Bart couldn't sleep that night. The air conditioning systems on the Yggdrasil were broken from the retrofit process, and while Sigurd had told him they were in the process of being repaired, it still felt miserable in his cabin. He opened the hatch window for some fresh air, and leaned back on his bed to try to sleep once more, when the smell hit him. A nauseating, heavy smell of cigarette smoke, and he coughed as he climbed up out of bed and grabbed for some clothes and one of his whips for good measure - he had told Jessie and Doc to stop using the balcony outside his cabin for their habit, and this time, he was going to punctuate it with a good smack to whoever was violating his senses and his ship. Guess Sigurd’s rubbed off on me a bit, he thought, as he opened the door and gasped.
He expected to see Jessie or Citan, and instead, he saw Billy. Billy, in pajama pants himself and not his long priest’s cassock at that, with a lit cigarette in his fingers, not seeming to notice him, lost in thought as he stared up at the sky.
“Hey! What the hell do you think you’re doing with that?” Bart snapped, as Billy almost jumped in surprise, the cigarette falling from his hand as his hand reflexively went to where he normally carried his sidearm, even though he wasn’t at the moment. “Ah, sorry. Didn’t mean to scare you. But… I’ve never seen you smoke.”
“This is only my second one,” Billy said, his voice tense, as he stomped it out. “I… was not allowed such things in the service of the Ethos. And since Dad and Doc seem to enjoy it quite a lot while they think out here…”
“Jessie’s even more of a fool than me,” Bart said, a small chuckle in his voice. “You’re talking about the man who made himself into a gun . And… while I don’t know shit about what’s going on, there’s definitely something unusual about Citan.” He laughed. “I don’t think you need to join them. I was gonna kick their ass for doing it out here right above my bed, and you don’t want me to kick yours too, now do you? Besides, whoever you stole them from’s gonna want to do the same, you know? We’re not gonna be near a town to resupply anytime soon.”
“Yeah… I guess you’re right,” Billy quietly said. “How did you know I stole them, anyway?”
“‘Cause I did it once myself.” Bart laughed and sat next to him. “I wanted to see what the big deal was about. Sigurd smoked back then, I must have been about twelve…” Bart seemed to smile at the memory. “It wasn’t even worth how much he yelled at me. I hate the smell, the taste, I’d thrown it out and he was still like so mad. He told me… they’re the hardest thing to stop. Didn’t make sense to me until… later, you know?”
“Yeah…” Billy said, and looked at him. “But sometimes… you need something to get you through, don’t you? All that we have experienced, all that lies ahead of us that we do not even understand, all of the people that have hurt us and lied to us…”
“Too well.” He didn’t want to tell Billy in that moment about how much he drank some nights just to forget the feel of a whip on his back, just to forget those memories of being locked away in a dungeon waiting to die… “But… you don’t wanna be like us who do. It’s better if you can get through on things that don’t hurt you in the end. Like… Doc and I and your old man, we all drink too much. Like… Fei, ah, well, he disappears and lets… that red haired guy take over and nothing good ever happens from that. Like… Rico goes and tries to get into fights with anyone who will fight him. Here, I have an idea.” With that, he took the beaded chain of his whip off, and held it out. “You used to do the Rosary for Ethos, right?”
“Yes.” Billy glared down at the ground, a sudden anger in his voice. “But now… I am lost. Those words I once prayed in such faith, I know what they mean now, what a lie they were. What… that I was justifying something that wants us all dead! What am I supposed to do, even if moving those beads through my hands helped me to focus my thoughts, I do not want to even remember what I did it for, to justify my own killing in the name of God-”
“Then…” Bart tried to think, himself. This was all over his head, and he still felt way in over his depth at this point - he had only signed on to all of this to get his kingdom back, not to step into a world where nothing made a damn bit of sense anymore and to put too much thought into most of it just left him with a headache and a desire for a few good strong shots of rum. “Maybe think of new words? Like your old man said, they are things you have to discover within yourself, and by yourself. And… these beads feel different than the Ethos ones. Try them, see what you think.”
Billy took the beaded chain into his hands, and ran the fingers over it. “It feels like… like the sand of the desert. Like… glass made of sand.” A soft whisper. “It kind of makes me think about… you.” He seemed suddenly shy as he stroked the beads between his fingers. “Makes me think about what it must be like, holding something in battle once used against you.”
