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?
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.
Most amateurs think of thieving as cracked safes and picked locks– and for good reason. The ones who rely on such crude means are the ones most likely to be caught in the act. A master thief can do all those things, of course, but he doesn’t need to.
After all, who needs to pick a lock when you have an invitation?
In this case, the invitation presented to him is slightly slurred, courtesy of two glasses of liquid courage.
“I’m just saying,” Juno tells him. “If you need a place to stay while you’re in town…” For a moment he looks like he’s on the verge of changing his mind. “I know my place isn’t exactly a five-star hotel, but…”
But it happens to be precisely what Peter was hoping for.
He leans in with a kiss that seems to short out every system in Juno’s head, save for that bionic eye. “I would love to.”
Juno’s offer is more than convenient: it’s necessary.
The moment he’s sure that Juno’s asleep, Peter slips out of bed and searches the apartment. He combs every nook and cranny, searches the outlets and lights, feels up the undersides of shelves, checks the drawers for false bottoms.
As the first light of dawn creeps over the City of First Light, he slips back into bed– this is no place to be caught sneaking around in the middle of the night. He even manages to get a few hours of sleep before he’s woken by the soft, cranky sounds of someone who’s not a morning person even well past noon.
And then a sharp intake of breath.
Peter opens his eyes slowly, but he still catches the way Juno looks at him– like he’s something impossible out of one of the detective’s dreams.
It’s a flattering image to wake up to.
“Good morning,” he hums, nuzzling against Juno just to feel him stiffen beside him. “Something wrong?”
“Just… surprised,” Juno mutters. When he reaches out to touch Peter, it’s just with the tips of his fingers, like he’s afraid to initiate more contact. “I didn’t think you’d be here.”
The advantage of this pose is that Peter’s face is hidden while he decides on a reaction. Did he leave Juno to wake up without him? Is that why the poor detective is so infatuated?
He fixes his face into that carefully ambivalent expression, thought that might have been a mistake. He’s not sure exactly how Juno took it, but he looks uncomfortable.
“Listen,” Juno says slowly, stringing the words together like they’re the fuse on a bomb. “If there’s something you want, you can just ask. You know that, right?”
Is this some kind of trap? Peter feigns innocence. “I wouldn’t want to trouble you.”
But Juno already looks troubled. He knows something, that much is certain. So Peter makes a gamble. “Did I wake you when I got up last night?”
“Course not,” Juno says, small and petulant as a frightened child playing brave, and Peter soothes him with a kiss on his forehead.
“I didn’t mean to worry you, Juno. Unusual hours are an unfortunate consequence of my line of work. It’s difficult for me to stay asleep some nights.”
“Yeah. Yeah, that makes sense.” He clears his throat. “Anyway, do you want something to eat? I could go for breakfast.” He glances at the clock on the bedside. “Or lunch.”
“I think breakfast sounds lovely.”
Juno rolls off the bed with an impressive speed, all things considered, and hastily slips into a pair of sweats from the heap in the corner.
“Go ahead and relax,” he says when Peter sits up in bed. “I’ll bring it to you. I need to– uh– take care of some things.”
Peter lays back, stretching out luxuriously on the bed, and quite enjoying the way Juno’s eyes sweep over him. “If you insist.”
Moments later the door shuts between them, though it doesn’t fully stifle the clinking of empty liquor bottles and the rustle of a fresh trash bag. Perhaps Juno thinks he can hide the state of his apartment. He might even have accomplished it– after all, they were decidedly preoccupied during their entrance the night before– if not for the fact that Peter’s scoured every inch of this place by flashlight, and has already acquainted himself with all the piles of discarded junk mail, decomposing laundry, and moldering takeout containers.
Still, Peter appreciates that he’s making an effort, even if it is belated, and not just for the sake of sanitation. While Juno cleans, Peter searches the bedroom: in the closet and dressers, in the vents and outlets, under the mattress and inside the pillows. There has to be a clue somewhere– a file, a scrap of paper, that external hard drive. Anything.
But if there is, it’s too cleverly hidden. Before Peter has a chance to check the underwear drawer for hidden compartments, he catches the sound of footsteps, and he sprawls across the bed once more.
When Juno opens the door, he has a plate of eggs and cloned bacon in his hand, but his expression is off. Guarded somehow.
“Something wrong, love?”
Juno hesitates. “Just making sure this isn’t another dream.”
That’s certainly flattering. “You’ve been dreaming of me?” Peter rolls into a more alluring pose. “Good dreams, I hope?”
“Hard to say.” Before Peter can prod him to elaborate, Juno leans in, tentative and hesitant, as if he’s afraid he’ll be turned down after everything that’s happened. The kiss is as tender as the others, achingly sincere and vulnerable.
Peter doesn’t know whether to sigh or laugh.
He really has fallen for me, hasn’t he? The pitiful little thing.
If the circumstances were different, Peter could get used to living like this. It’s been years since Peter’s had breakfast in bed, let alone proper home cooking, and Juno’s a remarkable chef– though he’s a rather shy date. While they eat, he keeps watching Peter as if trying to commit his face to memory, but only when he thinks he’s being subtle about it. The moment Peter looks up, Juno turns his attention back to his eggs.
“It’s quite the meal, Juno,” Peter says.
Juno shrugs. “It’s alright. Doesn’t really compare to that dinner we had at the Oasis, but…”
Peter hums. “Nostalgia is funny like that. The distance of years can turn any meal into a fantasy.”
Juno’s brow furrows. “It wasn’t all that long ago.”
“Wasn’t it?” Peter takes another bite. It really is quite good, despite the burn of salt on the cut in his mouth.
“Yeah,” Juno says, soft and quiet. “I guess it was.” He falls silent for a long while, until at last he collects the empty dishes. “I’m gonna take care of these. Do you want the first shower?”
Peter leans in, sultry. “Unless you’d like to join me?”
“I–” Juno swallows, still so terribly shy. “I’m not feeling up to it right now.” He wants to, Peter can see it in his eyes, but he doesn’t press the issue. A gentleman doesn’t pry, after all.
He has plenty of time to reconsider that notion. The shower is a long, luxurious one; Peter hasn’t done a dish in his life, but he assumes Juno’s had plenty of time to finish his little chore and wait for him, and so he emerges from the bathroom in a grand exit: a billow of steam, condensation glistening on his chest, a towel draped over his shoulders like a cloak while conspicuously leaving other parts of him uncovered. It’s a fantastic display.
If only Juno was around to appreciate it properly. Unfortunately, the bedroom is empty and more than a little cold– far too cold for Peter to stand around damp and naked for an inattentive audience. He towels off and gets dressed, determined not to let the annoyance show on his face. After all, he needs to find that case file.
He finds Juno in the kitchen, leaning heavily against the kitchen sink. Deteriorating mounds of soap bubbles float like melting icebergs around an island of dirty dishes. Not a single one of them has been cleaned; Juno’s just staring into them as though he can find answers in the bubbles.
“Is something bothering you, Juno?”
Juno’s gaze doesn’t rise from the sink. “Just thinking.”
“Oh?” Peter slinks closer. “What about?”
