The car was coming.
Caine circled high above the road, high enough that the little open vehicle looked like a toy, but even at this height he could scent his Queen, her genes singing to him across the distance. He wanted to stoop on the car as if it were a target, just to shorten the time before he could be close to her again, but Kiza would yell at him if he did.
So he paced it above, letting his new wings play with the air currents, and felt his heart trip when Jupiter at last looked up and waved.
He flew lower, closer, watching her. She looked well; her hair was pulled back in its usual tail, ruffled by the wind of their travel, and she was wearing Earth garments, snug trousers and a loose top.
She was almost there, and he did a barrel roll just from sheer anticipation.
As the car turned onto the driveway, Caine dropped out of the air, aiming for the patch of weedy ground that served Stinger as a front yard, and landed in a puff of dust at the same instant that Kiza braked to a stop.
Her Majesty laughed, releasing her seatbelt with a snap. "Nice!" she called, and scrambled out before he could get close enough to open the little door for her.
But it didn't matter, because she ran right into him, bouncing up on her toes to land a kiss on his mouth, a burst of sweetness. Caine caught her close and returned it, a little more slowly. His Queen hummed, hands stroking his shoulders, and he wanted to wrap his wings tight until she was surrounded by feathers, safe and -
"No PDAs," Kiza said, passing by with several bags of sharp-smelling food. "Come on, guys, I'm starving."
Jupiter pulled back a fraction, chuckling. Caine frowned. "She should be more respectful."
His Queen took one hand from his shoulder to lay a finger on his lips. "Don't you dare. She's fine the way she is." She grinned and kissed his chin quickly. "Aren't you hungry?"
Caine wished she'd do it again. "Yes."
"Then come on." She slipped from his arms, but then took his hand and tugged him up the steps and into Stinger's house.
It had been...unreal, to find her there just a few days ago, more vivid than his memory could hold; dancing clumsily in air, all determination and a strength that left him breathless. Seeing her face light at the sight of him had stunned him despite the memory of her kisses; holding her had made the strange new ache in his chest disappear.
They'd seen each other since, of course, but at the end of every meeting he'd had to return to the farm and leave the Aegis crew to handle her security, and it had felt wrong despite Stinger pointing out that technically, Caine was still on sick leave.
He'd tried appealing directly to her Majesty, but she'd muttered something about ohshah and told him to relax, and anyway, when would he sleep if he spent all night on the roof?
Telling her that he could go days without sleep if necessary had had no effect at all.
But now she was there, safe and real, and would stay all day and come back the next. The squadron was due to make orbit shortly, which would bring its own problems, but it would also put Caine back on proper guard duty. Being without an assignment left him at a strange uncomfortable loss, not knowing what to do with himself. Kiza had lent him some of the Earth books she'd collected, and there was always sparring practice with Stinger, but time had still gone far too slowly.
Now, he feared, it would go too fast.
The battered table in Stinger's house was just big enough for the four of them, if wings were kept folded. Stinger himself sauntered in from the back, wiping his hands on a rag and reeking of honey; Caine knew he was doing something with his beehives in anticipation of changes coming.
"Hey, Stinger!" Jupiter kissed him on the cheek, which made him turn a dull red. "Thanks for letting me come back this weekend."
Stinger cleared his throat, and Caine smirked at his embarrassment. "My house is yours, Majesty."
"Yeah, well, it's still nice of you. I hope you're hungry, we bought out half the restaurant."
"Legionnaires are always hungry." Kiza grinned. "Chopsticks or a fork, your Majesty?"
Jupiter started unloading cartons from one of the bags. "I can do chopsticks."
In the end, they all used the sticks that came with the meal; they were no odder than other utensils Caine had used in the past. The food, however, was a new experience, distracting him even from the presence of his Queen by his side and the occasional pressure of her knee against his. The flavors were good, certainly - a change from the bland Legion rations that had made up most of the meals of his adult life - but after a while they were interfering with his sense of smell, and it made him a little nervous.
"So how was your week?" Jupiter asked Kiza. "It dawned on me that I don't really know what you do, besides collecting swarms once in a while."
