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Small Hours

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Stepping outside, Anya raised a hand to cover her eyes, squinting up at the clear skies above her. The sun was warm and bright against her skin and she sighed deeply in content. Shifting her bag on her shoulder she casually started walking down the stone steps, heading towards the sunken courtyard around the corner. The balmy April weather had everyone flocking outside for break, all intent on absorbing as much warmth as possible before heading backside to the chilly classrooms. All around her, her fellow peers were stopping to chatter, but there were very few jovial conversations.

It had been just over a week since the hoax and the Government’s inaction over the incident was hot gossip. The funerals for the two that had died were widely publicized, the media using their deaths to antagonise the public into a frenzy. The protests outside Parliament were growing, in size and in anger each day, as Ostania waited for their officials to do something.

As she passed the groups clustered around the walkway, she caught snippets of conversation and thoughts, all murmuring lowly in her ear.

Such an injustice! We need to do something!...

...I’ve just turned eighteen, I'll be recruited...

...said that we should leave while we can. Not safe...

Frowning she weaved past one particular group of younger students, quietly discussing their parents’ concerns for their safety at the school. What if the hoax had been real? What would Eden have done?

Jumping down the last few steps into the courtyard, she spotted her friends sitting around a small picnic table, a newspaper and notes shared between them. Approaching them silently, she peered over Emile’s shoulder at what he had written, an open letter from the shelter he volunteered at addressed to the Government. He was planning on giving it Damian to pass on to his family, the closest connection they had to the politics.

“...It has to stop! They were so scared-terrified- of what they had witnessed! The fact that none of it is being reported is the true crime.” He was arguing passionately, his cheeks a flame with rage. Becky ran her hands over her face before looking at him with tired eyes over the top of her own scribbled notes.

“I agree, it’s horrible, but we’re just kids. We can’t do much.”

“We’re rich! What’s the use of our wealth if we can’t use it for good?” He snapped, unable to let go. Ewen reached out to place a supportive hand on his shoulder, looking sad but understanding.

“It’s not our wealth though, it’s our parents. Becky’s right, we’re just kids. What adult is truly going to listen to us?”

“We make them.” Anya piped up, startling them. “We maybe kids, but we’re the future of this country. That’s got to count for something right? Let them hear our voices even if it means screaming at the top of our lungs. We will not be repressed.”

The four were silent as they looked up at her, taking in her own shimmering rage. She was never one to be side lined, always pushing towards what she wanted. She had been trained from a young age to achieve world peace by any means necessary. If writing a very strongly opinionated letter could be a start, why not try?

Beautiful

The thought rang clear in her head, causing her to jump. Looking over her friends' face, she realised they ranged from shock to pride to...

Damian’s face was hard to read, his eyes wide, cheeks a little flushed. Catching her eye he turned away quickly, the blush spreading further along his cheekbones as he hid his face in his palm. She gulped, her own blush staining her cheeks, but she refused to focus on it. This was not the time to be thinking about that.

Becky sniffed, breaking the silence as she stared teary eyed up at her best friend.

Anya.” She murmured, touched by her strength. Sitting down beside Emile, she discarded her jacket distractedly, before grabbing the draft off the table. Skimming over it she frowned, taking in the rage behind his words.

“Alright, explain from the beginning. I get why we’re writing this, but...why are we writing this?” She asked, looking towards her friend. Ewen chuckled, but it was more of a clearing of the throat awkwardly.

“Emile had an incident at the community shelter yesterday. He’s feeling rather patriotic today because of it.”

If she wanted to, she could divulge into the honey blonde’s mind, see the fight first hand. But she respected her friends and let them tell her their thoughts through words. Clenching his teeth, Emile growled lowly under his breath.

“They were hurting them. Denying them their rights.” He started, knuckles white with rage, “A group of refugees from the south had made their way into the city, hoping to seek protection. Their villages were being burned down by those Österreich troops, and they were reporting that Magyar armies were raiding their fields. Scared, they had fled here. They had hoped they would bump into our soldiers on the way, but there was no sign of them. When they finally arrived here, the city tried to turn them away, arguing that they were lying, that there was no war. Which is bullshit! We’ve all seen the reports! While the Government hasn’t declared war just yet, it’s happening whether we like it or not.”

He stopped to take a breath, shaking as tears began to form in his eyes.

“You should have seen them Anya. I have never seen such a group of terrified people. They had managed to find the shelter, but no one was willing to help. They were given food and water as usual, but they needed actual help. When we tried to step in, offer the counselling services and ways to communicate with the Government, the project leaders pulled us aside and told us to stop. That these people were liars, just regular tramps from the street. That they were experiencing delusions from the first war, not the one brewing currently. We tried to argue back, wondering when they had become so callous. When they threatened to inform the school that we were warmongering, Oliver got...well, Oliver got furious. He punched the main leader, similar to how you punched Damian back in our first year. Yasmin and I had to pull him back when he tried to go further, and we left in a hurry. The leaders were shouting at us not to come back, but I can’t stay away. I have to do something to help those people. No one else is going to.”

