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Danny Died (And The Wolves Are Howling)

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                Walker was broken out of his paperwork-induced stupor by the glow. Sick-sticky green and almost palpable. The warden growled to himself but grumbled his way through gathering the necessary forms from the back file-cabinet. Leave it to Bullet to take off on the day a new ghost formed in his office. At five in the daggum morning.

                New arrivals were a pain in the rear.

                Especially when he was the one who had to deal with them.

                Oh, well, bully for him because if how small the coalescing form was anything to go by, he was dealing with a daggum kid on top of it.

                 The warden lined the various death certificates and identification forms neatly out on his desk, lighting a cigar as he went. He chewed on the end, inhaled, then exhaled a cloud of thick, noxious smoke. It formed an odd shape, almost like a head with horns, and Walker snarled as he brushed his hand through the cloud to dissipate it. The new ghost was taking its sweet damn time forming.

                Eyes narrowed, Walker stared at the figure. Green ectoplasm. . . somewhat standard, if a bit brighter than what he was accustomed to. There was just the barest tinge of something blue in the mix, like ice or a winter sky. Crap, did that mean he’d have another ice-junky on his hands? Frostbite in of himself was a nightmare to deal with. . . all that hair, and his people lived with no rules.

                If there was one thing Walker could not abide, it was an inability to follow the rules.

                Of course, there was a difference between rules and Rules, but the new punk on the block would figure that out.

                Hopefully – sometimes it took a bit.

                There was a gasp. But not so much a gasp as it was a clawing, rushing sound of air in a raw throat. Desperate, panicked, all-consuming. Walker frowned; who the hell hyperventilated when they reformed?

                The newly-solidified ghost dropped to the floor in a nauseating heap of bony limbs and squelching ectoplasm. Walker stared. And stared. And then, when he thought he might’ve finally lost his grits, he stared some more. This was a child. An actual kid. The boy had to have been four, maybe five. Six at the very oldest.

                Walker stared at the shivering heap. The kid wore some sort of jumpsuit. Or, at least, what used to be a jumpsuit. The thing hung in ragged tatters about his thin frame, clinging on with either determination or straight-up magic. He could see the brat’s ribs, along with scars that rose along his green-tinged skin. Lots of scars. Lots of painful looking scars, including a core-chilling Y-shaped one peeping out on his chest.

                There was another gasp, ragged and broken, and Walker cleared his throat. The boy didn’t move. He didn’t even make eye contact. He just kept his head down, face hidden behind a mass of white hair.

                “Take a seat,” Walker ordered.

                The warden didn’t even think to lower his voice from its usual gruff bark.

                That. . . was a mistake.

                The boy jerked, skinny limbs flying about in a mad scramble to get away from the warden. Walker’s frown became a touch sterner, apprehension clawing its way into his throat.

                “I ain’t gonna hurt ya’ll, brat,” he growled. “Just sit in the chair.”

                The boy’s head shot up.

                Walker froze and the cigar dropped, forgotten, from his fingers to the floor.

                There. . . there weren’t. . . there weren’t any eyes.

                The kid had no eyes. None. His face was fine-boned, almost delicate looking, and the boy’s apparent age was even more painfully obvious. But there was no baby fat to protect the bones or pad his cheeks. And there were claw marks along his eye sockets.

                No – not claw marks. Blade marks, precise and designed to hurt. Someone had removed this kid’s eyes with a scalpel. All that had formed were pits of livid green ectoplasm, startling against his pale skin.

                For a long moment, the odd pair just sat there. Frozen in respective shock and terror.

                Then Walker took a step forward. Another step forward. Another. The boy remained glued to the spot, obviously unaccustomed to his new senses. Every inch of his frail body was taut with nerves. Fight or flight. A caged animal struggling not to flee.

                Walker stopped a step away. He tilted his head.

                The boy followed the motion.

                Well, if that didn’t beat all. . .

                Walker knelt to the kid’s level and tried to arrange his face into something calming. Or, at the very least, less angry. The best he managed was a less grumpy version of his usual frown, but that was to be expected under the circumstances. Something told him not to try and touch the little punk – instinct or whatever – so he stayed still and kept his voice quiet when he spoke.

                “Name’s Walker, kid. Do y’all know where you are?”

                A strangled wheezing noise was his reply, followed by the kid curling into a defensive ball. Walker sighed.

                “I’m gonna take that as a ‘no.’”

                The little boy shook so hard it was a miracle he didn’t vibrate straight into the floor. Walker’s frown deepened. Well, if this wasn’t just five gallons of bull-hockey in a two-gallon bucket. . .

                “Alright, punk, I’m gonna take off my coat,” he rasped, “and I’m gonna put it on ya. Alright? It ain’t gonna hurt. I promise.”

                The warden shrugged out of his pristine overcoat and tried not to grimace at the thought of putting over the emaciated figure in front of him. But he did it anyway. He moved slowly, so he wouldn’t startle the kid. Poor thing was already terrified – wouldn’t do to make him even more scared of the people who were trying to help.

                His coat swallowed the child, covering everything but the top of his head. Still, Walker thought, maybe it’d at least help him relax a bit. Keep him from accidentally falling through the floor and getting himself stuck. Kid did that they’d really be in the outhouse.              

                “There ya go, punk. Keep ya from bein’ cold. You’re so skinny, if you stood sideways and stuck out your tongue, you’d be a zipper.” Walker tried to chuckle a bit, but it fell flat.

                Those unsettling pits peeped out from beneath the collar of his jacket, and Walker could see a droplet of ectoplasm ooze down the boy’s ravaged cheek. Something in his chest seized, freezing cold and burning hot in the same instant. He wanted to break someone. Preferably someone who thought it was okay to do this to a child.

                Rules existed for a reason.

                “Alright, punk, think you can tell me your name?”

                The kid shuddered again, something of a squeak ringing low in his throat. Thin fingers, purpled about the edges with ragged nails, tightened on the opening of the Walker’s coat. But he didn’t flinch away. Walker waited for a few minutes – patience was a virtue – but it was evident the kid wouldn’t be talking anytime soon.

                The warden sighed.

                “That’s okay, kid. I’m gonna step outside for a bit. Gotta talk to a couple people, but then I’ll be back, and we can work on getting you talkin’. Sound like a plan?”

                He didn’t really expect an answer, but the warden waited for a second before he smiled (it was probably more like a grimace) and stood. The kid squeaked again and disappeared inside the folds of Walker’s jacket.

                On second thought, he probably should’ve backed away a bit before he stood.

                Walker scrubbed a hand over his face, and the door handle gave a tortured groan from the force of his grip. He made sure to close it quietly behind him. At least the doors didn’t squeak. Poor kid couldn’t handle voices, much less outside sounds.  

                “Clarke! Benson!” the warden snarled. “Get over here!”

                Two guards, a pair of his elites, snapped to attention from where they had been patrolling the corridor. They stayed a fair distance from him – all his guards did – and it was Benson who spoke first.

                “Yes, sir?”

                Walker could feel his hands shaking. Whether it was from rage or shock, he wasn’t sure. But he drew his shoulders back, hands clasped against the small of his back, and fixed the men with a glare. Benson gulped. Clarke went pale.

                They feared him. . .

                Good.

                “Get Bullet!” Walker barked. “And don’t make me wait. I want him here within the next hour or it’ll be your hides I tan. Got that?!”

                Their collective salute was perfectly in-sync. “Yes, sir!”

                Benson and Clarke shot off, ignoring the sounds of the howling inmates as they passed. Walker stood there for a few more minutes, hands shaking, jaw clenched. Tension was creeping up to his head. He’d end the day with a raging migraine, for sure.

                Walker scrubbed the back of his neck.

                He hated new arrivals. . .

~*O*~

                it’s dark danny hates the dark, and it’s cold danny hates the cold, and he can’t see.

                the lab has always been dark and cold but it’s even worse now, when he’s on mommy’s exam table, held down by straps, and he can’t move his arms or his legs because mommy did a ex-per-i-ment on him and now they won’t listen to his brain, and danny is scared. . .

                danny is sorry, mommy, so sorry, please don’t hurt me anymore, i’ll be good, i promise, and daddy is yelling and danny doesn’t understand, daddy never yells, not when he’s mad, and danny. . .

                he hurts. . .

                hurt hurt hurts because the straps dig into his arms and legs and mommy has been cutting at him, yelling at him, screaming stop lying, little monster, where’s my baby what have you done to my danny?!! and danny doesn’t understand because he’s right here, mommy, please stop yelling. . .

                and he’s crying and crying and crying and his mommy keeps yelling and his daddy hits him, and he doesn’t know what’s going on, and danny wants to sleep. he wants to go upstairs and hug jazzy and sleep in his astronaut bed with bear aldrin and he’ll even take a bath without complaining, eat his veggies, clean his room, if mommy will just stop yelling at him, stop hurting him. . .

                he’s so scared. . .

                it’s so dark and danny doesn’t understand because his eyes are open, it shouldn’t be dark, he doesn’t understand, and everything hurts so bad. he’s cold and he’s hungry and mommy and daddy won’t stop yelling, won’t stop hitting him, won’t stop even though he’s crying and it. . .

                he remembers the shiny knife coming at his face and the cut and he remembers screaming, remembers trying to fight but his arms wouldn’t listen and his legs wouldn’t move, and danny thinks about how daddy had joked about something and mommy had laughed and. . .

                danny is so cold. so very very cold. there’s something digging around in his chest and the hurt doesn’t hurt so bad anymore, not in his body, but his heart is broken because he’s sure mommy and daddy don’t love him no more and he can’t understand what he did wrong. . .

                it’s so dark danny hates the dark and cold danny hates the cold and danny fenton dies alone.

~*O*~

                There were many things that Bullet tolerated from his boss. Mainly because Walker wouldn’t hesitate to throw his ass in prison with the others if he didn’t. But calling him in without warning was a line that had never been crossed before, and, frankly, the warden’s second-in-command hadn’t developed the patience to deal with this level of bullshit at six in the goddamn morning.

                “Boss, I hate to complain, but why am I here?” Bullet growled. “It’s six in the morning. On my day off.”

                Walker rolled his shoulders in agitation and growled. “I know what day it is, Bullet. I ain’t lost track of my calendar. But I gotta job for you, an’ you ain’t gonna like it.”

                Confusion creased the lieutenant’s scarred face, and for the first time since he arrived, he noticed the warden wasn’t wearing his customary suit-jacket. “Sir?”

                “Follow me. An’ keep your mouth shut – I don’ need anyone else getting’ word of this ‘fore I’m ready, you hear?”

                The warden turned on his heel without another word, arms crossed behind his back and shoulders stiff as they marched down the hallway. Bullet followed without question. Well, without verbal questions anyway. This was just so weird. Jeremiah Walker was many things – stubborn, rule-oriented, and utterly devoid of a sense of humor covered a few – but cryptic was not one of them. Usually, anyway.

                Something told Bullet that there would be nothing usual about today.

                The door that Walker opened lead into the room they used for monitoring interrogations, the two-way mirror glaring in the dim light. Bullet’s frown deepened. What the hell? Walker turned and jerked his head towards the two-way, jaw set and green eyes blazing.

                “We got a new arrival this mornin’. It ain’t good.”

                Bullet was almost nervous to look. And when he did manage it, he regretted not hugging his kid before he left that morning. “Holy balls!”

                “Watch your mouth!”

                Okay, so maybe something would be normal today. It wasn’t often that Bullet himself forgot to mind his language around the warden. But there were at least four or five occasions per day that some of the grunts forgot to censor themselves; Walker’s lectures on profanity were legend around the prison. Still – this warranted some swearing. There was just no way around it.

                “What the hell did they do to him?” Bullet growled. “He’s. . .”

                “Poor kid’s a mess,” Walker finished. “I know. Formed about 0500 this morning. I can’t get anythin’ out of him – punk’s scared of his own shadow – but I managed to get him out of my office and into someplace quieter. Problem is I need to do his paperwork. And I need someone who knows what they’re doin’ for that.”

                Bullet knew where this was going. And he did not like it.

                He watched the warden carefully. Walker hadn’t looked away from the glass. His eyes were still fixed on the shaking little boy. There were cogs working in that strange Texas head. And they were leading towards a conclusion. A conclusion Bullet did not like.

Walker turned from the small, huddled form of the ghost-child and fixed Bullet with a glare. “Get me Penelope Spectra.”

                “Sir?” The lieutenant’s core leapt into his mouth. “Are you sure that’s a good idea?”

                Spectra’s reputation preceded her by a wide margin. An emotiphage, a misery-sucking leech that most ghosts with a fourth of a brain avoided at all costs. She was cunning and cruel, beautiful to look at but deadly if you let her sink her claws into you. Spectra could tear the pieces of this child apart and leave nothing but a withered husk behind if she so desired. But there was no one else in the Zone who had the skills necessary to help the boy, either. Walker certainly wasn’t qualified.

                It was a risk.

                Question was, was it a necessary one.

                “Find Spectra. Bring her here. I don’t care if you have to toss her in a sack and Shanghai her, I want the leech here yesterday!”

                Bullet stiffened into a salute. “Yessir!”

~*O*~

everything is swirly and strange and danny’s body hurts but he doesn’t know how to fight it because something keeps squeezing him tight, like he’s trying to be pushed through a straw and his arms were all twisted, legs crunched to his chest, and he can’t breathe can’t breathe can’t breathe!!

he falls and lands on the ground and the squeezing stops. . .

danny lays there and he feels that he’s on concrete, but that can’t be right because mommy and daddy had tile on the lab floor? he’s very confused and he’s cold, shivering in his suit, and he so he curls in on himself and waits for everything to go back to what it was before, the screaming and the hitting and the cutting and where’s my danny?!! followed by mommy, i’m right here, please don’t!! he tries to breathe but he can’t get enough air in, his ribs hurt too bad, and he puts his fingers in his hair and pulls and rocks because sometimes that helps but he just. . . he just. .

it hurts.

“Take a seat.”

danny’s heart leaps into his throat and he jerks, body screaming at him to run, get away, don’t let him touch you because this isn’t daddy, not mommy either. this is a different voice. deep, it barked like a dog, with a funny sort of accent that turned the edges upwards. and danny doesn’t expect to see anything because he’s been in the dark for so very very long but. . ..

he can see.

he can see he can see he can see but his eyes still hurt, still ache like there’s nothing there, and everything else hurts too, and danny doesn’t know what’s going on. so confused. so scared. because there’s a big man standing behind a desk, but it’s not a man like mr. foley, who was tucker’s daddy, or even mr. baxter down the street.

this man is very tall. taller than daddy. and he’s white, white everywhere like milk danny misses milk and cookies except for his gloves and boots and hat. those are black. he’s got a jacket on like what pastor jim wears during service. and his eyes keep staring but they’re not like other people’s eyes. they don’t have pupils. they’re solid green.

danny’s eyes ache like they aren’t there anymore and something wet dribbles down his cheeks and there’s smoke puffing from something that the man dropped on the floor. he pants and freezes. who is this man? what was this place? because there aren’t desks in the lab and mommy and daddy are gone, no more screaming, no more knives or needles and he doesn’t know what’s going on, can’t think, what’s going on?!!

“I ain’t gonna hurt y’all, punk. Just sit in the chair.”

danny hears a sound come out of his throat and it hurt and the man looks right in his eyes, and there’s a something on his face that danny doesn’t know what to think of, like there’s something really really wrong. and something in his chest feels tight, feels wrong, and he looks down and there are cuts on his chest, like a letter jazzy showed him once in her big-girl books, and he can’t breathe can’t breathe can’t breathe.

the man steps closer. closer and closer and closer and danny sees how big his hands are, like daddy’s, and he knows that they’re going to hit him, that this is going to be just like the lab. because he’s a very bad little boy and he made mommy and daddy hate him, and this is his punishment. bad little boys don’t get presents, they get needles and cuts and yelling where’s my danny?! even though danny is right here.

the man is very close.

very.

close.

don’t touch –

don’t hurt me don’t hurt me please I’m sorry don’t don’t don’t don’t don’t –

“Name’s Walker, kid. Do y’all know where you are?”

the wheeze comes out even though danny tries to keep it in and he curls up, ready for the hit, ready for the needle and everything hurts. his body feels weird, tingly at his fingers and toes and he doesn’t know why his suit is black now because it used to be white, but that was before all the ex-peer-a-mens started, so maybe that’s why? can’t breathe so cold wanna go home why why why –

“I’m gonna take that as a ‘no.’”

danny shakes and shakes and shakes because he doesn’t mean to be a bad boy, honest, doesn’t know what he’s doing wrong, just doesn’t want to hurt anymore. please no more hurt. please please please, and he sucks down some air and keeps curled tight because he remembers pulling in his belly and in his chest and he remembers the hurt but he can’t quite remember what comes after, so maybe if he just keeps in a ball, nothing can do that no more?

“Alright, punk, I’m gonna take off my coat. And I’m gonna put it on ya. Alright? It ain’t gonna hurt. I promise.”

promises promises danny hears lots of promises now i promise you will hurt i promise I will end you if you don’t tell me where danny is I promise that I’ll burn the lies out of you and all of them hurt. promises hurt and people hurt and he’s so tired of hurt. just wants to be left alone. but then there’s something warm around his shoulders, kind of heavy, and it smells spicy like daddy’s aftershave used to. danny blinks, feels the collar, snuggles into the dark because even though it kind of scares him, all the light has made his eyes hurt. he takes a deep breath and tucks in tighter and tries to think of jazzy and bearbert einstein and the stars.

“There ya go, punk. Keep ya from bein’ cold. You’re so skinny, if you stood sideways and stuck out your tongue, you’d be a zipper.”

the man tries to laugh but it sounds like it gets stuck in his chest. danny knows what that’s like and it makes him feel bad, yucky in his tummy, and so he peeks out of the coat at the opening, keeps his fingers tight on the collar in case the man tries to take it back. something wet runs down his cheek and the man looks like he’s seen something real sad.

“Alright, punk, think you can tell me your name?”

danny thinks this man, whose name is walker, might be nice but he’s got a scary voice, rough like some of the cowboys on tv. he makes another noise, tries to make his throat say words, but it just won’t he’s too scared, and his fingers tighten until his knuckles turn white like the scratchy jacket. he wants to say something. anything. see if he’s dreaming because danny is a very bad boy and nice things don’t happen to bad boys, no, bad things happen to bad boys and this can’t be really real, can it?

the man sighs and danny knows he’s waited too long and he wants to cry but there’s something wrong with his eyes because he can’t.

“That’s okay, kid. I’m gonna step outside for a bit. Gotta talk to a couple people, but then I’ll be back, and we can work on getting you talkin’. Sound like a plan?”

he doesn’t know what to think because that’s what daddy used to ask him before he became such a bad boy. sound like a plan, son? and he can still hear daddy’s laugh and mommy giggling and then they turn to screams and where’s my danny?! and he just can’t. . . .

words are hard and his throat hurts like his bones and his eyes ache and he can’t seem to breathe, can’t make them take in air anymore, feels like he’s swimming in sticky honey and. . .

the man stands up and danny’s mind screams at him to get away, run away, he’ll hurt you hurt hurt hurt and he tucks further into the coat and tries to think about happy things so his teeth will stop rattling.

sometimes danny wishes he was dead. . . .

~*O*~

                Sometimes, Walker felt he underestimated Bullet’s abilities.

                It had only been three hours since he’d seen his lieutenant out to find the shade. But here he and his patrol were, marching in with smirks and a writhing sack between them. It was almost enough to make the warden feel a twinge of pride.

                Almost.

                “Alright, boys, bring her in. I’ll take it from here.”

                Bullet grinned like a fox in a henhouse – something told him that there was a story behind Spectra’s capture. But, for now, Walker settled on growling out another order and watching as the guards tossed the sack into the observation room. A string of muffled curses erupted on impact. The warden raised a brow – some of those were awful creative. His mama would’ve had a fit.

                “Y’all can come out now. Ain’t nobody here but us.”

                The bag writhed and thrashed until, finally, an irate shade emerged from within. Her eyes glowed bloody red, fury written in them, and the snarl curling her lips was nothing short of feral.

                “What the absolute hell are you doing?!” Spectra hissed. “You had no right - !”

                “Actually, I have all the rights,” Walker interrupted, smirking. “But I didn’t drag y’all down here to throw you in my prison – though I’m pretty sure you’d deserve it, if the rumor mill is true.”

                The shade drew herself upright, movements reminding him somewhat of a venomous snake. Her tail lashed the air, impatient, and the ruby eyes narrowed. Shrewd, cold, calculating.

                “Then why am I here, warden?” Spectra questioned. Her voice was pitched low and it dripped venom.

                Walker didn’t answer right away. Looking at the woman, inky black and reeking of scorn, he began questioning his earlier thinking. Spectra could tear the punk apart. Piece by piece until nothing was left but the shattered remains of a child. But something else niggled at the back of his mind, telling him to go with his gut.

                 “I need your help with somethin’,” Walker grunted. “A new arrival.”

                The ink of Spectra’s face shifted into something like a quirked eyebrow, and her grin made his insides twist uncomfortably. “Oh? And I here I thought you weren’t the chivalrous sort. Gifting a lady with a meal - Good lord, Walker, what will the guards think of you?”

                Walker ground his teeth. “Don’t take this the wrong way, Spectra. This ain’t a polite request. Yer gonna help me whether you like it or not. And you ain’t gonna twist this. Got it?”

                Spectra cocked her head to the side, grin dripping venom. “Oh? And how exactly are you going to make me, warden?”

                “How’s about I don’t throw you in solitary for the next three thousand years?” Walker snarled. “I hear you fall apart after ‘bout three days without misery – wonder what you’ll look like after all that time?”

                The look in Spectra’s red eyes grew laser-focused. Dangerous. She curled her lips in a sneer, arms crossed about her chest. “Fine – now what exactly do you need me for? Weasel a name out of someone, maybe? Rehabilitate a rapist?”

                Okay, so he was sure that he was going to have a migraine by the end of the day. Walker jerked his head towards the two-way glass. “Not exactly. Take a looksee for yourself.”

                Spectra snorted and turned to look at where he’d motioned. The expression on her face froze, arms and tail stiffening in shock. Walker could practically see the goosebumps rising along the back of her neck as she stared at the little form huddled against the back wall. He couldn’t really blame her; the brat was gnarly to look at.

                “This is the Zone’s newest arrival. Formed about five this mornin’. He’s in rough shape. Couldn’t even get him to tell me his name.” The woman didn’t say anything; Walker glanced at her before he continued. “He formed without eyes, but I think his ectoplasm filled the sockets to make some sorta pseudo-eye, ‘cause he can see well enough. Poor kid’s covered in scars. Some of ‘em look like autopsy incisions, and I gotta sneakin’ suspicion he was vivisected. Track marks on both arms. He doesn’t respond well to touch – can’t say I blame ‘im.”

                He caught motion out of the corner of his eye, and the warden watched as Spectra’s form rippled, leaving behind a tall woman with pale skin and bright red hair. Her face was a mask, impassive, but the eyes. . . Walker never realized the witch could have such expressive eyes. Horrified, furious, they shone livid green against her face.

                “Do you know how old he is?” she questioned.

                Walker shook his head. “Best guess I got is he’s somewhere ‘round five. Six, maybe, an’ that’s stretchin’ it a bit.”

                Her hands twitched, balling into fists. “What exactly do you need me to do?”

                “I need someone to at least get him talkin’. This is way beyond anythin’ I’ve ever dealt with, an’ he’s my responsibility.” The warden growled quietly, unable to believe he had to stoop to this. “I need help. An’ you’re my best bet for that.”

                “Of course I’m the only one in the Ghost Zone with any psychiatric experience.” she muttered to herself. “How the hell could I have forgotten that little tidbit of information? Goddammit, Walker, I might be a psychiatrist, but this is a whole different ball-game! Trauma like this is going to take years of therapy – he might never fully recover. And I don’t have any experience with this sort of thing.”

                A delicate hand gestured wildly towards the child, who had taken to rocking back and forth inside the safety of Walker’s suit jacket. Again, Walker didn’t blame her. But that didn’t mean he was going to take no for an answer.  

                “Rule Number One: in my prison, there is no profanity,” Walker barked. “You’re an intelligent woman – I expect you to express yourself as such. That’s you’re first warnin’, sugar. And you are gonna do this. If you don’, I’ll just lock you up ‘til you cave.”

                Spectra whipped around to glare at him, green eyes flashing crimson. “Did you not listen to a damn word I just said?! I don’t have any experience with this!! Walker, I could do more harm than good here!”

                “Watch your mouth!” the warden snarled. “And you may not have any experience with this sorta damage, but you sure got a right sight more than I do as far as knowin’ about what to do! So you are going. to. help. me.”

                The scowl on Spectra’s face was impressive, he had to admit. Jaw clenched, eyes narrowed, the emotiphage turned to stare at the little boy once more. Something flitted behind her eyes, and she swallowed thickly.

                “I can feel how terrified he is from here,” Spectra murmured. “I thought. . . I thought that it was just some inmate that you’d browbeat.”

                Walker snorted in disgust. “I wish. He like to have shook himself through the floor when he first formed in my office. I ain’t never seen anythin’ like it.”

                “Who just does something like this do a child?”

                He stared at her for a long minute. “You feed on misery, Spectra. You give people depression for fun.”

                The look she shot him could’ve frozen Hell thirty times over. “I might feed on misery, but I do have standards, warden. I feed on adults and teenagers, who are generally terrible and deserve everything they receive. This is just. . . sick.”

                Sick – that summed it up. Walker rolled his shoulders, genuinely uncomfortable under Spectra’s piercing glare. He masked that cracking his knuckles and glaring right back. “Well? What’ll it be, sugar? Do we got a deal?”

                Her glare intensified, but the red-head stuck her hand out for him to shake. “Deal. But don’t call me that.”

                Walker shook her hand, struggling a bit to mask his shock. For all her reputation, he’d kinda thought that the feared Penelope Spectra would be this vicious, larger than life shade. But she wasn’t. Compared to him, she felt almost fragile, delicate hands dwarfed in comparison to his own despite their firm grip.

                “So, when do you wanna start with ‘im, sugar?” The scowl that crossed Spectra’s face was more of a snarl, and Walker would’ve been impressed if it hadn’t been directed towards him. “Rule Number Two: in my prison, I’ll call you whatever I so well please.”

Her eyes flashed crimson for a moment, then faded back to their normal green. “You are an absolute jackass!” she hissed. “I’m going to go in and assess him. Stay here. Stay quiet. Stay out of my way.”

                Spectra pushed her way past him, shoulder bashing roughly into the crook of his elbow. Walker sneered – the top of her head barely brushed the point of his shoulder. But here she was, pushing him around and thinking to order him about in his prison. That was against The Rules. He’d have to correct that.

                The door to the interrogation room opened, and Spectra entered quietly.

                Later. . . he’d correct her later.

                The boy jerked upright when he heard the hinges creak, white hair flying in his scarred face. Walker hadn’t flipped on the speaker, but he could practically hear the child start to panic. His skinny chest heaved beneath that torn jumpsuit, so hard that some of the scars along his side tore open and wept ectoplasm. The boy scrambled until his back was pressed to the far wall, ravaged face contorted in absolute terror.  

                For her part, Spectra remained perfectly collected as she shut the door behind her. The boy whimpered, every inch of him trembling. But still Spectra was calm. Her expression was placid, almost pleasant, and she very pointedly sat against the wall furthest from the child. It was strange, seeing the woman often considered the scourge of the Zone curled on a concrete floor, but the minute she sat, the boy relaxed slightly. Walker made note of that.

                Staying on the punk’s level calmed him down.

                “Hi.” Spectra’s voice was soft, calm and soothing. “My name’s Penelope. Can you tell me yours?”

                The boy cocked his head to the side, movements slow, cautious, like he expected her to come at him at any moment. But he relaxed just a tad – his back wasn’t pressed so fully against the wall. He blinked. Spectra smiled.

                “I’m not going to hurt you, sweetie. No one here is going to hurt you.”

                The child shivered, curling in on himself. “Please, don’t. ’m sorry.”

                It sounded like the kid had screamed himself hoarse, voice a pitiful, raw whisper.

                Walker had to force himself not to put his fist through the wall, teeth clenching and pressure climbing in his skull. Kids shouldn’t sound like prisoners of war. He watched Spectra’s reaction closely, curious as to how she’d handle it. There was the slightest tension in her lower jaw, and her fingers twitched. But she remained composed, face calm.

                “No, honey. No one here will hurt you. Do you know where you are?”

                Slowly, oh so very slowly, the boy shook his head. Penelope’s smile widened and she continued.

                “You’re in a place called the Ghost Zone. This is. . . well, this is a facility run by a man named Walker. Do you remember Walker?” The boy nodded. “Good. Now, do you know why I’ve come to talk to you?”

                The boy, who had been relaxing at a snail’s pace as Penelope talked, shook his head again. He shuffled just the tiniest bit towards the red-head, and Walker got the distinct impression that, had there been eyes in his sockets, they would’ve been fixed firmly on her.

                “I’m what’s called a psychiatrist, sweetie. That’s a doctor that helps people when they have problems in their mind, like what happens after something very bad happens to them. Walker called me because he thought you needed a little bit of help. Is that ok?”

                Damn - for a misery-sucking leech, she was awfully good with kids.

                Walker crossed his arms and narrowed his eyes at the scene. The little punk was fixated on Penelope, expression hidden behind that thick mop of white hair. He’d managed to relax. Slowly, the boy nodded again, a tiny jerking motion.

                Another note – simple yes or no questions worked best.

                “Good. I’m going to ask you a couple of questions. They’re not hard questions, so don’t worry. Is that ok?”

                Again, the child nodded, and he shuffled just a tad closer to Spectra as she spoke. Walker caught sight of his bony fingers toying with the collar of his jacket, rubbing along the crease like it was a security blanket. Had his hair not been so dirty, the warden would’ve been hard-pressed to see much of the punk besides his eyes. Or, pseudo-eyes.

                As he watched, droplets of ectoplasm wept down the child’s thin cheeks. Walker’s jaw tightened again.

                “Alright, sweetie, the first question should be pretty easy. Can you tell me your name?”

                Something flitted across the child’s face, there and gone before Walker (or Penelope, he reasoned) could decipher what it was. He started trembling again, delving deeper into the coat. But he didn’t retreat to the wall. He didn’t take his gaze off the psychiatrist. They sat in the quiet for several long seconds. So long that Walker wondered what exactly Spectra was planning on doing if the kid wouldn’t answer. Then. . .

                The boy opened his mouth and rasped, “Danny. . ..”

~*O*~

                The interrogation room was cold as tits, her ass was going numb from sitting on the floor, and Penelope Spectra had never been so disgusted with humanity in her afterlife.

                Help me with the kid, he says. I’ll throw you in solitary for a thousand if you don’t, he says. Fuck you, Walker, you absolute prick.

                Penelope didn’t let any of this show on her face, though. Nearly sixty years of practice saw to that. Besides, she honestly didn’t know if the poor kid could handle any sort of negative feedback at this point. He was too fragile.

                The child – Danny, her mind supplied – watched her carefully. He stayed hunched over on himself; however, he had relaxed over the course of their conversation. Still, Penelope couldn’t help the goosebumps that ran over her arms and up her neck. Those eyes were so. . . unsettling. Because they weren’t eyes, per-say. They were just pits. Sunken, horrifying pits that dripped livid green ectoplasm over his jagged cheekbones. Just staring at her.

                Incision scars along the torso, Y-shaped – indication of peri-mortem vivisection. Multiple incisions into the orbicularis oculi and the palpebrae. Tremors indicative of long-term drug usage. Penelope categorized, trying to remain clinical and not think about the terror rolling off the child in thick waves. She could taste Pop Rocks on her tongue. Multiple indicators of abuse and starvation. Experimentation likely. . .  

                Penelope smiled gently at the little boy. “Danny, can you tell me how old you are?”

                He startled, a soft squeak erupting from his throat as he tried to bury himself in Walker’s thick coat.

                Signs of auditory triggering, likely kept in solitude or interrogated for long periods. . ..

                “I won’t hurt you, sweetie,” she soothed, voice quiet. “You don’t have to answer if you don’t want to.”

                Walker had been right. The force of his tremors was concerning, and she questioned how much control he had over his own ghost abilities at this point. New arrivals were notoriously bad at maintaining control in high-stress situations. But the little boy surprised her again. He swallowed, peeping out from the safety of the coat, and managed to rasp out a timid answer.

                 “Four.”

                 Signs of verbal decline and –

                 Penelope felt her mind go blank.

                 “Four?” she parroted, mouth dry.

                 Danny nodded once, motion rusty as though he’d forgotten how to do it, and Penelope had to swallow down bile at the unexpected response. Of all the gutless, brutal, sadistic bullshit. . .

                 Penelope knew she was a bitch and a liar and what many of her colleagues would diagnose as a clinical sociopath (which was wrong – she was capable of empathy, just didn’t have any use for it most of the time) but this was something else entirely. She’d seen broken. Hell, she’d made broken. Vlad Masters was walking, talking proof of that. But there were fucking lines that one simply did not cross, and this was fucking one of them.

                 Because this? This was the systematic torture, abuse, and murder of a goddamn four-year-old and, frankly, she had no fucking clue where to even start.

                 Her smile felt like she had fish-hooks shoved in the corners of her mouth, pulling and tearing and stretching her at the seams. So taut it could snap and bleed at any moment. Penelope took a deep breath through her nose, twisting at her fingers to keep them from balling in her lap.

                 “You’re an awfully big boy,” she soothed. “Do you know when your next birthday is?”

                 Danny’s little white head – all sharp bones and gaping eye sockets – poked fully out of the coat collar. He blinked. Once, twice, staring almost like he couldn’t believe she was talking to him. She’d seen how he had flinched at noise any louder than a whisper. He’d likely been screamed at for so long it was foreign to have someone speak to him rather than at him.

                 Still, his little fingers grasped the collar tight, thin face working itself into a frown. He looked back up at her again, throat working for a few minutes as he tried to find words. If there was one thing Penelope had learned in her time as a psychiatrist – misery-inducing one or no – it was patience. Good things came to those who wait. So she waited, coaxing the child with a gentle smile and mentally groaning over how numb her ass had grown.

                 “M-m-May,” Danny rasped out.

                 “Your birthday’s in May?” Penelope repeated, core sinking into her gut.

                 Danny nodded, once again short and shaky. She reassured him quietly, and it suddenly occurred to her how close the little boy had gotten. She’d been so focused on how fucked-up this child’s whole situation was, she hadn’t paid attention to the fact that he’d been moving towards her. Frankly, it nearly gave her a heart-attack when she realized Danny had gotten practically nose-to-nose with her. This close, she could see patterns in the ectoplasm that had formed his eyes. Bright green, abnormally so, with little swirls of electric blue here and there. Like veins of lightning.

                  Penelope didn’t move. Didn’t speak. Just sat still and smiled, watching to see what the tiny ghost would do. Little fingers reached out and poked her gently on the cheek. A shiver ran down her spine; sweet hell, the kid was freezing! His expression morphed. The terror fell back a notch, replaced by something akin to wonder.

                  “Real?” he whispered.

                  God, how hard did one have to scream to have a voice that damaged?

                  Penelope tilted her head to the side, very slowly, and asked, “What do you mean, sweetie?”

                  Danny’s lower lip trembled, and a little hand pressed fully to her cheek. “You real? No dream?”

                  Her core froze.

                  Holy shit. . ..

                  “No, sweetie,” she managed to squeak out. “I’m not a dream. You’re safe now. No one else is going to hurt you.”

                  The broken, emaciated little ghost let out a raspy wail, and Penelope didn’t have time to brace herself before he was wrapped tightly about her. She grasped him to her on instinct, mind a curious blank. He shook and hiccoughed, thin face buried in the crook of her neck. She could feel every single bone his new body had formed, likely mimicking how his original body had been before death. His vertebrae dug into her palm, and he squeezed like he thought she'd disappear at any second. 

                  “No dream!” he chanted, audibly relieved. “No dream, no dream, no dream!”

                  Slowly, Penelope cupped a hand to the back of the child’s fluffy little head. His hair was brittle – malnutrition often caused that – but still thick. She rocked side-to-side, gently shushing him, and pressed her cheek to the side of his face. He smelled like fresh ectoplasm, something sour and metallic just below it. 

                  “Shhh, Danny. It’s alright. I’ve got you. Everything’s just fine, now.”

                  The door opened to her right. Walker stood there, rage rolling off his bulky frame, and jaw taut. All she could taste was charred meat and iron.

                  “You’re going to be just fine. . .”

Chapter Text

~*O*~

danny keeps himself wrapped in the coat and tries to breathe but his lungs won’t work right.

the room is cold and his bones ache like his tummy does he hasn’t eaten mommy i’m hungry but he still can’t make his throat hurt. words are hard because mommy and daddy got really mad when he tried to talk and danny is scared to say anything anymore, and now they get all jumbly in his head. it’s like that time when jazzy accidentally broke his speak n’ spell and it said everything backwards. he misses jazzy, misses her hugs and how she shared her cookies sometimes, and he really wishes that bear aldrin and bearbert einstein were here because they’d keep him safe, keep people from yelling and. . .

the door opens and someone walks in and danny’s brain screams danger.

he shakes and shakes and buries himself in the coat and he knows that they’ve come to take him, come to hurt him, and he’s going to go back to the lab where mommy will scream at him where is my baby, my danny, tell me you liar! and all he can see is black, and he can feel the straps dig into his arms so he squeezes his knees tighter to his chest just to make sure they still listen and. . .

“Hey, punk, it’s just me. Ain’t nothin’ here gonna hurt you.”

danny knows that voice. it’s the scary man, walker, who gave him the jacket. he really likes the jacket because it’s warm and he can hide and the lights are making his eyes hurt danny can’t see his eyes are open but he can’t see so he hopes that mr. walker doesn’t ask for it back. he tries to take a deep breath and stop shaking. it doesn’t work, but he looks out to see anyway.

walker is very very tall, and his face kind of looks like a skull and danny doesn’t mean to squeak when he sees him so close, but it happens anyway and danny waits for it, waits for the yelling and the cutting and he thinks that mommy will come through the door at any minute and she’s gonna take him back because he’s a very bad boy and very bad boys don’t deserve to have nice things happen to them. . .

                “Alright, little man, we got another room for you to sit in. It’s a bit quieter than this ‘un. Is it ok if I pick you up?”

pick. . . pick him up?

danny remembers what it was like before the lab, but only in bits in pieces because mommy’s ex-peer-a-mens make his head go fuzzy sometimes. he remembers what it was like to ride on daddy’s shoulders and snuggle against mommy’s chest and sometimes even jazzy would try and pick him up, but jazzy is small like him and can’t always do it. but this is confusing, can’t think, and danny frowns and holds the coat tighter because the coat is nice. he and the coat are buds and mr. walker can’t have it back.

danny curls up and he knows that mr. walker will pick him up even if he doesn’t want to be picked up, so he nods, and waits and his body shakes so hard that his teeth chatter together, which isn’t good, danny knows, but he’s trying. he just hopes mr. walker doesn’t get mad. he doesn’t like yelling because yelling is loud and it happens before the hurt and danny really doesn’t like the hurt anymore and. . .

