It was past nine at night and Yukiko Fujihara was barely done re-organizing the books. In fact, she only managed to arrange the self-help section, and it was the smallest area in the library. Yukiko sighed and pulled her thick purple hair out of the ponytail and tied it in a messy bun. Then she stared at the piles of books in front of her and adjusted her glasses.
Perhaps she should not have sent her mother away. Yukiko shook her head. ‘Not tonight,’ she thought to herself. Her mother had worked all day and needed space and privacy. Yukiko had to practically push her mom outside the doors to make her go away. It was a struggle, but Yukiko eventually succeeded. She understood her mother’s sentiment; this library meant everything to her.
The sound of the large wooden front door’s creaking pulled Yukiko out of her thoughts.
“Hello?” a masculine voice said. “Is anyone here?”
“THE LIBRARY IS CLOSED!” Yukiko screeched like a banshee to scare away the intruder.
“I’m sorry, I came to return a book. I’ll leave,” the voice said.
Yukiko’s eyes widened as she recognized the voice and sprinted out to the atrium.
“Wait,” she said as she spotted Atsuo Kobiru with a bright blue book in his hand. He wore his signature white shirt with pink flowers over his regular winter wear.
The fear on his face turned to confusion for a moment before he relaxed and smiled.
“Hey,” Atsuo said. “I’m sorry, I knew the library would be closed, but I still wanted to push my luck.”
“It’s alright,” Yukiko said, a blush crept on her face. “Sorry for yelling at you.”
“It’s cool,” Atsuo said. “Although I must admit, I was terrified.”
“We Fujiharas are born with the ability to incite fear into our patrons,” Yukiko replied as she walked towards him. “It's a shame we usually aren't allowed to yell in the library.”
“Gotcha,” Atsuo said.
Yukiko eyed the book in his hand. “You said you wanted to return a book?”
“Yeah,” Atsuo replied and scratched the back of his head. “It’s my little sister, Hana’s. It was due today but she forgot to return it. I think she’s scared about being in trouble, but also really worried. So I thought I’d at least try to return it.”
“That’s so sweet,” Yukiko replied and stretched her hand. “Let me handle that.”
Atsuo handed her the book and she felt a shiver run up her arm when their fingers brushed. It was because his hands were cold. Definitely that.
She walked behind the Head Librarian’s desk at the edge of the atrium and Atsuo followed her, although he stayed on the other side.
“I hope it won’t cause you any trouble,” Atsuo said.
“No one’s going to care,” Yukiko replied. “My mom and Azami would have waived the late fees anyway.”
“Really?” Atsuo asked and leaned on the desk. “I heard that the Fujiharas are strict when it comes to library rules.”
“That’s true,” Yukiko said. She added the check-in details on the slip inside the book and closed it. “But we aren’t going to fine a child. At least not one as sweet as your sister.” Yukiko added a fresh seal on the back of the book so it could not be taken out of the library without Fujihara authority. She left the book on the desk and placed Hana’s library card in front of Atsuo. “Although, to be fair, Buntaro would fine your sister. But mostly to annoy Hade.”
Atsuo laughed and picked up Hana’s card. “I’m still learning about all the rivalries. And Hade does have quite a few of those. What are you doing here so late anyway?”
“Some academy students thought it would be funny to mess up this library,” Yukiko said with a sour expression on her face. “They emptied every shelf; now all the books are lying on the floor. Normally a bunch of us would be sorting this stuff, but with Christmas so close everyone is busy. So my mom wanted to do it all by herself; she’s the Head Librarian, after all. Anyway, I didn’t want her to work late. Not tonight, so I said I’ll take over. Awful decision, really. I think I’ll be here all night.”
“Huh,” Atsuo said. His blue eyes lit up suddenly, “Let me help.”
“Oh,” Yukiko said, a little confused by his offer. “I can’t ask you to do that.”
“No, it’s fine,” Atsuo said. “I had a lot of coffee earlier, and I don’t think I can fall asleep tonight.”
Yukiko thought about it. She needed the help. And spending more time with Atsuo would be nice… “I don’t want to bother you with this,” she replied.
“It’s not a bother at all,” Atsuo said. “I just want to be useful. The village gave me a second chance, and I want to give back.”