Juno opens his mouth, then changes his mind and shuts it. And then he tries again: “About the day we met. Do you remember? The DiMaggio case? Julian DiMaggio hired me to find out if Anthony was cheating on him, and Anthony hired you, and…”
Ah. So he’s got infidelity on his mind. Did he spot Peter seducing another mark, perhaps? “How could I forget?”
Juno swallows. “Honestly, I’m kind of surprised I didn’t scare you off. The eye patch made a hell of a first impression.”
Ah. So the bionic eye is new. Peter flashes a light grin. “It did give you a certain rugged charm.”
Finally Juno looks him in the eyes, and Peter leans in, eager to turn the conversation somewhere far more enjoyable. He gets close enough to smell the coffee on Juno’s breath–
“You are so full of shit.”
The change in Juno’s face leaves Peter stunned: all that tenderness is gone, replaced by something bitter and cold.
“You really don’t remember me at all, do you?”
There’s no point in denying it; Peter’s already been caught in the lie, and he knows it. “Oh, don’t take it personally–”
“Why the would I take it personally? This is the best news I’ve had in months.” Juno laughs– a harsh, painful sound. “All this time I’ve been hating myself for what I did to you, and you didn’t even care. God, why the fuck would you?”
He shifts his weight like he’s about to throw a punch, and Peter braces for impact. Instead, a hand falls harmlessly on his shoulder, uncomfortably stiff and shaking. “I’d ask you if I was the easiest sucker you ever conned, but I don’t even have that honor, do I? If I did, you might actually remember me.”
Peter inches back a step, mentally picking out the most accessible of his hidden knives. “I am sorry, Juno.”
“Don’t be,” Juno says. “You did what you had to do, right? Miasma wouldn’t have had any reason to keep you around if she didn’t think we were an item– she made that clear right off the bat. Not your fault I was dumb enough to actually believe the act.”
And that’s when he sees it– the glitter of tears in Juno’s organic eye. And suddenly he knows with an absolute certainty that there’s no need for knives. Juno isn’t going to hit him.
He’s only lashing out at himself.
He tries again, softer, more sincere: “Juno–”
“No,” Juno snaps. “No more manipulation, no more pretending, no more lies. I know you came here looking for something, so let me save you some trouble: tell me what it is and you can fucking have it.“
Peter steels himself. Is it really going to be that easy?
And does he really want to stick around long enough to question it?
“I want to know if you have a file on me.”
Juno lets out another harsh, cold laugh. “You really don’t remember me, do you? No, I don’t have a file on you. That was kind of the whole problem. Is that all you wanted, or are we done here?”
“My name,” Peter says quickly. “I want to know when I told you, and I want to know why.”
“Fuck if I know why,” Juno mutters as he grabs a piece of unopened junk mail out of the garbage and marches to the front door, scribbling something onto the envelope as he walks. “To taunt me, probably.”
Peter reaches for it, but Juno yanks the door open. In a single fluid motion, he shoves the envelope into Peter’s chest and shoves him out into the hall.
“Now get the fuck out of my life.”
Peter stares at the door long after it slams in his face, clutching the envelope like a lifeline.
This shouldn’t bother him. It might be slightly embarrassing, perhaps, but it shouldn’t bother him. It shouldn’t matter.
His chest shouldn’t splinter when he hears a broken sob through the thin walls.
It’s jut a con, after all, if one that went sour a little too quickly. He got what he needed, and now he can move on. He doesn’t need to linger on Mars for long– a few quick heists, and then he can be on his way. The faster he gets to work the faster he can leave.
No matter how often he tells himself that, he can’t seem to make himself listen, even when he leaves the apartment building behind him.
Instead he wanders aimlessly through the streets of Hyperion City, lost in thoughts that keep drifting back to Juno Steel. It was wrong what he did to the lady, of course, but when has that ever stopped him before? When has he ever spared a second thought for such trite niceties? Why should Juno Steel be any different from anyone who’s come before?
Hours pass in contemplation, until he’s thoroughly walked off the breakfast Juno made him (did he already suspect, when he put that meal together? Or did he prepare a breakfast with the hope of sharing more in the near future? Peter isn’t sure which is worse). His stomach is starting to growl, and so he follows his feet down an out-of-the-way avenue. He doesn’t even know why he’s going there– this is a warehouse district, not any place that might serve food. And yet there it is, nestled between a truck rental and a storage facility: a Brahmese cafe.
It’s an odd stroke of luck– perhaps he smelled it without noticing?– even moreso when he finds that they actually make quite excellent plumb rolls. It’s always a chore to find a place that can make them properly.
It’s the taste of home that does it. He put Brahma behind him, and he can do the same for Juno Steel. And so, emboldened, he takes out the envelope and finally takes a look.
And then stops chewing.
That can’t be right. Because the date Juno wrote down is next week. Peter would assume that they’re merely coming up on the anniversary of the event, if Juno hadn’t included the year. This year.
Is this part of Juno’s fixation? Is he really so deranged that he got the year wrong? Though he isn’t– no matter how much Peter wants to believe that Juno’s some kind of stalker, he knows beter. Could it be some kind of code, then? A reference to something else? A warning?
Peter glances at the calendar on his comms to see if it corresponds with something– but the year is off on his comms, too.
He rises from his chair and grabs a neighborhood newspaper from the front of the store. It’s there, too: the wrong year. Perhaps Mars is off– some kind of overzealous tribute to Old American Daylight Savings Time?
Or perhaps it’s more simple than that: he’s wrong.
Yes. That must be it. He must just have the year wrong. Maybe he’s been travelling so long that his internal calendar is off. Yes. It’s just the travel getting to him. He’s probably been writing down the wrong date for ages. He does a quick internet search for his last heist, just to recalibrate his expectations– but it’s oddly difficult to find. He has to do some digging before he finds the headlines, buried under far too much old news. It was an excellent heist– it should have made headlines. It should have shocked the archeological community for weeks, at least.
And then he finds the headlines, like a fossil under too much sand: ancient history.
The year on the article is precisely the year he thought it was: last year. It’s a year old. But that can’t be right. He pulled that heist days ago.
But a second news feed corroborates the story, and then a third, and a fourth. And then, as all news streams will, they tire of the story and move on to something more interesting. And while that happened, he was counting his money from a newly-fenced golden record on his way to Mars. The journey should have taken a little more than twenty-six hours, perhaps another one or two if he accounted for security and delays.
Somewhere in the course of that flight, he lost a year.
Peter checks the date on his comms again, almost compulsively. It’s irrational, he knows– the only time he’s losing is the handful of hours he spends asleep, though the dreams are fitful and they don’t do anything to calm his fraying nerves.
He’s searched for every database, every system, every social media stream, and all of them come up empty. Of course, if he was easy to find he would be long dead by now. And yet there has to be some trace, somewhere. But there’s nothing. No matter how he looks or where he turns, there’s nothing. He might as well not have existed at all, and that frightens him in an entirely new way.
Frantic and thorough, he checks every lead, cross-references every alias, until he’s exhausted every option.
All but one.
And so he pockets his comms and takes a deep breath, and he opens the door of the Juno Steel Detective Agency.
The secretary greets him with a throaty giggle. “Hello again, Agent Glaaaaaaass.”
He doesn’t recognize the name, and so he has no persona to attach it to, but he makes do with what he can. She is charmed, and so he is charming.
