It hadn't occurred to Jupiter that when she was getting her boyfriend a job, she was getting him a job, and that being in the Legion would take him away from her.
It was, unsurprisingly, more difficult to put a smile on her face while cleaning other people's shit without the prospect of skyskating with her boyfriend at night. And when his deployment dragged out to one month, then two, she began to doubt herself. Had she maybe just hit her head? Was the incredible space adventure where it turned out she was really a queen who owned the Earth a mere fantasy? A daydream? Had she maybe taken a nap after eating some too blue cheese?
She had things—the gravity boots, the dresses—that could only be explained by her space adventure, but she was beginning to doubt herself. So she did what she did whenever she felt a little bit crazy, she went to the Botanic Gardens. She couldn't mistake how the bees reacted to her there, and the staff was getting used to her effect on them. She'd actually accidentally provoked a swarm once, but she kept better track of the garden's hives now, to avoid them.
Somehow, this visit, in late November, was the first time she'd run into an Apini. "Hey, Kiza," she called as she saw the young woman exiting the bathroom she'd been walking toward.
Kiza did an abbreviated sort of curtsy and head nod, but thankfully didn't say 'Your highness' in front of the women flowing in and out of the doors.
Jupiter jerked her head in a "come with me" gesture and backed up slowly, keeping her eyes on Kiza the whole time. She didn't have the Apinis' phone number—didn't know if they had anything so terrestrial as phones—and so hadn't spoken to Kiza since before Jupiter had left the Earth the first time. "You come here a lot?" She'd pulled them into a convenient nook, not hidden, but out of the flow of traffic.
Kiza snorted, then said, "It's warm and it's floral. I come here all the time. A girl can't live on corn alone."
Jupiter blinked slowly, trying to figure out if that was a bee thing. Considering the honey jars that decorated the Apini farmstead, probably. "I've been coming a lot, too. I've never seen you."
Kiza looked shifty all of a sudden, and Jupiter narrowed her eyes. "What? Did the gardeners call and warn you?"
"Not…exactly." Kiza crossed her arms and started rubbing her elbows rapidly, nervously. "More like, they've kept trying to convince me to come when the new bee girl was here."
"New bee girl?" asked Jupiter.
"It's not like with you, of course," said Kiza, in a very reassuring tone. "It's just, when I was little, before we moved out to the farm, my dad brought me all the time, and we always looked for the bees and walked towards beehives. I don't come as often now, but some of the older gardeners still remember us."
"And you…did I offend you, somehow?" Jupiter looked around quickly, then leaned in a little more closely. "I'm…really happy not to be treated like royalty, but I would love to talk to someone who knows," she shrugged, threw her hands up, "the bigger picture."
Kiza looked at the ground, hands moving even faster now. "No, you didn't…offend me."
"But I did do something." Jupiter dipped her knees to try to intercept Kiza's line of vision. "Tell me."
"You sent my father into the void with his ex, and I don't know if he'll ever come back."
"With his…ex?" asked Jupiter.
Kiza nodded, the grimace on her face showing just how little she wanted to talk about the love life—former love life—of Stinger and Caine.
Caine expected Jupiter to meet him at his loft when he came back to Earth on home leave. He had messaged her with his arrival time and location three or four times, since he didn't get a reply, and the Earth paging system could be flaky, especially from a galactic cross-beam.
But she wasn't there at 1530 local time when he landed, and he thought maybe she was off doing her job. (He hadn't quite understood why she continued to clean houses for money; even with a limitation of $9999 deposit every few days, flashing plant cells into the local hard currency and building a cash account wasn't difficult. He'd taken ten weeks to amass the security deposit for the loft while avoiding the inspection of the local tax collectors, paying cash for a hotel in the meantime.)
And she didn't respond to his text from a local messaging device that evening, although the network informed him she had opened his message.
He worried and ate and slept, but he didn't try to locate her, as he thought it likely she was at her pack house, and she had told him he was not allowed to meet her family. She was still working out a way to explain him without using words like 'alien', 'queen', 'dogman'.
In the morning, still without a reply, he fired up the cross-beam to contact the Ageis ship stationed in Earth orbit to assure himself of Jupiter's safety. Not only were the two remaining Abrasax heirs a concern, but the public statements regarding the immorality of harvest from the head of the Abrasax group had widely destabilized the markets and made some fear a radical systemic overthrow.
