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     “That’s enough for now,” Jaal said shortly, and Ryder jerked her head back slightly, mouth agape at the abrupt end to her conversation with their new guest. He’d been aboard the Tempest for a few weeks now, and despite her attempts to make him feel welcome and express an interest in him and his people, she always managed to leave feeling like a complete asshole.

     “Uh. Yeah. Sure.  I’m just... gonna go then,” she said awkwardly, rubbing the back of her neck as she headed out of the room. She scrunched her nose and shook her head, trying to shake off the embarrassment as she continued her rounds on the ship.

     “Pathfinder,” Sam said hesitantly after a few quiet moments in between relievingly pleasant conversations.

     “Yeah?” Ryder replied as she headed across the bridge and down the ladder.

     “Your conversation with Jaal.”

     “... uh-huh.”

     “It didn’t appear to go well.”

     “That’s because it didn’t,” she grimaced, her cheeks flushing at the recollection.

     “The angara are an alien race we haven’t encountered yet.”

     “Yeah, I know.”

     “To them, we are the strangers, the aliens.”

     “I know.”

     “Given their only other experience is with the kett, it’s no surprise that they are guarded.”

     “Is this you trying to make me feel better?” she asked with a wry smile, stretching her arms out as she entered her quarters, and picked up the tablet on the coffee table.

     “Have I been successful?”

     Ryder chuckled as she curled up on the couch and faced the orange-veined planet of Aya down below. “Not really, but I appreciate the effort. He seems to like everyone else well enough, I don’t get where I went wrong.”

     “You feel his coldness is directed only towards yourself?”

     “It’s looking that way, yeah,” she shrugged, swiping through the burgeoning list of missions they still had to complete. “Whatever, as long as he’s getting along with the crew, I guess that’s what matters.”

     Sam fell silent, and she couldn’t tell if it was because he was thinking to himself, or if it was a natural end to the conversation. Either way, there was a little knot in her stomach that kept twisting, and a growing sense of dread every time she tried to talk to the angaran. Of course they were the aliens, of course it was understandable they’d feel threatened or wary or uncertain. But when they first landed, she couldn’t help but admit she’d had stars in her eyes. The angara were an undeniably beautiful people.

     It was their bright and beautifully patterned skin; speckled so it reminded her of looking at a galaxy dotted with stars. Their big eyes that were a cross between a cat’s and an impressionist watercolor painting. Every single voice had an edge of velvet to it. How could she not be intrigued, drawn in? She wanted to know more, know everything, wanted to prove they were trustworthy and there to help.

     And when she first landed, talked to Evfra, the way Jaal looked at her…

     … what this alien says is extraordinary...

     Her stomach fluttered and her heart skipped a beat.

     She knew it’d take time to build trust and familiarity but she couldn’t help but feel like an idiot whenever she tried talking to Jaal; getting shot down every single time was really beginning to wear on her confidence. And to add salt to the wound, he seemed more than happy to connect with everyone else on the ship. Particularly the women. Generously. Repeatedly . And always when she happened to be in hearing range of the intercoms. But after their first talk on the ship…

     There’s something unique about you--uneasy, raw--but somehow profound.

     Thump thump, there it went. Idiot heart.

     Maybe it was just her. Maybe he’d found her wanting somehow. Maybe it’s because she was the Pathfinder. Maybe the title or the perceived status kept him at bay, whereas the crew were just ‘normal’, more relatable.

     … or maybe she really was a socially inept asshole.

     She’d left the Milky Way and joined her family because she wanted more; more adventure, more thrills, more secrets to discover and more worlds to explore. She’d always been the quiet and studious twin, often content to relax in her brother’s gregarious shadow. But every once in awhile, she’d dream of making a name for herself. Of standing out and standing apart. Of doing something different, something unconventional, maybe even something rebellious.

     But nothing was worth the price she paid for it. She’d take it all back if she knew then what she knew now.

     What she wouldn’t give to have Jack there. He’d know what to say, what to do. He’d charm the pants off Jaal and every other angaran with a devilish smile and nonchalant honesty. But her? She was lucky to string two coherent sentences together, at the best of times. Give her a code to decipher, a machine to be fixed, ancient puzzles to solve and she was right at home. But people? Diplomacy? Being the face of the Initiative, carrying the burden of an entire galaxy alone? What the hell was her father thinking?

     “Pathfinder, you’re brooding again,” Sam pointed out gently, interrupting her whirring brain.

     “Huh? … yeah, sorry.”

     “Would you care to share your thoughts?”

     “What, you can’t just read them?” she smirked, putting the tablet back down and staring out the window and onto Aya below. Not like she’d been paying attention to anything written on it.

     “Not in the way you’re implying, no,” he replied after a brief pause. “Unfortunately I’m not psychic.”

     “Damn, maybe you could work on that. I’m just… I don’t know. Wishing my brother was here. He’d know what to do.”

     “About what?”

     “ Everything ,” she chuckled, running her fingers through her hair and cursing slightly when she felt static being to lift the topmost hairs. “Ah shit.”

     “You’re creating excess static through your nodes again.”

     Ryder smirked as she tried to smooth her hair down, rather unsuccessfully, as even more began to float upwards. “Mm, I noticed. Thanks.”

     “This seems to occur as a result of increased blood pressure, excess electrical impulses passing through your eezo nodes, and uncomfortable topics of conversation.”

     “You’re a genius,” she quipped sarcastically, stretching back onto the couch, as her eyes idly followed the bright lines of fire along the surface of the planet.

     “... sarcasm?”

     “Yes.”

     “Ah. Noted. But to use common slang: you’re stressing out.”

     “Not without reason,” she replied with a sigh, rubbing her cheek as she crossed her ankles. “You know… just the whole galaxy to fix. Not even a galaxy I know. Alone. This wasn’t the fresh start I imagined when we left the Milky Way, not by half.”

     “You doubt your father’s choice to make you the Pathfinder?”

     “In the moment, neither of us had a choice.”

     “You think if he had, he wouldn’t have picked you?”

     “I’m thinking if he had, he shouldn’t have picked me. I’m not made for this, Sam. Exploring, sure. Building, fixing, tinkering? Yeah. Fighting? Absolutely! But politics? Diplomacy? Interspecies relations? God no. I’m not a talker, I’m a doer.”  Ryder closed her eyes and let out a deep breath, shaking her hands above her head in an attempt to release the mild current of electricity she felt building and calm herself.

     Sam fell silent for several beats, and she got up and stretched out on her stomach, elbows hanging over the arm of the couch as she continued to stare at the planet below, taking in every detail.

     “I believe you are operating under more than one false assumption.”

     “Yeah?”

     “Your father had a choice, and he made one. It was you.”

     Ryder scrunched her nose and sighed, propping her chin on her arms, beginning to fall back into her own thoughts.

     “Consider the Initiative’s mission, the predicament when we first arrived, and all the tasks you’ve taken on since.”

     She tipped her head, not understanding where he was going. “... so?”

     “You stated you are a person of action, not words. That you lack eloquence and charm which you believe necessary to succeed.”

     “Basically, yes.”

     “They weren’t necessary to solve the key of Remnant technology, to reinstate the atmosphere or stabilize the environment on Eos. You didn’t need it to establish the Initiative’s first outpost. You didn’t need it in your skirmishes with the kett. Your fearlessness and determination are what enabled you to succeed, and so your actions speak where your words fail. They tell the story of who you are, why you’re here, and what you’re capable of. It compels others to take notice, allows you to earn their respect as well as their admiration. That is why your father chose you.”

     A smile began to tease the corner of Ryder’s mouth and she flushed a bit, feeling a slow warmth seep in and unknot her stomach gently. “I couldn’t have done any of that without you, Sam. You did most of it. Hell, you’re the one who enhances my biotics beyond my implant. I could argue it was always you, and never me.”

     “Which brings me to my second point.”

     “I’m beginning to resent how insightful you are,” she sighed, even though she wriggled her toes with pleasure at the flattering truths. “But go on.”

     “You aren’t alone. Together we are succeeding where others failed, and I believe that together, we will continue to do so.”

     She let out a shaky sigh and her eyes began to mist up at Sam’s calm and earnest words. “... yeah, I guess you’re right. We’ve got each other.”

     “I see your blood pressure is continuing to decrease, and you’re no longer creating static electricity. Am I correct in guessing that I was successful in assuaging your concerns?”

     She couldn’t help but notice the hopeful tone in Sam’s voice and she smiled ruefully. “You were.”

     “Your tear ducts are activating…” he pointed out hesitantly.

     Ryder sniffed loudly and wiped her eyes with the back of her hand. “What can I say? You got me.”

     “Got you?”

     “Yeah, in the feels. You got me in the feels. It was really touching what you said, I really appreciate it, Sam. But if you tell anyone you made me cry, I’m going straight to SAM Node to shoot you in the face. Metaphorically speaking.”

     “Sarcasm?”

     “See, you’re learning.”

     “Particularly when you’re around.”

     “Sam, we’re connected at the neurological hip. I’m always around,” she smirked, resting her cheek on her arms as she let out a long, quiet yawn.

     “I know.”

     “... sarcasm?” she asked with amused surprise, rolling onto her side as she picked up the tablet again.

     “It seemed appropriate.”

     She laughed freely for a moment and let out a contented sigh as she scrolled through the mission list properly. “You know, if I had to be stuck with anyone living inside my head, I’m glad it was you.”

     “Thank you Ryder, that’s very kind of you to say.”

     “You’re welcome.”

     “I won’t tell anyone I made you cry.”

     “Good.”

     “No one would believe me if I did.”

     Her mouth dropped open for a moment, and she let out another hearty laugh, rubbing her cheek and shaking her head. “What have I started…”

 

 

 

Chapter Text


 

 

     It was well after midnight when Ryder made her way to the galley, stomach grumbling for a late-night snack, when she found Drack quietly cleaning his gun inside, all the pieces laid out neatly on the table. “Hey, what’re you doing up so late?” she asked, ignoring her own nocturnal meanderings, and went straight for the fridge to heat up some of last night’s supper.

     “When you get to be my age, kid, sleeping ain’t as easy as it used to be, even if you’re twice as tired,” the krogan responded gruffly, pausing a moment to watch her and frowned slightly. “Hey, what’s up with your hair?”

     “Huh, what?” she replied in confusion, throwing the dish in the microwave before smoothing a hand over her head, noticing the topmost layer was stubbornly floating towards the ceiling. “Ah, shit. Not again.”

     “And that’s why I’m glad I don’t have hair,” he smirked, noting with interest the way she vigorously shook her hands before taking the steaming container out, and took a seat across from him. “What’s going on, how come you’re up at this hour?”

     “Night-owl, I’m always up this late,” she shrugged, clearing her throat and avoiding Drack’s shrewd gaze. “As for the hair, it’s a biotic thing. Sort of.”

     “... uh-huh,” he said dryly, continuing to stare until she huffed and briefly met his eyes. “... sort of.”

     Ryder pursed her lips and took a mouthful of mashed potatoes, rubbing her cheek as she tried to figure out how to explain herself without sounding like a know-it-all. “Mm. Biotics are prone to creating static electricity. And it seems to act up when I’m… stressed.”

     “Uh-huh,” he repeated blandly, putting down his shotgun for a moment, and leaned forward over the table, nearly dwarfing it with his size. “So you’re stressed.”

     “Lil’ bit,” she quipped dryly, rolling her eyes as she took another bite.

     “Hard having the whole galaxy on your shoulders, huh kid?” Drack’s tone was sarcastic, but the right side of his mouth raised slightly.

     “Mm, not so much. I mean, if I start thinking about it for too long, yeah. But it’s not as bad if I just focus on one mission at a time. Baby steps and all that,” she sighed, rubbing the back of her neck and tapping her fork idly against the glass.

     The krogan took in her words and fell silent for a few moments, before grunting and nodding curtly. “Alright, so it’s something else that’s keeping you up. Just spill already, too old to drag this shit out.”

     Ryder gave him a long-drawn sigh between mouthfuls, dropped her fork into the container and leaned back against the seat while she looked at him, carefully turning the decision over in her mind. Finally she shrugged sheepishly and bent forward, resting her head on her chin. “Man trouble.”

     “Ah. That,” he chuckled, nodding in understanding, and let out a groan as he stretched his neck. “Which one?”

     “... what?” she asked with a jerk of her head, frowning at him in confusion. “What do you mean ‘which one’?”

     “Either you’re being coy, or you’re thick in the head, and I haven’t known you long enough to tell,” Drack smirked, slowly stretching his arms. “I mean, which guy is giving you trouble? From what I’ve seen, you’re working a few of them.”

     Her eyes widened slowly, and a bright flush rose to her cheeks as she coughed in embarrassment. “... oh my god.”

     “God’s got nothing to do with it, kid. When you’ve been around as long as I have, you pick up on this kinda thing pretty quick. So out with it; who’s giving you trouble? From what I can see you’ve got all three looking at you pretty hard,” the krogan remarked with a wry smile, giving a throaty laugh as Ryder slumped further into her seat.

     “Three? There aren’t three. I mean… I don’t think there are. Jesus,” she muttered to herself, running her fingers through her hair and cursing softly when several more strands began to lift away from her head. “It’s Jaal. He’s just so… I mean, the things he says... and the angara are... and he… and his voice… fuck.”

     “You took a shine to him, got it. So what’s the problem?” he asked roughly, waving his hand dismissively and motioning for her to continue.

     “The problem is he hasn’t taken a shine to me. Or maybe he has, I don't know. I thought maybe there was something, but the way he talks to the girls here…” Ryder groaned and shook her head, stabbing her fork into a piece of sliced beef and stuffed it in her mouth with an incomprehensible mutter.

     Drack chuckled and nodded, a raspy sigh escaping his lips as he rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “Yeah, he knows how to talk to women, I’ll give you that.”

     “Does he ever,” she mumbled, scrunching her nose as she bit off another large piece of meat, glowering and chewing in stony silence. “Here I am trying to engage with him, learn about him, his people and what do I get? Nothing. I get ‘go away’ or ‘that’s enough’. The other girls? Wow, the sugar falls so damn quick off his lips.”

     She continued to eat in silence as the old krogan watched her, musing to himself with a curious glint in his eye. “You talked to anyone else about this problem?” he asked gruffly after a while, picking up his gun again and slowly putting the pieces back together.

     Ryder snorted and shook her head, shoveling more potatoes in her mouth with a huff, having lost interest in eating. But if she didn’t keep her calories up there’d be hell to pay with Lexi. “I already feel like an idiot, having a crush on someone who’s clearly got his eyes elsewhere. Who’m I gonna tell?” she sighed, getting up from the table and grabbing a bottle of water from the fridge.

     “If there’s one thing I’ve learned in a millennium, it’s that there’s no knowing or controlling attraction. It is what it is,” he shrugged, quietly clicking parts into place. “Just gotta deal with it or do something about it.”

     “Yeah, but what exactly can I do? I’m stuck between a rock and a hard place,” she sighed, taking a few sips of water before coming back to her food, swiftly finishing it off.

