"Don't cry, Naomi. Don't cry. Brave warriors don't cry. True warriors never cry."
My eyes snap open. Dark. Everything is dark. An inky blackness shrouds the room, concealing the thirty-eight sleeping figures swathed in the warmth of their own bunks. Silence penetrates the air, draining the room of its life, replacing it with an eerie atmosphere that chills me to the bone. I pull the duvet an inch further over my face.
Rolling onto my side, I bring my clenched hand in front of my face. Uncurling my fingers, I search my palm with my other hand, seeking out what it possesses. But there's nothing. Frowning, I close my eyes and take a moment to think. When I reopen my eyes, my hand snakes out from under the duvet and slips into the crate beneath my bunk. My fingers sift through a pile of crumpled prescriptions and crushed medicine bags, until finally, they find it. Something cold. Something smooth. Something precious.
Clasping it tightly, I withdraw my hand and press the item against my chest, reuniting my body with the sense of something familiar yet all too abnormal. Focusing my vision on where it should be, my eyes eventually adjust to the darkness. They instantly recognise it. A small smile breaks out onto my lips. Carefully, I unclasp the latch and gently push the two frames apart. In the thick of the night, where you're as blind as the blue skies after the sun has dipped below the horizon, I can still see them. Their photographs are alive. Her brown curls bounce off her shoulders, still as soft as her deep hazel eyes, each glance blessed with kindness and joy. His beaming grin brightens the day, lifting the aching pain off anyone's shoulders. The mingling of their voices oozes with compassion, their gentle words as light as air itself. To anybody else, they are just two strangers. To me, they're my strangers.
"What'cha got there?"
My finger slams down on the pendant, snapping it shut before it's smuggled away out of sight. Glancing upwards, I just about make out the hazy image of Renee's head leaning over the side of her bunk.
"As if! You and I both know you're lying."
I sigh. "It was just my prescription from earlier. My dosage has increased."
"Sure." Sarcasm drips from Renee's voice like a leaky tap, but she lets it go all the same. "Anyway, why are you awake?"
"Couldn't sleep." I pause. "Why are you awake?"
We both chuckle lightly. My smile grows wider.
"Well, I'm going to try and get some sleep. You should get some rest too, Naomi. You've had quite a day." Her voice is thick with sleep, a yawn escaping from her lips whilst finishing her sentence.
"I'll try but I doubt I'll be able to drift off."
"Mmm." Renee's muffled response is shortly followed by the sound of light breathing as she slips into a slumber.
Smiling to myself, I open up my palm and steal one final glance at the locket. Pressing it against my lips, I tuck it safely out of sight beneath the rubbish in my crate then cocoon myself in the duvet, burying myself in the thick layers of padding. I close my eyes. Within seconds, the darkness of the room clouds my mind and I drown into a deep sleep.
"You gonna eat that or what?"
The spoon in my hand falls from grasp, vanishing into the bowl of gruel. I sigh. "Probably not now. You want it?" I glance up to see Val frowning at me. "Ever tried smiling, Val?" Her frown grows.
"Ever tried to actually eat something?"
"I would but I'm not hungry."
My stomach grumbles.
Val raises an eyebrow. "Looking forward to your meeting?"
"Oh yeah, definitely. Why wouldn’t I be? Why else would I not want to meet with the chief doctor of the Sanctuary? It's not as if barely anyone's called to meet him, is it?"
"Well..." I consider lying then catch Val's eye. "Yeah, I'm nervous."
A flicker of a smile plays at her lips. "You'll be fine. You're the toughest person I know. You'll be in there one minute, out the next. There's nothing to worry about. Now eat your gruel. You need your energy."
I smirk. "On one condition."
Val scowls. "Seriously?"
I raise an eyebrow. "I'm waiting."
Val mutters something under her breath then her lips curl into a sarcastic simper. "Is that alright?"
“A little wider.”
Narrowing her eyes, she huffs and stretches out her smile. “Better?” she says, through gritted teeth.
I grin. "Much better."
Liberating my spoon from the swamp of watery gruel, I down it in minutes despite the rancid taste, then get ready for my meeting. A few minutes before nine, I head out of the dormitory and follow the corridor to the main hall, the note clasped tightly in my fist. There, I join the back of the queue for the reception and wait to be seen to. It's not long before I'm at the front. Sitting comfortably on a plush swivel chair is a tall, thin girl with an explosion of copper brown curls. Her attentive dark eyes skim the words on a clipboard she clutches. I instantly recognise her.
The girl glances up and her lips break out into a grin. "Good morning, Naomi. How are you?"
"I'm good, thanks. Yourself?"
"Fit as a fiddle." Carrie nods at the note in my hand. "What'cha got there?"
I slide the note across the desk. "I've got a meeting with the chief doctor at nine."
Carrie raises an eyebrow. Her eyes fill with concern. "You've got a meeting with Dr Sullivan?"
"Should I be worried?"
"Of course not. Meeting the chief doctor is totally normal."
"No. You should be terrified. I've only ever heard of one person who's met Dr Sullivan in private and I don't think that went down well."
"Thanks for the encouragement."
