Before his mission to hunt down Jupiter, Caine hadn’t ever been to Earth. He’d been to places like it, or places that had once been like it, but he’d never set foot on the blue planet, the most important item in all of Jupiter Jones's inheritance.
For the universe at large, Earth would merely be the starting point for the tale that had already begun to wind itself into the legend of the recurrence of Seraphi Abrasax. For Caine it was just another planet, another landscape to learn and culture to absorb in order to keep his queen safe. But for Jupiter, Earth was beautiful – the brightest jewel there was in the black vastness of space. He’d catch Jupiter gazing at it in wonder, from space and otherwise; that usually led to Stinger catching him gazing the same way at Jupiter.
“You could smile when you do that, you know,” he'd said once, right after he punched Caine's shoulder. “You look like you're sizing her up for a mid-afternoon snack. Makes everyone nervous.”
Stinger was, of course, the only person in the entire universe who could get away with a comment like that, considering what he'd done for Caine.
“I thought I was smiling,” he'd replied. Stinger had only laughed at him.
For as long as possible, Jupiter stayed on Earth. After the destruction of the Jupiter Refinery and Balem Abrasax, she remained a part of her uncle’s house, sleeping in her single bed next to her mother and aunt, working six days a week, and caring for her family. She utterly ignored most pleas for her attention that came from space, preferring instead to delegate to Advocate Bob.
But Jupiter had always known she’d need to press on with Space Business eventually, and that had to start with moving away from her family. It wasn’t something she’d relish, but it also wasn’t something she’d be able to avoid, even if she weren’t the genetic recurrence of a space queen. Every young person moved away from home at some point.
The first step was to introduce Caine to her family. She manufactured a simple story about him being a soldier and prepared her mother for his teeth and ears by telling her that he’d gone through a body modification phase as a youngster, which wasn’t entirely untrue. He’d always have to hide the wings, but those mantled under jackets or hooded sweaters easily enough.
Aleksa was fully prepared to be unimpressed by Mr. Wise when they met for lunch at Millennium Park one sunny autumn afternoon. In civilian clothes – and without the black kohl lining his eyes – he looked as tame as he ever would.
Jupiter looked collected on the surface, but Caine knew – because he knew her scent so well – that she was a little nervous. As for Aleksa – well, if she had hackles, they’d have been up.
She was polite, if reserved, at first. As they ate she spoke mostly to Jupiter, and it was easy enough to tell where Jupiter got her directness from. Caine watched Aleksa subtly watching him and wondered when the onslaught of questions would begin.
It started with Jupiter, when he rose to find a trash can in which to throw the wrappings from their lunch. As soon as she thought he was out of earshot, Aleksa poked her daughter's shoulder.
“You like this boy?”
“Yes, Mom – I like him,” she replied with a laugh, rubbing the spot where her mother's finger left a twinge. “What do you think?”
“I think he's too quiet,” she replied. “The teeth – never mind, he doesn't smile anyway.”
“He smiles,” protested Jupiter with a laugh. She was summarily ignored.
“But the ears! They need to be fixed. What kind of self-respecting man has pointed ears? Why doesn't the Army make him fix those ears?” She paused only long enough to breathe before saying, “Well. At least this one doesn't have face tattoos.”
“Spike was nice,” said Jupiter, and Caine could hear the humor in her voice, even if he was making plans in the back of his mind to find Spike. Just to say hello. And show him his shiniest knife.
“No. Spike was not nice. Spike's name was Spike. And since you're so quick to forget, he hurt you. Dated you to get back at his cow of an ex-wife and then dumped you.” She snapped her fingers. “Like that.”
And the mauler.
Jupiter shrugged. “He was nice until then.”
“Just playing at it,” said Aleksa, shaking her head. “Lucky you didn't end up his baby momma.”
Caine hadn't ever heard that particular term before, but could figure it out easily enough, and licked his canines. But then Jupiter caught his eyes as she laughed outright at Aleksa's choice of words, and instead Caine sat back down on the blanket with them.
“So,” said Aleksa, turning to him immediately, “you have tattoos?”
If the barrage of questions for him was going to begin with tattoos, he supposed that was as neutral a topic as could be expected. “Yes,” he replied. “Would you like to see it?”
“No. Where is it?”
Caine patted his right bicep; he and Aleksa both ignored Jupiter's scowl of irritation.
