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Shake the Dust

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This is how it happens.

Across the road, there is a man in three shades of silk who calls himself Arch Price. Juno is pretending not to watch, and the man who calls himself Arch Price is pretending not to notice.

The road is a piece of garbage. It is a recycled work of art, comprised of literal garbage, but it isn’t half bad. Which pretty much sums up Neptune.

It is a nice day on Il Verrier. Every day of the year — all 60,000 of them — is a nice day on Il Verrier because it is a violation of bylaw and subject to exorbitant fines to say it is anything less. Juno thumbed the waiver, and several thousand like it, not more than an hour ago coming into port. The name he signed was Lars C. Nous.

“Mediocre weather we’re having, huh,” he says, to no one in particular.

He is sweating in the mediocre weather, and so is his glass of mediocre whisky. It’s a glass half full kind of day.

“Juno, dear,” says Buddy on the comms, “that kind of talk isn’t cheap.”

It’s one of the more polite ways he’s been told to shut up. Because he’s never been particularly good at it, he says, “Hey, in for a penny, in for an impound.”

They’re at a charity event, after all. People rubbing elbows from one end of the street to the other, plates and plates of decadent fiscal misconduct, and truly god-awful punch. The least he can do is be charitable with the truth. The weather is nearly the only subject he can be truthful about, anyway.

What follows is a litany of incoherence as several people talk across the comms at once, one of whom is very likely telling him exactly where he can expect to receive a pound. A brief screech of feedback ensues. The man in silk, who has by now attracted several conversational partners and is engaged in the masterful performance of looking interested, throws Juno the briefest of glances.

Juno considers that a win in his book.

Nureyev is in good form today. Juno can’t help but notice how good of form. With nothing more than a sharp smile and a sharper suit cape, he is weaving a web across the pavilion. The touch of an elbow here, the wink of an eye there. The guests are flies to his honey. All except the barflies, that is. Nureyev’s got the lion’s share of the work today, and from where Juno’s sitting, watching Nureyev lean into that work with all six lean feet of him, he’s not inclined to be especially put out about that.

On the tips of their toes, someone in an overloaded hat is speaking into Nureyev’s — Arch Price’s — ear. It must be a funny joke, because he tilts his head back and laughs deep from his chest. Juno catches a few notes of it. It sounds nothing like him.

It’s weird, he thinks. Give Nureyev half a minute and he’ll have half the solar system eating from the palm of his hand. Give Juno that same half-minute and there’s liable to be laser-fire involved. He’s not sure which is worse. But who’s counting, right?

Not Juno. He hasn’t the first idea how long he’s been sitting here, these past forty-six and a half minutes exactly, under something that’s trying its level best to be a tree. He’s developed a small affinity for it, these past forty-seven minutes and nine seconds exactly, because they’ve got one thing in common: Trying to be something they aren’t at this dumb pharmaceutical circle-jerk of a party.

For all that he’s managed, for once, to be discreet, Juno’s attracting his fair share of conversationalists just by virtue of perceptibly having ears. Having a mouth, apparently, is not an essential qualification. It’s just as well.

Arch Price swans to the bar, and Juno snaps to attention. Nureyev hasn’t so much as looked at the past seven drinks handed him, but they’ve all managed to disappear. This time he orders his own. It’s a swirl of vibrant smoke curling over the edge of his snifter, something called a carburetor cloud. A Neptune exclusive. Speaking from experience, the fumes alone are enough to fell a man twice Jet’s size. Needless to say, Nureyev wouldn’t last the second sip.

He doesn’t sip, of course, because it’s Juno’s cue. Juno sits up, considers the wisdom of tossing back his tumbler, and decides against it.

Into his comms, he says, “About damn time.”

In fact, time to do what he does best. Which, last he checked, probably rules out Nureyev.

This part of a job is his favorite. He gets to improvise. The best part is that no one knows what Juno will do—least of all Juno.

But he’s been giving it some thought, this time. What he plans to do involves rightfully tipping over that hat dipping into Nureyev’s space and then deposing of it in the fountain. What actually happens, however, is this:

Juno stands. This is his first error.

Then, in quick succession: Juno backs his chair into several people in several directions. Juno tries to face each of those directions collectively. Juno backs up over his dress. Juno falls ass over teakettle. Juno trips headfirst into the fountain, stumbling through the pieces of five separate apologies all the while.

It’s a wine fountain, and it isn’t shallow in the slightest sense of the word. Marscadine doesn’t taste half as good when inhaled through the nose — and Marscadine does not taste good, even before import through the vacuum of space.

Juno surfaces with all the grace of a giant sandray, attempting simultaneously to gulp air and expel mid-shelf wine. He’s making a lot of noises one does not make at polite parties. His comms, because it is not waterproof, or maybe because the Marscadine is just that bad, shorts out and goes dead to the tune of a buzzblade in his ear. He responds accordingly, by yelling incoherently at the top of his lungs. The general effect of all this is as if he’d made a point to collectively insult the presidential line of Neptune three generations back.

And there it is. In half a minute, he commands the attention of the entire block. At least no one’s firing a blaster at him. He’s not going to stick around for that to change.

Who says he doesn’t know how to work a room?

He spits, sputters, and splashes his way to the lip of the fountain, rolls and tumbles over in a puddle, shakes himself off, and takes a flourishing bow. No one claps.

Juno does not make a dignified exit, but he does, at least, make a worthy distraction. Nureyev is long gone. Incidentally, so is a certain high-priority schematic. An unfortunate malfunction: The comms unit just so happened to fall victim to the highly corrosive substance known as a carburetor cloud.

It’s a short walk to the rendezvous. Nureyev isn’t here yet—he’ll be pulling around the car. Juno sits on the curb and attempts to wring out his dress, with little success. There’s probably still enough wine weighing it down, he thinks, to get a lady drunk. A very desperate lady. He’s picked up a layer of dirt to go with his fresh layer of bruises.

Shame about the dress. He liked it. That is, Nureyev liked it. He thinks. Hard to say, really. But in the docking bay this morning those keen eyes had raked him up and down, and then up again. That, he liked.

He’s cold, now. He feels wet to the bone. Drops of sticky wine tickle and itch their way down his back, down his chest, and stick in his joints. His eye patch is suctioned to his face, and streaming. He wishes he’d downed that whisky after all.

Such is the spectacle of Juno Steel when the car slips up to the curb: faintly pink head to toe, shivering out of his skin, inaugurating the walkway with a small lake, and making every attempt to expectorate his lungs from his throat.

The first thing he sees is Nureyev’s cape as he steps out and circles the car, shelling his shoulders in summer silk and sloping out behind him like a sunrise. Then a pair of clever heels that clip right up to his, and stop.

He looks up. Nureyev says nothing, only looks down his nose the way one might look down at a minor inconvenience, like a bump in the road, or an idiot wearing two bottles of wine for a dress. There’s the barest muscle movement at the corner of his mouth. All in all, he keeps an impressively straight face.

Juno, who has it on fairly good authority there isn’t a straight bone attached anywhere to said face, tries to return the look. He’s pretty sure looking half-drowned dampens the effect somewhat.

Without breaking eye contact, Nureyev produces a napkin and offers it silently.

In that moment, Juno thinks of a million things he could say. Something like, ‘Turns out I’m great at heists, I just had to get my feet wet.’ Or, ‘The invite said business causal, and this is just business as usual.’ Or, ‘To be fair, people do tell me I drink like a fish.’ Or, worst yet, ‘Hey, I’m not sure if you’re aware of this, but I’m pretty sure the sun rises and sets on your shoulders right now and you look very, very hot.’

Instead, he settles for grabbing the napkin and blowing his running nose into it. If there was any hope for dignity before this point, it’s definitely stormed out and slammed the door behind it by now. He wipes his face on the edges, uselessly pats down his dress, and makes a half-hearted, joking attempt to offer it back.

Nureyev physically sidesteps the offer. Blankly, he says, “Are you quite all right?”

This surprises Juno for a number of reasons. First because it’s sort of a stupid question, and if there’s one thing he’s sure of it’s that Nureyev does not ask, and has not ever asked, stupid questions. Second because the question of whether he’s all right is not one he gets very often, though not for lack of being far from it, and, now that you mention it, he’s not sure anymore if he is, or if he ever has been, actually, and he’s very cold and he just made a fool of himself and he’d like to go home, but he’s not too sure where home is right now, and he doesn’t think Nureyev wants to hear any of this because he’s not even remotely sure where they stand anymore, and that’s the worst part of all, thanks for asking.

And, lastly, because over the welling in his chest and that very small, internal sound of the crack widening in his heart, he thinks maybe it wasn’t such a stupid question after all.

He thinks all of this in the space of a second, sucks in a deep breath, and then says, “Complicated question. I prefer not to think about it.”

That awards him with what might theoretically be a frown. Then Nureyev sighs like it can’t be helped, unfastens the clasp of his cape, and settles it neatly over Juno’s shoulders. Just like that. Juno feels the feather touch of slender fingers against his throat, re-fastening, and swallows.

The silk is warm from the heat of Nureyev’s body, soft as melting. On it is the smoky, acid-sweet smell of Neptune’s most dangerous drink, and that same patent perfume Nureyev’s been wearing since Juno so eloquently brought up eating it. Probably not one of his finer moments, but hey, a lady can’t be held to what he says under the influence of excessive blood loss.

He flounders to his feet like he’s been handed a lifejacket and follows Nureyev into the car. He thinks, just maybe, he might follow this man anywhere.

He’s still hugging the cape all the way back to the ship.

From there, it’s a warm shower, a lukewarm debrief, half a cold vulturkey and cheese sandwich labeled "For Mistah Steel, no thiefs, I ain’t assuming nothing, but I will know because there’s a camera, Mistah Steel don’t eat the camera, with love, love Rita, oh no I’m running out of room, have a great day", a colder second shower, and nine hours to Mars.

