Rita keeps Juno company; two guys each see a pretty face.
Chapter 1 includes mentions of suicidal ideation. For further information, see the end notes.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
August 24, XXX34
Juno moves in first. He doesn’t have much of a choice, not with his housing plans falling through with no warning two weeks before classes start.
He’s happy for Rita. He is. She’s been wanting to get into this program since the first day he met her: Freshman orientation, when a five-foot blur of curly hair and pastel prints ran into him at mach 12 and didn’t stop talking until Juno physically walked away at the end of the day. Then, she showed up at his dorm the morning of the first day of classes, juggling some story about hacking the student database and finding out which residence hall he lived in.
They’ve been best friends since, the rest is history, yadda yadda whatever.
Not that having a steady roommate for a year and a half helps Juno now, angrily unpacking one of his two bags into the university-standard dresser of his new dorm. One of the nicer ones, he grudgingly acknowledges.
“Stupid Olympus Mons. Stupid fancy compsci program with its stupid mandatory housing,” Juno grumbles to himself. He slams the drawer shut and catches his thumb in the process. “Ow! Stupid, stupid dumb fucking dresser, shit.”
His comms rings. He answers it with a snapped “What,” still nursing his tender thumb in his mouth.
“Boss!” Rita’s voice bubbles out of the speaker. “You should see this place! It’s like Fort Lux over here. Ya gotta get a keycard and have your retinas scanned and give a blood sample and oh! The snacks are to die for! And there’s a library in the basement of the dorms, and burner comms in the vending machines, and this cute girl on my floor just told me they play ‘truth or hack the Plutonian government’ on weekends—”
“Yeah, Rita, that all sounds—”
“—and there’s space for my computers in the room I got! All of ‘em! And a fuse box in every dorm to make sure I don’t blow out half the campus—again—and—”
“—even the TV in the lounge is,” her voice drops to an unsubtle whisper, “off... the grid.”
“Yeah, that’s really exciting—” Juno rolls his eyes as Rita revs back up again.
“And I know classes ain’t even started yet but I got a real good feeling about this year, Boss, I feel like I learned so much already about what kinda security they got on planets that ain’t even Mars and—”
“Should you be telling me this?”
“Yeah, okay, the pamphlets all say it’s a ‘highly selective’ program and everythin’ and they do have most of the dorms bugged to make sure we’re not selling secrets to Proximan terrorists or Hyperion U, but I thought, well, what kinda school doesn’t even let you tell your best friend all about it? And I don’t know nobody here too well yet but between you and me they all seem a little,” her voice pitches down again, a caricature of a whisper that Juno is pretty sure she honest to god thinks nobody can hear, “boring.”
“Boring,” Juno repeats. “You’re telling me, you think the people in this computer science program, the one you’ve been dying to get into since you were seventeen years old, that churns out big names in the interstellar intelligence community like a goddamn robot in a candy factory… are boring?”
“I wouldn’t say I was dyin’,” Rita snorts. “Mostly I thought it’d be fun, you know, like when I entered that sweepstakes to win a trip to Venus with Amelio Yakamura of ‘So You Think You Can Knit: All-Stars’? And I wrote that whole essay about how I don’t think I can knit, so I really, really, really need him to teach me, hopefully at a hot spring resort because my joints ain’t never done too well with the cold, because I got that circulation thing? And I didn’t win, which was sad, but I did get a signed letter from Amelio’s assistant’s temp thanking me for my enthusiasm! And ain’t that nice, thanking somebody for their enthusiasm—”
Juno gets back to unpacking. His comms sit on the dresser while Rita’s train of thought trundles so far off the rails it’s on the tracks for a completely different train, and he responds at appropriate times with a vague “huh,” or a noncommittal “you don’t say.”
“So anyway,” Rita continues while Juno tries to remember if this pair of underwear is actually his, or if it just ended up in his laundry and nobody ever bothered to ask for it back. “Like I said, I’m real excited about this year but I’m just sayin’ I think… I think you should come visit.”
“Will they even let me in there?” Juno asks. He dumps the contents of his second bag on the floor and starts sorting out his scant few knick-knacks into piles: cup and bowl and a couple of forks, picture of Ben, makeup brushes he hasn’t cleaned in a horrifyingly long time.
“As long as you’re with me… aaaand you sign the waiver, and consent to the drug test, and to the being-drugged test, and—”
“Why do you want me in your secret agent bullshit dorm anyway?” Juno asks. It comes out harsher than he means it to, like a lot of things. “I mean, shit, it’s not like we haven’t seen enough of each other.”
There’s silence on the other end of the line. It’s not a common thing to hear from Rita.
“...Rita?” He stands and picks up the comms again. “You still there?”
“Y-yeah, Boss,” Rita says. Her voice is small. “I just… I’m gonna miss seein’ you every day.”
The waver in her voice drops a leaden weight into Juno’s stomach.
“Rita, I didn’t mean it like that.” He pinches the bridge of his nose. “You can just come over here. They give you time off from that place for good behavior, right?”
“Your… new roommate,” she says the words like someone might say ‘cockroach,’ or ‘politician,’ “won’t mind?”
“Haven’t met the guy yet,” Juno shrugs. “But hey, if he’s gotta deal with me, he’s gotta deal with you.”
Juno practically feels the way Rita brightens up at that. It’s almost blinding, all the more for the contrast, and he can’t help but smile.
“Yeah, we’re a package deal, ain’t we! Steel and Rita! Oh! Or Rita and Steel, that’s got a nice ring to it, you could put that on a plaque—”
The smile pulling at Juno’s mouth and the burble of Rita’s opinions about the weird statue she can see from her window carry him through unpacking. His clothes are folded—as neatly as they’ll ever be—in the dresser drawers, his small set of cooking utensils is piled on the microwave, and Ben’s picture is safely tucked away in his desk.
“Rita,” he says thoughtfully, looking out over his freshly-organized half of the room. “This year might be alright.”
“What was that?” Rita asks through a mouth of god-knows-what. “Oh! And I saw this dog yesterday, Boss, outside the fuel station on a hundred and ninety-first? It had the cutest widdle nose, I just about died—”
August 29, XXX34
“I hate this fucking place,” Juno groans.
It’s the hottest day in Olympus Mons in twenty-three years, according to the weather alert scrolling along the bottom of the news feed. He only has the TV on as a means of distraction, lying on his bed in a puddle of sweat and staring longingly at the stuck window.
Back in Hyperion City, a window that wouldn’t open was a mild inconvenience at worst and at best, a blessing. Red dust covered everything if you weren’t careful, seeping in cracks in the windowpane and clinging to clothes. Juno almost misses the hot wind that would blow through his neighborhood off the nearby stretch of desert. Sand in his eyes and grit in his teeth, sure, but not this, not a stuffy room built to withstand nuclear fallout and an airlock-sealed window that won’t stop mocking him.
He checks his comms and groans again. The one message he’s ever received from his roommate—who he’s pretty damn sure shouldn’t even know how to contact him, Juno sure as hell didn’t know the guy’s number—came in this morning. It only said, cryptically:
I’ll be there today. -Rex
Juno shot back a What time? that has yet to be answered, and saved the number under “Rex Roommate” after racking his brain for ten minutes about what the hell his last name was. Something short. With an S, Juno is pretty sure.
Fuck it. If Rex… whatever is going to turn up any second, Juno should probably be wearing pants.
Three days’ worth of garbage (soda cans, beer bottles, tissues—Christ, Juno is messier than he thought, even if nine-tenths of these Cheesebit wrappers are from Rita) is cleared out from under his bed before Juno can’t handle the heat anymore and strips his shirt clean off. He’s going to break that window, he swears.
Juno takes a long look at a suspicious carpet stain, and then decides it was probably there before he moved in.
He makes one more valiant effort at opening the window, once the room looks more like a place where somebody lives and not the corner of the sewer where rabbits keep their junk. It doesn’t work, but then again, nobody really ever expects last-ditch efforts to work. They’re just to make you feel better—to say, “at least I gave it one more shot.”
Juno is sweating despair with his forehead pressed to glass he can almost convince himself is colder than the room, when he hears a knock and turns to look toward the door.
“Hello?” comes a voice from the other side. “Juno Steel? I hope I’m in the right…” The door opens and a young man walks through. His eyes light on Juno—big and bright behind wide glasses and the first thought in Juno’s head is goddamn—and he drops the backpack he had slung over one shoulder. “...room.”
This man—boy, might be more accurate, he must be barely Juno’s age, probably a little younger, tall and lean and smooth-skinned like ancient plaster—carries himself like the heat doesn’t bother him in the slightest. He’s standing in the same muggy air as Juno, but his shirt is pressed perfectly and his eyeliner is sharp and his hair is in a goddamn coif like he walked out of a hairdresser’s chair and directly into Juno’s life.
Juno clears his throat, studiously keeps his eyes on his new roommate’s face, and tries not to think about the fact that he must look like Saturnalian sweating sickness personified.
“Yep. Uh, Rex, right?” Juno sticks out his hand.
Rex blinks at him like he’s never seen the gesture before, and Juno has a second to panic that he’s from some moon three systems away where this is a lewd sexual overture. And he’s not necessarily opposed to the idea, because holy hell, but he just met the guy and can’t even remember his last name even though it was on the form he signed before moving in but he had a lot on his mind at the time and—
Rex wraps a strong hand around Juno’s in a firm grip—his palm is so soft, slender fingers, Christ—and smiles. And when he smiles, it wipes Juno’s brain clean like a whiteboard except for the single word: teeth.
“Do— Sorry, it’s a fucking furnace in here.” Juno throws open a drawer and digs around for a shirt that is both clean and not so wrinkled it’s barely human-shaped anymore, a tall order.
“It’s fine,” Rex says brightly as Juno pulls a tee over his head. There’s a distant, dizzy look in his eye when Juno looks back. Must be the heat finally getting to him.
“Do you want a hand unpacking? Or, uh, I have some soda still—”
“No, thank you, I’ll be fine on my own. And I had a coffee on the way here, so…”
Rex has an accent Juno can’t place. Not that he’s got a keen ear for that kind of thing anyway, never having left Mars in his twenty-odd years of existence. But it catches Juno around the ribs, sinks in his bones like a song—clipped syllables and long vowels, winding around him a little tighter with each word.
And that shit won’t fly at all, Juno decides here and now.
This Rex can’t even bother to look at him. His eyes are too busy tracing the corner where the walls meet the ceiling, and Juno spent enough time staring at that general area after a visit to Julian’s apartment the other day to know there’s nothing much interesting up there.
And hell, Juno is stuck living with him for the next semester at least. Getting in his roommate’s pants before classes even start sounds fun for a minute, but once Juno inevitably fucks it up? Neither of them would have anywhere to take a walk of shame to. Rex S-name has the right idea, giving Juno the cold shoulder.
“I’ll… I’ll leave you to it, then,” Juno says. It’s obvious he was right that Rex doesn’t want him around, by the way his shoulders—nice shoulders, skinny frame but sharp like Juno could trip and cut himself on it, Juno wants to put his hands there and squeeze—relax as he grabs his keys.
It’ll be nice to get out of this sauna, anyway. And if he shuts the door a little harder than necessary on his way out, well. That’s the low pressure at this elevation.
By the time he makes it down the stairs and outside, Juno has cooled off a little. Not only literally, although the realization that he could have just gone outside hours ago and instead chose to wallow in his room says a little more about Juno as a person than he’s prepared to examine right now.
No, it must have been the heat, and the general annoyance of that last-minute text, that got Juno this cranky. It’s not like he goes around getting pissed off at every pretty face he can’t kiss. That would be a lot of misdirected anger, for one.
Sand and dirt crunch under Juno’s shoes. He keeps his eyes on the sidewalk, not sure and not worried about where his feet are taking him.
It’s just… been a while. That’s probably another piece of the truth of it. Rita and Mick—and Sasha, sometimes, when she’s not busy doing whatever secret training bullshit she can’t tell him anything about, which is rarely—are the only people who actually go out of their way to keep Juno around.
Hell, besides the unsolicited backrubs Mick imposes on him now and again that crack Juno’s back loud enough to set off bomb sirens, the longest physical contact with anyone he’s had in months was probably that tattoo artist. What was her name? She was pretty. Juno told her so, high off his ass, and the hazy memory of it makes him cringe. Not quite as much as the rabbit wearing a colander on its head he demanded she ink into his ankle, but it’s a close second.
The point is, he doesn’t blame anybody for the stellar decision to never speak to Juno goddamn Steel again. Hell, Juno would be lying if he said he’d never thought about kicking his own sorry ass out of everyone’s life, including his own—has lied about it, too, which is a hell of a lot easier than dealing with the reactions he gets when he doesn’t. He’s not as low these days as he has been, at least. That’s something. It is.
But lonesome isn’t a good look on him. Never was, even before it became his default state.
“Hey! Hey, pal!”
Juno looks up, startled by a voice practically screaming in his ear. He’s found himself on the stretch of synthetic grass out front of the student union. Fellow students are scattered around, in various states of undress, melting in the sun but clearly preferring it to their AC-less dorm rooms.
“What?” Juno asks a person in an obnoxiously yellow beanie. They have a stack of flyers in their hand, thrusting one at Juno like he’s got no choice but to take it.
“You heard about the dean hoarding important historical artifacts for his own private collection?”
“Nope,” Juno responds, stuffing the flyer in his pocket and walking away.
“Hey! Knowledge belongs to the people! Don’t be complicit,” they call after him, but Juno is already halfway to the crosswalk.
“Lesson one of thieving,” is probably what Mag would say.
“‘Never fall for someone else’s con.’ That includes a pretty face,” Peter mutters to himself, taping a stiletto dagger to the underside of his new bed. “Or, no, what about, ‘safe houses are only safe if nobody knows someone lives inside’?” He shakes his head. “That one’s stupid. You always had a pithier way of putting it, didn’t you, old man?”
He bites at his lip, hard. Over two years on, and still there’s a raw ache deep inside him when he thinks about the man who taught him everything; he cannot help but remember their little rituals, lessons in thieving and surviving and living as he makes this (half of the) dorm room a fortress.
It’s either this, or think quite too long and hard about his new roommate. Peter is unsure which is the distraction.
His eyes land on the rumpled sheets of the bed Juno Steel claimed for his own days before Peter’s arrival. There’s little compelling about it, nothing provocative or enticing about the pant leg hanging out of a half-open drawer. And Juno was right, it is sweltering in here, but that still fails to stop a traitorous little corner of Peter’s brain from spinning yarns about what could have brought him to a state of flushed, sweating shirtlessness.
This Juno Steel has his nipples pierced. It’s unfair. Untenable.
Peter chooses a drawer to make the home of whatever knick-knacks he steals out of habit and empties his pockets into it: handful of mints, a space shuttle safety pamphlet, a computer mouse. Nothing anyone will go looking for; nothing that will be missed.
He sits heavily down on his bed and it creaks under him, quietly, like something old that belongs to someone else.
He’ll go out tonight, that’s what he’ll do. If Peter—Rex Glass—is in this for the long con, he will need to make friends. He has a map of the campus and blueprints of most of the buildings memorized, but a stroll around them to make sure nothing much has changed could always be of help.
And perhaps, tomorrow, he will tackle the problem of Juno Steel.
Juno watched Peter make an absolute fool of himself—those piercings, the ones on his face least of all, glinting silver and coming at him like the headlights of a hover-hauler—and left. That is not the impression Rex Glass is meant to leave on people, as a boy with a slack jaw blushing like he’s never seen a lady with his shirt off before. But Juno Steel has a ring through his full lower lip and fading dyed-blue curls and arms Peter can feel wrapping around his waist like the memory of a very good dream.
Eyes like an Earthen morning sky, too, tracking over Peter as if taking note of every detail. Keen, like a scientist. Or a detective.
Other people aren’t supposed to catalog him like that. People don’t notice him at all, beyond what he wants them to notice. That, Peter remembers with a sigh, was one of the many Lessons One of Thieving.
Well. There are certainly several ways to deal with an inconvenience of this nature. Killing him is out of the question—and the very thought makes Peter feel almost sick, isn’t that worrying—but Peter could always negotiate a room change. It might take some convincing, throwing a fit or two in the student affairs office, but it’s doable.
What he absolutely refuses to do, of course, is lean into this infatuation. Juno’s chilly exit practically lowered the temperature to something bearable, which is a clearly-set boundary Peter will not cross. He does not have the time for that kind of distraction anyway.
He will wait, though, to find a new room. That can wait.
There’s hardly a rush, and doing so after only just meeting Juno will look suspicious. He needs this semester to start off well; immediately alienating one of the only people on this planet to have seen his face—someone with certainly more connections around here than Peter has—is probably a bad idea.
With that settled, he pats down his pockets to make sure he hasn’t forgotten anything and heads for the door. There are hearts to steal out there, and something much more worthwhile, too. Juno Steel is hardly a blip on his radar.
If you would like to completely skip the mention of suicidal ideation in chapter 1, do not read the paragraph following the sentence "Not quite as much as the rabbit wearing a colander on its head he demanded she ink into his ankle, but it’s a close second." Pick back up again with "But lonesome isn't a good look on him."
A reported heist; an average brunch; an average night.
This chapter contains discussions of drug use and mild violence. See end notes for more detailed warnings.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
September 1, XXX34
It’s nearly two in the morning. Peter is coasting on the victory of getting numbers from three different people and finding out the elevator in Engleman Hall was moved four years ago so the old shaft is disused when he throws open the door to find the dorm exactly as he left it.
It’s not a shock that Juno isn’t there; he’s hardly had the time to study his new roommate’s habits. This might well be when Juno works, or has a standing engagement with a friend, or… commits petty arson.
And Peter definitely wasn’t hoping to find him here, silently rehearsing an entertaining account of his night on the way up the stairs for the purpose of making a phenomenal second impression.
It’s not like it matters, Peter tells himself as he gets ready for bed. He will be changing rooms soon enough. Maybe. And he has new friends to pursue, people who can get him where he needs to go much more effectively than this Juno Steel character.
Juno’s academic record is not what Peter would call spotless, for one: recently-declared criminal justice major, GPA just barely above what he needs to keep his scholarships, handful of run-ins on the wrong side of administration and, once, campus police. The thorough research he did on his roommate-to-be a week ago painted a picture of someone Peter assumed he could share a room with, given that “sharing a room” meant “spending time alone in the room while the other guy was out getting in trouble.”
Trouble, mind, that would keep him busy without getting him expelled—and, more importantly, not reflect poorly on Peter.
Given that, it’s even a good thing that he’s not here. It should be a pleasant validation of Peter Nureyev’s impeccable planning skills. He convinces himself, as he stretches a fitted sheet over his mattress, that this is great news, everything going perfectly so far. He’s even able to get himself to bed at a reasonable hour, not having to navigate around Juno’s nightly schedule or make the introductory small talk they missed out on earlier. Maybe they’ll never get around to that at all, wouldn’t that be something.
In that case, Peter hums to himself, he doesn’t need to find a new roommate. This will do just fine.
He takes off his glasses and sets them down on one of the two provided synthwood desks. He’s just reaching out to turn off the light when Juno Steel bursts in with a scowl and a bloody nose.
Juno stands there for several seconds, staring at Peter. He’s too far to make out his face beyond the impression of wide eyes and slightly parted lips, but Peter can hear Juno breathing.
“Long night?” Peter breaks the silence at last.
“You could say that.” Juno shuts the door behind him and grabs a fistful of tissues from the box on his desk
“Care to share?”
He shrugs. His back is to Peter as he dabs the blood off his face.
“Don’t let me keep you up.” Juno glances over his shoulder. He’s just too blurry for Peter to tell what he’s looking at, but the likely contender is the soft nightshirt that barely reaches his knees.
“I’ve got nowhere to be in the morning.” He moves closer, thinks about putting his hand on Juno, and sits down on the rumpled mess of his bed instead. “Is this going to happen a lot?”
“Why? Worried I’m gonna disturb your beauty sleep?” He pulls off his shirt; even though Peter’s glasses are across the room, he looks away. Juno is bleeding, for god’s sake. This is hardly the time to stare.
“More worried about you, frankly,” he says. “Do you know what taking regular blows to the head can do to your brain? Even small ones—”
Juno snorts derisively. “Got a feeling that ship has sailed. And why do you care?” Peter sees him angrily pull on a tank top and decides it’s safe to look.
Two wadded up tissues hang out of Juno’s nostrils. Paired with his scowl, it might be a comical sight under other circumstances. As it is, he can see a small stain of red slowly creeping through the left one and the early warnings of a shiner building under Juno’s right eye.
“I can’t be concerned about my roommate’s safety?” Peter runs his fingers along the corner of one of Juno’s thin blankets. “If we’re going to be living together, I’d rather we do it on good terms. Cordial, at least. That means extending some sympathy when one or the other of us is bleeding, I think.”
Peter doesn’t know where this desire—this worry over Juno is coming from. Ten minutes ago, he would have happily pretended to be asleep while Juno puttered around fixing his face. But seeing him now, close enough to be almost in-focus and hunched in on himself like a puppy that doesn’t trust strangers, Peter wants nothing more than to find whoever did this and make them very, very afraid to ever do it again.
Juno sighs again, softer this time.
“Guy I know, my—” he hesitates, and Peter feels an inconvenient drop in his gut, “—friend of mine, uh, hangs out with some… not the best people. Guess that’s why he puts up with me.” Juno has a self-deprecating streak, obviously, but Peter isn’t sure how much of this is put-on. That worry creeps back in.
“You got in a fight with him?”
“What? No, God no, Julian would collapse like a house of cards in a sandstorm if you so much as thought about hitting him. So— Okay.” Juno drops down onto the mattress beside Peter. The whole frame beneath them creaks. “It’s a messed up story.”
“Messed up… how?” Peter leans back on his hands.
“Messed up like messy, I don’t know.” Juno waves his hands in an incomprehensible gesture. “Complicated. I had a long night.”
“The highlights, then.”
Juno barks a sardonic laugh.
“Highlights, sure. Alright, let’s see.” He falls backwards into the pile of blankets. The mattress is just barely wide enough that he doesn’t hit his head on the wall. “I got high at Julian’s place because he owed me a favor last year and keeps forgetting he’s paid me back. Then I ate the last of his boyfriend’s kokosh cake, which was delicious, but Julian freaked out and said I had to make a new one. Which, fine, I’ve made babka before, so it can’t be too hard.”
“This started with cake?” Peter is lost already.
Juno lifts his head just high enough to glare up at him. “I told you, it was complicated.”
Peter raises his hands in surrender.
“Yeah. So, that would have been fine, but then we had to go to the grocery store because Julian is on some weird skincare diet, I think? He told me about it but I wasn’t listening. Either way, it means they have no goddamn normal food in their apartment. But get this, by the time we got there the store was closed.”
“No!” Peter gasps dramatically. Juno smacks him in the side.
“Smartass. It was only like, eight o'clock. Okay— this part is a little hazy, but I’m pretty sure it was Julian’s idea to buy some flour and eggs off the cook at a late-night diner.”
Peter’s laugh is genuine and surprised, bubbling out of him at the thought of two intoxicated twenty-somethings waving a stack of creds at a short-order cook.
He can’t be certain, with his glasses off, but Peter believes Juno might actually be smiling.
“Well?” Peter prompts. “Did it work?”
“Yeah.” And oh, there’s certainly a smile in that voice. “Eventually.”
Juno points a finger in Peter’s face. “You said you only wanted the highlights, and I haven’t even gotten punched yet.”
“So we get the stuff, and high-tail it back to Julian’s place, but then it turns out that Tony’s going to be home in twenty minutes.”
“And how long does kokosh take?”
“Ooh, that’s trouble.” Peter takes the initiative and lies back on the bed next to Juno. He has to shift his hips to the side so he’s a bit more diagonal, given his height, but he can see Juno’s face better at this distance anyway.
“Then we had to find someone else with an actual kitchen. Not the easiest thing at a school where half the students live in dorms their whole run through. But— Here’s the thing about Vicky. If Julian owed me one and won’t stop paying it back, Vicky is the opposite. You get me?”
“You owed her at one point?” Peter guesses.
“And she’ll never let it go,” Juno nods. “I’d basically be selling my goddamn soul asking her for a favor, right. Which is why I didn’t.” He sounds enormously pleased with himself. “I had Julian do it. He’s an actor, and turning on the waterworks is his specialty.”
Juno’s voice has dropped into a confident cadence, now. It’s not hard for Peter to see how he might be an incredible storyteller when the hour isn’t inhuman and his face isn’t leaking blood.
Juno goes on to describe Vicky’s roommate, Todd, in terms that are at once uncharitable and borderline pornographic. It makes Peter’s jaw go tight, but he’s soon laughing again at the tangent Juno ends up barrelling down about how Julian didn’t know he needed to preheat the oven, and Vicky getting flour in her six-inch-high hairdo.
“So then, we’re finally done. Julian goes home to sneak the cake back into their fridge, but he only takes a couple slices. I forgot he was only replacing what I ate, not the whole damn thing. So here we have a dessert that feeds ten people—”
“Why didn’t you just make less?” Peter cries. His eyes are watering with laughter.
“I don’t know, okay, that was what the recipe said.” Juno tries to sound defensive, but he cannot quite manage it. “So Julian’s gone back home to distract Tony and slip the replacement kokosh in like… like it’s a vault or something—”
“A heist!” Peter says, delighted.
“And Vicky says—I’ll never forget the way she said this—she goes, ‘well, I don’t know about you clowns, but I’m eating the fucking cake.’ And she just dug right in. With her hands.”
“She’s a classy fella, yeah,” Juno shrugs. “And she had the right idea. No point in letting a perfectly good dessert go to waste. So we stuffed ourselves with as much of it as we could and I tried to take home some of the rest. Which didn’t go over well with Todd.”
“Is this how you got punched?” Peter yelps. “You came to blows over cake.”
“Not exactly,” Juno says. “Todd got pissed at me because it was his and Vicky’s kitchen, so he thought they should keep the whole goddamn thing, but I was the one with the recipe and I did most of the actual work—”
He’s actually getting heated about cake rights. Peter tries his very best not to find it cute.
“Aaanyway, we were yelling and Vicky was yelling, everybody was yelling, and I made a joke that Todd didn’t like too much. And that’s when he punched me.”
Peter blinks. “What on earth did you say?”
“I don’t remember. But,” he points a finger in Peter’s face, “it was fucking funny.”
“I believe you, Juno,” Peter laughs. “And that’s when you came back here?”
“Yeah. It’s a hell of a walk, but I wasn’t about to ask Todd for a ride.”
“You could have asked me to pick you up.” The words, the casual offer as if they’re friends, is easier to say with his glasses off and the world out of focus. “I was out anyway. You didn’t have to make the trip alone.”
Juno is silent for a moment.
“I would have just called Rita,” he says at last, “if it wasn’t so late.”
“Right, of course.” Peter rolls onto his back and folds his hands over his stomach. “Who is Rita?”
“My old roommate.” Juno sits up, rummages through his dresser and pulls out a pair of pajama pants. Peter takes that as his cue to move back to his own bed, his own side of the room, his own life.
“Well,” Peter says as he putters about, uselessly straightening his blanket so he doesn’t have to turn around while Juno shucks his pants, “consider me a new resource, if you need one.”
“Yeah,” Juno yawns. “I’ll keep that in mind.”
When Peter climbs into bed and looks back, Juno is pulling the tissues out of his nose. He holds his fingers there for a moment and looks down to make sure the bleeding has stopped. There is still a vague red stain around his mouth, one Peter knows will be uncomfortable and flaky by morning if it isn’t already.
He wants to suggest Juno take a trip to the bathroom to clean that up, but there’s a chance the mother-henning might seem out of place.
“What about you, Rex?” Juno asks as he crawls into his messy nest of blankets that look like they were never tucked in to begin with. “Do anything interesting tonight?”
The party—parties—Peter crashed, the charming wit and the shameless flirting of the evening all feel suddenly superficial. Do any of the useful, well-regarded people he met seem like the type to run all over Olympus Mons for a cake heist? One that ends in bloodshed? No, and the answer is a surprising disappointment.
“Nothing much,” he says. “Would you mind getting the light?”
An exhausted groan echoes from the blanket cave Juno has made for himself. A “Never mind, I can do it” dangles from the tip of Peter’s tongue. Before he can say it, Juno’s arm pops out, snatches a balled-up sock from the floor, and throws it toward the far wall.
The light clicks off.
Peter lies in the dark, mentally calculating the accuracy of that throw. Huh, he thinks.
September 2, XXX34
“And you’re sure this Rex guy isn’t an alien-robot-wizard tryin’ to activate the ancient volcano under Olympus Mons?”
“Yes, Rita,” Juno stuffs his mouth with noodles and rolls his eyes. “He’s a little weird,” he mumbles, chewing, “but—”
“No!” Rita shouts through her own mouthful of fried-something mush. “I’ve seen this stream a million times, Boss! You said he talks funny and he’s mysteriously, eerily beautiful and nobody you know has ever heard’a him before—”
“He’s probably just a transfer. And lots of people have accents, Rita. You ever heard someone from Valles Marineris? Can’t understand a goddamn thing they’re saying.” Juno swallows and dives back toward his bowl again. “Wait, hey, I never said he was beauti—”
“You didn’t have to.”
Rita’s cheeks bulge out with another spoonful of whatever concoction she convinced the poor, beleaguered cafeteria workers to put together for her today. Juno can only hope campus food services finally implement a ‘no pleading with the student employees to leave their own station and run to someone else’s just to put chicken strips on top of buuz and also grab some chocolate frosting, while they’re at it’ policy before the semester really starts. They’ve been threatening Rita with that for the last two years.
“What do you mean, didn’t have to?” He reaches for the salt and dumps a small heap of it in his bowl.
“The evil alien is always mysteriously beautiful,” she says. Juno takes a breath to insist, one more time, that his new roommate is not an alien or vampire or whatever here to steal Juno’s soul or blow up Mars, when Rita adds, “Just watch out for when he tries to seduce you.”
Juno chokes on his noodles.
“Oh gosh, help! We need some help over here! My friend is dyin’!” Rita yells while Juno hacks up half a container of soy sauce.
“Can you not talk with your mouth full?” snipes a girl at the table to their right. “Nobody knows what the hell you’re saying.”
September 3, XXX34
Peter’s eyes are open and a knife is in his hand before he fully registers where he is.
He blinks in the dark of the dorm room. His muscles are locked with adrenaline and his body is angled half off the bed, ready to slash open a throat or disappear in a split second. He takes a deep breath through his nose, steady, trying to figure out what woke him up.
Somewhere, a clock ticks. A pipe burbles. Peter is in the process of warily letting himself relax when he hears a sound that is distantly familiar in the manner of a dream.
All too real now he’s awake, Peter nearly drops his knife when Juno lets out a pained scream.
Peter makes it to the light switch in the time it takes for Juno to start whimpering, a rhythmic “No… no, no” underlying his groans. He throws light into the room and readies himself for anything: an attacker, the sight of blood, sudden evidence of horrific radiation poisoning—
All he sees, as Juno’s terrified sounds fade away, is his roommate in a sweaty tangle of blankets, blinking groggily up at him. Peter hides the knife behind his back as quickly as he can.
“Wha—?” Juno clears his throat. He sounds hoarse. “What happened? ‘S going on?”
“You were shouting.”
“I was—?” Juno sighs heavily and collapses back against his pillow. “Just a bad dream.”
“And do you get those often?” Peter stalks closer on quiet feet as if approaching a frightened animal. Juno’s hand twitches faintly against his comforter. His eye slides toward Peter, not bothering to turn his head.
“Sometimes,” he says. “Did I wake you up?”
“Yes.” Peter sees no reason to lie. “But I’ll fall asleep again quickly enough.” He opens and closes his mouth, searching for something to say. “Juno—”
“Don’t.” Juno rolls over with his back to Peter. “Go to sleep, Rex.”
“Right.” Peter shuts off the light and lies down, trying to think of a piece of sage advice from his own run-ins with nightmares. He finds he has little to give beyond a childhood faced with the ultimatum of sleeping silently or dying.
He doesn’t hear any of the soft sounds of Juno’s deep breaths and constant restless movement when he sleeps. Peter doesn’t hear a thing from the other side of the room at all. For all the difference it makes, he might as well be alone in the dorm. Alone in the galaxy.
“Sweet dreams,” Peter whispers, and hopes that someone can hear him.
Juno discusses recreational drug use and a minor violent encounter that left him with a bloody nose. Both of these are in the first section of the chapter.
A new year; a new year.
This chapter contains content that may be troubling for some readers regarding disordered eating. Further details in the end notes.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
September 4, XXX34
The semester is due to start in two days, which is at once the same standard shit Juno’s gone through four times already and the fire-and-brimstone end of the goddamn world.
Rex is standing in the middle of their room with two notebooks, his class schedule, a backpack with so many pockets and compartments Juno wonders if it’s Solar military-issue, and something close to terror on his face. He’s pretty good at hiding it, but Juno worked as a Freshman and Transfer Liaison last year—the pay was decent and they prioritized scholarship students and kids from Mars, even if the fistfight he got into with one of the incoming students means he won’t be working for the school again—so he knows that look like the back of his hand.
“Do you want to go school-supplies shopping?” Juno asks before Rex can figure out how to ask and keep his dignity.
“Well, if you’re already going,” he says, deflating with relief, “I could stand to come along.”
Predictably, the bookstore is like a warzone. The line at the checkout counter stretches deep into the stacks, and harried-looking employees with cheerfully-bright “Olympus University: Research, Excellence, Exploration” t-shirts try to guide students toward the sections they need.
“What’s first on your list there, Rex?” Juno turns himself sideways to squeeze behind a girl on the verge of a breakdown over which color pens to buy.
“History 471-J,” Rex reads, “Cons, Crimes, and Capers within the Kuiper Belt.” He easily follows Juno through the crowd, his long, lean body gracefully spidering around people Juno has to shove past.
“Oh,” Juno pauses, looking down the rows of textbook codes organized by subject until he spies ‘HIS’. “I took that last spring. Who’s the prof?”
“Xiong.” Rex follows Juno’s gaze and reaches for the appropriately-labeled slim packet. Juno stops him, hand around Rex’s elbow.
Rex freezes. His arm is slender, bony, twitching under the skin with whipcord-muscle. Juno clears his throat.
“Never buy the book before you go to class at least once,” Juno says. His voice comes out rougher than he means, and he silently curses Rex’s huge awful bright eyes.
“Right, yes. Of course.” Rex nods. He drops the textbook code. His eyes flick down to Juno’s hand, still wrapped around his arm.
“Uh,” Juno coughs and lets go like he’s been burned, “let’s check what else you’ll need. Rita’s great at finding copies of books for free on the net. That’s how I get most of mine.”
“And you’d go to all the trouble of sharing your illegal book fence with me?” Rex lays a hand over his chest. “Juno, I’m flattered.”
“Yeah, yeah— Wait. What do you mean ‘illegal’?”
September 6, XXX34
The morning dawns bright and blue-and-yellow. Peter greets the day the same way he greets all important days: early, with a series of stretches to get his blood flowing, going over a strict itinerary. He fills his army-surplus backpack with everything he could possibly need, then fills his pockets with even more.
Prepared, that’s what he is. Ever prepared.
Juno starts stirring just as Peter is about to leave. He thinks about bidding Juno a kind goodbye and wishing him luck—they’re something approaching what Peter might call friends by now, or at the very least friendly—but he checks his watch and finds it’s later than he thought.
With a quick breath and thumbs hooked around the straps of his backpack, Peter Nureyev goes to school for the first time in his life.
He knows exactly where he’s going and how to get there; he has that advantage over many of the other new students swarming these sidewalks, at least. There is a shortcut to his first class—History of Historiography—around the back of Leopold-Weiß. He can cut two minutes off his walk and avoid heavy foot traffic if he just climbs on the lid of one dumpster and in a window. The skills of a master thief never go to waste.
He has two classes before a break around lunch time, at which point he makes a stop at the student union. It’s a big, round building, built at the height of the war so it’s hard to get a comms signal on any floor but the first due to all that shielding. Peter’s eyes flick around corners, cataloguing emergency exits and windows that have not yet become emergency exits.
The young man working at the sandwich shop has dimples and a kind, heavy brow. Peter winks at him when he says “thank you,” basks in the lightly stammered “you’re welcome, come again” he gets in return—because he can, because it’s easy and means nothing but always has the potential to mean everything later.
In this case, in this place, it will be useful to be remembered as fondly as possible. That will make everything so much easier down the line, once he’s gotten what he came for.
After polishing off a mediocre sandwich—the boy behind the counter was much more appealing than the product he’s selling—he starts the hike to his last class of the day. It’s an odd little elective, a point of vague interest and a box checked off on his transcripts; hopefully, too, an easy pass.
He walks into a lecture hall that’s far too big for the dozen or so students scattered around it and spots a familiar head of blue-and-black hair in obviously unintentional disarray. Peter smiles and thinks, This class will be fun after all.
“Now, what’s a nice boy like you doing in a place like this?” Peter drops his backpack heavily onto the ground in front of the desk next to Juno’s.
“Sorry, neither,” Juno replies, then blinks and actually looks at him. “Oh, hey Rex. You’re, uh, you’re taking xenoanthropology too?”
“It filled the Martian Studies requirement. Transferring from out of system means I had nothing remotely like an equivalent course, so here I am, trapped in a freshman seminar.” He mimes a dramatic swoon.
Juno rolls his eyes.
“That’s why I’m here, too. Didn’t pay as much attention in school as I should have, but even I couldn’t escape the yearly lessons about how Mars was colonized. I swear, I still hear ‘Leeland Koyode led the settlement of Hyperion City in the year 5901’ in my dreams sometimes.” Juno runs a hand through his hair. Peter spends a moment marvelling at the way it curls around his fingers, bounces back into some indescribable shape as soon as he pulls away. “I put it off for years because I didn’t feel like sitting through a whole semester of the same boring old garbage. This looked like something, I don’t know, different.”
Peter hums in agreement.
“It’s certainly that,” he says. “I did a bit of research into our professor—”
“Alright, everybody, uh, settle down.” From the front of the room comes the hesitant voice of a woman with long, bright pink hair. She’s carrying a stack of books and papers under one arm and a comically large coffee in her other hand. “I’m your TA. I’ll be, um, handling most of the lectures for the time being. Since it’s the first day, I have to take attendance, so. Just say ‘here’ when I call your name and raise your hand? So I can see you.”
“What kind of research?” Juno whispers.
“She’s the foremost authority on ancient Martian culture in the galaxy,” Peter whispers back. “A prestigious title, considering she’s one of seven people to ever publish on the subject.”
“Here!” He throws his arm straight up in the air and waves it a bit until their TA sees him and makes a mark on a sheet of paper.
“So?” Juno mutters in his ear.
“So what?” Peter glances at the young woman in the front of the room, hoping she doesn’t notice Juno talking. He’s being infuriatingly obvious about it.
“So, why does that matter?” Juno gives his own “Here” when his name is called, quieter than Peter’s and barely lifting his elbow from the desk.
“Oh, I just thought it was interesting.” Peter shrugs. Their TA is writing something across the board, so he opens up the notepad on his tablet. “And maybe she’ll be kind to her students, since we’re expressing more interest in the subject than most. That has to count for something.”
“Sure hope so,” Juno says. He doesn’t even have a notebook out. “This class isn’t gonna be my top priority this semester, no matter what some Martian archaeologist says.”
“Nor mine,” Peter agrees. “And she’s an anthropologist. For the record.”
“I’m about to hand out copies of your syllabus,” announces the TA. “I know this is an intro course, but Professor Miasma has, uh, pretty high expectations for her students, so I hope you all passed your comp classes.”
The syllabus is fifteen pages long; when Peter glances at the bibliography, all but three of the references are by the same, familiar author.
“At least we each have a study partner at our beck and call, eh, Juno?”
“Y-yeah.” When Peter glances over at Juno, he’s rubbing the back of his neck like he’s been sunburned. “That’ll lighten the load.”
September 15-19, XXX34
He didn’t ask, the first time it happened.
Juno was having a bad day, a capital-B capital-D Bad Day, the first one since he’d moved in. Rex’s earliest class this semester starts an hour and a half before Juno’s, so he’d been gone for about three hours by the time Juno actually got up.
The rusty Martian light slicing through the blinds made him squint, and remember, and wish he didn’t have to ever look at it again.
He went back to sleep, mostly out of spite—spite for what, Juno couldn’t tell if he wanted, but he did know that spite was the only emotion he’d be able to muster up that wouldn’t immobilize him for the next couple days at least—and when he woke up, there was a sandwich sitting on his desk. Nothing fancy, plain cloned turkey and cheese, wrapped in paper from the student union.
He didn’t say anything about it to Rex, and Rex didn’t bring it up, but there was a sandwich on his desk every day for the next three days, until Juno started going to class again.
Juno figured that would be it, a little favor while Rex thought he was under the weather. Cordial, like he said.
But it doesn’t stop.
“I have a very generous stipend for food through my scholarship grants,” Rex explains the first time Juno catches him in the act of trying to feed him. “Look at me, Juno. Do I look like a man who needs that many calories?”
“Actually, yeah,” Juno replies. He tries not to let his eyes rake over Rex’s slim form, which is hard when the guy is literally begging him to do it. “I was assuming you had some kind of, I dunno, metabolic disorder.”
“I promise you, Juno, I have credit on campus to spare. Now please,” his eyes are always huge and so bright they hurt to look at, but when he turns them puppy-dog they’re goddamn set to kill, “take the damn sandwich.”
Juno looks at Rex, looks at the paper-wrapped package he’s holding out, then looks back at Rex.
“I prefer beef,” he says. Rex grins like a conqueror.
September 22, XXX34
Homework, he’s beginning to think, is one of the cruelest concoctions in all of human history—and Peter grew up under an authoritarian regime.
That’s dramatic. He knows it’s dramatic. What can he say—he’s fond of hyperbole; he’s new at this formal education game; and he’s been reading the same two sentences over and over for the past twenty minutes, absorbing nothing but the word “orthogonal.”
Peter loves learning. He loves following a trail of information deep into its sources and implications, memorizing ephemera with no importance beyond the vague hope that it will come in handy someday, either by chance or careful planning. He has read entire books on topics of interest while hiding in the private libraries of people he’s in the middle of robbing.
There is something very different, Peter is coming to understand, between pursuing information because he’s genuinely curious, following the trail backwards to foundational concepts and forwards to more complicated ones simply for the sake of enriching his own understanding— and having it handed to him, page numbers plotted out for an endless series of upcoming deadlines.
He looks over at Juno, who is wearing enormous headphones, practically hidden under a pile of books, blatantly playing solitaire on his comms.
Something akin to anger rises up in Peter. There Juno is, working part-time and going to school and scraping by more than marginally. He has friends and funny anecdotes and enough time to get intoxicated and make those stories. Peter has stories, too—ones he can never tell a word of, not here, at least. He has stories that would chill the blood of someone twice his age, let alone Juno, less than two years older. Yet, which of them feels his spine bending under the weight of these, these… suffocating expectations?
Juno’s game ends with a sad series of beeps. He sighs, adjusts his headphones, and starts annotating his reading again.
As soon as it came, the feeling passes. Peter knows something—very little, but more than nothing—about the darkness that tends to fold itself around Juno. There is a struggle happening a few feet away from Peter he will never be privy to, never know the extent of. A private war of sorts. Peter is plenty well-acquainted with what wars happen offscreen, in the shadows, in the dark.
He turns back to the dense page of small, black letters swimming tauntingly in front of him.
There may well be a clever solution to this problem of schoolwork. It’s not as if he’s here for a degree, after all; the kind of academic commendation that will get him what he needs is hard-won, but hardly mathematical.
To follow a clear set of simple tasks is not what the thief in him would do, even if the would-be student takes a strange pleasure in finishing something tedious for the sake of the end goal.
Or, maybe, those aren’t mutually exclusive impulses. Isn’t that what a long con is, after all?
He watches Juno furrow his brow and scribble out a note. He’s laser-focused and smart as a whip when he has the motivation, Peter can see that. Juno Steel strikes him as the kind of person who could, given the right circumstances, keep up with Peter Nureyev.
Under circumstances like these, Peter is the one keeping up. He cracks his knuckles and gets back to work.
September 26, XXX34
One more paragraph. Juno just needs one more goddamn paragraph to meet the word count of this essay. It’s always like this, first big assignment of the semester and he tries to get a head start on things, he tells himself. This time, he won’t leave everything ‘til the last minute. This time, this week or this month or this year, he’ll really get his shit together for once.
Now he’s skipping the class he’s writing this essay for just to finish one lousy paragraph. Shit doesn’t always fall apart quite this early, but maybe that’s a sign from the universe. Don’t even try, kid.
Juno may be an idiot, and a disaster, and— well, a hell of a lot of other things, but he’s stubborn. Got a hard head, everyone’s always said so. Ma didn’t raise a quitter. Granted, there’s a solid argument that she didn’t raise anybody, not really, but that’s not a rabbit tunnel Juno wants to go down today. Today of all days.
That thought comes in sideways, glancing off Juno’s psyche like dirt kicked up from a speeding hoverbike. What makes today—? Why is this night…
That’s definitely not it. Something there feels close, but whenever Juno is on the verge of a realization coming off thinking about her, he has one handy strategy he turns to: think, hard, right now, about literally anything else.
And hey, whaddya know, there’s an essay right in front of him.
The click of a key in the lock startles Juno out of it, halfway through a sentence that takes up most of the paragraph and has an alarming number of competing clauses. He feels like the letters are in the middle of choking him out—not in the fun way—when the sight of Rex’s face loosens every muscle in Juno’s aching shoulders.
“You’re back early,” Juno says. He rolls his neck, surprised by how difficult it was just to turn and look at his roommate.
“I’m back late, actually,” Rex replies with a curious look. “I missed the bus.” Juno looks at him, looks at the clock, and looks back at Rex.
“It’s… almost five o’clock.”
“It is that,” Rex nods. “Are you alright, Juno?”
“Yeah, yeah.” Juno leans back in his chair, wondering why he feels like he has somewhere to be. Wondering what makes today different, why he’s thinking of Ma and the moon, not one of Mars’ but the other one, the Earth one. Why he’s thinking of—
“Have you eaten today?” Rex asks. There’s a concerned note in his voice, but Juno blows right past that on his way to remembering. He does the math in his head, just in case—
“No!” Juno says, almost smug. “I haven’t. I’m… I’m fasting.” He snaps his fingers and points at Rex’s face. “That’s what I’m doing.”
Rex raises his hands in amused surrender.
“Alright, far be it from me to stop you,” he says with a smile. “But, well…”
“What?” Juno asks. He’s starting to drift out of the conversation again, wondering how the hell he forgot. Or, really, how it took him all of that to remember.
It’s not like this is the first time it’s happened, not by a long shot. Juno doesn’t think about it much. What day it is. What’s coming next. It’s been— it’s been a decade and a half, more, since he had much reason to. Since his hands were sticky with apple and honey, since Ma bothered to sit her sons down and teach them ancient words.
Not much time, in Oldtown, for that. Not much of a mother.
Apart from the erratic years Mick’s dad wasn’t pretending to be completely unobservant—he’s, to quote Mick, really “got the religion,” now, so that’s even funnier in retrospect—and Mick remembered to invite him, Juno hasn’t bothered. Especially once Mr. Mercury gave in to his son’s insistence on using the bilunar Martian calendar instead of the old Terran one.
Not much place for Juno, anyway, in a day of atonement. In the casting off of sin.
“—Juno?” Rex’s voice brings him back to Olympus Mons.
“Sorry, yeah, what’d you say?” His voice feels strained. Maybe that’s the dehydration.
“I asked if you were fasting on purpose,” Rex repeats himself. He quirks his eyebrow and his mouth twitches up and he has Juno’s number.
“That’s— I—” Juno scowls. “High Holy Days come every year, Rex, don't know why you're surprised.”
“I'm not,” Rex says, calling Juno’s bluff. He doesn't say anything else. He just stares Juno down, quiet smirk playing at his lips.
Juno glances at his essay, back at the clock, then back to Rex.
“You know what? I gotta go.” He grabs his keys and double checks the bus schedule on his comms.
Juno hasn’t been to temple in— Okay, it’s been a while. But if there’s one skill Juno Steel has, it’s skidding in at the last second and acting like he’s been exactly where he’s supposed to be the whole time. Nobody buys it, generally, but he does it with style. That has to count for something.
“Juno?” He’s halfway out the door when Rex says his name.
“Yeah?” he turns back. The knowing little smile on Rex’s face is gone. It’s been replaced by something hesitant, maybe. Almost… nervous? Juno would say nervous, if Rex Glass knew what the word meant.
