A Challenger Appears

Now that a painting had been hung in Julianni’s office, it had felt a little more homey. She didn’t necessarily care if it felt as such, but she couldn’t help but feel as if the small bit of personal touch helped ease her day-to-day stresses.

The painting appeared as scene she had seen before in person, and one she had fallen in love with the moment she saw it. The hills, tricking across the land, complimented the autumn grass, each twist of the brushstroke having been meticulously done as God had when creating it. The waves of the ocean, curled in their white to light blue colours, crashed into the rocky cliff faces dotted in the distance. It was Heavenly. That Lord Iyhr had sent her the painting still warmed her heart; traditional gifts were that much more meaningful.

She smiled.

Her attention flickered back to her display to focus on her task at hand: monthly financials. Julianni let loose a sigh to see the Black Rise information missing. Once again, a technical malfunction was preventing the personnel member’s data from being reached. “I really need to speak with the IT manager about this,” she muttered softly to herself, raising her hand to push aside her hair and rub at her cheek.

An alert: someone was at her office door.

Julianni raised her head and glanced to it, seeing the shadowed outline of a feminine figure that, by all accounts, was rather tall. It was a form she was not familiar with. There were few women she’d met personally that matched the height as this one, save for DUSTers, of course. But it was no matter. Her finger pressed to the access button at the side of her desk and she stood, smoothing out the creases in her skirt.

Once the door opened, the recognition of just who it was happened immediately. While she’d normally have felt at least generally comfortable around the Internal Watch, lately, it seemed the opposite. Especially when she saw the woman’s expression.

It was a cool one, the pursed lips and professional posture that Sheyan Mazaki wore. Obviously, there was something bothering her, and even if Julianni had asked not to be disturbed, she had a feeling it wouldn’t have mattered.

“Mazaki-haani, it’s g-”

The Calmatar entered the room briskly without waiting for anything else to be said. Lithe, yet somewhat broad and athletic with her darkened skin, this woman was a shining example of Caldari and Minmatar stock. The most prominent of her features, however, was the quiet seething the woman was letting bubble beneath the surface.

“…Mazaki-haani?”

Again, there was no response. Julianni’s eyes lowered. What she didn’t see, doing that, was that Sheyan’s eyes flashed as her implants went active. Then, across Julianni’s screen, came a recording of Sakala’s words in what was labeled as the system of Nahyeen.

“Be a dear, when you see Jules next let her know I have a few gifts for her. Well a few bottles if you know what I mean.”

Julianni read over the words, her heart stopping. Had he really…

“Our men didn’t die just so you could go on a drug binge,” Sheyan finally said, her voice full of venom. The toxin that seeped into Julianni’s very heart. “You mean to tell me that after everything that happened, you’re still dealing with that man? No. Not a man. That gaairagi.”

Julianni froze. She didn’t know what to do or what to say. Now, things were public.

“No answer? I should have expected that.” The military officer turned on her heel, giving her back to Julianni. “I’m sure you’ll understand that I have to notify my superiors of what was said, regardless of my opinion on the matter.” The woman paused before the doorway, glancing over her shoulder. “And as far as that goes? You’re no better than Sakala.” With that, the woman left the room before Julianni even had a chance to reply.

Left speechless, Julianni simply stared at that screen. Just what was she supposed to do about this? What could she even have said? Her drug tests had all come back negative. They spoke for themselves. But still…this…was exactly what Sakala was hoping for. She knew it.

Now, she simply had to make the decision of if she was going to sit by and simply do damage control, or decide to play his game right back.

 

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Chrysalis

“-dn’t you agree?”

Julianni snapped out of…where-ever she had been and focused on the room. Her appointment, that was right. She glanced back to Doctor Aneozomi and her head gave a nod. “Oh, yes. Frankly, it went much smoother than I thought. I wish you would have been able to attend.”

