Sometimes Juno forgot that rich people are… like that.
When Juno had been a wayward youth, he’d gone through a phase that lasted basically his entire young adult life where he would put on a leather jacket and some eyeliner and go scowl in a bar until someone suggested the idea of taking him home to ravish him. This had increased tenfold when he had fallen in with the Kanagawa twins with their designer clothes and designer pills and designer romances. There had been a brief Diamond-shaped hole in this pattern, ending in a haze of embarrassment and betrayal at the altar that had, after a few days of hazy, disconnected confusion and loss resulted in Juno having the idea of getting someone else to lick his wound for him. Which was all to say, Juno knew how to get a room for the night.
This, as it turned out, was one of those things that you don’t really appreciate knowing how to do until your midlife crisis involves gaining the will to live and joining a pirate crew.
Peter had been enacting a very specific kind of revenge where he acted like he and Juno were, for the most part, perfect strangers while simultaneously wearing a lot of shirts that didn’t cover his forearms. Or his collarbone. Juno had spent the last few months in a continuous fog of lust and regret and self-inflicted heartbreak. Sure, there had been a lot of regret and heartbreak back in Hyperion, but at least then there’d been far, far fewer shame boners. Juno had a limited amount of blood and it was reserved for things like “unlocking the path to an obsessive mayor’s pipe dream,” “obtaining various wounds in service of maintaining a different obsessive mayor’s pipe dream,” and “stomach ulcers from the shit Rita pulls now that she is untethered from such base restrictions as legality.” Having it be mostly below the waist seemed like a tactical error. It was compounded by the fact that Juno wasn’t actually sure what the etiquette was for rubbing one out to the man you left behind in a hotel room after letting him think you were going to run away with him when that man lived several doors down from you. Overall, Juno was frustrated in a variety of ways on a variety of levels, especially because there seemed to be nothing he could do on the Nureyev front to improve anything.
Juno’s attempts to apologize had not gone particularly well. Juno had said “hey, Nureyev, can we talk?” and Nureyev had said “oh, dear, I think you must have me confused, ta now.” and Juno had said “you already told me it had been a long time while posing on a car, Nureyev, you can’t pretend like you don’t know me—” and then Juno realized he could never catch up with Peter “Who Needs Legs That Long, What Is He, A Skyscraper?” Nureyev. The process had repeated a few times. Juno was getting a little afraid he was going to have to either wait until they were in the same room and release a new bacteria into the ship’s air system to trip off the rigorous quarantine system (as required by Vespa’s… pursuits) or hijack the comm system to loudly broadcast his apology. He had a sinking suspicion that Nureyev would still be able to duck either of those were he suitably motivated, which he did, unfortunately, seem to be.
It was an unhappy rhythm, and it was one Juno was stuck in until the first honeypot mission was planned.
Juno ended up sitting at the bar, as was his way. He’d made a token effort to dress up at Buddy’s behest—meaning she’d given him a slightly nicer jacket and pants and told him in no uncertain terms that if he refused to change into them she was turning the matter over to Vespa—and looked close enough to the other patrons at the bar that security hadn’t immediately thrown him out. It was, if he was being honest, a little unsettling to fall back into a habit of his youth in a new scenario. Old dog, old trick. He didn’t really have a job other than keep an eye out while Peter and/or Buddy attempted to seduce a weapons dealer named Tantalus Slate—whose aesthetic appeared to be dipping xaerself in gold bodypaint and wearing all the jewelry xae owned simultaneously—into letting xaer guard down enough that they could swipe a data chip containing a list of buyers, including communications about harassing a small moon colony into letting themselves be used as a front. This seduction plan involved Peter and Buddy sitting at the table next to Slate, being equally as glacial and beautiful as Slate xaerself, giving xaer the opportunity to approach them first. If that failed then it would be time for Plan B, named the Saturn’s Rings Gambit, which Juno walked the fine line between intense curiosity about and the knowledge that it would probably hurt the part of his brain that still generally thought crime was bad. At the moment their attempts to be alluringly distant and pretty seemed to be going poorly, as Slate was equally distant and almost equally as pretty. There was a tension to it all, but it was cut by the knowledge that there wasn’t much Juno could do, aside from wonder whether he could get away with ordering another drink. His train of thought ended up rudely interrupted as his line of sight on Peter and Buddy was cut off by the imposing figure of another patron leaning against the bar. Juno shifted, trying to see if he could restore his view, and the other person shifted with him. He felt a brief moment of panic, sure he had been made, until he looked at the other man’s face. The man smiled as Juno turned to look, annoyed, at him and reached out to put one broad hand on Juno’s knee.
“If you don’t mind me saying, you don’t look like you’re enjoying yourself too much,” he said. “You wanna get outta here?”
“I’m meeting a friend,” Juno said coolly.
“Then let me buy you a drink while you’re waiting,” the man tried again.
Juno glared. “How about you just get your hand off my leg and find someone else to harass.”
“How about instead of that, I—”
Juno never found out what the alternative would be because while speaking, the man had leaned in and put his other hand on Juno’s other knee, pinning him awkwardly into his barstool. With a move honed in a hundred different bar fights in Oldtown, Juno reached out, stole the pink-haired twink on his other side’s drink, and smashed it against the human paperweight bearing down on him. This had the desired effect of making the man recoil. Unfortunately, it also produced something of a commotion.
“Fuck! Fuck,” the man swore, looking at a piece of glass he’d pulled out of his hair for a long second and then tossing it to the floor. He looked at Juno, face mottled with rage, one thin trickle of blood coming from a cut high on his cheek. “You little—”
“Finish that sentence and I’ll steal someone else’s drink, asshole,” Juno said, casting a wary look around at the eyes focused on them. In his ear, there was a hum of static as Buddy’s comm went live.
