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When a stranger knows your name

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Peter glides down the steps of the spaceport entrance, taking in Mars for the first time, and he’s in love with it already. The crimson sky is offset by the rippling blue dome, lit up from the inside by neon lights a mile high. The red dust in every crack and crevice gives the illusion of warmth despite the chill in the air. That air is thick with the smell of burnt ozone from cars long past their street clearance, and with the aroma of street food from more locales than he can count, all of them seasoned (lovingly, though perhaps unnecessarily) with turmeric and cayenne. 

He runs his tongue over the roof of his mouth. On second thought, perhaps he’ll hold off on sampling the more piquant local cuisine just yet– at least until the cut on his soft palate has had a chance to heal properly. He must have eaten something sharp– a bit of shell left on one of those in-flight pistachios, perhaps?

Ah well.

First order of business is to procure himself a hotel, preferably something becoming a thief of his caliber, and then he’ll need to find the First Museum of Colonized History for an evening’s stakeout, and then he can worry about finding something to eat that won’t cause him any immediate pain.

He hears rushed footsteps heading his way, but he decisively fails to react. It could be a common pickpocket– if anything, he could give the cad some pointers on how to move silently– or some would-be burglar chasing a mark. Either way, letting on that he’s heard them coming won’t do him any favors. He’s better off letting them knock him down; at least if he looks like an imperceptive tourist, he’ll be underestimated when it really matters.

But he isn’t barreled into or bowled over. Instead, a hand closes on his shoulder and pulls, urging him to turn. 

The lady behind him is short and wiry, his scarred face even more beaten-up than his ragged trench coat, his expression so plaintive that Peter might have mistaken him for a beggar, if not for two things:

First, he’s lived on streets not so different from these, and he knows the look of a soul throwing himself to the mercy of strangers. This is not that look.

Second, and strangely less immediately apparent, is the array of colors in that gaze. The stranger’s right eye is a cybernetic implant, and nobody who can afford one of those has gone hungry a day in their lives.

“It really is you,” the stranger sighs, almost crumpling around the words.

“I’m sorry, you must have me confused for someone else.” Peter flashes a politely charming smile. “Can I help you?”

The stranger’s shoulders sag as if the air has been knocked from his lungs, his expression so mortally wounded that Peter has half a mind to check for blood. To his credit, the lady recovers himself quickly. “Yeah, I… deserve that.” 

For what, exactly?

Peter mentally rifles through dozens of aliases and identities. Was this a contact of Duke Rose? A business associate of Christopher Morales? Did he share a few drinks with Richard Ivy? The scars and eye are striking enough that he should be memorable, but nothing stands out. Maybe they’re recent developments? 

Or is there no connection between them at all? A case of mistaken identity, perhaps, or a madwoman rambling at the first person who will give him the time of day? Healthcare on Mars isn’t exactly up to standard, after all.

Peter fixes the lady with a carefully neutral expression– the type that means whatever the onlooker wants it to mean. In this case, that seems to be an accusation, and quite a damning one, because the lady bends under the imaginary scrutiny like a Jovian politician. 

“Listen, I get it if you don’t want to see me again,” he says miserably. “Just… hear me out. Please. That’s all I want.”

Peter shifts his weight slightly, positioning his hand over one of the more dangerous pockets for a quick draw, just in case this isn’t just a harmless lunatic. “I’m listening.”

The stranger looks around. “Should we take this somewhere more private, or–”

“I think I’ll stay right here.” 

“Right,” the stranger says, squeezing his eyes shut again. “Right. That’s fair. After everything–” He sighs miserably. “You deserve better than what you got. I’m sorry. I should have– I should have said something. I just want you to know I’m sorry.”

“I… see,” Peter says. “Is there a reason you’re telling me this now?” 

