(Moonlighting) The Arcane – Chapter 2 – 2,906 words

i.

As it turned out, seeing Lenore every night wasn’t assured.  Vince couldn’t find her at the library for three days after their talk in the staff room.  He had been about to write her off as being bored of him when she reappeared the fourth night and came to him with coffee like nothing had happened.  In the excitement of seeing her again, he never asked and afterward it never felt like the right time.

After just being “okay” for so long, being excited for something was something he had to get used to.  She was gorgeous in a way that he really couldn’t reach, so he knew his crush was probably going to stay as just that.  But he still liked talking to her.  You could never have too many friends.  The crush would fade.

Vince took what she told him that night to heart and started writing again.  He kept it secret and private— writing only when Tim or Lenore or anyone couldn’t catch him doing it.  His heart on the page wasn’t a pretty sight.  It had been so long since he had done anything other than compartmentalize and distract himself.  He realized that it didn’t really matter how much he was okay by himself.  He was still lonely.

Lenore being around gave him balance.  Every night that he could, he spent as long as he could with her.  Sometimes she was withdrawn but still hung around him, reading or doing her own work in a shared silence.  It was silly, but even nights like that felt breathtaking to him.  How long had it been since he had been actually comfortable around someone?

He asked her questions when he could, but she always seemed more interested in him than answering any questions about herself.  There was a list of things she always closed up about: her family, where she came from, where she lived, and really anything that she did during the day other than her classes or writing.  She talked about her writing a lot. Always with the kind of passion that made him wonder what it would be like to be kissed by her.

(Lenore’s favorite color was indigo, and she liked two sugars in her coffee, and she took lots of extra classes in literature and history alongside her writing classes, and she had published a few short stories so heartbreaking that they made Vince tear up when he read them online after an hour of searching for them.)

Vince hadn’t told Tim about Lenore for… reasons.  He decided that it really wasn’t much of his business, that Tim never told him about every woman that he talked to.  Another voice in his head knew that it might’ve been because Lenore was his and exciting and when he inevitably messed it up, it would be easier to put her behind him.  

The thought of not having her around soured in his throat the first time it crossed his mind.  Jesus.  He was getting attached.

He hadn’t dated anyone since high school.  That relationship had been long and when it ended it had shattered him.  In the aftermath, he had put together this belief that no one would ever want something permanent or even at all again.  He hadn’t done much to defuse that, letting it sit and fester and grow.  Not that Lenore was his solution out of that.  Even if he really wanted to kiss her.

ii.

“What has you all fired up lately?” Tim asked.

Vince paused in the middle of packing a bag for the night.  Outside their dorm window, the sun began to sink beneath the horizon.  “What do you mean?”

His roommate shook his head.  “I’ve seen you get ready for wherever you go at night before.  You’ve never done your hair before.  Or brought mints.”

He tucked the tin in his pocket guiltily.  “It’s nothing.”

“Right,” Tim said, unimpressed by the lie.  “Hope I get to meet her at some point.”

“There’s not a—“ 

Tim gave him a look, and he closed his mouth.  There wasn’t much you could get past him.  “It’s not like that,” Vince said, “but maybe you’ll get to meet her.

iii.

It was fully dark out by the time Vince made it to the library.  He went where he always went, a table on the fourth floor where the chairs were padded and all the lamps worked.  Even if he wanted to talk to Lenore— which he always did— walking the library to find her would be a waste of energy.  It was better to wait for her to come to him.  She had an uncanny ability to find him.

He couldn’t really remember the last time he had ever consistently wanted to be around a certain person.  It was insanely annoying never being able to get a hold of her.  He had no way of finding her during the day (he knew nothing about her life) and couldn’t even text her (she wouldn’t give him her number).  

She kept him firmly at an arms-length but always came to him eventually.  It should’ve been something that kept him from feeling the way he did.  It didn’t.  He wanted to know her.

Over and over again, every day, his thoughts would wander to her, and he saw something that made him think of her and wish that he could text her about it.

But he only saw her at night in that library.  And that was that.

It was a little different tonight.  This time, Lenore was already at his table.  Waiting for me?  And she was fast asleep, resting her head on crossed arms.  The sight made him pause, like it was something he wasn’t supposed to see.  Sometimes she seemed so inhuman to him that he forgot how human she was.

There were two Lenore’s.  The cryptic, distant woman who wore a wall around herself so naturally that you could almost imagine she had been born like that.  And then there was this one, that he only saw in smiles and flashes, where she was vulnerable and alive and human.  Usually they blended together so seamlessly that you couldn’t tell when and which she was, but right in that moment, she was trapped in the latter.

