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No Stranger to Me

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Jay Mason was a wealthy man. Not obscenely so, of course, but enough that he could retire early and comfortably, enough that he could avoid the worst of the violence and the neuropozyne shortages that plagued augmented people these days. He'd been an engineer with a human enhancement startup, back before the Incident and the crash that followed; he was familiar enough with the augmented that, even after 2027, they didn't register as inhuman or threatening in his eyes. (Familiar enough that when, six months post-Incident, a doctor sat him down and told him that he'd developed a seizure disorder, that his only hope of continuing a normal life was a little metal chip that would sit at the base of his skull and a dependency on neuropozyne, his first thought had not been horror but relief that there was a cure.)

As of March 2028, he was an aug. (Lowercase-a, not capital-A; he didn't identify with the movement, didn't quite see how all that violence on the street should mean anything to him.) He had a dog and a house and a nice, stable nest egg. And—Jim frowned, staring at the stranger in the hotel mirror, trying to make the details of this new life feel right by sheer force of will—he had a husband.

Undercover missions had never been his strong suit. And this felt more undercover than most he'd been on; not just a new name, but a new life, a new in-group he had to learn to be part of.

He touched the back of his head gingerly, feeling for the spot where TF29's doctors had inserted the sliver of metal and plastics that would complete his new disguise. It was a dummy, fancy enough to fool a basic metal detector search but not much else.

Normally that might be a problem—the members of Per Aspera were rightfully paranoid, afraid of bigoted naturals infiltrating their ranks—but Miller also had another layer to his disguise.

There was a knock at the hotel door, a sharp rap that sounded heavy enough to break through the flimsy wood.

"You ready?"

Derrick was waiting for him. Thirty-six years old, with a rough childhood and a shady past he'd finally managed to move beyond with the support of the man he loved.

"Yes," Jim said, "sorry," and then he was crossing the room, pulling his door open to look his husband in the eyes. (Directly in the eyes, ringed bright gold and green. It was strange, still, not having those shades between them.) "Just got distracted for a moment."

"Nice place, isn't it?" Adam took a step inside, staring at the glass screen TV and neatly-made beds across from it.

"It's all right."

All right was about the best description he could give this hotel. The room they'd been put in was good enough, not bottom-of-the-barrel but not especially fancy. At least the sheets were clean.

But, of course, Derrick had spent much of his adult life hopping from run-down apartment to run-down apartment, either following the orders of one of his bosses or running from them. He wasn't used to staying in places like these at all. (His husband ought to take him on more nice vacations, Jim thought dryly.)

Jim leaned into Adam's side. It was getting easier now, these moments of casual contact. He'd been awkward at first, hopelessly fumbling as if he were the one who'd never been married before. He kept expecting Neil in every touch, kept flinching away in surprise every time he brushed palms with his husband and his hand hit solid steel instead of warm flesh. But he'd had the flight to Paris to practice, and then the ride to the hotel, and check in, and now. The last quiet moment, just between them, before they joined the conference down below and Miller would no longer be able to afford a mistake.

He was the lead on this mission. Adam was here because of him, because Jim's medically-augmented cover would never hold without a heavily, blatantly augmented person to vouch for him.

TF29 would be counting on him. And so would Adam.

No pressure, of course. Jim just needed to make sure their cloak of wedded bliss didn't slip for even a second, on pain of (at best) failing their mission horribly, or (should the rumors of extremist plants in Per Aspera's peaceful support group prove true) the deaths of both them and every innocent augmented person staying at this hotel. Spending every moment together, sleeping in the same bed, talking to the others here about happy memories that he and Adam had invented on the flight over...

Right now he wished more than ever that he'd never left his role as a field agent; at least there his survival had never relied on something—or someone—as frequently-inscrutable to him as Adam.

He respected Adam. Liked him, even. But there was so much about him that was a mystery to Jim.

With a start, Jim realized Adam was staring at him. His gaze had gone unfocused, staring both at Jim and at something Jim couldn't see, and his brow furrowed with a concern just slightly too real to be Derrick's alone. "Do you want to rest for a bit?" he asked. "It was a long flight over."

Translation: you're acting off, and it's worrying me. Adam was trying to give him an out—an out Jim shouldn't need, as much preparation as he'd done.

Jim didn't know which of his vitals Adam might be reading. He straightened up and forced himself to breathe evenly, hoping that would force whatever Adam was seeing to go back to baseline. It was both far too early and far too late in this mission for his nerves to get the better of him.

"I've got a better idea, actually. You want to see what they've got at the bar?" Jim asked, raising an eyebrow at Adam.

Adam grinned, completely relaxed, so warm and so open that he more resembled a stranger than the man Jim knew. This was Derrick, through and through; hardly a hint of Adam's quiet stony self remained. His armor peeled away, his defenses lowered—he looked like some bizarrely distorted mirror image of himself.

"Sounds great," Adam said, and then, with just the slightest twist to his mouth, enough to add an edge of wry humor to his contented smile, "Darling."

It struck Jim then, as sudden as lighting and as staggering as a blow to the chest, that faking being attracted to his husband might not be the difficult part of this mission after all.