“Alright,” Yukiko said and led him to the shelf she left earlier. “But let me know when you want to leave. I won’t stop you.”
“Got it,” Atsuo said as he followed her between the empty shelves.
“I’m almost done with this,” Yukiko said and pointed at the piles of books stacked on the floor. “Starting from this,” she pointed at the pile closest to her, “stock them on the shelves from the far right,” she pointed high on the shelf, close to the exit. “I should be done sorting the rest by the time you’re done. And make sure they’re alphabetically sorted by the author's name.”
“Got it, Captain,” Atsuo said and saluted Yukiko.
Yukiko smiled and they got to work. They worked in silence for a while. With Atsuo’s help, they were done within fifteen minutes. Everything seemed like it was in place from a quick glance so they moved to the next section.
“This is one part of the mystery section,” Yukiko told Atsuo as they stared at the books scattered all over the floor. “So we need to separate them alphabetically by author’s name first, make sure the same books are together.”
Atsuo was slower at sorting than Yukiko, but she didn’t mind. She basically grew up in the library so it didn’t bother her that Atsuo wasn’t able to keep up with the Fujihara speed. It was nice to work without worrying about judgment from her nosy extended family.
“I saw you at the memorial site earlier,” Atsuo said. He was focused on reading the book cover in his hand. “I thought about stopping to say hi, but it looked like you wanted to be left alone.”
Yukiko looked away from him and stared at the pile in front of her. She wondered when he saw her. When she was talking out loud to an inanimate memorial or when she was sobbing while covered in snow.
“It’s my father’s death anniversary,” Yukiko tried to say casually but felt a harsh lump in her throat. “Or at least the anniversary of the day we got the news. Today, three years ago. He was on a secret infiltration mission. No one knows what happened. If they have information, it’s confidential.”
“I’m so sorry,” Atsuo said and looked at her. She found empathy reflected in his eyes.
“It’s fine,” Yukiko said. She wiped the tears away from her eyes. “That’s why I wanted to send my mom home. She didn’t get to pay her respects and while I know she will put this library over her feeling, she would feel awful about it later. She needs time to herself.”
“What you did for your mom is really nice,” Atsuo said.
“I had to,” Yukiko said. “I can’t imagine losing a partner. I think I’ll just marry a civilian instead of facing something like that.”
Yukiko tried laughing at the failed attempt of a joke but it caught in her throat. The tears wouldn’t stop and soon she found herself sobbing. She covered her face, embarrassed that she broke down in front of her friend. Yukiko was eighteen; she should have better control of her emotions! But was so overwhelmed that she couldn’t stop even when faced with such humiliation.
Then she felt arms envelop her. Yukiko grew stiff at first, but accepted Atsuo’s warm embrace and hugged him back. She must have cried while buried in his chest for a few minutes. She hoped it wasn’t longer. Her sobs died down and she slowly pulled away from Atsuo. She stepped back and wiped her face with the neckline of her shirt.
“I’m sorry, I don’t know what came over me,” she said.
“It’s alright,” Atsuo replied, his expression was soft and reassuring. “It looks like you needed that.”
“Yeah but I feel like I shouldn’t be venting to you,” Yukiko said. “Not after everything you’ve been through.”
Barely half a year ago, Atsuo’s home village was destroyed. He came to Heartshrine Village with the other refugees, but he came alone. When they first met a few months prior, he told her about how he was adopted into the Kobiru household. Or rather, he was dragged there by Hana and when she wouldn’t let him leave, they gave him a room and let him stay. It was a fun story, especially because he was already eighteen when this happened. Although, adoption meant that the family he must have left behind did not make it.
“Grief is not a competition,” Atsuo said. Yukiko turned to look at him and he had a sad smile on his face. “There are others out here who’ve had it worse than me. If we look at it in that way, then no one other than that one unlucky bastard who’s just been through the worst can complain. Today is not about me and my grief. It’s about yours. And if it makes you feel any better, you can talk to me about your dad. Or cry, whatever suits you.”
Yukiko wiped away the fresh tears, “My dad was the best. He taught me almost everything I know. Trained me to be like him. He was kind and strong and so very brave. And if he was here, he would be furious that you’re here with me, late in the night.”
