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Kolyat approaches the Fish Dog Food Shack with something between temerity and outright fear. Temerity because his stomach rumbles from hunger pangs and he only has fifteen minutes to eat lunch, and fear because, well, what is a fish dog, anyway? And should he, or anyone, really be eating it? But the smell that arises from the food stand lures him in, overcoming his qualms, and he finds himself salivating regardless of his doubts.

His stomach rumbles almost in pain as he surveys the menu hanging over the counter, indecisive over what to choose. The Fish Dog special? Fish Dog Dog? And what, he wonders with increasing alarm, are Pyjak Fingers? He takes a step back, having changed his mind because surely he can just go to a convenience store and find something to tide him over until he gets off work at C-Sec—or rather, the community service Bailey had agreed for him to perform—but his movement is halted by a solid body behind him that he bumps into quite hard.

Oof!

“Oh, please excuse me—” Kolyat turns, words dying on his tongue as he finds himself face-to-face with Mouse.

“Oh!—It’s you—” Mouse’s cheeks turn slightly ruddy and he backs away a step. “Sorry, Krios.”

“No, I...er...it’s my fault—”

“I wasn’t following you!” Mouse’s tone is defensive and accusing at the same time, as if Kolyat had already tried and convicted him on the charge of stalking, not caring if Mouse was guilty or not.

“I...alright?”

“Hey, pyjak! You gonna order or what?” The krogan behind the counter interrupts their awkward exchange. “If not, get your ugly asses out of line.”

Kolyat is horrified to find that a queue has formed behind him, several people craning around Mouse to find the cause of the holdup. An asari glowers at him, crossing her arms in self-righteous impatience at being denied, even for a minute, of her pyjak fingers.

“After you, Krios,” Mouse says, waving at the order terminal, leaving him with no other choice but to turn and punch at the first thing on the menu. He cringes when he discovers that everything comes with pyjak fingers, but resolves to just ignore them (or throw them away at the first opportunity) and eat his Fish Dog (On a Stick!) in peace.

The krogan slides a tray of more-than somewhat dubious looking food across the counter at him. “Enjoy your lunch, idiot.”

“Uh...thank you—”

“Get the hell outta my face.” The krogan has already filled up the next tray for Mouse, dismissing him like he would an insignificant insect.

Kolyat cuts a glance at Mouse, but finds himself ignored. Which is fine. He has no idea what he’d say to the human anyway. Hey, thanks for that contract that nearly ruined my life....?

No, probably best just to not say that.

He snags the only empty table available, looking down to survey the food he’s bought and has no idea how to eat. The Fish Dog (On a Stick!) appears to be some sort of breaded, deep-fried concoction that still sizzles from the hot oil. Next to it is a small paper bowl overflowing with what also appears to be something deep fried—presumably the pyjak fingers. They seem less like actual pyjak fingers and more like sort of vegetable that’s been cut into long strips. He pokes at one with a hesitant fingertip. It’s hot to the touch and smells...well...not exactly appetizing, but not repugnant either.

“Anyone sitting here?”

Kolyat glances up to find Mouse holding his tray, shifting awkwardly from one foot to the other and pointedly looking everywhere else but at him. When he looks around, Kolyat sees only tables full of other people, so he pulls his tray closer and shrugs. “No. Go ahead.”

Mouse nods and slides down into the seat opposite him. “Thanks.”

He concentrates on his food, rather than having to look over at the other man and wonder if he should make polite conversation. Mouse, for his part, remains silent, tucking into his whatever-it-is he has with a gusto that surprises Kolyat, considering what Kolyat knows about Mouse. Which is to say, absolutely nothing.

The first bite of his Fish Dog (On a Stick!) is genuinely delicious, crispy on the outside from the breading, the meat inside tender, nearly melting in his mouth. It’s flavor is savory, but still slightly sweet, with a strange, but not unpleasant aftertaste that only seems to make him salivate more.

“It’s better with the sauce.” Mouse points at the bottle in the center of the table, the bright green contents of which seem to nearly glow from something Kolyat wonders might not just be plutonium. Mouse’s half-eaten whatever-it-is is covered in the stuff.

