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Stormy Outlook

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(Art by Azzy)

~*~*~

 

“This one sees a dark and stormy past in the crystal.” The hanar’s tentacles paused at James’ snort and its head tilted a bit. When James didn’t say anything the hanar made a gesture James thought might be a shrug and continued. “This one believes the soldier’s vacation is well earned.”

“I already knew that,” James muttered. The hanar paused, and James was pretty sure he was being glared at. It was hard to tell since hanar didn’t really have anything that looked like eyes, at least not to the human way of thinking. But he could feel the glare all the same. He sighed and waved at the crystal ball on the table. “That thing sayin’ anything about what’s to come?”

The hanar straightened a bit and ran two of its tentacles across the surface of the orb. The hazy mist inside it swirled around and James watched it, wondering how the trick had been managed. Maybe it was hollow and there was smoke being pumped into it from under the table? Seemed likely.  Might be enough to fool anyone who wanted to believe. He had no idea where the hanar learned about fortune tellers, but it had gone to great lengths to uphold the stereotype. The inside of its beach-side tent looked like something out of an ancient vid, right down to the velvet covering the table and the gauzy scarf draped over the hanar’s body like a shawl. Candles covered every flat surface and the tent was hazy with smoke from them, giving the place a surreal feeling. He was as impressed as he was amused. Didn’t make it any less of a puzzle, though, how a hanar ended up telling fortunes on the beach of a resort planet. There must be a hell of a story there. He’d have to ask Liara about it the next time he talked to her. Odds were she knew all the details about this place since she’d been the one to recommend it to him.

At last the hanar spoke again. “This one sees more storms on the soldier’s horizon, although smaller than those of the past. This one also sees that despite the storms, there will be what you humans call a silver lining, in the end.”

“So, I’m gonna have a shitty vacation but it’ll all be worth it?”

“This one agrees with that summation.”

James snorted again and shook his head. “Great,” he said. “Thanks for the warning.” He paid for his fortune and left the tent, blinking in the bright sunlight outside. The fresh air was a nice change from the close, smoky tent and he stood outside of it for a few moments, just breathing. A new customer ducked into the tent as he watched and he shook his head, sticking his hands in his pockets and walking away. With the mass effect relays finally working again, business was booming even at out of the way resorts like this one. Everyone was still pretty uncertain about the future, though. He could see the appeal of a fortune teller. Even if he’d only gone in for the hell of it, some people were likely to take that shit seriously.

“Waste of credits,” he muttered. He was surprised the hanar hadn’t made up a more cheery future for him. Seemed like it would be better for business. “This one thinks he’s gonna get his ass down to the beach where he should have just gone in the first place.” He already had his swim trunks on, and his towel was slung around his neck, so he turned for the open stretch of sand across the tent-lined street.

He scanned the beach looking for a good spot to set up for the afternoon. With his eyes occupied elsewhere, he missed the large chunk of driftwood sticking up out of the sand until his foot caught on it and he went flying head over heels.

“Fuck,” he muttered as he lay on the ground staring up at the clouds. From nearby he could hear stifled giggling. His header hadn’t gone unnoticed. He sighed and stood up, noting that nothing was hurt but his pride. “That,” he insisted under his breath as he brushed himself off, “was just a coincidence.”

There was no way the hanar hadn’t been full of shit.

Right?

~*~*~

 

He managed to put the fortune teller’s dire predictions out of his mind as the day marched on. He found a little beachside bar that carried a decent selection of familiar alcohol and boasted a set of surprisingly affordable lockers for personal belongings. They even made a decent imitation of a margarita. Thus fortified, he spent the rest of the afternoon alternating between lounging in the bar and swimming in the ocean.

He spaced out his drinking enough to maintain a pleasant buzz without impairing his faculties to any noticeable degree. Most of his time in the bar was spent people-watching. Tourists of all species populated the waterfront, coming and going as they enjoyed a break from the stresses of the last few years. He even spotted a few turians, though none of them were actually in the water. Everywhere he looked, people laughed with exaggerated carefree airs, dancing with just a touch more exuberance than was warranted, splashing or running with high abandon. There was, he thought, an overwhelming sense of relief about the place. As if everyone was just glad to be able to do something as normal as take a vacation again.

He couldn’t say he blamed them. It had been touch and go for a while there as to whether or not whatever Lola’d done to the relays could be repaired. After thousands of years taking the freedom of the galaxy for granted, the idea of being cooped up on one planet or even within one solar system grated on most folk. James included, he’d been surprised to realize. So yeah, this first vacation after the Reapers was one he meant to enjoy to its fullest. He wasn’t any different from the rest of the tourists in that regard.

When the sun began its long and glorious descent over the horizon, James at last conceded to the complaining of his stomach and headed back to his hotel in search of dinner. Along the way a poster outside one of the stands lining the road caught his eye. He stopped to read it through and, interest piqued, ducked under the awning of the stand to step up to the counter. “Hey, there any spots left on tomorrow’s tours?” he called, not seeing the proprietor right away.

 A mechanical wheezing greeted him and he glanced down to see a volus pushing itself up from where it had been, apparently, napping in the corner. “Ah, Earth Clan,” it greeted him, climbing up on a stool behind the counter. “We have openings left. Did you want to go out in the morning or the afternoon?”

James thought it over for a moment before answering, “Morning, as long as it’s not the crack of dawn.”

“Not quite that early,” the volus replied, sounding amused. “Ten o’clock.”

“Perfect,” James grinned. “Sign me up.”

