([A/N}: This chapter is kind of the “bridge” between the first and second halves of this story, which is an okay excuse for why the tone is absolutely everywhere. For my first real romance story, I’m honestly surprised at how well this is going. Thank you for reading this far!)
For the first time in a while, Vince could classify himself as better than okay. The warm, full feeling followed him into the next day, and he actually got himself out of bed at a reasonable hour. He wouldn’t get to see her until that night, if at all, but it was a good reason to get up. Besides, Tim’s expression at him getting up with the first alarm was its own reward. And smiling came so much easier.
The memory of the dance kept him giddy all day. Whatever she had meant by the “mystery”, he felt like he understood more about her. Lenore was the one that cuddled close, and he wouldn’t forget the clear excitement in her pulse anytime soon. Maybe she was just as touch starved as him. Maybe the non-kiss was really one sided. But a part of him had a lot of trouble believing it.
He needed to talk to her.
Tim jumped on his good mood as soon as he got back from his classes. Vince hadn’t even set his bag down.
“What do you think about coming out with me and some friends tomorrow night?”
It took a moment for Vince to get out of his head. “I’m not going to another party,” he said, not looking at Tim. “It took me days to shake off that headache.”
“I know,” Tim said, “it’s nothing like that. We’re just gonna go to that cafe on the corner. I figured that would be more up your alley.”
Vince frowned. “You made plans around me?”
“It wasn’t just me,” Tim said sheepishly. “Everyone wants to meet the man who never sleeps.”
“I promise it won’t be that bad. You can duck out early if you have to.”
Vince turned it all over in his head. Not only did Tim tell his friends about him, but he was willing to make plans that Vince would be more comfortable with. The guy was really trying. He couldn’t find a way to say no to him.
“Alright,” Vince conceded. “I’ll come along.”
Lenore wasn’t in the library when he went there that night. This time he actively went looking for her, making his way through her usual haunts. But she wasn’t in the stacks around her favorite genres, she wasn’t in the break room, she wasn’t at the table. Even Elizabeth hadn’t seen her.
Vince shouldn’t have expected anything different. The dance felt like a change, but it really wasn’t. Seeing Lenore was still something out of his hands.
They were carefully separated from each other’s lives. Sometimes that made seeing her a little more exciting. He always had something to talk about when she showed up again. It also meant he spent plenty of time just wishing he could talk to her.
He was still learning the rules of this “mystery” called Lenore.
Was she already seeing someone? Could she be leading him on, or was he just looking for things that weren’t there? Even if she did see him that way, could he even make this work?
The direction that his thoughts went left a bitter taste in his mouth. He knew it shouldn’t be this complicated, and he knew that he could solve a lot of it by just coming out and saying it to her. But the last thing he wanted to do was scare her away. This was the first time he had really felt something in so long and losing it scared him with a fear that clawed its way up his throat.
Vince swallowed. The warmth from before had slipped away, and his body felt heavy in a way that went beyond just being tired. He got up from the table, putting away the book he had pulled out but never opened. Maybe staying in the library wouldn’t be good for him that night. Eventually, the late nights piled up until even insomnia couldn’t keep him from getting a real night of sleep, and that was the kind of exhaustion swelling within him.
He wasn’t in the right state to chase the mystery that night. There were some things he just had to think about and being halfway asleep wasn’t the way to think about them. In a burst of self-care that was more than a little out of character for him, he packed up his things and headed out of the library.
Vince came face to face to Lenore on his way out the front doors of the library. They both paused, him at the top of the steps and her just about to take her first. It was the first time he had ever seen her outside the library, but the light from the street lamps kept her in the same dim glow that he always saw her in. Her eyes like abysses and hair like a flowing shadow. Like she was from another world.
The chilled air of spring at night pulled them closer to each other but they still stood carefully apart. The idea that they would just forget the night before was forgotten with the obvious weight of tension between them. But what were either of them going to do about it?
“Hey,” Vince offered.
Her face softened with a slight smile at her lips. “Hey. Coming out to meet me?”
“No,” he said, “I— I’m tired. I’m going to bed.”
There must’ve been some lingering mark of his worried thoughts from earlier in his words, because she frowned and inched closer. “Is everything alright?”
