Ellie took the sheet of paper from the teacher lady with a hint of unease, but broke out into a smile as soon as she saw the text on it. They hadn't a thing like this last year, as far as she could tell it was something Ms Derby had decided to do on her own, a summary of how they'd been doing in everything all in one place. She'd been more than a little worried when they'd been told about it a couple weeks ago, but she really needn't have been.
She'd gotten perfect marks in everything. All the comments Ms Derby had written were even nice. It was sort of hard, reading them — talking about how she caught everything in their reading, how clever she was at taking the stuff they were taught and using it in other places (which, that didn't seem special to her, but okay), that sort of thing — to remember that these were about her, that she was this super smart person being described.
Well, not all of them were perfect. Ms Derby said she had trouble getting on with the other kids, sometimes, that she was quiet, and awkward, and she wasn't certain if Ellie had any friends in the class. (She didn't, she didn't know how to do that.) But even that wasn't... She meant, Ms Derby didn't say it in a mean way, just they should probably work on that, but it wasn't bad, Ellie wasn't...wrong, for that, it was what it was.
Reading over the whole thing again, the warm, pleased look Ms Derby was giving her, Ellie's smile just got wider, and she almost thought she might laugh, feeling all too light and bubbly and...
She wasn't a worthless freak.
(They were wrong. She didn't let herself put it quite in those words, even in her own head, but even if she didn't think it directly, she still felt it — she wasn't worthless, she was good at things, they were wrong.)
She practically skipped the whole way home. Even Dudley and his friends being jerks couldn't distract her, the bright bubbling in her chest carried her too high, they couldn't touch her.
(They were wrong.)
Later that night, while Ellie was partway through washing the dishes, she glanced over toward the fridge, where Aunt Petunia had pinned Dudley's report. She strained over closer, so she could read — she nearly tipped right off the stool, had to lean awkwardly to stay balanced, her soapy hands dripping over the sink. Aunt Petunia had ranted with the usual praise she had for her precious Duddydums, but... Well, Ms Derby hadn't said anything mean, she was too nice to straight out call Dudley a fat stupid bully, but that was definitely what she meant. She was just being subtle and...well, nice-teacher-lady-like about it.
Ellie had that one part, talking about how she didn't have any friends, that was indirect and not flattering. Dudley's whole report read like that.
She was better than Dudley. It was a somewhat new thought — such a thing wouldn't have been possible to think before, with Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon always saying the exact opposite, but it had been pretty obvious once they'd started school. She'd never let herself say so out loud, because...well, she was just a worthless freak, how could she know? She was probably wrong. And she'd just be punished for saying so, for making up lies. (Aunt Petunia didn't approve of telling lies.)
But now she had proof.
She didn't know exactly what she thought she would be accomplishing, doing it. It couldn't possibly change anything, but...what if it did? What if, if they saw proof that she wasn't a worthless freak, what if Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon stopped...
Once she was done with the dishes, Ellie retrieved her report. She was too short, so she moved her stool in front of the fridge, reached up and, carefully, pinned her report next to Dudley's. Proof.
Ellie sat up, turned the latch. But it wouldn't open, it was still locked. Scowling at the cupboard door for a second, Ellie flopped back onto her bed, glared moodily up at the zig-zagging underside of the stairs.
In retrospect, pinning her report onto the fridge next to Dudley's had been an awful, awful idea. When Uncle Vernon had noticed it, later that night, he'd stomped over to her, there'd been a lot of shouting, demanding...something or other — she honestly hadn't understood much of what he'd said, too weird and fast and angry — and then he'd been pulling her by her hair, hard, and she'd been in the cupboard, the door slammed behind her, told she'd be staying in here, so help him god, until they found out what to do with her.
The next day, Ellie was out of the house most of the afternoon, helping Aunt Petunia weed the garden. When she came back in, her cupboard was different. Uncle Vernon had fixed a bolt onto the outside, and he'd gone through her things — her books were gone, and her crayons. She'd been told, very sternly, Uncle Vernon's face and voice hard and heavy, that if she didn't do her chores, if she misbehaved, if she told lies, if she did anything bad, she would be put in her cupboard, and she wouldn't be let out.
When she'd said that wasn't fair, she hadn't done anything, she was immediately locked in the cupboard. She still wasn't certain what she'd done to deserve that.
(She hadn't done anything, she was. She was a worthless freak, and worthless freaks belonged in cupboards.)
That was a couple weeks ago now, and Uncle Vernon showed no sign of changing his mind about the lock. If she even slightly burned something on accident, if she dripped a little too much washing the dishes, if she was a little slow finishing something, if she said the wrong thing, sometimes for seemingly no reason at all, into the cupboard she went. A couple times Dudley had even trapped her in here, though Aunt Petunia let her out as soon as she noticed — she couldn't well do her chores if she was locked up, after all.
It wasn't that bad. Sometimes getting to the cupboard was unpleasant, pulling on her hair, or yanking her arm hard enough it felt like it would come off. When Dudley shoved her in here, he'd usually hit her on the way, or push so hard she slammed into the far wall. But once she was in here, it...
Honestly, it was just kind of boring. Usually, when she was in her cupboard, she'd read one of the books she'd picked up at some point (books Dudley had let her have, or thrown away, or lost, or forgotten about), or she'd colour. There wasn't a light in here, but with the door open there was more than enough to see by. With the door closed, she'd probably still be fine — enough light got through the slatted vent she'd probably still be able to read at least, just sit with her back to the door, letting strips of light reveal the text line by line.
But Uncle Vernon had taken all of those. He'd thrown the books away — which was silly, since they had been Dudley's, originally, he'd bought most of them for him in the first place. Her crayons and pencils had been thrown away too, the drawings had been burned, which just seemed sort of...unnecessary. He'd made her watch, too, parked her on the sofa as he fed them into the fireplace one by one, leering at her as each caught.
She was pretty sure that was supposed to hurt, but honestly she'd mostly just been confused. She hadn't known why this was happening, still didn't, she just...
She didn't understand what had happened. It'd been a couple weeks now, since everything had changed, and she was still confused.
Today was Dudley's birthday, and Ellie had been locked in the cupboard overnight. So she wouldn't go poking about Dudley's presents, she was told — which was just silly, it wasn't like she'd ever done that before, but fine. It'd been a little early when she'd been put in here, and there was nothing to do, the only thing in here now were her clothes, so she'd fallen asleep before too long. Which meant she'd woken up early, earlier than anyone else, must have been nearly an hour ago now, though it was impossible to tell. And there was nothing to do, and it was dark, and quiet, and she was bored...
