Chapter 1: A real yikes
“Right then, what’s this little fluffer called?”
“Small Fry.” The vet nods at Peter, fingers flying across a backlit keyboard.
“And your name?”
“Perseus Shah, my good doctor! But if you’re asking for her owner’s details, I believe, in the interest of honesty, you should put down Juno Steel. I’m just her escort as a favor. Shame, really. I do love magnificent buns.”
The vet slides Peter a flirtatiously assessing glance, trying not to smile. Peter responds with the sort of blandly eager-to-please wide eyes and middling-wattage smile common to schoolteachers who aren’t quite sure what their students are up to, but they’re such bright and sweet kids, gotta encourage them, right? The vet turns his back, stretching to reach for a cabinet shelf. There is, Peter notes, absolutely nothing on that shelf. Peter swiftly pockets a veterinary scalpel. It’s an unusual design, and he covets it; he owns scalpels, and knives with retractable blades, but not a scalpel with a retractable blade. When the vet looks at him again, Peter tugs awkwardly on his own suit cuff, eyes lowered, smiling slightly. A real “yeah I was totally checking out your ass like you wanted me to, not stealing medical supplies behind your back” look.
The vet smiles bashfully. “Ok! Small Fry’s shots are all up to date, and she’s got a clean bill of health. So nice to meet you, Mr. Shah.”
“You too!” Peter returns, chipper, before kissing the top of Small Fry’s head. “Alright, girl, let’s get you home to Juno.” And Peter Nureyev is very skilled at controlling his voice, but he says Juno and he sees the vet’s face close in disappointment.
“Your um…friend?” he asks, hopeful.
“Husband,” Peter responds, without thinking.
On his walk to Juno’s office, he puzzles over why he’d say something like that. Perseus Shah (gentle, earnest, anxious Perseus) is the marrying kind, he supposes, so maybe that’s all. But no, he had his mind set on the image of Juno’s smiling face, and he blurted out “that’s my husband.” He’s unsure how he feels about that, but suspects Juno’s opinion would make an ocean of difference. He wonders whether he feels brave enough to ask for it.
The dames who walk into the office of Juno Steel, Private Eye that afternoon go together like chocolate and peanuts: one’s complicated, the other’s down-to-earth, and both are heavenly. The taller one has lots of red hair, swooping over half her face like Jessica Rabbit and the Phantom of the Opera had a lovechild. She’s wearing a lilac pantsuit with no shirt. Her wife has green hair and a wardrobe sourced from hiking stores. Rita thinks they’re stunning.
The green-haired one takes off her (aviator?) goggles and approaches the desk. Rita leans closer, hanging on her every word: “Um, like, do you have a guestbook or anything? We’ve got work for Juno.”
“Oh! Yeah! Sure, if you’ll just both sign riiiight there, I’ll get a casefile started for you. And may I inquire to the general nature of the case? I’m not trying to pry, you understand, it’s just that one of my responsibilities is preliminary client screening.”
The redhead, without stepping out of the one slightly shadowed corner in Rita’s sunny office, delicately touches a good luck charm at her throat and rasps: “Missing person. Possibly a kidnapping.”
“Right, that’s a real big-ticket category. I’d be happy to notify Mister Steel! An’ if he’s busy, I’d be more than happy to assist you in whatever way I can while you wait out here with me!”
Both women tilt their heads to the same angle and quirk an eyebrow, but the one with the stylus signs them in as Vespa and Buddy Aurinko, and gives Rita a small, nervous smile. Rita beams back and scurries around the desk to move a chair so the Aurinkos can sit next to each other. In the sunlight. “There! Now, you ladies just make yourselves comfortable and I’ll just check on the boss!” She presses the comm button. “Hey Mistah Steel! This is Rita!”
A pause. “Does…does anyone else ever talk to me over the office comm, Rita? What’s up?”
“Well! We’ve got clients here to see you!” She can feel her hands fly up to do jazz hands, but she remembers in time that Juno can’t see her, and the Aurinkos most definitely can, and that sort of gesture could easily be misinterpreted as enthusiasm because they’d had some sorta dry spell, and not enthusiasm because all cases are exciting, and cases with glamorous and sexy people are the most exciting. She folds her hands behind her back. “Boss, they’ve got a missing person case.”
“Oh, that’s a big ole yikes from me.” Which meant he’d almost definitely take it. “Anyone we know?”
“A Mrs. And Mrs. Buddy and Vespa Aurinko.”
There’s a long silence. Rita almost thinks Juno has hung up on her. “…Uh-huh. Anyone else with them? Guy in a brown jacket?”
Rita squints around the room, like someone could have snuck in without her noticing. (Impossible. Nobody can sneak up on Rita. One time, Agent Wire tried to sneak past Rita while she was taking a nap, and Rita still caught her.)
“Not that I can tell, Mister Steel. Why?”
“Um. No reason. Ok. I’ll talk to them, but give me five minutes. What—holy shit! Oh, oh. Uh. Give me ten minutes.” And then the tell-tale crackle of being hung up on.
“Ladies, Mister Steel will be able to fit you in if you can wait about ten minutes! Why don’t I fix you some coffee while you wait? We’ve also got tea and cocoa, but you both look like coffee drinkers, if you get what I’m saying.” She winks broadly. Vespa looks a little alarmed. Buddy takes hers with cream, no sugar. Vespa grudgingly admits, after a gentle nudge from her wife, that Rita has correctly guessed that she takes hers with exactly six sugars. Rita almost gives Vespa her personal favorite mug, but she can see how “My sexual preference is: c h a o t i c” might put a stranger off a little. She uses it for her own coffee instead.
Rita is standing on a wheeled office chair, trying to reach her emergency tin of gingersnaps (on top of a Ouija board, on top of a dictionary, on top of the ammo cache Juno uses instead of a safe deposit box, on top of a double-height filing cabinet)—when something smashes in Juno’s office, followed by an unladylike shrieked curse. Rita sighs. Juno never manages to be a dumbass when it’s convenient.
Rita, because she is Rita, figures she might as well just go open the door and get it over with. “It” being a conversation about timing, bullshit, and clients, and making a good impression, Mistah Steel!
She wasn’t expecting to see Peter, Mister Steel’s gentleman caller, who is now Juno’s live-in gentleman caller. Other things she wasn’t expecting, a partial list:
- Juno on Peter’s lap, on the desk
- The window wide open
- Small Fry barking gleefully in her basket
- A broken grasshopper-shaped paperweight, which is a real shame, it was a gift from Sasha Wire
- The Aurinkos crowding behind her to look
- Vespa snorting, and whispering to her wife, “Classic Juno.”
“Rita!” Juno squeaks, less embarrassed than he probably should be.
“Mistah Steel!” (Rita, but she knows nobody would need to be told that.)
“Buddy! Vespa!” (Juno.)
“Hello, Juno.” (Buddy.)
“Hey, Steel.” (Vespa.)
“Buddy Aurinko? Vespa Vogel?” (Peter, so we’re back to surprises.)
“Imhotep? Imhotep Pei?” (Vespa, gasping, which—okay, what?)
“What, little Im’ka? Hello, darling, I can’t believe you’re here.” (Buddy, with a sidelong glance at Juno.)
“Oh, goodness me, where are my manners, I haven’t greeted Rita yet. Rita!” (Peter. He’s just the nicest.)
“Howdy, Mister, uh, Mister Pei?” (Well. It’s probably a good thing Rita didn’t yell out “Peter!” before the Aurinkos recognized him.)
“Bark! Bark!” (Small Fry.)
Rita breaks out the crime board and starts a new pot of coffee. The Aurinkos give Juno and Peter a long hug each, before getting busy with photographs and thumbtacks. Rita approves of that approach. Much quicker than clients who bring everything digitally and then have to argue about what kind of cable they need to import, and ooh whoops all the file names are things like 28180331_200748.jpg, give me a sec haha. While they work, they gossip, which is another favorable point in Rita’s book which she may or may not literally keep. (She does not, in fact have a book. It’s a spreadsheet.)
“Imhotep,” Buddy says, warmth in her voice, “you’re looking well! How long has it been?”
“Since just after the Nikiforov job, isn’t it?”
Vespa sighs. “Can you two stop trying to be polite at each other? It’s been twenty years, we’ve missed you like hell, a lot’s happened since then, we all know the facts.” Peter looks almost awkward. (Peter never looks awkward.)
Juno clears his throat. “Did Rita say you two’ve gotten married?”
Vespa laughs. “Yeah. We figured neither of us was going anywhere, not again.”
Juno looks uncomfortable now. Peter puts a hand on Juno’s knee and squeezes lightly. Rita isn’t sure what’s happening, but she’s pretty sure it’s sweet. Buddy leans against Rita’s desk, takes a performatively casual swallow of her coffee, and asks: “So. You two. What’s your deal?” Rita glances around her office, wondering whether she should knock something over or pretend to be chasing a wasp or do a spontaneous dance break. Everyone keeps asking this. It’s “soooo, when are you gonna make an honest lady of our detective” this and “haha, Juno, you’d better marry this one before he gets away!” that, and “Rita, darling, can’t you give me an eensy-weensy hint so I know whether to shop for a wedding gift on my vacation?”, and all three of them are sick of it. But no. Buddy simply continues, “Are you like. An item? Or was I reading way too much into the whole,”—she waves an elegant hand—“lap situation, in there?”
Juno and Peter exchange a glance, and Juno pointedly looks at Peter’s hand, still on his knee, with a small smile. Peter shrugs. “Juno and I have lived together for about a year now.”
Buddy smiles broadly. “Oh, lovely.” And she says nothing more.
Vespa dusts off her hands. There’s almost definitely nothing on them, but Rita understands the need for a gesture of completion. “Ok, let’s go over the situation. You’d better all gather around, since honestly? Since Imhotep’s here, I’m gonna insist he’s in on this. Not a diss, Juno. Just feel like two heads are better than one—and his is better than most. And I guess you guys can stand to work together, so might as well make it a package deal, right?”
Juno hums, low in his throat. “I mean yeah? I can do that if—if he’s game.” Goddammit, Rita thinks. Juno’s already forgotten what alias Peter’s using. She excuses herself to the powder room, where she lets out an undignified cackle until she feels like she can be professional again.
When she returns, Buddy is gesticulating and pointing at a picture. There’s a beautiful young woman in it, freckled and probably at least six feet tall, judging by the doorway she’s leaning against. “This is Tzeitel Jepsen. She’s a mechanical engineer. 23 years old, and already a winner of the Laumarske Memorial Medal—remind me what for, hon? I can never remember beyond ‘she’s so clever.’”
“Vastly improved the kind of timing devices used in bionics, automated vehicles, Roombas. That kind of thing.”
“Right! She’s a prodigy. Anyway, about a month ago she completely dropped off the radar. No communication with her family or even her friends, stopped updating social media and personal projects, just. Nothing. But we’ve located her. A trucker who owed us a favor found her in Monte Clarice.”
Buddy falters, and Vespa draws a deep breath and draws their attention to another set of photos. “This is Princess Nadezhda Lyssa Pavlina Karola du Maurier, of New Nineveh. She’s the eighth and youngest child in the royal family. Very popular. Accomplished poker player, which has allowed her more financial freedom from The Family than her older siblings. She likes parties, likes environmental charities, likes self-made women. She might own a lab that makes counterfeit cosmetics and unapproved generic drugs. Loves her best friend from school days, Dominik Marat. He likes fast horses and bad company. He might be a skilled document forger.” Vespa points at a picture of the two of them with Tzeitel at a café table, laughing. Nadezhda is pretty but forgettable, with a tasteful dress and chic bob. Dominik has an eye patch and a lovely smile. “Princess Nadezhda is claiming Tzeitel is her practice partner, that she’s helping improve her game. But Tzeitel can’t gamble for shit. I know because I taught her. No poker face. Besides. If that was all, why the secrecy? Why cut off communication?” It’s unclear whether Vespa’s trying to control anger or trying not to cry, but her face has become set, her mouth thinner and eyes distant. It hurts Rita’s heart.
Buddy brushes her hand across Vespa’s shoulders, a gesture she probably thought would look like she was bent on removing lint, but Rita ain’t fooled: this is about comfort. “What’s more damning,” Buddy says, “is that all three of them have been seen separately with Thorbjorn Willems. No photo, I do apologize. One of Dominik’s bad company. He’s been acquitted of murder charges thirty-one times. Probably an assassin. I met him once, during a job in Nicht. He… My spine is certain he’s evil. I think Tzeitel’s being used for something heinous.” Buddy sighs. “Maybe just because of her brains in general, but they may have targeted her because she has an eidetic memory. The goal may just be for her to see something.”
Vespa folds her arms. “And I hope you’re right, but. She may just be being stupid. When I was 23 I spent a few months as part of an antiquities smuggling racket run by an evangelical craft store chain. It was dumb and way more immoral than it sounds, but I was desperate to keep a roof over my head. Maybe she’s been offered something she can’t walk away from. Maybe she’s dating one or more of them. Maybe her moral compass snapped when I wasn’t able to stay close to her. She is ingenious. Don’t you dare underestimate her. If she wants to play you—I have no doubt she will.”
“If she’s turned to evil, then, by all means, take her down,” Buddy says, softly. She comforts Vespa openly now, curling an arm around her waist.
“But wait until you’re sure. If she’s in trouble—bring her home.”
Peter raises his hand. Buddy gives him a sad smile. “She’s Vespa’s sister’s girl. You know how it is.” And Peter’s hand falls back to his lap. His face looks drawn, stung, and then artificially serene. Rita finds herself mentally replaying a scene from an old movie over and over, where the sad-eyed hero swan dives off a cliff into a rolling storm-gray sea instead of having a conversation with his husband like an adult.
(He survives, it’s fine, it’s not a tragic comparison. And Peter’s cleverer and gentler with himself. But still. If Rita takes any fault with Mister Steel’s life partner, it’s that he’s just as bad as Juno at making Rita itch to buy a fainting couch so she could at least get some aesthetic satisfaction out of these situations where they make her want to lie down until they get their acts together!!!)
“Imhotep, huh?” They’re in their apartment now. Juno is cleaning a blaster methodically, the process so familiar most of his attention is free to watch the lines of Peter’s back and shoulders while he flits around, making a list to help Rita when she comes to pick up Small Fry and water the plants. Peter hums an affirmative noise. “I didn’t realize you’d had that alias so long.”
“Oh! Well, I suppose—yes. It’s my longest-running name. It’s attached to the bank account with the best credit, so I’ve made sure to keep it in good shape.”
“Mmm, so careful.” Juno slips into what he’s sure is a bad impression of Peter’s voice. “’Oooh, two of the most notorious thieves this side of the Kuiper Belt, I’d better make sure they know me by the name I use for all my money.’” Peter twists to face Juno, who has a hand smothered over the lower half of his face. He’s hoping Peter will think he’s merely resting his chin on his hand in a dignified manner, but he knows Peter can see right through him. Peter usually can.
Peter places one hand on his chest, pretending to be deeply wounded. “Juno, I would never be that reckless! It so happens that I only got enough money to bother with a bank because I worked with Buddy and Vespa. They were the Merlin to my fumbling Robin Hood—no, that’s wrong. Guinevere? Is she the one with the blue ox?”