Atsuo laughed, “Although, I bet he wouldn’t be too worried. After all, he knows you would be able to beat my ass without holding back.”
“Of course,” Yukiko chuckled.
They finished organizing the books and started replacing them on the shelf when Yukiko recalled something else.
“Can I ask you something?” She asked.
Atsuo turned away from his pile of books to look at her. “What were you doing barbequing naked in the snow?” she added and gently bumped into him.
“I was wearing an apron,” Atsuo said as a blush crept on his face. “And boxers. I lost a Hade-related bet with Hikaru.”
“Ah, that makes sense,” Yukiko replied. “Hade is a wildcard so barely anyone can actually predict the outcomes of his bets.”
“I did not know what I was getting into when I made that,” Atsuo said. “But I got to see you flustered, so it was worth it.” Atsuo winked at her and she found herself blushing again.
“Shut up, stupid flower boy, I wasn’t flustered,” Yukiko said.
“Stupid flower boy?” Atsuo said, amused. “I’ve never heard that before, but I like it!”
She smiled and turned to put more books away while Atsuo laughed behind her.
Yukiko liked the sound of his laugh: hearty, sincere, and carefree.
Yukiko stretched and admired the last bookshelf they arranged.
“Wow, can’t believe we got done so quickly,” she said as they returned to the atrium. “It must be like, two-“ Yukiko stopped when she noticed the large clock on the wall read Five-fifty three a.m.
“Time flies, huh,” Atsuo said.
“It does indeed,” Yukiko replied as she leaned against the main desk. If she had to do it all alone, she wouldn’t have finished the work for another twelve hours. Her mom would be there to help but they would have had to shut down the library for the day. Unless other Fujihara cousins stepped up. “Thank you, Atsuo. I can’t believe you stuck around to help me clean up the mess. I really, really appreciate the help.”
“It’s no problem,” Atsuo replied. “I’m glad I could help. I like spending time with you.”
Yukiko felt as if her heart was caught in her throat. She wanted to say something. Either something witty, or to tell him she liked spending time with him as well. But she did not find the words.
“There’s just one thing left to do,” Atsuo said as he walked towards her.
Yukiko’s heart beat faster the closer Atsuo got to her. Her breathing hitched as he stood in front of her. She looked up at him, eyes wide. He leaned towards her, then passed her and stepped back with a book in his hand.
“Have to replace this book,” Atsuo said, the book he returned last night in hand. “Let me do the honours.”
“Of course,” Yukiko said, her face a little warm.
Atsuo headed to look for the children’s section and Yukiko sighed. Did she really think that Atsuo was going to kiss her? She didn’t know why she thought that. Did she want him to kiss her?
The front door opened and caught Yukiko’s attention. A very pregnant Azami entered the library.
“Yukiko?” She asked, a little concerned. “Is everything okay?”
“Yeah, we handled everything. All the books are organized and replaced on the shelves,” Yukiko smiled and flashed her aunt a thumbs up. “What are you doing here so early anyway?”
“Wanted to see if I could help,” Azami said, then confusion dawned on her face. “Wait, ‘we’, who is ‘we’?”
“And we’re done,” Atsuo said when he emerged from between the bookshelves and towards the atrium. “Oh, hey!” He said when he saw Azami.
“Hi,” Azami said with a huge smile on her face which, unfortunately, Yukiko recognized all too well. Azami turned to Yukiko and raised an eyebrow. “I see you had help.”
“I did have help,” Yukiko said and glared at Azami.
“You’re Hade’s brother, aren’t you?” Azami asked Atsuo, the smirk still visible on her face.
“I am,” Atsuo replied.
“Interesting,” Azami said and looked straight at Yukiko. Atsuo looked at Yukiko; he opened his mouth as if to say something but stopped himself.
“I guess I’ll leave then,” Atsuo said a little nervously. “See you around, Yukiko!”
“See you around,” Yukiko added as Atsuo walked past Azami and out of the library.
“So flower boy, huh?” Azami said and raised her eyebrow again.
“Please don’t,” Yukiko said as she blushed.
“I didn’t say anything,” Azami said.