It had taken Mistah Steel four months and five days after becoming a Private Detective instead of an officer to shrug off the remains of the HCPD dress code.
Not that he’d stopped wearing suits and sensible shoes.
The worn jacket stayed on and so did the constant scent of cheap cigarettes and bad coffee.
But he’d always worn a boring shirt underneath his jacket, with an even more boring tie. Coffee-stained and off the deep discount rack, only there to cover the body up so that he’d look somewhat decent as he’d ran after criminals and spent too much time in the gun range.
So, when Mistah Steel had wandered inside the office one morning wearing a deep green dress underneath his usual jacket, Rita had complemented it. It was a flowy number with long sleeves, complimenting the peridot necklace around his neck.
Next came the heeled boots and torn tights underneath a black skirt.
The dresses after that had all been muted purples and blues, never long enough to cover up as much as the HCPD would have liked. And when they were ankle-length, they had the sort of side split that reached far up the thigh. Because a lady had to be able to run at top speed.
He’d never stopped wearing them, even when he’d been in that slump before the kitty case. That had been an awful time, especially since that had been when he’d even stopped putting on jewelry and flinched whenever his hand touched his new eyepatch.
But Rita had never seen the electric blue nail polish decorating Mistah Steel’s nails before. Certainly not when they’d still been on Mars. Forest green polish one dreary Friday after they’d solved a murder case, and a silvery gray one when they’d infiltrated a party during a case when they’d been searching for a missing musician.
After all, detectives had to blend in with the crowd.
And he’d never put on burgundy lipstick like this on either when he’d been working as a police officer. Such things were frowned upon in their old station, as anything that could cover up the fact that an employee’s lips and nails were becoming blue due to lack of oxygen was not considered proper work attire.
Rita grinned at him when he hurried into the kitchen at dawn, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed as he could be. And ready to make them all breakfast.
Yesterday he’d made pancakes.
And the day before that Rita had woken up to the smell of bread baking in the oven.
“Good morning, Boss!” she said, watching as Juno heaped oats, nuts of all kinds and almonds into a big bowl. She’d have to get him a nice apron the next time they’d be on shore leave.
“Morning, Rita,” Juno said, pouring honey into the bowl as the coffee machine hummed.
“Makin’ granola bars, are you?” she asked, peering into the bowl as Juno added dates and the rest of the berries Jet had brought home.
“They’re good for finishing up stuff that you have lying around,” Juno said, pressing at the stuff with his spatula.
“And tasty too,” Rita said, handing over the packet of cacao nibs she’d found at the very back of the pantry. Technically speaking, they were a snack, but there was so little left of them that putting them in the bars would just mean that they all had bigger snacks to eat.
Rita washed the dishes as Mistah Steel made oat cake batter that he scooped up and put in a mold that went into the oven.
The black skirt floated around him as he bustled around the kitchen, eyeing the oven every so often as he drank his syrupy coffee through a bendy straw and handed out granola bars to a grumpy Vespa and a pleased Jet.
The boss would never have allowed himself to behave like this down at their old station, where he’d barely stopped working to sleep, running so much that the back of his heels became bloody when his cheap shoes cut through his socks and into the skin.
Not even close.
He’d have forgotten to even look at the cat eye tutorials she’d sent him way back when she had seen the copper eyeliner peeking out of his makeup bag on his desk at the HCPD, still in its package. And if he had, it was likely that he’d have deleted it instead of high-fiving her as he did now when she sent him more complicated tutorials.
Instead he was humming along with the radio, pouring coffee into mugs and buttering toast for Ransom, who apparently hated the very idea of granola bars.
Rita kept an eye on Ransom as he flirted with the boss, leaning on the counter and eating toast in an oddly charming way that left no crumbs on his beautiful suit. A blush rose up Mistah Steel’s face as Ransom complemented the scent of the oat cakes in the oven.
She’d met Ransom before, of course.
One of the problems about being a secretary was that people in general tended to believe that you were stupid, or that you were like an NPC in those old Earth video games that one just had to select a different question to get a better answer that they liked more.
