August 24, XXX34
Juno moves in first. He doesn’t have much of a choice, not with his housing plans falling through with no warning two weeks before classes start.
He’s happy for Rita. He is. She’s been wanting to get into this program since the first day he met her: Freshman orientation, when a five-foot blur of curly hair and pastel prints ran into him at mach 12 and didn’t stop talking until Juno physically walked away at the end of the day. Then, she showed up at his dorm the morning of the first day of classes, juggling some story about hacking the student database and finding out which residence hall he lived in.
They’ve been best friends since, the rest is history, yadda yadda whatever.
Not that having a steady roommate for a year and a half helps Juno now, angrily unpacking one of his two bags into the university-standard dresser of his new dorm. One of the nicer ones, he grudgingly acknowledges.
“Stupid Olympus Mons. Stupid fancy compsci program with its stupid mandatory housing,” Juno grumbles to himself. He slams the drawer shut and catches his thumb in the process. “Ow! Stupid, stupid dumb fucking dresser, shit.”
His comms rings. He answers it with a snapped “What,” still nursing his tender thumb in his mouth.
“Boss!” Rita’s voice bubbles out of the speaker. “You should see this place! It’s like Fort Lux over here. Ya gotta get a keycard and have your retinas scanned and give a blood sample and oh! The snacks are to die for! And there’s a library in the basement of the dorms, and burner comms in the vending machines, and this cute girl on my floor just told me they play ‘truth or hack the Plutonian government’ on weekends—”
“Yeah, Rita, that all sounds—”
“—and there’s space for my computers in the room I got! All of ‘em! And a fuse box in every dorm to make sure I don’t blow out half the campus—again—and—”
“—even the TV in the lounge is,” her voice drops to an unsubtle whisper, “off... the grid.”
“Yeah, that’s really exciting—” Juno rolls his eyes as Rita revs back up again.
“And I know classes ain’t even started yet but I got a real good feeling about this year, Boss, I feel like I learned so much already about what kinda security they got on planets that ain’t even Mars and—”
“Should you be telling me this?”
“Yeah, okay, the pamphlets all say it’s a ‘highly selective’ program and everythin’ and they do have most of the dorms bugged to make sure we’re not selling secrets to Proximan terrorists or Hyperion U, but I thought, well, what kinda school doesn’t even let you tell your best friend all about it? And I don’t know nobody here too well yet but between you and me they all seem a little,” her voice pitches down again, a caricature of a whisper that Juno is pretty sure she honest to god thinks nobody can hear, “boring.”
“Boring,” Juno repeats. “You’re telling me, you think the people in this computer science program, the one you’ve been dying to get into since you were seventeen years old, that churns out big names in the interstellar intelligence community like a goddamn robot in a candy factory… are boring?”
“I wouldn’t say I was dyin’,” Rita snorts. “Mostly I thought it’d be fun, you know, like when I entered that sweepstakes to win a trip to Venus with Amelio Yakamura of ‘So You Think You Can Knit: All-Stars’? And I wrote that whole essay about how I don’t think I can knit, so I really, really, really need him to teach me, hopefully at a hot spring resort because my joints ain’t never done too well with the cold, because I got that circulation thing? And I didn’t win, which was sad, but I did get a signed letter from Amelio’s assistant’s temp thanking me for my enthusiasm! And ain’t that nice, thanking somebody for their enthusiasm—”
Juno gets back to unpacking. His comms sit on the dresser while Rita’s train of thought trundles so far off the rails it’s on the tracks for a completely different train, and he responds at appropriate times with a vague “huh,” or a noncommittal “you don’t say.”
“So anyway,” Rita continues while Juno tries to remember if this pair of underwear is actually his, or if it just ended up in his laundry and nobody ever bothered to ask for it back. “Like I said, I’m real excited about this year but I’m just sayin’ I think… I think you should come visit.”
“Will they even let me in there?” Juno asks. He dumps the contents of his second bag on the floor and starts sorting out his scant few knick-knacks into piles: cup and bowl and a couple of forks, picture of Ben, makeup brushes he hasn’t cleaned in a horrifyingly long time.
“As long as you’re with me… aaaand you sign the waiver, and consent to the drug test, and to the being-drugged test, and—”
“Why do you want me in your secret agent bullshit dorm anyway?” Juno asks. It comes out harsher than he means it to, like a lot of things. “I mean, shit, it’s not like we haven’t seen enough of each other.”