Gingerly, Kolyat picks up the bottle and reads the label: Tummy Tingling Tuchanka Sauce! When he upcaps it, a sharp, bitter aroma assaults his nose, so strong it makes his eyes water. He dribbles a bit of the sauce off to the side, dipping the top of his Fish Dog (on a Stick!) into it. This bite he takes with much more hesitation, although the aromatic combination of the sauce and the breaded meat seem to meld together as if they’d been just waiting to be combined.

His taste buds burst from sweet-salty-spicy-savory and then spicy! He closes his eyes at the overwhelming sensation, suddenly aware he’s humming from delicious flavors. “Gods of the ocean—”

Mouse laughs and eats a pyjak finger. “Yeah.”

“That…” He pours a bit more sauce off to the side and repeats the motion, dipping and eating and humming. “That is very good.”

Mouse watches as Kolyat forgoes the dipping and pours it directly onto the meat, smirking silently over his tray. “Try it on the pyjak fingers.”

Kolyat casts a doubtful glance down at the bowl that holds the pyjak fingers, jutting out from all angles as if attempting to escape by any means necessary. “What are they, anyway?”

Mouse shrugs. “Dunno. Some kind of tuber, I think. I don’t really care, to be honest. They’re just really fucking good.”

Regardless of Mouse’s opinion, Kolyat decides to withhold judgement until he’s tried one for himself. Which he’s still not sure if he wants to do. “Would you...want mine?”

He might have been offering to hand over a million credits with the way Mouse’s eyes light up at the offer. “Sure! If you don’t want ‘em—”

“I think...this will be enough,” he indicates his Fish Dog (On A Stick!) and then passes the pyjak fingers over. Mouse takes them gladly and Kolyat finds himself staring at the man and how that one smile makes his entire face light up, changes it in a way that makes him seem younger and more carefree. It’s more than a little disconcerting.

“Thanks, Krios!”

“You should...you can call me Kolyat.”

Mouse simply nods, devouring the gifted food with as much enthusiasm as he had his original meal. Kolyat nibbles away at his own as a less-than-comfortable, but also less-than-unnerving silence settles over the table. As he watches from the corner of his eye, Mouse practically picks every crumb from his bowl, and then his tray, licking them from his fingertip with as much relish as he’d eaten the rest of the meal.

It strikes Kolyat at how completely different their lives have been: his own comfortable, wanting for nothing. And Mouse? He wonders how much security he had growing up. How many times had he had to scrounge for food when Kolyat had never. When had he had to shelter in an alley, or in the unseen passages that run underneath the Citadel when Kolyat had never slept on anything other than a bed, under a roof, somewhere warm and dry. He doesn’t know the circumstances of how his father paid people such as Mouse, but he doubts it was enough to bring him up out of poverty. It seems strange to think that both their lives should lead them here to this spot, eating questionable food covered in quite possibly irradiated sauce.

“Listen, Mouse. About that…”

“I didn’t rat you out to your dad! He and Shepard already knew you were involved somehow—”

He waves his hand, dark eyes locking onto Mouse’s alien ones, so different from his own, and so very intriguing. water under the bridge at this point. He still harbors a healthy resentment toward his father, but hours spent talking in the C-Sec office had honed some of the jagged edges off of his anger, smoothing them down into a simmering discontent over their nearly broken relationship. A breakage both father and son had been responsible for creating. “He told me. That’s not what I mean...I guess I just wanted to be sure you were okay? That there wasn’t any fallout.”

Mouse shrugs, wiping his hands on the pitiful—and somewhat greasy—paper napkin the krogan had placed underneath the bowl. “Kelham’s in jail, for now, on attempted murder charges. Well, you probably know about that. Nothing has come back to me about my involvement. I probably have Shepard, or your dad, to thank for that.”

“Probably Shepard. Although I don’t know them very well. My father is...discreet, I guess? And has ways to hide things, as you probably already know. Bailey questioned me about the whole wretched affair, but it was all off the record. He must have found another way to bring Kelham in.”

At the mention of Bailey, his mind returns to work, and the break he’s on, and how long he has left until his break is over. He consults his omnitool, eyes widening to see he only has a minute left until he has to be back. “Uh...sorry. I have to go” He gets up hurriedly, swiping up his tray to deposit at the exit. He takes a step away, but reconsiders, intrigued by the human and not quite wanting to leave so quickly. He looks back at Mouse just as the man slides the half-empty bottle of Tummy Tingling Tuchanka Sauce! into his pocket. “Er...It was...look. I don’t really know anyone on the Citadel. And I’m not that familiar with what’s available, but would you like to meet sometime? For a drink?...Or something?”