Aleksa lifted her chin. “What is?”
“It's representative of my unit,” he replied. “I'd be happy to show you.”
“No,” she said again. “That's the only one?”
Caine wondered whether she'd consider the brand on his neck – hidden by the hooded sweater he wore – a tattoo, but either way, he was certain she didn't need to know about it. Not yet, anyway. “Yes, ma'am.”
“So you have ink to represent your Army unit?”
“Your job – this is what you tattoo on your person.”
He nodded. “Yes, ma'am.”
“Jupiter – maybe we should get one, too. You get toilet brush, I get bleach bottle. Nino get a duster, eh?”
Jupiter was not impressed. “Mother.”
“What? It's funny.” Aleksa shrugged, and noted that while Caine didn't really smile, his eyes were a little crinkled around the corners. She addressed him again. “Why nothing for family?”
“Mom, we talked about this,” cut in Jupiter, laying a hand on Caine's knee. Her voice was sharp.
Aleksa put her hands up and scowled back at her daughter. “What? What did we talk about? You said his parents died, so what? So did one of yours.”
Jupiter turned a regretful look on Caine, who shook his head, and caressed her hand. “It's all right, Jupiter,” he said quietly. Then he turned to Aleksa. “I never knew my parents,” he said. It was easy to say, because it was the truth. “I don't have any siblings.” That was an outright lie, but not one he could get around. “My unit is my family.”
She appeared to be unmoved. “So you grew up – where? Orphanage?”
“Military school,” Caine replied. It was true enough.
“And they didn't discourage body modification?”
“Yes, okay – I'll stop with the ears. So. What about an ex-wife? You have one of those?”
He shook his head. “No, ma'am.”
Now Aleksa pulled a concerned and discouraged face. “Really no family at all?”
Caine shook his head again, and squeezed the hand that Jupiter wrapped around his. “No, ma'am.”
Aleksa straightened her back and looked away. “Well.”
Jupiter shot Caine a worried look for a moment; he tried to reassure her by softening his expression and pressing her hand again. The corners of his mouth curled up in what Jupiter knew was a smile, even if her mother didn't; she smiled back at him.
“Jupiter,” said Aleksa suddenly, as she turned to command her daughter's attention. “We need to go home. Our own house needs to get cleaned at some point. If you and Pointy-Ears here are still an item at Thanksgiving, you'll bring him home.”
Her daughter's eyebrows shot up. “Oh. Oka-”
“I'll give you a minute to say goodbye – remember you're in public, please.” Aleksa rose from the blanket and picked up the picnic basket, and moved away about twenty feet, but didn't take her eyes off the couple.
“That was sudden.”
Caine brushed Jupiter's hair off her shoulder. “She got nervous,” he said.
Jupiter sighed and shook her head, sending her hair cascading over her shoulder again. “I wish I understood her. But hey – at least she didn't get too weird.” She rose, as did Caine, and they picked up and folded the blanket. “Maybe she realizes how much I like you and-” Her eyes widened, and she covered her mouth as she went a little pale as she gazed up at Caine. “Oh, God. I bet that's it.”
Caine pulled her close. “Soldiers – any kind of soldiers – can be sent anywhere, at any time. Your mother knows that. I think if I were a mother who had such a beautiful daughter, it might disturb me to realize one day how close she could be to moving away.” He put his hand against her cheek and caressed her skin with his thumb.
Jupiter drew in a breath, and then let it out as she closed her eyes and rested her head against his chest. “I'll have to be careful,” she said quietly. “The last thing I want to do is hurt her.”
Caine kissed her forehead in response, and wrapped his arms around her. He squeezed as tight as he could with the blanket between them; when she pulled away he enjoyed watching her face transform into a grin.
“She's wrong about one thing.”
“And that would be?” he asked, tilting his head.
“You do smile.”
Caine kissed her, and watched her as she walked away with her mother.
Thanksgiving, it turned out, was chaos. Or it appeared to be when Caine arrived at the house, outfitted in jeans and an Army hoodie, sans eye liner. He could hear all manner of noise happening inside, which he would ordinarily find very alarming considering Jupiter's presence within the house. But any nerves were stayed by his hearing, quite clearly, his queen's melodious laughter.