Kiza speared a piece of vegetable with one of her sticks. "Mostly I deal with the honey," she said comfortably. "I was taking a few courses at the local college last semester, but Dad thinks studying Japanese culture is a waste of time." She poked her father with one elbow.
Stinger huffed. "I didn't say that."
"Yeah, you just think I should be watching off-planet stuff. Seriously, the 'verse's animation industry is stagnant," she said to Jupiter. "I keep thinking how cool it would be if we could export some of the classic anime."
"You can't?" Jupiter asked, and they were off on a discussion Caine couldn't follow. Stinger rolled his eyes tolerantly and kept eating; Caine sorted through a carton of noodles, trying to avoid the crunchy bursts of spice Jupiter called ginger, and felt his spine relax. Here in this room were all the people who mattered to him, and they were all safe and at peace.
It was as close to perfection as he could hope to get, and so far from his recent past that he still had trouble believing it was real.
It was a good thing there was a lot of food; Splice metabolisms ran high, and while they could go a long time on short rations, their bodies were set up to take advantage of abundance when offered. Caine and Stinger were still picking through the remains when Jupiter pushed back her chair, sighed, and spoke. "So you all think I should really do this Entitled thing, huh?"
There was a little silence, and then Stinger sighed in turn. "It's not a matter of doing, your Majesty. It's what you are."
She cocked a brow at him. "But I could say no. Leave it all with Kalique and stay - here. For the rest of my life."
Stinger looked as if he'd bitten into something sour. "...Yes."
"That wouldn't solve the problem," Caine pointed out. Her Majesty had already made up her mind; she'd admitted as much the evening before, after one of her wild flights through the Chicago sky. But he could see why she might want to test the assertion. "Earth would only be safe for your lifetime."
Kiza propped her elbows on the table and her chin on one hand, watching. Jupiter rubbed her eyes. "I don't suppose I could set up some kind of foundation," she muttered, then snickered. "Too bad 'Save the Earth' is taken. All right then. Let's do this."
Stinger relaxed, exhaling a relieved breath; Kiza grinned. "It won't be all bad," she said. "You'll see when you get there."
"I'll take your word for it," Jupiter said wryly. "To be honest, though, I don't even know where to start."
"If I may suggest it, your Majesty, one of the first things to do should be to inform Lady Kalique," Stinger said slowly. "Her advice could be helpful."
"Yeah, if I can trust it." Jupiter bit her lip.
"She hasn't done anything overt against you," Caine admitted. He didn't like Kalique any more than he did any other Entitled, but as far as he could tell she had done exactly what she said she had.
Whether she actually had his Queen's best interests at heart...that was something else altogether.
"All right," Jupiter said again. "Let's see what she has in mind. The last time I talked to her she sounded like she wanted to do some kind of debutante thing." She made a face.
"Debutante thing?" Stinger asked, and Kiza laughed.
"Introduce her to society, that sort of thing. Really, Dad, you need to watch more television."
"I'd rather eat dirt," Stinger muttered, which only made both women laugh.
"I'll clean up," Jupiter said, rising, and shot a stern glare at the Apinis when their mouths opened in protest. "I don't cook, which means I get the dishes."
"It's not appropriate," Stinger began, but Jupiter shook her head.
"I get that, but this isn't space, it's your house. Just let me be an ordinary guest, okay?" She switched from glare to appeal. "Just for now."
"Give it up, Stinger," Caine said, reaching over to pluck an empty carton from his commander's hand. "Either she's a guest and she's allowed, or she's an Entitled and you can't argue with her."
Kiza burst out laughing. Stinger sputtered, buzzing a little, and gave up. "Fine thing when a man gets thrown out of his own kitchen," he grumbled without heat.
"You hate dishes," Kiza reminded him, and stood to pull him from his chair. "Dish soap is under the sink, your Majesty."
"Nice one," Jupiter said approvingly as Kiza dragged her father out. "So how was your week? I've seen you three times and you hardly said a word about what you were doing." She wrinkled her nose at him and started stacking plates. "Don't think I didn't notice."
