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The library doesn’t get much traffic at this time of day, in the middle of an afternoon on a Tuesday, particularly as the school year isn’t quite over yet. There will sometimes be a handful of people coming through during the lunch hour, but it is past two now, and everyone is at work or school. Hermann is the only one in the library.

He likes it here at this time of day. The sunlight comes in through the windows and lies across the shelves and floors in long yellow stripes, dust motes dancing away in the light breeze that comes in through the windows that it is now warm enough to keep open. Other than the intricate choreography of the dust, and his own movements, everything is still and quiet. He can catalogue every sound: the faint rush of cars passing outside, the whisper of the breeze, the humming of the computer, the squeaking of the book cart as he wheels it around, his own footsteps. Sometimes when he is in a certain kind of mood he fancies that there comes a faint murmuring sound from the books. But this is nonsense, of course.

He wheels his book cart into the rickety elevator - so old that it does not have a proper door but instead a wrought iron gate - and rides it up to the third floor so that he can work his way down as he restores the returned books to their proper places. The third floor is his favorite. Occasionally he feels as if it ought not to be. He loves every inch of the tiny, old library with all of his heart, and it feels wrong to prefer any part of it; but up here it is even quieter and more peaceful, and there are arched windows with sills wide enough that they can be sat upon, and if one looks carefully between the two buildings across the street one can see the bay glittering blue in the distance. Sometimes, when he has finished all his tasks for the moment, he likes to curl up in that window seat and read, or, more often, stare at that triangle of blue and let his mind go peacefully, blissfully, rarely blank, enveloped by silence and sunshine.

It also doesn’t hurt that the third floor has all the reference manuals and textbooks and academic texts. The library is just a small town public library, so it does not have a particularly extensive collection, but he still finds it soothing to be surrounded by all that knowledge.

He gazes out the window a moment now, catching sight of the lake, then returns his focus to the task at hand. He’s restoring a particularly weighty tome to its rightful place on a shelf, lining it and it’s neighbors up, when he hears, muffled by the distance of two stories but nonetheless distinctive, the sound of the front door opening and closing.

How unusual. He checks the watch on his wrist. It’s still only two-fifteen, too early for anyone to be out of work or school. There are, of course, those who don’t work - there is a fair population in the surrounding countryside of elderly people who have retired, and there is also the inevitable scattering of stay-at-home parents, as well as others who have their reasons to have leisure time at this time of day, but it is still very rare for anyone to come into the library in the middle of the afternoon on a Tuesday. Hermann frowns softly - he has never been able to shake a dislike of interruptions to how things normally are - but continues working. If anyone needs him, they’ll come find him.

But still, he finds himself straining, searching amongst the familiar sounds of his library for the noise of someone out of place. After about five minutes, there comes the light, rhythmic tapping of feet on the stairs, going up first to the second, pausing there - he imagines someone peering around - then continuing on up and stopping a moment later, obviously at the top of the stairs.

Hermann, in the middle of an aisle and thus out of sight, wonders if he ought to move into view. But most likely it is just someone looking for...something, with no need of him, and it’ll be uncomfortable if he steps out to them. He himself always hates when he is in a situation like this, such as out shopping, and a worker accosts him and asks if he needs help. If he needed help, he would ask, there’s no need for them to interrupt his peaceful shopping to ask him questions. So he always attempts to refrain from doing the same, and in this circumstance too he continues straightening the edges of the books so that they line up with the edge of the shelves, and listens tensely to the sound of shoes - squeaking, probably sneakers - crossing the room. To the windows, he would guess, admiring the view. Then weaving amongst the aisles, and then at last the person comes into sight, entering the aisle so that he and Hermann are facing each other.

Hermann is taken aback to realize he doesn’t recognize the man. It is not, of course, so small a town that he knows every person in it, particularly considering that this is the nearest library for a fair distance, so that it serves not only the townspeople but a lot of others living out in the countryside. But it is a small town, and the population that visits the library regularly enough to have a card is even smaller, so that three years in - god, how has it been three years? - he at least knows the face of just about everyone in that group, and yet he does not remember this man. And he feels, looking him over once, that if he had been here before, Hermann would have remembered him. He’s a little unique looking, rather short with golden brown hair and what would probably be described as a “hipster” fashion style.

So, a tourist perhaps, although it’s a little early in the season for tourists. They don’t start pouring in until around June, usually, and it is still the tail end of May. But perhaps he wanted an early start on the season, perhaps the rental houses are cheaper if you come sooner, Hermann really has no idea, beyond feeling an automatic vague dislike of tourists. They may keep the town alive, as the Kaidanovskys keep telling him, but that doesn’t mean Hermann has to like them.