“Kiddo, you don’t have to let me pick you up if you don’t want me to. Y’all wanna walk instead? It ain’t far.”

walk? he hasn’t gotten to walk in so long, doesn’t know if his legs still know how to do it, but walking means no touching and no touching means no hurt so danny pulls his buddy the coat tighter and tries to stand.

except his legs shake and shake and shake and there’s an ache deep in his bones, shoots all the way down to his knees, and it’s almost as bad as the ache in his eyes, so when danny swallows it feels like that time tucker dared him to eat sand and it hurts. hurts hurts hurts hurts and he tries to take a step and he falls and –

“Woah!”

someone touches him.

big hands on his throat and there’s a knife that mommy calls a “skal-pull” digging into his shoulder and danny wants to cry but he can’t because he can’t breathe can’t breathe can’t breathe and why is there green everywhere? daddy’s gonna kill him and mommy keeps crying keeps yelling and he doesn’t know why why why he’s right here, mommy, I’m danny, not lying please stop stop stop stop stop it hurts please no hurts

danny tries to make the air go in his lungs and they won’t listen and his body shakes and he’s trying to hide, wants to get away get away get away but he can’t move, too scared, so he pulls the coat around him and waits for the hurt and the green and the yelling.

except it doesn’t happen. the hands stay on his ribs and they’re very very big but they don’t hurt, just hold, and then they set him back on the floor, and danny tries to breathe, tries to suck in some air, but his body just keeps shaking and he thinks he’s trying to cry but it doesn’t feel right even though there’s something sticky running down his cheeks. so instead he just rocks in the coat and tries to think about happy things.

jazzy and bearbert einstein and stars and astronauts and chocolate chunk cookies.

blankies and milk and cartoons and playing in the park with tucker and playing space-man and –

he’d just wanted to play with the big-boy guns and he knew that good boys didn’t play in the lab but they were right there and he knows how to put on his suit, even though daddy’s face fell off, so he does and he looks for the big ‘zooka that mommy likes so much so he can kill the aliens, except there’s a big hole in the wall and he doesn’t know what it does and he sees a button, pretty red and he presses it and everything goes white and hurts hurts hurts mommy where are you?

“Easy, punk. I gotcha. You’re ok. We’re gonna go someplace quiet, ‘kay? Ain’t no one gonna hurt you here.”

  1. walker picks him up again but it doesn’t hurt except for in his heart so danny doesn’t try to fight, just holds tight to his new best friend, and hides in the dark with the spicy smell and tries to figure out why it feels like his chest is full of honey, why he can’t feel his heart beating, why his bones hurt, why why why??

and then the next thing danny knows he’s in another room and it’s quiet, so he rocks back and forth and tries to make his lungs work again. they don’t but he’s trying. he wishes jazzy was here, wishes his sissy was here to give him kisses and make him better, and he wonders if jazzy thinks he’s a bad boy too because if she does, it’ll be the saddest thing ever. there’s more sticky stuff on his cheeks and he’s so cold but it’s a different kind of cold than what he’s used to, like a big ball of ice in his tummy, and danny doesn’t know what to do. why is he here? where is here? more needles? more skaal-pull’s? more yelling? doesn’t know, can’t think, can’t breathe, there’s a big cut on his chest and it itches and there’s more on his ribs and they hurt and oh, no, he’s shaking again, a funny buzzing in his tummy next to the big ice-ball.

the door opens and danny gasps and hides as best he can, tries to push through the wall.

except he can’t because it’s a wall and he’s small and everything hurts and is this the end? is this where it all comes back? the yelling yelling yelling and the green and the cold and the nasty smell and –

danny looks up and it’s not his mommy, not his daddy, not mr. walker. but a lady. she’s different, he can tell, looks kind of like ms. spelka at his preschool classes except she wears red instead of blue and her eyes are green like mr. walker’s. except this lady looks like a people-person, someone he would see at the grocery store with mommy, and she’s got red hair and it makes his chest ache.

he misses jazzy lots.

                “Hi. My name’s Penelope. Can you tell me yours?”

she’s got a pretty name and she talks real quiet so danny isn’t scared, so he peeks out of his safetydarkfriend hiding place and looks because the coat will keep him safe. it has so far. pen-el-ope, he thinks, is super long, but there’s a girl in his pre-school that’s got the same name and they call her penny so that’s what danny’s gonna call this lady. danny blinks and the lady smiles and something in his head tells him that she’s safe, she’s friend, no hurt here.

                “I’m not going to hurt you, sweetie. No one is going to hurt you.”

there’s no I promise there but danny can hear it, just under the nice-ness, and he whimpers because promises mean hurt and he forces his throat to work and says, please don’t ‘m sorry and he thinks he’s made a mistake because talking means yelling, cutting, hitting, more needles –

something on penny’s face changes, her smile sad, but there’s no yelling. no screaming. he wants to cry because he’s a very bad boy and this has to be a dream because bad boys don’t have nice things happen and this lady is certainly nice, she looks too much like jazzy not to be and. . .

                “No, honey. No one here will hurt you. Do you know where you are?”

this is a trick. a trick a trick a trickety trick and danny is not stupid, knows that he shouldn’t fall for it, but she’s so nice and her voice is very soft and she’s letting him answer and there are no tables-needles-knives-bighands here so danny makes his neck move. back and forth and back again. hair waves in front of his eyes and it’s white and that’s not right because he’s got dark hair like daddy? but the lady’s smile widens, and he relaxes a bit even though the warning sirens are screaming danger!!

                “You’re in a place called the Ghost Zone. This is. . . well, this is a facility run by a man named Walker. Do you remember Walker?”

walker – big man, black gloves, white skin, skull, funny voice. danny knows things, yeah, so he nods and she answers him

                “Good. Now, do you know why I’ve come to talk to you?”

no, danny doesn’t know anything, doesn’t know why anyone is here, why he’s in this place instead of on the table so he shakes again, and it’s like his neck doesn’t remember how to do things anymore. it’s like his body doesn’t know how to do anything anymore and he wonders if he’ll ever be able to play again, if he could ride a bike or watch cartoons with his legs over his head or play spaceman

he wants to play spaceman wants to use the big-boy ‘zooka presses the button and everything’s green and he screams

                “I’m what’s called a psychiatrist, sweetie. That’s a doctor that helps people when they have problems in their mind, like what happens after something very bad happens to them. Walker called me because he thought you needed a little bit of help. Is that ok?”

  1. does this mean she can make his thoughts less jumbly, less scary, less runny? because that would be wonderful, would mean he can sleep again and not have nightmares. except. . .. is this even real? danny doesn’t think it is because this has happened before, when mommy and daddy put needles in his arms and put lots of medicine in them and he’d fallen asleep, dreaming dreams that were so real he thought they were real, thought it was over, and then he’d woken up and the hurt had been worse.

he nods anyway.

the lady, penny, is very nice he thinks. because she doesn’t get mad because he doesn’t answer right away, doesn’t get mad because he shakes and he squeaks and everything is hidden behind the coat. instead she smiles and danny thinks that it’s a pretty sort of smile.

                “Good. I’m going to ask you a couple of questions. They’re not hard questions, so don’t worry. Is that ok?”

not hard. not hard questions.

doesn’t she know all questions are hard questions?

danny nods again, and he feels his legs moving, creeping underneath him, and his knees hurt. he rubs the edge of the collar with his fingers and the itching makes him a little less scared, a little less nervous, but these are questions and danny doesn’t know. . .

I’m danny, mommy, please no, I’m telling the truth, I’m sorry sorry sorry please don’t mommy that hurts!

“Alright, sweetie, the first question should be pretty easy. Can you tell me your name?”

his name? danny knows his name. daniel james fenton, after mommy’s grampa and daddy’s favorite uncle. except he doesn’t think his throat will make that many words, doesn’t know if he can make that much noise without being punished again, without being sent back to the lab, the table, the needles. and his throat still feels like he’s been eating sand so he thinks that it’ll hurt real bad when he talks. but miss penny has been really really nice and it’s just his name, not hard at all, so danny pulls the coat tight and tries to be brave like batman and says danny. . ..

there’s something real sad in miss penny’s eyes and it makes his tummy feel yucky, like he’d been caught with cookies from the jar or with his body in the portal when he accidentally ripped bearbert. danny makes his knees work again, feels the bones click, feels the buzzing in his tummy move to his chest, vibrating behind the itchy scar and maybe this isn’t a dream? because he feels things here and in the dreams he didn’t really feel but mommy made lots of promises that still play around in his head, so danny doesn’t want to trust it.

                “Danny, can you tell me how old you are?”

he isn’t expecting that and he makes a noise again and he shakes and he’s sorry, but ms. penny just keeps smiling like mommy or mrs. foley used to, patient is what jazzy calls it, and she doesn’t yell even though he keeps thinking she’s going to. the shaking keeps happening even though it makes his teeth rattle and his bones shake and he pulls the coat further over him because it’ll keep him safe, nice and quiet, spicy and warm unlike the ice sitting in his tummy and. . .

“I won’t hurt you, sweetie. You don’t have to answer if you don’t want to.”

how old is he?

he tries to remember but his numbers feel all rusty and broken at the edges, like they’re caught in a trap, and it takes a second to get them up. they taste wrong, like pennies, but then he remembers jazzy teaching him all about numbers while mommy and daddy worked in the lab, remembers the count on sesame street that helped him even though he was kinda scary.

danny swallows. more courage. and he says four. . .

there’s another something on ms. penny’s face and danny doesn’t like it, makes his heart ache because she looks very very sad and he doesn’t mean to make people sad, or mad, honest, doesn’t mean to be a very bad little boy. he wants to make her feel better, but he’s still not sure if she’s really real or not. his brain likes to play tricks sometimes when the yelling isn’t so loud, and this is the quietest it’s been in a very long time.

he scoots closer, closer, and he thinks that ms. penny might stop him but she doesn’t.

                ”Four?”

she says it like a question, like she’s got to ask, and danny makes his head nod even though it aches all over and his muscles feel like they’re filled with rocks. and the something comes back again, stronger, and it looks like she can’t decide to be sad or mad or sadmad, and danny really hopes ms. penny will stay nice, that she won’t be a dream, because he doesn’t know what he’ll do if he wakes up with straps-needles-knives-yelling again.

then ms. penny takes a deep breath through her nose like dr. studwell used to make him do and her smile comes back and danny dares himself to hope, to touch, to make sure. he’s a very bad little boy, but maybe because he’s trying so hard they’ll be nice? he’s scared and he doesn’t want to be alone anymore, doesn’t want anymore hurt, but what if? what if what if what if?????

                “You’re an awfully big boy. Do you know when your next birthday is?”

birthday. birthday!

danny knows that! it’s the day he gets cake and astronauts and party decorations, balloons and tucker and jazzy giving him kisses, and he even gets presents that he can open at the kitchen table, mommy and daddy don’t go to the lab - !

he’s strapped to a table and the lab is cold and mommy is screaming and daddy is hitting and he wants it to stop stop stop wants to die can’t handle it mommy I’m sorry please don’t

danny swallows, blinks. his eyes are aching, burning, and his mouth is filled with chalk but he remembers his birthday, and ms. spectra asked so nicely, so he’s going to answer even if he stammers out M-m-May.

                “Your birthday’s in May?”

another nod that makes his head feel like it will fall off. danny gets closer. closer, closer, closer even though his mind is screaming at him run-getaway-gonnahurt-danger because he NEEDS to know that this isn’t a dream, that he might be a bad boy but that something good is happening because he can’t. . . he can’t go back, won’t go back, never ever not ever. and he thinks he might have gotten too close because ms. penny looks a little scared when she looks him in the eyes, like there’s something wrong, and he wants to hide in his buddy the coat again.

then her eyes are soft again and she smiles at him, then frowns like she’s curious, like jazzy used to, and danny thinks he might cry again because he thinks she even smells like jazzy a little, raspberries and cream, and he reaches out and . . .

he touches her.

his finger touches a cheek and it’s warm and it’s soft and it doesn’t go through her and danny doesn’t know what to think, what to feel, how? why? because she’s real?

and ms. penny looks confused, eyebrows in a line over her eyes, and she asks him another question and this time the promises didn’t hurt because these questions are easy.

                “What do you mean, sweetie?”

danny can feel himself trembling, his lower lip quivering, and he wonders if jazzy would call him a baby or if she’d let him sleep in her bed because he had a nightmare but he doesn’t want to ruin this so he has to ask again and even though it hurts he says you real? no dream?

his tummy goes queasy again because ms. penny looks like she’s gonna cry too and danny doesn’t want that, he’s sorry, she’s so nice, didn’t mean to make her cry. but she’s so warm and he’s got his whole hand pressed against the side of her cheek and he wonders if he’ll ever be this warm again.

“No, sweetie. I’m not a dream. You’re safe now. No one else is going to hurt you.”

and danny can’t help it.

he just. . .

he can’t. . .

he’s shaking and he’s cold and he’s so tired of the hurt and he throws himself at ms. penny and squeezes her tight even though his arms are filled with rocks and his chest hurts and everything is upside down on its head. because you real, you real, you real!!

she’s warm and she’s soft and she smells like jazzy even though her hair is too bright and ms. penny hugs him back, gentle, and she rocks him and bad little boys don’t deserve to be this happy, but danny can’t care because you real, you real, you real!! and she presses her cheek against his and that’s finally warm too, a hand against the back of his head. the something sticky is still on his cheeks but ms. penny doesn’t seem to mind, not in the slightest, and her voice is very quiet when she talks against his ear.

                “Shhh, sweetie. It’s alright. I’ve got you. Everything’s just fine.”

danny wants to believe her. really, he does. he’s so very very tired of hurt.

what have you done with my danny, ghost? where’s my boy where’s my danny you’re a liar and then cutting pain pain pain mommy I’m sorry!!

but. . .

                “You’re going to be just fine.”

danny buries himself against her throat, clutches her until his fingers ache, and cries until he sleeps.

~*O*~

                There were exactly two whole people in the entire Ghost Zone allowed to call Jeremiah Walker by his first name. The first person was Clockwork, if only because the sonuva gun was too strong for the warden to really argue against. He’d learned that the hard way his first couple months in the Zone – being stuck in a time-loop where you’re getting punched again and again for three hours would make a message sink in.

                The second person was Bullet, who had earned that right and was the closest thing Walker had to a friend since landing himself in this godforsaken nightmare. And there were still rules for when Bullet was allowed to address him so familiarly.

                The point was, Walker did not let anyone address him by his first name. Ever.

                “Jeremiah Walker, you better damn well listen to me!!”

                . . . except Spectra couldn’t seem to take the hint.

                It had taken nearly two hours to calm the little punk down from his panic, and he’d clung to the shade like a life-line throughout it. Surprisingly enough, Spectra had been incredibly patient throughout it, rocking him like she knew something and hushing out a load of reassurances that, admittedly, Walker didn’t know they could keep up with. The Zone was a dangerous place. Black holes, Beast-ghosts, ecto-storms, criminals. You name it, it could happen, and he did not like making promises that he could not keep. It was a Rule.

                But once the little brat had fallen asleep, still wrapped in his jacket (he’d have to get rid of it, too many ectoplasm stains) she’d gone and rounded on him.

                And she hadn’t shut up since.

                “Watch yer mouth!” Walker snarled. “I ain’t gonna tell you again! You’re a smart woman, and I know you hold a conversation without profanity, so you’d better get yerself together ‘fore I change my mind and lock y’all in solitary!”

                Spectra’s eyes flashed crimson again, and it came close to startling him when the emotiphage found it prudent to invade his personal space. She had to stand on tippy-toes to do it, but there was something about the look she shot him that was unsettling. A type of fury he was hard-pressed to deal with.

                “I’ll watch my goddamn mouth when you start listening to what I’m fucking telling you instead of acting like some disinterested cowboy fuckwit!” she hissed. “Danny can’t stay here. He can’t stay at my lair, either. It’s too loud, too close to Ember’s concert hall, and, frankly, I’d rather not let Bertrand get within a hundred feet of him. So, you’ve got exactly two options. First option: he lives in your lair and I stay with him until he’s better or at least self-sustainable. Second option: you toss him out onto his PTSD riddled, half-dissected ass and that sweet little boy gets eaten alive in a minute. Your. Damn. Choice!”

                Walker heard Bullet choke from somewhere behind him, and it was a miracle that the tension in his jaw hadn’t shattered his teeth. He’d spent nearly eighty years as Warden of the Ghost Zone and not one time had anyone possessed the gall to talk to him like that. He didn’t know whether to be infuriated or impressed.

                Naturally, Walker chose the former.

                He slammed a hand into the paneling beside Spectra’s head, relishing the way she jumped in shock. Walker was a large man – as in life so in death – and his bulk was advantageous in situations like this. Looming over her, eyes narrowed, he leaned in even closer, crowding the petite woman until she was huddled against his office wall. Some people called intimidation tactics cowardly, old-fashioned, misogynistic.

                Jeremiah Walker called them effective. . .

                “I’ve just about had enough of that mouth of yours,” he growled quietly. “And if y’all weren’t the only thing keepin’ that little boy t’gether, I’d ‘ve had Bullet throw your skinny rear in solitary ‘bout twenty minutes ago. But, see, we’ve both had a long day, ‘n I’m feelin’ generous. So I’m gon’ give you one more warning. Watch. your. mouth. Or I might jus’ forget our little deal and try to help the little punk m’self. Got me?”

                Walker had seen Spectra angry on a number of occasions over the years. Always from a distance, never up-close and personal. But he’d figured that she had a wicked temper and the tongue to back it up. He was right.

                But he didn’t think he’d ever seen her quite this mad. At anyone. Ever.

                And this was coming from a man who’d had her hog-tied and thrown in a burlap sack.

                Spectra was shaking, high spots of color on her pale cheeks, and he was pretty sure that her stare alone could’ve caused a church to spontaneously combust. There were a couple of guards making bets. He’d heard Benson put twenty on the slippery little harlot. Thankfully, though, McCane retaliated with forty on the boss. Walker filed Benson’s miniature treachery away for a later time and quirked an eyebrow at the woman he’d cornered.

                “Well?” the warden drawled. “Y’all gonna answer me?”

                Cords popped in Spectra’s neck where her teeth were gritted, he could see a vein pulsing in her right temple. Wow, so maybe the stereotype about red-heads was true. . .

                “Fine.” The snarl that erupted from her was practically demonic. “I will watch my mouth, Warden. But I’m telling you right now, that little boy needs a quiet, stable place to live. You are the only one who can give him that. And if you’re not willing to do that for him, I might as well walk out the door right now.”

                Well, if this one didn’t have some pepper in her grits.

                Walker stared at her for a long minute. Penelope Spectra was notoriously narcissistic, self- absorbed to a fault. There had to be an ulterior motive here other than blackmail. She was too adamant, too focused for it to be anything else. It probably had something to do with sucking all the misery she possibly could outta the little punk. But he’d gone and wedged himself between a rock and a hard place.

                So he’d deal with that later.

                Leaning back a fair distance, the warden crossed his thick arms behind his back, standing tall. “Fine. The boy can stay at my place until he’s able to fend for himself. I’ve gotta spare room – kinda small, but ‘m guessin’ he don’t need much space.”

                Spectra’s entire body was still taut as a bow-string, and he could see the lingering rage glaring out at him from her eyes. But she managed to answer cordially. Without swears. So Walker considered it a small battle won.

                “It shouldn’t be a problem unless he has a claustrophobia trigger, which I highly doubt given that he’s chosen to hide in your coat for most of the time.” She stole a glance at Danny, who was still sleeping on the couch Walker kept in his office. “I’ll need full access to him. He seems to trust me the most at this point, and I don’t want to compromise that this early on.”

                “What do y’all mean by that?”

                “Just what it sounds like: full access. I’ll need to be able to reach him at any point during the day or night, no matter where you may be at the time. He’s too fragile for anything less, and we don’t know what could set off a panic attack.”

                Walker sighed and scrubbed at his face. “You wan’ a key to my house.”

                “No,” Spectra denied, shaking her head. “I’m saying that I’m going to live at your house until Danny is stable enough to not need me there.”

                It was a knee-jerk response. “No. Ain’t nobody livin’ in my house but me an’ the brat. Y’all can have a key, but you ain’t gonna live with me.”

                That look came back, full-throttle and burning, and Walker chastised himself for bringing her in for quite possibly the hundredth time that day. “You can moan and complain all you want, Tex. I’m staying with Danny, which mean I’m living with you. Deal with it.”

                He could hear the murmurs at the door get louder, more animated. Benson put another twenty on Spectra. Bullet and McCane pooled up to put thirty on him. Walker ground his teeth together – he’d have to go over the Rule on gambling again at tomorrow’s staff meeting. Which was being moved up to 0500. Immediately.

                “Rule Number Three: no one orders me around in my prison,” Walker barked. “I’m tellin’ you, it ain’t happenin’! So y’all better figure out somethin’ else to do ‘fore my patience wears thin!”

                “Of all the stubborn. . . !” Spectra threw up her hands and growled out something Walker couldn’t make out, a sort of choke-off German sound. “How in the absolute hell does anyone work for you?! I’m not going to just kow-tow to you, Walker, so you might as well get this little tidbit through your thick skull: I’m not leaving Danny! You want to help him?! Then shove that idiotic Texas pride somewhere deep down where I can’t see it and listen to me when I tell you something!!

                It went quiet.

                Very quiet.

                Walker looked down at the finger Spectra had pushed into his chest, then back up at the woman it was connected to. She was panting hard, eyes a lurid shade of red, and the frustration on her face was almost tangible. Thick veins of black spider-webbed across her cheeks, down her throat, disappearing into the collar of her shirt and reappearing along her wrists. She trembled head-to-foot. Whether it was from pent-up frustration or nerves, he couldn’t decide.

                “You’re somethin’ else, you know?” Walker muttered softly. “Alright, fine. You can stay at my place until the punk isn’t a nervous wreck anymore. But there are Rules in my house and you will follow them if you want to keep your sorry rear out of prison, ya hear?”

                As she calmed down, the veins began to recede. Within a few moments, a pale, vaguely-annoyed Penelope Spectra stood in front of him. Her jaw was set, and he glanced down to see her hands shaking before she began twisting her left ring-finger.

Interesting. . .

“Whatever you say, Tex,” she huffed. “We’d probably better go soon. The trip over there would probably terrify Danny more than just waking up in a new room. And he needs food, new clothes, and a bath.”

Walker nodded.

                “Bullet!” he barked. “You think you can get your hands on somethin’ that’ll fit the kid?”

                His lieutenant, who had been watching their exchange with an open mouth and shocked eyes, shook himself out of his stupor. He drew upright, nodding. “Sure thing, boss. I’m sure the missus kept some of Tommy’s old baby clothes. I’ll be able to find somethin’ that fits.”

                “Good. Get ‘em an’ meet me at my place, soon as ya can. Bring a couple outfits, some shoes, too, if ya got ‘em.”

                Bullet saluted and rushed off without another word. Walker turned his attention to Benson and McCane. Both guards went still, likely coming to the sudden realization that their boss had heard every word they’d exchanged in the past several minutes. McCane grew stiff, posture perfect and jaw clenched. Benson had the decency to look ashamed.

                Even though he’d won his bet.

                “Benson, you’re on latrine duty for the next month,” the warden crooned lazily. “McCane, I want you to go up and tell Lieutenant Howard he’s in charge for the rest of the day. Bullet will be taking over PT and runnin’ the prison for the next couple weeks. Understand?”

                Both men snapped out a salute. “Sir!”

                They scrambled to get out the door before Walker could come up with a worse punishment.

                Although, Bullet was infamously creative when it came to running PT drills. . .

                The room was quiet again. On the couch, Danny let out a whimper in his sleep, tiny body curling tighter until all that could be seen was his fluffy white hair, still matted with dirt and ectoplasm. Spectra took a break from glaring daggers at him to glance at the little boy. Her expression softened just the tiniest bit, barely discernible if one wasn’t looking.

                “C’mon, then, sugar,” Walker sighed. “We’d better head that way. Way I see it, kid’s had too much happen to sleep for very long. An’ I don’ wan’ ‘im panickin’ because we couldn’ get it in gear.”

                If he could bottle that glare, it’d be the most effective riot-deterrent the Zone had ever seen. Spectra pushed past him, and he was again struck by how much smaller the shade was than him. For someone with such a big personality, she was pretty dang petite. Walker quirked an eyebrow as she bundled the little boy, expertly tucking the material of his jacket around the boy’s thin limbs before scooping him up against her chest.

                His questioning stare was met with defiance.

                “Well, Tex, are you going to lead the way?” she taunted. “Or am I supposed to just wander around until I find your oh-so-elusive lair?”

                “Don’t call me that,” Walker retorted.

                “Don’t call me sugar.”

                “I’ll call you what I daggum well please.”

                “Then I guess we’re stuck at an impasse Tex.”

                He could practically feel the pressure in his veins start to rise under her smirk, which had returned to its customary place. It wasn’t right for someone to be this good at pushing his buttons. But here he was. And the worst part was, he had no one to blame but himself for it all, because Bullet had warned him.

                Walker bit his tongue and jerked his head towards the back wall of the office. “Follow me. An’ keep up! It’s a bit tricky to find if you don’ know what you’re lookin’ for.”

                He turned intangible, the familiar feeling of nothingness settling over his frame as he phased through the prison walls and into the Zone. The warden hooked a right once he’d cleared the perimeter, glancing back to make sure Spectra was keeping up with him. She was, not even complaining about the weight of the child sleeping against her.

It was when he turned back to see where he was going that he heard it.

“Of course it’s tricky to find. Makes it more fun to get lost going to your own lair, right?”

Walker rolled his eyes, then his shoulders, and groaned.

This was going to be a long-haul. . . .

Chapter Text

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.

                Fucking whistling.

                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?”

~*O*~

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.”

wait.

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?”

listen?

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?”

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.

he doesn’t.

~*O*~

                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.

                Another taste.

                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.

“Ladies first.”

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.

Chapter Text

danny holds tight to ms. penny and tries to remember to breathe as she carries him.

this place is different, big and open and there’s no dark, no skaal-pulls, no yelling, but he doesn’t really know what it will be like without all those things, doesn’t know if he can remember how to breathe and how to speak words and how to not shake like his bones are coming apart. doesn’t know what it’s like not to be cold, not to hurt, not to stay quiet and not think and no, mommy, ‘m sorry please don’t!

they’re walking down stairs now and danny tries to remember how to take them. jazzy always held his hand when he walked down the stairs and mommy always carried him and daddy would sometimes remember to help but sometimes he forgot ‘cause he was silly like that no daddy please don’t I’ll be a good boy I promise no more hitting but if danny fell he always got fudge and flapjacks.

he twists his hands in ms. penny’s shirt and it feels soft against his skin, warm, and his knuckles crack a bit. but she just holds him tight and hums in his ear and her voice is always very very quiet because she knows loud loud loud is very scary scary scary.

                “Alright, big man, are you ready to eat? I bet your hungry.”

danny’s tummy makes a growl and it feels like it’s trying to eat its way out of his skin, saying feed me feed me feed me and it’s odd, because he hasn’t felt hungry in so long, but now that he’s here instead of in the lab he knows what it’s like to be hungry again. his throat hurts and his head is confused but danny is trying to be a very good little boy so he nods, tells ms. penny the truth, and he can feel a kiss against the top of his head.

                “Alright, then, let’s see what Walker made for the both of us.”

ms. penny keeps humming as she walks in another door and danny can smell something that makes his tummy do an angry growl and he’s so hungry but he doesn’t want to be rude, doesn’t want to be a bad little boy because what if they send him back? what if they hurt him strap him to a table skaal-pulls in his chest coming at his eyes it hurts it hurts it hurts why mommy please stop it hurts decide they don’t want him anymore like mommy and daddy did? it’s a scary thought and danny has learned that the world is a scary place, but maybe if he just holds tight and keeps his face hidden he doesn’t have to see it anymore.

danny thinks it’s easier to be a good boy when you can’t see.

                “Y’all hungry, boy?”

walker is kind of a scary man but even though his face is grumpy and his voice is kind of mean he hasn’t hurt danny yet, even gave him the coat, who is his best pal, so the least he can do is answer him. so danny takes his face away from ms. penny’s neck and nods and the big man with his white scary face and his very dark hair smiles at him. and danny is surprised because when mr. walker smiles he’s not quite so scary anymore.

                “Good. I got some chicken noodle soup for ya. Put some meat back on your bones.”

danny smiles and it feels rusty because that was something aunt alicia used to say. put some meat on yer bones, boy, eat some more soup, boy, and danny likes aunt alicia even though she’s got her hair cut like a boy’s and can beat daddy in arm wrestling. because she was always very nice to him, always gives him big hugs and bigger kisses and presents when she could. danny wonders if she thinks he’s a bad boy too. if she would yell and scream and say mean things and make it hurt.

probably.

aunt alicia says mommy is always right, and mommy did those things, so she would too. danny’s heart hurts.

ms. penny ruffles his hair and danny nearly startles, but her fingers aren’t rough like daddy’s or push like mommy’s against the skin until it bruises. nope, they just play with his hair and it’s kinda tickly and danny doesn’t know what to think about that, doesn’t know how to react because that’s the way jazzy used to play with his hair when he figured out a puzzle piece or said his numbers in the right order or showed her his toy rocket for the first time.

danny is small and he is hungry and he hurts and he misses his sissy.

ms. penny kisses him on the cheek, puts him in her lap at the table, and danny thinks she would be a very good mommy. it makes him sad that she must be nice to a bad little boy like him.

he isn’t very hungry anymore.

even though his tummy is growling at him like it’s mad and ms. penny is trying to give him a spoon that look-smells wonderful. mommy used to give him spoons that he thought were food but they ended up burning his nose, his throat, his mouth, his tummy, and danny would cry and cry and cry because he would throw up until nothing happened anymore and it’s right there and his tummy is hungry but he just. . .

                “C’mon, sweetheart, it’s chicken noodle soup. You’ll love it, I promise.”

he can’t.

he can’t.

danny wants to cry because ms. penny is being so nice to him, no yell no hurt no bad no skaal-pull, and he can’t even eat soup that mr. walker must have worked very hard on and he’s so stupid. a dumb little baby and he’s very bad and he doesn’t even deserve the soup and his tummy is screaming at him. . .

mr. walker takes the spoon and looks at him and danny listens.

                “Here, kid. I’ll take a bite first, and then you take a bite. Sound good?”

he is a big man with a scary face and his voice is grumpy but danny thinks that mr. walker is actually very nice after all. he makes his muscles work again, makes his head go up then down, and then the soup on the spoon is gone. and danny waits for the burning, waits for coughs and tears and throwing up until there’s nothing left. but it never comes. mr. walker just smiles at him and gives him the spoon and danny realizes that it’s not a trick, that’s food in the bowl, and his tummy roars again and he reaches for it and is that his hand? it’s so scary, all thin and shaky, and he can’t even make the fingers work right to pick up a spoon and. . .

                “Here, baby, can I help?

help? was that something grown-ups did?

danny nods and he squirms until he’s as far against ms. penny as he can go. and he opens his mouth and the spoon goes in and. . .

it’s food.

it’s chicken noodle soup, and that’s danny’s new favorite, because it’s warm and it tastes like chicken and veggies and salt. he swishes it around in his mouth until he can’t stand to not have it in his tummy anymore and it’s so good. he wants another bite, please another bite, anything for another bite. he can feel ms. penny laugh against him and it rattles in his bones but in a nice way.

                “Is that good?”

it is and danny opens his mouth for more and he can hear mr. walker chuckling. and ms. penny gives him another bite and he swishes swishes swishes it around and are those carrots? they taste like carrots and danny chews them and they are and he opens his mouth for another. and the grown-ups are talking but it sounds like they’re stuck under water because all danny can think is more more more until suddenly his tummy is yelling at him for another reason and it’s saying no no no. but danny doesn’t want to stop, because it tastes so good but he has to listen to his tummy.

he doesn’t like throwing up.

so danny shuts his mouth and turns his face back into ms. penny’s neck and feels himself get sleepy. he’s a very bad boy and those don’t get sleep but boy he could sure use a nap. there’s a hand on the back of his head, wrapped around his back, and it’s gentle, doesn’t hurt, and something soft is between his fingers. danny rubs it back and forth and back again. he thinks it might be ms. penny’s shirt.

the grown-ups are still talking but his head hurts, and the words sound funny, like he’s swimming in jell-o so danny doesn’t try to understand, just keeps rubbing his fingers. back and forth and back again. his eyelids are heavy.

and then there’s a knock at the door and . . .

knock knock knock and then there’s big hands on his throat and a skaal-pull in his shoulder and danny is screaming for mommy and she doesn’t listen, just laughs, and daddy hits him and oh no why can’t he see? and it hurts, mommy, why are you doing this and knock knock knock then needles and there’s something in his chest and he’s cold and it’s dark and

danny jumps even though he doesn’t mean to, turns around with sawdust in his bones, and he wraps around ms. penny because what if they’ve come to take him away? he doesn’t want to leave. and he’s a very bad boy and he doesn’t deserve all the nice things that happen and he’s selfish but maybe if he holds on to ms. penny real tight then they won’t make him leave. please no please no please no please no he doesn’t want to go. . .

                “Shhh, sweetheart, it’s alright. You’re okay. It’s just the man who brought your clothes, baby.”

brought his clothes? new clothes? thinks he remembers but not sure, wants to hold tight, wants to stay here and he can’t go back, won’t go back, and his throat keeps making noises even though it hurts and he can’t hear ms. penny’s heart, why can’t he hear her heart? why why why there’s nothing in his chest but it hurts anyway and he can’t breathe!

                “Big breath, sweetie. C’mon – breathe with me.”

okay, he can do that. her chest rises against him and danny sucks air in, holds it, then it burns, and ms. penny’s chest collapses and danny lets the air go and that burns too. in burn out burn in burn out burn. he can breathe even though it doesn’t feel like anything but syrup, sticky and tasting a nasty kind of sweet on his tongue and his bones are

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in his head, crack crack cracking in his ears and danny doesn’t know what’s going on, so he holds tight to ms. penny and hopes, no, prays that no one will take him from here.

then there’s a hand against his head and it’s small and it’s soft and familiar.

danny stops thinking.

                “Y’all have a key, Bullet. Didn’ hafta knock.”

mr. walker sounds a little miffed but danny doesn’t understand why he’s talking to a bullet because daddy had showed him one of those and they didn’t talk back. and then there’s another voice, another man, and danny holds tighter and he thinks his fingers are going to break, thinks they’re going to snap right off because he’s squeezing ms. penny so tight.

                “Sorry, boss. I didn’t think about startling the kid – you’re usually just so damn picky about your privacy.”

more people. gonna hurt? danny doesn’t know but ms. penny is rubbing the back of his head, cheek against him, and she’s whispering. he thinks that mr. walker answers the man he called bullet but his ears are full of cotton and he’s too busy trying to keep from shaking apart to pay attention. then ms. penny is talking and her voice is very quiet, but she doesn’t sound as nice when she’s not talking to danny and, oh no, the other man sounds like he’s making fun of her and danny just. . .

does that hurt, little ghost? is it too much? aww, poor baby, thinks it can get away with taking my boy from me but I promise that you won’t last much longer because you’re going to tell me where danny is, going to break. I will hunt you down I will tear you apart I will make you hurt, ghost, you’re nothing and you will bring me my baby back I promise

ms. penny has stopped talking to the man and she kisses him on the temple and she smells like jazzy, raspberries and cream, and danny feels like he can breathe again. his fingers relax and they’re cramping and his legs feel like jell-o from where they were squeezed around her waist and ms. penny keeps a hand against the back of his head, fingers through his hair, and danny feels himself go limp. he stops shaking.

he doesn’t have the energy anymore.

danny thinks that being four is very hard and he hates being such a bad boy, wants to be a good boy, because things like this don’t happen to good boys. good boys don’t hurt and good boys don’t get strapped to tables with skaal-pulls in their shoulders and fingers in their eyes and. . .

ms. penny starts to whisper to him, rocking back and forth and back again.

                “Shhh, baby, it’s okay. You’re going to be just fine. Big breaths, sweetheart. That’s my boy. I’ve got you. You’re safe.”

danny presses his face into her neck and tries to make himself believe her. he thinks it’s very hard to do that. she makes promises and promises hurt. and he doesn’t know if he’ll ever figure out what he did to become such a very bad boy. but maybe. . . she hasn’t hurt him and her voice is very quiet and she smiles at him so maybe ms. penny can make promises not hurt anymore.

ms. penny and mr. walker are talking again. his head hurts. he doesn’t try to listen anymore.

then there’s a laugh and. . .

daddy laughs and laughs and laughs and danny tries to tell him that he’s not lying but daddy’s laugh isn’t nice anymore, not like it used to be, and his grin is mean and daddy’s hands are big as they hit him in the chest and something cracks and no no no it hurts, daddy, please stop!

something trickles down his throat and it tastes like dirty pennies because danny makes a noise. he doesn’t mean to. but laughing is bad when it isn’t ms. penny and laughing means hurt so danny holds tight and hides his face and tries to brace himself for the hitting-screaming-skaal-pulls.

they never come and instead ms. penny rocks him some more and kisses his cheek and danny doesn’t know what to think of any of this. it makes his brain all fuzzy, and even though his tummy is full, it aches and he doesn’t. . . he can’t. . .

his eyes are leaking and they ache and he wants to stop being scared, please, just for a second.

then ms. penny is moving, and it’s like what danny thinks flying would be like, because she doesn’t bump him or make anything hurt or nothin’ and he wraps his fingers in her hair and it’s soft, feels like jazzy’s except the color’s all wrong and his heart hurts a little. he wants to go home but he doesn’t want to go home and everything’s a mess and it’s all his fault.

danny keeps his face hidden until suddenly ms. penny is setting him down and he doesn’t like that, no no no, he’ll be a good boy, honest, just please don’t leave don’t leave don’t leave!!

                “Hey, hey, hey! It’s alright! I’ve got some pjs here for you, baby. Don’t you want to see what they look like? They’ve got rocket ships and stars on them!”

stars?

danny likes stars, likes how far away they are and how they twinkle, and one day when he’s very big and not so bad he wants to get in a rocket ship and fly away. he’ll live on a star and nothing will ever hurt again and he’ll be a cool captain like Captain Kirk on Star Trek.

but what if it’s a trick? a lie? a where is my danny I’ll make you hurt give you drugs make you suffer?

no.

ms. penny won’t do that.

she won’t.

and danny opens his eyes and looks and there they are, space pjs, and they have rockets on them just like ms. penny said. danny reaches out and he traces one and the pjs are soft under his fingers, and he thinks they look so nice and he can’t help but wonder why ms. penny and mr. walker are so nice to him. he made mommy and daddy hate him when they loved him lots, so why don’t they?

it’s all very confusing and danny’s head hurts so he just smiles even though it feels like his cheeks are split wide open and keeps tracing the ship.

