Title: Pack It Up
Author: marcicat

Fandom: Jupiter Ascending
Word Count: 6300

Characters: Jupiter Jones, Caine Wise, Aleksa Jones, Vladie Bolotnikov, Susi Wise, Seraphi Abrasax, Mikka Bolotnikov, Lang, Ibis, Razo

Tags: happy ending, group cuddles, pack fic

Summary: There's no shooting in this story, just a lot of talking and hugging.

Susi was the first to show up. Well, technically the orb showed up first, but like hell was she letting anything bearing the Abrasax sigil near her until it had been thoroughly vetted by the Aegis. But after the orb, and before anyone else, there was Susi.

“Rumor has it that you’re hiring.”

Jupiter blinked. She had one hand on the cover of the trash bin, and three garbage bags around her feet. She also had about sixty seconds until her mother started wondering what was taking so long, and no idea where the woman in front of her had come from. “We’re not,” she said.

(Every once in a while they got people asking, although it was usually her aunt they approached first. And usually they looked a little less — something, than this. Not nervous. Cautious, maybe. Illegal immigrant? Parolee?)

“Not for that,” the woman said, nodding towards the house. “For you.” Her eyes flashed gold, and she added, “Your Majesty,” like she thought maybe the eyes hadn’t been enough of a clue.

“I’m—“ Not either, she had been planning to say. But then again, was she? “Can I get back to you on that?” She looked around. She was pretty sure Caine was lurking around somewhere close by, despite her expressly telling him not to. (She should possibly reconsider that.)

Sure enough, Caine strode around the corner of the house seconds later. The woman just nodded. “Caine,” she acknowledged.

“What are you doing here?” Caine asked.

The woman said nothing. Jupiter heard her mom call her name from somewhere inside the house, and she put her hand on Caine’s arm to get his attention. “Apparently there’s a space rumor that we’re hiring. You’ve got this, right? I’ll meet you later.”

He nodded. She left him to it, because seriously — all those articles about work-life balance had nothing on work-life-‘surprise, you own the Earth’ balance. She spent the rest of the day distracted, though, which was her only excuse for absently pushing her sleeves up at the dinner table, far enough for her cousin to look over and say, “Is that a tattoo?”

The reaction was immediate, and loud, and mostly not in English. She met Vladie’s eyes over the table and gave him a hard look. He still owed her for the clinic. (And he had a tattoo, a real one, that she was fairly sure no one else in the family knew about. Her look said she’d be happy to drag him into this with her if he stayed quiet.)

Vladie cleared his throat, and as her aunt paused for breath, he said, “I dropped out of school.”

Instant diversion. She caught his eye again and mouthed ‘thank you.’ He shrugged, and then winced as a particularly emphatic gesture sent a serving spoon’s worth of potatoes into his lap. “Because,” he repeated, ratcheting up the volume. “Because I’m already designing games on my own, I told you.”

She slipped into the kitchen. Her mother followed, seconds behind her. “Jupiter…”

“It’s not a tattoo,” she said quickly, and held out her arm.

Her mother studied it silently, turning her wrist this way and that; finally touching it with a careful finger. “So. Not a tattoo,” she said.


“Is it permanent?”

Jupiter wondered what explanation she could possibly offer, short of the truth. Wondered what her mother was imagining the truth to be. She said, “Hopefully.”

She was expecting questions, maybe a lecture. Instead she got a shrewd look, and her mother said, “You are not in trouble? This boy you’re seeing, he’s keeping you safe?”

“We keep each other safe,” she corrected without thinking, but her mother nodded, looking satisfied. It couldn’t be that easy. “You’re not worried?” she asked.

“I’m your mother; I will always worry. But this?” She pointed at the mark, where it was glowing ever so slightly on her arm. “The boy?” She waved her hand, dismissing them both. “I see you, Jupiter, and how you’ve grown. Like you have wings now, ready to fly from the nest.”

Jupiter must have looked more startled than she thought, because her mother narrowed her eyes. “You don’t have wings, do you?”

