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Willow stood up, stretching the muscles in her legs and arms, needing to move for a while. There was only so much time she could spend sitting still and not moving as she looked at code.

Sage: Yo.
Willow: Yo.

She’d been working for hours. It was past lunchtime, though she’d been working through the break, because she’d been so hyperfocused on what she was doing.

Sage: Anything interesting today?

They were both working on different programs, as was usually the case. The department didn’t have the manpower to let people work together on the same program because of the high pressure to get through the backlog of programs as quickly as possible and there weren’t enough people hired yet to do this. Not enough people who’d passed the tests and everything. Plus, as Soleil had once told her, there were too few people with experience coding in C++ in the world, and most of them were already working for other companies. So BASE was training a lot of new people to help them soon, but that could still take months.

Willow: I don’t know. Nothing interesting code-wise, but that doesn’t mean that it couldn’t be hidden in some strange corner.

They were looking for abnormalities in the coding of programs that would expose the user data to someone who shouldn’t be allowed to see that data or could put users’ accounts in danger. The engine that Helheim Fallen Online was based on had been using a critical flaw in the BASE platform to pinpoint players who they deemed ‘unwelcome’ to then break into their accounts and blitz them.

Blitzing was the scrambling of the data of an account, which made the user unable to get back into their account. It would lock them not just out of a game but also out of the whole BASE account. And since BASE was connected to everything from jobs to schooling to banking details, people would basically lose everything they had in seconds. And before Willow and her friends had exposed the flaw, that data would have been gone forever, even from backup servers, as this particular engine would then insert a worm into the targeted account that would destroy all traces of it, on all servers where the data had been stored on, going back as far as it could. Everything they’d ever owned, anything they’d ever done, gone.

Willow and her friends had been lucky when they’d found what was going on and, as far as they knew, when they’d deleted the offending trigger code from the HF ‘release update’, they’d stopped the engine from doing too much damage. In total, there had been reports of ‘just’ dozens of accounts affected by this thing, but it could have been in the thousands, or ten of thousands, if they hadn’t stopped it. HF had been the first big game that had been made in this engine, but the people who created the engine had gone missing after their coding had been exposed. So nobody knew who they were or where they were, and they could be up and running and breaking into people’s accounts again already.

Now, the BASE main company ran a totally new department, purely for the testing of new engines, programs and games, trying to prevent something like what was about to happen with HF ever happening again. Willow and Sage had been among the first to be hired into the department.

But for Willow, there was more than just the trying to find bad code going on. She sometimes still woke up from nightmares in which her friends’ accounts got blitzed and that she lost all contact with them. She’d have nightmares that she accidentally didn’t test a program well enough and thousands of people would have their accounts blitzed because of her failing.

She was scared, and it made her work long hours. Even after she’d log off work, she’d still be thinking about the code she’d been working on that day, never really letting it rest.

A green blinking started at the side of her view, she was getting a call from someone. Then she saw the chats from Sage.

Sage: Willow!
Sage: Yo!
Sage: Earth to Willow!

As she pulled herself back to the now, Sage’s name slid from the side to the middle of her view, still blinking in green. She accepted the call.

“Are you okay?” Sage’s voice was fast, like they were a little out of breath.

Willow purposefully stepped forward, she’d been staring off into nothing, frozen in place in the middle of her living room. “I’m good.” This hadn’t been the first time this happened, not even this week.

“Are you sure?”

“Yeah.” She took a deliberate breath. “Yeah, I’m sure.” She walked over to the kitchen, getting herself a glass of water.

“Have you been…” Sage’s voice got quiet for a few moments. “Have you been sleeping well?”

Willow stopped in the middle of filling the glass. Sage knew her a little too well sometimes, especially when it came to when Willow wasn’t at her best.

“Have you told Violet or Soleil?”

She shook her head. “Why would I? It’s not like they can help.”

“Why not?”

“Because…” She sighed deep, tears slowly forming in her eyes and she let out a shaking breath. Then she moved her hand and a keyboard formed in front of her.

Willow: There isn’t anything that they can do to stop the nightmares.

She’d told Sage about the nightmares before, they were the only one who knew about what haunted her in her sleep.

“Why not?” Sage replied by voice, not by text.

Willow: They can’t go into my head and stop them.
Willow: It’s just…
Willow: I’ll have to get over them at some point. They can’t come to my rescue every time.

“What if they want to? What if we all want to?”

Willow stared off into space again, Sage’s words going through her head. ‘What if we all want to?’

Willow: No.
Willow: It’ll get better, I just need to sleep more.

She just had to exhaust her brain more, let herself sleep more soundly. It would get better at some point, she was sure of that. It just wasn’t right now.

Willow: I’m taking a break for a little while.

“Okay. Take care of yourself.” Sage disconnected the call and she was on her own again.