What’s on Mars, aside from a whole lot of desolation and a whole lot of desert outside of that, is a ten-year ghost that’s about to receive a rude awakening. Juno is pretty done, by this point, with the kinds of ghosts that haunt Martian soil — but this isn’t his proverbial ghost-nut to crack.

Ten years ago, a lone Saturnian scientist took it upon himself to play around in an ancient Martian sandbox, in the vain hope he could reprise the role of this small little thing of no real consequence called the Curemother. Which, as it turns out — who knew? — is a very big deal, if you happen to go in for subverting the implementation of privatized pharmaceutical care. A monstrous deal, in fact: The Saturnian scientist in question vanished off the face of the planet, leaving his research to gather red dust, put down officially to an unfortunate peeper incident.

Juno Steel, private eye, purveyor of a number of allegedly functioning brain cells, doesn’t believe a word of that.

That much, at least, is public record. What isn’t public record is that the research isn’t buried in administrative incompetence, as generally happens to anything that might catch a galactic government with its pants down, but buried in an undisclosed location on a private estate belonging to the renowned black-market mogul, Mx. Amaranth Vidalia Arcanis Mara-Avalon-Chadwick, better known as Mx. Mac, practically on the back lawn of Mars’ favorite armpit, Hyperion. Not that Mars has lawns.

Juno’s really hoping he doesn’t have to seal himself in an ancient burial chamber this time. It’s a Grim reminder.

Now, courtesy of a certain stolen schematic, the only thing particularly private about when and where this research is about to change hands is Juno Steel, private eye.

He’s not sure if his second solo heist with Nureyev in as many days is strictly fortunate or unfortunate, but he’s fairly sure it has nothing to do with providence and everything to do with Buddy Aurinko, who’s honestly a stronger force in his life than providence ever was.

Because it simply wouldn’t be fair otherwise, there’s a downside to all this. The business transaction they’re set to bust is going to take place during the most comprehensively unpleasant natural disaster of this calendar year, which all present-day Martians know and despise: The lightly radioactive sandstorm. This is no accident. To the enterprising criminal mind, which is common as dust on Mars these days, a total network and radio-communications blackout is not a curse, but a blessing. Juno’s been on both sides of that street, more than once.

Which, incidentally, means that for the full duration of the next two-to-two hundred hours they will be transportationally grounded, technologically blindfolded, and communicatively divided. And extraordinarily dead-ed, if anything goes wrong.

He makes a special point of not thinking about this as the Mac estate looms into view. Behind it looms the backdrop of hundreds of kilotons of airborne dust, roiling with strands of static. Nureyev is driving. Juno’s not sure whether that’s a comfort or a concern. But when Nureyev took the wheel, and the world largely failed to come down in hot pursuit, Juno eventually stopped throttling the edges of his seat.

Outside, desert is blowing past in monotone motion. The Mac estate is dipping in and out of view over the dunes, waving at them from a distance. The vent rattles in time to this idle up and down, chilling his arm where it rests on the sill. The satnav chirps along. Plumes of dust whirl on the horizon, desert dancers, and the sunlight filtering through them ripples on his skin. Waveform dunes rise and fall. Rise and fall.

The view isn’t new, but it feels fresh. It feels like coming home and finding everything exactly as he left it—everything, that is, except him. Like excavating the remains of a distant life that had once been his.

The air is white noise against the windowpanes, and the engine hums a metronome promise, and Nureyev is gentle on the turns. It’s comfortable, because it feels like trust. Nureyev can be the eyes, and Juno can be the passenger. Just that little bit of give and take is a quilt on a cold night.

Juno knows it’s a poor substitute for the real thing. He knows it will end as soon as the engine cuts, and they open the doors and let in the world.

But for now they are a world to themselves. For now, they are between all things.

He rests his temple on the cool glass, frost collecting on its perimeter, and lets out a long breath. “I gotta say, I really…” His voice is loose. He shakes off the edge of sleep. Starts over. “I really didn’t expect to see this dumb red rock again so soon.”

Then Nureyev’s eyes cut across to him from the windscreen, and before he even speaks Juno understands he’s made a fatal miscalculation. One sharp glance, and the bubble bursts brutally. There is nothing safe about the way Nureyev says, “Fond memories, detective?”

Juno, all guards down, flinches.

He’s not sure if it’s a flirt, an invitation to flirt, or a complete indifference to the very idea of a flirt. Or an insult. Or — and this is the real mind boggler — all four. After a moment grappling with his tongue, locked to the roof of his mouth, he manages to say, “Well…um. I—yeah. You know. Some of them.”

Then, because the more he recovers from that blow the more he feels pissed, he adds, “What about you, huh? Anything worth mentioning?”

It takes more than that to ruffle Nureyev. “Oh, me? Well. Yes, a great deal.”

He doesn’t elaborate on that. It’s maddening, but it’s also not as cruel as it could have been. Juno might call it a small victory, but he’s having trouble distinguishing where the battle lines are drawn.

He subsides into the upholstery. He thinks about apologizing. He’s not sure what else there is to say.

He already apologized, for whatever it’s worth. Not much, apparently. It went about as well as could be expected: He cracked himself open like a safe, poured out his heart, the good bits and the bad bits and the scared-out-of-his-mind bits all riding the same watery wave out of his mouth, and Nureyev, looking like he’d only been listening with half an ear, said only, “Thank you, Juno. I’m so glad we could have this talk,” even though they absolutely had no such thing, and graciously showed him the door. And that was that.

Juno’s still reeling, struggling for purchase, and Nureyev’s not giving him any ground. It’s not a mask, exactly. It’s a nothing, a blank, a static space where a person should be.

Even a fight would have been better than this, he thinks. At least that would have gotten them somewhere.

They say you can kill with kindness. He thinks there’s some truth to that. It never occurred to him before now that simple politeness would be the thing to break his heart.

He wonders, hypothetically, just for the hell of it, what Nureyev would do were he to, say, throw himself out of a moving vehicle.

The part of him that considers sustaining internal injury marginally more life threatening than demonstrating his feelings, the part he’s been working on, has a slightly more helpful suggestion. Because yes, he’s confined in the car with Nureyev, but counterpoint: Nureyev is confined in the car with him.

In consideration of this, he sits up a bit straighter. “Hey...uh. Nureyev?”

“Yes, Juno?” His face is the equivalent of a ‘closed for business’ sign.

“Do you…are we…” He clears his throat. “I mean, what are we doing?”

“Ah. Well. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but we’re travelling in a car. You see—”

“What? No. Ugh. Okay, look. What,” he gestures between them, spelling it out back and forth, “are we doing?”

Nureyev’s not going to make this easy. “I’m afraid I have no hope of following your imprecise figures of speech. Perhaps if you drew me a picture?”

Uuuuugh,” says Juno, with conviction.

“My goodness, Juno, you have such a command of language.”

For a moment, he just stares. “Okay. All right. You know what? Forget it.”

He emphasizes this proclamation by slouching into his coat and swinging his feet onto the console, specifically and especially to provoke. He’d as soon not stir a hornet’s nest, but by this point he’s willing to take anything he can get, so long as Nureyev just reacts.

Nureyev’s eyes don’t leave the horizon. “What is there to forget?”

Well, now that’s just being deliberately rude.

Juno’s anger is the ember-puff of a log fed to a fire. It rises flush into his face. For a moment it’s all he can do to breathe, because he doesn’t want what comes out of his mouth to be the hurt. “That forgettable, huh?”

Nureyev’s shoulders sink a fraction. The rings on his fingers tick against the wheel. He sighs. “No,” he says, very quietly, “You aren’t that.” For a flicker of a second, he’s a person, softening and solidifying into someone real. Someone who looks very, incredibly tired. “I…you’re right, that was unkind of me. Forgive me. I need to think.”

“What, about your taxes?”

“That would be simpler, wouldn’t it? Please. I’d appreciate it if you’d do me this courtesy, at least.”

“I…yeah. Okay.” Juno unfolds himself and breathes. He feels winded. He scrubs his hands over his face, nods, and then says with certainty, “Okay. Whatever you need. Whenever you’re ready.”

Nureyev blinks. For Nureyev, it’s a near thing to visibly gaping. “Oh. Thank you.”

“Don’t mention it.”

By the time the land flattens out in the long stretch to the estate, he feels better. By the time they reach the outer gate, he feels ready.

The Mac estate is an estate in the same way that Hoosegow is a prison, and it’s the same way a hole in the head just so happens to be a problem. The estate opens up before them like an infected sore on the Martian desert. It’s in a dome all to itself, occupying the space of a small city and blooming a refractive, solar orange.

He gives Nureyev a speculative look. “Hey, you know what’s cool about a place this huge?”

“I presume you’re about to inform me.”

“It’s that Mac can finally fit all their crimes against humanity in one place,” he informs.

“Hmm. I suppose. They do own a vacation home on Phobos.”

“Yeah,” he says dryly, “but everyone knows crime doesn’t count on vacation.”

Nureyev acknowledges this with a breath through his nose. “In that case, Mx. Mac may have taken themself a permanent vacation.”

“They damn well better after today.” The way he says it, it’s a threat.

“I’d advise you,” Nureyev says carefully, “to remember why we are here. Our priority concerns the Curemother. Nothing more.”

“Yeah, sure, big picture, greater good. I get it, I…just. I just think—I was thinking—”

“Always a perilous exercise.”

“Dammit, Nureyev, do you know how much pointless suffering we could prevent—right here, right now? We wouldn’t even need to do it ourselves. Just…turn them in. Set them up. Book a stay at Hoosegow. Something.”

“Organized crime will not simply disappear because you remove one of its hydra heads. The cream will rise to the top, you’re aware.”

“I mean, yeah, of course, but—”

“I do not mean to imply the logical conclusion is resignation.”

“Pick your fights, is that what you’re saying?”

“Indeed. And failing that” — here, he produces a transmitter from one of an unprecedented number of pockets — “the locks.”

The gate slides open like it’s been waiting all its life for Nureyev to give it a signal. They glide into the airlock, and wait.