“Yeah,” he smiled, trying and failing to not be a little pleased by her worry. “Just tired.”
“See you tomorrow?” she said, the question in it open and eager.
He rubbed the back of his neck, tilting his gaze down. Something akin to guilt found a place in his gut which was ridiculous because it wasn’t like they owned each other’s nights. “I got invited to go out with a friend, actually. You’ll have the place to yourself tomorrow.”
“Oh,” Lenore said shortly, a touch of disappointment bleeding into her words. She tugged on her sleeves and chewed on her lip. “Are— are we alright?”
Vince didn’t even really know what they were. It would’ve been easy to ask, to just put the question to rest, but he was scared of what she would say. So instead, he just said, “yeah, we are.”
She nodded, clinical in a way that didn’t seem all the way real. “Good. I’ll— I’ll see you later.”
They parted, going to opposite ends of the stair case, before Vince found himself looking back at her retreating back. “Wait,” he said. He had come to the library that night with a mission. It was the least he could do to ask one question. “Are you seeing someone? I mean— dating anyone?”
Lenore smiled with a sparkle. “No,” she said, “I’m not.”
The words hung between them. This was the part where she was supposed to ask if he was seeing anyone, but instead, she turned and continued up the steps. The transaction felt unfulfilled. Vince went back to his dorm room confused. But maybe a little lighter.
Vince let Tim drive him to the cafe. He didn’t have a car of his own, but it broke one his own golden rules. Don’t put yourself into a situation you can’t escape from on your own. And he could hardly walk twenty miles back to campus on his own. Of course, maybe it was a little self defeating to already being thinking about the evening that way.
The cafe— at least— looked like the kind of place that he would enjoy. Warm and cozy and small. There were only a dozen places to sit and most of them were empty. The smells of sugar and coffee hung in the air, and he breathed them in greedily. Whatever he was he doing here, it would be easier with something warm to hold and some caffeine in his veins.
Before he could slink over to the counter to order a cup, however, three people waved to Tim from where they were crowded around a small round table. “That’s them,” Tim said to him, eyeing him carefully.
“I’m fine,” Vince said, trying not to sound too defensive. So what if the previous night’s interaction with Lenore had left him a little tense? He could function enough to be social for a few hours with a few people.
He followed Tim over to the table, taking a seat beside him.
“This,” Tim said, gesturing to him, “is Vince.”
The first two, obviously a couple, didn’t pay him much attention. The woman had the man’s hand clasped in her own as she whispered something to him. Smiles played on both of their faces. Whatever they were talking about, it was as if the rest of them weren’t there. It probably should’ve been a little gross or annoying, but all he felt was a treacherous stab of longing.
The third leaned forward with an eager smile. She was a tall and demanding presence, and she almost seemed to shine with his eyes on her. Someone used to attention, someone a sharp opposite of himself. “The Man Who Never Sleeps?” she said, genuinely happy to see him. “I almost thought you were just someone that Tim made up.”
“He talks about me?”
She sighed. “Tim worries more than he talks. You’ve been the most recent thing turning his hair gray.”
Tim glowered at her but all she did was reach out and offer Vince a hand. “Simone.”
He shook it. “Vince.”
“I’ve heard,” she said. “These two are Jon and Ash. Promise they grow on you.”
The woman— Ash— reached out and knocked Simone’s shoulder. “Don’t be mean. We were just talking.”
Simone scoffed and the two of them dissolved into an argument. Jon, the man stuck between them, rolled his eyes and leaned forward to talk. “Tim’s been trying to get you out here with us for a while. You came on a good day, we can actually hear each other talk here.”
“I told him no more parties.”
Jon nodded with a wry smile. “I get that. If Ash here didn’t love them, I’d be skipping them too.” He glanced into his coffee cup and started to slide up out of his seat. “Buy you a coffee?”
Vince had no reasons to refuse and plenty to accept. Caffeine and a step away from the developing argument sounded perfect. “Sure.”
The two of them extracted themselves from the table and headed over to the counter. A tired-looking worker took his order of a coffee with cream and sugar. Jon leaned back against the counter to keep one eye on the table. He seemed perpetually stuck between being coiled with tension like a snake and trying to look laidback. It was harder to read him than Lenore.