Juno shrugs. “Don’t look at me. I didn’t even know who the Muppets were until Rita and I had a marathon during a sleepover last year.”
Peter paces into Juno’s blind spot, and Juno resolutely keeps his eyes front, smiling broadly. Peter drops to the floor behind Juno, cross-legged, and leans in to kiss Juno’s neck.
“Mmm, you smell nice. How’s our gear situation looking then, my darling?”
Juno grunts and leans back, into Peter’s warm arms. “It’s not like we’re in bad shape, but I’m not going to Monte Clarice without being sure I’ve got enough electric clips. I wouldn’t mind have a fuller bottle of oil. Our climbing kit needs some new carabiners, and we need to restock the med kit…” Peter’s hands stroke firmly along Juno’s ribcage. Juno feels his heartrate slowing with contentedness, and lets out a small yawn. “I’ll go to the hardware store, and I’ll stop by a vending machine for the blaster clips. Will you pack us some clothes?”
“Gladly, Detective! But first—we should decide who we’re going to be, don’t you think?” His embrace loosens, letting Juno stand and stretch. Juno looks down and back, drinks in the sight of Peter looking up at him, watching him, flashing Juno a private smile when the hem of Juno’s shirt slides up and reveals a sliver of stomach.
Juno leans forward, cups Peter’s cheek in his hand. “Whatever you like. Pick one of your drama queen fancypants alter egos. I don’t have any ready-made, so. Y’know. Text me on the comms if you want help making one up?” Peter jerks slightly, gets a gleam in his eye. Juno fails, again, to smother a smile. “Out with it, Peter. Where does it fall on the scale of ridiculousness?”
Peter kisses Juno’s palm and leans away. “Oh, on the contrary, it’s pre-eminently practical. Don’t you remember? We’ve already got a matched set of aliases who would love to swan around Monte Clarice and get in trouble for French kissing on the gaming tables.”
Juno cringes with his whole body. “Oh no.”
Peter laughs. “I will make up a new one, if you really think we have the time.”
Juno sniffs, folds his arms, and tries not to pout. “No. I mean, it’s fine, I guess. I just. I really hate the name Dahlia as a lifestyle choice.”
“I’ll make it up to you,” Peter promises, suspiciously innocent. “We’ll need new clothes—will you meet me somewhere, so you can pick things out?”
And Juno supposes he should decide based on his desire to be en route ASAP, but instead he’s thinking about the socks Peter got him for his birthday. They’re soft and warm, and read “You got this, bitch” around the ankles. “Oh—let’s save time. I trust you. Find me a dress with pockets.” Peter folds his hands over his heart, and Juno neither knows nor cares whether his boyfriend (lover, corrects his heartbeat) is moved or laughing at him.
He’s already pulled his coat on and found his keys when Peter springs to his feet, clasps Juno’s shoulder. “You’re—are you sure? You want me to buy you clothes?”
Chapter 2: Sway with me
Peter has gone to the shuttle’s dining car, craving a snack before settling in for the night. (Somebody got too excited while shopping and didn’t eat dinner before meeting Juno at the spaceport.) Juno takes advantage of the privacy to kneel by their luggage and just—explore. Peter confessed he’d spent some of his own money, taking the opportunity to spoil Juno.
Juno sure does feel some kind of way about that.
There’s an ivory suit, soft and rich against his hands. (Pockets: several.) A linen dress, with bold blue flowers on a field of mustard yellow. (Pockets: yes, nice deep ones.) A more formal dress, in pale blue—and beneath it, there’s something still wrapped in gold tissue paper. He lifts the parcel, whistling low when he discovers it’s been bound with ribbon and a wax seal. Oh well. Packages are made to be opened. The paper crinkles expensively as Juno pulls out what looks like the first of several wrapped pieces, stacked together. It’s—oh. Blush silk, cold and slippery, catching the light. He stands, shaking out the material and trying to picture it on his body. It’s a gown, he thinks. No. A nightgown. It’s lovely, with a sheer panel at the waist and delicate embroidery on the straps. He imagines Peter picking it out, running his hand across it and picturing Juno’s body warming the material, waiting for it to be carefully wrapped. He’s filled with desire, and perhaps a little mischief, taking him warm and swift as whiskey. He pulls his t-shirt and jeans off, shivering a little, and pulls the nightgown over his head. The cabin has a mirror in the bathroom door, narrow but tall. He wonders whether Peter knew he’d look like this. The top of the bodice has a bit of clever work with darts and draping, so that it tastefully covers his delicate bits, and not much else. He turns his back to the mirror, and stares at the liquid fall and cling of the fabric across his ass. He winks at himself in the mirror, skin hot, and scrambles up the little ladder to the bed.
When Peter returns, Juno is stretched on his stomach, knees crossed and calves kicking idly in the air. His thief’s face performs a familiar sequence: wide eyes; big grin, with the sharpness of his teeth on clear display; a quick, deliberate repose; but then, oh, the corners of his mouth deepen, his dimples appear, and his eyes turn sparkling, lingering. Juno loves watching him, loves knowing what’s happening below Peter’s skull. Peter shows him how he feels, catches himself becoming emotional, and remembers he can, he’s safe.
Juno beams down at him. Earlier, he smiled down at Peter and cupped his face, and wished he could take a nap. Now, he reaches out and smooths his hand across the top of Peter’s skull, spoiling Duke’s carefully combed hair. The skin of his palm and fingers buzzes, as does his skin everywhere the nightgown rests against his body. He’s never felt so alert. “You bought this for me, didn’t you?” he says, deeply pleased. Nureyev’s forehead creases in confusion. “I mean,” Juno clarifies, cutting off the question, “that you bought it for me to wear, and not for Dahlia.”
“Oh,” Peter breathes, tender and wicked. “Do you know, when the clerk was wrapping it, they asked who it was for, and every name went out of my head except mine.”
Juno twists his fingers a little, catching Peter’s hair and giving it an affectionate pull. “Get up here.” He releases Peter, sitting up to allow him somewhere to land. Peter is too eager, gets halfway up the ladder before realizing he should have taken his heels off first. Juno laughs, catches his arm and gives him a pull. “C’mon, you can do this.”
“I can’t—pull harder—oh, fine.”
“See? Here you are, Mr. Rose.”
Peter kisses Juno. “Hello, Mr. Rose,” he whispers back.
When Juno breaks the kiss, he puts two fingers under Peter’s jaw, tilting his head back so that Juno can nip a mark into the skin of his throat. Peter’s hands come to rest on Juno’s thighs, and he hums to let Juno feels the vibration in his lips. Juno smiles into his skin in reply, undoes the buttons on Peter’s cinched waistcoat, shifts his mouth, starts on Peter’s tie. Peter puts his hands on Juno’s chest and presses. Juno takes a second to realize Peter’s trying to shift him back, and his teeth catch a little too roughly on Peter’s neck in surprise. He mouths an apology, slides closer to the head of the bunk, and watches approvingly while Peter undresses the rest of the way. Peter doesn’t take his eyes off of Juno once.
When Peter has kicked his briefs to the floor with an air of finality, he kneels over Juno and cups a hand around Juno’s bare right ankle. Juno gives him a small nod, and Peter skims his hand higher, between Juno’s skin and the fabric of his skirt, stopping on his hip. Juno obligingly shifts onto his side, and Peter squeezes Juno’s ass with a contented sigh. “What would you like, gorgeous?” Juno tugs on his skirt. “Shall I undress you, Juno?”
Juno snorts. “Not on your life.” He gets the skirt where he wants it, above his waist. “I want you to suck me.”
“Oh.” Peter smirks. “I can do that.” He kisses Juno lightly, over a freckle constellation above his right kneecap. “Anything else on your wishlist?” He’s joking, but Juno answers him anyway.
“Suck me until I’m gasping, then hold still while I suck you, and then let me ride you.” He pauses. Peter slides his tongue along Juno’s iliac crest. “And then cuddling. You can pick the position for that, though.”
Peter lifts his head, looking like he has a snappy line ready, but he stares at Juno’s face a fraction of a second too long, and is taken by a full-body shiver. He looks away, breathes deeply, and turns his gaze back to Juno, face cherry-pink. “Thank you, my love,” Peter says, soft and sweet. Juno, overwhelmed, covers his own eyes with one hand. As Peter gives him his mouth, Juno returns his other hand to Peter’s hair.
When they slide together, Peter is sitting mostly upright, arms loosely around Juno’s waist, face nestled into the crook of Juno’s neck and shoulder. Juno kisses Peter’s temple. “Lie down for me,” he says, and Peter disentangles himself, smirks and winks and does as he’s told. He rolls his hips, hands firmly gripping Juno’s upper thighs. Juno laughs, shakes his head. “Put these”—he takes Peter’s wrists—“here”—he crosses them above Peter’s head.
“Why, Juno,” Peter purrs, “I think I’m going to call this purchase an—ah—outstanding success.”
Juno braces himself, hands on Peter’s chest. “Oh yeah? Having fun, Nureyev?”
“I think that for once, you feel as good as I always think you look.”
Juno feels, for a second, like laughing, but the words soak into his skin, and he realizes how far from funny the sentiment is. He takes one hand and strokes Peter’s face, runs the thumb across his lips.
“Would—should I stop talking?”
“Mmm. No, talking is good. Talking’s great.”
Peter talks until he reaches the point he’s described in the past as “when my spine turns liquid.” Juno brushes Peter’s hair away from his face and folds himself over so he can kiss his forehead until they both slip over the edge.
When he’s cleaned up, Juno folds the nightgown carefully and changes into a soft t-shirt and underwear. He finds Peter’s fancy pajamas and brings them with him back up the ladder. “Hey, you,” he whispers, stroking Peter’s shoulder and back. Peter smiles happily, still pink-cheeked and floppy-limbed. “Brought your pjs.”
“Pass me the pants?” Peter shimmies into them before taking the jacket and tossing it in the direction of their luggage. Juno stares after it, a little stunned.
“Are you on strike against shirts? Because I can live with that.”
“No. I just want to feel you on my skin. Come here, Juno.”
Juno melts into the bed and into Peter’s arms. Nureyev manhandles him to rest his head on Peter’s chest. Juno feels around blindly for Peter’s hand, pulling it to his lips and kissing the fingers. “Good night, sweetheart,” Peter murmurs.
Juno is seized with a new wave of mischief. “Good night, husband.” Peter’s chest shakes beneath Juno’s cheek, but he controls himself, only giving Juno’s shoulder a light, teasing swat.
Space Monte Clarice is lavish, decadent, and obsessed with not appearing tacky. They don’t feel the need to compete with Planet Vegas!!!!!, and they want you to know it. It’s a town, which happens to attract the luxury tourist crowd, but it is not (it insists) a tourist destination.
It really is beautiful, though, all white stonework and winding streets. Uptown is mostly dainty old buildings; downtown is mostly avant-garde new ones. Their hotel is right where the two meet, its façade distinguished by bold windows in varying solid jewel tones. It’s very beautiful, marrying the modernity of the museum to its left with the ancient-style stained glass of the temple to its right. But it does remind Peter a bit of jello.
The ballroom in the Hotel Cabbage Luxe has a mural of anthropomorphized praying mantises dressed in what ultra-rich people would consider picnic clothes. The floor and ceiling are malachite. Peter loves it. Juno hates it.
Juno has worn a vintage dress in pale blue georgette with a corset back. The layers of the skirt shift thrillingly when Juno moves—now opaque, now revealing hints of his legs. Peter hadn’t anticipated this. It makes it harder to focus on strangers in the crowd. Truth be told, he suspected that if he’d been here for personal business, he’d have abandoned it to watch Juno Steel scowl over a bottle of beer in a pastel dancing dress. He supposes he’ll just have to make sure there are other occasions. For now, he clasps Juno’s free hand in both of his own and chirrups: “Dah-li-a, my turtledove! You are the sweetest oasis my poor eyes could wish for. Life with you slakes my every thirst! You shelter the frantic migratory bird of my mind! My succulent fig, my peach…my Wonderwall.” Peter flutters his eyelashes, cradles Juno’s hand against his cheek.
Juno stares at him, unfazed, and knocks back the remainder of his beer. “You,” he says warmly, “are such a cockwaffle. Come dance with me.”
It’s maybe a salsa, Peter thinks. The dancers don’t seem to have a clear consensus. His first instinct is to lead, for the pleasure of watching Juno twirl, but Juno confidently takes Peter’s waist, and Peter wouldn’t dream of arguing. He goes where Juno’s hands suggest, and realizes they’re doing something smoother and more interesting than the couples he’d been watching, with a rolling give-and-take he likes immediately. “I don’t know this dance.”
“It’s bachata.” Juno grins. “Fun, yeah?”
“Very. I didn’t know you danced.”
“Ben always needed people to practice with, so. You should really dance with Mick sometime. He’s great at lifts.”
“Is he great at putting people down afterwards?”
“Ten stars at lifts, six stars at landings. But worth it.” Juno twirls him, and seeing other people reminds Peter what they’re trying to do. He lets his eyes slide past Juno, responding to his movements without watching his face. Juno’s hands are warm and sure.
Scanning crowds, in Peter’s experience, is much like a stakeout: you do almost nothing for a long time, and your responsibility is to stay alert. Then, when you’re ready to do something dumb like give yourself a stick-and-poke tattoo with an ink pen you found under the passenger seat just for variety, you suddenly have to keep your rocketing adrenaline under control to react effectively. (He may, or may not, have experience in this area. He furthermore may, or may not, have discovered that ink pen tattoos dissolve in the shower, and the disappointment is even more painful than the stabbing himself part.) This is fun, though. It’s a date and an operation at the same time. The Roses are several dances into the night when Peter goes to get a glass of gin pink lemonade (for himself, he finds it refreshing, and Duke thinks it’s elegant) and a polar bear (for Juno, who likes tasting like toothpaste or something). When he turns back from the bar, he sees Dahlia Rose, arms linked with a girl in a silver gown. Dahlia looks friendly, then stricken. Peter’s sure Juno can handle whatever it is. But it couldn’t hurt to drift closer, just in case.
“…Is he named Clemente?” Juno is asking her. “Clemente Jepsen? I remember him. He was always—sweet.”
Tzeitel—she is definitely Tzeitel Jepsen, now that he’s closer—lights up. “You knew him! I was so inspired—” She’s still talking, but Peter’s attention has shifted to a gorgeous dark-skinned woman in a teal and mustard toile stola and coordinating kokoshnik. She and a man in a distressingly unimaginative tuxedo are bearing down on Tzeitel and Juno, faces carefully neutral. Peter doesn’t recognize either of them from the briefing, but he doesn’t care. He moves, tossing the contents of his glass.
“Oh! Goodness me, you must think I’m such an oaf. Here! Let me help you dry off your suit, it’s the least I can do.” The woman is still moving, but Peter believes he’s more helpful as a foil for her probable bodyguard. She might be hiding a knife, brass knuckles, or some other nastiness—but this guy has room in his clothes for all that and a blaster, too.