But Ransom, or whatever his name really was, had never treated her like that. Sure, he’d flashed that sharp smile of his and been polite to her, but she never felt like he treated her as a thing to be tolerated and then discarded.
Many of the detectives at the HCPD had been downright rude to her, demanding that she’d do all their admin and run errands for them even though she wasn’t even their secretary.
She’d seen the hopeful flicker in Mistah Steel’s eye when he’d seen Ransom again sitting on the Ruby 7, heard the stutter in the boss’s voice that was so exactly like the one he’d made when Ransom had pretended to be that deliveryman and given the boss flowers on his birthday.
That flicker in the boss’s eyes was a full-on fire by now.
Rita kept washing the dishes, thinking about how the word secretary originally meant a person who kept and knew about their superior’s secrets.
And Rita was good at that.
But she’d also seen enough movies to suspect where this storyline was headed, and she could not wait for what would happen next.
At least the lady detective was a relatively emotionally stable person, even if he had moments of recklessness that might once have been the sort of death-seeking behavior of a person who desired going out with a bang in bringing down evil once and for all.
Vespa recognized that the lady who was climbing out of the depression pit he’d lived in all his life. And it was always a climb, falling and getting up again. Gravel and mud under your fingernails and in your shoes. But looking at him becoming invested in the queer werewolf plot in one of the movies Rita loved so, bumping into walls because of the adjustment period that came with losing one eye, Vespa thought that Juno was in a much better place than he had been in before.
He was breathing in the sweet air near the top of the pit, feeling the wind on his face.
That meant that his panic attacks were fewer, he didn’t get worked up over future problems that he could not control unless he saw those problems crashing and burning already and that he could spend his time dealing with the very top of the Maslow’s hierarchy of needs pyramid instead of the bottom.
All good things.
Partnering Juno with the others when it came to a job wasn’t a problem since he spent most of his time learning from others on the team already, listening to Buddy explaining how they’d managed to pull off their legendary heists, studying car repair with Jet and tentatively sitting next to Vespa herself.
And sometimes he’d come out of Ransom’s room looking flushed and dreamy around the eyes.
The fact that he was unable to stop snarking, lived for the Drama and got nauseated when he saw too much blood wasn’t a big deal. Vespa had met plenty of people in dangerous professions who had once only wanted to hurl themselves towards the long sleep to know that they often developed certain coping mechanisms to deal with the world.
She had her own, of course. She liked to carry as many knives as he could and stick close to Buddy.
Juno Steel liked to stun people and work with others. He’d once stabbed through a man’s boot with his stiletto heel when that idiot had threatened Rita when they’d all been on shore leave together.
Ransom was another matter entirely.
Vespa had met enough master thieves that had been on the run all their life to recognize one. Especially a rattled one, with his shifting eyes and worried body language when he thought no one was looking.
It was only when he was around Juno that he seemed to relax, shoulders dropping and peace slicing through his brain for a few moments before he became jumpy again.
She’d have to keep an eye on him.
Jet had told Ransom that sitting on hood the Ruby 7 was not acceptable behavior. Multiple times.
And yet Ransom had done just that.
Like he was one of those people in automobile shows back on Earth that wore non-practical clothing and posed oddly to sell cars.
The face-journey that Juno had gone through when he’d seen Ransom like that had been quite something. It had contained less outrage than Jet would have liked, but a man could not have everything in life.
So, Jet had cleaned the car properly after the team had begun to settle for the night, polishing it to a shine for good measure.
And vowed to try to keep Ransom away from the car as much as possible.
There were many ways to figure out if people were in love with each other.
For one, you could wait for years on end to see if they fulfilled their promises. Or you could watch them carefully for weeks to see the development between them as they flirted and talked and shared space.
All acceptable, really.
But it was so much more fun, not to mention time-saving and practical to put Juno in a gold gown with a thigh split that would be scandalous if it were not so fabulous and join forces with Rita in helping him with his makeup. Then, for good measure, tell Juno and Ransom that they were to pretend to be newlyweds as a part of their cover.
