Actions

Work Header

The Journey of a Thousand Miles

Chapter Text

On Wednesday, Jupiter returns to Earth - to Chicago.

It’s déjà vu, coming back to Uncle Vassily’s house with an Aegis cruiser cloaked at the end of the block. Last time she walked down this street, the damage to the roof was obvious, a massive hole blown through by an antigravity beam from one of Balem’s ships. Then, Jupiter didn’t even bother changing back into her old Earth clothes before she and the crew stormed through the front door.

This time, the roof looks just fine.

Little grey men, swarming all over the city, seeking out alien intrusions to cover up. They found her house. It occurs to Jupiter that those little grey men work for her now. Or do they belong to her? Are they slaves or employees? Do they have a union to negotiate decent employment conditions?

A few days ago when she woke up at the top of the Willis Tower and realized her pointy-eared abductor had changed her clothes while she was unconscious, she’d told him, “I can’t think about that right now.” Yeah … those little grey men she may or may not employ, swarming all over her planet, repairing alien damage and wiping peoples’ memories – she can’t think about them right now. Later, but not quite yet.

Jupiter asks Captain Tsing for the simplest clothes she has onboard, which turn out to be a crewel-worked black tank-top and pants that vaguely resemble jeans. Caine shadows her all the way down the street, only stopping when she waves him back, a few doors from home.

Inside the house, everything is almost normal. The couch is a foot to the left, the mismatched dining chairs each in the wrong spot at the table, but no one else seems to notice. They’re all too busy staring at each other in bafflement, everyone wondering why the others aren’t at work at noon on a weekday.

“Jupiter!” her mother exclaims when she walks in the door, “where have you been?”

Jupiter doesn’t have an answer. She should have come up with a strategy for this inevitable moment, but she was so desperate to hug her mother again (her conscious mother, not the mother who was knocked out on a gurney in a spaceship), she came barreling home as soon as they told her it was safe.

Jupiter’s mouth moves silently, and then tears well in her eyes and spill over her cheeks and she’s sobbing. Crying about the fact that she can’t tell her family the truth, crying about the sheer lunacy of her life during the last few days, crying about the cuts and bruises she can’t feel anymore because the med-tech healed them with RegeneX before she could object. She cries because this entire insane experience has turned her brittle, like glass, and if she gets bumped one more time, she might shatter.

“My Jupiter, come here!” Aleksa cries along with her, folding her into an embrace, and they sit together on the couch until all the tears are gone.

In retrospect, Jupiter realizes that moment was probably what prompted her family to buy the telescope.

 

~~~~~

 

On Wednesday night, when she’s washing dishes after supper, Jupiter catches sight of Caine lurking outside the kitchen window, to the side of the house. She dries her hands and calls out to no one in particular that she’s taking out the trash.

The minute she steps out the back door, hair in a sloppy ponytail and plastic bag in hand, Caine grins.

It’s like someone put a brand to her breastbone, the way heat suffuses through her chest.

“Is everything … good?” he asks, glancing at the house behind her. “Is it like you wanted it to be, coming home?”

She absently swings the half-empty trash bag, trying to figure out how to articulate her feelings. He plucks it from her and deposits it into the can, gentle and domestic as can be. 

“It’s normal. Normal is good. I need normal right now.” Only after she finishes saying them does she realize how he might take her words. She can’t read his expression, he’s just staring at her with those big eyes and his mouth in a noncommittal flat line. She flaps her hands helplessly. “I mean – I’m so, so happy about the new, not-normal parts of my life, too. I’m just glad things aren’t exploding at the moment, y’know?”

His expression doesn’t change. “I’ve some things to take care of off-world,” he says. “It’ll just be a few days. Captain Tsing filed your Legion guard assignment sheave with the Commonwealth Ministry, like you asked. She’s gotten permission to stay on Earth for a while, until the assignment comes through.”

Until I come back, he doesn’t say.

He’s studying her face like it’s covered in foreign writing. God, she just wants him to smile again. “Is that … is that all right, your majesty?”

“You don’t have to ask my permission leave Earth, Caine,” she replies, shoving her hands in the back pocket of her jeans, elbows akimbo. She sucks cool night air deep into her lungs, trying to stifle that fire in her chest. “You’ve got your pardon, you’re back in the Skyjackers, I’m not your CO. I’m grateful to have Captain Tsing here, that’s fine.”

“Jupiter.” The word is soft, hardly a breath. He breaks eye contact, staring at the ground. “I won’t be gone long. Even with the pardon, it’ll take a while for the Legion and the Skyjacker division to get my paperwork sorted out. I won’t have an assignment for at least a few weeks.”

“Good.” It comes out so fast, that word. It finally earns her another grin.

Jupiter thinks she has it figured out: the Aegis are space-cops, the Legion are space-army, and the Skyjackers are like SEAL Team Six. What are the odds the Commonwealth would put a valuable asset like Caine on assignment to babysit a newly-minted royal recurrence?

Zero to none, she figures.

She wouldn’t ask Caine not to join the Skyjackers again. He’s wanted it since they met – it’s why they met. She can’t ask him to stay here on this little backwater planet with her. She can’t ask him to walk with her through the labyrinthine process of figuring out whether or not she wants to step into Seraphi Abrasax’s world. This is her journey, not his. He has his own plans, his own path. He’s earned the right to walk it, just like she has.  

Before that train of thought goes any further, Caine moves around the trash can, coming to stand so close she can bask in the heat radiating off him. When she’d embraced Stinger on the Aegis cruiser, he’d felt cooler than a normal human, and a small part in the back of her brain wonders if it has to do with what sort of creatures go into the splice – mammals being warmer, insects cooler, would a snake-splice be completely cold-blooded? What’s a healthy dog’s average body temperature?

Jupiter’s concentration is a mess, her thoughts leaping from one bit of nonsense to another. Post-traumatic stress, maybe. The close proximity of her large, impressive wolf-man, definitely.

Caine doesn’t reach out for her, she’s the one who closes the distance, rocking up onto her toes to press her mouth to his. This is only the second time – she’d been in shock after he saved her from the wreck of Balem's harvesting facility on Jupiter, he’d held her until she stopped shaking and stayed with her while the med-techs mind-wiped her family and deposited them back home. There hadn’t been time for kissing, and definitely not time for talking about anything important between them, not then.

He folds her into his arms before she can pull her hands out of her own pockets, and her mouth opens as she reaches for the back of his head, pulling him down further. A small noise comes from his throat and his lips open, too, tongue warm and eager against hers. In spite of the wild butterflies in her stomach, the kiss is slow and easy. It’s amazing, so different than the frantic kiss she stole last time. She licks his sharp teeth and he shudders, leaning deeper in, so she’s practically bent backward. Her hips arch, seeking friction, and he makes that noise again.

A burst of shouting, in Russian, erupts from inside the house. There’s a very distinct “Juuuupiterrrrrr!” and a crashing noise.

Caine’s entire body tenses and he pulls up and away, staring at the nearby window like he expects a dozen of those dinosaur-dragon things to come stomping out.

“Hey. Hey, it’s okay.” Jupiter caresses the back of his neck, trying to soothe him. The bumps of his brand slide beneath the pads of her fingers, and she feels a little lightheaded. She knows what that brand says, what it means, even if he doesn’t seem to. He doesn’t even notice her touch, his attention riveted to their surroundings, searching for danger. She sighs. “It’s my night to do dishes, I should go back inside before they think I’ve run off again.”

Caine finally glances at her, his palms flexing against her spine. Part of her wants him to ask her to come back to the ship with him, maybe even to go on whatever off-world errand he needs to run. She'd say no -- she can't leave her family again so soon -- but she wants him to ask anyway.

He doesn't.

Hand coming around to his face, she strokes her thumb along the line of his jaw. “Fine, if you’re going, then at least promise you’ll bring me a pair of gravity boots when you come back. I want to learn to fly.”

His smile is like a burst of sunshine, his attention fully riveted to her again. She likes the weight of it, how all-consuming that focus is. “You do?”

“You never know, someday I might need to catch you when  you’re falling, for a change. I like to be prepared.”

The laugh is hardly audible, it’s so low and deep in his chest. “I promise, your majesty.” He leans down again and she closes her eyes, lips parted, but he only deposits a soft kiss on her cheek before he pads silently into the night.

Chapter Text

On Thursday and Friday, Jupiter makes coffee for her mother and Nino. She goes to their scheduled cleaning jobs, and for a few hours she loses herself in the process of changing bedsheets and polishing silver and scrubbing toilets. Those tasks used to be tedious, but now her ability to improve and transform things – even such little things – is so much more engaging than any of the other baubles that used to sparkle and distract her in the houses of Chicago’s elite. Every glittering piece of designer clothing and jewelry is duller now, compared to the wondrous terrors waiting beyond the blue sky.

She argues with Vladie about his ugly big-screen tv, and life feels blessedly predictable. She can almost pretend that the last few days were a wild fever-dream, except for the holographic signet tattooed on her forearm and the electronic sheaves hidden under her mattress.

She sleeps in Uncle Vassily’s basement with her mother and aunt, she eats with her incessantly squabbling family, and she is so much quieter than usual, because she feels like she’s finally seeing everyone and everything for the first time. She needs to soak it in, to fill herself up.

The sensation of brittleness – the fear of breaking – it begins to fade.

 

~~~~~

 

On Friday evening, Nino pulls Jupiter aside to clip coupons. Side by side at the dining table, scissors in hand, they dive into a pile of newspapers.

As she slices paper, cutting precise squares along neatly-divided columns, Jupiter wonders about the likelihood of Titus, or some other Entitled, swooping in to execute a hostile corporate takeover of Earth. She keeps hearing Balem’s voice, telling her she ought to seal the sheave and acknowledge her genetic unsuitability to rule. What the hell does “genetic unsuitability” even mean? Her genes were identical to Seraphi Abrasax. How could Jupiter be genetically unsuitable for handling anything Seraphi had overseen in her hundred millennium reign?

Jupiter would work herself up into a proper lather about it, too, if she wasn’t also worried about Caine. She misses him. A lot. It’s not just about feeling safe – she trusts Captain Tsing and the rest of her crew. Having them nearby is enough.

But she keeps thinking about the day she and Caine spent waiting in line, at the Commonwealth Ministry on Orous, claiming her royal title. He could have stayed aboard the Aegis cruiser with the rest of the crew, left her to trail around after Advocate Bob alone. Instead, he followed her off the spaceship, into the belly of the bureaucratic beast.

The moment they entered the massive, chaotic government complex, Jupiter was perched on the verge of a panic attack. She fidgeted and bounced on her toes. Caine watched a while, before finally offering to keep her place in line if she needed to use the bathroom.

(He might've used the phrase “royal bowels” again too, oh god, if she never hears those words again it will be too soon.)

In reply, Jupiter let loose the floodgates of her anxiety, blurted out in a whisper so no one else could hear. Every time she had to go through an identity check on Earth, in the U.S., she was a nervous wreck. Her social security number had been purchased when she was a baby, her birth certificate falsified. Registering for school was like waiting for an axe to drop, for the immigration authorities to knock on Vassily's door. Looking for a job outside her family's cleaning business was out of the question, because there would probably be background checks involved, and Jupiter can't risk that sort of exposure, for herself or her family.

The identity verification process on Orous was a thousand times more terrifying than any she’d been subjected to on her home planet.

At that point, thirty minutes into the first line on Orous, Caine decided his mission was to distract Jupiter. He pointed out various splices, and he taught her the names and home planets of various alien species. He told her about the bureaucratic paperwork nightmare he dealt with in the Legion. He told her about one Legion assignment to track a kidnapped Entitled newborn, and that incident ended with five hundred pages of reports, submitted in triplicate to various commanders and parliamentary committees. On the rare occasion his gravity boots malfunctioned, he needed five different superiors’ authorization seals on a repair order before he could step foot in the mechanic’s door.

I'll be back in a few days, Caine said, before he left. A few is two, right? Maybe three? Is he in an administrative building on Orous right now, waiting in a line to submit paperwork for a Legion assignment to the other side of the galaxy?

Nino nudges Jupiter's shoulder. “You’re a million miles away, and judging by the expression on your face, the view is terrible,” she says in Russian. “What’s wrong? Is it what happened after you went to the fertility clinic? Where did you go, for those many days?”

Jupiter can’t lie to Nino. She’s been a surrogate parent since the very moment of Jupiter’s birth, an aunt standing in the gap for the father she never knew. Aleksa might have known about the boys Jupiter liked at school and taught her how to knee them in the balls, but Nino was the one who showed her what a condom was and told her she needed to insist on using them. 

“I left the city,” Jupiter says. She glances toward the living room, where Vassily is watching television with his wife and daughter. “Just got out of town. I needed to put the final touches on my plan to kill Vladie.”

Nino snorts. “I will help you bury the body.”

“I’m counting on it,” she replies, flashing a smile.

“I have been watching the sky, Jupiter, and important planetary alignments are happening. Mars and Venus, both in the house of Aries. This means a shift in confidence and affection.” Nino pauses, her face growing solemn. “The signs were the same on the day your father died, and you see how they changed your mother. Do not let yourself grow bitter over what Vladie did, asking you to sell your eggs. Don’t let it change what you know about yourself.”

Jupiter exhales and leans her head on Nino’s shoulder. “Thank you, Nino.”

