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Brace and Breathe

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“I don’t mean to be rude or disrespectful in any way,” Johnny said, “mostly because you’re still so heavily armed. But the station is becoming increasingly shrill about the docking fees, and unless you’re going to sell me to Jacen’s Pleasure Point, you’re going to need some other way to come up with the necessary joy.”

Dutch—if that was her real name, which Johnny highly doubted—tilted her head and made a show of examining him head-to-toe. “Do you really think Jacen would pay enough to satisfy my debt to the station?”

“Well, from his ads, he seems like a reasonable fellow, and I am a charming conversationalist.” Johnny leaned back in the pilot’s chair and gave her his best aw-shucks grin. She rolled her eyes, but he knew that meant she was indeed charmed. “Dutch—”

She sighed. “Yes, I know. I can pay the fees,” she said, and went to a corner of the console he’d never had cause to investigate. Reaching underneath, she pressed something and a secret compartment popped open.

“Wow, cool,” he said, because ‘thanks for trusting me’ didn’t seem appropriate somehow.

Her lips were pursed with amusement as she looked up at him. “Don’t get too excited. This is the last of my currency. It should cover the docking fees and enough supplies for a few weeks.”

She tossed a small object at him and he almost missed it, but managed to grab it from the air without falling all the way out of his chair. She leaned against the console, arms crossed, while he got his limbs back under control.

“Go pay, stock up, and be back on board in two hours.”

He looked down at the heavy bag in his hand. If this was all her currency—

“You didn’t try to kill me when I was sleeping off the painkillers and the blood loss. I’m taking a leap of faith.”

Half of his troubles could be traced to his inability to conceal his emotions, but he smiled anyway. “What are we going to do?” he asked.

Dutch said, as if she’d always known, “We become Killjoys. I’ll get you up to speed on the combat aspects. I know you have the infosearch abilities already.”

He stared at her.

She shrugged. “We do have this lovely ship. It’d be a shame to waste it on something that wasn’t any fun.”

“You think tracking criminals down for the RAC is fun?”

“Says the man who grinned the entire time I was pointing a gun at him.”

“That was a rictus of terror, Dutch, not a grin.”

She didn’t dignify that with a response.

And Lucy was a very nice ship, even if Johnny had his questions about some of the accountrements. Dutch hadn’t seemed inclined to explain, and his life hadn’t depended on the answers.

He shrugged. “Why not? My schedule’s free for the next few years.”

****

Six months later, Johnny was strongly reconsidering the wisdom of handing his life over to Dutch, as competent with it as she was.

“I am never letting you send me undercover again,” he subvocalized as the tailor ran considering fingers up his inseam.

“Don’t be ridiculous,” she said into his comm. “You’ll look very nice in traditional Chyrene honeymoon clothing.”

“Couldn’t I just hack into the database?” He jumped and gave the tailor a dirty look. The pants weren’t even supposed to be tight, judging by what he’d seen.

“No,” she said, not even impatient with the need to repeat herself. “The computer systems are isolated. It’s part of why it’s a getaway resort. Seyah Martell’s nephew doesn’t want to face the music, and he has enough money to be accepted there even without a new spouse. We don’t.”

Johnny sneered. The tailor gave him a wounded look. “Sir does not like the material?” she asked.

“Sir is fine with the material,” he sighed. “Sorry. My mind was wandering. Maybe it’s the side effects from the new tattoos covering half of my body.”

“You can get them taken off afterwards,” Dutch reproved. “And I’m right there with you.”

Yeah, but Dutch had a higher pain tolerance than he did, not that he was even going to subvocalize that. And on her, the marriage tattoos looked—well, stunning was the best word. He just looked like a guy with an oddly repetitive skin disease.

****

The fellow who greeted them at the entrance to their suite was surprised that Johnny made eye contact. Dutch explained that she was progressive. Not progressive enough to allow him to speak in public, of course. “Of course,” the man agreed, with evident relief.

The Chyrene resort was nice, Johnny had to give it that. Private docking for Lucy and large quarters for the happy newlyweds, fully stocked with candles, lotions, and even a very discreet set of silken ropes, for the more adventurous Qreshis among them.

“Next time, I’m choosing the undercover IDs,” he groused as he adjusted his collar. Dutch hadn’t mentioned until they were landing that every Chyrene pair marriage had a domine and a servine.