A couple minutes of blathering later, someone tugs on the vent of Peter’s velvet blazer. He glances back to see Juno breezing towards the lobby. Peter turns further, in the direction of Tzeitel. She has tears on her face, and is clutching her left arm, its fingers hanging limp, a trail of blood running from above her elbow. The woman in the stola has an ungentle arm around her, is steering her through the crowd. Peter makes excuses, apologies, and an exit—and finds Juno outside the elevators, looking cool, collected, and beautiful.
Peter twists the inset band on his signal blocking ring, reassuring himself it’s working. “So. Phase one: successful. What did you make of her?”
Juno breathes and breathes and looks at the floor. “Her dad was one of Benzaiten’s old dance partners. She.” He flicks his eyes to Peter’s, just for a second. Peter wraps his arm around Juno’s shoulders. “Honey, she thought I was Ben, and I had to tell her he’s dead.”
Peter knows Juno is an exceptionally strong person. He has to be, to have survived his childhood…and his young adulthood…and, to be fair, his entire life has been something of a shitshow. But he holds Juno now, feels the horror shuddering through his body, and watches as Juno pushes it down, away, so that he can leave the elevator looking composed. Even knowing what Juno is capable of, it knocks Peter for six.
“Sweetheart,” he whispers, as soon as their suite door is shut behind them, putting as much gentleness as he can into that single word.
“No, stop. I’m going to cry in the shower and then you can spoon me if it’ll make you feel better, but we need to finish this conversation.” Peter takes his hand, just because he can, and nods. “Tzeitel is not here voluntarily, and we need to help her.”
“She told you—?”
“Couldn’t, and didn’t need to.”
“Alright. I trust your intuition.”
“I don’t need that either. That woman in teal showed up and grabbed her arm and—well. I’ve worked enough DV cases.” And Juno disappears into the en-suite, brisk and unhappy.
Peter, left abruptly alone, is pulling on his pajamas when something in his brain clicks and he mouths “Domestic violence. Oh, no. Poor girl. And my poor Juno.”
When Juno comes out of the shower, Peter pulls the glass with his polar bear out of the minibar fridge. “Still want your drink?”
Juno nods, reaching for it. “I thought you spilled it on that bald goon.”
“Oh, I threw mine on him. I wouldn’t do that to your drink if I could help it.”
Juno gives him a fragile smile. “Such a gentleman.” He sips. Peter rubs his shoulders. “My mom used to do that.” Peter freezes. “Not you. What that woman did to Buddy’s niece. Hurt her just because she’d done something that didn’t line up with her plans. She—did something, I couldn’t see—cut her, hurt her. Because Tzeitel was five minutes late. She’s lucky she isn’t the one Tzeitel’s dating, or I’d have decked her and spoiled all our chances of a smooth extraction.”
“Who is she dating?”
“Oh, the princess. No surprises there.”
“No,” Peter agrees.
“It’ll be fine,” Juno says, mostly for his own benefit. “We’ll figure out the weak links and get her the fuck out of here, before something worse happens.”
Peter hugs him. “Tomorrow, we’ll go play poker against Nadezhda and see if we can’t finish them off then and there.”
Chapter 3: Risky gambles
“Nadezhda didn’t enter the poker, alt-poker, dark poker, or Rangian street poker matches.”
“Has she not signed in yet after all?”
“I’ll keep looking—ohhhh. Well. That’s irritating. She’s playing ‘Whip Wink Sip Sink’?”
Juno grunts. “Very nostalgic.”
“Ah yes, who among us doesn’t simply yearn for the drinking games of our childhood?”
“I mean, I guess it’s personal for me. Have I told you this story? I used to be on the after-school team. Started when I was eight, since that was the drinking age. Didn’t do too shabbily.”
“You’re terrible at gambling, sweetness.”
“Oh, sure, but I’m amazing at drinking. So I won a couple 2nd or 3rd place badges and ribbons and things. You know, the same kinda thing they give debate teams. Then I quit because I started middle school and WWSS practice was scheduled against roller derby practice, and I had a crush on the girl who was captain that year. Why are you staring at me?”
Peter smiles like a cat with a dish of ice cream, and Juno realizes what’s coming. “Dahlia, my daffy-down-dilly—”
“Yeah, yeah, just slide me the sign-up sheet.”
Juno really can’t stand rich people. In elementary school, he’d have had a can of Reddi Whip, a jug of moonshine, and a dinged-up pack of cards. These people are using gilded cards, limoncello, and—he suppresses a shudder—luxurious enameled spray cans with gourmet whipped cream made by “the house.” It’s flavored with rhubarb and pink peppercorn. Juno wishes he was rich enough to buy the casino, so he could ask the kitchen to Stop.
Peter-as-Duke is standing behind him, arms draped across his shoulders. If he reacts at all when Princess Nadezhda enters, Juno can’t sense it. Nadezhda is wearing chicken-print pajamas, combat boots, and a mood ring, and carrying a folding fan. Tzeitel is on her right side, wearing jeans and carrying a baby goat. The woman who grabbed her so roughly the night before is on Nadezhda’s left, with a conservative suit and fancy camera. Baldy is wearing a tuxedo and sunglasses (again, or still?). He’s behind the princess, along with an intense, beautiful person with extravagant metal false fingernails.
Tzeitel sits on Nadezhda’s lap, still cradling the goat in her arms. Both of them are whispering in each other’s ears and laughing. They don’t seem to be paying any attention to anyone else, the Roses least of all. The serious-looking lady sure is looking their way, though. Juno pretends not to notice. There are other players arriving. The princess’s shifty friend Dominik is here, with a peridot-crusted eyepatch and a marabou robe. Juno wonders whether they’d had a slumber party. Here’s someone in a houndstooth Lolita dress; someone wearing what looks like five layers of sweaters despite the balmy weather; a man in a band-collar shirt holding hands with his bearded, paint-spattered husband. They kiss each other thoroughly before sitting at opposite sides of the table, faces bland and unsympathetic to each other. And here is a petite man with wire glasses, nothing remarkable except for the crispness with which he moves. Juno adds him to his mental file without dwelling on him. Then the man looks, just briefly, at Peter, and Juno realizes he’s going to have to kill this man. This is what Buddy meant when she said her spine believed Thorbjorn Willems was evil. There is an appetite about him, something that likes to be knee-deep in mud, smoking idly while you writhe and despair.
The dealer rings their little bell, prompting Duke to showily kiss Dahlia’s temple and withdraw into the spectators, along with the princess’s entourage. Juno relaxes (as much as he ever relaxes) into playing the game, learning his opponents’ habits. Peter’s off observing everything Juno can’t. Juno’s curious, somewhere in the back of his mind, but not concerned about him.
Juno wins the first trick handily, earning three Sips and a Whip. He’s tempted to assign all three Sips to the people he actually cares about getting drunk, but that’s a little too obvious. He makes Thorbjorn and Nadezhda drink, gives the third to Sweater Weather, and assigns Houndstooth to take the cream. He’s gratified that they at least do this in the traditional way in Monte Clarice: palms flat on the table, nozzle between the teeth. She’s messier about it than he’d expected, given her dress. Then he realizes the oh-so-precious enamel spray cans are hateful for a reason he hadn’t even considered: they’re fucking heavy. He scowls. The whole point of a Whip is that they don’t really have an impact until a player has had too many, the sugar rush and fullness a physical disruption to complement the drunkenness in throwing players off. It isn’t supposed to be difficult. Elites, man.
Nadezhda is a good player. Amazing at bluffing, pretty smile intact throughout. Juno guesses that would tend to happen, when you’re surrounded by eyes even before birth. This isn’t her game, though, and he wonders why she didn’t enter at a table she could dominate. She’s hard to read, but he notes her as a methodical player, neither risky nor sentimental.
Dominik is a disaster. Juno would have liked him more when he was young and foolish (and not romantically committed to a beautiful thief who makes pancakes in heart shapes). He’s showy, cheerful, and on about 42 levels of artifice.
Houndstooth is pretty good, Sweater Weather’s holding their own. The couple playing against each other are each, in their own right, highly skilled. They’re equally matched against each other, which Juno thinks is kind of sweet, if you like that sort of sentimental stuff.
Thorbjorn is not good at this game. Juno suspects, come to think of it, that he probably didn’t even know the rules before he sat down. He seems to be improving slowly, working from context clues. Juno fantasizes about breaking his glasses, feeling like a combination of schoolyard bully and righteous victim.
They’re about three-quarters of the way through the game when he realizes Thorbjorn, since he started to win an occasional trick, has been dividing all his sabotages between Juno and Nadezhda. He hasn’t won a trick by enough points to have more than two at a time. Juno wonders who he’d give a third to, if he had to. Not Dominik, whom he gave a gentlemanly free pass after a badly fumbled hand on Marat’s part. Juno hasn’t been looking at Thorbjorn while he considered this, splitting most of his attention between the married couple, who keep daring each other by raising the stakes on this trick. (Which is, to be frank, a bit silly. Maybe he’s wrong in assuming their finances are shared. He shares a savings account with Peter (well, with Imhotep Pei), and he still gets shy when he has to decide whether it’s ok to publicly call him his boyfriend.) But he feels a chill creep along his back, and he glances to his 2 o’clock, to find Thorbjorn Willems watching him. It isn’t a glare, or even particularly predatory or intense. Just a mild gaze that nonetheless leaves Juno longing to vomit. The corners of Thorbjorn’s mouth twitch. Hmm, his face says. Interesting.
Peter screams, somewhere behind Juno.
He doesn’t even register standing up, spinning to find and face his love. Peter’s face—no. Duke’s face. This is not body language of Peter in danger, this is body language of a man Peter can wear like… Not like a mask, meticulously insincere. Like gloves, leaving no fingerprints. Juno relaxes, but tries not to show it. He needs to be as good as Peter deserves. He needs to be Dahlia, concerned about his husband, who is screaming and dazed and wearing bloody shoes.
“Someone, someone please help! Is there a coroner in the house? No—a doctor, quick, he might not be dead yet? But the blood, there’s so much blood. Don’t you people understand? Someone has been stabbed in the cloakroom!”
“So—you’re saying Princess Nadezhda’s secretary suggested she switch games because she was so pissed I was talking to Tzeitel last night?”
“Mm-hmm. Evidently, our targets’ goal was to avoid proximity with notable poker fiend Duke Rose, spotted in the Cabbage Luxe ballroom dancing with a thorn in their side—you. They didn’t expect to end up in exactly the game Dahlia was playing. Or that’s what I garnered from context clues.”
“And? Did you talk to Tzeitel?”
“Oh, goodness me, no. Didn’t even try. Too indiscreet. But I did buy our industrious secretary a drink or two. Might possibly have slipped her a little Truce.” (Truce—by Saffron Pharmaceuticals! Don’t waste time and energy arguing—pour out a Truce, the truth juice! Patent pending.) “Her name is Efe Kayode. The gentleman I encountered in the cloakroom is—was—Icarus Worldwide. The other bodyguard is Leith Perrault. And you know about Dominik Marat and Thorbjorn Willems. Princess Nadezhda’s current inner circle.”
“What did you make of her—Ms. Kayode?”
“I didn’t need the Truce. She wanted me to know who they were. I think she was warning me off. Off of what, I’m not sure. Does she think we’re trying to poach Miss Jepsen? She isn’t trying to protect the poor girl, we know she’s not interested in her wellbeing. Course, the real question is: Who does Icarus Worldwide get his orders from?”
“You don’t think the princess employs her own bodyguard?”
“Perhaps. But he said…” Peter frowns. “‘Our princess and her pets are off-limits, Mr. Rose.’ So. Did he mean ‘ours,’ because he’s a devoted citizen of New Nineveh, or ‘ours,’ because someone’s got her in their nasty little pocketses, hmm?”
“Ugh, can we go back to the part where he called Tzeitel a ‘pet’? No wonder you stabbed him.” He looks at Peter’s face more closely. “Wait—why did you stab him?”
“He wanted me to say I was suitably cowed and shake his hand. Or he’d go and paint my pretty lady Rose bright red. So.”
Chapter 4: And the cool water, and the cruel wind
Juno’s in the hotel vending machine arcade buying dental floss and hard-boiled eggs, and wondering about some ylang-ylang lotion, when Tzeitel Jepsen walks in. Juno doesn’t look directly at her, only briefly looking at her reflection in the glass of the machine after recognizing her voice. He slides around a corner, letting an over-enthusiastic potted ficus tree obscure him from view. He knows she saw him; the point is for whoever’s with her not to.
“Dominik, don’t be such a wet blanket!” Her voice is loud and clear.
“I’m not trying to be a pain, dear girl, I’m just saying that you can buy a new pair! Nadezhda would buy you a new pair if you asked her! Heck, I’ll buy you a new pair, broke as I am.”
“You’re making half a million creds a year, Marat.”
“I know! My standard of living has simply crashed. If things don’t look better soon, I’ll have to go spend the winter somewhere cheap and dreary. Like Mars.”
“I like Mars.”
“Of course you do, dear. You look good in denim.”
“Everyone looks good in denim, Dominik.”
“I don’t. I look like my Grandpa Prem. It’s terrible. Everybody starts thinking I’m competent.”
“Oh, yes, I see your problem. Competency got me here, it’s such a tragedy.”
“Don’t be smug, it doesn’t suit you. You look like a polecat.”
“Look—see? My sunglasses.”
“Tickled pink and beach-ready.”
“After breakfast. I need a Bloody Mary. Hope they were worth it.”
“I’m just a simple Martian girl. I like my own things, can you blame me?”
Well. Tzeitel Jepsen is really very helpful when she puts her mind to it, isn’t she?
Juno’s in a yellow two-piece swimsuit with gold on his throat and earlobes, more daring than Peter expected. Peter didn’t buy any of this, it must have been in his partner’s go-bags. “Jewelry? For the beach?” Peter’s extra enough for it, but Juno tends to be more reasonable.
Juno smiles at him, the uncompromising face of a gladiator. “I’m going ‘fishing,’ not swimming.”
Peter adores him, he really does.
The shore in Monte Clarice is Peter’s favorite thing about the city. It’s been allowed to just be beautiful—black sand, white-blue water. The ocean is frothy today, but not stormy. Most of the tourists seem to have gone to the other side of town; the queens are making a speech expected to announce the remarriage of their tragically widowed heir, Princet Rafael. He’s a little surprised Tzeitel isn’t there. Perhaps the “poker coaches”-slash-unsuitable-possible-lovers of Rafael’s kid siblings aren’t the look The Family wants to project.
Dominik Marat’s easy to spot, in the thin crowd. Who else would have a giant fringed beach umbrella with the initials DM in chartreuse and fuchsia, right next to the legendary seafood restaurant Viola’s Crab Shack?
“Camped out near the food, where else?” Juno laughs. “Right, I’ll catch up with you later, Duke.” Peter kisses him showily, with lots of tongue—got to stay in character, right?—and heads for the water.
There are swim rafts scattered in the ocean, anchored with strong rope tied to god-knows-what on the ocean floor. He selects one close to the shore, centered with a good view of Dominik’s patch. When he pulls himself onto it, he turns his back to the suns and reaches under his crop-top rash guard for the canister he hung around his neck. He retrieves his eyeglasses, and is soon even more pleased that Juno wore bright yellow. Even from here, he can tell exactly who on the roof of the luxury crab shack he is.