“Juno? What’s happening?” she asked. She’d have to wait for an answer; there was no way he could risk replying with this kind of attention.
“Do you know who I fucking am?” the man shouted at him. “Where’s security?”
“That would have required you to introduce yourself before getting grabby,” Juno sniped back. “And actually—”
“What’s going on here?”
Juno looked up at the bouncer, a towering woman with sharp blue lipstick who, under basically any other circumstances, Juno would be thrilled to be manhandled by. He opened his mouth to tell her exactly what was going on, only to be steamrolled.
“This little cretin,” Wandering Hands seethed, “attacked me unprovoked!”
Juno snorted. “Yeah, Grabby, you did nothing wrong here.”
The man spluttered incoherently at Juno for a moment before turning to the bouncer. “I have been a patron of this establishment, as well as a frequent customer of Slate’s, and I refuse to be treated like this! I will take this up with your employer if necessary!”
The bouncer sighed and looked at Juno. “I’m gonna have to ask you to leave.”
“Me? He’s the one who tried to cop a feel!” Juno protested.
“No, actually, you getting kicked out is probably the best plan of action here,” Buddy said over the intercom. “There’s no way you’re blending in now.” Juno winced.
The bouncer opened her mouth to say something else when Juno felt the pressure of two hands gently grabbing him, one just under each shoulder. He looked up to see Slate staring back down at him, xaer beautiful face a perfect and indescribably shiny picture of concern.
“Oh, that brute,” xae said. One thumb began to make small circles. Juno’s mouth was suddenly dry. “Don’t worry, darling, I’ll take care of this.”
Xae smiled charmingly at the bouncer. “After all, this is something that can be dealt with in house, isn’t it? No need to distress our poor guest. Isn’t that right...”
It took Juno a moment to figure out what Slate’s expectant look meant. “Oh! Uh, Cyrus Tallow, and sure. No need to make more of a scene. Totally understand, am on my way out.”
“Oh, no, need for that. Right?” Slate looked back to the bouncer.
The bouncer audibly swallowed. “Y-yes, Missere Slate. Right away, Missere Slate.”
“Good. Oh, and put our other friend here on the list, please.” Slate looked over at now gaping man like he was a particularly malformed cockroach.
“Yes, Missere Slate.”
“Oh, excellent. Thank you, darling,” Slate said, still smiling beatifically. Then xae turned to Juno. “Come with me. I have a private room in the back where you can...” xaer eyes briefly flick up and down Juno’s body “...recover from this ordeal.” One golden hand slid down Juno’s arm to tug him after xaer as xae, as promised, lead him to a dimly lit back room that smelled heavily of some spice Juno had yet to come in contact with. There were plush red velvet couches, the segments long enough to lay back on and wide enough to have company while you do it, and a few candles with holographic lights flickering coyly off to the side, illuminating a shelf that housed bottles of various shapes, colors, and sizes.
“Please, let me get you a drink. What would you like?” Slate asked at the same time as Juno’s earpiece crackled to life.
“Juno,” Buddy said urgently, “if you need a diversion, say ‘ice cube’ and we’ll figure something out.”
Juno took a moment to sort out the two opposing sentences before turning back to Slate. “I’m good with anything,” he said, voice a little rough from the nerves. Slate’s eyes dipped down to his lips and xaer smile deepened before xae turned back to the shelf, grabbing two glasses.
“Now, we have a marvelous house blue, which is what I would normally offer a guest,” xae said, delicately plucking bottles from their places and setting them on the counter, “but for you, I think, something a little different is in order. I make an excellent Perfidian Moonrise. Have you ever had one?” When Juno shook his head, xae continued. “Yes, I’d heard they were more of a local drink. I’m a bit of a homebody, you’ll have to excuse my lack of knowledge of these things. I have a feeling you’ll rather enjoy it though. It’s a Termian syrup, topped with a juice from Cantor Prime’s genetic variation on apples, topped with an albino spirit we distill in house. If you look closely, the middle layer glows ever so slightly. It’s caused by a compound in the apple that’s mildly poisonous to most humanoids. Not fatal, of course, unless you’re allergic, but it does provide a lovely prickling sensation on the way down, and the syrup makes the taste sit in your mouth. It’s my absolute favorite.”
Xae poured a shimmery, pale liquid in the bottom of the cups, then corked the bottle and reached for a second. Juno swallowed.
“Oh,” Slate said, looking over xaer shoulder with a smile, “it is.”
Juno wasn’t sure how to reply, so he sat, sweating, as Slate finished the drinks and came sauntering over with the two glasses. Xae handed one to Juno before sitting primly and elegantly next to him, watching enrapt as he took his first sip.
“This is delicious,” Juno said, because mmm, tastes like trust funds didn’t seem situationally appropriate.
Slate looked satisfied in the way that Juno imagined large beasts of prey who had just successfully hunted for dinner did. “I’m absolutely thrilled you think so, darling.”
It took Juno an embarrassing amount of self-control not to snap at Slate not to call him that. He opted instead to take another syrupy, expensive sip to hide his irritation.
“So, Mr. Tallow,” Slate said, running one finger around the rim of xaer glass, “excuse me for being so forward, but what is it you look for in a partner?”
Juno barely managed not to choke on his drink and said, before his brain even had the barest opportunity to stop him, blurted out, “I’m actually really into arms dealers.”
There was a brief infinity of silence before Vespa’s voice came through Juno’s earpiece. “What the fuck, Steel.” In the background, Juno could hear Buddy yell “I didn’t ask about volatile alcohol-based materials, Jet, I said set the fucking building on fire!” Juno heard this, and did not pay attention to it because he was still in a very bad position, which is face-to-face in a private room with a powerful illegal arms dealer after you’ve just told them that you know they’re a powerful illegal arms dealer. Slate’s eyes widened ever so slightly as xae went very, very still.
