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The Choice is Yours

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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.

Chapter Text

A sigh leaves her as Jupiter gives the arcing golden lightning symbol on the top of the black box a cursory glance.  What did he want now?

“Could you put it on my bed?” she asks her Keeper who still holds the gift out to her expectantly.  With Aunt Nino in the living room and Jupiter the only one in the normally crowded home to stay with her over the extended 4th of July weekend she doesn’t have time to see what Balem has chosen to gift upon her this time.  She was running out of places to hide things.

The Keeper gives a quick nod and disappears in a flash of pixels, the distracting box going away with him.  Once the sound of small feet scurrying along the ceiling leave the kitchen Jupiter’s only companion is the crushing heat and humidity forcing its way past the old air conditioning unit.

It’s that same humidity that’s making Aunt Nino so uncomfortable.  Jupiter fills the glass of water she’d originally come into the kitchen for and quickly brings it to her Aunt.  Some reality show buzzes in the background, but Aunt Nino isn’t paying attention over her labored breathing, punctuated by the occasional deep hacking cough.

“Here,” Jupiter says, helping her sit up straighter in the chair to take a sip of the water, ignoring the metallic scent of Aunt Nino’s exhale when she pushes the glass away.

“Thank you, Jupiter,” Aunt Nino says, smiling as she tries her hardest to breathe, to finally catch her breath.

“It’s nothing,” Jupiter says.  Quick hands replace the reddened towel in Aunt Nino’s hand with a clean one.  Jupiter’s chest tightens as she watches Aunt Nino’s brow furrow, fighting back the cough tearing its way through her dying lungs.

Jupiter’s warm hand holds Aunt Nino’s cold one as she fights her way through the worst of the cough, pouring what support she can into the tight grip and hoping she understands what Jupiter can’t manage to form into words.  When the cough eases and Aunt Nino leans back against the chair (how long had it been since she’d been able to lie down without coughing?) Jupiter stands back up.

“I’ll be right back,” she says, then dashes up the stairs to the bathroom and locks the door behind her.  Not that she needs to; Aunt Nino hasn’t been able to climb the stairs since May.  As her fingers grip the edge of the sink Jupiter sees her white face and wide eyes fill the mirror.  Jupiter watches herself in the mirror, somehow looking exactly the same on the outside, yet a completely different person inside. 

Glaring at her reflection, she repeats the only words that have kept her sane these past few months.

“Everybody dies.”

Aunt Nino will die.  Seraphi will die.  Even eternal Balem and Kalique.  And one day she will die. 

Why does it have to be so soon, though?  Can’t it wait a little longer?  Until she has some hold on her life and can show her family how grand and terrible the universe truly is? 

But no.  Everybody dies.  And no one got to choose when, no matter how much the entitled felt like they could control their fates.

Jupiter fills the sink with cold water and leaves the towel there to soak to remove the stain of Aunt Nino’s pain.  Her feet stop on the top stair as her eyes catch on the black box sitting in her room, directly in the center of her bed, right where she’d asked her Keeper to put it.

Giving into the urge to avoid the pain downstairs Jupiter falls heavily onto her bed with a soft “Oof!” and crosses her legs as she presses her palm to Balem’s insignia.  The top slides away to reveal several boxes and canisters, all with a sheave and piece of paper lying on top.

The paper is thick, expensive card stock, gleaming bright gold in the sunlight coming through the window.  Something is written in flowing Orousian on the paper, the handwriting spiked yet purposeful.  Jupiter puzzles at the words for a moment, brain piecing together a language she is still perfecting.

The choice is yours.

“What?” Jupiter whispers as the words come to her.  There is nothing written on the back when she flips it over.  Jupiter sets the paper aside to pick up the sheave, hoping there’s more than Balem’s overly cryptic statement within.  It flashes to life, a message from Niana immediately prompting Jupiter to read.

Jupiter,

Please do not be offended at the gift.  Balem and Kalique felt it would be appropriate to at least offer you this option.  I am merely the facilitator of their wishes.

Please treat this gift with the utmost care.  Each product is made from the highest quality medical grade Regenex the Abrasax family produces.  Despite your expressed distaste for the many ways members of the First Estate imbibe Regenex, Kalique felt this would be the only palatable way you would accept their offer.