It hadn't occurred to Caine that she would be interested, and the knowledge that she was added another layer of unreality. No one, no one had ever cared so much, not even Stinger. "Just off-time. Syncing my wings, studying, practice." He collected all the empty cartons. "Kiza helps me - we don't have sparring pistols so she got these weapons called paintball guns."
Jupiter choked. "Paintball? Seriously?"
Caine deposited the cartons in the trash can. "Kiza's a first-class sharpshooter; Stinger taught her." And he was glad to know that she hadn't let her skill lapse in five years of obscurity on a tertiary planet.
Jupiter cocked her head at the angle that meant she was thinking hard, then shook it and put the plates in the sink. "Check your assumptions at the door," she muttered, but she looked pleased. "Then I just have one question."
Caine straightened. "Anything, your Majesty."
Her smile spread. "Next time, can I watch?"
"Your Majesty doesn't require permission." But the idea warmed him. Being able to show her his skill and training, without the danger - he liked it.
"Yeah, but it's polite to ask." Jupiter turned on the water, humming.
Caine was just stuffing the last of the leftovers into the refrigerator when Kiza came back in holding a small box. "Caine, I just remembered, this is yours," she said, handing it to him as he straightened. "It's stuff Dad hung onto for you."
"Stuff?" He took the box, staring down at it in puzzlement.
"I dunno - guess you'll have to open it." Kiza patted his arm, then went to take the dishtowel from Jupiter and hang it up. "Come on, your Majesty, I'll show you how to use the comm so you can get in touch with Lady Kalique."
His first impulse was to follow, but instead Caine sat down at the now-empty table, pulling the lid off the battered plasboard container.
It was just a handful of little things - pretty pebbles he'd picked up on one world or another, the two medals he'd been awarded years back, his double-pipe, a sheave of holos. The latter was out of charge, he found when he tried to thumb it on, but if he remembered correctly it was mostly sunsets and aerial views.
Personal effects, things he'd given up as lost after the court-martial.
Caine looked up as Stinger came in, heading for the sink with a glass in his hand. "Bloody spicy food," the older man grumbled. "What's wrong with just bread and fruit, eh?"
Since Stinger had eaten most of three cartons of lunch, Caine ignored this. "Stinger."
"Mm?" Stinger held the glass under the spigot and turned the tap.
"If you were so mad at me, why did you keep all this?"
Stinger glanced back over his shoulder, then shut off the water and came over to the table. "Kept wha- - oh." His face reddened again. "Would you believe me if I told you it was Kiza done it?"
Caine regarded his commander, the old warmth unspooling behind his breastbone. "No."
"Aye, well." Stinger took a long drink. "I don't know exactly - never expected to see you get out of the Deadlands, for one." He regarded the box for a moment. "It just seemed like - you'd lost a lot even before then. Seemed a shame to let it all get thrown away."
Caine fingered one of the pebbles, a rough chunk of translucent rose. "Thank you."
When he looked up, Stinger was even redder, his brand standing out against his neck. "Tell anyone, and they'll not find the body," he said, smirking.
"Kiza did it," Caine agreed, letting his own smile loose. He picked up the double-pipe and blew out the dust, and Stinger snorted and left him to it.
He was running through scales when Jupiter came back in. She stopped and just stared at him, and he raised his brows and finished with an arpeggio before taking the instrument from his mouth. "Am I flat, your Majesty?"
She blinked twice, and he could see her pass on some bad joke. "No, it sounds fine to me - I just didn't know you played music."
"Legionnaires are encouraged to pick up a hobby. Something portable." Her Majesty was eyeing the double-pipe curiously, and he held it out to her.
She took it carefully, dropping into another chair, and looked it over. "Yeah? What does Stinger do?" She arranged her fingers on the stops. It looked more natural in her smaller hands - his were large enough that they almost covered the two barrels.
"Carves luckstones. I don't know if he does it any more, but before, just about everybody in the squadron had one of his." Caine pulled the box closer and rummaged through the pebbles until he found the little hexagon of cloudrock Stinger had given him years ago. No bigger than the tip of his thumb, it had the sigil of their old unit carved in relief on one side, and on the other a profile of the pack predator spliced into his genes.