“If you’ve got no plans to break your fast,” he offers, “my morning tomorrow is open.”
“Uh,” Juno pauses, weighs his keys in his hand for a second, and tries to hide his laugh as a cough. “Fast is broken at sundown. But—” he cuts Rex off before he can reply. It’s pleasant, in a strange, affectionate way, to know something he doesn’t. “Sure. That sounds… nice.”
“Good, it’s a— it’s a plan,” Rex says. Juno leaves feeling a little lighter, in that spot deep inside himself where he carries things too heavy to be borne.
On two occasions in this chapter, Juno neglects to feed himself. He is not actively attempting to do so, but he is in the habit of forgetting to eat for longer than he should and this is central to the third and fifth sections of this chapter (September 15-19 and 26).
An idle competition; a new friendship.
This chapter contains a panic response to triggering stimuli. Details in the end notes.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
September 28, XXX34
Juno’s aim with the sock and the lightswitch weeks ago, Peter quickly realizes, was no fluke. He really is that good.
It’s nothing showy, the way he tosses paper into the wastebasket or keys onto his hook by the door. These are ordinary, mundane actions; the only thing is, Juno never, ever misses. Each throw is casual and perfect like he doesn’t realize he’s doing it. It’s simply an expectation, an extension of the same reflex that lets him blink and breathe.
That thought knocks Peter over the head every time it happens, which is more often than he’d like. The arc of Juno’s arm, his hands, his shoulders and back and— Well. Peter would be deluding himself if he acted like he doesn’t find every inch of Juno he’s been permitted to see absolutely stunning.
The idea dances around him, now and then, of telling Juno as much with lingering hands and significant glances. Seeing what he does, how he would react. He brushes the impulse away as quickly as he can.
Peter thinks back to the first day they met and Juno’s clear disinterest. He thinks back to the little moments they’ve had since, shared jokes and the give-and-take of small favors. The fact is, he cares about Juno. He cares about sharing his company and respecting his space. There is no guarantee he would want what Peter has to offer, which would throw their burgeoning—friendship? Is that what this feeling is?—into the garbage as surely as Juno’s scrap paper.
He shakes himself out of the looming melancholy that always accompanies this train of thought.
“May I have a cheese puff?” Peter asks from where he’s sitting on his bed. Juno holds out the tub of bright orange snacks sitting open on his desk without looking up.
“Sure,” Juno says distractedly. He’s working on a lateral-thinking problem set, Peter is fairly sure. Juno tends to either solve those in a second flat or agonize over them for hours; he looks like he’s reached the point of slamming his head against them now.
“Juno,” Peter insists. Juno turns around to look at him, finally. His pen clatters against the desktop.
Peter opens his mouth so wide it shows off his molars. Juno stares at him, boggled.
“Are you serious?” He sounds more confused than annoyed. A good sign. “You can’t be bothered to just get up and get them yourself?”
“Juno. Please.” Peter points at the tub, then at Juno, then at himself. “Throw the cheese puffs into my mouth.”
“What the fuck.”
“Or are you afraid you’ll miss?” This is a blatant trick, the least subtle manipulation Peter Nureyev has ever tried to pull. Mag would either be disappointed or proud.
“I don’t miss,” he growls.
Peter opens his mouth to say “Show me, then,” but what comes out is more like “Sho— oomph,” as two powdery cheese puffs land on his tongue, one after the other. He chews contemplatively.
“Do it again,” he smiles. Juno rolls his eyes and does it again.
Peter ducks his head, jumps across the room, stands on his bed and his desk chair and lies on the floor; Juno hits his target every time.
“It would be nice if we had a bigger room,” Peter comments. A cheese puff hits him in the eye. “Ow!”
“That’s what you get,” Juno says. “Keep your mouth open.”
His tone is bossy, he’s being bossy. Something about that warms the pit of Peter’s stomach.
“Whatever you say,” he sighs.
They quickly exhaust all possibilities within the room and move their little game to the hallway. Juno may have accuracy down, but what about range? Peter windmills his arms as he runs backward down the stretch of thin, dark green carpeting that covers the floors of the whole dorm building, straining his neck for the cheese puff he demanded Juno throw as far as possible.
He catches it between his teeth, a miraculous save, and throws his arms up in victory. Juno cheers.
“Wha—? What are you two doing?”
The voice belongs to their RA, whom Peter has seen maybe three times in total. Juno jumps a foot in the air when he sees them coming, glances over at Peter, and ducks back in their room. He never strayed more than ten feet or so from the door, unlike Peter, who is nearly backed up against the elevator and covered in damning orange dust.
“Nothing, nothing at all, not a thing.” Peter calls the elevator with his elbow, points past the RA’s shoulder with a gasp and the wide eyes of shock, and dives into the stairwell. With any luck, the elevator doors will be closing right when they turn around. A distraction that will give him plenty of time to disappear.
He slides down the stair railing, yanks open the door to the floor below, sprints down the hall, and clambers up the staircase on the other side.
Peter expected them to try to chase him into the elevator, or at the very least head down the stairs to cut him off. Instead, the door to the RA’s room is closing; Peter can see it through the window in the stairwell door. His heart pounds with exertion and winding-down adrenaline.
Peter’s feet are light as he creeps down the hall back to his and Juno’s dorm.
“What— Why do you look like you just finished a marathon?” Juno asks when Peter returns and leans heavily back against the door.
“I… I ran,” he says. “I suppose they weren’t going to do anything to me, were they?” That’s quite a realization to have.
“No,” Juno pauses, stares Peter down like he’s trying to read a road sign that’s just too far away. “You’re safe here, Rex.”
Peter blinks in surprise at Juno’s choice of words, but if he meant to ask about them he’s missed his window. Juno is already sitting down at his desk again, picking up a pen, getting back to the work Peter distracted him from with a friendly challenge and cheese puffs and a tiny adventure.
Peter gets started on some of his own homework; he has fifteen pages of reading on the first attempts at chronicling history through artificial intelligence due in the morning.
“We,” Juno clears his throat nearly twenty minutes later. His shoulders shift oddly. “We should do that again sometime, though. It was fun.”
“As long as you get some different snack food, Juno. I don’t know how many more cheese puffs I can stomach.”
October 4, XXX34
It’s 3:48. It’s almost four o’clock in the goddamn afternoon, and Juno is still half a block away from getting back to the dorms.
He told Rita 3:30, he said she could come over at half past three because she wanted to finally show him the ending of some show he half paid attention to last year when they were living together. He can’t remember the title, something about Oceans or Atlantis or whatever.
The title doesn’t matter, okay, what matters is that he told her she could be there almost twenty minutes ago because he didn’t think dropping by his professor’s office would turn into waiting for some other student to finish kissing up to her and then waiting for her to rifle through a two-foot stack of paper for his topic proposal. And yeah, he’s kept Rita waiting before. Juno Steel is not well known for his punctuality. But this is different.
There are two possibilities—three if Rita just decided not to come, but she’s been antsy for weeks trying to find a time where they can get together for something other than coffee or noodles between class—and he doesn’t like either one.
Option one: Rita is left waiting in the hallway for twenty minutes. Best case scenario.
Option two: Rex is in the room.
Rita isn’t an aggressive person, generally speaking. Her volume usually takes care of confrontation all on it own, and once you get used to that she’s so sweet it makes Juno’s teeth ache sometimes. But she can be a little jealous.
Rita is one of his best friends, and Juno is luckier than he ever thought he’d be to be able to say that in the plural. She keeps him on his feet and bosses him around when he needs it, backs off when he doesn’t, is what people who never gave a damn about Juno in the first place might call a “good influence.”
So believe Juno when he says, what Rita might say or do to Rex scares the living daylights out of him.
She wasn’t keen on Juno having a different roommate in the first place, even though this living arrangement was her fault. She seems to think Rex will steal him away from her—as if the way he feels about Rex in any way parallels the way he feels about Rita.
He tries not to think too hard about that part.
Juno pounds his way up the stairs, makes it to his floor, and feels a heavy weight drop into his stomach. The door to his room is open. And there’s Rex’s voice, faintly audible.
“Alright, alright, Rita—” Juno is cut off by the familiar sound of Rita’s high giggles.
“Oh, hey Boss!” She turns around and waves at Juno brightly.
“I was just telling Rita about our trip to the bookstore,” Rex says, “back before classes started?” He winks at Rita, he fucking winks, and Rita giggles again.
Juno doesn’t know what to do with this, honestly. He has no idea.
He’s not sure exactly what he expected: Rita backing Rex up against the wall, finger in his face, maybe—but Rex has half a foot and change on Juno. The idea of him cornered by a girl who barely comes up to his sternum is… well, it’s goddamn funny, actually. But that’s not the point. He expected them to be at odds, at least a little. He didn’t expect them to get on like a fucking house on fire.
But that’s exactly what’s happening.
“So, then in the third season, it turns out Amelie’s cousin’s boyfriend’s brother had the Paragon Key the whole time!”
“Really?” Rex leans in, actually listening to Rita’s plot synopsis. One of his eyebrows is raised, a perfect black arch over the rim of his glasses. Juno wants to kiss it.
“Yes! But get this, he died before he could use it to trap Lexi in the Modus Mundi, so she’s still running around the Elysium messing everything up, and Orlais doesn’t even know—”
Huh. That mid-season finale makes a whole lot more sense now, actually.
“Did I miss an episode?” Juno asks. “Because I thought— Wait, no, hold on. Why are you explaining this to Rex? There’s no way he actually wants to hear it.”
“On the contrary,” Rex says. “If I’m going to be ready for tonight’s marathon, I’ll need to know the basics.”
Juno’s mouth drops open.
“You’re—” He clears his throat. His voice came out all funny, isn’t that weird. “You’re watching with us?”
“I hope that’s alright?” His brow furrows. Juno still wants to kiss it. “I can go somewhere else, if you want me out of your—”
“No!” Rita shouts. “No way, I just found somebody else who actually cares if Anni and Orlais finally get together. Juno can’t remember which clone Anni is, even when he’s wearin’ the orange uniform stripes! You’re stayin’, Rex, and that’s final.”
“Alright, I know when I’m beaten,” Rex chuckles. “Juno?”
His eyes, when they look up at Juno from where he’s seated backwards on his desk chair, are huge and sparkling and full of one word, one idea: please?
“More the merrier,” Juno chokes out. “Maybe you’ll have more luck than Rita explaining to me why they can’t just blow the damn thing up.”
“I told you—”
They all end up sitting, sprawled, on the floor. There’s not much in the way of seating in easy view of the monitor, which finally made its way from the floor to the top of Rex’s dresser the previous week. Rita lies on her stomach, chin propped up on her fists and eyes glued to every little detail of the unfolding action. Rex is cross-legged, one elbow leaning on the seat of his chair. Juno still can’t figure out where to put himself, how to sit in a way that won’t send his foot to sleep or give him a crick in the neck. He privately thinks, sometimes, that the knowledge of how to sit comfortably is a big secret everyone in the world is keeping from him.
Juno shifts again. Maybe he’ll have better luck flat on his back. He tilts his head backwards far enough that the screen comes into view, flickering blue and rendered strange by virtue of being upside down.
“We should really get a couch or something,” Juno mutters. Rita violently shushes him.
He closes his eyes and relaxes his neck, letting his head fall forward until his chin brushes against the collar of his shirt. The climax of the episode plays behind him. Rita gasps, and Juno feels her intake of breath, the warmth of her body as her ribcage expands.
These late night marathons took some getting used to, back when Juno and Rita first became friends. Juno wasn’t ready for a dark room, a flickering television, the nearby body heat of somebody he trusts. Not yet. It was too soon, then—hell, it’s too soon now sometimes. He still catches himself whispering when he doesn’t need to, ears perked up for the clink of a bottle and approaching footsteps. It’s easier, though. Rita’s ongoing commentary helps. Keeps Juno from slipping back somewhere she can’t reach.
Tonight is like any other night in with Rita. Or it would be, if Rex weren’t there.
Juno opens his eyes a sliver. Rex isn’t watching the episode either. In the dim light of the room and with the reflection in his glasses, his eyes are hard to make out for sure. He could be looking anywhere, Juno could be making it up—some sick little part of him always wants things he can’t have—but he’s got one thing going for him, and it’s a hell of a gut instinct.
Juno can feel Rex watching him.
The weight of his gaze is like one of those extra-heavy blankets Juno always thinks about getting but never does. It’s not a welcome comfort. It’s actually a giant pain in the ass, his stupid, weak little heart going pitter-patter just because his roommate is looking at him. He wants to shout at him, wants to grab him by the shirt and mash their faces together until something breaks, wants and wants and wants.
Juno settles for opening his eyes wider and looking right back.
Is it his imagination, or do Rex’s eyes flick away behind two tiny, reflected spaceships? He can’t say. Rex doesn’t move at all. There aren’t any clues to follow here, just an unreliable eyewitness and a feeling.
He cranes his neck back eventually, trying to figure out what new betrayal or miracle he’s missed this time. The man on the screen has orange stripes on his uniform and a gun bigger than his head. The evening goes on.
Rex stretches his legs out eventually, and his calf brushes against Juno’s shin. Neither of them moves.
Mars’ moons are high and hanging so close they look ready to crash right into one another when Juno walks Rita back to her dorm.
“So that’s your new roommate,” Rita says. “He seems nice!”
“Yeah.” Juno kicks at a pebble of concrete in the middle of the sidewalk. “He’s uh, he’s not bad. You sure seemed to like him.” There’s a note of accusation in Juno’s voice that he wants to pretend doesn’t mean anything.
“Anyone who agrees with me that Amelie had the best arc out of anybody on the whole show is a friend on my drive!” Rita chirps.
“He doesn’t even watch the show, you just told him— Never mind.” Juno stuffs his hands in his pockets. “Hope you have fun hanging out with Rex.”
Rita looks at Juno. The bejeweled rims of her glasses sparkle as they pass under a streetlamp. Her mouth opens wide, her whole face shifting cartoonishly into something close to delighted surprise.
“You’re jealous!” she shrieks. “You’re afraid that I, me, Rita, your best friend in the whole world, is gonna get stolen away by your fancy roommate with the fancy hair!”
“His hair’s not that fancy—” Juno grumbles.
“Don’t change the subject! Juno Steel, you’re jealous that I’m makin’ friends with your roommate.” She gasps, suddenly, long and dramatic. “Or, no, wait, are you jealous of me because you want that pretty Rex Glass all to yourself? Oh, wow, Boss, I didn’t see that one comin’—”
“What? No, no way, I’m not jealous. You’re jealous.” Juno crosses his arms stubbornly. “You were the one who talked about me getting a new roommate like it meant we’d never see each other again.”
“Yeah, but that was before I met him.” Rita rolls her eyes. “He’s funny and a good listener and I wouldn’t mind hearin’ him talk during the movies, I swear I never heard an accent like that before. But Boss.”
Rita stops in the middle of the sidewalk. Juno nearly runs into her before she puts her hands on his shoulders.
“What?” He glances down at his shoes, scuffed and dark against the pavement. He should probably get a new pair, when he has the money.
“He ain’t you.” Juno looks up. Rita doesn’t tend to get serious. Things run right off her, usually, and her mind moves too fast to dwell on anything sad for too long. But right now she’s looking steadily at Juno. “I couldn’t replace one Juno Steel if I tried. And it ain’t like I’d ever try too hard.”
Something hard in Juno cracks, just a little, when she says that. He feels like his chest is full of warm syrup, like he’s bleeding.
“Humph,” Juno coughs to cut through whatever’s coating his throat. “Thanks, Rita.”
“And hey,” Rita says as they approach her building—an ebony-black fortress with windows that look like they could stop a star-hauler, “if you need me to give you and Mistah Glass some alone time, just say the word. I won’t pry.”
Juno turns on his heel immediately.
He walks away with the sound of Rita’s laughter ringing in his ears and off the sides of nearby buildings. He waits at the corner, though, until she gets inside alright.
Peter reacts on instinct to a situation that does not warrant it near the end of the first section (September 28). No one is in any actual danger.
Juno loses one thing and finds another; Peter has trouble sleeping.
This chapter contains a brief mention of alcohol use and self harm, and sexual content. For further information, see the end notes.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
October 11, XXX34
“Have you seen my earrings?” Juno asks.
“You’re going to have to be more specific,” Peter replies. His eyes trace unconsciously over the array of metal along the shell of Juno’s ear, shining like a nebula.
“The, the gold ones,” Juno says distractedly. “They’re studs, and they’re the only extra pair I still have.” He digs through the top shelf of his dresser again. Peter wonders how he expects to find anything in there, the way he tosses everything he owns haphazardly wherever it will go.
“Hmm, that sounds familiar. When did you last see them?” Peter looks sharply away as Juno turns toward him. He’s getting very good at staring at Juno without being noticed.
“Christ, I don’t know.” His shoulders fall as he stands in the middle of the room helplessly. “I have this… thing for work tonight and my boss told me to dress nice.”
Peter narrows his eyes.
“Not nice nice,” Juno says, checking the floor behind his desk. He crawls on his elbows to peek behind the back leg; Peter knows at once with certainty that Juno is going to hit his head and that Juno would ignore him if he said anything along the lines of Be careful. “His exact words were ‘don’t dress like Juno Steel and you should be fine.’”
“That doesn’t give me a lot to go on.”
“You don’t—ow, shit—” the dull thud of synthwood-on-Juno accompanies his cursing. “You don’t have to help me dress myself,” he grouches. “I’m an adult, more or less.”
The words on Peter’s tablet run together as Juno gives up on the earrings and starts changing clothes. He sees Juno in various states of undress on a near-daily basis, but there is a nagging presence in Peter’s mind that is monstrously curious what dressing “nice” constitutes for Juno.
There is another part of him that wants very much to lend a hand.
In the end, it’s only a clean blouse and a black pair of pants. Juno glances at his reflection, touches up his lipstick, takes out his eyebrow ring, and turns toward Peter.
“Good enough?” he asks.
Peter takes grateful advantage of the opportunity to rake his eyes up and down Juno.
“I’d hardly recognize you,” he declares. “But, one more thing, if I may.” Peter gets up, opens the drawer where he keeps accidentally pilfered items, and grabs a necklace with a green pendant that made its way there recently.
He comes up close behind Juno and drapes it around his throat. He sees Juno swallow, adam’s apple bobbing softly under his warm skin. Peter’s hands brush against his jawline, just for half a second, and he feels the gentle scratchiness that tells him Juno hasn’t shaved today. He also feels Juno twitch, flinch just slightly; he does that when Peter touches him, sometimes. Peter has yet to crack the code of when and how and why Juno might let Peter touch him, but he’s hard at work.
“To tie it all together,” Peter explains, letting his fingertips skim over Juno’s skin but make no contact, “since your own jewelry has gone missing.”
He fastens the catch and heroically resists the temptation to kiss Juno’s neck.
“Thanks,” Juno says at a whisper. “I, uh, I gotta go.” He doesn’t move.
“Of course.” Peter forces himself to take a firm step away, pull himself from the heat of Juno’s body he was close enough to feel. “You really should get new earrings, Juno. Leaving the same ones in for so long isn’t very hygienic.”
“Thanks, dad,” Juno rolls his eyes, and some tension lessens but does not break, “but I have a lot of piercings, I can take care of them on my own.”
“How many do you have, out of curiosity?” Peter asks as Juno leaves the room.
He pauses in the doorway, does a second of silent arithmetic, and says, “twelve.”
Then Juno is gone, and Peter is flush with the knowledge that this is two more in total than he’s seen yet.
He goes to close the drawer—tidying up is a grounding feeling, something else to put his mind to—and catches sight of a small glint of gold.
“Well,” Peter closes the drawer. “My mistake.”
October 20, XXX34
They get a couch eventually.
It’s a long, annoying process that takes a week more than it should. Juno keeps his eyes out for broken sofas left out on the street and handwritten ads stapled up somewhere. He’s got an eye for cheap shit that’ll get the job done, but he didn’t take into account the fact that Rex’s tastes are— Well, the fact that Rex has tastes.
“For the last time, Juno, I’m not dragging a sofa into our room that’s missing a cushion and sat out in the rain all night!”
“Will you settle for one or the other? Because I got options—” Juno tries, but they end up where he knew they would eventually: a used furniture store.
It’s almost in convenient walking distance. Nothing here would fit in his car, anyway, so two sets of hands will have to do. Rex stares down his nose at most of the furniture they’re selling, but he knows as well as Juno does that a brand new sofa isn’t in either of their budgets and would probably be even heavier.
“What about this one?” Rex finally points at a couch with only three visible holes. “It looks… acceptable.”
“Lemme see it.” Juno comes closer, leans down, and rubs some of the fabric between his thumb and forefinger. “Nope, it’s got Neptunian mites.”
“Neptunian mites?” Rex exclaims. “But we’re on Mars!”
This dissolves into a spat, right there in the middle of a shitty used furniture hole-in-the-wall, about how they’re an invasive species and it’s not like mites are from Neptune anyway—and all of a sudden, Juno realizes.
He realizes that he’s so, so completely, totally and absolutely fucked. He’s fucked in every way a person can be fucked except the one he actually wants, because he’s bickering with Rex like a pair of birds forced to share too small a cage and he loves it, he loves— He wants to do this, or petty, domestic bullshit like it, every day with this man. Maybe forever.
‘Forever’ isn’t a concept Juno Steel has spent a lot of time thinking about, at least not while sober and not a danger to himself.
It was one thing to be hot for his roommate, to obsess over every little touch Rex “Handsy” Glass sends his way and imagine how his fingers might feel in Juno’s hair, how his slim waist would feel wrapped in Juno’s thighs— And to actually like the guy at the same time. That was fine. Juno’s attracted to a lot of people, and he has friends—not a lot, but he has them.
It’s an entirely different, ugly animal, this bright little star that lives behind his sternum. He looks at Rex, lips moving around some talk about spraying the couch to get rid of the mites—fuck, they’re still talking about the couch—and feels the way solar panels must feel. He’s warm and solid and energized, ready to keep at this as long as the source of light he’s basking in stays with him.
“How about that one?” Juno interrupts Rex. It’s a rude thing to do, but he’s a rude guy. Not the kind who could make anybody happy long-term. Solar panels do shit-all for the sun in return, if you’re gonna stick with that stupid metaphor.
“Oh, good eye, Juno,” Rex praises, and that just does it again. Stupid, stupid.
They lug the goddamn thing all the way back to their dorm, move Juno’s desk against the wall between their beds, and squeeze it into the leftover space.
It’s just big enough that they can sit side-by-side without touching. Juno makes sure to test this, but Rex acts like he couldn’t care less where his hand or ankle or elbow ends up.
Juno doesn’t protest. The weather’s getting colder. Might as well keep himself warm.
October 21, XXX34
Peter knows the value of a good night’s sleep. Falling asleep practically anywhere within minutes is a skill, and a finely-cultivated one. It comes in handy on long jobs, or ones that require a break-in at four in the morning and a freshly-showered appearance at seven. He’s had to make do with safehouses practically unfit for human habitation and long interstellar travel, which is arguably worse. Sleeping keeps the mind and body sharp. It’s essential.
So, Peter Nureyev is lying awake an hour after he turned the lights out on purpose, thank you.
He has a test tomorrow. The fact that he’s stressed—no, stressed is for other people; Peter Nureyev is well-prepared—about it is novel; lying awake the night before a big test always seemed like the kind of thing that other people, normal people, did. Peter has never had the urge to be normal, never longed for a life of mediocrity in any sense, but.
He really needs to do well on this test.
This is part of studying. He’s going over what he needs to know before falling asleep; nighttime is when the brain sorts out what information it needs to retain. This is part of his process.
Morgenstern v. Oberu was in the year 9085, and set a precedent that would eventually lead to the conviction of Albert Katczmarowski for aiding and abetting— Peter is snapped out of his revision by the sound of Juno’s bed frame creaking. He’s familiar with the way his roommate tends to toss and turn in his sleep; Peter is often the first one up by hours, after all, and he’s noticed that Juno is just as restless unconscious as he is up and about.
He waits for Juno to settle down again.
The Millennia Core was stolen by Elvira Hunter and Alphonse Brecht in the year 10001, following the surrender of Delphine II to the Centauri system. He reaches for the connection he knows is there, can’t quite recall—
Juno makes a quiet sound in his sleep, and Peter loses his train of thought entirely.
He makes a half-hearted attempt at going over vocabulary next, but if he doesn’t remember a term then he can hardly, well, remember the term. This was a ridiculous way to study, a waste of precious sleep, and if he fails the test he can always get his grade changed somehow. He won’t need a recommendation from every professor, at any rate, though this is a central class for his major—
Another sound reaches him from Juno’s side of the room, and his eyes fly open.
Juno’s breathing is audible, and fast; faster than the soft pattern of sleep, though he could be having a nightmare. Peter knows Juno is prone to those, has witnessed one or two in their weeks sharing a room together. There’s no reason to jump to conclusions. No reason to let his thoughts wander toward dangerous territory.
The next noise that Peter hears—breathless in Juno’s lovely voice—is unmistakably a moan, and Peter resigns himself to the awful, horrible truth.
A gentle, rhythmic sound starts up in the silence of the room. Peter knows it’s the mattress shifting, the blankets rustling, but his mind fills in the blanks and suddenly a whole image bursts behind his eyes: Juno, hand firm and sure around himself, arching his back, eyes scrunched closed. The Juno in his brain opens his mouth, and the Juno across the room from him lets out a whine that jolts Peter’s entire body like a cattle prod.
He knows why this hasn’t happened before; Juno is keeping himself quiet enough that Peter, something of a deep sleeper despite years of trying to rectify that, would never be woken up. If he were asleep, or wearing headphones, or doing anything at all besides fixating on every breath and gasp that shudders out of Juno and fills the wide, cold gap between their beds, he might never have heard.
Still might not, if this damn building has anything to say about it. A low, white-noise rumbling starts from somewhere deep in the walls—air conditioning, or hot water, or whatever else moves between rooms in the middle of the night to cover up the intoxicating sounds of Peter Nureyev’s roommate getting himself off.
Or maybe that’s a useless concern after all, as it seems to embolden Juno rather than muffle him. There’s a louder moan, a sudden “oh” that rises to a sharp peak. His cheaply-made bed frame begins to creak to that same rhythm.
Peter can see it, projected on the inside of his eyelids like he’s gone and sprung for the kind of cybernetic enhancements only bored trillionaires and secret agents have done. Juno’s bare ass—he’s pulled his pilled cotton pajama pants down to his thighs—rocking against increasingly-damp sheets against a mattress with no give and all take. His right hand is still hard at work, pumping away, thumb playing over the head, but his left drifts lower—
The rumbling in the pipes stops just in time for Juno to let out the kind of loud, desperate sigh that would alert anyone in a fifty-foot radius to exactly what he’s up to. Loud enough in the sudden silence, perhaps, to wake someone up.
Juno seems to recognize this. The rustling sound ceases, and so does his breathing.
Peter lies in the dark. His heart pounds, but his tongue keeps still.
A few beats pass, measured only by the filling and emptying of lungs. Then, Juno gets back to work. Peter’s hands clench in the sheets.
Juno starts groaning again, low and steady. But there’s a dullness to the sound that confuses Peter until he realizes, with a creeping, scorching heat, that Juno must have a hand clapped over his own mouth. And isn’t that a thought, that Juno is so uncontrollably loud like this he needs the extra help: a hand, a fist to bite down on, fingers in his mouth, a gag.
Peter’s teeth sink into his lower lip. He wonders if Juno is doing the same over there, teeth not quite as sharp as his own but with a fuller, lovelier mouth to bite. Juno’s sounds, muffled as they are, shift into his throat; the groans bloom into whimpers and whines. He sounds as if he could be begging.
This is hell, this is what hell is, Peter is certain. He’s burning, he’s on fire and in agony and Juno’s voice rises in pitch. The bed frame creaks again.
Peter focuses on his own breathing. He knows a trick or two for silence; that fact has saved his life more than once. The thing is, he’s typically not quite so distracted. A month ago, he might have spoken up as soon as Juno started. He might have had a talk about privacy, and boundaries, and offered to draw up a schedule of the times they each tend to be out of the room. Just under a month ago, Peter might have offered to join in.
By now it’s too late to do either, and anyway Peter finds the former unappealing and the latter dangerous.
Juno’s tiny, breakable “ah-ah-ah”s echo in his head like a scream in some sacred space. They’re a clear and present hazard to his health in the realm of fantasy; if wringing them from Juno were a solid memory, a possibility, he would never want to spend his time doing anything else.
Beyond that, the two of them are friends now. Peter is unused to having a friend just because he likes spending time with someone. The thought of losing that cracks a hairline fracture in his heart even more so than this particular longing.
Juno makes the most beautiful sound Peter has ever heard, then goes quiet.
The room is empty but for his breathing: deep and slow. He shuffles around, the sound of tissues pulled from the box to clean himself up; Peter feels sick.
It’s voyeuristic, it’s ugly; Peter is hard and aching and his fists are clenched in the blanket. His spine is pulled taut from the tension to keep himself from trembling.
The very worst part is this: it probably wouldn’t occur to him to feel guilty if it had been anyone else.
Juno must be falling asleep now, at ease in the assumption of privacy. Peter cannot help the image of himself, smiling, sleepy and sated and holding Juno in his arms in the dark, the two of them drifting off together. It’s unbearable.
He loses another hour of sleep, too wound up to return to playing at study.
Peter does well enough on his test the next morning, but it takes longer than usual with the way he stares off into the middle distance after every third question.
November 1, XXX34
It’s too fucking early.
It’s way too early for this, even if “this” is just being awake. Juno feels the rough ache behind his eyes that means he probably didn’t stay asleep for more than an hour at a stretch last night. The thought “no point in going back to sleep” butts up against “no point getting up at all,” and only time will tell which one is going to win.
He blinks his eyes open angrily at the soft sound of movement. The rose-gold light of early morning slices through the blinds, lighting up stripes of Rex Glass’ bare back. Rex sits on the floor in his pajama pants, one leg extended far out in front of him. The slim line of his torso curves in a long wave, head down, arms outstretched to touch his toes.
He sits back up slowly. Juno hears a quiet exhale from Rex’s parted mouth.
The fluid motions of his spine catch Juno around the throat until he stops breathing. Rex’s hand floats toward the ceiling and his arm trails behind it like an afterthought, like the string of a lost balloon. He’s slender and toned, even leaner and longer than he looks fully clothed, somehow. His eyes are closed. Long lashes rest against his cheekbones, un-made up but glowing like bronze in the early light.
He’s beautiful in a way Juno wouldn’t have words for even if he were more awake. The whole scene feels like a dream, a dream that haunts you all day even though you can’t explain it or even remember most of the damn thing besides a feeling—
Rex’s torso twists. He leans down, and down, bracing himself against the floor on one forearm and letting his head fall back in such a certain way. Juno feels the movement in his stomach.
Soft, unbrushed locks of hair fall into Rex’s face. His eyes blink open and an image comes to Juno dizzily. He’s a storybook come to life, a darker tale that children know the truth of and adults try to hide. He’s an uncanny creature from some deep fae wilds about to spot Juno and grin at him with all his teeth.
Juno squeezes his eyes shut. Rex finishes his routine, by the sound of it, and starts heating water for his tea.
By the time Rex leaves for class, Juno is on his way back to sleep. Before he goes, Juno wishes on every star and clock and fallen eyelash that he’ll have forgotten all about this by the time he wakes up.
The section of October 20 contains a one-sentence reference to alcohol use and potential self-harm.
The section of October 21 contains non-explicit sexual content. It is possible to skip that entire section, or stop at "He waits for Juno to settle down again" and pick back up at "Peter does well enough on his test the next morning."
Unrelated: thank you Ezra tsarshipping for getting this fic to 4/20 chapters and 69 comments for a brief, shining moment.
Juno wins, for once.
This chapter contains quite a bit of alcohol use. See end notes.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
November 4, XXX34
“Fuck this,” Juno groans.
Peter up from his tablet to see Juno lying face-down in his open notebook. He outlines his papers longhand, with a pen and paper, and it’s so endearingly archaic Peter aches every time he does so.
“The studying is going well, I take it?”
“This is bullshit. Why did I even come to college?” Juno lifts his head just high enough to rip out the page he was working on, ball it up, and throw it over his shoulder.
It lands perfectly in the wastebasket, of course.
“Because you’re a smart young lady with the drive to better your circumstances? Because you have a passion for the material?” Peter guesses. Juno glares at him, so Peter smiles and switches tactics. “Sheer masochism?”
Juno rolls his eyes and flops back down onto his desk with a thud. “Yeah, sounds like me.”
“You know, Juno,” Peter marks his place and sets his tablet down. “There is something to be said for taking an evening off. It’s a Friday night, you have all weekend to finish whatever it is you’re working on—”
“A whole weekend I have to work through, Rex,” Juno snaps. Peter is still somewhat unsure what it is Juno does at work; every time he asks, the answer seems to change. It’s a mystery as of yet whether he keeps losing jobs or simply has too many of them.
Peter presses his lips together.
“That aim of yours is a marketable skill, at least. If you flunk out of college, you could make a killing at carnival games.”
“Sure, I’ll buy groceries with shitty stuffed animals.” Juno runs his hands through his hair; Peter has a sudden, unconscionable spike of jealousy. He wants to pet Juno’s hair, put his arms around his shoulders, maybe think of a few ways to convince Juno to take a break—
“—more solid career path than what I’ve got right now.” Oh, Juno is still talking. “I mean, hell, if I wanted to make a living off my aim I would have just stayed in Hyperion City. At least there I could have been a decent thug, or worked for some mobsters if the HCPD wouldn’t have me.”
“You have more going for you than your aim, Juno. I’m sorry I implied otherwise.”
Against his better judgement, Peter gets up to lay a hand on Juno’s shoulder. He’s long since stopped tensing up every time Peter touches him, for which he is grateful. Not only is Peter a tactile person in general, but he enjoys touching Juno in any way he’s permitted to. It’s a language all their own, in a way; Peter likes to think he’s conversational in Juno Steel by now.
Juno sighs. His hand comes up, and for one dizzy moment Peter thinks he’s going to lay it over his fingers. He rubs the back of his neck instead.
“You know what? You’re right about that break.” Juno flips his notebook shut. “Grab your shoes, Rex, we’re talking a walk.”
“Hustling, Juno? I’m surprised at you,” Peter admonishes with a grin that shows all his teeth. “But I’m honored that you chose me as your partner.”
“H-huh?” Juno’s head whips around. His eyes had been trained on the line of buildings they pass, counting off numbers to make sure they don’t miss their destination.
“In this job,” Peter clarifies. “You’re running two-person con.”
“I wouldn’t call it a con,” Juno hedges. “I’m not doing anything illegal, and I won’t even be the one missing the shots.”
“Mm, about that.” A crowd of noisy students passes to their left. Peter waits until they are out of earshot, out of habit. “I hope if we run a— Sorry, if we work together duplicitously again, you’ll agree to some role-switching? Incompetence is a bad look on me, Juno, I mean really.”
He spreads his arms as if to say, Who could believe that? Juno’s mouth twitches.
“That’s why it works so well. If you’re an idiot, what does that make me?”
Peter thinks it over for a moment.
“In bad company?”
“Not a threat.”
“I don’t see how—”
“You light up a room, Rex. I— People can’t help but look at you. Standing next to you,” Juno holds his arms out in a mimicry of Peter, “who’s gonna notice a scruffy lady like me?”
Somewhere deep in his chest, Peter burns. A tirade about Juno’s worth, the way eyes follow him and people listen to what he has to say, bubbles up from the general vicinity of his heart. There is so much he wants to tell Juno that he chokes on it, on all the facts and figures he swims in every day about why and how Juno Steel deserves more than Peter—more than anyone could ever give him. Stunning, is a word that comes to mind. One-of-a-kind, is another. Juno is a masterpiece, Juno is a gift, Juno is, Juno is, Juno is—
Peter nearly trips over Juno as he stops short in the middle of the sidewalk.
“And here we are.” Juno gestures to his right. The door in front of them is old, weathered, and set so deep in the wall that Peter would have assumed it to be a rear entrance if it weren’t for the barely-legible sign overhead: The Study-Lounge.
The moment passes, and Peter still doesn’t know where to begin.
“Now tell me, Juno,” he clears his throat and says instead, “what sort of studying do you get up to in there?”
“Haven’t spent a lot of time around here myself,” Juno replies. “This is too classy of a joint for the likes of me, but I figure it’s the same kind of studying college students get up to anywhere else.”
“Chemistry, I imagine. Pharmacology,” Peter says. He glances down at Juno, raises an eyebrow. “Anatomy?”
Juno opens his mouth. He looks halfway between a quip and a laugh, but neither comes for a long moment. Peter worries he’s crossed some line, revealed something a bit too telling—friends can joke, certainly? He’s not that shameless of a flirt—until Juno settles on a muttered, “Something like that,” and hurries inside.
The smell of frying oil smacks Peter across the face as soon as he follows Juno through the door.
He scans the room—just on the shy side of crowded, just on the wrong side of noisy—for Juno, and finds him already leaning over the bar, face tilted up at the strapping young man taking his order in a way Peter has very mixed feelings about. The bartender nods at Juno and steps away as Peter catches up. His eyes trail over the diamond stud in Peter's ear and the fit of his jacket and he doesn't bother to hide the fact.
“This is your idea of… what did you call it? A ‘classy joint?’” Peter sets his elbows on the bar next to Juno. The sudden clatter of pool balls and the raucous cheering that follows make his nose wrinkle.
“You and me, Rex, we’re scholarship kids,” Juno says as two frothing glasses slide down the bar toward them. “Worked our asses off to get here and keep working them to stay. This crowd,” he jerks his thumb over his shoulder at a young woman heedlessly spilling beer on the floor as she smacks her friend with a pool cue, “let’s just say, they had a little more help than you or me.”
Peter nods. Juno may be mistaken about what kind of work went into matching a virtually unknown grant that had gone unawarded for nearly a decade with the name Rex Glass, but he’s right that it wasn’t easy.
A lot of work, to be sure, and all for the benefit of an orphan boy with a past on the streets. The fiction practically writes itself.
“Riding in on their parents’ money,” Peter says. “Which means—”
“Deep pockets and something to prove,” Juno finishes. “Drink up, Rex. We have a lot of faking-shitfaced to do.”
Peter knows his limits. Mag had drilled that into him, once: how much can you take and keep your wits about you? And this is what drunk feels like, Pete, so you know it from poisoned. The bigger lesson, though, the thousandth Lesson One he heard over and over, went more to the tune of “Stay sober, stay alert.”
Well. Mag isn’t here now, is he?
Beer smells like a smoothie made of sour bread and tastes worse, but the laugh his expressions of disgust pull out of Juno is worth it ten times over. He gets giddy, and empty, like the hundreds of little plans and pieces of his persona he keeps in mind at all times were taking up physical space inside him.
They feel less important now, with his arm around Juno’s firm shoulders and a sly, “I’ll bet you fine folks can’t beat me and my friend at laser darts” slipping off his tongue. Rex Glass is all bravado, practically bombastic. His aim is terrible.
Peter Nureyev’s aim is decent, on a good day, but he’s never fired a blaster or thrown a dagger drunk. The two students they’re swindling jeer as one of his darts misses the board completely, and Peter lets his shoulders drop like he really needed those five creds.
“Whaddya say we up the stakes?” Juno offers. There’s that familiar rasp in his voice, like he’s tired or frustrated or—
The last dart leaves Peter’s hand, a losing shot yet again.
Juno, he knows by now, could probably win a sharpshooting contest completely hammered. Unlike Peter, he’s faking the slur in his speech. His turn comes up; the stakes are raised; there’s a gleam in his eye, cocksure and a little manic and Peter is the only one who sees it. It’s only for him.
The dumbfounded reactions of their opponents are satisfying, Peter is certain. He’s a little too preoccupied to notice for himself. After all, there is the way Juno holds his shoulders back when he’s getting ready to throw to consider, and the hard-edged focus that turns his face into something familiar but still surprising. New and ancient, like a sunrise. He cannot be blamed for inattention when Juno rolls up his sleeves, casual as anything, and the muscles in his forearm tense: pull back, flex, release.
A crowd starts to gather, and the bet quickly turns from “Ten creds if you beat Marvin” to “Fifty creds to anyone who can win against the lady from the bar” as Juno hits bullseye after bullseye. He turns around to drink, once, tossing the dart without looking. The gasp that rises around them as it hits dead center quirks Juno’s lips up in a smirk.
He meets Peter’s eyes as it happens. There he is, Juno Steel on a winning streak, eyes bright and mouth just barely wet from the glass.
It lights a fuse inside Peter he hadn’t known was waiting for a match.
Peter passes the rest of the evening on a bar stool with a perfect view of Juno. Juno, specifically, not the dartboard; he knows what that view looks like, and as impressive as it is, it does get old when the suspense is gone. The people in this bar exhale when Juno’s shots land flawlessly; Peter doesn’t hold his breath. It comes with the territory of absolute faith.
Then again, his current view is also one he’s seen before. Juno’s shirt is loose but his pants are tight, and Peter has enough awareness left in him to know that if he were sober he wouldn’t be quite so enraptured. Close, maybe; he’s a realist about himself.
Juno just… has a really nice ass, is the thing.
Peter sips at his awful beer to give himself something to do with his hands, which ends up also involving his mouth, which leads him further down the road toward forgetting any and all subtlety when ogling his roommate.
The thought occurs to him at some point that he’s grateful Juno keeps his comms in his front pocket; then, he gets sad about Juno’s penchant for long coats now that the weather is beginning to change. He tries to find another silver lining; maybe the fact that Juno is allergic to spending money on himself, which includes clothes, and therefore this particular pair of pants is sticking around.
Skirts, too, are a good look on Juno. The way they drape over the curve of his ass like—all Peter can think when he pictures it is silk drapes, expensive ones. The kind that puddle on the floor and beg Peter to run his hands through the folds of them, to wrap himself in them dramatically and roll around. Is that a strange impulse to have? Rolling oneself in expensive curtains? Peter has never tried it, but it feels right—like sinking his feet in sand, or the impulsive desire to lick polished glass.
What was he thinking about again, that licking came up? Ah, right, Juno.
Peter wears a skirt when it matches his outfit, or when he needs a thigh holster or a lot of freedom of movement; Juno wears one when he damn well feels like it and at no other time—except, Peter is beginning to suspect, when he doesn’t have the energy to find a clean pair of pants. That isn’t a judgement; when the skirts come out, his thighs make it into the mix, and his calves. Oh, Peter has hardly started on Juno’s legs—
“Rex,” Juno’s voice reminds him where he is. Peter looks up to see him striding closer at a nervous pace. “We gotta go.”
“Wha— Juno,” Peter’s tongue feels too big for his mouth, “I haven’t finished my—”
“We gotta go now.” Juno’s hand lands on his arm. It’s warm through his shirtsleeve—Juno is always so warm, how does he do it?—and squeezes harder than Peter expects, pulling him to his feet. Somehow, Peter's legs hold him up until they’re out the door.
“What happened?” The sidewalk swerves toward his face alarmingly. He doesn’t think to put his hands out to catch himself until Juno is already bracing against him.
“Jesus, you’re a lightweight. What did you have, two beers?” Even though his words are annoyed, Juno’s voice feels like something soft he’d like to crawl into. What was it he thought of earlier? Drapes. Juno is like drapes. “Some of the neanderthals in there got it in their heads I was cheating. I wasn’t, obviously,” he huffs.
Peter reaches out reassuringly, although his sympathetic touch turns more into grabbing at the side of Juno’s face. When did he get so close?
“Shhh, I know,” Peter whispers. “You’re the very best at throwing things and you’d never ever cheat.”
“You’re damn right I am.”
There is a long beat of silence, before Peter says, “Juno, I have a question.”
“Where did the bar go?”
Juno throws his head back and laughs. It’s a strange, wheezy sound from the back of his throat; Peter wants to hear it every moment of every day.
“We’re walking, Rex. When you walk away from something, it’s not there anymore.”
Peter looks down to discover that Juno is partially right. They’re moving, and Juno is walking, but Peter is draped over his back. His head, right arm, and most of his torso are stuck out over one of Juno’s shoulders, which explains why their faces are so close together that he can count the individual hairs in the stubble on Juno’s upper lip.
Thinking deeply about Juno’s mouth is a bad idea; distracting himself with how warm and solid Juno’s body feels under him is a worse one, so he looks down again instead.
Juno’s arms are hooked under Peter’s legs, which dangle dangerously low even then. It’s easy, sometimes, to forget how short Juno is. He’s very strong, Peter thinks.
“You’re very strong,” Peter says.
“You’re built like a handful of uncooked spaghetti somebody glued together,” Juno replies. “Long as you don’t move around too much and fuck up my balance, we should be fine.”
The walk back takes less time than Peter thinks it should, or maybe that’s the gentle rhythm of Juno’s gait and breathing, practically hypnotic.
On the way there, Peter tries very hard to explain what an amazing job Juno did back at the Study-Lounge; not just his aim, but the showmanship, Peter insists. Juno brushes off his compliments, as he is wont to do, but Peter can see the subtle, pleased smile dancing around his mouth.
They reach the bottom of the stairs up to their dorm. Juno looks at Peter, whose chin is hooked over his shoulder, looks up at the flight of steps, and looks back at Peter. He heads for the elevator.
“Third floor,” the automated voice intones as the doors slide open.
“C’mon, pal, you gotta get off me so I can grab my keys.” Juno releases one of Peter’s legs and tilts slightly. Peter tries to climb down with grace, but he more accurately spills onto the floor in a puddle. “Yeah, like that.”
He climbs to his feet steadily enough, and even manages to get his shoes off. Juno is well ahead of him, already flopped down in bed.
He looks so comfortable, so warm. The thought of lying, alone, on his own narrow mattress is unthinkable in the moment.
Peter stumbles toward Juno, who lets out an objectively adorable “Hu—?” when they collide, and curls up on top of him.
“You planning on sleeping here?” Juno’s voice—rough with exhaustion—-rumbles gently through his chest. Peter can feel it in every empty space in his body, down to his bones, down to the marrow. He never wants to sleep anywhere else, is the honest answer.
He snuggles his face into Juno’s neck. His skin feels soft and slightly damp with sweat from the walk and carrying Peter. His pulse is still racing, a fluttering beat under tender skin Peter wants to nibble.
“Yes,” he murmurs. Juno’s sigh lifts Peter’s body; he sighs right back.
The last thing Peter hears before he drifts off dreamily, as Juno shifts underneath him to find a comfortable position, is a muttered, “You’re lucky you smell nice.”
Peter smiles. Juno’s arm comes up to wrap around his waist.
Listen Peter gets real sloppy drunk it's 4 in the morning I don't know how to warn better. The drinking is all throughout this chapter. Feel free to skip it if you have to, I'm sure you'll find out what happens if you read the comments because there's Tropes Ahoy in this one.
A journey begins.
This chapter contains mild references to alcohol, sex, and violence.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
November… 5? Yeah, 5, XXX34
Juno’s neck is killing him.
Every time he wakes up with a stiff neck or back or shoulder, some whining part of his brain objects that he’s twenty, for God’s sake. His body isn’t supposed to start falling apart for another, what? Decade? It’s bullshit, is what it is, but Juno’s always known he had to grow up fast. He just didn’t expect that to extend to his joints.
He tries to sit up and realizes why his neck was at such a stupid angle.
Rex is passed out on top of him, snoring gently and with all his long, long limbs wrapped around Juno like the tentacles of a teddy bear. He didn’t even take his glasses off. The huge frames are digging into Rex’s face and the side of Juno’s cheek.
It’s… it’s nice, actually. It’s really, really nice, waking up with someone warm and safe who’s always happy to see him. Juno can almost pretend it was on purpose. He can almost pretend he gets to have this and keep it.
And why not, huh? Why the hell not. There’s not a lot left of the semester, and he’s got experience with last-minute housing changes. Why not wake Rex up with the kind of kiss Juno tries and fails not to think about every time he bites the end of his pen or purses his lips when he’s thinking too hard? Why not offer—offer anything? Anything at all, whatever Rex wants. Juno’s body and mouth and… and, goddammit, his heart, too. Let them play at romance for a while.
It wouldn’t last. Obviously. Juno would mess it up, get clingy and desperate and then counter too far the other way. And Rex would think he’s boring in bed, too loud or too needy or—
Rex shifts a little, mumbles and shoves his face into Juno’s shoulder. Juno resolves to stop thinking about what it would be like to fuck him. At least while they’re still tangled up together.