She slapped his hand away from the thin band of leather. “Don’t fidget. It had to be this way. You’re about as dominant as a daffodil. Attractive, though,” she said before he could figure out a suitable response.

“Besides, this way, we can search both sides of the resort. You look among the servines, I’ll cover the domines.”

“How’m I supposed to find this warrant if I can’t talk?” Johnny demanded.

Dutch eyed him like he’d slept through the briefing, except there had been no briefing. “Use your comms, and use your brain. You don’t have to be silent among other servines. It’s always the ones on the bottom who know all the seamy undersides of a community. You can find out who’s here scandalously without a spouse. I imagine some of them find it quite exciting—perhaps they think he’s here to steal one of them away.”

“How do you know so much about this, anyway?”

Dutch shrugged. “There’s an extensive romance literature about Chyrene pair marriages. And not much else to do but read, where I grew up.”

She was gone before Johnny could question the wisdom of basing one’s social behaviors on what was portrayed in romance novels.

****

“… So, I’m concerned. Will they always have more of a bond with each other than with me? I can’t give them what they can give each other.”

Johnny nodded understandingly—not even needing to feign that part—and put his hand reassuringly over the girl’s. She couldn’t be more than eighteen. Old enough to marry, yes, but not old enough to know that almost every problem that could develop between people had been weathered before.

“The fact that you’re thinking about it means that you can deal with it,” he said. “People get in trouble from denial, not from realizing there’s an issue.”

She looked at him trustingly, eyes wide and lips parted, and he really doubted that her husbands would ignore her just because they both liked being penetrated.

“Look, you know what? Buy a strap-on. That way you can give whatever they want to take.”

“But—isn’t that—inappropriate?”

“There is nothing off-limits if it makes your domines happy,” he said, with all the confidence of somebody who actually knew something about Chyrene culture.

She chewed on her lower lip, considering.

“You must have seen other—relationships here. There’s more than one way to be happy in a marriage. I bet there are even people here who are here without their spouses, because sometimes part of loving someone is letting them go somewhere else so they can realize how much they miss you.”

The girl looked around the room, as if it would have changed from a servine-only spot (where they had to make their own drinks, because outsiders couldn’t talk to servines; if Johnny hadn’t been on the job, he would’ve taken better advantage of the opportunity to get into the good hooch) into a depraved hive of cross-clade relations. “Well. There is this one man. I’ve heard his tattoos are unfinished!”

“Hunh,” Johnny said. “I’m a student of human nature. Always interested in someone’s story. Any idea where I might find this fellow?”

She waved her hand, as if she thought that would provide Johnny with directions. In fairness, she was a bit tipsy. “He’s staying somewhere around the yellow fountain, I think.”

“Thank you,” he said sincerely. “Hey, I gotta go, my—my domine is gonna get back and you know how they get when you don’t have a hot meal and a towel waiting. But seriously, get a strap-on. And I promise you something else: if they like women, they like breasts. It’s a universal truth.”

The girl sniffed and, as he rose, bolted out of her chair as well and threw her arms around him. “Thank you,” she said with drunken sincerity. Johnny was okay with that, because he’d given legit advice. “I don’t even know your name,” she mourned.

“Better that way,” he said and smiled. “Good fortune to you.”

“The earth rise up to greet you,” she replied, fluttering her fingers in good-bye as he backed away, smiling.

“Really don’t know how a spacefaring culture thinks that’s a good thing,” he muttered as he turned to go, but not loudly enough that she’d hear.

****

He didn’t expect to be slammed up against the wall immediately upon entering their suite.

He particularly didn’t expect Dutch to climb him, wrapping her very strong and very female legs around him, pressing her face into the junction of his neck and shoulder, right where the new tattoos remained sensitive.

The high-pitched noise he made did not in any way resemble a sound of alarm, just to be clear on that.

Surveillance, she breathed into his skin, triggering his subvocal mike. We’re being watched.

Okay, kinky, he thought. And disturbing, because their cover was supposed to be good. There was no reason that the resort’s owners should have suspected them.

He gripped her, one hand on each of her upper thighs right about where they joined her ass, and he could feel the strength of her through her synthleather pants. Praying that he was getting this right, and also enjoying the feel of her, he walked them over to the bed.

