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the instinct to your charm

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Okay, just to get this out on the table: Caine's always been bad with people. Always. He's awkward, and terse, and very slow to warm up to new people. Five years alone in the Deadlands haven't exactly done wonders for his social skills, but he was pretty bad before then, too.

It's not really his fault, particularly. Definitely not his fault that the splice went wrong, that he hatched runty and pale from the machine, all wrong for the Wise trademark soldier. No one was surprised when the others shunned him in the creche, that he couldn't form proper bonds- and it was just as well, wasn't it, since what would they even do with someone like him in the Vanguard? At that point, it was quietly assumed that he'd go out the usual way for the shunned.

Everyone was a little surprised when he made it through the first two growth-cycles without offing himself, but by then he'd decided he wanted to live, so he did. It would be years and years before he fully understood all that he did to himself to manage that feat, to realize how badly he'd crippled himself for the sake of survival. By the time he made it to a group of people that could have been his pack, it was too late.

It wasn't as if he was miserable, particularly. He learned quickly how to adapt, and he was good at it. The creche kept him through the usual combat training, but while the others worked on group exercises with their packs, he was set to tracking and escape/evade. Eventually they decided they'd gotten all they could out of him, sold him a year early to the Legion for a loss, and called it good. The Legion recruiter who grabbed him was fairly pleased to get a decent hunter at a discount, and used the extra discretionary funds to snag him a spot in the Academy.

He did pretty well for himself there. Never actually managed to make any friends- he didn't entirely understand the concept, not yet- but he was good at what he did, and he had high marks. If he'd gotten nothing else out of his years at the creche, he'd learned the value of making himself useful. To proper lycantants he may have been tiny and useless, but to the other cadets in the Academy he was just as strong as they were and faster than most, agile from years of slugging it out with people much bigger than him, and most importantly: fearless. After all, it's easy not to be afraid when you've got nothing else to lose.

He graduated a lieutenant in the two-year minimum, earned his wings, earned his unit. And then another unit, and another, and another… It wasn't like he was bad at following orders. Caine was fucking great at it, actually. But none of them ever seemed to come together right with him there, the silent, awkward shadow at the back of the group, and it shouldn't have mattered since he did solo work anyway, but regs meant that he had to be on someone's unit. That's how he, eventually, ended up with Stinger, the last captain in a long line to think he'd be a good stopgap measure but the first to actually think he was worth something. It worked out better than it should have, while it lasted. Stinger was good to him. Good commander, and a better man; he used to take Caine home with him on leave because he knew that Caine didn't have anywhere else to go.

Caine never did figure out how to thank him for that. Never did figure out how to ask for more, either, but it's probably just as well, considering how that ended, in a flash of red and a haze of blood and sickly-sweet reek of royal pheromones, a loss of control and a blank hole where his memory should be. Freak, they said; Aberrant, they called him, and of course there wasn't a damn thing he could do but take it, because it wasn't like they were wrong. Clipped and stripped is the term for a dishonorable discharge in the Skyjackers, and he'd've taken death if he could. Death would have been preferable to knowing he'd dragged Stinger down with him, the only person who ever really gave a shit about him.

Living in the Deadlands, if you can call it that, was close enough, for a while.

And then, eventually, he gets a chance to fix it. One job, something simple for someone like him: find the girl, retrieve the girl, get his wings back. More importantly, get Stinger's wings back. Fix his mistakes. Pay his debts.

Deep down, he knows it's not going to work out, but hell, he has to try, right?

Yeah. So that's how that shit gets started.

~*~

Katherine Dunleavy passes out almost as soon as he gets her out of the grav-locks, which isn't much of a surprise. He's honestly a little impressed that she stayed conscious enough to react to his presence at all, considering the dosage the Keepers hit her with. It was probably only the shock of the air deprivation that allowed her to come back up at all. Fighting for your life will do that, he's found.

It does leave him with the problem of how to get her out of the clinic and up to his hideout without being seen by the authorities or any other interested parties. He checks the time and considers. It's not dark yet, and won't be for a few hours, since this planet is in the full swing of summer months. Caine's been surveilling this place since sometime right about dawn, when he looped back to find the bounty hunters gone and took their previous perch on roof above the alley. (If they wanted to take their spot back, he reasoned, they were certainly welcome to try. When it comes to ambushes from above, Caine will have the advantage of experience every time.) The Keeper infiltration unit arrived around six-thirty. The staff trickled in for the next few hours after that, got taken, and were probably stashed somewhere in the building, drugged and wiped to none the wiser the next day. He picked up Katherine Dunleavy's scent at about four, which matches up to the appointment time in her file; but they waited till a little after five before she was prepped for her procedure. Waiting till the building was empty of other patients, probably. No witnesses for them, which means no witnesses for him, either. He's certain that none of them got off a signal before he killed them, so he likely has a few minutes of leeway, at minimum.

He sets Katherine back on the table, as gently as possible, and then goes hunting for her clothes. The thing she's wearing feels like it's made out of paper and doesn't close properly, so it's not exactly suited to high-altitude lifts or to setting her at ease when she wakes up. He's hoping he can talk her into coming with him voluntarily- the idea of kidnapping a civilian sits wrong in the back of his throat, and it sits worse after seeing her suspended and struggling like that. His nose leads him to little heap of cloth on one of the chairs in the adjoining room that turn out to be stacked on top of shoes with- are those laces? Fuck, tertiary worlds have some weird shit- and he brings them back into the surgical suite, lines them up on the bed next to her, and tears away the paper thing.

He does a quick visual check for injuries- some bruising around her wrists and ankles where she struggled, which will probably come up pretty colors in a day or two if she doesn't get treatment- but otherwise she seems fine. Drugged, but fine. He makes fast work of getting her clothes on, but then again she's not the first person he's had to dress, and most of the previous occasions were just conscious enough to take a drunken swing or two. This is vastly preferable. And while the harness-thing that turns out to support her breasts is a bit perplexing at first, her planet's standards for clothing seem to be not that far from what he's used to.

Her wallet and phone he shoves into his pockets. He doesn't want to risk those falling out along the way.

The clinic is relatively close to the tower he's using as a mission base, because something had to go right at some point on this clusterfuck of a job, so it's actually fairly quick work to get her back there. Using the transit beam is a bit of a risk, but the building is too sheer to angle his way up with the boots, and he doesn't want to go through the hassle of breaking in on the ground floor and skirting the security on the way up the steps. Thankfully nobody seems to have missed the infiltration unit yet, so the transit doesn't trip any scans and he makes it back into his nest with both himself and his target intact. He's going to count that one as a win.

He hunkers down and checks the time. Not quite six. Based on the gas he can smell lingering around her mouth and nose, she's probably going to be out about ten more hours, maybe more. He'd like to get out of the city before dawn if at all possible. A few quick calculations tell him that he can make it, but it'll be tight. Hopefully she's not the sort that panics.

Actually, hopefully she's not the sort that panics for any number of reasons, the first of which being that he's fucking terrible at dealing with panicking people. He's not exactly the reassuring type.

Well, if he's going to convince her to come with him voluntarily, he should probably get an edge up. He knows nothing about her, really, aside from her name and scent, and that's not really going to help him talk her into anything but running away screaming.

Privacy is important, he tells himself, and then, So is completing this job.

Resigned, he pulls out her things and starts going through them. The phone is too primitive to bother with navigating internally, so he pulls a sheave out of his pack and exports the data across so he can access it in a civilized manner. A fair number of commcall contacts, most of them attached to some semi-unflattering pictures, a handful of programs that are mostly either infonet readers of some kind of game, and a decently extensive photo library that he flicks through quickly, not wanting to infringe on her privacy more than absolutely necessary. Family photos, mostly, some scenery- lots of night skylines, lots of stars, maybe work the curiosity angle?- and there, near the end, is a photo of several Keepers in their natural forms, swarming an unconscious woman with light-colored hair dressed only in undergarments.

Now that's interesting, he thinks. He looks over at the phone again, sitting on the table. How did she manage to take that image? And why would the Keepers be testing the wrong woman?

Katherine Dunleavy was the name on the file. The woman in front of him is definitely the woman who filled out the forms in that file. The woman in front of him is not necessarily named Katherine Dunleavy.

Could it be so simple?

Sure enough, the wallet yields up the answer he's actually looking for. Jupiter Jones, it says, on some kind of ident card in the front. Twenty-three years old. Resident of Chicago, with an address that he vaguely judges to be on the outskirts of the city. Five feet six inches- he does a quick mental conversion into more familiar units and looks back at her sleeping form, then shakes his head. Wishful thinking or tall shoes, he doesn't know, but she can't be more than five foot four. An organ donor- ugh, does this planet not even have synthetic organs yet? Fuck- and about a hundred and thirty pounds, brown eyes, brown hair. But most importantly, not Katherine Dunleavy.

So, he thinks. She gave a false name at the clinic- to protect her identity? Or because she was doing something illegal? He sets the wallet down and goes back to his sheave, swiftly pulling up the crawler he uploaded on his first day on this planet. City records are easy to access, and the name Jupiter Jones pings in some of the expected places, but not others. He skims through the names on the phone- Vassily, Vladie, Irina- and cross-references with the address on her ident card. Some of the names ping more fully than others, and he goes after medical records, tax information, bank statements. The information is a bit confusing to process, since this planet apparently takes pride in storing data in the least efficient way possible, but eventually the picture emerges.

Jupiter Jones is not, as far as he can tell, actually a citizen of this country. Citizenship mores are tricky- and this planet's were not exactly included in the briefing packet when he took this job- but he thinks it means that she's allowed to be part of the country's labor force but not allowed to partake of the community benefits. There's also some weird regulations he can't quite parse, but it's likely that the fertility donation she was at the clinic to do was technically illegal. Which explains why her genetic print only pinged once through the system- probably a preparatory blood test that was outsourced to a different facility, while the clinic itself was keeping her off the books.

It explains why she was using a false name, at least. And also how the Keepers tracked down the wrong woman- Katherine Dunleavy is almost certainly the fair-haired woman in the photo, someone that Jupiter Jones knows well enough that she feels comfortable using her name. Another cousin, perhaps, or a friend- or, he notes, scrolling through some of Vassily Bolotnikov's bank records, a client. Presumably at least a friendly client, if she was in the woman's home, with her undressed, while the Keepers were there. They must have blanked and tested her there, and thus been ready to take her out when she came in for her appointment today. Lucky for her, he was there.

Except it's not that clean and he knows it. Don't fool yourself that you're doing her a favor, he growls to himself. Just because Titus Abrasax wants her alive doesn't mean that he has good things in store for her. When's the last time an Entitled did anything that wasn't to benefit themselves? Never, that's when.

But he has to do it. Not for his life, or for his freedom- he's out of the Deadlands now, and if Titus wants to send hunters to take him back he's welcome to fucking try- but for Stinger. Stinger's stuck on his backwater shithole of a planet with no Legion pension, no ReCell, and no wings, with another decade left on his gene-debt, because of Caine. Caine owes him. Simple as that.

He checks the time again. A little after nine, now, and the sun is finally down. The girl- Jupiter- probably won't be awake till about four in the morning, maybe three at the earliest if she has a fast metabolism. He has about six or seven hours to kill and not much left to do, and he's been awake for going on forty-eight hours now. Not that he hasn't gone a lot further on a lot less, but he suspects that the next couple days won't be easy on him either.

He swallows down a couple of protein packs, sets an alarm for five hours, and grabs a temporary translation patch out of his pack. He smoothes her hair away from the back of her neck, seals it into place and activates it with his sheave. Good. Now when she wakes up, she'll be able to understand him without the clunky override from his implant. If he's going to convince her of anything, he doesn't need the extra handicap of shoddy translation software on top of his own natural awkwardness.

After a moment's hesitation, he also takes out his mauler and sets it on the ground near her. He doesn't like giving up a weapon, but if something happens he has other ways to defend himself, and she doesn't. Plus, he knows he'd feel more secure if he woke up in a strange place and someone had left him a gun. It's a sign of trust, giving someone your weapon. He wants her to trust him, if she can.

Then, and only then, does he curl up in the nest of blankets between the girl and the stairwell door. If she wakes up before him she won't be able to get past him and if she doesn't then he'll have some warning of any intruders before they can get to her. He's not a heavy sleeper, not after years of sleeping rough in the Deadlands. He won't let any harm come to her.

He takes a deep breath as he closes his eyes, and exhales on something a little like a smile at the scent of her. He's been tracking her on this bloody planet for more than a week now, and he's gotten very, familiar familiar with that scent. It's a good scent, warm and clean and soft, somehow. He can never manage to explain stuff like this without falling back into weird metaphors; language just never quite proves adequate for this shit. There are things that she smells like, scents that linger on her skin and clothes- fuel exhaust, cleaning solutions, false citrus and medical scrub- but that's not her scent. Like Stinger is sun-warmed leather on a winter day, and Kiza is fresh breeze in a field of daffodils. Shit like that.

Jupiter Jones smells like ray of sunshine in a dusty room. He's not sure what that means, any more than he ever knows. But it's a nice smell. It's nice to have in his nose as he drops off; more satisfying than he can entirely explain to have it next to him, for real and true after a week of hunting. And she's like him, kind of. She doesn't belong anywhere, either.

I wonder, he thinks, as he fades down into the black, how she'll feel about flying.

~*~

After they finally make it safely back down to solid ground, Caine elects to get them away from the crash site and down a few streets to avoid any undue attention. He's not really sure what his next move is going to be, but he knows he doesn't want to deal with a terrsies police force, and he'd like to get out of the city entirely, but they only make it three blocks before the girl collapses in the middle of an alley in order to have a short panic attack.

Okay, that's fair, Caine thinks, and leans up against a nearby wall to wait.

He pretty quickly comes to the conclusion that he's going to have to take her to Stinger. He doesn't know anyone else on the planet that can help. He's exhausted, bruised, battered, and officially out of his depth. He's good at exactly three things: flying things, finding things, and killing things. That's it. He has now exhausted that skill set all in one evening, and while it's nice to know that he hasn't lost any of his old skill, he'd really rather hand this shitshow over to someone with some actual authority, since it's increasingly clear that he's not going to be handing her over to Titus Abrasax.

Jupiter Jones on her knees on the dirty pavement, her forehead pressed to the curb and her arms wrapped around herself, muttering something in a language his translator isn't calibrated for but hell, prayer is prayer in any language. He doesn't like the sour tang of fear and stress that's rolling off her in waves, but underneath that she still smells nice. She seems nice.

But all Caine can do is look at her and think, Fuck. She's someone important. Fuck.

Caine can't handle much more of dealing with important people. At least she's not Entitled; he's damn sure of that, even if he's sure of fuck-all else right now. He would have spotted the royal seal when he was dressing her, and besides, she definitely doesn't have the royal scent- he knows that like nothing else. Just as well, honestly. Trying to fight the urge to kill your protection detail is generally the kind of clusterfuck he tries to avoid.

Still. Royal or no, this has officially gotten bigger than just him and some job for that asshole Titus Abrasax. For example, he's pretty sure that the Keepers stationed on this planet belong to its current owner, which is the eldest Abrasax. The hunters from a couple nights ago at the clinic smacked of Abrasax money too, probably the middle one, which means that this is officially an inter-house dispute involving all three primaries, and there's no way it's not going to get real nasty, real quick. He can't just turn over some poor civilian girl from a terrsies planet who's had less than three hours to get used to the concept of extraterrestrial life into the middle of a clan war; it goes against everything he was born to do, against every bit of training he received. But he doesn't know what he should do with her instead, and since his only transport off this rock got blown up, that leaves him with exactly one option: take her to Stinger, and hope that the old man isn't shooting first and asking questions later.

"Hey," he says, when her fervent mumbling seems to have slowed down a little. She's still hunched over in a little huddle on the ground, but she seems slightly less mid-breakdown. "We need to get moving. You okay?"

"Not even a little bit," she says, her voice muffled by her pose, but then she uncurls, slowly and creakily, and gives him a bleary-eyed failure of a smile. "But I'm guessing we don't have time for me to get okay, since that's going to take about ten years and millions in therapy bills, so… Let's get moving. You have a plan?"

He spares a moment to admire her composure. The last time he had an adrenaline response to something as simple as a firefight was so long ago that he can't really remember, but he's got nothing but sympathy for what it must be like for her. She was in true free-fall at least a couple times there, and he's been told that just being in a flitter is stressful for the untrained, much less dogfighting through a city. All things considered, she's bounced back incredibly quickly.

"I've got an idea," he says, and holds out his hand to help her up. She seizes it without hesitation, pulls herself to her feet. "We need to steal a car."

"I am very much against stealing, you know," she remarks, conversationally, but follows him when he tugs her down a side street, scoping out some of the parked cars. "I mean, I'm not above purchasing some shady merchandise on eBay, because at that point, well, it's already fell off the truck, right? Someone's going to buy it, it might as well be me. A girl has needs."

For some reason, she still hasn't let go of his hand. It would be weird to drop it now, right? Or maybe it's weird that he hasn't. It's not like he fucking knows. Aside from her clinging to him in the air earlier- and he thinks he might have bruises around his ribs and neck from the force of her grip, which he can't help but be a little impressed by- he hasn't really had a lot of human contact recently. The last time someone touched him voluntarily, he still had wings on his back. And it didn't happen all that often then, either.

"Where do you stand on getting blown up?"

"Even further against," she admits, "but it's the principle of the thing."

"I distantly remember what those feel like."

She makes a strained little noise that he only belatedly recognizes as a chuckle. "So you do have a sense of humor."

He pauses in front of a nondescript dark blue car. A couple years old, but it looks well-cared for. And most importantly, it looks boring. "Hmm?"