There’s silence on the other end of the line. It’s not a common thing to hear from Rita.
“...Rita?” He stands and picks up the comms again. “You still there?”
“Y-yeah, Boss,” Rita says. Her voice is small. “I just… I’m gonna miss seein’ you every day.”
The waver in her voice drops a leaden weight into Juno’s stomach.
“Rita, I didn’t mean it like that.” He pinches the bridge of his nose. “You can just come over here. They give you time off from that place for good behavior, right?”
“Your… new roommate,” she says the words like someone might say ‘cockroach,’ or ‘politician,’ “won’t mind?”
“Haven’t met the guy yet,” Juno shrugs. “But hey, if he’s gotta deal with me, he’s gotta deal with you.”
Juno practically feels the way Rita brightens up at that. It’s almost blinding, all the more for the contrast, and he can’t help but smile.
“Yeah, we’re a package deal, ain’t we! Steel and Rita! Oh! Or Rita and Steel, that’s got a nice ring to it, you could put that on a plaque—”
The smile pulling at Juno’s mouth and the burble of Rita’s opinions about the weird statue she can see from her window carry him through unpacking. His clothes are folded—as neatly as they’ll ever be—in the dresser drawers, his small set of cooking utensils is piled on the microwave, and Ben’s picture is safely tucked away in his desk.
“Rita,” he says thoughtfully, looking out over his freshly-organized half of the room. “This year might be alright.”
“What was that?” Rita asks through a mouth of god-knows-what. “Oh! And I saw this dog yesterday, Boss, outside the fuel station on a hundred and ninety-first? It had the cutest widdle nose, I just about died—”
August 29, XXX34
“I hate this fucking place,” Juno groans.
It’s the hottest day in Olympus Mons in twenty-three years, according to the weather alert scrolling along the bottom of the news feed. He only has the TV on as a means of distraction, lying on his bed in a puddle of sweat and staring longingly at the stuck window.
Back in Hyperion City, a window that wouldn’t open was a mild inconvenience at worst and at best, a blessing. Red dust covered everything if you weren’t careful, seeping in cracks in the windowpane and clinging to clothes. Juno almost misses the hot wind that would blow through his neighborhood off the nearby stretch of desert. Sand in his eyes and grit in his teeth, sure, but not this, not a stuffy room built to withstand nuclear fallout and an airlock-sealed window that won’t stop mocking him.
He checks his comms and groans again. The one message he’s ever received from his roommate—who he’s pretty damn sure shouldn’t even know how to contact him, Juno sure as hell didn’t know the guy’s number—came in this morning. It only said, cryptically:
I’ll be there today. -Rex
Juno shot back a What time? that has yet to be answered, and saved the number under “Rex Roommate” after racking his brain for ten minutes about what the hell his last name was. Something short. With an S, Juno is pretty sure.
Fuck it. If Rex… whatever is going to turn up any second, Juno should probably be wearing pants.
Three days’ worth of garbage (soda cans, beer bottles, tissues—Christ, Juno is messier than he thought, even if nine-tenths of these Cheesebit wrappers are from Rita) is cleared out from under his bed before Juno can’t handle the heat anymore and strips his shirt clean off. He’s going to break that window, he swears.
Juno takes a long look at a suspicious carpet stain, and then decides it was probably there before he moved in.
He makes one more valiant effort at opening the window, once the room looks more like a place where somebody lives and not the corner of the sewer where rabbits keep their junk. It doesn’t work, but then again, nobody really ever expects last-ditch efforts to work. They’re just to make you feel better—to say, “at least I gave it one more shot.”
Juno is sweating despair with his forehead pressed to glass he can almost convince himself is colder than the room, when he hears a knock and turns to look toward the door.
“Hello?” comes a voice from the other side. “Juno Steel? I hope I’m in the right…” The door opens and a young man walks through. His eyes light on Juno—big and bright behind wide glasses and the first thought in Juno’s head is goddamn—and he drops the backpack he had slung over one shoulder. “...room.”
This man—boy, might be more accurate, he must be barely Juno’s age, probably a little younger, tall and lean and smooth-skinned like ancient plaster—carries himself like the heat doesn’t bother him in the slightest. He’s standing in the same muggy air as Juno, but his shirt is pressed perfectly and his eyeliner is sharp and his hair is in a goddamn coif like he walked out of a hairdresser’s chair and directly into Juno’s life.
