Vakara Ryder walked out of her quarters, freshly showered and headed for a snack during a cross-Heleus series of jumps back toward the Nexus. It was nice to have a bit of a break, even if it was only a few hours. Shower, food, nap - those were her priorities, for once, as everything that needed done was elsewhere. Havarl had been a solid success for both the Initiative and the Angara, despite the Roekkar--
“By the stars Ryder, what happened to your hair?” Jaal exclaimed in the hallway, stepping out of the galley in front of her. One stride and the big angara’s hands were cradling her face, first fingers and thumbs threading into her hair while the broad pads of his hands wrapped around the back of her neck.
Holy shit his eyes are gorgeous. The thought flared up as her face flushed.
“Uhh…” Vakara stammered, hands rising awkwardly to rest on Jaal’s forearms.
Jaal's voice dropped to a whisper. “Are you ill?” His concern hit her with almost physical force.
“What’s wrong with my hair?” She asked numbly. It had been fine two minutes ago, after a thorough blast from the air dryer and a brush. Surely Jaal had seen her hair down and out of its ponytail before. He’d been on the ship for nearly a month!
“It is utterly dark! I know humans do not require sunlight as we do, but you changed color so quickly! Something on Havarl must have stolen your colors.” Jaal’s bright blue eyes were searching her over as thoroughly as one of Lexi’s exams.
“Stole my color?” Wow, his hands are warm. She relaxed into the comfortable, tingling touch.
“Yes. You were warned that the plants were dangerous, and they are new to you, to the humans.” Jaal swept her hair insistently over her right shoulder, and the tingling intensified. “Where is your Doctor T'Perro?”
Vakara looked down at her dark brown hair in his purple and white hand and finally understood. Wait, tingling? Shit, bioelectrics. No idea what he’s doing that for.
“Jaal, stop. I’m fine, really.” She reluctantly tugged his hands away from her face and folded them into her own. They still tingled, but it didn’t hurt. “I did it, not the plants on Havarl. The bright purple color washes out if I want it to.” Only the sincere concern on his face kept her from laughing, but her lips did turn up in an amused smile.
Lexi must have heard the commotion outside the med bay door, because the serious asari appeared in the hallway.
“Pathfinder, Jaal, is something amiss?” Lexi asked, glancing between the two of them.
They both spoke at once, and Lexi raised one brow and frowned, crossing her arms over her chest.
Jaal shifted restlessly, hands still firmly gripping hers as if he didn’t intend to let her go until she found her color again. “Doctor, I think a plant on Havarl stole the color of her hair.”
Vakara sighed, looking Lexi straight in the eyes. “I can take care of this Lexi, just please tell him that nothing stole my color.”
“Well, technically the solvent in your shower ‘stole the color’ if I’m not mistaken,” Lexi quipped dryly.
Jaal’s grip tightened on hers.
“Alright, alright.” Lexi turned to Jaal with a serious expression. “Jaal, Pathfinder Ryder frequently dyes her hair with the bright color you are accustomed to seeing. It is only temporary, unlike the markings on her skin, which you will note are unchanged.”
Jaal’s eyes snapped back from Lexi to Vakara at the last, obviously noting the bright purple lines beneath her eyes, and branching fractal on her left jaw.
“Hmmm…” He rumbled. “I see. Forgive me for what must have… seemed quite an absurd reaction.”
“Not a problem, Jaal.” Vakara shot Lexi a wry smile of thanks. “Come on. If you let me have my hands back, I’ll get us a snack and we can talk more if you want.”
Jaal quietly allowed her to pull him into the galley, and Lexi walked back into the med bay, shaking her head in apparent amusement… or exasperation.
“I, uhh… thanks, Jaal. For the concern.” Vakara stammered a little awkwardly once they were alone, realizing that Jaal seemed disinclined to let go of her hand. “I’d be concerned if you suddenly changed color too.”
Jaal suddenly relaxed, shoulders loosening as he ducked his head in an easy laugh. “Oh Ryder, I am very glad to have joined your ship. Very glad to be here with you.” He squeezed her hand and the electric tingle intensified for a moment, then faded away. “Will you tell me more of the color customs of your peoples? There are so many - asari, turians, humans, krogan… Hmm.” He paused. “I have forgotten what the pilot, Kallo, is called. Something else, are they not?”
“Kallo is a salarian,” Vakara answered, and rummaged through the refrigerated cupboard one handedly. “Rice, right? You’re fine with eating the rice paste?” She pulled out a jar of the grainy white goo and scooped some into one compartment of a tray with a multi-utensil.
