Penelope dodged a drifting chunk of rock and swore under her breath.
Fucking Walker. . . Let’s just form a lair in the most back-ass part of the Zone this side of the Void. . . Sounds like a great goddamn plan! Stupid Texas jackass. . .
“Keep up! I don’t want y’all getting’ lost on my watch!”
She couldn’t help it.
“Then slow down, dammit! I’m going as fast as I can without getting Danny smashed!”
Walker rounded on her, and Penelope felt a rush of fear travel up her spine. She held Danny tighter to her chest. Thankfully, though, he slept right through all the noise and the jostling. Poor little guy was exhausted. But this part of the Zone was unfamiliar to her, no recognizable landmarks anywhere near, and Walker might have been a stubborn, rule-obsessed pile of dicks, but he was bigger than she was. And stronger. And though she was confident she could outrun him on a good day, she just. . .
She couldn’t leave Danny alone with this dumbass.
Which was strange and foreign because, frankly, she wasn’t particularly fond of children. But this boy was different. Somehow.
Ugh – of all the times to regrow a goddamn conscience. . .
The warden glared at her, his eyes glowing in his dead-white face. Then he held his arms out to her. “Here – I’ll take ‘im.”
Penelope blinked in shock. “What?”
“Gimme the punk. It ain’t like he weighs a lot, an’ you can keep up better if your hands ain’t full.”
Danny sighed heavily, breath sticky against the side of her throat, and Penelope’s grip relaxed just a tad. “You have to hold him carefully. I don’t know how much second-hand damage his body formed. We can’t make it worse.”
Walker rolled his eyes and growled. “Spectra, I ain’t gonna hurt ‘im. If I was gonna do that, I’d ‘ve done it when he first formed. Now give him here. ‘m hungry and I wanna eat somethin’ ‘fore Bullet invades my house.”
Slowly, still not quite trusting the large man, Penelope passed Danny over. He grunted, whimpering a little in his sleep. But he settled quickly, and she was struck by how tiny the little boy looked against the warden’s barrel chest. Especially wrapped in that ridiculous white suit jacket. Walker adjusted Danny’s slight weight a bit, then jerked his chin at her.
“C’mon then. Let’s get headed that way.”
He flew off without another word, leaving Penelope to contemplate putting a damn ecto-blast in his spine. Eventually, she convinced herself it wasn’t worth the effort and followed. Walker angled a bit to the right, skirting the furthest edge of the latest black-hole’s strike-zone. The air was still charged and heavy thirteen years after the fact. Looking into the dark endless center set Penelope’s teeth on edge. She hurried to keep up with Walker, despite the fact that he set her teeth on edge too, only to find that the warden was completely at ease with his surroundings. He was whistling under his breath.
Penelope rolled her eyes, lazily circling another flying piece of debris. Jesus Christ, why the fuck would anyone live here?! This place was a wasteland in the middle of fucking nowhere, and she was beginning to wonder if it would just be easier to take Danny to live in her lair. It might’ve been a bit loud, but there were steps she could take to deaden the noise – Ember would listen to her because there were those who made idle threats and then there was Penelope Spectra – and at least she could figure out how to get back to the real fucking world.
Then Bertrand’s slimy, vicious grin flashed through her mind and something in her gut froze.
No – Danny couldn’t stay at her lair.
Well, then, onto the set of The Hills Have Eyes. . .
Penelope glanced up and managed to dodge just fast enough to avoid being plowed down by a massive hunk of rock. Ahead of her, she could hear Walker laughing, and her blood pressure rose. Ectoplasm-pressure? Sixty years in the Zone and she still had trouble differentiating between human anatomy and ghost anatomy on certain things. What the fuck ever, it didn’t matter. All that really mattered was being able to smash her fist into Walker’s smug fucking face.
“C’mon, sugar! Keep your head on, it ain’t far!!”
She was going to kill him.
She was going to kill him in his goddamn sleep.
Penelope shot off towards Walker, who had been waiting with Danny tucked into the crook of his arm, and thought of all the wonderful ways she could end the man.
Hog-tied and tossed in the River of Disgust. Toss him in with the Behemoth. Toss him in with Klemper. . . no, that’s cruel even for me. What the hell ever, Penny, why does it matter? You got thrown in a fucking sack by his juice-jock Lieutenant and strong-armed into helping take on a traumatized four-year-old, you deserve a little payback.
“What the hell is your. . . problem. . .”
As she spoke, Penelope trailed off, unable to quite believe what she was seeing. There, tucked in a little pocket of calm, was a fucking ranch. Like, an actual ranch. White-picket fence included. A large open patch of grass – maybe half an acre – made up the front yard, a small barn resting towards the edge of the lair-bounds. The house itself was large, two stories (great, Danny and stairs might be a problem), with a wrap-around porch and dark barnwood siding. There were a couple of chairs out front. A porch-swing. Tin roof. The front door was red and had a wrought-iron cross next to it.
If she walked inside and there was a goddamn Texas flag hanging on the wall, she was not responsible for what would come out of her mouth.
“Are y’all just gonna hang there gawkin, or are ya gonna come inside?”