The group knew Emila was passionate about social justice and the welfare of their country, but this was like watching it emerge like a phoenix, born from the flickering flame in his heart.

“Oma, this country doesn’t deserve you.” Becky whispered, reaching out to take his clenched fists in her gentle hands. He sniffed, tears leaking down his face.

“I just want to do better. It’s the less that they deserve.”

“So we’ll start with your letter. From what you’ve written we have a good starting base.” Anya said, already planning out phrases in her head, searching for a pen in her pocket as she reread the letter. A pair of hands gently prised the parchment from her fingers, the owner proof reading it himself.

“She’s right, it is a good start. But definitely room for improvement. Demetrius would dismiss this on first read let alone Parliament.” Damian confirmed, eyes scanning the page. Anya ignored how her fingers tingled from his contact, instead focusing on scribbling out what was in her head.

“Alright, why don’t you two sit down together and plot it out and we’ll research some sources to cite?” Becky suggested, rummaging through her notes for a starting point.

“No!”

Both stared at each other, surprised by the other’s shout. The others were equally surprised, observing how a matching blush was spreading across their cheeks. Becky narrowed her eyes, suspicions that had been building all week starting to rise again.

“I mean, no, I’ll help with the research. As much as it pains me to admit it, Anya is better at compassionate writing than I am, but I know the library like the back of my hand.” Damian stammered, looking anywhere but the aforementioned girl. “Ewen can help, he’s probably studied this for a debate at some point.”

“R-right.” Ewen stuttered, watching as Damian hurriedly got up from the table, face a shade of red he’d never see before. “We can hit the library now. I have a free period next.”

Stuffing his gear quickly in his bag, he waved goodbye to the others, tripping in his haste to chase after the awkward teen who was already disappearing into the corridors. Emile and Becky could only exchange a look before turning towards Anya, who gulped nervously.

“Okay. Are we going to address this or?” Emile started, watching as she shuffled in her seat.

“No. We should start drafting your letter.” She refused, pushing what she had written towards him. But Becky wasn’t having it.

“We should. You two have been weird all week. Did something happen?”

“Nothing happened! Can we just focus on this situation at hand?”

They didn’t look convinced, but she really didn’t want to explain herself. She didn’t want to tell them how her heart had raced so violently in her chest during the kiss, or how long it had taken for her to climb to her feet after she had collapsed. That moment was between just her and Damian. One she would treasure in her memories, pulling it out on her worst days. Sure things were a little...off between them at the moment, but they’d work through whatever line they had unintentionally crossed. It would just take some time.

“Okaaay, if you say so.” Becky drawled, frowning at her stubbornness. She sensed a scoop and by God did she want to sink her teeth into it. But she’d respect her friend’s wishes. Straightening up, she pulled out one of the papers in her messy pile, handing it to Anya.

“Before I forget, I’ve been doing some research on my own. The ring had a stamp to prove it was quality Sterling silver, which meant the maker had to include their hallmark. It took some digging, but I tracked it down to a small company here in the city. I got Martha to go in the other day to ask about the ring and when it was manufactured. But the jeweller got really shifty and refused to answer. She said they had paled when they saw the insignia and began to tremble. They wanted to take the ring off her, but she left before they could.”

Tapping the paper in Anya’s hands she continued with a mischievous smirk.

“Of course, I got curious. So I went and found their ledger. Don’t ask me how, just count it as one of my extracurricular activities and that I may have less money in the bank now. They had some really interesting customers that I will use for...research at a later date, but this one was unusual.”

Emile and Anya peered at where she was pointing, a company name underlined in red pen.

Apfel. I’ve never heard of company with that name. It was around twenty-five years ago when this was made, so maybe it’s renamed since then? I could be clutching at straws, but I think this is significant.”

They could only stare at her, watching as she beamed with pride. “You’re amazing Becky.”

“I know I am.” She smirked, before deflating slightly, “But it got me thinking. These people are no ideal threat. If the ring caused the jeweller to have such an adverse reaction, how powerful are they? And what could they want with you Anya?”

Dread crept through her, as she stared at the name again. Apfel. Apple. It seemed like her hunch was correct. But she couldn’t tell them yet. She didn’t have the whole truth.

“I’m not sure, but I do think it’s connected to my secret. I really need to sit down with Papa and Ma soon and tell them what’s going on.”

“Mmm probably best done sooner or later. You’re seeing them after your lacrosse game on Saturday, right? Tell them then.” Emile suggested, looking over more of Becky’s notes. “Becky, was is this code? You’ve got it scrawled everywhere and I can’t make sense of it.”

