Jupiter had once asked her why she didn’t date.
Her daughter had been young - too young to understand the impact that heartbreak can have on a person, how it changes them. As she always did in those days when the echo of that initial period of agony once again repeated, Aleksa had muttered some platitude about working too hard and caring for her family meant she didn’t have time for romance. The truth, as it always was, was far more complicated.
Her excuses were only half-truths. The fact was that she still missed her husband, missed him so much that it still pained her. But she also missed being in love, which were not at all the same things. She missed that one particular man, yes. But she also just missed the happiness he inspired in her. She also missed her life, she missed her career, she missed the future she would have had...so many things.
But she’d made the right choices. The only choices. And she was happy to live with them. Not just for her daughter’s sake, but her own.
Sometimes, she wondered if she was afraid, or just practical. She had little to offer a man, but she still believed she deserved a good one, if she had one at all. The chances of finding such an exemplary man again in her life were slim.
And yet still Jupiter’s question lingered.
Jupiter didn’t ask the question again until she’d begun dating that mysterious boy that she never brought home.
It was clear to Aleksa that her daughter was very much in love. And, so, she probably should have expected the subject to turn to her own lack of romance once again. But, still the question took her by surprise.
“Are you ever going to date again?” Jupiter asked her one evening over tea, as they rested after a long and tiring day.
In her surprise and exhaustion, Aleksa answered more candidly than she otherwise might have. “I think about it sometimes,” she said, staring down into her cup.
“Come to any conclusions?” her daughter asked casually.
“You are grown now, Ласточка,” she began, the endearment slipping off her tongue in her native Russian, despite the household rule to use English. “You may not tell me, but I know you are in love. You may leave soon and begin your own life. When you do, I think sometimes I might like to do the same.”
She saw Jupiter’s hand slide into her field of vision and wrap around hers where it held the mug. “I think you deserve some of you own, private happiness, Mama.”
Aleksa nodded, touched at her daughter’s newly-discovered empathy. This man she was seeing, perhaps he was good for her.
“Your father was a great man,” she whispered, feeling the old tears threaten once again.
“And you are a great woman.”
Aleksa laughed at that, as she was meant to.
“You find me a nice man, and I will take it from there,” she said with a smile. Jupiter grinned in reply.
“Maybe I will.”
Aleksa eventually insisted on meeting the man that was making her daughter so happy.
Other than his nerves and almost deferential politeness, she didn’t notice anything so odd that would have kept her daughter from introducing them sooner.
At first, anyway.
It was a gathering of the little things that gave it away. The way he ate, and moved, and the words he said. The fact that he wore a beanie and coat at all times despite clearly being uncomfortable in them.
Aleksa was familiar with the experience of trying to fit into a place that was not her world. So, she did not draw attention to the differences, but instead embraced him into the fold of her family.
When the time was right, she took the boy aside and told him that if ever hurt Jupiter, that she would crush his balls to dust. He looked more shocked by the idea of him hurting Jupiter than her castrating him, so she decided he was the right kind of man for her daughter.
She hadn’t quite figured out all her daughter’s secrets, though she knew she must be keeping some rather large ones.
After debating with Nino whether she should pry, Aleksa decided that she liked the closeness that she had with her daughter now. She would trust that Jupiter would tell her when she is ready.
In the end, the day happened before either of them were truly ready.
“Mama, it’s just a mini-break, don't worry,” Jupiter said as she kissed her mother’s forehead.
Normally, Aleksa knew she would be excited for her daughter, going away for her first holiday with her man. But neither she nor Caine were acting as she would have expected. Caine seemed impatient, and Jupiter seemed nervous. Not excited-nervous, either. Afraid-nervous.
“Are you sure you want to go?” she asked Jupiter softly, so Caine would not hear from where he was pacing by the door. His head shot round, riveting on Jupiter as if waiting for her to answer that question. As with many of the other odd moments around that man, Aleksa dismissed it and turned her focus back to her daughter.
“I need to go,” Jupiter replied. “It’s important.”
Aleksa didn’t wonder why Jupiter would think a weekend by a lake was important. Her daughter had considered less significant things to be essential in the past.
But that didn’t stop Aleksa from worrying.
“What if something happens to you? Do you have a phone number of where you are staying so I can call?”
Jupiter thought for a moment. Then, she turned to Caine. A silent, instantaneous communication passed between the two, and Jupiter seemed to come to a decision.
“We will give you the number of a friend of ours. We are due back Sunday night. If we aren’t back by Monday morning, and I don’t answer my phone, then you can call him. He’ll probably know what has happened. All right?”
Aleksa looked at her daughter, really looked at her, for the first time in a long time. She noted the maturity in her eyes that had not been there a few months ago, and the pleading in her eyes for her mother to understand.
