Common wisdom states that there is no plant life on Mars.
There are window boxes on near every street in Hyperion, potted ficuses in every office but Juno’s, a botanical garden under a geodesic dome a mile in circumference in Olympus Mons—or so Juno hears. There are plants goddamn everywhere, is the point, even if they don’t grow out in the desert. Out of the sand.
Juno has never understood the distinction. Something doesn’t fit an obsolete idea of what’s “natural”; that doesn’t make it not there.
More to the point, it isn’t true. If you blink the neon and smoke out of your eyes, watch your own feet for a second instead of strangers’ pockets, you might spy small clusters of sturdy, gray-green leaves sprouting up from cracks in the sidewalk. Juno has never managed—bothered to look up what they’re called; what matters is, they grow.
Not out of Mars’s ancient sands, of course. Just out of the accumulated gunk of a city that needs sweeping, soaking up the acid rain. Juno grew up walking down no sidewalks but cracked sidewalks. He knows where to find the corners where unspoken things grow.
When he has the time, Juno collects the leaves himself, by hand. Nobody notices, not really; Juno is good at making himself an object of no interest. It’s a life skill; it’s a living.
The whispered words in his mouth and the dry flakes of light-absorbing paint in his pocket don’t hurt, either.
He has a client’s cousin to find—reason enough to take the case to start with; Rita has a bingo card of missing family members she’s close to completing—and an itch up his spine that needs taking care of. Two birds, one stone. He places the leaves on the table at the window; he speaks a sentence of an old Earth language, only flickering with life when he needs arcane significance. His fingers itch; his eyes close; the hair on his neck stands, slowly, with the gathering of power around him.
“Whatcha working on?”
Juno yelps. His elbow smacks into the corner and his hand sends leaves scattering across the tabletop. A few trip over the edge and fall behind the radiator that leans away from the wall and smells like burning when he leaves it on too long.
“Goddammit, Benzaiten,” Juno snaps.
Ben’s laughter pings off one of Juno’s ears, then the other. He’s impossible to place before he fades into this plane of reality. Juno whips his head around anyway like he can spot his idiot twin hiding behind the lamp or under the dresser.
“Jeez, jumpy,” Benten says as he materializes. A grin stretches his face—the face that hasn’t changed since he was nineteen, dynamic in expression but nothing else, sometimes Juno stares at his own stubble and scars and deepening frown lines in the mirror and wills the clock to tip backwards when he remembers that they used to match—and he kicks his feet up, casual, three feet off the ground.
“What do you want,” Juno growls, picking up his spilled leaves one by one and dropping them back in the bowl. He considers leaving the ones behind the radiator to their fate, but he knows as soon as the heat turns on when the weather changes the smell will be unbearable.
“I was bored,” Benten shrugs, “and I heard you have a case.”
“I always have a case.”
“I meant a good one.” Benten leans into Juno’s space and raises his eyebrows conspiratorially.
“I’ve never had a good case in my life and you know it,” Juno says. “People don’t come to private eyes when everything is sunshine and goddamn popsicles.”
“Okay, a fun case, then.” Ben rotates lazily in the air. His head tilts awkwardly to keep smiling straight at Juno, who frowns even harder just to balance him out.
“Do I look like I’m having fun to you?”
“I dunno, I’d have to find out what that looks like first.”
Juno throws a leaf he just picked up off the floor at Ben. It goes right between his eyes, then out the other side like he isn’t there.
“Oh, help, officer!” Benten lets himself drop to the floor in a dramatic heap. “I’ve been shot! Again!”
“Stop it!” Juno digs the heels of his hands into his eyes like that’ll stop the impulse to laugh at a joke that shouldn’t be funny, ever.
“What?” Ben’s voice comes to him among the whorls of dim color behind Juno’s eyelids. “Too soon?”
“Try again when we hit two decades,” Juno sighs.
“If a guy can’t joke about his own death—”
“Can you just—” Juno feels himself about to snap and pulls back, pulls his hair and sighs. “I’ve been ramming my head against this for a week and I’m not any closer than I was when I started, okay, so I need two minutes to just focus. Can you let me do that?”
“Alright.” Benten’s shit-eating grin fades into an expression of chagrined acceptance. “Wanna throw me the details? I’m not a great catch, but…” He stares at Juno expectantly.
“Fine.” Juno sweeps the last few leaves into his bowl and digs through his collection of messily-labeled jars. Does that say Rabbit fur or Radioactive? Juno can’t read his own damn handwriting. “Might as well distract myself while I clean up your mess.”
“I haven’t made a mess in nineteen years, Super-Steel. One of the perks of the whole ghost thing, remember?”
“Wow, gee, I almost forgot.” Juno rolls his eyes. “So. Agate Zapatero’s cousin, Ned, went missing two weeks ago. They worked from home, so no coworkers to notice their absence, and they left their comms behind. I’ve tried every goddamn lead I can think of, but they’ve all turned up nothing.”
“So you’re finally going with the obvious one?”
“Shut up.” Juno tugs his hair again. Peeper eyes, where did he put them? “I can’t exactly put this on my invoice as a special service, Benzaiten. Nobody asked, and I don’t do it if I can help it.”
“Why not?” Benten does a handstand on Juno’s desk, one semi-opaque hand over a dusty jar as if he’s putting weight on it. Juno squints at the label and grabs the jar; Ben’s hand doesn’t move.
“Peeper eyes,” Juno says, shaking the old jar to make sure he hasn’t run out. They’re a pain to come by, even if they don’t go stale.
“That sure was an answer.”
“You know why not,” Juno growls. He shakes the dried eyes into his palm, dark and wrinkled like hard raisins. “That’s my rule.”
“Yeah, I do.” Benten flips right side-up and sits with his legs crossed on the table in front of Juno. “But I also remember what it’s like when it builds up, when you go too long without doing magic—”
“Whatever.” Juno crushes the peeper eyes between his fingers—there will be black under his nails for days, the damn stuff never comes out—and focuses hard on everything Agate has told him about her cousin. He opens his palm, eyes closed, and blows the dark powder out the open window.
“Rude,” Benten murmurs as dust drifts through his torso.
Juno barely hears him; he’s knuckle-deep in the bowl of thick leaves, piercing their green skin with his fingernails and letting the juice turn the powder on his hands to an ink-dark stain. The tingling on the pads of his fingers is the acid buildup. The tingling that traces through the veins of his hands, forearms, up to his shoulders and into his head— That’s something else.
The streets of Hyperion City assemble themselves in Juno’s mind, growing like a time-lapse geode. He feels his own apartment, a warm little dot of You Are Here. He feels the wide boulevards and hairpin turns follow like a foregone conclusion to his destination. It’s working, it feels like it’s working, Juno feels a gentle release deep inside as a few drops of the endless tension that has lived in him for decades are siphoned away—
“Got you,” Juno mutters to himself. He opens his eyes, poised to share in the moment with Benzaiten, but there’s nobody sitting on the table in front of him. No brother suspended in sunlight like amber, frozen in time.
Juno shakes himself. Benten is always disappearing like that. Only rarely does he warn Juno when he’s about to appear or vanish; it’s a constant source of annoyance.
Keys in his hand a minute later, about to shut the door, Juno hears a familiar whisper:
“Go get ‘em, Super-Steel.”
Juno stands up a little straighter, takes the stairs a little faster on his way out. It helps, having someone in his corner. It helps.
A feeling rises in Juno the closer he gets to where he’s going. There is a special satisfaction that blooms inside him at the solving of a case—things finally making sense, a last line drawn before he can step back and admire the whole picture—not unlike the memory of how it felt to draw symbols in the sand with Benten, a lifetime ago. To feel the power bouncing off one another, to take the things she taught them and build something new that she couldn’t touch.
He thinks that must be what the feeling is. Until he knocks on the door, and Agate Zapatero opens it.
“Hello?” she says, furrow in her brow. Obviously. It’s not like Juno told her he was coming; she must be baffled, hopeful, poised for disappointment.
“Shit,” Juno swears. “Sorry, uh—”
How the hell to explain this.
The spell fucked up— No, Juno fucked it up. Magic is a tool, says a voice in his head he wants to scrub out like deadly mold. It never does anything you don’t ask it to. The problem is learning how to ask.
Asking nicely has never been Juno’s strong suit.
“Detective Steel!” Agate exclaims like she only just remembered his name. “Come in, come on in. Please.”
Before Juno can think of an excuse for why he’s here that doesn’t involve shoddy witchcraft, he’s through the door and deposited at the kitchen table.
“Uh,” Juno says again.
He hasn’t been here before. Agate left her address with Rita when she hired him, standard practice, but Juno didn’t bother to remember what it was. He might not have even looked at it, now he thinks back. Case files are a lot like the books Juno was assigned to read in high school: more a suggestion than anything.
It might have helped, though, if he had seen the place before taking this case.
One of the first lessons any P.I. worth their salt learns is how to understand a person by reading the spaces they build around them. If the average house is a table of contents, Agate Zapatero’s is an encyclopedia of broken dishes and scorched pans and cabinet doors left hanging wide open.
And Juno thought he was a mess. The place almost makes him feel better about the state of his own apartment.
“I’m so glad you came,” Agate says. She opens her mouth to speak, closes it, and blinks a few times. “What was I saying?”
Not a lot, Juno thinks. She’s not paying him to be snarky, and the only reason he showed up on her doorstep was his own failure anyway, so Juno shrugs and hazards, “You wanted to tell me something?”
“What would I need to tell you?” she asks. Her tone is surprised but a little blank, head tilted like a kitten whose eyes haven’t entirely solidified yet. “I don’t even remember why I—”
“Is there someone here?” calls a voice from down the hall, overlaying the end of Agate’s sentence. Juno’s ears prick up. “Thank god.”
Footsteps come closer down a carpeted hallway just outside Juno’s line of sight.
“I didn’t know you had a roommate,” Juno comments. He is about to offer Agate a ride to his office, in case she wants to keep this more private, when she looks at him with that too-wide, too-blank stare.
Juno freezes, muscles tense in familiar warning. “Wait here.”
His blaster is out and ready in the time it takes to put his back to the wall just around the corner from the hallway. Juno glances back once, hoping to reassure Agate of her safety, but something is off. Something strange hovers behind her eyes; she won’t focus on him. Her gaze keeps drifting back to the chair he just vacated, posture returning to her exact position in the moment before he heard the voice.
Wrong and wrong and wrong again. A sneaking suspicion creeps up on Juno: maybe it wasn’t his spell that turned this situation inside out.
A quick breath to steady himself—go get ‘em, Super-Steel—and he rounds the corner, blaster at the ready, prepared for any manner of unnatural horror or magical threat.
What Juno Steel is not quite prepared for: Agate Zapatero’s cousin Ned, hands up and expression frantic, staring back at him.
What Juno Steel sees: exactly that.
“You can see me, right?” Ned croaks. Their voice is hoarse.
“I… can.” Juno lowers his blaster an inch. “Aren’t you supposed to be missing?”
“It’s complicated. Can you put the gun away?”
“I can show you if you stop pointing a gun at me,” Ned says, voice cracking near the end.
“Fair enough.” Juno stows away the blaster. “Show me.”
“Agate,” Ned says. “Agate! Please look at me!”
Agate doesn’t look at Ned. She’s paused, frozen in the act of filling a glass with water. That strange blankness is back on her face, a dimming of the light; she drops the glass right in the sink and turns around. The faucet keeps running.
“Oh, detective Steel!” Agate laughs a little breathlessly. The lights come back on behind her eyes. “You startled me. Don’t sneak up on a gal like that, okay?”
Juno has not moved in two minutes.
“It’s been like this for weeks,” Ned says mournfully. “She would have left the stove on and burned this building down if I weren’t here.” As if to punctuate the point, they shut off the running water Agate can seemingly no longer hear.
“But she can see other people,” Juno says.
“What?” Agate asks. Juno ignores her.
“That’s the only reason I didn’t call someone,” Ned explains. “She’s totally fine, except when I’m in the room. She goes about her day, goes to work, apparently calls a private investigator to look for the cousin she thinks disappeared.” Ned shakes their head. “And there’s this.”
They catch Agate by the shoulders. She goes slack and pliant the moment Ned touches her; her eyes dim, fixed on some middle distance behind her kitchen wall.
Ned pulls up the sleeve of Agate’s shirt. Dark, purple-red lines branch up her forearm, under her skin like veins or roots.
No, like rot.
“Oh,” Juno breathes, the single syllable all he can manage.
It’s a complicated comfort, that Juno was not the first person to bring magic into this case. He didn’t curse these people with his history and baggage; they were already struck by whatever capricious whim of the universe saddles people like him with power like this. And yet, here Juno is again: solving a case that makes these demands of him. It can never be a normal goddamn job, can it?
Behind all of that, there is too the lingering little voice that tells him, Benten was right. Right about this being a “fun case,” for the value of “fun” Juno’s brother is so fond of.
Fuck it. The peeper eyes are absolutely going on his invoice under ‘expenses.’
“I don’t know what this is. I’ve looked all over the ‘net, but I can’t find anything and I can’t exactly drive her to the doctor when she can’t see me—”
“Keep an eye on her,” Juno says. “Call me if anything changes. I— I’ll figure something out.”
Back when they met it took Rita three days flat to figure out Juno’s secret, if you can call it that. She insists it only took so long because she was in the middle of a really important marathon leading up to the finale of some stream, one that didn’t have anything to do with magic for once, so her mind wasn’t really in the right place, at first she thought he was an alien, actua— This is the point Juno usually spaces out.
That is to say: she knows how to put the pieces together, even when half of them are technically impossible. It makes her one hell of a researcher.
It also means Juno doesn’t have to pull his own strings when it comes to finding who or what he needs among Hyperion City’s community of resident mages and witches and… others. That’s a load off. He’s never gone out of his way to make those connections; they come to him. Juno is a decade and change into his career as a PI and it feels like, in all that time, he can’t go a week without running into more magic than he knows what to do with. Sure as hell more than he ever saw as a kid, outside Ma and Ben.
“I got nothin’, Boss,” Rita says. Juno wants to swan-dive into the sewer.
“Rita, you never have nothing.”
“Well this time I do! It’s not nothin’ nothin’, there’s plenty’a weird rashes and infections and nanobots and stuff this could be—”
“No,” Juno shakes his head. “I know a curse when I see one. I don’t know what it is, but I know when I’m looking at— I just know, okay?”
“But how do you know?” Rita blinks up at him with her big, sparkling eyes behind her big, sparkly glasses. “What’s it feel like? Do you sense it with your special powers? Oh, oh! Does everything magic start glowin’ when you look at it? Do you see auras? Frannie says my aura is seafoam green, can you tell me if she’s right? ‘Cause I know Frannie knows what she’s talkin’ about, but I don’t see myself as a seafoam green kinda girl, and—”
“It’s not like that,” Juno grunts. “I can’t explain it, Rita—”
“Try, Mistah Steel, for me. Pleeeeeeeease?”
Juno pinches the bridge of his nose. If Rita really has turned up with nothing, Juno has some legwork to do. He’s not looking forward to the stones he’ll have to turn to even start figuring out where this curse came from, but if he has to do it with Rita in his ear the whole time begging him to tell her what color her favorite fro-yo stand’s aura is, he’ll have a tidy headache to top it all off.
“It’s—” Ben would explain it better, Juno is sure. But it takes a lot out of him to leave Juno’s apartment, and bringing Rita around is a surefire way to find the two of them cross-legged on Juno’s bed at two in the morning, Rita pretending to paint his incorporeal fingernails. Again. “It’s not some innate thing. It’s like when you run into a familiar smell. Something you haven’t smelled in years, but you catch a whiff of it on the street and all of a sudden you remember exactly where you were the last time you…”
Juno trails off, head filled with not-quite a memory. The memory of one, maybe: another hand in his and a longing for something he hadn’t learned yet.
“Yeah?” Juno clears his throat. “That make sense?”
“Nope,” Rita chirps. “But that’s okay.”
“Right.” Juno crosses his arms and leans against the edge of Rita’s desk. He hates it when she hovers over him this way, but that doesn’t stop her. “Sure you didn’t turn up anything even in the, uh, underweb?”
“The…” Rita’s mouth twitches. “The what, Mistah Steel?”
“You know.” Juno shifts uncomfortably. “The night web or whatever. The secret one.”
“Oh my god,” Rita whispers.
Juno hits the pavement. Proper gumshoe, that’s him: no spells or incantations, no pockets full of flower petals or rocks from volcanoes three star systems away. He does have one pocket full of gravemoon sand, but that’s just because he hasn’t cleaned this coat in a bit too long.
Just like old times. Not the oldest—middle times, in-between times, fresh enough from the force to be wary, not long enough on the outside to be haunted. Not that Juno has ever been unhaunted.
Hidden by shadows in a damp alleyway, watching where no one expects themselves to be watched—Juno feels as if he’s the one doing the haunting. He doesn’t hate it; that’s the part that frightens him.
Three contacts become one becomes nothing. In the wind, on the solar breeze. The last left behind a friend, though, tall and broad and missing two fingers. Juno finds them in a basement lit by the sick yellow-green light of a single bare bulb, age-warped metal walls a flashing hazard for laser ricochet if he even thinks about firing off his blaster. They are in the process of sifting through something silver and flakey when Juno shoulders open the heavy door.
