Disclaimer: I do not own Mass Effect.
I would like to apologize for the delayed update, as well as the length of this chapter. My substitute beta, MyFix, threatened bodily harm if I cut any more content.
As for my readers: I can't thank you enough for your interest, or your reviews. I am sorry that I couldn't reply to all of them last chapter, but I will do so for this one. Also, I would like to thank everyone who has made fanart for this story and/or little ole me. I've linked it all on my profile!
Adagio non Troppo
TO: [UNDISCLOSED; VARIOUS]
FROM: Oriana Solheim
SUBJECT: A good cause
Hello! I'll be attending the Neylaya Theater charity event in Tayseri at [REDACTED].
There's a chance I'll be performing with the Auxua School of the Arts band as an extra violinist. But if not, I'll still be around. It's for a good cause!
Hope you can come/watch!
Lugging a violin case up a flight of stairs was never easy, but the Auxua School docking station was only one floor up, and Oriana Lawson had a rule about avoiding elevators if at all possible.
It was too bad that she couldn't evade her thoughts as well.
Why haven't I heard from them? Miranda, I can understand, maybe... but Kolyat?
Oriana chewed on her bottom lip as she approached the first flight of stairs. Chewing her lips was not a normal habit of hers. It meant she was anxious. It meant she was worried. It meant she was too damn caught up on...
I've still got time. Maybe they'll reply to my invitation before I leave.
It was a reasonable plan, Oriana decided. She thumbed the personal correspondence device in her jacket and started to climb, careful to keep her violin case stable at her side. It was times like this when she wondered why she felt compelled to understand everything, classical Earth music included. Why couldn't she have studied the flute, or the harmonica? At least they were easier to carry around.
He just needs time to get over whatever was bothering him. We did argue, after all.
Oriana stopped in the middle of the stairs and indulged in a long, self-pitying sigh. When she looked up the stairs to the lobby above, some part of her half-expected to see her sister or Kolyat waiting for her.
They weren't, of course. Oriana brushed hair from her forehead and continued walking. Stupid. She was better than this. She was...
...scared that I did something wrong, that day he came to my door, and I let him in.
There was another reason why Oriana Lawson had chosen to attend the Neylaya Theater charity event. It was an immature, selfish reason, and not one she was proud of, but damn it, Oriana was still allowed a bit of selfishness, wasn't she?
What else was I supposed to do?
The reason was simple: She could no longer tolerate the solitude of her apartment, because no matter where or when she slept, she would always wake up and see that chair where he had sat, and then she'd start thinking about him, and she would start missing him and wonder if that was the last time she'd ever see him, and...
And I can't stop thinking about it. Even after he left, I couldn't stop thinking about it.
Oriana finished climbing the stairs and rolled her shoulders forward and back. The Auxua docking station lobby was a quaint little place, with rows of plush benches and vases of imported flora. The walls were made of partitioned glass, which left the entire Tayseri ward arm open to view. The blinking lights of skyscrapers were half-hidden by the wispy clouds of the Serpent Nebula, and the red and gold lanes of skycars and shuttles that zipped by the dock cast colorful shadows against the floor. Oriana rested her violin against the ground and absorbed the sight for a moment before moving to sit in one of the seats. It wasn't Nos Astra by a long shot, but the space station was still beautiful in its own way. She shrugged off her shoulder harness and set her stuff on the ground, and caught herself wondering if Kolyat ever looked outside and admired the view.
He couldn't even look at me.
She sat down and pulled out her personal correspondence device. Its screen was cool against the pad of her thumb, and the message it displayed remained the same: NO MESSAGES.
What are you going to do now, Oriana Lawson?
Oriana slumped back in her seat with a bit more force than was necessary. She wanted to be upset. Hell, she would have settled for sad, even. But she wasn't. She didn't know how she felt. She just felt... empty. No, maybe uncertain was a better word.
Do you even know any more?
Oriana smoothed her thumbs against her P.C.D. and tucked her heels against the bottom of her chair. And then, left with nothing else to do but wait, she did the same thing she'd done over and over again for days now:
It was embarrassing to look back on, in some ways. Kolyat was a grown male of his species and twice as big as her, but she'd touched him, consoled him, knelt beside him. She hadn't given it a thought; she had just wanted him to look at her, to tell her what was wrong.
Kolyat hadn't said a word, though. He'd just looked at her. Oriana had yet to meet a pair of eyes that could unnerve her so much – they were so alien, little more than two black pools lit by a pale flame. Whenever he looked at her, it felt like he could see right through her white, fleshy skin to the muscle and bone beneath. He couldn't, of course. She'd done her research. Drell vision wasn't that different from a human's, but...
Oriana suppressed a shudder and rubbed at her bare forearms, sparing a glance at the Auxua Shuttle Schedule projected on the wall above her. Yep, she was pining, all right. Or at least, she thought she was. It was a lot different from pining over another human, that was for sure, but her pulse sped up whenever she thought about him all the same. The first time he'd looked at her like that was when they'd been in the skycar, only that time he'd been fine and not... not shivering beneath her hands, not unresponsive, not so lost looking, even if he'd eventually left with an assuring nod and a lingering touch against the back of her hand.
Oriana's hand curled against her lap at the memory. Kolyat seemed to have been feeling better when he'd left, but if that was the case, why hadn't he spoken with her since? Granted, she hadn't pestered him because he needed his space, and her invitation to the theatre was the first message she'd sent him since the incident, and...
...and the plastic of the P.C.D. clanked against Oriana's nails as she flipped the device in her hand and punched the refresh key.
She pushed it again.
Nothing from her sister.
Nothing from her drell.
ONE NEW MESSAGE.
Noth- wait. Oriana's heart skipped a beat when she opened her inbox. The view screen flickered and scrolled through a series of thin, holographic lines.
ERROR CONNECTING TO NETWORK. SYNCING.
"You're joking!" she exclaimed, refreshing again. Damn the Citadel and its stupid extranet network and Tayseri's stupid unreliable signal grid and her stupid P.C.D. for not having a booster attachment because she was cheap and spent her credits on fish and Blasto pajamas, and for once in her life (ever since her move from Nos Astra, anyway,) she sort of wished she was more like Miranda because Miranda would have planned for this, except Miranda wouldn't be in this situation to begin with because she was off saving the galaxy or whatever and Miranda probably didn't have pajamas at all and what did she sleep in anyway –
ERROR CONNECTING TO NETWORK. ESTABLISHING CONNECTION.
The sound that Oriana made was not one she could remember making before. Luckily for her, it was also a small sound, and the numerous other Auxua students and visitors sitting in the other rows didn't turn around to stare at her. She refused to believe that the universe was out to make her life miserable, but it was sure starting to feel that way.
What next? Would her violin case sprout wings and fly off into space? The statistical likelihood of that occurring was... small, to say the least, but Oriana settled her elbow against the top of the case anyway, just in case it got any funny ideas.
Oriana set the P.C.D. in her lap and exhaled. There was little else to do but watch the status bar of her extranet signal and wait for it to come back online. She fiddled with the edge of the device, tracing the edge of its contours with her nails, and left her gaze drift out of focus as she observed the shadows that pillowed in her dress.
"Solheim," a warm voice greeted.
Strands of hair flopped in Oriana's face when she looked up. She brushed them aside. "Mr. Sokir," she said, and shifted her legs to the side so the Auxua representative could sit down beside her. "It's nice to see you."
Sokir hadn't changed at all since the first day Oriana had met him. He still smiled and helped her with whatever she needed. She was fortunate to have him as an academic advisor, and while she had grown accustomed to interacting with him on a regular basis, what she had told her father still held true – he was sort of creepy. Of course, Oriana's definition of pleasant company had extended to include Surprise Sisters and Morally Ambiguous Drell, so maybe she was in no position to judge.
"Hoping to get there early?" Sokir inquired. He nodded his head at the shuttle schedule projected above them; a soft chime signaled yet another departure. A few humans left for the dock. Oriana watched as a small X3M lifted off the platform and peeled away.
"Yes," she answered, still watching the red tail lights streak into space. "It couldn't hurt. I was hoping to see my parents before things got started."
"I was hoping they would come," Sokir said, sounding pleased. "I made sure to send pamphlets. Here at Auxua, we always make an effort to include the family of our students in any extracurricular activities."
Oriana stared at the correspondence device in her hand. "That's good," she heard herself say.
Sokir seemed to pick up on her mood. And (as his eyes drifted downward to spot the device in her hands,) the source of her attention. "Do you need a boost?" he asked, reaching for his leather-bound suitcase.
"I'm okay," Oriana insisted, sitting straighter and smiling. Sokir chuckled and set his portable terminal against the tops of his knees. He flicked it open.
"Please, allow me. We still have a few minutes." He reached for the extranet router plugged into the base of his terminal. For a split second, Oriana caught a flash of orange bars highlighted in the corner of the terminal's window.
That's the same insignia that my sister wears.