Aleksa sighed and nodded. As Jupiter put a number into her phone under the odd name of ‘Stinger’, Aleksa hoped that the feeling of dread pooling in her stomach was just motherly nerves.
By the time Monday lunch time rolled around and Jupiter was nowhere to be seen, Aleksa was deep in panic mode.
They weren’t working that day, so Aleksa had plenty of free thinking time to let her worry overwhelm her. Neither she nor Nino had slept much the night before, too busy worrying about all the scenarios that could go wrong.
Nino coped by making copious cups of tea for them both, though mugs of the cooling liquid were already scattered across the table in front of them.
“She’ll be alright, won’t she?” She couldn’t lose Jupiter. She couldn’t go through it all again.
Nino shrugged helplessly. “You should call the number.”
Aleksa knew she was right. She had avoided it until now, knowing that as soon as she did she was admitting that Jupiter was in trouble.
Pulling out her phone, Aleksa’s thumb hovered over the strange name that Jupiter had saved there.
After a moment, she pressed the button to dial, and waited as the shrill rings rattled her already shattered nerves.
“Hello?” answered a gruff voice.
“Hello?” Aleksa replied. “My name is Aleksa Jones and-”
“Jupiter and Caine have not returned?” he asked with sudden urgency.
“They told me to call you. I know everything is likely fine, but I worry. I-”
“Pack a bag,” he interrupted her. “Tell everyone that lives there with you to do so, too. I’ll be there within the hour.”
The phone line went dead. Aleksa looked at Nino, but couldn’t quite focus on her.
“What did he say?” she asked.
“He said...to pack our bags.”
“Maybe he will take us on our own mini-break?” Nino joked half-heartedly.
Aleksa didn’t know what to think.
Fifty-three minutes later, a car pulled up out the front of their house. A man in a bulky jacket like the one that Caine always wore sprang out of the car and walked up to their front door. Before he could knock, she and Nino had pulled the door open. He stopped, looking at them in surprise for a brief moment.
As he did so, two other people stepped around the corner and flanked him on either side. He greeted them in hushed undertones, and then continued towards her and Nino, his eyes not straying from where they had locked onto her. Aleksa’s heartbeat sped up, though whether from fear or something else, she couldn’t be sure.
“What is going on? Are you the man named Stinger?” she demanded.
“Yes,” he said. “I’ve come to take you to safety.”
“We are not going anywhere with you,” she told him. At that, he stopped a few steps from her.
Out of the corner of her eye, Aleksa saw Nino’s appreciative gaze sweep over the man. “I wouldn’t say that,” she said in Russian.
Aleksa gave Nino a warning look before turning back to Stinger. “Not until you tell me what happened to my daughter,” she amended.
“Her H-” he began. “Jupiter is alive, but in some trouble. We have people working on getting her out of it, but first we need to make sure that her family are safe.”
“ Please . I’ll explain on the way.”
There was a pained kind of sincerity in his expression that stopped Aleksa’s next protest. He was worried, just as she was. And right now, he was the only connection that she had to her daughter.
“I...alright,” she murmured softly.
Relief bloomed on his face even as worry spread through her chest.
“My colleagues here will take the rest of your family. Where are they?”
“Some are away for a few days on business,” she replied. “Others will be due home soon.”
“Good. We can send some people to watch over them. Those out of the city should be safe enough, and I’ll send a few people out for the rest.”
Aleksa wasn’t quite sure how she ended up in the passenger seat of a car driving on a deserted road out of the city with a strange man, but it seemed to happen so quickly.
“Is Stinger your real name?” she asked, the first thing she’d said since she asked where they were going an hour ago. His evasive ‘someplace safe’ had not inspired a desire to talk.
His eyes slid over to her, then back to the road. “Yes.”
“So it isn’t some kind of gang name?” she persisted.
The corner of his mouth curved up into a smile at that, and Aleksa realised he was actually quite handsome.
“No,” he replied. “I was named this at birth.”
“What kind of parent’s name their child Stinger? American’s with their crazy names…”
“It wasn’t my parents,” he said, then didn’t elaborate further. Aleksa studied him a little, trying to figure him out. “And I am definitely not American,” he finished.
“What is going on?” she asked quietly after a moment. He sighed.
“I wish I could tell you, but it is not my place. It would be better coming from you daughter.”
“Will I see her again?” she asked, voice soft with fear at what the answer might be.
“ Yes ,” he said fiercely, determination pouring from him in a wave. Aleksa let his belief wash over her, strengthening her.
“Will you tell me where we are going now?” she asked.
He glanced at her again. “My house,” he said eventually.
Aleksa raised her brows. “Why there?”
He shifted in his seat, eyes straight ahead. “It is heavily fortified, particularly since the last attempt they made. I have weapons there if they are needed. Though, hopefully, they simply won’t think to look there.”
“Who is ‘they’?” she asked, exasperated by the secrets and vague half-truths.
