The day was growing dark beneath the cloud cover, and Tea’s mood had cooled to a soupy grey.
“It’s fine.” He’d said, when he met the girls outside the chapel and they gazed at him questioningly. “Go back without me, I’m going for a walk.”
Bluebottle had given him that look - so full of feeling, concern; she knew he wasn’t going back to the orphanage that night, but she didn’t know why, and she didn’t ask.
When he got like this, she knew the best thing to do was to leave him alone. The reason she knew to leave him alone made Tea’s chest ache; she was afraid.
He could feel it – the uneasiness causing a twitch in her fingers, a pull in her legs, easing her a few steps away, pulling her form into a slight crouch as though ducking away from a blow. The guilt grew when Tea realised she was worried about him anyway, that something was fighting to lead her back to him.
Although it seemed the fear was strong enough to keep her away. Somehow, shamefully, Tea realised he was glad.
He just wanted to be alone.
“Huh?” Hellebore’s brow had creased, “You’ll get cold! Come back soon, okay?”
“Yeah.” He mumbled, “I’ll see you later”
Bluebottle had escorted her away, desperately trying to straighten her form, calm her pace, and to not look back.
Tea wandered the hours away until the sun rose again, immersing himself in the bustle of the day and the night life without getting involved; he saw the gardeners sneaking around in the slums, seeking their own sort of corruption that no one ever talked about in places much colder than that chapel; he caught the thieves guild shuffling between buildings - two with dusty brown hair, three with blonde, another with black hair, there and then gone; he noticed run-aways crouching in corners and alley ways, twitching at every sound, making themselves as small as possible, terrified of being noticed.
There was one in particular: a girl, barely older than Hellebore - 12, maybe 13 - with hair nearly as dark as the skin it was roughly chopped back to. She hugged her knees close to her chest and buried her face behind them. Quietly, she sobbed.
When Tea got close she looked up with a jump, and he noticed one of her eyes was paler than the other, her lips were bruised and split, her arms and legs painted up and down in splashes of black and purple as well, and riddled with pock-marks. Her skin was visible under her thin white sack of a dress, her bones under that.
She ran, and was dismissed by Tea like he’d move on from the sight of a rat.
There were plenty of other lost children, some of them more interesting - gardeners’ youngsters around his age with their frightened eyes were rare, but there, pressed against alley walls, wrapped in strips of sack to hide their warmer, richer clothes that they could no longer afford to abandon or share.
Their eyes always flickered with terror; they looked on every paper cut as though it were something more, every bit of mottled flesh as though it was the first time they had seen such a thing. Once, he stopped to look down on one of them - a dusty-looking, ginger-haired runt with sallow skin that was shaking rapidly. Tea knew that they weren’t going to last much longer - the cold of the night, and the agony of hunger, was taking its toll.
Barely audible, the child was muttering,
“Don’t make me.” Then they would look up at Tea, and around, “Don’t tell them where I am, please.” And then down at their feet again. “I can’t look. I can’t do it.”
“What can’t you do?” Tea whispered the question, like he had many times before to other children like this one.
The child did not hear, or they were not brave enough to answer, and Tea was thankful again that he hadn’t been raised in the city when his parents were alive.
He moved on.
It was as the sky was brightening that his mind was knocked back into place by a rush of adrenalin.
He had taken shelter in the quiet of the forest, but at the break of dawn the birds erupted in a cacophony of song from the trees and then fled from them; he heard the rustling from deeper into the great, dark forest, the cracking of twigs and the soft brushing sound of pine needles shifting.
The sounds grew closer and closer, and Tea began to steel himself - a feeling of heaviness was rushing towards him, but the nearer it was it somehow felt like it decreased.
A figure burst clumsily from the trees, and tumbled over Tea’s feet.
It sprawled on the floor - a young girl... brown hair carved to the scalp, dark skin... panicked eyes turned to him, one more cloudy than the other... and then they closed abruptly, and the young girl that had run from him before now lay at his feet; thin, exhausted and unconscious.