Mouse jerks his hand back from his pocket and blinks at him for several moments, then looks over his shoulder as if fully expecting someone else to be there. When no one presents themselves as being the object of Kolyat’s attention, he turns back, brow furrowed over deep brown eyes. “Me?”

“If you wanted...” Kolyat taps his omnitool before he can change his mind, sending his contact information to Mouse. “Call me. If you are...bored or whatever.” He turns on his heel, rushing back to work, wondering what had come over him. He tells himself he’s being friendly, trying to meet people, expand his world. Nothing beyond that.

So why does his heart hammer in his chest at the thought of what he’d just done?

It’s only when he gets back to the C-Sec main entrance that he realizes he’s still holding the tray in his hands.

~~~~~

Several weeks go by. Weeks of following Bailey around, learning the inner workings of C-Sec. He’s the only drell in the entire building and gets curious stares from everyone, and more awfully, leers from some people that he assumes are directed more at his toxic skin than anything. He shudders at the prospect of being licked for a psychedelic high and hurries away from the offenders.

Kolyat doesn’t forget that he gave Mouse his number—A drell forgetting! Ha!—but he lets the notion slide away from the forefront of his mind after three weeks of silence. Most likely he was out of order in even asking and perhaps he’d even offended the young man in some manner? Kolyat considers himself to be no expert on human interpersonal practices, after all.

When his omnitool chirps a message late one night, just as he’d shucked his clothes and slid underneath the covers with a datapad to read until he falls asleep, he assumes it’s his father, contacting him from somewhere halfway across the galaxy. Things have improved somewhat imperceptibly, which he supposes is better than not at all. And as Bailey says when he asks about it, at least they have a channel of communication open now. Which, according to him, is definitely better than not at all.

What surprises him when he checks the message on his omnitool is that it’s a text message, rather than a written letter or—even more likely—a phone call. He scowls when he sees the unfamiliar username CB, his finger over the ‘delete’ button. Why he hesitates he doesn’t know, but something—he supposes curiosity—makes him stop and open the message.

CB: Hey. Would you still be up for that drink?
CB: Sorry for the delay in getting back to you.
CB: It’s Mouse btw
CB: I put the sauce back. Not that you probably care. But I know drell never forget and I don’t want to make a bad second impression. Probably too late for that. Is it too late for a good third impression?
CB: I’m not sure why I said that. Please ignore me.
CB: Sometimes I wish there was a way to take back these messages...
CB: Anyway. Drink?

A small smile tips the corners of Kolyat’s mouth up as he reads—and rereads—the messages. He types out I’d like that and hits send before he can think too hard about it. And then he writes Too late to take back the messages! and hits send quickly.

Mouse’s response back is almost immediate.

CB: Cool! And uh...great :/ There’s a bar not far from where I live on Bachjret Ward. It’s not bad. They have food.
KK: That sounds alright. Like I said, I don’t really know my way around.
CB: Ok, cool! Tomorrow?
KK: That works fine.
CB: Cool!
CB: I said that already. Several times.
CB: Please ignore me.
CB: Is it too late for a good fourth impression?

Kolyat grins, very nearly snorting as he reads.

KK: Never.
CB: Awesome! (See? I didn’t say cool!)
KK: I am so proud.
CB: I’m just gonna go now…
KK: Good night. Send me the address.

Mouse does. And Kolyat pulls the covers up over his head, wondering if he’s going on a date, or a not-date, and not really caring.

~~~~~

Bachjret Ward is on the complete opposite of his own ward on the Citadel, and takes an annoyingly long time to get to, especially using public transportation. He sends Mouse a message that he’ll be late, underestimating the time that he’ll get there by half an hour. He feels frazzled by the time he finds the bar, scanning the crowd to find Mouse hunched over a beer in a booth, and when he finally slides down into the seat across from him, sees a morose look on his face.

“My apologies,” Kolyat says.

“No, it’s my fault. I should have come to your ward. Or told you how long it would take. Or...something!”

“It’s fine, Mouse. Really.” How is it that Mouse is apologizing to Kolyat for Kolyat’s own lateness? “So what do you recommend?”

