He could live one hundred mornings, one hundred thousand, just like this: In the heart of a ship, in the soft of a bed, in the crook of an arm, in the arm of a crook.
The eleventh such morning, however, begins in the gutter of the night, with an elbow to the gut, and with Nureyev — who bolts upright and says, without preliminary, “It’s moles.”
Juno, who is not fully awake but who is fully prepared to do battle with a militant mole if so obliged, baffles himself up out of the bed sheets and demands, with every confidence, “Where?”
The answer, as if this clarifies the matter, is: “On Pluto.”
Juno takes a necessary moment to grapple with that. When the fug of sleep clears, some facts emerge: First that they are not in imminent danger from a subterranean mammal that has gone exceptionally out of its way, and second that Nureyev is having a bit of trouble.
He’s sitting with the tension of a compressed spring. Tight fists, tight breaths. The linen where he’s slept is humid to the touch, and has roughly the landscape of a natural disaster.
“Oh—” Juno moves closer. Stops. Moves back. “Hey. Hey, can—”
“Yes, fine.” Nureyev leaks a long sigh. He tilts a little, bumping their shoulders. “I didn’t mean to disturb you.”
“You…didn’t.” Juno’s side might disagree, but he neglects to mention it. “So, uh. Nightmare…?”
Distractedly, Nureyev hums an affirmative. “In a manner of speaking.”
“Hm.” Nureyev gives him an indecipherable look. It’s slippery. The kind of look that slides right off. “Perish the thought.”
Juno shifts, skin sticking between them. Nureyev’s hair is damp where Juno brushes it back, and so is the temple where he drops a kiss. He continues in this vein, an investment of little touches, and Nureyev leans into each with interest. Juno works down the marbled arch of a cheek and tastes salt. He stops. “Are—are you—”
Nureyev shakes his head a fraction, grazing Juno’s nose. “Only overheated.” He swallows audibly. Eyes fixed on the middle distance. “A touch nauseated, in truth.”
“Wasn’t my paella, was it? I thought those blobsters looked a little too crustaceous, but Rita insisted—”
“No, no, nothing of the kind. In fact…” Somewhere far into Nureyev’s mind, somewhere Juno can’t follow, a switch is thrown.
At once, Nureyev’s full attention lances into him. “In fact, I don’t believe I’ve paid my compliments. Terribly impolite of me. Where shall I make them out? Perhaps—here?” The points of his teeth catch sensitive skin. “Or…here, do you think?” The next extracts a squeak. Juno squirms, and Nureyev follows in hot pursuit. “I have—such—comprehensive feedback. Allow me—” Hot behind his jaw, hot down his neck, hot to the ends of his nerves. “—to provide the highlights.”
Juno has, by forces unseen, come to be on his back. Nureyev is the steel-spring snap of the hunter’s snare, holding him sharp at the joints of his wrists. He is pulsing with near-sickly heat. There’s something almost desperate about it. Through their chests, their hearts knock together, racing — and Nureyev’s is winning by a mile. His fingers, where they trace the length of Juno’s arms down from the pulse-points, are shaking. Vibrating, head to foot.
“Hey, just, real quick, are you—are you sure you’re actually—”
“In a position to perform an assessment? You tell me.” The tease of his hair moves with his teeth. Teeth like a Steel-trap. The only thing sharper is his tongue, which he’s now putting to simultaneous use. This punctuates his itemization of compliments, which go something like: “Tasteful—seasoned—divine—piquant—” and close with, “and a bit underdone, if I may say.”
If asked at this particular moment to do anything so sophisticated as think, what would occur would, for Juno, be an electrical hazard. There is a small filament of brain matter, prepared for just such a case, which would burn out all his cerebral tissue like a string of lights.
This last gasp of his cognitive thought is interrupted by an adamant thump against the wall, followed by a voice that declares, “Your consummation poetry is too loud. You will lower either the volume of your poetry or the volume of your consummation.”
They do not. In fact, they do not twice.
Juno, to the extent he is capable of counting higher than this, counts himself lucky. The sum of all this counting leaves him quivering down to every molecule. He’s got a good run, he thinks, on physical disintegration. Nureyev seems to have gone on a longer run. He’s struck flat like he’s taken a blunt object of considerable velocity directly to the back of the head.
There is a certain amount of breath-catching before Nureyev tries to get up. He largely fails to do this. This is due not to any fault of his own, but to one very important detail that up until this point Juno has entirely forgotten: His complete collection of personal belongings are on the floor. They are so much on the floor that, in fact, the very existence of the floor must be taken on faith.
Nureyev, who has not yet discovered this except painfully and with his foot, clicks on his light. In light of what he finds — which is definitely not the floor — he sinks back onto the bed. He pauses. Offhandedly, he then says, “Juno, my dear?”
Juno, in roughly the same tone, says, “Uh-huh?”
“I hope you don’t take this as a personal objection, but I’m afraid I may have a question.”
“I’m, uh…afraid I have an answer.”
The answer began some four hours prior, on the observation deck. Under Buddy’s eye, he felt less the observer and more the observed. They then shared an extensive and soul-searching discussion, which Juno handled with an unshakably level head — that is, level with Buddy’s lap — concerning simple, uncomplicated things like the stages of relationship intimacy, and open communication, and living arrangements. It decided him.
It didn’t occur to Juno until he was in his room, hastily stuffing all things within reach into whatever would hold them, that Buddy hadn’t actually said a single word outside of, “I’m not your therapist.”
He’s beginning to suspect she says this for vaguely the same reason those blobsters came with the printed warning label: May Not Contain Shellfish.
And so it was that, at the eleventh hour of the night, he blundered into Nureyev’s room bursting with bags and trailing the pieces of his life all down the hall, dropped them all in a distinct insult to fire safety, and without turning on the lights delivered an extemporaneous sales pitch that went something as follows:
“Hey. Look, I know it’s late, but could you maybe just…listen, for a minute?” Here, it took six additional false starts before he eventually got around to: “…and it’s okay if it’s not what you want, I’m not trying to pressure you…” — He made certain of this, by expounding on it at length — “…and you…you made me an offer once, to share a future. I don’t know if that’s still on the table…” — shift, shuffle, sell self short — “But I think maybe this would be good. I mean, Buddy’s got her thing, and I’m glad to be a part of it, but…but, you know, maybe we need ours.”
In response to all this, Nureyev had rolled over, said, “Hours? Oh, surely we need no more than five consecutively.” And thereupon resumed snoring. Elegantly, of course.
After that, Juno comes to the understanding that he really needs to start making certain the people he’s speaking to are in a mind to listen, let alone conscious.
Faced now with doubling down on that foot-in-mouth performance in the light of day — or as close as it gets in the sticks of space in the dead of night — he feels a little greyish. So instead he settles for strangling a pillow and says, “So, the thing is, I think the relative mass of Rita’s stuff is throwing off the rotational gravity of the ship, so I thought if I brought my stuff over here—”
“—and, you know how yesterday Buddy told us we needed to air our dirty laundry, although maybe on second thought she didn’t mean that literally—”
“—and then Vespa said something about getting our, uh, stuff together, so really it’s just good workplace teambuilding—”
He would go on, but a well-manicured hand seems to have appeared over his mouth. For a moment, he plows on speechifying into Nureyev’s palm. The lack of intelligible noises might actually improve his delivery.
Moderately concerning is that Nureyev’s fingers, pressed against Juno’s lips, are still shaking. His face is making a peculiar expression that seems undecided on whether it would like to laugh or cry and is not doing a very good job of either. “You really must stop coming and going in the night. It simply isn’t equitable.”
Juno wants to say: Neither is suppressing his freedom of expression. What he actually says is, “Mmph.” Followed by, “Gak.”
Nureyev removes his hand. This is a bad move, because Juno opens his mouth. Nureyev replaces his hand on Juno’s now-open mouth with an open kiss. This is a very good move, because it is possibly one of only two ways to ensure that he does in fact shut up.
This thoroughly attended to, Nureyev uses the following silence to brave the minefield of Juno’s personal belongings. He returns from the bathroom with a number of items fit to clear up an intimate mess, none of which are remotely suited to the task on the floor, and a glass of water that Juno manages, in a literal capacity, to inhale.
While Juno busies himself with possible asphyxiation, Nureyev takes the opportunity to clear a space on the floor. He makes quick work of it. Nureyev is quite good at putting things — unattended creds, playing cards, contrary detectives — in their place. Packing is second nature. Unpacking, however: There’s as much room in Nureyev’s baggage as there is his baggage in the room, which is next to none.
Nureyev could possibly fit a galactic armada into the small end of a sock, though perhaps not comfortably. Some days, Juno can’t even fit a shirt back into the same drawer.
Up to this point, Juno hasn’t unpacked in the traditional sense either, but for vastly different reasons hinging mostly on his inability to care about where his clothes go when not occupied by his body.
He’s starting to think that unpacking his every scrap of unoccupied clothing part and parcel directly onto Nureyev’s limited floor space unannounced might not have been the brilliant idea he thought it was. Particularly now that Nureyev is both frowning and smiling at it in turns.
Juno is more than a little confused by this. Nureyev is making considerably less sense than usual. Come to think of it, he’s making considerably more faces.
His mind turns over the available clues. It begins to dawn on him that something is actually wrong with Nureyev, and that it has nothing to do with him. That last part is easy enough to fix: He says, in his bluntest, “So what are you hiding?”
Most people, when accused of being dishonest, tend to not to like that sort of thing. Nureyev, who is not most people, though not for lack of trying, laughs. “My dear, there is not time in the day enough. Perhaps you’d like to be more…explicit? I’m certain we could make time aplenty for that.”
Juno affords this the nice, long groan it deserves.
“My, perhaps not that explicit.” Nureyev flicks a pointed glance at the thin walls.
In order to better direct his glare, Juno stands. He sidles to a stop, inches apart, and stands fixed. Nureyev straightens. Head to head, heart to heart. In this manner, they floor through a flat, rapid fire:
“So you’re fine?”
“Not nearly so fine as you.”
“So you’re okay?”
“With you, dear, I could be nothing less.”
“Totally normal, then?”
“Dear me, nothing so unpleasant as that.”
