There’s kind of a legend around it now, the idea of these three teenage girls who stole an old interstellar schooner from the dockyards where there parents worked, took it for a joyride, and never brought it back.
It wasn’t the way the press made it out to be, though, not really. Tabloids had painted it as carefree and anarchic, based largely on luck, but of course they’d been planning for weeks, stealing floorplans and pass codes, studying the machinery of the model of ship, researching the security systems in different models to make sure they chose one which would be old and low-tech enough to be hard to track, but not so old as to be falling out of the sky.
So of course the story the press dreamed up was scandalous and romantic and spun like crazy to fit political climates of the time, of course they didn’t have any real idea how it had happened. Tennessee can understand all that—they weren’t there. The difference that bothers her the most is the way it’s characterized as bold, as brave, even if that bravery is also seen as foolhardiness, selfishness, the actions of spoiled children.
One of the words that was used most commonly in that period when they first started making the papers was “fearless,” but Tennessee remembers quaking in her boots as they ducked behind a corner as the guard passed. She remembers clutching for Charlotte’s hand as they made a break across the only exposed stretch of monitored hallway they hadn’t been able to block from surveillance, remembers how even Z was biting her lip, nervous. Remembers how relieved their laughter was once they finally got the ship into the sky, relieved and maybe a little hysterical, because somewhere in the back of their minds, it was never really meant to work.
And now Charlotte is leaving. She’s crying a little, but only in that tears-of-fury kind of way that she hates more than anything, those tears that spring to her eyes when she is so angry she wants to cause people physical harm. They know they are meant to be scared of her when she’s this mad, but then she starts to cry. Tennessee knows this about her, knows Charlotte’s moods as well as her own, and so maybe it makes sense, the way Charlotte is looking at her like she should be leaving, too.
Z is sitting by the steering console, though, and she’s not crying, her thick, dark makeup is unsmudged and perfect as ink, her face immobile, and she and Charlotte both just look so small to Tennessee. They’ve been negotiating for days, who gets the ship, who gets the loot, who gets their contacts. They never decided who gets Tennessee, though, and she thinks now that that’s because they thought there was never any question. Like wherever Charlotte went, Tennessee was sure to follow, like she was a little girl all over again, a little girl from another colony, far from home, who didn’t know anything or anyone, who tagged along after Charlotte, chattering in her funny accent, like she can’t ever be anything more.
This is her ship, though, her Runaway, her baby, and she has spent hours with engineering textbooks, hours more digging around in the guts of the engine pretending she knows what she’s doing, has spilled blood for this ship, blisters worked through until they popped, scabbed over, and broke the scabs trying to become familiar with odd, alien tools, and is she really just supposed to leave it? She’s supposed to leave because Charlotte is upset, because Charlotte and Z both want to be captain, because Charlotte doesn’t want to follow orders, because she is Charlotte’s and Charlotte is hers and that is the way it has always been?
When they met, the three of them, it was Z who had had the daring adventures, Z who had all the really scandalous plans, and it was Charlotte and Tennessee, united in their admiring bafflement, who followed along, trailing in Z’s wake. It’s been years, though, and over the course of those years, the three of them have become a crew, or Tennessee had thought they had been. They had redefined allegiances, and really, to have hers taken for granted is not the nicest feeling.
It has already been decided that Z will keep the ship. Tennessee has a feeling, though, that the ship will keep her.
After Charlotte leaves, they rendezvous with Alex.
Z says they need to do a little bartering for parts, but Tennessee knows their ship back to front, and as far as she can tell, there’s nothing more that’s wrong with it than there ever is. She knows why Z wants to, though, because it’s the same reason Tennessee doesn’t argue; the ship feels way too empty with just the two of them.
It’s also hard to run, with just two people, and lonely, too, since they have to alternate sleeping shifts between the two of them, now. Tennessee knows they’ll have to address that at some point, but for now they are mostly staying very quiet.
Mostly. The night after Charlotte left, though, Z came up to the bridge while Tennessee was steering, a bottle and a couple of shot glasses in her hands, and Tenn knew, has always known, how stupid drinking and driving is, especially in deep space, but it’s just one of those days, you know? One of those days where she’s just watched her childhood best friend walk off into the unknown and told her she wouldn’t go with her. One of those days where they’re still on the run from the law and they’ve just lost their best evasive maneuvering pilot, one of those days when Tennessee actually wonders if the smuggling-and-pillaging lifestyle is one with any kind of secure future. She reaches for the bottle and knocks some back, ignoring the shot glass and wincing a little as the alcohol burns down her throat and into her empty stomach.