“Uh...I have a Batarian ale that’s not too bad. I didn’t know if you wanted to get something to eat…”

“I wouldn’t mind, if their food is good.”

They punch in an order on the kiosk and Kolyat looks around. He hasn’t been in many bars, but it seems clean at least, with a thrumming sort of music playing low enough to have a conversation. People huddle in booths or at the bar while a biotiball game plays silently on a vidscreen, having captured the attention of a couple people who exclaim excitedly when a point is scored.

“D’you like biotiball?” Mouse asks.

“Not really. I don’t know much about the sport to say one way or another.” A waiter drops a coaster on the table, and then places his beer on top with a silent nod before moving away to another table. “Do you?”

“Oh yeah! Teaha M’cryyma is killing this year! She was traded to the Illium Pulsers and has really come into her own.” Mouse carries on for several minutes, extolling the virtues of his favorite players, which teams are worth watching and which ones are complete shit. Kolyat watches in rapt attention, never having seen the man so animated as he is now. He could care less about biotiball, but the way Mouse describes it, he certainly doesn’t mind listening.

“Er...sorry,” Mouse’s cheeks redden, having caught himself mid-sentence describing a play from several years ago that’s stuck in his mind. “I get carried away sometimes. Just tell me to stop.”

“No, please continue. I never thought it could be that interesting, but your descriptions are fascinating.”

Mouse’s heavy, dark eyebrows draw down as if he doubts Kolyat’s sincerity, but then Kolyat smiles and nods and Mouse’s face lightens, his dark brown eyes bright, the corners of his mouth curling slightly. Kolyat’s heart trips over itself as he realizes how handsome Mouse is, how his deep as a well eyes draw him in, shortly trimmed beard emphasising the edge of his jaw, brown freckles scattering across his nose and cheeks. His voice pitches lower when he speaks about biotiball and Kolyat wonders what that voice would sound like close to his ear, whispering secrets or desires.

He is staring, he realizes.

And Mouse is grinning back.

Gods of the ocean…

“So you don’t like biotiball. What do you like? Other than assassinating politicians…?”

“I didn’t really like that—” the words sputter out of Kolyat’s mouth as he protests, but Mouse waves his hand, long, lean fingers weaving some sort of spell (Kolyat’s fairly certain) that captures his attention, erasing what he had been about to say.

“I was joking.”

“I...knew that.” Kolyat’s cheeks heat in a blush as Mouse grins, and then grins wider as he picks up Kolyat’s embarrassment, his own cheeks tinging darker. It’s a sort of bashfulness showdown between the two of them, each one not looking directly at the other, focusing on anything but the person sitting across from them. Kolyat focuses on Mouse’s hand as he cradles the beer in front of him, nails cut to the quick, but his fingers long and elegant and slightly unnerving as his eyes trace the lines on his knuckles, his fingertips leaving a trail in the sweat on the side of the glass. He swallows hard, takes a long gulp of his own beer, holding the drink tighter to keep his fingers from shaking.

“Sorry,” Mouse says finally.

“No, it is fine.” Kolyat sighs and sets the beer down. “I’m not very proud of that whole...debacle. Can we...can we talk about something else?”

“Yeah, sure.” Mouse studies him for a moment, eyes bright and clear and seeing far too much. It makes him feel exposed, flayed open so that he has to stop himself from physically closing in on himself, protecting his essence from the man’s all-seeing eyes. “You know, it’s funny.”

“What is?” Kolyat tries for nonchalance in the wake of Mouse’s examination, cringing internally at his own skittishness.

“You’re nothing like what I imagined.”

“Oh?” It makes him feel prickly and sharpish, that Mouse would have imagined him to be anything at all, when Kolyat had given so little thought to Mouse once he had discovered the image hidden away in his father’s things. His only concern about Mouse had been how he could use him, and that sits like bile in his throat. “And how had you imagined me to be?”

“There’s this old story about a boy, Little Lord Fauntleroy. Kind of like that. A bit of a...prig. Rich. Had everything handed to you. I kind of hated you growing up, imagining you had everything and I had nothing.” Mouse shrugs. “Turns out you’re not like that at all.”

Kolyat’s eyebrows raise at the admission. Not everyone would have been so blunt.

