Quatre Ribeira-Winner stood at the end of the long, arcing driveway, leaning heavily on his cane. He was staring, warily watching, a house he had never once stepped foot into, yet still hated.
It was not easy for Quatre to admit he hated something, let alone something as subjective as a house. Conceivably, the house could not have done anything against him purposely, and yet it seemed that, over the years, his friends had, one by one, disappeared in relation to this house. Heero had been the first, but not the least remarkable because of it. Relena had been found, gutted, hands clawed at her face as if she were caught in her last, terrified scream. Duo and Hilde Maxwell had never been found. The little girl, Marie, who had served faithfully as Relena's handmaiden, found with her face cut up and eye gouged out in the upstairs bathroom. It had seemed that the mirror had exploded, and yet the investigators had reported it intact. Trowa had fallen to his death, his sister Catherine's body lying next to his, her heart ripped out of her chest and placed in Trowa's dead hand. Wufei had shot himself in the head.
Despite the obvious evidence of murder, nothing was being done.
There had been others, as well, Though Quatre didn't know many of them personally. Little Marie's fiancé had gone to the house in a drunken fit of rage after the girl's funeral and ended up hanging from the eaves. Paramedics that had come to render aid had arrived to scenes of gore. They would commit suicide days later, often to the complete shock of their families.
They were just far enough apart that no investigations had started to look into it. Quatre himself wouldn't have put it together if not for his own investigation, one he felt compelled to make after hearing that Wufei had shot himself.
Wufei was many things, some noble, some quite the opposite. A coward, however, was not one of them.
As his investigations progressed, he felt, at times, the presence of others. A familiar feeling to him: Back in his, in their, youths, he knew he could rely on his four comrades to be there when he struggled. Now, when he ran against obstacle after obstacle, he had the same feeling, sometimes like a touch on his shoulder, sometimes like a push in a more fruitful direction, others like a wink and a smile. He'd taken to thinking of it as his four dead comrades come to support him one last time.
Yes, he knew it was crazy. He was getting old, and he was a veteran. He was allowed a little craziness.
He had, finally, after so much legal maneuvering it caused his old leg injury to flare up just to think about it, managed to get his hands on the Emergency Services call from the day Trowa and Catherine had died. That tape had given him more questions than answers. Some questions, such as why the address and location was edited from the log, were easily answered: The tape could be released: Quatre had seen that first hand. They did not want people who were curious going out and risking their lives, looking for thrills, or clues, or what have you.
The obvious follow up was that if they knew there were such dangers, why wasn't something to be done. The woman answering his questions had looked nervous for a while, and then, in a low whisper meant only for his ears, admitted that they didn't want more people to die. It was she who pointed out what would have been obvious to someone watching from the distance she could afford: anyone who stepped foot in the house died.
Quatre didn't believe that. Not at first. But his investigation definitely pointed in that direction.
There was, of course, only one real solution.
The house would have to go.
He bent, slowly, picking up the gasoline can at his feet, and limped his way toward the house.
Stepping across the threshold was like stepping into another world.
From outside, the house seemed dark. Perhaps a little musty, perhaps the smell of years of dust, but that was all. It was just another empty house.
When Quatre stepped into the house, he felt a chill almost like a jolt of electricity, so real that his bad hip twinged painfully enough to cause him to drop the plastic gas can with a loud thump. The noise echoed through empty halls.
Quatre let some moments pass, willing the pain away. His heart was thumping hard in his chest, his breath coming in pained, rapid gasps. He had really gotten himself worked up. It had always been that way. The house had always seemed so foreboding, so dangerous that he couldn't bring himself to enter it. Finally passing that barrier after so many years must have caused a mental jolt that his body took as physical.
He was no stranger to such things, either.
It took longer than it had when he'd first gotten the injury, but that was to be expected. He was older, much older, and his body didn't recover as quickly. He concentrated on the sound of his own breathing. It wasn't until the pain began to ebb that he became aware of another sound, almost too low to hear.
He stopped, but the blood in his ears and the pounding beat of his heart muffled the sound. He could hear it, oh yes, a whisper against the white noise in his ears, but though the nose rose and fell like speech, understanding eluded him. He waited, trying to relax in this strange place he'd walked into.
The voice grew closer, and soon Quatre could discern what sounded like a kind of hoarse singing, the lilting, faltering tune like that of a lullaby or nursery rhyme, something that may be sung to quiet a frightened child. Quatre strained to hear.
"Hush now, quiet now
It's time to lay your sleepy head
Hush now, quiet now
It's time to go to bed
Drifting off to sleep
The exciting day behind you
Drifting off to sleep
Let the joy of dreamland find you..."
Quatre shuddered involuntarily. The voice was strained, shaking. At times, they went nearly completely silent, only the sound of breath passing over vocal chords, like a stiff wind through reeds, keeping a semblance of the tune alive. It sounded as if it took effort to even speak the words, let alone comfort anyone with them. The voice was high, a woman's voice, and Quatre thought it might be semi familiar.
