He thinks about it sometimes. At night, when it’s too dark to see, when the weight against his back is warm and close. When he can let himself want so much it takes all he has not to claw at his skin, to tear up his flesh. It’s a heavy, hot burden in the pit of his stomach that hardens like stone and makes his chest ache, make his face and neck feel hot. It makes his joints hurt and his mouth fill with saliva.
He thinks about it sometimes; but only, only when it’s too dark to see.
He worries because that’s what he does. Not about being found out because he’s discreet. He’s not obvious in ways Chuck is and Julie isn’t. And he’s not worried about his patience because he can wait, could wait forever.
He’s not worried about how long he has to wait. He just doesn’t want to wait for nothing.
Tenny is a sweet girl and she’s pretty. She’s cute and spunky in way that has him wagging his proverbial tail and wanting to do tricks for her. He wants to impress her with his designs, with the monumental skill he’s acquired since joining the Burners.
She walks by and his chest puffs up, his hands feel clammy, and his cheeks hurt from smiling so hard. She giggles at him and her nose wrinkles and her freckles ripple together and he feels a lurch inside him that makes him think,
Yeah, it’ll be alright.
His first kiss was a girl named Pepper when he still lived in Deluxe.
Kissing Tenny is nothing like kissing Pepper. For one, Tenny smells like paint fumes and industrial soap and she laughs loudly, uninhibited, and he falls a little in love with her.
Her breath puffs against his lips and he can feel the cold press of a wrench against the back of his shoulder. She has her arms wrapped around his neck and they’re both squeezed into a precarious space between a generator and another teetering building.
It feels reckless because her dad’s just a few buildings down and it feels dangerous because the building could actually come crumbling down but it’s fun and it’s thrilling and it’s almost as exciting as driving Whiptail.
It’s not love. It’s not even the deep-seated affection he feels for Tenny.
It’s something solid and dull and constant like it’s grown on him like a fungus, festering and refusing to leave. It throbs in his chest like a living thing and sometimes it hurts but mostly it doesn’t.
He thought it had receded, had faded since he’d met Tenny. But it’s always there, perpetual and hot and plastered to his body like a second skin.
It’s black in his room, save for the blinking red security light in the corner of his window. His back is sweaty with the heat and he feels a familiar weight over his stomach. His pulse is thundering in his ears and he thinks, whatever, I can do it, and he does.
He turns over, hears Texas grunt and huff out an irritated sound, and Dutch just has to tip his head forward and he pushes his mouth against Texas’.
There’s nothing but the low hum of Motorcity and the loud buzzing running through his veins and everything is still, so still, and he feels suspended in time.
Then a heavy hand claps on his shoulder and shoves him away, nearly throwing him clear off the bed.
“What-- what--” Texas splutters and his eyes are wide and wild and his hat is missing. He looks utterly horrified and disgusted and he’s throwing himself off the mattress.
Dutch rubs a hand over his face, then stares at his hands, at the sheets, at the blinking red light.
“Man, I’m sorr--” but the door slams and the low hum of Motorcity suddenly seems too loud to handle.
There’re days and days and days and days and days of nothing.
Mike’s confused, if well-meaning and Chuck’s even worse off. Julie is silent while he works in the garage and he finds that’s the only thing he wants right now.
The door slams open hard enough that it rebounds off the wall, swinging closed once again. Texas charges through like a bull, eyes shadowed beneath the brim of his cap.
Dutch remains frozen on the far side of the room, muscles tense. He’s unmoving still, even as Texas corrects his trajectory, hands rough on his shoulders when he slams Dutch against the window.
“Why did you do that? I’m not a girl and you’re not either! Why did you do that? We’re not boyfriends,” Texas shouts unnecessarily and he’s gesturing with one arm, waving it back and forth in the air.
“I know.” Dutch swallows and suddenly, suddenly he feels much smaller even though he’s a head taller than Texas. “I know you’re not a girl.”
“Then why did you do that?” Texas shakes him and he looks scared. “Did you think I was Julie or something? I’m not Julie!”
Dutch is silent. He feels as helpless as he had when he’d thought Dar had hated him. He doesn’t know what to say or do to fix this. And he’s good at fixing things.
But here, he doesn’t have the materials, doesn’t have a plan of attack, doesn’t have a design in mind. He’s a jumble of colors and lines and splotches that all war for his attention and he feels sick to his stomach, physically sick, and he’s afraid that his insides will suddenly become his outsides.
“I’m sorry.” He means it, he really does. He’s sorry that Texas is angry and he’s sorry he messed up their dynamic and he’s sorry that he’s kind of sort of not really sorry at all.
Texas falls silent and his hands drop to his sides. He’s frighteningly motionless and that’s more unsettling than his yelling.
“Are you--” he stops and looks uncomfortable, won’t look at Dutch. Dutch understands what he’s trying to say and he claws at his hair, rakes his nails through his scalp.
“I don’t know,” he admits, and his voice is quiet.
