Ananya Filia(1)» gave the soup she heated over the fire more attention than it needed, but while her hands absently stirred the brown broth and her eyes passively followed the rotating water, she could think. She could think how she would act when Fred woke, imagine how he would react and plan her replies—harsh ones, caring ones, indifferent ones. The different scenarios played in her mind, and she wished she could take one and claim it as reality— any one—so she did not have to deal with the uncertainty of this reality.
She heard movement, and she turned quickly to look. Strin sat thoughtfully in a chair, watching Fred, and Fred rolled restlessly on the rug. He stretched his body full-length and pushed himself blearily to a sitting position. With controlled steps, Ananya walked toward him, prepared to treat him as a stranger who happened to need her help.
Fred twisted around, looking. “If this is another Eomite joke … ” His eyes passed over Ananya, then returned with a jolt. “Anya!” he said. She almost smiled, but she controlled her face; he had called her by her old nickname.(2)»
He goggled, and his eyes ran blatantly up and down the length of her body. “Anya! You look like a woman!”
Ananya had not planned for that response.
“It’s Ananya now,” she said calmly, trying to keep the ice and flames from her voice. “No one calls me Anya anymore. I’ll get you some soup.”
She heard Strin reprimanding Fred, and Fred saying, “But it’s true!”
So what if it was true? So what if her gangly limbs had become graceful in the years of Fred’s absence? So what if her dirty, disheveled hair was now straight chestnut? It had been three years. Things changed in three years. Did Fred expect the world to revolve around him and his presence?
Actually, yes, he probably did.
Ananya realized she had an empty bowl suspended over the pot and ladled out some soup.
“What’s happening?” Fred asked eagerly as Ananya handed him the soup. “How’re the Elders? Someone’s keeping them busy still, right? Especially Welsan. He needs it. How many Rutsuians has that been this year now? How’s Dildo and Varney? Have you ambushed the golems lately? How’s Mom and Dad?”(3)»
“Fred,” Ananya said, still calm, inordinately calm. “You won’t find that much of anything has changed. Nothing ever changes around here.” She sighed, though she did not mean to. “The Berry Festival was last week and Bloggs won the kinkerry race, as usual. The girls had their cooking contest.”
Fred struggled not to spit out a mouthful of soup as he laughed. She remembered that he had always found her way of referring to girls as a separate group amusing.
She had reasons for doing so, of course. She had reasons for everything. She could out-bake them if she wanted, but what would be the point? She wanted to do something more important than preserve jams and sacred traditions as generations of nameless Nephran villagers had before her.
“News of your adventures has been one of the most exciting events here since you left …” Her words trailed off, hanging unfinished without the word “me.” Fred was free to go where he wanted. It was futile to try to stop him. He wouldn’t listen.
“Yeah, it’s great seeing the world,” Fred said loudly, watching the soup fall from his spoon to the bowl. “I barely miss Nephra at all. I didn’t miss it at all. Much too exciting out there.” He waved at the vastness of space.
Fred slurped the last of the soup and held the bowl up to Ananya for more. He finished that bowl and a third in the span of several minutes. “Here,” he said, handing her the empty bowl. She took it quietly. “It’s been a long day. Lots of work, this hero stuff. Where can I sleep?” She showed him to an empty bed, her parents’. They had been visiting a neighbor when the storm started and would not be home till morning.
She walked out of the room, and Fred closed the door. Disconnected from the world, her sight and hearing dulled, she found a chair and sat. She gazed about the room aimlessly; her eyes found Strin, waiting.
“Strin,” she said. She felt surprised, but her voice did not echo it. “I’m sorry. I had forgotten you.”
He smiled mysteriously, as if he not only understood the outer workings of her circumstances, but the inner workings of her mind; and understanding, he sympathized. “Don’t worry about it.”
“Would you like some soup?”
“Yes, thank you,” Strin said. “Though I’ll be surprised if Fred left any. When he wants something, he wants it all.”