Penelope startled a bit – she might have forgotten Walker was still waiting on her. No big deal. It wasn’t like she wasn’t still going to kill him in his sleep one day. Hopefully he was a heavy sleeper. But going off how big a pain in the ass he was, she was leaning towards that being untrue.
She made herself feel better by shooting the warden a glare, flying off towards the farmhouse without a word.
Penelope landed on the front porch with a soft thud and took a deep breath. God, it even smelled like a farm. Wet grass and fresh air, the slight tang that comes just before a thunderstorm. There was something vaguely sour beneath it all. But she didn’t really want to pin-point that because it would probably end in a bunch of regret.
Walker brushed past her a moment later, easily handling Danny’s frail body with one arm as he opened the front door. “Come on in. Wipe your feet on the mat ‘fore you come in – the wood’s a pain to clean.”
Of course – Grandma Clampett in the flesh. Penelope rolled her eyes but did as she was told, choosing to pull off her heels and rest them by the front door. They were stylish and made her legs look fabulous, but they were hell to walk in. She glanced around, trying to discern where Walker had wandered off to.
And she was kind of surprised.
Even though that the house was almost unnervingly clean (indicators of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, likely an obsessive need for control. . . shit, she was doing it again) there was nothing particularly ghost-like about it. The front entrance led directly into a spacious living room, dark leather sofas and an obviously well-loved recliner centered around a fireplace. Books lined the back shelves, thick heavy tomes that she couldn’t quite make out the titles. Glancing to the left, she could see the kitchen through a small doorway, Walker standing by an old cast-iron sink. The floor was some sort of knotty, scraped wood that she didn’t recognize, and the cabinets were painted white. Everything was rustic. Homey. Comfortable.
Frankly, she’d thought that the infamous warden would have a home that was just as uninviting as his prison. But here they were.
Penelope strolled up through to the door. . .
“You’ve got to be kidding me. Now I’m contractually obligated to call you Tex. It’s non-negotiable.”
. . . there was a fucking Texas flag on the front wall.
Walker’s scowl probably could’ve curdled milk, but Penelope was trying far too hard to keep from laughing to pay attention to that. Standing here, in this rustic, old-ass kitchen, she could almost mistake the warden for a normal man. His posture was impeccable and still a tad stiff, but he’d relaxed. His shoulders were loose, even though Danny had tucked up against his chest. She wondered what made this place so different. Why he thought he could relax here. Perhaps a latent connection. . .
No, dammit, you are NOT psycho-analyzing the man who tossed you in a fucking sack and made you care about things, Penelope, fucking FOCUS!!
Penelope sauntered up to him, lazily taking in the rest of the kitchen. The appliances looked rustic, but she was surprised to see that they were well-used and decently high-end. Did he actually cook? Humming in thought, she trailed a fingertip along the formica countertop, coming to a stop in front of Walker.
“You’re just tryin’ to get on my very last nerve, ain’t ya?” the warden sighed.
“Not particularly,” she sing-songed. “You just make it so easy. All those buttons to push – it’s a wonder you get anything done.”
Walker grumbled something under his breath, and Penelope felt her grin widen at his frustration. Okay, so maybe she had been Shang-hai’d, tossed in a sack, and forced to take care of a kid with so many mental scars that it made a 1950’s asylum patient look tame. But she could at least take comfort in the fact that she could push any of the good warden’s buttons at any time.
“You’re about three gallons a crazy in a two gallon bucket, ya know that?” Walker sighed again, rolling his eyes to the ceiling. “Here: take the kid an’ I’ll give ya the grand tour. I think he’s gonna wake up soon anyhow.”
Ugh, she hadn’t realized that he used euphemisms for everything. It must’ve been all the pent-up swears that he refused to let loose. God knew she’d be suppressed too if she didn’t have any outlet for the immense amount of profanity that built up on any given day.
Rolling her eyes, Penelope gently took Danny from Walker’s hold. She was surprised: the warden hadn’t been exaggerating. She could feel the little boy vibrating against her, energy building up in his thin body as he began to wake up. Bouncing in place, she shushed him quietly, running a hand across the back of his head.
“Lead the way, Tex,” Penelope drawled quietly. “This little guy still needs food and a bath. In that order.”
Walker nodded, face still a grim mask. “C’mon, then. Bedrooms are this way.”
Without another word, he left the kitchen, stepping back into the living room and going down a small hallway. Dark wood and adobe made up the walls throughout the house, it seemed.
“Half-bath to yer left an’ the office is at the end of the hall. Everythin’ else is upstairs,” Walker explained brusquely. “I figure we’re gonna have to figure a way to keep the punk away from ‘em somehow. But we’re all up here together, so I guess that’s one good thing ‘bout it.”
He had a point.
Well, other than the one on top of his head. . .
Penelope followed him upstairs quietly, cataloguing the different hazards they would likely have to work around. The stairs had a tall hand-rail, sturdy from what she could tell, but the stairs themselves were pretty steep. Baby-gates or close monitoring would be important until Danny got his feet under him. No weapons – shockingly – from what she could see. No excessively sharp edges. The floors were hard-wood but there were rugs and runners.
It was almost like the warden had known there would be a kid here at some point.