“I know. I know I should have said something in the hotel. But with everything that happened with the tomb and my eye and my asthma– I was just in a bad place, and I just couldn’t handle it. And I know that doesn’t excuse it, and it doesn’t make it any better, but Nurey–” His eyes go wide, and then slowly shut, his whole face curdling into a cringe at the slip. He’s too caught up in his own chagrin to notice Peter’s expression, there for a moment and then hastily rearranged into careful neutrality. But even while his face is controlled, his thoughts are racing.

Who is this person, and how does he know Peter’s name?

“This was a mistake,” the stranger whispers, looking ready to make his escape, and that won’t do at all. 

Peter catches the lady by the edge of his coat before he can run off, and he leans in. “I wouldn’t say that.”

The lady looks up at him, those big eyes of his so sad and so full of hope.

Peter won’t say he stole the kiss– you can hardly steal a thing that’s freely given. 

The stranger’s wallet and keys are a different matter entirely.

His name is Juno Steel, and he’s been a private investigator on Mars for more than fifteen years, and a detective with the Hyperion City Police Department before that. There’s no interplanetary passport on file for him, but Peter knows better than anyone that such things hardly mean anything. He might have traveled under a false name, or stowed away on one of the smuggling vessels that were so common during the war, or it might have something to do with all the redacted information that peppers his teenage years. 

There’s a thought– perhaps they crossed paths shortly after Peter left Brahma. Peter was far less careful about his name back then, and it makes sense that such an old encounter would slip his mind– but it leaves even more troubling possibilities in its wake.

If Juno Steel has been holding onto this lovesick crush of his for twenty years, there’s no telling what else he’s done in that time. He could have tried looking for Peter more directly– worse, he might actually have found something. If that kind of information gets out, it could ruin everything Peter’s worked for.

The Museum of Colonized History is forgotten while Peter stakes out the detective’s office. The moment Juno Steel and his secretary leave the premises, Peter slips inside. 

He’s tried to hack into the system remotely, but it’s secured with layers of encryption that would reduce Dark Matters’ security team to tears. But even the most stringent protocols are nothing against a little bit of human error. Maybe Juno or his secretary wrote down a password somewhere, or maybe they kept it saved on their respective desktops.

That search, too, proves fruitless. The secretary’s computer is impenetrable, and Juno’s clearly relies on a portable operating system for him to do his work. There are no files on it, no search history, nothing at all except a game of solitaire that’s been open for the past week. Peter checks the numbers on the cards in case they’re a hint for the password, but to no avail.

That leaves only one option. 

With a feeling of mounting dread, Peter turns to the rows of filing cabinets that take up the office’s longest wall. 

He scours the “N” drawers. Nothing.

“P” for Peter. Nothing.

“B”, for Brahma. Still nothing.

There must be hundreds of files here, and half of them are either out of order or filed according to some sort of nonsensical system that he can’t puzzle out. He could search through them all individually, but that would take days, assuming he even knew what he was looking for. 

Peter steps back and squeezes his eyes shut, trying to put himself in Juno’s head.

He was a police detective, but he butted heads with his precinct before he was thrown out entirely. If he ever trusted them, he doesn’t anymore. 

He’s troubled– the half-empty bottle in his desk attests to that much, though Peter could have guessed as much from their meeting. Sad, guilty, lovelorn…

Peter’s eyes snap open. 

 If he’s fixated on some imaginary relationship with Peter, then he would consider the case file to be personal. He wouldn’t leave that here, he would keep it at home.

He turns away from the filing cabinets and reaches for his coat when he hears footsteps approaching, and the tap of a manual override in the office door. 

He’s been found out.

For a moment Peter considers climbing through the window and clinging to the ledge until the danger has passed, but he decides against it. Instead he leans against the desk and dons a languid grin, looking for all the world as if he intended to be caught here. 

He must have done this before, because the look on Juno’s face isn’t surprise, but relief. Carefully he shuts the door behind him. “You came back.”

“But of course.” Peter’s grin grows wide. “I’ve decided to take you up on your offer to continue this conversation somewhere… private.”