It took a conscious thought to stop himself from staring too long, and he took a seat opposite her at the table, pulling out a book.  She was probably an insomniac like him, so waking her up felt cruel.  She had the same bags under his eyes that he did.  They both could use every bit of sleep they could get.

So he read his book and let her sleep and tried not to think about how he felt irrationally better being beside her.

iv.

Lenore woke a couple hours later, stirring slowly and suddenly like stone coming to life.  She rose her head slowly, her hair a tousled mess down one side of her face and tugged the sleeves of her wool sweater down like she always did.  Vince closed the book and set it down with a wry smile at the sight of her sleepy expression.  Those dark eyes of hers met his, and her lips curved into a little smirk.

“You could’ve woken me up.”

He shrugged.  “You needed the sleep.”

She sighed, blinking away the sleep.  There was no attempt made to fix the disaster that her hair was left in.  Whenever Lenore was a mess around him, she never really did anything to fix it.  He liked the messier parts of a person, but he wondered why she let him see them.

“Were you waiting for me?” he asked, braving territory he would normally leave alone.  It helped that her hair kind of looked like a crumbling bird’s nest.

Another coy smile and a sparkle in her eyes that felt like she could see right between his words.  “Yeah,” she said, “this is your spot.”  She didn’t give any further clarification and he knew better than to ask.

They held each other’s gaze for a few moments.  There was a hanging weight in the air between them and there was no telling how long it had been there.  

She looked at him in her calculating way and said, “why do you come here each night?”

It was a question that probably should’ve come up before now.  Vince still wasn’t exactly prepared for it, even with a perfectly reasonable answer.  “I have insomnia.  I feel better going somewhere and doing something instead of laying in bed.”

“But why do you come here?” She leaned in closer, and he caught a breath of cinnamon.

A part of him said for you but it still wasn’t a lie when he said, “I like it here.”

Lenore nodded.  “It feels magical, doesn’t it?  The library at night.”

It felt strange, hearing his own thoughts spoken back to him.  “Like a different world,” he said softly.

“Our little world,” she murmured,  Her hand rested on the table, palm up.  He wanted to take it, to feel its cold softness again.

Vince moved his hands to his lap and pinched his thigh.  Every time he let himself feel that quiet yearning, he felt it sink a little deeper.  There was this place inside of him where the hopeful warmth was growing.  He hated letting it sit until it died, but he hated letting it burn these moments to the ground.

The doubt and fear and dejection worked a tendril around his throat and he changed the conversation before it could choke him.  “Why do you come here?  Aren’t you an insomniac like me?”

She pulled her shoulders in like she wasn’t going to answer.  “Not really,” she said, finding some other point past him to look at.  “I just don’t really like sleeping these days.  It’s better here.”

“In that case,” he said, getting to his feet, “want some shitty coffee?”

“Thought you’d never ask,” she grinned, standing with him.

Vince reached out, hesitated, then silently fixed her hair.  Not to make it perfect or right, but returning it to that casually messy way she always left it in.  She didn’t stop him, and they didn’t say anything.  Her hair was soft.

v.

The next night he saw her, he actually had some work to do.  You would think that being awake twenty hours each day would give him the ability to get stuff done, but procrastination was a bug he couldn’t shake.  Lenore found him hunched over at their table, earbuds in and half the table dedicated to papers and books.  He didn’t realize that she was there until she was quietly fixing his hair like he had done to her a couple days prior.

Vince paused his music.  “Hey.”

“You alright?” she asked.  He looked at her and was surprised to find something akin to worry in her eyes.  He must really look like shit.

“Yeah,” he sighed.  “I’m okay.  Just a bit behind.”

“You look like you’re about to crumble,” she said unhelpfully.  The worried look was a little more visible now.  “I don’t want you to work yourself to death.  You need a break.”

“That’s what the music’s for.”

Lenore gave him an exasperated look, but all she did was pull up a chair beside him.  “Is it alright if I stay?”

Vince studied her face.  Was this how it worked?  They started touching each other’s hair and now they were openly caring about each other’s well-being?  He would’ve given anything for a glimpse into her head.  What do you want, Lenore?

“Yeah.  You can stay.”

She took the chair beside him— close enough that he could feel her presence without looking.  He wordlessly took an earbud from his ear and offered it to her.  She took it.

