If there was anything that could fix the ailments of the universe, Ryder was wholeheartedly convinced that it was tea. Jaal’s mother intimidated the everloving fuck out of her, so she pulled up her big-girl panties and did the only logical thing to get her through another encounter--invite her to tea. Tea put her at ease. It soothed her. It made her remember that she could be funny and charming and pleasant when she needed to be. Tea was magic.
Nevertheless, while they rode in the public transport shuttle to the city where Jaal’s family resided, he had to settle a hand on her knee to keep it from jogging up and down. His thumb stroked slow circles against her thigh, tingling the skin with dapples of bioelectricity. It tickled, similar to the sensation of a cobweb brushing against her skin. He often traced these patterns into her when they lay in a heap of sweaty limbs and sheets back on the Tempest .
She stood corrected. Jaal’s manipulation of bioelectric fields might actually rival tea.
“You shouldn’t be nervous,” he rumbled.
For once, she was grateful for Havarl’s sticky sweet heat to hide the sheer amount of perspiration she was putting out.
“You should know by now, I’m a rebel. I do a lot of things I shouldn’t.”
“That time you tried to outdrink Drak comes to mind…”
“Mistakes were made that night. So many mistakes.”
He smiled down at her in the way that made her stomach drop out. She took a moment to consider and appreciate his patience. Instead of calling out the way she deflected commentary on her emotional state, he rolled with it. They were learning each other, all right. Most of the time, he would insist she be honest with herself.
“I want Sahuna to like me,” she ground out reluctantly. Her stomach did a bit of extra writhing, but giving voice to her insecurities didn’t hurt as bad as she always expected it to.
“Sahuna already likes you.”
“I want her to like me in person. And I can’t decide whether it helps or hinders that she reminds me so much of my own mother. Balls, I’m a mess. I’m sweating so freaking much.”
He hummed a note of appreciation, leaning in to brush a kiss under her ear. “I like the way you sweat, my darling.”
“Oh, fuck, Jaal.” She shoved him back. “I swear to god, if I have to show up to tea with your mother in moist panties…” She struggled to get her ragged breathing under control.
“Are you not more relaxed?” he posed, thumb resuming its circling on the inside of her knee.
“Distracted, at least?”
“All right, I’ll give you that one, but we’re going to have real problems if your hand creeps any higher.”
He didn’t remove his hand, but neither did he push any more boundaries. They settled into watching the thick jungle pass by through the shuttle window across from them. There didn't seem to be a single spot on Havarl that wasn't choked with vegetation.
“SAM, what’s our ETA?”
“Seven minutes, Pathfinder.”
Seven minutes to fidget and get her nerves out of her system. She was only grateful she wasn’t sitting down with all of Jaal’s mothers this round. They had decided to try to ease her into family dynamics one toe at a time.
The shuttle eventually dropped them in a city overcome with jungle. Flowering vines dipped between buildings with windows shadowed by broad-leafed palms. The area was as urban as anywhere on Havarl, but it still felt swallowed by wilderness. The warm air filled her, thick and sweet, while streamers of sunlight filtered through gaps in the overhead canopy.
The Ama Darav compound wasn’t a long walk from the shuttle’s drop point, giving her little time to find her composure. Her grip on Jaal’s hand was bone crushing, but he was not what she would ever describe as “dainty.”
Their passage went noted by other angara pedestrians. Most of them had likely not yet seen a human, so she forgave most of the stares, as most were nothing more than a benign sense of curiosity. However, any time they showed physical affection in front of other angara, there was always a minority that reacted with sneers.
“Ah, I do love the hostile side-eyes we get wherever we go,” she sighed, shaking her head slightly.
“They don't bother you?”
“Was I any different before I joined the Tempest? They need time to learn, as I did. Do they bother you?”
She hitched a shoulder. “I don't know. They make me twitchy. Like I kind of expect to be shot at. The Roekaar didn't do my nerves a lot of favors.”
“What makes you more nervous, the possibility of getting shot or having tea with my mother?”
“Oh, your mother, definitely,” she laughed.
“Why? She is often described as ‘warm,’ ‘kind.’”
“Terrifying, right? I really want her to like me.”
“She already likes you,” he stressed yet again.
