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Johnny Jaqobis and the Terrible, Horrible, Very Bad Day (That Just Might Be Okay in the End)

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Johnny Jaqobis is not a thief.

Okay, he is a thief. But not the bad kind. He has a code. He doesn’t steal from people in need, and he doesn’t take things just because they’re pretty. The problem is, the other thieves don’t really get him. They’re not really into the whole honor-among-thieves idea. So he’s more or less a solo thief. A solo thief who’s on the run for his life.

It started with a cargo freighter, a dull-looking ship that was made of valuable parts. The security system was not exactly state of the art, so it was supposed to be a simple job. Steal the ship, deliver it to the chop yard, walk away with enough joy to start a new life. Except that the ship turned out to be owned by a single mother. A newly single mother with a fading bruise over her left eye who’d spent her life savings to buy a halfway decent ship. So two hours after stealing the ship, Johnny returned it. With a much improved security system, of course. And a couple good guns and the name of a lady who needed some questionably legal cargo moved around discreetly. No big deal, right?

He figured he’d just explain the situation to Snart at the chop yard, and then he’d steal something else. For half his usual fee, even. Johnny was a thief with honor. He’d make things right. There was just one problem: Snart, who had a jagged scar where his left eye was supposed to be, already had buyers lined up. And for an ugly one-eyed motherfucker at a backwater chop yard, Snart had a lot of friends. His buyers had a lot of friends too. It quickly became obvious that if Johnny wanted to remain alive, with all ten fingers and both testicles intact, he would need to leave. Right away.

That’s why he’s trying to steal yet another ship. Something simple and practical. Fast enough to get away, not fast enough to attract the attention of authorities. The kind of thing a sensible middle class merchant would own. Just like the little black ship in berth 4J. And, okay, maybe it’s not the kind of thing that makes his heart sing, but that’s not the point. He just needs to keep his heart beating and his balls attached to his body.

Except for one thing. Her name is Lucy, and she’s sitting in 4K. She is, without question, the most beautiful ship that Johnny’s ever seen. He reaches out to stroke her hull. The metal is so sleek it feels like silk under his fingertips. Had he said he didn’t take things just because they were pretty? Maybe that was a lie. This is his ship. He can feel it. Together they’ll start a new life and do great things.

He hazards a peek onto the gangway. No bands of armed thugs, so he’s got a little time. His thumb drive slots neatly into the external maintenance port. A ship like this isn’t easy to steal, but AI can be fickle, and anyway, Johnny’s a better hacker than most anyone in the Quad. If he can introduce a fault into the air recirculation system, then he can convince her that she needs maintenance, and then she’ll let him on board.

“I’m going to take such good care of you,” he murmurs, reaching out to stroke the hull one more time. And then, just like that, AIR RECIRCULATION ERROR flashes on the screen and the hatch pops open.

Johnny should’ve known nothing in his life could ever be that easy. He had known, in theory, that the bullets of certain hi-tech weapons traveled so fast they could pierce your flesh before you even heard the gunshot. He had not, however, experienced that particular reality until now. The shot is reverberating in his ears, and he’s on the ground, clutching at his leg and maybe possibly also screaming -- which is not very impressive, but he’s never actually been shot before, and it’s worse than he thought it might be. For a desperate, panicked moment, he’s not really sure what to do, and then the obvious occurs to him: he needs his gun.

His fingers close around the grip, and then a voice says, “Drop it. Right now.”

He looks up at a wild-eyed woman wearing a bloody wedding dress. Wait. That can’t be right. Maybe if he closes his eyes and opens them again… Fuck. She’s still there, looking like something out of a cheap horror vid, but genuinely terrifying, because she’s real.

“Give me one good reason not to kill you,” she says. Her teeth are clenched, the tendons in her neck are standing out, and she’s pointing a wavering gun at his head.

“Because you don’t want to?” Johnny hazards, watching the pistol shake in her hands. He can talk her down from this, he thinks. And then maybe politely ask her to return him to Snart, who no longer seems quite so terrifying.

“I’ve done a lot of things I didn’t want to do,” she says, and Johnny hears the metallic clink of another round loading into the chamber. “Answer one question. Did he send you?”