I have refined all of the Regenex in the case into forms suitable for ingestion, either in liquid or solid form.  Instructions for methods of preparation, along with recipe suggestions, are enclosed on this sheave and with each container.

Jupiter, if you choose to accept their gift I would recommend several doses.  The readings brought forward by your Keepers are dire, and I fear that too small a dose will only prolong your Aunt’s suffering.

If you have any questions about proper Regenex administration, please contact me as soon as possible.  While you feel that our methods are monstrous, my only intent is to see your Aunt live to her fullest potential.

My best regards,

Niana

The sheave falls from Jupiter’s fingers with a soft thud against her comforter.

“Holy shit."

There is an entire box full of Regenex sitting on her comforter.  Right in front of her.  And it’s supposed to save Aunt Nino.  Jupiter swallows thickly.  She knows how much what’s in that box costs.  And has an inkling of how many lives went into it.

Shaking fingers slide one of the shining silver topped canisters from the box.  Light blue liquid sloshes against the sides as Jupiter tips it, finally holding the very thing that caused her so much horror in Balem’s refinery. 

She holds back a gasping breath with a hand over her mouth.  Something so terrible shouldn’t be so beautiful.

Words, thankfully in English this time, appear on one side of the canister, backlit against the blue Regenex.  Her eyes dart over what she realizes is a list of precautions and storage instructions.

Do not heat over 1000 degrees Fahrenheit

Do not freeze

Store in a dark location

Use one-half solution of water and Regenex for desired cooking consistency

Jupiter spots another box, this one filled with a glittering blue powder.  Flour replacement?  Does it affect the taste at all?  Chocolate would cover up any lingering flavors, especially if she uses that raspberry filling her Mother…

Jupiter throws the canister onto the bed.  What is she doing?  That box is evil, full of nothing but death paid for the results desired.  Trembling fingers put the Regenex into the box and quickly place the sheave and note back on top.  Before she can reconsider her reaction Jupiter closes the lid and shoves it under her bed, putting the box and its’ horrors from her mind.

 

****************

 

“Jupiter?” Aunt Nino says.  Jupiter looks up from her book.  Well, really, it’s a sheave with a hologram to make it look like a book, so Jupiter can keep learning the complex mathematics the Abrasax Industry is built on.

“Do you need anything?” she asks, the sheave already placed on the coffee table as she uncurls herself from the couch.

“No, I,” a cough interrupts her.  Jupiter holds the towel to her mouth, praying there isn’t any blood this time.  When it finally abates, Aunt Nino continues.

“You know, of course you do, that this isn’t the life your mother and father wanted for you?” she says, trying so hard to make her voice strong through her ruined lungs.  Jupiter blinks in confusion.

“Of course,” she says.  Aunt Nino smiles and takes Jupiter’s hand, running her fingers over each knuckle like a prayer.

“They would talk, all the time, about what you would be.  Max,” Jupiter’s eyes dart to Aunt Nino’s, her mother never says his name, “said he knew you were going to be spectacular.  That you would be a brilliant scientist just like them, win a Nobel.  You would be just as glorious as that red dot of a planet he loved to gaze at,” Jupiter gives a watery smile, fighting the tears in her eyes.  Aunt Nino is the only one who ever tells Jupiter about her father.  Her mother had long ago locked away her memories, her love, for Jupiter’s father in her heart, too scared to speak of it.  Too terrified to shatter the memories into a million pieces.

“It’s where your name really comes from, you know.  Not from that little astrology story I tell you of all the time.” Aunt Nino continues, “That Jupiter was actually ascendant when you were born, well,” she smiles, squeezing Jupiter’s hand, taking long breaths to keep speaking, “it’s the only time I’ve ever believed that the cosmos truly cares about us.”

“Aunt Nino, don’t,” Jupiter starts, but a sharp noise from her Aunt stops her protests.

“I will speak, Jupiter,” she says, “There are so many things Aleksa has never told you.”

Everybody dies, that traitorous whispers.