Sokir flicked the terminal closed. Oriana pretended to be looking somewhere else when Sokir handed the booster over. She feigned surprise and took it with an embarrassed smile. "I would let you tap my signal," he explained with a mouth full of straight, white teeth, "but I know how students are about their privacy."
"Thanks," Oriana said, and attached it to a smaller port on her P.C.D. "I'll only be a minute."
"Take your time."
The P.C.D.'s screen lit with a flash of orange as it logged into the network. Oriana felt her grip on the device tighten when she glanced at Sokir out of the corner of her eye. She had never been a paranoid girl, but recent events and revelations had instilled in her a sense of caution. When it appeared that Sokir had no interest in what she was doing, she opened her extranet inbox and swallowed the lump that formed in her throat.
ONE NEW MESSAGE.
She opened it.
We may be early leaving the theater. Your father's going to try his hand at some pot roast, so hurry on once you're done rubbing elbows with the locals.
- xoxoxo Mom xoxoxo
Almost immediately, a whole slew of emotions welled within Oriana, each vying for supremacy.
Disappointment: It wasn't Randa at all. It wasn't Kolyat, either.
Shame: It's still nice to hear from my parents. They're my parents.
Frustration: I made a big deal out of this for nothing.
Acceptance: I'm not going to hear from them. That doesn't change anything.
There was a beep when Oriana disconnected the attachment. Sokir looked up from a datapad he'd been studying and took it back when she handed it to him.
"Are you done?" he asked. "The power grid in the Dilinaga District is questionable at best. You may not be able to connect while there."
"I'm done. And thanks."
Sokir nodded and snapped the booster back into his own terminal. Oriana clasped her hands in her lap and stared at the schedule of shuttle departures, mentally counting down to when she would have to leave. The lounge was filling with more students, many of which found seats or talked animatedly by the windows.
"I'll be sure to jot you down for extra credit," Sokir said. He winked at her, his cheeks dimpling. "Although I would rather believe that most of the students doing this are doing so out of good will, and not for an easy grade."
"It could be both," Oriana suggested. There was a beat of silence. "My family likes to hear me play. I do it for them."
"A good reason," Sokir agreed. Something in his voice reminded Oriana of the orange insignia she had glimpsed. "Family is precious."
A rash part of her wanted to ask the dark-eyed man if he knew Miranda. She didn't, of course – Oriana remained quiet and contemplative, watching the shuttles come and go. The comm system chimed with the next round of departures, and Oriana reached down for her stuff, standing a moment later. Sokir smiled and gestured her forward.
"I have business elsewhere," he explained, flashing more white teeth. "But please tell me how it goes."
Oriana forced a smile, hoped that it wouldn't come out looking sarcastic, and made her way to the dock. She was immediately swept up in small crowd of chattering classmates, and she was not looking forward to piling into a shuttle with a bunch of them. She hung back, letting a number of people fill the first two X3Ms, and studied the ward arm that stretched beyond the windows. The skyscrapers felt so distant all of the sudden.
Just like them.
The thought was unbidden, unwelcome, and true. It followed Oriana into the next available shuttle and settled in the back of her mind where it did a decent job of distracting her from motion sickness, while still managing to make her feel sick.
Life, she'd come to learn, was funny that way.
Her mood had improved by the time she'd arrived at the Neylaya Theater. It had a lot to do with the fact that her classmate Krista had made it to the event, so Oriana was no longer required as a back-up violinist. This did not prevent the other girls from inducting Oriana into their group, however, and she soon found herself swept through the theater halls with laughing classmates on either side of her.
"Hey, look," one of her friends said. The girl steered Oriana and Krista into a lobby that had a number of alcoves. Clusters of visitors gathered next to the walls and around the entrance to the theater's concert hall. "It's like a mini-museum. They've got it set up so that you can listen to the music from different species – see? Each alcove is designated as an era, and the audio ports on the wall represent different species, starting with asari -"
"It always starts with asari," Krista complained. "So, what, each alcove represents a time period?"
Oriana picked up a pair of audials that had been placed beneath one of the vacant asari ports. She plugged them in her ears and was immediately greeted by the sound of old asari opera.
"It's recommended that you turn off your translator before listening," her first friend suggested. "For an authentic experience."
Oriana watched Krista toy with the translator-aid that she wore as an earring. Krista then plugged into a turian port over in the next alcove. When she noticed Oriana watching, she flashed an old-fashioned thumbs-up. Oriana untangled the audials from her own ears and offered them to the other girl, who declined. Oriana set them back on the pedestal.
"I wonder if they have Elvis Presley," her friend wondered. "They have a human port around here somewhere, right? My mom loves ancient stuff like that."
"That's not that ancient," Oriana argued. I like Elvis...
"Says the girl who specializes in 20th century classical music. That's, like, one step up from Gregorian chant."
"Holy god," Krista blurted. Oriana swiveled just in time to see Krista yank the audials from her ears and put them back on the pedestal. Krista then paused and looked around, no doubt gauging whether there were any turians in the near vicinity. Her next words were spoken in a whisper. "It sounds like cats mating."
"What does?" Oriana asked while fluttering her eyelashes. "You attempting to play the violin?"
"No, turian spiritual – hey!"
"It can't be that bad," their other friend insisted. "The song, not Krista. Let me listen."
Krista worked on flipping her translator back on while the other girl flipped hers off and slipped on the audials. Not wanting to feel like dead weight, Oriana shook her head and decided to see what was available at the concession table. She wove through the small crowd of visitors, pausing briefly in front of the doors to the concert hall; currently, the Larathos Institute band (which had commuted all the way from Kithoi Ward) was playing an old asari hymn to the goddess Athame. The hall was filled with civilian spectators, and while the event wasn't supposed to be a competition, Oriana listened with a critical ear. The Larathos players favored wind instruments... interesting. She wondered how their performance would hold up to her strings, or to the Earth pieces her group would be playing.
They'd love Nielsen. Everyone loves Nielsen's Fifth.
Oriana caught herself smiling.
Everyone except Kolyat.
The smile faded. Oriana moved from the lobby entry and continued to where the food was, determined not to let her good mood evaporate. She couldn't let it get to her. He just needed his time. Right? And Miranda was probably doing something important, like saving the galaxy (again.) They were busy. She could understand that. Other things came first, before her. There was no reason to feel jealous or alone because she was perfectly happy and blessed beyond belief to have such a good life, good parents, or friends, much less guardian angels -
"Hello," a voice interrupted. Oriana felt her tangle of thoughts disperse. "Will you be making a donation to the continued reconstruction of the Dilinaga Concert Hall?"
The first thing she saw was the stark blue of a C-Sec outfit, and damn her heart for skipping a beat when, for a split second, she thought of him -
But it wasn't him. It was an older human man flanked by a turian and asari security officer. She had passed by the donation booth.
Right. It was called a charity event for a reason.
Oriana hesitated. She could tell them that she was one of the guest musicians and leave it at that, but she drew out a credit chit anyway. There was a small chime as she swept it through the donation kiosk.
Blessed. Remember that, Ori, her inner voice chided.
"It's appreciated," the officer said. "Enjoy your stay, ma'am."
Oriana felt her lips curve slightly. Kolyat would never call me that. "You're welcome."
The ancient art of finger-food had changed little over time. The food on display in the lounge was no exception, even if it had a few alien variables tossed in. Oriana wasn't that hungry, but a few crackers couldn't hurt, could they?
Oriana waited for a pair of asari to finish piling their plates before she moved in. She picked at a few crackers and sampled a few dips, one of which looked suspiciously salarian. It took everything in her power to avoid the asari food, but after her mother's heckling, Oriana was determined to try new things. It had been embarrassing enough when Kolyat had fooled her with the noodles...
She really needed to stop thinking about him.
After he appeared on your doorstep shaken and unresponsive? No way in hell.
He's not coming. Forget about it.
He needed me. I was there for him!
Maybe you're the one who needs him.
That's not true.
Why are you arguing with yourself?
Because I'm – oh! Cheese wedges!
Among the many guilty pleasures Oriana had in life, good old-fashioned cheese wedges were among the guiltiest and most pleasurable. They were so simple, so human; it was hard to pass them up. As soon as she spotted the plate she made her way to it, expertly weaving around chatting guests until she reached the end of the table. She was in luck! There were only a few left. She reached for a toothpick -
"Condescendingly: Are you going to eat those?"
Oriana froze and looked up into the impassive face of an elcor wearing a violet caparison. Something in her memory tickled.
"Yes," she replied, slowly. She dropped a wedge on her plate, then another, never taking her eyes from the elcor. Its beady eyes glittered.
"With disdain: Humans are known for their greed."
"There's still one left."
"Sarcastically: How thoughtful of you."
Oriana smiled. "Elcor are known for their gentle temperament and unassuming nature." Stealing a look around, Oriana spiked the last cheese wedge and brought it to her mouth. She could almost hear the elcor's sharp intake of breath.
"I guess there are always exceptions," she concluded, giving the wedge one single, wet lick, before plopping it back on the plate. "Enjoy."