Anyway, Juno is getting ahead of himself. This is all assuming Rex would stay with him until after move-out, after finals. Hell, this is assuming Rex wouldn’t shove Juno off and laugh in his face and never speak to him again from the get-go. The slick, cold weight of certainty settles in his gut as he pictures the light in Rex’s eyes turning cold. A sneer curling his perfect lips, showing off his sharp canines.
Rex sighs in his sleep. His breath reeks like beer and unbrushed teeth, and Juno’s sure he’s not any better. Bad time for kissing. Bad time for anything.
Still, there’s no harm in wishing. Juno lies there, Rex draped over him like a blanket, and wishes so hard it hurts.
It’s hard to keep drifting in and out of nameless, impossible dreams with his comms beeping like that, though.
Rex jolts awake on top of him, grabbing at his glasses and whipping his head around. His eyes are sharper than they should be, given how out of it he was last night and how he just woke up. He stares down at Juno, when he realizes where he is, and clambers off immediately.
Juno misses the warmth.
“—sorry, Juno, I don’t remember… I didn’t mean to—” He apologizes like the city’s electric grid is powered by ‘I’m sorry’s.
Yeah, well, Juno’s sorry too.
“It’s fine.” Juno is a little distracted by the name flashing on his comms underneath the electronic text that reads 7:34 AM. He hits answer, a familiar resignation unfolding in his chest, tinged with an irritating layer of worry. “Mick? Why the hell are you calling me so early?”
“Ha! Yeah, wow, I guess it is pretty early, huh? I’ve been up all night, I forgot it must be morning by now but hey, whaddya know, there’s the sun.”
Juno rubs at the bridge of his nose. He’s in yesterday’s clothes, his mouth tastes like death, his neck feels like someone tried to twist his head off, and Bartholomew “Mick” Mercury is chattering into his ear like he thinks any situation, no matter how disastrous, can be fixed if you just throw enough bad jokes at it.
Rex has started on the task of trying to tame his hair. He glances at Juno curiously. Juno waves him off, a silent ‘Give me a minute and I’ll tell you everything.’
“Okay, Mick, slow the hell down. You’re where?”
“Impound lot,” Mick says again, slowly like he’s sounding out all the syllables to make sure they’re right. “It took me four hours to walk here. I was gonna take a bus but I lost my bus pass last year and—”
“Mick, those things are only good for a month—”
“—my bike wasn’t an option, because. Well.”
“You got your bike impounded.” The way Juno says it, it’s not a question.
“It’s not fair, Jay, I was parked totally legally!”
“Where did you park?”
“I mean, I say ‘parked,’ but it was more like I tied it to a fire hydrant—”
“And there it is.”
“But I’ve done that a million times! It’s not like they ever use that fire hydrant anyway, there hasn’t been a fire on this street in like six months! Oh, the pierogi place you like burned down, by the way.”
“Aw hell, Prokopetz’s? That’s too— Wait, no. Mercury, you’re not gonna distract me with pierogi. We all knew it was a front anyway.”
“Yeah, that’s what made it so good! All the best restaurants are money-laundering fronts, everybody knows that.”
“True.” Juno stands up, shoots Rex a look that says at once ‘pity me’ and ‘you can be trusted to help hide a body, right?’ and grabs his toothbrush. Rex responds with a sympathetic pout and a nod. “So here’s what’s going to happen. I’m going to brush my teeth, and while I do that you’re going to tell me exactly why the fuck you called me. Got it?”
“Sounds great! So, it all started when I went out for a drink last night…”
Once Mick’s wild tangents and tendency toward embellishments are untangled, it’s a simple story, predictable in its inevitability: Mick got drunk, he spent a little longer in the bar than he meant to, the one yearly visit of a parking official to Oldtown just happened to be while he was downing vodka and dishwater, and he came back to find his bike gone and a little paper parking ticket stuck to the hydrant.
All in all, a pretty standard night for Mick Mercury.
That is, ignoring the part where he walked to the other side of Hyperion City in the wee hours of the morning to… what? Mick can’t even give Juno an idea of what he thought he was going to accomplish there, but he made it to the outskirts of the city—
“The dome is real pretty this close up, Jay.”
Juno spits into the bathroom sink. “You see the dome every day, Mick, Oldtown was barely built inside it.”
“Yeah, but it’s nicer on this side.”
—and now he needs a hand getting his bike back. Because of course he does.
“I’m in fucking Olympus Mons,” Juno groans as he gets back to the room, finally feeling like a living human being with a mouth again. “Or did you forget? I can’t just drive a quarter of the way across Mars every time you fuck up. I’m busy.”
“I know that, Jay! You think I don’t know that? I miss you like hell, all the way over there. I mean, I’m so proud of you for going to college, getting an education. Getting out. One of us had to—”
The earnestness in his voice is what gets Juno. It always is, with Mick. Every goddamn time.
“Just—” he grabs a clean shirt and his keys, already well aware of what he’s going to do. “Just go find somewhere to sit down, alright? Don’t stand around outside the impound lot until I get there, somebody is gonna shoot you.”
“Thank you so much, Jay. Oh man, I owe you one—”
“You owe me a hell of a lot more than that, you mooching asshole,” Juno says. “See you soon.”
He hangs up and sees Rex watching him, one eyebrow raised. He doesn’t look anything like a hungover nineteen-year-old who woke up twenty minutes ago should. He looks good. It’s insulting.
“What was that?” Rex asks coyly, like he knows Juno was never going to even pretend to keep this private.
Juno looks at him for a long few seconds, weighing his options.
“Are you busy today?” Juno asks. “Because I think I’ve got some breaking and entering to do, and I could use a hand.”
Peter has never seen Juno’s car before. Up to this point, he had only a vague awareness of its existence and Juno’s offhand explanation of “I need it for work.” It’s a longer walk to get there than he expects, too: a block and a half, plus a shortcut under a chain-link fence blocking off an alleyway.
“It must cost you quite a fee to keep this so close to campus,” Peter remarks as he follows Juno down into an underground parking garage. It’s beneath what seems to be a small apartment building.
Juno shrugs. He unlocks the car and steps in, gestures for Peter to do the same.
“Not as bad as you might think.”
The interior is at once better and worse than Peter expected. The floor doesn’t seem to function as one giant garbage can—although that might have more to do with Juno’s habit of walking or taking the bus on the day-to-day than his broader tendencies around cleanliness—but the back window is cracked, the passenger seat is leaking foam, and it seems to be missing a windshield wiper. When Juno turns it on, the motor lets out an uncomfortable rattle before starting.
“And how long is the drive to Hyperion City, again?”
“Couple hours.” Juno stops at the opening garage door and looks Peter in the eye. His face is frank and honest, to-the-point like he rarely is. “You don’t have to come. This is a lot to ask, and you don’t owe me anything.”
The fuse inside Peter Nureyev sizzles ever lower. He knows, in some deep, tremendous, elemental way, that he is going to have a very difficult time ever saying no to Juno Steel.
Besides, he wants to see where this goes.
“Not at all. I’m always up for an adventure.” Peter grins with all his teeth. “And Hyperion City! I’ve always wanted to visit. They say it’s—”
“The most beautiful place in the galaxy, yeah.” Juno snorts as he turns onto the street and heads for the highway. “Lots of people say that. The rest of us have lived there.”
“You don’t miss it, then?” Peter reclines his seat and reaches for the bag of pretzels Juno brought along for the trip.
“That’s—” Juno’s hands flex on the wheel. “I didn’t say that.”
“So what did you mean?” Mag’s voice is in Peter’s head; it is not a lesson about thieving, for once, but an admonishment for talking with his mouth full. He tells the old man to piss off and eats another pretzel. “It’s not as beautiful as the postcards want you to think?”
“Heh,” Juno laughs uncomfortably. “The postcards aren’t wrong. Hell of a skyline, if you’re into that kind of thing. It’s what they don’t show you, Rex. If you only see the silhouette, sure. That’s beautiful. But when you turn the lights on? Ugly people doing ugly things. Stealing and cheating and killing over nothing, over a quick couple of creds or—”
He cuts himself off. Peter can hear him breathing. He swallows his mouthful of pretzels and lays a hand on Juno’s shoulder.
“I’m proud of you,” he says. “For going back.”
“For making the absolute stupidest possible decision? Yeah, I’d be real proud of me too.”
“I mean it, Juno.” Peter swallows again. There aren’t any pretzel bits in his throat. “Going to all this trouble for a friend? It’s… it’s admirable.”
“You haven’t met Mick,” Juno jokes weakly. “Hey, hand me some goddamn pretzels before you eat the whole bag.”
“So, how long do you think this break-in will take?” he asks.
“I told you,” Juno opens his mouth, clearly to insist again that he’s under no obligation to come along. Peter holds up a hand.
“Not for my sake, Juno. You said it’s, what, two hours there and two hours back?”
“Two hours and change, but yeah. Why?”
“I thought you had to work today.” Peter throws a hand out toward the dashboard to catch himself as Juno stops too sharply at a red light, slamming on the brakes.
“Shit!” He’s scrabbling at his jacket pocket, trying to find his comms. He takes a breath, coughs on pretzel crumbs, and reiterates: “Fuck!”
He finds his comms, swerves wide into the wrong lane for a half second until Peter shouts “Juno!” at the same moment another driver leans on their horn, and makes a call.
“Hi, yeah, this is Juno. Uh, Juno Steel? Can I—” Juno glances at Peter out of the corner of his eye. “Can I talk to Mr. O’Flaherty? Yeah, I’ll hold.”
Peter would be mouthing a question at Juno—if he weren’t too busy white-knuckling the door handle, watching Juno swing one hand around the wheel while drumming his fingers along to the hold music. His stomach roils and he focuses his eyes sternly on a single spot on the dashboard until it quiets down.
“Juno, don’t you think maybe you should pull o—”
“Hi! Hey, Ramses, it’s Juno. Yeah, I’m up early, I know. Look, something came up today and— I’m fine, it’s not… it’s something personal.”
Juno’s foot plays over the brake just enough to jolt the whole car. A horn blares from behind them; Peter gives the driver an apologetic wave as they pass, glaring at the two foolish students getting in the way of morning traffic.
“Ramses, I—” Juno has a habit of getting fired up and setting his supply of angry, biting retorts loose on figures of authority. Peter has noticed this, knew it by reputation and research already. This is the first time he’s heard Juno bite his tongue. “I know, okay, but I can’t work tonight… I just can’t.”
Peter sees the sign for the on-ramp toward Hyperion. He points to it emphatically, trying not to distract Juno but also keenly aware that he is in the wrong lane from where he needs to be very, very soon. Juno nods in acknowledgement, glances at his blind spot once, and cuts across two lanes of traffic in a move that puts Peter’s heart in his throat.
Peter recognizes the hypocrisy of his reactions, but in his defense, being on the receiving end of dramatic stunts is much less rewarding.
“I’m going to Hyperion City,” Juno snaps into the phone. Until now, Peter could hear a faint, deep voice warbling from the other end filling in the gaps in Juno’s half of the conversation. That voice goes silent.
“It’s not because of—” Juno says. The voice on the other end comes back, steady and even, and talks for a long minute. “Yeah, yeah you too, but I— …I mean, sure? What are you…?”
Juno’s eyes go wide with realization. He looks at Peter—not the road, which is what Peter would really rather he be looking at, they’re merging onto the expressway—as if trying to share the moment.
Peter mouths a bewildered ‘What?’
“Ramses, I’m coming back.” Juno sounds like he’s trying not to laugh. “I’m only gonna be there for a day. I’m coming back tonight.”
And that’s enough context to make Peter snort a laugh into his pretzels.
“Yeah, I’d regret the sappy shit too, old man.” Juno rolls his eyes. “I’ll be there extra early tomorrow. First thing, I promise. Alright, see you.” He’s about to hang up, but then he hesitates and coughs a quiet, “and, thanks.”
The call ends.
“So,” Peter says, “calling your boss went well.”
Juno shakes his head. If Peter didn’t know better, he’d say Juno might be on the verge of a tiny smile.
“He’s… He’s the reason I stuck it out here, honestly,” Juno says. Peter knows him well enough to know a confession when he hears it.
“What do you mean?” Peter asks quietly.
Juno shrugs. He chews on his lower lip for a few seconds.
“Hit a rough patch in my first year. Was just about ready to—” a momentary hesitation, “to call it quits. I happened to have a job interview with him at the right time, and… I don’t know.” Juno’s eyes are fixed on the road. “I don’t know,” he repeats.
Peter looks out the window. They’ve passed the edge of the dome by now; the long incline of Olympus Mons, the mountain itself—tallest mountain in the Solar System, Peter remembers—falls away under them.
The sun is too bright in Peter's eyes after a night of too much to drink and too little sleep. That is the only reason he lets them slip closed, of course. It has nothing to do with what he is about to say.
“I’m from Brahma,” Peter says. “What you said, before, about beauty? I understand.”
Juno is quiet, so Peter tells him a story.
It’s a story about a man, a tall man, a father but not a revolutionary. Peter gives him no name, which is probably unfair—a name is the one thing about him that must have been true. He hands Juno a neat package of hand-me-down lies, but Mag was right about one thing: a man like him must have existed, somewhere. It’s demonstrative. And anyway, a good lie is meant to be reused; a liar would never remember it otherwise.
Telling it all again, years later, on his own terms— There is something freeing in that. Juno cannot understand, but nevertheless Peter is glad he’s there.
“I spy with my little eye, something… red.”
“Is it sand?”
“Have you lived anywhere but Hyperion City,” Peter asks, “before you came to Olympus Mons?”
The last half hour has been close to silent. Peter can handle silence; he sits quietly with Juno every day, while they’re both studying or eating together or any number of communal moments that do not demand conversation. Those are some of Peter’s favorite times lately, actually. It’s practically domestic. He almost has himself convinced he enjoys it for the novelty.
But he likes hearing Juno’s voice, too. He likes learning things about him, and a car trip is the ideal moment of captive audience.
“Nope.” Juno has one hand on the wheel, the other in his lap. Peter is struck with a fantasy of taking it in his own hand. The impulse is so strong, the casual way he loves touching Juno embedded so deeply inside him, that he nearly does it.
He is a man who gets a thrill out of danger, after all.
“Born and raised, eh?” Peter drums his fingers against the dashboard.
“Yeah, sometimes I feel like I’ll never wash the stink out,” Juno says in that joking way that isn’t a joke.
“I think you smell fine.” Peter says this. He says those words out loud, with his own mouth, to Juno. His fingers stop drumming.
“...Thanks.” Juno clears his throat. “What about you, Rex? One way ticket to Mars from Brahma? Is that where you transferred from?”
“Not quite,” Peter laughs. “I transferred from a college on a moon in the Proxima system. Tiny place, I’m sure you wouldn’t know it. I’ve done a lot of moving the past couple years, haven’t been to Brahma since.”
“Moving around with your mom?” Juno asks, and Peter is caught up like a bird in a turbine engine.
Rex Glass has a mother, he remembers. Peter said as much, weeks ago, offhand. That was part of the backstory, part of a tapestry woven out of lies and passed off as a life, but in the interim Peter has apparently forgotten how to lie to Juno Steel.
“Right, yes.” It’s high time to change the subject, long past time. “Do you know much about Enceladus, Juno? There’s an ice palace completely submerged nearly two miles underwater. I visited once, ah, over vacation.”
“Can’t say I know a lot about the finer things the galaxy has to offer,” Juno shrugs.
“You’ve never been to another planet?”
“Never been off the surface of this red nightmare,” Juno laughs. “I got it in my head that I was going to visit Phobos last summer, because Rita wanted to go to that amusement park they have up there? But uh, that didn’t pan out.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.” Peter relaxes minutely. His shoulders fall back against the unevenly-stuffed seat. “Speaking of Rita, Juno, I have a question.”
Juno’s brows knit together. Peter lets himself admire, for half a moment, the intricacies of Juno’s face. Every expression he makes is perfect, dynamic, a work of art—
“Uh, yeah, shoot.” Juno looks over toward Peter with a conspiratory eyebrow raised. “Fair warning, though, there’s a hell of a lot about her that I don’t know either. She’s just Rita. Sometimes it’s better for your health to leave it at that.”
Half a moment is long since over.
“Oh, I’m well aware Rita is an enigma. It’s part of her charm,” Peter says airily. “No, it’s only that I was wondering, why does she call you ‘Boss’?”
Juno barks a laugh.
“Oh, that. Jeez, that was our freshman year?” Juno shakes his head; fond is the word Peter would use, if it were ever one that fit Juno Steel. “Our floor had this, this dumb gift exchange thing near the end of the year and I got, uh. A mug.”
“What kind of mug?”
Juno looks so embarrassed about it, Peter grins with glee.
“It’s… it says ‘boss lady,’ okay? In big gold letters on the side,” Juno huffs. He mumbles something else that Peter doesn’t quite catch.
“Sorry, what was that?” Peter’s grin stretches his face so wide his cheeks ache.
Juno glares at him.
“I said, I use it all the time.”
“Why haven’t I seen it?” he gasps. “That’s a crime against humanity, Juno!”
“You’re always off to class before I’m even up! Sorry I’m not drinking coffee in front of you twenty four-seven.”
“Oh, you should be.”
Peter’s laughter tapers off into a comfortable silence. He looks away from Juno, out toward the red, red horizon dotted by fellow cars and bikes and haulers making their way across an endless stretch of desert.
A blue gleam catches his eye, twinkling through the rusty wind. It grows larger, like a bubble inflating bigger and bigger until he can make out the sharp spires of towers and shining disks of floating mansions, all trapped inside the dome: an electric, living snow globe, rising in Peter’s view.
“There it is,” Juno says.
There is a catch in his voice Peter doesn’t recognize. Perhaps that is how he should sound, were he ever to see Brahma again. Should, being the operative word; he wouldn’t, he doesn’t think. He and Juno are different in that way, among many.
“Well, let’s see what we can do about this little impound problem, hm?”
Peter’s first sight of Mick Mercury is this:
A tall young man sits at a concrete picnic table, hands folded close to his chest like he’ll lose them if he sets them any further away. He’s under a large, sun-faded umbrella outside what looks to be an out-of-business ice cream shop. He puts down his comms and waves enthusiastically when he sees Juno’s car, arm outstretched above his head and swinging wide like an antigravity pendulum. His hair is a mess and his shirt says “SPAGHETTI GRILL” in block letters.
“Shit, there you are,” Juno shouts out the window, capping off a twenty minute swearing streak as they circled a four-block radius looking for him. “Get in the car, Mercury. Backseat, front’s taken.”
“Thanks again, Jay, I’ll make this up to you I swear— Hey, who’s this?” Mick’s eyes light on Peter as he comes around the side of the car and climbs in the rear passenger side.
“Rex Glass,” Peter maneuvers his arm around the car seat to shake Mick’s hand. “You’re an old friend of Juno’s?”
“Yeah, the oldest,” Mick responds brightly. “Best friends since we were kids!”
“Don’t get a big head about it,” Juno says. “So what do you need us to do, Mick? Got a hare-brained scheme up your sleeve for how, exactly, we're gonna get your bike back?”
“Aw, jeez, I knew I was forgetting something.”
Juno thinks vaguely about how Uselessly Bisexual he is re: Peter.
Also, someone showed me a picture once of the exact mug I have in mind but I don't know if they posted it anywhere or how to find them again. But! I walked past a store that sold almost the exact same thing recently so, for reference, it's real:
An adventure concludes.
Breaking news: there is now ART for this fic! Out there on the internet where everyone can see it!! I've reblogged both of them on tumblr, but I'll link here too: sponch and honeykiwi drew these lovely pieces that made me collapse on the floor in gratitude.
Thanks so much to everyone who has commented and been so kind and supportive! I've honestly never had this level of response to a fic of mine before. I Love You, Penumbra Fandom, and I hope you enjoy what I have in store for you.
Warnings for this chapter: implied violence, suspense, mild alcohol use, mentions of child abuse and death.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Still November 5, XXX34
Rex takes it upon himself to manufacture a way into the impound lot. Juno is a little too busy yelling at Mick most of the six-block drive there—and it’s nice, for once, to not be the person cleaning up the mess.
It’s even a good plan. Juno has experience getting into trouble and getting back out of it through the kind of gutsy shit that either turns out spectacularly or gets him into an even bigger pickle, again and again until one of the crackpot stunts actually works. Rex’s plan feels like the kind that works.
Mick agrees to it immediately, of course, since he doesn’t have to do a goddamn thing besides walk through the gate at the right time.
“Ready, everyone?” Rex raises an eyebrow at Mick and Juno, smiles that sharp little smile—and there’s no other word for it, but he looks dangerous. Suddenly Juno feels displaced, like he and Mick are the goons in some movie and Rex is the slick villain who will shoot them in the head as soon as they get the money and step carefully around their blood on the way out, so’s not to mess up his shoes.
It’s an irrational, ridiculous thought. They’re not even going after any money, Mick’s bike is in the kind of shape that anyone with half a brain would pay someone else to take it.
It’s still a visual Juno can’t quite shake.
“Yeah, sure, let’s get this over with.” Juno grabs Mick by the back of the shirt and drags him around the corner, just out of the line of sight from the guard booth by the gate. Rex tips them a two-fingered salute and strides right up to the on-duty guard.
He hears the familiar tone of Rex’s cheerful greeting, but after that all the words he can catch are a murmur and anybody’s guess.
“What’s he doing, Jay?” Mick whispers.
“Shut up, Mick,” Juno hisses. He can’t see Rex either. He never did tell Juno what it was, exactly, his part of the plan would entail, and it’s been a few seconds longer than he said it would and the gate still isn’t opening and Juno can’t hear voices anymore. It shouldn’t be anything to worry about, but for some strange, nagging reason it is.
There it is again, the image of dripping blood and a limp, open palm and Rex Glass standing spotless in the middle of it. Or, or worse, somehow—why is that worse, it shouldn’t be—Rex is the one bleeding, has a gun to his head, something. Juno’s heart is in his mouth and he’s half a second from calling the whole thing off when the lock on the gate blinks from red to green.
He almost forgets to move until he hears Mick’s voice say his name, urgent. They slip inside, careful of the squeaking of old metal, and Juno doesn’t look back toward the guard station no matter how badly he wants to.
“Alright, Mercury, find your hunk of junk and let’s get out of here.”
“Okay, alright,” Mick rubs his chin as he glances around thoughtfully, “if I were a hoverbike, where would I be?”
“For fuck’s sake, just start looking!” Juno shoves his hands in his pockets. He’s a piss-poor lookout, when he can’t even make himself turn around.
Mick vanishes behind the side of a red sports car with a missing headlight. The uneven peaks of his hair are visible over the roof. Juno keeps one eye on him and an ear out for anything remotely like Rex’s voice—in case he tries to warn them, obviously.
“Hang on, I think I— A-ha!” Mick cries out in triumph.
“Would you keep your voice down?” Juno reminds him again. “We’re not going antiquing, okay—”
“Oh, that sounds like an excellent idea. We should do that after we’re done here, make a day of it,” Rex says casually from just behind Juno’s shoulder, and Juno practically jumps out of his fucking skin.
“What the—?” Juno spins around.
Rex is smiling at him again, but it’s different this time. He looks somehow younger than Juno remembers, even though he last saw him two minutes ago. That’s no fox in the chicken coop. It’s just a boy who snuck up on his friend and had a good laugh at seeing him jump.
“Any luck, Mick?” Rex calls out, but he doesn’t break eye contact with Juno. “Because we have one minute and thirty seconds before we need to disappear.”
“Yeah,” Mick’s voice is raspy, like he’s trying and failing to whisper. “I almost… got it… There!” There’s the sound of his bike’s motor coughing to life, and Rex gives Juno a nod.
They run to the main gate, where Juno and Mick slipped in, and push their hands flat against the rusted metal until it swings wide open with an echoing creak. Rex cranes his neck, checks his watch, and calls over his shoulder, “Now!”
The word has barely left his lips when Mick and his bike—once sky blue, now patchy and worn like a cloudy evening—become a streak and a doppler screech barely a foot from Juno’s arm. The boom ruffles Rex’s hair and Juno’s sleeves as Mick goes off like a shot down the street and around the corner, breaking the speed limit, the sound barrier, and, if he keeps going like that, his neck.
“That went well,” Rex remarks. His watch starts beeping quietly. His eyes flick over Juno’s shoulder. “Time to go.”
“Wha—” Juno starts to ask what the timer was for, but Rex catches his hand and takes off running.
They duck and weave past impounded vehicles, older and rustier the further back they go. Rex’s legs are miles longer than Juno’s—not that he’s noticed. Hell, who is he kidding, of course he’s noticed—but somehow, sprinting for his life next to the guy, he never feels out of step.
There’s a holler of rage from behind them, followed by a rattle of metal. Juno feels it like a kick in the ass, squeezing Rex’s slender hand tighter as adrenaline flushes through him. Their feet stay in a discordant but perfect rhythm. Rex barely has to incline his head before Juno is moving with him, turning a corner or following his steps in some complex old-Earth dance. He hears Rex breathe and feels his own lungs inflate.
They come to the rear corner fence of the lot, shorter and less-maintained than the front because of its proximity to the dome. Rex lets go of his hand—Juno feels its absence like a severed limb.
“Up we go, Juno,” he says with a flash of teeth. He hops up the fence, fingers barely a foot below the top before he even starts climbing, and drops down on the other side in a long flash of skin and dark clothing.
“Not even gonna—” he gasps, “give a lady time to catch—ha—his breath?” Juno puts his hands on his knees and wishes he could outrun the cotton in his lungs.
“We don’t have that kind of time, I’m afraid,” Rex says.
Juno shakes his head and straightens his back. He readies himself, eyes up the fence like a sparring partner he doesn’t trust, and jumps.
He manages to cling to the chain-link for about three seconds, but the moment he reaches up to get a higher handhold his foot slips.
“Shit,” Juno swears as his feet thud back down onto red sand. “Hang on.”
“I really cannot emphasize enough how much we do not have time,” Rex hisses.
He’s not lying. Juno can hear the heavy footfalls of the guard getting closer and closer. They’re behind a wall of cars twelve feet high, but being out of sight won’t protect them forever.
“Okay, dammit, what do you want me to do?” Juno growls as he takes another leap at the fence. It rattles too loudly under him. He gets a hand over the top bar, then slips again.
Rex scrutinizes the fence for a minute.
“Here,” he says. “It’s not rooted down very well.” Juno follows his eyes and sees what he means.
Just past the corner post, the fence warps outward. It looks like a car rolled into it at some point, or maybe just wind or sand or some other troublemaking kid looking for a way out. It’s pulled up from the ground by a few inches, with room for a few more.
“Fuck,” Juno says. Rex is already standing behind the spot on the fence, pulling it up and out to give Juno as much room as possible.
He gets down on his hands and knees, then his stomach, and hopes he can wash all the sand out of his hair sometime in the next week. The points of the fence’s base dig into his back, scrape along his shirt. He reaches forward to pull himself through and his fingers dig into Martian dust.
“Not to put unnecessary stress on you, Juno,” Rex says with a high, nagging note in his voice.
“Yeah, yeah, I’m almost there.” His feet slip out from under the fence and he feels the give of Martian dirt under his shoes once again. Rex gives him an urgent hand up. Juno can feel rough grains of sand squeezed between their palms, but Rex doesn’t let go and neither does Juno.
When Juno stands, he’s closer than he meant to be. Close, close enough that he’s right at eye level with Rex’s mouth, chests barely a breath apart, warm and coursing with adrenaline and covered in dust.
Rex bites his lip—sharp teeth, white and blinding. His eyes are on Juno’s as if he’s the only thing worth paying attention to. Juno knows there’s something, something pressing, but he sways toward Rex and Rex leans toward him and nothing else in this whole rotten galaxy matters one bit.
“Hey! Hey, get back here,” calls an angry, wheezing voice. Rex’s eyes go wide. He pulls away—Juno would feel the distance like ripping off a bandage if they weren’t still joined by the hand—and drags Juno behind him like a ragdoll until Juno can get his feet under himself again.
Then they’re running, and running, feet and hearts pounding and Juno can pretend the rate of his breathing is just the exertion.
They run until the impound lot disappears behind crumbling buildings and the constant fog of dust that hovers in the air this far out. They run until they hit Juno’s car, parked inconspicuously in a tow-away zone, slam hands-first into the doors and scrabble at the handle.
Juno turns the key and roars away from the curb. There won’t be much mid-morning traffic to blend into, but once they hit downtown they should be in the clear.
“Oh, man, guys, that was awesome!” Mick’s voice hits Juno over the head from the back seat and Juno jumps, lets out a short “ah!” he’ll deny to his dying day.
“Shit, Mick, I forgot you were in here,” Juno says. Rex is over there in the passenger seat, laughing silently like an asshole. “Got your bike all packed up in the trunk?”
“Yeah, no worries, Jay. But the way you were all ‘hurry up,’ and you were all ‘now!’ and then you got the thing open just in time and I was all whoosh and I waited for like five minutes and I thought you were gonna get caught but you didn’t—”
“Yeah, Mick, we were there.” Juno rolls his eyes.
“I’m happy to listen to your account of our adventure, Mick,” Rex says, craning around and giving Mick a flutter of his lashes. “Tell me again how incredible my plan was?”
Mick offers them lunch, which turns into celebratory drinks, which Juno knows he’s going to have to cover when Mick inevitably realizes he forgot his wallet, or didn’t get paid this week because he got fired two weeks ago, or something else that’ll put the tab squarely on Juno’s shoulders.
He minds less than he might, all things considered.
“—so Juno here puts his fists up in front of his face, and this girl is like ten feet tall—”
“No, Mick,” Juno sighs, “you were just nine and hadn’t hit your growth spurt yet.”
“Well I remember her being ten feet tall, don’t ruin the story. So Juno’s about as big around as her arm, but he sets his feet and says ‘pick on a lady your own size!’”
Rex throws his head back and laughs. It’s a good look on him—not that everything isn’t a good look on him—the way his throat curves and his eyes close, the way his laugh moves all the way through his chest before it gets to his mouth and Juno can watch it coming. He’s all long and coiled and precise, the one shiny thing on the dusty surface of this planet. It makes Juno’s hands itch. It makes him want to do something they’d both regret.
He takes a drink instead.
“Oh, he sounds precious,” Rex chuckles, wiping at the corner of his eye under his glasses. “If you’ll excuse me.” He nods toward the bathroom and slides off his barstool.
Mick sighs happily. He’s over the moon to be spending time with someone who hasn’t heard every story he’s got exactly as many times as he’s told it.
“So,” Mick says, “he seems nice.”
There’s a goading note in his voice that confuses Juno, but then again, most things Mick does don’t make a micron of sense to anybody who can’t follow his Olympian leaps in logic.
“Yeah, he’s alright,” Juno says warily.
“C’mon, Jay, why can’t you ever admit when you’ve got something good going?” Mick shakes his head. “I may not know much, but from where I’m sitting, he seems good for you.”
“...Thanks?” Juno sips at his drink for want of any way to respond to that.
Mick taps his fingernail against the glass for a few seconds, sounding out what’s probably meant to be a tune, whatever’s stuck in his head at the moment.
“So, how long have you two been dating?”
Juno Steel doesn’t like to think of himself as a cliche. An archetype, maybe, when he’s feeling nostalgic or particularly martyred, but not tropey. Which makes it all the more insulting to his personal sense of pride that he does a spit take all over the surface of the bar.
“We’re not—” Juno protests just as Mick starts laughing.
“I thought you could hold your liquor better than that, Jayjay—”
“Would you just— I can clean this up myself—”
“No, here, I’ve got some napkins, hold still—”
—until they’re practically wrestling, precarious on a pair of bar stools. Juno shoves Mick’s well-meaning handful of wadded-up napkins away and his stool teeters on two legs for a moment.
“Oh, goddammit,” Juno swears. The sick swooping of his gut tells him he’s about to land flat on the floor and crack his damn head open, idiot, but a pair of strong hands on his upper back stops the fall.
“Careful there, Juno,” a soft voice says, breath warm right over his ear. Relief and surprise and the hot kick of want in his gut that Rex sets off at all the most inconvenient of times flood his head until he forgets where he is. Rex’s hands roam up to the curve of Juno’s shoulders without purpose. He touches Juno like that, sometimes—without thinking, dancing so near the line into intimacy that Juno’s spine curves toward him without his permission.
He catches Mick’s eye, and the sappy grin on his face knocks Juno right the hell back into reality.
“Hey, Rex,” Juno pulls away faster than he wants. He thinks he sees a flash of something on Rex’s face, just as he’s coming into Juno’s line of sight. It vanishes before he can blink.
“Will you need me to drive us back?” he asks.
“Yeah, I don’t think so, Mr. Lightweight.” He looks pointedly at Rex’s mostly-empty drink. “I’m fine, and you’re not driving my car.”
“I’ve had one,” Rex protests. He wears umbrage well. It’s an annoyingly good look on him, like the sparkling ear cuff Juno wishes he could pull off or the lipstick Juno wants to help him smear.
“Aww, look at you two,” Mick coos. “Bickering like—”
“We should get going, right, Rex?” Juno can hear the strain in his own voice. He sounds like he’s choking on something, and that something is anger and fear and the tiny voice in his head he’s been nursing all day that says if he ever had a shot, it’s long gone by now.
Talking would only ruin it, hearing Mick talk would only ruin it. Why the hell did he bring Rex along to spend the day with Mick Mercury, public enemy number one among whatever forces roll the dice on who gets the most rotten luck in the universe, anyway?
“It’s barely afternoon, Jay!” Mick says, “and I haven’t seen you in months.” He looks like an overgrown stray puppy—not the cute kind, but the one you see digging in your trash at three in the morning, the one that digs up your neighbor’s lilacs. Juno wants to hang around out of pity, nothing else.
“I have a two hour drive back to Olympus Mons,” Juno rattles off, “not to mention, you know, homework? I do that sometimes now. And I’m sure Rex has places to be.”
He glances over at his roommate, who is polishing off his own drink and eyeing Juno’s car keys where they sit out on the bar top.
“I have plans tonight,” Rex says vaguely, “but nothing urgent.”
“Some party again?” Juno asks. For a guy who Juno’s seen drink a grand total of once—that time being last night—and who rarely talks about other friends with any specificity, he goes to a hell of a lot of parties.
“No, actually.” Rex checks his comms. “It’s a study group, honors students and the like.”
“Woah, that sounds important,” Mick pipes up.
“It sounds boring,” Juno says.
“I have a dean’s list to get on, Juno.” Rex rolls his eyes like this is the most obvious thing in the world. Like anybody actually cares about having their name on the goddamn dean’s list.
“See, Mick? Rex here has some big, important dean’s list business to deal with.” As much as Juno actually should get going, it’s worth it to needle Rex a little. He’s feeling spiteful, maybe, so what?
“Yeah, Jay, I can see that.” Mick sounds deadly serious. “You two better get going, you gotta get your name on that Dean guy’s list!”
“That’s not— Never mind.” Juno snatches up his keys before Rex can think for another second about trying to drive home and shrugs into his coat.
“It was lovely to meet you, Mick.” Rex shakes Mick’s hand. It’s Juno’s turn to roll his eyes. “Keep in touch, won’t you? And take care of that hovercycle.”
“You got it! Good to meet you, Rex.” Mick turns to Juno and throws his arms out. “C’mere, buddy!”
“Yeah, yeah,” Juno acquiesces to Mick sweeping him up in an uncomfortable bear hug—uncomfortable for Juno in present company, that is. Even he has to admit Mick is a great hugger. “Next time you get into trouble at the crack of dawn and need my help? Don’t.”
“I’ll do my best,” Mick nods.
As they’re heading out of the bar—Juno paid, like he knew he would, and glared straight at Mick the entire time he was handing over the creds—he hears a booming well-wish of, “You two be good to each other!”
“What do you think he meant by that?” Rex says.
Juno ducks his chin down into his collar and doesn’t answer.
The red, red sand of Hyperion City sucks at his shoes. Every step closer to the car strains his muscles, his head, the fish hook of this is where you belong stuck so deep in his throat he only ends up spitting blood when he tries to yank it out.
“It would be so much easier to stay,” he thinks—not Juno, but the thing that lives inside Juno and sounds exactly like him. “Just lie down and give up. You know it’s pointless to even try for people like you,” and every ache in him maps out the frame of an old house with a doorway like an open throat.
“Hey! Hey, Juno!” There’s Mick’s voice again, coming up behind him. Juno clenches his fist, takes the span of a heartbeat to let how much he loathes himself replace all the blood in his body, and turns around.
Mick runs up close. He leans down a little to get nearer to Juno, eyes flickering over his shoulder toward Rex for a second.
“Uh, since you gotta get going and all,” Mick rubs the knuckles of one hand into the palm of the other. His voice drops low, and that surprises Juno more than anything, Mick Mercury trying to be discrete. “I just wanted to let you know that… I’ll visit him for you? If you want. On account’a how it’s sort of a little bit my fault you didn’t have time today.”
Juno freezes. Everything in him, muscle and bone and synapses, just stops. The hard crust of Mars’ surface grows deeper into the soles of his feet.
He looks up into Mick’s wide, worried eyes. He needs a haircut, he needs a shave, he needs somebody to look out for him and Juno can’t be that right now, not for anybody. Not anymore.
“Yeah,” Juno finally croaks. His throat feels like a sandstorm. “Thanks, Mick.” Tell him— Juno almost says, but nothing that could follow those two words should ever be said to the living.
The worst part, the absolute worst fucking thing in a whole planet of rusted over promises, is that he didn’t even think of it himself. Today of all days, of every day for the past two years, is the first one he’s spent without thinking, consciously, of the negative space at his side in the shape of Benzaiten Steel.
“No problem, buddy.” Mick claps him on the shoulder. “Have a good drive, okay?”
“Sure.” Juno hates how small his voice is. He hates this city, the people in it, the things it took from him and the way it won’t stop trying to take him back. He hates how much he misses it, despite or because-of or just a motiveless fact of who Juno Steel will never stop being.
Mick walks away. Juno stands still.
Rex has one hand on the passenger-side door. The sandy wind blows his soft hair in a dozen different directions and the look on his face is so full of concern that Juno wants to break something.
“Yeah, coming.” He gets in and starts the car.
The drive back is—it’s alright, actually. Rex is good company, even if Juno’s baseline for comparison isn’t very high. They talk about nothing in particular and quiz each other on xenoanthropology.
It’s good to have a distraction, something to keep him from giving into the impulse to drive into the desert until he runs out of fuel and then start walking until he runs out, too. Juno gets Ancient Martian burial and breeding rituals mixed up, but he finds he doesn’t mind so much when Rex is the one correcting him.
Juno imagines a violent scenario that does not actually occur. Juno and Peter are chased, which begins after the line "he never feels out of step." There is a brief discussion of Benten's death that begins at "I'll visit him for you?" and ends at "Mick walks away."
Peter considers a new hobby; the girls spend a night in; Juno’s grades meet their final resting place.
MARGARET, IT HAPPENED AGAIN. More art has been done for this fic and it's BEAUTIFUL. Please look at this gorgeous piece by mintakablue that they did for Jupeter week! I die I die I die!!!
Warnings: this chapter contains sexual content, mentions of sex, and mild violent imagery.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
November 13, XXX34
Peter, unlike some roommates he could mention, is at the very least considerate enough to restrict certain habits to times when he’s alone in their room.
Juno works odd hours. He’s never on quite the same schedule week-to-week, and rarely knows exactly when he’ll be back. Still, it’s a safe bet on a Friday, when Juno only left an hour ago, that he’ll be gone until at least seven o’clock. That gives Peter an hour and a half, likely longer.
He can take his time.
He’s been wound tight, what with the stress of upcoming exams and the constant, low-level wanting of living with Juno. It’s not that Juno keeps him chronically sexually frustrated; he’s far from the verge of going mad with desire, like people do sometimes in the soaps and novels Rita shares when she comes over. It’s more that he always wants something or other from Juno—always wants Juno somehow.
Not always sexually. Not even mostly sexually. More and more often, Peter finds himself walking to class and wishes Juno were there with him. Or he is with Juno, but he wants to be closer, wants to lay a hand on Juno’s knee or kiss him on the cheek.
Peter always wants to kiss Juno. That one is true.
Well. That’s what this window of alone-time is for: to unwind a little. To distract himself from a few of those needling wants. Peter’s shirt is off before he even sits on the bed, running a thumb over his nipple and a palm across his neck.
He briefly considers grabbing his comms, finding something to get the whole process started. He glances at the clock and decides he’ll make do on his own. Peter Nureyev has an active imagination, after all.
His hands are not his hands; that’s the first, important thing.
His hands are someone else’s. Someone strong, maybe; he likes the thought of being picked up, an arm under his back and one behind his knees, and tossed onto the mattress. He likes the idea of laughter. A long, slow kiss—he runs a finger over his lips. It trails down his jaw, over his Adam’s apple, across his collarbone.
He palms himself, hitches his hips up into the pressure. Someone kisses him on the stomach. It tickles. He thinks about strong hands, steady hands, undoing the button of his pants and pulling them down. There’s impatience there; Peter can be patient. Peter is going to be patient.
He gets a hand around himself. Delicate, teasing touches, that’s it. He gasps under the movement and thinks about curling his fingers in dark hair, about pulling, about hearing a gasp in return.
That gasp comes from a very specific source; it plays in his head like a recording, so well-worn and cherished he can practically hear it aloud.
If he doesn’t name it, he doesn’t have to feel guilty.
“Oh,” Peter sighs. He bites his lip to keep a name from spilling out. These hands are not his hands, but the decision to sit up, root around in his dresser, and find a small plastic bottle is his. He can take his time.
The finger pressing into him soon is Peter’s; he’s having trouble getting away from that. His own fingers are long, quick, slender. Normally fine—more than fine—for this kind of thing, but the fingers in his mind are… different.
If he doesn’t name them, he doesn’t have to lose the fantasy.
He finds the right spot deep inside himself quickly, arches his back and gasps for air and watches the water stains on the ceiling render themselves into constellations. It’s hard to build a romantic scene in a room like this, but he makes do: the sheet beneath him is a picnic blanket; the inconsistent radiator is a warm night breeze.
The hand on him—in his mind it’s a mouth, a lovely mouth, quirking in a smug little grin before ducking down—moves faster, squeezes tighter. There’s a second finger and, he imagines, a palm under his thigh. It pushes his leg up, spreads him out, more room for lips and tongue and not-quite-right fingers. What would the cold, smooth metal of a pierced bottom lip feel like against his skin? Peter wonders.
“Ah, ah!” Peter’s mouth has fallen open. He knows his tongue is lolling out, and wonders if—if someone, someone, nobody in particular—would find that endearing.
If he doesn’t name him, it doesn’t matter.
Peter trembles, looks down at the sight of his own hands on himself and in himself: slim, bony, unscarred. It’s a disappointment, not that he had hopes otherwise, but he’s nearly there anyway.
A shudder runs through him, then a tremor, then an earthquake. He works the fingers inside him in small circles, keeps his other hand moving steadily, and he shakes and shakes and shakes.
His mouth opens, right at the end, and he knows what’s about to come out even as he’s powerless to stop it.
Peter gulps down air. His eyes slip closed as he trembles in aftershocks, a slow, bright calm descending over him.
It ends with a snap when he hears a knock at the door.
“Yeah, it’s me.” And that’s the voice he— That’s Juno’s voice, muffled by synthwood. “Rex? Let me in. I left my keys in my car.”
Peter’s heart pounds, and not in a good way. He stumbles into his boxers and pants, no time to clean himself up properly. Peter wipes his hands on the topsheet of his bed; he needs to do laundry anyway.
The knock comes again.
“One moment!” His voice sounds better than he was worried it might. Peter is not overly vocal, most of the time. Apparently it comes in handy.
There’s no time to button his shirt back up without making it obvious what Juno walked in on. Considering Juno heard his own name from the hallway, candor in this case is not an option.
Peter opens the door.
The very sight of Juno turns his legs to jelly. There are those eyes, that hair he doesn’t bother to keep in any sort of array, his mouth—lip ring—
“Hey, do you have my— What… Are you uh,” Juno coughs and looks away. “Are you okay?”
“Yes. You caught me exercising,” Peter lies. He feels the sheen of sweat on his skin; he knows for a fact his cheeks, ears, and chest must be bright red.
Juno looks at him again with an unreadable expression.
“I’ve taken it up, yes. Posture training, meditation, controlled body movements, it’s all very good for your focus.” It’s not as much of a lie as it could be; Peter has been considering this lately, doing some research. “You should join me sometime.”
“Yeah, I think I’ll pass,” Juno says, just as Peter knew he would. “Do you have my wallet?”
“You got my text, right? That I left my wallet. That’s how you knew I was here?”
“Yes, of course.” Peter sticks his hands in his pockets. These pants are going straight in the wash. “I didn’t know where it was.”
“Oh.” Juno steps across the room, opens his desk drawer, and pockets his wallet. “Sorry for interrupting your… whatever.”
“Not a problem, Juno,” he says breezily. “Have a good time working.”
“Ha, thanks. O’Flaherty has me delivering cat food to some weirdo in the law building.” Juno shrugs. “Lucky he pays well, because I have no fucking clue what the guy actually does.”
“Mmhm, yes, that’s fascinating. You don’t want to be late, now, you’ve already made such a detour.” Peter ushers him out. His underpants situation is becoming distinctly uncomfortable.
“Oh, hey, I’ll probably be grabbing dinner on my way back. I’ll text you where I go if you want any—”
“Yes, absolutely, goodbye!”
He shuts the door behind Juno and leans his back against it, breathing deep. Peter Nureyev knows how to handle it when a plan goes sideways; he never prepared for this. For Juno.
Peter just hopes he can scrape up enough spare change for the washer before Juno comes back.
November 18, XXX34
The end credits roll across the screen, white block letters on a background darker than space. Juno crosses his arms and says, “I didn’t get it.”
“Me either!” Rita gasps in wonder. Her eyes are huge behind her glasses, practically turning into little exclamation points. “It was so weird, the way that guy went to that place and his sister’s wife was there but I thought she died, and then the screen got all woobly and I thought it was your monitor finally givin’ up but it wasn’t, it was part of the movie—”
“Yeah, Rita, I know. I was there.” Juno stretches, feels his shoulder pop. “Why do you keep bringing movies like this one, anyway? Ones that are all…” He makes a gesture towards the name of the studio, a word in Mercurian or Norwegian or something, “film-major-y.”
“I dunno, they seem neat is all…” Rita looks away and fiddles with the edge of her bright pink, fluffy sock. She’s the worst liar alive. Juno knows this like he knows Mars goes around the Sun.
“Rita.” He raises an eyebrow at her and she folds like a house of cards.
“There’s this boy who works at the library who was wearing a Life and Times of Napoleon Entropy shirt the first time I saw him, so we started chattin’ because you know I love that movie and we kinda hit it off, only I realized I forgot to ask him his name or where to find him when he ain’t working so I kept going back and by this point I feel like it’s too late to ask, but he always has really smart movie recommendations for me and I wanna seem smart too! So I look ‘em up and I think, well, it’s not like Juno’s gonna notice one way or another if this movie’s any good—”
“—so I just started bringing his movies over here for our movie nights and none of ‘em are cuddling movies anyway so it’s not like I’m missing out on that,” Rita takes a deep breath, “and I think he might be studying film, now that’cha mention it, only I still haven’t asked him so don’t quote me on any of that.”
Juno takes a moment to sort through everything Rita just threw at him, a thousand klicks a second.
“What’s a cuddling movie?” he settles on.
“Oh! You know, like a movie that’s good for cuddling to,” Rita explains. “Like, one you don’t gotta pay a lot of attention to so you can spend the time figurin’ out whose arm goes where and everything.”
“Huh.” Juno settles against the back of the couch. “And you’re, what, saving up your cuddling movies so you don’t waste them on me?”
“Well yeah, I mean, it’s been a while since I had somebody to cuddle during a movie, Boss!”
“Yeah, me too, Rita.” Juno sighs a little and hates himself for it.
“But not as long as me, you’ve only been single for a few months. I lost count’a how long it’s been since Yasmin and I broke up, although that’s probably got a lot more to do with how I marathoned Fear and More Fear on Phobos right after she graduated, on account’a my aching heart, you know, and it didn’t even work—”
“No, no, Rita,” Juno shakes his head. Rita gets confused about a lot of things that most people might call ‘important’ or ‘necessary for living in human society.’ Apparently calendars are one of them. “You and Swift broke up months after my last relationship ended.”
“Boss, I think I know how long it’s been since I finished Mr. Titan and His Moons,” Rita laughs, like Juno’s a toddler who hasn’t learned to tell time by her TV schedule, isn’t that adorable? “You were with, uh, Lara and what’s-his-name, with the hair and the elbows and—”
Juno laughs. He does, he actually curls in on himself, hands over his face, and laughs. It’s that funny, what Rita mistook for romance.