They reached the top of the stairs, and Walker made his way through the decently-sized landing. He jerked a thumb to the room closest to the stairs. “That room’s mine. Master’s got an en-suite, so we don’t gotta share bathrooms. Got two guest rooms, but I think I know which one’ll be best for the punk to stay in.”
Walker opened a second door a fair distance from the master, gesturing for her to look inside. “Ya think this room’ll suit ya, sugar?”
Danny was starting to wake up more, snuggling deeper into her neck as he began trembling. His little legs felt like twigs as he wrapped them about her waist. But she had to see what Walker deemed acceptable quarters for her to live in. It wasn’t something she could just turn away from. So Penelope snuck a peek inside, eyes widening at just how nice it all was. Three walls of floor-to-ceiling windows, a king-size bed.
Jesus Christ, this was nicer than her own lair, even if all the Texas bullshit was starting to give her a headache.
Whatever, she could get used to it.
“It’s fine. But if you call me ‘sugar’ one more time, we’re going to have a problem, Tex.”
Walker snorted and rolled his eyes. “C’mon. I guess we should let the punk wake up in his room. Not that I suppose it’ll make a difference.”
Penelope bounced in place some more, shushing the still-waking child a bit. “It does make a difference, believe it or not. Now lead the way.”
They went to the last room, Penelope glancing into a second bathroom to her right before following. And she was pretty sure her eyebrows disappeared into her hairline when she did.
This was a child’s room. Very obviously a child’s room.
Well, multiple children if the four bunkbeds were anything to go off of. They were sturdy, built right into the wall with an iron ladder to reach the top. She supposed they wouldn’t have to worry about Danny wanting the top bunk. He was far too prone to hiding for that, too comfortable with smaller spaces where no one could reach him. There was a toy-chest in the corner, bean-bags under a large window that looked out onto the yard. The dressers were even made with a child in mind.
“Aren’t you just full of surprises?” Penelope teased, almost gently. “This place is so clean I thought that you might’ve actually lived at the prison.”
Walker shifted. And was that a blush she saw on his cheeks? He cleared his throat, crossed his arms (defensive body language, dammit) and looked out the window.
“You think the punk’s the only kid that’s ever formed in my office? I’ve seen just ‘bout everythin’, lady. I even had Johnny 13 for a little while after he formed – dumb punk couldn’ figure out how ta get that shadow under control. Youngblood was a nightmare.”
Penelope blinked at him. “Are you seriously telling me that you’ve been a foster parent to newly-formed ghost kids for years without anyone finding out about it?”
A snort. “Nah – Bullet knows. I think Skulker figured it out after Ember let it slip she’d crashed here a couple’a times. But otherwise, yeah, I pretty much keep it to myself.”
“You’ve got to be shitting me.” It slipped out before she could stop it. “There’s no way you watched Johnny 13, Ember, and Youngblood without anyone figuring it out.”
“Watch yer mouth!” Walker snarled. “And yeah, I did. ‘cause they all know I expect them to respect my privacy. And they know how to respect my laws. Why do you think none of them have ever been in one of my cells?”
She hadn’t thought about that.
Despite all evidence to the contrary, Ember and Johnny both had never paid a visit to Walker’s prison. They were rough around the edges and stuck in that rebellious phase, sure, but all teenagers essentially were. God, how had she not noticed that both of them stuck to the rules like glue? It was so damn obvious!!
Penelope opened her mouth to retort.
“No, Mommy, I sorry. I sorry! No hurt, Mommy, I sorry.”
Danny was waking up.
Her jaw snapped shut, and she could see Walker’s fists clench. The warden swallowed thickly. “You think ya got this?” Penelope nodded, sitting on the edge of one of the bottom bunks, and he continued. “Good. I’m gonna go get supper started. You think he can handle soup or somethin’ light?”
She quirked an eyebrow – would wonders never cease? “I think soup would be fine. Nothing too rich. I don’t think his stomach could handle it.”
Walker nodded. “Got it. I’ll holler when it’s ready. Shouldn’t take too long.”
He walked out.
Danny squeezed her tight, whimpering pitifully in his sleep. Something broke deep in her chest. This was a baby. And they broke him. But she knew that if she kept following that train of thought, she’d get mad, which would get them nowhere. So Penelope settled more comfortably on the bed and ran her hands through the little boy’s white hair. Danny cried out.
“Mommy, please, ’m Danny! ’m sorry! Stop, Mommy, it hurts!”
Her heart cracked.
Fucking conscience. . . emotions were such a load of bullshit.
“Shhh, Danny, honey, you need to wake up. Wake up, sweetie, it’s just a nightmare. I’ve got you. Wake up, little man.”
He stopped fighting, hyperventilating, trembling violently.
Then those haunting green eyes snapped open, ectoplasm weeping down his cheeks, and the little boy was staring up at her. Confusion, terror, panic. And then, miraculously, relief lit up his thin face. The bony hands that had wrapped themselves so tightly in her blouse loosened, one finger reaching up to poke her gently on the cheek.