“Hi,” the stranger says, stopping at the head of the aisle. He has a peculiarly high voice. Certainly a memorable voice. Hermann has the sudden conviction he’s heard that voice before - and perhaps he has seen this man before - but not here. He doesn’t think he’s ever met him before. “You the librarian?”

Hermann looks at his cart, at his hand currently stilled in the act of pulling out a misshelved book, then back at the stranger, and says drily, “Obviously.”

The man lifts his eyebrows a bit at this, and his friendly smile curls a ironically, and this is why Hermann hates strangers. At least his patrons know by now that he is chronically unfriendly and grumpy. “It kind of grows on you,” he’d heard Chuck Hansen telling his step-sister (which was rich from him, really).

“Right, course,” the man agrees. “Well, um, I’m new ‘round here, was looking to get a library card, wondering how I go about that?”

Not a tourist then. A new resident. That would certainly explain it. How...interesting. Hermann finally won’t be the most recent person to have moved here on a permanent basis. He looks the man up and down once more - he’s wearing jeans and a long-sleeved shirt despite the sunny day outside, not that Hermann in his button-up shirt and gray cardigan is one to judge - and wonders why he would have moved here. Too young to be of the batch that longs to move out into the countryside once retired. There’s something about him that seems to strongly suggest that he isn’t in the tourism business. Hermann supposes he could have gotten a job at one of the small offices and other businesses that operate around here, although there is also something about him that suggests that would be far too conventional for him - perhaps the slightly messy hair or the hipster glasses - and Hermann is fairly sure most of those aren’t hiring, and anyway he would probably be there working if that was the case. But he does look rather...artistic, perhaps, particularly with those extraordinarily tight jeans. And his clothes look nice, high quality, certainly nicer than Hermann’s. So perhaps one of those somewhat well-off creative types that moves into the deceptively expensive cottages scattered on the edge of the lake in order to gain inspiration from the local beauty. Hermann has been assured that those exist, even though he has yet to meet one himself. “They act like they are ‘real’ residents just because they bought a home, when they are even worse than tourists, never working a real day in their life,” sneered Sasha. Then she’d looked at him speculatively and said, “Thought you were one of those, first few days, but you are real man, hard worker, you belong here,” and he’d actually been very pleased indeed. He’s not sure when he became part of this community. He’d never meant for it to happen. But it’s nice, now that it has. People around here are nice. Extraordinarily odd, but very nice.

All this has passed through his mind in a few seconds, and then he nods and says briskly, “Yes, of course, follow me.” He unhooks his cane from where he’s taken to hanging it on his cart - he doesn’t need it when he’s using the cart, as he can simply lean on that - and pretends not to notice the man pretending not to notice his cane. He is fairly used to that polite little charade. So long as people offer him the courtesy of pretending they don’t notice his cane or limp, he returns the favor. He brushes past the man as he exits the aisle - he has to, the aisles are very narrow and there is not proper space for two people to pass abreast - and heads toward the stairs, not looking to see if the man follows. He can hear his sneakers squeaking on the wood floors a moment later, so he must. They make their way down the stairs together, the man having the grace to walk slowly enough to stay beside him. On the other hand, he ruins any goodwill that Hermann might have built up from that by attempting to make small talk.

“So, this is really a beautiful, old place,” he chirps in his unique voice. At least he’s talking about the library and complimenting it, which is perhaps the only small talk topic that doesn’t make Hermann want to scream.

“Yes,” he says, and has no idea what else to say.

“Is this a converted house?”

“Oh, yes,” he agrees. He can work with that. “The original owner was one of the founders of the town, very wealthy. She was bothered deeply by there not being a local library, and she died without any heirs, so she donated her home and wealth towards turning this into a library.”

“That’s super cool.”

“Mm.”

“I’d ask if you’d been working here since the start, but I’m uh, guessing you’re not from around here.”

Damn his accent. “The library was founded in the early nineteen-hundreds,“ he says, which is not really answering the man, but he certainly isn’t going to share his complicated backstory with this artsy stranger.

The artsy stranger in question says, “Oh-” and then they reach the first floor and Hermann can say, “This way,” gesturing towards the front desk, and not have to deal with any more questions. He slips in behind the counter, instantly feeling more balanced. This he can handle. One might think that a job in the service industry like being a librarian would be impossible for someone that hates and is made anxious by talking to strangers, but that aspect really doesn’t bother Hermann so much. He hasn’t the least trouble interacting with people when there is a formal structure around it. Small talk destroys him. Telling someone where to find the fantasy section is the easiest thing in the world.

