(Moonlighting) The Arcane – Chapter 1 – 2,823 words

({A/N}: Moonlighting is a tab that contains all of my disconnected romance stories. They can be read in any order.)

i.

Vince didn’t even see her the first time he met her.

Someone had shoved his shoulder and he jolted awake, staring around blearily at his surroundings.  Northmoor University’s library was shrouded in darkness and silence.  Rows and rows of books stretched out into the blackness, the only light being the lamp at the desk he was working at.  He had fallen asleep working on his homework.  

The smell of coffee shook him free of his stupor.  There was a mug of it steaming next to him on the desk.  It took him a moment to realize that it definitely hadn’t been there earlier.  He cupped his hands around it, feeling the warmth bleeding through and soaking into his skin.  It was fresh.

Whoever had put it there had left some packets and sugar and plastic cups of creamer.  He didn’t have to drink a drop to feel a flicker of warmth shoot through him.  It was a confusing little act of kindness, but between his exhaustion and all-nighters this past month, it felt like a breath of fresh air.  

Vince put in a little sugar and creamer, yawning and quietly getting back to work.  The library had been his best choice of places to go when insomnia gripped him or his roommate’s night terrors woke him.  There was a program he had made it into that let him come after closing to do his work by the light of a flashlight.  It was a transient and lonely place to spend the night, but the building had a charm to it that he had gotten attached to.

The old, creaking floors.  Windows so dirty at the edges that the lights of the city were muddled and blurred through them.  The air was mildewy and dusty.  There were a hundred students involved in the same program that let him come there but most nights the only other soul he saw was the night librarian. 

The library felt magical in the dark.  Like he had stepped out of his life and into another.  For some reason, his loneliness turned into hope in that darkness.  He wondered who else walked the place at night while he sipped at the fading heat of the coffee.

Vince had always loved a good mystery.

ii.

The little kindnesses did not stop there.  The cups of coffee came night after night, sometimes with the addition of the sequels to books he had been reading when he had fallen asleep.  It started to make his late nights a little less bleak.  A little less lonely.

“Thank you,” he said aloud on the fourth night.  There wasn’t a reply.  

After a week, Vince’s curiosity got the better of him and he ventured out into the library to find his mysterious benefactor.  It had been his insomnia that had drawn him out of the dorm that night, so he really had little else to do other than investigate. 

Vince found her on the same floor as him amongst the shelves.  She had her back to him as she picked through the books one at a time.  She was singing— something that wasn’t award winning but it was soft and genuine and it made him smile.  The messy brown curls of her hair falling down her back swayed with her.

He wasn’t sure how to approach her.  A stranger coming out of the dark would probably scare her for plenty of good reasons.  He lingered back, contemplating, when she decided on a book and caught him in the edge of her vision.  The woman waved at him cautiously. 

“Hey, there.”  She looked more confused than surprised.

His words came a little late and jumbled like they always did when he was nervous.  “Hey.  I’m Vince Flores.”

She tilted her head.  “Lenore.”

It was an old sounding name, but for some reason it fit her.

Lenore was a few inches shorter than him, and he was already a little shorter than the average.  Her eyes were so dark that they stood out, even in the blackness of the library.  She had glasses perched on her nose which she had pushed up absently at seeing him.  There was a strange air about her, something he couldn’t put his finger on or understand.

She just stood there, watching him expectantly with an unreadable expression.  A wave of nervousness crashed in his stomach and he swallowed.  Vince already wasn’t much of an extrovert.  That added on with her being attractive, and that made a receipt for disaster.  He did not know how to talk to attractive people.  Or people at all.  And she was beautiful— in an elegant, artful way that you weren’t supposed to touch or look at too long.

“Did you—,” he stammered, then bit the inside of his cheek to ground himself and said, “have you been leaving me coffee?”

She nodded shamelessly.  “Guess it’s not that hard to figure out when I’m the only other one around.”

That answered the question he asked but it really didn’t satisfy his curiosity.  “Why?” he blurted.

Lenore paused at the question like she was confused by it.  Or like she didn’t even know the answer herself.  She tugged at the sleeves of her sweatshirt absently before replying.  “I liked your book choices.”

He blinked.  “What?”

“The books you’ve been reading.  I like mysteries too.”  There was a sparkle in her eyes that vanished so quickly that he wondered if it had ever been there at all.

“Oh,” he said, utterly unconvinced.  It wasn’t even a good fake answer.  The most infuriating part was that he had absolutely no idea what the real reason was.  “Thank you.”

