There was dust up his nose.
Scrunching his face into a scowl, Libellus sneezed quietly, causing dust to fly up into the air like an elaborate miniature snowstorm. Irritated, he made a mental note to clean the neglected bookshelves for the first time in what, six years? He was a busy man, damn it. Didn't they have people for this?
He huffed to himself, his breath catching in his chest as the ladder wobbled slightly under his movements. Again. Libellus had an awful lot of problems and at least eleven of them could be solved by swapping the flashy ladders in Archive Seven for some actually useful ones. Oh, but curse him for even suggesting! He worked in Archive Seven, after all.
In the simplest explanation, Archive Seven was a library. On the other hand, if you chose to go into more detail, the monster of a building stretched halfway across a city and contained the second largest collection of literature in the known universe. The largest collection was actually in Archive Five, but A7 was close enough.
So of course, a building with that much cultural importance just had to buy the flimsiest ladders in existence. They lit up and looked pretty! Who cared if an employee fell and broke a couple of bones, they still lit up!
Carefully, Libellus clambered down, puffing uselessly at persistent black curls in a desperate attempt to see properly. Libellus was human, a rather obscure race in his present, tall enough yet not unreasonably so. He had sharp eyes, a murky blue like plastic, usually turned down in tired scowls and never quite meeting the rare smile, and he was made of corners and spikes, thin as bone with pointy elbows and bags. A long time ago, he'd been offered a job by the Coalition of Liberian Free States, as a librarian. It was part of some shoddily put together program to get young adults out of refugee camps, and into the workforce, and it didn't really take off but it had some success stories. Libellus had been eighteen then, buzzing with excitement. Now he was twenty one, and the excitement was taking it's final breaths, but books hadn't let him down yet.
Turning to go, he heard a suspicious creak, and turned back just in time for the ladder to fall, and subsequently drag the bookshelf with it. Onto Libellus.
"Hey, need any help with that?"
Libellus sighed heavily, inching his head around to scowl at the visitor. "I'm fine, thanks."
The person (in a military uniform) scratched their heading, gazing up at Libellus with concern. Their skin was an oily black shade, and their eyes a deep violet, dotted with gold. Libellus recognized them to be Liberian.
"Are you sure? I mean, you look kind of beat up. I'm not on shift for a while I think, so I can like, help?"
Ah yes, of course. They were a soldier. An ongoing war, the very same that Earth fell to, had seeped like some nasty infection to the tranquility of A7, which meant there were military types everywhere.
While it was satisfying that A7 was important enough to have a whole army guarding it, Libellus was ready to rip his own trachea out if he so much as imagined another boot stain.
He huffed. "Yes, yes I'm fine. Please go away."
The soldier puffed out their cheeks and tilted their pretty little head. "But like, what even happened to you?"
If Libellus grit his teeth any harder, they'd probably smash. "Please leave me alone."
The alien pouted a little, worry dancing in those starlit eyes. After a small, vicious stare-off, they shrugged and wandered off with a vague wave and a promise to check up on him later. He screamed a little bit.
In hindsight, if he'd taken up the soldier's offer, maybe he wouldn't have dropped the four kilogram tome on his foot.
The library's current silence was strange, with all the ever approaching war stuff going on. While the soldiers apparently tended to stay in their camps, Libellus still found comfort in the pages of his books, and the soft embrace of the armchair he'd claimed when he stumbled in that morning. His boss, an very toxic person named 'Lal who'd obviously made it her quest to make Libellus's life as dreadful as possible, had announced that he was 'too unhealthy to work' and banished him to read, which was kind of okay but also annoying and patronising and very 'Lal. His consciousness was plagued by shadowy memory of her razor claws digging into his shoulders and shoving him on a 'tour' of the building, which was not a very happy way to spend his first day there.
Slowly and carefully, he looked over his shoulder and found her staring. Right. At. Him.
A chill ran up his spine.
"Oh hey Libby! Aren't you supposed to be working?"
Libellus jumped out of his chair, barely containing a shriek and garnering quite a few glares from surrounding patrons. He glared at the person in front of him, who was sadly familiar by now.
Since their placement, Milly, his soldier 'friend', had stuck to him like one of those glues that mean the end of days if you get them on your own skin. It seemed every time he turned a corner, that damned soldier was browsing books, ready with a cheery grin to offer their unwanted help. Not only that, but they'd bother Libellus with all types of stupid questions. They asked about his age, his birth world, even his preference in poetry. Instead of answers, they recieved strangled growls, increasing in volume and desperation with every single damned question.
"You again," Libellus spit out, as someone nearby shushed him.
Snapping his book shut, he stood up and grabbed the soldiers hand. It was warm, he noticed, quickly pushing out all thoughts of that nature. The soldier seemed happily surprised, and allowed Libellus to drag them into a back room. A soundproof back room.
"Stop it!" he near screamed when the door was shut. "Why don't you just leave me alone? Why are you so persistant? Damn it, all I want is some peace and quiet!"
