Chapter 1: Part I
(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.
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.
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.
“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.”
“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.
“What the--?” James said, startled, at the same time that Kaidan stared at his omni-tool and said, “Who--?”
Kaidan answered his call first and James’ communicator went silent the second he did. “Alenko.” He pressed something and a holographic image appeared in front of them.
“Doc?” James asked in surprise, recognizing the figure of Liara on the other end of the line.
“Oh, good, you’re together. I was hoping that would be the case when I realized you were both booked for this week. That will save us some time.”
James and Kaidan exchanged a confused glance, then Kaidan looked back to Liara with a frown. “What’s going on? It doesn’t sound like you’re just calling to check how we like the place.”
“I’m afraid not,” she confirmed. “I am so sorry to interrupt your vacations but an urgent matter has come up and I need your help. Both of you.”
“Our help?” James asked, eyebrows shooting up. “With what?”
“One of my operatives on the island has been abducted and I need you to rescue him.”
Kaidan let out a choked sound of surprise. “Why us?” James asked.
“Wouldn’t it be better to contact the local authorities?” Kaidan chimed in, concern writ across his face.
“Or have some of your other operatives handle the extraction?” James added, cocking an eyebrow.
“There’s no time for that, James,” she said, shaking her head, “and I cannot trust the local authorities at the moment,” she added in answer to Kaidan’s question.
Kaidan frowned, glanced at James again and then back to Liara. “Start at the beginning,” he said, looking thoughtful.
“Of course,” Liara said. “Forgive me. The past hour has been rather stressful.” She took a deep breath and paused, gathering her thoughts. “As you both have no doubt surmised,” she began, “I have several contacts on this world. As a lesser-known vacation spot, it attracts an elite crowd of visitors. People tend to let their guard down while on vacation--,”
“Which means lots of opportunity for your people to gather useful information,” Kaidan said, arching a brow.
“Potentially, yes,” Liara agreed. “Someone would like me to think they’ve taken exception to my data collection.”
“What do you mean, would like you to think?” James asked, sitting forward.
“I was notified an hour ago that one of my people, a turian named Prolus Didinis, is being held hostage. I was then given an exorbitant ransom demand. If someone was just trying to hurt me or get their revenge, they likely would just take out all of my operatives to make their point.”
“Maybe they just know you’re loaded and want to make a quick buck?” James suggested. “Or they think if they get enough money off you it will make up for whatever they’re pissed about?”
“A valid suggestion,” she said, “but were that the case, they would have given me a time frame to pay the ransom that actually allowed me to gather the funds requested.”
“How long did they give you?” Kaidan asked.
“I have until one a.m. local time to make the payment.”
“That’s what, eleven hours now?” James glanced at the clock in the room. He looked at Kaidan, then back at Liara. “So they gave you twelve hours, and that’s not enough time?”
“I could certainly put together the asked for amount,” Liara said, her voice serious, “but what I cannot do in that time is make the necessary transactions untraceable. I keep a fair amount of credits available for emergencies, but nowhere near this much.”
Kaidan sucked in a sharp breath. “You think this guy wants to force you into giving away your true identity?”
“Yes, and probably even the location of my office.”
Her mouth twitched up at the corners and James had to laugh. Last he’d heard, Liara’s “office” was a fortified base in an undisclosed location. Like the Shadow Broker before her, she had set up shop somewhere remote to keep her many, many secrets safe.
“I am prepared to make the payment as a last resort,” she added, “but I would like to explore other options. The abductor has threatened to kill my operative if payment is not received, and I believe them. What I’m not sure I believe is that they won’t kill him anyway once they have their money.”
“All right, I’m with you on that,” Kaidan said, slowly, thinking things through. “But that still doesn’t explain why you need our help.”
Liara sighed. “If this person found one of my operatives on the island, I’m afraid they know about the others. The ransom demand implied that they would know if I tried to contact any of them for help. After I confirmed that my operative was indeed abducted, I did a thorough sweep of my system. There are no bugs or taps on my end, so I suspect that my other operatives are being watched. If I contact them…”
“The bad guy will know,” James supplied, finishing the thought.
“Yes, and will then kill Didinis.”
“Okay,” James said, glancing at Kaidan. “So you can’t bring in a new team, and you can’t reach out to the people you have here. The local authorities are out because, what? You think this guy’s got eyes on them, too, then?”
“Which leaves us, your friends that the person still trying to figure out your real identity doesn’t know about,” Kaidan said, exhaling and rubbing the back of his neck. “Okay.” He glanced at James, the question in his eyes clear. When James nodded, he looked back to the hologram. “We’re in, then, although I’m now sure how we play this. I don’t know about Vega, but I didn’t exactly come on vacation armed.”