When he knocked on the door, her voice declaring that she'd “get it” made his heart thud in anticipation. She opened the door, and a rush of scents came at him so quickly he found it nearly overpowering: some kind of roast bird and savory herbs mixed up with other food smells, an odd, artificial musk, the unique scent of newness that only young ones carried, and alcohol – vodka, she'd told him, there would be lots of it – all mingled with Jupiter's own scent.
She watched him inhale deeply, and smiled at him. “You just gonna stand there and smell the house, or come in?”
He considered for a moment. “Might a humble soldier beg a kiss first, your Majesty?”
Jupiter laughed and leaned in to oblige, and then led him into the house.
His introduction to Jupiter's family was polite and confusing – why were there so many cousins? - and he really was pleased to see Aleksa again. But his already limited amount of charm was stopped cold when he laid eyes on Jupiter's cousin, Vladie.
The story Jupiter had told of how she'd met Caine was, like most of the things she'd told her family, mostly true. She'd told them that she and Caine met when she ran into some troublemakers outside the shady fertility clinic which Vladie had sent her to.
So it really came as no surprise to anyone that Caine was less than impressed with Vladie. The terse nod of acknowledgment Caine issued when introduced was all Vladie was going to get, not least because the artificial musk scent which he'd detected when Jupiter opened the door, now attributable to Vladie, irritated his sensitive nose. It pleased Caine that the pheromones rolling off of the little weasel indicated that he was nervous.
In the hours that followed, Caine experienced something he hadn't in a long time, not since he'd been a proper part of the Legion in a unit of Skyjackers: a rowdy meal at a table full of happy people. Vassily looked sideways at his ears once, and shrugged them off. The women – all of them – smiled a lot, and asked a lot of questions. Vassily's mother asked him twice who he was. Moltka and Mikka mostly ignored him in favor of antagonizing each other; he hoped it wasn't too obvious to Jupiter how closely he watched them.
There was also more food than he'd seen in a long time, most of which was brand new to him, but he could only claim to not know the Russian delicacies added to the traditional meal: blintzes and smoked herring and beets, all of which he genuinely enjoyed.
It made him uncomfortable that they insisted he be served first, and he hoped no one noticed that he didn't start eating until Jupiter did. When the dishes started making their way a second time around the table, he simply passed them on to Jupiter, who was seated to his right. This was borne of long habit – he was a Skyjacker now, but he didn't start out that way. New recruits ate last, and even among new recruits, there was a hierarchy.
But Aleksa was having none of it, no matter where it came from, and she plopped a big spoonful of mashed potatoes down on his plate before passing the bowl over to Jupiter.
He looked over at her, seated on his left. “Mrs. Jones, I really-”
“Eat,” she said. “You think you'll find better mashed potatoes in the mess hall? You won't. Eat.”
What else could Caine do? He looked over at Jupiter, who repeated her mother's instruction. Who was he to disobey his queen, and her mother besides? He ate the potatoes.
And more herring.
And more turkey.
That evening, when a slightly drunk Vassily rubbed his full, rounded belly and Mikka teased him that it looked like a balloon about to pop, Caine made his excuses to step outside for a solitary moment on the porch. Ostensibly this was to call his commanding officer; the real reason was so that he could execute a routine security sweep.
Once that was completed, he stood sentry on the steps of the porch, listening to the sounds of laughter coming from the house. It felt good to experience life like this again, after all the despair of the Deadland, where he could never manage to get the image of Stinger's wings being clipped out of his head.
That was why, perhaps, he couldn't smile properly. Practice makes perfect, Jupiter had said, when she didn't quite get the hang of the boots at first. He needed practice, and Jupiter's family was probably going to provide ample opportunity for that.
He was mulling over the odd looks he kept getting from Nino – he was pretty sure it had been Nino, anyway – as she told jokes or fired off witty remarks during dinner, when his ears perked up. Someone was behind him.
The breathing and the footfalls were soft; the door opening had been loud enough, but it was likely that no one else heard the creaking of the porch floorboards. Caine smelled sugar and cream mixed up with that distinct little-one scent, and the slightest hint of testosterone, which meant it was the little boy.
The shuffling and creaking and breathing stopped. Caine was vaguely impressed with his stillness, mostly because he could smell the little boy’s rush of anxiety.
“How do you know it's me?” he whispered.
“I can hear you.”
“I think you have eyes in the back of your head. Vladie says he does too.”
“Vladie,” intoned Caine, “would be safer with a pair of eyes in the back of his head.”