“Nothing, I don’t know, concerning?”
“Concerning what, my dear?”
“You’re not sick?”
“Oh, dreadfully love-sick, of course.”
“One must strive to think positively.”
“And you’re not lying to me?”
“To be generally precise, I’m lying with you.”
Juno is the first to break face. “No, see, if you were lying with me I might actually be comfortable.”
Nureyev’s edge drops out of him like a blade knocked to the floor. “Oh. I’m…I’m sure we could improve on that. If you’d like.”
With a certain amount of defeat, he sighs. “Yeah. I’d like.”
To Juno, whose mental faculties are on administrative leave below at least four hours of sleep, lying with Nureyev sounds like possibly the most desirable thing in the entire world. He lets himself be guided to the edge of the bed. In a state of amnesty, they turn themselves into the sheets.
Against the plane of Nureyev’s back, with fingertips through his hair and a tide of touches down his neck, Juno closes his eye.
But even four hours, as it turns out, is a false hope. He drifts to the surface of awareness twice — first to empty sheets and the sound of someone, evidently someone with the approximate social graces of an asteroid collision, pacing. Without cracking an eye, he makes an interrogative grunt in the direction of the asteroid in question. The pacing stops. The door hisses, and the asteroid goes out, hopefully to collide elsewhere.
The second time, there is a change in the light. This is probably due to the fact that Nureyev is sitting with a spread of five screens across the surface of the bed. He is dividing his attention between these and a cup of tea, which is giving him no end of trouble by handily transforming his glasses into a personal blindfold. Juno watches this through a fog of his own. Then Nureyev picks up a dispenser, which seems to have been set aside for just this purpose, and dispenses what is unmistakably a massive amount of salt into his tea.
Juno thinks: Gotcha. Definitely dreaming. So he turns over, kicks a screen off the bed — it ejects into the wall with all the enthusiasm of an escape pod — and goes back to sleep.
The third time, he does not drift. He is shot into awareness like a cork from a bottle — and a very shaken bottle at that. As to the culprit of this shaking, Nureyev is highly suspect. He is fully dressed, and the room is fully lit.
With a volume of cheer that should be definitively impossible before at least lunchtime, Nureyev sings, “A very good morning to you, my dear. Up we get. Pluto awaits!”
Because Juno’s mouth has not yet connected with his brain long enough to comprehend the alphabet, he says, “Wh—stgnf?”
“That’s right,” says Nureyev, as if Juno has in fact used something resembling language. “Come along, now. We have quite a voyage ahead of us. You know how it is. Shuttles to catch. Sights to see. Rabble to rob.”
Juno gropes for the sheets, but they are on the floor and seem, for all intents and purposes, to have given up. He takes up arms with a pillow instead, with which he jousts Nureyev in the middle and says, coherently, “Hgmnf.” Nureyev collects the pillow without resistance. They repeat this process until Juno runs out of pillows, by which time he has come into some primordial proto-sentience.
Having tunneled up to the surface of consciousness, which is unnecessarily bright and also very insistent about having thoughts, Juno squints. “Did you say Pluto?”
Sportingly, Nureyev taps him on the nose. “Why, yes, as a matter of fact I did.”
“Is this about…the moles?”
“How very astute of you. Moles Aurum Arx, Juno, is a bank. The most impenetrable in the solar system, some would say. You and I are going to penetrate it.”
Juno stares. In order to do so more effectively, he props himself on an elbow. Slowly, he says, “So…just to make sure I heard that right.”
“You want to go to Pluto.”
“I do think we’ve covered that.”
“Which is on the opposite end of the solar system.”
“Yes, I had noticed.”
“Just the two of us.”
“That’s it, yes. Thick as thieves.”
“At—” Juno peeks at his comms, which he immediately regrets. “Three in the morning?”
“No time like the present.”
“To rob a bank.”
“A bank that, I think you said, has never been successfully broken into?”
“Yes, you’ve summed it up nicely.”
Juno, after the appropriate time to think this over, shrugs. “Sure, why the hell not.”
Sometimes, you just gotta look your maladaptive, emotionally unavailable nihilism in the face, take life by the horns, and rob an outrageously fortified intergalactic bank. It’s basic self-improvement.
When it comes to personal safety, the subject of Juno’s concern is less an impenetrable safety-deposit door than the door now in front of him. Between Buddy and some showy bank, he knows where he’d put his money. But, because he’s been trying out something called accounting for things — new to him, though probably not to the bank — he knocks.
He knocks quite a lot, and is still knocking against the place there had been a door when it punches open.
“Who’s dying, Steel?” Vespa is a one-woman outfit of intimidation for someone who is nonetheless wearing only a bed sheet. She glares piss and vinegar. Juno has found this is not an altogether uncommon condition among medical professionals in his presence.
Because he is terminally incapable of minding his manners, Juno decides this would be a great time to put on his best smug look. “Who isn’t? I hear it happens to the best of us sooner or later, you know.”
Small oversight: She has a plasma cutter. The plasma cutter is now resonating an uncomfortable distance from his internal organs. “Want yours to be sooner? Talk.”
“Yeah, I’m good, thanks. Tell you what, though, is Buddy available?”
“Buddy,” says Buddy, “is happily taken.” She slips behind and, with arms that tip Vespa back at the waist, folds away the plasma cutter between their fingers. “Is there something you needed, darling?”
“Well, funny you should ask because I, uh…I need a favor.”
Vespa snorts. “Ask Ransom. From what I hear he does you plenty of favors every—”
“Okay, that’s — are we really that…? — Anyway, this is gonna sound…weird, and honestly it doesn’t make much sense to me, but I need you to trust me.”
“I’m listening,” says Buddy levelly.
“Great. I need—I mean, Ransom and I need the Ruby.”
In the dark, Buddy’s left eye is the spark of the sun behind the curtain of the clouds. “Why?”
“Don’t really know, actually. Something about moles.”
“Moles,” she deadpans.
“Yeah, I hear they’re into finance.”
“Ah. I take it this is an urgent request.”
“Again, don’t really know.”
“I see. Do you know when can we expect you back?”
“Naturally.” Buddy gives a sigh that flutters Vespa’s hair. “Do you have anything to say, darling, that might inspire my confidence?”
“Eh, I hear Pluto’s nice this time of year. Great for skiing.” This elicits a dual wintery look, and he hastens to add, “But hey, promise to bring back something from the gift shop?”
“The only gifts in which I have an interest are the two of you — and you are gifts, dear. See that you return them intact.” Before he can begin to contemplate the emotional weight of this, she gives a half-smile. “Were you to return damaged goods, it simply wouldn’t be fair to Vespa.”
“No worries there, we’re already—I’m sorry, to Vespa?”
Vespa tilts up a jackknife smile. “You say the nicest things about dismemberment, Bud.”
“If I do, darling, it’s because I simply love you to pieces. And, Juno?” Juno, who is at this point attempting to beat a hasty retreat down the hall, stops mid-shuffle. “A word of friendly advice: I may be at liberty to give you my blessing, but if you borrow that vehicle without consulting our dear Jet, do so at your own peril. Beyond that—”
She draws him into an embrace, which happens, incidentally, to gather him into an altogether tight situation with Vespa. With finality, Buddy says, “Be good.”
In an effort to carry this out to its fullest, Juno then shares a second, albeit more deafening, version of the same conversation with Rita. She is, as he knows she will be, awake to catch the latest developments in Polyhedrons and You: How to Achieve the Ideal Shape in 1701 Days or Less.
So informed of his departure, she is the launch of a seemingly quadrupedal cannonball that bowls into him amidships and then says, as cannonballs are wont to do, “MistaSteelIcan’tbelieveit! You gotta tell me all about it when you come back. This is just like that movie Mista Jet and I saw with the car salesman, except the cars are all van-pires, and he’s got this sinus infection, so he takes the bath sponge—”
And so on.
He is aware by this point that, where Rita is concerned, that the act of breathing is biologically optional. He waits it out.
“—and, oh! Have I got something for you, Boss! You’ll need this—I’ve seen enough streams to guess the plot, believe me. Don’t you worry, Rita’s got just the thing—just you wait—ta da!”
She holds out a shoehorn.
Because he’s not sure she’s aware of this, he says, “Rita, that’s a shoehorn.”
Vigorously, she nods. “You betcha. For all your feat-related needs, of course.”
“Better use it wisely. Okay-now-I’m-missing-the-start-of-my-stream-have-a-good-time-byeeeeee!”
He is left to his to his device — just the one. It’s heavier than it looks.
In the cargo bay, he finds Nureyev reclining, in a passable impression of a hood ornament, against the Ruby’s front fender. He appears to have been there for some time. He is, perhaps not figuratively, dressed to kill. At Juno’s entrance, he breezes off like a slipstream and stretches theatrically. “Ah, just the lady I was hoping to see.” With a flash of a smile, royal blue, he flourishes the keys. “Care to take a ride?”
Juno affords this an eye-roll. “Remind me, again, why we need keys for a car that can write and perform its own damn orchestral symphony.”
“Oh, we don’t. It’s only polite. Coffee?”
Having anticipated this answer, Nureyev is already handing it across. With a wink, he adds, “Sugar?” He thriftily exchanges the cup for a saccharine kiss.
The Ruby 7, heretofore adorning their conversation with a running commentary of chirps, takes this opportunity to emit a particularly lewd whistle.
Juno is too tired by far to be more than petulant to that. “Yeah, yeah. Keep your hubcaps on. Hmph. You did ask Jet before you took his keys, right?”
“Indeed, he was more than forthcoming when I disclosed that it was a matter of life or death.”
Juno’s coffee seems to have become a solid obstruction. He sputters. “Is it a matter of life or death?”
“Well, it’s certainly one of the two, and if my vague prepositional usage leads to certain assumptions I see no reason to correct them.”
Something about this continues to bother him. The ongoing lack of specificity, for one. He sags into the passenger side. “Ugh. You’re impossible.”
“No, my dear, I am Astrophel Bishop, the one and only. And you are my darling wife, Astrid.” So saying, he brandishes the newly forged papers.
“Married again, huh? Third time’s the charm. Guess it does have a certain, uh, ring to it.”
