A longing to wander tears my heart when I hear trees rustling in the wind at evening. If one listens to them silently for a long time, this longing reveals its kernel, its meaning. It is not so much a matter of escaping from one's suffering, though it may seem to be so. It is a longing for home, for a memory of the mother, for new metaphors for life. It leads home. Every path leads homeward, every step is birth, every step is death, every grave is mother. ― Hermann Hesse, Bäume. Betrachtungen und Gedichte
Fuck, Stinger hated these slogging, dragging campaigns. Four months of shit planets, shit battles, shit results. Nothing like coming home beaten and blooded, and with no clear sense you spilled it for honor or worth. But home he was, or almost, once he finished his reports and evals.
He stopped short in the entry to the common pod. The rest of the squad had hightailed it out that morning, eager to make the most of the meager leave time before they'd inevitably be recalled for some new shitshow assignment, so he wasn't expecting any company while he finished his sheavework. But there was his newest squadee, seated at the table until he shot to his feet when he noticed Stinger come in. "Sir."
"You waiting for a ride somewhere, Wise? Pretty sure everyone else left already." Stinger he waved the boy back to his seat and pulled out a chair across from him, dumping the armload of sheaves he carried into a haphazard pile on the table.
"Just going to stay here, sir. Got some reading to do." Wise patted his own stack, neatly situated, edges lined up perfectly. It was typical of the boy - precise, meticulous, all clean edges and sharp angles. Wise was quiet, intense, astonishingly competent. The first to volunteer for even the shit jobs. Always passed inspection with flying colors. A model Legionnaire. And wound so fucking tight Stinger expected him to clean crack in half one day.
How much of that was his actual personality, and how much was compensation for his stature and status, who knew. Stinger wasn't sure he'd ever figure out just how many wires had been crossed in the pup's splicing. He'd had his reservations when Wise's file appeared on his sheave with the transfer order; a well-trained unstoppable killing machine was great in the field, but not so much in the barracks, and it was hard enough to integrate a transfer into a tight squad without them being dropped in a month into a brutal, bitter campaign. The squad respected him, at least once they'd seen him in action, but every Legionnaire had some story they knew or had heard second, third or fifth-hand about a packless lycantant. Shit like that marked a man, and Wise had more than his fair share of marks already.
Still, Stinger saw glimmers of something more in there from time to time: the tiniest quirk of his mouth when Dulty pulled a prank, him being the first to offer a hand: from pulling up a squadmate he'd just plastered to the mat during drills or pulling one out of the mud or worse in the field. He was the first to offer a loan of gear, or an assist with whatever shit chore Stinger had decided to dole out that day, and worse thing was, he never seemed to expect it back in turn. Like now, with the boy clearly not even fazed that he would be stuck here alone.
That just seemed to be his default expectation, that he was there to serve, and naught else. Despite his youth and his fresh wings, he was already one of the best soldiers Stinger had ever seen, but he never boasted, never marched the line beating his chest - just got out there, followed orders and got shit done, and while he wasn't exactly friendly, he made such an effort to be present and engaged with the squad off the field too, awkward and occasionally painful to watch as it was.
Caine Wise was a pathetic, deadly masterpiece, one that now hung in the gallery of Stinger's command, entirely and solely his problem.
"Beeswax," Stinger muttered under his breath, piling up his sheaves again. One of Wise's elegantly-pointed ears twitched, and he was trying to stealthily peer at Stinger through his lashes. "Time to go home."
Wise nodded. "Enjoy, sir."
"Come on, then." Stinger shoved to his feet, pity and amusement warring at the boy's baffled blinking. "Come on, Wise. With me, soldier."
Wise popped up at the order, through no hint of clarity crossed his carefully-still features.
"You're coming home with me," Stinger enunciated with exaggerated care. "Get your gear."
"I... " Wise's mouth worked silently around a string start-stop words. Finally, "Why?" made it out, followed by a hasty, "sir."