“We… we weren’t dating, Rita,” he says, aiming for delicate. “That’s not what that was.”
“Course it was! You were gettin’ texts from them all hours of the day and night, disappearing off to go on dates and, and I saw her kiss you that time! And Boss, if you go around kissin’ your friends like that I think we gotta have a real talk about boundaries because if you try that anywhere near me, why—”
“They were dating. Each other.” Juno digs the pads of his fingers into his eyelids, hoping like hell he didn’t put on makeup this morning and forget about it. “I was their joint booty call, Rita, not their—”
“I DON’T WANNA HEAR THAT!” Rita’s face is a mask of horror at the mere concept of knowing any details about his sex life.
“You brought it up!” Juno shouts back, but Rita already has fingers jammed in her ears and a steady stream of “Lalalalalala I can’t hear you lalalalala” burbling from her mouth.
“You— I didn’t— Ritawouldyoucutitout—” Juno tries to cut through her noise, but that only makes her sing louder, so he yells louder, until they’re both screaming and Juno doesn’t even know what words are coming out of his mouth anymore.
“Excuse— Excuse me!”
Juno looks up to see Rex standing in the doorway, looking lost and concerned. Juno taps Rita on the shoulder and she finally stops, follows his gaze, and notices the man staring at the two of them.
“Oh, hi, we were just…” Rita looks at Juno. Juno looks at Rita.
Rex’s face loses most of its concern when Rita bursts into a fit of giggles so intense she almost falls off the couch and Juno chuckles, once, along with her. Rex’s eyes take in the open bottles of nail polish and small mountain of snack wrappers littering the floor.
“Am I interrupting?” he asks with a wry lift of his eyebrow.
“Nuh-uh,” says Rita, still gasping through her giggles. “We were just talkin’ about how long it’s been since either of us has gone out with anybody. Lonely gals club meeting at chez Juno Steel tonight!”
Juno feels a hot rush of blood to his face. Rex doesn’t need to know how pathetic he is, how disastrous he is at relationships in general and romantic ones in particular, and yeah, how he’s lonely. Nobody needs to know that, least of all somebody like Rex.
“I see.” Rex smiles placidly. “Don’t let me disturb you, then. I can study in the library if—”
“Aw, don’t leave on our account,” Rita protests. “Take a seat. We can talk about somethin’ else, since I’m sure you got no trouble getting a date.”
She waggles her eyebrows, which is not something Juno has ever seen Rita’s face do before—and he’s seen Rita’s face do a lot. He knows what she’s doing, too, and he wishes for nothing more in this moment than a huge meteorite to crash straight into Olympus Mons, killing him instantly.
“Rita…” Juno growls. Rita does the one thing she’s best at and ignores Juno.
“C’mon, Rex,” she slides onto the floor at pats the space on the couch beside Juno. “We’re all friends here, and I ain’t seen ya in days.”
“Alright.” Rex surrenders to Rita’s onslaught and takes a seat.
“So, about you and the guyfolks…” she prompts again.
Juno thinks seriously about faking an asthma attack.
“I’ve… left my fair share of broken hearts behind.” Rex smiles that awful little smile, the one like he’s remembering good times nobody in present company was lucky enough to see.
Forget the faking. Juno’s ten seconds away from bumming a cigarette off someone on the street and going for the real thing.
“So you ain’t seein’ anyone now, huh?” Rita’s eyes slide toward Juno. “I’m just a little surprised, is all, since—”
“Yes, well, life moves so quickly, Rita,” Rex tosses his head back. “It can be hard finding someone to keep up.” He flashes his teeth and Juno is blinded by the gleam of them, the shine that comes off him like a fountain of liquid mercury.
“Club meeting’s over,” Juno snaps. “We can change the subject now. How ‘bout that xenoanthro final we got coming up, huh Rex? Real doozy, I hear. You’d think good old Doc Miasma would get sick of reading the same responses to the same prompts about books she wrote, but hey, when you got a niche—”
Juno is babbling, it’s fine, he’s pissed off and babbling and Rita knows him more than well enough to recognize it. Rex, on the other hand, is staring at him like Juno is a puzzle he’s just on the edge of cracking. It’s a sharp look. Juno feels exposed. He wouldn’t like it except he likes it way, way too much.
“Mm, yes,” Rex agrees slowly. “I’m not looking forward to that one. I’ve hardly started reviewing, and I have just as much to get done for my other classes.” He turns away from Juno almost dismissively. Juno gets the impression he found what he was looking for, and that’s not comforting. “Is your workload looking just as insurmountable, Rita?”
“Yeah… Speakin’ of, it’s getting late.” Rita stands up, runs her hands down her skirt—how she can even tell when it’s wrinkled is anyone’s guess, with all that tulle—and ejects the movie chip from Juno’s monitor. “I better be heading back, class an’ exams an’ end of the semester truth serum tests comin’ up.” Her eyes land on Juno, blinking a little too fast. “Walk me out, Boss?”
He wishes people would stop looking at him like they’re trying to see inside. They wouldn’t like what they’d find all that much. Hell, that’s why Juno keeps his eyes forward, picks up on the little details other people miss. Easier to eye up the mess outside the tank than the scum he’s swimming in, breathing, taking inside himself.
He lost the plot of that metaphor, a little bit—it’s late, Juno’s tired and wound up and he’s a criminal justice major, dammit, not somebody who makes words make sense.
“Coming.” Juno climbs to his feet. He doesn’t look back at Rex.
They make it to the stairs before Rita starts apologizing.
“Boss, look, I’m sorry I maybe pushed it just a little back there, but I really think you’re makin’ a mistake not askin’ him at least if he wants to go on a date with you, because I’ve seen the way you look at each other and it’s beautiful!” Her voice echoes in the concrete stairwell, like four different Ritas are all chattering at once. “It’s beautiful and sad like in all the streams, and—”
“Rita.” Juno can’t take this anymore, he fucking cannot. One by one, the Rita voices go silent. “If I asked my roommate on a date, and he said no, what the hell would happen? I come back to our room and act like everything is normal? We get lunch together, or study, or, or, or whatever, only every single time it happens I know and he knows that we’re both thinking, ‘This isn’t a date.’ This is specifically not a date, and maybe he feels bad about it or maybe he doesn’t, but I’m sure gonna feel like the world’s biggest idiot sitting there knowing he knows that I wish—”
Juno cuts himself off, or maybe Rita does it for him.
“But he ain’t gonna say no! That’s my point—”
“Okay, fine!” Juno’s voice is getting higher, and louder, bouncing off the asymmetrical walls around him, but he doesn’t care nearly as much as he should. “Say he says yes, and it goes bad. It goes horribly, actually, because this is my life we’re talking about. Same shit, only this time he hates me. Do you want him to hate me, Rita?”
There is a long pause. Rita’s small, quick footsteps make a sound like dripping water as she and Juno trundle down the stairs.
“I think you’re bein’ a teensy bit dramatic—”
“Oh, I’m being dramatic? I’m—”
“Yeah! You are, Boss,” Rita’s eyes go wide behind her glasses, like even she can’t believe she’s being this blunt. “And if you’re gonna hide in a little cave of sadness forever and ever because somethin’ might not work out the way you want it to, you’re gonna lead a lonely life, is all I’m sayin’.”
Juno opens and closes his mouth like a fish. A hundred retorts are all piling up over each other like a grisly car crash, but he can’t tease one out of the mess to catch the thread of the conversation.
They reach the door before Juno can get out more than an aborted, affronted “Well—”
“I’m fine walkin’ back by myself,” Rita says, staring down at her shoes.
She looks up at him, chews on her lip, and pushes herself to her tiptoes to press a kiss to Juno’s cheek. It’s quick and barely there—Rita’s an affectionate person by nature, but something about Juno must just be magnetically repulsive because this is out of character—and she turns around immediately after.
“Keep thinkin’ about what I said,” she says over her shoulder, walking away.
“Which part?” Juno calls after her. She stops.
“I dunno,” she hollers back. “That’s just the kinda thing they always say on TV.”
Juno doesn’t laugh, but it’s a near thing.
November 29-December 19, XXX34
The last weeks of the semester pass, like always, in a frantic flurry of caffeine and suddenly-remembered deadlines. Juno doesn’t have time to think about Rita’s love advice; his desk becomes a disaster zone, his bed serves no purpose beyond the soft thing he crawls into when he wakes up with his nose jammed deep between the pages of a textbook, and Rex has vanished somewhere deep into the recesses of the library.
Rita texts and calls him, occasionally. She doesn’t sound any worse for wear, which only makes Juno feel several feet closer to death by comparison.
He scribbles notes, writes sentences until the words bleed together, flips over flash cards like a charlatan fortune teller behind on rent. Ramses gives him time off during exams—does so without even being asked, ever since that time last year when Juno passed out in the driver’s seat of his car on the way to make one of his deliveries—which, on the one hand, he’s grateful for.
On the other hand, it gives him no excuse to take a break.
Still, time crawls forward like— like an asshole, what else do you want? And Juno hits the point where all his papers are turned in and there’s no more studying left to be done, because there’s no more time to do it in. His last exam is xenoanthropology, because fate is a lousy son-of-a and professor Miasma is even lousier.
Now that he thinks about it, he’s never actually seen professor Miasma before. She has office hours, sure, but Juno doesn’t even go to those for the classes he actually cares about. For some reason he can’t fathom, though, she’s proctoring their exam herself.
“Probably to watch out for cheaters and kill them on the spot,” Rex comments casually. “Ready, Juno?”
They’re standing just outside the door of a lecture hall—not the one they had class in, but a room in the dark, cold underbelly of the archeology building. There’s nothing down here but rooms full of spare desks and bulletin-boards papered with three-year-old flyers for events nobody showed up to.
“Ready as I’ll ever be,” Juno sighs. “At least we’re about to get this over with, right? Go out in a blaze of glory.”
“Or a body bag.” Rex grins with a mouth full of gallows humor.
“Only one way to find out.” Juno hitches his backpack up and walks through the door.
“Leave me behind,” Juno gasps into Rex’s shoulder. “Save yourself.”
“Juno,” Rex stifles a laugh, “it’s over. We’re free now.”
“Tell that to this monster headache.” Juno shoves through the doors of the building and presses the heel of his hand to his right eye, where a wicked ache throbs like his skull is cracking open. “Did you know Miasma looked like that, by the way?”
“That’s awfully rude, Juno,” Rex admonishes. “But, no. How old do you think she is?” he whispers with something near to awe.
“I think she knows all this Ancient Martian crap because she was there,” Juno says. “Wait, I thought you met her?”
“I only ever spoke to her over comms,” Rex replies. “I tried to drop by her office hours, but she was never there.”
Behind his unflappable exterior, Juno can tell Rex is just as worn out by the whole experience as Juno. It’ll be nice to take a break together, he thinks. He grits his teeth and focuses on the headache instead of the bright, warm feeling that thought brings out.
“So, beyond the paper-mache skeleton woman staring us down the whole time and the carpal tunnel surgery I’m gonna need, how do you think that went?” Juno sits down when they reach the bus stop, sinks low in the bench and lets his legs stick out like they can’t carry him anymore. “Personally, I’d rather lose an eye than take another class with her.”
“Oh, it was torture,” Rex agrees. “I thought the back side was a bit easier, though.”
“What,” Juno says flatly.
“You don’t think so? She put the newer material at the beginning of the test, but the second half was what we’ve had more time to review—”
“No,” Juno forces himself to sit all the way up, “what do you mean, there was a back side?”
December 21, XXX34
Juno’s got nowhere to go back to over break, as always. “Home” is a strange concept for him—he’s always had one, in some way or another. Some place he’s from, but that hasn’t been a comfort since he was barely more than a toddler. Since he got big enough and mean enough to see it for what it was. “Home” is a bloody, wide open mouth calling him back, screaming in his head no matter where he goes.
So he tries to stay in Olympus Mons between semesters when he can help it. As long as he lets campus housing know he has a job around here and lets it slip who he’s working for, they don’t bug him about it. And it turns out, Rex has the same plan.
“Mother is on a nebulae cruise,” Rex explains as the first morning of their month-long respite from class opens up before them. “I’ve got less attachment to her apartment on Cagn than I do to this dorm of ours, and anyway she’s subletting.”
“Right,” Juno says. “Still seems weird to stick around,” he makes a vague gesture at a pile of laundry—mostly his own, Juno admits—“this, when you’ve got other options.”
Rex shrugs and looks at Juno for a long few seconds.
“It’s a bit too late for that. I’ve registered for a winter class. And, anyway,” he smiles, “I enjoy the company.”
“Ha.” Juno wants to fold himself in half and crawl out one of the air ducts—and, at the same time, feels a bubbling brightness come all the way up from his feet like he just got kissed.
“I’m serious, Juno.” Rex rests his ankle on the opposite knee, long legs angling out like the sculpture centerpiece of an art gallery. “Rita is a delight.”
Rex bites his lip like he’s hiding a giggle at his own joke. Juno won’t give him the satisfaction of laughing along, so he rolls his eyes.
“Rita’s not even gonna be here,” Juno says. He tries not to let on how disappointed he is by that fact. “She and Frannie are going to… an amusement park, I think? Rita wasn’t super clear. She said something about how if she tells me too much I’ll jinx their whole trip by association.”
Rex doesn’t hold back his laughter this time. Funnily enough, more often than not he manages to make Juno’s self-deprecation feel more like conspiracy. Like they’re both in on a joke. Rex almost makes him believe he’s not laughing at Juno exactly, but some idea of him that’s only funny in how far it is from the truth.
Nobody’s made Juno feel that way in a long time. Nobody else is still around to do it. Hell, there’s no way Rex will be around for much longer, either. Juno can let himself have this if he knows there’s an expiration date looming. If he knows he’ll get what’s coming to him sooner rather than later.
He can’t have all of it, but he can have this.
“Wait,” Rex pauses. “Who is Frannie?”
Juno pushes his lower lip out with his tongue and thinks for a second.
“I’m not actually sure.”
December 22, XXX34
Juno’s job keeps him busy, Peter has noticed: as in, made careful note of. Busy enough, at least, that he hopefully will not notice the fact that Peter plans to spend more time ostensibly doing schoolwork than his singular interim class would account for.
Plotting takes time, and this last semester has been full of… distractions. The first step is over, a seeming success: straight A’s in everything but xenoanthropology, but an upcoming research assistant position with his Aesthetics of Crime professor should make that a nigh-invisible blemish on his record. The networking is going well enough—though Peter has dropped by the study group less than he meant to, always too busy with Juno and Rita.
Regardless, he has logistical concerns to address. The break between semesters, while the campus is sparsely populated and Peter has virtually no one to answer to, is the perfect time to do so.
One of his feet slips, momentarily, against concrete. There’s a swooping in Peter’s gut as he feels the mistake, but no flash of fear. His hands tighten on the rappel line. He keeps himself steady, high over the campus of Olympus University.
Simwind ruffles through his hair; Peter is certain he looks dashing and adventurous from up here. It’s a shame no one can see, it really is. He wonders what Juno would think, could he see him now.
He locks that thought away as he unlocks the fourteenth floor window.
Peter slips inside an empty room. Formerly an office by the look of it: too small to be a classroom, dark circles and lines on the carpet where a planter and a desk probably sat once upon a time, small holes in the walls where one might hang a calendar or bulletin board. He crosses the room in easy strides—quiet feet; no creaking floors, a plus—and opens the door as silently as possible.
It whooshes gently, but the hallway is empty when he pokes his head out and glances around. The rectangle of motion-activated lights overhead flickers on, the only lights to do so on this floor. No one else is here, then. Excellent.
Peter closes the door, turns, and holds one hand out. His palm is open flat, fingers tight together, as he closes one eye and approximately measures the width of the room. The window remains open from his entrance; he goes there next, placing his hands on either side of the wall, one inside and one reaching through to the outer wall of the building.
Good, that’s good.
He does a mental calculation, closes the window, and walks to the middle of the room. The carpet is an inconvenience, but this is why he began so early. There will be time to worry about precision later; all great art starts with a sketch. These are the broad strokes.
He gets to his knees and lays an ear against the floor. His knuckles rap against the flat carpet once, twice, then move to a different spot, repeat.
Peter Nureyev smiles.
The first section, November 13, contains sexual content. If you would like to skip it, stop reading at "That one is true" and pick back up with "It ends with a snap when he hears a knock at the door." There are non-explicit references to sex near the beginning of the section of November 18. The latter half of the section of November 29-December 19 employs imagery related to Juno's eye trauma from Final Resting Place, though no actual violence occurs.
A hard day; a cold night.
Hi again! Here we are, at the halfway point of this fic, and I just want to say thank you to every single person who has read and enjoyed it so far. To everyone, from the people who have done splendid art to the loyalest commenters to those who have left kudos to lurkers: all of you mean so much to me. I'm sorry I haven't been regularly replying to every single comment like I usually do, but just know that I read all of them and they give me a smile every time I get a new notification. This fic is special to me for a lot of reasons (the longest thing I've ever written, for starters, and time-wise the longest continuous writing project I've ever finished), so it fills me with indescribable pride to know it's special to other people, too.
Warnings: this chapter contains mild sexual references and discussions of child abuse and death.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
December 24, XXX34
It’s evening before Peter notices that Juno ought to have been back by now. He hasn’t answered Peter’s texts all day, not that this is out of the ordinary; Juno seems to regularly forget that his comms can do anything besides make calls. But he’s been gone a good long while, longer than he’s normally out and about for work. Even when he’s busy, he tends to at least stop by their dorm once or twice.
Peter twiddles his tablet pen between his fingers, rolling it end-over-end like a coin trick. It’s an old nervous habit; he’s more accustomed to using a knife.
Where could Juno have gone, practically dawn to dusk? Peter wonders in a way he would claim as “idle” if anyone dared to ask. Julian’s, perhaps. Peter has never met Julian, but a name attached to a story like the kokosh heist is not one that is easily forgotten. Although, Julian isn’t company Juno likes to keep for such a long stretch of time, Peter has gleaned. So Rita, then— But no, Rita is still on vacation with the inscrutable Frannie.
Another option for his evening’s activities presents itself in Peter’s mind’s eye: Juno, laid out in a stranger’s bed, shining with sweat and arching his back and—
Peter only realizes he’s tried to stab the desk when his pen goes clattering from his hand onto the floor.
He watches it fall with a detached interest. This might require some deeper reflection; jealousy is a survival tactic, but envy is a bad look on him. Then again, it would be so much easier to tuck this away in the back of his mind, seal it up, and never think about it again. Letting things breathe is how they grow. It is how they spread and invade and take up more room than he can afford. Peter Nureyev is an expert in choking out inconveniences, in weeding the garden of his own mind.
Still, it’s getting late, and Juno hasn’t called him back.
His fingers are tapping out Juno’s contact in his comms before he registers what he’s doing. It beeps several times before shutting off abruptly.
So. Juno is declining his calls, then.
At least he has a hand free and the presence of mind to notice the comms ringing, if only to shut it off. Not that it would matter if he were too busy, mind, but it’s a quiet relief nonetheless.
Peter is in the middle of a complicated doodle of the Modern Solar Literature professor he had last semester when the key rattles in the lock. He looks up, and there is Juno, looking more tired than Peter has ever seen him.
“You’re back late,” he comments, then hesitates when he notes the dim exhaustion in Juno’s eyes. “Everything alright?”
“I think I just…” Juno scrubs a hand over his face, then kicks the door shut and starts shedding layers as he walks to the bed. “I need to sleep.”
“Yes, you look—” Peter cuts himself off as Juno faceplants into his own bed and starts snoring almost immediately. “Tired.”
He gets up with silent movements, clicks off the light, and sits in the glow of his tablet for another hour before getting ready for bed. Juno is out cold, sleeping deeper and more soundly than Peter can ever remember seeing him do before.
December 25, XXX34
Juno keeps his eyes firmly closed until Rex leaves the room come morning. If his roommate knows he’s awake, he’ll only try to talk. Ask where he went yesterday. There are questions, a lot of them, Juno never wants to answer. Some things are better off taken to the grave.
The drive from Olympus Mons to Hyperion and back takes it out of him on a good day, drained by the glare of the sun on the sand and the overbearing weight of gravity when he enters orbit around the “City of First Light.” And Juno’s birthday is never, not once, a good day.
But that birthday, despite a baker’s dozen years of being told otherwise, has never been only about Juno.
So he made the trip. Sat in the run-down cemetery even the Steels could afford a little plot in and tried not to turn his head too far to the right. It’s not fair that they let her near him, even in death. It’s not right, burying a boy’s murderer five feet away just because they share a name, a bloodline, a single survivor to carry them both.
It’s better than it has been: this time last year, he had an exam to study for. It’s better when he can get away with not having to be a person for a couple of days.
Juno only gets up to take a piss, scarf down three granola bars, and drink so much water so quickly he can feel it sloshing around in his stomach. When Rex comes back to the room, he doesn’t comment that Juno seemingly hasn’t moved in twelve hours.
He’ll rejoin society tomorrow. Probably. Maybe.
Right now, he just needs sleep.
December 28, XXX34
Juno wakes up two hours before his alarm to chattering teeth and the sound of Rex’s teapot burbling.
“What the fuck,” he croaks. His throat is dry and his toes are cold.
“M-morning, Juno,” Rex greets him.
Juno burrows out of his blankets with his face and blinks in the morning light. Rex is standing over his boiling water, wrapped in a huge comforter like a walking tent. Where toes peek out from under the edge of the blanket, Juno spies the gaudiest fluffy socks he’s ever seen—and he used to live with Rita.
“Did you open the window or somethin’?” Juno glances over and answers his own question with a resounding no. He does, however, see hairline fingers of frost creeping their way along the glass outside.
“The heat’s gone down in this building, apparently.” Rex manages to sound appalled, haughty, and scathing even through his shivers. “Campus residential management was kind enough to leave a note on the door.”
“They gonna fucking fix it?” Falling into bed immediately after kicking off his pants last night was a bad idea for the ages. Juno weighs the cost-benefits of braving the elements in search of sweatpants and warm socks.
“They had certainly better.” Something dark and hard as glare ice falls over Rex’s face. The timer on his tea beeps softly.
He snaps out of whatever that was and putters around in his soft blanket and stocking-feet. Juno wants to crack him like a safe, like a book, like a glowstick when you’re five and the simplest things make the world just a little bit magic.
He punishes himself with cold air on his bare calves. Mismatched socks and whatever unwashed sweats he can unearth from his dresser are good enough. Not like he’s got anyone to impress this morning.
“Got class today?” Juno asks, after he dives back into his messy nest of a bed. Some of the blankets he buries his face in are due for a wash, long since due. That’s fine, Juno’s the only one ever in this bed anyway. He tries not to think too hard about why that might be.
“Mhm,” Rex hums in confirmation, “and a meeting with my advisor.”
“Least we’ll both be out of the room.” Juno talks to disguise the way he’s staring at Rex, entranced by the simple elegance in the way he puts his cup to his lips. Steam curls around his nose. His throat bobs.
“Here’s hoping we won’t come back and freeze to death,” he says.
“There’s worse ways to go. Worse places to freeze,” Juno says. “A meat locker, for one.”
Rex is silent for a few seconds.
“The freezer in the cafeteria?” he offers. “This cold is going to give me nightmares about dying under boxes of fish sticks.”
It isn’t that funny, really. Juno laughs anyway. Rex smiles softly, barely a twitch at the corner of his mouth as he looks out the window with a steaming mug in his hands.
It’s not everything Juno’s ever wanted, no swelling music or profound revelations. This is just Juno and Rex and a cold, slow morning as Mars spins on its axis and tilts further into winter.
“Gender Thieves of the 48th Century” is a fascinating lecture, made all the more engaging by its short three-week span. Peter sits attentively through class, doodles a particularly memorable getaway rickshaw, stops by a cafe on campus for lunch, and has a successful meeting with his advisor.
“I try to do some follow-up on all my students,” Mr. Engstrom explains, “but I’m having trouble getting ahold of your records through your previous institution. Any idea why that might be, Mr. Glass?”
Engstrom must have cut an imposing figure, once upon a time. Now, he’s a retired hack with a book, a cushy university position, and a face sinking with age like a souffle. Peter knows the history and name of the man sitting in front of him; that fact alone gives him the upper hand. It’s his favorite feeling: power only he knows about.
“Well, sir,” Peter plays his part, “the system of campuses was just in the middle of centralizing to Erebus when I transferred…” He lets the sentence swallow itself in implications of bureaucratic hellscapes.
“I see,” Engstrom huffs. He doesn’t probe any further.
One final errand, a visit to the magnetic sciences building that leaves his pockets quite a bit heavier, and Peter makes his way back to the dorms.
He takes a long moment, on the walk, to appreciate the violet-red light streaming down in the late afternoon. The sky outside is burning amber, but the dome slides it down the color spectrum even on the orangest of days. Soon it will fade into a truer blue, a sunset that must have seemed backwards to those who first settled Mars all those millennia ago, born with their feet on the Earthen ground.
Peter is from nowhere in particular, not anymore. He’s spent the last two years keeping his feet as light as possible, hoping they’ll forget where they came from. Step carefully; don’t leave a trace on any planet’s surface. Don’t let it leave a trace on you.
His thoughts return to Juno. Peter is caught in an orbit of sorts, of late—of late, he can convince himself, does not mean since the day they met, though any other starting moment for that ticking clock is vague—falling ever inward to the center of Juno Steel. Juno, who leaves footprints everywhere he goes. Peter could practically trace his steps across the Martian desert, follow the echo of him down Hyperion streets if he wanted.
And Mars has left its mark on Juno, too; they’re two inexorable things, named for a goddess and a god. Eternal and sublime.
He has been thinking in pairs, lately: in sets of two. Juno and Mars. Juno and Rita. Phobos and Deimos and Juno’s eyes. No room, certainly, for a third variable. Peter plays at semi-divine, but that’s a game and a lie. He is an only child in the grandest sense of the term, so he never learned to play well with something like Juno and Rita’s strange sort of sisterly bonding.
He’d happily fall into the darkness behind Juno’s eyes and float there like an ancient space probe for a hundred eternities, if that were an option presented to him. Peter would give him a fair trade, a set for a set if Juno asked.
Juno won’t ask.
Even as the certainty guts Peter like a plasma knife, he knows it’s for the best. He has a job to do here. He has a plan, and it’s going well. He’s never run a con this long before, never stayed in one place and built relationships—they say an important part of the college experience is future networking, after all. Rex Glass will come in handy down the line, but only if he stays focused.
He makes it to the building just as a chilly gust of simwind reaches its fingers under his hood. Today has been especially cold, especially windy, and he’s glad to come back to warmth.
That hope dampens when he opens the door to the sight of Juno—or, a pile of blankets even taller than he usually keeps on his bed, vaguely Juno-shaped, a tuft of blue-and-black hair poking out crankily from the top.
“They haven’t fixed the heat, I take it?” Peter asks, though he answers his own question when he shucks off his jacket and feels the cool air against his skin.
A few muffled sounds, probably supposed to resemble human speech, come from the pile of Juno across the room. Peter can’t make out individual words, but the cadence is irritated and likely dappled with curses.
“My sentiments exactly.” Peter rustles through his dresser for a sweatshirt—his coat is a thin, shiny material perfect for blocking out the wind, but terrible for comfort. He can already feel goosebumps rising on his arms.
The evening passes in shivers and aimless, muffled complaining from Juno, as Peter tries very hard to study. His tablet can’t sense fingertips through his gloves, and if he takes the gloves off then Peter is the one who can’t feel them. He gives up not long after and climbs into bed.
“Juno,” Peter says thoughtfully as he curls up in his bed sheet, “did you steal my blanket?”
There’s a long, tense silence from across the room.
“No,” says Juno. The lump of blankets that has become his living form shifts slightly, pulling a familiar blue comforter out of sight.
“Juno,” Peter whines. “You’re trying to kill me, is that it? This was all a long assassination attempt. I knew it, you fiend. My toes are falling off as we speak.”
Juno sighs. Peter can feel the eyeroll happening under three layers of blanket. His head pops out like a lavaturtle from its molten shell.
“What do you want me to do, huh? I’m cold too, Rex.” Juno can be such a brat when he feels like it, Peter thinks. His bottom lip sticks out in a little pout, which, really. Being that cute should be outlawed, not that Peter puts stock in that kind of thing.
He gets an idea, watching Juno frown angrily at the cold and hog all the blankets for himself. It’s a practical one, really, the obvious solution in a situation like this. It’s not as if they haven’t done something like it before—albeit never sober.
Peter looks out the window, sees the sky glowing a deep azure as the last of the sunset fades into night. Their room will only get colder. He clears his throat.
“We could always do the sensible thing,” he says, “and share the blankets.”
He refuses to look at Juno’s expression. If he keeps his eyes locked on the window, he won’t see Juno frown even deeper; he won’t have to know what Juno looks like when he rejects Peter’s presence in his bed.
More importantly, Juno won’t see anything damning in Peter’s eyes. He’s very good at that; hiding from him is like a car chase, or a dance. Fast but coordinated, thrilling, unlike anything else.
“That’s…” Juno’s voice is rough and thin—the cold must be getting to him, perhaps he’s sick, the poor dear. “That’s a good idea, actually.”
Peter tries very hard to saunter toward him nonchalantly, rather than giving in to his instincts and scrambling desperately under the covers. He does a good job, he thinks.
Juno is warm next to him, and soft. Peter can feel the gentle give of his upper arms against his own. He can’t repress a contented hum.
“Hang on,” Juno grumbles. Peter can only just make out the crooked angle of his mouth in the dim light. “My leg is under, okay—”
Peter shifts back to give Juno room to organize himself, then sets about doing so too. There’s quite a bit of “No, wait” and “Your arm, no, my arm,” and it quickly becomes clear that the narrow mattress is not made to fit two people who aren’t extremely accustomed to sharing personal space. Peter has a lot of limb to go around, and Juno’s a little wider, but eventually— Eventually, they fit.
Peter ends up with an arm around Juno’s waist. Juno’s arm is under his neck, an extra support below the single pillow they share. Out of necessity, of course.
He can feel Juno’s breath against his cheek. They’re both studiously avoiding eye contact; despite that, Peter feels calmer than he has in— In a very long time. Juno’s breathing, the steady beat of his heart against Peter’s chest, the softness of his waist and stomach. Peter wants to run his hands over every inch of skin where they’re pressed together, where they’re not, every part of Juno he hasn’t had the privilege to touch yet. He wants, and wants—
But there’s little urgency in that wanting, despite it all. He cannot have Juno in all the ways he’s quietly imagined in the moments he allows himself to peek behind the closed doors of his mind, but he can have this.
He has Juno in his life. He has Juno in his arms, now and in the brief moments he gives him a hug or a squeeze to the shoulder. That’s something to be grateful for; he’s still learning it, this intimacy.
Juno clears his throat, shifts his hips; his long lashes flutter and he catches Peter staring. His eyes are deep and keen, shining even in this dark space they’ve carved out together. Peter’s fingers twitch against Juno’s shirt.
Juno’s beautiful lips—chapped a bit with the cold—part. He inhales.
“Rex…” Juno whispers. Something rises inside Peter at the sound of his false name in Juno’s mouth.
Hidden from Peter’s awareness, the fuse inside him has fizzled ever lower and lower. He meets Juno’s eyes, the whole world turns blue and grey and finally, finally tender, and the wick runs out.
“Peter,” he whispers back. “Peter Nureyev.”
The section for December 24 contains a single non-explicit sexual description after the line "Another option for his evening’s activities presents itself."
The section for December 25 deals with themes of death and grief.
A new name; a new year.
Just a reminder to all the lovely people who have or are planning to make art for this fic: PLEASE @ me in it on tumblr if you can, and if you can't or if I don't notice it feel free to DM it to me! Seriously, if you do so much as a doodle based on anything I've written I want to see it.
Also, best of luck and big heart emojis at everyone else participating in the upcoming Penumbra Mini Bang! Keep an eye out for those works; I've gotten to hear about a few people's plans for their fics and let me tell you, there's some good content coming your way.
This chapter contains mentions of violence and peril, mentions of sex, and alcohol use.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
“…What?” Juno asks. Rex’s face freezes like Mars’ ancient glaciers. Juno can’t make out the details in the dim light, but he picks up on that much. “Who—? Who’s Peter Nureyev?”
Rex’s eyes don’t waver, and Juno feels sick. This Peter Nureyev could be anybody. Probably a guy from Rex’s study group, smart and funny and going places, unlike Juno. This is Rex’s way of telling him to back off. It’s not like Juno’s been subtle, leaning into every casual touch like a lonely rabbit in springtime heat, memorizing the way Rex moves and forgetting to look away. He’s found someone else, and now Juno’s crossing a line with the pathetic way he sighs Rex’s name.
That’s fine. It’s fine, Rex deserves a guy like that. Better than Juno could give him. Still, he rolls the name ‘Peter Nureyev’ around in his head and decides he hates him already.
Which makes the answer to his question unbalance Juno all the more.
“I am.” Rex isn’t breathing as he says it. The slow expand of his ribcage next to Juno’s has stopped, turned to stone. “That’s my name. Not the one I answer to, not anymore, but it’s my… yes, that’s my name.”
“What.” Juno’s mind screeches to a halt and sits idle—apart from the single thought, full-formed and cut like a gemstone as if it’s been there all along and waiting for him to uncover it, that Peter Nureyev sounds a hell of a lot more like the name of an actual human being than Rex Glass.
“I— I should go.” His arms, still wrapped around Juno’s waist, twitch as if he’s about to pull away.
“Go where?” Juno doesn’t consciously decide to grab him, to hold him in place, but before he knows it his hand is wrapped tight around one of those arms. Rex—Nureyev—looks up at him like a cornered animal and Juno softens his grip. “No, hang on, just. What?”
“I’ve told you a bit about what I left behind on Brahma.” His voice is steady, but strangely distant. His arm is unnaturally still under Juno’s hand. “I haven’t been… entirely honest about the circumstances of my departure.”
Juno thinks about lasers cracking down from the sky. A seat at the dinner table filled one night and empty the next. The way the ripples of war still tear lives and planets and people apart even inside the Solar system, when news of death or failed armistice make it this far in. He sees a young man in front of him, and in his mind’s eye he sees a boy, lean and tall, not yet grown into his bones but forced to run and hide from a name that marks him as a fugitive.
He thinks about another kid with a habit of disappearing. Never getting far, sure, but that doesn’t mean all the shit he’s running from makes him much fun at parties.
Juno breaks the hold on him and sits up. His roommate’s face flashes with a hurt that Juno feels in his abdomen before it’s quickly, smoothly covered.
“So be honest,” Juno says.
“I… Excuse me?” He sits up too. They sit side-by-side in Juno’s narrow bed like a pair of dolls propped up in a plastic house. Too formal. Juno wants to slouch and feels like he shouldn’t.
“You said you haven’t been honest.” Juno picks at a loose thread in his blanket and tries not to wish he hadn’t said anything in the first place. “Sounds like you’re trying now, so do it. Tell me the truth, or whatever.”
There’s a strange weight behind the words. Juno dares to glance out of the corner of his eye and sees that he looks like he’s resigned himself to a fight. As much as Juno might like to give him one—the nagging need burrowing up his brainstem Juno can’t ever shake, the one that’s gotten him into more trouble than anything else in his life, to ask too many questions and pick apart a story until it all makes sense—he clamps his jaw and nods.
“You want to get some food?” Juno grunts. “We can, I don’t know, talk. If you want. Or we can drop it and never mention this again.”
“Food sounds lovely, Juno.” He smiles, teeth lighting up the darkening room like neon: tacky and false.
He—Nureyev—talks a lot but doesn’t say much. Which Juno would be the world’s biggest hypocrite to complain about, but that makes it even worse, since Juno has gotten good at reading him. His smiles in particular. Juno practically catalogues those smiles.
He’s always been observant.
Okay, the guy’s faking a smile, so what, Juno thinks. There’s something here he’s not telling, but maybe, just maybe, that isn’t a reason to pile everything within ten miles of trust in a dark alley and toss a lighter on top. Maybe he has secrets that are better left buried. Juno can relate.
Privately, paradoxically, and against his own will, a realization has crept up on Juno and waited ‘til now to hit him over the head: no matter what name is attached to this face, he thinks he knows exactly who this man is. Juno’s a cynic—nature or nurture, take your pick, where Juno puts his money depends on the day—but for once, knowing what he thinks is the truth of someone doesn’t make him want to take off running. That scares him less than it should, and that scares him a hell of a lot.
He wants to punch his own lights out for this reflexive distrust, and for the needling desire to nose around where he’s not wanted that makes up about seventy percent of his personality. At that, one that gives his—roommate, friend, something—cause to be scared of him.
The air between them stays cold and silent as they make their way to the late-night falafel truck parked a block and a half from their dorm, until Juno does what he does best. He opens his mouth and fills the quiet with meaningless noise.
“You ever notice how all the graffiti in this town looks like pineapples?” Yeah, that’s good conversation. “Like, there’s that one in the alley over here literally of a pineapple, and the one of the Dean of Students as a pineapple down on 64th and Crater, and the tag I keep seeing on road signs that might be a bunch of pineapples, and might be the city marking which ones need repair, actually, now that I think about it…”
Juno doesn’t notice that he’s waving his hands until one crosses his line of sight. His skin is dry and the nail polish Rita assaulted and battered him with a few weeks back has chipped down to abstract, cubic shapes around his cuticles. He flips his wrist in a gesture that has never communicated meaning to anyone in human history—not that it really matters, with the way his companion seems halfway to the stratosphere behind the eyes.
The guy behind the counter doesn’t look up from her comms as they approach, a sharp blue glow lighting up her chin.
“What do you want?” Juno asks. “I’m buying.”
“You don’t have to—”
“Call it a friendly gesture,” Juno shrugs as he eyes up the menu board. “Heard of those, always wanted to try it sometime.”
“If you’re sure.” His posture, his voice, his eyes— It’s all distant. Careful. He told Juno something he shouldn’t have and now he’s paying for it, in one way or another.
And Juno missed it. He missed it all those times he watched him get flighty or disappear into his own head, too still or too fast like watching a video on a faulty comms connection. Too wrapped up in his own bullshit to care about the boy living five feet away from him when it didn’t involve wanting him naked, isn’t that just the way, Steel? See a guy clam up every time anyone asks something a little too personal and assume he’s a suave man of mystery, not another traumatized kid just trying to keep himself sane.
Not anymore. Juno’s going to get him fed, then he’s going to shut the hell up for once in his life and let things be. Let a mystery be a mystery. Given how much garbage from his own life Juno has alluded to since they’ve known each other, he can hope… Peter—Peter, the rhythm of that suits him, somehow—will return the favor.
“The lounge in the union is probably still open,” Juno suggests, once they’re both cradling warm little to-go boxes in their hands. “It’s gonna be empty this time of night, with break and all, and I’m willing to bet they keep the heat on in there—”
“I’d rather go back, I think.”
“Yeah. Sure. Of course.”
The walk back is quieter. Juno decides he’s made enough useless chatter for one night.
Juno has nearly picked a hole in his takeout box by the time he’s back in their room, trying to decide where to park himself. It’s still freezing in here, even more with the loss of sunlight, but curling back up in bed together feels wrong, somehow, with the distance they’ve kept. Juno Steel doesn’t have much experience making people comfortable. It’s kind of, well— Doing the exact opposite is kind of his thing, given a past to extrapolate from.
Quiet footsteps behind him. Juno turns, watches him close the door, and watches a pair of eyes watch him right back.
There’s a flash in those bright, bright eyes. Juno’s seen it before, this morning and all those weeks back at the junkyard. Sharp, unknowable like the void of space—Juno feels, deep in his gut, a prophetic paranoia that Peter Nureyev is about to kill him in cold blood for the crime of knowing his name.
It passes, like all strange fantasies pass. Gone like the frost on his window by noon.
“What should I call you?” Juno asks. Some part of him feels guilty for bringing it up, as if either of them could be thinking about anything else.
“Rex in public, still,” he says. His posture is thawing slowly. His shoulders dip slightly, a familiar easy slouch. “Peter when it’s just the two of us. If you like.”
“Got a preference?”
He chuckles. Juno has heard him laugh a dozen different ways—throaty and real, sardonic and dry, condescending pity—but this mirthless thing that comes out of him now is new.
“I haven’t had the luxury of one in a very long time,” he says. His back straightens, a long inhale through his nose, and he levels a look at Juno that makes him feel like he should be wearing a tie. Or a laser-proof vest. “There’s quite a lot I can’t tell you, Juno.”
“Fine by me.” Juno swallows down the stubborn curiosity crawling up his throat. Not the goddamn time.
“But I can tell you that… that name, my birth name—” He clears his throat and settles into his desk chair. The wheels squeak a bit under his weight. “It’s very important that you don’t tell anyone. Anyone at all.”
“I mean it, Juno. Even Rita, or—”
“I said I got it.” Juno’s tone turns harsher than he means it to. “You’re not the only guy with secrets, alright?” I know what something like that is worth, he doesn’t say.
They sit, a beat, in silence.
“Well.” He clears his throat again. His fingers trace over the edge of his chair, long and restless. “I hope you treat this secret of mine with as much care you would your own.”
“Yeah,” he agrees, and remembers the promise he made earlier, to be a good friend for once. Failed step one. Juno opens his box and starts shoveling falafel into his mouth. “You gonna eat yours, or what,” Juno swallows, “Peter?”
The edges of his eyes crinkle behind the shiny shield of his glasses.
“Since you went to all the trouble,” Peter says, reaching for his own takeout container.
Somewhere, deep in the building, the heater kicks to life.
December 29, XXX34
“Hey, Peter,” Juno says, “toss me my comms.”
That’s what starts it.
There’s a dead silence from behind him. Juno turns, about to repeat himself, and sees Peter standing stock-still in the middle of the room, fingertips just resting against where Juno’s comms lie on the nightstand.
He looks up, and his face is gaunt and haunted. That’s fear—no, that’s panic, Juno knows that look. He even knows it on Peter, now that he’s got enough of the pieces to see the outline of the puzzle.
“Are you, um,” Juno doesn’t know what word could possible suffice, since the guy is definitely not okay. “Okay?” Dammit.
“Yes.” He nods. “Right. Yes, I’m fine. I’ll be fine.” Some of the color comes back to his cheeks. The little movements that reassure Juno he’s alive and breathing replace his sudden stillness. “It’s just… I haven’t heard—” he clears his throat. “I haven’t been called by my name in a long time.”
“I don’t have to—” Juno offers, although now that he knows Peter’s name it’s going to be a royal pain putting that cat back in the bag. Juno is like some extinct Earthen predator whose jaw locks up when he gets his teeth in a truth, everyone always told him so. Can’t let go to save his life.
To save Peter’s life, though, he’d try.
“No.” Peter straightens his collar and runs a hand through his hair—styled with an air of roguish carelessness, as always, though Juno knows he spent half an hour on it earlier. “All I said was I haven’t heard it in a while. It takes some getting used to.”
“And you… want to hear it again?” Juno hazards. “From me?”
“Yes. I do.” Peter says this simply. Straight and to the point.
Juno knows that tone, and knows he’s only heard it under two circumstances: when Peter is absolutely certain of what he’s doing, and when he’s rolling the dice on a move so risky the universe must only let it work out of sheer, dumb surprise. Hell, maybe those two are one and the same. Betting on Juno is a good way to get into bad debts, but Peter Nureyev doesn’t seem to care.
“Right. Good.” Juno drums his fingers on his desk. “Can I…”
“Can you what?” Peter’s eyes dart to Juno and he steps closer. His hand twitches like he’s about to reach out. “You can ask me, Juno, I won’t be upset.”
“Uh,” Juno stammers, “I meant, can I have my comms now?”
It’s a little thrilling, and a lot funny, catching Peter off guard. He shuts his eyes and smiles, tossing Juno his comms.
“And I hope you choke on it.”
“That doesn’t even make sense, Nureyev.”
“You don’t make sense.”
“Right, so we’re five now, I get it. See if this makes sense,” and he throws a pillow right at Peter’s head.
“Oh, Juno, you’ll pay for that,” he says cheerily, and launches his own attack.
Winded and panting on the floor, having succumbed to defeat, Juno asks, “When was the last time you heard your name?”
Peter breathes in audibly through his nose. “Two years and ten months.”
“Woah,” Juno whistles under his breath. “That’s…” Just being on the precipice of saying it hurts somewhere deep in his chest, in his throat, in the wet and tearing way that it always does, “longer than it’s been since I’ve seen my brother.”
“You have a brother?”
“I’m sorry.” And he sounds it, too.
“Don’t have a mom anymore, either, though that one’s—” Juno stops himself from saying better, or good, or a goddamn relief, because at least she found out what dying was like and I hope to God she felt afraid. “But I’ve always had a name, so I’m doing okay if you don’t think too hard about it.”
“It’s an interesting one,” Peter offers. “Your name, I mean. Juno. Juno.”
The way he says it, like sampling a fine wine, savory, sends a warm shiver through Juno. He disguises it as a shrug.
“You know much about Juno, Peter? The goddess, I mean?” Juno clumsily changes the subject. “I hear she was a real piece of work.”
“I can’t say I do, no. But it sounds like you know a story or two.” He settles back against the wall and pats the mattress beside him. “Regale me?”
“I’m not much of a narrator, but I’ll give it a shot.” Juno climbs into Peter’s bed, starts talking, and doesn’t even force himself to avoid the tiny, casual touches that come from being in orbit around Peter Nureyev.
It’s been a long time since he told a story—at least, to someone else. Juno still narrates in his own head, or out loud when he knows he’s alone. It’s an old habit. Old as the rock under his feet.
Juno loved bedtime stories. For a given value of love, at least. The indulgent kind. Juno loved them, but he didn’t need them. He wasn’t the only one in the habit of listening, though, so when the storyteller got her stories stolen, Juno started picking up the slack.
He hasn’t thought about that in a long time: whispers under a blanket, two little hands grasping each other like the only solid things in the world. Repeating the old stories at first, until things got so bad for so long he couldn’t bear the taste of putting her words in his mouth. Then, finding new ones wherever he could, stealing any tale at all piece by piece to bring home and covet.
Then they grew up. They grew out of it.
Juno knows there must have been a last time, but in his memories the habit fades away with no fanfare. No decision-making. There one day, five years old. Long gone the next, five years ago. The fairy tales lost their shine, worn out with use.
A far cry from a fairy tale, the stories he tells Peter now. Myths—practically prehistoric, already ancient when the ancients wrote them down—full of blood and vengeance and weirder sex than Juno could make up on his own.
Peter seems to like that last part. Juno curls his lip, but his disgust only to spurs his audience on, “Tell me more, Juno, how do you think it worked?” until it raises a laugh out of them both.
“Did anyone really believe that?” Peter gasps, hand over his chest and smile in his voice.
“That’s how the stories got told back then,” Juno says with a shrug. “No story makes any goddamn sense, but we’re so used to the ones we know that we don’t think about it. When a story breaks the rules, it’s a bad story. But life doesn’t follow rules, so stories don’t actually look like life, and when you hear a story that follows different rules you barely recognize it as— Why are you looking at me like that?”
Propped up on his elbow, Peter stares at Juno with some unthinkable expression on his face.
“Nothing,” Peter shakes his head. “It’s only, you’re—”
“Full of shit?” Juno guesses, at the exact same second that Peter says, “Incredible.”
“Oh.” Juno wonders how he could have gotten sunburned while doing nothing but sit here. It’s the only explanation for why his face feels so hot his skin might peel away.
“I didn’t say stop,” Peter prompts him after a few seconds of silence. “So what did Juno do to him after that? Whatever it was, he deserved it, I’m certain.”
“Eh, don’t count on it,” Juno hedges. “See, it wasn’t him she smote with her heavenly wrath. Wait, smited? Smitten?”
“Smelt,” Peter says, deadpan.
December 31, XXX34
Music Peter does not recognize sets the effervescent tone of the party. People whose names Peter will keep in a neat index in the back of his mind for the next few months spin around him like a carnival ride. The sound of laughter; the smell of alcohol; the glittery, bobbling headbands that flash in the light as they move on their long springs: Peter is growing accustomed to this setting.
‘Party’ used to mean quiet string music and valuable possessions he was meant to steal. It meant false laughter and a painfully straight spine under itchy clothes. Now, here, it means something altogether different.
There’s nothing at all worth stealing in this house, for one thing. Hardly a dress code, for another.
A boy with a pair of keen blue-gray eyes catches Peter’s elbow and smiles, a silent invitation to dance, to drink, to watch the numbers fall toward the turning of the year. Peter doesn’t know what possesses him to knock back the rest of his punch—bubbly and sweet, stinging on its way down—and wrap an arm around the boy’s shoulders.