There’s a swish in the water behind him, and the slap of a wet hand against wood. “Okay, Rose, put the knife away.” It’s Tzeitel Jepsen. “Or I’ll call the sharks.”
Peter cooperates, returning the knife to his hip sheath and offering her a hand. “You have sharks?”
“Wouldn’t you like to know.”
Tzeitel’s wearing a sophisticated, athletic one-piece and a bathing cap, both the same pale blue as the sea. Nice camouflage. Peter reaches back into his canister, pulls out a foil packet, and extends it to her. “Pocky?”
She eyes it with suspicion. “What flavor?” Her features are not overtly similar to Vespa’s, but they share a strong family resemblance now that he’s seeing her face in motion, seeing her gestures. There’s a little Buddy there, too. It’s not spooky exactly, but it feels weighty, somehow, making him feel the passage of time keenly. He was her age the last time he’d seen her aunts. He’d called them “Aunt,” too, and idolized them. He doesn’t think he’d be here without their influence, but he can’t quite put his finger on how they changed him.
“Matcha. Come on, you know that’s the best kind.” Tzeitel shrugs and takes one. “So. Miss Jepsen. Is this a social call?”
“I wanna talk to you.”
“Last time you spoke to my husband, you nearly reduced him to tears. He forgave you. I haven’t made up my mind. Tread lightly, Miss Jepsen.”
She does not. “You killed Icarus, didn’t you?”
Peter bites into his own Pocky and says nothing.
“Are you here to kill me?”
He considers. “Currently, I very much intend for you to live.”
She takes a deep breath. “Are you here to kill Nadezhda?” She looks more concerned than when she’d asked about her own chances.
“Princess Nadezhda? Not specifically, but I’m not opposed to it.”
Her face contorts in frustration. “Then what’s your point? What are you up to?”
Peter crosses his legs. “Miss Jepsen, I would like you to know that I am currently wearing an active signal blocker.”
Her face melts into a triumphant grin. “So am I.”
“Are you in danger?”
The silence stretches out between them, like a housecat ready to pounce.
“I was about to say I’m not, but I certainly wouldn’t say I’m safe. They need me alive and well. There’s something they want me to make. But I don’t know what, or when, or where, or why. They’ve asked me to identify supplies I need for different scenarios, and. They’ve hurt me.” She touches her arm, bandaged lightly. “I can deal with that, but they’ve made it clear they’ll hurt Nadezhda if I don’t cooperate—I pushed back, and she found a snake in her bed. Next time, it could be a viper, you see?” She’s starting to panic.
“It’s going to be okay. Who’s they?”
“Efe. The bodyguards. Maybe Willems, he’s never hurt me, but I think he’s ordered the others to. Dominik is the connecting thread between them, and he’s desperate for money despite being rich, but I don’t think he’d be this cruel. But I can’t imagine who else is orchestrating it. Listen, Nadezhda had a falling out with her family recently, and they withdrew her security and personnel to try to force her back into the fold. It didn’t work, she has her own money. As I understand it, that’s when all the monsters got involved. Marat hired Worldwide and Perrault for Nadezhda, and Efe came on his recommendation. And Thorbjorn is his…” she waves her hands awkwardly. “I thought they were sleeping together, but Dominik doesn’t do that. And Willems doesn’t act what I would call romantic, at least in public, but maybe Dom doesn’t mind that. Anyway, they’re a thing of some sort.”
“I know Efe hurt you, when you were talking to my husband.”
“Yeah. She and Icarus have been doing all of the whole ‘if we find out you’ve contacted any of your little friends, I swear to you you’ll be dead by morning’ stuff.” She looks grim, and a little teary. Peter squeezes her hand. “But I’m terrified of Leith, too.” The girl shudders and stares in the direction of the restaurant. “I should move, Leith will notice.”
“Wait—did you have a plan to escape from them? Not just Leith, all of them, for good.”
“Not really. I’m scared they’ll retaliate. I thought about faking my own death, but I’m not sure that helps anyone. I’m not the only good engineer in the galaxy. I think I was just easy to access. Nadezhda and I were friends in university, you see, though I was a bit younger. I was her surprise birthday present earlier this year. Wish I knew who sent me the invitation. But yeah. This time, when we met again, we—sparked.”
“And then you disappeared.”
“The first couple weeks were just so we could have some privacy. And then. Well. Things got all horror movie.”
“Could Nadezhda have ordered the others to do this to you?”
Tzeitel looks shocked. “No. She wouldn’t. She loves me.”
Peter isn’t impressed, suspicious of the princess on Tzeitel’s behalf. He can hear Vespa’s voice in his head, an old echo. Lots of people hurt people they say they love, Im’ka. “I’ve seen a lot of people hurt people they love, Tzeitelke. Consider it.”
She snorts. “Your Dahlia wouldn’t hurt you.”
“Not intentionally.” Juno has, of course hurt him, but never intentionally, never with malice or neglect. At worst, mischanneled self-sacrifice. Peter knows he’s hurt Juno, too; it’s just what happens from time to time when people have their own minds.
She stares unhappily at him.
“I promise you, Tzeitel: do your best to stay alive, and we’ll see you home on Mars before the week is out. Cooperate with them. Trust no one. And hold yourself precious. Do you have any weapons?”
She almost doesn’t tell him, but her face crumples, just slightly. “N-no.” Peter hands her the small, retractable scalpel he stole from Small Fry’s vet. He’d intended to keep it, sure, but it’s well-suited as a young person’s starter knife, being relatively easy to hide and difficult to cut yourself with accidentally. He can get himself another one. “Where were you keeping that?”
He winks. “Can’t reveal all my secrets.”
She rolls her eyes. “Yeah, sure, at least tell me where I can hide it.”
Peter, chagrined, asks her to remove her bathing cap. He’s pinning it under the fall of her hair (Buddy taught him this, when he had long hair) when she gasps in horror. “Sorry—I didn’t nick you, did I?”
Juno is dangling from the railing surrounding the rooftop of Viola’s Crab Shack. As Peter and Tzeitel watch, Leith Perrault throws something at Juno, but he tucks his head in, and it sails past. He pokes his head up, and Peter thinks Juno must have said something, because Leith charges him, their body projecting rage. They slash at Juno’s face, their metal nails catching the sunlight alarmingly. Peter can’t really tell what happens next from this distance, but Leith… Leith goes over the edge.
Peter isn’t sure when he dove into the water, but he’s there now, swimming like there really are sharks after him.
Someone has pulled Juno to safety when he reaches shore, and police are getting involved. Dahlia Rose is extremely Dahlia while being questioned. Which is to say: grumpy as fuck. “I don’t even know this Keith—”
“Keith person. I was minding my own business, eating a softshell crab, and all I did was lose control of one little lemon wedge, and they threw me off a roof.”
“…Yeah. Look, Mr. Rose, didn’t your husband find that dead guy in Lynd Casino’s coat-check yesterday?”
“Yeah. He did. And ya know what? I’m disgusted with this place. We came here for a little peace and quiet, just a nice little tenth anniversary trip, and you know what? Your crime rate is worse than home. We’re from Hyperion City, officer!” The constable winces. Peter suppresses a smile, sliding his focus to the officer interviewing Dominik Marat.
“I’ve known Leith for simply ages, I can’t imagine what got into them!”
“Do you think they were provoked, Mr. Marat?”
“Oh gracious no. I was sitting right next to them. They just snapped. I…I hate to speculate, but sometimes people on their days off do tend to get into…substances. Is there any chance you might do a chemical analysis?”
“Not my division, sir, but thank you for the suggestion.”
“Juno, did you slip Leith Perrault something? Marat seemed to suspect you drugged them.”
“Hmm? Nah. What I said about the lemon wedge was true. They really did attack me because I got juice in their eye, as far as I can tell. It was...” Juno snuggles closer to Peter in their hotel bed. “I hadn’t been that scared in a while.”
“How did Leith go over the edge?”
“I yelled at them that their piercings looked like they’d been done at Space Claire’s. Then they got close and I made this face.” Juno crosses his eyes and does something alarming with his tongue. “And they wobbled. And then they slipped. And then they were gone.” He yawns, frowns. “I hate killing people.” Peter strokes his back, just between the shoulderblades, with his thumb. “Where are we stalking them tomorrow?”
“Some person or persons unknown slipped an envelope with tickets to Marat Hippodrome under our suite door while you were in the shower. Looks like we’re spending a day at the races.”
Chapter 5: A day at the races
Juno wears the beautiful lightweight cream suit he’d found first that night on the shuttle, with narrow trousers and a double-breasted chesterfield coat. He twists his dreadlocks into an updo and puts on a little makeup.
“Hey, Nureyev! Aren’t we supposed to wear, like. Hats?”
Peter sticks his head through the doorway. Said head is wearing some sort of tiara made of gleaming copper and peridot, with a translucent green visor attached. Juno does a double take at it. Nureyev smirks. “Like it? I think—well, Duke thinks—it perfectly marries dignity and function.”
“If you got Dahlia one to match, we’re getting divorced.”
Nureyev smiles with far too many teeth. “Here’s a hat for you.”
Juno unpacks it and grunts with satisfaction. It’s floppy and wide, with a long fine veil. He lifts it and realizes the pale pink flowers clustered on the brim are also stitched at strategically random places on the length of netting. Peter comes to him, helps him put it on so the veil sits well. Even Juno recognizes that his reflection looks lovely, mysterious. “Well, then.” He tucks Nureyev’s hand into the crook of his arm. “Shall we, Mr. Rose?”
The horses in Monte Clarice look strange to Juno’s eyes, but that may just mean they’re fancy as fuck. Anyway, they’re less scaly than typical, longer through the legs and sharper in the teeth. “You couldn’t pay me to put my hand near their mouths,” he murmurs.
Peter gives him a sidelong smirk. “Sharp teeth? I’d have thought you’d volunteer.”
“Yes, well. It’s different when I know how to fight back.”
“Mm, know all my weak spots, eh, Dahlia?”
“Nutella, dramatic sleepwear, being kissed on your hip just to the side of where you want me...do I need to continue?”
“Oh, I think I’ll have to insist on it. When we’re not in public.”
Juno squeezes Peter’s arm, noting with satisfaction that his ears are just the tiniest bit pink.
Juno understands immediately why they were given the seats they were: they’re close to the owners’ lounge. They’re either being set up to get Dominik, or to be got. He studies the roofline. “Hey Duke?”
Peter’s looking at the program. “Yes, dear?”
“Have you got a pen?”
Juno climbs onto the roof of the food prep pavilion separating the owners’ lounge from the stands. He’s glad he chose today to wear the one pair of pants Peter packed for him. (“Only one pair? You didn’t think I might, I dunno, need to throw one in the wash and still be able to like. Do a handstand?” “You asked for a dress with pockets! I went a little overboard!” “Wait, do all these dresses have pockets?” “I’m not an amateur, Juno.”)
He left his hat on his seat; no point in adding extra height. He already feels too exposed, even crawling on his belly. If everyone else can just act like a normal person and not look up, he’ll be fine. Okay. There’s the princess, sipping from a champagne glass and holding an animated conversation with someone he can’t see well. He’s in a good position, his body sheltered by a few inches of ornamental trim on the roof’s perimeter. He takes his paper airplane, lines up his shot, and lets go. And of fucking course the princess steps away at the crucial moment. And, because he’s Juno Steel, and his luck is scale-breakingly bad, the person she had been talking to catches it instead. And proceeds to open it. Juno flattens himself as much as he can, sacrificing his line of vision. At least the message is nothing damning. It simply asks, with no names attached, “Do you love her?” Below the message is a list of shuttle departures to Mars.
Someone’s climbing onto the roof. There’s nowhere he can go, no way to hide himself further. He sighs and pulls his blaster out of his coat pocket.
“I gotta say,” says a familiar voice, “you’re not who I expected.”
It’s Alessandra Strong.
Alessandra Strong is here, and she’s on the roof, and she knows who Juno Steel is. He puts his blaster away.
“Oh. You know me. Dahlia Rose, always a wildcard!” Please work with me here, he pleads silently.
She blinks. “Oh, of course. Dahlia. You look…” She seems to be considering and discarding well and nice. “Very flexible. Why don’t you come down and we can catch up?”
“I’m just gonna look stupid, Strong.”
“You already look stupid.”
Juno pouts, but he sits up and lets Alessandra help him onto a—ugh—rose trellis she used to climb up. He brushes himself off with his hands a little. “That roof is surprisingly clean,” Alessandra says, brushing her own clothes.
“Yeah, it’s great, you could eat off of it. Speaking of which, what’s a lady got to do to get an hors d’oeuvre here? And why isn’t anybody looking at me funny, I just climbed off a roof.”
Alessandra shrugs. “I think they’re pretty drunk. Or high. Or both. These people have too much money to do anything interesting for fun.”
“Well it’s creepy.”
“Will you get less cranky if I grab you some bruschetta?”
Alessandra brings him bruschetta and a glass of pink lemonade. “So. Who was the note for?”
“Keep a secret?”
Juno double-checks his signal blocker and moves as close to her as he dares. “Princess N.”
“’Do you love her?’” Alessandra makes a face. “Listen, I’m in a closed relationship…”
“Oh for fuck’s sake, it’s obviously about her girlfriend!” Alessandra squints across the patio.
“Gal with the honeycomb dress?” Juno nods. “Are you working for the tabloids now or something?”
“Concerned family, don’t be a dick.”
“We’re both dicks, it’s our profession.”
Juno scowls. “Yeah, I walked right into that one, didn’t I?”
“So. You’re trying to figure out their deal?”
“We’re trying to figure out how to help a young woman who’s in completely over her head get to a situation where she’s not going to get murdered in her sleep. Satisfied?”
Alessandra grunts, pats Juno’s back. “I’ll get this to Nadezhda. Do me a favor? There’s a big guy, your type. He keeps getting in my way. He’s playing waiter today. See if you can help me any.”
Juno nods and slips into the pavilion. “Uhhh, sorry, sorry, looking for the restroom. Oh, across the hall? Thanks so much”—and then he spots who Alessandra must be talking about and bites the inside of his cheek. It’s Brown Jacket. (Who is currently wearing a white waiter’s jacket. Juno doesn’t care for it, it messes with his epithet, which is all he’s ever deigned to let Juno call him.) They make eye contact for a second, and Juno flees into the restroom, trying to get his face under control.
Brown Jacket follows him in. “Juno, what on Earth are you up to? Wait—someone might walk in.” He grabs Juno’s arm and pulls him into the largest stall.
“Wha—. C’mon, big guy, have a little respect for a lady’s personal space!”
“This way, if anyone wanders in, we will not be bothered! Now. Tell me why you are here.”
“I’m on a job for the Aurinkos, don’t ask, it’ll slow us down. What are you doing? Alessandra Strong asked me to get you off her case.”
“Friend of yours?”
“Rival PI from home. I’ve always found her pretty trustworthy.”