Juno swallows, but he carefully holds Peter’s gaze. Peter can only imagine the places the dear detective would rather be looking. “What do you want to know?”

And that’s the trick, isn’t it? Peter can’t ask directly, not without giving away the game. “I want to know what was going through your head.” His voice is careful and even, as if he’s restraining emotion. It’s up to Juno to decide which emotion that might be.

Juno stares at him for a moment too long, then lowers his gaze to the floor and walks around to the other side of the desk. “Drink?”

“I think that sounds appropriate.”

Juno gives a vague grunt of agreement before he pulls the bottle out of the desk and fills two tumblers. “I think I’m gonna need it.” He slides one glass to Peter, then downs the other and refills it with a practiced motion. 

Peter waits until the drink has had a chance to do its work before he prompts him: “You were saying?”

“Some weather we’re having, huh?” Juno asks abruptly, before Peter fixes him with a stern look. Finally he gives in. “I wasn’t lying, you know. Not about all of it. I wanted to go with you. I just… I couldn’t.”

The words are heavy and emotional, but they don’t actually tell Peter anything solid. So he digs deeper. “Why not?” 

Juno shrugs uncomfortably. “It’s like I said. I was… not great.” The words are blunt and heavy as a crowbar, inelegant but useful enough to pry open the conversation. “Maybe I should have been. I mean, you were, right? I don’t know if I’m just not as– as put-together as you, or if you had a chance to go to a spa or something before you came back to rescue me, or if you were just better at hiding it, or if you just flip a switch and you’re okay with everything that happened, or if running off on another grand adventure is just how you cope. But I couldn’t do that. I couldn’t. I was so ready to just…” 

Words fail him. He fills the silence by taking yet another long swallow of whiskey. 

“I think a part of me was still down there.” His voice is faint and hollow. “It took me months to get myself out of that. And I think– I think if I’d gone with you, a part of me still would have been in there. And I didn’t have the words to tell you that then– hell, I barely have them now. But I didn’t– I didn’t do it to hurt you. I swear I never wanted to hurt you, but goddammit that’s what I do– and after everything that went down in the tomb– after everything Miasma did to you–” 

There’s that word again. Not “my asthma”, but a name, said with the same faltering tone as the name of a demon among believers.

Whatever it is Juno’s talking about, he truly does believe what he’s saying. Tears are welling in his eyes, threatening to spill over. 

“There were cameras in that room she put you in,” he says, his throat dry despite the liquor. “Did I ever tell you that? You tried to stay quiet, but I could see you the whole time. God, I was so deep inside your head I could feel it. And every time I took too long answering her questions, or I guessed the wrong card– every time I opened my goddamn mouth and pissed her off, she took it out on you. And after all that, what good was I to you? I couldn’t shoot straight, I didn’t have that growth in my head anymore, I couldn’t do anything but slow you down and hurt you more, and everything that happened to you after that would be on me, and I couldn’t– Nureyev–”

His voice breaks on the syllables of Peter’s name, and it sends a chill down his spine.

He doesn’t understand a word of this, but he understands the need in Juno’s face, and he understands how Juno wants him to fill that need. He’s done more with less.

“Shhh,” Peter murmurs, crossing around the desk. “Juno, shhh. It’s alright. Everything’s alright. We’re here, aren’t we?”

“Nureyev, I’m so sorry–”

“I know, I know.” Maybe it’s the effect of hearing his name said so tenderly, or maybe they really did have something once upon a time, because it feels so very natural to gather Juno into his arms. “But there’s no need for that, love.” He smooths his thumb over Juno’s scarred cheeks, wiping away the first of the tears. “I forgive you.” 

For a moment Juno looks like he’s been stabbed through the chest, his face frozen in an expression of startled confusion, his lips parted in a soft exhale as his lungs forget how to breathe. And then confusion becomes understanding, and then awe. 

Peter has always enjoyed the aesthetic of divinity, but nobody has ever looked at him this way.