 

~~~~~

 

On Saturday morning, Jupiter stands in the dairy aisle at the grocery store, trying to decide between plain and strawberry yogurt. The coupon says plain, two for $1.50. The strawberry is an extra twenty cents.

Who in their right mind would eat plain when strawberry exists?

She’s mid-stretch, reaching for the flavored yogurt on the top shelf, when a clicking noise comes from the adjacent aisle. It’s seared into the depths of her memory, that noise, because she first heard it in Katharine Dunlevy’s apartment, and again in the fertility clinic exam room.

Whirling to face the sound, bringing her little red shopping basket up in front of her body like a shield, she bites off a scream. Sure enough, four little grey men are skittering down the fluorescent-lit vinyl tiles, directly toward her. They move like insects, knees bent backward and arms touching the ground on occasion to steady themselves. Their expressionless black eyes fixate on her, and pointed teeth peek between thin dry lips.

“No!”

The word is loud, forceful. Jupiter is surprised to realize it came from her own mouth. She surprises the grey men, too; they draw up short and pull onto hind legs.

“Keepers! Isn’t that what you are? Well, stop! All of you, right there!” Jupiter brandishes the red plastic basket at them menacingly, swinging it back and forth. A bag of chips plops out, followed by a messier jar of mayonnaise. The shattering glass sounds like a gunshot.

The foremost Keeper tilts its head, membranes flickering across its almond-shaped black eyes, and waves its hand. It’s holding something. Not one of those binder gadgets they’d used to immobilize her in the fertility clinic, not the little medical gun they used to test her DNA. This thing looks remarkably similar to the holographic guidebook sheaves she’d gotten on Orous, when she claimed her royal title.

They’re offering her a book?

That’s … weird.

The foremost Keeper makes a series of trilling noises, interspersed with clicks. She’d swear it was asking her a question.

It’s Jupiter’s turn to tilt her head in puzzlement, her shopping basket lowering a fraction.

“Jupiter, get down!”

Her reaction to that voice – Caine’s voice – is instinctive. Her body hunches low, hands covering her head. A stream of deafening bolts of light fly past her head, thwoof-thwoof.

The Keepers panic and scramble. Lasers slice through shelves of milk. Some of the liquid boils right into the air, the rest sprays all over the floor, like malfunctioning, dairy-filled lawn sprinklers.

Before she can think past her initial physiological response, Caine is there. He hovers in front of her protectively – literally hovering, gravity boots humming quieter than the refrigeration units around them. Everything happened so fast, Jupiter has no idea which direction he even came from.

“Stop!” she shouts, grabbing his shoulder just as he fires off another round. His arm goes sideways, the shot hits a row of biscuit cans. Pressurized dough explodes across the floor with a series of pops and squelches. The Keeper he was aiming for skitters over the top of the dairy cases, disappearing.

“But your majesty, they were –”

“Trying to give me something,” Jupiter cuts him off. She can only see his face in profile, but his eyebrows are knitted down in baffled concern. “That’s all. Just trying to give me this.”

There’s one Keeper still attached to the ceiling, watching warily. Never taking her eye off it, Jupiter steps around Caine. Hands out and low in a gesture of peace, she sloshes through puddles of milk to get to the sheave on the floor. She picks it up and lifts it toward the Keeper.

“Got it. Thank you,” she says.

It chitters and clicks, face moving side to side as it surveys the spurting cartons of creamer on the shelves and the lake of dairy coating the floor. Jupiter would swear it sighs, little slim shoulders lifting and lowering in tired defeat, before it crawls across the ceiling and out of sight

Oh god, is it upset about the mess?

Of course it is. It’s going to have to clean up, and probably mind-wipe the half-dozen other customers doing their weekend shopping, to boot.

Caine is still staring after the Keeper in confusion, his mauler pointed at nothing in particular. Jupiter grabs his elbow and hauls him backward, until he turns around and falls in beside her. Milk squelches underfoot all the way into the frozen food section.

“I’m sorry, majesty,” he mutters, glancing at her sideways. His freckled cheeks are pink as he holsters his mauler. “As soon as my transport landed I went to your house, and then followed your scent here." He takes a deep breath. "I thought they were – you were –”

Jupiter grabs his hand, not looking at him yet. Her fingers lace with his and she squeezes. He ducks his head and shuts up.

She waits until they’re outside, in the sunlit parking lot, before she throws her arms around him. It’s a warm summer day and he’s wearing a thick new coat, made out of some sort of engineered leather. He smells like soap, and a lingering trace of ozone from the weapons fire in the store.

“Welcome back,” she says.

He makes a noise, like he wants to say something but he doesn’t know what.

“Next time, ask before you shoot. Not just with an Entitled like Titus, but with everybody, okay?”

“Yes, majesty,” he murmurs into her hair. He’s nuzzling her, his breath warm against her scalp. Her stomach fizzes like hot champagne. “No more shooting without permission. Got it.”

She pulls back far enough to see his face. “Did you miss me?”

Caine can’t look her in the eyes, his gaze downcast and his skin flushed all the way down his neck. His nod is barely perceptible. God, he's so closed-off, so careful about exposing his feelings. If this is what years of being alone has done to him, Jupiter doesn't want to imagine what will happen if he marches right back into the Legion again. He'll turn into a statue.

Well, fine. Jupiter will be the one to say the things that need to be said. She announced "I love dogs" on the day after they met, and then she asked him to bite her. She'll just keep up with the over-sharing and effusiveness, because earning blushes and kisses from him is wildly entertaining.

(She still wants him to bite her. She still really, really loves dogs.)

"Good," she says. 

He stops breathing, at that. Somehow his face gets pinker, his hands clenching lightly around her hips. "Oh," he chokes out. "Good? Good what? It's good that I missed you?"

"Yeah, I like it that you missed me," she says. "Because I missed you too."

"I missed you, and I brought your gravity boots,” he says, mouth curving into a grin. He's basking.

"Mmm, very good," Jupiter replies, biting her bottom lip. "Now I want you teach me how to fly."

Chapter Text

On Saturday afternoon, Caine takes Jupiter back to Stinger’s farm. She pops by her house first, to let her family know she’s off to visit a friend. Thankfully her mother and Nino aren’t home, which means no pesky questions like “which friend?” and “where?” and “how dare you miss our regular Saturday night bingo?” She leaves the message with Irina and hustles down the block, where Caine is waiting in a car.

Sliding into the passenger seat, she realizes it’s the same one he’d stolen a few days ago, the first time they left the city together. Jupiter pointedly surveys the interior, then arches her eyebrows at him.

“You were unhappy about me borrowing a car last time,” Caine says with a shrug. The engine clicks into gear, and he pulls out. “I figured you’d be unhappy again if I borrowed another, so I just used the same one.”

“The one with your blood all over the driver’s seat,” she says.

“I don’t know how to clean it,” he says. "Kiza said something about vinegar? I don't remember, I was in a hurry to leave this morning."

“No amount of detailing will get that out,” she laughs. “It’s very considerate of you, not bleeding out this time around.”

“I do try, majesty.”

Reaching into her purse, Jupiter grabs the sheave from the grocery store. She turns it this way and that, inspecting it. “And now for whatever this is.”

“The purple button at the bottom turns it on,” Caine says, as she fumbles with the switches. “The red button on the right toggles the language.”

“Need any pointers on driving an Earth car?” Jupiter mutters under her breath.

“This is simple tech,” he replies, reaching over to turn on the radio. David Bowie's voice drifts from the speakers, wailing about "Suffragette City."

“Showoff.”

He grins and ducks his head, eyes never leaving the road. The sheave crackles to life in Jupiter’s hand, orange text scrolling across the screen at a startling pace. It’s in a foreign script, so Jupiter thumbs the red button a few times, until English pops up.

The text is a long series of reports – incursions on Earth by profiteers, corporate rivals, petty criminals. There are at least half a dozen per day, all around the globe. Property stolen (listed by value, human stock first, everything else after), damage caused, cost to fix said damage and mind-wipe the affected portions of the populace.

It’s like a farm report, listing the number of eggs laid by each hen and the weight of each pig ready for slaughter.

“So, um. The Keepers.”

Caine turns the steering wheel, exiting the interstate, heading to smaller back roads. “Yeah?”

“You said that they were from another galaxy, and they were ‘repurposed’ to look after the Earth, right?” He nods. “Was that a voluntary process for them?”

He seems genuinely confused by her question. “It’s what they’re born to do.”

“But however many millennia ago, did they volunteer for this sort of work? Do they get a choice, now? Is there an intergalactic guidance counselor who helps them figure out what kind of job they’re most inclined toward? What if one of them wants to be a banker, instead of a planetary janitor?”

“Majesty, they are what they are. A Keeper wouldn’t ever want to be a banker, because it’s a Keeper.” He has that same calm, patient tone to his voice as the first day they met, when he explained to her that Earth wasn’t the only populated planet in the universe. These were the most simple, basic truths.

“You’re a soldier,” she says. “And you’ve never wanted to be anything else? Just like a Keeper never wants to be anything but a Keeper?”

His gaze cuts over to her again, like he’s gauging whether she’s trying to trick him. “The splicer who made me was in the business of creating military assets. It’s built into my genome, the characteristics that make a good soldier. Tracking, fighting, killing. I get pleasure from those things, because I do them well. Just like it’s a Keeper’s nature, to supervise and maintain.”

This conversation isn’t going to give Jupiter the information she needs; they’re talking crossways at each other. She’s going to have to take another tack, another time. Turning back to the sheave, she reads for a while longer, until the road gets too bumpy and she starts to get carsick.

When they pull up to the farm, a small cloud of bees descends on Jupiter in welcome. Stinger and Kiza come out the front door to meet them, too, both bowing deeply, “your majesty” falling from their lips.

“No, don’t do that, please,” she says, reaching out as though she can force them upright.

Kiza is first to rise, rushing to grasp Jupiter’s hands and press a grateful kiss to her wrists. “I can’t thank you enough, your majesty. I don’t know what to say. Your generosity –”

“You’re feeling okay?” Jupiter asks, pulling her into a hug. She looks better, the dark circles gone from under her eyes; she sounds better, the deep cough gone from her lungs.

After Jupiter escaped from Balem's refinery, and the Aegis cruiser was back at Earth for the second time, Stinger had come to see her. He fell to both knees and apologized, practically groveled, without ever trying to excuse his behavior. Caine was the one who told her about Kiza’s illness, and Stinger’s reasons for selling her out. Jupiter forgave him – she was short on allies, and Caine vouched for his contrition. She asked Captain Tsing to help her figure out how Jupiter could fund Kiza’s medical treatment, the ship’s communication officer drew up a withdrawal of funds, and Jupiter sealed the sheave for Stinger before she came home.

It didn’t occur to Jupiter until much later, when her shellshock had worn off, that Kiza would be treated with RegeneX.

“Good as new,” Kiza replies, giggling and hugging her back.

Stinger’s upright now too, and with a jolt Jupiter realizes that he’s de-aged at least thirty years. The creases and lines on his face are gone, his shoulders are broader and his waist trimmer. He looks younger than Caine, even. His hexagonal irises shimmer gold and a translucent material flutters against his back.

He’s had a genetic recode - one of those de-aging baths, like Kalique. 

He’s got bee wings.

They’re proportional to his body, oblong and marbled with veins. The sun glitters through them like opalescent yellow stained glass. They’re breathtaking, and a little bit terrifying.  

Jupiter lets go of Kiza and pulls him into a hug before she can talk herself out of it. The wings are folded against his back, and they feel smooth and solid under her hands.

“It’s good to see you again, majesty.” He lets her go.

“You look – wow. Those are amazing.”

He flares the wings up in a quick, flitting motion, showing off. Kiza snickers and rolls her eyes and excuses herself to go eat lunch.

“How did they get them implanted so fast? I thought the Commonwealth bureaucracy was always a nightmare, that it would take weeks or months,” Jupiter says.

“That sheave with the pardon from Titus had a hefty bribe embedded in it. It landed us at the top of the surgery queue.” Stinger inclines his head toward Caine.

There’s several bits of information to parse in that short answer – a bribe for the surgeon? Why would Titus do that? – but the thing that snags Jupiter’s attention first is the word “us.”

“Wait, hold on. Both of you?” Hands on her hips, she turns toward Caine.

He looks like a rabbit caught in a snare. “I thought it would be better to tell you out here instead of in the city.”

“Bloody hell, you kept them secret! What did she think you were off doing the last few days, getting your hair done?” Stinger throws his head back, laughing. “Go on flyboy, model for her majesty.”

Caine obediently sheds his heavy coat, balling up the collar in one fist. He rolls his shoulders and with a whisper of sound, two thick feathered wings unfold from his back. They were tucked in between his shoulder blades, practically unnoticeable beneath the new jacket. His wingspan is nearly twice his height, feathers brown like a hawk’s, with metal flecked across the breadth.  They move more slowly than Stinger’s bee wings, billowing instead of flitting.

“Holy cow,” Jupiter exhales.

“Those aren’t cow, they’re premium-grade raptor.” Stinger doubles over, laughing so hard he’s wheezing. 

Caine looks like he’d kick Stinger, if he was within striking distance. The wings fold down straight along his back, feathers almost sweeping the ground.

“Did they look like that, before the court martial?” Jupiter asks.

“These are newer tech, with a few upgrades. But yeah, I guess so.” He’s preening a little, shoulders back and high. She steps closer, edging around his flank. “You can touch them,” he says, before she even has to ask.

The feathers are firmer than she expects, stiff and strong. She slides her fingers through them, stroking downward. Caine’s shoulders sag a little, wings easing back into her touch.

“They’re beautiful,” she says, smoothing feathers left, then right, watching as they respond by straightening themselves out again.

“Those dodgy mammal wings might be pretty enough to suit Caine,” Stinger says, slightly winded from his laughing fit, “but they’re still slow. He can't beat me to the end of that field.”

Caine’s wings suddenly splay open wide, and Jupiter staggers back in surprise. He’s already in a crouch, pushing off into the air with a great beat of wings and gust of air. Stinger’s aloft, too, barreling the length of the yard. Swarms of bees part before him like water at the prow of a ship. Caine’s on his heels, shouting about how he was faster than Stinger during a charge of the goddamn gates on Byzantium Alpha.

Swooping fast and low, they brush the tops of the corn plants, neck-and-neck to the far end.

“Oh lord. It’s started, has it?” Kiza sidles up to Jupiter with two glasses of iced tea. She passes one over, and both women sip and observe as the race turns into an aerial dogfight, Stinger and Caine diving at each other, practically wrestling mid-air. “Dad’s had so much energy since his recode, he hasn’t put two feet on the ground since we got back this morning. I think he was a little irritated, that Caine went straight into the city and wouldn’t stay to play with him.”

“It looks like fun,” Jupiter says. In point of fact, it looks astonishing, two grown men flinging themselves around the sky with the grace and athleticism of ballet dancers. Ballet dancers who happen to be killing machines, granted, but graceful nonetheless.

“C’mon, majesty. They might be at it for hours. I know where your boots are. We can play, too.”

Kiza shows Jupiter how to work the pneumatic buckles on her gravity boots. They’re infinitely clever little machines, designed to form-fit to the wearer’s foot, wirelessly activated by a petite black glove with keys that attach via tiny gravity waves. Kiza puts on Stinger’s old Legionnaire boots, and they clomp out into the yard together.

The lesson starts out simple, with hovering. It’s a little like trying to stand on ice, keeping your core steady and knees pliant. Kiza holds Jupiter’s hand and slowly pedals differential equation slopes alongside her, from one side of the yard to another, a few inches off the ground. Jupiter had a skateboard when she was younger, and this isn’t so very different, in terms of finding her center of balance.

Before long, Jupiter’s built up enough speed to zip from the wildflower garden to the edge of the field in seconds flat. She only falls down half the time. She and Kiza are shrieking with delight, grabbing at each other’s hands and spinning as fast as they can, bees whirling dizzily around them, until Jupiter feels like her stomach is in her skull and her sides ache with laughter.

When they stop, Jupiter catches sight of Caine and Stinger leaning against the ramshackle barn, wings folded as they watch. They bend their heads together to talk, their faces happy. Bees hover lazily in the warm afternoon sunlight, and the flowers smell sweet even to Jupiter’s plain human nose.

She wants to live in this moment forever.

Caine realizes she’s spotted him, and he steps in to take over flying lessons. Stinger and Kiza leave them to it. He’s a good teacher – breaking down the process into digestible bits, ever-patient when she falls. Mostly they’re intentional, those plunges she takes mid-air, because it feels nice to be able to choose to fall, now, instead of being forced. The one time Caine doesn’t catch her, he spends the next few minutes in a panic, checking every one of her appendages for broken bones. By the time the sun disappears beyond the horizon, she’s managed to elevate high enough to crest a ten-foot stack of hay bales.

They eat dinner: salad for Kiza and Stinger, chicken for Caine, and Jupiter has a little of both.

It’s good that Jupiter doesn’t want the day to end, she wants to stretch it out forever, because Kiza is beside herself with excitement at the thought of a real, proper Entitled sleeping in her house. Caine is pleased with the idea, too, probably because he considers this location more secure than her home in downtown Chicago. Here he can be closer, to keep an eye on her.

(Caine will never be able to stay inside Vassily’s house. Even if Jupiter somehow managed to introduce him to her family and convince them to take him in, there are no spare beds. Maybe he'd want to nest in a tree in the yard? Perch on the power wires outside? Live in a plastic igloo-shaped doghouse in the back, with "Caine" scribbled in Sharpie over the door?)

(All of those options are patently ridiculous, of course. But more critically, they would leave him too far away for kissing.)

(There are so many technical issues to work out, Jupiter doesn't even know where to start.)

Stinger's one spare bedroom has a rocking chair, stacks of dusty boxes, and a rickety single bed. The yellowed mattress looks like it hasn’t been changed in a century. Maybe it’s the company, or the gentle hum of bees in the walls, but everything feels charming instead of grimy.

Kiza flits past Jupiter, arms full of blankets and pillows. Caine waits in the hallway behind her.

“Please take my room, majesty. I don’t mind, it’d be my honor,” she begs for the umpteenth time, her voice muffled through layers of fabric.

“I wouldn’t dream of it,” Jupiter replies, plucking three pillows from the precarious stack. Kiza starts spreading out blankets, fussing over the arrangement until there’s a clean, cozy spot atop the old mattress.

Kiza offers pajamas, too, but Jupiter declines.

“Good night, your majesty.” She bobs her head and disappears down the hall. Caine steps into the bedroom, closing the door behind him.

Jupiter sighs. “How long until she stops calling me ‘your majesty’ every other word?”

He steps over to survey out the window, perpetually on guard. “She’d never seen an Entitled before you showed up. Plus, she’s expressing her gratitude. You saved her life.”

“Am I the sort of royalty that can issue decrees? Like, a mandate that nobody can call me ‘your majesty’ more than once per day?”

“Hmm, but which day would that be, your majesty? There’s a planet in the shoulder of Orion where a single rotation lasts forty of your Earth-days. There’s another in the nose of Ursa Major where a day is only ninety minutes of your time. It will have to be a very lengthy mandate, to cover all the relative times of the planets in the galaxy.”

“Smartass.” Jupiter flings a pillow at the back of his head.

It hits the mark with a satisfying thump, but his reflexes are so fast that he catches it on the way down and tosses it back. “You dropped this, your majesty.”

“You’re trying to annoy me.”

“That would be rude, your majesty.”

“Right. That’s it!” One pillow in each hand, Jupiter launches herself at him. Caine dodges easily, but his wings catch a stack of boxes. They collapse with a deafening crash as she whirls around to face him again, but he’s already against the opposite wall. His wings are spread wide, they nearly reach from wall-to-wall, and he’s most definitely hovering.

“No!” Jupiter says, and he freezes. “Gravity boots are cheating! Take them off. You have to play fair.”

“I do?” He’s genuinely surprised at this idea. “Why would I intentionally put myself at a disadvantage in battle?”

“I’ll tell you why.” Jupiter springs forward with a little roar, bringing the pillows up like a battering ram. Caine glides sideways and the rocking chair falls with a clatter, taken down in the wake of glowing blue differential equation slopes. She lands on the bed and rebounds off the wall, turning again. “Because deep down, you want me to catch you.”

Caine shrugs and nods so quickly, his expression full of guileless agreement. Jupiter’s knees wobble.

He shuts off the boots, bending down to press the series of buttons to release them from his ankles. He’s still fully clothed, black pants and a sleeveless black shirt, but when he steps out of the shoes, he seems positively naked. His feet are nicely-sized, with a smattering of blond hair, and very normal human toenails, clean and cut. Jupiter had almost expected padded wolf feet, or claws, or something more exotic.

“Will you do another battle roar, your majesty? I liked that. It was inspiring.”

Jupiter leaps from the bed, right arm swinging. Caine takes the pillow in the face without flinching, but he snags the spare from her left hand and thumps her over the top of the head, easy as you please.

His grin is enormous. “Double fatality.”

“You didn’t even try to get away that time!” 

“You cornered me. The room is small, and you won’t let me use the vertical space.”

“Liar.” Jupiter rocks up onto her toes and plants a kiss at the corner of his mouth. Before her feet are flat again, he catches her around the waist and lifts her up, like she’s as light as the pillow. “Say the thing again.”

He tips his head forward, the tiniest of bows. “Your majesty.”

She never finds out what he’s going to do next. There’s a knock on the bedroom door, and Stinger’s concerned voice: “Is everyone all right in there?”

Caine gently deposits her on the floor. “Stand down, Stinger, everyone’s intact. Just had an accident with the boxes.”

“We’re fine,” Jupiter calls out simultaneously.

A moment of silence. “Right. Good then. ‘Night.” Footsteps fade down the hall.

Caine and Jupiter look at each other. He finally licks his bottom lip and says, “I’ll take care of this,” before bending down to shovel pieces of alien technology back into the boxes and re-stack them. She rights the rocking chair, then sits on the edge of the tiny bed and watches him work. She yawns, and the rusted mattress springs squeak.

When he’s finished, Caine brushes invisible dust off his shirt with both hands. “I’ll stand guard in the hallway.” It’s half-question, the way the last word rises.

“The bed is really small.” Dammit. Excellent job stating the obvious, well done Jupiter.

“I'm not fond of beds,” he says. “They’re very soft.”

“I suppose Skyjackers mostly sleep on nails and shards of glass?”

“No, in the Skyjackers we had bunks, with pillows and everything. It’s been a while since I was in the Legion. The place I was, just before I met you – no beds. Just dirt and rocks.”

“Oh. Well, the hallway felt pretty drafty. There’s plenty of room on the floor in here.”

“It’s a regular hurricane, in that hallway.” He’s still just standing there, like he isn’t sure what to do with himself.

Jupiter hops off the bed and starts pulling all the blankets and pillows onto the floor, arranging them into a makeshift pallet. “You might be okay with the hardwood, but my royal butt is going to need a little bit of cushion.”

When Jupiter finishes, he comes to sit on the blankets, wings neatly folded behind him. Trying not to feel self-conscious, she pulls both arms into her t-shirt and reaches around her back, unhooking her bra and drawing it out through one sleeve. It isn’t even a cute one, just a simple tan thing with a bow. She'd have worn something with lace, if she'd realized Caine would see it.

He follows her movements with great interest, his eyes lighting up with comprehension. “Oh! Is that where that device goes?”

It takes Jupiter a second to make sense of his comment. The first day they’d met, he’d dressed her while she was unconscious. She’d woken up without a bra. He hadn’t been able to figure out what body part to put it on; matter of fact, she hasn’t seen that bra again since. It’s a bizarre sensation, the initial feeling of violation she’d experienced when she realized a stranger had seen her naked, overlapping with her current embarrassed thrill at it being Caine, his big gentle hands pulling on her socks and buttoning up her blue plaid shirt.

It would’ve been way worse if he hadn’t changed her clothes. She would’ve flashed all of Chicago, flying around on his back in a paper hospital gown.

“It has metal in it?” He reaches out to catch the bra before it hits the floor, and he rolls the fabric-coated underwires between his fingers, inspecting them.

“Yeah. The metal helps keep things … up.”

“Do they make implants, though? So you don’t have to strap this on and off all the time?”

She can’t tell if he’s teasing her. “There are implants, but they aren’t – they aren’t exactly like that.” Jupiter snags the bra from his hands and drops it onto the chair. “No implants for me, I’m all natural.”

Oh god that sounded so bad. I love dogs levels of bad. Her cheeks sting, suddenly flush with blood.

Caine tries to smother a smile. “You might have to rethink that stance. You’ll need a translator implant at some point. There are a lot of people in the galaxy who don’t speak English.”

He rolls onto his side, stretching out the length of the blankets, wings tucked behind him. He rests one arm along the floor, and he waits.

“You should make a list for me, essentials I’ll need if I become an intergalactic planet-owning business magnate.” The last few words are mangled with another yawn. She turns off the overhead light and sits down beside him, curling in her legs to take off her socks. Settling down on her side, facing away from him, she pillows her head on his arm, her back against his chest, their hips hardly touching. When she extends her feet, stretching them to work out the ache from her gravity boots, her heels press against his ankles.

“Definitely start with the translator implant.” His voice is soft, and so close. He leans forward just far enough to snag a blanket and pull it over her. The walls hum softly, insect occupants busy even in the dark.

Jupiter shifts her head back into the crook of Caine’s neck, and he murmurs in her ear, “The Legion will provide your personal security detail, but it’s a good idea to vet them, or just hire your own. Any security chief worth his salt will insist on a tracker implant, too, in case of kidnapping. If they don’t insist on a tracker, it’s a sign of vanity, you should fire them. Better safe than sorry. There are more expensive gravity boots that come with neural integration circuitry, if you decide you don’t want to bother with manual activation …”

She’s asleep before he finishes telling her about the boots.

Chapter Text

On Sunday morning, just before dawn, Jupiter jolts and screams in Caine’s arms. He’s on his feet before his eyes even snap open, legs planted and hand on his thigh where his holster ought to be. He optimistically took it off last night before he came to Jupiter’s room, and when she made a place for him on the floor he’d tucked it under the rocking chair, within easy reach.

He doesn’t bother reaching for it now, because there’s no visible threat in the room. The only thing that smells out-of-place is Jupiter’s anxiety, her adrenaline. He can practically feel her heart thumping through the air.

In the pile of blankets on the floor, Jupiter gasps for breath and rubs an arm across her forehead. “Sorry,” she pants. “Sorry, it was a dream. Nightmare, actually. Everything’s fine.”

He patrols the room once anyway, stopping at the window to survey the dark fields of corn. His wings fluff and settle a few times, like he’s trying to shake something off. Dust flares around him with each puff of air. She’s still jittery, he feels it like the room itself is quivering. His default fight-or-flight response has him wound tight as a clock spring, ready to tear something apart with his bare hands or bundle Jupiter under his arm and outrun the wind.  

“Caine, come here.” She’s still on the blanket, reaching out toward him.

With one last glance at the yard, he does as she asks. Leaning down to take her hand, he threads his fingers with hers and settles back down on the floor. Instead of spooning her back against him like last night, she turns toward him.

“Everything aches,” she murmurs, wiggling on the blankets and flexing her toes against the tops of his feet, trying to get comfortable again. “Hard floor, lumpy lycantant. Although I wouldn’t prefer a stack of mattresses with a pea underneath for all the world.”

Caine has no idea what she’s talking about. He doesn’t care, because she closes her eyes and leans her face toward him, so their foreheads press together. Her feet wiggle between his calves, her forearm resting against his ribs, atop the rough fabric of his armored shirt.

She’s so soft, so petite. He’s rarely felt this sort of protectiveness toward another living creature, not even his fellow Skyjackers – and never toward quarry. The first day they met, Jupiter asked him if he did this sort of thing often, and he’d told her no; his entire career as a tracker, the mission was to find and kill. He’d never been sent to retrieve prey. Titus had been very particular on that point: keeping the female terrsies alive was just as high a mission priority as bringing her back.

Jupiter shivers, and with a single thought, Caine stretches his left wing out across her body, resting it atop her like a blanket.

“You’re safe.” Eyes closed, he noses closer and inhales silently, trying and failing to disguise the fact that he’s scenting her. The smell is so distinctive, so delectable, he can practically taste her on his tongue. The sound of her exhale and her beating heart, the coolness of her skin on his forehead – he’s drowning.

She curls her fingers, gripping the hem of rough black shirt, and tilts her head to give him better access. “Promise?”

He breathes her in again before he answers. “I promise.”

Her heartbeat slows, the prickly scent of adrenaline fades. In response, the tight bundle of alert tension in his gut loosens. Bees hum in the walls, soothing white noise, and the house creaks and settles as the sky turns from black to dark grey.

Ever since their long day standing in line on Orous, Caine has been struggling to get a handle on the urges he feels toward Jupiter. The sensation of belonging with someone – to someone, really, he shouldn’t mince words, not since Stinger articulated the feelings Caine couldn’t put name to, right before he dove headfirst into a hurricane.

The first, most perplexing urge is to trot alongside Jupiter everywhere she goes. It was so subtle at first he didn’t realize it was happening; he simply stepped off Captain Tsing’s ship and stood in line behind Advocate Bob, too, like it was the most natural thing in the world. If Caine had been in his right mind, he would’ve high-tailed it off the Aegis cruiser and vanished into the understreets of the megacity below, so Titus wouldn’t ever catch up with him. He’d broken their deal, he knew perfectly well that someone like Titus wouldn’t let him walk away from that sort of betrayal. Jupiter had the Aegis to protect her, Caine wasn't under any obligation. Yet without hesitation, he stayed in line beside her for hours and hours on end. He made small talk.

His last three days off-world, with Stinger and Kiza, were filled with intolerable restlessness. The only time he stopped thinking about Jupiter, he was under anesthesia in a surgery suite.

During the decade he spent in Deadland penal colony, the only thing that kept him alive – kept him fighting – was the unreal hope he might somehow repay the debt he owed Stinger. Now that he’s arrived at that unreal place, wings on his back and his commission reinstated, Caine is mildly frantic at the prospect of his Skyjacker assignment coming through.

When it does, he’ll have to leave.

Even worse, Jupiter might allow him to leave. He’s found a pack, but she doesn’t have his sort of canine-fuelled impulses, and her purebred human majesty might walk away at any time, with hardly a glance back.

But trailing at Jupiter’s heel isn’t the only thing Caine’s started doing without conscious intent.

Some of these other urges she doesn’t seem to mind, as long as they’re moderately indulged. His urge to protect her, for instance, is acceptable as long as he doesn’t try to dictate her actions. She set that boundary before she went to bargain with Balem, and it’s a boundary he’ll steer well clear of now. After the incident at the refinery, Jupiter wanted to come home to be with her family. Caine is acutely aware of the immensely powerful people beyond this tiny planet, many of whom certainly wish Jupiter harm. There are Abrasax estate matters that need tending, and every day Jupiter spends here is like a military general twiddling her thumbs instead of keeping her eye on the battlefield. This state of affairs makes Caine endlessly uneasy, but he keeps his feelings on the matter to himself; these are Jupiter’s choices to make, and if she wanted his council she’d ask for it.

Other urges are not only indulged, but encouraged. Caine’s craving for physical contact, for instance. During his time in the Skyjackers, the handful of splices in his unit had always bedded down together; it was a natural instinct, huddling for safety and companionship. Deadland was a blighted, brutal place – no comrades, only fellow violent offenders who’d kill you if you didn’t kill them first. Caine spent so many years sleeping lightly, bedding down alone, he’d nearly forgotten what it felt like to tangle his body with someone else’s and properly relax. Last night, the easy weight of Jupiter’s limbs against him was like salve on a wound he hadn’t realized was bleeding.

Other forms of physical contact on offer include hand-holding and kissing, which Jupiter initiates with a frequency and enthusiasm that makes Caine lightheaded.  Right now, in this safe place with their bodies tangled together, he’s already losing focus. If he isn’t careful, his mind could drift far enough away for his body to take over – which is a very, very bad thing. A dangerous thing.

She’s initiated three kisses already. It’s her majesty’s prerogative, to do that whenever she sees fit. Caine is well aware that he has no prerogative, at least none that matters in comparison to what Jupiter wants.

But at this moment he would give up his wings again if he could taste her, even the tiniest bit. 

He opens his eyes. She’s already watching him from a few inches away, her brown eyes full of warmth and contentment.

Caine moves slowly, so she has every opportunity to stop him; he studies her face, ready to withdraw at the slightest sign of disapproval. His chin tips forward in a delicate movement, so his lips brush hers.

The sound she makes wouldn’t be audible to human ears, but Caine hears it loud as a thunderclap. His eyelids flutter closed. Her mouth is so pliant, and he presses against it again, lingering this time. Tasting, the tiniest hint of tongue lapping at her bottom lip before he sucks it between his own, ever-careful with his sharp teeth.

Jupiter responds happily, her mouth moving with his. They don’t rush, not for a while. Bodies hardly touching and faces pressed together, they kiss slowly, luxuriating. Caine has kissed before, and been kissed, but this leisurely sensual exploration is entirely novel. Taking her time while their mouths are engaged, she strokes the metal braids embedded in the tattoo on his arm, and massages his earlobe between thumb and forefinger before fondling the pointed tip of his ear. When Caine brings his hand to the back of her head, intending to caress her hair, his fingers get caught in a knot. He accidentally pulls.

Jupiter gasps, yanks away. His apology dies on his lips when he sees the pleased expression on her face.

“That’s good.”

Jupiter’s murmured words shatter the careful veneer Caine has plastered over his flat-out, indisputable need. His response is immediate, mouth crashing against hers, his arm and wing pulling her flush to his body. Fingernails scraping her scalp, intentionally tangling in her loose hair, he tugs again.

She rocks forward, gets her bearings. Bending her knee around his hip, she simultaneously takes his bottom lip between her teeth and squeezes.

A low growl comes from the back of his throat. His hips grind forward and he leans up and over, cradling her head in his hand as he presses her into the floor. Her toes brush his wings, tangle with his feathers. The freshly installed synaptic implants are incredibly sensitive, connected to parts of his brain that have been dormant since his original wings were taken away, and his entire body fizzles like a firecracker.

His other hand slides under the hem of her t-shirt, against her bare back. Caine’s so careful with his teeth, even when she’s heedlessly enthusiastic with her lips and tongue – even when she wants more contact, pressing against the sharp points like she enjoys the sensation – he’s careful to never prick hard enough to draw blood.

One of her arms curls around his neck, for leverage, and she swirls her fingertips across the brand under his right ear. She licks his tongue, sucks at his lips, traces her mouth along his jaw and into the hollow of his neck.

When she scrapes her top teeth across the place where his pulse beats wildly in his neck, he grows perfectly still atop her. He isn’t breathing, just trembling. He tries to swallow, but his throat is so dry it makes a clicking noise.

Jupiter places her tongue atop the precise spot where his blood thrums beneath a thin layer of skin, and she licks delicately. Then without warning, her lips close over his pulse point and she sucks, hard.

The sharp sting jolts all the way down to his fingertips and toes. The pain races in a wave across the crown of his head, and blood rushes to his cock so fast it aches.

“Majesty,” he whimpers, fingernails digging into her back, holding on.

“Yes.” Satisfied, she brushes her lips against the fresh red welt and tips her head up, toward him. He stares back, dizzy for lack of oxygen.

In this moment, she looks like she could command an army, conquer a galaxy.

Caine kisses her mouth, and then he shifts down her body, wings folded flat against his back. Kneeling beside her, he slides his hands from both sides of her hips all the way up to her arms, her t-shirt lifting with the motion. She sits up enough to yank the shirt over her head and toss it to the side, before settling back down again.

He’s seen her naked, but this – this is something entirely different. The two of them, together, they’re entirely different. She’s offering herself, peeling away the layers between them, this is not intimacy born from necessity. This is choice.

He takes in the sight of her, hands clenched against his own thighs. The room is cool, her nipples are tight and firm, and she arches her back a little, grinning.

“You gonna make me wait all morning?” she says, lifting her eyebrows.

He reaches around his own back, and there’s a soft snapping noise. His shirt sags away from his shoulders and he peels it off in three separate sections, all of them bound together to accommodate his wings. Jupiter stares at him like she’s making plans to chart his freckles with her tongue, Caine's pants are unbearably tight, and his brain has practically short-circuited.

Sitting up, so they’re kneeling in front of each other, she grabs the back of his neck and pulls him in for another kiss, sloppy and desperate. He cups a breast in one large hand, thumb sliding around the dark circle of her areola.

“Talk to me, Caine,” she gasps, fingernails scraping down his neck and to his shoulder blades, stroking the metal edge of his wings.

“I need you, Jupiter, please – please tell me how – I want to do it right – I want to make you happy,” he mumbles into her mouth. He tilts his head and arches down, nuzzling his face into her neck, kissing and along her throat. His eyes close, and she puts her hands on his shoulders, like she’s preparing to push him down onto his back, onto his wings. Words spill out, because she commanded them, because his brain has let go and his body has taken over, because his desperation has reached frantic levels. “Please, tell me what you want. I’ll do better this time, I’ll be so good, I swear –”

His words, slurred like he’s half-drunk, cause her to stop pushing his shoulders.