“You know, your father is really proud of you.”

“He has a funny way of showing it.” Kolyat frowns down into his half-empty beer. So many years gone, frittered away with fewer and fewer appearances from his father, until...nothing for the longest time.

“No one’s perfect. And he had a job that didn’t really fit well with family life,” Mouse clears his throat softly. “Who’s to say if that was a mistake or not? Because you’re here, aren’t you? Growing up rough, I learned to appreciate the small things, and take advantage of them when I could. Because you never know when you’re going to get another chance. You never take your life for granted, nothing is free or given. I realized pretty early on that if I needed something, if I wanted something, the only person that was going to make that happen was me. No one else gives a flying fuck whether I lived or died.”

That deep brown piercing gaze locks with his own and Kolyat is mesmerized, completely transfixed, unwilling to look away. He can’t think the last time he’s had someone look at him like that, as if they can read what’s written on his heart.

Kolyat clears his throat and asks, “So what do you want?” while at the same time wondering what it is that he wants for himself. For the longest time, his single goal was to catch the attention of his father by any means necessary. And then when he finally had it, the intervention had humiliated him, shrunk his shamed soul down to a small speck of self-loathing. Slowly, slowly that miniscule soul is growing. With each passing day, each communication from his father, with everything he learns from Bailey, he feels himself coming back to himself. But he hasn’t thought beyond tomorrow.

“I want to go to college. Study artificial intelligence. I got my equivalencies all done. Just need to send off a couple more applications. So maybe I’m a few years behind, but I don’t really care. I just want off this damned station.” Mouse waves his hand in the air, indicating in one small move the entirety of the Citadel and everything it stands for. “I want to see blue sky and smell something other than recirculated air. Feel real gravity. I want to know what a sunset looks like and stand in a snow drift. I read these books and they talk about breezes in your face and I want to know what that feels like. There’s so much more in the galaxy, in the universe, than what’s on this one station. Yeah, sure, it’s big. But it’s not everything,” Mouse taps the top of the table with his finger, punctuating each word for emphasis, “and I want to experience it all.”

Mouse pauses to catch his breath, chest rising and falling from the passion of his speech. He blinks, almost as if he’s surprised that he’d said everything he had to a relative stranger. But then he straightens his shoulders and nods, confident with his belief in himself. It is, Kolyat realizes, refreshing. And attractive. And so very foreign to how he feels about himself.

“I...hope you’re able to do all of that,” Kolyat says, trying to sound hopeful and encouraging when all he feels is despondent about his own lack of direction.

“It’s never too late.” Mouse shoves his beer aside as the waiter brings their food. “That’s something my mother always said. I guess I never really believed her, but then one day...I mean, she’s been dead for years, but this one day I heard her say that in my head. It was like she was there, standing over me, and that’s when I decided ‘Fuck it’ I’ll never know if I don’t at least try and get into college. Ever since then, this place hasn’t seemed so bad, you know? I still hate it, but I can deal with it as long as I know I’m going to get off it at some point.”

Kolyat watches him tuck into his food—no pyjak fingers in sight, thankfully—forcefully keeping his own mouth shut tight so as not to hang open in surprise. Mouse’s energy is contagious and he casts desperately around in his brain for something, anything, as thrilling in his own life. He comes up disappointingly, dismally short. It’s a horrible feeling, wondering how he’s managed to miss out on...life. “I really do hope you get in,” he says, because if there’s no hope for Mouse, then there certainly is no hope for himself. Kolyat also finds himself honestly wishing the best for him. Mouse is far more open than Kolyat would have ever expected, considering what he does and what his life has been like thus far.

“And what about you?” Mouse asks.

Kolyat’s heart sinks at the dreaded question. He studies the as-yet untouched food on his own plate, as if the answer lies somewhere in the roasted vegetables. “I don’t...know?” He says finally, after casting aside several lies. “I want to finish this C-Sec community service thing. And then...I’m not really sure.”

Mouse nods and shrugs. Which is completely the opposite reaction Kolyat had expected. What person in their right mind thinks it’s alright for someone their age to not have life plans? “That’s fair. Maybe you’ll end up liking whatever it is your doing at C-Sec?”

“I don’t think so. So far it’s mostly fetching coffee for Bailey and filing endless reports.” He frowns at the food on his fork as if it were somehow culpable in his daily filing torture.