The artsy stranger - as Hermann now can’t stop referring to him in his mind - hovers on the other side of the counter, bouncing a little on the balls of his feet. He looks almost childish like that, despite seeming to be around the same age as Hermann. Perhaps it’s how small he is. He’s really very short, several inches shorter than Hermann, who is only average height.

“You are a resident, correct?” Hermann asks.

He both nods and says, “Yup, just moved here.”

“Right. So, to get a card, you’ll need to fill out this form-” He pulls one from the pile seating neatly on a shelf under the desk and slides it across to the man along with a pen, and ignores the man’s glance at the small star tattoo on his wrist, “-show me an ID, and show proof of residence.”

The man grimaces at that. “Oh. Um.” Of course. That’s always the problem. No one ever has proof of residence. It’s really not hard, Hermann always wants to say. And it says to have one on the website. The website that Hermann entirely made himself, and no one ever seems to use it. Not that he cares. But why does no one ever have proof of residence? “Uh, what would that be?”

“It can be a variety of things,” Hermann says with a shrug and internal sigh. “Piece of mail addressed to you, land deed, that sort of thing...Most people just bring the mail.”

“Mail,” the guy repeats. “Okay. I can do that. Mail.” He hesitates and says, “So I can’t get the card until then?” He smiles a little when he says that, tilting his head to the side, widening his eyes. It’s probably meant to be charming. He does have rather nice eyes, a sort of grayish-blue shade like the bay in winter, only warmer.

“No,” Hermann says firmly. “You’ll have to return with that. But feel free to stay and browse as long as you like.”

Disappointment flashes across his face a second, his bottom lip pouting out a little bit, and Hermann catches himself thinking he also has rather nice lips, pink and full and Christ what is he thinking. Stop that.

It’s been too long. Maybe he should let Tendo Choi set him up on a date, the way he is always begging to.

“Yeah…” the guy sighs. “Okay. Guess I’ll have to come back tomorrow.” He takes the form off the table and folds it up, shoving it into his back pockets. Hermann is a little impressed that he can manage that. Those jeans are ridiculously tight, clinging to his slim legs. Not that Hermann is noticing that. Stop noticing that.

He nods at Hermann, who nods back, and starts to turn away - Hermann very determinedly keeps his eyes on his head and no lower - then stops and turns back. “Will you be on duty tomorrow too?”

“I’m the only librarian,” Hermann says. It’s a very small library. There’d been another librarian when he first came, but she retired as soon as she determined that he could take care of things, and he’s been running things all on his own for slightly more than two years now. Well, not entirely on his own, as there are some kids from the local high school who volunteer sometimes even though he doesn’t really need the help. But Chuck and Mako are nice kids - “You are the only one that would say that about Chuck,” his father said once with a laugh - and it’s probably good for their college apps, so he doesn’t mind them.

“Cool,” the stranger says, with a little smile that Hermann can’t really interpret. “Can I ask your name, then?”

“Hermann Gottlieb.” He wishes it wasn’t unreasonable to demand that people call him by his last name.

“Nice to meetcha. I’m Newt,” he says, and thrusts out a hand. As Hermann shakes it briefly, he notices that he has his own tattoos, a colorful pattern snaking out from the under the sleeves, curling around the edges of his hand, and that, combined with the peculiar name; he almost has it, why this man seems ever so slightly familiar. But it slips away immediately, like trying to remember a dream the next day. “See you tomorrow,” he adds as he drops his hand.

Hermann inclines his head in a nod again, and, with one last sunny smile, the man - Newt - leaves, for real this time. Hermann can’t help one small brief peek and oh dammit. The tight jeans suit him. HIs legs really are slim and adorable. His ass is better.

It’s really been too long. Hermann leans his elbows on the counter and sighs. Then he goes back up to the third floor and sits on the windowsill a little while so as to regain some inner equilibrium.

 

 

He has mostly put the encounter with the stranger out of his mind by the time he goes home. He doesn’t live very far from the library, only a ten minute walk to the tiny apartment above the Kaidanovoskys’s store, easy even by his standards. As always, Aleksis catches sight of him as he fiddles with his key at the door right next to the shop, which opens to the staircase leading up to his apartment. (He keeps thinking he ought to look for a place on the first floor, or with an elevator. But he never does.)

