Chapter 1: Prologue
Annaliese Zwingli has a secret.
Well. She has many secrets. But most of them, she's at least told someone about.
She has one big secret.
Annalie isn't used to keeping secrets from her family. She and her brother are very close for two siblings born almost seven years apart, and while their cousin Roderich used to frighten her with his sternness when she was younger, his fiancee is Annalie's best friend.
Best female friend, anyway.
Annalie stares at herself in the mirror, washing her face and getting dressed on autopilot. Her mind is... well, not exactly in a whirl, but she certainly doesn't feel like herself, either. Her stomach is fluttery, her thoughts keep trying to twist away from her, like a cat that doesn't want to be petted.
She doesn't like keeping secrets. It's not like she wanted it to be this way. But she doesn't think her family would understand. And really, Christmas at her grandfather's house is not the time to shatter familial preconceptions.
She feels like she knows what those spies in the movies must feel like, when they're pretending to be someone that they're not. A double life.
Her eyes drift away from the mirror, down to the counter top where her hairbrush and make-up and earrings are set out, along with her hair ribbons. She stares longingly at the newer, silky green one ("Here, I hope you like it, Annalie, it matches your eyes." Soft hands brushing her cheeks and through her hair-).
But wearing the green one would only bring about too many questions, so she picks up the pink and white lace ribbon instead, the one that she's worn since she was very small. It was a gift from her brother. She loves that ribbon.
But she loves the new one too (maybe more), and as she ties her brother's ribbon into her hair and prepares to go downstairs and face her family, Annalie tries hard not to feel like she's putting on a mask and riding into battle.
It had begun, way back at the beginning, with the rain.
Annalie was on her way home from shopping. It wasn't an area of town she was familiar with, but she'd heard about a new tea shop and she had the afternoon free. The tea had been lovely, and she'd bought some to take home (tea bags of a blackberry tea for her brother, loose leaf mint herbal for Roderich and their grandfather the next time she saw them), but she'd gotten turned around trying to find her way back to the bus station.
And then, of course, it had begun to rain.
Shielding the paper bag of tea as best she could with her arms, Annalie had bolted down the street for the nearest shop that looked like it was open. She had only barely noticed the sign swinging above the door, not even what kind of shop it was.
Inside, it was surprisingly crowded. Not by people, but the shop was smaller than Annalie had originally thought, and the maximum number of shelves and displays had been carefully arranged throughout. A deep breath of surprise brought the scents of clean dirt and green things to her nose, and she realized she had stumbled her way into a nursery. Empty pots were stacked in the corners, full ones with sprouts and shoots and leaves and buds set along the walls like an army on parade. The shelves contained paper packs of seeds and mesh packs of bulbs, all looked like they'd been packaged by hand, not mass produced. Other shelves held supplies; gloves and spades, sheers and stakes. A range of wood and metal trellises were leaning against one wall, getting progressively taller like an unclimbable stair.
She could feel herself smiling as she glanced around, uncertain and damp and clutching her tea. She'd always loved gardens, and admired the hard work that gardeners put into them. There was something a little mystical, she thought, about being able to coax life out of barren dirt. She certainly had no idea how it was done. And this shop had a sort of coziness to it. It wasn't cluttered, exactly, but it had the sense of being browsed often and thoroughly, so that things were always just a little out of order.
A door in the opposite wall led into a back room, and Annalie was startled out of her thoughts when it opened and a tall man stepped out. He didn't look so much older than her, perhaps in his early thirties, but he had a very imposing air, especially when he saw her and eyeballed her, clearly wondering why she was in his shop. She blushed and held the bag of tea up before her, like some kind of flimsy shield.
But after a moment the man just raised an eyebrow, and though he didn't smile Annalie realized perhaps he wasn't so scary. Vash and Roderich didn't smile very often either, after all. The man's hair was light, one of those muddled shades between blond and brown, and stuck straight up in a ruffle of spikes. His expression was cool, but she could see in his eyes that he was intelligent and calculating. He had the same sort of look in his eye that her brother did sometimes when he'd found a particularly difficult place in his clients' ledgers.