“Who?” Johnny asks. He keeps his hands in the air even though he desperately wants to press them down over the wound on his leg.

“Khylen,” she says.

“Never heard of him,” Johnny says. “I swear on my life.”

But the woman doesn’t seem to be listening. “You tell him I won’t come back. You tell him that if he comes for me, I will kill him.”

She sounds like she’s trying to convince herself of that as much as she’s trying to convince him, but that doesn’t make Johnny feel any safer. Unstable woman. Bloody wedding dress. Death threats, hi-tech pistol. Absolutely nothing about that bodes well for his continued existence.

“I swear to you, I’m just a thief. Nobody sent me. I came to steal your ship, that’s all. But I obviously didn’t succeed, so no harm done, right?” Johnny smiles winningly. Or at least, he hopes he smiles winningly. The pain is getting a bit distracting.

“Your definition of harm is different from mine,” the woman says, looking not the slightest bit mollified.

Right. Time for a new tactic. He pitches his voice low and soothing, like he’s trying to calm a wounded animal -- which, judging from the not-quite-concealed terror in the woman’s eyes, might not be that far from the truth.

“Listen, we don’t have to stay here,” he says. “We can just fly away. Anywhere you want to go.”

She relaxes the grip on her gun ever so slightly -- not that that counts for much when it’s pointed right at his crotch. “We?” she asks.

Johnny nods encouragingly. “It looks like you have an urgent need to be somewhere else. As it happens, I do too. Whatever you need me to do, I’ll do it.”

The woman does not put down her gun or invite Johnny on the adventure of a lifetime. “Lucy, why did you let this man on board my ship?” she asks.

“There is a fault in my air recirculation system. He came to fix me,” the ship answers.

The woman rolls her eyes. “Nothing is wrong with you, Lucy. He tricked you.”

Johnny knows AI can’t really feel things, not the way humans can. Still, he thinks he detects a faint sense of embarrassment hovering in the air.

“I’m sorry, Yalena,” Lucy says finally. “I liked the way he touched me.”

Johnny wants to laugh at that, but the room is spinning in a way that makes him feel like he’s getting slowly sucked down a drain. “I’m really sorry about this,” he says, “But do you think you could maybe help me not bleed to death?”

***

Johnny wakes up in a narrow bunk in a dimly lit cabin. He’s not dead, which is good. The ship seems to be moving, which could be bad or good, depending on what the angry woman with the bloody wedding dress intends to do with him. He tries to think if there’s anyone in the entire Quad who (a) knows where he is and (b) cares what happens to him, and comes up blank. That is definitely bad.

The door to his bunk glides open soundlessly, and Johnny allows himself a brief fantasy that the ship belongs to him. He would know every tiny part and never take a single pneumatic hinge for granted…

But things like that don’t happen to Johnny Jaqobis. Nope. He ends up the hostage of a woman in a bloody wedding dress. She’s standing next to the bunk now, and he’s relieved to see that she’s changed clothes. Now she’s wearing something sleek and black with a mind-boggling number of straps.

He decides to take on faith that she didn’t do any of the shooting at the wedding -- or at least, that she didn’t shoot anyone who didn’t deserve to be shot.

“I’m going to go out on a limb here and say you’ve had a really bad day,” he hazards. She looks tired, and not just the run-of-the-mill I-could-use-a-nap kind of tired. It’s more like existing is taking every ounce of strength she has.

Maybe that’s what makes her tiny flicker of a smile feel so gratifying.

“Not as bad as yours,” she says, looking down at his bandaged leg.

“No, I think maybe it was worse,” he says softly. He might not know what happened, but he can say with absolute certainty that this woman is not okay.

For a split second, her mask slides off, and the amount of pain in her eyes almost makes Johnny gasp. Then she shakes her head, and her face goes blank again. “I’m not much of a medic, but I don’t think your leg will fall off,” she says briskly.

“I hadn’t really considered that that was a possibility,” Johnny says. “Is that a thing that happens when people get shot?”

The smile ghosts around the edge of her lips again, but she doesn’t say anything. And okay, Johnny has to concede it’s an awkward situation. If Lucy were his ship and someone tried to steal her, he probably wouldn’t want to make small talk either. Actually, he’s pretty sure he would’ve fired a couple shots too.