“You don’t strike me as the seamstress type, so I’m guessing those aren’t sequins,” he says. “The name Agate Zapatero ring any bells?”
The sentence is barely out of Juno’s mouth before they flip their flimsy card table and bull rush him, eyes flashing in the unreliable light. Juno slips back out the door and gets a second-long head start as it closes behind him, then is wrenched open with a discomfitingly violent squeal of metal. His lungs flash-burn with the quick sprint up the stairs; the goon catches up just in time to knock the wind out of Juno and knock them both out into the alley.
A fistfight in a rain-slicked sidestreet. This, Juno understands. This, he can rely upon: his fist at the end of his arm, the calculable trajectory of it, the pain of a solid knock across the jaw. No questions, no half-fulfilled requests. No magic.
Juno gets a good look at their face when two thick hands bunch in his coat. Each of their nostrils is ringed by a slight silver tinge. What he took for a trick of the light at first is a faint glow in their eyes, on the rim of their pupils and creeping slightly into the grooves of the irises.
It makes sense, if this is what remains of his old contact’s hideout; the moneyed masses of uptown Hyperion put their stock in shoddy science or—for those a little more gullible but still afraid of falling into the old stereotype of Martian superstition—alien leftovers to get their kicks. It takes a certain eye for business to peddle the real stuff instead and make a profit. It looks like when the boss skipped town, new management started cutting into their own supply.
It also means Juno is more of a lost cause than even he expected. No magic, he mocks himself as his back slams into the wall, rough with decades of acid pockmarks. Long odds, even for you, Steel. Since when did he start suffering bouts of optimism?
He feels warm breath against his face, smells the sweet alyssum and rot of some idiot burning their sinuses out on magic-laden, feel-good poison—too familiar. Juno nearly gags at it. His hand creeps toward his blaster.
Strong as shackles, the three-fingered hand wraps around Juno’s wrist just as his fingertips graze the grip of the gun. The other hand on him presses into his throat.
Figure out how to ask the right way, Juno thinks as his vision starts to go spotty. A tool. A tool you control.
He squeezes his eyes shut, tries not to breathe in that carrion-flower stench, and he asks.
Everything hits his senses at once: the wet sound of tearing skin, the smell of blood, the loosened grip on his neck; blood-skin-throat, throat-skin-blood. Juno’s legs give out and he lands hard, scraping his palms on the wet pavement.
Air slices into his lungs like the knife-edge of a winter wind. The body in front of him hits the ground.
“What did I do,” Juno croaks. “Oh god, oh goddammit—”
“Not very ladylike,” says a voice full of enough casual command to stop the rain in its tracks, “to take credit for someone else saving your life.”
Juno raises his head so fast he sees stars. By the time they clear, the man standing over him is gone. All he’s left with is a short list of clues, barely enough to tally: the cooling corpse with a throat like an open smile, rivers of liquid-mercury blood sizzling on the acid-wet ground, the faint memory of long legs and the flash of a blade in the dark.
The next morning, a call comes into the office. Agate Zapatero is dead.
“Your invoice says ‘all expenses paid.’ I heard you arguing with that guy in the hat about it while I was waiting. Your secretary’s nice, by the way.”
“Yeah, paid by the client,” Juno says, ignoring the rest of it. He doesn’t need Rita falling in love-at-first-compliment with any more people who walk through the door. “That doesn’t usually apply when I get my clients killed.”
“You were hired to find Ned Zapatero,” Ned Zapatero repeats. “You did that. So I’m paying you.”
“You’re not the reason she died.” Ned’s eyes are huge and dark and a little pleading. Juno knows exactly what the fatigue in their face feels like; he just wants them to go away. “You tried to stop it.”
“And I didn’t.”
“But you tried. Which is more than you agreed to do in the first place, so please.” They drop a wad of folded cash on the desk, between two empty tumblers and the stapler. “Take the goddamn creds.”
Juno looks at the money. He looks at Ned, somehow less desperate than the last time he saw them. It clicks, a moment later, that there must be a kind of peace in this. Not the outcome they wanted, no, but at least something close to closure.
“Fine,” Juno sighs. “On one condition.”
“You’re bartering over whether I’m allowed to pay you?”
“How did she die?” Sitting back, slumped in his desk chair with his arms crossed, Juno feels safer than the note of vulnerability in his voice should allow.
He needs to know. It’s not about the money; Ned holds all the cards here. They have what Juno wants, what he needs to kick this spiraling cloud of questions into a shape he can make sense of. An answer. Just one.
“The— the thing I showed you. On her arm,” they say, as if it should be obvious. It would be, if it weren’t for the memory of knives and blood and a one-liner Juno couldn’t even quip back to.
“Okay.” He reaches for the stack of creds and Ned makes a noise of protest, but before they can say anything else about how Juno went above and beyond, did more than he was obligated to—praise or platitudes, he doesn’t want any of it—he cuts the deck and hands them back half their money. “Call it a donation. For the funeral. Get some… flowers? Do you do flowers?”
“I don’t do flowers.” Ned pockets the bills. “But thanks.”
“He has to be involved,” Juno says.
“Yeah,” Benzaiten replies, “you’ve said that six times.”
“And he must have been following me.” Juno takes another lap around his living room. “I’m being watched, Benten. There’s no other explanation for why he saved me.”
“Maybe he wasn’t interested in you. He could have just really wanted to kill that other guy.”
“But he said, ‘saved your life.’”
“Vigilante?” Benten suggests. “It’s not impossible for someone to swoop in and save a damsel in distress in their quest for justice.”
“Shut up. I’m not a—” He can’t really argue with that, actually. “Shut up.”
“Are you sure you’re not leaving out the part where you fell into his strong arms?” Ben puts the back of one hand dramatically against his forehead and swoons nearly horizontal in midair. “Oh, thank you, genteel man of mystery. If there’s any way I can repay—”
“I will put up the wards in my room, Benzaiten, I swear.”
“But you’d so get lonely without me,” Ben sing-songs.
Juno opens his mouth for a smart retort, then the words sink in. They seem to have landed for Benten, too, when his teasing grin flattens into something close to regret. There is a grim joke about twins somewhere in the knowledge that they’re thinking the same thing: he was, for a long time. Unbearably lonely, lonely enough to shatter the world—until Benten showed up again, like this. Still only ever half-here.
Benten drifts close enough to herd Juno onto the couch. He sits next to him; Juno has never been much of a toucher, even with his twin, but nevertheless it is sometimes an ache he can’t soothe to be this close and without even the option.
“Hey, so.” Benten sounds gentle, like he does when he wants to talk about something and knows Juno would be a stubborn ass about it. “What are you going to do about this mystery man?”
“Find him again.”
“Okay… How?” Benten eyes Juno’s worktable skeptically. He still hasn’t cleaned up from the spell that started this mess. “You said you barely got a look at him. You don’t know enough to—”
“Not with—No.” Juno waves dismissively at his poorly-labeled jars of magic bullshit. “He showed himself when he thought I was about to die, which means he needs me around.”
“So,” Juno stands up, arms out, “if I put the thing he needs in danger again…”
“That is,” Benten sticks his hand straight through Juno’s neck, holds his head like a disembodied skull, “one of the stupidest plans you’ve ever had, Super-Steel.”
“It’s a sting.”
“Or you could call it a death-wish.”
“Yeah,” he shrugs, “well.”
Juno pulls away, wincing slightly as Ben’s hand passes out of his neck.
“I’ll be more careful this time, alright?” Juno grabs a jar off his table and waves it in his brother’s face. “If he shows up again, I’ll survive. If he doesn’t, I’ll pull a goddamn rabbit out of my hat. Are you happy now? Can I go do my job?”
“Your job,” Benten repeats slowly, “is tracking down some random guy, who may not even be involved, for a case you’ve already been paid for?”
“He slit someone’s throat six inches from my face, Benten.”
“He saved your life, said some suave bullshit,” Ben counts off on his fingers, “and knows his way around a deadly weapon. Are you sure this fixation of yours is entirely professional?”
Juno opens his mouth. Closes it again. Raises one finger, prepared to make a scathing rebuttal, then drops his hand.
“That’s what I thought.” Ben sighs, rolls his eyes, and floats toward the ceiling. “Fine, go do your stupid plan. But I’d better not see you on my side of the veil anytime soon, got it?”
As much as Benzaiten feigns disinterest in moments like this, Juno knows him well enough to hear the meaning, the question behind the quip: he’s afraid for Juno.
He’s usually afraid. Even in the light numbness of death, he’s confided; it didn’t fix the feeling. And it is horrifyingly easy for Juno to forget that, to get so caught up in his own endless march of ups and downs and the trudge of living that it slips his mind. The nagging isn’t annoying brother stuff—at least, not all of it—but genuine worry. Genuine panic he covers with feats of bravery.
“Got it,” Juno promises.
He has a far-from-stellar track record when it comes to keeping his promises, and they both know it. But everyone starts somewhere.
The thing about a life like Juno Steel’s is this: someone is always trying to kill you, except when it’s convenient.
Juno wanders down back alleys of the back-alley-deal variety, but it seems the deals have all been dealt. He snoops a block closer to his old police precinct than he’s been in years—before he remembers the new captain he’s heard vague things about, things that might even qualify as good. He even gets desperate enough to drop in on a recently-released former suspect he once put in Hoosegow; she offers him coffee and explains that her social life has really improved from all the screentime Cecil gave her.
“What does a lady have to do to get punched in the face around here?” Juno grumbles.
“You could try the police scanners again,” Rita suggests in his ear. Juno jumps, winces, turns down the volume on his comms. “There’s a robbery in Hyperion City every fifteen minutes, accordin’ to the HCPD website.”
“Why would they put that on the website?”
“It’s down thirty percent from last year.”
“Huh.” Juno’s calves ache. He finds a bench, puts a quarter cred in the meter, and sighs as the spikes retract and he sits down. His head thunks gently against the back of the bench. “Wonder who they’ve got cooking the books these days. Sounds like they deserve a raise.”
From the street level, staring straight up, the cramped walls of Hyperion’s towers form a tunnel to the sky. Juno lets his head spin for a moment, a visceral, brainstem panic that he’s about to fall into the dome far above. He closes his eyes and feels for the baggie he knows is in his pocket, whether or not he’ll get any use out of it today. He snaps the fingers of his other hand; Juno knows, beneath him, the weather-resistant cogs of the mechanized bench are grinding to a mysterious halt.
Magic is destabilizing. Magic breaks the hold of gravity, if only for a second. It’s nauseating as often as it’s freeing; the two aren’t mutually exclusive.
“Boss, I didn’t wanna say anything because you have your own way of doin’ your job and I respect that and all, but maybe this ain’t the best way to do whatever it is you’re trying to accomplish here. I mean, you already get punched kind of a lot and I don’t know why you’re so excited to do that some more, unless it’s your personal business in which case you oughta maybe not put that in your billable hours—”
“Rita—” his hackles start to raise for half a moment. He stops himself, but barely. The frustration isn’t her fault; Juno sighs again. “You know what? You might be right.”
“Well, considering I am your billing department I’d like to think I know a thing or two about—”
“Not that part. I mean, that too.” Juno rolls his head one way and then the other, releasing a fraction of the tension he carries in his neck day in, day out. He wonders how long it’s been since anyone rubbed his back; he cuts off that train of thought before it can leave the station. “Maybe this is a goddamn waste of time.”
“I dunno about that. You could always come back to the office and tell me what you’re up to, I could help! Oh, is this still about the,” Rita’s voice drops into a whisper that’s somehow even louder than her normal speaking voice, “MAGIC SECRET UNDERGROUND MAGICAL WHATSIT?”
Juno adjusts the volume on his comms again.
“Not exactly,” Juno hedges. “I’ll be back soon, just—”
Across the street, a gun goes off.
Juno is up off the bench before the screaming starts.
The Twelfth Bank of Hyperion City is the target of three robberies per week, minimum. Juno remembers this from his days on the force, and he can’t imagine some clerk in the back of the station overpaid in cocaine and underpaid in morals shredding convenient reports would bother to cover that one up.
On the bright side, it means the cops will be efficient.
Juno catches the door as it starts to swing closed behind a woman with a cat in the crook of one arm and an obscenely large shopping bag in the other, barreling into the street. Inside, the teller counts creds slow enough to stall until the cops get here, just fast enough that the man with the gun doesn’t call her on it. He fires another laser into the ceiling anyway; the green flash of it reflects in the wide windows behind Juno.
He hasn’t seen Juno yet, but the teller has. She eyes up his coat and his posture and shakes her head minutely; unimpressed, maybe, or a silent advisement not to get himself killed. Either is fair.
Juno shrugs in return. His own blaster hangs with a reassuring weight at his hip. Not yet, he thinks. Hopefully not at all.
The teller flicks her eyes back to the cash at hand. Juno hesitates—he doesn’t want to shoot the robber; it would all be over too fast, and once the cops get here they won’t be happy about him depriving them the chance to do it. He needs to bring this party outside, somehow; the man he’s really after hardly seems like the type to waltz in through the front door in the middle of a hold-up, even if Juno’s life is at stake.
It strikes him, then, just how poorly thought-out this plan was.
Another second of mulling it over, and his window will be gone. The teller is almost done counting out the cash, she’s just about to hand it over—Juno sees his chance. He takes it.
Two well-established truths about Juno, his life, and the general circumstances that have led him to this particular decision run through his mind. The first: a number of people over the years have accused Juno of too often rushing into things headfirst. They haven’t usually meant literally, but there’s a first time for everything. Second: Juno may not be a distance runner, but his line of work means short sprints are a valuable skill.
He launches himself into the gap between the teller’s reaching hand and the robber’s, reaching back.
“You want this?” Juno taunts—not as slick as he’d like, breathless as he is—as he yanks the cash away and breaks for the emergency exit. “Come get it.”
He lands hard against the door. It swings open under his weight, and a quiet alarm adds background vocals to the louder one already blaring through the building. Blaster fire hits the wall less than an inch from Juno’s head; he barely keeps his footing as he stumbles out into the side-street.
“There must have been a better way to do this,” Juno pants to himself.
Footsteps right behind him alert Juno to another, angrier presence. Either quick thinking or an indescribable amount of stupidity causes Juno to dip his hand in the grimest inner pocket of his coat and break another string of tension inside himself. His fingers erupt in flame, bright enough that he’s dazzled for a moment.
The robber—or, at least, his silhouette, still hard to see beyond the flame a foot from Juno’s face—raises his gun. Juno raises the wad of cash right over the fire in his hand.
“Put it down or I burn it all,” he threatens.
“I—” The robber lowers his gun an inch, voice all disbelief. “I’m robbing a bank. I can just go get more. You know how this works, right?”
“Yep,” Juno says. “I just needed you to hang on a second.”
He chucks the money straight at the other guy’s gun; the robber has a trigger finger with a skin parasite, apparently, because the tightly-tied money takes the laser meant for Juno and explodes in a confetti shower of unspent creds.
“Okay,” the robber says, pissed off. “Now I’m definitely going to shoot you.”
Sweat pricks at Juno’s hairline. If there were any time for a mysterious stranger to save his life and sweep him off his feet, it would be now. But Juno’s luck is Juno’s luck, and the nature of miracles is that they happen once; he’s never been able to stop himself pushing for twice.
The flame in his hand burns hotter, brighter. It won’t stop a laser, but maybe if he throws it—he and Benten tried a couple times, on a dare from Mick, but could never get much further than scorching the toes on their own shoes; then again, they were never staring down the barrel of the blaster when they did it—
As it turns out, Juno doesn’t need to.
A heavy thud, the clatter of a gun on the ground, a gasp and a wheeze and then nothing at all. Juno shoves his free hand deep into the right pocket, crunching peeper eyes again into powder in his palm. He makes a fist with the other, extinguishing the fire, but the afterimage burns out the center of his sight; he cannot make out much more than a sleek kneeling figure and a pair of legs scrabbling against the pavement.
He hears a soft, liquid sound. The legs go still.
Juno blinks desperately. “Thanks again,” he says in, hopefully, the right direction. He can only see the edges of what’s in front of him, only the periphery. Impossible to look at directly. The shape of an arm; a tall, lean figure, standing.
“Do try not to make a habit of this,” says that voice. It slips down Juno’s brainstem and settles behind his sternum, rich and soft. The figure sets his body as if about to take flight. Juno panics.
He lunges forward with his hand full of dust; the tall figure lets out a surprised noise as Juno catches the fabric of his coat. Just for a moment, he fists his hand in cloth that must have cost more than his sofa, before the figure pulls away and is gone. Footsteps fade around the side of the building. He walks on the ground, then; that’s one relief.
The other relief bubbles up in Juno as the sound of sirens bears down on 45th Street and Lakeview. He leans over, hands on his knees to calm the ache in his lungs, and uses the last of his breath to laugh.
“Got you,” Juno whispers.
Which brings him back here: hands turned outward, fingers stained, eyes shut tight. The image is clearer with the anchor of the eye powder and the memory of it in his palm. The memory of the man, too; at least this one Juno has met.
This one, Juno has as clear a picture of as any, even never having seen his face.
The shape of the world assembles in jigsaw fragments behind Juno’s closed lids. Here, himself. There, the palm-print mark of their meeting. Long legs, tight coat, hunched over on a fire escape and something elegant and bird-like in his posture. But where, where—
“Shit.” Juno whispers. “Fuck, shit, shit, shit.”
