“Low-Life?” The stranger asked, her voice hushed and hopeful.
“Uhhh.” Masumi bit his bottom lip as he nodded. The voice made her seem even more familiar, though he couldn’t quite place it.
“It’s so nice to meet you.” A smile spread across her face. “I feel like I should introduce myself properly. I’m Shiro Yui. You can cal me Yui.”
“I, uh, I-” Masumi furrowed his brow in concentration. “I know y-” His exclamation was suddenly halted by an upheld finger.
“We’re in a library.” Yui reminded him, her smile sly.
“Right, sorry!” Masumi nodded and realized that he had nowhere to hide his blush. “I-I know you! I’ve seen you around school! You’re, you’ve got, you have people all around you all the time!”
“Do I?” Yui shrugged. “I’m just lucky, I guess.”
“But you’re...” Masumi let out a little whine and shook his head. “Sorry, again, sorry, I didn’t even- I’m Sanada Masumi. I can’t believe I’m meeting you for real life, in real life, I mean.” His eyes couldn’t stop moving when he looked at Yui. Like he was searching for an imperfection or oddity that would prove he was dreaming. “And you’re so pretty...”
“Thank you. That’s a high compliment, coming from Low-Life.” Yui laughed softly and leaned forward, balancing her elbows on the box of books. This made them somewhere closer to eye-level.
“I, em, that is, thanks.” Masumi adjusted his cap. “You work here all the time?”
“When I can.” Yui bobbed her head. “Sometimes I’m working at other places, but most of the time it’s here. I like the quiet. And it’s a lot easier to study when you’ve got all of the books.”
Masumi nodded his agreement and his eyes fell to the box that Yui was leaning on. “Oh! Um, I got those books, still! The custodian had me bring them...”
“I should probably sort these out right away. Why don’t you come along?” Yui agreed and hefted the box into her arms. “Mr Imai told you to bring them here?”
“He kinda did.” Masumi waited for Yui to stride around the counter and followed in her wake, before correcting himself and upping his pace to be by her side. “Yep.”
“How unusual.” Yui said, as she opened one of the doors on the lower floor and stepped inside. Masumi could see shelf upon shelf of books in boxes. “How did Mr Imai know you were coming here?” She took one of the books out and tucked the rest of the box in an empty space.
“I, um, asked, actually...” Masumi stepped back from his obvious peering inside the employee room to let Yui out.
“I see.” Yui turned the corner and started striding up the stairs. “Thank you for helping; I’m sure he appreciates not having to come himself.”
Masumi regarded Yui as she slid the book into its appropriate place along the shelf. “Um, yeah! I hope so. Um, so, do, um. Want to go somewhere? When you’re done here?”
“That would be wonderful.” Yui beamed at Masumi. He wasn’t used to being smiled at like that, at least, not by somebody his own age. “Would you mind sticking around while I work? It’s okay if you do; it’s going to be a few hours and we might not be able to talk a lot.”
“No, that’s fine! That’s okay!” Masumi nodded and patted his bag. “I can do my homework, I normally do it at home, but here! I can do it here. It’s what it’s for, right?”
“It is? I thought people just liked to look at the pretty pictures.” Yui laughed. “You’re more than welcome to, Masumi. I’ll try to find all the time I can so that we can actually talk at some point.”
“I’ll just...go over here.” Masumi said, as he placed a foot on the steps leading to the first tier. “Is that okay?” He stared up at Yui.
“That’ fine.” Yui said, and stepped down along with him. “Sorry again, about this. I was told that somebody else had this shift, and then I suddenly got a message demanding I show up… Telling them no wasn’t something I could do. Not without losing the job.”
“I don’t mind! It’s fun.” Masumi said, as he sat himself down near the stairs and pulled his books out. “And I’ll get to see you work. That’s, um, normally saved for the second date!” He said, with immediate backlash from his mind. He did his best to hide himself behind his bag while he pulled his books out.
Yui laughed. “Right. It looks like somebody just came in, so I’ll speak to you soon.” She headed down the stairs to greet the elderly man who’d just wandered in. Masumi discretely watched her as he laid his homework out in front of him.
The man approaching the counter was approaching his elder years, with a musty jacket and the kind of twitch in his eyes that told any passerby that they’d personally offended him. Yui arrived at the counter just as he did, and slipped behind it with a polite smile.
“How can I help you, Mr Kikuchi?” The question had barely been asked when he started speaking.
“You can’t, obviously. You never can. I bet you don’t even know what kind of book I’m looking for, do you?” He asked, then went on when she didn’t reply. “You ought to know by now, I’ve been coming here long enough. You’ve been working here for long enough. I suppose you’re too busy, aren’t you? How long does it take you to do that silly braid? That’s time that could be spent working on being competent. I suppose that’s not as important as being pretty.”
Masumi’s mouth fell open as he watched, while Yui simply observed the man. The fact that his rant was at conversational volume was the only thing stopping anyone else from paying attention, Masumi hoped.