“Well, there must be something you like doing. Something you’d like to earn a living doing.”

Kolyat changes the focus of his frown from his food to Mouse, debating silently whether to divulge his secret. He’s told no one, barely admitting it even to himself. But he’s never met someone that he’s actually wanted to tell, wanted to open up about this strange passion that’s been festering in his gut for the last several years.

Mouse’s face brightens as he watches Kolyat ruminate. He points a finger, grinning. “There is something. What is it? Acting?”

“No.”

“Hm. Munitions specialist?”

“No.”

“Carpenter?”

“No.”

“One of those people who trims turians’ toe-claws.”

He snorts, sputtering around the half-chewed food in his mouth. “No.”

“Yeah, I don’t really get that one anyway. Okay, tattoo artist? Mechanical engineer? No, wait! Psychic!”

“No, no, and no.”

“Look, you’re gonna have to tell me or I’ll just keep guessing—”

“Fine!” Kolyat sighs the heavy sigh of someone who has lost the battle without even knowing they were in a war. “Um. A couple years ago, I was with my aunt and uncle at this store, they had things from all over the galaxy. Some of them new. Some old. It was kind of a...I dunno what you’d call it. Curiosity shop, I guess? Anyway, auntie was obsessed with this elcor mating totem—don’t even ask,” he says as Mouse’s eyes light up, “and I was left alone over by this stuff from Sol System. There was this one thing, a small, black and silver sort of contraption. Something called a Polaroid Camera. With a price tag of several thousand credits. Of which I had about twenty,” his mouth twists in a rueful moue. “So while everyone was distracted, I...well...I stole it.”

Mouse leans forward, eyes shimmering with a wicked delight. “You stole an antique camera? Nice!”

“Yeah, well. Then I had to figure out it was actually for taking photographs. On paper, no less. It was completely archaic and made absolutely no sense for me to even have it. And yet, the more I read about it, the more fascinated I became. Until I started trying to figure out a way to produce the paper so I could take photographs myself with it.”

“Wait a minute,” Mouse swipes at the air with his long fingers, which makes Kolyat blink as he tries to track the quick movement. “You’re saying you stole an antique camera and then figured out how to make the stuff to actually use it?”

“Well, yes.”

“That’s really fucking cool!”

Kolyat ducks his head, pleased and not certain how to respond. “It’s just a hobby,” he mumbles.

“Yeah, but, I mean, I’m impressed! Most people would have just stored the camera on a shelf. Or sold it. I would have sold it.” Mouse considers him with a thoughtful gaze. “So you’re actually taking photographs?”

“Yes.”

“Can I...can I see them?”

He’s never shown them to anyone, not even his father after their reunion, has kept them locked away in a case. Most of the photographs are of interiors, wherever he was living at the time, afraid to take the camera out into public for fear of being seen, of being noticed. But Mouse looks so hopeful, has been so non-judgemental about his confessed passion that Kolyat has a difficult time coming up with a reason to say no.

“I...alright. They’re nothing special—”

“Well, I’m no judge of art, but I’m pretty sure you’re full of shit.” Mouse points at him with his fork, brown eyes boring into him. “Stop selling yourself short, Krios.”

“You are...a strange person, Mouse.”

And Mouse just grins at that in a very pleased and self-satisfied way that only serves to make Kolyat’s skin feel a little tight, his heart beat a little too fast, his palms sweat just a little too much. “So that’s settled. Next date is over in your corner of this godforsaken, overgrown satellite.”

Kolyat looks up right sharp at that, directly into those sanguine brown eyes, crinkled at the corners with laugh lines, piercing directly into his soul. “Date?” The word comes out as if he’d choked on it—not what he’d intended at all—and some of the spark dims in Mouse’s eyes.

“I mean...or not—”

“No! Er...yes!” His heart thuds so hard in his ears he can barely understand his own words. “I’d like that. For it to be...a date. If you do?”

“Well, of course I do. And you asked me on this one, remember?”

“I...did?”

Mouse rolls his eyes, but leans forward, closer over the table, his chin propped on one hand. “You don’t hang around with humans very often, do you?”

“Not at all, until recently. And I’m not certain Captain Bailey counts.”

