“In peace nothing so becomes a man as modest stillness and humility; but when the blast of war blows in our ears, then imitate the action of the tiger; stiffen the sinews, disguise fair nature with hard favored rage. . .” - William Shakespeare (“King Henry V”)
It's not as if Caine wasn't used to new squad assignments, but shuffling through seven squad placements in his first six months as a Skyjacker? That shit looked terrible on his service record. He got it, really - his wings were barely dry, his Trace, Retrieve, Dispose specialty rarely mission-critical for the average Skyjacker jump squad, and when those squads got hit with an admin flip order, well, the runty weird baby bird was always the first one shoved out of the nest.
Still, he'd like to keep his rank and his specialty details and not get busted down to doing grunt security for some Entitled who thought a Skyjacker would look fetching in their livery, because he'd gotten a reputation for poor fit. It wasn't terribly likely, given his skills, but all his file needed to do was cross the desk of some admin looking to cut dead weight and look good for a supervising admin deep in the pockets of aforementioned Entitled, and even his rising rep as a tracker wouldn't save him.
This new squad assignment was a step up, too, which made making his shit useful to his new captain that much more urgent. Get busted out of a squad like Apini's, even if it was just admin release... that would follow every step he took for the rest of his career. His probably short career, at that point.
So Caine stood in the central mess of the Skyjacker barracks at Legion Command Central, the sheave with his orders clutched in his hand, and hoped, hoped this was the last time he'd have to do this for a while. True, he never quite managed to settle into any of his squad assignments, not with the kinds of solo details he got shipped out on regularly, but he pulled his weight and tried not to be objectionable, and he was determined make this one stick. Not that he was exactly sure how, but for all his faults, Caine was damn good at improvising.
He picked up the tread of boots behind him and cut a smooth about-face as soon as he heard someone start speaking: "You looking for something, Lieutenant?"
It was an auggie captain. The Legion had its fair share of pure human officers, mostly useless rankers who came from lower Entitled houses and went straight out of the Academy into admin postings that would never see combat. They were there, as far as Caine could tell, to give the Entitled as much control of the Legion as they could manage. Augmented humans were more common in the combat and infantry command ranks; the Entitled certainly liked letting splices fight their battles for them, but wanted to make sure they had no illusions about being in charge of themselves. Since auggies were pure humans who signed on for mods, they kept rights of birth and status and only owed an augmentation debt, which a tour or two in the Legion usually paid off in full. Most of them then went career into Low Command, or if they were Entitled-ranked, High Command, well-placed to keep Entitled interests a priority in Legion affairs.
There weren't many in the Skyjackers, though, let alone as squad captain. Even augmentation didn't give a human the kind of edge that any splice had, especially once the reflex requirements for aerial maneuvers was added into the equation. This one clearly had some well-placed friends in Upper Command, or possibly was from a Lower Entitled house. Caine drew himself up to attention. "Captain Apini's squad rack, sir."
"Ah, so you're the TRD specialist everyone's been talking about, eh?" The auggie pursed his mouth, eying Caine from top to bottom. "Apini mentioned he was getting a lycantant hunter." His lips twisted in a smirk. "Not quite what I expected from that description."
"Sir, yes sir." Caine managed to get that out without grinding his teeth, barely. They all thought they were fucking hilarious, making that joke, or some variant on it, like he'd never heard it before. And bad enough he had to eat that shit from other splices. Having to take it from a souped-up human asshole with after-market mods who probably got his wings on the strength of a family bribe rather than his own merits...
The auggie knew, of course, that he'd hit a nerve, and just kept smiling. "Rack's down that way, two lefts and down the short corridor. But Apini's down at the Jackhammer."
Caine pasted a smile on his face and saluted the captain. "Thank you, sir."
Like any other respectable military station, you couldn't walk twenty feet off base without tripping over a bar. They reproduced rapidly anywhere the Legion laid down roots, and Orous Legion Command supported a very vibrant alcoholic entertainment ecosystem that clung like barnacles to the pinnacle sector that housed the Legion's sprawling complex.
Apini's preferred establishment was about halfway into the district, and popular enough that Caine had to reel his wings in to keep from brushing against anyone as he wove his way through the crowd to the bar.
Caine pretty much hated Legion bars: too loud, too full, and they stank with a miasma of cheap alcohol, sweat, dirt, and pheromones from a couple dozen varieties of splices. He sucked in shallow breaths, trying to get a scent print sorted out and laid down so he could shove it to the back of his brain and focus.
He never made it to the bar. Filtering the ambient noise around him was unconscious habit; he sorted through the conversations ebbing and flowing around him on autopilot and heard Apini's name twice before it registered. He ducked off into the crowd, following the occasional reference to his new commander like a trail of breadcrumbs until the grunts and shouts of a fight buried everything else.
Caine pushed his way through the tight knot forming near the back of the bar and saw seven Legionnaires in the middle of the hastily-cleared space: two humans, too big not to be auggies, and five splices: a ursine, two pinnipeds and a crocodil - probably from the same squad; the amphibious splices tended to stick close - and a Skyjacker of indeterminate splicing.
Two tables lay crushed on the floor already, and the Skyjacker, a weathered, gruff man who had Legion stitched into his very bones, swayed to his feet in the remains of one of them, grinning like a madman at the mountainous ursine that towered over him with a wide mouth further stretched in a grotesque, smug smile that showed off his impressive canines.
The Skyjacker's hexagonal pupils flashed gold - ah, apis splice - and in the space of a blink Smiley was doubled over from five, maybe six sharps jabs to the solar plexus. They were too fast for even Caine to count. "Well then, that all you got?" the Skyjacker said. He got his answer when another table hit him (thrown, Caine just caught out of the corner of his eye, by one of the auggies) and went down with a loud "Ooof" as the splices took the opportunity to pile on.
That's just rude, Caine thought, shoving through the inner ring of spectators and rolling into the fray. Wings locked down tight - they were more liability than asset in a really tight quarters fight like this - he ducked low, skirting the meat of the fight around to where the auggies were about to join in. Sliding between them he twisted up and scissored his legs: he caught one in the right hip with the toe of a boot, and the other square in the groin with the other. They both crumpled to the floor with satisfying thumps. Rocking back onto his shoulders, Caine kicked out and flipped back to his feet, giving the auggie he'd gotten in the hip a sharp kick to the head for good measure.
The reinforcements out of the way, he eyed the grunting, snarling mess before him. A Skyjacker boot flailed out of the roiling pile of Legionnaires so he grabbed it and yanked. The apid slid free and Caine hauled him to his feet. "Captain Apini?"
"What do you want?" Apini grunted out the question, one hand pressed against his ribs. Before Caine could reply, Smiley noticed he was now just whaling on his own party, and charged them with a roar.
Caine said, "Corporal Caine Wise, sir," as he pivoted into Smiley's rush, driving one fist into Smiley's smug face, the other into his sternum, following those with a heel to the inside of the bear splice's knee as his momentum carried him by, flowing to the side to watch Smiley topple satisfyingly to the floor. "Reporting for duty."
"Here's your first assignment, then," Apini said. "Duck."
Caine did, and a chair sailed through right where his head had been. Apini dodged two more chairs but the auggie Caine had kicked in the groin, who'd tossed them, followed up with another table and both Caine and Apini went down under it. Caine got the bottom of his boots against the tabletop and engaged them as he shoved, sending it rocketing back into the auggie, who went down for the count.
Caine flipped onto his feet just in time to avoid another chair being smashed down at him. He grabbed it and twisted it out of the pinniped's grasp, rotating into a spin kick that sent her flying back into the crowd.