She did something implausible with her weight, spinning them down so that his back was on the bed and she was on top. His knees were bent and his feet were on the floor; he threw his arms out in submission to whatever she wanted to do.

“I’m ready for you to make me feel good,” Dutch said, either channeling a domine or her own confident entitlement. She reached to the hem of her shirt and slowly, slowly, pulled it off, her arms crossed, like a demonstration model of how to be arousing.

When he’d said that everybody who likes women likes breasts, he hadn’t meant to provide such an immediate and personal example.

Underneath the asymmetrical purple top, Dutch had on an equally complicated though far less comprehensive bra, all ribbons and mesh. It couldn’t possibly be providing support, Johnny thought dazedly, then thought largely ceased as she ground down on him, her hips undulating in a way that made his dick valiantly attempt to tear through two layers of his clothing.

He figured that feedback was in order, whether for unseen listeners or for Dutch, so he moaned in what he hoped was an encouraging manner, and also in an ‘I am not faking this’ manner, though she couldn’t possibly be ignorant of that.

Dutch leaned in close, and he could feel her across every centimeter of her skin. "We can stop if you want," she murmured into his ear. "All voluntary from here out."

Of course Dutch had a plan B. All he had to do was indicate reluctance, and they'd feign something kinky enough to look enjoyable.

But if he didn't mind, they might get a chance to see what the warm current running between them would be like, closer up. "I volunteer," he said before she could take his hesitation as reluctance.

Dutch pushed herself back up, and Johnny mourned the loss of feeling and approved the return of the view. “Well?” She smiled at him teasingly, her eyes narrowed. “Get with the program and get naked.”

Johnny gulped and then, figuring that he ought to take her seriously, put his hand on her (silken-soft, warm, smooth) back to keep her stable as he sat up. Now she was sitting on his legs, her calves pressing up against his waist, as he took his own shirt off—

And he was on his back again. She slithered up so that the crotch of her very tight pants was up against his nose. “Work for it, boy,” she said, “and get those trousers off while you’re at it.”

Even swallowing brought him closer to touching her, and he could feel her heat through the thin fabric. He had to hope she knew what she was doing. Dutch was capable of shutting him down with just her little finger.

He opened his mouth, breathing out, and felt the twitch of muscles in her thighs bracketing his cheeks. So he wasn’t completely outclassed. He turned his head just enough that when he sucked in, he got a mouthful of synth-covered thigh. He worked frantically on his own pants and unders; he was a (self-)trained engineer, dammit, and he could coordinate—

Dutch shifted up and down, and he understandably forgot what he was trying to do, but she slapped his hands away when they reached for her ass, so he returned to the really awkward business of kicking off his pants. He was sure he looked like a man trying to ride a unicycle while being attacked by a squid, but on the other hand she wasn’t looking that way and he also had a face full of woman. With her pants in the way, he could be more aggressive with his teeth, little nips that used his limited range of motion to tease her.

Her weight lifted as if she’d been snatched up by a giant, and he raised his head dazedly—but it was just Dutch, tugging her skintight pants off with near-grace while she ran her eyes approvingly down his body.

She was just as gorgeous bare as clothed, a patch of tight dark curls not quite hiding the plump lips of her pussy, and he probably made some noise.

Dutch smiled and resettled herself on top of him. He felt her, scratchy and damp against his chest, and then he very definitely made some noise. This was a lot of verisimilitude for their watchers, whoever those watchers were. Not that he was objecting, but… How much further did she want to go? She raised an eyebrow—are you ready? it asked. Johnny nodded with great sincerity.

And then she shimmied up and let him brace her thighs with his hands, holding her in position so that he could taste her directly. She was wet, salty, better than fine hock. As responsive as Lucy’s engines, telling him exactly when to press harder and when to pull back, with a grip on his head that in other circumstances he knew she could’ve used to break his neck.

Losing her elegant rhythm, she pressed down greedily, and he moved his tongue faster, until her fingers clenched in his hair and she gasped, choked-off but real.

He was always glad to be of service, but he really, really hoped that this wasn’t the end of the encounter. And because Dutch was a good person, she released him and undulated back, her face swimming into view. Johnny had no doubt that Dutch’s contraceptive and anti-disease meds were up to date, given how many times he’d seen her wander off with some space tramp or other, and his own were equally solid, thanks to the RAC. So there was nothing but pleasure—tight, wet, hot slip-sliding pleasure—when she screwed herself down on his insanely grateful dick.