Z likes to say that Alex is the Tennessee to her Charlotte, or the Charlotte to her Tennessee, depending on who she’s talking to. Tennessee isn’t quite sure it’s an apt comparison, since Charlotte was her first and best friend, is the one person she’s counted on completely since she was five years old, and Alex is the older guy Z dated to horrify her parents when she was fourteen. But they are good friends, finish-each-others’-sentences kind of close, and Alex and his crew have gotten the Runaway out of quite a few tight spots.
Tennessee can see that they both need some other company right now, because Z tells her, “There’s nothing you could have done,” and it sounds like an echo of what she keeps telling herself, it’s this echoing reinforcement that isn’t even true, there’s something really obvious she could have done, she could have gone with Charlotte, but she didn’t.
She didn’t and she tells Z that, and Z nods, smiles a little, and that’s unexpected, her low, sweet voice repeating, “No, you didn’t, did you? You stayed with me.”
“I stayed with the ship,” Tennessee says. She knows her own voice is a little unsteady, scratchy from the alcohol. Z nods and rocks up on her toes, feels impossibly close, and she stays there, in Tennessee’s space, until Tennessee turns to look at her. She doesn’t like taking her eyes off what she’s doing when she’s at the controls, but her rules are already shot to hell with the drinking, and today is kind of a special case, and when Z tells her, “Thank you,” and leans in to kiss her—just a little, just lightly, hesitant lips and an uncertain hand on her forearm, Tennessee doesn’t move away.
She doesn’t move closer, either, though, doesn’t do much of anything, and when Z sinks back to the floor, feet settling flat, Tennessee wants a do-over, wants to try again, leans down and in and closer and Z is still looking at her, huge eyes and still expression. Tennessee is fairly certain they’re not likely to crash into an asteroid on their current trajectory, but it never hurts to be sure, so she brushes her mouth against Z’s again—not trying to move any further, just a confirmation, and then turns back to the controls.
“So where did you say Alex’s last coordinates were?” Tennessee knows she’s blushing a little, but that’s not important. The ship comes first. The ship has always come first. Tennessee sets and locks the course, scans radar for other ships, and tries not to feel too giddy or too grieving. It’s an odd day.
“You could always take Ross,” Alex says. Alex is pretty unhelpful.
He’s got a point, though, if not about taking Ryan, at least about the justification he gives for it at Z’s raised eyebrow. “It was crazy enough with all three of you making that monster run. I don’t know how you managed with two for long enough to get to us, even.”
The Runaway is currently being towed in Alex’s Phantom’s wake, and they’re all hoping they don’t run into the law, because towing a ship is not any way to give chase. Friendship is a risk, though, as Z likes to point out.
Z shakes her head at Alex, says, “We can’t have a boy on the Runaway--she needs a light touch.”
Alex laughs and says something about Ryan having the lightest touch, something about falling asleep at the wheel, and that’s all it takes, Tennessee is never letting him anywhere near the controls of her ship, but Ryan overhears his name and asks what’s going on.
“Alex here was just trying to barter you away to our ship,” Z tells him, eyes bright.
“What did you get for me?” Ryan asks, grinning. “I hope he got at least a really good price, to make up for the loss of my wit and charm. Not that I’m going.”
It’s all very well for Alex to talk about replacing Charlotte like that, though—his crew seems to change with the days of the week, never a set number of people, never any certainty about who will be there at any given time except for Alex himself. He doesn’t understand what it’s like to lose someone who was such an integral part of the ship that it feels, in her absence, like the parts that she worked on should just drop off into space, leaving gaping holes, never to be touched by other hands. If he understood, he wouldn’t have said anything at all, would have let them realize they would need another crew member in their own time.
“Of course we can’t take Ryan,” Tennessee says, at least as bright and playful-sounding, she is sure, as any of the others. “He wouldn’t fit our aesthetic at all. No offence, Ryan.”
From the first, Z was the one who really got behind Tennessee’s ideas about coordination, not Charlotte. Of course, that might have been because they were pretty much inspired by Z anyway, and her almost religious dedication to dressing for any and all events.
