"He's into you."
Raul's voice echoed through the dry hush of the main reading room.
"Keep your voice down," David hissed. He looked up from the tidy lines of ant-like script of the manuscript he was reading; his vision swam before his depth perception adjusted.
Sure enough, the archivist was glaring at them from his perch at the doorway.
Belatedly, Raul's words caught up with him. "Who?"
"The Dungeon Master," Raul said, in what he clearly thought was a whisper. Their study carrels shared a wall, and he leaned back in his rickety chair to face David. His big cartoon character eyebrows jerked meaningfully toward the doorway.
David did not take the bait. "You've been inhaling book glue again, haven't you." He tried to find his place in the diary entry he'd been reading: a Mexican Jesuit convert who traveled from Nueva España, writing about her voyage. The secondary sources had referred rapturously to her insights, but the small, fine typesetting strained his eyes, and the ink had faded in the centuries since the words had been printed.
"I'm serious," Raul pressed. "He totally keeps looking over here."
"Maybe it's because you keep talking," David said through gritted teeth. "If you don't stop, he'll kick us both out." He gingerly turned the yellowed page, and made a note of his place in the manuscript. Raul didn't reply, and David took a relieved breath.
It was hard to remember sometimes, when he was drunkenly yelling at David's roommate's cats or being a general nuisance in rooms that had signs saying, 'QUIET -- DISTURBANCES WILL BE DEALT WITH SEVERELY,' but Raul was a good, dedicated scholar. Probably the only thing he was serious about was his work. It was one of the reasons that he and David got on so well, from the first time they met at a mixer for research fellows. David loved doing research, the detective's chase of clues across history, but it could be lonely work. It was good, having a partner in crime -- someone to complain to and share database login information and coins for the vending machines in the basement. The study-buddy system, Raul called it.
A folded piece of paper jabbed David in the elbow.
dear cranky archivist,
my friend david thinks your perma-scowl and the fur slug on your chin are total turn ons. do you want to take him back into your lair and have your wicked grumpy way with him against a card catalogue?
circle y / n
David's throat closed up, even as he tried to tell Raul to fuck off. A kind of indignant yelp came out instead. When he could breathe again, he balled the note up in his fist and willed himself not to throw it at Raul's head. His face felt weirdly hot. They always got the thermostat wrong in here.
"Just trying to help," Raul mouthed.
David slashed his finger across his throat.
The archivist coughed, pointedly.
The next day, David left his flat early, the early morning sunrise still fighting its way through the winter sky. He stopped at the cafe he'd come to think of as his local spot for a sticky bun and a coffee, and sat at one of the windows, eating and watching the hands of the clock on the top of the bank across the square.
At eight, he gathered his things and wiped his mouth on the corner of a napkin, and by quarter past he stood on the sidewalk of the little alley outside the research entrance. He kept his hands in his pockets and shifted his weight from one foot to the other, stamping away the chill. Somehow, he never remembered to bring gloves.
At eight thirty, David heard the now-familiar pneumatic purr of the archivist's motor scooter as he rounded the corner. On the first day, he'd accidentally been standing where the archivist normally parked; the torrent of abuse that had rained down had half-convinced him that he'd managed to earn himself a ban before ever getting in the door.
The archivist locked up his scooter, and tucked his helmet under his arm. Somehow, the geometric points of his hair always survived the journey intact.
"We're not open yet," the archivist said, like he did every day.
"I'll wait," David said mildly, like he did every day, and watched him go inside.
At nine o'clock precisely, the door opened again, and the archivist hung the "open" sign on its peg. David followed him back inside at a respectful distance. The percussive impact of their shoes on the marble floors struck in time with one another.
The archivist took his seat at his desk, a great old wooden ship of a thing stacked high with books on either side. The fluorescent lights of the reading room behind him shivered with effort; the steam heat rattled through the old pipes as the building slowly warmed. The bigger archives had state of the art conservation programs, detailed finding aids and newly renovated facilities, but David liked working here best. It was -- cozy, in a way that the fancier places weren't. It felt like the type of place you could stumble upon something completely unexpected.
"Credentials," the archivist said.
David blinked. "Right," he said, "sorry, here." He shifted his messenger back off his shoulder, dug through the front flap for the letter of recommendation from his advisor at the university.
The archivist scanned the letter, as though David hadn't shown it to him every day for the last four weeks. He had nice eyes, David found himself thinking. A lighter shade of brown than you'd expect from his hair. Sharp eyes. He probably didn't miss much.
David snuck a glance at the books that piled on the archivist's desk. Official government records from the nineteenth century, it looked like. Probably for Raul. Behind the corner of one, he caught sight of a nameplate. "DAVID VILLA. SENIOR ARCHIVIST."
The letter was shoved back at him. "We close at three today."
David slipped the letter back into his bag. "Thanks," he said, but the archivist -- Villa -- had already turned his attention away, stamping the inner cover of a book with vicious efficiency.
David trailed into the reading room, over to his reserved carrel in one corner. With materials this old, you couldn't really expose them to light, so all the windows in the room had long since been sealed shut and bricked over. Someone, however, had placed paintings of landscape scenes into the recessed spaces where the windowpanes had once been. David's carrel was at the end of a row, with a cheery mountain vista to his left.