“What? No. Mom, no. That’s crazy. It’s just — it’s really nice, to hear something like that. I appreciate it.”

"Well.  Do not think you will get out of telling us, eventually."

She thought about playing it off as a joke, saying 'telling you what,' and seeing if she could get away with it. She might be able to; it was always hard to tell with her family. Instead she nodded.  "I know.”

Her mother smiled. “Go on, then. You are meeting him again, yes? Make sure you’re back for the Kellerman’s house at two.”

She went. Caine sent an all-clear when she checked in, so she headed up the easy way.  (She used the elevator ride to put her boots on, though.  She was pretty sure 'all clear' wasn't a guarantee that someone wouldn't be going out the window at some point.)

And she wasn't sure what she’d been expecting, but she wasn't exactly surprised to see Caine glowering in the middle of the room.  The woman from earlier was there too, on the sofa; she looked mostly bored, but she did take her feet off the table when the door opened.  Jupiter put her hands on her hips and looked back and forth between them.  "So?"

"This is Susi," Caine said.

"Your Majesty."  Susi stood up.  Caine growled, low and quiet.  She sat back down.

"Okay," Jupiter said.  She started with Caine.  "Are we in danger?"  He did the half head-tilt, half-shrug that probably meant no.

She turned to Susi, and waited. A few long seconds of silence ticked by. Finally, Susi said, “I have a good record. It’s all there.” She nudged a sheave across the table.

When it looked like that was going to be her only voluntary contribution to the conversation, Jupiter raised her eyebrows. Really? That was it? She said, “Yeah, I’m not really following. What is it that you’re expecting me to do here? Keeping in mind that I have a particularly low tolerance for bullshit right now.”

Susi looked at Caine, who stared back. His expression said exactly nothing to Jupiter, but Susi seemed to get something from it, because she nodded. “Most Entitleds,” she started, and then seemed to hesitate, like she was waiting for Jupiter to interrupt. When nothing happened, she started up again. “Surround themselves with some sort of court. Advisors, guards, enforcers, that sort of thing. Typically splices, bred for a specific purpose. Seraphi Abrasax’s personal guard was said to be a pack of lycantants. Things have been more difficult for lycan splices since her death, especially since —“

She cut herself off, but not without a quick glance at Caine. Like she had suddenly realized that if Jupiter didn’t already know Caine had gotten himself into trouble by attacking an Entitled, it might not be the most tactful thing to blurt out in conversation. “I’m aware of the situation,” Jupiter told her dryly.

Susi frowned. “Yes. Once pictures started circulating of you and him together, people started talking. It didn’t seem out of the realm of possibility, that in the time between the claiming of your title and the release of your inheritance, you would be accepting applicants. And that you might be willing to accept those that others would not.”

Jupiter was fairly sure several important elements had been missing from that story. She started with the one that seemed most immediate. “How did you find me?”

Again, there was a slight hesitation before Susi answered, “I didn’t. I found him.” She pulled her collar away from her neck, revealing a brand identical to Caine’s. “It’s always easiest to track a pack member.”

“We haven’t been pack for a long time.” Caine’s expression looked like it was stuck somewhere between angry and frustrated. (Personally, she was still working on the fact that Caine apparently had a sibling. And that for once, the family drama apparently had nothing to do with her.)

“And who’s fault was that?” Susi asked, standing up again like she couldn’t help herself. “I followed you into the Legion; I wasn’t crazy enough to sign on for Skyjacking too.”

Caine crossed his arms. “You had the others.”

“I wanted my brother.” Susi stepped forward with each word, and wound up practically nose to nose with Caine. They kept up the staring contest long enough for Jupiter to start counting, but she only got to nine before Susi looked away. “And now here we are,” she said.

Jupiter seized the opportunity, and jumped in with, “Which brings me back to my original question. What is it that you want me to do, exactly?”

“She wants you to buy out her contract with the Legion,” Caine said.

That was — not what she’d been expecting. “Can I do that? Wait, is that what—“ She stopped, wincing at the memory.