She kept checking the door, which was silly, because she'd be able to hear the bolt sliding open. But she was so bored, she was getting impatient, she kept checking anyway.
Also, she had to pee.
Finally, after what felt like forever, footsteps came up to the door. The lock was shoved aside harder than it needed to be, slamming in its housing with a loud clack, the door swung open a second later. Ellie was dazzled by the sudden brightness for a moment, recognised the thin shadow in front of her as Aunt Petunia before her eyes had even adjusted. "Good, you're up. You'll be helping me with breakfast."
By helping she meant doing most of it — Ellie couldn't do all of the cooking by herself yet, but she figured it wouldn't be very long, Aunt Petunia had been putting more and more of it on her as the months went on. Which, she didn't actually mind that so much, making things was sort of fun.
Even if she was pretty sure she always had to do the bacon just so the grease would peck at her hands and not Aunt Petunia's. Still.
"Um, I kinda hafta..."
"For God's sake, girl," Aunt Petunia snapped, "don't mumble."
Ellie pouted up at her for a second. "I have to use the toilet first."
"Well, get going, then! I haven't all morning!"
Because Ellie was the one holding things up. It wasn't like she'd already been up for ages already or anything...
Making breakfast was little different than any other time she'd done it. Perched in front of the stove on her stool, she fried her way through a pack of bacon, carefully four strips at a time, Aunt Petunia occasionally telling her to hurry it up, or to pay attention before she ruined anything. Which was silly, she'd done this so many times by now, she knew what she was doing. She did nearly screw up one strip, twitching halfway through flipping it when a dab of grease dropping set off a splatter up at her hand, but she caught it before anything was permanently ruined. She was used to getting hit with little drops of hot grease, nothing new.
Aunt Petunia talked through the entire process of making pancakes, ordering her to pay attention, she'd be trying it next time. Which...seemed like a bad idea. Aunt Petunia was bigger and stronger than her, Ellie wasn't sure she could mix the batter well enough, or even flip the things, she'd probably mess them up. At least she wasn't being asked to do it this time, ruining breakfast on Dudley's birthday would be worse than just some random morning, but this was just asking for trouble.
Not for the first time, Ellie wondered if sometimes Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon set things up so she couldn't do them properly on purpose, just to have an excuse to punish her.
Eventually they were done. Breakfast was eaten first — Ellie was allowed one little pancake, and no bacon, as usual. She wasn't sure if she'd ever had bacon before. (She didn't even know what syrup tasted like, she never got to have any.) And then she had to sit through Dudley opening his...eighteen presents? No, nineteen, one of the smaller ones had tumbled under his chair and he'd missed it.
Some of them were books, Ellie had to hold in a laugh at that — they kept buying books for him, but he never read them, she was the only one who ever did. She couldn't bring them into her cupboard this time, though, Uncle Vernon would just take them again, she'd have to find long enough to linger in Dudley's second bedroom to get through them now...or just nick them and read them at school, she guessed, but it would probably end badly if she was caught taking Dudley's things out of the house.
(She could just ask him to borrow them, she guessed, that was how she'd ended up with the books she'd been keeping in her cupboard in the first place. But Dudley had been growing slowly more mean with time, she wasn't sure he'd agree anymore.)
Once that was done, she was washing dishes again — they always made her wait until after presents, their faces when they told her said they were making a point of some kind, but she had no idea what it was — and Aunt Petunia and Dudley were talking about going out to do something for his birthday. More specifically, which of his little friends had agreed to come along to some park somewhere (she didn't recognise the name), and what they wanted to bring with, blah blah.
By the time Ellie was done with the dishes, Aunt Petunia was just finishing packing up, they were all starting to gather by the front door. Ellie paused for a second by her cupboard, wondering if she wanted to change before going out. If they were going to a park or something, she'd probably end up climbing trees — they were a good place to keep away from Dudley and his mean friends, and it was fun, she liked being up high — and climbing trees in a dress was just sort of awkward, shorts would be better. But they looked almost ready, they'd be annoyed if they had to wait for her...
"Get in there, then."
Ellie jumped — she hadn't noticed Uncle Vernon walk over, which was sort of funny, with how big he was. She blinked up at him for a few seconds before she realised what the glaring and the pointing meant. "Are you going to lock me in?"
Back by the door, Aunt Petunia's pointy face pinched into a glare — she never did like it when Ellie asked questions, even innocent ones. Uncle Vernon almost seemed amused, let out a huff. "Of course I am, can't well let you have run of the house while we're away, can I?"
Ellie almost asked what Uncle Vernon was worried she would do, but stopped herself. That wasn't an innocent question, she'd probably be yelled at for that one. (Even though all she'd actually do is read one of Dudley's new books the whole time.) "But there's nothing to do in there. And what if I have to use the toilet?"
"We won't be gone that long. You'll just have to wait."
...Apparently, Dudley's stupidity ran in the family, because that was a terrible answer. "I don't—"
"Don't argue, girl, just do it."
Uncle Vernon moved faster than Ellie could react, one big red hand coming up and whipping across—
The hit came across her right cheek, Ellie's head turning with it, she stumbled a bit, shoulder coming against the wall. He hadn't hit her that hard — Dudley hit her harder than that all the time — but she hadn't seen it coming, she'd lost balance for a second there more from surprise than anything. Though it did sting, heat suddenly springing up a couple seconds after the slap had landed, her own hand came up over her cheek, not really meaning to, just touching it, poking at it, as though some part of her needed to make sure that had really just happened. She looked up at Uncle Vernon, her mouth open, eyes wide, and just stared.
He'd yanked her around, of course, plenty of times, but...he'd never actually hit her before...
Her chest growing tight and hot, her eyes stinging, one hand still covering her cheek, Ellie slunk into her cupboard. The door slammed and locked once she was inside, and she sat on her bed, knees hugged to her chest, and she listened to her family leave.
Luckily, she held in the crying until after they were already gone. Uncle Vernon never did like it when she cried.
He'd never actually hit her before.
She didn't know what was happening. Things had never been exactly easy, but everything was getting worse, and she didn't know why, she didn't know what to do.
Her cupboard had never felt so small.
"She cheated off me!"
"I did not!"
"She did too, she always cheats, that's why she does better!"
