"Stop," demands the woman in the wedding dress. Johnny obeys, as you do when a woman wearing a wedding dress—who's also covered in blood—points a gun at your crotch.
The woman appraises him. Fixed beneath her piercing stare, he realizes that this woman could have killed him—could've put a bullet straight between his eyes. She has it in her, the ability to kill, but she doesn't want it.
"Wait—just wait," Johnny pleads. He raises his hands in surrender. Her hands tremble. "What's your name?"
Surprise flickers in her eyes. "Yalena," she answers, adjusting her grip on her gun.
"Yalena," he repeats. The name feels off, somehow. "I'm Johnny."
"Johnny," echoes Yalena. "You tried to steal my ship."
Johnny grins, "It's a beautiful ship." Yalena lowers her gun—an inch, at best, but it's progress. "Thing is, I get the feeling you need to not be here." He gestures vaguely at her blood-soaked wedding dress.
"No," she agrees.
"Well, we don't have to stay here. We can just fly away and never look back."
"We?" Yalena laughs, but her gun drops another inch or two.
"I need to not be here, too," says Johnny, "and as beautiful as this ship—"
"—as beautiful as Lucy is, my guess is you can't keep her running all on your own."
She raises an eyebrow, lowering her gun to her side. "You know ships?"
"Tech, mech—you name it, I can fix it."
"Think you can patch up humans, too?" asks Yalena, pressing her free hand to a particularly dark smear of blood on her side. Her gun drops to the ground a heartbeat before she does.
Johnny has one thought after Yalena explains her plan: that it's eerily like the half-baked schemes D'avin liked to rope him into when they were kids.
He agrees to go along with it, of course. He always went along with D'avin's plans, anyway, and in six months, Yalena hasn't steered him wrong.
He has a few… concerns… after seeing their mark.
To describe Arel Coltett as suspicious would undersell the man's paranoia. Coltett is a jack-of-all-trades of crime. Smuggling built his empire, but in time, he branched out. For eight years, the Company ignored his crimes, so long as he preyed on Westerlyns and their ilk. Then, as all crimelords are wont to do, Coltett's pride exceeded his strength, and he set his sights on the Company.
Now, he travels with an entourage of military-trained behemoths—a human shield as dispensable as his low-rung J-dealers—and keeps all but his closest friends at arm's length.
As good as Yalena might be—and she's good—Johnny doubts they could outfight Coltett's army. Subterfuge is their best hope, but Coltett's distrust rolls off him in waves.
"That's why we have these," Yalena reminds him, drawing a pair of wedding rings from her pocket. She drops the larger one in his palm. "You remember our cover story, right?"
Johnny takes care that she sees his eyeroll. "Come on, Yalena."
Coltett has one weakness: his fiancée, Istis. Even a wanted crimelord must keep his fiancée happy—thus their impromptu vacation. This resort is known for its discretion, but Yalena knows how to grease palms and flatter egoes, so the intel found its way to them.
A lieutenant in Coltett's organization, Istis is the linchpin to their plan—earn her trust and get close enough to secure their target. All of this hinges on their story, a tale of star-crossed love that would break the hardest of hearts. Despite her position in Coltett's crew, Istis is an unapologetic romantic, and the breadcrumbs of their story they've left will prove too tempting a bait.
"Humor me, Johnny."
"Well, it all began on a starless winter evening, when I found myself stranded far from home. I was feverish, too disoriented to find my way, and I would have died, if not for the beautiful woman who found me… "
A word of advice: Just because a woman happens to be a hopeless romantic does not mean she won't try to put a bullet through your heart.
Needless to say, Yalena and Johnny encounter a few complications while extracting Coltett from the resort—bullets, knives, fists, and Istis. A little more fighting than they bargained for, but better than fighting Coltett's small army.
Handcuffed in their cargo bay, Coltett sneers up at them. "Guessing your names aren't Dutch and Andras then. Any of that sob story of yours true?"
"Well," Johnny says, cuffing Coltett's ankles to the floor, "she did save my life."
Lucy slips aways as the planet's twin suns begin to rise. Johnny stumbles into his quarters like a man trying to find his sea legs, but when he collapses on his bed, his mind won't quiet.
Five months now he's worked for the RAC. He's proved his worth, he knows, but after every warrant, he goes over and over the details. As a kid, he lived in his brother's shadow. Average at sports and average-at-best in school, he fell short time after time, and he lost hours trying to pinpoint why he fell short.
He replays the last three days—spinning their story for Istis, helping her hide from the RAC agent pursuing her, dinners with Coltett. Yalena's hand in his. His hand on her waist, guiding her through the dining hall. Her mouth on his.
All of it, a deception. There was no intimacy in it. Nothing like patching one another's wounds after a fight; or like drifting through the stars aboard Lucy and feeling like the only two people in the universe. But it felt right. Like everything else about this life they're building. Belonging to each other, well, of course that was right, too.
Problem is, their plan fell apart, and Johnny knows that this is why. He hesitated at the wrong moment—torn between reality and fiction—and it cost them their seamless escape, which is why…
Which is why he has to put it out of his mind. The life they have—each other, Lucy—is good. Better than he hoped for when he stowed away on a ship bound for the Quad. But maybe it's best if they aren't everything to each other, he thinks. Maybe it's more than one relationship can bear.
His door slides open. Yalena leans against the doorframe. "Couldn't sleep either?" Johnny asks, sliding to make room on his bed.
"Brought you something," she says, handing him a book. Judging by the cover, it probably comes from Istis's collection. "Not what you usually read, but probably good for a laugh."
"Maybe we'll find inspiration for our next cover story, Dutch."
She settles beside him on his bed. "You know, I like Dutch. I think I might keep it."