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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. . .”