Juno, after an obligatory moment to appreciate this, resumes. “Look, I don’t see how I can just turn a blind eye. I mean, figuratively. Literally, I think I’ve got that covered. The turning part. Well, and the eye part. And—and what the hell is that thing you’re using?”

“Oh, this? It’s my universal remote. I don’t dare leave the house without it; it does really open the door for profit.” The second gate at the end of the airlock is delighted to provide a demonstration of this. “As to your first point…the world is rife with injustice. That is not a fact you are likely to change. It is also not all-or-nothing. One good deed at a time, Juno. That is enough.”

“Oh, right, a universal remote. That sounds like a conclusively legitimate object that definitely isn’t made up that I don’t feel like asking clarifying questions about and that we’ll never mention again.” He shrugs. “Anyway, sure, I can’t right all the world’s wrongs at once, that tracks. But if I have a chance to do something, and I don’t take it, what does that make me?”

Nureyev tilts his head. “Human.”

“That’s…maybe. Maybe you’re right. I don’t know. But I still don’t feel good about—”

“Juno, you are the most exhaustively moralizing person I know.” Extensively, he sighs. “…And…possibly the most admirable person I’ve ever met.”

“I—you—that…is that a compliment?”

“It is.” There’s a twitch at the corners of his lips like he’s not sure whether to smile or frown. Fondly, he adds, “It is very frustrating.”

“Uh. Sorry? Thanks? I—I feel like I’m getting mixed signals, here.”

“Allow me to clarify. I’m sorry. Thank you.”

Juno pauses. “Yeah, no, that really didn’t clear anything up.”

They approach from the front entrance.

Security is a non-issue for two reasons: One, because there’s an angry sand front moving in, and Two, because today they are Constance and Viola, black-market buyers, here to receive a special shipment of research on the ancient herbal remedy for corporate industry; take once daily to relieve plutocracy.

The real Constance and Viola, for whom this transaction was set, would follow the address provided to them and find themselves located at the bottom of a crater on Ganymede.

And so, on they drive.

It’s probably not the desired effect, but the estate’s main drive does not actively encourage approaching the main property. It’s long, laborious, and littered with something that might, with enough visual repression, be considered art.

Past a certain point, exterior home decoration becomes exterior home desecration. Juno’s pretty sure the Mac estate passed that point half an acre of hammering headache ago.

He doesn’t think an auxiliary eye would help matters, but an auxiliary eye patch might.

Juno’s not an expert on what defines the essential nature of art, but here are a list of things he’s reasonably sure it’s not: a swimming pool filled with maximum-strength glue; several thousand empty bottles that had previously contained maximum-strength glue; the rotting remains of sixteen roasted game fowl; and a gaping crater in the ground the size of a star hauler.

By the time they’re standing at the front door, he’s fairly certain they’re about to be shot dead on general principle.

Nureyev buzzes the door a second time. Nothing happens.

Juno’s chest is a ball of solid iron. He counts through his breaths.

And waits.

And waits.

Honestly, it wouldn’t be the first time this week — this day — he’s been shut out.

He gives Nureyev a look. “So, aren’t you good with doors or something?”

“Oh, I’m good with quite a lot of things, doors among them. There are many ways to make an entry, detective.”

“ ‘One need only find the right way’, right, yeah. Well, what do you say we find ours then?”

“Hmm.” Nureyev gives him an indecipherable look for his trouble. Then, as if performing a magic trick, he waves a hand. And the door, without having been touched, opens. “Here we are. Ladies first.”

Juno does a triple take. “Wait, what? Did you just—? How the hell did you do that?”

That gets a chuckle. “Oh, Juno. It was unlocked, of course. A motion sensor.”

“Oh.” He takes a moment to feel incredibly stupid. He makes some attempt to smile. “You do know how to make an entrance.”

Nureyev gives him a long look. Says, “And you an exit.” And steps inside.

Juno is rooted to the spot. He stares. He is more alone with each passing second. Like a cube of ice has been dropped straight down his spine into his heart, he shivers violently.

To himself, almost pleasantly, he says, “Well, shit.”

By the time he manages to scrape together enough motor function to follow, he’s pretty sure he’s got whiplash. He has sense enough to keep his mouth firmly shut about it.

Their relationship, he thinks, is balanced on the edge of a knife.

When Juno Steel walks through a door, people tend to look. Not because he’s necessarily the type of person people tend to look at, but because when he walks through a door there tend to be people following after him, shooting their guns and shouting things like “you ruined my life,” or “do you have a moment to talk about your future in streaming,” or sometimes, “you owe me money.” Which, fair.

This time, no one looks. There’s no one to look. There’s no one.

Well, there’s Nureyev. But he’s got much better things to look at, apparently.

Things like: chairs, real wood-framed, stacked high up against the windows; a steak dinner, half-eaten; and a set of sonic golf clubs, all bent down the center.

Juno says, “Huh.”

Nureyev says, “Hmm.”

A quick sweep of the front wing turns up more of the same. Things half-finished, things untended. A life interrupted.

There’s no conclusive evidence, but Juno’s willing to go out on a limb and say something went wrong with the deal.

They meet in the middle, in a private office, with no more information than when they started. It’s clean curtains, coffered walls, and the covert silence of a place that has stood witness all along. In the corner, a soft whirr-thunk sounds on repeat — a cleaning drone is trapped between the upturned edge of a rug and the leg of a table. Charitably, Juno gives it a little nudge, and it putters off about its business in blissful ignorance of the fact it will be tidying an empty house.

Far overhead, the dome begins to purl with the sound of shifting sands. The lights blink to acknowledge the arrival of the storm. His comms beeps to inform him he’s lost service.

“All of this does suggest something,” says Nureyev, who is systematically opening and closing drawers. “But I certainly don’t have the least idea what that is.”

“Well, we do know one thing.”

“Oh?”

“Mac likes their steak rare.”

“Ah. I imagine they aren’t particularly skilled at the sport of golf, either.”

“Maybe they just play with really heavy golf balls. Find anything?”

“Then I suppose breaking in their equipment was only par for the course. No.” He stands, then reaches across for the office comms. “That is, not yet. Apart from what’s become of Mx. Mac, tracking the research itself is a simple matter. All we need do is access the estate’s electronic records. That shouldn’t prove difficult.”

That, of course, is when the power goes out.

With the finality of a pervasive thump of static, every light in the house dies — including the comms containing the aforementioned records. It is abruptly silent. And, because it’s pitch dark, he’s mathematically now three times as likely to shoot himself in the foot in the event he’s required to fire a blaster.

If Juno were to select a precise moment things started to really go wrong, it would probably be this one.

He groans. “Difficult enough for you yet? Where are you?”

“Here, Juno.” There’s a light touch on his elbow. It’s simultaneously too light and too much. “My map of the floor plan did suggest there’s a backup in the basement, if necessary.”

“Great. Did that map also come with a flashlight?”

“No, but I should think we’ll manage with one of mine.” Following this, there’s the unmistakable sound of pockets being turned over. “Just a moment.”

Nureyev proceeds to mutter through several additional pockets. Juno, unable to remain still for any great length of time, promptly bangs his knee.

The noises stop. “Juno?”

“Fine,” he says thickly. “Just a—chair. Made of edges. Ow.”

“Ah. All right.”

“Not really. Come on, Nureyev, it’s a flashlight, not the crown jewels.”

“Yes, yes, just a moment.” He continues at a steady mutter, and then: “Ah, here—oh. No, that’s a pan flute. Hmm.”

“You know, I’ve heard music can really brighten up a room, but—”

“A moment, I said, a moment.” There is now a sound Juno suspects is his jacket being shaken upside down to see what falls out. Several things do. There ensues a good deal of bouncing, rolling, rattling, and in one inexplicable instance, ticking. “Oh, dear…oh, that’s where that went...oh, that’s turned…there. Got it.”

When the light clicks on, Nureyev has replaced his jacket and is smoothing down its flat lines. He sweeps a wave of hair back into place. There is no indication whatsoever that his wardrobe has undergone rapid disassembly.

Juno looks across at him. Looks, at this man whose pocket linings are a veritable museum collection, who keeps things sometimes for the sole purpose of interacting with the world at the physical level, for whom even the smallest scrap of flotsam has purpose in the sheer act of tangibly being, and who loves the world in and to pieces — looks, and feels the room sway with the enormity of how much, in that moment, he loves him utterly.

Because none of this is near to the proper thing to bring up in a strange house in the dark in the middle of a heist that may or may not be flying off the rails at high velocity, he opts for the next best thing: the age-old practice of repackaging it for a laugh. A timeless classic.

Nureyev catches Juno’s eye, the one he makes before a wisecrack, and says, in subtly amused tones, “Go ahead, then.”

Juno does as directed. “Just wondering if you normally pay out of pocket.”

His answering laugh is velvet. “Contrary to popular opinion, crime does pay. Shall we?”

“Take a romantic stroll to a dark and dreary basement? You really know how to show a lady a good time.”

“Do keep an eye out for tempestuous chairs.”

“Shut up. Besides, I already got the one out, so really—”

“Juno,” says Nureyev, with sudden strained patience, “I’d consider it a personal favor if you’d refrain from being so…cavalier about that particular event.”

On further consideration, the view of his involuntary evisceration and near certain death probably did look worse from the perspective of someone with the full depth perception to appreciate them at the time. Nureyev had really skinned his fists raw on that airlock.

“Oh.” For the first time, he realizes he might not be the only one who wakes up in the middle of the night with a planet on his chest. “Uh, I didn’t—I mean—sorry. I’m sorry.”

“Thank you. Think nothing of it.”

When they take the stairs, they are a study in contrast. Nureyev is the perfect symmetry of walking a tightrope, lithe on the balls of his feet, and never misplaces a step. Juno, on the other hand, stomps down each and every one as if it has offended him personally.

Which, in hindsight, is probably why he misses a step and shunts sideways into the wall. He is mercifully intercepted from impacting his face with the floor by Nureyev, who is not as hard as the floor but is much more capable of giving hard looks.