"That makes no sense! If I cheated off you, I'd get the same score as you, not a better one!"
Dudley's mouth opened to yell back, then he froze, his piggy little eyes narrowing with a frown. Apparently, he hadn't thought of that. Bloody idiot. "She switched our papers!"
"I did not!"
Aunt Petunia took that moment to butt in, glaring at her from over Dudley's shoulder. "What did I say about telling lies in this house?"
"He's the one lying! Look at the handwriting!" she said, pointing at their most recent maths test, sitting side-by-side on the table. Ellie couldn't say her handwriting was better than Dudley's — since Uncle Vernon had taken away her pencils months ago now, she hadn't gotten much time to practise — but it was undeniably different. And their names matched their answers, she couldn't have switched their papers, especially since Mr Castor had collected them straight off their desks, that made no sense.
Despite the obviousness of what was happening here, the argument kept going, Dudley whining and crying, Aunt Petunia screeching, Ellie really just kept saying the same thing over and over, because she didn't know what else to do, it was stupid, this whole thing was stupid...
The whole time, Uncle Vernon just sat there, quietly glaring, which was...unnerving. Dudley had waited until Uncle Vernon had gotten home to accuse her, probably on the assumption that his punishment would be worse than Aunt Petunia's (it usually was). But he hadn't done anything, had hardly said anything, just kept staring at their tests, just...
Ellie couldn't help feeling a little scared, her voice gradually turning shaky. Uncle Vernon going quiet was never a good sign.
After far too long having the stupidest argument, Vernon finally spoke. "Dudley, go to your room."
Even Dudley wasn't stupid enough to argue with an angry Uncle Vernon — he disappeared a moment later, his heavy foosteps thumping up the stairs and out of hearing.
"I didn't do any—"
Ellie grimaced, but obeyed. She stood up, followed him into the living room, stood where he pointed, just to the side of the sofa. She tried not to glare up at him, but it wasn't easy. (This whole thing was stupid, she hadn't done anything...)
"Hike up your dress."
She blinked. "What?"
He didn't say anything, just glared at her, beady little eyes dark and sharp, round face hard and unyielding.
Her dinner churning in her stomach — she didn't like this, she didn't know what was happening, he wouldn't stop staring — she scrunched her hands in the fabric of her faded old dress. She pulled more and more up, forming a little ball over each hip, as the hem trailed up her thighs she got uncomfortably warm, shaky, not necessarily on the outside (though her fingers weren't quite obeying her properly), but on the inside too, something she couldn't quite put words to unsteady and afraid. (He was just staring, she had to look away, it was too...) He never said to stop, he hadn't said how high, she stopped only when she couldn't pull it up any more. Any higher and her pants would be showing.
Uncle Vernon grabbed her, his hand covering her whole shoulder, hard and sudden enough she twitched, almost let go of her dress before remembering she shouldn't. He forcefully turned her, then pushed her forward, and quicker than she could even think to resist — not that it would have made a difference, he was so much bigger and stronger than her — she was bent over the armrest, far enough and quick enough her feet left the floor, her face smushed into one of the cushions. She heard a clinking and a shuffling, managed to awkwardly turn her head to look up at him.
He'd taken off his belt, was holding it folded over once. Then he was yanking her dress up, far over her waist, she felt the air suddenly halfway up her back. That hot twitchiness inside got about five times worse — with how she'd fallen across the sofa her hips had ended up over the armrest, she just knew her bum was sticking up, she probably looked ridiculous, and both Uncle Vernon and Aunt Petunia were right there — but she was distracted from her humiliation quickly enough. Because she knew what Uncle Vernon was about to do.
"Wait!" She pushed one arm against the sofa, started turning to sit up, "Stop, Uncle Vernon, I—"
But before she could get up all the way his hand was on her shoulder again, shoving her back down into the sofa cushions. "Shut up, girl. If you stay quiet and learn your lesson I might only have to do this once."
What lesson was she supposed to learn? She hadn't done anything!
There was nothing she could do. He wouldn't listen to her, he was too strong for her to get away. So she pressed her face back into the cushion, grit her teeth and tried to ignore the twisting in her stomach, the hot twitchiness that hadn't gone away, and tried not to cry.
She didn't manage that last one very well.
The day of their next maths test came with dread, an intense nausea that just wouldn't go away. She didn't bother trying to eat that morning, or at lunch either, there was no point, she wouldn't be able to keep it down. So she was weaker and slower than usual the whole day, not that anyone really noticed. The minutes and hours seemed to tick by slower than they should, the school day painfully dragging, until they were finally spread out and given the usual warnings and encouragements, papers passed to each of them.
It was the first test they'd had, since that night.
(The reminder had it lingering around her, like a bad smell, inescapable, her face going hot and her fingers twitching, her skin crawling from her knees to her ribs, Uncle Vernon's and Aunt Petunia's eyes like invisible ants, and the whistle and crack of the belt, she could almost hear it, sitting here in this classroom, echoing in her ears, and her back stung, even though it'd healed by now, still sharp and piercing and burning.)
She hadn't done anything wrong. She'd just...
...done better than Dudley.
But she did better than him at everything, at school, he was a bloody idiot!
(She wasn't a worthless freak. She had proof.)
It didn't even matter, not anymore! She'd get worse marks than Dudley overall anyway — Uncle Vernon had taken away her pencils and wouldn't give them back even to do homework, she hadn't been able to do any of it so far this year. (And it was November already.) It shouldn't make a difference, she was already...
It shouldn't make a difference.
It didn't make a difference. It didn't matter, not really.
It didn't matter.
She was worthless anyway. There was no point, it didn't matter.
So she should just...
Ellie brought her pencil up to the first problem, set the point just under the line. She knew the answer already, didn't have to write out the work — maths were easy, always had been, and this was just multiplication, could do it in her head no problem. She knew the right answer.
But it didn't matter.
If it didn't matter what she did, she should just...
Dudley couldn't go crying to Uncle Vernon again if he did better than her.
But she couldn't, she couldn't be wrong on purpose — wasn't she not supposed to lie? That's what this would be, basically...
But she hadn't been lying before either, and that hadn't made a difference.
Her hand was shaking, just slightly, and she felt tears prick at her eyes, her breath hot and sharp in her throat (the belt snapped on the air, her back burned).
Shakily, the numbers uneven and misshapen, Ellie wrote the wrong answer.