The eyes, perhaps. Yes, certainly the eyes.
The boy is not a very good dancer, but then again, Peter assumes he has never needed to be. There is nothing more complicated in his head than the gentle buzz of spiked punch and the warmth of another body moving nearby, the incoming semester and the weeks beforehand where he can avoid worrying about it.
Peter wonders, glancing over his shoulder to make certain he is being seen in the right places by the right people, what it might be like to be that uncomplicated. Who would he be, were his past no more than Rex Glass’ childhood flight from Brahma? If he actually cared about graduating, finding a job, settling down in a place to call home with—
Juno is here. Juno is also at this party, which Peter realizes with a sick lurch at the very moment a tall girl in a Solar military jacket catches Juno around the waist. He looks up at her with a half-cocked smile, something a bit too welcoming and a lot too indicative of a history. The two of them vanish a moment later behind the roving heads and shoulders of the crowd.
Peter’s eyes track out four different paths from this end of the room to the other—five, if the lighting fixture can hold his weight—before he feels a gentle tug on his sleeve.
Ah. His dancing partner, whom Peter had forgotten about entirely.
“I’m sorry,” he shouts an apology through the heavy music. “I’ve just seen a friend of mine, back in a moment.”
He will most certainly not be back in a moment, but this sweet young man doesn’t need to know that.
Peter slips through the dancing crowd, narrowly ducking under someone’s arm swung wide and quickly setting his feet far enough apart that a carelessly spilled drink does not splash his shoes. Juno might be hard to spot, despite the fading blue in his hair, but the girl he’s with is anything but. She is a half a head taller and a good deal broader in the shoulders than the average person at the party, and her braids tied up behind her head add an inch to her imposing height. She looks like she could snap Peter in half if she got ahold of him—which she couldn’t do, obviously. Hopefully.
The music quiets a bit, then shuts off entirely. The mumbling of voices fades away as someone—their gracious host, Peter assumes, noting the shirtless student with a comically large plastic cup in their hand standing on a table—informs them it’s nearly midnight. A rhythmic counting-down begins to sweep through the other guests.
Peter does not roll his eyes as a matter of principle, but if anything deserves it this old Earth tradition does. A Terran year is a Terran year, not a year anywhere else. Its renewal means nothing but a new set of numbers on the calendar. Earth is just another planet these days; it hasn’t been a homeland to most of the human race in millennia. And yet, the galaxy measures time by it. Backwards, isn’t it? Barbaric.
Brahman spring begins in a different Terran season every year. When he had the luxury to raise his eyes from the loose pockets of passers-by, Peter as a child counted time by nothing but the gorgon trees in bloom. Forgive him if an arbitrary moment means little.
This party is in the process of giving him yet another reason to hate the New Year; the ancient custom that accompanies these celebrations unfolds around him, and Peter breaks through the last wall of bodies between himself and Juno just as Juno reaches up to the lapels of the girl’s jacket and kisses her full on the mouth.
Peter feels like he’s been stabbed in the chest. He’s bleeding; the harder his heart pounds, the more spills out of him; he can’t breathe, his lung is collapsed and there must be fragments of bone—
“Juno,” falls from his lips on his final breath, just as the music swells again. The partygoers become a backdrop, a trick of the light as Juno pulls away from the girl—his lips cling to hers for just a moment as they part, Peter tastes his own blood—and looks at him.
“P—uh,” Juno stumbles on Peter’s name. There’s something not quite honest but truthful about Juno Steel, something Peter lost a long time ago, if he ever had it. Still, part of him wouldn’t even regret the slip-up as long as Juno’s mouth were no longer otherwise engaged. “Rex. Didn’t know you were here.”
“Yes, I have friends, ah, around,” he gestures in the vague direction of the people he came here to be seen by. “And who is this?”
The girl is tall, biceps the size of Peter’s head, all muscle—but he still has an optimistic couple of inches on her. It makes it that much easier to look down his nose.
She meets his gaze like a brick wall, arms crossed. Then she glances down at Juno, whom words seem to have failed, and back at Peter. She looks like she’s puzzling something out; she has the same keen light in her eye that Juno gets now and then. While it lights Peter up like a solar flare on Juno, this girl makes him feel altogether too seen.
“Seriously?” she asks flatly. “Alright, then,” and she turns to leave.
“Alessandra.” Juno catches her arm at the elbow pleadingly. His body still faces Peter, while this Alessandra has her back to him. Up close, her jacket is obviously authentic.
She turns her head, perpendicular, a pantomime scene playing out against the neon light. There: the strong line of her jaw. And there: Juno’s mouth, twisted bitterly.
“What did I just say, Steel? What did I tell you half an hour ago?”
A tense moment passes, some energy between the two he can only guess at. Peter is usually glad to become an invisible observer of moments like these. He disappears, waits it out, tags along with the one leaving or turns confidante to the one left behind. But Peter usually knows what—or who—is the conflict’s source. He isn’t accustomed to walking in rashly, blindfolded. Left in the dark.
Then Juno blinks. He drops his arm and makes a gesture with his head and neck that Peter reads as ‘That’s fair.’ The tension he always carries in his shoulders tightens, he pulls his lower lip into his mouth, and it occurs to Peter that he very well might be watching Juno Steel have his heart broken.
That thought, and the sight of Juno folding in on himself, alone in a crowded room, sends a twinge right through the open wound in Peter’s chest. Isn’t that curious: pain for pain. An echo, a fair trade.
Alessandra pats Juno on the shoulder. It sends a flinch through his whole body; Peter holds back a wince. She murmurs something he cannot catch. Juno nods, and Alessandra walks away into a crowd that parts for her easily.
“I’m,” Peter pauses, moves closer so Juno can hear him without having to shout, “sorry.”
“Don’t be.” Juno doesn’t meet his eyes. He stuffs his hands deep in his pockets. “Are you— enjoying the party?”
There’s something truthful about Juno Steel. It’s infuriating now and then—nearly dropping Peter’s name in public like a careless litterer—but it makes Peter want to be… Well.
“Not at all,” he says, truthfully. “Give me two minutes and meet me outside?”
Juno looks up at him with his brows furrowed and his mouth just slightly parted. Peter wants to ruin him for everyone else he’s ever kissed, an impulse that shocks even him with its earnestness.
He swallows all the blood in his mouth and winks. Peter Nureyev, for once planning to keep the promise that he will come back, disappears.
Juno holds his arms around himself in the cool night wind. Peter feels gilded and worthy when he spots him, touched by the tiny expression of trust that is Juno actually waiting for him.
“You didn’t bring your coat?” Peter asks, a foot away from Juno and leaning in closer. He doesn’t even jump. “Juno, you look positively frozen.”
“I drove here, and I didn’t expect some asshole to keep me waiting in the street.”
“You’re on the sidewalk,” Peter points out.
“Yeah, well.” Juno looks him up and down. “What did you want me to wait out here for, anyway?”
“So we wouldn’t be noticed leaving with these.” With a flourish, Peter pulls his prizes from behind his back: a full bottle of vodka and a mostly-full bottle of rum. Juno’s eyebrows jump to his hairline.
“You stole those?”
Peter lays a single finger against his lips.
“I’ll never tell.”
Juno snorts, swinging his car keys around one finger.
“Better get the hell out of dodge before they track you down. I hear Olympus U gives booze thieves the chair.”
“I’ve never been caught before, Juno, and I don’t plan to start now,” he says proudly. “Now, I hope the intention was clear, but just in case: I’d like to formally invite you to come with me and get plastered in our dorm room. Will you accept my generous offer?”
“It’s a hard one to turn down.” Juno starts heading toward where he must have parked his car. “Ringing in the New Year the right way.”
Peter hums noncommittally. “Fond of the holiday, are you?”
“Nah,” Juno shrugs. “Today doesn’t feel any different from yesterday, except maybe a little colder.”
“You don’t put much stock in symbolic fresh starts, then.” Peter swings the rum in a half-circle, enjoying the clink and swish of the glass and liquid.
“Do I think things can change? Sure. Do I think they even get a little better sometimes? Maybe, only if you can keep—” Juno cuts himself off. His footsteps halt, he breathes a quiet growl and takes a deep breath. “Look, the past doesn’t just stop being the past because you say it should.”
Peter doesn’t know quite what to say to that, not in his strange, truthful mood. He says nothing instead, lays a hand on Juno’s shoulder—so very close to his neck, practically under the collar of his shirt, he can be something better, don’t you see?—and hands him the rum.
Juno laughs dryly and takes a swig.
“Goddamn, you found the one bottle of good shit in that whole house,” he says. “Come on, I’m parked right over here.”
January 1, XXX35
Waking up feeling like death warmed over is a hobby of Juno’s. He doesn’t sleep well in general—sometimes at all—and his body knows as well as his brain that being awake doesn’t do him any favors either.
This particular morning, Juno’s eyelids part with a nearly-audible unsticking sound. His mouth tastes worse than the time Rita strong-armed him into being the guinea pig for her ‘experimental baking’ phase. Juno is groggily certain that someone stole his spine last night and then put it back upside-down.
He sees Peter, still passed out on the couch, and doesn’t regret a thing.
Peter’s long, willowy limbs dangle out from his body. One leg is hooked over the back of the sofa, one arm crooked up against the cushions like a creeping plant. Juno watches his other leg hang toward the floor, twitching slightly in his sleep, and thinks he hears wind chimes.
Like hell does Juno want to move, even though it would do his bones good to get off the floor and climb into bed, so he’s got nothing better to do than take in every detail of Peter Nureyev. It’s for this reason—and the fact that he has stupid, dumb, stupid feelings for the guy, feelings of the forever kind, but Juno is a big believer in ignoring anything he doesn’t want to deal with until it goes away—that he notices the way Peter’s hand hangs just along the front edge of the couch, the backs of his slender fingers barely grazing the fabric.
Juno hasn’t moved. Since he woke up, he knows that much, but from the way his neck tells him to go fuck himself when he tries to move his head it’s been a hell of a lot longer than that. And Juno’s hand lies against the front of the couch too.
Their palms are turned toward one another, a reflection and inversion of half-curled fingers in complementary shades against the backdrop of a shitty fabric pattern. Like reaching toward still water, almost believing you could touch the hand reaching back if you just—
He curls his hand into a fist and lets it drop to the floor. The hard carpet that hasn’t been vacuumed in way too long punches right back against Juno’s knuckles. Juno keeps staring.
The morning light brightens against Peter’s face. He’s beautiful, dammit, he’s so beautiful. Angelic, holy fire, something Juno can never be worthy to touch. It almost hurts to look at him, right now and other times, not like bright light but like the sight of something too big to think about. Too big to fit in his chest, the sight of Peter so close and so, so far away.
I’m nobody’s rebound, Alessandra had said, fresh enough from boot camp Juno could practically see the mud under her nails. Smart girl—smarter than Juno, anyway—knowing him too well even after barely knowing him at all. Over a year since they’d seen each other, and still she knew enough to be wary of the empty hunger in his eyes.
Juno had mumbled something about having to be with someone before you could rebound from them. And maybe he’d finally become pitiful enough that a woman on the fast track to heroism could see her way to giving him more than he deserved, because she’d agreed to casual, to once, to see where it goes, as long as I’m not playing second fiddle for a night.
It should have been obvious. Juno Steel doesn’t keep his goddamn promises.
Juno knows he doesn’t deserve either of them. Not Alessandra, not Peter. Juno doesn’t deserve the trust of a man who gave him his only secret and asked nothing in return. He doesn’t deserve anybody else, with how he’d shortchange them eventually, ready to check out in a second flat if a certain smart, strange, singular guy came calling.
What he deserves is this: the hard floor, the full-body weight of a hangover, the hopeless wish not to find a trash can full of his own vomit in an hour.
What he has, at least, is this: a quiet morning of filling his eyes with the sight of Peter Nureyev.
He doesn’t deserve that, either. But he can’t bring himself to push it away just yet.
Juno thinks about violent imagery related to Peter and his background on Brahma in the first section of this chapter. They allude to sex in Roman myth in the section for December 29th. There is quite a bit of alcohol use in the section for December 31st and Juno wakes up hungover on January 1st.
Peter helps backstage; Juno gives a recital.
This chapter contains recreational drug use. See the end notes for detailed warnings/how to skip it.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
January 9, XXX35
“This mysterious man of yours is late,” Blair Rockridge snaps in her high, moneyed drawl. “One week from previews and the set isn’t finished and you said you would have another pair of hands helping tonight.”
“Yes, madame director, but—” the poor design student, whose misfortune it has been to work with someone who demands to be called ‘madame director,’ sounds as if he has two simultaneous sinus infections currently engaged in a war of attrition and has not slept since the first shot was fired.
“I don’t want excuses, I want a set completed to my exact specifications yesterday.” Her mountainous hairdo does not follow any of the rules one would expect the physics of human hair to adhere to. “How you expect to do that without the help you assured me was on his way I haven’t the faintest idea.”
“But madame director—”
“I am doing this university an enormous favor by volunteering my precious time and money to your production, mister… whatever your name is. I don’t appreciate having my wishes thrown in my face like this.”
“I understand, but—”
“And another thing!” She points a quivering finger at her quivering subordinate, which Peter decides is an appropriate time to reveal himself. It was quite a prologue, of course, but his cue has come.
“Director Rockridge!” he exclaims from the open doorway. Both the designer and director turn in surprise, the former slumping in relief. “It’s wonderful to meet you. I hope you’ll excuse my tardiness, I’ve only been admiring the lovely theater. Your family has been so generous to Olympus U, not to mention your enduring dedication to the fine arts here.”
He gestures widely, taking up as much space with his body and words as possible: all artifice. Peter grins, not-Peter: a shy young student with dreams of taking the stage, hoping this path through the backstage door will grant him the opportunity he so desperately craves.
The designer knows his own world too well to sympathize, but Madame Blair Rockridge can relate. Peter has done his research, as always.
“You’re the one who volunteered to finish the set?” she asks.
“Indeed I am!” He strides confidently into the scene shop, showing off his close-toed shoes and sensible pants and stained, ill-fitting shirt—the last stolen from Juno’s closet. The image of theatrical preparedness.
“Excellent.” Rockridge smiles a bit, patting demurely at her hair. “You,” she spares a glance at the set designer, “can go… do whatever it is you do now. I’ll take it from here.”
His face passes through three phases in quick succession: surprised, insulted, and joyously relieved to get away from “madame director.” He nods at Peter, a clear ‘Your problem now,’ and makes a break for the door at a too-casual pace as if he’s barely restrained himself from sprinting.
“Now,” she instructs, making her way toward the unfinished set pieces set up in a maze-like pattern around the wide room, “here is what you will be working on. I trust you’re familiar with the tools?”
Rockridge gestures toward a cabinet, then a wall in the back corner where various tools hang on hooks.
“Of course,” Peter replies. “Only…”
“The tools I’m used to using are— Well.” He plays at hesitance, at not wanting to offend, you see.
“Much… newer than these. I have more experience with updated models. You know how it is, of course, some programs can afford better equipment than others—”
“We only buy the best equipment!” Rockridge huffs.
“Really? My, you are certainly dedicated to the university, madame director, if you oversee the purchase of every hammer, every single nail.” He pours an ocean of earnestness into his voice and the widening of his eyes. “For the whole theatre department, no less.”
“I… Well, that is—”
“It must be an incredible amount of work you put in around here. Plenty of donors wouldn’t do that, you know, much less pour their blood, sweat, and tears into directing a production. Olympus U is lucky to have you.”
“Right.” She blinks, caught in the trap of her own refusal to lift a finger beyond what it takes to write checks and eat bon bons while snapping orders at the cast and crew. Or so Peter infers. “Yes, of course it is. Of course it is. Now tell me about these, these better tools.”
“Show me what you have, if you don’t mind. Perhaps I can figure it out from there.”
If it weren’t already, the way Rockridge handles even the simplest plasma screwdriver would have made it obvious that she has never done a moment’s work with her hands in her life. Peter is no expert in construction, but he’s fairly certain she shouldn’t hold that end of a saw.
“Yes, yes, I see,” he chimes in at various moments, occasionally adding a curious piece of made-up trivia to amuse himself. “Little known fact, madame director, but this type of tool isn’t a hammer at all, but a hammered dulcimer!” and “Fifty-two people die every year from the misuse of left-handed measuring tape.”
She responds to every flagrant lie as if it is common knowledge, handing Peter one tool and moving on to the next before she can notice him slip them into his pockets. The circular saw might be difficult, but he is nothing if not a master of improvisation.
“There, that must be everything,” Rockridge pants. A single drop of sweat runs down her forehead. It stops an inch above her left eyebrow; Peter feels delighted at the certainty that she’ll be horrified next time she looks in a mirror.
“Certainly not everything,” Peter puts a hand over his chest in surprise.
“What? No, of course not everything.” There is panic on her face. “What… what else are you referring to?”
“The wood-warpener, madame director.” Oh, it’s been a bit since Peter has had this much fun. “You haven’t shown me your theater’s wood-warpener!”
“I’m— Yes, right.” Rockridge clears her throat. “Where do you usually find, ah… that?”
“Hm,” Peter hums thoughtfully. “You’re entirely right, of course. It wouldn’t be kept up here. Is there another room for extra items? Pieces you don’t use on the day-to-day, that sort of thing.”
“One doesn’t use a wood-warpener on just any production,” Peter chuckles, “but this one, well. Clearly mastery has gone into this design, and you couldn’t achieve the great artistic vision that lives in your mind without one. I must know: where are those other items kept?”
“There’s a room of old set pieces downstairs,” she says hesitantly, “but I don’t think—”
“Yes, that’s perfect! Surely it’ll be there.” He makes toward the door, then stops and turns to Rockridge. “Since you have such a deep and professional knowledge of the tools of your trade, madame director, would you mind getting the work started for me?”
“Me? But you’re the one who was supposed to finish the set.” The edge of affront, but Peter has her just where he wants her.
“Of course, and I will,” Peter reassures. “I only wanted to spare you from having to make the long, weary journey down to the dark basement and haul the wood-warpener back up. You know how cumbersome those things can be, and nothing at all can be finished until we have it. And I need not remind you, we are quickly running out of time. Unless you’d rather go,” he adds, “but your incredible talents of craftsmanship would be utterly wasted.”
“No,” she looks relieved to be allowed to feel powerful again. “You go carry the wood-thingy. It’s… it’s large, is it?”
“Gigantic,” Peter nods. “In fact, I’ll need to take something down with me to make room for it up here… ah-ha!” He picks up the circular saw and tucks it under his arm. “This should be just the right size. I’ll hurry then, madame director. I’d wish you luck, but I’m sure you don’t need it.”
Blair Rockridge, faking confidence as she takes a plasma cutter to a paper mache elephant, nods. Peter Nureyev, clanking softly as he walks, gives her a small salute and makes himself scarce.
He makes another stop at the empty office, much less empty now.
January 13, XXX35
Juno is not good about checking the mail.
Sue him, he has other things on his mind and the dorm mailroom is in the basement, which he doesn’t get down to much. The building he lived in freshman year had a dark boiler-type room in the basement. Juno misses it sometimes. It was in his top five favorite places to have a breakdown—if nobody hears you, it doesn’t really count as sobbing. This one is nothing but bored students sorting mostly-junk physical mail and a wall of little slots that are just so easy to lose the key to.
So, listen, it’s not Juno’s fault that it takes him a few days to get Rita’s postcard. He barely notices it at all, actually, with the small avalanche that pours out into his chest when he unlocks the mailbox. The cover stands out, though: a neon outline of a roller coaster, cotton candy clouds floating in a powder blue sky.
“Scream With Us on Aries’ Hammer!” announces a set of bubble letters across the top. Juno snorts at the phrasing. He can practically feel the board room full of advertising execs arguing over the slogan, trying to find a way to avoid using the word “ride.”
He flips it over and recognizes the looping curves of Rita’s handwriting. Glitter ink, bright yellow barely legible against the white of the card:
Frannie and I are having so much fun!!! Wish you were here!!!! I love the roller coasters and fried snacks and candy and ice cream and all the people in big mascot heads who try to take a picture with you a— Here, the letters squeeze together so close to the edge Juno can’t read them any more.
I took a million million pictures that I gotta show you when I get back. Hope you’re having a great break!!
P.S. Say hi to Mr. Glass for me
Next to the postscript, Rita has drawn… a blob? It’s probably supposed to be a face. It definitely has a smile, at least, and one eye closed, and the other eye—
The other eye is in the shape of a heart.
Juno lets out a sound somewhere between a sigh and a growl. He lets it out a little too loud, too, if the look the kid behind the desk shoots him is any indication. Juno hunches his shoulders and starts sorting through the stacks of junk that fell half on the floor as he read Rita’s message.
He tucks her postcard carefully into his pocket so it doesn’t get lost. Juno won’t actually show it to him, but Peter will appreciate the greeting.
In the evening Peter returns, after class and what he’s been mentally referring to as a ‘day at the office,’ to a dark dorm room.
That isn’t a strange occurrence on its own, but he’d expected Juno would be home tonight. Of course, he has other friends and responsibilities and a life outside of Peter; he’s often elsewhere, not cooped up in their room on a Friday evening when he could be doing anything else. Juno owes him no explanation for his whereabouts every hour of the day.
It’s only, Peter had planned to ask Juno if he’d like to see a movie. He had wanted to surprise him.
He clicks on the light and succeeds, but only just, in holding back a sound of surprise. The room is less empty than he thought. Juno is in bed—alone, Peter did have a foolish half-moment’s fear about that—and flat on his back. He would think he’d walked in on Juno taking a nap, if it weren’t for the fact that Juno raises his head, suddenly enough it jostles his shoulders against the pillow, staring at Peter like he’s never seen him before.
“Juno?” Peter closes the door slowly. He cannot put his finger on what, but he knows to trust his instincts and his instincts say something is very, very wrong. He keeps his voice light and soothing. “Not interrupting anything, am I?”
“Peter!” Juno croons. His face splits into a dizzy grin. “C’mere! Come on, it’s great.”
“I’m sorry?” Peter pads closer like he’ll break a tripwire if he isn’t careful.
“The, the thing. This thing. Where I am right now. It’s pretty good, if you think about it.” Juno relaxes again as Peter approaches the bed. His pupils are dilated so wide Peter can barely make out the thin ring of blue-gray around them. He looks strangely sweaty, and strangely calm.
“And where are you, exactly, right now?”
“Talking to you?” He blows a long breath that flaps his lips, and the stuttering sound that comes out dapples Peter’s face with spit. “It’s good when I turn around like this and leave. I get to come back, which I don’t always want to do but at least I can. Not everybody does, and that’s not fair. I don’t mean not come back from here, people come back from here. Julian’s real nice about it.”
“But other places. The going and the not coming back.” Juno wiggles on his back, shimmying up the bed until his shoulders are propped against the wall. He seems to have forgotten the use of his arms and legs.
“Juno, can you answer a question for me?” Peter is not panicking. He is not. But he is, he will admit, close to being just a bit worried.
“No, I can’t answer questions for you.” Juno rolls his eyes. “You won’t tell me the answers. If I could do that I’d just talk to myself. More. More than I already do that. I got a looooootta questions.”
“Yes, you always do,” Peter mutters. “Juno, please look at me.” Juno’s eyes meet his, wild under his heavy brows. “What did you take?”
“Why?” Juno giggles, which is a frankly alarming noise. “You want some?”
“You know, strangely enough I don’t.” Peter sits on the edge of the bed. He reaches out, almost without meaning to, and runs a hand over Juno’s bare shin. He’s wearing nothing but red-checkered boxers and an oversized t-shirt with faded block lettering Peter can’t quite make out. “I take it you won’t be coherent enough to tell me whether or not I should be worried for a while. Can I get you some water?”
“Mmmhmm,” Juno hums. His eyes close and his head falls back, soft smile on his face. Peter pats his leg and gets up. Juno has an empty cup on his nightstand, so Peter grabs it before he leaves for the bathroom.
He catches a glimpse of himself in the mirror, filling the cup from the tap. The boy looking back at him through the glass seems wrong, somehow, though nothing specific immediately jumps out. He knows his own face better than practically anything else—vanity is not a sin; it’s an accomplishment. There is the curve of his chin, the slope of his nose, the faint shadows that fall naturally under his cheekbones. There is Peter Nureyev, narrowing his eyes curiously at his own reflection.
He sees it, then. There is Peter Nureyev: bare-faced today, hair a little longer than he tends to keep it, brow furrowed with honest concern. This is Peter Nureyev, through and through. Rex Glass is nowhere in sight.
Cold water runs over his fingers. The cup overflows in his hand, more than filled in the time he’s taken to analyze himself. Time begins to turn again; Peter shakes himself.
He shuts the tap off quickly, straightens his shoulders and slicks back the wave of his hair with his wet fingers. Lesson one of thieving, echoes in the empty bathroom. Never stick around longer than you need to. You can’t get caught if nobody knows you were there.
“Fuck that.” Peter’s voice bounces off the mirror and around the sickly green walls of the bathroom he shares with the whole floor.
It feels sharp and clean, that declaration. The last of the water swirls down the drain. Peter shakes his hand dry and marches back to his room to make sure Juno is safe and taken care of.
He expects to see Juno where he left him. The lady didn’t seem in much of a state to go anywhere, after all, and from what Peter knows of Juno he does this kind of thing often enough that he ought to be able to stay put. Peter doesn’t come back to an empty room, at least. That’s something.
He would have been less surprised by an empty room, though.
Juno stands in the empty space on the floor, eyes closed, arms held out half-curved in front of himself. He takes a careful step forward, follows that foot with the other, then a step to the side, and back, and a half-turn, and— and he’s dancing.
Peter stands in the doorway with his back against the door for what feels like a thousand years, watching Juno Steel dance with himself.
His hair sticks to his temples in wild, damp curls. The muscles in his calves flex gently. His knees bend, unbend, no rhythm to the movement at all but an ease buried deep beneath. Peter recognizes practice when he sees it.
Then Juno spins wildly. His foot catches on his own ankle and he falls with a startled yelp into Peter’s bed.
“Shit,” Juno laughs. His laugh has a wheezing quality to it, but whether that’s natural or from dehydration or a lack of use, Peter cannot say. Juno doesn’t laugh often enough to tell; Juno doesn’t laugh often enough at all.
“It seems these things are easier with a partner,” Peter comments. He shouldn’t, he knows he shouldn’t, but a bit of flirting never hurt anyone on its own. Juno is in no state to do anything about it, so Peter is safe.
It’s been a long time, and a very few times at that, since anyone has had the power to hurt him. If an opponent has the better hand, you certainly do not let him see your cards. But if that opponent is high and laughing and in your bed? If he seems to have forgotten the two of you are playing a game at all? You can be forgiven, Peter thinks, for letting your guard down just once.
“Peter!” Juno opens his eyes. “I told you there’s coming back here. You did it. Not all of ‘em, which is why I was dancing. Somebody’s gotta, anymore. Usually I’m too,” he waves his hand in a strange, flopping gesture. “But it depends where you go.”
“Juno,” Peter sits on his bed next to Juno with a contented sigh. The way they’ve each arranged themselves is nearly a mirror image of the first night Peter spent here, when Juno was bleeding out the nose and righteously angry over cake and defeat. “I don’t know what in the hell you’re saying. Drink this water.”
Juno nods and struggles to a sitting position. His shoulder brushes Peter’s upper arm; the soft fabric of the t-shirt he’s wearing tickles Peter’s skin. Peter wants, with a kind of desperation he thought he left behind with hunger and cold and family, to put his arm around Juno and bury his face in his hair. It’s been a while, but Peter still remembers how to breathe through the pain of brokenly wanting something he cannot have.
It seems he is becoming Peter Nureyev again in many ways, tonight. The old taste of fear in a new Nureyev’s mouth.
“Haven’t gotten water from somebody since I went back and left again.” Juno mumbles. “Since before. Way before.”
He sips from his blue plastic cup, staring off into some middle-distance beyond the far wall of their room. He’s flushed and running so hot Peter can feel it through both their clothes, and he’s soft, and he’s merrily incoherent, and knows how to dance. The latter is a new fact about Juno Steel that Peter places in his most coveted collection. He did not have a place ready for this particular revelation; he will need to revisit, work on his curation a bit.
Juno has been slowly tilting like the minute hand on an ancient clock, almost too slowly to notice. The empty cup lands on the floor by his feet and rolls a few inches; Juno’s head lands in Peter’s lap.
“Oh, so that’s how it is, is it?” He teases Juno to stop himself from doing something rash, like stroking the overgrown undercut at the back of Juno’s head and leaning down, letting his breath fog the metal through Juno’s ear while he confesses truths he has vowed never to speak.
A gentle smile plays at Juno’s mouth; Peter can feel it, just a bit, against his thigh: the movement of his cheek curving out, pressing into Peter’s pant leg and, under that, his skin.
“Not my fault you feel nice,” Juno says. “Can’t help it.”
“I expect quite a lot of things feel ‘nice’ for you right now.”
“Yeah,” Juno shifts his shoulder and finds a more comfortable way to use Peter as a pillow. “Buuuut, you always feel nice. You’re gonna when I get back and when I leave you’ll still feel nice only I won’t be there. But I’m here now and—”
“Juno.” Peter very abruptly, almost violently, does not want to hear this. He cannot think of a single reason for that feeling apart from the way he always feels when Juno accidentally expresses an emotion, but he would rather choke on his own heartbeat than let Juno say another word of the nonsense sentence he’s wandering down now. “Shh-hh. I know you’re in your happy place, so let’s stay there, hm?”
“Happy place,” Juno snorts. It’s not his normal derisive sound, and Peter is edging closer to understanding why this version of Juno makes him feel so—oh, that’s it, isn’t it?
He’s afraid. Peter Nureyev is a scared little boy again, look at that. Afraid of what Juno might say or do right now that he’ll later regret; or worse, forget. That Peter will take what he learns while Juno is vulnerable and use it against him, use Juno for his own gain. Not on purpose, but because that is simply what he does. That is the function Peter Nureyev was sculpted to perform. That is the centerpiece of a skillset he never asked to learn, a barrier between people like him and people like Juno that time and circumstance and a particular man who earned a knife in the back for his trouble carried Peter over. A line Peter has since forgotten how to cross. He is afraid of becoming too much and not enough Peter Nureyev.
Each of these thoughts passes through him in turn, one at a time and leading logically into the next. Peter’s hand is still in Juno’s hair.
“Do you usually have someone with you when you’re… away like this?” Peter twines one of Juno’s curls neatly around his pinky finger.
“Nah, I go on my own all the time.” Juno reaches up clumsily and grabs Peter’s free hand. He starts playing with his fingers. “Sometimes Julian is there, but he’s kind of a lot. Even more when he’s high on his boyfriend’s supply.”
“And how are those two, anyway? I haven’t heard a word about them since your cake incident.”
Juno shrugs with one shoulder. The other is tucked firmly against Peter’s thigh.
“Julian’s a barista.”
Peter waits a few seconds, but Juno doesn’t elaborate at all.
“Good for him.” Peter shifts slightly under the weight of Juno’s head to reach for his tablet. He might as well catch up on some reading, pinned in place while Juno comes back down from orbit.
“Rita says hi,” Juno mumbles.
“Is she back on Mars?”
He shivers now and then. If Peter didn’t know better, he’d think Juno was asleep. His breathing is wrong, though: still shallow. Still strange.
Under the guise of laying a friendly hand on his neck, Peter keeps an eye on Juno’s pulse.
“I’m fucking starving,” is the first thing he says after nearly an hour.
“Oh,” Peter glances down at Juno, frowning in his lap. “You’re back, then?”
“I never left,” Juno says slowly, as if Peter is speaking an alien tongue. He could be, if the need were to arise or if he stopped paying attention—that hasn’t happened in over a year, though: thoughtlessly switching to Brahmese. He even dreams in Solar now, more often than not.
“That’s not what you were saying an hour ago, but if you don’t remember…” Peter says flippantly, teasingly.
The glassy look in Juno’s eye sharpens to his normal attentiveness. There is an annoyed tilt to his brow, another streak of normalcy.
“What the hell was I talking about?” Juno pulls away, leaving cold air in a heavy afterimage against Peter’s body. “Never mind, don’t answer that. If I’m ever gonna look you in the eye again, I need you to just forget everything I’ve said since you got here.”
Peter thinks, briefly: a pile of nonsense Juno dropped at his feet, one moment glittering on top: You feel nice. The panic of being the object of trust without a use for it.
“Done,” he lies. “I couldn’t make out a single thing you said, anyway.”
“Good.” Juno relaxes. He sits back against his hands.
“But,” Peter begins. He feels his mouth curve in a satisfied smirk and sees no reason to stop it.
“What,” Juno growls flatly.
“I didn’t know you could dance.”
It’s cute, for a moment, the way Juno sputters like a rusty starhauler. It’s less so when he stands up, shoulders pulled around his neck—relaxation gone, Peter feels the change like an icy breeze—and snaps, “You don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“I know what I saw, Juno,” Peter stands and reaches for him. He wants that softness back; he doesn’t know what he did, but it was something. Usually making a mess means he ought to find the quickest exit possible, but with Juno… it matters.
Juno relaxes under the hand at his back. He rarely jumps when Peter touches him, anymore.
“Yeah, and what did you see?” The question comes out between his teeth. Juno clearly thinks he won’t enjoy the answer.
“Well,” Peter says lightly, “mostly you tripping over your own feet.”
“Wha—” Juno falls back into flustered and Peter laughs, right in his delightful face. “Hey, no, shut up.”
“It was beautiful. I’ve never seen something like that performed up close before.” Peter stands in the middle of the room, palms out, and crosses one ankle over the other. “Let me see if I can replicate it, I don’t think I have the same practice at the art that you do—”
“Stop,” Juno whines, shoving at Peter’s shoulder. Peter takes the blow hard, exaggerates it, spinning on his heel. He lands on his mattress with a bounce.
“I did it! Yes!” he laughs. “The student has surpassed the master, Mr. Steel.”
“Fuck off,” Juno says, “I can—”
“Now however will I show off this newly-found skill set? I don’t need college, I’ll join the Pangalactic Ballet, that’s what I’ll do—”
“I can dance, actually,” Juno snaps. “Fucker,” he adds, a little unnecessarily in Peter’s opinion.
Peter is on his back, in his bed, Juno Steel standing over him: freshly sober, half-dressed, tiny spark of righteous indignation burning in his eyes, Juno. He feels flighty and strange and with an itch in his hands that says ‘roll the dice’ somewhere deep in his brainstem.
“Show me,” he says.
Juno visibly swallows, but he doesn’t balk.
“Can’t dance with no music, Nurey—”
Peter already has his comms in his hands, hitting play on whatever he has queued up next. A folksy tune from Susano-o drifts from the speakers, nostalgic with its theremin and metal drums.
He arches one eyebrow: a challenge.
“Fine,” Juno says as he rolls his neck. “But this is just to prove that I can. Don’t expect me to make a habit of it.”
Peter nods. He sits up, legs crossed, donning the expression of an expectant audience, and gestures eagerly for Juno to begin.
The moment Juno moves to the beat, Peter’s mouth goes dry. He is, objectively, not the best dancer Peter has ever seen. He misses beats occasionally. He falters in his movements when he meets Peter’s eye. It certainly cannot help that the song is unfamiliar to him, and he’s unprepared, and hungry, and clearly doesn’t like doing this in front of others; all the same, he really is doing it.
There is nothing random about his movements, either. That’s a box step, Peter thinks. That, there: another move, practiced, symmetrical. He spins—the same thing he attempted earlier, but no tripping, no falling, just the flash of his legs and the way his shirt sticks just slightly to his back.
Peter thinks about his reckless offer of partnership. Juno certainly does not remember. He wants it, though, and badly. Things are easier with a partner, or so they say.
The song ends.
Juno’s dance trails off as the music fades. He breathes loudly enough that Peter can hear it. The gleam of a drop or two of sweat at his temple catches in the light, bright against his skin, a point of reference so Peter does not do something ill-advised like look at the rest of Juno’s body.
Juno clears his throat. “Happy?” he grouses.
“I—” Peter’s mouth wants to say something witty. His brain only provides, “yes. Thank you.”
“Right.” He shifts uncomfortably, foot to foot. “I’m guessing you’ll let me go eat now, since I’ve danced for the goddamn fairy king.”
“That’s the kindest comparison I’ve ever heard, Juno,” Peter replies, laying a hand over his heart. He doesn’t say the first thought in his mind, which is that Juno would make a beautiful queen. “Of course, though I’d suggest putting on pants before you go.”
Juno looks down at his boxer-clad legs.
“What the hell happened to my pants?”
Peter bites back a cackle. “You weren’t wearing them when I got here.”
“Shit,” Juno sighs. “That’s another thing I gotta do tomorrow.”
“Well, if you need help tracking your trousers across Olympus Mons,” Peter smiles at the image; Juno, in his mind, has acquired a deerstalker and a magnifying glass like some ancient legend, “I could move some appointments around.”
Juno rubs at his temples. There, there, Peter can see it: the curved edge of a smile breaking through.
“I might just take you up on that.”
Juno gets high in the second section of January 13th. If you would like to skip this entirely, stop reading at "In the evening Peter returns" and pick back up with ""I'm fucking starving"".
A professional shift; a long day; a night out; a new plan.
I'm sure you're all tired of hearing it from me by now, but thank you thank you thank you for everyone's kind, wonderful comments and support <3
This chapter contains alcohol use and sexual content. More detailed warnings are in the end notes.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
January 14, XXX35
The light turns yellow.
Juno presses his foot against the gas, mumbling a near-silent “come on,” between his teeth. He’s an expert at the quick escape, the last-minute slide through the closing door, the impossible shot—
He misses by a full three seconds and careens straight through a red light.
None of the oncoming traffic hits him, which is nice, and he’s not running as late as he could be, which is better. Ramses tolerates Juno’s punctuality—or lack thereof—with bottomless exasperation, but today is really not a day he should test that.
Juno opens the door of Ramses’ office about a minute and a half after he was supposed to be there. He hopes the old man is impressed.
“Juno,” O’Flaherty greets him from his usual spot, staring out the window with his hands clasped behind his back. “Sit down.”
The only available chair, besides the big one behind Ramses’ desk—and part of Juno’s charm might be being an irreverent asshole, most of his charm, actually, but he’s not a complete idiot—is in front of a small table with a computer on it for when Ramses gives dictation.
“I know my job description is kind of loose, but I’m not a great typist so you’re probably better off—”
“I did not bring you in here for your jokes, but if you can babble and listen at the same time I won’t waste my breath trying to stop you.”
“Okay, fine.” Juno raises his hands. “What’s the emergency?”
“Nothing dire. This is more about reorganization than anything.” He turns toward Juno. “I will be in Hyperion City for the foreseeable future. Therefore, your services will not be required.”
“You’re firing me?” Juno feels a line of sweat prick at his hairline. He hasn’t had great luck with the student employment scene in Olympus Mons, beyond this arrangement with the city’s non-resident billionaire. His scholarships cover tuition, barely, but a guy still has to eat.
That’s not counting the insurance money burning a hole in his savings account. But like hell is he touching it before he figures out what she was trying to do to him, keeping a policy like that around, hanging over all of them, even after everything.
“No, Juno.” Ramses shakes his head. “Don’t worry yourself about that. I will always see to it that you stay employed, if you need it. What I mean is, your deliveries will be put on pause. Only for a couple of weeks, I expect, but one never knows.”
“And so will my paychecks, is that it?”
“Of course not.” Ramses brings out his stern inflection, just on the edge of harsh in a way that cows Juno more than if he were shouting. “I have a colleague who happens to be in Olympus Mons for most of the time I’ll be gone. I’ve arranged for you to continue the kind of work you’ve been doing for me, for him. It won’t be identical, but—”
“You’re renting me out?” Juno thinks he should be offended, somehow.
“You can’t have your cake and get paid for it too.” The old man crosses his arms and leans back against the edge of his desk. Juno doesn’t know if he’s ever seen him actually sit at it. “Would you like a job, or would you like the meaningless integrity of only working for me?”
“Fine,” Juno grumbles. “What the hell do you need to go back and forth to Hyperion for, anyway? You’re from there, you’re building your media empire or whatever, but all your money stays in Olympus Mons.” Juno has wondered about this for as long as he’s known Ramses. “Long way to commute for work, is all I’m saying.”
“I’ve told you, Juno, I have investments in Olympus Mons that need taking care of, but Hyperion and I have work to do.”
“But what does that mean?” In as long as he’s had the question, he’s never gotten a straight answer to it.
Ramses just heads to the door. He opens it, gesturing genteelly for Juno to go out ahead of him, Ladies first, practically written on his whole old, old-fashioned outline.
“I have a few things yet for you to do today.” He waves to his secretary, who in turn waves a sheet of paper at Juno: names, items, addresses, like any other day at work. “I’ll send you the information on my colleague tonight, once I get some affairs in order.”
“Sure.” Juno gets up, crankily. He stuffs his hands in his pockets. “Anything else?” He asks.
“Yes, actually. I’ve told my colleague that you’re an excellent, model employee.” Ramses peers down at Juno over the top of his glasses. His eyes glitter with mirth and that far-off, tangible feeling of hope under bushy gray brows. “Try not to prove me a liar.”
January 18, XXX35
Juno seems to have invited Peter out to lunch for the sole purpose of complaining about his temporary employment situation, if Peter had to guess.
“He thinks he’s the smartest person in the goddamn galaxy,” Juno gripes through a mouthful of rice. “You’d think with a brain that big, you could figure out how to invent yourself a personality.”
“What does he do, exactly?”
“Hell if I know.” Juno swallows. “He works for the same company as Ramses, some media gig in Hyperion.”
Juno goes on, and Peter listens. He does. He listens to the sounds coming out of Juno’s mouth; he pays very close attention to Juno’s mouth, in fact. The way his lips move, full and just a little chapped—how might they feel, rough against Peter’s? And he’s shaved today: clean, smooth skin. He talks with his hands, with his whole body, Juno does. The tendons in his steady hands flex under his skin. The slight slouch to his shoulders casts him in a unique silhouette; Peter would know him anywhere, by sight or by sound or by touch or by—
“—right?” Juno pauses, fork held near his mouth and staring at Peter like he’s missed his cue.
“…right. I couldn’t agree more.” Peter takes a hearty mouthful of his soup.
Juno shakes his head.
“At least he’ll be gone by the time classes start. If I have to listen to one more goddamn speech about how keeping records outside your big, dumb, stupid, giant brain is for bumbling idiots, I’m gonna deliver his weird boxes right into the fucking reservoir.”
“Life as an errand boy not all its cracked up to be?” Peter teases. Juno throws one of Peter’s soup crackers in his face.
“It was fine until Vega,” he says. “Boring, sure, but I get into enough trouble on my own.”
Peter laughs in agreement.
“You’ll have to update me. It’s been a while since I’ve joined your trouble-making.”
“Yeah, you’ve been busy, huh?” Juno fills his mouth again. “Barely seen you,” he says through bulging cheeks. He’s like a little forest creature on Dedalus, getting ready to hibernate through glacier season.
“I’ve had a lot to take care of these past few weeks.” Peter has a blister on his left thumb from holding the circular saw. It burns, just slightly. He hasn’t had blisters on his hands since he learned his way around a knife.
“So your days of making trouble with Juno Steel are over? Probably a smart decision.”
“Not on your life,” Peter promises. “I’ve missed it, you know.”
“Spending time with you.”
Juno breaks eye contact and wolfs down the last of his rice. He’s nearly out of food to use for deflection, the darling.
It could be Peter’s imagination, but he believes with the kind of faith that drives the faithful to the farthest reaches of their universes that he sees delight hidden in Juno’s face. It warms him like a fusion reactor.
“We live together,” he says.
“I know.” Peter lets a moment pass before he steeples his hands and says, “have you met that awful woman in the theatre department? Juno, you’ll love this—”
January 22, XXX35
Another semester starts. Juno drags himself up to his alarm—a hell of a lot earlier than he wants to, is this what the next few months have in store for him?—and reminds himself that he only has a year of this left. A year and change, anyway. Practically two, if he doesn’t get into that forensics class and has to make it up over the summer, and then there’s actually trying to get hired somewhere, and he may have ripped (most of) Hyperion out of him like an infected scab but the idea of maybe leaving Mars altogether makes something sick rise in Juno’s throat—
“You’re up early,” Peter comments. He gestures to the kettle on the edge of his desk. “Tea?”
Juno clears his throat. Too much, too early.
“Not much of a tea drinker, but I’ll give it a shot.”
It goes down hot and smooth, with that little bitter taste sticking to his tongue that all tea seems to have in common. Peter—Juno nearly calls him Rex in his head, which hasn’t happened in weeks—holds his mug in one hand. With the other, he checks the pockets of his backpack. He goes through the motions with efficient care, the way Juno used to take his gun apart to clean it.
“Are you looking forward to classes? Another year under your belt,” Peter asks.
“I keep wondering if this shit is even worth it,” he mutters. Peter looks at him sideways, something too close to concern for Juno’s comfort. “Must be the morning talking,” he adds. “Haven’t been up before eleven in months.”
“I was starting to wonder if you were moonlighting as a superhero,” he says. Juno’s tired, tired brain plays some childish fantasy of himself, caped and sunlit, carrying Peter in his arms. Saving him from something, doing good and getting the guy.
He’s too old for that—theoretically. Juno wonders how long it’s supposed to take to outgrow the things he’s too old for. He’s been waiting a goddamn while.
“Nope, just moonlighting as me.” He forces down a little more of the tea just to have something in his stomach. “A hell of a lot less impressive.”
“You know, I don’t mind. I think I prefer a regular Juno.” He smiles. “It’s too bad we don’t have class together anymore,” he adds before Juno can make some dismissive gesture.
“I agree. No more cheating off you.”
“You did fine—”
“I failed. I failed that class, hard.” Juno rolls his eyes. “Not the first time it’s happened, but I’m pissed I have to finish that stupid Martian studies requirement.”
“Well,” Peter grabs his backpack and his keys, giving Juno one more fond smile that does really unfortunate things to his blood pressure, “I hope we won’t stop studying together, anyway. Our areas of expertise aren’t too far apart.”
“Yeah,” Juno snorts. “I learn how to stop crime, you learn all the most fun and exciting ways to commit it.”
“Someone has to, Juno,” Peter grins, “or you’d be out of a job. Bye bye!”
Juno is left, alone in the quiet room until he has to get himself moving, with a cooling cup of tea in his hands and a tiny smile on his face. He doesn’t trust either to work out well for him, if he’s honest.
He finishes the tea. Not bad, all things considered.
If Peter had plans to stick around longer than necessary, he would be bored to tears by this lecture. As it stands, he’s hardly enthralled; a small fleet of doodled spaceships sails along the margins of his notes. Still, he takes his entertainment where he can find it.
Special Topics in Solar History, Section Two: Espionage and Agriculture has eighteen students. Five of them are in the Crime History program with Peter. That program is part of why he undertook this job in the first place; only three universities in the galaxy offer it as a major, all in the Solar system.
Those five are simple puzzles he solved months ago, nothing sporting there.
Another three have the posture and radiation scarring of agriculture students. They’re likely satisfying a Schrödinger requirement: classes that count both in and outside the major (until one gets one’s grades). The farming co-op past the enzyme building, Peter has heard through the grapevine, may be running some deeply unethical and probably chemically volatile experiments in their basement, but Peter hasn’t found a use for that yet.
He moves on.
Ten students remain. Peter’s eyes wander over them idly. He looks them over the way Mag taught him to spot a mark; he doesn’t intend to steal anything—at least, nothing very valuable—from these classmates, but it never hurts to keep one’s skills sharp.
Freshman. Freshman. Local senior citizen auditing for lack of anything better to do. Sports scholarship. Freshman.
Peter counts them off, and finally he reaches the guest of honor. The real curiosity, the real reason Peter looks this person over a bit more thoroughly than the others, is primarily that he cannot figure out what caught his eye about them in the first place. The piercings, catching the light? The fading orange color in their hair? Nothing about them shouts ‘easy mark,’ like Peter’s instincts tell him to look out for, and nothing else says much at all that should be so entertaining—apart from, perhaps, unlikely to suffer fools.
Still, Peter wonders about them.
He doesn’t have time to wonder much longer. Dr. Chuang is staring directly at him; classes this small make it very difficult, even for Peter, to disappear.
“Neptune, yes?” Peter guesses, making sure his accent bleeds through. That particular quirk makes it very easy to set the bar low on how much about Solar history he is expected to know. Expectations met, and exceeded.
“I asked you for your name,” Chuang says.