"You, Mr. Grim Dark and Brooding. You've got a sense of humor somewhere under there."

Well, that's the first time someone's referred to him as dark in a long history of ever, Caine thinks with a snort. His coloring is a little low on the long list of things he has a chip on his shoulder about, though, so he just says "This one will probably do."

She regards the car with blank sort of uncaring, then shrugs. He finally has an excuse to let go of her hand and make it look natural when he reaches into his pocket and pulls out the spare go-through. His hand immediately feels a little colder, for all that it's a warm night.

"Do not bump me when I do this," he warns her, as he sets it against the corner of the window. He waits for her nod before he triggers the controls. The glass ripples out of solidity, and he reaches through and pulls open the door latch before getting his body parts back to the safety zone and reversing the phase.

"Holy shit that's awesome," Jupiter says. When he looks back, she's staring at the go-through in his hand with a fascinated look on her face. "How does it even do that?"

"Dunno," he says with a shrug, and clicks the safety back on before he shoves it back into his pocket. He saw a soldier forget the safety once, several years ago; the sight has… stayed with him. Poor bastard had the thing pointed right at his crotch. "I was a soldier, not an engineer."

"Fair enough." She circles the car and waits for him to slide behind the wheel and find the unlock button, then clambers in and slams her door shut a beat behind his. "What would have happened if it closed up while you still had your hand in there?"

He reaches for an ignition switch and comes up empty. He glares at the empty keyhole for a moment, then sighs and flips his hand over, tweaking some of the settings on his glove. Fuck, he's never going to make fun of military equipment again. At least Legion hoppers have fusion reactors.

A second later her question registers, and he realizes that she's still waiting for an answer. "In theory they're supposed to have failsafes that prevent reseal if organic matter is in the opening," he says, trying to remember the right codes for this shit. Fuck, maybe he should have picked a flashier car after all; he's pretty sure that some of them have remote starts built in. Damn it.

"And in reality?"

"In reality, they don't work for shit and I would have lost the arm."

He doesn't miss her considering little glance at his bicep, but she just makes a face and settles back in her seat. A minute later he finally hits on the right code and primes his glove, presses his palm to the empty keyhole and stiffens his wrist against the inevitable kickback from the zap. The car thrums to life.

"If you're going to steal a car, at least you're really good at it," Jupiter observes from the passenger seat. He sort of wants to smirk at her, but keeps his face resolutely toward the windshield instead. It's possible he's gone a little too long without being around people; his reactions are all messed up. "So, where are we going, exactly?"

"Somewhere safe," he says, and pulls away from the curb.

~*~

By the time they make it out to the farm country where Stinger's hanging his hat these days, Jupiter has worked herself up to and back down from another small panic attack, bandaged his ribs with something he strongly suspects is some kind of female hygiene product, and apparently gotten bored with silently staring out the window about ten minutes after that and has been peppering him with questions ever since. She's friggin' relentless, actually; all of the Legion guides for this stuff had warned them about shock and denial, not overwhelming curiosity and an inability to stop talking.

"I don't know," he says, for the third time in a row, when she asks him about how the control system in his gloves works. He's starting to feel a little fed up with having to give that answer. Caine's not a stupid man. He's not exactly a genius either, but despite all the jokes, it does actually take more than just a really great sense of smell to track a target across multiple solar systems. But stick him in a car for three hours with this slip of a human girl who has big curious eyes and a brain like a hummingbird, one question to the next faster than he can track, and he feels like a friggin' moron.

She purses her lips, clearly just as dissatisfied with getting this response as he is with giving it. "Why not?" she demands.

He peers desperately at road sign as they pass, but the mile marker isn't anywhere near the turn he's looking for. He thinks. Earth maps are fucking weird. "It's not exactly my area of expertise."

"But you're from space!"

She looks so adorably exasperated with his lack of answer that he finds his own annoyance shifting back to amusement. He can't exactly blame her for her enthusiasm; the disparity in technology is pretty severe, and from what he's seen so far, her planet is one of the ones that mythologizes outer space, creates legends about it and writes stories about exploring it. And it's not like he'd prefer silent, shocky denial or (shudder) constant screaming. Rapid-fire questions are by far the better option. And frustrating not have the answers, sure- but he can admire the spirit behind it. Her curiosity isn't idle; he can see a fairly sharp mind whirring away behind those wide dark eyes, putting his answers in context, assessing the situation. She'd've made a great commander, he thinks idly.

"Okay, look at it this way," he says, taking one hand off the wheel to gesture down at her hip. "You've got one of those cell phone things, right?" He nods towards her hip, where he saw her shove it in her pocket when they were packing up earlier. "Basically a primitive commcall?"

"I don't know what that is, but sure," she says. She pulls it out, a wide blocky thing about as big as the palm of her hand. "Took me six months to save up for this sucker. I'm always terrified I'm going to drop it in a toilet."

Caine decides to let that one pass without a comment. "So from what I've seen, it's pretty advanced technology, right?" For a rock full of backwards barbarians barely into their genetics age, he adds silently.

"Well, there's NASA, medical lasers, stuff like that," she says doubtfully.

Lasers are cool, Caine has to admit. Kind of went out of fashion considering how easy it is to accidentally cut through the hull of a ship, but cool. "Okay, but in terms of personal technology," he says. "Stuff regular people use every day."

"Sure," she says. "I mean, mine's a couple versions old, but basically, yeah."

"So how does it work?"

She purses her lips in obvious thought, then huffs a small laugh and shakes her head. "Something about microchips and satellites, that's all I've got," she admits. "Okay, fair enough, I'll grant you that one. Guess I shouldn't expect you to be some kind of all-knowing space scientist just because you happen to have rocket boots."

"They're not rocket-" he starts, and then snorts when her grin clues him in that she did it on purpose. "Yeah, whatever."

She's got a great smile, wide and un-self conscious, and it lights up her whole face. It's nice that he's still capable of making someone smile like that. He feels like he always manages to miss the mark with people; he comes off as cold and threatening even when he's trying to be friendly. And that was before he spent a couple years in the Deadlands; he knows he's worse now. Jupiter must have pathetically low standards, if one absent-minded comment gave her faith in his (mostly fictional) sense of humor, but he can work with that. It's nice to make someone smile, especially when her smile is so infectious that he finds himself smiling back at her, just a little bit.

"Wow you're handsome," Jupiter blurts. He can feel his eyes going wide with surprise, and then she actually, physically claps her hands across her mouth. When he glances over at her, she peers out at him apologetically, then lets her hands slip down to her lap and one side of her face contracts in a wince. "Um. Sorry. It's been a really long night and my brain to mouth filter is kind of gone. Can we strike that from the record?"

"Sure," Caine says, a little dazedly. She thinks he's handsome? Maybe he didn't explain splices to her well enough in the tower, he thinks. Or she wasn't listening. She was shocked, confused, and her world was getting turned inside-out, so maybe she just didn't absorb the information. Sure, there's humans who like to pick up splices in Legion bars, but handsome isn't usually the word they use. And he doesn't think she's filtered the context well enough to count as a zooie, anyway.

"Oh good," she says, with obvious relief. "We had a good thing going there for a minute, I'd hate to have ruined it with my awkward."

Now he definitely wants to laugh. The urge is so strong that he turns his head, ostensibly to check the side-view mirrors, so that she can't see the twitch of his lips. "You're not awkward," he mumbles.

"Oh, I'm definitely awkward," she says cheerfully, and when he turns back she's managed to recover her smile. It's a little shaky, but she shrugs when he glances over at her. "Don't worry about it. I've always been like this; I'm pretty much used to it by now."

"No, I mean-" Why is he trying to explain this to her? Why would she possibly care? "I'm awkward," he says finally. "Trust me."

Her smile gets a little more solid at the edges. "So that's where the strong and silent thing comes in? Trying not to say something stupid?"

She's hit the nail on the head so exactly that he gives a little huff of surprise. Most people just assume that he's like that naturally, like being the Legion's famous freak hunter meant that he wouldn't talk much for… reasons? But really he's just used to keeping his mouth shut because when he does talk he usually manages to say something wrong. And it's not like he's gotten a lot of practice at small talk lately.

She smiles sympathetically at his nod. "Maybe I should try that." She arranges her face in an exaggerated parody of what he's assuming is supposed to be his usual expression, and drops her voice down an octave. "Come with me if you want to live."

He has the sense that she's quoting something, but he has no idea what. Either way, she loses the look a second later with a giggle and shakes her head. "Nah, I don't think it's really me. Babbler to the end, alas."

"It's… not so bad," he says.

"Well, thanks for the vote of confidence."

He didn't mean it that way, he thinks, frustrated. See, this is what he's talking about. He always manages to say the wrong thing, or say it in the wrong way, or… something.

He must make some kind of annoyed expression, because he can hear the smile in Jupiter's voice when she says, "Relax, soldier. I get it."

Oh, good. Because he sure as fuck doesn't.

It really does seem to be okay, though, because she takes pity on him and lets silence fall in the car between them. It doesn't feel strained, though, the way silence can sometimes, just comfortable. She rests her elbow on the narrow ledge of the window and puts her cheek in the palm of her hand, staring out at the passing scenery. He sneaks a look or two at her, safe now that she's not paying attention to him anymore and won't catch him doing it. Her clothes are a little worse for the wear and there's a smudge of soot along the line of her jaw, but she's still remarkably pretty. And she still smells nice, under the acrid stink of smoke and flitter fuel and hospital antiseptic. There are worse people to get stuck in a car with. Worse people to be stuck in a crisis with, honestly.

Too bad I'm going to hand her over to someone more capable and never see her again, he thinks, a little wistfully. She seems nice. Funny, smart. Doesn't seem too bothered by his… everything. The last people he could say that about were, well. His unit. Stinger. Kiza.

Fuck, he's going to have to face Stinger.

His momentary good mood fades away again as that fact sinks in properly for the first time. Fuck, fuck, fuck. If everything had gone to plan, he would have gotten the pardons from Titus and sent Stinger's over without actually having to make any form of contact. It's not like he thought he'd actually be welcomed back into the skyjackers, all things considered; he was just looking to get his wings back, to feel whole again. Stinger, though. Stinger was a Legionnaire right down to his bones, and him jumping on the grenade for Caine, that kind of loyalty was admirable. He'd make it back in fine, and Caine would have been able to take himself off to some remote corner of the galaxy, knowing that for once he did the right thing, and never have to talk to him again.

But now. Now he's going to have to drive up to the man's fucking front door and ask for a favor. A favor. Fuck. Damn, but he's going to be lucky if Stinger doesn't put a pulse blast right between his fucking eyes. Ah, fuck.

"Hey, uh, Caine?" Jupiter's tentative voice draws him out from his thoughts, and he realizes that he's been steadily clenching his hands tighter around the steering wheel for the last minute. "You were kind of… growling."

Oh just hell.

"Sorry."

"No, it's cool, you know, who doesn't growl a little sometimes?" She clears her throat. "Something I said? Or, uh, didn't say?"

"No, I just…" Fuck. She probably deserves to know what she's walking into. "The guy we're going to see."

"Space cop guy?"

"He's… not exactly going to be happy to see me."

She tilts her head. "How unhappy?"

He can hear his throat click as he swallows. "You should probably stay out of the line of fire just in case."

"That's pretty unhappy," she observes, after a moment. "You sure this is a good idea?"

"It's a pretty terrible one," he admits. "It's also the only one I've got."

"All right," she says, and puts one hand on his forearm. "I trust you."

It's not a particularly intimate touch, but he still blinks down at it for a moment, surprised by the way he doesn't feel the urge to flinch away from it. Maybe it's because she's so nonthreatening? Not that she couldn't be, if she wanted- she's didn't hesitate to arm his gun when he told her how, so she's got the spine for it- but she so clearly has no intent to cause him any harm. And there's no deception on her at all. When she says that she trusts him, she means it. It's a little daunting.

She pulls away back after a moment, probably aware of how she was just accidentally flirting with him a little while back, and tucks her hands carefully back in her lap. "Is that why you're driving in circles?"

Wait, what? "I'm doing what?"

She bites her lip and points out the window. "We went past that same gas station about half an hour ago."

Fuck. "Uh."

"You're lost, aren't you."

He briefly considers arguing, but it doesn't seem worth the effort. "I'm not used to surface roads. And your maps are weird."

"There, my friend, we are in agreement." She pulls out her phone and pokes at the screen for a moment. "What's the address?"

He rattles it off- this much, he definitely remembers- and she keys it into the cell. "Okay, take that next left, a quarter mile up. It's actually not that far."

He's silent for a minute, then follows her directions when the turn comes up. There's not actually a sign on the turn, but another mile down the road nets him a crossroad with the road name clearly marked. "Huh. Handy."

When he glances over, Jupiter is smirking at him a little. "Earth isn't totally lacking in nice things, you know."

Caine ducks his chin a little and makes a production of looking for the next turn so he won't make eye contact with her. "I won't argue with that."

"Smooth, soldier. Very smooth."

He huffs a surprised laugh, and lets his hands relax on the steering wheel. Stinger probably won't shoot him without asking questions first. It'll be okay.

Probably.

~*~

It's not until much later that it occurs to him to wonder about how easily he calmed down when she touched him. By then they've all realized that she's a Recurrence, and Caine's decided not to think about it. They're going to hand her off to the Aegis and get her signed and sealed, and after that point he probably shouldn't be around her anyway. She was never someone who was going to be in his life for long, one way or another; now she's just extra off-limits to the likes of him.

It just sucks, is all, because she keeps watching him with those big, dark eyes, and he can't even fucking look at her. A royal, a fucking royal. It's like these things happen specifically to fuck with him. Oh, yeah, she seems nice, and she touches you and thanks you for saving her life and smiles at you and smells really great- hey, did you know that pretty soon she's going to get stamped with the pheromones that you can't stand? Fuck.

He can tell that she's upset with him, or about him, or something, but he can't quite bring himself to play nice. And anyway, what the hell does it matter? Pretty soon she'll get her seal and then he shouldn't be around her anyway, since murder puts such a damper on a budding friendship. Stinger is better at this shit than he is. And since he's kissed his pardon from Titus goodbye, he should probably just get the girl to the cops and then get the hell out before someone can decide to arrest him on general principle.

Yes, he decides, going through Stinger's well-stocked weapons cache and doing his best to ignore the snatches he can pick up of Stinger telling her Caine's Sad Life Story in the other room. (Bastard knows full well that Caine can hear him, too. Fuck, does he have to make it sound like that?) He'll get her safely to the Aegis captain friend of Stinger's, and then he'll take himself back out of the picture. Best plan all around.

Of course, it doesn't exactly work out like that.

~*~

After he crashes the party in the alcazar gardens, it still takes about half an hour for the Defiant to catch up to them. Since he's outnumbered by about twenty to one just in this hallway, Caine allows Lady Kalique to move them to a nearby gazebo, but he firmly nudges Jupiter down onto a bench and positions himself over her, gun drawn but not aimed. He's fairly certain that the only reason he still has his weapon is because Lady Kalique doesn't want to take the pains of removing it when she's still trying to perform happy families for the benefit of the newest Abrasax (fuck!) but he'll take any advantage he can get. She relies too much on synths for her personal guard, so he can probably lay down enough cover fire to get Jupiter onto his back and out of here if really necessary, and the wilderness around here is dense enough that he could probably avoid detection at least until the Aegis arrive with their cruiser.

How much of this is obvious on his face he doesn't know, but her ladyship surveys his pose with an amused lift of her eyebrows. "I assure you that I mean her no harm, pup," she says. "She is my family, after all."

Caine can't suppress the low growl that rumbles at the back of his throat- there is one person who is allowed to call him that, and he's not here right now- but he keeps it quiet, shut behind clenched teeth. Lady Kalique, standing several paces away, probably can't hear it. Jupiter, sitting on a stone bench right next to him, definitely can.

"How does that work, exactly?" Jupiter says loudly. She pinches loose bit of trousers behind his left knee and tugs pointedly, leaning around his hip to talk to Lady Kalique. He reluctantly steps aside, taking up position at her right shoulder and glaring at the guards clustered just outside the gazebo. "I can't call you my daughter. It's too strange."

"There's no set policy. Recurrences aren't terribly common. I admit that I would, too, find it strange to call you Mother."

"Thank Christ for small blessings," Jupiter says under her breath, then more normally, "How about cousin? Does cousin work for you?"

Lady Kalique tilts her head consideringly. One lock of beautiful dark hair slides artfully across the creamy skin of her bare shoulder. The little flush of scent that rises from her skin at the motion makes him want to rend something. It hangs on the back of his tongue, heavy and too-sweet like overripe fruit. "It does not seem an adequate description of the relationship."

"It's something of an Earth tradition," Jupiter explains. Her smile is perfectly friendly, and there's nothing in her tone or voice to indicate that she's anything but relaxed. He wants to growl some more. "Many cultures on my planet have large families with extended kin-networks, spanning multiple generations and often several different branches of descent. After a certain point, keeping track of the exact relationship is more trouble than it's worth. 'Cousin' becomes a stand-in word to acknowledge family."

"Hmm, I like it," her ladyship says, with a particularly sweet smile. Somehow, it fails to put Caine at ease at all. Jupiter, however, smiles back, obviously charmed. "Very well, cousin. I'm looking forward to seeing what you do with your inheritance, you know. Mother always had quite the touch when it came to business. She was a very innovative woman."

Jupiter laughs, seemingly more at herself than anything. "Well, I doubt I'll measure up, honestly. But I'll do my best to entertain."