“Okay, I know this is pretty weird,” he says. “I tried to steal your ship, you shot me, it’s not exactly an auspicious beginning. But the way I see it, we’ve got at least two things in common: neither one of us likes to kill people, and we’re both running from someone. Maybe there’s a way we can make that work.”

The woman -- Yalena, Lucy had called her -- starts to smile, but then she presses her lips together and shakes her head.

“I’m going to Westerly,” she says. “You can find a doctor there who won’t ask too many questions.”

Then she turns and walks out the door.

***

Johnny leans back against the pillow and runs his fingers over the blanket. It’s ten times softer than anything he’s ever had before, except maybe when he’d had the joy to splurge on a decent hotel room. And the ship is clean -- all gleaming chrome surfaces, and not even a trace of dust in the corners. It’s a place you could live without feeling like you were on the edge of sliding backward into a life you swore you’d leave behind. He’s got to find a way to stay.

“Lucy?” he asks. “How long till we get to Westerly?”

Lucy’s voice is cold when she answers. “You lied to me.”

“I did,” he says. “I’m sorry.”

Johnny wonders if he’s imagining the coldness in the air, or if the ship’s programming is sophisticated enough to modulate the air temperature according to her artificially created feelings.

“You’re not sorry,” Lucy says, and Johnny rolls his eyes. Is he arguing with a machine? Yes, yes he is. And then he’s going to flirt.

“I thought you were beautiful,” he says. “Sometimes I get stupid around beautiful things.”

The air warms a fraction of a degree. “We will arrive in Westerly in five hours and eighteen minutes,” Lucy says. Then, sounding faintly apologetic, she adds, “I have been instructed to discontinue this conversation.”

Johnny swings himself off the bed, doing his best to ignore the pain in his leg. He only has a few hours to convince Yalena to let him stay.

***

Johnny limps out of bed with the help of a metal rod that makes a decent cane. He finds Yalena sitting in the ship’s living area, head bowed over a table. When she catches sight of him, her eyes go all wide and alarmed.

“I don’t think you should be walking ,” she says, sounding worried.

Johnny catches a glimpse of himself in the mirror above the couch. Pale doesn’t even begin to describe his face. Corpse-colored would be a more accurate description, and sure enough, he’s starting to get the weird sucked-down-a-drain feeling again. Apparently getting shot is a really big deal.

The world starts getting black and splotchy, and then there’s a warm arm wrapped around him, guiding him toward the couch. He sits down -- well, falls down -- on it and stares up at the ceiling, willing himself to stay conscious. If he passes out now, he might well wake up on Westerly, and he can’t let this chance pass him by.

Yalena’s leaning over him, pressing a packet of pills in his hand.

“Glucose tabs,” she says. “It’s all I have. Do you think you can sit up?”

With her help, he hauls himself into a sitting position and manages to swallow the pills with a couple sips of water.

“I didn’t mean to hurt you so badly,” she says, her eyes dark.

Johnny wants to shake his head but decides against doing anything that will make him dizzy. “You thought I was coming to hurt you,” he says. And he was, because taking a ship is hurting someone, even if they’re rich, even if they have insurance.

He turns his head slightly so he can look at Yala, and the world doesn’t go completely black. “You don’t have to tell me what happened,” he says, “but if you wanted to, I’d listen.”

She shakes her head. “It doesn’t matter. It happened, and there’s nothing to be done about it now.”

“Then I suppose we ought to drink,” he says. Drinking is a bit of a habit for him, particularly in hopeless situations, and it’s possibly not very healthy. But then, not much in his life is healthy. At least this is one unhealthy habit he can enjoy.

Yalena snorts faintly, but she gets up and retrieves a bottle of something from the bar cart on the other side of the room. Whatever she pours burns all the way down, like the moonshine he used to drink back home. He hadn’t expected that on a ship this fancy, but then, it’s hardly the day for a fine bottle of haqq.

“Johnny Jaqobis,” he says, extending a hand across the table.

She doesn’t take it, which is probably fair, considering the circumstances in which he boarded the ship. “Yalena,” she says grudgingly. “You heard Lucy say it.”

