"Little Britches" (ATF) Universe
Disclaimer: This is a creative tribute to and inspired by series The Magnificent Seven. I assert no copyright claim in the concept or trademarks associated with The Magnificent Seven, and have made no profit from writing this piece.
Warnings: None, unless you're squeamish about dead bodies.
He was hungry. It wasn't anything new, more a reminder of a nagging ache in his belly, gnawing at him as though it was eating itself, but he couldn't ignore it any longer. He'd tried to, had curled up and closed his eyes, and wished and wished for sleep, but between the emptiness and the noise from outside he just couldn't. He'd been lying there, wide awake, hidden up between two dumpsters, half buried under flattened cardboard boxes and mess until he was just part of it, another piece of street trash.
He didn't use to be able to sleep outside on the ground. Even in summer it had been hard. Now, in the deep of winter it was easier and easier to fall asleep--and harder to rouse himself again. He didn't know why and he didn't care. He didn't even care whether he woke up or not. In his sleep he was warm, and Mom was there, cuddling him. He wasn't hungry all the time, and sometimes he dreamed of potatoes dripping with butter, and burgers warm through, his right from the start, no bites taken out already. Fries that weren't cold and hard on his sore lips and bleeding gums. Soft bread. Cold milk sweetened with chocolate...
He groaned and buried his head deeper under his arms, wishing that someone would shut that stupid baby up.
He was never going to get to sleep if the brat didn't shut up. Now he lay there, listening to the hopeless sobs, and slowly his anger turned and changed. The kid oughta know no one would come. Didn't it know no one ever came? Only crazies and drunks, who would fight for your sleeping place, and shake you 'til your teeth rattled for money or food or bottles, and take away everything you had if you didn't run and run until your feet bled.
"Shut up!" he yelled, startling himself with his wild shriek, half afraid at his own loss of control.
The kid was going to bring the crazies flocking in. They were like rats, swarming over a dying body, tearing it to pieces to fill their own bellies.
The sobs got quieter, and he tried to go back to sleeping... but he couldn't. He stuck his head up and peered through the narrow gap onto the street. All he could see was an car, well kept but all square corners and boxy, not curved and slanted, or huge and menacing the way most cars he saw were. Old, but its tires and windows still whole, things that another few hours in this neighbourhood would destroy. He couldn't see the kid, and he almost gave up and slid back into his warm nest, when he heard the baby's words.
"Mama? Mama, wake up? Mama, please?" Little sobs broke up the words but he heard them as clearly as though he spoke them himself, and they tugged hard at a little part of him that had once said them too. He tried to pull the anger back, get it to form a shield, but it wouldn't, all he could hear was himself begging his Momma to wake up, to not go to God. To stay and love him and look after him...
He crawled out of his hiding place and crept quietly to the car. Peering inside he could see a lady sitting in the front seat. Her eyes were open, and he jerked back until he realised that she didn't see him at all. Her head was resting on the back of the headrest lolling to one side, and a long trickle of blood had run untouched from her nose past her slack jaw and into her collar.
Behind her a small dark haired boy sniffled, and Vin's eyes widened. The kid wasn't a baby, he was quite big, not as old as him, but not the little thing he had been expecting.
Somewhere in the distance a siren chirped and he startled, backing away several steps.
"Who're you?" the child demanded and Vin jerked further back. He hadn't realised the kid had seen him. He hesitated, frozen between running and going back, then sidled forwards and peered in through the window to eye the little boy silently.
"You smell," the boy said rudely, and Vin shrugged. It wasn't like it wasn't true.
"Do you know where the bathroom is?" he asked in a minute, after deciding that Vin wasn't going anywhere.
Vin shrugged again and pointed at the dumpster.
"Do you go there?"
"Can I really go? 'Cause Mama won't wake up and I gotta go bad."
"Yeah." He waited but the child didn't move. "Aren'tcha gonna go?"
"Can't get out." The kid fiddled with the child harness holding him in, and Vin frowned. The usual buckle was backed up with a long belt wrapped around and around the buckle, hiding it almost from view, and knotted tightly.
"Mama says I'm too smart for my own good." He opened wide brown eyes at Vin, "I didn't mean to s'prise her."
"Why'd she tie you up? She bad? Did she hurt ya?" Vin's suspicious nature raised its head full force.
"No! Don't say that 'bout my Mama! I was bad an' gotted out, an' she had ta inp'ovise." He patted the belt almost proudly, and then his face fell, "But I gotta go, and Mama won't undo it, and I don't want to wet myself." His eyes met Vin's trustingly. "Can you get me out?"
Vin frowned at the knot and bit his lip. "Maybe." He glanced at the silent woman, slumped away from him and the little boy, unmoving in the front driver's seat. She wasn't going to undo it. Not ever. He looked back at the kid. He was too small to leave on his own. He might die too before anyone came and saw.
No one ever came here except the crazies.
A sudden image of the crazies tearing the baby to pieces like the rats had torn apart that dead dog shook his stomach. Bile burned the back of his throat and the car door was open, his hands working on the knot frantically, tearing his fingers on the hard fabric, pulling, tugging, the baby's fingers getting in the way and then they were both tugging at it, and the fabric unwound in a long rainbow colored strip, and the baby popped the buckle and scrambled out of his seat towards his mother, and Vin grabbed him.
"I want my Mommy!"
"She's sleeping! Shhh!" To his surprise the child hushed up and put a finger over his lips, which were still moving.
"Shhh, JD, shhh," he was whispering to himself over and again, and slid out of the car, slipping a hand into Vin's reluctant grip and looking trustingly up at him. "How d'wi get in there?" he asked, tugging his new found friend towards the dumpster Vin had indicated earlier. Vin sighed and tugged the kid's shorts down then boosted him to sit across a corner of the container.