Emiri smiled, even going as far as to chuckle. “Oh, those kinds of get-togethers aren’t my thing, Avala-haani. While I understand its meaning, I am certain both the presence of the Executor, the I-RED baseliner personnel, and yourself was more than enough to show our gratitude towards our allies.”

“Of course. But I still think it would have been nice to see you there,” Julianni countered. “Nevertheless, there is always next time.”

“So there is. I’ll keep your thoughts in mind. Now…let’s move on. You are in a relationship now, correct?”

Julianni’s dip of the head confirmed and she sheepishly smiled. “I am. It’s been well so far. I believe it’s that…what do they call it, the ‘honey-moon stage’?” Her nervous chuckle escaped her lips faster than she could stop it.

Doctor Aneozomi gave a simple nod. “That’s what they call it, yes. Do you believe he’s good for you?”

“I’m…” A pause. “Pardon?”

“Is he good for you? Is he aware of what you’ve gone through? Both in the distant and recent past?”

Julianni furrowed her brows. “Er…he’s…aware of many things, yes. Forgive me, Doctor, but…is this necessary?”

The doctor raised a brow, a neutral expression replacing whatever smile she’d worn before. “It is, yes. If you’ve kept things from him, then it will only become a problem later down the road. And I don’t think I need to mention the issues it would have with your work productivity.”

This was something Julianni could never get used to with the Caldari. She understood it, most certainly, but no matter how many times it came up in a topic, it always felt like a low-blow to her. Was work really so important? Or was Faith?

When she spoke, she did so carefully, glancing off to the side. “He is aware of my past, yes. I’ve told him of Dominius, though not in full detail. I’ve also made mention of the…ah…the drug use.”

“And how did that go?”

How did it go? Julianni thought back to the interactions and she nodded. “It went well.”

This session, the doctor’s brow was becoming perpetually raised. “Well? That’s…such a simple word for those issues, Avala-haani.”

She was right, really. Julianni wouldn’t dare tell the doctor about the seemingly lack of concern that was exhibited regarding the drug-use. “It is, and it is the truth,” she said with sincerity.

Doctor Aneozomi frowned softly and her eyes went blank as she used her implants. “Utari Onzo, correct?”

“That’s correct.”

“I see,” came the doctor’s response.

An uncomfortable silence began, the kind where one is most assuredly looking through dirty laundry all the while standing beside someone watching. Julianni’s legs crossed and her shoulders sank somewhat.

“Were you aware of his record of carrying illegal substances?”

Well, she couldn’t very well lie, could she? A small wince came from her and she cleared her throat. “Later, yes.”

“Later?”

“With respect, Doctor, I didn’t go through his record to decide if I was attracted to him or not,” she replied softly. “Only after it was mentioned.”

The discomforting silence began again. This time, it lasted longer, leaving Julianni sitting there in it for at least fifteen minutes. Her palms began to sweat, and the fidgeting with her hands she usually did increased ten-fold.

What would happen?

“The Executor is not concerned with the lack of professionalism here regarding the fact he is a shareholder?”

Now Julianni was beginning to get frustrated. “Respectfully, I believe that is something to discuss with the Executor, if you believe there is a problem.”

“Very well,” the doctor replied. “Before you go, I’d also like you to make a trip to Medical for your testing. It’s been some time since the last one, anyway.”

At this point, Julianni stood in a gracefully swift action and bowed. “As you wish, Aneozomi-haani. I will report there at once.” The woman couldn’t tell if she was grateful for this end of the appointment, or disturbed that she couldn’t come up with good answers to Emiri’s legitimate questions. She turned on her heel and began to leave, heels barely making a noise.

“Also, Julianni?”

She stopped, then turned and glanced off to the side towards the doctor. Julianni could only imagine what would be said next.

“You should find someone willing to support you and guide you. Not potentially lead you down a darker path. Not only will your workload thank you, but I think you’ll find that you yourself will, as well.”

The look on Emiri’s face was not a stern one now, but instead showed of concern. It gave Julianni a small pause in her breath and she turned her head.