He throws himself from his chair fast enough that two legs rock up off the floor and settle again with a thump Juno knows his downstairs neighbors will be none too pleased with. He crouches low, hidden from view through the window.
“Juno?” Benzaiten’s voice is concerned. He’s been concerned, ever since this case turned sticky—if Juno is still deluding himself that this is about the case.
His brother’s concern has been an annoyance, a reassurance, a load off and a weight to bear in turn for all his life. Right now, Juno doesn’t know which one it is; he’s more focused on breathing past the heartbeat in his throat.
“He’s outside.” Juno reaches out for his jacket, slung over the chair, before remembering he actually put his blaster away like a responsible gun-owner, for once. “He’s right across the goddamn street, watching me.”
“Your mystery man, you mean.”
“Who else?” Juno remembers the shape he sensed through the spell: the comfortable bend of the man’s posture, like he’d been there a while and wasn’t planning on moving anytime soon. “And would you stop calling him that?”
“Not until you get his name,” Benten says, “and maybe his number.”
“Stop kidding around, for once in your— Ugh.”
“No, no, go ahead and finish your sentence.” Ben leans over Juno, who looks up and sees that same goddamn smile he always has when he makes jokes like this. “For once in my what, Super-Steel?”
“This isn’t the time, Benten,” Juno snaps. “I’m being followed by some lunatic with a knife and he knows where I live. He’s spying on me right now, and I don’t have the first goddamn clue what he wants from me.”
“Go ask him, then.”
He says it like it’s the most obvious thing in the world. Juno gapes.
“I thought you wanted me to keep all the blood inside my body for now.”
“He saved your life twice already, right? That means he’s probably not here to kill you!” Ben reasons, ever the sunny optimist. “Probably.”
“Unless he’s been waiting around to do it himself.” Juno hears how paranoid that sounds, he doesn’t need the condescending twitch of Benten’s eyebrow to tell him that. He is grasping at straws and knows it.
There is still a fear, an unnamable one looming with the prospect of hearing that voice again, seeing the face attached to it—a worry and a wanting, the taste of potential Juno doesn’t know if he’s prepared to see through. He feels the edge of something just under his feet.
“Juno.” Benten says his name in a tone that’s been familiar longer than anything else has been familiar. Goading, maybe, or encouragement covered in just the right sheen to push Juno’s buttons.
Juno takes the back stairs. The tall man doesn’t see him leave.
“Hey,” Juno calls up toward the fire escape. The man is busy staring in Juno’s living room window across the street; had been looking, he would have seen the parlor trick: Juno passing his hand over the bricks beside him, seemingly melting out of the wall. Now you see him—
Of course, the audience is inattentive to his grand entrance. It’s the kind of trick that isn’t meant to be seen; Juno saves the showboating for the finale. This part is the sleight of hand.
As it is, the man is grand enough for the both of them anyway. Juno nearly had himself convinced that the faulty memory of each adrenaline-filled meeting had exaggerated how long and lean he was, how the geometry of his body fit together, the fluid dynamics of his movement. But looking up from below—if anything, Juno’s mind hadn’t done him justice.
The pair of legs on the other side of the dark metal grating pull inward, push the center of him up against gravity.
“Can I help you?” There it is again: the voice Juno can’t get out of his head. Rich like he’s heard tell the soil of other planets is rich, soft like the night sky beyond the dome is supposed to be soft.
“Looks like rain soon,” Juno says as the man leans over the railing above him. His head is surrounded, just for a moment, by a corona of bright neon from the streetlamp behind him. “I hope you… brought…”
Juno sees his face.
The man’s expression is sharp and startled on a face that might have been aiming for handsome but got the trajectory just wrong enough to be pulled into orbit. Juno has never seen him before, not fully, not haloed as he is by the light. He is an angel and a shadow all at once: soft cheeks, dark eyes. Juno swallows.
“…an umbrella,” he finally completes the sentence.
The man blinks twice, quick succession, then shifts his shoulders like he is adjusting a level.
“I didn’t think of it, no. Would you mind showing me someplace drier?”
Juno, being as he is an idiot, invites him up to his place.
“This is me,” Juno says, unlocking the door. “Where I live, alone,” he adds at a slightly higher volume, through his teeth. “Nobody else here, just me.”
“I… see,” the man says slowly. His eyes take in the unread mail on the counter, the stained ceiling over the stove, flicking over the chalk outline of Juno’s life in a way that feels familiar and discomfiting. Quick eyes, slender hands—dangerous, if nothing else.
Juno clears his throat. Those eyes lock onto him; Juno feels disassembled under that gaze, pinned down and vivisected.
Juno tucks his shoulders in, glares up at him under his brows.
“So?” he says. “Why the hell have you been following me?”
“I don’t suppose you believe in very good luck.” It isn’t a question. The man’s cherubic face softens with irony.
“Good luck doesn’t usually stalk me outside my goddamn apartment.”
“That’s a harsh word, Detective Steel—”
“How do you know my name?”
“How,” he answers, “did you know I was watching you?”
“I’m not the one caught with his pants down here—”
“Would you like to be?”
“I—” Juno chokes on whatever witty response was supposed to come next. The angel-faced man leans against his kitchen counter like a prehistoric statue of something divine: a world defined in the potentiality of his body. A threat he doesn’t feel the need to make.
“Allow me to propose a compromise, detective.” He reaches into his jacket. Before Juno can bark a No, prepare to dodge a knife between the ribs, he pulls out a little rectangle of cardstock. “I tell you why I’m here, and you let me continue to conduct my business in peace.”
“Your business,” Juno says flatly, “of following me all over the goddamn city?”
“I’m perfectly capable of working on my own terms, you know.” His smile is not so much a smile as a baring of teeth—sharp enough to cut, Juno thinks. His stomach drops. “It would simply be more convenient if you did not make an obstacle of yourself.”
“You must not have been following me for long, then.” Juno’s hand bunches in his pocket. He has the comforting weight of his blaster on him, but the angel is an unknown variable. “I was born making an obstacle of myself.”
“Yes, you certainly seem adept in that area.” He raises a meticulously-sculpted eyebrow and twirls the card between his fingers.
Juno grits his teeth. He doesn’t like it, but he likes the idea of getting gutted in his apartment after a useless conversation and leaving a mess for Benten to find and Rita to clean up even less.
“Fine.” They’re somehow closer together than Juno remembers; he barely has to reach out to snatch the card from the angel’s hand.
“Well?” he asks.
“You—” Juno reads the card over once more, just to be sure. “You’re a P.I.?”
“And might I say, one professional to another, incredible work spotting me across the street. I don’t suppose you’d care to share some, ah, tips and tricks—”
“You’re investigating me?” Juno steps further into his space, staring up into that bright, changeable face with a furrowed brow. “That’s it, isn’t it. I caught you on a stake-out. You need me alive so you can get paid.” Juno laughs, runs a hand through his hair, and laughs again.
“Look at him,” the man says with a level of pride that can’t be anything but sarcastic. “Connecting all the dots.”
“Still,” Juno snaps, “a lot of work for one client. I know times are tough and all, but are you that strapped for business?”
“It’s like you said,” he replies, clipped, “you die, and I miss a paycheck. This may be a foreign concept to you, Detective Steel, but some clients pay well enough to make a little extra effort well worth it in the end.”
“I’m not about to be patronized by a smooth-talking upstart who doesn’t even put his goddamn name on his business cards,” Juno says. “Which, by the way, what’s your—”
“Upstart?” He laughs—a twinkling, cocky set of notes that run down Juno’s spine and put tension in his shoulders. “Oh, detective. If you want to insult me, you’ll have to do better than that.”
“Look.” Juno takes the hand out of his pocket to rub the bridge of his nose. His other thumb hooks into the belt loop of his jacket, the familiar tug a grounding stimulation. “I just want to know why you’re staring in my window at eight in the evening on a Thursday. Who the hell is paying you well enough to watch me for a week straight?”
“I might ask you the same question about, say, robbing a bank?” The corner of the man’s mouth twitches.
“I didn’t rob the bank, I stopped—” Juno is suddenly struck that he did, in fact, take money from the bank teller and run away with it, which technically falls under the broad category of robbery. “Nobody hired me to do that.”
“Ah, a confession! Shall I read you your rights?”
“If anybody’s getting arrested here, it’s you—”
“Good point,” the man’s smile uncurls even further, barely stopping short of uncanny. “It is rather unclear which of us will end the night in handcuffs, isn’t it?”
Juno loses his train of thought, again. Stupid.
“Cut it out already,” he barks. “I’m talking to you.”
“That’s all I’m doing too, detective, only talking.” He shifts against the counter, tight fabric over wide, slim shoulders. “And while we’re talking, don’t you think it’s time we discussed my question?”
“No, hold on,” Juno shoves a finger in the man’s face. He doesn’t flinch, doesn’t even twitch at Juno moving harshly into his personal space. “You agreed to tell me what I want to know.”
“And I have.” He spreads his hands wide, a feigned-innocent What can you do? “I’m a fellow investigator, investigating you. I can’t imagine what else you need to know.”
“Who the hell hired you?” Juno repeats. “What do they want? What are you looking for? And you still haven’t told me your—”
“Oh, certainly. And I’ll just take a look through all your case files as well, hm?” His brows quirk up again, sculpted and black against a forehead crossed by the premature lines of a man who spends a lot of time expressing interest in the world around him. “Would that be fair to your clients, do you think?”
“I don’t like it any more than you do, believe me,” the man continues. He sounds theatrical and put-upon, as if he’s the aggrieved party in any of this. “Put yourself in my shoes, detective: a simple job, or so it seems, keeping an eye on another in your very same profession. A gig that pays the bills, one in a long line of them. And then, the lady you’re meant to be keeping an eye on goes and nearly gets himself killed. Twice in a week.”
“And then, you’re on a stake-out. One of a hundred just like it, only the very moment you finally get comfortable on that cold, lonely fire escape, there he is coming out of the woodwork.”
“It was a brick wall.”
The man blinks. Juno feels his own mistake like a knife to the gut.
“It’s a figure of speech, Detective Steel.” He blinks again, and something behind the malleable mask of his face sharpens to a point: the last thought before a winning move. “Unless… .”
Juno’s palms prick with sweat; the man leans in, closer—when the hell did he get so close?—and it feels like he sees straight through the layers Juno has spent a lifetime painting over himself, hoping the old varnish wouldn’t shine through. Hoping whatever marks him as like this, like her, could be pushed down and ignored despite its usefulness to everyone who isn’t Juno Steel.
“How did you know I was there, Juno?” This, the first time he’s called Juno by his first name, near enough that Juno can feel the man’s breath brush gently against his lip and cheek. He feels trapped; he feels caught; he feels seen and mis-seen all at once.
“I’m good at my job,” Juno grunts.
“You see, darling,” the endearment does a half-measure tapdance over Juno’s heart, “I would be fully prepared to believe that, if I hadn’t heard quite a few rumors of interest.”
“What…” Juno clears his throat. “What kind of rumors.”
“Strange ones, actually. I’d call them superstitious nonsense, but I wouldn’t want to offend, as both seem to be the fashion here on Mars.”
“Superstition and nonsense.”
“Don’t—” Juno has to take a second run at it before the words come out sounding like a scoff and not a plea. “Don’t tell me you go in for fairy tales.”
“I’ll believe in anything that solves my problems. You and I are in too delicate a line of work to pass up results.”
“If it’s results you want,” Juno can’t keep the laugh out of his voice, “this isn’t where you’ll find them.”
“No. Trust me.”
“And why should I?” Somehow, the man has steered Juno into one of the chairs at his tiny kitchen table without ever touching him. He sits in the other and crosses his legs, adjusts the cuffs of his shirt over his slim, angular wrists. “Do you have some expertise in that area?”
“That’s what you want to ask me? Seriously? You’re on the clock, and you decide to interrogate the suspect about…” Juno tries to quickly think of something that isn’t real, “about pixie dust?”
“You aren’t a suspect, exactly. And let’s call this conversation pro bono.”
“That’s not how—”
“If it’s all the same to you, Juno, I’d prefer to stop beating around the bush.” The man straightens in his chair, both feet flat on the floor and elbows on the table. His long fingers are steepled in front of his mouth, a serious flat line. “You thought you’d killed that mobster in the alley, despite the fact that you didn’t have a hand on your weapon.”
“I’m a quick draw.”
“You have a number of strange plants and completely unidentifiable substances in jars on that table.”
“A lady can’t have hobbies?”
“I saw you light a flame out of nothing at all and hold it in your bare hand.”
“You,” the man sighs, “are a very singular person, Juno Steel.”
He says this as if it is an enormous inconvenience to him. Maybe it is; Juno imagines his life doesn’t make for great entertainment. How anyone could put up with watching it from the outside is beyond him.
“Fine,” Juno says, heavy with sarcasm. “You uncovered the big secret: the stuff every other Solar planet calls Mars backwards for believing in? It’s true. Is that what your client wanted to know?”
“All of it?” the man asks. His eyes go wide behind the glasses that take up a third of his face—good focal point, Juno has to admit.
“Not all of it, but enough to matter.”
“That’s a relief, I suppose. Some of the stories you hear…” He gives a dramatic shudder. “Truly macabre. Tell me more.”
“What do you want to know?”
The man laughs delightedly. Juno stiffens, feeling like somewhere along the way he lost a game he didn’t know he was playing. He wants to hear that sound again, he wants to tell this man everything he could ever want to know. Juno has always known better than to trust in the things he wants.
“Everything, detective. It is one of my very few flaws.” He grins—shark’s teeth, leering out of the dark. “What’s your area of expertise? I don’t want to waste your talents. It’s not every day I have a genuine warlock at my disposal.”
There it is: the shoe, dropped. A single word like ice water over Juno’s head. This man is a very good liar, but he’s tripped over his ignorance. The light is out of Juno’s eyes; he sees him clearly for the first time.
“A genuine—” He chokes on the word, but it doesn’t matter; the man is already talking over him.
“But let’s start with, oh, I don’t know…” Perfectly casual. So perfect Juno wants to spit. “Curses?”
Juno finds his voice again. Rage will do that.
“Goddammit,” he swears. “You almost had me, even after all that. You almost had me.”
“I—” He actually has the gall to look startled. “I haven’t the first idea what you’re—”
“Curses.” He runs his fingernails over the soft side of his forearm, unconsciously tracing the veins of rot he saw creep under Agate’s skin. “Shit, you don’t even know, do you?”
That angelic face smooths over again. He tilts his head like a bird: curious, but it’s impossible to forget this is a creature of prey.
“That’s why we’re having this conversation, I thought,” he says. Perfectly, perfectly civil.
“Yeah, I’m sure you thought a lot of things,” Juno spits. “I don’t know how long you’ve been in this business, but here’s a professional tip. If you’re stupid enough to get caught, don’t cop to being a private eye. It leads to a pissed off client, a restraining order, or getting your teeth knocked in out back of the police station. Just one of the three, if you’re lucky.”
At some point in the last thirty seconds, Juno has jumped out of his chair and started pacing the room, circling the man warily. The man is up on his feet too, and Juno knows the posture of someone about to reach for a knife when he sees it.
“If you weren’t willing to have a peaceful conversation, Juno—”
“If you wanted to lose this case, you should have let me get gutted in an alley.” Juno taps the knob of his front door and gestures emphatically to the empty hallway, with its burnt-out lightbulb and stained carpet and the world beyond it full of things that shouldn’t be Juno’s problem but somehow all still are. “Now get the hell out of my apartment.”
Those sharp eyes flit between Juno’s hand, Juno’s door, and Juno’s blaster. It lasts the span of a second, but Juno sees the wheels turn.
“It seems you’ve underestimated the things we know in common, love,” he says thoughtfully. “For example, how to get the last word.”
With that, and barely the whisper of rustling cloth, this man takes a long step backward and rolls out Juno’s open window.
Juno spends the empty space between heartbeats frozen in shock. He comes back to himself—scrambling, nearly tripping over the chair pulled out from his table—and leans out with his palms against the windowsill. The dead drop from his third-floor apartment to the ground isn’t usually enough to make him dizzy, but Juno sees the dark street and the sheer fall and the fact that there is no tall, lean man anywhere in sight and feels the whole planet lose its balance.
Twenty minutes later, Benzaiten shows himself. He shimmers into sight just where Juno’s thousand-yard stare has been pointing for the ten minutes since he slumped back into his kitchen chair with a glass of whatever was within closest reach from the cabinet over the fridge.
“So, that was…” he says, “really something, Super-Steel.”
“How long were you there?”
“I heard most of it.” Ben gingerly takes the seat across from Juno, like he’s not sure the—Juno needs to think of something better to call then man than “the angel”—the angel isn’t about to show up and claim it again any second. “Thanks for the warning when you came in, by the way. Nice and subtle.”
“I didn’t want you spooking him before I had a chance to find out what he wants.” Juno knocks back half his glass in one go. “For all that’s worth. You saw how well it went.”
“I thought it was going pretty well until you blew a gasket.”
“Until I what?”
“Why’d you get so pissy all of a sudden?” Ben props his chin on his hands, big, curious eyes bright in his translucent face.
“Warlock. It’s—” Juno shifts uncomfortably. It feels wrong in his mouth, tastes like things he can’t even try to forget. “I don’t like that word.”
