Durden and Jackson strolled up the gravel road that passed the clearing where Alice sat flatten its patch of earth. The Kokezaru noted the smile that crept up on Jack’s face as the tail tips of the Osprey Class cargo ship appeared over the horizon followed by the long body that made up the Looking Glass. Alice. That smile meant that something. It meant that she had gotten to the mechanic. Jackson was part of her crew.
Dru clapped him on the shoulder, laughing. “What?” he asked, confusion replacing the subtle smile.
“Nothing, Jacks,” Dru replied.
“Random fits of laughter,” the mechanic shook his head, Durden’s laughter apparently a little contagious, “not generally considered a mark of sanity, Dru.”
Loomed larger and the two men veered off the beaten path. “That just means I’m qualified for what’s probably going to go down when we knock on your friend’s door.”
“So that’s the plan huh,” Jackson nodded, “we go and demand they hand her over?”
Dru made a bit of a clicking noise, “I wouldn’t so much say demand. I’m a thief, Jacks, not a kidnapper…” He ran a hand through his short mess of hair. “Captain’s not seeing the big picture.”
Jackson shoved his hands into his pockets, “Well admittedly he’s had a rough few days.”
“When it comes to the people I care for,” Dru squinted against the bright reflection of the sun that bounced off of Alice’s gleaming hull, “I don’t really have time for someone and their rough days.”
Alice’s cargo bay door opened wide. Copper and Ty stood at it’s entrance, “Good to see you boys back.”
“Ain’t staying long, preacher,” Dru propped his right foot up on Alice’s cargo door. He looked up at Ty, “You ready to do this?”
Tyler nodded, “Let’s go get our mei mei.” He hopped off the metal plank and joined The other two.
The old preacher leaned in against the Hydraulic tube that held the ramp in place. “I don’t suppose you’d listen if I suggested I tag along.”
“We ain’t looking to get nobody hurt, Shepherd.” Dru stood back upright. He nodded to Jackson,”Jacks here’ll keep it on the level if you’re worried…”
Jackson looked between the twins then back at Copper and smiled, “Yeah ’cause that has worked out so well up to now.”
Tyler smirked, patting the mechanic on the shoulder, “Well, then you’re carrying just in case, right?”
Jacks chuckled, “Have been every moment since I met you two.”
The electrician, who was extra dirty today, finally came around the side of the ship hauling a large bag behind him. “Hey guys.” He dropped the bag and rested his hands on his knees. “Why’re we all sittin’ around outside?”
Copper Jones’ face looked grim. “Just a spot of foolishness, I think.”
“You worry too much, Preacher.” Durden walked over to Joe.
“It comes from spending time with you boys.”
Dru winked at the boy, crouching beside him. With a finger he poked the bag open and gave a look over the cornucopia of goods within. He nodded with a impressed smile. “Nice haul, son.” He hefted the bag of goods over his shoulder.
He smiled proudly, glad to be earning his place. “Thanks. Took me all day to get the platinum for it.”He wiped his cheek with the back of his hand, leaving it dirtier for his effort. “Got lucky most ships don’t have an onboard electrician.”
The bearded Kokezaru messed the hair on the boy’s head. “Almost as lucky as we seem to be to have one, I wager.” He carried the heavy sack back to the ship and put it in the expecting arms of Shepherd Copper Jones.
“Let’s just hope that luck follows close by today,” Ty quipped.
“Come on,” Durden’s smirk tugged his beard apart. “What’s the worst that could happen?” He walked back over, joining Jackson and his brother.
“Nice, Dru,” Jacks shook his head with a small chuckle, “I don’t suppose you could not tempt fate on this one?”
Ty threw his arm around the mechanic’s neck. “You should know my brother a little better then that by now.” He gave him a tug. “Lets go make some friends.”