“Do you, perhaps, need a hand?” he says. It’s a subtle thread, something between amused condescension and condescending amusement.

Juno weighs his options carefully. On some level, he’s aware he should at least make an effort to be insulted. On another: “I mean, yeah, if you’re offering.”

Nureyev blinks. Some small part of his expression retreats into static. They exchange a lengthy silence. Somewhere far and away, the foundation creaks.

Then — mechanically, remotely, slow as diffusing a bomb — he shifts hold of the flashlight and offers his palm.

With the physical certainty of muscle-memory, Juno now has a manifold understanding of why stairs are called a flight. He’s almost positive he’s not touching the floor. Nureyev, long fingers cool as Glass, is guiding him down like a balloon on a string.

They float down and down into the dark, passing a library, a sitting room — Juno grits his teeth at the pure outrageousness of a room just for sitting — a wine cellar in which he’s absolutely certain he’d have no trouble getting hopelessly lost, and tens of rooms whose purpose he can’t even begin to guess.

The air is progressively stuffier. His calf muscles are actually burning by the time they reach the electrical room. He’s embarrassingly winded. He wonders what Mac has against elevators, or modern convenience, or maybe just out of shape P.I.s.

Juno dislikes mysteries, as a rule, but dislikes unsolved mysteries significantly more. The breaker is on the farthest wall of a room that continues to put this to the test. There are thick pallets standing sentinel, shrink-wrapped, clamped together for interstellar transit, and taller than the crown of his head. Nureyev crosses businesslike to the breaker, and the squat columns dance with silhouette and shadow.

A panel hinges open. The main breaker clicks. Under Nureyev’s persuasion — which reigns uncontested — the lights flood in.

“There,” he says, “Much better. What’s all this, I wonder?”

Juno is attempting to determine that very thing, but he’s having trouble reading the label on the closest pallet due to being unceremoniously blinded by the overheads. The top of the stack is too tall for him to look over, but he can almost see through the clamps and crumpled plastic.

Nureyev already has the topmost box unsealed, easily within his reach, and is putting away his plasma cutter by the time Juno’s done being dazzled. When he’s able to make sense of what he’s looking at, Juno’s stomach drops to his boots.

He looks on, in open-mouthed horror, at Nureyev handling it. He’s touching it.

“What—don’t—why,” is all Juno’s able to string together before he stalls out. It’s too late.

Nureyev is studying a thumbnail of black residue at eye-level, testing the composition between his thumb and forefinger, wafting it below his nostrils like he’s conducting a scientific examination. He turns toward Juno without looking, aware at some level that his attention is being requested, but not yet detached enough from the subject of his observation to provide it. Then, somewhat ponderously, his eyes drift up and catch on Juno’s look of abject incredulity.

At that, he seems to take a mental step back. “Goodness. What’s wrong?”

“You—you…you don’t know what that is, do you?”

Nureyev gives him a bland look. “An excellent deduction, detective, what gave me away?”

Juno shakes his head. He’s still waiting for his heart to stop hammering up his throat long enough to speak. He points. On the side of the casing is penciled, in block letters, ISHTAR.

Apart from ancient mythology, Ishtar is a continental territory on Venus best known for both the highest highscrapers in the solar system and the highest windspeeds. There’s a reason the net number of hats on Venus is lower than average. Which, now that he thinks about it, might say more about the state of the head than the state of the hat.

What’s important to note, however, is not what’s on Venus, but what’s under it — and that’s a repository of sulfuric acid runoff, perfect for the refinement of things like psychoactive substances and black market bank accounts. Also perfect for catastrophic explosion. When not in a state of explosion, it’s colloquially referred to as Tar. Sometimes, to a lesser extent and in lesser circles, Ish. Also Pie, for reasons Juno’s never been able to fathom. It’s a hell of a drug.

Its primary application is the obliteration of that part of the brain used for things like thinking, as quickly and as thoroughly as possible. Its primary method of doing this is dermal absorption — not unlike a specific point at the base of Juno’s brain, it would be activated by Nureyev’s body heat — and close in second is respiratory exposure.

Which might just be a slight problem, given Nureyev’s just done both.

When Nureyev continues to look blank, Juno tries again. “Ishtar. You know, Tar?” For good measure, he groans. “Well, good news is you’re gonna have a great time. Bad news is…I’m not.”

Recognition lights to pinpoint perception Nureyev’s eyes. He rocks back onto his heels. “Ah. Well. That really is too bad.”

Understatement of the century. “This doesn’t—I don’t know—concern you?”

“Of course it does, Juno. The fact remains there is nothing to be done about it.”

“Okay. Yeah. You know what, I’m calling it. We’re done. The job’s off.”

Nureyev arches a brow. “I’m afraid we don’t have much choice in the matter. Let’s not be overhasty.”

“Over—? What’s ‘overhasty’ is that you’re still thinking of pulling off this heist, which is already off to a great start, high out of your mind. Take it from me, it won’t go well. I’ve tried it.”

“And if I were alone that would not be the case. Fortunately, I am not.”

“Yeah, well you know what they say: Two halves of a mastodonkey still make a whole ass.”

“Nonsense. I trust you, Juno.”

“Y-you…” For a long time, it’s all he can do to stare. “You…do?”

“Of course. You’ve proven yourself more than capable in the role of accomplice.”

Accomplice. “Oh.”

Then again, it’s a step up from calling him incompetent and idiotic. Win some, lose some.

Nureyev is now pacing. “Fascinating. I now wish I had the means necessary to document the experience under more controlled circumstances. What are the side effects, I wonder?”

Juno snorts. “What aren’t the side effects. God, you don’t have any allergies, do you?”

“Well…only to the Kanagawas’ line of cyanide cosmetics, I think.”

“Funny, I think I’m allergic to that too. And to the Kanagawas.”

“We’d better hurry along, then, if we’re not to do time next to one. On with the show, as they’d say.”

And with that nugget of wisdom to spur them on, they take the stairs. Again. Juno’s preferred epithet might actually be do combat with the stairs. He would love to complain about this at length, but that would require being able to breathe long enough to do so.

In Mac’s office, Nureyev sets about taking the comms to task. Juno’s content to perform a task more his speed, which is currently zero, and also on the floor.

Nureyev’s not even out of breath. Juno’s not sure if that’s good health or a bad sign. Above where he’s languishing on a rug worth more than his own skin, the keystrokes are firing faster than some of his synapses.

“Find anything interesting?”

Nureyev gives him an unmistakable look. “I have to say that I do.”

Juno wheezes a bit. “You don’t say.”

“But more to the point,” he presses on, smiling with full awareness of the fact that Juno’s stomach has tied itself neatly into a bow, “the records do indicate that the research remains on the property. It seems Mx. Mac was compelled to evacuate the estate prior to their appointment. Curious. In fact—” His eyebrows shoot up. “Ah.”

“What? Did you find it?”

“Oh. No. I’ve just been able to place the unpleasant taste in my mouth. It’s Plutonian plum.”

Juno sits up abruptly. “Hell. You can’t do this any faster?”

“Would that I could. Unfortunately, I seem to have lost the feeling in my fingertips.”

“Goddamit—Nureyev—”

“Compose yourself. We simply cannot afford to be in a dither about this.”

“In a—how the hell are you not ‘in a dither’? How is this not terrifying to you?”

“Juno. I am terrified. Frankly, I am mortified. Neither of these has any bearing on our present situation.”

Juno gets as far as opening his mouth.

Somewhere near the front of the house, a door slams like it’s been kicked. They exchange startled looks.

Juno is on his feet, now. He has a hand on his blaster. He whispers, “So, hey, when you say ‘evacuate’…”

“A full evacuation, yes. For reasons unspecified. We should be entirely alone. And yet.”

The hair on the back of his neck rises. He hopes ‘reasons unspecified’ hasn’t just kicked in the front door. “Okay. I’ll deal with this. You finish with the comms.”

“Certainly.”

If Juno weren’t busy contemplating the large number of ways in which he might find himself killed to death, he would realize that Nureyev agreeing to stay behind without argument is a patently unconvincing state of affairs. It’s too easy.

But, because he’s trapped in an all but abandoned manor house in the midst of a sandstorm well past raging, looking for a target he wouldn’t know from a comms charger with a partner who’s becoming more disoriented by the second, easy is something he’s willing to overlook.

More the fool, he.

The door that’s been kicked in is actually a set, which had previously been set into the floor and from which there is emerging a group of four heavily armed thugs. Mercenaries, Juno thinks. Dull cred a dozen.

His first thought is: This was a set-up. His second, more concerning, thought is: Why are they wearing sunglasses indoors?

Because he’s not usually the type to ask questions first, he lines up a shot around the corner. Although, line up might be wishful thinking. What he’s statistically more likely to do, he thinks, is mess up.

It is at this point that Nureyev appears at his side, looking distinctly more disheveled than five minutes prior. This is not because he’s flushed and having a small disagreement with his center of balance, though he definitely is, but because he’s wearing nothing but a loose full-length bathrobe, full open to his navel. His hair seems to have lost a fight with a pillow. He’s barefoot, and barefaced, and looks like all the half-drunk mornings-after Juno’s ever had.

Idly, Juno remembers he’s probably supposed to be doing something, and that it’s probably something important.

Nureyev’s smile is manic around the edges. He taps a silencing finger to his lips, then, conspiratorially, to Juno’s. It travels down Juno’s spine like a lightening rod.

Before Juno can jump-rope with enough of his brain waves to form a full thought, Nureyev has straightened up to his full height and is storming down the hall, bathrobe flapping at his bare ankles, in a close approximation of righteous indignation.

Four pairs of sunglasses turn at his thundering approach.

All evidence of anything less than perfect sobriety has vanished. Everything from the set of his shoulders down to the shape of his walk has changed in a hundred small ways to ensure that even when half the size of his audience and less than half as clothed, Nureyev commands the room. Juno’s seen clones less authentic.

Sometimes, Nureyev scares him.

