“We’ll get him back,” Dutch tells him and he believes her.
He’s lost his brother before and he doesn’t mean to do it again. Once is an honest mistake. Twice is just sloppy. He tells Dutch as much and she laughs with him. A little too loud, a little too long but he doesn’t hold that against her. They’re splitting a bottle of hokk between them, supposedly celebrating the fact that they now have Lucy to themselves again. No more shell-shocked Old Town survivors cluttering up their ship, clinging to each other like useless children.
John’s always thought of himself as a fairly decent human being. As such it’s taken him by surprise just how much he’s resented the survivors’ presence on Lucy. Although perhaps it’s not so strange. After all, they made for constant reminders of what’s been lost. Old Town’s gone, and with it The Royale. The people who used to drink there, they’re gone too. The customers who’d sung and brawled and knocked their shoulders into his as they pushed past him on the way to the bathrooms. The sexers that he’d slept with, for joy or sometimes even for free. Even the faceless mass of Company men in their dark uniforms and heavy boots. All gone.
At the thought his chest tightens and he has to lean forward to rest his forehead against his arms as he gasps for breath.
Not all gone, he reminds himself. Some had survived. Alvis. Pree. Pawter.
And D’avin. Yeah, D’av too, of course.
They’ve always sparred a lot, Dutch pulling her punches (except for when she doesn’t) and John crowing each time he makes contact. They smack talk, insulting each other’s skills and lineage. It’s juvenile and ridiculous and absolutely the glue that holds them together after shitty missions on shitty little moons. Well, that and the well-aged hokk that they stock in the rec room and the fact that John loves Dutch more than anything else in the galaxy.
This time’s different though. This time there’s something raw and ugly humming underneath his skin. Something that’s older than the two of them. Something that’s been festering away inside of him for a decade and now burns through him like acid. He breathes hard, his heart slamming against his ribs and his hands clenched into fists long before Dutch steps onto the mat. She’s busy braiding her hair into a tight plait, making it look easy as she tugs each strand into submission.
“Ready?” she eventually asks.
In response, he launches himself at her. She effortlessly side-steps, tutting at him as he tumbles face first into the mat. A quick roll and he’s up again. He can’t keep still, moving back and forth with his hands raised and his knees lightly bent. Dutch keeps her eyes on him but doesn’t shift from where she’s standing, as solid and rooted as a tree.
Meanwhile the humming under John’s skin’s getting louder and harder to ignore. He attacks again, a flurry of blows that she blocks without breaking a sweat. A swipe of her leg and he’s on the mat again, gasping for breath like a sixth generation miner as he stares up at her. She’s definitely not impressed, eyebrows knitted together and mouth pressed into an unhappy line.
“What the hell’s gotten into you,” she demands, her voice as sharp as Fancy’s daggers.
Instead of answering John twists, grabbing her by one ankle and pulling her down next to him. She immediately slams her free heel into his wrist, sending a flare of pain all the way up to his shoulder. A smooth backflip and she’s on her feet again. He follows, far less graceful in his movements. Keeping his bad arm close to his body he then takes a moment to catch his breath before he rushes her again. This time he very intentionally drops his right, offering her an easy target.
Like any predator, Dutch automatically takes advantage of weakness. He absorbs her blow, breathing through the burst of pain as he throws his arms around her. For a moment they grapple, like children on a dusty road. He outweighs her and should be able to use that to his advantage. Yet it comes as no surprise when he ends up pinned face down against the mat. She twists his good arm, applying just enough pressure to keep him from struggling.
“I said,” she repeats, speaking slowly as if to a child, “what the hell’s gotten into you? Is this about D’avin?”
He doesn’t answer, opting instead to press his flushed face against the cool mat. His bad wrist throbs with each heartbeat. Tomorrow his entire body will ache, Dutch’s bruises covering the old, faded ones from their last mission. He finds a strange kind of comfort in the thought and admits, in the privacy of his own mind, that the pain of Dutch’s hold keeps him anchored in more ways than one.
After several long moments of silence she shifts her body, her weight suddenly pressing down over his ribs. Each breath becomes a struggle until he’s forced to focus all his attention on the flow of air in and out of his lungs. It’s a clever trick, he hazily acknowledges as his muscles go slack and the fight leaves his body. He’s not sure how long they spend like that, Dutch holding him down as he relearns how to breathe.
“Better?” she eventually asks and he’s surprised to find that, yeah, he’s better now.
(Or, perhaps he’s not surprised. Perhaps he knew all along exactly what he needed and who he trusted to provide him with it.)
“Okay then,” she says, releasing her iron grip around his wrists. “Then stop drooling on the mat, Jaqobis, and come pour a girl a drink.”
