Star Maps and Forests
[[Summary: Sometimes you return the favor. Sometimes you have an existential crisis in the middle of it. Luckily, Jaal is very good at handling them.
Jaal x Ryder
The foreign stars of the Andromeda galaxy shone just outside the Tempest’s windows. It almost seemed like a crime to set her windows to dim, but the outside light was bright and distracting enough to take away from the whole effect Wren Ryder was hoping to achieve. With one last look at planets humans had yet to set foot on, she blacked her own windows off and flicked a switch on her omni-tool, opening the comms channels and quelling her own flare of butterflies. “Jaal, you got a minute?”
His voice rang out in reply after only a few seconds. “For you, dearest, I have years. I’ll be there in a moment.” He was always so damn smooth when he wasn’t even trying, while she was just trying to speak without saying ‘uhm’ too many times, or tripping over her own tongue.
Before Jaal arrived, Ryder ran back and forth, checking a few switches and mysterious lumps of electrical equipment scattered in the corners of her room. It was as ready as it would ever be, but she couldn’t resist pushing projectors back and forth, adjusting them by inches and then pushing them right back to their original position. It was better than trying to fiddle with her own appearance, endlessly brushing her hair or pushing a strand in and out of her ponytail, wondering if it looked better or just looked like she tried too hard.
The sound of the door to her room opening made Ryder jump back from moving one last box, straightening up and trying not to look guilty. “Hey, Jaal. I made a surprise for you.” And now the descent into trying to explain herself without sounding like an idiot. “Well, SAM helped a lot. And Gil. And Liam. I was more sort of the big picture person but they let me hold a screwdriver.” Not anything involving solder though, both Gil and Liam looking at each other and agreeing that the Pathfinder really didn’t need access to anything superheated. You singe your eyebrows off just once, and suddenly people don’t trust you.
“It was my idea, anyway. Come in.” He had already moved inside the room, watching her with arms crossed and a half-smile flickering at the corners of his lips, trying not to grin outright and clearly failing.
“Okay, now lie down on the floor. Sorry, I know it’s not the most comfortable.” She should have put a pillow and some blankets down, or something, but Ryder hadn’t thought in such small details. “I have something to show you.” At least he humored her, lying down on her floor, arms and legs slightly akimbo, still watching every movement she made, still saying nothing.
Finally, Ryder joined him, also lying down on her own floor, within touching distance but not bridging that gap just yet. “Okay, so… Here we go.” Flicking a small switch within her left hand, the room around them sprang into brilliant life, a rainforest arching overhead, shafts of muted light seeming to fall hundreds of feet to caress their prone bodies in a way that should have been warm, but wasn’t quite. The sound of rain, gentle and purifying, filled the small room, broken by bird calls and amphibian croaks, a far off rumble or hoot echoing occasionally. Around them, realistic enough that it looked like it should have been possible to grasp between two fingers, a proliferation of leaves and other undergrowth showed, thick vines and fern-like plants, bromeliads that crawled up the trunks of the trees and held little jewels of frogs within. A scarlet bird flew overhead, a pinprick of light some impossible distance away, vanishing into the deep greenery improbably well.
Ryder heard Jaal take a deep breath from behind her, his hand reaching out to grasp her own tightly, one finger circling her palm again and again, tracing larger and larger and then spiraling back inward. “Ryder, what is it?” She risked looking over, watching as Jaal’s eyes tracked another bird, his free hand reaching up as if he could pluck a flower from its stalk, passing through the hologram and making it vibrate into a mass of blue pixels before reforming.
Her fingers traced the shape of a broad leaf, stopping to rest near an ant that industriously carried bits and pieces of plant matter towards some unseen nest. “This is the Amazon, from back on Earth. When we visited Havarl for the first time, it reminded me of these old nature vids I used to watch as a kid. I’ve never been, but they say it used to look like this.” All it needed was a smooth-voiced British narrator to bring her all the way back to her childhood, long hours spent on a couch with a juice box in hand, Scott watching with her, their eyes comically round.
“It’s like my star map. It’s wonderful, Ryder.” She could feel him turn to look at her finally, gripping her hand tightly, and she shook her head emphatically.
“Except you built yours all by yourself. I had a lot of help. Like, a lot. I’m not like you, Jaal. I don’t build things. Seems like most of what I do now is destroy them.” A flash of sadness threatened to overwhelm her; it was easier to watch imaginary motes of light than it was to think about all the people she’d killed and all the Remnant ruins she had managed to pepper with bullets long before anyone ever had the opportunity to study them. Every surface she landed on, she left an ugly scar on, even as she fixed things or made them better. Every habitable planet screamed ‘Ryder was here,’ but not always to her benefit.
Jaal sat up and gently turned her head to face him, offering a hand so she could pull herself upright. “Darling one, you built this crew. You’ve built this galaxy, the connection between our people. You built this from your own mind.” With help, she wanted to say, but instead Ryder allowed Jaal to pull her into his chest, held there for a long moment, only the sound of gentle, imaginary rainfall disturbing this fragile peace. It was difficult to believe him, so difficult, and doubts seemed to assail every step. So much of the journey had been enjoyable, in a perverse kind of way, but everything was catching up with her now.
Even the light in the hologram moved, and a pure ray, unbroken even from the stories-high trees, fell down on both of them like a spotlight. Life, even illusory, continued to scuttle around them, not worried about the two seated figures, not at all concerned about the future of the Andromeda galaxy, or what could happen from the pairing of human and angara. Everything had come directly from Ryder’s memories, thanks to SAM’s careful prodding. In a way, maybe, Jaal was right.
“Hey, Jaal, let’s lie back down.” To his credit, he listened to her, and this time Ryder snuggled into the crook of his arm, one leg sprawled over one of his thighs, an act of affection and perhaps, also (if she was honest with herself) one of possession. “I’ve got so much more to show you.”
And the holograms continued on, images of Earth just for the two to see.