Despite herself, Penelope smiled. “Well, hello there, sleepy-head. Did you have a good nap?”
danny thinks he’s dreaming but he can’t be sure.
he can’t be sure of anything anymore. because the drugs make his head fuzzy and mommy’s yelling and the skaal-pulls make everything hurt and he’s not sure what is up or down or front-ways or back-ways, and sometimes they make him see things that aren’t actually there.
but he’s cold and it’s dark and he’s back in the lab. he knows because of the smell. it’s really strong, burning his nose and it reminds him of dirty pennies, of mommy’s dirty beakers and the ‘zooka that she likes so much and he’s scared again, feels the straps digging into his arms and his legs won’t work and oh, no, he can’t see! can’t see can’t see can’t see why can’t he see anymore, mommy, what’s going on?
why mommy, I’m danny, your baby your boy, and daddy please help, no hitting, I’m sorry what did I do wrong can I fix it?
where’s my danny, ghost, what have you done with him?!
oh no, more yelling. he hates yelling. he misses jazzy, misses cookies and cartoons and the stars. he wishes he could see the stars again. hug bear aldrin. maybe neil bunnystrong.
danny doesn’t know what’s going on and it hurts. hurts hurts hurts and what’s wrong with his chest, it hurts, he can’t see and it hurts and they’re tearing him apart and mommy please I’m danny I’m sorry stop mommy it hurts!!!
and there’s a hand on his throat and it’s squeezing and he can’t breathe and. . .
“Shhhh, Danny, honey, you need to wake up. Wake up, sweetie, it’s just a nightmare. I’ve got you. Wake up, little man.”
he knows that voice.
but it hurts hurts hurts and he doesn’t know what’s going on and he can’t see but he knows that voice so he fights. he can’t move his arms and he can’t move his legs but he fights and he wants his mommy but mommy makes it hurt so he goes towards the pretty voice, familiar, and then. . . .
danny wakes up and he wants to scream but there’s no sound left in his throat, nothing but the nasty taste of dirty pennies, and he clutches at. . .
there’s something in his hands.
danny stops, freezes, and he starts to shake until it feels like his bones are rattling themselves apart but he can’t help it. then there’s a hand on the back of his head. someone’s rocking him. it doesn’t smell like the lab anymore, like dirty pennies and death, no, it smells like raspberries and cream and danny remembers ms. penny and mr. walker and his pal the coat and. . .
he looks up and he can see.
mommy something’s wrong I can’t see it hurts please mommy what’s going on?
. . it was all real. danny can’t believe it because even though his hands had told him it was real, he still hadn’t quite believed it because there were so many tricks, so many promises, and he remembers crying and crying and crying until he just couldn’t keep his eyes open anymore even though his eyes ached, even though there was something very very wrong about them. he lets go of ms. penny’s shirt and pokes her in the cheek again. mommy had said it was rude to poke people but he has to know. has to make sure.
her cheek is still warm and the skin is still soft and danny thinks he might cry again.
then she smiles at him, actually smiles, and he doesn’t know what to do, how to think confusion because he’s a very bad little boy, right? made mommy and daddy hate him, right?
“Well, hello there, sleepy head. Did you have a good nap?”
danny blinks. once, twice. something dribbles over his cheek and ms. penny wipes it away with her thumb. he sees it, green and sick-sticky, and he sucks in some air through his teeth and the shaking starts again because that’s so wrong. wrong wrong wrong wrong why is it green what’s wrong with his eyes why is he cold what’s going on can’t think can’t breathe doesn’t know so scared why why why?!!!
“Shhhh. . . sweetheart, it’s okay. I’ve got you. Nothing’s going to hurt you, alright? Everything’s going to be just fine. I need you to breathe with me, Danny. Big breath. Can you do that?”
can he? doesn’t know. too much. can’t think. everything hurts. feels like he’s swimming in honey. more sticky stuff. wants to cry but can’t and
no mommy everything hurts why why why ms. penny kisses him on the forehead, rocks him, holds him tight. why is she doing this? why?
he’s a very bad little boy and very bad little boys do not get hugs or kisses and no one loves them and. . .
“Sweetie, you need to breathe. Breathe with me. In.” Big breath. “Out.”
it whooshes past his ear and danny flinches but then he holds tighter because what if she leaves? what if she disappears because he can’t listen and he tries, tries very hard to be a good little boy and takes a breath with her. it burns in his chest, wants to get out get out get out but he holds it because ms. penny hasn’t let it go yet. when she does, he lets it leave, and
why does everything burn tries to follow instructions.
“Good job, Danny. You’re doing so well, sweetheart. That’s it.”
danny wants to cry.
he shouldn’t lie – lying is bad, mommy and daddy told him so – and he can’t just let ms. penny keep thinking he’s a good little boy. because he isn’t. he’s very bad, mommy told him so. she shouldn’t have to deal with someone so horrible.
and the sounds leave him before he can stop them and they sound like nails on chalkboards, say ‘m bad. ‘m sorry. don’ mean to be.
ms. penny looks at him and it makes his insides squirm because she looks so sad and he doesn’t mean to make her sad and he whispers ‘m sorry again like that will somehow make it all better. and then ms. penny hugs him tight again, rocks him back and forth, and she’s so warm. danny holds tight and huddles close and tries to disappear.