They turned onto the walkway leading up to the sprawling complex of buildings that constituted his family’s home. The last time they had visited, it had been after dark, making it difficult to appreciate the sheer immensity of the space. It spoke to reason. Dozens of people lived there. The house itself had to be more like a small city so they didn't spill out the doors and windows at any given time.
She could hear voices before they even reached the front door. Instead of escalating, her nerves settled. The entrance brushed aside as soon as they hit the sensors on the front porch, delivering them into an extended foyer. Sunshine filled it through overhead skylights, potted plants basking in the rays. Around the corner was one of the main living areas of the complex, no doubt jammed with Jaal’s family.
A diminutive blue streak rounded from the room and bolted for the door just past them. Jaal reacted as if by habit, leaning down and sweeping his free arm out to catch the runner around the middle. He scooped it up to dump the wiggling little bundle onto his hip. Stilled, the blue streak turned into an angaran child. He was a bit more than a toddler, perhaps, although Ryder had the damndest time discerning age markers among the people.
“Where do you think you’re going?” Jaal laughed.
“Jaal! Auntie Adde took my toy touskna.” The word didn’t translate for her, although it spat out a few, half-hearted attempts. “I’m leaving this family and joining another!”
“Over a touskna? Well, that seems a bit harsh.”
“I love it. I want it back! I can’t--” The child looked past Jaal then, fixing his big eyes on Ryder and coughing over his words.
“Ah, Ryder. Meet Burkau, my nephew. Burkau, this is Ryder.”
He leaned toward her, sweeping his awed gaze up and down her body. “She’s very weird looking, isn’t she? What is that on her chest?” He reached out and prodded one of her breasts before she could step out of reach. “It’s squishy!”
Jaal let out a small cry and snatched his little wrist back. “Ah! Burkau! That is an intimate area. Only I am allowed to touch it.”
“He’s all right,” she laughed. “Best reaction one of your family has had to me, yet. It took you ages to build up the confidence to feel me up.”
He fixed her with a look of consternation before they were interrupted by Sahuna from the other room, arms outstretched.
“Ah, good, you’re here! Jaal, go be with your family. It has been far too long.” She gave him a quick hug, patting little Burkau on the cheek as she passed. Then she turned to Ryder, sweeping her into her warm embrace. “It fills my heart to have you in my home again. I have so looked forward to this.”
While she might not be quite as in touch with her emotions, the one thing Ryder didn’t suck at were physical manifestations of affection. She was a hugger. The familiar ritual put her further at ease, a little, nagging thought in the back of her mind marveling at the similarities in cultural rituals between the angara and humans. Who knew that hugs would translate across galaxies?
“It’s good to see you again, Sahuna.”
The woman held her back at arm’s length, sweeping a pleased look over her. “You look well.”
Smiling, Jaal backed toward the main living space where more of his family were gathered. “I’ll leave you two to it, then. Enjoy your tea.”
Linking arms with her, Sahuna led her a different direction. They took a hallway deeper into the complex. The home smelled pleasantly fragrant, slightly spicy with a surprising but familiar undercurrent of gun oil. Plenty of family members in the Resistance, she had to remind herself. Light flooded in from the overhead skylights to bathe each hallway in a gentle glow, adding to the sense of warmth and security. Despite the notable differences, it reminded Ryder of the home she grew up in, the one where she and Scott had been raised on the Citadel. Not so much in appearance or design, but in the general vibe of things. This was much more than a cramped living space for a couple dozen adults and children. It carried love.
Oh, god, she was sounding like Jaal.
“How is your brother doing?” Sahuna asked as their stroll took them farther down the corridor.
“He’s really good, actually. He was up and moving around the last time I was on the Nexus. He’s been driving his physical therapists nuts doing more than he’s signed off on.”
“That’s encouraging. You two are quite alike, aren’t you?”
“Well, Scott struggles more than I do, really. He doesn’t have my sense of charm, and I’m much prettier.”
Sahuna chuckled. “I’m pleased he’s making progress. I know he means so much to you. Through here,” she bid, drawing her through a doorway onto a little outdoor patio.