He thumbed over a few bills to pay for their coffees. “What made you change your mind to come out with us?”
Vince paused. “That’s a little complicated.”
He had wanted some space to think, but now he was back to wondering, and he wasn’t sure that going out with Tim’s friends was the best way to confront that.
Neither of them moved to go back to the hectic mess of their table.
“There’s really not much to do in a coffee shop other than talk,” Jon said.
“How did you know Ash liked you?”
Jon smiled into his coffee. “She’s awful at flirting in any subtle way. I had trouble believing she was serious for a while, she was so obvious. It was cute.”
Obvious would be so much better than the mystery he was investigating now. Vince sighed.
“So it’s a girl,” Jon said. “I’ve been there. Just try not to lose sleep over it. If it’s meant to be, it’ll happen.”
Vince blew out a breath. “You make it sound so simple.”
“It is, really. Eventually.”
They finished their coffees, neither of them really having a place to take the conversation. Vince was too entangled in his head to contribute. He wanted to see Lenore again. Which was really the opposite of the feeling he had wanted to create that night.
Jon set down his mug and eyed Vince. “What’re you studying, anyway?”
Vince forced himself not to groan. His degree was hardly the place to go to for interesting conversation. “Business,” he said.
There were few degrees that could kill a conversation like that, and he had no idea of how to salvage it. Either he could pronounce a personal interest, or he could say that he was doing what he had to to get by. Boring person versus depressing anecdotal. “What do you study?” he asked, instead.
“College isn’t really my thing,” Jon said. “I’m working at the record downtown. Music technician.”
It was boring, inane conversation. Maybe both of them could have tried a little harder, but there was just a noticeable drag in the space where there should have been any real connection. It wasn’t like talking to Lenore.
Jon excused himself back to the table with a polite smile. “Back into the fire.”
Vince ordered another cup as a reason to hang back. Suddenly coming along with Tim just didn’t feel like as much of a stellar idea. He wanted to be this socially competent friendly face but talking with most people always made him feel lacking. Like he was just missing a fundamental piece required to connect with other human beings.
He had just worked up the will to return to the table when he saw Lenore. She was tucked into a corner of the shop that was hard to spot from anywhere but the counter. Her attention was so devoted to her laptop that he doubted she would’ve ever seen him.
It was easy to believe that running into her wasn’t a coincidence at all, but the way she was absorbed into her work made him think otherwise. His heart jumped in his chest against his better judgment, and he felt weight that he didn’t know he was carrying lift from his shoulders. Maybe he should just follow the way that he was being nudged.
Vince gave the table he had come from one last look. Hopefully Tim wouldn’t be too upset by him ducking out. Something in him just couldn’t resist going to her.
Lenore looked a little different than she normally did each night. Same hoodie, the same bags under her eyes. But her hair was actually brushed, and she was charged with a different energy than that he saw in her in the dark of the library. It was like every part of her was dedicated and channeled to her work. Like a full body exercise.
She paused to take a sip from her coffee, and her eyes wandered enough to catch him at the edge of her vision. Vince was rewarded with a rare look of real shock on her face. There was something satisfying about getting peeks through her mask like that. He stopped lingering at a distance and walked over, sliding into the seat opposite her.
That was all the time she needed to compose herself again. “I thought you said you were out with friends.”
“I am,” he said, giving Tim and his friends another glance. “Well— kind of.“
Her eyes were lighter than he realized. The harsh blackish brown that he saw in the dark was so much warmer under the lights of the cafe. She averted her eyes away from his. “I promise I’m not following you.”
He waved his hand. “I know you didn’t. I’m… I’m just happy see you.”
“Why?” she asked, “I would understand if you were a little upset after… everything.”
Vince leaned forward. “I wasn’t upset. Just a little confused. That’s why I skipped out on the library tonight.”
She didn’t say anything, just took a long gulp from her coffee.
“But even if I really don’t know what you think of me—“
“I know how I feel about you,” he said. “and whether or not you feel the same way, or if you’re just not ready to open up with me, it doesn’t change that I like being around you. Whatever this is, we can go at your pace.”