He sweeps into a bow to hide his glance at her name plate. “My dear Rita, we meet again.”
It’s the right tactic, judging by the way she giggles. “Are ya here to see the boss?”
“As a matter of fact, I am. Is he available?”
“He says he ain’t, but you go ahead. He could use a good case to cheer him up.”
Peter raises his eyebrows into a caricature of concern. “Is he alright?”
“Sometimes he just gets like this,” she says. “But it’s been pretty bad lately. I think maybe somethin’ happened, but don’t try and ask about it. That just makes him mad.”
“I’ll be sure to keep that in mind.”
She taps something into her keyboard and the door slides open to reveal a glowering Juno Steel. To be perfectly honest, Peter’s surprised to find the detective at his desk. Given how things ended last time they met, he half expected Juno to try climbing out of his window to avoid this conversation.
But Juno is past trying to run. His bionic eye flashes dangerously. “I told you to get the fuck away from me.”
Peter steps closer, and the door slides shut behind him. “Juno, I know you’re upset–”
“This conversation is over. You have ten seconds to turn around and walk back out that door, or I’m throwing you out the window.”
This isn’t working. So Peter tries something different. “Four years ago, I stole the collected notebooks of Jasmina Seth Hill from a museum on Perseii Four. The curator of the exhibit was Ruslan Clemens Lawerenz, and their assistant was Eiríkr Barker, who was smuggling weapons to the resistance. On the night I went to steal the notebooks, the head of security was Éimhín Lefèvre, and the other members of her shift were Fionnghuala Kozlowski, Bearach Langdon, Den Phoebe Vigo, and Antonina Chaves, and every sixteen minutes they went on their rounds in two pairs while one remained at the security terminal. The passcodes I used to get in were, in order, Alkatraz, 4869974351, and password1234. The floor plan–”
“What the fuck are you talking about?” Juno demands– and probably for the best, because all of that was a mouthful.
“If I’d forgotten the slightest detail, my life would have been over,” Peter says firmly. “My life and my livelihood depend on my memory.”
“And you were so busy keeping track of the important stuff to bother remembering me.” He’s already reaching for the panel at the door, and a chill goes down Peter’s spine. For an irrational moment, he’s certain that if Juno shuts that door between them, he’ll never see the detective again.
“You’re not all I forgot, Juno,” he blurts out. “I’m missing time.”
“Try putting down the bottle. That’s what they tell me.”
Juno isn’t even looking at him anymore, and it sends a flare of desperation through his blood. “Dammit, Juno, something happened to me, and you’re my only hope of finding out what it was. I need your help.”
For half an instant, that seems to get through to him– but only for that half an instant. Just as quickly, Juno’s resolve hardens. “Not my problem.”
“I’ll pay you.”
Juno’s eyes narrow. “I don’t want your money.”
Of course not, not when Juno can afford a bionic eye. But Peter is desperate. If Juno walks away from him now, he might never get another chance to find out what happened. So he tries again: “It’ll make us even.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Juno says. The sudden stiffness in his spine says otherwise.
“For whatever it is you did to me. That thing you’ve been blaming yourself for all this time. Do this for me, and we’re even.”
It’s a gamble, and Peter knows it. The muscles tighten in Juno’s arms; his hands ball into fists. Push too hard, and Peter will be walking out of here with a concussion. “You said you forgave me for that.”
“But that isn’t enough for you, is it?” Peter presses. “Not when I don’t remember what I forgave you for.”
“Because you were just telling me what I wanted to hear.”
“You’ve already made your apologies, Juno. Perhaps this will give you closure.”
Juno grunts. “Who needs closure when you have scotch?” He pauses, waiting for a reply.
Peter isn’t sure exactly what he’s expecting– a laugh at his sad little joke? Further protests? Begging? A desperate confession of love that they both know is a lie?
Peter stands his ground, utterly silent, as the seconds tick away between them. Whatever it is Juno’s after, he can’t give it to him.
Finally Juno sighs. “Goddammit. Fine.” He reaches into his desk, and for a moment, Peter expects to see him pull out a bottle. Instead it’s a notebook and a pen. “Sit down, Nureyev. I’m taking your case.”
As a thief, Peter’s familiar with the transformations of day and night. He’s been in this office after hours, when its drawers were cavernous and the filing cabinet along the wall was never-ending. Now that the lights are on, the room feels cramped, crowded by three bodies that feel far too many: his own in this chair, Juno on the other side of the desk, and Juno’s secretary on the other side of that door. Juno, too, seems transformed– in the night he was vulnerable and needy, his body soft and pliant under Peter’s touch; now he’s closed off, all sharp corners and hard edges, leaning on the desk like he’s bracing up a barricade.
Peter has seen these changes a thousand times in a thousand places. They’ve never made him feel remorse before. But this isn’t the time to dwell on those feelings.
“You said you’ve done some digging on your own,” Juno says, curt and businesslike.
“I’ve searched for all of my aliases, and I’ve come up empty.”
“Isn’t that the point? Being hard to track down is kind of your thing.”
He cuts Peter off before he can finish the thought. “What’s the last thing you remember?”
And so Peter walks him through it. First backwards– first boarding the spaceship, then arriving at the spaceport, then fencing the golden record, and then the heist in exacting detail– and then he has him go over the whole ordeal in the proper order. Juno writes down every detail, every name, every place, every object of note.
Theories are starting to accumulate on the far side of the notebook.
Mutagenic dust on the record?
Pissed off insurance agents?
But there’s one note his pen keeps coming back to: Ancient Martian tech?
Extinct aliens seems rather far-fetched, doesn’t it?
“Maybe it happened more recently?” Peter suggests. “As far as I know, you’re the last person who saw me. Was I with anyone when I left you?”
Juno doesn’t look at him. “You’re not the one who left.” Before Peter can ask, he changes the subject. “I’ve got what I need. You go back to… wherever the hell you’re staying, and I’ll let you know what I find.”
“If it’s all the same to you, I’d rather stay.”
“It’s not.” Juno’s eyes are as hard as his surname. “Which part of ‘get out of my life’ is so hard to understand?”
Peter only wishes he knew. “Perhaps there’ll be something to jog some memories?”
Juno tries to stare him down, but he can’t hold Peter’s gaze for long. “Fine. Whatever. Stay here if you want, just keep your mouth shut.”
Really, for all the drama and aesthetic, a surprising amount of detective work is incredibly boring. Juno spends most of the day on his comms, calling one name and then the next, while his secretary provides him with numbers and background details that might be useful. So much of it is drudgery that Peter genuinely doesn’t know whether Juno is ignoring him, or whether he’s just hurrying from one call to the next because there are so many of them to make.
Peter watches him intently, listening for any detail that might spark a memory, but nothing comes. His mind keeps going back to what Juno said earlier– you’re not the one who left.
A week ago, Peter would have called the notion absurd– he’s the one who does the leaving, after all– but it doesn’t seem quite so far-fetched when he looks at Juno Steel.
He envisions something not too far removed from what he experienced so recently: a tender night followed by a lonely morning. Perhaps not entirely like the one he recalls– what he imagines is devoid of accusations and shouting and bitter, painful laughter. In his mind it’s a quiet disappointment, waking up to a broken promise and an empty bed.
