“Tea!” The younger girl with him squealed, a young girl with fiery red, wild hair and lime-flesh eyes. “We’re goin’ to get in trouble! Tea!”
“Don’t worry so much.” The 14-year-old boy patted the young girl on the head, and then pressed his back firmly against the wall, “We won’t get in trouble, because I’ll blame you for it.”
Tea glanced around the neatly kept grey wall, sun-kissed skin pressed against the cold stone. With iron-grey eyes he spotted his target - there was a little sandy-haired girl sat in a rose garden which was bordered by a neat, white fence. As he watched her closely she fiddled with the head of a yellow rose, pulled off bruised petals and ripped them into tiny pieces.
Then she glanced up, surprising Tea. Quickly, he drew back behind the wall.
“Tea!” His young companion moaned again, “Rue’s goin’ to beat us up if we take her, just like last time!”
“I reckon you can hold your own.” He grinned teasingly at her, “You’re a strong girl, aren’t you, Hellebore?”
“What?” She squeaked, and her little pink lips quivered, threatening tears.
With a snicker, Tea turned around to look for the toddler again.
Her frizzy hair was bouncing in the opposite direction, leaving a trail of butchered rose petals.
There was an exasperated cry when she entered the house, complaining about the dirt she was trailing around.
It was a large, well-maintained house located in the upper area of the Garden - the Rose Garden. Even for Rose houses, this one was grand - it had an acre of land all to itself, almost over-flowing with neatly trimmed hedges that bordered rose beds, and a stable which contained several horses.
The building itself must have been large enough to hold the entire orphanage that he’d been staying in with at least 30 other kids, probably more. The walls were decorated with columns of swirling, tangling ivy.
As he daydreamed about living in such a large, rich household, the little girl came bouncing back out, dragging a tinier child behind her.
He looked a lot like her, but his mouth was turned down, and he kept his eyes on the ground, resisting the pull of her insistent, stubby hands.
Finally, seeing he was uncomfortable, she let him go. He started to squeeze his left thumb with his right finger, and then turned to run back inside.
She called for him, but he didn’t listen, and left her alone again. Again, she glanced in Tea’s direction, almost like she knew he was there.
“Is it Rose-stealing day again?” Came a quiet but jovial voice from behind him, sending a jolt up his spine. He turned and saw a girl with pale white skin and long, sleek raven hair. Her deep brown eyes watched him with interest.
He grinned at her, and shrugged,
“Ah, don’t say it like that, Bluebottle.” He beckoned her over, “It’s just the mite. She likes it.”
Bluebottle’s eyes widened suddenly, mouth flickering into an amused smile.
“Move!” Came a stubborn little voice from below. Hellebore was completely quiet, breath-held in alarm. Tea looked down.
The little girl was pushing at his leg with tiny hands, her yellow summer dress plastered with mud. In one of the little pockets, something wriggled.
“Move!” She cried again, “Mummy’s going to see me!”
Tea stumbled backwards into Hellebore, who yelped and hid behind Bluebottle.
“Wormwood.” He sighed, “You’re supposed to wait until we get you.”
“You can’t get me.” She huffed, “I get you.”
“I’ve gotten you before.”
“I wasn’t looking!” She protested, and then started to march away down the hill.
The three teenagers followed after her, insisting that they pick her up, because people were watching; it wasn’t difficult to tell the difference between a child from the Rose Garden and three orphans from the Weed Pit- it was clear in the sheen of her hair, the cleanliness of her dress, the unscarred state of her skin. As they descended the housing slowly got smaller and more rundown, the people reflecting their homes.
“Are we going to play today?” She asked, “Mummy says I should play with Ragwort more, so I try, but he doesn’t want to, so I tell her, but she doesn’t listen.”
No one replied, but Wormwood didn’t seem to care, she continued her march, mouth moving like the wind.
“Yesterday, we goed to the market. It’s a place where they sell lots of good stuff, like vegetables and stuff.” She puffed up her chest, proud of knowing what it was, “But Ragwort ran off. We thought he got lost, but you know what?”
Tea was grinning at Hellebore’s twiddling fingers and creased brow, eyes flickering to Bluebottle’s, which flickered away from him, seeming to find the situation equally amusing.
“But you know what?” Wormwood insisted, attracting the teenagers’ attention again.
“What?” Tea asked to appease the little girl.
