tagRomanceCourage and Caution

Courage and Caution

byBetty_Rage©

Author's Note:

Feedback to help me grow is always welcome, and you can chuck me some stars too if you feel so inclined.

For the cherubs who still message me about Summing the Incubus, I've decided earlier in the year to finish the entire story before publishing any more of the chapters. This should mean that once I do start putting them up, you won't be waiting long in-between instalments. You have the patience of saints and the imaginations of sinners! I love you all!

Now, here's a sweet little something to melt your heart on a cold October night...


***

Relentless grey sheets of ice water and distressed looking brown leaves hurled themselves against the single window of my room. A gale blew, but even its distressing urgency was drowned out by my flatmates' dance music coming from the cramped communal kitchen. It was warm indoors, and I relished the feeling of being so snug and cosy while the world outside was so harsh and wild. The other girls were chatting livelily; exuberant as they painted each other's nails and speculated about the availability of boys they'd seen at a distance. They were going to a Halloween party; but I had made another plan.

It's not that I bore my flatmates any ill will. I just rarely clicked with people. I didn't adjust well to university life, and as my second month there was coming to a close, I had yet to make a single real friend. Then again, I didn't exactly make it easy for myself. I didn't have to be alone in my room right now. I could be painting my face and donning a witch's hat too if I wanted.

I put down my history text book and empty hot chocolate mug, locked my bedroom door and pulled a heavy camping rucksack down from on top of my wardrobe. I peeled off my comfy leggings and oversized hoodie. In my mirror stood a tall, athletic girl, in sporty, practical underwear, with a medium brown complexion and a sweep of tight dark curls that told of her mixed Nigerian and British heritage. Me. Zoe.

I dressed, quickly and purposefully, in camo-print cargo trousers, a fitted dark grey long-sleeved shirt and a black fleece-lined lined jumper. I bundled each of my feet into an extra thick sock and heavy black hiking boot. Into my backpack went an array of essentials, and just in case supplies. A long-armed torch with spare batteries, a smaller clockwork torch in case I still ran out, a cheap burner phone that I'd taken to music festivals (one with actual buttons and an almost no-resolution camera), a first aid kit in a compact green box, an assortment of cereal bars and snacks, a print off of a floor-plan in a plastic sleeve and a tiny portable camping stove and pot with utensils, that I knew I wouldn't use, but wanted to take anyway.

I heard the music shut off, and a tremendous giggling as the others headed out into the savage nature. (Albeit, only for the few seconds before they scrambled, all high-heels and fairy wings, into the safety of their taxi.) I sighed with relief, only now aware of how much I'd been craving even further loneliness. The rain on the window now seemed so calming as it slithered endlessly down the glass. I crept into the empty kitchen, boiled the kettle, filled my thermos and folded myself into a waterproof anorak, before finally - with a deep sense of personal satisfaction - leaving the flat.

***

The university campus was on the outskirts of the post-industrial city, having been recently newly built of steel and glass, it was a constant source of local controversy. When the institution was founded however, it had been close to the centre of town, a cluster of buildings in red brick, all austere and elegant. Of the original buildings, only one managed to survive the WW2 bombings; this was my destination, The Old Library. As a listed building, it was too historically and culturally valuable to demolish - while also far too expensive for the university to look seriously at restoring. And so it sat, crumbling and forgotten.

The high street was busy in spite of the bitter weather. Costumed revellers tumbled in and out of clubs and pubs, sparkling with glitter and drunkenness. I moved through them, silent as a ghost. Silent as a library.

I couldn't just march in via the front door of course. It took a little while to work out where daring kids had made a hole in the chain-link fence so they could skateboard on the abandoned steps. It took a little longer still to work out which ground floor window had a loose board that could be pivoted on its one remaining nail, revealing a missing pane of glass and a gap just large enough to push my rucksack through. It landed with a crunch as it hit the broken glass on the floor below. As gracefully as I could, I clambered onto the narrow ledge on the outside of the window, then, very gingerly, sat on the edge, so that my feet were now inside the building. Then I pushed off the ledge with both hands, landing surprisingly deftly on my feet.

I grinned madly. I couldn't believe how easily I'd made it in! This would give me much more time to explore. And though it was still freezing inside the building, it was certainly good to be out of the rain.

