“Still, what I want in my life
is to be willing
to be dazzled—
to cast aside the weight of facts
and maybe even
to float a little
above this difficult world.”
― Mary Oliver
"The boy," Aleksa calls him, bites it out in her suspicion of this new moon swinging into Jupiter's orbit. She hmphs and glares, but Jupiter merely kisses her cheek and laughs. For all her smiles when Jupiter had announced her date to the family two weeks before when faced with the reality of said date sitting before her, Aleksa has a mother's suspicion of him. Nino is not so inclined, but she, too, wonders at how his sudden appearance coincides with Jupiter's newly-turned leaf.
Jupiter has always been a good girl, dutiful and smart, but she has never looked at her feet as she walks, eyes instead on the sun and moon and stars. It drives Aleksa to distraction, but Nino loves to see that much of herself in her darling niece - the only child she will ever have - even as she aches to watch Jupiter drift through her life, tethered by circumstance, never allowed to reach those brilliant lights she watches so intently.
But this Jupiter... this Jupiter does not drift aimlessly. She moves with purpose, though she still gazes at the stars more than the ground. This Jupiter who woke up one morning as if she'd lived a lifetime in the quiet and the darkness of the preceding night, amid her moon and her stars. And this boy who stands straight and bows his head and speaks softly and with grave and gracious respect, Nino thinks that Aleksa is right and that he has something to do with this Jupiter.
Caine Wise, as Jupiter had introduced him on the sidewalk outside of the cafe, sits stiff and formal at the table in the little cafe that serves blinis that could be Nino's grandmother's, and his gaze shift from her to Aleksa to Jupiter to the door. Nino sees Aleksa's eyes narrow and she pinches her sister's leg. He is not, as Aleksa clearly suspects, looking to escape. He is assessing, taking the measure of the room, cataloging the entrances, exits, and patrons.
When he completes his surveillance and relaxes an infinitesimal amount, Nino says, "Tea?" and hovers the pot over his cup.
"Thank you." He speaks softly, despite his broad shoulders and taciturn brow, and when he lifts his eyes to hers, she is struck by the strength, and most strange, the hope she sees in them. Windows to the soul, indeed, Nino thinks as he sips his tea and says, "Thank you both for inviting me."
Aleksa huffs, her gaze sliding to Jupiter. "I did not think we'd get to meet you, otherwise."
Jupiter rolls her eyes as Caine says, "I have been busy, and traveling for work."
"What is it that you do?" Aleksa pounces like a cat with a cornered mouse, but the boy, Caine, he only takes another sip of tea and simply replies, "Security."
Aleksa hmphs at that but Nino asks, conspiratorially, "Like those kind at Macy's, or the kind where you have to kill us if you tell us?"
The corner of his mouth curls, just slightly, and Nino thinks they must make him do that more. It brightens his face so much. "Somewhere in between."
Strong, handsome, polite and funny, too. He just might do. "When were you born?"
He blinks, clearly thrown, and the tiny smile vanishes along with what little ease he's shown. "I... don't know."
"Aunt Nino, let him be." Jupiter's fingers curl around his wrist, her thumb stroking along the back of his hand and he leans into her like a flower opening under the sun, his grim visage fading into something soft and pleased.
When Jupiter turns back to Aleksa, Nino gives him an apologetic smile. "I am sorry if I brought up something bad."
He shrugs. It intrigues her, how a man so broad and tall holds himself as if he thinks himself smaller. "It's not bad," Caine says, "just how it is."
Nino covers her tiny gasp with a sip of tea. Aleksa had oft spouted that as her resigned armor, her pointed sword in those terrible months after Max, whenever anyone questioned her apparent lack of grief (Nino always followed with an "accidental" trod upon the questioner's feet). A sign, Nino thinks, and she slowly reaches out and pats the back of his broad hand that dwarfs the delicate teacup.
"Still, it was not well done of me. Let me make it up to you. Will you come meet us again, next Saturday?"
Aleksa's eyebrows make as if to climb right over the top of her head. Caine looks to Jupiter, just for a moment, and Nino does not quite catch what passes between them in that tiny space, but he tips his head to Nino and murmurs, ever so softly, "Thank you. I will be here."
And he is, standing like some kind of bright guardian statue outside the cafe door the next weekend. He was absolutely born under an earth sign, Nino decides. He has the fixed quality of a Taurus in the way he stands, all patient and steady, and Jupiter has spoken to Aleksa of his reliability and courtesy.
Jupiter runs to him and his serious face softens as she skids to a stop in front of him, glancing guiltily back over her shoulder at Aleksa and Nino.