"Oh, you already have." Her ladyship flicks her gaze towards Caine, and the barest edge of a smirk skirts her lips. "Yes, this has been quite entertaining," she says, almost to herself, and drums her fingers lightly against her thigh. "Malidictes."

The owl splice at her heels bows, even though she can't see it. "Yes, madam."

"See that our guests are delivered safely to the Aegis, please." She flourishes a curtsey to Jupiter, all dimples and charm. "I'll leave you and your... " She cuts a glance to Caine. "...guard in peace. Please do look me up again sometime in the next decade or so, my dear. New family members come along but rarely, and I do so look forward to getting to know you."

"Me, too," Jupiter says, and stands, holding her hand out like she's offering to shake. Lady Kalique seizes it with both of her own and uses it to pull Jupiter in for an embrace. Caine grits his teeth and stays still, knowing that to interfere would count as attacking a royal and he'd be executed on the spot. Lady Kalique murmurs something in Jupiter's ear, and Jupiter pinks up, leans back with a giggle. "I'll keep it in mind."

"See that you do," Kalique says, and gives Jupiter a friendly tap on the shoulder before she turns and saunters off, leaving a wave of scent deliberately in her wake. Her seneschal pulls himself and the guard synths back to a polite distance at her sharp gesture, and Caine holds himself very still, watches her go.

So does Jupiter. Only when Lady Kalique is fully out of view does she turn and pinch him again, a quick twist of flesh just above his elbow. He jerks back and glares at her.

"The fuck was that for?"

"For trying to get yourself killed, you moron," she says, and brushes past him to sit back down on the bench. The new position puts her back to the guard unit, and he automatically takes up a guard position over her. "I mean, not that I don't appreciate you coming to get me, because I do! But I'm pretty sure you were, like, five seconds from getting ray-gunned there."

"It's not like I knew how she was going to treat you," he growls back, trying to keep his voice low. Just because Lady Kalique's men have pulled back doesn't mean that they're not still watching and listening, trying to glean every scrap of information about the new queen to take back to their mistress. "Or whether she was going to let you go. Just because she seemed nice doesn't mean that she's not incredibly dangerous."

"I figured that much out for myself, thanks." She sighs and squints up at him. "Ugh, Caine, will you at least sit down? I'm going to get a crick in my neck talking up to you like this."

He takes a deep breath, lets the night-blooming lilacs and the warm softness of Jupiter's now-familiar scent clear his head. Fucking royals. Fucking jacked-up instincts. "She might try to pull something at the last moment."

"If she wanted me dead she would have done it before you arrived with the space cops on your tail," she points out, not unreasonably. "Also, I'd like to stop talking to your crotch. It's weird."

Put that way, Caine starts to feel a little weird about it, too, so he sighs and turns, crouching down next to her. The gun he keeps out and in his hand, but he lets it dangle down between his thighs, where any approaching guard can't see it.

"...Not going to sit?"

"I can jump faster from this position."

"All right then," she says, and visibly decides to let it go. He's seen her make that expression a lot in the last couple of days. "Out of the two of us, you were in more danger there. I thought she was going to have you killed on sheer principle."

Honestly, Caine's sure she was thinking about it. She probably only left him alive because she knows that Titus will do worse- and because she's clearly trying to get on Jupiter's good side. "Just because she wasn't attacking you doesn't mean that she's on your side."

"It doesn't mean she's my enemy, either," Jupiter says. "Look, I don't pretend to understand this whole space royalty thing. And frankly, the idea of being the reincarnation of some space-vampire's royal mother is creepy beyond words. But while I'm sure Kalique can be plenty terrifying- nobody gets super-rich without their fair share of skeletons in the closet, believe you me- she honestly just seemed happy that I was around."

"The Entitled have never been honest a moment in their lives."

"Ooookay," she says, and gives him a weird look. "I get it. Stinger said you don't like Entitled." That's not exactly how Stinger put it, but he can't exactly call her out on editing without admitting that he was listening in. "I'm sure once I've been in space for a bit I'll share your opinion, but Kalique was nice enough. And even if she was just doing it to butter me up for a favor in the future, she still saved my life back there. Okay, so she did it by kidnapping me," she admits with a sigh, "which is something I generally frown upon, but I don't like being dead, either. And if her hunters hadn't taken me the the rest would have killed me right there in that cornfield, so I can't bring myself to feel too badly about it." She spreads her hands in a shrug. "And she's letting me go. She's not that bad."

Lady Kalique is only letting her go because the Aegis is on its way, Caine knows. He caught the glance she shared with her seneschal, in the moment before she turned to Jupiter and played like turning her over to the authorities was her plan all along. Her ladyship is smart, adaptable, and ruthless- she is exactly that bad. Of the three Abrasax siblings, Lord Balem is known to manage the AI holdings with an iron fist, but it is his sister who plays politics with the other families, and everyone knows which of those two is the more dangerous game.

But he doesn't want to explain this to Jupiter with Lady Kalique's people listening in, and paint even more of a target on his back in case her ladyship decides to take offense. And it's not so bad, really, that Jupiter thinks well of at least one member of her new family. Of the three of them, Lady Kalique is the most dangerous, in some respects, but also the least inclined to the brutish or the cruel. If she does have plans for Jupiter, well, there's better than even odds that Lady Kalique would want them to be just as beneficial to her new cousin as to herself. There are worse alliances to make.

Like Titus. Well, he's not taking her to him anymore, is he? Hasn't since the first attack. And once the Aegis are here, they can make sure that Titus will never be able to touch her.

"All right," he says, and she visibly relaxes. He hadn't realized just how much she was waiting for his approval. Why would she care? he thinks, baffled. "We're leaving soon, anyway. Just be careful if she offers any deals."

"I promise to get space-lawyers to check every word," she says with a relieved smile. "Do they even have space lawyers? Is that a thing? I can't believe it wouldn't be. Lawyers have to be the one true constant of the universe."

"We call them advocates, but yeah," Caine says. "Can't escape them."

"I knew it! If you have space cops, then you've gotta have space lawyers." She makes a face. "Hey, speaking of which, if you didn't come with the Aegis, then how did you get here?"

"Hitched a ride on the hunter's ship," he says with a shrug. "I dropped out when they came in for landing and I've been laying low trying to find you since this morning."

"So you've just been… hanging out," she says. "In a giant palace full of hostile guards. Not getting arrested or shot in any way."

He kind of wants to scowl at her. "It's what I was trained to do, you know."

Her teasing smile causes her eyes to light up, her face to go soft around the edges. He doesn't even mind that the mockery in it is directed at him. "And you couldn't scrounge up a shirt somewhere?" She reaches out and taps his upper arm pointedly, and when he doesn't flinch away, she lets her hand linger, cupping the ball of his shoulder joint in her palm. "You didn't try to put one on at Stinger's, either. I'm starting to think you just like being shirtless."

"Mine was cut up," he says defensively. She's a few degrees down from him, baseline human that she is, and her slightly cooler skin feels good against his after having to hide out in the jungle for last several hours. "It'd just get in the way when I'm trying to fight."

"And you couldn't borrow something from Stinger? You two are close to the same size."

"No," he says, and then catches the nervous twitch of some of the guards out of the corner of his eye and realizes that that was a little louder than was probably necessary. "It wouldn't be… right."

"That sounds like some male territorial bullshit to me, but whatever," she says. She squeezes his shoulder and then seems to realize that she's still touching him and yanks her hand back, blushing. He only barely stops himself from leaning closer to chase it. Fuck, what the hell is wrong with him? "Thanks for coming after me, by the way. I probably should have said something earlier."

"Your majesty doesn't have to thank me," Caine says absently, turning his head to check the movement of the guard patrols- are they coming closer? No, just shuffling position a little. A moment later a spike of unhappiness comes off her so strongly that he jerks up his head. "What?"

"Nothing, it's just… you were acting like before, for a minute there," she says, worrying her bottom lip between her teeth. Don't stare, Caine, don't stare. "It was nice."

Before…? It takes a moment for him to realize. Before they found out she's a royal, she means. It makes something twinge, low in his stomach, to think that she might have felt a little hurt by him pulling back.

"Your majesty-"

But there's nothing else he can think to say, and she knows it, too. Her fingers twitch against the fabric of her dress like she wants to reach out again, but thinks better of it.

"It's okay," she says, a little strained but totally sincere. And it's so wrong, her trying to reassure him when her life is going up in smoke right in front of her eyes. He doesn't fool himself to think that reclaiming her title is going to cause her anything but grief any time soon. "I get it. You have your… thing about Entitled, and I'm all space royalty now, and it's weird. Fair enough. I should thank you for coming after me, anyway."

It's like being back at Stinger's place all over again- she's looking at him with those big brown eyes, and she's upset because she thinks he's mad at her, and that's the furthest thing from the truth. He should just leave it like that, it's probably better in the long run if he shuts it down now.

"I don't dislike you," he says, instead, and inwardly he winces. Not only is it a bad idea, it's also probably the most underwhelming piece of reassurance he's ever heard. Fuck. He's fucking terrible at this.

Jupiter, though, continues to have the lowest standards in the history of time, because she lights up like he's just given her an enormous compliment. "Well, that's good to hear," she says, grinning at him with such delight that he sort of wants to smile back at her. Fuck, he can't even blame the royal pheromones for this, since she doesn't have them yet. Not that he's ever reacted the right way to those, either. Freak in all ways, that's him.

And then her face falls a little. Oh no, what did he do this time?

But she only says, "You probably need to go once we get off this planet, though, huh?"

He should. He really, really should. Not only is he technically an escaped prisoner since he's no longer on Titus's payroll, he's absolutely certain that the youngest Abrasax is going to be interested in a creative bit of revenge for breaking their deal. The Entitled are generally not known for handling betrayal well. Caine would bet on his own survival against just about anything Titus can send after him, but only if he gets away from the Aegis and their very high-profile passenger sometime in the next, oh, six hours or so. Anything longer than that, and he's risking his own life for no good reason.

"I have time," he lies. "What's your plan?"

When her smile returns, this time, he can't quite resist the urge to smile back at her. If it feels a little rusty and strained on his face, she doesn't seem to mind. "Well, Kalique says that I'll need to go through probate, basically, to be recognized as a Recurrence and reclaim my Entitlements. Then Earth will be safe and I'll have the legal standing to avoid this stuff in the future. Is that right?"

"Not exactly an advocate, here," he warns.

"'Damn it, Jim, I'm a doctor, not a lawyer!'" He gives her a look, and she shakes her head and laughs. "Quote from an old sci-fi show, about humans exploring space. Actually they made a movie out of it, but it sort of missed the point of the original in favor of more action sequences…" She trails off and clears her throat. "Not the point. Sorry."

He cuts her an amused look and repeats, "I'm not an advocate. But. That sounds about right to me. Stinger's Aegis friend will know better."

"Oh good," she says, with obvious relief. "I'd hate to sound like I'm making it up as I go along."

There's something just so relaxing about her. She talks too much and too easily, and she seems blush around him about once every ten minutes, but she doesn't shut down when things get awkward, like he does, doesn't go silent and angry at herself and make things worse. She just laughs it off and moves on, and it's so reassuring, because even when he says stupid shit, she doesn't let it bother her. He barely remembers how to talk to people like a normal human being, but she doesn't seem to care. If anything, she cares what he thinks about her, and he wants to sit her down and explain how backward that is, but he doesn't actually want her to stop, either.

"It could be worse," he offers.

"Really?" she says, and her eyes sparkle at him with barely repressed mirth. She waves a hand down at herself, at the pink gown woven out of silk that's technically illegal in this quadrant, at her bare feet and at squad of guards standing just outside the gazebo. "Really, I could be doing worse than this?"

"Any day that you're still breathing, you're having a better day than the alternative. Old Legion saying," he adds, when she looks inquisitive. "Probably not very comforting. Sorry."

"No, I like it," she says. "Keeps things in perspective. Thanks."

"Welcome." He rolls his shoulders and sighs. Teasing about going shirtless aside, he almost wishes that he'd grabbed something back at Stinger's place while had the chance. It'd be torture to smell Stinger on him all day, the old familiar Stinger-ness over the layers of peppery splice-smell, like the last five years never happened, but considering how miserable he feels, it might actually be worth it. The scar tissue around his old implants gets weird after too much sun, and a few hours after dark they're still feeling itchy and too-hot. Well, they'll be back on the ship soon enough.

"Can I ask an overly-personal question?"

He glances at her, quirks an eyebrow. "Now you ask first?"

She smirks. "The others haven't been personal. So far."

That's fair, he thinks, so he jerks his head in agreement, braces his forearms against his knees for better balance. "Shoot."

"Your tattoo."

Of course she would ask that, he thinks. But he did agree, so he shifts a little so that she can see it more clearly, incidentally staring down a guard who was looking like he wanted to edge a little closer to the gazebo. The guard falls back; smart man.

She leans close enough that he can feel her breath on his arm, but very carefully doesn't touch it. "It looks like there's metal in there. Is it just the ink, or…?"

Idly he wonders about making her use complete sentences, but he does his best not to be a hypocrite if he can help it, so. "Or. There's nano-circuitry underneath."

"Seriously?" Her gaze snaps back to his face. "That's really freaking cool."

He almost wants to smile at her enthusiasm. "I guess it is."

Her fingers creep up, drop back, creep up again. "Um. Can I-"

"Yes, you can touch it." What the hell, he thinks, it's not like it'll hurt. And her cool fingers, when they make contact, feel surprisingly nice edging along one of the lower stabilization gyros. The ink always gets extra-hot when he's been in direct sunlight for too long, which is but one of many reasons why he favors long sleeves as a lifestyle choice.

"It feels like fabric," she breathes, exploring up the backdraft control module. "Like silk, or- brocade? Just a slight texture underneath. Unless that's your skin?" Her fingers edge sideways to brush against unadorned skin, and then back again, before he can answer. "No, otherwise you feel the same as any other guy."

That's not what they usually say, he thinks, amused, and then does his best to pretend that thought didn't just cross his mind. She's a royal, you idiot pup. (His mental scold sounds like Stinger, no surprise there.) Don't go there.

"What does it do?"

"Do?" And don't stare down her dress. Although with the angle she's leaning over him, it's a challenge not to. He shifts slightly so that he can look over her shoulder instead and pins down another encroaching guard with a murderous look.

"You said it was circuitry, right? For what?"

"Oh." Well, at least he's not thinking about her breasts anymore. "Uh. They're for- well, they were for the wings."

"Oh," she echoes, and then, "Oh!" and her hand freezes as she leans back to look him in the eye. "Oh man, I'm so sorry. I didn't realize."

"It's okay," he says, and- okay, so he might, ever so slightly, lean into her hand when she goes to pull away. It's a problem, he's working on it. "It's been five years."

She bites her lip, and then after an agonizingly long second, her fingers start moving again, across the expansion coil at the top. "Do all Skyjackers have them?"

"Yeah," he says, trying not to seem too visibly relieved. "It's a three-stage process. The main neural node goes in first-" and he tilts his head, shows her the jack behind his left ear. "It takes about three months for the brain to grow the connections. Then the implants go into your shoulders, that takes another few weeks to synch up to your nervous system. The ink goes on last, when they install the wings."

"Wow," she says. "That seems… complicated. How big were they?"

He tries to do a quick mental conversion to her language's units and gives up partway through. Math, not his strong suit. "About as tall as me?"

"All the way across?"

"No, each one."

She leans back, her hand unfortunately dropping away, and sweeps her gaze up and down. Even crouched down, his head is almost level with her shoulder. "How did you not trip?"

He almost wants to laugh. That's definitely the first time he's felt that reaction when thinking about his wings. "They could expand. That was full length, but nobody keeps them out all the way unless you're about to use them. You could even collapse them all the way down to the studs, but it takes a few minutes." He makes a face. "And they itch."

"Wow," she says again, and shakes her head, a smile across her face. "You… totally had wings. Wow! And Cousin Irina said I'd never meet anyone interesting unless I stopped reading so much. Shows what she knows." Her hand goes back to his shoulder, and she turns his arm briskly to see some of the detail work on the side, her earlier reticence lost in her favor of her curiosity. He finds that he doesn't mind the manhandling, though he wishes she wasn't doing it to his gun arm.

Or in front of Lady Kalique's seneschal.

He lets her get it out of her system, however, partially because he likes the feeling of her small hands on him, moving him around to her satisfaction, and partially because the damage is already done on that one. Any sign of anything remotely friendly between them was always going to be taken as sexual, anyway; Lady Kalique made that clear when she sized him up earlier. It's not Jupiter's fault that Entitled tend to be oversexed, especially ones that still stink of a recent ReCell treatment. He's a little surprised that she didn't try to go after Jupiter herself- although she might have, if he hadn't interrupted. Royals are fucking weird.

Finally, Jupiter finishes her examination and returns his arm with a short part on his shoulder. "Sorry, I'm done now, I swear," she says, and she shoots him a quick smile. "You can have your arm back."

"Your majesty is too kind," he says drily, and she just smiles wider in response.

"It's beautiful, Caine. Although I guess I don't have to tell you that."

He mostly thinks of it as ugly- another scar, to match the ones on his back he can't see. Stinger, he's sure, feels the same way, judging by the long-sleeved shirt he was wearing out in the middle of a cornfield in the depth of summer. The loss of his wings was catastrophic, but after five years he no longer feels constantly off-balance, dependent on a weight and freedom that isn't there anymore. The ink, however, is a reminder every single time he looks in a mirror. It would have been a kindness to remove it along with the wings when he was clipped and stripped, but kindness isn't exactly what the Legion is all about.