"I'm sorry," she tried for a smile, though it probably didn't come out as confident as she would have liked. "It started raining, and your shop was the closest... I can go if I'm interrupting something."
The man blinked, then shook his head, relaxing a little. "No, it's fine. It's a shop, people are supposed to be in it. Is there anything I can help you with?"
"Not really..." Annalie glanced around again, a little disappointed. She liked this little shop, but no one she knew gardened much. Her brother lived in an apartment, and her grandfather hired people to come and take care of his yard. Her cousin Roderich was engaged, and it was still a bit up in the air about where he would be living after the wedding, so that was out too.
Out of the corner of her eye she spied one of the pots on a shelf near the window. The pot itself was nothing remarkable, just plain terra cotta, but the plant had fuzzy, narrow leaves and spiky stalks, each topped with a beautiful white and yellow flower. "Oh, you have edelweiss!"
He looked a bit surprised, then pleased that she'd recognized them. "Yes. They're not so hard to grow in gardens around here, but I'm trying to see if they can be kept in pots too, since I've had a few people ask for them. So far they seem to be doing alright, but they haven't gotten very big."
Annalie smiled, weaving between the shelves to gently touch a fuzzy petal. "Well, there's a lot of families with Germanic roots around here, so I can see why they'd be popular. It's nice of you to accommodate their tastes."
He shrugged a little. "It's just good business."
"I suppose..." She turned a bit pink as she remembered her manners, turning to face him again. "I'm Annaliese, but everyone calls me Annalie."
He smiled slightly for the first time, just a slight lifting of the corner of his mouth. Annalie smiled back, reminded very much of Vash in that quiet, understated smile. "I'm Willem, or Will," he said, stepping close enough to offer his hand. "...Would you like to take that edelweiss home? You don't need to pay for it," he said quickly, seeing her startle and reach for her purse. "Just let me know where you put it, how much sun it gets and how it does. Research."
Annalie grinned. "I'd love too."
It begins there, because they talked until the rain let up, and Will showed her the way back to the bus station. She promised to come back again when she had a free day, and rode home with the little pot of edelweiss cradled on her lap. When Vash asked her where she got it, she just smiled.
It sits on her windowsill even now.
...And now I have that song stuck in my head. Thank you Rogers and Hammerstein. Not.
Annalie never really had much of an interest in boys.
She had exactly two boyfriends in high school. One of them was freshmen year, and really they were just friends but they called themselves boyfriend and girlfriend and stole a few exciting kisses because that made them cool. The other was her fourth year and a little more serious, but still more because having a boyfriend was the expected thing to do. They'd parted on good terms just after graduation, and that was that.
In university, there hadn't been anyone. She'd been too busy studying even if there was someone she was interested in. Eventually, even Vash stopped asking if she'd met someone every time she came home to visit.
And she was fine with that, really. Her brother took her to dinner and even bought her flowers on her birthday, and she was happy. She never saw a reason to fling herself at any man just so she could get a boyfriend.
Vash, for his part, seemed very happy his sister wasn't inclined to date, and that was the way it stayed.
So Annalie wasn't surprised at all when her feelings for Will never really veered past friendship. In some ways, she came to see him as a second older brother. She teased him, and he sighed and huffed and pretended to ignore her. It made her laugh, because a lot of the time she could imagine Vash reacting almost the same way.
She started helping out a little, on afternoons when she didn't have work, especially once spring rolled around and Will often had his hands full with customers most of the day. It was never anything much, just watering and weeding the big greenhouses out behind the shop, but she liked being able to help and Will usually paid her in sweets and teas and supplies for her own little garden that was quickly growing on her dresser next to the window.
She learned pretty quickly that Will had a younger sister of his own who worked in a bakery across town, but she never had the chance to meet her. Belle, Will said, tended to get up very early to do the fresh baking before her shop opened, and then went to bed relatively early in the evenings. Will usually only saw her on weekends, time when Annalie was never around.
Annalie joked, once, that his sister might disapprove of how much Will hung around with a younger woman. Will just got an odd look on his face and shook his head.