"Fancy," Apini said, kneeing the other pinniped in the groin twice; he dropped with an agonized yelp. "You're the tracker, eh? Little short for a lycantant."
"I've never heard that one before. Very novel. Sir." Caine rolled his eyes as he reached back and caught the crocodil sneaking up on him by the throat, pulling him around and launching him into Apini's punch. A little late now, but maybe Caine shouldn't have introduced himself to his new CO in the middle of a fight. Adrenaline always made his mouth go all stupid.
But Apini just laughed, a deep, rumbling chuckle that built to a lovely crescendo. "Flattery will get you nowhere with me, pup."
A thunderous roar announced Smiley's return to the fight and the mood shifted hard, from busting off steam with a few of your least favorite people to something a lot more personal and brutal. One of the pinnipeds and the crocodil charged in after him, both leaping at Caine as Smiley bore down on Stinger.
Caine let them take him down, rolling into a backflip that sent the crocodil flying, and ended with the pinniped choking and gasping, Caine's arm banded around her neck. Unwilling to waste time cutting off her air enough to knock her out, Caine punched her twice in the back of the head, dropping her just in time to watch as Smiley, who had Apini a similar hold, heave him up and back over his shoulder, pile-driving him into the floor and twisting one of Apini's wings around with a sharp crack. Everyone watching winced and Smiley dug the toe of his boot into Apini's still form with a feral grin as he clambered to his feet. "Oops."
Oh, fuck that. Caine rolled his shoulders and neck before he pinned Smiley with his blankest stare, and once he was sure he had the ursine's full attention, he grinned too. He only took the barest second to enjoy how the stupid smirk dropped right off Smiley's face before he snapped his hand back and caught one of the recovered auggies trying to sneak up on him. Caine grabbed him by the belt as the auggie went to block an expected blow to the throat, and flung him into the woozy crocodil trying to crawl back into the fight.
Smiley blinked once, twice, clearly trying to process what had just happened, but he was enough of a brute instinct fighter that he was already moving, gathering to plow himself into Caine, who let him. Rocking up on the balls of his feet, Caine pivoted half a turn, taking Smiley's charge on one shoulder. It was like being hit by a hopper, but physics was still physics, and Caine was still pivoting, letting that massive momentum do the bulk of the work as he grabbed Smiley by the crotch and the collar of his shirt and heaved Smiley up, up, up in a graceful arc. Right at the apex, Caine dug his fingers in and yanked down as hard as he could.
The floor shook with the impact.
Caine left Smiley mewling and gasping and paced a slow circle inside the mob of spectators. "Anyone else?" He made sure his teeth were showing, and wisely, no one took him up on the offer.
He stopped his circuit at the prone form of his new Captain, who peered up at him through the eye that wasn't swelling shut. "That's not going to make you any friends around here, pup."
Caine shrugged. "Yeah, well, I like to play to my strengths."
Apini took the hand Caine offered, and Caine pulled him to his feet, catching him under the arm as he listed right over. He hunched down a little and got his shoulder under Apini's arm and headed for the door, the crowd parting as soon as he let out a little growl.
"Feel like I should buy you a drink, at least," Apini said
"I don't think either us needs anything to drink. Sir."
"You always this smart-mouthed, Wise?"
Caine sighed. "Unfortunately, sir."
"Good." Apini clapped him on the shoulder with a maniacal grin. "Welcome aboard."
Ruver was skulking outside of the cramped bunk pod, her halting, paced steps just off-rhythm enough that Caine couldn't tune it out. Finally he powered down his sheave, dropped down from his bunk, and jabbed the door control. "What?"
Ruver jumped as the door flashed open and he pinned her with a scowl. "Um," she stared at the bulkhead just over his ear. "It's the captain."
"Not my turn." Caine just wanted to finish his tac manual review, finish the report of his last retrieve (because Stinger, despite his own foul mouth, was a stickler for proper reports and refused to accept "shit-fueled cluster fuck" as a mission descriptor), and maybe head into town and get laid - Haisha III was known for the nicer red houses near its Legion outpost, and Caine had a mission bonus burning a hole in his credcard.
Nowhere on that agenda was fishing fucking Stinger Apini out of another fucking fight. Caine reached for the door control. "Go find Kalfa."
Ruver groaned, ruffling her fingers through her mane and finally looking him in the eye. "Kalfa's the one who called me. He's there. Said to get you. Said to hurry if we don't want the Captain court-martialed for gutting another Skyjacker."
Caine started pulling on his boots before Ruver finished talking.
He heard the fight before he even rounded the corner down the street from the bar. Jeers and shouting poured out the door against the tide of Legionnaires and locals pushing their way in. He ducked and wove through the crowd, wings furled tight out of the way as he squeezed in through the door.
There were ten battalions currently stationed at this Legion outpost, and it looked like most of them were in this bar. Caine bounded up onto a chair to try and peer over the heads of the crowd. There was no immediate sign of Stinger in the crush, but he saw Kalfa, with Kant, both looking worse for wear, just outside an empty patch in the crowd, like the eye of a storm building in the middle of the room.
Caine pushed through to them, the scowl fixed on his face squelching any protests at his rough passage. He caught Kant's shoulder. "What the fuck is going on?"
"Oh thank blood and bone," Kant said, gripping Caine's wrist. "He's been in his cups since this afternoon, and was already pissed as hell about something before he started swilling, so..."
So this was going to go terribly. "I assume you already tried to get him out of here." Caine jerked his head at Kalfa and the bruise blossoming over his right cheek.
"You know how he gets. But this..." Kalfa shrugged. "I know when I'm beat and it's time to retreat and call in reinforcements."
Caine sighed. He'd been with the squad just over a year, yet somehow had become the one everyone came to when they had a problem with the captain. Or when Stinger himself was the problem. "You balance him out," Ruver tried to explain once. "Like you're a piece to a puzzle he didn't even know had a part missing from."
He'd worried a lot those first months, that the squad would resent him for that bright connection he'd made with Stinger from that very first day, when they'd fought together as if they'd done so for years. Caine didn't do friends. He was rarely in one place long enough, and even before, in the creche, they weren't anything he thought could be his. He'd spent so much time shunted to the edges, only picking up the basics of how to act around people and pack from resentful observation. But Ruver and the rest, they all just seemed relieved. On the field every single one of them would die for Stinger Apini; he was a brilliant leader, a ferocious fighter, and they knew he'd die for them. Off the field, well... Caine liked Stinger, might even secretly, wistfully, think of him as pack from time to time the longer they worked together, but the man was a still a jackass on the best of days.
Breaking through into the empty space at the center of the crowd, he found Stinger on the floor on his hands and knees, dry heaving. Blood dripped him his mouth and nose, and one of his hands curled like a claw, at least two fingers broken. Two Skyjackers stood over him: a felid, one of the big combat ones, head wreathed in an enormous mane, and a naja, their hood flared out and an ugly curl to their mouth. Of course Stinger would piss off someone who could spit venom at him.
The naja had swung their foot back, and Caine said, "I wouldn't do that, if I were you."
Boot thudding into the floor instead of Stinger's ribs, the naja swiveled their head to peer at Caine, the scales on their hood glittering in the overhead lights. "This is not your fight."
"Unfortunately, it kind of is." Three long strides put him next to Stinger. "Look, I'm not here to defend whatever he did. He's a shit on a good day, and a fucking nightmare when he's drunk. So I'll grant he's probably deserved what you gave him so far. But it ends here."
The naja hissed a sneer. "Your opinion matters not. I believe am still owed for the insult, dog. You may have him when I am satisfied."
"The only insult is your face!" Stinger slurred as he launched to his feet, shouldering Caine aside as he swung wildly at the naja.