"Do you want to push her away because you are obstinate and paranoid? Because I'd like to point out she now has someone to go to." Aleksa's sharp gaze snaps to Nino, who shrugs. "You see how she looks at him."
Nino tries not to smile as Aleksa grinds her teeth. It has always been her way, since they were girls: Aleksa hides her fear behind either her logic or, when that fails her, behind her temper. And she has always hated it when she knows Nino is right. Nino strokes her back in apology; Nino understands, she does. She remembers Max's blood on Aleksa's hands and dress. She knows Aleksa's fierce love for her daughter, and the lengths she will go to keep Jupiter safe. But safe is often far more relative than Aleksa would like to admit.
Aleksa is squinting at the tableau before them: Jupiter has twined an arm about Caine's hips and he tips into her, nose all but buried in her hair. A Taurus almost certainly, with the devotion he shows her. Nino's fingers itch to make him a natal chart, to know his rising sign, latitude, the house in which he was born, and if, as she suspects, Jupiter rose ascendant among the stars that shone on his creation. "He's..."
"Harmless," Nino says before Aleksa can find whatever harsh word she's looking for, feeling suddenly protective of the boy.
"You do not believe that."
"He is no danger to Jupiter," Nino amends. "And likely only a danger to anyone who might be a danger to her. Look at him. Look at them, and tell me you think he is something terrible."
Aleksa narrows her eyes, but the line of her jaw and her shoulders ease at Nino's unwavering certainty. While they both love numbers and the stars, Nino knows Aleksa has never believed in how Nino sees them, has never believed in what they tell Nino. But she does believe Nino's love for her, and for Jupiter, and in the end, that is always enough.
"He does make a nice, large target," Aleksa allows and Nino chuckles at that as she pulls Aleksa in her wake to stand under those watchful, pale eyes as Caine opens the door for them.
It is not entirely accurate, Nino realizes a week later, that he makes a large target, because she is sure that she catches him lurking outside of the Belver house by sheer chance. She is washing the windows when a shadow shifts across the street. She applies herself to an invisible streak and peers out, lets the corner of her eye capture the motion again and yes, there... She presses her lips against the smile that threatens and finishes her task and hastily moves on with the rest of her duties.
The Belver house is enormous, and Nino thinks her rushing has allowed her enough time to slip out and situate herself, creeping around until she finds him doing the exact same thing, and finds herself square in the sights of a very fancy gun. Caine says "Fuck!" lifting it up and away, pointed at the sky and Nino grins gleefully at his surprise. Old Nino, round Nino, stupid Nino. Nino who knows well enough to stay downwind of a predator. Because that is what he is, she thinks, not just a soldier, but a hunter.
"Ms. Bolotnikov..." he starts and then his eyes flash wide. "Is Jupiter all right?"
"Jupiter is fine. This is about you. Come," Nino says, taking his other arm as he slowly holsters his weapon. "Let us talk."
Tension is evident in his well-muscled arm, but he falls into step at her side obediently, matching his stride to hers. She leads him down the wide sidewalks, past the well-manicured lawns in silence and when she feels him begin to relax, she steers him into a little park and settles herself onto a bench. He sits next to her after he has assesses the space, perched warily on the edge of the bench.
"May I?" She holds out her hand and after the smallest hesitation, he wriggles the fingerless glove he wears off and places his hand in hers. It's his gun hand, she realizes, and she smiles at that trust. His skin is warm, almost fever-hot. Callouses are crisscrossed with nicks and scars: indeed the hands of a soldier. She's known and loved a few in her life, enough to recognize the scars he bears, and not just these on his skin.
Nino tips his hand so that she cups the back of it in hers. These are hands that have taken life; she does not need to see it in the stories writ into his skin. His eyes tell her with their weariness and resignation.
"You love our Jupiter." She traces the tip of one finger along his heart line. That too, speaks to her less than the look on his face at her question, the look on his face whenever Jupiter is near him.
"Yes." Simple, raw, whispered. Nino wonders if this is the first time he's admitted it aloud.
His head line is next, and his fingers twitch as she touches it. "You did not expect it."
Caine huffs. "No. Not even in my wildest dreams."
"That is her father in her," Nino says. "She will never admit it, but Maximillian had much the same effect on Aleksa." That gains her a genuine smile, one that pleasingly crinkles the corners of his eyes.
Nino presses more firmly against his life line, then the rarer fate line. "Something has happened to you, and to Jupiter, yes? Something that has," and the word she has been searching for these past two weeks to explain this new Jupiter finally arrives. "Awakened her."
Wariness dims his smile. "It is not my story to tell."
Nino waves off his reticence. "Aleksa thinks it is you that is the catalyst for this change, but it is not that exactly, is it?"
