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In The Space Between Your Finger and My Skin

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“That’s what it feels like when you touch me. Like millions of tiny universes being born and then dying in the space between your finger and my skin. Sometimes I forget.” ― Iain Thomas, I Wrote This For You

 

A huff of breath on the back of her neck, followed by the slide of fingers through her hair, brought Jupiter out of her doze. She hummed happily and turned her head to see Caine seated on the edge of the bed, smiling down at her. "Hi."

"Hi." She stretched, back popping, and his fingers dragged from her nape to skim down length of her spine, where he dug into the perpetual knot in the small of her back. Jupiter moaned comically loud.

"Scooch," Caine murmured, and she rolled over and wiggled closer to the middle of the bed, pushing up to lean against the mound of pillows they'd managed to collect. The king-size bed that dominated the space Caine had claimed in Sears Tower was purchased after Caine returned with his wings, and the double mattress she'd salvaged from the attic at home seemed even smaller than usual.

Shedding his boots, Caine flopped onto the bed and rolled onto his stomach, wings fluffing out as he sprawled across her legs. Jupiter obligingly traced her fingers around the base of one wing, where it anchored into the port in his back, before dragging her thumb up along strut that was the equivalent of the radius and ulna in a bird's wing; it melted the small bit of tension in his shoulders into boneless contentment. She marveled, as always, at how much they were a part of him, even though he'd had them back only a few months. As if he'd been made for them, not the other way around. Threading her fingers through the feathers she asked, "This okay?"

"Yeah," Caine groaned. He tucked one hand into the small of her back, under her shirt, and curling the other under her knee, snuggled into her lap. "That's always okay."

"Roll over and I'll rub your belly."

He peered up at her through one heavy-lidded eye. "Funny." Then he pressed his face into her hip and muttered, "Maybe later."

This, too, she marveled at, how he reveled in the slightest touch, or even the hint of it. In those first frantic days, other than the times he'd carried her, he'd never touched her. Even in those moments they were inches apart, her baring her heart on her sleeve, him with the pulse in his neck thundering, jaw clenched, it was as if there was a canyon between them.

After they'd been scooped back up by the Aegis ship, after they'd been poked and prodded in the Aegis med clinic, Jupiter had been questioned until she ground her teeth, no matter that it was gently done. Caine, standing stalwart at her back through it all, had splayed one warm hand between her shoulders just when she thought she would scream if she heard Balem's name uttered one more time.

When Captain Tsing had all she needed to begin the necessary proceedings on Jupiter's behalf, Caine had escorted Jupiter back to the stateroom she'd been given before, hand still firmly in place, his thumb now worrying absently at the little knob at the top of her spine. Inside, he'd gently nudged her toward the bed when she'd faltered to a stop in the middle of the room, swaying in an engulfing flood of exhaustion, and she'd collapsed into it after awkwardly kicking off her boots. Caine did the same with his, though much more gracefully, and she remembered how he had come to stand at the side of the bed, staring down at her with wide, uncertain eyes until she'd held out her hand. He'd sighed - a long, soft breath of relief and satisfaction - as he crawled in and curled around her, almost instantly falling asleep.

After that, he touched her like he was starved for it; always gentle, always aware of her response, never overwhelming her, but when he was near her he'd cup the back of her neck, thumb stroking behind her ear, or settle his hand at the small of her back or between her shoulders. And when she returned those gestures - light scratches against the back of his neck, the drag of her thumb from the tip and around the shell of his ear, an arm slung around his hip or twining her fingers with his as she showed him her world - he softened like parched earth after a steady spring rain.

She'd asked Stinger once, in those first strange weeks after she'd returned to Earth - as she and Caine learned each others bodies and boundaries amid navigating the much quieter tumult that was Jupiter's usual life and the uncertainty of her future - if it was just a lycantant thing, like he'd told her about them needing a pack, or if it was a Caine thing, too. "It's not as if you can separate him from it, majesty," Stinger had said. "Caine was created to be a pack creature, to be connected with others, to be grounded through that connection. Touch is, for a lycantant, one of the ways to build and maintain those bonds. And though he figured out how to live without it, the need for it had driven him, in part, his entire life." Stinger had patted the back of her hand. "It drove him down through that storm, too."

"Oh," Jupiter had said, then, "Oh," and Stinger had grinned, broad and delighted.

It broke her heart a little because for all their faults, Jupiter's family gave touch like it was air. Sure, she'd never felt like she quite belonged anywhere, but she had never been bereft of that sense of security, never hungered for the warming comfort of an embrace, or a steadying hand on her back or shoulder, a kiss on the cheek or forehead. Jupiter had grown up in a well-spring of affectionate and loving touch, and to think of Caine, someone literally designed to need it, denied it by circumstance and ignorance...

"Did you wonder what it would be like, to have a pack?" The question had slipped out one afternoon as they lay sun-warmed and twined together on a blanket spread over the grass in Stinger's backyard, the remnants of an impromptu picnic shoved off to the side. Jupiter knew it was a stupid question even as the words spilled out, but Caine had considered them with sincerity. "For a while," he'd said after a long minute, propping himself up on one elbow. "But it wasn't something that was ever going to happen for me, so it seemed like a waste of time to think about it any more." He'd given a little matter-of-fact shrug and rolled onto his back, pulling her on top of him, wiggling his hips with a grin until she slid back enough to settle over his half-hard cock.