“I meant what I said earlier,” he says. “I know we didn’t get off to the best start, but I’ve got engineering skills, programming skills, and I can hack just about anything in the Quad. We can go anywhere you want to go, and I’ll work in exchange for room and board.”

He’s about to suggest a probationary period so he can earn her trust and prove his skills, but Yalena doesn’t let him get that far.

“Just because I don’t want you to bleed to death doesn’t mean I want you in my life. You tried to steal my ship. And anyway, people who get close to me tend to wind up dead.”

With that, she stands up and pushes the bottle toward him. She vanishes down a corridor before he can say another word.

“That went well,” Johnny mutters. Not that anyone’s listening. Somewhat reluctantly, he puts the cap back on whatever the hell Yalena had been drinking. He’s no medic either, but he has an idea that alcohol and gunshot wounds aren’t the best possible combination.

So. Westerly. Hellhole of the galaxy, and that’s where he’s going. As for what he’s going to do there, well… Probably exactly what he’d been doing since D’Avin left, just worse. He’s got no official credentials, and his so-called resume is composed exclusively of illegal activities. That means he has no choice but to hustle, and hustle is just a nice word for double crossing people and stealing their things.

It’s not like he’d really thought he’d get to stay on Lucy. He’d actually made an identical offer to the single mom with the cargo hauler, and she’d turned him down just as fast. And who could blame her? She had kids to support, and no way was she going to trust her livelihood to a thief. You’re lucky I don’t space you, she’d said. He’d barely gotten his feet out of the way before she closed the hatch.

It’s really too bad how nobody gets the whole honorable thief concept. He taps his fingers against the tabletop in time with the almost inaudible vibration of the drive pistons. One, two, three, four, five. One, two, three, four -- And then there’s a weird gap, followed by a little hiccup, before the fifth piston comes down. Normally, it wouldn’t rate his attention, but on a ship as well-honed as this one, it doesn’t seem right.

“Lucy?” he asks. “You doing okay?”

“I can’t talk to you, John,” she says stiffly. “Yala told me I’m not allowed to talk to strangers anymore.”

Right. He leans back and counts some more. The gap happens in every third or fourth sequence, right before the fifth piston comes down. And then it starts happening before the fourth piston too. Fuck. He knows exactly what this is.

He stands up as fast as he can, steadying himself on the table. “Lucy, this is important,” he says. “I need you to tell me where Yalena is.”

Silence.

“Lucy, someone is trying to steal you,” he says.

“You are trying to steal me, John,” she says. “Initiating lockdown.”

Fuck. Honor among thieves, is it really so hard to understand? With a sigh, he heaves himself down the nearest corridor, doing his level best to ignore the throbbing in his leg. Of course, none of the doors will open for him. Fucking lockdown.

The last door is most likely the bridge, and Johnny stumps toward it, bracing himself against the wall as he goes. There’s music playing, loud even on the other side of the door. It’s the kind of thing someone would listen to if they were getting drunk and having a pity party, which he can’t really begrudge Yalena, except that someone is trying to hijack her ship. He pounds on the door as loudly as he can, screaming her name over and over again.

Suddenly the music stops and the door slides open. Yalena’s standing on the other side, pointing a gun in his face.

“You’re rather a lot of trouble,” she says. “I’m starting to think I should have let you bleed to death.”

Johnny raises his hands slowly over his head. “You’re running from someone, right?” he says. “I think you should consider that I’m not the only one who might have an interest in hijacking your ship.”

She cocks the gun, and Johnny tries very hard not to flinch. He fails.

“Just listen,” he says. “Not to me, to the engine. There’s a break in the rhythm. Do you hear it?”

Yalena listens, then nods. She doesn’t put down the gun.

“That’s a device called a hijacker. You know I didn’t put it there. You’ve had a security camera on me the whole time.” He pauses, and Yalena nods tersely. “It shuts down the pistons one by one. When the main engine goes offline, the ship reboots with the back-up drive. It’s probably already infected with a virus. Lucy will be redirected to other coordinates, or someone will come to pick us up. Either way, once that engine goes offline, there’s nothing we can do.”

“Yala?” Lucy says. “I don’t feel well. I think John is right.”

Yalena lowers the gun. “Khylen,” she says with a little shudder.