“Honey, I need you to listen to me very carefully. Can you do that?”
danny can do that.
he nods and holds tight and ms. penny talks again, and danny likes that she’s so quiet, that she doesn’t yell or scream or boom like mommy and daddy did.
“Danny, you are not bad. You’re a very good little boy who has had very bad things happen to him. But none of that is your fault. Do you understand?”
not. . . not his fault?
how is it not his fault? mommy said so – said he was a liar and a freak and a ghost and she strapped him to the table and made him hurt and daddy had laughed when he cried. danny doesn’t understand, twists his fingers in the back of ms. penny’s shirt and shakes and tries to be very still. maybe if he’s very still she’ll forget he’s here and just carry him everywhere.
ms. penny sighs and kisses his head again.
“Alright, sweetheart. We’ll work on that some more later, how’s that sound?”
later sounds nice, danny thinks.
he twists some of her hair around his fingers and snuggles into her neck and listens for her heartbeat. except. . . he waits too long. there’s no heartbeat in her chest. no thu-thump thu-thump thu-thump. danny stiffens, startles, sits up and presses his hand to where his head was sitting and waits. nothing. nothing.
ms. penny frowns, takes his hand in one of hers and rubs the back with her thumb.
“Danny? Sweetie, what’s wrong?”
danny whimpers and it feels like nails in his throat and his eyes ache, sticky-something on his cheeks again, and where thump? heart hurt
ms. penny looks confused, like he’s said something strange. but then her eyes widen, and she squeezes his fingers just a little tighter. it doesn’t hurt. it doesn’t hurt.
“My heartbeat? Is that what you’re looking for?”
heartbeat. danny remembers those. he likes listening to jazzy’s sometimes when he has a nightmare and mommy and daddy are too busy in the lab. he nods, and he feels his lip trembling and he is not gonna cry. he’s a big boy, a bad boy, he doesn’t deserve to cry. but ms. penny smiles at him, kisses his forehead, and he thinks that the look she gives him is very sad. he doesn’t want her to be sad.
“Oh, sweetie, you’ve got so much to learn. But you don’t have to worry about that, okay? There’s nothing to worry about with me.”
danny sniffles, pats her cheek and even though promises hurt, promises are bad, he thinks that a promise that she’s not lying wouldn’t be such a terrible thing. and his throat still feels like it’s splitting but he has to know so he whispers promise? and waits for the a-splosion.
it doesn’t come because ms. penny stands up and bounces him a little and her smiles are always so sad. they make his chest feel icky.
“I promise. Now, Walker is cooking dinner for us downstairs. Are you hungry?”
danny feels like his tummy is trying to eat itself.
but. . .
where we at?
penny laughs quietly, bouncing him on her hip a little.
“I guess I forgot to tell you, didn’t I? This is where we’re going to be staying until you feel better, sweetie. Do you like your new room?”
danny looks around and sees that this room is bigger than his old room and there are big windows here instead of a little tiny one and there are bunk beds. and he’s always wanted a bunk bed and a bean bag and are those toys in the corner? does he get toys again? danny doesn’t know what to think, how to act, but he’s just so happy because maybe he gets to sleep in a bed again? get a teddy bear? no dark no cold no hurt?
he nods because he can’t speak, and his smile feels like it’s rusty, like it doesn’t want to pull on his cheeks but then ms. penny smiles back and it’s warm, like the sun coming out in the morning, and danny hugs her tight around the neck because that’s the only thing he can think to do. he doesn’t want this to disappear. no tricks, please, no tricks.
“I’m going to take that as a yes, then.” ms. penny laughs, but it sounds wet, and he thinks she might be crying. “Come on, big guy. Let’s go see if Walker has dinner ready. And then, after we eat, we’ll see about taking a bath, alright? Someone’s bringing new clothes for you to wear.”
new. . . new clothes?
danny hasn’t worn anything but his jumpsuit in so long. what will it be like to wear new clothes again? he doesn’t know, but he hopes they’ll be loose. the jumpsuit rubs against his scars and it itches and sometimes they catch and that hurts, but ms. penny seems very nice. he doesn’t think she’ll hurt him. he doesn’t. really.
I’ll hunt you down and I’ll find you and you won’t get away with hurting my baby, ghost, I’ll break you I promise.
penny starts walking down a hallway and danny holds tight and he doesn’t think she’ll hurt him.
Walker added a couple more sprigs of parsley to the thick soup and stirred.
His shoulders were still tense, and his head ached from how hard his jaw had been clenched all day. He’d been up since 0400. The punk had formed at 0500. Bullet had left at 0600 to find Spectra. They’d come strolling in at 0930. And the problems had been non-stop ever since. . .
He sighed, rolling his sleeves up a little further on his forearms and tasting the soup. It was good, thick broth and big chunks of chicken. It wasn’t nearly as rich as he was accustomed to. But he supposed that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. Little guy was so skinny it’d be a wonder if he could keep anything down. And neither he or Penelope knew exactly what was going on inside the kid. Judging by those scars, it would be a miracle if his body had thought to form any internal organs.
Which would only be a real problem if they’d still been alive.