Jaal nodded. He was watching her curiously, almost as intently as in the hallway. “This dark-earth color of your hair is nice too, Ryder.” Jaal hesitated, then pulled out a jar of a green angaran food paste from his - very clearly marked - section of cupboard. “I have shared this kawari paste with Liam before, though your Doctor T'Perro has not officially cleared it as safe. The red adhi paste is definitely not,” he added emphatically.
Vakara glanced up at Jaal again, meeting his eyes with a smile. He was so much taller and broader than she was - even taller than her father and Scott. They used to call her the ‘Little Power-pack Peacekeeper.’
“Sure. You and Liam have tested enough other boundaries, I’ll take your word on this one.”
She added some of the green paste to another compartment, only then realizing that she and Jaal were working together near-flawlessly with one hand each. He still hadn’t let go of her right hand, slightly leathery skin smooth against hers, save for tough calluses along the working edge of his finger and thumb.
Jaal slid the seal of the lid closed while she held the jar, then returned it to its place on the shelf. Well, it’s not like I don’t want this, so…
“Jaal, can we go back to my quarters? We haven’t had much of a chance to get to know each other better, and… umm…” Vakara fumbled to a nervous halt after a perfectly serviceable start. Crap. Did that sound like I was propositioning him? This is not the same as with Peebee. She quickly lifted the plate of nutrient goo between them. “I have snacks!”
Chuckling, Jaal took the plate from her. “So I see.”
A little glad no one was around to have overheard her awkwardness, Vakara led him to her cabin, the door opening at her touch. Everything on the Tempest was keyed to omni-tool access. Her bed was made with military precision, but pieces of half a dozen rifle mods were scattered across the table in front of the couch, and several datapads were stacked haphazardly on her desk. Jaal was looking around the room with his usual intense curiosity, so she let her hand slide from his and cleared a space for their plate.
“This is a most impressive space, Ryder.” Jaal rumbled a pleased sound as he stepped forward to the wide expanse of the viewport. Stars streamed by in a dimmed blur as they traveled between systems. “I imagine the view is often quite spectacular.”
“You’re right. I’d say Aya was still one of my favorite sights, though.”
Vakara had shifted enough pieces aside for the plate now, and Jaal chuckled warmly as he slowly made his way toward the couch and joined her. He sat at a comfortable distance, within easy reach but far enough away that she relaxed a fraction. Jaal didn’t seem the type of person who would get pushy about sex or a relationship quickly, but… damn, she just didn’t know. He was quite literally an alien, and she had very little idea what to expect at this point. The broad, webbed pads of his hands only emphasized this fact as he scooped some of both foods together and ate a small bite. He gave a sharp nod, apparently satisfied, and took a larger bite of the pale green pile.
She picked up her own utensil, then hesitated. “Do you mind if I try yours before I mix it?”
Jaal immediately held his own scoop toward her, offering his next bite. Vakara froze, suddenly unsure what the significance of sharing food so closely with Jaal might be. Turians placed great importance on food, especially sharing between non-family members, and there were dozens of cultural complications even within human colonies back in the Milky Way. Who knew what rituals angara might have?
Apparently Jaal had noticed her uncertainty, as he tilted his head toward her with a concerned look. “Have I done something offensive, Ryder?”
“I was just… No, I’m not offended,” Vakara clarified. “I’m just not sure what angaran customs there are about sharing food, Jaal. It’s very complicated in some cultures.”
Jaal looked startled, then amusement and excitement took over in short order. “You’re right! The angara have been isolated from all but the Kett until your peoples arrived. I did not think to consider it. Angara share food freely, and often. It would be considered rude and selfish to refuse to share with anyone at your table. Makes meals simpler with large families, too.” His eyes were bright with joy as he smiled, offering the scoop to her again. “If it does not offend you, it would please me to share, Ryder.”
Vakara couldn’t help but grin at Jaal’s response, and took the utensil. Here goes… She quickly cleared the scoop, passing it back as she considered the taste of the green rice mixture. It was vibrant and savory, with a sharp, salty tang.
“Is this from a plant? The green food?” Vakara asked curiously, swallowing the bite of flavored rice. It was reminiscent of Terran sushi rolls with green nori around them.
“I think you would call kawari a plant, yes.” Jaal was watching her intently again, taking another bite. “It has large, flat fronds and grows along the edges of the water. Underwater,” he clarified.
“Amazing. It reminds me of Terran seaweed.” Vakara took a small bite of the kawari by itself. “You promise Liam was fine after he ate this, right?”