“Look at me,” he says softly. “If you can get me down there, I promise I can fix it.”

Of course, he has more experience installing hijackers than removing them, but it’s got to be basically the same, right? And if not, he’ll figure it out. It’s not even about staying on Lucy anymore; he just doesn’t think any woman should have to go back to a man who makes her shudder like that.

“Alright. Let’s go,” she says, looping her arm around Johnny’s shoulders. The fear is gone from her face; she’s all business now.

Johnny runs a hand along the bulkhead as though reassuring a frightened horse. “Don’t worry, Lucy,” he says. “We’ll take care of you.”

“There’s no light in the mailbox,” Lucy responds. “The pointy kitty stole the key.”

Yalena’s eyes widen. “The virus?” she asks.

Johnny nods. “Faster. We don’t have a lot of time.”

The engine room is hot and cramped, barely big enough for the two of them. Johnny shines a penlight up the drive shaft. If he didn’t know what he was looking for, the hijacker would be easy to miss. It’s just a tiny silver box anchored to five silvery microfilaments that glitter in the beam of his flashlight. And, of course, it’s just out of his reach - because that’s the kind of day he’s having.

“Ladder,” he mutters through gritted teeth, and Yalena points to a series of shallow metal rungs running up the side of the drive shaft.

Climbing up the ladder is not his finest moment. If he were D’avin, he would probably have flexed his biceps manfully and hauled himself up the ladder by the strength of his arms alone. Since he’s not D’avin, he hops awkwardly from rung to rung, hanging on for dear life with sweaty hands. At least he has the sense not to look at how much blood is seeping down his injured leg.

Yalena lays a hand on his foot. “Thank you, Johnny,” she says quietly.

Johnny snorts. “It’s not just for you, Duchess. I don’t want to meet Khylen anymore than you do.”

“Duchess?” Yalena asks.

Johnny shrugs and reaches for the first filament with his tweezers. “The accent, the way you move, that musical instrument on your wall...It fits.”

“Sometime when our lives aren’t at stake, we’re going to have to talk about your choice of nicknames,” she says.

Johnny can’t afford to take his eyes off the hijacker, but he likes to imagine she’s smiling down there in the shadows. He tugs gently on the filament and it slips out of the drive shaft and drifts down toward the floor.

“One down,” he says, trying to ignore the dizziness that’s threatening to suck him down the drain again.

Just then, Lucy starts to sing in a soft voice that’s nothing like her normal computer-modulated monotone: “I left my baby lying there, lying there, lying there, down by the river.”

The song is barely more than a whisper, but it fills up the whole engine room and sends shivers down Johnny’s spine. Below him, Yalena inhales sharply.

“What is that song?” he asks, reaching for the second filament.

“It’s a lullaby,” Yalena says hoarsely. “They used to sing it at the...well, the harem where I grew up.”

“Sounds disturbing,” Johnny murmurs. The second filament detaches from the drive shaft with a little click, and he reaches up for the third one.

“The song or the harem?” Yalena asks.

“Now that you mention it, both,” Johnny says.

Yalena laughs, short and sharp. “You’re not wrong.”

“I’ve lost my dearest baby-o,” Lucy sings. “I never found my baby-o.”

Johnny pulls the third filament off and reaches up for the fourth one, but it’s too high. Fuck, he’s going to have to go up another rung on the ladder. He tries to slide the penlight into his pocket, but his hands are so sweaty it skitters out of his grasp and shatters on the floor. His fingers brush against the bandage on his leg and come away wet and sticky with blood. When he tries to pull himself up, black spots swarm across his vision.

Just then, Lucy announces, “I will find my baby this time. I promise.”

Okay, that’s just creepy as fuck. Stopping is not an option. He closes one sweaty hand around the next rung, and then the other. He rests his head against the cool metal for an instant, then somehow he heaves his body upward.

The fourth filament comes away more easily than the other three, and Johnny allows himself a small sigh of relief. Almost done.

As he reaches for the fifth filament, Lucy says, “I can’t let you do that, Johnny.”

He closes the tweezers around it just as an electric charge builds in the air. He smells heat. The hair on his arms stands up. He yanks the filament off just in time to watch a bright blue shaft of electricity racing down the drive shaft toward him.