Juno clears his throat, studiously keeps his eyes on his new roommate’s face, and tries not to think about the fact that he must look like Saturnalian sweating sickness personified.
“Yep. Uh, Rex, right?” Juno sticks out his hand.
Rex blinks at him like he’s never seen the gesture before, and Juno has a second to panic that he’s from some moon three systems away where this is a lewd sexual overture. And he’s not necessarily opposed to the idea, because holy hell, but he just met the guy and can’t even remember his last name even though it was on the form he signed before moving in but he had a lot on his mind at the time and—
Rex wraps a strong hand around Juno’s in a firm grip—his palm is so soft, slender fingers, Christ—and smiles. And when he smiles, it wipes Juno’s brain clean like a whiteboard except for the single word: teeth.
“Do— Sorry, it’s a fucking furnace in here.” Juno throws open a drawer and digs around for a shirt that is both clean and not so wrinkled it’s barely human-shaped anymore, a tall order.
“It’s fine,” Rex says brightly as Juno pulls a tee over his head. There’s a distant, dizzy look in his eye when Juno looks back. Must be the heat finally getting to him.
“Do you want a hand unpacking? Or, uh, I have some soda still—”
“No, thank you, I’ll be fine on my own. And I had a coffee on the way here, so…”
Rex has an accent Juno can’t place. Not that he’s got a keen ear for that kind of thing anyway, never having left Mars in his twenty-odd years of existence. But it catches Juno around the ribs, sinks in his bones like a song—clipped syllables and long vowels, winding around him a little tighter with each word.
And that shit won’t fly at all, Juno decides here and now.
This Rex can’t even bother to look at him. His eyes are too busy tracing the corner where the walls meet the ceiling, and Juno spent enough time staring at that general area after a visit to Julian’s apartment the other day to know there’s nothing much interesting up there.
And hell, Juno is stuck living with him for the next semester at least. Getting in his roommate’s pants before classes even start sounds fun for a minute, but once Juno inevitably fucks it up? Neither of them would have anywhere to take a walk of shame to. Rex S-name has the right idea, giving Juno the cold shoulder.
“I’ll… I’ll leave you to it, then,” Juno says. It’s obvious he was right that Rex doesn’t want him around, by the way his shoulders—nice shoulders, skinny frame but sharp like Juno could trip and cut himself on it, Juno wants to put his hands there and squeeze—relax as he grabs his keys.
It’ll be nice to get out of this sauna, anyway. And if he shuts the door a little harder than necessary on his way out, well. That’s the low pressure at this elevation.
By the time he makes it down the stairs and outside, Juno has cooled off a little. Not only literally, although the realization that he could have just gone outside hours ago and instead chose to wallow in his room says a little more about Juno as a person than he’s prepared to examine right now.
No, it must have been the heat, and the general annoyance of that last-minute text, that got Juno this cranky. It’s not like he goes around getting pissed off at every pretty face he can’t kiss. That would be a lot of misdirected anger, for one.
Sand and dirt crunch under Juno’s shoes. He keeps his eyes on the sidewalk, not sure and not worried about where his feet are taking him.
It’s just… been a while. That’s probably another piece of the truth of it. Rita and Mick—and Sasha, sometimes, when she’s not busy doing whatever secret training bullshit she can’t tell him anything about, which is rarely—are the only people who actually go out of their way to keep Juno around.
Hell, besides the unsolicited backrubs Mick imposes on him now and again that crack Juno’s back loud enough to set off bomb sirens, the longest physical contact with anyone he’s had in months was probably that tattoo artist. What was her name? She was pretty. Juno told her so, high off his ass, and the hazy memory of it makes him cringe. Not quite as much as the rabbit wearing a colander on its head he demanded she ink into his ankle, but it’s a close second.
The point is, he doesn’t blame anybody for the stellar decision to never speak to Juno goddamn Steel again. Hell, Juno would be lying if he said he’d never thought about kicking his own sorry ass out of everyone’s life, including his own—has lied about it, too, which is a hell of a lot easier than dealing with the reactions he gets when he doesn’t. He’s not as low these days as he has been, at least. That’s something. It is.