Nureyev laughs with the warmth of a sunbeam. “And which certain ring, in particular, did you have in mind?”
Juno’s internal processes run this and return an error message. “Uh—hold on—”
“To complete the disguise, you understand. I do have a surplus.” To demonstrate, he flexes tastefully jeweled fingers proximal to Juno’s thigh.
Dryly — and dry-mouthed — Juno says, “Of disguises?”
“Of what makes them. Enough to wed us by the dozen, I should think.”
Juno applies himself to a spirited throat-clearing. “That many? You should’ve said. I’d’ve worn something nicer.”
Ripped jeans are perhaps not wedding material, but they are well-ventilated material. At the time, which was an offensive number half-past-haggard, it had felt like a safe choice — or at least a good safe-cracking choice.
“Well, that can be arranged. Arranged nuptials, if you will.” As the Ruby slips them out of the bay, Nureyev slips off a ring and passes it into Juno’s palm. Rose gold, of all things. The warm weight of it sings electric up his arm like he’s been handed a live wire.
It may as well be a ring of Saturn for all he knows what to do with it. If he has reservations about tying the knot, his knotted organs don’t share them.
His brain, presumably because he’s spilled coffee on it, is now speaking to him in smoke-signals. Space, now just one rolled window away, is less empty. The Ruby creaks with pressurization. Juno, also for reasons having to do with pressure, is having a similar problem.
Juno turns on the comms radio.
The radio, which is tuned to the nearest station on Venus, says, “Waste management project inadvertently exposed to general moral relativity, soon to become black hole. More on this as it consumes universe.”
Juno turns off the comms radio.
The point at which he locates the bottom of his coffee cup is the point at which he also locates that they are approaching something suspiciously like planetary orbit. He frowns intently at the enlarging curve of atmosphere strung with satellites, and then, more intently, at Nureyev.
Nureyev returns a pleasant smile, pleasant as a waiting room, and doesn’t say a word. Strike one.
Juno decides to keep his complaints to the point — to one point, in fact — and says, “Nureyev.”
“And who might that be, hm?”
“A headache, actually. Come on, uh—” Astrofuzz? Atastrophe? “…uh, Astroturf?”
A glare descends. Strike two.
“Astrophel.” Then, softer, “An old Earth language. It translates as star-lover. And you, Astrid dear—”
“I’m the star. I get it. You’re not subtle. Neither is that sign we just passed that said Welcome to Venus. So weird, right?”
Because strike three looks a lot like he’s just decided to pick a fight with the bulk of an iceberg — which, historically speaking, doesn’t usually go over well for the offending party — he scrambles to add, “Uh, aaaand that’s what I would say, if I were a complete idiot. Just, uh, warming up. To get in character.” He winces. “I’ll just…take that from the top: So, not that I’m criticizing, but would my, um, loving husband please like to please discuss, please, why we’re taking a very unique route to our destination? Uh, please.”
Why use one word when fifty will do? So far, it’s been a winning strategy. Nureyev, perhaps in spite of himself, defrosts. “Well, since you put it so politely, I’ll tell you we’re taking a very direct route to a destination I like to call breakfast.”
“Oh.” In a very small voice, he says, “I like breakfast.”
Nureyev gives him a wry smile. “Yes, I thought you might.”
Venus, being a widely regarded vacation destination, is naturally unnavigable. Presumably it’s a good time, or at least a lot of trouble to have one operating under the principle you’re expected to do so, but Juno wouldn’t know. Particularly now, as they loop the labyrinthine vortex of spaceport real estate. After a certain number of turns, the material existence of the spaceport begins to seem theoretical.
Any more detours, and there may be several schools of thought devoted to examining the philosophical implications of the all-consuming question, Is There A Spaceport?
For better or worse, it turns out there is. There is also a significant traffic jam. What might have started as an organized system is now a pandemonium of spacecraft all but honking horns, most of which have wisely decided to orient themselves so as to best cause a cross-axial collision.
Of its own accord, the Ruby sees to this with several hairpin turns, a few abrupt stops, and a can-do attitude. Nureyev surrenders the wheel in delight. Juno, as is his custom, gripes along.
The Ruby interrupts his ongoing complaints about the internal condition of his coffee and its unfortunate effects on the state of his bladder with an accomplished ding to announce that it has manifested a drawer. Inside it is a bucket.
Juno promptly clambers it closed. “Great, now I’m getting sassed by the car.”
The Ruby trills the equivalent of blowing him a raspberry.
The port itself is nothing so much as a crack between the couch cushions of the solar system. It is a place where things are dropped off, or picked up, all while very much intending to be anywhere else. Some, indeed, look like they’ve been here long enough to fester, and have a decidedly captive look — these are easily recognizable because of the uniforms and the nametags. In most cases, it is best practice to avoid eye contact.
It is perhaps one of the only places where it is wholly unremarkable to find someone in a full pajama set standing next to someone in a fresh-pressed business suit. In sum, it’s one part hurry-up, one part hold-up, and one part middle-of-the-road, where all roads lead home.
And in the middle, Juno, who doesn’t know if he’s coming or going — and Nureyev, who’s only ever going.
Juno can only hope it’s the same direction, because if it isn’t he’s got an awful lot of packing to do when they get back.
The arrival screens announce, in an impressive variety of languages, that the surface temperature is just this side of plasmic liquefaction, and that the wind speed is, on a scale from entirely-underwater to godlike-sneeze, holding steady at bodily-disincorporation. Briefly, Juno contemplates which of these conditions would, in a contest, be the primary cause of death. It’s certainly one way to visit paradise.
Nureyev is weaving the crowd with expert footwork, and Juno is struggling to keep pace. The first breezeway alone is a drill of sensory input, festooned with light and sound. A dog is barking in an echo chamber of three-headed self-perpetuation. Someone in a floor-length flame gown is tearfully shrieking across their comms at another someone who is either presently or soon-to-be insensate. A child with a negative relationship to spatial awareness makes a point to block his path.
If he looks up, he can see the inside curve of the opposite end of the station mirroring his with artificial gravity. He does not, under any circumstances, look up.
By the end of the next hall, he has involuntarily uncovered the greater details of a domestic dispute, a political coup, a corporate cover-up, and the case of his increasingly absent peace of mind.
A screen the size of a small stadium is in the process of broadcasting all 67 riveting hours of That Weird Speck On Your Wall: Friend or Foe. Another screen the shape of a deflated and possibly surrealist cube announces that Newcity, Hyperion’s own diamond in the rust, is experiencing outstanding economic expansion after the election of the late—
Juno is very good in a crisis. He is very good in having them, and then shooting his way out of them, sometimes even in that order. Unfortunately, under present circumstances there is a disappointing lack of things to shoot.
His foolproof solution to this is to grab Nureyev by the arm, veer them both headlong into an oncoming family carrying a canoe, wrestle said canoe into submission, panic-punch the canoe, and — into Nureyev’s shoulder, which is now the only thing propping him up — gasp, “Need to — sit — now.”
All things considered, he gets a better handling than did the canoe. Nureyev steers him across the current of foot-traffic, away from the main channel, and grounds him on a bench. Searchingly, like he’s steered into uncharted territory, Nureyev says, “What can I do?”
Juno shoots for bluster and hits winded. “Dunno—what—can’t you?”
Nureyev wavers with the barest suggestion of a frown. “Well, I…I can’t say I relish your discomfort.”
Once his lungs have stopped being inside out, Juno says, “Can’t say I’m much of a relish lady, myself. The texture, see, it’s just—” He puts a lid on that. “Yeah, that was bad. Sorry. Back home is—uh—you know.”
Probably he doesn’t, but Juno’s minimal ability to articulate this has recently put in its final notice.
Life in Hyperion is a lot like life with a badly wired smoke detector: Hard to live with, hard to live without, and in either case guaranteed to provoke at least one unanticipated flight-or-flight response. The thing to do, really, when the cost of rewiring the electrical source is inevitably more than the cost of your home, is to consider moving.
He can’t very well put out a fire if he’s still standing in it.
Delicately, Nureyev doesn’t press the matter. He hovers between motions. He speaks methodically, like taming a spooked animal. “Be that as it may…perhaps something more palatable is in order?”
“Yeah, sure. Let’s, uh…go put in an order.”
As it happens, it’s a very tall order. The café takes up the highest level of what might optimistically be a building, well into the color-commotion stratosphere. The suspension leans and sways. Through seamless glass and watercolor wind, the view is expansive: Below, hundreds of wind farms buoy like waterweeds. Above, the docking arms of the port glitter with transit motion.
Overall, it’s a highly unbalanced breakfast.
Juno has by this time exhausted the limited fumes on which he was running, having used the last of them to manually throttle a piece of watersports equipment. Just in case he needs to do it again, he orders a potentially unprecedented amount of espresso.
It’s nearing six, and he’s contemplating a plate of eggs he doesn’t remember ordering and fighting the losing battle of not falling into it.
Shrewdly, Nureyev leans across the table. “I must say, Astrid dear, the crêpes are really quite good. I couldn’t begin to describe the flavor. Try some, won’t you, and tell me what you think it is.”
Somewhere at the end of this, Juno looks up from his untouched eggs to understand the noise he’s been hearing is, with enough concentration, the makings of a sentence. Several of them, directed at him. He watches the word think blow past overhead, and doesn’t.
Not to be discouraged, Nureyev says, “Really, it’s in your best interest if you eat something. We do have a full day ahead of us.”
Juno does his best to give him a narrow eye, but it’s possible he just blinks. He fixes his eggs with the same look and feels his stomach roll over in its best impression of premature death. “How the hell can you eat this early?”
“Oh, my secret is simple.” Over the rim of his third mimosa, Nureyev grins. “With a fork.”
“Here, allow me to demonstrate.” Looking unbearably pleased with himself, Nureyev conducts his fork in Juno’s direction.
In a sure tactical error, Juno opens his mouth to say, “I know how to use a—”
The remainder of this is lost, because it has been replaced with a forkful of crêpe. With as much dignity as he can muster, he chokes it down and says, indignantly, “The word you’re looking for is cardamom. You’re welcome.”