                “Do you like them?”

danny nods because they’re amazing and ms. penny says they’re his.

it’s been a very long time since he’s been allowed to wear pjs.

there’s another kiss on his cheek and he’s being carried again and ms. penny is humming. she’s got a pretty voice. it makes him sleepy.

                “Okay, so he’s a meat-headed idiot, but apparently his wife has good taste. The space pjs were a hit.”

mr.walker says something and danny realizes they’re in a bathroom and didn’t ms. penny say something about taking a bath earlier? doesn’t know. too tired. head hurts.

                “Alright, quit jawin’ an’ let’s get to washin’. I’d like to go to bed ‘fore tomorrow mornin’.”

he’s got such a funny way of talking but danny kind of likes it, the way it turns up at the edges and makes the words sound long. aunt alicia talks like that. except her r sounds are different and they don’t growl quite so much.

ms. penny sits down and danny thinks he’s finally going to get to sleep and then she starts to pull him away. no no no no please don’t, let him stay, he’ll be very. good. he’ll try so hard. honest honest he means it, ms. penny, don’t make him leave. . .

his chest is tight and there’s something on his cheeks again and danny doesn’t know if he’s going to just cry or scream until everything falls apart. but then ms. penny smiles at him and her thumbs wipe at his cheeks and they come back green again, but she’s talking and danny just can’t do it anymore, so he relaxes and listens.

                “Shhh, sweetie, it’s alright. We have to give you a bath, and we can’t do that if you’re stuck to me like a monkey, now, can we?”

danny takes a deep breath. it burns. but he shakes his head and ms. penny’s smile gets a bit wider.

                “Now, is it okay if we take this jumpsuit off? Then we can get you all clean and in your new pjs. How does that sound?”

danny thinks it sounds too good to be true. but he nods his head because ms. penny asked very nicely and his jumpsuit is sticky when they try to take it off and it pulls on his scars and that hurts but ms. penny and mr. walker always say they’re sorry, and they’re very gentle and then danny is being put into an actual tub and. . .

it’s warm.

it’s been so long since he’s been warm.

the water is warm and there’s dirt and some green stuff coming off of him, and it makes little swirls on the top of the water. the patterns are kind of pretty. and even though mr. walker’s face looks like he’s very very sad-mad about something, danny is too tired to make any sense of it and there’s a boat in the water. it looks just like his. red and yellow and blue and he tries to remember the sounds a tug-boat makes.

tug-a-tug-a-toot maybe?

his throat won’t make the sounds. but he plays and he’s got toys and this is. . . he doesn’t even know anymore.

ms. penny puts something rough on his back and it tingles and kind of burns and danny flinches. but she keeps talking to him and her voice is very quiet and danny realizes she’s just washing him. the water is getting all dirty. it’s not so clear anymore. not even the bubbles are white. and mr. walker helps scrub his arms and he’s very careful around where mommy used to stick the needles in, and then they try to wash the letter on his chest, the big scar that aches and aches and aches and danny flinches, he can’t help it.

but they keep trying and are very gentle, ms. penny talking the whole time, and soon there’s hands on his head, someone telling him to keep his eyes closed why they feel so empty so achy so leaky? and there’s shampoo running over his cheeks. there’s a cut near his temple and the soap burns it but it’s a good kind of burn, danny thinks, because he’s actually getting clean.

he will never be mad about bath time again.

they rinse and they rinse and they rinse and then ms. penny tells him that he can open his eyes again, and he gets wrapped in a very fluffy towel that feels like a cloud and he feels so clean. he doesn’t remember when he was last allowed to be this clean.

                “Good job, Danny. You were so very, very brave, big man. I’m so proud of you.”

she’s. . . she’s proud of him?

danny knows he’s a bad boy, knows he shouldn’t be allowed nice things like tug-boats and baths and space pjs. but ms. penny doesn’t seem to care and she’s proud of him and it makes his chest feel all tingly and his head feel all confused and he can’t seem to do anything but smile even though his cheeks feel all wrong and his temples ache and his head is

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down the river.

mr. walker and ms. penny help him into his new pjs and they’re soft cotton and they don’t tug at his scars and they don’t rub very hard and danny doesn’t think he’s ever going to be able to stop smiling. his finger traces a rocket and he thinks that it looks too skinny but he’s too scared to look in the mirror ‘cause his hair had been white in the tub and that’s not right. so it’s better to not see and not know and just look at his rockets.

rockets are nice.

                “Do ya like ‘em, kid?”

mr. walker usually scares him when he talks, but danny is too happy to care. so he looks up and keeps smiling. and mr. walker’s face kinda looks like a skull still, all white and glowing, but when he smiles it’s not so scary. not so scary at all.

                “Tommy liked rockets when he was your age. Liked stars an’ space. Maybe we’ll go out and I’ll teach ya ‘bout constellations sometime.”

there’s something warm in his chest and in his tummy and danny nods again, can’t stop smiling, and ms. penny hugs him.

maybe. . .

                “You’ve had a long day, little man. Why don’t we go to bed? We’ll find you a teddy bear and read you a bedtime story. How does that sound?”

danny sniffles, smiles, nods

ms.penny hums as she takes him to bed, says they’ll read him a story and find him a teddy bear and they do, a fluffy gray one with big eyes that he squeezes tight, and danny falls asleep against her, mr. walker reading in his very rough voice.

maybe. . .

he’s not a bad boy after all?

~*O*~

                Penelope closed the door to Danny’s bedroom and fought the urge to scream, swear, and punch someone very hard in the face.

                In that goddamn order.

                “If I ever find whoever did that to the kid, I’m fucking murdering someone,” she muttered. “Jesus Christ, I don’t even like kids. What the fuck is this nonsense?”

                “How many times am I gonna have to tell you to watch yer mouth? Lord Almighty, it ain’t punctuation!”

                Okay, for someone that large and with that much of a need to step into everyone’s business, he was far too good at sneaking up on her. Penelope startled, only just managing to avoid making noise before rounding on the warden. Or, at least, she had intended to round on the warden. Her mind went a little bit (or a lot of bit) blank instead.

                He was leaning in the doorway, face contorted in its usual scowl, arms crossed. Except he wasn’t in his suit anymore. Walker was wearing pajamas. A pair of loose flannel bottoms in red, white, and blue plaid and a fucking tank top. His hair was dark and loose, longer at the top and close-cropped on the sides. She hadn’t noticed how thick it was until, you know, he was lounging in the door to her room like some kind of sadistic, swear-hating wraith. . .

                “What, y’all lost that smart mouth of yers? Have I broken ya?”

                Walker was sneering now, and he uncrossed his arms and, holy shit, his biceps were the size of her fucking head.

                Alright, that’s enough of that, bitch, you’re making yourself look bad.

                Penelope ground her teeth together and stepped towards where the warden stood.

                “No. I just didn’t know you anything other than a three-piece suit from the ‘20s,” she snapped. “Now would you kindly get out of the door of my room? I need to change and swear in peace.”

                Rolling his eyes, Walker pushed off the wall and, oh holy hell, she was in trouble. His muscles rippled. What the fuck kind of man had muscles that legitimately rippled?! How fucking dare he be chiseled and obnoxious! It wasn’t fair – this game was rigged. She was filing a complaint with. . . she didn’t know who she’d complain to, but someone had just acquired themselves a new asshole.

                “I’ll leave y’all to change. But I need ta go over house rules with ya. Meet me in the kitchen when you’re decent.”

                It was not a question. Or a polite request. Or even a suggestion. Walker growled it out as an order, and this may have been his house, but that was just plain rude.

                Penelope rolled her eyes and stomped into the bedroom. And she did not watch the way Walker’s stupid shoulders rolled as he made his way towards the stairs, fuck you very much. She had her dignity, dammit.

                The door closed with a quiet snik! and she scanned the room a bit more closely than she had at first glance. She hadn’t noticed how well thought-out everything was, how well-arranged the furniture was. It wasn’t excessively large; however, Walker had thought to maximize the space. Bed length-wise next to the wall. Dressers built into their own alcoves. No excessive clutter.

                Dammit, she was respecting him and that was not how this game went.

                Penelope scowled. Swore. Then proceeded to search the room from top to bottom looking for her suitcase because Bullet was a fucking nuisance. She should’ve stabbed him. With a fucking spoon. Maybe took out his other eye. Oh, well, tasks for later. Delegation of time was important, and right now Danny took priority.

                Eventually, she managed to find her things stuffed in the far corner under the bed, and she conveniently “forgot” the no-powers rule to phase the damned thing through the mattress. Forget giving Walker to Klemper – Bullet was going head-first through that door. Grumbling quiet curses to herself, Penelope was none too gentle in ripping open the heavy suitcase that Bertrand had, apparently, packed for her.

                Of course he had.

                Penelope tried to ignore the surge of dread in her stomach and rifled through the mountain of clothes in the case, eventually coming across her favorite tank and a pair of thick green pajama pants. She pulled them on and didn’t stop swearing the entire time. Because of fucking course Bertrand had remembered all her favorites, had packed everything she would possibly need neatly and correctly. Had gotten all her toiletries put together in record time.

                All with a subtle I’m watching you resting just under the surface.

                “Of fucking course,” Penelope muttered, viciously running a comb through her hair as she did so. “Can’t forget that he’s always fucking watching, Penny.”

                Goosebumps ran up and down her spine. She brushed them off, straightened her tank top – decided to leave the bra on for now, couldn’t scandalize him that badly yet – and stalked downstairs. The house was quiet. But not the eerie sort of quiet she was accustomed to from the rest of the Zone. This was the kind of quiet found more normally in the human world, in the places where stars dotted the skies and houses had miles of land between them.

                She wondered how he’d managed to replicate that.

                Stepping into the kitchen, Penelope fully expected to be detained like she would be in the prison. Walker sitting and glaring at the table, hands folded, posture statue-stiff.

                What she got was Walker kicked back in a chair, a half-empty bottle of bourbon and a tumbler with ice sitting in front of him. The second one was already close to gone. It was a miracle the damn thing hadn’t shattered with the force of his grip.

                “Have a seat,” the warden growled. “Y’all drink bourbon?”

                . . . okay so he couldn’t be that bad. Still an asshole, sure. But not all bad.

                Penelope snatched up the tumbler and tossed the ice down the drain. Then she sat down, poured two fingers worth of booze, and took a long pull. It burned like hellfire. But bourbon tended to do that, so she just powered through until the glass was empty.

                Walker was staring like she’d grown a second head.

                “What?” Penelope snapped. “Never seen a woman drink before?”

                “Yer liver must’ve hated you,” the warden snorted. “That stuff’s enough ta knock me flat on my rear. Y’all shouldn’t ‘a been able to knock it back like ya did.”

                She rolled her eyes and poured another finger. “Yeah, well, here the hell we are. Now, get on with these rules you’re so damn fond of. I want to go to bed.”

                Walker visibly bristled. But he didn’t say anything about her language. So that was. . .

                “Yer deliberately pressin’ my buttons, but we’ve both had a long day, so I’ll let this ‘un slide. For now.”

                Shit.

                “Now, most of my rules in the house are fer the kids,” Walker drawled lazily, taking a long pull on his drink. “Keeps ‘em safe, keeps me sane. Came up with the ‘no powers in the house’ one when Ember nearly burned the place down.”

                Okay, that she understood. Penelope nodded, savoring this glass instead of just downing it. Her head was already light. Didn’t need a hangover tomorrow. Not with Danny still so fragile.

                “Then why the hell do I have to follow them?” she griped. “I’m a grown woman.”

                “Exactly!” Walker growled. “You’re an adult and you will lead by example. Or I’ll beat it in yer head ‘til you do.”

                Penelope rolled her eyes for about the thousandth time that day. “Like I didn’t know that already,” she grumbled. “Fine, whatever, just tell me the damn rules so I can go to sleep.”

                Again, she expected a growl. Disapproval. Furrowed eyebrows and a scowl that would make the hairs on the back of her neck stand on end. What she got was a man staring into the bottom of his glass, eyes glazed and shoulders hunched. A hand running through his thick hair until it stood in tufts. His fingers were shaking.

                Penelope couldn’t blame him. Not one bit.

                “How the hell are we supposed to sleep?” Walker croaked. “How the hell. . . ?

                “Don’t.” Penelope took another long pull. “Just don’t. We’ll be here all goddamn night.”

                Walker nodded. Gulped down another mouthful of bourbon. “Yer right. Shouldn’ go down that road. Ain’t nothin’ but bad down that ‘un.” He cracked his neck and she watched the cords of muscle. “Ya already know the first rule.”

                Penelope snorted. “Let me guess: no swearing?”

                “See? Y’all can remember it. Why don’tcha follow it?”

                “’cause it’s fuckin’ stupid. Next rule.”

                This time, he growled just like she wanted him to. Wait, wanted him to? Shit, she was getting drunk. Damn bourbon. . . Kryptonite for alcoholics was what it was. Not that she was an alcoholic. She was Irish, dammit, they were supposed to be able to hold their liquor.

                All she was holding was a half-empty tumbler and the idea that his arms were yummy.

                “No powers in the house.”

                “Got that, next.”

“Everyone eats at the table, and no one leaves until everyone’s done. Keeps us all together in one place, least three times a day.”

Made sense. Required communication. “Alright, I can do that as long as you aren’t being a moron. Next.”

“Knock before entering a room, even if the door is open. You eat what’s put in front of you, even if you ain’t particular to it. Bedtime is nine, not eight. You respect other people, and yer language should reflect that – that includes back-sass. An’ the most importan’ rule of all is no lying. We tell the truth in this house. Lyin’ don’ bring nothin’ but trouble.”

                Lying doesn’t bring anything but trouble, Penelope, especially when you’re lying to me.

                There was something cold running down her spine, and the tumbler in Penelope’s hand shattered, ectoplasm and bourbon spilling all over the table. She cursed, loudly, and came close to tumbling out of the chair. But before she could do much (besides swear) Walker was around the table, wrapping a towel around her hand, and dragging her to the sink.

                “God Almighty, woman, you tryin’ ta give me a coronary?!”

                No, she hadn’t been. But she’d been caught off-guard and slightly drunk by the last rule and shit just kind of happened. Thankfully, Penelope had consumed enough alcohol to take the edge off her pain. But it still stung like a motherfucker. And her drunk ass couldn’t focus on anything except the way Walker’s biceps rippled under his skin.

                “Well, thank y’all for the compliment, but do I wanna know why ya shattered one of my glasses?”

                Shit, had she said all that out loud?

                “Yeah, ya did, sugar. I think y’all need to go to bed. Sleep it off.”

                Penelope scowled and, no, she did not focus on how gentle he was when he pulled the glass out of her hand. The wounds sealed quickly – she wasn’t going to bleed out – but Walker made sure to run his fingers over where they used to be, just to be sure that everything was alright.

                “Your hands are so rough.”

                She couldn’t stop herself.

                Shockingly enough, Walker laughed. “They ain’t for modelin’, that’s for sure! I use ‘em to work with. Get a job done – don’t have to look good while you’re doin’ it.”

                Shit – his laugh was hot.

                That wasn’t even remotely fucking fair.

                Penelope jerked her hand away from the warden, rubbing at the spot he’d held to get rid of the tingly sensation left behind. “Thanks, Tex. But if you don’t have any more rules, I’m going the hell to bed. I’ll see you in the morning.”

                She had never managed to drunk-escape a room without flying so fast in her fucking afterlife.

                It didn’t make listening to Walker chuckle any easier.

~*O*~

                Walker cleaned up the mess that Spectra had left behind and tried not to grin.

                The woman might’ve been about thirty-thousand different kinds of a pain in the rear, but Lord if she wasn’t a funny drunk. The mouth on her! He’d never heard anything like the blue-streak she’d let out when the tumbler shattered, and considering he’d lived with Johnny for nearly three years, that was saying something.

                Still, it was a little concerning that she’d done it right as he’d gone into the rule about lying.

                Humming in thought, the warden swept the shards into a plastic bucket before throwing the whole thing in the trash. Spectra was many things but, up to this point, he’d never really thought about why she was all those things. And, to a degree, it had never really mattered until the moment her fist had clenched hard enough to push glass through her palm.

                Walker took the bottle off the table and trudged over to the liquor cabinet, putting the offending liquid back in its proper spot before locking everything up tight. It was routine, and going through the motions of it all soothed him.

                Maybe it had been about Danny. Indignity at the insinuation that she’d lie to him. Or maybe it was something else. Her expression had shut down earlier when Bullet had mentioned that blobby little fool Bertrand. He couldn’t blame her. Spectra had a reputation, but Bertrand had been around for much longer than her, skulking in corners and weaseling his way through the seedier parts of the Zone. Thinking about some of the rumors surrounding that little creep made Walker shudder.

                God, he shouldn’t have drug out the bourbon.

                He was thinking nonsense again.

                Walker ground his teeth, making sure all the ectoplasm had been scrubbed away before shutting off the lights and heading up to bed. He was exhausted. Worn to a frazzle and pushed to the edge of his patience and anxious for a kid the likes of which he’d never seen before. But he just knew he wasn’t going to sleep at all tonight.

                Or for several nights, actually.

                He just kept picturing those scars, raised and ropey and livid against that little boy’s skin. Ribs and vertebrae and hollow, empty eyes. A smile that didn’t believe it deserved any form of decency.

                Everything settled like a rock in the pit of his stomach, and Walker couldn’t let this one go.

                Johnny had had a daddy that liked to beat his momma. Ember’s boyfriend had cheated, so she’d gone and set herself on fire to make him remember what he’d done. Youngblood had died in a car-crash, clutching his puppy Bones to his chest. Finding out about each one had set his teeth on edge.

                But nothing could have prepared him for this.

                Walker made it up the stairs, still scrubbing a hand down his face, when something caught his attention. A sound. Quiet, just on the edge of his hearing. But familiar to someone who’d ever heard it before. The warden turned and headed towards the end of the hall, knocking gently before opening the door to Danny’s room.

                The little boy was sitting up in bed, curled at the very end and rocking himself, wrapped up tight in his blankets. Walker caught just the barest hint of green peeking out at him. But he could visibly see Danny shaking, his thin frame trembling with nerves. He could hear how ragged the kid’s breathing was from the doorway, how close he was to hyperventilating.

                Keep your voice quiet, ask permission, don’t touch him if he doesn’t want you to. Rules of Engagement – the Danny Edition.

                “Danny? Punk, you alright?”

                Danny let out a tiny squeak. The shaking got worse.

                Walker entered the room quietly and sat on the floor, far enough away that the kid didn’t feel crowded but close enough to take action if he needed to. Danny peeked out at him through the blankets. His eyes – eye sockets? – shone brightly in the dark.

                “Y’all have a nightmare, kiddo?”

                The tremors slowed to something much less concerning, and Danny managed a slight, jerky nod. Walker propped his elbow up on a knee, watching carefully.

                “Want me to stay in here until you can go back to sleep?”

                Danny’s head poked out from under the blankets, and his white hair stuck out in about ten different directions. It would’ve been comical if his expression wasn’t so dang hopeful. The little boy nodded again, scooting a bit closer to where Walker was sitting. The floor was cool, and his rear was going numb, but it didn’t particularly matter. Because this kid needed him to be here, needed to have someone in his corner.

                If no one else in the Zone would be in his corner, Jeremiah Walker would.

                “Alrighty, then. Y’all want me on the floor or in the bed? It don’t matter to me.”

                Please say floor. Please say floor. Please say floor.

                Danny swallowed, and Walker watched his little throat work convulsively. It looked painful. Very painful.

                “Sleep bed? I be good, promise.”

                Dangit.

                Walker nodded and stretched a bit, mentally preparing himself for the horrendous pain in his spine come morning. “Alright, punk. Scoot over some, I don’t wanna squish ya.”

                The bunks were extra long just for this reason. Well, it had also come in handy with Johnny and Ember, seeing as how they’d been teens when they’d formed. But Youngblood – Taylor, to anyone with a lick of sense – had suffered horrific nightmares, old enough to remember the exact incident that lead up to his death. Walker had spent many nights in these beds, bony knees and elbows pressed into his ribs and a kid breathing down his neck.

                Danny pressed himself so far against the back wall it was a miracle he didn’t force himself right through it.

                “Here, kiddo. Y’all don’ have ta go quite that far.” Walker let the boy move at his own pace, fighting the urge to close his eyes and snore until the heat-death of the universe. “Sleep where you’re comfortable. You got enough blanket?”

                It took a moment or two, but Danny was eventually curled tightly under his arm, face hidden and trembling against his chest. Walker cupped his hand to the back of the boy’s head, gently ruffling his fluffy white hair.

                “You’re gonna be just fine, punk,” Walker whispered. “I ain’t goin’ nowhere. No one’s gonna get you here. Alright?”

                Danny hiccupped. Nodded. Eventually, after what had to have been an hour, the boy drifted off to sleep. He’d curled into a ball facing away from Walker. But the warden’s fingers were clutched tight in a little hand, the boy’s thin face pressed so tightly in his bicep that nothing could be seen but just the edge of a jagged cheekbone and an ear, a bit over-large. It struck him then, a lead punch to the diaphragm.

                This was a baby.

                Johnny had come to him with scars on his knuckles and gaps in his teeth, remnants of street fights and beat-downs with his daddy. Had come to him with jaded eyes and a nasty cigarette addiction, a need to reject other men so strongly it bordered on desperate. Had come to him with a shadow that created bad luck and a love for motorcycles that ran deep enough to help Walker break through. Johnny had been eighteen.

                Ember had come to him with a black eye and a broken heart, a need to be recognized and remembered that would never leave her. Had come to him after setting herself on fire with nothing but a wicked temper and an electric guitar. Had come to him with a mean-streak wider than her backside and a chip on her shoulder only fixed after about two years of dedication. Ember had been sixteen.

                Taylor – Youngblood, it didn’t matter the moniker – had come to him with bucked teeth, two missing limbs, and a spirit so ornery it’d put a mule to shame. Had come to him with nightmares and defiance and practical jokes, a loud mouth his mama should’ve washed out with soap. Had come to him wary and imaginative and bold and everything that a little boy could possibly be, grew to be self-sustaining even though he still liked to sleep-over every now and again. Taylor had been ten.

                But Danny?

                Danny was small and scared and scarred. Had come to him with no eyes and no voice, nothing but the ragged jumpsuit on his back and abject terror in his chest. He hadn’t had time to get scars on his knuckles, to form a chip on his shoulder, to have a smart mouth. Danny was four years old and he died and what the heck was Walker supposed to do to fix that?

                The warden clenched his jaw and stared at the bunk above him.

                Y’all better pray that I don’t find you. . .

                Spectra had suspected that it was his parents. That it was the people the little boy was meant to love and trust the most.

                This is my boy now. . .

                Danny shuddered in his sleep, curled in on himself tighter. Walker shushed him gently, let the little body tuck further into his chest and cling tight. The air was silent except for the sound of breathing. Harsh and loud in his ears.

                I’ll kill you for hurtin’ him. . .

                “You’re gonna be jus’ fine, kiddo.”

                I promise.

                “Just fine.”

Chapter Text

                Walker woke with bony elbows in his ribs, Danny snoring quietly, and he was pretty sure that he was going to be paralyzed from the waist down if he had to spend one more night in these evil beds.

                Why? Why would he offer to sleep here?

                He stared up at the top bunk for a long second, contemplating his poor life choices. Oh-six-hundred – what a way to start a morning. Walker couldn’t help but snort at himself for complaining. God Almighty, how many times had Taylor woken him before four? Of course, that had been nearly a decade ago. Time moved a bit differently in the Zone, but ten years had been enough to make him soft.

                Back to the grindstone, so to speak.

                Walker glanced down at the little boy tucked into his side. Danny was still curled in on himself, a tight fetal position to protect his middle. He couldn’t see the boy’s face, just the top of his fluffy white head. The rest was shielded by the comforter, pressed against Walker’s ribs along with those dadgum elbows. Kid’s nose was freezing.

                Ice-jockey for sure, Walker mused, but that would come later.

                “C’mon, son, I gotta make breakfast,” he rasped. “Wake up, kiddo.”

                Walker gently ran a hand along Danny’s back. But it wasn’t gentle enough. Wasn’t quiet enough.

                The little boy startled awake. Violently. He shot away from Walker’s hold, faster than his wasted frame should have been able to move. Hyperventilating, trembling hard enough to make his bones rattle. He slammed harshly into the back wall. The force knocked the wind from his lungs, leaving nothing but a shivering, gasping skeleton of a boy wrapped in a blanket.

                Walker cursed himself and silently vowed to skin whoever did this to the punk.

                Promises and vows wouldn’t do anything about the current situation, though.

                “Hey, hey, hey!” the warden called, keeping his voice low. “It’s alright! Danny, do you remember me?”

                The boy sucked in another breath through his teeth. Wrapped tighter in the blanket and began rocking. Walker tracked the movement silently – Taylor used to do something similar when he’d had a nightmare. Best thing to do would be to keep talking and not touch the kid until he was ready. Or, at least, he hoped that was the best thing to do.

                He would’ve woken up Spectra, but that would mean admitting he couldn’t handle a panic attack. Which wasn’t entirely true – Ember and Taylor both had done that plenty when they’d lived here – but the thought still made his skin itch.

                Admitting anything to that woman would be like shooting himself in the foot and running into a Behemoth lair. Stupid.

                “Danny? Kiddo, can y’all look at me?”

                Another gasp. But Danny managed to lift his head from the blankets, teeth chattering in his jaw. Those eyes peeked up at him, ectoplasm swirling like a plasma-storm, and Walker only just managed to keep his expression somewhat neutral when he caught the abject terror in Danny’s expression. No kid should ever look at an adult that way. It was sick.

                “Danny, I need ya to listen very carefully, can you do that?”

                The little boy’s teeth-chattering tremors lessened somewhat. He managed to nod, white hair long enough to almost mask his pseudo-eyes.

                “Good. In this house, no one will ever hurt you.” Walker kept his voice low, but his tone was firm. “You’re my boy now, and that means I’ll keep y’all safe. That’s what an adult’s s’pposed to do, right?”

                Danny swallowed thickly. It seemed he choked on a sob.

                “I bad,” he rasped, sandpaper on cement. “I sorry.”

                Whoever did this was going to die a slow, horrible death – he’d make sure of it.

                “No, Danny,” Walker refuted gently. “You ain’t bad. Bad kids don’t follow the rules like you have. I think you’re a very good boy. So you ain’t got nothin’ to be sorry for.”

                The trembling was starting to slow, the tempo of his rocking less frantic. “No hurt? No ‘speer-a-mens?”

                Speer-a-mens? What in Hades did that. . .?

                Walker felt his core leap into his mouth when the words clicked. Had they actually treated this kid like some sort of lab rat?! He’d heard tell and experienced parts of history that were far less than savory. But this hearkened back to the ’40’s. Visions of ghosts with exposed ribs and bloated bellies, sores on skin and deformed feet from wooden shoes floated in his mind. The warden had to swallow back his own revulsion, fighting to keep anything from showing on his face. Poker was his game, but dang if this wasn’t a doozy of a challenge.

                “No, Danny. No one will ever hurt you again. Not while me or Penelope are around. Got that?” Walker leaned a little closer but took care to maintain a bit of distance. “I’m here ta keep ya safe. No one’s hurting anyone ‘round here. Y’all can talk an’ wear what ya want an’ eat ‘cause that’s what little boys are s’pposed ta do. Understand?”

                Danny froze, eyes wide and disbelieving, and Walker had never wanted to murder someone he’d never met so much in his life or afterlife.

                “I. . . I talk?” the little boy questioned softly. “No yell?”

                Walker shook his head. “Not a chance, punk. I won’t yell at ya.”

                “P’omise?”

                It was the first time in almost 48 hours that Danny had actually requested something. Walker was generally opposed to making promises to kids. Promises were sacred things. They bound you at your word, and if you didn’t honor them, it meant your word was nothing. And kids, most often, requested promises that were too-easily broken. But this little boy. . . all he wanted was no yelling. No hurting. No experiments.

                Things he shouldn’t have to require a promise to ensure.

                Walker couldn’t turn that away.

                “I promise. Now, y’all wanna get dressed? After that, you can help me make breakfast in the kitchen. Mama always said breakfast was the most important meal of the day.”

                His mama was hardly ever wrong when it came to stuff like that, and Walker couldn’t help but return the shy smile Danny offered him. Moving slow – partially out of pain, partially to keep the boy calm – Walker crawled out of the bottom bunk. He landed on the floor and sat cross-legged for a second, trying to ignore how sore his lower back was.

                Danny, surprisingly, crawled to the edge of the bed and watched him.

                “Alright, punk, what d’ya say we get’cha into some clothes?”

                Walker wasn’t expecting a verbal response. And his expectations were not shattered. Danny nodded carefully, still watching with those eerie pseudo-eyes as the warden groaned his way to a standing position and rifled through the mountain of clothes Lydia had saved. Baby Jesus, how many pairs of socks did one kid need?!

                Finally, he settled on a standard pair of denim overalls and a white shirt, red around the sleeves and collar. He wouldn’t bother with shoes or socks just yet. No point – kid couldn’t walk anyhow. And besides, it was probably best not to overwhelm him with everything at once.

                “What d’ya think, kid?”

                Danny’s smile widened, and his nod was borderline enthusiastic. Walker considered that a win for the century. Satisfied (and a bit smug that he’d managed all of this by himself), the warden set about dressing the little boy for the day. It was no easier looking at those scars a second go-round, and he doubted it’d be any easier the hundredth time. But he muddled through, finally getting Danny’s stick-thin arms through his shirt and buttoning the straps on his overalls. They were a bit baggy even though they were meant for a two or three-year-old. But the length was alright, and Danny liked them. He’d gone and wrapped up in that blanket again; however, Walker decided it was likely a comfort thing.

                So, in his mind, it didn’t matter all that much.

                Walker remembered to ask permission before scooping the kid up, settling his skinny-self comfortably in the crook of one arm. He used to do this with Bullet’s kid until he’d gone and grown up on everyone. Taylor had been more partial to shoulder rides; something told him Danny wouldn’t be ready for that for a long while yet.

                The house was quiet, and he didn’t dare try to check on Spectra. If she was a pain in the neck when she was sober, he didn’t want to think about what she’d be like hung-over and madder than a wet hen. So he bypassed the guest room and made his way down to the kitchen, flipping on the light as he went.

                “Alright, kiddo, what d’ya want for breakfast?” Walker questioned. “I’m thinkin’ pancakes. Maybe some oatmeal.”

                Danny’s fingers were cold on his collar-bone, toying gently with the fabric of his tank. But the little boy hummed quietly, nodding, and that was all the answer that Walker needed.

                “Good. Y’all want to sit on the counter while I make ‘em? You can help me make the batter if ya want.”

                God Almighty, he’d never get over how dadgum hopeful the kid looked over certain things. Danny looked like Christmas had come early, grinning up at him around that blanket. His white hair was sticking out in big tufts all over his little head. Had it not been for all the scars, how thin his face was, the expression would’ve been downright adorable.

                Not that Walker was an expert in such things. . .

                Very carefully, Walker set the little boy on the countertop, trusting that he wouldn’t move or touch anything. Had it been any other kid, he wouldn’t have turned his back. As it was, Danny was content to sit on the countertop, wrapped up in his blanket and watching with frank curiosity. He glanced at the clock – 0730. Perfect time for pancakes. Maybe some eggs if they were feeling it.

                As Walker got all the ingredients together, he hummed some country song he’d heard from a confiscated radio, lyrics playing quietly in his head.

                I walk through the valley of the shadow of death. And I fear no evil because I’m blind to it all. In my mind and my gun, they comfort me. ‘cause I know I’ll kill my enemies when they come. . .

                He began mixing the batter, still humming, and grinned when Danny leaned in closer to get a better look. “Ya wanna help, punk?”

                Timid, Danny nodded.

                “Alrighty, then. C’mere, an’ I’ll show ya how.”

                The little boy pushed the blanket off his shoulders and shuffled a bit, allowing Walker to set the mixing bowl in front of him. He guided the kid’s hands as they mixed, making sure none of the still-dry flour got onto the blanket or countertop. Danny actually managed to giggle when he added the milk, only for his expression to freeze in horror, eyes wide as his shoulders hunched in on themselves.

                “Hey, bud, it’s alright,” Walker soothed. “Y’all can laugh as much as ya want.”

                Danny glanced up at him through a curtain of white hair. “No bad?”

                “Nope. You laugh and talk and ask as many questions as ya want, an’ no one here’s gonna call ya bad for it. I promise. Understand?”

                There was fear lingering in his bright green eyes, but Danny didn’t dissolve into a panic attack. There was no rocking or hyperventilating. So that was good at least. The little guy swallowed thickly, and it looked like he was trying to piece everything together. Gently, Walker ruffled his hair, making sure he didn’t startle the kid when he did so.

                “You’ll figure it all out. Don’t worry.”

                They finished mixing the batter in comfortable silence, Walker still humming the song from earlier, occasionally whispering some of the lyrics as he worked. He took care to make sure Danny was far enough away from the burners when he turned on the stovetop, flicking a pat of butter onto the skillet to keep everything from sticking.

                Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life. And I will dwell on this earth forevermore. So I walk beside the still waters and they restore my soul, but I know that when I die my soul is damned. . .

                “What shape do ya want yer pancake in, punk?” he asked.

                Danny hummed in thought, snuggling deeper into his cocoon. Then he glanced up, voice a bit more confident than it had been before. “Rockets?”

                Rockets, huh? Well, he’d never made a rocket-shaped pancake. But there was a first time for everything. He turned to face the kid and give him his full attention. Seemed like the decent thing to do.

                “Y’all want a rocket?”

                Danny’s smile was small and heart-breaking, scared to hope. His shoulders hunched in on themselves a little. That would never do. He poured the batter, managing to keep everything in a somewhat rocket-like shape. Couldn’t make a perfect one. But at least they’d taste good. He waited a few minutes, waiting for the bubbles to form around the edges. Then he turned to look at the boy again.

                “Alright, then, kiddo. Wanna help me flip it? Or y’all just wanna watch?”

                The little boy pulled his blanket tighter around his shoulders a bit. But his smile widened, and he nodded towards the spatula that Walker was gripping. A burst of pride. Carefully, Walker scooped the kid off the countertop, allowing him to rest in the crook of his elbow. It took a short second to maneuver Danny’s thin fingers into position around the spatula, and the warden kept a firm hold in order to help keep everything from going south.

                “Now, just slide it under and give ‘er a twist,” he directed. “Gently, though.”

                He could see Danny’s tongue poking out between his lips, brow furrowed in concentration as his wrist flicked at the spatula. It turned beautifully, cooked like a charm, and Walker couldn’t help but grin at the pride that flashed through the kid’s eyes.

                “Good job, kid. Wanna sit back down?”

                Danny nodded. Walker sat him on the countertop again, tiny feet peeking out from beneath the blanket, and the little guy actually smiled. It was genuine, thankful. And Walker cursed himself internally for returning it because, dangit, he was going soft. Soft did not work for a warden.

                But, looking at this kid humming in his blanket, he decided that soft might just work with Danny.

                “Well, isn’t this just a Hallmark moment?”

                . . . there went his good mood.

                The sing-song tone came from behind him, and Walker berated himself silently for not hearing Spectra coming downstairs. He turned to shoot her a glare over his shoulder, hands frozen. And he managed to keep the scowl going. Even though warning claxons were glaring in his head. Because holy crap, the woman was smirking up at him, green eyes dancing, and he hadn’t realized how horribly weak he was.

                She was built like a brick outhouse, clad in a pair of yoga pants and a tunic-top, hair falling in her face, and Jeremiah Walker came to the sudden, gut-wrenching realization that he was in Trouble. Capitalization non-optional.

                “Hi!”

                Danny’s voice erupted beside him, small but excited, and he turned to see the kid smiling. Walker returned to the pancakes. And if he flipped them with more force than was absolutely necessary, that was no one’s business but his. He’d caught how Spectra’s expression softened. Tried to ignore how she smelled like fresh shampoo as she sauntered over to them.

                “Well, hello there! Are you having fun?”

                Her voice was genuine, curious, and Walker wondered how she could adore the kid so much when she literally ate misery. Danny nodded, rocking a bit in his blanket cocoon, and hummed in affirmation.

                “We makin’ rockets.”

                Christ, that was cute.

                Not that he’d ever admit it.

                Spectra was smiling so wide it was wonder she hadn’t hurt herself. She reached out a pointer finger and tapped the kid on the nose, and somehow her smile managed to widen when Danny giggled softly. With a gentle question, she’d managed to pick the kid up – blanket and all – and settled him on her hip. Danny snuggled against her happily.

Which wasn’t precious at all. Nope, not in the slightest.

                “You’ve been a busy little boy this morning!” Her voice was dripping enthusiasm despite its low volume. “Did you have a good night?”

                Crap – shouldn’t ‘ve asked that.

                Walker could see Danny’s smile drop out of the corner of his eyes, silently pleading to the good Lord that he wouldn’t mention anything about their sleeping arrangements. Even though he wanted the kid to feel better.

                “I gots nightmares,” the boy near-whispered. “Slept wif’ Mr. Walker.”

                Dang it.

                Spectra blinked in surprise, glancing up towards him with a questioning expression. He could feel his shoulders tightening, and he tried to ignore the pain that still flared in his lower back. Danny had stiffened in his blanket, staring up at the woman holding him with a frightened, pleading expression. This was ridiculous. If she couldn’t get over her own prejudices against him for Danny, then. . .

                The smile returned, and Spectra bounced in place. “That’s the funny thing about nightmares, baby. They’re not so scary when you’ve got somebody nearby. Did you have anymore, or did they get better when Walker stayed with you?”

                Dang – she was good.

                At least Danny was smiling again. Even though Walker wanted to punch something. Hard.

                “Got better. He scared ‘em off.”

                Walker’s ego got a bit of a boost at that. And then he caught sight of the wicked look in Spectra’s eyes, the way her grin sharpened around the edges as she turned to him. His ego took a flying leap off a very tall cliff. It died a painful death along with his patience for the day. Well, patience for her at least.

                “Well, then, it appears you are good for something, warden!” Spectra cooed, voice lilting and dripping honey. “Looks like that perma-scowl doesn’t just scare off dates. You can use it on inmates and bad dreams.”

                Do not blush. Do not blush. Do. Not. Blush!

                Growling, he narrowed his eyes in annoyance at her. “Keep talkin’, see if I feed yer sassy rear.”

                It was in that moment, he knew – he’d screwed up.

                Spectra’s grin widened, and the gleam in her eyes grew near-manic. He lost his battle with the blush, and heat spread across his cheeks and up his ears. This was not how he’d wanted to start his day with her. Walker decided he’d already lost the battle, returning to the pancakes and finishing up the oatmeal he’d started earlier. Maybe he’d add some blueberries? Blueberries were good. Not as good as raspberries, but those were out of season.