Will never treated her as anything but a friend and little sister. Since Annalie had no interest of her own, she never really thought much about it. To her, it wasn't strange, it was just the way things were.
She and Will had been friends for about three months when one day she arrived at the shop to find him unusually out of sorts. There were a few customers in the shop, but none of them were even demanding his attention at the moment, just looking through the shelves or browsing the aisles. Will was leaning with his hip against the counter, furiously texting on his phone. He wasn't scowling, but Annalie knew him well enough to see that he wasn't happy. She made her way over to him, waiting patiently until he looked up and realized she was there.
"Is something wrong?" she asked quietly, not wanting to alarm any of the customers.
Will just shook his head with a sigh. "Not really. My sister wants me to bring her a few things after work, but I have a date. I don't really have time to run all the way over to her bakery..."
Annalie blinked, then smiled. "But your sister's bakery is on the east side, right? Near the river?" Her smile widened when Will nodded. "I live over on that side of town myself, I'd be happy to drop the things off on my way home. That way you won't keep your date waiting."
Will brightened. "You'd really do that for me?"
"Of course," Annalie laughed, putting a hand on his arm. "That's what friends are for. Now, about this date..."
Will looked a bit sheepish. "It's a blind date, actually. One of my regulars set me up with his cousin. He thinks the kid needs to get out more. I'll let you know how it goes."
Annalie winced, thinking of her own brother pestering her about whether or not she was seeing anyone through most of college. "Good luck. Take it easy on her."
"Uh," Will gave her a funny look, but nodded. "Yeah."
The rest of the afternoon passed in peace, Annalie going about her usual duties in the greenhouses, watering and repotting and sorting. Some of the irises could probably be harvested for bulbs soon; she made a mental note to tell Will.
When she went back inside, he was just closing up shop. A paper bag was sitting on the counter. "Are these the things for your sister?"
Will nodded. "Yes. Don't worry too much, there's nothing fragile. Thanks again for doing this."
Annalie smiled, waving away his thanks. "No, I told you, I really don't mind. Now hurry, you have a date to get ready for."
Will had written the address for the bakery on the outside of the bag. It wasn't very far from the bus station, actually closer to it than Annalie's apartment was. It was a warm evening, so she didn't mind the short walk, and the first stars were just beginning to come out when she found herself standing in front of the bakery.
The front window was large, and a display case was backed up against it so that anyone passing by was tempted by the sight of racks of muffins and scones, piles of cookies and loaves of bread. The light that spilled out onto the street was golden and warm, and Annalie could almost smell delicious things, even though she knew this late in the evening there was probably nothing fresh baking. In fact, if she didn't hurry the bakery would be closing soon.
She took a step back to glance up at the sign over the door, just to make sure she had the right place. Waffles. What an odd name for a bakery.
A bell over the door jingled when Annalie went in, and a cheery voice from beyond the doorway behind the counter called "Just a moment!"
Annalie started a bit, but called back, "It's alright, take your time!"
As she waited for (probably) Will's sister to finish up whatever she was doing, Annalie glanced around. The impression she'd gotten outside of golden and warm seemed to be spot on correct. The floor was done in a rich, creamy tile, and the walls were covered in a golden tan wallpaper with - Annalie looked closer, and blinked in astonishment - thin ribbons of a more satiny paper in a subtle grid design. The wallpaper really looked like waffles. The name didn't seem so strange anymore.
The counter was glass and honey-stained wood, and it doubled as a display case for intricately decorated cakes. Other displays lined the walls, along with a few small tables and comfy chairs in case patrons wanted to sit down and enjoy their pastries. There were accents here and there; framed pictures on the walls, shelves with a few knick-knacks, a couple potted plants Annalie would bet anything came from Will.
She was just starting to think about taking a seat to wait when Belle swept out of the back room, smiling warmly. "I'm so sorry about the wait, how can I help you?"
Annalie was suddenly very self-conscious about how she must look; plain jeans and sensible flat shoes, a drab sweater in a faded wine colour that hid her figure (what there was of it), hair tied back from her face with a girlish lace ribbon, a paper bag clutched against her chest like she was trying to hide.