Usually, the archive got a handful of patrons during the day, mostly old men who came to request the old newspapers that had been collected into great hard-cover volumes. Then there was Raul and a woman in her forties who was writing a novel and liked to look at old children's books for inspiration. But in the mornings, David was by himself, except for Villa, reading and writing notes and pausing every so often to let his mind wander up the cool, sunny paths of the verdant mountains in his painting.
David finished working on the diary by about one. He took it up to Villa's desk with careful hands.
"Ah, I'm done with this one," he said quietly. "Do you know if I could see the next in the series, please?"
Villa's gaze flipped from David's face to the book in his hands. David was suddenly conscious of the cracks in the leather binding of the book's spine, the reddish paper dust crumbled off and tinted his fingers whenever he turned a page too quickly.
Very, very slowly, David set the book down on the desk. He wiped his hands on his jeans, then held them stiff at his sides, then clasped one wrist with his opposite hand.
Villa's brow hitched fractionally upward.
"Or not." David swallowed. "I mean, if the catalogue was wrong and you don't have it. Then. That's fine."
It wasn't fine, though, really. The material in the first diary had been good, but David needed the other two volumes if he was really going to get a whole chapter of his thesis out of this. If the books weren't really in the archive, or even worse, if they were there but Villa didn't think he was trustworthy to use them, he'd be utterly screwed. He'd have to throw out all this material, and his advisor was already waiting for a new draft. Every night before he went to sleep, David calculated the cost of his day per word he'd written; he tried not to worry when he couldn't divide by zero.
He held Villa's gaze, dug his fingernails into the soft skin on the inside of his wrist and swallowed down hard against an upswelling of panic.
"Please," he said again.
Villa watched his face for another long moment. Then he stood, cradling the book like a beloved child, and disappeared through the swinging door into the restricted stacks.
"Hey." Raul tapped a pencil against the dividing wall of their carrel. "Brought you something."
David lifted his head from his notes. He glanced at the front desk, but Villa was still up in the stacks somewhere. One of the old timers had showed up sometime earlier, but he was asleep in an easy chair next to a seascape.
Raul handed him a paper bag. "Hurry up, open it."
David poked his face inside. The smell of vanilla and lemon. "What the hell, Raul!"
The old man snorted, but didn't stir.
"It's a cupcake!" Raul said, beaming.
"I know what --" David could feel the panic rising again, cutting off his words. "We can't have food in here!"
Raul did some elaborate eyebrow maneuver to signal his complete unconcern. "It's for you to give to him, to introduce yourself" he said. "See? I had them draw books in the icing because they probably get him hot."
David looked back down into the bag again. Clearly Raul had bought it from one of those trendy places that made tiramisu and red velvet and all other kind of fancy cupcakes. The cream-colored icing looked just hard enough that you knew it would dissolve in your mouth perfectly, with the name "David" and two books (complete with spines reading "eat" and "me," very subtle) artfully stencilled across the top. The paper wrapper, from what he could see, was adorned with little hearts.
Raul nudged his knee, grinning. And the worst thing was, he was so genuinely pleased, like it wasn't all some terrible joke. As though he thought that Villa would want to -- to whatever with him, rather than call him irresponsible, rip up his letter of recommendation and sneer with his face and mouth (and fur slug!, a hysterical part of his brain supplied) as David's entire academic career fell apart over a fucking pastry.
"What do you think?" Raul said.
"I think I'm going to be sick," said David, and bolted.
The cold air slammed into him like a wall. He'd left the building without realizing it. The stupid bag was still in his hand. David slid back against the wall, let the brick scrape against his scalp and closed his eyes. His pulse pounded in his gums.
David opened one eye. Villa stood by his scooter, a cigarette balanced between his first and second fingers. He looked like a bad influence in a teenage romance movie -- a bad influence in a cardigan with elbow patches.
David gave a half-hearted grunt.
Villa edged closer, exhaled the smoke so it trailed away from David. He held out the cigarette in silent offer, but David shook his head. He couldn't even imagine what he looked like right now; it had to be pretty bad if someone who hated everyone was trying to be friendly.
He watched as Villa fitted the cigarette back between his lips. David's head felt hollowed out of all the panic that had previously inhabited it, as if it had floated up with Villa's cigarette smoke.
I ought to say something, David thought. Explain why he'd run out of the building like a crazy person. Apologize for the hairline tear on the title page of the diary that he hadn't been able to avoid, no matter how gingerly he'd handled it.
What he ended up saying was, "We have the same name."
"I know." Villa took a long drag off his cigarette. "You cold?"
David thought about it, but the numbness that had settled in place of his fear didn't feel like much of anything. "I ought to be," he said at last.
Villa seemed to accept that. "What's in the bag?"
David handed it over easily. Why not?
Villa looked inside, then back at David.
"Same name," David shrugged.
Villa kept looking at David. He dropped his cigarette, ground it under his heel. Stepped in close enough that the paper bag pressed against David's side. The cigarette smell gave way to old books and ink underneath; David couldn't bear to look at him.
"What are you -- "
Villa pushed something into his hand. A piece of paper, once wrinkled but smoothed out, unballed and refolded neatly so that just a fragment was visible, marked with red pen.
Villa's hand cased the side of David's face, pulled him in. Didn't let him go.
The part with the card catalogues came later.