“Hermann!” he booms, emerging from the shop. “Returning from work? Ah, you work too hard!”

The town is full of unique characters. Aleksis is one of them. He is very large - extraordinarily large, at least seven feet, and strongly built - and violently Russian, and looks, with his bleached hair and non-bleached facial hair and multiple rings, as if he ought to be in the Russian mob. Instead he and his wife run a shop renting out beach equipment to tourists and also run classes on how to use that equipment and also run some “Extreme Experiences” (as they call it, and Hermann has very little idea of what these entail, and very little desire to know). He is a shockingly nice person. Every day he tells Hermann he works too hard, and he is always slipping Hermann food and inviting him to dinner and booming - he does not speak, he booms - “You are too thin!” He checks out long historical fiction novels from the library that he has to renew repeatedly as his reading skills in English are not very fast. Technically one is only supposed to be allowed to renew a book so many times, but Hermann never has the heart to turn Aleksis down, and lets him renew as often as he likes.

“Not at all,” Hermann returns. “It’s really not a difficult job.”

“He is tough!” Sasha exclaims, appearing suddenly behind her husband. “He can work full day, not get tired, not like you, you lazy lump!”

Sasha is certainly the far more intimidating of the two. Hermann has seen her quiet a complaining customer with simply a cutting look. Her husband obeys her unquestioningly. The two are, at times, almost painfully in love with each other, the sort of unspoken, undoubted love that makes one feels lonely simply from looking at it. She can be kind too, in a far more roundabout way. She likes to check out raunchy erotica novels that Hermann blushes just to touch - at times he suspects she checks them out solely for that reason - and also rousing and bloody stories about pirates and fighter pilots and so on.

“Ah, you see what she is like!” Aleksis booms, placing a hand over his heart. “Always nagging.”

“That is because you are useless without me.”

“This is true,” he booms, and smiles at his wife, and she smiles back, and Hermann looks politely away. “Anyway,” Aleksis continues, turning his attention back to Hermann, “Here, for you,” and hands over a tupperware container of something undoubtedly Russian and delicious. “I make far too many, you take extras.”

“Oh, I couldn’t-”

Sasha waves a hand. “Of course you can,” she says imperiously, and Hermann falls silent and reluctantly takes the dish being thrust at him. He’s not sure what it is about him that makes the Russians want to take care of him so much. Even now, Sasha is glaring at him as if daring him to complain anymore.

“Thank you,” he says instead, and they flash him matching grins, and disappear at last into their shop. Hermann sighs and climbs the stairs, being careful not to trip when Ris inevitably appears at the top of the stairs, meowing commandingly and winding around his legs and altogether doing her level best to trip him.

The Russian leftovers end up being a good thing, as there is less food in his kitchen than he had thought. He needs to go grocery shopping. Tomorrow, perhaps.

Thinking of tomorrow makes him remember the artsy stranger - Newt. What a unique name. Where has he heard that before? He seemed interesting - or, well, Hermann can’t decide if he seemed actually interesting, or like one of those people that really wants to be thought of as interesting but is usually boring. Not that Hermann has much right to judge when it comes to be boring. He’s a single librarian fast approaching thirty. With a cat. That is surely the dictionary definition of boring. And, god, this was never where he meant to be in his life at this point; not that he isn’t happy with it.

Anyway, he supposes he’ll have further chance tomorrow to figure out why he recognizes the man, and to see if he is interesting or not - not that he cares. Or that it matters to him. So there is a new resident who is a little - cute, admit it, he was cute - what does it matter what he’s like? At most, Hermann’ll see him once a month when he comes to the library.

It’s just, he admits, that it really has been a while. Not only since he’s dated anyone or slept with anyone, but even since he’s found anyone attractive or interesting. And he’s sitting in his extraordinarily small apartment - it’s only a tiny bedroom, a tiny kitchen, a tiny bathroom, and a tiny sitting area - alone other than the cat now on his lap trying to steal food, in the evening, eating leftovers, by himself, and yes, all right, his life is boring and therefore a cute stranger is worthy of note and curiosity and consideration. Particularly when he had asked if Hermann would be working tomorrow in that way - that way as if he wanted the answer to be yes. And he had smiled when it was yes. That is interesting and new, and makes Hermann curious to see him tomorrow too. It’s been a long time since anything new has happened here.

But boring is good, he reminds himself. Boring is safe.

