"I'm the product of a fucked up generation."
x x x
He is six years old. The barstool his father sat him on is much too high for skinny legs like his, and they swing idly in the space beneath the rust-coloured seat. It makes the old fabric go squeak-squeak-squeak and while his dad doesn't seem to mind (he is never good at keeping still) the young man behind the counter is giving him a narrow eyed look. It isn't until he's older that the boy learns it's a dangerous look to provoke, so for now he stares back innocently.
The barkeep has a scar on his forehead, the kind that will vanish in a few years but still draws the eye. The boy wonders for a moment if all scars do that, then drops his gaze to the counter when he remembers that it doesn't matter. The wound will always be there underneath. Light and shadow flicker across the polished surface of the bar with the spinning of the fan overhead, giving and taking away the boy's silhouette in turns. The distant clack of the fan's mechanism is practically the only sound in the bar - not even the radio is on. It's an hour or so until dawn and even in this town, most places in the city are closed, and most people asleep. The barkeep is slouched against the bar, head drooping with the effort to stay awake. His father is resting on his elbows, and every line of his body is steeped with exhaustion. Even the thin trail of smoke rising from his dad's cigarette seems to wind through the air slowly, like it's forgotten how to climb and is simply too tired to remember.
It's taken a lot to get where they are, even if the boy doesn't quite understand how high the cost was.
In the past week the boy has learnt a great deal about how to keep himself awake, and to sleep lightly when he can't keep it up any longer. Yet even he can feel the itch of tiredness behind his eyes at this odd hour of the night, though he refuses to yield to it just yet. All he needs... is something to concentrate on.
He flexes the fingers of his right hand and it works. Pain lances through his hand and into his wrist, renewing the ache that had been quietly subsiding over the last half hour. Screwing his eyes shut, he tries to stifle a whimper but he doesn't quite succeed and this, combined with the sudden tension in his small body, draws his father's attention to him.
"Son?" the man says, looking up from where he's seated next to the boy. His dad's got the lean build of a nimble combat artist, and hair just long enough to be scraped back into a ponytail. Green eyes (one blackened from a fist) stare down at him as he lifts his head, one hand separating the ice-pack from his temple and revealing a bloody gash. It's from a bad fall he took during the escape, raw and red and a rare mistake for a man so skilled. The boy glances to it for a moment and looks away quickly - it's horrible to look at, and he doesn't yet know that there is worse to come.
"I'm fine," he mutters, tucking his hands in closer to his chest. He isn't careful enough and they bump against each other, bandages scraping. This time the boy bites his bottom lip, determined to suck the pain back in. He's learnt the danger of showing weakness, and will never forget the lesson.
It's then that the thick arm of his father is laid across his shoulders, pulling the boy into the warmth of his father's chest. "You're okay," his dad says softly. "It's alright." It's a mantra the boy's becoming familiar with, but cannot afford to believe in any more. There's a wicked temptation to close his eyes, curl into the safety of the older man and cry out the fear he's been holding in all week, but it's too big a risk. Everything he's experienced since coming to this city has made it horribly clear that he'll never be safe again. His dad is a good, strong man, but he's not perfect and the boy is beginning to understand what that really means.
The quiet of the moment vanishes when an older, scruffier version of the present barkeep stomps into the room. He's older than all three of them put together, and knows more about the city than any person that any of them will ever meet again. Skillfully wielding a walking stick with one hand and carrying a bundle of blankets under the other, he crosses the room until he's next to the boy's father. It's him that the blankets are thrust at, followed by a gruff command.
"Put the boy to bed."
His dad nods and then helps him off the stool, and steers him around the bar into the storeroom behind it. There he lays down the blankets and cobbles together a bed that's thin, but warmer than anything else he's slept in lately. There's a hug and a kiss to the forehead, three separate checks that he's comfortable, and a final assurance of 'I'll be right outside,' before the man leaves. The door wheezes on its hinges as he pulls it to.
The boy is shut in a darkness that smells of spilt beer and cigarette smoke, but it's better than the smell of bleach and blood, so he embraces it by pulling the blankets up to his shoulders and settling his head on the lumpy makeshift pillow. Through the gap under the door he can see the flicker of shadow as feet move back and forth, and hear the rumble of his father's voice. It's oddly soothing despite everything that's happened and exhaustion, perhaps encouraged by the darkness of the room (never again will he sleep in places where the lights are on), tugs at his consciousness.
But he's a stubborn boy if nothing else, and he forces himself to stay awake as long as he can, keen to draw whatever he can from the conversation on the other side of the door. His hands are still throbbing; he keeps a gentle pressure on them until he finds a balance between pain and clarity. It takes more concentration than he really has the energy to afford but with patience, the conversation begins to make sense.
"So. Enlighten us, eh?" it's the gravelly voice of the old man. The boy is too inexperienced to pick up on the nuances of conversation just yet, but even he can tell there's a quality in the question that demands an answer. "Or should we just wait for cops to come by, lookin' for you?"
"Wasn't cops," answers his father. "A buncha' fucks - Red Cards, if you know 'em - mistook him for an urchin. Thought no-one'd miss 'im when they sold 'im on."
"Who was the buyer?"
"A man by the name of Doctor Bay."
"Science man, the kind what likes to play God. Thinks he's got a damned right to do what he wants to them he calls his patients. My son - I don't even know what he did to that lad, but under them bandages those hands ain't like anything I ever seen."