She lit up, pleased with his reaction. “Really? That’s good, it means it works.”

“What works?”

“My cipher! Anya and I have been working on since I started my research. I don’t want just anyone reading my notes, but I can trust you guys. Here, while Anya continues working on that draft, I’ll teach you what I’ve come up with so far. It’s pretty simple to crack once you know what you’re looking for.”

Anya watched as they poured over the paper, proud of far her friends had come. They were taking this all in stride, acting like it was just another school assignment. They would go on to achieve great things in life she thought with a smile. Turning back to the draft in front of her, she rolled her shoulders back decisively, clicking her pen a few times to get the inspiration flowing. She would help with the only way she knew how, encouraging others towards world peace. With that she let the words flow, ink hurriedly transferring to the parchment. They would make this country proud.

_____________________________________________________________________________________

The rest of the week passed uneventfully, and soon she was lacing up her cleats as she prepared for a home game. The bleachers were packed with Eden supporters, cheering for their girls to win. Everyone needed a distraction from the rapidly demoralising news, and a competitive high school match of lacrosse was just what they sought. She heard her name from the crowd, and she turned to wave back at her Ma who was decked out in Eden’s colours. Her Papa just smiled fondly from beside her, though she noticed Yor had painted his cheeks to match.

Grinning she turned back to preparing her equipment, half listening when some of the girls squealed excitedly beside her.

“He finally asked you!”

“Yeah, turns out he had been planning it for months. I had heard rumours but didn’t dare get my hopes up. I can’t wait to step out on the town with him.” Hmm, seemed Michael had finally sucked up the courage to court Vanessa. Her mouthguard sat uncomfortably in her mouth. What would it be like to be courted?

Her coach called everyone’s attention, snapping her back to the game. Jumping to her feet, she grabbed her stick and hurried over to join the group huddle, ready to release some nervous energy.

“Alright you know St.Wards is ruthless but we’re strategic. No fighting, no shoving, no fouls. Understood?”

They cheered their acknowledgement before he waved them out onto the field, encouraging them one last time. When the whistle blew to begin the match, Anya lost herself into the familiar rhythm.

It was easy to drown out the crowd’s thoughts alongside her own when she was playing, just losing herself into flow of running and catching, throwing the ball when needed. She always knew the other team’s plays, communicating effortlessly with her teammates. They had questioned her on this at the beginning but she had played it off as having scary intuition and being able to read body language as easy as speaking.

The first two quarters went smoothly, neither team scoring a goal just yet. They were halfway through their third quarter, close to the opposition's net when the crowd became restless, murmuring about something she couldn’t see. The whispers became shouts as the whistle blew, interrupting a near goal. Groaning they turned to see who had made a blunder, only to freeze at the sight of the State Security Service approaching the field. One of them stopped to talk to the referee, who looked shocked before pointing out to the field. At Anya.

Holding her stick up protectively, Anya could only watch as the soldiers made their way towards her, the other lacrosse players parting to make way, sending her nervous looks. She was wondering if she was Icarus, having flown too close to the sun in her attempts to find out about her stalker and assisting Becky with her studies. Maybe they were here to take her back to the labs, clearly having connections to the Government.

“Miss Forger?” The one in the lead asked, stopping a short distance from her.

“Y-yes?” She asked nervously, watching as her parents came flying from the stands and onto the pitch, making their way towards her. Her mother was there first, snatching her up in a tight embrace, snarling at the officers.

“What do you want with my daughter?” She growled, as Loid joined them shortly after, frowning deeply. The officer held up his hands in a clear signal he meant no harm.

“I’m sorry to do this so publicly, but time was of the importance. Would you rather we stepped aside from the crowd and discuss matters privately? I’m afraid it’s not great news.” He suggested passively, digging into his uniform to draw out a red envelope that made her blood run cold.

“Where did you get that?” She croaked, startling her parents.

“Anya?” Yor asked in confusion as the officer grimaced.

“I was afraid this might be true. You’re familiar with this letter then yes? How many have you received?”

“Two.” She answered, starting to tremble. Was that really another one? So soon?

“Dr and Mrs Forger, I suggest we leave the field.”

With a brief look, the Forgers all agree with a nod, trailing after the officers quietly. Anya tries to shut out the whispers of the crowd, all curious as to what drama was unfolding before them. She glances back at her teammates were still standing around in shock, mouthing I’m sorry to them as she left.

She’s vaguely aware of the referees calling in the coaches to see if they should continue the game, as she’s led inside the stadium and towards one of the rarely used storage rooms at the back. Upon entering, she sees more soldiers, but one in particular makes her sag in relief.

“Chihuahua girl!”