Annalie was suddenly self-conscious, because Belle was beautiful. If Annalie looked, she could see similarities between Belle and Will, especially around the nose and chin, something about their hands. But Belle was shorter (though still tall for a woman), with blond hair several shades brighter than Annalie's that fell in perfect ringlets around her face, sparkling blue eyes and an energetic, mischief-loving smile. She had a figure too, Annalie couldn't help but notice, lovely curves that weren't hidden at all by the crisp black slacks and coral-pink blouse, or even the golden-brown apron she wore over top (well, mostly golden-brown. It was splattered with flour and batter, but that was to be expected). Her hair was pulled back by a no-nonsense headband, pink to match her shirt.
For some reason, Annalie couldn't seem to make her mouth work right. She just blushed furiously, embarrassed at her own clumsiness, and held the bag out to Belle.
She took it with a quizzical, puzzled look, unfastening the top to peer inside. "Oh! These are the poppy seeds I asked Will for. You can find them in the supermarket but I'd trust his quality over theirs any day." Belle looked up again, studying Annalie more thoughtfully. "You must be that assistant of his, then."
"...Huh?" Annalie blinked, startled out of her stupor. "Assistant? No, I'm just a friend-"
"Annalie, right?" Belle beamed, and Annalie blushed furiously again, but nodded. Belle set the bag on the counter, wiping her hands off on her apron before she held one out to Annalie. "I'm Will's sister, Belle. Thank you so much for bringing these out to me."
Annalie took her hand to shake it, felt the firmness of the other woman's grip, the warmth of her hand, the slight grittiness of flour and sugar that clung to her skin no matter how much she wiped them off.
For some reason, Annalie's heart skipped a beat.
Annalie and Vash have dinner together once a week at least, no exceptions. If their schedules permit, they try and get together twice a week, even if once is just to grab coffee and talk. It was hard when Annalie was in high school and Vash was working his way through grad school, they almost never had the same evenings free. It's a little easier now that they're both working; Annalie's schedule is pretty set, and Vash's hours are very flexible as long as he gets his work done on time. Annalie knows he tends to get up and work in the early morning in the peace of his apartment, break for lunch, and then go in to the office in the afternoons for meetings.
That evening, as they sat by the window of their favourite Italian restaurant, something was out of balance. Something between them felt off, but Annalie couldn't tell if there was really something wrong, or if it was all in her own head. She felt nervous in a way she never did around her brother, and she couldn't figure out why.
Vash must have sensed it too, because he gave her a funny look as the waitress walked away after taking their orders. "Annalie, is everything going alright at work?"
The butterflies exploded full force in Annalie's stomach as she belatedly realized what the problem was, and she knew her face must be turning bright red. She hated confrontation, and she hated giving news that might upset other people, especially when it was her brother. "Um," she had to stop and clear her throat to keep her voice from coming out a squeak. "Yeah, everything's fine. I dropped my hours back to part time."
Vash blinked, letting that sink in for a moment. "But wasn't that the job you were so excited to get?"
"Yes..." Annalie realized she was twisting her napkin into knots on her lap, and forced herself to stop. "I thought I'd really enjoy working with the elderly, and I do, but I've found something else I like even more."
"You are still young, but..." Vash frowned a little, and Annalie could see that crease between his eyebrows that only appeared when he was worrying about something. "You shouldn't change jobs too often. You're more mature and reliable than that."
"I know," Annalie bit at her lower lip, trying to find a way to explain. "I'm still keeping the job at the care center, I can move back to full time if things don't work out with Will."
"With Will?" The sudden sharp suspicion in her brother's tone made Annalie start, and with a fresh burst of nerves she realized that she hadn't been thinking about what she was saying, and how that sentence must sound.
"No, no," her words tumbled over each other in her haste to explain. "Will's just a friend, Vash. He owns the shop where I've been getting my flowers. I've been helping him out when I have time, but the shop's doing well enough he offered to start paying me cash if I'd come in on a regular basis."
Vash was still frowning, but the harsh lines around his mouth had eased somewhat. "A flower shop? That's hardly related to your degree."