He rubbed it between thumb and forefinger; the glassy smoothness was an old familiarity. Its gifting had been the sign that he was really part of the squadron; it had been the first time since he'd been culled that he'd felt - not at home, exactly - but welcome.
It was strange, to remember that now; he'd kept it back for so long.
"May I see?" Jupiter asked.
Caine put it on the table and pushed it forward with one finger. She set the double-pipe aside and pinched up the little rock, rubbing her thumb over both faces in almost the same gesture he'd used, and then peering closely at it. Caine expected her to ask what the sigil meant, but she didn't, just passing it back in the same fashion. "He's got talent."
Caine scooped it up and dropped it back in the box. Jupiter smiled and held out the double-pipe. "Play something?"
He shook his head as he took it back. "I'm out of practice."
Her Majesty shrugged concedingly. "What kind of music do - Um. Crap." Her smile widened, rueful. "I'm not sure that question will translate. I don't think there's such a thing as space country and western."
He had to laugh a little. "Yeah, doesn't work, does it." He looked in the box one more time, just to make sure. "I had a music sheave too, but it's gone. It would have been out of charge anyway." Probably one of his squadmates had taken it, and he couldn't grudge the theft, because he'd been as good as dead and why let it go to waste?
"Oh! Well, we can fix that." Jupiter bounced upright, face lighting. "Kiza! You have iTunes, right?"
Kiza's voice came back from the living room. "Duh."
Jupiter stood up, grabbing Caine's hand and pulling him up with her. "Great! You, my friend, are about to be introduced to the wide, wide world of Earth music."
The next two hours were filled with Earth's infonet, something called YouTube, and a fairly entertaining selection of music. Eventually Caine took over the primitive headset Kiza used on her machine (it made his ears ache, but the sound quality was good) and started calling things up at random, while Kiza and her Majesty argued the merits of various players and whether overnight delivery was better than going to the actual store.
And all the while, the thought ran through his head again and again. This is real. I'm really here, it's not a dream or a mirage.
Jupiter wasn't quite sure what to expect when Stinger and Caine went out for sparring practice, but sitting on the porch steps with Kiza to watch, she had to admit it was impressive. In so many ways.
She'd seen them fight each other before, of course, and for real - kind of - but that had been hardly more than a spat. And Stinger's bees had distracted her pretty quickly anyway.
This time they were much more methodical about it, and a whole lot faster. And noisier, keeping up a near-constant stream of insults and trash talk as they threw punches and kicks, closed to grapple, and broke away again. Stinger wasn't so surprising, but Jupiter reflected that she hadn't heard Caine say so much at one time before.
It was fascinating. And very entertaining, on more than one level, though Jupiter kept that firmly behind her lips. Kiza sprawled next to her and shouted taunts on occasion, or explained some move to Jupiter, when she could be heard above the grunts and thuds.
Male mating ritual. Well, Jupiter could see how it could be foreplay, at least, which was another thought she didn't speak aloud, even though it set off an interesting quiver in her belly.
But beneath it all was the growing awareness that both men were also performing, and for an audience of her. Not just the usual male display in front of a female, either; it was more than that, more important.
They want to show me how good they are, because I am their Queen.
The thought settled a weight across her shoulders. For the first time, the role felt real. She wasn't just responsible for an oblivious Earth, or a bunch of still-theoretical worlds; these lives were truly in her hands, present and almost tangible.
Because of what she was, but also because they chose to be.
Some small part of her, the part that still hated cleaning other people's bathrooms, wanted to throw up its hands and say Fuck that. But the rest of her welcomed the new weight, bearing up under its pressure.
I already chose. This is just the next step.
It felt good.
And then Caine had Stinger pinned and griping, and Jupiter laughed and applauded, and watched Caine turn pink with pleasure. It was true she had no idea what to do next, but hell, she'd already winged it through Entitlement, kidnappings, dinner and a wedding, and fights with homicidal relations. It seemed to be working.
When practice was over, Stinger dodged inside; "My house, shower's mine first," trailed back. Kiza snorted and disappeared around the side of the barn; Caine, still breathing heavily, just shook his head and let his wings extend for a few lazy flaps.