Needed more salt.
Walker hummed under his breath, a song he’d heard from a confiscated music-player, and added a pinch more. Stirred for a few minutes. Tasted again. He smiled – perfect.
With a flick of his wrist, he turned the burner to low and gave the pot a final stir. Still humming, he moved to wash his hands, eyes flicking towards the doorway. They’d been up there for a while. He’d taught plenty of kids over the years. Johnny had been pretty easy – cigarette habits could be curbed, and he didn’t particularly mind working on motorcycles. Ember had been somewhat trickier. She had a mean-streak wider than her backside and a smart mouth. But she’d eventually come around. And he wouldn’t even go into Youngblood. He swore the kid woke up every day with a set number of spankings in mind for the day.
But this kid. . . he didn’t have a snowball’s chance in Hades of trying to get through to this kid on his own.
Walker finished scrubbing his fingernails and shook his hands dry. The edges of his tattoo were peeping out from under his left sleeve. He’d have to remember to cover it before Spectra got back down.
Running a hand through his hair, Walker yawned and got the dishes down from the cupboard. Three bowls, three glasses. Well, two glasses and a sippy cup. Couldn’t let the kid have a panic-attack because he accidentally broke a glass. He’d just finished mixing up some milk for the little punk when he heard them coming down the stairs. Spectra had a unique rhythm when she walked. Simultaneously light and commanding. Like she was in the middle of a constant waltz.
“Alright, big man, are you ready to eat? I bet you’re hungry.” A pause. “Alright, then, let’s see what Walker made for the both of us.”
She stepped into the kitchen a moment later, bouncing the little boy on her hip as she went. There was a smile on her face, directed only at the kid. But her eyes were strained, a little red. She’d been crying. Or at least holding back tears.
Walker rolled down his sleeve and jerked his head towards the small table he’d set up. “Y’all hungry, boy?”
Danny peeped out from where he’d been buried in Spectra’s neck, and the warden had to suppress a shudder. He didn’t think those eyes would ever stop being haunting. But there was a tiny nod that followed the question, and Walker realized that had been the first true response he’d ever garnered. He managed a wry grin.
“Good. I got some chicken noodle soup for ya. Put some meat back on your bones,” he joked, keeping his voice low.
Danny actually smiled. Just a small one. But it was there, and Spectra’s grin widened just a tad. She ruffled the little boy’s hair gently, sauntering past without so much as a glance at anything else. Walker scowled. He knew the kid came first. But ignoring someone who made supper was just daggum rude. His mama would’ve had a conniption.
Deciding to ignore the slight – picking your battles was something he’d learned early on – Walker followed with a quiet grumble. He pulled Spectra’s chair out for her because manners were important, dangit, and watched as she sat, Danny still wrapped around her waist. There was a booster in the chair between them.
But it looked like that would be a bust this early on.
Silently, Walker plucked the booster up and put it back in its previous spot under the china-cabinet. Then he sat down, bowed his head for a quick prayer, and started eating. Spectra hadn’t touched her food yet. She was too busy trying to coax the punk into opening his mouth for a bite, jogging his thin body on her knee.
“C’mon, sweetheart, it’s chicken noodle soup,” she cajoled. “You’ll love it, I promise.”
Danny worried the edge of her blouse between his fingers, tucked as far as he possibly could against her body. He eyed the spoon of broth distrustfully. A droplet of ectoplasm wept down his cheek, and Spectra wiped it away gently with her thumb. Walker watched them quietly for another second, then came up with an idea.
“Here, kid.” The warden plucked the spoon from the shade’s fingers. “I’ll take a bite first, and then you can take a bite. Sound good?”
The little boy didn’t say anything, but he managed a timid nod. Walker took a spoonful of the kid’s soup, blew on it for a second, and then swallowed. God, that was good. Mama’s recipe had yet to let him down, honest to goodness. After a long second of just watching – those eyes! – Danny seemed to be satisfied. A little hand reached for the spoon, bone-thin and frightening. But it was shaking so bad that he couldn’t hold the utensil on his own.
“Here, baby, can I help?” Spectra interrupted.
Danny nodded again, happily tucked against Spectra’s chest, and she fed him a small spoonful. The little boy savored the bite. Savored the taste. Savored the fact that he had food. Jesus, this kid just kept getting more and more depressing.
“Is that good?” Spectra whispered.
He didn’t answer, just opened his mouth for another bite, automatically craving more. Walker couldn’t help but chuckle, and he quirked an eyebrow at the woman, who had squinted at him quizzically.
“You’re just jealous ‘cause y’all didn’t think of it first.”
Spectra pouted at him, loading up the spoon with another bite for Danny. “I would’ve gotten there! It’s just been kind of a long day.”
Walker snorted. “That’s like callin’ the fall ‘a Rome a minor mishap.”
As both adults chuckled to each other, shaking their heads at the morbid joke, Danny continued eating, thin face alive with wonder as he savored every bite. Eventually, though, he clamped his jaw shut and reclined against Spectra’s chest, still toying with the bottom of her shirt. He used the material like a worry-stone, rubbing it back and forth between his fingers, eyes drooping as the red-head ate her own supper.