“Your daughter’s enemies. They are very powerful. And, currently, very angry.”
A strange mixture of terror, confusion, and relief filled her. Terror for her daughter’s safety; confusion at who could hate her daughter enough to be termed an enemy; and relief that she finally had a semblance of an answer.
“Is Jupiter hiding from them, too?”
He stilled. “Not exactly. She’s...their captive. Of sorts.” He turned, maneuvering the car along the side of a corn field.
Aleksa froze as his words sunk in. “No,” was all she could say. Her hand reached out of its own volition and gripped his arm, her fingers digging in tightly. He looked down at her touch, but said nothing, just patted her hand in a comforting gesture. His eyes flickered up to hers for a brief, charged second, then slid back to the road.
“She’s fine. Hurting or killing her wouldn’t do them any good. In fact, they are well aware it is in their best interest to treat her well and try to lure her to be their ally. For now, she is likely in a situation fit for a Queen. She just...can’t leave.”
“Is there anything I can do to help her?”
Stinger frowned, pondering this. “Perhaps. I haven’t decided yet.”
“You will let me know,” she told him firmly. Her tone did not brook arguement. He nodded in reply, seemingly willing to take her lead.
Aleksa thought for a moment, trying to make sense of the way her world was shifting.
“This is all very strange,” Aleksa told him, a sense of unreality settling over her. She slowly loosened her fingers where they gripped his arm, flexing her hand from the cramp.
“I know. But as soon as Jupiter is back, she’ll tell you everything. It is not fair on either of you if I’m the one to tell you the whole truth. Though I am generally a fan of communicating the truth, in this case I know it is not my place.”
“I appreciate you not lying to me,” Aleksa told him. She eyed his worn face and wondered what manner of things he’d seen. Curiosity about this man bloomed within her.
“It is not in my nature to lie,” he informed her. Aleksa suspected there was more to that statement, but chose not to push.
“You were a soldier, were you not?”
“How can you tell?” he asked, frowning.
She shrugged. “I have the feeling that protection and fighting is natural for you.”
He shifted uncomfortably in his seat. “I was a soldier for a long time. I am partially retired for now, as my daughter is recovery after a long illness. But Jupiter knows that if she needs me she can call. Soon, I will join her guard full time.”
“You are close with my daughter.” It was a statement, not a question.
“I believe we consider each other friends,” he said carefully.
He turned the car off the road and into a driveway nestled between two stretches of overgrown shrubs.
Aleksa regarded him for a moment as he shut off the engine. “You would tell me if she was dead or in mortal danger, would you not?”
He let out a breath. “I would definitely tell you that much.”
A small knot in her chest released at his words.
Stinger opened his door and Aleksa followed suit, stepping out of the car. The sweet scent of flowers wafted on the gentle breeze, hitting her senses in a soothing rush. She breathed deep of the country air, filling her lungs and letting the fresh taste of freedom ease the tension that had thrummed through her body since the night before.
The beginnings of dusk had settled over the landscape, bathing the world in a muted glow.
She turned towards the house. Though it looked like a typical farmhouse, the dying sun glinted off odd bits of metal placed here and there, and Aleksa thought that there was probably more than met the eye to this house. She looked over at Stinger, and decided that the same was likely true for its owner.
It had been so long since she’d seen anything but the bustling city; the peace of the countryside was almost overwhelming.
“You have a beautiful home,” she said to him as he pulled her pathetically small bag of belongings from the back seat of the car.
“It keeps me out of the way,” he replied distractedly.
“Does it get lonely?” she asked, thinking of her busy household, where silence was an impossible commodity to come by.
He stopped for a brief second, arrested by the question. Then, he continued on without saying a word.
Stinger’s house was surprisingly well-kept. It was tidy, if a little worn. Aleksa didn’t know what she expected, but ‘respectable’ probably hadn’t been it.
“I’m not sure how long you’ll be here,” he told her. “So feel free to make yourself comfortable.”
Aleksa just nodded, and gravitated towards the window so she could see the sun sink below the horizon. She felt his presence in the doorway, watching her, but neither said anything. She just wrapped her arms tighter around herself and let herself be present in the moment.
Eventually, he moved away, and Aleksa squeezed her eyes shut. When was the last time she had been alone with a man that was neither a family member or an employer? It was an odd feeling.
Stinger returned a few minutes later, as the last rays were disappearing. He switched on a lamp, and she had to blink to clear her vision as her view was replaced by her own reflection. She studied herself for a moment. When had she become so tired-looking and worn? She had grown old since the last time she’d looked.
She felt his presence beside her and turned her head to see him holding out a glass of water.
“Thank you,” she murmured, surprised at his consideration.
He nodded in reply, but didn’t move away.
“I am afraid for my daughter,” she said suddenly. Her hand tightened around the glass.