“Now, now, Kaidan,” Liara said with a grin, “so modest. She looked between them. “An extremely skilled biotic and an N7 operative? The two of you are weapons.”
James laughed. “Can’t argue with that, Blue.” He cracked his knuckles. “Wouldn’t mind a gun or some grenades though,” he admitted.
“I don’t think explosions are the way to go, Vega,” Kaidan chuckled.
“I would prefer you do this quietly, if possible,” Liara added.
“Aw, you two are no fun,” James teased. He leaned back against the love seat. “All right, then, give us the rest of the briefing.”
“Do you know where we’re going?” Kaidan asked, “Or anything about who’s behind this?”
“I haven’t been able to discern their identity. Yet. But I did manage to find out a few things. Here’s what I’ve got for you.”
She spent fifteen minutes giving them everything she had on her missing operative and their abduction. Kaidan took notes and he and James both asked questions. They signed off the call and stared at each other for a few minutes in silence. “What was that you were saying, Blue,” James asked at last, “about it all being in my head?”
“Somehow,” Kaidan answered, shaking his head, “I doubt this is what the hanar was talking about.”
James snorted. “Right. I hope so. Because this is something that definitely needs to go right from start to finish.” He clapped Kaidan on the shoulder. “I’m gonna go change into something better for a rescue mission. Meet you in the lobby?”
“See you there,” Kaidan agreed.
The next hour passed by in a flurry of activity. They rented a skycar so they would be able to move around freely and then headed inland for a high-end electronics store that Liara had recommended.
“I hope you know what you’re doing with that, Blue,” James observed in the car as Kaidan fiddled with the equipment they’d picked up. “Because I am useless when it comes to that kind of thing.”
“I’m no engineer,” Kaidan laughed, “but I know enough to follow the instructions Liara sent over.” They’d purchased some innocuous communicators and Kaidan was modifying them to use for eavesdropping on their target. Their purchase was ordinary enough not to attract any attention from the wrong parties and with the right upgrades would be quite useful in finding Didinis. Kaidan finished what he was doing and looked up at James with a grin. “This is kind of fun, actually. It’s been a long time since I’ve gotten to play around with tech like this.”
“Glad you’re enjoying yourself,” James grinned back. “Let’s just hope it works.”
“This is Liara we’re talking about. It’ll work.”
Their next stop was the operative’s home. Prolus Didinis worked security for the island’s hottest nightclub. It put him in a good position to pick up information on the wealthy and influential vacationing there. Despite what was probably an excellent salary from the nightclub, not to mention the significant pay bump he got selling information to Liara, he lived in a modest home in an inland suburban neighborhood that mostly seemed to be occupied by turians. From their location they had a good view of Didinis’ street. The wet pavement gleamed in the few rays of light that were peeking through the clouds now that the worst of the storm had passed.
James fiddled with his omni-tool, checking the weather report. More showers were expected, but not until later in the evening. He wondered if they’d manage their mission without getting caught in the rain. Looking back up at Didinis’ house, he snorted, “Guess he’s not spending all of his money on a place to live.”
“I don’t know,” Kaidan mused, taking in their surroundings. “Even simple and small in a place like this can get pricey.” He pointed to a repair van parked across the street from the house. “Looks like Liara was right. They’re watching his place in case anyone comes snooping around.”
“Time to stir the pot?”
“Yeah,” Kaidan agreed.
James fired up his omni-tool and called a local pizza delivery place. He gave them a fake name and paid with the untraceable account Liara had given them to use for the mission. Then he gave them Didinis’ address. “Thirty minutes,” he told Kaidan when he ended the call. “Now all we gotta do is wait. I hope the delivery person likes pepperoni since they’re getting a free pizza.”
Kaidan laughed and nodded in agreement. They settled in to keep an eye on the house and the watching van. Nothing was happening though, and James felt his thoughts wandering despite the need for focus. He let out a frustrated little sigh and flicked his eyes to Kaidan then back to the street, deciding maybe it was better to get things out in the open. “So, uh, we gonna talk about earlier?”
From the corner of his eye, he could see Kaidan turn to him, confused. “Earlier?”
“Just before Doc called,” James elaborated. “Seemed like something was about to go down.”
“Ah,” Kaidan said, and James had the satisfaction of seeing his cheeks turn red. “That.” He bit his lip and turned his attention back to Didinis’ house. “Yeah, I was definitely leaning toward…something.” He shot a quick look at James. “Should I be apologizing?”
“Hell, no,” James said before he could think about it too much. “You weren’t the only one leaning, Blue.”
“Okay. Good.” Kaidan took a slow breath, scanning the street again, nodding to himself. “Good.”