Nureyev brightens. “Ah, is that what it is?” With a look that is deliberately transparent, he adds, “You have such organic talent. I don’t suppose I could persuade you to exercise it on…” His ankle, bare from wingtip to pant-tip, finds Juno’s calf and traces its length. He lowers his voice to a suggestion. “…the fruit salad?”
Juno very nearly expels espresso from his nasal cavities. “O-kay. First of all, you’re dumb. Second of all, you’re aware, right, that we’re in public?”
“Well, that can be easily remedied, if you feel that your daily nutrition is a private affair.” His smile is appropriately crooked. “If you’d like a hand with health benefits, I’m entirely at your disposal.”
“God, stop talking…Wait just a damn second. Are you getting toasted on fruit juice at six in the morning?”
“Of course not. Don’t be absurd. You’ll notice it’s vegetable juice.” Primly, he takes a fresh sip. “Although I did get toasted brioche, if that’s more to your tastes.”
Juno spears him with a hard look. Juno has what he likes to refer to as a working relationship to patience. This is because most of his work relationships have at one point or another attempted to rearrange the organization of his circulatory system with everything from lasers to, in one case, a plastic drinking straw. It had really been their last straw.
He’s very close to reaching his. Thus far, although he’s taken pains not to force the issue, he’s by no means oblivious to it. The documented evidence almost gathers itself.
Figure One: Physical anomaly. Characteristics include increased perspiration, increased heart rate, increased bodily temperature, increased emotional reactivity, and apparently increased consumption of alcoholic vegetable juice.
Figure Two: Deflection. Supporting examples include enthusiastic physical distraction (two counts), chronic inability to give a straight answer, and threats of public indecency.
Figure Three: Indescribable debt. Criteria unknown. Not officially source-verified, due to indeterminate whereabouts of backbone.
Figure Four: Very fine. Lots of nice angles. Perfect posture. Looks great in a star-speckled suit. Currently attempting to make slurping through an umbrella straw look flattering. Sort of succeeding.
Through a bite of brioche, which actually isn’t bad, Juno sighs. “Hey, look. Uh, Astrophel. This whole don’t-ask-don’t-tell thing has been real fun, really it has, but will you please tell me something?”
“Fifteen and a quarter.”
“What is that, your bank balance?”
“The approximate hourly duration to Pluto, if you must know. Give or take a week.”
“A week? How do you take a week from—”
“Always the possibility of an event of quantum-incorrigibility. Temporal turbulence, you know.”
“Uh…huh. Sure, makes sense.” With a point of toast, he absently marches his eggs in formation across the surface of his plate. The potatoes surrender. His toast takes a bit of collateral damage. “Okay. Here’s the thing. Whatever you need, you got it. You want a pair of hands, a second opinion, a bad idea, whatever, you got it. I’m your lady.”
He takes Nureyev’s hand across the table. The wedding ring is there between them, joined in contrast. With a thumb, he maps the terrain of the knuckles, and the long, judicious fingers, and the faint outline of subterranean springs, blue beneath the surface. “So…your lady’s asking. Again. Seriously. Are you in some kind of trouble? Are you really okay? And, just a side note, is this one of those situations where we’re gonna end up tied to torture-chairs, because that’s apparently a thing that keeps happening to us? Like, do we just look like we need a good punch in the mental health, or is this just a common experience?”
“Occupational hazard, I’m afraid.” Nureyev is watching their hands. An expression darts through him the way a lie darts around the truth, there and gone. When he looks up, the lie has snapped neatly back into place. He doesn’t have so much as a hair, a lip layer, a hemline out of place. What’s truly unfair is that he doesn’t even look tired. “Not to worry, though—where we’re going, there won’t be any chairs.”
“I have a feeling I’m gonna regret asking this, but if there aren’t chairs in this bank then what do people sit on?”
“Oh, their wealth, usually.”
“Yep. Don’t know what I expected. But what about the—the—” From the corner of his eye, there is a familiar streak of sporty green descending from a docking arm far into the distance. He watches it move in a direction that looks especially out-from-port. “The—car….is leaving without us? The hell? You’re seeing this, right?”
Nureyev, without sparing it a glance, says, “Oh, yes. That would be because I sold it.”
“You—!” All rational thought blows out of him clean as a hat off his head. He chases it around a few circles and then says, with increasing explosiveness, “You sold the Ruby 7? You can’t just sell the Ruby 7!” This appears to upset the glassware, among other things. He lowers his voice to a less Glass-upsetting volume and hisses, “How could you sell the Ruby 7?!”
“Ah, well. If it’s a question of how, then, governed by the laws of economic exchange—”
“Cut that out. Tell me why.”
“It did fetch a handsome price.”
“Oh, good. For a minute there I was concerned.”
“Do sit down, my dear. We must trust to the discretion of our associate. The situation is entirely under control.”
“What associa—the car? You’re kidding me. It’s never just breakfast with you, is it? Even the car’s in on it.”
“But of course. We shall join our good associate anon. Until then, we have a shuttle line to board, which if I’m not mistaken should have an opening for two in, oh, twenty six and a half minutes.” With measured aplomb, he plucks up his glass and drains it. “Cheers.”
Juno, spectacularly, is fresh out of cheers.
The business of travel wears like an ill-fitted space suit, helmet and all, put together in the dark by someone with an only theoretical understanding of the human anatomy. It’s one of those things that looks glamorous at a distance, in a museum, in a stream, on other people, before it is tried on. But once exposed to the particulars of locomotion, particularly locomotion through the slag-end of several spaceports and then an asteroid belt, what happens is that the lines are too long, some of the buttons for things don’t quite work, managing his bodily temperature has become an advanced science, and he can’t figure out how to use the blasted toilet.
By the second toll bridge — so called because toll-quantum-mechanical-bridge-between-two-points-in-spacetime takes longer to say than to actually pass through, and because toll-wormhole and the abridged toll-hole were previously trademarked in a venture of questionable taste — Juno is living so much on the surface of his skin that he’s not sure what’s occupying the rest of him.
The sitting part is fine enough, which is the most part, but he does not get used to the launch. Compared to the luxury-liner Carte Blanche, it is the difference between being gently encouraged into space and being hurled at it going three thousand clicks-per-hour in a tin can with slingshot acceleration and juddering engines. It’s a very effective method of transportation, if the goal is to transport the contents of his breakfast outside of his stomach.
In the manner of someone with a collapsed lung, he tells Nureyev, “Full disclosure, if we crash I will throw up on you.”
“Don’t worry, dear. That would be physically infeasible.” Nureyev, because he can, takes a long sip of water through all stages of inertia and doesn’t spill a drop. Once en route, he leans in to confide, “You see, if we had in fact crashed, up would no longer be a feasible direction.”
“Hey, great, maybe it’s feasible you shut up.” Still, he shifts closer.
Nureyev, to accommodate this, transfers his pen easily from one hand to the other and goes on populating the corner of a napkin with what might be, on closer inspection, either an accordion or an algebraic equation. The faint strokes of his pen draw the silence.
They hush their way into the soft of space. The atmosphere sighs from the vents in winter mist, so dry his eyeballs itch from the inside out. Light and sound seem to leech out from the cracks.
Distant starlight slants in through the cabin, here and there the flash-pan of a passing ship glinting on Nureyev’s gold or the swathe of a stardust susurrus against the hull.
None of the shuttles crash, but Juno sure does.
How he comes to the conclusion he’s been asleep is that he wakes up. He does this poorly. There is some small distinction between waking and waking up, and he finds it forcibly with the blunt instrument of his skull.
The receiving end of this head-on collision is saying something that quickly goes from, “Astrid, dear,” to “—Mmm.”
Dazedly, he peels the majority of himself off of Nureyev’s shoulder to find he’s been embellishing its bespoke trim with a markedly less-bespoke glaze of saliva. He makes a face at it, wipes his mouth, and aches. “Urk. Sorry.” Then, because Nureyev is rubbing and flexing his jaw, “You ‘kay?”
Nureyev glitters at him, charms and teeth in tandem. “Utterly dreadful. I’ve bitten my tongue. Be a dear, won’t you, and kiss it better?”
Juno thinks it over and decides, for the fun of it, to be a dear. The requisites for this include the strategic tease of a tired smile, the heartstring tug of lapels, and the dear promise — leagues deep, seasons slow — of better, and better, and—
“Better?” Juno draws back by degrees.
Nureyev is how a painted statue might look had someone dropped it and attempted to put it together again behind their back in a hurry. Eyes glued shut, lips apart, one eyebrow an eighth of an inch higher than the other, and lined with stress. Most of the pieces of his expression are having creative differences with one another. He gathers breath and hums a sonorous three-note, “Ju-uu-ust so.”
It’s a very convincing performance, delivered without a single pause for course-correction, resolute to the microscopic level, to anyone whose name does not begin with Ju—.
Juno sits back, licks royal blue from his lips, and offers a very knowing, very shit-eating, look. “Just so, what?”
A consensus is reached, and Nureyev’s expression snaps together, having decided on plaintive. “In a word? Unjust.”
“Just unjust? What am I, the court of law?”
“Well. I wouldn’t take it amiss if you were — I do hear the law has a long arm with which to court.” With a long arm of his own, he draws aside the shade. “But all that aside, may I direct your attention to our illustrious ruler of the underworld: We are, as you can see, approaching orbit.”
They are. The body of Pluto looms, pale as bone.
“You know, when you put it like that, all I hear is ‘Welcome to Hell.’ ”
“Oh, it’s not as bad as all that. Formally, the financial capital of the solar system does have a certain reputation to uphold, but so long as you avoid the municipal districts, and the devastating blade gardens, and the pits of dispossession, and the sea of depression goes without saying, and — hmm, I do begin to see your point.”
The point in question can be seen rapidly closing distance through a veil of kaleidoscope weather, moving from wind to water to frost to fire.
Juno’s about as comfortable with the landing as he is with bursting into hellfire and being dropped from a long way up, which is to some degree — some objectionable degree of down-tilt with some thousands of degrees burning hot on the hull — exactly what happens.
Through this supersonic intestinal inconvenience, Juno sits perfectly still and does not lose his head. This is because it has already declared independence in orbit, and has not yet caught up to the rest of him.