The three men traveled around the edge of the town instead of venturing through it. Their talk mostly consisted of the usual indulgences in levity that the brothers seemed to rely on in both those anxious and relaxed situations. It was remarkable how easily they could go from a smile and a joke to a bullet in the chamber and a barrel in your face. A lot of the conversation seemed to revolve around the girl in question, Vanya Jahnatt, as the two brothers reminisced over her time with them. Jackson was beginning to understand not just how important she was, but why.
Before terribly long the dark heavy lines of a Dragonfly appeared ahead of them. Easy money said she was the Repose. Even from the distance they could see the ship was worse for wear. She was heavily charred with carbon scoring. Large parts of her outer hull stuck out with jagged and sharp edges where the metal had pulled apart.
Ty’s gate slowed. “She doesn’t look so hot…”
“Kieth said they hit a spot of trouble.”
“Looks like it was a big spot,” he said shaking his head.
Keith walked out of the cargo bay leading a tired looking older man with a badge. A few steps behind them Drax was following. “About five were sucked out through the hole in the hull and two were left alive.” Keith glared over his shoulder. “Or they were alive, one of my crew got a little overzealous interrogating them.”
“Did you find anything out?” The lawman asked.
“One of them was a tenor.” Drax said and then hung his head once he realized Keith had heard.
“Nothing of worth.” Keith shook his head. “They were told not to kill the women and children which was why they boarded but beyond that we don’t know anything more.”
“I best put some men on them children then.” The lawman nodded. “Poor kids, they deserve better.”
John leaned against the cargo bay bulkhead listening to the conversation. He silently stroked his chest over the wound that the pirates had given him. He was in a quiet mood at the moment, but that silence was not peaceful. He had said his goodbyes to the kids, and he had no illusions of the children staying or anything. He just felt like he was letting himself get too attached to things. He had always had that problem. John just wasn’t in a talkative mood at the moment. He interjected with a uh-huh now an then as Keith needed talking to the fed.
Across the field at the line of trees the three men watched as the few members of Repose’s crew conversed with a local representation of the Law. Even in a place as off the range as Triumph the Alliance managed to hook their fingers in. It made the brothers nervous. With Matarazzo on the prowl there was no telling who was in his pocket.
They waited until the sheriff was out of sight. The three men left stood in the shadow of the huge Dragonfly. Durden jogged his head and they started back on their way. They kept their hands from their weapons, making their approach seem as peaceful as possible. “Afternoon,” Durden called out as soon as they were in earshot.
Keith’s eye snapped to Durden and then quickly over the others. His hand twitched slightly to the gun at his belt but did not move. Drax’s weapon was already in his hand, seemingly from nowhere.
A moment of recognition passed over his face. “She ain’t here.” He turned to look at Wright. “These are the gents from Vays past who say someone’s out to get her.” He looked back at Durden. “I’d welcome you in if you don’t mind the mess. We could use some extra hands, and I think we have some things to talk of.”
“You want I should watch them?” Drax tried to whisper.
“Drax, I’m tired of fighting before I know what the chou ma niao is really going on.”
“They didn’t know gosa. You said I could kill ’em.” Drax said in a matter of fact vocal cadence as he looked at the captain implying that it was a bit late. “I’m gonna go…do somethin’.” With that he turned and walked away from the group.
The Brothers Kokezaru shared a subtle look and watched the thick stranger move past them and head toward town. “We don’t mind a spot of mess,” Dru said looking up at Kieth’s ship. “Looks like it couldn’t have been helped.”
John watched the three men as Keith talked to them with a suspicious eye. He felt like he had no business with them. Keith had obviously talked to them ahead of time, but had told him nothing. Strange men from Vanya’s past showing up left and right, and the ship still banged up to boot. John stood straight and grabbed his purple coat laying it over his arm and casually looking at the black Alliance infantry patch on the sleeve before pulling out his communicator and putting it to his face and calling Vanya. He signaled her twice, but there was no response. He put the device down, and turned to walk inside.