“Okay,” Jupiter whispers, moving to sit on the arm of her Aunt’s chair, wrapping her arm around her shoulder so she can’t see her silent tears.

“What do you want to tell me?”

While Aunt Nino sleeps that night, propped up by several pillows to help her breathing, Jupiter pulls the box from underneath her bed.  She reads the golden paper one more time and then takes the sheave.  The box returns to its place under the bed, but Jupiter stays awake until dawn turns the sky pale gold reading all of Niana’s instructions.

 

*********************

 

“Will you pick these up for me?” Jupiter holds the list out to the Keeper.  It takes the paper, committing the grocery items to memory, before handing it back.

“Of course,” an inhuman voice says, words not matching the mouth incapable of inhuman speech.  “Is there anything else you require?”

To not be in this situation.

“No, thank you,” Jupiter says.  The Keeper bows its head, then disappears out the back door.

 

********************

 

There will be fireworks in the evening.  Bright, flaming explosions of color to celebrate the independence of a country that means absolutely nothing to anyone with true power.  Wind from the lake will carry the smell of sulfur and burnt plastic to their home, mixing with the thick humidity to stick to her skin like a brand, marking her as an outsider to their joyous celebrations of freedom and hope.

Everybody dies.

Jupiter may not belong to their hope, but she can make her own.

The burning of the oven is oppressive in the July heat, but Jupiter breathes it in, feels it radiate into her skin below her shorts.  The breeze through the open window barely cools the sweat on her neck, catching the few tendrils of hair escaping from her ponytail.

Instructions and ratios glow from the sheave.  Flour and glittering blue powder is mixed with exacting precision, liquids mixed together with care.  The mixer does not go above level 4, compliance with the knowledge that over-beating will dampen the effects of her chemistry results.

Chocolate will conceal the color, hopefully hide the shimmer in its dark cocoa.  Extra vanilla will be needed in the frosting to hide the slight bitter flavor her extra ingredient is known to give overly sweet confections.  However, according to several forums Jupiter has found it will do wonders to make sure the cake is moist.

The raspberries stay on the far side of the kitchen.  The acid content in the fruit is too low to cause any potency dilution, but Jupiter is taking no chances.

When the batter is poured into the round pans and they are finally placed into the oven to cook, Jupiter looks into the living room to check on Aunt Nino.  Sleeping, her wheezing shallow breaths the only marker that she still graces their world.

Jupiter runs through the calculations in her mind again.  Triple checking her math.  Everything is in order.  There will be more than enough in two slices to fix everything.

Later, while the cakes are cooling and the raspberry filling chills in the fridge, Jupiter mixes the powdered sugar and a different variation of the Regenex powder together, mixes in cocoa powder and more vanilla, beats the mixture together with butter. 

She does not taste the frosting.

 

**********************

 

Aunt Nino is sitting in the deck chair, waiting for Jupiter to bring the binoculars.  Dusk is just falling, which means the sky is about to light up in a brilliant show.

The knife in her hand clatters against the plate, betraying the shake of her hand and an echo of her inner turmoil.  The cake sits on the counter, chocolate frosting gleaming in the low light.  If Jupiter tilts her head just right she swears she can see a soft glitter on the crests of her careful frosting work. 

Aunt Nino will never notice.  Why would a glittering cake be out of place?

A deep breath later and Jupiter’s hand stills, the knife steady as she cuts two slices from the cake.  Two glasses of milk are poured, each with another dose of her special ingredient.  She will be thorough.

One more breath, plates balanced on one arm, and Jupiter pushes her way out to the porch.

“No binoculars?” Aunt Nino asks. 

Jupiter snorts and sets the plate and milk in front of her Aunt.  “You know we won’t need them,” she says.  Aunt Nino smiles and takes the offered fork.

“True,” she cuts a piece of the cake with her fork, barely giving it a second glance.  Jupiter sets her own plate on her knees, second glass of milk on the decking next to her own chair.

When Aunt Nino raises the fork to her mouth, cake resting on the tines, Jupiter mirrors her actions.  And when Aunt Nino eats her first bite, Jupiter does the same.

Everybody dies.

True.  Everyone will die. 

But today, Jupiter’s family will not be among them.