“You people,” says Nureyev, in the voice of every self-aggrandizing, well-to-do windbag, “are a disgrace. What could you possibly be thinking? And the French doors! Has it occurred to you imbeciles that some of us have better things to do than clean up after your indiscretion?”

The four mercenaries, apparently unprepared to see a ballistic missile in a bathrobe, stare. One has enough presence of mind to say, “Uh?”

Nureyev takes a breath as if to compose himself. “Expect an invoice. You can be sure I’ll be lodging a formal complaint. That’s the least you should be getting. Great galaxies, I’ve never seen such incompetence. Now. I’ll need the name of your handler. And your identification numbers, if you’ve got them.” He snaps his fingers. “Quickly.”

The one that presumably has at least a single neuron to spare says, “What—who the hell are you?”

Nureyev inflates. “What an absurd question. Who do you think I am?”

After this, it’s surprisingly easy. Whoever they ultimately think he is, they’re willing to do anything up to and including eat their hats for him. What they actually eat is the floor, one right after another in a quick series of jabs too fast for Juno to follow, as Nureyev stage-directs their attention away from him and toward resetting the kicked doors, “for adequate compensation.”

By all accounts, it’s a fairly tame transaction.

What they haven’t accounted for is the untamed backup team. Laser-fire makes a fast introduction, coming in hot from the outside perimeter.

Juno is abruptly on familiar terms with a smoking hole occupying the space his head had been.

Nureyev falls out of character in a very literal fashion. He navigates a step, then a sideways step, then his side hits the wall. It doesn’t appear to bother him much. He watches the laser-fire dart adjacent to his vital organs with the mild interest provided a tennis match.

Juno’s having some trouble locating his blaster. He reaches for its customary weight and comes up short.

Granted, he makes no claims to be immune to the occasional misplacement of — well, okay, maybe he does have a certain knack for losing things. Particularly now that he has a prefabricated excuse. But he’d just had the damn thing, hadn’t he?

Pleasantly, Nureyev says, “Oh. Did I not mention? I seem to have acquired your firearm.”

“You what?” is all Juno can think to say. Breakable objects are breaking at an alarming rate, and with alarming proximity to his face.

Nureyev’s smile is positively criminal. In explanation, he flexes proverbial sticky fingers. “And to think I never even used my mouth. You may be losing more than your personal effects, detective.”

“What—would you give it back?” He hopes he doesn’t have to go into why a blaster might happen to be convenient to their present circumstances. He hopes Nureyev isn’t that fried.

Nureyev’s glasses are sliding precariously close to the end of his nose.   “That depends entirely on your ability to come and take it.”

Update: Nureyev is very much that fried.

“For the love of—give it a rest, would you? Just…sit tight. I’m gonna—” He casts about for an acceptable candidate for a ranged projectile.

“Well, if you insist.” Easily and obediently, in the middle of the floor and the middle of a firefight, Nureyev sits.

“No—what—I didn’t mean literally.”

“Oh, very well.” In the middle of the floor and the middle of a firefight, Nureyev stands.

“No—get down!”

“Goodness, do make up your mind.”

Juno drops what he’s picked up, which was previously a throw pillow—now just a throw—and tackles Nureyev bodily. He’s faster than the laser, but only just. They hit the floor with a whuff. There’s now a hole in his duster that was meant to be a hole in Nureyev.

Under his weight, the abundant contents of Nureyev’s pockets are abundantly uncomfortable. He has, evidently, transferred some or all of their contents. From the bottom of the floor, Nureyev is giving him a bottomless look.

“That, uh—” Imminent threat aside, Juno is intimately aware of the full length of body under his. “That several unregistered weapons, priceless missing artifacts, and a pan flute in your pocket, or you just happy to see me?”

“You’re forgetting the antique playing cards, twelve-sided trick dice, four plasma cutters, a vacuum tube, and oh, seven or eight breath mints.“

“Oh, right, right. Let me start over. Is that a—”

Nureyev laughs giddily. “Oh, Juno. I’m always happy to see you.”

He feels like the breath has been knocked out of him — probably because it has, but also because he can feel the swell of Nureyev’s chest and the vibration of his laugh and the fever heat of his skin, of which there is a lot. The bathrobe may have come untied. His voice sounds choked when he says, “That a fact?”

The moment is ruined by the more pressing fact that the end of his duster has now caught fire spectacularly. Laser fire will do that.

Once he’s dealt with that — in the same way he deals with most of his problems: with a lot of general flailing and punching things — he works on dealing with their other problem. On his elbows, he sights down the barrel of his blaster, which at this point has generously materialized, and returns fire.

He makes one in twelve. Maybe one in ten, if you don’t count missing the same spot twice. He growls. Exchanges a cartridge.

Nureyev has now occupied himself with Juno’s tie. Loosening, working out the knot, smoothing, straightening, leading it through the steps. Over the hill, through the woods. Carefully, so carefully. Reverently. If Juno’s missing more than half his shots, he has a very good reason.

Their aspiring goose-cookers are steadily closing distance.

Remotely, Nureyev eyes the general proceedings from upside down, following Juno’s broad aim to the far side of the room. His fingertips trickle up Juno’s wrists.

“Little busy,” Juno grinds out.

“Shh, look.” Nureyev gives him a subtle adjustment, the fine-tuning of a light breeze. “Just—there.”

It’s a straight shot. A bullseye.

Either Juno’s just won the lottery, or Nureyev’s just landed a perfect shot half out of his mind, upside down, and with someone else’s arms. He’s willing to split the difference and chalk it up to both.

As one, they push through the rest of the cartridge — a count of eight, one and two and three and four — Nureyev beneath him saying “there, Juno, that’s it, Juno, just there, yes, yes, yes” — and then they’re done.

He’s shaking. Or maybe Nureyev’s shaking; he can’t tell anymore.

“That was. Uh.” He sits up. Rolls off. Clears his throat. “Thanks.”

“Whatever for? You have an impeccable eye. Your aim isn’t too bad, either.”

“Bullshit.”

Nureyev looks up from refastening his robe. “Have I ever lied to you?”

“Only about all your personal information. You know, like—” Juno counts them off on a hand. “Your name, your job, your agenda—”

Nureyev giggles like he’s said something desperately funny. “Oh, my, no, those things aren’t personal.” He waves a hand. “Details, details. I’ve never lied to you about anything personal, Juno, and I daresay I never will.”

“In that case, you want to tell me what you picked off me while we were getting personal?”

This elicits something of a glow. “Only your heart, I hope. …and perhaps a lip shade or two—You see? I don’t mind sharing.”

That pulls a small laugh out of him. “Stealing, Nureyev, that’s called stealing. What would be sharing is if we politely asked our new friends to tell us why they were firing blasters at us.”

“Ah, but” — to compliment his point, Nureyev holds up a wavering finger — “they’ve already managed to share something of use with us.”

“What, like a case of flash blindness?”

“And the fact that we were not their primary point of aim. If we were, they would have shot us on sight.”

“I don’t know about you, but I’m feeling pretty shot at.”

“Yes, well. Bound to happen, I suppose.” He leans in to add, in a drunkenly exaggerated whisper, “I suspect, in point of fact, these men were hired to do the majority of their shooting at something other than ourselves. This is all very exciting, isn’t it?”

“Yeah, that’s one word for it. They…do have a lot of guns. A lot of guns. That’s…not very comforting.”

“Oh, but do you know what is? Velour, Juno. With pockets.” He twirls the robe expressively. “I must get one for myself.”

“Uh…why don’t you just take that one?” It’s not that he endorses petty theft; it’s just that it seems like a foregone conclusion.

Nureyev’s eyes light up like this is, somehow, a novel concept. “Why, you’re absolutely right! Juno, you are a rose amongst thorns.”

“Uh…right. Well, this Rose is gonna go disarm and restrain these unconscious bodies now. You just…sit on your hands. Or something.”

Looking through his lashes, Nureyev says, “I believe I’d much prefer if you sat on them. Or something.”

Because Juno does not know how to respond to even the first part of that, much less the second, he resorts only to a meek, “Huh. Okay, then.”

The cleaning drone is back, and is attempting to clean blaster burns out of the carpet. Nothing gets out blaster burns, Juno knows from ample experience, except maybe bigger, badder blaster burns. The drone doesn’t stand a chance — nature abhors a vacuum, after all — but it’s somehow heartening that it doesn’t give up in spite of all that.

While Juno sets about doing as advertised, Nureyev sets himself against the wall and sweats. At some point, while Juno isn’t looking — and in a feat of sartorial engineering previously unheard of — he manages both to reattire and to wear the robe.

This taken care of, Juno returns to find him amassing a house of cards spread delicately across the floor. He’s humming, just under his breath. Juno watches a moment the masterful precision in Nureyev’s long fingers.

As far as Juno can tell, it’s a true-to-scale replica of the estate itself. It’s only about a quarter of the way finished, but then that’s not so far from the reality, going by the state of the front grounds on their way in.

There’s an odd embellishment: a little stack to itself off to the side. He points with the toe of his boot. “What’s that?”

“A satellite property,” says Nureyev, and then goes back to humming.

Juno frowns. “Wait, satellite property as in…outside the dome? Why?” Expecting reasonable spending habits from the unreasonably wealthy is probably a wasted effort, but this is unreasonable even by those standards. It’s actively inconvenient.

“Why, indeed? An excellent question, why. Why do you ask?”

“Because—was this on your maps?”

“No, no, no. This was on the estate records. A deleted file, in fact. Wonderfully mysterious.”

“Nureyev, why in the hell didn’t you tell me this?”

Nureyev looks up with a small amount of surprise. “You didn’t ask. You can ask me anything, of course. Anything you like. Which does bring us back to the question of why. Why don’t you?”

“Uh.” It’s the simplicity of this that makes Juno freeze up. It’s the same kind of simplicity that accompanies being somewhere a long way up, and thinking simply, that’s a long way down.  It’s not the falling that ties him up; it’s the knowing. “Okay, here’s a question for you: What does someone with a dome the size of the damn galactic deficit need with a smaller, rattier dome?”