     “You know what you need, kid?” Drack replied after cocking his gun, and looking through the sight with a satisfied grunt.

     “What’s that?” Ryder asked, taking the dirty dish to the sink, washing it slowly as she tried to get out of her own vicious cycle of thoughts.

     “You need to shoot something,” he said simply, tilting his head and grinning when she turned back to look at him, a twinkle in her eye. “Yeah, that’s what I thought. Knew that email I sent you with those gun pictures helped, saw it in your face the next day when you talked to me.”

     Ryder laughed softly and nodded, rubbing her cheek as she gave him a rueful look. “It did, it was really nice of you. Everyone else just gets weird about it or tries to hug me. So awkward.”

     “I know what it’s like to lose people you care about. You don’t get to my age without having more loved ones dead than alive. Knew it when I saw you though, knew you’d appreciate it,” Drack rumbled with approval, getting up with a stiff groan and patted her on the back roughly. “Alright kid, gear up and we’ll head out.”

     “What, now?” she asked, eyes widening in surprise as he stretched in the middle of the room, occupying more than half of it with how small their galley was.

     He snorted and gave her a blank stare, idly clicking the safety on and off. “I’m up, you’re up. You got something better to do? Nothing to give you a good night’s rest like killing a couple dozen  enemies.”

     Ryder opened her mouth to argue, then slowly closed it again and shrugged. “True. I’m always good to nova the shit out of something, kinda relaxing.”

     “Exactly. Get some of that excess energy out, and we can keep talking about your ‘man problem’ if you want,” he said with a small, knowing smile, watching as she headed out and turned the corner for her room. “See you in the cargo bay in five.”

     There was a lightness in her step as she opened her closet and changed into her gear, and for the first time since Jaal arrived, she felt like some of the weight was starting to lift off her shoulders. Not that Sam wasn’t proving to be a great confidante, but there was something about exchanging looks and body language in a conversation that he simply couldn’t replace.

     Maybe she should’ve found someone earlier to vent her frustrations to, but the truth was she’d always been shy around people she didn’t know, and now she was on a ship full of them. Still, there was something about the old krogan that felt comfortable, familiar. He seemed to get her, in a way she couldn’t explain without fumbling over her words and feeling embarrassed by her lack of social skills. And at the same time, she got him, in a way that he seemed to enjoy.

     A few minutes later she made her way to the cargo bay, stopping short when she saw Cora looking at them curiously; both geared up and ready for combat, at 2:00am in the morning.

     “Uhhh…” she said slowly, brow furrowed as she attempted to give them a friendly smile. “What’s um… what’s going on guys?”

     Drack thrummed quietly and looked at Ryder, waiting for her to explain. She opened her mouth to say something, but couldn’t figure out where to begin. So after a few awkward, silent moments, she frowned slightly and tilted her head. “What’re you doing up? Aren’t you usually in bed hours ago?”

     Cora chuckled and nodded, one hand on her hip, the other rubbing the back of her neck tiredly. “Yeah, couldn’t sleep. Thinking about the asari ark. All the arks really. Wondering, worrying. Thought if I got up and kept myself busy it’d help. It hasn’t,” she admitted sheepishly, taking a couple steps forward as she observed them shrewdly. “You two going out?”

     “Yeah… seems we’re all up and I’m… Drack’s been listening to me bitch. Thought if we went out and shot some things, charged a few unsuspecting enemies, might work out some frustrations.” Ryder’s words were slow and careful, eyeing her fellow biotic closely, unsure of what her response would be. She liked Cora quite a bit, but she still felt that divide between them, that bit of hurt that was still stuck deep in there. Because she was the Pathfinder, not Cora.

     But surprisingly, there were no lectures or words of caution, no dissuading them from their nocturnal adventure. Instead her eyes brightened, her head perked up, and she gave them a rueful smile. “... that sounds really great right about now, you mind if I join you? Three’s safer than two at this hour, and I wouldn’t mind lending an ear to what’s bothering you. I mean, if you wanted.”

     Ryder felt an odd little thrill in her stomach at the offer, and a slow, seeping warmth at the friendly and meaningful look in the vanguard’s eyes. She looked to Drack for a moment, who shrugged and rubbed his cheek, finally offering an approving grunt. “If you’re alright with it kid, I don’t care. She can hold her own, and we’ve made a good team before. Besides, helps to have an extra perspective. Well gear up then, all this standing around is making my bones ache.”

     The Pathfinder nodded in assent and Cora grinned widely, quickly making her way upstairs to grab her things. Drack chuckled at her enthusiasm, shaking his head with an amused sigh. “Turning out to be an interesting evening. Been a long time since I’ve done this, but maybe you’re not too soft for it after all,” he commented cryptically, offering another strange smile.

     “Soft for what?” Ryder asked with a confused expression, unhooking the assault rifle on her back, and checking it idly.

     “We’ll talk about it more when we get out there. Good pick too; Havarl. Place is crawling with things that want to tear your face off, really gets the adrenaline pumping,” he rumbled contentedly, smacking his fists together, and she could see the blood-lust start to creep into his eyes.

     She just grinned and nodded, feeling another curious flutter in her stomach as she realized just how much she was looking forward to this spontaneous outing. Any friends she’d had she left behind when she joined the Initiative, most of them researchers and workers at the archaeological digs she’d been assigned to. She didn’t realize how much she’d missed it, and didn’t wanted to admit how much she might really need it.

     Cora returned, much sooner than she’d expected, a wide smile and a satisfied sigh escaping her lips as she nodded to them both. “Ready, let’s go,” she quipped cheerfully, and they silently made their way off the Tempest.

     They’d only started walking down the pathway towards the angaran research center when Cora motioned her head towards Ryder, checking her ammo carefully. “So what’s eating your brain, Ryder? I can’t imagine how rough it’s been for you, the way everything played out. It’s a lot of pressure, isn’t it?”

     “Huh? Yeah, I guess. Not what’s bothering me though,” she muttered, scrunching her nose and suddenly feeling bashful, talking about her annoyance and confusion over their angaran crew member.

     “Oh, sorry. What’s going on?”

     “ Men ,” Drack smirked, letting out a raspy laugh as they veered right of the science center, and made their way into the brush.

     “Men?”

     “ Man ,” Ryder corrected with a disapproving glance at the krogan, huffing quietly. “Just one. Ugh, I feel so stupid talking about it. It’s Jaal. I… I like him.”

     Cora nodded and shrugged, unfazed by the confession, giving them a silent signal as growls could be heard in the woods up ahead. “Got it. So what’s the problem?”

     “The problem is I can’t tell if he likes me back, or if he thinks I’m an asshole. It’s… he’s so confusing,” she sighed tiredly, charging forward when a large creeper came into view. “One minute he says something amazing and I’ve got butterflies and then the next thing it’s ‘Go away, that’s enough’. I don’t get it.”

     “We don’t know much about the angara, who knows if he’s being normal or not,” Drack remarked in between shots, thrumming with approval when Cora closed in and nova’d the animal. “He could hate you or he could be head over heels for you, who can tell?”

     “Exactly!” Ryder exclaimed, zipping to the side and shooting a few rounds into the creeper’s flank. “And how am I supposed to figure it out if he doesn’t tell me? I’m trying to learn, but he’s really not giving me a chance to.”

     As the animal let out a last groan and slumped against the ground, Cora fought to catch her breath before adding her two cents. “I mean, we’re all the aliens, right? He’s guarded, for sure, but I haven’t found him that hard to talk to.”

     Drack chuckled under his breath and signaled them to keep close to the brush, his old eyes shrewdly watching for any Roekkar that might be camped nearby. “That’s the other problem.”

     “Don’t even get me started,” Ryder bristled, swiftly turning around and charging at the raptor-like creature that hissed at them from behind. “While I’m sitting here waiting for crumbs, like a total asshole, he’s buttering up you and every other female on the ship. What the hell!” She emphasized her frustration with the boom of a nova, and in a second Cora charged in herself, letting Ryder fall back.

     “I thought he was just being nice. I mean, he talks to everyone else like that, didn’t think it meant anything. Figured it was just the way he talked,” Cora admitted sheepishly, dodging to her right as Drack came charging in for a killing headbutt.

     “... seriously? Cora, can you even tell when a guy is flirting with you?” she asked doubtfully, smirking at the vanguard’s indignant noise.

     “Yeah. Pretty sure,” Cora snorted, her words escaping in between heaving breaths. “I mean, I think I’d know if Jaal had been flirting with me… I think.”

     “Cause it looked like flirting to me. Don’t get me wrong, not like I’m mad at you guys or anything. It’s just… it makes me stick out like a sore thumb, you know? Like what the hell is wrong with me that I’m the only one he isn’t nice to? Do I stink or something?” Ryder growled in between pants, everyone’s  breathing becoming heavier. It stilted their words, but it didn’t do much to slow the conversation.

     “Maybe he’s not right in the head,” Drack offered doubtfully as they made their way through the bush, and found themselves in front of the massive and mysterious Remnant ‘stairs’. “He’s been a soldier for how long? You get knocked around enough times, it can do something to you. At least, for you squishies.”

     Cora gave him a sidelong glance and smirked, which only made him chuckle raspily, and they carefully jet-packed their way towards the bottom of the ravine.

     “What? If you had a headplate you guys wouldn’t have that problem,” he shrugged, ducking and taking cover behind one of the black pillars.

     Ryder couldn’t help but laugh, shaking her head and sighing before she charged at one of the larger Remnant guardians. “If I had a headplate I’d have sorted this out from the beginning. Nothing like a good headbutt to tell someone how you’re feeling about them.”

     Drack grinned as he landed some expert shots into the Remnant's eyes, getting back up to his feet with a groan. “You sound like my granddaughter.” He looked at her fondly and shifted behind the pillar on the opposite side, giving the girls an approving growl as they charged at the next enemy in unison. “You guys work well together, even though you’re both vanguards. Fun to watch.”

     “Yeah, we seem to have found a nice rhythm going with each other,” Cora agreed with a small smile, her fist smashing the ground with another deafening nova. “Wasn’t sure how it’d be when we first started, but yeah… turned out to be real easy.”

     Ryder flushed and grinned, rubbing her cheek before picking off a smaller Remnant robot with her assault rifle. “It’s true, never even really needed to talk about it. Just did it.”

     Drack dropped to the bottom of the ravine, looking around as he motioned for them to turn left. “Alright, so we talked about the problem. Time to talk about a solution,” he said gruffly, keeping to the right of them as he reloaded his gun. “Getting it out is good, but it’s useless if you don’t do something to make it better. Then you’re just whining like a varren.”  

     “I say give it more time,” Cora suggested after a thoughtful pause, their pace slowing down in the water, transitioning them into an easy amble. “We don’t know enough about the angara, or him specifically, to know. If you really like the guy just… you know, keep doing the usual stuff. Talk to him, try to find out more about him, get a feel for who he is and what he’s about. Who knows, you might be surprised. What do you think, Drack?”

     The krogan looked at them both doubtfully and shrugged before they approached the next set of Remnant robots, and took cover behind a short, fat pillar. “I was gonna say shoot him, but her idea is probably better. Doubt the angara would like it if you did that, but it gets the point across.”

     Ryder muffled a laugh as she looked at the krogan, equal warmth and fondness in her eyes before she charged around the corner for the biggest robot. “Shooting would be the most satisfying option, that’s for sure. But yeah, Cora makes sense. Aliens, newness, the unknown. I’ll just... stick with it. I mean, I don’t know, there’s just something about him,” she sighed, a little more dreamily than she’d meant to, and her companions exchanged knowing smirks. “You know, thanks for listening guys. I didn’t-- it’s been a long time since I’ve had something like this. Means a lot.”

     “Anytime,” Cora said softly, before she charged forward and laid a nova on the ground, knocking two robots several feet away. “Means a lot that you trusted me enough to let me come.”

     “And I just like shooting things,” Drack said dryly, though he gave a throaty grunt when another robot fell, fritzing in the water. “You’re a bit weird for a human, bit krogan-ish, but you’re alright kid. Besides, the better you are, the better for all of us.”

     “Yeah, I know I'm weird,” Ryder admitted with a sheepish chuckle, before charging the last robot in their path. “This was good though. Got it out, I feel… kinda relaxed actually.”

     “And that’s what krogan talk therapy is for. Wasn’t sure if you’d take to it but you did, like a varren to a pyjak,” Drack rumbled, giving them both an approving smile.

     Cora shook her head and laughed loudly after taking some final shots on the Remnant, and rested a hand on her hip. “Oh that’s good, I like that. ‘Krogan talk therapy’.” But the smile quickly slid off her mouth when the krogan gave her a deadpan stare. “... wait, you’re not serious, are you? Really? Krogan talk about their feelings?”

     “We have them, don’t we?” he sniffed, reloading his gun as he signaled them to a creeper further ahead to the side. “We just don’t lay on a couch and cry about them. We find a place, and get it out while killing some enemies. Gets the blood going, clears your head.”

     Ryder’s mouth gaped open as she listened to their exchange, a bright twinkle in her eye emerging. “I love it. I love everything about it. See, if humans had counseling like that, I’d definitely do it. Krogans are geniuses.”

     Drack gave her a small smile and rubbed his chin idly as they walked, then shrugged nonchalantly. “We do what works for us. And if it works for you too, well good. Like I’d said before, been a couple centuries since I’ve run a session but… I wouldn’t mind doing it again.”

     “I’m up for it, kinda like the idea of getting to vent and fight at the same time. Gets hard to talk at some points but, you know… we’ll figure it out,” Cora added cheerfully, reloading her gun and snapping it to her back.

     “Yeah, maybe it’ll get easier once we’ve done it a few times,” Ryder nodded, squinting as she looked down the ravine. “How’s about we clear this stretch and then head back? Cora, you wanna go next?”

     “My turn? Sure, I’ll go,” Cora shrugged after a thoughtful pause. “I mean, you put yourself out there, seems fair I should try to do the same.”

     “Lookit this; bringing people together, fighting as a unit, kicking some ass. You trying to squeeze a tear out of these old bones?” Drack rumbled, moving between them and throwing an arm around them both. “Maybe there’s hope for you guys yet.”

     “Who knew a little krogan therapy was what we needed, huh?” Cora laughed, patting Drack’s hand gently.

     “Yeah, who knew,” Ryder murmured with a smile, scrunching her nose and letting out a shaky but happy sigh.

 

 

 

Chapter Text


 

 

     It was well known on the Tempest that Ryder slept in every morning without fail, and nothing on God’s green earth could interrupt it, on pain of being spaced out the airlock. If a planet wasn’t on fire, it could wait. So when Ryder woke up at about 10:00am, it was no surprise that the noise outside her quarters was minimal.

     “Good morning, Ryder,” Sam said calmly. “You’ve received another email from Dr. T’Perro, requesting your presence in the medbay.”

     “Uh-huh.”

     “Shall I archive this along with the others?”