Between the thug that walked out and the older man, years their captain’s senior, that retreated back into the ship without a word, Tyler was becoming more and more certain that Vanya would be safer with them. Kieth, hell his whole crew so far, seemed on the verge of breaking. Stressed and stretched thin. “What happened here?” he asked, watching the man leave.
John stopped as the new man spoke wondering if the question had been directed at him. Looking at Tyler. “We were ambushed by pirates. They tried taking the women and children, but we stopped them. And now, they’re burning in Hell.” John said with a hint of a chill. “Thankfully, none of them got hurt. You’ll see Vanya soon.”
Jackson leaned over to Durden. “Maybe we should wait out here.”
“John, you need to take it easy.” Keith eyed his first mate. “You deserve some rest.” He turned to Dru. “Follow me and we can talk when I’m a bit more clear headed.”
“We have a Shepherd back on the ship who’s pretty handy with a scalpel and a bandage. If worse comes to worse his day job comes in handy for those occasions that are beyond his skills.” Durden followed him up the plank with Jackson close behind. Tyler gave a look around them for safety sake and followed suit.
“I was a field medic in the war, shrapnel isn’t anything new.” Keith rolled his eyes. “Soldiers who don’t understand the meaning of bed rest isn’t either.”
“I guess in the trenches it doesn’t matter what side of the war you were on,” Dru’s eyes lingered on the coat draped over John Wright’s arm, “people are still people. Except when they’re not.”
“Purple is like brown, it seeps into your blood even when it shouldn’t.” Keith shrugged.
John’s eyes wavered from one man to the other as they spoke. He scratched his beard and sighed.”The war’s long over and done. Purple, brown, red… blood is blood these days. At least it should be… now. Maybe it always shoulda’ been that way. The Verse has too many of those ‘when they’re not’s in all the wrong places still ruining people even all these years later. I’ve had my fill of it.” His eyes narrowed at the three men. “I might have a word with your man, and I’m much obliged. Been a while since I made it to a service.”
“Preacher’ll do you right,” Tyler said.
Keith led them into the ship and up into the lounge area. “Take a seat, we have a lot to talk about.”He stood leaning against the counter. “Tell me again, how would she be safer with Alice?”
Ty and Dru both opened their mouths at the same time to speak, but it was Jackson’s voice that was heard next, “Let me say this. I’m the most impartial person here. I don’t know Vanya. I know you, Keith,” he pointed his index finger at the captain of the Repose, “and I know these boys here,” he then pointed at the twins. “If this lady means this much to all three of y’all shouldn’t you want the absolute best for her? Wouldn’t it be better to think of her own best interests then having this gorram pissing contest?”
John bemusedly chuckled to himself listening, then looked to the others. “Pissing contest’d be pointless. That woman does what she wants; whether best for her or not. What we decide here don’t amount to much regardless how we feel about it. Just have to wait and see which breeze fills her sails for the horizon. No reason to fight over it at all.” He sighed a quietly waiting a moment in thought then looked around. “Anybody else want a beer?” He walked over to the galley opening the fridge.
Both Ty and Dru raised a finger. “The man speaks the truth.”
Tyler nodded. “Which is why we’re here to convince her, not you.” Of the two he had always been the more direct. As it had been in the war Durden was the finesse on the ground, and Tyler was the air support that hammered it home.
John walked back and gave the twins each a brown bottle, and popped the top on a third. “Well, good luck with that.” He pressed the glass to his lips and took a long pull at his bottle. “I’ve known you fellas for all of five minutes, but I would pray she were to go with you than anywhere with Mason… Duke… whatever you want to call that long tongue.” He drank from his bottle again.
“Duke…” The brothers spoke, each of them with a bottle halfway to their lips. The name seemed to stun them both. Both bottles returned to the table untouched.
John took another big sip. “Wait till ya meet ‘im. He’s a hoot.” he said dripping with sarcasm. He looked at the twins, and then to Jackson. “Or have you already met?” he asked raising an eyebrow and hanging his purple coat on a nearby rack.