 

 

It’s back to the regular schedule the next day, opening the library, checking in the books that were returned after hours, serving the few old women who for some reason always come in on Wednesday morning - why Wednesday? - manning the counter during the lunch rush, which is not a rush at all but a handful of rather tired office workers. One of Hermann’s greatest joys in his job is watching the way that a worn-down worker’s face will lighten up and come alive as they walk to the counter with a fantasy novel to escape into (sometimes, when he is very awake in the middle of the night and wondering how he ended up here and how this is his life and thinking of how very off track he is from The Plan, then he remembers the way he feels when he can tell that he is lending a book to someone excited about it, and it helps), and then it all goes quiet for the afternoon.

Even as he is loading the returns onto his cart, and riding the rickety elevator up to the third floor and idly wondering if today will be the day it sends him crashing to his death, even as he stops a moment at the windows and notes that the sky is so gray as to melt into the bay and make the division between sky and lake near impossible to see, and then turns to putting away the books; he is listening, not to all the little noises that make up the quiet of his library, but instead for the sound of the front door opening and sneakers squeaking on the wood floor.

He’s made his way down to the second floor before that comes. The second floor is much larger than the third, which consists solely of one room. The second floor has one large central room, and then a few other small side rooms - separated by arches lacking doors - with books lining the walls and tables and chairs in the middle for people to sit and read or study. He is in the room dedicated to science fiction and fantasy when he hears the squeaky shoes coming up the second floor and hesitating at the landing. It occurs to him that Newt might assume again he is on the third floor again and head up there, and as soon as he thinks this he calls out, “Hello, I’m back here!” and then flushes and wonders what the hell has gotten into him. Who cares if Newt has to look hard for him? Calling out, and in his own quiet library, when he values the silence so much! Really, how unlike him.

Luckily, it takes Newt long enough to cross the main room and find the proper back room that the flush has faded from his face before Newt appears in the doorway. He smiles as soon as he sees Hermann. It’s a more charming smile than Hermann had recalled. He’s wearing a long sleeved shirt again, but more unbuttoned this time, so that Hermann can see curls of blue and red and yellow ink licking at his collar bones.

“Hey, s’me again,” Newt says, looking around the room. “Didn’t even realize this stuff was back here yesterday! This place is bigger than I thought. Cool set up.”

Hermann likes when people compliment his library. Not that it’s actually his, of course, so compliments reflect nothing on him. But he does love it so, and takes such care of it, that compliments please him. “It’s not bad for such a small town,” he says modestly.

“It’s beautiful,” Newt says, looking at Hermann again.

Hermann feels a tiny, pleased smile coming on, and hastily tries to squash it. “Thank you,” he says, trying to sound stiff and dour, and, well, like himself. He’s not sure he succeeds. “Do you, ah, have the things you need?”

“Oh, yeah!” He tugs two pieces of paper out of his pocket - the form from yesterday, now filled in, and an envelope addressed to Newton Geiszler, 32 Blueworm Place, Shatter Stone Village, MI, 49723. “Will this work?”

“Yes, that’s perfect,” Hermann agrees, thinking, Newton Geiszler, I know that I know that name.

“Great! I was feeling positively naked without a library card in my wallet!” Newt says brightly, dragging out the first syllable in “naked” and Hermann’s attempts to identify that name are derailed by loudly not thinking about that word or what it means or what those tattoos would look like uncovered.

“Ah, um, well, yes, let’s go get that done then,” Hermann says, hating himself when he stammers a little and praying that the heat he can feel starting on his cheeks again isn’t showing. He wonders if there is a little bit of mischief in Newt’s smile. Surely not. He frowns a little, simply because that makes him feel more in control, and takes his cane from the cart. Newt is still standing in the doorway to the room, leaning on the door frame, and only shifts a tiny bit to let Hermann out, so that once again he brushes up against him. Normally Hermann doesn’t like touching people, but...he doesn’t mind this so terribly much. He can feel the warmth emanating from him.

“So, how long have you been working here?” Newt asks on the stairs.

“Three years now,” Hermann answers.

“Not from around here, then?”

Ordinarily Hermann’s answer to this would just be “no.” Yesterday he neglected to answer at all. But today, the words out of his mouth is a dry, “What let you know?”

“Gosh, it’s hard to say, there’s just something subtle,” Newt answers seriously, but with laughter bubbling under the words. “Maybe something about your accent?”

“Not convincingly Midwest?”

“More like...British, I think.”

“I’ve no idea where you’re getting that from,” Hermann insists as they reach the front desk. “Completely off base.”