Once she was sure Dudley and his idiot friends had given up, Ellie carefully lowered herself down, sat on the branch. She leaned back against the trunk—
She winced, jerking forward. Gritting her teeth, she turned sideways, leaned her shoulder against the trunk instead. She pulled her book out from her waistband, flipped it open to the proper page, and settled in to read.
Some of the books Uncle Vernon and Aunt Petunia (and Aunt Marge, sometimes) bought for Dudley were actually interesting. Not stupid little kid books, but stuff meant for older kids, thick proper chapter books — she could only assume their family greatly overestimated Dudley's reading ability. And his interest in books, for that matter, he never read the things.
She'd realised by now that she could swipe Dudley's books whenever she wanted, he never noticed they were missing. As long as she took only a couple at a time — swapping old out for new whenever she was cleaning his second bedroom — and as long as she made sure to hide them somewhere they wouldn't be noticed — underneath her bed and the bottom of her underwear drawer had worked well so far — nobody would notice, and she wouldn't get in trouble. Even when he'd seen her with one of his books, just now, he didn't put together where she'd gotten it from. It probably didn't even occur to him to notice she even had the thing — it was just a book, after all.
Honestly, Dudley was such a bloody idiot. How were they even related?
(Well, they weren't, technically — Aunt Petunia made a point of mentioning that she and Ellie's mother had both been adopted whenever she had an excuse. Still.)
She hated being locked up in her cupboard for hours at a time, but at least she had something to stave off the boredom now. (Assuming it was daytime, or the hallway light was on.) And she had something to do while hanging out in trees, one of the few places her idiot cousin and his idiot friends couldn't bother her.
They tried, of course, but Dudley was too bloody fat to climb onto the high, thin branches she could reach, and his skinnier friends were too slow, she stomped on their hands until they went away.
(Which had gotten her in trouble, a couple times, but she'd never stomped on Dudley's hands, so it'd never gotten her the belt, so that was fine.)
It was a step up, but it could be hard to focus on her book, sometimes. When Dudley couldn't entertain himself with her, he found someone else. She couldn't see what was happening through the branches all around her, but she could hear it. They'd cornered a couple boys, were taunting them about something — she was too far away to pick out the words, she just got the feeling of it. The boys were yelling, and then there was jeering, and crying, and...
Ellie's fingers tightened around the book, her jaw clenched hard enough her teeth squeaked, her heart pounding in her ears.
There was nothing she could do about that. If she tried... Well, she'd be outnumbered anyway, and she was tiny and weak and useless. They'd just beat on her a bit until she got boring, before moving straight on to other people. She'd only be buying them a few minutes of peace, really. And even if she could stop them...
(The partially-healed welts on her back flared, she could feel Uncle Vernon's eyes on her, like invisible ants crawling across her skin.)
No, there was nothing she could do about that.
It wasn't her problem.
The tightness in her chest, the heat in her throat, they gradually faded away, her heart calming down again.
She was just a worthless freak after all.
It wasn't her problem, whatever Dudley did to those kids.
She didn't care.
It was, quite possibly, the stupidest thing Ellie had ever done. Even if she hadn't meant to do any of it.
Dudley and his idiot friends had managed to cut her off from escape among the trees, and she'd done the only thing she could do. She was faster than them, that was true, but she was so weak and useless, she hadn't even gotten lunch today, she wouldn't be able to keep it up very long. She'd been panicking a little bit, maybe — which was silly, she should be used to this sort of thing by now — she'd been trying to think of some way out, and she'd turned the corner of the school and...
...suddenly she was on the bloody roof.
She had no idea how that'd happened, she had no explanation at all. She was...going to be written up for climbing school buildings, but that wasn't it, she'd just...popped, from one place to another, in an instant. She couldn't explain it.
Maybe she was finally losing her mind. She wouldn't be entirely surprised.
She was going to be written up, because, in the end, she hadn't been. One of the teachers — one she didn't know, the one who'd found her — had been yelling at her, saying she was going to be in big trouble, she'd be calling her parents (she hadn't known they were dead at the time), and...
It was just too much, Ellie was too confused and hungry and tired (and scared), and before she'd known what was happening she'd been crying.
(Uncle Vernon always hated it when she cried.)
She'd told the teacher to not tell anyone, please, Ellie didn't want to get locked up in the cupboard again, and it'd only been a couple days since last time she'd gotten the belt, they were terrible when they came too close together, please...
She hadn't meant to. It'd just...come out.
She should have known it would just make everything worse.
Ever since the teacher had let her go — suddenly soft and quiet and...Ellie didn't know, different — she'd just been...waiting. This was going to come back around on her, she knew, and it would be bad. It was one of the first rules, she'd been told it so long ago she didn't remember first learning it, that she didn't tell people what happened at the house when nobody was looking, nobody, nothing. It was a big rule, and a scary one, Uncle Vernon had reiterated more recently that it was very important, bad, bad things would happen if she broke it.
Mostly, she hoped the teacher wouldn't tell anyone, but she hadn't quite been able to convince herself she wouldn't. So she waited, tense and scared, for the other shoe to drop.
In other circumstances, she might have been relieved she didn't have to wait very long. Given just how absolutely furious Uncle Vernon was, though, relief was rather far away from her mind at the moment. She didn't think she'd ever seen him this angry before, somehow looking even larger than normal, looming over her, so angry his face had gone almost completely purple, eyes bulging as he screamed at her about...
Honestly, she hadn't heard most of what he'd said. It would be the usual stuff about her being a worthless freak, ungrateful for all they do for her (that's a laugh), they didn't ask to have this freakishness brought into their house, he wouldn't have any of it (any of what?), so help him god, he'd beat it out of her if he had to.
(Beat what out of her?)
Ellie couldn't even look at him, not for more than a second or two at a time. Instead she stared down at her fists clenched in her lap, tried not to think, tried to keep her breaths slow and calm, tried to ignore the tingling across the back of her neck, pretended she couldn't feel her back burning, couldn't hear the snapping, tried not to look at the cushions around her.
Because, before starting in on his shouty lecture, Uncle Vernon had sat her down on the sofa. The sofa.
She wondered if this was supposed to be intimidating, sitting her here. Because it was, she couldn't even look at this sofa anymore without hurting.
She was trying to not think about it, but it was bloody impossible. Especially sitting here, especially with him standing over her all loud and angry, knowing it would happen again, any moment now, there was nothing she could do, she couldn't stop it, and...
She tried to stay calm, she tried not to cry, but she was pretty sure she was doing a shite job of it.