But Stinger called him first.
Stinger picked Caine up from Caine's shiny, new loft, at street level, in a pickup truck. "The thing you have to understand," he told Caine, falling into the didactic cadence that came naturally to him as a senior worker, "is that you're not leaving Earth. The queen lives here, her hive is here, and her first impression of galactics is violence, bureaucracy, and genocide for personal profit.
"So, you have to incorporate the local customs into your outward behaviors, in order to become inconspicuous. This local culture encourages a lot of social isolation and has a decent tolerance of non-violent quirks, particularly from someone of your apparent caste. But unfortunately for you, they've abandoned shunning and social discipline in favor of calling government authorities for anything too weird, and they create so many laws and communicate them so poorly that you probably are doing something you can be detained for, even if it's harmless."
Caine cocked his head. "And that's why I can't leap down from the roof to land in your pickup truck when you come to get me?"
"Yes," said Stinger, with a laugh. "Also, the shock absorption on the truck isn't built for it, and you might break the damn thing."
Caine nodded silently, then turned to look out the window. His shoulders were stiff and his teeth were edging out a little from his curled lips.
Stinger said the thing he'd been sitting on for fifteen years, since he'd seen a cartoon of it in the newspaper. "You might like rolling the window down and letting the wind blow in your face. Don't stick your head out though."
It worked. The tension left Caine's shoulders in favor of the little snuffles he sometimes did when he was relaxed. Stinger turned left and parked them across the street from the Petrov household. "We'll wait outside her hive and stop her before she goes in, with any luck."
Jupiter didn't want to have a personal discussion like this in a McDonald's, but she wanted even less to have it at her house. So, here she was, in a booth across from Caine and Stinger, and the two of them sitting next to each other made her squirm internally. "You told me he was your commanding officer, not your ex." She pushed her french fry into her ketchup so hard, the end smushed between her fingers. "Why did you lie about it?"
Stinger cleared his throat. "He doesn't know this planet, your majesty. Commanders, especially splices from social creatures like canines and apids, often take sexual comfort from their subordinates. Any galactic that he told I was his commander, especially when we'd been forced from the legion decades ago, would have just assumed we'd had a sexual relationship."
Jupiter sighed and looked away, catching eyes with a little black boy who was watching them intently from his mom's lap. He stuck his tongue out at her and laughed.
She turned back to look at Caine. He wouldn't look her in the face, which made her frown at him more. "And now that you're both back in the Legion? What have you been doing all this time you've been away?"
Caine slouched a little, dipped his head lower. "We're friends now, but not to the skin. I am an Entitled's, so my new commander doesn't touch me. She hasn't asked or even looked at me. No shieldmates either."
"Shield mates? New commander?"
Stinger leaned forward, caught her eye again. "A shieldmate is a lover, but just while you're deployed together. Like a vacation romance, but without the vacation." He sat back. "The Skyjackers haven't gone without commanders since we left, of course. I was reinstated equal to him, part of the squad but not in charge of anyone. It's fine. I'm very grateful to your highness for what you've done for me and Kiza."
Jupiter was pretty sure that that much reassurance meant it wasn't fine, and that he was trying and failing to be grateful, but at the moment, she wasn't sure she cared.
She looked back where the little boy and his family had been sitting, but now an old woman surrounded by an explosion of scarves and hats and sweaters was sitting at that table, her entire concentration taken up by whatever she was drinking.
"Let's get out of here," she said. "I've heard enough."
Caine brought Jupiter things.
She said she was cold, so he gave her his spare uniform sweater. Skyjacking was cold business, and the uniforms were well-insulated.
She said she was tired, so he bought her a new mattress. And some sheets and some pillows, too. It was too big, but they were able to exchange it for the single that fit her room better.
She didn't say she was hungry, but food was a basic courtship gift. He was learning Earth's varieties, and it was easy enough to order for two when he bought himself something. He learned better how to store leftovers and reheat them. (Microwaves were fast, but they ruined the texture of anything crisp and made meat unpleasantly chewy.)
It didn't…work. Where before she had hung on him in a casual, monkey way, now she stood off like a great cat, watching him with cool, hooded eyes.