Caine just tilted his head again; this time it was the ‘I’m pretending I don’t find this at all humorous’ half-smile. “Titus did? Yes. It’s not common practice, but not unheard of either.”

“And?” She kept waiting for him to express some kind of opinion one way or another. She wasn’t going to make this decision without him.

“It would be easier to keep you safe with more of us,” Caine offered. “The Aegis isn’t going to stand guard indefinitely.”

Which was true. They were currently working under some sort of ‘protective custody pending an ongoing investigation,’ or whatever the space cops version of that was called, while everything was still in an uproar over Balem. It wasn’t what she was asking, though. “And?” she said again.

Caine finally met her eyes. “And she’s my sister.”

All right, then. “You’re hired,” she said to Susi, who was watching the exchange with not-very-well-hidden surprise. “Welcome.”

Her phone chimed. That would be the Aegis, probably with an update on the orb thing. She was supposed to be up there for a face-to-face meeting in less than an hour, and she had about a thousand and twelve things she was supposed to be reading or learning or practicing or deciding. But. This was not how she’d planned to spend the evening. And she was feeling twitchy as hell.

“Right. Five minute huddle,” she said, and headed for Caine.

(Huddles were in the rules; they’d tiptoed around the discussion of pack instincts and what they meant — with several extremely awkward detours into less PG-rated instincts and a stripped down lesson on genome-engineering, and finally she’d just said, “It’s really, really not a hardship for me.” She thought he might even have believed her.)

This time, he met her halfway, and she felt his wings settle around her. She closed her eyes and focused on breathing. She reached one hand out blindly in the direction Susi had been standing and waved. “Come on,” she said. “It’s a huddle.”

As explanations went, it was nonsensical, but it turned out Susi didn’t need much convincing. Seconds later Jupiter was sandwiched between them, and feeling possibly the safest she could ever remember. “You’re like an Amazon,” she mumbled. “How are you so tall?”

Caine made a noise that was probably a laugh, and Susi echoed it. They stayed like that until their five minutes was up, and then stepped just far enough back so they weren’t technically touching. She took a deep breath. Back to work. “I have a meeting back on the Aegis tonight. Let’s talk strategy.”

Captain Tsing, to her credit, barely raised an eyebrow when she showed up with an extra person. “Your Majesty,” she said. It was amazing how much meaning people managed to convey with just those two words.

Jupiter gave her the most innocent expression she could manage.  "Yes?"

That got her a smile, and Captain Tsing shook her head.  "You'll hear no complaints from me.  Regardless, we've determined the orb's origins."  She led the way into a small conference room.  The orb was hovering over the table, with two armed guards eyeing it with suspicion. 

"It's a personal recording device, coded to your gene print,” Captain Tsing said calmly, like that was a perfectly normal thing to come across.  "Our best guess is that it was activated by the confirmation of your status.  No idea what it says, but it's not explosive or poisonous, and for the moment, at least, it’s completely self-contained — it’s not networked, broadcasting, or receiving.  We're remanding it back to you, unless you'd like us to destroy it."

She gave it serious thought.  On the other hand... Seraphi Abrasax was apparently sending her messages from beyond the grave. Which, yes, was incredibly creepy. But she’d be lying if she said she wasn’t curious. “I’ll take it,” she said.

Of course, it wasn’t quite that simple. (There were forms. So many forms.) But ultimately she — and Caine, and Susi, and the orb — were delivered back to Earth, and she dropped onto the sofa with a groan. “What time is it?”

“Just before midnight, local time,” Caine said. She put a pillow over her head. At least she didn’t have to be up early the next day — they only did the one house on Saturdays, and no one would be expecting her before then. Sleep hovered temptingly just within reach.

But she couldn’t quite forget that she now had two people counting on her not to mess this up. Also she was starving. She pulled the pillow down and squinted against the sudden light. “Please tell me you ate while we were on the Aegis.”

"Yes," Caine said immediately, and Susi nodded.  "But you didn't."