“Bands do it,” Tennessee had said one day when they were all laying out on Z’s roof in the sun, months before they'd taken idle plans to hijack a ship and made them a reality. “They all dress—not the same, but coordinated. To make a point. Like the visual representation of their message, you know?”
“Sure,” Charlotte had said, “But bands want to be seen, you know? It’s the point of them. Pirates can’t be seen too much or they get caught, and don’t get to be pirates anymore.”
Z had pushed herself up on her elbows at that, cocking her head to the side to look over at them both. “But pirates want to be noticed, too, in a way. Otherwise the only point of it is to get rich.” She made a face at that. “You’re not making a statement if nobody’s listening.”
Tennessee had nodded back enthusiastically. “And it could actually help with subtlety, in a weird way. If you’re dressed to the nines on a job, and you get seen, that’s what they’ll look for. Then if you sneak back into port with a semi-legal-looking license, slobbing abound in something comfortable a few months later, who’s going to suspect you?”
Z had nodded, laughed. “We should wear masks.”
“And lots of makeup.”
“Lace gloves—leave no fingerprints behind, just class.”
“Blind them to our nefarious plots by wearing dresses that show lots of leg.”
Charlotte had smiled at them both, glancing back and forth between them, bemused. “I get some input on my own outfits, though, okay?”
Tennessee had nodded, conceded, but only with the caveat that, “I have veto power. We need to at least coordinate, if we’re not going to match.”
Laena Geronimo is perfect.
She is exactly what their crew needs, she is the gorgeous pirate queen with the eyelashes to die for, she will take the Runaway and her exploits to new heights. She even has the right kind of name. She also doesn’t know they exist.
(Alright, she probably know they exist. They were in the papers quite a bit, when they were just starting out. They were a bit of a high profile case. There may, at one point, have been action figures. Z may still have a set hidden in her sock drawer.)
Tennessee thinks they might have an easier time wooing her to their sides if they come out from behind the shrub where they’re crouching and talk to her. Preferably without actually telling her they’re on the run from the law, at least until they have a bit of a inkling how she feels about law-breaking and if she’s likely to call the authorities.
Z has also said that she thinks they should maybe try to woo her to their bed, “Just, you know, as a team-building exercise.” Tennessee hadn’t actually pointed out, at the time, that they didn’t have a bed, singular, to woo her to—that a tearful kiss over the navigation console and some awkward flirting over breakfast does not create a cohesive unit into which others can be lured. She hadn’t wanted to do anything to break down what it had created, though, wavering and uncertain as it was, so she’d just leaned forward, stolen kiss number seven, rushed and with too much grinning on both sides to really line up quite right, and then pulled back to add another item to their list of criteria for new crew members.
“#5, must be willing to put up with flirtation which may or may not be construed as harassment by the captain, in the interests of creating a more unified crew.”
Z had whacked her arm at that, said, “It won’t just be flirting, Tenn, when I seduce someone they stay seduced,” and Tennessee had laughed at her until Z had pouted, said, “It worked on you, didn't it?” and then Tennessee had had to tease her about acting like a damsel in distress as a seduction method, and the conversation had moved on. Looking at Laena between the branches of the shrub, though, Tennessee had to admit that the idea had merit. Luring her to their hypothetical bed of sin could only be to the good, if it meant getting to see that dark hair spread out on a pillow, those dark eyes fluttering closed. It would also be good to have a navigator again.
Laena is perfect, and they know this because they watched her walk out of the navigational school on Hroth B, which is the only planet in the system with a piloting and navigational school whose security is lax enough that they can get through to hang on the planet without getting caught and arrested. Then Z had hacked Laena’s records and seen her perfect scores and multiple disciplinary warnings, and they’d gone back to the gates of the Nav school again the next day, and that time when they saw her leave they’d followed her.
Now she is talking to a distinguished looking older man outside a bar, and they are hiding behind a potted shrub. Tennessee is fairly certain they’re not that well hidden, and between that and the way they’re both dressed all in black (“for stealth”), Tennessee is sure they are making quite a spectacle, which is really not the point of lying low.
“Laena Geronimo,” Z says, long and slow and drawling as the older man Laena has been talking to makes his farewells and continues on his way. That’s all the warning she gives before slipping out from behind the shrub and following Laena into the bar, casual as anything.