“He was just at home. He walked off and daddy found him, and he was at home, putting his rainbow sheeps into rows, like normal.”
“Sheep.” Hellebore corrected, more to herself than to Wormwood.
Finally they got out of the way of prying eyes and stood before the orphanage- the big building he had been brought to a few years ago. It was taller than all the houses around, and, unlike what was usual in the Weed Pit, the walls were grey-painted pebble dash, rather than broken grey stone. It had a flat roof at the top bordered by unstable iron fencing, originally put there so people didn’t fall off when they walked on it. Each side of it was covered in windows like they were lice under a rock. Like always, there was bickering flooding from it.
Wormwood bravely pushed open the door herself and strolled in.
“That child is going to get herself killed by her boldness one day.” Bluebottle muttered, starting to follow again.
Tea caught her stride and walked beside her.
“Hey, maybe I’ll make sure of it when that one day comes.”
Hellebore fell in line behind them.
“Tea!” She whined, “You can’t kill people!”
Tea laughed raucously and hurried after the little girl.
They found her clambering into a beaten down arm chair in an other-wise-empty room. The arm-chair would have been red, if not for the dust and age of it. The cushions had long ago lost the stuff that made them cushions. The walls of the room were long-since picked and peeled by many generations of children, but here and there were scraps of dull yellow wallpaper.
Standing by Wormwood was a tall brunette girl, apparently kicked out of the chair, speaking quietly to her, who frowned when she turned and saw Tea entering.
“I told you to stop bringing her here.” Her voice was emotionless.
“Don’t look at me like I’m some sort of demon,” He shrugged, “She brought us today.”
Her lips thinned.
“Don’t act so innocent.” She tried to sound fiercer, but Tea already saw that she didn’t have it in her today; her face was pale and her lips had turned white. The bags under her eyes were a deep grey. “If you hadn’t brought her here in the first place... You have to... Don’t say us like it wasn’t your idea!”
“Rue, the girl wants to die, we’re just helping her.” Bluebottle shrugged, acting nonchalant, but seemed uneasy about it. Tea smirked at the comment, but Rue felt otherwise.
“Bluebottle!” She exclaimed, horrified, “Don’t... Don’t even make that joke! What made you think that was appropriate?”
Normally, Bluebottle would have tried to stand her ground, but Rue’s voice had grown thick and sad, and she stumbled back with exhaustion, making Bluebottle lurch forward.
“Wanting to die is not... it’s not a... joke...” Her voice dwindled, her crimson-brown eyes glazed over, lost in a memory of a time before they met her. Bluebottle placed a hand on her back to hold her up until she regained her balance.
“Sorry, Rue.” Hellebore’s voice was barely more than a whisper, “You’re right, it’s not a joke. I’m sure they’ll sort this out. Why don’t we go upstairs?”
She shuffled forwards and took the older girls hand, flinching slightly at the cold in Rue’s fingers. Slowly and carefully, she led her out of the room.
As they listened, Bluebottle and Tea heard the bickering drop away further and further up the orphanage, making the building quiet enough to hear the thud-thud of heavy footsteps on the old wooden stairs.
When the yelling started again, they made a move.
Wormwood was looking at the door as they tried to speak to her, not talking for once.
“Wormwood, let’s go look around town.” Bluebottle suggested.
“Yeah, mite, let’s get out of here.” Tea added, but both of them were still distracted by Rue’s departure.
Since they had arrived, Rue had struck them both as the mother figure for the orphanage - all 32 of the other children here seemed to look up to her and obey what she said.
Rue was the oldest.
Rue worked the fields from dusk until dawn 6 days a week to earn money, more than the other children.
Rue was the one who checked there was enough food, and made sure water was fetched from the well every day, and the one who made sure that every child was well and had something to do.
Recently, though, she hadn’t been able to work.
A month ago she had fainted whilst tilling on a farmer’s field after a long stretch of weeks spent barely able to stay awake, and was deemed unable to continue.
She’d been dropped at the door of the orphanage like a sack of potatoes. Hellebore, who received her, was spat at when she tried to protest and told,
“Dogs with broken legs should be shot. All of you useless rats should be shot, too.”
“Tea?” Wormwood’s voice broke through his train of thought.
Wormwood was clinging to Bluebottle’s hand by the door, and extending her free one to him.
“We’re going looking at the market.” She grinned. “Let’s go!”
Tea grinned back and joined them.