No, she hadn't.  And Caine seemed to be perpetually hungry, but she couldn't tell whether that was a lycantant thing, or just a him thing.  "Sandwiches," she said.  "We need sandwiches."  She sat up, and caught sight of the orb again.  "And we'll probably need to do something with that at some point."  Now that she'd started thinking about it again, she probably wouldn't be able to sleep without at least turning it on and getting some idea of what was in there.

The sandwiches, at least, were easy, and she took a moment to be grateful that at least something was.  And it was simple enough to move all the food back to the sofa, which was significantly more comfortable than the single chair that was tucked into the kitchen area.  She stared at the orb.  "Okay.  Activate.  On.  Show us what you've got." The orb very satisfyingly lit up, and moved to hover a few inches higher above the table.

"Voice mode recording activated.  Hello, this is Seraphi. If you are hearing this, you are my genetic recurrence, and have likely already outlasted one or more assassination attempts from my children. My congratulations and condolences.”

There was a pause; some sort of background noise she couldn’t identify. ”Or, I suppose, you are not my recurrence, but have discovered a way to override a genetic lock. In which case, you likely are, or are about to be, a very wealthy and wanted individual. My condolences and congratulations.”

Another noise, like she had turned her head away and was laughing, though a more accurate description of the sound might be ‘cackling.’ Jupiter looked at Caine, trying to convey ‘is this for real?’ with her eyebrows. (His return expression was all ‘you’re the one who’s Entitled, don’t look at me for explanations.’)

"This device is quite ingenious; fully searchable, fully annotated.  That's what my notes indicate, at any rate.  I update the introductory message each year, as a sort of tradition, but the majority of the data recorded I've long since forgotten.  That's what they don't tell you about, you know, the forgetting.  Probably because we keep killing off the scientists who study it.  And there's a footnote for you -- if you ever need to suppress information, choose your position, kill anyone who disagrees, and outlive the rest.  I remain eternally surprised by how well that works.  But it is true, that we're all quite mad.  The unaltered human brain can stretch only so far.  It's why they'll outlast us all in the end.  In the meantime, the immeasurable wealth is quite the consolation.  Now, where was I? The index, yes.”

The voice recording cut off, replaced by a visual projection.  Text scrolled in from all directions and blurred in and out of focus, finally resolving itself into perfectly readable English.  "Translation feature," Susi said.  "Nice."

There were at least two dozen columns full of topics, floor to ceiling.  Her eye caught on a few -- Kalique's name, a string of numbers, a whole subset on genome-engineering -- before she started to glaze over.  

"Off," Jupiter said, and the orb obediently blinked off.  She took a deep breath.  Then another.  “Okay. I don't -- "  She stopped.  "I don’t think I can do this right now." It was like everything was hitting her at once; all the things she hadn’t actually stopped to process, everything she’d powered through in hopes that it would make sense later on…

Caine put his hand on the back of her neck, warm and comforting and real.  Susi was the surprise.  She leaned over and held her hand up.  "Can I?" she asked, and Jupiter felt Caine shrug. 

"Worth a try," he said.  "It's supposed to be very calming," he added, and she assumed that part was for her benefit.

Susi snorted quietly.  "Like you never had one."  She pulled the cuff off her wrist, and Jupiter held out her own arm without hesitation. Calming sounded good. Very calming sounded better.

As soon as it was on, she could hear a sort of low hum. Like having earbuds in with the volume turned way down, or being near a white noise generator. “What is it?” she said, twisting her wrist around to get a better look at it. (She was tempted to ask how it worked, but figured she wouldn’t understand that explanation any better than the flying rollerblades.)

“It’s recorded biorhythms,” Susi said.

She ignored the fact that everything she knew about biorhythms (admittedly, not much, but her aunt talked about them sometimes) said that didn’t make any sense. She looked at Susi. “Yours?”

“No, they’re — a friend’s. My squad partner.”

“Are they a particularly calm person?”

For some reason, that made Susi laugh. “Not exactly. In your case it’s probably more a distraction than anything else. Keeps your mind from focusing on other things.”

That made sense. Except not really? She twisted around so she could see Caine. “Hey. You said it was ‘very calming.’”