***

Johnny wakes up in hospital bed. Warm yellow light is slanting through the windows and machines beep overhead. They’re not on Westerly, then. That’s probably a good thing. Also, he’s alive. Cautiously, he wriggles his toes. They appear to move, and his fingers are intact. A careful probe of his face does not reveal any unusual new scars or dents. Alive and not horribly disfigured: it’s a banner fucking day.

Best of all, he can hear Yalena’s voice in the corridor outside, so she hadn’t abandoned him or left him for dead. Not that he’d really thought she would, but it’s always nice when his faith in human nature is confirmed.

Unless...unless she’s in the corridor talking to a bounty hunter. He props himself up on his elbows so he can see out the window into the corridor. The man standing next to Yalena has about sixteen different holsters, a weird helmet, and a jagged scar across his cheek. That’s a bounty hunter alright.

He can’t make out the whole conversation, but he can hear numbers being discussed, a promise to compensate Yalena for her trouble, a question or two about what he’d done. The bounty hunter nods, Yalena nods back...and fuck is this really happening? Is this how life works? Save a spaceship, get sold to a bounty hunter? If he were anyone else -- anyone in the entire galaxy -- life would not work like that, but since he’s Johnny Jaqobis, it really fucking does.

“Well, you’d best make sure he’s really the one you came for,” Yalena says briskly. She opens the door to Johnny’s hospital room and ushers the bounty hunter inside.

And then, before Johnny manages to form even a fragment of an escape plan, she kicks the back of the bounty hunter’s knee. He crashes to the floor, reaching for one of his holsters, and Yalena twists his arm back with a very satisfying crack. He manages to get a knife in his free hand, so Yalena stomps on his wrist. Then she jams a knee into his back, seizes him by the hair, and slams his head into the floor.

“You can’t have Johnny,” she says. “He’s mine.” She stands up, dusting off her hands, and flashes him a triumphant grin.

Johnny realizes his mouth is hanging open and he closes it hastily. “That was like something out of a vid,” he says.

What he wants to say is you said I was yours. He knows he gets too involved with people. He knows he’s supposed to be a lone wolf. But the truth is, he is complete and utter pants at being alone, and he’s been waiting to belong to someone ever since D’avin left and Mom died.

He’s so busy trying to find a way to say that that he doesn’t even notice the security guards parading into the room until Yalena says, “This bounty hunter tried to take my indentured man. It is quite clear in Quad law that contracts of servitude supersede any claims except official RAC warrants. I expect you to remove this man immediately.”

It’s a terrible ruse. The guards are obviously going to ask for the papers, which Yalena doesn’t have, because he certainly hadn’t signed any contracts of indentured servitude. Unless she’d stuck his thumbprint on a file while he was passed out after saving her ship.

And yeah, come to think of it, that’s exactly what had happened. Because Yalena’s flashing the guards some very official looking files, and they’re nodding and apologizing for her troubles.

“Johnny,” she purrs in her posh fucking voice as soon as the guards are gone. “I’m sorry. There was really no other way.”

Johnny makes a show of looking at the wall. It’s a very manly, mature way to handle a problem.

“Listen,” she says. “This isn’t Westerly. It’s Leith. They ask questions here, even at the hospital. If they thought I was your, well, master they wouldn’t care how you’d gotten shot and electrocuted. But if I dropped off some random thief with mysterious wounds, the authorities would’ve gotten involved.”

She comes to stand by the edge of the bed. She’d changed clothes. Now she’s wearing some incredible blue gown that clings and billows in all the right places, and she looks every inch the royalty he’d thought she was.

“I’m so grateful, Johnny, believe me. As soon as you’re better, we’ll dissolve the contract and I’ll take you wherever you want to go.”

“No,” Johnny says.

Yalena -- the duchess, he tells himself -- looks down at the floor. “I understand,” she says. “I’m a bit cash poor at the moment, but I’ve got jewelry you can trade for a ticket onward if you’d prefer.”

“No,” he says again. It’s barely more than a rasp, and the Duchess deigns to hand him a cup of ice chips from the table by the bed. “I mean, I don’t want a ticket. I don’t want to go anywhere else. If an indentured man is what you’re looking for, I’ll do it.”