“Rex Glass. From Neptune, I’m a transfer. Were we not doing introductions?”
“Oh.” His professor nods; the rest of the students barely notice, if their glazed-over eyes are any indication.
The one with the orange hair and the bad posture, the distracting one: Peter almost expected them to catch his misstep immediately. Snicker to themself, maybe, or catch Peter’s eye with a knowing gleam in theirs, a keen edge that misses nothing—
Peter understands why they were a distraction, now. Of course he does.
He has had a productive interim and still a few more months left on Mars. Perhaps distractions are not the worst thing in the world.
Juno hasn’t been sitting in this class for more than ten minutes before he decides he’ll end up skipping it more often than not in the coming weeks.
It’s not really a choice. It’s a cold certainty. Martian Studies 118 is exactly identical to every history course he took in high school, give or take an important literary work. It might be an easy pass for that reason, maybe, but it’ll be something a hell of a lot worse than a hard class: it will be boring. Juno put himself through torture a couple months back with professor Miasma—the worst name he’s ever heard, still makes Juno anxious when he even thinks it—specifically to avoid tedious.
He did all that, and he did it for nothing. That stings more than the failing grade. It’s not his first, probably won’t be his last. But he didn’t even learn anything from it—besides not to trust the one faculty member who actually makes her students do exams on paper.
As Juno trudges up the stairs, he suddenly remembers a fact that startles him every time. Peter is there, and Peter would love to hear him complain about Miasma. Peter shared a shitty experience with Juno and doesn’t tell him to stuff it or make him feel bad for not having it worse when he tries to talk.
That’s new, is what he means. You don’t get that every day.
Peter sits at his desk. He doesn’t hear Juno come in, headphones in his ears. That’s good, too. Juno knows—hasn’t brought it up, obviously, but he noticed—that Peter never used to do that. Leave his back to the door, occupy both his ears. Juno saw the signs then and he sees them now.
He taps Peter on the shoulder, gently, with the knuckles of his first two fingers.
“Big day?” he asks, as Peter looks up at him with a smile.
“Not a bit,” Peter replies. “Although I did see our TA from xenoanthropology in line for coffee.”
“Lilian, right? You say hi?” Juno shrugs his backpack off and sits down. He and it both bounce slightly on the mattress.
“I tried. She didn’t even say hello back.” He sounds so affronted. Juno rolls his eyes.
“She probably didn’t remember you, idiot.”
“I am very memorable, Juno.” He grins, sharp teeth in a sharp mouth. Juno swallows heavily.
“Sure.” He flops backward into his mess of blankets and stares at the ceiling. “She also has to deal with Miasma on a daily basis.”
“Hm, fair point. That’s enough to make anyone want to shun human society. But still, she just stared at me, completely silent like someone cut out her tongue.” He makes an exaggerated shivering sound. “It was unsettling.”
“Hey, speaking of Miasma, remember how she failed me?”
Juno needed this, a good venting session with Peter. Rita is his best friend—and Mick, much as he’d never say that where Mick could hear—but Peter doesn’t try to get him to look on the ‘bright side.’ He gets it, kind of. He gets that sometimes stuff just sucks, and complaining about it doesn’t mean Juno is throwing in the towel.
It probably helps that Peter hasn’t been around all that long. Juno hasn’t gotten bad in a while, not the way Rita and Mick have had to witness. But hell, someone who isn’t going to get all… all overly gentle and concerned, every time Juno makes a joke on just the wrong side of dark, is refreshing too.
“It sounds like you could use a night out,” Peter says.
“It’s the first day of class.”
“Exactly. A celebration.”
“Of what? Being bored for two weeks and then realizing you have four papers due in a day?”
Juno raises his head just enough to squint at Peter.
“I suspected that wouldn’t work,” Peter laughs. “How about, because we are technically adults and we can?”
“I’m just surprised you’re up for it,” Juno deflects.
“Why wouldn’t I be? I’m fun,” Peter says. “Oh no, I’m not dull, am I? Juno please, I couldn’t bear it.”
“You’re not dull. You’ve just been so goddamn busy.”
“I told you,” Peter rolls his desk chair back to look more directly at Juno. “I had some things to take care of, but I’ve missed you.”
“If you say so.” Juno weighs his options. He could spend the evening planning out a study schedule for this semester, like Rita does: color coded with stickers and glitter pens to keep her mind on the things she needs to do and the passage of time she forgets about so easily. Juno has always meant to try that, or something like it. He’s not really one for stickers, but it works for Rita. Or, he could fall into the remarkable ease of spending time with Peter Nureyev. It’s not even a choice.
“Alright,” Juno says. “But I’m not carrying you home this time.”
“Deal,” Peter grins.
Unlike the last time he went out with Peter, this is a place Juno actually enjoys. It’s more than a walk, way far off on the side of Olympus Mons that students don’t get out to much. They catch a bus—Juno knows, intellectually, that Peter takes the bus all the time, but the sight of his pommade-filled hair and the knowledge of his crisp accent against the garish blue plastic seats and yellow-stained windows is a hell of a juxtaposition—and then a train, the quick little light rail with tracks laid in radiation-proof tunnels built back when the Solar planets saw war firsthand.
They make it to the bar as the sun starts to set.
“Keep an eye on your wallet, by the way,” Juno advises. “I’ve never had a problem here, but your shoes are worth more than my car.”
“These shoes aren’t that expensive.”
“You’ve seen my car.”
“Touche,” Peter tilts his head with a bright little grin.
It isn’t packed inside, but it’s not empty, either. The usual clientele are just getting off work, and this is a place with decent beer that doesn’t jack their prices up for the privilege of location or atmosphere. Juno respects that, and it works well enough to keep in business. There aren’t a lot of places like this on Mars, especially not Olympus Mons.
Hyperion City has its share of dives, and joints that are genuinely obscure rather than trying to build a facade of obscurity for the sake of people who want to feel like they’re going off the beaten track, but this city has a reputation to uphold. It has prestige.
Juno has no time for prestige. It’s too easy to see through, sounds like a stage magician: presto, prestidigitation, show the suckers what they want to see.
“You’re brooding,” Peter accuses from his seat across from Juno. He picked out a little table in the corner, strangely intimate. “I didn’t invite you out so you could brood.”
“I’m always brooding,” Juno says.
“Like an angry pigeon, yes.” Peter teases Juno as he teases his fingers across the rim of his glass. His hands are always so precise, slender and knobbly like ancient architecture. Juno wants them in his mouth.
“And what does that make you?”
“A bird of prey.” Peter’s eyes are the brightest thing in the building. Light catches in them like the shining bottles behind the bar, dark and full. “Or a peacock, plumage and all.”
Juno chokes on his own drink.
“Kind of a big difference, I think. I’m no ornithologist.”
“Neither am I. Ah!” He moves like a lightning bolt. In the space of a blink, a breath, his hand is wrapped tight around the arm of a man from the small milling crowd. Juno hadn’t even seen the guy before Peter pounced on him, but his trembling fingers hold a sleek black wallet. Peter’s thumb is on the pulse point of the man’s wrist. “Really, now,” he says condescendingly to the thief.
Peter squeezes, and the wallet drops. He catches it easily in his other hand.
“No hard feelings?” The man smiles nervously.
“You need practice,” is all Peter says before releasing him. He scuttles away back into the dim light of the bar.
“Looks like I was right,” Juno says, hoarse. He knew Peter was quick, but that display has Juno subtly adjusting his pants and hoping nobody asks him to stand up for the next little while. He hates himself for that, a little, and for how hot his cheeks feel. Clever hands, hard eyes, Juno wants them turned on him, shit.
“I must have the look of an easy mark,” Peter laughs. “Who knew. What were we talking about? Birds?”
“Birds,” Juno agrees, and drinks deeply.
January 24, XXX35
Late in the night, Peter’s ears prick up at a familiar sound.
He has been expecting this for the last handful of days. It’s a familiar set of ticks to look out for, when Juno gets increasingly wound up. He carries his stress in his shoulders and jaw. He doesn’t focus quite as long on his work or the conversations he’s not particularly enthralled by. He gets bratty; not that he isn’t always bratty, but the incidents do pile up.
All this to say, Peter knew Juno would do what he’s doing tonight. And as much as the habit of listening when he does makes Peter feel a guilt he’s never experienced in what are arguably worse situations, morally speaking, he hasn’t quite figured out how to avoid it.
He could invest in earplugs, but then how would he explain it to Juno? He could get in the habit of sleeping with his headphones on, but that is the kind of impairment that could mean the split-second difference between life and death if he were attacked.
He could simply fall asleep sooner, instead of lying awake in anticipation.
The fact of the matter is, Peter does not want to avoid hearing Juno pleasure himself. The fact is, Peter Nureyev is not a good person. He is not good—though Juno is: fundamentally, unflaggingly, exhaustingly good—and he is a man who has spent many lean years being denied the sorts of things he is now able to indulge in. A hot meal and soft, pretty clothes aren’t the same as this, Peter knows, but practiced selfishness is a hard habit to shake for one night at a time.
So this is where he finds himself: biting his own lip, hard under his sheets, while Juno pants and swears under his breath a scant few feet away.
Peter may be selfish, and cruel when it suits him, and an expert at making himself wanted in places where he was not, but entangling himself with Juno—tangled up in Juno’s sheets, tangled together, fingers tangled in his hair—would be the worst of all three. Selfish, as he cannot give any more of himself than he already has without pulling Juno into a world he is innocent of; cruel to himself when Juno must be so freshly pining over Alessandra, and cruel to Juno to play at the semblance of romance Peter ruined for him; wanted, by design, by someone who has had every opportunity to want on his own terms.
This is new for him, this desire higher than desire: to ensure Juno’s comfort and safety and long happiness even more than he wants to push and push his sounds to their crescendo.
He knows what that means, in theory. If Peter is honest with himself, he knew what it meant the moment he told Juno where he was from, let alone his name. He’s given Juno every possible weapon to exploit his only weakness—weaknesses, evidently; he had never expected to add petulant roommate to that list. He has handed them over with a smile, upturned wrists and his throat bared.
Juno moans from across the room. Peter’s back nearly bows off the bed.
It’s not so surprising, really: his greatest problem was always envy. The wanting of things that are not his by right. Peter has dedicated his life to the tools needed surpass the question of right, and the universe has provided him an answer. Not everything can be stolen, though Peter has now found himself victim to that very crime.
Juno’s breath goes high and tight. He can actually hear the sound of skin sliding on skin: fast tonight. Juno is handling himself roughly and mumbling, too, some scalding fricative followed by a groan. He can almost hear his own name in that voice, nearly pleading, plosive, rising to a peak—
Peter clenches his hands in the sheets, frozen, dizzy with the way he hasn’t breathed in far too long; Juno finishes with a grunt, and Peter feels it in his whole body.
January 25, XXX35
Peter’s fingers drum against the table.
He has work to do, and increasingly little time to do it. Invitations to the Dean’s Luncheon—a pretentious name, pompous like everything at this prestigious university—will be sent in early April, meaning final choices are made in mid-March, meaning Peter has only a little more than a month to prove himself among Olympus Mons’ best and brightest.
It was a mistake, this plan. There would have been so many easier ways to infiltrate the room, to throw off suspicion—but a big score requires big investment, and Peter is not too proud to admit to himself that he was curious about the world of formal education. Building an encyclopedic knowledge of the history of crime can be difficult, when one is busy living it. He even convinces himself that the discrepancies between what his professors teach and what Peter already knows, from underground folklore and his own two eyes, may prove a useful tool.
The people here would love to catch him, after all; they would gladly throw him in prison, or in gilded chains like Engstrom, to be squeezed for every drop as a fascinating case study rather than an artist.
People like Juno.
Peter’s fingers falter in their steady rhythm. The steps of his plan are ones he has retraced a thousand times already; he is only thinking of them, instead of the reading open in front of him, as a distraction.
Juno’s voice, thin and breathy in the dark, “Peter,” Peter, Peter—
This was not a possibility Peter had really, honestly considered. He wants Juno, wants Juno the way he wants beauty and knowledge and freedom. Peter Nureyev has a healthy sense of awe; Juno sends him to his knees.
But Juno, wanting Peter in return— Peter has spent months believing, as he believes in the fundamental forces of the universe, that Juno was nothing more or less or other than his friend. He has made his peace with that. It’s more than he’s had in years: a genuine partnership. Someone who knows his name.
Peter Nureyev has always wanted more than he’s been told he can have. That is why Mag took him in so easily, or one of the reasons. He told Peter there was more he could take, more he deserved. These days, Peter is not in the habit of quibbling over desert, but this has opened a new potential could.
A clock ticks somewhere in the library. Peter is running out of time.
This is a corner, and Peter has painted himself into it. Juno, up against the far wall; between them, traps made of Peter’s name and his plan and his future. He is unreachable as-is, so far away he might well be a mirage.
Still, perhaps if Juno crossed that gulf himself, or met Peter halfway…
A one-time midnight fantasy is not a yes. It could easily have been a mistake—Juno’s or Peter’s, it remains to be seen. Regardless, Peter has little to go on and much to lose. He will need to be careful, he will need to be certain.
He will find out, one way or another, if Juno Steel wants him. Peter does not dare to hope Juno wants him the way Peter wants Juno; that is a big ask, a mountain rising to meet the sky, a forever kind of question. He will not beg the answer to that part, but he can ask for other things in other ways.
Peter has three months more on Mars. His plan is mostly tedium now; it will be nice to have another little project on the side. He can manage his time, and happens to be an expert at disappearances.
But he would like not to disappear, for Juno, if it can be helped. He would like that quite a lot.
The last section of January 22nd contains alcohol use; nobody gets intoxicated. January 24th contains sexual content. Skip ahead to January 25th to avoid it entirely.
A plan in motion; a question; an answer.
ONCE AGAIN I have amazing art to share!! Thank you so so much to spicybruha for this gorgeous comic of a scene in chapter 5. I'm so proud and honored every time anybody tells me they've enjoyed this fic, through comments or DMs or artwork. You're all so so kind to me.
This chapter contains mentions of death and grief and explicit sexual content. For more information, see the end notes.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
February 1, XXX35
Juno can’t tell if Peter’s been acting funny, or if Juno is finally, literally losing his mind via sexual frustration.
It was only in the last few weeks of their first semester that Peter got comfortable even changing in front of Juno. He’s obviously never shared a room before. Not sharing a room was the adjustment for Juno, when he left for college—he forgets, sometimes, that most people don’t feel like a chunk of their brain has been scooped out when they’re alone. They say no man is an island, but one lady has been for over two years.
Anyway. Anyway, for the last week, Peter hasn’t just been cautiously alright with the quick bare-skin moments of dressing in the morning or undressing at night. He seems to have developed an allergy to shirts that aren’t a mesh material or fall flirtily off one shoulder. He studies, flat on his back in bed, in nothing but his underwear with his long, bare legs braced up against the wall.
Juno is ready to tear his own hair out.
“Aren’t you cold?” Juno demands. Peter looks up from his position of lounging lazily on his side with his ankles crossed and his head propped up on his fist. “We’re on Mars, winter lasts another three months.”
“It’s been quite cozy in here since they fixed the heater,” he says. His nonchalance—and the smooth curve of his thighs—only pisses Juno off more.
“But you have to go outside sometimes.” Juno can barely keep his own argument in his head, slid off the rails by the sharp red arc of Peter’s lips. “Most people save the fresh summer looks for the end of the year, at least.”
“Are you complaining?” he asks. Juno swallows. He thinks Peter’s eyes might track the movement, but he’s too ashamed to be sure.
“No.” Juno hunkers down, picks up his pen, and wishes he could vent to Rita without having to sit through an hour of love advice based on the subtitled Outer Rim soaps she’s so fond of. “Wear whatever you want, but don’t come crying to me if you get frostbitten nipples.”
Peter laughs at that. The sound warms Juno to the tips of his toes, a fondness separate but related to the very un-family-friendly thoughts popping off in his mind like fireworks.
“Are you sure you wouldn’t administer first aid to them?” Peter says in a high, teasing voice.
Juno’s pen falls right out of his fingers. Scratch that, scratch all of it, he can never tell Rita a word of this. It would give her the wrong idea.
February 4, XXX35
Peter can feel Juno’s eyes on him. It is a familiar feeling; he has felt Juno’s eyes too sharp on him since they met. The weight has been a concern and a delight in turns. At the moment, it is a combination of the two, a concoction that sits unsteadily in Peter’s stomach like strong drink.
He keeps his eyes on his reading. He taps the end of his tablet pen against his lower lip, eyes half shut.
Peter parts his lips, runs the pen across his teeth.
Juno lets out a breathy noise. Peter catches a shift in movement in his peripheral vision and tucks that away for further study.
February 6, XXX35
“Are you lonely, Juno?” Peter asks this out of the blue. It takes Juno a long few seconds before he processes the question. He damn near drops his coffee mug when the words finally, actually hit him.
“Am I what?” There are too many ways to respond to that. There are too many things Peter might really be asking—not that Juno believes all of them are possible.
“I’m a solitary creature,” Peter says. It might pass for an attempt to change the subject entirely, if it weren’t for the way he glances at Juno. It breaks the facade of his disinterest. “I learned a long time ago not to rely on other people to get anything I need. I learned that lesson again, later. But,” his long, lean body uncoils from where he’s sitting. Juno turns back to his homework, tense, bracing for impact, “I’ve recently felt something strange, when I think about being alone.”
“Yeah?” Juno breathes. Peter’s arms come down against him. He leans on his forearms against Juno’s back, pressure and warmth and that smell. “You’re lonely?”
“Not right now,” Peter hums. “And that’s the crux of it, I think. I was accustomed to loneliness, like getting so used to a scent you cannot even smell it anymore.”
Must be nice, Juno thinks. About the smell thing, obviously.
“What,” Juno clears his throat, “what changed?”
Peter is silent. His arms unfold, slide over Juno—he can feel it through his shirt, the gentle flexing of Peter’s muscles—and two hands come lightly down on his shoulders.
“You never answered my question,” Peter says quietly.
“Shit, Nureyev,” Juno curses. He stands up, breaks Peter’s hold on him, and takes a frantic lap around the room. There’s nowhere to go. Juno feels caged, panicked, feral. “I haven’t stopped being lonely in two goddamn years.”
And this isn’t helping, he almost says. Having Peter Nureyev so close and warm, touching him and not touching him. There are a lot of lonelinesses. A host of them: different eyes, different mouths, but Juno knows them all.
He finally looks up. Peter’s eyes are wide in his face. He isn’t wearing his glasses.
“We’ve both got some shit to deal with,” Juno mutters. “Not your fault.”
“I only asked,” Peter says, slowly—now and then his articulation gets crisp, like he can’t be too careful with what he says and how he says it—“because you are the reason I’ve learned to see my loneliness for what it is.”
“Sorry about that,” Juno snorts.
“It’s not a bad thing.” Peter sounds exasperated, but soft. Still gentle, still. “Come here.” He sits on his bed at pats at the mattress next to him.
Juno, God help him, goes.
“What?” Juno grumps.
“I may be more aware of it now, but I would have been lonely one way or another. And I think,” he takes a breath, “I would have continued to be lonely. Now I know how it feels to be— To not feel that way, I can find a way to keep it up.”
“So I’m the one who saved you from your dark and lonesome existence, huh? That’s a lot to put on a guy.” This isn’t want Juno means, not exactly. He doesn’t know how to say any of the things he wants to in any of the ways he should.
“That isn’t what I meant. I’m perfectly capable of functioning on my own. You haven’t broken me,” he replies. “I only wanted you to know, I suppose I’ve realized what I want.”
His eyes on Juno, heavy, searing. Juno can’t let himself think about how this might sound from the outside. How it might look. It’s not true, it’s his brain straining for a way to grab hold of something else when he already has more than he goddamn deserves.
“And what’s that?”
“What anyone wants, I suppose. To be known, in one way or another.” Peter shrugs. “To accept that. To stop running from it.”
“Is that what anyone wants?” Juno asks skeptically. “Being known is… I mean, it’s embarrassing. You really want that?”
“You disagree? I’d love to hear what you’d like in its place.” Peter grins wickedly. His teeth fairly glint in the light. “To be unknown? Very mysterious. A good look on you, I’m sure.”
“I don’t know what the hell you’re asking me right now,” Juno says honestly.
“It’s a straightforward question,” Peter says. His dark eyes burrow into Juno. He can feel them. He can feel every place Peter’s ever touched him, all at once. “What do you want?”
You, is the only thought bouncing around the cave walls of his skull. I want your tongue in my mouth and your mouth on my tits, I want your teeth in my neck. I want you to grab my ass and fuck me ‘til I scream.
I want you to kiss me after, tell me you—
Juno swallows all of it, lets it simmer in his stomach where everything else corrodes, and breaks eye contact with Peter.
“Nothing,” he says.
“That can’t be true—” Peter starts to laugh.
“Maybe not, but learning how to make friends isn’t going to fix me.” Juno snaps at Peter, then promptly hates himself. Right on cue. “I have to get this done,” he adds, more gently.
“Of course.” Peter’s eyes let him go. “I should head out anyway. I have an appointment.”
“Yeah.” He sits back at his desk. Peter shuffles around as he readies himself to leave. “Hey, Peter?” Juno croaks right before he walks out the door.
“I’m, uh,” he shifts uncomfortably. “I’m glad I can… I don’t know. Help?”
“So am I, Juno.”
February 8, XXX35
Peter hears Rita’s voice from all the way down the hall. He smiles privately; it’s been a long time since he’s spoken to her in more than passing, though he knows she and Juno see each other all the time.
He missed her. Isn’t that novel.
“—I know who she is, Rita, I just don’t watch a dumb cartoon—”
“It ain’t dumb! It’s a modern classic, everybody says so.”
“Yeah, well, if everybody jumped in a volcano—”
Peter smiles wider at the conversation he can hear, even through the door, between Juno and Rita. Rita’s voice carries, he imagines, whether she means it to or not; Juno’s voice, Peter is simply well-attuned to.
“You are the two greatest gems Mars has to offer,” he says as the door opens. “I could hear you from the stairwell.”
“Thin walls,” Juno says dismissively. “Will you tell Rita I don’t have to have an encyclopedic knowledge of every goddamn off-model cartoon—”
“Will you tell Juno that it ain’t fair to write a show right off just cuz it’s technically for kids, when it’s got tons of heart and themes and jokes for more mature audiences—” She draws the word ‘mature’ out like a foreign aphorism.
“It seems you’re doing quite a thorough job of telling each other.” Peter sits in his desk chair, crosses his legs, and gestures for them to continue like a magnanimous king to his court.
Rita and Juno ignore him completely. They do continue their argument, though, and it is as entertaining as he’d hoped, so Peter counts it as a win.
February 10, XXX35
Peter’s doing it again. One of those things that Juno can’t actually call him on, because doing that would show just how laser-focused he is on the little movements of his hands and his shoulders and his mouth. Juno stews in it, turning up the volume on his music—the same song on repeat, it’s been stuck in his head for days and there’s a moment in the chorus that hasn’t lost its shine yet—and tries again not to look.
If he didn’t know better, he’d think Peter was doing this on purpose.
He’s fully clothed, even, which somehow makes it worse. The bulge in his cheek where his tongue pushes outward thoughtfully, the sharp points of his teeth where his mouth is parted, his hands, long fingers like a pianist or a thief, splayed out against the wall.
“You couldn’t have done this sooner?” Juno grouses, lifting one side of his headphones.
Peter looks over his shoulder. His spine dips before the sharp slope of his waist— Juno keeps his eyes up. His perfect balance on the rolling chair from his desk only puts Juno in mind of old, abstract artwork that looks wrong to the eye: ethereal and impossible, gravity-defying.
“I forgot I had this,” Peter says. He goes back to carefully adjusting his poster for some Outer Rim band Juno’s never heard of. He doesn’t even recognize the alphabet their name is written in.
The chair wobbles minutely as Peter tucks a thumbtack between the points of his teeth and leans forward again. He— he’s practically posing, one knee braced against the wall and his arms out and his whole ass pointed directly in Juno’s face. There’s a cosmic laugh track attached to Juno’s life. He has never been more certain that someone, somewhere, is laughing their head off at the irony of the shit that happens to Juno Steel.
“Watch out,” Juno snaps, standing up. “You’re gonna break your goddamn neck.”
“No, I’ve almost got it—” Peter reaches up. His whole long, lean body strains for the upper corners of his enormous poster. Juno opens his mouth to nag him again, and everything happens at once.
The chair turns. Peter’s ankle turns with it. He buckles, mouth agape and hands flying through the air. Juno feels a swooping in his gut. He rushes forward just in time for Peter to land, unceremoniously, against his chest, one arm around Juno’s shoulders to keep himself upright.
“Oh! Are you alright?” Peter asks. By sheer dumb luck, Juno is still on his feet. He needs a second to catch his breath, though, and then another when he sees his own arms wrapped around Peter Nureyev from behind.
“Fine,” he wheezes. Peter turns in his arms, pulling back just enough to free his own movement. His hand stays firmly on Juno’s shoulder.
Every tamped-down yearning from the past two weeks—hell, the past five months—rises in Juno like seawater. He feels the heat of Peter’s hand through his shirt. It burns like a star, like the gravity pulling everything into orbit around Peter’s mind and body and sharp, dangerous smile.
It’s more, so, so much more, than the physical desire of his body. He wants Peter. He wants him like justice, like the sky, like forever.
“Juno,” Peter says in that horrible way he has, like he’s letting something sweet melt on his tongue. Something Juno wants to taste.
He doesn’t say anything else. He just stares at Juno, eyes brilliant and bright and too close. His hand squeezes Juno’s shoulder—gently, he’s not pulling. Of course he’s not pulling, it’s not like he knows what he’s doing. Juno’s insides are tangled up and he wants to drop to his knees for this man, give him whatever he wants and beg for something, anything in return.
“Stop that,” Juno whispers instead. It comes out small and almost hurt, and that’s not fair. Juno wanted to keep all the hurting inside him, bundle it up and hide it instead of dropping it at Peter’s feet. He’s not some stray.
He’s pathetic, sure, but Peter doesn’t need to know that.
“Stop…” Peter tilts his head like a bird, “what, exactly?”
Peter blinks, and Juno hears his own heart shatter.
“Just… Just stop.” Juno can’t make himself move away from the touch. Peter’s hand is one of those enormous magnets in a junkyard, and Juno is the car about to get crushed into scrap metal. “Stop touching me like that. You—” He can’t take this anymore. “You don’t want to keep doing that.”
“Why ever not, Juno?” Peter rolls Juno’s name in his mouth like a marble, every time, like it’s something worth saying with care.
“You just don’t.”
“Hmm,” Peter hums at the resonant frequency of Juno’s rib cage. “I can’t imagine why that would be. In fact,” he moves even closer—Juno just about swallows his own tongue, “I think I do want to keep this up. I’m naturally inquisitive, you know.”
His other hand comes up to lay itself gently against Juno’s hip. Those long fingers twitch against his shirt, brush his skin, and Juno might as well have showered in gasoline last night, what with the flame that friction lights.
Peter’s lipstick is faded, only a suggestion in the outline of his lips. His eyes are dazzling, no tease to be found in them. He’s smirking, sure, but Juno can’t find the trace of a joke anywhere on his face.
“Oh,” he breathes. “Fuck it.”
Juno wraps his fingers tight around the back of Peter’s neck and drags him down into a kiss.
Peter makes a quiet noise against Juno’s mouth and parts his lips immediately. There’s a clever tongue tracing Juno’s teeth before he’s even consciously let it in, strong hands pulling at the hem and collar of his shirt, the smell of Peter Nureyev filling his nose like smoke, and, and, and—
Peter kisses like he gambles: certain of a win.
Juno feels his knees tremble, which would be embarrassing if he had room in his head for a single thought beyond more. More of this, more of Peter, please and now.
He takes the initiative for once in his life and steps backward, not letting go of Peter, not letting him pull away. Their mouths are still connected when Juno’s knees hit the edge of the bed and he drags them both down. Peter breaks away for a second to gasp a noise that might be Juno’s name, then dives back in and slides the hand on Juno’s hip down to hitch under his thigh.
Juno moans, and squirms, and pushes his hips up against Peter’s demandingly. There’s a hand creeping up his back, under his shirt, and fuck but that won’t do at all. Juno yanks his mouth away once more, just long enough to strip his shirt clean off, then goes for his own belt after he presses his mouth to Peter’s again—where it goddamn belongs.
He can think of a couple other places on Peter where his mouth belongs, but he can only do one at a time—and he might be rushing things. He’s going to let Peter go at his own pace, at least. But Juno’s been gagging for it for months, absolutely ass-over-teakettle for this man, and if Peter is finally kissing him then Juno refuses to be wearing pants right now.
Peter takes Juno’s bottom lip into his mouth, teeth scraping tender skin and tugging against his lip ring in a way that sends a hot liquid rush to his abdomen. Juno has his own pants around his thighs, can’t drop them any lower from how close he and Peter are pressed together. He’s conscious of the bulge in his boxers—some part of him wishes he’d gone for panties today, and some larger part is optimistically certain it won’t matter either way pretty soon—and the way it’s mirrored in Peter’s slacks.
The sight of that makes Juno throb. He’d spread his legs if he had more range of motion, but the desperate noise that bypasses his brain straight out his mouth probably communicates about the same idea. Peter responds with a high groan, and all the blood in Juno’s body boils over.
It fucking vaporizes in the next second, when Peter’s palm comes down against Juno, rubs at him through his underwear as he unbuttons his shirt with the other hand.
Long, heavy moans pull themselves from Juno’s throat. He wants all of Peter, has done for a while, but with him right there and now and immediate, breathing with Juno and blushing down his neck, it’s so much all at once that he feels like he’ll break in half.
“Please,” Juno croaks.
Peter locks eyes with him, sharp and deadly serious, and pulls his pants down in one clean motion. While he’s leaning down, he takes the opportunity to grab Juno’s waistband and rip his pants off all the way—one of Juno’s socks goes with them, balling up on the floor among a scattered assortment of other laundry.
Juno doesn’t have an opportunity to admire Peter’s dick like he wants to. He’s too busy arching up against him, pulling him down hard and grinding and gasping. His breath comes in ragged starts and stops, wild and desperate.
“Oh, Juno,” Peter pants into his hair, “Juno, Juno, I’ve wanted this for so long, you have no idea—”
And hell, shit, dammit but Juno absolutely cannot hear that right now. There’s no time between them but what’s counted by the metronome of their bodies, so Juno digs his fingers into Peter’s hair and kisses him hard so he finally shuts up.
Juno loses track of anything but sensation: the weight of Peter over him, pressing him down into his wrinkled sheets. A hand grabbing tight at his ass, under the leg pulled high around Peter’s waist. Tongue playing with the ring through his lip, fingers tweaking at the rings through his nipples. Teeth.
The bed frame creaks under them. Juno only hears it when he stops shouting long enough to breathe.
Sharp and warm and wet, Peter sucking hard at Juno’s neck. He hopes it’ll leave a mark. That’s the thought that gets him, along with all the rest of it. The pace of Peter’s hips and his slim waist between Juno’s legs, his hands, his voice calling back wordlessly when Juno begs.
His thighs quake, his feet twitch, his back arches so suddenly he damn well might pull a muscle, and Juno comes so hard he feels it streak across his chest. His eyes blink open as he settles down, shuddering.
Peter stares at him like he’s a supernova, eyes darting frantically over Juno’s face. He lets out a sharp, open-mouthed whimper that hits Juno like a whipcrack. His cock twitches hard against the crease of Juno’s thigh and, with a final few thrusts, he follows him over the edge.
Juno melts into the mattress and the blankets tangled under his back. He gulps down air like he hasn’t breathed in days, and startles when he feels Peter’s lips on his forehead.
“It’s about time, you know,” Peter mutters. “I was starting to worry I had the wrong idea.”
Juno knows the scripts, has watched way too many of Rita’s streams to miss the fact that he should chuckle quietly, kiss Peter deep and slow and let the credits roll—
But this is real. This is actually real, not one of his stupid fantasies interrupted by hearing a halt in the sleep-sounds from one bed over, or the particularly embarrassing dreams informed a little too much by frustration and distraction and more frustration he’s been having at a frankly alarming rate recently. He can feel Peter’s come on his hip, starting to get uncomfortably sticky, and that’s enough of a detail to prove to Juno’s dumb, smitten brain that this did actually happen to him.
So, in light of the looming reality of the situation, Juno says the only thing he can:
In the sections for February 1st and 6th, Juno thinks about the loss of Benten. February 6th also contains sexual imagery; to avoid it, skip the short paragraph immediately following "What do you want?"
February 10th contains explicit sexual content. To skip it, stop at "He takes the initiative for once in his life" and pick back up at "He gulps down air like he hasn't breathed in days."
A double-meaning; a long night's work; a matching of wits.
Thank you again to everyone for your constant encouragement and enthusiasm! I will fully admit that I still make embarrassing happy noises whenever I see a comment or kudos on this story.
Warnings: this chapter contains sexual content. For information on how to skip it, see the end notes.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
“Well,” Peter says. “Well,” he says again, eyes huge behind his glasses.
Peter pulls back—Juno misses the weight of him immediately—and grabs at his pants to hastily pull them back up. The movement brings him down almost to eye level with Juno’s hips, and if Peter’s cheeks weren’t already flushed red Juno is goddamn sure they’d be bright as cherries with the eyeful that gives him.
“Have you been—” Juno can’t find the words, the concept too big and too ridiculous to entertain, “trying to seduce me? Jesus Christ, Nureyev.”
He sits up and draws one leg towards himself. His pants are halfway across the room, but he feels strangely in-control sitting naked—except for one, single sock—and dripping with the aftermath of him and Peter… well. Well.
“That—” Peter begins haughtily. He almost immediately deflates, caught off guard by Juno’s legs spread apart and whatever flush his skin still carries. “You’re not wrong.”
“What the fuck,” Juno reiterates.
“Oh, don’t get angry with me. I—”
“I’m not mad,” Juno laughs, angrily. “Why would I be mad? My whole goddamn life just turned upside down, is all.”
“It wasn’t my intention to ruin anything, Juno. I… I haven’t, have I?” Peter stands with his hands at his sides, helpless. “You wanted this?”
“Of course I did,” Juno groans. “I’ve wanted to fuck your brains out since we met. That’s not the point. The point is, you, what? Decided instead of talking to me like a normal person, you were gonna do some suave ladykiller act and wait for me to break? So you’d be in control? Do you get off on manipulating people?” Juno could keep going, let this launch into a full tirade. He wants to. But Peter is usually the last person in the world to stand there and take it and he hasn’t tried to say a word. “What?”
“You…” Peter looks dazed. “You’ve wanted— this, for that long?”
Juno stills immediately.
“You didn’t know?”
Peter shakes his head slowly.
“I had no idea,” he says quietly. “Not until a few weeks ago.”
“God,” Juno snorts. “I’m not exactly subtle. Thought you were smarter than that. Good at reading people, and whatever bullshit.”
“I am excellent at reading people, thank you.” The effect of his indignation is dampened by the hair sticking up off his head like a cockatiel and his fly undone. “It was simply… difficult to believe.”
“What was?” Juno leans forward. Peter doesn’t move away. “Anytime you wanna start making sense—”
“That what I wanted—who I wanted—would want me back.”
He reaches out with careful fingers and touches the side of Juno’s face. His hands are warm, slender fingers and tendons Juno has spent more time staring at than he wants to think about. The gentle touch lights Juno up again, and it hits him that he should put his pants back on sooner rather than later.
“You’re a real idiot,” Juno murmurs, “if you think nobody wants you.”
“I don’t think that. I know who I am.” Peter says this as a matter of fact. He doesn’t stop touching Juno’s face like an appraiser might hold a priceless gem. “It’s hard to say what I mean.”
“I’m not accustomed to getting what I want because it has been freely given,” he explains. “Quite the opposite. I was afraid—terrified, really—that you would only want me because, how did you put it? I manipulate people?” He steps closer until his clothed thighs are bracketed by Juno’s bare ones. “I would rather have suffered in silence than do that to you.”
Juno tilts his face into the touch, tilts his face to look up at Peter’s.
“If it makes you feel any better,” he says before he can come to his senses, “I’m not used to being wanted after someone’s had the time to actually get to know me.”
“I’m not used to being known,” Peter replies with a smile. He smiles in all sorts of ways, but this one Juno has never seen outside their room. Never seen aimed at anyone besides himself, now that he thinks about it.
“Well, I’ll be happy to know you.”
“Juno,” Peter raises an eyebrow. “Was that what they call an entendre?”
Juno shrugs and hooks two fingers into the exposed waistband of Peter’s underwear.
“Take your pants off and find out.”
The kiss is slower, this time, than the feral way Peter took Juno’s mouth before. The inside of his bottom lip is still tender, skin a little ragged from the teeth. He doesn’t worry about it now. He doesn’t worry about a thing besides seeing all of Peter Nureyev, being seen, forcing his brain to stop for a minute so he can enjoy the sight and the sound and the feeling of Peter falling, bubbling with laughter, into his bed.
Bright, giddy bursts of delight go off in Peter’s stomach. He kisses Juno, kisses him again, over and over so deeply and for so long that he forgets to breathe. The solidity of his body under Peter’s is greater than the surface of any planet he’s ever set foot on. Here is Juno, moaning quietly into his mouth; here is Juno, pulling him closer.
Peter has known for a very, very long time—perhaps not as long as it feels, but it has felt like an age, an era of mythic memory—that he wants Juno. That he wants to kiss Juno, and hold him, and hold him down and get him off. The idea, as inconvenient as it is, nearly consumed him.
Nevertheless, even Peter’s fantasies didn’t prepare him.
Oh, certainly, Juno is no more vocal or soft or even beautiful than Peter imagined. Than he hoped. What Peter did not count on, for the first time in his life, was himself.
Juno’s tongue in his mouth; his breath on his face; his hands on Peter and Peter’s hands on him: all of it, each discrete movement and moment turns to crystal in his eyes. It turns to fire in his blood. His hands and the deft control of them have been the only things keeping Peter Nureyev alive for as long as he can remember. In this moment, he has lost that control entirely.
There is a soft sound as Juno’s mouth parts from Peter’s.
“Might be asking this a little late, considering,” Juno mumbles, “but can I touch you?”
It takes Peter a moment to remember how to form words. Speaking is overrated; there are much better uses for his lips and his tongue and his teeth. He nearly leans in for another kiss before the right parts of his brain switch back on.
“Yes,” he breathes, and grabs at Juno’s hips. They shift around, Peter on his back against the pillows, Juno half leaning over him. Hair falls into Peter’s eyes; he tosses his head desperately, better to see Juno, to watch Juno watch him. It turns every hard edge in him to jelly, Juno’s keen eyes on Peter’s face.
His hand is rough, too much too soon; Peter doesn’t mind, not really, but Juno says, “I have a better idea,” and slides down onto his stomach to settle between Peter’s thighs, and that’s more than fine too.
When he was Rex Glass, he dropped hints with a smile or a wink and thought little about it. He was unattainable, but only barely; that was the point. It is easy to bluff when no one else at the table will ever see your cards. Juno, on the other hand—it seems a lady doesn't kiss and tell, but the unselfconscious way he holds Peter’s thigh and opens his mouth, the look in his eye… It reminds him of the bar, and the darts, and the muscle-memory focus in Juno’s dark brows.
Peter knows how to play many games: literal, figurative, and ones so subtle the only person who ever knows who lost is the winner. He’s less experienced in what happens when you stop playing altogether.
Juno, he’s come to understand, would sooner flip the table and let all the cards scatter.
That kind of straightforward honesty gets him in trouble. It gets him hurt. It also, apparently, gets him Peter Nureyev’s heart.
Juno plays no games. He sees through them with ease, without even trying. The significance of that comes rushing toward him with an embarrassing rapidity: this is one area in which Peter cannot feign more experience than he has. That’s not a deal-breaker by any means, but it’s funny: some part of Peter honestly never thought he’d get this far.
He returns the favor best he can. Juno seems to have no complaints.
February 13, XXX35
“—and that’s when they tried to put the handcuffs on him, only they couldn’t get ‘em to fit because of how big the mascot suit was,” Rita finishes her story, which Juno heard a week ago and has to admit is almost as funny the second time.
Peter twinkles a laugh that sounds as genuine as his smile and lights Rita up every time. Juno would be lying if he said he didn’t feel the same way, but the smooth curve of Peter’s neck these days has a new significance when it catches his eye, now he knows what it tastes like.
“You have to tell me all about your second day at the theme park soon,” Peter says, standing and stretching his arms behind himself. Juno’s tongue ties itself in a knot at the sight of Peter’s shirt riding up, just a sliver, above his waistband.
“Aw,” Rita pouts. “You goin’ somewhere? I just got here!”
“I have an evening class, unfortunately. You two have fun without me.”
Juno only has a split second to realize his mistake, getting lost neck-deep in drooling over Peter. He let his guard down, and now the last half-hour of carefully sitting apart and not making too much eye contact is for nothing, because Peter leans over and kisses Juno on the side of the head.
He leaves in the silent moment after. The door closes, and Juno squeezes his eyes shut, bracing for impact.
A long, high sound starts up, a whir or a whine, rising further and further into a sharp screech that becomes recognizably Rita’s voice. She holds there for a few seconds, more air than should fit in a girl her size, and Juno peeks one eye open to make sure she’s not irreparably broken just in time to see her whirl on Juno.
“Oh. My. GOSH, BOSS.” Rita hops to her feet and pulls the purple scrunchie right out of her hair. She pulls it between her fingers, snapping the elastic back and forth in an excited fervor. “You did it!”
“Didn’t do anything,” Juno grumbles half-heartedly.
“When? How? When?” Rita practically vibrates in place. Juno wants to put his hands on her shoulders to hold her still, but he imagines that would just start shaking him too and send them both through the floor. “How long have you and Rex been… you know.” She tries to pitch her voice down conspiratorially, but she can’t seem to manage it in her glee. It comes out as a squeak.
“Not that long, okay, it’s not a big deal.” Juno says it, and he hopes it’s a lie. He and Peter haven’t talked about it much—they’ve been… a little busy.
“Not,” Rita wheezes like she’s drowning, “a big deal? Juno Steel, if you really think I’m gonna believe that you can march right over to the best friend store and hope you kept the receipt for me, because I ain’t that gullible and I’d like to think I know you pretty well.”
The use of his full name startles Juno enough that he blurts out, “Three days ago.”
“That’s better!” Rita puts her purple scrunchie back in her hair and pulls out the green one. “So,” she giggles. A big, bright, apple-cheeked grin stretches her face open and she asks, “Is he a good kisser?”
“You don’t gotta tell me,” Rita says as Juno sets himself to the task of digging a hole straight through his pillow to the center of Mars using only his face. “And actually I’d really appreciate it if you didn’t tell me anythin’ more than that because, the way I see it as far as it involves me and my knowing things, there’s a time and a place for the raunchy stuff and that place never, ever, ever includes you, no offense, Boss—”
“Yeah,” Juno groans, because if he doesn’t she’ll never stop.
Rita squeals, and Juno has so, so many regrets.
Peter’s office work—the title still amuses him, a day at the office like honest work he’s never done in his life, though he has done dishonest work quite honestly—is finished. It ought to be anyway; one can never be too careful.
Scaling the building stopped being the most practical way into the room very quickly. Peter has never been in the market to drag a dozen pounds of power tools up fourteen stories, thank you. He crawls through vents and a disused service elevator, like a professional.
The room is dark and quiet, darker still in the Martian twilight descending over Olympus Mons. He does not dare turn on a light that might be seen out the window.
Peter unfolds a metal step stool and climbs it silently in the gathering dark. He reaches up, tucked against the ceiling, and curls a hand around the metal bar welded to the strong magnet. Peter steps off the top of the stool and watches his own feet swing in a pendular arc beneath him. No sounds of creaking, no wobble between the bar and the ceiling, that’s excellent. He tests it for another few seconds, hanging easily by one hand, then lets himself drop to the floor.
Next he makes a cursory check of the hallway, the lock on the door, and the window measurements. Now that the semester proper is back in session and the campus buildings are back in regular use, he cannot risk opening the hinge in the floor; he will have to trust his own craftsmanship.
Trusting himself has never been Peter Nureyev’s problem. Still, a Lesson One of thieving: trust, but verify. This extends even to oneself. Mag would have turned the simple advice into a poem; Peter may be growing into verbosity, but efficiency is still a useful tool.
Efficiently, he cleans his fingerprints from the metal bar and sweeps away any prints his shoes may have left on the thin carpet. Leave no trace behind, not until he comes back to see this through.
In the meantime: work, one hand over the other, bit by bit and brick by brick to a score finally big enough set him up as a player in the game he’s trained for his whole life, one to be taken seriously. Interesting work, too; he’s come to enjoy the discipline of study.
The company he keeps has been no less enjoyable. More and more with each passing day, really. There is no one around to see him, so Peter indulges in the grin that stretches his face at the thought of Juno.
There is still no one around to see him. Peter thinks of Juno’s mouth, and Juno’s hands, and Juno’s quiet, raspy laugh and the way he rubs his eyes when he gets too tired, and Peter wriggles his shoulders with a happy hum right there inside the ventilation shaft. His mind brushes against the knowledge that Juno is only a pit stop, that he will have to leave and Juno will hardly be prepared to follow him out into the stars when he has so little, yet, to offer—
Peter dances nimbly away from that train of thought. He has the time, here and now. Perhaps Juno Steel is another project, in the time before the last pieces of this plan come together. Another indulgence, or an investment.
The question is which; Peter isn’t sure. He’s never fallen in love before, but it must be one of the two, mustn’t it?
February 25, XXX35
Valencia can’t study with her headphones in, which is goddamn inconvenient, because her neighbors are at it again.
Last semester was fine. She barely ever saw those guys in the room next door, and when she did they didn’t try to talk to her, which is a plus when it comes to floormates. They played some inane game in the hallway once, but Loo told them to knock it off before they did anything too stupid.
The last couple weeks, though? Absolutely non-stop noise from next door like they’re fucking every free second the two of them get. Valencia is practically hot-boxing her room from the stress, clouds of sweet-smelling vapor rolling against the ceiling and the smoke detector she disabled in the first week of the semester. She’s chewing on the end of her vape pen, ready to bite it in half when her room echoes with a dull thud against the shared wall.
“I’m so happy for you,” she hisses with rage. One of those assholes next door—the short one, she thinks—only answers with a long moan.
The bed frame knocking isn’t the problem. The rattling pipes in this run-down building aren’t any quieter, and the standard-issue furniture is cheap and old. No, that’s not the reason she’s going to wring a pair of necks—
“Oh, oh, please, harder, hard— Ah!”
Valencia doesn’t need luck when she can rig the game, but there’s no cheating her way out of living next door to the worst screamer on Mars. At that, one who recently decided boning his roommate is more important than not only his own schoolwork, but hers too.
They go on like that for what feels like hours, or maybe they’re on a second round. At least she’s getting pretty good at telling when they’re almost done.
Valencia smokes, and smokes, and swears she’s going to kill them.
She runs into him in the hallway the next day—Juno, must be his name. The other one says it so much, Valencia couldn’t forget if she tried. He strides right through a cloud of her smoke, coughs like a big dramatic baby, and glares at her.
“Mind taking your shitty vape outside? I got sensitive lungs.”
“Mind taking your boyfriend’s dick more quietly?” Valencia blows another stream of vapor in his face. “I got sensitive ears.”
She never thought she’d see the day, but that seems to shut him up.
To skip the sexual parts of this fic--which are largely non-explicit--stop after "Peter has known for a very, very long time" and pick up again at "Peter knows how to play many games." Then, skip the section for February 25th (the last section of the chapter) entirely.
There are sporadic references to sex throughout the rest of the chapter, including the very beginning, but none directly concerning the details of sexual activity.
An evening out; an evening in.
Oh boy... here's a chapter of sweet queer love. A chapter like this might even convince you that nothing could ever go wrong and everything will be hunky-dory forever! Feel free to keep thinking that as long as you possibly can.
This chapter contains alcohol use and explicit sexual content. For further warnings, see the end notes.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
March 4, XXX35
A text from Peter lights up Juno’s comms fifteen minutes before he gets off work.
Hurry back, it says. Something urgent.
Juno clutches at a stitch in his side the whole way through his last delivery and seriously considers hopping the fence between the garage in Ramses’ building and the sidewalk back to his dorm. He uses the actual gate, but only because he hasn’t successfully climbed a fence in almost a decade and never without a leg up to start.
Adrenaline is a hell of a drug, but Juno’s not stupid. He’s just worried, is all. Just a bit.
The door flies open and Juno pants, “What’s—huh—what’s wrong?” before he even bothers to look.