"No." He hesitates, mouth working against some restraint, but adds, "I was part of it, am part of it, but it is Jupiter's doing."
"And why does Jupiter not tell us? Is it so terrible?"
Caine's steady gaze skates away, leaving him staring down at his hand cupped in hers. "Jupiter fears you will not understand. That you will scoff and think it outlandish."
An answer to one question, but not the other. Nino feels a tiny chill between her shoulders. "Is it?"
"Incredibly." He curls his fingers in, making a loose fist, then relaxes them again as he looks her in the eye. "But yet it is true."
"They all think I am outlandish," Nino says, "and yet they still occasionally listen to me."
Those pale eyes brighten and she is again struck once again by their depth. "I think, Ms. Bolotnikov, that you are far more than you appear."
"Aleksa, even as she chides me for my 'ridiculous pseudoscience', she believes I understand things about people that she does not. And this I understand." Nino reaches up and taps his cheek. "Yes, Jupiter's story is Jupiter's to tell. But your story is yours."
Caine looks for a moment as if he is baffled, but she realizes it is more astonishment, him trying to comprehend that she has given him something that has in fact been his all along. He pulls his hand from hers, only to stand and offer it to her again. "Come with me, please."
She takes his hand and lets Caine lead her to a small copse of trees, through the green veil of an enormous weeping willow. In the muted light that shines through the drooping branches, he pulls off his hat and it takes her a moment to understand what she seeing: the elegant, inhuman sweep and points of his ears.
And then he shrugs off the coat and Nino gasps, not because of the wings that unfurl behind him but because they are beautiful. "So that is it, then. You are her guardian angel."
"No angel, I'm afraid." He takes a deep breath. "Just a broken, genomgineered soldier from outer space."
Outer space. She feels a little faint as his words sink in. There is so much, too much to think about his admission, and what it must mean for Jupiter. Outlandish indeed, but he stands before her, feathers fluttering and shifting, looking nervous and defiant all at once, and suddenly so young. "Tch. You're not broken," Nino says when she can trust her voice to be steady. " That girl is infinitely precious to me. I would not trust her to just any handsome winged alien who swept her off her feet."
His bark of laughter is sharp and sudden, like the very existence of it surprises him. "Some would say you are a fool to trust me."
"Many have said that of me." Nino juts her chin and pins him with a fierce glare. "Shall I tell you what I think of them?"
Caine holds up his hands in mock surrender. "I can guess."
"So no angel, maybe, but you, Caine Wise," Nino taps him on his chest, "what you are is a good man."
Caine ducks his head, shakes it, and his voice is pained, even plaintive when he says, "How can you tell?"
Nino reaches up to pat his cheek and chuck him under the chin. "When Jupiter was born, I took her above the decks of that stinking, creaking ship, crawled out between the containers in which we hid because I wanted the first light to touch her skin to be that of the stars her father loved, so she could have that much of him. Those stars told me her destiny. And they tell me yours, the stars I see in her eyes when she looks at you. They tell me, she tells me that you are a good man, who will do good things."
"Okay," he says faintly, his eyes suspiciously damp, and when her phone chatters - Aleksa no doubt, wondering where she is - she busies herself with it to give him a moment's privacy; the naked relief on his face is almost too much for her to bear. She stuffs the phone back into her pocket as Caine says, "You are right, about Jupiter. That she is destined for great and wondrous things. She's already started them."
"Oh, good." Nino puts her hand to her heart and squeezes her eyes shut at the sudden, unexpected rush of triumph that fills her. It is all she ever wanted for Aleksa, for Jupiter, for the tiny child she held under the brilliant stars in a sea of black above and below, the tiny child who had lost so much before she even set foot upon the world. What a gift you've given me, she wants to say to Caine Wise and his beautiful wings and his somber but hopeful eyes, this astonishing man that she now realizes was foretold to her by the stars, but she does not think she can speak those words without blubbering. So instead she says, "That is good to know. I am not above enjoying a little validation."
Her phone jangles again, and she grunts out a curse. "The queen mother summons me," she sighs, and Caine's face breaks into an actual grin. It is a delightful look on him. "Do that more," Nino says, "and come meet us again on Saturday."
Caine pulls his coat back on and the beanie hat over his ears, and sketches her a small, courtly bow. "I would be honored."
He holds away the willow leaves to create a doorway for her and as she ducks by she stands on her tiptoes and pulls him down by the collar of his coat so she can plant a kiss on his cheek. "And don't be a lurking stranger."
As she bustles back down the street, feeling his gaze upon her, she looks up into the watery blue sky, to the stars she knows are shining beyond it. And she thinks that tonight she will go to the roof, and borrow Jupiter's telescope, and thank them.