“‘Do better this time’?” She pulls away just enough put a finger under his chin and lift his face. His gaze is glassy, his expression dazed. Touching her lips to his jaw, his cheeks, she brushes the tip of her nose against his. “What do you mean?”

Her question is like a slap. Caine doesn’t remember saying those words just now, but he knows exactly where they came from, why they came out. Panic flickers across his face, but he locks it down so quickly, perhaps she didn’t see it at all. In its place is a very practiced, very professional mask of calm. The effect is somewhat ruined by the gulps of air he takes to catch his breath.

Fuck. Fuck.

He sits back onto his heels, away from her.

Keep it simple. Keep it true.

“I’m sorry, your majesty. I don’t have the genetic programming, or the upbringing, of a pleasure splice. My sexual experience with the Entitled is very limited. I know the Entitled have very particular inclinations, but I’ve never been taught. I was worried I might …” The mask slips, he looks lost for a second, and finishes softly, “I was worried.”

Jupiter doesn’t respond for a long moment. “Particular inclinations? What does that even mean? You  know I wasn’t raised as an Entitled. What could you possibly be worried about, that I might – oh.” The sound is less of a sigh, more like she’s choking on a revelation. “Is this – is this how you injured an Entitled? During sex?”

She unconsciously splays one hand along her collarbones. The gesture is a punch to his gut, it takes his breath so suddenly. Caine’s wide eyes dart to her face, his hands spread helplessly on his thighs. She’s afraid he might hurt her?

Fucking hell.

Keep it simple. Keep it true.

“I didn’t hurt him,” Caine says. “Afterward, he was the one who … expressed his disappointment. I didn’t understand, and I didn’t anticipate what he wanted. He was very displeased.” He stares at his hands. “I would never want to displease you.”

For the first time since the day they met, Jupiter is looking at him like he’s an alien – an incomprehensible, wild creature. Her lips hang open in a perfect little O shape, her eyes huge with shock, just like his are huge with fear.

Why isn’t she saying anything? Somehow Caine has managed to strike dumb this woman who has a habit of blurting out the most inappropriate, forward things at every opportunity.

“Yesterday in the car, you asked if I’d ever wanted anything else besides being a soldier.” Caine’s words come out slowly, each weighed to verify its necessity. This is the most important thing he’s ever said, and he can’t afford to smash through it like a bull splice in a glass factory. “If you purchase my commission from the Skyjackers, my genomegineering could be modified and I could undergo a recode. I could be reprogrammed any way you wish. I could learn to find contentment in things besides soldiering. I could be anything you want, majesty. I would belong to you.”

Jupiter rocks back onto her feet, crouched into a ball. Her hand goes from her throat to her mouth, her face drains of blood. She looks like she’s going to be sick.  

“Oh my god, Caine, I don’t want to own you! I would never want to own you.”

He blinks, gaze flickering down, face carefully neutral. He’s never spoken like that to anyone, never been that open about what he wants. Jupiter rejected him out of hand, without thought. His chest is going to collapse in on itself; he’s going to wither to dust and blow away.

“Of course. Forgive me, your majesty. I should not have presumed.”

“Don’t call me that right now.”

His hands curl into fists, knuckles white. “Yes, Jupiter.”

“How could you ever think I would ever want to reprogram you into a different person? And I don’t want to own anyone. At all.”

“You already do,” Caine says, low and calm, fishing back into his Legionnaire training again, employing first-contact protocols. She doesn’t understand; she hasn’t learned yet. She simply doesn’t know. Maybe if he explains it well enough – maybe the gyre won’t crash down atop his head right here, in this bedroom. “Every terrsies on Earth is yours to do with as you please. The House of Abrasax owns thirty-three planets, at least two-thirds of them are currently seeded and developing. Your majesty owns billions upon billions of people.

“When we first met, I told you about terrsies. You know about the Entitled, the Primaries who rule the royal houses. The rest of us – humans, splices, sims – are Secondary. Every Secondary must work, and whoever we work for holds our commission. It could be a private corporation, the Aegis, the Legion, the Commonwealth, an Entitled, or another Secondary. Our commission price is set by our expected lifespan and the projected value of our labor.

“Stinger owns Kiza’s commission. He worked for years, to save enough to buy her from the Legion facility where she was being raised as a child. She was bred for military service, just like he was. Stinger did it because cared for her, and he wanted her to have a better life. He wanted her to have a parent.” Caine swallows. “Family is a rare gift, for a splice.

“I can never – will never – be like you are. This is how it has to be, and I don’t mind.”

Jupiter stares at him in abject distress, eyes swimming with tears. He waits motionless on his knees in front of her, placid mask still in place, toes curled into the wooden floorboards and wings folded demurely.

A few bees circle overhead, and the walls around them buzz quietly. Outside, songbirds have taken up a chirping chorus in the fresh sunlight.

Jupiter blinks, tears spilling onto her cheeks. Caine silently reaches out to pick up the t-shirt he stripped off her, what seems like ages ago. When she takes it, she keeps his fingers in the bargain, clasping his hand between hers.

“No,” Jupiter rasps, the word thick with emotion. “Maybe it has to be like that in your world, but it isn’t going to be that way in mine. I’m going to figure out how to deal with these planets I inherited and the people who live on them. But I won’t set out to make the problem worse by buying slaves, Caine. How could I possibly live with myself, if I did that to you? You’re too important.”

His brow knits down in confusion. He's not a slave, he's a Secondary. And how can he be important to her, if she won’t purchase his commission?

She still must not understand. He didn’t explain well enough.

“Your majesty –”

“Stop.” She sags forward, wrapping him in her arms. Her chest is cool against his, her tears hot on his neck. “Please just – just stop.”

He does as he’s told. Hands cupping her waist, he listens to her sniffle, and he is hopelessly out of his depth. He is lost in the dark with no goddamn trail to follow.

“I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I need – I just need some air.” Jupiter stands up without looking at him again, pulling her shirt on over her head and bolting out the bedroom door.

On the way down the steps, she rushes past Stinger on the way up. Stinger turns to stare after her, then comes to lean against the doorframe.  Bees trail along with him, sailing into the bedroom in search of pollen.

“What did you do?”

“I told her the truth,” Caine replies. His legs refuse to move; he can’t stand. He might as well be back on Deadland, for how bleak his existence feels.

It was a grave lapse in judgment, articulating his feelings for the first time in his life. Caine knows how to cope with battlefield carnage; he relishes it. This morning’s sort of carnage, being carved up from the inside out, laid open and left raw, is horrifically foreign.

“The Entitled don’t like the truth. Looks like her majesty is coming into her own.” Stinger frowns, extending a hand to help Caine off his knees. “C’mon, Kiza has breakfast ready.”

Chapter Text

On Sunday morning, before breakfast, Jupiter sprawls on her back in the overgrown grass and stares at the sky. Her tears are finally dry on her cheeks, her lips are chapped from kissing, and her legs ache from flying lessons.

A peeling white beehive hums nearby, its inhabitants a whirlwind of activity as they fly to and fro. She finds it comforting, these undomesticated creatures in this overrun lawn, going about the business of living. The tall weeds and wildflowers swallow her completely, shielding her from seeing anything in particular, besides what’s right in front of her face. She breathes in the heady smell of honeycomb and pollen, and she watches the silvery clouds.

Only a few hours into the day, and she’s already buried under the crushing realization of exactly how alien Caine truly is. His ears, wings, and dog-like personality traits? Jupiter can cope with those. She likes them. His batshit insane worldview and hellishly stratified social conditioning?  That’s something else entirely.

The idea of buying him makes her physically ill, stomach churning, bile in the throat, the whole miserable nine yards. He’s not property. She won’t treat him like he is. “Secondary” or “slave,” it doesn’t matter the label, it’s the same thing: commodifying people, reducing their worth to a number.

Caine was a genetically deficient runt, Stinger had told her. The Legion got him at a bargain; he was abnormal, no one expected him to provide value. Every scrap of work he ever put into improving his worth was leveled to nothing when he went into a frenzy and ripped out an Entitled’s throat. His entire life, he’s been told that he’s a liability. Is that why he asked her to change his genome, to make him someone different – to fix him?

He’s got his pardon and his reinstatement into the Skyjackers, doesn’t he? What else could he want? Does that mean he begged her to change who he was, because that’s what he thought she wanted?

She can’t decide which prospect is worse.

(It’s the latter. Oh god, definitely the latter.)

Jupiter sighs, grinding the heels of her hands against her closed eyes. She feels indescribably small. She wants someone to tell her what to do, but how can anyone from a universe so foreign and vicious possibly give her sound advice? What would her mother or Nino have to say on the topic of purchasing her boyfriend? How does she even broach the topic without being thrown into a psychiatric unit?

Pushing up to sit, she combs through her wild hair with her fingers and twists it into a makeshift bun. Then she reaches into her pocket and pulls out her cell. Four new messages, all from her mother. Well, if she can’t straight-up ask for advice, maybe just hearing a reassuring voice will help her think clearly. Jupiter skips listening to voicemail and calls home.

“Jupiter, where have you been! Why didn’t you return my calls? You will be the death of me, child!” Her mother sounds ragged, worried. An icicle of guilt jabs through Jupiter’s stomach.

“Mama, didn’t Irina give you the message? I’m staying with friends.”

“Friends? What friends?! Your friends from high school moved away and you haven’t made new ones. You keep disappearing from the house for days on end. I know where this sort of thing leads – drugs, prostitution, and the mob. Did Vladie talk you into another scheme? I will kill that boy and put his body where they will never find it.”

“I’m not in the mob and Vladie didn’t talk me into anything else,” Jupiter groans, rubbing a hand across her face. Her mother needs something to hold onto, to keep her from fretting into an early grave. “I haven’t wanted to tell you where I’m going because it’s about a job. There’s a mega-rich old lady in Milwaukee who needs live-in help. She’s let me come for a few days, so we can both try out the arrangement.”

That revelation is met with an uncharacteristic moment of silence. “You are moving to Milwaukee?”

“I don’t know.” That’s the truth. The next part, pure speculation: “If I take the job – and I haven’t decided I will – I’ll be able to come home every weekend.”

“You know for a fact that this is not part of a human trafficking ring? They will not lock you in a basement and sell you away?”

“Mama, it’s a real job.” Well, as real as space queen can possibly be, Jupiter supposes.

Another silence. “You will leave me and your Aunt Nino?”

“No, I’ll see you all the time. Plus the pay is really good, I’ll be able to send home money. You won’t have to clean so many houses. Maybe you won’t have to clean any houses at all.” Jupiter takes a quick breath, barrels on before her mother can interrupt again. “I’ll be home later tonight and we can talk more, okay? Right now I need to go. I love you, I’ll see you soon.”

Jupiter hangs up, silences the phone for the inevitable follow-up call, and slides it into her pocket. That icicle in her stomach is bigger now, sour with guilt over lying to her mother, sour with memories of her catastrophic morning with Caine, sour with worry over how she’s going to manage everyone and everything all on her own.

Carefully tucking away thoughts of her family, focusing on the here and now, Jupiter pulls in a few lungfuls of wildflower-scented air. Across the yard is the cornfield, tidy planted rows of crops a stark contrast to the riotous growth of blossoms and weeds. Order and chaos, bumping up against each other, encroaching into the other’s space.

What must it be like to come from a society where every person is planted with precision, like corn in a field? GMO engineered and fertilized and set to grow, expected to produce a certain amount of value?

Jupiter’s upbringing on Earth, even here in capitalist America, is like a meadow full of wildflowers in comparison. She’s been left to grow wild on this planet, to find her own way, to figure out her own personality and purpose. Caine never had that option; he could never even conceive of the possibility. He simply was what he was, engineered and planted and fertilized with blood on the Legion’s battlefields.

What happens when a wild seed falls into a carefully cultivated field of crops? It gets choked out by the orderly rows around it and dies, she reckons. Or maybe, if the seed is made of stern stuff like an acorn, it grows and changes the very landscape to accommodate its existence.

Jupiter wiggles her hands into the dark soil by her hips, filling her palms and digging with her fingernails until she feels the dirt embedded underneath.

“Your majesty, can I bring you some breakfast?” Kiza stands a respectful distance behind her, hands folded against her stomach.

Jupiter hops to her feet. “I’ll come inside.”

She and Kiza eat eggs and toast with honey. They discuss television, because neither of them ever misses an episode of The Bachelor. They talk about Kiza’s bees, how she cares for them and collects honey to sell at farmer’s markets on the weekends.

Stinger is out working in the barn, and Caine is in the sitting room, stripping and cleaning his mauler.  

After eating and rinsing her plate, Jupiter goes to him. He’s cross-legged on the floor, pieces of metal and crystal spread out in precise order on the coffee table in front of him. His eyes are ringed with fresh kohl, his beard neat and trimmed. She suddenly feels like a complete slob – she hasn’t even washed her face and her hair is already falling down from the makeshift bun. 

A breeze , accompanied by a small cloud of bees, gusts through the massive hole in the exterior wall, the one bounty hunters blew away only a few days ago. Stinger righted the furniture and cleared away the debris, but the room is still wide open to the outside air. Nobody in the house has said a peep about the structural damage, which strikes Jupiter as moderately hilarious. She’s kept her mouth shut and ignored it along with them, though, because it seems the polite thing to do.

Apparently the little grey Keepers don’t help Aegis marshals with home improvement projects. Maybe she ought to put in a work order, or something?

Jupiter sits on the flower-patterned sofa beside Caine’s shoulder, just behind him. His wings are retracted; it’s remarkable how small they become, feathers pulling up and interlocking until the entire apparatus is the size of a long, flat backpack bundled against his armored shirt, from the nape of his neck to the small of his back. A bright red welt peeks out of his collar where his neck meets his shoulder, evidence of her overwhelming need to mark him this morning, to claim him as her own.

“I shouldn’t have run away, earlier. That wasn’t my best move,” Jupiter whispers.

Without looking at her, he picks up a cloth and polishes a refracting lens from the laser mechanism. “The fault was mine. I should never have said anything to offend your majesty. I apologize.”

She’s worried that she’s going to find so many offensive things in the Commonwealth, eventually the word won’t have meaning anymore. Her hand extends, hesitates, then settles on his shoulder. The way he tenses at her touch makes her feel like crying again.

“I wasn’t offended.” Jupiter just finished lying to her mother, now she’s lying to Caine – this isn’t what, or who, she wants to be. “Well, maybe a little, but you didn’t mean to do it, I don’t hold it against you. I was surprised. I wasn’t sure how to react. I haven’t got my bearings yet. Please be patient with me, Caine.”

He fits the lens into a small mechanical housing, twisting it into place. “I’ll take you home this afternoon. Would you like another lesson with the gravity boots, before we go?”

Jupiter’s throat is so tight, she feels like she’s choking. “I’d like that a lot.”

She showers off and cleans up while he finishes reassembling his mauler. Afterward, lessons start. The easygoing, playful Caine from yesterday is gone. In his place is the same businesslike, courteous Caine from the first day they met, no more and no less. Jupiter skates all the way to the top of the barn before lunch. In fact, she’s perched right next to the rooster-shaped weathervane and preparing to jump off when the Aegis cruiser uncloaks with a low roaring sound, just beside the house.

This can’t be good.

With only a little wobble, she glides down from the roof, just as Captain Tsing and Commander Chatterjee descend from the ship in a blue haze of antigravity waves, one after the other. Caine follows Jupiter down, wings folding as he falls into step at her left flank.

“Your majesty,” Captain Tsing says, and both of them bow their heads simultaneously.

“Captain,” she replies, forcing a smile. What is it this time? A previously unknown fourth Abrasax sibling, coming to shout and wheedle the Earth away from her? A second recurrence of Seraphi, one with an Australian accent? “I haven’t had a chance to thank you yet for the time you’ve spent here on Earth babysitting me. I’m sure you’ve got way more important space business to take care of.”

What the hell is space business? What is she even saying? Jupiter hazards a glance back at Caine; his expression is entirely neutral, not even a hint of a smile.

Captain Tsing lowers her voice, leaning forward, “It’s our honor. Frankly, pulling royal guard duty is one of those nice things to have on the CV.” She straightens up and continues, “I’m sorry to interrupt your day, but you’ve received a communique. It was routed to us since you don’t have your own FTL array yet.”

Jupiter wrinkles her nose. “Bad news?”

Commander Chatterjee pipes up, “I believe you might be pleased, majesty.”

One ride up an antigravity beam later, Jupiter stands in front of a large viewscreen on the bridge. It’s just her and the crew, because Caine chose to stay on the ground with Stinger, who finally flew out of the barn to investigate the commotion.

The communications officer manipulates a series of holographic dials, and the screen crackles to life.

There’s a female splice in view, standing in front of a window overlooking an orange sky. She’s remarkable – a black swan splice, Jupiter thinks, with an unusually elongated neck, skin the color of pitch, and blood-red eyes. Her flowing white hair is peppered with black feathers, and there are more feathers just visible along the neckline of her dress.

The woman cocks her head and regards Jupiter in something akin to wonder. Eyes fluttering closed, she bows. There’s a soft chatter of sound from off-screen, other people tittering in the room just out of frame.

“We heard the rumors, Queen Seraphi, but we could not quite believe them,” the woman says, her voice startlingly deep. “You have been sorely missed these long years. You cannot imagine the joy we feel here on Hamartia – your homecoming is eagerly awaited. We’ve already begun reopening your two primary alcazars, on Hamartia and Orous, in preparation.”

“My alcazars,” Jupiter repeats. She has palaces like Kalique’s, one on Orous and one on a planet named Hamartia. This woman is her – what? Butler? Chief legal counsel? “Remind me of your name again?”

“I am Nati, your Head of Household. I have been so for nineteen thousand years.”

“Hi, Nati. I’d like you to call me Jupiter.”

Nati bows her head again. “As your majesty commands.”

“It’ll be a while, before I visit my alcazars. I’m looking forward to seeing them, don’t get me wrong – but things are complicated right now. I’ve got some stuff to sort out before I visit.”

“You would like us to continue to prepare?” The hope on her elongated face is unabashed.

Jupiter can’t bear to crush that hope. She won’t be up for it for a long while, years probably, but at some point she might visit. There are bound to be people who work and live in those alcazars, maybe this means they have their jobs back.

“Yeah, get everything opened up. I’ll keep you updated about my travel plans.”

“Thank you, majesty,” Nati says with another bow, this time deeper. “Your clipper will be readied and available at your earliest convenience.”

“Hey – Nati, before you go, I need some money converted into local currency for the planet I’m currently on. Do I have a bank or an intergalactic atm to do that with?”

Nati waves a hand, fingers fanned out, every movement pure elegance. “Your majesty need only say how much. I will take care of the transfer personally.”

Jupiter has $32.87 in her bank account right now. “I’d like a hundred thousand dollars.” It’s a crazy amount, way more than she’s ever thought of spending. “As soon as possible. I have some purchases to make.”

“It will be done within thirty clicks. Shall I have it delivered to Captain Tsing, to give to your majesty?”

Jupiter glances at the woman beside her, and gets a nod of agreement. “That’d be great. Thanks.”

“We eagerly await your homecoming, Queen Jupiter. Until then, I am at your disposal for any and all needs.”

Jupiter gestures, and the communications officer cuts off the screen.

Sure enough, just under an hour later Captain Tsing descends from the ship again, an orange credit-card shaped thing in her hand. It doesn’t have any numbers or symbols on it, but it does have a magnetic strip on the back. “Nati said you can take it to any local currency exchange, and they will honor it.”

Jupiter holds it between thumb and forefinger, wiggling it curiously. It’s heavier than a regular plastic credit card, but the dimensions are perfectly normal. “Awesome.”

It’d be faster to ask the Aegis to fly her home, sure, but Jupiter piles into the stolen car with Caine instead. They take the slow route, farm roads to interstates to the city.

First up is a stop to a bank. Even though she makes Caine leave his mauler in the car, the two of them still attract quite a bit of attention walking into the marble-coated lobby: a young woman in a ratty t-shirt and jeans and a hulking biker with deformed ears, wearing a heavy leather coat in the hottest part of summer. Once they’re escorted to a private office and the bank officer runs her orange card through their credit card machine, though, she’s given as many envelopes full of hundred dollar bills as she wants.

Next comes the car dealership. It’s a quick process, so quick that the salesman can hardly keep up with them. Caine pulls open one car hood after another, inspecting the mechanical bits within and offering his assessment of their suitability as transport. (“In the field we didn’t have a repair tech to fix our equipment, majesty. You pick things up along the way,” he says with a shrug when he catches her staring at him in admiration.)

Jupiter pays cash for a Prius, Caine trails her in the old car while she follows the GPS directions out to Sarah Cunningham’s house in Ford Heights. They park the new car on the street, shove the keys and title through Sarah’s mail-slot, and run like mad.

When they leap back into Sarah Cunningham’s old, bloodstained car and peel out, Jupiter laughing and bouncing with joy, Caine finally smiles for the first time that day.

This moment feels like a victory.

“Oh my god, oh my god!” Jupiter wiggles gleefully in the passenger seat. “Is this what Santa Claus feels like?”

“Does this Santa Claus person give away transport on a regular basis?”

“No, but Oprah does. I feel like Oprah!” Jupiter is grinning so wide, her cheeks ache. “Don’t take me home yet. I want to get a drink, to celebrate.”

Caine’s foot eases up on the accelerator and he cuts his eyes toward her. “I don’t have a canteen, your majesty.”

“No, I mean something alcoholic. Y’know, ‘getting a drink,’ when you stop somewhere and buy something fermented.”

“Ah.” He purses his lips. “Yes, I am familiar.”

Jupiter turns sideways in her seat to face him, head cocked and eyebrows lifted. “You are familiar, but do you partake?”

Caine’s smirk widens. “Stinger’s unit was notorious throughout the Legion for many things, only one of which was our prowess on the battlefield.”

“Do you think you can keep up with me?” Jupiter asks.

“Majesty, I’m larger than you and my metabolism is quite fast.”

Jupiter rubs her hands together and grins. “You might have fought and partied your way across the galaxy, Caine Wise, but you’ve never gone head-to-head in a bar with a Bolotnikov.”

Chapter Text

On Sunday evening, Jupiter and Caine stop off at a dive bar Vladie used to frequent, until he groped one too many waitresses and got himself banned. As a side effect of her cousin’s perpetual life failures, Jupiter knows for a fact that this place doesn’t check ID.

She’s less than a year away from her twenty-first, and she’s the queen of a massive space empire. Surely no intergalactic court would prosecute her for buying liquor on her home planet.

It’s six-thirty in the evening, and the wood-paneled establishment has a moderate crowd for Sunday night. There’s a baseball game on the tv over the bar, a small dance floor and pool tables in the back, and a smattering of tables for people ordering food. She pulls Caine into a corner booth, where his ears will be less noticeable to any passerby.

Jupiter just paid cash for a brand new car only to turn around and give it away. This isn’t a day for half-assing anything, so she orders a fully-loaded extra-large pizza and triple shots for both of them.

“Stinger’s party crew, is that how your Skyjacker unit was in the old days?” she asks, nudging Caine’s shoulder. He’s sitting farther away than she’d like, and she has to lean to reach. “Does Stinger prefer mead?”

He seems to have finished his customary casing of the joint, assessing and categorizing potential threats, and he finally relaxes against the cherry red pleather bench. He’s fidgeted all day, ever since Jupiter insisted he leave his mauler in the car, and his brief smile from earlier melted away and hasn’t come back.

He’s been so steadfastly polite, so unbendingly detached and deferential, Jupiter’s decided she won’t go home until she gets a rise out of him. If the prospect of sex this morning didn’t bring down the walls of interspecies communication, then maybe alcohol will. God only knows what she’ll resort to, if this doesn’t work.

“Stinger prefers gubberry-scented pollenate,” Caine says in reply to her question. She stares at him blankly. “It’s a powder, it can be inhaled or baked into food. Gubberries are a fruit.”

Stinger snorts his alcohol. Okay. Sure.  

“How about you? What’s your drink of choice?”

“There’s a sunless planet in the Great Rift where they’ve perfected the art of musical inebriant. The sound waves do something to your brain – scramble it, I don’t know how the chemistry works – but that was one of my more interesting days. I couldn’t walk for hours, even after I was sober.”

Seriously?” There is so much about the big wide universe Jupiter doesn’t know, half of it is terrifying and the other half is absolutely magical. “Music that makes you drunk? That’s not a real thing. You just made that up!”

“I swear it’s true, majesty.” Caine’s flat expression perks up a fraction, because he’s basking in her delight again. It’s a really good look on him. “I could take you there sometime, if you like.”

Jupiter definitely would like, but before she can say so, the waitress appears with their shots. Jupiter orders a fourth round before she walks away.

When she slides one of the little glasses over to Caine, he picks it up and sniffs. “Is this some sort of fermented fruit? Or vehicle fuel?” Lifting the glass of clear liquid into the light, he squints at it.

“This is vodka. You drink it fast, or it kills your taste buds. Будем здоровы!” she says, then demonstrates by throwing her head back and downing it in one gulp. It’s not top shelf stuff, and her throat constricts at the sting going down. Her eyes water a little, but she doesn’t let herself cough.

Flipping the shot glass upside down and depositing it on the table, she looks expectantly at Caine. He rolls his full glass between thumb and forefinger. “Is this a royally mandated drink?”

“No, not a royal command. Just a dare, between friends.” Jupiter grins, tongue peeking between her teeth. 

Caine shrugs and, in a flawless reproduction of her accent and intonation, says, “Будем здоровы.” Throwing back his head, he downs the shot, and then comes up with a wrinkled nose and a small sneeze of surprise. “It’s bitter.”

“It’s the drink of my people. We use it as a diplomacy tool, and to keep us warm through the cold winters. Here, have another.” She edges closer to him on the bench, sliding over his second glass.

He picks it up. “It isn’t winter.”

“I’m counting on it warming things up anyway. To diplomacy.” She clinks her shot glass to his and downs it. He follows suit.

Caine sneezes again, glass slapping onto the table.  “Majesty, what in the three black suns is that made from?”

“Potatoes,” Jupiter replies. He shakes his head and rubs his nose, eyes watering. “Root-like things, underground. Tubers.”

“I’ve never had – ah haa choo! – fermented plant roots before.”

It feels good, to be the one surprising him with a new experience.

“Tell me more about the sunless planet with the music,” she says, and he obliges. They eventually take another few shots, and Caine scarfs nine-tenths of the pizza before it becomes patently obvious that he’s having difficulty metabolizing Earth alcohol. Maybe it’s just vodka, Jupiter doesn’t know, but his formal façade crumbles and he’s positively chatty, excitedly going on about any subject she points him toward.

Jupiter can hold her liquor, she’s partaken from the vodka-filled sideboard in Vassily’s dining room often enough to do her Russian heritage proud. She feels relaxed, and maybe the room is listing a little to one side, but she could definitely walk a straight line. Most importantly, she’s less worried about the intergalactic axe hanging over her head, more preoccupied with this ridiculously handsome blond man who just knocked over the salt shaker while rattling on about revolutionary new portal tech and animatedly tracing the outline of a Hallaxian Mark VI Cruiser on the tabletop with his fingertip.

“I want to dance,” Jupiter interrupts, pulling his arm as she exits the booth.

“Majesty, I’m not – I’ve never had training –” his mouth soundlessly opens and closes a few times, as if he’s forgotten all the words he’s ever known.

“Drinking wasn’t a royal command, but dancing is. C’mon.”

He stops trying to piece together a coherent objection and snaps his jaw shut. His face is still pale and panic-stricken as he trails Jupiter across the restaurant to the little dance floor beside the pool tables.

This entire half of the bar is empty, which suits her just fine. She pores over the jukebox before keying in a selection. The speakers hiccup, and the opening strains to Joan Jett’s version of “Crimson and Clover” drift out.

When Jupiter turns around, Caine is standing exactly where she put him, five inches behind her. His chest is right in her face, his nose touching her forehead as he looks down.

Was he staring at her ass?

Jupiter tips her head up, smiling with all her teeth on display. He blinks blearily and steps away.

“Don’t worry, I’ll teach you. Back up a little more – right here. Perfect.” She’s seen Caine fight, the way he spins and kicks and punches; the first day they met she rode across Chicago on his back as if he was a pony. She knows he can move when he wants to. “You did training exercises in the Legion, sparring or wrestling or whatever?”

He nods and swallows, jaw tightening. His eyes are unfocused and his brow drawn down an unreal degree, like he’s concentrating very hard to follow her conversation while simultaneously doing the backstroke through an ocean of vodka.

(Jupiter’s concentration is just fine, thank you, and she is definitely not imagining Caine writhing around on the floor in a skin-tight high school wrestling uniform.)

(Does Caine always do that adorable little pout with his bottom lip when he’s thinking? Jupiter files this Very Important Question away for later, more sober scientific investigation.)

(His eyes are so green and brown at the same time. Is that even a proper kind of hazel? Does that color exist in Earth humans, or is it an alien wolf thing?)

(Oh god, right – dancing.)

“When you spar, you know how to move with a partner and follow cues, right?” Jupiter says.

Caine gives another single nod, the furrow between his eyebrows somehow deepening.

Reaching up to jiggle his rigid shoulders, she says, “At ease, soldier. I don’t expect anything formal like a fox trot. Or a dog trot. Or a lycantant lambada.” She bursts into giggles at her own terrible joke, leaning forward to rest her forehead on his chest until she regains her composure and can stand upright again.

“No fancy steps required. Just this.” Her hips sway in time with the music, crimson and cloooover – over and oooover, and Caine’s eyes follow. Jupiter puts her hands on both sides of his waist and pushes back and forth, urging him to move too. Obviously distracted, he rocks stiffly from one foot to the other, staring at her in bemused wonder.

She takes his hands and pulls them into the small of her back, creating an embrace for herself. Her arms slide up around his shoulders, fingers locking behind his neck. Resting her head against his collarbone and closing her eyes, she breathes deeply.

“That’s perfect,” she hums. The room feels like it’s spinning, or maybe he’s getting a handle on this dancing thing already and is whirling her around.

(Nope, it’s the vodka. He’s definitely still stiff as a board, holding her like a boy at junior high dance.)

Finally, halfway through the song, Caine concedes defeat. With the suddenness of a breaking dam, his body loosens and moves with Jupiter’s, just like she knew it could.

Hips unlocking from his spine and legs, he sways forward, presses into her, eases them both sideways. The motion is so smooth, so effortlessly physical, she stops breathing. He rests his cheek against the crown of her head and flattens his hands into the small of her back, bringing her belly against his so they move together, as one unit.

All day Caine’s been treating her like crystal, to be put up high and kept apart, but right now he’s holding her like she’s made of something he wants to melt. He isn’t exactly leading their dance, but he is responding to Jupiter’s smallest cues like he was born to read them. The barest nudge left or right and he moves, carrying her along in undulating steps, grinding and swaying, sensual and unearthly.

Jupiter has never felt elegant in her life, but she does now, with Caine taking all her corporeal intent and carrying it out to its most graceful physical end.  She’s wrapped up in his arms, breathing in his earthy scent. His entire body is attuned and submitting to her guidance.

If she didn’t know better, she’d think he was reading her mind.

Holy fuck, if this is dancing, what must sex with Caine be like?

Jupiter shifts a fraction, easing his thigh in between hers. He responds by swaying his pelvis at a different angle, his leg moving just enough to provide a tantalizing amount of friction. She whimpers and leans in more. His hips rock back and forth in supple time with the music, his torso part of the leisurely orbit he’s performing around her as she leads them both in a circle.

“Your majesty, this isn’t dancing,” Caine murmurs, so low she feels the words more than she hears them.

“Isn’t it?”

“If we were dancing, we’d be trotting around the room in geometric patterns, only occasionally touching hands,” he says.

“We can stop, if you want. We can do it your way instead.”

He slides one hand up her back, fingers splaying across her shoulder blades to pull her in tighter. Reality feels soft around the edges, and Jupiter doesn’t register that “Crimson and Clover” has ended and the second Joan Jett song of the pair has clicked on, “Cherry Bomb.”

“Caine, do you know what this says?” She strokes the brand on his neck with her index finger, back and forth, back and forth.

He makes a small, distracted humming sound.

“It’s my name. Forward and backward, it’s the Earth symbol for Jupiter.” He stumbles; he steps on her toes. “The splicer who left that mark, do you suppose somehow they knew?”

He stops moving, still clasping her to his chest. “Knew what?”

“Knew that we’d need each other.”

Jupiter opens her eyes and pulls just far enough away to look up at him. She keeps talking, before she can lose her tenuous, alcohol-fuelled nerve. “You’ve wanted to rejoin the Skyjackers since we met, and I won’t stand in the way of whatever makes you happy. If you choose to go, I won’t say a word to stop you. I won’t issue an order or purchase your commission to force your decision, Caine. But before you leave, I'm going to be selfish enough to ask: will you please stay?”

Caine doesn’t avert his eyes or duck his head; he keeps his attention locked with hers. His ears and cheeks grow pinker by the second, but his gaze is remarkably focused and clear. “The bribe embedded in my Skyjacker reinstatement didn’t just fast-track my wing implants, it fast-tracked everything. My assignment could come through at any time. I could be ordered to deploy anywhere.”

“What if I contact the Legion and ask them to deploy you to royal guard duty? Would that – would it be okay?”

“If you wish, your majesty,” he says so gently, so obviously pleased.

“I do wish.” She frowns. “But I need to know you want it, too. I couldn’t bear it if you were bored, following me around as a glorified bodyguard. I couldn’t be happy, if I thought you’d settled for something you don’t want.”

Caine’s eyelids flutter closed and his body moves again, settles back into that easy rhythm they established a moment ago. He tucks her head against his shoulder, his cheek to her temple, his soft beard tickling her skin.

His words are so nervous, hardly a breath in her ear: “I want.”

“Thank you,” she gasps. Jupiter isn’t sure if she’s thanking him for finally saying something so unguarded, or for choosing to stay, or for the fact that he’s saved her life so many times and it feels like he just saved her again.

They spin around the empty dance floor, and Jupiter is so dizzy she can’t hold herself upright. She rests in his embrace, letting him carry her. She thinks that maybe the title of galactic business magnate-queen could be bearable, if Caine is there alongside her.  

Even Titus Abrasax knew. Within Jupiter’s first thirty minutes with him, he called out her affection for Caine; he used the word “love.” It must be obvious to the entire universe, how smitten she is. She wants to kiss Caine, to push him onto the floor and fuck him right here in front of all humanity.

Before she can gather the nerve, his hips and feet stutter to a stop again. “Your majesty, I need the head.”

A wild vision seizes Jupiter, she sees herself dropping to her knees and unzipping Caine’s pants and taking his cock into her mouth right this very second. “Yes,” she says, letting go of his neck, ready to fall to the floor and meet her destiny.

Caine pulls away to look at her, bleary again, his gaze unfocused, lost once more in a haze of vodka. “I need the waste evacuation portal,” he says, as if he’s repeating a basic term, something she ought to know. She stares at him in confusion. “The personal hygiene facilities.”

“Oh.” Disappointed, she supports her own weight again and steps out of his embrace, pointing behind him to the sign that says Restroom. “To the left, I think.”

Caine stumbles off the dance floor, toward the men’s room.

Jupiter reels backward, coming to lean against one of the pool tables. She’s still buzzed, but she’s burned through the euphoria phase and entered the sleepiness phase. She sways on her feet. It wouldn’t be so bad, would it, if she just took a nap right here with the billiard balls?

She’s far enough gone that she doesn’t notice the group of men eyeing her from the bar, not until the ringleader, a bulky man with a buzz cut, saunters over to stand in front of her. His three friends flank him, like the loyal little lackeys they are.

“You look familiar to me,” Buzz Cut says, in Russian.

Jupiter blinks at him and holds out the eight ball as a peace offering. “I must have one of those faces.”

“No, it’s not just that. I’ve seen you coming and going from Vassily Bolotnikov’s house. You are Vladie’s sister.”

“Oh, no. You’re thinking of Mikka. I’m not Vladie’s sister, I’m his cousin.”

“Vladie owes me. He wanted a special deal on a television, I got it for him.” Buzz Cut leans forward, so that Jupiter ends up leaning backward over the pool table to get away from his Funyun-scented breath. In her haze, she thinks of how silly this little man is – he doesn’t even register on the Balem Abrasax Intergalactic Asshole Scale.

Where’s an iron pipe when she needs it?

She shoves the eight ball into Buzz Cut’s chest and says in English, “If you have a problem with Vladie, go talk to him yourself.”

“He’s been avoiding me.” Buzz Cut catches Jupiter’s hand and twists it. The eight ball clatters to the floor. “Jupiter, the lady with one of those faces, I need you to deliver a message to your cousin.”

The shot of pain lancing up her arm shocks Jupiter into clear-headedness. Her leg moves on instinct, knee coming up and connecting with testicles just like her mother taught her so many years ago. Buzz Cut crumples, letting go.

One of the lackeys shouts “You bitch, you can’t—!” before two hundred pounds of alien-human hybrid barrels into him from the side, knocks him across the room and into the wall twenty feet away. Pool cues splinter, bar tables fly. The crash is deafening. Every single person in the restaurant turns to stare in horror.

Caine’s got his gravity boots turned on – at least he didn’t take off his coat and unfurl his wings. He puts down the other two men so fast, leaving them unconscious on the floor, Jupiter doesn’t even have time to open her mouth in protest.