“Of course.” She smiled at him, and it was the kind of smile that broke through every part of her that looked stony.  Her eyes lit up in a way that made them seem bright and she smiled so wide that it looked like the smile would break right off her face.  It hit him right in the chest and he couldn’t fight off his own smile.  He was helpless beneath it.

They said their goodbyes— it wasn’t like he was coherent enough to continue the conversation anyway— and went their separate ways.

iii.

Vince trudged back into his dorm room at six in the morning to catch some sleep before his classes that day.  That was, coincidentally, the time that his roommate Tim got up each day to do his morning run.

Tim was a walking oxymoron.  Outgoing introvert.  Athletic nerd.  Studious party-goer.  Sensitive jock.  

He was tall and pretty, and that meant that it wasn’t unusual for Vince to take a visit to the library just so Tim could have pretty company overnight.  The guy was actually pretty alright to be around, other than his blinding perfection.  He had his own kind of anxiety, and it created a strange little camaraderie between the two of them.  

Tim took one look at him coming in and said, “you were out all night again? “

Vince gave a vague grunting sound of assent and fell into his bed, kicking off his shoes as an afterthought.  He felt the other man’s blue eyes on him without looking.

“Hey, I’m worried about you, man.  Everyone needs sleep,” Tim said, sitting on the edge of his bed.

“M’fine.”

There was a pause where Vince could feel the disbelief radiating off of Tim.  The man sighed.  “If it’s the night terrors…”

Vince sat up a little.  “It’s not.  I just have trouble getting to sleep, Tim.  I’m fine.”

“Vince, you barely have any friends, but you only get a few hours of sleep a day.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen you eat.  I’m afraid you’re just letting yourself waste away and not doing anything about it.”

Sometimes Tim was too nice for his own good.  Even if he was probably onto something.  Was he really doing this to himself?

He groaned.  Right now he just wanted to sleep.  “Tim—“

The other man stood up.  “I got it, I got it.  You don’t want to hear it.  Just… just remember you’re more than welcome to tag along with me and my friends, even though I know it’s not your thing.  It would probably help you to go out more, you know?”

“Fine,” Vince relented.  “I’ll come along some time.  Can I sleep now?”

Tim smiled and patted his leg.  “Alright.  I’m going to head out now.  Maybe try coming back to the room tonight.”

“No promises,” Vince mumbled into his pillow as Tim left.  It took him a long time to fall asleep.

iv.

The sun was already well below the horizon by the time Vince started heading back to the library.  He had homework and a new mystery novel to go through, but it was hard to focus on them.  He wanted to talk to Lenore again.  There was just something about their meeting the previous night that lingered in his head.  It was nice sharing the isolation of the library with somebody else, if only for a short time.

An excuse to talk to her again presented itself on the way there.  There was one coffee shop open after dark on campus, and it was a hell of a lot better than the stuff from the machine in the library.  Two could play at being unnecessarily kind.  And it was the best way he could think of to show some gratitude to her.  He got a black coffee and some warm bagels for brownie points.

For whatever reason, the idea of seeing her made his chest tighten with the looming promise of another conversation.  He was nervous.

It was a short walk to the library where he came face to face to the night librarian, Elizabeth.  She was a student getting paid almost nothing to oversee everyone who could come to the library at night.  Vince had never seen her complain about it.  Her hair was tied back without a loose bang, and she wore clothes so free of wrinkles that they looked fake.  Above her, the central lobby stretched up to a skylight.  All six floors of the building were visible at once.

Vince hastily stashed the bag of bagels in his backpack (no food allowed in the library, not even for the night students) and gave her a smile that looked more deranged than friendly.  “Hey there.”

The librarian was unimpressed.  “What do you want?”

“Has Lenore come in?”

Elizabeth blinked at him.  “I didn’t know you knew her.”

He shrugged.  “I didn’t meet her until last night,” he said, “just want to talk to her.”

“Good” the librarian said, “It’s about time you talked to a girl.”

He resisted the urge to make a rude gesture as a response.  Instead, he groaned out a “please?”.

Sh gave him a triumphant smirk and pointed to the floors above them. “Third floor.  Make sure to use protection.”  He ignored her and went to the stairs.

v.

 Lenore wasn’t a hard person to find.  Her singing wasn’t loud, but in the quiet of the library it traveled far.  Vince knocked on the side of a bookshelf as he drew near, trying to catch her attention before he surprised her again.  She smiled when she saw him.

Her gaze caught on the coffee in his hand.  “I guess I don’t have to get you anything today.”