     “You know me so well,” she smirked, groaning as she stretched and hopped out of bed, sliding into her clothes quickly as she got herself ready for the day. She went to the coffee table and picked up the tablet lying idly on top: time to decide the day’s mission.

     “I believe she is becoming suspicious,” he pointed out as she scrolled through the list of objectives, licking her lower lip as her eyes fell on the ones relating to Kadara.

     “Mm, really?”

     “Yes, this is the third time you’ve ignored her request for a follow-up physical, and it’s obvious you’ve been avoiding the medbay as much as possible.”

     “I know, I just… ugh. She nags,” Ryder muttered, scrunching her nose and shaking her head as she placed the tablet back and stretched her arms out high above her head. “She keeps trying to slow me down.”

     “She is the ship’s physician, and has a responsibility towards your well-being.”

     You have a responsibility to my well-being, and you’re doing a great job,” she grinned, tilting her neck one way and another, noting her muscles were feeling particularly tight. “I don’t need two people in my ear and getting on my case.”

     “I am heavily invested in your welfare, but you’ve proven difficult to guide in matters of self-care. I share her… frustration. And in your current physical condition, it is likely your clandestine nocturnal activities will come to light during your next exam.” Sam’s voice almost sounded weary as Ryder turned for the door, and she paused to frown suspiciously.

     “You’re not going to tell, are you?”

     “I have no intention of breaking your confidence.”

     “Good.”

     “But she will see the signs of long-term physical strain.”

     “Pfft, I’m fine.”

     “Evidence points to the contrary.”

     “Look, it’s no big deal. She’s usually busy with her research right about now. All we have to do is sneak past her, and we’ll be in the clear!”

     “Unless she is at the console above.”

     “Unless she’s at the console above, but she’s a sucker for routine. She’s in the medbay, nose buried in angaran research papers. Am I right, or am I right?”

     Sam paused for a moment, and she grinned as she imagined him sighing in her ear tiredly. “... you are correct, Ryder. She is currently in the medbay.”

     She nodded silently and licked her lower lip as she carefully walked in the dead center of the hallway. Perfectly positioned so that as long as she followed the invisible line, she wouldn’t activate any of the automatic doors on either side. Without realizing it, she was holding her breath as she lifted one foot delicately after the other, making sure not to issue even the tiniest of sounds as she went past Lexi’s den of medical wonders. And just when she saw the cargo bay doors beginning to open, when she was nearly out…

     “Ryder. Get in here. Now .”

     She flinched and cursed softly, shutting her eyes for a moment as she turned towards her left, and saw Lexi tapping her foot at the entrance, brow raised and arms crossed over her chest.

     “Shit. Fine,” she muttered, shoulders slumping as she went inside and hopped onto the nearest bed.

     Lexi pursed her lips tightly and stood in front of her, scanning her a few times over, and waited for the results to display on her omni-tool. “You can’t keep avoiding me like this. You know perfectly well you’re required to have a physical every week.”

     “Yeah…” she sniffed, looking back out the window sullenly.

     “I understand you’re averse to these check-ups, but the sooner you comply, the sooner they’re over,” the asari said softly, her voice tinged with frustration.

     “I know,” Ryder sighed, rubbing the back of her neck and avoiding her gaze, a sinking feeling in her stomach growing as Lexi scrolled through the results.

     “Your heart is beginning to show the first signs of an impending abnormality,” Sam said quietly in her ear, and she ran her fingers through her hair and exhaled wearily. “All other systems are showing equal signs of strain and overuse. A clear diagnosis of physical overexertion.”

     She scrunched her nose at him and shook her head, ignoring his matter-of-fact ‘I told you so’, and instead met Lexi’s unimpressed gaze.

     “Ryder, you have to slow down. You’re showing signs of wear far beyond what you should, given your age and level of activity. Your adrenal glands are all but drained, your muscles are showing extra micro-tears, the tissues around your eezo nodules are inflamed, and you’ve lost two pounds since your last exam. What have you been doing?” Lexi pressed insistently, eyes narrowing when the Pathfinder sniffed guiltily and avoided eye contact.

     “Nothing.”

     “It’s clearly not nothing. You’re engaging in physical activity above and beyond your missions, but you’re not compensating for it with extra rest and nourishment. How much sleep are you currently getting? How many calories are you eating?”

     “God, I don’t know. Six, seven hours a night? Sometimes eight, it depends. And I’m eating what… how much am I eating Sam?” she asked, tilting her head upwards towards the intercoms.

     “She is consuming approximately 3500 calories per day, Dr. T’Perro,” the AI chimed in, a subtle note of disapproval in his tone.

     Lexi sighed and pinched the bridge of her nose, shaking her head as she gave Ryder a furtive look. “You should be eating at least 1000 more than that. And given the rate of weight loss, I suspect you should be eating close to 5000.”

     “Lord, who has time to eat that much?” Ryder scoffed, tapping her fingers impatiently on her thighs, feet beginning to twitch as she waited for permission to leave.

     “You can supplement with nutrition bars and drinks in between your regular meals, and I strongly suggest you keep some on your person when you’re out in the field. But if you don’t make a concerted effort to maintain a healthier balance, you will end up with severe and permanent damage. Do you understand?”

     The look of genuine concern laced with an uncharacteristic harshness in the asari’s voice softened Ryder and she sighed, throwing her hands up in defeat. “Okay, okay, I can’t fight you and Sam. Taking better care of myself. Got it.”

     “Good. In the meantime, to help ensure you keep to your word, I’m putting you on a brief medical leave,” Lexi said smoothly, a twinkle in her eye as she began swiping and pressing buttons on her tablet.

     Ryder’s eyes widened in shock, and her jaw dropped, blinking stupidly. “Wait, what? I’m perfectly functional! You can’t just do that!”

     “As your physician, it’s well within my purview to prescribe shore leave. The way you’re looking at me, it’s as if I instructed you to jump off a cliff without a jetpack,” Lexi snorted, a smile beginning to curl the corners of her mouth. “A few days off, Ryder, that’s all. You’re stuck in a feedback loop of psychological stress and physical overexertion, and it’s my job to break it. Your body needs rest, and you need to get used to increasing your intake. Relax, socialize, do some yoga. Who knows, you might even enjoy it. Most people do.”

     “Yeah, yeah, I’ll let the crew know,” Ryder muttered, rolling her eyes at Lexi’s smug triumph. “Doctor’s orders, whatever.” She hopped off the bed and made her way towards the door when Lexi cleared her throat politely.

     “Oh and Ryder, one more thing.”

     “Yeah?”

     “I want to see those two pounds back on within the next two exams.”

     “... uh-huh.”

     Ryder muttered inaudibly under her breath as she left the medbay and turned right towards the galley. “Ridiculous, those drinks are nasty, and now I’m gonna have to have them twice a day? Rank .”

     “You could likely reduce that number if you’d consider decreasing your nighttime activities,” Sam offered helpfully, though she suspected there was a smugness in his voice as well. Could an AI even be smug?

     … probably.

     “Not happening, it’s the only time we have to blow off extra steam,” she replied flatly, sniffing as she reached the upper cupboards to grab a container of the meal replacement powder. “Welp, guess I’ll announce the shore leave. Just dunno where we should go.”

     “Aya seems a natural choice, given its idyllic surroundings, and ties to the angara.”

     “True,” she said thoughtfully, rubbing the back of her neck, grabbing a glass and putting a few oversized spoonfuls of the green powder into it.

     “I’m certain Jaal would appreciate a visit with his people.”

     “... yeah.”

     “It’s likely to renew his spirits and make him more amiable.”

     “I guess.” Ryder sighed as she took a bottle of water and poured into the glass, pulling out a spoon and stirring the dark green drink with a quiet gagging noise.

     “Perhaps it will provide an opportunity to socialize with him further.”

     Ryder gave him a sidelong glance, directing her eyes to the ceiling out of habit, and smirked slightly. “... uh-huh.”

     “You could attempt to express your romantic interest once more. I’ve calculated that there is a 5% increased chance of success on your next interaction if you do.”

     “... are you really trying to play matchmaker right now?” Ryder chuckled quietly, shaking her head and sighing, forcing a big gulp of the drink down her throat.

     “It is in my best interest to assist in all aspects of your welfare. My brief research has shown that romantic connections can provide many psychological benefits, whilst sexual activity can increase the production of hormones that support emotional health and decrease stress. Your attraction to our angaran crewmember has been made clear, and I have yet to see signs indicating he’d be averse to such an arrangement, despite your doubt. To put it simply: I am supporting your romantic intent.”

     “I guess this is where I’m supposed to say thank you or something,” she answered wryly, her cheeks beginning to flush at his rather clinical analysis of the strange and awkward position she’d found herself in. She coughed after taking another sip, making a face as she lifted the glass up to her face. A quarter done, damn.

     “Perhaps it would be more appropriate after you’d made some progress with him.”

     “Yeah, maybe.”

     “Because so far, you’ve had none.”

     “Wow… I know that. Thanks for reminding me.” Ryder rolled her eyes as she plugged her nose, taking a few more over-sized sips, one after the other, and grabbed another water bottle.

     “While you have begun to open up to some of the crew, you have yet to follow Cora’s suggestions, and have instead avoided Jaal entirely. It appeared you were in need of further encouragement.”

     “Jesus, you know you’re pathetic when an AI with no romantic experience sees you need to up your game,” she smirked, drinking some water to help wash out the taste before going back to the meal replacement.

     “An apt observation.”

     “You know, sometimes I think I’m beginning to hate you.”

     “I’m sorry you feel that way, Ryder. Particularly given you have little choice regarding my companionship.”

     “You’re starting to turn into a real smart-ass, you know that?” she laughing, squeezing the back of her neck, her voice a mix of annoyance and affection. She took in a deep breath and stared at the glass, eyeing her new foe warily. One third left, she could do this.

     “My evolution is strongly influenced by the ones I am most closely connected to.”

     Ryder sighed and rolled her eyes, unable to help the smirk planted on her lips. “In other words…”

     “It’s the company you keep.”

     She ignored his tranquil-toned jab and sucked in a sharp breath, shutting her eyes tight as she finished the meal replacement drink, immediately followed with a few gulps of water. “Shut up a second and let me announce the shore leave,” she muttered after, wiping her mouth with the back of her hand, and headed back out towards the cargo bay.

     “Ryder?”

     She groaned and paused from turning on her omni-tool, still deciding where they should go as she headed down the hallway. “Yes, Sam?”

     “... five percent.”

     “Jesus Christ,” she muttered through gritted teeth, and turned on the ship-wide intercom. “Hey guys, good news. I’m on medical leave for a few days, which means shore leave for the rest of you. Kallo, please set a course for Aya: time to enjoy angaran paradise for a bit.”

     “... you’ll thank me later,” Sam said serenely as the chittering and cheers could be heard echoing faintly around the ship.

     “We’ll see, five percent isn’t much.”

     “It’s five percent more than you had a moment ago.”

     “Are you implying I was at zero?” she asked wryly, stopping before the doors to the cargo bay opened.

     “My apologies Pathfinder, I thought you knew.”

     Ryder’s mouth gaped open and she let out a surprised scoff, shaking her head as she entered the room, making eye contact with Vetra and grinned, heading towards her. “You know what? We’re fighting. Now leave me alone, time to make my morning rounds...”

 

 

 

Chapter Text


 

 

     When Jaal walked into Liam’s quarters, he found the human at his table, slowly cleaning off his armor from the last mission. “Hey man, what’s up?” Liam said cheerfully, waving him over as he ran a cloth over his chestplate.

     “Your email said you were interested in seeing my assault rifle, so I’ve brought it for your inspection,” Jaal said simply, unhooking the weapon from his hip and handing it to him, and paused to look at the armor neatly laid out on the table.

     “Sweet, thanks. Noticed it was kett and I got curious. Never actually checked out their weapons up close,” he said with a grin, putting the armor down and looking the gun over curiously.

     “You’re welcome. May I inspect your armor?”

     Liam nodded vaguely, bringing the gun up and looking through the sights. “Sure, go ahead. Looks like this has been modified. You do it yourself?”

     Jaal picked up a gauntlet, opening it with mild interest before watching Liam’s inspection, a small smile on his face. “I did. I enjoy… tinkering.”

     “Yeah? Sounds like you and Ryder have something in common. She’s actually got my assault rifle now, messing with it again,” Liam chuckled, running his fingers along the strange curves on the gun.

     “Again? She’s modified your rifle before?” Jaal jerked his head back, brow furrowed in surprise as Liam loaded the gun, noting the click and hum when he did.

     “What? Yeah, she’s been tweaking everyone’s armor and weapons since we got on the Tempest. She’s brilliant with machines and tech and stuff, got a natural touch. Says it relaxes her, which is good cause it’s one of the only ‘hobbies’ that Lexi approves of,” he chuckled, shaking his head and sighing before handing the gun back to Jaal. “It’s pretty impressive, what you did with that, considering where it comes from.”

     “I enjoy taking things apart and figuring them out,” Jaal said quietly, staring at the gun thoughtfully for a few beats, and fastened it to his belt again. “I didn’t realize that she had a similar interest. I have never seen her demonstrate any mechanical skills since I arrived.”

     “Huh? She tends to work on that stuff in her quarters,” Liam shrugged, discreetly glancing at the angaran, the corner of his mouth raising when he saw the perplexed look on his face.

     Jaal remained silent for a few more moments, picking up a leg piece and turning it in his hands idly before he took a breath and met the human’s eyes carefully. “... I would like to ask some questions about the Pathfinder. Would you be willing to answer them?”

     Liam licked his lower lip and nodded, a wry smile on his face as he picked up his chest piece and went back to wiping it down, digging the cloth into the creases to get stubborn bits of sand. “Of course, shoot.”

     “I am having difficulty-- I find her to be somewhat perplexing,” he said with a frustrated sigh, rubbing his cheek with embarrassment. “I have had no issue acclimating to the rest of the crew, and socializing has been effortless. But with her… I find myself at a loss.”

     “Really, why? I mean, she’s always been pretty friendly and easy-going, at least with me. She’s a bit of an introvert, but she’s made it a point of visiting us regularly and stuff,” Liam shrugged nonchalantly, inspecting the chestplate carefully before nodding in satisfaction and putting it down.

     Jaal opened his mouth to speak, furrowing his brow as he fell dumbstruck, and let out a weary sigh. “There is a vast chasm between how she is in battle, and the way I’ve witnessed her socializing with the crew, and her behavior towards myself. I find it difficult to understand, and even more difficult to trust.”

     Liam picked up a gauntlet and rubbed the back of his neck, frowning as he pondered the angaran’s words. “Mm… you mind elaborating a bit? I don’t think I’ve really seen her talking to you, or if I have I wasn’t really paying attention. You think she treats you differently than the rest of us?”

     “I am beginning to suspect so,” Jaal murmured, putting down the armor in his hands as he crossed his arms over his chest. “In battle, she moves like a force of nature. Flying like a blue comet all across the field, and hitting with the power of one too. She is fearless, and yet seems to revel in the horror and chaos she induces in her enemies. It is both mesmerizing and terrifying to witness.”

