"I've had my eye on you," Shoola said, sidling closer with a glass of champagne in her hand.
Elora looked to the side, letting her eyes rest on the other party guests. "That seems like a waste of time," she murmured in reply.
In the middle of the crowd stood Mel, winter-blossoms in her hair, and Elora could tell she was bored even while she smiled with teeth and the polite charm that she'd cultivated over the years. Perhaps Elora ought to rescue her: even a Councilor deserved a break sometimes.
Next to her, Shoola laughed, rich and sweet. "I don't think so."
Dressed in her clan colors, sleek trousers and bare arms, the unusual adornment Shoola wore around her neck clicked steadily, drawing one's eye. Certainly it always made Elora look.
Sometimes Elora held the door open for her when she was late for Council meetings. Once, while Elora was waiting for Mel to fetch something from her office, Shoola walked past and stopped, looking at her very intently and said: I love the shade of your lipstick.
Then, much like now, Elora didn't know quite how to respond.
She glanced down at Shoola's shoes: golden heels, high even though she was already tall to the point of imposing. It was a long time since Elora trained herself out of the habit of keeping her eyes down, like a servant in Noxus always ready to foresee the needs of others, but sometimes old habits crept back. For a moment she was beset by the sudden, familiar rush of homesickness, inundating her like a flooded river, like an illness.
She forced her chin up, meeting Shoola's gaze. "Can I do anything for you, Councilor?"
"Your employer is very clever," Shoola said, nodding in Mel's direction. "But I suspect she's not the only one."
The ludicrously dubbed Man of Progress was joining Mel where she lingered, close to the crowd. Leaning in, he said something that, based on the expectant look on his face, was meant to amuse.
The Hexgates had been operating for some months now, and the Golden Boy was more in fashion than ever. Even if it could get her to where she wanted to be in the blink of an eye, Elora would rather walk a hundred miles on foot than be transported anywhere with the help of those mind-bending Hexgates. The very thought.
"Yes, she is clever," Elora said, watching Mel smile politely at whatever nonsense the man had to share. "Isn't everyone on the Council?"
"Funny too! How long have you worked for Councilor Medarda?"
"Why do you ask?"
Shoola leaned a little closer, a downright conspiratorial smirk on her face. "Because I want to steal you away from her, of course," she said. "How much does she pay you?"
At that, Elora smiled, meeting Shoola's eyes with no effort at all. "More than you could afford, Councilor."
Spring was only just starting to get a hold of Piltover, the warm season with all its customary celebrations inching closer, and Mel hosted a party.
"Is that a new coat?" Shoola asked. "It suits you."
Mel had done a double-take when she saw it. Her clothes had morphed away from her Noxian start while Elora dug down deeper, draping herself in Medarda colors.
"You don't have to flatter me," Elora replied. "I'm happy with my job."
"Oh, that. I don't want to hire you anymore."
For a brief flash of a moment, Elora experienced a stab of something that couldn't possibly be disappointment. "Why not?" she said before she could stop herself, the words coming out a little bit petulant.
Shoola raised an eyebrow, lips quirking. "Well, you did say I couldn't afford you."
"As I understand it, haggling is a time-honored tradition in Piltover."
"Do you want to quit your job, darling? Because it sounds like you're trying to talk me into it."
Elora frowned, cheeks warming against her will. "You misunderstand me."
Of course she did not wish to leave Mel behind. It was unthinkable, for more reasons than she cared to list. Only, it was a nice feeling to be — wanted.
Perhaps she should get a dog.
Mel wouldn't mind if she brought one to work, surely. Maybe she'd convince her by calling it a guard dog; even a Medarda would appreciate that.
"You know," Shoola said, leaning slightly forward, eyes black and endlessly deep, "I always thought you and Mel had a bit of a weird relationship."
For a moment, Elora was caught off-guard. Most people did not notice much about her, and certainly people did not question her relationship to Mel.
"We're... family," she said, grappling with how to phrase herself. They did not choose each other, but here they were, folded around each other, twin amaranths in the same ill-fitting pot. What could be more like family than that?
Shoola simply looked at her, thoughtful and serious. Then, clearly deciding to drop the subject, she smiled. "Why don't we go and grab another drink together? The punch is delicious."
"I know, I made it."
