It isn't the impending murder that's grinding Danny's nerves, not really. It's the fact that the kid, baby-faced and just shy of adulthood, is doing it all wrong.
He's got a wine bottle in his hand, of all things. It's broken, somehow, even though those expensive flasks are damn hard to shatter the way this one's been; all jagged edges and dark, dripping beads of Merlot, running red like the blood of the guy the kid's five seconds from stabbing.
They're in a well-kept yard two feet from the sidewalk. It's dark. Only one streetlight, barely enough to catch the wine's gleam. Danny doesn't even think.
"Evening!" He can feel the kid flinch against his palm when he claps him on the shoulder, the same way he feels the drip drip drip of the Merlot on his shoe when he uses that same hand to rip the bottle from the kid's grasp. "The missus and I just wanted to know if you're settlin' in okay?"
The older man turns and frowns at Danny, and wow, Danny hasn't seen a mug that mean since his old days back in the service. But there aren't any superior officers giving him side-eye here; there's only this tellingly stout man and the frail, trembling kid who wants to murder him.
Danny juts a thumb over his shoulder and grins the way people have told him is charming. “Yeah, I live just across the road. Down there.” He doesn’t. “My wife’s been wondering who the new neighbours are.” She hasn’t. “Good to finally meet you.”
The kid trembles again, gaze dropping to the ground, and it isn’t.
“Oh! Neighbours, huh?” The frown on the man’s face evaporates so quick it damn near gives Danny whiplash. Then he’s seeing teeth in a smile, one that screams of a bad coffee habit and too many Crest Whitestrips. “Thanks for coming by. We’re still unpacking, but I wouldn’t mind a wine break. Please, join us.”
He’s extending his hand, and Danny finds himself gripping it with a bit too much force. He’s never been able to stand liars.
“Danny Delfino.” He’s dropped the bottle somewhere in the overgrown grass, and he can feel the kid burning at him as he and the older man walk across the lawn. It prickles his skin like so many needles, shards of a bullet under his flesh. “And you are?”
“Russ Gallagher. That's my son, Jamie.”
Jamie. Something about the name jolts Danny’s gaze back to the kid, who’s walking over to them all hunch-backed and wide-eyed. It’s shellshock, Danny thinks, before he remembers that the medically-approved term for it is PTSD, Post-Traumatic-Stress-Disorder, and that for some reason this scrawny teenage kid has got it.
Got the gaze of a soldier. Got eyes that have seen war.
Danny abruptly remembers the lash of a belt on his back, a memory that’s decades old now, and he can guess exactly where the battlefield is.
“What’s your poison? I’ve always been a Merlot man, myself. I know, I know, I should prefer single malt or something, right?” Russ says, laughing all hearty, then, “Jamie, where’s that bottle of Redigaffi?” and the heartiness is gone.
“I don’t know, dad.” It’s barely even a mumble, and the kid’s so white-faced Danny’s surprised he hasn’t keeled over yet. “Maybe in the house?”
“The house? You unpacked it already?”
The kid glances at Danny, shoulders still curled in on himself, and doesn’t look away. “Yeah. I’m sure it’s in there somewhere.”
Russ smiles tightly. “Well, if you’re sure. Sorry, Danny, but I promise this stuff is worth the wait.” He half-turns, then pauses. “Actually, do you wanna invite your wife over, too? Might as well share.”
“Thanks, but she’s already turned in for the night.” Danny shrugs, sending Russ a rueful grin. The fake wife has always been a useful excuse, and she doesn’t fail him now either. “Summer evenings like this one always get her real drowsy.”
“I hear ya. Jamie’s mother was the same, before she passed.”
There’s a weighty silence where Russ looks at Danny expectantly. Another few moments elapse and the frown starts to come back a little.
“I’ll go get the wine.” And then he’s disappeared into the house, the last streaks of dusk illuminating the stacked boxes in the foyer before the door clicks shut.
Danny glances at the half-empty moving van parked in the driveway, next to the shattered Merlot bottle. He wonders if Russ offers wine to the movers, too, or if he only plays nice for the people he has to see again.
The kid — wait, wait, Jamie. Suddenly Danny knows: the name’s so familiar because one of the guys in another unit had a kid named Jamie. Cute little thing, with a button nose and a pretty pink dress on. He was always showing her picture off. Danny can’t remember the man’s name, but he remembers the red-pressed fingerprints on that tattered photo, right next to his IED-blown body.
Jamie. It’s a sad name. And the kid it belongs to is still staring at him like he’s got something to say.
“What?” says Danny, when he gets tired of waiting. “I won’t tell, if that’s what you’re worried about.”
“I’m not worried about that.”
Danny blinks, and it’s like the kid’s unfurling before his eyes. His back straightens and his gaze, although still frightened beyond belief, is trained right on Danny’s and unwavering.
“How did you know?”
Danny glances at the door; Russ still hasn’t come out. “How’d I know what, kid?”
“What I was about to do.” The war-torn eyes still don’t stray, and Danny notices the fading yellow around Jamie’s gaunt cheekbone. It matches his hair. “And why’d you stop me?”
“Because murder is generally frowned upon,” Danny says, eyes still on the door Russ hasn’t emerged from. “Because you’re, what, seventeen? And seventeen-year-olds don’t kill people.”
Jamie says nothing. He’s staring again, Danny can feel it, and goddamn if the eyes of this fucking kid are making him wanna squirm out from under them, when nothing’s made him squeamish in years. Decades.
A few more seconds of this and Danny sighs, cracks. “Because you’re doing it wrong, kid.”
