It's been two weeks now that Jupiter has been waking up early in the morning without complaint and delivering coffee un-asked -- an unprecedented streak. She has also become prone to pausing in the middle of ordinary daily activities to announce things like "Thank you for being so normal, Mom," and “I really appreciate our relationship,” generally intoned in a voice of heartfelt gratitude, and occasionally accompanied by a spontaneous hug.
Aleksa finds this a little rich, given all the grief that an adolescent Jupiter used to gave her mother over such factors as her accent, her occupation, her abrasive attitude towards other adult authority figures, and her overall failure to embrace the qualities that an average American teenager would apparently consider 'normal.'
“Maybe she's pregnant,” says Nino.
Aleksa dismisses this suggestion with the scorn it deserves. “Not possible.”
“Doesn't she have that new boyfriend? So?”
“Two weeks ago, she went to that clinic. If she's gotten pregnant in two weeks, she doesn't know it yet.”
Nino thinks about this, leaning precariously on her mop. “Well – you know, then, maybe it's the thing with the eggs. Our Vladie, that idiot, he thinks it's, what, like throwing away your toenail clippings?” Aleksa gives her a dangerous look – Our Vladie, that idiot, is not yet anywhere near back in Aleksa's good graces, is probably not getting there any time in the next century – but Nino ignores it with the ease of long practice. “Jupiter, she's smarter than that. Maybe she starts thinking what it's about to be a mother, how it might be to be a mother to kids she doesn't know, maybe it makes her appreciate you more.”
“Hm.” With a flick of her fingers, Aleksa acknowledges this as something that resembles a line of reasoning. On the other hand, the one time she's tried to talk with Jupiter about the ill-advised egg-donation operation, Jupiter blinked at her in near-incomprehension and then said, “Oh, right! Yeah, that was a thing,” as if the entire event had happened years ago in a near-irrecoverable past. Young people have short memories, she knows. And yet.
“Or maybe,” offers Nino, after a few more moments of thought, “she's feeling guilty about the telescope. Maybe she thinks you're thinking you're not enough of a parent for her, that she has to go chasing after things that represent the father that's not in her life.”
Aleksa finds she's tired of this conversation. “Maybe,” she says, “she's just happy we bought her the damn telescope.”
She doesn't want to think too much about the telescope. It makes Jupiter happy, that's fine, that's the point of it, but she doesn't want to think about it. Still, she's got to admit to herself – later, once Nino's gone with Irina and Lyudmila to get groceries, and for once she's got five minutes alone – that the explanation is not completely implausible. It seems the kind of thing that Jupiter might get into her head. Except that Jupiter has barely used the telescope since it got here; she's working all day, and she's off all night with the new boyfriend.
Aleksa's bones are aching from a full day of work – what she doesn't understand most of all is how Jupiter even has the energy for this boyfriend – but for some reason, she finds herself hauling her tired body up to the roof to regard the brass monstrosity of sentiment they've bought for Jupiter, in some kind of saccharine attempt to improve the shitty lot she's been handed. Four thousand dollars, they spent on this. Four thousand dollars, so Jupiter can look up at the stars, and depress herself thinking about a version of their lives that never happened, and that, to be honest, might very well not have been less shitty even if it had.
“Well, what the hell,” says Aleksa, to the empty air, and leans in to look up through the telescope.
Then she leans back. Then she rubs her eyes. Then she looks at the sky – almost empty, except for a few distant specks that could well be birds, might very well be birds – and then she leans forward again to look once more through the telescope.
After a few more decisive minutes, Aleksa says, to the not-entirely-empty air, “What the fuck?”
“Jupiter,” Aleksa says the next day – very calm, so calm, someone should give her one of those acting awards, “we're meeting this boyfriend of yours tomorrow. You bring him here.”
Jupiter blinks at her, then laughs. It's almost natural. All the same, Jupiter is probably not winning any of those acting awards. “Tomorrow? Mom, come on, that's crazy, we've only been dating for like a week.”
Aleksa gives her a gimlet stare. She has many weapons at her disposal; she will gladly deploy them all. “What, so you're ashamed of your family?”
“No!” exclaims Jupiter – she's visibly horrified, which is mildly gratifying (not that thirteen-year-old Jupiter's tantrums made so much of an impression, but they were certainly loud). “No, you're definitely not – I mean, Mom, you're – you're great. Seriously, like, you don't even know how great you guys are.”
“Then,” says Aleksa, ruthlessly, “there's no problem with bringing him tomorrow night.”