The volus tapped on the screen at the counter and asked James a few questions, then took his payment. “All set,” it said. “Be sure to arrive twenty minutes early. Dock thirteen.” It gave him an assessing look and added, “Your kind tends to benefit from protection against the sun as well.”

“Sunscreen?” James asked.

“Indeed. Also something for your eyes. There is often a glare off the water.”

“Got it, thanks.”

James showed up at dock thirteen half an hour early the next morning, hoping to snag a good seat on the boat. He walked with care around the glass bottom, and settled down on a bench halfway down the port side. He figured it would give him the best chance at a good view, and lifted his sunglasses to see if anything interesting was swimming under them at the dock. Nothing caught his eyes, so he leaned back, watching the rest of the passengers load up.

At five to ten, the asari in charge of things clapped her hands to get her passengers’ attention and began going over safety protocols for the ride, handing out life jackets as she did so. Satisfied that everyone had heard and understood, she ordered her crew to cast off and they were underway.

James and the other passengers leaned forward, watching the water flow beneath them, hoping to catch a glimpse of some of the exotic fish they’d been promised by the sales pitch. He didn’t know if it was the crew’s knowledge of the waters or the time of day or just luck, but the tour delivered. Over the next hour he saw all sorts of new and interesting things swimming beneath them. Lola would love this, he thought. The reminder of his missing commander was bittersweet and he pushed it out of his mind, trying to enjoy the moment.

Reaching the end of their first leg, the boat turned around in a wide arc, heading back for the shore. James thought they were going over different water than on the way out. He supposed it was just to keep things interesting. He glanced back down at the glass and let out a startled curse as something huge swam beneath them. He wasn’t the only one. The asari laughed, and launched into a lecture about the squid-like creature that had caught everyone’s interest, calling it a Sea Matriarch. The Matriarch seemed just as interested in them. It kept up with the boat and swam around under the glass as if looking at all of the passengers, checking them out. After a while it turned and started to swim off. Not quite done watching it, James and half of the passengers got up and turned to the rail to follow its progress away from the boat. James leaned over, trying to get a better look at the creature’s tentacles.

Which was, of course, when the boat hit a patch of choppy water.

It lurched up and just as quickly dropped away. James gave a shout of surprise and before he realized what was happening, he’d tipped too far over and was falling into the water. He felt brushes against his skin as the other passengers tried to grab hold of him, but to no avail. With a thunderous splash he landed in the water and plummeted below the surface.

Before he could orient himself, he popped back above the water thanks to his life jacket. He’d balked at being ordered to put one on before the ship set sail, but now he was damn glad for the requirement. That didn’t change the fact that he was no longer on the boat or that said boat was still moving toward the shore and away from him. “Fuck,” he muttered and started trying to swim after it. Hopefully the passengers would let the driver know someone had fallen overboard and they would stop or even turn around. The island was just a vague shape in the distance and he didn’t relish the thought of such a long swim if he couldn’t catch up with the boat.

But it was a fruitless worry. Even as he watched, it began to slow down. He breathed a quick thanks and swam harder. James heard a shout from the boat and it came to a stop, turning so that he was swimming toward its broadside. The asari stood at the rail waving and calling to him, though he couldn’t make out what she was saying over the roar of the water and the pounding of his heart. He guessed they didn’t want to risk running over him and so were letting him come to them.

He’d covered about half the distance to the boat before he realized he wasn’t alone. The shouting on the boat grew louder as he got closer, but no more comprehensible, and the asari wasn’t the only one waving. She was joined by half the passengers, their arms flailing and pointing in frantic motions. Following where they were pointing, he turned and let out a startled cry of, “¡Mierda!” The Matriarch he’d been trying to get a better look at was right next to him. James was so startled that he missed an oncoming wave and got dunked for his inattention.

He came back up spluttering and halted his swimming, treading water as he stared at the not-a-squid. It stopped too, one eye almost as big as James’ head watching him with unblinking curiosity. “Uh. Hi.” James said after a moment, wondering if he was about to become the creature’s lunch. When it made no moves, he lifted one hand out of the water and gave it a wave. A tentacle rose out of the water and copied the gesture. “Okay,” James said, eyebrows rising. “That’s new. Well, um. It’s nice to meet you. But I’m gonna just,” he pointed at the boat and started to turn, “get back to them now.”

He took a breath to steady himself and started swimming again. The Matriarch turned to swim alongside him. It accompanied him all the way back to the boat, almost as if it was escorting him to safety. The thought made James snort, and then sputter at the water that got up his nose. When he reached the ship, a collapsible metal ladder was thrown over the side and he stretched to reach it in the choppy waters. A strange pressure appeared around his legs and he yelped when he realized the Matriarch had wrapped a pair of tentacles around him. For half a second he was worried that it had decided to eat him after all, but instead it just lifted him up so he could reach the ladder. “Thanks, Squirmy,” he called down to it. As soon as he had a solid grip on the ladder, the tentacles released and he started to climb. Several helping hands assisted him over the side and back onto the boat.

He turned back to look at the water and the creature waved a tentacle at him in a repeat of its earlier gesture. James waved back and the Matriarch dove underwater, disappearing into the depths.

“Wow!” The asari breathed beside him. “That was incredible! I’ve never seen anything like it! Did it actually wave at you?”

“I think so, yeah,” James said. He almost said that wasn’t anywhere near as weird as it helping him reach the fucking ladder, but something about the way she was staring made him bite his tongue. It occurred to him she might not have seen that part and he was already starting to feel uncomfortable from the attention the crew and passengers were giving him. “Is that not normal behavior for Sea Matriarchs?”