For a split second, their eyes locked. The sculpted skin around the elcor's mouth twitched.
"With obvious disgust: Well played."
"Hey, Solheim!" The familiar sound of Krista's voice snapped Oriana back to the present. Before she could say anything, Krista had already appeared at her side and stolen one of the cheese wedges off her plate. "We're up next," the girl said between chewing. "Better get ready."
"You still want me to play?" Oriana glanced down at her plate. "And ask next time."
"That was for making fun of me earlier," Krista admonished. "And sure. You still up for it?"
"It would justify me dragging my violin all the way here, I guess..."
"Good." Krista patted Oriana on the back. "I might have said something to the program coordinator about one of us playing a solo version of Nielsen's Fifth adagio -"
Oriana groaned. "You didn't."
"C'mon, Ori. I know music isn't your major, but pretend you're playing for your boyfriend or something."
The entire time they'd been talking, they'd been heading to the Concert Hall. Oriana grimaced when Krista snatched her plate and handed her a music sheet and her violin case.
"I don't have a boyfriend." She sounded more annoyed than she felt. Krista hesitated.
"You don't? What about that scaly dude..."
Oh, come on! Not you, too! "I don't."
"Oh. Problems in paradise? I saw what happened at the bar, but..."
Oriana's eyes narrowed. Krista stopped and held up her hands.
"Okay, okay," she amended. "I get it. No more questions."
"Good," Oriana sniffed, opening her violin case. "Then I'll play."
"Thanks, Solheim. We owe you one."
Krista left to retrieve her own instrument. Oriana peered through the concert hall's main entryway and watched the last of the Larathos band disperse from the stage, laughing and clapping each other on the shoulder. A few of her Auxua classmates were already getting set up. The lights above the stage were bright; the crowd was milling, getting ready for the next performance. Oriana felt her breath hitch, but it was a nice kind of hitch – she liked performing. She was good at it.
She only wished...
Oriana spotted a familiar face – no, two familiar faces – sitting in the crowd. Her parents waved at her, and their smiles made her insecurities feel suddenly very small.
Emboldened, Oriana slipped back into a side-hall and worked on giving her violin a quick tuning. It was only then that she felt something vibrating against her chest. Startled, she retrieved the P.C.D. that she had tucked into her jacket earlier.
CONNECTING TO NETWORK... CONNECTED.
ONE NEW MESSAGE.
Swallowing her excitement, Oriana hit 'Open' before she lost the signal.
I apologize for not replying earlier, but my attention was needed elsewhere. A trusted source is recording your performance for me. It'll be the first thing I watch when I get back from my mission. I have also made a modest contribution to the charity that organized the event.
One day I will listen to you play in person. This I promise. Until then... thank you for inviting me.
"Hey, Solheim. You ready?" The rest of the Auxua musicians were filing onto the stage. Krista was peeping into the hall and waggling her eyebrows.
Oriana slipped the device back into her jacket.
"Yeah," she breathed. She was smiling. Her eyes felt wet. "I'm ready."
Instrument in hand, she stepped onto the stage and into the light.
Oriana was still blinking spots from her eyes when she left the stage.
"Hey!" Krista was crowing, a huge grin on her face. "Someone go check the donation pool. I wanna know if we raked in more credits after our performance than those Larathos losers."
"It wasn't a competition," another classmate berated.
"Uh, hello? Standing ovation?"
"They got one of those, too."
"But did they have a solo?"
The back-and-forth continued. Oriana was in the midst of locking her violin back in its case when she felt a hand on her shoulder. Her friend from earlier was smiling down at her.
"Great job with the solo."
"Thanks," Oriana replied. She felt the back of her neck flush.
"I know Krista spun that on you last minute..."
"It's okay. It was fun."
"Sure you don't want to change your major to music?"
Oriana shook her head. "Sorry. My heart's in colony development."
"Suit yourself. Hey, me and some of the girls are heading to the Dark Star to celebrate. You wanna..."
Oriana hesitated. "No thanks. I promised my parents I would eat with them."
"Oh, that's sweet." Her friend pulled away. "They're here?"
"They left right after our performance. Dad wanted to get home in time to have dinner ready for me."
Her friend sighed dramatically. "Oh, so you get a nice, soulful family evening, and I'm stuck babysitting the drunks."
Oriana grinned. "Being responsible sucks, huh?"
"I guess it's better than being a drunk and having Krista babysit me."
"You'd wake up naked in the middle of the Presidium lake with no idea how you got there."
"Hey!" Krista jogged over to them, panting slightly. "I heard my name."
Oriana and her friend exchanged glances.
"Never mind," Krista said, though not before giving them a suspicious look. "Our troop is ready to head out. Some of the Larathos band is joining us. Is Oriana coming?"
"She's eating with her parents."
Krista nodded and gave Oriana a long, unreadable look. "Speaking of... A little bird told me that someone was asking about you."
Oriana stood up with her violin case in hand. Her brows lowered. "Who, me?"
Krista was grinning. "Yeah... a guy."
"You'll see." Krista grabbed the other girl and sprinted toward the theater exit, her blonde hair whipping behind her. "Good luck!"
Oriana stood in place, momentarily stunned, before shaking her head to clear it. Why did she need friends, again? They were way more trouble than they were worth.
With her personal belongings tucked under her arms, Oriana headed for the opposite exit, where the inter-Tayseri Ward dock was located. The Neylaya Theater lobby was a lot more crowded than it had been earlier as the Concert Hall began to empty, and Oriana squeezed her way through the crowd, hoping to get away unnoticed. If she was late to dinner, her parents would never forgive her. (Well, that wasn't true. They'd always forgive her, but the meal would be cold.)
As she passed by the donation kiosk and its C-Sec guards, and then past the buffet, she couldn't help but glance to where she'd had her confrontation. The elcor was nowhere in sight, and – upon closer inspection – neither was the cheese wedge. For a split second, Oriana felt guilty. Someone had to have eaten it. Dear God, what if a turian had eaten it? What if it had an allergic reaction and died from trace amounts of her saliva? Could it be traced back to her? Would that qualify as manslaughter?
A turian isn't going to eat a cheese wedge to begin with, her inner Miranda-voice scolded. Nevertheless, that was extremely immature of you, Oriana Lawson.
Oriana must have spent longer than she realized looking at the empty plate, because a slight jostle at her elbow pulled her from her thoughts. She turned around and felt her brain screech to a halt.
"My bad," said Danner Gossimah as he balanced a plate of fruit slices in one hand. "Didn't see you."
For a split second, Oriana had no idea what to say.
"I'm sorry," she blurted before she could think.
"Hey," Danner – oh God, it's really him, he's actually looking at me – ventured. "You're with Auxua, right?"
"Yes," she answered, surprisingly calm. "I'm a student."
"You played the violin." Danner's blue eyes flashed with approval. He glanced down at the instrument case in her hand and grimaced. "I guess that was obvious."
"Yeah," Oriana heard herself mumble. She had no idea where to hold her gaze. Should she look at his eyes when talking to him? His lips? His neck? His nostrils? She never had that problem when talking to aliens. They were weird everywhere.
"I'm only here because my parents catered the food. Not a music person, no offense," Danner admitted while popping another cracker into his mouth. "I'm into -"
"Sports," Oriana blurted. Again. Danner blinked.
"You're wearing a jersey," she explained, avoiding his eyes.
"Right," Danner said, looking down at his clothes. "I'm just visiting for a few weeks, though. Heading back home tomorrow."
His next question caught her off-guard.
"Do I know you?"
For the first time since they'd bumped into each other, Oriana looked him in the eye.
We went to school together before I moved. We were in the same class. I used to daydream about you during lectures. Stupid, right? I even talked about you with my sister. About your eyes, and how to get you to notice me. You're noticing me right now. This is my chance. My last and only -
"No," she whispered. "I don't think so."
"Huh," he laughed. "I thought you looked familiar. Sorry about that."
"The Citadel is a big place."
"Yeah. I can't wait to go back home." He popped another cracker into his mouth and scanned the crowd. "Guess I'll see you around."
The last Oriana saw of him was the flash of a jersey disappearing into the crowd. She stood in place for a few seconds, her lips working wordlessly against each other, before turning to leave.
Why had she done that?
What do you want, Oriana Lawson? It was the same old question. Do you even know any more?
"I guess not," she said to no one, and stepped out into the Neylaya Theater shuttle dock. Or maybe I do, and it's just hard to admit.
The Neylaya inter-Ward dock wasn't much different from the one back at Zakera, although there were more C-Sec officers standing post. The problems of Tayseri Ward did not escape Oriana's notice – her parents had reminded her multiple times about the gang wars that blossomed in the slums as part of her weekly safety lecture – but it still surprised her how homesick it made her feel. She was so used to the same old 27th floor dock where Haron manned the security screen, and where the racist turian had all his tirades, and where the same two hanar were always arguing (what DID they argue about?) and, hell, she even missed passing Captain Bailey in the lobby, only he wasn't there any more...