Not even winded with exertion as he stands over their prone bodies, Caine looks up at her with an immensely pleased – and very drunk – expression, like he’s just created the Jackson Pollack of finger paintings. “Majesty, I didn’t shoot anyone.”

“Turn off your boots,” she hisses, leaping down from the table and glancing at the crowd of staring faces. “Caine, turn them off!”

Caine looks so deflated. Jupiter will remember that particular expression so clearly, in the days to come.  

After fumbling with the keys for a second, he manages to switch the boots off.

“Sorry. So sorry. Enjoy your evening,” Jupiter says to everyone, to no one, dragging Caine out of the bar by his arm. She pauses long enough to toss a few hundred-dollar bills onto their table before she leads him outside.

Chapter Text

On Sunday at ten o’clock in the evening, Jupiter puts a few blocks between herself and the bar her boyfriend just trashed, and she tries to think. Caine walks beside her, holding her hand and swaying on his feet.

When she comes to a stop near a corner, scanning traffic for a taxi, he says, “You are disappointed.”

She pulls back from the curb, toward the building behind them. “What are you talking about?”

“I should have asked before I hit those men,” Caine says. “When I saw the fat one touch you like that, I reacted without thought.”

Jupiter knows – anyone who spent five minutes with him would know – Caine is incredibly intelligent. He’s a brilliant soldier, highly adaptable, with a bright tactical mind. This process he’s going through, whatever emotions he’s trying to get a handle on, it’s all so foreign that it has obviously stretched his adaptability to an uncomfortable degree.

She reaches up to take his face into both her hands. “What you did was good,” she says. “You made me feel safe. You always make me feel safe.”

“Be patient with me, Jupiter,” Caine murmurs, blinking slowly. Leaning forward, both hands flat against the concrete wall, he pins her. “I’m still getting my bearings.”

It’s the same plea Jupiter made to him this morning, repeated back with a raw sincerity that re-lights that fire deep in her belly. Staring at her mouth, he runs his tongue across his bottom lip. She curls her fingers around his ears and tugs him down for a kiss.

Caine keeps his lips closed, easing in for something gentle and chaste; Jupiter opens her mouth instinctively and ends up licking him.

He smiles and laughs. It’s the best sound in the universe. Jupiter wants to hear it every day for the rest of her life.

They touch again, somewhat more synchronized, lips and tongues moving in tandem. Caine supports himself against the wall, and Jupiter lets go of his face, slides her hands under his heavy leather jacket and reaches around his back. She buries her fingers in his feathers and strokes; he rewards her with a low groan, and a nip to her bottom lip.

“Come back – to Stinger’s house – with me,” he murmurs between kisses.

There’s no denying how how desperately she wants to get Caine in a dark, private place and do things to him, and then lay back and let him do things to her, until both of them forget their own names.

But Jupiter’s head is fairly clear, her buzz mostly worn off. Caine is still drunk, and she won’t take advantage of him in this state, especially not the first time they’re together. Once he sobers up, she isn’t sure how pleased he’ll be about the fact that she plied him with alcohol and had him talk about his feelings. Compounding that with sex would be catastrophic.

She kisses him a while longer, trying to scrape together her resolve. It’s an uphill battle, with Caine so tall and warm, his mouth so supple and eager to please, his incredibly obvious erection pressing into her hip.

“I should go home,” she finally says.

“Mafjetie?” His kisses slow down, his eyes still closed. He leans more heavily, smashing her into the wall.

He’s falling asleep.

She sighs. “Caine. Caine, wake up. We need to find a ride.”

She’s definitely too tipsy to get behind the wheel of their stolen car. She can’t call her mother or Nino, because she isn’t ready to explain her lycantant boyfriend to her family. Paging the Aegis for help will just create more of a commotion than they already have, a spaceship materializing in the middle of this downtown street. She isn’t about to leave Caine to sleep off his vodka in an alley behind the bar, and every single cab flies right past Jupiter’s waving hand when they see the leather-coated brute with her.

Caine slurs out an offer to fly her home, which sounds like the worst idea ever. Drunk flying is surely a ticketable offense.

Tired and craving a massive glass of water, Jupiter finally sits down under a streetlamp and pulls out her phone. She doesn’t know how to contact Stinger directly, but she and Kiza exchanged cell numbers before she left this morning, so she makes the call.

Caine curls up on the sidewalk beside her, settling his head in her lap. He’s murmuring something she can’t understand. Jupiter strokes his hair and he settles down, blissed-out expression on his face. He’s snoring within seconds.

It takes an hour, Jupiter alternating between Candy Crush boards and watching Caine twitch and whimper adorably his sleep, before Stinger drives all the way into the city and downtown. When he finally shows up, she’s almost entirely sober.

Stinger gets out of his battered Ford truck and surveys the two of them, tipping his head toward Jupiter. “Your majesty.”  

“I can’t wake him up,” Jupiter says apologetically. The entire top half of Caine’s body is in her lap at this point, curled around her waist, covering her like a massive lycantant blanket. She can’t feel her legs, they’ve gone numb.

“What’d you give him?” Stinger asks, lifting Caine off Jupiter like a sack of potatoes, slinging him over one shoulder, and tossing him into the bed of the truck.

“Vodka.”

Stinger chuckles and closes the tailgate. “Next time go with a daiquiri. Splices have a hard time metabolizing any alcoholic substance that isn’t sugar-based.”

“Lesson learned,” Jupiter says, pushing to her feet. Pins and needles rush to her legs and she bites her lip to keep from groaning.

“Your carriage awaits, majesty.” Stinger stands beside the passenger door, holding it open for her.

Hobbling over and climbing in, she says, “I owe you. Let’s back up a block, Caine’s mauler and my gravity boots are in the trunk of our car. He’d kill me if I left them.”

“All right. Do you want me to take you home, or back to my place?”

“Could you keep an eye on Caine tonight? I need to touch base with my family.”

Stinger nods and pulls the car into the street. “He’s a bloody nightmare with a hangover. I’d run the opposite direction if I was you, too.”

“I’m not running away,” Jupiter says. “I don’t know what he told you about this morning, but we talked through it.”

Stinger glances at her. “Caine talked through something? Something that wasn’t a tactical mission plan?”

“Well, it wasn’t the wordiest conversation I’ve ever had,” Jupiter concedes. “But it’s fine. We’re fine, for now.”

“You aren’t going to send him away?” The question is deceptively casual, almost flippant. But this definitely matters to Stinger.

“He’s staying. I’m going to talk to Captain Tsing in the morning, put through whatever paperwork I need to get him assigned to royal guard duty.”

“About bloody time.” Stinger looks at her again, clears his throat. “Pardon my language, majesty.”

“You’re right, it’s about bloody time,” she agrees, smiling. Stinger smiles back. The rest of the ride home is spent in comfortable silence.

Nino sees the truck pull up in front of Vassily’s house. She definitely notices the man driving it. As soon as Jupiter walks in the door, Nino is there, pulling her aside. “Aleksa said you had a job, but I told her it had to be a boyfriend. I was right! He’s very handsome, even if his car is shit. What is his name?”

It takes a second for Jupiter to register that her aunt is talking about Stinger, not Caine.

It’s probably good that Nino focused on the conscious man in the front of the truck, and not the unconscious one in the back. Otherwise this conversation would be full of questions Jupiter doesn’t know how to answer yet.

“Oh god, Nino, no. No. He’s not my boyfriend, he’s only a friend. I needed a ride home.”

Jupiter is tired, but she stays up for another hour, talking with her mother and Nino. She invents details about this nonexistent job at Ms Abrasax’s mansion in Milwaukee, about the generous pay and the living quarters, and by the end of the night they seem convinced that this might be a good prospect for her.

Jupiter still isn’t convinced.

She falls asleep in her tiny bed in the basement, with her Entitled Code sheave clutched in one hand, and the alarm set for her regular Chicago cleaning job at 4:45 a.m.

The alarm doesn’t wake her up. There are voices upstairs, loud and agitated. Jupiter squints at the red digital numbers on the clock – 4:15. She groans and covers her head.

Out of the distant hubbub, she hears a very clear, “Your majesty!”

It’s Kiza.

Jupiter bounds out of bed, wearing only an oversized One Direction t-shirt, and bolts up the stairs. Kiza stands in the tiny foyer, along with the rest of the family. She’s frantic, practically vibrating with agitation.

“Majesty,” she says, pushing past Moltka to grasp Jupiter’s hands and bow.

Aleksa and Nino come up the basement stairs behind Jupiter, rubbing their eyes. “What is going on?” her mother asks.

Jupiter squeezes Kiza’s fingers and shoots her a look that pleads shut up. Kiza is breathless, panicked, but she closes her mouth.

“Mama, this is my friend Kiza. She works for Ms Abrasax, too. She’s the … gardener. Is there something going on with Ms Abrasax?” Jupiter asks Kiza, slowly, willing her to understand that discretion is the most necessary thing in the universe right now.

Kiza glances around at Jupiter’s family, her eyes flaring gold. So much for discretion.

“There’s an emergency, you’re needed right away.”

“Why does she call you ‘majesty’?” Vladie asks. After the incident in the bar, Jupiter was ready to read her cousin the riot act; and now he’s staring at Kiza, surveying her up and down like she’s something he’d like to eat, Jupiter decides that a sucker punch is in order.

“No,” she snaps, exhibiting a superhuman amount of self-control and shoving an angry finger in his face. Vladie shrugs, holding his hands up. “It’s just a joke, between friends. She calls me Majesty and I call her Ladyship. I’ll take care of this. Everybody go back to bed.”

Jupiter leads Kiza through the front door. It’s cool out, the air full of early morning dew. Kiza keeps her mouth shut until they’re a few houses down the block, far enough away not to be overheard.

“Majesty.” The word bursts out like a punctured tire, angry tears swimming in Kiza’s eyes, her entire body trembling with fury. “They came while we were sleeping. Dad wanted keep me safe, he hid me in the cellar and locked the door right before they got into the house, so I couldn’t get out. I couldn’t help him! They took him – they took Dad, and Caine, they –”

What?”

Kiza pulls in a breath. “Legionnaires on official business, they said. They tried to talk Dad into coming along peaceably, they said something about his deployment. He and Caine were to report immediately. When Dad told them he wouldn’t leave tonight, they took him. He tore apart half the house fighting them off, but there were too many of them. I could hear everything right through the floorboards. It took me ages to break down the door, and by that time they were long gone. Caine, too – he was practically unconscious last night, he probably never even woke up.”

“What deployment? Where were they deployed?”

Kiza's eyes flicker gold again, and she growls, "The only name I heard was Lord Titus Abrasax."

Jupiter feels like she's been thrown into a swimming pool filled with ice water. The breath leaves her lungs in a sharp exhale, her spine snaps long and rigid, she blinks and the edges of her vision turn red.

"How long ago?" Her voice is frozen, brittle.

"Ninety minutes. It took me half an hour to get out of the cellar. They smashed the primary FTL array, and my phone was gone. I don’t know how, but they even knew about the backup FTL array in the barn. I drove here, to find you, because I didn’t have any other way to call for help. Majesty, we need the Aegis, they’ll sort this out."

Jupiter is running down the sidewalk before Kiza finishes speaking. “Start the truck!” she calls over her shoulder, before barreling through her family. They’re standing on the front porch, watching her conversation from a distance.

"Jupiter!" Aleksa shouts as she flings herself down the basement stairs and dives for the walkie-talkie hidden under her mattress.

(It isn’t actually a walkie-talkie, it’s a short-range interpersonal communication device. SRI for short, Commander Chatterjee told her when she handed it to Jupiter and demonstrated how to use it, five days ago.)

"Aegis. This is Jupiter. Come in."

The reply is instantaneous. "Standing by, your majesty."

"I need immediate pick-up for two. Six blocks east of my house.”

"Affirmative. Contacting the helm now."

“By the time I get on that bridge, I want explanation as to why the Legion trespassed on my planet without my permission.”

Jupiter cuts off the SRI without waiting for a reply. She moves so fast, she has on a pair of jeans and a small backpack loaded her sheaves and gravity boots, all before her mother even has time to chase her down the steps.

"I'm sorry Mama, I have to go," Jupiter says, pulling her into a hug. "I'll be back."

"No! Jupiter, you will stop right now and tell me what you are involved in. This is not just a job, pulling you away in the middle of the night! This is something much bigger and much worse, if it makes you into such a crazy person. You are my smart one, my gentle one. This"  – she waves her hand at Jupiter's face – “is not my daughter. That girl on the sidewalk outside, she isn't a gardener."

"You’re right, Mama, Kiza is actually a beekeeper," Jupiter says, adjusting the backpack and pecking her mother’s cheek. "Her dad’s the gardener. I’ll call you in a few hours. I love you."

Jupiter bolts out the front door. Kiza is waiting in the driver’s seat of the truck. They rendezvous with the ship less than half a mile away.

Captain Tsing has been busy in the few minutes since Jupiter called. “Your majesty, the Legion issued no notification of landing on your planet. We had no contact from any official channels. Whoever they were, they weren’t authorized.”

“They took my dad,” Kiza says, crossing her arms.

The captain’s professional expression cracks as she finally looks at Kiza. “That’s the only bit of authenticated information we could track down. Marshal Apini’s commission – and Mr Wise’s commission – were both purchased by the estate of Titus Abrasax. The petition was filed the instant their implant surgery was completed, probably as part of an automated bureaucratic subroutine embedded in the system.” She glances at Jupiter, then elaborates, “The practice is frowned upon, but not technically illegal. All the paperwork is in order, the transfer of both commissions was entirely above-board.”

Jupiter wants to vomit. She wants to choke something with her bare hands. She wants to click her heels together and whisper there’s no place like home and wake up from this nightmare. “Titus owns Caine and Stinger.”

“Honeycomb and beeswax,” Kiza hisses, bending over at the waist and holding her head in her hands. Her long golden hair almost hides her tears as they drip onto the metal decking.

“Your commission is still held by Marshal Apini,” Captain Tsing says, reaching toward Kiza and then, thinking better of it, withdrawing her hand. “Unless he signs it over to Lord Titus, you’re under no obligation to his estate or his will.”

Jupiter feels so cold, so stiff, like she’s made of marble; her stomach churns with fire. Standing on the deck of a spaceship in jeans and a boy-band t-shirt, she isn't a lost, scared backwater human - she's a queen, quaking with righteous fury. She has no idea what her expression looks like, but judging from the dawning concern on the faces of the crew behind Tsing, it must be something akin to murderous rage.

“Where is Titus now?” she asks, hearing her voice from a distance.

From the other side of the bridge, Lieutenant Percadium pipes up, “His ship, Clipper D-Gamma-9, is registered in the Abrasax repair docks on Orous. The digitabloids posted photos of Lord Titus a matter of hours ago, shopping at the Capital Prime Vending Complex, also on Orous.” The main viewscreen flickers to life, and sure enough, there’s Titus surrounded by a small entourage of mechanical guards and lackeys, all of them carrying bags and boxes. Titus himself struts across a courtyard in front of an abstract sculpture. He’s resplendent in a crystal-accented black suit, the coat long and the pants short.

Do they wear dark colors for mourning in the Commonwealth? Is the color choice some sort of public show of grief over Balem?

Jupiter would eat that suit before she’d believe that Titus was sad about his brother’s death.

“Captain Tsing,” Jupiter says, not taking her eyes off the screen, “leave a group of guards here to protect my family. Register a complaint with the Commonwealth over the trespass onto my planet. And get us to my alcazar on Orous right now.”

Chapter Text

On Orous Common Time (OCT) 502102.6, Caine wakes up with a raging headache.

“Commander Wise, get your lazy runt ass out of bed! On your goddamn feet, soldier!”

In response to that voice, he’s upright before he even stops to take in his surroundings. “Yessir, Captain Apini,” he mumbles, mouth dry as cotton.

“What did you say to me?”

“I said, ‘yes sir’!” Caine barks, hoarser and louder this time.

“Bloody hell, I’ve been yelling at you for half an hour. I thought they’d gone ahead and put you down for good. Welcome back to the land of the living, Caine.”

His eyes adjust to the bright light shining overhead, enough for him to see his surroundings. It’s a depressingly familiar circular metal cell – small, with a round opening up top and a series of retractable metal bars to keep him in.

He smells blood, but he isn’t bleeding. He’s been stripped out of his armored clothing and boots, left only in his grey briefs. They don’t cover much, just mid-thigh to belly button. His wings have been hobbled with clamps. The low, continuous whine of the electric mechanisms on his back is like nails on a chalkboard to his sensitive ears. The painful ache of the wings themselves, bound tight at an unnatural angle, leaves him grinding his teeth.

Stinger isn’t in the cell with him. Caine is thoroughly disoriented. He's halfway convinced that, in his hungover state, he hallucinated the voice that woke him up. “What the fuck is going on?”

“Titus Abrasax is what the fuck’s going on,” Stinger replies, from beyond the metal bars, somewhere else in the room. A nearby cell, then. His breathing sounds short and his voice thick, like his nose is broken. That explains the scent of blood. “We both picked the wrong Entitled to betray last week. That bribe embedded in the sheave with our pardons, it included enough to purchase our commissions after the wing implants. They came to collect us last night, while you were unconscious.”

Caine’s head throbs, his heart thumping in frantic time. What’s the last thing he remembers?

Jupiter.

He was making love to Jupiter – in public, with his clothes on. Dancing, she’d called it, when it patently was not dancing, it was the most exhibitionist thing Caine has ever done with another living being, fully clothed or not.

“Where’s Jupiter – did Titus take her –”

“I left her majesty safe at home, with the Aegis nearby,” Stinger cuts him off, before he can work himself into a frenzy. “Titus wasn’t after her last night – not directly, anyway. Just us. I’m sure she’s still sleeping in her own bed, safe with her family.” He pauses. “I don’t think they found Kiza, either.”

“Shit,” Caine says, dropping into a crouch and scrubbing at the top of his head, fingernails scraping his scalp. Jupiter and Kiza in danger, Stinger in a cell, and all because he took that original deal from Titus Abrasax. His life feels like a never-ending collection of his own fuckups, strung together at intervals. This particular moment has to be the crowning jewel of the collection.

This is the third time Caine has been in Titus’s personal prison cells.

The first time, right after Titus paid the bond to have him extracted from Deadland penal colony, he spent several days muzzled, being yanked in and out of this same tiny cage at Titus’s pleasure, like a dog in a crate. It wasn’t unheard of, for an Entitled to have a taste for dangerous or exotic splices. Caine certainly qualified as the former. During his first long, humiliating night in Titus’s quarters, it dawned on Caine that he’d have been better off losing one of his countless fights on Deadland. Better to be dead, than broken and refashioned into a pleasure splice for an Entitled.

(That was four weeks ago. That was before. Caine would gladly be broken and refashioned for Jupiter, if she asked.)

(It is an incomprehensible wonder to Caine, that Jupiter would never ask.)

The whipping Caine received after that first night, for failing to please his new master, was almost a relief; it was a familiar kind of pain. He’d had his share of beatings in his life, this was not a novel experience. He didn’t cry out once, he kept his head down and bore his punishment.

The next day Titus had Caine brought out of this cell again, served up one more time. Caine tried to please, he really did. He was no blushing virgin, he’d rutted his way around bars and brothels across the gyre, male female and otherwise, he'd even bedded with his fellow Skyjackers. But he’d only ever fucked other Secondaries, and if Titus was anything to go by, the sexual tastes of the Entitled were unpredictable and capricious. Everything was predicated on Titus's whims, all of which seemed to focus on causing Caine pain. By the time Titus grew bored, Caine was doused with sweat, sore and bleeding on the floor of His Lordship's grand bedroom. As he laid there, muzzle digging into his cheek where it pressed into the decking, Caine had desperately wished he was telepathic, because then maybe the next time this entire nightmare played out he could anticipate what this crazed Entitled really wanted. Or maybe next time Titus would take off his muzzle, and Caine would finally lose control of himself and go blank a second time, and turn back into the wild animal everyone already assumed he was anyway.

(Tell me what you want, I’ll be so good, Caine begged Jupiter in their bedroom at Stinger’s farm, fear worming through his mind. For the first time in his life, sex isn’t only about entertainment, or release, or pleasure. Sure, it involves those things, but as a part of something bigger – the prospect of devoting himself and building a life centered around one person. If he ever disappoints Jupiter in the same way he disappointed Titus, if she ever wore that same look of dissatisfaction and disapproval, Caine would come undone.)

The next time Caine was allowed out of his cell, it was for an offer of freedom. He’d tried the goods, Titus declared, and the dog was a waste in the bedroom. He might as well perform a trick he was good at: tracking and retrieving, in exchange for a pardon.

The offer brought Caine’s back up straight again. He asked that Stinger’s reinstatement be included in the deal, too. It seemed to amuse Titus, the idea of a second Skyjacker’s pardon. He didn’t argue, he happily obliged.

Of course he did. It makes sense, now.

Their wings are rare top-grade military tech, unavailable to the private sector, exclusively used in Legion applications. Caine and Stinger had to be reinstated to receive their implants again, but if their subsequent discharge (and commission transfer) was honorable, they got to keep the wings.

This was part of Titus’s long game, from the day he hauled Caine out of Deadland. He needed a tracker to find Jupiter, and after he married and murdered his mother’s recurrence to secure his financial future, Caine (and Stinger, thanks to Caine’s request) would be automatically reeled right back into Titus’s estate. They’d be his private soldiers, hired thugs, bodyguards, playthings. Former Skyjackers with wings intact – a prize indeed, a curiosity to show off to other Entitled. And Skyjackers with specially valued skills, like the piloting prowess of an apid splice and the tracking skill of a lupus spice, meant all the more prestige for Titus. 

The second time Caine ended up in Titus’s personal prison cells, Jupiter was getting married. Titus decided that since Caine had proven himself disloyal, he wasn’t worth the financial investment anymore, and promptly ejected him out the nearest airlock. That sort of quick death was a mercy, really, except for the fact that he had a reason to stay alive now. When all the oxygen was gone from his emergency pressurization suit, as he hovered on the brink of death, he didn’t see his own life flash before his eyes. He saw Jupiter.

That time around, he was grateful he hadn’t died on Deadland; he had found something worth protecting, something worth fighting and living for. He would smash his way through a thousand private armies to rescue Jupiter from every Entitled in the gyre, if he had to.

And here Caine is in Titus’s private prison cells a third time, bought and stripped, no doubt to be used as a bargaining chip or blackmail to manipulate Jupiter into doing something she shouldn’t.

Jupiter cares about others. It’s a weakness, that caring. It’s terrifying, how vulnerable it makes her.

Caine cares, too. He spent his entire life training himself not to, but all of that work has fallen to pieces. Now that sensation of caring is all he thinks about; it drives him in ways he never knew he could be driven. It will be the death of him one day.

But not today.

He stands up, tries to gather enough spit in his mouth to dispel the dry, cottoned feeling. The bars are too sturdy to be broken with brute force, but there has to be something else he can do.

“We’re on Orous,” he says aloud. Caine knows the distinctive tang of recycled air, and he can hear the nonstop low thrum of the planet-sized city and its trillions of inhabitants.

“We portalled from Earth and landed two hours ago,” Stinger replies.

“And Titus?”

“His Lordship hasn’t shown his face, but Famulus stopped by earlier. She said it was nice to see old friends, and told me to tell you hello,” Stinger says, wry and sarcastic.

Caine harrumphs. The deer splice was in Titus’s bedroom those few nights Caine was there, but she never participated. She liked to watch. Her need for control and her sense of superiority over her own kind, those are the soft spots in her underbelly just ripe for a knife.

Before he can say anything else to Stinger, a pop and whooshing sound comes from the other side of the room. The prison door opens. Caine smells the positronic mechanisms of at least six mechanized soldiers, arm cannons primed and leaking ozone. He smells Famulus and her synthetic leather clothing. Almost overpowering everything else is Titus’s heavy perfume. It’s not sweet or cloying, more like pine needles, with the subtle scent of his hair pomade and silk fabric layered underneath.

“Mr Apini, what a delight to see you again,” Titus says. The only thing visible through the grating above Caine’s head is the metal ceiling. He stays completely still, closes his eyes and listens and inhales, trying to get a sense of where everyone is positioned in the room. That mental map will be tactically handy, if he can get out of this cell.

“Your Lordship will forgive me if I don’t say the same,” Stinger replies.

“You destroyed my brand new set of warhammers,” Titus tuts. “That was disappointing. I had them installed only a few months ago, and now they’re useless. Do you know how much a set of top-of-the-line warhammers costs?”

“More than I’m worth,” Stinger says.

“Oh, you’re being humble now. The warhammers are not quite that much,” Titus laughs, sounding easy and reasonable. “A recode to get rid of your wrinkles, some beautiful new wings, and you’re a star attraction in anyone’s collection.”

Caine hears Stinger’s breathing pattern slow and deepen. He’s trying to stay composed.

“My business managers inform me that you hold another splice’s commission, Mr Apini. Is that correct?”

Stinger’s breathing stops.

“I have my barristers looking into the situation. If your commission is held by a government agency, like the Legion, you’re granted leeway in terms of managing your own property. But in private hands, I believe the leeway is on my side, legally speaking.”

“You can’t touch her. I’ll never consent to sign her over.” Stinger’s voice is dangerously calm. Caine has seen him gut a man, after using that tone.

Titus sounds unfazed. “You could sign her over, or she’ll pass to my estate once you die. I wasn’t expecting a two-for-one deal, but I can’t say I’m disappointed.” There are a few footsteps, Titus moving closer to Stinger’s cell. “My goodness, your arm is at an alarming angle. Those Legionnaires were quite rough with you, weren’t they? That’s what I get, using cut-rate weekend mercenaries. I’m sure I still have enough RegeneX for the worst broken bones. See to it, Famulus. I don't want him crippled.”

“Yes, Lord Titus,” she replies.

The soft rasp of fabric, more footsteps. Caine opens his eyes. Titus stands above his cell and stares down, pointed toes of his boots peeking over the edge.

“Mr Wise. You don’t look any worse for wear. You let Mr Apini do all the fighting for you? What a plush life you must lead, as the lap dog of an Abrasax queen.”

It’s clumsy bait, and Caine doesn’t rise to it.

There’s a very low, nearly inaudible electronic buzz. Caine can’t quite make out the message that comes over Famulus’s in-ear communication device, but he hears clearly enough when she leans forward and whispers to Titus, “There’s an incoming FTL from Jupiter Jones.”

Caine twitches. Titus’s face brightens, his eyes still fixed on his prisoner. “Even sooner than expected! Today is full of wonderful surprises. Do you suppose I might convince her to marry me again? I’m quite good with people, and she’s quite stupid. My mother is no doubt rolling in her grave, to have such a dull recurrence.”

Behind closed lips, Caine squeezes his tongue between his pointed teeth. The tiniest trickle of blood blossoms on his taste buds.

“Famulus, get Mr Wise cleaned up and dressed. I want him to make an appearance.”

“Yes, Lord Titus.”

Titus smiles at Caine. “Cheer up, boy. This is going to be fun.”

He steps away, out of view. Famulus appears, a pair of binding cuffs dangling from one index finger, smirking as she peers down at him in his cell. "Mr Wise, we must stop meeting like this."

Chapter Text

On OCT 502102.7, Jupiter sits on Seraphi’s space-throne, wearing Seraphi’s opulent cerulean designer space-dress, and waits for Titus to pick up the call from Seraphi’s space-phone.

(It isn’t a phone, it’s a holographic interface, and it's a baseball-sized camera hovering on a tripod of blue antigravity waves. Nati, Seraphi’s swan-splice assistant, flicks her hand in suppressed agitation every time Jupiter refers to it as a phone.)

When the Aegis ship docked in her alcazar’s hangar bay, Jupiter was worked up enough to call Titus right then and there, wearing her t-shirt and jeans. Nati insisted on the formal attire and the throne. It was wiser to appear unflustered before Lord Titus, she said.

She was right. Dealing with mean girls in high school was one thing; Jupiter’s realizing how much she’s going to have to up her game with the Entitled here in the Commonwealth.

Before long, the air in front of the throne flickers and a three-dimensional holographic image pixellates into existence. Titus lounges on an ornately-wrought gilded chair. Legs flung over one lion-shaped arm and upper body leaning against the other, he’s wearing a navy coat atop an asymmetrically-cut white shirt and tight black trousers, studded with metal spikes. They look wildly uncomfortable, like he’s at risk of puncturing something sensitive at any moment.

Caine is on his knees beside the chair. His hands are behind his back – Jupiter can’t tell if they’re bound or not – but his wings are definitely in an unnatural position, at a sideways angle instead of resting down his back, feathers drooping onto the floor. He’s shirtless and barefoot, wearing loose-fitting silken trousers in dark crimson. A matching velvet ribbon circles his thick neck, tied in a bow in the back.

Titus might as well have attached a leash, to complete the absurd visual effect. 

Jupiter is perfectly aware that he’s trying to get a rise out of her. He’s succeeding, anyway.

Caine’s facial expression is the only thing that keeps Jupiter from leaping to her feet and lunging at the hologram like the terrsies bumpkin she is. He doesn’t appear humiliated or angry or frightened, or anything else she would’ve expected.

Caine looks bored. His gaze rises to meet Jupiter’s. His mouth slides into the smallest smirk, and he rolls his eyes. It’s the exact same longsuffering expression he wore during their time together in the Hall of Titles in the Commonwealth Ministry, every single time they listened to a pedantic bureaucrat lecture them on which queue to navigate next.

Dragging her attention away from Caine, she finds Titus smiling at her. “Queen Jupiter, it’s a pleasure to see you once more.”

“Don’t waste my time, Titus. How much do you want for them?” she replies, words clipped with fury. 

He lifts his eyebrows, swinging his legs around to sit up and placing a hand over his chest. “Directly to business? There is an art to these things. Your time as an Entitled will be quite friendless, if you insist on –”

“You told me that everything was up for negotiation. So let’s negotiate.”

“I couldn’t, not on an empty stomach.” If Jupiter didn’t know better, she’d think Titus was genuinely appalled at her lack of social courtesy. Caine’s bored expression is gone and he stares at her with rapt attention, his head moving once in the slightest, most subtle no. The tendons on his neck stand out, his shoulders pulled tight. As much as Jupiter wants to throttle the life out of Titus, she can imagine her hands around Caine's neck, too - gentle, pulling off the ribbon, mouth following fingertips across his skin, thumbs tracing along his throat. Even with his hands tied behind his back, he would be so safe, she would make him feel so safe.

Jupiter hasn't had enough time to find out whether Caine prefers butter and jam on his toast, or what sound he makes when he comes, or whether he leaves his gravity boots on the living room floor, or if he remembers anniversaries and birthdays. She doesn't know what his face looks like when he hears the words I love you. 

(She doesn't let herself think about the possibility that no one has ever known what his face looks like, when he hears those words.)

She's wasted the last two days, dancing around what she wants to say, afraid she'll scare him away. Right here and now, she's about to lose him anyway. If she isn't clever and quick enough with Titus, Caine will never know how she feels, because she was too cowardly to tell him when she had the chance. 

Titus is still talking, apparently: “Our last meal together ended badly, your majesty. I’d like to make that up to you.”

“No,” Jupiter says. Kiza, standing off to the side of her throne with Nati and a few other servantants, sucks in a soft breath. “We’ll eat at my alcazar, tonight.”

“You think I’d be so gauche as poison you over supper?” Titus lifts his chin, with all the pouting sorrow of a child who accidentally broke his favorite toy.

Jupiter’s laugh is genuine and bitter. “I think you’d shank me with a shrimp fork over appetizers. I expect Mr Wise and Mr Apini will be treated with respect while in your care, and once we’re face-to-face I expect you won’t waste any more of my time.”  

“As your majesty commands,” Titus replies with a nod. He flicks a hand toward someone out of view, and the hologram disintegrates. Caine vanishes in a cascade of colors, leaving only white stone floors behind.

Jupiter doesn’t realize she’s trembling until Kiza takes her hand. She forces a thin smile and says, “I’m sure Stinger’s fine. It doesn’t mean anything, that he wasn’t there.”

Nati steps forward. “I shall have the chefs prepare dinner. Which dishes do you require?”

“I don’t – I don’t know. Seraphi’s favorites, I guess.” What do the mega-rich eat in outer space? She never took a bite of the food on Titus’s table; she’s only ever had MREs on Captain Tsing’s cruiser.

“It’s most odd,” Nati says in slow, measured tones as she kneels to smooth out the train on Jupiter’s skirt where it fans out across the floor, “that Lord Titus is living on his damaged clipper in the Abrasax repair docks, instead of in his alcazar like a respectable Entitled.”

Jupiter looks down at Nati, through the thick lashes shielding her red irises. Her long black fingers tend the dress with serene precision. She asks, “Why would he do that?”

Head swaying on her sinuous neck, Nati clicks disapprovingly. “Lord Titus was ever the most spendthrift of the Abrasax family. There are rumors his current legal troubles, which originated with the bad business involving your majesty last week, have left him even more strapped for funds."

"Yeah about that 'bad business' - why isn't he in jail?"

Nati pauses, lifting her face toward Jupiter in surprise. "Entitled do not suffer imprisonment, majesty. Only for the most horrific of misconduct. But the fines levied against Titus for his crimes were large, they say his supplies of RegeneX are spent, and he was forced to sell the commissions of most of his staff. There are too few left to run his household.”

Only the most horrific of crimes merit jail time for an Entitled? What's more horrific than kidnapping and attempted murder? This culture would probably consider corporate sabotage at the top of the list. And of course everything comes down to money and legal issues. Jupiter might as well be dealing with a homicidal, couture-wearing Vladie.

As satisfying as it would be to beat Titus with an iron pipe, there are more effective – and more lawful – ways to snatch Caine and Stinger out of his hands. If he won’t just let her purchase their commissions, which seems unlikely given how deep the asshole gene runs in the male side of the Abrasax family, she’s going to need a back-up plan.

She could call Kalique. Their initial meeting was nice enough - kidnapping aside, of course. In spite of all her talk about wanting to build a new relationship with her dead mother, Jupiter thinks that bringing Kalique into this fray would be like inviting another viper into the pit.

During the short time it took to portal from Earth to Orous, Jupiter skimmed through as much of the Entitled Code as she could manage, but there are trillions of terabytes of codes and statutes. No matter how many variations of my dead predecessor’s son kidnapped my splice boyfriend she typed into the search bar, the sheave came up empty. Calling in a professional seems like a good place to start.

“Nati, do I have a lawyer – an advocate – whatever they’re called?”

Jupiter’s train finally arrayed in an impeccable semi-circle, Nati rises to her feet. “Your majesty’s estate keeps eight hundred thirty-two advocates and barristers on retainer, from six separate law dynasties.”

Jupiter probably shouldn’t be surprised, given this culture is built on wildly bloated bureaucracy, but the number takes her aback. She clears her throat.

“Wake up the planet of the barristers, issue a memo, whatever. I want every last one of them looking into Titus. I want every detail of his purchase of Mr Wise and Mr Apini scoured, and I want to know everything about the grievance Captain Tsing filed against Titus on my behalf last week. The first person who figures out a legal way to get Mr Apini and Mr Wise’s commissions out of his hands will be rewarded with enough money to create their own private law dynasty. I’ll make them the chief legal counsel for Sera – for my estate.” She pauses. Nati’s face is unreadable. “Can I do that? Do I have enough money to do that?”

“A dozen times over, your majesty.”

“Good. Then do it.”

“If I might presume, there is a more prudent and economical route, one that allows your majesty to avoid Lord Titus’s schemes altogether. Mounting such a large legal campaign will create a spectacle, especially during your first stay on humanity’s home world. If these splices mean so much, simply contact their original creators. Inquire if those particular gene-prints are still available and have the splicers breed duplicates.”

Jupiter and Kiza are squeezing each other’s hands so tightly, she can’t feel her fingers. Breathing makes her lungs burn. “Is that what Seraphi would have done, Nati? Your queen would have replaced you?”

“Your majesty was very fond of the first Nati, who was spliced eighty-five millennia ago. I am the fourth to have been bred from the same gene-print.” The swan splice folds her hands in front of her stomach. 

This universe is a three-ring circus of nightmares. These people are insane.

Jupiter rises from the throne, but she still has to stare up at the taller woman. “I’m in the mood for a legal spectacle. Call the law dynasties, and inform me as soon as it’s done. I’m going to dress for dinner.”

Unperturbed, Nati steps to the side with a bow at the waist. Jupiter stalks out of the room, her shimmering cerulean skirt trailing behind her, swishing with every step. She’s halfway down the nearest corridor, still holding Kiza’s hand, when she realizes she has no idea where she’s going. This alcazar is the size of the Empire State Building, embedded into one of the artificial rings circling the planet-sized city below. She could wander for ages before she finds Seraphi’s bedroom.

Feeling very small and very lost, Jupiter shambles to a stop. A retinue of trailing androids, with purple-skinned bodies and very human faces, comes to a halt behind them.

“I’m here, majesty,” Kiza whispers, her honeycomb-shaped irises flaring gold as she glances at the robots. She’s still wearing Levi jeans and a flowered tank top, her fingernails caked with dirt where she clawed her way out of her own cellar. She looks so human, she could almost be from Earth.

“We’re going to do this together,” Jupiter says. “Okay?”

Kiza turns to fully face Jupiter. She plucks up her wrist, pulls out her arm and turns it over, so Jupiter’s holographic Entitled tattoo faces upward. Placing her hand atop the mark, like someone might put a hand on a holy book to swear an oath in court, Kiza says, “They made me watch when they took my dad’s wings. It nearly killed him. And afterward, seeing him come to terms with what had happened – that was even worse. I swore I’d never let him get hurt like that again. I am yours to command in this business, as if you held my commission.”

Jupiter is beginning to understand what that means, to a Secondary. She doesn’t protest; she finds it comforting.

“Thank you, Kiza.” With the androids looking on, she pulls her friend into a hug and whispers into her ear, “We’re going to fucking ruin Titus.”

Kiza’s relieved laugh is the first good thing that’s happened to Jupiter all day.

 