If Buddy was going to insist on them being a family, she could at least hasten two of her family members dealing with their issues in the most fun way possible.
The glint in Juno’s eyes as Rita had applied swirly eyeliner and Buddy had gone through his selection of lipsticks to find a purple one to match his heels, had been a decidedly pleased one.
“Ransom is going to drop his heart on the floor when he sees you, Mistah Steel,” Rita had told Juno, dusting highlighter over his cheekbones and adjusting his gold earrings.
“What?” Juno had said, blinking.
He looked down at the six-inch heels that had been strapped to his legs.
“You bet he is,” Buddy said, watching in delight as Juno ducked his head a little bit, a tiny hopeful smile on his face.
Buddy applied the lipstick, turning Juno’s head this way and that until she was satisfied.
And then she’d sent them on their way.
She’d expected them to come back with the globe, and so they had.
Juno had been triumphant, still a vision in gold.
Ransom had been proud, if terribly jittery. Even as the days had passed and they’d prepared themselves for the next heist, he’d remained as tightly wound up as a discarded clock.
Buddy had tapped Juno’s shoulder one night when Ransom had yet again isolated himself in his room, claiming that he needed to memorize the floor plans of the building they’d be hitting next.
“Would you pay Ransom a visit, darling?” she’d asked as he whipped cream in the kitchen.
And Juno had poured hot chocolate into a clean mug, nodding in understanding.
Then he headed down the corridor, his slippers soundless on the floor of the Carte Blanche.
It was late.
The door was closed and the room was silent.
Peter had taken off his makeup and found the best pajamas he’d ever stolen, like clouds against his skin. It was not the short silk dress or the flimsy sheer number that he’d stick to during hot summer nights or when he’d want to wear something nice underneath his tailored suits.
The long nightshirt billowed against his knees as he put away his toners, creams, three moisturizers and special washcloths.
Dabbing on his overnight gold-speckled cream that would have cost more than his entire wardrobe, had he ever paid for any of it was a special kind of pleasure. It was smooth against his skin, allowing him to forget the endless chipping fears of aging that haunted him on waking and every time he’d glimpse himself in a reflection of any kind.
The fifteenth step of his skin care routine completed, Peter finally put on his overnight hair mask with smooth, practiced movements as he refused to let his mind wander. Then he put his ruby shower cap on and checked to see if the nail polish Rita had insisted on putting on his nails had in fact dried properly.
Peter sat down on his bed, closing his eyes, as if that would help any in keeping the filing boxes containing ‘files for future reference’ from rattling insistently, demanding to be checked.
This was just a five-minute break from studying the maps of the building they were going to pay a visit during the next heist, memorizing how and when the next item they were planning on stealing had originally been made. And how many times it had changed hands…
He’d spend the whole night working, only sleeping when it was four hours until he’d be forced to join the others at breakfast time.
If he couldn’t focus, then he’d allow himself only two hours of sleep.
That was how the past three nights had gone, and he’d cursed his lack of energy all the while. Now it seemed that he’d run out completely.
Peter did not look to the left, where he’d stashed the few portable items he’d kept on him for the better half of his life: a good, expensive suit, his cat-eye glasses, stylish shoes, his cologne and his ring. A silver band with a streak of copper running through it. It wasn’t the first thing he’d ever stolen, but it was the first valuable thing he’d ever stolen for himself for the heck of it.
No need for a suitcase, really.
Peter allowed himself a few seconds where he thought of escaping, putting on the suit and his face, sliding the glasses and the ring on, tying his shoes and pocketing the cologne. Just leaving all this behind.
He’d be half-way across the galaxy in no time at all, stealing and stealing and stealing until he’d paid all his debts. He’d eventually end up in a far worse room than this one in some worse-for-wear hotel, his looks and charms and skills gone for good.
Mask after mask.
All of them discarded.
All of them cracked.
Then he breathed out, adjusting his cap.
He didn’t look up when there was a knock on the door.