“Such behavior has never been recorded,” she confirmed. “But the only observations we’ve ever made have been on boats. No one’s ever been that close to one before. Every time we try to bring one in for observation, they disappear faster than we can chase them.” James felt a jolt of disapproval at the idea of capturing one of the Matriarchs. It must have shown on his face because she hastened to add, “Nothing nefarious, I assure you. But Sea Matriarchs remain a mystery for the most part. We would love to learn more about them. All we really know is that they sometimes like to come out and to see the glass-bottomed boat tours.”

“Well,” James snorted, “maybe next time have your scientists try just swimming with them.”

“Maybe,” she mused, sounding like she was actually taking his joking suggestion seriously. She gave herself a little shake and then clapped her hands, turning back to the rest of the passengers. “All right, everyone! That was a bit of excitement, wasn’t it? But now it’s time to continue our journey. If you’ll turn your attention back to the glass, you can see we are over a school of Jeweled Razorfins.”

While she launched into a lecture about the fish in question, another crew member steered James over to an aft corner of the boat. The salarian indicated he should sit on the bench and gave him a quick exam, checking James’ vitals and assuring that he was no worse the wear for his dunk in the ocean. “Any chance of a towel so I can dry off?”

“No towels,” the salarian quipped. “Drip dry.”

“Right,” James grumbled. “Of course.” He sighed and leaned back against the boat, trying to ignore the curious glances the passengers kept shooting him. He didn’t bother trying to see what was under the glass as they headed back to the shore. He’d seen enough aquatic life for one day.

~*~*~

James was still damp when he got back to his hotel and starting to get chilly, so he took a hot shower and put on fresh clothes. He almost decided to just stay in for the afternoon, but his stomach reminded him that it was definitely past lunch time and his unexpected adventure hadn’t done anything to curb his appetite. He could have ordered room service, but decided that if he was going to pay too much for his meal he wanted a nicer view to go with it.

He ventured out and wandered along the strip for a bit, weighing his options. In the end, he settled on a restaurant that catered to humans, boasting steaks and burgers so good you wouldn’t know they weren’t real beef. James had his doubts about that, but the place also boasted a huge deck with a good sightline of the beach and mountains alike.

The burger wasn’t half bad. Definitely not beef, but still tasty, and the fries, he was pleased to find, were real potatoes. They were seasoned and crisped to perfection. He ended up ordering a second helping of them along with a slice of apple pie for dessert and another beer to wash it all down. As he was finishing off the beer and considering ordering a third, a shadow fell across his table and a familiar voice asked, “Mind some company?”

“Blue!” James looked up to find Kaidan smiling down at him, looking much better off than the last time they’d met. “Pull, up a seat! What brings you here?”

“Same as you, I’m guessing,” Kaidan chuckled as he sat. “A much needed and overdue vacation, location chosen at the recommendation of one Liara T’Soni.” He cocked an eyebrow in question.

“Yeah,” James grinned. “Doc recommended this place to me, too. I don’t think she realized it would be so busy though.”

“Uh huh, I was hoping for something quieter,” Kaidan agreed, looking around with a sigh. The server came over and took his order and James seized the opportunity to request another beer. Kaidan’s eyes wandered to the horizon and he sighed again. “It is pretty here, though. I guess with the relays up again, I can’t blame everyone for jumping at the opportunity to go somewhere that isn’t scarred by the Reapers.”

James snorted and shook his head. “Not talking about that shit, man. We’re on vacation.”

Kaidan gave a startled laugh then shot James a warm smile. “Fair enough,” he agreed. “So what have you been up to for the past couple years? I heard you finished your N7 training?”

“Keeping tabs on me, Blue?” James teased. “Yeah, all done and official and everything. Hackett insisted the brass give our class some shore leave before they threw us out into the galaxy again. Kinda surprised they agreed, but I’m not complaining. How about you? Still working with Jack?”

“More or less. She’s been working with Kahlee Sanders to set up the biotics division at the new academy. I’ve mostly been on Earth trying to recruit new students and working with Jack’s kids that wanted to join the Alliance. We’ve got a decent group shaping up.”

“How’s that work with the whole Spectre thing?”

Kaidan’s nose wrinkled and he shrugged. “I, uh, I resigned from the Spectres.”

“No shit?” James couldn’t keep the surprise out of his voice.

“No shit,” Kaidan answered with a laugh. “I guess it’s technically more of a leave of absence. I’m free to go back whenever I feel like it. It’s just that there’s been so much to focus on with rebuilding on Earth and reestablishing the biotics program that I didn’t feel right trying to divide my loyalties like that.”

“Huh,” James said. “Well, their loss”

They continued to catch up while Kaidan ate. It turned out they were staying at the same hotel, thanks again to Liara, so they decided to walk back together. James was surprised to find how much he was enjoying the company. Despite working together during the invasion, he and Kaidan never really had much in the way of down time together. It was nice realizing they’d somehow emerged from the war as friends.

“Got any big plans for your stay here?” James asked out of curiosity.

“I plan to do a whole lot of nothing,” Kaidan said with a wide smile. At James’ bark of laughter, he shrugged. “I can’t even remember the last time I had a real vacation,” he admitted. “I didn’t really come here with any plans other to relax. I don’t usually go in for the touristy stuff. Probably I’ll just hang out on the beach. Although there are supposed to be a lot of really good hiking trails up in the mountains. I was thinking I might check those out.” He cocked his head at James, giving him a thoughtful look. “Don’t suppose you’d be interested in joining me? Always better with a buddy.”