Then xae breathed in suddenly, their eyes—literally—lighting up. “Really?” xae asked. Slate moved in even closer and placed one golden hand on Juno’s thigh, squeezing once and then letting xaer fingers splay out over the muscle there.
“Yup,” Juno said in a voice much more stable than his current emotional state. “I dated a vibro weapon dealer for like six months and never looked back. ”
Tantalus’ hand moved up an inch. “Would you like to see something?”
Juno got the plans.
Jet still ended up setting the building on fire to let Juno escape after Slate stuck xaer tongue in his ear and started making increasingly worrying innuendos about “vibro weapons.”
“So, basically, honeypotting is all about luck is what we’re saying,” Vespa said over breakfast the next morning.
Peter made an offended noise. “It is most certainly not. It’s about meticulous preparation and skill.”
“Really? Because last night it seemed a lot like it was about Juno being in the right place at the right time,” Vespa said, stirring her oatmeal.
Peter cast a pleading gaze on Buddy who leaned back in her seat with a shrug.
“I’m interested in hearing out both sides,” she said innocently.
“I plan each persona exactly to appeal to the target. I find out common threads between their lovers, where they like to eat, what music they enjoy, what their favorite thing to complain about is… it’s an intricate process, and one that can’t be rushed. Or replaced with dumb luck.” Peter preened.
“Yeah, but, again, it did fuck-all yesterday,” Vespa pointed out.
Peter glared. “Well, I suppose there’s a first time for everything.”
“Is there also going to be a second, third, and fourth time for it? Because my money’s on yes,” Vespa said, smirking. Peter’s glare intensified.
“Well, Juno? You’re the one who got the plans. Luck or skill?” Buddy asked casually, like she wasn’t tossing a live grenade into Juno’s lap.
“Um,” Juno said, eyes flickering between Vespa, who was staring hard at him, and Peter, who was pretending to be entranced by his meal. “A little of each? A nice balance of both.” He looked at Jet. “I mean, balance is good, right?”
Jet, not breaking eye contact, took a bite of rehydrated egg whites.
“Coward,” Vespa muttered.
Juno and Vespa had bonded quickly. Juno sometimes got the impression that the others were surprised by this, but honestly, they had looked at each other and recognized a comrade in a ship otherwise occupied by people who were highly charismatic, emotionally available, or both. The freedom to be an aging curmudgeon was worth its weight in gold. It also helped that Juno had virtually no history whatsoever with Vespa. Like, sure, there had been that one case while she was still having some… troubles that Juno had assisted on, but what was that compared to trying to kill someone because of an implant or ditching someone you made a verbal commitment to spend the rest of your life with someone because you realized you were a disaster of a human tethered to a disaster of a planet? Friendship with Vespa was... nice, honestly, even when she was in the middle of one of her “fuck off, I’m processing ” silent spells or Juno was dealing with his own shit. At some point, their friendship had evolved into little jokes, and from there into little bets, and from there into slightly larger bets.
Which is all to say that the next mission that required nightclub activity (which came along suspiciously quickly) found Juno standing awkwardly on the dancefloor in bright red shorts that could have probably done a better job of covering his ass and had “THIS MACHINE KILLS FASCISTS” written on the seat. Juno was going to kill Vespa as soon as he got his money.
The job was, theoretically, a quick in and out to grab anything the TA their client was convinced was tampering with hydraulic equipment might have left DNA on. Unfortunately, since it took place on a college planet, Juno was immediately met with a throng of intoxicated youths who managed to convince him embarrassingly quickly that he should do body shots with them. Juno knew that, as a rule, he should not do body shots. He was too much himself to have fun doing them off other people and, well. He was ticklish. And his reflexes were strongly oriented towards kicking.
But it wasn’t Juno who was on this mission, it was Demetrius Carlyle, 41, never been to Mars in his life, liked cats, romance streams, and long walks on non-irradiated beaches. And Demi would totally let a glitter-coated twenty-six-year-old celebrating his dissertation on “linguistic phenomena in extraplanetary communes as it pertains to class systems” do body shots off of him. Demi, it turned out, was an ardent supporter of scholastic excellence, which is how sweet, sparkling Syrus ended up demonstrating his linguistics degrees on a tequila shot residing in the area of Juno’s navel.
“Careful,” Juno gasped as he felt the barest hint of teeth along the ridge of his hip. Syrus, shiny-eyed and shiny-mouthed, looked up at him.
“Yeah, sorry,” he said, looking a little dazed, before dipping his head back down to the cheers of his friends.
“You know,” Nureyev said, comms crackling to life, “I have the sample we came in for. So I’ll just be heading back to the ship.”
“Hey. Hey, Vespa,” Juno slurred. “I have a question.”
“Why ‘this machine kills fascists’?”
“Oh.” Vespa ran a thumb over the lip of the bottle of Vestorian whiskey before taking a pull and passing it back to Juno. “Sounded funny. Also, you have a lot of run-ins with dictatorship and genocide somehow.”
Juno sighed, accepting the bottle. “Yeah, Hyperion is—fuck, was—like that. But why does no one else ever have to wear booty shorts on missions?”
“Because I would never make my beautiful wife wear them,” Vespa said, “and it would be a waste to get them for Peter.”
Juno narrowed his eyes, less because he was glaring and more because his vision was getting very blurry and he was only mostly sure he was looking directly at Vespa. “Knowing I’ll regret asking, why would it be a waste?”
“Well, you know, he’s just kinda...” Vespa made a decisive downward slashing motion. “In the back.”
“He’s not… it’s… look, this feels like a bad topic,” Juno got out haltingly.