                “Alright, big guy. Let’s eat!” Spectra cheered. “You think you can handle eating part of a rocket? Or do you want to eat some oatmeal first?”

                Walker plated a couple of pancakes and tuned out of the pair’s conversation.

                It was going to be a long day. . .

~*O*~

                Penelope woke with a pounding headache, a dry mouth, and a whole fucking heap of regret.

                She groaned quietly, pushing her face into the fluffy pillows and wondering what the hell Walker had put in that damn bourbon. It couldn’t have been later than eight. Nine, maybe, and that was pushing it. Penelope didn’t particularly care how she knew that little tidbit – being dead gave one a bit of an impressive internal clock – but she did care about being awake. With a hangover.

                At eight in the goddamn morning.

                There was a cheery, obnoxious little voice in the back of her head that told her to stop being a lazy bitch and get her ass out of bed. It sounded suspiciously like Bertrand. Which was annoying and concerning because how the hell was he getting in her head all the way out in the Zone-boonies? Whatever – she was too hung-over to think about shit this early.

                Penelope groaned one more time before throwing back the duvet. She nearly yelped when the cold air hit her arms. Holy shit, why was it so fucking cold? She could feel the goosebumps rising along her limbs, crawling up her back, and Penelope hissed when her bare feet touched the hardwood.

                Socks. Shower. Normal people clothes. Food.

                In that fucking order.

                Grumbling, swearing quietly, Penelope picked out an outfit that screamed “I’m lazing around the house today” and made her way towards the bathroom, a pair of her thickest socks sliding on the floor as she walked. Her eyes were dry, on fire, and her mouth felt like it’d been stuffed with cotton balls. Each step throbbed in her temples. But she’d suffered through far worse than a damn hangover, so she downed a glass of water and got in the shower, scrubbing down under a cool spray to wake her up a bit.

                The water worked (somewhat) and soon Penelope was toweling off, legs newly smooth and hair hanging down in choppy waves around her face. Well, where it wasn’t knotted around all those damn cow-licks. Grumbling, pissed-off and cold and still fucking hung-over, she worked a comb through the tangles. Did she want to fix her hair today?

                Her stomach roared at her, for once actually craving normal food.

                No – no she did fucking not want to fix her hair.

                She shook the moisture from her head out one last time, practically yanking her shirt and pants on before stepping out of the bathroom. Something, though. . . something was off. She couldn’t put a finger on it. But something wasn’t normal. Well, as normal as she could tell, anyhow. They’d only been here, what, a day?

                Penelope stood still and listened.

                It was quiet. Very quiet. But there was the soft murmur of voices drifting up from the kitchen. Well, a voice, anyway. Walker’s voice. Frankly, she was surprised she could hear him – baritone as his voice was, sometimes it was nearly impossible to catch from a distance. But in this house, in the quiet, it rang out like a bell.

                Curious as to what he was doing, Penelope made her way downstairs. There weren’t any lights on upstairs – not including the ones she’d not bothered to turn off – but there were lights on in the kitchen. It glowed brightly in the early morning dim. Penelope hissed. Shit, this wasn’t doing her hangover any favors. In fact it was stabbing her hangover in the fucking cranium.

                Why the fuck did she care again?

                “What shape do ya want yer pancake in, punk?”

                . . . Danny was down here?

                Penelope made it down the last few steps, making sure to keep her footsteps silent as she made her way around the corner. She hovered for a moment in the doorway, unsure. Because what if Walker was still in that damn tank-top? Alcohol made her less, you know, graceful than usual. But those arms were just absolutely unfair, and she was hung-over, and she didn’t know if she had the willpower to watch herself this morning.

                “Rockets?”

                Penelope stuck her head into the kitchen, gaping in astonishment at what she saw.

                Walker was hovering over the stove, still in those goddamn pajamas. But he was talking quietly, and she could practically see his customary scowl as he poured batter into a skillet. Danny, though, was wrapped in a thick blanket and perched on the countertop, watching the warden with rapt attention. Ectoplasm threatened to creep down his cheeks. But, for some reason, it hadn’t. He looked almost relaxed.

                “Y’all want a rocket?” Walker asked, turning to look fully at the little boy.

                A tiny, heart-wrenchingly hopeful smile crossed Danny’s thin face. He nodded, shoulders hunching in on themselves. Unconscious defensive body-language, likely verbally abused for long periods. . .

                “Alright, then, kiddo. Wanna help me flip it? Or y’all just wanna watch?”

                The little boy pulled the blanket tighter around his shoulders. But he didn’t disappear into it, so there were already signs of progress. Penelope couldn’t help it. She grinned when Danny nodded towards the spatula, and Walker plucked him from the countertop, big hands appearing even larger against the child’s thin chest. He tucked Danny up against him, allowing the little boy to rest in the crook of his elbow as he handed off the spatula.

                “Now, just slide it under and give ‘er a twist. Gently, though.”

                This was fucking gold.

                The big bad warden turned into a damn marshmallow for a four-year-old.

                Shit, where the fucking hell was a camera when you needed one?

                Penelope reclined against the door frame, arms crossed, and watched it all unfold. Walker helped Danny maneuver the spatula, big hand dwarfing the boy’s thin digits as they shook. They flipped the pancake together, Danny still wrapped in his blanket, and it was perfect. Damn –she couldn’t even boil water without burning her lair down. Where the fuck had Walker learned how to cook?

                “Good job, kid. Wanna sit back down?”

                She hadn’t noticed before. Walker had actually been paying attention to her when she talked to Danny. He was quiet. Asked permission. Kept his movements slow and broadcasted them well. Penelope caught her smile widening, and the moment she did, it dropped into a scowl. Because she was proud of him, damn it all, and that was not how this shit was going to work! Not when it was Walker, with his stupid rules and his ridiculous Texas accent and his fucking Adonis-arms. . .

                . . . fuck, she was doomed.  

                Walker had sat Danny back on the counter, his little feet just barely poking out from beneath his blanket cocoon. He was smiling. That little boy was smiling, and it felt like her heart was going to explode. Which was strange and foreign because Penelope was thought by many to be heartless. She wasn’t. Pretty damn close in certain situations (mostly involving teens) but not fully.

                Still, it wasn’t like her to get attached to little kids. But here the fuck they were.

                Penelope stepped fully into the kitchen, bare feet padding quietly on the hardwood. “Well, isn’t this a Hallmark moment?”

                Judging by the way his shoulders tensed, her barb hit the mark. Walker glared at her over his shoulder, hands not moving from the stovetop. Those damn muscles were mocking her. Because they were glorious. And beautiful. And they belonged to a fucking prick.

                Danny, though, was all smiles. He rocked in his blanket cocoon, little head peeking out as he grinned up at her.

                “Hi!”

                The greeting was hoarse and rasping, timid as always, but so full of hope it made her want to simultaneously hold him to her chest and choke a bitch. Penelope ignored Walker in favor of Danny.  The Lone Ranger got his fill of attention nearly every day – he could be overlooked for once. So she smiled at the little boy and walked over.

                “Well, hello there! Are you having fun?”

                Danny nodded, still a little apprehensive, but his hum of content was enough confirmation. “We makin’ rockets.”

                It was quiet, so very quiet, but there was legitimate confidence in that little voice now. Penelope felt like an idiot, grinning so wide her cheeks hurt, but it was worth it to witness that smile. She gently tapped Danny on his little button nose and he giggled and it was quite possibly the cutest thing she’d ever bore witness to. Ever. Very carefully, she lifted him from the countertop, settling his slight weight comfortably on her hip and preening a little at the fact that he snuggled against her almost instantly.

                “You’ve been a busy little boy this morning!” she chuckled. “Did you have a good night?”

                The blanket wrapped a bit tighter around his little shoulders. Danny’s smile dropped a bit, and he shrugged apprehensively. Dammit, and she’d been doing so well.

                “I gots nightmares,” the little boy whispered. “Slept wif Mr. Walker.”

                Okay – so that was unexpected.

                Walker’s shoulders were wound tighter than a two-inch spring, and he finished up the pancakes with quick, jerking flicks of his wrists. She probably could’ve bounced a quarter off one of those biceps. Maybe a half-dollar. . . dammit, it was happening again! Danny was still watching her, still tense, a tad frightened. So Penelope smiled at him, swaying in place.

                “That’s the funny thing about nightmares, baby,” she explained. “They’re not so scary when you’ve got somebody nearby. Did you have anymore, or did they get better when Walker stayed with you?”

                Danny’s smile returned, like the sun peeking out from behind a thunderhead. “Got better. He scared ‘em off.”

                “Well, then, it appears you are good for something, warden!” She couldn’t help it – the setup was just too damn perfect. “Looks like that perma-scowl doesn’t just scare off dates. You can use it on inmates and bad dreams.”

                Walker’s glare probably could’ve chipped cement. “Keep talkin’, see if I feed yer sassy rear.”

                Oh, the possibilities!

                But Danny was listening. . .

                But it was wide open. . .!

                Penelope settled for a good laugh at the warden’s expense. And judging by the blush that crossed his cheeks, he’d figured out exactly where he’d fucked up. Walker grumbled to himself, plating up a couple perfectly-cooked rocket pancakes and grabbing a small bowl of oatmeal that she hadn’t noticed. Danny was still smiling, one little hand coming up to play with her hair as he snuggled against her collar-bone.

                He was bony, startlingly light, and still panicked at the slightest provocation.

                But he could still smile – and to Penelope, that spoke volumes about his resilience.

                “Alright, big guy, let’s eat!” she cheered. “You think you can handle eating part of a rocket? Or do you want to eat some oatmeal first?”

                Danny bit his lip, forehead creased in concentration. Then he glanced up at her timidly. “O-meal?”

                “You want some oatmeal first?” She was kind of shocked and a bit relieved; she didn’t know if his stomach would handle something as rich as pancakes.

                A nod, and Penelope couldn’t help but press a quick kiss to the boy’s nose. She relished the fact that he giggled at her. Her, not Warden Dick-head. She grinned, flouncing over to sit at the table while Walker got the rest of their breakfast ready.

                “Well, then!” she gasped. “Oatmeal it is, little prince!”

                Danny flushed at the new nickname, pale cheeks turning a light green. “I no prince,” he rasped. “I ghost. Mommy said so.”

                Shit had hit the fan, and were she not trying to get a handle on her temper, Penelope would’ve wondered how Walker managed to get the little boy talking. She tensed, hands frozen on Danny’s ribs. Her fingers fit in the divots between the bones. And here was this kid, this four-year-old, who was staring up at her like she had all the answers in the world. But she couldn’t make her fucking brain work.

                A plate with thick pancakes clunked onto the table before her, followed by a small bowl of oatmeal and blueberries.

                “An’ who says ghosts can’t be princes, kid?” Walker growled. “Seems to me you could be both.”

                Danny huddled back into her again, little fingers winding gently into her hair as he thought. Penelope couldn’t decide if she wanted to smile or scowl. Leave it to Walker to save her ass and make her look like an idiot in the same breath. Still, better not look a gift horse in the mouth.

                “Walker’s right, sweetie. Ghosts can be princes or princesses.” God, the words – they burned. “Just like humans can be princes or princesses. Why do you think you can’t be a ghost and a prince?”

                His thin face scrunched in confusion, and Danny’s hands tightened a bit. Not painfully. But enough to know he was getting nervous again. Penelope managed another smile and kissed him on the temple, coaxing the little boy to relax bit by bit.

                “We’ll talk some more later,” she soothed. “How’s that sound?”

                The tension in Danny’s tiny frame eased again. He nodded, content for the moment, and opened his mouth for the first spoonful of oatmeal. As she fed the little boy his breakfast, Penelope caught sight of Walker’s expression. He’d hunched over his meal, stabbing into his pancakes and syrup viciously, and his expression probably could’ve give a gargoyle a run for its money.

                She’d deal with that later.

                Penelope hummed quietly and fed Danny a spoonful of oatmeal, watching his expression as he munched away. The little boy’s face lit up with excitement, and she took note that he was much less distrusting of food this morning. Which made her suspicious because food-distrust and anxiety weren’t conditions that just disappeared overnight. But he was eating, opening his mouth immediately for another bite, and he was more relaxed this morning than she’d ever seen him.

                So. . . gift-horse, won’t look it in the mouth.

                Still, it was fucking annoying.

                Danny opened his mouth and hummed for more, little hands squeezing gently on her forearms, and Penelope couldn’t help but chuckle. “You’re so freakin’ cute, it’s criminal, kiddo.”

                He ignored her, opened up for more. But that was okay. For now, food was more important.

                “You ‘oughta slow ‘im down,” Walker suddenly called. “He’s gon’ make himself sick.”

                Penelope scowled. He was right again, dammit, but she didn’t want to admit that to him or anyone. Because as far as she was concerned, he didn’t know shit about fuckall.

                “Danny, honey, smaller bites. You don’t want to be sick.”

                . . . he didn’t know anything.

~*O*~

danny’s tummy is full and he’s in clothes for the first time in forever, and he thinks that he would very much like to take a nap now, ms. penny.

this is so strange. he doesn’t know what to do with himself. because he’s wrapped in a blanket and ms. penny has him in her lap, fingers through his hair, and his eyes still ache and his tummy still feels like it has a ball of ice in it. but there’s no hurt, no needles no yelling no skaal-pulls, and mr. walker said that danny was his boy now, that he was gonna be safe no matter what.

danny doesn’t know if he believes that, not really, but he wants to. he’d even talked earlier, nails in his throat and trying not to fall through the floor. ms. penny likes to give him kisses and mr. walker likes to call him nick-names like daddy used to and they both are so very very nice. they think he’s a good boy even when he’s not, and danny wonders if jazzy would have liked it here.

he thinks she would have liked it lots.

a yawn stretches his jaw wide and danny snuggles back into ms. penny some more, listens as she laughs because her laugh is kind of pretty and maybe, just maybe, if he tries real hard, he can sleep without having nightmares.

no mommy, I’m danny I’m danny I’m sorry please don’t mommy, and then there’s cutting and medicine that burns his tummy, he’s so hungry, doesn’t know what’s happening it hurts it hurts it hurts mommy why why why??!!

fingers run through his hair and ms. penny kisses him on the forehead, rocks back and forth and back again, and danny hums because this is nice. this is nice and there’s no hurt and he wants to make sure he enjoys it while he can. they’ll stop loving him soon. mommy and daddy stopped loving him.

that makes danny’s heart ache and he snuggles against ms. penny’s chest and tries to forget.

the blankets are warm, wrapped tight around him like a hug, and danny feels so sleepy, even though his eyes still ache a little. he smiles because ms. penny rocks back onto the couch, pulls him closer, holds him tighter, and danny wonders if it will always be like this? cuddles and kisses and blankies? rocket pancakes in the mornings? that would be amazing – even though he doesn’t deserve it.

but. . .

but mr. walker said that danny wasn’t a bad boy. that he was a very good boy and he followed the rules and danny thinks mr. walker was telling the truth. because his voice might be funny and turn up at the corners but he has very serious eyes and he reminds danny of mr. sanchez, who was a police-man and paulina’s daddy. police men help people, danny remembers, and they have very serious eyes, and danny thinks that maybe, just maybe, mr. walker can help him too?

his head hurts.

he wants to nap now.

                “Danny, baby, you need to stay awake for a little bit longer. I know you’re tired, but you won’t sleep tonight if you nap all day.”

her voice is very quiet and it doesn’t sound mean, but danny is tired. let him sleep, please? wants to sleep. ms. penny bounces him a little bit, jostles, and her hand brushes across a scar on his back and. . .

it hurts.

danny gasps and he doesn’t mean to, body goes tense, and he tries to hold his breath to keep from crying because, please, don’t be mad, ms. penny he didn’t mean to! was an accident mommy I pressed the button it’s me it’s danny I sorry and he didn’t mean to jerk, didn’t mean to make noise. . .

                “Sweetie, you’re fine. It’s okay, Danny. I’m not mad. You’re fine, little man, shush now.”

the air in his chest catches on his ribs and danny hiccups, and it hurts, but ms. penny rocks him some more, kisses his nose, rubs a circle on his back and remembers where the hurt-places are and danny realizes that she’d hurt him on accident. he’s so confused. ms. penny said that he was a ghost what’ve you done with my danny, ghost? why are you here, ghost? ghost ghost ghost mommy says it like it’s dirty, like it’s nasty and daddy’s screaming at him ghost!!! but she didn’t make it seem like a bad thing. she said he was a prince and a ghost and a very good little boy. she can’t be right can she?

but maybe he’s wrong?

danny is so confused.

it hurts his head.

he just wants to sleep until it doesn’t hurt anymore.

                “Spectra? He alright?”

ms. penny hums quietly in his ear and danny remembers that mr. walker was still here too. he shakes and shakes and sucks some air back into his lungs. more hands in his hair. bouncing. a kiss on his temple. danny feels his muscles relax and doesn’t hold on so tight because what if he hurts ms. penny on an accident too?

                “He’s fine. I caught a scar on accident, didn’t I, sweetheart?”

danny hiccups again. it hurts. but he’s used to it, and it’s a dull hurt, not a burn-break-cut kind of hurt, so he can handle it. he nods, peeks out from his blankie and sees mr. walker has changed clothes. he’s tall and his chest looks very wide in the button-up shirt he’s got on and it reminds danny of that one time daddy wore a suit for jazzy’s school conferences. daddy had looked very strange when he wasn’t wearing his jumpsuit.

but mr. walker is not daddy. he’s very different. because he’s got a white face and it looks like a skull, and he’s got very serious eyes and can be scary but his smile is nice, and danny thinks he would be a very good daddy.

ms. penny rocks him some more and mr. walker comes to sit on the couch with them, leaning back against the cushions. danny thinks that he looks very stiff.

                “Y’alright, kiddo?”

he’s got a deep voice, but it stays quiet and quiet is good, so danny answers him. ms. spelka always said that manners were very important, and it’s rude not to answer someone when they ask you a question, he remembers. and so danny says I ok and tries not to shake anymore even though he’s still not sure he believes there will be no more hurt. . .

mr. walker looks like he’s going to answer and then there’s a knock. . .

knock knock knock against the lab door and jazzy’s calling for him through the door, danny, bubby, are you down there and danny tries to scream he tries but his throat hurts so so bad. no noise comes and he can hear jazzy crying and, no no no no no he’s here, jazzy, honest! he’s not a ghost, not a bad boy, he’s not except jazzy never answers and mommy comes back and yells at him and daddy hits and hurt hurt hurt

danny gasps again, shakes some more, and ms. penny holds him tight and the rocking comes again, and he’s trying not to cry because he’s not a bad boy right? he’s a good boy right? mr. walker had said so and ms. penny had said so and they’re so very nice so maybe they’re not lying? he doesn’t want to go back and he doesn’t want to be bad anymore. doesn’t want to hurt doesn’t want nightmares doesn’t want his tummy to gnaw itself because he’s so hungry.

and ms. penny rocks him back and forth and back again and danny tries to bury himself in her chest because she is safe and she is warm and. . .

                “Johnathan Walker, y’all know dang well to let me know you’re comin’ beforehand!”

oh no oh no oh no mr. walker sounds angry, deep voice like thunder and it growls and danny feels like his chest is going to explode, his tummy very cold, and he chokes on a sob and ms. penny holds him tighter. kisses his forehead. whispers and tells him it’ll be okay and danny tries to believe her, he does, except. . .

his mind screams liar liar liar pants on fire quit lying.

                “Aww, c’mon, Pops! You know I don’t mean nothin’ by it! I think the cam-chain is going out in my Harley, and I thought you could help me take a look at it real quick.”

new voice. a man. not very old, kinda low but it sounds like he’s not super worried about mr. walker being angry. and ms. penny has gone very still, very stiff, but she keeps shushing him, running her fingers through his hair, and danny wonders who this person is. more hurt? come to take him back? doesn’t know doesn’t want to know so he’ll hold on tight to ms. penny and pray.

                “Johnny, I’ve got a new arrival, and he’s real. . . sensitive.”

sensitive? what’s that mean? danny tries to take a big deep breath and the air comes in, makes his chest push out, and ms. penny tells him he’s doing a very good job and it sounds like there’s a smile in her voice.

                “Aww crap, Pops, I’m sorry! I didn’t know. . .”

new voice again. sounds like an apology.

                “That’s why yer s’pposed to let me know before, Johnny.” a sigh. “C’mon in. I’ll take a quick look an’ see if I can salvage that hunk ‘a junk.”

footsteps, door creaking, more footsteps. danny doesn’t want to look. doesn’t want to know.

                “Penny? What’re you doing here?” the voice sounds curious, surprised. “I thought you an’ Bertrand had some sort of scheme goin’ at Casper High?”

ms. penny shifts and her arms hold him a bit tighter, a hand against his head.

                “We did. And then Bullet came and tied me in a sack. So here I am.”

                “This the new kid?”

danny goes very very still. this man noticed him, sees him, and that isn’t safe. people aren’t safe, no one but mr. walker and ms. penny because they promised they would never hurt him, wouldn’t yell or hit or needles-cutting-hurt. but this person has not promised and this person is new and danny just. . .

he can’t. . .

                “Johnny, keep your voice down. He doesn’t do well with loud noises.”

boots on the floor, heavy, and danny feels goosebumps crawling up his arms and he squeaks, doesn’t mean to, holds tighter to ms. penny and tries to disappear in his blankets. his legs are wrapped so hard he can feel them shaking.

                “Seriously, Penny? You don’t even like kids – why’re you helping Pops with this one?”

ms. penny snorts.

                “I’ll give you exactly three guesses, Johnny. Why the hell do you think I’m helping him?”

quiet. then. . .

                “He threatened you, didn’t he? Pops is good at that.”

                “It was either help him or a thousand years in solitary.”

                “Jeezus, that’s harsh, even for him.”

there’s movement under him and danny thinks that ms. penny is shrugging and he’s very confused because she’s talking to this stranger, doesn’t think he’s a bad person, even though he hasn’t promised. maybe he’s not bad? not going to take him away?

                “Yeah, well, he’s stubborn as hell and wasn’t going to let me leave even if I’d wanted to. Doesn’t really matter now, anyway. I can’t just leave Danny with him. Warden Jack-ass would lose his mind if I did that.”

danny thinks about batman and jazzy and mr. walker’s serious eyes and tries to be very brave. he opens his eyes. he looks.

this man isn’t like mr. walker at all. he kind of reminds danny of a couple of the teenagers that help ms. spelka out sometimes, the ones that read them books and play games. he’s got blonde hair and green eyes and he’s wearing a very big coat, gloves without fingers. they keep calling him johnny and danny thinks that it fits him, just like the crooked teeth in his smile.

                “Danny? That’s a pretty cool name for such a little dude.”

johnny looks at danny and then the smile drops and he steps back and danny thinks oh no oh no oh no more hurt can’t handle please don’t. . .

                “Holy shit!!

ms. penny lets danny dig back in and shushes, hands in his hair. danny can’t stop shaking, and there’s something on his cheeks, sticky thick and it gets in his mouth and it tastes sweet and then a thumb wipes it away.

                “Shhh! Are you trying get us both an earful?!”

                “What the absolute hell happened to his eyes?!”

his eyes? what’s wrong with his eyes? what’s wrong with his eyes?!!”

danny sucks in more air, shakes, claws at his head and rocks and tries to make the voices screaming in his head just be

quiet

but they won’t. they won’t they won’t they won’t what’s wrong with his eyes they hurt and he doesn’t know what’s happening?!

                “Okay, jackass, if you can’t be trusted to keep your goddamn mouth shut, then go outside and leave Danny alone! You being a moron is not helping him in the slightest.”

                “Says the one swearing in front of the kid!”

                “Get. Out.

ms.penny sounds annoyed but danny thinks it isn’t at him. but the voices are screaming, calling him a bad boy and a liar and a ghost and everything bad in the world and danny just. . . he can’t. and ms. penny rocks him and holds him close, the boots thump thump thumping away on the hard floor and danny can’t help it anymore.

he cries and he cries and he cries and he tries to ask what’s wrong with me?! but he doesn’t think the words come out right.

but ms. penny swallows and hugs him real tight and kisses his face, whispers against his temple and she sounds very sad, like she’s trying not to cry.

                “Oh, baby, there’s nothing wrong with you. You’ve just had some very, very bad things happen, that’s all. Hush, now, sweetie. I’ve got you. I’m going to make it better. Walker and I will make it better. I promise.”

danny can’t stop crying and it hurts in his chest and his face and his eyes and his heart and he wants to just make it all go away. . .

more rocking. more kisses. more fingers through his hair and the blanket around his shoulders.

danny just wants to sleep, please, ms. penny, he’s so very tired.

                “We’ll make it better, baby.”

he wishes he could believe her.

Chapter Text

There were exactly three things that Johnny 13 feared.

                One: Kitty when she was mad.

Two: the thought of losing Kitty for any reason whatsoever (his own dumb-assery included).

And Three: his Dad. Specifically, his ghost dad. Who was the fucking warden of a prison, didn’t possess a sense of humor, and had muscles that could crush someone’s spine.

                Yeah. . . that was a Thing.

                Still, Johnny needed his cam-chain looked at – fuckin’ Harley and its stupid hydraulic Twin Cam engines – and he just didn’t have the willpower to fuck around with Bullet. That asshole still hadn’t forgiven him for the whole “fake hitting on his wife” thing. It was a joke, dude, get the fuck over it. But no. Bullet was a petty-ass bitch.

                So here he was, motorcycle touched-down on the lawn and Shadow refusing to come out as he looked up at the front door. It was so fucking innocent looking, that red door with a cross on it. Like something out of a catalogue.

                But to Johnny?

                That door could open up and pour out fear. . .

                Johnny growled to himself, stubbed his cigarette out on the bottom of the boot, and swung off the bike. This was Pops – yeah, sure, he’d grumble and be a general dick about it, but he’d help. Pops always helped. Even when he didn’t actually want to.

                Didn’t make him any less fucking scary though.

                “Nut up or shut up, Johnny,” he muttered to himself.

                He knocked on the door three times and waited. It wouldn’t take long – Pops may not’ve used powers in the house, but he moved quick for someone so big – so he didn’t really have time to regret his decision.

                Then the door swung open, Pops looming over him like some incarnation of Pissed-Off, and Johnny regretted waking up that morning. And choosing to keep his Harley. Well, the latter lasted for like half a second because his bike was almost as precious as Kitty. Which was saying something. And, oh shit, he’d forgotten the Patented-Look of “Johnny, you fucked up” that Pops had. It’d been a while since that one had come out.

                “Johnathan Walker, y’all know dang well to let me know you’re comin’ beforehand!”

                Well, Pops wasn’t wrong. But he seemed to underestimate the bullshit that Bullet liked to put his eldest through, thank you very fucking much. So, this was one rule that could be bent. A little. Sometimes. . . Christ, he wished Pops would get worse at dirty looks, because this was fucking uncomfortable.

                “Aww, c’mon, Pops!” Johnny tried to ignore the twisting in his guts with nonchalance. “You know I don’t mean nothin’ by it! I think the cam-chain is going out in my Harley, and I thought you could help me take a look at it real quick.”

                Pops let out a sigh, scrubbing a hand through his hair. Wait, what? Johnny took a closer look and realized that Pops was wearing, like, normal-people clothes. No suit. Just a t-shirt, red-checked button up, and jeans. Barefoot. Barefoot. Pops never went barefoot for anything. Except. . . 

                “Johnny, I’ve got a new arrival and he’s. . . sensitive.”

                Fucking shit. Of all the rotten luck. . .

                In the back of his mind, Shadow chuckled low in his ear, and Johnny had to mentally smack the little shit down. He rolled his shoulders, scratching anxiously at the back of his head.

                “Aww crap, Pops, I’m sorry! I didn’t know. . .!”

                Pops was not what Kitty liked to refer to as a “social butterfly.” He kept to himself, intensely private, and Johnny could understand that. When you’re the big, bad Warden, it wouldn’t end well if one of your inmates to figure out you fostered a bunch of fucked-up little kids.

                Speaking of big, bad wardens. . . Pops had pinched the bridge of his nose, brows meeting in a big line. Then he stepped back. “That’s why yer supposed to let me know, Johnny.” He sighed and jerked his head towards the living room. “C’mon in. I’ll take a quick look an’ see if I can salvage that hunk ‘a junk.”

                Ouch, Pops, that was harsh.

                Johnny tried to fight the scowl working its way onto his face and pushed into the living room. Pops was grumbling on his way out, as was per the norm. This time, Johnny grinned. Well, at least that hadn’t changed since he’d left.  The grumbling was like a staple for Walker sanity. He didn’t bother taking off his boots – they were clean, Pops, honest – and stumped into the living room. Maybe he could catch a few Z’s on the couch. . .

                Or maybe not because Spectra was taking up all the room. And there was a little kid on her lap. Clinging to her for dear fucking life.

                Jesus Tits, had he entered the Twilight Zone on accident?

                “Penny? What’re you doin’ here? I thought you an’ Bertrand had some sort of scheme goin’ at Casper High?”

                Okay, so fucking around with Penny was much less scary than facing down his Pops. Because she might’ve been a misery-sucking bitch, but goddamn if she couldn’t take as good as she gave. Penelope glared at him. Which was comical, considering she was in leggings, sitting cross-legged with a kid on her lap. Speaking of the kid, he was shaking pretty badly, even though he was wrapped up in a blanket. Face buried in Pen’s clavicle. She’d cupped a hand to the back of his head, rocking back and forth.

                Still, the look in her eyes probably could’ve frozen the Hell over.

                “We did. And then Bullet came and tied me in a sack. So here I am.”

                Ah, Bullet! The crowned prince of jackasses! Johnny couldn’t help but snicker a little bit. He stopped when Penny’s glare got scarier – there were lines, and he didn’t want to cross them, because she could kind of, sort of still kick his ass if she really wanted to. So he’d just stick to the obvious questions.

                “This the new kid?”

                Johnny remembered what it was like when Youngblood first formed. Poor little guy was missing a right arm and leg. Had nightmares like a motherfucker. But the kid would still talk, still play games and engage even though his brain was still trying to adjust to being, you know, fucking dead. But this kid. . . Little guy went stiff when he was referred to. As in stock-still, rigid, rigor mortis stiff.

                What the actual fuck?

                Penny was staring so hard into him, it was actually a wonder his core hadn’t exploded. Like, literally fucking exploded.

                “Johnny, keep your voice down,” she near-growled. “He doesn’t do well with loud noises.”

                Well, now. . .

                He took a couple steps forward to get a better look. Only, he had to stop because the kid fucking squeaked like he thought he was about to die. And held tighter to Penny, of all people. It was like he was trying to disappear in those blankets. Johnny couldn’t help it. He had to know.

                “Seriously, Penny? You don’t even like kids – why’re you helping Pops with this one?”

                Penny rolled her eyes and snorted. “I’ll give you exactly three guesses, Johnny. Why the hell do you think I’m helping him?”

                Sassy bitch. Johnny knew why she was helping Pops. Because there was exactly one way that Pops worked: his way. Either do what he said or face the consequences. Meaning. . .

                “He threatened you, didn’t he?”

                “It was either help him or a thousand years in solitary.” She said it so matter-of-fact, like this was a mild threat instead of something that could potentially cripple her.

                “Jeezus, that’s harsh, even for him.”

                And it was. Pops could be. . . strict, on certain things, sure. But he usually wasn’t out-in-out vicious. He left that to the guards. Or Bullet. Who was a prick. A thousand years for someone like Penny, though. That was just plain cruel. Even if it was happening to someone like Penny. Who was a bitch.

                Still. . . Kitty liked her, so she couldn’t be all bad, right?

                Shrugging, Penelope fixed him with a bit of a dead-pan stare. “Yeah, well, he’s stubborn as hell and wasn’t going to let me leave even if I’d wanted to. Doesn’t really matter now, anyway. I can’t just leave Danny with him. Warden Jack-ass would lose his mind if I did that.”

                Okay, bitch, there were lines. Pops could be a bit hard-nosed, but he wasn’t all that bad. Scary as fuck, sure, but not bad. Still, he had to keep in mind this was Penny, who once thought it was great fun to convince Klemper it was a good idea to hug Prince “I’m a Dick” Aragon. Outside the annual truce. Her definition of a jackass – someone who forced her to behave herself – probably had a picture of Pops next to it.

                Some movement caught his eye, and Johnny realized that the kid was looking up at him. He smiled at how the brat’s fluffy white hair covered most of his face.

                “Danny? That’s a pretty cool name for such a little dude.”

                It kind of was. Danny – probably short for Daniel – was a much cooler name than Johnny. Shit, he wasn’t paying attention all that well again. Pops would be having a fit. So Johnny looked at the kid a bit closer. . .

                And. . .

                “Holy shit!!

                The kid didn’t have any eyes. He didn’t have eyes! Like, what the actual, literal fuck?! All that stared up at him were big pits of ectoplasm, weeping down the kid’s skinny cheeks. There were cuts all around the sockets.

                And, okay, so he could’ve been a little bit more sensitive. But, come on, how the shit does someone react when all that’s sprung on them?! Poor kid looked fucking terrified, and he shook so hard it was a miracle he didn’t vibrate right through Penelope. Who thumbed the ectoplasm from his cheeks and held him tight.

                Yeah, Penelope not being as scary as Pops was a fucking lie. Vicious, dirty lies.

                “Shhh!” she hissed. “Are you trying to get us both an earful?!”

                Pops was going to shit a brick but. . . “What the absolute hell happened to his eyes?!!”

                That might’ve been a mistake.

                Penelope’s eyes flashed red, bloody and vicious, and her lip curled up in a snarl. There were black veins creeping across her face, down her neck, like evil spiderwebs. Which was horrendous because spiders were evil to fucking begin with. And then Johnny caught sight of the poor kid, Danny. He was hyperventilating, clinging so tight to Penny that his body had begun to shake. Little fingers clawed at her, desperate, and he was rocking.

                Taylor used to do that when he had a panic attack.

                Shit – he’d fucked up again.

                “Okay, jackass, if you can’t be trusted to keep your goddamn mouth shut, then go outside and leave Danny alone! You being a moron is not helping him in the slightest.”

                He understood Penny to a degree. She was The Bitch, tended towards narcissism on a good day and sadism on a bad. But when she cared about something, it was hers. And Danny, apparently, was hers. But Johnny had always been shit at keeping his mouth shut. Especially when someone pushed the right button.

                And, Jesus Christ, was Penny good at pushing the right buttons.

                “Says the one swearing in front of the kid!”

                As soon as he said, it. . . regret. So much regret. All the fucking regret.

                Penelope’s glare was absolutely fucking demonic. How the hell had he never realized how fucking scary this bitch was?! It was like his core was freezing from the inside-out. Like he was stuck in a tar-pit and he couldn’t get out of. Sucked into an ecto-vortex of fucking evil. The veins got darker, deeper, shading across her cheeks and creeping into her hairline.

                “Get. Out.”

                Well, he didn’t need to be told twice.

                Johnny Walker had never been known as a paragon of bravery. He fucking booked it, trying desperately to get a grip. Because holy fuckin shit that was just so many levels of Not Okay. Thankfully, he remembered not to slam the door because Pops was still elbow-deep in his Harley on the front lawn, grease smeared across his knuckles.

                “So when were you gonna tell me that the kid didn’t have any fuckin’ eyes?!” Johnny exploded. “And Penny?!! Christ, Pops, what the hell?!!”

                Oh, there was the Patented-Look of Extreme Disapproval. Otherwise known as the Glare of Pissed-Off.

                “Watch your mouth! It ain’t punctuation, brat, don’t use it like it is.” Ahh, the growl – Johnny could always count on Pops to be somewhat the same. “And what’re you goin’ on about?”

                Johnny stomped over and slumped down into the grass, elbows resting on his knees. His eyes felt like they were about to fall out of his head. “Pop, why didn’t you tell me that the kid was that bad?! I made a complete dick of myself in there. Like, I gave the kid a panic attack.”

                Pops sighed and smeared grease across his face when he scrubbed at it. “Dang-it, Johnny, you know better. You remember what Taylor was like.”

                “Yeah, I remember,” Johnny huffed. “But at least Tay had some damn eyes when he looked at me. I looked down and here was this little kid with, like, pits in his head and I just kinda panicked? I dunno, but I’m pretty sure Penny’s gonna find some way to rip my spine out.”

                Pops actually snorted. “Kid, that woman’s ‘bout twelve different kinds of crazy. She’s gonna ruin you one way or the other – just’a matter a time.”

                That. . . that did not make him feel any better. Like at all. In the slightest. In fact, he felt like Death was breathing down his neck again.

                Johnny gulped and moved to help change out the cam-chain. “Why did you let Lieutenant Jack-Off kidnap her? Penny’s not exactly known for being eager to help.”

                The look on Pop’s face told its own story. “Son, I’ve seen things that’d make the hair on the back ‘a your neck stand up. But I ain’t never seen anything like Danny. I had no idea what to do. So I found someone who did.”

                God, that must’ve felt like pulling out a rotten tooth. Johnny could practically see his dad’s pride chaffing. Still, he managed a grin, nudging against Pops as they worked.

                “I heard you threatened her. A thousand years in solitary, Pops, really? That’s just uncool.”

                Pops rolled his eyes and grunted. “Woman’s stubborn as a mule. And ‘bout three times as mean. It was the best way to get her to say yes. ‘sides, it ain’t like she don’t deserve it.”

                “Well, you’re not wrong. Did I ever tell you about the time she made Technus cry?” Johnny couldn’t keep the laughter at bay. “It was during the damn truce and she’d gotten tired of him going on about his technology, so she just kinda unloaded on the poor SOB. Pop, the poor guy cried for, like, twenty minutes, and I’m not exaggerating.”

                Pops tightened a bolt with the flick of his wrist, muscles bunching up in his forearm – the one with the skull tattoo – and sat back with a quick chuckle. “I believe you. She’s got a mean streak wider than her backside. Like to have bit my head off yesterday when I wouldn’ say she could stay with me.”

                Johnny froze. Did. . . did he just hear that right? Penny? Living here? With. . . with Pops of all the fucking people?!!

                “Holy shit, Pops, you’re letting her live here?!!

                “Watch. Your. Mouth.” Pops was wearing a dangerous expression, hard and closed-off. “I won’t tell y’all again, Johnathan Walker.”

                Johnny tried not to wince.

                “Sorry, Pops,” he muttered. “You know, for a Jarhead, you’re awfully conservative with the whole language thing.”

                Pops finished attaching the new belt with an easy twist, one that could’ve easily snapped every bone in Johnny’s forearm. “I was a Marine in the ‘20’s, kid. Rough language then was different. ‘sides, makes ya sound like an idiot, which y’aren’t. But I think I gotcha all fixed up.”

                It was true. The belt was new, pristine – much easier to work with machinery when you could just phase through shit – and his Harley was ready to ride. Shadow was practically vibrating in the back of his mind. Johnny grinned. Only for it to fall when a massive, grease-covered hand clamped down on his shoulder, squeezing just hard enough to make him want to die again.

