The faint light of his lamp did little to illuminate the space. Papers were overcrowding his desk, leaving less room than usual for him to function. Empty coffee cups were stacked haphazardly, acting as ink staining paper weights amongst the manilla folders. He reached out blindly for one now, drinking the cold liquid solidifying in it with barely a grimace.
His hands were shaking.
Maybe it was the excessive caffeine. But it was more likely from the mounting horror as he read over the redacted text, trying to understand.
“Shit.” He hissed, crinkling the papers as his hold tightened, “Shit, shit, shit!”
If what he was making sense of was correct, then they were screwed. Utterly, terrifyingly screwed.
Midterms kicked her arse.
There was just no other way to put it.
Sulking in one of Eden’s many side gardens, Anya kicked at the ground with a scuffed shoe, thinking over her shortcomings. There were definitely papers she’d have to redo and her other marks may get her a scrapping grade, but they wouldn’t be pleasant. The worst part was she’d really tried. But thoughts of the swim meet final tomorrow evening, how this season of lacrosse was going and of course, her stalker, kept floating through her mind. Especially that ring.
Pulling it out of her inner pocket, she examined it for the thousandth time, holding it up to the sunlight. None of the symbols she had researched matched the one etched before her, though some of the government insignias were close. It wasn’t any recent class ring designs either, well at least not from Berlint in the last twenty years. She had taken to pulling out books about their surrounding neighbours’ most commonly used symbols, but working through the translations was difficult.
She lowered hand, frowning. Maybe she had put more effort into this than her studies she thought.
“There you are!”
Startled, she fumbled with the ring before hastily pocketing it as Becky approached, looking incredibly tired. To an outsider, they wouldn’t see the signs. Her makeup was as perfect as ever, her uniform spick and span, tailored to define her body modestly. But to her closest friends those few stray hairs escaping her pinned fringe and the slight smudge of mascara in the corner of her eye screamed at how exhausted she was.
“Hey, you doing okay?” It was the question of the month in their squad of five.
“Hmm?” Becky hummed, coming to sit beside her, “Oh, yeah I’m fine. Just over studying. But enough about that, what were you hiding just now?”
“Oh, nothing, hahaha.” Anya squeaked, a protective hand settling on her pocket. “Just something Mama gave me last year. I was missing her this morning you know?”
Thankfully Becky didn’t push it, just grabbing her pale hands instead.
“You’re shaking. Geez your hands are cold. Where’s your gloves?” She scolded, rubbing the small girl’s hands between her own to create some friction.
“They’ve got a hole in them so the Dorm Mother is darning them for me.”
“You should have a spare pair. Especially with how bad your circulation is. I’m just glad you haven’t had a nose bleed in ages.” Becky continued to nag, breathing into their cupped hands for extra warmth.
Anya let her mother her for a bit longer, before the brunette decided her hands were warm enough, entwining their fingers together. With a sigh, she leaned her head against Anya’s small shoulder.
“I’m so tired Anya.”
“It has been a long week.” Anya murmured in agreement, resting her head against her friends reassuringly. They stayed like that for a while, simply soaking in each other's company. The fountain bubbled pleasantly behind them and Anya could hear a bumblebee buzzing near her ear. They were always attracted to her hair. Damian liked to tease it was because she smelt like honey. Becky must have heard it as well, as she pulled away with a playful smirk.
“Mr. Bumblebee likes you today. Must be cause you look more like a flower than usual.” She teased, poking at one of Anya’s space buns. Anya reached up to touch them self-consciously.
“I just wanted all the hair off my face and neck today.”
“It’s adorable.You’re adorable.”
“You’re one to talk Miss Pigtails.”
“Don’t try that on me, we’re talking about you and how cute you are today. Besides, if my sources are correct, I’m not the only one who thinks that.” She continued to tease, warmth sparkling in her eyes.
Anya flushed fiercely as she remembered this morning’s encounter.
“Mornin’ Damian! How you doing today?” She’d chirped, grinning at him through a mouthful of food. The tall scion looked half awake, swaying slightly on his feet before her. His sleepy hazel gaze roamed over her face, not really registering what he was seeing. Her smile began to fade the longer he stared, starting to feel concerned.
“Hey do you need-”
His hands suddenly came up to cradled her cheeks, squishing them lightly.
“Chipmunk.” He murmured fondly after a moment, before dropping a casual kiss on her forehead and wondering off in search of coffee and food.