He gets an amused, snorty sort of laugh for that and the man leans closer, with an adoring sort of look in his eyes, and a pleased hum sounds in the depths of his throat. “Hm, yeah. Bailey’s another story altogether. But listen, it’s no big deal if you’re not into me—”

“No, it’s not that. I am. I find you intriguing. And surprising. I just...I wasn’t certain. What this was.”

“And yet, here you are.”

“Indeed. I am.”

“I’m glad. That you asked me. I’m sorry it took awhile for me to get back to you. I kept talking myself out of it. You don’t know how many times I had your number open, with a very eloquent response all typed out—don’t laugh. You’re laughing. What, you don’t think I can be eloquent?”

Kolyat grins and shakes his head. “I’m certain you can.”

“Alright, fine. So maybe I had a little liquid courage when I actually sent it.”

“Perhaps I prefer you to be a little less...eloquent.” Kolyat is surprised to find himself leaning closer—and the table had been cleared of food, when? He hadn’t even noticed, which is something for a drell to say—his arms crossed and propped on the table. There is still space between them, but the distance is closing, will only go so far until the table stops their forward momentum.

“Oh?”

“I responded to your messages, didn’t I?”

Mouse’s eyes flutter, long lashes batting at the air. A small detail Kolyat would never have noticed at a farther distance. He scans over the man’s face and notes the little things that his proximity give him privilege to: how his freckles blend down into his scruff of a beard, how his eyes aren’t wholly brown, but have lighter flecks of gold scattered throughout, how he has a small scar just above his lip where it puckers the skin.

Mouse drops his hand down, forward onto Kolyat’s arm, resting there lightly. “Is this okay?”

It’s all Kolyat can do to nod, and remember to breathe, and chide his heart for beating so fast.

“You know, when you approached me. To ask about the...job.” Kolyat nods as Mouse continues, “I was hoping you were just gonna hit on me.”

Kolyat grins so hard his cheeks hurt. “I do not know how to...hit on anyone. Much less a human.”

“You’re doing pretty well right now.” Those long fingers pet him lightly through his sleeve, tracing along the folds of his shirt. “I might have...followed you into the Fish Dog Food Shack.”

“Might have?” Kolyat places one of his hands atop Mouse’s, feeling the smooth warmth of his skin. He quells his nerves, breathing deeply as the man accepts the touch, spreading his fingers so Kolyat can thread their fingers together.

“Yeah, okay.” A blush spreads across Mouse’s cheeks at the admission. “I followed you. I saw you come out of C-Sec and I kinda…”

“Followed me.” Kolyat squeezes their hands together lightly, just enough to hopefully let the other man know he doesn’t mind. He does not remind the man about his declaration, when Kolyat had bumped into him at the Fish Dog Food Shack, that he had not followed him. A drell might not forget, but he doesn’t have to be an annoyance about it either. “I’m glad you did.”

Mouse’s blush deepens, down his neck, even to his ears. He seems suddenly shy, biting his lower lip and grinning like the fool Kolyat surely looks to be as well. “Me too,” Mouse says, softly and deep in his throat, so that Kolyat has to lean forward even more to hear. Their arms press at the elbows, a line of heat along his forearm that takes all of his willpower to not focus on. “So, next time…”

“Next time?”

“I’d really like to see your photographs. If it’s okay?”

“They’re really nothing special,” Kolyat protests, but Mouse doesn’t let him go any further.

“They’re special because you made them. And they’re important to you or you wouldn’t have told me about them. So shut up.” Mouse squeezes his arm with such affection that Kolyat grins and nods, not quite able to believe that he’s been talked into it so easily.

“You are a...fascinating man, Mouse.”

“Not strange?”

“That also.”

Mouse studies him for a long moment, lips slightly parted as his eyes scan over Kolyat’s face and then down to their joined hands. “Cole. My name is Cole. Cole Brandon.”

“Cole is a good name,” Kolyat nods. He thinks of telling Mouse—Cole—what it means in drell: unfathomable hunger. But he’s unsure if he will take it as an insult or not. For his part, he sees it only as an apt description of the man and his admirable appetite for life, but decides for the moment to keep his thoughts to himself. There will be time for such things later. At least, he hopes so.

Cole smiles. It lights up his eyes, inviting him closer, and closer still. And Kolyat allows himself to leap and fall and dive in and drown with no regret.