A smile then began to creep up onto her lips as she answered softly.

“I already have.”

 

01001100 01110101 01110010 01101011

A roll of the neck. Quiet cracking of fingers. Silence ringing in the air. A breath in of the jasmine incense.

He was ready.

The screen flashed once to its black colour, touch-keys of the holo-desk lighting up to their light cyan tints. Slowly, now. He knew he must be careful. If so much as a small mistake was made, everything could be given away. That would certainly displease the unmistakably arrogant and aggressive Lord. No, there was no room for mistakes here.

His fingers went to work, eyes dancing across the screen with quick movements to help him navigate his way through the dark depths of numbers and letters. Security was increased. Strange, but not unheard of. No matter, he’d do the usual masked key. It was a typical move, really, using the organization’s key instead of a code-name. For all they knew, an employee was being naughty. It would be easy, provided he didn’t trigger an alert, which he knew he’d be able avoid.

After all, his life depended on it.

And there it was, the backdoor access password. The man sat for a second or so, awaiting his program to kick in. When it did, the numbers and letters now flashing through the empty bar in quick succession, he smiled. This was too easy.

A few hours went by as the password took time to be compiled. And what did he do? He sat and watched, arms folded. There was no rest, no eating, nothing. This was his sole purpose right now, and fulfill it, he would. When the beep sounded that the password had been found and accepted, his smile grew to a smirk, then faded. He didn’t have much time.

With the eyes of a hawk, he scanned through various mails. Financials…shareholders…none of this was interesting to him. But the diplomacy and the personal ones? Those…were gold. He glanced to the time. Five minutes before a trigger. That was more than enough.

The man opened one with a title “PRICE OFFER ACCEPTED”. Interesting, he thought. And oh, what it was. This…was better than expected. “A new home for the traitor”, he murmured to himself quietly. “Pity. It looks nice.” Eyes to the time. Two minutes. One more mail.

This one he chose next was in a line of a sender that appeared to come up often. His brow raised at the name, perhaps somewhat familiar to him in some way. Or at least, barely heard of. “Ibrahim Tash-Murkon…hm.”

The mail pulled up.

And the alert began as a small flash.

He immediately aborted the program, pulling the plug. Good luck tracing that, if it was even seen. How long did it flicker? Not even a full second? What a waste. He could have read longer.

But what he had was more than enough. What’s more, he now had an in elsewhere. But the icing on the cake? He still had I-RED’s passcode. And what fun he would have with that, later.

Standing from his seat, he moved towards the doorway to relay the information he’d found to Lord Degario. Tonight, Khaihraz would eat well.

 


 

 

Julianni rubbed at her eyes, glancing to the flowers at her desk. Again, she’d received them, and again, they’d disturbed her just as much. But the letter that came with it, written by hand, was not what she expected.

Miss Avala,

I hope you will forgive me for my transgressions against you. I will comply with your request and hope that, in time, you will see things through my eyes.

May God shine His Light on your path.

Regards and with regret,

Lord Degario

More sweet words, she thought, and possibly little to no sincerity. But still, if it was indeed sincere, then the gesture wasn’t as dark as she’d thought. An apology was one step he’d not taken before, at least not to this point.

It was a stress, perhaps, but not as much as she’d believed.

Her gaze moved back to her screen at a small flicker of light to the corner of the holo-display. Was that a security alert? But just as quickly as it appeared, it was gone. The perceptive woman frowned, then shook her head. She’d not slept much the past few days due to the now successful Gala, so she likely had been seeing things. After all, the Internal Watch would ensure to alert her if there was a problem, wouldn’t they?

Metamorphosis

It was a beautiful day, as most of the days at Julianni’s home had been. The heat had evenly applied itself to the oasis, and the wind did its job at cooling off the woman when the temperatures became too much. Now mid-afternoon, she could hardly wait any longer.