Oriana's heart sank when she approached an available shuttle. Pallin... Yes, she'd seen the news.
The door to the shuttle slid open. Oriana slid her violin case inside and leaned it against the passenger seat before stopping to program her destination into the shuttle's auto-pilot. She was glad that her parents had invited her to eat. She didn't think she could handle a big crowd and a lot of ruckus, not with all these half-finished thoughts flying around in her head. Oriana slid into the shuttle and sat, pulling the door closed behind her. Now...
Without warning, the passenger door snapped open. Oriana froze, eyes wide, as someone slid into the seat next to her. She stared at the intruder, disbelief no doubt coloring her face.
Kolyat frowned. "What?"
Oriana's lips parted. She continued to stare at the leather-clad drell who had so casually hijacked her shuttle. To his credit, he hadn't shut the door – one of his long legs was still planted on the ground outside. He looked to her, his black eyes inscrutable.
"Should I get out?" he asked, still frowning.
Oriana's mouth closed. And then, before she knew it, she was grinning, and then she was laughing, and oh God she was going to KILL HIM -
"Jerk," she laughed, but her hand betrayed her when it lit on the drell's tension-riddled arm. "Shut the door."
The canopy sealed with a soft click. When Oriana next looked at Kolyat Krios, the teal-scaled drell's frown had transformed into a tentative smirk. The difference was subtle, but it was there.
"You look surprised," he wheedled.
"I'm... oh my God, Kolyat, you arse!" Before she knew it, her hand had connected with the drell's shoulder. "You scared me!"
Kolyat eyed her hand. "Don't do that."
"Why? Did it hurt?"
"No. It's annoying."
"Whatever. And watch the violin case!"
Kolyat's eyelids did that funny double-blink thing when he looked down at the case leaning next to his left leg. He frowned and rearranged his legs, careful not to bump it too hard. "Is that what that is?"
"Yes, and it's worth more than my tuition. So don't break it."
With a hum of anti-gravity generators, the shuttle they were in lifted off. Oriana secured her harness and Kolyat did the same. Her hands were shaking – from shock? Excitement? It was impossible to tell.
"I didn't know you were here," Oriana admitted, careful not to stumble over her words. She wanted to ask whether he'd gotten her invitation, but stopped herself short. Kolyat was leaning into his seat, but his back was rigid, and so were his arms. He was nervous, she realized. When he looked at her, she could read faint lines of tension in the plated scales of his brow.
"I was asked to help," the drell explained, his rasping voice unusually slow and meticulous. "A few of the C-Sec officers from our precinct were invited... I came with Haron." Kolyat's shoulders twitched in a shrug. "It was a chance for me to work off some hours. Never been to Tayseri before."
"Oh." Oriana resisted the impulse to chew on her bottom lip. "So you had to come." My invitation had nothing to do with it.
Kolyat said nothing for a number of heartbeats. Oriana stared at the dashboard in front of her. Lights from other vehicles streaked by their shuttles tinted windows; the navigation grid in front of her flickered, scrolling numbers and coordinates in a continuous loop.
"No," Kolyat said at last. There was a hard edge to his voice. "I didn't."
Oriana looked at him, wondering if he was angry. He didn't look angry, however – he was staring ahead at the distant lights of skyscrapers, his gaze just as distant. Oriana felt something cool wrinkle beneath her fingertips and she glanced down only to find that she'd never removed her hand from his arm. The muscles beneath her hand were still.
"I was starting to wonder," Oriana ventured, unsure if Kolyat was even listening. She was insanely curious to know what was going through his mind, and a part of her felt like she deserved an explanation. "You know, if you'd gotten my invitation."
Kolyat tore his eyes from the skyline and focused on her. The distant haze to his gaze was gone; his pupils were pale and sharp. Oriana suppressed a shudder, but kept her eyes locked on his. He didn't blink. Neither did she.
"About what happened," he began. He paused, breaking the stare with a flicker of his inner eyelids. Oriana blinked on instinct. "At your apartment. It..."
Silence. Oriana felt her fingers twitch against Kolyat's arm. He glanced down, as though noticing the touch for the first time. Oriana swallowed around a lump in her throat and fought the instinct to take her hand away. She could almost feel his gaze burning against the back of her knuckles.
"It just happened," he finished, his voice a mumble.
Oriana raised an eyebrow. If she'd been expecting some in-depth explanation to what his problem had been, it looked like she was going to be disappointed. "Kolyat," she began, fully intending to pry the information out of him, "it's..."
It wasn't fair. It'd be like someone asking her why she'd cried after talking to her dad. Kolyat's gaze was downcast; he was clearly ashamed.
"...okay," she finished, and gave his arm a squeeze. "I'm glad you came to me."
Kolyat looked at her again. The burning sensation must have traveled from her knuckles to her face, because Oriana felt her cheeks redden when their eyes met.
"I'm glad you let me in," he replied, his voice deadpan.
Despite the serious nature of their conversation, Oriana felt her lips twitch. "I almost didn't."
"You yelled at me."
"I was mad at you."
Oriana found that she was reluctant to answer. She let her gaze roam down Kolyat's face, traveling along the dark stripes that marked his cheeks and frill. "No," she admitted, studying the line that middle his lips and chin. "What about you?"
It took longer for Kolyat to answer. The wait made Oriana uncomfortable. If he was still caught up on the argument they'd had at the bar, she was going to beat him with her violin.
"No," he said. He seemed to relax. Oriana's gaze flickered back up to his eyes; she hoped he hadn't caught her staring. It wasn't her fault he was so... unusual. He's no Danner, but...
"It was wrong of me to say you were jealous," Oriana said before she could stop herself. "Of... you know. I made it worse."
Kolyat's expression darkened, but he didn't look away or attempt to dislodge the hand she had resting on his arm. A good sign. "I wasn't," he said.
"Then what was the problem?" Damn it. She'd promised not to pry.
"It was bigger than him," Kolyat snapped. "Or you."
Oriana arched an eyebrow and bit back a sassy reply. This was not the time for another argument. She could beat him with her violin case later. "Okay, then. Have you dealt with it?"
She didn't expect an answer, so Kolyat's quiet response surprised her. "I'm working on it."
Oriana smiled and gave Kolyat's arm another small squeeze, unsure of what else to do. "That's good." She wanted to remind Kolyat of what she had said, about being there and being his friend – to not let him forget that, because she'd meant it – but she decided against it at the last minute. Drell had perfect memories. He didn't need to be reminded. She hoped not, anyway.
A foreign weight cut her thoughts short. Oriana stared down at the black-gloved hand that had settled over her own. There was a pounding noise in her ears. Oriana recognized it as her heartbeat. She felt dizzy. Was she motion sick? What God-awful timing. If she puked on Kolyat and ruined this moment –
Wait, what moment? This was not a moment. They were just talking. She was being nice. He was touching her. They were holding hands.
They were... holding... hands?
Alert! Alert! Improbable situation detected!
Oriana pitched forward as their shuttle swapped lanes. Kolyat made a strangled noise; his fingers closed over hers on instinct. Oriana rocked backwards. The lights of the Tayseri skyline blurred together.
"I'm going to be sick," she announced with all the dignity that she could muster. Kolyat stared at her, alarmed. His hand left hers. She looked down at where it had been. Wow. What loyalty.
"Not on me," Kolyat warned, inching away. His knee bumped the violin case.
"I'm not going to puke," Oriana complained. She leaned back in her seat and took a steadying breath. Her mind stopped swimming, but only by a little. "A little support would be nice, you know."
"What am I supposed to do?" Kolyat demanded. To his credit, he sounded genuinely concerned.
"You could treat me like a person and not a vomit dispenser," Oriana suggested, feigning offense.
Kolyat made a face. "That's disgusting."
"And untrue. I've never once vomited in a shuttle."
Kolyat stopped inching away. Oriana had no idea if it was due to him having a change of heart, or because he had run out of space. Oriana fought a smile and rubbed a hand over her eyes, praying she didn't smear her makeup. The skin of her hand smelled like leather. It was a nice smell, but she wasn't about to stop and sniff her cuticles with Kolyat eyeing her like that.
So much for the moment.
"Where are we going?" Kolyat asked. He was looking out the shuttle windows. Oriana pulled her hand away.
"You're only asking that now?"
Kolyat swiveled to look at her. The fins that crowned the top of his head caught the interior light in strange ways. "Aren't we going back to Zakera?"
Oriana sat up in her seat and ignored the queasy protest of her stomach. "I am going to my parent's."
Kolyat stared. Oriana could have sworn that the color drained from the ribbing of his jaw and neck.
"What?" he warbled.
"I'm going to see my parents."
Kolyat redirected his stare to the shuttle's navigation grid. "Drop me off somewhere else."
"No way," Oriana protested. "We're almost there!"
A line of colorful drell expletives emanated from Kolyat's throat. Oriana blinked. "Fine," he acquiesced with a growl. "I'll ride back once we get there."