Annalie sighed, thinking a bit wistfully of the framed bachelor's of social work hanging in her bedroom. "I know, that's why I'm keeping the job at the care center too. But I really enjoy working with the plants, a lot more than I thought I would. And Will needs the help right now, so I want to give it a try."
"Alright..." Vash finally conceded, and Annalie felt a flash of wholly unexpected annoyance that Vash apparently thought she was asking his permission. "I just worry about you."
She reached over, put her hand over her brother's and watched the way his face shifted from worry to slight discomfort at the open affection of that act. "I know, Vash. Thank you, but I'm okay. If I needed help, you'd be the first person I asked." She smiled at him, and after a moment he relaxed enough to smile slightly back and give her hand a squeeze. Annalie read the unspoken hint easily and withdrew her hand, just as the waitress returned with their food. "How are things going at the firm?"
Vash brightened and started in on financial jargon that Annalie only understood the bare minimum of. But it was easy to nod and smile, and that took them through the rest of dinner. Annalie insisted on paying for dessert (she knew her brother well enough to know he wouldn't spend money on sweets himself), and they lingered over it, their conversation turning to family.
"Roderich and Elizaveta still haven't set a date for their wedding," Vash said, sipping his coffee with another slight frown. Annalie stifled a frown of her own at the disapproval in his voice.
"There's nothing wrong with a long engagement," she reasoned. "It gives them more time to get to know each other, and save up money."
"They're already living together," Vash pointed out, that crease between his eyebrows reappearing.
"There's nothing wrong with that," Annalie repeated, only belatedly noticing how tightly she was holding her coffee cup and forcing herself to relax a little. "And even if there was, it isn't our place to interfere with their lives. If they're happy the way they are..."
Vash shook his head, draining the last of his coffee and standing, taking his jacket from the back of his chair. "It still isn't proper. Come on Annaliese, I'll give you a ride home."
Annalie stared at his back as she followed him outside. They both knew the real reason Roderich and Elizaveta weren't married yet; he had white hair and red eyes and he was their second cousin on Roderich's mother's side. It was on the tip of her tongue to ask what Vash thought about Gilbert, and then she decided she didn't want to know.
Swear to god, I have no intention of abandoning this one. :) Life's just been nuts lately.
Also help, how do I Switzerland? ;;;;;
Annalie was actually quite pleased with her new routine. She worked at the care center most mornings and on the weekends, and at Will's shop in the afternoons. Sometimes Will had her watch the counter and talk to customers, sometimes he had her work in the greenhouses. After a couple months, he started taking entire days off, something he confided in her that he hadn't really done since he first opened the store.
It was hard sometimes, working at both jobs Annalie felt like she never had time to sit down and take a proper rest. But the sense of satisfaction she got more than made up for it. If she'd been asked, it would have been hard to choose one job over the other. She'd always wanted to go into social work of some kind; she wanted to help people on a personal, one-on-one basis. During university she'd had a chance to do an internship working at an orphanage, which was both gratifying and heart-breaking. When she'd been offered a job at a local senior care center right after graduation, she'd jumped at it.
But she'd found the job wasn't quite what she'd expected it to be. She hadn't expected so much bureaucracy. She hadn't expected that sometimes, the senior's families just didn't care, and even worse, sometimes neither did her coworkers. Annalie did her best, and she did love the job, but...
But she found she loved working at Will's shop just as much, if not more. It was a totally different environment from the care center. At the center, she had to be gentle and quiet and soothing, calm when other people were upset, serene in the face of confusion or stress. She was naturally very patient and level-headed, but there were still plenty of times she became frustrated, either with the seniors themselves or her coworkers or the policies in place that wouldn't let her be as effective as she knew she could be.
And then she would go to Will's, and he was happy to let her work on her own, at her own pace. When she came up with a new system of sorting the plants, Will not only listened to her, he told her to go ahead and do it her way. Annalie still fondly remembers the sense of pride she felt, the first time Will took the entire day off and left her to run the store all on her own. Not only were there no major disasters, she managed to convince Mr. Kirkland (Will said his purchases alone almost paid the store's rent every month, and he said it with such a straight face that Annalie could never tell if he was joking) to put in a bed of lavender and chamomile among his roses so he could make his own teas straight from his garden.