Jupiter waved away the dust they raised and strolled over. "That was seriously impressive," she told him.
He went pink again, which was an adorable look. "Really?"
The question was almost inaudible, and Jupiter nudged his shoulder with hers. "Hell yes. I just wish I'd had a video camera."
Caine seemed to take that last about as seriously as she meant it, though his eyes were wide and delighted. "Your Majesty is too gracious."
My majesty is kinda turned on, actually. But this wasn't the time or place for that discussion. Jupiter settled for a kiss, putting her hands on his waist for a change and loving the way he leaned into her.
"I'm not clean," he murmured after a while, stroking a strand of her hair off her cheek.
"Don't care," Jupiter returned, and pressed closer. He smelled like warm leather, which she'd figured out was mostly his clothing (even though it wasn't leather), and musk, with a strange almost-herbal tang beneath. The sweat on his skin just made it more intense, and Jupiter took the opportunity to press her face into the hollow of his throat and breathe in.
Caine made a startled sound, his hands closing on her shoulders, but he didn't pull away. Jupiter laid a kiss on the still-hot skin beneath her lips, then tilted her head back to look up.
Caine's eyes were closed, his brow furrowed as if something were hurting him, and Jupiter touched his cheek. "Are you okay?"
He blinked his eyes open. "...Yes." His wings curved slowly forward until they stood in a circle of feathers.
Jupiter turned a little, reaching out to brush her fingers along the top of one. Caine shifted her gently so that her back was to his chest, and brought his wings in closer, wrapping his arms around her as well. It felt wonderful, and Jupiter sighed happily, snuggling back against him.
"What did Lady Kalique say?" Caine asked just over her head.
"Hm? Oh, I didn't speak to her, just to her steward-guy. Mr. Malidictes." Jupiter closed her hands over Caine's. "She's going to meet me when I, um, get up there."
But before she could really relax, a window slammed open somewhere and Stinger shouted something about the shower. Caine growled, more vibration than sound, and his wings withdrew as he released Jupiter.
"To be continued," she muttered. He snorted, and followed her inside.
Sunday was quieter. Stinger disappeared after breakfast, saying he had something he had to do. Caine started working on some complicated piece of equipment; he called it a shield projector, which was apparently entirely different from the device he wore on his arm, but since it involved both holograms and enough gears to rev a steampunk addict Jupiter didn't even bother asking. Space tech was weird.
They were out in the yard, stripping corn for dinner, when Jupiter finally screwed up the courage to ask Kiza. It felt a bit high school, but she had to get data from somewhere. "You've known Caine for a while, haven't you?"
Kiza looked up, grinning a little. "Oh aye. Dad used to bring him by every so often, felt sorry for him I think."
"So..." Jupiter trailed off, not sure how to ask. What's he really like? What does he eat, what makes him laugh, what happened to him after the - the attack?
"So?" Kiza echoed, then had mercy on her. "He's a lonely soul. Dad told you that lycantants come in packs, right?"
Jupiter nodded, and Kiza set aside her clean ear and reached for another. "He's not really possible, Caine isn't, but try to tell him that. He'll work his tail off just to prove he can do it, but nobody really had a good word for him besides Dad. Too small, too odd."
It hurt Jupiter's brain to think of Caine as small, but it was obvious that he had a ferocious inferiority complex going. Not at all helped, she thought viciously, by a society that treated him like a disposable - but he seemed to be an outcast even beyond that.
Except for these two, and now Jupiter...
"I told him he should have applied for transfer out of Dad's squadron, rather than come back here," Kiza went on soberly, and Jupiter blinked in shock.
Kiza bent over the ear whose silk she was peeling away, strand by strand. "Because..." She looked up, and her expression was almost frightened. "Majesty, can I be honest?"
Jupiter squeezed the ear she was holding, feeling the husk rough against her palm. "Only if you call me Jupiter."
Kiza dropped her gaze again. "He's practically bonded to you. But when you see what it's really like, being an Entitled...being pushed back, well, it'll...hurt him."