But he did when the scent of proper, horrendously expensive gold-tier hot chocolate wafted through the door.
“Are you still awake?” Juno asked, knocking again. “Your light is still on.”
“Come on in,” Peter managed, internally shaking himself when the words left his lips. His hands went up to his face, totally bared if you didn’t count the faint sheen of the cream.
Juno had never seen him like this.
No one had ever seen him like this.
There’d always been at least one layer of perfectly blended highlighter and foundation, even if his lipstick was all over the place after kissing.
The door opened before Peter could scramble under the duvet to hide his face, revealing Juno Steel clad in a long rose-patterned dressing gown over his pajamas and holding two mugs of hot chocolate topped with real cream and chocolate shavings.
He looked like something out of a dream.
“Rita wanted to celebrate since things have been going so well,” Juno said, the smile on his face bright as sunshine and just as blinding. “And I figured you’d want some of this as well, since we still had lots left.”
Peter waited for that grin to falter as soon as Juno got a good look at his face, not even hidden behind his glasses.
At the faint hint of crow’s feet around his eyes to the deep shadows beneath them. At the silver scar on his jaw. And all the other flaws he spent hours covering up.
A part of him wanted to kick Juno out of the room before he could see any of it, shoving at him until he could close the door and then bar it so no one could get inside. Ripping even the memory of how his face looked like this from Juno’s life experiences, saving him from seeing how bad it was.
But Juno just kept smiling.
“Nice shower cap,” Juno said, pointing to his own head to demonstrate where Peter’s cap was located on his own head.
“Oh,” Peter managed. “I stole it.”
“Of course you did,” Juno said fondly, handing over one of the mugs.
The scent of the hot chocolate was intoxicating.
“Thank you,” Peter said, accepting the mug. He wanted to reach for a quip of some kind, any kind. Perhaps something about the lady having good taste in chocolate drinks, but Peter could not make himself do anything more than to gesture at the bed beside him.
Juno sat down on the bed beside him without a word, looking around the room with that curious expression of his. The one that meant he was studying it.
Peter cradled the mug in his hands, enjoying the warmth.
What did a lady like Juno Steel think of all his products, physical manifestations of his fears of aging?
Or the booty shorts folded over the back of the chair?
Down the hallway, Peter could hear Rita rhapsodizing about one of her new shows and loudly proclaiming that adding soft serve ice-cream as well as whipped cream to the hot chocolate made it even better.
“Are you going to bed?” Juno asked after a while, gesturing at Peter’s pajamas with an approving note in his voice.
Peter opened his mouth to ask Juno to join him in bed, but decided that it would not be the best option available when he could barely keep lift his mug to his lips. Instead Peter took a long sip of his hot chocolate, buying himself some time.
Exhaustion clawed at him, hollowing him out.
Five years ago, staying up for a few nights in a row would’ve been a cakewalk. And he could shrug away the nightmares about eating expired granola bars he’d found in the trash as a kid like it was nothing.
Now he didn’t even have the energy to kiss Juno properly.
Is this what was to become of him?
That he could not even flirt when there was a pretty lady in his bedroom?
He glanced at Juno, who was peacefully drinking his hot chocolate.
“I’ve been having nightmares,” Peter admitted, the words slipping out as soon as he’s swallowed the heavenly hot chocolate. “So, I’ve been trying to establish a nighttime routine to keep them at bay.”
“Hm,” Juno said, nodding at the sight of all of Peter’s products and the soft nightshirt. “That’s pretty sensible of you, actually.”
“Did you come here to make sure I wasn’t working myself to death?” Peter wanted to ask, but the words would not leave his lips. He tried to put down his empty mug on his overflowing nightstand, his hand shaking.
The mug crashed onto the floor, bouncing on the carpet and rolling underneath the bed.
Peter did not move.
He did not even reach out for the mug.
Instead he put his head in his hands, trying to ignore the endless list of things he’d broken in his life, the onslaught of memories from his carefully curated list of things to consider in the future.