“He was half asleep!” Anya defended, her blush not tapering down any time soon. Becky just giggled, poking at her ribs playfully, earning a small laugh from the Esper. They tousled briefly, giggling loudly in the quiet atmosphere, simply enjoying being teenagers for a moment in time. After a while, exhaustion crept back into Becky’s eyes, causing Anya to frown.
“What’s bothering you? I haven’t seen you this tired in years.”
She was quiet for a moment, as if considering something serious.
“We’re...we’re best friends. Right?”
“Practically married my love.”
“So, we can tell each other anything?”
Anya’s frown deepened.
“Becky what’s wrong? Did something happen? Are you hurt? Who hurt you? I’ll go fight them, just tell me-”
“Anya, Anya! Calm down!” Becky cried in alarm, pulling her back when she darted to her feet, ready to attack. “I’m not hurt, I’m okay. It’s something else.”
Slowly sinking back onto the bench, Anya turned her, unneeded anger still festering.
“What is it?”
“Well, you know how I’ve been reporting on the war for the school paper?”
“Yeeees.” Anya drawled, quirking an eyebrow.
“And it means that I’ve had to dive deep into the politics of both countries, and our own messy affairs?”
“Well...” Becky trailed off, flushing guiltily. “I may have dug a bit too deep.”
Anya could only stare at her in disbelief. After a moment, she narrowed her eyes suspiciously.
“How deep Becky.”
The older girl shrugged a shoulder casually, not meeting her eye. “Oh you know, nothing too serious just yet. A lot of cryptic finances and reports that don’t really make sense about our military history. But that’s not what I wanted to talk to you about.” Clutching her hands, she sheepishly smiled at her.
“So while what I've found may be on the side of illegal, it’s really interesting stuff. But I don’t want other people reading my notes cause, you know, reasons. So I got to thinking, what if I made a cipher? You always loved cracking them as kids and I thought who better to help me create one and test it than you? Do you want to help me?”
Anya looked at her as if she had just proposed.
“Are you kidding me? I’d love to!” She was practically vibrating in her seat with excitement. Time to put all her knowledge she’d gleamed from her Papa and Spy Wars to the test. This was so much better than midterms!
Becky relaxed, the tension she’d been holding in her shoulders melting away in relief. “Oh thank god you’re excited. I’ve been mulling over this for weeks.”
“We should get started after school, we can go back to my room and study the book Papa gave me a few years back all about cracking code.”
“Okay, and in return I’ll help you with your study. I know you’ve got some papers to resit.”
Anya instantly deflated.
“Way to ruin the mood Becky.”
A few hours later, Anya was quickly hiding away any notes about her own side research, waiting for Becky to arrive at the dorms. She tucked the books she’d borrowed from the library about insignias and they’re meanings under her bed, pushing them back with her foot so no one could see them. She was suddenly glad for the bed frill Yor had gifted her when she moved in, as it created the perfect shield.
Once satisfied that everything was out of sight, she traipsed into the lounge to sit with her dormmates, and catch up on the latest news. Maybe she could be the one to share the gossip to Becky first.
She hadn’t been seated long when the phone rang, it’s loud shrill causing everyone to wince. She didn’t pay attention as someone answered it, until her name was being called across the room.
“Anya, it’s for you.”
Surprised, she got up quickly, wondering who was calling her. Maybe Becky had to go home instead?
“Hello?” She asked once she had the receiver in hand, fiddling with the curled cord.
“Anya darling, how are you? I’ve missed your sweet voice and face.” Yor blubbered over the other end, causing Anya to grin.
“Ma are you drunk right now?”
“No! I just had one glass champagne!”
“At four in the afternoon? What are you celebrating.” Anya chuckled, leaning against the table with a smirk.
“That’s why I’m calling. We finally got the permission to work with your father’s hospital. As of today, we’ll be working alongside each other.”
Anya gasped sharply, understanding immediately. WISE and Garden were collaborating. Officially. This meant her parents wouldn’t be fighting anymore. Tears sprung to her eyes as her grin widened.
“So you won’t be working crazy hours anymore? You and Papa will be working together?”
“That’s right darling! We can start game nights again and go out for dinners more regularly. Work will still be crazy, just more manageable. Well, I hope so at least.”
Cradling the phone to her ear, Anya sniffed wetly. “That’s awesome news Mama.”
Yor hummed distractedly on the other line, the sound of glasses tinkling together catching her ear. She was definitely pouring another glass. After moment of silence she spoke softly.
“Have you seen the news honey?”