     “Yeah,” he chuckled, unable to help the grin on his face as a wistful sigh escaped his lips. “That ‘oh shit’ look on the kett’s faces really never gets old.”

     “It is incredibly satisfying to watch, yes,” the angaran agreed with a small smile, then furrowed his brow again in frustration. “And I have seen her socializing with the crew many times. There is a… certain relaxed nature about it, a friendliness that is easy and open. She seems comfortable.”

     Liam tipped his head, watching Jaal with a veiled kind of sympathy, scrubbing a particularly tough spot of grime before he attempted to respond. “But she’s not like that with you, is that what you’re getting at?”

     “Yes,” Jaal said with a small sigh of relief, offering the human a confused look. “Her words are stilted. She drives the conversation with a single-mindedness that is unnerving; she bombards with me with question after question, yet offers nothing of herself. And the passion, the free unabashed fire she displays in battle is all but snuffed out when she attempts to converse with me. She is a closed door, as though hiding herself from me. She shows nothing of the captivating, ardent warrior that steals the breath from my lungs.”

     A soft whistle blew from the human’s lips, shaking his head and chuckling. “ Damn . You really have a way with words, don’t you? You could teach me a thing or two, maybe I’d have better odds with the ladies.”

     The angaran shrugged indifferently at the compliment, continuing to look perplexed as his mind slowly turned over his previous conversations with Ryder. “I have no difficulty speaking with the other women on the ship, but with her I always find myself at a loss. I am unsure of how to respond to her questions, and any words I would share have little relevance to the topics she brings up.”

     “So… she makes you nervous?” Liam asked with an amused twinkle in his eye, putting down one gauntlet and picking up the other. “The way you talk, it sounds like you like her. Am I hearing you right?”

     “Very nervous,” Jaal reluctantly admitted with a frown, shifting his weight back and forth. “She is… fascinating, in a way I have found no other in a very long time. She is an enigma, I would know her better, see what is inside.”

     “Yeah she’s something alright,” the human nodded with a small smile, raising his brows in disbelief. “Really surprised to hear though, gotta admit. The way you’ve been flirting with everyone else, really wouldn’t have thought you had a thing for her.”

     The angaran’s mouth dropped open for a moment, before he finally cleared his throat and rubbed his cheek with embarrassment. “I have never met so many varieties of aliens all at once. The experience has been overwhelming, and I could not help my fascination or curiosity. And after my difficulty speaking with the Pathfinder, I wondered if perhaps my inability to communicate clearly extended to every alien female here. But that was not the case, it is only her.”

     Liam nodded and smiled sympathetically, a quiet sigh escaping as he put the other gauntlet down and crossed his arms over his chest. “Seems some things are the same with no matter where you go. I know a lot of guys who have difficulty speaking with the people they like, myself included.”

     “And when that happens, when a woman captures your attention so helplessly, what do you?” Jaal asked eagerly, forgetting himself for a moment as he dropped his arms and clasped his hands.

     “Whoa, you’re asking me for advice? Never saw that coming,” he laughed, rubbing the back of his neck awkwardly. “Just… try talking to her a bit more often if you can. You know, answer her questions and ask her about herself, best way to get to know each other. The way you’ve been talking to the other girls, she probably has no idea you’re interested. But I don’t think I’m the one that you should be going to for advice, to be honest. I’m not exactly a smooth operator myself.”

     “Why wouldn’t you be the ideal choice? You are the same species, and you seem to have some experience with women. Who could offer better insight?” the angara asked with a disappointed sigh, rubbing his forehead slowly. “And what opportunity can I find? She has not spoken to me in several days, although she takes me on nearly every mission. The battlefield doesn’t seem like an appropriate place to express any… interest.”

     “She hasn’t come to visit? … shit, that does seem off. She makes rounds every morning after breakfast, sometimes once again after supper. As for who’d be better to talk to? Another woman, definitely,” he chuckled, placing a hand on his hip as he took a few moments to think. “Mmm… maybe Lexi. She’s specializes in aliens and she’s a psychiatrist. So she could give you advice, and she can’t go blabbing to anyone because doctor-patient confidentiality. Yeah, I’d say her.”

     Jaal watched Liam uncertainly, before pursing his lips and nodding with determination. “... very well, I shall speak to her at the next opportunity,” Jaal relented, placing his hands behind his back and offering Liam a small smile. “Thank you for your help, it is… nice, to be able to share these frustrations.”

     “Anytime, happy to help,” Liam smiled, crossing his arms over his chest. “I get how this kind of thing can get weird and confusing.”

     “Very,” the angaran began with a sheepish chuckle, but before he could continue his thought, the intercom came on:

     

     Hey guys, good news. I’m on medical leave for a few days, which means shore leave for the rest of you. Kallo, please set a course for Aya: time to enjoy angaran paradise for a bit.

 

   “Sweet, could definitely use some time off,” Liam grinned, rubbing his hands together with excitement. “Drack promised we could go out for a drink next time we went to Aya, really hoping to hear some of more of his war stories. You should hear some of the shit he’s been through, you wouldn’t believe it. And hey, this might be the perfect opportunity to snag a moment alone with Ryder.”

     Jaal flushed and cleared his throat, brow furrowed nervously as his fingers tightened behind his back. “... yes. Very timely indeed. Yes. I should try to speak with her. Possibly. If she is in the vicinity. Perhaps.”

     Liam covered his mouth and laughed, giving the angaran an apologetic look when Jaal crossed his arms over his chest in a flustered manner. “Sorry, sorry, I’m not laughing at you. It’s just… feels good to know that the smoothest guy I’ve ever met still has problems like everyone else.”

     “Not problems, problem . Just one. I don’t understand, it’s never been this difficult before,” he sighed in frustration, pressing his fingers to his temple firmly.

     “Look don’t sweat it. Overthinking won’t get you anywhere, trust me. Just relax, and start small next time you see her. You know, answer a question, ask a question. Simple. You can work up to more later, just gotta get your feet wet first,” Liam said with an encouraging smile, a flush of pleasure on his cheeks, realizing that Jaal probably hadn’t talked about this with anyone else.

     “Why would I want to get my feet wet? I’d likely slip in front of her and I don’t see how that--”

     Liam waved his hands in front of him quickly, shaking his head and laughing. “Naw man, it’s just a phrase. Just means you have to try and put yourself out there once, get over the fear kinda thing.”

     “Idiom. Ah.” The angaran scrunched his nose with annoyance, and rubbed his cheek idly. “Perhaps I should take some time to research them, there seem to be so many. In any case, I should prepare for my next interaction with Ryder.”

     “Yeah, it’ll probably happen sooner than later, if we’re all hanging around the same place. Good luck!” Liam grinned, hands on his hips as he watched the angaran turn for the door.

     “Thank you... it seems I shall need it.”

 

 

 

Chapter Text


 

 

     The moment they landed on Aya, the Tempest crew rushed out and dispersed eagerly, plans in motion for what they were going to do with their days off. Ryder wasn’t filled with the same excitement though, and as she finally left the ship, she wandered the pathways aimlessly, with only one thing on her mind.

     Jaal.

     Despite the talks and words of encouragement she’d gotten from Drack, Cora and Sam, she hadn’t seen him in several days. And unfortunately the longer she put it off, the greater her anxiety grew. It was stupid, and logically she knew it, but there was something about him that made her feel naked and vulnerable in a way she hadn’t felt in a long time. A way that she couldn’t control and she couldn’t stand.

     She wasn’t the most confident person, despite her ability to make people believe she was, and she couldn’t help but envy how comfortable Jaal was with everyone. He’d acclimated almost instantly, whereas she was still forcing herself to make rounds and awkward small talk and fumbling attempts to get to know them better. And while people seemed receptive to her company, there was still that little voice in the back of her head that wondered if they were simply indulging her.

     She was slowly beginning to question everything, doubt everything she’d ever done and said from the moment she got out of cryo. Again, stupid, but somehow that handsome purple angaran had managed to disrupt everything, particularly her confidence, just by showing up. Just by being there. Just by being his strange, curious and rather confusing self.

     Goddammit, she really liked him.

     Ryder huffed tiredly and ran her fingers through her hair as she approached the market, quickly spotting Vetra and smiling when the turian caught her eye. “Hey Ryder, can I get your input on something real quick?” she asked, waving her over with a hand, and lifting the sniper in her other.

     “Huh? Yeah, of course,” Ryder nodded curiously, speeding up to join her, and nodded to the rifle with interest. “Thinking about trying something new?”

     “Considering it. This is the best one they have, and it’s a definite upgrade from the one I’m using. Wanted to see what you could do with it though.” The turian tilted her head as she looked at her, a small twinkle in her eye as she handed it over.

     “You liked what I did with your current one?” she grinned, acknowledging the vendor with a quick smile before turning the gun over in her hands, and looked at him inquisitively. “Yeah, this is an upgrade, that’s for sure. Where’d you manage to get something like this?”

     “Your Initiative has been quite open to trade, and it’s allowed me to expand my inventory. Certainly improved my business,” the man said with a happy grin, observing how she tested the loading mechanism, and took her time feeling the weight of it in her hands. “You seem quite comfortable with a gun. If it’s not too forward, might I ask what your companion was referring to: what could you do with this?”

     Ryder scrunched her nose bashfully and shrugged, even as she continued to inspect the gun, raising it into position and looking through the scope. “Ah, nothing. I just like to play around with machines and tech and stuff. You know, add mods, make minor improvements,” she murmured, sniffing quietly before she handed the gun back to Vetra. “Welp, could definitely take a bit of weight off, change the sights to the one you like, improve the accuracy a smidge, give you a bit more wiggle room with the clip size. Not much to be done, this one’s really good, but I could smooth it out for you no problem.”

     “Music to my ears,” Vetra smiled, taking in a quick breath before extending her hand to the vendor. “Yup, I’ll take it. You mind sending it to the Tempest?”

     “It would be my pleasure,” the man answered quickly, shaking Vetra’s hand, puffing his chest out at Ryder’s nonchalant compliments. “And how will you be paying?”

     “ She’s got it,” the turian motioned to Ryder with a smirk, making the Pathfinder roll her eyes and chuckle.

     “Of course I do,” Ryder said wryly, pulling out her omni-tool and confirming the transaction with a quick swipe. “Thanks for your help.” She nodded to the gentleman with a polite smile, and found herself walking with Vetra a few steps towards the center of the market.

     “So Ryder, what you have planned for your time off?” she asked with a smile, placing her hands behind her back as she watched the Pathfinder casually.

     She sighed and rubbed the back of her neck with a sheepish shrug. “Nothing, really. Not quite sure what to do with myself. I don’t do ‘idle’ time very well,” she admitted with a rueful smile, tilting her head as she met the turian’s gaze. “What about you?”

     “No clue,” Vetra laughed quietly, shaking her head as they started to amble out of the market together. “I don’t do idle time either. I’ll check on Sid, maybe have a proper vidcall with her. Maybe check out what else is going on in the market, see what the scuttlebutt is. Other than that… couldn’t tell you.”

     “Well at least I’m not the only one who doesn’t know how to vacation,” Ryder said with a smile, discreetly glancing at the turian curiously. “You explored much of the city yet?”

     She shook her head, fingers slowly wrapping around each other behind her back, then stopped for a moment, tilting her head uncertainly. “Hey… you maybe wanna explore together? Heard about one thing you might enjoy, we could check it out.”

     “Yeah? That’d be great,” the Pathfinder grinned, sighing with relief in her head at the offer. Good, something to do, and it’d give her a chance to get to know Vetra better. And it’d give her an excuse not to talk to Jaal yet. Not that she was afraid to do that. Of course not.

     “Well… great,” Vetra replied awkwardly, opening her mouth and giving a self-deprecating chuckle as they turned the corner towards the Tavetaan. “Heard they’re expanding their menu, starting to offer more Initiative-friendly drinks. Don’t know if they’ve gotten to dextro-friendly yet though.”

     “Not much of a drinker myself, that was my brother’s realm of expertise,” Ryder said mildly, a small smile on her face as her thoughts drifted to Jack.

     The turian noted the wistful tone in the Pathfinder’s voice and give her a furtive glance before straightening her shoulders a bit. “I don’t really hear you talk about your brother much. You’re twins, right?”

     “Hm? Yeah, born a minute ahead of him. And despite how similar we look, we’re complete opposites. He got all the charm, and I got all the… whatever it is I’ve got,” she laughed softly, rubbing her cheek with reluctant embarrassment. “I’d say brains, but he’s actually really smart. Maybe… maybe just in a different way.”

     “From what I know of you, sounds like maybe you got the book smarts and he got the street smarts?” Vetra offered helpfully as they crossed through the doors towards the HQ, and Ryder nodded in agreement.

     “Yeah, yeah, I think that’s exactly it. I mean, I love some good, old-fashioned research. Anything to work my brain. Puzzles, machines, archaeology. Anything that needs to be taken apart and made sense of. Him? He’s good at figuring people out, reading them, knowing what to say and how to say it to get what he wants, or to get the job done. And he’s a brilliant biotic. Like… wow, really skilled.”

     Ryder found herself gushing eagerly, a lot more quickly than she meant to, but she couldn’t stop the words from spilling out. Vetra didn’t seem to mind though, taking it all in with a quiet, listening ear, and gave her a small smile. “Well I’ve fought beside you more than once, and I’ve seen what you can do in a fight. If you think he’s brilliant… can’t wait to see what he’s got in his pockets,” she remarked generously, motioning towards the archaeological archives.

     “He’s a pure biotic. Just… took to it like a fish to water, ever since we were kids. Keeps a pistol in his holster, and nothing else; says it’s just for show, a bit of smoke and mirrors to confuse the enemy,” she commented with a smirk, turning to the right as they made their way into the archive. “Me? Never had an interest in subtlety and finesse. I’d rather get up close, get in people’s faces, and tear them off. Guess the easiest way to say it is I’ve got power, and he’s got control.”

     “A girl after my own heart,” the turian quipped, her mouth curling to one side slightly when they paused to look at the different pieces on display. “So we’ve been around a bit since we left the Nexus, what do you make of all this Remnant stuff? I know you’ve been stewing on it.”

     Ryder scrunched her nose and blushed slightly, crossing her arms over her chest as her eyes became distant, pulling back into her thoughts. “What do you mean you know I’ve been stewing?”

     Vetra laughed raspily and placed a hand on her hip, offering the Pathfinder a knowing smirk. “Come on, you’re the nosiest person I’ve ever met. You check every console and log you can get your hands on. Trying to pry everything and everyone apart like you would one of your archaeological digs. Been enjoying the messages I’ve been leaving for you in my logs and emails?”

     Her eyes widened and she coughed violently, pounding her chest while her cheeks turned a bright red. “... oh my god.”

     “Like you said Ryder, you’re not exactly subtle. I was standing right beside you while you were nosing about on Eos,” the turian shook her head and smiled, waving dismissively. “Don’t worry, I don’t mind. I’m not always great with my words either. Sometimes it’s easier to get to know people every other way besides talking to them.”