It’s like a beam of light shines out on the scarred battlefield in this kid’s head, and he steps forward. There’s a wretched, feverish gleam in his eye that Danny both recognizes and fears.
“Tell me. Teach me. What do I have to do?”
It’s Danny’s turn to stare. “What?”
“Tell me how to kill him. Please.”
Jamie is pleading. He’s pleading, and Danny is filled with so much sudden rage he can’t look him in the eye anymore. He swivels his head around to the house, the house Russ still hasn’t come out of, and seethes.
The place is swankier than what Danny is used to, with a pretty-looking porch and lots of — what, hydrangeas? — lushing up the front garden. It’s not like he’d been planning on walking to this part of town, with its cookie-cutter residentials and bright green lawns, with the kind of people who can afford to smash a bottle of vintage fucking Merlot like it’s nothing. He should’ve just stayed at home and waited for his next job like a good little hitman, just sat and been grateful he wasn’t dead somewhere overseas.
Why did he always have to stick his nose into things? This isn’t the fucking Karate Kid. Teach him, sure, like Danny's got Murder For Dummies crammed up his sleeve. Like he's got a crash course on body disposal prepped and written and classroom-ready. No. Danny's kind of expertise is reserved for dead men walking, men who’ve toed the line between life and death far too long to come out unscathed. Men who have nobody, not even a name for their imaginary fucking wife.
A seventeen year old kid? Danny would die first.
But then there’s a hand on his arm, and Danny’s glaring into the eyes of someone who’s lived far beyond seventeen years. They're war-torn eyes. Punch-yellowed eyes. Desperate, dangerous, old and young and dead-set eyes. It’s like looking in a mirror, or maybe through a time machine.
Danny sighs, deep and long-suffering, and heads towards the house.
They’re outside again. At some point during the quiet affair in Jamie's home, the outer world had started to rain. Danny tries not to think of it like the sky’s weeping for what this kid has lost.
They’re crouched in the mud, wrapping Russ’ body up in a bedsheet. Danny will take care of what comes next, of course he will, but Jamie’s insisted on helping out. The only reason Danny lets him is because the deadness has finally lifted from his gaze, and that’s such a fucking relief that Danny almost forgets to feel guilty.
Sure, there’s a little bit of sorrow in Jamie’s face now, a little bit of rage. But there's also a little bit of life, and it's been so long since Danny's left anyone with that look in their eye that he already knows he can't give it up for anything.
Still, Danny thinks he oughta do something about sorrow and the rage bits, so he starts talking about the first thing that comes to mind.
“Y’know, they say there are three things wise men fear.” Danny pauses in his wrapping and snorts at himself. Maybe this is the fucking Karate Kid. “Not that I’m anythin’ close to wise, mind you. That’s just how the sayin’ goes.”
Jamie glances up at him. The hairs on his arms are standing on end, translucent and glistening in the spray, and then Danny's preoccupied with finishing so they can get out of the damn cold. He’s so focused that he, for once, doesn’t notice the weight of Jamie’s stare on him until the kid speaks up.
Danny almost starts. “So what?”
“What do wise men fear?”
Jamie’s gnawing on a fingernail, bitten down to the reddened quick, and Danny’s this close to batting his hand away from his mouth. He scowls down at the body beneath him instead, tying a knot with too much force, and suddenly the fact that this kid’s survived thus far with the world’s shittiest role model is a wonder to him.
“Three things that wise men fear. One, the sea in a storm.”
The rain beats harder, and Danny blinks the water out of his eyes. It’s moisture that reminds him of old tears, muffled and aching and bone-deep, ripped from the sobbing chest of a boy who hadn’t been ready to kill.
Jamie wipes his sopping face. “Yeah? What’s two?”
“Two, a night with no moon.” A streak of lightning sets the world on fire, just long enough to make the dark that much deeper when it’s gone. Danny can still see the kid, though, and the grimness in his gaze prods at all the soft, squishy places in Danny that the war hadn’t managed to roughen.
Jamie’s looking a little uneasy now; he’s swaying on the balls of his feet, and before Danny can think better of it he’s got a hand on his shoulder, steadying him. Jamie’s face sort of crumples, like he might cry, and Danny pulls his hand away real quick. He pretends not to notice the jagged scar curving along Jamie’s collarbone, right where his palm had been. It matches the shape of a ring on Russ’s scrubbed-clean fingers.
Danny’s seized by the sudden impulse to hurt someone, but the object of his rage is already dead at his feet, so he continues, trying and failing to unclench his fists.
“And the third thing wise men fear,” Danny says, letting one gloved hand thump down on the corpse’s chest, “Is the anger of a gentle man.”
Jamie’s eyes fall to the body, then dart back up to Danny, and that’s it, he’s done, they’re filling with tears. His end of the cloth drops out of his hand onto the mud-damp ground and he’s crying, sobbing, into nothing but air. It sounds too familiar, and all Danny wants is to stand up and stomp away and leave this stuff behind him.
“Hey, kid, it’s alright. It’s over,” is what he says, though, and then Jamie’s somehow in his arms, just crying his fucking heart out. Free.
And Danny’s not a father, not even fucking close, but he can’t help but think that maybe he’s the type of role model this kid needs. A record of all the things not to do, so he doesn’t end up in the same place twenty years from now, comforting some other sad, desperate boy with shit luck and a knack for making bad choices.
He can do that, Danny is sure. He’s not wise, nowhere close, but he’s not stupid. Not dead anymore, either.
He’s cold, sopping wet from the rain and Jamie’s tears, alive, and for now, that may be enough.