Caine lunged after him and caught Stinger's fist before it connected, twisting Stinger's arm up and back as he drove an elbow between Stinger's shoulders and a heel into the back of Stinger's knee, dropping him to land face-down on the floor. He kept his grip on Stinger's clenched fist and leaned hard on his arm, almost enough to to pop Stinger's shoulder out of joint, but it gave Caine the leverage to overcome Stinger's still-fast reflexes and drunken determination, keeping him pinned.
"I will accept whatever restitution you require on his behalf," Caine said over Stinger’s blurry stream of swearing, "but he leaves with me now."
The naja exchanged glances with the felid before they sketched Caine a smug little bow. "Accepted," the naja said. "Tomorrow on the training ground. I look forward to taking it out of your hide."
"Whatever," Caine said, releasing Stinger's arm and heaving him to his feet by his collar.
"Let me go, you mangey little shit." Stinger tried to yank away but the growl that rumbled in Caine's chest brought him up short.
"I think, sir," Caine said as he shoved Stinger through the disappointed, dissipating crowd, past Kalfa and Kant's wide-eyed stares, and out the door, "that you need to respectfully shut the fuck up."
Stinger did, to Caine's surprise, and stayed silent until Caine had dragged him a few blocks away. When Caine finally let him go, Stinger promptly darted down an alley and threw up.
Caine followed, trying not to gag from the smell. "You going to tell me what that was all about?"
Stinger spit a few times and very slowly dragged himself upright, wiping the back of his hand across his mouth and grimacing. "What, you wanna share feelings?"
"No, I want to know why I'm sitting here watching you puke your guts out instead of getting laid. Sir."
Stinger rolled his eyes. "Ain't stopping you."
"I'm not leaving you out here like this, man," Caine said. "Besides, I'd probably just get called back in to pull you out of another fight." He got a one-shoulder shrug and a "Fuck you," in reply, which told him that was exactly what would happen. "Come on. I'll walk you back to barracks."
He got two steps away when he heard, "I'm a shit father, Caine."
Caine slowly pivoted back around and stared at Stinger, barely swallowing down the, "What the fuck?" that was his first reaction. "Um," he said, "I didn't know you were one."
Stinger dug in his pocket and pulled out a small holo generator, gesturing for Caine to hold out his hand. The image in the holo was a tiny whisp of blonde hair, big eyes and big, bright smile. It was weird to see that expression on a face so clearly stamped with Stinger's features.
"Cute," Caine said, handing it back, and hesitated before he asked, "Uh, did something happen to her?"
"Nah, nothing like that. It's her birthday," Stinger said. "Number seven. Of which I've missed the last four." He heaved a ragged sigh and sagged against the alley wall, his head thudded back against it. "I promised her, like a fucking fool, that I'd be home for this one, promised on my honor, and due to the shitcan blockade, I can't even send her an FTL to let her know. "
"That's...." There was no diplomatic way to say that sucked, but they were Legion.
"Yeah, I know, what was I thinking." Stinger eyed Caine; his pupils were still blown out a little, blurring the hexagonal edges and making them look more human. "You ever thought about it? Progeny?"
Caine stared back, struck dumb by the ridiculousness of the question. "No, not something that's crossed my mind as an option, all things considered."
"Yeah, well there's that." Stinger shrugged an apology. "I'd never thought about it either, but someday you may change your mind, if the opportunity comes."
Yeah, that was almost funny. Almost. Caine found a relatively clean-looking patch of wall and leaned next to Stinger. "She with her mother?"
"No mother, never was," Stinger said. "It's just me and Kiza. My splicer, she modified my geneprint, experimenting. When it didn't work out to her specifications, she offered the results to me." His voice was thick with an uncomfortable mix of bitterness and veneration. "Literally, put in a request to the Legion to send me to her facility and handed me this tiny, screaming bundle and said, 'She's yours, if you'd like.' What was I going to say, no, let the child be contracted out gods knew where? And when would I ever be in position to have a child?"
"Wow, that's..." Incredibly fucked up, Caine thought as he tried to picture his splicer making that same kind of offer and bit back a derisive laugh at the very idea. "Generous."
"Marcellian, she loves her bees," Stinger said, his normally gruff voice blunted and soft, and Caine realized Stinger's agreement to his splicer's offer probably wasn't just for the sake of the kid.
"Lady Cahun still owns her contract," Stinger continued, "but Kiza's gene-registered as my progeny." He rubbed at his scraped knuckles, smearing blood across them. "I'm a good commander, but I guess I'm realizing now that doesn't also make me a good father." He shook his head, the drunken haze starting to clear from his eyes. "Look, about the shit at the bar. I'll take my marker with the naja. Let's go."
Sharing time clearly done, Stinger pushed off the wall and almost toppled over. Okay, not quite sober yet.
"Nah, kinda looking forward to the fight." Caine caught him under the arm and slung it over his shoulder. "Come on. I bet we can find someone to pirate out a few seconds of signal for a happy birthday."
Skyjacker squad rivalries were long heralded in song and stanza, but the loathing between Skyjackers and Legion Infantry? That was the stuff of legend.
Skyjackers were Legion elite, the best of the best, and most of them were happy to remind anyone in earshot of that fact, while Infantry considered themselves the backbone of the Legion, the ones who got the real work done while the Skyjackers were flitting about preening their feathers.
Caine thought they were all blowhards who spent more time talking about how spectacular they were than actually proving it, but oh-so-lucky for him he'd gotten a reputation as the loyal dog for the biggest shit-stirrer of them all.
Stinger spun around on the stool and propped his elbows back on the bar. Caine took the opportunity to slide Stinger's half-drunk beer out of reach. Stinger wasn't drunk, not yet, but he was at that loose and happy stage, which was much more dangerous. It was the stage that loosened his tongue but hadn't yet addled his wits enough to blunt the barbs he liked to cast.
It was the stage that got him punched a lot.
The man was an excellent commander, and there was no one else in the 'verse Caine would rather have at his back in the field, but he was also loud, insufferably smug, boastful, and liked to fight just to fight - everything that Caine loathed in his fellow Legionnaires. The man drove him orbital, but three years now into his tenure on the squad, without fail he found himself at Stinger's heels on downtime. Spending time with Stinger felt, ironically, comfortable. Caine liked to think he wasn't that desperate for approval to imprint on the first commander to actually hold out a hand in fellowship rather than in punishment or disdain, but standing at Stinger's side felt right, like he was right where he belonged, like he fit there. Like he sometimes imagined having a pack, a partner, might feel like.
So he'd follow the man into the bowels of hell without a second thought, even though he was considering drawing a line at hauling him out of bars.
"Incoming," Stinger said cheerfully, and Caine glanced over his shoulder to see squad of groundhogs making their way to the bar. Oh blood and bone, it was Skeller.
"Stinger...." Caine injected as much warning into his voice as possible.
"Caine." Stinger mimicked the concern as he reached back and unerringly grabbed his drink despite its relocation, draining it in one go as Skeller Haug, porcus splice, Infantry Captain, and one of Stinger's least favorite people from back in their Infantry basic days, swaggered up and grinned an ugly, mean grin, tusks jutting wide and filed into razor points. "Well, look who's decided to grace us with their presence. The radiant Apini...." and his gaze slid over to Caine. "And his little pet runty reject."
Caine rolled his eyes and turned back to his beer, using the security holo over the bar to watch the pending altercation: more figures eased out of the crowd to fall in with Skeller - the rest of his squad, from the look of it. Two auggies and the rest splices, all big combat variants including a few rare corterrids (not many splicers were willing to work with the vicious apex predator from Corterana IV). Nine, including Skeller.