Carrie smiles weakly at me. "I'll fetch your escort."
Hopping off her chair, she disappears out of sight and a moment later, low voices can be heard. Subsequently, Carrie reappears, followed by another person. A boy. He's slightly taller than Carrie with a more athletic build, hints of his muscular arms visible through his jumpsuit. A mop of dishevelled coffee-coloured hair flops over the top of his rounded face, faintly tinged with a pasty wax that has failed to mould his hair into a clean sweep. Two sharp hazel eyes pierce their attention straight on me. I drop my gaze almost instantly.
"Naomi, this is Kit. He'll escort you to your meeting."
I glance up coyly. He looks straight at me, his lips curving into a warm smile. "Ready steady?"
Before I get the chance to reply, Kit vanishes again then reappears moments later through the side door. Gesturing away from the queue, we head towards Dr Sullivan's office.
"So." Kit glances to me, a smile on his face. "What sorta trouble you been causing?"
"What makes you think I'm in trouble?"
"It's not every day you take someone to meet with Dr Sullivan. And besides, you look the sort."
"Pardon?" I turn around to face Kit, staring at him incredulously. "I look like what?"
Kit grins at me. "See. Right there. You definitely have it. Oh, and put this on."
He hands me a surgical mask then swerves around me and continues walking, leaving me stood there like a dummy. It takes me a moment or two to stop gawking into the space where he was stood and catch up with him.
"I definitely have what?" I demand, pulling the mask over my head. "What the hell are you talking about?"
Kit chuckles. "You're really showing it now." He pushes open one of the double doors opposite the corridor that leads to the dormitories and gestures for me to enter. Heading through, I wait for him to join me before trying for an answer.
"Just...just what are you...ugh I'm so confused." I look up to Kit helplessly.
He grins. "Trying to cover up your guilt?" He teases.
I elbow him in the ribs. He lets out a yelp of pain. "Serves you right for pissing me off."
"Hey, I was only remarking on your amazing personality." Sarcasm is threaded throughout his words.
I glower at him. "Like what?"
"What were you remarking on?"
"Only the fact that you look the sort to cause trouble." My face must've been a picture of horror as Kit's grin grows, which is seemingly impossible, seeing as how it also stretches from ear to ear.
"Cheeky bugger." I punch his shoulder somewhat playfully but harder than he'd thought I'd hit. "I don't look anything like the troublesome sort."
"Ah, but that's what you think." Kit points to my eyes. "You have it right there. That mischievous twinkle all troublemakers have." I open my mouth to protest but Kit carries on. "And your tone of voice is very defensive, suggesting that you're trying to cover up your guilt. You also appear to be pretending that you're not guilty of being mischievous when you obviously are-" He breaks off and grins. "Need I go on?"
"Good question." I narrow my eyes, glaring frostily at him. “Would you like to die of strangulation or suffocation?
“Aren’t they the same thing?”
“That…that doesn’t matter. Stop changing the subject.”
Kit chuckles. "My, you're not one for taking a joke."
"You're the one who can't crack a joke."
"And I suppose you can?"
"Better than you can, for sure."
"Is that a challenge I hear?" Kit raises an eyebrow.
A smirk spreads across my face. "You're on." I hold out my hand. "First one to make the other one laugh wins."
"Deal." Kit stops and shakes my hand.
Glancing up, my eyes are drawn to a doctor heading towards us. He carries a large cardboard box, concealing the majority of his face. He stops a few metres in front of us and withdraws a small card from his pocket. Swiping it against a keypad on the wall, he pushes himself into a pair of plain double doors and they swing wide open, allowing him access into the room. Just before the doors slam shut, I catch sight of several rows of shelving, stacked with trays of glass tubes, bottles and various oddly-sized containers as well as paper packages and plastic pots. Seconds later the doors close on their own and the room vanishes from my sight.
“What’s through there?” I point to the doors.
“That’s where the store all the medicine,” Kit explains. “Every single different type. It’s pretty impressive.”
“Have you been in there?”
“Nope.” Kit smiles then heads onwards, further away from the mysterious room. As I walk past it, I stare at it for as long as I can, hoping, praying, the doors will open again. They don’t, and I’m forced to carry on to my meeting.
A few moments later, Kit halts in his tracks. Turning around, he gestures towards a sandy-coloured door, a silver plaque tacked firmly to it, the words Dr Sullivan - Chief Director etched into the metal. I glance at it then glance back to him. He smiles at me. His hand reaches out and tugs at my surgical mask, pulling it over my lips.
"I'll be here when you're finished," he whispers. "Good luck, though, I doubt you'll need it."
I smile and watch him disappear down the corridor. Turning back to face the door, I take a deep breath and rap on the door twice. Moments later, it swings open to reveal a large, broad-shouldered man towering over me, cloaked in a perfectly clean white coat. His jet black hair is smoothed into a neat wave, without a strand out of place and his lips are pressed into a tight line. His dark brown eyes regard me closely.
"Child zero-six-four-three-three-zero." His voice is tainted with a peculiar accent, one that sounds strangely familiar yet I can't place where I've heard it before. He steps to the side, revealing the entrance to his office. "Why don't you come in?"