“Sure,” James said without hesitation. “I’ve been doing the beach thing for a couple of days. Might be a nice change. When were you thinking of going?” He gave Kaidan an embarrassed smile. “I’ve probably had too much to drink to go this afternoon.”

“It’s better in the morning, anyway,” Kaidan laughed. “How about tomorrow?”

“Tomorrow works,” James agreed. “Whatcha doing the rest of the day?”

“I just got in before lunch,” Kaidan answered. “I was thinking I’d get settled in, maybe take a nap. We could meet up for dinner, if you want?”

“Sounds good. I’m in room 1537. Just come by whenever you’re ready to head out.” He clapped him on the shoulder and then turned for the elevator after Kaidan nodded his agreement. As James rode in the car up to his floor, he decided that a nap sounded like a good idea to him, too. It had been a hell of a day.

He slept for about two hours and woke up feeling groggy. Probably leftover effect of all the beer, he figured. Pushing himself up to sitting, he rubbed at his eyes and glanced at the clock by the bed. Only about fifteen hundred, local time. Three o’clock, he amended, trying to remind himself that he didn’t need to think in military time when he wasn’t on military time. He had a while yet before dinner. So the question presented itself: what to do until then?

The appeal of just ordering up some more beer and sitting out on his room’s balcony was strong, but he managed to brush it off. If they were going hiking tomorrow, he didn’t want to drink too much today. Remembering Liara’s promise that the hotel had a fully equipped gym, James made up his mind. He hadn’t worked out in a couple of days. That would be a productive way to kill some time and clear his mind a bit. He felt like he owed it to Kaidan to be decent company at dinner and he knew he’d feel more like himself after a good hard-earned sweat.

The gym was something of a revelation to him. Liara hadn’t been kidding about fully equipped. Mixed in with the familiar machines he was used to, he found strange devices designed for the use of other species. There were two or three machines at least for every major species in the galaxy and some littered around the place for the less populous species as well. He let out a low whistle, impressed. “Guess they take their dedication to guest satisfaction pretty seriously,” he muttered.

James spent most of his time at the weight-lifting stations. The machines weren’t set up quite how he preferred, but they were good enough to work with. There was a punching bag tucked into a corner, too, and he got a good workout with that before he headed back up to his room for a shower. He emerged feeling more like himself than since he’d arrived on the island. Vacation was nice, but inaction wasn’t his way. It felt nice to be doing something and to have a plan, even if that plan only extended through dinner.

“Maybe I didn’t need a full two weeks out here,” he mused as he stepped out to the balcony and leaned against the railing, breathing in the sea air and taking in the view. He was glad he’d run into Kaidan. Maybe having a friend to hang out with would alleviate some of the boredom that had begun to set in.

Kaidan knocked on his door at five-thirty. He also looked like he was feeling more like himself after his afternoon of rest. “So,” he said, putting his hands in his pockets as they made their way to the elevators. “You’ve been here a few days already, you said? Got any recommendations for where we should grab dinner?”

James thought it over. The burger place today had been the best food he’d found so far, but there were a couple of restaurants he’d been planning to try. “Depends on what you’re in the mood for, Blue,” he said. “There’s a sushi place I’ve been hearing good things about. Was thinking I might try it out at some point. We’ve also got a couple of other places that specialize in various Earth cuisines. Or there’s a joint that the hotel bartender told me about, has more of a local flavor going on.”

Kaidan tilted his head as the elevator car took them down to the ground floor, mulling over the options. “I’d be up for the local place if you are. Might be nice to try something different and if it’s not aimed at tourists it might not be that crowded.”

“Sounds good,” James agreed. “It’s supposed to be a little bit inland. We should probably get a cab.”

It turned out to be about a twenty minute ride to the restaurant, but the food was worth it. They were seated at a booth by the window and could see diners of several species enjoying their meals. Their server was human and so able to recommend new food that would agree with their biology. They each got a seafood dish; James’ came with some sort of rice-like grain and it was sweet and tangy. Kaidan got something that smelled divine, but James declined his offer of a bite. It looked like some sort of relative of squid. After his encounter with the Sea Matriarch, he thought it would be a long time before he could bring himself to eat squid again.

That led to him telling Kaidan all about his tour on the glass-bottomed boat and his fall overboard. “I swear, Blue, it lifted me back up on the damn boat. Well, to the ladder anyway. Kind of glad that asari didn’t see that part or she might not have let me off the boat when it docked.”

“Would’ve given you the third degree, huh?” Kaidan chuckled.

James had never noticed before what a nice laugh Kaidan had. He eyed his drink suspiciously, wondering if the “special blend” of island tea he’d ordered was spiked with something stronger. “She said they don’t know much about them,” he told Kaidan. “I got the impression that it was a big deal this one followed me back to the boat.” He let out his own laugh. “You should have seen her face when it waved goodbye to me before it swam off.”

After dinner, they went to Kaidan’s room to look over the possible hiking routes and plan their adventure for the next morning. “If we head out at six,” Kaidan suggested, “we should be able to make it up to the top of the trail in time to catch the sunrise.”

“You want to hike up the side of a mountain in the dark?” James raised a brow, skeptical about this plan.

“It’s only a little mountain,” Kaidan said, grinning, “and we’ll bring lights. The trail is supposed to be well marked. Besides,” he added, “better up than down, right?”

James snorted. “I guess.” He had to admit, sunrise from the top of the trail would be one hell of a view. After all the ugliness of the last few years, he was enjoying getting to drink in so many beautiful sights. “Fine,” he agreed. “Six it is.”