“Because you’re a witch, yeah—”
“No, because— I don’t want to be that either, thanks. Mom was a witch. I’m…”
“Also a witch,” Ben says, quick like he’s stealing Juno’s joke out from under him, even though it isn’t a joke, it never has been.
“That’s not the point. Whatever I am, I’m not a— I’m not that. You know what that word means.”
“Don’t tell me you forgot.” From the look in his brother’s eye, Juno knows they both remember all too well. He’s still going to make him say it. “That’s what mom used to call… him.”
“Who? You mean the warlock who broke into our house, didn’t take anything, and ruined all our lives?” Benten shrugs like their topic of conversation didn’t get him killed. “Never heard of him.”
“Look.” Benten gets up and comes around the table. He actually walks on the floor, doesn’t float over or through it, which is how Juno knows he’s serious. “Whatever you are, and whatever some guy calls you because he doesn’t know any better and he’s trying to impress you, you’ll never be him. Or her. You know that, right?”
“You don’t.” Juno would shrug Ben’s hand off his shoulder if it were really there, not just a projection from wherever he goes when he’s not haunting the only living relation he has left. Nowhere, is what he’s told him before, but thinking about that for too long makes Juno’s head hurt.
“Do you know what the word necromancy means, Juno?”
“What?” The question throws Juno enough that he almost forgets to keep scowling.
“It doesn’t technically mean raising the dead. It means learning from them, listening to them, getting advice or hints of the future. The dead are said to be pretty wise, if I do say so myself.”
“Are you saying you can predict the future?”
Juno raises an eyebrow and tries not to think about the kid Benten used to be—the one whose face he’ll always wear—who wouldn’t shut up about his favorite fun fact of the week and somehow turned it into a rousing speech about why it meant they had a moral obligation to break into the abandoned bodega or see what would happen if they scratched sigils into the thrusters of Mick’s hoverbike. He thought he was pretty wise back then, too.
“I’m saying, if I have to spend my afterlife moping around your grody apartment the least you could do is listen to me.”
"Tell me the last time you vacuumed. It’s okay if you need a minute to think about it, I’ll wait.”
“Fine,” Juno concedes. “What’s your great goddamn wisdom?”
“You have a life.” Benten catches Juno’s gaze and keeps it for long enough, at least, to give a crooked, sincere little smile. “The galaxy doesn’t stop turning just because you want it to. Being alive means things change. You meet new people and you grow and you build the kind of life you want, and sometimes that means going after the things you want instead of letting them jump out the window.”
“You saw that too, huh,” Juno mutters. “Wait, hang on, what are you— He’s been stalking me, Benzaiten!”
“You stalk people every day. It’s kind of your job.”
“One: no, it isn’t.” Juno counts off on his fingers. “Two: who said anything about, about going after him, or whatever?”
“C’mon, Super-Steel.” Ben rolls his eyes and Juno feels a spike of that special spiteful rage that only a sibling can inspire. “It was one thing when I just had to listen to you obsessing over the guy. But after this romantic vignette? If you don’t go for it, I will.”
“He’s not your type,” Juno grumbles.
“Yeah, that’s the only problem with that.”
“What do you want me to do, Benten? Track him down again and say, ‘Hey, you stopped me from getting killed a couple times and then I caught you prowling my neighborhood, can I buy you a drink?’” Juno shakes his head. “I still don’t know his goddamn name.”
“That sounds like an icebreaker to me! You’re halfway there.”
“And, and,” Juno won’t let his brother’s optimism stop him, not when he’s on a roll. “And another thing. Curses.”
Juno opens his hands toward Benten in a gesture that would have no conceivable meaning to anyone other than his twin, a prompting Well? that asks him to make the same connection Juno just did. Or jump to the same conclusion, at least.
“…You’ve been foiled again?”
“No, he asked about curses.” Juno starts pacing, makes three quarters of a lap around the room before Benten starts floating after him. “He could have asked about anything—he was trying find out how I found him, why wouldn’t he start with tracking spells? Or, hell, the fire he saw me make. There are a million things he could have asked about, and he chose… curses.”
“You said he obviously didn’t know enough to be the one—”
“Even if he’s not behind it, that doesn’t mean he’s uninvolved.” Juno stops—abruptly enough that Benten floats halfway into his arm—and snaps his fingers. “His client. Whoever he’s working for, that must be it.”
“Whoever cursed Agate Zapatero. Whoever killed her.” He exhales, long and exhausted. Exhausted with himself, mostly; he was too busy drooling over a nameless pretty face to ask these questions when the guy who could answer them was actually there. “I didn’t even ask if he recognized her name. Goddammit.”
Juno turns and pushes his forehead flat against the wall. The gentle thud is like a short preview of how he ought to punish himself better, later.
“So what are you going to do about it?”
“I’ll find him again.” Juno turns toward his worktable, already reaching out for the last few acid-green leaves at the bottom of the bowl still sitting out from an hour ago—and trips over his own feet.
“Juno,” Ben’s voice says, full of concern.
“Shit.” Juno pushes up against the back of the chair, having caught himself on it. “I’m fine.”
“You’re not.” Benten puts himself between Juno and his spell components. It’s a symbolic gesture; they both know Juno could reach right through him. They both know he won’t. “You’ve been burning through spells and barely sleeping. You have to let yourself recharge.”
“Come on. You and I used to get up to more on a weekend than I’ve done in the last month.”
“But I’m not here anymore, Juno.” Benten’s eyes are wide. His voice is emphatic and almost desperate. It knocks the wind right out of Juno.
“We made each other stronger, but you can’t bounce your signal off me like when I was alive.” He blinks. His hand hovers in the air between them, reaching out but afraid to close the gap for fear of the reminder that he can’t. “You’re on your own.”
The sadness in his brother’s voice is enough to crack the last bit of foundation keeping Juno standing. He slumps down into his chair, face in his hands. The last few days’ gatling-gun stressors all catch up at once, like a physical weight over his shoulders.
“I know,” he says. It comes out broken, nearly a sob; Juno is just so goddamn tired. “Dammit, I—I know that. I feel it every goddamn day, okay and I try to ignore it because at least you’re here, sort of. I can see you and talk to you, but I miss you even when you’re right in front of me. It’s…” Juno sniffles. “It’s just… really hard.”
He raises his head after a handful of long breaths. The tight ball of worry in his chest releases when he sees Benten still there; he had panicked, just then, that his brother would vanish in the seconds he looked away, in the time he wasted being vulnerable.
There is no pity in Benten’s expression. Juno neither expects nor fears pity from his twin of all people, he never has, but it is still a weighty reassurance to see understanding reflected back in those translucent eyes. This is far from the first time they’ve talked about this; a glance, a gesture, a broken piece of a sentence are enough shorthand by now to skip through an hour of difficult conversation.
Juno sighs again, somehow lighter.
“Get some sleep, Super-Steel,” Ben says gently. “You can run all over town looking for your mystery man in the morning.”
“Yeah,” Juno nods. He makes it to the doorway of his bedroom before he stops, turns, and says, “Hey, Benzaiten?”
“Can you…” He clears his throat. “Can you stick around tonight? Long as you can?”
Benten smiles softly. He swings himself over the back of Juno’s couch—not with any of the gravity-defying flips he’s so fond of, but the simple movement of a person made of mass and matter—and sprawls over the cushions with his hands clasped behind his head.
“I’ll be here when you wake up. You have a case to solve after all, Mister Detective Steel.”
Juno breathes a laugh out through his nose.
True to his word, Benten is still perched on the back of the sofa when Juno gets up the next morning.
He smiles even as the light from the window cuts sharp striations through him; he’s faded, the way he gets before he goes Nowhere for a while. He’ll be back, he’s always back, but Juno feels selfish all the same for begging him to wait all night in a quiet apartment. Christ, he didn’t even leave the TV on. How his brother doesn’t go stir crazy, trapped in Juno’s dingy apartment—or, if he really tries, Juno’s dingy office—is a wonder.
“What’s the game plan?” he asks as Juno brews a pot of sawdust coffee.
“I’ve got an idea about checking the PI registry,” Juno says. “If I can find a way in.”
“What about, uh, Dominic Dominguez?” Rita’s hair and Rita’s glasses pop up over the top of her monitor, sending a questioning look at Juno. “Gee, Boss, a lotta these names sure are alliterative.”
“Dominguez… Nope, we ran into each other on that case where I got shot in the neck.”
“Who knew birdseed stuffed down the barrel of a rifle would pack such a wallop.”
“The other time I got shot in the neck.” Juno stretches an arm over his head and adjusts himself on his own waiting room couch. It’s hell on his back, but he dragged it in off the sidewalk so he really doesn’t have room to complain. “This is getting us nowhere, Rita.”
“Well sorr-ee, Boss, but if he ain’t registered with the Hyperion PI registry I don’t know what to tell ya.” He hears the familiar sound of Rita typing, like a creature with too many legs running in circles on a hardwood floor. “I can get into Olympus Mons’s system, but it might take me a minute on account’a how they don’t sell personal information to quite as many private bidders—still a lot, obviously, but one at a time most of the time—”
“Wait.” Juno sits up, ramrod straight—his back twinges and says to kindly go fuck himself, and he’d respond in kind if he weren’t too busy telling himself, “I’m an idiot.”
“Didja leave your blaster on the stove and the stove on again? Because I keep sayin’ you really should get renter’s insurance—”
“We’ve been looking in Martian registries,” Juno groans.
“We— Boss, you know we’re on Mars, right?”
“Yeah,” Juno says, “but he wasn’t until recently.”
Superstition and nonsense, he’d said, like some high-brow Terran planetist or a tourist from Io hopped across the asteroid belt to see how silly the backwater Martians are.
“His client must have brought him in from off-world,” Juno continues. “Makes sense if they’re investigating me. Just about every PI in Hyperion either has it out for me or—Uh.”
“I know how that sentence ends, Mistah Steel, and you better not finish it.”
“Guess I’ll have to do it the old fashioned way.” Juno runs a hand across his face. “Again.”
He offers a silent apology to Benten and searches inside himself for those strings of tension that spark into his blood and out to the world when he snaps them. He can’t find any; mostly, he just feels tired. Tired and empty and ramming his head into walls at every turn.
Benzaiten was right. Juno can admit that, in the privacy of his own head and considering his brother did die and all, it seems rude not to give credit where credit is due. He has practically forgotten where his limits are. Doing this kind of thing more than once in two blue moons, like he’s done for the past two decades, takes a lot out of Juno. And here he is, without his twin to make him stronger, better, to pick up the slack where he can’t cut it on his own.
But, like a lot of things where Juno Steel is concerned, he doesn't have a choice. Or, if he does, any alternative will eat him up inside to the point that it’s really no choice at all.
The skin of thick leaves splits under Juno’s fingers; his eyes close.
All he gets back is static.
Juno furrows his brow and focuses, harder, digging deeper underneath all the layers of him screaming not to try it at all. Searching for the bright core of him, the thing that makes the universe sit up and listen in the first place, feels far too much like after-school lessons in Ma’s dark, bourbon-stinking room. She insisted it wasn’t about force or energy at all, not really; that he didn’t need any of it if he really knew who he was and where he came from.
Oh, Juno knows those things. They’re exactly what he’s afraid of.
He balks, in the end, and searches instead for the frayed ends floating around wherever he keeps a thing other people call magic. He can tie them together, he can take each broken string and break it more if he has to—
Hyperion City, in negative, projected on the inside of Juno’s eyelids. A burst of recognition here, a speck there, and it hits Juno like a speeding hover-hauler.
That man— The Angel, Juno chooses to lean into his own weakness—the Angel must have washed his coat, and thoroughly. He’s smart, finally did his research: the peeper eyes are gone, floated away into Hyperion City’s system of pipes and artificial water table. Juno might as well be looking for the city itself.
He opens his eyes, looks out the open window, and sees just that. Hyperion is as dark as it ever gets, still tattooed with neon and awash with the distant glow of the Dome. Juno is tired; his hands are stained; he has work to do.
The last time Juno tried to pull on a contact, he almost got himself killed.
Granted, it did also draw the Angel out of hiding in the first place. He considers trying it for a minute: busting down the Kanagawas’ front door with no invitation and no reservations about what he spits in Croesus’s face. Walking into rush hour traffic over the Tharsis bridge. Leaning up against the dumpster outside his old precinct where the desk-duty thugs go out to smoke. All perfect places to nearly die, to lure the Angel out again… But.
But Juno doesn’t want to, is the thing. He realizes this with a horrible sinking feeling, a here I go again kind of feeling. He doesn’t want to put the Angel in danger.
So, instead, Juno finally does some sleuthing.
“He didn’t know how I tracked him down,” Juno mutters, “and then, suddenly, he did.”
He waits for the interjection, but none comes. It’s a dizzying return to reality, how quiet and empty his apartment is.
Juno has no idea how long Benten will be gone. Could be hours, could be months. It’s been either and every option in between in the decade and change since he first fell out of the ether and back into Juno’s life.
Juno misses his brother, he always does, but there’s an extra ragged edge to it this time. Benten was starting to feel like part of this case, like an integral cog in the mechanism of how Juno was going to solve it. Losing him is like losing a key piece of evidence or a good night’s sleep. He leaves behind a nagging feeling of almost-not-quite.
“So,” Juno clears his throat and keeps going, turning a monologue into a soliloquy. “What changed? He must have learned from somewhere, someone…”
Where do you go in Hyperion City if you need a quick lesson in magical thinking? A place conspicuous enough for a visitor on a time crunch, but underground—or unappealing—enough to be realer than the charlatan spoon-benders in every tourist trap on the planet.
“Dammit,” he groans. He knows exactly where the Angel must have ended up, and he’s not looking forward to following his footsteps. Taxidermy gives Juno the creeps.
Juno presses the buzzer. Waits a beat. Presses it again, practically leaning on the gate with the button under his hand.
There are a handful of reasons Juno hates coming out here. A few of them are valid—the aforementioned aversion to taxidermy, the reasonable fear of being poisoned—and some are petty—the old man’s voice makes Juno grind his teeth, the shop just plain stinks—but none are enough to stop him from visiting every time he needs ingredients he can’t sweep off the street.
Half the folk in Juno’s orbit are sellouts and the rest are too focused on scraping by to put much stock in quality. The only things stopping Monrovian from falling into either of the two camps are a genuinely astonishing obliviousness to anything outside his shop and the eight total hours of memory he can piece together from his life, but Juno will take what he can get.
“Yes, hello, hello?” warbles through the speaker, a few decibels louder than it needs to be. “Who is this?”
“A paying customer,” Juno shouts back. “Wanna open the gate? I got all these creds weighing down my pockets…”
“Just a moment!” There is a thud and a set of quick, uneven footsteps. The gate buzzes open amid a rushed urging of, “Quickly now, hurry.”
Juno remembers Lyle Monrovian as a man too old and too unobservant to bother anymore with the little things people do to construct a silent agreement with others not to comment on their age: clothes decades out of style, boldly receding hairline, the whole bit. Juno knows him as forgetful and fragile and having lived much longer than anyone would put money on.
That’s nothing in comparison to what Juno sees when he steps into the pungent lobby of Pets By Design.
Monrovian looks like an average guy getting on in years, with a shock of white hair and no regard for personal space—one who has been shrink wrapped. His eyes barely focus on Juno for a full second as he yodels a hospitable greeting; his lips are cracked and thin; his skin clings to his bones like wet tissue paper, cut by prominent varicose veins like bare trees against the sky. He is, if Juno had to guess, quite unwell.
If Monrovian realizes his own declining health, he doesn’t acknowledge it.
“What can I do for you, young man?” he asks, the way he always does—simultaneously certain he has already given his spiel and that he has never seen Juno before in his life. Senile enough to not even know a lady when he sees one, is good old Doc Monrovian. As always, Juno doesn’t have time to unpack all that. It’s better than an attempted poisoning, though not by a lot.
“I, uh, bought some of your merchandise and I need to see my receipt,” Juno says. He really didn’t think this through, but the upside to dealing with Monrovian is, if the lie falls flat he can just leave and try again.
“Work expense,” Juno shrugs and bares his teeth in the grin that used to get him into uptown bars with the worst fake ID on Mars. “Mind checking your records for me? It’ll only take a minute, doc.”
“Oh, I, um.” Monrovian’s watery eyes drift from Juno, to the computer terminal, up to a ludicrously fat tomcat mounted on the wall overhead, and back to Juno. “Shouldn’t you have received a receipt with your purchase?”
“That’s what I said,” Juno shrugs. “Must have been the new hire.”
“I… haven’t hired someone in—”
“Really, I promise, just look me up and I’ll be out of your hair.” Juno snaps his fingers. “Wait, I wouldn’t have given you my name, would I?”
“I suppose… you wouldn’t have, no.”
“That’s fine, why don’t you just print me out all the transactions you’ve made, oh,” Juno puffs his cheeks, blows out a thoughtful breath like he can’t quite remember something so unimportant, “since yesterday?”
“Well, if you’re sure…”
The old man’s fingers crawl across the keyboard and Juno hums a quiet sound of surprise to himself. He honestly didn’t expect it to be this easy.