"To what do we owe this honor, Skeller? What's a shitbag groundpounder like you doing in a nice place like this?" Stinger resumed his relaxed pose leaning back against the bar, a masterpiece of indifference, though Caine caught how his eyes flicked around the crowd; he'd noted the odds, too. Caine toyed with the idea of clicking Kalfa, but the rest of the squad had bailed hours ago and more likely than not were either back at barracks or halfway across the ring, too far to be of any help.
Skyjackers and Infantry generally staked out their own drinking territories, but there were plenty of Legion bars that they shared too. Stinger, not surprisingly, liked to frequent the more inclusive establishments. "I like to promote proper esprit de corps," he'd said when Caine delicately questioned his choices in those first few months on the squad. "That means," Kalfa had said later, "it's easier to pick fights there."
That particular hobby was the one thing Stinger and Skeller had in common, unfortunately. The last time Caine and Stinger had gotten into it with Skeller's squad, they'd had Kalfa, Kant, Ruver and Jeth, and it hadn't been much of a fight. Groundhogs liked to think that Skyjackers spent their days flitting through the clouds, but they didn't have the lock on close-quarters combat, and while Caine wasn't much for inter-Legion grudges and spats, he did enjoy reminding shitheads like Skeller of that through detailed hands-on demonstration.
As long as no one died, Legion Command turned a blind eye to these skirmishes. It was a rare bit of wisdom from Command, the understanding that the best way to control your precision-engineered killing machines was to keep them fighting each other when they weren't fighting whomever you aimed them at. Besides, it cost them nothing, as all Legionnaires were required to be fighting fit at all times, and had to pay for their own medical attention for any off-mission injuries.
Nine on two, though, that might get ugly. And Skeller was smart enough to hold back assets, so Caine wouldn't be surprised if there were a few more of his squad in the crowd, waiting to jump in once they took the edge of him and Stinger. Caine ran scenarios in the back of his head as he kept an eye on the crowd, eyeing likely suspects.
"Heard about your sad story," Skeller said to Stinger, gleeful. "Always told Havin that if he wants the job done right, feet on the ground are better than flits in the air."
Ugh. Caine cracked his neck and resolutely stared into his beer. The whole mission to Xaltinal had been doomed from the beginning. Bad intel, bad weather, and they'd been paired with two Legion infantry phalanxes commanded by low rank Entitled who'd never had their fingers dirtied in actual combat command. Then his mission-specific retrieve assignment had rabbited out from under him when he'd made the retrospectively-stupid decision to save one of said Entitled from getting his head blown off. And Caine had gotten a hole blown through his guts for his trouble, too. Ended up needing a full recode to bring him back, and since it had technically happened off his mission assignment, he'd see that against his contract-debt for years.
Worse, losing the target had fucked his perfect retrieve record and the overall mission. Two weeks out and he'd gotten shit about it every damned day, not to mention the reaming he'd gotten from the review board about losing the target, even in light of saving one of their precious Entitled rankers.
Skeller must have an ear in one of the phalanxes, because he added, "From what I hear, you might of pulled it out, but your dog forget how to fetch."
It was hardly the worst thing anyone had ever said about Caine, but Stinger went dead still, his eyes blazing gold. He slid off his stool and got right up in Skeller's face. "You want to shit on me, you waste of air, you go ahead and keep running your mouth. But you shit on Wise one more time, and nothing will be coming out of that mouth for the foreseeable future."
Caine sat up from his slouch and abandoned his pretense of disinterest. He'd heard Stinger's shit-slinging patter enough to recognize it just by the cadence, the symphonic rise and fall of a maestro 's honed craft, and this was something else. There was steel and fire and death on his tongue. This was Stinger on the field, poised on the edge of war, all jocularity and performance a distant memory in the face of battle.
And Skeller was still standing there with that smug smile on his face, oblivious to what was about to come down on him like a meteor.
Caine slid off his stool, sweeping a calculating gaze over Skeller's squad, noting everything he could later use when this inevitably went shit-shaped. He eased up behind Stinger and murmured, "Let it go, Stinger."
"No, I am not fucking letting it go."
Caine blinked at the unexpected venom in Stinger's voice, and tried again. "Stinger, he's running his mouth for shit. It's not worth it."
And Skeller kept running his mouth. He spit at Caine's feet. "Who's got who on a leash, Apini?"
Stinger looked down at the glob of spittle on the floor. "We've known each other a long time, Skeller. You should know by know I always keep my word." He was in motion before he finished speaking; the barstool behind him flying to slam smack into Skeller's face.
Caine was only a split second behind it. He rolled under Skeller as Skeller tumbled back, and took out the two auggies positioned behind Skeller at the knees with a snap of his wings, landing an elbow in one's face for good measure as he rolled up to his feet. A rustle to his left and he spun away from a punch launched by one of the corterrids. He grabbed her helpfully extended arm and dislocated her shoulder as he flipped her and slammed her into one of the other corterrids, sending them both into a table full of drunk spectators, who howled in outrage and helpfully leapt on them.
Something slammed him in the midsection hard enough to knock some of the wind out of him and he went loose, collapsing to the floor. A third corterrid, who'd hit him with a barstool, stumbled forward with the momentum of his swing as the stool kept going. Caine hammered the inside of the corterrid's thigh with the heel of his boot, bouncing back to his feet to deliver a roundhouse kick to the corterrid's head as the corterrid's leg gave out and he collapsed.
A quick glance back showed Skeller was up again and tangled ferociously tight with Stinger, a painful grapple littered with punches and a lot of swearing. The other three splices ringed them, clearly acting as a barrier, and two more slunk out of the crowd and advanced on Caine.
"Really?" he muttered. The last thing he needed was more med debt from moderating Stinger and Skeller's shit-stupid feud. Still, he'd dug into it this far, and truth be told, he didn't need any more shit going around about his failures. Not to mention, letting his Captain get beaten by a groundhog was not going to balance out his rep. Caine rolled his shoulders and called out to the advancing splices, "Last chance. Bug out."
One whuffed out a derisive laugh, and Caine shrugged. "You got it." He took a deep breath to make sure that hit from the stool hadn't cracked a rib, locked his wings down, and shoved the raucous sound of the fight and the crowd into his peripheral awareness. All his senses dropped into that space in his head where everything around him slowed into a moving, shifting puzzle that he built and rebuilt as he found or removed pieces.
And he moved.
That people constantly underestimated him due to his fucked genome was an advantage he'd long lost any resentment about using. It didn't even give him the edge it used to - most Skyjackers had fought with him enough to hold a healthy respect for his capability to fuck them up, and the groundhogs, well, they learned quickly. What groundhogs still lacked was thinking of more than the ground as usable space, as while the two approached him warily, he bounded up onto a chair, then a table and launched into a spin, catching one around the neck with the back of his knee, pinning their between his knees as he twisted and grabbed the other in a head-lock and brought them both to the floor with a bone-jarring thud.
Caine heaved one of them up and used him as a ram to knock away one of the three defenders, and then threw him at one of the others. Stinger had Skeller on the ground, pinned under the glow of his boots. The third splice moved to charge and Caine pinned them with a long stare and growled, deep and low, and they blinked a few times before putting up their hands and backing away.
"Come on," Caine said to Stinger, who smiled beatifically down at Skeller as he writhed to try and worm away from the heat of the grav dynamos powered up inches from his nose.
"Not done yet."
"Yes, you are." Caine dug both hands into the collar of Stinger's shirt and heaved him around, barreling him through the crowd and out the door. He shoved Stinger out into the corridor, hard, and planted himself in the bar doorway, flaring his wings to completely block it as Stinger got his feet under him.