Tea moved the girl to a different part of the woods, pulled by a strange sense of responsibility; whatever she was doing in the woods before, something must have now been after her, so he moved her. If he hadn’t done it, then who else would have? There was no one else to see her fall.
And if he had left her…?
Tea pursed his lips, and settled by the side of her, peering down at her shivering body.
Repeatedly, he told himself to not care. There were hundreds of runaways, and he had never cared before, why should he now?
He grunted decidedly, and moved to get up, but couldn’t stop himself from glancing back. He paused.
She was so frail, so hurt, cold, alone.
If she was abandoned, did she need a home? If she was running from something painful, did she need someone to guide her to safety?
Tea remembered strands of white hair falling against the soft silk of a green cloak, and the cold of a snowdrop in his hand.
He sat back down.
What irony, he thought, that the girl who ran from me has just run into me.
The thought touched his humour, and for a moment he chuckled, but soon he fell silent again.
Around them the air was thick with the screeching of birds; any moment Tea expected to hear the cry of whatever had been after the girl, but no sound came.
Without warning, the girl’s body convulsed violently, and her breath began to rasp raggedly from her chest - it seemed to slowly become more and more difficult, until suddenly she shuddered and went still.
Tea’s chest swelled with alarm; a young girl had just died at his feet after being so full of fear... but when he leaned forward to check her breathing, she was already muttering softly, her chest rising and falling gently, and the air flowing in and out of her lungs normally.
But Tea struggled to steady his racing heart, even with the scolding he gave himself about how foolish he was being. The girl still shivered violently, sweat beading on her skin. Unsure, Tea shuffled closer, and eased her long, brittle body awkwardly up to sleep in his lap like a small child that Rue would hold and sing to when she was well, to ease their sleep.
This girl’s sleep, however, was fitful.
She awoke again, gasp catching in her throat and creating a riot of coughing.
This time, the dirt had almost covered her face. This time, she’d nearly been gone.
She had been given a higher dosage than was anywhere near safe; her father was angrier than normal today, because she’d tried to run away. He had punished her, and he had almost lost her.
Tentatively she glanced to the side with her good eye, careful not to move; she’d already made a racket- if her father saw her move he would personally and purposefully make sure she was buried next time.
She was back in her room - ‘the lab’ was what her father called it, but she called it her room, because if she rested that would be where she lay.
Not by choice.
He wasn’t there, and the silence of the house was so prominent it was almost deafening.
Slowly, she risked a turn of her head, and the back of it throbbed.
Through the shutters that blocked out prying eyes, she saw no light through the window.
It was night. Even so, the room was so white she could see the silhouettes of hundreds of plants in tiny pots covering the cement surfaces that lined the walls, along with trays of syringes, Bunsen burners, jars of pickled substances; she couldn’t see the other side, but she knew it was similar.
Her body was on a bumpy metal surface in the centre, but her feet stuck out over the edge, weighing painfully on the corner.
With a long sigh, she attempted to push herself up, but her strength failed, and her head hit the metal with a raucous thunk.
Somewhere nearby, a door creaked open, freezing her in place.
For many minutes she was in silence again, still as the plants that surrounded her.
In an adjoining room, a fire started to roar, pots began a symphony of clattering, liquid screamed and hissed.
Something clunked repeatedly.
Finally, the door to her room released a flood of firelight, burning her good eye with a raging red glow.
A tall, lean figure barely peered through the door.
“Food.” It grunted, “Get up.”
She knew better than to talk back, but now her limbs were coming to life with a wave of pins and needles.
“Dad, I-I can’t, m-my-” Her voice was hoarse and the air tickled her throat again.
“Now.” He growled.
His nostrils flared when she stumbled into a chair five minutes later.
“You always move so slowly.” He huffed. “Waste of my precious time.”
She kept her face down to the table, but glanced at her father’s reflection in the polished wood that somehow remained unscarred, unlike her.