                Fucking shit, why did nothing ever go right for him?

                “Like I said, I gotcha fixed up,” Pops warned quietly. “But don’t go showin’ up without askin’ again. Danny ain’t ready for visitors.”

                The curse of “Johnny Can’t Keep His Fucking Mouth Shut” struck once more.

                “I kind of figured that, considering he had a damn panic attack in front of me, Pops.”

                More pressure. Fight or Flight might’ve, sort of, kind of gone into overdrive. Because Pops was a nightmare. A nightmare who didn’t swear, but a nightmare all the same.

                “Don’ get smart with me, boy. I put up with a lot from you – don’ dig yerself a hole.”

                Johnny gulped and tried not to panic. “No holes. Got it, Pops!”

                Pops had this kind of smile that made Johnny’s insides twist. Something like a cross between a feral snarl and a knowing grin. It spelled trouble. Lots of trouble. All the trouble in the entire fucking Zone.

                “Good thing, brat,” Pops growled. “Now, git on outta here. I got enough trouble without you an’ that dang Shadow runnin’ around here.”

                Johnny couldn’t help but grin a little at that. “Dang, Pops, if I didn’t know better, I’d say you didn’t like Shadow all that much.”

                Pops scowled. “That dadgum thing ain’t nothin’ but a pain in my rear. I’m pretty sure it hates me.”

                Shadow chuckled in the back of Johnny’s mind, and he could practically feel the ink and malice dripping down his neck. “Yeah. . . you might be right about that last part. But c’mon, Pops! It’s not like I hate you or anything.”

                “Y’all did at one point, brat.”

                Johnny sobered.

                Yeah, he had.

                Because there had been literally no one in his life that’d been any good. And when he’d gotten here, when he’d fucking died because of his shitty, shitty luck, he hadn’t expected anyone else to be any good either. So when he’d met Pops – hard-assed, humorless, rule-obsessed Pops – it had been a hell of a new paradigm. There was lots of hatred. Real hatred. But then he’d come to the realization that Pops actually cared, dig? Underneath all that Texas bullshit and macho bravado was someone that wanted to help. That believed in him.

                So, no, Johnny didn’t hate his Pops anymore – but that didn’t mean that being reminded of a time when he did didn’t hurt.

                “That was cheap, Pops,” Johnny muttered.

                “Maybe, kid. But if ya forget where ya started at, what kinda progress can you make?”

                Shit – he was being all wise and shit. Which Johnny had no time for, thank you very much. So he did what he did best – swung over his Harley, lit up a cigarette, and gave his Pops a lopsided grin.

                “Thanks for everything, Pops!” he called. “I’ll hit you up if I need anything else, ‘kay?”

                Pops rolled his eyes. “Whatever, brat, just git on!”

                So he did.

                Johnny kicked his bike into gear, let Shadow fly loose, and as he flew off to meet Kitty for some burgers, he tried to ignore the pit of guilt gnawing at his insides.

                Y’all did at one point, brat. . .

 

~*O*~

                Be Jazz Fenton.

                You are six-years-old and have red hair, two pigtails tied with blue ribbons, and all your teachers call you “gifted.” Mommy calls you her fighter and Daddy calls you princess and Danny called you Jazzy the kids at school call you know-it-all. The house where you live has a sign that says Fenton Works and you know because you’ve learned how to read, taught yourself when Danny needed a story Mommy and Daddy were too busy to do it for you.

                Be Jazz Fenton.

                And the house is no longer warm. It is cold and quiet, and Mommy cries a lot and Daddy always smells sour, like that weird brown water he’s always drinking. You are six-years-old but no one has ever called you stupid. There is something wrong and you know it, but no one will tell you anything. So you go to school and ignore the other children putting paste in your hair and read and read until the words form stories, until the stories make sense.

                Except. . .

                Except nothing makes sense anymore. You are tired and alone, and not even Bearbert Einstein can make things seem bright anymore. Mommy used to laugh a lot, used to make cookies and give kisses and cuddles. She taught you some karate. And now all Mommy does is cry and sleep, and if sometimes you wake up in the middle of the night with her wrapped around you, holding way too tight and crying big ugly tears into your hair, then you’re not allowed to say anything about it – Mommy doesn’t usually remember.

                And Daddy used to be very loud and give lots of hugs, used to shout about ghosts even though “ghosts aren’t real, Daddy, everyone knows that!” Except now all he does is sit and stare into nothing, like some of those zombies you once saw on TV even though you were supposed to be asleep, and he smells funny. Sometimes he yells and throws things and you can’t understand what he’s saying, but it’s loud and scary and he doesn’t always stop when it makes you cry.

                Sometimes crying just makes it worse.

                Be Jazz Fenton.

                Be six-years-old and know that something isn’t right and that someone is missing.

                Miss your little brother, Danny, who is four-years-old – he’ll be five in May, you remember – and follows you around like a baby duck. Danny, who has big blue eyes and loves space, has a teddy named Bear Aldrin after his favorite astronaut. Danny, who gives the biggest hugs and always tells you that he loves you, even after a big fight and you were mean, and has hair that falls into his eyes when he giggles.

                Danny, who went into the lab when he wasn’t supposed to. . .

                Danny, who turned on something that made the house go “boom!” and rattle and everything went bright like the inside of the Sun. . .

                Danny, who came up from the basement with white hair and green eyes, crying that he’d just wanted to play spaceman. . .

                You watched as Mommy and Daddy screamed at Danny, who was still crying, and shot him with one of their grown-up guns. Cried because Danny was crying, pulled at Daddy’s arms and beat on Mommy’s legs until your hands were bruised and they had to put you in time-out for hitting. Cried and cried and kept crying until Mommy came back up from the lab and wrapped you in a big hug, explained that it wasn’t Danny that they had shot, that they had dragged limp and scary-quiet down to the basement. Explained that it was a ghost, who only looked like Danny, who wore his face but wasn’t actually a person.

                Mommy had said that they would get the ghost to bring Danny back.

                You are six-years-old, but you know how to count – all the way up to twenty! – and so you counted four rounds of twenty waiting for your bubby to come home. You asked your teacher, Mr. Pendergrass, what four twenties were.

                Four twenties, he said, was eighty.

                Eighty is a very big number for a very small girl.

                Danny has been gone for eighty days and you are six, but not stupid. Mommy keeps crying and Daddy doesn’t want to play with you and Danny has been gone for eighty days. Sometimes, you sit at the top of the basement stairs and stair at the big door, cry some more because all you have to do is open it. You can open the door. Because it isn’t locked, has never been locked, but you just. . .

                You can’t open the door.

                Mommy gets a scary look when she sees you sitting there, when she hears you knock and call for Danny, yells at you until she cries and you have to hug her. Daddy just pushes you away and his hands aren’t gentle like they used to be, too big and too rough against your arms. Everything is confusing and hurt now.

                Be Jazz Fenton.

                Sit in your bed every night and listen to Mommy and Daddy fight. Listen to shouting, the sounds of things breaking on walls, and hold onto Bearbert until your fingers go white. Sometimes, sneak into Danny’s room and lay on his bed, the one with rocket sheets. Grab Bear Aldrin and cry into his fur and wish wish wish that Danny comes home tomorrow. And if not tomorrow, soon. So soon.

                But you must also know deep down that Danny is not coming home.

                Because you are Jazz Fenton, six years old, and you know that the boy with white hair and green eyes, the one that had looked at you and called you “Jazzy” was Danny. He was the boy who screamed lots during the night, the one you could hear saying “please, Mommy, I’m Danny, no, I’m sorry!” and he was Danny. He was a boy with green eyes not blue and white hair not black and he was Danny.

                You don’t know how that could even happen.

                But Danny has been gone for eighty days and the house is starting to smell bad, like that rat Daddy once pulled out from behind the oven, and you know that Danny. . .

                Danny was downstairs and Danny was screaming and you know things but Mommy says you can’t say anything to the nice policemen because they might take you far away, where you’ll never see home again. . .

                Be Jazz Fenton.

                Sit as other kids throw mud in your face at recess and say nothing until a boy named Dash asks where your “freak” brother is. Feel the blood rush in your ears and your heart beat in your chest and scream at this boy, who calls you names because you are smarter than him, smaller than him, and watch as his eyes get big. Run at him and punch him with every ounce of anger your tiny fists can make. Keep hitting until he’s crying and Mr. Pendergrass is yelling, lifting you away from this mean, small little boy.

                Fight until you can’t fight anymore and then cry until you get sick.

                Sit in the plastic chair outside the principal’s office and listen to Mommy yell some more. Daddy is very quiet and Principal Hawthorne is usually a very nice man, but now he sounds angry, like something is wrong because it is. Scuff the toes of your butterfly sneakers on white tile and sniffle, glance at Dash out of the corner of your eye as his daddy the fireman scolds him with serious eyes. Feel your heart hurt because that little boy called Danny a freak and. . .

                Wince when a hand lands on your shoulder, squeezes too tight, and let Mommy march you out of school. Be ready for more yelling. Even though it makes your tummy hurt and your chest ache. Know you can’t cry because that only makes it worse.

                Everything makes it worse.

                Sit in bed for one more night and it’s been eighty and one days since Danny has been gone and pray, over and over and over again, for someone to bring him back. Because Danny is your baby brother. With a happy smile and bright blue eyes and he is smart and nice and your best friend because you’re not so good at making them with other kids. Other kids think you’re weird and a freak but not Danny, and he’s gone and you just. . .

                You don’t understand why Mommy and Daddy didn’t see?

                Because they say that ghosts are bad, ghosts are evil, ghosts don’t feel like people do they just pretend, live in the land of make-believe. And they say that the screaming is an act and that the ghost will tell them, they just have to run tests, do experiments, keep pushing until they find Danny. Except you try to say that it is Danny, that he is on the table and that he is screaming, except Mommy and Daddy just sigh like you’re dumb, smile like you’re stupid, and they explain slower.

                You are six.

                Why would grown-ups believe you?

                Nothing is like it was before and you just want to go back, rewind like your Magic School Bus tapes. The house is cold and it smells like dead things and you don’t know exactly what a ghost is, but even though Mommy says they’re bad there must be some good ones? Because that little ghost who was Danny wasn’t bad. You could tell. He’d had eyes that were scared, not bad, and sometimes scared things bite back. Like that time you accidentally startled the neighbor’s little dog and it bit your fingers.

                And the house is quiet now, you haven’t heard screaming in three whole days, but something deep in your tummy knots because of that.

                Is Danny okay?

                Will Danny come back?

                Are you too small? Too stupid? Too weird?

                Mommy and Daddy are different now, and they don’t listen. Nobody ever listens, but this is Danny, your bubby, with his big eyes and his bigger heart, and you have to try. But Mommy yells anytime you ask and Daddy shoves you away, yells mean things that make you cry. So you sit in your room and think back to when Danny was here, hold your bear and wish wish wish upon the stars above that someone will bring him back. Give him back. Make him safe and happy and here.

                The basement door doesn’t make noise anymore.

                So remember, Jazz Fenton.

                You are six years old.

                You have red hair, pigtails, and a friend called Bearbert Einstein.

                Your Mommy and Daddy took Danny to the lab and said he was a ghost.

                Danny has stopped screaming.

~*O*~

                “Here – y’all look like you need it.”

                Walker offered Spectra the cup of coffee gently, making sure not to startle either her or Danny in the process. She took the mug from him without a word, and he noticed how her fingers trembled around the ceramic handle. Her face was pale, knuckles white as kept a firm hold on the little boy sleeping in her lap, almost like she was afraid he’d disappear if she didn’t. Her top was stained green with ectoplasm.

                It had been three hours since Johnny had left.

                Danny had fallen asleep – passed out from exhaustion, more accurately – only twenty minutes ago.

                He sat a fair distance from the pair, close enough to intervene if she needed him to but far enough away to give them both some space. But Spectra still hadn’t spoken a word. Walker never thought he’d see the day, but he kind of wanted her to talk to him. Even if it was to spout off something vulgar and sassy.

                “C’mon, sugar, spit it out,” Walker knew that his nudges were more like mental shoves, but he didn’t have it in him to be tactful. “You’re thinkin’ awful hard to be this quiet.”

                Spectra turned. Slowly, like it hurt to move – which it probably did, considering she’d been curled up around Danny for the better part of three hours – her head twisted until they could look at each other fully. There were shadows in her eyes, more serious than he’d ever seen the snarky, irreverent witch.

                “He kept asking what was wrong with him,” Spectra rasped.

                They were ghosts, but she sounded haunted, and Walker knew exactly what she meant.

                Danny’s panic had been different this time. It wasn’t just rocking and trembling, teeth chattering in his tiny head coupled with hyperventilation. The kid had cried his little heart out, big heaving sobs that shook every bony inch of his frame. He’d sobbed and screamed and begged for answers, asked the same question over and over again until the words had bled together. Until everything was unintelligible desperation.

                What’s wrong with me?!

                Walker scrubbed a hand over his face, leaning forward until his elbows rested on his knees. “I know. I ain’t seen anythin’ like this, Spectra. He’s just so. . .”

                He couldn’t find the right words. They just wouldn’t come, heavy and metallic on his tongue. Trying to talk about how screwed up this little four-year-old was tasted like a mouthful of blood. Hurt like someone had punched him in the gut and twisted up into his ribs.

                Spectra pulled Danny closer. Walker stared as the kid’s chest rose and fall in a heavy sigh, bony frame slumping into her when fingers brushed across his head. He needed a haircut. Because the hair he had might’ve been thick, fluffy, but it was damaged and brittle and far too long. But this little boy was covered in scars and terrified of everything, everyone, and. . .

                “Did you notice how he called himself a ghost this morning?” Walker didn’t know where the question came from. “At breakfast? He said that he was a ghost and his mama said so.”

                There was a line creasing Spectra’s forehead, and something in her eyes burned. Bloody red around the pupils as her temper rose. But she was exceedingly gentle with the kid, handled him like glass, like something precious. Walker felt something in the back of his mind itch.

                “I don’t think he knows he’s a ghost, though,” Spectra muttered, tasting the words before she spoke them. “The way he talked. . . it was like he’d been brainwashed. Told that he was a ghost over and over until he accepted the fact that he was.”

                Walker frowned. He plucked his own cup of coffee from the table and took a swig. Black, bitter, like a caffeine slap.

                “What’dya mean? How could he not know?”

                Quirking an eyebrow, Spectra gave him a look that spoke volumes about her evaluation of his intelligence. Which was fair. Because as soon as the sentence left his mouth, Walker realized how ignorant it sounded.

                Danny was four. What four-year-old understood the concept of death? Abstract and all-encompassing ideas like death weren’t something kids processed like adults. They understood only what they were capable of. And Danny – who had been beaten and verbally battered until his mind lay in pieces – just wasn’t able to handle that.

                “He’s four, dumbass,” Spectra hissed, condescension dripping from each syllable. “Most kids don’t understand the permanence of death until they reach at least seven. And even kids who experience death younger than that take several months to fully comprehend that it’s not temporary. I doubt Danny even realizes that he had to die to get here.”

                Walker thought back to the prison, when Danny had clung so tightly to Spectra’s neck and repeated you real like a prayer. The kid had thought someone being decent to him was a dream. Tension started to creep along his jaw and hands, and he had to set the coffee mug down before he accidentally shattered it. This one had been a present from Ember.

                He couldn’t let a temper tantrum ruin that.

                “Watch yer mouth,” he muttered half-heartedly. “We just got the kid to sleep, don’ go wakin’ ‘im up with your swearin’.”

                But, dear Jesus, he was tired.

                He leaned back and sank into the cushions of the couch, tossing the edge of an old throw over his lap. Spectra watched him cautiously, like she was afraid he’d reach over and snatch Danny away. Which was stupid. But the woman was a pain in the neck when she wasn’t exhausted, hungover, and very obviously upset. So he’d let it go.

                Again.

                He was being soft again and had there been any fight left in him for the rest of the day, he would’ve protested such a thought. But here they were.

                “Where do you think we should go from here?” Walker asked quietly. “The little punk obviously knows somethin’s up. How’re we supposed to explain that he’s a ghost? Won’t that just make things worse?”

                Breaking the news to a new arrival that they were no longer living was a skill that Walker had acquired through many years of trial and error. Many, many errors to be honest. Johnny had lost control of his dadgum shadow and took out nearly half the guards before he’d been subdued. Ember had blown out the entire west wing of the prison. Taylor had stared at him for a long moment, all big eyes and bucked teeth, and sat down to cry.

                That had been one of exactly four times Taylor had ever cried, and the thought of it still made his chest clench.

                Spectra blinked, gnawing on her lower lip as she thought. Walker could practically see the gears in her head working to come up with a solution. She ran her fingers through Danny’s hair like the kid was a dang worry-stone.

                “I think,” she started, quiet but firm as the pieces came together, “that we should start by trying to correct his perception of ghosts. Right now, he thinks that ghosts are bad, and since he’d been brainwashed into thinking that he was a ghost, that cements all his self-deprecation. Ghosts are bad, he is a ghost, therefore he is bad.”

                Walker nodded. It made sense. The kid seemed smart enough, but anyone would’ve cracked under the amount of stressed he’d obviously been through. Made sense that he’d make a connection, if only to give himself some sort of reason behind the abuse. Still, something just didn’t sit right. Like a ragged edge or a hang-nail.

                “He said somethin’ awful this mornin’,” he blurted.

                “Oh, like what he’s said since then has been sunshine and kittens?” Spectra rolled her eyes. “Come on, Tex, just about everything Danny says makes me want to punch someone in the damn face.”

                . . . he’d asked for this. He’d actually asked for her to be sarcastic not five minutes ago.

                His Momma would’ve slapped him upside the head and called him a glutton for punishment.

                “If you’re done bein’ a smart-aleck?” Walker growled. “This is serious.”

                Spectra was trying to glare a hole through the back wall, eyes bright red as they took in the wood paneling. “I know. There’s nothing about this entire damn situation that isn’t serious. Just let me fucking cope, jackass.”

                Why? She was so much smarter than this – why did it always have to be filtered through profanity?”

                He’d let it go. Again. For the third dadgum time.

                “I startled him when he woke up this mornin’, had to talk ‘im out of a panic attack.”

                Another quirked eyebrow. “I’m surprised you know how to do that, Mr. ‘My-Way-or-The-Highway.’”

                His teeth were gonna take permanent damage from him trying not to say something he’d regret. “You really think I took care of Youngblood and Ember both without learnin’ how to handle a panic attack? Contrary to popular belief, I ain’t stupid. Now, if y’all will stop interruptin’ me. . .”

                Was that a blush he saw? It couldn’t be – the witch had no shame. But stranger things had happened, and so Walker took note of the pink spreading across Spectra’s pale cheeks as a win in the score-card for him.

                “Whatever, jack-hole, just finish what you were saying.”

                “Fine. Now, as I was sayin’, I had to talk ‘im down from the panic. After he calmed down a bit, he asked me if we were going to hurt him. Which I thought was normal, considerin’ the scars on ‘im. An’ then he asked me if we were going to do experiments on ‘im.”

                Spectra. . . did not look as shocked as he would have hoped. “Most of the scars along his torso indicated long-term peri-mortem experimentation, Walker. I guess I just didn’t think to explain all that to you.”

                Walker faced a bit more towards her, propping a foot up on his knee. “Yeah, I gathered that. But what got me was why they’d experiment on ‘im. What reason could they have for tellin’ a four-year-old he was a ghost and run experiments if he was human?”

                Spectra’s face contorted in a vicious scowl. “Because his parents are psychotic fucking assholes who need to be killed without a second thought? I’m a bitch, Walker, but I’m not a goddamn freak. Why the absolute fuck would I know what the reason behind this was?!”

                “Y’all ‘re missin’ the point.” Walker leaned in closer. “You ever met Plasmius?”

                Confusion lit up in her eyes, and Spectra instinctively pulled Danny in closer to her chest. “Vladdy? We’ve met before. That man is fucking issues, and that’s coming from me. Granted, I didn’t help them in the slightest, but still. Why?”

                Walker could feel ice creeping down his spine as the idea formed more solidly. “Plasmius ain’t just a ghost, though, is he?”

                He watched as the information struck. The silence was deafening, two horrified adults sitting with a broken, sleeping boy. Danny sighed in his sleep again, a little hand curling into the woman’s ruined top. Dried ectoplasm made the fabric crunch under his thin fingertips. It sounded like gunfire in the quiet.

                “Holy shit,” Spectra breathed. “You think he was a halfa?! Walker, he’s four!! Vlad was twenty when he got his ghost powers, and it nearly killed him. How the actual hell would Danny have survived that level of ecto-radiation?”

                Honestly, he didn’t know how Danny would’ve survived. The kid probably would’ve been on the small side even if he hadn’t been starved. But there was just something that fit about the whole thing. Why else would two parents turn on their four-year-old? If Danny had somehow become a halfa, somehow managed to survive the transformation into a half-ghost, it would explain a lot of the things that the punk had said. Most so-called ”ghost experts” believed that ghosts couldn’t feel pain. That they weren’t real people, just ectoplasm with imprinted memories and vicious instincts.

                If Danny had become a half-ghost and couldn’t change back. . .

                “Then his parents would have every reason to believe he was a ghost and think it was okay to experiment on him. Jesus fucking Christ. . .”

                Walker hadn’t realized he’d been thinking out loud until Spectra finished the thought for him. But even with the profanity, he couldn’t deny that her conclusion was the same as his. This was sick and wrong and disgusting, the pieces fitting together. It made his stomach tie itself in knots.

                He shouldn’t have made the coffee.

                “Even if this is all right and we’re not just crazy assholes trying to explain whatever the fuck nonsense happened to Danny,” Spectra growled, “it doesn’t help Danny in the slightest. We should come up with something to help him, not spout crack-theories at each other until he wakes up.”

                Walker stared at her for a long moment.

                Penelope Spectra was unlike anyone he’d ever made himself deal with before. She was selfish and impulsive and had a filthy mouth. But she was also intelligent and intuitive and she’d been able to come up with a way to get Danny towards a better place faster than he could’ve ever thought possible. And as he sat there, staring down a woman who glared up at him just as fiercely – which was an accomplishment in of itself – Walker came to the conclusion that he’d made the right choice in getting her to help him.

                “Alright then, sugar. Where do we start?”

                “We start with you not calling me ‘sugar’, Tex.”

                Now, if he could just figure out what the heck was going on in her head at any given point in time. . . 

Chapter Text

                Be Jazz Fenton.

                Be six-years-old and watch everything fall apart. Watch the house grow dark and Mommy cry all the time. Watch your Daddy stop being like Daddy anymore, watch him get angry too easy and smell funny, strong and sharp. Watch everything get dirty as you count days.

                Counting is very hard for you, hard when nothing else is, and you don’t understand why the numbers get all jumbly in your head. Why they run together and flip-flop, cross in your eyes and blur until nothing makes sense anymore. It’s why you can only count to twenty when everyone else counts into their hundreds, why you have to have special classes with Mr. Robbins after school sometimes.

                The teachers say that you’re so smart, very gifted, advanced, but then the numbers come at you like angry bees, buzzing in your head and it doesn’t matter what they say because you know you’re stupid. Dumb and stupid and a big baby because you can’t even count past twenty without everything going sideways.

                Be Jazz Fenton.

                Come home on the school bus and hope hope hope that Mommy will have food for you to eat. Pray that Daddy won’t yell at you after looking at your bad math test. It’s a D, you know, and it makes your tummy tie in knots to think about how stupid math makes you feel, how the numbers don’t make sense like letters do. How they make you want to knock your head against the desk and cry, cry, cry until your head hurts and you can’t breathe anymore.

                 The house is cold and Daddy is snoring on the couch. He smells bad like dirty feet and that nasty brown water that he drinks all the time now, so you stay close to the wall, take off your shoes (they hurt your feet) and coat (it’s got lots of holes in it) and tip-toe to the kitchen. Mommy is sitting at the table. There’s red around her nails, on the table.

                Mommy chews her fingers lots now, too, and sometimes they bleed.

                Keep your head down. Don’t look Mommy in the eye ‘cause she doesn’t like that. Keep your voice quiet so Daddy doesn’t wake up and then ask if there’s anything to eat. Say you’re very hungry, Mommy, can you please have something warm?

                Don’t flinch when a hand slams on the table. You should’ve stayed quiet, you know, but your tummy is making horrible noises. It hurts. But then Mommy looks at you and her eyes are scary, not warm or sad or even mad. She looks very cold, like she doesn’t want to talk to you. Like she doesn’t want you at all.

                That just makes your tummy hurt worse.

                Listen as Mommy asks the question.

                “How did you do on your math today?”

                Think about what you want to say. Do you want to lie? Tell Mommy that you did good, hope that she’ll believe you and you’ll get food and a smile, maybe a hug? Do you want to tell the truth? Know that truth sometimes (always) hurts but it’s better than being a fibber, know that Mommy always gets madder when you lie and then she’ll wake up Daddy and, oh, then won’t that be trouble? Bite your lip until it bleeds and clench your fists until they’re white.

Tell the truth even though it aches and you feel so stupid. So ugly. So bad.

Watch Mommy’s eyes grow cold like the air outside – it’s almost Christmas but you haven’t decorated the tree – and know that there’s no food coming. Listen as she hisses like a snake, ugly words that sting worse than getting smacked by tree branches at recess. Look down at your shoes and don’t say a word because talking back makes it worse. Everything makes it worse. Because Mommy doesn’t want you to look at her, but she doesn’t want you to look “weak” either. It’s always so confusing.

Look me in the eye, Jasmine, but don’t stare. Keep your chin up, Jasmine, but keep your head down. Fight back, Jasmine, but don’t you dare embarrass me like that ever again.

Don’t cry.

Don’t you ever cry like that!

Once it is over, run away. Up the stairs covered in dust and down the hall that smells stale. Don’t try to keep track of the stains on the wallpaper because there’s new ones every day. Daddy likes to throw things sometimes. Just like Daddy yells sometimes and Daddy hits sometimes and Daddy says he hates you sometimes.

He doesn’t mean it – honest.

Throw your backpack on the bed and sit very quietly. Pet Bearbert’s stuffed ears to keep your hands from doing something bad. Look at the math papers sitting beside you. Hate yourself. Cry quietly. Never ever let Mommy hear because it makes her mad now, not sad like it used to. Know that everything is breaking apart.

Ignore the grumbling in your tummy and try to go to sleep after you finish all your take-home assignments. The book you’re reading for class is called “Charlotte’s Web.” They’re trying to kill Wilbur, the farmer and his wife. Sometimes, when you sleep, you dream of spinning a pretty web except instead of “humble” it says “Danny.”

Sometimes, when you sleep, you see a little boy with white hair crying for you.

You don’t sleep a lot anymore.

Wake up in the morning and realize it’s even colder. Shiver because the tile is freezing your toes. Because there aren’t enough blankets without holes. Because you want your Danny back and it’s been. . . the numbers jumble and you try to count in groups again. Four twenties – which is eighty, Mr. Pendergrass said so – and then four more. Eighty-four.

Eighty-four days and Danny still isn’t home and you miss him.

Don’t cry. Pull on pants, ones that aren’t dirty and don’t have holes, then find your pretty blue shirt. The one with butterflies that Danny likes. Find sneakers. They’re a little small, dirty like everything else is, and the left shoe-string is coming undone at the end. But Mommy and Daddy were fighting a lot last night. Yelling until very, very late. They don’t have time to buy you new shoes now.

These will be okay.

Walk on tippy-toes downstairs and make sure Daddy isn’t at the table. He isn’t. He’s snoring on the couch, mouth wide open. There’s a bottle spilling onto the carpet. Everything smells. Mommy isn’t here. She’s probably in the lab, where she always is, the very bad smell locked away like everything else when the door is shut. You look at the door for a second and rub at your arms – there are fingerprints there this morning ‘cause Mommy had grabbed just a little too hard when she yelled -  and decide to get on the bus anyway. You don’t need breakfast. Don’t need hugs or kisses or a goodbye (even though you miss all those things a lot).

You think that you need Danny, though.

The bus is crowded and it’s a different kind of stink. You’ve never liked being in crowded places. Too many people, too many noises, too many smells, too much. But Mommy and Daddy don’t drive you to school anymore. So here you are.

A paper wad hits you in the back of the head. Stay quiet. Look away. Pretend it didn’t happen and maybe they’ll leave you alone. Cling to your book until the cover makes red marks on your fingers. Ignore how your tummy knots and your eyes sting.

If Danny was here, he’d give you a hug and smile and say that you’re the greatest, Sissy, don’t let them be mean!

But Danny isn’t here.

“Hey, freak, are you deaf or something? I’m talking to you!”

This is an older boy. His name is Christian, and he’s in Mrs. Mendenkamp’s fifth-grade class. You don’t know what you did wrong. But he doesn’t like you, calls you freak and hits you with papers and says lots of mean things. Sometimes you wonder if his daddy is mean like your Daddy has been, which makes you sad, so just stay quiet. Because he’ll mostly ignore you if you don’t say anything.

A hard yank and your head hurts.

“I said, I’m talking to you!!

There are tears in your eyes because this hurts, like that time Daddy accidentally shoved you against a wall or when Mommy says it should’ve been you. But you don’t say anything because the words that you love so much just won’t work. Christian is very big, kind of chubby, and his eyes are small and mean. He’s got an ugly look on his face.

Pretend that you’re not scared.

Pretend that you don’t care.

Pretend. . .

“Leave her alone, jerk!!”

There’s another boy and he slams against Christian, not much bigger than you, but it works. Somehow, it works. Christian lets go, sneers some more and calls you “freak” before he sits down and laughs with his stupid friends. Your fingers are shaking and your tummy hurts and you know it’s rude, but you can’t stop staring.

Dash Baxter sits beside you with a thump, his backpack in his lap, and he looks nervous?

“Are you okay? Christian’s a big jerk. You shouldn’t let him be mean to you like that ‘cause he won’t stop.”

You blink. Once, twice, three times. Your mouth feels dry and your head is fuzzy. Confused. Why is Dash being nice? You got in big trouble for hitting him on the playground and now he’s sitting beside you on the school bus, looking at you like he’s scared. Like he’s your friend?

You nod anyway. Pretend this is normal and maybe it will be normal.

Try to ignore how your tummy groans very loudly.

Dash doesn’t ignore it. He looks at you with eyes that are blue (very blue) before opening his backpack. He digs around for a minute, pulls out his lunchbox and opens it. Then he hands you a Honey Bun, still in its wrapper.

“Here,” he says, “I’m not gonna eat it anyway. Mom never remembers I don’t like them.”

He’s lying, and you know it, because he eats a Honey Bun every day at lunch. But your stomach is growling angrily, trying to reach out and take the food, and Dash is looking very serious. He’s got serious eyes, like his daddy does. So grab the cake. Unwrap it but make sure it’s okay before you take a bite.

Know that it’s the best thing you’ve ever eaten.

Dash picks at a loose thread in his jeans when you ask, “Why are you being so nice?”

His hair is very blonde up close. It’s short except for on top. Not like Danny’s, shaggy and long and always messy. Dash’s hair always stays in place, does what it’s told, and it fits him. He doesn’t talk for a little bit. But that’s okay. Words are hard for Dash like numbers are hard for you. So you munch on the Honey Bun and wait, try to fix your bows where Christian pulled them apart. It doesn’t make the burning on your scalp less or the ache in your arms go away. But it makes you look better.

“I didn’t mean to upset you so bad the other day,” Dash says, quiet like he’s scared of the words. “Paulina told me that if I made you mad, you’d know I liked you.”

Blink twice again. “That’s silly, Dash.”

Watch him shrug. “I’m not real good with words. But I thought Paulina would help me. I guess I was wrong. I’m sorry I made you cry.”

He. . . he likes you?

“You like me?”

Dash looks at you funny, like you’ve said something weird. “Yeah! You’re real smart, and you’ve got pretty hair, and you always know how to answer questions in class! Why didn’t you think I liked you?”

Because nobody likes you. The other kids have always called you a freak, a know-it-all, a weirdo, a loser. They chase you at recess with sticks and hit you with mud-balls and pull at your hair. But then you think and realize Dash only did those things when Paulina asked him to. Only threw mud when Kwan was laughing, like it was a joke. Dash is new, didn’t go to kindergarten with you.

The other kids can be very mean to him sometimes – that’s why he tries to be louder and bigger.

“Nobody’s ever liked me except Danny.”

Your voice sounds very small. The bus is roaring, kids getting up and grabbing bags as it stops outside Amity Elementary. Dash is wearing a serious look again, blue eyes very blue in his head. “Well, that’s dumb. I like you plenty. Want to be friends?”

Want to be friends?

Nobody has ever wanted to be your friend before. Feel your heart go tight and your fingers are shaking again. But remember to smile because this is happy. This is something normal even though nothing else is. Even though you’re stupid and weird and have a mommy and daddy that don’t love you anymore. Even though Danny is gone (eighty-four days) and you miss him so, so much it hurts. This can be new. This can be fun.

Smile wider.

“Yeah. We can be friends.”

Watch as Dash grins and it makes his face seem brighter. Feel strange as he pulls you up by one hand and holds it all the way out the door. Listen as he talks about the book you’re reading for class, how he’s only on the second chapter because he can’t seem to make the letters stay still on the page. Tell him you have the same problem, except with numbers, and watch as his eyes get big in his head.

Be Jazz Fenton.

And learn what it’s like to be normal for a second.

Be Jazz Fenton.

And as the day goes on, as you learn that Dash doesn’t have any brothers or sisters and his favorite color is green and he wants to be a Green Bay Packer when he grows up, pretend that this is how it can be for always. Pretend that you can make as many friends as you want. Ones like Dash, who listens with his very serious eyes and smiles when you laugh at his bad jokes. Don’t get chased at recess for the first time since kindergarten because Dash tells Kwan to stuff it and sits next to you. Explain how there’s still little birds that live here even though it’s winter and smile when he tells you that’s cool.

He thinks birds who stay cold are tough.

Ride home on the bus with dread in your tummy and hold tight to your backpack. Swallow hard when it stops at your house.

“Hey, you’ll ride the bus tomorrow, right?”

Yes, you will, because Mommy doesn’t want to drive you anymore and Daddy will be sleeping.

“Yeah, I’ll ride.”

Dash smiles and it’s bright like the sunshine. “Alright! I’ll save you a seat, ‘kay?”

Smile back even though it feels a little stiff. “’kay.”

Get off the bus. Go in the house, which smells worse, and tiptoe. Mommy and Daddy are fighting again, you can hear it through the lab door, so make sure that they don’t hear it when you go upstairs. Something breaks against the wall. Mommy yells real loud, words you can’t make out but probably don’t make sense anyways. Do your worksheets with the door shut and try to remember the math tricks that Dash told you about, try to make sense of the numbers that don’t want to line up.

Is thirty bigger or thirty-three? You can never tell – too many squiggles.

Hug Bearbert Einstein to your chest as your room gets dark, listen to your tummy rumble, and wish you had a Honey Bun.

Be Jazz Fenton.

Wish you had your Danny back.

~*O*~

danny

wakes

up

and he’s very confused. he’s warm. safe. wrapped in very soft blankets and wearing clothes, not a jumpsuit, no hurt. why again? doesn’t remember. too hard to think. wants more sleep, please, no more hurt.

snuggles back into a something under his cheek and it moves and. . .

danny remembers now.

it makes his head hurt, his heart hurt, and that man named johnny had said there was something wrong with him, wrong wrong wrong and he just doesn’t know what anymore, doesn’t know why and it all twists up in his tummy, behind his eyes mommy, I’m sorry why can’t I see? even though they still feel all achy.

he sucks in some air, tries to breathe, but he’s swimming in honey again. except it’s not honey, it’s green, thick sticky and gross like when he came out of the straw-hole, when he met mr. walker, and danny doesn’t. . . ?

it’s not right and he doesn’t understand and. . .

                “Danny, baby, it’s alright. Sweetie, I’m right here. You’re just fine.”

soft in his ear, very quiet. not mean like mommy or loud like daddy or growly like mr. walker. pretty and nice like jazzy. he remembers now. holds tight to ms. penny because she understand and she said it would be all better it’s a trick don’t believe her and danny thinks that this would be nice if the world wasn’t so scary. if he wasn’t swimming in sticky-green and his mommy and daddy loved him and maybe, just maybe, he can be a good boy again?

he isn’t very good, not yet, but he’s trying, please?

hands in his hair, fingers very gentle, and danny tries not to hold so tight. what if he hurts her? that’s very bad, not good at all. sometimes he used to hurt jazzy when he hugged too hard and she’d look at him with her big-sissy eyes and say no, danny, you’ve gotta be nice!

but jazzy also came home with big bruises sometimes, purple and green under her pink and blue sweaters, and danny always had to be super extra careful when that happened. he misses jazzy, misses bearbert einstein and bear aldrin and even mommy where’s danny ghost?! and daddy I’ll tear you apart before they didn’t love him anymore.

                “That’s it, sweetheart. Shhh, I’ve got you. That must’ve been some nap, huh?”

nap?

oh, a nap. he was dreaming? he’d been dreaming?

danny thinks he might be shaking again and his lips won’t stop wobbling, nose all stuffy and he wants to cry again. wants to curl up in a ball and sleep until it all goes away, until everything is better, except it’s never better, right? because he’s a very bad boy and bad boys don’t get good things, don’t let happy things happen, and he doesn’t deserve the clothes and the hugs and the kisses and the food because he’s just the worst little boy, he’s sure.

because he made his mommy and daddy hate him except he didn’t know how.

‘m sorry for bein’ bad. . .

his throat feels hot and it hurts and his mouth tastes funny, like he’s been sucking on dirty pennies, and danny feels ms. penny cup the back of his head again.

                “Danny, baby, can you look at me for a second? Please?”

nope.

danny doesn’t want to.

he wants to curl up in his blankets and hold tight and be safe. looking means that someone sees him and even though ms. penny is very nice don’t trust her don’t trust it you’re bad ghost ghost ghost he doesn’t want her to realize how bad he is. how much he doesn’t deserve. . .

the warm-soft moves, and then danny is sitting up, his bottom on something that feels kind of like his bed and surrounded by something he thinks might be legs, but he’s not sure? sometimes mommy would sit criss-cross applesauce with him in her lap and this feels like it a little. but there’s still blankets, still hugs, and danny snuggles tighter against ms. penny because what if she leaves?

he doesn’t want to look but he doesn’t want her to leave and his heart hurts and he’s so confused. . .

                “Danny? Honey, please look at me. I promise you’re not in trouble.”

liar liar liar liar it’s a trick she’s lying don’t trust her more hurt hate you liar liar liar

danny does as he’s told.

lip trembling, tummy in knots, eyes aching. he looks up and ms. penny looks back, smiles at him and it’s very nice. except she looks tired and sad, red around her eyes, and danny hates it, hates that he’s made her sad, all his fault and he knows it, so he looks down at her shirt instead, plays with the collar and sees that his skin is kind of green?