He doesn’t need to guess why that thought hurts so much, not when he’s woken up with Juno beside him.
Finally Juno hangs up.
“Any luck?” Peter asks, but Juno is too busy writing something on a fresh sheet of paper to reply, and then he holsters his blaster.
“Rita, I want you to put a call into Julian. There’s lab work I need done and it has to do with their copyrights. If he gives you trouble, let him know that this might save him from a few potential lawsuits down the line from unhappy customers.” He grabs his coat and hat off the hook by the door and dons them with a flourish. He’s showing off– he must be. He must realize that he cuts a fine figure in that coat. And so it’s understandable that Peter takes it as an invitation.
But Juno simply stares at him. “Where do you think you’re going?”
“With you, of course,” Peter says.
“No, you’re not.”
“You can go back to your hotel or wherever the hell it is you’re staying, or you can stay here and help Rita look up some more of your aliases.” He smacks down the sheet of instructions on Rita’s desk for emphasis. “But you’re not coming.”
That isn’t going to work. Peter’s already done what searching he can on the computer; if he’s going to find answers, they’ll be in places that he can’t reach through a screen.
“I’m sure I could be of assistance,” he suggests.
“Where I’m going, I won’t need it.”
He tries again. “Perhaps it’ll stir up a few memories.”
Juno’s already on his way out the door. “These are memories you don’t want back.”
Peter straightens out of his languid curves, rising to his full height, sharp and rigid in a way he rarely needs to be. When he speaks, every word carries an edge. “That isn’t your choice to make.”
Juno sighs. “I don’t have time for this. Fine. Come along if it’s that important to you.”
Maybe Peter imagines the note of apology in his tone.
“Last chance to change your mind,” Juno mutters, turning off the freeway and onto the ragged, pot-holed streets.
“I’m sure I can handle it.”
Of course, Peter’s anticipating mobsters and conspiracies– the sort of seedy underworld that Hyperion City is known for. He’s slightly less prepared for Juno to drive through the edge of the dome that protects the city. The difference is stunning; one moment a hundred tenements and apartment building are stacked on top of each other in a rickety attempt to make use of their limited space, and the next there’s nothing but empty desert stretching out before them. A low desert wind whistles across the landscape, eerily quiet after the bustle of the city.
Juno’s also quiet, his eyes fixed intently on the dunes, his knuckles pale around the steering wheel. The drive is long, with nothing by sand and dust to break up the monotony or dispel the mounting tension. Hours pass, and Peter can feel his nerves on edge, taut as piano wire under his skin. It’s a dangerous attitude to take into a bad situation– there’s no telling when one of them is going to snap. And so he does what perhaps he should have done far earlier.
“Juno, I want you to know,” he says carefully. “I am sorry for misleading you before.”
Juno’s eyes flick to him for half a moment, then return to the dunes. “Don’t worry about it.” It isn’t acceptance, but dismissal.
“I realize that the way I went about it was tactless…”
“I get it,” Juno says, sharper. “I know what your anonymity means to you. You did what you had to do to protect that. I shouldn’t have expected anything else.”
The barb stings, but it’s a shallow wound; Juno’s deflecting him from the real issue. So Peter fields a guess. “You thought you would be special to me.”
Juno’s grip tightens. He couldn’t have given a clearer signal if he wrote it in neon.
Peter leans in. “For what it’s worth, detective, it took losing a whole year for me to forget you.”
“I don’t blame you, okay?” Juno’s voice rises, punctuated by the creak of faux leather under his hands.
“Don’t.” His voice shakes. “Just… don’t. I can’t deal with this right now.”
“Alright.” Obediently, Peter leans back in his seat, putting more distance between the two of them. He keeps his gaze fixed on the horizon, pretending not to notice when Juno’s hand scrubs over his face. Peter’s still looking out that window when the horizon shifts.
It’s a building, hewn from the ravine and eroded by wind and sand until it could almost be mistaken for a natural formation in the stone, if not for the unnatural symmetry of its spires or the stalactites that descend like teeth in a gaping maw. “Well. That’s exciting.”
“That’s one word for it.”
Juno turns the car and drives inside, parking in what could only be some sort of loading bay. Theirs isn’t the only vehicle here– there are several trucks and vans beside their own, though the accumulation of sand around their tires suggests that they haven’t moved in quite some time.
The color has completely drained from Juno’s face by the time they come to a halt. It takes him a moment of sheer willpower to dislodge his hands from the steering wheel long enough to put it into park, but the moment he commits to the action, he rushes through it, as though caught in a freefall.
“Stay in the car.”
Peter follows him out anyway, shutting the door with perhaps more force than necessary. He expects a fight, but none comes. Juno doesn’t argue against him. He simply starts walking down a steep corridor deeper into the structure.
The corridor turns abruptly, and then again snaking ever lower until the red sunlight and the Martian wind are far behind them. It should be pitch dark this far below ground, but the corridor is illuminated on both sides by hieroglyphs of some sort, glowing so bright that his eyes sting when he looks directly at them. Fascination is tainted by a feeling of unease as his gaze lingers over the symbols.
“Why are we here, Juno?” His voice echoes oddly off the glowing walls.
For a few moments he can only hear their footsteps on the weathered stone, and he assumes this is just another question that’s going to be ignored.
And then Juno answers.
“The Ancient Martians invented some kind of drug that let them read each other’s thoughts. Didn’t just work for them, either– it’s just as effective on humans. I figure they might have made something else that messes with people’s heads. Maybe some kind of Ancient Martian virus, or something in this dust, or some of the radiation in those symbols on the walls. We were down here long enough. Maybe something got to you.”
Peter didn’t miss the plural in that sentence. “Both of us? Then why weren’t you affected?”
“I… had more noticeable symptoms.” Juno looks uncomfortable. “Besides, I was in the same room as the bomb when it went off, and that burned anything Martian out of me.”
“I see.” Peter tries to stay clinical as he integrates those details but he feels ill. Why was Juno in a room with a bomb? Where was Peter during all of this? “Did I…?”
“If you can’t handle it, then go wait in the car. I’m not coming back here again.”
The thought of being alone in these tunnels leaves a pit in Peter’s stomach. “No, I think I’ll stay here.”
“Then hold this.” Juno hands him a large plastic bag and stoops down, scraping a sample of dust and stone off the floor and putting it inside a sample bag. He takes another sample from the wall, and another from the clearly human-made ventilation system hanging down from the ceiling. As soon as the samples are collected, he tosses them into the bag in Peter’s hands.
“I take it these are for Saffron Labs,” Peter muses.
“They did some research on Martian medicine. If anyone’s qualified to see if this stuff is affecting you, it’s them.”
They come across another room, filled with boxes and equipment. On the floor close to the door lies a polymer face mask, covered in fine Martian dust. The sight of its cold, empty eyes makes the hairs on the back of Peter’s head stand on end, but Juno picks it up and puts it in another evidence bag, and then they continue going. He moves hesitantly, peering at each of the turns and corridors as if he’s reading the messages written on the walls, as if he’s seeing something that isn’t there.
There’s something wrong with the way he steps into the next room. He’s too unsteady, swaying like a sleepwalker as he strides past a pair of bed rolls and a cheap chemical toilet.