“Great. I’ll meet you in the lobby at ten ‘til, let’s say? That should give us time to get a cab. Be sure to bring lots of water.”

“Yeah, yeah,” James said, pushing himself off the bed and heading for the door. “I’m on it, Blue. See you in the morning.”

~*~*~

He went to bed early, but morning still came far too soon for James’ liking. After a quick shower, though, he found himself looking forward to the hike. He was eager to see a different side of the island, hopefully one that was a lot less crowded.

Kaidan was already waiting in the lobby when he got downstairs. “I called for the cab,” he told James by way of greeting. “Should be here in a few. There’s a free shuttle, but those run on their own schedules, so I figured for the way out at least, cab’s the way to go.”

“Works for me,” James grunted. He squinted in the bright light of the lobby, hefting his bag on his shoulder as he peered outside, trying to catch sight of it. The shower had woken him a little, but he was starting to feel the early hour again.

“Here, this might help.” Kaidan handed him a cup. James accepted without thinking, and then his eyes opened a little wider as the scent of fresh coffee curled its way into his nose. Kaidan grinned as he watched James’ reaction, then took a sip from his own cup.

James took a cautious sip of his drink and then looked up at Kaidan, staring. “This is real coffee, not that synth shit that’s everywhere but Earth. Where--?”

“Little known fact about this world,” Kaidan answered when it was clear James wasn’t going to finish his question. He lowered his voice in a conspiratorial manner and went on, “About twenty-five years ago, some folks from Earth were visiting and they found a few locations with the perfect conditions for growing coffee. They realized they could sell it on this arm of the galaxy for a pretty sweet profit, even charging less than it would be to import it from Earth. They approached the planetary government about setting up some farms.” He winked and shrugged. “Most of the real coffee in Citadel space comes from here.”

“That wasn’t in any of the travel brochures,” James noted before taking another long sip. Even on Earth, real coffee was in short supply these days.

Kaidan laughed. “Liara’s not the only one who can find things out,” he said. “I did a little digging on the planet when she suggested this place. It was just luck I stumbled across that tidbit.”

“I’ll say it was lucky,” James agreed, grinning. The cab arrived and they got inside, entering their coordinates into its console and then sitting back to let the autopilot take over. James leaned back, savoring his drink and starting to feel more awake. “How come most of the places on the beach still serve synth coffee if they’ve got easy access to the good stuff?”

“The farms are on different islands,” Kaidan answered with a shrug. “I think they prefer to deal in bulk orders. More of a profit that way. Most of the population of this world isn’t human, after all, and not many other species have taken to coffee. There are a few little coffee shops run by the farms’ owners here by the beach though, if you know where to look. I thought it might be worth treating ourselves today, with such an early start.”

“Thanks, Blue,” James said, finishing his coffee. He shot Kaidan a questioning look. “Just how early did you get up, anyway?”

“You don’t want to know,” Kaidan answered with another one of those deep chuckles. “My sleep patterns are all messed up from the traveling I’ve been doing. It will take me a few days here to really get on the island’s time. I figured if I was up already, I might as well make use of the time.”

“By getting us coffee? You’re a good man,” James said, shaking his head. “Don’t let anyone tell you different.”

Something around Kaidan’s eyes softened for a moment. “Thanks, Vega,” he said in a quiet voice.

They rode the rest of the way to the trails in relative silence. Once they got there, they made a quick pit stop in the restrooms by the parking lot before beginning their trek upward. James was glad for the flashlights at the start, but as they got higher the sky began to lighten. “We gonna make it up there in time?” he asked, cocking an eyebrow at Kaidan.

Kaidan peered at a marker as they passed and looked like he was doing some math in his head. He glanced at his omni-tool to check the time and nodded. “We’ve got another twenty minutes until sunrise. I think we’ll get there.”

“Cool,” James said, and returned his attention to the climb. As far as hikes went, he thought it was pretty tame. Of course, compared to some of the terrain he’d been subjected to during his N7 training, that wasn’t really any surprise. He suspected his perspective might be a bit skewed on that front.

There was a little picnic area set up at the top of the trail and Kaidan steered them toward an east-facing bench when they reached it. “See,” Kaidan huffed, dropping down onto the seat, “right on time.”

“Yeah,” James agreed, watching the sky change as the sun began to creep over the horizon. “Wow,” he breathed. The colors weren’t too far off from what he’d expect on Earth, but were just different enough to be something new. There was no denying the beauty of the sight.

“No matter how many worlds I go to or where I am,” Kaidan murmured, “there’s just something about watching the sun rise that makes me feel at home.”

James grunted in agreement. He thought he knew what Kaidan meant.

They rested for half an hour, just taking in their surroundings, and then rose together in the unspoken agreement that it was time to head back.

“We can go down the same way we came up,” Kaidan said, glancing around, “or we can take one of the other trails. They all meet up with the first one for the last leg, but some of them are a bit more winding. They’ll take longer to reach the bottom.”

“We don’t have anywhere to be. Let’s take the scenic route back.”

Kaidan nodded and examined the markers before choosing a trail. James adjusted his bag on his shoulders and moved to follow him.

“Scenic” had been a good word for it, James reflected as they made their way down. The path Kaidan chose skirted the edge of the mountain. Well, it was more of a foothill, James decided. Whoever maintained the trails had set up a railing, no doubt with inexperienced tourists in mind, so they stopped every once in a while to lean against it and take in the changing view as they made their way around the slope. They went from the inland forests and valleys to the city to the beaches and ocean. Then they were low enough to be back in the trees and moving toward level ground again and the view was lost to them. James let his mind wander a bit as the trail evened out, looking forward to getting back to the hotel and a huge, hot meal. Not paying attention, he didn’t notice Kaidan skirt a chunk of rock that was sticking up in the path and he stepped right on it.