Jupiter fidgets; she hedges; she rallies. “Well, I'll try – but, you know, tomorrow, it's pretty short notice, and I don't know if he'll be able to make it --”
“You've seen him almost every other night this week,” Aleksa points out. “Or so you're telling me when you go out. So either this poor boy really has got nothing going on in his life other than to wait attendance on you --”
Jupiter presses her lips together.
“-- or you're lying to me about where you're going and what you're doing. That's fine! You're an adult. Lie if you like. If it mysteriously happens that the one night he has got something to do is the one night I'm asking to meet him, then I'll know which it is, that's all.”
“So am I going to vacuum this basement, or are you? You think we've got all day for this?” says Aleksa, and breezes past her to the downstairs. She is not exactly serene in the knowledge of her victory – it's difficult to be serene right now – but she's fairly sure the boyfriend, or whatever he is, will be there tomorrow night.
As usual, she is correct. The boyfriend turns up the next night with the kind of slunk-shouldered hangdog look that looks increasingly absurd as the person wearing it increases in size. Despite the warmth of the day, he's got an oversized leather jacket and a large knit hat shoved down over his head.
Aleksa eyes him up and down. “Why's he wearing that hat inside? He thinks it's going to rain on him in here?”
“Aleksa!” says Nino. “Be nice to the poor boy or Jupiter will never bring anyone over again.” She pauses. “But please do, take off your hat! Make yourself at home, don't stand there looking like you're going to run out the door any second!”
The boyfriend says nothing, just stares at them with a vague air of panic.
“Well!” says Jupiter, brightly. “Guys! This is my boyfriend Caine! Caine, this is my mom, and my aunt Nino, and – hey, Mom, where's everyone else?”
“They're out having dinner at Olive Garden,” says Aleksa, and switches to Russian. “What, you think I'm totally heartless? Two at a time is enough. He can meet the rest later, then I get the fun of watching you squirm twice.”
“Anyway,” Aleksa goes on, coolly, “it seems a lot, to spring the wings on all of them right now.”
Nino says, “What?”
The other two, her daughter and this poorly-disguised creature she has brought home, are both just staring at her – both of them, she notes. So the boyfriend does understand Russian. “The wings,” Aleksa says. “Didn't you hear me? What kind of a stupid plan is this, anyway? This piece of shit air conditioner is broken again, did you think he was going to wear this hat and coat all night?”
“Um,” says Jupiter. “Well, actually, we set a timer on his phone --”
On cue, the boyfriend's cell phone rings (a boring noise, just a plain phone sound, which Aleksa didn't think anybody under the age of thirty used anymore). The boyfriend looks at Jupiter; Jupiter shrugs. He clicks the phone off, and returns his gaze to Aleksa. The air of faint panic is gone; his eyes are narrowed and intent. Aleksa has seen enough soldiers in her life to recognize this look. It does not make her feel significantly better about her daughter's taste in men. Or things that look like men.
“I see,” she says – still in Russian, because he seems to understand it, so why not. “The phone goes off, he has to leave suddenly, too bad, he's so sorry. Clever.”
“Aleksa,” says Nino, “what the hell is going on?”
Aleksa smiles. Well, her teeth are bared, anyway, and the corners of her lips turned up. “Why don't you take off the jacket, Caine? Like Nino said. Make yourself at home.”
Caine says, slowly, “I'm not sure that's a good idea.”
Aleksa stares him down. “Is this your house? In my house, I say what's a good idea. Take off the jacket.”
Technically the house is actually her cousin Vassily's, but these details are unimportant at a time like this. Still, she notices that he looks over at Jupiter, as if for permission, before giving a small, tight nod and shrugging his shoulders out of the jacket. She's not quite sure what she makes of that, but then she is distracted, because as the jacket comes off – a leather jacket! how cliché can you get! – they unfurl. The wings.
Nino sits down on the stairs, with a heavy thump.
Aleksa breathes. Up until now, she has – not doubted what she had seen, not that. Aleksa Ruslanovna Bolotnikova has never been a person who is carried away by fantasy; she knows what's real and what's not. A man with wings is impossible, her daughter flying is impossible, sure, that's true. But she's seen these things with her own eyes, which she trusts, and her mind, which she trusts more, and that means they're apparently not impossible after all. It's as simple as that.
But it's one thing to see something impossible from a distance, through a telescope. It's another thing altogether when the impossible thing is a foot from your face.
So she gives herself a moment to breathe. Just one.
Meanwhile, Jupiter looks at Caine, eyes wide, and says, “You speak Russian?”
Caine blinks back at her. “No, Your Majesty.” After another beat, he adds, “I also don't speak English.”