“Poindexter!”

He hurries across to her, gathering her in his arms in a tight hug that she gladly returns. If he’s here then she’s not in trouble. She’s safe. He releases her with a gentle squeeze, turning to look at her parents.

“Yor, Loidy. I’m sorry for the interruption.” He said, looking troubled. “But something came up at work that involves Anya somehow, and we needed to get her to safety as quickly as possible.”

“What’s going on Yuri?” His sister asked. He didn’t answer, just gestured towards some nearby chairs.

“You may want to take a seat. It was hard enough for me to cope with when I found out.”

Nervous again, the family settled in to the provided seats, clutching each other’s hands tightly. Anya realised she was still holding her stick under her arm, and drew it closer for protection. The officer who had escorted her off the field handed them two envelopes.

“A few days ago we received an anonymous letter warning us of an organisation targeting students at Eden. We were going to dismiss it until we read further and realised it contained information about a side project we were currently investigating.” He started, pointing at the plain envelope in Loid’s hands. He ripped it open quickly, taking out the letter to read for himself, frowning at the brief message.

Apfel? What organisation is that?” He asked, not noticing how Anya went stock still beside him.

“We’re not entirely sure, but it’s a government organisation that should have disappeared twenty years ago. As for the other letter, we intercepted it in Eden’s mail, a controlled protocol after the warning. Turns out, the whistle-blower was right.”

Anya could only stare at the words printed on the same thick parchment she had been carrying around for weeks.

We told you not to get involved. This is your last warning. Your friends will be next.

They had been watching. She knew she shouldn’t have involved her friends. Becky’s hunting must have tipped them off.

Panic began to rise in her.

“As we recall, Miss Forger received a threatening letter at the end of last year that made you enrol her in Eden’s dorms for protection? This came just after you had a major break in, correct?”

“Yes,” Loid answered, his voice thick with tension. “It threatened her safety within our care, saying she would soon return where she belonged. Being simple citizens, we did what we thought was best for her at the time.”

“Well it seems to have worked until now. Though Miss Forger, this appears to be the third letter now addressed to you. Care to explain?”

She shifted guiltily in her seat, not making eye contact with anyone.

“I got one after the swim meet a few weeks ago. It said not to chase them, that they’d come to be in time.” Turning to her Papa she bit her bottom lip in worry, “That person I told you about at the first swim rally and then at the cinema. They must be part of this. I only got the letter after I chased him.”

Loid looked like he had aged ten years during the conversation.

“This seems to be bigger than just a simple stalker like you let on.” He muttered, aware of his wife’s murderous rage on the other side of his daughter. “When were you going to tell us Anya?”

“After today’s game! I promise!” She swore, clasping her hands together desperately. “I promised the others that I would tell you today. They’ve been really worried about me all week.”

“Your friends knew but your parents didn’t?” The officer asked, looking a little surprised.

“They found out by pure accident last week. I wasn’t going to tell them. Now they’re involved as well.” She whimpered, remembering the new message she’d read.

Yuri sighed in the corner, rubbing at his head in annoyance.

“I was really hoping it was just some silly stalker, but this organisation isn’t one to be trifled with.” He muttered, standing up to approach them. “I’ve been reading as much as I can on them this last month, and while a lot of it is heavily redacted, I managed to find out that were in charge of developing weapons of some kind for the war. It didn’t state what kind, but if Anya is involved, I’m not sure I want to.”

Stepping over to them, he handed his sister a thin folder containing his notes. “Apfel, or ‘Project Apple’ existed under Government control about twenty-five years ago, developing specialised technology to use in the war. Twenty years ago, they went underground, seemingly disappearing. One small report came through about ten years ago, suggesting they were still operational and had moved onto...human experimentation. It doesn’t specify what, but it did say one of its test subjects had escaped. A young girl. Simply named 007.”

His eyes lingered on Anya’s huddled form, observing the way she shook.

“Anya, I have no idea what they did to you during that time, but you’re safe now. Your parents and I will protect you, no matter what, okay?”

She began to bawl, years' worth of terror overcoming her at once. Yor instantly scooped her up in a tight embrace, clutching her close to her chest as she rocked her soothingly. She felt Loid’s hand hover over her head for a moment before pulling away to drag down his face.

“Can you leave us be for a moment? We need to talk about this as a family.” He asked stiffly, glad when the officers nodded.

“We’ll be just outside if you need us.” Yuri said, turning to leave. Anya shot out a hand, urging him to stop.

“No, Uncle Yuri please stay. You need to hear the truth as well.” She sobbed, casting a look at her parents and back. “You all need to hear the truth.”

They stared at her shock, watching as she hiccupped quietly. If she had felt like her world was crumbling down around her last week, then this was a nuclear blast, destroying her from the inside out.

“I know everything.”