A screeching sound of wood on metal came from behind me. I was submerged in total darkness. I didn't turn around, 'It's the plank of wood I moved to get in here falling back into place.' I told myself, stern and logical. But my heart was going like a jackhammer anyway.

Still without turning around, I slowly lowered myself into a crouching position. I reached out to my side, in search of my backpack, careful not to let my fingers trail along the floor where I might cut myself on the gritty broken glass. I couldn't see a thing - my eyes didn't seem to be adjusting to the darkness. I grasped hold of my bag and a wave of relief filled me. Thank God.

I pulled out my torch and clicked it on, and the way directly in front of me was lit in a narrow band of orange-yellow light. My eyes widened in excitement. Save for the books, it was all still here!

Impossibly tall shelves, made from dark wood, with ancient cobwebs nestled in the corners. Grand writing desks, with water-damaged green leather surfaces. Half-rotten chars, stacked neatly upside down on the desks, or in little columns of three against the far wall. Everything smelt like must, damp and feathers. Wherever I shone my beam, dust danced in the artificial light. It was fascinating, but I couldn't convince myself that it wasn't supremely creepy.

I cast my torch about to get my bearings. The space was cathedral-like in its height. The first-floor gallery was open, like an indoor balcony, so that even from my spot in a corner of the ground floor I could see the rows of shelves upstairs. There was a line of narrow doors to the right of stairway; according to my carefully sourced floor-plan these mainly led to offices and reading rooms.

I quietly set towards the opulent staircase at the center of the library. Its discolored grimy carpet muffled my footfall and I found myself gripping the banister tightly as I ascended. I'd need to tread more carefully upstairs, since I didn't know what state I'd find the floorboards in.

The upper level was more claustrophobic. The shelves were packed very tightly together in narrow corridors that I inched along with my torch pointed mainly at the floor. The boards groaned underfoot, but felt sturdy enough to press on. Some of the shelves still bore their decimal system numbers.

I reached the end of the section marked "571" in brass digits and was, somewhat abruptly, met with a mahogany door. An unopened door always has a certain siren song. The handle was missing, so I jabbed the door gingerly with the butt of my torch. I'd expected to reveal a staff room or a small office, but instead, the small room was nothing but four walls around a large hole in the floor, which I now found myself teetering on the edge of. I took a sharp intake of breath. Far below me, a figure of a man was stirring.

***

In silent panic I clicked off my torch. A Ghost? Security? A Criminal? Not a ghost, obviously not a ghost, idiot.

He glanced up momentarily from his work as if he might have seen or heard something. But he tutted reproachfully to himself and returned to his craft.

The room below had most likely once been toilet stalls, but all that remained now were two large grey basins and yawning gaps where other facilities would once have been. A warm red glow came from a lamp on the floor, a chemical smell hung on the air, and strings were suspended haphazardly across the space like washing lines. My eyes strained through the darkness to try to make out what he was doing with them, but were soon distracted by the facts of the man himself.

He was sensationally attractive. Tall and lean, with chiselled features and white arms drenched in black tattoos. His too-long-to-be-short and too-short-to-be-long dark hair was in charming disarray, softening his angular, stubble-shaded face. He seemed to be my age, or a little older by the tour dates on the back of his band t-shirt. He had black plugs in each ear and snakebites upon his lips. In short, he was every troubled poet and boy-in-a-band to fail to notice me in a library.

I watched him, my heart in my mouth as I puzzled over what to do next. There didn't seem to be a way to alert him to my presence without giving him a heart attack, so I continued to just perch precariously on the edge watching him work. My whole body surged with adrenalin. Hiding from a stranger in a building I should know better than to be in. And beneath that frightened energy, I felt a guilty, intense arousal as I watched him attach newly developed photographs to the line. He had beautifully masculine hands, with dexterous, strong looking fingers that handled the black and white images with great care and sensitivity. His arms were slender, with lightly defined muscles beneath the swirls of ink. Nervously, I licked my dry lips.

The longer I hovered watching, the more I knew I should say something. But the longer I watched the more impossible it was to muster the courage to reveal myself. I felt creepy, a true intruder. I couldn't move.