Jupiter pinched her eyes shut for a moment. The smell of the corn was strong in her nose, a fresh earthy scent that was just that, Earthy. It made it harder to think about what she'd seen out there, the strange twisted fantasy of living forever.
"I know I haven't seen much of it," she began carefully. "But what I did see, I didn't much like." She pulled off a leaf, listening to it squeak as it came free of the cob. "And I hope I'm not the kind of person who would do that to someone."
Kiza lifted one shoulder in a shrug, small and defensive. "I'm just...afraid for him, your - Jupiter."
Part of Jupiter wanted to reach over and shake Kiza into seeing her as herself again, not the alien they expected her to become. The other part, the cool, analytical voice that was showing up more and more often, overrode it. She doesn't really know you, it said. And Caine's her friend; she loves him. Of course she's afraid.
"I hear you," she said finally, and Kiza nodded, and they finished the corn in something like peace.
"Mister, Miss, Sa," Jupiter muttered to herself, and worked a dock root out of the ground. Mister for guys, Miss for girls and it has nothing to do with whether they're married or not, and Sa for neuter people. Pretty straightforward.
Weeding Stinger's garden was actually a good way to work off nervous energy and go over some of the huge number of things she was trying to memorize. Kiza had shown her what was a weed and what wasn't, mostly, and then gone off on an errand, and Jupiter knew Caine was around, because every so often she'd look up to see him passing through, either on watch or to watch her.
She didn't mind. It felt oddly good to be protected, and while normally it would make her nervous to have someone staring at her, this was Caine - it already felt strange when he wasn't around.
Oh, you are so fucked, she told herself. Completely gone on a winged wolf-guy from another planet. What do you even know about him, really? Like, what planet?
And yet...it didn't matter. It really didn't. She hadn't thought it possible, this connection - attraction was far too weak a word - with anyone. On some level, she'd believed her mother's words about love.
Gotta admit, this does kind of sound like a fairy tale. Complete with evil villains. But knowing that this man was willing to not only kill for her but die for her...it should have made her feel uncomfortable, panicky even. Instead, it was like when he said her title -
Jupiter started and looked up. Caine was standing next to her, and as she squinted he shifted to block the sun from her eyes. "Hey, what's up?" She wondered if she was blushing.
"Stinger just called in. The squadron made orbit last night, and they're coming in." He held out a hand to pull her to her feet.
"Yeah?" Jupiter let him help her up, then wiped her forehead on her arm, feeling grimy. "I should probably go clean up then."
Caine looked up at the sky, and just shook his head. His wings were unfurling, but instead of extending all the way out he arranged them so that they rose behind his head, a sort of mantle, and widened his stance.
And they came.
One by one, falling out of the sky like - gods, Jupiter thought in stunned irreverence. Each one dropping precisely to land on one knee, head bent, wings held at the same angle as Caine's; surrounding her in a circle that pulsed like a heartbeat, one more soldier each second in a maneuver of breathtaking precision. Ten of them, and Stinger last, leading them in a shout that seemed to shake the air.
She had no words.
Then they were rising in unison, wings snapping back, and Stinger stepped forward, face suffused with restrained pride. "Your Majesty, the Legion Skyjacker squadron Stormbreaker is pleased to present itself for your inspection."
She was spending an awful lot of time these days feeling small, grubby, and unprepared. Jupiter made a mental note to talk to Caine about timing, swallowed hard, and looked...up.
They were all taller than her, Stinger's size or bigger, men and women and at least one she couldn't actually tell - faces varying wildly, but all bearing the same beautiful brown-and-silver wings that Caine and Stinger shared. It was good to have Caine's strength at her back, because this was brute power multiplied, but as she looked at their impassive, parade-rest faces, she could see hints of the same awe that had been in Stinger's face, that first bee-filled day.
Jupiter took a deep breath, tried to channel someone innately gracious (all she could think of was Madeleine Albright, for some reason), and nodded. "Thank you, Mr. Apini," she managed, and the calmness of her own voice surprised her. "I'm very pleased to accept them."
And as Stinger beamed and started to introduce them, she had to smother a totally inappropriate giggle. I think we're going to need more corn...