Taking a single Lycantant on as a Skyjacker had been a risk.

At least, that was what Stinger was told. Major Swartt, a pure human who just barely tolerated ranking Splices, warned him against inviting a pack Splice into a group of soldiers that was so closely knit. They're needy, he'd said, but in the next breath he'd also told Stinger they were loners and would never work well with other Splices.

But Stinger himself was a pack splice, after a fashion – a hive was different, but some dynamics remained the same. He'd done just fine for himself. And this particular Lycantant had already made a name for himself as a hunter, which was a useful skill, one for which Stinger was willing to go toe-to-toe with Major Swartt in order to incorporate into his battalion.

"What are you gonna do if he challenges your position?"

"Has he challenged anybody yet?"

"No, but-"

"He won't do it now, then. Did some readin' on pack dynamics, and he's no Alpha, if his records are anything to go by. Pretty eager to please, prove his worth. Besides, I can look after myself. He's quick, but he ain't quicker'n me."

Major Swartt shrugged, and handed over the sheave with a little sigh. "Seems like you've made up your mind."

"I have, sir," replied Stinger.

"He'll never bond properly," said Swartt. "Although, I suppose . . . he might be all right. He's not a proper Lycantant anyway – all pale and stunted."

As far as Stinger was concerned, Swartt knew nothing about bonding – he hadn't served a single day of active duty, hadn't been involved in a single moment of combat, hadn't fired a single round at an enemy. But Swartt was a high-ranking officer in the infantry division of the Legion, so it didn't matter what Stinger thought.

He offered Swartt a humorless chuckle. "He is a bit runty. Seems to suit him, though."

Swartt dismissed him with a wave, and Stinger was off to collect his new Skyjacker recruit, thinking as he walked away about whether he just might need to put in extra effort in order for the Lycantant to work effectively with the others in his unit. He didn't care one iota whether they liked each other; he just needed them to fight together like a machine. All that bonding stuff was bullshit anyway, he was convinced – he'd seen Lycantant units tear themselves apart from the inside. If they bonded so damn well, that wouldn't happen, now would it?


Any question of the Lycantant's ability to function effectively within Stinger's unit was put to bed with his first combat operation. Stinger hadn't seen his like in two decades, at least. There were a total of fourteen Skyjacker recruits on the mission. Two had died. Six would be sent back to the infantry. Stinger needed to see more out of five of them.

But Caine Wise, the pale and runty not-a-proper Lycantant? He could have his wings tomorrow.

When all was said and done, and the Skyjackers were aboard their ship showering and drinking and being patched up, Stinger sought him out to congratulate him. The problem was, he seemed to have gone missing.

When Stinger found him after a half-hour search, Wise was shivering in a corner of the ship's cargo hold, paler than usual, sweat beading on his skin.

"Wise. What're you doin' down here?"

"It's nothing, sir," came the reply, the words shaky even though the tone was deceptively even and deep. "It'll pass; I just need a minute."

Stinger approached and crouched down in front of him. Wise wouldn't look up; he kept his chin tucked neatly into his chest, and his arms wrapped tightly around his knees.

"Is this how you deal with combat stress?" Stinger thought he saw Wise wince at his tone. It wasn't meant to be condescending, not really. Everyone dealt with it in their own way, and Stinger didn't care one way or the other how they did it. The only thing that he couldn't stand was when soldiers pretended it didn't happen. He'd just never seen . . . well, this . . . before.

"Please, sir, it'll pass." There was desperation in his words; Stinger wondered where it came from. "It doesn't usually take this long; I don't know why-"

"Answer the question, Wise."

Wise drew a deep breath in through his nostrils and Stinger could easily imagine he was trying to gauge his commander's level of irritation. "Yes. This never happens during combat, sir, I swear – it's never been a problem."

"What we just did was brutal, Wise, but it's not the worst I've seen. Not by far. Are you telling me you've never seen anything like it?"

"No, sir. I've seen worse." He was still shaking.

"Then do you want to tell me why you're hiding down in the cargo hold when you ought to be with your comrades?"

"Sir, please, I swear, as soon as I stop shaking I'll be with them. They won't miss me."

"Why are you shakin'?"