But on Jupiter's face he sees nothing but sincerity, and he thinks that it's nice, that there's someone out there in the universe that can look at part of him and think, with all honesty, that's beautiful.

"Thanks," he says, a little belatedly, and she just grins lazily, nudges his knee companionably with her own.

"You're welcome."

Silence falls between them, comfortable the way silence almost never is, and Caine finds himself thinking, You know, it might not be so back to stick around for a bit.

It's a foolish idea, of course. But maybe not that foolish.

She's going to be a royal. She can write a pardon too. I can look after her till she's got rank and protection, and then maybe I can get me and Stinger our wings back after all.

It's a good plan, as his plans go. He can still get what he needs out of this situation, pay his debt to Stinger, and he doesn't have to leave Jupiter on her own just yet. Besides, she clearly needs him. It wouldn't be just selfish if he stayed for a little longer.

Yeah. This could work out.

~*~

Standing in her cabin and about two inches away from kissing her, Caine thinks, I might have made a slight miscalculation.

~*~

It's less awkward then he thought it would be, when he meets her on the bridge an hour later.

Well, it's less awkward for him, anyway, he amends, considering the way she's resolutely studying the viewscreen and avoiding eye contact at all costs. He can't help but replay the little moan of sheer mortification she made as he walked away from her quarters, and his lips threaten to twitch.

Don't do it, he tells himself. She'll just think you're laughing at her, and that'll only make it worse.

It's not her that's funny, though. Or not… entirely her. (That line was truly awful, though. Even by his standards.) It's the whole stupid situation. He can count on one hand the number of times he's been genuinely attracted to someone for something more than just a quick hormone-driven fuck in the back of some zooie's flitter parked outside a bar, and by his count, she's the first of that very small number who actually seems to return that attraction. And she approached him! Explicitly, even!

Too bad she's a fucking queen.

She doesn't say anything about it when he comes to stand next to her in front of the viewscreen, aside from a quick, blushing glance and a murmured, "You still okay to go with me?"

"I wouldn't be anywhere else," he says firmly, and that's that.

Pretty much the entire bridge crew do nothing but tell extremely vague horror stories about Orus while they're prepping the drop shuttle, because former Legionnaires are just as much assholes as current ones, and Jupiter grows increasingly nervous till she seems like she's about to snap by the time they're finally ready to take the trip down. Caine puts his hand between her shoulderblades as he guides her into the crew seat to distract her from her nerves- just to distract her, of course. Definitely not because she smells great and he likes the way his hand spans almost the entire width of her back, the way he can feel her pulse thrum under his palm even through the layers of Aegis-issue shirt and jacket.

He also likes watching her ponytail bounce over her shoulders as she walks. It's… calming.

Whatever his muddied motivation, it works, because she spends the shuttle ride down to the surface sort of blushy and awkward and generally smelling of hormones and embarrassment, but not stress. Definitely an improvement. And while he knows it's small of him, he likes knowing that he can affect her like that. It's not exactly a common reaction to him, and he's going to enjoy the ego boost as long as it lasts because he suspects it's not going to ever happen again.

Orus proves to be just as much of a miserable shithole as he remembers, which is… obscurely reassuring, in a terrible sort of way. The synth Captain Tsing hired is perky as shit, which is more than a little annoying, but Caine has a grim sort of faith that it'll wear off while they do the bureaucratic loop-de-loop around the asshole of the galaxy.

(Strong feelings? Him?)

Jupiter does her best to stay quiet and not bother him- he can almost feel the force of her aborted fidgeting a few inches behind him- but eventually the boredom gets the better of even her good nature. After the first (long, silent) hour in the main reception line, she apparently decides that enough is enough, and she taps him on the shoulder.

"Yes, your majesty?"

When he turns around he can see her blush come back in full force, and it's probably for the best that he can't really smell her over the massive press of unwashed bodies, because he suspects that her reaction to that is somewhat other than embarrassment. Fuck, he doesn't need to know this about her. He doesn't.

"Do you have something I could maybe read?" she asks tentatively. "I'd use my phone, but my battery is dead and I don't think I can access reddit in space."

He has no idea what reddit is, but he can sympathize with her boredom. He's mostly been keeping himself occupied for the last half-hour by wagering with himself on how long it would take before her fidgeting got the better of her. So far he's lost to himself twice, so either her embarrassment or her concentration is better than he would have expected. Probably both.

"...I can charge your phone?" he offers.

She blinks. "Seriously?"

"It's just electricity, right?"

She shrugs. "I think so? Like I said before, I don't know it works."

"Give it here." She pulls the thing out of her pocket and passes it to him, and then stands entirely too close so she can peer at what he's doing while he pops open the casing in the back to reveal the battery. He holds the case between his teeth, then fidgets with the settings on his glove for a moment before cupping his right hand over the phone in his left. A tiny zap latter, he feels the thing buzz to life, and carefully replaces the casing before handing it back to her. "There."

"One hundred percent battery," Jupiter says, shaking her head. "Caine, you are a man full of surprises, you know that?"

Caine shrugs, but inwardly he glows a little at the praise. "It's easy enough."

"It's awesome. Thank you." She pats him on the shoulder appreciately, before apparently remembering that she's trying to give him his space and drops her hand away with alacrity. She doesn't look quite as awkward as before, though, which is nice. It was funny at first, but he likes it better when she smiles at him, like she does now.

Even if he's supposed to be keeping his distance. Well, he'll leave after she gets her seal. That'll be time enough. It's not like the pheromones show up immediately. He'll have time to make his goodbyes before he needs to get gone.

Advocate Bob regards this exchange with that alien cheerfulness. "What is her majesty planning to read?" he enquires. Jupiter shoots Caine a puzzled look, and he shrugs. I don't fucking know.

"A… book?" she hazards. "I think I have a few on my kindle app."

"Your majesty should use your time more productively," Advocate Bob says disapprovingly. Jupiter scowls.

"Why, you have any bright ideas?" she snaps, which is clearly the wrong tack to take because Advocate Bob immediately beams.

"I'm so glad you asked," he chirps, and swipes his palm over the top of her phone, causing a little flash of light. Jupiter yelps and clutches her phone protectively to her chest.

"What did you do to it?"

"Transferred the Entitled Code of Conduct, of course," Advocate Bob says. "Your majesty will receive a copy on sheave when you are given the official seal, but it's best to get a head-start on these things."

Jupiter gives Caine a slightly despairing eye-roll: do I have to? Caine just shrugs again: you're asking the wrong guy for advice. She sighs and thumbs in the passcode to her phone. "This better not be endless tax codes, or I'm going to be very grumpy."

Whatever the Entitled Code of Conduct is, it can't be too boring, because she quickly becomes engrossed in her reading, and seems to be content with the distraction for the rest of the line. In fact, she stays distracted all the way up through the next two departments, tossing out occasional tidbits like "Did you know that there are seven different ways to taste-test poisoned beverages without giving actionable offense?" and "My god, there are tax sanctions for everything." By the fourth stop, however, she's started shifting from one foot to the other every minute or so, and he'd have to be dead not to notice the scent of pain and frustration coming off her in waves.

"Feet hurt?" he murmurs in her ear. She jumps slightly, probably not realizing just how close behind her he was standing, and turns with a somewhat strained smile.

"A little?" she murmurs back. Which means a lot, he's willing to bet. She doesn't strike him as someone who likes to admit weakness any more than he himself does. "I can take it for a while longer."

They've been in the Hall of Records for about five hours at this point. Caine fatalistically believes that it's going to be another five, minimum, before they actually make it to the Signs and Seals department. She was unconscious for the transport to Lady Kalique's alcazar so she's likely gotten at least some rest, but it's still been a stressful couple of days. Both of them were running on fumes already when they got here.

Caine considers his options and makes an executive decision. "Hang on a minute," he tells Jupiter, and leans around her to tap Advocate Bob on the shoulder.

The synth turns around with a somewhat strained expression on his face. "Yes, sir?"

The perkiness makes his teeth itch, but that's not really relevant now. "Her majesty needs to take a break," he says. "This is just tax filing, right? The clerk won't actually need her to do a gene scan."

"No, but-"

"Good," Caine says. He jerks his thumb at long, low bench along the side wall. "We'll be over there. Come and get us when you're done."

He puts his hand on Jupiter's back and nudges her out of line when she hesitates. She doesn't hesitate for very long, though, and she sticks close to him as they peel off. Doesn't try to duck away from his hand, either. It's just another thing he likes about her, damn it.

"Thank you," she whispers, and sinks down on the bench. Caine shifts a little uncomfortably at the expression she makes, because the look of satisfaction on her face is intense enough to seem almost sexual. Welp, going to be remembering that later, he thinks, resigned. "I felt like I was going to collapse."

"Yeah, I kind of figured. It's been a hard couple of days for you."

She closes her eyes in bliss for a moment, then cracks one lid back open. "What about you?"

"I'll stand guard."

"Oh no you don't," she says, and gets two fingers under the cuff of his coat sleeve before he can react. She tugs. "Get down here," she says. "You've had the same hard time I've had, only worse. Take a break, man."

He shouldn't. He's still got a decent reserve of energy left, and he's here to guard her. Not… anything else.

"All right," he says, and takes a seat next to her. Fuck, it does feel good to be off his feet.

"Thank you," she says with asperity. "You're too tall to talk to when you're standing. You're almost too tall to talk to when I'm standing."

He snorts. "Your majesty has done all right so far."

"I know that's a jab at how much I talk, but I'm not even going to take offense because it's totally true." She stretches her legs out in front of her with a little grunt of satisfaction. "Man, I know everybody said this was going to be bad, but I thought, like, DMV-bad. This is more like Brazil levels of bad."

"I don't know what either of those things are," he admits. "Well, I think Brazil is a country? But that doesn't seem like what you're talking about."

"Aha, for once I'm not the one who has to ask for an explanation! Okay, so the DMV is a government organization, they do registration and stuff for certain forms of identification and cars, and it's famous for taking forever to get through a line. I mean, not this much forever," she adds, waving in annoyance at the queue in front of them. "But enough that it's sort of the stand-in reference for long lines and waiting."

"Got it," he says. "And the other?"

"It's a movie," she says. "Generally considered to be one of the world's premier classic films. It's about… oh, a lot of stuff, but one of the big themes is the way horrors can be committed without anyone much paying attention if you just shuffle it behind enough paperwork and government doublespeak. There's a sequence about a woman trying to get a wrongfully arrested man released and she just gets bounced around to different reception desks till it's too late because he died in interrogation."

Well, that's grim. And insightful. Maybe he hasn't been giving terrsies worlds enough credit. "'Bureaucracy is the source of all sin,'" he quotes, dredging something up from one of the Academy classes, because he can't think of anything else intelligent to add. She chuckles softly.

"You'll get no arguments from me, soldier."

He loves the way she says that. Soldier. Like it's an endearment, but also like it's a self-evident fact, the most basic description of his self that she can use. Like Stinger used to call him pup. He hasn't been a soldier in a while, but he still feels like one, just like he'll probably always feel like a bit like Stinger's pet cadet. He's had a while to come to terms with that, though. His court-martial is a fresher pain, even a few years later.

"So is this movie something that everyone watches on your world?" he asks, because he finds that he actually doesn't want the conversation to end.

She laughs and shakes her head. "No, not even close. It's mostly for oddballs and film buffs- of which I am both, thank you, before you can ask." She shrugs. "Movies are a pretty cheap hobby if you're torrenting."

"I don't know what that means either," he says, "but it sounds like something illegal."

"Good thing you're not a cop," she shoots back, and giggles. "Man, what the hell am I talking about, here. Two-dee movies have to be, like, endlessly backwards to you."

"Yeah, holo technology became the standard in entertainment about two ages ago," he says. "Or VR, if you don't have the C's."

"VR being the cheapie option, man, at least there's some shit about space that sounds incredibly cool," she says. She shifts back on the bench a bit, and folds her left ankle across her right knee, bumping against him companionably as she does so. "You'll have to show me some holo-movies sometime."

He likes the idea of that, sitting next to her in the dark and turning off his brain for a bit. He could make time before he leaves, probably, and ships usually have a decent library in the onboard databanks. Maybe if he does it right when they get back? No, better not to risk it.

"And you'll have to show me some of your classics," he says, instead.

"That sounds nice," she says, a little shyly, and goes back to her phone.

Silence falls down between them, but comfortable, not strained like it was before. Caine finds himself relaxing more than is entirely advisable. He can see Advocate Bob across the room, still only partway through the line, so they have some time. But still. The whole reason he's here is to serve as her majesty's bodyguard in case Balem Abrasax gets any other smart ideas. He should stay alert.

But he's tired, and it's just so reassuring, having her near him like this. It's nice to have the warmth of another body next to his, her comforting scent in his nose. She's bouncing her folded knee, probably due to one last burst of energy from that cup of kava he got her off a street vendor a couple hours ago, and her leg is brushing against his in a rhythm that should be annoying but isn't. Apparently she's decided that she's over her bout of embarrassment, if she's sitting this close to him. He can't feel too sorry about that.

He closes his eyes and inhales. Mmm, happy Jupiter.

They sit like that for a while, Caine's not sure how long. After a while her jiggling leg slows to a halt, and a few minutes after that she starts to lean incrementally closer to him. Stimulant crash, he thinks, and smiles a little down at the top of her head. Eventually she ends up slumped against him, her cheek pressed into his shoulder, fast asleep.

He doesn't shift to put his arm around her, though he wants to. She'd fit really nicely under his arm, he thinks, and his chest would probably make a more comfortable pillow than his bony shoulder, with the quick-release catch that's probably leaving a mark on her cheek right now. More selfishly, it would feel nice, having her warm and pressed against him, and that way he'd smell like her later, when she's gone and he's on his own again.

But instead he just holds himself very still, because there are lines he can cross, and lines he can't, and that is definitely one of the latter. He's already pushed his luck far enough to break it a couple times over when it comes to her, and just because he likes her and finds her relaxing and thinks she smells good is no reason to forget what he is- and what she's going to be, as soon as they can get the paperwork sorted. At that point everyone's better off if he keeps himself far away from her.

Just for a minute, though, it's nice to lean his head back against the wall and imagine. Maybe in another life, she wouldn't be a Recurrence or come from a terrsies world, and she'd end up in the Legion, maybe even in the Skyjackers. No, it seems strange to think of her in the military, to have both of them on even footing like that. So maybe she'd be a retainer for one of the big houses, one one of the ones with a Magisterium seat, and she'd need a bodyguard. Any Magister can call upon the Legion for security detail if necessary, although Caine never got tapped for that detail since it would be a waste of his tracking skills. But still. She'd be doing work here on Orus, handling some trade contracts maybe, and he'd be with her for days at a time, nobody to interrupt them, no Stinger to give him pointed looks he thought Caine didn't notice about how he should keep his distance. Just the two of them.

Yes, he likes the thought of that. He could follow someone like Jupiter for the rest of his life and be happy about it.

Wait a fucking minute.

Warning bells start going off in the back of his brain. There's a very limited set of reasons why a lycantant, even a poorly-spliced one, would start fantasizing about something like that.

It's not even supposed to be possible, he thinks, frustrated. Lycantants can't even produce the bonding hormones after reaching majority. But that's not quite right, there's something else he remembers, back from one of the endless stacks of pamphlets in the counselor's office back at the creche. He closes his eyes to picture it better, trying to remember the words right at the edge of his memory. Except in case of…

He opens his eyes again and looks down at Jupiter.

...except in cases of an omega encountering a suitable alpha, especially during times of stress.

Oh, fuck.

"Lieutenant Wise!"

He grits his teeth and looks up at Advocate Bob. "Shut up," he hisses, jerking his thumb at the woman sleeping on his shoulder. "And stop calling me Lieutenant."

"Sorry, Mr. Wise."

But it's too late. Jupiter stirs sleepily, freezes, and then jerks upright. "I'm awake!" she says, holding her eyes open very wide like that's going to convince them. "I definitely did not fall asleep."

She absolutely has a mark on her cheek from the quick-release catch on his shirt. Her hair is also starting to come out of its neat ponytail just a little. She looks completely adorable. Because of course she does.

"Of course not, your majesty!" Advocate Bob says cheerfully, and holds up the sheave in his hand. "I got the tax idents filed. We need to go to Records Release!"

"Of course we do," Jupiter sighs. She puts one hand to his knee to help leverage herself back to her feet, and then stands there for a moment, swaying very gently, before she seems to blink herself the rest of the way back to consciousness. "Okay, I'm good."

Caine stands as well, and they follow Advocate Bob as he bounces his way back out into the hallway. Jupiter stumbles slightly getting into the lift, and Caine puts his hand to her back to steady her. She shoots him a grateful look and leans back into the touch. He leaves his hand there the entire way to Records Release.

The entire way, he tries to talk himself out of it. It's not necessarily bonding hormones. Sometimes wires can get crossed with commanding officers- he was always a lot more invested in his friendship with Stinger than he knew how to let on, for example. Or, hell, maybe it's just sex. Fuck knows he's attracted to her. It's not… necessarily anything else.

But.

Point One: He's always been bad at accepting touch, even from people he liked, even trusted. He can vaguely remember going through the usual skin-hunger back during his first couple growth cycles, but he learned to shut that off along with the other cravings when he stopped producing the bonding hormones. It's been years since he actually wanted someone to lay hands on him, but he's welcomed her touch from the start. He let her bandage his wounds while he was driving. He let her play with his ink, for fuck's sake. He practically begged her to.

Point Two: He thinks she smells great. Which, okay, lots of people smell great, sexually or otherwise, but he usually doesn't the urge to bury his nose into the little hollow behind the hinge of the jaw and just breathe.