There is far too much in that exchange for Aleksa to even begin to process; probably best not to even try. “OK, so,” she says, her voice is as steady as she can possibly make it. “Now you explain. And,” she adds forcefully, as Jupiter opens her mouth, “don't even try feeding me any kind of Kabbalah shit. I don't believe in angels.”
“Oh! Good. I don't either,” says Jupiter, weakly.
“Except for that phase when you were eleven,” Nino puts in. Her voice sounds rather faint, and her hand is pressed to her heart, but she's apparently determined to make sure the record is straight nonetheless. Aleksa feels a sudden flood of affection for her sister.
“Yes, please,” says Jupiter, “let's talk about all my embarrassing childhood phases now, right in front of Caine! Who apparently understands Russian! Thanks! Anyway! No angels, OK, but – how are you on aliens?”
Aleksa surveys Caine, and his wings. Caine looks stoically back. He's still wearing the ridiculous beanie. Aleksa wonders what's under it. “Given the circumstances,” she says, finally, “I am open to discussion on them.” She pauses and considers what she has seen of Caine so far. “Although dubious about the likelihood of parallel development of humanoid sapient entities under completely distinct evolutionary conditions.”
“Well, actually,” says Jupiter, looking relieved to have a question she can answer, “Caine's actually a genetically – um, spliced? – human, so. Well, half-human. Half-dog. Part-dog?”
“Wolf,” says Caine, with the faintest hint of reproach buried under twelve levels of flat military neutrality. “It's closer to a wolf.”
“Ah yes,” says Aleksa, flatly, “that explains the wings.”
Jupiter shrugs again, and casts a sidelong glance at Caine, half-proprietary, half shy. “The wings aren't genetic. They're just, like, a space military bonus.”
Nino has revived enough by this point to put in, “Nice bonus!”
Aleksa shoots her a quelling look, before returning her glare to Jupiter. “I'm sure there's a very cute story about how you and this flying werewolf soldier from outer space happened to meet. Maybe you bumped into each other at the ice cream store, huh?”
“Believe it or not, we met at the clinic.” Jupiter meets her gaze, and then, unexpectedly, breaks into a grin. “And, Mom – if you think parallel development of humanoid species is genetically implausible, you're really gonna love the rest of this.”
An hour later, the part that Aleksa is stuck on is the part where they were all kidnapped by aliens two weeks ago and none of them remember anything about it.
“I didn't wipe your memories,” Jupiter says, earnestly. They've switched back over to English, now; it seems easier for Jupiter to find the right phrasing for some of the stranger concepts in that language. “I mean, I would've told them not to if I'd had a chance. The Aegis --”
“Space police,” says Nino.
“Yeah, space police – they did it to all of you before I even got back on the ship. They said it was standard procedure. I'm really, really sorry about that.”
(The flying werewolf boyfriend from outer space, standing behind her with his wings stiffly mantled, looks as if he not only would have cheerfully wiped all their memories the first time, but is wishing he had free rein to do it again.)
“And then I didn't tell you afterwards because – well, you know – I mean, I seriously didn't think you'd ever believe me. It's a lot. You know? I'm still – trying to deal with it all. But,” she goes on, brightly, “you guys are taking it really well! I'm really impressed!”
Aleksa can't help but be reminded of Jupiter's unflattering surprise the first time Aleksa proved she had enough awareness of modern technology to send a text message. (It is apparently shocking to learn that texting is not the sole prerogative of people under the age of thirty with a perfect command of English.) “Thanks,” she says, dryly.
“So what happens next?” asks Nino, leaning forward, as enthralled as if she's watching another episode of Real Housewives of New York. “That crazy Balem's got us all as hostages, unless you turn over the planet to be people juice? So how do you get out of this one?”
Jupiter takes a deep breath. The too-brightness, it seems, was a cover; it's faded away again now. “I, um. I said...” She breaks off, looking down. “I told him – I'm sorry. This is really hard to say to you guys.”
Aleksa notices Caine's fingers give an infinitesimal twitch, as if he wants to put a hand on her shoulder, but thinks it would be incongruous with military discipline and also potentially inappropriate in front of her mother. It makes her feel marginally more warmly towards him. Marginally.
“I told him that I wouldn't sign over the planet. He could kill all of us, but I wouldn't do it. Six billion people, all of them going to die – I couldn't. I couldn't. And I didn't know – I mean, it turned out OK, because Caine and the Aegis came to help, and we were able to get away and rescue you guys, but I really did think that I'd just gotten you all killed along with me. And, like, it's fine for me to say I'm willing to give up whatever time I've got left for the Earth, but who am I to make that call for you? Everyone out there --” The vague gesture of her hand encompasses the roof, the door, presumably the entire galaxy, and incidentally the space boyfriend. “-- keeps talking like all the lives on this planet belong to me, like it's OK for me to be the one making those decisions about what's gonna happen, but that's stupid, and it's wrong, and it's especially wrong when it's – I mean, you're my family! And afterwards – I didn't even know how to talk to you about it.” She takes a deep breath, and lifts her head. Her voice is shaking a little. It's been a lot of words, Aleksa thinks, pent up there for the past two weeks – not so long a time. But for Jupiter, in terms of growing up, maybe a lifetime. “I'm sorry.”