“Ah, no. I was about to sit down to watch it when you rang.” She said, spinning to look at the TV playing nearby. “Why’s that?”
“They’re saying there’s fighting along our border with Österreich now. It’s close to my hometown. Though none of the troops are from Ostania, the villagers are getting involved trying to protect their crops. I’m just worried what will happen to them. It’s not their war.”
Anya stared at the broadcast, watching what her mother was describing play out on the screen. People were yelling and fighting in destroyed pastures, with one farmer throwing his ruined onions at the military personnel standing in the distance. There was smoke trailing upwards from burning grasslands, the unofficial border between the two countries. The screen changed to show the protests starting in town, people screaming outside of parliament for blood.
“Why’s this happening? We’re not at war.” Anya breathed, eyes wide in horror.
“Maybe not at the moment, but if they continue to encroach on our land who’s to say what will happen.” Yor sighed sadly, gulping down another glass. “I’m so happy that City Hall agreed to work with the hospital. Too many of my co-workers are succumbing to their fears. I was close as well, but thankfully I have your father for support. I don’t know what I would do with out him.”
Anya had to stifle a sob. Her strong, caring mother. One of the main pillars of strength Anya had in her life. To know about her job and the terrors she had seen over the years, the apprehension of going to war again was the most terrifying thing she could imagine. Especially after everything she had sacrificed to create a greater good for her homeland. And for it all come down from an unlikely source just added to the horror. But Anya couldn’t comfort her about any of this. She had to continue pretending it was just common war terrors and stress about the never ending paperwork. Turning away from the television, she desperately wished she was home right now, holding her mother tight.
“He would be lost without you too Mama. I would be as well.” She choked, tears starting to fall.
“Oh my darling, I know. I’m okay now, your father’s colleagues are helping me work through my stress. I’ve been applying their same tactics on your father- subtly of course. You know he’d never admit to his anxiety.”
The thought of her mother being subtle was amusing, but it just made Anya sadder.
“Are you sure I can’t come home and be with you guys?”
“No honey. You’re safer at Eden. You’ve only got a few months left. May will be here soon and we’ll all go out to the park and play.”
“Will you at least be at my swimming finals tomorrow?”
“We wouldn’t miss it for the world.”
After murmuring some more heartfelt sentiments, Anya said goodbye to her mother, hanging up the phone sadly. Glancing back at the TV she watched as the footage continued to roll, show casing the anguish in the villagers’ faces. This is not what they planned for. Operation Strix was meant to prevent a war. Would that be adapted to fit this incoming one?
The crowd was deafening on her ears. Rubbing at her face tiredly, Anya stared out over the pool, trying to watch the race. None of the excitement she had had for the earlier swim meet existed now, and she felt like she was letting the team down.
Yesterday's news had rocked her, and she couldn’t shake the ominous feeling that was settling in her bones. Becky had arrived not long after her phone call, armed with a stack of books about coding and different languages. She was somber too, having already heard the news, and together they could only stand and stare at the report until the Dorm Mother switched off the TV.
Retiring to her room, they had poured over the text until late in the evening, working out a rough cipher that would help for now. It was easy to crack, but at a rudimentary glance it held no significance. Becky was going to work on improving it over the weekend, borrowing Anya’s copy of Pandora’s Riddles to help learn more. She was currently in the crowd, nose buried in said book, only looking up to cheer when Anya competed.
The rest of her family had turned up as well, supportive as always. She was glad to see just how happy her parents were, starting to act like teenagers in love yet again. The boys were trying to hide how happy they were with this development as well, pretending to cringe as the over affectionate adults cuddled each other.
The whistle blew, signalling the end of the race. Anya sighed, wearily getting to her feet. She was up again. She was glad her 200m Freestyle race was already over, having finished in second place. Now she was to be part of the medley and she thinks she’s got just enough energy stored in her for the one lap. Heading to the edge, she started to get ready but was stopped by her coach.
“Forger, wait a moment.”
Surprised, she spun to look at her coach, wondering what his frown meant. She couldn’t distinguish his thoughts through the din of the crowd, and she was too tired to really try.
“I’m sitting you out. You’re far to pale.”
“I’m okay! Just didn’t get a lot sleep last night.” She lied, moving to step around him. He flung out an arm with a scowl.
“No, you’re out. I don’t want you fainting in the water. Plus, your nose is starting to bleed. Go get some medical attention and maybe something to eat. Daisy will swim your lap.”