"You made your point, whatever it was," he said as Stinger crowded right up against him, hands planted on Caine's chest.
"Fuck you," Stinger said, giving him a halfhearted shove before spinning away and stalking down the corridor. Sighing, Caine set off at his heels.
Six corridors out Caine darted ahead and once again blocked Stinger, who pulled up short with a murderous glare. "You want to tell me what that was about?" Caine said.
Caine loomed over Stinger, still riding the high from the fight; Stinger's mulish disdain infuriated him. "Nothing my ass, Stinger."
"For-fucking-give me for backing one of my squad." Stinger got right up in Caine's face in return, utterly ablaze with fury, righteous indignation - and distress?
Caine squeezed his eyes shut as Stinger's scent washed over him: a murky mix of anger, stress and anxiety. He growled, channeling as much of his frustration into the sound as possible before he channeled it through a fist into Stinger's face, and forced his shoulders and wings down. Sucking in a deep breath, he tipped his head just enough to show his throat, and stepped back. "Stinger, I appreciate the reinforcement, but you've heard worse said about me. So what," he said as calmly as he could manage, "the shit was all that?"
Stinger's anger rose up like a wave before it curled in and broke, and he shrank back to sag against corridor wall with a heavy sigh. "I was the one who found you after you went down." Stinger shoved his hands in the pockets of his jacket, all the fight drained out of him with the confession. "Thought you'd bought it. Thought there was no way we'd get you back in time for the recode. Thought I was taking you back to have them ash your body. Took me three fucking days to get all your blood out of my gear."
All Caine could think to say was, "Oh." Swallowing down the cold knot in his throat at the thought of finding Stinger like that, he mirrored Stinger's pose against the wall, his shoulder brushing Stinger's. "I didn't realize it was that bad."
"'Course you didn't, because you're a selfish bastard who just goes and does wasted heroic shit like that. I damn near put the medic through the wall when he said you were alive, but a write-off. Made him change his mind on that right quick."
The cold knot melted away at Stinger's gruff vehemence, and he felt a little light-headed with the idea that Stinger cared that much. "Thanks," he managed to say after a moment.
Stinger shrugged, his sudden nonchalance as fragile as spun glass. "Chances I'd get another decent tracker were shit, so it was worth the effort. Besides, who would pull my head out of my ass with such finesse?" Stinger pushed away from the wall, once again all swagger and brash. "Now come on. I think you owe me a drink."
Stinger Apini was a legend on the battlefield, in the bar, and if you asked him, in bed. He was also, if you ask Caine, a master of running off his mouth.
Caine leaned his head back against the wall and tried to block out the din around him. He'd come back from a difficult month-long retrieve five weeks ago, only have the squad get ship-out orders an hour later. That made nine straight weeks of tense tracking and combat and all Caine wanted to do was fall into his bunk and sleep for days. But Stinger had cajoled him out - no, cajoled was too kind. Stinger had threatened to record himself singing the Battle Song of Sky and Stars and play it on loop through Caine's com implant.
So he'd reluctantly followed Stinger and the squad through three different bars, keeping to Stinger's heels as the rest of the squad peeled off for other entertainment pursuits, clinging to this tiny bit of normalcy while it lasted.
Truth be told, he'd missed Stinger. Had been missing Stinger for a while, even before he shipped out on this last mission, because ever since the fight with Skeller after Xaltinal, it seemed like Stinger was, well, not exactly avoiding him, but shutting him out. The rest of the squad had picked up on it too, and while none of them treated him differently, the sidelong looks and hastily-interrupted whispers felt like tiny barbs catching in his flesh, leaving him bristling, skittish, hollow.
Caine had spent every waking second his brain wasn't occupied with mission specifics or keeping himself alive trying to suss out what he'd done, trying to figure out what he could do to fix it before it all fell apart. Maybe he'd just committed the stupid sin of getting comfortable in this assignment, of thinking that the last four years meant he was doing something right, that he was worth something.
Through every bar, every drink, he calculated Stinger's every expression. Catalogued his changes in scent (many), the number of times he deigned to meet Caine's eyes (few), and Caine bit the inside of his lip again and again, until it bled, to keep from going to his knees and begging Stinger to just tell him what he'd fucked up, to please not send him away.
Hours later it was just him and Stinger in a shithole bar on the outer edge of the town that had grown up around this Legion outpost. The place hosted an ugly mix of Legion and locals, with him and Stinger the only Skyjackers. That usually never turned out well, but he and Stinger got their drinks and found a table in the back and settled in without any issue.
That in itself should have been a warning. So should Stinger deciding he needed yet another drink. But Caine was so tired, and this place was quiet, comparatively, and the beer wasn't bad, and he was pretty content to slump in his chair and wave Stinger off as he headed back to the bar and drift off into the alert doze every soldier mastered in their first campaign, so he didn't have to think about Stinger fucking Apini and his shit for a few minutes.
Attuned to it as he was, Stinger's voice sliced through his drowsy drift and the general thrum of noise like an alarm klaxon. Caine groaned and thumped his head onto the tabletop. He thought about ignoring it, but he knew that particular tone, and it was just going to be a bigger mess the longer he let it go.
By the time he got to the bar Stinger, some human and two tall willowy Ta'Klendikts were already locked in an angry tangle. The etched grooves and the paint on the Ta'Klendikts' beaks and claws marked them as duvo caste, so probably traders, and so no reason for them to start a fight with off-duty Legion unless provoked.
Caine jerked his head at the bartender. "What happened?"
"The apis bumped that one," she pointed to the human. "And took it personally."
"Of course." Caine kept one eye on the fight. Stinger was holding his own for the moment, but he was wasted enough that his reflexes were only a touch faster than his opponents' and he was starting to fade. "Did he scan for the drinks?"
"Run it for any damages, too," Caine said, and rolling his shoulder and tucking his wings in tight, he reached into the roiling mass of fighting, caught the collar of Stinger's vest, and heaved him out of the fight.
Stinger staggered into the bar and slipped to one knee, shaking his head. "What the fuck's wrong with you?"
"I have a list," Caine said, one eye on the three other combatants, who watched this new drama warily. "Stay here."
"I got this, man." Stinger stumbled to his feet. "Just back off."
"Yeah, back off, little puppy," the human said, swaggering up. "We got this."
"You shut it," Stinger swayed forward, right into the human's fist. He collapsed back against the bar with a sad little wheeze and slid to the floor.
"Oh, fuck this," Caine said, backhanding the human into a knot of onlookers. One of the Ta'Klendikts charged him and Caine punted them halfway across the room with a kick to the chest, dropping onto his back to avoid the vicious razor-clawed swipe the other Ta'Klendikt swung at him. Caine launched back to his feet, catching the Ta'Klendikt's elbow as they recovered from the missed strike, neatly dislocating their shoulder with a sharp twist. The Ta'Klendikt screeched, and Caine slammed his heel into the back of their knee, dropping them to the floor.
A flash of motion revealed the human hovering a few feet away. Caine raised a brow and crooked a finger at him. The human spun and broke through the gathering crowd and ran for the door.
"Thank you," Caine said to the bartender, "and sorry for the mess." He heaved Stinger over his shoulder and followed in the human's wake.
There was no sign of the squad when he made it back to barracks. Caine dumped a muttering, half-conscious Stinger onto the nearest bunk and wrestled off his boots and shirt before he hauled him back to his feet and propelled him down the hall to the communal showers. He slapped one on and when the water, a luxury of this planet's voluminous water table, ran ice cold, he shoved Stinger under the hard spray.