"Because I said so, Corporal. Do I need more of a reason than that?"
"Sir, no sir, Captain Apini."
"Then get your shit together and stop wasting my precious leave time."
Wise was through the door to the sleep pods before Stinger had even gotten halfway through his little tirade. He came back out with a small duffle, and after a bobbling hesitation, scooped his stack of sheaves into it. He paused in the middle of the room, duffle slung over his shoulder. Wise hid it well, but uncertainty threaded though the tension he always carried in his shoulders, bowing them slightly, and sharp, assessing eyes flicked between Stinger and the door.
Trapped animal popped into Stinger's head unbidden, followed by What the living fuck were you thinking, Apini? Too late now to consider common sense; it's not like he'd rescind the offer, he wasn't that much of an ass, so he motioned Wise to follow him.
Wise ducked past him and shouldered the larger duffle from Stinger's pile of gear, not quite avoiding Stinger's appraising gaze. "Sir," he said, and stepped aside so Stinger could pass by. Stinger picked up the other duffle, shook his head, and set off with Wise at his heels.
Wise kept pace two strides behind him, as if holding formation, through two miles of corridor, a hopper flight and a foray across the Tathay Promenade before Stinger stopped, executing a sharp about face, amused to see Wise's eyes widen as he skidded to a halt to avoid plowing into his captain, trying to focus on the blur of Stinger's movement. Then he came to attention. "Sir?"
Blood and bones, Stinger thought. Someone needed to unwind the boy fast, or he'd burn himself to ash in a few more years. Stinger very carefully, very slowly, placed a hand on Wise shoulder. "We're off duty, you know. You can stand down."
Wise blinked at the hand on his arm, blinked again at Stinger, and then gave a slow nod. His posture notched down to parade rest, and Stinger sighed. That was probably the best he was going to get for now. "Need to make a stop on the way, all right?"
"Of course, sir," Wise said, and when Stinger turned back and strode off, he carefully fell into step at Stinger's side. Wise didn't say a thing more through two more hopper jumps, and he paced Stinger without question right up to the door of the creche, where he stopped as if he'd slammed into a wall. "Uh, sir?" he said, when Stinger waved his hand over the sensor and it slid open.
Stinger glanced over his shoulder as he stepped into the creche's antechamber. Tiny excited voices echoed from further in through the security screens, and Stinger placed his thumb against the security scanner inside. "Like I said, needed to make a stop."
"Here, sir?" Wise remained just outside the door, as if unable to bring himself to cross the threshold.
"Since I'm picking up my kid, Wise, yeah."
Blink, blink. "You have a kid? Sir?"
Stinger might not be enough of an ass to renege on his invitation, but he was enough of one to enjoy the pup's continued bafflement. Made him seem a little more personable, even bordering on endearing. "That a problem for you, Wise?"
"Yes. I mean, no, I mean, it's not like that." Wise growled his exasperation, the first clear outward sign of emotion Stinger had seen of him in the three months since the boy'd been assigned to his unit. "Sir, not to question your judgment-"
"But you're going to anyway, right?"
The pup actually rolled his eyes. Well. Stinger could certainly work with irritating him out of his shell. "Are you sure you want me around a child, sir, what with me being, well," and Wise shrugged. "Me?"
The sudden depth of weary resignation in the boy's voice cut through Stinger like a plasma beam. "She's grown up in the middle of the Legion, Wise," Stinger said sharply, choosing to ignore what Wise was getting at. "She's used to you sorry lot. You're not going to scare her."
"DA!" A tiny whirl of gold and delight burst into the creche's antechamber through the security screen and launched herself into Stinger's arms. He caught her easily, flipping her upside down and peering down at her as she giggled and tried to kick her legs.
"So you didn't forget me now, did you?" Stinger swung her back up right and tucked her in close, reveling in the warmth of her small frame, the honey-sweet scent of her. Gods, but he'd missed her.
"Da, you're ridiculous."
"You like me ridiculous, Kiza girl."