They burst out of cloud cover and coast low to the surface. His sight, operating independently, logs his first view of Pluto: Oblate plains of ice bowing to seas of liquid nitrogen; deep-cut glacial shelves; bladed volleys standing like so many pole-armed cavalry; knife-edged penitentes taller than highscrapers; cryovolcanoes steaming arctic breaths. The shadow of their shuttle runs in parallel, glittering shade.
He repossesses his absent mind in dock. It snaps into place like a dislocated limb, in response to which he stands and bangs his head, yelps, suffers an abundant coughing fit, and promptly sits back down.
Nureyev looks this over and says, “Ah, yes. You make a compelling argument.”
“Well, hey, what do you know. Looks like hell froze over.”
They disembark jointly: Nureyev with an arm tucked neatly into Juno’s side, Juno guided like a piece of disagreeable luggage. Together, they take a pleasant stroll through a blizzard of industry. It’s a cold, hard planet full of cold, hard creds. As far as he can tell, the locals are cut from the same cloth as a burial sheet. The climate-system, much like the arrangement of his skeletal system, is of the mind that comfort is not cost-effective. Which is to say it’s all a bit of a pain in the back.
“Cheery,” says Juno. They’re passing through a square full of those hard at work managing the finances of the solar system, which apparently involves sitting in a square and thinking very hard about shapes. “If this is my grand tour of the stars it’s a real pick of a first stop.”
“They can’t all be winners, I’m sorry to say. Still, one must start somewhere. It certainly isn’t the choicest, but…needs must. We’ll say next stop is the lady’s choice, hmm?”
“Sure. You know what I’d like?”
Neutrally, Nureyev awaits the inevitable.
Juno provides it. “Me either. It’s the worst.”
Within the hour, they’re breathing lung-aching air in front of a frosted plaque that reads Moles Aurum Arx. The plaque boastfully endorses an empty lot, and a lot of empty.
There is a distinct lack of moles. There is also a distinct lack of bank.
Juno Steel, Hyperion’s finest, concentrates the better part of thirty-nine years of investigative experience and observes: “Huh. Bank’s gone.”
This prompts a flat look. “Why, Detective, I think you may be onto something.”
“Yeah. People’s nerves, usually.” After a second’s worth of second-thought, he adds a bit of spit-polish to that. “But—but maybe—er, hrm—I think I may be onto someone.” Lamely, he adds, “Y’know, like. Coming onto.”
With the intensity typically indicative of a massive dose of Martian irradiation, Nureyev blooms. He smiles like he was born to do just that, arranging his face into an ingratiating display, there for the punching. “Astrid, you flirt! My sweet sun and stars, darling dearest, you spoil me. You—”
“Yep, okay. Gonna stop you there, before all my teeth fall out.”
Nureyev, who by nature collects expressions with the same meticulous attention as he collects clothes, strips to a collected serenity. Easy as rolling up his sleeves. “Be that as it may, you’ll find the bank remains, I assure you, in this very spot. Alas, it’s business practices aren’t what you might call aboveground.” He has turned his attention to a sweep of the lot. “Now, there should be an entrance—”
Juno spots it first. A line with an arrow, obscured by long disuse, says only p-ea- wa-t -er-. He spends a longer moment than he’d like to admit contemplating the morally objectionable nature of pea water before he understands the instruction for what it is. Please wait here.
They do. Nureyev leans a forearm against Juno’s shoulder and crosses his ankles in pleasant repose. Juno stuffs his fists into the pockets of his blazer — formerly Nureyev’s blazer prior to the rise of the incredibly touchy subject of pulling it off — and nearly loses his fists.
Below, something is booming and busting its way to the surface. The ground quakes, then rummages apart. An elevator, propelled by the expedient of a considerable number of overinflated balloons, rocks to a stop in front of the line.
Vocally and with palpable ennui, the elevator says, “Ding.”
Juno stares. With what he feels is commendable fluency given the state of things, he says, “That’s. What’s. Uh.” And then, “What’s an elevator doing with balloons?”
“It’s doing it’s best, dear.” The elevator, at this suggestion, sighs morosely. “See? It’s an economy of design, truly, but I’m afraid it may be depressed.”
“Wh—okay, but why? Why—this?”
“They needed to make the numerous death traps accessible, of course.”
“Well, okay, that’s a necessary and reasonable—backup, death traps?”
“Is there, just throwing this out there, a way into the bank with less death traps?”
“Not as such. There is only one way in or out of Moles. Closed-door policy, and all that.”
“Ding,” repeats the elevator, now with an edge of impatience.
“Come on. How does the staff get in or out?” says Juno, ignoring this.
Grimly, Nureyev says, “Oh, they don’t. That would go against productivity, you understand.”
“I don’t, actually. And while we’re on the subject, where’s the Ruby 7?”
“Wouldn’t you know, just this morning it’s been deposited for safekeeping by a trusted account holder.”
He has to hand it to Nureyev: The man sure knows how to pick a target. By this point, Juno thinks he’s already had it with the bank, and he hasn’t even set foot in it. “So, what, we’re gonna take a ride into the financial underworld, cheat death, break the bank, and steal the same car twice?”
“More or less, precisely! Perhaps even in time for a star-side dinner.”
“Ha, I wouldn’t bank on it. Hey, here’s an idea: Why didn’t we just go in the same way the car did?”
This receives a withering look. “Well, now you’re just being far-fetched.”
“Well, now so’s the car,” Juno points out reasonably. “Car-fetched.”
Juno, in a long-suffering and well-meaning show of solidarity, looks at a risk-prone one-way trip to hell, which seems to be holding on by only a few balloon-threads, and steps in. As one does. He can’t say the balloons are a solid choice, being predominantly gaseous, but they do add something uplifting to the design.
The doors shrug shut after them. The elevator says, “Going down.” Dismally, it adds, “Always down. No one ever takes me up, you know.”
On the side-paneling, a set of foreboding slash marks is rusted into the corrugated metal. Juno peers at these, and at the accompanying set of roughly head-sized dents, and says, “Y’know, some people might say that spells trouble.”
Nureyev follows his line of sight. “Ah. Actually, that’s a dialect of outer Scutum. If transliterated to our standard alphabetic system, it spells—pardon my accent—HYEEARGH.”
“…Huh. And what’s that mean?”
Crisply, Nureyev says, “Good luck.”
“At least the writing on the wall is polite, I guess.” Juno points out another. “What about that one?”
“Oh, that’s just a foreboding slash mark.”
They deflate to a stop. The doors yawn apart.
By way of departure, the elevator tells them to, “Have a day.”
Beyond the ramp is a space as open as Juno’s open mouth.
“That’s…a lot of wet.” He fixes the wet with a look of deep suspicion. “I mean, it’s very…water.”
“Yes,” agrees Nureyev kindly. “I suppose it is.”
Water, serving as an essential component of survival for all organic life — with the exception of his office plant which, perhaps uninformed of this fundamental requirement, had nevertheless slogged on despite the lack — wasn’t hard to come by on Mars, so long as it came from a tap. It’s just that he’s never seen so much of it all at once.
It’s a reservoir. Carved columns project from still, silver shallows up to the vaulted ceiling. The room is dim, and deep, and damply brackish. Curls of fog condense to the surface and swirl against the serried columns. An overpass being contradictory to the general purpose of a death trap, there is not a one in sight.
Much as one might for any such grand quantity of a non-naturally occurring substance — an upsetting quantity of oat milk, for example — Juno squints at it and prods it with the end of his blaster.
Nureyev is busy consulting a spread of maps on his comms. “Ah-ha. We must be in Liquid Reserves.”
With a certain reserve of his own, Juno says, “That right?”
“It’s all the liquid that hasn’t trickled down, you see. They did have to put it somewhere.”
“Sure, yeah, they’re really swimming in it. Which, by the way, just so happens to remind me: I can’t. Uh, swim.”
“Oh? I’d be delighted to provide you with the broad strokes.” To put this into practice, he strokes, slow and sure, down the length of Juno’s spine.
Juno’s spine does something that defies millions of years of careful vertebral development. His brain isn’t far behind. “You know, you’re a real piece of work.”
Nureyev puts on an indulgent smile. “Personally, I find that a bit of hard work can be dearly rewarding.”
“Yeah, well. That must be why I’m married to it.” He tries, with limited success, to wink. And that, oddly enough, is what works. Like a charm.
It’s a small thing. Astrophel Bishop, the man and the mask, preens. But his smile turns crooked, only just — just a sliver of a full moon — and that’s Peter Nureyev.
All told, his charm could probably use a bit of work, but that, he thinks, is worth the work. And then some. And then somehow they’re a pair of fools smiling at each other in a room designed specifically to kill them.
In the interest of work, they move down, scoping the way step for step, and into the water. Nureyev moves through it like a knife’s edge. Juno, unacquainted with the traditional practicalities of a large body of water, moves through it like an oversized avian pachyderm unprepared for any lengthy period of weight-bearing existence. He barges, sinks, surfaces, and slops, gasping and gurgling — before coming to the understanding that the water level is, in fact, only waist-high.
Juno decides that water is worth avoiding like his life depends on it.
The room is still. Closed, as far as he can see. The water stirs in little currents down his legs. Fog shapes and shifts, flush to the surface.
Juno scans. Nureyev sticks close to his blind spot.
“So what do you think?” says Juno, warming to the subject. “Does this hold up as a honeymoon destination? Show of stars? I’m thinking three out of five.”
“Given that our relationship seems built on a healthy foundation of running for our lives, it does follow the thread. I take it you’ve had enough?”
Juno shoots a coy look over his shoulder. “Honey, you had me at death traps.”
The death traps, as a matter of fact, have them at a choke point. The shapes in the fog become something very close to solid. Something solid that has teeth like metal coins, and jaws that lock with a jail-cell clink, and what could potentially be a business tie, rising near-exponentially on high. Several of them, closing in from all angles.
Nureyev says: “Oh, dear. Loan sharks.”
Juno says: “Buzz off. We’re on our honeymoon.”
The sharks do not buzz off. They buzz with razor-edge dorsal fins ready to make a killing.
Helpfully, Nureyev adds, “Not to be confused with the marine animal, of course, which is largely nonviolent, critically endangered, and also does not engage in fraudulent moneylending.”