A chill crawls down Peter’s spine as he watches Juno kneel between two splashes of dried blood.
“Juno?” His voice is too high. “Juno, what happened here.”
“What do you think?” Juno asks. “This is where she kept us.”
Peter looks closer. There are other blood splatters– smaller and more scattered, focused primarily around one of the bed rolls. Near the door there are scuff marks where someone’s been bodily dragged.
Whose blood was that? Whose body?
What happened here?
“Goddammit,” Juno mutters, and Peter turns back. Juno’s still on his knees, trying to take samples of the rust-colored bloodstains on the floor, but his hands are shaking.
Peter sinks down beside him, laying his hands on Juno’s. “Juno–”
Juno pulls away like he’s been burned, but not before Peter can feel the racing of his pulse. “It just takes some getting used to, okay? Last time I was here, I couldn’t feel much of anything anymore.” He backs further away, avoiding Peter’s eyes. “It’s fine. I’m over it.”
No, he isn’t, but Peter doesn’t say so. All he can do is pretend not to notice how many times Juno has to try to scrape the blood off the stone floor.
“I’ve got all the samples I need. Let’s just get out of here.”
When they return to Juno’s car, Peter heads for the driver’s side and Juno hands over his keys without an argument. He’s in no condition to drive, even on the vast, empty wasteland of the Martian desert.
“It’s a bit late to go all the way back to Hyperion City tonight,” Peter says, breaking the silence. “Can I assume it’s safe to get a hotel in Olympus Mons?”
“It’s your dime,” Juno mutters.
“Yes, ‘all expenses paid’. You made that quite clear in your invoice. A minimum of five stars, then?”
Juno’s only response is a noncommittal grunt.
Peter drives in silence, following first the distant glow of Olympus Mons, and then the directions of the car’s GPS to navigate the labyrinthine streets.
He keeps thinking about Juno’s original plan. Perhaps the detective would have fared better if he’d gone down there alone. Perhaps. But that isn’t how it plays out in Peter’s mind: all he can see is Juno, isolated and shaking, impossibly tiny underneath what must have been miles of sand and stone. He doesn’t know why he imagines Juno’s bionic eye malfunctioning– it’s only one of the many things that could go wrong out there in the middle of nowhere– but Peter can’t shake the image of blood running down the side of Juno’s face.
“A room for the night,” Peter tells the receptionist who checks them in, laying down a stolen credit card, and he’s gratified when Juno doesn’t protest.
“A king or two queens?” the receptionist asks, not looking at him as they type in his answers.
“What do you think, Juno?” he asks, his suave self once again. Juno blinks as if he’s been startled out of a dream, and so he repeats the question: “A king or two queens?”
He’s fairly certain he knows how Juno will reply– two queens, of course, for the illusion of distance. But there’s nothing quite like human touch to sooth the nerves after a long day.
“Two rooms,” Juno says instead, quiet but resolute.
The receptionist glances at Peter. After all, it’s his false name on the card.
“Two rooms,” he confirms, and tries not to let the disappointment show on his face.
The room feels wrong. It’s too big, too empty, as cavernous as a tomb.
Which is absurd, of course– he’s spent most of his life sleeping in hotel rooms just like this one. There’s no reason that he should feel uncomfortable now, and yet he does.
Juno’s room is situated beside his, the two divided by a single door in the shared wall. Peter doesn’t need to try the knob to know that it’s locked from Juno’s side. It shouldn’t bother him as much as it does.
Juno isn’t the first person he’s lied to; his isn’t the first heart he’s broken. What does he care if Juno Steel spends the night alone after walking back into a nightmare? What’s it to him if he wakes up and the room next door is empty, so long as the samples they collected are still there? Why should he care?
There’s a crash from the other side of the door, and Peter starts upright. “Juno?” He flattens himself against the door. “Are you alright?” He grabs the knob– just as he guessed, it’s locked tight.
“I’m fine.” The voice on the other side is slurred. “Just dropped my bag.” There’s a sound of glass clinking against the desk. A bottle?
“I take it you’ve found your way into the drink service.”
“Hey, the invoice said all expenses paid.”
“That it did.” Peter sighs. “Perhaps I could join you. I could use a drink myself right now.”
He’s close enough that he can hear a hand sliding down the other side of the door. The handle turns, just slightly, before it’s stopped by the lock.
“Don’t you have a fridge in your room?” Juno asks.
“I could use the company.”
The doorknob shifts, just slightly. “Could you?”
“It’s been quite the day.” For both of them, though he suspects he can’t say that much.
Juno makes a small sound that he can’t quite decipher. “You didn’t have to come.”
“And leave my curiosity unsatisfied? Besides, I could hardly let you go alone, could I?”
“Why not?” Juno mumbles, almost inaudible against the door. “I go back plenty of times. Just not when I’m awake.”
Peter frowns, but he keeps his voice light. “It seems a rather long distance for sleepwalking.”
“It’s not so much sleep walking as it is nightmares.”
This time it’s Peter’s hand that twists fruitlessly on the doorknob. “I’m sorry.”
“Hey, who doesn’t wake up in a cold sweat every now and then, right?”
“Juno–” The words tumble out of his mouth before he can process them. “Are you sure you want to sleep alone tonight?”
Juno’s reply is almost as reflexive: “No.”
Peter’s hand tightens on the doorknob again, silently willing it to unlock. “All you have to do is let me in.”
Juno makes a small, anguished sound, like he’s in pain. Instantly Peter is twisting the doorknob with one hand and digging for his lock picks with the other. He needs to be in there. He needs–
“No.” Juno’s voice comes out a raw whisper, almost a sob. “Nureyev, don’t.”
“Let me help you,” Peter pleads. “You don’t have to do this alone.”
“Are you sure you don’t remember me?” Juno laughs as though he’s going to cry. “Go to bed, Nureyev. I’ll still be here in the morning.”
The drive back to Hyperion City is a quiet one. Between Juno’s hangover and Peter’s exhaustion after a night of fitful rest, neither one feels particularly talkative. At some point Peter dozes, lulled to sleep by the monotony of red sand dunes, and he wakes with his glasses neatly folded in the cup holder beside him.
He pretends not to notice the odd angle of the rear view mirror, or the glances that Juno steals when he thinks Peter can’t see.
They arrive at the headquarters of Saffron Pharmaceuticals without incident and hand over the bags of samples to a lab tech. They’re back in the car and pulling out of the parking lot when Juno’s comms beeps.
“That was fast,” Peter says.
“That’s not Saffron,” Juno mutters. His eyes are on the comms, and on the unlisted number glowing on the screen. He picks up and sets it against his ear, though Peter’s close enough to hear the voice on the other side– a woman’s voice, sharp and urgent.
“Juno,” she says without preamble. “I know you’re the one behind this. I want you to call your secretary off.”
“Sasha?” Juno asks, startled.
“Our systems are confidential. If you keep digging, there will be consequences.”
The call ends as abruptly as it began.
Juno pulls the comms back from his ear and stares at it, his car idling at the edge of the parking lot.
Before Peter can ask what that even was, Juno makes another call. It picks up just as quickly.
“Boss?” His secretary’s voice comes in loud and clear on the other side.
“Rita, what the hell are you doing?”