Finally, the yelling cut off, for a few, oppressive seconds he glared down at her, huge and looming and inescapable. "Not like I thought it'd make a difference, you're not even listening."
She couldn't quite hold in a wince — well, she hadn't been, honestly...
"Get up, girl," he snarled, hand already moving to his waist.
Her breath suddenly heavy and hot and thick in her throat, almost too thick to properly breathe, she pushed herself to her feet, knees almost too shaky to properly stand. Each movement clumsy and awkward — his eyes crawling on her like ants, harsh snaps ringing in her ears — she stumbled her way around to the familiar spot, standing just next to the armrest. Her hands above her hips, fingers numb and unsteady, she started pulling her dress up, each inch agonising.
(She'd think it would have gotten easier over these... How long had it been now? Had to be at least a year. But it didn't, it never got easier, never. Knowing exactly what was coming just made it worse.)
And then Uncle Vernon just had to break the routine. This was bad enough without him surprising her. "No. Take it off."
"W-what?" The command had hit her hard, a thump running through all of her all at once, her heart forced into her throat so hard she'd barely managed to get the word out. Her breaths already going thin and hard, her skin hot and crawling, no, he couldn't mean...
But he meant. He glared at her, eyes heavy, voice heavier. "Take off your dress."
For a few seconds, she could only stare back at him. He was completely serious.
She took in a long, thin, shaking breath, eyes dropping away from his, staring at the armrest in front of her, smooth and dark and innocent. (It hurt to look at.) That thing inside, that nameless thing, hot and twitching, had gone hotter and twitchier than it ever had before, enough she thought it might burn her up and shake her apart from the inside out, she was honestly surprised she was still on her feet, but she couldn't, she had to...
Slowly, each motion stiff and jerky, she pulled one arm in through her sleeve, then the other. She looked up at him, but his eyes were too heavy, she had to look away. Forcing down the quivering in her throat as hard as she could — Uncle Vernon hated it when she cried — she pulled her dress up over her head, inch by painful inch, limply let it fall to the floor.
She felt his eyes crawling on her skin like— No, not like ants, like wasps, pinching and stinging and burning, it took everything she had not to run away, that would just make it worse.
She jumped at his hand on her bare shoulder, hot and rough and hard, and he shoved her forward onto the familiar spot on the sofa, at once familiar and alien, the fabric rougher against her chest and face than she knew it to be, scratching at her, and despite the sickening heat in her face and her stomach she felt cold, so cold she was shivering, as much on the inside as the out, weak and shaking and worthless, there was nothing she could do, just wait for it to be over, her breaths high and thin even though he hadn't done anything to her yet—
Snap — loud and sharp, she always heard the hit the instant before she felt it, a thin line of fire cut just above her hip (startling a whimper through clenched teeth, but she held it in as well as she could, whining would only make it go longer), reminded her at first of accidentally touching the rim of a hot pan, but now only of this, quickly settling into a hard, pounding ache she couldn't ignore, it would linger for hours, fading slowly over days...
Snap — this one hit across one from earlier this week, and she couldn't hold in a gasp, so thick and hard she almost choked on it, the heat so much worse on that spot, stabbing into her, she couldn't—
She screwed her eyes shut and grit her teeth, just wait, wait, there would only be five or six, he'd never done more than eight, it'd be over quick enough and she'd be left blessedly alone in her cupboard, just don't think about it, soon enough, wait...
And then Uncle Vernon had to do something unexpected. This was hard enough without him surprising her.
She felt something low on her back, warmer and softer than the belt, though it still kind of hurt just from the hits she'd already gotten, and then there was a yank, and her pants were being pulled down her hips—
And that hot twitchy thing had somehow gotten hotter and twitchier than ever, and she jerked, arms snapping straight to push her up, which was impossible bent over the armrest like she was, and she was yelling some kind of protest, she wasn't sure what, she hardly understood the words herself, her heart so high and thick in her throat it was hard to talk at all—
And Uncle Vernon's hand was back, between her shoulders, shoving her down again, her nose squished against the sofa, and he was growling something, but she didn't understand it, she could hardly hear it, his eyes like wasps crawling over her skin, pinching and stinging and burning, buzzing so loud in her ears she could hardly hear anything, her pants sliding down to hook over her heels somehow louder than anything else, she tried to stop herself from shivering, didn't want them to fall all the way off, and she wasn't cold really but the twitchy thing was too much she could hardly hold it in, her chest filled with steam and crying she couldn't let out, her clenched throat letting out something wordless and odd, the twitchiness shaking it loose, but she grit her teeth and squeezed her eyes shut, tried not to move, not to make a sound, it would be over soon, it would be fine, it had to be over soon—
Snap — Ellie cringed at the line of fire drawn across her bum, another noise shaken out of her throat, but she clamped up, held her breath even, biting down on a finger, tried to stop shivering, Uncle Vernon hated it when she cried—
Snap — an odd, low, breathless sob was wrenched out of her, she bit down harder, try not to think about it, it'd be over soon, just wait...
There was a pause, longer than usual, but Ellie didn't move, she couldn't get up without permission, he'd just hit her again, so she lay there waiting, trying not to shiver, Uncle Vernon hated it when she cried, her back and her bum and high on her left thigh stinging and burning, the finger still stuck between her teeth nearly as bad but no, Uncle Vernon's eyes were on her skin like wasps, and her breath was high and thin and noisy but she wasn't actually crying, she'd managed that much, somehow, even though her chest and her stomach were tight and twisting and hot and shivering and it was all she could do to just wait, but it was over, he'd tell her to get up soon—
"Get up, girl."
She released her finger, her jaw feeling weird and tight and tense, it was almost hard to do. It took longer to get her hands under her than it should, she felt weak and clumsy and unsteady, propped herself up on her elbows, pushed with her hands and pulled with her knees, her hair falling over her face as she stood up, she went rather light-headed for a second, her knees shaking almost too badly to stand, but she managed it.
And she bent over immediately, it took two tries to grab her pants, her fingers were numb and shaking, like they'd fallen asleep, clumsy and useless. She awkwardly pulled them back up her legs, all too aware of it, the movement feeling strange and bright, which didn't make sense, she'd pulled on underwear more times than she could count, but she was shivering and numb and uncoordinated, the cloth cold and somehow sharp against her skin, and she could feel Uncle Vernon's eyes on her like wasps, and she was all too hot and shaky, she got her pants caught around one of her knees for a second before she got it right—
She bent over again to pick up her dress, but she didn't put it on — she was too shaky and hot and unsteady, she'd probably mess it up, get stuck somehow. Instead she just hugged it to herself, covering the network of jagged switchbacking scars stitched across her chest, waited for Uncle Vernon to send her off to her cupboard.