For hours, she had stayed within her garden, watching as the chrysalis of each butterfly twisted and turned. One had even cracked, but the beautiful beings had yet to grace Julianni with their full, stunningly vibrant appearance. She was as patient as she could be, sipping lightly at the mug of coffee in her hands. A small smile crept it’s way onto her lips as a thought crossed her mind.

These hours she had watched had also given way to moments of reflection. How far she had come. Once a toy to a power-driven lordling, now a director in a respected organization. At one time wondering just where it was she was supposed to call home, now sitting on her own property, with all the acreage and privacy she could ever want. As she observed the butterflies undergoing their metamorphosis, she couldn’t help but pair it to her own. Even now, with a relationship having appeared over the horizon, she was still undergoing a transformation into something that she prayed was as beautiful as the wings of the creatures before her.

Her patience paid off, that smile only further growing as one of the butterflies pushed its way out of its safe haven. For many moments that followed, one by one, the insects she so cherished appeared before her very eyes. Vivid yellows and black contrasting markings of these desert butterflies were revealed to Julianni and she let out a sigh of awe. The wings twitched. Shook. Fluttered. She knew the process, as she’d seen it before. And each time, it grew more remarkable.

Soon, it would be time to do what it was she always wanted to the moment she laid eyes on them. But for now, they needed to gain their strength, and she had some cleaning to do. For a few more minutes, she sat and watched as the butterflies slowly bat their wings to dry, then she pushed off of the bench to attend to her day’s work.

 


 

The storage room wasn’t as much of a mess as she’d believed. It was just disorganized. If there was one thing she enjoyed doing, it was putting things together. Like a puzzle, each item would have a place, and would fit best with its surrounding pieces. The paintings would be filed away together, the sculptures organized by years and set to one side, the rare fabrics would be sealed away for the most safe of storing. She was doing inventory, really. And she didn’t mind it.

The passing of the original owner of this home was unfortunate, to be sure. But such was the cycle. The art and fabrics that had been left behind by the merchant was…a bit much for the woman. Extravagant, lavish- it didn’t suit her. By placing them in the storage area, at least she was keeping the man’s memory alive instead of just being rid of them. And one day? She felt she’d even pull together an exhibit, perhaps. A charity, maybe. Her mind danced with positive ideas as she moved things one by one to their respective areas.

But it was moving that one statue, that one small carving of a desert snake that proved to shake those thoughts.

The grind of stone gave the woman pause, as did the fact the small statue wouldn’t leave the pedestal it was resting on. Her attention was caught off to the side at movement; no one was here but her, she thought. But her concern was somewhat washed away at the Eastern most wall sliding inward.

Her brow raised, and of course, curiosity got the best of her. Who wouldn’t it have? With a cautious step, she began to proceed to the dark opening of what must have been another room.

No sound came from within, save for the distant eerie whistle of wind. The woman took a deep breath, as if taking a plunge into deep waters, then stepped inside fully, her hand searching for a light switch. It took her a bit of time, but she finally found it, and flipped it to the “on” position. Her dark brown eyes adjusted to the bright, uncomfortable light quickly.

Surrounding her was an assortment of containers. Suitcases, bags, and even filing cabinets were dotted around what she assumed was a panic room of sorts. Surprisingly, each one was empty. Why had this been cleared out, but the art had not? It was strange, to be sure. Even after double checking the various containers, she couldn’t find a single thing. Her head shook side to side, confused. It was at this point she decided that a call to the realtor was wise.

Julianni turned to leave, only to be stopped by the sound of metal rolling across the floor under her feet. Her brow raised and she immediately looked to see just what it was she’d kicked. It seemed the room wasn’t so empty after all. But her raised brow soon fell, as did the rest of her face.

She could see the writing slowly appear. Each and every letter appeared one by one, from the back to the front. It was like it was happening in slow motion.

But she already knew what it said.

She knew the moment she’d seen the first two letters.