His work finished, the stranger bundled himself into a non-descript black hoodie, slung a battered rucksack over his shoulder and switched off the safety light of his makeshift darkroom. He left shakily by the insufficient light of his mobile phone screen. When the door closed behind him and his footsteps had faded into the tense silence of the library, I dared to breathe properly.

I counted to ten, then flicked my torch back on.

I wanted to examine the photographs, eager for clues about the boy I'd lusted after. Shining the light downwards, I examined the wall below me for a way to climb down. There was a rusty pipe running the height of the room, and with some difficulty and foolishness I managed to clutch onto it and lower myself to the ground like a cowardly firefighter. (I remain grateful that no one was there to witness it.)

My lips curled into a small smile. The photographs were black and white high-contrast documentary shots of the library, much more striking in composition than any approach I would have considered taking. I thought for a moment about pocketing one, tracing the white edge with my finger. I resisted.

***

After a few minutes of wandering amongst the empty shelves, I had settled down (as much as you can in a spooky building by yourself) from my one-sided encounter with the illustrated photographer

I tried all of the small rooms on the ground floor without discovering much of interest and headed up the stairs once more, feeling braver having already put weight on those antique floorboards. Just as I was getting into my stride however, my torch battery began to wane, dimming to an orange-red glow. Not to worry. I was well prepared. I set the ailing light down on the floor and began to rifle through my bag for the spare batteries. They didn't come immediately to hand. The torch grew dimmer, stuttering now. Mild panic pinched my chest. Where were they? I opened every pocket on the bag trying to find them. The torch offered only a tiny point of red light. Then it went out.

It was pitch black.

The sound of my pounding heartbeat obscured the silence.

I was scared. So scared.

I felt blindly around inside my bag for the batteries. I heard a small sound. I'd knocked the torch over in the dark. Then another sound. Something rolling on wood. No no no. My torch was rolling away down the corridor. I reached out for it, but couldn't grasp it. A moment later I heard it bump into something and stop.

I sternly told myself to stay calm. I kept rummaging through my bag. My hand found my clockwork torch. Thank you God. I fished it from the bag, squeezing the trigger rapidly, producing short-lived bursts of bright white light. They made the library terrifying. The shelves cast long black shadows when lit - but disappeared from sight altogether when they weren't. I stumbled awkwardly along in the direction I thought my torch had rolled, struggling to both repack my bag and keep the clockwork light shining.

I followed the strobe-like beam to the end of the corridor of shelves. Somehow I managed to kick my torch before I saw it. Cursing, I knelt down on the dusty floorboards to find it again. In a quick succession of small triumphs I recovered my torch, found the batteries, replaced them and had a perfectly stable light source.

I felt so proud of myself! Sure, now that I was on the back-up batteries it was probably time to go home, but I hadn't burst into tears or done anything irrational. I had been alone in the dark in a creepy abandoned building on Halloween -- and lived to tell about it! Feeling capable -- no, unstoppable -- I marched down the passageway and swung around the corner.

My stomach lurched.

A blue light was being shone into my eyes.

***

It was the photographer, holding his mobile phone aloft like a beacon.

For a moment we were like rabbits caught in headlights, mirror images, shining our beams of light into each other's faces. Pupils rapidly shrinking from saucers to pinpoints. Mouths agape. Slowly, we dropped our arms.

We began to laugh, quietly at first, then louder. The sound was fuzzy at the edges where it was lost in the cavernous space of the library. He spoke first.

"I'm so glad that you're a person! I saw the lights flashing all 'Stranger Things' style and I thought I was loosing my actual mind!" He grinned with earnest relief on his face. I relaxed a little. Enough to attempt banter.

"Ha, don't worry Winona, you're safe."

"Is this about my hair? Because it's fine for my friends to make fun of, but I've known you for five seconds."

"It's not about your hair -- but thank you for giving away your biggest insecurity so quickly. It'll save me the effort of seeking out your weaknesses."

His grin widened, so that his eyes crinkled -- and my heart flung itself against my ribcage. My face felt hot.

We stumbled through clunky introductions, not knowing what etiquette such a strange meeting called for. His name was Davey, he was 21. He was studying renewable energy technology, he was in a shit metalcore band (his description). He'd been taking photos for an EP cover because he and his friends weren't fucking organised enough to make a whole album (also his description).