She couldn't look at him, staring fixedly at the carpet, not that she'd probably be able to see him very well anyway, she could feel the tears in her eyes, and she was barely breathing properly, thin and gasping, just enough to get by, she didn't trust herself to breathe and not cry right now (Uncle Vernon hated it when she cried.), but that was fine, looking at him too directly tended to just make him annoyed again, ungrateful, defiant little freak, he'd beat it out of her somehow, so help him god, but this time she couldn't look at him even if she wanted to, everything seemed too heavy, and she could feel his eyes on her skin like wasps, and she was hot and almost feverish, and too tight, like a spring pushed together, a too-full balloon about to tear itself apart—
She hardly even noticed when she was directed into the cupboard, each step awkward and automatic, the house dragging around her like a dream, and the door was locking behind her, and her cupboard had never seemed so small and so dark, but she was alone, it was over—
Her back and her bum and her thigh were burning, and normally after she'd take off her shirt or her dress or whatever, she was alone anyway, clothes just made it feel worse, but she couldn't, not this time, she would have to be naked, this time, and she could still feel his eyes on her skin like wasps, and the echo of it was still hanging over her, like a bad smell, unavoidable, the snap of the belt still ringing in her ears, her welts pounding like being hit over and over and over, her pants being pulled down her legs, she couldn't, she couldn't, he could feel his eyes like wasps, she couldn't...
So she just lay down on her side, hugging her blanket around her, not caring that it scraped raw against her back, not caring that she was already hot, a few minutes and she was sweating, but she didn't care, once it was tucked firm burying her face in her pillow, one arm around it holding it tight, because she was still shivering and shaking, and her chest and her stomach were hot and tight, but the door to her cupboard was thin, and Uncle Vernon hated it when she cried, and she could still feel his eyes like wasps, and the pillow against her face was wet and uncomfortable, and she wasn't holding it in, not really, her throat not quite obeying her.
(She couldn't remember the last time she'd lost control like this, Uncle Vernon hated it when she cried, but she couldn't stop it, she couldn't, the echo still hanging around her, she couldn't—)
And she shivered and she cried, the echo not leaving her, and she waited for it to be over, prayed for it to be over, just wait, it would be over soon...
It had to be over soon.
Ellie was starting to get cold, but she didn't care. It was better than going inside.
Besides, Aunt Marge's bloody dog was still down there.
The thing hadn't shut up this whole time. Ellie had no idea how long ago it was it'd chased her up this bloody tree — the sun was setting, it must have been hours. It wasn't constantly yapping at her, it'd take a break every once in a while, sitting at the base of her tree, staring fixedly up at her, an occasional growl floating up. And then she would move a little, the bark scraping, or a breeze would pass, or maybe she'd just breathe too loud, and the thing would be being all noisy again, barking and barking and barking and barking...
Her head was starting to hurt a little, but that could just be from not getting enough water.
These occasional visits of Aunt Marge's were a mixed blessing. On the one hand, Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon restrained themselves somewhat while she was around — didn't want to make a scene in front of her, Ellie guessed. Denying her a meal here and there, the usual insults and yelling, but they'd never hit her while Aunt Marge was in the house. They tended to let her get away with more too. Like staying up a tree and shirking on her chores for a few hours, that would normally get her in trouble, Aunt Petunia would have showed up screaming for her to get back inside by now. Or maybe they just thought this one was funny, she didn't know. But, if nothing else, a visit from Aunt Marge meant a week she was safe(-ish), even if she did do something bad Uncle Vernon usually forgot by the time she left anyway.
Of course, he had whipped her good the day before she got here, he usually did. It hurt sitting up this bloody tree, but there wasn't a whole lot she could do about that, it hurt sitting pretty much anywhere.
On the other hand, Aunt Marge was a total heinous bitch. For some reason, she seemed to feel the need to throw whatever insults she could at Ellie, about her intelligence — that was a laugh, had she met Dudley? — about her appearance — fair enough — about her parents — also fair enough (Ellie had no reason to believe they weren't useless trash as they'd always said) — and whatever else she could think of, on and on and on. Honestly, she'd heard it all so many times it hardly even bothered her anymore, she had no idea why Aunt Marge made a point of doing it.
And then there were the bloody dogs. Aunt Marge always brought at least one of her dogs with her. Ellie hated the things. The feeling was obviously mutual, she always ended up being growled at or bit or chased or whatever. This wasn't the first time one of them had chased her up a tree, the usual strategy for avoiding people she didn't like. Same thing, really — Aunt Marge's bulldogs and Dudley were equally ugly, equally stupid, and equally useless at climbing trees.
Though, this dog was certainly more persistent than Dudley. He would have gotten bored hours ago, wandered off to find someone else to entertain himself with. Ellie would almost be impressed, if it weren't so bloody annoying.
It was on one of its noisy phases again, barking up at her over and over and over and over, and the longer it went on Ellie just got more and more uncomfortable, the partially-faded welts on her back and arse flaring against the bark of the tree. She squeezed her eyes shut, trying to block it out, but the bloody thing wouldn't shut up.
"Leave me alone," she hissed down at it. Which didn't do any good, of course, it wasn't like dogs spoke English. The thing just kept barking and barking, it wouldn't bloody shut up, Elile's headache getting worse and worse, the sharp noise seeming to echo in her skull.
Ellie cringed, the awkward shuffling dragging her skin against the tree, she winced at the half-dozen hot flares of pain. Squeezing her eyes shut, she bopped her head back against the trunk, tightly wrapping her arms around herself, wishing the bloody dog would shut up, that it would just leave her alone...
But it was already too late. The dog's barking didn't sound like the snap of the belt, not really, but she heard it anyway, over and over, and it was building around her, the ghost of it on the air, and she could feel Uncle Vernon's eyes on her skin like wasps, her stomach hot and churning with fear and humiliation, and the dog wouldn't shut up, it wouldn't—
"Go away." The words came out odd and croaking, thick and harsh and barely English, her throat too tight to quite speak properly. She hurt and she was tired, and she didn't want to think about it anymore, but the dog wouldn't bloody shut up, and she couldn't get away from it, like a bad smell she couldn't ignore, lingering thick around her, but she had to shove it down, she didn't want to dwell on it, she couldn't.