"Who's that," she whispered in his ear, peering over his shoulder at Wise, who still stood on the other side of the open door. Before Stinger had a chance to answer Wise actually fucking snapped to attention and saluted - arm angled across his chest, fist over his heart, head bowed a precise twenty degrees - and Kiza squealed in delight. "Corporal Caine Wise, miss. In your service and for your honor."
Kiza wriggled out of Stinger's arms and crowded right up to Wise. She had to tip her head all the way back to look at him. "Hi. I'm Kiza."
"Um, hi, Kiza." When she stuck out her hand, he hesitated, then took it in his, clasping it with exaggerated care. Frankly, Stinger thought he looked terrified. It was adorable.
"Wise is in my unit," Stinger said. "Had nowhere to go on leave. That okay?"
Kiza smiled brightly and pinned Stinger with a gleeful grin. "Can we keep him?"
"It's just us," Stinger said, noticing how Wise took in every feature of the lovely little shithole he called home, on the increasingly rare chances he got to live in it.
When Kiza'd come along, and after Kiza's mother'd left the picture, Stinger had put in for a transfer to the Dome. He figured he'd leverage his command experience as a trainer, but top command wasn't done with him yet in the field. He'd finagled, schmoozed and spent most of his allowance buying drinks for, and most of his good name offering favors to, strategic targets in Upper and Lower Command, and ended up with a precarious promise that he'd get get a strike team: short assignments, precise targets, in and out and home. That is, if he went back into the field without any further complaint. Wasn't like he could quit, one had laughed. Stinger had laughed too, but not with any mirth. They had him in a fucking vice. Such promises didn't mean shit when you didn't own your own geneprint, when you were designed for the very men and women whom he begged for his daughter's future to do with as they pleased.
So he'd put in for this tiny hovel, deep in one of the outer rings of Ourous, near a decent creche that would take Kiza on short notice and a few hopper jumps from Legion Command, and learned the fine art of balancing soldiering and parenting. It drove him to drinking, a lot, and some days (that he'd never admit to) he regretted ever thinking this was a good idea, but the tiny slip of girl child had his heart in a vice, too.
Worth every bit of shit in his life, she was, he thought as she reconnoitered, reacquainting herself with home. It'd been the longest he'd left her at the creche (the longest he'd been away from her since the med synth had plopped the tiny squalling bundle of her in his arms and he nearly dropped her, he'd been so panicked at the thought of what they'd done) and her holos had been increasingly plaintive despite the brave face she put on. It never ceased to amaze him that she missed him, too.
Wise, too, watched Kiza, rapt as she flitted about, but with none of the predatory intent Stinger saw in him on the battlefield. His nostrils flared, mouth open the tiniest bit; scenting the place, scenting them, Stinger gathered. He'd never seen the boy work this part of his skill set - most of what they'd been into since had Wise arrived wasn't exactly finesse work, so he was fascinated to see keen intelligence so clear on the usually impassive features as Wise catalogued and assessed everything around him.
"This," he said, ducking his head when he caught Stinger watching him, "it's nice."
Stinger looked around, ready to laugh until he caught the earnest note in the softly spoken words and realized Wise wasn't shitting him. Made sense. Based on what he'd gleaned from Wise's file, to the lycantant, who'd been dealt a spectacularly shit genetic hand and had apparently nothing but his wings and his boots and shield, this must seem like a treasure.
"Yeah, it ain't bad. Come's with some decent benefits," he added as Kiza, finished with her reconnaissance, clambered over the back of the couch and settled in next to Wise, who stilled to stone. She slid off the couch almost as soon as she'd settled, wrapped both tiny hands around one of Wise's wrists, and tugged. "Come play with me."
Wise flicked his gaze to Stinger, who just shrugged. "Best give in now, pup. She's relentless. Maybe more than you."