“Actually,” he said,thrusting the cup out toward her. “This one is for you.”

That gave her a second of pause.  “Really?  You didn’t have to.”

He shrugged.  “It’s the least I could do.  Someone has to be nice to you, too.”

Lenore smiled at him again, and there was another burst of cozy warmth that passed through him.  “Didn’t you get your own coffee?”

Vince looked down at his hands and realized that no, he hadn’t.  “Oh,” he said dumbly.  He had been so excited to talk to her that he had completely forgotten to get something for himself.

“How about we go get something for you?” she offered, taking the warm coffee from his hands.  “If we’re gonna start exchanging gifts, we should probably start talking to each other.”

He fought a goofy grin from his face.  Why the hell was he so excited by her?  “Sounds perfect.”

vi.

“Bread has no business being this good,” Lenore complained, trying one of the bagels that he brought.  

They were in the staff lounge, a tiny offshoot room in the library that everybody snuck free coffee from.  Lenore had boosted herself up onto one of the counters, legs dangling off as he made himself a cup of coffee.  They left the room’s lights dark in the off chance Elizabeth was making her rounds.  The only light to see by came from streetlights through the blinds of a tiny window, drawing lined shadows on both of them.

The darkness of the room made Lenore even more intimidating to him.  Even sipping coffee and eating bagels with messy hair, she felt like a separate species to him.  He still wanted to know more about her.

“You know,” she said, finishing off the bagel, “it’s rude to stare.”

Vince looked away quickly, cheeks warm.  “Sorry.” 

She didn’t say anything more, and he realized after a minute that she was waiting for him to speak.  He suppressed a groan.  Anyone who knew him knew not to hand him the reins of the conversation.  He had never grasped the easy sociability that it seemed everyone else had.

At least they had things to talk about.  “What’re you studying?” he asked her.

“Creative writing,” she said.  “It’s not really what I expected it to be.”

It was an attempt to play it down, but she didn’t fool him.  She loved it.  It was sewn into her tone.

He must’ve had a look on his face.  She kept talking.  “I mean, in a good way.  In high school it was my escape.  Here, it has to be introspective just to get anything worth turning in.  It’s— I’m rambling.”

There had been a light in her eyes as she had spoken.  It seemed to shine from somewhere beyond them.  Somewhere inside of her.

Vince had one big weakness (other than attractive people).  He always crumpled head over heels when someone got passionate over something.  The way that the excitement overtook them and opened them up in a wave of sincerity that showed what really made them happy.  It was infuriatingly attractive.

He averted his eyes like there was some chance she could see right into his thoughts.

“I don’t really like talking about myself,” she said, glancing away and out the window.  “What are you studying?”

He took a long drink from his coffee, trying to delay his reply.  After hearing her talk about her own aspirations, he really didn’t want to talk about his.  But there wasn’t enough coffee in the world to run away from the reality of it.

“Business,” he said, finally, still not looking at Lenore.

“Oh.”

“Yeah.”

Lenore seemed slow to gather herself.  She tugged the sleeves of her sweatshirts down further absently.  His reply had been a boring splash of reality splashed onto their quiet night in the library.  Beside her own ambition, it was so dull and plain.

“I mean,” she said, “there’s nothing wrong with that, of course.  You should do what you want to do.  It’s just… not what I expected.”

He laughed humorlessly.  “It’s not really what I want.  It’s just what I have to do.  Copy-editing or managing in some stuffy office building.  It’s safer.”

She scooted closer all of a sudden and leaned in.  The faint, intoxicating smell of cinnamon and vanilla filled her nose with flavor.  Vince had the insane urge to pull her close and breathe her in.

“But what would you do if you didn’t have to be safe?” she asked.  “What do you really want to do?”

He swallowed, setting down his empty mug of coffee beside her.  Don’t look at her lips.  “Poetry,” he said quietly, like it was a secret.  “I like writing too.”  

Lenore smiled, and it was just as beautiful as the first time.  “I’m not going to tell you how to live your life,” she said, “but don’t forget about that part of it.

“There’s more to life than surviving, you know?  You gotta remember that.”  She placed her hand over his on the counter.  It was cold and solid and soft.  More an act of reassurance than anything.  It still made his heart beat faster.

That was the second time that day that someone  had told him to take care of himself in some way or another.  Maybe he had been running a little self destructively lately.  Maybe he deserved a chance to be happy.  

“Okay,” he said.

They smiled at each other then, safe in the half-light of the night.  Maybe these nights weren’t going to be as lonely anymore.

// Next Chapter //

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