The loan sharks advance. They don’t much look like they’re fishing for a handshake.
“You really shouldn’t eat us right before swimming,” Juno tells the sharks. “It could be very unsafe.”
Manifesting several times more cutlery than should in good faith be possible, Nureyev says, “Stand back, dear. I’m going to cut us a deal.”
“Wait, wait, wait. Isn’t this a bank? Aren’t loan sharks supposed to work outside the system or something?”
The loan sharks, forced to come to terms with the metatextual anatopic fallacy of their position, decide to cut their losses and leave.
And that’s that. After a shaky moment of near-death-experience, and a watery moment of looking at one another, and another watery moment of looking at the walls, they find a well-concealed maintenance passage and proceed.
Up a ladder, down a stairwell, over a range of lefts and rights, and through a tunnel. Dripping all the way. Nureyev is back to an absorbed study of his maps.
They come to an intersection.
Nureyev considers the sections, considers his map, and says, “This way.”
A very short while passes.
They come back to the intersection. Nureyev says, on second consideration, “That way.”
“This,” says Juno from personal experience, “is what happens when you don’t look to see which hand makes an L shape.”
After this, death traps abound. What doesn’t kill them, as a rule, makes them stronger bruises. These are, by order of appearance:
- A wind vortex. (Juno: “Is it me, or is it a little drafty in here?” Nureyev: “Ah, yes. That would be the Unexpected Overdraft.”)
- A treacherous spike pit. (Pitfall of the Widening Wage Gap, according to the map.)
- An incomprehensible logic puzzle. (The universally insurmountable Security Questions.)
- An eldritch cipher that drives all witnesses to a state of being just really angry. (Legally binding contract. Juno, having prior to this knowledge mistaken it for trash and stepped on it: “Look, I didn’t read even when I had two functioning optic nerves.”)
- Jurassic bees. (Well At Least It’s Not Angry Bees, presumably so-named because the bees had not seen the aforementioned legally binding contract.)
And, if all this wasn’t enough, that contract had given him a bit of a paper cut, too.
Eventually, after this small bit of difficulty, they reach a door. Juno reaches it first, sizes it up, and deems the life-threatening potential of opening it negligible. What follows is: Juno opens the door. Juno sees what looks like a sixty-foot glowing nostril (feet being all the more terrifying because he does not observe the Imperial system of measurement). Juno says, “Nope,” and shuts the door.
From here, they find themselves — windswept but dry, mostly unimpaled in all the places that matter, and suffering from roughly five separate headaches at once — on the threshold of an entrance hall, on the cusp of which is a sign that says, To Lobby.
The hall is a very discouraging shade of retinal detachment. It is punishingly purple. It’s a neon nightmare from one end to the other, humming with laser light. If he squints, he can just see it—gossamer threads, plexiform like a silver spider web. An electric grid.
Juno throws out an arm, because Nureyev nearly walks right into it.
In the wary pause that follows, Juno leans across to say, “Wait, wait, don’t tell me, I’ve got this one: We’re in the Collection Charges.”
Nureyev glances at the map. “No—actually, its just Death Lasers.”
“Oh. Kinda straight to the point, huh.”
“Hmm.” Nureyev palms something from his pocket — a breath mint — weights it, and tosses it into the center of the room.
A pause. A click. The room whites out. Electricity sings floor to ceiling. Static cracks hot-cold to the soles of his feet. A terrible silence, and the air precipitates a shock of solid afterglow that drops like confetti. Glitter ghosts to the floor.
In summary: “Well, hell.”
Nureyev inclines his chin. “I believe you mean fresh hell.”
“Good point. Minty fresh hell. Do it again.”
Pause. Click. This time, Juno doesn’t blink. The room lights up — but not all of it. The charge arcs around the field, and there’s an opening that moves in the space of a second.
After that, he has to take a moment to get reacquainted with his last remaining retina. He spends an unpleasant few seconds blinking at the floor.
Nureyev is reclined against the polymer-polish wall, waiting. “Do you have any thoughts?”
Juno returns a speculative look. “I try not to, if I can help it.”
A mild stare. Nureyev tilts his head back against the wall and attempts to maintain the stare from behind his eyelids.
“Alright, so. Here’s a brand new thought.” Juno fixes him with a look that is what a pin is to a length of string on a case chart. “Are. You. Okay.”
Probably not exceptionally diplomatic, insofar as he’s capable, but by this point he’s getting a little testy about the whole thing. It’s worth a shot, anyway.
Nureyev, under the name “star-lover” and in a suit of stars, completes the trifecta with a starry-eyed smile and says, predictably, “Stellar, in fact. Thank you for asking.”
Juno sighs. “Sure. You’re welcome. Looks to me like Death Lasers may cause death. Who knew.”
“Yes.” Around a jaw-cracking yawn, Nureyev says, “It would seemmm—mm—that we are in unmitigated mortal peril.”
“Why do I get the feeling you’re not very…concerned about that?”
“Oh, I am. Our chances of survival are incredibly slim. It’s only that I really am quite tired, you know.”
Juno can’t possibly imagine why, but he manages, with no small difficulty, to restrain himself from saying as much. Things being what they are, which is to say probably not capable of getting much worse, he instead says, “Well, the lasers are plenty energetic. I can pick out an opening, but it’s gonna be a hell of a tight squeeze. The charge sort of…dances around the field. So.” He holds out a hand. “Wanna…show it how it’s done?”
Well, there’s only one answer to that. Nureyev smiles. Or rather, his face does something with set of muscles connected to a jaw, and he makes it look charming. In Juno’s considered opinion, it just looks…worn out. Still, there’s a thread of something — frayed, perhaps, but there — that goes right down to the muscle of his heart, and squeezes.
Nureyev takes his hand, and he squeezes that, too.
So, they dance. Juno looks, and Nureyev leads. They move in step to starbursts. To gemstone glitter. To a tailspin tempo, charged with static. Step/crack, buzzing the length of his body. Step/crack, with the heat of hips against his. Step/crack, and the air runs ice-hot, and the color runs together, and his breath runs short, and his head just runs.
His mouth, too, is overrun — “Left, left, shit, my left, yes, righthererighthere” — but it isn’t language. It’s only noise. The real language is between them, spoken into existence one touch at a time. It’s his body’s turn to speak, now. And it says:
For better / “Signed, your better half,”
And they turn in celestial orbit.
For worse / “Don’t…walk away from me!”
And dawn breaks silver on the turns.
For sickness / “Oh, dreadfully love-sick,”
And there’s silver on the points of those teeth.
For poorer / “Tell me, Detective: Do you like to gamble?”
And silver on the tongue behind them.
They’re across. They’re gowned in afterglow glitter. There’s a thunderclap in Juno’s chest that speaks in his bones with the sound of forever.
And Juno, because he’s resumed partial jurisdiction of his mouth — fifty percent on a good day — says, “That. Uh. That was. Hmm.” He thinks about this for a moment. Because it’s lacking something, he decides to tack on, “I mean, shit.”
Nureyev blinks, a little wide in the eyes, and says, “Well put.”
They don’t kiss, not with their mouths, which are still lagging somewhere behind, but with their open eyes, and open hands, and in them, open hearts.
After a while, Juno takes a half-step back and shakes himself. Nureyev takes a half-step forward and sways.
“Oh—whoa, hey. Are you, uh. Are. Uh.” Juno’s not sure how to ask, anymore.
Just as soon, Nureyev is straightening the ends of his sleeves, making a valiant attempt to salvage what remains of his suit. Several buttons seem to come loose at the suggestion. “Yes, yes, just a bit of—bank balance.”
“I…sure. Yep.” Absently, he brushes some of the electric glitter from the front of his blazer.
Nureyev gives Juno a very put-together look. That is, a look that’s a lot of things put together.
He’s Glass in the eyes, and Rose on the rise of his cheeks, and held together at Ransom.
It occurs to Juno, belatedly, that these are the pieces of a man who is fine, fine, fine not because he’s lying, but because he has to be — because he can’t be anything else.
They follow the direction of the sign that says To Lobby, hand in hand. The entrance is a sealed door that has a handle, or maybe a knob, underscored with the label push, or maybe pull. In the center is a slot.
From the door slot, a disembodied voice declares, in automated, bureaucratic tones, “Welcome, customer. Your custom is very important to us. Before you proceed, please consider a customary donation, in support of the Corporate Tax Avoidance fund.”
Juno does not consider donating creds, but he does consider donating his foot.
The door goes on. “Please note: All customers that do not provide a customary donation will not be permitted to enter, and will be atomized at the earliest convenience.”
That changes things. Or it would, if he’d brought any change.
“Please prepare for total atomization in 5…4…”
This is apparently the part where they’re going to be counted to death.
Numbers, he thinks. Nothing good ever comes of numbers. That’s what started this whole bank business.
Juno looks at Nureyev. Nureyev shakes his head. Bank robbers don’t generally tend to take money into the bank.
Juno is tearing through empty pockets in order to prevent something tearing through his atomic structure. He’s coming up with nothing. There’s something important, he thinks. Something he’s forgetting.
Probably his wallet.
Oh. He’s got it.
There is the sound of high-powered machinery coming online.
This doesn’t bother him, because he’s got: A shoehorn. For all his feat-related needs. Because he’s been instructed to use it wisely, he makes the wise choice of stuffing it enthusiastically into the door-slot.
There is the sound of high-powered machinery experiencing catastrophic failure.
“Oh,” says the door, as if it wasn’t expecting this. “I really can’t stand shoe-ins.”
And, because it can’t stand, it falls over. It swings once and knocks flat to the floor.
Juno is smiling as he steps over it. With conviction, he tells the room at large, “Rita, you’re fired.”
Though he has no evidence to substantiate this, he likes to think somewhere on a ship seven planets out is an answering smile that says, “Told ya, Mista Steel.”
Nureyev, for his part, observes all this with a measure of mystification. He seems to take it in stride, right across the threshold and into, finally—
The Lobby. It looks, at first glance, like a tunnel. It looks like that on second glance, too, because it is. The furnishings teeter on rounded floors, and the walls are clashed with painted stripes that spin in his head. It’s unclear whether it’s in repair or disrepair.