As the vial of Drop came to a stop a few inches in front of her, she found herself face to face with one of the most difficult decisions of her life. What was to become of her own metamorphosis? Would her wings be as vibrant as the butterflies she so loved? Would they become colourless and broken? What could it hurt?

Moments seemed like minutes, minutes seemed like hours. She swallowed hard, knowing full well the decision had already been made the moment she saw the label.

And then:

She picked up the vial.

So It Begins

Dominius,

First of all, know that I am sending this out of respect for the real Lord of that Holding. Your father and his father before him, and so on and so forth, built the very foundation on which you stand, both in physical form and reputation. I give you this message in hopes that you listen and make the right decision.

I will not be responding to you, and I will be placing you on my black list of communications after this message is sent. Your continued correspondence is not simply to keep in touch, nor is it an effort to strengthen relations with I-RED as you have claimed. It is harassment.

This is the day that I remove you from my life completely. You do not control me anymore, Dominius. I am no longer within your grip, and haven’t been for years.

In the event that you have a sincere desire for diplomatic communications, you will speak with no one but our Executor, who has been made aware of my decision. No one else.

I know what you are, Dominius. Do not push me.

“That disrespectful wench. That mutt has no right to speak to me that way. I made her. If it weren’t for me, she wouldn’t be in the position she’s in.”

His hands were clenched tight into fists, sitting in that comfortable leather chair adorned with gold. Dominius felt his anger building the more he talked about it, face reddened and eyes flickering with violence.

“I should have killed her when I had the chance.”

His screen at the desk in front of him gave a small flash, his conversation partner waving a hand.

“Calm yourself.” A pause from the hooded figure, then a small sigh. “She knows?”

“That’s what she says,” Dominius snapped, annoyed that the man even had to ask after reading the letter.

“And this concerns you? These…passive threats of an old slave?”

Rage swelled further, leaving the Holder with veins protruding from his neck. “You think it shouldn’t? Her words have much more weight than they did when she was at my Holding.”

“Then perhaps you shouldn’t have made her the way she was,” the man snapped back. His anger was much more patient. Eerily calm, even. Practiced.

In a way, Dominius was almost afraid of it. But then again, he knew that he was in control. No one else.

Silence rang between the two, and the current Lord Degario began to grow impatient. Just what was the holding the old man up? Was he not concerned? The man’s clenched hands tightened further, threatening to draw blood.

“This has an easy solution.”

Dominius’ eye twitched. “Does it, now?” The sarcasm was dripping in his voice, thick enough that he hoped it drowned the old man.

All it took was more silence and Dominius knew he struck a nerve. Good, he thought. But the silence prolonged and he soon realized that he was facing punishment for his behaviour. Another eye-twitch, then a frustrated breath was pushed out from him. “I await your wisdom,” he relented.

“You need to learn about her now. Find out what details you can. But not yourself, of course. You have that servant, don’t you? What’s it’s name…Khaihraz?”

“That is correct.”

“Send him. Really, my boy, in all the years we’ve spoken to each other, I thought you were smarter than this.”

Of course he was smart. He knew it, and this old man knew it. But this had apparently just slipped his mind. He was busy, after all. That must have been what it was. His head raised, chin as well in a confident pose. “Perhaps I’ll do that. He’s not been out for that kind of duty in some time, anyway. It’s time he gets some practice.”

“Good. Now, next time you have a problem like this, don’t pester me for an answer when you already have it right in front of your nose, boy.”

And just like that, the feed was cut. Dominius scowled, grinding his teeth. How dare he. Once his anger subsided enough to allow him to speak, he called out to the dark-skinned man who sulked in the corner nearby.

“You heard what was said. See to it you don’t disappoint me.”

Home Sweet Home

The ride through the desert sand was enough to put Julianni to sleep. Sunlight beat down heavily to produce an uncomfortable heat, but winds within the area were always quick to bring a balance to the otherwise unlikable temperatures. The vehicle itself was…little to be desired. A hover-car, of course, but the engine gave off this puttering sound as if it wanted nothing more than to lay down and die.

