AN: I've come to the conclusion that Jason/David is very much like The Littlest Hobo, if anyone remembers that classic Canadian show, in that he's at his most endearing when helping and being doted upon by friendly strangers he meets on his journey. Here is an exploration into the first of many!
Special thanks to the lovely Project7723 for the prompt that inspired this.
(The title is taken from the screenplay and is originally a note about Giancarlo. It was such a raw line that it stuck with me until the very end of writing this.)
'I carved a path of destruction through cities,
Like a torrent of wind from the sky.
I made a name among sinners and heathens…
Woe is me, I am just a boy.'
"Stay With Me" ~ Cody Fry
The sea is not a calm and thoughtful place, like the stories always tell. It is bombastic and hissing, constantly jarring the head in your teeth. Even after years at sea, one never truly gets used to the seagulls, the waves and their maternal rocking that jangles lanterns, rolls pens across the table, creaks the doors on their hinges.
So it comes as no small shock one night when Giancarlo, stiff from the day's work, gets up for another glass of rum…
And he hears a whisper.
Lots of whispers.
He glances at the bunks to see if there's a late night cellphone call to a sweetheart in progress, but none of the boys are up. It's half past two in the morning, and they have another long day ahead of them. Though sometimes they'll stay up late, playing cards or swapping old high school stories over hot chocolate, there's an unwritten rule that unless you want to get injured the next day due to fatigue and slow reflexes—lights are out by eleven.
Giancarlo shuffles through the doorway into their improvised triage center. Surgical tools, recently cleaned, sit helter-skelter by the sink, next to their depleted stock of ACE bandages and gauze.
It's the man whispering. The one they caught four days ago like a lanky fish and sewed back together with a hope and a prayer.
"John?" The name was a joke at first, given to their mysterious guest by the crew while teasing about his 'Doe' status, but somehow it stuck. Giancarlo keeps his voice to a murmur, though there's no need with Eamon's snores. He could play the radio and it wouldn't make much difference. "John, you're okay."
Stepping closer, Giancarlo realizes John is not exactly asleep…but nor is he awake. His glazed eyes stare up at the ceiling, at the lantern swaying overhead to an incessant, oceanic waltz, and it throws bruise like shadows under his eyes in stark relief. They hardly blink. He's breathing hard, however, as if he traded in all those blinks for piston-fire panting.
His pupils dilate too far, even for the dim lighting.
"Who am I?" John breathes up at the night. His whispers run over top of themselves, all in a tangled rush. "Tell me who I am…who am I…please show me who I am…"
He repeats it on a loop, so fervently that Giancarlo can only stand there for a moment. John isn't supposed to be laying on his back, not with the bullet wounds so fresh and ready to bleed at a moment's notice. But every last hair stands up on the skipper's arms and he doesn't have it in him to berate this amnesic young man.
Something flutters around in Giancarlo's stomach, a silky winged emotion he can't name right away. It propels him closer, close enough to sit on the stool at John's bedside.
"Tell me who I am." John's voice rises, talking over Giancarlo. It's almost madness, possibly fever or infection. "I need to know who I am."
There is another unwritten rule aboard the ship, a new one—nobody ever touches John.
There are shoulder bumps, sure, an unavoidable reality on board such a small trawler. Hands brush each other often when passing the salt or a fishing line or tying knots together. John is certainly fit enough that he's started to earn his keep, just with simple jobs like cooking, cleaning, and stocking fish, which has endeared him enough to the crew that they don't worry about his added presence too much. Fellow workers is one thing…
But never unexpected touch. Never the kind that is done in the middle of the night, human to human.
Giancarlo catches John watching Picot and Eamon sometimes, the way the sailors slap each other's backs and shake hands. Picot will sling an arm around Eamon's neck while they sing a stupid song over dessert. The man's eyes are unreadable, an odd thing to Giancarlo after how earnest they were the night he stitched John's flesh back together.
Giancarlo hasn't made any kind of physical contact since that night, deterred by John's fluid attack done in a moment of confusion. Sometimes his eyes will burn, like acrid sulfur, if one of them steps too close on purpose.
He's a thug, Giancarlo thought initially. Especially after that practiced maneuver, nearly popping his shoulder out of its socket. A street kid who got popped due to gang connections.
This is his leading theory. Until right now. In a split second, Giancarlo's whole view on the situation changes. Now, those eyes don't belong to a gang member's face. They look old and like a child all at once, so blank with the upwelling gush of seeing too much that they're rendered paralyzed.
"John," he tries again. He flounders for what to say and the flutters whip into a frenzy. "You're on the boat."