Well, his eyes were drooping until Bullet knocked on the door.
The kid practically jumped out of his own skin, whirling around until both arms and legs were wrapped tight about Spectra. It was like he thought she’d disappear on him at the slightest provocation. Walker grumbled to himself and polished off the last of his soup, glaring at Bullet as he came through the door.
“Y’all have a key, Bullet. Didn’ hafta knock,” the warden drawled.
Bullet had the sense to look a little guilty, eye focusing on the kid in Spectra’s lap for a second before returning to his boss. He gestured to the two suitcases in his hands, one significantly larger than the other.
“Sorry, boss. I didn’t think about startling the kid – you’re usually just so damn picky about your privacy.”
“Watch your language!” Walker growled in warning. “Now, please tell me yer missus has more sense than you an’ got the punk some decent clothes to wear?”
Bullet nodded, a wide grin plastered to his scarred face. “Yep! She always was the brains of the operation. Kept all of Tommy’s old things in boxes listed by age. I jus’ packed up everythin’ from age 2 to 5, give him some variety as he fills out a bit.”
Spectra, who had managed to calm Danny a bit, glanced up in surprise. “Really? I’m surprised that you managed to come up with something that smart, juice-jocky. Is that why there’s two suitcases?”
Bullet’s good-natured grin turned nasty, and he snorted. “Naw – this other one’s for your sorry self. Bertrand packed it up real nice for ya – said somethin’ about wantin’ to make sure you were comfortable enough until you could come home, whatever that means.”
Something in Spectra’s expression went cold, and was that fear that he caught just behind her eyes? Walker filed that away for later too. He stood with a groan, picking up the dirty dishes and jerking his head towards the staircase.
“Alright, lieutenant, y’all know where to put ‘em. Spectra’s in the guest bedroom, Danny’s at the end. Will ya pull out a pair of pajamas for ‘im? Kid needs a bath – looks like he’s been butchered with the hogs.”
Bullet nodded, as close to a salute as he could come with his hands full. “Yessir.”
The lieutenant marched up the stairs without another word, and Spectra shot Walker a look over her shoulder. Danny had quit shaking quite so badly, content to be held with a hand against the crown of his head, hiding his face as best he could.
“Why didn’t he just phase through the ceiling? The rooms should be literally right above us.”
Walker snorted, rinsing out the dishes before he set about putting away the leftovers. “We’re gonna go over house-rules later. But that’s one of ‘em: we don’t use unnecessary powers in the house. Sets a bad example for the brats when they’re tryin’ ta get the hang of ‘em.”
He could practically hear the gears in Spectra’s conniving little head turning. But she didn’t say anything else, just went back to rocking the punk, whispering to him as he came down from the panic he’d worked himself into. Walker sighed for about the thousandth time that day.
This had to have been the worst situation he’d worked himself into. Bar none. Because on the one hand, he needed Spectra. Had no idea how to deal with a kid this scarred up. But on the other hand. . .
“Hey, Tex, do you mind helping me with Danny’s bath? Or is that against your house rules too?”
On the other hand, he had to deal with that.
For the foreseeable future.
Walker rolled his eyes to Heaven and made a silent prayer for patience. One that the good Lord had yet to answer, but he was still trying, dangit. He ran a hand through his hair – it was going to turn gray one day, he just knew it – and turned to face the red-head smirking at him from the table. How she could go from coaching a kid through a panic attack to torturing him in half a second defied any sort of logic that Walker had ever come across.
“Have ya finished eatin’?” he asked.
Spectra blinked at him. “What?”
“I’d be happy to help with the little punk’s bath – Lord knows I suffered through plenty with Youngblood – but it’s another rule in my house that no one leaves the kitchen until everyone’s finished eatin’. Are y’all finished?”
She obviously hadn’t been expecting such an ultimatum because those eyes of hers turned wide and almost childish, staring at him in complete shock. But Spectra wasn’t one to be taken off guard for long, it seemed. She gathered herself and nodded.
“I’m finished. Actual food doesn’t really do it for me anyway.”
Of course, how in the Zone could he have forgotten that little nugget of information?
“Alright, then. Bath-time for the brat and then bed. I’m about to fall over.”
Walker could hear Bullet come down the stairs just as Spectra snorted at him. “Seriously? It’s like eight o’clock, cowboy, where’s that late to bed-early to rise vibe?”
“It died a painful death with his patience when you came outta that sack this morning.”
Bullet didn’t even break stride, grinning as he stomped in from the hallway, and Walker had to fight to keep a smile off his face. Smart-aleck had been saving that one, he just knew it. But the warden managed to compose himself, ignoring the fact that Spectra’s glare could’ve bore a hole through his lieutenant’s core three times over. He shook Bullet’s hand gratefully.
“Alright, you, git on home. Yer missus’ll have my head on a plate,” Walker growled. “An’ don’t forget that you’re in charge for the next couple weeks! I expect those boys to be in shape and sufferin’ when I get back.”
Bullet laughed, only stopping when he heard Danny squeak in terror. “Not to worry, boss-man! I got everything under control. Goodnight. Call me if you need anything.”