It was shielded from the city by a latticework interlaced with flowering blossoms and dipping vines. Fragrances of honeysuckle and lavender drifted on an imperceptible breeze, or whatever similar substitute Havarl sported. She would have to find out what smelled so nice and convince Cora to add to her garden.
“It’s beautiful out here.”
“This is my favorite spot, especially when the seasonal bloom is upon us. You came at exactly the right time.”
In the center of the patio, Sahuna had prepared a table for tea. There were two sets of everything--one angaran and one human. Ryder was surprised to discover that she had somehow procured a dainty little teapot, tea cozy and all. Beside it was what could be assumed was some sort of hot beverage receptacle for angarans. Both steamed gently. To one side were bowls of something more or less liquified. As Liam described it, angaran diets were “pasty.” They may take their juice cleanses seriously, but they had terrific functionality. Everything could be slurped out of a bag or a cup, making for exceptional mobility. Alongside the bowls was a plate of triangular cut sandwiches, the human half of the equation.
“That reminds me, I brought you something.” She swung her shoulder bag forward and dug into it until she found the small container. “It’s...ah...well...I can’t pronounce it. It was Jaal’s suggestion.”
Sahuna accepted the container, opening the corner with a growing smile. “Where did you find this?”
“I made it. I squeezed a lot of little berries by hand. Worked out a surprising amount of aggression...”
“It’s my favorite. Labor intensive, though. Obviously. Thank you.”
“My pleasure. Cooking is one of my secret talents.”
They took their seats at opposite sides of the table, settling into the chairs comfortably. They weren’t exactly wicker, but they were similarly woven.
“You haven’t met Liam and Gil. They figure out I can turn mediocre ingredients into good food, the whining to feed them will never end. I’ll have to either fire them both, or quit.”
The corners of the angaran’s mouth crinkled in the same way Jaal’s did when he tried to smother back a grin over something he thought he should disapprove of. And just like Jaal, Sahuna fell into her trap of humor in spite of it all.
“So. No pie?” Ryder mused, surveying the spread again.
Sahuna took up the teapot first to pour her a cup. “Not this time. I did make a very small cake. The ingredients were surprisingly difficult to procure. Your people covet chocolate more jealously than almost any other substance.”
Ryder had to pick her jaw up off the table. “You made me chocolate cake?”
“The cake itself is not chocolate, but the frosting and filling are.”
“But with real chocolate.”
“Is that a problem?”
“Are you kidding? I could sell it on the black market for twice the worth of the Tempest ! Not that I ever would because it’s chocolate and I’m not a savage. I can’t believe you even found any! I can get illegal organs easier than I can get chocolate, and believe me, I know that for an actual fact.”
Sahuna beamed as she poured her own beverage. “You are pleased then. Good.”
“Pleased? Sahuna, this is extraordinary! You didn’t…” She swept the woman with a squint. “You didn’t, like, have to sell off a baby or something, did you?”
The woman laughed openly. “No children were harmed in the procurement of the chocolate.”
Snagging one of the sandwiches, she nibbled at it to give herself time to consider what subjects she wanted to broach. It tasted suspiciously like roast beef and avocado. She peeked under the corner of the bread. Definitely not roast beef or avocado. She ate it anyway.
“So what was Jaal like when he was little? Any embarrassing stories I should know about?”
“Many,” she promised with a fond little smile. “Each child is unique in their own way, Jaal no different, but he had a propensity toward curiosity that got him into trouble. Frequently.” She used a small spoon to dip into the treat Ryder brought for her first, sighing with pleasure on the first bite. “You have true talent.”
Ryder didn’t take compliments with any modicum of grace, so she merely nodded and forced the topic back to Jaal. “What was the craziest thing he ever dismantled?”
“Oh, come on. Jaal likes deconstructing and studying whatever he can get his hands on. He took apart an entire armor set down to the filaments his first week on the Tempest , and I don't like the way he eyeballs my pyjak. I bet you all rue the day you first handed him a screwdriver.”
“How well you know him,” she hummed. “When he was young, we had a small transport unit we could use for short trips. When he was nine, he took apart the engine. And then failed to put it back together. We tried to keep him busy after that. One of his mothers put him in charge of laundry. We generate quite a lot here, as you can imagine. A week in, he decided he could improve our plumbing.”
She slapped a hand over her mouth. “I hate to ask but...did he?”