Nureyev drapes a glittering, marital arm around his waist and escorts him to what might, under different circumstances, be the front desk. Here, it’s the off-center desk. And standing at the off-center desk is someone whose off-center nametag has the name Shift Worker.
Shift Worker does not look surprised to see them. Shift Worker does not look capable of experiencing surprise.
Nureyev has inserted, surgically, a spring into his step that blossoms to honey from his mouth. There’s a dash of “Hello there!”, a pinch of “If you don’t mind, of course,” a good helping of “my darling wife and I” — here, he drums his fingers against the crest of Juno’s hip — and an unaccountably toothsome smile.
Shift Worker diligently waits for Nureyev to finish, then says, “Please hold.”
This turns out to be a very helpful suggestion, because not five seconds later the floor turns out. The entire lobby, stripes spinning, rotates. Juno grabs Nureyev, Nureyev grabs the desk, and the desk screeches. Juno, who also tends to emit high-pitched noises of distress when rapidly relocated, does. Shift Worker just goes on working. All together, they trip and tumble, slide, and Shift, to a stop.
After this, it’s so quiet he can hear a pen drop. Six pens. They roll off the edge of the desk, one after another, and off across the floor.
“Sorry about that,” says Shift Worker. “Upper Management operates on a rotational basis. Would you like a Fresh Mint?” He offers a bowl, flush with the gloss of candy wrappers.
“Uh—Sure, thanks.” Juno takes one, but the wrapper is empty. Another. Empty. “Wh—hey, what gives?”
Shift Worker shrugs. “It was always a false construct.”
Juno squints. “I don’t get it.”
“That’s all right. Technically, no one does. You wanted to make a deposit, Mister—” They look uncertainly at Nureyev. “Ass-trope?”
“Astrophel,” corrects Juno, irritated now. “And Astrid. And that’s Mr. and Mrs. Bishop, to you.”
Nureyev smoothes this over with a chuckle — and with a fingertip, which has found the inside hem of Juno’s pants. Juno squirms.
“Perfectly all right. I’m sure we can all agree,” says Nureyev, pausing to let this sink in, “to be civil about this. Now, before we conduct our business I was hoping you might answer a few questions. I have some security concerns, you understand.” He gives Shift Worker a very pointed look. “In the event of a break-in.”
Shift Worker blinks. “We don’t get break-ins.”
“Oh, of course not, of course not. But just, unlikely as it may be, if it just so happened that you did,” Nureyev sharpens the look to for instance now, “I have some questions.”
That does the trick.
“Oh.” Shift Worker shares with Nureyev a look of perfect understanding. “Yes. Yes, absolutely. How can I help?”
“So glad you asked. Your walls — are they synthetically reinforced?”
“Yes, Sir. With trust, Sir.”
“Good, good. And your alarm?”
“I feel I’m a two out of ten, Sir. You’re very polite, Sir.”
“So good of you to say. Do you happen to know where I might access your database?”
“In the next room, Sir. May I make a suggestion, Sir?”
“But of course!”
“Thank you, Sir. It’s only that, if it so happened, as you say, that we had a break-in…well, in that case, I think it might look better if I was…what you might call out to lunch. Sir.”
“An excellent suggestion. Just one last thing—you’ve been a great help, terribly kind—just one small, little thing,”—the hand on Juno’s hip taps him instructively just above his holster—“do you, by any chance, have a heart condition?”
“No, Sir. Not that I know of. Why do you—”
Juno stuns them without fanfare. His blaster is back at his hip before they hit the floor.
Nureyev circles the desk and checks first the condition of their heart, and second the condition of their pockets. He isn’t taking things out—he’s putting them in. With finality, he tells them, “Pleasure doing business with you.” Then, softer, “Thank you, my dear.”
“Sure.” Juno hazards a slant look. “I mean, hey, that’s why you married me, right? Because I’m stunning?”
A pen seems to have unexpectedly materialized in time for Nureyev to roll his foot on it. He executes something that is the friend of a friend of a cousin twice-removed of tripping, which mostly just looks like a slow walk. For him, it’s the equivalent of having accidentally acquired an additional third foot and still not being able to find any of them.
“…Something I said?”
“No, no. Just the—minor inconvenience—of mild cardiac failure.”
Juno waits for this to be a joke. He waits some more. “Oh. You’re…not kidding.”
“Afraid not.” This appears to be the end of the conversation.
With some amount of difficulty, Nureyev picks his way into the next room, to a set of terminals. Juno follows, with all but the parts of him that are still processing, which is most parts. Some walking happens, with legs even, which is how he works out that he must have legs, although he’s not too sure whose.
“Okay. Cool. Great. This is fine.” Mild cardiac failure. Those are words. Juno is not panicking. He’s only having a mild mental failure. Without much hope, he says, “Would you like to share something with me? You know, like, anything?”
Nureyev, who is at one of the terminals and possibly losing a battle of wits with its operating system, gives him a look that’s more or less preoccupied. The part that’s more is comprised of sweat and glitter, but the part that’s less gives him a little teeth. “Yes, I would. The rest of my life.”
Juno is having difficulty swallowing past the heart beating in his throat. Hoarsely, he says, “And—you got an estimate on how long that’s gonna be, exactly?”
“Somewhere between five minutes and five decades, roughly speaking. Oh, drat.”
There begins the overhead blare of a klaxon alarm, which sounds not unlike two wet balloons being rubbed together in front of a speaker. In response, a swarm of sentinel bots drop in, all buckets of laser-bolts.
“Oh, neat,” says Juno. “I was just thinking, you know what this situation could really use is more lasers.”
Remotely, Nureyev pulls out the car keys. He presses a button. Either whatever was supposed to happen doesn’t, or if it does, it’s something strictly between the keys and the car. On that, Juno is not inclined to speculate.
After that, things become a little heated.
Juno decides, as long as it’s a life-threatening emergency, he may as well shoot his shot. So, he holds his breath, holds his blaster, and shoots:
“Alright, well, if you’re not gonna say anything, then I will. You just stop me if I’m wrong, how’s that?” He waits to be stopped. He isn’t stopped. That’s fine. “Fine. You’re in some kind of debt. Yeah? You don’t have a trendy bracelet, so, correction: You’re in some kind of illegal debt. And, wow, would you look at that, here we are, in an illegal bank. Just spitballing here, but whatever they’ve got on you, it must be pretty huge, because apparently it’s killing you. How am I doing so far?”
“That…would seem to be the heart of the matter.”
Nureyev is doing his best to look like a person with an individual face. The bots are doing their best to look unfavorably threatening.
“Good. Great.” He has to raise his voice to be heard over the approaching sound of impromptu laser-surgery. “Here’s the thing, and I remember this, because I don’t think I’m ever going to forget it: Vespa screened us. She cleared you. Clean bill of health. So either you can fool a goddamn bioscanner, or—hey, watch it, you lousy—or you entered into a financial contract with fatal consequences. So, just to be clear, you put your life on the line.”
“Strictly speaking, yes. A dotted line.”
“Hey, glad we cleared that up. On a related note, I’m angry.”
“Truly, I’m simply shocked to hear it. If you must know—goodness, do look out behind you, dear—freedom is an investment well worth the cost. Moles Aurum Arx brokers in more than all that glitters. It was an advantageous position for me, to be in the business of information. An informed decision can make all the difference. Oh, my life was collateral of course, but it was hardly more than an administrative detail.”
“You know what? I don’t care. I really don’t. I just don’t get what’s so damn important that you’d be willing to—hey, get off my husband you good-for-nothing—to throw your life away—”
“Well now, I’m sure if you cast your mind about, maybe for the good long while it may take you—your head, love, watch your—then you might be able to think of some reason why the management of secrecy might appeal to me. Freedom of choice, perhaps?”
“You sold your soul for that? That’s—ow, ow, ouch—oh, thanks, wow that’s a big knife—that’s not a choice. That’s not what a choice is. God, why do I have to keep—That’s the whole point of a choice, is that you’re always giving up something. You don’t get to cut all ties to—to identity, to people, to consequences—and call it freedom. That’s like—like—throwing a poker game. It only looks like you’re winning. If you’re not leaving something behind, you’re not moving on, you’re just…moving.”
“And yet, I fail to see how what I did in our time apart concerns you.”
“It concerns me because I’m concerned. Because I care about you. Because I lo—”
“That would be misplaced. The situation is well within my means. I am perfectly capable of—of—” A naked stare grinds the whole world to a halt, right on Juno’s shoulders. Seconds pile up, rear-ending one into another. “…what?”
“I—nng—look, I’m not asking for you to tell me anything you don’t want to tell me. You don’t have to explain yourself to me. I’m just asking you, no, begging you to be honest. You don’t have to impress me, okay? You don’t have to bring me the goddamn stars on a string. We’re not—this isn’t—I trust you. I’m here. I’m not going anywhere. I’ve got you. And you don’t, you don’t, you don’t, you d o n ’ t have to be okay.” He’s out of breath. There’s no room for it, next to all the raw feeling. Quieter, he says, “…but…you do have to talk to me. Um. Please.”
“Oh.” The moment shimmers on Nureyev’s face — faces — like heat vapor. Or maybe that’s just the lasers. “I’m. I—well.”
Juno, a bit sheepish now, gives a little half-laugh. “…and maybe you could bring just, like, one star.”
Nureyev doesn’t say anything, which is a feat in itself, but his eyes — his eyes are star-bright. Everything turns to liquid just looking at him.
Nope. No time for that.
Two bots left. Their tactical expertise seems limited to either perforating his insides from afar or diving at them from above. He shoots the farthest. Grabs the nearest. Swings. The farthest is polite, as far as rust-buckets go: polite enough to combust, spin out into a rack, combust the rack, and spin no more. The nearest bucket is rude, and catches his sleeve to swing him with it.
He’s airborne now, punching up for all he’s worth. Circuitry is fizzing and popping in his ear. This seems to confuse the bucket, judging by the wall into which it slams his face.
He’s having trouble seeing the advantage of this — or seeing anything at all — but it is, at least, the last of them. From somewhere inside the wall, Juno extracts the last of himself. His nose isn’t broken, but he’s none too sure about—
About Nureyev. Nureyev is on the floor.