“I ain’t goofin’ off, if that’s what you mean. I finished the stuff you had me look into, and it all got me thinkin’ about this one movie I saw, about these two super spies, and there was this big marathon of their movies going on, and–”
Juno cuts her off before she can continue. “What did you find?”
“Well, the first couple were amazing, but then the sequels started to get a little–”
“Rita. The case.”
“That’s what I was tryin’ to tell you,” she says. “There was an itinerary for Duke and Dahlia Rose on that flight you showed me, but nobody ever claimed their tickets. So I did some digging for those names, and they don’t exist. The addresses all go to abandoned factories and empty warehouses, and the signatures on their paperwork belong to people who haven’t been doing those jobs in ages, so I thought: they must be spies. Which is why–”
“Did you find anything else on them?” Juno asks.
“A couple using that name checked into the Oasis Casino Resort out by Olympus Mons for a night a while back– you know, the one where that jewel thief got caught? It was all over the news for a while– and then a month later they checked into the Seventh Star Hotel down on Lovelace Street, but then they disappear.”
An uncomfortable chill crawls down Peter’s back. He recognizes the pattern of the aliases, if not the names themselves.
“So I looked up the credit card they used to check into the Seventh Star, and that was used to check into the Queen of Sheba hotel across town, but it was for just one person with a different name. That same card bought another spaceship ticket a few days later, but when I checked the manifest, that ticket never got picked up, either.”
“Another no-show?” Juno asks, his voice dry.
“No– and this is the part where it gets real exciting– I looked up the flight manifest, and the whole thing was flagged by Dark Matters. There was a suspected terrorist supposed to be on that flight, only there was this great big sting operation, just like in the movies, and he got dragged away. It was all super top secret stuff, real exciting, which is what got me thinkin’ about–”
The rest is lost in a babble as Juno sets the comms down to pull the car over to the side of the road. It’s difficult for Peter to focus on what’s being said. There’s a roaring in his ears that drowns out everything else.
His eyes are fixed on Juno’s knuckles, tight and bloodless around the steering wheel. Finally he picks up the comms again.
“Rita, I want you to try Dark Matters again. I want you to look for anything having to do with memory augmentation.”
“But boss, the commercial’s almost over, and–”
“Just do it.”
Peter isn’t sure if the car’s hover motors are failing or if it’s just him.
A moment later, Rita comes back on the line. “There’s an experimental procedure they’ve been workin’ on for the past six months or so. Looks like somebody broke into Dark Matters and impersonated one of their agents. Says here all the sensitive information he got access to was neutralized, and then they let him go to test if it was gonna be useful in the long term.”
That’s what Rita’s been calling him all this time.
He tries to speak, but nothing comes out. He clears his throat and tries again. “How does it work, exactly?”
Juno catches his eye.
No, he says silently. You don’t want to know.
But Peter has to.
“Well, they make this incision in the back of the mouth– you know, that part that freezes up if you eat ice cream too fast?– and that’s how they get to the brain, and–”
Juno looks like he might be sick.
Peter’s gone numb. The only thing he can feel is his tongue sliding across the roof of his mouth to the soft palate and the cut that’s already started to heal.
Another voice interrupts Rita’s call.
“Juno, what did I just say?” The other woman. Sasha. “If your secretary keeps hacking our system, we’ll be forced to take action against her.”
“What kind of action are we talking, exactly?” Juno asks. “You planning on digging into her brain, too?”
“That’s exactly the kind of confidential information I’m talking about,” the woman snaps. “Dammit, Juno, I’m trying to protect you. I can’t keep doing that if you keep–”
Juno ends the call, plunging them both into silence.
“Well,” he says, his voice dry. “I guess that’s one mystery solved.”
Peter Nureyev doesn’t have internal conflicts.
When faced with a crisis, he simply sheds his skin and becomes the kind of person for whom that problem is a minor concern. What may be too much for Perseus Shah is barely a quibble to Richard Ivy or Genghis Novak. The leftover dilemmas slide off of him like water over wax, tucked away into the little compartments inside his head or discarded entirely.
That’s the power of anonymity: control your name, control your identity, and you control yourself.
And even if that isn’t true anymore, even if his control has been ripped away, that’s only a problem for Peter Nureyev. So he becomes someone else, far enough removed from himself to remain unperturbed.
Juno, on the other hand, seems to be having more difficulty. Feverish sweat is beading on his forehead, and his fingers are wrapped so tight around the steering wheel that Peter genuinely wonders whether the pleather or the bone will be the first to break.
“I can drop you off at your hotel,” Juno says with a calmness that he clearly doesn’t feel.
All the same, the offer comes as a relief. There are so many things Peter would rather do than consider his situation, and Juno Steel is solidly at the top of that list. Besides that, the detective looks like he could use a pleasant evening as much as Peter could.
There’s a moment of hesitation when they arrive at the hotel, and for a moment Peter thinks Juno might drive away the moment Peter steps out of the car. And so Peter leans in, soft and entreating. “Come upstairs?”
He can’t read Juno’s expression, distorted by passing headlights and reflected neon, but his “okay” is unmistakable. On the way inside, his arm wraps around Peter’s waist, holding on like he’s afraid he’ll float away if he lets go. Under the steady light of the hotel lobby, he’s far easier to read: he’s building himself up, the sweet little thing, gathering his nerve.
And he keeps gathering until they step into the privacy of a hotel room. With this much anticipation, Peter half expects to be tackled into the bed. He wouldn’t mind that, all things considered.
Instead Juno looks him in the eye. “Are you okay?”
No wonder he hesitated. It’s a dangerous question, poised to expose all sorts of inconvenient realities that Peter would much rather forget. So he sidesteps it as only he can.
“I have the answers I wanted. I knew they would be unpleasant when I went looking for them.”
Juno slips out of his grasp and heads for the refrigerator, pulling out one of the overpriced little liquor bottles they always keep inside. “Drink? It doesn’t solve anything, but it might take your mind off it for a while.”
“Really, Juno,” Peter chides gently, closing the distance between them. His hands slide up Juno’s arms, settling around his biceps. They’re rather nice biceps, actually. “I’m not nearly as bothered by all this as you seem to think I am.”
“You sure about that?” Why must he keep asking that? But Juno pushes on. “I’ve seen what you’re like when you get hurt. I know how you get. Nureyev–”
Peter puts a finger to Juno’s lips, focusing on the way they feel when they form his name. He can feel a pulse beating underneath the thin skin.
“Juno.” He leans closer, his fingertip sliding underneath Juno’s chin.
“What do you need?” Juno breathes.
Peter needs a distraction from the horror looming in the back of his mind. He needs to feel like he has some modicum of control. He needs a good night’s sleep in a bed where he can feel safe.
But he doesn’t say that, not in so many words. After all, he only needs one.
For a few sweet hours, he allows himself to think of nothing more complicated than the press of bodies and the taste of sweat and the hungry enthusiasm with which Juno responds to his every need. He loses himself in Juno, and then holds him tight and pushes aside the things he doesn’t want to feel.
This time there’s no sneaking out, no midnight searches, no quiet lies and betrayal. When Peter drifts back to consciousness, it’s only to pull Juno closer and bury his face in the detective’s hair. There’s a comfort here beyond the feeling of a warm body beside his, the sounds of Juno’s murmuring, the soft rhythm of his pulse, the smell of his sweat lingering in the air.