Point Three: He can't seem to talk himself into walking away from her, even when every bit of common sense he has left tells him that he should.

Point Four, and most damning: When he's upset, she can calm him down. She doesn't even particularly do anything, just puts a hand on him or smiles at him, and he gets his shit back together. He noticed it as far back as the car on the way to Stinger's, but he did his best not to notice it, because he's not stupid. He knows what that means.

"Sorry for falling asleep on you back there," she murmurs, in the next line. She leans close so that Advocate Bob doesn't hear her, and it puts her mouth right next to his collarbone, since even with the Aegis-issue boots that's about as high as she can reach on him without leaning up. His throat clicks as he swallows. "You're being a real trooper about this whole thing."

"So is your majesty," he murmurs back, and then shuts his mouth with a snap before he can say anything else. She gives him a weird look, but appears to let it ride.

Okay, so he's going through first-phase bonding. Fine. It'd be stupid to keep denying it. But it just doesn't make sense. It's been a stressful few days, sure, but he's sure as fuck been through a lot worse, and some of it alongside people he'd've given his gun hand to bond with. He likes Jupiter plenty- okay, fine, he likes her a lot- but if he was going to bond to any alpha, wouldn't it have been Stinger? Stinger was his captain, the closest thing he had to a family, and Caine followed him into hell and back so many times it was second nature. In addition, Stinger was a fucking demon on the battlefield, always the fastest shot, the highest kill count, the first man out of the shuttle and the last man down. Jupiter, on the other hand, while demonstrably strong-willed and certainly not shy, doesn't exactly have that killer instinct.

Jupiter veers off to a street vendor on their way to Tax Identification, and comes back a minute later with a steaming cup of kava. He assumes it's for her, but she hands it off to him with a tired smile. "I don't think I'm cut out for that stuff," she says. "And that's coming from a girl who practically bleeds coffee on the weekdays. But you didn't get the nice power nap back there since you were too busy being my pillow, so. That's for you."

"...Thanks," he says, and buries his face in his cup so he can't say anything else.

Aw, fuck. Of course it's her. Who else could it be?

In the creche, the splicers mostly leave the pups to fight it out amongst themselves for the first couple growth-cycles. It's the easiest way to weed out and ideally repurpose the weaker stock (like himself) and by the time they reach adolescence, the vast majority of them will have separated into like-minded groups, usually about eight to ten pups per pack, comprised mostly of betas that all bond to a single alpha. This is by design, to create pre-built battlefield units with clear internal hierarchy, and mirrors lycan packs in the wild. But while lycan alphas are generally the largest and most aggressive hunters, coming from a planet that has a number of equally aggressive prey animals, lycans have one distinct thing different from their human counterparts.

Lycans are animals. And animals don't go to war.

Jupiter is exactly the kind of person the splicers bred for in an alpha. She's kind, funny, easygoing, accepting- all the qualities necessary to keep a group of highly aggressive killing machines emotionally stable and focused on the battlefield. She's like some of the alpha pups he remembers from the creche, the ones always surrounded by the biggest and strongest betas- never had to fight for their own food because their packs would clear the way for them. She's plenty dominant: willing to stand up for herself or anyone else who comes along, and she doesn't hesitate to lay hands on him, to drag him this way or that. She makes him feel good, feel calm and steady instead of a badly stitched-together mess of contradictory instincts, and she looks after him as much as he looks after her, just different.

She doesn't have to have a killer instinct. He'd kill for her in a heartbeat.

He grits his teeth his way through the next few departments, calling himself every name in the book and a few he makes up for the special occasion. Fuck, and she's going to be sealed soon. He can't catch a fucking break at a discount.

"Licenses and Registration!" Advocate Bob announces, and hauls them into a tiny, mildew-scented office. The aging clerk behind the counter does nothing but leer at Jupiter through the entire round of paperwork, and Jupiter edges closer and closer to Caine, shuddering faintly until he brings up one hand and cups the back of her neck, shooting a warning look at the clerk. She elects to file faster.

"My hero," Jupiter says when they escape back into the hallway, and gives his shoulder a fond pat. He leans a little bit after her when her hand drops away, but he's pretty sure that she doesn't notice. Fuck, he's pathetic. He can't keep this shit up forever.

"Registration Processing!" Advocate Bob chirps. Jupiter sighs.

In Registration Processing, something occurs to him:

You could just leave.

Every instinct he has rebels against the idea as soon as he has it, but he grits his teeth and forces himself to consider it. She will be royal soon, probably within another hour or two at most. He's been planning on leaving then anyway (okay, so he'd been planning on leaving well before that, but at least now he knows why he's consistently incapable of telling her no) because not long after that, she'll start producing the royal pheromones and he'll have his usual adverse reaction and it'll be safer if he takes off before then. It's been awhile since he's read the pamphlets, but he's pretty sure that he's still in phase one bonding, which means that it's still possible to stop the process without going into severance shock.

It's not like he wants to leave her, for a number of reasons. Pack-bonding aside, he also just genuinely likes her, her determination and her humor and the way she doesn't hesitate to tease him even though he's given her plenty of reason to treat him like he's dangerous. But there's no version of events where this works out for him. It's really the only course of action.

And bonding is a choice, whatever urges the hormones give you. The pamphlets were always very clear on this. Biology is not destiny, as Stinger always used to say. It can set you on the path- but it doesn't dictate what you do once you get there. He has a choice.

He's got to leave.

"And… Tax Identification…" Advocate Bob says, his voicebox warbling alarmingly in the middle.

Jupiter looks up from her phone. "Again?"

"I'm sure it was just a misunderstanding!"

"You keep telling yourself that, buddy," Jupiter says. Her phone gives a sad little beep, as if to agree with her, and she wordlessly holds it out to him. He charges it. She goes back to reading.

The next two departments see Advocate Bob start to unravel at an impressive rate, and Jupiter withdraw further and further into her own head, like she can make this shithole go away if she pretends hard enough. Caine's been on actual battlefields and he could tell her that that never works. She's gone straight through irritation and out the other side into resignation, and she reacts to each new delay with sort of blank, of course this is happening kind of expression. Caine has the best of intentions to keep his hands to himself- why make it worse on himself?- but he finds himself putting his hand to what is rapidly becoming his accustomed spot on her back and guiding her more and more frequently as the afternoon wears on, because she just looks so pleased every time he does it, leans into it like he's the only thing holding her steady.

He's spent his whole life trying to make himself useful to other people, with varying degrees of success. He has no defense against the sincerity in her gratitude.

Eventually Advocate Bob breaks down and bribes somebody- Caine was about to go up there and do it for him, for fuck's sake- and as they jump through the last couple hoops Jupiter starts to perk up a little with the knowledge that they're almost at the end of the line. Caine, on the other hand, is only getting more and more tense and can't do a damn thing to stop it. It's especially stupid because he knows that it's not like he's going to attack her on the shuttle ride back, the hormones don't work that fast, but he can't stop thinking about it anyway. He loves Jupiter's scent, spent a week of his life with it in his nose before he finally found her, and now it means comfort, and kindness, his hand on her back and her steady breathing in his ear. He dreads the moment that he takes a breath and under the warm-soft he'll pick up the heavy, smothering scent of flowers and feel rage crowd hot at the back of his throat, and there's not a fucking thing he can to stop it except leave first.

In a lift down to the sub-basement, Jupiter nudges against him, just a little bump with her hip and her shoulder brushing against his arm. "Hey," she murmurs low. Her voice is a rough, intimate burr, and heat crawls up the back of his neck at the sound of it. "You okay? You've been really quiet for the last hour."

"Your majesty should know by now I'm always quiet," he murmurs back. His mild teasing earns him a smile, and he wants to step closer to her, like he can somehow soak up the warmth of that just from sheer proximity. Man, how great would it be to make her smile like that all the time? It's hard to feel like a fuck-up if you're making someone like Jupiter happy.

It's just the hormones talking, he tells himself, and doesn't move.

"Yeah, maybe, but you've been extra-quiet. The lines finally getting to you?"

"Something like that."

"Well, we're almost done," she says, and then immediately makes a face. "...for real, this time. I think. I hope."

"Your majesty seems pleased."

She gives him the eyebrow for that one. "Her majesty is tired," she says, and smothers a yawn, as if her words have evoked action. "Ugh. How long have we even been here?"

"Ten hours and forty-three minutes in your solar time, majesty!"

"...Thanks, Bob. Not sure I wanted to actually know that, now." She blinks rapidly. "Damn. Caine, you are superhuman, I swear to god. I don't know you're still going."

"I am a genomgineered-"

"Human, yes, I know. But still. Miracles of space-science, I guess."

It's stupid how much he likes her appreciation. It'd fall by the wayside if she were to meet a true lycantant, but he won't be here for it. There's one advantage to leaving- he doesn't have to stick around long enough to watch the disappointment set in.

"We're almost there," he says, and she smiles, slow and a little tired, but sweet for all of that.

"In more than one way, I guess."

The lift comes to a halt with a gentle bing, and the doors slide open. Advocate Bob beams, a little more manic around the edges but honestly more steady than Caine would have predicted when they first got here. He held up better than most. "Signs and Seals!" he chirps. "Are you ready, your majesty?"

It's not his imagination that her gaze flicks to him, Caine's sure of it. But she squares up her shoulders, takes a deep breath and says, "Yeah, I'm ready."

I'm not, Caine thinks, and follows her out.

 

~*~

 

In the alley outside of the Hall of Records, Jupiter looks at him with hope in her eyes and steps close, close, closer, angles her head and bares her throat like she's looking right into the back of his brain. He wants nothing more than to lean down and take her up on that invitation and a thousand others.

Biology is not destiny. He has a choice.

~*~

He chooses wrong.

~*~

Caine remembers Lord Titus's steward well, as she's the one who supervised his extraction from the Deadlands. He did not appreciate being so extracted, and she lost a fair number of synths before he would stand still long enough for her to convey Lord Titus's offer. That apparently made an impression, judging by the number of mercs she has with her. He'd feel a flattered if he didn't want to put a plasma blast between her eyes.

Stinger stays long enough to supervise Caine's cuffing- he doesn't have the energy to spare to be angry at the bastard, but he's sure it'll come later if he survives that long- and get his payout before he gives Caine one last apologetic look and legs it. Caine would lash out on sheer principle (they've got his hands behind his back but not his legs, he could easily take out one or two of them before they got him down) except Jupiter's in the line of fire. Famulus's smirk tells him that this is not exactly an accident. He would really like to remove that smirk. Possibly even with his teeth, if that's what's required.

Jupiter moves till she's standing between him and Famulus. Caine leans sideways to keep Famulus in his line of sight, but Jupiter follows him, straightens as high as she can to get his attention. "Caine? Caine, c'mon, let's just go."

"If we go," he says, through gritted teeth, "there's no guarantee that we come back."

"Better than dead," she says.

Famulus clears her throat. "Lord Titus was very explicit in his instructions," she calls. "Her majesty is to remain unharmed."

"Shut up," Jupiter says, her voice a terrible whip-crack of anger that causes Famulus to close her mouth with a snap. Despite the situation, Caine chuffs a bit of a laugh at the back of his throat. Just because she's new doesn't mean she isn't a royal, little doe, he thinks with a vicious sort of pleasure. "Caine, look at me."

Slowly, reluctantly, he obeys. When he makes eye contact she gives a soft sound of relief that he feels down in the bottom of his chest. Her eyes are dark with worry and stress. Most of that's from the situation. Some of that is from him.

"Your majesty," he forces out, and she relaxes fractionally.

"I'm not going to stand here and watch you get killed in front of me, okay? Not after everything we've gone through. I won't do it. Don't make me." And she puts her hand to his chest, splays her fingers to cover as much of him as possible. Leans in, her voice low enough so that nobody can hear her but him. "Don't make me watch you die, Caine."

She still smells like a dusty room on a summer's day, no hint yet of the royal pheromones. She's a full head shorter than him, baseline human, so much smaller and more fragile. All he wants to do is protect her. And all he can do is stand there and let her protect him.

The worst bit of the whole fucked-up mess is that she'd probably make an incredible alpha.

"All right," he says, and she looks so incredibly relieved he can't actually regret it.

Famulus elects not to try and separate them as she loads them into the ornate hopper, but then he already knew she was a clever woman. It doesn't take a genius to realize that Jupiter is the most effective way to keep him calm, and for all that she likely has permission to eliminate him if necessary, he knows that Titus would prefer to execute him personally.

It takes some time to get up to Titus's transport ship, because Orus is crowded and because they can't risk attracting the attention of the Aegis. Caine sits on the plush, velveted seat with his arms bound painfully behind him and considers, then discards, the idea of trying to signal them. The more confined the space the more he's handicapped, and trying to force an altercation in the back of a hopper is more likely to end in a fiery wreck than anything else. He won't risk Jupiter's life on such a small chance.

Jupiter, for her part, makes sure to very close next to him and rests her head on his shoulder. He has no idea if she's doing it to keep him calm or just because she's so damn tired, but either way it's working. He can feel the tension winding out of his body almost in spite of himself, her warmth and her scent working on him even despite the circumstances. Eventually he gives in and lets his head loll sideways till his cheek is resting on the top of her head. She lets out a little sigh that he feels in his belly and presses closer.

"It's going to be okay," she tells him, and she's lying, of course she's lying- even she doesn't sound like she believes it- but in that moment he can't help but love her a little bit for trying.

"I'm sure it will be, your majesty," he says into her hair, and holds steady. He lied to her down there, hurt her feelings and pushed him away, and she's still being this. She's being so good to him, trying so hard to keep calm for his sake even though he can smell her panic, even though she doesn't have a damn reason to care about him after how he handled things down there, because she doesn't want him to get hurt.

He won't let himself do anything less for her.

The roundabout path the hopper takes apparently works, because they arrive at the transport ship without incident. They all stand when Famulus does, and Jupiter takes the opportunity to latch onto his elbow and refuses to let go. It's nice, but he's pretty sure it's not going to last.

Sure enough, there's an entire unit waiting for them when they step out of the hopper into the docking bay. He's pretty sure those aren't an honor guard for Jupiter.

"If your majesty would come with me," Famulus says, stepping to the side and gesturing politely.

"What? No." Jupiter promptly plants her feet and clings tighter to Caine's elbow, forcing both of them to a halt. "I'm not going anywhere without Caine."

"I'm afraid that's impossible, your majesty," Famulus says smoothly. "Mr. Wise is a very great security risk. He will be detained in the brig, per standard policy."

"Then I'll go with him."

"Lord Titus set aside accommodations specifically for your comfort. He will be most distressed if you do not avail yourself of them."

"What do I care about his distress, he's freaking kidnapping me!"

"Escorting," Famulus says smoothly. "Lord Titus was merely concerned that the Aegis would not provide sufficient security, considering your unique circumstances. And you can't say that his concerns were ill-founded, considering that they set you off with nothing but a single splice to guard your person."

"Caine's been doing pretty well so far," Jupiter says, and her glare could strip the paint off a drop shuttle. "I will not be parted from him."

It's a magnificent royal snarl, but Famulus just cocks her head to the side, radiates smugness, and says, very sympathetically, "Are you sure? Because it seemed like he was trying to leave when we arrived."

Caine winces at the way her face falls, the way she curls in on herself a little like accepting a blow, but he's proud as hell for the way she immediately straightens again, squares her shoulders. She's a worse liar than Stinger, which is saying something- everything she thinks and feels is on her face- but she's trying. Fuck knows she's trying.

"That's between Caine and me," she says, as coldly as she can muster. "So far the only crime I've seen him commit is trying to protect me from your henchmen."

"He does, however, have a history of, shall we say, intemperate action?" Famulus says, her hands fluttering suggestively. "He is one of the Aberrant, your majesty, and as such he cannot be trusted to control himself around Lord Titus or yourself. I'm sure you can understand our caution."

Caine hates that word. Aberrant. About one in a hundred splices are immune to the pheromones; they can smell them well enough, but they don't feel the emotional mirroring. The Aegis hires for them specifically whenever possible because they're more capable of standing up to a royal if necessary, since they can't be browbeaten by their own biology. It's how Stinger ended up as a Marshall even with a dishonorable discharge on his record. On a backwater rock a century or more out from a harvest, but still.

Out of that already small section of the population, a very rare mutation occasionally induces an adverse reaction to the scent. It's supposedly more common among lycantants or any of the other particularly scent-focused splices, but even so, the odds of Caine of Caine ending up with it on top of his other mutations were… astronomical.

Of course, if he hadn't been an omega that wouldn't have mattered, either, in the long run. Aberrants are rare, but they don't usually black out and commit homicide, either.

"Yeah, I don't care," Jupiter says. "I trust him. I trust him a hell of a lot more than I trust the person who just took me at gunpoint."

Famulus, perhaps sensing that she's not going to get very far with this approach, switches tactics- and targets. "Mr. Wise," she says, her face arranged into a very good approximation of kindness. "You can see that her majesty doesn't yet understand the reality of the situation."

"I understand just fine, you-"

"But surely you do," Famulus says, cutting Jupiter off in a move that would get her executed with anyone else. "Please, Mr. Wise. You'll be returned to Aegis custody once our transport is complete. We're merely trying to ensure her majesty's safety from all possible threats, yourself among them."

"Caine is not a threat to me!"

But he is. He knows he is. He likes to think he can control himself, and he's done well enough in the recent past, didn't attack either Titus or Lady Kalique, though he wanted to with both. Even once Jupiter's scent starts to change, he'd still chew off his own arm before he hurt her, if he's in his right mind at all.