“Do you find her pretty pretty?”
“I’m sure her wife thinks so,” Juno deflects.
“No mob affiliations?”
“Nah, she’s not the type.”
“Damn. I thought she was a lead. Can you tell me—” Someone comes in, and they both fall silent. There’s the click of shoes. Then a strange metallic snick, and then the shoes circle over to their stall door.
“If you two are only making out in there, I won’t be angry. But you are coming out before I count to ten if you know what’s good for you. 10…9…8…” Juno pulls his blaster out. Brown Jacket slips on a pair of brass knuckles on each hand. “4…3…2…” Juno kicks the door open.
It’s Efe Kayode, in a beautiful scarlet sheath dress. She blinks at Juno. “You,” she says coolly, “are due for a reckoning.” She flicks her fingers, and Juno feels a sharp sting on the wrist of his dominant hand. His fingers go numb, then slack. The blaster falls. He fumbles at his arm, but he can’t find a dart. “Kick it over here,” Kayode demands, “or your friend dies.”
“I’m not easy to kill, madam,” Brown Jacket threatens calmly.
“I mean your friend in the stands. Is he really your husband, Mr. Rose? Or are those rings just for show?” The answer is that they’re disguised signal blockers, but the real answer is that they’re a little bit actually married.
Juno kicks the blaster over. She does not reach for it, but she does smile thinly. “Good. Now, you and your little boytoy keep killing my subordinates, so I’m very curious about what you’re up to.”
Juno can feel the tension in his large friend. Their best chance is to get Efe close enough for him to hit. “Honestly? We’re just trying to figure out what you’re up to. The bodyguards just…got in the way.” He looks at his fingernails with false sangfroid. He remembers how Peter said this woman was eager to talk at the casino, pleased to flex at him. “Maybe if you tell me a little something, nobody else has to die.”
Her fingers twitch a little, and he has just enough time to think he’s made a mistake before she shrugs and gives him something. “Do you want to get rich, Mr. Rose? Maybe you could work for us. How would you like to rule a planet?”
“Hmm. Sounds like a shitty offer, to be honest. The only planets available are the really gross ones, where you can’t even grow onyanga ‘cause the atmosphere’s just that shitty.”
“We can fix that,” she says. She’s not moving, but she is way more focused on Juno. Jacket apparently decides he’s had enough waiting, and throws something at her head. It hits his mark, and Efe staggers. Juno ducks when it ricochets off the bathroom mirror. Jacket rolls and picks it up again, and Juno realizes he’d thrown one of his brass knuckles. His other arm is hanging limp. Efe must have hit him somehow.
Juno has moved in this time, trying to pin Efe’s arms to her sides. They’re struggling when Brown Jacket rises and lends his weight to Juno. They pin her to a wall. She snarls at them, which Juno figures is justified.
“Okay, Kayode, work with us here,” he pants. “What do you people want with Tzeitel Jepsen?” She shrieks with laughter. Juno’s stomach twists. Brown Jacket has turned stony beside him, slaps Kayode across the face.
“She’s not really that important,” she gasps, enjoying their distress. “Just useful, and terribly poetic.” She sings a little song, voice high and clear. The expression in her eyes looks wrong, sick, though Juno can’t explain why.
Fly, fly my honey.
It’ll be sundown soon.
Outrun the moon,
And I’ll be waiting for you.
Bread from the oven,
All of my loving,
I’ll be waiting for you.
Stars all agleam.
Kiss me goodnight,
And at next light,
You’ll see that I stayed.
Dawn through the window,
My head on the pillow,
You’ll see that I stayed.”
“What the fuck?” says Juno.
Brown Jacket grunts. “I think it is time for me to call someone to arrest her.”
Efe jolts at this, looks Juno in the eye. “The cops aren’t touching me,” she spits. “Go stalk my friends to Turnadot tomorrow. Tell Thor and Hedy I’ll see them in hell.” And she turns her hands so that the palms face towards her, and flicks her fingers. Pinpricks of blood erupt across her upturned face, and Juno feels the life leaving her.
“What—what? Oh my god, no, stop, why is she dying, she hasn’t lost enough blood.”
Brown Jacket grabs one of her hands, inspects her face. “She has—had—some sort of needles embedded in her fingers.” He pauses. “I think they must have some nerve agent on them. Can you feel your fingers yet?”
Juno flexes ineffectually. “No.”
“Nor I my arm. She must have felt very strongly about the police.”
Juno Steel, former cop, sighs with real feeling. “Can’t say I blame her.”
“Go back to the party. Now. I’ll take care of this.”
“You don’t have to—”
“Didn’t she say you’ve killed someone else recently? You don’t need the attention. Go.”
“Hey, where are you going, Dahlia? Did you take care of my boy problems?”
“I need to check on my husband.”
Alessandra falls into step with him. “Didn’t know you’d joined the world of the married. Congratulations.”
“I—oh, there he is.”
“Oh, very cute. Hate the hat.”
“Believe me, so does he.” He side-steps along the row of seats.
“Dahlia! Oh, my poor huckleberry, how’s your stomach now? Finally settled?”
Juno flops into the seat beside him and puts his lips to Peter’s ear. “Efe Kayode killed herself.”
Peter looks unperturbed. “Oh, dear. Why don’t we go back to the hotel and you can have a nice little lie-down?” Peter puts a firm arm around Juno’s waist and half-lifts him up. Juno lets himself be lifted.
Alessandra coughs. Oh. Right. Alessandra is here.
“Let’s get out of here?” Juno shoots her a weak smile.
“Yeah, ok. Hey—I thought you got rid of him.” She jerks her head in the direction of the stairs. Brown Jacket, now in his actual brown jacket, is coming to meet them.
“Ehhhh, more like I told him you’re not actually his lead on mob activity. I uh. I know him, too.”
“I wish I was surprised.”
“Believe me, I hate this way more than you do,” he shoots back, just as Brown Jacket joins them.
“We should all have dinner,” Brown Jacket announces. Juno scowls. “There’s an excellent Vietnamese brasserie about a block to the north. We can discuss the situation. Please, my friend, there is no need to look at me like I dyed my teeth green. It’s perfectly reasonable.”
“Oh, yeah, it makes perfect sense, and I’m glad you suggested it. I’m just not going to enjoy it.”
All three of them—Brown Jacket, Peter, and Alessandra—give him an indulgent, smiling eye roll. Oh, he’s going to get dragged tonight.
Chapter 6: Eating out
“Right,” Juno says, arms folded. “We’ve all got our pho. Who wants to talk first?”
Peter puts his arm around Juno’s shoulders. Across the booth, Alessandra and Brown Jacket exchange a glance. “Could we start with names?” Peter requests, twirling a straw in his fingers. “Obviously, we all know Dahlia. I’m Dahlia’s husband, Duke Rose.” Juno suppresses a snort when Peter says husband. There are practically shoujo sparkles hanging in the air. “And you lovely people are friends of my dearest most divine Dahlia. But names are a scarce commodity, it does seem.”
Brown Jacket smiles serenely. “Oh, who can afford a name in this economy. A fixed identity? Such an extravagance.”
Juno and Peter each take a sip of ice water. Juno’s is hasty, Peter’s is showy. Alessandra huffs impatiently.
“I’m Alessandra Strong, Private Eye. Nice to meet you.”
“Oooh,” Peter coos. Juno braces himself. He’s got a bratty look in his eye. “A detective! How sexy.” This time Peter is the one receiving three exasperated sighs. Juno would enjoy it more if he thought Peter was the slightest bit chastened.
“Right,” Juno presses, “how do you fit in with Princess N., Alessandra?”
“I’m not, really, I just happened to be introduced to her today. Oh! I gave her your note. She turned kind of pale and put it in her pocket.” She shrugs. Juno grunts.
“You’re here because of the Aurinkos, then?”
“Jepsen, then. No?? Well, who are you here for?”
“My wife got a tip about the Cane Toad Gang.” That’s irrelevant, they’re into extorting people out of their homes and gentrifying to make a profit. Assholes, but nothing to do with engineering or ecology.
Juno grumpily rests his chin on both hands. Damn. Just when he’d reconciled to cooperating with Strong. “Okay, big guy. So—where are you with our wayward girl?”
“I’m—also hunting the Cane Toad Gang. Now. During all that unpleasantness with the lady in the red dress, you indicated that little Tzeitel in some kind of trouble. Talk, please.”
Juno throws his hands in the air, exasperated. “Where have you been, Jacket? I thought you lived in Buddy and Vespa’s guest room or something.”
“Actually, I live in a bungalow in an adjacent neighborhood. What’s happened?”
Juno’s stomach growls loudly, so Peter squeezes his shoulder gently and takes over the work of explaining while Juno eats.
“Soooo,” Peter says, once that line of conversation has spun itself out. “You know Buddy and Vespa?”
“Quite well, yes. I’ve been fortunate to be Buddy’s friend and employee for several years. You met them through ‘Dahlia,’ then?”
“Oh, no. I knew them on Brahma when I was young and foolish. They saw to it that I lived long enough to be youngish and shrewd. They—mm. I looked up to them.” He coughs. “Did you meet during that whole business in the Cerberus Province?” He twists his wrist elegantly, indicating Juno.
“Oh yes. I found him very…striking.”
Juno meets Brown Jacket’s eyes. What are you up to? Jacket smiles innocently back. Juno looks at Alessandra. She’s licking her spoon, much more slowly than is really necessary. He realizes that Peter has been, perhaps without noticing himself, resting his hand atop and just above the left side of Juno’s chest. They sit like this often, curled up on their own couch. He wonders how long it’ll take Peter to notice that they’re doing it now.
“How long have you two been married?” Alessandra asks, her eyes glittering.
“We aren’t,” Juno says on reflex. Peter flinches. Alessandra smirks. “That is, uh, we aren’t exactly sure how to count it, because we got married twice.” Great going, super-steel. Real smooth. “So. You know. It’s been five years by one calendar and one year by the other? Time, am I right, folks?”
Brown Jacket lifts one eyebrow. “I can’t work out whether this is part of your alias, or you’re just this uncomfortable around all your exes.”
“Wait, what?” Oh. Peter doesn’t know about them. Right.
“Excuse me, I don’t walk around blowing your cover. Also, how did you even know Alessandra and I dated? Also, you and I didn’t actually date. And just. Really? In front of my husband? Strong, can you and that spoon get a room?”
“What, are you having unladylike thoughts, Steel? I’m scandalized.” Juno glances over at Peter. The love of his life isn’t smiling in the traditional sense of the word, but the corners have his mouth have deepened, and his eyes are crinkling in Juno’s favorite way. It usually means he’s about to get a hickey or an adventure. Not that those are mutually exclusive. He wonders what it says about him that he’s serially attracted to people who get a kick out of watching him uncoil. To be fair, he does like it. Just a bit.
So. Okay. This is happening, apparently. Brown Jacket is peeking at Juno from under his eyelashes. And Peter’s hand is still resting just over Juno’s heart.
“I’m not sure I would call Juno ladylike,” Peter says, because okay, apparently all pretense is just being cast to the winds so these three can have some sort of flirt-off. “He’s much too compelling for that.”
“I suppose you’re right. Though he can be very well-behaved when he wants to be, don’t you find?”
Peter only smiles serenely at her, and Juno loves him for it.
They don’t stop messing with Juno for the rest of the dinner. He’s more than usually pissed off, which even he recognizes is saying something. His mood only worsens when they part at the door, and Brown Jacket puts his number into Alessandra’s comm.
“She gets your number?”
“Of course. We’re confederates in our respective cases against the Cane Toad Gang. It’s only sensible.” Jacket smiles beatifically.
Juno sputters. Peter makes him walk away.
Peter presses Juno up against the inside of the door to their suite. “Darling, you’re in a horrific mood.”
“Of fucking course I am! My plan went badly, someone else died, I only kind of have a lead, and it’s probably another trap, I spent dinner with two of my exes, who kept making fun of me, and we both forgot our hats when we left!”
“You hated my hat. I hated my hat.”
“Yeah, but mine was pretty,” Juno grumbles.
Peter caresses his face. “And what’s this about making fun of you? They were flirting. They were jealous, because even if they’re okay with the fact that things didn’t work out between you, it means I get to touch you and they don’t. It sounds like hell.”
“Why would they care so much? I’m just a lady they used to spend a little time with, that’s all.”
“You’re wrong, you’re a fucking mesmerizing lady they used to care for.” Peter kisses him, giving his lower lip a light, possessive drag through his teeth. “You know what’s really remarkable, Juno?”
“You are?” Juno shoots back, and it’s half-roasting, half-smitten.
Peter kisses Juno on the cheekbone. “Flirt.” Kiss on his earlobe. “Flatterer.” Kiss halfway down his neck. “Darling tease.” Kiss on the little bit of his collarbone that’s exposed. “And mine, all mine.” There’s a gentle joke behind the words; Peter knows they both know there’s no question that they belong to nobody, just as they both know that they have each other nonetheless.
He starts on Juno’s buttons. Juno cups Peter’s butt in his hands and refuses to help. Peter inhales, slightly out of rhythm. Peter knows he has few tells when he wants to put on a role. This is one Juno has learned; it’s a stand-in for a ragged gasp and/or a twitch of his hips. Juno winks at him. He was watching for it, wants Peter to know he’s aware of the effect he’s having. Peter hides a smile and reaches for Juno’s pants.
“Is this a new alias?” Juno teases. “Horny Greg?”
“Gregory Horneye, please.”
Juno’s clothes are unfastened now. Peter trails his fingers along the exposed skin, from the waistband of his briefs, across his navel, up his sternum, and finally, resting lightly atop his throat. “I love looking at you,” Peter breathes.
“Are you, you uh, uhm.”
Peter gives him a gentle half-smile, tenderly bossy. “Try again.”
“You gonna remind me who I belong to?” Juno’s eyes sparkle. He’s hoping to throw Peter off. It isn’t going to work. Peter slides his fingers just the slightest bit higher, pressing firmly against the soft underside of Juno’s chin. Juno gasps prettily, tilting his head back.
“Close. I’m going to remind you that someone belongs to you.”
Juno squeaks out a tiny “oh,” and makes a face Peter doesn’t know how to interpret.
“It’s me,” he clarifies, slipping out of the game. His voice sounds shy to his own ears.
“I knew that,” Juno insists. “I did. I was just thinking. Um. Will you mark me up? On my throat?”
Peter glances away from Juno’s eyes to his own fingers. “Of course. Anything you like. You’re so good for me.” And Juno blushes fiercely, lets his hands fall to his sides so that Peter can push his jacket and shirt over his shoulders and onto the floor. “Hold your pants up, gorgeous.” Juno catches his waistband, sucking in his breath as Peter kneels. Peter unlaces Juno’s shoes, prompts him to step out of them. When he’s barefoot, Juno impatiently pushes down on his pants and underwear. Peter laughs and helps him.
Peter, still kneeling, traces Juno’s body with his eyes. Juno smiles down at him, cupping his cheek in one hand. It’s the third time this week, but this time Juno is tentative, supplicating. Please top me so thoroughly I forget everything except who we are, his face says. Peter catches Juno’s thumb with his teeth, not biting, just applying pressure. He curls his tongue around the pad, listens to Juno forget to breathe, and pulls his mouth off. “Bed, Juno.”