At this point Moltka gave up every pretension of sneaking, and came to sit on the steps next to Caine. “Why are you out here? It's cold.”
Caine turned his head to look the little boy over. “I’m not really used to being around people,” he replied honestly. “And if it's cold, Moltka, you should have protective clothing on.”
Caine quirked an eyebrow at him before reaching down and setting his hand on Moltka's cheek. “I don't get cold.”
Moltka's nose wrinkled. “Is that because you’re a soldier?”
Caine figured that was as good an explanation as any, and nodded. “Yes. But you are not a soldier, and Jupiter would be very angry with me if I let you stay outside in the cold.”
“Are you in love with Jupiter?”
What Caine felt for Jupiter was so much more than love, but he only nodded again.
“Well, you don’t seem very happy about it.”
Moltka's matter-of-fact delivery of this opinion caught Caine off-guard a little. He'd never considered himself happier than he was at that moment, chatting with a nosy little Terrsie, on the porch of a slightly run-down home, in the manufactured suburb of an over-populated city on a big wet rock that didn't recognize the existence of Jupiter Jones, Cleaning Lady, much less her Majesty Jupiter Jones, Sovereign of the House of Abrasax.
“What makes you think I’m not happy about it?”
“You don’t smile.” Moltka inched closer, and was looking right into Caine's eyes. “She doesn’t sit in your lap or hold your hand or anything.”
“Why would Jupiter sit in my lap?” he asked with a genuinely confused scowl.
“She’s sat in other boys’ laps before.”
Caine’s eyebrows shot up. “Has she?”
“Yeah.” The little boy ignored his companion's irritated snort. “She said it’s because she wanted to be close to them but I think it’s because she wanted to make Auntie Aleksa mad.”
“And did that work?”
“Yeah. Auntie doesn’t like Jupiter’s boyfriends. But she likes you.”
Caine looked down at Moltka. “How can you tell?”
“Because she gave you more potatoes,” replied Moltka, as though it were obvious. “Auntie doesn’t give Vladie more potatoes. Ever. Especially lately – she says it's a waste of food.”
It occurred to Caine, then, what Aleksa had been doing when she plopped the rounded spoonful onto his plate. It hadn’t taken him long to figure out that Aleksa wasn’t a demonstrative individual. She was a lot like Stinger, who showed he cared for the people he loved by taking care of them, even if it meant punishing himself.
More potatoes for Caine didn’t necessarily mean anyone else went without food. But she didn’t want him to walk away hungry. She wanted him to know that when he was with Jupiter’s family, they would take care of him.
And that did make him smile. A full-blown, genuine smile, right at Moltka. In the darkness. With his teeth showing.
Moltka stared right at his mouth with his own hanging open a little. When Caine realized it he closed his lips around his smile, and waited for the little boy to react.
“Ohmygod. You. Have fangs.”
Caine waited just a breath before asking, “Do they frighten you, Moltka?”
Moltka's little face lit up. “No! Those are so cool – I want fangs!”
The front door opened abruptly then, and Vladie stood in the entryway. “Hey, Molt– oh, uh… hi, Caine,” he stammered.
Caine raised his eyes, but just barely. The anxiety was rolling off of Moltka’s older brother in waves.
Vladie swallowed hard. “It’s just . . . it’s time for bed,” he said to Caine, and then spluttered. “Um – for Moltka, I mean. Not for you. Not – not that you, you know. Would have a bedtime. Being a . . . grown man . . . and all.”
Caine held his glare for a practiced second. Then he bent down so he was eye-to-eye with Moltka.
“Jupiter told me that you like bedtime stories.”
Moltka smiled and nodded eagerly. “Will you tell me one? A war story?”
Caine was grateful for his enthusiasm, since Moltka’s excitement helped masked the scent of Vladie’s fear. “War in real life is horrible, Moltka; the stories are no fun,” he said. “But I’ll tell you a fairy tale that comes from one of the places I’ve been. It’s about a girl in very great danger because of a jewel that was part of her inheritance, and the soldier who had to hunt her down.” Caine stood and offered his hand to Moltka, who took it with a smile.
“And next time I come,” he added, “you can share my extra potatoes.”
Moltka giggled at Vladie, and pulled on Caine's hand to drag him back into the house.
If Caine showed a little fang as he passed Jupiter’s elder cousin, well . . . he was just smiling.