When he does, Juno spies the exact source of trouble. Predictably, it’s Peter Nureyev.
“Nothing at all, Juno, as long as you get dressed quickly.” Peter stands up, tugs at the corners of a sharp suit jacket that fits him so well Juno’s mouth goes dry, and grins. “We wouldn’t want to be late.”
“Late for—? The hell is—”
“I’m taking you on a date.” Peter’s grin widens. His lip stain matches the flower in his buttonhole, and he holds a matching bloom between his thumb and forefinger out to Juno.
The place is fancier than anywhere Juno’s ever been on purpose. He followed Ramses around some get-together for eccentric millionaires a few months ago, but that was a rented out ballroom and he spent more time insisting he wasn’t a waiter than admiring the decor. Here, everything is starched white tablecloths and gentle music drifting from somewhere invisible and Peter across from him, sharp and smart and doing this for Juno—
It’s a lot.
“They have quite a selection,” Peter comments, presumably because Juno has been staring at the wine menu for ten minutes and trying not to visibly sweat.
“Yep,” he says.
Whatever language the names of these drinks are in, Juno sure as hell doesn’t speak it. He barely even drinks wine. He can’t shake the nagging feeling that if he orders the wrong thing, the waiter and every other guest in the place—including Peter—will laugh in his face and a manager will come ask him to leave. A guy two tables over has an old fashioned, but Juno can’t find it on the menu and the olives are on one of those fancy metal stabby things made special for the purpose instead of a toothpick, anyway, so it’s still probably not his speed.
“Are we settled?” says a voice from nowhere. Juno damn near falls out of his seat.
“Another minute, if you’d be so kind,” Peter says to the waiter who appeared in a puff of goddamn smoke behind Juno a second ago.
A minute, Juno thinks. I can be fine in a minute. He stares harder at the menu, like that’ll magically reveal a line of invisible ink explaining exactly what he should do.
He isn’t fine in a minute. The waiter comes back, Peter orders something Juno didn’t know was pronounceable with human speech, and Juno swallows half a glass of water in one go.
This is the kind of thing a lady should want, right? To be romanced, or whatever. He likes the thought of Peter doing things for him, of getting dressed up and looking at him fondly through the candlelight, soft words and soft touch and the trappings of something he hasn’t gotten a lot of in his life so far. He should be enjoying this. He should.
He tugs at the collar of his shirt. It feels too stiff.
“Juno,” Peter says.
“Yeah,” Juno replies with a smile that feels like a grimace. He can at least fake it, for Peter. He went to all this trouble, after all.
“Do you want to get out of here?”
“Oh, thank God.” Juno practically slumps forward onto the table.
“Never have I ever,” Peter hiccups, “let Rita push me down a hill in a shopping cart.”
“Dammit,” Juno swears. “I can’t believe she told you that.” Juno takes a long swig from the bottle of wine—the only evidence they were ever anywhere except this park bench, not counting the fancy clothes and the gel still slicked through Peter’s thoroughly-mussed hair.
Peter laughs, high and musical and messy into the cool night air. The stars overhead waver, weak but still shining, beyond the dome.
“Your turn.” Peter tucks his head against Juno’s shoulder. He’s warm and he smells so unique and intoxicating. Juno could never get tired of a smell like that.
“Alright, lemme think. Should I go easy on you?” Juno teases. “You’re so bad at this.”
“I think the goal is not to have-ever,” Peter says primly.
“But then you don’t drink, which is the point.” Juno sneaks another sip. “Never have I ever topped,” Juno says quickly, and cheerily tips the bottle back to his mouth.
Peter goggles at him, a moment of shocked stillness before he takes the bottle.
“That was cheating,” he accuses, too loud for the quiet park that is technically closed this time of night.
“It’s not cheating to use something I know you’ve—”
“Not that,” Peter rolls his eyes. “You had to drink too, and, and—”
“You promised to show a lady a good time tonight. I’m making good on that,” Juno shrugs.
“—and I wouldn’t have if it weren’t for you,” he mutters around the lip of the bottle. “Ergo, cheater.”
“You can’t cheat at this game—” Juno is about to argue, when what Peter says catches up to him. “Wait, seriously?”
“Mm.” Peter looks off into the dark shapes of plastic shrubbery in the park around them. “I was, ah, nervous about it. If you must know.”
“Um,” Juno is about to ask Do you not like it? or something equally stupid, considering this is really something they should have talked about a hell of a lot earlier and more sober, if it was going to be a problem. He doesn’t get the chance.
“I shouldn’t have been.” Peter is half turned away. Beyond the thin blue of the dome overhead there’s hardly any light, but Juno thinks he’s blushing. “It’s magnificent, with you. Everything is.”
It’s Juno’s turn to disrupt the careful quiet of Olympus Mons at midnight. His laughter starts quiet, wriggling in his chest, until it breaks free from his throat and he can’t breathe. Peter joins in, head and neck hanging off the back of the bench and the wine bottle pressed to his forehead like a cold compress.
Juno doesn’t think they’re actually laughing about the same thing. Still, it sits warm in his stomach alongside the wine.
Peter’s little giggles fade away and he buries his face in Juno’s shoulder again.
“Sorry,” Juno catches his breath. “It’s… I don’t think anyone’s ever used a word like that for me before.”
“I meant it.” He can feel Peter’s mouth moving right at the edge of Juno’s shirt collar, loosened sometime after they made their escape from the restaurant. “Not just about the sex, in case that wasn’t clear.”
“That’s why I laughed,” Juno murmurs, but there’s nothing sharp or mean behind his self deprecation. Juno startles himself with that. He clears his throat. “Your turn.”
He can’t tell for sure, but there’s a whisper of touch against his neck that might be Peter’s lips. It’s gone as soon as it came. Peter sits up and leans back against the bench.
“My turn. Never have I ever,” he breathes, staring straight up at the sky, a dim blue glow reflecting in the curve of his eyes, “gotten wine-drunk on a park bench, right this very second, with someone I’ve fallen hopelessly in love with.”
Peter takes a long drink. The bottle is nearly empty. He doesn’t offer it to Juno, just lets it hang loosely in his hand.
“Now you’re the one cheating,” Juno mumbles. He grabs the bottle and finishes off the wine.
March 8, XXX35
“I should get to the library,” Peter protests weakly. “If I don’t finish this essay by midnight—”
Strangely enough, he’s cut off by his own teeth catching on Juno’s bottom lip.
Peter really does have an essay to finish; he’s been elbow-deep in procrastination for the past week, but his deadlines—academic and self-imposed—are rapidly approaching. Certainly, once invitations go out he can relax. They’ll hardly uninvite him over a few points’ difference. But these coming weeks are crucial; every grade and good grace his professors give him will be one step closer to the necessary outcome.
Juno’s tongue traces along the back of Peter’s teeth. He considers that there is always the option of disguising himself as a caterer.
But it would be foolish, after all this work, to throw it away now. After this experiment in seeing where he might have been, if things were different. Who he might be.
When Juno looks at him, he sees a man reflected in those beautiful blue-gray eyes who has no secrets to keep. He has no ghosts dogging his heels, no blood on his hands. It makes Peter want to be a man worthy of that look.
He cannot be, of course. The clock ticks down, further and further, to the day Peter’s work here is finished. The day he will have to leave Mars behind. Probably for quite a long time; he has made too many people too familiar with his face.
And it would hurt, he thinks, to walk these streets again without Juno by his side.
The two of them will move on. Peter has a great many skills, but the only one that truly matters is the ability to disappear. A vanishing act must not only fool the audience, but the man doing the vanishing; he sheds all parts of himself that tell the observer where he has been, who he has been, where he might be going next. The marks Juno Steel has left on him will be harder to cast aside than most, but Peter will survive it. He has lived through worse.
For the first time in years, Peter spares a thought for someone he will leave behind.
Juno will be fine. Peter tells himself this, sternly, at the very moment he feels Juno’s heartbeat under his hands. The two of them are survivors, having clawed their way out of warzones of one kind or another. Juno knows Mars with an intimacy Peter has never stayed anywhere long enough to find; he knows how to weather its storms.
It is with a kind of faith he has not felt in— in quite some time, that Peter decides Juno will leave Mars better than he found it. If anyone can, it’s him. If anyone can make a life worth living here—not like the stuffy elite of Olympus Mons or the entertainers of Hyperion City who make suffering their star-studded-spectacular—it is Juno Steel.
Peter only wishes he could stay long enough to see it.
The future is fast approaching, speeding toward Peter like an unstoppable train. He will be prepared to meet it; he will not flinch first. If this means cutting off part of his own heart and leaving it, raw and hidden, in the sand of some planet he couldn’t be the one to save… Well. It wouldn’t be the first time.
He makes it to the library, later than he’d like but still with enough time to finish his paper. He only managed to tear himself away from Juno at last with that final silent promise: they will both move on. They will both survive. They will both go on to greatness, independent of one another, and this is not a tragedy.
The only tragedy would be the folly of forgoing an opportunity, simply because a pretty face like Juno’s got in the way. Peter is young, but he has never been a fool.
March 12, XXX35
“Have you seen my scarf? I couldn’t find it this… morning—” Juno pauses in the open door. He looks at Peter, who looks back at him, frozen in the process of arranging pillows on Juno’s bed. Or, the bed that used to be Juno’s, anyway. It takes him a second to reconcile what he’s seeing. “What are you doing?”
The question is a stupid one. It’s obvious what Peter is doing, even to someone as goddamn dense as Juno when it comes to this kind of thing. Juno tries, and fails, to find a word for how this makes him feel. He doesn’t have the practice, naming feelings like this one.
While Juno was away, Peter pushed their beds together.
“Oh,” Peter looks up and sees Juno in the doorway. “I didn’t expect you back so soon. I, ah,” he gestures at the setup. Juno’s comforter, always too big for his narrow mattress, is spread across both beds. “I hope this is alright. I can take them apart, of course, but I wanted to surprise you—”
“It’s fine,” Juno says. He shuts the door, crosses the room faster than he maybe ever has before, and hops onto the mattress to walk the last couple feet on his knees to get at Peter more directly. He kisses him on the mouth, hard, messy, easier than trying to speak to how warm and undone he feels by the gesture. “It’s… Yeah. I’m good with this.”
Peter’s eyes wrinkle at the corners when he smiles that wide.
Juno’s bare back is warm and solid against Peter’s chest. They have shared a bed before, cramped on one twin-sized mattress or the other too tired in the afterglow to make it all the way across the room—or, in Peter’s case, using that as an excuse to hold Juno a little longer. But this, intentional and planned and semi-permanent in a way he has not had the bravery to discuss up to now, feels altogether different. New and familiar, strange and indescribably right.
The way they’re curled up together under their combined blankets puts Peter in mind of a certain other night, cold and unforgettable, weeks and what feels like an eternity ago.
That was a night of telling some secrets and not others. The smaller secret was the one that went untold; the ill-advised one, dropped like so much ephemera in Juno’s hands. Now he knows both, and gave Peter a fair trade on one. Peter has no reason to ache for anything this time around, either. Juno is just was warm and soft as he was that night, and lounging comfortably for once.
Peter thinks, with a sudden clarity, that he has no reason to hold himself back.
He dips his head forward and kisses Juno’s neck. It’s more an experiment than anything, and he gets conclusive results incredibly quickly.
“Peter,” Juno sighs as he tilts the line of his jaw away from Peter’s cheek, giving him more access. The thrill of hearing his name from such a pretty mouth has not dulled one bit, Peter thinks.
He keeps his kisses gentle. Juno reacts eagerly to harsher treatment—not that he doesn’t react to everything Peter does to him—but the air is too thick and soft and Juno’s breathing was too deep until a moment ago to break the spell with his teeth.
“Shh,” Peter hushes him. His lips skim over the bend of Juno’s jaw—scratchy, he needs a shave—up behind his ear. Peter lets his hands explore, slide forward across Juno’s skin, around his side and down the plane of his chest. He hasn’t taken the opportunity to learn Juno’s body this way; so far they’ve always been so preoccupied in the before and during, and Peter hasn’t had nearly enough experience with anything this intimate to know what the etiquette is for after.
This is a strange, liminal space between all of those things. This is Juno lying, solid and quiet, in Peter’s arms, only moving enough to bare more of himself to Peter’s mouth and wandering hands.
Juno has a number of scars that might be alarming if Peter didn’t know him as well. As it is, they’re more a source of grim anger, that the world would ever dare to touch him with violence. Peter swallows down the urge to find the source of every scar with a knife in his hand and focuses on the gentleness he’s crafting with his palms. One hand comes up high on Juno’s chest, not tweaking his nipples but rubbing slowly over the low swell around them. Peter can feel his heartbeat.
He’s faintly trembling, Peter can feel that too, but he’s not done with him yet. Not at all.
The warm metal of the tiny bar through his nipple feels good beneath Peter’s hand, the way it rolls minutely under his skin. His other hand traces Juno’s side, along Juno’s flank, over his hip and down to the broad side of his thigh. Peter presses an open-mouthed kiss to the back of his neck as his fingers scritch through sparse leg hair.
His hand stays just below the leg of Juno’s boxer-briefs—the tight grey pair that make his ass even more of a distraction than it already is, which is saying something. He trails a palm up and down, around to the front of his thigh, while his other hand spreads over Juno’s collarbone.
His thumb catches under the seam of Juno’s underwear, and Juno gasps like he’s just surfaced from the bottom of a pool. He’s been grinding back slowly against Peter for uncounted seconds; in no hurry, but insistent.
“Please,” Juno says. His voice is like old, creaking wood when he’s trying to be quiet. It’s warm, like the skin where Peter touches him, and safe. Peter wants to curl up in the sound and never leave.
Peter doesn’t answer. He kisses Juno under the jaw instead. Still no teeth, but lips pulling at his skin in a way that sends tremors through them both.
One hand comes back up to stroke over Juno’s stomach; the other, at the tender skin inside his upper arm, laying askew out from his body as he tries to push as much of himself up into Peter’s touch as possible. This goes on, and on, Peter tripping his fingers over a dozen scars as if trying to read them like tea leaves, finding the corners of Juno that make him gasp or groan. He’s heavy and hard in his own pajama shorts, well aware of Juno’s own arousal even as he avoids touching him in only one place.
Peter brings his hand around and lays it against the curve of Juno’s ass. His fingertips rest against the crease of his thigh; Juno pushes back into him again with a sigh, and Peter’s other hand caresses the column of Juno’s throat.
His fingers curl in a loose curve, skipping merrily over Juno’s adam’s apple. His mouth opens on a hitching gasp, and Peter keeps going, up and up until his fingers come to rest inside Juno’s mouth. Just the pads of them, against the soft skin of his inner lip and the hard line of his teeth. Juno’s jaw drops and his whole body rocks. He nearly rolls on top of Peter in an effort to get closer, skin touching skin in as many long stretches as possible.
“Thank you, Juno,” Peter whispers. Juno might ask, “For what”?” and Peter wouldn’t know how to answer that question. But he doesn’t ask.
He moans instead; Peter feels the desperate movement of Juno’s tongue, curling against his hard palate, beneath his fingers. He squeezes Juno’s ass once, slow and generous, and reaches around to pull the front of Juno’s boxers down, pull him out.
“Yeah, yes,” Juno says, too loud for the moment, awkward around the fingers getting in the way, and Peter shushes him again. His fingers slip deeper into Juno’s mouth. He presses them into the hollow of his cheek just as he wraps his other hand around Juno, who twitches and bucks up into the touch.
It’s warm and slow and something Peter might like to call sweet, the way he touches Juno. His hand twists and he pulls gently, pressure but no speed, little more than playing with him. This is less a rush to some finish line, more another leg of his exploration. There are wild new lands to conquer here: in Juno’s skin, in his mouth, in the pleading curve of his neck. Peter aims to find them.
He’s wet when Peter swipes his thumb over the head, whole body moving to the even strokes Peter gives him. Juno breathes in time with them, undulates his spine in a long wave to push forward against Peter’s hand and back against the curve of Peter’s cock. It’s breathtaking. Juno always is—sublime.
The soft skin of his cheek tenses under Peter’s fingers as Juno sucks, mouths at Peter’s hand as if begging for more of it. There’s spit in the webbing of Peter’s fingers; Juno is alive and moaning and drooling around them.
“You’re beautiful, Juno,” Peter says against his neck. He keeps his lips against Juno’s skin; even if he doesn’t hear the words, Juno will feel them.
Peter works slow and steady, wrings sighs and broken sounds from Juno’s throat like a finely-tuned instrument. His breath comes in short huffs; his whole body is shaking, thighs spread so far his leg is hooked backwards over Peter’s hip, straining for his own pleasure.
As much as Peter loves pushing him there, there’s something delightful about making Juno work for it.
He gets there eventually, shaking and whining around Peter’s fingers, clutching so tight at Peter’s ass he might have a bruise there come morning in the shape of Juno’s hand—not that he’d mind, all things considered.
It’s lucky Juno kicked most of the blankets away some minutes back, because he comes for a long string of seconds and makes a gorgeous mess all over himself.
Peter works his hand off of Juno slowly, squeezing gently until the last of the tremors leave his body. He slides his fingers out from between Juno’s lips; when Juno rolls onto his back, Peter can see how wrecked his mouth is, like he’s been kissed within an inch of his life, like he’s been—
“Once I can move again,” Juno croaks, “you’re gonna fuck my throat so hard I choke. Deal?”
“Sounds like a plan,” and his voice only cracks a bit.
Juno makes good on that. Enthusiastically. He sets his sweaty palms against the backs of Peter’s thighs, pulling him in, tears pricking at his eyes and mouth wet and deep. Peter wants to keep it slow, wants to keep to the pace he set and the quiet warmth that suffuses the room—
Juno slaps his ass, just once, more of a swat than anything. Peter jerks forward with a quiet “Oh,” the sting and the sound Juno makes sparking through him like static electricity.
Peter rattles his own bones with it, the way Juno coaxes him into letting go. He chants Juno’s name: a hot and quick trochaic beat, a prayer and a plea and a giving-in to command all at once—ritualistic. Juno gags around him and his hands tighten on the flesh of Peter’s thighs, won’t let him pull away as his hips stutter.
The fluttering of Juno’s throat— Pressure of his tongue— Peter loses all sense of time; everything at once, circular, like trying to remember which beat of his heart has sounded before the next.
It’s almost tender. He sinks inside himself, inside Juno, sweat prickling at his temples and something else prickling up his spine. His orgasm comes closer in waves, building against Juno’s soft palate and the way Peter thinks he’d be moaning if he had more room to breathe; he can feel the sounds more than hear them, pushes closer because he needs to feel them more—
Peter comes with a sound he’s never heard from himself before: a soft, startled thing that flits from his throat. He works on controlling the shivers running down his arms while Juno pulls off, runs his lips over the side of Peter’s softening cock, the inside of his thighs, not quite a kiss but a caress with his parted mouth.
“You—” he gasps, “I— Oh, Juno,” Peter sighs shakily. Juno looks up at him, lines of saliva and come running across his cheek and chin, and grins.
Peter thinks, without meaning to, I’ve made a mess, now, haven’t I? and knows he doesn’t just mean Juno’s face.
There is alcohol use in the section for March 4th. Juno and Peter get drunk in the second part of this section, at the line "Never have I ever." There is a direct reference to sexual activity in this section as well; it comes up after the line “But then you don’t drink, which is the point.” It is over by the line “That’s why I laughed.”
The section for March 12th contains explicit sexual content. To skip it, stop reading completely at "Peter thinks, with a sudden clarity, that he has no reason to hold himself back."
A truth; a theft; a consequence.
March 18, XXX35
It’s been a while since Juno’s dated, per se. He wasn’t lying when he told Rita he’s been lonely a long time. And at that, Juno doesn’t know if he’s ever been with someone like this: the constant, little reminders of Peter in everything he does, everywhere he goes. Spacing out in class and while he’s driving, remembering the shape of his fingers wrapped around Juno’s, the sound of his laugh. The swoop in his gut like free-fall even with his feet firmly on the ground.
“Soooo,” Rita asks him over her bowl of clam chowder and cinnamon, “how are you and Rex?”
It’s been a while since Juno’s dated, and he’d almost forgotten how obnoxious it is when other people know anything about his life. Or worse, ask him about it.
“I have other things going on, you know,” Juno grouses. “My whole damn life doesn’t revolve around my— Um.”
“Boyfriend?” Rita says, too loud and with enough glee that Juno’s stomach does something he absolutely did not approve.
Juno grumbles. He doesn’t say any particular words, just the vague outline of a protest that he can’t really articulate without backing himself into a corner.
“Boss.” Rita looks at him, smiling, and doesn’t stop even when he stuffs half his sandwich in his mouth and glares at her.
“He’s your boyfriend, right? Or are you not puttin’ labels on it. Or, are you puttin’ other labels on it? There’s a lot to choose from. Ya got ‘partner,’ or ‘date mate,’ or ‘lover—’”
“Eugh,” Juno makes an involuntary noise of disgust at the last one.
“What? Love is beautiful, Boss—”
“Rita, I’ll literally give you two hundred creds to never say that word again.”
“What word? You mean lover?”
“Yeah, that one,” Juno chokes out. His face feels warm and he’s full of the sudden certainty that every single person in the building can not only hear their conversation but is poised to jump in and mock him, personally.
“But Boss,” Rita plays at innocence in the way her eyes widen comically behind her glasses, but Juno knows her too goddamn well to buy the coy act. “Ain’t it romantic? Like destiny in all the streams, lovers in the moonlight—”
“Stop it!” Juno covers his ears.
“You got the names for it, too. Juno and Rex, all fancy like star-crossed lovers who met by chance and took a million years to admit they were in love with each other, just like in S.S. Ozymandias, which is this stream from Titan about these two people who are stuck together on a haunted spaceship, only what they don’t know is that they were the ghosts the whole time and the only reason they can’t move on is cuz they were lovers in a past life, which I don’t think is what’s going on with you and Rex but you never know, and—”
“If I say he’s my boyfriend,” Juno groans into the tabletop, which his head has slowly fallen onto in defeat, “will you stop?”
“Yep!” Rita chirps. “But I gotta hear you say it first.”
Juno slowly raises his face from the table and looks at Rita.
“He’s my boyfriend,” he says, slowly and clearly. Then adds, with equal articulation, “Fuck you.”
“Jeez, touchy,” Rita says out the side of her mouth. She’s smiling, though. And hell, Juno doesn’t feel half bad himself. It goes a long way, having the promise that he never has to hear the word “lovers” from Rita again.
He thinks about it, later, with Peter’s sparkling eyes on him. He might not mind that word so much. If someone else said it.
Not that Juno would ever admit that under pain of death, obviously, but it’s a pretty thought.
March 25, XXX35
There is a potential list a mile long of reasons Peter has never been in what one might call a “serious romantic relationship” before. Being molded into a weapon from pre-pubescence; a life built on lies, violence, and the careful crafting of both; a lack of positive role models in childhood demonstrating healthy relationship dynamics—take your pick.
Still, he knows a bit about what these things are meant to look like, at least in streams and books. He knows the moves for faking infatuation, has a bit of clumsy practice at seduction.
The problem is, he doesn’t want to use the tools in his arsenal of lying and manipulation on Juno. For one thing, Juno has made it abundantly clear he won’t tolerate that for a moment. For another, Peter has an unprecedented desire, when it comes to this singular lady: he wants to be honest.
So Peter forgets about the streams full of high-stakes affairs of power and lust. He turns his mind away from remembering exactly where his hands are at all times relative to Juno’s pockets. He tries, instead, to build something that is just for the two of them, and intentionally for the two of them.
Little moments of touch just because; a night in, rather than a night out. A time, like this, for staying still.
Peter has little experience sharing a peaceful, honest moment with someone; it has been a long time. Remembering hurts. But he is grateful for the opportunity to make new memories. The memory of Juno, Peter hopes, will bouy him up the way the memory of Mag pulls him down, far off in the future. When Peter is alone again.
Now isn’t the time to think about that.
Now is the time to think about this: the light flickering over Juno’s face; the changing of his eyes when the images from the screen dance in them like a holographic projection; his breathing, so close to Peter, soft and nearly inaudible in the voices from the monitor: it all washes over him in some unknown, unknowable wave. The unfamiliarity of intimacy, the rightness of it.
He reaches out to touch Juno because he cannot do otherwise. Just an arm slung around his shoulders, which are soft and comfortable and fit Peter like everything about Juno fits Peter.
Juno turns to look at him. The light from the screen only illuminates the left side of his face, then, the right cast in shadow with only the sliver of reflection in his eye to show it is there at all. Peter leans in and finds the shape of Juno’s mouth with his own. He kisses the side hidden in darkness; now Juno’s intake of breath is audible. Beautiful.
The gentle comfort of sitting next to Juno is something Peter could live inside forever. He could sleep here, every night, and be happy for it; he hasn’t wanted someone to stay in a long time. Hasn’t allowed it for himself.
“Peter,” Juno breathes against the line of his nose. Peter kisses him once more and turns back to the movie.
The warmth and weight of Juno’s body presses itself tight against Peter. Juno’s hand trips across his lap; Peter thinks Juno is reaching for his hand, opens his palm to reach back—and Juno’s grip lands, high, on the inside of Peter’s thigh.
That is, itself, more than alright. He tightens his arm around Juno’s shoulders. The breathing in his ear is louder now. It rasps through Juno’s chest; Peter can feel it.
He feels Juno’s mouth, too, open and wet under his ear. His lips part against his jaw. The tip of Juno’s tongue, the hot point of an arrow finding its target.
Juno sucks gently at the cords of his neck. Peter thinks, half-heartedly, that he was quite interested in how this film would end. He’s heard of it before: a classic on the Solar planets, but Juno is soft, and open, and eager against him. An offer he cannot refuse.
The fingers of Juno’s other hand sneak up the back of Peter’s head, tangle in the short hairs above the nape of his neck, just as Juno slides the grip on his thigh higher and presses the heel of his hand down, down. And Peter was not made to withstand that; he was built, or changed on some mysterious day, to resist nothing Juno Steel could possibly do to him.
Peter turns his head, sigh ringing from his throat. He kisses Juno. He lets Juno kiss him back.
No choices are made, exactly. It’s more a cosmic force that pulls Juno’s shirt off and unhooks Peter’s belt.
It’s a fundamental law, like gravity: what comes up, must go down. Peter is, for once, no exception.
April 3, XXX35
“You got something in the mail.” Juno tosses a thick-papered card onto Peter’s desk, where it does a lazy half spin and comes to a stop barely a centimeter from his pinky.
“Oh,” Peter says distractedly, then, “Oh—” with a weight and surprise that has Juno stopping in place to watch him open whatever it is.
Juno doesn’t get mail often, and Peter gets even less. The latter makes a lot of sense, considering he didn’t technically exist before a year ago, so on the rare occasions Juno bothers to check the mail he doesn’t worry too much about being the middleman.
It looks like he maybe should have worried, this time.
“What is it?” Juno asks warily. Peter’s face is turned away from him. All Juno can see is the slight outline of his nose, the side of his glasses. A single fan of his eyelashes when he blinks.
“I—” He looks up at Juno. The smile on his face shows off his canines, and Juno can’t help but smile back. “I’ve been invited to the dean’s luncheon.”
“That’s great,” Juno puts an arm around Peter. “What the hell is that?”
“I don’t know if you remember, but I’ve been trying to secure a place on the dean’s list—”
“I remember.” Juno rolls his eyes a little and instantly regrets it. This is a thing Peter’s been working towards for as long as he’s known him. It’s a dick move, being dismissive of it. Juno takes a moment to think of a way to fix this, to show Peter he can be a supportive partner. “Uh, I mean, congrats. Wanna celebrate?”
Peter cottons on immediately. It can’t have been hard, considering Juno just helped himself to a seat in Peter’s lap.
“I’d be delighted.”
Peter grins like a man with the whole world in his pocket. And Juno is full up with the desire to give him exactly that: the world, the whole galaxy, everything Peter deserves.
“Peter,” Juno breathes into his mouth. His lips are warm and wet and Juno never wants to stop kissing him.
“I’m so glad I told you my name,” he sighs.
“You know,” Juno pulls back to look him in his big, bright eyes, “most people wouldn’t see that as a big step in a relationship.”
“I am not most people,” Peter replies. His smile could cut Juno to ribbons.
“Seriously, though.” He rolls off Peter and lies on his back, where they’ve made their way to the bed. He stretches and feels his spine pop, but only barely. Not quite satisfying. “I, uh, I know that means a lot to you. So, thanks.”
“Of course.” Peter nuzzles under Juno’s ear. He knows the curls around his ears are damp with sweat. Peter doesn’t seem to mind, if the way he ducks back in to run his lips over Juno’s earrings is any indication. “I didn’t expect how good it would feel to hear it again.”
“Been a while, huh? How long?” Juno has a strange sort of needling suspicion. Again. These stupid ideas won’t leave him alone, now he’s got a good thing going for once. Juno tells himself the answer is exactly what it says on the tin, Peter has told him this before.
But he wants to be sure, because things don’t quite add up. Juno must be remembering wrong.
“Years,” Peter sighs.
Juno clears his throat and names the thing that doesn’t make sense.
“Your mom doesn’t even use it anymore?”
“No.” Peter shakes his head. He pauses on a breath, mouth open like a stream put on pause a second before the next line. “I’ve lied about her, too, Juno. I ought to tell you that. Things don’t make sense when I’m still acting Rex Glass.”
And— He honestly wasn’t expecting it to be that easy. It’s small consolation for being right.
“What about her?” Something heavy drops into Juno’s stomach. Too familiar. “Did something happen to your mom?”
“I….” A stiffness creeps into Peter’s soft form, curled around Juno. “Nothing happened. She was never there to begin with. She’s a fiction. I made her up.”
Anxiety crawls up Juno’s neck.
“That’s a hell of a lot to lie about.”
“I left Brahma and I started chasing the stars.” There’s a wistfulness to Peter’s voice, an earnest wonder. “No one wants to let an orphan do much at all. I’m getting old enough now that it won’t matter soon, but it’s easier to make up a parent who might appear at any moment than endure the condescending concern of strangers.”
Juno wishes it were that easy. Maybe it is, when the reason you have no mother wasn’t splashed across local newspapers for two weeks and used as a talking point for why the place you grew up is a simmering hive of pointless violence the good Hyperion taxpayers shouldn’t have to support.
Then again, Peter is from a warzone. Casualties of malignance and indifference, all.
“Okay,” Juno says.
“Is that it?” Peter asks. Juno can feel his heartbeat, quick and thumping like a rabbit on a cocaine high.
“Makes sense,” he says. “I’ve been there, the people butting in on your life like you don’t have enough to deal with. The pity and the ‘I know better’ schtick,” and the university-mandated counseling you don’t actually show up to, Juno doesn’t add. “Hell, maybe I should make up a fake parent too, get people off my case.”
“It’s really very useful,” Peter says into Juno’s shoulder. “Rex Glass’ mother threatened to call the bursar’s office three times. They did more for me because of that than they would have if anyone had actually called them, I think.”
“You never met dear old Ma. A call from her was the cause of two early retirements and a heart failure at Oldtown High.”
“It sounds like your teachers might have thought better of giving you bad grades.”
“It was never my grades she bothered calling about.” Juno clears his throat. “Uh, thanks. For telling me the truth.”
He says it half to convince himself. See? Juno thinks. You can trust this, just once.
“Of course.” Peter raises his head and looks Juno right in the eye. Juno could get lost in those eyes, float through them like the pitch-dark brightness of space, and be happy for it. “I don’t say this lightly, Juno, but I find it very difficult to lie to you.”
“I think that was supposed to be a compliment,” Juno teases, in place of thanking him again or something even worse. Even more genuine. Juno doesn’t know if he has that in him right now.
“It might have been,” Peter smiles back, “but you’ll never prove it. No jury would convict.”
Juno smiles. He leans back in to kiss him, soft. Gentle. A moment of trust a lady could get used to.
April 16, XXX35
Juno has left his desk drawer open.
There is no particular reason Peter should notice this, beyond the minor novelty of it. Juno leaves plenty of things in various states of disarray; his dresser has not been entirely closed in the time Peter has known him. But something about this drawer nags at Peter’s mind as he puts the finishing touches on his makeup and smooths down his hair once more.
It must be nerves. He still gets them before a big heist. This is the moment Peter has been working toward for a year by now, including the cultivation of Rex Glass before he ever stepped foot on Mars. He knows, then, that this tiny crack in normalcy will distract him all night long.
One peek cannot hurt. He cannot afford the distraction, after all.
He hooks his finger around the handle of the drawer and pulls it out far enough to properly see inside. It seems like nothing special at first: Juno’s wallet, surrounded by a clutter of spare batteries and pens and candy wrappers he seemingly couldn’t be bothered to take all the way to the trash can.
Peter is just about to close the drawer, satisfied, when his eye catches the corner of a photograph. He pushes Juno’s wallet aside with the point of a pen to get a closer look.
Juno, at least five years younger, stares back from the photograph. He smiles toward the camera with a joyousness Peter has never seen on his face. His hair is longer, and black, and—
He drops the pen and picks the wallet up, careful to disturb nothing else. And there is Juno. Still younger, still smiling, but a dimmer and more familiar light behind the expression. His arm is around the other boy in the picture. Peter doesn’t know how he mistook him for Juno; they look similar, strikingly so, but a little different around the eyes, a change in width around the mouth. The one who is not Juno is slightly taller.
Peter knows who this must be, of course. He imagines the following few years would have softened their similarities even further, if Juno’s brother had gotten the opportunity to grow up.
This is not someone Peter knows; he was half a galaxy away when this young man was still breathing. It is impossible for him to have had any impact whatsoever on Peter’s life. Still, the evidence that he was there, and the knowledge that he is not anymore—what little he knows about how that happened—tugs on something tender and resonant high up in Peter’s chest.
A key clicks in the lock. Instinct takes over: the muscle-memory feeling that he is snooping in something he should not have opened.
“Hey,” Juno greets him. He takes in Peter’s state of dress. “You heading out?”
Peter grins his shiniest grin, Rex Glass.
“The dean’s luncheon,” he explains. “I’m sorry I’m not allowed a plus one. I’d love to see you dolled up for the occasion.”
Juno snorts. His brow furrowed, he looks Peter up and down a bit too long in not quite the right way. He had hoped the sharp lines of his suit would attract a warmer attention; Juno looks suspicious of him.
He has always been altogether too good at seeing Peter for what he is. It’s inconvenient; it’s dangerous; it makes Peter want to be caught, just to see what would happen.
“They’d be able to smell my GPA a mile off,” he says. The curious look vanishes. “I’m happy for you, though. This is that, uh, that big thing you’ve been wanting to go to. Right?”
Peter twinkles a laugh and kisses Juno on the temple.
“You don’t have to pretend to be interested,” he teases. This is his escape, and his last step toward the next adventure. “Don’t wait up!”
“Yeah,” Juno waves carelessly over his shoulder. “Have fun.”
The last thing Peter sees is the back of Juno’s head. The door slides shut.
“Rex?” the dean of Olympus University pokes his head into the alcove off the main area where students and faculty and the odd, sweaty-palmed alumne mill about in the aura of their individual successes, addressing by name the man he knows as Rex Glass. “You’re missing the festivities.”
“My apologies,” the man he knows as Rex Glass replies. “I’m afraid I got distracted and wandered off. This is an extraordinary piece. Wherever did you get it?”
“Oh, that?” The dean chuckles. “Good eye, young man. That’s the Traveler’s Beacon, the first sculpture ever created off of Earth. Thousands of years old. It was made by an artist who happened to be a member of the original founding party of what would become Hyperion City.”
“The City of First Light.”
“You know your Martian history. Not bad for an Outer Rim expat.”
“History is my area of study. Mars has quite a lot of it.”
“Well,” the dean says with good-natured impatience. “Better get back before the little lemon cakes are gone. I think Dr. Crow is here, our Solar art historian. I’m sure she’d answer your questions better than I can.”
The dean turns his back on the man he thinks is Rex Glass. A hand he does not see emerges from its pocket and pats the underside of the sculpture’s round, central body. Its touch is almost fond, but it pulls away and two pairs of footsteps leave the alcove empty, a closing door behind them.
“Where is it, where the hell—”
“Juno?” Peter hangs up his coat and keys by the door. “What are you still doing awake? Don’t you work in the morning?”
“I—” Juno turns to look at him and something heavy pulls Peter’s stomach through the floor. His eyes are red-rimmed, lower lip bitten so thoroughly it bleeds. His hair stands up in wild tufts, one hand clutched at the back of his head. “I lost… something. I don’t know where—”
He stands in the middle of a disaster area. It looks like he’s emptied every drawer in his desk and dresser. Peter spares a quick glance at his own side of the room, but it seems Juno wasn’t quite desperate enough to root through his things.
“Shh,” Peter hushes him. He reaches out to Juno, one hand at his hip. He gently pulls Juno’s hand from his head and clutches it against his own chest. “You can look in the morning. It’s late.”
“You don’t understand. I never move it,” Juno mumbles, nearly too fast to catch. “I put it in my bags when I moved, then I put it in my desk drawer, and that’s everywhere it’s been since—”
“Things have a habit of looking better in the morning. You’re exhausted, Juno,” Peter rubs his back soothingly.
The truth is, he wants to get to sleep as soon as possible; it’s been a long night. A successful one, but he simply doesn’t have the energy to help Juno find whatever it is he’s misplaced just now.
“Yeah,” Juno nods blearily. “Okay.”
“Alright,” Peter smiles. He kisses Juno softly, once, and pulls him toward their bed, top-full on love and success.
April 18, XXX35
A loud bang at the door startles Juno out of an unsettling dream. He blinks it from his eyes in the dim light, catching the shape of Peter’s hair and shoulder in silhouette next to him.
It comes again, a sharp series of raps against the door. Peter sits bolt upright.
“Who in the world—” he mumbles sleepily.
“Campus police,” comes a voice from the hallway—rough and angry and familiar enough to send a chill through Juno. “Open the door or we’ll open it for you.”
“Juno,” Peter says. “There’s something you should know,” at the exact same moment Juno growls, “Shit, this again.”
“I’m gonna count down from five,” snarls the cop outside.
“Goddammit, keep your fucking shirt on,” Juno grumbles. He pulls himself out of bed, squares his shoulders in case he’s about to take a punch or ten, and opens the door.
Three cops stand, looming, in the hallway. Juno doesn’t get a good look at them, still blinking sleep out of his eyes and dazzled by the hallway light. One pushes him aside and stomps into the room. Their boot lands directly on one of Juno’s shirts and kicks aside an open bag of pretzel bits Rita left there.
Another one flicks on the light. Juno rubs his eyes. When he pulls his hand away, Peter is three inches behind him. Juno didn’t see him move or hear his footsteps, which is honestly a little creepy. He has bigger worries at the moment, though, than whether or not his roommate can teleport.
The third cop stands in front of Peter and Juno, arms crossed.
“I hope there’s a good explanation for you and your colleagues tearing our room apart at the crack of dawn,” Peter says with a smile like a knife to the throat.
“Sure is,” the cop grunts. “There was a theft at the dean’s office the other night.”
“Oh?” Peter says. His elbow brushes against Juno’s arm, just outside of his periphery, like he’s reaching for something behind his back.
“Yep,” the cop is missing one of her canine teeth. Juno notices it when she leers at them in a way that curls his hands into involuntary fists. “Which one of you is Juno Steel?”
To avoid short implied sexual content, stop reading at "He lets Juno kiss him back." The section for April 3rd contains a simile that involves hard drug use.
The entire section for April 18th, the final section of the chapter, directly contains police and police brutality. It is not easily skippable, but if you need a summary of events rather than reading it feel free to DM me @eternalgirlscout on tumblr, @howlikeagod on twitter.
Juno learns his art history; Peter cleans his room; Rita does some research.
The knife handle in Peter’s hand is slick with sweat. None of the officers have noticed him holding it behind his back yet, but it’s only a matter of time. Mag would be ashamed of his carelessness, of the fact that he stuck around anywhere near the scene of the job, let alone somewhere he could so easily be found.
It doesn’t seem to matter, though, as he’s found a patsy free of charge. Apparently. Peter has never been presented with such a convenient way out of a crime in his life; even over the confusion and the pounding of his heart, he keeps thinking that it’s very unfair: the one time it happens, he cannot even appreciate it.
“What the hell are you talking about?” Juno shouts as one of the police officers restrains him while another digs through his things. “What are you even looking for? Get out of my stuff.”
The mess from Juno’s frantic search the night he lost… whatever it was he lost, Peter never asked—has only grown in the past day. Everything he has to his name is strewn over the floor; carefully searched piles are kicked over by a heavy boot and rustled through by meaty fingers.
“Got it,” one of the cops says with a sick grin. They hold up a crumpled, bright yellow piece of paper. “Told you he’d be involved with those freaks with the museum.”
“I don’t know what that is,” Juno snarls.
“Oh, really? I’ll tell you.” They shove the paper in Juno’s face; Peter catches the words Unlawful acquisition and Important historical artifact over his shoulder. “This right here is what we in the biz call damning evidence.”
“That’s—” Juno looks it over, brows cinched so tight it looks painful. “That’s not damning, it’s circumstantial at best, and— And I didn’t do it!”
“Tell it to the judge,” the cop holding Juno says, rolling her eyes.
“Academic tribunal,” the third corrects her.
“It won’t be an actual judge unless the university presses charges, he’s only gonna face the—”
“Shut up, let’s just get this guy out of here.” They turn back to Juno. “Put your shoes on and let’s go, creep.”
“Get the hell off me, I’m not going anywhere.” Juno struggles against three sets of arms belonging to a crew with four times his muscle mass between them.
“Juno!” Peter calls as they usher him down the hall. He feels helpless, confused, no solution coming to mind but slitting all their throats and pulling Juno with him on the next ride out of the Solar System.
It’s a tempting thought, but he can’t seem to lift his feet from the floor. The door closes between Peter and Juno, and soon enough Juno’s voice disappears with him.
“I told you, I don’t remember where I got the goddamn flyer,” Juno sighs. “And I’ve never even been to the dean’s office. I don’t know what you think I stole.”
“Sure,” snorts one of the cops who brought him in. Juno glares at her with everything he’s got, which isn’t much. The hard fluorescent lighting in the gray-carpeted room has a headache building quietly behind Juno’s forehead.
The woman Juno’s been talking to—administrative something-something, he didn’t care enough to catch the title she threw at him—seems unamused too. She holds up a hand, and the cop shuts her mouth and goes to sulk by the door.
“That’s an interesting claim, mister Steel, considering we found this at the scene of the crime.” She throws something down on the table in front of Juno. It lands with a smack that feels bigger in his ears than it should. The thing itself is pocket-sized and none too heavy, by the look.
“What is this?”
“You don’t recognize it?”
“Why would I— That’s my wallet.” Juno stares up at her, dumbfounded. His mouth is hanging open and he must look like a complete idiot, but he can’t think beyond stating the obvious. “I lost that days ago. How did you get my wallet?”
“We found it,” her articulation turns sharp like she’s talking to a disobedient child, “at the scene of the crime. You left it there while you were stealing a valuable piece of artwork on some crusade to return it to the Museum of Colonized History.”
“That’s a lot of accusations there, lady,” Juno grouses.
She puts her hands flat on the table, leaning down to Juno’s eye level. He stares back. It’s too goddamn early in the morning, too bright in this room, too much all at once and ten feet above Juno’s head.
“Where is it?”
“What do you think, you—” She pulls herself together. “The sculpture. The Traveler’s Beacon, what did you do with it?”
“That’s what it’s called?” Juno says. “That’s a stupid name.”
“If it’s so stupid, then why did you steal it?”
“I didn’t.” Juno drops his face right down onto the table. It’s cool against his skin, a surface to press against to keep his head from flying apart. “If you’re so sure I stole something this important, why am I not talking to the police?” He turns his head so one eye can look pointedly at the campus police officer still pouting in the corner. “The real police.”
No one says anything. Juno waits, only the sound of the lights overhead buzzing quietly and his own breathing.
“The dean,” the woman says eventually, “would prefer not to prosecute his students when it can be helped.”
Juno glares up at her. He squints. The wheels in his brain are turning, turning, quicker than he’d like with the amount of sleep he’s lost. Juno knows the feeling of being just on the verge of figuring something out, something she doesn’t want him to know—
“It’s true,” he says, one quick ha escaping with the words. “This Beacon thing really does belong to the museum, and you don’t want anybody looking too closely at how it ended up in the dean’s hands.”
Her lips narrow to a thin line. The cop by the door stands up straighter.
“You’re free to go, for now, mister Steel,” the woman snaps. “You’ll be notified when the date for your expulsion hearing is set.”
“Expulsion?” The warm burst of cleverness Juno felt just a second ago dissipates.
“Olympus University does not wish to send you to prison,” she says airily, like she knows she’s won. “That doesn’t mean we can keep a known thief on our campus, especially when he’s getting so much money in financial support that could be going to more deserving students.”
“You can’t just—” The cop grabs Juno by the shoulders and pulls him toward the door. “Hey! I’m getting really sick of being pushed around by you jerks.”
“I would watch your step very carefully in the coming days,” the woman says. “If you kick up any more trouble, we’ll only keep a closer eye on you. The campus police station isn’t built for long-term holding, but we can make do.”
“That can’t be legal,” Juno tries. He’s been studying this exact thing for two years—or, a year, sort of, he only just declared his major last spring—and this sounds like something he’d read in a textbook from a century ago.
He wants to believe the system works. He’s having some trouble making sense of that, right now.
The woman just smiles.
“Oh,” she says, as Juno’s halfway out the door. “One more thing. You dropped this as well. Careless, aren’t we?”
She holds out a piece of paper between her first two fingers. Juno snatches it without looking and lets the cop prod him into the elevator.
He’s out on the sidewalk and marching away from the building like he intends to walk straight into the desert before he thinks to look at whatever it was she handed him. He does, and his feet falter. His knees nearly give out.
In his hand is the old picture of him and Benten. The one he thought he lost, days ago.
There is little for Peter to do with the manic, worried energy that has crackled through his body since the police nearly pounded down his and Juno’s door. It’s been nearly an hour since they took him. In that time, Peter has paced tracks in the floor, argued and pleaded and bartered with himself until he beat his fists bloody against the wall of guilt inside.
Guilt is unbecoming of Peter Nureyev. He starts cleaning up the mess.
It’s not as if Juno had much of an organizational system to start with, but Peter knows his habits and the way he thinks. He would be a shoddy thief indeed, if he didn’t know how to put things back where he found them. It’s the least he can do, really. Seeing as this is his fault.
Your fault, your fault, your fault, echoes in Peter’s head. They are words he has only a passing familiarity with; he has been culpable for many things, over the years, but there are very few for which he has ever felt fault.
This is one of them.
There must be a way to clear Juno’s name without implicating himself—and without giving back the sculpture, which even now waits in the empty office ten feet above the dean’s balding head. It’s difficult to summon as little as a smug smile at the dramatic irony.
If Peter could only stop his brain for a moment, put all the wheels back on their proper tracks. He is too filled with: retrospection, searching every memory for how he could have possibly made such a mistake; and guilt; forethought, going over his plan for getting the sculpture to a proper fence; and guilt; worry for Juno’s wellbeing, so much he’s sick with it; and guilt; and guilt.
The door opens. Peter whirls around to greet whoever else might be here to disturb Juno’s things.
Standing in front of him, looking rattled but no worse for wear, is Juno.
Peter’s arms are around him before he can think. He pulls Juno tight to his chest, burying his face in his wiry hair—barely blue anymore as much as a bleach-yellow green, but still beautiful. Still a detail Peter wants to appreciate at every day.
Juno doesn’t hug him back. He stands, stiff as a board. Peter pulls away and looks him over.
“Did they hurt you?” he asks.
Juno shakes his head.
“Just told me to keep an eye out for the letter that says when I’m getting expelled,” he says with sardonic cheerfulness.
“Oh, Juno, I’m so—” Peter is about to offer up some words of condolence, a genuine apology disguised as a platitude, when Juno interrupts.
“Were you going through my stuff?”
“I—” Peter steps back and glances over his shoulder. Juno’s piles from his frantic search, all disrupted by the police invasion, have been remade smaller as Peter found the places for his miscellaneous items. “I did some cleaning up. I thought you didn’t deserve to deal with it yourself, after everything.”
More of it was garbage than Peter expected. He doesn’t say that.
Juno’s keen gaze flicks between Peter’s face and Juno’s own desk. He feels exposed by it, and not in the thrillingly pleasant way that made him fall for Juno in the first place. He feels something sharp behind Juno’s eyes: a scalpel, readied for a vivisection.