“And look – just look! Another youth coming in and stealing our spots.” Mr Kikuchi gestured vaguely in at the tiers, where a few students and young adults had filled the seats and were quietly minding their own business. “It’s not right, is it? A man can’t even come into his local library in his local town and sit in his local seat. Can’t sit where I normally sit, no, got to make way for all these delinquents.” He shook his head bitterly. “You should do something about it!” He jabbed his finger in Yiu’s direction.
“Take a seat, Mr Kikuchi.” Yui said.
The old man remained where he was for a moment, then shuffled off towards one of the lower-most seats and pulled over one of the books that had been stacked in the middle. Masumi watched the unphased Yui tend to the computer that sat on the counter and...nothing more happen. He silently wondered about how often Yui had to deal with similar people with shocking manners, how it was unfair to treat her that way, and then remembered that he really ought to have been finishing his homework.
Nothing more happened for a little while, with a few people filing in and out of the library while Yui tended to her work. This changed when the doors opened to reveal a young woman with short-cut hair and the kind of smile Masumi’s parents often wore. She was flanked by a pair of small children, clad in yellow caps and colorful coats that could have made them stand out even in a field of fireworks.
“Good afternoon, Mrs Aono.” Yui greeted the trio. “And Aono One, and Aono Two.” She gave an appropriately-sized bow to the little children. “What are you looking for today?”
“The usual, please, Shiro.” Mrs Aono informed the librarian, as the pair of children wandered off to some of the lower tables and neatly took their seats. She sat near one of the employee doors, and Yui followed. Masumi tapped his pencil on his hand as he waited for her to emerge and she eventually did, with a spill-proof steaming cup in hand that she placed in front of the woman. “Thank you so much.” She took a long sup of the cup.
“You’re welcome.” Yui smiled at her. “How is your art going?”
“Oh, you know. It’s getting there.” Mrs Aono sighed. “I don’t think I’d have any fuel if it weren’t for this place and the daycare.”
“Happy to help.” Yui laughed. “I found some books that you might be interested while organizing the shelves the other day. Would you like me to fetch them?”
Mrs Aono regarded Yui with a warm look. “I could just hug you right now.”
“How inappropriate.” Yui said, with a tone of feigned offense. “The people would talk.”
“The peo...” Mrs Aono blinked. “That is not what I meant and you know it. Go on, get on with your work if you’re just going to make fun of an old woman.” They shared a laugh and parted ways while Masumi figured out his math homework, and their unusual interaction.
A couple more hours passed and he finished his homework, while his stomach rebelled against the disruption of its schedule. He’d already passed his usual streaming time, but he was sure that it would be worth it. The rest of the people in the library started to file out until it was only him and Yui. He tucked away the book he’d been reading and stepped down the stairs as she shut down the computer behind the counter.
“So, um. Off we go?” Masumi offered Yui his brightest smile as she stepped out.
“That’s the plan.” Yui returned the smile. “I’m going to lock the back doors and get changed out of the uniform, then we can go.”
“Got it! I’ll do that!” Masumi called out, as Yui entered one of the employee areas and he was left with the duty of thinking about where they could go to eat. They couldn’t go for a complete meal anywhere, not with the clock past eight and his parents arriving after ten. He pulled up his phone to flick through a few options, since he rarely visited any of the local food places, and was startled out of his browsing by the employee door opening.
Yui emerged in a pair of jeans, with a green field jacket over her t-shirt. Masumi stared at her and she tilted her head at him.
“Do I have something on my face?” Yui asked.
“Oh, um, no! No, you look cute!” Masumi said. “And I’m not just saying that ‘cause you call me it all the time, but, um, it’s good. And kind of, um, tough?”
“That’s me all over.” Yui nodded, as she turned off the lights and led Masumi out of the front doors. “Look out for the Yamamura Librarian; if you’re overdue, so are her punches.”
Masumi giggled as they stepped out into the street. “That’s silly!”
“Maybe.” Yui shrugged. “Did you find somewhere for us to eat?”
“Oh, yes! I don’t know if you like noodle bowls, but there’s a place that does noodle bowls an-” Masumi was interrupted by a beeping from Yui’s pocket. “Is that your phone?”
Yui’s face fell and she nodded as she reached into her pocket. The screen lit up her face and she shook her head.
“This is not going to be pleasant.” Yui said. “It’s my curfew reminder. I’ve got to be back in half an hour.”
“You have a curfew?” Masumi’s heart sunk.
“I live in the dorms at school.” Yui said. “And if I don’t get back before then, it won’t be good. I was so excited about going to eat with you that I forgot.” She scratched her forehead. “I’m sorry, Masumi.”
“No, that’s, it’s okay!” Masumi lied. “We can always eat another time. And we can message each other now, so. It’s okay!”
“Well...okay. Goodbye, Masumi. It was nice meeting you.”
“Bye! You too!” Masumi gave his signature salute to Yui, who smiled sadly as she turned away.