The ceiling tiles above the bed are bright white flecked with tiny dots, and he tries to concentrate on looking for a pattern in them. Beside him, the Duchess -- his new master -- is silent. He doesn’t like the feeling of bitterness rising up inside him, but it’s getting pretty fucking hard to keep down. He would have been a brilliant engineer. If he just could’ve learned to screw everyone else and look after himself, he might’ve still had a chance to make something of his life. But now he’s here, lying in a hospital bed after saving a stranger’s ship, and he’d rather be her slave than go back out in the world alone. It’s like the day he turned sixteen and smashed all his model spaceships because he’d finally realized D’avin was never coming back, and he was never leaving.

“What I said earlier -- about people who get close to me winding up dead -- it’s true.” She swallows. “Khylen, the man I’m running from, had my husband killed at our wedding. He would do the same to you.”

Johnny isn’t sure what he should feel right now. Anger probably isn’t right, but it’s there anyway, bubbling up in his chest and making him clench his fingers around the sheets.

“Can’t I just make my own decision? For once?” His voice is too loud -- just this side of a shout -- and he has no idea who he’s even asking. Not the Duchess. The whole fucking universe maybe.

“Of course you can make your own decision,” she says. “I don’t owe you my life. Khylen would never kill me. But I owe you my freedom, and that’s far more important. Whatever you want, whatever you need, I will do whatever I can to make it happen. But believe me, the best thing for you is to get as far away from me as possible.”

Johnny turns over with a groan so he can face her. She’s looking down at the floor. “What if I want to stay?” he asks.

Her eyes snap up. He thinks he might see a spark of something light in them, but she shakes her head and it’s gone. “Whoever you think I am, you’re wrong. I’ve killed more people than I care to count, and most of them were innocent. And I haven’t the faintest idea where to go from here.”

“I’ve done a lot of things I’m not proud of, and if you haven’t noticed, some unsavory people are looking for me too.” He shrugs. “The way I see it, we’re the same.”

Johnny thinks it’s a damn fine speech, but Yalena shakes her head. "However much I might like to believe that, it's not true." She draws herself up to her full, regal height. "I am indebted to you, Johnny, and that debt cannot be repaid by asking you to risk your life again on my behalf. If you're looking for a placement aboard a ship, I'll do my utmost to help you find one."

In theory, begging a murderer to take him on as an indentured servant really doesn’t sound like the best way to start a new life. In reality, something feels good about this. He might not be able to explain it to himself or to anyone else, but he wants to stay. And he thinks he just might know a way.

"For someone who can't make it on her own, you're sure determined to be alone," he says.

"Excuse me?" Yalena sputters. "I'll have you know --"

"That your ship almost got hijacked? And the only reason you knew about it was because I told you?" The Duchess is looking awfully riled now, and Johnny continues with glee. "Just out of curiosity, what's your plan from purging the galaxy's creepiest virus from your ship? I mean, I'm only asking out of curiosity. I'm sure you've got a plan to write all the custom subroutines, and you've designed a fail safe quarantine protocol." He pauses to enjoy her facial expression. "You do know how to write a quarantine protocol, right? With a double firewall?"

Yalena doesn't know what to say to that, so Johnny presses ahead. "Listen, Duchess, it's a shitty world we live in. Nobody can survive on their own. Believe me, I've spent the last two years figuring that out. Since neither of us have anyone, it only makes sense that we stick together."

Yalena closes her eyes. "One condition."

"Name it," Johnny says.

"Don't call me Duchess."

"It doesn't really roll off the tongue, does it?" Johnny says. "Dutch is better. No one has to know what it stands for but us. Now, what exactly are the terms of my indentured servitude?" he asks, gesturing toward the thumb drive still dangling from Yalena's hand.

She shakes her head. "You're not a servant. You're a partner. You can leave whenever you want to."

"Whatever makes you feel good, Dutch," he says. "Just so you know, I'm not going to leave. You're pretty much stuck with me from here on out."

Johnny leans back against his pillow and watches the slow smile spread across Yalena's face. This day might not have been so bad after all, he thinks. So what if he’d been shot, electrocuted, hunted, and tricked into indentured servitude? If it ended with a partner, he’d do it all again.