She knew that her friends cared, she really did, but she had no idea how they could solve the nightmares, or the fear running through her. She really just needed more time, her brain would find something else to grasp onto soon enough. She just had to wait it out.

***

Willow was curled up on the couch, her arms around the plush hippogriff that Violet sent her for her birthday once, and hiding under a fluffy blanket. She stared into nothing, trying to keep her brain from wandering off too far and trying to not freak out.

After the chat with Sage earlier today, something bad had taken hold inside of her, a deep, dark panic that she couldn’t seem to shake off. Every time her mind went to something good, it would turn it bad and she just couldn’t deal with it anymore. She couldn’t do this anymore.

Suddenly, strong arms grabbed her and almost dragged her off the couch, pulling her against a warm body, holding her in a tight grip. “Willow. Willow.” It was Violet’s voice, there was an edge to it that she didn’t know how to interpret. What was Violet doing here?

No. Violet was supposed to be at work right now. She couldn’t be here. She wasn’t. This was just her brain playing tricks on her again.

“Willow.” She was moved, and then the blanket was pulled from her head. Violet stared down at her, her dark eyes wide, a line between her eyebrows, her full lips pressed together. She seemed… worried. But she was really here.

Willow shook her head, not able to answer her, her tears slowly starting again and she pulled the plush hippogriff tighter. What was Violet doing here? Why was she here? How?

Violet took a few deep breaths and pulled Willow closer against her, hugging her tightly for a while. Then she carefully put her back on the couch.

Why was Violet here? What was she doing here? ‘Why?’ Her mouth formed the word, but no sound came out. She couldn’t speak, it was locked inside.

“We were all worried.” Violet crossed her legs and sat down in front of the couch, still looking at Willow. “This morning too… And then Sage messaged me…”

Sage? They’d told Violet? Why would they?

“They didn’t tell me anything but that they were worried about you. I promise. They were just… They were just wondering if I’d been feeling that you were different lately too.”

Willow could finally move her fingers again.

Willow: And?

Violet’s eyes shot to the side, the crease between her eyebrows lessening as she saw the message, then she looked back at Willow. “Yeah.” She let out a slow breath. “Lately, you… You’ve not been over to my place in weeks. And it’s been more than two weeks since I was here last.”

Had it been that long? Had she really locked herself inside her own house, her own mind, for that long? It couldn’t be.

“You didn’t realise?”

Willow shook her head. Understanding now why Violet and Sage had been worried, even though… It wasn’t like they could do much to help…

Violet nodded and stood up slowly. “Have you been sleeping?”

Willow nodded. She kept looking at Violet, knowing that looking away would reveal her lie, but maybe looking at her too intently would too… So she looked at Violet’s feet instead, at the rough army boots that she wore.

Violet walked to the kitchen, opening the fridge, probably looking inside, and then Willow heard her take one of the cans of energy drink she stored there.

Willow’s heart sank, Violet wasn’t supposed to find that.

Then Violet came back over to the couch, putting the can on the floor in her line of sight, before sitting down next to it. The corners of her mouth almost looked turned down, her shoulders slumped, and she let out a deep sigh. “I think I’m staying here for the evening.” Violet reached out, slowly sliding her fingers over Willow’s cheek and Willow’s tears soaked the blanket under her head.

Willow: Don’t tell anyone, please.

She didn’t need the others to know. It was bad enough that she had a hard time hiding what she was doing within the BASE health logs. She’d found a way to alter the logs after Soleil had done it a few times back when they were still trying to find Violet and still figuring out what was going on with HF. So she’d been lightly altering it to hide the high caffeine intake and her bad dreams. Nobody needed to know, especially not her doctors.

“I won’t. But you can’t keep doing this.” Violet stood up again. Only this time, she lifted Willow’s head and then sat down on the couch, putting Willow’s head in her lap. Violet’s long fingers carefully played through her hair, rubbing her skull, soothing her.

They sat like that for a long time. Just together, not doing anything else, at least, not as far as Willow knew. She relaxed, finally, her mind slowing down, the tension from her body slipping away. It wouldn’t stay like that for long, she already knew that, but for now, she’d take it. She’d take any rest that she could get.

“Willow?” Violet’s voice was barely over a whisper.

She nodded, slowly.

“Want me to order a pizza? Or would you like something else?”

“A pizza, please.” Her voice had come back. It was still rough, and it felt weird to speak, but it was back, no longer kept inside by the darkness.

Willow knew that this calm wouldn’t last. There were hundreds and thousands of games and programs that needed to be tested. Thousands of opportunities for some rogue code to ruin people’s lives. She had so much work to do to make sure that what happened to Violet and many others wouldn’t happen to anyone else ever again.

She had a responsibility to keep people safe, and she knew that that would never let up. She had to keep going. But for tonight, maybe she should relax, just a little.

Just a little.

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