Lenore ran a finger around the lip of her cup. “That isn’t what I was expecting you to say at all.”
“In a bad way?”
“Not at all,” she said, “I like being around you too. Library just doesn’t feel the same without you.”
They smiled at each other then within a shared silence that would’ve been awkward with anyone else. With each other, it just felt right. Everything felt right with her.
“Are your friends going to be upset by me stealing you away?” she asked, closing her laptop.
He shrugged. “They’re mostly Tim’s friends. And he just wanted to get me out for once. I had to cave eventually. Of course, now I’m stuck here until they’re done.”
“I could take you back.”
“You’re leaving already?”
There was a new element in her eyes. Something distant and confused. Vince realized that he wasn’t the only one who had to do some thinking.
When she spoke, her voice gave nothing away. “Yeah. I have other things to do tonight.”
Vince knew better than to ask what those things were.
Going with her sounded better than the outsider feeling he got earlier. There was just this space that he felt between him and other people, some lack of connection, and tonight he didn’t feel like trying to struggle against it. Tonight he just wanted a little longer with the woman who didn’t make him feel that way.
“Sure,” he said. “Let’s get out of here.”
The most he said to Tim on the way out was “I’m tired, maybe another night.”
Between leaving with Lenore and leaving early, Vince knew he was going to have to stomach some questions later, but he found that he didn’t really care that much. Morning was far away. Right now he just wanted to enjoy the hand running into Lenore had dealt him.
The way he got excited getting to see her car was a little revealing about how little he knew about her. It was a small and dark and clean thing, which was both completely stripped of personality while also managing to ooze it. A mystery. It fit Lenore well.
She put on the same kind of music that they had danced to a couple nights earlier and hummed along to it under her breath. He made a conscious effort to not think about that night and instead watched the streetlights pass. Sitting on all the questions and ideas he had was difficult, but Lenore almost seemed relaxed after he had told her that.
For whatever reason, the closed-off distancing was more comfortable for her. Only seeing him at night in the library. Leaving her life separate from him. Vince didn’t want to push her, but he still couldn’t help but wonder how long things would be like this. What was she waiting for?
The song changed, and Lenore fell quiet, even as the next song crescendoed into its opening lines. Neither of them spoke or looked at each other, the silence becoming thick with an unspoken tension. She took one hand off the wheel and rested it on the armrest. He didn’t realize what he was doing until he did it— reaching out and pressing his forearm against hers while interlocking his fingers with hers.
There was a beat where nothing happened and he felt heat rush to his cheeks because why the hell had he done that? Vince automatically started to pull his fingers free from between hers. Just back off before you manage to make this worse.
But she squeezed his hand, holding it with a firm don’t let go.
So he didn’t. Neither of them spoke for the rest of the drive back to campus, as if speaking would break the fragile reality of their hands intertwined between them. It took him a while to really enjoy it— to stop worrying about his hand shaking or that he was breathing too deeply and it was moving his hand or that his hand was clammy.
Eventually, though, he just smiled to himself and looked out the window. For once in his life, he didn’t have to be on edge or overthinking everything. It was just her and him, and whatever they were, it was good.
When they pulled up to his dorm, there was a minute where they both waited for the song to finish. Neither of them wanted to be the one to pull away first. He looked at her in that light, lit by the glow of the dashboard, and realized that he, more than anything, didn’t want this night to end already.
“Do you want to come in?” he asked, absently tracing a circle on the back of her hand.
Lenore gave him a trademark shit-eating grin. “And what kind of things do you want to do in your dorm room?”
Heat rose to his cheeks and he looked away. “We have coffee?”
“Is it any good?”
Vince squeezed her hand. “It’s terrible.”
“As good as you are at selling it,” Lenore said, “I can’t come in tonight, remember? Things to do.”
The time on the radio had it at a quarter to midnight, but midnight activities seemed par of the course for Lenore. “Alright,” he said, taking as long as possible to pull away from her.
The chilly night breeze greeted him as he opened the door, and he paused with one foot on the concrete. “Goodnight, Lenore.”
“Night, Vince,” she said. “I’ll see you tomorrow, alright?”
Vince stepped out into the cold and waited until her car completely disappeared out of view before going inside.