He hated this feeling, like he'd slipped back to being a bad dog, untrusted and vicious. But he didn't know how to change their dynamic. How could he apologize for having lived a life on worlds she'd never heard of in years she'd never lived?
He was clever enough to know that turning to Stinger for advice, however comforting and familiar, would confirm all her worst suspicions, should she ever find out.
But Kiza had been raised on Earth, even gone to a local school and been the companion of local children. She was a similar age to Jupiter also, only 45. Surely he could talk to Kiza?
It took a bit of persuading, but now she sat across from him, a cup of tea that was half honey warming her hands, a salad neglected in front of her.
He had a pile of bacon and a couple of eggs, with no toast. He had found that bread wasn't something he really enjoyed, although earthlings ate it often. Sometimes, local food didn't translate well to galactic tongues and guts.
He charged straight in to his objective. "Why is she mad at me when I didn't do anything wrong?"
Kiza blew on her tea and shrugged, which he knew indicated ignorance and uncertainty in the local body language. She said, "Let's be clear. I'm not a mind reader and I don't really know Her Highness. I can give you advice, but I'm guessing."
He nodded. "It's more than I have now."
Kiza held up a finger in the air. "Well, she might still feel like you lied to her and feel stupid and betrayed. From what dad said, she gets that it's not reasonable, but emotions aren't reasonable. And the fact that she knows she's being unreasonable makes her feel more stupid."
A second finger joined the first. "There's a weakening bias against same-gender sex here. She might feel disgusted by the fact that you've had sex with at least one man. But that's something you would have to figure out by talking to her, directly, and the only way to possibly address it is to make it sound like it was completely circumstantial and something you did because you were required, not by preference."
"But—," her third finger shot up, "—the problem might actually be in the opposite direction. She might be aroused by the idea of you and dad being together." Kiza made a sour face. "There's a pretty strong taboo against imagining people you know personally doing sexual things. She might be keeping her distance so she doesn't say something revealing."
Fourth finger up now. "Or she might just not want to reveal how ignorant she is of galactic ways. She knows she knows nothing, but she also doesn't have a way to learn what she doesn't know. Her family's from a different land mass than this one; there are important cultural differences. She may have felt, or struggled to avoid feeling, like a weird outsider all her life. If she did that by staying quiet and watching while everyone else talked about things she didn't know, she may be reacting in the same way as her past." Kiza sat back and shrugged. "Or it could be something else I haven't thought of. Like I said, I don't know her." She brought her hand back down and wrapped it around her mug again.
Caine crunched thoughtfully on a few pieces of bacon. "The Legion isn't so complicated. Or the Skyjackers aren't, anyway." He cocked his head at Kiza. "How can it be this complicated and not even a full pack?"
Kiza shook her head and smiled gently at him. "Sorry to disappoint you, but this isn't complicated. It might be hard, but it's not complicated. Just the two of you, and Dad on the outside, really."
Stinger felt restless and unsettled, the way he had when he first left his splice creche. The knowledge that there was a queen nearby, but unable to pledge his allegiance, made him fluttery and useless. He darted from task to task, not seeing anything to completion.
He found himself dancing in the yard, describing the path to Chicago to a non-existent hive. (Much experimentation had established that the pure bees didn't view him as a threat, but also couldn't see his movement well enough to communicate. To be fair, if a mountain were waving its peaks to get his attention, he probably wouldn't notice either.)
He was disturbing the hive though. He kept pulling frames and checking for queens, when of course they weren't brooding in this weather. And the wave of confusion and disappoint each failure left him with meant that, half the time, he neglected to close everything away. Kiza had taken to checking the standing hives 3 or 4 times a day.
He'd even called the Legion to see if they had a use for him, but the unit was on mandatory regeneration, and a lone Skyjacker wasn't useful without specialized training he'd never bothered with.
As a youngling, just out of creche, the buzz had disappeared when he'd left his queen's sphere of influence. Not just the creche, but also the city where they'd lived, the scent trails of his hive members. Since Jupiter Jones had been to his home, he couldn't escape her without leaving it, and that was not something he was prepared to do.
The only option to cure this madness was to get closer, then.
"Kiza, pack a bag. This might take a few days to straighten out."
Jupiter refused to be kidnapped to McDonald's twice in one month. She'd made them take her to one of the expensive cafes that catered to college students and those business people who somehow didn't have offices. She'd go sometimes, to sit and listen to them gossiping and studying and worrying about dates or papers or backers.
