Miranda wondered if her eyes had ever been this wide before.
Skeeter was dangling from the elevated grasp of the shipboard marine and the marine was staring down at the youth as if he was little more than prey for the terrifying teeth and claws that he was displaying. Skeeter looked panicked and embarrassed at the same time, as if getting caught was worse than the threat of raw violence exuded by the lion.
“You don’t belong here,” the marine rumbled. The words were deep baritone notes, forced from within a barrel chest. His teeth clacked together like graveyard bones when he spoke.
“No shit,” Skeeter managed. His eyes were fixed on the tawny-furred paw that held him aloft. Tangled in his longcoat lapels, the paw was almost larger than Skeeter’s own head.
“It’s my fault!” Miranda said, waving her own paws to get the marine’s attention. “We were playing hide and –”
“Stop talking, miss.”
The order came not from the enormous lion in his starched jumpsuit, but from behind Miranda. She whirled in place, still with her arms above her head. She had seen it on the vid – you were supposed to keep your hands in the air, right?
Standing there was a long, lanky leopard with a strange hat that seemed to hang down over one side of his head. He wore a different uniform. Sand-colored and spotted in a manner that mimicked the leopard’s own coloration instead of the drab grey of the marines, the shirt had no name or insignia attached. He also, as opposed to the marine, carried no weapons.
“Sir, I’m –” she started. He shook his head and gestured for her to be silent, holding a finger in front of his mouth. As the words died in her throat, he nodded and smiled. He used his other hand to gently push her arms back down by her sides, winking at her as he did so.
“This isn’t your place,” the lion said. The leopard half-shrugged, letting his cocked head drop toward the raised shoulder.
“I know, I know. I’m colony security, and this is your ship. It’s cool, brother. They just got outta the controlled zone, is all. I’ll take them back and you can go on your way. You wanna put the kid down?”
The marine shifted his gaze from the leopard and back to Skeeter.
“You’ll keep ’em corralled?” he asked.
“Count on it,” said the leopard.
The paw opened and Skeeter tumbled free. His legs did not set well when he landed, and he fell backward onto his haunches. He winced as he knew his tail would bruise from the impact, but even that was preferable to the grinning maw he had been staring into a moment before.
“About time,” he said, standing and smoothing the lines of his jacket. He tried to look defiant. The paw that fell on his shoulder flashed a series of wickedly-pointed claws for just a second as if to tell him to consider his next actions carefully.
“You be quiet, too, kid. Grown-ups are talking here.”
“Hey, pal –” Skeeter began. The leopard’s paw wrapped around Skeeter’s mouth and held his muzzle closed. He didn’t have to work hard to keep it closed. It seemed more an exercise in simple restraint.
“I appreciate you helping me out,” the leopard told the marine. “I’m sure you can imagine how this shit is gonna make me look.”
“Like an idiot?”
“Yep,” the leopard said with a throaty chuckle. “I’ve got them from here.”
The lion shook his head. “Stupid ground pounder,” he said with a sneer as he pointed them to the entry door.
A ripple of muscles ran across the leopard’s muzzle, and one edge of his mouth peeled up and back, exposing a fang. He placed a paw on the back of each of the kids and urged them on toward the door.
“Nobody can just accept a friendly word these days,” he said as the door closed behind them. “Always gotta flex that extra little bit.”
“What do you mean?” Miranda asked.
“That last comment was to see if he could piss me off enough to take a swing at him.”
“Why didn’t you?” asked Skeeter. “Too tough for you?”
The leopard looked askance at him and then laughed. “Yeah, kid. We’ll go with that.”
“My dad told me you guys were supposed to be some kind of super fighting machines,” Skeeter pressed.
“We do okay. When we need to.”
“Well if I was that good, I would have jumped him.”
“And that’s why you won’t get to be that good. That’s the kind of mistake a kid fresh outta boot makes. Thinking that they taught you everything you need to know to get by in a fight, and you wind up in some dive bar with a chip on your shoulder. Some idiot mouths off about your branch and you go to pound him just the way you’ve been taught. Boom. You wake up in a sickbay with half your teeth broken. Rookie mistake, kid. See, if I’d tagged that big motherfu — Oh, sorry, miss,” he said, looking down at Miranda with a friendly smile.
“It’s okay,” she said, giggling.
“If I had hit him, the marines on board would have all been within their rights to thump any of our guys anywhere they saw them. After that it would have escalated ship-wide. Far easier for me to swallow my pride and escort you to back to the controlled zone. A little humility goes a long way.”
Miranda and Skeeter both smiled at the leopard. “You’re pretty smart,” she said.
“Still,” Skeeter said, brushing at his lapels yet again. “I wish you had kicked his butt.”
“I notice you didn’t do anything either,” said the leopard.
Skeeter shrugged. “I was ready. If he had held me up there much longer I was gonna pee my pants at him.”