"You don't have to," Oriana ventured. "You could come inside."
Kolyat was as quiet as he was still.
"You could eat with us," Oriana continued. "My parents wouldn't mind." Well, she didn't know that for sure, but... "My dad always cooks too much."
That seemed to capture Kolyat's interest. He cocked his head. "Your father cooks?"
Crisis averted. "He does," Oriana said, settling back in her seat. Kolyat hesitated, but did the same, although his shoulders still looked tense. "I miss home cooking."
"Why?" Kolyat wondered. "You can cook for yourself."
Oriana stared at the dash in front of her, partly to avoid looking at the large drell, partly to avoid looking at the scenery flashing by around them. "It's not something I'm good at," she said, wincing.
"I, er... burn things."
A throaty chuff made Oriana look up again. "You never told me that," Kolyat said.
"Why would I?" Oriana grumbled.
"If you had," Kolyat continued, his voice adopting a deep, confident burr, "I would have had something made all those times you came to visit."
Oriana brushed stray strands of hair from her eyes and stared at the subtle, curving smirk that split the plates of Kolyat's face. "You can cook?"
Oriana narrowed her eyes. "Well?"
"Yes," Kolyat repeated. There wasn't a hint of sarcasm in his voice.
"I never would have guessed," Oriana confessed. "You don't strike me as a chef."
Kolyat curled his fingers into a fist. He appeared to be studying the backs of his gloved hands. Silence descended between them. Oriana was tempted to close her eyes as motion sickness once more reared its ugly head. Her eyelids lowered.
"My mother taught me," Kolyat said. He uncurled his fists. Oriana's eyes snapped open. She watched small shadows play across the tendons of the drell's larger, more muscled hands. Her gaze drifted to his two fused digits.
"Oh," Oriana stumbled, taken off-guard. Never, not once, had she ever heard Kolyat mention his mother. She'd given up hope on him ever talking about his life before the Citadel. Was this the result of his breakdown? What had changed?
Think, Oriana! Think!
"She was a good cook?"
To her surprise, Kolyat dipped his chin in something resembling a nod. His pupils flicked over to Oriana; she felt herself meet his gaze on instinct.
"You must know a lot of drell dishes," she continued. Her curiosity was nigh insufferable. It clawed around inside of her head, starved for information, demanding to be appeased.
"And some human ones," Kolyat clarified. "I picked up a few after coming to the Citadel."
Oriana pressed her cheek into the edge of her seat and grinned at him. "Better not be ramen."
"Ramen?" Kolyat's eyelids flickered. "Isn't that the delicacy that they sell at the Stand?"
"You believe that? Ramen is, like, military paste for college students."
Kolyat's jaw twitched. "Then it's a lie."
"False advertising. Just another thing all species have in common."
"Or you're still upset about the noodles."
Oriana rolled her eyes. "You would bring that up."
"Perfect memory," Kolyat quipped. The fingers he had resting on his armrests curled. Oriana rolled her hips and shoulders back as he sat up in his seat and stared out the front of the shuttle. "Are we stopping?" he asked.
The nervous warble of her companion's voice forced Oriana to abandon her drowsy state. She mimicked her companion and sat up, unconsciously straightening her hair as she did so. Her parent's apartment building loomed in front of them. She could see the glass-paneled balcony where they lived, as well as the 35th floor dock where she and Kolyat would land.
"That's it," Oriana confirmed. She looked to Kolyat and smiled. He was tense again, his pupils pale and dilated, his grip on the armrests tighter than normal. "It's okay. Really. They won't mind."
Kolyat mumbled something unintelligible.
"I'm serious. The alien angle doesn't bother them." I hope not, anyway.
Kolyat eyed the rapidly approaching dock. "How comforting," he grumped.
"Yeah, well, you're the one who jumped in without asking where I was going."
The shuttle touched down. Oriana reached and unlatched her harness. After a moment's hesitation, Kolyat did the same. The sound of the metal clasp snapping back against the alloy of the shuttle reverberated through the shuttle's interior. The muscles of Kolyat's neck rippled. It was the only visual cue that betrayed the drell's anxiety, and if Oriana hadn't spent as much time around him as she had, she never would have caught it.
"You can still go back," she said as the canopy opened. The artificial air of the Wards washed over them. She felt the hair on her neck and arms prickle.
"I have a choice?" Kolyat asked with a curl of his lip. He wasn't buying it.
Oriana shrugged. "You always do."
He looked at her. Something passed over his face, a fleeting thing that Oriana couldn't describe, but it made her lips pull back in a smile.
They stepped out of the shuttle together.
What a terrible idea.
"Sunshine! Honey, I... who is your friend?"
What a terrible, awful, horrible idea.
"His name is Kolyat, mom."
Oriana had hoped that the first person to meet them would have been her father. That was, of course, not to be. Oriana's horror had nothing to do with her adoptive mother as a person – Mrs. Solheim was both intelligent and kind, with a shrewd business sense that made her the financial support of the family – so no, it had nothing to do with her mother as a person, and everything to do with the glossy black lipstick, low-slung, skin-baring dress and three-inch high-heels that her mother wore.
Oriana squeezed her eyes shut and prayed that a stray bullet would come sailing through the wall and straight through her head, because instant death looked kind of nice right then.
Mrs. Solheim smiled politely and held out her manicured hand. Oriana stared at her mother's nail polish.
That was her nail polish.
"It's nice to meet you, Kolyat," Mrs. Solheim said to the dazed-looking drell. Kolyat nictated at the outstretched limb before offering his own. They shook hands, the gesture as awkward-looking as Oriana had feared. "I hope I'm pronouncing that correctly," Mrs. Solheim continued.
"Yes," Kolyat said. "Miss... Solheim."
"I wasn't aware you were bringing anyone," Mrs. Solheim said. Her gaze zeroed in on Oriana.
Kolyat took a step back. "I can -"
Oriana snagged the drell's arm with the hand that wasn't clutching her violin case, thus halting his mad sprint out the door. "I'm sorry," she said, giving her mother a little shrug. "It was last minute..."
"Well, what are you standing around outside for?" Mrs. Solheim gestured inside the apartment. "We have more than enough food for a guest. Make yourself at home. My husband is in the main room. Introduce yourself."
Oriana had no intention of letting Kolyat's arm go, and it seemed that Kolyat had no intention of leaving her side. The drell's entire body was rigid as it brushed against her own, and Oriana spared a glance up at him. "Sorry about the awkward," she whispered.
Kolyat looked down at her. His eyes widened, growing impossibly larger, and the light that beamed in from the main room highlighted every detail of his pale, dilated irises. "This was your idea," he hissed.
"You hijacked my shuttle," she hissed back, and shot him a dirty look for good measure.
"You could have told me!"
"You had a choice!"
"I can't go back now," he argued, grimacing with every step they took toward the main room. Oriana could hear the sound of a vid playing full-blast accompanied by the tap of her mother's heels in the kitchen. "It would be..."
"Let me guess. Hanar manners?"
It was Kolyat's turn to shoot Oriana a dirty look. It was a look that said he was going to hold everything that happened here against her for the rest of his mortal existence. It didn't help that their progress was being impeded by his dragging feet. Oriana dug her elbow into his side. He shoved at her shoulder with his own. She pinched his arm; he cursed.
"I don't mean to interrupt your whispering," Mrs. Solheim cut in. Both Oriana and Kolyat froze in place. The older woman was standing by the small stairwell that led to the dining area. "I hope you're not discussing something... inappropriate."
The only thing more embarrassing than her mother's choice in clothes was her mother's smirk. Oriana squeezed her eyes shut once more. Bullet, take me now.
But no, nothing was going to save her. It was up to her to take charge of this situation. Oriana straightened her shoulders and lifted her chin. When she realized her mother was eyeing Kolyat's leather, his scales, his zippers, and the arm Oriana was currently clasping, Oriana grit her teeth and let go. Kolyat's body twitched once at the sudden loss of contact, but that was it.
"Mom," Oriana began, "We were..."
Mrs. Solheim chuckled and shook her head. "Oh, lighten up. I was joking."
"Sure," Oriana drawled. She gave Kolyat an apologetic nudge. "My mom has a bad sense of humor."
For a split second, all attention was focused on the drell. Kolyat's plated brows twitched once, but otherwise his alien face was impossible to read.
"I wouldn't say that," he said at last.
Mrs. Solheim winked at her daughter. "I like this one. He compliments me."
"Never mind," the older woman tittered. "Go, have a seat. The food is almost ready."
Oriana led Kolyat into the main room. The apartment was bigger than the one-bedroom she owned back at Zakera, but the layout was much the same. Her adoptive father was sitting in a lounge chair in front of a wide-screen vid; he sat up when Oriana and her companion entered. There was no disguising the shock that crossed his face when he took notice of the tall, sullen-faced drell that was doing a good job of staring at nothing in particular. Oriana set her violin case against the sofa and awaited the inevitable reaction.
"This is unexpected," the older man confessed.
