Anju Emma made her way down the hallway. Despite the late hour, she couldn’t quite settle into sleep. Something intangible and electric sang through her skin; it buzzed in the air.
Like the night before a battle.
‘I’ll just make myself some tea.’ She glanced at the president’s office as she passed by. Light peeked through the crack beneath the door.
She set the kettle on the stove, flipped on the burner, and moved to the pantry to find the box of chamomile mint tea. ‘Real tea. With actual herbs. It’s all too much to…’ she shook away the thought.
“It was my wife’s favorite, too.” Ernst’s voice sounded from the doorway. “When she couldn’t sleep,”
“Oh! Ah, I should have asked.”
“No need. I’m glad to see you making yourselves at home. At least in some, small ways.”
Anju inhaled the herbal scent from the tea. “It smells comforting.” She closed her eyes and saw his face.
Blond, tousled hair. Bright eyes.
“I don’t mean to pry,” Ernst’s soft tone brought her back.
“Oh, it-it’s nothing. I’m fine.” She flashed the smile she practiced in the mirror. The one that was supposed to say: I’m ok. Even when she wasn’t.
The older man and her adopted father retrieved the kettle; long, thin fingers wrapped around the handle. He tipped the spout at an angle; water gurgled into the delicate teacups.
“Is, uh, is something bothering you?”
“Me?” He met her gaze. “Ah, many things.” A faint smile touched his lips. He finished pouring and set the kettle back on the stove.
His statement hung in the air like the fragrant steam from their cups. They steeped their teabags in silence. Something gently troubling on the tip of her tongue, Anju sipped at her mug.
“It bothers me. Whether it should, or whether I have the right. I don’t like watching you all–”
“She’s not like that.”
“Th-the foreign officer.” She removed the teabag from her cup; placed it on a paper napkin. It rippled as it absorbed the liquid.
“I mean, I don’t know her personally. But, she did volunteer, right? To come here.”
“Not one of you hesitated.” The Federacy President pushed his glasses to the bridge of his nose. “Well, except Shin, and he’s–” Ernst shook his head. “He has unique circumstances. I’m never quite sure what he’s thinking.”
“It’s not my place to say, I suppose. It’s hard to remember sometimes, we’re just teenagers. Not as young as we were, then. But, Shin’s never….”
“Anju.” His voice. Quiet, rasping.
Her breath caught, and her body froze in place. ‘No. Please. No!’
Her heart collapsed inside itself. ‘I love you, too.’
‘Loved.’ She let out a breath. ‘Dammit, why? Why him?’
“You’re remembering someone.”
“Ah, no, I was just thinking that.” Something dripped into her mug. She brushed fingers over her cheek, smearing tears across her skin. “What, what I was going to say. I don’t think it’s true. I think he did. Love her. Which is wonderful, isn’t it?”
“And he shouldn’t miss the chance to tell her.”
Ernst nodded and took another sip.
“No one else should experience that pain.” Anju swallowed and blinked back fresh tears.
A soft smile curved the older man’s lips. “That is worth fighting for.”