~~~~~

 

On OCT 502102.7, only a few hours after their holographic phone call, Titus and Jupiter sit at opposite ends of a solid onyx dining table. The walls are lined with guards, stubby arm-cannons pointed at the floor. (Kalique's guards were turquoise, Balem's wore red, and Titus's were black. Apparently Seraphi's are purple, the most regal of colors.) A small host of androids and splices stand in attendance, bringing food and drink from another room. Jupiter tried to learn their names, but there are so many of them, she’s already forgotten at least half.

Kiza is with the gaggle of servants, wearing a lady-in-waiting’s gown, her golden hair swept up with pins and jewels. She blends in well enough, Jupiter hopes. She volunteered to serve as a second pair of eyes, someone who knows both Earth culture and Commonwealth culture well enough to catch nuances in the dinner conversation that Jupiter might miss.

Titus sits straight-backed in his crystal dining chair, arrayed in attire as formal as his wedding suit. It’s olive-colored silk this time instead of blood red, but still sparkly enough to mesmerize a murder of crows.

With the fancy attire and the multi-course meal, Jupiter has the surreal feeling she’s on a hellish prom date. Tommy Benson and senior year weren’t so bad, in retrospect. Jupiter ended up crying on the dance floor in the gym, but she and her friends were still alive by the end of the night. Compared to what’s happening now, her high school prom has shifted into the “positive life experiences” column.

Titus has been charming and polite through two courses of food, inquiring about Earth and Jupiter’s return to her family. She keeps deflecting his questions, and no matter how often she brings up Caine and Stinger he sidesteps the subject.

Finally exasperated with the verbal square dance, Jupiter puts down her fork and knife with a clatter. “I know you’re out of money, Titus. Tell me how much you want for their commissions, and I’ll pay it.”

“Did you find Mr Wise to your liking?” Titus asks, as if he’s discussing the weather. He pops a bite into his mouth – a vegetable of some kind, she thinks, something like a carrot. “I found he needed quite a bit of training in the bedroom. He does seem eager to please you, perhaps he was more compliant when you had him?”

If Jupiter had food in her mouth, she’d choke; as it is, she swallows a mouthful of air. Is this Titus’s idea of tit for tat, trading blows in the guise of blunt truth?

(I didn’t anticipate what he wanted. He was very displeased, Caine told her in the bedroom at Stinger’s farm.)

(May I kill him? Caine asked, mauler leveled at Titus's head. Jupiter said no, and Caine holstered his weapon and walked away beside her, without looking back.)

(Caine knelt bound and half-naked on the floor beside Titus, and smiled so that she would stay calm.)

His perfect rose-colored mouth drawn up into a grin, his perfect white teeth on display, Titus takes a bite of meat. Jupiter is going to be sick, right here all over her solid gold plate and goblet.

His security detail is small, compared to the number of guards and servantants Jupiter has in this room. She could say a word and have Titus pitched out an airlock, just like he pitched Caine last week. She could order a bucket of popcorn and watch through a viewport as he flailed and suffocated in that sparkling green suit of his. Then she’d just waltz onto his clipper and take Caine and Stinger.

Titus wouldn’t go without a fight, though. His guards would open fire and people would get hurt. There would be legal ramifications. The Commonwealth might confiscate Jupiter's property, confiscate the Earth, and hand it over to her Abrasax next of kin, Kalique. Stinger and Caine’s commissions would still be part of Titus’s estate.

Jupiter rises to her feet, fingertips resting against the table to steady herself. The mix of fury and disgust churning in her stomach makes her toes curl in her stilettoes. She isn’t sure if it’s the result of her forward posture or the expression on her face, but Titus sits up straighter, his eyes widening in mild alarm.

“I know that you see me as an ignorant terrsies savage. Let me assure you, Titus, I am exactly that. I’m done playing your petty game, because I’m uninterested in learning the rules. I have the resources to take your clipper by force, and you’ve used up the last of my patience.”

“I would file a complaint with the –”

“You would be a guest in my alcazar, and much too busy to communicate with anyone,” Jupiter snaps.

“Your majesty is threatening to take me prisoner!” Titus says, grinning brightly, delighted. He leans back from the table, steepling his fingers in front of his chest. “Now we’re getting somewhere. In spite of what you say, you are learning the rules of the game quite nicely. I would be honored to stay here as your guest. Please send for Mr Apini and Mr Wise to attend me, while I’m here.”

He’s still trying to goad her. She knows she doesn’t have the temperament to keep him prisoner and torment him until he gives over Stinger and Caine’s commissions. She doesn’t even have the stomach to outsource that kind of behavior. Jupiter isn’t that person.

“I’ll drop the charges and tax levies against you, for plotting to kill me. I’ll return the fines that the Commonwealth collected from you. You hand over their commissions,” she snarls.

“It isn’t just a matter of charges and fines,” Titus replies. “It’s also a matter of our estrangement, and the very public rift in the Abrasax empire. It’s bad for business, you see.”

“That’s why you tried to marry and murder me, is it?” Jupiter says through gritted teeth. “Abrasax brand strength?”

“Dropping the charges and repaying the levied fines would be a step toward a public reconciliation.” He gestures, indicating that Jupiter should sit. Narrowing her eyes, she picks up her golden goblet, takes a gulp of wine, and steps away from her chair entirely. She walks toward him, so he’s forced to look up at her.

Undeterred, he continues, “I don’t suppose your majesty has caught up on correspondence since you arrived on Orous? As fate would have it, the premiere social event of the season is tomorrow. It’s the most fashionable occasion, for all the best and brightest Entitled on Orous and across the galaxy. You could appear on my arm. If a picture of us dancing together circulated in the digitabloids, across every news outlet, it would send a clear message that the Abrasax family stands united, in the wake of Balem’s unfortunate accident.”

The son of a bitch is asking her to a dance. This is the prom date from hell.

Jupiter says, “I want Stinger and Caine at the event tomorrow, too. I’ll have a sheave drawn up for you to seal. You hand them over along with their commissions, then I’ll drop the charges, return the levies, and smile for your pictures.”

“Impossible,” he replies, genuinely shocked. “You know what Mr Wise is.”

Attempted murderer. Rabid dog. Titus reads it in her face, that she knows.

“You were living your tiny little life on your tiny little planet when it happened, Jupiter. You didn’t see the trial and the galactic media frenzy. For the last decade, the name Caine Wise has been notorious in Entitled circles. We whisper it to our children like he’s a boogeyman in the shadows, waiting to eat them.

“You think I’d bring that creature into a room full of my peers, on the evening of the galaxy’s premiere social event, with hundreds of cameras and trillions of citizens watching across thousands of planets? I’m not insane! It’s one thing to trot Mr Wise out in private company as a novelty to entertain guests, or bring him along on odd jobs as a blunt instrument, but if I take him into that event tomorrow, the Commonwealth could bring me up on charges of reckless endangerment and – when things go as they inevitably do with a defective splice – murder.” His pretty face is drawn down into an indignant pout, his vehemence genuine.

“If you call me Jupiter again, I’ll have you out on your ear. Address me as ‘your majesty.’” Jupiter frowns. “Caine's had his pardon."

"He's a wild animal, your majesty. Do you think a pardon can erase what he did from the public consciousness?"

"And all it takes to erase your attempted murder from the public consciousness are a few photos of us smiling and waving together. I suppose that’s part of what the label Entitled means – you’re entitled to the benefit of the doubt when dealing with the justice system. Caine got a media circus and a prison sentence and galaxy-wide notoriety, and for the exact same crime you paid some cash and waltzed right back to your clipper. You’re a sly bastard, figure out how to get Caine and Stinger into the event tomorrow for the hand-off, or there’s no deal.”

Titus squirms in his chair, fork clutched in one hand. “The Entitled guests aren’t even permitted to bring armed guards, only a retinue of attendants. No weapons are allowed. Everyone will be at risk! This is reckless!”

“No one will be at risk, Titus. You're more of a danger to that room full of Entitled than Caine and Stinger put together," Jupiter says. She mostly believes it. "Disguise them, if you have to. Make them part of your retinue. I’m sure you need a few more hands to help carry your bloated ego. If you want me there, if you want your money and your good press, then bring them tomorrow.” Standing tall, rising a little onto her tiptoes in her already-towering heels, Jupiter says, “Balem died when he threatened the people who matter to me. Be careful, walking in your brother’s footsteps.”

Wrinkling his nose and huffing out a frustrated breath, Titus flings his fork onto the table. It bounces and lodges in a plate of blue-leaf salad. “Very well. On my word, not a hair on Mr Wise or Mr Apini’s heads will be out of place when you see them tomorrow.” He snatches up his goblet and drains it, muttering something Jupiter can’t hear. Then he turns to glance behind his chair, toward the door. “Isn’t it time for dessert? Chef Brammalo makes the most delicious chocolate ganache, it was always the highlight of visiting my mother.”

“Your mother is dead, and dinner is over. Get the hell out of my alcazar.”

Titus takes his leave, as respectful as propriety requires, bowing and kissing Jupiter’s hand.

When he’s gone, Jupiter and Kiza sit down together at the dining table to make a plan. They eat dessert, a chocolate-flavored mousse-custard concoction. Nati sits with them, because Jupiter asks. She provides plenty of helpful advice, but can’t bring herself to break protocol and dine with her queen. 

Afterward, Jupiter goes to Seraphi's room to try to rest. Alone in the cavernous space, she keeps her promise and calls home. 

"I'll be back in two days," Jupiter tells her mother. She mostly believes that, too.

Chapter Text

On OCT 502102.8, Jupiter makes her public debut as an Entitled. She descends from her sloop, in a cloud of blue antigravity waves, onto a platinum walkway. Dozens of hovering white baseball-sized cameras dart away from the other nearby Entitled and fly toward her at alarming speed. She doesn’t duck, but she does flinch – a reaction that will be seen and replayed and commentated upon across the galaxy’s social media for weeks to come.

Jupiter knows that's how it will go, because Nati sat down with her and explained everything about this Entitled event in vivid, terrifying detail. She also showed Jupiter the leaked footage from her wedding to Titus. He was meticulous in ensuring their ceremony would be legally recognized – an appropriately designated magistrate to perform the ceremony, a Commonwealth certified holo-brander to emblazon the rings, and the requisite number of sims present to document every last detail. That way if Kalique or Balem contested the marriage after Jupiter’s death, hundreds of recordings could be produced to prove that she said the words “I enter into this union of sound mind and of my own volition.” Then Titus could go on his merry matricidal way, harvesting Earth with impunity, while flipping Balem the bird.

After Captain Tsing filed public criminal charges against Titus for fraud and attempted murder, some enterprising hacker accessed the sim files and broadcast them. The video of Caine crashing the wedding has gone viral across the galaxy. Earlier today, Jupiter stood inside a full-sized 3D holographic projection of Caine smashing through the ceiling of the crystal cathedral and holding a gun to Titus’s head, and she curled her fingernails into her palms so hard she drew blood.

In light of the video, Titus’s demand that she attend this event makes sense. He’s in the shithouse financially and socially. Of course he wants his legal fines returned and his positive media attention alongside Jupiter. Their wedding ended with her walking away with a lowly splice bounty hunter. Tonight is about re-establishing social order.

Nati and an entourage of twelve other splices and androids descend serenely from the sloop behind her. They’re all wearing deep purple, Seraphi’s personal house color. At least Kiza looks a little startled. She’s still playing the part of lady-in-waiting, but being on this side of the reality tv camera is a new experience for her, too. It’s one thing to watch The Bachelor or Sargorn Housewives of the Cleopides; it’s another thing entirely to stand here as the little white baseball-cameras zip around, snapping three-sixty dress views and exposing every mote of makeup.

A line of Entitled process into the building ahead, an elegant towering ivory-colored structure situated on the surface of Orous, one of the oldest buildings preserved from the dawn of humanity. It’s reserved for important events of state; apparently this evening qualifies. Far overhead, so distant it’s hardly noticeable in front of the black void of space and the shining outer rings, arches an environmental dome to maintain the atmosphere.

Smile and walk, your majesty. Follow the crowd, Nati hums soothingly in her ear, transmitted through a small implanted communication device, one that comes loaded with a translator subroutine. It was a quick process, like getting a vaccination, just a needle-prick behind her left ear to embed a little black dot in her skin. Jupiter is glad for the whispered guidance of Seraphi’s Head of Household. This event is going to be a minefield of social faux pas, and without someone to walk her through it Jupiter will stomp on every single explosive.

Nati is genuinely ecstatic at Seraphi’s return, no matter how bluntly Jupiter tells her that she isn’t a dead woman. Nati insisted on doing Jupiter’s hair and makeup herself, instead of letting the chamber presence see to those details. She suggested a black dress, to demonstrate proper public grieving over Balem. Jupiter spent half an hour digging through Seraphi’s closet (which is four times the size of Vassily’s house) and chose a vivid silver frock, light and airy and floor-length. Tonight’s crown isn’t as fantastical as the one Titus made her wear; this coronet is far more understated, dotted with opals and hovering garnets.

On the platinum walkway, Jupiter draws the corners of her mouth up, hoping her pink and silver lipstick isn’t smeared into a clown-smile, and she walks. The cameras follow, humming and recording.

The inside of the building somehow feels larger than the outside. It stretches farther than the eye can see, a cavernous space full of glittering crystal chandeliers and ornate statuary. The figures are all human, every last one covered in gilt, but they aren’t the serene Grecian sort. Twisted into frightening shapes, their faces are distorted with exaggerated emotions and fingers twisted like plant-roots. Unearthly music fills the air – Jupiter couldn’t name a single instrument, although they seem like they ought to be familiar. A violin with a few too many strings, an electric guitar played through a bizarrely-constructed amplifier, drumbeat pounded on something besides stretched skin.  

Hundreds of private tents line the walls, each reserved for a particular Entitled. Jupiter tries not to pay attention to the openly curious faces that peek past force-field tent flaps, watching her pass.

Halfway through the building, Nati touches her elbow. “This way, majesty.”

Cameras aren’t allowed inside the Entitled tents, because these are the spaces where business deals are made and social contracts are formed. Everywhere else – the dance floor, the gambling arena, the gladiatorial rings – are under constant view, broadcasting live for the galaxy’s viewing pleasure. The dance floor and gambling arena are for Entitled participation only. The gladiatorial rings are for everyone’s entertainment, although only nonhumans (or humans cybernetically modified past DNA solvency) are allowed to fight. Beyond the gladiatorial arenas are the splicers’ stalls, where genomegineers put their best and brightest work on display for purchase.

Jupiter’s Entitled tent is large enough to accommodate her retinue, with a levitating buffet table full of food on one side, a collection of chairs, and a fainting couch. One entire wall is occupied by footage of the events happening in the ballroom, tiny three-dimensional dancers and gamblers and gladiators flickering like multicolored candles.

(Caine was right: Commonwealth dancing is nothing like the swaying and grinding she taught him on Earth. The expansive ballroom floor is occupied by Entitled hopping and jigging in geometric patterns, occasionally tapping hands or linking arms. If she does end up having to dance with Titus, at least she won’t have to touch him much.)

As Jupiter stands beside the tent flap and looks out, surveying the crowd for Titus, Kiza hands her a cup full of fluorescent orange liquid. It looks like Gatorade and smells like flowery room freshener. It tastes even sweeter than it smells, as if someone added a few extra cups of sugar to a soda.

Craning her neck and squinting at the opposite end of the facility, Jupiter says, “Holy crap, talk about bread and circuses. Is this what happens when Las Vegas and the Academy Awards have a baby?”

“Yeah, and then the UFC stole that baby and raised it in a glitter factory,” Kiza snorts. “Things get brutal down there, on the far end. Entitled spend the entire year training up their splices and saurosapiens, and tinkering with their androids, in preparation for the fights. Like big-time boxing matches at Madison Square Garden, but with no referees and no rules. They don’t allow weapons, but everything else is fair game. Don’t sit close enough to get blood on your gown, the fashion commentators will rip you to shreds in the after-show.” She pauses. “It’s so crazy, seeing this in person. I’ve watched the broadcasts every year, as long as I can remember, and never in a million millennia did I think I’d see it in real life.”

Jupiter absently takes another drink, and wrinkles her nose at the sickly sweetness.

“Your Majesty should probably be seen browsing the genomgineers’ stalls while you’re here. I could go with you, you could purchase your own security retinue! Then you won’t be dependent on the Aegis or your servantant guards.” Buying people, selling people, breeding people – Kiza’s comment is casual, as if she’s suggesting they purchase a handbag, like she’s eager to help choose the right color splice to coordinate with Jupiter’s gown.

“Have you got the sheave?” Jupiter says sharply. Kiza’s starstruck enthusiasm wilts, and she nods. “Deliver it to Titus, please.”

Kiza takes a deep breath, visibly steeling herself before plunging into the chaos outside the tent. Her bare shoulders and long purple gown disappear into the throng.

Jupiter sits down, ignoring the urge to take off her high heels and rub the ache from her feet. Less than thirty seconds later, the first Entitled visitor comes calling at her tent flap, eager to make formal introductions.

Chapter Text

Half a ballroom away, Caine tugs at his tight silk collar. Crouched on the ground against the back wall of Titus’s Entitled tent, everything is tight – the snug purple trousers of his livery uniform, the clamps hobbling his wings flat against his back under his long silk coat, the grav-binders around his wrists and ankles, the digital gag across his mouth.

The restraints are tastefully subtle. Caine’s gag is only visible as a slight shimmer to the air. The arm and leg grav-binders are the same as the Keepers used on Jupiter in the fertility clinic, to immobilize and levitate her. Titus has Caine and Stinger’s restraints set at a relatively low level for the moment, so they can move under their own power, but only with excessive effort, as if they’re swimming through molasses.

The control mechanisms are on a bracelet around Titus’s wrist. Caine hasn’t figured out how to take the bracelet away from him yet, aside from tearing off his hand.

Even with the grav-binders slowing him down, Caine has come up with several vaguely feasible plans to get at Titus, but he’s certain Jupiter wouldn’t want him to rip off anybody’s hand. He considered asking Stinger to do it, but he suspects that request would fall under the umbrella of “not playing fair,” which is also off-limits. Anyway, Stinger’s got a stodgier sense of self-control when it comes to the Entitled, and unless Kiza was somehow in harm’s way, he wouldn’t resort to bodily injury in any case.

Caine wonders if these tenuously moderated violent thoughts are enough to justify his restraints. He’s cooped up in a contained space teeming with Entitled, all of them strutting around with throats exposed and vulnerable. No one has bothered to ask him, but he doesn’t feel the urge to bite anyone. He isn’t even craving a nibble.

He caught Jupiter’s scent the instant she arrived inside the environmental dome. He can track anybody across the void of space – it’s a sixth sense built into his genome, a compass inside his head – he doesn’t always need olfactory contact. But when he can smell his quarry as well, the domesticated human part of his brain tries to check out, and his alien animal instincts claw at the controls.

Since he met Jupiter, those alien animal instincts have stopped howling hound, kill. Now they’re screaming locate, defend.

Caine swallows a mouthful of spit; he’s practically drooling. The nape of his neck is cold, his face is hot, every inhale sets off a flare gun in his brain. Jupiter is so goddamn close. He could draw a map to her location, if Titus hadn’t confiscated his gravity boots he’d be beside her in a matter of seconds. Huffing a long irritated breath out through his nose, he thumps the back of his head against the solid wall of Titus’s tent.

Slumped beside Caine, wearing identical purple livery, Stinger eyes him sideways. His hexagonal irises flicker, his foot jittering against the floor. “Can you hear them out there? Doesn’t it make you want to tear the goddamn place down?”

Of course Caine’s ears pick up everything. Incessant conversation; music and a legion of dancing Entitled footsteps; the whir of gambling machines and tables. Furthest away is the sound Stinger means: howls and screams from the gladiatorial rings.

Stinger looks excited. A decade-long stint as a backwater marshal for the Aegis apparently makes a Skyjacker thirsty for any combat action.

During the last week, Caine has come to the dawning realization that his decade in Deadland slaked his bloodlust, enough to last a lifetime. Or maybe it’s Jupiter, and the fact that he’s found a place – a person – who feels like home, and there’s nothing left to prove to anyone except her. Whatever the reason, the sound of distant battle doesn’t inspire Caine in the slightest. 

“Kiza’s here.” Caine’s words are soft, and further muffled by his gag. The device is only intended to prevent another throat-ripping fiasco, not keep him quiet.

(Caine knows Kiza’s scent well. He even tracked her once, as a favor for Stinger during their Skyjacker days. As a teenager she made off with a young Legion recruit on a shore-leave weekend. He and Stinger ran down the unhappy couple and spent an enjoyable few hours putting the fear of the Void into the newly-minted private, to boot.)

Stinger grows completely still, his eyes riveting to the tent flaps, his posture suddenly alert. A few Entitled retinues cycle through on social calls before Kiza’s turn in line. She practically looks like an Entitled herself, fancy dress and hair, reeking of pheromone-laced perfume.

Kiza’s gaze casually drifts around the tent without lingering on anything in particular, not even when she spots the two of them sitting on the ground in the back. Stinger raised her well, she won’t give away anything she shouldn’t.

Jupiter’s scent is all over her, because they’ve been touching hands and linking arms. Caine closes his eyes and swallows again, keeps his breathing shallow, but it’s no good. That tracking flare gun goes off in his head, pop pop pop, sunlight-colored flashes – the sound of his name in Jupiter’s mouth, the shape of her face when she smiles, the soft way she snores, the happy curve of her chestnut-colored eyes, the taste of estradiol in the hollow of her neck, the scent of soil and wildflowers in her hair in the morning.

“Lord Titus,” Kiza says, nervously executing a half-curtsy, “I bring a sheave from Queen Jupiter for your royal seal.”

Famulus plucks away the sheave and folds it into her arms, obviously with no intention of passing it to her master anytime soon.

Titus sits up and forward. From his vantage point, Caine can’t see his expression, but his voice is all charm. “My dear, you are such a vision I hardly believe you aren’t a queen, yourself. Your eyes are quite striking. An apid splice, if I’m not mistaken?” Titus’s head half-turns toward Stinger. “The Abrasax sovereign does have a type, doesn’t she? Tell your lady I thank her, and I shall be there shortly to escort her to the dance floor.”

Kiza blinks rapidly. “Yes, m’lord,” she says, executing a curtsy before she backs out of the tent.

Famulus glances at the sheave. “These are the terms of your verbal agreement with Jupiter, down to the letter.”

“How quaint,” Titus sighs. He touches the control bracelet on his wrist, and Caine’s arm and leg grav-binders click up to the maximum setting. In spite of himself, he growls as he’s hoisted into the air, left floating prone and vulnerable. Aloft beside him, Stinger rolls his eyes and rumbles out a soft stream of curses.

“Alter the terms on the sheave as we discussed, Famulus.” Titus inclines his head toward Caine and Stinger. “Have those two stored at the gladiator loading area. Jupiter and I will certainly take in a show. I have the feeling she’ll need a bit more convincing, before she comes over. And if they cause trouble beforehand, wearing her personal color, she’ll get blamed for bringing these animals into the event. Just imagine the bad press she’ll have, after that. I’ve even been practicing my interview face, for the news reports.”

“You’ll be magnificent, my lord.”

“I think I shall.” Titus stands, and a host of androids bustle forward with his black coat and cravat, fussing and straightening until his hair is smooth and his cuffs are even. When he steps out of the tent, the androids bob along in his wake like a gaggle of grey geese.

There are eight of them left, including Famulus. Jupiter’s sheave in hand, she comes over to inspect the two men. “Your daughter is a pretty one, Mr Apini. Mr Wise called her Kiza? Titus does like them young and trainable.”

Famulus’s cervidae ears are more sensitive than Caine imagined.