His expression was all innocence. “They can be. They’re based on a technology developed by one of the hive splices; Stinger could probably give you a better history of it than me.”

For Caine, that was practically a speech. She looked between him and Susi. “You’re both trying to distract me,” she said carefully, not entirely sure she was right — or if she wanted them to stop.

“You need sleep,” Caine said gently. She could feel the contrary part of her brain staging a protest, but she told it firmly to knock it off until morning. Possibly early afternoon. On the other hand, sleeping meant getting off the sofa, and deciding things, and she wasn’t sure she could handle that either.

Caine started talking again instead, a quiet story about Stinger and Kiza, and she drifted off without ever really meaning to.

She woke up to the smell of coffee. Not unusual.  She also woke up on the floor, in a pile of blankets and pillows, which was -- definitely unusual.  And she felt amazing.  (That part was probably the most unbelievable.)

"You're awake," Caine said.  He crouched down in front of her and held out a Starbucks cup.  "Good morning."  
She stared at him. She kept waiting for the morning brain she was used to, and it was tripping her up. Still, she was re-evaluating the ‘most unbelievable’ award. “You went to Starbucks.” And there were two more cups on the table behind him. “You drink coffee?”

He shrugged. “It’s the easiest way to blend in.”

Susi was leaning against the couch next to them, tapping at a phone Jupiter was pretty sure was hers. “And it’s a great weapon.” She looked up at the silence that followed that statement, and flicked her eyes to meet Jupiter’s. “Sorry.”

“No it’s fine,” Jupiter said. She tried to picture Susi throwing hot coffee at someone, and found it surprisingly easy. (No lie, she was totally envious of Susi’s badass vibe.) “What time is it? Why are we all on the floor?”

“It’s 9:30 am, local time," Caine said, completely ignoring her second question.  "There's coffee and breakfast, and a change of clothes in the bathroom."

She took the coffee, because he was still holding it out, and her arms were getting tired just watching him.  "Now I feel like you're buttering me up.  Seriously, though, how come it feels like I slept for about twice as long as I did?"

Caine and Susi exchanged a quick look.  She sighed. It seemed like she was constantly stumbling into things that either 'everyone knew' or 'no one talks about' (sometimes both). Hopefully that would get better eventually. “You might as well just tell me," she said. 

"It's -- a pack thing."  Susi glanced at Caine again and visibly stopped herself from adding 'Your Majesty.'  (Which she appreciated, and now at least she knew why Caine didn’t want to talk about it.) “When pack members sleep in close proximity, the benefits of rest are multiplied."

“Not a genetic thing,” Jupiter said. Obviously, or it wouldn’t be working on her. She held up the wrist with Susi’s biorhythms cuff on it. “Because of this?”

Susi shrugged, and it looked exactly like Caine’s ‘I don’t know, let’s not talk about it any more’ maneuver. “I’m not a scientist. It worked, though, right? You feel better?”

She did. “Yeah, it worked. Thank you.” She hesitated. “Do you — should I give this back?”

“I would be honored, if you would keep it,” Susi said carefully.

Jupiter narrowed her eyes. “Like, actually honored, you’d feel good about it, or honored like that’s what you’re supposed to say but you actually want it back? Because I haven’t exactly had time to read through the whole rulebook.”

Susi broke out a smile, which was maybe a first since she’d shown up. “I would be actually honored.”

She nodded. “In that case, I would love to keep it.”

It was good, she thought, taking a sip of her coffee.  They would eat, they would plan; at some point she might find out why they'd all been sleeping on the floor. 

The plan lasted until she walked through her front door at noon and found everyone out except for Vladie and Mikka, who were waiting for her on the stairs.  "Hi," she said.

"We need to talk," Mikka said.  

The three of them had raised hell together off and on when they were little, but they'd grown apart over the years. She couldn’t actually remember the last time the three of them had sat down and talked about anything. She raised her eyebrows. "About what?"  

Vladie's expression was one hundred percent 'you've got to be kidding.'  "Well, I was thinking we could start with the aliens, and then maybe cover space lizards and your new glowy tattoo."