"I know," Oriana said. Her mind was ablaze with a thousand different excuses ordered from most to least efficient. "We were-"
Mr. Solheim waved his hand. "Sunshine, is this a courtroom?"
Oriana frowned and looked at Kolyat, who looked just as baffled as she felt. "No?" she replied.
"Then there's no need to jump to his defense," Mr. Solheim finished. He motioned at a nearby sofa. "Come, sit. What's your name?"
Oriana opened her mouth to answer, but was cut off. "Kolyat," the drell replied. Kolyat seemed to have recovered from most of his shock. He was instead studying Oriana's adoptive father with a careful, guarded expression. The sudden shift in demeanor prickled Oriana's interest. She was just about to pull him over to a sofa when she felt her mother's hand light on her shoulder.
"You," her mother whispered. "Me. Kitchen." The weight disappeared from Oriana's shoulder. She could hear the tap of her mother's heels retreating.
Oriana stepped back. When Kolyat turned to look at her, she shook her head and smiled. "I'll be right back. Go ahead and sit down."
Kolyat's fingers and brow twitched again, but he said nothing as he went to sit on the sofa.
"Kolyat, huh?" her father was saying. "Where are you from?"
The sound of his voice faded as Oriana made her way back to the kitchen. She prayed that the distance was out of range of drell hearing as well, because the predatory look her mother had when it was the two of them alone was not comforting.
Oriana was the first to speak. "Mom, I can explain."
"Oriana, please." Mrs. Solheim retrieved a number of dishes and began setting them on the table. Oriana hesitated and started to help. For a long moment the only sound was of the vid still blaring from the main room, and the clink of plastic.
"Your father outdid himself this time," Mrs. Solheim said. "Potato soup. He knows you love potato soup." She retrieved a number of napkins. "I hope your friend finds something to eat."
"He'll be fine," Oriana insisted. "He's not dextro or anything."
There was another pause before Mrs. Solheim spoke again. "Oriana..."
"Mom, I can -"
"Was he the one you had to see?"
Oriana stopped working and frowned. "What do you mean?"
Mrs. Solheim studied her adopted daughter from across the table. "Our last vidchat was interrupted because someone came over to see you."
Oriana felt her throat seize up at the memory. Kolyat... "That was him."
"You sounded worried."
"I was. It's... It's better now."
There was yet another pause. "I'm not going to interrogate you," the older woman continued. "Not today. Relax."
It was good advice. There were a lot of things Oriana was not looking forward to explaining, most of which had to do with Kolyat's background. But the problem wasn't new; she'd been thinking her way around it ever since the talk with Mouse. She'd figure it out.
Mrs. Solheim crossed her arms. "But you know, Sunshine, when I talked about asari boyfriends..."
"He's not an asari, mom."
"The coloration is close." Mrs. Solheim was smiling, although the smile was unsure. "I'm not going to make him feel unwelcome. He seems very... nice."
Oriana rolled her eyes. "He wasn't expecting to meet you guys, you know."
"This was not well-planned."
"No, but..." Oriana made a frustrated noise. "Can you at least play along?"
"Play along? Oriana, I'm very interested. Do you know how rare drell are?"
Oriana glanced to the doorway. She prayed that Kolyat and her father were getting along; the fact that she couldn't hear them only made her nervous, and she hated feeling nervous. "I told him the species thing didn't matter."
"Of course not. I work in public relations, Sunshine. I've seen almost everything." Mrs. Solheim's expression turned contemplative. "Did you know that their saliva has hallucinogenic properties?"
"I – what?"
Her mother's eyes narrowed. "I always did tease you about being on drugs, but I never thought you'd date a drug just to spite me."
Mrs. Solheim sighed dramatically. "Fine. I'm not your father. I can't make this situation any less awkward for you with humor, but I will try to make dinner painless, at least."
Oriana felt herself relax. "Thanks. That's all I want."
"Good, so stop looking horrified. And go tell the boys that the food is ready."
It felt like Oriana couldn't make it back to the main room fast enough. Her feet quickened down the stairs and across the floor, the sound of her footfalls rivaled only by the pounding of her heart. Please let Kolyat forgive me. We only just patched things up. Please let Kolyat forgive me. We only just patched things up. Please let Kolyat –
The first thing Oriana saw was her father, still sitting where he had been, followed by Kolyat, who was sitting on the far side of the sofa. The drell turned his head when Oriana entered.
"Okay," Mr. Solheim was saying. His attention was directed at the vidscreen in front of him – or, to be precise, at the sports game that was unfolding on the vidscreen. "Baltimore Orioles or Kyoto Katanas? Keep in mind that the wrong answer will force me to kick you out of my house."
Oriana's stomach flipped. "What..." she began.
Kolyat scowled and chuffed, "Neither."
Mr. Solheim's eyes locked on the drell. "Neither?" he repeated.
Kolyat twitched his shoulders. "They both sound stupid."
Mr. Solheim burst out laughing. "I knew I liked you!"
Kolyat appeared startled by the older human's reaction. He looked at Oriana.
She shrugged. "Dad's a Detroit Tigers fan."
"Damn straight!" Mr. Solheim got up and clapped Kolyat's shoulder. "Come on, let's get something to eat." He threw his free hand around Oriana's shoulders and kissed her cheek. Oriana felt herself redden. "I've missed you, Sunshine."
"Er, me too, dad." It was embarrassing to know Kolyat was there to see her parents' doting behavior. Oriana peeked over her father's shoulder and expected to see the drell sneering at her.
But Kolyat wasn't. His plated brows were turned up, and his lips were pressed thin, and his eyes – his eyes were somewhere else entirely, his gaze distant and sad.
Oriana reached behind her father's back and touched Kolyat on the hand. The drell nictated and something in his eyes cleared. Oriana smiled at him, but her smile felt sad, and she didn't know why.
"Stay with me," she whispered, trying to sound playful.
Kolyat studied her. Mr. Solheim had since disengaged himself from his daughter and entered the kitchen. Oriana was sure her hair was ruffled where his arm had brushed by her, but for once in her life, she didn't immediately move to fix it.
"Like I have a choice," the drell said at last.
"You always do."
Kolyat's lips twitched upwards, but it was far from a smile – so far, at least. "I'm not known for my wise decisions," he rasped, as though quoting someone from memory. He probably was.
"It's not too late to make a change."
Kolyat's eyes dilated. "No," he murmured. "Not too late."
They entered the kitchen together.
The Wards looked prettier on a full stomach.
"Most things do," Mrs. Solheim had observed. She'd then given Oriana a long, calculated look that reminded Oriana of Miranda. "So don't get any funny ideas."
Mrs. Solheim had then vanished before her daughter could respond, leaving it up to Oriana to "show Kolyat around." Seeing as Oriana had no intention to introduce Kolyat to her parents' bedroom, that left the miniature lounge and balcony as the only unexplored room in her parents' apartment complex. The door to the hall slid shut behind them, leaving the two of them alone.
"Shouldn't we help?" Kolyat asked after a minute. "Clean the dishes, or...?"
Oriana shook her head. "They can handle it." She frowned. "Wash-bots exist for a reason."
"Washing by hand is better."
"Yeah, well, some of us have sensitive skin." Oriana chuckled. "I'm pretty sure this was an elaborate excuse to get us alone, anyway."
Kolyat shot Oriana a funny look. She shrugged it off and stood in front of the glass panels that led to the exterior portion of the balcony. She considered going outside, but decided against it. The way the light of the wards played across the glass was nice to look at, and it was quiet inside. Perfect for a conversation... as long as her parents kept their distance.
"You're not going to get in trouble, are you?" Oriana turned to face the drell who hadn't moved from the center of the room. "Did anyone know you were leaving the theater?"
"I told Haron I was."
"When do you have to be back?"
Kolyat twitched his shoulders. The gesture was so familiar, even more familiar than asari body language, and Oriana had grown up on Illium. "Not for a few cycles," he replied.
It was weird how a room could feel even more cramped than the interior of a shuttle, but the space that separated Oriana and Kolyat seemed suddenly suffocating. They hadn't had a chance to just talk without distraction since...
Oriana's nose twitched at the question. She hadn't seen that coming... Then again, she hadn't expected Kolyat to swing Tarzan-style into the passenger seat of her shuttle, either. Today was just full of surprises.
"Yes," she answered, and tilted her head. "Why do you ask?"
Kolyat's arms were hanging loose at his side. He took a step forward, then back, as though pacing in place. He stopped and frowned at the floor before meeting Oriana's eyes. "They love you."
"They do." Oriana caught herself smiling. "They can be annoying sometimes, but... I have good parents."
Kolyat said nothing, but appeared to bob his head in a nod. His eyes had that distant look again. Oriana shifted her weight and "accidentally" brushed at his elbow with her own. The drell nictated; his eyes cleared.
Oriana pretended not to have seen. "I think my mom forgets her age sometimes," she grimaced, reflecting on her mother's choice of dress.
"Humans," Kolyat muttered. "It's hard to tell."
