For a clandestine meeting place, Vince thought the coffee shop was awfully well-lit. True, his only knowledge of secret meetings came from old noir films that Hershel would occasionally leave on the lounge television while they studied, and those were hardly a beacon of accuracy or contemporary customs. Still, he’d expected the address to lead him somewhere a little more secluded than Jumpin' Joe’s Java Jamboree, a coffee and espresso bar several blocks from campus. There weren’t many people around, but that could easily be because the joe at Joe’s was generally considered awful. Vince had no idea how the place stayed in business, though even if he were a bit smarter he might not have realized why a business with terrible products and a cash-only policy managed to flourish. He would have needed Nick there to explain what a “money-laundering-front” was.
His eyes left the garish counter where a disinterested young girl was flipping through a magazine, sliding across the various tables until they came to rest on a mound of dark, curly hair popping over the top of a booth near the back of the shop. As soon as he saw that, Vince felt his stomach drop a few inches, but he began moving forward anyway. For all his faults and ignorance, Vince was the type to meet his problems head-on.
Even when that problem was love.
“Hey.” He felt self-conscious before the word was even fully-formed. Why hadn’t he said something more charming or smooth? At least if he’d asked if the seat was taken that was an understandable cliché; which had to be better than his monosyllabic grunt of a greeting.
Eliza looked up from the small menu in front of her, and though she’d been watching him through mirrors since he walked in, her face still lit up as she finally looked upon the genuine article.
“Hey yourself. You want anything to drink?”
“I’m okay; I heard this place isn’t very good.” Vince carefully slid into a seat, examining Eliza as he did. She looked surprisingly normal, wearing jeans and a pink-plaid shirt. He was dressed in a shorts and an exercise shirt. While he had no desire to lie to his roommates about where he was going when he left the dorm, donning jogging attire had kept them from feeling the need to ask any questions.
“They’ve got a few decent things on the menu, but you’re right, a lot of it is dreck.” She set the menu down and caught the barista’s eye. A gentle shake of her head told the girl to keep distance from the table; this conversation was not for prying ears. While the shop wasn’t under control of Ms. Pips’ organization, she had enough influence for her people to be treated with deference.
“So… where do we even start?” Vince asked.
“I’d say we kick things off by my explaining why we needed to meet like this, and why it might be awhile before we do it again. My people and I are being watched. We’ve identified the lackey, and we’re on track to run down who gave the orders, but until that problem is thoroughly rooted out I don’t want to risk pulling you in.”
“You say that, but I’m already under surveillance of my own,” Vince told her.
“I know, I referenced it in the note. That’s why I want to keep some distance between us. You’ve got enough heat without being linked to someone like me.” Eliza’s tone was even, strong, and clear. She hid the fear and worry that had been simmering in her since seeing Vince’s file in Smitt’s apartment. Six years ago, it would have been impossible, she’d been too hot-headed. Only The Family’s training had finally given her some semblance of control.
“And who are you?” Vince asked, leaning forward ever-so-slightly. “I don’t know what you’re trying to protect me from, who ‘your people’ even are, or what you’re involved in. I don’t know anything about you, Eliza, except for what I’ve got in my memories. Even among those, some of it has to be lies.”
He reached his hand across the table and took hers, gently running his thumb over her fingers. Their gazes met and Eliza felt all the years that had passed slip away as she stared into those big, blue, impossibly earnest eyes.
“I want to know who you are. I want to know who I fell in love with. And, no matter how much it hurts, I need to know why you left.”
She should distance herself, here and now. This was basic disengagement. Pull back her hand, break the stare, and tell him all the things he was afraid of hearing. Say she’d never meant any of it, that she’d only stayed by him out of guilt, that once he was healed she felt free. Finish what she’d started all those years ago; empty his heart of all affection toward her. Tell him she’d never loved him.