Juno is across the room in strobe-motion, clumsy with it. A tug behind him, caught on something, cord on his foot, keep going, something sharp, corner of the desk, and he claps to the floor.
“Are,” he says, is all he can say, “are—”
Nureyev takes a short breath. “No,” is the answer and, of course, always has been. “No, I don’t suppose I am.” He balances on the edge of a frown. He looks at Juno, there to catch him, and lets the balance fall in favor of the frown. “I’m…sorry. I should have said.”
“Hey, I get it. I-I shouldn’t have—”
Nureyev shakes his head, slow but sharp. “Nothing to forgive, but time is short. I realize I’ve asked so much of you already, but would you…” For lack of better descriptive capacity, he waves a hand at the terminals.
“Yeah, I, of course. I…can do that.”
This is a lie. Computers, as far as Juno is concerned, are a matter of some cosmic malfeasance that must be dealt with the same way one deals with bad weather: take shelter, run for your life, or in the event things become explosive, wear protective clothing. He looks doubtfully at the terminal, then at Nureyev. “Uh. Just to check, your life is like one hundred percent riding on this, right?”
“Utterly,” says Nureyev, helpfully. “It’s simple enough. All you’ll need to do is” — for moments like these, Juno’s mind has adapted, in the unlikely event that he is required to undergo the mental stress necessary to comprehend technical language, to freeze all functions in order to conserve vital systems, and so what he actually hears is more akin to a series of ancient dial-up noises that go kshhhuuurrrrchchchrrrreeeee-bing-beep-buzz-bong! — “and there you are.”
Juno does not ask where there is. He tries, on the whole, not to look like someone who has just heard the soundtrack to an emergency. He swallows. “Huh. That simple?”
There are a frightening number of keys on the terminal that are, despite being virtual, sticky. There are a frightening number of blinking lights. There are a frightening number of numbers.
Beneath him, Nureyev has reset himself a bit, back against the cabinetry. He tips his cheek against Juno’s thigh, glasses atilt. Juno feels, with seismographic sensitivity through this one point of contact, the snap-string shiver of tension. It runs, fever runs, all through him. “Would you like to know what it was,” says Nureyev, faintly now, “the question that I couldn’t afford, with every credit to my every name, to answer?”
“Damn sure would. I mean, if—only if you want to tell me.”
There is a moment where Juno’s not sure if Nureyev is going to tell him, after all. The weight against his thigh sinks. A heavy breath muffles into the denim of his pants, heat and gooseflesh on his skin. And then, with words that break in Juno’s heart, one after the other, Peter Nureyev asks:
And that, thinks Juno, is how to commit a crime in four words.
The universe collapses a little, to the size of a room. He’s not sure if that’s him, shaking at the knees, or Nureyev.
The terminal, which does not sympathize, locks him out for his trouble.
He reaches down with one hand, still puzzling with the other, and traces up from Nureyev’s hairline, down the fraction of a face. Willing him together. His skin is blazing, and Juno’s fingers feel numb-cold in comparison.
“He’s…” Juno stops, due mostly to constricted airway.
An artist is, he decides, the word for it. Escape artist, yes, and con artist (and, doesn’t he know it, pick-up artist), but also makeup artist, and character artist, and performance, and design, and on one memorable occasion, a cat with compound eyes. Peter Nureyev looks at the world, and the world paints him a picture.
“He’s not gonna die,” Juno says instead, trying for composure, “because something says his number is up. That’s what.”
Against his knee, Nureyev makes a small sound that, given enough lung capacity, might be a groan.
Juno, fortunately for all involved in the matter at hand except the computer, is not an artist. The main thing, the important thing, about PI work is not the picture. It’s the pieces.
No, Juno is a deconstructionist.
And he has never met a computer he couldn’t, given any length of time in his presence, deconstruct. It is perhaps one of his greatest unsung talents, that a computer has never done to him anything so unprecedented as turn on.
The terminal, perhaps sensing this, decides to save time and get a head start on smoking. There’s a considerable amount of it. He’s tapping keys, and lights are flickering out with a pervasive electrical smell. Screens all across the room go dark in concert. Fans go silent. Servers sever connection.
The mere thought is enough for numbers, debts and dividends and databanks, to delete themselves in their haste to malfunction.
For one golden instant, Juno thinks he’s won. The room is winding into silence.
Nureyev is shivering in earnest, thrumming entropy as if to fly apart at any second. His eyes are closed.
Juno melts to the floor, and Nureyev wilts with him, too easily, into his lap.
“Hey, how—talk to me, how are we doing?”
Nureyev gives him the barest crack of an eyelid. “Talk to you,” he says, ponderously, like he’s sounding out the words. “Is that all its ever been?”
“All the places we talked about, among the stars.” There’s the ghost of an expression, maybe, or the expression of a ghost.
“Yeah, I…remember. Uh. You’re freaking me out right now. Like, a lot.”
“Oh, but the last place I wanted to take you, Juno…” His head dips. “Juno, Juno, Juno, ” he insists to Juno’s side.
Wanted. Past tense.
“I’m,” Juno almost can’t make the noise to speak, “here—I’m—”
And that’s the very worst part. He is. Finally, he is, and finally, they are.
You don’t have to go, he thinks, wants to say, again. And again, and again, and again. His chest is tight with the unspoken words. You don’t have to do this.
There won’t even be a note.
“The last one,” and it’s almost a whisper, “that was the very best one.”
“I wanted to take you—” An alarmingly pale smile. “—and take you—”
And now he’s really crying, aching with it. His heart is between his ears, thundering, and Nureyev’s—
Isn’t. He can see the length of his throat, moon-light, but he can’t see any pulse.
“Astro—” No, to hell with that, “Nureyev.”
All the stars go out in silence.
Grief guts him like a knife wound, as involuntary as bleeding. It pours out of him. He is boneless with it, miserably.
A matter of life or death, Nureyev had said. And it had come to this.
Except there is also the small matter that, generally speaking, it is best practice to assume, in most cases, that the dearly departed do not, as a rule, wheeze when their chests are sobbed into, or say things like, “ow,” when the majority of their hair is tenderly seized by the root.
Heavily, Nureyev opens his eyes. Haltingly, he breathes.
And Juno, with a face in want of at least a dozen tissues, stares.
“Nureyev,” he says — hasn’t stopped saying — with appreciable congestion.
“Uf,” says Nureyev, which is the customary response when crushed to someone’s chest. Limply, a little smilingly, he adds, “…am I?”
Juno, feeling thoroughly irrigated, nods. “Hey,” he manages. “It’s, uh—” A laugh. “Been awhile.”
The pieces of his vocabulary crack and run together a bit, having been accidentally exposed to water damage.
Nureyev makes a small noise of surprise. He adjusts, moving to sit with, rather than against. Heads together. “Yes,” he says simply, soothingly. “Yes, yes, it has.” He breathes, in and out, against the slope of Juno’s cheek, and the relief is so bone-deep Juno trembles with it. He’s still holding onto him, a hand to base of his neck, thumbing the rhythm of his pulse.
After a time, Nureyev says, “You did remove my file from the directory?”
Juno sniffs. “Nah, that would just be unethical and irresponsible. I deleted the whole directory.”
This merits a naked laugh. “Has anyone ever told you,” says Nureyev, delighted, low behind his ear, “that you’re a steal?”
Flatly, Juno says, “Yeah, lots of people actually. That’s my name.”
In spite of this, or perhaps because of it, Nureyev places, very carefully, a kiss to the line of his jaw. He lets his face drop, solid against Juno’s shoulder, weary from the weight of holding it up.
There’s a sound, Juno hears now, drumming from below that beats, if he had to guess, to the tune of massive budget destruction. He listens a moment, feeling it out. He exchanges a sideways glance with Nureyev. There’s probably a very reasonable explanation. Either his head is pounding worse than he thought, or—
Or a vehicle has just burst up from the floor. It is, all things considered, not the strangest thing to have happened during the course of the day. In rolls the Ruby, with bells and whistles, having put a unique spin on property destruction. It helps to have a healthy disregard for the idea of property, as an artificially intelligent sports scar.
Juno, accustomed by this point to his propensity to encounter this sort of thing, catalogues this impact event with relative ease. “You got a little floor on your roof,” he suggests.
Arguably, where the Ruby is concerned, Juno doesn’t so much drive as spectate. It’s a lot like most of his arguments, actually. All he has to do is show up, and everything just sort of works itself out from there.
Nureyev, outnumbered two to one on the subject of his condition to operate heavy machinery, is relegated to passenger. Juno takes his hand, moves it across to his lap, and says, “Hey, Ruby, take us home.”
He spends most of the ride with a head full of starlight, and a heart full of Peter Nureyev.
And when they get home, the first thing Peter Nureyev does — more accurately the fourth thing, were he to count being at the receiving end of first a decidedly non-therapeutic talking-to, second a medicinal dose of ship-wide shouting, and lastly the cool delivery of a single word that left him more visibly shaken than all the rest put together, of course none of which does he count — is, for perhaps the very first time, unpack his bags. First his, then Juno’s, although what Juno has done with his bags falls short of the mark in the first place.
After a full day, and a full shower, they are still, much to Juno’s dismay, infused with glitter. This is unfortunate for all that with which they come into contact, and in particular for anything otherwise edible, but. But.
But Peter Nureyev, with a critical eye, holding a sheer shirt up to the light, and the light on his face catching a constellation. Peter Nureyev, with the stars on his skin, and something electric fizzing a current in Juno’s blood.
Juno slips behind him, on the tips of his toes. “That for business or pleasure?” he says, of the shirt.
For an instant, freckles of light mirror the room when Nureyev turns in his arms. “Well…it’s my pleasure to do business.”
Juno gives a wry look. “Let me guess: I’m Business?”
Nureyev’s face does light up, then. To be sure, neither Nureyev nor the closet is suited for the business that ensues.
And the thirteenth morning that Juno spends in the crook of an arm, in the arm of a crook, begins in velvet twilight, cocooned in the warmth of their sheets, with a room they call home, with room in their bags, and with room, most of all, for improvement.