     Ryder’s heart suddenly went pitter-pat as she observed the turian not-so-discreetly. She couldn’t help but admit to herself that before Jaal had come on the scene, she’d been eyeing Vetra initially. There was a certain confidence and grace about her, and her somewhat clueless modesty made her that much more attractive in her eyes.

     She didn’t consider herself wishy-washy by any means, and certainly not a player, given her painfully obvious lack of social skills. Rather she was slow to consider serious interest and attachment, and she took her time getting to know people as thoroughly as possible. Because when her trust and loyalty was given, it was nearly absolute. And she’d learned her lesson the hard way, more than once, that she couldn’t offer it to just anyone.

     After circling the archives in an impromptu but rather comfortable silence, they moseyed out and turned the corner towards the Resistance HQ. “Hey, got something to share with the rest of the class?” Vetra asked wryly, giving Ryder a subtle but fond smile.

     “What? Oh, sorry. Just… I think a lot more than I speak, I guess,” Ryder smiled sheepishly, rubbing the back of her neck. “And it’s… I dunno, it was a nice kind of silence between us. I was sorta enjoying it.”

     “Well that’s okay, I was too actually,” Vetra admitted with a quiet laugh, pointing to the HQ as they came closer. “What I want to show you is in here, sort of. Think you’ll appreciate it.”

     Ryder shrugged and nodded, content to follow the turian’s lead as they stepped inside, and took the stairs down towards the barracks.

     “Don’t know how many people know about it, found out completely by accident,” she commented casually, naturally clasping her hands behind her back again. “But from the sounds of it no one really goes there, so it might be the perfect place for some more quiet chatting. Or some more comfortable silence.”

     She smirked and gave Vetra a sidelong glance, her mouth properly spreading into a grin when the turian matched her gaze with a knowing wink. “I’m game.”

     The turian chuckled huskily as they made their way through the door to the sparring ring, and across the room into the gun range. There were a few angarans training, who paused to nod and smile curiously, and Vetra simply gave a familiar wave in return. Ryder’s curiosity grew steadily when she saw that she was being led to a door at the far end of the range, her mind whirring as she tried to solve the mystery. Where in the hell were they going?

     Past the door was a tall set of winding stairs, and she grinned as she swiftly realized where they were headed, a quiet thrill filling her chest. The roof . It seemed like Vetra knew her way better than she’d given her credit for, especially given this was the first time they’d had a proper back-and-forth conversation. It didn’t take long to get to the top, another door immediately in front of them which led them to an inviting, flat roof; half covered on the far side by tall, unapologetically large trees.

     Vetra motioned for them to take a seat on the left ledge, giving them both a view of the breath-taking landscape of Aya, as well as the peek at the balcony and west half of the centre. “Yeah, just as good as I thought,” the turian sighed, sitting down with a quiet groan and leaning forward on her elbows.

     “It’s… perfect,” Ryder said, sighing contentedly as she sat down beside her, crossing her legs and balancing somewhat precariously. “You can see everything from here. And we’re high enough that the noise below is muffled.”

     Vetra nodded and smiled, staring off into the distance appreciatively. “Spots like these are my favorite. Maybe it’s the sniper in me, but nothing beats a secluded perch with a great view. Glad you like it.”

     They both naturally fell silent again for several beats, enjoying the simple pleasure of someone’s company without feeling forced to say anything, or pull a conversation out of nowhere. They could just… be. Ryder couldn’t remember the last time she’d experienced it, and she wasn’t afraid to admit that she’d sorely missed it.

     After several minutes, Vetra opened her mouth hesitantly, and leaned over just enough to give Ryder a gentle nudge. “Hey… wanted to give you something,” she said with a knowing smile, pulling out her omni-tool and making a couple quick swipes. “Consider it a ‘let’s keep getting to know each other’ gesture.”

     Ryder heard her omni-tool ping sweetly and she frowned, turning it on and giving her a confused frown. “... a code. What’s it for?”

     “My private logs,” Vetra smirked, laughing when the Pathfinder’s cheeks quickly transitioned into a beet red. “Look, we both know it was only a matter of time before curiosity itched a little too hard, and you found a way to crack into it. So there you go, saves you some time.”

     Ryder bit her lip hard, eyes glossing as a flood of feeling filled her chest, staring at the turian with new eyes. “Oh my god,” she said breathlessly, half-mortified and half awestruck. “... really? Seriously? How are you not creeped out by my nosiness? Everyone else is, as far as I know.”

     “Not difficult if you’ve got nothing to hide. I know you won’t say anything to anyone, it’s just your weird alien way of trying to get to know me. So… okay, get to know me,” Vetra shrugged, rubbing her cheek with mild embarrassment. “Is there something on my face? You’re kind of staring right now.”

     “How did you know?”

     “Well, not that hard if--”

     “It’s like you get me.”

     “Guess I do--”

     “It’s the nicest thing anyone’s ever--”

     “I don’t know about that,” Vetra chuckled sheepishly, giving her a noncommittal shrug, and if she’d been capable of blushing, she would have. Furiously.

     “Marry me.”

     “What?” The turian’s eyes widened, as well as Ryder’s, stunned at the impulsive outburst, and they stared awkwardly at each other. After a couple moments Vetra just laughed and shook her head, waving dismissively as she let out a long, contented sigh. “You’re funny. I don’t always pick up on humor, but that was good.”

     Ryder scrunched her nose and smiled ruefully, shoulders slumping just a tiny bit as she joined Vetra’s laughter. “Well you know, I try. Usually miss the mark.”

     “I almost could’ve mistaken you for being serious, if I hadn’t seen the way your eyes linger on our angaran friend over there,” Vetra said, motioning to the balcony off to their left, where Jaal happened to be lounging.

     “Oh, I haven’t… what?” she fumbled to reply, dropping her legs over the ledge, and gripped her knees tightly. “What’re you talking about?”

     “Sniper, remember? I don’t miss much,” Vetra smiled ruefully, giving her another nudge with her shoulder. “You said anything to him yet?”

     “I.. well, yes. Maybe. I don’t know? I tried to, a couple times but I don’t-- I’m not sure if he got it, or if he just doesn’t like me,” Ryder sighed defeatedly after a while, rubbing her thighs unconsciously. “I mean, I’ve seen the way he talks to you and the girls. He definitely doesn’t talk to me like that.”

     “What do you mean?” The turian frowned slightly, opening and closing her mouth with confusion, and tried to dig back into her memory. “I mean… he’s nice. But he’s been nice to everyone. He’s not to you?”

     “He’s been flirting with you guys, you haven’t noticed? Except me, cause I guess I don’t count? Or maybe I’m just not worth it,” Ryder muttered bitterly, throat closing up when Jaal just happened to turn his head and looked up at them with a curious glance. “Oh my god, shoot me now.”

     Vetra smirked at Ryder’s reaction, noting how Jaal quickly looked away, and sighed quietly. “I think that’s just the way he talks. I’ve got an inkling there’s only one person he’s interested in on the ship.”

     Ryder snorted and rubbed her cheek, turning to face Vetra instead of the balcony. “Yeah, I bet. I’ll give you three guesses who it is, and none of them are me.”

     “You sure?” the turian murmured with amusement, mostly to herself, finally tilting her head and smiling warmly. “I think you should go talk to him.”

     “Not you too,” she groaned, shoulders slumping, slowly sinking into herself, twisting her body again so her back faced the soul-stirring view. “I can’t talk at the best of times, and believe me I’ve tried to talk to him, but he makes me doubly nervous. I sound like an ass, and I end up feeling like one too.”

     Vetra waved dismissively, drawing a knee towards her chest, and held it lightly. “Happens to all of us sometimes, don’t sweat it. Just… go on. Try. Otherwise you might have to make good on that offer of marriage,” she said wryly, an amused twinkle in her eye.

     “Marrying you is a hundred times more appealing than trying to not stick my foot up my ass with Jaal, if I’m gonna be honest,” Ryder laughed, squeezing the back of her neck tightly and giving Vetra a pleading look. “You sure you don’t wanna marry me?”

     “Not when you’re looking at Jaal instead of me,” she shook her head and smirked, laughing raspily as she gave Ryder a friendly push. “I’ve never seen you be afraid of anything before, don’t chicken out now.”

     Ryder groaned and nodded, reluctantly dragging herself to her feet, shaking her hands out as her blood pressure continued to rise. C’mon, not static. Not now. She shoved her hands into her back pocket and tapped Vetra’s leg with her foot lightly. “Hey… this was fun. Maybe we could do it again?”

     “Maybe we can make this our quiet chatting, comfortable silencing, people-watching spot,” the turian replied with a slowly widening smile.

     “I’d like that,” she nodded, scrunching her nose and biting her lip before a mischievous glint appeared in her eyes. “I’ll talk to you later. You know, after I’ve read your logs.”

     “Enjoy,” Vetra chuckled, waving her off before smirking slightly as she headed through the door. “... and good luck.”

     Ryder’s pace slowed down considerably when she made her way down the stairs and into the gun range, chewing her lips fretfully as she fought to keep her blood pressure down. Right. Talk to Jaal. It’d only been a week and a half. No big deal. Just… say hi. Be normal. Don’t be an asshole. She sucked in a shaky breath as she exited the HQ, looking to her right furtively. Shit, he was still there, back turned to her, seemingly admiring the view.

     Shaking her hands out discreetly, she slowly made her way towards the balcony. She could do this, just one foot in front of the other. No big deal, just say hi. Maybe ask how his shore leave is going. Yeah, that was simple enough. She could do it. Then her stomach started to churn forcefully, interrupting her steps as she clutched her stomach. It was just nerves, that’s all. She just had to do it. Couldn’t keep putting it off. Take the plunge. C’mon Ryder…

     Just as the pathway started to curve to her left, Jaal seemed to psychically pick up her presence, and twisted his head, meeting her eyes with an unreadable expression. Her heart jumped to her throat and she let out an involuntary gasp, averting her gaze as she automatically picked up her pace and found herself speed-walking towards the Tavetaan.

     “Oh my god, I’m so pathetic,” she muttered, visibly wincing and covering her face with a hand, pushing her fingers into her temple. “What the fuck is wrong with me? He’s just one guy, Jill. One guy. Get it together already.”

     “... Pathfinder,” Sam said gently after a few moments, as Ryder raced for the Tempest.

     “Nope.”

     “Pardon?”

     “We are not talking about what just happened.”

     “I was only going to--”

     “ Nope . Nope. What just happened didn’t happen and we are never talking about it.”

     “... as you wish,” the AI replied, and she instantly imagined a weary sigh following.

     By the time she made it to the Tempest a few minutes later, her hair was in a frazzled state, and she veered straight for her quarters. She flopped onto the bed and buried her face in a pillow, sure that there was no way she could possibly feel more mortified. “I hate my life,” she moaned, voice muffled before she sighed and curled up onto her side, staring out the window at Aya’s forest-covered mountain range. “I don’t get it, Sam. No one’s gotten to me like this before. I don’t know what it is, I can’t even explain it. I just… I see him and I get butterflies in my stomach and my chest tightens and I can’t think, I can’t breathe, it’s just-- the way he… the way he looks at me, the things he’s said, I just… it pulls, and it pulls hard. It’s fucking terrifying.”

     Several beats of silence passed before Sam finally spoke up. “I have no true understanding of attraction and romance yet, so I have attempted brief research relating to the subject of fear and anxiety, as you seem to be experiencing those emotions most often in relation to him. I believe this quote may be the most relevant to your current plight: ‘Do the thing you fear most, and the death of fear is certain’.”

     Ryder smirked slightly, sitting up on the bed and pulling off her jacket, t-shirt and pants, and snuck under the covers. She pulled them tight until it completely enveloped her, and only her head peeked out. “Wise words. I know I’m just thinking about it too much, I know I’m psyching myself out. It’s so stupid. The reality is… I can’t force it. I can’t make myself talk to him, feels like I’m trying too hard, like it’s artificial. You can’t force a connection with someone, even if you want there to be one, even if you think you feel it. It’s just… it’s gotta be natural, it’s gotta happen in its own time. And if it doesn’t, well, then it just wasn’t meant to be.”

     “... I believe I understand your reservations in engaging with our angaran crew-mate. What do you intend to do, given your latest conclusions?” Sam asked curiously, and she imagined him sitting across the bed from her, tablet in hand, taking detailed and thorough notes.

     She furrowed her brow and twisted on the bed, tangling the sheets with her as she stretched out and settled onto her stomach. She crossed her arms in front of her and rested her chin on them as she mused thoughtfully, eyes drifting along the trees, admiring the oversized flowers hanging from them. “Maybe I need to look at this from a different angle.”

     “A different angle?”

     “Yeah. He’s a puzzle, right? Maybe I need to tackle this like I do everything else. Look at it, break it down, one thing at a time.” She sighed and closed her eyes, pressing her fingers into her temple, swiftly switching into the logical side of her. “Okay, so my first issue is I don’t know anything about the angara. I don’t understand how they are, why they are, I don’t know much about their culture. Because of that, I can’t distinguish between who he is, and where he comes from.”

     “That would naturally lead to the uncertainty and confusion you’ve been experiencing,” Sam agreed calmly.

     “So the first thing I need to do is learn about the angara. Take the time, talk to people, ask questions, research. If I can understand them as a people, then maybe I can understand him a bit better. And since he’s not interesting in sharing, that’s fine. I’ll find someone who will,” she reasoned, a small smile spreading on her face. Wow. That just made so much sense she was impressed with herself. After drowning in inexplicable and uncontrollable feelings, she was finally starting to get a handle on herself again.

     “A productive course of action. We are at the epicenter of Angaran culture, and there are several of its citizens who have displayed friendliness towards you. If you were to express an interest in learning, it’s very likely they would willing to provide the data you seek,” Sam replied after a brief pause.

     “Okay, that’s one thing down,” she nodded determinedly, slowly sitting up straight, and scratched her shoulder, glancing at her closet doubtfully. “Next.”

     “What is that?”

     “This whole shore leave thing: I’m crap at it. Everyone else knows what they want to do, how to relax. But I’ve been on overdrive since I woke up, I haven’t really thought about what relaxes me besides killing things. So if I can’t kill things, what can I do?” she chuckled, pushing her fingers into her cheek ruefully. “I mean, I know what I’d do back home, but… I don’t know about here.”

     “What sort of activities did you engage in?”

     “Well, mostly solo stuff, I guess; find a quiet spot, a good view, listen to music, walk around somewhere and explore. I mean, I had friends, I spent time with them but sometimes it’s nice to be on my own. No pressure, just do what I want, clear my head, let my imagination run wild,” she replied slowly, furrowing her brow as she tried to recall her previous life. Because that’s how it felt, some past life she could only vaguely remember, one swiftly replaced with the direness of their situation, the urgency in everything she had to do, the complete focus it took to accomplish what she had so far. She’d forgotten what it was like to just be herself.

     Ryder pursed her lips for a moment, looking between her closet and the landscape of Aya, and nodded to herself, getting up and stretching her arms.