Johnny let her set the pace, because she’d proven so good at it, and he pressed his fingers above her pubic mound the way she showed him. His eyes slipped closed under the shock of sensation. Her thighs kissed his hips; her ass brushed the tops of his thighs every time she slid to the bottom of her arc. He could feel her tensing, readying herself for another leap, and he managed to hold off just until she stiffened before he came, shattering apart all the tension in his body and running through him like electric current.

Dutch rolled off of him and joined him in staring up at the ceiling (a lot less attractive than his immediately previous view, sadly). She folded her arms contentedly over her stomach and sighed. “I needed that. I spent the entire morning talking to self-satisfied domines, trying to find one who wanted to hide instead of brag.”

“Umm…” Johnny turned his head toward her and indicated his uncertainty about whether they should talk about the job, even indirectly, with a significant raise of his eyebrows and a lip-twitch that probably looked pretty odd on a guy who was lying down.

But the great thing about Dutch was that she got him. “Oh, I threw my shirt over the camera when we started. The shirt contains a dampener that prevents any audio or video from getting through.”

“Buh?”

“You can’t be that self-effacing, Johnny. I figured we both deserved a break, after a hard day of sleuthing.”

“Oh,” he said.

She sat up.

Johnny marinated in the pleasant aftershocks for a minute, then looked to see where Dutch had gone. She was putting her boots on. “Unders and boots, it’s a good look,” he said, which was true, but he put enough of a question in that she could decide to explain, or not.

She shrugged. “I learned young, there’s nothing that slows you down faster than stepping on something sharp.”

Like the shards of your lovers’ hopes? he wondered, though that was unfair and nothing he’d let cross his lips. She’d been nothing but honest, and anything he brought to the bed was his own. Anyway, that answer raised a number of other questions. “How young?” he asked.

She smiled over her shoulder. “Don’t worry, Johnny. I was of age, and I chose to be there.” Her smile turned amused. “You’re a bit of a crusader, aren’t you? Not what I’d expect from a thief.”

“I steal to live, I don’t live to steal,” he said, even though he kind of did live for the satisfaction of solving problems. Mostly problems posed by security systems. Occasionally problems that could be solved by the selective application of joy. Thus, the thievery. And the record that kept him from getting a legit job back home. “Anyhow,” he coughed, “why exactly are we being kept under surveillance?”

“Turns out, this place has a bit of a sideline in blackmail material. Most of the recordings are dumped if they’re neither particularly inventive nor involve anyone of particular importance. But Seyah Martell’s nephew isn’t just some youngster gone walkabout. He’s here because a recording of his fiancee was used to threaten her into resigning from a very significant tariff committee.”

“And you know this because …”

“I found him. And he’ll be locked and served, don’t worry, but he was … persuasive about his reasons for staying just long enough to ensure that evidence of just how pervasively wired this resort is becomes public knowledge. Management are trying to find him and take care of him permanently. They don't want his story getting out, because if it does, they become pariahs. This is the place for well-off Chyrene in this sector. Half of them will have reason to make sure the entire pile of recordings is destroyed, sight unseen, and his fiancee's errors will disappear.”

Johnny considered that. “A bold plan, but it just might work.”

“Thank you,” she said. “We’re going to make sure it does.”

At last, Johnny sat up and started to pull his clothes on. He had the feeling that this was the kind of assistance that was going to require pants.

****

… Or not.

The initial plan made sense, in a Dutch way. They needed to escort Seyah Martell’s nephew out without making a fuss. Obviously, the thing to do was to make everyone sick with food poisoning.

This could be achieved by the simple expedient of reprogramming the scanner ovens through which the food passed for the main meal of the day. And reprogramming was kind of Johnny’s thing, not that he liked to brag about it. Dutch, Johnny, and Kee Martell would avoid all the food (this was the only unfortunate part of the plan; these people were not fucking around with the resort food—Johnny thought he might’ve gained a few kilos just looking at it) and skedaddle while everyone else was groaning and puking.

Except that, in the midst of the groaning and puking, a full security detachment strode through the very doors that they needed to go through.

Management must have detected the contamination in the food, and given Martell the younger’s attempts to expose them, they figured it couldn’t have been a timely accident.