This feels natural. It feels right.
He’ll miss it when it’s gone.
“So what do you want to do about all of this?” Juno waited to ask the question until he had his clothes on. Peter can’t help but wonder if that’s a precaution, in case the conversation ends badly. Or maybe he didn’t want to bring up something so ugly until they’d spent the last of the afterglow.
The night’s diversion gave Peter a chance to settle into this persona, but it won’t keep forever. Not if Juno keeps dredging up the things he would rather forget.
“About Dark Matters?” That’s simple, isn’t it? “Nothing.”
Peter shrugs elegantly. “There isn’t much I can do, is there? I doubt there’s a way to reverse the process. Even if there was, I suspect it wouldn’t be worth the trouble. It’s only one year, after all. And judging by what you’ve shown me, it wasn’t a particularly good one. I might be better off without it.”
“Right.” Juno nods, but he won’t meet Peter’s eyes. “Yeah. That makes sense.”
“Dark Matters might become a problem for me, but their jurisdiction only goes so far. I can think of quite a few places where I can disappear.”
“You’re leaving, then.” It isn’t a question, just a confirmation of what he already knows is true. “I’ll… get out of your way.”
He turns away, slipping on his coat like it’s a security blanket. His head hangs low between his sloping shoulders, and already his feet are dragging.
There’s something almost painful about the look in Juno’s eyes when he looks back. “Yeah?”
Peter digs into his pockets and draws out a wallet. “Your payment. As promised.”
Juno shakes his head. “Don’t worry about it.”
“I insist.” Peter pulls out a handful of credit notes from the billfold and gives them a cursory glance. Slightly more than the agreed-upon rate, but that’s no matter. He takes Juno’s hand, pressing the notes into his palm. “Thank you, Juno.”
He lets go, but Juno’s hand lingers in his. “Nureyev–” He falls silent, almost looking like he lost his nerve. Finally he looks Peter in the eyes. “You were the best thing that ever happened to me. I’m sorry I couldn’t be that for you.”
And then he’s gone.
On a good day, Peter can gather his things and be out the door in less than a minute. On a bad day, he can leave everything behind and resupply when he’s sure he isn’t being followed. He travels light as a matter of course, with no more luggage than he can easily pick up and run with.
All of which is to say that packing shouldn’t be taking nearly so long. It’s been hours since Juno left, checkout is drawing closer, and still Peter finds himself sitting on the bed beside an open suitcase, turning Juno’s hat over in his hands.
How long will it take Juno to realize he forgot it? Will he come back for it? Or has he given it up as lost forever?
It doesn’t matter. He needs to get off Mars and get out of the system before Dark Matters catches up with him. That will mean stealing a car and driving to the Cerberus Province and bribing a smuggler to take him offworld, and all of that will take time. There’s no point in dragging his feet anymore.
He pulls the hat over his head and snaps the suitcase shut. Enough of this. He needs to go.
But when he opens the door, his path is blocked. There’s a round little woman filling the doorway, her hand hanging in the air as if she’s about to knock. Juno’s secretary.
“Ah,” Peter says, regaining his composure. “Rita, was it? Did Juno send you to fetch his hat?” He offers it to her, but she doesn’t take it. Instead she advances on him, crowding him back into the room.
“I know you’re Duke Rose,” she says, her voice sharp. “And I know you’re the one who broke into Dark Matters and got your memories erased.”
Peter backs up a step. “Juno told you that?”
“No, I figured it out on my own,” she says. “Duke and Dahlia Rose checked into the Oasis the same night Mista Steel disappeared last year, and the morning after their next stay in a hotel he comes back. And that’s real excitin’ and all, but I don’t care about all that.” She advances another step. “What I wanna know is what you said to Mista Steel.”
Peter is wary. “I’m afraid I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“When he showed up in the office this morning, he had me put together all the files I got from Dark Matters and put ‘em on one of those little old-fashioned physical drives, and then he told me to take a real long vacation and make sure nobody could find me. The last time he said something like that, he disappeared for weeks and he came back without an eye and he wasn’t right for months after that.” Her righteous fury dissolves before his eyes until she’s babbling. “I’m scared for him, but he won’t listen to me. And I figure if he won’t listen to me, maybe he’ll listen to you.”
The office door is locked when Peter arrives, but that’s no matter. Even if Rita hadn’t given him the key, it doesn’t seem a particularly difficult lock to pick. The front room is empty, but the door to the next room is ajar, and Juno’s voice carries: “Fine, then tell Cecil to call me back when he’s done shooting. I’ve got a show for him that’ll put him in the history books.” There’s a pause, then a heavy sigh. “Goddamn Kanagawas.”
Peter shuts the door behind him.
Juno has his back to him, leaning against his desk like it’s asking too much for him to stand. He’s still in yesterday’s clothes, and they look as rumpled and ragged as he does right now.
“Rita,” he says with a grating sigh. “I told you to go.”
“You seem to say that quite a lot, Juno.”
Tension tightens the lines of Juno’s shoulders, and slowly he turns around, his expression guarded. He opens the door, looking for all the world like he wants to barricade it shut.
Peter extends his hand, and with it the forgotten hat. “You left this.”
“Thanks.” He’s careful not to brush Peter’s hand when he takes it. “I thought you’d be on your way out of the system by now.”
“Is that why you didn’t think of asking me if I wanted a television show about my life?” It’s a guess, really, but not an uneducated one, and it’s confirmed by the guilt in Juno’s eye.
“It’s about what Dark Matters did,” he says quietly. “Not who they did it to. Besides, knowing Cecil he’ll find a way to make it all about him.”
“A celebrity certainly wouldn’t be my first choice,” Peter remarks. Printouts cover the desk, and he spots unsavory x-rays of a skull he knows must be his own. The sight leaves him queasy, and he tries to force the thought to the back of his mind.
“If I bring it to a news outlet, it’ll get smothered before it gets past local news. Cecil’s got an obsession with ratings and no sense of self-preservation. If Dark Matters tries scaring him off, he’ll just milk the story that much harder. Maybe if it gets big enough, other governments can move in and do something about it. Maybe it won’t shut them down, but people will be warned about what they’re doing.“
Peter looks at him. “I think you underestimate the kind of things they would do to retaliate.”
“I’m not going to give Cecil the files until you’re on your way to the Outer Arms. By the time they figure out what’s coming, you’re going to be out of their reach.”
That’s not what he meant, and he knows it. But Juno isn’t the only one who can redirect a conversation.
“You assume they won’t come after me regardless,” he points out. “Those files of yours make for an entertaining enough story, but they can just as easily be props and illustrations. You would need physical proof to convince people that this is more than some conspiracy theory, Juno. I don’t intend to be that proof.”
A strange look crosses Juno’s face. “You won’t be.” Peter knows that expression. He’s seen it before, though only for a moment, half-obscured by a closing door. “Anyway, don’t you have a flight to catch?”
But Peter is too caught up in that feeling of deja-vu, like a joint has been popped out of place.