With that encouragement, Kiza took a step back and grunted as she yanked on Wise's arm: unstoppable force, immovable object. Clearly unwilling to deny an order, however indirect, Wise rose, and reluctantly, haltingly, allowed her to drag him off.
It took everything Stinger had not to burst out laughing at the wounded look of a man going to his certain death writ across Wise's face as he was disappeared around the corner.
Stinger did some puttering himself, figuring out what staple foods had survived, cleaning away the dust that crept in despite the fact the place was buried in the middle of the ring arm, and had been sealed tight like a tiny tomb while they'd been gone. Finally satisfied with the state of affairs, and a list of what they'd need to make it fully liveable again, he realized it'd been almost an hour with no peeps from either Wise or Kiza.
When he got to her room, Stinger pulled up in the doorway, transfixed. Kiza had pulled her favorite ratty blanket onto the floor and stretched it out neatly. A handful of her dolls sat around the edges, each with their own tiny plates and cups. Across from her, cross-legged on the floor, feet bare, sat Caine Wise. His gloves and boots and mauler sat in a neat pile behind him, and his long fingers carefully held a tiny cup.
Kiza beamed when she caught sight of Stinger. "Come have tea with us, Da. Caine says it's very good today."
The tips of Wise's ears blazed pink, but he just nodded gravely. "It is." Wise only had eyes for Kiza as he took a pretend sip from the delicate porcelain cup dwarfed in his hand. "Kiza gets the brew just right."
Stinger nudged one of the dolls out of the way and sank to the floor. The impulse was too strong; he reached over and tweaked the tip of one burning ear. "Sure you don't want something stronger, pup?"
Wise glared and handed him the delicate porcelein cup. "That would be rude. I wouldn't want to insult my very generous host," he tipped his head toward Kiza. "Sir."
This Wise sitting next to him was a contradictory knot of tension and tranquility: possibly the most at ease Stinger had seen him, even in sleep, yet holding himself like this was a life-or-death mission. He gave Kiza small, pleased smiles in response to her bright grins, but when her attention was elsewhere, he'd close his eyes and suck in a tiny breath, like his heart was wrung tight with distress. At ruining this, somehow, Stinger realized, seeing how he modulated his voice when he spoke to her, keeping it low and clear and calm, and making her the center of his attention whenever she spoke to him. Or how carefully he watched Kiza's every move, anticipating how best not to jostle or bump her as she bounced and bustled around them in a whirl, handing him a new cup, and a plate piled with crackers that he ate delicately, though they were no doubt rock-stale if she'd squirreled them away in her room before this last campaign.
Stinger leaned close to Wise when Kiza darted out of the room in search of something sweet to add to the menu. "At ease, soldier. She's not going to bite you."
Wise ducked his head and muttered, "Not her I'm worried about."
"Yeah, well. Kiza's got a good sense for people. If she thinks you're okay enough for tea, then you'd best listen to her. There's no opinion I take more seriously than hers, Wise. Remember that."
Wise let out a slow, sighing breath. "Sir, this...I can't... I just... Sir, thank-"
Stinger cut him off before he hurt himself trying to get the sentiment out. "Ah, don't go ruining it now, pup. Just drink your tea and be happy."
And wonders never did cease, because Wise huffed out an actual laugh. "I'll try."
"All I can ask for."
"Ask for what?" Kiza bounded into the room and flung herself onto Wise's back. He'd clearly heard her coming and gleaned her intent - he leaned forward just a bit with the impact and caught a hand behind one knee to hold her in place. "Are you asking Caine to stay? Please?"
Stinger watched his daughter, her small, reedy arms strangle-tight around the neck of this soldier, this boy whom he'd seen, whom he'd ordered to kill with remorseless, relentless precision. This boy who now sat rooted, still as the air before the battle horn called, eyes wide with reserved pleasure and the dawning hints of something that might, someday, be happiness, his free hand astoundingly gentle as he reached back to ruffle Kiza's hair.
"Yeah," Stinger said, slapping Caine on the shoulder. "I think we'll keep him."