“Well, I’ll admit it’s a bit of a structural eyesore, but I see no reason to insult the rats.”

“You know what, I’m just gonna go ahead and answer that for you: We found the research. Let’s go.”

Going, however, is a more difficult task than anticipated. What doesn’t help matters is that Nureyev takes it upon himself to make it as difficult as possible — they are obliged to stop more times than start, for Juno to periodically return the things that find their way to Juno’s pockets, for Juno to lose a small argument concerning the exact definition of “soup,” for Juno to explain that, no, the terrestrial eggplant is neither an egg nor does it hatch — but once at the edge of the dome Juno is forced to confront the fact that there is no way out except through the airlock. There’s no bridge, no access tunnel, and no discernible pathway on the map. The only way to reach the satellite dome is over land.

Not much of a problem, usually, except in the specific instance that the weather has made up its mind to kill him.

It turns out that making the Martian atmosphere hospitable for human life also happens to make the Martian sandstorm inhospitable to the same. For reasons having to do with things like air density and the laws of motion, a breeze that would previously have been a small matter is now a great deal of matter moving at high wind speeds, charged with static, and chockfull of solar radiation.

Navigating this is at the best of times a classic case study in man versus nature (versus nature, versus nature, versus nature). It takes careful forethought, painstaking planning, and durable equipment.

Juno’s plan is this: Run like hell.

This works out about as well as expected. Really, a damn sight better.

It’s not far, but neither is crossing a busy thoroughfare. Overall, the shadow of the primary dome buffets them from the majority of what’s trying to impale them. And for the rest, they slam into the opposite end of the receiving airlock with enough force to knock out teeth.

The door slams shut behind them, and then they’re sitting in — adhered to — a silent airlock underneath a choke of sand. Once assured of his lack of broken bones, dislocations, and general deadness, Juno sits up, excavates himself, then slips and slides his way to Nureyev, who is in the process of attempting to clean off his sandblasted glasses with an even more sandblasted shirttail.

Nureyev is laughing wildly. The only thing that isn’t distinctly rust-red is his teeth. Juno observes this with the same sort of detachment reserved for profoundly incomprehensible things — like train wrecks, or oncoming meteors, or the infants of clients that offer him what might presumably have once been food, straight from their mouths.

When he looks up, there’s a camera watching them.

The camera, at a heart-stopping volume, says, “Don’t. Move.”

Juno does not jump. He definitely doesn’t scream. The fact that he is hanging from Nureyev’s arm is pure coincidence.

After his heart has started beating again, he says, “Yeah, see, fun fact you don’t know about me is: I’m not great with following directions. Here’s an example: One time a guy asked me to find some dirt, and I got lost looking for it in the middle of the desert. True story.”

This doesn’t seem to move the camera. Possibly because it is fixed to the wall. Mechanically, it says, “Don’t. Move. Or.”

Juno looks at Nureyev. Nureyev looks at Juno.

Juno says, “…or what?”

“Or. Or. Or. Salsa.”

“Uh…are you asking me to dance, or offering me a refreshing snack?”

“Caution: Damage detected. Damage location: Verbal cortex.”

“My sympathies,” says Nureyev, and then sneezes. “Would you—pardon me—would you mind telling us if this is where we might find a certain piece of research related to the Curemother?”

“Subject, Curemother: Classified.”

“Sounds like a yes to me,” says Juno.

“I don’t mean to impose,” adds Nureyev, “but might we…step inside? The weather is a bit inclement, you see.”

The camera seems to think about this. “Please state: Your. Purpose.”

Juno snorts. “Like, in life? I don’t know if I feel comfortable sharing that kind of personal information with a camera I just met. No offense.”

“Please state: Your. Name.”

Juno shrugs. “No, thanks.”

There is a long moment of computerized clicking and chirping, and then: “Sure. That. Checks. Out.” The inner door to the airlock unseals with a pneumatic hiss. “Welcome, User: No, Thanks.”

“Man, no wonder this science project flopped and is sitting in someone’s shed.”

The shed in question is a circular structure consisting mostly of shelves, control boards, and experimental impedimenta. They enter, tracking dust prints every step of the way. It looks exactly as a room might look if the contents of defunct research lab had been stuffed into it, forgotten about, and left to multiply. All in all, it’s more organized than it has any right to be, and certainly more organized than Juno’s apartment.

Except, of course, for the gaping hole in the center of the floor. It’s a very clean tunnel extending several infinities down. Something has gone to a lot of trouble either to get in, or to get out.

Juno peers down into it from a safe distance, says “Hrng,” and quickly retreats to a safer distance.

Seeing this, Nureyev takes his arm. Nureyev’s not much better for balance, but it’s a nice gesture. It helps, a little. At least now he has a good reason for his stomach to flip.

Whatever made the tunnel has eaten through a sizable chunk of machinery as well. Most likely the damaged verbal cortex. Damaged might be putting it lightly.

“Hey, uh, Salsa? You wanna tell us where the rabbit hole goes?”

A chirp. “Subject, Curemother: Classified.”

Nureyev steps, a little meandering, up to the machinery. Not impolite, he says, “I do beg your pardon, but I’d like to take a closer look at your overrides. Is that all right with you?”

Two chirps. “Subject, Pardon: Granted.”

“Thank you, Salsa.” The light of his plasma cutter flashes into the circuitry, and something snaps. The points of his teeth are peaked in neon. “A-ha. Knife to meet you, dear Salsa. Do kindly regale us with what you know of the Curemother.”

“Subject, Curemother: Reproduction unsuccessful. Case, first: Deceased. Case, second: Deceased. Case, third: Viable. Status: Unknown.”

As if on cue, from far into the hole comes a prolonged, gravel-grinding roar. Juno has just enough time to think: Status goddamn known.

Nureyev says, “Marvelous!”

Juno says something a bit more colorful.

The ground shudders as if with anticipation of what’s coming. The whole building is in motion, the floor buckling and the ground pulverizing up and up and up.

To the mechanical chorus of “No, Thanks. No, Thanks. No, Thanks,” the dome shatters with the force of a thousand pounds of angry, abandoned research subject barreling out of the tunnel. They are pelted with glass and grit and indeterminate goo.

Conversationally, Nureyev says, “Juno…?”

“…Yeah?”

“Does Tar exhibit a hallucinogenic response?”

“No. No, it does not.”

“Ah. So we should run, then.”

“Yep.”

It doesn’t look so much cured, as in relieved of all existing illness, as cured, as in dried up and left to molder underground for ten years. Its thundering roar is healthy enough.

He doesn’t much blame it for being a tad angry about all that. It’s covered in glue and spitting roasted feathers, which certainly isn’t a pleasant condition for anyone. It explains a lot of things, really, like what he’d thought was esoteric art, and the multiple hired guns, and the wholesale evacuation of the entire estate. Also why there is an institution for reviewing the ethics of clinical research, and why his vascular system is now attempting to relocate itself outside of his body.

At this point, Juno comes to the decision to do what he usually does when confronted with a colossal, life-changing event, and proceeds to move briskly in the opposite direction.

Nureyev, however, moves toward it. That is, toward the large, braying, goo-encrusted mass with too many teeth and every reason to use them.

Juno turns around and says, in a low voice, “Nureyev, it’s time to go.”

“I’ll only be a moment. I’m going to extract the neural conduit for this project. Unless Salsa has any objections?”

“Subject, objections: Null. Subject, Salsa: Dip. Out.”

Juno groans. “Honestly, I still can’t tell which type of salsa we’re talking about.”

Ordinarily, Juno might have some objections of his own to the idea of purposefully pissing off something with enough physical strength to punch through a dome. However, because he has more and stronger objections to the idea of Nureyev doing the same, he doesn’t have much room to argue. He also doesn’t have much room to dodge.

By the time Nureyev is done boggling with the circuits, the satellite dome is so thoroughly torn, trampled, and trashed that they find themselves already more outside than in. And, because on the scale of general hostility a sandstorm ranks slightly lower than a congealed mass with a large number of eyeballs, they choose the storm.

The second time they’re slammed into the back of an airlock is not a better experience. It is, at least, a death-free experience. He can hear tunneling behind the dome. Then quieter tunneling. Then nothing. It’s not gone for good, but it’s gone for now.

For a long time, they just breathe. There’s also some amount of coughing involved.

“Wonderful,” says Nureyev, with every appearance of sincerity. “Wonderful.”

“Is this— This is fun for you,” Juno accuses. “You’re having the damn time of your life.”

“Oh, yes. Aren’t you?”

“I…” Juno takes a quick mental inventory. “Ha. Guess I am.”

Nureyev is beaming with his whole body. Juno thinks: You could cut yourself on a smile that sharp.

They laugh. They’re covered to the gills with sand, right up to the whites of their eyes, and looking across at each other, and laughing. It’s a little bit like shock, and a little bit like relief, and a whole lot like everything in his life has just slid neatly into place. He wants to spend to rest of his life doing this.

He’s still bursting, periodically, with little fits of laughter when Nureyev reaches across and takes the side of his face in a palm.

“There it is.” Nureyev traces the corners of his lips. His voice is quiet, and a little muzzy. “The smile that shines the sun.”

Every ounce of Juno is the sizzle of water on a hot pan. Nureyev is touching him like he’s more valuable than every treasure in the solar system, and all the stars, combined.

His eye is burning. It’s understandable, really; there’s a lot of dust. Thickly, he swallows, and the inside of his mouth tastes like iron.

He doesn’t know what to say. He doesn’t want to ruin it. He doesn’t understand how Nureyev can look at the mess of him and think it’s worth it.

But, hell, he’s going to try. He’s going to get up, and he’s going to finish this job, and he’s going to make sure Nureyev never has any reason to look at him any differently than the way he’s looking at him right now.

He’s going to be better, do better, even if the best he can do tomorrow is just one smile better than the best he can do today.