‘m sorry. no sad, ‘m sorry.

fingers through his hair again, very gentle, and ms. penny takes a big deep breath. it comes out in a whoosh! and danny tries not to flinch but it’s very hard because loud noises are bad, just like he is, but he thinks ms. penny won’t hurt him. she’s been so nice to him.

                “Danny? Sweetheart, I need you to look at me again, please.”

she always asks please. ms. spelka would be very proud because she says that manners are very important.

he looks again.

the smile is gone, and ms. penny just looks serious instead, but not scary like mr. walker can be. where is mr. walker? don’t know. oh well. a thumb wipes at his cheek and it’s so warm that danny can’t help but lean into it. he likes being warm, likes being safe, likes being here. please don’t make him leave?

                “Danny, baby, I need you to listen to me very carefully. Can you do that?”

listen?

danny can listen.

so he nods and ms. penny reaches up and holds his hands. they’re very small next to hers, too skinny and too green and not-right. but she’s very gentle, rubs her thumb over his knuckles and it’s soft, a happy feeling.

                “Sweetheart, you have nothing to be sorry for.”

but. . .

but he’s a very bad little boy, a ghost, mommy said so, and he’s made her sad so that means he’s been bad and that means he has to say he’s sorry, has to say something to make it right and he just doesn’t understand. . .?

danny doesn’t understand a lot of things now.

                “You are not bad, Danny. There’s nothing wrong with you. You’re a wonderful little boy and some very bad things have happened to you. But we’re going to make them better now, alright?”

she has very bright eyes and they’re very serious and danny squeezes ms. penny’s hands hard. make it better? how. . . how is she going to make it better? make him not be a bad little boy a ghost a liar evil? and danny’s throat makes noise again, more sand and green-honey in his lungs and he says not bad? because how can he not be bad when mommy and daddy said so?

ms. penny looks so sad.

so very very sad.

and she squeezes back but it’s gentle, like she doesn’t want to hurt him. like she doesn’t want to hurt him. danny’s heart aches like his eyes and something leaks down his cheeks and he thinks he might be crying, except it doesn’t feel right, not like normal-crying more like sticky-syrup-green-honey.

                “No, baby. You’re not bad. You’re not bad at all.”

danny feels his head ache and his throat burns and he says but ‘m a ghost, mommy says so. and there’s something different in ms. penny’s eyes now and it’s sharp, bright bright green that glows, that burns, that makes him shrink. except ms. penny shushes, kisses his forehead and rocks some more. the blankets are soft on his cheeks.

                “Just because you’re a ghost doesn’t mean that you’re bad, Danny. Your mommy was wrong to tell you that, just like it was wrong that they hurt you. Do you understand?”

mommy. . . mommy was wrong?

danny doesn’t understand. because he’s four-years-old and daddy said that mommy was always right. so how could mommy be wrong? how could he not be bad?! he doesn’t understand, doesn’t make sense, and everything

t

                i

l

                t

                                s

at the edges. he holds tighter to ms. penny’s fingers until his knuckles go white, tries to make the words come out but they just won’t, like they’re glued to his mouth, and it makes him so mad. why is he so scared, why is he so awful, why is he so stupid?! he doesn’t want to be bad but he doesn’t want her to be angry, but his mouth just won’t work and it’s awful and. . .

                “Danny, baby, it’s okay. You don’t have to understand just yet. But I want you to know that you’re not bad, and no one here is going to hurt you. Alright?”

he looks up and ms. penny is smiling again, but it’s sad, and he wants to curl up in a ball and disappear. go away. because he made her sad again, and he hates that, doesn’t mean that. but he just can’t seem to stop and doesn’t know what he did wrong?

but she leaned forward and kissed him on the forehead hard, ran her fingers through his hair.

danny pushed into it, felt warmer from the inside out. his fingers ached from holding too hard, and he tried to relax them. skin burning, bones all creaky, white-knuckles turning red. he let go. and ms. penny pulled him into a hug, let him bury against her throat and twist her hair in his fingers. she smells like raspberries and cream.

she smells like jazzy and danny wonders if jazzy is happy, if she misses him, if she thinks he’s a good boy like ms. penny does.

he wishes. . .

                “You’re so good, Danny. Don’t let anyone tell you different, alright?”

oh, he wishes he could believe, wishes that were true. and maybe it is? maybe he’s a ghost and maybe he’s bad, but maybe he’s also a boy and he’s also good? it’s hard to know anymore. his head hurts. everything hurts.

his tummy growls loudly and danny squeaks, freezes, only ms. penny laughs and there’s another kiss on the top of his head.

                “Are you hungry, little man? It sounds like it.”

hungry – yeah, he’s very hungry. his tummy feels rumbly and grumbly and he wants food please? no more hungry please?

he moves and it scares him a little, makes him squeak and hold tight to ms. penny as she stands up. she laughs again, bounces him, and lets him wrap his legs around her. there’s a hand on the back of his hand, an arm under his bottom. he feels safe like this. he feels safe.

                “C’mon – I think Walker’s making lunch. How does grilled cheese and tomato soup sound?”

danny remembers grilled cheese. crunchy and gooey and yummy. he doesn’t remember tomato soup, though. but chicken noodle soup was good, salty and lots of chunks, so he thinks tomato will be good too. so he nods his head, plays with the ends of ms. penny’s hair as she walks out of the strange room. he didn’t even look around. too much new, too much strange, too much.

she kisses the top of his head again.

                “You’re going to be just fine, baby. I promise.”

it’s very quiet, a whisper, and danny smiles a little bit because quiet is good.

they walk into the kitchen and mr. walker is sitting at the table, face grumpy, and it smells very nice. his tummy rumbles.

                “Hey, punk. Y’all ready to eat?”

yes, yes, yes!!

he wants to eat and eat and eat until his tummy can’t take any more! danny nods, a little too hard because it makes his head go spinny, and mr. walker laughs. ms. penny laughs, too, but very quietly. like how mommy would laugh when she didn’t want him to know she was laughing. but that’s okay.

this is okay.

really.

you’re evil bad awful ghost never right gonna die I hate you

everything is just fine; ms. penny said so.

 lies lies lies she doesn’t love you don’t believe her lies

he believes her.

~*O*~

Data Entry One

Date: 9/16/2003

Subject: Ghost Child

Records Maintained by Madeleine Fenton via digital audio recorder

                Subject has been deemed the “ghost child” due to its seemingly preferred physical form. Actual age cannot be determined until further tests have been conducted; however, it is likely that this ghost is newly formed, as its ectoplasm is remarkably unique in composition. Multiple tissue samples have been collected thus far. Tests concerning possible genetic structure, ectoplasmic markers, and possible power-sets are being ran by Jack Fenton.

                Subject maintained its insistence that it was, in fact, one Daniel Fenton both pre- and post-capture, and continues to persist in its mimicry. Physical form for the ghost does resemble Daniel Fenton, a four-year-old child, and subject does seem to be able to mimic facial structure very well. However, coloration is still sub-human, as subject maintains white hair and green eyes, a key feature in many humanoid ghosts captured. However, the real Danny remains missing, and despite intense interrogation, subject refuses to disclose his location.

                Subject also maintains the illusion of pain, which has been used multiple times by captured ghosts to trick scientists into a false sense of sympathy, allowing for escape. Ghosts are cunning, yes, but Jack and I have yet to positively identify any truth to this illusion. As a result, we will continue to conduct tests and interrogations until further notice.

                Subject is being detained in Fenton Laboratories, under constant visual and audio monitoring systems maintained by Jack and myself.

                Further information to be documented at a later date.

Data Entry Four

Date: 10/20/2003

Subject: Ghost Child

Records Maintained by Madeleine Fenton via digital audio recorder

                Subject seems to be in a declining state, despite constant infusions of fresh ectoplasm. It is unclear as to why this is, possibly due to the unusual genetic structure that the ghost seems to have. However, it has been determined that the ghost possesses unusually adept mimicry and camouflage capabilities, allowing it to copy vocal tones and speech patterns in a way that is. . . remarkably unsettling.

                Further examinations of internal organs revealed a structure remarkably similar to that of a human, with fully functional cardiac, renal, and lymphatic systems. Respiratory structures are also identical to that of a human; however, it was noted that subject did not need to breathe as frequently or regularly as a human. Respiration rate under synthesized anesthetic maintained an average of eight breaths a minute. Cardiac systems also differed in that the “core” of the ghost maintained ectoplasm flow, not a heart. Visual documentation of the physical appearance has been added to this file.

                Despite extensive interrogation and prolonged detainment, subject refuses to let go of its illusion and disclose the whereabouts of one Daniel Fenton. Even psychotropic drugs such as sodium thiopental and scopolamine do not dislodge the idea, and so it is calling into question the effectiveness of such drugs on ghost biology. The refusal to own up to being a ghost is not altogether abnormal, and so Jack and I have moved on to different tactics to try and both collect data and gather information.

                It still maintains its false-pain act.

                Looking the subject in the eyes has become nearly unbearable.

                Its acting skills are remarkable, and for that, I want to break it apart.

                Further information to be documented at a later date.

Data Entry Eight

Date: 11/02/2003

Subject: Ghost Child

Records Maintained by Madeleine Fenton via digital audio recorder

                 Surgical enucleation of subject was a success. Due to absence of pain anesthetization was not required; however, numerous restraints were required to keep struggling to a minimum. Because of such aggressive physical movements, one eye was damaged during removal. But one intact eye is still a blessing, and studies have found remarkable similarities in structure, physiological composition, and pharmacological response. Still, there were anatomical discrepancies that must be noted.

                Upon removal, it was noted that subject appeared to have a nictitating membrane, or third eyelid, which protected the eye from real-world particulate matter. The membrane was clear and tough, requiring intense physical pressure to cut through, even with fresh tools. It must also be noted that though it was thought previously that ghosts have heightened senses of sight, smell, and hearing, the overall physical structure of the eye itself lends little credence to the theory, as it does not possess extra rods or cones, and the cornea is near-identical to that of a human’s.

                It must be noted that this is following humanoid ghost theory, not that of bestial-type ghost theory, which are categorically different and must be treated as such.

                Subject has become increasingly silent as interrogation continues, likely unable to maintain its vocal mimicry for such an extended period of time. In a way, I’m glad. I don’t think I could handle listening to my son’s voice come from a ghost for much longer. Either way, we still have not received Danny’s location. It’s beginning to get desperate, even with all the research advancements and progress we are making.

                Jack and I are getting worried.

Data Entry Ten

Date: 11/12/2003

Subject: Ghost Child

Records Maintained by Madeleine Fenton via digital audio recorder

                Subject is showing definite signs of physical deterioration. Malnutrition symptoms such as brittle hair and nails, low energy, and constant shivering have been evident in the past several days. Subject can no longer answer questions in complete sentences. Likely due to the malnutrition affecting cognitive function.

                Despite constant influxes of fresh ectoplasm and nutrients via intravenous drip, subject continues to deteriorate at a rapid pace.

                He still hasn’t told us where Danny is.

                This has to stop now.

Data Entry Fourteen

Date: 11/21/2003

Subject: Ghost Child

Records Maintained by Madeleine Fenton via digital audio recorder

                Tests have revealed that subject has entered multi-organ failure, likely due to starvation, despite constant nutritional supplements and ectoplasm infusions. It seems as though subject termination is imminent.

                While physical mimicry has been maintained throughout the period of the subject’s detainment, all vocal and cognitive mimicry has stopped. Subject hasn’t spoken in nearly two weeks. It maintains the illusion of pain; however, it accomplishes this only in small sounds – easily corrected, if one knows how – and facial expressions. This illusion will most likely be maintained until subject is fully deceased.

                It is curious, however, that a ghost is capable of dying. Ghosts are thought to be physical, ectoplasmic manifestations of post-human consciousness, incapable of feeling and only able to mimic the emotions and characteristics of the person they once were. But there are ghosts who can take multiple forms. Ghosts with abilities the like of which any normal human has never seen.

                So this begs the question: what happens to ghosts when they die?

                He still hasn’t told us where Danny is.

                I hope ghosts have a hell.

Data Entry Final

Date: 12/02/2003

Subject: Ghost Child

Records Maintained by Madeleine Fenton via digital audio recorder

                Subject was noted to be deceased at 10:30 a.m. Cause of death determined to be multiple organ-failure brought on by malnutrition.

                But I don’t. . .

                I don’t understand.

                It looks like Danny. Subject has been detained for approximately three months. Not once did it drop the physical mimicry of my son. We have never gathered his whereabouts either. But. . . after it died. . . it still looks like Danny. This shouldn’t be possible.

                How is this possible?!

                There’s no ectoplasm flow, no respiration, no discernible electrochemical activity in the brain. But its physical form hasn’t changed. It should have reverted to its original form upon death. That has been scientifically proven time and again by Jack and myself, the subject Amorpho being one such example. But this ghost hasn’t changed.

                It’s definitely dead.

                But it still looks like my son, right down the birthmark on his left shoulder.

                I just. . .

                I want my baby back and I don’t understand.

                I DON’T UNDERSTAND!!

                (unintelligible shrieking, crashes, static)

Subject: Ghost Child

File Status: Concluded

Chapter Text

                First off, she had not intended on taking a nap right along with Danny. Naps were either for the very old or the very young, and she didn’t need to be put to bed like a damn toddler thank you very fucking much. Second, Walker could take his super comfy couch and stupid-soft blankets and shove them entirely up his own ass. Because they were asking for damn trouble. And third, she needed to stop falling asleep in awkward fucking positions – her neck was screaming at her.

                Penelope tried not to groan as she woke, knowing full-well that if she did, it’d probably send the little boy snuggled into her chest into another panic-attack. Which he definitely did not fucking need. But her neck felt like someone had shoved a knife between her vertebrae, she was sweating balls, and everything about this day so far – besides maybe breakfast – had sucked harder than a five-dollar whore on Black Friday.

                Coming up with a game-plan had been more than a bit challenging. Because how the actual fuck someone managed to salvage the psyche of a child who’d literally been fileted alive was somewhat beyond her. But they’d come up with a reasonable course of action: take things slow, introduce him to what ghosts were over time, and explain how his own perceptions were flawed. Positive encouragements, figuring out and noting his triggers, etc. Really, it wasn’t like this was a genius methodology. But execution. . . that was going to be a motherfucker.

                Penelope was brought out of her musings when Danny whimpered in his sleep. He’d curled up atop her chest, head nestled against her collarbone, and his thin fingers were wrapped tightly in her shirt. They were freezing – she’d noticed that everything but whatever Danny touched was uncomfortably hot – and every time they brushed her bare skin, it sent a chill racing down her spine.

                Of course the kid was going to be a damn ice-jockey. . .

                It was only after she’d sighed in exhaustion that Penelope realized the suddenness of the movement. And she promptly kicked herself when she realized that Danny had frozen in place, panic taut in every muscle of his skeletal frame. The hyperventilation came after he’d stopped breathing for a long moment, tiny lungs sucking on air and thin chest ballooning with each gasp that the little boy managed.

                “Danny, baby, it’s alright,” she coaxed, voice low. “Sweetie, I’m right here. You’re just fine.”

                Whatever nightmare realm Danny had found himself in, Penelope didn’t want to know, but she was pleased when he seemed to recognize the sound of her voice. The manic vibrations of his body calmed somewhat, and he clung so tightly to her it bordered on painful. But – for the first time since she found herself in the Ghost Zone – Penelope found that she didn’t mind a tight hug.

                Danny’s hair was coarse and brittle under her fingertips, but the motion always seemed to soothe him. She shushed him gently, coaxing the four-year-old through his panic. After a moment or two, his fingers started to relax their grip, his knuckles flushing a deeper green as the ectoplasm-flow returned to them. Danny took a breath, ragged but no longer gasping, and relief became a palpable thing in her gut. Very gently, Penelope brushed a kiss across his temple, fairly certain he didn’t notice it, and managed to find her voice through the rage that threatened to choke her.

                (This is a fucking baby, you goddamn monsters, and you fucking broke him, and he was precious and perfect and yours and I would’ve done anything to keep. . . no, don’t go there, do NOT fucking go there, bitch, keep it together, do not cry, Penelope, DO NOT FUCKING CRY)

                “That’s it, sweetheart. Shhh, I’ve got you. That must’ve been some nap, huh?”

                She tried to joke because that was her way of coping with shit – horribly tasteless jokes and sarcasm – but it didn’t seem to work. Penelope could feel Danny’s lips wobbling, ectoplasm likely seeping into her shirt again. He sniffled pitifully, entire body shaking from head to foot. It was nerves, she knew, but that didn’t mean she had to fucking like it. No kid should ever be that nervous. Not when they had an adult to protect them.

                Danny, though, had only been around adults that damaged him. Hurt him. Broke him.

                “‘m sorry for bein’ bad.”

                Penelope felt her heart crack down the middle.

                It was a rasping plea for forgiveness in a voice that absolutely should not have belonged to a four-year-old child. He sounded absolutely resigned to his fate as a “bad boy,” like he didn’t believe he deserved to ever be treated like an actual person. It was so fucking sick, and Penelope silently made a vow that his parents were going to die choking on their own blood.

                Cupping the back of his head with one hand, Penelope and whispered in his ear, “Danny, baby, can you look at me for a second? Please?”

                For just the briefest second, she thought Danny shook his head “no.” Which would have been a counter-intuitive sign of progress because denying an adult anything would’ve gone directly against his conditioning. But then the little boy buried his face in the crook of her neck, his nose freezing against the bare skin, and Penelope knew that she wouldn’t be going anywhere at this rate. He was too caught up in his own panic, swarmed by the crippling thought that he wasn’t good enough or whatever fucking nonsense he’d been taught.

                Her resolve hardened when a tiny whimper escaped the bundle of shaking limbs and blankets.

                Penelope slowly maneuvered her way upright, wincing as the crick in her neck protested. She crossed her legs Indian-style and settled Danny’s slight frame in the center, being sure to keep his blankets tucked around him. He startled just a tad, stiffening like a corpse against her chest, only to press forward more insistently when he realizes that they’ve only sat up. He was squeezing with all his might but it felt like nothing, his wasted arms holding little to no real strength.

                Jesus fucking Christ, she might’ve been a bitch, but someone would have to be an absolute monster to not be fucked up by this. . .

                Swallowing the lump that had formed in her throat, Penelope gives Danny a tiny squeeze before trying again. “Danny? Honey, please look at me. I promise you’re not in trouble.”

                She could feel him trembling against her, anxiously deciding between doing as he was told and ignoring it for the safety of ignoring eye-contact. But after a moment or two, Danny managed to look up at her. His lower lip trembled, those big empty eye-sockets staring up at her in apprehension, and Penelope made the sudden realization that she would be hard-pressed to deny this little boy anything.

                At all.

                Ever.

                But he didn’t need to know about the sour taste that left in her mouth or just how badly her chest ached when she looked at him. So Penelope smiled, and the expression pulled too hard on the corners of her lips. It felt like someone had used their fingers to make it happen, stretching and tugging on the skin and muscles until she tasted copper on her tongue. Smiling while Danny suffered felt. . . wrong.

                Apparently, Danny picked up on that.

                He dropped his head after only a second, choosing instead to stare at her collarbone as his thin fingers toyed with the edge of her top. This close, she could see the freckles smattered over the bridge of his nose, stark against his too-pale skin. The tips of his hair just brushed them, and Penelope resisted the urge to sweep them out of his face – it would probably just trigger another panicked spiral.

                “‘m sorry,” he rasped, and the sound of his damaged vocal-cords sent an entirely different kind of chill up her spine. “No sad. ‘m sorry.”

                . . . no.

                Fucking no.

                This sweet little boy was not about to goddamn blame himself because his parents were dick-holes and she couldn’t make her damn face use its inside voice. Danny was four fucking years old. He didn’t need to blame himself for her shit on top of everything he was dealing with. It was stupid and wrong and. . .

                So this was what it was like to have a conscience.

                Surprise! It fucking blew.

                His hair was thick, and she took care not to scratch at his scalp as she carded her fingers through the fluffy strands. Danny relaxed a tad under her ministrations. Only to stiffen again when she let another heavy sigh escape, obviously trying not to flinch again. The hole that should’ve been her heart widened.

                “Danny?” Penelope coaxed gently. “Sweetheart, I need you to look at me again, please.”

                Very slowly, Danny did as he was asked. His expression was still so timid, apprehension that bled directly into anxiety. Penelope couldn’t bring herself to smile when he looked at her like that. There was a bruise on his cheek, just starting to darken. He must’ve hit his face during an earlier panic attack. Gently, she ran her thumb along the mark, tracing the edge where it rested underneath the right eye-socket. Danny nuzzled into her touch immediately, eyelids drooping. Her chest ached.

                He was so cold.

                “Danny, baby, I need you to listen to me very carefully. Can you do that?”

                He looked confused and wary. Penelope sat quietly as he considered, weighing the pros and cons in that little head of his. She almost smiled – Danny was clever for his age, it was apparent. But he managed a tiny nod, still apprehensive. She gently clasped the hands wrapped in her blouse, rubbing her thumbs over the back of his tiny knuckles. They were so bony, fragile compared to her own.

                Danny looked up at her, his expression contorted in wonder, and Penelope felt the words come to her.

                “Sweetheart, you have nothing to be sorry for.”

                That was a fact.

                A four-year-old child was not responsible for the actions of his parents, who betrayed every trust an innocent child placed in them and shattered him. A four-year-old child was not responsible for her reactions and for his, for the scars or the panics or anything in between. A four-year-old child was not responsible for any of the shit that the world had put him through. This wasn’t fair.

                She knew that, knew that the universe was never fair. But that didn’t mean it didn’t hurt or that it was acceptable. Danny looked so confused about it all. Like he didn’t believe her.

                He didn’t believe her.

                “You are not bad, Danny. There’s nothing wrong with you.” She kept her voice soft, and even though her expression was still serious, the little boy had latched onto her in wonder. “You’re a wonderful little boy and some very bad things have happened to you. But we’re going to make them better now, alright?”

                Penelope meant it.

                Every word.

                Because Danny was looking up at her like she had grown a second head, like he didn’t expect her to be so kind, like he still thought he was awful. Those tiny hands – dwarfed by her own and so fragile – squeezed her own. His knuckles turned white again, and the disbelief on his little face was palpable. She noted how strained his breathing grew, traced the droplets of ectoplasm that crept over his thin cheeks.

                Christ Almighty, this hurt. . .

                “Not bad?” Danny’s voice was little more than a whisper, pitiful and hopeful.

                Penelope wasn’t a crier. Never had been and probably never would be because people were shit and the world sucked and she’d grown used to it. But this. . . this was a whole other level. She was Feeling Things and it was awful. Eyes wet, throat trying to close up on her, she squeezed his tiny hands in return. Gently, though – ghosts were sturdier than their human counterparts, but Danny was still emaciated and weak by comparison.

                “No, baby,” she managed to choke out. “You’re not bad. You’re not bad at all.”

                Danny’s body had begun to tremble again, and he looked like he was trying to wrap his damaged psyche around the new information. Penelope tried to take that as a positive sign, because it meant he was willing to listen to her. It meant she could undo at least some of the damage that his jackass parents had managed to inflict.

                Didn’t mean her already shattered heart didn’t fucking disintegrate when he ducked his head and muttered, “But ‘m a ghost. Mommy says so.”

                There was rage and then there was Rage.

                Penelope had come to the conclusion that anytime Danny brought up his shit-stick parents, Rage was going to be the general emotion pumping through her chest. But it apparently showed up on her face or in her eyes, because Danny shrank away after a moment. Amazingly, though he didn’t have eyes, the swirling ectoplasm in his sockets managed to convey emotions very well. And it kind of, sort of, might have felt fucking terrible that she’d scared him.

                She pulled the blankets tighter around the little boy’s shoulders and kissed him hard on the forehead. His hair still smelled like the strawberry shampoo they’d used the night before. Soft and comforting. For a second, she could almost believe this was. . .

                No.

                No, she was not going down that road. It wasn’t fair to Danny.

                “Just because you’re a ghost doesn’t mean that you’re bad, Danny. Your mommy was wrong to tell you that, just like it was wrong that they hurt you. Do you understand?”

                Danny’s expression told its own story.

                He very obviously didn’t understand. His pale forehead creased in obvious distress, his breathing growing ragged and shallow. Penelope held him tight, rocking a little from side to side to try and coax him into relaxing. She watched his mouth work, frustration and confusion and hurt vying for space on his gaunt little face, and her stomach twisted.

                This was a four-year-old.

                “Danny, baby, it’s okay.” Dammit, she was going soft, because watching him panic like this was making her chest ache. “You don’t have to understand just yet. But I want you to know that you’re not bad and that no one here is going to hurt you.”

                Danny looked up at her with such a look of heartfelt disbelief that it made Penelope want to either scream at someone or put her fist through a wall. She managed to smile at him, but it wasn’t a very good one apparently, because the little boy immediately shrank in on himself. Guilt played all over his face. She could taste cough medicine in the back of her throat.

                That shit wasn’t going to fly.

                So Penelope leaned forward and kissed him hard on the forehead again, running her fingers through his hair. He melted into the contact, eyelids drooping, and she could feel his grip on her finally starting to relax. She rubbed her fingers over his bony knuckles again. Ectoplasm was pulsing under the surface, a hoard of angry hornets in his skin. They were icy to the touch.

                Eventually, Danny let go.

                Naturally, Penelope had to pull him into a hug. A proper one, one that he pressed into as only a touch-starved toddler could manage. The tiny button nose that buried itself in the side of her neck was freezing, but his slight weight was familiar, and the way he wrapped her hair around his thin fingers made the depressing-as-hell moment just a little less shitty. Danny even hummed a little.

                “You’re so good, Danny,” she whispered into his ear. “Don’t let anyone tell you different, alright?”

                No one in their right mind would. Because she’d known this kid for all of forty-eight hours and she was pretty sure that his little finger was her new home, the left one that was slightly crooked at the second knuckle. 

                They sat like that for a long moment, just her and Danny. Wrapped up tight in their blanket fortress and safe from everything outside. Even if it was just for a second. Then Danny’s stomach growled. Penelope couldn’t help it – she laughed. Both at the sudden interruption and Danny’s startled, betrayed expression as he looked down at his stomach.

                She kissed the top of his head again. “Are you hungry, little man? It sounds like it.”

                Glancing at the nearest clock – an old-fashioned monstrosity that sat on the mantlepiece – told her it was nearly one. And Penelope swore she could smell food from the kitchen, something rich. . . grilled cheese, maybe? What the fuck ever. She would eat her own shoes if it meant that Danny would end up getting something in his system.

                Penelope uncrossed her legs and scooped the little boy up in a fluid motion. He squeaked and clung to her like a little koala, both legs wrapped tight about her waist, but that didn’t really make much of a difference. She put a hand to the back of his head, keeping one arm slung under his rump to keep him in place, and chuckled. Slow acclimation to familiar movements like standing up or rolling over would have to do for now. It was all about positive reinforcement.

                This shit, she could handle.

                “C’mon – I think Walker’s making lunch.” She glanced into the kitchen. “How does grilled cheese and tomato soup sound?”

                It took a second or two, but Danny managed to nod an assent, toying with the ends of her hair all the while. Penelope took note that he didn’t look up around at the room. Didn’t note the new surroundings or anything of that nature. Instead, he kept his gaze fixed firmly on her collarbone or his fingers.

                Aversion to new environments, likely very easy to externally overstimulate due to extended periods confined to a singular space. . .

                She hated the diagnosis voice. It was annoying.

                Another kiss. This one more to comfort herself than him.

                “You’re going to be just fine, baby. I promise.”

                It was a promise she damn well intended to keep. Even though most promises she made were shit. Even though she couldn’t possibly fix all the damage that was inflicted on this poor little boy. Even though there was fucking Walker to contend with and a whole truckload of other shit in her life that she didn’t even want to think about, much less deal with.

                But Danny was going to make it through to the other side.

                She fucking meant it.

~*O*~

                Walker still had no clue how Spectra managed to pass out after their conversation, but he figured it had something to do with exhaustion and a lingering hangover. Probably a combination of the two. Either way, he figured leaving a blanket over the pair of them and trying to stay the heck outta Dodge when the inevitable flood came was the best course of action.

                So, naturally, he decided to make lunch.

                Because that made him feel much less creepy than watching Spectra and the brat sleep. Which he’d done for a little bit until he realized what he was doing. It wasn’t like it was cute or anything. Nothing of the sort.

                The warden grumbled and buttered the piece of sourdough in his hand a bit aggressively.

                Heat wafted into his face from the stovetop, and Walker felt the tension in his shoulders start to leech away bit by bit. The conversation with Spectra earlier continued to play on a loop inside his head. The steps they would have to take to make Danny comfortable with them, what they would have to do to help him heal. It all seemed so. . . flimsy. There were so many variables to consider.

                Walker hated variables – he hated them a lot.

                Because variables meant plans going haywire. Meant things going out of place, people running away from their designated positions. Meant rules being ignored. Which was a thought that sent a spike of anxiety running up and down his spine. Rules were there to keep things running smoothly, to keep people safe.

                If there were no rules, what would anything be? It’d go to Hades in a handbasket, as his mama would say.

                Quietly, Walker started putting slices of cheese on the bread, keeping one eye on the tomato soup left to simmer on a nearby burner. He’d thought that maybe making a simple lunch would help calm the little punk down after such a rough morning. Grilled cheese was always Taylor’s favorite after a bad day. Especially the kind with cheddar.

                The skillet sizzled as he tossed a half-done sandwich onto it, and Walker hummed to himself as the smell of toasting bread wafted through his kitchen. Cooking was always his mama’s way of calming down after the horse-hockey hit the fan, and he was glad she’d taught him so much before she’d passed on. Cooking had rules you had to follow, ingredients and temperatures and flavor-combinations. It was methodical. Probably the closest thing to science he ever got around.

                There were voices coming from the living room.

                Spectra and Danny were awake.

                Walker went back to cooking, shirt-sleeves rolled up to his elbows as he flipped sandwiches. He added a bit of bacon to his own. Because bacon went on everything.

                Sandwiches, pasta, ice cream. . .

                Bacon was God’s perfect creation.

                The voices continued for a few minutes, quiet enough that he couldn’t really make anything distinct out. But he could tell by her tone that Spectra was having a hard time keeping it together. He almost (almost being the operative word) felt bad for her. He’d had a rough enough time keeping his temper in check that morning, not to mention trying to convince a four-year-old boy that he didn’t deserve to be treated like some sort of test-monkey.

                And, like that, his tension headache was back.

                Walker finished making lunch and plated everything, making sure Danny and Spectra’s plates were sat on the table before fixing his own. Spectra had glanced in at him a little bit ago – he could feel those dadgum eyes on him – so they had to be about ready to eat. It was all a matter of sitting at the table and saying a quick word of Grace before things got. . . complicated?

                He didn’t know another word to describe what things were now that Danny was here.

                Spectra walked in a few minutes later, Danny bundled up on her hip. She’d managed to smile for the little boy, one hand cupped against the back of his head as he looked up at her. But it was strained and cracked at the edges. Her eyes were red-rimmed, like she’d been trying to keep from crying, and if it wasn’t for how she’d been acting with the little punk from the get-go, Walker would’ve called her out on a bluff.

                As it was, he didn’t want to pour salt in a sore.

                “Hey, punk,” he called. “Y’all ready to eat?”

                Danny’s head shot up from where it rested against Spectra’s collarbone, and he nodded so enthusiastically Walker couldn’t help but laugh. Neither could Spectra, apparently, because she chuckled at the little boy. The sound rushed over his skin, gave him goosebumps. He wasn’t sure if he liked that or not.

                He gestured for the pair to sit next to him. “Well c’mon, then. I ain’t waitin’ for ya. I could eat myself a whole sow over here.”

                Spectra rolled her eyes at him, but sat nevertheless. “Do you have to talk in euphemisms? I don’t know if you’ve figured this out, cowboy, but we aren’t in Texas.”

                In her lap, Danny reached for a grilled cheese, only to freeze when he realized what he’d done. He glanced up at Walker with horror painted on his face. The warden managed a smile and pushed the plate a little closer to his tiny hand.

                “I done told ya, kiddo, ya ain’t gonna get in trouble for eatin’ or talkin’ while yer in my house.” He kept his voice low so he wouldn’t startle the little boy. “Yer my boy now. Got it?”

                Slowly, Danny nodded, taking the sandwich in his thin fingers like it was the most precious thing he’d ever touched. He watched them both warily the entire time, like he couldn’t quite believe they wouldn’t just snatch the food away from him at any second. Walker clenched his hands so hard under the table he was sure they’d bleed. Spectra’s encouraging smile darkened at the edges, red bleeding into her irises.

                No child had ever looked at him like that, and if he had it his way, Danny would never feel like he had to look at him like that again.

                The little boy took a tiny bite of his grilled cheese, fingers shaking around the bread. He chewed slowly. Savored every second of that moment.

                “Is that good, baby?” Spectra coaxed.

                Danny’s response was to try and shove half the sandwich in his mouth at once. Walker couldn’t help but laugh at the panic on the witch’s face as she tried to keep the kid from choking himself on a grilled cheese sandwich, of all things, nearly snorting when she turned to glare at him. His grin still hadn’t fallen as he took a big bite of his own, dipping the corner in his tomato soup as he did so.

                Delicious – Mama’s recipe had yet to fail him.

                “Thanks for the vote a confidence, punk, but y’all should prob’ly take smaller bites,” he sniggered. “You’ll make yerself sick.”

                Nodding again, shaggy hair flying all over the place, Danny let Spectra give him another much smaller bite. He munched happily on his grilled cheese, but both adults made sure that most of what he ate was the soup. He’d been starved so dadgum long his stomach probably couldn’t handle an entirely solid diet. Small bites of grilled cheese, a little while of tomato soup. Eventually though, Danny clamped his mouth shut and huddled back into Spectra’s chest, content to let the woman finish her own lunch.

                “You never answered me,” she eventually said, green eyes piercing through him over her bowl of soup. “And I want one because I don’t trust people who speak in euphemisms.”

                Walker grunted around a mouthful of bacon and cheese. “I talk in euphemisms ‘cause I can. ‘s how I was raised. Deal with it.”

                Spectra rolled her eyes at him. “That’s a terrible answer, and you know it, Tex.”

                This time, he was ready for the terrible nickname. “Well, it’s the only one yer gettin’, sugar.”

                Now, he knew he wasn’t exactly the quickest man on the draw when it came to snarky comebacks, so Walker took immense pride in the vicious scowl that played across Spectra’s face at his response. Danny watched them from her lap with a quiet sort of awe, like he didn’t quite believe that he was a part of everything. The expression held until the warden leaned over and carefully pulled him into his own lap.

                “Alright, punk. What d’ya say we go outside for a bit today, hmm? We can sit on the porch and play with cars.”

                There hadn’t been a lot of kids pass through his house, and definitely none as young as Danny, but Walker figured that it wouldn’t hurt to take Taylor’s example – use toys and games to help distract from how screwed up the child’s little life had become. There were plenty of cars, rockets, and other toys up in his new room. Wouldn’t hurt to try a few new things to get the kid a little bit more comfortable with everything around him.

                Danny smiled up at him, nodding shyly, and Walker couldn’t help but ruffle the mop on top of his head. Gently, though. Couldn’t scare the poor guy, not when they were supposed to go out and have fun. He glanced up and caught Spectra staring at him, eyes narrowed. The cogs were whirring full-speed in that dang head of hers, he just knew it.

                Which meant a whole lotta bull-hockey for him.

                Grumbling to himself, Walker jerked his chin towards her half-finished meal. “Y’all gonna finish? Or are ya just gawk at me ‘til supper?”

                Spectra blinked. Then she snorted, rolling her eyes before returning to her sandwich. She polished it off, soaking up the last of the tomato soup, and stood for a proper stretch. Walker forced his mind to go blank when her top rode up around her belly-button.

                “Alright, alright, I get the hint, Grandma Clampett,” Spectra drawled. “Now, give me my kid so we can get ready to go outside.”

                Walker frowned, standing to face her with Danny tucked in the crook of his arm. He ignored the thin, ice-cold fingers toying with the collar of his tee-shirt. “Your kid? He’s my kid, sugar.”

                The gleam in Spectra’s eyes grew dangerous, and her chin jutted out in defiance as she glared up at him. “You might’ve found him first, but he’s mine, Tex. Now, gimme!”

                Danny giggled softly, thin frame shaking as he watched the pair of them bicker like a couple of old hens.

Walker grinned, an idea forming in the back of his mind, and tucked the little boy deeper into his chest. “Nope! My house, my brat. Go find yer own.”

                This time, Spectra’s eyebrows nearly disappeared in her hairline, and she stepped closer. “You give me back my Danny!”

                Walker’s grin widened as Danny fell into an honest-to-Jesus giggling fit. “Ya wan’ ‘im? Yer gonna have ta catch us first!”

                With that, he shot through the door, Danny shrieking with laughter as he bolted up the stairs. Behind him, Spectra let out a garbled noise that was most likely a choked-off curse. Walker could hear her follow them a second later. He took the stairs two at a time, skidding across the hardwood as he rounded the corner at the top. Danny was nearly breathless from giggling, a huge smile across his face as they made their way into his bedroom. 

                Spectra bounded through the door a second later. Her hair was all over the place, green eyes furious. But just as she opened her mouth – probably to cuss him out and call him all sorts of horrible things – Danny leaned forward and stretched his arms out to her. The kid was grinning, like he’d somehow forgotten he was supposed to be scared. It was like the sun peeking out from behind a thunderhead. Bright and shining and hopeful.

                “Pen! Up!” Danny croaked, still giggling. “Up!”

                Oh, if he had a camera, the look on the little witch’s face would’ve made the perfect Christmas card. . .

                Walker offered Danny to her, but he couldn’t entirely wipe away his smug grin. “Well, go on then, sugar. I know when I’ve been beat.”

                Mute, Spectra carefully took the little boy and settled him on her hip. Danny giggled and laughed, reached out to hold her cheeks with his thin hands. Gently, he butted their foreheads together, and no, Jeremiah Walker did not have to choke back tears, thank ya kindly! Crying wasn’t manly. . .

                “Pen!!” Danny cooed. “We play now?”

                A stiff breeze probably could’ve knocked both of them for a loop right about then. But Spectra – always on her game, dangit – managed to find her voice before Walker thought it possible. She grinned back at him, brushing their noses together in an Eskimo kiss that made Danny’s giggles start back up.

                “Well, with an offer like that, how could I refuse?!” It was still quiet, probably more of a way to keep the mood light. “Alright, then, why don’t you and I pick out some toys to play with? Then we can go outside. How’s that sound?”

                Danny nodded enthusiastically, another shriek of laughter emerging when Spectra leaned forward and blew a raspberry on his neck.

                Walker didn’t stop grinning the entire time they searched for toys, content to sit back and watch the pair chat. Spectra might’ve been a witch and a pain and every other word for annoying sociopaths that he could come up with, but to Danny? To Danny, she was everything he needed. She was quiet. And she listened. And she smiled at him like he was the most important person in the world, like there was nothing better than to listen to a four-year-old child choose between a red Hot-Wheels racer or a blue monster truck.