"Don't look!" he was told imperiously and he scowled.
"If'n I look away you'll fall into the poop and die." It was callous, and he regretted it almost immediately, but the grip on his hand tightened. "What's your name?" he asked after the sounds of the kid relieving himself died away.
"JD." Dark inquisitive eyes tilted towards him. "Who're you?"
"Where's your Mommy?"
"She's --" he hesitated, and changed his mind. "She's asleep and dreamin' with th'angels."
"Doesn't she wanna be with you?"
The question cut him hard and Vin tugged roughly at JD's hand. "You gitting down from there or what?" he said toughly and JD fell, scraping his bottom on the dumpster and his knees on the ground. Vin half expected him to start crying again, but instead the kid pulled his shorts up and glared at him.
"What ya do that for?" He examined his knee and wiped at the blood trickling down, licking it off his finger. "That hurt."
"Sorry." Vin's stomach growled and JD laughed, his hurt forgotten. He poked at Vin's three-day empty belly and said, "We got some crackers and peanut butter if you want."
Vin's stomach rumbled louder, and JD pulled him towards the car. "They's by my seat," he said and reached back into the car, pulling out a plastic bag. Vin almost groaned when he saw the packet of crackers, and the half empty jar.
"C'mon," he said abruptly, and grabbed at the bag.
"I know, jes' come on!" He gave up on the bag and grabbed the kid's arm instead. He'd heard a car coming. A car where no one but him and the crazies and the cops ever came. He shoved the little one into the gap leading into his nest, and then followed, crawling in behind and pulling the boxes up behind them. "Stay quiet, 'kay?"
"Why?" JD's voice was too loud and Vin put his hand over his mouth. "Shhh." He held still a long moment, until he was sure that the boy wasn't going to say anything, and lifted his hand slowly. "You gotta say something, you say it quiet, real low. Don't whisper, it's louder than talking quiet."
"Why?" JD repeated, but far more quietly, though not enough to make Vin happy. Car doors slammed outside, and both boys jumped. Vin froze. JD pressed tightly into him, one hand gripping his shirt. He slowly, cautiously, wrapped one arm around the small shoulders, and JD buried his head in his shoulder.
"'Cause they could be anybody. Bad guys, crazies, police, social," the last was uttered as the last in a list of worsening options. "We stays quiet and small, and safe in here, and they don't bother us. We get loud or run around in front of them and they'll take us away."
JD nodded solemnly.
Vin heard adult voices and froze, listening intently. He suspected that they had found the car and the occupant from the repeated "Ma'am? Ma'am, can you open the door?"
He hoped JD didn't hear when the man swore, "Dammit, she's dead. Someone get the meat wagon out here."
And then someone else said, "Did she have a kid -- look at this stuff in here, where is it?"
He held JD tighter, and rocked gently. The shouting and calling went on for a while. Someone must have found some papers or something, because after a while they started calling for John, Johnny, John-Daniel. JD burrowed closer and Vin held on. He was trying to comfort the kid, but it felt good to have the small warm body in his lap, cuddled up close, like a breathing, slightly damp teddy bear.
His back ached when he woke. They'd fallen asleep together, JD huddled close under Vin's protectively curled body. At some point they had shifted and slid so they were almost lying down, JD on the ground, Vin resting on JD. For the first time in a long, long time, he woke up feeling warm. His tummy growled again, and he patted gently around them in the dark for the bag with the food in.
Something gave and rustled and he pulled it quietly close, easing one cracker out and then opening the peanut butter reverently. He broke the cracker in two and dipped the bits into the jar, scooping up little morsels of the sweet, rich stuff and savoring it.
"You gotted crumbs in my ear." Vin grinned at the calm little voice from under him, and dabbed cautiously at where he thought the crumbs might have fallen. Sure enough, JD giggled and whispered, "That's my ear!"
Vin picked up some of the crumbs, and then impulsively licked up the rest. JD giggled again, and Vin smiled in the darkness at the happy little sound in a place where there never had been real happiness.
"You want some crackers'n'peanut butter?" he offered, and smiled again when he felt an eager nod against his chest. "Here y'go." He carefully broke another cracker in two and smeared a little of the precious peanut butter onto it. "Don' waste it, 'cause we's going hungry else."
"Okay." The stern warning didn't faze JD in the least, and to Vin's surprise, he ate quickly, quietly and neatly -- and he didn't ask if there was more. Vin knew that feeling, knew that instinct, and felt a certain kinship to the little one who trusted him so easily. They had both gone hungry. They both knew better than to ask for more. "Y'can have another one, if ya want?"
"On'y if you do," he said back, and Vin blinked. The words didn't make sense. He pulled out another cracker and tucked it into JD's hand, and to his astonishment, the baby broke it in half, not as neatly but with as much care and effort, maybe more, than he had put into it, and handed half back. "You eat it too."
Vin inhaled the cracker in two bites, and then stared still munching into the darkness.
"Why'd ya do that?" he whispered finally.
"Do wha'?" JD sounded sleepy, and a moment later he yawned.
"Gimme your food. Why'd you do that?"
JD snuggled closer and shrugged. "I like you."
Vin blinked. "Don't wanna owe you nothin'."
JD snored against his chest, a soft little sound that made him uncomfortable in some indefinable way.
"You's makin' too much noise," he mumbled, but didn't make more than a half hearted effort to wake him. "If'n I share my sleeping place, then we's even, okay? You sharin' food and me sharin' here. That's fair."
JD made no reply, but Vin nodded firmly. That squared it. His eyes closed, his stomach not twisting any more, just aching a little. If he got some water tomorrow they'd be okay for a week.
He dozed off thinking of the outside faucet on one of the warehouses.
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