“She’s clever, too,” Stinger says. “She’ll make a good replacement, when Titus finally gets bored with you and sells your commission. His attention span seems short. How long have you been with him? A year?”

“Lord Titus cannot do without me,” Famulus snaps, using a single finger to shove Stinger’s shoulder so he floats into Caine. Caine winces as he rebounds into the wall. “He knows that.”

“Did he tell you that himself? He once told me that lies are the only reason he gets out of bed in the morning. You were there, surely you remember,” Caine says.

“That was a good day’s work. I pushed a button and sent you into the Void. I live in hope of repeating the experience, and doing it properly next time.” She tips her head. “I’ve put in a call and the gladiatorial monitors will be here to collect you momentarily. Use your span in the box to rest up, you’ll both need your strength.”

Famulus sways her hip into Stinger’s thigh, so the men bump into each other again, ricocheting like billiard balls. With a wide grin, she cackles, “Oh my, this is fun. As much as I’d like to stay here and bounce you boys around all day, I have a legal document to alter.”

She struts out of the tent, leaving a handful of androids to supervise them. It would be easy enough to fight their way free now, except for the minor issue of their complete physical incapacitation.

“Kiza says that her majesty has a plan,” Stinger murmurs, so softly that even Caine’s ears hardly hear.

Caine lifts his eyebrows, glancing at the androids to make sure they aren’t paying attention. “Kiza said half a dozen words, and none of them were about a plan.”

“What kind of bollocks father do you think I am, that I wouldn’t teach my daughter intergalactic code? She blinked out a message.”

No wonder Caine didn’t notice, he can’t process visual information with the superhuman speed of a bee splice. “So what’s the plan then?”

“Kiza didn’t say what the plan was, only that there was one,” Stinger replies.

“Fucking brilliant. We’ll just lie back and get our nails done and wait.”

“Cheer up, Caine. We might get to bloody our knuckles, before her majesty Queen Jupiter’s undoubtedly ingenious plan comes to fruition," Stinger says dryly. "That’s something to look forward to."

Caine snorts.

If Jupiter’s intending to give Titus what he wants, then everything’s going to go to hell in an Entitled handbasket. Last time, Caine put a stop to it before she could get hurt. But Jupiter’s clever, she learns and adapts quickly. He’s certain she wouldn’t blithely go along with whatever sugar-coated nonsense Titus is feeding her, not again.

Jupiter’s here in the building, she’s got Kiza’s help, and she knows what sort of Entitled jackassery Titus is capable of. Things aren’t all bad.

 

~~~~~

 

Jupiter has just come to the realization that her plan is shit.

She’s somehow ended up on the ballroom floor, dancing with Lady Parnella of the House of Mavattia. Before she stepped out of the tent, Nati made sure she was wearing the latest fashionable footwear: real and proper Red Shoes, like the kind from the fairy tale, ones that dance on their own. They’re fancy self-propelled gravity boots with heels. She has to keep her legs limber, but the shoes escort her from one position to the next on the ballroom floor, making sure she’s in exactly the right place at every turn.

Nati’s voice still whispers in her ear, soothing and confident, Right hand up, left hand back, pivot shoulders clockwise. Her upper body is less coordinated than her feet, and as cameras flit around the dance floor, she’s certain she’s making a fool of herself.

After Kiza left Jupiter’s tent to deliver the sheave to Titus, a steady flood of visitors paraded in to visit Jupiter, all of them offering condolences on the destruction of Earth’s RegeneX processing plant and sympathies for Balem’s death – in that order. There have been veiled inquiries into the settlement of Balem’s estate, invitations to social weekends and hunting parties on other planets, congratulations on being a recurrence, and gifts in the form of edible flowers and non-edible fruits.

Nati has quietly fed guidance into Jupiter’s ear when she finds herself stammering for words. She’s such a calming, helpful presence, Jupiter knows why Seraphi valued her so much.

The only thing Nati hasn’t delivered is the one thing Jupiter asks about every few minutes: news from her legal dynasties. Reports arrive regularly, filtered and organized by a host of tireless android advocates billing outrageous sums for overtime, but no one’s uncovered a sound way to wrench Stinger and Caine’s commissions out of Titus’s hands. The pardon sheave had a goddamn bribe embedded on it, and apparently that’s so common that graft has its own set of rules in this bureaucratic circus of a society, and he abided by every one of them.

Maybe she ought to have taken a page from Caine’s book and just hopped into a spaceship and smashed her way into Titus’s clipper to the rescue, mauler blazing and barking (his gun barks – she keeps meaning to ask him about that – does Stinger’s gun buzz?). Not that Jupiter has any idea how to pilot a spaceship or fire a gun, except pointing and shooting in the general direction of the Bad Thing. She’s still somewhat startled she managed to hit Balem’s skinny knee, after he cut her. She’d never held a weapon in her life, much less fired one, until Caine put his pistol in her hand in Chicago.

During Caine’s last-minute derring-do rescues, did he ever suffer this kind of doubt? A moment where he was certain he’d fucked up (royally, Jupiter’s fuckup would technically be a royal one), and everything was completely out of control?

Of course, Caine has plenty of professional combat training and experience to rely on during his fights. There was probably a “Crashing Spaceships Into Buildings” elective in the Legion training school. Jupiter’s high school stint as the Swiss ambassador in Model U.N. did not adequately prepare her for intergalactic backstabbing and politics.

All Jupiter’s ideas about keeping Titus distracted and busy, throwing massive sums of money at the problem, trying to manipulate the legal system like a proper Abrasax – what if all of this has been a mistake? Violence sounds much more immediately gratifying than this shaky, disorderly waiting game, applying her inherited resources to the problem.

After fifteen mortifying minutes on the dance floor, the song finally ends. Lady Parnella claps delightedly and laces her arm with Jupiter’s, escorting her out of the ballroom. “Your majesty, you do your house credit! You have Queen Seraphi’s talent for dance.”

“Thank you.” Jupiter has no idea if the praise is sincere. Seraphi might’ve had two left feet, for all she knows.

When Lady Parnella catches sight of Titus waiting beside Jupiter’s tent, she excuses herself with a curtsy and a kiss on the cheek. Several baseball-cameras hover nearby, watching.

Titus bows at the waist, reaching out to grasp Jupiter’s fingers and kiss her hand. “My queen, will you do me the honor of a turn on the floor?”

He doesn’t have the sheave. Jupiter forces a smile. “Not now, Lord Titus. I’d like a drink, and a moment to catch my breath.”

When she steps inside the tent, Kiza is there. “Majesty, Lord Titus didn’t sign the – oh.” She catches sight of the other Abrasax entering the tent behind her, and she closes her mouth.

Titus says, “There she is again, the little wild splice. Your majesty, did you know that Mr Apini has held Miss Apini’s commission for years, and has never gotten a single scrap of labor from her? Her genomegineering is defective, too, she’s chronically prone to the Bug and the treatment is quite expensive. I think he must keep her as a pet, to indulge her so.”

The names Jupiter wants to call Titus taste bitter, when she swallows them.

She shoots a look at Nati. Nati blinks, head moving sideways a fraction. No solution from the law dynasties yet.

“I’m done having this exact same conversation over and over again. You want your money and your publicity? Give me the sheave and Caine and Stinger,” she says, rounding to face Titus. An android and a sparrow splice flit over to kneel at her feet, removing her dancing shoes and sliding on her regular heels. Jupiter is so distracted, she doesn’t notice them; she doesn’t even think of saying thank you.

“You failed to list Miss Apini as an asset, while we were negotiating yesterday. She belongs to Mr Apini, and Mr Apini belongs to me. Either you hand her over, or I’ll need compensation for her commission as well. Perhaps five times her market value? Famulus is altering your sheave as we speak, to reflect the new terms. She’s set to meet us at the gladiatorial rings. Until then we have more than enough time for a dance.”

“No we don’t,” Jupiter replies, smoothing out her skirt. “We’re going to the arena now. Call Famulus, tell her to get a hustle on.”

She marches out of the tent, attendants scrambling in her wake.

 

~~~~~

 

There are four massive gladiatorial rings, each surrounded by private viewing boxes for Entitled and their retinues. The rings themselves are hexagonal. Of sleek white construction, to better showcase spilled blood, they’re anchored by tall posts at each corner, everything enclosed by a force-field mesh dome, to keep combatants in while allowing the spectators outside to clearly see and hear the action. The gladiators aren’t permitted weapons, but most Entitled outfit their champions with armor and defensive mechanisms, like shields.

A retinue of Aegis guards escorts the gladiators to each match in a crate, constructed of sound-proof opaque force fields, and deposits them directly into the fighting arena. That way the brutes stay well separated from the Entitled in attendance.

The filtration system in Stinger and Caine’s crate is practically nonexistent, and the space feels intolerably stuffy. Caine is grateful he’s never been claustrophobic. He can’t do anything about the situation, anyway, since he’s floating three feet off the ground with his arms and legs extended, grav-binders humming away on his wrists and ankles.

“Skyjacker Command was wrong to sell you out so easily,” he says, staring at the ceiling. “I understand why they don’t want me, but they made a bad call with your commission.”

“Bollocks. Our old unit would hardly have welcomed us back with open arms,” Stinger replies, his eyes closed. He could almost be sleeping, he looks so relaxed. He used to slip into this meditative state before every battle, before they were both court-martialed. “Command made a sound business decision, unloading our commissions so quickly. It would’ve happened even without the bribe embedded in that pardon sheave. It’s just our shit luck that Titus was the one who bought us out.” His voice is calm, but his hands are curled into fists.

Our shit luck. It wasn’t Stinger’s bad luck, it was Caine trying to do the right thing and bringing bad luck along.

“Kiza didn’t deserve to get pulled into your Entitled cock-up,” Stinger says. “Me and you have enough bad karma to deserve this. She doesn’t.”

“No she doesn’t. I’m sorry.” Caine closes his eyes, instinctively imitating Stinger’s reverie, grasping at calm. It’s old habit, patterning his behavior off of his captain.

Every year a handful of gladiators die during this Entitled soiree, and dozens end up disfigured with injuries too extreme for RegeneX to heal. Of course, the other gladiators’ participation is entirely voluntary, they sign releases and indemnity forms for their Entitled employers. Titus hasn’t provided any kit for battle, these soft livery suits offer no more protection than if they were naked. If something happens to Stinger, Jupiter will take care of Kiza – Caine hopes so, at least. She cares, which can be a weakness, but it makes her fierce, too. She won’t let Kiza pass into Titus’s hands without a fight.

Even though no noise penetrates the solid force field walls of the crate, the metal base vibrates with the sound of the screaming crowd outside. The rattling finally breaks Stinger’s concentration. 

“Beeswax!” He tries to draw his arms and legs in, pulling futilely at his restraints. Caine’s built like a freight train, Stinger’s wiry as an acrobat, but Caine would give it to Stinger for sheer determined strength any day. He’s seen the man fly unshielded through a menosonic wave barrier just because the soldier behind it insulted his splicer. “I never thought I’d die wearing a goddamn silk bathrobe.”

“This livery’ll show off the blood real nice,” Caine mutters.

He’s so tired. He’s been fighting his entire life – fighting for scraps when he was a runt kid, fighting for rank the Legion, fighting for honor in the Skyjackers, fighting for survival in Deadland. There have been a handful of reprieves here and there, but it was foolish of Caine to imagine that his time with Jupiter was anything but a brief anomaly.

It doesn’t matter that he doesn’t want to fight anymore, because he always ends up here anyway. He’s been stupid enough to nurture a hope that his fate had changed, that Jupiter was his destiny. It’s for the best, he decides, that he’s been too hung up on his own issues and he couldn’t bring himself to tell Jupiter how important she was to him. She didn’t deserve to be burdened with that.

Stinger grunts with effort, blood blossoming around his wrists where restraints dig into flesh. “You suppose that Abrasax ponce is gonna turn off these fucking grav-binders? It won't be very entertaining for his Entitled friends, if we just float out there for a beating.”

As if on cue, the box rumbles to a stop and all the restraints deactivate.

Caine and Stinger slam onto the metal floor. The deactivated grav-binders are still attached to wrists and ankles, and clamps are still fixed to the base of each neurosynaptic wing structure, but for the moment their wings are only restrained by the thin fabric of their coats. Both men surge to their feet in tandem to face the oncoming threat, their coordination born from years spent operating as a team.

(There’s a thrill of pleasure in how easily they move together, even after everything.)

The force field that serves as the crate door flickers and disappears. Their box rests against one side of a glaringly bright gladiator ring. Deep shadows hide the crowd beyond the mesh barrier wall, but a wave of sound crashes over them. Animal noises mixed with human shouts and amplified cheers from android vocal boxes. The cacophony looses the floodgates of Caine’s adrenaline.  The heady scent of a bloodthirsty mob saturates the air, layered on top of sweat and blood and antiseptic cleaning fluid from the gladiatorial ring.

All his frustration and anger and fear from the last few days focuses to a laser-point, aimed directly at the animal survival instincts engineered into his genome. Caine’s battle-lust flares and catches fire.

“Too bloody right!” Stinger bellows at the invisible crowd, irises blazing gold, bright as a beacon. On the opposite side of the ring, an android sporting two humanoid arms and two whip-like tentacles steps into the combat arena, followed by a freakishly large Sargorn in full body armor.

Fucking bullshit. Caine would fly into battle beside a Sargorn any day, but fighting for his life against one twice in two weeks? He growls low and deep in the back of his throat, his gut boiling with fury at the gyre’s twisted sense of humor.

Stinger shucks his purple frock coat so fast it rips in half, insectoid wings shredding fabric as they unfurl like origami from his back. Caine follows suit, metal edges of his wings bursting through silk, feathers unlocking and extending. It feels like he’s breathing for the first time in days.

“Time to wake up the fucking iron, Captain!” he howls.

Stinger grabs Caine’s pristine white dress collar and knocks their foreheads together. “Commander! Death from above!”

Caine completes the call: “None left alive!”

Death from above, none left alive! Urrah!” they shout in unison, and they launch into the ring.

Chapter Text

In his private box at the gladiatorial arena, three rows removed from the force field, Titus pulls out an antigrav chair for Jupiter. She sits and surveys the raucous crowd. Kiza stands in attendance behind her, fingers laced as she chews her lip. It isn’t very ladylike, but Jupiter is doing the same thing, she’s probably eaten all her lipstick off by now.

Aegis guards escorts two opaque crates toward opposite sides of the ring, and the spectators begin to clap and shout. The sound is wild and otherworldly, full of animal howls. Jupiter shivers.

Titus plucks a glass from a servantant’s tray, filled with a glowing liquid that smells like mint julep, and passes it to her. “This match has the longest odds of the entire day. I haven’t put any money on it personally, but it should be interesting,” he says, gesturing toward the ring with his own drink. Jupiter frowns, and he hastens to add, “You can relax and enjoy the spectacle, your majesty. Famulus is on her way with the sheave.”

Jupiter has her mouth open to reply when Nati’s voice pipes up in her ear. It’s hardly audible over the din. “Queen Jupiter, I’ve just had word from Advocate David from the Law Dynasty of the Golden Mean. He uncovered a problem with the bank routing number of Titus’s funds for the purchase of Mr Wise and Mr Apini’s commissions. In light of the error, the bank retroactively voided the transaction. Their pardons are intact but their commissions are legally orphaned.”

Jupiter doesn’t understand the nuance, but she gets the broad stroke. Heart swelling with satisfaction and a triumphant snarl on her face, she shoots a look at Kiza before turning toward Titus. The three baseball cameras in the box track her movement, and the crowd lets out a deafening roar as a Sargorn and an android step out of one gladiatorial crate.

“Fuck the sheave!” She has to lean over, shout in Titus’s ear so he can hear over the crowd. “It’s done, your original purchase of their commissions is voided. You have no legal claim to either of them, hand them over!”

“Oh dear,” Titus says with infuriating calm, lifting his eyebrows and drawing back. “This is going to be even more awkward than I intended.”

A tranquil female announcer’s voice pipes up over speakers embedded in the boxes. “Double match commencing in Combat Ring Three: Four combatants entering the field, representing the House of Hopthan versus the House of Abrasax.”

“Dad!” Kiza screams from behind Jupiter.

Caine and Stinger zip out of the other crate, airborne, wearing white dress shirts and purple trousers. The fully-armored Sargorn immediately flaps into the air like a massive bat to intercept. Its wings move ponderously slow in comparison to the former Skyjackers. On the ground, the android flicks whip-like appendages upward, snagging Stinger’s ankle and reeling him to the mat with a thump that Jupiter swears she feels through the floor.

She’s on her feet, screaming along with Kiza, “No!

“You were the one who suggested I bring them today, Jupiter. I’d never have thought of it. Where else do brutes like them belong, at an event such as this, except with their own kind?” Titus sighs, slumping in his chair, obviously put out. “This was meant to be part of our bargaining process, but now you’ve ruined everything.”

Caine dives, wings flaring open at the last second as he pivots his body, bringing his feet forward like a raptor grabbing prey. His shiny dress shoes slam into the android, knocking it across the ring, jarring the whip loose from Stinger’s ankle. Stinger seizes the opening and scrambles into the air, dodging the incoming Sargorn with uncanny speed.

Famulus finally struts into the box, sheave in her hand. Ignoring her, Jupiter rounds on Titus. “Stop this! Stop it now! They didn’t agree to this!”

“It’s too late. The matches can’t be stopped until one side or the other is physically incapacitated. There’s no surrender or call for mercy, it’s the way things are done. If they’re lucky, things will end quickly.” He frowns and shrugs in a semblance of regret.

She glances back at the ring in horror. Titus is lying, of course he is, it’s what he does.

His next movement is so small, so subtle, Jupiter almost misses it out of the corner of her eye. He itches his wrist.

Kiza screams again, wild and furious, as Stinger and Caine both appear to have a seizure mid-air. Their wings crumple, they tumble to the mat. They both stagger upright, their reaction times lagging, like they’ve just woken up from sleep. Caine opens his mouth, shouting or growling, as the android flicks a whip around his sluggish wrist and reels him in for an elbow to the face. The blow glances away from his jaw, like it’s protected somehow, and angles up to smash into his nose. His head snaps back and blood sprays down his white shirt. The Sargorn drops to the mat as his tail coils around Stinger like a snake; by the time Stinger manages to bring his arm around for a blow, his fist only bounces off the saurosapien’s breastplate.

Kiza kicks off her heels and picks up her skirt, sprinting out of the box and down the stairs toward the ring.

It’s obvious that something’s wrong with both men, something that started when Titus told Jupiter it was too late to stop the fight. Her arm snaps out and she grabs Titus by the ear, twisting hard. He cries out in genuine surprise, eyes wide. Famulus watches Jupiter manhandle Titus without interfering, her mouth twisted into a grimace that looks weirdly like delight. Cameras circle the booth, whirring and recording.

When Titus reaches up to swat Jupiter away, she catches his thumb and bends it at a sharp angle, pulling his arm forward. A silver bracelet rests against his suit cuff. She grabs it, nails tearing the skin inside his wrist, and jerks. The bracelet doesn’t come free. Desperate and lightning-fast, she jams her fingers between his wrist and the tight metal and wraps it in her fist, wrenching with strength she didn’t know she had.

Titus howls as the bracelet gouges into his arm, breaking skin. It digs into Jupiter’s fingers too, blood running hot down her fingertips. He tries to wriggle backward, and she gives one more berserk yank.

The bracelet breaks free in a clatter of metal debris. Throwing it to the ground, she grinds it to pieces under her shoe.

In the ring, Caine’s arm springs forward at his usual, genetically enhanced speed; he overreaches but manages to grab the android’s whip and yank hard, dragging the android forward. His knee comes up to connect with its midsection, his wings springing open and beating powerfully to pick both of them off the ground, until the android dangles from its own whip like a fish on a line. Stinger’s wings flit uselessly as he wriggles in the Sargorn’s coiled tail, clawing and kicking for purchase as his ribs are compressed.

Titus begins to rise to his feet, and Jupiter’s fist meets his cheek. While he’s stunned, she uses her good hand to pinch and twist the top of his ear again, yanking him sideways. Too shocked to resist, he stumbles out of his seat after her, knocking over a servantant and sending row of antigravity chairs spinning. She hauls him out of the box and drags him down the stairs after Kiza. Little white cameras float in their wake, like buoys marking the drama.

The crowd is still cheering and howling at the gladiators in the ring, few have noticed the Entitled scuffling in the aisle. Titus begins to get his bearings and his hands clamp like a claws around Jupiter’s wrist, pulling hard, scrabbling at her arm as he digs in his heels and tries to pry her away.

Jupiter swears she hears Titus whimpering the word mother. She twists his ear harder, hoping it tears off completely, and surges forward with the determination of a tugboat hauling a crusty oil tanker.

They pass the last row of Entitled boxes and come to the open space surrounding the elevated ring. Aegis officers have already intercepted Kiza and are trying to turn her back, doing everything short of manhandling her into submission. No doubt if she wasn’t dressed as a lady-in-waiting they’d already have her on the ground and under arrest.

The crowd gradually falls quiet, cheers replaced by murmurs of confused interest at what’s happening in front of the elevated ring. It’s worse this way, because the sickening noises of combat are vividly clear and close. Stinger gurgles in pain, unable to breathe, and Caine swings the dangling android in an arc, letting it go at precisely the right moment so it crashes into the Sargorn’s back. The android lets out a horrid mechanical screech, flinging its whip backward at Caine from the ground. Caught around his knee, Caine’s wings beat loudly as he struggles to stay airborne and the android’s arm mechanism grinds in an effort to pull him down. The Sargorn is distracted, and Stinger reaches out to drive both thumbs into its eye, gouging it out with a squelch. The Sargorn roars, and Stinger’s wings hum as he takes off, away from its slack tail.

“Shut down this match!” Jupiter shouts at the Aegis officer with the most bars on her uniform. “Those men were put into the ring by mistake, pull them out now!”

Stinger dives into the android from behind, tackling it and reaching around under its chin. With a scream he rips its faceplate off, exposing the circuitry and large humanoid eyeballs beneath. Freed from its whip-arm, Caine swings around, intercepting the Sargorn before it gets to Stinger by executing the same dive-and-bodyslam move he used earlier. The Sargorn is prepared; it gives one great beat of its wings, dodges, and grabs Caine by the wrist. Caine’s arm makes a ghastly popping noise, his body flung sideways like a ragdoll.

“Your majesty, as I told your lady-servant,” the officer says, staring wide-eyed at Titus twisted into a pained half-crouch at her side, “we cannot stop the match once it starts.”

Kiza darts around the distracted officer, dashing for the far side of the room, purple gown and golden hair streaming like a flag behind her. Famulus, who followed them down the stairs at a safe distance, kicks off her shoes and springs across the room after her like a gazelle. A handful of Aegis try to follow as well, but the two splices are breathtakingly fast.

“This has to be illegal! The combatants should be willing participants, shouldn’t they?! Those men aren’t willing, this asshole entered them without their consent!” Jupiter lets go of Titus’s ear, shoving him toward the officer.

The Aegis stand at awkward attention, not reaching for Titus. Jupiter desperately wishes Captain Tsing was here. She’d have Titus handcuffed in the brig already.

“I am Queen Jupiter Jones, the regent of the House of Abrasax, and I demand you arrest this man for fraud, extortion, and illegal detention. I’m officially filing charges, I want him –”

“My apologies for this unpleasant scene, Lieutenant Colonel,” Titus interrupts, calm and pleasant, standing upright and rubbing his cherry-red ear. Blood drips from his mauled wrist. He steps in front of Jupiter to address the officer. “I’m sure you’ve heard that her majesty is new to our family, she’s still quite ignorant. Housebreaking recurrences is a monumental task.”

The Aegis Lieutenant Colonel glances between the two of them, obviously confused.

The Sargorn flings a limp Caine across the ring, directly at the force field. Stinger nimbly intercepts, darting over to catch him before he impacts. The faceless android limps toward the two of them as the Sargorn spreads its large wings and gets altitude, swinging forward with its great claws extended. Stinger tries to dodge, but he can’t, carrying the weight of two. They both get swatted to the mat. Caine lets out a growling moan, shaking his head as he comes to.

“If one of those two men dies because you fail to take action, I’ll make sure you’re held accountable, because you knew and you did nothing! Your commissions will be worth nothing! Shut down this match!” Jupiter says, pointing toward the ring, fully prepared to spring into the force field if she has to.

One of the android’s whips is malfunctioning, but the other catches Stinger around the neck. It yanks, pulling Stinger back into the Sargorn’s fist. On the mat, Caine staggers to his feet, wiping blood out of his eyes, and charges at the android. He bodyslams it into the force field only feet away from Jupiter, Titus, and the Aegis troop. The force field sputters and crackles, straining to hold them inside the ring.

The Lieutenant Colonel has apparently come to the decision that, new recurrence or not, the Queen outranks the Third Primary of the House of Abrasax, and can therefore do more damage to her professional career. She’s talking into a communication device on her wrist: “I need a riot team to gladiatorial arena three for a de-escalation emergency. Bring saurosapien restraints. Shut down the containment field.”

Caine’s torso pivots, his head ducks and his right wing swings around. There’s a tearing sound as the metal edge of his wing connects with the android’s spine, and the android’s head pops away from its body. Bright orange positronic fluid spews out, only half of it contained by the mesh force field. Warm and thick as oil, it sprays across Jupiter and Titus and the Lieutenant Colonel.

The android twitches and deactivates. Caine doesn’t even see Jupiter past the force field; he turns back to help Stinger. From halfway across the room, a troop of Aegis in heavy armor and helmets scramble toward the ring, firearms primed and ready.

Jupiter opens her mouth, not sure if she’s going to shout Caine’s name or just straight-up scream. Before she can decide, a loud popping sound echoes across the cavernous space. The shimmering containment field around the arena flickers once and snaps out of existence.

Startled by this turn of events, the Sargorn pauses mid-punch and stares with its single remaining eye at the Aegis. Prone under the Sargorn’s foot, Stinger doesn’t move. Caine twists sideways, only partially-deterred from his course to intercept the other two gladiators.

The Lieutenant Colonel springs forward with her hands up in a calming gesture, edging around the outside of the ring toward them, and calls out, “There’s been a malfunction!” Her unit advances with her, hands on their weapons. “Combatants, stand down!”

The crowd is positively transfixed.

Jupiter dashes forward to climb up into the ring, which is levitating at chest height. She’s clumsy in her long silver gown, slipping on positronic oil. The android carcass beeps beside her, a blue light blinking on its chest-plate.

“Caine!” she shouts, scrambling to her feet, her heart in her throat at the sight of his limp arm and bloody face.

Caine’s gaze flicks from the advancing Aegis to Jupiter, and it’s like he takes a second to register who she is. His entire countenance lifts, delirious and ecstatic, then he notices the beeping android too.

“Jupiter!” He executes a leaping glide across the wide ring, springing at her with his one good arm extended. He’s on top of her before she blinks, tucking his body around hers, his wings engulfing them both like metal-boned shields. The two of them roll off the arena platform, a feathered bowling ball that sends Titus and the remaining Aegis diving for cover as they crash into the nearest luxury box full of Entitled spectators.

With a marrow-shaking boom and a flash of heat, the android carcass explodes.

Because of Caine’s leap across the ring, everyone in proximity has scattered out of harm’s way. No one is hurt, but half the ring craters into a heap of slag and flames. One claw held over his ruined eye, the Sargorn lifts into the air, away from the destruction. The Aegis scramble away from the rest of the collapsing platform, dragging Stinger with them.

Kiza finally sprints back into view, making a beeline for her dad. Famulus is nowhere to be seen.

Caine groans on top of Jupiter, trembling. Her neck hurts, her hand is bleeding, but he needs serious medical attention. Did he get hit with shrapnel? “Oh my god, Caine, oh god are you okay?”

She tries to pull his good arm around her shoulder, to help him get to his feet, but he wheezes, “Wait.”

“I have you,” she says as she sits up, touching his face, helplessly dabbing his blood with her fingers. “Your commission is safe, so is Stinger’s. I have you. Come on, we have to find a doctor.”

She stands, intending to pull him up, but he remains on his knees, at her feet. Staring up at her in reverence, he clasps her right hand with his left, and presses a kiss to her forearm, atop her Entitled tattoo.

“Your majesty,” he rasps, bowing his head and closing his eyes.

The crowd around them – Entitled, Aegis, and servants alike – is still reeling in shock from the explosion and the unorthodox events that preceded it. They watch in slackjawed silence as Jupiter falls to her knees in front of Caine and puts her arms around his shoulders. He bows down even further, tucking his forehead against her collarbone, singed wings stretching down his back and along the floor. Jupiter holds him, whispers his name, and kisses the crown of his head.

A dozen baseball cameras flit in a circle around them, live-broadcasting the moment in three glorious dimensions.

Chapter Text

In the coming weeks, there will be so many legal matters to sort out. By the time the Aegis finish conducting crime scene interviews and release everyone from the Entitled event, Nati has already scheduled Jupiter’s first meeting with Advocate David from the Law Dynasty of the Golden Mean, the new chief legal counsel of her estate.

There will be civil and criminal charges filed against Titus in the Commonwealth Courts, and he’ll be too broke to pay his way free. Even selling his clipper and three alcazars won’t net enough to meet the astronomical sum. Within hours of his arrest, the digitabloids already claim that Lady Kalique refuses to return her brother’s FTLs. Naturally, Titus will counter-file assault and theft of property charges against Jupiter.

The Aegis will conduct an investigation into the House of Hopthan’s android, and the sabotage charges related to its explosive death.

There’s the tiny technical detail that Kiza smashed the gladiatorial ring control mechanism, deactivating the force field mere seconds before the Aegis officer showed up in the control booth with the order to cut power. Famulus was discovered unconscious in the corridor outside, and nobody will say a peep about how that happened, but when Stinger finds out he pulls Kiza into a bear hug and says, “That’s my girl.”