“It would be like hanging a full-size curtain on a cat door,” Vespa, who was the worst, continued.
“You’d be able to read every fourth letter, max.”
“ Vespa .”
“Yeah?” Vespa turned to look at him, reaching over to snag the bottle back. Juno yanked it away from her and took a swig before surrendering it.
“It’s a nice ass,” Juno said loyally. It was a weird thing to say about your ex, especially when your ex made it very clear he had no interest in anything other than your suffering, but Juno felt the need to set the record straight.
Vespa clicked her tongue loudly before returning to the bottle and, thankfully, dropping the conversation.
A video by someone named Avernus Alcomb was posted. The caption was “pls, this is really important to ari! help my best friend find love!!!!!” and the thumbnail was a gritty security camera pic of Juno, face turned away, dancing with Syrus. The video showed Ariadne Montoya sprawled over a velvet chaise lounge, hair a shocking blue bob and face buried in an over-embroidered pillow.
“Where is he! ” she wailed, voice muffled by the cushion and the video quality but still intelligible. “I just want to put him up in a penthouse and hand feed him canapes made from endangered animals and rub scented oils on him!”
Ariadne lifted her head up to stare into the camera, eyeliner streaking down her face, and sniffled. “If you see this,” she warbled, “just know that I would take super good care of you and I’m down for, like, anything. And I mean anything. You wanna roleplay? I have a minor in theater management. You wanna call me Daddy? The cloning-reliant breeding process of my entirely female species means I have no baggage about that whatsoever! You wanna do the thing with the peanut oil and balloon animals? I own like seven restaurant chains and I have clowns on retainer. Can your man do that for you? I bet he can’t! I beg his strap is, like, analog! Mine has sixteen different speed settings and contains a semi-sentient AI! Please, just call me back if you see this!”
The video cut out.
All Juno wanted was coffee. He was tired and hungover and he just wanted the burnt, acidic taste of Vespa’s leftover Probably Coffee, Maybe Sewage Tank Overflow to finish the job and put him in a permanent vegetative state. But the universe, like Peter, seems intent on punishing him, so that… that didn’t happen. Instead, Juno ended up standing just to the left of the kitchen door, listening to Peter be consoled by Buddy.
“But… but it’s important to me. I think, really, it’ll be beneficial to my emotional state and therefore beneficial for group morale.”
“Peter,” Buddy said calmly, “your strap is fine. You are not allowed to reappropriate ship funds to upgrade it.”
Strap envy. Juno had walked in on his ex crying about strap envy.
“Fine?” Peter choked out. “Fine? Montoya’s strap isn’t just fine! I mean, look at that thing.” Peter did something and a loud buzzing noise filled the air. Juno could hear the kitchen table rattle against where it was bolted to the floor. “What powers that monstrosity?” Peter asked, pitching his voice above the sound. “A generator hooked up to a perpetual motion machine? A dying sun?”
“A chained god,” Vespa offered. Juno jumped a little; he hadn’t realized she was there.
“The millennia-long blood feud of two opposing opioid dynasties,” Buddy said, sounding speculative.
Peter sniffled. “Can the two of you please take this seriously?”
This was met with a brief, decisive harmony of “no.”
There was a sigh, and then Buddy said, “Peter, I think you’re focusing on the wrong things here. You should go talk to Jet, because this sounds a lot like you’re projecting… other issues and insecurities you’re having onto a silicone dick.” There was a beat of silence, followed by a pointed, “right, Vespa?”
“Right,” Vespa said in her kindest, most considerate voice, which for her meant speaking in a slightly higher pitch. “If you’re not pulling intergalactic ass, it’s because of who you are as a person, Peter. It has nothing to do with your junk, okay?”
Juno, who was slowly but surely picking up on that “subtlety” thing people kept talking about, made a tactical retreat before he could be pulled in to mediate a fight between a lethal assassin and his ex who was, coincidentally, also a lethal assassin.
Anyways, it was all fun and games until Juno accidentally ate the wrong hors d'oeuvre and ended up tripping balls.
It went like this: the Starfuckers were on Illios IX. They were infiltrating a private party this time, which meant everyone had to put in a little extra effort but the bathrooms were way nicer. Rita disappeared into one for a few minutes and came back out clutching her purse suspiciously, which to Juno’s trained eye meant that they a) they definitely had mints in the bathrooms here, and b) Rita just stole a tray of them. The guests were all dressed to the nines, which for this party apparently meant barely dressed at all but in an incomparably expensive way, and wore masks. Nureyev had lit up like a Geiger counter in the desert when Buddy had told him. He was now gliding through the crowd in a sheer shirt tucked into high-waisted black pants which had cutouts in some… very interesting places. There was a non-zero chance he had oiled his nipples for this. Juno hated his life.
The theme of the night seemed to be “opulent degeneracy” because the room was dimly illuminated by a series of chandeliers and candelabras that appeared to be lit by actual flame and there were velvet pillows dotting the walls. Various scantily clad revelers laid across them, making eyes from beneath their detailed masks at those who had yet to join them. Juno had heard something about a chocolate fountain in the next room over. Juno really hoped he didn’t need to go into the next room over for anything.
Juno was pulling the old “stand in the corner and look mysterious until someone comes over and offers to buy you a mansion with an indoor heated pool and a home theater if you’d just be so kind as to put on a six-inch stiletto and step on them” maneuver. He wasn’t a pro at it exactly, which meant he was sulking more than anything else, but there were a lot of very thin strings holding this dress together and he was honestly afraid to move. He kept an eye on the partygoers instead, trying hard not to watch one specific guest who was schmoozing his way through the dancefloor like he hadn’t very recently been crying about his dick to a pair of mildly murderous lesbians. Juno was, in fact, not watching him so hard he failed to notice the person who approached him until they were leaning into his personal space to whisper in his ear.