If she remembered correctly, she'd sat behind a Saudi princess studying economics once or twice; she had noticed her because of the math. Funny to think that Jupiter outranked her now, but no one on Earth would ever know, except the people sitting with her.
"I…don't even know what you're asking me," said Jupiter with some exasperation. "I thought you," she pointed at Kiza, "hated me. You," Stinger, "are pissed about your demotion, and you," Caine, "keep trying to buy me off for I haven't figured out what." She smushed the last bite of carrot cake down forcefully with her spoon, flat in the small circle of stoneware it came on. "Why would I live with any of you, let alone the three of you in some sort of alien dorm?"
"I don't know you well enough to hate you, Your Highness." Kiza sipped at her tea, a lavender and chamomile blend that should have been relaxing, but the scent was, somehow, winding Jupiter's stomach up tighter.
Caine hunched down, head so low to the table; he'd almost stuck his nose in his coffee. "I don't know why you're mad at me, I can't ask you to explain yourself, I can't pet you. You don't touch me. So, I bring you things. I bring you things you want, and you like them for a minute, and then you go all stiff and your voice gets tight, but just for a minute you forget to be mad, and that's all I've got."
Stinger reached out and started stroking Caine's head and back before Caine had finished speaking. He looked at Jupiter with confusion, then looked down at Caine with deep tenderness. Caine was cuddled into Stinger's side, curled up as tight and small as a six-foot tall man could make himself. "Lycants need to be touched. Even packless, he still needs to be touched." He looked at Jupiter, heat in his eyes. "If you don't want him, let him go. Give him to me. Don't let him waste away because of…whatever you're mad about."
Jupiter shook her head. "I don't want to let him go. I don't know how to keep him. He keeps looking at me like I'm about to throw rocks at him. Why would I touch someone who seemed afraid of me all the time? How am I supposed to know lycants need to be touched? You guys don't come with a manual!" Then she frowned, reconsidered. "Do you have a manual? Or a…a…an owner's guide? Guide to galactic manners?"
"How are you an Entitled and this ignorant?" asked Kiza.
"Until six months ago, I thought aliens were just," Jupiter waved, "fairytales with a scientific topcoat. Dogboys were just the hentai Vladdie couldn't keep hidden in high school. And bee people were—," she shook her head. "I know you guys feel like the genes mean I'm Abrasax reincarnated, but I didn't get any secret knowledge to go with the real estate." She stopped, considered. "Could there be secret knowledge? Diaries or scrapbooks or something? Never mind. I think right now—." She stood and walked around the table, next to Caine. "Do you still want me to hug you?"
Stinger pulled his arm off of Caine, gave him a little shove toward Jupiter.
Caine quivered, hesitant, then wrapped himself tightly around Jupiter's waist, face shoved in her stomach, inhaling deeply. She grabbed him to catch herself from falling, but then she relaxed her hold, and did the rubbing pats she used on the big greyhounds at the Harrington house.
"Fuck. I've been doing this all wrong, huh?" said Jupiter, to no one in particular.
"No shit, Sherlock," answered Kiza.
Caine stiffened in Jupiter's arms, and Stinger sat up, as if to block Kiza from view. "Dig deeper, Watson," said Jupiter, absently. "What's wrong?" She gave Caine an extra firm squeeze, and he relaxed a little.
"Can't talk to an Entitled like that. They'll have your head," said Caine, mumbling into her abdomen.
"Literally," added Stinger.
"No," said Jupiter. "I'm not like that. And I don't know what I don't know." She bit her lip, then figured it couldn't hurt. "I order you to…to talk to me. To tell me when I'm hurting you, or you need or want something, and I'm not getting it for you. Or when I act strange and Earth-y and you don't understand why." She thought a little bit more. "Not in front of people. Between the four of us, ok, but not in front of my family or galactics. Wait until we can get alone. But talk to me."
That order was Caine's lifeline. It made life so much better, for both of them.
Jupiter was happy telling her family she'd gotten a job as a receptionist that paid way better than cleaning houses. And he was happy now that he could approach her, touch her, without fear of encroaching his place.