There’s the digitabloids’ nonstop replay and scrutiny of the events. Across the galaxy, social media FTL-boards will light up with chatter about House infighting and Entitled-on-Entitled violence. News hours will devote themselves to micro-analyzing whether Titus’s legal shame or Jupiter’s unorthodox social antics will most affect Abrasax market strength, especially in light of the recent hit the Abrasax brand took with the destruction of Earth’s RegeneX refinery.

Pop culture commentators will weigh in on Queen Seraphi’s recurrence, and her splice bodyguard. During their induction into military service, all Legion recruits kneel and kiss the emblem of their new life, a sword with the Legion’s crest embedded in the hilt. Caine Wise’s parallel show of fealty to Queen Jupiter, kneeling and kissing her royal signet, will be endlessly analyzed. Taken along with last week’s dashing rescue of the Abrasax regent, does his very public, very symbolic submission mean the notorious criminal has been reformed?

Entitled circles will buzz with talk of Jupiter’s open display of affection toward a splice. Those sorts of behaviors are acceptable behind closed doors, of course, but flaunting them in public is vulgar. Is this new royal a member of the fringe political movement that promotes interspecies breeding in the Houses, as part of a larger effort to dilute aristocratic bloodlines and subvert the social mores that have upheld Commonwealth civilization for millennia beyond counting?

But all of these things are to come, and aren’t for today.

Before everyone leaves the surface of Orous, on-site medical techs put all the injured through a quick sonic shower to clean off the worst of the blood and oil, and then treat their wounds. Everyone else is knit back together good as new with RegeneX, except Jupiter – she opts for a mild painkiller and a bandage for her fingers.

The Sargorn sits on the ground in the medical tent with an ice pack over his eye, waiting his turn, not far from where Caine’s supervising the medical tech as she sprays self-sealing skin adhesive to Juptier’s hand. Stinger’s laid out on a table, his broken ribs being mended with a few strategic injections of RegeneX.

“Hey man,” the giant lizard rumbles. “Sorry.”

Caine and Stinger glance over at him.

“If I’d known you were forced into the ring, I never would’ve –” he gestures vaguely at Stinger, obviously not sure how to say what he means. “Fucking Entitled, right?”

Everyone in the small room stops breathing for a second, not daring to look at Jupiter. Except Caine – he angles toward her, hand resting on the back of her neck, his eyebrows drawn down in protective disapproval.

“Fucking Entitled,” she sighs in agreement, flexing her hand. The bandage is invisible, hardly restraining her movement. Angry red cuts criss-cross all five of her fingers, but they aren’t bleeding anymore.

Kiza bursts into laughter. Stinger joins in, then cuts off with a wheeze and a groan and a curse at his broken ribs. Before they all board Jupiter’s sloop to return to her alcazar, she offers to pay for the Sargorn’s new cybernetic eye. He offers to join her security retinue, and mentions that his wife’s an even better shot than he is, if Her Majesty has more than one job opening. Nati takes their information, filing it away for later.

Once they touch down in the alcazar’s docking bay, Kiza and Stinger drift off by themselves, toward the kitchens. Jupiter’s hungry, too, but she’s also wearing a dress stained with android fluids. Caine’s clothes are filthier than hers. A dozen attendants buzz around the two of them, Nati issuing orders. Warm towels are brought, before Jupiter has time to decide what she wants to do next.

(Actually, Jupiter knows exactly what she wants to do next. He’s standing slightly behind her, observing everything with his usual tight-lipped expression. She’d think he was being mysterious and brooding, except he keeps blinking very slowly. On the journey home she caught him with his eyes closed, nearly asleep.)

“Nati, please have dinner brought to my room. I want to clean up.” Jupiter plucks a towel away from an attendant as he dabs at her orange-covered dress and adds, “Without assistance.”

She reaches out to take Caine’s hand, and they leave the hangar together. There’s so much to say, she doesn’t know where to start – so she doesn’t try, not yet. They walk in comfortable silence, fingers laced, his thumb steadily stroking the back of her hand.

Kalique’s alcazar was all elegant marble archways and tile mosaics; Titus’s clipper oozed gilt and crystal; and Balem’s refinery was dark industrial iron from top to bottom. Seraphi’s alcazar is alive – that’s the only way Jupiter can think of it. There are plants and gardens everywhere, each room cultivated like art. Vines sprouting with bioluminescent flowers, hanging from ceilings like light fixtures; moss grown into murals; living lichen carpets; and her primary throne a massive bonsai crafted into a chair.

Jupiter’s been too preoccupied to register the beauty of it before now. With Caine beside her, she finally notices the delicate scent of flowers, the earthy smell of soil and the sharp tang of foreign wood and bark. Everything is a riot of colors, from familiar green leaves to orange and silver and fluorescent pink foliage. The entire house is breathing. It’s wonderfully comforting.

With no small amount of pride, she remembers the way to her private suite, confidently navigating the gleaming hallways and cavernous garden-rooms.

“Welcome home, Queen Seraphi,” her chamber presence says in a deep, tranquil tone as they enter. The fireplace roars to life, three floating orbs projecting heat into the space. A series of gentle lights flicker on in the extensive garden across one side of the bedroom, shining like moonlight through the tall trees.

Caine lifts an eyebrow at her. He’s been so quiet, but she doesn’t mind. She’s got a lot to say, and she’s been rehearsing how to say it in her head.

“I haven’t had time to reprogram everything,” Jupiter says with a shrug. “Seraphi’s pre-set channels are still in the tv, too. This royal changeover stuff takes time.”

Turning her face toward the ceiling, because she feels like she should, Jupiter asks, “What’s your name?”

“My name is Zev, your grace,” the chamber presence replies.

“Zev, I’d like you to address me as Jupiter from now on.”

“Of course, Queen Jupiter.”

“This is Caine Wise.” She turns around to face him, biting her lip. “He’s with me.”

His expression is soft as he regards her, the corners of his mouth curling upward.

“Welcome, Mr Wise. Will your majesty and Mr Wise require a bath this evening?”

She thinks about it probably longer than she should, stripping off Caine’s clothes and soaping him up. He waits patiently as she surveys him up and down. “Later. For now we’ll just need some clean towels and clothes.”

“They are available in your bathing suite, your majesty.”

Caine plucks the towel from her hand, the one she’s carried from the hangar. He swipes it across her jaw, fingertips not-so-subtly trailing after the fabric. “You had a smudge.”

“Only one?” she asks, and she intends it as a joke, but it comes out as more of a challenge.

His mouth quirks closer to a full grin. He strokes down the side of her neck, where her hair is falling down from its pins, and across her bare shoulder. “I only mentioned the one, I didn’t want your majesty to feel self-conscious.”

“Nothing makes a girl feel self-conscious like android carcass couture,” Jupiter replies, swaying her hips so her full skirt swishes back and forth, positronic oil glittering across the fabric. She takes the towel and dabs his cheek. “Your clothes are filthy, too.”

“I’m following the android carcass couture fad,” he replies, closing his eyes and leaning into her touch as she brushes the soft fabric across his face. He’s not really that dirty, she just likes his expression.

With one last swipe across his forehead, Jupiter slings the towel around her neck and reaches for his shirt. The fasteners are hidden in a seam down the front, little magnetic clips that click open when they come in contact with fingertips. Jupiter knows because her dress has them all down the back, too.

He’s holding himself like a soldier at attention, his arms just behind his hips, but his wings twitch when she slips a finger into the hidden seam and makes quick work of the clips. The fabric is stiff with dried blood. He lifts his arms obligingly as she frees his shirttail from his trousers. Pulling the towel from her neck, Jupiter makes a show of wiping down the generous curves of his shoulders before she draws the cloth down his chest, all the way to his belly.

He’s not breathing, he’s completely still.

It occurs to Jupiter that she isn’t breathing, either, and she’s dizzy. Caine is the best present she’s ever unwrapped, he’s a thousand times better than anything she could’ve imagined for herself. She’d never have put “alien wolf soldier” on her Christmas list, yet here he is wearing a pleased and mildly predatory expression, patiently indulging her while she flails around with a towel and gropes him from the top down.  

“Let’s get this off,” she says, handing him the towel and stepping around to help him out of his shirt. It’s an intimidating vantage point, standing between his wings. They’re taller than she is, and even in a natural resting position each one is wider than her, too. Dusted with ash from the explosion, the metal superstructure glimmers in the soft light. She stretches a hand up to his collar, easing the fabric off his shoulders, until it bunches up at his shoulderblades, where wings join with flesh.

The shirt wasn’t made for someone with his neurosynaptic implants; the back was cut in two long slits and stitched back together. Jupiter grabs the hem and yanks until the slapdash stitches rip, and then lifts it over the top of the wings and drops it to the floor.

He’s holding the towel loosely at his hip, within easy reach, but she forgets about it as she surveys his bare back. She’s never seen it up close before, not at Stinger’s house or Kalique’s alcazar. Exhaling, she places her palms flat against the scars crisscrossing his skin, her fingers splayed around the pebbled flesh of Caine’s neurosynaptic connections.

Caressing downward to the small of his back, she traces his pattern of healed wounds, and it’s like reading a map of his life with her fingertips. His head bows forward and he takes a deep breath as she traces up again.

“Did those happen in the place you were, after the Skyjackers?”

“Deadland. Yeah, some of them.” She feels his voice in his chest, through her palms.

Leaning forward, she touches her mouth to one of the larger scars to the side of his spine, a healed crater from a gun blast; she kisses the root of each wing, metal warm against her lips. “They’re beautiful.”

He lets out a long exhale and his wings twitch, sending up a small cloud of ash. Jupiter sneezes three times in a row, sudden and loud. At the same time, a chime sounds at the chamber door.

Stepping away from Caine, Jupiter calls out, “Come in.”

Nati enters, followed by servantants bearing huge platters full of food. Jupiter doesn’t know what any of it is – brightly-colored fruits, steaming meat that smells divine, a plate full of something that might be crackers or bread, and a pile of garishly-hued things that look sweet. There are half a dozen carafes full of various kinds of liquid, including one glowing with RegeneX. They deposit their trays on the large table situated on a red lichen carpet, and bob respectfully before retreating again.

“Your majesty, an FTL has arrived from Lady Kalique.”

“I’m busy right now,” Jupiter says. “I’ll call her back later.”

“Very good. May I be of further assistance?” Nati asks with her usual quietude, apparently unaffected by the shirtless specimen in front of her. It must be an act, Jupiter decides; how could anyone look at Caine and not go wobbly in the knees?

“I’ll call when I need anything. Thanks, the food looks great,” she says. Nati murmurs your grace with a bow, and the door slides closed behind her.

Caine’s staring at the massive piles food like he hasn’t eaten in days.

Oh god, what if he hasn’t? What if Titus didn’t feed him?

“Go ahead,” Jupiter says, snagging his pinky with hers and pulling him toward the spread. “Go to town. I’ll be right back.”

“No, majesty, you should eat first,” he says, gaze darting between her and the food. He licks his lips and swallows. He’s obviously ravenous. Is this some chivalry thing? She just wants to hop into the bathroom and get out of this oily dress.

He looks so uncomfortable, she takes pity and walks him over to the table and sits cross-legged on the red lichen carpet. “Come on, we’ll eat together,” she says, plucking a golden-colored cube from one tray and popping it into her mouth. It tastes like licorice, with a texture of a cracker.

He drops down beside her, imitating her cross-legged pose. Taking an eight-pronged fork from the tray of fruit, he spears a slice of meat and scarfs it in one enormous bite.

“Sweet flaming Void,” he groans, eyes rolling up as he chews. Jupiter laughs, and he stabs a second cut of meat and holds the fork out for her. “Try it, your majesty.”

Instead of taking the fork, as he obviously intends, she nibbles from his hand. The food is so tender it practically melts over her tongue. She plucks up one of the things that looks like bread and holds it out to him. He leans forward, delicately catching it between his fangs and taking it from her. When he holds out a little oblong fruit, she plucks it with her front teeth, her tongue lapping across the pads of his fingers.

The food is delicious – were these Seraphi’s favorites, like the food Jupiter served Titus? Is this what Seraphi had as a midnight snack, is Nati just following protocol and bringing what she always did?

It doesn’t matter, Jupiter decides. Caine is watching her like she’s more luscious than anything on the table, another fruit already held out in his fingers, waiting for her to lick him again.

Grinning, she comes up onto her knees and leans forward, fully aware of how low-cut her gown is and exactly how much she’s putting on display. Disappointingly, Caine’s eyes don’t wander; his attention is rapt as she takes the fruit from his fingers again, tongue and lips closing over his fingertips, front teeth nibbling.

He’s already got a third fruit in his other hand, but before he can hold it out to her, she snags it from him. “Your turn.”

He’s so gentle, his lips soft and tongue warm; his canines might as well not even exist.

She leans forward, kissing his mouth with closed lips. The fruit is gone already, just a lingering bit of juice mingling with his flavor. He tastes like tomorrow and all the days after. He smells like a warm morning in a bee-infused house, with a hint of burnt metal and ash from the exploding android.

Jupiter definitely smells like positronic oil.

“Listen, I just need a sec,” she says. “You eat. I expect you to make a dent in that feast before I get back.”

“A dent?” Caine says, drawing his eyebrows down and eyeing one of the golden platters doubtfully.

“Yeah, I want you to eat a lot. Don’t hold back. There’s plenty for both of us.”

She gives him another peck before popping to her feet and skipping to the bathing suite.