"What? Age?" Oriana quirked an eyebrow. "With the wrinkles and everything, I think it'd be easy."
Kolyat shook his head. The gesture no longer looked so unnatural on him – he'd adopted human body language well. "No. That's not a good way to tell." He folded his arms. "Your father has wrinkles, but your mother doesn't. But they're the same age?"
"That's true." Oriana propped her hands on her hips. "My dad likes you."
Kolyat nictated. Oriana wondered if he was blushing. She couldn't see his jaw ribbing from where she was standing, and the lighting didn't help. The whole room was a dark blue, illuminated only by the lights outside. She'd forgotten to turn the ceiling fixture on. Oh well.
"He's different," Kolyat admitted. The scales on his forehead pinched together. "From my father."
Oriana ran her tongue against the back of her teeth, unsure if she should pursue the topic. Kolyat may be more open with her, but she had to be careful not to abuse that. She already had once; her inner Miranda-voice advised caution.
But she was interested... very interested.
The sound of footfalls signaled Kolyat's approach. Oriana brushed hair from her eyes as Kolyat came to stand beside her, though he kept himself at arms-length.
"They keep calling you that word," he said. His lips were still creased in a frown.
"That's my nickname," Oriana explained. She twiddled her thumbs together. Damn it, what was it with parents and baby names? She guessed she could have been called something worse. Like Grunt. "And it comes from my real name. Oriana means 'sunrise.'"
Kolyat's frown deepened. His pale pupils drifted to look at her; Oriana resisted the urge to cringe under the sudden scrutiny.
"Earth sunrises are blue?"
Oriana blinked. "No. They're yellow and red. Our skies are blue."
"But your eyes are blue."
"What does my eye color have to do with the sunrise?"
Kolyat nictated, his eyelids flickering so fast that Oriana almost didn't see them. He then looked away, seeming almost embarrassed.
"Nothing," he muttered. "Forget it."
Oriana made an amused sound. "Right. Because humans can do that." She tapped at the glass panel of the balcony with her knuckles. "I still think the perfect memory thing would be useful to have."
Kolyat's ensuing chuff made the glass rattle against Oriana's knuckles. "That's what you think."
"Okay. It would be useful to have, selectively." Oriana brushed at the side of her head and tangled a finger in her hair. "It would help me figure out if I've seen your father before."
That definitely caught Kolyat's attention. "What? When?"
Oriana ran her finger down the glass and was disappointed when it left a streak. She needed a bath. "It was a while back. Back when I met my sister."
"What do you remember?"
Oriana ran her finger back up and frowned. She could remember Nos Astra as a place, but the details were blurry. She could remember standing on the dock, and how the sun had been rising, and how she'd been patiently listening to her parents chattering away about the delay they'd experienced. She couldn't remember just what they'd said, though... And then there had been a feeling of confusion when she'd turned her head and seen her sister approaching. She'd been crying, Oriana was sure of it. Yes, Miranda had definitely been crying. She'd also been wearing that white catsuit thing... huh. Her sister was as bad as her mom...
An alien rumble yanked Oriana from her thoughts. She squinted at the drell that towered over her. "What are you laughing at?"
"Watching you try to remember," Kolyat answered. His lips were pulled into a self-satisfied smirk. It was one of the most animated expressions she'd ever seen on him; she even caught a glimpse of his flat, compacted teeth. "Is human memory that bad?"
"Hah hah," she drawled. "Anyway. I remember talking to my sister, but I also remember seeing Shepard."
"Commander Shepard?" Kolyat flinched. "That's one human I'd like to forget."
The drell looked sullen and rubbed at the side of his face. "Something like that," he grumbled.
"We didn't talk or anything. But I think... It's hard to say, but I think I saw someone else with Shepard. A drell."
Kolyat stopped rubbing at his face. "What did he look like?"
"Green, I think. He was wearing... well, sort of what you're wearing. And for some reason I remember thinking that he was showing more cleavage than my sister."
"That was my reaction." Oriana glanced down at her chest and stopped short of cupping herself. Her sister was beautiful, and while there were similarities, she didn't know if she could pull off the femme fatale thing as well as Miranda.
Nope, no sir. It was closed-shirts and Blasto pajamas for this Lawson.
"That sounds like him," Kolyat said. She wondered if he even knew what cleavage was. As far as Oriana knew, drell didn't have breasts, and neither did hanar. That was a mental image she could do without.
Which left her with the memory of that fateful day on Nos Astra. The more it played over and over in her head, the more Oriana felt her blood boil.
Oh, it was a happy memory, sure – one of her happiest – but it also upset her in ways she had never been able to articulate. Hell, it was hard enough just thinking about it. It was even harder to carry all these mixed emotions around with her, every day, thinking and re-thinking them into the proverbial ground. And just when she thinks the whole thing is okay, and she's okay, something pops up that reminds her that everything is not okay, and then her thoughts start tangling and she just wants to get it all out.
But who could she talk to? Her sister? Was throwing a tantrum over e-mail or in a chat the answer? No. Miranda had better things to do. Their chats were a luxury. Oriana had learned to make the best of them.
Her parents? They were better off not knowing.
So who else, then? No one else knew about her secret life. No one except the one person Oriana was alone with, right there, right then – the one person the galaxy had seen fit to nudge her way, the one person she was... alone with... right there, right then.
Right here? her mind whimpered. Right now?
"It's so frustrating!" Oriana exploded. She could feel Kolyat looking at her, but she didn't look at him, because she knew if she did she would lose all her steam and damn it, she needed to get this off her chest. He would understand, right?
"I'm so frustrated," Oriana clarified, hating the way her voice shook. She stared out the glass, past the Tayseri ward arm, past the Serpent nebula and past the blackness of space at nothing. "I'm not stupid. I knew Randa and her 'associates' had been fighting. She had a bruise on her jaw. I remember that. Shepard's armor was scuffed. I remember that. I'm not... stupid."
Oriana's palms hit the glass. She was shaking. "It was because of me, but she wouldn't tell me. I don't know what happened, not exactly. But they saved me from something. Can you believe it? They saved me."
My guardian angel. Or angels, in this case.
Kolyat was silent. Oriana could still feel his presence; he was still beside her, although he had taken a few steps back. Good. She needed her space. She needed...
"So many things in my life," Oriana continued, "so many little things - that was all Miranda. We connected just like that, y'know? We even like the same composer, the same movement. Nielsen's Fifth, adagio non troppo."
Oriana curled her fingers. She could feel her nails rake against the glass. She shook her head, her voice deceptively steady. "Every time I talk to her, I'm reminded of why she's not here. I remember that she's off saving the galaxy. She won't tell me what she's doing, but does she have to? I have an imagination. I'm not stupid. I'm just -"
Weak. Normal. Incapable. A million light years away.
Oriana released a single, shuddering breath. "I invited her to the charity thing... it was the same e-mail I sent you. I knew she couldn't come, but I thought she could tune into the news, or something. I don't know! All I could think about was how great it would be if she were there. And when I didn't see you, I felt worse."
Something hot and wet pooled in Oriana's eyes. She pulled a hand from the glass and wiped at the corner of her left eye, cursing softly when her mascara left a black streak across her wrist. Great. Just great.
She almost didn't hear Kolyat move closer to her.
"I don't mean to sound ungrateful," Oriana pressed, wiping at both eyes this time, her throat so tight that it was hard to breathe. "It's just... God, I don't know." Her voice hitched. She wanted to sniffle, but fought the urge. No need to look like even more of a blubbering child. "I'm not making any sense."
"No," a masculine voice disagreed. She heard a rasping sigh. Kolyat. "You are."
Oriana shook her head. Not at Kolyat's words, but at herself. She could feel her hair prickling at the nape of her neck and down the sides of her face. She could see the reflection of her dress in the glass. It gave her something to focus on. She clung to the image, convinced that the blurring of color was the fault of the reflection, and not her childish tears. "It's not Randa's fault, but it just... it makes me so angry."
"How do you deal with it?"
The question must have taken Kolyat off-guard, because he didn't answer right away. Oriana sighed through her mouth and wiped at her nose. Her eyes still felt hot and watery. Her whole body felt hot. The hand she'd kept braced against the glass was starting to go numb.
"I haven't," Kolyat said at last. His voice was dry.
Oriana laughed. It was an empty laugh, but it was better than nothing. "Guess we're in the same boat."
"I hate boats."
"Me too," Oriana snorted. "Motion sickness."
Silence fell between them. There was the sound of weight shifting; Kolyat's leather boots entered Oriana's line of vision. She smiled down at the floor.
"I guess I'll have to thank your father, too," she continued. "For saving me."
"He does that a lot," the drell said. He sounded tired. "The saving people thing. It's supposed to help me forgive him or something."
Oriana let her remaining hand drop from the glass. She forced her gaze up from the floor, but made no effort to look at Kolyat. Something told her he was doing the same.
"Have you?" she asked, her breath fogging against the glass. "Forgiven him?"