“Fuck!” he swore as his foot slipped, going one way while his body went the other. He tumbled forward, falling to the ground with a crash. At least he managed to get his arms up in time to prevent falling right on his face. “Fuck,” he said again, groaning as he rolled over and started to sit up.

“Vega!” Kaidan was by his side, kneeling on the ground and looking him over. “What happened?”

“Wasn’t looking where I was going,” James muttered, trying to stand up. He barked out another cry as he put his weight on his ankle and the next thing he knew, Kaidan was pushing him back down to sit on the ground again.

“Looks like you got your ankle pretty bad,” Kaidan said, opening up his omni-tool and running a scan. “Not broken, so you’ve got that going for you.”

“I just twisted it,” James said, considering the pain he felt. “I’m fine.”

Kaidan snorted. “You will be, if you stay off it. Here.” He administered a unit of medi-gel to James’ ankle and let out a low laugh at James’ sigh of relief when the pain numbed. “Come on,” he said, offering James a hand and helping him up. “Let’s keep the weight off of it as much as we can. We’re almost to the end of the trail.” He got his shoulder under James’ arm and together they hobbled the rest of the way back.

“You gonna hold me up all the way back to the hotel, Blue?” James asked. He kept his voice light, teasing, but he really hoped the answer was yes. His ankle was already starting to throb again. Some ice and some rest and he was sure it would be fine, but at the moment, none of those things were available.

“If I have to,” Kaidan said, shooting him a wink. “But I don’t think it’ll come to that. Look.” James glanced where Kaidan was pointing and saw a shuttle idling in the parking lot. A screen over the front windshield was flashing a list of hotels, and as he looked he saw the name of theirs. “Might take us longer to get back than a cab,” Kaidan said, glancing at him in question, wanting James’ approval, he realized, “but we can get on it and have you sitting down now.”

“Works for me,” James grunted.

They hobbled over to the shuttle and Kaidan helped James on board, seeing him settled in a seat before going to talk to the driver. “She said she’s planning to wait another fifteen or twenty minutes before heading back,” Kaidan told him, taking the seat next to James. “In case any more hikers finish up.”

“’S cool,” James mumbled, leaning his head against the cool glass of the window. “I’ll just be over here, sitting.” He closed his eyes, just meaning to rest them a second. But the morning’s activity had taken its toll. Before he drifted off to sleep, he heard another low chuckle from Kaidan.

He woke some time later when the moving shuttle came to an abrupt halt. Blinking, James looked around, eyebrows rising as he took in all of the full seats. “Why are we surrounded by miniature asari?” he asked Kaidan, leaning in close to whisper the question.

“School group,” Kaidan whispered back with a grin. “Got on right after you fell asleep. I was kind of surprised they didn’t wake you up. You were out.”

The shuttle resumed moving and James looked around again. In addition to the asari group, there was a turian couple snuggled up together in a back corner and a trio of salarians. “Guess we weren’t the only ones up for a morning hike, huh?” He wondered why they hadn’t seen or heard any of the others on their hike.

“Nope,” Kaidan agreed. “I guess they were all on different trails than we were. I think we’re the next stop, by the way. How’s your ankle?”

James thought about it, stretching his leg and flexing his foot a little. “Better,” he said after a moment. “Still store, but I think it will be fine if I don’t push it too much.”

Kaidan nodded as if that was the answer he expected. “Think you’d be up for grabbing breakfast when we get back, or do you just want to head straight to your room to rest more?”

James’ stomach answered the question for him, giving a large rumble. “Breakfast first,” he laughed. “Definitely breakfast first.”

The debarked from the shuttle and made a beeline for the hotel’s restaurant. Most of the breakfast crowd had cleared out, but a quick glance at his omni-tool told James they were still early enough to catch breakfast before the kitchen shut down for the switch over to lunch. “Looks like we got here at just the right time,” he told Kaidan with a grin.

“Guess so,” Kaidan agreed. He helped James to a table and they accepted their menus from the server.

James thought he could have made it on his own, but he didn’t complain about the assistance. It was kind of nice, he admitted to himself. He frowned at that thought, and stared down at his menu, wondering what was going on with him. Ever since he and Kaidan had run into each other, he’d been noticing Kaidan in ways that he hadn’t really noticed anyone in a very long time. Okay, yeah, sure, he hadn’t been immune to attraction or anything, but this was different. It wasn’t just liking the way someone looked or appreciating how they moved. This was his laugh, his smile, his eyes, how he smelled, how nice a casual touch from him felt. All things James had made damn sure not to pay attention to ever since…well, ever since Treeya.

¡Mierda!

Those kind of thoughts just complicated everything. It had taken him a long time to admit to himself he would have made the same decisions on Fehl Prime even if he hadn’t felt how he did about Treeya. But with the Collectors to deal with and the Reapers looming, it had been enough to make him swear off that kind of complication for himself. Some people needed that connection to get through the hell of war, but James wasn’t one of those people. It was easier for him to avoid it altogether. Flirting was fine. Flirting was fun, and it wasn’t real. It was just the right amount of distraction before he got down to work.

War’s over, a nagging voice in the back of his head reminded him. Might be nice to not be alone all the time.