Worry was creeping over the soldier's face. "Well, uh, you looked kind of sad-"
"Sad?" Oh, he was really losing his patience now. "I'm not sad! I don't have time to be sad. And I definitely don't need anyone to cheer me up, especially not some frustrating little toy soldier! I'm fine on my own!"
They nodded, looking all too concerned for Libellus's liking. "It looks like you've been on your own for way too long."
Libellus was going to scream.
He took a deep breath, trying to steady his heartbeat, and forced himself to calm down. Anger had done him no good in the past, and he doubted it would do him any good here. His jaw was still shaking.
"What... What's your name?"
The soldier blinked, obviously having expected some explosion. "My name? Uh, it's Milly. Or well, it's really Militah, but that's a dumb name so everyone calls me Milly."
Libellus nodded, taking this in quietly. "And I'm assuming your species doesn't follow a gender binary?"
"Your reproduction doesn't depend on a sexual relationship between two people with different reproductive organs?"
Milly looked enthralled. "That's a thing?"
"Yes, my species has it. I'm a human, from Earth," Libellus held out his hand. "I don't believe we properly introduced ourselves. My name is Libellus, and I am a human librarian working in A7. I don't know much about Earth. It was destroyed either before I was born or when I was very, very young. I don't really know my own birth date, so."
Milly grabbed his hand, confused, and Libellus shook with them.
"Uh," the soldier stammered, staring dumbfounded at their hands. "My name is Militah. I was born on Liberia, obviously, and I grew up in quite a strict familial unit. They were nice, though. They had strong moral views about universal brotherhood and all that. So, when I was five Liberian cycles old, I joined the FFP and followed their example."
"Five?" Libellus repeated. He quickly tried to do the math in his head, although it was still rather shocking. "That's about fifteen of my years. That's really quite young."
"Yeah, I guess. It was kind of normal for my kind. So, like, I just worked my way up from there and here I am!"
Libellus nodded and pursed his lips. "When does your shift start again?"
Milly yelped, running to the door and grabbing the handle. They turned back to yell something about having dinner together later, and sped out the door to try their absolute best to not be any later for work. Libellus swallowed.
Dear Lord, he was in love.
Milly was sat on a bench, directly in front of the extravagant main entrance of A7, gnawing on something vaguely alien and looking really beautiful in the sparkling light. It took Libellus at least ten minutes to work up the nerve to talk to them, and even then he wasn't ready.
He kept making false starts, walking forward to admit his feelings with confidence, only to falter and scramble back with his tail between his legs. His hiding place was well-chosen, one of the colossal crystal columns holding up A7's roof, much larger than his sharp body. It was so much easier in books, this emotional conversation thing. One person said something, maybe an apology or a confession, and the other replied with something sweet and simple, and the reader was left wondering why Person A was fretting at all. It was all clear now.
Libellus had never quite gotten a grasp on explaining himself. Like he had any practice.
He swallowed, feeling all too warm, and adjusted his cuffs with shaking hands. He nodded slightly to himself, building up courage once more. There was no point in dawdling, he should just get it over with. Get rejected and go back to... whatever he was doing before that dratted soldier. It's a hard thing in every aspect of life, putting one foot in front of the other, but somehow, in the midst of so much imaginary chaos, Libellus marched over like a tempest and stood, shaking and casting a shadow over Milly's lunch.
"I need to talk to you." His voice was tight and scared, feigning courage. Milly looked confused.
"Libby? What's up? You okay, bud?"
Libellus considered continuing to stand, so as to look a little more dominant, but he came to the decision that he couldn't really be dominant in this situation, and sat down beside Milly. He tried not to look them in the eye.
"Yes, yes, I'm fine. So fine. I want to talk to you."
Milly blinked. "Uh, sure?"
"So, uh, well." He sighed heavily, pushing his hands through his hair. This really was hard. "I've been, eh, meaning to talk to you about this for a while so, I suppose I needed to get it over with? It's about us."
"Us!" Libellus cried, tossing his hands in the air dramatically. "I just, there's so much going on. There's so much war and that, that won't stop. Not in our generation at least. Maybe someday sentient life can exist without the need to whack everything surrounding it into tiny little pieces, so that nothing hurts anymore and everyone ends up touch-starved, but not today. Not in our lives. But damn it, I'm not letting that get in the way, and it's stupid and I don't know why I'm admitting to this but I think I love you."
Milly's sandwich hitting the floor was the only sound Libellus took in. His stomach started to turn inside out.
"Yes I get it! It's okay! I know I'm practically the most high maintenance creature in this universe and I snap and get angry and there's no real lovable thing about me. I know that. I understand-" He stopped, Milly having grabbed his shoulders and shaken him.
"Shut up! I really, really like you Libellus! Like really! So, uh, yeah."
Libellus scrunched up his face, confused. "Yeah?"
"Yes, I, eh, love you to."
The noise Libellus made was high-pitched and embarrassing, but Milly smiled this small little smile, and the light danced on their cheeks, and the galaxies aligned. A million terrible, horrible, catastrophic things could be happening around them, but this, this was there moment. It was selfish, yes, but it was their moment and nothing could change that.
By Olivia Malone