“What’s wrong?” Juno asked. “Do you need me to fetch any kind of medication? Or Vespa?”
But his voice was far away, faded.
“Nureyev?” Juno asked again.
Peter could just hear the high-pitched worry in his voice and see that Juno had taken his hand, the gold nail polish on his fingers chipped. His touch was careful, non-invasive.
“I think I just need to lie down,” Peter managed, his voice slurring. “Haven’t had a lot of sleep lately, love.”
His heart was too loud in his chest, drowning out his spiraling thoughts. And his hands felt unsteady, rubbing the fabric of the duvet cover to ground himself.
“Okay,” Juno said. “I can help with that.”
Juno pulled him up from the bed, adjusting the duvet before lowering him back down on the bed again. The duvet covered Peter in seconds.
He tried to smile at Juno over the edge of the duvet, to reassure him that things were just fine.
“Thank you, Juno,” Peter said, letting himself sink into the mattress.
“Oh, no problem,” Juno said, scratching the back of his neck. There was no anger on Juno’s face. Or disappointment. He just looked happy to have been able to assist him.
“I’ll be better, next time you’re here,” Peter told Juno. “Not like this.”
He didn’t hear Juno’s reply, his heavy body insisting to drag his mind into the darkness of his dreams. He fought back, forcing himself to open his eyes again.
Juno was on his knees, having found the mug.
Their eyes met.
“Good night, Nureyev,” Juno said, stroking his cheek with his free hand. He stood up and carried the mugs to the door.
“Good night, love,” Peter murmured, closing his eyes as the lights faded to darkness and the door closed behind Juno.
It turned out that the best way to get Nureyev to refocus during a heist was to claim to be married to him. He’d stop spacing out while falling back on old habits of bizarre self-reliance, blinking as the world around him became clearer.
Then Nureyev would gravitate towards Juno, all smooth charm and sharp smiles once again.
“I’m sorry, darling,” he’d say. “I was distracted thinking about our honeymoon.”
That tended to make most people stop in their tracks, especially when Juno would scoop the man up in his arms so that they could make their exit in such an extravagant and obvious manner that it could barely be believed.
Of course, everyone loved a show.
And Juno was not against giving to them, when it was appropriate.
Especially when he’d pocketed an item with five million cred and put it in his bralette.
“I love my strong wife,” Nureyev would say, his arms around Juno’s neck as Juno stomped over the threshold of the building, internally cursing his high heels.
At this point they had a startling array of rings to choose from when it came to how they wanted to present themselves as a married couple. Plain ones in gold for the couple that had just eloped, a pair of silver ones with a silver of amethyst for when Juno was feeling flashy.
Then there was the ring Juno had on at the party where they’d stolen the globe, which was the sort of ring that was only a metal thing to keep the huge jewel on Juno’s finger. He could have used it instead of brass knuckles if he’d put his mind to it.
During their last job, in a pinch, Nureyev had slid his own ring onto Juno’s finger during the middle of a heist after a dramatic proposal that had worked perfectly well as a diversion to give Rita a few more minutes to hack into the security system.
Juno had not yet taken it off, even if he’d had days to do so.
Instead he’d put on a dahlia patterned skirt over his tights, smoothing out the red crop top. It was efficient to only have to do one eye when putting on his makeup, letting himself play with blending eyeshadow and silver eyeliner.
Then he knocked on the door to Nureyev’s room, careful not to tap his feet in his practical if knee-high boots. Nureyev always looked rattled whenever he thought that he was in a time crunch, so any signs of impatience outside of a job was something that Juno actively tried to avoid. It was much better to wait for Nureyev to come to him, to reach out and wait for Nureyev to take his hand.
The Nureyev that answered the door was still half-asleep, his eyes bleary and hair all over the place.
Had he seen his own reflection, Nureyev would have gone silent and hurried to find his clothes and hair products and makeup so that when he’d finished, he’d look every inch like the suave gentleman thief he so liked to see in the mirror.
Juno doubted that he’d ever allow anyone else to see him like this. No barrier between them, no disguises or lies.