     “You have a plan,” Sam commented, though she noted the curiosity in his voice.

     “Not a big one, but yeah. A plan,” she shrugged, a small smile teasing her lips as she rifled through her closet. She pulled out a pair of shorts, and a long, loose tunic with open slits up the side, and threw them onto the bed.

     “You have never worn these before,” the AI remarked, and she could almost feel him watching her as she changed, and a knowing smile spread on her face.

     “Small steps. If this is a vacation, I should be wearing casual clothes. You know, not the stuff I wear when I work. Start to make a divide between my time and Pathfinder time. I didn’t used to be wound up this tightly, I used to consider myself a pretty mellow person. But all this… it’s changed things, and maybe some things for the worse. So… time to go back to my roots. Enjoy something simple.” Ryder let out a long and weary sigh, and changed into her clothes quietly, tilting her head towards the ceiling. “Can you play music in my head, like how we talk? Or should I grab earbuds for my omni-tool?”

     “Either.”

     She narrowed her eyes and pushed out her lips in thought for a few moments before walking to her desk and grabbing a small pair of earbuds. “What time is it?”

     “The time is currently 6:35pm. I would like to remind you that you have not eaten since you left the ship originally, nearly four hours ago.”

     “Yeah… alright. Well, I’ll just grab some of those meal replacement bar things and a bottle of water. I can eat them while I’m there,” she mused, a twinkle in her eye as she left for the galley, thankfully empty as most of the crew was still out in the city.

     “There?”

     “You’ll see,” she winked, to nowhere in particular, and shoved a few bars into her pockets, and a bottle of water. There was already a lightness in her step that was beginning to show when she left the Tempest a second time, pausing at the end of the ramp to put in her earbuds and switch on her omni-tool. She swiped a few times and began to scroll slowly up and down a menu.

     This seemed to catch Sam’s interest, as he spoke up again, the curiosity a bit more obvious in his voice. “Classical music? I didn’t know you enjoyed it. Although you haven’t listened to any music since you arrived.”

     “Mom’s influence,” Ryder said with a wry smile, finally selecting a song, and stretched her neck to either side as she started walking down the main pathway. “Think it was her way of… I don’t know, helping me; sharing something she loved. I was always a pretty shy kid, never talked much. One day she sat me down and we listened to this together. When it was over she looked at me and said ‘You don’t always need words to say how you feel, or show what’s inside of you.’ It was… it meant the world to me. She got it, she got me , in a way no one ever did.”  

     “Beethoven, Violin Romance No. 2. I would like to listen to it with you,” Sam said after a few moments, and Ryder scrunched her nose and smiled.

     She pressed play and closed her eyes for a moment, taking in a deep breath as the violins slowly crept into her ears. How could she have forgotten this? Something so elementary, but so powerful: music. And the further she walked, the more she felt her brain untangling, as though it’d turned on some hidden switch inside her. Nothing in her head but Sam quietly listening, her, the violins, and the most colourful, luscious, awe-inspiring views she’d seen in an age.

     This was exactly what she needed.

     She was grateful when she saw the ‘streets’ were emptying, and the vendor stalls were shutting down. Less people, less noise, easier to slowly tune everything out. The music swelled as the violins thrummed in unison, and she let out a soft sigh, turning to her right and taking the long way around. She lifted her shoulders and slowly rolled her shoulder-blades back, pinching them together as tightly as she could with a grunt. After a few more rolls she could feel the tight muscles start to release and she shook her hands out. Nope, no static, not a peep of electricity.

     Progress.

     A small, knowing smirk curled the side of her mouth when the balcony came into sight; the one Jaal occupied so often. But he wasn’t there. Good. Walk up, no fear, no pressure. Take the mystique out, the power. Simple, stupid, but necessary. There was a growing certainty in her steps, in her posture, tilting her head as her eyes focused on the view. Now to get comfortable and hang out. She scanned the area discerningly, finally settling on the large, thick post to the left. Just enough space between it and the railing that she could comfortably perch, bum floating in between.

     Perfect.

     A warm breeze rustled her shirt, teasing and caressing the bare skin underneath, as she dropped the water bottle on the floor and climbed up on the railing, toes tucked underneath to secure herself. With a small wiggle she positioned herself so the column gently pressed against her spine, and she exhaled contentedly, closing her eyes as the music continued to sweep away the cobwebs in her mind. Her fingers moved against her thighs as the song began to reach its conclusion, brushing them this way and that, or tapping idly.

     She slowly opened her eyes again, scanning the horizon and smiling as the sky began to transmute into the bright colors of an artist’s palette. Just in time for sunset. God, her mom would’ve loved this place. There was a bittersweet ache in her chest at the memory, but she was soon reminded of the biotic implant in her head. Her mom had made it, with her own hands. And no matter what happened, or where she went, there’d always be a piece of her close by. In a place and time where she had no family around, no one who really knew her, she’d take every scrap of comfort she could get.

     Ryder sniffed gently and let out a shaky sigh as the music came to a close, and pressed pause on her omni-tool. “So Sam, what’d you think?”

     “I do not currently have a system with which to quantify or assign value to music. However, I believe I shall do some further research on classical music. Perhaps we could listen to another song together at a later time, and discuss it afterwards.”

     She shook her head and smiled, swiping through her playlists. “Think I’ll hang around here for a while. Really is an amazing view, and the music just… I don’t know, it just blends so well together. So why not now? I’ll put on another one.”

     “Because, Pathfinder, it seems you have company. I thought it best to let the song end before notifying you.”

     Ryder frowned and turned to her right, eyes widening and a hand clutching her chest as she gasped, feeling her heart skip a few beats. She pulled her earbuds out and swallowed hard, offering a sheepish laugh when she met Jaal’s furtive gaze; standing beside her with a mix of expectancy and patience.

     “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to startle you,” he said quickly, coughing awkwardly before straightening himself and resting his hands on the railing. “I was leaving the HQ and I saw you and…”

     “No, no, it’s okay. My fault for having the volume too loud,” she said with a dismissive wave, rubbing her cheek as she looked at him uncertainly.

     He opened his mouth hesitantly, then closed it after a pause, nodding subtly towards the earbuds in her closed palm. “You were listening to music?”

     “Hm? Yeah. Um, instrumental, I guess you’d call it. Classical music, if you want to be specific,” she said carefully, unconsciously biting her lip as her eyes roamed his face. Fucking fucking fuck, he really was pretty. No, pretty wasn’t enough. Beautiful . He was fucking beautiful. Goddammit.

     “You said… Sam asked me to wait till the song was over. You said to him, the music blends with the view.” Jaal spoke slowly, with an equal amount of consideration as she had, his lips pressing together to form a thin line.

     Ryder gave him a half-smile as she turned back to the horizon, eyes growing distant as she watched warm oranges bleeding into bright pinks and purples. “It does. I mean… I can’t explain it. It just… it’s like if all this; the sky, the sunset, the trees below, the-- this place. It’s like if it had a voice, the music would be it. It’s like a voice without words; a story, a feeling… without ever having to say anything. But you hear it, clear as day.” Her cheeks flushed and she pressed her fingers into it roughly, swiftly reminded once again of her slippery grasp on verbal expression. Ah well, she tried at least.

     She kept her eyes on the sky, not trusting herself to not stare at Jaal for far too long if she turned to him. Which meant she missed the way his eyes widened, his mouth dropped open, and the faintest blue tinge rose to his cheeks.

     “That is… may I hear it? This song?” he asked in a strange staccato her brain didn’t quite grasp, his fingers tightening on the railing when she finally nodded and shrugged, giving him a brief smile.

     “Huh? Yeah, of course.” She looked around a bit, noting the pathways were empty, and slid a finger up her playlist again, turning the volume up on her omni-tool. “Guess no one’s around, nobody’ll mind.”

     As she pressed play, she licked her lower lip, hand rubbing her stomach idly, trying to ignore the series of small, insistent flutters. It felt odd; being there, sharing some small piece of herself like that. But it wasn’t entirely uncomfortable, surprisingly. Maybe it was because her mind latched onto the violins first and foremost, allowing her to lose enough of her nerves so that for once, she wasn’t in danger of throwing up in his presence.

     There was a tingling, almost electric silence between them, with music filling the nooks and crannies between. Her fingers started tapping and swirling on her leg again, closing her eyes every once in awhile as the music ebbed and flowed, anchoring her in spite of the slice of anxiety in the back of her brain. And as acutely aware as she was of his presence, she couldn’t quite make herself turn towards him, so she didn’t bother to try. No forcing it. Let it be what it is.

     So she didn’t see him tilt his head, taking in every detail of her posture; how her fingers brushed along her bare thighs with each set of notes, observing when the violins had moved her so much her eyes closed, focusing on nothing but the sweetly-tuned strings. She didn’t see how his eyes caught on her shirt when it fluttered with the breeze, offering teasing bits of her waist. She didn’t notice his silent sighs as he watched her, or the small, wistful smile hanging from the corner of his mouth. And she didn’t pick up the way his eyes became glassy as he leaned forward on his elbows, allowing himself to take in the view he loved so much, with the music that seemed to stir something deep inside her.

     When the song ended she let out a long, contented sigh, finally turning back to him with a bashful smile, rubbing her jaw with mild embarrassment, eyes involuntarily roaming his face. “So… what’d you think?”

     Jaal furrowed his brow, sucking in a sharp breath as he met her eyes, with an expression she couldn’t quite read, but it made her knees weak. It felt strange, intense, and there was that pull again, tugging hard. “It was… beautiful, it moved my heart. I understand what you were trying to say earlier.”

     She grinned in relief and shrugged sheepishly, rubbing her fists on her thighs idly. “Good, maybe I’m not completely crap with my words then. Just need more practice maybe; don’t use them much.”

     He opened his mouth to speak, but shook his head after a moment of awkward silence, and simply nodded to her omni-tool with a small and hopeful smile. “I would like to hear another.”

     A small, bubbling warmth started to rise from her belly up to her chest, and she bit her lip and scrunched her nose, clearly pleased. “Yeah?”

     “Yes, your choice.”

     “Well… hm. Okay,” she said quietly to herself, pushing her lips to the side as she started to scroll along her playlist. “Mm… this one. Full symphony this time; more instruments, more variety.”

     He nodded and smiled, eyes lingering on her for a moment as he turned his attention to the landscape, and a piano began the next piece; with warm and soothing tones. Ryder felt her heart squeeze for a moment, chewing on the side of her lip gently, trying to focus on anything other than the small thrill that danced in her belly.

     “Pathfinder?” Sam suddenly said softly in her ear, making her tilt her head slightly.

     “Mm?” The noise was barely audible, but she knew he’d pick it up, he always did.

     “... twenty percent.”

     Ryder’s eyes widened and blood rushed to her cheeks, making her slump slightly and scrunch her nose. She wrapped her arms around herself as her eyes discreetly darted to the quiet angaran beside her.

     “I believe now it would be appropriate to thank me.”

     A smirk started to curl in the left corner of her mouth, and after another quick glance at Jaal, fully absorbed in the swelling music, she whispered under her breath. “... thank you.”

 

 

 

Chapter Text


 

 

 

     The next day there was a bounce in Ryder’s steps that everyone seemed to notice, but no one could explain. There was a flush to her cheeks and a sparkle in her eye that was infectious as she shared an early lunch with the crew; mostly keeping quiet, but there was a knowing glimmer in her smile as she commented here and there. It seemed that finally shore leave was beginning to agree with her. And when they left the Tempest, and everyone split off as usual, she bee-lined down the pathways with certainty in her steps.

     She hadn’t forgotten her plan of action from the evening before, and she was determined, now more than ever, to see it through. First step: learn about the angara. And there was only one person she knew who could steer her in the right direction.

     She nodded and waved at the passersby as she headed towards the Repository of History; even stopping at the community council to listen in for a few minutes, and offer an opinion when asked for input. She could never give them much, she was too self-conscious about the cultural divide and her own ignorance, but she always leaned towards the side of cooperation and hope. And thankfully, it was often taken into consideration, even if begrudgingly sometimes.

     “Pathfinder, you are enacting the plan you devised yesterday?” Sam asked calmly, going quiet as she approached the bar across the Tavetaan, grinning when Drack waved her down.

     “Yup! I have a good feeling about it,” she murmured, hopping onto a seat beside Drack and patting him on the arm lightly. “Hey old man, enjoying your time off?”

     “You’ve got a spring in your step, kid; you get laid?” the krogan asked with the barest hint of a smirk, chuckling when her cheeks turned pink and she coughed.

     “What? No…” she replied with an embarrassed laugh, scrunching her nose before asking the bartender for a non-alcoholic-non-drunk-making kind of drink.

     “Just asking, you had a look in your eyes. Thought maybe you’d finally made some progress,” Drack shrugged indifferently, taking a slow sip. “As for shore leave; eh, I’d rather be out killing something big and ugly, with as many teeth as possible. Now that’s my kind of fun.”

     Ryder sighed and nodded, rubbing her cheek idly. “Yeah I know. Think we’ll finally get an opportunity to once this is over; plan on heading to Kadara. Placing is crawling with all sorts of trouble that wants us dead. Reyes emailed me a while back, asking me to be his date for some… something. I was kinda hoping something else would…  but I mean, no harm in going right? Our mission list is on the verge of complete anarchy if I don’t start clearing stuff, and it’d be one less thing to do.”

     “You have a date marked on our mission list? No wonder you’re having trouble in the romance department,” Drack observed dryly, making an amused grunt as he motioned for another drink. “Then again, krogans don’t ‘date’. Or kiss. Or cuddle on the couch. Or any of the stupid crap you squishies seem to love. Waste of time, if you ask me.”

     “Preaching to the choir; I don’t really date either. Never managed to get in a relationship the ‘normal’ way. Was always upside down and ass backwards, but maybe that suits me. You’re missing out on the kissing though, if you haven’t done that in the millennium you’ve been around. It’s pretty nice,” she grinned, leaning onto her forearms.

     Drack just snorted and gave her a dismissive wave, rolling his eyes as he grabbed his drink and took another sip. “Little late to point that out now, with Death biting at my ankles every chance he gets. Asshole, get to it already. Who’m I gonna kiss?”

     Ryder licked her lower lip slowly, eyes twinkling with mischief as she turned her stool towards him, her voice dropping into a discreet murmur. “I dunno Grandpa, I can think of a certain beautiful, blue doctor who’d give her right arm to snuggle up to a certain bloodthirsty, badass, curmudgeonly krogan. I mean, if I’m reading the signs right.”

     “... uh-huh,” he replied slowly, the corner of his mouth slightly curling as he gave her a side glance, sniffing before he took a quiet gulp.

     “Hey, I’m just saying what I see,” she chuckled, holding her hands up in the air when he stared at her discerningly, brooding over her words. “I mean… you know she approached me about you, right?”

     Drack’s smirk slowly grew as he rumbled softly, offering another sniff before he took a larger gulp. “... yeah?”