“Maybe,” James ventured, “that’s a conversation we can pick back up when we get done with all of this?” He waved at the van and the house.
Kaidan smiled and reached over to squeeze James’ hand. “I’d like that,” he said, his voice quiet but full of promise.
“Me too,” James replied, squeezing back and then sitting up in his seat. “Looks like we’re in business.” A small vehicle was pulling to a stop in Didinis’ driveway. “You ready?”
“On it,” Kaidan said, pulling out the modified communicator. “We just need them to make a call so we can tap into their frequencies…” He fiddled with it for a few moments, then said, “Got you!”
Voices emerged from the communicator. “…got movement at the house. Pizza delivery.”
“That sounds like a vorcha,” James said, wrinkling his nose.
“Let’s get out of here,” Kaidan said, starting the car. “Now that we’ve got a bead on them, we can head back to the hotel while we figure out where they’re at.”
James’ communicator went off. “Pizza place,” he said, and answered. He listened to the other end and then said, “Oh shit, I said Palaven Way? No, I’m over on Palaven Drive. That’s totally my bad. I’m at a friend’s, I get all these streets confused. Yeah, man, just get there when you can. No worries, thanks.” He ended the call and grinned at Kaidan. “Someone on Palaven Drive is in for a surprise.”
Kaidan laughed. “At least you already paid for the pizza. Hopefully it ends up just a funny story for the delivery guy and not a big hassle to everyone.”
As they drove away, the chatter from the van continued. “No, no. Wrong address. Leaving now.”
“I don’t like it,” a new voice said. “The Shadow Broker is clever. One of you tail the pizza guy, and someone else check the house, make sure they didn’t plant anything. They could be trying to gather intel on us.”
“Uh, oh,” James said, frowning. “Didn’t think they’d tail the pizza person.”
“Want us to question them?” the vorcha asked. The gleeful menace in his voice was more than a little worrying.
“No,” the other person on the call said. “Keep a discreet distance until we know more. We’ve got eyes on all of the Broker’s operatives on the island. There hasn’t been any movement there. I don’t want to draw attention to ourselves if it’s just a coincidence. If the pizza person heads to the right address, leave them be.”
“Got it, boss.”
Kaidan and James both let out relieved breaths. “We’re going to have to be more careful about who we get involved in this,” Kaidan muttered.
“Yeah,” James agreed.
Just before they reached the hotel, they heard the vorcha give his boss the all clear on the house and the pizza guy. James felt a bit of his tension drain away. They didn’t need their target to be on alert when they showed up. The whole point of Liara going to them was the element of surprise.
Kaidan seemed to agree. “We’re going to have to be careful when we go in,” he said in the elevator. “If they get spooked, Liara’s worried they’ll just kill Didinis and be done with it.”
James checked the time. They were down to eight hours. “Sooner we move, the less they’ll be expecting a last-minute rescue attempt,” he commented. “Though let’s take as much time as we can, get all the information before we move in.”
James found himself glad for all of the snacks they’d ordered earlier. They had too much to do to wait around at a restaurant or for room service, but he still needed to eat. At least this way they could eat and work at the same time. With the modified communicator and a few other gadgets they’d picked up, it didn’t take them very long to track the location of the person the vorcha had been reporting to. “The question is,” James sighed, “is that where Didinis is being held?”
“We won’t know until we get out there,” Kaidan said, looking at a map they’d pulled up, “but it looks like it’s a storage facility. That would be a good place to stash a hostage.”
“How many units in the facility?”
“Couple dozen, looks like.” Kaidan sighed and shook his head. “We have to get actual eyes on this place. That’s the only way to figure out what we’re dealing with.”
James frowned at the map, then pointed to it. “What’s that building?”
“Let me check,” Kaidan tapped his data pad. “Convenience store,” he said after a minute. “Or at least it used to be. It’s closed down now.”
“It’s right across the street,” James said, starting to smile. “Good cover, clear sightline to the storage facility. I think I’ve got an idea, Blue. We need to go back to the electronics store though.”
They found themselves ensconced in the former convenience store by seven. Six hours left to go and it had started raining again. Kaidan watched in amusement as James sorted through his new purchases. “I thought you were useless with tech,” he laughed as James took a few things apart and cobbled them together into something new.
“Communicators and shit, yeah,” James agreed, looking up with a grin. “But explosives are another story.”
Kaidan’s eyebrows shot up. “Thought we agreed to do this quietly. Explosions aren’t quiet, Vega.”
“More than one kind of explosive, Blue,” James smirked. “I picked up a few things in N-School, you know.” He handed a bag to Kaidan. “Here, this one’s for you.”