Newt “hmm”s with a look of great concentration, and lays down the crumpled form and envelope. “ID too, right?” he asks, pulling a wallet from a pocket that surely isn’t large enough to hold it. He hands a driving license over. It’s from Massachusetts, Hermann notes.

He gives it a quick once over, then turns his attention to the form. “Everything seems to be good,” he says, and looks under the desk, feeling around for the library cards. It’s been awhile since anyone’s filed for a new one. Someone needed a replacement about two months ago, he thinks. Ah, there they are, pushed behind some forms. He puts one on the counter. “Sign here, and you’ll be good.”

Newt signs quickly with the pen Hermann provides, then smiles happily at his library card, admiring it a moment before slipping it into his wallet. Another tiny smile tugs at Hermann’s mouth. He does like to see someone be so enthusiastic about library cards and books and so on.

“Gotta go pick a book so I can test this baby out,” he says.

“Do let me know when you’re ready,” Hermann says.

“Aw, you’re not just gonna wait here for me?”

“No,” he says. “I have shelving to do.” He slips out from behind the counter. “Take your time,” he adds lightly, and wonders what he is doing. (Is he flir- No. Of course not.)

Newt sighs, and then, without a word, follows Hermann as he heads back up the stairs. Hermann lifts his eyebrows, which of course Newt can’t see, but he doesn’t say anything either. He gets off at the second floor. So does Newt. Well, this floor does hold the bulk of the books. Storing and offices and so on take up some of the first, and the third is a smaller floor.

Hermann heads back to the room where he left his cart and...Newt follows. Hermann turns and looks at him, eyes narrowed, hand on his hip. “Can I help you?”

Newt’s eyes are open very wide and innocent. Hermann thinks he was wrong yesterday, to think they were blue - they’re green. “I want a science fiction book,” he pauses, then adds, as if butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth, “This is where they are, right?”

“They are,” Hermann has to admit.

“I’ll just look around then,” he says.

“Mm-hmm…” Hermann narrows his eyes a degree more and pointedly turns back to his shelving, the corner of his mouth twitching again once he is facing away from Newt. Oh dear. What is he doing.

Newt edges slowly around the room - Hermann doesn’t fail to note that he is moving around the room in a direction that brings him closer to Hermann - humming as he looks at the books. Hermann glances at him every now and then, watching as he runs a finger over the spines of the books, pulling one out once in a while to look at the cover. After a while, he seems to get genuinely focused on looking at the books and not on - teasing Hermann? Is that what he is doing?

At last, just as Hermann is about to leave the room, he pulls one out and announces, “Right, this one!”

“Only one book?” Hermann asks.

“Mmhmm,” Newt says, and then adds, perhaps meaningfully, “For now.”

“Hm, well, if you say so,” Hermann says, and turns toward the stairs. Once again, Newt follows behind. Hermann catches himself thinking I could get used to this, and then sternly tells himself, shut up

“So I’m really fascinated to see how this book checking out process works,” Newt says behind him.

“How it normally goes, I think.”

“Do you have one of those date stamp things?”

“No one uses those anymore,” Hermann asserts, which is doubly untrue, because he is sure people still use those, and he does actually have one. He doesn’t use it. But he has it.

“Bummer,” Newt remarks. Then, when they actually get to checking the book out, he is totally blown away amazed by the scanner pad - it scans the book’s barcode, and the information pops up on the computer screen - which is amusing. He actually hops up and down a bit. “Dude, that is fucking awesome!” he says, voice going as squeaky as his shoes.

“It’s really not that impressive,” Hermann says, struggling not to laugh. (Him! Laughing! What has gotten into him today!)

“It totally is.”

Hermann rolls his eyes. “It’s due back in three weeks, think you can manage that?”

Newt looks at the medium sized volume and squints. “Yeah, I read real good, reckon I can manage it in three weeks if I try real hard.”

“Don’t strain yourself.”

He tilts his head and pulls the same expression as yesterday when he was attempting to persuade Hermann into giving him the card without proof of residence. It is, perhaps, a little charming. “Worrying about me, Hermann?”

It’s the first time he’s actually said Hermann’s name.

“Not in the least,” Hermann says. Newt frowns and then laughs.

“Guess I’ll have to take care of myself.”

“Please do.”

It is at this point that the door - which Hermann can see over Newt’s shoulder - opens, the familiar figure of Tendo Choi strolling in. Newt turns to look automatically, and the figure stops, presumably realizing he doesn’t recognize Newt, then comes up to the counter.