But he can't guarantee that he'll be in his right mind. Or any mind at all, really. He's never managed to recall more than a smeared feeling of rage from the time he killed the Entitled, and he'll never know what triggered it. What if it happens with Jupiter?

He would, really and truly, rather be dead than have that happen again, to one of the few people in the gyre that actually seems to like him. No.

Famulus can see it on his face, the bitch, and smiles gently. "You know this is the right thing to do," she says.

"Shut up-" Jupiter says, but she falls silent instantly and turns around when he shifts behind her, wishing his hands were free and he could reach out and put his hand on her back. "Caine?"

"Your majesty," he says, and he hates the hope on her face, hates it, hates it, hates it. How many times is he going to let her put herself out there for him, only to shut her down? But he's doing the right thing, here. The only smart thing. "Your majesty, you should go with her."

Her face falls, and he feels like his stomach falls with it. "What? No. Caine, c'mon-"

"I'll be fine."

I'll be dead. But at least she won't have to watch.

She hesitates; he can see it on her face. So can Famulus.

"No harm will come to Mr. Wise under my care," Famulus says gently. Because she's going to hand me off to Titus before they space me, Caine thinks cynically. "Your majesty should come with me. I know you have had a very stressful few days, and I'm sure you would appreciate a chance to rest and refresh yourself before we arrive."

Jupiter looks so very torn. Caine clenches his jaw and doesn't give in to the urge to help her along.

"...All right," she says, finally, her voice a raw whisper. She clears her throat and tries again. "All right, I suppose that might be acceptable." She turns and peers up at him. His belly clenches at the concern on her face. "I'll get you out," she says, low and fierce. "I promise."

He believes her, he thinks. That's the worst part. Even with everything, he's sure that she'll do her very best.

"Your majesty shouldn't waste your time," he says flatly, and turns away from the crestfallen expression on her face for what's probably the last time. He doesn't try to look back.

~*~

He doesn't have much time to think about the moment on Orus that Stinger interrupted, while he's in captivity. He was focused on Jupiter, on keeping calm, on finding a way out: he didn't have time for shame.

Later, though, he's got nothing but time. There's not much to do out in the void, aside from wait.

His commcall implant was suppressed when he was under Titus's tender loving care, but once the clipper is gone, so's the jammer. Someone will hear the ping, and they'll come to pick him up. He just doesn't know if he's going to be alive when they get here.

Well, if all they find is his corpse, at least they'll still know to go after Jupiter. He should probably conserve his oxygen, but he still keys his commcall to a broad-spectrum distress call and repeats his message every three minutes. "This is Caine Wise, formerly lieutenant of the Magisterial Legion, Skyjacker division." And he rattles off his serial number. "Jupiter Jones is the Recurrence of her majesty Seraphi Abrasax. Lord Titus Abrasax took her forcibly into his custody. He plans to marry her and then murder her to gain her inheritance. If you hear this message, please contact Captain Diomika Tsing of the Aegis."

He probably should have just told her the truth, down there on Orus. She would have understood. She wouldn't have been happy about it, but it probably didn't exactly make her happy that he let her step close, let her put hands on him, let her put herself out there again, and then shut her down like that. It was… unnecessary. Probably.

"This is Caine Wise, formerly lieutenant of the Magisterial Legion, Skyjacker division."

He just panicked, is all. The same way he always does, gets into something he doesn't understand and can't control and says dumb fucking shit just to get himself out of the situation. And it was, technically, true: he did decide to stay with her because of the pardon she could offer. Originally. Before he realized that that was bullshit.

"Jupiter Jones is the Recurrence of her majesty Seraphi Abrasax. Lord Titus Abrasax took her forcibly into his custody."

And in his defense, he wasn't exactly expecting her to ask him to bite her. He's had zooies pull shit like that before- zooies are all about "going for the animal instinct" bullshit- but none of them did it like her, like a joke between them, like a dare. She stood there and listened to Stinger's What's Wrong With Caine litany and she stood there and listened to him admit that he didn't even remember committing murder, and she still offered her throat with a twinkle in her eye like she knew just how much he'd like to put his mark on her. He knows how to handle unrequited attraction- you just keep that shit to yourself and take your cues from the other party so you don't cross the line- and he knows how to keep his head down and do his job when someone doesn't want him around. He has no idea what to do with someone who so blatantly, cheerfully takes the initiative, who keeps giving him chances to say yes, like he's something she really wants.

Like he's something valuable.

"He plans to marry her and then murder her to gain her inheritance. If you hear this message, please contact Captain Diomika Tsing of the Aegis."

He's not sure what's worse, how obvious he must have been about lying, or how good she was to him in captivity afterwards. Probably both. He likes her for a lot of reasons; his screwball biology provides the urgency, but her genuine kindness and the way she put aside what must have been a cargo load of hurt feelings in order to try to save him from Titus's wrath are what really trips him up. Fuck, he was an asshole. He had his reasons, but still- he should have handled it better.

"Lord Titus took her forcibly…"

Actually, the worst thing is the one that he hasn't been allowing himself to think about- the possibility that maybe, just maybe, he wouldn't have reacted to the pheromones at all. After the trial, the best the Legion doctors could determine was that his blackout was likely related to his omega status- that without the bonding hormones, his chemistry was inherently out of balance, and it led to a momentary mental rupture. But the thing is, he has an alpha now, even if it's only first phase. It's possible- just barely possible- that his body would register her as an alpha first, and a royal only a distant second.

He remembers some of the betas talking about it, in the creche. Smells like my favorite thing, they said, and he never really knew what that meant, but he thinks that royal pheromones are like the opposite of that, to him- rotten fruit, because it's food he can't eat, and because the smell of it overwhelms everything else. He can't even imagine what his favorite thing would smell like, but in his secret heart of hearts, he can't quite tamp down the hope that it would smell like Jupiter.

"Lord Titus…"

But that was never going to happen, was it? Good things don't happen to him, not really. And he hurt her. He should have been better. She deserves better. She deserves nice things, and he's never been a nice thing. He's a killer, no more and no less; he killed for the Legion until he killed the wrong person and then they tossed him in a penal colony and he killed there, too. She's the first target he's ever tracked that stayed alive at the end of it. He shouldn't even have touched her, should have just taken himself out of the equation when he got her to the Aegis. It would have been better for her in the long run. She would have been better off without him.

"...took her…"

He can't be sorry that he found her, though. Even if he doesn't stay. He wouldn't trade the knowledge that just once, someone in the gyre looked at him and thought that he was worth something. He thinks he might have bonded with her for that alone.

"-going to kill her, he's going to kill her, someone-"

"You have zero minutes of air left," the evac suit informs him sadly, and he feels nothing, hears nothing, sees nothing except her face.

And, in the distance, the blooming light of a portal.

~*~

Stinger is quiet as they prep the zeroes, head down and subdued in a way that's just fucking weird. Stinger's always been the chatty one, rough and brash, talks too fast and curses too much, and Caine's job was to be the quiet, steady one who hauled his dumb ass out of bars before he could start fights. (Or, failing that, to finish them.) It's bizarre to go through the familiar pre-flight checks where once Stinger would have been slinging a steady series of imprecations about his age, looks, smell, combat readiness, and ability to satisfy a lover, and now he's just… silent.

It's not like Caine doesn't get it. The only god Stinger ever prayed to was the Legion, and the only rites he ever performed were "Honor, Duty, Sacrifice." Loyalty is built into Stinger's very nature just as it is in Caine's, wound into his genome, beaten into him through years of training, honed into a fine cutting edge by years of practice. To set that aside, even if just long enough to save his daughter's life, would have gutted him. To work beside Caine after that must be like rubbing salt into the wound.

Well, too fucking bad. Caine needs him. Captain Tsing has plenty of splices in her command, but most of them were Fleet. No Skyjackers. No real pilots. No one with Stinger's reflexes. And most importantly, no one who Caine knows well enough to fly with. They've done this before, the two of them, in reality a few times and hundreds of times in sims. Breaking a warhammer line is a tandem job, no way around it, and the only way to build a tandem sense is time. Jupiter doesn't have time.

Caine is, admittedly, not feeling overly chatty himself, worry over Jupiter all-consuming to a degree that's a little concerning, if he lets himself consider it. Not having your head on the fight is a good way to get dead. But he knows from experience that it'll drop away when he climbs into the cockpit. Goal-oriented is the polite way that people used to write him up in evaluations; fucking obsessive is what you are is what Stinger always used to say. He's a tracker by breeding, training, and inclination; goal-oriented is part of the package. In this case, it works out to his advantage: Jupiter is on that ship. He will get to the ship. Nice, simple, straightforward.

Stinger, on the other hand. For all that he always joked that you could knock him over the head and nothing but liquor and gun schematics would fall out, he's the sort to outthink himself. Caine can't risk that. He's counting on Sting to cover his six out there.

He puts up with the silent treatment all the way through the preflight prep, but when they strip down into flight suits and gear up and Stinger makes as if he's going to just climb in the cockpit, Caine decides that enough is enough and plants himself directly in his path. Stinger stops just short of running into him and backs off fast, squinting at him with a sort of wary, perplexed look. "Caine?"

"Stinger." He crosses his arms over his chest. "You're not seriously going to try and fly like this, are you?"

"Not sure what you mean," he says.

"You're still a shit liar."

"Bees don't lie, Caine, didn't you hear my lecture earlier?" He sighs and rubs the back of his neck, and his hand lingers there, elbow pointing skyward. "The hell do you want from me, pup?"

"To stop acting like such a fucking idiot?" He tries to beam annoyed by your problems as hard as he can, but he'll never be as good at that particular look as Stinger himself. "I don't know about you, but I'd like to make it through this drop alive."

Stinger makes an annoyed noise at the back of his throat, somewhere between a buzz and a growl, just ever-so-slightly inhuman. "That's low."

"Well, if the glove fucking fits."

Stinger closes his eyes for a moment, and when he opens them again, they're gold. That look never fails to get to him, damn it all, but he's had a lot of practice keeping it off his face and body.

"What's the first rule of the Skyjackers?"

"'You have to fall to learn how to fly,'" he quotes, automatically. It's over the hatch of every 'jacker drop shuttle and scratched into the frame of every bunk in the barracks, and until his court martial he hadn't gone a single day without seeing it since he walked out the Academy doors with his brand-new wings. "What's that have to do with-"

"And what's the second rule?"

He sighs, because he sees what Stinger is doing now. "'If you fall, someone will catch you.' Damn it, Sting-"

"I betrayed my oath."

"Yeah, well, you didn't actually manage to commit homicide, so I've still got one up on you there." Stinger stares at him, probably shocked to hear him speak of it so openly, but Caine is done with fucking around on this. He's got places to be, an alpha to save. "Seriously, Stinger, I don't care. I'd've done the same."

"Her majesty might feel differently."

He doubts it. It's possible- she sort of seems like the type who can hold a grudge till the heat-death of the universe if she wants to- but he doubts it. At least not after she finds out why. "That's her prerogative. But you know what? You're not going to find out if she's dead."

Stinger hisses and jerks back. "Damn it, Caine, you know I don't want to-"

"Well, then man the fuck up and get your head in the fight!" He huffs out a breath explosively through his nose. "You and me, Stinger, as far as I'm concerned, we're good. That going to be enough to get you to get in that cockpit and not dick around on me? The clock is ticking, here."

Stinger narrows his eyes at him. "You're such an asshole," he says wonderingly, and scrubs a hand over his face. His palms rasp against the stubble on his cheeks, and Caine wonders distantly, with the worn softness born of years of repetition, what that would feel like against his throat. Not the time, Caine, so very not the fucking time. "Fuck. Yeah, okay, pup. That's plenty."

"Good." He claps Stinger on the shoulder and jerks his head toward the zeroes. "Then you ready to do this?"

"Guess I am," Stinger sighs, but his shoulders are straight again, and a hint of the old familiar smirk is curling at the corner of his lips. He holds out his arm and Caine starts doing a quick gear check, like it's any other drop. "Out of curiosity, what would you have done if I wasn't here?"

"I'd've been dead if you hadn't turned yourself in and pulled that trace, so probably still in the void," Caine says. He finishes Stinger's arm and switches sides. "Otherwise? Done it anyway."

Caine not-so-secretly loves the arrogant tilt to Stinger's head. "You'd never make it through without riding my fumes, pup."

"I'm determined." He gives him the okay sign and Stinger switches to check him, with even greater focus. Stinger can get them through the field but Caine will take point once they intercept with the clipper. (Caine doesn't promise that he won't compromise structural integrity with his interception. He's had a hard day.) His combat gear needs more attention. "Am I good?"

"As always." Stinger goes to clap him on the shoulder, seems to think better of it, and lets his hand drop to his side. Well, it's a work in progress. If Caine can keep him from a second court-martial, they'll have plenty of time to hash it out later. "Let's go get your girl."

"Not mine," Caine says, and makes for his zero. Stinger snorts in disbelief, but follows him, climbs into his own cockpit. "Comms check, check, coming in clear?"

"Yeah, I can hear you and your bullshit fine," Stinger says dismissively. Caine can hear him strapping himself in, the familiar little rustles and clicks.

"I liked it better when you were too guilty to give me shit."

"Yeah, fuck you too," Stinger says. The cockpits seal with a long, drawn-out hiss. "What was that crap back on Orus, by the by? I was being nice, you know." Caine snorts audibly. "All things considered, yeah? Figured I'd give you a chance to kiss the girl, you know, have something go right for you for a change- and then you fucked it up."

"I did not fuck it up," Caine argues. "Initiating drop in ten seconds."

"You fucked it so bad, you lying asshole," Stinger says, and his engine rumbles to life at the same time as Caine's. "Bullshit you followed her around for ten hours in that shithole just to get us a pardon. She'd give it to you for a smile."

"Shut up," Caine says pleasantly. "Drop in three, two, one. And drop."

The hatch opens, and the zeroes drop down into the launch bay. It seals back up over their heads, and both of them configure for aerial assault while they wait for the launch bay to depressurize.

"No but seriously," Stinger says. "You know you smell like her, right? Who the fuck do you think you're fooling?"

And Caine- freezes. Because he's been away from Jupiter for a couple hours now, and with a clothing change and a quick duck through a cleanser to get the smell of his own panic and desperation out of his nose after being in that evac suit, Stinger shouldn't be able to smell her at all. Caine can't even pick up a trace of her on himself, and don't think he didn't check.

But then, it's a near-universal rule for almost any species with a sense of smell that it's much harder to smell yourself. He wouldn't have noticed. And after everything he's been through, the only reason Stinger would be able to smell Jupiter on him is if he'd started giving off her scent himself.

Well, I'm fucked, he thinks. Scent-melding means second-phase bonding, and that means that trying to leave is going to give him a nasty case of severance shock. If memory serves, he probably has about three more hours before it kicks in.

But that's not relevant right now, is it? Saving her is. He can deal with the rest later.

The bay finishes depressurizing, and the external comms click on in their commcalls. "Good luck, gentlemen," Captain Tsing says. "I expect you'll bring her majesty back safe."

"Yes ma'am," Caine says, and keys back to internal. "Leave it be, Sting. The important thing is that we get to her before Titus has a chance to make good on his plan."

"If you say so." They launch, Caine falling in at his wingtip automatically. They don't make it even a couple klicks before the warhammers deploy, and Caine huffs at the predictability of nobles. "I bet he thinks that'll keep him safe," Stinger says, amused.

Caine grins, even though Stinger can't see him. It's not a very friendly grin: wolves only show their teeth if they're thinking about using them. "Should we show him what it's like to cross the Magisterial Legion?"

"Oh, let's," Stinger says, and they pull up to the edge of the field, prime their weapons. "You ready, pup?"

As ready as he'll ever be. He searches within himself to see if there's any last-minute hesitation about putting his life literally in Stinger's hands, and comes up empty. He's always trusted Stinger with everything he's got. He's not going to hold back now.

"Let's hit it," he says, and Stinger whoops as they dive.

~*~

Jupiter doesn't let him kill Titus. Caine thinks that this is fundamentally unfair, but watching Lieutenant Chatterjee lead him away in cuffs isn't bad, either. Almost as good is watching Famulus be led away behind him. Her, Caine smiles after, all teeth and pleasure, still riding high on the heavy rush of rage inspired by Titus. She gives him one sharp look and then looks away, her head held high.

Jupiter just stands there on the dias, staring out the window at the empty space beyond. Caine's more than a little worried about how quiet she's being, but he can feel the rage crowding hot at the back of his throat, and he's afraid to get too close to her. He's still balanced on the knife-edge of adrenaline, and he doesn't want to test his control against the tender pale skin of her throat.

No matter how vulnerable she looks, standing there alone, her arms wrapped around herself. No matter how badly he wants to comfort her, as she's comforted him- with the warmth of his body, with his scent mingled with hers, with the knowledge that someone cares about her. He wants it so badly he can almost taste it.

"Lieutenant Wise," Commander Percadium's voice comes through his commcall, and he turns away from Jupiter briefly, puts his two fingers up to his ear in the universally understood gesture of on a call.

"It's just Caine. What've you got for me?"

"Lord Titus and his seneschal have been taken into custody," Percadium says briskly. "It'll be about twenty minutes until the transport ship can take him, and I'd rather not put her majesty in his way until then. Can you wait there?"

Caine glances back at Jupiter, whose shoulders are up to about her ears, and then back to the crowd of empty-eyed sims standing about in the enormous, overwhelmingly white room. "We can if someone turns off the audience."

"'m already on it," Stinger cuts in. "Might take a bit. This place is a fucking maze."

Caine sighs. "Stinger. Did you at least try the main control panel before you went looking for the override?"

"Yes, mum," Stinger says. "Give me five."