But Kaidan? His frown deepened. Rank aside, he wasn’t even sure how that would work. With his N7 duties and Kaidan’s own responsibilities…James snorted. He was getting ahead of himself by a few miles. The guy probably wasn’t even interested in him like that. James relaxed a little. Just another ill-advised crush. That was familiar enough. He could deal with that. Once they’d gone their separate ways, the crush would fade and he could forget it ever existed.

“You okay, Vega?”

James looked up to find Kaidan watching him with concern. He reached out a hand, placing it on James’ arm. Kaidan’s hand was warm and James caught himself wanting to lean into the touch. Fuck. He was in way over his head here, wasn’t he? And Kaidan was still watching him. Waiting for an answer to his question, James realized. He pulled his eyes away from Kaidan’s hand, moving them to the other man’s chin. Chin was safe, right? “Huh?” he asked.

“You’re getting all quiet and stoic,” Kaidan said, tilting his head a little. “Is your ankle still bothering you? The hotel has a doctor on staff. We can have them take a look at it.”

“Nah, Blue,” James waved him off. “Ankle’s fine. I’m just tired,” his stomach grumbled again, “and hungry.” Kaidan didn’t look convinced. James offered him a weak smile. “It’s just been a weird vacation.”

Kaidan started to reply, but stopped when the server brought their drinks over. They placed their orders and a contemplative silence fell over them as they waited. James fiddled with his napkin, trying to avoid meeting Kaidan’s eyes without it looking like that was what he was doing. “How has it been weird?” Kaidan asked after the silence began to stretch into awkwardness.

“I don’t know,” James gave a half-hearted laugh. “Maybe I’m just not cut out for vacation. Or maybe that hanar was right, after all.”

“Hanar?” One of Kaidan’s eyebrows shot up and he leaned forward, curious.

James shrugged and launched into the story about being bored and going to see the fortune teller. Then he rattled off the way things that had started going wrong after the visit. “Hell, it hasn’t been all bad, or even mostly bad. It’s just been weird, you know? Just stupid little shit that keeps going wrong, like the server brings me the wrong drink or I’m suddenly clumsy.” Or I suddenly realize I’m falling for a guy I definitely shouldn’t be falling for.

“You know what I think?” Kaidan asked, leaning back and taking a bite of the waffle he’d ordered.

“What?”

“You let that phony fortune get into your head. You’re psyching yourself out, Vega.”

“Maybe,” James agreed, poking at his plate with a fork. “Probably. Doesn’t change what’s happening though.”

“You just need to relax and find the right distraction,” Kaidan answered.

James’ mind began to provide a very graphic image of what kind of distraction might be fun and he grabbed for his water, taking a long drink and hoping Kaidan didn’t notice how flushed he suddenly was. “What,” he cleared his throat, “uh, what did you have in mind?”

“Well, I know you’ve done the beach already, but this is a beach resort. Let’s get our towels and just go set up on the sand. We don’t even have to swim unless we get hot. We can just laze around and people-watch. Relaxing and low chance of self-injury, right? I’ve got a deck of cards for if we get bored.”

James pretended to think this over. “What about sunburns? Or papercuts from the cards?” he teased.

“I’ll make sure to have plenty of sunscreen and a first aid kit on hand.” Kaidan winked at him.

“Boy scout,” James snorted.

“That the best you’ve got?” Kaidan laughed. “Come on, what do you say?”

“I say it sounds perfect.”

They finished their meal and split up to retrieve their beach gear from their rooms. James caught himself humming in the elevator and stopped, shaking his head with a rueful grin. He knew he was being ridiculous, but the idea of spending the day with Kaidan on the beach made him happier than he had felt in a long time. He was sure it was just having someone around that he knew, someone he’d been through hell and back with, that was making him latch on to Kaidan so hard. He hadn’t been part of a true squad in ages and all of his Alliance buddies were scattered to the wind after the war.

It wasn’t like he’d made any friends in N-school. The burnout rate was high and the training itself competitive as hell. Everyone was trying to stick around long enough to reach N7, not looking to make attachments. That was part of the design of the program, after all; N7 operatives tended to be deployed on an as-needed basis rather than given a permanent station. Sometimes they went together, but more often they went alone, always the interloper in any established unit. Especially now, when there were so few of them left and the new crop was just starting to come up through the ranks.

He’d gotten used to doing things on his own. Keeping up with friends over the extranet wasn’t anything like actually being able to spend time with one in person. Was it any wonder he was so eager to keep Kaidan around for a while? It had been longer than he cared to admit since he’d been able to spend time with someone he trusted to have his back without hesitation, even outside of a combat situation. He shouldn’t be surprised that his subconscious was confusing the sudden pleasantry of companionship with attraction.

By the time the elevator doors opened to reveal the lobby, James was sure he’d talked himself out of whatever misguided feelings had been trying to emerge at breakfast. Then he saw Kaidan leaning against a column, relaxed and grinning and looking amazing. James’ breath caught in his throat.

“Ready to do this?” Kaidan asked, coming to meet him. He had a towel slung over one shoulder and a tote bag on the other. “Got sunscreen, cards, water, even grabbed a few snacks. If we’re lucky, we might be able to snag a spot under one of the umbrellas the hotel’s got set up.”

“Yeah, man,” James said, struggling to keep his voice even. He’d seen Kaidan out of uniform once or twice and he’d been dressed casually for their hike. But beach-ready Kaidan was a sight to behold. James cleared his throat. “Beach. Sun. Sand. Vámonos.”

They moved through the lobby, heading for the large glass doors in the rear of the hotel that led out to the beach. At the edge of the sand, Kaidan paused and raised a hand to shade his eyes, scanning the area. “We are in luck! I see a few open umbrellas.”