Suddenly serious, Jaal rested a broad hand on her shoulder, turning her toward him. “I would not willingly choose to endanger you, Pathfinder Ryder. You have more than earned my trust, and my friendship… I am very fond of you.”
“I’m glad we're friends too, Jaal.” Vakara covered his hand with her own. “You’re a pretty amazing person.” She laughed self-consciously, letting her hand drop. “And I do trust you, I just really don’t want to get sick.”
Jaal looked mildly embarrassed, and caught a section of her hair between his fingers as he pulled his hand away. “Tell me, why do you dye your hair? This brown-earth color is lovely as well.”
She threw her head back in a laugh. “Because it’s fun! I rebelled a bit after being discharged from the Alliance military because of my father’s research, and it was an easy thing to change. I’m sorry that it was so startling for you to see it disappear, Jaal.”
“It is common among humans to change their hair?”
“Sure.” She shrugged. “People do it for different reasons, just like choosing what to wear.”
“Are you going to color it brightly again?”
Vakara paused before answering. Jaal had a habit of intently making eye contact when he spoke with someone - a lot of angara did, she’d noticed. At the moment it felt a bit intense, with the rapid-fire questions.
“Is it important to you, or are you just curious?” She asked, returning his gaze. It made the whole conversation seem more important than it probably was, but honestly, she wanted it to be. Wasn’t it all of these random, odd little connections between people that really made a relationship special anyway? Maybe that was just her inexperience talking. Between her father’s imposing reputation as an N7 and the whirlwind preparations of the Andromeda Initiative, her previous relationships had been rocky, short, or both.
Jaal paused too, and seemed a bit pensive. “Can it not be both?” He asked quietly. “I am curious what you find important. What will make you angry? What will make you laugh? It is like with Liam. If I do not know what is important, then it is easy to stumble on. I know more about your people now, but you are you,” he emphasized.
“You’re right, it can be both.” Vakara shook her head ruefully. “I’m accustomed to being suspicious of people who are too interested in me. I definitely prefer your honesty! It’s refreshing.” I'm still not used to taking his comments at face value, she thought.
The blue frilled lines along the sides of Jaal's head flared as he relaxed into a smile.
“I am going to dye it again. If I’m going to stand out, I’d rather do it on my own terms,” Vakara said firmly. “Not just as The N7’s Daughter, not just as The Pathfinder. I’m too young to let a bunch of old soldiers and politicians keep deciding who I really am.”
“Good,” Jaal said just as firmly. “What color?”
“Umm…” She hadn’t really considered it. Her brilliant lavender hair was practically a trademark, since it hadn’t changed since they’d made it to Heleus. But… “How would you like to choose, Jaal?”
“All right Ryder, if you want me to.” Jaal lightly brushed his thumb across her jaw as he let go of her hair, and she wondered if it was intentional.
“On one condition,” Vakara added.
“Oh? And what is that?”
“Call me Vakara, at least when it’s just us.”
“Mmmm, Vakara. It is a marvelous name.” Jaal rolled the ‘r’ slightly, just as he did with how he said ‘Rry-dah.’ “And you are a fascinating person.” He hummed warmly, obviously pleased.
“Wait till you get to know me better, you might change your mind!” Vakara laughed and ate another bite of their hybrid snack.
“We shall see.” Jaal chuckled. “Your turn for questions, Vakara.”
They talked for over an hour, pelting each other with absurd and profound questions alike. ‘Are those really gills?’ ‘Why don't you have facial markings, and other angara do?’ ‘Do you miss your siblings?’ ‘Can humans swim?’ ‘Do you believe in higher divine beings?’ ‘Are you too young to be Pathfinder?’ ‘Why are turians so angular?’ ‘Could you communicate with the yevara?’ ‘Do you listen to the trees?’
It was unbelievably relaxing to really let loose with someone that mattered. Occasionally a topic would come up that one or the other would uneasily veer away from, or the sharpness of an answer would reveal an important edge to tread. Only once did Jaal push her on something, and backed down when she held her ground. Cora’s resentment of her father’s choice to make her Pathfinder was an issue she was still actively dealing with - not a topic for discussion.
Eventually Vakara showed Jaal her personal console, and filled the screen with a rainbow of dye colors worthy of Havarl’s jungles. He folded his tall frame beside her chair, all warm, honest, alien curves. She was at ease with his nearness, and with the deepening relationship between them. Not that she didn’t still feel like an uncertain novice, but she could be open about it. He might laugh, who knew. At least she didn’t have to hide it.
“This one.” Jaal pointed at the screen. And for the next few weeks, the Pathfinder’s hair was the deep, vibrant maroon of the freckled marks on Jaal’s forehead.