When he sits up, he feels like he’s experienced the meteorological equivalent of being taken into the back of an alley and shown the dirt. He rolls his shoulders, which grants him the unique ability to ache in muscles he was previously unaware of having.

“So, I’m no expert on healthcare,” he says, “but I’m pretty sure what we just saw was actually a health hazard.”

“Too much of a good thing, I expect.” Nureyev is attempting to find his feet, but he seems to be having more success finding the floor with the back of his head. “It would be incredibly delicate work, cellular reparation, and at a genetic level the accelerated effects, if left unchecked, may well — Well.” He blinks, hard. “Do you know, I’ve just entirely forgotten what I was saying.” Then, hesitantly, “That’s…never occurred to me before.”

Juno does him the favor of hauling him to his feet. It’s no easy task. Nureyev leans heavily into him, making no pretense about it.

“Is it just me,” says Nureyev into his side, “or is the ceiling rotating perpendicular to the floor?”

“Pretty sure that’s you. Wait. Hey, you know what, I think I might have an idea.”

Nureyev is now sliding lengthwise down his side. Faintly, he hums, “That’s good, Juno. That’s a very good idea.”

“I—what? I didn’t tell you the idea yet.”

“Oh. Hmm. Well, I’m sure it was a good one.”

Juno is juggling limbs in an effort not to drop him. He sits him down by choice before he has the opportunity to do it by force. “Okay. I’m gonna do something, and I need you to stay here. Got it? Stay here.”

Nureyev looks up at him as if from a long way off, dreamily and exceedingly content. He chuckles, weakly, as if to himself. “Of course I am. Of course I’ll stay.”

“Oh. I—I didn’t mean—I mean—” Juno lets out a long breath through his nose in order to dislodge the blockage in his chest. With the magnitude of what’s been said, he drops the weight of his forehead to Nureyev’s shoulder. “Okay. You’re…I’m not gonna hold you to that. Just…don’t move.”

Nureyev doesn’t. Couldn’t, probably, if he wanted to.

Prior to throwing in his lot with the Carte Blanche, the farthest Juno had ever travelled for a case was the far side of Phobos. At the time, it had felt like the far side of profound travel sickness. Juno now feels, after making five trips up from the basement, that he can confidently and singlehandedly report having beaten that record, in one day, today.

“Okay,” he announces, pushing the last of the cases of Tar into the airlock. “I can say with confidence that this is a very bad idea. Do you still have that pan flute?”

Nureyev looks up at him with eyes half-closed. “Do I?”

Juno looks at him a long moment, then sighs. “Tell you what. Next time we do a heist, you’re wearing handcuffs.”

A peek of sharp canines. “I’d like nothing more.”

“I bet you would. Do mind if I…” He applies himself to the chore that is Nureyev’s pockets, in search of the flute. As is typically the case during an investigation, most of what he finds is some combination of highly interesting and highly useless, and not at all what he’s looking for.

“Juno, there are better ways to…” Nureyev frowns.

“To get into your pants? Yeah, let’s save that for when you can remember how to say ‘pants.’ ”

“Oh, this is very inconvenient, isn’t it?”

“You’re telling me.”

It takes some trail and error, but eventually he has it. Then he takes out his blaster, makes certain it’s set to stun, and holds it out. “Look. I’m about to do something really stupid. So, I’m giving you my blaster. If our friend Jumbo doesn’t go down, I need you to shoot it until it does. And if that doesn’t work, shoot me, because I’ll be getting mauled to death.” He takes a breath. “Got that? You’ll be using stun, so just aim for the heart.”

In a move Juno really should have seen coming, Nureyev points it at Juno’s heart and says, persuasively, “Pow.”

Juno looks at the ceiling as if inviting it to save him the trouble. “Oh my God, this is my backup.”

“I always have your back, Juno.”

He really shouldn’t be smiling, but he can’t be bothered to care. “Thanks. You know what? New plan: Just try not to shoot yourself.”

Not for the first time in his life, Juno then drags several pounds of illegal drugs out of an airlock. It’s backbreaking work. His shirt is over his nose, because one strung-out thief is his quota for the day. Said thief is propped against the outer door: Take Glass in case of emergency.

This one’s a first: He empties several pounds of illegal drugs directly onto the ground. Five cases. It feels a little like setting fire to someone else’s wallet, if the wallet was filled with particulate sludge and also capable of combustion.

Worth noting about sandstorms: They’re hot. They’re full of friction. Also, for the same reason, static electricity.

Juno, knowing this, does the only sensible thing and belts it out on the flute.

He doesn’t play well, and possibly what he does to the flute shouldn’t be considered in the same realm as playing it, but whatever he does, he does it exactly as well as he should to attract the attention of the being of concentrated hate tunneling up from below the surface of the planet.

Like most unsolicited opinions concerning his proficiencies, it comes out of the woodwork in a shower of pulverized rock and heads straight for him. It’s a captive audience—or will be.

When it’s close enough, he kicks the Tar into the air. It plumes up and glitters, for an instant, with constellated static. Then Jumbo clocks in just in time to receive a face-full of psychoactive fire. Juno is provided an exclusive VIP view of one, two, three, four rows of teeth as they all bite the dust. Jumbo goes down hard onto its side, slides, and Juno just barely manages not to be slingshotted across the desert.

Something Juno knows from experience: Fluidic substances, when fallen into, tend to be inhaled. Sometimes, but not without exception, up the nose.

Case and point of this is the giant maw that opens in an impressive effort to swallow him before seeming to decide, actually, it would much rather wobble, spit a few feathers in his direction, and lie down with the full force of a thousand pounds to take a nap instead.

It’s a full thirty seconds before Juno remembers to stop misusing the flute.

A large number of eyeballs are glazed over. A large number of teeth are drooling.

Five cases of Tar is nothing to sneeze at—or a lot to sneeze at, depending on how you look at it. Jumbo will probably be out for a long while yet.

He considers shooting it, then — save it a lot of hard lessons — but he just doesn’t have the heart. Who’s he to say what’s good for it? Maybe it’s overly optimistic, but he lets it live. He could do with a little optimism.

He walks back to the airlock on legs that have, in a fluke of statistical probability, just become pasta a bit past al dente.

“Huh. I can’t believe I’m not more dead.” He seals the airlock. Then he adds, “Not that I’m complaining.”

Nureyev nods. “Neither am I. Now, if you don’t mind, I’m going to be profusely sick.”

He is. Profusely.

Juno’s not sure he’s strictly meant to be privy to that, but since he is, he easily assumes the necessary role of awkward back-rubber. With the roles reversed, he’s done his fair share of the same.

At last, Nureyev sits back into him and takes what seems to be his first full breath in the last five minutes. Juno has upgraded his role to the equally necessary, but now somewhat gratuitous, role of hair-comber.

“Done?”

Nureyev sinks solidly into his chest and says, succinctly, “Ugh.”

Juno nods sagely. “Such command of language,” he imitates. It gets a weak half-laugh. It’s probably better than he deserves. “Think you can stand?”

“Let’s try.” Nothing happens. “No.”

“Well hey, that means you get the all-expenses-paid trip.” He holds out his arms.

Nureyev sniffs. “I do believe I’ve already had one.”

“But this one’s better. It’s got a free massage, if you play your cards right.”

Nureyev manages the ghost of a grin. “I always play my cards right.” He tries to look back, sways a bit, and seems to think better of moving. “I’m sure it has a gorgeous view.”

“Uh—I don’t know about—”

“And some interesting history.”

“I don’t think I’d say ‘interesting’ so much as—”

“Any nighttime attractions?”

“...Uh.”

Wearily, but not unpleasantly, Nureyev sighs. “Complimentary comms signal, perhaps?”

That’s a question Juno can answer. Dutifully, he looks. “No. Working on that.”

“Well. Until then.” He reaches behind, slowly, to touch Juno’s face. It’s brief; his hand drops back to his lap like it weighs too much for him. “I think I’d like to visit this destination you have in mind now.”

Juno would like to say he scoops him up and whisks him away. But, because Nureyev is a head taller than him at least and consists mostly of elbows, with several knees and ankles thrown in for good measure, it is difficult.

There are a lot of things between the outer airlock and the main estate property that he’s sure were well-intentioned and meant to be hospitable at the time, like carved terraces veined with moon-marble, and pools of backlit candy clouds, and pergolas strung with starlight — all very commonplace, of course — but to their tired, four-limbed shuffle these things are no more than places for their eyes to rest on the way to find rest for their bodies.

After a certain amount of struggle, he kicks open a gate, throws open a door, finds the first room with even a partially not unpleasant place to fall over, and deposits Nureyev into it.

Then, because he might be exhausted but he’s not half the idiot he leads people to believe, he cases the room, and the surrounding rooms, and makes absolutely certain they’re not about to be shot at for a second time.

Then, purposefully and not into a wine fountain, he falls over.

Nureyev looks like he’s entered the least-liked stage of being drugged known as not being drugged anymore. He’s sitting, in an almost experimental fashion, propped halfway between the wall and the floor. He’s shivering. He looks, for lack of better terms, like a guy who’s spent all day being somewhere outside of his mind, dragged backwards through a sandstorm, and profusely sick all over the airlock.

“You look awful,” Juno informs him.

A faint smile. “You do know how to flatter me.”

“How do you feel?”

“Oh, awful.” Nureyev throws out a hand to stop himself sliding further to the floor. Wearily, a little bitterly, he adds, “Cold.”

Juno holds out the side of his duster, offering his side. Nureyev doesn’t hesitate, just curls into it, fits a loose arm around Juno’s waist, and settles. He sighs deeply. Juno wraps him with as much of the coat as he can, insulating.

Slowly, second by second, the vibration in the shoulders under his arm loosens. He feels Nureyev shift into him, discarding his glasses to press his face to the dip between neck and shoulder. The tip of his nose is cold. His eyelashes tickle. Between them, Juno’s side is very warm. After a while, his arm is slowly going numb. He doesn’t dare move. He doesn’t dare breathe.