Aleksa is not always the world's most physically affectionate parent, but there are certain times when a course of action is clear. She reaches over and puts an arm around her daughter. “Jupiter, you're an idiot,” she says, roughly, “and a very smart girl, and I am very, very proud of you.”
Jupiter lets out a breath and buries her head in her mother's shoulder; Nino scoots over from where she's sitting on the step, and joins in by throwing her arms around both of them.
The moment is eventually broken by the boyfriend saying, awkwardly, “I should go.”
“No,” says Jupiter, sitting up immediately. “You should stay. Stay.” (Aleksa represses a wince. It is one thing to be aware that her daughter has always wanted a dog, but this is above and beyond.) “He should stay, right?” Jupiter asks, appealing to Aleksa and Nino. “I mean, since he's kind of like – my retainer, I guess? My bodyguard?”
Nino looks like she's about to make a joke about guarding Jupiter's body; Aleksa elbows her before she can.
“– then there isn't any reason for him to go back to staying in that cheap motel, right? It's just silly.”
“Um,” says the boyfriend, visibly alarmed.
“What's silly,” snaps Aleksa, “is thinking you can fit anybody else into this house. Here's a question, Jupiter, my rich space princess daughter – if you're so wealthy, why are we still living in this dump? Why are we not living in a space palace, huh?”
“Come on,” Jupiter protests, “I mean, it's not exactly like I can snap my fingers and make us millionaires! Seraphi Abrasax left me a lot of stuff, but it's not like it translates exactly into piles of dollar bills. I haven't even started working out how to make any of this into anything useful - I can't even look at the paperwork without my head starting to swim!”
Aleksa sighs. She has always wanted to believe that Jupiter has a deep untapped ability to understand numbers. (Jupiter's algebra grades and unbalanced checkbook have rarely borne out this belief, but hope springs eternal.) “Jupiter – did you not think of, perhaps, consulting an expert?”
“Well,” says Jupiter, “I mean, Caine's been trying to help me get a handle on my assets --”
Nino stuffs her fist into her mouth.
“While I am sure your new boyfriend has many good qualities,” says Aleksa, with all the patience she can muster, “I was thinking more of, perhaps, a professor in applied mathematics? Who, to your great good fortune, happens to live in your house?”
Jupiter stares at her.
Aleksa stares right back. “What? What's so shocking? I've got a fly on my face?”
“Well, no,” says Jupiter, “it's just – you never, um, you never talk about what you used to do.”
Aleksa refuses to let herself be taken aback. “That,” she says, crisply, “is because there has not been a point to it.” (It's true, that was a locked door, one of many doors that she's kept locked for years; it's true that it's almost a loss in itself, to realize how easily and painlessly she's just walked through it. That's something she'll think about later.) “It seems there's a point to it now.”
Nino takes her fist out of her mouth and leans forward, her eyes sparkling. “Well! Applied mathematics, useful enough, I suppose – but may I point out, certain professors who are very fancy with their teaching credentials should also remember that certain other people have degrees in Economics from Baikal National University, if you please! Maybe not all of us have to be professors to know what is going on!”
“Economics!” scoffs Aleksa. “What, Soviet economics in the eighties? Yes, so helpful! Perestroika, such a success!”
“Is what Gorbachev does my fault? Anyway, if I can learn the stupidness that's US currency, I can learn space currency! It can't be stupider!”
“Guys! Guys,” says Jupiter, lifting her hands. “I – let's take a step back. I don't even know if I want to be doing anything with an economy that's built on people juice, and – I mean, I'm still trying to figure out if I should be doing anything about that – I mean, I should, right? I know it's crazy to think I can change the entire galaxy, but –”
“Sure,” says Aleksa. “We'll do something about that.”
“We'll do something about that,” says Aleksa. It's surprisingly easy to say, given how long it's been since she's let herself say anything like it. “Why not? But first things first, okay? First thing --” She grins at her sister, at her implausible princess daughter – even at the flying space werewolf boyfriend (though he looks more unnerved by this than anything else, which, OK, Aleksa thinks is kind of as it should be.) “Let's move our family out of this shithole, and then we figure out the rest.”