“I’m sorry,” Monrovian says, not sounding sorry at all, “but there have been no transactions at Pets By Design in the last twenty-four hours. If that’s all you need, young man! Please have a pleasant—”
“Not Pets By Design.” Juno crosses his arms. He looks pointedly at the huge, dusty curtain dividing the back half of the building from the lobby. “Your other business, doc. If you don’t mind.”
Monrovian blinks his small, distant eyes.
“We’ve met before, then.” He sounds as resigned as a half-century of customer service lets him. Monrovian claps his dry palms together. “Well! Not a moment, not a moment, I’ll get you your list and make you some tea in the meantime! Have a seat wherever you like!”
Juno glances around. There are exactly two and a half chairs in the room; the only one that seems entirely assembled is covered in loose nails and sits in the shadow of a precariously-mounted and exceedingly large horse. Juno meets its glassy, empty eyes.
“I think I’ll stand.”
Monrovian waves his hand above his head. It passes a foot below the pull cord for the curtain, which doesn’t even swing with the displaced air from his stick-thin arm. Despite this he turns, marches toward his stockroom, and walks directly into the thick curtain. His whole body is nearly obscured by the cloud of dust this sends billowing out.
“Are,” Juno coughs, “you okay over there, doc?”
Monrovian reaches up again, makes a fist in the empty air and pulls down. The cord stays still. The old man lets out a cartoonish yowl of frustration.
“Please!” Monrovian waves his arms and shouts into Juno’s face from four feet away, “Pay no attention to the man in front of the curtain! Drink your tea!”
“You didn’t give me any—”
“I said pay no attention!”
“I’m paying no attention!” Juno says, paying a great deal of attention.
Monrovian tries his swing-and-a-miss maneuver at the rope twice more before he drops to his hands and knees and crawls right under the curtain. Gentle thuds and an almost musical series of frustrated hoots reach Juno from the other side. His best guess, Monrovian is looking for something.
There’s a crash like a line of glass dominoes followed by a beat of silence.
“Oops,” says Monrovian.
“Need a hand back there?” Juno calls.
“No, no, I’ll only be a moment. I’m brewing you some tea!”
“I’d rather get that receipt first, if it’s all the same to you.”
A metallic rattle, thuds like the previous sound effect in reverse, and Monrovian’s wrinkled, white-haired head pops out from under the curtain. Juno briefly wonders how the old man stays so spry; he’s got half a century on him, and crawling around like that on a concrete floor would fuck Juno’s knees to hell and back on a good day.
“Receipt? What do you mean, receipt?” He pulls himself further out by one elbow, revealing his other hand. He holds a small cup of tea on a cracked saucer. It rattles gently with the faint tremors in his spider-veined hand.
“You, ah,” Juno shoves his hands in his pockets and lies through his teeth, “promised to grab me all your receipts from the last day. Official business, you know how it is.”
“Yes, of course.” Monrovian emerges from under the curtain like a stage magician’s trick. He sets the teacup precariously on the edge of the front counter, waves his hand at the cord, and repeats his slapstick vertical faceplant into the wall of dusty cloth.
Juno hides his face in one hand as the whole sordid scene replays in front of him, live and in living color.
A full two minutes later, Monrovian crawls out again with a sheet of paper clutched in his fingers and a small box in the crook of his elbow.
“I took just one order, so this must be it.” He shakes his head. “Business isn’t what it used to be, I’m afraid.”
“Thanks, doc, I appreciate—”
“Are you certain you only want the receipt?” the old man interrupts.
Juno clears his throat, nervous. “What else is there?”
Up to now, Juno has felt only a step or two behind the Angel, but it strikes him that he has no way of knowing if this is true. There could be a trap waiting for him in that box, poison dust or a micro-bomb, or just an envelope with Juno’s name on it, containing only a letter the Angel left behind to gloat and a faint scent of that cologne—
“We didn’t have the item in stock last night,” the old man explains, “so it was meant for delivery. Today, in fact. I hadn’t gotten around to it before you dropped by, so that’s,” he laughs a weak, dry little laugh that shakes his whole thin ribcage, “quite good timing on your part. I’m certain I would have forgotten entirely.”
“Yeah, real lucky. Can I take a look and make sure everything’s—?”
“Now what—” Monrovian’s watery eyes narrow on the paper in front of him. “What was your name again, young man? It seems there isn’t one on the order.”
“That’s fine, I’m here now, aren’t I?”
“Yes, but I can’t simply hand off an item of this rarity to just anyone—”
“Rarity?” What the hell is the Angel after?
“You… don’t know what it is?” Monrovian’s shaky gaze rises slowly to meet Juno’s eyes. He’s only half-there, the old man, but that’s more than enough to turn suspicious. “What sort of official business did you say you were on?”
“Look,” Juno snaps. His patience ran thin one accidental comedy routine ago, and he just wants a single thing about this case to be easy. “Keep the stupid package he ordered, I don’t care. Just show me,” Juno steps closer, “that,” he grabs the paper, “receipt.”
The paper slips easily from Monrovian’s frail hands. The old man gasps in offense and shuffles away, moving into Juno’s peripheral vision. Juno pays him no mind, his focus putting up blinders to everything but the receipt.
Paid in cash upon ordering, extra fee for same-day delivery. A lot extra.
So he’s in a rush, then. Juno scans further down the paper; there is a paragraph in headache-inducing tiny type about how non-responsible all parties but the purchaser are in any accidental maimings, curses, arrests, body-swappings, or losses of life, limb, or soundness of mind that may result, yadda yadda yadda. Standard stuff. Juno keeps looking.
There: a delivery address. It’s a hotel across town, if Juno remembers correctly. He makes a note of the room number.
“Thanks, doc,” Juno begins. As he lowers the paper and turns attention back to the room, he realizes the old man isn’t where he left him.
“Not at all,” comes his voice, too loud, in Juno’s ear; he jumps. “This seems like a perfect time to enjoy your tea. Right now!”
For a practically mummified taxidermist-slash-criminal-slash-wizard old enough to have been old news before Juno was born, Monrovian is quick and quiet on his feet.
Juno looks down. The tea, shaking faintly in its saucer, is brown and thick and not really tea at all; Juno remembers this from the last time Monrovian was suspicious at all of him. He wonders if the poison angle has ever actually worked, with how obvious he is about it.
“I actually have to run, but thanks for all your help—”
“I insist!” Juno isn’t entirely sure what Monrovian meant to accomplish with his next movement—throwing the tea into his eyes and mouth, maybe; a murderous game of skeeball with Juno’s face—but the cup goes flying off its saucer. Juno has just enough presence of mind as the liquid makes a brown arc through the air to hold the paper out of the way.
The tea isn’t hot anymore, if it ever was, but it leaves a wet, dark stain down Juno’s abdomen and across his left pant leg.
“Shit,” Juno swears. He can feel the liquid dribbling down his leg and into his shoe. “You treat all your customers like this, or are you trying to start a dry-cleaning business on the side?”
“Ah,” Monrovian says. “Well. That didn’t work.” His eyes flit between Juno and the animals mounted around the shop. Monrovian takes a couple steps back, reaching out behind himself toward a quadruple cerberus set up next to the front desk.
“Now hang on, let’s just talk this out, okay—”
Monrovian’s hand lands on one of the dog’s heads.
His blaster is out and Monrovian has thrown himself out of the way before the two of them realize, simultaneously, that the dog hasn’t moved. It’s just how he left it, dumb and glassy-eyed and frozen in a defensive snarl.
“Huh,” Juno says.
Monrovian scrambles to his feet. He touches the dog again, and again, practically slapping it across its dry, silent muzzles. He seems to realize the trick isn’t going to work at the same moment Juno turns his back to move toward the door.
“Stay right there, young man,” the old man shrieks. There is another thud, then a creak, and Juno turns around again just in time to see the horse slip off its mount and tip towards him.
“Oh, goddammit,” Juno groans. He’s often idly wondered what his obituary might say, but ‘crushed to death by a dead horse’ is a new one.
Juno is exhausted; he’s running on nothing but fumes and frustration; he’s on a wild goose chase for a guy he can’t get out of his head—one which has gone on long enough he’s nearing the end of even his own tolerance for self-delusion—and he’s covered in soupy poison tea that makes it look like he just threw up all over himself like a toddler at best or a lady who is a hell of a lot drunker than Juno is right now, unfortunately, at worst. He watches the horse teeter on its unstable mount and it isn’t resignation that fills him.
Instead, he feels the heft of the horse’s weight shift whatever invisible strings tie the universe together, and Juno gets righteously and thoroughly pissed off enough to give those strings a yank.
The horse rocks slowly back onto its mount—and keeps going.
“Watch—!” Juno calls out as the horse tips the other way. With a yelp and an inauspicious crunching sound, it lands on the opposite side. “Out.”
Dust in the air tickles Juno’s nose as it settles, disturbed for the first time in who knows how long. He creeps around the bulk of the horse, hoping to anyone or anything that might be listening that he isn’t about to see too much blood.
“Doc?” Juno asks cautiously. He sees a familiar tuft of white hair poking out from under the horse’s neck. “You alive down there?”
He is answered by a long, weak groan.
“Great,” Juno says. “I’ll just, um, take this.” He leans down and pulls at the box Monrovian was carrying, split open by the side of the horse’s head. Something glitters inside of it, visible through the long cracks in the crushed cardboard.
Before he leaves, Juno grabs the phone behind the counter and dials emergency services. He leaves the receiver on the floor next to where he’s pretty sure Monrovian’s head must be, under all the… horse parts. The operator’s voice mutters a faint question, barely audible until the door shuts behind Juno.
He gets in his car and peels out of the parking lot so fast the thrusters make a horrible boiling-kettle sound against the pavement. Once Juno hits the freeway, he doesn’t stop until he’s back in the middle of Hyperion. It is only then that he pulls into an alley and looks in the box.
If he had been slightly worried about the contents being damaged by the fall, all those fears are erased. A new set of fears settles over Juno as he holds it up to the light between his thumb and forefinger; if this is what he thinks it is…
He checks the receipt again, and it absolutely is.
A piece of pure maskelynite, barely the size of one the Angel’s eyeteeth. Juno knows what it means, and he can’t decide what scares him more: the idea that the Angel is going to try to use it himself a day after learning to wash peeper eyes out of his coat, or that he got it for someone who actually knows what they’re doing.
Juno shifts the car back into drive. He’s close to finding how all these pieces fit together, he’s sure of it, but there isn’t a moment to lose.
There is, however, a moment for Juno to stop back at his apartment and change. The dampness of his shirt and pants is starting to itch, and one of his socks is sopping wet. This isn’t ideal; it’s laundry day.
More specifically, it’s been laundry day for about three weeks.
Juno digs through his closet and pulls out a red dress. He hasn’t worn it in years, not since the last time someone sufficiently bribed him to go out dancing. It’s loose when he puts it on—the Juno of a few years ago was clearly eating better than the Juno of today, lucky bastard—but it’s better than making his grand entrance in soaked-through slacks or the rattiest hoodie to ever grace Mars’s surface, which are his other options.
He specifically does not think about the fact that this dress is a date dress. If Juno doesn’t bother to fix his messy eyeliner, it doesn’t count.
It’s a swanky hotel, of course. The Angel strikes Juno as the kind of man who wouldn’t be caught dead anywhere with sheets under a certain thread count, whatever that thread count might be. Like, ten? A hundred?
Not that it matters. Juno focuses back on the matter at hand, watching the room numbers tick upward until he comes to the right door.
He knocks, twice. A couple of footsteps on the other side, and the door opens a crack.
It opens wider when the Angel sees Juno’s face. He blinks, eyes seemingly further apart without his ridiculous glasses but just as lean and unsettlingly, achingly pretty as the last time. There’s something off about him, though, a dullness behind the eyes. Maybe he’s tired; so is Juno.
But Juno has a job to do. The reminder of his exhaustion only kicks him back on track. He holds out his hand, where the maskelynite glitters against the backdrop of his palm, and raises an eyebrow.
“So,” the Angel says. His legs are crossed delicately where he sits in the chair of a broad desk just inside the hotel room door. He leans his chin against his hand, propped on his elbow, one finger laid curiously over his lips; he looks fragile and surprised, sitting while Juno is left to stand.
Juno can’t help but feel the Angel has him right where he wants him, despite it all. Discomfort makes Juno prickly, makes him want to act smug just to crack the porcelain mask that fell over the Angel’s face as soon as he ushered Juno into the room.
“So.” He tosses the maskelynite in the air like a flipped coin and catches it again in his palm. “Seems a little small for a paperweight.”
“I’ve decided to become a jeweler in my spare time, actually,” the Angel says in a tone that would be accompanied, on a lesser man, by an eyeroll. “You know what I mean to use it for, I think.”
“And why do you think that?” Juno quirks an eyebrow; sue him, he’s nearly won. He wants to hear him say it.
The Angel takes his hand away from his face and leans forward in his chair. Juno steps back, startled by his sudden proximity to the general vicinity of Juno’s hips—and realizes he’s failed a simple test he didn’t see coming until after it was over. Regardless of vertical position, the Angel has regained the high ground.
“Oh, for the same reason I know now how you found me the first time,” he says airily, hint of a smirk gracing his soft face as he looks up from under his dark, undone brows. “And again today, I presume. Can you recommend me a new dry cleaner, by the way? Mine seems to have rather botched the job.”
“Don’t leave ‘em a bad review just yet.” Juno squares his shoulders. “Believe it or not, this time around I found you through a thing we call actual detective work. Maybe you’ve heard of it.”
“Only in passing,” the Angel laughs. Juno blinks; of all the ways he’s struck Juno, it’s never been as the type for self-depreciation. “Now are you here to accuse me of something, or are you just hoping I’ll tip you for a prompt delivery?”
The Angel holds out his hand as if Juno will be stupid enough to hand over the maskelynite.
“No, no way,” he says, closing his fingers tight around the shard. “You don’t get this until you tell me what the hell you want it for. Or who you want it for. It’s your client, isn’t it?”
“Well, if you’re going to be petty about it.” The Angel stands, bringing his lean body close enough into Juno’s space that he can feel his body heat, smell a sudden burst of that cologne. It’s Juno’s turn to look up; even in the dim, yellow light of the hotel room, the Angel’s face is like the idea of a long-eroded statue, the face the artist saw in their mind’s eye as they chiseled away marble to find it deep inside. “You want to know who I bought the maskelynite for?”
The Angel’s eyes are deep and steady. His gaze never wavers from Juno’s, piercing down to the root of him.
“You.” The Angel runs a hand through his uncoiffed hair and smiles the most genuine smile his face must be capable of. “Wonderful to meet you, Detective Steel. I would like to hire you for a job.”
“You— I—” Juno’s mouth drops open; he keeps his hand closed, but barely. “Okay. Hang on. Ignoring all of the… everything about what’s been going on for the past few days, and assuming you actually want to hire me, which, what the hell, and assuming I agree to take the case, and I hope you know I cannot wait to bill you into next week for all the shit it took to even get here—” Juno takes a breath, “what would I need the goddamn rock for?”
“Exactly its usual purpose, detective,” the Angel says. “Only you will need it to find something I’ve lost.”
“And what’s that?”
“A trifle, really,” the Angel shrugs. “Only my name.”
Juno stares at him for a full three, silent seconds.
“Do you practice those lines in the mirror, or?” Juno pinches the bridge of his nose. “How do you lose your name? And how am I supposed to find it by—Oh.”
The Angel tilts his head questioningly.
“Oh? Has the great detective figured it out?”
“Curses,” Juno says slowly. “Dammit, Ang— Uh, and. And the maskelynite. You want me to…?”
“Yes.” Angel nods once and sits heavily on the end of the bed. It’s a nice bed, king size, doesn’t even squeak under his weight—Juno stops thinking about the bed. He thinks, instead, about the way Angel’s pristine posture sloughs off him and all the hard lines of his body seem to barely hold themselves together. “I suppose there’s no hiding the whole sordid affair from you now, Juno, since you’ll be in my head in a minute.”
He looks up with a half smile and a real note of nervousness in his eyes—unless that’s a lie, too, but Juno has been there. Juno has been just where Angel is now, more or less: collapsing under the strain of forces he never asked for, doesn’t want, forces that keep taking and taking and running him ragged.
If this is really a matter of curses, Juno will know. He has tried a million different ways to run from this power and the whole set of problems that come with it, but he hasn’t managed to shake it yet and it’s doubtful he ever will. But having been hounded by it as long as he has, Juno knows when a story like this checks out.
“Alright,” Juno sighs. He sits backward in the chair Angel left empty and braces his arms against the back. “What did you do to get yourself cursed?”
“That’s part of the problem. I don’t know.” He reaches into one of his pockets and pulls out a notebook—one bigger than should rightfully have fit. He flips through a few pages and runs a slender finger down one. “After I arrived on Mars, I know that much.”
The notebook looks worn to hell and back. Pen and paper, too, which Juno has never seen a PI other than himself use; he tucks this away as a future I told you so to Rita.
“After you got hired to stalk me? By the way,” Juno snaps, “I still don’t know who the hell you’re working for. You expect me to trust you when there’s still some, some— Why are you laughing?”
“Apologies, Juno,” Angel says, not sounding apologetic at all. “I simply assumed you would have figured it out. There is no client, and no victim, other than myself.”
Juno’s eyes flick from the notebook to Angel’s face.
“You were trying to solve your own cursing.”