This was a gift, even if Nureyev would not think of it as one.
“Did you sleep well?” Juno asked, looking over Nureyev’s shoulder at the rumpled sheets and the abandoned sleep mask. “I wanted to wake you up since Buddy wants to have a family meeting during breakfast, so you’d have time to get dressed-“
“Good morning, darling,” Nureyev said, somehow managing to make that sound like an invitation to join him in bed.
Juno bit his lip, calculating just how much cuddling they could get in before he’d have to make breakfast for everyone. He glanced at Nureyev’s clear eyes, no longer as red-rimmed as they’d been a month ago.
“The meeting’s in half an hour-,” Juno managed before Nureyev had pulled him into the room, looking pleased with himself. Like a cat who’d managed to open the fridge to find some very tasty tuna bricks.
Juno opened his mouth, shuffling the scripts he’d prepared for himself to talk to Nureyev about their tendency to using very intense fake marriage as a cover at the drop of a hat. They’d have to talk about it eventually, even if it was just about how it made a certain gleam appear in Buddy’s eyes every single time.
“We’ve got time, then,” Nureyev said, closing the door.
“We’ve always got time, we live together,” Juno said, but fell silent when saw the sharp smile on Nureyev’s face. His eyes had become alert and he was only wearing a silk slip.
“Oh,” Juno said, very aware of the fact that there was definitely no underwear on Nureyev’s person.
Maybe that talk about rings could wait one more day…
“I’m going to ruin your lipstick,” Nureyev told Juno, lifting Juno’s hand to his lips and kissing the scarred knuckles. His eyes lingered on the ring on Juno’s finger, his smile widening. “I’m going to absolutely wreck it, Juno.”
“I can reapply it,” Juno said, pulling Nureyev into a kiss. A small one, just the brush of the lips. His breath hitched when Nureyev’s hands brushed against the material of his skirt as he gripped Juno’s hips.
His thumbs found the strip of bare skin between Juno’s skirt and crop top, stroking it gently until Juno was shivering in his arms.
Nureyev deepened the kiss, moaning as Juno cupped his jaw.
They didn’t stop until Rita was very audibly making a mess of the kitchen in search of snacks.
Legends were so often warnings.
Leave the gold-hoarding dragon alone, was one. If you fly too close to the sun it will burn your wings and you’ll fall into the sea and die, was another. And then there was the classic: if you try to kill a private detective by throwing him off a cliff on Earth he will fake his death and bring down your vast criminal network.
But neither Juno Steel nor Peter Ransom were legends yet. They were not dead stories, written down in the comms and whispered about in dirty bars all around the globe.
Perhaps, if you caught a glimpse of them, you might think that they had the building blocks to become a legend one day.
Juno Steel, the former Private Eye and cop who had left the law behind and Peter Ransom, the master thief who could steal absolutely anything, tangoing in the middle of the biggest ballroom in the galaxy just before an item of extreme value went missing for good.
But for that moment, all anyone could look at was the scarlet material of Juno’s dress whispering on the floor and the scent of roses as Ransom dipped Juno, all sharp smiles and risqué jokes.
They were too alive for anyone to be able to ignore them, eyes brighter than stars as they looked at each other, their bodies in total and complete sync as they moved.
Not that any of those people saw Juno leaning on the hood of the Ruby 7 in that low-cut gown, actual rubies in his ears and a silver ring on his finger. Or the expression on Nureyev’s face when he’d seen Juno, handing over the item they’d stolen together to Jet as soon as they’d both slipped inside the car.
No one but them was around during the late nights in Nureyev’s room where he organized the shelf-stable food he kept underneath his bed, a relic of his time on the streets. Just sitting there on the floor arranging jars of preserved peaches and chocolates.
“It’s silly,” Nureyev had told Juno, when he’d stolen a can of coffee from the market because his brain would not stop until he had something caffeinated in his stash.
“It makes you feel safe,” Juno had replied, accepting a chocolate bon-bon the size of a cherry that had been in the stash for too long. “And it isn’t harming anyone.”