“Uh…” A huge gust of wind blew past them. James ducked as a leafy frond of some plant flew by his head and frowned as he checked out the horizon. “Think there’s a reason for that, Blue.” He tapped Kaidan’s arm and pointed at the crowds leaving the beach, then to the sky over the sea. Kaidan followed his finger and his eyes widened at the bank of dark clouds piled up in front of them. “Not sure luck is the right word,” James said with a wry chuckle. “Looks like there’s a storm headed straight for us.”

As if to emphasize his words, several flickers of lightning forked through the clouds, followed closely by a bellowing clap of thunder. Kaidan let out a low whistle. “A big one, by the looks of it.”

James couldn’t help it, he started laughing. Kaidan shot him a questioning look and crossed his arms, waiting. “Come on, it’s a little funny,” James said when he could manage to speak again. “We plan a day on the beach, nice and simple, so nothing can go wrong. And what happens?” He waved a hand in the direction of the storm clouds.

The corners of Kaidan’s mouth twitched. “Just means we’ll have to find something to do inside instead,” he said in a light voice. He shrugged. “Maybe that’s safer anyway.”

“We’ll find out, I guess,” James said, still laughing. They turned around and headed back inside. At the elevators, a salarian was setting up a stand sign, and James paused to read it. “Hey, Blue, look at this. They’re setting up a Skyllian Five tournament in the ballroom. We were gonna play cards, maybe we should—.”

“No way,” Kaidan said, already shaking his head. He grabbed James’ arm and pulled him into the elevator as soon as the doors opened. “There is no way I am letting you near a poker game right now. You’d lose everything.”

James snorted. “Thanks for the vote of confidence, Blue. I thought you said it was all in my head.”

“It is,” Kaidan insisted. “But that just means that you’d find some way to sabotage yourself.”

James started to object but stopped, realizing that Kaidan was probably right. If he was cursed, which he didn’t really believe, then the odds were against him. If he had let the hanar mess with his head, then he would second guess all of his plays and the outcome would be just the same. All in all, he suspected that Kaidan was smart to keep him away from any sort of gambling. “So what do we do, then? I mean, they’ve got a gym, but I bet it will be packed and it’s not like I can work out all day.”

Kaidan laughed. “That would be your first idea.”

“Hey!”

“I’m not complaining,” Kaidan laughed again. “The results are certainly enjoyable, but there’s more to life than working out. Come on,” he pulled James out of the elevator and down the hallway. “We’re going to hole up inside, order room service, and find something to watch. I think I saw something about a Blasto marathon.”

James stopped short, stuck on Kaidan’s comment about enjoyable results. Did he just—Kaidan reached his door and unlocked it, turning back and shooting an expectant look his way. “Oh, uh, yeah,” James said, realizing Kaidan was waiting for him to follow. “Yeah. Blasto’s cool.”

Kaidan’s suite was set up in the same manner as James’, with the bedroom separated from a little sitting area and kitchenette. James dropped down on the loveseat in front of the view screen and started flipping through channels, trying to find the Blasto marathon while Kaidan grabbed the room service menu.

“I know we just ate and I’m not really hungry,” Kaidan told him, joining him on the loveseat, “but I thought I saw they had a section with snacks…aha, here we go!” He turned it so that James could look it over as well. “I figure we’ll stock up on junk food and that way we won’t have to go anywhere for a while.”

“Works for me,” James agreed. He found the right channel and added, “Hey, looks like the first movie just started, too.”

They placed their order and settled in to watch. Their food arrived and Kaidan handed James a beer, grabbing one for himself as well before setting the rest of their snacks on the low table in front of the loveseat. James made it through most of the movie, but then a wave of drowsiness overcame him. Despite his nap on the shuttle, the combination of their early start with their hike, the lull of rain against the windows, and the general lack of anywhere to be had caught up to him. He closed his eyes, just intending to rest them for a moment, and woke up with a start to find they were almost at the end of the second movie.

 He started again when he realized he’d fallen asleep with his head on Kaidan’s shoulder. “¡Mierda! Lo siento,” James shook his head, and repeated, “Sorry, man.”

“Nothing to apologize for,” Kaidan said with a low laugh. “I was getting kind of sleepy myself.” He laughed again, giving James a teasing look. “Although that’s twice in one day now. I don’t remember you being much for naps, Vega. I might have to start taking it personally.”

James snorted, sitting up and rubbing his face. “No time for naps back then,” he said. “We all had shit to do.” Almost on reflex, he switched into his flirtatious mode, saying, “Nothing to do with the present company, Blue, I promise.” He added a wink at the end for good measure.

Kaidan’s cheeks turned red and a strange smile flickered across his face. James’ eyebrows shot up as he realized that Kaidan was blushing. “I, uh, I’m glad to hear that,” Kaidan said, clearing his throat and meeting James’ eyes. He moved his hand, letting it hang in the air for a moment before dropping it on James’ knee. His blush deepened. “Because I’ve been enjoying your company quite a bit.”

“Yeah?” James asked, his eyes dropping to Kaidan’s hand and then flicking back up to his eyes. He swallowed, scooting a bit closer. “You have, huh?” He grinned.

“Yeah,” Kaidan agreed, turning to face James more and moving a bit closer as well.

This is probably a really bad idea, a small voice in the back of his head tried to say. James told it to shut the hell up. “Cool,” he said instead, leaning forward. Kaidan began to lean in, too.

Which, of course, was when both of their communicators went off.