“Mhm,” Angel hums. “And quickly realized I was—” he hesitates, upper lip curled in distaste, “out of my depth. So I did my best to find someone who might provide insight. As it turns out, that happened to be you.”
“You come highly recommended, detective.” In context Juno doesn’t take it as a compliment, although Angel sounds like he means it as one. “I thought if I followed you, I could learn what I needed without ever asking you to get your hands dirty.”
“And now you want me to shove my hands straight into your brain,” Juno scoffs. “That’s a pretty roundabout way of asking for help.”
“I’ve always preferred to take the scenic route.” He grins at Juno, even through his obvious exhaustion. “But you’re here now, aren’t you?”
“I haven’t even agreed to this stupid thing yet,” Juno grumbles, but he knows he’s only delaying the inevitable. He is going to help this man; he is going to do practically anything Angel asks of him.
“I…” He hesitates again, as though about to impart a weighty secret: a down payment on Juno’s cooperation. “I was on a job that certain parties involved would be rather less than thrilled to find out about. If that helps you any.”
“It might. If you did something worth cursing a guy over, it could help narrow down who did it.”
“Will that help get me my name back?” Angel clears his throat. “I suppose I haven’t been very clear about this. I am not vengeful by nature, detective. I can be, when it’s convenient, but what I’ve lost is too precious to prioritize anything except reacquiring it. If someone has… taken my name, that could be very, very bad for me. Do you understand?”
Juno doesn’t understand. He can’t, not as a person who too often would love nothing more in the galaxy than to stop being Juno Steel. But he sees the desperation creeping through Angel’s competent, clever, dangerous exterior, and he feels the truth of what he’s said. He feels it like a cartoon rain cloud hovering over Angel’s head, a looming presence—or absence. A coldness. A blank space where there should be more.
He’s cursed. He’s scared. And he’s turned to Juno for help, offering all of himself in an expression of unearned trust.
All the fight goes out of Juno in an instant. For all the energy he spent chasing him all over Hyperion—would have chased him across all of Mars, if that’s what it took—he had no idea what he would do when he finally caught up. This feels like as good a choice as any, and a hell of a lot better than some.
“Okay,” Juno says. He holds out his closed fist and uncurls his fingers. Twin miniatures of the maskelynite glimmer in Angel’s eyes. “Do you know how to do this?”
“There’s a ritual involved, yes?” His voice has fallen, low and soft, wonderstruck as though Juno has given him a gift for which there is no repayment. “I have a broad idea.”
He adjusts himself where he sits, leans in again—close enough that Juno can see the dark circles under his eyes through his makeup, the flecks of gold in his irises, his long lashes—and parts his lips just slightly, the pink tip of his tongue just visible between them.
“No,” Juno says quietly, meeting Angel’s tone. “It’s, uh, the other way around actually.”
“I see.” He has the decency to look a little embarrassed by the whole affair, at least. “Are you going to—?”
“I meant, heh,” Juno laughs awkwardly. It’s a barely-audible huff of air, but in the sudden quiet it still feels too loud. “You have to…”
Juno poorly pantomimes the action, but Angel’s eyes light up with understanding regardless of his shoddy performance. He holds out his hand, palm up, long fingers steady and sure and pointing toward Juno like a compass.
When he drops the maskelynite into Angel’s hand, he has to look away. He can’t bear to see the deft movements of his fingers, the tendons flexing under the surface of his flawless skin, reaching out to—
“Open your mouth,” Angel says nearly at a whisper. It is a gentle reminder, not a command, but Juno quakes somewhere inside himself nonetheless.
Juno closes his eyes—he tells himself the whole thing will be less jarring that way, though that is transparently not the only reason—and does as he’s told.
Angel’s fingers are warm and dry and his skin is as soft as Juno imagined it would be, gently pressing past his chapped lips. The pressure of his fingers is a welcome contrast to the intrusion of the stone. It feels bigger in Juno’s mouth than it did in his hand, and colder, as if it never properly warmed up after a long life in the vacuum of space.
Angel places the maskelynite on Juno’s tongue with great care. The pads of his fingers trail over the line of his teeth; they twitch against his bottom lip like he wants to wrench Juno’s mouth open—or perhaps that’s what Juno wants, a gentle brutalization at the steady hands of the man whose mind he is about to wander like a trespasser.
Juno closes his mouth a moment too early; his lips catch on the tip of Angel’s finger. He swears he hears a soft gasp, but there is no time to be certain. Magic arcs from Angel to Juno, the stone a grounding point inside him. The wave of Angel’s mind closes over Juno’s head and pulls him into darkness.
It is almost second nature, even after all these years, to push back against the probe of another mind peering into his. Luckily, Angel has no such practice; Juno falls into him, deeper and deeper until the flood of everything-nothing resolves itself into ideas and images—creation itself in fast-forward, the universe of a single man.
Distantly, back where his body is, Juno feels a set of slender fingers touch the side of his face.
Cold, all hard lines and sharp edges; need and hunger and fear and no more of that, now, wild abandon loneliness wonder nothing I want to be big, the biggest, everyone will know the name—
Juno feels the loss but not the lost thing, the absence in a shape he can’t make out. He pushes deeper, into Knives and blood and a rush of joy crossing a dark rooftop with bounding leaps like flying—
There is a strange brightness the further he goes back, unfamiliar to Juno but inextricable from the man’s memory of himself—
Run run run take what you can
cut your losses keep moving
and moving eventually, the insistence that you’re running toward the universe
and not away from something something something
stops being a lie keep running stop, lost, how to find it how to find it rumors and whispers the name of a PI of course it’s silly, it’s impossible,
Oh, he’s beautiful, isn’t he.
Juno surfaces from the dark water of Angel’s mind with a heavy gasp. His nose is full of the scent of cologne; his ears are ringing; he feels, still, the shock of secondhand desire in seeing himself as Angel sees him, layered over his own heady want. The two are amplified, intertwined, a perfect feedback loop of intensity so all-encompassing that even back in reality Juno feels that he might well drown in it.
For all the stimuli still overloading Juno’s brain and the disorienting effect of watching his own face filtered through Angel’s eyes, he still floats in the dark limbo of wherever the spell has sent him. A flash of panic bursts like a single spark in the bonfire of emotion; he can barely string words together over the volume of Angel’s desire to kiss him that Juno can taste like syrup in his mouth, but he manages after a false start once the awareness of his own muscles returns.
“I can’t—” Juno chokes out around the stone in his mouth, “I can’t see.”
“Oh, love,” Angel’s voice is soft but cuts through the deluge of his mind like a meteor-breaker ship. “Open your eyes.”
Juno blinks, and there he is: his angel, faint smile on his pink lips and cold fire in his dark eyes.
As the last of the spell fades, there is no trace of doubt in Juno’s mind that he and Angel are on the same wavelength regarding the intensity of what just happened. He catches the tail end of a thought, a burning want, before Angel’s thoughts leave Juno’s head like the last swirl of water in a drain.
“Yes,” Juno breathes; he hopes Angel understands what he’s just answered, because there is no more time to discuss it as Juno drags his lean face closer and kisses him desperately.
All tongue, teeth scraping inner lips, wet warmth and bruising pressure is this kiss. Juno pulls Angel closer and Angel follows his lead. They run headlong at a paradox together, matter occupying the same space and time if only they keep at it long enough. Juno is dimly aware of the chair thumping to the floor, of the edge of the desk pressing up against his back and then a hand at his thigh, helping him up over the obstacle to lay him out on the nearest flat surface, hard under his back.
Hands, roaming over Juno with a warmth he can feel through his clothes, slip into his jacket and push it off his shoulders. Angel breaks the kiss just enough to breathe a moment, close enough that the air they each pull in is the same air. He braces himself over Juno; one hand induces a quiet crunching sound, muffled by the thick fabric of the coat.
Juno glances down and sees dried, purple petals falling from one of his pockets, small clusters drifting across the desk surface in the minor shifts of the air from their movement.
“Those are expensive,” Juno pants.
“I’ll buy you more,” Angel promises in a voice as breathless as Juno’s. “I’ll swing between stars and bottle the dust falling from the asteroids myself.”
“You can get asteroid dust at the Five and Cred,” Juno grunts, but Angel is already leaning in to kiss the complaint away.
A minute later, Angel draws away with a curious look on his face. His own long fingers slip into his mouth and he pulls out the maskelynite, looks at it with a cheeky smile.
“Choking hazard,” Juno says.
Angel’s smile widens. He places the stone carefully on the television stand and presses his hands to Juno’s legs, up under the loose skirt of his dress.
“Funny you should say that."
The skirt falls further away from the aim of Angel’s attention, hitched higher up Juno’s hips and all he’s wearing underneath is pulled down to his ankles. Angel falls to his knees.
His lips close around Juno’s cock like the shaping of a holy word. The sounds this pulls from Juno are all praise and no humility, rising until they fill his throat and the whole room—the whole hotel, the whole goddamn galaxy, it feels like.
The universe turns on the zenith of Juno’s thighs; the spell is long ended, evidenced by the stone glittering out of his periphery and completely uninteresting compared to what is happening elsewhere, but somehow… It’s impossible, it doesn’t make sense—Angel flicks his tongue just under the head of Juno’s cock and his back arches like the doorway to an ancient temple—yet Juno feels as if he left some part of himself in Angel’s mind, a part he can still sense like a phantom limb.
He finds the strength to push himself onto his elbows, to open his eyes to the light that comes as nearly a surprise, and watch Angel’s dark-haired head bob in Juno’s lap. He’s framed by the thin red fabric of Juno’s skirt; it falls over the edge of the desk like a photograph of spilling wine, waves of red frozen in a moment forever.
Their eyes meet. Angel’s fingers, wrapped around the base of Juno’s cock; Angel’s mouth, passing over his shaft at a delirious tempo; Angel’s gaze, locked with Juno’s and sparking warmth in him greater than any of the rest: all of it sends him higher, hoarser, closer. His hips twitch up and Angel takes it easily like he felt the movement a moment before it happened, like he’s still in Juno’s head.
“I— Oh, shit,” Juno moans. He reaches down to run his fingers through Angel’s hair and misses, catching the side of his face in a clumsy caress. Angel presses into his hand like his touch is a benediction; he pulls his mouth off of Juno in a last long slide, turns his face to press his wet mouth to Juno’s palm, and works his hand hard where his lips were a moment ago.
“There you go, love,” he whispers. Juno feels the movement and the heat of his breath against his hand. Angel leans forward once more and puts his tongue to the head of Juno’s cock, gives him a short set of gentle licks.
Angel brings his free hand up to the side of his own face and lays it gently over Juno’s. His fingers slot into the space between Juno’s fingers; his mouth hangs open, his eyes are sharp enough to cut. Juno feels him and quakes and finally cracks through his stained-glass desperation.
Juno spills onto Angel’s face, over his upper lip and high on his cheekbone where it runs down his face like tears. Joyous tears, if the expression underneath is anything to go by; Juno sees it, twitches, and spurts once more over the knuckles of the warm hand still around him.
Angel unfolds his long, lean body and stands over Juno. He starts to reach for the nearby tissue box, but Juno fists a hand in the front of his shirt and drags him closer. He makes a sound of quiet surprise but kisses Juno back immediately, ravenously, like he has nothing at all to hide.
“Can I—” Juno mumbles against Angel’s mouth, already reaching for the front of his pants.
It is unclear to Juno if the man makes a noise of encouragement or if he feels it in the wordless way that should worry him more than it does, but the distinction doesn’t matter right now. What matters is Juno undoing his pants, Angel helping push them down, getting his hands on Angel’s dick and feeling the weight of his hips between his spread thighs.
He grinds into Juno’s hand and against Juno’s body, braced over him again. Juno whines at the friction—overstimulation gilds this impossible series of moments in yet another layer of intensity.
He wants more even as it’s too much; he wants every atom of this man, everything they could possibly do to one another.
The fabric of his dress begins to stick to Juno’s sweaty thighs, his lower belly. He squeezes his hands on Angel as the two of them work, together—they make a damn good team, Juno thinks dizzily.
Angel comes with a sound that could crack Juno in two. It echoes in his ears like a shout, although it was quieter than any of Juno’s own groans and gasps. Juno draws his hands out of Angel’s pants and lets them fall back onto the desk at either side of his head. Angel hasn’t moved except to relax his trembling arms and lay against Juno’s chest.
In the quiet, winding-down stillness of after, Juno puts a hesitant hand at the back of Angel’s head. He is rewarded with a small noise of contentment against his sternum; Angel pushes the crown of his head against his chin.
“I—” Angel says eventually. It seems to take him a try or two. “I imagine this isn’t very comfortable for you.”
“I left my spine at home today,” Juno says, “so I’m not too worried.”
“Regardless, I think we deserve a bed after all this hard work.” He pushes himself up and smiles at Juno. It’s a new one, this smile: not coercive or coquettish, not predatory, not even lustful. It’s just—a smile.
Juno likes it; he feels the heavy weight of guilt in his gut, the knowledge that he doesn’t deserve to like it. Still, he lets Angel pull him to his feet and pull him right back down onto the bed behind him.
A few minutes, he can justify that. A few more minutes of being touched gently, like he’s done anything good for anyone. It’ll have to last him a while, after all; Juno can be selfish for now.
“Would you like to shower first?” Angel asks into Juno’s hair. That’s it, then; that’s all Juno gets. “Or, to ease any conflict, we could always share—”
“I’ll go first,” Juno says.
He’s cold when he pulls away from Angel, and not only in the places where they were pressed together. He’s cold down to his toes, up to the roots of his hair. Touching this man was a grounded current of warmth, and now he’s been cut off. His knees are still weak as he stumbles into the bathroom.
Juno spends long minutes under the hot spray, mulling over what he saw-felt in Angel’s head. Surprisingly enough, the thing he’s angriest about—and even with the qualifier, it isn’t much—is how he let himself be misled by the vaguest business card he’s ever seen. Passing himself off as a member of Juno’s own profession, no less; what idiot falls for that?
So, really, the one he’s angriest at is himself. What else is new.
When Juno finally forces himself to emerge, Angel is sitting on the bed, the picture of casual expectation in a clean pair of floral lounge pants. His face is clean—and bare of makeup now, too. Juno’s dress lies draped over the desk chair like a dead fish; folded on the foot of the bed is a sundress made of that one-size-fits-some stretchy material.
“I thought I could spare you the walk of shame look, though I’m sure it would be fetching on you,” Angel explains. “I can get your dress dry-cleaned. I didn’t know what to do about your jacket.”
“Don’t worry about it. The jacket’s seen worse,” Juno shrugs.
There is a beat of awkward silence; Juno is absolutely the one making it awkward. He drops the towel around his hips and scrambles to pull on the offered sundress.
“So,” Juno says once he’s clothed again. “Working for Vicky, huh?”
“I’ve done work with Valles Vicky, yes,” Angel nods, “which brought me to Mars. Do you think that might be a lead?”
“Can’t rule it out, but I doubt it. I’d have heard if something like this happened to one of the Vixens, let alone Vick herself.”
“You’re acquainted, then?”
“We can’t all be lucky enough to say with instead of for.” Juno’s smile feels like a grimace, which is as appropriate to the conversation as it is unrelated, caused by the big, obvious thing they’ve apparently decided not to address. “Are you finished with your fence?”
“Are you planning to turn me in if I say no?”
“Nope,” Juno says. “I’ve got a funny feeling it wouldn’t do any good.”
Angel grins wolfishly. It’s an intimate smile, a man looking at someone he not only knows but knows well. Juno shivers and grabs his coat; if Angel says anything, he can claim the sleeveless dress is chilly with the AC up.
“Juno,” Angel says slowly. “I believe I know the answer already, but did you…?”
“Find it?” Juno sits heavily on the bed next to Angel, strangely relieved to be talking about business now, and shakes his head. “I didn’t. And that’s the weird part. This curse isn’t suppressing your memory. It’s like it… stole your name, somehow. I felt the space where it should have been, but it’s empty.”
“Well,” Angel says with the irritating inflection of someone about to look on the bright side. “That’s novel.”
“Being the one stolen from,” he says this with a facade of cheer that Juno sees right through. Underneath is hesitation, almost nervousness.
“About that.” Juno points a finger in Angel’s face. “If you want me to work for—with you, I’m setting some goddamn ground rules. Number one, no more lies.”
“I didn’t actually lie about my profession,” Angel tries. At the sharp look Juno gives him, he smiles bashfully. “At first. I did not lie to you at first. I simply let the card do the talking and followed along with your inferences.”
“And then you lied.”
“And then I lied.”
“I need to hear you say it. Say to me, ‘I promise not to lie through my teeth and actively impede my own case anymore.’”
“The whole thing.”
Angel gapes at him.
“Now you’re just being childish, Juno.”
Juno crosses his arms and sets his jaw. He has an earned reputation as a stubborn sonuva; it’s high time Angel learned who he’s dealing with.
“Fine,” Angel throws his hands in the air. “I promise not to lie through my teeth and actively impede my own case anymore.” He draws the words out mockingly; Juno kind of wants to deck him and kind of wants to put his tongue in his mouth again.
“And you have to say, ‘I won’t keep any secrets from the detective trying to help me.’”
“I won’t keep any secrets,” Angel’s eye glints, “from the detective who has chosen, out of the goodness of his heart, so kindly, generously, and admirably, to help a lost soul in his hour of need.”