“What’s this?” Kaidan peered into the bag, curious. He’d done the initial run to the electronics shop while James stayed outside, so on the second visit, they’d swapped, hoping to avoid any questions. “Another communicator to mod?”
“We’ve already got their frequencies,” he gestured to the communicator sitting on an empty shelf next to Kaidan. It was quiet for the moment, but they’d picked up the occasional chatter as their target’s people checked in with updates. “That one gets visuals,” he said, pointing to the bag. “See if you can tap into the security cameras at the facility.”
Kaidan whistled in approval. “Good idea.” He glanced up, giving James an appraising look. “N-School was good for you.”
“I guess,” James grunted, trying to hide his pleasure at the compliment. “Gave me some new ways to get the job done, at least.”
“You’re still going to have to explain the explosives to me,” Kaidan said as he got to work on the communicator.
“Homemade arc grenades,” James said. “When we move in, we can use them to knock out any guards and trip up their communications.” Kaidan’s eyebrows shot up and James grinned at him. “Like I said, picked up a few things in N-School. These don’t pack as big a punch as the real thing, but they should buy us time, and what we lack in power we’ll make up for in quantity.” He’d bought supplies to make a dozen of the improvised devices. He was sure that would be more than enough. “Now we just gotta figure out where we’re going.”
“I’m guessing that’s where I come in?” Kaidan grinned back.
“Exactly.” James nodded. “You find our target, I get us in, and together we take those assholes out.”
“Sounds like a plan to me.”
It didn’t take Kaidan long to tap into the video feeds. James finished up the arc grenades and they both examined the visuals they started receiving. There were half a dozen images arrayed in front of them. “Looks like the guy in charge is set up in the main office,” James said, pointing at one of the feeds. “A krogan, by the looks of it.” He frowned at Kaidan. “Can’t be one of Wrex’s guys, can it? Wrex knows about Liara, and they go back.”
“I doubt it’s one of his people,” Kaidan agreed, “though Wrex has made his share of enemies among the krogan. I’ll make sure we get this footage to Liara so she can track down who he is. But he’s not our mission.”
“Right,” James said. He went back to looking. “No turians in sight…but look at that.” He pointed to another feed.
“Lot of security on that unit.”
“Think that’s where our guy is?”
“It makes sense, but let’s keep watching for a bit, just to be sure.”
James nodded and they settled in, leaning against each other so they could both see the small display. Kaidan glanced at him with a small smile and then turned his attention back to the mission. James realized he was smiling too and he cleared his throat, reminding himself to focus. We’ll get to that later, he reminded himself, smile not dimming at all.
The communicator behind them crackled to life and on the display they could see the krogan making a call. “Anybody got movement anywhere?”
“Nothing at the house, boss,” the vorcha answered. Half a dozen other voices chimed in, also in the negative. There were a few grumbles about the rain but the krogan ignored them.
“Looks like the Broker hasn’t gone through any of their usual channels on the island,” the krogan muttered. He sounded annoyed and a little worried.
“You think the Shadow Broker will actually come through on the ransom, boss?” one of the operatives asked.
The krogan snorted. “Let’s hope so. That’ll be the cleanest way to get this done. Izona, are you ready to trace the transaction once it goes through?”
On another display, a salarian answered the question, “Of course.” She was camped in an open storage unit, surrounded by tech and gadgets. “I’ll mine it for every scrap of data that’s there. We just have to hope you’re right about the Shadow Broker not being able to clean that much money in the time you gave them.”
“They better not be able to,” the krogan muttered. “Or this whole thing is a waste.” Speaking up, he added, “Everyone keep your eyes open. I’m still not convinced the Broker won’t try something funny at the last minute. Teams two and three, I want you to do a sweep of the perimeter and then join team one on Didinis. Four and six, you spread out to fill the gaps once they move, and five, you keep patrolling.”
There was a chorus of, “On it, boss,” and other answers in the affirmative.
James leaned forward, feeling the adrenaline start to kick in. This was it. “Perfect. We just have to see where the extra security clusters up and we’ll know where Didinis is. Then we can move in.”
“Sure,” Kaidan drawled. “It only means we have to deal with another two security teams when we do.”
“We can take ‘em,” James said, flashing him a grin.
Kaidan smiled back. Then his brow furrowed. “Is it just me, or did it sound like the boss wasn’t so sure about Liara being able to clean the credits?”
“Probably just hoping he hasn’t underestimated her,” James shrugged.
“Maybe,” Kaidan said, looking thoughtful. “But if I was in charge of an operation like this, I’d want to be a lot more certain on the window I was working with, wouldn’t you? That seems like an important detail to leave to chance.”
James glanced at him. “What’re you thinking, Blue?”