There was the sound of a slow, heavy exhale. "I did. A long time ago."
That wasn't the answer Oriana had been expecting, even with her limited knowledge on what Kolyat was talking about. "You don't sound happy about it."
Kolyat's reply was bitter. "I'm not."
Another beat of silence. Oriana closed her eyes, ignoring the way her eyelashes stuck together, and considered her next words.
"When my sister walked into my life, I told myself that I would never let her walk back out." She opened her eyes and glanced over at Kolyat's reflection in the glass. "I could do the same for a drell."
Kolyat's reflection shifted. Oriana mirrored the action and turned around, one of her hands raking at the top of her head. The pull of hair against her fingers was comforting. She'd never felt more focused than at that moment, when she and Kolyat faced each other.
And there they were, right back where they'd started – quick glances, searching eyes, black on blue.
Might as well go for it.
Oriana stopped playing with her hair and gave her eyes one final wipe. She then reached out to the taller drell, her palm up, and managed a small smile. He watched her every movement, his own eyes large and soft – softer than she could ever remember them looking. What was going through his head? She wished she knew.
She swallowed. Nothing ventured... "This is where we hug, right?"
Kolyat's brow ridges shot up. "I don't need a hug."
Oriana wasn't convinced, but she played along. "Yeah, okay. But maybe I do."
Kolyat looked down at her hand. A peculiar expression crossed his plated face – it reminded Oriana of the time she'd showed him how to do a pinky promise. His lips pinched together. Her smile wavered. He peered up at her from the shadows cast by his scaly brow ridges.
...He was going to turn around and walk out the door. Oriana could tell. And as soon as he did, she was going to grab the nearest, most compact thing she could get her hands on and chuck it at the back of his head.
Kolyat's eyes glazed over. The tense line of his shoulders disappeared. Oriana cocked her head when he remained standing in place, his face unreadable.
And then he did the last thing Oriana expected: He shrugged and said, "What are you waiting for?"
Oriana's lips parted in a small 'o'. She gave the drell a quick glance over. Kolyat quirked a brow at her and lifted his chin.
Had he just...
Her bottom lip trembled. And then it wibbled. And suddenly Oriana was laughing, this time for real, and before she knew it she'd thrown her arms around Kolyat's waist and had her cheek pressed into his vest. Kolyat made a grunting noise when he almost stumbled, but caught himself at the last second. His entire body was solid and warm. A gust of equally warm, dry air blasted across the top of Oriana's head and tickled her hair.
A second passed.
"Er," Kolyat rumbled. Or at least, that's what it sounded like. There was a rattling sound from within his chest. Oriana's eyes snapped open when she felt it vibrate against her jawbone and leave her gums feeling tingly. He must have cleared his throat.
And then she heard another sound, a sound that was so familiar that Oriana felt her brow crinkle in confusion when it thrummed against her ear.
"Kolyat," she muttered. "This hug is way one-sided." She could feel a silver choker pressing against her temple. Her cheek was also squashed against a number of zippers. The metal was cold. Kolyat was still. Was he even breathing? She probably should have let go by now. It'd been more than two seconds.
Kolyat's hands twitched. Gloves brushed against the sides of her arms. The hair on her arms stood on end. Everything smelled like leather.
He had never felt more real.
"Kolyat?" she tried again.
Another gust of dry hair tickled the top of her head. "What?"
"How long have my parents been listening in through the door?"
A thump sounded from behind the door. Oriana narrowed her eyes at the sound of a muffled curse and the sound of footsteps retreating down the hall.
"Two galactic standard minutes," Kolyat replied. She didn't need to see his face to know he was also glowering at the doorway. Despite herself, Oriana giggled.
His broad body shifted against her. "How long are..."
Oriana sighed and tightened her arms. Kolyat's back twitched. "Fine," she sniffed. "I'm done."
Another rattling sound. "I didn't mean -"
But Oriana had already started to drop her arms. Movement on either side of her made Oriana hesitate, however, and when Kolyat's hands ghosted up her arms and descended on her shoulders, she froze altogether.
"Do you feel better?" he asked. Oriana had wanted to double-check her makeup before making further eye contact, but that plan went nowhere when she looked up. Their eyes locked. Kolyat tilted his head; he looked uncertain. He had a very strong profile, she thought, her mind in a daze. Blue light... blue light looked good on him.
"Yes," she murmured. Her face felt hot. His thumbs were very close to her neck; his gloves tickled the ends of her hair. "Thank you for listening."
The hands Kolyat had placed on her shoulders relaxed. He appeared relieved, if the upward curve of his lips was anything to go by. It looked an awful lot like a smile, only that was impossible.
"You're... welcome," he managed. His hands slid off her shoulders, and he took a few steps back. Oriana could hear her heart in her ears.
She folded her arms, feeling suddenly self-conscious. "You didn't have to let me hug you, you know."
Kolyat chuffed. "What was I supposed to do? Shove you off?" He stopped when he noticed Oriana's guilty expression. "...You thought I would?"
"Sort of," she admitted. She winced at Kolyat's scandalized stare. "You're more cuddly than I gave you credit for, okay?" She rubbed at the side of her cheek and shot his metal choker, as well as his numerous zippers, a sour look. "Even if your outfit dented my face."
Kolyat touched the zippers in question. "Cuddly?"
"Oh, come on. You liked it. Admit it." Her heart was racing; she could still feel the ghost of his hands, and the air still smelled like leather.
Kolyat's eyes narrowed. He drew himself up and folded his arms across his chest. "I'm going to leave."
Oriana burst into laughter when the drell, his head held high, whirled around and marched to the door. She scampered after him and snagged his elbow before he could escape. His pulse was racing just like hers.
"Wait! Hold on," she managed between breaths. Kolyat stopped and glared down at her. It took everything in Oriana's power to keep a straight face. She was pushing him, she knew, but she'd missed the teasing. It helped her forget her anger. She hoped it would help Kolyat forget, too, in some small way.
"Just answer this," she continued. "Does your heart always beat that fast?"
The violet ribbing of Kolyat's jaw blossomed a deep maroon. "No," he mumbled, avoiding her eyes. "Only around you."
She felt him untangle her fingers from his arm. She didn't resist, but she didn't rush to pull her hand away, either.
The grace in which Oriana's parents pretended not to have spied on their daughter would have put some of the greatest galactic actors to shame. The first person to greet them when they emerged from the room was Mr. Solheim, and the first thing he had to say had nothing whatsoever to do with his daughter's blurred mascara or her drell companion's twitchy frill.
"Just in time," he announced, as though he had never eavesdropped on anything or anyone, at all, ever. He must have felt Oriana's accusatory stare, because he went out of his way to avoid his daughter's eyes. "The Tigers are on. Kolyat, you said you didn't care for sports?"
Kolyat froze. "No?"
"One game." Mr. Solheim held up a finger. "Watch one game with me before you leave, and I'll make a believer out of you."
Whatever protest Kolyat might have had was cut short as Mr. Solheim herded him back into the main room. Oriana rolled her eyes and started after them, but stopped when she noticed her mother standing in the doorway to the kitchen.
"I've already booked a cab for you two," Mrs. Solheim said. She glanced down the stairwell to where her husband was showing off his new vidscreen while Kolyat made a gallant attempt to look interested. "And I paid the fare to get you back to Zakera."
"You didn't have to."
"That's what parents are for, Sunshine." Mrs. Solheim looked down at her adopted daughter and smiled. "How are you feeling?"
For a single, fleeting second, Oriana feared her mother might have overheard her outburst. Oriana's hand flew to her face, but her tears had long since dried. "I'm fine," she said, perhaps too quickly.
Mrs. Solheim gathered her daughter in a hug and sighed against her hair. "If you say so. I know a lot has happened..."
Warmth filled Oriana's being. It was the same kind of warmth she'd felt when she'd stepped onto the stage at the theater, or the warmth she'd felt when Kolyat had touched her hand. She pulled away. "You don't have to explain, mom. And I know Kolyat's not what you expected."
Mrs. Solheim chuckled. "After that stunt with your long-lost sister, your father and I have learned that anything is possible."
With the memory of an alien heartbeat still fresh in her mind, Oriana smiled, and decided that she was in no position to disagree.
TO: Oriana Solheim
FROM: Kolyat Krios
SUBJECT: RE: Finger food
yes. there was one left. i ate it. why?
TO: Miranda Lawson
FROM: Oriana [Lawson]
SUBJECT: Are they all like this?
Hey, Randa? Do you know of any good catalogs or magazines for older women? I've been poking around but haven't found anything. I'm trying to give my mom a hint, y'know? Is there a nice way to tell her that borrowing my prom dress and emulating my makeup is NOT OK?
If you could use your connections to bump a few hints her way, or something... She won't listen to me. And no Dear Dinah!
ADDT: I know, I know, "Stop abusing my super private extranet account for unimportant stuff." I get it.
ADDT: Do you think Shepard would have any advice?
ADDT: If I send Shepard an e-mail you had better not mark it as spam!