He looked toward the doorway on the opposite end of the room from where he'd fallen, where the first hallway leading into the house joined the foyer, but there was no one there. Shaking his head, he stood and headed into the hallway, past the coat room and into the ball-sized living room, where, he'd been told, Relena had loved to entertain her guests. He had only seen it through the large plate window on the one night he'd almost been convinced to come in.
The ballroom was empty and bare, but still quite clean. There wasn't even a thin layer of dust. The wooden floor, stained a dark blonde color, shone almost like honey, and the fireplace was clean as if it'd recently been swept.
The singing was a little louder now, more discernable, but no less unnerving. He opened his mouth to call out, but thought better of it. It would be like intruding on grief, and that wasn't right. The hallway beyond, leading to the stairs that rose to the bedroom in which Heero, then Relena, had been killed. The kitchen, easily visible over the half-counter that separated it from the grand living room, was also empty. Yet the singing continued on, louder.
Quatre heard a pop before he turned, and felt the second shock of his visit. There was a fire in the fireplace, as if it had been just started, with a new log feeding a rapidly growing blaze. In front of the fire was a woman, all in white, with short, white hair on her head. She was facing away from him, her clothes hanging in tatters, but still serviceable; at least, they hid what was supposed to be hidden from the back. Quatre took just enough time for the shock to begin to fade, then hobbled forward. "You frightened me, miss," he rasped out, his throat dry with all of the sudden shocks.
The woman turned. Her face was gaunt and pale, and her icy blue eyes, dimmed and vacant, did not seem to focus on anything in particular. Her lips moved for moments before sound actually came out.
"Dead," she whispered, her voice shaking. "All dead. Saw them all. Saw it happen..." The voice, even the shape of the face, was familiar, and Quatre's mouth went numb, his lips trembling. He swallowed, licked his lips, and swallowed again.
The woman turned at the sound of the name, and for a brief second, a familiar look flashed into the woman's eyes. The look was enough to confirm that yes, this was Hilde, lost so long ago, presumed dead. Something had happened, for her hair to turn white and her skin pale, and Quatre was certain, despite his disbelief in the supernatural at all, that she was a ghost.
"Hilde," he said again, mourning, but the name seemed to trigger a stronger reaction. She looked at him, focusing.
"Seen you," she whispered. "Saw it happen... Oh, Quatre," she said, her voice breaking. Tears began to drip out of her eyes, and Quatre gasped. The tears were black, like oil, clinging as then dripped down her face. Even the welling of them in her eyes was an obscuring black. Quatre's mouth opened in horror, and he couldn't resist stepping back when Hilde stepped from the hearth, toward him. The can was jostled, falling to its side even as it nearly set Quatre tumbling to the floor again. A strong scent of gasoline filled Quatre's nostrils, but he had no capacity left to react.
"No," Hilde whispered, so matter-of-factly that she could have been talking about mobile suit specs. "No, I don't want to see it again." She began to walk past Quatre, her gait shuffling, almost shambling, but she stopped next to him instead, suddenly gripping his forewarm with a grip hard enough to hurt.
"You shouldn't have come into the house, Quatre...."
Then she was gone. She had not shuffled away, but instead she was simply not there, as if she never had been. The fireplace, too, was once again empty and swept clean. Quatre's knees gave out, and he gripped the arm where she had held him. It hurt, both from the pressure and the jolt of an electrical shock.
She had been real. Flesh, bone, and whatever else. He could still hear the intake of her breath before her warning, and the shuffle of her feet before she had, somehow, disappeared. She had been as real as he.
He jerked in the direction she had been facing, wanting to follow, to rescue her, but the can, already on its side and spilling dribbles of gasoline, tripped him. The impact knocked the container's lid off, and gasoline gushed over his legs and underneath him. His face, on the floor, was doused in it, and he spat, some of the gasoline going into his mouth, though he had made a point not to breathe in.
"Oh, don't mind her," said a voice, smooth as silk, coming from above him. There was another woman, tall and blonde with brows like spikes extending past her temples. Her mouth stretched in a wide smile.
"You seem cold... what a poor host I've been... here." She gestured to the fireplace, her wide grin growing impossibly wider. "Let me remedy that..."
Suddenly, with another pop, loud, like a lock cracking from the heat, sounded, and Quatre felt it. He only had time to see the fire racing up his body, faster than even the accelerant could account for, and then he was consumed. His fingers curled like claws, and he opened his mouth to scream, but only flames came out...
It was much later, when the robotic coroner came on reports of a fire, that he was found, unmoving, still locked in the shape he'd died in, eyes wide and staring, fingers curled as if in deep pain, and not breathing. The autopsy showed no understood cause of death, but the inside of his mouth was blackened and full of ash, as if he'd been burned from the inside.