But still the unknown man repeats his litany, lost in a trance world of fog and fear. His white lips move faster, louder.
"I need to know. Please, tell me…"
Giancarlo swallows. This isn't his problem, like the captain said. Feeding him until they reach land is enough, and the most logical choice here would be to walk away, maybe put another blanket over him if he's feeling magnanimous, and leave 'John' to his mental anguish. Just that much would shunt them into the good Samaritan category, at least.
Logical…Giancarlo has been accused of many things. Being too logical and practical is not one of them.
He stretches out a hand and then pulls it back, not sure if he wants to see a repeat performance. John shakes under the sheets. Sweat pours off his brow, glistening in a roiled wave as the light swings back and forth across it.
It's the hitch in John's breathing that catches them both off guard. For John, it finally gets him to blink.
His hand snaps out and onto John's shoulder before he even registers moving. There's an audible crack when John's mouth closes, teeth hitting each other, words trailing off into the soupy sound of snores and the ship's groaning.
Giancarlo's heart beats fast against his collar. He waits to see if John will sling off the grip, break his fingers in a panic.
But John just lays there, blinking up at the light, feeling the clench of Giancarlo's fingers, and breathing steady through his nose. Giancarlo takes a moment to appreciate the raw muscle under his hand, palpable even through the wool sweater. It rivals rebar, supple iron and bone. Its tremoring slows down more gradually than the words.
Who are you? Giancarlo wonders about this for several minutes before he realizes he's stuck on the same thing John is. Maybe it isn't even the most relevant question they should be asking at all. Why do your eyes look like that?
Giancarlo squeezes his shoulder again.
And finally, finally…John looks up at Giancarlo. It's a greater gut punch than any physical contact, those liquid pools of puerile fear. The fluttered wings turn into razors. They slice up Giancarlo's insides yet he finds himself smiling, just a little. It's a grim smile, to match the dazed look on John's face, but it's real.
They stare at each other for a long minute, two minutes. A hush settles over them, more befitting a church than a dirty trawler. Perhaps this is a church, Giancarlo thinks distantly; perhaps this is a cloister to ask the hard questions of higher powers while mere man bends under the full weight of his mortality.
"John," he whispers again, leaning close. "It's okay. You're safe aboard the ship and it's night. You woke up from a bad dream, I'm guessing."
John just stares. His eyes have lost their glassiness, in the present this time.
"I don't dream," he says in a croak that has nothing to do with a dry throat and everything to do with the haunted flare in his gaze. "But there are shadows, sounds."
Giancarlo nods. "Your subconscious. It knows who you are, you'll see. It's just trying to tell you."
Despite John's strung out, disbelieving gaze, he does relax. Giancarlo waits to see if he'll touch back, reach up a hand to feel the warmth of Giancarlo's…but he just turns onto his side to alleviate the pain. Giancarlo switches his hand to the other shoulder.
"Would you like some anti-inflammatories?"
John shakes his head. "I just rolled over on the bandages by accident. They'll stop throbbing in a minute. I'd rather take my meds before the first shift, stretch them out."
Giancarlo thinks back to when he was in his thirties. Had he really healed so fast then? Two bullet wounds would leave him incapacitated for weeks now, if he survived at all.
"I can sit with you," he offers. "Until you fall asleep. It might chase the anxiety away."
This, of all things, captures John's full attention. Every single muscle is trained and focused on Giancarlo for an eerie moment. In different circumstances, Giancarlo becomes aware this might not be such a good thing.
"Why?" John asks softly.
Giancarlo's brow folds. "Why what? What do you mean?"
"Why have you gone out of your way to help me?"
The flutters drop deathly still. Giancarlo looks away, throat working, trying to breathe around a strange, fiery coal in his larynx.
"Go to sleep," he says, sotto voce. "I'll be here in the morning and so will you."
There is no Internet on board the ship, and John mourns this at first—he can't do any research on amnesia—but the longer he's here, the more he has to admit it probably wouldn't help anyway. No amount of reading quells the sheer amazement every time his hands remember how to do something with automatic grace. He can tie knots, play chess—he plays it well, very well, mutter in languages that he actually has to think a second before recognizing what they are.
"Pardon, tu es…" John blinks the first time it happens, when he's out by the stern doing some basic stretches. He runs the words through his mind. French. That's French.
Picot catches his surprised look and just laughs. The sailors delight in John's bafflement, the joy of discovering a new skill that his muscle memory apparently knows. His days are stuffed full to brimming with no shortage of things to do, a plethora of chores and tasks designed to keep his hands busy. He even does some hand sewing of their torn trousers on a rainy day when they don't trust him not to slip up on deck.