Tennessee scrambles to follow and is glad that she did when she makes her way in the door to see that the perfect Laena Geronimo has Z pinned to a wall by the throat. Tennessee doesn’t even think—her blaster is in her hand and pointed at Laena’s head before she’s even entirely processed the scene before her.
“Put her down.”
Laena turns her head to look at Tennessee in surprise, but it’s Z who speaks first, telling Tennessee, “No need to get violent. I’m sure Ms. Geronimo was only joking.”
“How do you know my name?” Laena asks, and her voice sounds a little shaky, Tennessee would feel bad, except that she’s still kept her hold on Z’s throat. “Who are, you, why are you following me?”
“You saw us?” Z asks, and Tennessee has no idea how she sounds so calm. The bartender looks over at them curiously, plainly wondering if he should call the police. It’s the kind of place that isn’t completely unused to shady dealings, though, which would actually be a point in Laena’s favor for choosing it, if she would only let go of Z before Tennessee had a heart attack. When Tennessee waves him off, he moves on, though he continues to eye them dubiously. Tennessee decides the situation really needs to be taken in hand.
“Put her down and I’ll put down the blaster and we can buy you a drink and tell you.”
Laena doesn’t look so enthusiastic about that plan. “And what if I don’t want to?”
“Don’t want to drink with us? Or don’t want to let go of her?”
“The second one.”
“I could always shoot you.”
Something in Tennessee’s tone must tip Laena off to the fact that she’s serious, because she slowly lowers her hand, telling them, “I’ll take a scotch, neat.”
Somehow, three hours later, they’ve gotten to the point where they all feel pretty good about Tennessee teasing Laena for choosing an old man’s drink. “And not just once, not just to look imposing,” Tennessee marvels, “but over and over again! Like you actually like the stuff!” She takes a thoughtful sip from her own drink, which is blue and has more straws in it than are strictly necessary.
“I do like it,” Laena tells her, for what is possibly not the first time. When she asks, “So you guys are really them? The Runaway Girls?” Z makes a face, the way she always does over the nickname, and Tennessee shushes her, finger over her lips, expression exaggerated, before responding, “Yes, really us. And we want to interview you for a job.”
“Interview?” Laena asks, wrinkling her nose. “I thought it was an offer. I’m not sure I’m ready for an interview.”
“Just to make sure we’re compatible,” Z explains, looking dead serious for about five seconds before a grin spreads back over her face. “Here, look, we’ll do it now.”
Laena straightens in her seat, puts on what Tennessee is already learning to identify as her fake-serious expression rather than a real one. Z asks, “What are your feelings on law breaking, destruction, and general mayhem?”
“Very positive,” Laena says, nodding along to herself. “Yes, I’m feeling pretty favorable towards them.”
“Good.” Z dimples at her. “Tenn? Do you want to ask the next question?”
“Sure,” Tennessee replies, taking another sip of her drink and then sticking out her tongue. “Is my mouth blue yet? Wait, no don’t answer that, that wasn’t my question. Z, is my mouth blue? Laena, are you willing to bow to our vision in terms of the sartorial decisions on missions? Are you willing to let us dress you like our very own Pocket Princess? Did you have a Pocket Princess as a kid?”
Laena’s eyes dance, and she drawls out a “Hmmmmm,” and Tennessee has a feeling she is not taking this question as seriously as she should.
She leans in and hisses to Laena, “This one’s kind of an important answer.”
Laena says, “I didn’t have a Pocket Princess. My cousin did. I was always jealous. I think I could work with being one sometimes, though—I’m a quick learner.”
Tennessee sits back, satisfied, and then looks over to Z, who says, “I think we’ve covered all the really important points.” She raises an eyebrow to Tennessee, and it’s a question, but Tennessee thinks the answer is pretty obvious. She nods, and Z grins brilliantly, turning back to Laena and saying, “So. Want to come be a pirate?”
That’s how they become three again, and that should be it, it would be, but Z notices a familiar face when they’re shopping for Laena’s new wardrobe on Aeres.
It’s a risky little mission, because some of their more distinctive outfits have been traced to the marketplace on Aeres, and while it’s a pretty massive place, with probably thousands of illegal transactions going on every day, there is a warrant out for them. An intergalactic warrant, and they have pictures. But Z smiles all wild and bright and says she’s not going to let that keep her away from the important things in life, like shopping. Tennessee checks to make sure her blaster is all strapped on, concealed and secure, and then nods, and Laena—Tennessee is pretty sure Laena doesn’t even really know why it’s dumb not to be scared yet.