But it didn’t matter. She was away right now, and no one knew her. The woman was without a name to many of these people she’d interacted with on this planet, instead someone who simply wanted privacy. An expensive privacy, that is. To this day, she still felt entirely uncomfortable about the cost of the bill for the private property, the furniture, and everything else in between. But over and over she’d been told it would be worth it. “A capsuleer simply couldn’t get by without these things,” the realtor had told her. She didn’t believe a word the man said, but she also wanted the entire ordeal to be over with. Worse came to worse, she could rent the place out to someone who needed it.

She hadn’t found herself completely submerged into the depths of slumber, only taking a sort of catnap. Her sheer headcover was tugged well enough against her left cheek to hide from the driver the fact that her eyes were, in fact, closed. There was little conversation on the way. Julianni had been ensured that the process was anonymous, that she’d not have to worry about people asking who she was, how she could afford such a place, or what her story was. The driver would keep to himself, the movers would be gone when she arrived, and she would have no worries about someone coming to knock on her door. Sure, the employees may wager guesses as to this woman’s status, but there was no definitive answer provided to them. It was none of their business, anyway.

“We’ll be arriving at the oasis momentarily,” the dark-skinned driver stated in what was his first words in hours. Her eyes opened and, sure enough, she could see the green foliage beginning to crop its way up in the distance. At first, dots of green on the horizon, encased by tan hills that acted as a mother’s protective arms. If she hadn’t known that this place was supposed to be here, she would most certainly have guessed it was a mirage. They were very much out of any area of civilization and hot sands had surrounded them for miles upon miles.

But it was real, and the closer they came to the location, the more she could see just how the video viewing of the location hardly did it justice. Trees and bushes were in abundance, enough that even the spring could hardly be seen, much less the home built within. What could be seen of the adobe was its roof and some parts of the wall surrounding it. Built somewhat more elevated, it still seemed to be hidden thanks to its tan colour against the sanded hills that surrounded.

The parting of the foliage was just enough for the hovercar to fit through, and so it did, expertly piloted by her driver. Even he seemed to glance about the scene in awe, as if he’d never seen it this close before. Julianni became so distracted with the beauty unfolding around her that she hardly noticed the vehicle come to a stop. “This is as far as I’ve been permitted to go, Miss…uh…ma’am.”

Her attention turned towards the man, and an awkward smile found itself on her face. “Oh, of course. Thank you for the ride, sir.”

Gracefully slipping out of the car, she bowed lightly before him, (which of course caused him to raise a brow), then moved to the trunk to take out her bags. With an effortless lift, she retrieved them and made her way to the gate that stood guard in front of the building.

Security had already been set up, she’d been told. Cameras upon cameras, key code locks, retinal scans, fingerprint scans, voice recognition…state of the art, of course. She went through the process of verifying her identity, and sure enough, the small gate parted enough for her to fit through. The safeguards were needed, she knew, especially with what had happened in the past. But it was uncomfortable to know that she needed them at all.

To say the home was what she saw in the video tour was accurate, of course, but it was also so much more. Her eyes widened at just how extravagant the place was. Before, it was empty, and it still looked almost too excessive for her taste. But she’d taken the plunge to do something for herself for once. There was also the fact she’d been largely talked into it by both Doctor Aneozomi, and the realtor himself.

Now, however, furniture had been arranged within the building. Julianni silently cringed at just how lavish each room was turning out to be. She didn’t deserve this, no. Not by a long shot. But here it was, and it was here to stay. Her thoughts drifted back to renting the place out. It was certainly a possibility. Maybe even make it into a retreat for I-RED and its allies’ personnel. A getaway of sorts.

But the moment Julianni stepped out through the back door, her heart felt as if it stopped. Nevermind the half-moon swimming pool and the personal hot tub. Nevermind the outdoor bar and the chairs that must have cost more than most baseliners would ever dream to make in three lifetimes. No, what caught the mixed woman’s dark eyes was a small glass observatory off within the shade towards a few large trees. This was not something she had asked for, nor was it on the video tour.