Sometimes John doesn't know what it all means. While some skills are funny, other times he can't put a name to them.
On his sixth night there, when it's his turn to wash the dishes, his hand finds a collapsible mixer paddle arm under the suds. It's sticky with mashed potatoes. He smiles, wondering if this, like the fancy espresso machine in the corner, was also a gift from Giancarlo to the captain. They have strange amenities here and there for such a humble and small operation.
It's an innocent moment, listening to the boys play cards behind him. Picot is losing, yet again, betting his last pack of cigarettes on whatever hand he has going. John rinses the three mixer parts of their mucky potatoes and cream cheese.
He starts to put it back together—
Suddenly his hands are at it with a butterfly knife accuracy that startles John. They snap the pieces back together, into the handheld mixer, before he has time to draw a second breath. His left palm slides along the top and chafes, as if it expected to encounter a spring loaded piece instead.
Right finger on the trigger.
It's not plugged in when he presses the button, so nothing happens. But John still drops it on the counter and steps away. His jaw is slack, eyes bugged so wide he can feel his own heartbeat galloping against his temple.
Spying this blink-and-you'll-miss-it moment, Eamon comes over and makes an impressed noise, brow up. "Perhaps you are a chef, my friend. That was smooth, as if you are used to doing so often."
"A chef." John's ears roar with heightened blood pressure. He thinks of himself holding a paring knife and a shadow sinks over his mind. "Maybe."
It's not just skills. There are…pings…in his stomach. Sensations John doesn't understand caused by interactions he understands even less. Giancarlo causes the most, a whole radar blare of pinging whenever he hovers or smiles at John enough for his eyes to crinkle, or the way he strokes young Picot's hair sometimes, playfully shoves the hat over his face. He's a tired man, eyes red rimmed and old and bleached from too long in the heat both metaphorical and literal, yet he always has a kind word ready on his tongue.
In truth, the entire crew puzzles John:
Picot has a slight limp in his leg from a beam falling on it as a boy and because of this he's slower than the rest. He catches less fish, needs to sit down more often, writhes around in his bed on cold nights that leech at his injury.
John tenses whenever he slips. His eyes dart to Giancarlo and the captain, stomach pinging something fierce.
But they simply let out a loud guffaw and help Picot to his feet after a fall. Both of them laughing all the while. They're patient with each other, in their gruff way, sharing the load if one struggles. When the arthritic pain kicks in, Eamon will hop down from his top bunk and sit with Picot below. He tells long stories of childhood that make Picot giggle and therefore forget the pain.
John is ashamed by how long it takes him to name them. Best friends. Some would call them best friends. Mates.
John watches their friendship. It makes sense, of course it does. This is how kind, civilized humans treat one another.
His body, however, does not seem to get that memo. If Giancarlo wakes up in a bad mood and marches over to Eamon, John is there, close in case…in case of what? What is he worried about? Surely a well oiled machine such as their fishing business would suffer if supervisors were mean to their crew, though they are strict. It mandates order, respect, or at least a sense of calm routine. They've given John no cause to be afraid. There has been virtually zero physical punishment for misdemeanors other than a joking head slap from Giancarlo to Roberto.
Only when his body is hard at work, sweating, are the pings quiet.
Maybe I come from a rough family, John thinks. Abusive parents or having grown up in a sketchy neighbourhood would certainly explain the hyper-awareness of surroundings and people's mood swings. But he knows this theory isn't quite right. It sits close but just out of frame, as if his theory is a photograph blurred by motion from some other source. His muscles aren't just tense when these moments happen—
"You tryna telepathically make some joe?"
John rouses from his glare at the fancy espresso machine. "I know I remember how to do this. I just…I don't think I've ever used one of these before. There are so many steps."
Eamon hums. He too eyes instructions ringing the top bar of the machine. "Seems awfully complicated, dudn'it? I never bother with this thing."
"I just want coffee."
Eamon, holding a mug of hot chocolate—Giancarlo's delicious specialty—gestures with it to the tiny cup at the bottom of the machine. Disdain curls his upper lip. "I like my joe simple: a filter and grounds. That's it. I don't know how the captain drinks this stuff."
"It's stronger," John points out.
"True." Eamon sips. The marshmallows leave a creamy foam along his whiskers. "But at what cost?"
John concedes this with a tip of his head. "I guess we'll find out."
"Good luck to you, mate." Eamon whacks his bicep. John keeps himself still, an easier undertaking since he saw the friendly touch coming. "This is the captain's baby."