                He’d never have pegged it, but the spunky red-head who made people miserable just because she adored this kid, and Danny adored her right back. Walker couldn’t help but thank God that she did. Even when she turned to him and stuck her tongue out, smugly flouncing from the room with the little punk giggling on her hip, leaving him to carry the toys out to the porch. Even when he realized that he’d have to clean the kitchen all on his own later. Even when he realized that she’d neglected to close the front door behind her.

                Because even though he had to clean the kitchen on his own, close the door behind him, drop a massive bag of toy cars and planes and rockets onto the front porch, Walker realized that he could’ve never built a repertoire like this with Danny. He was rough around the edges. Feelings made his skin itch. Panic attacks usually sent him into a bit of a frenzy, even though he could handle the occasional one.

                Jeremiah Walker tended to be a hard man, rough and tumble and entirely too callous for his own good.

                Penelope Spectra, on the other hand, could be soft. Could be gentle. Could be quiet and calm and deal with panic attacks on a regular basis.

                He sat on the porch decking with Danny, smiling as the little boy quietly offered to share toys with Spectra, and ran a hand through his hair. She took it. They played racing games without loud noises, occasionally lapsing into giggles when Spectra would lean over and run her fingers along his ribcage. Danny’s clothes were still too baggy. His eyes were still gone, ectoplasm weeping from the sockets when he got too excited or scared.

                But. . .

                “Pen, no cheat! Stay on track, p’ease.”

                “Aww, but I’ll never win if I do that!”

                A serious look. “Cheaters don’ win, Pen. Is naughty. No cheat.”

                “Alright, then, sweetheart. I promise I won’t cheat.”

                Danny was scarred, kind of broken around the edges, and didn’t like loud noises. Strangers frightened him. His nightmares would probably be enough to horrify the Fright Knight if they could be seen. He’d probably never really grow out of all his issues, and they had a long hard road ahead of them.

                “Walk, play cars?”

                But Danny could still smile. He could still play cars and laugh at them for arguing over whose kid he was. That meant there was hope.

                Walker took the little white truck from Danny’s thin hand, drawling out a thanks as he did so. The game was racing, the cars rushing each other around a made-up track that he and Spectra had made out of old blocks. He made quiet noises as they played together, smirking when Danny would let one of them win on purpose. Kid liked to play fair. Liked to follow the rules.

                He could stand behind that. . .

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Be Jazz Fenton.

                Watch your world fall apart.

                Piece by piece, slowly, and then all at once.

                It is December 27th now, and you’re very proud that you keep track with a calendar even though it’s mostly because you’re counting the days that Danny has been gone. Mommy and Daddy forgot all about Christmas this year. They forgot the presents and the tree, forgot to put on Christmas carols and make lots of food for their special dinner. They even forgot to argue about Santa Claus.

                Dash is your new best friend and you do everything together. He sits with you at lunch and gives you his Honey Bun in the morning and he doesn’t let Christian or Paulina ruin your pretty braids anymore. Everything is a mess, and some mornings you’re ready to just go to sleep and never wake up, but Dash is always there. There with a smile or a hug or something nice to say. And it’s Dash that you sit next to in class when Mr. Robbins gives you paper to make letters to Santa.

                He asks you for help spelling lots because his letters get all jumbly like your numbers. Mr. Pendergrass lets you because he says it’s “good to get along.” Sometimes, you think Mr. Robbins looks at you funny, like he’s sad. Sometimes, you get called into Nurse Hampton’s office, and she gives you ice for bruises and asks lots of questions. When that happens, Dash is always the first one you talk to and the only one to give you a big hug.

                When Dash shows you his letter, it makes your chest ache, because he asks Santa to make his Daddy be nice to his Mommy and sleep at home instead of at the firehouse. Dash also asks Santa to make letters not be so difficult and to make sure they would be friends for always, and when you read that, Dash panics because you start crying. No one has ever wanted to be your friend for always before.

                You sometimes help Dash with his reading, too, and when he reads your letter to Santa, he looks at you with his blue serious eyes and says, “Does your Daddy hurt you?”

                And you can’t lie to him. That’s wrong, and Dash is your friend, and he doesn’t ever lie to you. He makes things better. Always. Gives you hugs and Honey Buns and his serious eyes only come out when the questions are really important.

                So you tell him everything.

                You tell him that there was an accident and there was a boy, white hair and green eyes, and he called himself Danny because he was Danny. Except Mommy and Daddy didn’t believe you. And then Danny just wasn’t there anymore, your baby brother who made everything bright, and now Mommy doesn’t hug you anymore. Daddy doesn’t kiss your forehead. There’s lots of yelling, lots of fighting, brown juice in strange bottles that smell and holes in the walls. You tell him that you don’t get new clothes anymore ‘cause Mommy never comes out of the lab and Daddy is always so angry.

                You didn’t ask Santa for new clothes or new toys like other kids do. You didn’t ask Santa for friends this year because you have Dash, and he’s the best. You didn’t ask Santa for new books or new shoes, didn’t ask for ribbons or bows or teddies.

                You asked Santa to bring Danny back. To make Daddy and Mommy not fight, to make them love you again, to make the house smell clean and make everything better. You ask Santa to fix what broke.

                Dash looks at you very quietly for a long time when you finish, and then he gives you the biggest hug he can. It’s nice even though it’s too tight, makes your ribs ache where Daddy pushed you into a chair on accident, but you hold him back just as tight. He sounds like he’s trying not to cry when he talks again, shaky as his fingers curl in your shirt. It’s quiet. Mr. Pendergrass isn’t paying attention – there’s a couple of boys that are too rowdy – so he doesn’t make them stop.

                “It’s gonna be okay,” Dash whispers. “I’m gonna make it okay.”

                You don’t like talking sometimes. It makes everything hurt.

                But this time you choke back on tears that make your throat close and say, “How’re you supposed to do that?”

                Dash holds tighter. “I dunno. But I mean it.”

                Be Jazz Fenton.

                Wish that things will get better.

                And then realize that is a mistake.

                Because then, suddenly, it’s December 30th and policemen show up at the door with another man in a suit. Watch quietly from the stairs, peep through slats, and listen as they question Mommy. Her voice is loud, cracks at the edges, but the officers don’t yell. It’s strange. All the policemen on Cops shout a lot. But this isn’t a TV show.

If this was a TV show, the man in the suit would be very handsome; instead, he’s got large, buck teeth and his voice is rough.

                One of the police officers sees you. He has dark skin, a thick black mustache, and he’s got very serious eyes like Dash sometimes has. But then he smiles at you, ignores how Daddy is snoring on the couch and how Mommy keeps trying to yell at him, pointing fingers and talking with that mean glint in her eyes, the one she gets when you do something wrong. The other police officer is a lady with blonde hair and makes Mommy stop yelling, makes her sit down and be calm and answer questions. The man in the suit has sad eyes, like he’s very tired, and you feel a little bad for him when he tries to talk. Because Mommy doesn’t let him talk because she’s very very mad.

                It makes your tummy do a back-flip.

                Watch as the police man walks up to you. Try not to cry. Hold tight to Bearbert Einstein and bite your lip and try not to think about how there’s ketchup stains on your Christmas sweater. How your tummy is grumbly and you have dirt smudged on your nose. Think very hard about what Mr. Pendergrass said to do if you talked to a police man. Be nice. Be polite. Tell the truth.

                The police officer kneels down at the foot of the stairs and smiles at you, and his dark eyes kind of twinkle. They remind you of someone. But don’t be impolite, don’t let him see you’re scared, don’t do anything to make Mommy any madder than she is. The police man takes off his hat, tilts his head a little bit.

                “Hello there,” he says, and his voice has a thick accent. It reminds you of cartoons, of Dora the Explorer and Manny Rivera. “I’m Officer Sanchez. Are you Jasmine?”

                No one calls you Jasmine. Not even teachers. But this is a police officer, and he does not know you. Smile very quietly and say, “People call me Jazz.”

                Officer Sanchez seems like a nice man. He smells spicy, like cologne, and he’s warm when he sits on the steps next to you. Feel your guts twist and then unwind. Because Mommy told you what to do and you don’t want to mess this up. Because you’re six-years-old and scared because Mommy and Daddy took Danny and he hasn’t been back and what could they do to you?

                You wish that Dash was here to hold your hand.

                “That’s a very pretty name,” Officer Sanchez says, smiling under his big mustache, and you think that it’s a nice smile even though his eyes are sad. “Jazz, do you think we can go in the kitchen? Mr. Turner and Officer Star need to talk to your Mama and Papa about some important things.”

                Bite your lip. Squeeze Bearbert Einstein. Take a deep breath through your nose and do not cry because Mommy is watching over the lady officer’s shoulders and she looks so angry. There’s gonna be lots of yelling tonight, you can tell. But. . .

                You’re so hungry and he said kitchen, and police officers are supposed to make things better, right? They’re the good guys, right? Maybe they can make Mommy and Daddy nice again, take away the nasty brown water and the yelling and the fists through walls. Maybe they can bring Danny back, too, and you can have your bubby back.

                Be very careful when you nod and make eye-contact because Mommy says eye-contact is important. Watch as Officer Sanchez stands up and then go down the stairs. One, two, four. . . or is it three? Five, maybe? You don’t know – the numbers jumble worse when you’re nervous. Make sure that Officer Sanchez is following and don’t look at Mommy as you walk towards the kitchen.

                Try not to flinch when she starts yelling.

                Be Jazz Fenton.

                And sit in the kitchen with Officer Sanchez until it’s very late, way past your bedtime, and try not to fall asleep in your bowl of Cheerios. It was all that you could find, ‘cause Mommy’s not very good at keeping food in the fridge anymore. You’re so tired. But Mr. Turner and Officer David – that’s what Officer Sanchez had called her – are still talking to Mommy. You think Daddy might have woken up, but you’re not really sure. Answer all the questions that Officer Sanchez asks you.

                Don’t lie.             

                That’s a very important rule – we do not lie in this house.

                “Jazz, how old are you?”

                “I’m six, sir. My birthday was in October.”

                “Did you have a nice party? I bet you have lots of friends.”

                “No, sir. Other kids don’t like me. Except Dash and Danny. But Dash wasn’t my friend yet and Danny. . . Danny’s not here anymore.”

                Officer Sanchez kind of frowned when you said that and that makes you feel bad, like you’ve said the wrong thing, but then he smiles again. He pushes your Cheerios closer, very gently, and lets you keep eating.

                “I have a daughter that’s about your age,” he says, very quietly. “Her name is Paulina. Do you know her?”

                Swallow even though your throat gets tight and remember sticks, mud, mean words, slaps on the face, freak freak freak freak. Think about a little girl with pretty braids in her dark hair and nice new clothes, always pink, who likes to hit your books until they fall to the ground. A little girl who hates you and you don’t understand why?

                “I know Paulina, sir. We don’t talk a lot. I don’t think she likes me.”

                It isn’t a lie, but it isn’t all the way the truth. Does that mean you’ve broken a rule? Gosh, you hope not. You’re too tired for a punishment. Officer Sanchez kind of chuckles and ruffles your hair. Very gently, though. He’s a big man but he’s not rough like Daddy, even though his hands have big callouses and there’s a scar on his pinky finger.

                “I think my Paulina is a bit jealous,” he whispers, like it’s a big secret. “She talks about you a lot, about how you’re the smartest in your class. I’m sorry if she isn’t always the nicest. Her Mama spoils her terribly.”

                Wrinkle your nose. “Are you sure it’s just her Mommy?”

                Freeze.

                Oh no.

                Oh no.

                You’re not supposed to be sassy, it’s against the rules, and that means that there’s gonna be a punishment and Mommy’s gonna get real mad and what if this makes Officer Sanchez mad too? He’s a police officer. Can policemen take you to jail for being sassy?! What if he hates you what if he won’t fix this what if what if what if?!!!!

                Officer Sanchez laughs, tips his head back and everything, and doesn’t seem to notice how big your eyes are or how you’re white or how your hands rattle the bowl. Instead, he looks back at you with a big grin. His teeth are very white.

                “You’ve caught me, kiddo! I spoil Paulina just as much as her Mama does. We might need to work on that, eh?”

                Don’t say anything. Don’t say anything at all. Because you got lucky that he wasn’t mad, wasn’t leaving or yelling or telling Mommy. Who has gone very quiet in the other room, almost like she isn’t there? Didn’t the door open a second ago?

                You’re very tired. It’s obvious when you yawn and your jaw pops.

                Officer Sanchez puts a hand on your shoulder. It’s nice, not hard or heavy, even though his palm is very rough and his fingers have lots of scars. There’s a bruise there. But there’s always a bruise somewhere. So it doesn’t really matter. Everything feels kind of floaty, fuzzy around the edges, and you can hear someone talking to you in the background, but it’s like you’re underwater. Sinking down, down, down until there’s nothing but black. And it’s kind of nice for a little bit.

                Until. . .

                There’s a little boy standing in front of you and it’s black, too quiet, so quiet that it presses on your ears and they ache and you’re scared, and this little boy looks just like Danny. But Danny doesn’t have white hair (he does now) and this little boy doesn’t have eyes, just big pits full of green goo that leaks down his cheeks and they’re too skinny, like he hasn’t eaten in a very long time. He stares at you. States and stares and stares and your heart’s beating too fast. Thu-thump, thu-thump, thu-thump-thump-thump. You’re scared. What’s going on?! Where is everything?!

                The boy opens his mouth and more green spills out, over his chin and down his black-white jumpsuit, the one with a big Y-cut in the front and when he talks it’s Danny’s voice, small and he doesn’t sound scared, but quiet and sad and confused.

                “Jazzy, why didn’t you help me?”

                It hurts. It hurts it hurts it hurts please go away, not Danny, not my bubby, go away!!!

Take a step back and your ankle catches and you fall. Hit the ground even thought there isn’t ground and it’s cold, hard like concrete. And then the boy is sitting next to you. No eyes, mouth open, green dripping from his teeth and chin and. . .

“Jazzy, please help me. I’ll be a good boy. I promise.”

No.

No, Danny, that’s not Danny, can’t be Danny is it Danny?!!!

Open your mouth to talk except you can’t, the words won’t come, because there’s sticky green and red oozing up your throat and you can’t breathe. Make it stop make it stop please make it stop you want Mommy Daddy Dash Bubby anyone please make it go away you didn’t mean it, honest, you’ll find bubby you have to please!!!

“Jazzy, why didn’t you help me?”

NO!!!

Be Jazz Fenton.

Be six-years-old and wake up in a hospital on New Years Day. There’s lots of tubes and needles sticking out of your arms, tubes with blowing air in your nose. Your clothes are gone. The hospital gown you’re wearing is itchy. Take a deep breath and cough because the air tastes yucky, nasty like antiseptic, and this isn’t right? Where did Officer Sanchez go? Why are you in a hospital? And then you’re scared, very scared, because Mommy and Daddy won’t be happy because you’re not supposed to be noticed, Mommy said.

It’s not right.

You shouldn’t be here.

Everything is spinning and your head still feels fuzzy, cotton in your mouth, and you want to get out of bed but you don’t want to fall? It doesn’t matter anyway. A nurse walks in the room. She’s kind of short and a little chubby and her shoes squeak on the too-white floor. But even though she looks surprised you’re awake, she smiles, and it’s a nice one. Warm and bright.

“Oh! Well, hello there, sweetie!” Her voice is quiet, but it’s nice enough. “I’m Nurse Miranda. Do you know where you are?”

Shake your head. Stay quiet, though. Don’t let her see how scared you are.

Watch her smile and know that it’s twisted around the edges. “You’re at Amity General, the hospital. Do you remember what happened before you woke up?”

Frown. Nod. But don’t talk. Your throat still feels too scratchy for that.

“You don’t have to talk right now if you don’t want to, sweetie. That’s alright. I’m going to take a few tests and write them down. Is that okay? I promise they won’t hurt.”

They won’t hurt.

They won’t hurt.

She promises they won’t hurt.

Nod again. Watch closely as she puts a stethoscope on your elbow, listens, then writes. Take deep breaths when she tells you. Try not to flinch when the cold metal touches, when she stares at your bruises too hard, when she smiles and it doesn’t reach her eyes. Try to smile a little bit when she pats the back of one hand and notice she has a gap between her front teeth.

“Alrighty, sweetie, all done. Now, there’s a couple of people who are here to talk to you, is that okay?” Nod but don’t talk. “Good. They’ll be in here in just a second.”

Watch her leave. Try not to cry and know it isn’t working because your eyes burn.

                Be Jazz Fenton.

                Listen to Mr. Turner and Dr. Tang explain what happened. Listen as they tell you that you will be living with your Uncle Vlad for a little while, just until Mommy and Daddy get better. Just until they find Danny. Just for a little while. Listen as they talk to you about “abuse” and how Mommy yelling and Daddy pushing was wrong, how you were so tired that you fell asleep for two days and that wasn’t okay. Listen as they explain that you won’t have to change schools, that you’ll get lots of food and clothes and toys and everything will be the same.

                Except it won’t be the same.

                Because Danny will still be gone and all you have is a teddy bear.

                When they leave, hold Bearbert tight and cry until you can’t.

~*O*~

                Vlad Masters.

                Billionaire, businessman, inventor, genius.

                Loner.

                He wasn’t precisely happy about all the monikers he’d acquired over the years, particularly those that pertained to his status as a bachelor. However, Vlad understood the need for disguises in the world of the wealthy. More a veil of polite normalcy in a world that was nothing of the sort. He’d learned well in all that time spent in the hospital.

                Not that there was much else to do when confined to a bed and crippled by chronic pain.

                Still, Vlad Masters had grown accustomed to being alone to a degree. His mansion in Wisconsin was a primary residence, and he shared it only with the cleaning and kitchen staff throughout the week. Business associates were sequestered to Dalv Corp headquarters in nearby Madison, and though he rarely visited the mountain chalet, it had become a wonderful place of seclusion in his recently-acquired fame. Not to mention the many nights spent exploring deep corners of the Ghost Zone. He’d also built a modest manor – four bedrooms, three and half bath, nothing particularly grand – on the outskirts of Amity Park.

                He imagined Maddie would want to remain at least close to the town where she’d settled and had her children.

                Speaking of children. . .

                “Mr. Turner, I really don’t understand the situation. Are you telling me there is no one else able to care for Jasmine? You doubt the Fenton’s competency as parents this strongly?”

                The man sitting across from him looked older than his twenty-seven years, graying at the temples and stress creasing the corners of his eyes despite an otherwise neat appearance. His bucked teeth were somewhat prominent, and Vlad idly wondered if that endeared him to the children in some way. With a tense shake of his head, Mr. Turner took a swig of the black coffee he’d been offered by the secretary.

                “No, Mr. Masters,” he insisted, solemn and sincere. “We had received a report on the Fentons from Mr. Hawthorn, the principal at Jasmine’s elementary school. A number of teachers had reported bruises, behavioral changes, disregard for hygiene – all classic warning signs for child neglect or abuse. Upon my arrival at their home, Jack Fenton was passed out on drunk on the couch and Madeleine Fenton had no idea where her daughter was. She was belligerent throughout our interaction, aggressive, and it wasn’t until Jasmine passed out from hunger that we’d realized she hadn’t fed the poor girl in almost two days.”

                Vlad felt his shoulders tighten. Surely not Maddie. Jack, he could understand. The oaf had been a lush in college, and he’d always suspected that a wicked hangover had been a damning contributor to his own accident. But Maddie? She was. . . she was strong-willed and possessed a fiery temper when provoked, sure, but he knew firsthand that his Madeleine loved her children more than anything. She was a brilliant mother. There had to have been some terrible mistake.

                “Mr. Masters, I know this can be difficult to hear, especially when you were so close to the Fentons in your college years.” Mr. Turner’s voice was urgent, his blue eyes disgustingly earnest. “But right now? Jasmine needs you to be there for her. The Fentons have you listed as her primary guardian in their will. And I’m personally reluctant to put Jasmine in the foster system.”

                Foster system?

                Well, that simply wouldn’t do. No child of Maddie’s was going to suffer in a state home if he had anything to do with it.

                Vlad placed his own mug of tea on its coaster, eyes narrowing as another thought occurred to him. “If I remember correctly, Mr. Turner, Jasmine has a younger brother – Daniel, I believe his name is. You haven’t mentioned him once throughout this entire meeting.”

                A clenched jaw. Eyes flicked towards the ground. Fingers twisting on themselves. The younger man was upset. Anxious, nervous even. An interesting reaction, to be sure, especially when one considered that they were discussing a four-year-old boy and his six-year-old sister. Though he’d cut contact with the Fentons about a year prior to Jasmine’s birth, he wasn’t completely out of the loop.

                “Daniel Fenton has been missing since September, Mr. Masters. A full investigation is being conducted, and I’m afraid I can’t discuss the details. For now, you’ll only be responsible for Jasmine, should you agree.”

                Something heavy settled in Vlad’s chest at that. Anxious and cold, like a poison-coated stone. He swallowed, allowing his mask to rest over his face, and thought about the pros and cons of his next decision.

Pros: Maddie would consider him a savior, a hero, for taking her daughter in until this misunderstanding blew over. Taking in his goddaughter would be a wonderful boost to his political and business image. Jasmine was young enough that he could rather easily usurp the role of father-figure in her tiny eyes.

Cons: He would have full custody of a six-year-old child. Silence and easy-scheming would be a thing of the past. He’d need to take special precautions to keep his identity as Vlad Plasmius a secret from Jasmine. And finally. . .?

There was a distinct, terrifying possibility that he would actually grow attached to his little charge, only to have her stripped from him at the drop of a coin.

Vlad Masters did not consider himself a coward. Nor did he consider himself a particularly brave man. Taking leaps of faith such as this had never been his forte; however, sometimes, a situation required him to do exactly that. It was chess. Flaunt a pawn, lose a knight, or sacrifice a bishop – it didn’t matter if one captured the queen. Maddie was the endgame, the final prize.

Perhaps her daughter would be his perfect ticket in.

“When would I be able to meet young Jasmine, Mr. Turner? I would imagine a young girl would wish to meet the person she is to be staying with before arriving in a strange place, yes?”

Mr. Turner blinked at him, as though he’d been expecting the opposite reaction. Vlad’s responding smile was thin and wan. Having masks proved effective, yes, but sometimes the reaction they garnered were tedious at best and infuriating at worst. Still, to his credit, the social worker rallied quickly and began pulling various files and legal documents from a battered briefcase at his side.

“We just need to get this paperwork signed and notarized – temporary acceptance of guardianship, medical forms, other legal junk – and then we’ll head to the hospital to see her. If that’s alright with you, of course?”

Vlad almost wanted to like Mr. Turner. He was brisk, efficient, and he carried himself with purpose. That was something that he could respect, especially after having to claw his way to success. With a secret smile to himself, the billionaire took the proffered ink pen and began carefully sorting his way through the paperwork laid out in front of him, idly listening to the social worker explain each piece. This would be difficult, he realized. Having little to no real experience with children under the age of ten had him at a disadvantage. He’d be fighting an uphill battle, would have to strategize and plan carefully.

He signed his name on the first sheet with an elegant flourish and a true, wicked grin.

Chess had always been his favorite game to play.

~*O*~

                “Danny, baby, I know you’re excited, but you know better. Don’t jump on the couch.”

                “Wanna see stars, Pen! Wanna f’y!”

                “I know, sweetheart. We’re waiting on Walker. You just need to be patient, okay?”

                The tiny ghost, perched on a couch cushion, sighed quietly, flopping down with slumped shoulders. “Oh-kay. . .”

Three weeks.

                It took exactly three weeks for Walker to grow used to having both Danny and Spectra in his house. Which, honestly, was a lot less time than he was expecting. It had taken him almost two months to get accustomed to having Taylor as a charge, and Ember had been a dadgum nightmare for the better part of a year. Still, Danny was a good kid. Skittish as all get-out, touch-starved, and near-silent for the most part, but good.

                The first week or two had mostly been spent coming up with a routine and figuring out what his triggers were. Routines were easy, thankfully. Routines had rules – times, dates, settings, etc. And Walker excelled at those.

So it was wake up at seven, then breakfast at nine, followed by playtime or stories. Lunch at noon, nap time at one, then Spectra would have a make-shift therapy session around two-thirty or three. Between the end of that and supper at six was pretty much a free-for-all. Then it was baths at seven, a story (or four), and bedtime at nine.

                Simple, clean-cut, easy.

The kid responded to the structure well – seemed to soothe his frayed nerves – and he’d opened-up some. Bit by bit and piece by piece. It was a smile here or a giggle there, allowing himself to take a bit of food without watching someone eat it first or playing with clothes before asking permission. He’d even put a little bit of weight on.

                His triggers, though. . ..

                Those were a bit harder to swallow.

                Little things seemed to set Danny off. Loud noises and strange faces they’d noted, which was why forgoing the annual Truce party had been the best course of action. But sometimes the panics seemed to come out of nowhere. Laundry day, for example, had been uneventful until the timer went off, and Danny started shrieking in horror. It’d taken Spectra almost twenty minutes to figure out what he was so dang scared of. He wouldn’t touch anything pink or white. Liquids, food, toys, it didn’t matter. The little boy shunned anything in those two colors. Antiseptics were a no-go – found that out when he’d cut his hand working in the shop – because the smell reminded him of a laboratory. Honestly, it’d been a rough beginning. But there were certain things that made it all worthwhile.

                Like now.

                Walker chuckled and tossed his flannel shirt into the laundry, rolling his shoulders a bit as he shrugged into a heavier jacket. “Alright, punk, what d’ya say we go flyin’?”

                Danny’s head snapped towards him, a huge grin splitting his face, and he started bouncing excitedly on the couch again. They’d quickly figured out that blue and red were his favorite colors, and it was even more apparent when they let him pick out what clothes he wanted to wear. The outfit of the day consisted of the boy’s favorite pair of overalls – blue corduroy – and a bright red shirt with bees on it. He still hated wearing shoes, though, but Walker wasn’t bothered by that.

                His furniture was probably better off for it, really.

                Behind him, Spectra rolled her eyes in fond exasperation. “Danny. . .” Her tone stayed gentle, but the warning was clear. “No jumping on the furniture.”

                Before Danny could do much in the way of pouting, Walker scooped him off the couch, tucking him up against his chest.

                “Don’ go ignorin’ her now, punk,” he growled. “She’s awful cranky on a good day. Make ‘er any worse an’ she’ll turn into a dragon.”

                The expression Danny wore shifted to wonder, and he spun to look at Spectra. “You tu’n to a dwagon?!”

                If the look that Spectra tossed him didn’t scream “eat dog crap and die,” Walker would have to eat his own shoe. He contented himself with grinning, bouncing the over-excited toddler against his chest until the witch could come up with something suitable. Which took a whole three seconds, dadgum it.

                “No, baby, I don’t turn into a dragon.” A sly, almost cat-like smile crossed her lips, and for some reason that made his anxiety spike. “But that doesn’t mean I don’t bite on occasion.”

                Was that. . .?

                Spectra flounced past him to the front door, practically sauntering away in her thick sweater and leggings. Walker felt his mouth go dry.

Holy crap, it was.

                “Walk? We gonna f’y now?”

                Danny’s tiny voice, still painfully raspy and quiet, broke him from the shock. Looking down at his boy, the warden managed to smile. “Yeah, kid. Let’s go – think y’all ‘ll be able ta go higher today?”

                They’d been working on showing Danny the full extent of a ghost’s powers, and it was already starting to affect his perception of them. Though Danny himself still hadn’t manifested any abilities – shocking, considering he’d formed nearly a month ago – he’d quickly grown used to watching both him and Spectra use their ghost powers outside the house. Flying was a big hit, even though they had to be careful about not triggering his anxiety.

                The smile returned in full-force, and Danny nodded with every ounce of enthusiasm his tiny body could muster. Walker couldn’t help but chuckle a bit, helping coax the wriggling ball of energy into a heavier coat before carefully lifting him to ride on his shoulders. He had to do a bit of creative walk-crouching to get through the front door, and thin hands that gripped his head were freezing, but it was worth it to hear the punk laugh.

                Spectra was waiting in the front yard impatiently, arms crossed with a mock-disapproving expression creasing her brow. Though there weren’t true seasons in the Zone, it was decently cool, and Walker could see faint tremors run up her arms.

                “Are you two almost ready?” she griped. “Because I’m cold and want to move to warm up.”

                Walker snorted. “Should’a wore a coat if you were cold, sugar. Danny here’s all dressed for it.”

                Danny nodded, deathly serious. “You ge’s a co’d, Pen. Coat is impo’tant.”

                He would never be able to understand it, but somehow the woman who gave people depression for fun was absolutely smitten with a little boy who couldn’t even stand the sound of a kitchen timer. Spectra’s frown melted into nothing, and she floated over to tap his button nose with her pointer finger.

                “You’re absolutely right, precious. But I don’t have a coat here, so I’ll have to be tough like you, hmm?”

                Danny’s frown deepened, and he wriggled until Walker relinquished him (rolling his eyes all the while) to the red-headed shade. The ectoplasm pits in his head had solidified greatly over time, and they now resembled something closer to a true eye than before. So when the four-year-old focused his gaze on Spectra, the concern could be felt like a tangible thing.

                “I keep you warm, Pen,” he said quietly. “No be co’d, p’ease.”

                Walker felt a tug in his chest at that, and the grin that crossed Spectra’s face did nothing but make it worse. She hugged Danny tight, bouncing into the sky so quick that it made him dissolve into shrieking laughter, and kissed his cheek. The little punk knew exactly how to make someone smile. It didn’t matter if he’d just come out of a panic attack or a nightmare (of which there were many) or even if one of them was having a garbage day, Danny knew how to make it better. Somehow, this little boy – who had scars so deep they affected little things like eating – had become good enough at reading the pair of them to accomplish it.

                At four-years-old.

                It just beat all he’d ever seen.

Walker shook his head, lazily floating up to join the odd pair,  and half-heartedly glared at Spectra. “Yer downright spoiled, y’all know that? Could’a just asked me for a coat, but no, you gotta take my boy an’ make him keep ya warm.”

Smug as ever, she grinned over the top of Danny’s head, pressing the giggling boy closer to her chest. “It’s not being spoiled, Walker. I can’t help it if Danny loves me best. He’s got good taste. Unlike someone I know. . .”

“Now that’s just downright rude,” Walker griped, crossing his arms as they began flying in circles. “Yer mama didn’t wash yer mouth out enough as a kid.”

Before Spectra could do much more than open her mouth, Danny piped up. “Pen, no be mean! I wuv you bo’f bestest.”

They both froze.

Had he just. . .?

Danny looked up at Spectra with wide, scared eyes. “Did I say some’fin w’ong? I sowwy.”

It looked like he was about to panic, thin body just barely trembling. But, thankfully, Spectra recovered quicker than he could. Walker floated in stunned silence as she hugged Danny hard, watching as the boy’s thin arms squeezed back with all the strength they could muster. It looked like there were tears in the corners of her eyes, but that could’ve been a trick of the light. The galaxy of ectoplasmic stars overhead shone brighter tonight.

“No, baby!” She giggled, smile so wide it threatened to split her cheeks. “You didn’t say anything wrong at all! You just surprised us, that’s all.”

Danny looked confused. “How come, Pen?”

                Something like heartbreak flashed over Spectra’s face, and Walker moved to float beside her. “We just didn’ know y’all loved us best, bud. It’s a big piece a news.”

                The little boy glanced up at the stars – well, what passed for stars in the Zone, anyway – and then looked back at them. He’d come so far in such a short amount of time, but Walker still couldn’t get over the scars that lined his face and peeked out from under his shirt. Danny had been shattered, almost irreparably, by the people who were supposed to love him most. And he’d somehow found the courage to love them anyway.

                “I do,” Danny murmured, serious as a sermon. “I wuv you an’ Pen bof bestest. ‘s why I twy an’ be good. ‘cause you good an’ I don’ wanna make you hate me like I did Mommy an’ Daddy.”

                It was the most they’d managed to pull out of Danny concerning why he thought he was such a bad boy, why he was so afraid to mess up or do anything against what they recommended for him. Walker felt his core freeze in his chest once the words connected. Holy crap, is that what he thought?! That everything that happened was his fault?! That he’d somehow made his parents hate him and that he could do the same to other people?!

                If he ever found the punk’s parents. . . .

                For once, it seemed like Spectra had been muted. She just stared at Danny, arms trembling and eyes glassy with horror. Her throat worked. But nothing came out, just a strangled whimpering noise that made Danny hug her tighter. Walker understood what she was feeling. It was like a punch in the chest, having to listen to this little boy tell you that he was terrified of making the people he loved most hate him. That he loved them and was still afraid regardless.

                “Danny, kiddo, I need y’all to listen to me, okay?” Walker floated until his shoulder brushed Spectra’s, one hand resting on the top of the kid’s head. “There ain’t nothin’ you could do to make either one of us hate you. Ever. We love ya to the stars an’ back, bud, an’ nothin’ in this world or the next is gonna make us stop. Got that?”

                Eyes widening, Danny looked up at him like he’d pulled down the moon and put it in his pocket. “Y-you mean it?! Pwomise?”

                This time, Spectra answered him. “We promise, baby. Cross my heart.”

                Gnawing at his lip, Danny reached up with both hands and patted her on the cheeks. “Pinky pwomise?”

                Her smile was awfully watery, but she offered him a pinky nonetheless. “Pinky promise.”

                Danny sealed the pact solemnly before turning to look at him with big, serious non-eyes. “Walk? Pinky pwomise?”

                Walker didn’t like making promises unless he could keep them. But this one he would keep without question. He offered the little boy his own pinky, a crooked grin spreading as they hooked together.

                “Pinky promise.”

                Usually, Danny didn’t like making big, sudden moves. Like he was scared of going too fast, scared of someone lashing out at the slightest provocation. Which was perfectly understandable given how he’d died. But neither one of them seemed ready to be near-squeezed to death by an excited four-year-old. Walker suddenly found his head pressed right up against both Danny and Spectra, the smell of strawberries and cream washing over him.

                “I wuv you,” Danny choked out, body trembling with the force of his newfound courage. “I wuv you lots.”

                Spectra was shaking right along with him, and Walker heard tears in her voice when she answered. “We love you, too, big man. So, so much.”

                Jeremiah Walker didn’t do emotions. He wasn’t particular to hugs, kisses left him decidedly uncomfortable, and thinking about anything that didn’t deal with anger or frustration left him grasping at straws.

                His kids, it seemed – particularly this one – were an exception.

                Without thinking twice about it, he put both arms around Danny and Spectra, pulling them hard against him. Danny giggled near-hysterically. Spectra buried her face in the little punk’s hair, even as one hand reached up and grasped the back of Walker’s jacket. They were shaking. But something told him it was the good kind of shakes. The kind you got after a good cry or a tense situation resolved.

                “Love you, brat,” Walker rasped. “Don’t forget it.”

                Danny nodded. “I won’. Wuv you.”

                They stayed like that for a long time, floating above the property with nothing but the stars overhead to keep them company. Eventually, though, Danny’s tiny voice broke the moment, little hands twisting gently in the fabric of their shirts.

                “Walk? Pen? I go’s a question.”

                Beside him, Spectra cleared her throat and managed to answer. “And what sort of question do you have, baby?”

                Danny glanced up, worrying his lip between his teeth in a sort of nervous tic. Walker clucked his tongue softly and pulled it out from between the little teeth. “Come on, big guy, none of that. Y’ll hurt yerself again.”

                Without his teeth to trap them, it seemed the boy’s lips had a mind of their own, and he blurted, “Does dis mean you an’ Pen won’ ta’e me back ta Mommy an’ Daddy? I don’ has ta go back, right? ‘cause I don’ wanna.”

                Both Walker and Spectra had the same idea.

                “Punk, y’all ain’t goin’ anywhere!”

                “Hell no, you’re not going back there!”

                Danny blinked at them in shock, silent and startled by their combined outburst. Then he looked Spectra dead in the eye and said, “Dat’s a quarter in da swear jar, Pen.”

                Walker couldn’t help it.

                He nearly fell out of the sky because he was laughing too hard to stay airborne. Spectra didn’t seem to think it was as funny as he did, though, cheeks burning as she bounced the little boy back onto her hip. Danny himself kept giggling, albeit a bit nervously, and the giggles became full-blown shrieks when Walker darted back up and snatched him.

                “Tell ‘er, punk!! Swearin’s against the rules, ain’t it?!”

                The four-year-old nodded, still giggling. “Uh-huh!!”

                Spectra gaped at him in outrage. “Quit poisoning him, Walker, I’ll swear if I want!”

                “No, Pen! No swear, p’ease!”

                The glare that Walker received probably should’ve killed him. Or at least cowed him. But this was just too dang funny to pass up. He kept chuckling even as Spectra elbowed him in the ribs – which hurt, dangit, her elbows were sharp – and shot past him towards the house.

                “I hate you, Tex.”

                “No ya don’t, sugar. Otherwise, we wouldn’ be here talkin’.”

                “Shut up.”

                “Does ‘is mean I won?”

                “Not by a longshot, Grandma Clampett. Not by a freakin’ longshot.”

                The last growl echoed through his lair bounds, and Walker almost felt a little intimidated. But that didn’t keep him from grinning smugly as he and Danny touched back down, the kiddo perched on his shoulders. Little hands with freezing fingers gripped his ears, and he could feel a little core thrumming gently against the back of his head. It felt right.

                “Walk, don’ be mean! You make Pen mad. An’ dats no good.”

                “Punk, y’all might just have a point.”

                Walker plucked Danny off his shoulders and strode back into the house, finding Spectra curled up on the couch with a pout. Immediately, the kid stretched towards her, wriggling until he was tucked back into her chest and under a blanket. His eyes drooped, a content smile on his thin face as fingers trailed through his hair, and Walker sat himself next to them.

                “Wuv you, Pen. Wuv you, Walk.”

                Spectra kissed his forehead and snuggled down into the couch. “We love you, too, baby. Don’t forget that, okay?”

                Yeah. . .

                This felt right.