And then it hits him. “You will.” The pieces click into place like they’ve always been there, cemented in place by a rising horror. “You don’t need me to be the proof because you’re planning to do it yourself.” The look in Juno’s eyes tells him what he needs to know. “Is that why you’re doing all of this? You’re trying to provoke them into doing this to you?” He advances on Juno. “You self-aggrandizing idiot. Have you considered that they might just kill you outright?”
“Not if I volunteer.” Juno flashes a grim smile. “It pays to know the subdirector.”
The word curdles in Peter’s head, thick with the fear and helplessness and confusion that he’s been struggling not to feel ever since Dark Matters cut him open and carved out a year of his memories. And Juno wants to volunteer for that.
When he trusts himself to speak, his voice is faint. “Call it vanity, but I don’t want you to forget me.”
Juno’s voice is soft and raw. “Maybe I do.”
“Juno–” But Peter doesn’t know what to say.
“You said it yourself, Nureyev. It’s just a year, right? And it was one hell of a year. Maybe I’m better off forgetting. Maybe that’s the best fucking thing that could happen to me, because nothing else is working. Every time you come back into my life–” His voice falters. He looks so broken. “I can’t even put it on you, because you’re not even the fucking problem here, are you? I know who you are. I know what you are. And still I’m the one who keeps inviting you back to my place or following you back to yours and telling myself that this time I’m not gonna fall for it, this time I’ve learned my lesson, when the truth is I’m an idiot, and that’s never going to change. I’m never going to learn. So let me just forget.”
He sways, and Peter stumbles close to catch him. Juno puts his hand on Peter’s chest, but he can’t tell if it’s meant to pull him closer or push him away.
“Please, Peter, let me forget. I can’t keep wanting you if I don’t know who you are.”
Peter’s mouth opens, but he can’t find the words.
Juno’s talking to two different people right now. One is the master thief, charming and refined and always in control, the man who flashed a thousand smiles and took him to bed. The other is Peter Nureyev.
There are days when Peter doesn’t even know the difference between the two anymore, but somehow Juno does, and that scares him. The last person who could do that used him and betrayed him and died in his arms and he’s missed him ever since. Nobody’s ever hurt him the way Mag did; nobody since Mag has ever gotten that close.
Except for Juno Steel.
Juno Steel, who loves him.
Juno Steel, who wants to mutilate himself to forget he ever met him.
“Juno, no.” He chokes on the words. “You can’t do this.”
“It’s not your choice to make,” Juno says, gathering himself up. “You weren’t even supposed to know. You should have been on a spaceship out of the system by now.”
As if that would make it better.
Things are rattling loose in Peter’s head– doubts and fears that he’s pushed aside are rushing out to meet him, each one bringing with it another, until Peter’s lost in the cascade, until he’s clinging to Juno just to keep from being swept away as it crashes down around him.
“Juno, forgetting– it doesn’t fix things.” The words tumble out of his mouth before he can stop them. “The memories aren’t completely gone, they’re just barely out of reach. Juno, I know things I shouldn’t know. I recognize things I don’t understand. And there are things I don’t know, and that’s even worse. Juno, you knew my name– the closest thing I have to a weakness, and you just knew it, and I didn’t know how. Do you have any idea what that was like?” His breath is ragged, his voice raw. “We were tortured, and I had no idea. I don’t know what was done to me or if it left lasting damage or if I’m going to wake up five years from now to pay for it. Every single person on the street might have met me before, and I don’t now who they are or what aliases they know. I don’t know what plans I can make or what precautions I can take. I don’t know what to do next. I–”
Scarred hands cup his face. A forehead presses against his own.
“I didn’t know,” Juno says softly.
The space between them is narrow; there’s only room for secrets here. “I’m trying to find a way to live with it because I don’t have a choice.”
Juno offers a slight nod– he understands. Peter isn’t sure which one of them is shaking, but they hold each other until it subsides.
“Would it–” Juno breaks off, but tries again despite the note of self-consciousness. “Would it help if I told you what happened? I don’t know the whole story, but I can tell you the parts I was there for.”
It shouldn’t be that simple.
The kind of information Peter needs is the kind that has to be pieced together from receipts and coaxed out of unsuspecting witnesses. It can’t be asked for, because people can’t know what he really wants, or why. They wouldn’t give it to him if they did.
That’s the way it works. That’s the way it’s always worked.
Except with Juno Steel.
And so Peter lets go.
“Please,” he whispers into the space between them.
Juno’s arms wrap around his shoulders, protective and reassuring. “The first time I met you, you were going by the name Rex Glass, assigned to disprove a curse on an Ancient Martian burial mask that had already racked up a body count, and according to the writing on the wall, I was next up on the chopping block. Naturally, I didn’t want anything to do with you. By the time you walked through that door, I was already on my way out the window. And then I saw you.”
He weaves the story like a tapestry, detail by detail and beat by beat. He pays special attention to the feeling of people– Cecil Kanagawa’s overbearing showmanship, Brock Engstrom’s smugness, Miasma’s cold disdain– and to the personas Peter wore. He doesn’t recognize Rex Glass or Duke Rose, but he can feel the outlines of them in Juno’s words, the identities that he might be able to slip into someday like an ill-fitting suit.
Juno shows him the scars where needles and electrodes bit into his arms, and traces the place where titanium knuckles carved into his own.
He tells him about offered tenderness that Juno was too raw to feel, of hours spent watching him sleep, of a mistake he never forgave himself for.
“You said you were in love with me,” Juno admits, soft and hesitant and slightly ashamed, as if it was ever a secret. As if it wasn’t written into the note he hands Peter, now yellowed and falling apart from being folded and unfolded a hundred times over, the ink fading where fingertips traced over the words.
Peter lets his glance linger to that note, illuminated by a streetlight outside the office. The last of the daylight faded as Juno was telling him about the things he saw in Peter’s mind, and neither of them has bothered to unbury the desk lamp from the pile of Dark Matters files, let alone turn it on.
In the hours since the story began, they’ve settled into more comfortable places– Peter sitting in the windowsill and Juno on his desk, more at ease than they’ve been in days, basking in the companionable quiet and dark.
And then that peace is interrupted by the beep of an uncustomized comms ringtone and the too-bright glow of a screen.
Juno picks up the comms. “It’s Cecil,” he says quietly. And then he looks up at Peter. “What do you want to do, Peter?”
“If you turn those files over, Dark Matters will come after you.” It isn’t an answer, just a fact, weighed carefully in his hand.
“If I don’t,” Juno says, “they might do the same thing to somebody else.”
And that matters to Juno. It was worth swallowing the Martian Pill, worth locking himself in a room with a bomb. But this isn’t a choice between cowardice and martyrdom.
“Then come with me.” Peter slides down from his windowsill and strides to Juno’s side. “Give the file to Kanagawa and let me take you someplace where Dark Matters won’t ever find you.”
“Are you sure you know what you’re asking?” Juno lets out a soft breath, almost like a laugh. “I’m a real mess.”
“So am I.” It feels strange to admit that after all this time, but he feels lighter for saying it.
“I can’t leave Rita behind,” Juno says. “Not after I got her into this.”
“She’s welcome to come along. A woman of her talents could get into all sorts of trouble.” He leans in with a gentle smile. “It could be quite an adventure.”
Juno picks up the comms.
“Let’s see what the galaxy’s got to offer.”