It was a sense of accomplishment, of pride. She liked nurturing the plants and chatting with the customers, she didn't have to watch her words or worry that she might accidentally upset a fragile mood.
She wanted to help people, but she was beginning to wonder more and more if she might be better use helping people pick tulip bulbs than making the elderly comfortable while they waited for death.
(And wasn't that a horrible, cynical thought? But the truth, Annalie knew. That's all she was doing at the care center.)
The second time Annalie met Belle, she was taken completely by surprise.
Will was out back, in the tiny sliver of yard between the greenhouse wall and the fence that marked the property line. He wanted to experiment with water lilies, and now that he had Annalie to watch the shop, he finally had time to dig the pond that was needed. It was a quiet day, so Annalie was sitting on a stool behind the counter, reading a book and waiting for a customer to come in. Or she was, until she shifted in her seat and her bookmark slipped off her lap, fluttering down to the floor.
Shaking her head at herself, Annalie slipped off the stool, crouching to grab the slip of ribbon (red and embroidered with tiny white edelweiss, it had been a present from Roderich for her last birthday). She heard the squeak of the hinges and the bell over the door chime just at the moment she was completely hidden by the counter, followed by footsteps and a woman's voice (warm and mellow were the impressions Annalie got) calling "Broer?"
"Hello!" Annalie made sure to call out, not wanting to scare the poor woman witless when she popped up from behind the counter. But instead, she was the one who nearly had the heart attack when she straightened up, book and bookmark in hand, to find Belle weaving her way through the shop's narrow aisles, smiling brightly. And if anything, her smile widened when she saw Annalie.
She looked, Annalie couldn't help but notice, just as wonderful today as she had that evening a couple weeks before. Belle was wearing a skirt this time, knee-length and black and flared just enough that it moved in really interesting ways, flashing her knees now and then above the knee-high heeled boots. Her blouse and headband were both red, bright and true like the poppies blooming in the greenhouse and setting off her blond hair and canny green eyes. Somewhere in her mind, Annalie knew she was staring but couldn't seem to stop. Belle was wearing a necklace too, some sort of pendant on a chain that led straight down to-
Annalie wrenched her eyes upward again with an almost physical jolt, belatedly realizing that she could feel herself blushing as red as Belle's blouse (that had the top two buttons undone-). Belle was watching her with a slight, shrewd smile, something in her eyes making Annalie blush even harder, her heart pounding in her own (fully buttoned and covered) chest. Belle stepped forward until she could lean her elbows against the counter, her smile warm as she watched Annalie trying not to stare at her cleavage. After nearly a full minute, she finally took pity. "Annalie," she said, making the girl jump and nearly drop the book she was still clutching. "Is my brother here?"
"Yes!" Annalie was dismayed to find her voice came out as little more than a squeak. She cleared her throat and tried again, already backing up toward the door that led back to the storage room, and the greenhouse and yard beyond. "I'll go get him!"
Belle blinked and straightened up slightly. "Wait, you don't have to-"
Annalie was already gone, nearly knocking over a stack of spare pots in her haste to get outside. She took deep breaths of fresh air, leaning back against the door and letting the sun burn the blush off her cheeks as she tried to get her rebellious heart and trembling knees back under control. For some reason, she seemed to freeze and go tongue-tied at the mere sight of Belle, and now she probably thought Annalie was some kind of naive, awkward child.
For some reason, that thought made Annalie's stomach clench.
She forced herself to stop leaning on the door and go find Will. He was right where she'd left him, knee deep in dirt as he dug out the area to be converted into the lily pond. He looked up at her approach, and she saw him raise his eyebrows. "Is everything okay?"
"Your sister's here," Annalie felt her cheeks warming just thinking about Belle, but she resolutely kept her eyes on Will and pretended she wasn't losing her mind.
"Ah, thanks," Will set his shovel aside, stepping up out of the half-dug hole to go inside and see what Belle wanted. It wasn't until he was already inside that he realized Annalie hadn't followed him.
Broer - Dutch for 'brother'