Kaidan sighed and shrugged. “I’m beginning to think that our ‘boss’ there isn’t really the mastermind of this whole operation. What if he’s working on someone else’s orders?”
“Could be,” James agreed. He squeezed Kaidan’s shoulder. “But like you said, he’s not our mission. We get in, get Didinis, get out. Then we give Liara every bit of information we’ve got so she can handle this herself.”
“Right,” Kaidan said, nodding his head. “Right. Look, they’re clustering where we thought. We have our target.”
“Perfect,” James said. “Let’s figure out how we’re getting in and out, then.”
They sketched out a map of the facility and spent another half hour watching the patrols to get a sense of their timing. “How loud are those grenades?” Kaidan asked, looking at the map.
“Pretty quiet, as far as grenades go. More of a ‘whump’ than a ‘boom.’”
“Okay…” Kaidan scrutinized the map, tapping his finger on a notation indicating one of the security patrols, “…so if we time this right, we can take out the first patrol as they get here, then get to here,” he moved his finger, “and get the next group. We should be able to neutralize them both before anyone in control realizes something’s off.”
James looked down at the map, frowning in thought. “Yeah,” he agreed. “Should work. Two comments, though.”
Kaidan’s lips quirked up and he tilted his head, inviting James to proceed.
James narrowed his eyes and tried to push down the feeling that he was being tested like in an N-School scenario class. Kaidan was a teacher, after all. He was probably just falling into default behavior for this kind of situation. James cleared his throat and met the other man’s eyes. “The grenades are gonna disrupt the security cameras. There aren’t any in range at our entry spot, but when we hit the second group, if anyone is paying attention to the video feeds, they’ll know something’s up and come to check it out.”
Kaidan nodded, a full smile on his face now. “I’m sure they will. But we’re not planning to stand around and wait for them to show up. Second comment?”
James grunted and then shrugged. “Second hit location is pretty close to where they’re holding Didinis. There’s a good chance his guards will hear it.” Kaidan’s smile widened and he gave James an expectant look. James frowned and thought it through, wondering what Kaidan was thinking. It didn’t take him very long to get it. “You’re betting on Didinis’ guards hearing us and sending some of them to check out the noise.”
“If we’re lucky,” Kaidan agreed, nodding. “Breaks them up into smaller groups for us to deal with.”
“All right,” James said, nodding as well. “I’m with you. I guess that’s our plan, then.”
“Agreed. Let’s go over it one more time and then I think it’s time to move out.”
Getting inside the facility perimeter was easy. The rain even let up again as they set out. We do this quick enough, James thought, glancing up at the sky, and we can avoid getting soaked in the process. They had chosen an entry point far enough away from the main entrance and from Didinis’ location that the guards clearly weren’t expecting any trouble there. Two of them caught the full brunt of James’ grenade and dropped unconscious on the spot. Kaidan overloaded the weapons of the other two before they could fire and James knocked them out with a taser he’d picked up at the electronics shop.
“Should we move them out of sight?” Kaidan asked, looking at the prone guards. “It doesn’t feel right to just leave them here.”
“This is a quick and dirty op, Blue. In and out,” James reminded him. “We leave them where they fell. If they get found or wake up before we’re on our way out, we’ve got other problems.”
They made their way further into the facility using the storage unit buildings as cover while they approached Didinis’ location. They made good time, slowing as they got closer to the heart of the facility. “Should be one guard on either side of this intersection,” Kaidan whispered, gesturing around the corner of the building behind which they crouched. He took a grenade that James offered. “On three, we each hit one.”
James nodded and Kaidan held up a fist. He counted off to three on his fingers and they both moved, each lunging in a different direction and letting fly with their projectile. There was a sharp cry of surprise behind James, and then two loud whumps followed by a quiet electrical sizzle. “Let’s move!” James called, in as close to a battle cry as he could get while whispering.
He and Kaidan sprinted for the next row of storage units, Didinis’ location just around another corner. Shouts sounded up ahead and three guards ran around the building, heading toward them. They were ready. Kaidan unleashed a biotic throw, tossing the guards out of their path, and James lobbed a grenade at them. It landed seconds after they did, going off and knocking them out before they had a chance to recover their feet. “Three down,” Kaidan muttered.
“Nine to go,” James agreed.
They kept running. Two more guards appeared and they repeated the throw and grenade trick just as they reached the building. They rounded the corner and found the remaining guards waiting for them, arrayed around the entrance of the storage unit. He and Kaidan stopped short and exchanged a glance. Not for the first time, James wished the unit had more than one way in or out or that he had the tools to breach from the back. They were going to have to be quick about this. Reinforcements would arrive any second and they still had to get across to the other side of the facility once they had Didinis.
