Being one of the three critical commands that should be taught as part of a dog (or angel-wolf-boy)’s basic training.
“Aren’t you gonna sit down?” Jupiter asked. It had been almost a minute, and Caine was still standing at the roof’s edge, like some Roman god-turned-gargoyle, trying to glare broodily out over the city.
Emphasis on trying, since it is hard to glare effectively when you are holding a giant hot dog with extra mustard, onion and relish. The two things were incompatible, as Caine had obviously discovered. He looked unhappily down at Jupiter, where she was sitting with her legs hanging over the edge and a napkin pulled across her lap with the corners tucked into the pockets of her jeans, to keep it from blowing away, as she bit into her own hot dog (bratwurst with ketchup, relish, mustard and mayo, since Jupiter didn’t believe in breaking diets so much as in obliterating them).
“Sorry,” he said, stiff and a little awkward. The way he got whenever she behaved particularly un-royal. She sighed, wiped her mouth with the back of her hand, and licked the mix of condiments off. Surprisingly, this did not earn her the blank, closed-off expression that usually dropped like a curtain over his face when she did something inappropriate. Instead, all his attention went to her hand; even his ears seemed to perk.
“Look,” said Jupiter, waving the appendage to break his gaze. “I’ve got ten minutes before I need to meet my folks at the next house, so if we’re gonna actually have lunch together you need to get down here and start eating.”
Caine made an involuntary motion, as though half his body wanted to do as she suggested, but something else held him back.
“It is just,” he began, went to rub the back of his neck, discovered that the hand he had intended to use had got relish on it, and reluctantly returned it to his hot dog. “I am more accustomed to eating in a mess hall. Or a den. Some place safe. This is so exposed. I had intended to stand guard.” He finished awkwardly, finally giving in and licking the relish off his hand, as Jupiter had done with her own, all the while holding her gaze as if to ask is this okay?
She began to roll her eyes, and then stopped. What he said made perfect sense, after all. And he had been trained—consistently, brutally, and unrelentingly—all his life. She couldn’t expect him to drop all that training just because she invited him to share hot dogs with her. No, Jupiter thought, unlearning something that you had been trained to do could be just as hard as being trained in the first place. After all, it had taken multiple near-death experiences, a severely messed up almost-wedding, and her family getting kidnapped before she’d managed to unlearn the deferential conditioning that she’d managed to absorb over the course of her life. Perhaps it would be easier, for Caine, if she merely helped him expand upon the training he’d already had.
The fact that she was still a little annoyed with him for the “I’m closer to a dog than you” quip might have informed what she did next.
She patted the warm cement next to her, and said, in the firm tone she’d heard animal trainers use:
The effect was immediate and a little frightening: Caine marched over and sat down—with surprising grace for someone his size—precisely where her hand had been, his feet dangling right alongside hers. It brought one of his massive thighs right alongside her own and their shoulders touched. Well, her shoulder touched around his bicep; she could rest her right elbow on his leg. So she did, using it to prop up the hand holding her hot dog. She gave him what she hoped was a warm and encouraging smile.
“Good boy,” she said, and took a large bite out of her quickly-diminishing lunch.
It was only because they were sitting so close together that she felt the shudder that ran though his entire body—well, from his knee to his bicep, which was all she was in direct contact with—but the feeling was unmistakable, and it nearly made her regurgitate her last bite. Glancing across at him she could see only his profile, and his expression was unlike anything she’d ever seen before. Something like stunned amazement crossed with utter confusion, if she had to take a guess.
“Oh god, I’m sorry,” she said, forcefully swallowing. “Was that—I didn’t mean—was it not okay?”
She was still staring at him, so when he turned suddenly to meet her gaze she was confronted with the full force of two shadowy, blue eyes delicately lined in black. (She’d asked him about his eye-liner. Once. He’d been profoundly bewildered until she’d indicated her own eyes and he’d smiled in relief and said “Oh, you mean my war paint?” Far from correcting him, she’d started to think of her own make-up as putting on her war paint.) No longer confused, now there was such a turmoil of emotions in his face she didn’t even try to decipher their meaning.
Eventually, he said:
“No, Your Majesty, it is not… I mean, yes. Yes it is… okay.”
“Okay,” said Jupiter, but uncertainly. “Because, like, I’m aware I don’t know half of what you’ve been through, and if I ever do anything to make you feel uncomfortable, that’s actually not okay and you need to tell me, so I can stop. Okay?”
This got the blank look again. Crap. But Caine seemed to be thinking, for a moment later he replied.
“I do not think Your Majesty fully understands: as a splice, what I feel does not matter. It is only your feelings that are relevant.”
Jupiter looked down at the remains of her hot dog. She wasn’t sure if she wanted to shove it into his face or throw it off the building (it was a long way down; there would be a satisfying splat). She didn’t want to eat it anymore, that was for certain. She wanted to find the people who’d drilled this notion into Caine’s ridiculously pretty head and finish doing to them what she’d started doing to Balem. But it likely hadn’t been just one person, or even two, or twenty. It had been a lifetime—probably longer than hers—of being immersed in a society and culture that was constantly reinforcing the belief that this was the way it was. She could certainly relate to that. She also knew it was possible to re-train yourself, and maybe, with her help, Caine could do it without almost getting himself killed.