“I promise you that she will return home. One way or another, we will bring her back.” He glanced up out of the window at the lilac sky.
“You want to be out there, fighting for her,” she guessed.
His gaze shifted to hers, and a wry smile graced his lips. “How did you know?”
She shrugged. “I understand the feeling. I, too, would rather be fighting for her than waiting.”
“She entrusted me with the task of keeping you safe. I am honoured to do so.”
“I get the feeling that she has been keeping more from me than I imagined.”
“She was afraid you wouldn’t believe her. I, of course, counselled her to tell you.” His small smile was wry.
“I think I would believe anything in this moment,” she murmured. Their eyes caught, and neither looked away for a long moment, fraught with a kind of tension Aleksa hadn’t felt in years. It occurred to her rather suddenly that now she was older, so changed by heartbreak and toil, that the next time she fell in love it could never be with an idealist like Max.
Stinger blinked and turned away and the moment shattered. Awkwardness settled between them.
“Why do you wear the jacket all the time, like Caine does?” she asked, more for something to say to fill the silence, than true curiosity. She wondered if she had been overloaded by too many strange things today to ever be really curious again.
“Because I think you would be rather shocked if I took it off,” he replied unexpectedly.
“Is this another of those things that Jupiter is going to have to explain?”
Stinger shook his head. “This one is my secret to tell.”
“Will you tell me?” she asked a little breathlessly, a lump catching in her throat in anticipation.
He hesitated, then slowly stripped off his jacket. At first, she didn’t notice anything unusual. Then, she saw movement at his back. He stepped out into the middle of the room, at seconds later a pair of beautiful wings unfolded from his back. The light from the lamp shone on glossy feathers, tempting her to stroke them. Her hand was halfway there when she realised exactly what those wings meant. She snatched her hand back and her eyes flew to his.
“You have wings,” she said, pointing out the obvious.
He nodded carefully.
“How?” she asked.
“I am...not entirely human.”
Aleksa took a moment to process that. “After the day I have had, that somehow does not surprise me.”
His eyes softened. “It’s a lot to take in.”
She nodded. “Yes. May I touch them?”
He tilted his head towards them, acquiescing. Aleksa drew one finger gently down a single feather. A delicate shiver rippled down the wing. She turned her head, looking Stinger in the eye to gauge his reaction as she ran the back of her fingers over the silky feathers. His eyes darkened in reaction, and Aleksa couldn’t help a small thrill that sparked through her.
She did it again, and this time the wing curled, edging her closer to Stinger. Aleksa allowed him to maneuver her, a secret smile dancing over her lips. Their eyes stayed locked together as she paused a step away from him.
“Now is not the time,” she whispered. Her heart was beating a deep and steady rhythm in her chest.
“I know,” he replied, his voice rough and deep.
And yet both were still reluctant to step back.
Aleksa was feeling reckless and wild, no doubt a symptom of her strange day. She had just about decided what to do when a clatter sounded on the stairs.
Stinger stumbled back, clearing Aleksa’s line of sight to the door. A young woman stood there, staring at them with a mixture of amusement and embarrassment.
As one, the two women turned to Stinger.
He cleared his throat. “Kiza, this is Aleksa. Aleksa, my daughter Kiza.”
“Hello, Kiza,” she said delicately, knowing from experience what unpredictable creatures teenage girls could be.
The girl just smiled. “Dad, you didn’t tell me you had a girlfriend.”
He coughed, choking on air. “She’s Jupiter’s mother,” he explained.
“Oh!” she said, her eyes widening. She curtsied awkwardly in her denim shorts, then turned to hiss at her father, “You are dating royalty? ”
“Not dating,” he said, shaking his head empathically.
“Not royalty,” Aleksa added. Then, she turned to Stinger, her eyebrows raised in question. He moved his hand in the ‘sort of’ gesture with an apologetic look on his face, and Aleksa suddenly felt faint. She sat down heavily on the nearest seat, her mind finally reaching the point of overload.
She heard Stinger shooing away his daughter, then felt the couch dip as he sat down next to her. Neither said a word.
“My life will change now, won’t it?” she asked after a long while.
“Yes,” he told her.
“How will I cope?”
She felt his fingers brush tentatively against hers. She opened out her palm, and he laced their fingers together. “You’ll have people around you to help,” he murmured.
Aleksa smiled. She liked the thought of that.
The next day, Stinger was making plans to lure Jupiter’s enemies into a trap when word came through that she was on her way home with Caine. Somehow they had negotiated their way out of their captivity.
Both she and Stinger were so relieved it was practically tangible.
As soon as she had given Jupiter a long, hard hug, she demanded an explanation. So, Jupiter finally told her all her secrets. Aleksa’s life did change in that moment, but it wasn’t in any way she might have expected from finding out her daughter was a queen.
She finally went on a date.