The guards raised their weapons and Kaidan threw them back against the building even as James lobbed two grenades at the group. Most of them went down and Kaidan used overload to disable the weapons of those remaining standing, allowing James to get in a second round of grenades. Once everyone was down, the pair approached, keeping a wary eye on the fallen guards. “I’ll start searching them for the key,” James grunted, eyeing the old school padlock and chain on the unit’s door. He scooped up two of the guards’ rifles and slung them over his shoulder, thinking they couldn’t hurt to have if things got hairy.
“Don’t bother,” Kaidan said with a grin. He used a cryo-blast to freeze the lock and most of the chain, then picked up one of the guard’s guns. He hit the frozen chain with the butt of the gun and it shattered.
“Or that works,” James laughed. He reached for the handle at the bottom of the door and hauled it up. Behind him, Kaidan turned on a flashlight and aimed it into the unit. It was almost empty, its sole occupant tied to a chair in the center of the space. “Prolus Didinis?” James asked, stepping forward.
The figure in the chair jerked awake from what James suspected was a feigned sleep. “A krogan couldn’t get me to talk,” he snorted, “so they figured they’d try humans?” His mandibles flared. “Typical.”
“Hey! We’re not the bad guys!” James started to protest. Kaidan put a hand on his shoulder and he subsided.
“A mutual friend sent us to get you out of here,” Kaidan told Didinis. “As I am lost in the sea, so I am in your eyes,” he recited.
Didinis relaxed at the code phrase that Liara had given them and James kicked himself mentally for forgetting to use it straight off. Figured Liara would choose poetry for her code phrases. He grunted, trying not to think about how much he liked hearing Kaidan speak it.
“Took you long enough,” Didnis said. He wriggled his arms, indicating his bonds. “Well, what are you waiting for? I doubt these guys will give us time to chat before we leave.”
James moved forward and knelt before the chair, using a knife to slit Didinis’ bonds. Kaidan peeked around the edge of the door. “He’s right,” he said, keeping his voice low. “We need to move.”
“Can you walk?” James asked, noticing how Didinis flinched as he stood. The turian looked none too steady on his feet and James doubted he could make it around the corner, let alone sprint out of the facility with them.
“Think they broke my leg,” he muttered, “among other things.”
“Right,” James grunted. “Well, this might be uncomfortable for a bit, but it’s better than the alternative.” He scooped up Didinis in a fireman’s carry and turned to join Kaidan at the door, ignoring his burden’s squawk of surprise. “We clear to move?”
Kaidan gave a short nod, “Yeah. Sounds like reinforcements are close. Let’s get out of here.”
“Hang on!” James warned Didinis as he and Kaidan bolted out of the unit. They made it to the next row of units over before a ring of shouts told them they’d been spotted. They didn’t slow. Instead of going back the way they came, they headed for the opposite corner of the compound. James handed Kaidan a couple of the arc grenades to lob ahead of them as they ran, taking out the security feeds. From the sound of it, everyone was behind them. Hopefully they were stupid enough to cover the intruders’ entry point in the assumption they were leaving the same way.
They reached the fence and Kaidan slammed to a halt, turning to eye James and Didinis. “Try to stay calm,” he advised, and then there was the sharp tingle of biotics in the air and James felt himself lifted off the ground, even as he was enveloped in a faint blue glow. Didinis squawked again and James glanced down to grin at Kaidan. Kaidan didn’t grin back, his face a mask of concentration as he directed James and Didinis over the fence, setting them down with a gentleness that surprised James. “Go!” Kaidan shouted from the other side, “I’m right behind you!”
James hated to leave Kaidan behind, but he knew the guy could hold his own. He readjusted his grip on Didinis and ran for the sky car which they’d left waiting down the block. He heard a chorus of shouting from behind him and glanced back. “Holy shit,” he breathed when Kaidan came sailing over the fence as well, surrounded in the blue glow of his own biotics. James felt a rush of want run through him so strong it almost made him stagger. Not the time! He turned his attention forward as Kaidan landed and forced himself to focus on the mission. Get Didinis to safety, then you can start thinking those thoughts, Vega, he chided himself. As if to spur him on, a gust of wind pushed him away from the facility and thunder cracked overhead.
Not burdened by an extra body, Kaidan caught up to him with ease and they reached the sky car together. “I’ll get us out of here,” James told Kaidan as he settled Didinis in the backseat. “He needs medical attention. See what you can do for him.”
“On it,” Kaidan agreed, climbing in beside Didinis, his omni-tool already out.
James slung the rifles and his gear onto the passenger seat and got them out of there. The skies opened up again as he was pulling away. He kept an eye on the rearview mirror to make sure they weren’t being followed, though it was hard to be certain through the rain. He hoped it would make it as difficult for any pursuers trying to see them.