Wise was silent, almost stubbornly so. That irritated Stinger far more than false bravery would've.

"Wise. Answer me. I don't know what is goin' through your head and if you don't tell me, I'll have to make my own assumptions."

"It's because I don't have a pack, sir." Wise's voice was thick with shame. "Packs huddle after combat. The contact . . . helps."

The confusion cleared for Stinger, and he nodded in understanding. "Right. Okay. So you huddle up, the oxytocin offsets the adrenaline. Without the oxytocin, the adrenaline has nowhere to go, so . . . you get the shakes." He nodded. "Makes sense."

Wise finally opened his eyes and looked up at him, though he was still shaking violently. The surprise in his eyes was evident.

"Well I'm not a Lycantant, Wise, but I'm not a bloody idiot."

"No, sir." He closed his eyes again.

"Right. What're we gonna do about this, then?"

"It'll pass, sir. It always does."

Stinger shook his head. "Stubborn little puppy, you are." Then with a thud he sat down on the cold steel floor right next to Wise, scooting so close that their arms and legs touched.

"Sir-"

"Shut up, Wise."

Despite the fact that he was shivering, shaking violently, and the fact that it was cold in the cargo hold, the younger soldier had more heat radiating off of him than Stinger had ever known any healthy person to have, and he wondered whether that was due to all the adrenaline and the shaking, or if it was just how Wise worked.

It was a good five minutes before Wise's shaking began to subside; he evidently thought this minor improvement was enough, and thanked his commander as he pulled away.

Stinger took his arm and pulled him back. "Don't make me goddamn hug you, wolf-boy."

"Please, sir-"

But Stinger wasn't listening, nor was he about to let Wise go without some instruction. "You remember this next time," he said, his voice low and commander-like again. "If you see your comrades struggling, you do what they need you to do, you understand? You're not the only one who feels it."

"Yes, sir."

"You ask for their help. You give them yours. You watch their backs after the fightin' stops. You're not infantry rabble anymore, you're a goddamn Skyjacker."

It was a moment before Wise answered, his voice choked a little. "Yes, sir."

"The Mustelids drink too much; they like target practice. The Leporids will fuck each other into oblivion; runnin' works for them. Brool, he's a Vulpes splice, he gets sneaky sometimes but he usually handles himself. Tell him he doesn't know shit about fuck and throw a sheave at him; he likes to read."

Wise snorted, a little. He raised his head and opened his eyes, although he only looked straight forward. "Yes, sir."

"And now tell me," said Stinger, turning his head to look over Wise's pointed ear, "if you've seen worse, what's the reason for the hard shakes?"

Wise sighed, and started to relax. The shaking had almost stopped. "The littles," he replied simply. "I've seen worse fighting – worse by far hand-to-hand combat – but I've never seen so many littles fighting. So many soldiers fail to protect them."

Stinger grunted in agreement. "Not the first time we've been here to control a rebellion," he said. "Not the first time I've seen so many littles, myself, though I've never seen it as bad anywhere else."

Wise was quiet for a moment, enjoying the quiet calm that the contact gave him. "What about you, sir?" he asked, turning his head.

"What about me?"

"How do you handle combat stress?"

Stinger smirked. "I don't get combat stress." He rose to his feet then, and held out his hand to Wise, who accepted it and stood.

"Of course, sir."

"But if I did," said the older soldier, and he paused to look Wise in the eye and put his hand on his shoulder. "If I did, and I ain't sayin' I do, but if I did. I have a daughter. An FTL from her would probably be what I'd need. I might get real surly, otherwise."

Wise accepted this new piece of information about his commanding officer without comment or outward surprise, although Stinger knew he must've felt it. Instead, he had another question for Commander Apini.

"How will I tell the difference? Sir."

Stinger laughed, and smacked the side of the Lycantant's head. "Stupid pup. Go get a shower."

Wise ducked his head a little. "Yes, sir."

"And then find me a drink!" shouted Stinger, at Wise's retreating back.

"Yes, sir!"

Stinger chuckled a little as the Lycantant walked away. He'd get his wings, for sure – the kid was a better soldier than he'd seen in years. And maybe having a Lycantant in the squadron wouldn't be so risky, after all.

But all that bonding stuff was still bullshit.


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