Juno complies, stretching out on his back and watching Peter expectantly. “Suck on your fingers,” Peter suggests, before stepping out of Juno’s sight, in the direction of the closet and bathroom. He takes off Duke Rose’s clothes and washes the makeup off his face. When he comes back to Juno, he’s wearing his own silk robe and silver ear cuffs. Juno looks thrilled.
“Hello, you,” he says softly. Peter understands: Juno’s into him no matter the name, but Peter Nureyev is by far the best.
Peter hops onto the bed beside him. “Been good while I was gone, hmm?”
“Extremely,” Juno giggles, running his hand across his own chest.
Peter kisses him. “Juno,” he says, and then kisses him several more times. He takes Juno in his arms and uses his mouth to sweetly bruise his throat, as promised. Juno gasps and whimpers and nuzzles closer, seeking more. Peter adores him.
“I adore you,” he says, out loud. It seems like the sort of thing Juno should hear. He purrs against Juno’s ear. “I’m going to ruin you.”
“Yes, please, thanks, now would be good,” Juno pants back.
“So bossy.” Peter flicks the stud in one of Juno’s nipples, gratified when he cries out and trembles. “I like that you’re bossy.” His thumb runs soothingly across the areola. “I like that you turn pink and sensitive when I touch you. I like that you’re incredibly clever. And you’re so strong, my Juno. And the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. You’ve heard all this from me before, though.” His fingers are tracing patterns across the skin of Juno’s abdomen, periodically looping up to his lovely chest and the delicate silver barbells catching the room’s low light. “What do you not know, though, hmm?” One hand skates to Juno’s thigh. “I’d never been in love before you.”
Juno gasps. “Really? Would’ve thought an intergalactic man of seduction would’ve had the opportunity.”
“Can’t fall in love if nobody’s worth the falling, now can you?” He takes one of Juno’s hands and presses it to his lips.
“You—you fell so stupidly quick, I thought. Well. Sometimes I thought it wasn’t real, for a long time. And then it took me a long time to realize fast didn’t mean easy, for you.”
“Oh, no.” Peter smiles sunnily. “I fell bass ackwards and nearly cracked my head open.” Juno looks sad, which is the opposite of the plan. “But I’m very spry, landed right on my feet. You might recall I’m a master thief,” he teases.
Juno rolls his eyes. “Yeah, I have your wanted poster framed in my office. The one that’s like ‘What Does He Look Like? We Just Don’t Know.’”
Peter is momentarily thrown. “You do? I haven’t seen it.”
“It’s inside the big drawer in my desk. I take it out sometimes when you’re away.” He covers his face. “I. Miss you a lot. When I can’t hold you. Funny. I’ve only barely gotten used to sharing my bed, and now I can’t live without it.” His voice cracks painfully.
Peter reaches for his face. “Oh, Juno.”
Juno slides his own hands off his face, lets them tangle with Peter’s fingers on his breastbone. “Could I have something filthy now? Please?”
Peter kisses him deeply. “Of course, sweetheart. Rough?”
“Lil bit,” Juno replies, excitement tinged with shyness.
Peter flips him onto his stomach and absolutely goes to town on Juno’s gorgeous ass with hands and mouth. “Oh,” Juno moans, when he realizes what Peter’s up to. “Good fucking choice.”
When his mouth is free to do so, Peter matches Juno’s pretty noises with dirty talk, telling him he’s beautiful, shaking for him, he can’t believe nobody else gets to see this. “Oh, you gorgeous thing, you’re so weak for me. You’d do anything I asked, wouldn’t you, because you trust me so much? I’m so glad you do, nothing makes me happier than seeing you happy…comfortable…spoiled. Oh, poor darling, you can’t hold yourself up anymore, can you? Here, roll onto your back.” He slips off his robe and repositions their bodies so that he’s straddling Juno, smiling into his face and dragging their skin together with every flick of his hips. Juno, after avoiding it for what feels like a long time, makes eye contact with him—and comes. Peter lets himself follow Juno into stars and stillness, trying not to land too heavily on the lady’s frame.
Juno has had several lovers. He was even engaged, once. But nobody, he thinks, has ever treated him like Peter Nureyev. His boyfriend is asleep beside him, after a round of really great sex. “Lovemaking,” Peter calls it sometimes, because it annoys Juno, but also because he means it. Juno sometimes thinks he’s learned more about the person Nureyev is during sex than any other time. If he measures it more broadly by all the things they do in bed (pillow talk, cuddling, reading, watching streams, plotting, painting each other’s nails, drinking soup with their legs under the covers that time the heating failed), he knows it’s true. It’s nice, having affection and intimacy so entwined.
He’s never had a relationship like this. Peter said he’d never been in love before; maybe that’s all it is, that nobody’s really been in love with Juno before. He has, in his opinion, been in love four times. Peter’s the only one who’s made him feel like he’s just as exciting as the object of his affection, though. It’s overwhelming, sometimes, but he’d never deny that it makes him feel good. (“Good,” like that describes it. It makes him feel precious. It makes him feel worthwhile.) Peter is…he acts…there’s probably a beautiful word for this, in a language Juno doesn’t speak. Brahmanian, maybe, or an old Earth tongue. Committed isn’t right. Devoted. Peter shows Juno devotion. Juno shivers under the sheet. Peter stirs a little, and Juno pets his hair to send him back into unconsciousness. For that matter, Juno realizes with almost no surprise, he’s devoted to Peter, too.
Chapter 7: The spy who loved my taste in pie
The thing Rita envies most about Agent Wire is that she knows how to crack an egg with one hand. The second-coolest thing about her is that she has a really great pair of leather boots with tiny pockets. “I think they’re meant for condoms,” Sasha tells her, pulling out a lockpick kit. Rita squeals.
“Do you know where I can get my own?”
“Sure, I’ve got a spare kit. If you remind me, I’ll bring it when we go for coffee.”
“What—no.” Rita pulls her own lockpicks out of her skirt pocket. “I’m good, thanks. I was talking about the boots.”
“Oh! I got them from a store.” Rita gives her a look. “A store downtown? It also sold clothes I think. And novelty mints at the check-out counter.” Rita sighs. She’ll just try the internet. For a woman who always looks incredibly put-together, it’s amazing how little attention Agent Wire really pays to clothes. One time, Rita told her she liked her dress, and Agent Wire responded with “Oh! Didn’t notice I was wearing one.”
She’s just the cutest.
And right now, she’s breaking into the apartment across the hall from Rita’s own. When Rita’s last lease ended, she upgraded to a bougie little place in a converted sewing factory. It’s got great tall windows, so there’s lots of natural light, so her plants are just thriving. And it’s a really cute neighborhood, there’s a bakery around the corner with a chocolate pudding pretzel pie that’s just to die for. And, according to Agent Wire, her neighbor across the hall is an interplanetary assassin. Rita realizes with a start that this means, if she’d put her foot wrong, she could’ve actually died for her proximity to good pie. As she’s told Agent Wire, though, she’s never actually met her neighbor, who’s been out of town in the few weeks since she moved in.
The lock pops open. Rita claps. Agent Wire holds up her palm, ordering Rita to wait outside. She pulls out some sort of glowing scanner wand, waves it at the door a couple times, and then crosses the threshold, blaster ready. Rita waits patiently, texting Franny. The corner store did have ghee, you were right! I’m assisting with a Dark Matters operation now, so my comm’s gonna be on silent, but you should totally send me your date outfit options, and I’ll tell you my Thots^tm when I have a free minute! Xoxo ttyl!!
“Yeah, Agent Wire?”
“The room’s clear, come take a look at this.”
Rita pockets her comm and follows Agent Wire’s voice, heels clacking. Number 221A is laid out in a mirror image of Rita’s own apartment; Wire is standing at the far end of the living room. Rita moves to stand beside her. “Oh.”
“Agent Wire, I do not like the look of this.”
“Yeah, no, this is some serial killer shit.” It’s a corkboard, and that’s not a problem. Rita has multiple corkboards at the office and at home, sometimes you just gotta organize your thoughts in physical space. And sure—the information isn’t in a clear layout, but that’s fine, you gotta work for your own brain, not the chance someone else will break into your apartment and try to interpret it. But when you’ve put Xs through the eyes of people’s pictures, and you’ve written notes like “FIND THEIR OPEN NICHES” “I WILL CHOKE THEM OUT” and “BYE BYE BIRDIE, IT’S SUNDOWN” with nasty-minded little doodles—well. Rita would rather you not live in the same city, thankyouverymuch, let alone on the same floor.
Agent Wire sighs. “Ok. The computer’s in the spare bedroom. If it’s got a melt code or anything on it, the most important things are his files about something called the CEDE bomb, and any correspondence with Hedy Flek.”
“Sure thing. Um. Agent Wire? I know some of the people in these pictures. I mean I know who they are.” She points. “This is a girl we’ve got a missing person case open on. And this is Mistah Steel’s gentleman friend.”
“Oh. That’s a yikes.”
“Fuck, Agent Wire, it sure is.”
Rita arrives in Monte Clarice in one of her favorite outfits, a white blouse with an A-line skirt in a pink and apple green geometric print, and strappy sandals. Also, rhinestoned cat-eye sunglasses, but that goes without saying, they’re in Monte Clarice. Agent Wire is wearing black. Rita thinks she looks super.
Agent Wire checks them into a suite as Mrs. and Dr. Slaine and Lucy Rockwell, and distracts the desk clerk while Rita takes a picture of their screen, open to the guest registry. When they step into the elevator, Agent Wire slides her sunglasses down her nose and looks at Rita questioningly. Rita slides her sunglasses down her nose and winks. “Mr. and Mr. Rose, suite 431.” Agent Wire presses the ivory button marked “4”.
Peter Last-name-shrouded-in-mystery-but-he-lies-to-Rita-that-it’s-Teeth-and-she-doesn’t-challenge-it, latterly under the alias Duke Rose, opens the door in a silk robe. “Miss Rita?”
“I think you’ve confused me for someone else, Mr. Rose. My name is Dr. Lucy Rockwell, M.D. This is my beautiful wife, Slaine Rockwell.”
“Oh. Ohhhh, yes, of course, Dr. Rockwell, I’m such a ninny, do come in. Mrs. Rockwell, may I take your coat?” Rita laughs. She knows that Agent Wire would sooner be seen in public without her sunglasses than without her coat. Which is saying somethin’, her being a secret operative and all. Agent Wire does a double-take at Peter, and strides past him to the bedroom.
“Hey, Jayjay, get some pants on. I got questions.”
“We also got pie!” Rita sings out.
“And we have pie,” Agent Wire adds, with a firm nod.
“Sasha, what the hell? What time is it? Was that Rita’s voice?”
“You can find out if you put on pants,” Agent Wire replies cheerfully, before shutting the door.
Peter, in the meantime, has produced some real stylish disposable plates and forks from the wet bar, and is helping Rita slice the pie. It’s the chocolate pudding pretzel pie she likes so much, naturally. Sasha sits next to Rita. “Nice to see you again, Agent Glass.” Peter gives her a brittle smile. Rita tugs on her sleeve.
“Agent Wire, that’s not Agent Glass. I understand why you think that, Juno totally has a type, but I promise you he’s a different guy!” There is a small silence. Rita feels like someone’s about to say something impolite, but fortunately Juno stumbles into the room, still pulling a shirt over his head.
“Is everyone I know in Monte Clarice? Is this year’s Kanagawa Family Big Ole Scavenger Hunt (for Which the Prize Is Free Drugs) final goal the Cane Toad Gang, and that’s really why Alessandra and Jacket are here?” He rubs his face with one hand, and his voice changes from teasing to anxious. “Is anyone left in Hyperion City to make sure there isn’t an elaborate trap to get everyone I’ve ever cared about enmeshed as collateral in a sinister plot, to force me to choose between two equally heinous options in an illusion of choice that should really be solved by insisting on a third option, even if it means flying in the face of any god that may exist?”
“Mick Mercury’s still in Hyperion City, I’m pretty sure?” Rita offers.
Peter looks concerned. “Did you have a bad dream, darling?”
“When don’t I?” Juno tries to joke.
“You should come have some pie,” Rita tells him.
Juno grumpily accepts a plate and sticks a forkful in his mouth. “Hey, this is really good.”
“Of course it is, Rita picked it out,” Agent Wire grumps back.
“So,” Peter interrupts, “why exactly are you ladies brightening our morning here?”
Agent Wire pulls a bundle of papers out of her inner breast pocket with a flourish. She’s not usually very flourishy, she likes crisp lines and no nonsense. Maybe she’s trying to show off for some reason. Maybe it’s just the effect of Peter staring her down while wearing a silk dressing gown and red-soled bedroom slippers.
“This is evidence we found in the apartment of an assassin called Thorbjorn Willems, alias the Curare. At least seventy-eight confirmed kills.”
“The number we had was thirty-one,” Juno protests.
Peter shakes his head. “No, that’s how many times he’s been tried and acquitted.”
“Right. He’s been in contact with an ecologist named Hedy Flek, whom I’ve been trying to arrest for weeks. There’s an opal vein on Coober Pedy IV, and the parts of it on uninhabited land are just about spent. Well, the folks there started reporting some noxious pollution, something their domes were struggling to deal with. Professor Flek was assigned to assess the situation. All we know for sure is that she went in, and…everyone died. All of them, overnight. And then she disappeared.”
“You’re sure she didn’t die?”
“Oh, we’re sure. We’ve already caught out one of the relevant mining corporations for transferring one million creds into a bank account. Their scrupulous bookkeeper noted down the expense as ‘gratuity paid to HF for CEDE bomb’. With a smiley face. Anyway. I’m hunting Flek, and—thanks to Rita—I know she’s coming here to meet with Willems. Rita’s going to help me with some more hacking. We’re here talking to you because Rita was concerned.”
“Boss, he had a picture of the Aurinkos’ niece on his scary manifesto wall. And one of you,” she continues, gesturing at Peter. Agent Wire produces the picture in question. Peter’s quite a bit younger in it, but there’s something about the lines of his face and posture. It’s a boyish version of the man Rita thinks he is in private. Peter takes it carefully by the corners.
Juno is studying Peter’s face while Peter studies the photo. He slides his hand onto his gentleman friend’s shoulder. “Babe? Do you have a history with him?”
“I—I don’t think I do. I’d’ve said, if I did.”
“Right. Well. We’ll be extra-careful tonight. Sasha?”
“Get ‘er good.”
They’re halfway through a second round of pie when Juno jumps. “Rita. Is Small Fry being rabbit-sat by Mick Mercury?”
“He’s very good with animals, Mistah Steel,” Rita says. She’s defensive, because she feels a little guilty. Small Fry’s in great hands, but. Well. They’re not Rita’s hands, and Mister Steel specifically asked Rita to take care of her for a reason. Still!! A girl only has so many options when a Dark Matters agent needs help with a mass murderer and an assassin who happen to have it out for her best friend’s boyfriend! Juno oughta cut her some slack, really, after all the stunts he’s pulled…
“Oh. Good idea.”