But lonesome isn’t a good look on him. Never was, even before it became his default state.
“Hey! Hey, pal!”
Juno looks up, startled by a voice practically screaming in his ear. He’s found himself on the stretch of synthetic grass out front of the student union. Fellow students are scattered around, in various states of undress, melting in the sun but clearly preferring it to their AC-less dorm rooms.
“What?” Juno asks a person in an obnoxiously yellow beanie. They have a stack of flyers in their hand, thrusting one at Juno like he’s got no choice but to take it.
“You heard about the dean hoarding important historical artifacts for his own private collection?”
“Nope,” Juno responds, stuffing the flyer in his pocket and walking away.
“Hey! Knowledge belongs to the people! Don’t be complicit,” they call after him, but Juno is already halfway to the crosswalk.
“Lesson one of thieving,” is probably what Mag would say.
“‘Never fall for someone else’s con.’ That includes a pretty face,” Peter mutters to himself, taping a stiletto dagger to the underside of his new bed. “Or, no, what about, ‘safe houses are only safe if nobody knows someone lives inside’?” He shakes his head. “That one’s stupid. You always had a pithier way of putting it, didn’t you, old man?”
He bites at his lip, hard. Over two years on, and still there’s a raw ache deep inside him when he thinks about the man who taught him everything; he cannot help but remember their little rituals, lessons in thieving and surviving and living as he makes this (half of the) dorm room a fortress.
It’s either this, or think quite too long and hard about his new roommate. Peter is unsure which is the distraction.
His eyes land on the rumpled sheets of the bed Juno Steel claimed for his own days before Peter’s arrival. There’s little compelling about it, nothing provocative or enticing about the pant leg hanging out of a half-open drawer. And Juno was right, it is sweltering in here, but that still fails to stop a traitorous little corner of Peter’s brain from spinning yarns about what could have brought him to a state of flushed, sweating shirtlessness.
This Juno Steel has his nipples pierced. It’s unfair. Untenable.
Peter chooses a drawer to make the home of whatever knick-knacks he steals out of habit and empties his pockets into it: handful of mints, a space shuttle safety pamphlet, a computer mouse. Nothing anyone will go looking for; nothing that will be missed.
He sits heavily down on his bed and it creaks under him, quietly, like something old that belongs to someone else.
He’ll go out tonight, that’s what he’ll do. If Peter—Rex Glass—is in this for the long con, he will need to make friends. He has a map of the campus and blueprints of most of the buildings memorized, but a stroll around them to make sure nothing much has changed could always be of help.
And perhaps, tomorrow, he will tackle the problem of Juno Steel.
Juno watched Peter make an absolute fool of himself—those piercings, the ones on his face least of all, glinting silver and coming at him like the headlights of a hover-hauler—and left. That is not the impression Rex Glass is meant to leave on people, as a boy with a slack jaw blushing like he’s never seen a lady with his shirt off before. But Juno Steel has a ring through his full lower lip and fading dyed-blue curls and arms Peter can feel wrapping around his waist like the memory of a very good dream.
Eyes like an Earthen morning sky, too, tracking over Peter as if taking note of every detail. Keen, like a scientist. Or a detective.
Other people aren’t supposed to catalog him like that. People don’t notice him at all, beyond what he wants them to notice. That, Peter remembers with a sigh, was one of the many Lessons One of Thieving.
Well. There are certainly several ways to deal with an inconvenience of this nature. Killing him is out of the question—and the very thought makes Peter feel almost sick, isn’t that worrying—but Peter could always negotiate a room change. It might take some convincing, throwing a fit or two in the student affairs office, but it’s doable.
What he absolutely refuses to do, of course, is lean into this infatuation. Juno’s chilly exit practically lowered the temperature to something bearable, which is a clearly-set boundary Peter will not cross. He does not have the time for that kind of distraction anyway.
He will wait, though, to find a new room. That can wait.
There’s hardly a rush, and doing so after only just meeting Juno will look suspicious. He needs this semester to start off well; immediately alienating one of the only people on this planet to have seen his face—someone with certainly more connections around here than Peter has—is probably a bad idea.
With that settled, he pats down his pockets to make sure he hasn’t forgotten anything and heads for the door. There are hearts to steal out there, and something much more worthwhile, too. Juno Steel is hardly a blip on his radar.