They listened to soft indie music together.  Songs of love and heartbreak sung by voices brutally unaltered and imperfect.  When he gave Lenore a glance, her eyes were closed and her lips were curved in a little smile.

Lenore sitting next to him wasn’t the best way to focus, but he saw her so little compared to how much he wanted to see her that he couldn’t turn her away.  He felt lighter around her, even if it was a lightness that came with a fair bit of confusion.  The woman was allergic to being understood.

He had barely even picked up a page before Lenore grabbed onto his forearm with her cold fingers and leaned close enough to whisper into his  ear.  “I figured out how to get you to relax a little.”  

The sensation of her breath in her ear sent an altogether too-pleasant shiver down his spine.

Vince leaned away instead of in.  He wanted to lean in.  An aching, beautifully ugly part of him wanted to lean in.  “What did you have in mind?”

That sparkle gleamed in her eyes again, bright as stars.  “Dancing is always how I unwind when the studying gets to me.”

He blinked at her.  To him, dancing brought to mind crowded parties with loud music that Tim had dragged him to once or twice.  Even Tim didn’t like them, he just wanted someone with him to complain about it with.  “Should I pick some faster music?”

“No, this is perfect for slow dancing.”  She pulled him to his feet, leading him away from the table.  The headphone wires kept them precariously close, and Vince was getting worried.

“Slow dancing?”

Lenore grinned at him.  “Didn’t you ever go to prom?”

“I got dumped before prom.”

A flash of something interrupted the gleam in her but she left the comment mostly alone.  “Well, then I guess we should be making up for it then?”

Vince didn’t even want to begin to unpack the subtext in that.  “I have no idea how to dance.  I don’t even know if I like dancing.”

“You’re just giving me more reasons to make you dance,” she said, “relax, I’ll lead.”

She clasped their hands together equal to her head, then placed her hand on his side.  It took a moment for his thoughts to collect themselves into something usable.  He wasn’t ready for this.  

“Ready?” Lenore asked him, already swaying to the music.

“Yeah.”

She started stepping to the music, and he followed her lead, looking down to copy her feet.  Their foreheads bumped together messily, too close for them really have any room.  It took half a song, but soon he figured it out.  Lenore rewarded him with a smile when he looked back up into her eyes and danced without looking.

Vince felt her breath on his face, and he breathed in mint and cinnamon and vanilla like it was a requirement to live.  Her lips were right there, wet and soft and mouthing along to the music.  The dance kept him from focusing on them too hard.  He watched her eyes close, like all it took was a single earbud and a dance to take her somewhere far away from there.

Her hand was still cold and solid in his, but her body was warm through her sweater as it pressed and slid against his.  His cheeks warmed and his heart lightened.  This felt right.  Right in the unbelievable way that life felt together.  Right in the way that it made all his loneliness and breakups a convenient stepping stone into this moment.

The song changed.  Bitter, melancholy music about breakups and heartbreak turned into something brighter.  Warm acoustics and a happy voice talking about falling in love.  They adjusted to the new tempo effortlessly.  

He felt her pulse in her wrist speed up, pressed against his.  Her hand grew warm, her grip over his ribs tightened.  He watched her lips open slightly, her cheeks redden.

It was an unconventional way to get his mind off things.  And the last thing his mind was on in that moment was his work.

Lenore unlaced her fingers with his, reaching up to wrap both her arms around his neck.  “Making up for prom, remember?” she opened her eyes for a moment.  They were filled with something quiet and unknowable.  It reminded him of the night sky.  

“Come on,” she whispered.  “You’ve seen movies.”

Vince realized his hands were mostly hovering.  He put them around her waist, pulling her closer against him.  She sighed softly into the warmth of them pressed together, something contented and pleased.  Her face pressed into his chest, and he realized she was breathing him in in the same way he did to her.

Their bodies fit together effortlessly.  It was as if they had done this before.  

He reached up, gently cupping her cheek and turning it up toward him.  Their mouths were inches apart.  His head tilted in an unspoken question.  She closed her eyes, and Vince leaned in to kiss her—

Lenore pulled away.  It was neither desperate or harsh.  It was lingering, her hands still holding his forearms.  He wanted to ask, to apologize.  She grinned at him, eyes sparkling.  “You’re a very good dancer,” she said, “but that’s not how the mystery plays out.”And then she was gone, disappearing into the darkness of the shelves, and the loneliness of the library came back in.  He stared into the space where she had been.  Her warmth and presence still tingled on his skin.  The mystery continues.

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