"You guys remember that, huh?"  Captain Tsing had been pretty vague about the whole explanation, and she hadn't exactly been at the top of her game herself at the time.  She'd been using the 'ignore it till it becomes an issue' strategy, which looked like it had just stopped working.

Vladie said, “It was pretty memorable, yeah."  

"Well."  She joined them on the stairs.  "There's aliens.  A lot of them.  Some of them look like us, and some of them are giant space lizards."  Mikka flinched, and Vladie patted her shoulder carefully.

"So what happened to them?" Vladie asked.  "I mean, they busted in here, made a big deal about your mom, and now --"  He waved his hand at the obviously undamaged -- everything.

It gave her a starting point, at least.  "That was also aliens, actually.  They fix things, cover stuff up, that sort of thing.  The other ones, the space lizards, they worked for this guy called Balem.  He wanted this --"  She held up her wrist, although the mark was currently covered by her sleeve. 

(And there was really no way to explain that part without a lot more backstory, so she glossed over it as much as possible.)  "So he kidnapped all of you, and tried to get me to give it to him, but I didn't, and then we fought some.  And I won, sort of, and now we're back here."  

"Is he coming back?" Mikka asked.

Technically, she hadn't seen a body.  Even if she had, she wasn't sure she'd believe it.So she said, "It's possible.  But I don't think so.  Not for a while, at least."

There was a knock at the door, and she stood up automatically to answer it. She wasn’t actually expecting to see another lycantant on the doorstep. (To be fair, the woman looked equally surprised to see her.) Then her eyes narrowed. “Who are you?”

Jupiter held back a sigh. Seriously, she got that she wasn’t exactly intimidating, but this was getting ridiculous. “I live here,” she said.

The woman stepped inside, suddenly right next to her, and pointed at her wrist — and not the one with the mark. “How did you get that?”

She held her ground. Looked the woman right in the eyes, and said, “It was a gift.”

Which led to eye flashing and growling, and Vladie behind her saying, “Whoa,” in a voice that sounded way more impressed than frightened, and where were Caine and Susi, anyway?

They both burst through the door a second later. Caine was at her side in an instant, a solid, reassuring presence.  He didn't seem worried, though, as Susi threw herself at the newcomer -- going in for a hug, rather than an attack, she realized.  "Lang!" she said.

(From the stairs, she heard Vladie mutter "whoa" again.)

"What are you doing here?" Susi asked.

"Following you.   Did you really think I wouldn't?"

The words were muffled, since they hadn't actually stopped hugging.  Finally, Susi stepped back, and turned to face them.  "This is Lang," she said.  "We served together. Lang, this is my brother, Caine, and —“

“Jupiter is fine,” she interrupted. She hadn’t quite gotten to that part in her explanation to Vladie and Mikka, and she really didn’t think having strangers announcing her as the genetic recurrence of Seraphi Abrasax and calling her ‘Your Majesty’ was going to help. At all.

(Except Lang clearly had no idea who she was, because she just looked baffled. “Hello,” she said, like she was talking with a particularly slow native of a particularly backwards world. “I didn’t mean to scare you.”)

At her shoulder, Caine gave a short laugh and tried to disguise it by clearing his throat. She rolled her eyes. “It’s fine,” she said. Although if Lang didn’t know who she was, and had still shown up at her doorstep — “How did you find me?”

Lang still looked confused. “I was tracking that.” She pointed at the wrist cuff, and suspicion crept back into her voice. “I was looking for Susi.”

Susi gave her an apologetic look. “I really wasn’t expecting anyone to follow me.”

Lang poked her shoulder. “Well, you should have been. You could have talked to me.”

“I didn’t — I thought you would choose the Legion. You always talk about how important loyalty is.” Susi was starting to look frustrated.

Lang threw her hands up in the air. “I meant you! I could have bought out my contract ages ago; I was just waiting for you.” It was super obvious that the unspoken addition to that sentence was ‘and then I came after you anyway and found out you’d given my BFF bracelet to some random Earth person.’

