Story: Ground Zero
Challenge: Vanilla #15 - Inhospitable Lodgings
Word Count: 1,341
Summary: Four meets some of the other kids, and then she meets Zero.
Notes: I touched on this during NaNo but didn't quite get time to write it. And now I'm horribly out of practice... *sigh* And I may have some guilt issues regarding later stuff with Four, so... just wanted something a bit fluffy.
Midnight was a frightening hour in the creaking house and the darkness swallowed her barefoot steps whole. The corridors stretched before her, seemingly taunting her by edging further away the more she tried to reach it. Tattered carpets occasionally turned icy cold as patches of wooden flooring bled through.
In desperation she pushed at the first door she saw, to no avail; the second one along gave way beneath her tiny hands with a groan that made her jump so violently her feet left the ground. Beyond the door, enveloped in the black, came the sound of bedsprings complaining under the weight of restless bodies. Mesmerised by the noise, she was so wide-eyed and fascinated that when a tired, grumpy voice cut through the gloom she nearly wet herself. “What the hell-”
“I’m sorry,” she gulped, voice shaking. “I- I just- I’m scared...”
“Go away,” the voice advised bluntly and she only just became aware that it was thickly female. Before she could answer another fierce protestation from the bed indicated that the speaker had turned over, probably away from her. Heart sinking, she allowed the door to slowly close itself again, staring at the barely visible wood inches from her face.
The next door was further along than she expected and her questing hands first found flaky plasterwork and peeling paper before the frame grazed her fingers. The door pushed open more easily than the first and with less of a sound and the room beyond was dimly illuminated from some unseen source. In the hardwood bed a figure stirred restlessly.
“E- Excuse me...” The words were forced from her throat in a sudden rush. “I’m...”
“I don’t care.” The figure in the bed didn’t turn. “Go away.”
She blanched. “But I-”
A soft rustle and suddenly a pale, handsome face was staring at her over the top of the blankets, eyes narrowed. “Go away,” he growled, “or I’ll slit your throat and tell Magnus it was suicide. Understand me?” The blue glare made her take an involuntary step back; she didn’t doubt the veracity of the words. Tears finally spilled from her eyes and trailed down her cheeks, their tracks embarrassingly hot in the face of the young man’s fury. She wanted to say something, anything, even an apology, but any words died in her throat. Instead she backed away from the room and waited for the door to swing shut just like the last one had done, which it did at intolerably slow pace; the last thing she saw despite tears blurring her vision was the scowl on the face of the handsome man and a mouthed curse-word she couldn’t stop herself from understanding.
She almost didn’t try for one last door. The only thing that made her make one final attempt was the sure and certain knowledge that she couldn’t remember where her tiny room, shared with a boy her own age, was any more. Stumbling back through the darkness, surrounded by unfamiliar sounds and smells, was more than she could bear, more even than the threats levelled at her by strangers in this strange house.
The last door, almost indistinguishable from the wall with her flooded vision, was already ajar. It slipped away from her gentle fingers with an ease that made her breath catch in her throat and her heart skip a beat. It didn’t even creak. Nonetheless, the figure in the bed inside turned in their sleep and if her heart had paused before, this time it came to a grinding halt. Fresh tears streamed from her eyes and no matter how hard she tried to stop them they refused; she couldn’t tell if it was from the threat or...
Beyond the doorway, the figure mumbled, “Seven, that you?”
“No...” she whispered, fingers knotting into the fabric of the long, oversized nightdress she’d been given. “I-”
The figure sat up slightly in their bed. “No? What’s wrong?”
“I-” This time it was the kindness in the voice that stopped her words, her heart hammering against her chest. In the darkness the person moved again and suddenly she couldn’t see them: the room was flooded with light.
When her eyes became accustomed to the sudden glare and she could see beyond squinting through her damp lashes, she realised that the owner of the bed was leaning forward and resting on one eyebrow, brown eyes fixed with a concerned expression on her. “What’s wrong?” He asked softly.
She stared at the young man with the unruly red hair and kind eyes and the tears, finally - she’d thought - under her control managed to escape again and streamed down her face in steady rivulets. “I had a bad dream,” she sobbed, balling both hands into fists and pressing them against her eyes in the hope that it would stop them. It failed. She’d fully expected it to.
“That won’t do at all,” he murmured and the sheets of his bed rustled again. When she removed her hands she expected to find that he’d decided to ignore her as resolutely as the girl in the first room. Instead she found he’d swung his legs from the bed and was frowning slightly. “In this house? Bad dreams seem even worse.” He patted the slightly tattered blankets beside himself. “Want to tell me about it?”
She shook her head, but tentatively crossed the threshold and climbed onto the bed beside him anyway. He was probably twice her age - maybe eight or nine - but already his chest was broad and the muscles on his arms dwarfed her own. “Don’t want to...” She couldn’t look him in the eye.
It meant she missed his sad smile. “I don’t blame you. What do they call you?”
It was an odd way of phrasing it, she thought, but at the same time it was so right. “I’m Four,” she murmured, the words only just not catching in her throat.
“You’re Four and you’re, what, four?” This time she did look up, in surprise and with a nod, and this time she saw the smile. “That’s pretty good, isn’t it? Almost lucky. I’m Zero.” He held out a hand that was easily twice the size of her own in an awkward gesture; she shook it solemnly. “You don’t want to talk about your dream. You don’t want to think about it, right?” She nodded again, slowly, and he continued, “so should I tell you a story instead?”
Her final nod was with more force than she’d intended. He slid from the bed and pulled the covers back, gesturing for her to slide into the space still warm from his own body, before tucking her in and sitting on the edge of the mattress and picking up a book from the small table beside the bed. The contents were on advanced assassination techniques, but she didn’t need to know that. “Once upon a time, long long ago, there lived a girl who, without anyone knowing, was a princess...”
Her eyes drooped as his gentle voice filled the air, soothing away the terrors and the memory of the boy with the blue eyes and cruel face and he was only halfway through the story when her soft breathing turned into quiet snores.
Zero sighed as he stared at the tiny body of Four wrapped in his sheets, then turned his lamp off again. The floor was hard, but not as hard as the beds in the communal bedroom had felt as he was growing up. The door, like all the others in the hallway, had swung shut by itself and the summer night was warm with no draughts to interrupt it. It had to be past midnight... His own eyes were falling closed as he curled up on the floor, knees to chest, and the only thought that passed through his mind before sleep claimed him as its own was just that he hoped she hadn’t stopped by Five’s room on the way there.
No one needed that kind of trauma after a nightmare.