(Uncle Vernon always hated it when she cried.)
The longer the dog kept bloody barking, the thicker the smell got, the more the wasps stung her, she got more and more frustrated, the frothing heat crawling up her throat, more and more angry. It pushed its way up, thick and churning, almost like she was about to be sick, but not, not really, something...less solid than that, yet all the more intense. Not something physical crawling up her throat, but something else, something, something tingly, and bright, and heavy...
Lights sparked behind her shut eyes, random flashes in all colours of the rainbow, her head sizzling, like bacon on the pan, and something thickening in her throat, and everything had gone weirdly tingly. When she spoke again, it wasn't just words that left her mouth, she could feel it, it was something else, static on the air, pins and needles down her spine. And the words were heavy, as though weighed down with something more than sound, something powerful, something that couldn't be ignored.
The barking, miraculously, stopped.
For long moments, nothing happened, only the light breeze playing with her hair and turning the leaves, the low noise of passing cars and laughing children, the colours behind her eyes and the tingles trickling down her neck.
And she heard the dog shuffle away, fading away in the direction of the house.
Ellie had no idea what had just happened. Not really. She'd known she could do things, sometimes, but it was always without thinking, no real explanation. Just, boom, and it was done. But she still felt it — the sharp fire in her chest, the tingling down her spine, the flashing colours behind her eyes — could still taste it heavy on her tongue. She didn't know how she'd done it, but she'd known she'd told Aunt Marge's bloody stupid dog to go away, and it had obeyed. She'd made it go away.
And suddenly, like a prophet receiving a revelation from heaven, she knew exactly what to do.
Ellie didn't know what she'd done to set him off. But then, she hardly ever did. She didn't think Uncle Vernon really needed a reason.
He'd set her down on the sofa again, which was probably supposed to be intimidating. (And it was, she could feel the echo of it on the air around her, like a smell she couldn't escape.) He was angry and shouting and purple, and she didn't really hear what he was saying. It hardly ever actually seemed to mean anything — it was in English, of course, but it was always so random, stuff about ungrateful freaks and what did they do to earn being saddled with her and beating it out of her, more or less the same thing every time, no matter what it was she'd supposedly done. It didn't seem connected to anything, and for that always seemed somewhat surreal, more significant for the meaning of the action than the words themselves — the yelling at her, and what would come after.
Because she knew what would come after. She always knew. It was a cloud crossing the sky, a shadow cast over her deep and cold, lines across her back and her bum burning with phantom fire, his eyes crawling across her skin like wasps. But it wasn't the same this time, not quite. The fire wasn't just on the outside, but on the inside, heat crawling up her throat, tight and angry, copper on her tongue and static in her ears. She probably wouldn't be able to understand him even if he were actually saying anything, her head was too full.
It was different, this time. It wouldn't go the same way it always did, not this time. She knew that, even if he didn't yet.
Eventually, she wasn't sure how long — it was always hard to keep track of time, sitting on this couch, one foot in the now and one in the then — he'd fallen into sullen, violent silence, beady eyes glaring down at her. Finally, "Get up."
Ellie took a long breath, in and out, slow. Her chest was almost too tight to get it through properly, thick and tense. But she obeyed. She stood, walked around next to the armrest. It was obvious to her, but she didn't think Uncle Vernon had noticed. Her steps weren't as wooden as they would be, normally — not calm, no, but firmer, resolved.
(It was different this time, she knew it was.)
"Take off your dress." His voice was always heavy with disdain when he said it, like she were nothing, like he were talking to a disgusting slug, certainly not something anything like a person, who might possibly have an opinion about this sort of thing.
Ellie stared down at the armrest. She felt the echo of it thick on the air around her, like a smell she couldn't escape — like oil, like sick, vile and nauseating.
She took a long breath, in and out, slow.
A beat of silence, heavy and cold. "What did you say?"
Ellie glanced up, meeting his eyes — tiny and dark, set in a face flabby and red, almost comically outsized. "No. I won't."
The fury only got thicker, his face redder, so heavy on his voice it hardly sounded like English at all. "Do it, girl." A growl more than speech, hard and mean and dangerous, and he was so much bigger than her, and he was so angry, and she...
She was scared, of course she was. She had to clench her fists and bite her tongue to keep herself from shaking, she could feel his eyes on her skin like wasps, she could feel it— (Snap— Snap— Snap—) But she didn't let it stop her, no, it was different, it was different this time, she knew she could do this, she could—
Ellie jumped, he moved before she could barely blink, and he was grabbing her wrist, he yanked, she stumbled, and his hand was coming up—
It was her voice, but also something more. Pins and needles down her neck, coppery fizz sizzling on her tongue, the word was heavier than it should be, it hung longer in the air — like an echo, but not coming and going, solid and still and hard.
She'd been waiting for this moment, she'd gotten some practice in. Just on animals, at first — squirrels, cats, dogs, whatever she could find. Once, hiding up a tree from Dudley and his friends, she'd collected a bunch of squirrels and birds, gathering around her and chittering and twittering, she'd felt like she was in a bloody cartoon or something. She'd moved up to people, quickly, though she had to be more careful. Animals, if she messed up, if she lost hold of them, they'd just run away scared, but people might actually do something. And even if it did work...what about after? What about when they were gone, and she couldn't see them anymore, couldn't control them? She'd been too scared to do anything obvious, the first couple weeks, hadn't wanted to risk it.
Of course, now she knew she could simply make them forget. It wasn't difficult. If she tried to make someone do something they really didn't want to, it was harder, but all she had to do was push, and...
It was shockingly easy.
She'd made the neighbour kids leave her alone.
She'd made Mrs Figg forget she was supposed to be looking after her.
She'd made ladies on walks give her candies — she'd only tried the first couple she'd stolen, they were all far too sweet, always made her feel vaguely ill — or even money, and then made them forget.
She'd made Dudley and his idiot friends hit each other, instead of her.
It was easy. She didn't have to say what she wanted — though that made it easier, sometimes, for simple things, to focus. She just had to...reach out to them — rainbow sparks crackling behind her eyes, pins and needles running down her spine — and push...