Chapter Text

                sometimes, when he plays, danny thinks too much.

danny has been with mr. walker and ms. penny for a long time now. lots of days, all strung together in a row. he thinks that they missed christmas, but that’s okay, because he doesn’t really like christmas all that much anyway. he has his own bed, his own toys, clothes and shoes and he gets food every day, three times a day, and it’s wonderful. grilled cheese is his favorite. or maybe pancakes? mac n’ cheese? it’s amazing and wonderful, all the things a good little boy gets, so he isn’t quite sure why they do all this for him. but it’s so much better than beat you break you skaal-pulls hurt hurt hungry why, mommy, what did I do wrong? before so he doesn’t ask questions.

                even though mr. walker says he can and ms. penny asks lots of them, danny doesn’t like asking a whole lot of questions because sometimes they hurt. they hurt a lot.

                that’s okay.

                because he gets to wake up with his rocket pjs on and eat breakfast on ms. penny’s lap and no one ever yells at him if he wants a second piece of toast with his bacon. he gets to play games, listens to as many stories as he can because ms. penny and mr. walker do voices, much better than mommy or daddy did, and sometimes he gets to sit on the couch and snuggle under blankets. lots of times it’s just him and ms. penny, and she asks lots of questions about before, but she never gets mad when his head hurts, when he gets sad and cries. she just gives him lots of hugs and kisses and tells him he’s a good boy. that he’s safe and no one was going to hurt him.

                sometimes danny believes her.

                sometimes danny cries until he can’t and sleeps.

                and then sometimes mr. walker comes in and they go outside, watch the stars, and it’s nice. because mr. walker is big and his voice is kind of scary, but he’s always very gentle. he lets danny ride on his shoulders or hide in his coat, and sometimes they just sit and are quiet. they don’t always talk. and that’s nice, because talking is kind of scary still.

                like that time they were doing laundry and the house smelled nice, like soap and warm clothes, and then there was a beep and –

                beep beep beep goes the timer and then his arms are burning and his tummy aches and, mommy, why won’t you just listen? it’s me, it’s danny, please I’m right here don’t leave me don’t hurt no mommy stop it hurts stop yelling and I’ll tell you stop stop stop it hurts please it hurts it hurts it hurts and the timer keeps screaming and danny can’t feel anything anymore and

                danny thinks he scares ms. penny sometimes. because he answers her questions and she goes very quiet, just stares at him with wide eyes, and it makes his tummy feel yucky because he doesn’t want ms. penny to ever be sad or to be upset with him. when that happens he climbs in her lap and squeezes her as tight as he can, even though his arms are still too-skinny and scary and don’t want to work like they used to. and then she pulls him in even tighter and it’s warm and she always kisses him on top of the head like jazzy used to. it’s nice.

                he likes it here. he doesn’t ever want to leave. because danny loves ms. penny with her soft hair and big hugs and story voices. and he loves mr. walker with his deep voice and the funny way his words tilt and his big hands. he loves story time and eating breakfast, playing cars and snuggling on the couch, likes listening to ms. penny and mr. walker argue, likes to watch them pretend not to like each other. he loves getting to go flying, soaring through the air and looking at the stars and knowing that they keep him safe.

                but. . .

                what if they think he’s not good enough and what if they think he’s not smart enough and what if he answers a question wrong and what if they realize he’s not a good boy, that he doesn’t deserve this, and they stop loving him? stop the kisses and the play-fights and story time and cuddles and food and, no, he doesn’t want to go back. never ever not never.

                danny stops. he breathes. ms. penny tells him that when he gets scared or upset or lonely that he should take a second and breathe because that will tell his brain to slow down, please. and it works most of the time. so he takes a breath. in through his nose and the ache in his chest gets sharp. hold it. let the ache build. then out again.

                again. in, hold, then out.

                danny wraps his favorite blankie around his fingers and watches as mr. walker walks towards the laundry room. he’s changing shirts? fly-time! that’s his favorite and it makes his heart do a happy-flip and he knows it’s not really allowed but he bounces up and down on the couch. ms. penny is in her favorite sweater today, the soft green one with the big neck that he can fit under and stick his head through. she made sure that he got to wear his favorite overalls. they’re his favorite because they’re soft and his most favoritest color, blue, and his bee shirt smells like nice, like rain.

                they’re going flying!!

                “Danny, baby, I know you’re excited, but you know better. Don’t jump on the couch.”

                but! but! wanna see stars, pen! wanna fly!!

                ms. penny makes air rush through her nose at him, something mr. walker calls a “sigh” but she’s smiling so danny isn’t scared. “I know, sweetheart. We’re waiting on Walker. You just need to be patient, okay?”

                danny doesn’t like being patient but ms. penny asks nicely, so he drops. his shoulders droop. oh -kay. . .

                he likes making “o” sounds big and long, just so she knows that he’s a little bored, but ms. penny smiles at him and fluffs his hair. she does that a lot. he doesn’t mind, likes it because it’s nice and safe and it means she loves him, right? that there’s no hurt-cut-skaal-pull right?

                behind him, mr. walker laughs.

                “Alright, punk, what d’ya say we go flyin’?”

                flying flying flying!! danny twists and he can’t stop smiling even though it makes his face ache and his eyes hurt, and he just can’t help but bounce a little bit more. flying is his favorite, even though he’s not sure how people can do it, but that’s the way things are here. he thinks that mr. walker and ms. penny are superheroes. they’ve just gotta be. they might say they’re ghosts and all ghosts do this, but danny knows better, knows deep in his tummy that they’re both superheroes. like batman or wonder woman.

                that’s how come they saved him.

                ms. penny makes her air-noise again and he can see her roll her eyes, but she does that a lot. sometimes he thinks her eyes are broken ‘cause she’ll smile at mr. walker right after she does it even though she’s pretending to be mad, but he doesn’t think mr. walker notices. grown-ups are weird.

                “Danny. . .” uh-oh that’s the warning voice. “No jumping on the furniture.”

                he knows he’s not supposed to, ms. penny, but it’s flying! danny thinks these rules are much easier than the before-rules no talking tell us where our son is stop lying tell us the truth or we’ll break you hurt you smash you and yelling yelling yelling but sometimes it’s hard to remember them. ms. penny always tells him that mistakes are okay, and so does mr. walker, but danny doesn’t like making mistakes because what if?

                then there are big hands on his ribs and they’re rough, like old leather, and danny giggles when mr. walker picks him up. it’s nice, being up so high, ‘cause he knows that mr. walker is strong and tough and nothing can hurt him when he’s up here. most of the time, danny sits in the bend of his elbow because that’s easiest, but sometimes he gets to ride on his shoulders and those are the funest.

                “Don’ go ignorin’ her now, punk. She’s awful cranky on a good day. Make ‘er any worse an’ she’ll turn into a dragon.”

                dragons?!!! ms. penny is pretty and sometimes when she gets mad at mr. walker her eyes turn red, but danny doesn’t think she actually turns into a dragon? if she does that’s the coolest thing ever, even if it sounds very scary, so he’s just gotta ask, so he turns and looks at her and says you turn into a dragon?!

                and even though ms. penny looks angry at mr. walker, she smiles at him. makes him feel very special.

                “No, baby, I don’t turn into a dragon. But that doesn’t mean I don’t bite on occasion.”

                she looks at mr. walker when she says the last part, and he goes very stiff, even when ms. penny walks past them and out the front door. danny doesn’t understand. but grown-ups are weird, so he doesn’t try to. he just wants to go flying, but he’s kind of scared to ask? he still doesn’t like asking for things because what if they get tired of him asking and everything just goes away? that’s what happened before and he still doesn’t know how to be a good boy all the time, but he can still try right?

                so danny bites the inside of his cheeks for a second and tries to be brave, asks, walk? we gonna fly now?

                it’s scary to ask for things, but danny’s learning that it’s not so bad, because mr. walker smiles at him. crooked at the edges and a little rusty. but special ‘cause it’s just for him.

                “Yeah, kid. Let’s go – think y’all ‘ll be able ta go higher today?”

                danny doesn’t always like going high because it makes his tummy swoop and drop and the aches come back, green-sticky leaking from his eyes, and then he can’t breathe can’t breathe can’t breathe but flying means he can be an astronaut or a superhero. he can go high in the sky and watch the stars and even though sometimes it’s scary, he thinks he can reach out and touch them. it makes danny think he isn’t always gonna be scared. that he be a good boy.

                so he grins even though it pulls and nods until it makes his head go spinny. mr. walker laughs a little and that makes him feel good, ‘cause mr. walker doesn’t laugh a whole lot. but he laughs for danny. he also laughs for ms. penny, but he doesn’t let her know that, and danny thinks that he’s never gonna understand grown-ups. jazzy would probably know what was going on. but he doesn’t. so that’s fine for now.

                danny tries not to wriggle too much when mr. walker puts on his coat, which he needs because it’s always cold even when he’s not outside. and then he gets a shoulder ride, giggles popping in his tummy like bubbles when mr. walker does his funny crouch-walk to get through the door. he likes being able to see things even though he would rather have someone hug him. sometimes, danny thinks, you have to trade one thing to get another. he told that to ms. penny once and she’d smiled at him and said it was a bit like sharing.

                he wishes sharing didn’t make his tummy ache.

                outside is cold, but it’s nicer with his jacket on even though it’s cold in the center of his chest, like his heart has a brain-freeze, and danny holds a bit tighter to mr. walker’s head. ms. penny is standing in the yard and she’s got her arms crossed. she’s got a funny look on her face, kinda like the one mommy would get when daddy wouldn’t eat his pancakes fast enough in the mornings, and danny thinks she looks a little cold. she’s not wearing a coat, just her sweater. how come she doesn’t wear a coat?

                “Are you two almost ready? Because I’m cold and want to move to warm up.”

                danny thinks ms. penny is very smart but sometimes she does things that make him confused. like when she tells him to eat his veggies – broccoli is the worst – but won’t eat her green-beans. or when she lets him have the blanket even though her feet are cold. mr. walker makes a funny snorting laugh.

                “Should’a wore a coat if you were cold, sugar. Danny here’s all dressed for it.”

                he is and mr. walker’s right, so danny nods again because you gets a cold, pen. a coat is important.

                at least, he tries to say that, but sometimes his words don’t come out quite right, like there’s a funny jump between his brain and his mouth. ms. penny doesn’t seem to mind though. she smiles her special smile and floats up to him – which is so cool and he wishes he could do that! – to tap his nose with her pointer finger. it’s tickly and silly and just for him, and it would make him very happy if she wasn’t still shaking.

                “You’re absolutely right, precious. But I don’t have a coat here, so I’ll have to be tough like you, hmm?”

                danny frowns. no coat? ms. penny should have a coat. they’re important, and if he can have a coat even though he’s a bad little boy, then heroes like her should have coats too. it’s not fair. so danny wriggles against mr. walker until he’s allowed to get down. which doesn’t take very long, big hands around his ribs, and then ms. penny is letting him huddle up against her. and she is cold, he can feel her shivering. that’s not good at all. because superheroes should be warm, should be taken care of and ms. penny is the best, so he doesn’t understand why she’d do this?

                so he pats her cheeks very gently and says, i keep you warm, pen. don’t be cold please.

                except the words don’t quite come out right and it makes him kinda mad, but he doesn’t want to make ms. penny sad, ‘cause sometimes when he gets frus-ter-rated it makes him cry and ms. penny looks like she wants to cry too. he’s trying to be a good boy, honest, but it’s very hard.

                being four-years-old is hard.

                but this time ms. penny smiles at him and it makes her eyes dance like starshine. danny giggles when she bounces up, up, up into the sky, so high he can reach up and touch the stars even though they still seem very far away. and he doesn’t really like going fast all that much, but it makes him laugh anyway, that swoopy, sinking feeling in his tummy and ms. penny kisses his cheeks when he giggles, hugs him tight and it makes him feel so happy. he doesn’t want this to ever go away. he’ll be the best boy ever if he can just stay here, where there’s no yelling and no hurt and nothing but lots of hugs and kisses and food.

                ms. penny squeezes him one more time before mr. walker flies to them. his arms are crossed, and he’s got a look on his face like he’s trying to pretend he’s upset but is half-smiling instead. danny wraps his arms around ms. penny’s neck lets his cheek set against hers.

                “Yer downright spoiled, y’all know that? Could’a just asked me for a coat, but no, you gotta take my boy an’ make him keep ya warm.”

                sometimes it’s hard to tell what mr. walker is saying ‘cause his voice is so funny, but this time danny understands. and he frowns because, yes, he’s mr. walker’s boy but he’s also ms. penny’s boy? isn’t he their boy? can he not be both? it’s very confusing, but ms. penny doesn’t seem very upset. she’s laughing and kisses the top of his head again.

                “It’s not being spoiled, Walker. I can’t help it if Danny loves me best. He’s got good taste. Unlike someone I know. . .”

                . . . loves her best? does he love her best? danny knows he loves both of them, but he doesn’t think he loves either one best. what if she hurts mr. walker’s feelings?! that’s no good. it always made him very sad when someone hurt jazzy’s feelings, and he doesn’t want anyone else to get sad like jazzy used to. not now, not never. and mr. walker’s face scrunches up, his arms crossing tighter, and he gives ms. penny a very dirty look.

“Now that’s just downright rude. Yer mama didn’t wash yer mouth out enough as a kid.”

                danny remembers mouth-washing. it’s gross and yucky and no, mommy, i’m not lying not lying please don’t hurt me mommy, no it tastes bad can’t breathe too many bubbles can’t see or breathe and no mommy i’m so sorry!! it makes his tummy ache thinking about the taste. ms. penny has a funny look in her eyes, like the kind she gets when she and mr. walker are about to argue, and danny doesn’t like that. he doesn’t like the arguing ‘cause that means yelling screaming breaking glass cuts hurt hurt hurt please don’t people aren’t happy and getting along. everyone should get along. and ms. penny just isn’t right this time, really she isn’t, so he has to stop her before she says something mean. and so he opens his mouth and, pen, don’t be mean! i love you both bestest! comes tumbling out, scratching at his throat with sharp nails.

                it goes still.

                they stare at him, ms. penny and mr. walker, with big eyes and open mouths and danny feels his chest start to ache, tingling all the way down the big letter-scar that sits there. and oh NO did i say somethin’ wrong? ‘m sorry!!

                he wants to crawl in a hole and hide and the thick-sticky is crawling up his throat, squeezing until the air whooshes out of his lungs and he doesn’t want to go back, he’s sorry he said the wrong thing. his body is starting to shake again, bones freezing under his skin and he’s so cold, why can’t he just be a good boy? just once? he wants to be good, wants to stay and never ever leave and. . .

                then ms. penny hugs him hard and she smells like raspberries and danny squeezes back as hard as he can. he’s still not very strong, his arms and his hands and his everything too skinny, but it makes the sick-sticky feeling go away. she doesn’t hate him. she doesn’t hate him. and then she laughs, smiles so hard it looks like it hurts and danny feels his heart do a happy dance.

                “No, baby! You didn’t say anything wrong at all! You just surprised us, that’s all.”

                surprised them? how come, pen?

                and then she gets that super sad look on her face, the one that she gets when she asks a hard question about the before-time, when there was skaal-pulls and yelling and lots of hurt, and it makes danny want to crawl in a hole and never come out. but mr. walker is there all of a sudden, and he’s smiling a little bit, so he can’t have been all bad, right? can’t have ruined everything, right?

                “We just didn’ know y’all loved us best, bud. It’s a big piece a news.”

                they. . .

                they didn’t know?

                danny looks up at the stars and wonders why they look so far away, if they grant wishes and he hopes hopes hopes with everything in him that he can say this and not ruin everything. but ms. penny is still hugging him and mr. walker has his serious grown-up eyes so maybe he can be brave and do this. he can tell them. they won’t hurt them ‘cause they’re superheroes and they promised.

                so danny opens his mouth again and the words come scratching out, saying, i do. i love you and pen both bestest. it’s why i try and be good. ‘cause i don’t want to make you hate me like i did mommy and daddy.

                and everything just kind of clicks together like puzzle pieces and danny’s tummy aches, ‘cause ms. penny is looking at him and she’s crying. he’s made her cry. and mr. walker doesn’t say anything, just looks super sad-mad. oh no oh no oh no oh no he didn’t mean it, please don’t be sad he doesn’t mean it and he wants to take the words and swallow them and let them sit in his tummy like the bad medicine mommy used to give him but that’s not how words work and so he just hugs ms. penny tighter. she’s making a weird noise. it sounds kinda like that time daddy accidentally kicked the neighbor’s cat, sadie, and she’d stumbled around wheeze-hissing for a long time.

                then mr. walker looks at him and he’s got his serious face on and danny listens to the way his voice tilts and falls and makes words even though something keeps whooshing in his ears.

                “Danny, kiddo, I need y’all to listen to me, okay?” mr. walker floats closer, close enough to touch and a big hand rests on top of his head. “There ain’t nothin’ you could do to make either one of us hate you. Ever. We love ya to the stars an’ back, bud, an’ nothin’ in this world or the next is gonna make us stop. Got that?”

                they. . .

                they love him?! they want him?!

                danny feels his eyes get very wide and looks at mr. walker and the whooshing in his ears is a roar, his chest very tight ‘cause he wants it to be true, wants it bad, but there’s a mean voice in his head that says liar liar nasty little ghost they can’t love you they hate you break you send you back to the before and it’s what you deserve you little freak none of this is true.

                but danny says you mean it?! promise?!

                promises hurt but this is a promise he needs because maybe, just maybe, this one won’t? it’s ms. penny that talks this time.

                “We promise, baby. Cross my heart.”

                cross my heart and hope to die, stick a needle in your eye. . .

                cutting ripping tearing so much pain it hurts mommy it hurts please and then he can’t see it’s not black it’s not white he just can’t see and he doesn’t understand why everything hurts so much but he remembers a needle bright and shiny and scary and it went in his eye and oh, no, mommy where am I please stop I’ll be a good boy I’ll be good I promise!! I pinky promise!!

                danny chews on his lips until his teeth taste funny and pats ms. penny’s cheeks with his hands. they’re cold and too-red but she’s smiling anyways when he says pinky promise?

                she laughs and holds up a pinky and says, “Pinky promise.”

                the happy in danny’s chest does a flip-flop happy dance and he turns and looks at mr. walker, who doesn’t like making promises – he can tell, ‘cause he doesn’t unless he has to – and says, walk? pinky promise?

                but then mr. walker smiles at him, that crooked one that turns up funny at the corners, like it’s rusty, and holds out his pinky.

                “Pinky promise.”

                and danny just. . .

                danny can’t. . .

                he reaches out and he hugs them as tight as he can because they love him and he’s such a bad little boy, doesn’t deserve any of this, but they love him anyways and it makes him want to snuggle close and hug them and hold tight until the stars come falling down. but he doesn’t know how to make that into words just yet so he just says i love you. i love you lots.

‘cause he does. he loves them and he’s gonna be a good boy. he’s gonna try and he’s gonna do it. ms. penny kind of laughs but it sounds wet, and he thinks she’s crying again. he can feel her shaking even though he feels safe tucked against her and mr. walker both.

“We love you, too, big man. So, so much.”

and then mr. walker hugs them both. it’s almost too tight and danny can’t stop laughing, even though ms. penny is crying into his hair and he can’t stop shaking either, but that might just be ‘cause he’s cold. he’s always cold. and they sit like that for a long time, floating in the air like superman and the stars are so pretty. so bright. he thinks his wish might’ve come true.

“Love you, brat. Don’t forget it.”

                mr. walker’s voice is quiet like always, but it’s always rough and deep and serious. but danny nods and says, i won’t. love you.

                but. . .

                he can’t stop thinking. . .

                walk? pen? i gotta question.

                one last squeeze, and mr. walker lets go, ms. penny sniffing a little bit. she answers him, though, another smile back on her face.

                “And what sort of question do you have, baby?”

                does he want to ask? they love him, does he have to ask? he bites his lip and chews away until mr. walker clucks his tongue and pulls it out. “Come on, big guy, none of that. Y’ll hurt yerself again.”

                oh, yeah. he forgets not to chew sometimes ‘cause he gets really rough and once he chewed a hole right through his lip. ms. penny had gotten real scared and she slept with him in his bed that night because she was scared he might hurt himself again on accident. but the question is gnawing at his insides, rumbling in his head and sometimes danny doesn’t really think about things before he says them so he just blurts does this mean you and pen won’t take me back to mommy and daddy? i don’t have to go back, right? ‘cause I don’t wanna.

                he doesn’t want to go back.

                they both answer him at the same time and it’s loud but not the sort of loud that makes his tummy knot up and his chest freeze and the air burn in his lungs.

                mr. walker barks. “Punk, y’all ain’t goin’ anywhere!”

                and at the same time, ms. penny yells. “Hell no, you’re not going back there!”

                and danny still thinks that grown-ups are strange ‘cause the only thing he can think to do past being so so happy he doesn’t have to go back is look at ms. penny and say that’s a quarter in the swear jar, pen.

                it makes mr. walker laugh so hard he nearly falls out of the sky and ms. penny turns a funny shade of red. danny doesn’t know if he wants to laugh or curl up in a ball, confused, so he giggles until mr. walker shoots back up and takes him, tosses him into the air and back onto his big shoulders. then the giggles are real and danny tries to forget what words are when the adults talk, only saying uh-huh when mr. walker talks to him.

                he holds onto mr. walker’s ears and looks at the stars instead. they sparkle and swirl and they’re different than the sky back home but it’s pretty, green and black and purple and lots of different colors all going on and on and on until danny can’t see where they end. it’s nice out here. he loves this place and he loves mr. walker and he loves ms. penny.

                he wishes jazzy could be here, too.

                “Quit poisoning him, Walker, I’ll swear if I want!”

                that’s against the rules so danny has to say no, pen! no swearing please!

                and mr. walker is laughing again, ms. penny glaring, and they argue some more like they don’t like each other even though danny clearly thinks they’re bestest friends. kinda like batman and wonder woman. or superman and lois lane!! except ms. penny has red hair and mr. walker could probably make superman cry. oh well – being four is hard so he thinks that being a grown-up must be hard too, so he’ll let them be weird. it’s okay.

                but he has to say walk, don’t be mean! you’ll make pen mad. and that’s no good.

                mr. walker laughs again and pats him on the leg as they fly down, down, down towards the house ‘cause ms. penny has already gone inside. “Punk, y’all might just have a point.”

                they go inside and danny laughs as mr. walker crouch-walks through the door some more even though they could just go in-tan. . . in-tan. . . the word is long and hard but it means they don’t have to open a door, can just walk through it instead.

                ms. penny is sitting on the couch and it’s warm and danny’s tired, wants to take his nap before supper, so he wiggles until mr. walker puts him down. he likes naps when they get to snuggle. because this means he’s warm and he’s safe, and lots of times she hums under his ear until he goes to sleep and it helps keep the nightmares away. he’s sleepy, wrapped up in his favorite blankie and ms. penny runs her fingers through his hair. which is really nice. he thinks mr. walker sits on the couch next to them but he’s not sure.

                love you, pen. love you, walk.

                there’s a kiss on his forehead and ms. penny says, “We love you, too, baby. Don’t forget that, okay?”

                danny won’t forget.

                how could anyone love you freak ghost bad-boy mistake bad bad bad

                he means it.

~*O*~

                Penelope brushed her fingers across Danny’s little cheek, unable to stop the smile that spread when he leaned into the touch unconsciously. It’d taken all of two days for him to get under her skin. And it’d taken less than a full month for her to do something she’d swore never to do – fall completely, irrevocably, head-over-heels for a kid that wasn’t even hers.

                Well, not biologically, anyway.

                Danny sighed in his sleep, a little crease forming in his brow, and Penelope smoothed it away with her thumb. She mumbled quiet nonsense to him. Stupid reassurances and platitudes mostly. But it worked. The little boy relaxed again, a little hand reaching up to curl around her fingers and a smile forming as he drifted back into dreams. He was so sweet. Scarred and scared though he was, Danny had to be, hands-down, the kindest, gentlest little boy she’d ever seen. He was soft-spoken and curious and he loved with every inch of himself, even though he was pretty-well terrified of his own shadow.

                And he had her and Walker, Texas Jackass to help him, of all the fucking people.

                Poor kid – the universe had dealt him just the shittiest hand of luck.

                “My, my – isn’t this a pretty little picture?”

                Ice flooded her chest. Warning claxons screeched and bounced off the inside of her skull, and Penelope whirled to put herself between Danny and. . .

                “Bertrand?! How the fuck did you even get here?!!”

                She’d been trying for a hissed complaint. What came out was a strangled gasp of panic and dread. Bertrand, it seemed, had assumed a form that lurked more on the edge of eldritch than she was accustomed to. He reclined against the closed door. Loomed over her with a nearly seven-foot frame. Jagged yellow fangs gleamed out from his condescending smile, and his eyes remained solid red. Cold, mocking, remorseless.

                Hungry.

                Bertrand shrugged, and the motion would’ve been elegant were it not for the unnatural twists in his shoulders and spine. This form jerked like a puppet with cut strings.

“Oh, sweetie, I know it’s been a long time since we’ve seen each other, but I would’ve thought you’d remember I know things.” She didn’t like the way his voice danced, just on the edge of too-casual. “Walker’s lair is secluded, yes. But it’s not impossible to find.”

The grin widened and suddenly he was in her face, a massively clawed hand brushing against the edge of her jaw. “Did you honestly think I couldn’t see you out here? That I couldn’t see you wasting your time playing house with that oaf of a warden and a brat with no eyes?”

                Keep him talking. Keep him focused on you. Don’t let him fixate on Danny.

                Penelope tried to ignore the panic pulsing behind her eyes like war-drums and glared at her the shape-shifter with all the venom she could muster. “No – I just thought that if you could see me out here in the Zone-boonies, you’d have the common fucking courtesy to get me the fuck out of here.”

                A slow head-tilt. Like a dog or a child in the midst of pulling the wings off a butterfly. Penelope could feel anxiety creeping along her skin. Bertrand’s grin was widening, saliva dripping off yellow teeth and the soft red glow of Danny’s night-light gleaming in his eyes. The hand that had brushed elegantly across her jaw a second ago moved like lightning. She hadn’t expected it.

                Stupid, stupid, fucking stupid. . .

                Penelope gasped silently as long, bony fingers dug into her throat. He lifted her bodily to eye-level, expression cool as he watched her feet kick nearly a foot off the ground. She didn’t need air. But for most in the Zone, breathing was a vestigial instinct from life. Ghosts couldn’t die of oxygen-starvation. But the panic surged forward regardless, and she clawed at the hand pinioning her to the far-wall.

                Bertrand lifted another finger to his lips in a shushing motion. Black hair that smelled like rot brushed her cheeks. Penelope kept their stare locked even though she wanted to puke. Didn’t try to break eye-contact because she couldn’t risk him glancing at Danny, focusing on Danny, hurting Danny. Her head was spinning. Adrenaline pounded in time with her core.

                “Hush, dýrr,” he crooned, “you’ll wake the poor little tyke up. They are so precious when they’re sleeping, are they not?”

                No.

                No!

                A snarl curving her lips, Penelope fought harder against his grip, squirming until she’d wriggled enough to sink her teeth into the meat of his hand. It tasted like cold, slimy fish and blood, but she didn’t let up until Bertrand snarled quietly and let go. She dropped, coughing.

                “Don’t you dare fucking touch him!!” Penelope couldn’t breathe properly, but that didn’t mean he had a free pass to touch her kid. “I’ll rip your fucking eyes out!”

                And then he was in her face again, massive frame pinning her down against the floor. He was heavy and cold and venom dripped from the fangs in his jaw as it stretched into a gaping maw, stretched violently around a hiss that sent terror rushing through every nerve in her body. An over-long tongue lapped at her cheek. Penelope shuddered, tears in her eyes.

                “Careful, little raven,” Bertrand crooned. “You should think carefully before running your mouth like that. It gets you into trouble. Isn’t that what your precious warden friend tells you?”

                It was, in fact, something that Walker told her frequently. But Penelope just bore her own teeth in a growl and spat out a curse or twelve. Bertrand chuckled, neck craning around to get a good look at Danny.

                Danny, who slept peacefully not four feet away. Danny, who was so scarred from his own death that he suffered horrific nightmares. Danny, who could wake up at any moment to see her pinned down by some shape-shifting eldritch asshole with absolutely no regard for anything resembling morals. Danny, who loved her.

                Danny, her boy.

                “Do you honestly think you can be what he needs?” Though his voice had not risen from its demonic pitch, his tone was conversational. “You feed on misery, piyavka. Just like me. How in the world do you think to keep that from an innocent little thing like him, hm? And why are you taking so long to move in for the kill? He’s so delicious – why not just feed until you can’t? It’s what I want to do.”

                Penelope started struggling against his grip again, feeling bruises already starting to form around her wrists and neck. “You stay the fuck away from him!!”

                There was a sickening moment of realization in Bertrand’s eyes, and she felt her stomach heave. “Ahh!! I get it now! You actually love the little brat, don’t you?! Oh, Penny, Penny, Penny, whatever am I going to do with you?”

                Get to Danny. Get him off and get to Danny and. . . what? Get Walker? Run away? Doesn’t matter.

                Get to Danny.

                Penelope struggled some more, spitting out curses all the while. But it was useless. Bertrand held her effortlessly. He chuckled, the sound like nails in a blender, and brushed his mouth against the shell of her ear. It made her skin crawl with disgust.

                “You’re never going to be good enough to help him. You weren’t good enough then, and you’re not good enough now, and you’re going to fuck him up, just watch. I could help you, Penny darling. We could be so strong together. Come back. Bring the kid and come back and I’ll fix everything. You’ll see.”

                He was good with words, Bertrand. It was what sucked her into his vortex all those years ago. What made him so unsuspecting and seemingly harmless. Little shape-shifting Bertrand, hiding behind nasty Penelope with her vicious tongue and cruel heart, whispering in her ear. He was so easy to overlook. To disregard.

                Sometimes, monsters hid in plain sight.

                She could feel tears burning the back of her eyes. He’s not right. He’s not right. He’s lying. Get to Danny. Get to Danny.

                “You need to leave.” Penelope took pride in the fact that her voice didn’t shake. “Now.”

                Bertrand sighed, breath hot on her throat, and she bit down a sob when his nails raked trenches in her forearms. Red eyes came back into view. His stare was intense, probing, malicious. He could probably taste her fear. She hoped it tasted like shitty, bottom shelf liquor.

                Judging by the amusement spreading on his slimy face, that wasn’t the case.

                “If you say so, little piyavka. But try to think about what I said, hmm? I’m a little tired of sitting and watching you play house with the warden. You’re nothing without me. You never have been, and you never will be. Why would you think that this boy and that man will make any difference?”

                Without any form of warning, he leaned forward and crushed his mouth to hers, tongue snaking its way past her lips and down her throat before Penelope could even attempt to fight back. She gagged, fists pounding against the shifter’s thick shoulders. She tasted blood, rot, expensive wine. It was nauseating and violating. And it ended just as quickly as it started, Bertrand taking care to slap her viciously across the face before phasing through the wall, a passing farewell scraping her raw nerves.

                “Goodnight, Penny darling. Sweet dreams. And remember!” He passed out of sight, devolving into a formless mass of black and green ectoplasm. “I’m watching.”

                Penelope sat there in the dark, shaking, terrified. She didn’t know how long. Long enough for her ass to grow numb and her split lip to scab over. Her cheek throbbed. Her throat burned. Her wrists pounded in time with the core in her chest. She couldn’t decide if she wanted to puke or curl up in a ball and cry. The room smelled vaguely of damp and rotting flesh.

                She didn’t move until Danny whimpered in his sleep, caught in another nightmare.

                Mechanically, Penelope got up from the floor and made her way over to the bed. Danny twitched under the blankets, curled in a tight ball to protect his middle. The crease between his eyes had returned. He muttered to himself every now and again. Little words, strung together to make her chest ache.

                “No, Mommy. . . ‘m sowwy. . . . don’ wanna . . . no p’ease!”

                Swallowing around the pain in her throat, Penelope crawled into bed next to him, burying her face in his thick hair as she cradled him close. Her eyes burned. Everything ached. She still couldn’t quite decide if she wanted to be sick. But Danny needed her. And she was starting to think she needed him. Because she hadn’t experienced a moment of true, genuine panic like that in a long time.

                “Hush, baby,” she whispered, voice a little raw. “I’ve got you. No one’s gonna hurt you. Shush, now.”

                Danny snuggled as deep into her as he possibly could, whimpering a bit. “No. . . don’ take ‘er. Leave ‘er ‘lone!!”

                “Shhh. . . I’m right here, baby. It’s alright. I’m right here.”

                “No. . . I’ll be good. . . P’omise!”

                Penelope choked down her own emotions and closed her eyes, humming softly for a moment before whispering, “You are so, so good, Danny. I love you so much.”

                After a second, Danny started to calm, little hands bunched in the fabric of her tank-top.

                “No one will ever hurt you again.”

                She let the first tears fall, and held her boy as close as she could without waking him. You’re never going to be good enough for him. . . You weren’t then, and you aren’t now. . . You’ll fuck him up, just watch.

                “I promise.”

~*O*~

                “Jesus fucking Christ, Em, will you calm down for a sec?!!”

                That was entirely the wrong thing to say, and Johnny cursed his inability to keep his damn mouth shut for about the thirtieth time that day. Ember whirled on him, all green eyes and a shit-ton of fucking fire wrapped up in a package that stood about 5’2”. With her platforms she might’ve been 5’5” but that was stretching it.

                Didn’t make her any less fucking terrifying.

                “Tell me to fucking calm down one more time, shit-for-brains!!” Ember shrieked. “I swear to God, I’ll blast you into the next damn millennium! This is the last damn time Papa pulls this shit on me, I mean it!”

                Johnny groaned and rubbed the back of his neck, glancing over at Taylor, who was staring at his little boots with a guilty expression plastered all over his chubby face. “C’mon, Em. You know Pops has his reasons for everything. I’m sure he didn’t mean to leave you with Tay-duty at the Truce Party this year.”

                Tay-duty involved keeping their (former) youngest brother from blowing things up or generally being a complete shithead the whole night. Which, in theory, shouldn’t have been that difficult. But nothing was ever simple where Tay was concerned. Especially bored Tay. Especially bored, upset, cranky Tay who had been expecting to see Pops at the party and instead got some half-assed excuse about not feeling “up to it” that year. Along with Bullet saying that they couldn’t go see him at his lair.

                Which Johnny totally fucking understood, dig? But that didn’t make it any easier to explain to his sister, who was ready to bring hellfire and demonic screeching literally raining down on their heads. Because Tay had decided it’d be a great fucking idea to go and wish for something stupid like a laser canon from Desiree for Christmas. And, of course, the wish-bitch granted it because she was a fucking asshole.

                It’d been almost a week and they were still cleaning up charred scales and drywall from the venue.

                Behind him, Skulker uncrossed his arms and called out to Ember. “Quit blasting, damn you! I’ve just had this armor upgraded.”

                “Fuck you and your armor, borg boy!” Ember shrieked. “If I don’t get myself an actual fucking explanation in the next three seconds, everyone fries!!

                Johnny broke out in a cold sweat. He watched Taylor gulp, the little guy’s eyes widening as he tried to shrink in on himself. Shadow was writhing anxiously in the back of his mind – fire and shadows didn’t exactly mix – but Skulker seemed unfazed. The hunter growled around a jaw full of metal, flame mohawk jumping in irritation.

                “It takes more than three seconds for an explanation, and you know it, Ember,” he growled. “So come down here and stop acting like an infant before I make you. You’re setting a poor example for the whelp.”

                Of all the people in the Zone, it had to be Skulker that could calm his sister down?! Johnny couldn’t help but breathe a sigh of relief when Ember’s eyes stopped threatening castration. She crossed her arms, guitar slung (wonderfully) over her back as she touched back down to earth in front of Tay.

                “Fucking fine, alright, just tell me why Papa couldn’t give me a better excuse than ‘I’m not feeling up to it.’ That shit was weak, and I deserve better.”

                She wasn’t wrong. But Johnny still felt nervous about telling this many people about Danny. That poor kid had been seriously fucked in the membrane. And, knowing Ember and Tay, they’d be hella excited to meet the new “baby” of the family. So excited they’d ignore the Tell Pops You’re Coming Over rule. And then they’d probably either a) scare the poor kid shitless or b) get their internal organs rearranged by Penny after they successfully completed option a). None of that sounded even remotely appealing.

                But here the fuck they were.

                Johnny sighed again and slouched back against his bike. “Alright, none of you can tell anyone about this, dig?”

                Tay immediately perked up. “What? Is it a secret?! I getta keep a secret?! Sweet!”

                Without skipping a beat, Ember cuffed him upside the head, ignoring the loud yelp and smell of burnt hair that followed. “Yeah, yeah, we know all about Papa’s anal-retentiveness when it comes to privacy. Now fucking spill.”

                This was going to end so badly. . .

                “Pops got a new arrival sometime in November. A little boy named Danny. He’s been out at the ranch with Spectra trying to get him settled ever since.” The words tasted a little clunky, but that was the best he could come up with for the moment. “Poor kids really fucked up.”

                Tay’s reaction was exactly what Johnny had expected. He leapt into the air, grin so wide it bordered on painful to look at, and shouted, “I’M THE BIG BROTHER NOW?!!”

                And three, two, one. . .

                “What the fuck do you mean Pops has been out at the ranch with a new kid?! Without telling us?! What kinda fucking stupid-ass bullshit is that?!!”

                Johnny groaned and scrubbed a hand down his face. “Em, you’re not listening. Danny’s really messed-up. Like I accidentally gave him a panic-attack the first time I met him messed-up. Like the kid doesn’t have eyes messed-up.”

                Ember froze. Taylor froze. Hell, even Skulker froze, and that asshat usually considered kids good target-practice.

                “What do you mean he doesn’t have eyes?” his sister finally asked, frowning through her swirling eyeliner. “Like, his eyes are damaged or he’s blind or. . . ?”

                “No,” Johnny cut her off, “I mean he doesn’t have any fucking eyes. It’s just big pits of ectoplasm. Apparently someone had cut ‘em outta his head before he died.”

                Ember turned vaguely green at that. Taylor started shaking.

                “Holy shit. That’s fucked up. . .”

                Johnny nodded. “Yep. ‘s why Pops had Lieutenant Fuck-nut Shang-hai Penny. He said he couldn’t deal with it all on his own, and she’s the only one in the Zone with that kind of psycho-mumbo-jumbo to help him.”

                Taylor blinked up at him with wide eyes. “Holy shit, wait, you mean Spectra’s living with Papa?!”

                Another cuff to the head and Ember barked, “Don’t swear! You’re not old enough for it!” She then turned to Johnny with a grin. “Penny and Papa, huh? This I gotta see.”

                Dread crept down Johnny’s spine even as Skulker groaned behind him. He thought he caught a muttered, “Not this shit again” but didn’t want to comment.

                “No. . . NO! C’mon, Em, my ass is still in hot water from the last time I showed up without giving him a warning! Even Kitty told me it was a bad idea! Don’t go doin’ somethin’. . .”

                Both Ember and Taylor shot off towards Pops’ layer in a haze of smoke, shouting at each other about a race as they went, and Johnny came to the sudden, sickening realization that he should have stayed the fuck in bed that morning. He turned and looked at Skulker, who seemed utterly resigned to his fate.

                “Guess we gotta go after ‘em, huh?” Johnny muttered.

                “That would be the best thing to do,” Skulker replied, rockets extending from along his cybernetically-enhanced spine. “But that doesn’t mean I have to like it. Ember might be her Papa’s favorite girl, but I’m decently sure he still hates me.”

                Johnny laughed and revved the engine to his Harley up. They both took off after Ember and Tay, leaving the lonely pile of rock to float through the Zone.

                “Dude, Pops fuckin’ loathes you. You’re gonna die. Again.”