“No.” Though it had taken a bit for her to admit it, Vanya had spent much of her time with the Brothers Kokezaru searching for Duke. They’d done everything in their power to help her find him but it was to no avail. Their feelings for the man were mixed and hearing that she had found him that was only more apparent. “We haven’t had the pleasure.”
“You’re both right, this isn’t about me or my crew or about how any of us feel about it, but she is my gorram passenger at the moment and much more my friend. If she is going to be with you I want to know how you are going to keep her safe.” Keith took the beer from Wrights hand and put it back in the fridge. “I will drug you if that’s the only way to make you sit still.”
John looked at his empty hand a second then at Keith with a raised eyebrow wondering what he was off on. Then he sighed and shrugged deciding not to dwell on it. “I’m hardly raising a ruckus sir, but I can go seek some peace elsewhere if you’d prefer. I hear there’s a Shepard in town. I think I’ll go see about some.” He nodded to the others and walked out heading back to the spiral stairs to the cargo bay.
Durden took a long pull from his bottle. He waited until Wright had left before speaking. “How long’ve you been captaining of this ship, Saruwatari? A few months? A year?” he asked, setting the beer down. “In the last 10 minutes I’ve seen two members of your crew walk out on you… ”
“What was your name again?” Keith asked.
“Well, Dru, I just lost a damn good pilot who was sweet kid. The kid didn’t know how to shoot a gun for nothing but that didn’t stop those bastards from filling him with holes. John, on the other hand, took shrapnel to the chest and then decided that he would still fight. As a doctor I’m damn proud he is up and walking and as a captain my first priority is getting this ship back in order which my mechanic is doing.” He paused. “Is there even a halfway decent scrap yard or dock on this rock?”He stopped again, realizing what he had forgot. “As for Drax, well, he’ll come back since I pay him. If he stays then he stays, if not then I need to find more muscle. And if you aren’t going to at least respect me in my ship then I ask that you stop drinking my beer.”
“I ain’t here to disrespect you,” the beareded man slid the bottle forward across the table. He paused in thought a moment before continuing, “You keep asking how we’re going to be able to take care of Vanya, how she’d be safer with us. I’m wondering if you might could use a step back and see how well you’re caring for her and your crew right now.” He looked the captain of the repose in the eye,”Do you really think you’re in a place to take on somebody like Sterling Matarazzo?”
Keith cocked his head to the side. “We are talking about the Sterling Matarazzo?”
“The same,” Ty took a swig from his bottle. “Fellow like that has enough money, enough resources, to know where you’re going before you do.” He took another swallow and set the bottle down, locking eyes with Saruwatari, “Enough money and enough resources to hide the trail of bodies too.”
“And he’s coming after Vanya? Why?”
The brothers exchanged a look. Dru shrugged, so Ty continued. “We’re of a mind that she’s the one that got away.” Keith’s brow creased in confusion. Ty looked around, then leaned forward, “There’s some that say Matarazzo makes Adelei Niska look like a saint.”
Keith’s eyes narrowed, then the corners of his mouth crept up and he tossed his head back in a heavy laugh. He looked between the brothers, assuming they were yanking his chain. The looks on their faces said otherwise, however, and his laughter faded. “Wait. Wait, you’re serious?”
“Like Ty said, lotta money-”
“Buries a lotta corpses.”
Keith drew his gun and checked that it was loaded. “When I was leaving the bar a couple of suits approached me about passage. Considering the local stock they stuck out, and they knew we’re here. Didn’t seem to mind waiting on repairs neither. Knew something about them rubbed me wrong.” His gaze shifted from one to the other. “I’m not saying you’re right but luck has been a scarce quality lately.”
“And I’m doubting time is on our side.” Durden nodded. Even if he wasn’t keen on on the idea, Kieth was tuning in. That was a good sign. “Best play it cool for now though.”