“What did you say?”
“I said that works okay. Small Fry loves Mick almost as much as she does you.” Juno doesn’t meet her eyes, pushing his fork around his plate.
Rita’s hands are on either side of her face; when did that happen? She doesn’t care. She’s seeing stars, she’s skipping through a field of wildflowers, she’s crying and receiving an Oscar from a tuxedo-clad sewer rabbit. “Small Fry likes me???”
Rita hugs him. “Oh, Mistah Steel! That’s the best news I’ve evah heard, you have no idea! That little rabbit…she’s such a fighter and she’s so naturally glamorous, she’s an icon, I can’t believe…” Rita blots at her face with a hankie. It’s just such a relief! She thought maybe all the dead frogs Small Fry kept bringing her were a sign of contempt! Like if she’d been a cat, she’d have known it was affectionate, but she doesn’t know that much about sewer rabbits, and the internet forums were no help, and it wasn’t the sort of thing you bother a vet with, was it?
Frogs. Dead frogs. Curare. And—
“Cane toads,” she says abruptly.
Peter gives her a thoughtful look. “What have you solved, Rita?”
“Cane toads are an invasive species. Thorbjorn’s uhhh corkboard installation has all these,” she waves her hands, frustrated. Her mind is moving so much faster than her mouth. “All these references to ‘birdies,’ yeah? And-and oh my stars and garters, Sasha!” Agent Wire turns pink, for no reason Rita can discern. “Hedy Flek. She did something to the environment on Coober Pedy IV. And-and-and did you say Alessandra Strong is here? Doing something about the Cane Toad Gang? AKA, those people who exploit people out of real estate to make a buck? They! They’re all in it together! They’ve come up with some kind of-of like environmental weapon. Oh! Mistah Steel! Timing devices. Miss Jepsen won an award because she’s a genius at timing devices.”
“Fuck,” Juno says, quietly. “The opera. Efe taunted us about the opera and mentioned someone called Hedy. Wait—oh hell. She literally meant they could do something about it, when I said uninhabited planets have shitty atmospheres. They’re—altering environments to get rich.”
Peter lets out a slow exhale. “Rita, you’re a genius.” She basks. She knows she is, but it’s nice to be reminded. “Juno, will you call our friends from last night? Let them know this concerns them.”
Juno grunts. “I’ll text Alessandra. Brown Jacket’s never given me his number.”
Peter smirks. “Sore spot?”
Sasha tugs on Rita’s arm. “Rita? I do still really want to hack into the basement of the crab restaurant I have a tip on. Since I’m assuming the opera is a night thing—let’s make sure we can’t kick someone’s ass now, alright?” Oh fantastic.
Rita loops her arm around Agent Wire’s waist and starts for the door. “Sure yes good great! Boss? You two better keep in touch, we gotta work together! Okay love ya bye!” She doesn’t exactly slam the door behind her, but she is a little more emphatic with it than is strictly ladylike. Agent Wire doesn’t seem bothered, so Rita doesn’t dwell on it.
Chapter 8: A night at the opera
The New Nineveh Opera House is metallic on every surface, everything polished and shining and reflective. Juno wore red, and he turns the light warm and compelling everywhere he goes. He’d dressed Peter, tossing an almost sheer white linen shirt and a brandy leather harness at him with one eyebrow raised, and picking a deep plum lip out of Peter’s makeup kit. It’s not a very Duke outfit, and that’s the point. Peter wants there to be no ambiguity: they’re done playing games.
Juno rejoins him and takes his arm. “Ready? Here they come.”
Her Serene Highness Princess Nadezhda Lyssa Pavlina Karola du Maurier is attending the debut of The St. Vincent Acting Company’s production of Turnadot in an official capacity. The attendees part like a finger drawn through sand, leaving a clear path through the lobby. Peter does something with his body that Buddy Aurinko taught him, a way to subtly hold your position in a crowd. He and Juno stay on the inner edge of the crowd; nobody will be between them and the princess’s retinue when she enters.
Nadezhda’s wearing something gold and geometric, but Peter’s eyes immediately go to Tzeitel Jepsen, in emerald green, holding her hand. The room murmurs. A few steps behind her, Thorbjorn Willems has one arm around Dominik Marat and the other around a woman Peter hasn’t seen before. He likes her dress, something akin to dragonfly wings viewed through a kaleidoscope.
Tzeitel briefly meets his eyes as she passes with the princess. She looks away and brushes her free hand against Nadezhda’s wrist, dragging her sleeve up just enough to let Peter and Juno see an angry red welt on the princess’s forearm. Peter gets the message, and he’s sure Juno did as well: Nadezhda needs help too.
The dragonfly woman glances at Peter’s face, does a double-take, and smiles grimly. Oh. Oh damn it all. He knows who she is.
“Im’ka,” Buddy called, years ago on Brahma, “get in here for a minute.”
“Is this about the Nikiforov job?”
“No, darling, that all wrapped up beautifully. We’re having a meeting.”
Peter followed her voice into the kitchen of the safe house. “Are the Grenouille brothers putting pressure on us again? I can put in some extra pickpocketing…”
Vespa snorted, pulling a disgusted face. “That’s the point. We’re overthrowing them.”
“We can’t touch them, they own everything. They own this house.”
“Yeah, well. We’ll figure that out later. But we can’t tolerate them anymore, not after what Saxon did to you.”
Peter was silent for a long minute, looking at the floor. “It’s not a big deal to me.”
Buddy made a horrified noise, cradled his face in her hands. “Im’ka. He broke your arm.”
“Imhotep,” Vespa pressed, when he didn’t answer, “Brahma is pretty much our territory now. The Grenouilles are ancient history, and they know it. Almost nobody is loyal to them. We’ve basically unionized with all the crews we’re friendly with, and even most of the ones we aren’t. We’re giving the Grenouilles an ultimatum. Their whole family can clear off-planet, or we’ll fight for it. Up to them.”
“We wanted you to know it was happening.”
“I-I don’t want to put everyone in danger.”
“We eat danger for breakfast. Shut up, this is their fault. They’re violent and they’re cruel. This is just the last straw, we’ve wanted them gone for forever. We’re making this our turf, with our rules. And we don’t treat people like that. C’mon, kid, say ‘okay Auntie,’ and have some soup.”
Buddy smoothed his hair out of his face. “What’s wrong, darling?”
“What about their kids?”
A long pause. “We’ll have to see, won’t we? Maybe this will give them a chance to be decent adults.”
The room has changed while he’s been lost in memory; everyone is now mingling, the most elite and brave paying court to Nadezhda while the rest enjoy champagne and canapes. Peter, for the moment, relies on Juno being wonderful and alert, so he can hold his hand and clear the fog from his brain.
“I think they’re cousins, Thorbjorn and Hedy—wait. Efe too. They were part of the Grenouille Clan. Their dads were criminal big shots on Brahma when I was a kid. Buddy and Vespa’s crew dealt with them when they needed something fenced, and then when they had enough notoriety under their belts, they made a power play and. Well. The Grenouilles can’t set foot on Brahma again. They lost their home. I. It’s why I left Brahma, because I was the scapegoat.”
“That’s horrible, why would Buddy and Vespa—”
“Oh, it was my doing. I was trying to take the pressure off them, the few crews that were loyal to the Grenouilles kept trying to kill them, and I owed them so much. They called themselves my aunts, and I really did love them. But I didn’t even say goodbye, since I knew they’d talk me down. I just…left.” Juno squeezes his hand. Of course Juno, of all people, understands what that’s like.
“So that’s what Efe meant when she said it was poetic to drag the Aurinkos’ niece into this. They’re the reason they lost their home.” He pauses. “Wow, they went really hard on the revenge scheme. ‘We lost our childhood home, now we steal other people’s homes by reconfiguring the environment.’”
“Is it awful that I want to take them alive more now? I feel—guilty.”
“Why would you?”
“They were just kids.”
“So were you.” Juno’s hands are cool and steady in his own.
“They’re the ones who decided to be evil. You just used to live on the same planet.”
“I suppose. Has Sasha texted yet?”
“No. I’m getting worried.”
Peter squeezes his hand. “I want to end this tonight, whether or not we hear from her and Rita. Is that okay?”
Juno studies his face. “Only if you’re certain you’ll come home with me. Don’t give me those angel eyes, I know what you’re like.”
Sasha Wire slides into the lobby with her blaster drawn. Her sunglasses are broken, hanging off her face, and she’s soaking wet.
Princess Nadezhda throws herself between Wire and Tzeitel, but Sasha’s really aiming at Hedy Flek. Peter wants to move, but he’s not sure how to be helpful. Juno’s pulled his own blaster out, and is trying to discreetly cover Wire. Peter tries to edge closer to the action, which ends up being a mistake: Marat notices Juno, and tackles him, his fingers catching the light. Shit, he’s got the same kind of razor nails as Leith Perrault, or maybe he took them from their corpse. Peter lunges in their direction, but someone grabs him. He twists; it’s Flek holding him, when did she get close enough? Everyone’s yelling, he can’t get loose, she’s trapped his hands. He stomps one heel against the floor at a particular angle; a knife blade pops out of the sole of his dress shoe, facing to his rear. He kicks backwards, feels the blade connect with her leg. Flek screams in his ear, but her grip doesn’t slacken.
Juno’s almost free of Dominik when Marat slashes at his face. Juno kicks him in the stomach, sending him flailing backwards onto his ass. Juno stands. His face is bleeding a little, but he’s alright. Marat gasps for breath. Juno prowls towards him, dress swirling. He pops his glass eye out of the socket, slipping it into his pocket, and Marat half-spits, half-chuckles “No fair, we match.” The back of Peter’s thoughts realizes Juno would have been blinded entirely if Dominik had slashed at his other eye, the real one.
Someone—he belatedly recognizes Nadezhda’s voice—yells something at Hedy Flek. She falters, distracted, and it’s all the opening Peter needs. He pulls free, twists her to a different angle. She falls limply from his grip, hit by a stun bolt from Agent Wire. Peter and Wire make eye contact across the room and give each other a nod. He looks towards the back of the room.
Tzeitel and Nadezhda are tangled up, each trying to protect the other. Thorbjorn Willems, standing to their side, surveys the room. Hedy flat on her face, limp. Marat struggling against Juno, losing. He turns to Nadezhda, calls her something Peter will later be too delicate of sensibility to repeat even to the Dark Matters record, and punches her in the face so hard she falls to the floor. Tzeitel screams in his face, pulls the knife Peter gave her from her hair, and stabs him in the ribs. He spits in her direction, turns tail, and makes for an exit sign.
Peter bolts after him, feeling the heat of righteous anger in his chest.
Dominik has stopped struggling with Juno, staring at Nadezhda with his eye saucer-wide. “Excuse me,” Dominik says, suddenly polite, “but would you be able to arrest me? I…I think I should be arrested now.”
Juno ensures the young women will be fine, and helps Agent Wire handcuff Marat and Flek. Dominik’s babbling now. “I didn’t think—he punched Nadezhda, I didn’t think he’d actually hurt anyone! Well. Not anyone I knew. It was going to be easy, you know? We’d get that gold-digger brat under our thumb so that when Hedy got into town, Jepsen would fix the timing issue, and we wouldn’t have a repeat of the Coober Pedy IV incident. That was a disaster, we can’t risk having to send someone in to deal with an improperly exploded bomb again, that’d just be gauche.”
“What’s your connection to the Cane Toad Gang?” Juno prods.
“Oh, they don’t really exist. They’re basically a whatchamacallit, a shell company. But you know. Criminal. I think they were Efe’s thing, really, but Thorbjorn definitely does stuff with it. They’re run out of the basement of Viola’s Crab Shack. Why?”
“Sasha, where’s Rita?”
“At that seafood restaurant. Why?”
“I think Thorbjorn’s headed there, unless Peter caught him—shit, no Peter just came back in.”
Peter runs to Juno, grabs his arm. “Where are Tzeitel and the princess?”
Gone. They’re—gone. “I—I was keeping an eye on them! I brought Tzeitel an ice pack for Nadezhda’s head! They were just here.”
Sasha frowns. “Go. I’ll make sure Rita’s safe.”
He can hear her yelling for security guards to watch her prisoners as he and Peter sprint away.
They find Tzeitel in the narrow, cobbled back street the cast door opens onto. She’s holding her shoes in one hand and a handkerchief in the other, seemingly insensate to the light rain.
“I was just about to come and find you,” she says. “Sorry we stepped out, there were just too many people to have a conversation. Nadezhda went to pack a suitcase, and I’m going to Hotel Cabbage Luxe, and then we’re taking the first shuttle to Mars. Thank fuck this is all over.”
“Thorbjorn escaped,” Juno tells her, and her face collapses.
“Oh. Oh, no wonder you look so frightened, I saw you go after him and just assumed…”
“Yeah,” Peter agrees bitterly.
Juno squeezes his hand briefly. “We’re going to walk with you. Try to get your girlfriend on her comm, make sure she’s safe.” Peter puts an arm around Tzeitel’s shaking shoulders, and Juno walks on her other side. He tries and fails to get Rita to pick up her comm, and finally texts Alessandra to try the crab place if she wants to finish off her case (and say hi to Rita). It’ll have to be enough; he can’t get to Rita fast enough to help, and he doesn’t feel safe leaving Tzeitel and Peter unsupported. If Nadezhda reports her location, one of them will go to her, but in the meantime, this is the best place for him to be.
They talked about going directly to the spaceport, but it was a non-starter; Tzeitel’s passport is in her room. The luggage isn’t a problem; the hotel can send it after them, for a fee. Juno stays with her while she changes into street clothes and gathers her essentials. Peter rejoins them shortly with the go-bag from their own room.
Tzeitel’s anxious, upset that Nadezhda hasn’t let her know she’s safe. Juno’s been trying to calm her down by asking questions.
“We got home from the racetrack yesterday, and she just. Pulled me into her bedroom and started sobbing. They’ve been hurting and manipulating her, too, for her money. I think it was Thorbjorn’s idea, since he knew her through Dominik. She broke down, saying she’d been so selfish, she should’ve ended things with me as soon as it got bad—which makes no sense, I was already in danger—and she wanted me to leave for home and let her take the fall. Which, of course, I was not going to do. Ugh, fucking Dominik. He was her best friend for years, how could he—whatever.”
“He surrendered. When she got hurt tonight.”
“Hmph. I’m not terribly impressed.”
Juno laughs. “No. He can rot.”
They’re ready, now, walking briskly to the elevators. Peter’s antsy, his handsome face slightly taut. Juno understands the feeling; there’s boss level music playing in the back of his mind. Tzeitel presses the down button and nothing happens. They wait. She tries again.
Beep. “We’re sorry, this elevator is out of operation. We apologize for the inconvenience. If you would like to request a service status update, please call…”
They’ve turned for the stairs, and Juno knows they’re all tempted to run. Tzeitel almost does, but Peter stops her with a brisk shake of his head. “We might need to save our energy to run later.”
They start down. Juno’s making sure the door shuts behind them—and there’s Thorbjorn Willems, sauntering coolly towards them, a machete in his hand.