Alone in the dark, the boy stares down at his bandaged palms. He doesn't know either, but he can already tell that he won't ever be normal again. Hatred flares up and he clenches them tight - the pain is immediate and overwhelming, flooding his senses until he loses track of the conversation entirely. He gasps silently and writhes on the bed, trading it for the scream that wants to crawl up his throat.
Some minutes later, it's the voice of the young bartender that draws him back. The boy suppresses his own ragged pants to try and hear the conversation.
"They're all... cut up and stuff?"
"Near as I could tell. My son won't let me near 'em, but whatever got done is already showin'. Dropped my knife on the way out of that place, yeah? Barely even let go of it and he had it, caught by the handle and all. I got uncanny reflexes m'self, but it ain't... normal shit, you know?"
"What're you gonna do?"
"Gotta' have a word with the Woodcutter - s'his quarter of the town and he wouldn't allow a guy like that under his boot. But the surgeon? I dealt with that sick fuck already."
"You took 'im out?" it's the old man this time, cutting off any more questions from his employee.
"You got a son. Tell me you'd do different."
"I'd do something that wouldn't set a man's dogs on me. What're you gonna' do when his backers start crawlin' out of every damn shadow?"
"If they do?"
"I'm Nicola's number one. The smart ones won't."
There's silence after this, and even the boy can feel the sudden tension in the conversation. It's not something his dad mentions much, and something that he himself is forbidden from telling anyone. His dad has the kind of rank that draws too much of the wrong attention; it is safer and easier in a town like this to pass like a shadow, to be unnoticeable and nameless. The power of secrecy is the most important thing he knows.
"You're damn lucky I don't play by faction," the oldest man growls, "And luckier still that you know your jokers."
There's a soft sound of laugh from his dad, the sound of two glasses clinking together in a toast, and then silence for so long that the boy never remembers falling asleep.
x x x
Notes on head-canon
This drabbly thing was written to help explore my head-canon concerning certain attributes that the Drifter has. My head-canon and personal theories are as follows.
The film establishes that the Drifter is a fist-fighter, with wicked reflexes and a very hard hit. It is my theory that this is the product of medical experimentation, something that occurs when he's just a boy (hence the fic). This seems to be the most plausible explanation for why he can do the things he does, such as shattering the neck of a glass bottle without incurring injury, and accounts for the sheer force behind his hits. Why him? I also think that the Drifter's father was one of Nicola's killers.
My theory is that when Nicola came to power, his nine killers were numbered 1-9. Note that Nicola himself is never referred to as a Killer in the movie, and there is no Killer #1. However, it is implied that he had relations with the Drifter's father, or at least enough to earn a duel, and the man clearly had a lasting impact on Nicola's philosophy. Therefore, I think it's possible that the Drifter's father was Killer #1. As Nicola's right-hand man not only did he have power, but he also had unparalleled skill. This kind of status comes with a certain amount of fame - the #1 killer becomes known for uncanny skill, and lesser people start wanting that power for themselves. Enter Dr. Bay, his ambition and his lack of ethics.
Unfortunately for Dr. Bay, he picked the wrong kid to mess up and When the #1 Killer finds out, all hell breaks loose. (I do not think the Drifter was the only test subject, but he is the only one we will concern ourselves with for now.) Thereafter, when he brings the kidnap and medical experimentation of his son to the attention of Nicola, he soon finds out that Nicola is one of the Doctor's backers. While Nicola may not have necessarily endorsed what Dr. Bay was doing exactly, there's an undercurrent of politics in everything. He can't be seen to have dissent in the ranks and the other backers must have some form of recompense, therefore he agrees to the duel. The outcome of this match is well established by the movie, and shapes the rest of the Drifter's life, but Nicola honours the fallen man in his own way. The position of #1 is never replaced, allowing for #2 to become the highest rank. A new number, #10, is tacked onto the end to maintain the status quo.
Further, it's pretty clear in the film that the Barkeep either knew, or was acquainted with the #1 Killer. How well is a matter for the imagination, but well enough to recognise that the Drifter is his son (refer to the discussion between the Drifter and the Barkeep after the Harem has burnt down and the men cheer because the fight is over). The timing is probably off a bit, but he is included in the first scene of the fic as the younger bartender. As far as I know, no length of time was given for how long ago Alexandra saved him by submitting to Nicola, but I assumed he was around 30-35 in the film. If the Barkeep was between 16 and 19 when the Drifter was 6, giving them an age gap of ~13 years, and if the Drifter is ~21 in the film (owing to the narrative tendency for characters to be 18 or 21 when things happen to them) then the Barkeep is between 30 and 34 by the time the events of the film occur. I think that makes him old enough to remember Nicola's #1 with fair accuracy, and to figure out that the Drifter is the son of a legend. When the Drifter introduced himself to the Barkeep with his playing cards, I think it was some sort of "hey guess who I am" or "here is a password" interaction, but as that and the Drifter's skill concerning playing cards did not really factor into this piece, I haven't thought it over that much.
Finally, a minor thing. The Red Cards are my predecessor of the Red Suits, championed by Killer #2 (and also following on from his playing card motif). Note that this fic takes place in a time before the politics of the movie are cemented, before the Woodcutter has absolute power, etc., so perhaps Killer #2 ran his own quarter of the town or something. It wasn't all that relevant, and I prefer subtle references anyways, so that will do for now.
I may yet write other installments of moments in the Drifter's life, as I do have vague plans to do so, but we'll see what happens. Hope you enjoyed!