“Well, hello gorgeous,” the man purred. He was a little closer than he needed to be to be heard—the party was actually pretty muted, as far as Juno imagined these things went. He also had the kind of smirk that Juno loved to see on people who approached him in bars, because bars are the sort of place where you are well within your rights to punch someone in their stupid, smug nose on the basis that their nose was, in fact, both smug and stupid and people accepted that as a valid reason. Whereas if you were to try that in a grocery store you would, hypothetically, be banned from that chain, fined for damage to the produce section, compelled to write a thank you note to the poor sweet cashier who was just trying to get through her shift and not take a root vegetable to the face, and have to scrap your dinner plans because you catastrophically failed to procure onions and garlic for the red sauce. Hence, Juno kept his face-punching of smug assholes to the kinds of bars where the staff wouldn’t call the police if their grandmother was murdered in front of them. The problem with this was that Juno was, at that moment, not in a bar and also had a vague image in his head of the valiant threads that held his garment together exploding off of him if he twisted enough to get a good windup.
Luckily, Juno was there as backup, which meant he didn’t have to try and be sweet to anyone. “Hi,” he replied bluntly.
The man’s smirk, just visible under the dramatic line of his—ugh—peacock feather lined mask, deepened. “Now, now,” he crooned, “I don’t mean to offend, sweet thing. I just want to talk to you.”
“As I am neither sweet nor a thing,” Juno said dryly to cover the way the hair on the back of his neck was standing at attention, “I’m afraid you’re barking up the wrong tree.”
The man laughed. It was the laugh of a man who said things like “the poors.” Juno was going to drag him into the next room and drown him in the chocolate fountain. “Well now, it looks like I caught a live one. What, pray tell, is a pretty little lady like you doing hiding away in the corner?”
“Avoiding people. Unsuccessfully.” Juno tried not to look too desperate as he looked at his immediately surrounds for something that could divert attention from him, like someone slipping on a discarded feather or a grease fire. All he could see were the people congregating on the dance floor, the provocative pillow folk, and the waiters weaving deftly in between groping hands to deliver crystal flutes of champagne and tiny finger foods. The man in the gaudy mask followed his gaze and came to the wrong conclusions.
“I see,” he said, confident and incorrect. “My lady is a bit peckish, is he? Not to worry, Comte de Valencia’s offerings are always good for one’s mood.” Before Juno could correct him, he waved one of the waiters over. The woman approached, her tray laden with what looked to be small, thin circles of some sort of cake topped with a variety of brightly colored glazed fruits. “Now,” the man continued, “everything is delicious, of course, but my recommendation is the strawberry. I find it to be the most… satisfying.” He smiled as he picked up a pink dessert and held it out expectantly to Juno as though to hand feed him. Juno was not a fan of this plan and instead took the little cake out of the man’s hand with a wan smile. He nodded at the waitress as she walked away; the man, who was the worst, ignored her.
“So what might be the name of the ravishing lady before me?” the man asked. Juno shoved the cake into his mouth to avoid having to answer.
This is where the night took a steep downhill turn. In Juno’s defense, some things just come unforeseeable out of left field, and one of those things is people with too much money drugging the hors d'oeuvres.
Juno first realized something was going very, very wrong when the man’s incessant smarm started to become oddly amusing. Enjoyable, even, in a “is he real? Does he think this is working?” sort of way. Actually, this whole party was pretty nice—the people were hot, the music was great, and there was a whole fountain of chocolate tucked away somewhere. He found himself starting to smile at the man speaking to him, who, grinning yet wider, took it as a sign to lean in closer until their faces were inches apart.
“Feeling better now that we’ve eaten something, are we?” he asked in a tone that made warning bells clang in Juno’s head through the pink fog slowly filling it. Juno frowned. Here he was, trying to have fun at a nice party, and this asshole was bringing him down. Didn’t this schmuck know he was a busy lady with things to do? He had a job to do here. A very specific job, given to him by Buddy, to keep an eye out for anything extra suspicious and make sure no one stabbed Nureyev and—wait. Nureyev. Nureyev was at the party. Juno could go find Nureyev. He didn't know what he would do after that just yet but as far as first steps went it was radiationproof.
“I have to go,” Juno said abruptly, cutting his conversational partner off mid-sentence. He turned to walk into the fray, toward where he had last spotted his thief, only to be stopped when a hand wrapped itself around his wrist. Juno’s body reacted slowly, sending him stumbling forward a pace before righting himself, his free arm out to steady himself as the room seemed to spin.
“I’m sorry,” the man said, his smile now clearly superficial and his voice oddly even, “I thought we were having a conversation here. It would be terribly rude for you to just up and abandon me like that.”
Juno looked over his shoulder at the man, frustrated. “I don’t want to put on a six-inch stiletto!” he said loudly.
The man tilted his head, his grip loosening. “What does that have—” he began in a bewildered voice, but Juno was already yanking his arm away and wobbling his way onto the dancefloor. He was on a mission. He had a responsibility to find Nureyev! A responsibility he had given to himself, but a responsibility nonetheless! He moved through the room as though through a dream, everything slowly becoming more and more beautiful and less and less real. Masked faces turned in his direction and hands reached out to him, beckoning him into the fray. It was, in all honesty, tempting to throw himself in and float for a while.
Then he heard it: an unmistakable laugh, as sharp and wonderful as its owner. Juno swiveled so hard he threw himself off balance and had to stabilize himself on a tall woman in a mask dotted with tiny diamonds in constellations. Slurring something he meant to be either thanks or apologies at her, Juno followed the sound of laughter to its source.