Cautiously, she approached the lightly tinted structure, the click of her heels hardly making a sound on the stone pathway. Within, she could see various congregations of lush desert plants, all in their state of blooming. There were a few other plants that she knew may not necessarily survive in the area, but she guessed that their life was granted by some sort of indoor irrigation system.

A garden, of course, and an indoor one at that. There were two doors, however, to pass through to get inside. The first, tinted glass that sealed shut behind her, then the second which swung open easily. A rush of the scent of the flowering cacti and bushes danced their way into her senses, bringing a smile to her face. What’s more, the garden itself was exactly as how she envisioned one for herself to be- not too large, and with just enough plant life for her to be able to take care of on a busy schedule.

It was what next that caught her eye that drew the breath from her very lips. There, beyond the flowers, bushes, and small amounts of decor, was what she immediately identified as a chrysalis holder meant for butterflies. Within, she could see the large number of butterfly chrysalis within, all looking relatively fresh in their state of metamorphosis. A small datapad lay to the side of the open box, inviting Julianni to take it up to read.

She did so, letting the screen come to life, then began to read the words.

Avala-haani,

They are native to this area. I’m told they emerge after approximately 15 to 20 days. There are people on this planet who know their habits quite well, but I am quite certain you’ll do well in caring for them. The Executor has approved your schedule has been adjusted so that you will have those days to yourself.

Congratulations on your new home. I’ll see you at our next appointment.

Dr. Emiri Aneozomi

Julianni was left speechless.

She felt guilty. After everything, how could she possibly be deserving of any of this? Was she not running away? Hiding like some scared fool in the middle of a desert on an unimportant world? Even with her specifications of a prayer room being built here, was she not pulling further away from God by running instead of facing her trials? How could she possibly accept something like this, much less purchase some home when people had died because of her mistakes?

But there was a small part of her that felt relief. This was a place that had no affiliations with any organization. It was not within I-RED headquarters, it was not a part of the Degario Holding. It was hers.

Her eyes welled up with tears, overcome with the knowledge that she had a place now to call home. Even if every day she felt as if she were caught between two worlds, this place was solace from that. She could feel it within her heart, her hand reaching up to rest at her chest while she let those emotions free.

At least one place, she could finally belong.

Absolution

Five minutes. That’s all the time there was left. When that time was up, Julianni would be face to face with the wife of the man she watched be strangled to death by Sakala. The man that she could have ended herself, and very well should have. The man that wouldn’t have died if she would have been more careful.

For days since she’d returned, she knew she wanted to speak with Inu-haan’s wife. She knew she had to face the woman out of respect of both the husband, as well as for the woman herself. Life was so, so precious. Julianni envied the baseliners. Each and every moment had such a deeper meaning than they did as a capsuleer. Time was limited. Each interaction could have been the last. A smile exchanged between two close friends, a hug linking a mother and their son, a kiss that bound two lovers together- priceless treasures to be held close to the heart, because tomorrow may not have come. The very person each moment was shared with could be whisked away as God willed it. Such was life. Real life.

The woman swallowed hard and wiped a small bead of sweat that had formed at her forehead, hands trembling. Retrieving her hand to peer at the glisten of salty fluid, she frowned upon seeing just how much her hands were shaking.

Some days had been alright. Her body had mostly come to terms with the lack of drugs in her system, thanks to the treatment at the med facility. But there were some days, days with increased stress, that she’d feel the cold sweat, the nausea, and the thought dancing across her mind that maybe, just maybe, it was alright to have one dose, if but to alleviate the symptoms. What would people have said if they saw her like this, after all?

Her thoughts became interrupted at a beeping echoing from her desk. The shadow of a smaller figure looked to stand outside her doorway, giving sign to Julianni that it was time. It was now or never. Lightly pressing her hand to the button at her desk, she stood from her seat and walked around to face the woman fully as she entered.