She sipped her drink demurely. “It wasn't a complete failure. Not that any of us were thrilled with the two weeks it took him to figure out how to prioritize hot water back to the kitchen and bathroom.”
“Why isn't he an engineer?” she laughed.
“Ah, our lives have taken some unusual turns. Engineering would have been an ideal path, but he was called to other futures first. The Resistance is always in need, and his father's death changed many things. There were not as many options for him as I would have liked.”
“Well, he's at least good at it,” she reasoned.
“He's good at a great many things. I would have preferred he follow passion instead, but that just wasn’t possible.”
She took a measured sip of her tea, staring into it. “That, I get. Pathfinder wasn't my first choice.” Hell, the entire Initiative wasn't her first choice. She just didn't have the guts to stay behind by herself while her father and Scott left forever.
“Isn't that just the way of fate? For both of you to collide on your unusual paths.”
She leaned back in her chair, lips hovering close to her teacup. “My family has a saying. ‘Sometimes, you owe your life to stepping in shit.’”
Sahuna cocked her head. “Unusual phrase. Is that just your family, or is that common among humans?”
“No, no, just my family. You see, many years ago, my mother was on her way to an important interview. She was trying to get onto this prestigious research team while she was finishing up her PhD. This was going to be her big break, her launch into cutting edge science, everything she ever dreamed about, but on her way to the shuttle, she stepped in dog shit.” Ryder’s lips twisted fondly as she recounted the story. “No small pile, either, if she’s to be believed. She had to detour to wash the shoe off. She couldn’t walk into this interview stinking of crap, but the time it took her to track down a bathroom and scrub the shoe made her miss the shuttle. She tried calling to reschedule the interview, but their timeslots were all stacked. If she couldn’t make it, that was her loss. Devastated, she tracked down the nearest bar to go drown her sorrows. And she just happens to plop down next to an incredibly dashing young soldier.”
“Alec Ryder. So if she hadn’t stepped in crap, she would have never missed that shuttle. She would have never missed her interview or gone to that bar or met my father. Scott and I literally owe our lives to dog shit.” She set her cup back in its saucer. “She still ended up doing amazing research and finishing out her PhD, just not how she originally planned. And juggling twins by the end, no less. That woman was indomitable.”
“You must take after her.”
“Ha! If my mother were here, she'd already have the kett by the balls, have made each world habitable, and still have time to look fabulous by doing it,” she scoffed, munching on a second sandwich.
Sahuna rested her gaze on her patiently. “You give yourself too little credit. You have accomplished incredible feats in a short amount of time. I think your mother would be proud.”
Words of sarcasm died on her lips as she struggled against her instinct to throw up her guard against the familiar, nagging pain of discussing her mother, her accomplishments, or both. She had to remind herself to simply let it be. Her knee began to jog up and down again as her nerves wriggled back into place.
She braced herself for an expression of honesty. “It's funny to think it's been over six hundred years since she died. For me, it hasn't felt that long. I guess it was stupid to expect cryo sleep to put distance between it.”
“You woke up exactly where you left off?”
“Humans...well, me in particular, have the bad habit of ignoring pain away. Not that it ever works. ”
Her throat tightened the way it inevitably did when she got on the topic of her mother.
“How much time did you give yourself to grieve after she passed?”
Ryder laughed emptily. “Time? There was no time. Dad threw himself into the Andromeda Initiative, and Scott followed him, and I followed Scott. Before I knew it, I was climbing into a cryo tube pretending like I was excited and giddy for new adventures. Bullshit bravado, so nobody knew I thought my family had gone clinically insane and that we were making the biggest mistake of our lives.”
As soon as the words began tumbling out, she couldn't stop them. She vomited the feelings she had kept to herself the entire time, the secrets she held close, never daring to expose to the harsh light of day. Before, she thought she could make her faux sense of excitement real if she just pretended long enough, that saying her insecurities out loud might give them power and make it real. She hadn't told anybody. Not Scott. Not Jaal.
Sahuna looked on in sympathy, even reaching across the table to set her hand on the back of Ryder’s. A little thread of bioelectricity ticked against her, the same soothing pattern Jaal used when her anxieties threatened to eat her alive.