Nureyev was talking to two people, both tall and thin in gauzy white garments that seemed almost to float around them. On one hand, Juno knew he should leave Nureyev alone and let him work in peace. On the other, Juno didn’t know where he knew that from but it sounded wrong and fake, and he really, really wanted to touch Nureyev’s hair. He attempted to sidle up to the trio and place his hand smoothly on the small of Nureyev’s back, but his teetering gait saw him stumbling into Nureyev’s side instead.
“Oops,” he said with a laugh, stepping back and righting his mask.
“Oh!” Nureyev exclaimed, performative shock transforming him into a picture of concern. “My dear lady, are you alright?”
“No!” Juno said cheerfully. “I think there’s something in the tarts.”
“Oooh, yeah,” one of Nureyev’s new companions said. “The little fruit ones? Don’t eat too many, they’ll fuck you up.”
“They tell you on the invitation, but I mean, who actually reads the invitation,” the other one chimed in.
“It’s not dangerous, is it?” Nureyev said fretfully.
“Not if you don’t eat too many!” chirped one.
“Yeah, they’re in pretty small doses if you’re just eating ‘em one at a time. You’re just gonna be really dizzy and really tired,” the other one added. “The drugs here are the worst, next time you’re better off bringing your own.”
“And I shall certainly keep that in mind! However, I think I should escort the lady somewhere quiet to rest for now.” Peter gave a small bow to his conversational partners. They giggled.
“Have fun!” they chorused before turning and melding back into the crowd.
“They were nice,” Juno commented.
“Not really. They’re warlords,” Peter said, placing a hand on the small of Juno’s back and deftly maneuvering the two of them through the dance hall. “I was hoping this was a clever ruse to get me away from them.”
“Hm. Seem enraptured in whatever I’m saying.” Peter reached up and, with a motion any bystander would have taken as him adjusting his mask, turned his comm on. “I found a lovely lady in a state of disarray and I’ll be taking him back to the ship until he sobers up. Yes. Accident, I think. Thank you, darling, tell him to keep a lookout for us.”
“How dead is Buddy going to kill me?” Juno asked.
Peter paused, then looked sidelong at him. “She says she’ll tell you once we’re back on the ship.”
Juno made a contented noise and followed Peter out into the crisp night air. “Sorry about pulling you away. You were having fun.”
“At that silly little party? Please. The warlords were right, the narcotic offerings were terrible and the chocolate fountain ran out after about an hour.”
“But you looked happy,” Juno insisted. “I like seeing you be happy.”
“I didn’t think memory loss was a side effect of whatever you took, darling,” Peter said, bitterness harshening his tone.
Something in the pit of Juno’s stomach turned sour and he slid out of Nureyev’s grasp. The thief walked on another pace and then stopped when he realized he wasn't being followed but didn't turn around.
"Nureyev…" he began softly.
"Oh, don't worry, Juno. I imagine Jet has more experience with the inebriated than most have with brushing their teeth. He'll get you patched up." Nureyev said, still smiling and still fake.
"Nureyev," Juno said again, a bit more firmly this time.
"I can't promise that Buddy won't give you an earful, though," the thief said, soldiering on. "That's the real danger of the piratical lifestyle: disgruntled coworkers."
"Peter, I'm sorry," Juno blurted.
Peter stopped. Juno stopped. The whole damn universe stopped.
Juno swallowed hard and kept going. “I… I was afraid that if I was happy—like really, no-strings-attached happy, without Ben it would be like I was just forgetting about him and how bad I failed him. And I was afraid that after you’d had a good look at what I’m actually like outside of, y’know, a string of omnicidal hijinks you’d realize you made a mistake and that you’d start to hate me as much as I hated me. So I made a mistake instead, and that wasn’t… Peter, that wasn’t fair to you. And I’m sorry .”
Peter didn’t turn around and Juno stared at the rigid, silent line of his back.
“I just—” Juno’s voice broke he pressed his lips together, hard, until he could speak again. “I just didn’t want you to think it was you, or that I didn’t still feel… foolish about you. I just fucked up.”
Finally, slowly, Peter turned to face him. The light was dim and Juno’s vision was still blurry, but they were close enough for Juno to be able to look into the dark pools of his eyes, the only part of his face unobscured by the mask. He could see cracks forming in Peter’s facade, but he couldn't tell what was underneath it yet.
“Just how intoxicated are you?” Peter asked with what Juno suspected was forced levity.
“There’s three of you right now,” Juno admitted.
Peter gave a sharp bark of laughter, like the crack of a whip. “Ah! My condolences, then.”
“Nope, it’s basically my ideal scenario,” Juno said reassuringly. A tremor ran through Peter’s expression like a ripple, leaving another crack in his feigned apathy.
“Well, I think it’s high time we get you back to the ship and away from the security cameras in the gardens,” Peter said, stepping around to Juno’s side and gingerly setting one hand on his shoulder. “Shall we?”
The trip back to the ship was long, due mostly to Juno tripper over his feet the whole time, and without conversation. Juno found it was harder and harder to keep his eyes open on the trek back and he had to fight to keep himself from toppling into Peter. By the end of it, Juno was tucked under Peter’s arm as the thief half-carried him back home. It wasn’t until they were standing outside the airlock, Peter shifting so that Juno was leaning against the metal of the ship while they waited for Jet to let them in, that Peter spoke.
“Would it have changed anything at all,” he said, so quiet that Juno almost missed it, “if I had been strong enough to stop Miasma from hurting you?”
“I never blamed you for that,” Juno said, concentrating on getting the words out. “That wasn’t your fault.”
“Humor me,” Peter said with a wan smile. “Would it have changed anything?”
“No. Not for me.”
Peter looked away, out into the glittering starscape, and opened his perfect mouth to say something else. Which, of course, was when the airlock hissed open and Jet peered out.