“How did you-”
“You do not have a shirt on.” Billy said, with a soft smile at him. “And the moons are full tonight. I see those scars. All over your back, the one on your shoulder… who did that to you? When? I heard Sigurd can be really mean but-”
“He was the one who rescued me from the one who did it. He told me… that if I took up the whip as my weapon, I could… take it back. Take back the power that once hurt me. I think about it when I fight.” Bart smiled at him. “It kinda worked. Sometimes I still… think about it. But it helped. Every time when I practiced, I took power over the whip. Now it won’t ever hurt me again, you know? So maybe these beads will help you, too. Like, if you find other images, other words…”
“I think of the beauty of the desert.” Billy smiled at him, as he smoothed his fingers over the beads once more. “People say deserts are empty and vacant, but I see so much more there than I ever saw in the corridors of the Headquarters or of the church. Like… it is alive, and true, and life holds on there even in what would seem impossible.”
“Then that’s enough.” Bart let an arm rest over his shoulders, and drew him in for a hug.
“What if I said… I also think of you?” A shy blush seemed to shade over his face. “You… were the first person to care about me when my entire world fell apart. And you’re out here talking with me, and you gave me this. Does that mean anything?”
“It don't have to.” Bart let him rest against him, as they both stared up at the sky. “You never owe me a thing. I just want you to be safe. To… someday be happy. Whatever way that happiness means to you.”
“I want the same for you.” Billy whispered. “Whatever happens. You’ve been the best friend out of all of you so far, if it is anything. Siggy thinks I’m still a kid. I don’t think Dad and I will ever be friends, even if we do get along better now. Everyone else seems so preoccupied, and…” Billy decided to trust him with his own secret. “I think we should all watch ourselves around Doc. If what Siggy said to me was true… he still works for them.”
“Why would he tell you that, and not me?” Bart laughed, yet the words seemed true enough.
“Because he knows you. That you’d go and ask him, and then Doc would ask you who told him, and, well, ‘loose lips sink ships.’ So, don’t let either of them know this.” Billy smiled and leaned against him. “One of our secrets. If you can keep it.”
“What do you mean, one-”
“It’s up to you if you want to have some more.” Billy said, and took his hand in his own, as he stood up and drew him into a tight hug. “I am going to leave now. And allow you to think of what I just said.”
“I think I’d like some of your other secrets.” Bart whispered, as he held him close to himself. “Someday when all of this is over and…”
“Someday, I’ll show you all of my guns.”
Bart blinked at those words, and tried to process some kind of proper response - after all, maybe Billy had not meant them the way they had come across, and he was being too rough and reading a meaning Billy hadn’t intended - but said proper response came out as a stuttered “Wha…uh, yeah not like right now but, but maybe uh-”
Billy elbowed him in the ribs and laughed. “For a pirate, you are far more innocent than I am.”
“No… it just makes me sad that you already know such things. That you… that someone…”
“I own it now.” Billy said, his voice firm as he let his hand linger on his. “I own myself now. Just as you said…” He let go of his hand and wound the beaded chain around his wrist. “It makes a good bracelet. Thanks…”
“It really does.” Bart smiled and looked down at Billy’s wrist. “I think it looks better there than on a whip. And uh… about that thing… just, uh, if you ever want to... don’t smoke before you meet me. I…”
“I should probably return these to our resident spy.” Billy laughed as he pulled out the pack of cigarettes. The writing on them seemed to be in the same language they had seen in the Ethos headquarters, and both stared at each other in a moment of realization.
“Uh oh.” Bart only said, the words very insufficient for the emotions in his own mind at that moment. Betrayal, fear, not knowing why Sigurd would allow this, what the hell was going on anymore at all.
Billy looked at him, and seemed to pick up on his worry. “Whatever happens, stay by my side.” With that, he tossed the pack of cigarettes over the rail of the ship. “Thanks for looking out for me.”
“We’re gonna have to do a lot of that from now on, looking out for each other. But I’ll always have your back.” Bart sighed. “Come back with me? I… don’t want to… see anything yet. But…”
“You do not want to be alone.” Billy finished for him, and reached out to him again. “Neither do I. And… we don’t have to… you know.”
“That sounds wonderful.” Bart quietly said. “No expectations… just to not be alone. I… ah, I have too much on my mind.”
“You never have to make an excuse, with me.” Billy leaned against him. “I just want to be safe.”
“Me too. You’re the only person I’ve ever felt that with other than Sig…” Bart said, as they climbed back into his bed and snuggled together. “Like Margie just don’t get it. Like I can’t trust Fei or Doc for nothin’. Like anyone just… might flip on me any second. Now I feel like I can’t trust Sig because he and Doc have something up their sleeves. But you…I can.”