Slowly, she found it in her to smile. “And even though Dad died and Scott went into that coma, I don't think it was ever a mistake coming here. Sometimes, you owe your life to stepping in shit.”
Standing, the woman rounded the table and gathered her up in a real hug. Ryder sank into it, relief flooding through her.
“I’m so glad you told me, Ryder.”
“What I didn't know back then,” she laughed, “was that all I needed was to travel six hundred years and to a new galaxy in order to get some good, old fashioned angaran therapy.”
Sahuna stood back and cupped her cheek. “I see why my son loves you.”
She blushed and turned away. “I’m surprised I didn't drive him absolutely crazy before I ever let him in.”
“We both know how he likes to figure out how things work. I'm sure you proved a unique challenge, but one worthy of his time and attention.” She clapped her hands together. “Now, shall we see about that cake?”
“Oh, good lord, yes.”
“It's in the kitchen. Follow me.”
Once again, they took off into the house. Ryder found herself studying its features, wondering if it would become as familiar to her as the Tempest someday. Perhaps they could begin regular visits so she could try to get to know more of his family. She was positive they could carve out time once every month or two for a social gander.
The kitchen, while inherently different than what she was used to, felt exactly how a kitchen should. It had counter space for meal preparation, a cooling box much like a refrigerator, and utensils scattered across countertops, a vase of flower blooms next to gun parts somebody had partially disassembled, and vines crawling unimpeded through an open window.
Sahuna fetched the little cake from the cooling box and a spoon. It was only about five inches in diameter, and smothered in thick, chocolate frosting.
“You must tell me how you like it.”
“Real chocolate,” she whimpered.
She took a modest serving into her spoon, bringing it to her lips. It smelled divine. Somehow, despite having never cooked a human meal in her life, and likely having to had substitute several ingredients, Sahuna had crafted an exquisite cake.
“Oh my god.” Her eyes rolled back in orgasmic delight as the first bite hit her tongue.
“Is that a good sign?” twittered an unfamiliar voice.
They both turned toward the far entrance to the kitchen. Another female angara occupied the doorway, gazing on anxiously.
“Ah, please join us. Ryder, this is one of Jaal's other mothers, Vaasana.”
Ryder set the cake aside to embrace the woman. It was a welcome distraction. If she ate more of the cake, she would end up sobbing into it with unfettered glee.
“At last!” Vaasana exclaimed, bounding into her. “You have picked a good one. I helped deliver Jaal myself. The set of lungs on that child! He became a good, honorable man. I've always hoped he would find love again. Are you two thinking of kids, yet?”
“Oh. I. Um. No. Not yet,” she gulped.
“Oh, are we allowed to greet her now?” Another woman let herself through. “Koana, Jaal's sister. We met briefly last time, but didn't have the chance to speak. Did you like the cake? I had to arm-wrestle one of your turians for a bag of sugar on Kadara.”
“It's perfect. I'm almost afraid to eat it because it'll be gone,” she admitted. Another hug. But more importantly, “You beat a turian at arm wrestling?”
“His ego was so easily shattered,” she scoffed, drawing her into a hug. “Jaal used to torment me when we were kids, you know. We grew up in the same age group. He took apart all of our toys! I used to have to blackmail him into putting them all back together again so the rest of us could play.”
“Blackmail him with what?”
“With telling our mothers about whatever things of theirs he had recently pulled apart and tried to hide. Thankfully, he eventually got good at reassembling everything.”
Settling back, Ryder took up her cake, grateful she didn't have to guard it against her hosts. She took another bite. The struggle to keep breathing became a problem. She missed chocolate so goddamn much.
The kitchen continued to grow with family members only too happy to dish out the dirt on Jaal’s past. She ate the rest of her cake, scraping the cake clean while she listened.
As the room filled, hands got busy pouring drinks and making food. Somebody retrieved the teapot and poured her a fresh cup. Curious, she insisted they teach her how to make something Jaal would enjoy eating. She tied her curls back and rolled up her sleeves and got in next to the women of the family as they excitedly let her in on a secret family recipe.
“Okay, so here's a question. I can't tell if it tastes good or not. If I'm ruining it, what do I look out for?”
“Consistency,” Sahuna cautioned. “The consistency will tell you everything.”