Effortlessly charming, Shoola hooked her arm around Elora's, gently steering her along, past the big potted palm trees that Elora acquired for Mel's balcony. "Maybe we should talk about ways we can get your boss to pay you more. I've always wanted to relieve Mel of some of all that money."
Elora allowed herself to be guided, feet easily falling into step with Shoola's long-legged gait.
If this was to be a habit, she could get used to it.
In her small, bite-sized garden Elora grew every type of flower that would fit, and on her window-sills she kept String of Hearts, Pearl of the Moon, Baccai's Ivy, Fairie's Shield. The rare Silvervine Mrs. Talis gifted her one year. A Kraken Lilie which Mr. Kirraman gave Mel as a housewarming present and which Elora rescued from certain death some weeks later. Mel always favored a more Noxian type of home: bare floors and walls, stark lines and concrete.
Growing things was easy. And ordinary and unremarkable thing to occupy one's time. All it took was dirt and water, a little sun, a dash of fertilizer, and in the right amounts, there was nothing that wouldn't flourish. Most people were not too dissimilar.
Even Mel had put down roots.
Perhaps she thought Elora hadn't noticed. Perhaps she was being kind by keeping it to herself. After all, there had not been a day since they arrived in Piltover that Elora did not find herself weighed down by that dogged longing, the unyielding pining for home.
But Shoola did become a habit.
Like delicate steps in a dance, Elora moved along in the same familiar, well-practiced steps with Mel as per usual, and then, later on, after Mel bid her goodnight there it was. Another night, another quiet, humble moment away from the crowd.
Shoola sipped from her glass, lips leaving a trace of lipstick in her wake, every elegant line of her body standing out in sharp relief in the corner of Elora's eye. The steady ticking of her necklace, gears moving, clicking. The metal on her fingers clinking against the glass in her hand. She smiled, clever eyes tracking Elora's every movement.
Fumbling, Elora slid her gaze away, down to the floor, grappling with the urge to hide.
"Don't forget your drink," Shoola said, gesturing at the full glass in Elora's hand.
"Are you trying to get me drunk?" Elora asked, shaping her mouth carefully around the words.
"Obviously. You should relax, let your hair down. Metaphorically at least. Or maybe for real. Clearly you're off the clock since your boss isn't even here."
"I am relaxed."
"And Mel had business to attend to."
Shoola chuckled. "Don't we all?"
Clutching her glass, Elora sipped from it. The wine was red and a little dry, fruity and rich, and with her next breath, she knocked the whole glass back. After all, she was accustomed to harder, Noxian stuff.
She looked up at Shoola, raising her chin.
"Does it come off?" she asked, reaching her hand out to brush against the golden, clicking adornment around her neck.
Shoola laughed. "Yes, of course."
"I mean now. Can it come off now?"
The laughter faded from Shoola's face, leaving a smile behind, one that seemed all-consuming and profound even as she reached up to unclasp the necessary parts of her necklace, unfolding it away from herself.
Elora reached out and Shoola sucked in a breath when her hand touched her neck, eyes boring into Elora's. The world narrowed to the simplest things in front of her: the gold on Shoola's eyelids, the shape of her lips, the flutter under Elora's fingers when she swallowed. Shoola covered Elora's hand with her own, the golden caps on her fingers sharp against her skin, and Elora's cheeks burned.
How might the metal on her fingers feel, she wondered, against other parts of her?
Years before, Shoola and Mel enjoyed a rather more intimate friendship than their current professional relationship.
Elora had written to Ambessa, and Mel had laughed when she read it. A rare thing — the letters to Ambessa were short and to the point, and Mel would peruse them dutifully without offering much in the way of comments. Sometimes Elora wondered if Mel read them only as an act of self-flagellation.
"Do you think my mother cares how beautiful she is?" Mel had asked her, smiling side-ways, eyebrow quirked.
Elora had felt herself blushing for no discernible reason. "What do you mean?"
"You used the word 'pretty' four times."
"You know how she is," Elora had said, flustered, caught. "She'll consider her a conquest of yours, especially with both of you being on the Council."
Mel had sobered quickly at that, and her entanglement with Shoola turned out to be short-lived. It was a friendly split, as far as Elora could tell, after which Mel dated a string of men and women who were nice enough, but so politically unimpressive and anonymous that Ambessa would have nothing to say about it.