“Who I am. I’m… a criminal. I work for an organized crime family. I use my powers to help them steal on levels far more massive than the petty crimes I was committing when we met. I lie, cheat, and pilfer as necessary. I’m immoral and unrestrained by any law except that of the organization I serve. I’m a bad guy, Vince. I’m the kind of person you’ve spent your whole life trying to stop.”
Eliza lifted her hand, still clutching his, up to her face. She rested the back of his fingers to her cheek, letting her mind swim with memories that were tumultuous and peaceful, tainted and pure, a miasma of contradictions all packaged together.
“But I was never lying about how I felt. I fudged some details here and there, I lied by omission on several occasions, but I was honest about what you meant to me.”
“Then why did you abandon me?” Vince was surprised that he wasn’t crying. Whenever he talked about that moment of waking up without her, whenever he dwelled on it for too long, the tears would come. Now, on the cusp of resolution, with the pain so raw it was like it had just happened, he found himself shockingly stoic.
“Vince, the biggest lie I told in our days together was to myself. I wanted to believe that we had a future together, that we could make something of it. But we were always on different paths. I’m a thief, always have been, always will be. And you’re… you.” Eliza swallowed hard, then willed herself to let go of his hand. Somewhere, deep in her gut, she was afraid that if she touched him his truthful nature would flow into her. She couldn’t have that, not now. There was one lie left, and she needed to pull it off. She would do anything, say anything, to keep him from the truth.
“If I’d stayed with you, I’d have pulled you down. We were both homeless, both with nothing, and I wasn’t content to stay that way. I was always going to use my powers to make a way in the world, law be damned. If you’d tried to stay with me, I’d have just made you into the kind of person you were never meant to be: a criminal.”
“There was another option,” Vince told her, looking down at the table. “We could have found a way together. One without crime, or compromise. It’s a big world; we could have searched for a place in it where we fit.”
“I envy you for still believing that. I wish I had your optimism, genuinely I do. But I’m me, and I don’t have the strength to think good of the world. I’m sorry, Vince. I’m sorry for lying to you, and to myself, and for hurting you. I’ll never stop being sorry for that. All I can offer is that I genuinely thought it was for the best.”
Vince sat silent for a moment, hand idly plucking the corner of the menu Eliza had set down. “We don’t have much time left, do we?”
“No. We both need to leave soon.”
“Whatever you’re doing, however you’re solving this problem of yours, finish it quick.” He looked back up at her and did the one thing Eliza never expected: Vince flashed a small, but warm, smile. “I want to talk more. I want to understand you better. Maybe you’re right about the different paths, but it sounds like yours has taken some strange turns since we met. I don’t know what to think or feel or anything right now. I just know I don’t want us to go our separate ways yet. I think we both need that.”
Eliza nodded, unable to trust her tongue as she watched him rise from the booth. Why was he doing this? Why wouldn’t he just toss her aside? She’d abandoned him and then given a half-baked reason for it. Why couldn’t he just hate her like any sane person would? And then, as he was almost totally out of the booth, the reason hit her.
Because he was Vince, and he was nothing if not unflappably, stupidly, loyal to the people he cared for. Before she could stop herself, before reason could interject with some semblance of forethought, the words slipped out of her mouth.
“Nick Campbell is back at Lander. He lives next door to me.”
Vince froze, halfway out of the seat, face saddled with an expression somewhere between excitement, confusion, and utter madness.
“I have to go,” Eliza continued, hurrying up from her seat. “Mary will fill you in. Don’t think ill of her for hiding it; they wanted to wait until you were on an even keel from meeting me. But I know you better than that.”
All logic and planning now officially out the window, Eliza leaned forward and kissed him on his cheek. He stared at her, a new layer of uncertainty piling atop his already extensive confusion.
“I know that your friends are what keep you stable, not what send you over the edge. Be in touch.” With that, she whirled around and darted out the back door, leaving Vince with a long jog and a lot of things to resolve when he got home.