After reading the instructions thoroughly, John nods. How hard can coffee really be? Besides, he watched Giancarlo do it just this morning and his brain is nothing if not retentive of information. Sometimes all he has to do is watch Eamon do something once, like gut a fish on his first day working the lines, and he can replicate it perfectly. There's the toggle for hot water to the left of the machine and another for mixing grounds…
John pulls on one, one, lever and gets a face full of hot steam.
"Ah!" He throws an arm up over his eyes. The machine explodes with water and brown sludge, plastering the ceiling and walls almost eight feet away in lurid friezes. "Eamon!"
"I'm coming, you greenie!"
Eamon braves the slick floor and does what John, in his overwhelmed state, never even thought of. He unplugs it.
The machine sparks a few times, making both men cry out. One fuse spark even lands on Eamon's sleeve. John's heart leaps into his throat and he thumps at Eamon's elbow until the flames wink out. Eamon looks around at the carnage, the sopping wet floor and smoking espresso machine, the smell of burnt rubber stinking up the room. It's a disaster, something that will set their daily schedule back at least an hour.
"Well." He slings an arm around John's shoulders. "Good news."
"Oh yeah?" John asks, breathless. An invisible fist kneads into his chest. He can't tell whether it's from the increase in casual touch or the explosion.
"Yeah. You don't have to worry about getting to the mainland because the captain will kill you."
John rolls his eyes. "Great. I'll be the first man in history to walk the plank over coffee."
"We don't have a plank."
"It's a figure of speech," John explains, before he sees Eamon's eyes sparkle and realizes he is being made fun of. "Though I wouldn't put it past the captain to set out a board."
"I wouldn't neither." Eamon outright laughs this time. "You're the most interesting house guest we've ever had, that's for sure."
"What the devil was that?"
They turn to see Giancarlo slipping and sliding at the door, eyes wide. His eyes rake over John and Eamon first, oddly enough, not the precious espresso maker. Huh. John's stomach pings, louder, louder, louder. He finds his hands shaking and steps in front of Eamon.
"Are you boys alright?" asks the skipper, also a shocking turn of events. John's body is rigid with expectation for a tongue lashing, at the bare minimum. This is the first time he's messed up since he arrived after their gracious rescue and he's not sure how they discipline or how Giancarlo's so far sunny, if a bit crusty, disposition will react to this blunder.
"It was my fault, I'm sorry," says John, both to keep the attention off Eamon and because it's the truth. "I don't know what happened to make hot water come out the sides like that."
"Help an old man across this lake." Giancarlo holds out his hand. "Let's see the damage."
John doesn't want to move, he finds. Eamon's rough contact, borne of camaraderie, isn't the same as Giancarlo's touch to his shoulder that night after he had a 'nightmare,' even if John can't articulate the difference between them. He doesn't want to touch Giancarlo, to feel the grooves and rucks in his weathered skin. The warm heartbeat singing underneath. Every part of him trembles for a moment, a deep boned shudder, and he dreads the five feet separating their bodies. Still, he does as he's told and extends an arm for Giancarlo to loop his hand through, thankful he chose to wear a sweater instead of a T-shirt this morning so there's no skin-to-skin contact.
A funny flicker passes through Giancarlo's gaze when it lands on John, but he says nothing. John is beginning to suspect he doesn't miss anything either, part of what endears him to the crew even more so than the captain.
He mutters while examining the machine, after they make it across the kitchen without incident. "You want the good news or the bad news?"
John shares a wry look with Eamon. "I don't know if I can handle any more good news."
"The good news is it's fixable, and I can even do it in time so the captain doesn't notice."
"What?" Eamon does a double take at Giancarlo. "Boss, it's shot. There's no salvaging this beast."
"Yes, there is. The internal heater just mixed with leaking water and shorted out, that's all. Bad news—I'm making John rewire it all by his lonesome. No supper for you, son, until it's fixed."
John almost collapses in relief. Neither one is being reprimanded, either physically or verbally, and he won't have to step in to protect Eamon.
What is wrong with me that I expect so little of people? John is disgusted with himself for the first time. Was I such a terrible person before?
What Giancarlo does next causes a brand new sensation John has never experienced in his rebirth from the ocean: he winks at John. A conspirator's wink, mischievous, reassuring to take the sting out of his words and reveal that he'll probably go back on what he said and help John with clean up.
John looks at him a little too long, a little too intensely. There's a prickle behind his eyes, a pressure he can't seem to get rid of no matter how much he blinks or swallows. He steps away from Giancarlo, ignoring the way his face falls.
"Then we'd better get started."