Jupiter was starting to wonder if there was ever going to be an appropriate time to say ‘it’s not what it looks like,’ and also how hard Susi had been looking for those pictures of her and Caine, if they weren’t actually public knowledge.

"It's not what it looks like," she said, because what the hell.  She added, “I’m the genetic recurrence of Seraphi Abrasax,” because it was the first time she’d actually gotten to tell someone, and Lang's eyes went wide.

"Your M--" Lang started, and Susi elbowed her in the side.

"Please don't," Jupiter said.    

She risked a look back at Vladie and Mikka.  Vladie gave her a thumbs up.  Mikka said, "This is better than the space lizards, at least."

"Perhaps we could all sit down?" Caine suggested.

Which is how she found herself at the kitchen table, attempting a longer version of the explanation.  It took -- more time than she would have hoped, but less than she'd honestly expected.  Short enough that no one else was back by the time they were (sort of, for the moment) finished.  

"So you -- own the Earth," Vladie said.  He looked as skeptical as she felt.

"Kind of?"  She waved her hand in a sort of 'maybe yes, maybe no' gesture.  "It's sort of an honorary thing, because this is where I was born.  Re-born.  Whatever.  No one else can do anything to the planet while I'm holding it, which is nice."  Mikka was still looking a little uneasy just based on the conversation so far, so she carefully avoided any mention of what, exactly, liquidating an asset like a planet would mean.

"Okay, last question."  Vladie pointed at Caine.  "What's happening there?  Because if this is the boyfriend, I'm concerned about the bursting through the door when you talk with other people thing he has going on.  If he's the bodyguard, I'm concerned about reaction time.  What the hell, man?  Were you taking yourself for a walk?"

Jupiter rolled her eyes again.  "No dog jokes," she said.  "And I was fine."  

She was sort of waiting for Caine to say something (even odds whether it would be something inappropriate for the kitchen table), but he’d gone statue-still at her side. “Someone’s coming,” he said. “Bounty hunters.”

Lang held up her hands. “They didn’t follow me.”

Caine was already standing up. “Call the keepers. They can protect your family,” he said.

“I can do that?” Two of the spindly gray beings materialized out of the air next to her. She blinked. “Okay, I can do that. Hi.” She turned to Vladie and Mikka. “You’re going to go to the basement with these two. Keep them safe.”

Caine shrugged off his jacket and handed her a gun, and Vladie’s eyes went wide. “You’re going to shoot them?”

Apparently the thought of her shooting someone was more unbelievable than the wings? “Maybe,” she said. “That depends on them.” There was a small part of her that was actually sort of relieved that awkward family conversation time was over for the moment. Defending her family against bounty hunters didn’t sound nearly as stressful. “Lang?”

“Oh, I’m not missing this.”

And since she’d really prefer to keep any potential confrontation out of the house, they wound up on the street. Whether by luck or alien interference (probably it was that), no one happened to be walking by. Or driving. Or looking out their windows. “That is so weird,” she muttered.

Susi nudged her so she was looking in the right direction when the bounty hunters appeared. Literally appeared — one of them on the street, the other in the air, on what looked like a flying snowmobile. Neither of them were holding guns, and the one on the ground put his hands up when she focused on him. Caine could handle the flyer. Susi could handle Lang, in case it turned out to be more than a coincidence that they’d shown up at the same place at the same time.

“Not looking for a fight,” the man said.

“Good to know,” she told him. “What are you looking for?”

“They’re the ones who delivered you to Kalique,” Caine said.

The woman on the snowmobile sat up and crossed her arms. “Yes, and the security footage of you hitching a ride on our ship is fascinating. I’d say don’t try it again, but we’re still trying to figure out how you survived the first time. So please, feel free."

"Please don't," Jupiter said, glaring.  The woman smirked back at her.  "You were explaining?"

The woman gestured between herself and her companion. “We were hired by Balem to collect you.  Our arrangement with Kalique was -- serendipitous, and lucrative. But once it became clear who you were — well, Balem’s particular style of wrath is well known, and it benefitted us greatly to have it focused on you instead of us, however temporarily.  We owe you a debt.”