Incoherent, spluttered yelling echoed throughout the room as Caine held him there, until Stinger's hand snapped out and grabbed Caine by the shirt and dragged him under the spray, laughing at Caine's startled, "The fuck?"
"You're a little shit, Caine Wise."
"Yeah, and you're an asshole, so wh-" and then it was hard to talk because Stinger's mouth was on his.
Caine froze for a split second before opening under the assault with a moan of relief and arousal. Stinger took full advantage of the surrender, pinning him to the back wall of the shower, mouth warm and soft. "What?" he managed to get out when they broke for air.
"Just shut up, will you?" Stinger kissed him again, and again, and tugged at his belt and then his hand was down Caine's pants, and fuck it was good, so good, and Caine blazed despite the freezing rush of water, so hard he ached.
Stinger belched and slipped; cold spray and the sickly scent of beer slammed into Caine's face, and reality along with it.
Fury washed away the desire that had just moments ago flooded through him. Caine shoved Stinger back under the shower head and shouldered his way out of the shower. Because of course Stinger would do this wasted off his ass, after being a shithead and leaving Caine wallowing in anxiety for months. He made it just outside, leaning against the wall to catch his breath and try to slow the frantic beat of his pulse. Stinger didn't follow, but Caine heard a few thuds from inside the shower and the water turned off.
"Hey man. I... I'm sorry."
"Just..." Caine signed. "What the fuck, Stinger?"
"I thought... I just... that, maybe, there was something there."
Something. Yeah, there was something. Leave it to Stinger to finally notice and then fuck it all up to hell. "You're not wrong, Sting. But not like this, not if you have to drown yourself in swill to even bring it up."
"Liquid courage," Stinger muttered.
"Whatever," Caine said. "I don't want anything like this, Stinger. Sober up. We'll talk tomorrow." He stalked away, still hard and pissed and not a little crushed.
The next morning was loud and boisterous, everyone back in bunk, and Caine wasn't able to corner Stinger privately until after morning drills. "We gonna talk?" Caine said, maneuvering to block him in the sparring hall when everyone else broke for individual drills.
"Talk about what?" Stinger almost, almost managed to portray unaffected ignorance, and Caine's heart dropped into his stomach.
"Sorry man. I don't remember much of it. Worse than usual, was I?" And fuck him, now he had the gall to look Caine right in the eye as he said it, even though the lie was splashed across his face, even though he stank of it.
"Something like that," Caine ground out.
Stinger scuffed a hand through his hair, over and over. "Yeah, sorry. Got a little carried away."
"That's what you call it?" Caine threw up his hands and spun away. "Fuck that. And fuck you."
"Wise. Caine." It was said with such feeling that Caine turned back, hope rising only to be doused in a flood of bitter disappointment when Stinger, now suddenly unable to look at him, shrugged. "You've got a bright future ahead of you. You're a good soldier. A good mate. Don't... fuck that up."
Hungover Stinger Apini was a model example of not thinking through what came out of his mouth, but that... Caine had never hated anyone as much as he hated Stinger in that moment. Fucking rubbing salt in the wound, Caine thought. Like he didn't know what that word meant to a lycantant, let alone a packless gene-trash runt. "Yeah, that's me. Always the good soldier."
"Permission to be dismissed, sir." Caine didn't bother to wait for his answer.
Three of them on him now, maybe four. Something jabbed into his gut; shock prod, he thought as a sharp jolt ripped through him and he stumbled, scrabbling at one of the mercs for purchase. His shoulders burned, muscles locked in an agonizing spasm, and he fell to his knees, unable to find his balance, unable to focus. His vision sloshed as he tried to heave back to his feet but the room spun and he landed back on his knees, trying not to vomit.
"Well, this is disappointing. I thought Legion had a bit more fight in them." It was the human, the captain of the mercenary crew that was trying to beat him inside out. He stood over Stinger, gazing down at him with the arrogance that even an outlaw pure human held over a splice. "Does this mean you've rethought your position? Have something to say to me now?"
"Fuck you," Stinger slurred, because he wasn't going to give this insolent shit the time of day, and well, there was the small matter that he didn't remember what he'd said or done that started all this shit, let alone why he was even here, or where here was.
"Incorrect." The merc grabbed a handful of Stinger's hair and yanked his head back, fist raised. A small spark in the back of his head shouted "Fight!", but it was hard to hear, to pay attention when the oblivion of unconsciousness sounded so good. Easiest way to forget. Probably deserve it, he thought, and closed his eyes.
The fist impacted, but not in his face. His eyes flashed open as the merc yelled and Stinger caught a glimpse of a hand crushing said fist, before the same hand grabbed him by the collar and dragged him away.
Suddenly enraged that his chance at some peace was yanked away, he flailed ineffectually, spitting and cursing. "Fucking let me go, Caine. You fucking let me go you piece of shit, or I'm going to kick you right back to the cursed creche that spawned you."
A clipped, precise voice said, "Have you actually managed to drink the entire last three weeks right out of your head?"
Not Caine. "Diomika?"
A cool flash of pressure bloomed against the side of his neck, just above his brand, and his head cleared so fast it hurt. Everything hurt. Oh blood and bone, it hurt.
He spun away and heaved the sloshing contents of his stomach into a nearby corner, everything suddenly bright and clear in his mind. He had managed to drink it out of his head. He'd worked very fucking hard to drink the last three weeks out of his head, in fact, and most especially that Caine was being shipped to the Deadland today. That Stinger had been offered a chance to speak to him one last time.
That he'd refused.
"Does he need another dose?"
Stinger looked up to find a synth standing next to Diomika, regarding him with a flat, dispassionate pity that that sent a tangle of rage and shame crawling up his spine. He used the wall to push carefully to his feet. Would be just his fucking luck to end up face first in a pile of his own reeking sick.
"My second, Gemma Chatterjee." The synth inclined her head a notch and Stinger grunted, wiping his mouth across his sleeve.
"How'd you find me? Kiza?" How Kiza'd tracked Diomika down, he had no idea. Stinger and Diomika had been tight before she'd managed to buy out of her Legion contract and went to the Aegis, but he'd never been much for keeping in touch on the best of days; a combination of the job and a simmering resentment that she had such a choice limited their interaction to his terse responses to her rare FTLs.
"Yeah, I bet." Stinger belched out a bitter laugh. Not from what she'd said to him when she found out he'd refused to see Caine. Kiza had clung to him, ever so careful of the raw wounds on his back, and said, "How can you abandon him?" through gulping sobs. Stinger'd left before he said things he'd regret, because how had he abandoned the stupid fucking pup when his back still burned from the clip job he'd gotten as reward for Caine's miserable life, leaving him bowed low with the weight of shame from the loss of his wings, his commission, his entire fucking world? Stinger's head spun and so did the room around him and he staggered as his stomach threatened a repeat performance.
"Let's get you home." Tsing's voice was terrible in its gentleness as Chatterjee tipped her shoulder under his arm and none-too-gently nudged him into motion. He tipped to the side automatically and stumbled when that didn't balance out, didn't compensate for the inches Caine had on him, almost taking them both down. Wrong, all wrong, everything was all fucking shit-stained wrong.
He heaved in a breath to strangle the sob rising in his throat. He was not going to fucking cry for Caine fucking Wise. "I need a drink." Stinger shoved away from Chatterjee and staggered back toward the bar.
He made it halfway there when he ran into the mercs. Five of them crowded up with their captain, whose earlier insouciance was gone; he cradled his hand and his eyes were murderous. "Your fucking nanny there broke my hand."
"Poor baby," Stinger said. Even with his head clear now he felt unbalanced, uneasy, his body's balance foreign without his wings. "Let me break the other one so you have a matched set."