Reaching a hand up to her nose, she was surprised when it came back sticky with blood. Huh. When did that start?
Knowing it was useless to argue, she turned back to her bench, secretly glad to be sitting out. She was far too tired for this. Putting on her jacket to keep warm, she pulled off her cap and googles and wondered off to the medics, doing as advised. She could tell her family and friends were confused, but they couldn’t interact with her until after the meet. Once seen and given something sugary to eat, she looked up with a weak smile, waving to reassure them.
I’m fine. Don’t worry.
She wished they could read her mind.
Scanning the crowd as she nibbled on her treat, Anya wondered if her stalker was amongst them. She couldn’t see them, but there was a lot of people there. No one was staring at her in furious contempt though, and she relaxed slightly with a sigh. Maybe she had scared them off the other day at the cinemas. Maybe they had gotten over whatever grudge they held against her.
Or maybe they had changed tactics.
A shiver ran through her, and she straightened up in worry, scanning the crowd again. Just happy, competitive faces, screaming in support of their favoured teams stared back at her. She should be joining them, as her team was in the water, furiously battling it out for first place. She was barely aware as Daisy was tagged in, instantly pulling them into the lead as she raced down the lane. Coach had chosen a good replacement, the athletic wonder of a woman was barely a glimpse in the water, making Anya wonder yet again if she was a mermaid. No wonder Bill Watkins was infatuated with her.
She cheered half-heartedly as Daisy won the race, winning the medley for the school. Clapping slowly, she closed her eyes, leaning back against her chair. Her ages had no more races. There were just a couple of junior ones to go. She could nap for a while, they’d understand.
She must have slept for about forty five minutes before someone was lightly trying to shake her awake. Groggily, she opened her eyes to see blue, her father’s concerned gaze filling hers.
“Hey Peanut, let’s get you home hmm?”
Rubbing at her eyes, she yawned in agreement, seeing that the others had already gathered her stuff.
“What about the medal ceremony?”
“Your coach has allowed for you to leave early. You’ll get your silver next week at school.” He explained, scooping her up in his arms. Leaning against his shoulder, she let him carry her out of the stadium, feeling like a rag doll. Becky appeared at Loid’s elbow, bouncing to keep up with his stride.
“Anya what happened? Why did you nose start bleeding again? Did you get cold? I told you yesterday you needed to be more careful.” She chided, dodging around other by standers, worry etched along her brow.
“I’m okay Becky. Just tired. I think the crowd got to me a little.” Anya reassured her, seeing how it didn’t smooth away the wrinkles.
“It’s been a long time since you reacted badly in a crowded space. You must have been under a lot stress at school.” Loid stated, his subconscious prickling with guilt.
“It’s alright Papa. The worst of it is over now. Just got to focus on lacrosse and finals at the end of the year.” She smiled. He only hummed in agreement, continuing to walk out to their car. Saying goodbye to her friends, she slipped into the back seat, closing her eyes again. She couldn’t wait for a warm shower and bed.
A short drive later, they were back on academy grounds, and she managed to drag her feet up the dorm steps slowly. Yor went ahead and put her stuff in her room, while Loid stayed with her to talk to the Dorm Mother. When she returned, they linked hands automatically and looked down at their daughter.
“Go rest up Anya. Your Dorm Mother will make you some soup to eat later. Just use the weekend to rest, okay?” Loid advised, worry strong in his tone.
“I will Papa. At least tomorrow is Saturday. I can sleep all day.”
“Maybe not all day, but yes, rest. And don’t eat too many peanuts.”
Promising them she won’t, she hugged them goodbye tightly. After a few kisses on cheeks and fond ruffle of hair, they left for their apartment, leaving her longing for the comfort of her old bed once more. Once out of sight, she turned to have a shower, only to be stopped by the Dorm Mother.
“Anya dear, this arrived in the mail for you today. I didn’t think you’d want your parents to see it, especially with how over protective your father is.” She giggled slyly, handing her a red envelope. Blushing Anya took it from her gratefully, wondering who would send her a love letter. She’d received a few over the years, some she kept tucked away in a safe place, others she burned after reading. Excusing herself to her room, she shut the door quietly, and plopped onto her bed.
Flicking open the envelope, she pulled out the parchment inside, frowning when she saw typed letters instead of the dramatic handwriting she was expecting. Maybe this person was shy.
But when she started scanning the letter, any thoughts of confessions flew from her mind as terror took over instead.
We are watching. Do not follow us. We will come to you. You will be ours in time.