All those years it was so easy to remember who she was and what she wanted. She tended to Mel and she tended to her plants, watching them grow deeper roots.
Was this who she wanted to be?
Tearing herself away in haste, Elora stood up, hand burning as if she'd touched fire.
"I have somewhere to be," she said, bolting, fleet-flit-flying, running like the wind, and if she truly had no roots maybe a gust of it could carry her back to where she belonged.
"Did those two have a fight?" Shoola asked, handing Elora a furiously pink drink that no doubt clashed against the red of her shirt. "They've been glued at the hip for weeks and now they can't stand looking at each other."
Elora looked in the direction where Mel and the the newest member of the Council left, moment before, doing her best to keep her face level. It was just terribly droll.
He's won Piltover's heart.
How unsuitable for a Medarda. How utterly lacking in all kinds of subtlety. How dreadfully ordinary.
"Hm," Elora huffed. "Talis is on the Council now. It's a busy life, as I'm sure you're aware."
"This better not give me trouble," Shoola muttered, bending down to unbuckle her high heeled shoes and the delicate straps around her ankles.
"I'm sure they get along perfectly fine when they're alone," Elora said, adding, in the silence of her own mind, especially when they take their clothes off.
Recently Mel seemed to have developed a very busy evening schedule, requiring her to depart early from all sorts of functions, Talis in tow. It was dreadfully transparent. Probably even for people who didn't know her work schedule by heart.
Elora hadn't written yet to Ambessa.
In her mind, she debated what would be best. To put it to paper like anything else and leave the letter out for Mel to read. To put it to paper and send it without letting it pass Mel's eyes.
When Elora first realized the severity of the situation, she almost let the words slip: Your mother is going to hate him.
But she swallowed the words down — after all, she could no longer be sure in which direction Mel might be pushed by such a statement. Perhaps she was not entirely sure in which direction she would want Mel to be pushed.
"Wait," Shoola said, studying her face most intently. "Hang on. Are Mel and Talis... you know?"
"What's a polite word for 'fucking'?"
"Intimate congress? Fornicating?" Elora breathed into her drink. "Making love?"
"Yes, thank you." Shoola made a dismissive gesture. "No accounting for taste, I suppose."
Elora glanced at her, giving her a diplomatic smile. "You forget, Councilor, that her taste once ran towards you."
For a moment, Shoola actually looked surprised, then a little bashful. Did she truly think Elora didn't know? She couldn't stop the smirk growing on her face from being perhaps a tad smug.
"I suppose her taste has only recently dipped then," Shoola conceded.
Elora could hardly fathom it herself, watching in the corner of her eye the long line of Shoola's back and the sharpness of her jaw. Certainly her loveliness was a well-established fact that did not need to be remarked on, her raw allure something Elora only cared to truly consider when she was tucked into bed and the lights turned off, wishing her own fingers were metal-tipped so she might know how it would feel.
Perhaps she had begun to look forward to the moment when Mel's eyes would glaze over and she would fumble for an excuse to leave, leaving Elora free to retreat somewhere out of the way, somewhere quiet and secluded. Sometimes when Elora was tucked away in a quiet place with Shoola for company, it seemed like she had reached some sort of perfect contentment, a thing she wouldn't think could exist, and she forgot to be homesick.
"He makes her smile," she admitted, rather in spite of herself. A small fact she had kept close to her heart.
"Oh." Shoola paused. "That's nice, I suppose. Not sure the rest of the Council will see it that way, of course. They're not as sentimental as I am."
"Happiness does not come easy to her."
"Now you're just making me feel bad."
"Besides," — Elora took a breath, and another — "it is a rather boring party."
"Of course it's a boring party." Shoola gestured dismissively. "They all are. And if Mel's happy I'm thrilled but still, have some class. I can't believe they snuck out to fuck. Appalling, really. There's such a thing as decorum."
Elora put her hand on Shoola's thigh, the fabric of her trousers soft and smooth, and Shoola looked down at her hand, and then up, slowly following the line of her arm, shoulder, neck, mouth. She covered Elora's hand with her own, the metal on her fingers warm and sharp against Elora's skin.
It was all rather ordinary, Elora supposed, and there was no rhyme or reason to why it seemed anything but.
"Perhaps, Councilor," she said, with all the composure she could muster, "you would like to do the same?"
Shoola smirked, warm and inviting. "Darling, I thought you'd never ask."