His employer is right – the water is warm, and clean, and blessedly irradiated – and he luxuriates in the tingle as he washes away the ache in his knees. The few hours' walk tested him; he can feel it in his joints. He's not incapable, or slow. Mentally he's sharp as ever. His hands rub firm, harsh circles into the bend of his elbows, his shoulders, his ankles. Tendons unused to exercise strain under the pressure of his thumbs as he determinedly works life back into his pathetic, half-dead body. The radiation helps.
The bathroom is cleaner than he'd expected, although it's hardly surprising considering the yardstick for comparison includes public bathrooms that haven't been cleaned since before the war and the Potomac's filth. He's even more surprised by the small, innocuous bar of… soap? It's less of a bar, actually, and more of a sliver, but it's sticky and slippery in his hands and it smells like musk and tobacco and it's too late now because it's already disintegrating in his hands and it'd be a waste not to use it now and the water's coming away brown with mud and blood and sweat and it's going to be hell getting back into that armour now, he knows it.
With his eyes closed in this steamy room he can almost imagine it's a sleepy Sunday, and he's slept in 'til eleven, and all he's got to do is have a shower and watch the football and drink himself into a coma. The bare bone of his skull scrapes against an errant fingernail. A few pathetic strands of hair flick soap into his eyes. The illusion is broken. He finishes washing in minutes.
His employer's sitting on a ratty old couch, attempting to read a book. Attempting, he thinks, because the girls splayed out around them won't let them alone to read. Charon understands the need for peace. Evidently these girls do not.
"Shower's free," he says, selfless. If the sudden exhalation of air from under the suit of power armour means anything, Charon guesses it would be an expression of relief.
"Thank you, Charon," they rasp, extricating their self from the pile and picking their way delicately through arms and legs akimbo. They mutter under their breath as they go, and while Charon misses any exact words, he gets the general gist of it. His employer sighs, longsuffering, and the girls giggle collectively. "Make sure you feed Charon, girls. He needs his food." He almost turns to leave, before stuttering backwards again. "And rest. Don't you all bother him."
"Well, that's no fun," one of the girls grumbles, and the others seem to agree. One of them, frumpy in a Brahmin-skin hooded jacket with shaggy hair and bare feet, putters off to another room and returns with a bowl of something, which she coaxes into his hands. It's steaming, and upon further inspection appears to be a stew of some kind. Edible. From what his employer has told him, he gathers that none of these girls had… survival instincts in the traditional sense, and he finds himself – rather unintentionally – proud. Proud like a parent, or a teammate, or an army buddy, but he doesn't want to think about that because it's actually rather painful to dwell on, mentally and physically. Conditioning, or something. He doesn't spend too much time worrying about it, which is worrying in itself because really he should be more concerned about his mental processes but every time he thinks about certain things his mind just…
The stew's all right – as good as any food for which the main ingredient is rat can be, anyway. The girls very determinedly do not bother him, although the deliberate not staring and not looking and not interested is grating on his nerves a little bit, and the more he finds himself staring at the wall practicing his impression of a statue the more annoyed he becomes at the efforts of one girl to read her way through the alphabet.
And that's how his employer walks in on him talking to half the girls in the house about why they're SPECIAL.
"…and L is for Luck," he grates out past his ruined vocal chords, "although you'll be darned to find any in this wasteland."
"Should I feel offended?"
A lesser person may have jumped in the air or screamed at the surprise; Charon feels his heart rate spike a few beats.
"No offence intended," he rasps, unsure how best to placate his new employer. They just wave it off. No big deal.
"In which case," they reply, "None taken." The strange, static tension between them dissipates suddenly; his employer's attention snaps elsewhere. "Girls! What did I say about bothering Charon?"
Another luxuriously barefoot girl toes the ground and makes an effort to look innocent, and Charon reels.
"To not to?" they wheedle out, and his employer – predictably – lets them off the hook.
"I know it's a rarity," his employer sighs, exasperated maybe, "But let the man rest." The girls 'awwww' and 'but' and 'no' but his employer is adamant, ferrying him up the stairs with one hand and shooing off the gaggle of girls with the other. "I'll read to you later!" they throw over their shoulder when the complaints continue. At Charon's look, they immediately turn defensive. "Well, maybe I won't turn them into the next Tesla, but you can hardly complain. After all," they wiggle the cleverly-constructed fingers of their power gauntlets, joints clacking merrily as they do, "you enjoyed the fruits of their labour today."
Charon continues to look blank, if only because his employer tends to talk more as he talks less, and so far he has found his employer… interesting.
"Well, say what you want," – he hasn't said anything – "But I for one am glad that I no longer have to walk around smelling like the Potomac at low tide."
Charon's facial muscles manage to pull off an impressive facsimile of a look of surprise.
"They made that? The soap?"
They have once again stopped in the middle of a task to chat about stupid, aimless things. Charon hopes it isn't going to become a habit.
"Well," they reply, and darn it if the smugness doesn't just ooze out of their air filter, "You know what they say: teach a man to fish and he'll die cuz there ain't no fish in the Potomac, and the stuff they'll catch'll be irradiated to hell… Teach a woman to read, though… Well, there's knowledge untold in books. None of my girls are getting a free ride, either. I like to just think of this as a resting stop. They'll learn a trade and leave." They pause, make an aborted motion to scratch their arm. Metal scraping on metal. "That's the plan anyway." They suddenly seem to realise where they're standing and how long they've been standing for. "Sorry, you must be tired. I tell my girls not to bother you and here I am, chatting up a storm. Go to bed."
Charon stares at them.
"If that is what you order."
"It's not-" they protest, entirely unamused. "It's not an order. It's a suggestion."
Charon nearly backs down, but surrounded by this haven in the wastes, by all this kindness, he feels a rather unsettling urge to reciprocate. Hadn't his employer said earlier that he didn't need to ask for permission to speak? Loopholes, loopholes. He clears his throat to speak.
"I'll sleep," he groans, "But not in your room." He sees his employer moving to protest and cuts them off. "It's improper." They're obviously not convinced, so he continues. "Like you said, this place is easily defensible. And heavily trapped. You're safe. They're safe." I'll keep you safe. "I can take a cot downstairs." And keep an eye out.
His employer remains silent… until.
"I… would like to get out of this tin can."
"Then I'll see you in the morning."
His employer reaches up a metal-clad hand to grasp his shoulder. They're standing on their tiptoes just to reach, and it evokes something in him, a need to protect. Age has made him sentimental like that. They've known each other for a matter of hours, what's happening to him? Going soft… Their hand squeezes his shoulder gently, they rasp their thanks, and they disappear behind their door.
Sorry it's been a while, I had the flu. I know this just looks like self-indulgent character study, but really there is a point to it. Thanks for your time, lovelies, please drop me a line if you feel the inclination.