It was a forest. An entire forest. Inside a spaceship.
Trees larger than the California redwoods Jupiter’s only seen on TV tower over their heads, vibrant green ferns brush their ankles, more flowers than she could ever name perfume the air. Of course, it has nothing on Kalique’s lush, exotic gardens. But this much inside a clipper? She would think she’s on Earth, if not for the grand windows showing the cosmos just beyond the tips of the branches. Vines climb the metal support beams bisecting the windows every few hundred feet to meet at the arches of the ceiling. There they drop thin tendrils dripping with golden flowers.
Balem walks with her, listening to the clipper’s lead atmospheric botanist explain how each plant provides a different element needed to keep a ship the size of Balem’s properly filled with oxygen and the other gases needed for their health. Most of it goes over Jupiter’s head, her eyes overloading any higher thought processes she’s currently capable of with the gorgeous impossibility of a forest in space.
More thin, twisting vines draw Jupiter’s eyes to the base of a young sapling, trunk still narrow enough that the climbing plant can twist its way around the tree in the hunt for light. Large bright blue flowers the size of her hand bloom at the ends of the vines. The delicate curling petals look so much like one of the clematis’ Aunt Nino grows in their backyard every spring.
Jupiter blinks back the stinging her eyes. Why are they wet? There are no tears at home. None of those long, forlorn looks everyone seems to think happen when a loved one is dying. If Aunt Nino is too tired to clean, someone stays with her. When she couldn’t climb the stairs anymore Vassily and Vladie moved her bed down to the dining room. And when she coughs, and coughs, and the towel comes away with blood, Jupiter simply gives her a new one and soaks the reddened one in the bathroom sink.
Those blue flowers stare at her, and all she sees is Aunt Nino on her hands and knees in the dirt, showing a tiny Jupiter where to dig, how to make sure the trellis isn’t going to damage the roots as the plants grow. Jupiter remembers the feel of Aunt Nino’s hands hovering by her shoulders as Jupiter lugs a watering can that weighs more than she to the vines, feels an extra hand help tip the can so the water doesn’t slosh over them both. Jupiter hears her childish giggles when Aunt Nino plucks one of the flowers from a tall vine and weaves it into her ponytail and declares her the most beautiful little girl in all of Chicago, the warmth of her words melting into the hazy summer heat. And Jupiter sees herself last week as she fills the watering can with the outdoor spigot, shivering when the water sprays her bare legs, and smiling at Aunt Nino through the window. Aunt Nino, who is too tired to water the vines herself this summer.
A tear spills over her cheek and Jupiter quickly wipes it away, hopes Balem doesn’t see. Breathing is difficult past the tightness in her chest. It’s hard to see where they’re walking through her tear blurred vision. Sobs begin to hitch her breathing, and she feels Balem's and the botanist’s eyes on her.
Cancelling her monthly visit to Kalique had been a mistake. Jupiter hadn’t realized how much she relied on the distraction, the escape of living a life so far removed from the suffocating despair at home. When Jupiter had contacted Balem last week, almost begging for a visit, he’d barely hesitated before saying, “What would you like to see?” This seemed like the perfect distraction, to see how the ship worked, to understand more of the science that made everything possible. But now all Jupiter sees is that blue flower and Aunt Nino’s face when she realized she wouldn’t see hers bloom next summer.
Jupiter turns and runs from the path into the trees before she can make a total fool of herself in front of Balem; manages to hold back the worst of the sobs until she finds a bench along another path through the forest.
It lets go like a dam. All of it. Each of Jupiter’s sobs feel like every laugh turned cough, the ever-growing tiredness that seems to permeate the house. Each tear is the growing fear and anger that she can only sit by and do nothing while she wishes that holding Aunt Nino’s hand was enough to cure her aunt of whatever was eating her from the inside.
How could she have thought holding Balem’s hand was enough to ease his pain? He had been so right. She understood nothing. Death was a gift. Anticipation was the true misery.
Jupiter knows she looks a mess. Never has been a pretty crier. Puffy red eyes, nose dripping mucus, skin all splotchy. She drops her head forward and cradles her forehead against her palms, letting the tears drip onto her pants, waiting for the build-up of forced silence and suppressed fear to pass.
It’s how Balem finds her, shoulders heaving, cries echoing through the trees. Quiet footsteps against the loamy dirt let Jupiter know he doesn’t intend to let her cry in solitude. She looks up to him through her tears as she forces her sobs into an embarrassing round of hiccups. Her Keepers reports to Seraphi are intercepted by Chicanery. Balem knows the source of her outburst. She wipes the snot from underneath her nose and looks away.
“It didn’t seem right,” she whispers, voice rough from crying, “talking about it, when you’re going through so much worse.” Her hands lay flat against her thighs. If she moves she’ll start to cry again. Maybe if she’s still enough Balem will just leave. Leave her be to her grief. And then she can come back in twenty minutes with red eyes and they’ll continue their tour, everyone back to ignoring what’s just under the surface.
Instead he gives her that confused look that seems to be his default expression around her. One of his hands rise, unsure, and then drops back to his side. Jupiter keeps her sight trained on her hands, watching the whiteness of her fingertips as they press into her thighs. Clothing rustles outside her vision and Balem’s feet come into her line of sight. His knees touch the dirt, perfect clothes touching nature for the first time.
Jupiter’s eyes remain trained downwards even when his fingers come to gently rest on the backs of her hands. Lingering tears drip from the the tip of her nose. Soft tickling from his fingertips gives way to warmth when his palms settle, fingers wrapping gently around her wrists.
Jupiter glances at his face and feels the gasping sobs start again, hating the shame that fills her with each tear. She has no right to do this to him, to ask him to comfort her in her grief while the weight of his mother’s impending death lays thick between them. There is no anger in his gaze or glee at her pain, only that same sad look she’d seen in his throne room.
He only needs to speak a soft, “I understand,” and gently swipe his thumbs along her wrists to bring back Jupiter’s tears. She bows her head and twists her arms to grasp his wrists in return. For every tear she sheds she presses her fingertips into his bones, hopes he understands they are just as much for him as they are for her.
When the tears finally slow and she’s once again a soft hiccupping mess Balem pulls Jupiter to her feet and leads them from the forest, his hand warm in hers. The halls turn into a maze of elevators and stairs in a part of the ship Jupiter doesn’t remember ever seeing. When they finally arrive at Balem’s quarters Jupiter is too tired to even protest.
She stops at the table he leads them to and watches him pour a clear liquid into a glass. The sharp burning scent is all Jupiter needs to know before she puts it to her lips and pours the liquor down her throat in one quick swallow. The warmth spreads from her belly to her head in record time.
Jupiter pulls the crystal decanter from his hand and pours another round into her glass. This time though, she presses the glass into his hand. Balem doesn’t hesitate before tipping the drink back in one go. Jupiter takes another glass and brings it with the decanter to the couch in the center of the room. Balem follows her, taking another drink when she fills his glass, Jupiter doing the same. After his fourth drink, Jupiter declines to say anything as a tear slips down Balem’s face.
Later, as bottle lays empty on the floor Jupiter cradles Balem’s head in her lap, his hand wrapped around hers where it lays on his shoulder as he finally allows his tears to come.
Jupiter watches the stars, and thinks what a fine pair they make.