Nureyev’s weight grows heavier. He melts, tension releasing one muscle at a time. Juno feels the rise and fall of his breaths as they slow and tries to match them.

The noise of the storm against the dome is the hush of a bed sheet stirring, and the peace that they are not there, but here. It is the sureness that things happen, but elsewhere. Away from the place where Juno traces the bones of Nureyev’s shoulder, and Nureyev breathes hot into his neck.

Here, apart from the sand, they are that small, liminal place between the ends of an hourglass.

Nureyev’s head is steadily drooping.

Juno shrugs one-sided. “Hey.” He squeezes the shoulder. “Hey, don’t go to sleep on me. I mean, not until we know how much stuff you have in your system.”

Nureyev, who was clearly in the exact process of going to sleep on him, says only, “Hmn,” and redoubles his efforts.

Juno tries again. “Hey, how do you feel about Pete?”

Nureyev doesn’t move a muscle. He murmurs, “My dear, darling Juno. No.”

“Hey, did I ever tell you I threw a cat out of a five story building for a case?”

Nureyev makes a small noise like a laugh. He stirs. “Goodness. Did the cat survive?”

“Nope. I mean, not because I threw it off a balcony, but like, that didn’t help.”

Nureyev shifts to look up at him. There’s something very pelagic about the look, like what Juno sees is just waves on the shore. Sleepily, Nureyev says, “Juno Steel, I adore you.”

Juno brain is pins and needles. He shivers. Then, for reasons he can only assume have to do with the fact that his brain has hung up an ‘out of order’ sign, he says, “You sure…you sure you don’t need to think about that?”

As soon as it leaves his mouth he realizes it’s probably the stupidest thing he’s ever said — and he’s said a whole lot of stupid things. This isn’t the way they should be talking about this. It isn’t a fair thing to ask of someone who doesn’t have the full mental presence to answer.

For a long moment, Nureyev doesn’t answer. Then he turns his face back into Juno’s neck, licks his lips — which are, notably, against Juno’s neck — and says simply, “Water.”

Water. He can do that.

Juno — who, would you look at that, all his bones have dissolved — extracts himself bonelessly. He sets out in search of water.

Before this somewhat skeletally deficient search extends outside the room, a strangled noise makes him look back.

Nureyev is propped on an elbow, looking up at Juno in a possible state of trying to convince a lump of scrambled eggs to do the work of a brain. He doesn’t look too hot. Or, rather, he does, but he doesn’t look like the eggs are agreeing with him on the subject of where his glasses have gone or where Juno is going. Hazily, he says, “You’re leaving?”

“Oh. I—Oh.”

Juno’s not sure how, but he’s pretty sure he exsanguinates on the spot. He’s full empty, down to absolute zero, and an asshole. “Oh, no, hey, no, I’m not—I’m just—” He hears but doesn’t feel his knees hit the floor. He’s in front of Nureyev, holding his face in both hands, willing him to understand. “I’m coming back, okay? I’m—here, look, take my coat.” As he says it, he shrugs it off, shoving it across inside out. Nureyev is suddenly very blurry, and Juno’s face is suddenly very hot. “Oh my god, I’m coming right back.”

Sluggishly, swimming up to the surface, Nureyev blinks. “Oh. Good.”

Juno sniffs. Once he’s finished having several heart attacks in rapid succession, he gets up. Miserably, he shambles out.

Nureyev adds the coat to the list of innumerable items he can fit on his person and is now wearing, in order: An embroidered leather jacket, a velour bathrobe—with pockets—a duster with a blaster hole in it, and a thick coat of sand.

What Juno finds does, technically, in some parts of the solar system, classify as water. More often, it’s called liquor. When it comes to drinkability, the bar’s not very high.

In Juno’s case, the bar has a sink. Also an impressive array of top-shelf bottles, vivid imperial shades of carmine and cobalt and polished pearl. He roots among these like they’re live munitions and pulls out a crystal glass. He fills it from the sink and tips it over his face, washing away the dust and residual Jumbo-spit. It stings, probably from some combination of the much sought-after sandstorm exfoliation treatment and the world’s worst sunburn.

And in the back of his mind, on loop, plays a mantra that goes something like: One shot, I could just do one shot, I’ve had a hell of a day, what’s one shot, just one.

He doesn’t.

He’s so pleased with himself about this fact that, when he returns to Nureyev, he realizes he’s managed to bring with him a glass with one singular ice cube, and no water.

His second trip there and back yields Nureyev a pack of crackers, which he receives graciously. He takes bird-bites, slow and delicate. Ration bites, eyes trained on the room. It’s the threat vigilance of a street veteran, even now.

Because it’s physically impossible for his heart to sink any lower, Juno doesn’t think about that.

Instead, he says, comprehensively, “I’m sorry.”

Nureyev considers him over a sip of water. “I’m not.”

After that, Juno makes a lot of advancements in the field of incoherent stuttering.

Nureyev holds up a hand: Don’t Speak. Juno’s already doing a good job of that on his own, but he does close his mouth. Nureyev takes a breath. “I’ve thought on it, and I’m not. Because you did exactly what you had to do to be exactly who you are. And that makes me very glad.” He reaches up and, like collapsing a sail, tugs Juno down hand over hand until they’re sitting together, coiled thigh to thigh. “I only wish I’d seen what you needed.”

Juno waits a moment to make sure it’s his turn to speak, and that his mouth is on right-side-up. “It wasn’t your fight. It’s…been a lot of uphill. Hell, some days I still feel like I’m fighting a losing battle. I’m out here fighting with nothing but a damn blaster that doesn’t shoot straight. I don’t know…how that ends, or if it ends, or even if it’s worth it, but…” He curls together their fingers. “Then you’re there, and I’m making all my shots, and I think: I can do this. We can do this.” He smiles a bit. “Besides…you might be the best thief Mars has seen, but even you can’t see everything.”

The hand in his twitches. “I am not the best thief Mars has seen. I’m not even the best thief you’ve seen.”

“Well it sure as hell isn’t Rita.”

“Juno…I’m afraid my best burgling days are behind me. My age, I’m afraid, is catching up with me.”

“I’m sorry, your what? I—I mean, don’t mean to—but, what?”

“My…” The word sticks a bit. He clears his throat. “My physical condition is…well, it leaves something to be desired, at times. Without that, I feel…I may soon reach point at which it is, simply, inadequate to my work. And thought it pains me to say it, to my life, and to me.”

For a long time, Juno stares. Nureyev is very nearly dissecting his hand. He’s dead serious.

Juno shifts so that they’re facing. He takes both hands and holds them. “Hey.” He gives them a little shake. “Hey, no. It’s not like that. You’re not. You’re not meant to be a perfect body. You’re meant to be your body.”

Juno touches the faint lines of Nureyev’s eyes, where he’s laughed. Nureyev looks across at him like he’s been struck dumb. “All a body’s supposed to do is live, right? That’s it. All the scars and aches and things are just as much a part of it as…escaping torture chairs, or holding up impossible trains, or dancing.”

Juno touches the lines of Nureyev’s mouth, where he’s smiled. He feels them twitch down. “Those things are important. They mean you’re exactly what you’re meant to be. You’re alive.”

Juno touches the line of Nureyev’s jaw, which is now faintly trembling. “And, honestly? I’m really glad you’re alive.”

Nureyev holds out for a second. And then a longer second. He clamps a hand over his mouth. From between his fingers comes a muffled sound. Then another. His face is the ripple of a drop of water in a still pond.

Then he dissolves, right into Juno’s arms, flooding out, and Juno’s trying his best to have five hands at once, to hold him everywhere at once, to hold him together. They rock with it, the swell of a boat as the waves beneath them rise and fall. Rise and fall.

“Fool,” Juno calls him. He calls him that over and over, into the crown of his head, into the space behind his ear, into the curve of his shoulder and the rise of his cheek and the skin of his neck. “You fool, you damn fool, you hopeless damn fool.”

The sobs become something closer to laughs. “For you, Juno. Always for you.”

By the time they’re both thoroughly dried out, which is a long time, and breathing quietly, the sandstorm sounds like it’s doing the same.

Nureyev is holding him, endlessly holding him, and dusting him with kisses, more kisses than dust, every inch of him that he can reach. He’s in the middle of a particularly good inch when he starts back with a small, “Ah.” He levels Juno with an arched brow. “Juno…?”

“I’ve been called worse.”

“Hm. When did my pan flute find its way into your pocket?”

Juno snorts. “Probably about the same time sand found its way into my everywhere. It’s too bad all we have to show for it is a computer that thinks it can dance.”

Nureyev gives him a look of perfect cunning. He smiles like an oil slick.

“…Okay, what did you do?”

“Oh, nothing terribly clever. It’s only that I’ve booked your Mx. Mac a stay at Hoosegow, you see. You were very convincing on that point.”

“You didn’t.”

“Oh, but I did.”

Sometimes, he could just kiss him. So he does. He finds a lot of points on which to be convincing.

When his comms chirps, they both nearly jump out of their skin. Juno’s not sure if he still has corporeal form, but he does have comms signal.

“Well.” Nureyev works himself to his feet and peers out of the window. There’s a spread of sunlight coming past him, gilding him. He offers a hand. “Ready?”

Juno squints up at him. Where Nureyev’s concerned, ready is a fantasy. He sure as hell wasn’t ready to fall in love, at one of the lowest points in his life, in the space of twenty-four hours, with a man that had just given him a good mugging.

Juno’s not ready. He’s not sure he ever will be.

But whatever it is he’s not ready for, he can’t wait to do it, with this man, every day.

He can’t wait to tell Vespa they finally found something with more anger-per-cubic-inch than her. He can’t wait to tell Jet they met a real life conspiracy. He can’t wait to not actually be able to tell Rita a damn thing at all, and to love every minute of it. He can’t wait to, when Buddy asks how things went, hand her a computer chip and say only, “Salsa.”

But mostly, he can’t wait to be enough: To grow roots together, and look to out to the stars, and be.