 

~~~~~

 

Over the course of his life, Caine’s monstrous metabolism and small stature have meant he’s rarely eaten enough to feel deeply, properly satisfied. Every day growing up as a runt in the Legion facility, he had to scramble for scraps. During the years the Skyjackers considered him valuable, he ate well enough to keep fighting fit, and even indulged in a few hedonistic shore-leaves where he blew his pay on a feast or two. Then there was the decade in Deadland when he didn’t eat a single thing he didn’t kill or scavenge, and those pickings were slim. The last decent meal he had was the dairy-covered bread pie Jupiter ordered at that bar on Earth – pizza, she’d called it. Famulus only remembered to toss him and Stinger one un-rehydrated MRE yesterday.

Hunger has been his only lifelong companion, and he doesn’t regard it fondly. Four platters of gourmet Entitled food will chase it away for a while, though.

He’s gleefully shoveling food into his mouth when a laugh rings across the room. Jupiter strides out of the bathing suite, wearing a fitted dressing gown, holding towels in one hand and more clothes in the other. Her hair is down and brushed, her face scrubbed clean of makeup, and she’s grinning from ear to ear.

He freezes, one arm stretched toward the fruit tray and a green cracker sticking halfway out of his mouth.

“Oh my god, Caine!”

Slowly retracting his hand, he stares at her with wide eyes, trying to decide if he’s in trouble. Jupiter’s definitely amused, not angry.

“You said ‘don’t hold back,’” he says defensively, words muffled by the food stuffed in his cheeks.

“You cleared two and a half platters in under five minutes.” She drops down to sit beside him, taking his fork and spearing six gubberies and cramming them all into her mouth at once. “I’m impreffed.”

Caine shoves the rest of the cracker into his mouth. She’s impressed by the rude habits he developed as a runt and a convict? Any normal Entitled would have already kicked him out of the alcazar for using a salad fork to eat meat.

Wiping fruit juice from her chin with the back of her hand, Jupiter carefully stabs one gubbery onto each of the fork’s tines, and then tries to stuff all eight of them into her mouth this time around.

How can a cold, brutal place like the gyre produce a blinding miracle like the woman in front of him?

She smells like herself again, no lingering trace of perfume or oil. He wants to wrap her into his arms, plant his face in the warm spot below her ear and breathe his fill. He wants to run his fingers through her dark hair, lick her skin, nibble the round head of her shoulder. The fabric on her gown looks so fragile, like it would rip easily in his hands.

It occurs to Caine that he’s staring at Jupiter with freakish intensity, aggressively munching a cracker, like a complete basket case. Cheeks burning, he drops his gaze to the table.

“This is for you,” she says, unfazed. She places the pile of clothes on his knee. “Zev included a shirt, but I don’t think it’ll work. Maybe we can go shopping tomorrow, to buy something that fits around your wings?”

Jupiter asks as if she’s genuinely interested in his willing participation. Standard Legion-issue gear is Caine’s second skin. The only clothing he ever bought for himself was the kind that fell off the back of an interplanetary long-haul transport. Tomorrow Nati will doubtlessly direct Jupiter to one of the luxury Entitled shopping complexes like Capital Prime, full of boutiques staffed by people who will dress him in soft civilian clothes.

He tries not to look panicked. “Um, sure?”

Picking up the outfit Jupiter gave him, Caine hesitates, calculating – she’s consistently demonstrated a strange sense of modesty when it comes to nudity. She was definitely unhappy he dressed her when she was unconscious, and she just hid in the bathing suite while changing her clothes. In deference to her sensibilities, he follows her example and leaves the room to change in privacy.

The pants are loose and comfortable, perfect for sleeping. The shirt definitely won’t fit over his wings unless he contracts them completely against his back, which he isn’t inclined to do after having them hobbled the last few days. He leaves the shirt off and rinses the last few traces of blood from his face. The fur of his beard has gone fuzzy already, it needs a trim.

Staring at himself in the floating mirror, he turns sideways. His usually flat stomach bulges out, stuffed with food, stretching the waist of his trousers. It’s never done that before.

Fat and satisfied. Complacency is up next, he supposes. He wonders if he can live with that. Contemplatively patting his belly with both hands, he returns to the bedroom.

The antigrav field in the bed is deactivated, and Jupiter’s perched expectantly on the edge of the oversized wooden structure. It’s built from four black-barked trees, branches grown together into a bower at the ceiling, sprouting blue leaves. They look like maythorns from a planet called Veridius. Caine spent a six months stationed in the forest there once, during a siege of Veridius’s moon. The forests were firebombed, the surface of the planet rendered uninhabitable. 

“Come here,” Jupiter says with a smile, patting the blankets. “Lay down.”

He enthusiastically does as he’s told, bounding into the center of the bed and rolling on his side, waiting for Jupiter to curl up with him.

“No, I meant on your stomach. Good, like that, exactly.” She sits cross-legged beside his hip and pats his right wing. “Would it be okay if – I mean, would you mind stretching them out?”

Caine twists his head to look at her. He has no idea what she’s planning, but he doesn’t mind. He asks gamely, “Across the bed?”

“Yeah.”

“Watch your head, your majesty,” he warns, slowly flaring both wings up. She ducks. Fully extended, his wingspan is broader than the entire bed, his coverts resting against the wooden edges, and his primary flights sprawling onto the floor.

He rests his chin on his folded forearms and stares at the blankets in front of his nose, waiting for whatever her majesty’s pleasure happens to be. It’s a rare sensation, putting himself at someone else’s mercy without a flicker of anxiety or dread. He’s occasionally felt that way in Stinger’s hands, but even then he’d never really believed it was anything other than temporary.

This thing happening right now, with Jupiter – Caine keeps falling into the lie, he so desperately wants to believe that it isn’t temporary.

Jupiter tentatively strokes down his spine, between his wings, all the way to the small of his back. Her touch falters across the curve of his ass, and she skips her hand over to his feathers instead.

His feathers don’t have nerve endings, but the support structure they’re joined with does. It’s akin to the sensation of someone playing with his hair – or would be, if anyone had ever played with his hair – warm relaxation radiating in waves through his shoulderblades and down his spine.

The bed is soft, and Caine’s stomach is full, and Jupiter’s fingers comb through his feathers with open curiosity. His feet stretch to points and his toes curl in pleasure. In a last-ditch effort to preserve his dignity, he turns his head away; if she keeps this up he’ll be drooling and cross-eyed in minutes.

Jupiter picks up a towel from the pile she put beside the bed, and she sets about cleaning his wings. Preening with one hand, plucking out the largest bits of ash and shrapnel, she meticulously dusts his feathers with the towel, until each one gleams the rich chestnut color of polished wood.

When she finishes working all the way along his right wing onto the floor, she walks around the bed and settles her hip against his left side, starting on the other. He’s so relaxed, it’s as though every bone in his body has turned soft. There’s a patch of drool on the blanket under his mouth, but he can’t summon the self-respect required to turn his head again.

This place is so quiet and safe, and the strain of the last few days – the last ten years, his entire life, he doesn’t let himself think about it – have finally crashed down on him. His eyelids at half-mast, he hazily watches Jupiter from the corner of his eye.

She’s being thorough, working mostly in silence, until she finally says, “I dated this boy in high school named Tommy Benson. He was a complete jerk – I realized that later – but at the time I thought I was in love with him. He paid a lot of attention to me, he had a lot of opinions about where I went and who I spent time with. I was young and I thought that was what love looked like. Y’know, it’s flattering for a while when someone is obsessed with you, but that always ends with them wanting you to change who you are, just to make them happy. That sort of controlling fixation isn’t love, it’s just the set-up for an abusive relationship.”

Pausing to change towels, she scoots further away, to reach his primary coverts. Her legs stretch parallel to his body, so his wing is across her lap and her foot is an arm’s length from his face.

Caine’s not remotely sleepy anymore; he shifts his head to see her clearly, propping his cheek on his wrist. She mostly stares at her hands as she works.

“After Tommy, Aunt Nino sat me down and told me that a healthy, functional relationship does change you, but not because of the other person’s obsession, or because they demand it. It’s because you’re rubbing against each other, day-in and day-out. You smooth each other’s rough edges. You grow together, around each other. Both of you might not fit perfectly to begin with, but the life you build together accommodates those differences. The irregularities actually make the overall structure stronger. She said that’s the way it was with my mom and dad, before he died.” Her face is flaming crimson. “God, I’m babbling.”

“You do that when you’re nervous,” Caine murmurs automatically, reaching out to curl a reassuring hand around her ankle, to anchor her.

Jupiter breathes, rolling her shoulders back, and looks at him. “No shit, Sherlock. Listen, I’ve never been in love before. I have no idea what I’m doing. At Stinger’s house, you asked me to buy your commission and you offered to change your genomegineering to make me happy. I’d never want to push a button and create a perfect boyfriend. It’s important for you to know that I want you just as you are, scars and neuroses and all. Without those things you wouldn’t be Caine Wise, and I’m not interested in that other perfectly-genomegineered person, I’m interested in you. I want you. I want us.”

In spite of the fact that he has no idea who Sherlock is, Caine follows her meaning: she feels an attachment, like he does. She’s his pack – his center of gravity – and if she’s experiencing whatever the purebred human equivalent is, then this isn’t just about him orbiting her. This is about them orbiting each other, in tandem. 

He gets the idea, loud and clear; he’s just having a difficult time wrapping his mind around the reality that Jupiter is saying it to him.

… Holy fuck, she used the word love

Nine times in his life, Caine has been caught in a sniper’s crosshairs. He’s familiar with the creeping sensation of being targeted: the skin on the back of his neck stands up, a flutter of nerves kick off in his stomach, and his survival instincts force him to move – evade and find cover. Right now, lying in Jupiter’s bed while she talks about love, he’s got that crosshairs feeling. If he doesn’t find cover or run, it’ll mean the death of the emotion-shunning survival-focused man he’s been for his entire life. His animal instinct howls evade, survive.

His rational, thinking human mind forcefully smothers that instinct, shuts it out. He doesn’t want to find cover or run. He wants to stay here, in the vulnerable open.

Which is all well and good, except Caine needs to say something. Jupiter’s expression is growing panicky, and he’s picking up the sour scent of epinephrine. His useless brain is entirely blank. If this was a combat situation, he’d rely on muscle memory when his conscious mind checked out, let his lifetime of fight training do the work for him. But Caine’s never been here before, he’s had zero experience and zero training. There’s no muscle memory for these novel emotions and the way they relate to his goddamn incompetent mouth.

Love. One syllable, three sounds. Not so hard to say, right? He speaks five languages, has a couple dozen more installed in his translator implant. This isn’t portalling science, it’s just noise.

It just happens to be noise that connects to the core part of him he’s scrupulously ignored his whole life, the part he locked away and pretended it didn’t exist, the part he starved until it stopped whimpering.

Fuck.

(That word would be simple to say. He’d really like to say it – loudly, while butting his head against a wall – but he’s pretty sure that would upset Jupiter even more.)

"Anyway," Jupiter squeaks. She clears her throat, turning her face down and plucking away a shard of plastic shrapnel, wiping the feather down with the towel. “I haven’t told you what happened with your commission. Nati says it’s orphaned. Stinger’s too.”

Now Caine’s synapses fire, and they spit out something utterly useless: “Orphaned?”

“I don’t know what it means, but it sounded like a good thing. Your pardons are intact, and you and Stinger aren’t under Titus’s thumb. It’s good?” she says, wringing the towel in her hands.

“It means that Skyjacker Command declined to accept our commissions again. No one owns them.” It isn’t a surprise, but it still stings. At least the discharge stands as honorable; he gets to keep his wings this time around.

“No one? As in, you own your own commission?”

“Yeah.” And then the connection Caine’s been waiting on finally clicks in, the one from his brain to his heart to his mouth. He scrambles onto his knees, moving far enough away to fold his wings without bumping Jupiter, and then turns toward her. Her face is still bright red, and he realizes now that there are tears in her eyes. She looks miserable.

Caine’s doing this all wrong again – Jupiter’s going to run and leave him behind, like last time – shit shit shitshitshitshit.

“I want to give my commission to you, as a gift. You don’t have to buy anything,” he says, scooting closer. He’s itching to reach out and comfort her – he’s so much better with physical gestures than words – but she looks like she doesn’t want to be touched, so he keeps his hands by his side. “What you said about building something together, around each other; I want it, too. I want my commission to be yours. I want to be yours.”

It isn’t exactly the word love, but it’s the closest he’s ever come. He’ll eventually close that distance, because Jupiter deserves someone who can say that to her. Someday he might even be able to articulate the pack thing. In the meantime, little steps.

A baffling series of emotions cross Jupiter’s face. Dread gnaws through Caine’s innards; he failed, he fucked up, this is going to be their morning at Stinger’s house all over again.

(He’ll follow her when she runs this time, he decides.)

“Oh,” she finally manages.

“Oh?”

“I’m beginning to understand, about commissions, and what they mean to Secondaries. But I still – I just can’t own you, Caine. I can’t do that.” Jupiter’s eyebrows draw together. “What if you lend me your commission, for however long you choose to let me hold onto it? And I promise you can have it back anytime, all you have to do is say the word. I’ll return it without question, without charge, and you’ll belong to yourself again. Would that be okay?”

“Yes,” Caine blurts out, nodding vigorously.

He doesn’t understand why the distinction between a gift and a loan is important, but he’ll work it out later. He’d also never ask for his commission back, he would come undone if Jupiter ever returned it to him, but now doesn’t seem like the time to mention that either.

She gnaws her lip. “Really?”

He smiles at her, wide and earnest and unreserved. “Yes.”

Jupiter springs forward, throwing her arms around him. He wraps her in an embrace, wings folding around both of them. Burying his face in the crook of her neck, he takes a deep breath and fills his chest with her scent.

He’s punchy, his heart hammering like he’s just run a marathon. Caine’s had concussions and blackouts before, they’re part and parcel of active duty in the Legion. What he’s feeling now is closer to a swoon.

“Tell me what to do,” he says hoarsely. “Jupiter, help me do this right.”

Chapter Text

Giddiness swells through Jupiter, frothing in her veins like champagne. For the first time in days, everything has gone right, nothing collapsed in flames - literal or proverbial.

For few minutes she was certain she’d made the worst mistake of her life.  Caine kept staring at her with his tight-lipped deer-in-the-headlights expression and she literally couldn’t stop talking. If she stopped talking he might leave, and she couldn't bear that.

Jupiter is perfectly capable and extraordinary on her own, but Caine is the one who helps her see those best parts of herself. She might be able to rule a space empire without him by her side, but the simple fact is she doesn't want to.

I want to be yours. Jupiter's going to tattoo that phrase around her Entitled crest, alongside My name is Caine Wise, I'm here to help you and May I kill him? 

It's obvious how much those words took out of Caine. He's breathless in her arms, as close to scared as she’s ever seen him. The only other time he was like this, they were both half-naked, on the cusp of sex in Stinger’s guest-bedroom.

Well, he’s definitely half-naked again, and Jupiter’s more than ready to strip off the rest of his clothes and fuck him until he’s shaking for an entirely different reason. She’s been ready since she finished claiming her royal title at the Commonwealth on Orous. But at Stinger’s, Caine seemed to get lost. He lost track of where he was, who he was with.

Tell me what to do, he also said. Jupiter’s definitely up for that.

She puts her hands on both sides of his jaw, trailing her fingernails through his soft beard and easing his head up, so she can see every angle of his face. “Listen to me. This is important, Caine. I’m your queen?”

He nods, the barest movement. His mouth forms the word yes, but no sound comes out.

“I’m a queen, and I deserve the things I want. Which means I deserve you. Who am I?”

“My queen,” he says. His breathing is slowing down.

“Say my name.”

“Jupiter.”

She leans her forehead against his. His breath is warm on her lips. Curling her fingernails into his scalp, she strokes circles across the pointed tips of his ears with her thumbs, and she sighs, “Say it again.”

“Jupiter.”

“If you want to – only if you want to – I'd like you to put me up against the nearest wall and fuck me until I forget my name. When you make me come, I want you to remind me who and what I am, just like that, Jupiter and queen. Would you like to do that?”

His eyelids flutter, his chest heaves. Licking his bottom lip, he nods. “Yes, majesty.”

“No one else in the universe can give me what I want – only you. I want to forget. But you’re not allowed to forget – you have to remember who I am and where you are, because it’s your duty to remind me. I command it. Okay?”

As she speaks, he gathers his concentration. His body grows taut, his every fiber poised to obey, like a compressed spring quivering for release. “As you command.”

Caine is as solid as a load-bearing wall, he has the finesse and patience of a watchmaker, and he’s going to wreck her. Jupiter wants him to pull her to pieces and put her back together, she wants it so badly her mouth is watering and her body is melting from the inside out. His eyes gleam with predatory concentration, his fingertips twitching at the curve of her waist.

Her stomach flutters like an aviary full of startled birds. She takes one of his hands and presses it to her cheek. “I trust you. I’m ready.”

She expects a great rush of motion, a powerful force lifting her up and driving her across the room. Nothing that would hurt – Caine would never – but certainly something that takes her breath like the jolting start to a roller coaster ride.

Instead, Caine steps off the bed and holds out his hand. Surprised, she tilts her head at him before letting him help her to her feet. Never breaking eye contact, he says, “Zev, music.”

“What kind of music, Mr Wise?” the chamber presence chirps.

“Something with drums,” Caine replies. Sound drifts down from above them, instrumental music not unlike the songs played at the Entitled event. He clears his throat and for a brief instant seems embarrassed, as if he’s being presumptuous with the next request. “Also we might need a prophylband, if you’ve got one.”

A hidden drawer pops open from one of the tree trunks. Before Jupiter can see what’s in it, Caine steps close, reaching his arms around her torso, precisely as she showed him at the bar.

“Might I suggest you move your hips back and forth, your majesty?” he murmurs, one side of his mouth quirked into a half-smile. He swings her into the room, toward the open space near the table and the trees. His thigh slides between hers, his hips swaying in time to the beat, his hands steady in the small of her back.

It dawns on Jupiter that all Caine’s pent-up predatory readiness isn’t going to come out in a single massive burst. He’s going to release it slowly, meticulously, like opening a pressure valve. He’s obviously been paying close attention since they met, collecting tools in his Jupiter-seduction arsenal, and she just gave him carte blanche to put them all to use.

That titillated flutter starts up again in Jupiter’s belly. Threading her fingers behind his neck, she whispers, “Zev, you can take a break now. Go into sleep mode, or whatever.”

“I will perform self-maintenance subroutines,” the chamber presence replies. “Say my name to activate me again. Good night.”

Every nudge of Jupiter’s foot, movement of her knee, and Caine carries them both wherever she wants to go. She keeps her torso angled back, just enough to maintain a pleasant amount of friction between her legs, her hips rocking with his. They take their time around the room, slow and easy, and a pleasant heat builds all the way through Jupiter’s body.

When they finish rounding the room a second time, she closes her eyes and curls her fingernails into the back of his neck. He makes a noise and leans forward, so her feet leave the ground and she’s resting entirely on his leg. There’s probably royal etiquette that prohibits space regents from humping their splice boyfriend’s very solid thigh, but Jupiter has zero interest in preserving her regal dignity right now. She just wants Caine – more of him, all of him, touching her and filling her up until she’s a mess in his arms.

She pulls his head down, lips parted. His mouth opens, his tongue is clever and eager when it meets hers. His hair is too short to bury her fingers in or pull like she wants to, but it’s velvety. She drags her fingernails across his scalp, drawing him further into the kiss, angling her head so she can open her mouth wider and taste him more deeply.

Before long he’s panting, short breaths coming through his nose in uncoordinated bursts. Jupiter’s doing the same, one leg wrapped around his waist, angling herself so she can rock her hips into his incredibly obvious erection.

(Bless Zev and the paper-thin pajama pants they chose for Caine. Do chamber presences get paid? They deserve a raise.)

Caine’s hands don’t start roaming until hers do. She reaches over his shoulder and anchors herself with a grip on the solid metal edge of his left wing. Her right hand dips under his waistband, spreading across the generous, muscled curve of his ass. He follows her example, easing his grip from the small of her back down her rump, encouraging the rocking motion of her hips. His other hand slides across her stomach, explores her chest, gropes around the contour of her waist.

He pulls away from their kiss, establishing eye contact as his hand slides all the way up her spine, fingernails tracing over the back of her neck and along her scalp. His fingers curl closed, so he's holding a fistful of her hair, and he pulls. The motion is delicate, without enough force to cause her any real pain, just a pleasant amount of tension in the nerve endings in her scalp. A noise dangerously close to a moan slips out of her mouth and her eyes slip closed as Jupiter lets him draw back her head, so her neck is exposed. Caine leans down, tongue lapping at her collarbones, his warm lips exploring the vulnerable skin of her throat. 

Tightening her grip on his wing, she adjusts the angle of her leg around his hip, to create more friction between her thighs.

They haven’t stopped moving, but they aren’t dancing at all anymore.

Jupiter is saturated in physical sensation, and she hardly registers when Caine puts her back up against a tree. They’ve stumbled into the bedroom garden – or Caine brought them here on purpose, she thinks hazily.

“Your majesty wished to be fucked against a wall,” he murmurs against her mouth, “but would a tree be satisfactory?”

“Yes, definitely yes,” she replies.

He pulls away a fraction; she chases after his mouth with a whine, sucking on his bottom lip, tightening the leg wrapped around his waist.

“Your majesty,” he says, half his words smothered by her kisses, “would you consider granting me creative leeway in obeying your command?”

Jupiter pulls her head back to look at him, and ends up thumping into the tree trunk. The bark is smooth, but definitely not soft. “Ouch.”

His attention instantly sharp and serious, he reaches up to cradle her scalp. “Are you injured?”

“It isn’t fatal,” she says.

He smiles, lips red and wet and swollen. “Good. I was looking forward to the next few minutes, it would be a shame to miss them.”

“Well then, creative leeway is granted.”

“Thank you,” Caine says. And he does that thing, that insanely adorable thing, where he drops his gaze and lowers his eyelids as though the sight of her has overwhelmed him, and he rumbles from the back of his throat, “Your majesty.”

With suddenness that makes her gasp, he places her onto her own two feet and buries his face in her neck. His mouth trails from the spot just below her ear to her collarbone. His hands start to move with precise determination, pulling back the folds of her robe and tracing the curve of her waist. In the space of two movements, without any assistance on her part, he pulls off her robe and her gown.

All his one-handed groping in the middle of the room – it was tactical recon. Caine was assessing Jupiter’s clothing, figuring out the most efficient way to remove it. He’s short of breath, his cock is digging into her hip, and the sheer spectacle of his discipline is ferociously arousing. She wants to shove him onto the floor and ride him until that discipline breaks.

“Jupiter,” he whispers against her neck, and she doesn’t know if he’s reminding himself or her. He licks his way to her bare breasts, arching down into a half-crouch. Easing her tailbone away from the tree, angling for better access, he sucks her left nipple into his mouth, flattening it between his tongue and the roof of his mouth, sharp points of his teeth carefully grazing flesh. He lavishes attention on her chest, first one breast and then the other.

She clamps her hands onto both sides of his head and pulls in a sharp breath when his hand slips between her thighs, rubbing against the thin, wet fabric of her briefs. Knees trembling, she sags against the tree, opening her legs.

“Your majesty’s scent is very … distinctive ... when you’re like this,” Caine says, lowering himself until he’s on his knees in front of her. By distinctive he definitely means obvious. His eyes are level with her breasts, and he drags his gaze upward to look at her face. One big hand curls around the back of her knee, warm and steadying. The other snags her briefs from her hip and pulls them down. She steps out of them with only a little guidance. “The first time I noticed was at Lady Kalique’s alcazar. And again, in your quarters on the Aegis cruiser before we portalled to Orous.”

“Caine, if you’re going to list out every time I’ve thought about having sex with you, we’ll be talking all night,” Jupiter says. His grin is smug. “When was the first time you thought about it?”

That wipes the smile off his face. With the earnest solemnity of someone sharing a soul-deep secret, he replies, “When I explained to you what I am, how different we are, and you told me you loved dogs.”

He’s serious.

Jupiter is going to lose it. She’s going to laugh, or cry, or blurt out something mortifying. She’s going to ask him what sort of cake he wants at their wedding, and if he minds fetching the newspaper while she makes coffee, every morning for the rest of their lives. To save herself, she does the only sensible thing: she grabs him by the ears, tugging his head back, and says, “Would you like to know how I taste, when I’m like this?”

His lips are parted, and he licks his front teeth before replying hoarsely, “I had hoped your majesty might permit it.”

“I do.” She nods, and his arms slide between her knees. He lifts her up, her back against the tree trunk, her thighs on his shoulders and her calves resting atop his wings. He holds her steady, hands on both sides of her hips.

Caine’s lips and tongue are brilliant, lapping and suckling. Jupiter’s eyes snap shut and her back arches reflexively. She reaches one hand up, scrabbling for purchase on the smooth tree trunk. Her other hand clamps down on top of his head, fingers carding through his hair. Her hips move on their own, instinctively rocking forward into his mouth, and his hands encourage the regular motion as he holds her up, steadies her.

Jupiter manages to open her eyes. On his knees with half his face buried between her legs, Caine stares up at her, completely captivated. The sight of him is devastating – she opens her mouth and sounds come out – moans, his name, the words good oh so good over and over again – and everything inside of her contracts, from her head to her toes, before it releases again in a rolling wave of bright pleasure. Her thighs squeeze against his ears, her back arches hard and her head thumps against the tree again. She’s slipping, falling down, shouting for Caine as she tumbles.

“Jupiter,” his voice is raw, right in her ear. “My queen. I’m here, your majesty. My queen, my Jupiter.”

Panting, she realizes Caine’s sitting back on his heels and she’s straddling his lap. He caught her, brought her down gently to the floor. Planting small kisses along her jaw and neck, he’s murmuring her name, exactly as she asked him to.    

Wrapping her arms and legs around him, feeling wobbly and incredibly satisfied, she runs her hands across the top of his head, stroking his hair. “That was so good, Caine, oh god. You’re such a good boy. That was perfect.”

She kisses him a few times, tasting herself on his lips, waiting until she stops shaking.

It dawns on her that he hasn’t even taken off his pants. Backing out of his lap, she tugs at his waistband. “It doesn’t seem fair, that you aren’t naked yet. Do you mind fixing that on your way to the bed?”

Caine nods vigorously, and in a burst of movement he leaps up and scrambles across the room, hopping from one foot to the other as he pulls off his clothes. His enthusiasm is a little bit hilarious, and definitely sexy.

Jupiter scrambles right after him, giggling.

It’s not as if she didn’t already know that Caine’s body was incredible, but seeing all of him sprawled out on the bed waiting for her, she has to pause and collect herself. Without a trace of bashfulness, perfectly at ease, he quirks an eyebrow at her.

“I feel like I ought to send your splicer a thank-you note,” she says.

“He was forced out of the genomegineering guild eighteen years ago for his consistently sub-par product,” Caine replies, perfectly serious. Well, as serious as a man can be, discussing the politics of genome-splicing guilds while sporting a massive erection. “If you wish, you can send an inquiry to the guildmaster, to see if they have a forwarding contact and –”

“Nevermind. It was a joke, I’m sorry, just – nevermind. I was trying to say that you’re impressive.” Jupiter slowly crawls onto the bed, maintaining eye contact. Stretching out alongside him, she presses her body close; it’s exhilarating – he’s exhilarating, all of him so warm and solid. She traces over the metal braids in his arm and drags her fingernails across his chest. “You’re so impressive, and you’ve done such a good job obeying my command, you ought to be rewarded.”

Kissing him, she reaches down and takes his cock into her hand. Caine’s lips stop moving with hers, his breath stuttering in his throat, as she strokes.

He never quite gathers his concentration again. Jupiter’s mouth opens against his; she trails her tongue down his neck, licking at his adam’s apple. She sucks at his pulse point, hard enough to leave another mark. He’s got a fist-full of blanket in a death-grip in one hand, the other curled around the back of her neck as she nibbles her way across his shoulders, tracing from one freckle to the next with the precision of an astronomer charting stars in the sky.

Within a matter of minutes Caine makes a whimpering noise and his hips start to move on their own, thrusting into her fist. He lets go of the bed and reaches between her legs, his fingers stroking in synch with his hips. He’s saying things, and the only word she understands is Jupiter – she doesn’t know if the rest is a different language, or he’s just incoherent.

“Caine, on your back,” she says, letting go of his cock and pushing at his shoulder. He pauses on his side, arranging his wings. “You said something earlier, about a whatsit-band?”

“Prophylband,” Caine says. “In the drawer.”

Jupiter has to crawl to reach the tree trunk with the hidden box. Inside is a jumble, the detritus of another woman’s life. Scattered with everything else are little circular plastic packets that vaguely resemble their Earth counterpart.

She crawls back to Caine with the package in her teeth. He’s waiting on his back, wings tucked beneath his body, not compacted completely but folded out of the way. 

He takes the package from her and squints at a series of numbers imprinted on the edge. With a satisfied grunt – apparently the contents aren’t expired – he tears open the container and pulls out a delicate metal ring. Fingers shaking a little, he opens it up and clips it around the base of his cock. It fits securely but not snugly; when the two edges of the metal ring connect, a brief blue light flickers upward, encasing him, and then fades. The ring itself still glows, apparently functioning as it should.

Jupiter has a lot of technical questions about what just happened, and she files every single one of them away for later.

Without preamble she straddles him. One hand finds Caine’s, fingers locking together. The other reaches between their bodies, guides him as she lowers herself onto his hips. It’s definitely been a while since Jupiter last had sex, and Caine isn’t small. She lets out a slow breath as he slides in; she’ll be feeling this in the morning. The stretching sensation is just the right sort of pain, tingling and aching.  

Caine’s eyelids flutter closed and Jupiter reaches for his second hand, leaning forward and pinning him to the bed, both arms above his head.

“No, Caine. I want you to look at me.” His eyes open and he swallows, lips parting. Her hair hangs down around his face like a curtain, shielding him from the rest of the room. She squeezes his hands, pushing them into the soft blankets. “Stay with me. Are you here?”

“I’m here,” he says.

Jupiter starts to move. Slowly at first, easing into a regular rhythm, whispering encouragement. Caine’s panting, his body rigid, until she finally thinks to say, “You can move, too.”

His hips instantly rise off the bed to meet hers, strong and steady. It changes the angle, aligns everything, and within seconds Jupiter’s breathing matches pace with his gasps. The entire world narrows down to the two of them, here and now, the way they’re joined, his hands gripping hers as though his life depends on it, the way he feels inside of her.

A strangled sound comes from the back of Caine’s throat, something like a growl, and tendons stand out on his thick neck as he forces his head back into the bed, his chest arching. In response, Jupiter’s stomach tightens and her world narrows down to the connection between the two of them, pressure and rhythm; she lets go, falls in, and everything ceases to exist except the thrum of her pulse between her thighs, heat that shakes her from the inside out, until she’s melting atop Caine, unable to hold herself upright anymore. Beneath her, he lets out a half-whimpered shout, pushing up against her hands and thrusting his hips forcefully, his body shuddering as he comes right after.

She sprawls on top of him, too satisfied to move. His chest heaves as he tries to catch his breath.

“That was so nice,” she mumbles into the place where his neck meets his shoulder. “Wasn’t that nice?”

Caine barks a loud laugh, one that multiplies and cascades into a full laughing fit, and Jupiter falls off of him. When he scrapes together his composure, still grinning like a maniac, he rolls over and kisses the tip of her nose. “Your majesty has a marvelous gift for understatement.”

She reaches for a nearby towel, cleaning herself and then handing it to him so he can do the same. He pulls off the ring; it deactivates, blue light fading when it loses contact with skin.

Caine turns onto his side and reaches across Jupiter for a blanket, covering both of them. Then he wraps his arms and legs around her, wings stretching out behind him, occupying a sizeable portion of the bed. Chin resting against her shoulder, he nuzzles her jaw with his nose.

She takes his hand, threading fingers together, and turns her face toward him. When she plants a series of kisses along his forehead, he makes a low, happy noise and burrows closer.

“Today was a good day,” he murmurs, already half-asleep.

“Tomorrow will be, too. I promise,” Jupiter replies, kissing his forehead one more time before she closes her eyes.

Chapter Text

As long as Jupiter can remember, she’s always shared a basement bedroom with her mother and aunt. With only a curtain for a door, she never had privacy or a space to call her own, just a twin-sized bed and a concrete wall above it to decorate. She rarely slept in on the weekends, because even in high school there were always cleaning jobs to get to. She felt jealous of friends who bragged about Saturdays spent lazing around and doing nothing all day; Jupiter couldn’t fathom what that was like, living in an overcrowded house with her loud, nosy family.

This morning she wakes up with her own naked boyfriend, in her own lavish bed, in her own private bedroom, in her own space-palace. There are jobs to get to, even on a planet that isn’t Earth, but she decides nothing needs doing this morning except Caine.

Being an intergalactic business magnate-queen has its downsides, sure, but this isn’t one of them.

Everything is slow and quiet and just for the two of them. When he’s groggy, before his professional-soldier persona has woken up, Caine is less of a wolf splice and more like a koala splice: a sluggish two-hundred-pound cuddle machine.

Leisurely, as if no one and nothing else exists in the world except Jupiter, he pets her face and body. His large careful hands stroke her hair and he kisses her tender spots, tongue lapping the insides of her elbows and the pulse points in her neck, the curve of her belly and the arches of her feet. By the time he’s finished, Jupiter feels worshipped and limp, like she might never move again. If this is a wolf thing, some sort of grooming ritual, then she’s all for bringing animal stuff into the bedroom. Caine submits to being cosseted in return, blissed-out expression on his face as she strokes and scratches and kisses him from head to toe. He doesn’t even mind when she leaves hickeys behind, as evidence of her good work.

They spend hours cocooned in the blankets, all lazy stretches and conversation and sex, before ordering breakfast in bed. When they finally venture out of the bedroom, they only get as far as the ensuite and the bathtub.

“Bathtub” isn’t exactly accurate; it’s a chest-deep circular pool, large enough to hold at least fifty people, with holographic switches on a pedestal in the center. Each switch does something different: dispensing soap, activating rain showers from above, and simulating tidal movements in the water. There’s a button with a picture of bubbles on it, and when Jupiter pushes it, a host of tiny rainbow-hued bioluminescent fish dart into the pool from a hidden panel. They move in coordinated patterns, like a troop of synchronized swimmers.

“Are those real?” Jupiter asks, reaching back to steady herself on Caine’s arm and drawing her knees in, so her feet don’t disturb the show.

Quick as lightning from where he’s standing behind her, his hand shoots into the water, and the school scatters briefly before re-forming into a flower shape. Opening his fist, Caine reveals a fish, flashing bright colors as it flops on his palm.

He sniffs it and says definitively, “Android.” Jupiter takes the fish from him and cups it in her hands, adding just enough water for it to swim properly. Caine grasps her shoulders and turns her away from him. “If you keep pushing buttons, you’ll get to the one that starts a vortex and the water will be gone before I get the soap out of your hair.”

“Does one of them really make a whirlpool? Would it suck us down the drain?” Jupiter asks excitedly, peering at the control panel. His fingertips resume massaging her scalp. She washed his hair first, and he insisted on having a turn.

“No,” Caine replies, but it sounds like a lie to make her stand still.

Grinning, Jupiter drops the fish and reaches out for another button. Along the edge of the tub, a series of tiny portals open. Green tendrils curl into the water, and for a moment Jupiter is convinced they’re eels. She shrieks and splashes backward into Caine, trying to climb onto his shoulders to escape.

Head dripping, he obligingly sweeps her into his arms. He hoists her out of the chest-deep water and watches the tendrils without a flicker of concern. They aren’t eels, they’re vines; as they approach, leaves unfurl like peels from a banana.

“What are they for?” Jupiter whispers, as though the vines can hear her.

“I’m not sure, but it’s unlikely Queen Seraphi installed anything dangerous in her own bathing facility.”

“Yeah, but what if Balem renovated his mother’s bath after she died?”

Caine pauses, forehead wrinkling as he considers the possibility. “That tactic ranks pretty high on a list of ‘farfetched assassination techniques.’” He does lift her further from the water when one of the tendrils reaches his leg. It curls around his ankle and caresses his toes. He twitches and snorts, trying not to laugh. “It’s scrubbing my foot.”

“Seriously?”

Cradled in his arms, Jupiter enjoys the spectacle of Caine struggling to keep a straight face, until she works up the nerve to hazard the water again. As soon as he puts her down, she gets a vine of her own, wrapping itself around her calf and rubbing her skin. The leaves are slightly abrasive; it’s an exfoliating vine.

Space is so weird.

“Queen Jupiter, my apologies for interrupting. Nati has requested a word, at your convenience,” Zev says, their voice coming from nowhere and everywhere at the same time.

Jupiter dips her head underwater, washing off her shampoo, and then she toggles the vine switch so they retract into the wall. “Tell her I’ll be out in fifteen minutes.”

Caine comes up behind her, hands skating down her thighs. He plants a kiss on her shoulder, the tiniest hint of a fang pricking her skin. “Would you like to dry off?”

“Not yet.” Jupiter flicks the tidal-activation toggle again, then turns around and puts her arms around his neck, pulling herself up to kiss his mouth. “How long can you hold your breath?”

It turns out he can hold it for around five minutes, but he gets her off in four. She returns the favor in three minutes thirty. Visions dance in Jupiter’s head, all the times and places that would be ripe for luring Caine into a quickie during the day – a dressing room during their shopping trip later this afternoon, a broom closet in one of Chicago’s nice townhouses during a cleaning job.

The ensuite has an evaporation chamber – something akin to the hairdryer Kalique used after her Regenex bath, except a full-body experience. Jupiter wears the simplest, most Earth-like clothes she can find in Seraphi’s closet, and Caine pulls on his pajama pants, for lack of anything that fits better.

Nati waits for them in Jupiter’s bedroom, a few servants flanking her. One carries a pile of clothes, with a pair of gravity boots sitting on top.

“Mr Wise, as soon as the Aegis seized Lord Titus’s clipper, I contacted them about your stolen property. I’ve had your things laundered,” Nati says.

So much for Jupiter’s afternoon shopping plans.

The android deposits the bundle of Legion gear in Caine’s arms. He glances through the clothes, his lips shut tight and his eyes open wide. He lifts his gaze to Nati and, in a tone full of dawning respect, says, “Thank you, Ms Nati.”

Nati tips her head forward, giving him a small smile. “Your comfort is of utmost importance to her majesty, so it is of utmost importance to me.”

Jupiter can practically see the friendship spark between them, born from their separate love for her – Nati’s devotion to the woman who was and she hopes will be again, Caine’s devotion to the terrsies woman he plucked out of the sky.

(Their rapport will occasionally be the source of great frustration to Jupiter, when they side with each other, against her, mostly for her own good.)

There’s a six-course formal lunch waiting in the alcazar’s dining room. Jupiter stares at the feast and she misses sitting in Vassily’s house with her big, loud family, gathered around a table that needs three leaves to accommodate everyone. She misses the dinner in Stinger’s kitchen, with Kiza and Stinger and Caine, because it felt like a new sort of family.

She finds Kiza and Stinger in one of the dozen lounges, watching holovid news coverage of the Entitled event, and invites them to join the meal. Nati politely declines her invitation, flapping around in contained consternation before finally leaving them to it. A small host of android cooks and a raccoon-splice chef stay behind, and they also politely refuse invitations to join in the meal, instead bringing more food to the table.

Their conversation feels so easy and so blessedly normal. Kiza wants to check on her bees, she’s worried whether the Legionnaire mercenaries damaged any of the beehives when they showed up two days ago.

“Are you going to petition the Aegis to take your commission again?” Caine asks Stinger. “Or is Kiza going to haul those bees off-planet when you move on?”

“Haven’t thought much about it,” Stinger replies. Kiza glances at him and he shrugs; they’ve obviously discussed this already. “It’s a messy business, bees on a spaceship. They get into every little crack and crevice, they turn the whole ship into a honeycomb. Once they get in there and start building you can’t get them out. Honey destroys the circuitry of the navigational drive, you could end up portalling right into the middle of a supernova. You have to scrap the whole thing.”

Jupiter laughs. “You’ve seen bees on a spaceship?”

“You wouldn’t believe the sorts of things I’ve seen, your majesty. There are bees bigger than elephants on the other side of the Perseus Arm. They get pissed off if you try to ride them, though.”  

“What if you didn’t have to move your bees, not for a while?” Jupiter says, putting down her fork. “I told my family that I’m working for a rich lady in Milwaukee. If I’m going to be travelling to Orous and who knows where else on a regular basis, to deal with Seraphi’s business, I need to keep up my cover on Earth.” Stinger stares at her, chewing his food. “I won’t buy your commission or anything, you can keep it. I was thinking more along the lines of a traditional Earth employment situation, where I pay you for the time you put in, and you belong to yourself. Kiza mentioned that the Legionnaires did a number on your farmhouse. Since I’m going to buy a mansion fit for a rich old lady in Milwaukee, I’ll need someone to keep an eye on it, and to keep an eye on Earth, and help manage the Keepers who work there. We could even move Kiza’s bees to the new house if she wants.”

Kiza and Stinger exchange another glance. Caine studies his food, meticulously loading up his fork with an inhumanly large bite, definitely not looking at Stinger.

“Kiza might like that, I reckon,” Stinger says.

“I understand if you prefer the Aegis gig instead. But I want people around me who will tell me the truth when I need to hear it. Plus, someone has to deal with my security situation. You seem like the kind of man who might enjoy helping Caine with that kind of work – setting up a team, making sure everybody’s vetted properly, getting paid insane amounts of money, all that?”

“It’s a kind offer, your majesty, but – ouch!” Stinger flinches, swiveling around to face Kiza with thunderous indignity painted across his face. She must have kicked him under the table.

“Thank you for the generous offer, your majesty. He'll take it,” Kiza says, smiling sweetly. Caine coughs and shoves a carefully-constructed forkful of food into his mouth.

Stinger glances around the table and sighs resignedly. “Seems like the decision’s already been made.”

Jupiter beams. Underneath the table, out of view, she excitedly swings her feet in a seated victory dance. "You won't be sorry."

"I wouldn't bet on that, your majesty," Stinger grumbles, not unkindly. When Kiza kicks him again, he only wrinkles his nose.

Since this coversation is already barrelling down the tracks like a train at full speed, Jupiter keeps right on going. She leans over to Caine. “This alcazar’s hangar bay was chock full of interesting-looking ships. Were there any good ones?”

Caine’s eyes light up, and he swallows his enormous bite in a single gulp. “There was a Hallaxian Mark V Cruiser in one bay. It doesn’t have the same portal tech as the Mark VI, but I’ve heard it can be retrofitted. It’s a good ship for short-term trips, with cozy living quarters. Nothing as fancy or grand as a clipper, but it’s fast.”

“It’s yours. You’ll need someplace to hang out when I’m spending time with my family on Earth, and it would be nice if it’s portable. I think it’s an hour-and-a-half drive from Chicago to Milwaukee, but that sort of cruiser would cover the distance a lot faster, right?”

“About an hour and twenty minutes faster, yes,” Caine says. He’s sitting up ramrod straight, trying not to fidget in his chair. Jupiter has found something that he loves more than food. It's a miracle.

“We can’t have you buzzing over the city in full view, though. It’s going to need to go invisible. What’s the technical term for that? A cloaking device?”

“Viso-shield.”

“Do you think the one in my hangar has a viso-shield?”

“I don’t know. They aren’t a standard feature.”

“Could you check for me?”

He nods, very controlled, like he’s monitoring his head movement to make sure it appears normal and isn’t going at the speed of an eager puppy’s tail. “Right now?”

“If you like,” Jupiter says, grinning and bumping his knee with her own.

Caine carefully puts his napkin on the table beside his half-empty plate. “Stinger, would you care to take a look at her majesty’s ship?”

Stinger drops his napkin on his plate. “Might as well. Thank you for the meal, your majesty.” He bows to Jupiter, and the men leave.

As soon as they clear the door, Kiza says, “We’ve lost them for at least the next four hours.”

“All part of the plan,” Jupiter replies, leaning forward conspiratorially. “How would you like a job, too?”

By the time they finish eating, Kiza is onboard as Jupiter’s cultural liaison. She needs someone who knows Earth, and who can use that information to help her navigate Commonwealth culture. Kiza is thrilled at the prospect of travelling the galaxy with Jupiter during the week, and Jupiter’s feeling more and more like this space-empire business might be manageable.

 

~~~~~

 

On Wednesday night, Jupiter returns to Earth. First stop is Milwaukee, to drop off Stinger and Kiza for real estate shopping. Then Caine takes her to Chicago and parks his shiny new cruiser at the end of her neighborhood.

He kisses her and presses a short-range interpersonal communicator into her hand, and she walks the last block alone.

There is no reunion full of tears and hugs, no congratulations for Jupiter’s rescue of Caine and Stinger. She walks in the front door and Uncle Vassily says, “Look who’s back! Milwaukee and the big emergency did not agree with you? You’ve come to help your mother and aunt again, so they don’t break their backs, cleaning so many houses by themselves?”

“I’m taking the job in Milwaukee,” Jupiter replies, giving Vassily a hug. He stands stiff as a board, surprised, until she lets go. “The pay is so good, Mama and Nino won’t have to break their backs anymore.”

Jupiter sleeps in her tiny bed in the basement, and she listens to her mother’s breathing and Nino’s snores, and she knows she can’t hide her new life from them forever. But for now, until she figures out how to explain everything to them, she will.

The next morning, her family gives her a beautiful, perfect brass telescope, and she tells them about her new boyfriend.

Later that evening, as she stands atop the Willis Tower with Caine, she wiggles her toes in her gravity boots and looks down at the city below. Her city, her planet, her people. Up this high, the wind is cold, even in the summer.

This building is taller than Stinger’s barn, and the nerves in her stomach tickle, but those nerves aren’t something to shy away from; they’re a challenge to be met. The last few weeks have been a crash course in relativity and frames of reference. It doesn’t matter how far the drop is, as long as she’s in control of the plunge.

She steps into Caine’s arms and he wraps his wings around her. His mouth is warm and soft, his tongue moving with hers with familiarity and ease.

“Are you ready?” he eventually asks.

She grins at him. “Watch this.”

Jupiter takes two steps and leaps off a hundred story building, because she’s ready to fly instead of fall.