It goes pretty well for the first hour, they find some pretty great pieces for Laena, and there are one or two things Z can’t quite resist, either, and all-in-all, it’s quite a good haul by the time Tennessee looks up from the rack of scarves just in time to see the store clerk creeping unobtrusively towards the communicator mounted in the wall and gets a bad feeling. She grabs Laena’s arm and shoves her towards the door saying, “Wait for us outside, but if you see the cops, don’t wait, run.”
Laena nods, wide-eyed, and Tennessee lets her go to shove her way through to the back of the door, pushing open the changing cubicle curtain to reveal a half dressed and blinking Z who squints up at her and says, “Never took you for an exhibitionist.”
“We’ve got to go,” Tennessee tells her, “Code red.” She reaches for Z with one hand and her blaster with the other, dragging her out of the shop just in time to see the market police barreling down the hall towards the store.
Tennessee hisses, “Come on,” to Laena as they pass out the door, walking as fast as they can without causing a commotion. The store clerk is shouting something and the police officer’s footsteps are growing louder, nearer, and Z breaks into a run, shrugging off the sweater that was hanging by one arm and hauling her unzipped skirt up with the other hand. Laena follows, and Tennessee turns around just long enough to fire a warning shot up, at the high glass windows far overhead. Sometimes it takes a little payoff on the threat, even now, for law enforcement to believe that girls like them have it in them to act when they have a weapon in their hands. Tennessee doesn’t want to hurt anyone, but she will if she has to, and she does want them to know that.
The glass from the window shatters, but Tennessee doesn’t watch to see where it falls, just turns around and runs. Z takes a sharp left down a side corridor, and Tennessee hopes she knows where she’s going, but at least with less people around, there’s less of a chance of anyone getting caught in the crossfire.
That’s when (Z will explain later) Z sees a face that looks familiar for no discernable reason peering out of one of the offices running along the corridor. She sees a shock of recognition on what they’ll later find out is Annie’s face as well, thinks, “High school,” thinks, “post-revolutionary history, third row,” thinks, “Cindy Caswell’s birthday party,” and doesn’t think any further than that. She just lunges for the door, dragging all that she hold dear in behind her by the hands, panting, asking Annie, “Is there a way out of the building from here?”
Annie nods and says, “But it just leads into the alleys, it’s like a maze out there—here, I’ll show you or you’ll get totally lost.”
Z grins and Tennessee might not know quite what’s going on yet, but she does know that sometimes the galaxy just smiles on Z, sometimes sun shines on her when they’re thousands on miles from any solar system.
Annie introduces herself as she wedges open the fire exit door, and tells Z, “Long time, no see,” as she leads their way through alleys that truly are maze-like, figures out what stand of trees outside the city the ship is parked in from a rather convoluted description and then, when they finally do board the ship, breathless and shaky, climbs in behind them.
At Z’s questioning look, she shrugs. “I just helped a bunch of wanted fugitives escape, and the office is totally under surveillance, everyone is going to know I did it. You’re not going to just leave me here to get arrested for you, are you?”
“They surveil you at work?” Tennessee has to ask. “That doesn’t seem very trusting. And you seem like a pretty trustworthy person.”
“I’m glad you think so,” Annie responds as Z closes the airlock behind her.
Z asks her, “Are you sure? You won’t be able go back, probably, after this.”
Z is heading for the controls to get ready for takeoff already, though, even as Annie says, “Weren’t you listening? I already probably can’t. They didn’t trust me not to steal the paperclips, you know. That’s why they’re going to catch me on camera aiding and abetting criminals.”
“Very well-dressed criminals, though,” Laena adds in a minute, after her stomach has settled a bit from takeoff and they’re pushing towards the atmosphere.
Annie nods, solemnly. “That’s the important thing, too. I wonder if they’d let me use it in my defense. ‘They were very stylish criminals, you honor. They wouldn’t have looked nearly as good behind bars.’”
Later, they’ll work out schedules, practicalities, and a crime-spree like none other, Tennessee is sure. For now, though, she listens to the chatter of their new crew members, and the hum of her ship, looks at Z’s hands, steady on the controls. They’d become three again, with Laena, and that had felt good, like the right thing to do, reaffirming the status quo. They’re four, now, though, and that feels better. That feels like progress.