Dutch stuck her head over a waffle-laden table long enough to assess the situation. She glared at Johnny, as if he were the one at fault here. “We need a diversion. Go divert!”

As long as they still thought he might be a legitimate, paying guest, they probably wouldn’t shoot him. Dutch could sneak Kee Martell (a real cutie, he noted with an objective eye) out while security was trying to figure out what Johnny was doing. All else failed, he could reveal his Killjoy status, which would offer some protection—especially if the cameras were still on.

Johnny didn’t know much about these people, but he did know people. He sighed. This wasn’t going to be fun.

He snagged a basket of fruit off another table and went to work.

****

Two minutes later, he was staring at a semicircle of heavily armed security people, grinning the grin of the badly caught-out.

He swallowed. “There is a really, really unconvincing explanation for this, I swear.”

He dropped the basket.

All eyes went to his – masculine attributes, and the related placement of fruit.

“Bye,” he said and ran, ignoring the unfortunate motion of certain sensitive elements.

What happened after that—well, Dutch would never know, and that was his only consolation.

****

“Seyah Martell is displeased. You were supposed to bring back her nephew without revealing that he had fled.”

Dutch ignored the sneer in the servant’s voice the same way she’d have ignored an untimely fart. “I didn’t see any news related to him. No one even knows he was there, especially since all eyes are on upper management. Unless—Seyah Martell didn’t want to preserve the secrecy of this blackmail operation, did she? Johnny, was that part of the warrant?”

Johnny favored Seyah Martell’s flunky with his best ‘who, me?’ innocent expression. “I don’t remember that being part of the warrant, boss.”

“Of course, if she is dissatisfied with our performance on that account, she should absolutely feel free to file a complaint specifying the manner in which we failed to execute the warrant. Those complaints are public, but if the problem is publicity, well, that ship has launched, hasn’t it?”

The sneer had turned to something far less self-satisfied.

Dutch nodded. “I didn’t think so. As always, the RAC appreciates your business.”

She managed to refrain from smirking until they’d left Seyah Martell’s compound and were halfway back to Lucy’s berth.

“Hey,” Johnny said. “I thought complaints to the RAC were confidential, even when they’re found to be substantiated.”

“Oops,” Dutch said. “I must have forgotten.”

He shook his head in admiration. “You are a revelation.”

“Thanks. I think.”

Johnny waved at Lucy’s sensor, and she opened the gangway for them. He let Dutch go first.

“So,” he said, as they watched the planet retreat in the main display. “You wanna talk about your wedding? If there was a wedding, I mean. I don’t like to assume. You could have been a wedding dress model. Or part of a conceptual art project—”

She shook her head, cutting him off.

Johnny sighed. “Did you love him?”

Dutch hesitated, for perhaps the first time since they’d met. “He—he was kind to me. When he didn’t need to be.”

He leaned forward, just enough that he could chuck her under the chin. Because they were friends like that, she didn’t immediately kill him for his daring. “You know, even if most people have been shitty to you, you don’t need to grade on a curve. You don’t owe anybody anything just for treating you like a human being.”

She smiled, soft underneath the deadly shine of her lipstick, and there were secrets hiding behind secrets in her eyes, but he didn’t sense that they were any immediate danger to either of them. “Maybe not,” she said. “But he got me here, with this ship. With you. And that is something to be grateful for.”

“I feel so loved,” he said, putting just enough irony into the words to keep the moment from turning awkward.

“Johnny,” she said, when he made to stand up and check the conn. He stopped in his tracks, looking back at her.

“The way I am—I can’t be a wife. But I can be a partner.”

“You think that’s ever going to change?” he asked.

“I don’t know,” she said. Which was the first time she’d ever said that, at least in his hearing.

He could see it in her eyes, the expectation that he’d leave her, that it was his way or no way, that her being his captain didn’t make a difference to them, here.

“You know,” he said, “the first system I ever hacked, took me ten minutes. The best—five years, preparing. I had to get to know its quirks. I had to work up to it, so it would be comfortable with me.”

“And when you did hack it,” she said, amusement and relief mingled in her voice, “was it worth the wait?”

He looked up and around, at the ship who’d made herself his home. “Every minute,” he said.

“Thank you, Johnny,” Lucy said.

Dutch bit her lip. She didn’t say the words. But she didn’t need to.