And so much later that afternoon, when she left Stinger's house with her next round of history and culture and politics homework, there was an extra sheave tucked into the middle of the pile: a detailed treatise on splicing methods that had a section on the specific issues of splicing lycantants. After she'd slogged through that, fascinated and grossed out in equal measure, she'd enlisted Kiza's help, which led to sending a series of FTLs to galactic libraries, and so much information returned that Jupiter finally gave in and got the little com button implant the next time an Aegis ship was in system. When Caine went back to get his wings, Stinger taught her how to use it in conjunction with a sheave to sort the terabytes of information the libraries had sent her.

In the meantime she'd spent a lot of time Googling more local variations of the topic, Siri's monotonous voice reading scientific papers about wolves and their pack dynamics to her through her earbuds as she made beds and mopped and scrubbed. Though it clarified that all the wolf dynamics in the supernatural romances stashed under her bed (okay, so maybe she had a type she hadn't quite realized before) were totally wrong, it didn't give her the insight she'd hoped into figuring out the man currently draped across her lap, huffing pleased little grunts as she preened through his feathers.

They didn't really need it - she'd read that, unlike their biological counterparts on a bird, they were made of a complex nano-filament that was designed to self-maintain - but they were connected to his nervous system through a bio-neural uplink. He didn't feel pain from them, Caine had explained, but they did transmit a great deal of sensation necessary to controlling flight, and, it turned out, created a pleasant buzz of relaxation when Jupiter played with them. That this astonishing man, who had been given no reason most of his life to trust anyone but himself, put himself entirely at her mercy like this, willingly, gladly... God, she did not want to ever fuck this up.

"Fuck what up?" Caine asked, thick and drowsy.

"Uh..." Jupiter bit her tongue. That had not supposed to come out loud. "Nothing. It's just..." Jupiter smoothed one perfect feather over and over. "Caine?"

"Hmm?"

"Is... is this enough?"

"What?" Caine untangled himself from her lap and sat up, all his ease now sharp alertness. "What are you talking about?"

"Um..." Despite all those weeks of study, she'd never really made a plan for actually talking to him about it. While it made so much sense in her head, watching the tip of Caine's ear twitch and the sudden tightening across his shoulders, she wasn't sure it was going to sound anything less than ridiculous. "Well, back before, that first day you brought me to him, Stinger told me that lycantants need a pack, that without one most lycantants die, or they..."

"Turn out like me." Caine's mouth drew a flat, empty line and Jupiter tapped him on the nose, startling him out of his momentary retreat into brooding.

"Hey, I think you turned out pretty awesome. And if you weren't you, I wouldn't be here, so hush."

He sniffed and his wings shivered before they flared wide and curved in around her; she woke up some nights, from nightmares of falling, with a wing like a warm blanket over her, shielding her. In the little world his wings now created around them, he took her hand, thumb stroking across her knuckles, and asked, "Why would you think this isn't enough?"

Jupiter took a deep breath, and it came out in a rush: "Well, I've been reading. About lycantants and wolves and how being a pack... how it's like, well, Stinger called it a center of gravity. And I thought that maybe if I knew what that really meant, if I understood what you needed, I could give it to you. But I know it's more complicated than that and it's not like I can just snap my finger and make you a pack, though Advocate Bob actually suggested that, and no, oh, that's just gross and I... anyway, I thought... " Jupiter closed her eyes, since she couldn't manage to close her mouth. "I don't know. I just want to do this for you. Do this right, for you."

"You've been doing research about lycantant packs?" The incredulity that rode Caine voice made her think the whole endeavor had absolutely sounded better in her head, and should have stayed there, until warm hands cupped her face and she opened her eyes after a feather-light brush of his lips across the tip of her nose. He stared at her, inches way, eyes bright with astonishment. "Jupiter... that's..."

"Ridiculous. I know. I mean, all you have is me. Well, okay, and Kiza and Stinger, too, but I know that's not really a real pac-"

Caine pressed the pad of his thumb to her mouth, tracing it along her bottom lip to the corner before he leaned in and kissed her, soft and sweet. "You have no idea, do you, of what you are to me?"

She shrugged helplessly, and he shook his head. "Thank you, your majesty," he murmured against her mouth, before biting gently along her jaw to press his nose behind her ear. "Thank you, Jupiter."

Relief surged through her and she climbed into his lap, worming her hands up under the hem of his shirt as he pulled her tight against him. "I was a little worried I was... I don't know. Like saying 'Hey, I'll be your pack!' was being creepy? Being presumptuous?"

Caine laughed against her neck before mouthing at the pulse in her throat. "You've never had a problem with that before."

"Jerk."

His arms tightened around her as he hmmed in agreement, and he pressed a kiss to the hollow of her throat before he set his teeth there; a soft, slow bite, just enough, she knew from previous delightful experience, to leave a mark.

Jupiter shoved at his shoulder and he obligingly tipped them to the side. She stretched out against him, tucking one knee between his thighs, and her nose under his chin. She felt wrung dry, punchy with relief, and she giggled against the steady thrum of his pulse. "If you need more, we could always get a dog."

He stilled, and just as Jupiter's heart started a panicked drum he barked out a laugh. Jupiter joined him, cracking up until her eyes teared and Caine kissed away the wet streaks down her cheeks. "I'll keep that in mind," he said, droll, and she grinned and tucked her head back under his chin.

Caine's warmth, the lassitude of relief, and the soft, steady stroke of his hand up and down her side soothed her back into her earlier doze and she slipped over the edge of sleep as Caine murmured - so resolute, so earnest - "But this is enough. This is everything," into her hair.