"Stand down, Captain Apini," Chatterjee said from just behind him, and then she stood at his side, one arm out to block him.
"Sorry, no captain anybody here," Stinger said. "Now get the fuck out of my business, bot."
"That how it is these days?" the merc said. "Legion just does what the Aegis says? One of them snaps their fingers and you turn tail and run, coward?"
Plasma-hot rage burst loose in his chest. "Yeah," Stinger said, "just like that." He was under Atherton's arm in a blink and drove the merc down in a tackle to the midsection, smashing his broken hand against the floor in the process. The merc screamed, and Stinger managed to punch him in the face twice before he started to fight back, and the rest of his crew joined in. He rolled off the merc captain and to his feet, just missing the boot that drove down (hitting the captain instead), but took hits to the gut and a roundhouse to the side of the head that sent him staggering out to the edge of the melee, and right into Gemma Chatterjee. Chatterjee grabbed his arm in a vice-like grip and pinned the surprised mercs with an unimpressed look and the sharp whine of her charged blaster. "You're done here," she said, and hauled Stinger through the gathering crowns and out the door.
"Fucking let me go, synth." He twisted in Chatterjee's grip as they burst out the door into bright sunlight. "That was my business to finish."
Chatterjee just dragged him around and there was Diomika, who shook her head and sighed. "No, you aren't done punishing yourself, are you? Not done trying drink yourself down to nothing and let those unworthy deck-crawlers beat you to death? Because they will, if you go back in there. Or is that you want? You want them to beat you to death because you're too much of a coward to do it yourself?"
"Fuck you, Diomika." She always was a good shot, and never hesitated to go for blood. Made her a great Legionnaire. Made him hate her guts right about now, dropping the truths he'd spent so much time and effort doing his best to wash away. "What the fuck do you know about me and what I want?"
"I think I know this." Diomika got right up in his face. "Tell me, Stinger. Your Lieutenant Wise, would he want this?"
He sagged back, suddenly thankful for Chatterjee's solid grip. No, Caine Wise had made it very clear that he hadn't wanted any of this from Stinger. No, he'd made that clear when, riding the edge of panic, he'd told Stinger to renounce him and just let them kill him, even as he sat on the floor in the cell they'd thrown him in, shaking and shocky from the beating he'd taken by the Entitled's guard. Or when he'd begged the Legion Inspector, begged on his knees, voice shaking with a tremulous whine, to ignore Stinger's claim of responsibility, that he'd admit to anything if the Inspector just kept Stinger's name out of it. Or when he bit through his own god-damned lip to stay silent when they stripped him.
You stupid, stupid boy, Stinger thought. I'm sorry, I'm sorry. I fucked it up. I should have done more. Called Diomika then. Done something. We fucked it all up.
"Will you allow us to assist you home, or should we wait and take your body back to your daughter?"
Chatterjee let go of his arms slowly, letting him settle his weight on his feet, make sure he wasn't going to go right over. He closed his eyes and wished for the blurred emptiness of the last few days, anything to take away that last sight of Caine, bewildered and broken, silent as death as they dragged him away, his gaze, full of shame and confusion, never leaving Stinger.
"Home," Stinger whispered. "I guess home."
Caine still really hated Legion bars.
They'd been on Ouros for three days when Jupiter shooed him off for the night, staring glumly at a pile of sheaves. "You're far more entertaining than those and if you stay here I am not going to get anything done." She pulled the top sheave from the pile and jabbed it to life with a vicious poke. "Besides, Stinger asked me if he could have your help with something tonight."
The "help" Stinger needed turned out to be a nostalgic tour of their old Legion haunts. "You mean the bars," Caine said, sour in the face of Stinger's wide grin.
"I'll meet you at the Chalice in an hour," Stinger said, slapping him on the shoulder. "Like old times, Caine. It'll be fun."
"That's what I'm afraid of," he muttered as Stinger whistled his way out the door.
The Chalice had been one of Stinger's favored shit-holes, the kind that asked no questions as long as you had the Cs to cover your tab and your damages, and just far enough off Legion territory that they entertained a very diverse clientele of Skyjackers, Infantry, mercs, traders and whomever else managed to wander in. The perfect place to have a quiet drink or ten, or start a loud fight or three. Not that Caine had ever counted, or anything.
There was no sign of Stinger yet when Caine arrived, so he worked his way up to the bar and put in an order for them both. All things considered, Stinger's days of rampant inebriation were pretty far behind him, and there's no way Stinger'd be willing to embarrass Jupiter, Caine guessed, but from long experience he wasn't taking any chances. He'd buy the drinks, and he'd decide when they left. Hopefully before Stinger opened his mouth to the wrong person and it did end up just like old times.
Halfway through his drink, as he was about to com Stinger and make sure nothing had happened, a deep, sneering laugh boomed behind him.
"Well, if it isn't the Queen Abrasax's little puppy."
Caine wasn't in his livery, but he'd left his coat behind; he wore Jupiter's sigil boldly inked on his bicep (a decision he'd idly, wistfully made while watching her get her own mark, when such thoughts were only in the realm of idle fantasy). He took one more drink before he set down his glass and turned, pretty sure of what he'd find standing there.
Lycantants. A full groundhog squad pack of six. The shortest one topped him by probably four inches, and the rest towered over him, including the squad alpha, who swaggered right up and grinned down at him. Caine in turn leaned around him to give each of the pack due measure: noting gear, weapons, the way one seemed to favor his right leg, the way he kept shifting his weight, the way another locked his left elbow.
And then he turned back to his drink.
"Ooh," the alpha said, "little puppy thinks he's too good for the likes of us now." The others barked in laughter. Caine ignored it with the weary resignation of long experience, but the sound seemed to pique the interest of the crowd in the bar; the press of bodies slowly started to shift into a loose circle out of the corner of his eye.
"Can't be much to her," another one of them said, "if that is what satisfies her in the sheets."
Caine forced his shoulders to stay loose, relaxed, a picture of unconcern. The imprecations directed at him held little sting, but that remark edged dangerously close to insulting Jupiter.
"You know what they say about tercies, too stupid to know what's good for them when they get a taste of rancid meat."
"Well, this one's an Abrasax," said the alpha, "so who knows what she's got a taste for."
Caine finished his drink in one go, and handed the glass and all the rest of his Cs to the bartender. "Sorry," he said, and then spun around and plowed his fist right into the pack leader's mouth. He let the momentum carry him to crash the alpha's chest, planting one boot against the bar to push off and shove the alpha right over backwards, slamming him to the ground. Flowing forward into a roll, he snapped his wings out as he came up, swiping another of the lycantants right off his feet, slicing the cheek of a third open to bone with the tip of the manus strut.
He feinted left and got two sharp jabs in at the fourth when the other two dove at him. One got a lucky grab at his knee, knocking him off balance enough for the other to slam a shoulder into his ribs, taking them both to the floor. The one he'd cut leapt onto the pile, along with the rest of the squad, all of them raining blows on him. One managed to twist Caine's arm in a tight lock and plant a boot against his neck, slamming Caine's head to the floor twice before the alpha snarled, "Enough. Get him up."
These groundhogs learned quick; all three of the ones who'd taken him down got secure hands on him before they heaved him to his feet to face the alpha.
"You runty waste of skin." The alpha spit a mouthful of blood at Caine's feet. "I'm going to skin that pale shit right off of you and use it for a rug." His bloody mouth twisted in a ugly smile. "Or maybe I'll wrap it up all nice with a pretty bow and send it to your queen."
