. Black Coffee With The Striking Eyes or not. Right then, Emma hated him.
"Jesus, really?" Clueless. He had no idea what a dick he was being. Emma rolled her eyes. "I've been brewin' up your coffee-"
"Oh! No, no, I'm sorry, I don't need you to sing. I just tipped because… y'know, uh… people should tip."
Emma softened. "Well, thank you."
He'd tipped her five bucks . Emma hated to admit it, but Zoey might have been on to something. Ugh, Zoey.
He listened to her vent while she made his black coffee, even threw in a few snarky comments of his own. He was funny, and he made good small talk. Emma actually liked talking to him. She liked the way his mouth formed around his smile when he spoke. She liked the sound of his laugh.
Okay, she liked him.
"I see you in here all the time, don't I? What's your name?"
The simplest question. The very first thing people usually learned about each other. Somehow it felt like a step towards something.
Paul. It fit him.
"Hi, Paul. I'm Emma."
Emma didn't have the energy to question the desperate yell for a black coffee that came from the counter right around noon the next day. She didn't even register whose voice it was, she was so tired. Rather than expend the effort, she just slid out to do her job that for some god-forsaken reason now included singing all the time.
"Blaaaack coffee, I'm your coffee gal-"
It was him, those blue eyes wide and tense with distress. Paul - the guy who didn't like musicals. It was nice to have a name to put with the face, even if the face was freaking her out a little bit.
As he went on about some kind of musical infection, his eyes started looking a little crazier to Emma. She was almost starting to regret the months she'd spent quietly wishing something would happen between them, right up until the singing started.
This was not how Emma expected this to go, if it went at all. She'd expected casual banter over the counter until one of them got up the nerve to make a move. She'd expected a few awkward but hopefully enjoyable dates.
She had not expected fleeing for their lives from Beanies of all places, to end up hiding at her kooky professor's fortress at the edge of Hatchetfield with a bunch of strangers. She hadn't expected her instinct to be to run to him at the first sign of danger, but that was what kept happening. She certainly hadn't expected to really open up to him so fast, not in any circumstance, but with all the adrenaline frying her inhibitions, along with his genuine listening ear and those fucking eyes looking at her with such softness and understanding… Emma just kept talking.
And suddenly he knew about Jane.
The danger just didn't stop coming. Charlotte was dead. Paul was leaving the bunker to try and save his friend's daughter. Emma had just learned his name barely 24 hours ago and now there was a good chance she'd never see him again. She couldn't let him go yet. She didn't know what she was going to say, but she had to get one last good look at him.
"If those things get you, they're going to make you sing and dance, and all that shit you hate." Emma grabbed his face. He hunched down so they were nearly level, those eyes so close. Her thumb brushed over his cheek. "So don't you let 'em. "
"Emma," Paul paused, taking her hands into his own. It was like he was trying to take her in just as much as she was him. "There comes a time in every man's life when he has to draw a line in the sand. And I will never be in a fucking musical."
Emma had never felt more relief in her life than when she turned in the chair Hidgens had tied her and Ted to and was met with those blue eyes narrowed in determination. Paul was saving her. He'd made it back and he was saving her. God, the second they were safe Emma was going to kiss him.
Of course her thinking that meant they weren't going to be safe. They were fucked, everyone was fucked, the whole world was fucked because they had Hidgens, the army was part of it and now Ted was gone, too. Even when they managed to defy all odds and make it to the chopper they were still fucked, because of course Zoey would pop in at the worst possible time.
They weren't safe, they probably never would be, but Emma had to bite the bullet because she knew if she didn't make a move now she might never get the chance again.
"Paul… I know why you came into Beanies all those times instead of just going to Starbucks… and it wasn't 'cause you liked our shit coffee."
Paul nodded as she went on, confirming her every suspicion, every possibility Zoey had teased her about since that first day he'd come into Beanies.
"...if we get through this, I would love to just see a nice silent movie with you. But in case we don't… kiss me?"
It almost happened. Again, not remotely how Emma would have expected; impaled through the leg by rebar, bleeding out in the sand just minutes after a helicopter crash and Paul about to leave her again. It almost happened. He was so close; Emma's coffee shop love story gone wrong.
It didn't happen. Emma spat blood on him and the moment was ruined. She still wanted to kiss him, so badly she wanted to, but he didn't anymore and she wasn't going to force him. She figured it better to not happen at all than have it be awful.
So she let him go.
"Yeah, you're right… Get out of here," She waved him away.
She watched him hurry down the beach until she couldn’t see him anymore.
Emma didn't know what she believed in anymore. A god, a caring universe, anything at all. But while she lay bleeding on the beach she prayed to any possible force that could be listening for Paul to get out okay.
Paul never came back.
The army - the real, non-musical army - came and picked her up. Passed out from exhaustion and blood loss, Emma was flown over the dividing waters from Hatchetfield to Clivesdale.
Her nurse was quiet. She never spoke at all, actually, but she had a sweet smile and Emma felt safe in her care.
Colonel Schaffer filled her in on the backstory the rest of the world had been told about the Hatchetfield catastrophe. She was given a new identity, a new life far away from the musical hell that was the remains of her hometown. Beanies barista Emma Perkins was dead, her spot in the universe now filled by pot farmer Kelly Henderson. Emma wished she could have chosen her own name.
When Emma slept she dreamed. Nightmares usually, but on the rare good nights she would dream about Paul. In her dreams none of this had happened. In her dreams they were at Beanies, bantering back-and-forth over the counter like any other day.
His eyes were crystal clear in her memory.
Ben Bridges. Emma didn't recognize the name, but she’d know the face anywhere.
"Oh my god! Paul! " She was too overcome with elation to pause for even a second to take him in. She ran to him and he swept her up in his embrace. "You made it! We made it!"
She clung to him tighter than she'd ever clung to anyone in her life, half-convinced if she let go he would disappear. He was there, though, in her arms, holding her in his, with her clear as daylight.
They were okay.
Then his grip on her shoulder tightened.
"Emma, I'm sorry… You lost…"
He drifted back, still holding her arms. Emma felt her stomach drop as she looked up at him, hoping against all odds that he was playing some sick joke.
The way his smile left creases at his eyes would have been a comforting familiarity in any other instance. But the soft, pale blue Emma had been stricken by was gone. Replaced with a bright electric glint, still blue - too blue - a hue to match what stained his teeth.
His eyes were the first thing Emma noticed. And she'd let them slip away.