We walked side by side, sharing the beam of my torch as others would share an umbrella, our elbows occasionally touching, and our steps slow. His openness surprised me; he gave me information about himself readily, as if we hadn't just met, as if it wasn't awkward.

"So you just... break into spooky abandoned buildings by yourself on Halloween?" He asked.

"Well so do you apparently,"

"No, I came here with one of my friends. He just had to leave early to take his little brother trick or treating. I didn't really want to stay by myself to be honest,"

"So why did you?"

"Nowhere else to be. Few friends and fewer Tinder matches," he half-quipped, half-apologised. I rolled my eyes.

"Oh please, Halloween was made for you tortured heart-on-sleeve types. There's a girl in a Harley Quinn costume in every venue tonight."

He raised a sceptical eye-brow.

"Credit me with a little more sophistication than that. This is the Post-Suicide Squad Movie World. Whatever nerd-cred once came with a girl in a Harley costume has been significantly diminished. Besides," he added with a sideways grin, "I'm much more interested in the girls who sneak into old libraries dressed like Rambo."

My face felt hot again.

"I'm not very interesting," I insisted.

"You just came here by yourself on fucking Halloween. Its beyond interesting, its totally fucking hardcore!"

And I smiled as that feeling of invincibility I'd had earlier came surging back.

We didn't walk along the logical path that two people interested in leaving the building would have taken. We meandered between the shelves, eventually; we came upon a stern-looking fireplace. Its cheerless presence emphasised the cold.

"We should light a fire!" Davey announced enthusiastically. "I've got like, loads of Halloween sweets in my bag. I bet some of them are flumps. We could have toasted marshmallows! Unless you're veggie? I think I've got some-"

"Hang on. Let me explain why that's a really terrible idea," I said, grinning in spite of my desire to be the grown-up. "Just look at the state of this thing. When do you think the last time anyone used it was? Let's not commit the accidental arson of an important local landmark for the sake of some fried flumps." I set my rucksack on a nearby desk and started to extract supplies. "I've got a better idea."

"Oh my god. Have you got a bloody kitchen in there?" Davey was crying with laughter, because of course, I did.

"Listen mate," I pointed my wooden spoon at him reproachfully, "Unless you've got something more to offer this party than a handful of Haribo, you can fuck right off." I held my straight face for perhaps an entire second. Then we were both doubled over.

Together, we grappled with the stove to prepare a banquet of instant noodles, Halloween candy and cups of tea. We stood closer together than we needed to and brushed fingers not really by accident. I ached for him. It was a good ache. I wanted to hold him and kiss him, but I wanted to chat nonsense and be daft with him too. Every moment felt light and golden and easy. I never felt like this around new people. At home.

***

So I considered all of the ways that you can ask someone for a date. All of them are clunky and either imprecise ('Let's hang out again') or made hopelessly immature by their bluntness ('Will you go out with me?). They all seemed inadequate. In movies, there's a look. Then a kiss. I felt us exchange that look again and again. But no kiss met my lips. I chose my words.

I propped the torch up on the bookcase, so that the room was lit more softly. I turned to Davey. Feeling nervous now that I had decided. I stood close to him, closer than should feel comfortable with a near-stranger.

"Can I kiss you?" I asked, my eyes flitting from the soft jut of his bottom lip, to the moss green of his curious irises. His eyes crinkled at the corners as his mouth spread into a dreamy smile. He didn't say anything. I waited, heart pulsing.

Slowly, he drew his cold hand up to my face, and with the lightest touch stroked my warm cheek. I shivered a little, but didn't withdraw from his fingertips. He cupped my face in his hand and traced the outline of my trembling lips with a delicate thumb. He leant in, tantalisingly close, the mists of his breath escaping from his pierced lips in glacial ghosts.

"Yes," he whispered.

Our mouths connected in an electric instant. Frozen lips against gorgeously warm tongues. The way he kissed me was achingly soft - passionate, yes - but self-possessed and gentle. His arm encircled my waist, pulling my body closer to his, while his other hand still so sweetly caressed my face. My hands clasped behind his neck, anchoring myself to him. I felt myself melting as the kiss persisted.

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