They spent half their days exploring Chicago and the other half with the schooling materials Stinger had scrounged for Kiza. Jupiter laughed whenever Caine learned something, so he exaggerated his ignorance a bit. But a cursory creche education and Skyjacker training really had left some big holes in his knowledge; he didn't have to fake much.
They worked out a story for her family about him being homeschooled because he was an albino, to explain why he was strange, and a lucky day trader who quit while he was ahead and put everything into index funds when he made a lot of money, to explain where his money came from.
Things were so good, for six months, that he didn't exactly forget that he was still subject to being called to the Legion, he just let it go to the back of his mind, with things that didn't matter right now, like the equations for the skates he'd given Jupiter, or the code to his Regenex account.
But regeneration doesn't last forever, and the Skyjackers were assigned to a mission on Kalen Gap, and he had a week to report. Which meant he had a week to ask for what he needed.
"Do you know how long you'll be gone?" asked Jupiter, when he told her about his new assignment.
He shook his head. "Until we've done the job. Could be a week, could be a year. I'm sorry."
"I'll miss you," she said. "Actually," she did a thing that they had started to do lately, where she pushed him down on the couch, then she sat on him, their bodies perpendicular so she could loop one arm behind his neck. "You'll miss me, won't you?"
He wrapped his arms around her waist, buried his nose in her neck. "Yes, ma'am." She'd finally convinced him that he needed not to call her highness in public, and the alternative he'd found acceptable had bled over into their private time.
"But you won't just miss me," she said, with that weird lilt she got, whenever she trotted out a fact she'd gleaned from the Lycant Indice. "You need a shield mate, right?"
"Yes, ma'am," he said into her neck, glad she wasn't going to make him say it. The order was a lifeline, but it still didn't make asking an Entitled to give him things easy.
"Have you asked Stinger?" She waved her hand, dismissing his protests before he could make them; of course he wouldn't have asked Stinger without his Entitled's permission. "Do you have an understanding? That he wants to be your choice if you get to choose someone."
"Yes, ma'am," he repeated, a little louder, more sure of himself this time.
"You have my blessing and my order to take a shield mate," she said. "Because I love you." Then she did the funny little hop she did when she changed her mind sideways. "He doesn't have to just be your shield mate. I mean, you don't have to stop when you guys come home."
Stinger wasn't exactly thinking when he did it, grabbed Caine and kissed him hard and deep when he heard Caine's Entitled opening the door to Caine's loft.
"Oh!" he heard from behind Caine, but he didn't turn to look. If Stinger was kissing Caine goodbye, or at least taking a step back, he wanted to do it properly, tenderly. They'd spent five months where the only softness in the world came from one another, and he would have a hard time letting that go.
The kiss lasted a long time, longer than usual, but Stinger was holding on as long as Caine and Jupiter would allow, and Caine wasn't moving. They held each other tightly, lips and tongues moving slowly, softly against one another. He felt Caine thicken against his leg a little, not hard but persuadable. That's what finally made him loosen his arms from around Caine, lift his mouth and shift his weight back. Caine clutched him tight and sniffed, deep and strong, and then he really stepped back and turned to face Jupiter.
"Hello, stranger," she said, a curve to her lips that Stinger couldn't really read, but her eyes looked warm and untroubled. She leaned towards them, towards Caine, just a little, and he seemed to take that as permission, closing the distance and picking her up, kissing her hard and fast.
"Ma'am," he said, but smiling and soft.
"Put me down, please," she said.
Caine did so, technically, but Jupiter snuggled into his side, arm wrapped around his waist.
"Hello, Stinger," said Jupiter, and he could hear the laughter in her voice. "How was your deployment? Besides too long."
Stinger shrugged. "The temple we were guarding was beautiful. The rebels never dared attack while Skyjackers were stationed there. We played a lot of cards."
She raised an eyebrow. "Strip poker?"
He shook his head. "No gambling while deployed. They make us keep it for when we get home."
She hmmm'd thoughtfully. "Are you going home to Kiza or staying with Caine a while?"
Stinger blinked, slowly. Caine had told him that Jupiter had proposed keeping this going on Earth, but Stinger hadn't really believed it. This was unexpected and very welcome. "I need to see Kiza, since I'm back. But I could call tomorrow? We could make plans."
Jupiter straightened, held out her hand to him. "Deal." They shook on it.