Nureyev listened to the sounds of Juno fiddling with pliers and tongs at the desk, making his own jewelry.
Sometimes Nureyev would do his research as Juno worked, but most nights he’d arrange things just so. Sometimes that meant readying outfits for future heists or just the week, cleaning out his makeup bag or products, or doing his whole skin-cleaning routine from start to finish.
Meanwhile, he let files that had been buried under ‘for future consideration’ resurface, turning them this way and that in his mind. Until he could neatly put them away back into ‘taken into consideration,’ or simply discarded.
After a few weeks like that, emotions and problems that had magnified and rattled around in his brain for years or even decades were dealt with, leaving Nureyev free to focus on other things.
Things he’d never allowed himself to even consider.
Like sticking around.
Having been on the run all his life, he’d expected to get cabin fever within more than five days in the same place. But instead he became used to not living out of a suitcase, if that and spending time with the same people for more than a few days at a time.
Slipping in and out of people’s lives had been the way he’d lived, always seductive and charming and inviting himself to the adventure of the day or week. Never still. Always moving so fast that nothing could really catch up with him.
It was odd, having someone around who had your back.
It was even odder to have a whole team like that.
It took time to get used to it.
Long ago, Nureyev had accepted that he was going to die of blood-loss in some dark alleyway after a job gone wrong, still young and beautiful and talented. And alone.
No one had ever been willing to take so many steps to prevent that before.
Having Rita and Buddy in his ear when he needed help was new, so was having a getaway driver and Juno working beside him. And Vespa, bandaging his scarred arms and handing over disinfectant and asking him to keep an eye on Juno’s tendency to stop eating when he was in the middle of a job.
And Juno, looking at him like Nureyev had hung the stars themselves for him while they were on shore leave with Rita, in queue to get some soft serve ice-cream. Refusing to let Nureyev isolate himself completely when he’d perceived a mistake he’d made, knocking on the door and waiting until it finally opened for him.
Nureyev would leave his room when Juno asked him if he wanted to join them all in watching a new movie with Rita, sitting down on the sofa with Juno’s comforting arm around his shoulders as Jet made comments and Vespa grumbled at medical inaccuracies.
Buddy would grin at the sight of him and Rita would heap snacks in his lap, summarizing what had happened in the last movie in the series as fast as humanly possible.
Sleeping next to Juno most nights meant that he allowed himself to truly sink into his dreams instead of batting off nightmares, sure that the ever-alert Juno would wake before he’d even notice anything wrong and take care of the problem. Possibly taking out anyone who tried to disturb them with the potted succulent that lived on the nightstand.
He’d never imagined a life like this.
Travelling between planets on a spaceship, not in a rush to see all of them but giving himself time to actually enjoy the ride.
He didn’t know how long it would last.
Maybe a few months, or a few years.
Maybe for the rest of his life.
And wasn’t that a thought that would have terrified him, just a month ago.
But Nureyev had felt something settle in him now, leaving behind the endless skittishness and fear that had haunted him since he was a small orphan. Leaving him free to stop looking behind his shoulder all the time, waiting for the wolves to pounce. Now he could look ahead, into the future.
There were days when Juno wanted nothing more than to go back to Mars, hole up in his old dump of an apartment and wolf down takeout on his lumpy sofa in peace while watching some old re-run on the streams. Perhaps it was the old siren-song of privacy, or simply the desire to eat fries.
The Carte Blanche was largely a communal space, even they did all have their own rooms. For years Juno had only had to spend time with Rita every day and then his clients and potentially some former co-workers and others that were somehow linked to the case of the day. His office had been a messy, if private place where he could play Solitaire to his heart’s content and stare out the window in a dramatic fashion whenever he wanted.
Juno was glad to have Rita around, chattering to everyone about her new favorite show and sitting beside Juno at the dinner table with a delighted smile on her face whenever he’d put on a nice outfit for the occasion.