“Hey, Hermann,” he says with a casual nod, and before Hermann has the chance to respond, turns to look at Newt. “You’re new, aren’t you?” he says, an overly friendly smile spreading on his face. Hermann attempts to repress a sigh. It is almost certain that Tendo is going to do or say something odd/awful.

“Yeah, I just moved here,” Newt says, sounding puzzled, but as friendly as he was to Hermann yesterday.

“Wow, great!” Tendo says far too brightly. Oh dear. He does seem to like - perhaps hazing is the word - hazing new residents. Hermann had quite hated him when he first moved here. At some point that turned into friendship. He’s still not sure how. “I’m Tendo Choi,” he says, holding out a hand.

“Newton Geizler.”

“Welcome to the area,” Tendo says with an oil slick smile. Then he looks at Hermann again. “Checking out the library first, you must be pleased.”

“Obviously the library is of principle importance,” Hermann says with dignity.

“You’re so full of it.”

“That’s rich, from you.”

Tendo clicks his tongue. Before he can say more, Hermann says to Newt, “Tendo does IT and tech repair and so on for local companies. Which is, obviously, less important than a library.”

“Your library would be nothing without me, Herms. That nifty scanner? Broken in a month.”

“I’d be able to run this place perfectly fine without technology!” he says, in tones of offense. “Besides, I expect I could fix it on my own!” Tendo rolls his eyes. Newt lets out the sort of uncomfortable laugh of someone in a conversation that they aren’t really part of, and Hermann promptly feels guilty.

“I should probably head out,” Newt says, hefting his book. “I’ll, uh, see you Hermann. Nice to meet you…” He trails off and Hermann suspects he can’t remember Tendo’s name. That makes him feel a little smug. He remembered Hermann’s name from hearing it once.

“See you,” Hermann says, and then can’t resist adding, “Now, it’s three weeks, remember, I hope you can manage it.” He regrets saying it immediately, because Tendo’s eyebrows shoot up to his slicked back hair, and he gives Hermann this terribly meaningful look that certainly promises that Hermann is going to be interrogated and teased in five seconds.

“Three is the one that comes after two, right?” Newt asks, wide-eyed. “I’ll try to remember. Bye, for now.”

As soon as Newt has exited the premises, Tendo turns on Hermann. “You look pleased with yourself.”

“What? No, I don’t.”

“He was kinda cute,” Tendo says, wiggling his eyebrows.

“I hadn’t noticed.”

“C’mon, you were totally flirting with him. Dang, if I realized tiny, artsy hipster was your thing, I’d have gone about things all differently.”

“I haven’t the faintest idea what you’re talking about,” Hermann says, very firmly, even though he can feel himself flushing again.

“You’re adorable. I didn’t even think you could flirt. Should have realized that throwing books in would make you able to do it.”

“Go to hell. Why are you even here?”

Tendo tries and fails to look injured. “I had some free time between work, thought I’d come get some books.”

“Harass me, you mean.”

“It’s often the same thing.”

Hermann sighs. “Well, look, you’re free to look around of course, but I do still have work to do, so I wish you’d refrain from harassing me.”

“Oh, so when I visit you have to work, but when the cute, new stranger shows up you’re free?”

“I was working!” Hermann says defensively, and perhaps a little loudly. “He was checking out a book!”

“You were flirting,” Tendo says again, and Hermann throws a hand up in the air in defeat. He decides the best idea is simply to ignore Tendo and sets about resolutely doing so despite Tendo following him around and interrogating him about Newt.

 

 

Tendo must get around or something, because when Hermann gets home, Aleksis comes to see him, as always, and says, “Home at last?” and then, inspecting him carefully, “You look as if you had good day.”

“It was a very normal day!” Hermann says firmly, and Aleksis gets a knowing smile.

Tendo is a bastard.

 

 

The next morning, Sheriff Herc Hansen, of all people, comes in to return a book - Hermann will never tell a soul that Herc likes space operas and Westerns - or that his son also, entirely independently, likes the same kind of books - and, while checking out, says casually, “So, Gottlieb, I hear you met our newest resident.”

Hermann grits his teeth, thinks angry thoughts at Tendo, and nods.

“He, uh, seem nice?”

Hermann decides to alter all of Tendo’s return dates in the computer so that he racks up huge late fees.

“He seemed very normal.”

 

 

During the lunch “rush,” he is asked about Newton by a very stern and perfectly polite Stacker Pentecost. He gives an answer that matches up to Pentecost’s politeness, and it absolutely does not make him blush to do so to the dignified mayor, who has always been very kind to him and whom Hermann has never had a crush on, whatever Tendo might say.