She hadn't used it on Uncle Vernon yet. She'd even gotten the belt twice now, since she'd done it against that bloody dog, but she'd been too scared, she had to be certain it would work, if it didn't work he—
So she pushed the one word out into the air and into his head — stop stop stop — with everything she had, her neck itching, her head going light and tingly.
And he stopped.
Uncle Vernon had gone still as a statue, one hand still locked like a vise around her wrist, other raised to form a slap that would never come. His eyes had gone wide, the red rapidly paling out of his face, his head feeling tense and shaky against hers.
(He was scared of her.)
Ellie wanted him to let go of her.
She took a brief moment, sparks flashing behind her eyes, blindly shifting her hold on him, making sure she had a good grip. (And maybe just taking a moment to breathe — it was different this time, it was.) Once she was confident he wasn't getting away, she said, "You'll never hurt me again. I won't let you." They were just words, not heavy words, but he had no choice but to listen, now.
But talking to him like this, commanding him, made him angry, even more angry than he'd been a second ago. His head surged, frothed, twisted, and her grip slipped, and he reached out to—
He obeyed, frozen in place, fingers claws in the air inches from her throat.
Ellie could feel him, still fighting her. He wouldn't be able to get away, not with the colour behind her eyes and the weight of her voice on the air crushing him down, but he was trying anyway. And she couldn't hold him forever — if nothing else, he would have to go to work, and she would have to sleep.
He was still fighting. He didn't understand, yet, that things had changed. Things couldn't stay as they'd been. It didn't matter what he wanted, she wouldn't let him.
He had no choice.
(This what they meant, when they'd called her a freak, said they'd beat it out of her, this is it, this is what they'd meant...)
Ellie thought she had an idea. A way to get the message across.
Things were different, now. He had to learn.
She didn't bother saying it aloud, she didn't have to — Uncle Vernon did what she wanted without it being put in words, the colours sparking behind her eyes pushing him on, her spine tingling with every step. Awkwardly, woodenly, he turned for the stairs, took them one thudding step at a time, slowly up, up, up...
Soon they were standing in Uncle Vernon and Aunt Petunia's bedroom. Ellie was never allowed in here, not that she really cared — it was as plain and boring as anywhere else in the house, nothing special. Except for one thing, she knew there was one thing. She pushed him on, toward what was waiting there.
A brief moment later, and she had him sit on the bed. Laying across his lap was a rifle, a box of bullets at his side.
Ellie wanted him to load the gun.
He obeyed. Only one, it was rather slow — fumbling with the thing, the metal clicking, his fingers gone slightly shaky. He was trying to fight, making him clumsy, but he couldn't, he couldn't stop her.
She could make him do whatever she wanted.
Once he was done, she had him turn the rifle around in his hands. It was long enough, he could just barely reach the trigger, the end of the barrel stuck in his mouth.
Ellie leaned forward, close to his face. His eyes were wide, wet and blood-shot, he was sweating, he smelled awful. Staring right into his eyes, low and calm, she whispered, "Bang." It was just a normal word, not a heavy word.
But she knew he got the message.
She wanted him to put it away, come back downstairs with her. He obeyed.
She didn't notice until after he'd put the rifle back, turning around to face her again, that he'd pissed himself. For some absurd reason, Ellie had to hold in the urge to laugh.
(The feeling didn't last very long. Her head was starting to hurt, the pins and needles down her neck starting to sting, her throat tight and painful, her eyes burning.)
She pushed him back downstairs, to her cupboard. He filled a box with all her clothes — not that she had a whole lot, it didn't take very long — the books she'd stolen from Dudley, the very little she had in the way of school supplies. Then they went back upstairs.
Uncle Vernon set the box of her things down on the floor in the guest bedroom.
Chewing at her lip, Ellie frowned at the desk, thinking. There was a chair there, a swivel, but...
Jerkily, Uncle Vernon grabbed the back of the chair, pulled it rolling across the carpet into the hall. Ellie followed him along, shooting the door to Dudley's room a wary look. He was in there playing computer, she knew, Aunt Petunia had gone outside — she didn't seem quite comfortable about Ellie's punishments, for some reason, she always left first. She should still have time. It was okay.
Ellie stopped at the door to Dudley's second bedroom. Uncle Vernon walked up to the desk in here, swapped the padded swivel chair for a firmer, wooden one. She had him drag this one back across the hall, bringing it all the way to the middle of the guest room.
"This is my room now."
She didn't want Uncle Vernon to say anything, so he didn't. He just stared down at her, still as a statue — a fat, flushed, sweaty, smelly, terrified statue.
He was scared of her. He'd always been scared of her, from the beginning, she understood that now. Suddenly, out of nowhere, she understood. This is what they'd wanted to beat out of her, they'd known she could do this whatever this was, they were scared...
"Don't try to put me in the cupboard. Don't try to hurt me. I'll stop you, if you try."
Uncle Vernon believed her. She didn't know how she knew, but she did, somehow, she could feel the realisation sinking into his head — things were different, they were different now. It would never happen again.
(She felt the echo of it around her, his eyes on her skin like wasps.)
Ellie wanted him to leave. He obeyed.
She closed the door behind him, turned the lock. Just in case — Uncle Vernon was very big, the door so very thin — Ellie took the chair, propped it against the door, the back braced against the handle.
And she let go.
She felt empty, when the burning and the tingling left, and tired, the room around her going fuzzy and swirly. She stumbled a few steps backward, flopped onto her back on the bed. Her head hurt, like her brain were too big for her skull, crammed in too tight, her mouth tasted like blood. She squeezed her eyes shut, rubbed at her forehead, waiting for the pain to go away. It did, slowly, more slowly than she liked — but that was fine, it was only pain, Ellie knew how to deal with a little bit of that by now.
And she listened, for Uncle Vernon to do something. Yell at her, pound on the door, she didn't know. But...
Because, it'd worked. She knew it'd worked. She'd done it, she'd escaped, he'd learned things were different now. It would never happen again.
Something started crawling up her throat, thick and hot and roiling. And for a short, horrible moment, she was certain she was going to cry. She tried to fight it, but she couldn't, it pushed up harder than she could push down, she...
(Uncle Vernon hated it when she cried.)
But she didn't cry. Instead, she laughed.
She laughed, long and hard, until her throat hurt, until her sides hurt, until she was light and dizzy and fuzzy and tired, she couldn't stop, she just laughed and laughed. Until she fell asleep, spread limp across a big, comfortable bed, warm and tired and sore and safe.
The last thing she thought, before she drifted off, it was over.
It was over.