Walker waved him out the door. “Git on, you idjit!”
He could practically feel Bullet grinning even as the front door snicked shut. The warden rolled his shoulders, gesturing for Spectra to walk ahead of him.
She glared at him for a few moments. Then up the stairs she went, movements not jostling the little boy in the slightest, and Walker quirked an eyebrow. This one was trouble. . . about a hundred and fifteen pounds of it.
“Why don’t you get the water started running since you know how everything works?” Spectra called over her shoulder. “I’ll see what your moron of a lieutenant deemed suitable for him to sleep in. We’ll go from there.”
At least she’d tried to phrase it as a question, and it wasn’t as though it was an unreasonable request. Walker nodded, rolling up his sleeves again as she disappeared into the back room. The bathroom he liked to use for the kids was decently sized, and he was happy that the copper tub had come out all right – it was just like the one they used to take baths in as kids.
Except this one had hot water.
He’d got the water running and made sure the temperature wasn’t too hot, just in case the kid really did have some sort of ice abilities. Too much heat and they’d fry his little brains. Walker waited until the tub was about half-way full before stopping the stream, pulling a couple of Youngblood’s old bath toys from the cabinet under the sink. A duck, a boat, a fish. Pretty standard fair.
Spectra came waltzing in a minute later, Danny still glued to her waist like a koala. Or a monkey. She held his pajamas folded neatly in one hand and set them on the vanity.
“Okay, so he’s a meat-headed idiot, but apparently his wife has good taste. The space pj’s were a hit.”
Every word that came out of her mouth had to fight for any amount of respect it could get, and Walker had to hide another grin. He then gestured for her to sit on the stool he’d pulled up.
“Alright, quit jawin’ an’ let’s get to washin’,” he grumbled. “I’d like to go to bed ‘fore tomorrow mornin’.”
Spectra rolled her eyes at him but did as she was told. She sat primly on the edge of the stool and gently pried Danny’s grip away from her. The boy whimpered quietly, breath starting to quicken as he was separated from his make-shift worry-stone. But Spectra shushed him, quick to brush away the ectoplasm leaking down his cheeks with a smile so genuine it made Walker question her acting ability. She was good, sure, but was she this good?
“Shhh, sweetie, it’s alright. We’ve got to give you a bath, and we can’t do that if you’re stuck to me like a monkey, now, can we?” She kept her voice soft, cadence lilting. “Now, is it ok if we take this jumpsuit off? Then we can get you all clean and in your new pjs. How does that sound?”
Walker realized something – Spectra always asked permission before doing something and always made sure that the boy responded before moving on. He’d have to remember that.
Hesitantly, Danny nodded, lip quivering as both Walker and Spectra set about removing the filthy rags he was wearing. They came off with minimal effort, and the warden curled up his nose at how offensive it was. It smelled like blood and sweat and fear. He set it on fire with a quick burst of plasma when the kid wasn’t looking. Nothing to see here, kiddo, not anymore.
But. . .
Holy Mary, he hadn’t realized the kid was that bad off.
It was hard not to react to the condition Danny’s body was in. Which was saying something because both of them had seen some pretty gnarly reforms in their time. Younger kids usually had it worse. Their minds couldn’t comprehend that their bodies could be different after death. But this. . .
Spectra’s smile didn’t quite reach her eyes as she set about washing Danny’s back, cooing reassurances the entire time. The little punk didn’t seem to notice, intensely focused on the little tug-boat that Walker had set out for him to play with, lips moving silently as he mimed making the noises. He was rail-thin, vertebrae and ribs glaring out at them through his skin. There were scars all along his torso, concentrated in the shoulder area, though there were a few in different spots along his ribs that made Walker cringe a little. The Y-incision was. . . it was rough and raised, and the little boy flinched violently every time one of them tried to wash near it. Track marks and bruises littered his straw-like arms.
By the time they’d managed to wash his hair, the water was murky with filth and Walker wanted to slam his fist into every wall in the house. He handed Spectra the fluffiest towel in the bathroom, watching in silence as she bundled him up.
“Good job, Danny,” she praised. “You were so very, very brave, big man. I’m so proud of you.”
Danny’s tiny responding smile was pitiful, almost like he couldn’t believe the words she said. Walker helped maneuver the little punk into his new clothes while Spectra held him, face grim even as those dadgum eyes peeked up at him curiously. But then those little fingers were tracing the rocket ships on the shirt, that smile creeping out like a sunrise, and something in the warden’s chest fractured just a tad.
“Do ya like ‘em, kid?” he asked.
Danny didn’t startle this time. Just raised his head and nodded shyly.
Walker managed a smile. “Tommy liked rockets too when he was you’re age. Liked stars an’ space. Maybe we’ll go out and I’ll teach ya ‘bout constellations sometime.”
The little boy was still almost painful to look at. Horrendously thin. Eyes ripped from his head. Scars peeped out from the collar and wrists of his over-large pajama shirt. But his hair was now a pure snowy white and his skin had a bit of collar to it, although it had taken on a slightly green tinge.
But as he nodded shyly up at him, arms still wrapped tightly around Spectra’s neck, Walker could almost believe there was hope there yet.