Her tone, though deceptively light, suggests that he’s far from forgiven for bringing his issues with him to the mat. And she’s right to be angry with him. It’s supposed to be a safe place, for both of them, and he just pissed all over that. He made her hurt him, even though he’s the first to argue that Dutch deserves better than to be used as a tool for his own comfort.
He’ll make it up to her though. Somehow.
As the child of an addict and as a fucking veteran of losing people who matters to him, John doesn’t do bargaining anymore. Besides, the only thing he truly and whole-heartedly believes in is Dutch and there’s nothing he could barter that isn’t already hers. So, thank the Trees for small favors, he skips right past that stage.
He falls asleep, only to jerk awake moments later.
The scar on his abdomen, all but invisible to the naked eye, itches. He shivers, even though Lucy keeps his room a few degrees warmer than the rest of the ship. Stretching out on his back, he tries a trick that Dutch taught him years ago. But even slowing his breathing and purposefully blanking his mind doesn’t allow him to fall back asleep.
Eventually, after giving sleep up for a lost cause, he shuffles out of his room. The floor’s cold and twice he stubs his toes against hard metal. Stopping outside the room that had been his brother’s, he leans heavily against the bulkhead and stares, dry-eyed and weary, at the closed door.
He doesn’t startle. In his line of work, that’s probably a bad thing.
Dutch’s hand wraps around his arm, her fingers digging into his flesh. She always does that, holding on to him just a bit too tightly. As if she doesn’t quite know her own strength. Or as if she’s worried that one day she’ll turn around and find him gone. You’d think after six years she would have figured out that he’ll never leave her.
“Johnny,” Dutch repeats, impatient and worried all at once. “C’mon, let’s get you back to bed.”
She tugs at his arm and he follows, like a dog on a leash. They walk past his bedroom though and towards hers. If he could feel anything besides the bone-crushing weight of exhaustion, he imagines it would be a flicker of gratitude.
“We really need to stop meeting like this,” she mutters, seemingly to herself as the door slides shut behind them.
When he remains standing, feeling lost even though by now he should know the script by heart, she pushes him backwards until the back of his knees meets the edge of the bed. Sitting down, he takes a few shallow breaths. He shivers again, although to be fair to Lucy it doesn’t have all that much to do with the actual temperature of the room. Dutch tugs on his arm again, not letting up until he’s curled up on his side in front of her.
Despite everything, it’s nice to be held. Dutch smells good, a familiar blend of gun oil and expensive perfume. And she’s warm, wrapping herself around him like an extra blanket. It’s more than that though. Being next to Dutch, it’s like being home. Actually home, not like his rooms in Old Town or the house he’d shared with D’av and his parents as a child. With her, he’s safe.
The shivering gets worse and Dutch holds him tighter.
“I miss him too,” she says, her lips moving against his neck as she speaks. He believes her. Just like he had when she’d sworn that they’d get him back.
“Don’t cry,” she continues, squeezing him even harder. “C’mon, Johnny. You know I can’t stand to see a pretty boy cry.”
He laughs, the sound forcing it’s way past the lump in his throat. Then he wiggles until he’s freed a hand to wipe across his face. And ‘lo and behold, it does come away wet.
“I’m not crying,” he still protests, his voice creaky like an unoiled door. And, because she’s the best, Dutch lets him get away with the lie.
Before all that shit went down in Old Town, D’av had passed him a book of prayers. A gift from Alvis.
Now John flips through the pages, squinting at the letters as he tries to make sense of the writing. It’s been a long time since he’s had to decipher something that wasn’t on-screen, presented in a single-column with only a few words per line. He finds that he likes reading the old-fashioned way just about as much now as he had as a kid. That’s to say, not at all. The looping script gives him a headache, which, knowing the scarbacks, might just be the point. Leave it to them to make reading an act of masochism.
After a while John just gives up and scans a random page. Stretching out on his bunk, he then asks Lucy to read it for him out loud.
“Fresh in life's morning you sprouted from the earth”, she recites, her voice tinny but clear through the speakers. “Fresh, fresh you grew calmly in sun and rain; anguish you did not know, nor remorse, nothing of all our sickness.”
John catches himself worrying his lower lip with his teeth, a faint taste of iron in his mouth.
“You blossom in gold and gold vine; in sighs you laugh, when the wanderer kisses your trunk,” Lucy continues. “His kiss is a prayer.”
“Thank you, Lucy,” he says, his voice catching in his throat for no reason at all.
He touches his mouth, unsurprised when his fingers return slick with blood and saliva. Without allowing himself to overthink he smears the wet mess against his own face. Over his eyes, right one first and then the left. A prayer, he thinks. An most blasphemous blessing.
To the Trees. For his brother.