“One more thing—” He doesn’t actually have another thing in mind, but it doesn’t matter; Angel talks over him immediately.
“Ooh, let me guess.” His grin is too wide to fit on his stupid, handsome face. “‘Juno Steel is the bravest and smartest detective to ever live’. Or, no, I’ve got it: ‘Juno Steel is always right and I am a fool to have doubted him for even a second’.”
“Shut up,” Juno says. He layers anger over it to hide the twitch at the side of his own mouth.
“How can I, when you’re forcing me at gunpoint to say, ‘Juno Steel’s cock is—’”
What exactly Juno Steel’s cock is, Juno doesn’t find out. He was lying, before, when he implied that any part of him held a desire for violence to stop Angel talking; all of it was the other option, and one he indulges in heartily.
Angel makes a triumphant noise around Juno’s tongue in his mouth. Juno makes a sound, too, but that has more to do with strong hands on his back and the taste of himself behind Angel’s teeth.
Juno pulls away to breathe and finds himself on top, straddling Angel’s slim waist. Unidentifiable substances lay sprinkled across the comforter, fallen from Juno’s coat pockets in the abrupt transition from not-kissing to kissing.
“Okay,” Juno exhales, trying to put his brain back together. “I should go, uh—Work, work to do. In the meantime, think about what you did to get yourself cursed and we’ll start there with finding out who stole your name. Tomorrow.”
“That sounds like a plan.”
Angel raises an eyebrow. “Are you going to get off me, then?”
“Oh.” Juno rolls off of him, scrambles to his feet beside the foot of the bed. “Sorry.”
“Don’t be.” Angel remains on his back, arms akimbo looking soft and welcoming and so appealing that Juno digs his fingernails into his palms. “You don’t have to go, you know.”
It’s tempting, he’ll admit: Angel, with his messy hair and soft pants, looking relaxed and clever and still smelling like Juno, a little, he’s pretty sure.
But Juno remembers the absence in his apartment, feels a heavy knowing on the back of his neck that has taken a backseat for the last few hours: Benten will be back soon. He wants to be there when he reappears, and literally getting into bed with his—client? Is that what this is, now?—instead of greeting his brother at his return to the world would be a skewed set of priorities big enough to be seen from Deimos.
Angel waits a beat. At the sight of Juno’s hesitation, he nods and sits up.
“Don’t let me keep you,” he says pleasantly. “I know you have a life to get back to, even if I’ve successfully stolen your attention for an evening.”
“Hell of a lot longer than that,” Juno snorts before he can stop himself. Angel doesn’t need to know he’s all Juno’s thought about for days; it would be a bonus to the man’s ego he really doesn’t need, speaking of things that can be seen from space.
The look on Angel’s face is a testament to that, a smug little smirk that knows precisely what Juno isn’t saying. He wishes it didn’t make him want to hike up his dress again.
“Goodnight, Juno Steel.”
“Yeah,” he says again as he pats his pockets at the door. What’s the phrase? When a thief kisses you…
His teeth and wallet seem to be in place, though. Angel knows by now that Juno can and will track him down all over again if need be.
Juno nods, tells the little part of him hoping for a goodbye kiss at the door to go to hell, and leaves.
The dress is safely stuffed deep into Juno’s hamper as soon as he gets home. The more conspicuous spots on his jacket get a quick treatment with a washcloth and dabs of stain-remover.
It isn’t that he’s never showed up in a clear morning-after way in front of Benten. It’s just that, in this particular case, Juno can feel like a radiation burn exactly how scaldingly smug his brother will be about it. And anyway, there are more important things to talk about. No time for that one; maybe once this all blows over, once he knows Angel’s goddamn name.
Despite that glaring gap, Juno knows more about Angel than a lot of people he’s slept with. He tries not to think about it.
The night passes fitfully. Juno tosses and turns; neon stripes slide over his restless body through the slatted blinds and he can feel every one, every flash of light through his eyelids like an electric shock. He wishes he could hear familiar breathing on the other side of the room. Benten’s absence is never so tangible as when he’s almost returned.
In the week before Juno’s home became happily haunted, he slept maybe a total of ten hours. He ached and drank and raged until he passed out as cracks of dawn peeked through the dome. At the time, he assumed it was because of the grief he didn’t feel, the monstrous joy of outliving the monster.
That was also why, at the time, he spent a few solid days convinced Benzaiten was all in his head.
Juno sighs heavily and rolls over, burying his face in the colder side of the pillow. Getting maudlin won’t win him any sleep; guilt is more of an upper than a downer.
He drifts off uneasily around three. Somewhere between four and five, he’s awoken by the sudden absence of unease.
“Hey, Super-Steel,” Juno half-hears. He waves a clumsy greeting and falls asleep.
Juno sleeps deeply and dreams a very good dream that escapes him entirely come morning.
The harsh beep of his comms startles Juno awake. For a split second, he expects to find himself in that hotel room across town—strong hands on his hip, teeth and morning breath against the back of his neck. The bleary sight of his own apartment is dizzying in its familiarity; he shakes himself and picks up the call.
“Yeah?… Jeez, Vick, slow the hell— What?… One of my what?… Look, don’t take this the wrong way, but I really don’t care about your fencing operation this early in the—” Juno looks at the clock. “Okay, well. I don’t really care no matter what time it is. I’m sorry your go-to guy skipped town, but—… Oh. Oh.”
Juno sits bolt upright in bed.
“What did you say?” Juno runs his thumbnail anxiously along the seam of his topsheet. “And you said… In his veins. Like rot.”
In a moment, Benten is visible and at the foot of Juno’s bed with eyebrows raised. Juno gives him a grim nod.
“Listen, Vicky,” Juno says. “Like hell am I going back on your payroll, but this just so happens to be a case I’m already working. Soon as I solve it— No, actually, I’m not going to tell you more than that… Because I don’t want to. Bye.”
Juno hangs up and drops his comms into the blankets. He closes his eyes, pinches the bridge of his nose.
“Juno…” Ben says.
“Goddammit.” Juno punches his mattress. “He’s dead. The same thing that killed Agate, it’s spreading. It’s spreading and I didn’t stop it and I just saw him. He was right in front of me, and I didn’t even notice. I didn’t even—”
“Who?” Ben asks desperately. “What the hell did I miss?”
“Monrovian,” Juno says. Then, after a breath, “You missed a lot, actually. I’ll fill you in, but I need some goddamn coffee.”
He fills Ben in on… most of it. Juno has never been the kind of lady to kiss and tell, but Benten has always been the kind of brother to pry it out of him and make such merciless fun that Juno took three separate—quickly broken—vows of celibacy in his teens.
And, and, that’s the least important part of all of it. He can’t keep Angel out of the story entirely—the maskelynite, the lying, the curse of another color Juno has to figure out in whatever free time he has now that there’s another dead body to contend with—but Benten has the presence of mind to keep his trap shut about Juno’s infatuation now that the circumstances are this dire.
Juno is on his fifth cup of coffee by mid-afternoon and considering actually eating something when there is a knock at the door. As Juno gets up to answer it, Ben fades out of sight.
“Detective,” says the voice that hits him before anything else. Next come the teeth, leering out between lips that have hovered in the back of Juno’s head for about eighteen hours. Then the eyes, the cheekbones, the whole effect of his disparate pieces put together.
“Hey,” Juno says. He has never once been good at this.
Juno isn’t sure how to say This isn’t a good time, not to that face—especially since he must be here to talk about his actual case, regardless of where Juno’s mind went first.
“I am,” says Angel, holding up a coat hanger with a long, thin sheet of white plastic, “a man of my word.”
Juno winces so hard he’s worried he pulled a muscle. Somewhere between the realization that Angel brought his dry-cleaning and the knowledge that Benten is well within earshot, Angel lets himself into the apartment.
“I, uh, I can tell.” Juno shuffles after him. “Any,” he clears his throat to cover up the whisper-soft sound of disembodied laughter, “progress on your case?”
“Ah.” Angel scuffs the toe of his shoe over the carpet, hands clasped behind his back. He looks at Juno from under his eyelashes—how the hell he manages it when he’s half a foot taller than Juno, he has no idea—and smiles. “That isn’t quite what I came to talk about.”
Is… is he being coy?
Juno wants to dig a deep, deep hole in the dirt and jump in. The impulse only increases when Benten, ridiculous Benten, materializes right over Angel’s shoulder. He meets Juno’s eyes, then waggles his eyebrows so cartoonishly Juno is certain he couldn’t have physically done that when he was alive.
“What,” Juno clears his throat for entirely unrelated reasons, “what did you want to talk about?”
Ben purses his lips, closes his eyes, and makes the most disgusting kissy-face Juno’s ever seen.
“I hoped to make it very clear, despite the circumstances, how much I enjoyed your company last night,” Angel practically purrs.
Ben’s mouth drops open. The look on his face is the one Juno thinks people are supposed to have on their birthday.
“And return your dress. It looks lovely on you, though it did look better off.”
Juno is going to die. He’s going to drop dead right here in his apartment and then he’s going to haunt it forever with his brother who will mock him until the day the sun expands and swallows the whole Solar System. He doesn’t look at Benten; he keeps his eyes strictly trained on Angel.
That’s not a whole lot better, distracting in its own way—Juno’s eye catches Angel’s and he pauses mid-thought.
Angel’s eyes are quick, as sharp as Juno’s. His posture is impeccable and he fills a room bigger than the space his body takes up, tangible wall-to-wall, it feels like. Or, that’s how he has been. How he was.
Now, Angel’s eyes are skittish. His shoulders slope like he’s been carrying something far too heavy. Juno feels him, feels him everywhere with a deeply inconvenient heat, but there’s something—off. Something has loosened around whatever Juno left behind in his head; he doesn’t quite fit anymore.
“Juno?” Angel says hesitantly. “I… apologize if I’ve overstepped. If you meant it to be a one-time…? Or, I suppose if you see it as a mistake—”
“No!” Juno blinks, rubs his eyes. He’s imagining things. He’s too wrapped up in his other goddamn case. Too many curses in this city; a city that is itself one big curse to start with. “Neither, uh, I—” He resolutely does not look at Benzaiten. “I don’t want it to be a one-time thing.”
Angel’s face brightens. Juno sags with relief, then shame that he mistook something as simple as Does he like me? for the effects of a killer curse.
“And I am so glad to hear you say that.” He steps closer to Juno and puts a hand on his face. Juno leans in on instinct as Angel’s soft lips press to his forehead.
“Thanks,” he mumbles into Angel’s collar.
Juno’s eyes dart up, daring Benten to keep making fun of him. He sees his brother’s wide eyes, but not filled with mockery as he expected. He looks—sad. Afraid. Benten points at Angel, ghostly finger an inch from the back of the man’s neck.
Juno frowns in confusion. Benten shakes his head, and Juno smooths out his expression as Angel pulls back.
“I have work of my own to do this afternoon,” he says, “but I would be honored, Juno Steel, if you would join me for dinner.”
“I…” Juno speaks distractedly again, but he focuses quickly enough to take in the proposition. “I’d like that.”
Angel smiles, suggests a time and place and gives Juno his comms coordinates, then begins to make a graceful exit.
Juno glances questioningly at Ben again. Ben points urgently at Angel’s back, halfway out the door, and Juno looks.
Juno looks. All the blood in his body drains coldly out of him.
Creeping up the back of Angel’s neck are thin, spider-web veins of mottled purple-red. They’re not as dark as Agate’s were, but then again, Monrovian’s were mistakable for the normal signs of aging on the day before he died.
Juno cannot speak, mouth drier than the Martian wasteland; the door shuts behind Angel.
Benten appears to Juno’s right. He feels him there, but is too frozen even to glance at his brother. All the anger and frustration and desperation of the whole godforsaken enterprise hardens in Juno like sap turning to amber. His throat is full; his feet are rooted to the floor.
“Dead man walking,” Benten comments.
“Takes one to know one,” Juno says without turning to look at him. And that’s wrong; Juno isn’t the one who makes those jokes. Gallows humor only works if you’re the one swinging from the rope—as much as Juno has wished it, that’s never been him. Otherwise, it’s part of the execution.
Ben knows that.
Juno doesn’t hear him go; there’s no disturbance of air, no marker of a spirit there and gone, but nevertheless Juno feels his absence like a slamming door.
“Boss!” Rita jumps two inches off her desk chair when Juno storms in. “Where have you been? You got three calls from Mr. Hidalgo, he’s real mad about expenses again because he found yarn on sale for cheaper than you put on the invoice, and you promised you’d finally let me show you how to delete emails today—”
“I’m going out again,” Juno calls, already in his office with the door shut behind him.
He shoves his head in the bottom of his filing cabinet and grabs the sticky-note stuck to the back wall of the drawer. Juno reads it over twice. He snaps his fingers under it until it catches fire.
“Well, what did you even stop by for, then?” Rita asks through a mouthful of salmon-something mush as Juno comes back into the front office. “Burstin’ in here like a rabbit in a microchip shop when I ain’t even heard from you in—”
Juno leans heavily on one hand, suddenly flat against the top of Rita’s desk. She swallows, startled, and meets his eyes. She doesn’t seem to like what she sees, if the way she stops chewing is any indication.
Juno looks down at her with a dark, desperate determination.
“Can you do me a favor?”
Heights are low on Juno’s list of favorite things. This means that, even on his best days, the antigrav elevator ride up to Kanagawa mansion is unpleasant.
As ever, Juno wouldn’t be here if he had a choice. Never has he had the same reason twice, but each time he’s backed into a corner of one kind or another. Self-destruction, coercion, desperation: it all tastes the same.
“Name?” grunts the Kanagawa cousin on security today. She asks it the way every beat cop in Hyperion asks when Juno gets pulled over for two broken tail lights. She knows the answer, and hates it, and is going to thoroughly enjoy what comes next.
“Juno Steel.” He shoves his hands deep in his pockets. “I don’t have an appointment.”
“On the contrary,” the guard says. “You have a standing appointment with the boss.”
“I sure as hell hope so.”
True to his word all that time ago, Croesus Kanagawa looks ready to gut Juno the moment he sets foot inside. His teeth are wide and he shows too many of them when he smiles, the keys of the galaxy’s sleaziest piano.
“Juno!” Croesus says in his nasal, showman’s voice. “It’s good to see you. I thought I killed you. No, that’s right, I just told you if you ever showed your face around here—”
“Yeah, yeah,” Juno cuts him off, “you’ll cut me into just so many pieces, I get it.”
Croesus frowns. The lines of his camera-ready face wrinkle and smooth out again; he looks like a different person entirely without the circus-act grin.
“Well?” He loses the affectation abruptly. “Coming by to lose all your blood, live on camera? Or did you crawl here to beg your way back into our good graces? Because it’ll take a lot of work to get there, you know, you grimy gumshoe—”
“Actually, Croesus, I’m here to see the boss.”
“I’m right here.”
“Cute.” Juno grins lopsided in Croesus’s face and looks around, arms out but hands still in his pockets. “Where’s Min?”
Min is, as it turns out, down a short hallway right around the corner. She has almost definitely heard every word since Juno got into the elevator. Juno stops himself from smiling; even a private quirk of the lips will be caught by the cameras.
And then he’s face-to-face with her. Min Kanagawa, cold and clever and too smart by well more than half, sits at a modest and well-organized desk. She keeps her space as different from Croesus’s as any two offices can be, if the man’s habits around clutter haven’t changed since Juno was last here. Everything about Min’s office is unassuming, sterile; Juno feels more certain his every move is being observed and noted in here than he ever has in front of the Kanagawas’ cameras.
“Min, honey—” Croesus says. He sounds practically pathetic in the presence of genuine power.
“I’ll take care of it, dear,” Min says in a voice cooler than a glacier and just as likely to brook an argument. She gestures for Juno to sit in the one, hard-backed chair in front of her.
Croesus leaves, mumbling something about contracts and streams and things that need his attention. Min smiles.
“To what do we owe the pleasure, Detective Steel? Cecil will be delighted you’ve stopped by for a visit.”
“I don’t plan to hang around long enough to catch up.” Juno settles back into the chair. It’s the kind specially-made to prevent comfort and silently demand ramrod posture. He slouches anyway. “I have a problem. And I need someone to make that problem go away.”
Min doesn’t move. Not a single muscle in her face twitches.
“And what,” she asks, not a question, “might you need that someone to do?”
“You know what they say about Mars, Min? On the other Solar planets? About how we’re all a bunch of ignorant idiots who fell back on superstitions humanity outgrew a millennium ago?” Juno smirks. “Let’s pretend for a second, hypothetically, that Hyperion City really does run on fairy tales.”
“I’ll give you a few minutes to entertain the notion, detective. Impossible tales are a staple of my industry, after all.” She taps her chin thoughtfully. “Though the truth is often more profitable than fiction, as my family’s streams well prove.”
Juno snorts. Min’s face doesn’t change, but Juno swears the temperature in the room drops five degrees.
“If you ran a news station, Min, you might have a leg to stand on,” Juno says. “Not much of one, but still. Reality TV and ‘truth’ aren’t even in the same zip code.”
“If your aim is to criticize my family’s creative decision-making, detective, you would be better off on those silly little online review forums than wasting both your time and mine.”
“That’s not what I came here to talk about. It was just a fun bonus. I said—"
“Let us, for a moment, pretend that magic exists all around us and the good people of Hyperion City hold the key to its primal manipulation.” Min waves one manicured hand in a dismissive gesture; Juno hears the lock on the door click quietly. “Where does that take us?”
