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Say We're Bulletproof

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The first couple of times Johnny floats back to consciousness after the surgery, he's not really with it. He recognizes Dutch, Pree, and Pawter, blinks against the artificial brightness of the room, then drifts back under.

That's why it takes him awhile to work out who's missing from his bedside. He's disappointed, if not as surprised as he should be. D'avin ran out on him exactly once, but damn if that wasn't the one time where it fucking counted.

“He'll be here,” Dutch says, and either he's being really transparent in his drugged-to-the-gills state or she's reading him perfectly, as always. “I'm sure.”

“No, he won't.” Johnny shakes his head, with more force than is recommendable after major trauma, and grimaces through the resulting wave of nausea.

Dutch inclines her head, lips twitching with a sympathetic smile. “Keep still, you idiot. You can grumble when you're better.”

He glares at her. Anger rolls through him; he tries to swallow it along with the bile rising in his throat. People keep assuming he's a mild-mannered puppy. He's not – he's just got plenty experience at reining his emotions in and doing what everyone else needed to him to do without complaint.

“He was under mind control,” Dutch goes on, and because it goes both ways and he knows her as well as she knows him, he can tell that her feelings on he matter aren't as calm and clinical as she pretends they are either. “I told you.”

Johnny shakes his head again, slower this time, mindful of his overwrought body. “I'm not angry at him for stabbing me. That wasn't really him.”

That's her exact problem; he sees that flicker across her face. But she nods. “Okay. Then what are you mad at him for?”

He looks at her pointedly, nodding at the still visible cuts and bruises on her face.

“That wasn't really him either,” she says, but she reaches for his hand where it rests on the bed, places hers on top of it and squeezes.

What he needs to say next, she's not going to like, but he needs it out on the table. He needs this not to fester between them, at least, even though he knows it'll definitely fester between him and D'avin. Maybe because of it. Being at odds with his brother has been his default for the past nine years; he can't bear it when it's Dutch.

“I made him promise not to sleep with you,” he says, fast, rattling through the words so she won't manage to get a word in edgewise before he's said his piece. “Weeks ago. I saw how he looks at you, and I sat him down, and he promised me.”

Dutch's face darkens, and she draws her hand back. “Johnny. That's none of your business, I can –“

Of course she's not exactly pleased with that. He didn't expect her to be. “I know. I know you can take care of yourself. But I also knew it'd end like this.”

She's full-on glaring at him now, and it makes his stomach churn, being on the receiving end of that reaction from her. “What, with him leaving after a mad scientist switches the chip in his brain back on and made him go after me in a post-coital murder attempt?”

Johnny frowns at her choice of words. Ewwww. It's like hearing your parents talk about your conception. He's pretty sure that was intentional. “With us, like this. Chaos. Anger. Someone leaving,” he explains, his voice dropping down so it's a plea, urging her to understand. “I was just trying to protect us, as a team.”

Dutch sighs, her standard reaction when she does get why someone – mostly he – was being stupid, but doesn't like admitting it. “We're not relationship material.”

“Definitely not,” Johnny confirms. He reaches out, and he's so grateful he almost wants to scream when she takes his hand again, holds it so tightly it almost kinda hurts. The good kind, though – the kind that makes the ache in the rest of his body fade, that means someone loves him enough that letting go would hurt more.

 

***

 

Johnny takes his time to get back to the ship after he gave D'avin a piece of his mind, told him they don't work anymore. This is the exact thing he was afraid of, the exact thing he didn't want, and yet he feels strangely elated as he aimlessly wanders through the busy streets. Angry, empty, exhausted, but not terrible.

Everything that happened at home, and he never got to explode before. He swallowed, adjusted. He kept his head down. But he doesn't have to do that with D'avin; unlike their parents, his brother doesn't hold any sway over him. They're equals, now. For the first time, Johnny gets to be pissed at someone, right in their face.

But even so, Johnny holds on to the stupid comic with a death grip. It maybe too little, too late, but it's something. It's more than what he's ever gotten from his family. And for all that he's got the scales mixed up, it's D'avin trying, and that holds meaning.

As soon as he's back on Lucy he takes the comic out of its packaging and lays down to read. Once, twice. He's on his third re-read when Dutch appears in the door frame and he starts over so he can share yet another part of himself with her, casually, readily, the same way it's always been between them.

 

***

 

They return to Old Town, briefly, two days after the bombing. To make sure the people in the bunker survived, allow those who escaped with them to scour the ruins for what's left of their belongings, take on more survivors if there are indeed any left. Or just to come home, see for themselves, feel the loss. Johnny isn't sure. There's still some uncertainty left, the nagging feeling that says what if your brother's been burned to ashes in here after all but he shoves it aside.

D'avin is alive. He has to be.

Their little group separates and spreads out, Dutch sending him a glance when she heads off to check the bunker; she's always been braver than him. Johnny himself joins Pree in a tour of the smothering ruin that used to be his bar. If the access card didn't work, if the bunker didn't open, he doesn't need to see the bodies. Dutch may call that cowardice; he calls it self-preservation.

Pree sits down heavily on a stump of rubble and unearths the bottle of liquor he saved from his stash from the folds in his dress. He has been nursing it on and off for the past forty-eight hours. “I can't believe it's all gone.”

“Me neither,” says Johnny. And it's not just sentiment. He really can't reconcile this mess with the lively, dirty but vibrant city that sat in its place mere days ago.