“I'm running full scans on the metabolic breakdown of the meal, Ryder. I can also log consistency and particle factors. I am compiling parameters not to exceed in order to replicate the meal to a satisfactory degree,” SAM informed her.
“Did your mother teach you how to cook?” Sahuna asked.
“My grandfather, actually. My mom was decent in the kitchen, I’ll give her that, but she never had the time. I used to go over to my grandparents’ after school and Grandpa and I would cook together. That man made a mean huckleberry pie.”
She half turned, spotting Jaal amidst the faces of those present.
“What are you doing?”
“Learning how to make you some bomb-ass paste.” She punctuated her statement with a wave of her wooden spoon.
He leaned forward onto the counter, lips cocked upward. “Tea went well, then?”
Sahuna set a hand on Ryder’s shoulder. “We’re keeping her, Jaal. You no longer have a say on this.”
“Well, then, who am I to stop you? But you might want to continue letting the Initiative borrow her to be their Pathfinder. You wouldn’t want to cause an intergalactic incident.”
He got swatted a few times by family members for teasing.
“Ryder, I’m afraid your transport shuttle is scheduled to pick you up in a half an hour. You’ll need to leave in fifteen minutes in order to make it on time,” SAM warned, pinging loudly enough for the rest to hear.
She and Sahuna quickly wrapped up the meal so she could see the end result. All she needed to replicate it were the right ingredients, a food processor, and a stovetop. SAM stored the recipe on his memory, including the scans to help her not screw it up.
Saying goodbye took more time than SAM accounted for, as Ryder found herself swept up into one pair of arms after another. Names and faces all sort of blurred together. Her AI was more than happy to log them in a database to quietly fill her in when she forgot. By the time they made it to the front door, they were five minutes behind schedule. She hugged Jaal’s true mother last on the doorstep.
“Thank you so much for this, Sahuna. It was a delight.”
“You are always welcome back, my dear. And keep me updated on your brother. I worry after him.” Releasing her, she turned to Jaal next. “Do try to stay out of too much trouble.”
“With Ryder? Impossible.”
Already running late, they parted ways and stepped back onto the walkway that would deliver them to the main road. They didn’t make it far. Jaal hooked an arm around her waist the second the doors whisked closed behind them and spun her, backing her up until her shoulders hit the fence framing the path. Their lips came together, desperate and seeking. She giggled into the sudden, fierceness of the kiss.
“Ryder,” SAM began with a warning note.
She ignored him, her brain function in short supply. Her surprised laugh turned into a little moan as bioelectric impulses feathered across her skin. Her blood rushed downward, facilitated by crackles of energy that were almost always a prelude to better things. She wanted to warn him not to overdo it. She had a low tolerance threshold for his bioelectricity and burned out quickly, but she quite forgot how to make words for the moment.
Jaal moved his lips across her jawline to her neck. “Seeing you there,” he breathed raggedly in her ear, his voice dropping to that deep bass that scattered her panties to the wind. “I didn’t realize how much I wanted it, how much joy it would fill me with to see you interacting with my family and to see them embrace you as their own.”
She tipped her head back against the fence as she caught her breath. “Man, family time really kickstarts your biological imperative. If I knew how fast seeing me domesticated would get you off, I’d have just detoured back to your childhood bedroom.”
He pressed a dizzying pattern of kisses down the column of her throat, one hand circling to frame her ass. “We could turn around.”
“If you are going to make your shuttle on time, you are going to have to hurry,” SAM warned.
“Cockblock,” she grumbled, pushing Jaal off to find her balance. “Rain check until we reach the Tempest?”
He made the concerted effort to compose himself, a silly little half-smile playing at his lips. “I love you, my darling one. Never have any doubt of that.”
“Never,” she promised. It was always a fierce struggle to reciprocate. The “L” word scared her almost more than the topic of children. “I love you, too.” See, not so hard. The more times she said it out loud, the easier it got. And she was still breathing. Mostly. “Now let’s go, before my panties literally burst into flame.”
Taking his hand again, they turned back to hurry to get to their shuttle. It occurred to her as they got going that maybe it was time to fill Scott in on the developments in her lovelife. He and Jaal should probably meet...