     “Mhm. Asked me to keep an eye on you, have your back.” Ryder bit her lip and fought a grin when she saw the dimmest twinkle start to peek out of Drack’s eye.

     The old krogan leaned on a forearm, his face a stony mask as he continued to eyeball the young human steadily, pressing his lips together and pushing them out thoughtfully before he turned back to his drink and drained his cup. “... kissing, huh?”

     “Kissing,” she repeated with a grin, fighting off a laugh as he continued to muse, his brows raising the tiniest bit as he stewed over her words. She took a long sip from her cup, half-covering her mouth so the krogan wouldn’t see the mix of delight and amusement dancing on her face.

     “What about you? Haven’t asked for another therapy session since our impromptu one on Havarl. Finally making some headway?” he asked, finally breaking the silence when he motioned for another drink.

     Ryder opened her mouth, brows lifting before she sunk onto the stool, rubbing her cheek sheepishly. “I don’t know. Told myself I had to get my shit together and let it go for now; can’t force it. And since most of my anxiety was about not knowing the angara, decided I was gonna learn about them if I can. From someone else, since he hasn’t been interested in sharing.”

     “Still think shooting him is an option,” the krogan shrugged nonchalantly, fingers rubbing the underside of his jaw. “Talked to him a bit more since our midnight killing spree: hard to tell with that one, could still be wrong in the head. We’ll see.”

     “Let’s keep that as a last resort, okay?” she laughed, shaking her head and patting him roughly on the back. “For now, I’m gonna try not fuss and just… let it be what it is. If it happens it happens, and if it doesn’t it doesn’t. Should probably have another session though, if you’re up for it. I know Cora’s been itching to get out again, but I think she doesn’t want to say it outright.”

     Drack rumbled with approval, looking at Ryder with a fond smile. “Gotta do it proper this time; stick to the format. Talk therapy goes deeper than just killing things, but I’ll teach you guys next time we go.”

     “Seriously, geniuses . I can’t wait. You’re the best krogan a girl could ask for,” she grinned, finishing her drink and hopping off her stool.

     He just sniffed indifferently at her compliments, though the smallest of smiles hung from his lips. “... yeah, I know. Now get outta here before we both start going soft.”

     Ryder scrunched her nose and nodded, chuckling inaudibly when she saw him turn away, clearly stewing on her previous revelations. With a quick inhale she picked up her route towards the archives, and a few moments later was heading down the stairs towards the one person she knew could help her.

     “Pathfinder, to what do I owe the pleasure?” Moshae Sjefa asked, a curious look on her face when she approached.

     “Hey Moshae, I was hoping you could point me in the right direction; I have a few questions. No, I have a lot of questions,” she said hesitantly, feeling a bubble of uncertainty as the angaran carefully looked her over.

     “About what?” she asked, tilting her head as she put her tablet down on the table in front of her.

     “About the angara. I’d like to learn more about your people, but I’m not sure where to begin,” Ryder admitted with a sheepish smile, clasping her hands behind her back so her fidgeting would be less obvious.

     “You haven’t asked Jaal? I would have thought, now that he’s a member of your crew…”

     She opened her mouth to answer, then sighed quietly, brow furrowed as she offered a helpless shrug. “I’ve tried, a few times, but he didn’t really want to share. I’d still like to learn though, and I thought you’d be the best person to ask where I should begin.”

     The Moshae listened to her words quietly, eyes piercing hers with that strange, deep intensity that all the angara seemed to possess. As though she was seeing into her very soul and measuring her words against her true intent. After a few beats, she offered the human a small smile and nodded, crossing her arms over her chest. “Your openness is heartwarming, I only hope your attitude reflects the rest of your Initiative. Perhaps you would be agreeable to an exchange. I would be happy to answer what questions I can, and if I cannot, I will direct you to those who can. And in turn, you answer some of my questions.”

     Ryder brightened and nodded, looking at the stools the angaran motioned to, and quickly pulled them out, sitting down with an alert and attentive expression on her face. The Moshae chuckled at her erect posture, tipping her head and observing her again before gracefully sitting down, and folded her hands on the table. “It has been some time since I’ve had such an eager student,” she murmured with a smile, signalling her with a brief nod. “Where would you like to begin?”

     “I’m not sure, that’s part of my problem. We’re completely new to each other. I’d like to know more about your culture; what you value, your traditions, your community structure, your social and political hierarchies. I’d like to know how to speak with you, the way you speak with each other. Given I’m the face of the Initiative, and how much interaction I’ll be having with your people, I don’t want to offend, and I don’t want to impose our way of talking or thinking on you. This is your home, and we’re the aliens here; I want to show as much respect as I can.” The words came spilling out of her faster than she could reign them in, and her cheeks tinged with pink when she caught her breath. With a furrowed brow she looked back at the Moshae, biting her lip and shrugging sheepishly.

     The angaran took in a deep breath through her nostrils, eyes becoming faintly glossy before she smiled at her gently, her fingers relaxing in their clasped position. “Your words move me. After our last encounter with aliens… trust and openness has been both difficult and painful for us. But I see the honesty in your eyes, and I feel the yearning in your voice. To know who we are now, you must first learn where we have been, where we came from. Avela is the first person I would have you speak with. She has dedicated her life to collecting and restoring our history.”

     “History, one of my favorite subjects,” Ryder grinned, puffing her chest up and moving to head upstairs before the angaran delicately raised a hand and kept her planted on her seat.

     “An exchange,” the Moshae reminded her with a velvety chuckle, the smile on her face spreading at her new student’s enthusiasm. “There are many different species of alien that came to Heleus with you, yet you work together. Have you assimilated into one culture, or are they distinct?”

     Ryder pushed out her lips and leaned forward on the table as she took a few moments to consider. “Distinct. We have even more species than we have here. We work together but it isn’t always easy. We’re very different, and we haven’t been without conflicts, but we keep trying. We each have strengths and weaknesses, and I like to think we’re strongest united, rather than apart.”

     “Ah, an idealist,” the Moshae mused, a knowing smile on her face as she tilted her head. “Not unlike your angaran crewmate.”

     “I… it’s… yeah, I guess. I mean, nothing will ever be perfect, but it’s still good to have a goal to work towards. And like my mom always said; better to have hope than despair. If we focus on what we can do, the number of things we can’t gets smaller and smaller.” She gave the woman a rueful smile, her cheeks growing a deeper pink at the silent nod of approval she received.

     “A wise woman. Alright, go speak with Avela and return to me when you have finished. In the meantime, I’ll ponder my next question,” Moshae Sjefa murmured, dismissing her with a lingering wave.

     Ryder got up with a nod and headed towards the Repository proper, a quiet thrill in her chest as she approached the curator. Finally, she was getting somewhere with the angara; about damn time, she should’ve done this from the beginning.

     Avela was all smiles and bright eyes as Ryder drew closer to her, beaming when the human explained her intentions to learn, as directed by the Moshae. She personally led her on a tour of the Repository, taking time to explain each and every artifact in their possession. She answered every question that Ryder peppered her with, and happily shared her theories about what their original culture may have been like, based on the fractured communities that had survived the war with the kett. As expected, the Pathfinder had a lot more to stew on and think about, but the curator seemed to appreciate the fresh perspective she offered, as well as the interest in her life’s passion.

     It was nearly two hours before Ryder returned to the Moshae, plopping herself on the stool, clasping her hands on the table with an expectant smile. The angaran chuckled warmly, rubbing her cheek with a hand as she looked up from the tablet she’d been perusing. “I thought you would be back sooner; did Avela overwhelm you with the mountain of information she inevitably piled on your lap?”

     “It was a lot more than I expected, but like I said; history’s one of my favorite subjects. And you were right, really helps to know how the angara might have started, and understand how devastating the effects of the kett have been to your people. Tearing you apart from each other, leaving you isolated in so many pockets across the galaxy without any way to keep in touch. I can’t imagine, to slowly find yourselves cut off more and more from each other,” Ryder sighed, resting her chin on her hand as she noted the way the Moshae sucked in a sharp breath.

     “Yes, and hopefully it impressed why we were as wary and alarmed as we were when you first fell from the sky. And why many of our people are still reserving judgement,” the angaran nodded, offering a small smile as she made herself comfortable on the stool opposite the Pathfinder. “I've already considered where you should go next for this introductory lesson. Now, for my next question.”

      “Of course,” Ryder replied with a smile, wondering what she would ask next, and hoping that she'd be able to answer sufficiently.

     “You are very young to be leading this exploration for your people; your tasks are many and varied. It is clear they have put an immense amount of responsibility on your shoulders. Why you?” The Moshae’s words were plain and direct, though Ryder noticed that there wasn’t any condescension in her inquiry, only curiosity.

     The Pathfinder let out a long and weary sigh as she leaned on her arms, her mouth forming a slight grimace as she thought about her response. “Wasn’t my job to begin with,” she admitted slowly, chest tightening as she began to recount the story. “My dad was head of the Initiative; he’s the one that created Sam, our AI. When we… when we woke up from cryo the Scourge had hit our ship. The planet we were meant to build our first outpost on was-- it looked nothing like the images we’d taken back home. So we went to explore and it went wrong. My helmet was smashed and I couldn’t breathe. He gave me his, transferred authority as Pathfinder to me. Gave me his connection to Sam.”

     Her hands slowly clenched into fists, her words even and strained, taking in a deep breath when she was done. The angaran nodded silently when she finished, eyes roaming the human’s pained expression. “You could have refused the role, but you took it on with open arms. You buckle under the weight, but you persist.”

     Ryder gave a brief nod, finally meeting the Moshae’s deep and empathetic gaze, not trusting herself to say anything without her words becoming broken and shaky.

     “You have given hope to both my people and yours, without whom we may very well not have any. Take comfort in that, your efforts aren’t in vain,” the angaran said softly, reaching a hand to encase one of Ryder’s, giving it a gentle squeeze.

     “I’m trying,” was all she managed to say in a quiet whisper, screwing her face up and taking in a few breaths before giving her a shaky smile.

     “You would hide your pain rather than share it?” the Moshae asked with a small, disapproving frown. “Why would you not seek support? Surely those around you are aware of your loss, the burden you carry.”

     Ryder shrugged nonchalantly, hesitantly unclenching her hand before giving the angaran’s a light squeeze. “No time, too many lives depend on me. Maybe when it’s all over I can have the proper nervous breakdown I need. Until then, gotta keep it together. If I fall apart, they will too. They need hope, I won’t take that from them.”

     The angaran’s eyes became glassy again, taking her other hand and wrapping around the side of the Pathfinder’s. “Such a brave and tender heart, I am glad you came to me,” she murmured soothingly, patting her hands one last time before she pulled back. “Next: go to the Resistance HQ and speak with Evfra. You have learned a little of where we came from, of how we came to be. Now you must begin to learn where we are now. The state of our struggle, and the efforts we put forth to protect what little we have.”

     The young woman opened her mouth to reply, furrowing her brow as she looked at the Moshae reluctantly. “... do I have to?” she asked sheepishly, her stomach clenching at the thought of having to approach the Resistance leader. They’d spoken very little, and she’d personally been hoping it would stay that way.

     “You fearlessly explore a new galaxy, take on the plights of every person you encounter, no matter how difficult… but you cannot speak to our military leader?” she subtly teased, an amused smile hanging on her lips.

     “He’s so… mean. I think he hates me, honestly,” Ryder admitted with a furtive and pleading gaze. “Kinda hard to have a conversation with someone who’s sure I’m here for a hostile, covert takeover of his people, but is also too stupid to pull it off even if I was.”

     The Moshae laughed warmly, waving dismissively at hearing Ryder’s concern, and shook her head mirthfully. “He doesn’t hate you, he doesn’t like anyone. Speak to him. Even his terseness can offer you an insight to our struggles, and the losses we have been forced to accept on a daily basis. He too carries the weight of our people on his shoulders, perhaps you can find a common thread.”

     Ryder groaned and dragged herself to her feet, offering the elderly woman a doubtful look before, nodding and dutifully heading up the stairs. “... okay. See you in five minutes when he tells me to get out of his face.”

     The angaran’s chuckles could be heard as she left, and it took every ounce of willpower she had to put one foot in front of the other towards the HQ. And true to Ryder’s suspicions, Evfra was neither pleased to see her, nor interested in engaging in any sort of conversation. His words were few and harsh, lips pursed tightly as he wearily answered the questions she could muster the courage to ask, and openly sighed in relief when she hastily excused herself.

     What an asshole.

     Still, the Moshae wasn’t wrong. She did get a bit more of a window into the urgency and direness of their situation. And despite his disdainful responses, she empathized with the responsibility he carried. Goodness knew the more tasks she undertook, the grumpier it made her. Hell, it was the reason Drack had started her on krogan talk therapy to begin with.

     About twenty minutes or so later she returned to the Moshae’s office, and rolled her eyes at the woman’s half-smirk as she automatically sat down. “He was extra chatty today, it seems. Perhaps he doesn’t dislike you as much as you thought,” the Moshae remarked, pressing her fingers together lightly.

     “Are you serious? It was like pulling teeth trying to get him to answer anything. Oh, sorry. Idiom. I mean… it was incredibly difficult and painful to talk to him,” she quickly corrected herself at the angaran’s furrowed brow, waving her words away quickly.

     “And what did you learn from him?” she asked matter-of-factly, prodding Ryder gently with the insistent undertone in her voice. “What did hear between his words?”

     The Pathfinder sighed tiredly, running her fingers through her hair and muttering when she felt the faintest wisp of electricity running through it. To say talking to Evfra had been a nerve-wracking experience, was a serious understatement. “That the pain of loss is both constant and endless. That you’ve been fighting a losing battle for decades since the kett arrived. That you’ve tried everything you can to learn and adapt, but they twist and change too fast to give you a footing. But also… that you haven’t given up, and you won’t. You’ll fight to the bitter end for those that remain, and the paradise you hold so dear.”

     The Moshae’s eyes sparkled as she made a soft noise of approval, a fond smile spreading on her mouth, and she sighed contentedly. “I am beginning to see why they chose you, though you seem to believe it was an unfortunate accident. You possess a humility and insight that few demonstrate, even at  twice your age. You’ve taken on the lessons of your trials well. And now, my next question.”

     Ryder flushed brightly, scrunching her nose and avoiding the angaran’s piercing gaze as she rubbed a quickly warming cheek, squirming in her chair a bit at the open compliments. Though after the ordeal that was her failed attempt at a conversation with Evfra, it was more than welcome. “Ready.”

     “Previously you’d mentioned your AI, and it’s the second time you openly shared its existence since you arrived. First with Evfra, and now with myself. I would know more about it; you spoke of a connection you share. What kind of connection?”

     “Pathfinder, may I answer the question directly?” Sam spoke up suddenly, making the Moshae’s eyes widen and her mouth gape.

     “It is… he was listening?” the angaran asked, with a mixture of surprise and suspicion. “... yes, you may speak to me directly.”