“Run!” he calls to Peter and Tzeitel, and they do. Juno waits on the first landing. Thorbjorn enters the stairwell. Juno shoots. It hits Willems squarely in the chest; he must have put on a protective vest under his coat, because he’s barely imbalanced. He’s moving stiffly and erratically, though; Juno suspects Tzeitel’s knife did him crucial damage. Juno aims for another shot, but he can see Thorbjorn’s arm coiling back, preparing to throw the machete at Juno. He ducks instead, rolling his body out of the line of greatest danger and down to the next landing.
He can’t turn his back on Thorbjorn, which makes it harder to run down stairs. Thorbjorn, undeterred, parkour vaults over the railing and down a story, so that he’s now between Juno and where he wants to be, with Peter and Tzeitel below. Willems rushes up at him, dodging another two blaster bolts. He grabs Juno, slams him against the wall. Juno kicks, bites, reverses their positions. The assassin slams him against the stair rail. Fuck. The impact of Juno’s still needle-toxin weak arm against the metal jolts him, sending the blaster spinning down to the first floor below. Juno slumps, trying to gain advantage by forcing a change in their positions. It sort of works. Juno’s able to push himself against Willems’ legs, sending the man tumbling down another landing.
Juno chases, frantic to get the machete into his own hand. Thorbjorn is standing; Juno swings a punch, ducks under a swing of the blade, blocks another stroke by hitting his forearm against Thorbjorn’s. He glances beyond, through the stair rail, just for a moment, and sees all he needs. They’re just barely above the level of the first floor. He pivots so that his back is against the brick, prompting Willems to twist to face him, and then Juno crouches, trying to make himself as small as possible. Tzeitel Jepsen shoots Thorbjorn Willems in the head.
Juno rushes to her. She’s shaking. He takes the blaster away from her gently. Peter’s been overriding the electronically locked door. “Circuits—” she pants “—not my strong suit. I feel dumb, that should’ve been the other way around. I’ve never killed anyone before. What—do I need to go to the police now, instead?” She looks stricken.
Juno and Peter exchange a look. “Sasha will take care of it,” they reply in unison.
Chapter 9: Meanwhile, back at the crab shack
Rita feels amazing. She’s gotten through nine of the ten hard drives in the basement lair of Viola’s Crab Shack, a subsidiary (she has learned) of Marat Enterprises, a recent hostile acquisition of the Cane Toad LLC, a shell company owned by the Grenouille Family Trust. And it’s the Grenouille Family Trust who control the bank account to which the bounty for killing an entire town on Coober Pedy IV was transferred. She hums happily to herself. There are a few bits in here she doesn’t understand, but she’s confident that someone will. Juno and Sasha are both going to be thrilled, there are so many criminals getting busted with what she’s found tonight.
Oh. Someone’s here. Rita picks up her baseball bat (her second-best, she’d never risk losing her best one on vacation!), and strides into the adjoining room. There’s a small young woman in a sweatshirt, board shorts, and flip-flops, the kind of clothes you can buy at tourist stands. She’s got dark hair and a vaguely familiar face. “Uh, hi!” she says to Rita. “Um. Do you work for Hedy?”
Rita considers whether it’d be better to ask questions first or take her down. She’s such a little thing, Rita doesn’t think she seems terribly dangerous. Which makes her even more suspicious, she has seen streams in her life! “Depends on who’s asking.”
“My name is Tzeitel Jepsen,” she replies, which Rita knows ain’t true. She saw the photos, that girl’s almost a foot taller and much frecklier, and their hair types are completely different.
“Oh? And what’d you come by for today?” Rita’s going into her customer service voice, which is really pretty much the same as her usual voice, since she doesn’t honestly find talking to the public difficult at all, but she does make sure to put her most cheerful foot forward when she’s working, since you never know what a stranger might be going through at any given time, so it’s different from when you’re with your friends and can just be honest with each other.
“Oh. I thought you knew I was coming. I am supposed to redesign the timing device on the seed thing?”
“The seed thing? Oh! The CEDE bomb?”
“Yes. They said I am to work on it, and then Hedy will tell me what will happen next…?” She twists her fingers together, half going on her toes in a nervous, hopeful gesture. She has a very precise, formal speech pattern, and a low voice. If she had come into Mister Steel’s office, Rita would have taken down the gingersnaps and told her not to worry, Mister Steel is the best in the business! But she’s here, in a shady-ass basement, pretending to be someone she’s not. Rita decides to find out what she’s up to.
“Oh, sure! The working models are uhhhh over here.” Sasha identified them earlier, slapped a sticky note onto the shelf to make sure her colleagues know where to look when they come to go through the space. It’s an open-sided metal shelf; there’s probably a couple dozen bombs, cushioned carefully in cardboard boxes. Each is a glass orb, kinda like Rita’s terrariums at home, but with a little gasketed door, and some kind of timer.
“Are any of them live?” the girl asks, which is a fair question.
“The ones I’ve seen ain’t. I think Ms. Flek or whoever fills them in the little lab through that door,”—she indicates the third and final room in the lair, if you don’t count the bathroom which maybe she should, it’s an important asset—"there’s a chemical hood and everything. I’m like ninety-nine percent sure these are all empty. I know they’re supposed to be. Ms. Flek said they were when she brought them in this morning.” There was a memo to this effect on a whiteboard over a row of plywood cupboards.
The girl carefully unpacks one on the probably-originally-a-dining-table in the center of the room. “Huh.”
Rita leans over it with her, intrigued. “What are you looking for?”
The girl hesitates. “I don’t really know how to put it. I do apologize. Flaws? Eccentricities? Whatever is the source of the unreliability, I suppose.”
“Right. Need anything?” Like to give Rita an opportunity to grab her comm and tell Sasha she’s got a Situation on her hands?
“A glass of water would be lovely, thank you.”
Rita takes a glass to the sink in the little bathroom. Well, that clinches it, definitely important enough to count it as a fourth room.
And there is a horrible smashing sound from the main room.
Rita skids back in to find the girl has pushed over the shelving unit, and is now giving each box a solid additional smashing with one of the room’s institutional metal folding chairs. She looks up at Rita.
“That was really stupid,” Rita gasps. “What if I was wrong? What about the one percent chance one of those was prepped to release a hostile atmosphere into the dome? We’d all have been toast.”
“I will not risk them being used.” She’s got a document tube under her arm, Rita realizes.
“Ooh! Did you grab the blueprint? That was smart, at least you can burn that. I think there might be a copy on one of the hard drives; I didn’t look at everything, but if it’s there, it’ll end up uploaded to the Dark Matters cloud in just a few minutes.”
“Yeah! Sorry. I wasn’t sure you weren’t up to no good. You were doing awfully well, by the way, but you should’ve waited for a better opportunity to get me out of the way. You didn’t even try to lock me in the bathroom! Here’s your water, by the way. Sorry some of it spilled. They’ve got some beer in the fridge, too, and some dusty teabags somewhere. Oh! And my name’s Rita!”
The girl puts the chair down and accepts the water cautiously. “Mine is Nadezhda.”
“So,” Agent Wire asks, about twenty minutes later, “you sent your girlfriend to make a break for it, and then you came here to bust what was left of the lair. You’d been here before?”
“Yes, once. Shortly after Tzeitel came to stay with me, Dominik brought me here. They wanted to convince me to invest. I—have a lab of my own, under the level. But the only illegal thing we do is counterfeit overpriced drugs, to make generics accessible. Why would I ever want to invest in eco-weapons? And then the situation became what Tzeitel called ‘all horror movie.’ Damn, we were both so frightened. We didn’t even talk to each other about it until last night, so we each thought we were suffering alone. Someone at a party slipped me a note that asked me if I loved her. Probably looking for a gossip story, but all I could think of was what a coward I was being. So fucking what if they killed me, I needed her safe. But she told me they’d threatened her family. I just. I couldn’t leave the planet without making sure this place was not available to anyone else involved.”
“That’s a good point,” Agent Wire says, looking over at Rita. She looks different without her sunglasses. Softer. Rita likes it. “You didn’t encounter any guards or goons or what-have-you after I left you to your hacking, right?”
“Oh!” Rita jumps slightly. “Oh, they’re all tied up in the lab. What? Why are you looking at me like that?”
Agent Wire looks into the lab. Nadezhda’s mouth is hanging open, which really is a testament to how deeply discomposed she is; the woman is royalty.
“Rita! Are you serious?! There’s six people in here!” Rita isn’t sure what the big deal is. None of them were terribly difficult.
“Hey! Rita? Are you in here?” Whose voice is that? Rita knows her, but…
The woman’s boots come into view, followed quickly by the rest of her. It’s Alessandra Strong looking stunning in crop top, with a large, handsome stranger in a brown jacket.
“What the hell is going on here?” She looks over at Sasha, in her black-on-black uniform. “Rita, please don’t tell me Dark Matters is working this case too.”
“Nice to see you again too, Detective Strong!” Really, this is making Rita want to throw a party at her new apartment; it’d be a great excuse to see a lot of her favorite people for the first time in just too long.
“Right,” Sasha Wire is saying behind her, “if you folks want to live, you’re going to name every single person in your operation. And if you’ve got any sort of contingency plans, to kill this person, or set off that chain reaction—I revoke all promises, so you might as well tell me how to call them off. Nod if you understand me.”
Chapter 10: You'll see that I stayed
Tzeitel and Nadezhda cried on the comm with each other, and again when they hugged in the spaceport. Rita, Alessandra, and Brown Jacket stayed with the princess while Peter and Juno changed out of their formalwear and retrieved everyone’s luggage, the bad guys put to rights and all haste dissolved. Sasha obtained back-up; she and the other agents escorted more than half a dozen criminals to Dark Matters HQ before returning home to Hyperion City.
They’re all home, now, only one thing left to do. Peter, Juno, and Nadezhda wait patiently while Buddy and Vespa hug Tzeitel and cry; and then Peter and Juno wait patiently while they hug Tzeitel and Nadezhda and cry; and then they let themselves be pulled into the hug as well.
“This isn’t the outcome I was expecting,” Vespa admits, when they’re all calmer, drinking coffee. “I kinda thought you were the ringleader.” She indicates Nadezhda with an incline of her head. “Glad you weren’t, considering.” Nadezhda huffs a shy half-laugh.
Buddy puts an arm around her wife. “What was the story, exactly? Do you know what the grand plan was?”
Peter takes a slow, deep breath, and explains. He starts with Brahma, with the Grenouille family. He talks about the children, grown bitter and ingenious. He talks about how they pulled more people into their plans, including a money-hungry boyfriend who declined to protect his oldest and closest friend, and threw her own lover to the wolves. He tells them about a half-botched test run that still killed hundreds of people and made the remaining Grenouille Clan an exorbitant bounty in the end. He tells them about pain, and fear, and threats. How they should all be safe now; the grudge has been, mm, contained, as it were. And he tells them about a princess willing to die to protect her sweetheart—more than once.
“So, I suppose, in the long run, we can lay the blame on—” Juno is giving him a look; Peter smiles back. It’s alright. He isn’t thinking of himself. “Saxon Grenouille, for breaking my fucking arm.”
Buddy claps; Vespa cackles. “We thought you’d never stop blaming yourself for that, little Im’ka. Look at you, all grown up.”
Peter feels a lump rise in his throat. It’s. He’s. “I’ve missed you.”
“Look at that,” Buddy says. “Juno’s brought Tzeitelke and Im’ka both home.”
Peter will never fully understand how Rita fit so many people into her apartment, but he knows he hasn’t had so much fun in a crowd in a long time. He dances with Juno. He dances with Rita. And, after a little prodding, he dances with Mick Mercury, who really is 10/10 at lifts. He manages to put Peter down on his own feet with only a little extra guidance.
He meets Rita’s friend Franny. He meets Alessandra Strong’s wife. He meets the person who makes the chocolate pie Rita brought to Monte Clarice in a hatbox.
He gets a little drunk, discovers that he really likes to rest his head on Juno’s shoulder when he does. He fields several questions about their marital status with far more grace than usual. And, eventually, he pulls Juno onto the quiet, empty balcony and kisses him. Juno’s so nice and warm against him. It’s nice to see him in fancy dresses from time to time, but he looks even more beautiful in a raspberry-colored jean jacket, because it’s him, leaving not even a symbolic agenda between Peter and the warmth of his love’s skin.
“I’m glad that case is over,” he confides drunkenly. “It made me way too emotional.”
“I noticed.” Juno kisses his temple soothingly. “We can talk about it whenever you’re ready.”
“Later. Wait. You’re making a face.”
“I’m not making a face, I’m making a mental note.” Peter pouts. “Just something I wanna ask you later, put your lip back.” He presses playfully on Peter’s lower lip, giggling.
“Ask me now, I don’t wanna have to anticipate it,” Peter whines.
“Just that creepy song about birds and sunbeams Thorbjorn and Efe kept making references to. I wondered if it was a Brahmanian thing.”
“Wait, ‘Birdie & Sunbeam’? Yeah, it’s a. Not a lullaby, like for babies? Something you sing to a sleepy lover, usually. I guess they thought it was ‘poetic’ to turn sinister, like hurting Tzeitel was ‘poetic.’ It was Buddy and Vespa’s thing, you know? Their song. Vogel and Aurinko, ‘bird’ and ‘sun,’ you see? It’s a pretty song, I like it.”
“Mm. Maybe you can sing it for me sometime, so I can hear a version that’s not creepy.” Peter’s heart swells.
“I love you,” he reminds Juno.
“I love you too,” Juno says back, so Peter kisses him again.
“I want to be with you forever.”
Juno holds him, gently pats his back. “That works for me.”
“I’d marry you, if you wanted.”
There is a pause. “Did you say it that way because you think I don’t? Because I kind of assumed you wouldn’t…”
“What? No. I would. If you do. Do you want to marry me?” Peter knows he’s drunk, but he thinks even if he wasn’t, it would feel this important, like the stars will go out and the air turn to ash otherwise, for Juno to know he’s his for the asking. “I’m yours already, I’ll be yours however you want me.”
Juno Steel gives him a long, thoughtful look. “No. No, I won’t marry you. I don’t want anyone’s name on a marriage certificate with mine except for yours.” He frames Peter’s face in his cool hands and whispers directly into his ear. “Peter Nureyev.” Peter shivers. “And I won’t let you put that name to an official document. No, I won’t let you offer. Not even sober. Promise me you won’t, because I don’t want to be tempted to accept. I-I couldn’t bear endangering you for something as trivial as-as a wedding. The government can keep their noses out of our hearts, Peter.”
Peter kisses Juno yet again, slides out of his gentle hands, and kneels. “Juno Steel, I do solemnly vow and swear never to ask you to marry me, as long as I do live. And I’ll stay by your side in unwedded bliss, for as long as you shall have me.”
Juno looks down at Peter on the floor, cupping Peter’s cheek in his hand for a fourth time in the span of a week. “Oh. Good. I think that’s going to be forever. But you said you’re okay with that, so.” He almost hiccups, smiling gleefully. “This is going to be a roller coaster. I’m so happy.”
And Peter kisses him and kisses him and kisses him.