“That was an impressive display of biotics,” Didinis commented as Kaidan patched him up. “I’ve only heard of a handful of people able to lift themselves and all of them were asari.” The question in his voice was clear.
James had been wondering about that, himself. As far as he knew, it was a new trick for Kaidan.
Kaidan just smiled a small amused smile. “I know a justicar,” he told Didinis. “She taught me a few things.”
Ah, Samara. That explains it. Didinis seemed satisfied and impressed with the answer. He didn’t ask anything else about who they were and James was glad. He didn’t want to give the guy the run around, but it was definitely safer for all of them if they knew as little about each other as possible. “Where are we going?” Didnis asked instead. “All of my safe houses are burned and the way they were talking it sounded like they’ve found all of the Broker’s operatives on the island.”
As if to confirm this, the communicator monitoring the kidnappers’ feed came to life. “Can someone tell me how the fuck this happened?”
“Looks like they got their communicators back up and running,” James muttered, turning up the volume in the hopes they’d learn something useful.
“Don’t know, boss,” the vorcha answered. “We’re watching all of the Broker’s people that you told us about. Maybe you missed some.”
“Impossible!” the krogan snarled. “I was promised that list was complete.”
“Sounds like I was right,” Kaidan said in a low voice. “They’re working on orders higher up.”
The salarian tech, Izona, spoke up, “The Shadow Broker’s network is extensive. Perhaps they had other operatives we did not know about already on the island for some reason.”
The krogan cursed. “Cazares isn’t going to be happy about this.” There was a loud crashing sound, as if something had been thrown across the room and broken. “Keep watching all of the operatives. I want eyes on all of the spaceports, too. Didinis knows his safe houses have been compromised. He might just try to flee the planet.”
James turned the volume back down. “You were right,” he told Kaidan. “Straight for the spaceports.” Chatter from the comms continued and James turned the volume up again.
“What happens if we can’t find him, boss?” the vorcha asked.
“Then we all bug out before Cazares gets here to make his displeasure known,” the krogan snapped.
“Is that wise?” Izona asked. “Perhaps we should move on the Broker’s other operatives instead? It might buy us some goodwill from Cazares.”
“Not likely,” the krogan answered. “We were hired to bring in Didinis. We mess that up and no amount of goodwill keeps Cazares from coming down on us. The Broker’s already proved they’ve got more resources than we know about. I don’t know about you, but I’m not willing to risk making them even more pissed by going after more of their people. We look for Didinis until the clock runs out and if we don’t find him we get out of here before Cazares can get his hands on us.”
Kaidan let out a low whistle at that. “We’ll have to be careful to avoid them for the next few hours.” A smug not entered his voice and he met James’ eyes in the rearview mirror. “Didn’t say anything about the docks, though.”
“The docks?” Didinis looked between the two of them. “That’s the plan? Put me on a boat?” He didn’t sound sold on the idea and a wary glance at the rainy sky reinforced his trepidation.
“There’s a coffee farm on another island about half a day’s ride south of here,” Kaidan said. “Not affiliated with the Shadow Broker or any of their operatives. Not technically open to the public. Excellent location for an extraction, especially if the bad guys are busy searching the main island and the spaceports. Not when none of them are human and coffee is the last thing on their mind.”
“Broker’s already got a team on their way to meet you,” James chimed in. “We’ve just got to get you there.” Liara had been unable to get an extraction team to the planet before the ransom deadline, but that hadn’t meant she wasn’t ready to send one in at all. She’d just needed them to get Didinis to safety and buy her some time. It occurred to James that with the mercenaries planning to scram after the ransom deadline if they couldn’t find Didinis they might not need to get him off world after all. He kept the thought to himself though. It wasn’t his call, it was Liara’s. Besides, if this Cazares guy was pissed enough about losing Didinis, he might send in another team to finish the job. Liara was going to have a hell of a cleanup on her hands after this.
“Coffee?” Didinis mused. “You mean that foul stuff you humans insist on drinking to wake up in the morning?”
“You say foul,” Kaidan laughed, “I say life-sustaining.”
Didinis’ mandibles twitched. “If this plan works, I’ll have to say that too, I suppose.”
On their way to the docks they caught a bit more chatter from the kidnappers. The krogan wanted everything they could get him on the identity of Didinis’ rescuers. He was not at all pleased learn that none of their cameras had captured James or Kaidan’s image, thanks in large part to the improvised arc grenades knocking them all out.
“Good call on those,” Kaidan commended James as they reached the private docks and helped Didinis out of the sky car.”
“Hey I know what I’m doing, Blue.”