Newton does not come to the library that day. This is, of course, perfectly reasonable. He needs time to read his book. Hermann is not in the least disappointed.

 

 

By the afternoon of the day after that, he is so tired of being asked about the mysterious newcomer that when, as he is shelving books on the second floor, he hears the quiet of the library being interrupted by a door opening, he is positively incensed. If people are so curious, why don’t they go looking for Newton themselves; it’s a small town, it can’t be too hard to find him. Honestly.

Feet come up the stairs quietly, and Hermann scowls and thinks go to the third floor, come on, leave me alone, and then a familiar voice calls out, “Hermann?”

He drops the book he is holding. Then stares at it, entirely appalled at himself. Really. How embarrassing. He bends down to pick it up, belatedly remembers to answer, and says loudly, “Um, yes, over here!”

Newt appears a moment later. He isn’t wearing the converse he was wearing the last two times. That would explain the lack of squeaking. “Did I startle you?” he says, eyes crinkling. “Sorry.”

“No, it was just- Had been very quiet in here,” Hermann answers. Don’t blush, dammit. You are thirty years old, do not blush! Well. Almost thirty. Almost twenty nine. “I wasn’t expecting to see you here today.”

Newt holds up the book he had yesterday. “Turns out I underestimated my reading skills yesterday,” he says. “Three weeks was easily enough. Finished it in a day and a half, actually.”

“Really?” Hermann says, politely skeptical.

“Of course!” Newt says, laying a hand across his heart. “I can summarize it, if you like. This convict gets out of prison only to find out his wife has died, and on the way home the norse god Odin-”

Hermann holds up both hands to stem the flow and tries not to smile. “Okay, I believe you, my apologies.”

Newt doesn’t bother trying to hold back a smile. “Good, I wouldn’t want you to think I’m a liar.”

“Of course not.”

“So now, I need you to teach me how returns work.”

Hermann looks at him expressionlessly. “Did you see the bin on the first floor labelled ‘Returns’?”

“Yeah.”

“That’s where you return books.”

Newt opens up his mouth a ridiculous amount and lets out an exaggerated, “Ooooooh! Really! I’d never have guessed!”

“It’s very tricky, I know. I’m sure it’d be challenging to anyone with less than average intelligence.”

“Wow. Dude. Wow. That’s harsh.”

Hermann looks away but this time simply can’t help the smile. “If you still need help, I am of course willing to provide it.”

“That’s probably necessary, I’m really stupid,” Newt says. Hermann glances at him again and sees that he is looking intently at Hermann, beaming so hard it’s like sun is pouring out of him, all of it focused on Hermann. He really is very cute, Hermann decides, and smiles back before he can stop himself.

“Let’s go see to it then.”

 

 

When he gets home that night, both Aleksis and Sasha are waiting for him.

“He looks as if he have very good day today,” Sasha says slyly.

“It was an ordinary day,” Hermann insists. So Newt had ended up sticking around for at least two or three hours, trailing after Hermann and demanding explanations of how everything worked and was arranged - which Hermann was only too happy to provide, as he had organized every inch of that library and was rarely given the chance to show it off - and drinking coffee with him and smiling like that the whole time. That didn’t make it “very good day.” Just an ordinary day.

Sasha ignores him and nudges Aleksis. “Hey, husband, did I tell you who I see today at grocery store?”

“Who?”

“That new young man who move here.”

“Oh?”

Sasha glances at Hermann with a little smirk. “He is very cute,” she confides to Aleksis. “He also look like he have very good day today.”

“I see,” Aleksis booms meaningfully. “But is he good enough for our Hermann?”

“I am not sure yet. Will have to find out, hm.”

Hermann doesn’t have much response to this other than to go red, mutter, “Really!” and huffily storm upstairs. At least his cat doesn’t ask him questions about Newton.

 

 

Newt doesn’t come to the library the next day. But what does come is the delivery Hermann has been expecting of new books, including amongst them a book that he had ordered partially, he must admit, because he’d been wanting to read it himself. He’d seen an interview with the author on a talk show one night when he couldn’t sleep, and even though it sounded like the most ridiculous pseudo-science, it also sounded very interesting.

He picks it up now, from amongst the pile of other books. There is a picture of the author on the back, flashing a cocky grin at the reader. Hermann isn’t even surprised. It seems obvious now. He knew he recognized Newt.

“The nerve of him!”