“Do you… want to talk about it?” Peter hazards. He doesn’t know what Juno heard, wherever he was taken. Doesn’t know what clues he’s become privy to, nor how much of it might only be tied back to Peter by someone who knows his life as intimately as Juno.
“Nope,” Juno grunts. “I’m going back to bed.”
He’s still in his undershirt and sweatpants; they didn’t give him time to change before he was marched out to God-knows-where. Peter watches as Juno walks straight up to the foot of the bed and lets himself fall, face-first, into the blankets.
“Would you like me to stay?”
There’s a grunt from the lump of Juno that sounds more on the side of negation.
“Alright.” Peter changes quickly and decides he’ll get some work done in the nearest coffeeshop. He’s never seen Juno in a mood this bad, not since they’ve been—whatever they are. He respects that it might be better to get out of his way. “Don’t spend all day in bed,” Peter warns.
There’s another grunt from Juno. Peter leaves. Piles of papers and empty mugs and things that might be trash sit half-formed in the thin light that peeks in through the blinds, like a small primordial world at Juno’s feet.
Much later, Peter will look back on this moment and know it was the last of its kind, before that little world of theirs cracked in two.
April 20, XXX35
It takes Juno two days to work up the nerve.
Peter leaves him alone, more or less, which makes it easy to avoid him. He didn’t realize how possible it was for the guy you live with to functionally just disappear.
It’s better, anyway. It gives Juno time to mull it over—or, obsess and fixate on every little detail. Same difference. His mind swings wildly between What the hell are you thinking, of course it isn’t— and You’re a naive idiot if you think it couldn’t be— and Juno doesn’t know which voice is the cynic.
Still. Looking it up can’t hurt. He either proves himself tragically right, or proves himself tragically wrong. It always comes down to proof, no matter the hypothesis. And if there’s one person Juno can always count on to help him stick his nose where it’s liable to get bitten right off…
“Why’d you need me to look this guy up, anyway?” Rita asks.
“Just research,” Juno repeats. He feels his own pulse in his temples, hears it rushing in his ears.
“Oh, here’s somethin’.” Rita leans in closer, the glow of her monitor reflected in her glasses. “Below is a computer-reconstructed image of the fugitive’s face, based on the testimony of surviving witnesses,” she reads.
“Well, what are you waiting for? Show me.” This is the last, lingering hope Juno has that it’s all a mistake. That this is some other Peter Nureyev from Brahma, who went on the run two and a half years ago, who certainly wouldn’t go around using his name. A happy coincidence.
Rita scrolls down. The image of the culprit’s face takes up half the screen. It dangles just on the precipice of the uncanny valley, like all police reconstructions. But it’s not so foreign, not so far off, that Juno can convince himself it isn’t really—
“Heh,” Rita giggles. She falls into a whole snorting pile of laughter, just managing to say, “don’tcha think that looks like Re—”
“Don’t.” Juno’s bones feel hollow. “I— I don’t see it.”
It’s a bold-faced lie. No glasses, sure, and the boy in the picture hasn’t yet lost that last layer of childhood softness, but Juno knows what he knows. He sees what he sees, and what he sees is the face of his roommate, his friend, his— his something, staring back with a blankness in his eyes that Juno wishes he could call unfamiliar.
“Wh— Hey, where are you going, Boss?” Rita calls after him.
Juno is already out the door.
In the first section of the fic, Peter considers physical violence and the police are rough with Juno and his belongings. This section is skippable; there is a police presence in the second section, but no physical violence.
Two confrontations; an investigation; elucidation.
We're almost at the end here, folks!! Thank you all so much for coming with me on the journey. Here's another art to share, this time by the light of my life, faunlord.
Warnings: this chapter contains mentions of death, suicidal ideation, police brutality, and imprisonment. See end notes for more details.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
He’s lucky, in some ways, that he and Nureyev spend so much time in each other’s pockets. That’s the bright side: a grim optimism that Juno knows exactly where he is.
Library. Third floor. Study room 3243C, second table from the left with his headphones in. Juno slams the door behind him so hard the glass in the window rattles. A distant voice tells him he’s making a scene, that this is a quiet space and he can’t just burst in here like a sandstorm— But Juno’s head is too loud to hear any of it.
“Why don’t you use your name?”
“Juno, that was quite an entrance. You startled me.” Nureyev takes his headphones out and stands up. “What did you say? I didn’t hear—”
“Why. Don’t. You use. Your name?” he asks.
“I’ve told you.” He cocks his head like a bird: delicate bones, quick movements, always poised for flight. “I’m a refugee from an authoritarian regime. I thought the why of running away would be clear.”
“The running, sure, but that’s not all of it.” Juno grits his teeth. He wants to bite something in half, he wants to feel it break. “You were one kid out of ten thousand, one random body leaving the planet while a million others stay behind. There’s a war on. You’re on a Solar planet, behind enemy lines.” He counts off the evidence, all the pieces that never quite fit while Juno stopped himself from looking.
“None of that guarantees my safety—”
“You’d have a claim to asylum on Earth at least. Hell, probably even here, since you were a minor at the time. Nobody’s been paranoid about Outer Rim spies on Mars in a decade.” The talking levels Juno out. He could never resist a monologue.
“What brought this on?” Nureyev looks genuinely baffled. He holds his hands out, palms up, some parody of a shrug or entreaty.
Juno doesn’t let himself believe it.
“It’s like I told you once. Stories don’t look a lot like real life, when you get down to it. When you take a step back, take off the goggles, ask yourself ‘is the truth ever that convenient?’” He’s breathing too heavily, he needs to slow down. “A kid on the run from a place that took everything from him, turning himself into something new because part of his old self died there—” Juno hears his own voice crack. He clears it angrily. “It’s a nice story.”
“I’m sorry if I’ve given you reason to distrust me. I know I’ve lied about so much in the past, and I promise you I wouldn’t have if it weren’t absolutely necessary.”
He’s deflecting. He’s manipulating. Juno’s nails dig into his palms.
“You know what’s not as nice a story?” Juno feels sick. “Some guy who tried to drop a whole city out of the sky and failed. A guy who left a trail of bodies in his wake all the same. Now that sounds like someone a constable or two might chase across the galaxy. Guy like that would change his name, for sure, especially if he’s still running around conning stupid suckers into being his latest victim.”
Until this second, this exact moment in time, Juno could almost believe it wasn’t true. But Nureyev’s face goes unnaturally still, and Juno can see that picture from the article Rita found layered perfectly on top. Two images come together, like closing one eye and then the other. Juno sees him in three dimensions.
“So you looked me up.” Nureyev drops any question. Any hint of vulnerability. His spine straightens, his chin tilts up, until he seems to tower over Juno.
Too bad for him, Juno has always picked fights with anyone who made him feel small. No self preservation, all ego. All spite.
“Tell me it’s not true.” It’s more a dare than a plea. “Tell me this is some mistake.”
“The only mistake was mine.”
His eyes are dark, dead, bottomless. This is a monster, staring back at Juno.
“Not just you.” Juno shakes his head. “I’m the idiot who fell for it. While we’re here, why don’t you answer one other thing.” He takes a deep breath. This isn’t the hardest thing Juno’s ever done, but it’s not far down on the list. “Was it the plan all along, to make me your stooge, or did you just get tired of pretending to want me around?”
“Juno…” Nureyev reaches out to him. Juno feels it again, that certainty Peter Nureyev’s face is going to be the last thing he ever sees, and as much as Juno knows there are a hell of a lot of worse ways to go he refuses to let it be that easy.
He shoves Nureyev in the chest, hard. Nureyev stumbles back, and the cool mask—the mask or the man? How many layers deep does it go? Juno is getting goddamn tired of digging—cracks. Nureyev freezes, some wounded twist to his mouth.
Juno takes that moment to catch his breath and back up toward the door. His eyes don’t leave Nureyev’s, not for a second, as he reaches behind himself and wrenches the door open.
“Have fun chasing those stars again,” Juno says. It comes from his lips, but not his brain or— or his heart. It comes from the ragged wound in him that never stops leaking bile, the monster in his throat that takes control of his tongue. “I’d do it sooner than later, if I were you.”
Nureyev starts to say his name again. The sound of the door thudding shut covers up all but the first sound, rushing out between Nureyev’s tongue and his hard palate and then nothing.
Juno can’t catch his breath as he stumbles down the stairs. His legs give out underneath him and barely catch themselves on the next step. He can’t breathe, his chest hurts and his throat is raw and his eyes are stinging, why the hell would that be—
The first floor of the library is still and near-silent when he bursts out the door to the stairwell. Places like this give Juno the creeps. He’s never been able to study here—it’s too quiet. The whole building always feels like it’s holding its breath. The only sounds, apart from the blood rushing in Juno’s head, are a beep as the desk assistant scans materials and a distant, ticking clock.
It’s this, and the simmering paranoia that an intergalactic terrorist is about to leap from between the stacks and stab Juno in the throat, that makes him jump out of his skin when he hears a harsh call of his name.
“Stay right there.”
Juno whips his head around, fists up, and catches sight of two people wearing uniforms that say ‘Campus Police’ and expressions that say ‘I can’t wait to break your ribs.’ The taller one with an atrocious haircut marches closer.
“McCrory, right?” Juno says warily. He’s pretty sure this is the same guy who left him the pretty bruises on his torso the first time he ended up on the wrong side of the cops at Olympus U. Pretty sure—Juno doesn’t remember much about that night other than the pain. He tries not to.
“You remember,” the cop says smugly. “I’d say you’re looking better these days, but I’m not a liar.”
“Nah, just a thug,” Juno agrees.
“Watch your goddamn mouth, Steel,” his partner warns. Their badge says ‘Kapoor.’ “You were told not to cause a fuss between now and your hearing, and we just got a call that you’re breaking windows in the library.”
“I didn’t break—”
“And now you’re making a scene in front of all these students trying to study.” McCrory clicks his tongue. “Sounds like disturbing the peace to me, don’t you think?” he asks his partner.
“Sounds just like it, yeah.”
“What are you— Get your hands off me!” Juno tries to wrench his shoulder away, but two pairs of hands are grabbing at his jacket and his arms and frog-marching him out the front door before he can say more than that.
“Shoulda kept your head down,” McCrory laments with a smirk. “I’ll have them add this to the other reasons you’re getting expelled.”
“Quit squirming,” Kapoor says. “We’re not even hurting you.”
“Yet,” McCrory adds quietly. Juno knows only he and Kapoor heard that. He knows they were the only ones meant to. Both the cops snicker as they stuff Juno in the backseat of one of the shitty little cars the university gives them. It must make them feel powerful, the lights and the siren and the big, aggressive logo on the side.
As they drive him away toward the one-cell station the campus police make their fortress, Juno decides it’s a small consolation: at least he has something along the lines of protection now. Knowing what he knows about Nureyev, he doubts it’ll stop him, but Juno gets a sick little beat of satisfaction at the idea of dying in the custody of these brutes and leaving them a mess to clean up that they didn’t even get to make.
Then he remembers what that would mean. Dying, because Peter— because Nureyev killed him. Juno tries to punch the car seat, but the cuffs snapped over his wrists stop him short.
The door slams shut. Peter lets his momentum carry him forward, down, until he is kneeling in the middle of the floor. In the sudden silence after the rattling of glass and metal and the cracked syllables of Juno’s name fading from his lips, Peter can hear music still drifting tinnily from where his headphones lie on the table.
This, he thinks, must be how it feels to get exactly what you deserve.
There’s a lot going on here and not a lot of it makes sense, but Rita is on the case.
First piece of evidence: this weird picture that looks a lot like Rex.
No, the first piece is probably Juno, and the way he looked like somebody killed his cat when he showed up at her door—not that the boss has a cat and not like he doesn’t look like that all the time anyway, but this was more than usual. Suspicious.
Second piece of evidence: Rex’s face. It’s a nice face. Rita can see what Juno sees in him. But that ain’t the point! Rex’s face on articles from the Outer Rim, where Rex is from, talking about some criminal named Peter Nureyev who nearly dropped a whole town right out of the sky and didn’t even get caught. That’s suspicion if Rita’s ever seen it.
The third piece of evidence: Rita.
If Juno’s so worried about something, why didn’t he tell her about it? He tells her everything, after a little prompting on her part. And she hasn’t seen Rex in days, barely at all in the last few weeks. Is he avoiding her? What’s she got to do with it? What does she know? Rita, Rita thinks, is definitely the unknown variable. Most suspicious of all.
The sound of her comms startles Rita out of deeply contemplating herself.
“Yeah, hello? Oh, hi Frannie!” Rita twirls a strand of hair through her fingers, deftly tying it in a loose knot and untying it. “Well, since you’re askin’ and all, I’m actually in the middle of figuring out a real life mystery.
“No, like a real one! With bodies and mistaken identities and missing people and everything. It’s a cold case, Frannie, and I’m gonna crack it wide open!
“So what if it is cuz I’m bored? Everybody else is startin’ final projects and I already got mine done, and the boss needs my help!
“No, he didn’t ask for it. But if I let a little thing like that stop me from helpin’ him, he’d never get anywhere, now would he? Alright, alright, just listen. You’re gonna be my rubber duck, Frannie—
“What do you mean, what do I mean? My rubber duck, my rubber duck! When something’s going wrong in your code so you tell a rubber duck all about it and then it all makes sense. Obviously.
“What am I working on coding? Frannie, the mystery is my code! Kinda. Look, here’s what I know so far…”
Juno spends the rest of the afternoon flat on his back in somebody’s empty office. There’s still a desk, still a plant in the corner and a calendar tacked up on the wall, but the drawers are empty and the blinds are coated in a fine layer of dust. Vacation, then, or parental leave, not a permanent absence.
The cops dragged a cot in here while Juno was in the holding cell. The station wasn’t built for much more than teaching punks with cans of spray paint a lesson for an hour or two or letting drunk students sleep it off. For once, Juno falls into neither of those categories—not that he was firmly in either last time he ran afoul of the Olympus U Police Department—and therefore gets the privilege of this makeshift solitary confinement.
He sighs and rolls onto his side. He can see the clock this way, which is exactly why he was on his back before. Juno is hyper-aware of the constant ticking. It feels louder and louder every time, every second, as the hours pass and balloon bigger and bigger in Juno’s chest.
They bring him a tray of cafeteria food at some point. Juno doesn’t bother to even look at who brought it. He chews quietly on a dinner roll and ignores the rest.
He should tell Rita where he is. They took his comms, but he’s allowed as many monitored phone calls as he wants. He should let Ramses know he won’t be in to work. He should make sure his instructors know he won’t be in class—although they can’t keep him here that long, just based on the lack of preparedness, and if he’s getting expelled in the next few days it doesn’t matter, does it.
Part of Juno almost enjoys the situation, given the available alternatives. He just tore apart his own life because his—his nothing—because Nureyev is apparently some intergalactic attempted mass-murderer with a hidden agenda.
Juno sure does know how to pick ‘em.
So it’s kind of nice, not dealing with the fallout for a minute. Just letting himself sit in the dark and quiet, except for that goddamn clock.
The sun sets behind the dusty blinds. Eventually, Juno drifts off into a fitful sleep. He wakes up dehydrated and disoriented, a few long moments before remembering where he is. He hauls himself off the cot.
“Hello,” Juno knocks on the door. “Anybody out there? I gotta go to the bathroom.”
He is greeted with silence.
“You don’t want me to deal with this on my own,” he bluffs. “There’s a real convenient potted plant in here, and I’m about ready to burst.”
“It seems I have poor timing, then,” says a voice from behind him.
Juno gasps. He whirls around, heart in his throat, and sees Peter Nureyev hanging upside down from an open ventilation shaft in the ceiling. Only his head and shoulders are visible. Juno wonders, absurdly, how he’s keeping his glasses on.
“Dammit,” Juno swears. “Hey! Hey, open this fucking door,” he shouts through cold synth-wood, pounding his fist against it.
“Your guard for the evening is indisposed, I’m afraid.” Nureyev’s voice slides down Juno’s neck like meltwater from every ancient glacier on Mars. “They’re not set to change for over an hour.”
“And we’ll both be long gone by then, is that it?” Juno slumps against the door. He should turn back towards him. He should face his death with his eyes forward, his spine straight. He’s never flinched from the prospect before, so why is it so hard this time?
“I—” Nureyev hesitates. “I was going to explain myself first, but yes, if you like.”
“Explain what? Your evil plan?” Juno huffs. “Didn’t take you for a cliche.”
“That isn’t what I meant at all.” There’s a sound of cloth-against-metal. He must be sliding himself out of the hole in the ceiling, now, creeping ever closer. “Good god, Juno, do you think I’m here to kill you?”
He sounds— Honestly shocked, actually. Juno turns around.
“What else would you be here for?” Juno meets Nureyev’s eyes, still upside down. His elbows rest against the ceiling like a surreal inversion of a friend at a kitchen table, stopped by for a chat. “I know your game now. I already knew your name. Let’s just get it over with, okay?”
“Juno, I never planned to hurt you.”
His eyes are so big, so bright and earnest behind the wall of his glasses. Juno knows it’s a trick, but it’s one he’s doomed to fall for until his dying day. Literally.
“If I get a last request,” Juno mutters, “can it be for you to cut the bullshit?”
“For once in my life, I am being completely honest.”
He sounds emphatic, just on the edge of angry. Or desperate. Juno sees it, then, the yearning little tilt to his brow.
Juno crosses his arms.
“Considering what the truth means for you, I think I’d rather have the knife in my chest.”
Nureyev flinches visibly. He pulls himself back into the ventilation shaft by a few inches, arms disappearing like a nervous desert rodent.
Juno’s lived on Mars too long not to know what lives underneath the desert sands. What a pair of flighty eyes actually means, peeping up from beneath the ground.
“Just give me a chance to tell you the truth,” he pleads.
“Why the hell should I?”
“I—” he clears his throat. The desperation in his face clouds over, just a bit. “I suppose you shouldn’t.”
“Not doing a great job selling yourself, here,” Juno says snidely.
“I mean it. If you want me to leave, I’ll leave. But I know you, Juno.” Nureyev’s voice wraps around Juno, tight enough to throttle him. “And I know you don’t want to leave a mystery unsolved. If you send me away, you’ll never know the whole story. There are two sides to every case, aren’t there? Only a shoddy investigator ignores a new witness.”
“I don’t have the piece of paper that says I know what I’m talking about yet, but I’m pretty sure you don’t usually call the criminal a witness.”
“Please.” He says nothing else, just that: simple, quiet, putting himself at Juno’s mercy.
Juno is weak, and stupid, and too damn nosey for his own good. This is true in general, and a thousand times more when Peter Nureyev is involved.
“Okay,” Juno sighs. “Talk.”
“…so I ran away. I told myself I’d left my name behind, and I’d never have one again.” Only the cresting wave of Nureyev’s hair is visible, and then only when Juno looks straight up from his place on the cot. Nureyev mirrors him, eight feet above, lying on his back in the metal shaft while he tells Juno his whole life’s story.
Juno should know better than to believe him. But Juno should also know better, when it comes to what power does to people it sees as a threat. Look at where Juno has come from—hell, look at where he is right now.
“Okay,” Juno says.
“That’s it?” Nureyev asks after a few seconds.
“Even if all that’s true,” which Juno, despite himself, despite everything, trusts, “you’re not done.”
“No.” Juno tucks his knees up angrily and stands on the cot. He can’t reach the ceiling even on his tiptoes, so he jumps once, twice, until he can slap the side of Nureyev’s goddamn hidey-hole. “You haven’t told me why you’re here, you asshole.”
A pair of bright, wounded eyes peek out over the edge of the shaft.
“I had thought that would be obvious.” He slides out further when he seems to decide Juno isn’t about to take a flying leap off the cot just to hit him in the face.
“To steal the dean’s stupid sculpture, yeah—”
“The Traveler’s Beacon is a work of enormous historical significance, Juno—”
“—but why were you here?” A tiny, idiotic part of Juno has an answer he’s hoping for. “Why did you stay so long? You could have been in and out without spending a whole year doing homework, of all things. And why did you frame me?”
“I didn’t frame you.” He winces at Juno’s pointed look around the locked room. “Not on purpose,” he amends.
“How do you accidentally plant my wallet at a crime scene?”
“I had a supercharged electromagnet in my pocket. I stuck it to the bottom of the sculpture at the dean’s luncheon. After everyone left the room, I turned the magnet on and it lifted the Beacon up through a trapdoor I put in the ceiling months ago.” He walks Juno through the plan like a lecturer through an equation, step by precise step so that it all seems obvious by the end.
“That’s why you were so obsessed with making a good impression on the dean,” Juno says. “Okay, but what the hell does that have to do with me?”
“I… have a habit of stealing things without noticing. I fidget with something in my hands, then squirrel it away in my pockets and forget it’s there.”
“Of fucking course you do. Which is how you got my wallet.” Juno pauses. “And my picture.”
Nureyev’s eyes go wide. His mouth drops open on a quiet breath.
“Did I take the picture of your brother, too?” he croaks with remorse. “Juno, I am so, so—”
“What then?” Juno grunts.
“I must have pulled your things out with the magnet. It was the last thing I put in there intentionally, so I suppose they ended up on top of it.” Nureyev inches further out of his hole until his head dangles down again, six inches or so above Juno’s. “To answer your first question, I stayed because I’d never been to school before and I wanted to try.”
“Wait, what?” Juno stares at him for a long moment. “You’re fucking with me.”
“I’m not. I love learning.” Nureyev shrugs. “Olympus U has a valuable piece of art to set me up nicely in my career, and happens to be one of the only schools in the solar system that offers crime history as a major. It was a win-win for me.”
Juno lets out a long, breathy laugh.
“You’re really something else, you know that?” Peter smiles down at him, and Juno realizes that sometime in the last thirty seconds he started smiling, too. Juno clears his throat. “I guess it’s too much to hope this is the part where you turn yourself in?”
The smile on Peter’s face vanishes.
“No, Juno.” He sounds genuinely regretful. “There are a great many things I would do for you, but that isn’t one of them.”
“Right.” Juno lets his legs fold under himself and sits heavily on the edge of the cot.
“But that doesn’t mean I’ll leave you behind.”
Juno looks up. Peter’s eyes shine like twin suns in the dark.
“What—” Juno clears his throat. “What do you mean?”
“Come with me,” he says breathlessly. “I’ll make a tidy fortune off the sculpture, plenty to get the two of us far away from here. We’ll have adventure after adventure, Juno, think of it.”
Peter has lowered himself further and further with each word, hanging only by his knees hooked over the edge now. He’s almost at eye level with Juno, suspended in the air like a glass ornament on an invisible wire. Some impossible creature gravity cannot touch.
Juno’s breath catches deep inside his chest. Think of it, and he does, the image of himself and Peter hand-in-hand. Chasing the stars.
It makes him ache, knowing he can’t. Knowing he won’t.
“Conning rich suckers on every planet, huh? Fake names, fake passports, never stopping to catch our breath.” Juno shakes his head. “It wouldn’t last. You know that.”
“We could make it last,” Peter says, but he sounds less sure. Juno took a needle and popped his shiny bubble, and all that’s left is the chilly truth in a dusty gray room.
“Peter,” Juno sighs, but he’s cut off by a quiet beeping.
Peter looks at his own wrist, where a watch flickers rhythmically with a dim green light.
“Your guard rotation is changing,” he says sadly. Juno can’t bear to hear it. Peter and sad don’t belong in the same language, let alone the same sentence. “But Juno, please believe me.” He reaches out, arm bent awkwardly at the elbow but somehow elegant as ever, and puts a hand on Juno’s shoulder. “I won’t leave you here. I’ll figure something out.”
“Sure.” Juno doesn’t believe him, but it’s a nice story all the same. So he does what all nice stories do sooner or later—at least the ones Juno was always in the bad habit of imagining himself in—and surges forward to kiss Peter one last time.
Peter’s gasp stutters against Juno’s mouth. He kisses back like he’s trying to fit that whole lost lifetime of running along the spiral arm of the galaxy together into one desperate press of lips.
Then it’s over. Peter hauls himself backwards up into the ceiling, smoke reversing back into the bottle, and the metal grating settles into place with a soft clang. Juno takes a deep breath.
“Still in there?” says a gruff voice from the hallway.
“Yeah?” Juno calls back. “Why? Gonna let me leave?”
“N-no.” The door opens, revealing a campus officer Juno’s never seen before. He looks like he just woke up from a nap. “You seen the last guard? Must’a left their post early.”
“Nope,” he says. “While you’re here, mind letting me go to the bathroom? Or would you rather I use the pla—”
“Sure.” The cop motions for him to follow before Juno can even finish his joke.
At least Peter heard it. Juno wishes he had something better to leave him, to remember him by. That’ll have to do.
Throughout the first and the beginning half of the fourth sections, Juno imagines non-graphic violent scenarios related to his own death.
Juno's suicidal ideation also makes a return; to skip it, stop reading after "Juno decides it’s a small consolation" and resume at "Juno tries to punch the car seat," then again stop at "He should turn back towards him" and pick up with “I—” Nureyev hesitates."
The first section, after the big paragraph break, contains police brutality and the threat of physical violence. Juno is forcibly imprisoned throughout the fourth (final) section.
I know I've said this so many times. I've said it in as many ways as I can think to say it, but I'll say it again: thank you. Thank you so much, to everyone who doodled a scene from this fic or shouted my own words back to me in the comments. Thank you to the friends who messaged me in the wee hours of the morning to yell at me for breaking your hearts and the strangers who have become friends because of these goofy little words I wrote. Thank you, everyone who has taken the time to read what I've written, who has recommended this to a friend or dropped a silent kudos or completely lurked. You all mean so much to me, and so does this story. As of posting, this is now the longest writing project I've ever completely finished. It wouldn't have been as special an experience if it weren't for everyone reading this. I love you! I love you.
A final set of warnings: this chapter contains police presence, academic troubles, and mentions of death. See end notes for more detailed warnings.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
April 21, XXX35
“Now listen, Rita,” Rita says. “You got the who, the where, the when, and the whatsit, but that ain’t all you need to do if you’re gonna save Juno. When Rita is on the case, she knows just solvin’ the puzzle don’t cut it. So it’s time to hunt down the fugitive. Rita, take off your detective hat and put on… bounty hunter Rita.”
She feels dramatic and powerful—cinematic, that’s the word, like an old movie where she pulls the hat down over her eyes and walks out into the pouring rain. She doesn’t have a hat, and it’s a sunny late morning, but that ain’t the point.
“So, bounty hunter Rita,” she queries, “what’s the first step to catchin’ a killer? First, you gotta think like one. I dunno how to do that, though, so let’s go to step two: follow his tracks.
“He didn’t leave any tracks. Okay, okay, no reason to panic. Even a hard-boiled professional runs into problems sometimes, you just gotta keep at it. You just gotta persevere, and follow every clue you can find, and maybe stop for snacks and then interrogate some folks, because somebody must’a seen him and then— Oh, hey, there he is.”
Rex Glass—also known by pseudonym Peter Nureyev—moves down the sidewalk across the street from Rita at a brisk trot. He looks like he’s going somewhere in a hurry, and his legs are a mile longer than Rita’s. She’ll never catch up.
Rita takes a moment to wallow in the fear that she’s failed Juno. He’ll be lost forever wherever he went, unless he’s already— No. No, no no. Rita is on the case. She’s ready to solve this.
Two trucks screech to a halt and blare their horns as Rita jaywalks straight through mid-morning traffic.
“Mista Glass!” she screams in the middle of a busy street. “You stop right there, you, you— Why, I oughta—”
Rex stops and turns on his heel. His eyes light up when he spies Rita marching toward him with her hands balled up into fists.
“Rita!” he says.
He sounds as charming as ever, with his big bright smile and his stupid handsome face. Rita wonders if she could jump high enough to punch him in the jaw. She wouldn’t, but having the option would be nice.
“Don’t gimme that!” She has to tilt her head back to glare at him once she’s as close as she dares get. “You’re a big lying liar, I did a bunch’a research last night and now Juno’s missin’ and I know it was you, because you’re—”
He pops something into Rita’s mouth between one word and the next. She bites down, mostly on account of how mad she is, and tastes sweet caramel and chocolate.
“Yes, yes, I’m a thief and a terrorist wanted across three star systems. Hello.” He waves genially while Rita chews her candy with suspicion. “It’s lovely to be properly introduced. Now, would you like to help me save Juno?”
“Oh,” she says. “Yeah, okay.”
Tomorrow. That’s when Juno’s expulsion hearing is set for: three o’clock tomorrow afternoon.
They let him go back to his dorm to grab a change of clothes. Peter wasn’t there, and something about the room—the way the light fell in, maybe, or the coolness of the air, how their dorm felt a whole lot bigger than it used to—made him think Peter hadn’t been for a while.
That’s fine. Makes sense, cutting his losses and taking off for the stars. Juno wonders how he got the sculpture out of the office. If he had any help. If he needed it.
It would be so easy to tell the guards, or the woman whose name Juno hasn’t bothered to learn and is now ignoring out of spite, where the Beacon is hidden. They’re already convinced enough of Juno’s guilt, one more piece of goddamn evidence won’t hurt. And it would take the thing out of Peter’s hands. Maybe it would even trip him for a second in his grand race to grift and swindle everyone in the galaxy with too much lining their pockets.
It’s only— It’s kind of a nice thought. Peter Nureyev out there, dancing through the stars. Caught on a solar wind, swinging from a beam of starlight. He could be anywhere. He could be every winking star that Juno barely sees through the haze of the dome.
If he can never look into Peter’s bright eyes or feel his strong hands, can’t smell that strange cologne… He can look up, someday, and know that every twinkling light could be Nureyev. Once he’s free. Once it doesn’t hurt so much.
Juno brings a turtleneck and the nicest jacket he owns. It’s nothing to sneeze at, but he’ll look presentable when he takes the hit for something that, for once, wasn’t even his fault.
It might have been a mistake, getting close enough to Peter Nureyev to be caught in the crossfire. Juno can’t find it in him to regret it.
April 22, XXX35
“You sure this is gonna work?” Rita asks. Her eyes are huge behind her rhinestone-studded glasses.
It nearly breaks Peter’s heart, what she’s willing to do for Juno. Peter has inspired that kind of loyalty in a couple of people in his life, but never honestly. Never simply because of who he is.
Well, perhaps not never. It depends on whether or not this plan works, and what Juno has to say about it after he’s free.
“Rita,” Peter lies, “I have never been surer of anything.”
Juno checks his comms and sighs. He keeps telling himself it doesn’t matter, if it hadn’t been this it would have been something else to stop him from finishing college. Probably something a lot more Juno’s fault. He would have ruined his own life one way or another. At least—until the end—the fall wasn’t unpleasant, all things considered.
He looks in the bathroom mirror one more time. Not much has changed: there’s Juno, barefaced and tired. His hair looks like something nested in it. But at least he’s wearing his goddamn jacket, that felt so important at the time. And at least they finally gave him his comms back.
“Alright,” Juno says, pushing the bathroom door open and meeting the eyes of the two cops waiting to escort him to his doom. “Let’s get this over with.”
The hearing is two buildings over. It’s not a long walk to start with, and time seems to cinch itself up like a drawstring the closer he gets. 2:53. 2:55. Juno starts to sweat. He feels sick. His head swims, his eyes dart back and forth and his brain takes in too much information all at once.
Students. A small crowd over on the grass. A stack of yellow papers, half blown away by the wind. A misheard conversation moving by too fast to arrange into sense.
He forgets to sit down, once they actually reach the room where Juno will be pronounced guilty. His skin prickles under the stares from the table across from him. A line of old university bureaucrats, wrinkled faces and scowling mouths, look at Juno like he’s a mess an unpleasant colleague left behind.
One of the cops shoves him in the shoulder. Juno falls into his seat.
“Thank you, officers,” says a middle-aged woman on the far right of the table. “You can go now.”
A balding man in the middle clears his throat as soon as the door shuts behind the cops.
“Juno Steel,” he begins. He gets no further.
“Attention, Olympus U!” comes a crisp voice across the loudspeaker. It rattles the room with volume and seems to echo strangely, making everyone—Juno included—jump in their seats. “Specifically, we would like the attention of the Dean of Students and the Society for the Historical Recovery of Important Martian Particulars, as well as any contacts the latter might have at the Museum of Colonized History, but the rest of you are, of course, welcome to tag along.”
“What the hell is this?” huffs one of the tribunal.
“If you would be so kind as to come to the middle of Terrero Square, we have a surprise that will certainly be of interest to our esteemed guests in the administration—”
“Turn that damn thing off!” shouts the balding man.
“—especially as they have been looking for it for a while, and in their foolish search are about to bring the hammer of justice down on a wrongly-accused—and very nice—young lady.”
That last part hits Juno over the head like a frying pan. He didn’t recognize the voice—he must be using something to disguise it—but the cadence, the phrasing, the fact that nobody else would ever call Juno “nice,” of all things—
“He actually goddamn did it,” Juno laughs under his breath. Peter is keeping his promise, in the only way he knows how: theatrical as all hell.
“Mister Steel,” demands another of the tribunal, “what is this about?”
“Search me,” Juno shrugs. He can’t keep the shit-eating grin off his face, so he doesn’t try. “I’ve been locked up in somebody’s office for the last twenty-four hours.”
“You’ve been what?” chimes in another, but the voice over the loudspeaker comes back.
“In case I haven’t made it sufficiently clear, for those of you who are not embroiled in the politics and shady dealings of this university’s higher-ups, here is a history lesson: in the year 5901, an expedition to settle the first off-Earth colony arrived on Mars. Among this party was Aditi Oh, a sculptor, who used her skillset and… what talent she possessed—”
Juno smirks quietly at Peter’s obvious distaste. He doesn’t know what the Beacon thing looks like, but he’s pretty sure it’s of more historical value than artistic merit, if Peter’s tone is to be believed.
“Is no one doing anything?” shouts the balding man. Sweat starts to bead along his shiny forehead, and Juno realizes this must be the dean. “There has to be a way to turn that goddamn thing off.”
“I can hear your question already,” the voice continues. “Why have I never seen this sculpture in one of Mars’ many prestigious public museums? Well, students and faculty, it pains me to say that the Traveler’s Beacon has resided, unlawfully, in the private collection of someone within this very university for years. Shocking, I know, I’ll give you a few moments to collect yourselves.”
“It wasn’t illegal! You can’t prove that,” bellows the dean, as if the man on the other end of the loudspeaker can hear him. He clears his throat as his colleagues look his way, shocked. Juno sits still and silent, loving every second. “Oh, damn it to hell.”
He loosens his tie and marches to the door, nearly breaking into a dead sprint by the time he reaches it. Everyone else in the room, apart from Juno, looks at each other in complete bafflement before giving into herd instinct and following.
“I’ll just, uh, come with?” Juno says to no one. “Okay, then.”
He gets up and heads toward Terrero Square. Sue him, he’s nosy. Might as well see what all the noise is about.
An impressive crowd has gathered in the grassy square at the heart of Olympus U’s campus. Half the people there are holding bright yellow flyers, and the other half look like they showed up when they saw the first half milling around, curious or hoping for free food.
“And here he comes, the guest of the hour!” crows Peter’s distorted voice. He’s audible all over campus, blaring from the sandstorm siren speakers and every intercom in every building for blocks around. “Our beloved Dean of Students. Friends, professors, random passers-by, the moment you’ve all been waiting for. If those of you standing in the very center of the square could step back a few feet, for your own safety.”
A loud, metallic thud sparks a collective shout from the crowd. Juno can’t see what they’re all looking at over the heads of the people in front of him, not even on his tiptoes. He elbows through a group of goggling boys without so much as an ‘excuse me.’
A perfectly square hole has opened up in the ground, a few feet wide, right in the middle of the most popular place on campus to lie in the grass and pretend responsibilities are bullshit. The crowd has fallen almost completely silent, only a slight breeze and a faint crackling from the loudspeaker audible in the air.
One moment, the hole is pitch black and still. The next, a faint shape becomes visible: rounded and weathered. It becomes easier and easier to see, slowly raising up from the darkness below and into the sunlight.
For a moment, the sculpture hovers in midair. Juno has a second to wonder if all those ancient ghost stories are true, about curses and vengeful alien spirits. Then a metal door with a thin covering of grass swings up from the darkness to replace itself. The sculpture falls, with a dull thump, onto the ground, and the edges of where the hole was just moments ago vanish completely.
There is another moment of complete silence. Only a moment, before the square explodes with sound.
The crowd of students with their hands full of flyers begin shouting, colorfully and at length, at the poor, sweating dean in his suit and receding hair. A few others raise a confused cheer, presumably for the free show.
Juno stands still. The noise around him fades to static.
He gave it up, runs through him like a knife. He gave up his score of a lifetime, he gave it back. And onto the end of that impossible thought, Juno adds, for me.
Peter spends fifteen minutes arranging himself into the image of casual disinterest. He chooses to lounge in the desk chair; the bed would be all too presumptive, given the circumstances.
It takes Juno longer than he expects to get back. Still, the sight of him makes Peter’s heart yo-yo into his stomach and up to his throat. Juno is free, back where Peter can see him and no longer locked away for someone else’s mistake.
His mistake, specifically.
Juno meets his eyes. The door shuts behind him. He pulls off his shoes and shrugs out of his jacket, never breaking eye contact with Peter. It sends a static energy up Peter’s spine, demanding he run or fight or do something else altogether too rash.
“How?” Juno asks, standing in the middle of their room with his arms at his sides. For the first time in days, it’s just the two of them. Alone. Back where they started.
“You mean, how did I pull off the heist of the century?” Peter bats his eyelashes.
“I don’t think it counts as a heist if you don’t steal anything.” Juno sits down in his own desk chair and leans forward, elbows on his knees. “How?”
“A master thief would never tell.”
“Oh, cut the bullshit.” Juno rolls his eyes. “Just tell me.”
“What will you give me if I do?”
The words spill out of Peter on instinct; he wishes, cringingly, that he could reel them back into his mouth. It’s far too easy to fall back into his past rhythms with Juno, but they are not who they once were. Neither one; they’re a hero and a damsel, a villain and a victim. Peter is tired of playing a part.
Juno stands up. He walks toward Peter with slow deliberation, stands close enough that his legs are framed by Peter’s knees, and leans down to kiss him on the mouth.
“Oh,” Peter says, dazed, when Juno pulls away. “Yes, that’ll do.”
“Thought it might,” Juno says smugly.
Peter stands, carefully, still unsure how much he is permitted, and wraps his arms around Juno’s shoulders.
“I took the sculpture out the way I’d always planned,” he whispers into Juno’s ear. Peter hardly knows who might still have their eye on Juno, after all; who might be listening. Feeling him shiver as lips brush his skin is its own reward. “The old bomb shelter tunnels run across most of Olympus Mons, but those under the campus were never renovated for other purposes. Once I had the Beacon underground and knew the codes for the disused entrances, it was easy enough to reverse the polarity on the magnet I used in the first place to send it up out of the metal tunnel.”
Peter spreads his free hand out, a silent ‘voilà.’
“What about the loudspeakers?” Juno asks.
“That, I had some help with.” Peter pulls back enough to look Juno in the eye and winks. “Remind me to buy Rita all the chocolate she can eat for the next decade, hm?”
“You pulled Rita into this?”
“She came to me.” Peter lays his hands against Juno’s chest before he can get worked up. “She had it all figured out. It was either let her help me or dodge her wrath, and I think I can be forgiven for fearing Rita more than any government in the galaxy.”
Juno huffs a laugh.
“You and Rita just sparked the biggest successful student protest at Olympus U in probably thirty years and cracked open a scandal that’ll make it onto every news station on Mars.” He shakes his head. “I can’t leave you two alone for one day.”
“We make an excellent team,” Peter laughs.
“And look at you,” Juno says with a smirk. “Dipping your toe back in the revolutionary game.”
Peter freezes. The smile still on his face turns to a grimace at the wrongness of it. A word like that for a man like the one he’s become, red light in a red room, sticky with red, red blood.
It did feel good, didn’t it? Toppling the mighty, even one as pitiful as the greedy dean. Giving back to the powerless, for a given value of power. Peter is no stranger to leaving chaos behind him; but it feels wrong, almost fraudulent, to take credit for chaos that might grow into something better than he found it.
“What about you?” Peter asks, breezing past the sick lurch in his stomach.
He nearly misses Juno’s response, too wrapped up in the tangle of his thoughts and a nudging feeling that might be the ghost of something called ideals.
“Turns out a school with a budget bigger than two moons put together isn’t half had at apologies,” Juno explains. “Full ride for next year and a pretty nice stipend, actually. I heard some bigshot donor’s lawyer kicked up a real fuss about me being detained.”
“Nothing quite like the fear of a lawsuit,” Peter nods. “You’re… staying, then?”
“I—” Juno pauses. Peter sees it in his eyes, the realization a moment after his own: they’ve been dancing around a certain question this entire time, and now they have run out of steps.
“Because, Juno,” Peter puts a hand on his shoulder, “you don’t have to. You’re under no obligation to stay, not somewhere that’s done so little for you and so much to you.”
Juno shakes his head slowly, and Peter’s heart drifts to the floor of his ribcage like crumpled tissue paper.
“I’m not giving up, not anymore. I’m not going to just cut and run.” He stops, takes a deep breath, then says, “I don’t know if I’d make it out there.”
It sounds like a confession, one Peter doesn’t understand.
“Of course you would,” Peter insists. “You have an incredible talent and a brilliant mind. The two of us, Juno, we could—” Juno shakes his head. Peter is not a man in the habit of giving up, but— “I won’t demand anything of you. If that’s your choice, I— I’ll leave you to it, then.”
Juno’s eyes snap up to meet Peters, blazing like a supernova.
“So that’s it?” Juno’s voice scrapes against a sudden, bottomless anger. “You’re just gonna leave?”
It seems Peter has lost his footing in this conversation, somewhere, but he knows one thing.
“I belong out there,” Peter says desperately. It tastes like a half-truth even as he says it. “Always running, never looking back—”
“Sounds like it would tire a guy out after a while.”
It stings. Peter knew Juno had the power to hurt him; he wasn’t prepared for little hurts, on top of the big ones.
“It’s all I’ve ever known.” It comes out sounding pathetic. Still nothing but a lost little boy.
Peter feels the need to defend himself, defend the life he never asked for but took to like a bird to the air. They feel like one and the same: the self and the life, a shape grown up around him and into him so inextricably as to be one monstrous organism.
Then again, a monster is the one thing he swore off becoming, once upon a time.
“I’m just saying, it doesn’t have to be. And you did just kind of blow your ticket out of here.” Juno shifts his feet, glances down, hesitation but a core of strength to see this through. “You could find out how staying suits you. If you want.”
“Staying.” Peter repeats. “With you?”
“I figure somebody owes somebody for what we just went through. It’d be a rotten move to skip out before we settle the bill.”
“And this is all about debt, then?” Peter is a creature of hope. It blooms in his chest despite his better judgement, quick and vibrant as a lily in the sun.
“No.” Juno steps closer to him and tilts his head back. They stare at one another, long enough that it would be uncomfortable if anyone else were around. Peter never wants to look away. “It’s not.”
A verb (“stay”) means little without a noun (“home”).
He could stand to put his feet up in one of those. Peter is, above all else, a fond fan of the new. And what else have his last few months been, if not practice?
Peter dares to smile.
“Well,” he says. “I suppose Rex Glass doesn’t have to drop out of college just yet. He has a degree to finish. There’s plenty of gainful employment for an expert in crime on Mars, or so I hear.”
“One more thing.” Juno rests his head on Peter’s chest. Against his ribs, right over his heart. “Soon as you can, you’re thinking of a new name.”
“What’s wrong with Rex?” Peter teases. He reaches out to pull Juno tighter against him, fingers in his hair.
“Nothing wrong with him,” Juno mutters. “His name sucks, though.”
Peter laughs, and laughs, until the air in his lungs is gone and his mouth is too, too busy.
The man who has, for the past thirteen years, been Ramses O’Flaherty settles back in his chair with a sigh.
He will not be having a lunch break tomorrow after all. He has too much work to catch up on, missed today for the purpose of righting a wrong. That’s fine; he has another lunch break scheduled next week.
It is a shame, the truth of it: that this university would have swept a student’s unlawful incarceration and near-expulsion under the rug if it were not for a well-placed phone call and a history of well-spent creds. O’Flaherty shakes his head at the memory of other checks he wrote, once upon a time, under another name, for the purpose of—less directly—helping Juno Steel.
Juno is a more solid investment than his mother was, at any rate. He has high hopes for this one. He truly does. One bright future, if O’Flaherty has anything to say about it.
A message announces its presence on his comms with a quiet ding. O’Flaherty reads it over twice, as he does all his correspondence, and a smile cracks the weathered valleys of his face. A man with such means as he has is never without a very good lawyer; this one has done his job well.
Perhaps too well. O’Flaherty may have lost his excuse to keep Juno in his immediate orbit. It had to end eventually, of course, but he has a certain fondness for his of-late employee that he had assumed time and growth would erode.
He breathes deeply and sets about his work. It does not do to dwell on such things, not yet. Not before he has found a proper reason to. Ramses O’Flaherty is far too busy to spend his time and money assuaging Jack Takano’s guilt.
And yet… it is satisfying, for the moment, to have done good.
April 25, XXX35
“You’re lucky you’re havin’ me do this now,” Rita says. Her small fingers clatter across the keyboard at the speed of sound. “I ain’t gonna have access to the school encryptions soon.”
“What?” Juno leans over the back of her chair. His eyes and brain are unfriendly strangers when it comes to understanding a single thing happening on her screen. But if he squints convincingly enough, he knows it’ll seem like he can follow.
“There we go,” Rita sing-songs, ignoring the question, as she hits a final few keys.
“Did it work?”
“We-ell, we’re not gonna know for sure for a few weeks ‘cause the virus has gotta work its way through the data, like a little worm, kinda—”
“Until every image it targets is so deep fried you’ll to wish you had chocolate frosting to dip it in,” Juno nods.
He can’t actually watch Rita’s virus corrupt every picture of Peter on the net into unrecognizable pixels—it doesn’t look like much more than strings of numbers he can’t process fast enough—but he feels better as the seconds pass anyway.
“Mozzarella sticks in chocolate is good, Boss, we can’t keep havin’ this argument—”
“What did you mean, lucky you’re doing this now?” Juno gratefully turns his attention back to anything that isn’t all this computer junk.
“Oh, I’m changin’ my major,” Rita shrugs. “The secret spy hacker stuff ain’t as exciting as it is on the streams, and who ever heard’a the gal who hacks the rich and sends cryptocurrency to the poor havin’ a degree?”
“As opposed to what?”
“I dunno, a long dark past!” Rita spins in her chair. “Oh, ooh, maybe I could get trained by a secret cult of cyber assassins. I’ll turn on ‘em in a moment of conscience and take out my own mentor in a final showdown that proves I learned from all the times she made me sweep floors and do laundry but was really secretly showing me vital skills I need to—”
“Rita, you already—” he pinches the bridge of his nose. To Juno’s surprise as much as anyone’s, he feels a dry laugh bubble up from his throat.
“What are you laughin’ at? I could be a cyber spy assassin hero! Just you wait.” Rita pauses, twirling a curl of hair around her finger. “But on the other hand, that sounds like a lotta work.”
“So what did you change your major to?” Juno asks. “Something that’ll get you a good reference for the assassin cult?”
“Nah,” Rita says. “Film studies.”
“Like that guy from the library?”
“Pfft,” Rita blows a raspberry so long it sprinkles the side of Juno’s face. “He turned out to be a real jerk. But when I was watchin’ all those movies he talked about, I found out I got a real knack for noticing all the color symbolism and camera angles and junk, and now we’re gonna be in the same department and he’ll know I get better grades than him.”
“I’m happy for you,” Juno says with a dry smile. “I’m thinking of changing majors too.”
“Boss, I know I’m a role model and everything, but we can’t both go into film—”
“To criminology,” Juno rolls his eyes. “A lot of the coursework is the same. I don’t know if I’m that interested in being inside the system anymore, I guess. The appeal wears off fast.”
“So whaddya gonna do?”
Juno looks up, out Rita’s window and across what he can see of campus, of Olympus Mons stretching out and falling away toward the red horizon. He knows that back at their dorm, Peter is waiting for him. They have plans to go study together for the finals they both still need to take.
Juno knows Peter is waiting with a cup of coffee, a smile, and a promise he’s kept so far. One Juno wants to keep right back.
“I don’t know,” he says. “I got time.”
Juno is escorted by police in the second and forth sections of the chapter. Juno is put on academic trial that may be anxiety-inducing for some. There is a mention of Mag's death after the line "The smile still on his face turns to a grimace at the wrongness of it."