“Look,” she said, forcing herself to speak slowly, not just so Caine would be forced to be quiet and listen, but so she could think carefully about the words she used. “You’re a person. So am I. Maybe you’re a splice-person, and I’m a royal—entitled—whatever-person, but we’re both people. So both our feelings matter. This might sound a bit Tumblr—I know, you don’t know what that means, just bear with me—but… look, Caine. Your feelings? Are valid. As in, they matter. On their own. But they also matter to me. They matter to me a lot. So, even if you don’t feel like your feelings matter or that they should matter, remember that they matter to me, and since my feelings matter no matter what, so do yours.”
She looked up hopefully, but now Caine was looking honestly confused. Probably lost somewhere around the fourth “matter.” Jupiter sighed. She seemed to be doing a lot of that lately.
“Basically,” she tried again. “If anything I do or say makes you feel bad, that makes me feel bad. So you’ve gotta help me not make you feel bad. For my sake!”
That got a small smile, but it was a sad one, and didn’t last. He turned his head away, but leaned gently into her; a press of reaffirming weight, like a gentle mountain.
“Your Majesty,” he began, and his voice was so quiet it was almost lost in the wind. “It is a staggering kindness that you… that you care so much. It truly is,” he added, having heard her faint snort. “To many entitled, we splices are little more than livestock. That is my reality. And the fact that you… it’s not…” he stumbled to a halt; seemed to be struggling to find the right words. So Jupiter remained silent, waiting, and eventually they came.
“No one has ever called me that before.” His voice was barely more than a low rasp.
“What, a good boy?”
Another shiver, but fainter this time. She hadn’t meant the words as praise; they didn’t have the same power.
Power. That was it.
“You mean no one’s ever praised you before?”
Caine shrugged. “I have received confirmation of a job well done. Of missions successfully executed. But in the context of…” he waved a hand vaguely. “…ordinary circumstances. I suppose I’ve been called a lot of things, but none of them were very complimentary.”
He didn’t offer any examples, and Jupiter didn’t ask. She could well imagine what they had been: she’d heard him refer to himself by a few of them.
Which still didn’t answer her original question, whose importance hadn’t diminished in the slightest. So she repeated it.
“Yes,” said Caine, sounding surprised in spite of himself. “Yes, it was… it was good.”
He was still struggling with words. Jupiter looked at him expectantly. The man gave a full-body twitch, like a dog trying to rid itself of a fly.
“It felt good,” he admitted, almost shamefully. Then he thought of something, and look down at her with a twinkling expression. “From anyone else it would have seemed wrong, but when you say it…” he trailed off again, but hopefully this time.
Jupiter felt something nervous and powerful rise in her throat as she realized what he meant.
“You liked it,” she said, and this time it wasn’t a question.
“Your Majesty,” he said, and there was almost a whine in his voice. He couldn’t ask for what he needed, but luckily Jupiter thought she had a pretty good idea what that was.
“Tell you what,” she said, pointing at his as-yet untouched hot dog. “If you can finish that before I finish mine, I’ll say it again. And mean it,” she added, with a suggestive tilt of her eyebrows.
She had been more than half way through with her hot dog, but it was still no competition: Caine ate his in two bites. Two bites. Really, he probably could have downed it in one if he’d been willing to chew with his mouth open. Jupiter found she was laughing too hard to take more than another mouthful of her own.
“Good boy,” she said, still laughing, and leaned up to kiss the side of his head, just next to the delicately pointed ear.
Another shiver, but this one seemed less surprised and more satisfied. She barely waited for him to swallow before planting another kiss firmly on his mouth.
He still hesitated a moment before responding—as though he still couldn’t quite believe what was happening—but when he did it was all out. He kissed a lot like he fought, and Jupiter came away tasting relish and onion.
“Good boy,” she whispered, pressing a parting kiss to his bristly cheek. “Here,” she added, shoving the end of her hot dog into his hands. “You can finish mine. As a reward.”
He took it, a little disbelievingly, and ate slowly, this time clearly enjoying the actual taste of the thing.
“Good?” she asked.
Caine swallowed, conscientiously wiped his mouth and chin with the outside of the paper wrapping, and folded the soiled mess into a bundle.
“Good,” he said.
Jupiter took her own napkin and added it to the bundle. “I’ll take care of that,” she said, stuffing the sticky papers into her little waist pack. She checked her watch. “I gotta go meet my mom and aunt now, but thanks. Thanks for having lunch with me, it was nice.”
“Your Majesty,” said Caine, with a bow of his head. The words still took effort, but they seemed to come easier this time. “I also… enjoyed myself.”
“Good,” said Jupiter, getting up onto her knees so she could plant a kiss in the middle of his forehead. The action pressed his face into her throat and she heard him inhale sharply, two points of warmth blooming around her waist as his hands came to rest gently there.
“I’ll see you tonight,” she promised. And then, since it would only get harder the longer she waited, she slid out from between his hands and pushed herself off the roof, falling freely for almost thirty feet before kicking off from the building and skating away through the air, carving gracefully between the skyscrapers of Downtown with her ponytail streaming in the wind behind her.
There was something in her chest, beating like a pair of powerful flesh-and-metal wings.
If she’d been able to look, she would have seen Caine, still sitting on the side of the roof, one hand resting on the concrete beside him, warm from her recent presence.