“Well, hypothetically, if all that kid stuff is real, and if you were, I don’t know, a powerful sorceress—”
“—and if a wayward friend of the family had an issue—”
“You’re being very generous to yourself.”
“—that needed solving,” Juno finishes the thought pointedly. “What, hypothetically, might it cost him?”
“It would depend entirely upon the problem. And, of course, what that… friend of the family,” her lips move around the words in the closest approximation of a smile to appear in her features yet, “had to offer.”
“Let’s call him Juno Steel.”
“Lucky.” Min’s voice is sugar in a wasp-trap. “That is a lovely name. Now, for the rest of it.”
“Curse. I need to find where it came from and how to stop it. Mostly the second thing. And I’m on a tight schedule.”
“Hypothetically.” Juno leans forward in his seat. He doesn’t dare touch Min’s desk, but he rests his hands close enough to the edge that he could. “And hypothetically, you know exactly what I have to offer. So do it, name your price.”
“My goodness, someone is desperate.” Min laughs without moving her mouth; the laughter seems to emanate from the room itself, the walls and neat shelves and the things that have been or will be done and said at other times in this same place. “A word of advice, detective: you are offering a contract in which you state no terms. Someone could demand anything of you that way, could drain you dry.”
“That would be cruel.”
“That,” she corrects, “would be good business. However, the services you’re asking for cost nothing at all—to you. Nothing but a sentence of information.”
Juno narrows his eyes.
“The hell does that—"
“I will get what I want, and you will get what you want, and all it takes is one thing. You’re going to tell me the whereabouts of Cassandra Kanagawa.”
Juno sits in complete and total silence for a full three seconds. The silent voices in the walls go quiet too; the whole room holds its breath.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he finally grunts. His fingers clutch so tight around the arms of the chair that they are starting to ache.
“Loyalty, so admirable.” Min folds her perfect hands. “My daughter escaped Hoosegow months ago to gallivant across the galaxy. You are the only person outside of this family whom she ever told about that dream of hers. You know where she is, and you will tell me. Turning in a fugitive wanted for an attempt on her own father’s life, detective, is the right thing to do, after all. You want to see justice served, do you not? If your answer is no, we have nothing more to talk about.”
Juno growls. Min looks like she knows she’s won; that is to say, Min looks exactly the same as every other time Juno has seen her.
The silence stretches on, coming up against the threat of a following heartbeat, and then—
Min’s intel is solid. Of course it is. She might not know every corner of this city—just most of them—but if she didn’t know how exactly to find someone with a spellbook and a grudge, she wouldn’t have nearly the stranglehold on this city’s magical underground that she does.
“Here,” Min had said, pressing a piece of old, corroded metal into his hand. “This will bring you to the source of your problem.”
Juno had held it up to the light and tried to look through the hole in the middle, perfectly circular. Min’s hand had wrapped, vice-like, around his wrist before he could manage it.
“Give them an inch, and they take a mile,” Min had shaken her head and sighed. “It will show you the truth of things, detective, but you paid for a very specific piece of that truth. Go back down to the surface before you steal a peek into things you really shouldn’t, hm?”
In the moment before Min had stopped him, Juno could swear he had seen movement barely in his periphery. A layered, hungry movement over the walls—inside them.
When he gets planetside, Juno holds the piece of metal up to his eye, staring through hole left by the radiation that’s been boring through everything on this dusty red rock since before Juno was born. He follows the trail like a good little sleuth, like this is just another case. Like Angel’s life isn’t on the line.
“And how do I stop the curse?” Juno had asked at the doorway. Sticking around any longer than necessary would have meant his curiosity getting the better of him; but just the memory of a glimpse of this truth-of-things had made him nearly sick.
“Break the source,” Min had said. When Juno had stared at her in frustration, she had simply smiled that brilliant, deadly smile and said, “If you want details, you will have to find them yourself.”
It isn’t as hard as it should be: just a trek across Hyperion on Juno’s weathered boots, away from the floating mansions of Uptown and into a derelict industrial district with the kind of empty buildings Juno played in as a child.
He checks his comms. The numbers blink back like a taunt, well past the time he was supposed to meet Angel for dinner. A sinking inevitability fills his gut; it’s better this way, for a lot of reasons, but that doesn’t make it hurt any less. Angel will get over him and move on, alive.
The trail ends at the wide, dark doors of an old factory—pre-War, by the look of it, the kind of place Juno has a bad track record with. He breathes deep and pushes the creaking door open far enough to slip through.
“Hello?” he calls into the dark. The only answer is a thrumming overhead and a strange light leaking through from above. No choice but to follow it; it’s as good an invitation as Juno ever gets.
The light gets brighter the further Juno walks up the dark, echoey stairwell. It seems to shine through cracks in the walls and ceiling. He puts his hand against the wall at one point, feels for the break in cement where time and pressure and neglect have started the process of crumbling. The wall feels completely solid.
This door, labeled ‘3’ with peeling paint, is the last; Juno feels it in the part of himself he wishes he could gouge out. It hasn’t steered him wrong so far except in the ignoring of it, unfortunately, so for the first time in a long time he surrenders completely.
He clicks his blaster’s stun setting off.
The scene, after he shoulders his way inside the way they taught him when he was a good little cop, is unlike anything Juno has seen before. His eyes need a few precious seconds to adjust to the blinding light. Once the room comes into view, he sees its source: an enormous, upright tube of searing-bright… something. It isn’t liquid, he is sure, but it moves and flows and writhes behind the glass. Juno feels dizzy looking at it.
He looks away and sees a raised dais, upon which is a huge chair that looks made from slabs of obsidian. On that chair is a woman, old, lounging on the stone like she’s never been more comfortable.
“Who are you?” she hisses. Juno feels it in his own head more than he hears it over the rumbling whose epicenter he has found. “What are you doing here?”
“I’m here to break your, like, curse machine? Is that what this is?” Juno shakes his head. “Doesn’t matter. I’m here to stop you.”
The woman cackles. The sound lodges between Juno’s vertebrae.
“You don’t even know what I’m here to do. You don’t even understand the power you’re witnessing right now, do you?” She raises her arms. “I… am siphoning life itself!”
“Oh my god,” Juno mutters. “You’re monologuing.”
“Hyperion City has gone on too long wasting the power beneath their very feet. They believe in their little spells and incantations, their omens of luck or poison thoughts, but they never look at the big picture. None of you, none at all, are brave enough to dig your hands into the great, glowing powers of the universe.”
“Great.” Juno rolls his eyes. “You practice that in the mirror or something?”
“Your flippancy may make you feel more powerful, but what do you know of true power?” She holds out a hand; something deep in Juno’s chest tugs, a visceral jerk but not a physical one. “Ah. I see.”
“Shut up.” Juno takes a step forward; the light from the glass container flares again, blinding.
“I see the spark of magic in you, little witch,” the woman taunts. “But your powers are no match for my own. You cannot best me, not with your strongest spells.”
“Don’t need to,” he replies, and pulls out his gun.
He gets two shots off before the light burns his retinas again. When Juno opens his eyes, he sees the woman still on her throne, smiling a little manic but unharmed.
“Power,” she says, “does not—"
Juno shoots her.
One wrinkled hand extends in front of her body. In less than the space of a blink, the laser flying through the air slams into nothing and dissolves into crackling energy across a wall of invisible force.
“As I was saying—”
Juno shoots again. The same futile thing. Again, and again. Throwing out a forcefield strong enough to stop six shots of condensed laser power doesn’t faze her at all.
“How the hell—” Juno’s blaster hand drops to his side. This—this is big magic. These are the kinds of spells that burn themselves out or collapse under their own weight in seconds, if you can even get the juice to start them in the first place.
Juno has never seen magic like this. He’s heard of it—still even on a smaller scale—but that would take… that would mean…
“If you would stop interrupting me,” she snaps. “Each person in this disgusting city, knowingly or not, has access to a limited supply of the universe’s magical energy. I,” she gestures at the glowing vat, “have taken theirs to augment my own, and am therefore capable of unimaginable feats of magical power.”
There it is, then: a big jar of stolen souls, siphoned away over days or weeks or months until the victim has nothing left to give. The timeline explains why Juno didn’t recognize it; the last time he saw something similar attempted, it was clumsy and explosive. Benzaiten didn’t live long enough to start manifesting symptoms.
“Why theirs?” Juno asks. It’s been easy enough to keep her talking this long; if she’s distracted enough, Juno might have a shot. “Why… why Monrovian and Zapatero and—him?”
The woman blinks.
“Oh,” she says without a note of interest. “Were those their names?”
Just like that, Juno’s restraint splinters. It wasn’t about him—he’d had a growing suspicion about that, which lends more credence to a few criticisms he’s taken over the years than he’s entirely comfortable with—or any of them, not at all. Everyone wrapped up in this woman’s desire for power was a nameless, faceless casualty. She doesn’t care; she never did.
Juno fires off a volley of lasers that all meet the same fate. She almost seems to start enjoying it, the longer it goes on, Juno’s grunts of futility and the fireworks show they create with every impact.
“I’ve had enough of this,” the woman says. “You’ll make a nice addition to my power, little witch.”
The hand extended in front of the woman closes into a fist. Juno feels the spot in the core of his chest go hot, then cold. Biting cold, frostbite inside him growing like decay. He can’t breathe; he can’t move.
This, precisely this, is exactly what was always supposed to happen to him. Benten took the hit once, but fate comes back around and takes what it is owed.
Juno tries to focus on what he knows, on what makes him himself. His brother, his job, his… his magic. He hates the word, but it is the truth of things. It’s in his blood, his; Sarah Steel may have given it to her sons, but once given it has never been hers to control.
Whatever holds this part of him intact begins to tear open. Juno can feel it like he feels when the skin of his knuckles splits. He’s going to die here; he’s going to lose. Most importantly, Angel—and whoever else happened upon the insidious reach of this curse in the wrong place, wrong time—will die.
Dimly, over the sound of his own screaming, Juno hears the door slam open.
“Don’t touch him,” says a voice Juno would know asleep, blindfolded, lost, at the end of the world.
The cold rot in him subsides. Juno’s legs cannot hold him anymore; he sprawls on the hard ground and looks up in time to see an avenging angel throw a knife directly at the warlock on the stone dais.
Angel is worse off than the last time Juno saw him, then. Only a few hours ago, and his skin has gone pallid and his aim is faulty. Angel pulls another knife from somewhere as Juno pulls himself to his hands and knees. He doesn’t get farther than that.
“Destroy the source,” he pants to himself. He glances around; the woman has turned to taunting Angel now, not even looking at Juno anymore. His eyes fall on the glass container, and he knows what he has to do.
Angel’s arms loop under Juno’s, tugging him closer to standing.
“Let’s get you out of here, hm?” Angel says softly into his ear. “You do take me to the nicest places, Juno, but—”
“No,” Juno shrugs him off. “No, you—you have to run. You can make it, get out of here.”
“Not,” Angel says, tugging on his coat again, “without you.”
“Oh, you can run,” says the warlock. “Please, lady and gentleman. The door is open.”
Juno tears his eyes away from Angel and glares at her. The warlock’s withered face is twisted by a smile; she looks well and truly untouchable. Her powers cut her off from any physical harm either Juno or Angel could throw at her; Angel is getting weaker by the minute; the more life he loses, the more power she gains. She’s already drained two people dry, and that’s just the ones Juno has met.
It all looks hopeless. That’s how he knows it’s time to do something profoundly stupid.
Juno lifts one hand. He empties his laser card into the huge upright tube of life-force-energy.
“What are you doing?” the warlock screams as fractures spread in thin spider web patterns across the glass. “You idiot, you’ll bring this whole building down on us both!”
“Look, I’ve had a really long day,” Juno pants from his place on the floor, “so if you could just shut up and get off that weird throne—”
The walls of the building begin to rumble; louder than that, what actually stops Juno talking, is the sound of splintering glass. The cylinder in front of him flares like a supernova.
It glows brighter and brighter until it’s hard to look at, a stellar shine that turns the cracked glass to frozen lightning. The warlock screams again and Juno is dimly aware of the throne underneath her dissolving into dust, her body disappearing down a dark, yawning pit where it stood, an eerie silence after the fall that doesn’t make sense given the fact that this is the third floor. Juno sees all of this out of the corner of his eye; it feels unimportant next to the searing light widening in front of him. His eyes feel like they’re burning out of his skull, his brain screaming, his heart hammering like it’s locked in his ribcage and demanding a lawyer.
“Juno!” Angel’s voice is the only clear thing in the world, the only thing that doesn’t hurt. His long, lean body moves in front of the light like an eclipse.
The glass breaks.
The surface under him bumps and jolts Juno awake. He has a moment of blind panic about the feeling of being walled in, the sight of a ceiling far too close. He jerks his arms to find them unbound and his blaster still at his hip.
“Wha—” Juno groans groggily.
“Oh, he’s awake! Boss, you had us real worried there for a minute, runnin’ off like that to the middle‘a nowhere.”
He turns his head toward the sound of Rita’s voice. The back of a carseat, piles of curly hair sticking up over of it, neon lights streaking past out the windshield—
He is in the backseat of Rita’s car. A fuzzy, bright pink jacket is balled up under his head like a pillow. Rita is in the driver’s seat. At her side, peering around the seat with an overwhelming mix of confusion and concern and—and a lot of other things, too, is Angel.
There are too many things Juno could say to the man. The color is back in Angel’s cheeks; his eyes have a brightness to them that Juno has never seen before but recognizes in a way so primal and intimate it scares him.
The curse is broken.
Relief floods him even as questions flood the space behind his teeth. How did you find me? and Why even come looking? and What’s your—
“Rita,” Juno says instead. It comes out hoarse and weak, but he powers through. “Did it work?”
“You mean Cassandra Kanagawa’s fake comms coordinates? Yep! They show anybody who tries to follow her the inverse of her real location, so by the time they catch up to—” Rita barely pauses for breath before she cuts herself off. “Oh! I mean, uh, I was supposed to keep that a secret, wasn’t I? Pretend ya didn’t hear that, Mistah—”
“He’s fine.” Juno dares to glance, quickly, toward Angel. His eyebrows quirk up in an expression of understanding: this is an act of trust. An act of trust from Juno Steel, no less, which Angel must understand the value of well enough by now.
“I thought you might say that,” Rita chirps. “I had it on good authority he was the one to find, and look at him! Carryin’ ya out of that scary warehouse right before it fell down, it was so dramatic and you were barely walking and Mistah No-Name here was like the big hero. Not that you aren’t the big hero too, Boss,” she says with the verbal equivalent of a pat on the hand, “but he just ran right in there after you and he was in there so long and there were all these spooky sounds comin’ from the building, I could hear them even over the stream I was listening to—”
“Good authority?” Juno asks, picking out the one part of that he can hang onto.
“Oh!” She looks over at Angel, who looks back at her with—Juno presumes; he can only see a third of Angel’s face—a mix of innocence and polite curiosity. “You had a—a family visit while you were gone, Mistah Steel.”
Juno pushes himself up onto his elbows with a groan.
“My brother? He made it all the way to the office?”
“He was real worried about you,” Rita says softly. “But I don’t think he’ll be there when we get back. He, uh,” She glances warily at Angel again. “He had to go.”
“Right.” Juno lets himself fall back into the seat. He closes his eyes.
Another problem for future-Juno, on top of the most powerful sorceress on Mars out for his head and the complications that come with the way Angel is looking at him—he can feel his eyes, their new and familiar brightness—and who the hell knows what else. This means another bout of waiting for Benten, who used up every drop of himself to save Juno from his own dumb decisions. Whose afterlife gets a little closer to lonely every day.
Juno is exhausted. There isn’t an adjective he can tack on to encompass just how exhausted: down to the bone. It feels like he’s been emptied out and poured back in.
Something light and thin lands on his chest. He blinks his eyes open and sees a little piece of paper. He picks it up with careful fingers.
Rita has turned on the stereo and is humming off-key to some Top 40 tune Juno has never heard before, entirely oblivious. Juno looks at Angel.
What he sees in Angel’s eyes could fill a book, fill an entire library, the whole ‘net of all humanity’s combined knowledge. Juno doesn’t have the time or patience to pin it down in speech, but he doesn’t need to. Angel’s face is soft and trusting; Juno knows that whatever is written on this paper is a gift he can barely understand.
He unfolds the paper. His eyes scan the neat, looping scrawl. Beautiful handwriting, of course, spelling out a simple sentence:
My name is Peter Nureyev.
When Juno looks up at him in awe, Nureyev winks.
They stare at each other for what must be a ridiculous amount of time, really, but it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter when he can see every atom of truth falling into place in Peter Nureyev’s face, when he feels nothing but a warm rightness in his chest and in the fading but ever-present awareness of whatever piece of himself he left behind in the man’s head.
Juno half rolls off the seat when Rita stomps on the brakes at an unanticipated red light.
Nureyev smiles back at Juno, the moment past but no worse for wear.
“I didn’t know you had a brother,” Nureyev says eventually. The brightness in his eyes almost hurts to look at, but the last thing Juno wants is to look away.
“Yeah.” Juno puts every last ounce of energy in him toward a tiny smile. “Remind me to introduce you sometime.”