They got Didinis settled in the boat they’d bought earlier in the day. It was a small pleasure cruiser, meant for just a handful of people. Even with his injuries, Didinis would be able to drive it. There was even cover over the steering wheel so he’d be out of the rain. “Here’s the coordinates of plantation,” Kaidan said, handing him a data disc. “Your course is already all plotted out.” Next he tossed a duffle into the bottom of the boat. “In there you’ve got some food and water and a change of clothes. Should keep you going until the Broker’s team shows up for you tonight.”
“Here,” James said, adding the rifles he’d stolen from the guards to the pile. “Just in case.”
“Thank you,” Didinis told them, sincerity clear in his tone. “I’m glad our mutual friend was able to reach out to you.”
“Don’t sweat it,” James replied, shrugging. “Just keep yourself safe until you can get out of here.”
“I put copies of all of the audio and video feeds we tapped into on a disc in the bag as well,” Kaidan added. “Make sure the Broker gets those. Might help to track down whoever this Cazares is.”
“I wouldn’t want to be him right now,” Didinis laughed. He started the boat and waved farewell to them, heading out into open water.
James and Kaidan watched until he disappeared then returned to their sky car. “Let’s gather up the gear and then program this thing to return itself,” Kaidan said. “I don’t think we should take it back to the hotel.”
“Agreed.” James pointed across the street from the docks. “Looks like there’s a couple of restaurants over there. Wanna get some food? It’ll give us somewhere dry to wait.”
“Food sounds perfect,” Kaidan answered. He grinned at James, reaching out to take his hand and give it a squeeze. “We can call a cab from there and then go back and rest.”
James nodded, squeezing Kaidan’s hand back before letting go. He felt a goofy smile take over his face. It faded a bit as they walked and he turned to Kaidan, thoughtful. “You know, we spent a lot of Doc’s money rescuing this guy.”
Kaidan tilted his head, thinking it over. “Yeah,” he agreed. “But I’m sure she’d say it was worth it.”
“Well yeah. But that just makes me wonder. If she could get this many untraceable credits together on such short notice, how huge must the ransom have been that she couldn’t swing it in twelve hours?”
“More than you or I will ever see in a lifetime, I’d guess,” Kaidan said.
James shook his head. “Didinis was right. I wouldn’t want to be this Cazares guy for anything in the galaxy.” He shot Kaidan a look. “You think she’ll be all right? If someone’s going to that much trouble to track her down?” Liara was family and James didn’t like the thought of anyone messing with his family, but especially not some mysterious shadow goon.
Kaidan reached up to squeeze his shoulder, offering reassurance. “Liara can take care of herself,” he said, “and she does have a pretty extensive network of people on her side. Besides,” he added, giving another squeeze, “if she needs help, she knows where to find us.”
“True,” James laughed, “although if I think about that too hard, it gets kind of creepy.”
Kaidan chuckled in response. They reached the restaurant and were shown to a booth. Kaidan looked out the window, eyes on the water. The server came by and took their order. After he left Kaidan fixed James with a serious look. “I’ve been thinking,” he said.
James sat up a little straighter, wondering where this going. “Yeah?”
“I know that they didn’t see our faces and they don’t know who we are, but it feels like it would be pushing our luck to stay here.”
“Yeah,” James said, frowning. “I guess so.” He sighed. “I’ve still got a week left on my leave, though. Not sure I wanna go back just yet.”
Kaidan’s face broke into a hopeful grin. “Neither do I. I was wondering if--,” he broke off when their food came, waiting for the server to go before continuing. “Well, my mom’s place in Vancouver is really pretty. It’s a good time of year for it. Would you like to come stay there with me for the rest of your leave?”
“Asking me to meet your mom, Blue?” James grinned and sat back, unable to resist teasing a little. “I don’t know. Seems kinda soon for that, I mean we haven’t even figured out what we’re doing yet--.”
Kaidan leaned over the table and kissed him. He pulled back, a smug grin on his face at James’ startled expression. “Actually,” he said, picking up a piece of bacon, “Mom’s out of town for a while. It’d just be us. Plenty of time to…figure things out.” His grin turned wicked. He took a bite of his bacon, chewing and swallowing. “Well. What do you say, James?”
James cleared his throat, knowing he was blushing and unable to find it in himself to care. “Yeah, Kaidan,” he said. “I like that plan. Sounds like the perfect silver lining to cap off this shitty vacation.”
Kaidan grinned at him and James grinned back. He put a hand out on the table and Kaidan took it, lacing their fingers together. They ate in a happy haze of silence. All in his head or not, James thought, that damn hanar had turned out to be right after all.
(Art & Soundtrack by Azzy)
Again, don't forget to check out Azzy's amazing mix for the story! You can find it here!