His large black brows were furrowed in fury, his squashed nose was rising and falling with each puff of air he inhaled; he had a scowling mouth mottled further by scars- scars up his lean arms, down his dark legs.
His hair was shaved close, but what showed was black, speckled with grey put there not by age, but by stress and rage.
“I’m s-sorry.” She said quietly, just clear enough for him to hear.
“Sorry!” He gasped, flinging a skimpy bowl of soup at her, so half of what had been there was now scattered over the table and her simple white medical gown.
She risked a hungry glance at her father’s bowl, which was almost overflowing, and knew full well that there was still more in the pot.
She didn’t complain under his wild, stormy-eyed glare, but kept her hands to herself under the table.
Before she could look back down, he caught her gaze.
His smile was cruel.
“Don’t worry.” He chuckled, “You’ll have your chance to eat more later, you little wretch.”
Her eyes widened in fear, she stared deep into his grey ones, but was met with cold steel.
“If you’d be useful, you’d get more.” He hissed into another spoon of soup, “This is important to everyone, you scheming rat. Damn it! I need good results, you selfish little-!”
Her lips shook, straining to hold back her words...
With a gasp, they escaped.
“D-dad, p-please, stop! I-It isn’t getting y-you an-”
The back of ringed knuckles collided with her cheek, sending her crippling to the floor.
By the time she looked back up she was trapped between her father’s legs.
“You’ve caused me nothing but pain.” He spat, like even speaking to her disgusted him, “The least you can do to repay me is help me research.”
From his pocket he revealed a syringe filled with a translucent liquid. He uncapped it with a grin and flicked the air bubbles from it, and then leant down to grip her arm so tightly that he burst veins.
She screamed as the needle broke her skin.
Tea jumped and groaned as the girl lurched awake, smacking the side of his head with her forehead.
The day had reached its peak, the air at its warmest and easiest to breathe.
Tea dropped the girl and rolled away, rubbing at his temple, moaning. The girl seemed unfased, though she rested a hand on the spot she had hit, blinking slowly.
In the time she had slept, Tea had settled his mind and started to feel more like himself again, taking comfort from the warmth – as slight as it was – of holding another living being close to him.
“You’re a heavy sleeper…” Tea grumbled at her, “…for someone with so many nightmares.”
The woods had rumbled with the howls of wild animals and the screaming of birds, the kee-ing of kestrels and sparrow hawks. Twice he’d had to move her from the eyes of people wandering through the trees, just in case.
The girl’s lips trembled as she tried to speak.
Despite having slept so long, her grey eyes were ringed with sleepless bags, weary. She didn’t try to get up, but reclined, limbs loosely spread, against the lump of earth besides which Tea had drop her.
“Are...” Her voice was barely audible, a rasping whisper, “Are th-they coming?”
“Who?” He asked, but then shook his head, “No one who came by seemed frantic enough to be after you. Then again, people who chase kids are always weird.”
She shuddered, and then twitched with an attempt at movement, her energy upon waking up apparently short-lived. Tea crawled back towards her and helped her to lean against the rough bark of the nearest pine tree.
“Not so cold.” Tea furrowed his brow in a mockery, “Are you being chased by ghosts? They make no noise, they fill you with cold and bad dreams. Sounds like you’re being haunted.”
He frowned at the dismissal of his joke, and let her sit for a moment whilst he stood and cautiously studied her.
Now he had had a chance to look carefully, he noticed that the pocks on her arms seemed more like holes; the bruises shaped themselves into finger marks.
“Wh-Who are y-you?” The whisper was shaky, but it seemed more like a speech-pattern than an effect of her condition, like an accent. It broke into his consciousness.
“Tea.” He stooped down and put his arms under her. Tea hadn’t really taken note before of how light she was despite her height –she was almost as tall as him, he thought; her bones prodded his flesh as he began to move. “We’re going somewhere safe. Well, a bit. It’s warm, and reasonably friendly. At the least, it will be important to have a name there, there are a tonne of kids. Do you have a name?”
She gave him a wary look, judging him, but then her dry lips unstuck and opened slowly.