“Juno. I have been informed that you aren’t well at the moment,” he said.
“Something like that,” Juno replied as his knees finally decided to give up the ghost and he pitched forward, Jet darting forward to catch him. “Hey, big guy, would you mind helping a lady to his room? I think I wanna lay down.”
Juno ended up riding out the rest of his high in Vespa’s greenhouse because it was closer to the airlock and that way he had someone to make sure he didn’t have a massive allergic reaction. It was a decently sized room—about the size of Juno’s berth, which made sense. Vespa and Buddy bunking together had opened up one of the residential rooms and Buddy had filled it with imported fertilizer and seeds and trimmings and handed it over to Vespa in the hopes that it would make her long-lost lover feel more at ease. Vespa had apparently immediately overhauled the entire space, materials included, once it was in her possession; Buddy, it would seem, had more good intent than botanical prowess. Nonetheless, the area was now teeming with hanging vines and vibrant blooms. It was sweet, if you ignored how many of them Vespa turned into poisons that could kill a grown rabbit in a nanosecond.
After he and Vespa had started their mutual appreciation of long periods of silence interspersed with the occasional insult, Juno had begun to spend time in the greenhouse when he needed to think. The kitchen was no-man’s-land and personal rooms could be raided, but Vespa’s conservatory was strictly by invitation only, which, at the moment, only Buddy and Juno seemed to have full-time. Deviation was seen as agreeing to allow her to test her products on you. It was nice. Juno could close his eyes and sit in silence, breathing in the new and unfamiliar scents of the greenery around him.
Unless, of course, he was blitzed on nefarious Illetian strawberries. Then, apparently, he just kind of sat halfway under one table, a bag of potting soil poking between his shoulder blades, watching Vespa muse over a branch covered in shaggy blue-green-grey quills.
“I picked this up from an Old Earth trader,” Vespa said into the silence. “Well. I had Nureyev pick it up so he could use his ‘discount.’ Either way. It made me think of you.”
“Izzat your next project?” Juno asked blearily and very much beginning a departure from coherence.
Vespa snorted. “They get way too tall to keep on a ship. Trees, you know? Maybe one day we can steal a Marjeeran blood diamond and pay for the expansion.”
“Mmm,” Juno agreed. “What’s it called?”
“Juniper,” Vespa answered. “‘s why I thought of you. Names ‘n’ all.”
Juno nodded. This, through the pink haze that fogged his mind, made perfect sense. “I’m Juniper.”
“Yeah, kid,” Vespa said with a laugh. “You’re evergreen.”
Juno had every inclination to ask what that was supposed to mean, and also to remind Vespa he was a lady securing his place in middle-aged-ness, but biology worked against intent and he found his eyes drifting shut. He could hear the buzz and hum of the ship running and the spray of Vespa’s mister and feel the warm, scratchy material of the blanket. He was more a collection of sensations than a body. It could have been minutes or hours that he spent in this haze, feeling like if he leaned too far back he would melt into the metal of the ship and become part of it. Maybe he could take over the ship, rogue-AI-style. He could act as their piloting system. That way they’d never go to Illios IX again. He could work with that.
The buzz steadily pushed all thoughts out of his head as he felt himself approaching sleep. Somehow, he relaxed even further, prepared to face Vespa’s potential ire over having to step over his slumbering form as soon as he woke up. Surely she would understand, though. After all, they were friends. She brought him a weird tree branch and said it reminded her of him. He wore booty shorts that one time. What was all of this if not friendship? Also, he had a pretty solid excuse for falling asleep. Satisfied with this ironclad logic, Juno let himself drift further into unconsciousness. He was almost gone when he felt, so lightly that he could have been hallucinating it, the pressure of a hand gently cupping his face and a thumb tracing over the swell of his cheekbone.
“So,” a voice said, softly breaking the circle of white noise. “That’s why you wanted it.” The hand moves away.
“Yup,” Vespa agreed, popping the p. “Name reminds me of him. Actual tree reminds me of you, though.”
“Oh?” the voice said distantly as a layer of warmth enveloped Juno, the smell of detergent and scratchy feeling of fuzz from the blanket barely registering.
Vespa snorted. “Oh yeah. Super sappy.”
There was another pause. “How interesting,” the voice said frostily, sounding farther away. “I should get back to my duties.”
Juno could just barely hear Vespa snickering over the sound of the doors sliding open and then closed again.
At some point, before Juno was entirely sober but after he had come out of the haze enough to realize sleeping under a table was going to be actual murder on his back, he moved, with assistance, to his room to change clothes and get some actual sleep. There he faded in and out of consciousness, aware of it only because of the dramatic leaps in the time described by the clock on his bedside table. The first time he woke up after most of whatever he had taken had worn off, he had been out for a little under seven hours and felt like death. His head had a sharp throbbing focused on his temples and his mouth tasted like he had been eating sand, if sand could go bad. Groaning, he pushed himself up to a sitting position and saw, to his utmost hungover delight, two small white pills, water, and a protein bar. He readily downed the pills and the water before tucking himself back into bed and sleeping for another five hours.
When he woke up again, rounding on dinner time, he felt almost completely back to normal. He got up, brushed his teeth, took a quick bath, and went in search of clean clothes. It was almost a good morning for him until he grabbed the protein bar off his nightstand and saw that a note had been folded and set under it.
Find me when you’re awake. We need to talk.
There wasn’t a signature, but Juno didn’t need one. Even if he hadn’t recognized the handwriting and the faint hints of cologne clinging to the paper, well. Who else was it going to be. Juno ate quickly before pulling on actual clothing and making his way up the hallway to where Peter’s room sat, the door unlocked.
Peter was sitting at his desk, idly flipping through a book. “I can’t keep doing this,” he said, not looking up.