Inu-haan’s wife was quite beautiful, really. Small in stature, a delicate frame, and some of the most beautiful blue eyes Julianni had seen. Though, while their beauty was unable to be ignored, so too was the look was she was giving Julianni. Anger. Sadness. Blame.

Hate.

It stopped the Ni-kunni-Ealur blooded woman in her tracks briefly, almost even taking her breath away. A moment passed by while Julianni gathered her senses again, standing as Inu-haan’s wife stared her down without a word. To say the bow she gave to the wife was deep would be an understatement, and she kept lowered before the woman as she spoke.

“Thank you for coming to s-”

“Stop.”

As if the woman’s eyes weren’t enough, her voice echoed out with a cold hatred, as if each and every syllable was a stab into Julianni’s ear.

“How did he die?”

Silence. What was she supposed to say? Should she be honest? That he was in such a drug induced haze that he didn’t notice the man squeezing the very breath from his body? That Julianni could have stopped it? Done it herself? That the entire situation should have been called off before the capture? She stood there, bowed and speechless.

“Tell me how he died,” the woman said louder, her voice shaking from the intense wave of emotions.

“He…it…” Again, Julianni found herself struggling. She’d practiced this moment so many times, but nothing could have prepared her for this. “He…died with honour. It w-”

“Don’t you dare talk to me of honour. You have no idea what it means to us. To my people. You have no clue. And you dare say he died with it? Just who are you to say that you…some…some puppet from the Empire would know anything about how we view honour?!”

Julianni squeezed shut her eyes and internally folded within herself. She wanted so bad to console this woman, to help her find peace. But most of all, what she so selfishly wanted, was to be forgiven for causing such a precious life to be taken. She wanted it from this woman, she wanted it from God, and she wanted it from herself. The more the situation unfolded, the more she knew all of these were out of control and likely impossible.

But she had to face her. She had to try.

Her head raised and she straightened from the bow. There was no way she could look this woman in the eyes, no matter how hard she tried. She just couldn’t do it. Dark brown orbs darted to the side at the floor and she began to speak again. “I beg of you, please listen-”

And that’s when it hit her. Quite literally, actually. The hand across her face let out a loud crack that made Julianni’s ears ring and head spin, almost knocking her off her feet.

“You all think you’re invincible, you capsuleers. You think that we’re so expendable. You both were gone. You could have died and made sure he came back instead. You could have taken his place. You would have lived.” Inu-haan’s wife yelled towards Julianni with tears streaming down her face.

“YOU LEFT HIM TO DIE!”

With that, the woman stormed out of the office. Already, a guard was in the way to stop her and try to restrain her, simply doing his job as he likely heard the altercation. Julianni glanced up with tears in her own eyes. “Let her go,” she managed to choke out.

The Internal Watch guard frowned as Inu-haan’s wife struggled in his grip, sobbing her heart out, a sound of true loss. True heartbreak. Finally, after what was likely a consideration of whether or not to second guess one of the directors, he released the woman, allowing her to push past him. He then quickly moved into the office to check on Julianni, hand on his ear as if ready to call for someone. Likely medical.

“Please leave me.”

“…Director Av-”

“Please.” Her back was turned now, arms wrapped around her own body in an attempt to hold back what she knew was coming.

The guard bowed, though Julianni didn’t see it. “I’ll be right outside,” he said, as if it was some sort of comfort.

The moment he left her office, she pressed that same button on her desk to shut and lock the door. And then she crumbled, folding into herself on the floor behind her desk. With her head resting in her arms, she wept tears of her own as quietly as she could.

These were moments that would last. Inu-haan’s wife would die one day, free of the memory of the loss of her beloved husband. But Julianni would still be alive, and she would remember. She would remember the look on Inu-haan’s face when he ceased to be. She would remember his wife’s reaction this day. But most of all, she would remember the pain in her heart she felt to know that she could have prevented all of this.