That both explained a few things, and made very little sense. “So you came to say thank you?” (She tried not to sound quite as sarcastic as she felt, just in case they actually had.)

“Not exactly. See, you’re about to have a problem on your hands, and we’re here to help. One of your puppies isn't very good at making friends.  You've got the Arum on your trail."

Caine and Susi both tensed at the name; Lang just looked furious.  "Dammit," she said.  She looked at Jupiter, then dropped her eyes.  "This one did follow me.  It was not my intention to lead them here; this doesn't have to be your fight."

If anything, Caine and Susi actually got more tense at that.  It didn't look like an attack was imminent, but she knew that might not mean much.  “Don’t be stupid. How long do we have?"

The woman on the snowmobile shrugged.  It was Caine who gritted out, "Not long.  I can hear them."

She turned to Susi.  "No bullshit.  Thirty second explanation.  Go."  

Susi took a deep breath.  "The Arum are a splice gang; all tiger variants.  They hunt lycans for sport, among other things.  The leader -- also called Arum -- has trouble taking no for an answer.  They're scavengers; they hold grudges for generations; they likely won't be intimidated either by the Aegis or the presence of an Entitled."

That seemed bad. “Assuming we want to avoid a generations-long gang war, any suggestions?"

Susi said, “Are you pregnant? I heard they once delayed a fight because of that.”

“What? No.”

“Then no.” Susi shook her head and tightened her grip on her gun. “Typically it’s a fight to the death, or you run like hell and hope something else catches their attention.”

Definitely bad. “Call the Aegis anyway,” she said.

And then the street was suddenly not empty. A dozen figures slunk out of the shadows — it would actually have been kind of impressive if she wasn’t worried they were going to kill her. Try to kill her, at least.

“Step aside,” the leader said — announced, really, like he expected them to just fall in line.

She stepped forward instead, Caine at her shoulder. “Really? This is the big, bad Arum? Bringing their fight to a backwater planet and facing off with three lycantants and a couple bounty hunters who’d probably switch sides if you asked nicely?”

Arum looked her up and down, and laughed. “The baby Abrasax. Adorable. This doesn’t concern you. We’ve no interest in your consort at this time. Step aside.”

It was sort of cute he thought that would work. Also insulting, although she kind of liked the word ‘consort.’ She said, “It’s Jones. And that’s not going to happen. You should leave now.”

“Or what? You said it yourself; you’re no match for us.”

She smiled. “Actually, I was just stalling.”

She raised her hand, and the air rippled. And then everyone could see them — Keepers filled the street; the airspace around them was packed with their ships. As if proving they had a sense of drama along with excellent timing, she could hear the ships’ weapons powering up in synch all around them. Arum glared, but his followers were shifting nervously.

She stood her ground. “I wasn’t asking. Back off my pack. Back off my planet. You’re done here.” She tightened her grip on the gun. (Realistically speaking, if anyone started shooting, Caine would probably throw himself on top of her, and she’d really prefer not to shoot him by accident. Realistically speaking, if anyone started shooting, it was going to be a disaster.)

It didn’t come to that. The Arum slunk back the same way they’d come, and she let herself breath a sigh of relief. “Thank you all,” she said, raising her voice and looking around at the assembled Keepers. “I appreciate the assist.” They started disappearing again, a few of the ships dipping their wings in acknowledgement.

“Well, that’s not something you see every day.”

She’d mostly forgotten about the bounty hunters, but there they were, staring at her. She ignored them, and leaned into Caine to hide the fact that she was shaking. “Huddle time?” he said quietly.

“Good plan,” she said.

Lang ended up in the middle with her, surrounded by warmth. After a few breaths, Caine relaxed, which she figured probably meant the bounty hunters had taken off again. She kind of hoped they’d be back at some point — debt of gratitude aside, it was generally a good idea to have acquaintances on both sides of the law.

“Did you mean it?” Lang asked. “About pack?”

And there were a lot of things she wasn't sure about, but that -- that was the easiest question she'd answered in days.  




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