Caine eyes the sims warily. None of them are moving, and they didn't protest Titus's arrest, but he doesn't trust sims. He's seen enough weird program glitches that he can never feel quite comfortable around self-directed holos, however limited they might be. "You've got two, old man," he says, and drops Stinger from the call to the familiar music of his captain swearing up a storm.

"You got that, Commander?"

"Loud and clear, Mr. Wise," Percadium says, sounding almost amused. Then again, everything he says sounds vaguely amused. The felis strains seem to have sarcasm built-in. "We'll do what we can to hurry things along. Tell her majesty that we'll get her out of there as soon as possible."

"I'll let her know," Caine promises, and disconnects.

He turns back to see Jupiter looking at him warily. "Let me know what?" she says.

"That we'll be out of here soon," he says, trying not to stare at the red and white monstrosity she's wearing. He's not a man who generally cares much about clothing- is it warm? does it cover you? does it keep you safe? good enough- but he hates this.

Not that she doesn't look beautiful, because of course she does, but he doesn't like the way it makes her look, more like a statue than a human woman. Like, if he's forced to say it, Seraphi Abrasax. Even her strained, vaguely nauseous expression doesn't really dispel the illusion.

"Oh, good," she says, distantly, and looks down at her hands, twisted restlessly together in front of her. He can't help but notice the way her thumb is rubbing obsessively over the spot where the ring was almost stitched onto her flesh.

Worse still is the heavy, artificial scent coming off the dahlia-gems stitched into her gown and headdress. It's a lousy approximation of the royal pheromones, not quite close enough to the true scent to trigger the usual response in a splice, but it is close enough to raise his hackles on pure sense-memory. The gems are so strong that he can't really smell much else while standing near her- including her own, actual pheromones, which is a small consolation.

Assuming you react like normal, a little voice says at the back of his head, but he ruthlessly stifles it. He will, he's sure he will. He doesn't get that lucky.

She clears her throat. "Did I just hear you talking to Stinger?"

"Uh," he says. "Well. Yes." She probably wants an explanation, you idiot. "He helped me break through the minefield to get here. I'm a good pilot, but I'm no mellis." Her face doesn't change, and he adds, a little desperately, "It was the only way to get to you in time."

"No, it's just-" Her head tilts slightly, and the headdress tilts dangerously with it. "We're… good with Stinger now? Did something happen? Because last I checked, he was the one who sold us to Titus in the first place. And that was, like. Yesterday."

Caine looks away. He knew he'd have to explain this at some point, but he wasn't expecting it to come this quickly. Not everyone has his admittedly warped concept of appropriate forgiveness when it comes to people he cares about.

"Kiza has the Bug," he mumbles. There's no immediate response, and when he glances up, she still looks blank, so he elaborates, "Genetic mutation, happens a lot in second-generation splices. It's always fatal, eventually. And the only treatment is a full genetic recode from a top-flight resequencer, which is-"

"-expensive," she finishes for him, comprehension crossing her face.

He nods. Is that sympathy on her face? "He turned himself in as soon as he bought the fucking thing. That's how the Aegis tracked us."

"Oh," she says, and licks her lips, looks away. "Good. For Stinger, I mean. And for us."

"Yeah," he says mindlessly. Is still mad? Is she okay? Maybe she's unhappy that he brought Stinger in, but hell, what else was he going to do? Fuck, he hates being nose-blind. He has no idea what she's feeling right now, and with all that Entitled crap she's wearing he can't even read her body properly.

Silence falls again.

A minute later, the crowd of sims staring mindlessly at them abruptly gets too much for him, and he turns away with a growl, keying his commcall. "Hey, Stinger. How's that shutdown going?"

"Almost there," Stinger says, voice thick with irritation. He hates having people nag him when he's working. "It's not like this is a familiar system, you know. You could give me a fucking minute."

"They're creepy, Sting. Get it done."

"Yeah, fine, I'll just teach myself an entirely new program at your convenience, asshole," Stinger says, and shuts down the comms. A minute later, however, the lights flicker and when they come back up, the sims are gone, leaving nothing but an enormous, empty room.

Caine doesn't miss the way Jupiter's shoulders relax a little without the pressure of empty eyes, and he watches her longingly, traces the elegant line of her spine from the bare nape of her neck down to where it disappears into the top of the dress. He feels the need to put his palm to her back like a physical ache.

She takes a deep breath, and then slowly, almost like she's still caught in a trance, her hands come up to prod at the headdress she's wearing. He doesn't figure what she's doing at first, but as her fingers pluck with increasing intensity at the catches, he realizes that she's probably desperately trying to remove it.

"God damn it," she says indistinctly, a moment later, and he can hear the misery in her voice. "How does the stupid thing even- Fuck."

He stands it for another few seconds, and then gives in and comes up behind her, moving slowly and giving her lots of time to shy away if she wants. "Would your majesty like some help?" he offers quietly.

She gives him a grateful eye-roll and drops her hands away from her head. "Please. This thing is even heavier than it looks."

You wouldn't know it to look at her posture. Caine steps closer and puts his hands- his big, calloused hands, pitted and scarred from plasma discharge and hot engine parts- up to her head. They look ridiculous against the tiny, intricate turns of the wiring. She doesn't flinch; just holds very, very still, and after a moment he carefully begins to pull out the pins that hold the thing up.

"Thanks," she says, after a bit. Her voice is husky and strained. "For saving me. Again."

"Of course," he says, because what else was he going to do?

"No, I mean it. You didn't have to come after me."

"I wasn't going to just let him kill you," Caine says, a bit of his frustration coming through in his voice. Fuck, this is misery. She's unhappy, he's unhappy, he can barely take a full breath this close to those fucking gems, and he doesn't have any right to be touching her. He shouldn't even be close to her, but he can't just stand there and watch her be miserable, either.

"And I appreciate that, believe me, I just meant you shouldn't have had to-" She makes a frustrated noise and falls silent. "Never mind. It doesn't matter."

Caine thinks it matters very much, actually.

"How did you know what Titus was planning, anyway? Was he just that obvious, or…?" Before he has a chance to reply, she says, bitterly, "I mean, I know I was stupid. I'm just trying to figure out how stupid."

He doesn't like to hear her insult herself. She's better than that. "Your majesty isn't stupid."

"And you're not answering my question."

Well, that's close enough to a direct order that he can't avoid answering. "He told me himself. To gloat."

"Well, that's seems foolish of him."

Her voice is almost wry, and he's so relieved to hear something resembling humor that is less cautious than he probably should be with his next words. "Well, he did it right before he shoved me out the airlock, so he probably wasn't expecting it to come back on him."

"He what."

Jupiter almost spits the word, so emphatic in her rage that the headdress, half-unfastened, teeters and starts to slide away toward the heavier left side. He catches it before it can topple painfully askew and holds it steady until she reaches up to hold it herself.

"He told me you'd attacked one of the guards and he'd shipped you back to the Aegis," she hisses. "Lying son of a bitch-"

Caine doesn't flinch, but only because if he does he might pull one of the pins the wrong way and hurt her. "You believed him?" he says, and his voice is very, very carefully steady.

It's not like he hasn't given her plenty of reason to believe him violent. She hasn't seen him do anything else, practically. Just because she seemed to trust him before doesn't mean that she doesn't-

"Well, not that you attacked one of the guards, I figured that was a fabrication to get you off the ship, but that he'd sent you to the Aegis, sure," she says, and doesn't seem to notice his relieved breath. "Of course I wouldn't have believed it without the rest…" Her voice trails off, and she falls silent for a long moment. "I guess if I was going to fall for a lie, it's just as well I fell for the biggest, stupidest one imaginable. Jesus Christ."

He wants to hug her. He's never wanted to hug somebody in his entire living memory, but he's also never seen somebody so in desperate need of one until this moment.

"Your majesty is not to be blamed," he says, because he's more or less put together the story Titus sold her, and he's not entirely surprised that she believed him. Titus is a soulless lymph-leech, but he's not stupid: he took one look at her and figured out that her protective nature was the way to go. Caine can't help but wonder, with a distant sort of self-loathing, how much of his display in front of Famulus informed Titus's approach. If he hadn't been there, would Titus have been able to crack her so easily?

"Aren't I? I'm the one who almost handed myself over to a murderer on a silver platter. Handed myself and my planet. If you hadn't come for me-" She cuts herself off. Her hands, clenched around the headdress, are white at the knuckles. "Anyway. It's done now. I'll just go home and forget this ever happened."

"Very soon, your majesty," he promises, instead of saying forgetting the bad stuff never works out as well as you think it will. He should know. "Ten minutes, maybe. No more."

"It's okay," she says, lying through her teeth again. "I just really, desperately want to get this thing off me."

That makes two of them. "This piece is almost out," he promises her. There's just a few pins left, the tricky ones near the part of her hair.

"Oh good," she says, and falls silent.

He gets the last of the pins free a minute later, and gently lifts the headpiece away, tossing it carelessly to the side. Her hair flops down her neck, still bound into tight ropes designed to fit under the headpiece, and without instruction he immediately sets to work freeing it, pulling out the ties and shaking it gently free so that it can lie, loose and shining, down her bare back.

Aside from a shiver when his hands first brush the back of her neck, she stays still and patient. He allows himself a single stroke of her hair when it's done, then tucks his hands behind his back, clears his throat, and steps away. "There. Your majesty looks more herself."

She turns and looks up at him. There is too much paint on her face, and her lips are too red, but her wide dark eyes are the same. "Thank you, Caine. Again."

"Your majesty doesn't have to thank me."

She lets out a short, disbelieving bark of a laugh, though it doesn't sound very amused. "Her majesty absolutely does," she says. "You've taken such good care of me. Even when you definitely did not have to."

He can't say what he wants to say, which is this: I haven't been nearly as good as you deserve, and you're the one who cares, enough that it chokes you, enough that it almost took your life, and if I could just sleep near the foot of your bed like an actual dog I might feel something like happiness. Some of it is hormones talking- he likes her quite a bit more than even he is willing to admit to himself, but the sheer force of his longing is mostly biological- but the rest of it is just because she thinks he's a good person, and he's not. He never has been, really. But she's the sort of person he'd try to be better for, if he could.

Instead he says, because he knows it's what she wants to hear: "You're very welcome."

She shoots him a swift look from beneath her lashes, and he knows that his careful lack of the words your majesty did not go unnoticed. Something that could vaguely claim kinship to a smile twitches at her lips, and then she looks away, a shiver running down her back.

Don't do it, he tells himself, but he knows it's futile, because he's already stripping out of his jacket. Jupiter looks over at him, surprise flitting across her face, but it goes still and blank as he drapes the jacket around her shoulders.

"Caine?" she says, her voice very small.

"Your majesty seemed cold," he says flatly. She deflates a little.

"Right," she says, very tired, and turns away, goes back to staring out the window. He can take a hint, and turns his back to give her some privacy, squares himself up into a proper guard position in case anyone comes looking.

But he can still see, out of the corner of his eye, when she hitches the jacket a little tighter around her small frame, and buries her nose in the points of the collar, where the fabric lay against his throat.

That is just not fair.

Eventually, Commander Percadium sticks his head back in and gives them the all-clear signal. "The transport ship just left, your majesty!" he calls out. "Captain Tsing is ready to return to Earth whenever you are ready."

"I am like three days past ready," she mutters, and brushes past him, almost running across the hall to the door. Caine falls in place at her heels, his longer stride keeping pace easily, and tucks his hands behind his back.

Percadium gives him a speaking look when he catches sight of her in his jacket, the too-long sleeves slipping down over her knuckles, but Caine just looks back impassively, and Percadium quirks his brow in rueful acknowledgement before leading them through the maze of hallways to the airlock. It's not the one that Caine saw before, when he made his less than graceful exit, but the ornate entrance actually meant for people to use, as opposed to getting kicked out of the cargo dock. He eyes the gilded walkway with a certain amount of rue.

Stinger's waiting for them on the Defiant, though he's quick to turn away as soon as he sees Jupiter coming. He needn't have bothered- Jupiter doesn't seem to notice anything other than the hiss of the airlock closing behind them, and then she abruptly buckles like a ruptured hull.

"Your majesty?" Percadium says, concerned, but she waves him away, straightens slowly, creakily back to her full height. It looks a little brittle, but hell, she's earned that and then some.

"I'm fine, Commander," she says, and smiles a little painfully. "Thank you for your concern."

"Of course, your majesty," Percadium says, visibly choosing to politely ignore how fragile she looks. "I can show you to your quarters."

"Oh, yes, please." She takes a half-step after him and then halts again. "Oh. Um."

He knows what she's going to do before she does it, but there's still something distantly painful about watching her slide his jacket from her shoulders and it into a neat little bundle, sort of like the feeling you get when you look at a broken leg and know it's going to hurt later. His face is impassive when she turns to hand it back to him, a match for her own. "Thank you for the loan," she says, a little over-formal. Trying too hard.

"It was nothing, your majesty," he says, and takes it from her hands with a slight bow. When he straightens her face has gone still and distant, and she inclines her head before turning and following Percadium down the hallway.

"Well, fuck," Stinger says, once she's gone. "That was painful to watch."

"Nobody asked for your opinion, old man," Caine shoots back, but it's weak and he knows it. He's just… tired. It's been a hell of a long couple days, and he almost died six hours ago out there in the black, which is a thing he's going to have to process some time when he has the luxury of sitting down and letting the panic attack happen. His body's in turmoil, throwing hormones left, right, and center, and even now every part of him wants nothing more than to just follow at her heels like a dog, strip away that dress that makes her look and smell not like herself, and press his skin to hers until he feels like a whole person again.

I was doing fine until you came along, he thinks, with sudden resentment. Sure, my life was shit, but I was *used* to that. I didn't ask for you to come along and break me in two, to make me less than myself when you're not around.

"That's what you get for chasing me down to Earth," Stinger says, his voice disproportionately cheerful. Ghoulish son of a bitch always did find awkwardness hilarious, when it wasn't happening to him. "You didn't want my opinions, you should have stayed on a different planet."

"Yeah, well, I wasn't exactly planning on coming by to say hello," Caine says. He sighs and drags a hand across his face. "Look, I'm going to take a spin through the cleanser, maybe get myself some food before we portal. You should do the same."

"You mean I'm not heading back to the brig?" Stinger says. He's faking casual but he's just as bad at it as he is at faking anything, and Caine feels a violent rush of affection well up in his chest, for his friend, his family, his captain, the noble idiot. He could have been back on Earth with none the wiser and lived out his days in peace with his daughter, but he'd turned himself in. Caine's only alive now because of him, Jupiter is only alive now because of him, and here he stands, vibrating a little with worry and pretending very badly that he doesn't care.

"If Captain Tsing hasn't locked you up already you're probably fine," Caine advises. "Stay out of her line of sight and I'll see what I can do."

"Someone raised you right, pup," Stinger says, and Caine snorts.

"Yeah, and someone's so modest, too."

"What's the point of modesty if you're just that bloody amazing?" Stinger smirks, weakly, then reaches out and grabs his shoulder affectionately. "I'll take that advice. Take mine and try not to fuck it up with her majesty next time."

There is no next time, he thinks, but he just nods silently, squeezes Stinger's hand, and then takes himself off to his quarters.

Alone, he can't help but bring the jacket to his face and inhale, hoping that maybe- but he immediately sneezes, his nose flooded by the false pheromones. He throws the jacket across the room in disgust and goes to the cleanser cubicle.

He doesn't want to smell that shit on himself again.

~*~

Captain Tsing catches him on his way to the mess hall, lets him know that they'll be portalling shortly, and can be please let her majesty know? He's not sure why she doesn't just do it herself, but he's too tired to argue, so he just swipes a few protein packs from the stock in the mess hall and downs then in a few messy gulps, tossing the empties into recyc before making his way to the last place he wants to be.

(That's a lie. There's nowhere in the gyre he'd rather be, but what's the point of torturing himself? At some point it's just blatant masochism, and while he's never been the most concerned about his own well-being, there's a line and he's dangerously close to crossing it.)

Jupiter's too-still and quiet when he lets her know the news, staring out the window like she's storing up the sight of it. Maybe she is; he doesn't know. He can't even guess what her plans are for after she gets home. She does own the planet now. She can go wherever she wants, do whatever she wants. The whole wide universe is hers for the taking.

When she still doesn't say anything, Caine takes another step into the room, concern overwhelming his awkwardness. She's never just silent, not like this. "Your majesty-"

"Please don't call me that."

Her flat, exhausted tone sets an ache low in his chest. Is it because of Titus, he wonders, or because of me? She liked it when he used her title before, she said it even. It made her feel good. But now-

It's not like it's a surprise that you fucked it up, he tells himself. When have you ever done anything else?

He should probably just leave, but some force keeps him there, his feet glued to the floor. He licks his lips, glances at the door and back again, falls into parade rest. "Titus will pay," he tries. "Captain Tsing has already filed-"

"I don't care," she cuts him off again. She swings around to look at him, and he swallows hard at the misery on her face. "The more you care, the more the world finds way to hurt you for it."

She only meets his eyes for a bare instant before looking away, but it's enough to have him look down at the floor. He's not sure if she's talking about him or Titus, but either way- it's his fault. Just like it's always his fault.

She turns and starts to dig something out of the cushions next to her, and the movement releases an abrupt wave of scent. He halfway flinches away, expecting the sickly-sweet smell from the pheromones, but takes a breath nonetheless. Maybe just to punish himself, maybe out of some strange kernel of hope, but he inhales, mouth slightly open, catching the scent and taste of her on his tongue.