Not that he’d ever stopped wearing his scruffy heeled boots and long trench coat. But now he’d put on a soft purple crewneck sweater on top of his old striped shirt and enough patterned tights in his closet so that he didn’t have to worry about tearing a few pairs whenever he felt like wearing his new skirts or dresses.
Juno had bought himself some new skirts while on shore leave and accepted the rose-patterned dress Peter had given him just before their last job.
“You’re picking out my clothes again?” Juno had asked, inspecting the material. This was not the sort of thing he’d have gotten for himself, at least on Mars. This was not something from the discount rack or found in a box on the floor of the thrift store.
This was the fancy stuff.
The dress was backless and with a long skirt that would no doubt float all around Juno as he walked around. It was not the sort of dress you wore with any kind of underwear.
“I stole it from the mannequin,” Peter said casually, handing over ruby ankle boots and a clutch large enough to hide a gun, his wallet and his lipstick. Maybe a snack, if it was a little one. “I thought that you might wear it with those dahlia-patterned tights of yours.”
“Did you?” Juno asked, not bothering to hide his smile.
Juno thought of the compliments Peter would slide into their conversations whenever Juno wore his favorite green dress. And how Peter’s smile wasn’t the wicked smile of a man who expected to get something in exchange for those comments, but a shiny charming one with just that ever present hint of mischievousness.
“I very much did, dear,” Peter said, outright grinning at him. “Now, hurry up and get dressed before we land.”
“Alright, alright,” Juno muttered, tightening his grip on the ankle boots and dress and stalking towards his room, where he somehow managed to get the delicate tights on without ripping them and was just pulling on the ankle boots when Rita rushed into his bedroom after some very minimal knocking and shouting his name.
“You look fancy, boss,” Rita said, holding a makeup bag underneath her arm like a very angry cat. “I got my makeup so we could do our eyeliner together!”
“You look fancy too, Rita,” Juno said, taking in Rita’s bright yellow overalls and gold bowtie. The sleeves of her shirt were rolled up to show off the bangles on her wrists.
Juno rummaged through his bag for his red eyeliner as Rita did complicated things with highlighter and glitter. He adjusted his eyepatch in the mirror.
“It’s easier to do your eye-makeup when you’ve only got one eye,” Juno said, rubbing tinted lip-balm on and putting on the eyeliner with a few sure strokes. “Saves a lot of time not having to make it match. And on products, too.”
Juno put on mascara and filled in his eyebrows a bit, absently styling his hair when he’d put his makeup away in its bag. He stilled when he realized that Rita had not said anything in a while after she’d put on her swirly eyeliner and tied up her hair.
“What?” Juno asked, side-eying her as she put both her hands on her cheeks as she’d just seen a video of a feral alley-cat being rescued from the dangerous streets and scrubbed free of lice and patched up before learning to be loved by its new family.
“I’m real happy that we’re both here, Mistah Steel,” she said. “Sellin’ all your furniture and apartment and getting a new job wouldn’t have been nearly as fun as this. It would’ve been awful.”
“I’m sorry that I almost put you through that, Rita,” Juno said, swallowing. The image of Rita rummaging through his shitty kitchenware and papers loomed in his mind, there and gone again.
“Was it because you wanted to follow Ransom?” Rita asked, her voice low.
“…yeah, it was,” Juno admitted. “I was too much of a coward to leave Mars, then. And I couldn’t make myself leave you-“
“Oh,” Rita said.
“So, I left him instead,” Juno continued, unable to stop. “Broke my own heart to do it, but I wasn’t ready for anything like that yet. Besides, we barely knew each other, back then. Maybe I was just in love with the idea of him I had in my head. But that didn’t stop me from wanting to travel the stars with him and never, ever looking back.”
“Aw, Mistah Steel,” Rita said.
“I like travelling the stars like this better,” Juno said, wiping his hands clean and fixing his neckline. “Much better.”
“Yeah,” Rita said with a sigh and a bright smile. Then she grabbed his hand and pulled him out the door, a few seconds before Vespa started shouting at him to hurry up.