“I know,” Juno said, closing the door behind him.
“I’m tired of it. I’m tired of resenting you. I’m tired of being jealous when there’s no relationship to be so possessive of. It’s making me miserable.”
Peter finally looked up. Juno had seen Peter go through a lot—being arrested, being tortured, Rita explaining her concept for a new wererabbit romance serial—but he didn’t think he’d ever seen him look this tired. It didn’t suit him.
“I don’t know how to fix this,” Peter said, sounding resigned.
“Yeah. Me either,” Juno answered as he stuffed his hands into his pocket. “I mean, the way I see it, there’s three options. The first one is to get over all of this fast, and I. I don’t think I can do that. The second is we decide which one of us leaves the next time we dock. And the third...” Juno swallowed. He felt shy in a way he hadn’t in years.
“The third option is that we try again,” Peter said.
“I mean… yeah. I know it sounds selfish coming from me, but I don’t want to leave, and I feel like the cat’s pretty firmly out of the bag about me not being over you. So yeah. Option three is we try again.”
Peter looked at him for a long moment. “Ben was your brother’s name, correct?”
It was a sharp turn Juno hadn’t been expecting the conversation to take, and the mention of Ben left him winded for a moment. “Yeah. Ben. Benzaiten. I don’t understand what he has to do with the conversation.”
Peter’s gaze slid to the wall opposite the desk as though and remained there. “I didn't know that. I knew you had a brother, but I couldn’t have said anything about him even though it’s obvious how much you loved him. I know, vaguely, how he died, but not when or even by what means. I don’t know what he did for a living.”
“Peter.” Juno’s voice broke, and he started again. “Peter, if you’re mad I didn’t tell you about Ben—”
“I’m not angry. It’s just that when you explained your reasoning for leaving to me, I had a split second where I didn’t know who this Ben person you were speaking of was, and I realized how rash I was to ask you to run away with me. I was so convinced that I knew you through your actions, through watching you deduce clues and commit rash acts of self-sacrifice, that it barely occurred to me that there were decades more to you that I had yet to touch. I tend to be… shallow, in that respect, Juno. My identities have pasts, but nothing specific. It’s easier to fill in the details as you go along, you see? And the one act that was truly Peter Nureyev is not something I would choose to carry with me. It made it easy to overlook how intertwined you are with your history. I have realized that I know many things about you, Juno Steel, and I have realized how much more I have to learn.”
“Say what you’re saying, Peter, because I’m lost,” Juno said, emotions swirling and melding into a buzzing hum of anticipation.
Peter looked back to Juno, eyes soft. “I want to try again. And I want to learn the things about you I thought were background details when we met. I want to tell you that you hurt me, and I want you to understand, and then I want to make up, because I am so incredibly tired of missing you when you live two doors down from me.” He stood, walking over to cup Juno’s face in his hands. “I suppose all I want is to be a happy fool again.”
Juno found himself in the novel position of being entirely unable to stop smiling. “If I say that makes two of us, is it going to be unbearably self-referential?”
“Yes,” Peter said, the corner of his lips curving up. “The good news is I was previously aware that you’re unbearably self-referential and I’m giving you a second chance anyways, with the one stipulation that I would prefer not to wake up alone again.”
“I mean, I can’t promise I’m not going to get up to take a leak, but I’m not going to hop out the airlock if that’s what you’re worried about,” Juno said, grabbing the front of Peter’s shirt. “Now get down here.”.
Peter laughed and bent down to press a kiss to Juno’s lips. “You know what? I’ll take it.”
It was 0300 and change, according to the ship’s internal timekeeper, and Juno was staring up at the plain, shadowed ceiling of his bunk. He needed to get up because he was covered in a thin layer of rapidly cooling sweat, but the activities that had produced the sweat had also left him weak-kneed and lethargic. So he stayed laying on top of the thin mattress, pressed awkwardly into the wall in an effort to give the man next to him more room. Their breathing started to steady back out as the heat from their inevitable collision dissipated into the cool, recycled air, leaving only the spark that had been lighting Juno from the inside out ever since the day on Hyperion a man with a thousand names walked into his office. He turned his head to look at the profile of the man next to him, all elegant sweeping lines and sharp angles, until the man next to him felt the stare and moved so he could look back. Juno stared into those eyes, dark as a secret, for a long moment until the words jumbling around inside his stomach put together what they wanted to be. The only thing that came out was a soft “hey.”
“Hey,” Peter said back.
“That was… that was nice,” Juno said.
“It was,” Peter said with a small smile. “Now what?”
“I don’t know,” Juno replied honestly. “What do you want?”
“Would it be cruel to say I want to go to sleep in anticipation of waking up together?” Peter asked, tilting his head as much as his position would allow.
“No, that. That sounds perfect,” Juno said. “...we should definitely rinse off first, though.”
“Oh, of course. Perhaps a change of sheets as well.” Peter rolled onto his back, arching his spine until Juno heard something pop. “Well, as those darling little Earthlings used to say: vidi, vici, veni .”
It took Juno a moment to place what was wrong with the phrase—he was no Earth historian—but as soon as he did, he groaned and smacked Peter gently in the stomach. “That’s awful. You’re awful.”
“Then I must be very lucky for you to love me anyway,” Peter said lightly, looking up at the ceiling.
“Actually,” Juno said, slinging an arm around Peter’s waist and pulling propping his chin up on his shoulder, “I have it on good authority that it’s skill, not luck.”
Peter’s smile, slow and wide like a sunrise, was probably the best thing Juno had seen in at least a decade. “Well, now. Let’s chalk it up to a little of each, shall we?”
The honeymoon period lasted until Juno let it slip that they were back together while the team was casing a museum and Rita’s screech blew out an entire set of comms.