Caine returned the smile. They'd learned quick, but not quick enough: none of the four holding him had secured his wings. He flared them out, knocking the lycantants away as he launched himself at the alpha with a howl, driving him backward and down through a table, shattering it.
He got three good punches in, one breaking the alpha's nose with a satisfying crunch, when he found himself face first on the floor a few feet away. He rolled over and stared up in surprise at Stinger, who stood over him, mauler aimed right up the closest lycantant's nose. Stinger hunched down and grabbed the collar of Caine's vest, hauling him up enough to tow him backwards out the door.
"What the fuck, Caine?" Stinger shoved Caine back into the corridor wall a few turns away from the bar. "What were you thinking?"
Caine blinked. "You're going to call me out on this? You?"
"Because I'm the hothead and you're the brains of this outfit, and you should know better!" Stinger holstered the mauler and roughly checked Caine over; Caine tried to bat his hands away. "Seriously, what the hell were you doing taking on a lycantant pack by yourself?"
Caine gave up and let Stinger check him. "You didn't hear what he said about Jupiter," he muttered.
"Ah, like that is it?" Stinger's touch gentled, and he ended his assessment by patting Caine on the cheek.
Caine crossed his arms, wincing as his shoulder protested. "You'd have wanted to hit him, too."
"Probably," Stinger said, anger now amusement. "But I'm sure her majesty would appreciate you being in one piece more than any defense of her honor." Pushing Caine ahead of him down the corridor, Stinger said, "Let's go. I'm cutting you off."
"I wasn't even drinking!"
Stinger chortled. "Drunk on love, you are."
"Really?" Caine rolled his eyes, but it was a weak protest, and Stinger knew he had the tactical advantage. He fell into step with Caine, slinging an arm up around Caine's shoulders as he steered Caine toward the nearest lift.
"It's good to see you happy, pup. You deserve it." Stinger cuffed the back of his head then cupped it, drawing Caine down to press a kiss, so gently, on his forehead. "You did good, man. Now let's get home to your girl."
The sincerity in Stinger's voice, in his scent, was deep and true, but under it rang a soft note of regret. Caine's breath caught in his throat. "Sting..." He grabbed Stinger's shoulders, even as he kind of wanted to throttle him, and pressed his forehead to Stinger's. "You and your shit timing." The raw wound of Stinger's rejection had long scabbed over, cauterized by the Deadland and his own resentment and guilt, but sometimes just having Stinger near again, having the so familiar scent of him in his nose again, brought back those better days, before everything fell apart, and he wondered-
"It's part of my charm." Stinger shoved him into the transport beam.
"Home" was, for the moment, Jupiter's compact little clipper, docked on one of the Entitled sections of Ouros' rings. Stinger shoved him through the door to Jupiter's suite. She looked up from her sheaves and shot to her feet, dashing across the room. "Oh my God, what happened?!"
"I'm fine, really, I'm fine," Caine said over Stinger's guffawing, slouching down onto the divan. Jupiter clambered up next to him, small warm hands cupping his face, turning it back and forth, gentle but firm.
Stinger cheerfully sold him out: "Caine took umbrage to a slight against you and started a bar fight."
Jupiter raised a brow at Caine and he glared past her at Stinger, who stepped back and bowed to her, long and low, gaze locked on Caine before he looked away. "I leave him to you, your majesty."
Jupiter picked up some of that; she eyed Stinger, then Caine again, the corner of her mouth twisting like it did when she was puzzling something out, but then her thumb swept across a cut and Caine winced, distracting her enough for Stinger to make his escape.
Her attention refocused, she tilted Caine's head one way, then the other. "You look like you got punched. A lot. Come on." Jupiter slid off the divan and pulled him with her. He followed obediently as she led him to their bedroom, where she slowly, carefully started to undress him, batting his hands away when he tried to help with the fastenings. She pressed kisses to each bruise or scrape she uncovered, until he stood naked before her.
It still astonished him, the deliberate care she took with him, the gentleness she bestowed upon him, and he nosed at her hair, letting the scent of her fill his lungs. She pressed against him in response, stretching to scratch the back of his neck and he sighed into her touch. She grinned and pushed him toward the bathing suite, and into what she referred to as the "Olympic size bathtub." He sank into the steaming water, head lolling back against the side of the pool, not even remotely embarrassed at the relieved grunt he let out.
"That bad?" Jupiter said, and he tipped his head enough to see her skim out of her pajama pants. She hadn't bothered to undo the buttons of her shirt, just yanked it over her head and now it was tangled in her hair; the fabric did nothing to smother her swearing as she wrestled with it, bare bottom wiggling ridiculously as she tried to keep her balance.
Blood and bone, he loved her.
She emerged from the shirt with a triumphant smile and he reached out to help her as she climbed into the pool and settled in his lap. Plucking a brightly colored floof of netting from the pile behind his head (one of the things she always brought with her from Earth), she began to stroke it across his shoulders and chest. "You actually got into a bar fight for me. How adorably dumb." There was no censure in her voice, though, only affection.
He kissed her, cupping the back of her head, letting his mouth linger on hers. "As if I would allow any word to be spoken against your majesty's honor."
"Always protecting me."
"Always." It came out raw, and even Jupiter's voice wasn't entirely steady when she said, "That's sweet, but I'd prefer your face intact over my honor."
Caine buried his face in her neck, laughter bubbling free. "I hate it when Stinger's right."
She let the little bath things float off and used her hands to clean away the blood dried on his face. "Speaking of, what was up with him?"
"Just sorting some old history between us."
"Like more court martial stuff? I thought you guys had done all the manly hugging and chest-beating needed about that?"
"No, this was something from before. Something, uh, kind of personal," Caine said after a moment. He wasn't sure how to come out and say it, but he never wanted to lie to her.
"Ah," she said, a simple sound so full of sudden comprehension, and oh yes, she knew exactly what he meant. For a moment Caine felt like the first time he flew after getting his wings, elation punctuated by moments of stomach-dropping terror, but Jupiter just scratching soothingly around the curve of his skull and said, "Is everything okay? There's not going to be a problem between you and him? Or him and me?"
Giddy with relief, and secretly, wildly pleased that it being a problem between the two of them apparently hadn't even crossed her thoughts, he curled around her, arms and wings. "No. But you know how Stinger is."
"Thank god, because he's finally, I think, gotten over his feels about the whole thing with Titus, and I don't want to start round two."
"You're astonishing, your majesty. Do you realize that?" He loved how she flushed from the apples of her cheeks to the swell of her breasts at the praise.
"You're clearly feeling better." She wriggled in his lap and grinned at his faux-grumbling. "Or was this from talking about Stinger?"
"Brat," he said, and kissed her thoroughly before dunking her. She came up with an outraged yelp and tackled him; he mock-defended himself from the assault, even as playfulness rapidly turned passionate. So very worth every ache and bruise, he thought as warmth flowed through him like molten gold when she pinned his wrists to the side of the pool and sank onto him, every nerve flaring bright at her touch, her scent, her whispered, "I love you, Caine Wise."
Later, as they lay sprawled across the bed, the cadence of Jupiter's breaths slowing to the steady, languid tempo of sleep, Caine pressed kisses to each of the marks he'd left across her skin. Mine, he thought. Impossibly, remarkably, amazingly mine. Her fingers carded lazily through his hair as he finished his tribute and curled around her.
"You going to be okay?" she murmured, the tip of one finger skating across a cut at his temple. He captured her fingers and mouthed at them, biting gently at each before he drew her hand to his chest, over his once-again wildly thrumming heart.
"Yeah," he said, with the memory of Stinger's soft kiss still on his skin like a welcome brand, and Jupiter's scent filling him with once-inconceivable notions of pack and mate and home. "I'm fine."