Pree holds the bottle out to him, and Johnny hesitates. He's never been much of a drinker. Or a smoker, or anything potentially addictive. For a night out, to celebrate, yeah, sure, but he's the child of a drunk and an addict. Drinking for solace feels too much like a step down the wrong road – tempting fate, or more to the point, an assumed genetic predisposition.

But Old Town is a burning rubble and D'avin is missing, possibly dead, so fuck it. He accepts the bottle and takes a long swig, then passes it back.

“Do you think he's somewhere in...” Pree trails off, indicates the ruins with his free hand. “Well, in there.”

Noise from the direction of the tunnels saves Johnny from having to answer that – not only to Pree, but also to himself – and next to him Pree jumps, one hand pressed to his chest.

A group of people, led by Dutch and Pawter, marches their way. They're covered in dust and look exhausted and bone-tired, but they're alive, they made it, they're safe. And even though they were there when the townies headed to the bunker, Johnny still finds himself scanning them for his brother, foolish hope surging in his chest. His eyes meet Dutch's, and she shakes her head slightly.

 

***

 

A few days after they left Westerly for good, Lucy wakes him in the early hours of the morning. He sits up, phantom pain from his scar shooting up his spine because he's done it too quickly.

“What's going on?” Johnny asks.

“A transmission,” the ship's voice informs him. “For you and Dutch.”

He swings his legs out of bed with a groan, runs a hand down his face. “Origin?”

“Unknown. I can't trace it.”

Sliding into a randomly picked pair of pants, Johnny curses. He's got a theory as to who sent that transmission, and the realization is followed by both fear and another wave of treacherous hope. What else would Khlyen contact them for?

Dutch joins up with him in the hallway, her hair in disarray, presumably also wearing the shirt she slept in and what else she managed to find within easy reach. They all but run down to the cockpit together, and once they're both settled, Johnny instructs Lucy to play the transmission.

Khlyen sits full center of the screen, obscuring a grass field, a tree line visible in the distance.

“Hello, little bird,” he says, his tone almost melancholic. It makes Johnny's blood turn to ice; he can only imagine what it must do to Dutch. “I figured you might be worried what happened to your little solider.” That's when he steps aside to reveal D'avin, sitting on his heels with his hands folded in his lap, his palms bloody.

Johnny hears Dutch suck in a breath. He himself feels numb, frozen in place, unable to move even if he wanted to do so.

“Don't worry, child,” Khlyen continues, now full creeper-mode, patronizing, like he is indeed chiding a foolish little girl. “I'll return him to you in prime condition, provided he behaves himself.” He sends a reproachful glance towards D'avin. “You sure know how to pick them. This one is... resilient.”

Judging from the way Khlyen spits the word out, he doesn't consider that to be a point in D'avin's favor. Johnny's chest tightens further; his brother has always been stubborn as a fucking mule. Figures that might be what got him killed.

The transmission fizzles out into static, and Dutch turns, terror in her eyes. She doesn't show any other signs of distress, the instinct to hide her feelings behind a veil of indifference taking over, instilled in her by the very man they just saw on the screen.

Johnny wracks his brain for something to say, coming up empty. He reaches out to touch her arm instead, but she stands up so fast it makes her sway, almost losing her balance, and then hurries back in the direction of the living quarters.

He lets her go, stays put, feeds Lucy with instructions to analyze the transmission within an inch of its digital life and watches her progress until he falls asleep awkwardly curled into his seat.

 

***

 

It’s Dutch who seeks him out a the next night. Their passengers have made privacy a rare commodity and he knows it’s making all this so much worse for her. Dutch doesn’t hate people as badly as she sometimes likes to pretend, as long as she’s able to pick her company, the when and where. Right now, he assumes she’d prefer to be left alone, and that’s not possible. Someone’s almost always wandering around.

His door pings open in the middle of the night, finding him still alive, and he shifts automatically. Dutch doesn’t even say anything, just lies down next to him, on the covers, head resting on her folded hands.

“I made him a promise,” she says. Johnny doesn’t need to ask what she means; he’s seen the voice record on Lucy’s log, the recipient. No need to listen to it either, which he wouldn’t have done without her permission anyway. Respecting boundaries is an important part of living in close quarters with anyone, and doubly so with Dutch.

“And we’ll keep it,” Johnny assures her. He can’t see her face in the dark – the light dimmed back down as soon as she laid down – and he doesn’t need to in order to recognize the guilt that’s haunting her. He feels the same. Technically, he knows that they had every right to react the way they did, both of them, and he doesn’t regret a word he said to D’avin. But even so, there’s any number of what if’s that could have ended up with a different result, one where Khlyen doesn’t capture his brother. He can’t stop thinking about that, and if he knows her at all, neither can Dutch.

“Khlyen said he needs all of us for what’s coming.” She shifts onto her back, eyes to the ceiling. “He isn’t going to kill him.”

She says it with conviction, and Johnny only knows Khlyen from her stories, but if she’s sure then he’s sure. Besides, anything else is unthinkable; neither of them could make it through this if they expected to be searching for a corpse. But alive still leaves a plethora of possibilities, and none of them are fun to contemplate.

Johnny rolls onto his back too, so they’re lying side by side, and reaches for her hand in the dark.

“We’ll find him,” he says, because he can’t come up with anything better, and also because that’s a fact. They will. No matter how long it takes or what they’ll have to do, they’re going to get D’avin back.