An electric shiver rolls down his spine. She smells- She smells like-

She smells like a ray of sunshine in a dusty room, still, and a little sweet, maybe, but the light, peppery sweetness of good kava, or breakfast crisp. The spicy undertone smells like a splice more than anything, like uniform leather and military-issue cleanser, and the sunshine/dust/warm/space of her baseline scent suddenly, sharply reminds him of being back at the creche, of sneaking into the servant's quarters in the middle of the night and falling asleep in a cupboard near the kitchens to the busy sounds of happy, industrious people starting their day.

She smells like one of the only good memories of his childhood, like breakfast at Kiza's table, like the unit that took him in and called him family, for a while. She smells, he realizes, with a dawning sense of wonder, like my favorite thing.

He takes a deep breath, then lets it out slowly. No rage. No frustration, no irritation, no curl of instinctive dislike. Nothing from the pheromones at all. He feels tired, and sad, and elated, and longing, but none of those are artificial, born out of chemical and genetic programming. They're just- it's just how he feels.

He feels-

She finds what she was rooting around in the cushions for, and throws it at his feet. He blinks down at it, dazed and wondering, and then back to her. It looks like a pod drive…?

"It's your pardon," she says impatiently. "Congratulations. You and Stinger are officially Skyjackers again."

He stares down at the little drive for what feels like eternity but is probably no longer than half a second, max, then slowly, creakily kneels down to pick it up. He shoves it in his pocket as he stands and swallows hard. "Thank you," he says, and he means it, but it also makes him feel worse. That she has this means that she was still trying to bargain with Titus on his behalf, even after he told her not to. Even as she agreed to marry Titus and Caine was being escorted out an empty airlock the hard way, she was still thinking of him. She's such a good person, such a good alpha-

The knowledge churns in his stomach, makes him try even when he knows he shouldn't.

"When we were in the Commonwealth-"

"I don't want to talk," she cuts him off, and he takes a short breath, nods. No, he wouldn't want to hear it, either. And just because he's not biologically wired to want to kill her, doesn't mean that he's any better suited to stay in her life than he was yesterday. Everything he told her in these quarters before, when she made her first offer- it's all true. Maybe not the primary reason he was such a dick down there on Orus, but true. Even if Titus had never taken her, he'd still be gone from her life by tomorrow. This was never in cards, not really.

It still doesn't make it hurt any less when she looks up at him with her big dark eyes and says, "I really just want to go home."

And, well, there's not much he can say to that, is there? Besides, it's not like he has the right to expect anything of her, not after he's shut her down, time and time again. She probably doesn't want anything to do with him.

He wouldn't, either, in her shoes.

He bows shortly. "Of course, your majesty," he says quietly, and backs out of her room. Part of him thinks that maybe she'll call after him, ask him to come back, maybe…

...but no. She only turns back to the window, and when Caine waves the door closed behind him, the last glimpse he sees is the tiny huddle of her body in the window seat, her head tilted back to look at the stars.

Well, Caine-my-boy, he tells himself. You sure fucked that one up.

~*~

After the Defiant clears portal, he heads down to the shuttle bay. Stinger falls in with him on the walk there, and they head to one of the back walls to wait, arms crossed over their chests, while Captain Tsing musters a few of her officers for Jupiter's guard. She's taking no chances with Jupiter's safety, and Caine approves, in a distant sort of way, while also making it very clear that if the good captain tries to leave him behind they will have problems. Tsing just gives him an amused look and leaves him to it, speaking in a low voice with Lieutenant Chatterjee and directing the shuttle to be prepped.

"So," Stinger says after a moment. "That good, huh?"

"I don't want to talk about it," Caine says. Stinger snorts.

"Yeah, there's a fuckin' surprise." He crosses his arms over his chest, cocks a hip so that the rifle across his back doesn't scrape against the bulkhead. "Give it a few days, Caine. The girl's had a hard time of it lately."

"Believe it or not, I do know that." He restlessly adjusts the shield mechanism on his arm, making sure the seal is sitting properly. "Looking forward to seeing Kiza?"

"That a trick question?" Stinger pats his hip, where the precious injection sits. "They volunteered to drop me at the house after we get her majesty home. Pretty sure they're going to arrest me again after that, but hell, she's the tough sort." He glances away. "You'll check up on her, yeah?"

"Sure, Sting." Although mentally he makes a note to see if he can talk Captain Tsing into abstaining from filing charges. The fact that she hasn't done it yet is an encouraging sign, and he's pretty sure that she's willing to be convinced. She was Legion before she was Aegis, and she may not be a splice herself, but a higher-than-average percentage of her command crew is. There's no way she doesn't know what it means for Stinger's daughter to get the Bug.

Besides, wasn't she a friend of his? Stinger didn't want to send a broad-spectrum call for help in case it helped the bounty hunters track his house down faster. He had to send a targeted message to someone he knew and trusted. Stinger may be an asshole, but anyone who's known him for more than a year or two and is still willing to take his calls is someone who's already gotten comfortable with forgiving him.

Jupiter comes into the shuttle bay a few minutes later, and he doesn't miss the way her gaze sweeps the group of assembled Aegis officers until it alights on him and Stinger, tucked away in the back. Her face goes still when she spots him, and he can't figure out what the hell she's thinking, but when he makes his way through the crowd to fall into place at her heel, she doesn't object. She doesn't do anything at all, in fact, but in the shuttle she shuffles a little to make room for him on the bench next to her, and if her body inclines a little towards his when he takes her up on the invitation, well, he's not going to say anything if she doesn't.

Captain Tsing doesn't want to risk a full landing of the shuttle in the middle of a residential area, so she instructs the pilot to go into hover over an alley a block or two away, and sets up the transit beam. Lieutenant Chatterjee and a few of the security officers go down first, to make sure that the way is clear, and then it's Jupiter's turn. She hesitates before stepping into the beam, and he can only knows what she's thinking- she's remembering the fact that the last time she did this on Earth, some asshole shot the ship out of the sky and she almost died.

Even though he knows it's stupid, he steps up closed behind her, puts his hand to her back where it belongs. "I'll be right next to you," he says into her ear, low enough that the others can't hear him, and she visibly relaxes at the sound of it. A moment later she nods, takes a deep breath, and steps into the light.

True to his word, he stays right next to her the entire way down, and she holds so, so still, her rabbit-fast pulse under his palm the only hint as to her panic. He has to swallow several times against the scent of her, so close and warm and good, but he holds himself very still, because this isn't about him. This is for her comfort and nothing else.

When they set foot onto the pavement, she sags into his grip for an endless second, before she shoots him a wordless, grateful look, straightens, and walks on. He lets his hand drop back to his side, flexes his fingers to chase away the feeling of her from his skin, and follows.

You had your choice, he tells himself. And just because she's your alpha doesn't mean everything's good now. She's still a royal. It would never work out. You got what you wanted- you got Stinger a pardon, and yourself besides. Get the girl home and get yourself out of her life before you can fuck it up any worse.

Biology isn't destiny. Just because she feels right doesn't mean that they're right together. It would never work.

He keeps telling himself this, right up until the moment she gets home. And then he realizes what Lord Balem has done, and all he has room for is rage.

~*~

Watching the portal close with him on one side and Jupiter on the other is, genuinely, one of the worst moments of his life.

Caine has a lot to choose from, naturally. There's his entire childhood, such as it was, but most particularly the day when one of the carers took him aside and sat him down to explain why the other pups gave him the cold shoulder during group play. There's the time his roommate at the Academy took one look at him and immediately went to request a housing transfer- because, she explained more-or-less kindly, he had needs attention written all over him and she didn't have time for that, not with her courseload. There's the time his first unit told him not to bother leaving his stuff when he got his first solo assignment, since they were going to get a real officer by the time he got back. (And his second, and his third, and…) There's the time he crammed himself onto Stinger's too-small couch at his shitty off-base apartment that he got because it was near the childcare center and it had a little patio with planters Kiza could fill to her heart's content, and he closed his eyes and breathed in Stinger's scent and realized that if he could just go to his knees for his captain and stay there for a while he could probably die happy.

Waking up from his blackout to realize what he'd done is pretty high on the list, surpassed only by the sloppy clip-job they did on his wings and the top one, of course, is Stinger's face in the jail cell when he explained in a dead voice why Caine wasn't going to be executed. Five years in the Deadlands, and Caine still could only think around that one, remember it in small pieces from oblique angles because the direct memory was always too much for him to take. He's not surprised Titus leveraged Stinger's fate for his cooperation; he's not what you'd call subtle. He'd be more surprised if Titus hadn't.

Still, the knowledge that Lord Balem has Jupiter and her entire family hostage on the surface of the planet and there are several miles of redstorm between him and her is, without a doubt, the worst of all.

"Options, Mr. Nash, I want options right now!" Captain Tsing shouts, and the navigator trumpets back at her, something Caine can't understand since he doesn't have right module installed. "Unacceptable!" Tsing snaps back, and pivots like a satellite, her fingers jabbing imperiously at her second. "Commander! I want a status report yesterday!"

"Yes ma'am," Percadium says smartly, and sets to the console in front of him. The rest of the bridge is full of a mad scramble of officers going every which way, but Caine just stands there in front of the viewscreen, an island of stillness in the middle of the chaos. He can't tear his gaze away from the place where Lord Balem's ship disappeared into the portal, closing behind itself.

The thing is, you knew this was going to end badly, he tells himself. You knew it was never going to work out. After this was all over, you were never going to see her again.

But he didn't think it would end like this. He thought he would get her home, say his awkward goodbyes, and then take his pardon back to the Legion and earn his honorable discharge. The severance shock was going to be a bitch to get through, but he survived being clipped and stripped, and pain doesn't scare him. Loneliness is worse, but that's nothing new either. And there's places in the gyre where even an omega lycantant with 'jacker wings can get sufficiently lost. He had every intention of finding those places and doing just that.

But at least he would have had the comfort of knowing that she was out there, somewhere. Not for the likes of him, but happy and healthy and safe. He didn't think he'd have to stand here and look down and know that she's probably going to die and there's not a fucking thing he can do about it.

It was her choice, she *told* you it was her choice, he reminds himself, but it doesn't help. I should have thrown her over my shoulder and dragged her out of that house bodily, he tells himself, even though he knows he never would. I should have shot that little rat between the eyes while I had the chance, he thinks, and it makes him feel better to imagine, but it wouldn't have solved anything. Jupiter's family would still have been gone, and she still would have gone after them. There's no world in which it would have ever ended any differently than it did.

She's going to die, he thinks with a distant sort of despair, and I was such a fucking coward I let her go believing that I don't give a damn.

He doesn't notice Stinger coming up behind him until his captain's already at his elbow, but he doesn't turn. He doesn't want to see the pity on Stinger's face, the fucking understanding, and he doesn't want to hear that's it not his fault. He just doesn't.

Stinger puts a hand on his shoulder, takes a breath, and then says, "I know because of who and what you are, you're unable to say this, so I'll say it for you."

Caine twitches under his hand like a horse flicking away a fly, not looking away from the planet beneath them. Stinger isn't deterred, unfortunately.

"You lied in the Commonwealth because you're a hunter, who has been searching for one thing his whole life."

He doesn't need the asshole to rub it in for him. His whole life, he's never been anything else but the Legion's freakshow omega hunter, and the knowledge that he finally managed to form a real bond to an alpha and she's a royal was always joke on a cosmic level. It's a lot less funny now. It was never really funny to begin with, really.

"You've survived for so long without it, the fact that you may have found it terrifies you."

Now that's just not fair. He lied to her because it was easier than explaining why he had to tell her no, maybe, but it didn't make his no any less justified. And not just because of the pheromones, either. Thinking that he was going to be a danger to her was only the most urgent of the reasons why he stepped back.

But there's a lot of reason why he should have stepped forward, too. Not just because of the bonding, or because of the sexual attraction, or even because she asked. But just because he wanted to, and how often has he ever gotten anything he wanted, in his life? How often has Jupiter?

He thought it once, back on that first night when he found her: She's like me. She doesn't belong anywhere either.

Oh, but it'd be so good to belong with someone.

"But not as much as the fact that she's down there, buried in several tons of hurricane."

The words make him whine, high in the back of his throat, and he leans forward on his toes, almost unconsciously. He took Jupiter into his care when he took her from the Keepers, and he hasn't done very well at taking care of her since, with all the times she's been taken from him. But he hasn't let anything get in the way of getting her back, either. He's gone through an infiltration unit and two combat fleets of Keepers, bounty hunters, an entire alcazar's worth of royal guard, bureaucracy, betrayal, being spaced, and entire field of warhammers, and the side of a military-grade royal clipper. The only thing he's ever let get between him and Jupiter is him.

"And if you want to see her again, then you take my advice-"

Biology isn't destiny, he thinks, and I have a choice.

It never occurred to him that he could choose to say yes.

"-you get down there, and you start digging."

He grins at Stinger, and runs.

~*~

The second thoughts kick in right about the time he takes the zero down into the redstorm.

I am absolutely going to die, he thinks, as he starts his controlled spiral downwards. I'm not Stinger. I don't have hyper-reflexes. I'm going to crash into a fucking plasma storm cloud and then I'm going to die.

He doesn't let the doubts put a shake in his hands, however. There are a lot of things that Legion service can do to fuck you up, but it's been a long, long time since even the prospect of certain death could impact his combat performance. It's all about the separation of thought and action. He can think this is going to kill me even as he twists the controls to skip neatly around the lightning bolt that would have sheared open the cockpit, if it had connected.

Of course, he's still in the upper layers of atmo, where the clouds aren't so densely packed. In not too very long he's going to be down to the central part of the storm, and there aren't going to be any gaps big enough for even a single-person military-grade zero. There aren't going to be any gaps at all. Even Stinger wouldn't try this. It's not like a minefield: you can't shoot your way through a hurricane. After a certain point, it's just a matter of trying to crash productively. And that's not even considering the grav-shield surrounding the complex. Odds are good that he's just going to splat against it like so much asteroid dust.

He could still turn back now, if he wanted.

Ironically, the thing that springs to his mind is the last thing Titus said, when Caine agreed to their bargain. His lordship was on his way out of the room, leaving the details to Famulus, Caine cuffed and waiting more-or-less patiently to be released so he could start the job. And right as he got to the door, Titus paused and gave a little huff of laughter, putting the backs of his fingers to his lips as if to preserve a particularly good joke. And then he turned and called, his lazy voice barely reaching the length of the room, "Oh, Mr. Wise? Do be a good boy and fetch her back in one piece, would you?"

Goal-oriented, he thinks, and then, Well, I've done more for worse. And he keeps pressing downwards.

The next minute or so gets bad, and Caine doesn't waste time worrying when he needs the energy to keep from getting dead. The top of the cockpit starts to shear off after a few unlucky strikes make their way through, and Caine just hunches down lower over the controls, takes a huge breath while he still has oxygen and then just- goes for it. The alarms are all screaming at him, but he's only got a few klicks left. He can do this.

The clouds close around him completely, and the flitter starts to collapse around him, so he just takes the last gasp of the guidance software, sets himself directly downward at a shearing angle of the shield, and closes his eyes. It's out of his hands now, one way or another. Either he'll make it to her, or he won't.

He realizes, to his own surprise, that he's totally calm. There's a kind of peace to be had in the certainty that there is absolutely nothing he can do affect the outcome of the situation.

He thinks of Jupiter, the way she brazens her way through awkwardness with a joke and the way her smiles grow uncertain around the corners when someone actually laughs, like she can't quite believe that someone would find it funny. The way she tilts her chin back to meet his gaze when he's standing in front of her. The way the span of her shoulderblades seems to be made for his palm. The way she smells like home.

I'm coming, he tells her, and then hits the shield.

~*~

Nobody is more surprised than Caine when he makes it to the surface in one piece.

~*~

When he pulls Jupiter into his arms, his whole body lights up, her scent hitting his hindbrain like pulse cannon and her warm soft body pressed against him. She says, "Just in case I don't get the chance later," and she kisses him, she kisses him, he did not see that coming at all, and even though they're surrounded by enemies he can't help himself, has to close his eyes and kiss her back, store up the smellfeeltaste of her in case she's right and this is their only chance.

For a while there it seems like they were both right, but in the end they do it: they save her family, they save themselves. They float out in the black space above Earth and he looks over at her, her face lit up by a shy smile behind the faceplate of her helmet, and he realizes that when it came down to it, he never really had any choice at all.

There are worse things, he thinks, and smiles back at her.

"You know, when I was a little kid, I always wanted to go into space," she says thoughtfully.

He remembers the photos of the night sky on her phone, the clumsy wonder in her face when she first put her hand through the window into the endless possibilities outside. He finds he's kind of looking forward to seeing the gyre through her eyes. "How is it so far?" he asks, and earns a sideways grin.

"I dunno. There's definitely been some ups and downs, but- I could get used to this." She kicks her feet idly. "I mean, the view's pretty great."

"It is," he says, and doesn't look away from her face. He thinks he can see her blush.

"Yeah," she says, and squeezes his hand in hers. He can feel her little sigh of pleasure right down to his toes. "Space is, when you think about it, pretty amazing after all."

He doesn't think she's talking about space anymore. He's pretty okay with that.

The future unwinds in front of him, and for the first time in his life, it doesn't seem like such a bad path to walk. He has Stinger back in his life, a pardon just waiting to be processed, and an alpha. A good alpha, a good person, a woman who likes him and wants him and wants him around, a woman who smells like arousal when he calls her by her title and laid her head on his shoulder to keep him calm and kissed him when she thought they were going to die. A woman who looks at him like he's worth something, makes him feel like it might even be true. A Queen.

His queen.

Yeah, he thinks. I could get used to this.