“What about-- what about that girl?” Texas looks confused for a second. “Claire?”
Dutch laughs, but it’s a short, miserable sound. “Chuck likes Claire. I think you mean Tenny.”
Texas crosses his arms and looks haughty. His chest expands as he makes a loud huffing noise. He looks expectantly at Dutch.
Dutch shrugs. “I don’t know,” he says again.
Texas looks frustrated and perplexed. Then his eyebrows draw together and he spins around, steps loud where he stomps towards the door. “I’m not a girl, Dutch,” he says, and the door slams hard.
Eventually, it’s Mike who’s unable to handle the stilted silences and awkward rebuffs for conversation. He sidles up next to Whiptail where Dutch is bent underneath the hood, adjusting and re-adjusting everything for the millionth time.
“You have to talk to Texas,” he says, and he sounds so concerned, like it hurts him spiritually or something. Dutch peers out at Mike, and Mike looks at him so earnestly, he has to look away.
“He doesn’t want to talk to me.”
“Dutch.” Mike puts a hand on his shoulder and pulls him upright. “Come on, I know this is killing you, too. Everyone’s worried about you guys. Roth is worried about you guys. Can’t you talk to him?”
Dutch rubs his hands on a dirty rag just for something to do. He side-eyes Mike. “What about Texas?”
Mike looks sheepish and his rubs at the back of his neck. “He, uh--”
“Doesn’t want to?” Dutch makes a face and Mike is the one that looks guilty. He probably feels like this is all somehow his fault.
He sighs loudly at that because if anything, he can do this for Mike. For whom the Burners are everything, and if any of them aren’t getting along, Mike feels responsible.
“Okay. Yeah, I’ll talk to him.” He turns away from Mike. “When I’m done here.”
“Sure, sure!” Mike beams at him and he looks so hopeful, Dutch knows he has to keep his promise.
It’s dark by the time he wrestles up enough courage to go look for Texas. His door is shut, but for some reason Dutch knows he won’t be in there. His room is mostly used for storage space, anyway. They’d simply gotten used to sharing Dutch’s bed. Well, used to used to. Lately, he doesn’t even know where Texas sleeps because Texas doesn’t even own a bed. Dutch feels guilty about that and he moves away from the door.
“He’s in your room.”
Dutch absolutely, positively does not yell, but he does jerk back a little in shock. Julie emerges from around the corner, arms crossed. She looks stern, but her eyes show how worried she is.
Dutch nods and pulls at the hem of his shirt, straightening it for some unknown reason. Julie offers him a small smile and touches his elbow.
When Dutch opens the door, Texas springs up from the bed. His arms are already flailing and he’s excitedly yelling with lots of exclamation points.
“--and so some kind of frequency must have broken the connection and you got your brain back--”
“Texas! Tex! Hold on, slow down. What are you saying?” Dutch makes calming motions with his hands as if dealing with a particularly skittish animal.
Texas’ arms don’t stop moving, but he at least turns around to face Dutch again. He speaks more slowly.
“I think I know why you-- you--” he makes a vague gesture with his hand and Dutch comprehends it even though it looked nothing like he was trying to describe. “Your mind was being controlled by Kanebots-- or maybe Duke’s crazy breakdancing machine, I haven’t figured it out yet-- so you weren’t totally in control when you--” he gestured again, “But somehow you finally managed to break free and now you’re completely normal. Right?” His inquiry at the end sounds more like a command than a question in confirmation. His eyes are fierce as they stare at Dutch.
Dutch remains frozen in place until he forces himself to move. He could swear he hears his bones creak aloud as he turns away to stare at anything else, at the wall, at the door, at the window.
“Uh, Tex,” he begins hesitantly and he thinks he can feel Texas tense up as well. He thinks about Julie’s worried face and about Mike’s trust that he’ll fix this and everything will be okay again. He thinks about Chuck’s carefully chosen words so as not to set either of them off and he thinks about Jacob giving each of them extra slices of zucchini pie to mollify them. He thinks about the Burners and he thinks about Tenny and of all things, he thinks about Roth and he takes a deep breath.
“Yeah, yeah you’re right.” Dutch faces Texas and lifts a hand to scratch at his cheek. He makes himself smile in embarrassment. “Sorry, I guess I just, uh, don’t have as strong a brain as you, huh?” He tries to laugh but it gets caught in his chest so he coughs instead.
Texas smiles brightly and strides forward, enveloping him in a crushing bear hug. He doesn’t lift Dutch in quite the same way he had with Julie, but it’s a close thing. “Glad you have you back, buddy!” He pulls away but his hands are still on Dutch’s shoulders. He fixes Dutch with a serious stare. “But really, man, no one has as strong a brain as Texas.” He slings an arm around Dutch and grins. “But that’s okay, ‘cause Texas is here to stop it from happening ever again!”
Dutch nods along and claps his hand twice on his friend’s back. “Thanks. I’m glad you have my back.”
“Anytime,” Texas answers and Dutch knows he means it.