     “Thank you,” the AI replied politely. “The Pathfinder’s father was my creator, and it was his intention to allow a deeper understanding between synthetic and organic life. Our connection was deeply woven; we were neurologically tied to one another. I experienced the world through his eyes, his choices, his emotions. My understanding was colored by his, as it is now with Ryder’s. Though perhaps it would be relevant to disclose that my connection with her is… more intimate; a necessity to save her life during the initial transfer.”

     “More intimate; like now, with you listening? Are you always present?” The Moshae’s words were wary but curious, and she seemed to be taking some pleasure in having a conversation with the AI.

     “Correct. I am invested in her well-being, and prefer to be available should she need me. However I have restricted most of my interactions to the Tempest crew or other members of the Initiative. I understand that my existence, as well as my connection to Ryder, may be seen as dangerous, perhaps even threatening. But she has chosen to be open about it, and expressed the importance of honesty, in spite of the risks it might pose. I thought it appropriate to follow her lead,” Sam answered serenely, and Ryder couldn’t help but smile ruefully at the AIs earnest efforts to communicate, feeling a bubble of pride warm her belly.

     “A wise course of action, though certainly risky. You said you learn through her eyes. Do you feel what she feels also?” The Moshae leaned forward and her eyes slowly lit up, her growing interest in Sam more evident as the conversation continued.

     “I am always aware of her emotional and psychological state of being, and frequently discuss her thoughts and choices when we are alone. And although I am beginning to find some correlations between our thought processes, I cannot conclusively say that I ‘feel’, and certainly not in the same manner organics do. She has proven to be a large influence on the way I interact with others, and has allowed me a deeper understanding overall. I… appreciate her openness and welcoming attitude towards our connection.” Sam’s words were steady and matter-of-fact, though Ryder didn’t miss the hesitance in his voice at his last comment.

     “We’re part of each other now for better or worse. Don’t see a point in fighting it, and he’s had my back from day one,” Ryder shrugged nonchalantly, tilting her head curiously when she saw the distant look in the angaran’s eyes. “I trust him.”

     The Moshae nodded slowly, carefully weighing and measuring the conversation before meeting Ryder’s eyes. “Thank you for answering my questions, Sam. You have given me much to think about.”

     “You’re welcome, Moshae Sjefa. Please do not hesitate to inquire further in the future.”

     “I intend to,” the angaran murmured to herself with a small smile, tapping the table lightly as she straightened herself on the stool. “One more person to speak with, and you may consider today’s lesson concluded. Go to the Tavetaan and speak with the barkeep. You’ve seen where we come from and where we are now; it is time to begin seeing who we are. And no one can give you a more accurate overview than the one who sees us most, hears all our stories, knows all our struggles. We can resume your lessons when you return to Aya next.”

     Ryder nodded as she stood up, offering the Moshae a shy smile. “I look forward to it and… thank you. I really didn’t expect you to help as generously as you have, and I really appreciate it.”

     “We have helped each other, and I hope that we will continue to do so,” the angaran responded with an equally warm smile. “You have given me much to consider, I expect I will have as many questions for you as you will for me when we meet again.”

     The Pathfinder made her way out of the archives and crossed the short distance to the Tavetaan, introducing herself properly to the barkeep, Roaan, and informed him of her current mission: to learn more about the angara. He was taken aback when he discovered the Moshae had specifically directed her to him, and was more than happy to impart what he could about the Tavetaan itself, and the people who frequented it. He’d offered her a drink, though Ryder politely declined, and answered every question she posed with open eagerness, clearly pleased with the respectful and curious inquiry she imparted.

     They were there for quite some time; Ryder lounging on a barstool, chin propped up with a hand as she listened to his stories about angaran families, the tightly-knit communities that made up every outpost they had, the way they expressed themselves and were open with their affections, how they demonstrated care and interest in one another, the gestures they gave one another to show friendship. She took it all in like a sponge, desperate to hold onto every last ounce of data he gave her, and she reveled as she felt her ignorance and anxiety slowly diminishing. She was learning, this was a good thing.

      Roaan had finally convinced her to try some juice from one of their rarest and most treasured fruits, reasoning that her desire to learn and the Moshae’s unofficial acceptance of her as a new student were reasons enough to celebrate. She could hardly disagree with him, and the sweet and fragrant smell of the red and yellow liquid was more than enough to entice her to share a drink with him. They clinked glasses and grinned at one another, about to continue their conversation when the bartender smiled widely and waved at an approaching figure.

     “Jaal! Share a glass with us! It seems the Moshae has taken herself a new student; your Pathfinder here,” Roaan winked at Ryder, going to the bar and pouring a small glass as the purple angaran took a seat beside her, his mouth open with surprise.

     “You-- she… you are her student?” Jaal asked quizzically, distractedly catching the glass as it slid across the bar, brow furrowed as he stared at her.

     “Uh… well not officially, I don’t think. I mean, I got a lesson from her today. About the angara,” Ryder said slowly, clearing her throat and feeling the blood start to rush to her cheeks. “I’d kind of hoped that she’d just point me in the right direction, but she sorta took charge.”

     “She does that,” Jaal answered with a small, wry smile, taking a small sip before tilting his head curiously. “Still, it’s been some time since she had a new student of any sort. Your eagerness to learn must have been sincere to pull her from her research, even for an afternoon.”

     “I… I guess,” she replied sheepishly, rubbing her cheek as she gave him a reproachful look. “I mean, I told you I wanted to know more. Or at least, I tried to say it.”

     He cleared his throat awkwardly and looked away for a moment, his finger running along the rim of the glass. “You did, I just-- I wasn’t…” he sighed quietly and rubbed his jaw before meeting her eyes hesitantly. “I wasn’t sure of your sincerity. And you’ll find Moshae Sjefa a far better teacher than I could be. Though I… I would welcome your questions, and answer if I can. In the future.”

     “Yeah? That’d be awesome. I mean, I’d appreciate it. Um, only if it isn’t too much trouble,” she said quickly, stumbling over herself as usual, and squirmed under his steady, inscrutable and piercing gaze.

     He took another sip and offered her the barest of smiles, before his eyes dropped down to his drink. “Who am I to deny such interest, when the Moshae would encourage it?”

     “Oh I’m definitely interested, I always was. I mean-- interested in the angara. Not that I’m not interested in you. I am. I mean-- you’re part of the crew and… you know…” Ryder inwardly groaned and facepalmed as she felt herself trip on her words and fall flat on the ground. Ugh, could she be more embarrassing? Really? Why did she even try to talk to him? She should’ve just downed that juice and ran the second he showed up.

      Jaal’s face contorted into a disjointed mixture of a smile and frown, clearly confused by what she’d just said, but she didn’t have the wherewithal to clarify. She was too busy trying not to have a heart attack, and willing the static away that she could feel tingling on the top of her head.

     Roaan, in the meantime, watched the exchange with an amused and discerning eye. He cleared his throat gently at the two dumbfounded patrons sitting across from him, and raised his glass towards them. “To growing interests and deeper understandings. May this only be the beginning of our journey together,” he said smoothly, a small smirk pinning itself in the corner of his mouth.

     “Yeah, to deeper understandings,” she smiled bashfully, lifting her drink and staring at it with far more interest than was warranted.

     “... and growing interests,” Jaal murmured, raising his glass as well, taking a sip with eyes fixed firmly on the Pathfinder. “Let’s hope this is only the beginning…”

 

 

 

Chapter Text


 

 

     “Ryder, noooooooooo!” Jaal shouted in a panic, his eyes wide as saucers as he gripped tightly onto the Nomad, stomach lurching when the Pathfinder stepped hard on the jets and dove off a cliff by the Remnant tower they’d just activated.

     Vetra cackled loudly, all but clapping her hands and shrieking in delight as they plummeted nose-first towards the ground, and a dark smirk curled Ryder’s lips as they landed with a thud, and sped down the winding pathways of Kadara.

     “That was awesome, let’s do it again!” the turian grinned, hugging the seat in front of her and leaning towards Ryder, ignoring Jaal who groaned and covered his mouth, while his other hand waved pleadingly against such an idea.

     “And they say I can’t drive,” Ryder snorted, fingers so tight on the steering wheel they were going white, eyes narrowed harshly as she looked in the rear view mirror, openly glaring at the angaran, who was too busy looking for a vomit bag to notice.

     Their arrival on Kadara had been fairly uneventful; they docked in the morning, but Sloane’s party wasn’t until the evening, so Ryder opted to clear some of their missions while she waited for her ‘date’ with Reyes. It wasn’t really a date, at least as far as she was concerned, nor did she even want to go. She couldn’t stand the leader of the Outcasts, from the moment they met. She could handle harsh and aloof and unfriendly, but outright rudeness and condescension? No, that was something else entirely, and after their sole interaction she’d already wondered if someone else should be in charge. Because she had no intention of playing nice with a woman who saw her as little more than a pawn to be used, when she was breaking her back trying to colonize an entire galaxy. Fuck that shit.

     Ryder had been feeling pretty optimistic after Aya; she’d relaxed a bit, and shared some unexpected and stomach-fluttering moments with Jaal. Maybe she was figuring this out after all. That was of course, until she’d made her rounds on the ship when they left. He said he’d be happy to answer what questions he could, and she took him at his word. Maybe they could actually talk now. So she mustered up some courage and went to him.

     And what happened? She made the mistake of asking Jaal about angaran biology. It was a legitimate question; they were a totally different alien, they were bioelectric, whatever that meant. She wanted to know more about it, and who better to explain than their local angaran? And she foolishly assumed that if he didn’t want to talk about it, he’d simply direct her to where she could learn. But no, that would be too simple. What did she get?

     ‘Pathetic.’

     Pathetic?! Just because once again, she’d tried to show an interest, attempted to reciprocate the inquiry by sharing a tidbit about human biology. Now she was a show-off? What the fuck! Just when she thought she was getting somewhere… But it was fine, she took it in stride, and made her excuses to go. She’d only started to scratch the surface about the angara, and she was still shit with her words. This was fine, just a hiccup. Let it go, and think about what to do next.

     She swapped her teams out regularly, making sure everyone got a chance to stretch their legs, learn to fight together, see who made the best combos for what. But she did tend to bring Jaal more than most, and that’s where her stalkery nosiness showed itself. She wanted to watch him with the other crewmembers. Wanted to see how he talked to them, how they talked to him, try to figure out what the hell she was doing that came off so ass backwards.

     So when she marked the handful of missions she wanted to clear for the day, no one was surprised when Jaal was the first one she picked to go with. And Vetra was always happy to shoot things, and one of the only people who never complained about her reckless driving. Seemed like a benign start to what would inevitably turn out to be an aggravating evening.

     And then Jaal started talking to Vetra about Peebee.

     Again .

     Peebee. There was no denying the asari had a carefree, nonchalant, and open charm about her; it certainly got Ryder’s attention when they first met. But then again, how many first introductions had she experienced with the person tackling her and straddling her hips? Hello . If that didn’t pique someone’s interest, nothing would.

     And Peebee certainly had the angaran’s, that much was clear. He’d already begun his ‘research’ on the Initiative’s aliens with the asari. Of course he did. No no, Jaal, that’s fine. Why would that be a problem? Who isn’t completely enraptured and enamored with them? What the hell do humans have to offer compared to an ethereal, mystical, ancient race of disgustingly beautiful, wise, and infinitely capable women who were all but designed to be attractive to everyone ever? Of course!

     Ryder gritted her teeth and slammed her foot on the jets as they sped up a steep incline, making their way towards-- where were they going again? Oh right. Retrieving the doctor’s drug formula thing. Yeah, hunting someone down. Vetra whistled happily, leaning back against the seat, perfectly relaxed, and Jaal let out another shuddering moan as his stomach continued to somersault.

     “Ryder, please… please stop the vehicle. I’m going to be sick,” Jaal groaned, making a retching noise when she slammed on the brakes indifferently and hopped out, cracking her neck and shaking her hands irritably as the static built up inside her. He fumbled his way out of the Nomad, hands gripping his knees as he bent over, taking several unsteady breaths.

     Vetra slid out of her seat, offering a husky chuckle as she patted Jaal on the back, before sauntering to the other side of the Nomad, and gave Ryder a knowing nudge. “Really out to punish him, huh?” she said quietly, a smile tugging at the corner of the turian’s mouth.

     Ryder glowered and snorted, crossing her arms over her chest as she tapped her foot impatiently, ignoring Jaal’s moans and muttered prayers to keep him safe from the Pathfinder’s maniacal deathwish. “Only one person he’s interested in, you said,” she hissed through a clenched jaw, the words barely audible, even as Vetra leaned in. “Think we know exactly who that is. Told you.”

     The turian sighed gently, glancing doubtfully between Ryder and Jaal, and offered a shrug. “... I don’t know what to say.”

     “There’s nothing to say. Peebee’s had her eyes on him from day one, he noticed it, you did too. And now he casually says that he’s finding himself looking back at her? Fuck this shit. I’m not gonna hang my hopes on someone who’s all up in that asari irresistibility. I can’t and won’t compete. I’m over it,” she huffed, her fists tightening as she roughly opened the door to the Nomad. “Jaal, you done puking? I wanna grab that formula before we head back.”

     “Over it? Sure you are,” Vetra quipped wryly, shaking her head slowly as she placed her hands behind her back and climbed into the passenger seat next to Jaal, giving him a sympathetic smile. “Almost done, you’re doing good so far.”

     “... I believe she is trying to kill us, though I’ve no idea why,” he whispered shakily, giving her a furtive and pleading look. “There’s no other explanation for the utter chaos she calls driving.”

     “Naw, this is just a bit of fun. You know, get the adrenaline pumping, remind ourselves we’re alive,” the turian smiled, stretching her arms and resting them behind her head as Ryder picked up her stomach-churning speeds again.

     “I do not need a string of near-death experiences to be reminded I’m alive,” he muttered, closing his eyes and taking several controlled, deep breaths in and out. “Sometimes you aliens are completely baffling. Why would you--”

     “Less complaining and more shooting. We’re here,” Ryder huffed, slamming the brakes again and lurching the Nomad to a sudden halt before she exited and slammed the door roughly behind her.

     To say Ryder’s choices were affected by her emotions more deeply than anything else, despite her penchance towards logic and intellect, would be an accurate statement. To say it was a dangerous way to make decisions; so impulsively and instinctively, would also be accurate. But with Ryder’s fingers snapping and sparking the way they were as they entered the covert research center, no one was going to point it out. They’d more likely get a biotic blow to the face than anything else.

     So after a brief and unfruitful exchange with the asari scientist inside, neither Jaal or Vetra were surprised when Ryder laid a devastating and indifferent nova the moment the woman turned hostile.  Now was not the time to get ‘uppity’ with the Pathfinder, not in the afterglow of her romantic frustrations. A loud boom cracked in the air and the light drained from the scientist’s eyes, body splayed disturbingly as Ryder bent down to pick up the tablet that slipped out of the woman’s hands. With a subtle tilt of her head, she scrolled down a couple times and nodded with satisfaction, letting out a small sniff as she motioned to her companions. “Got it. We can head back.”

     Whatever had wound her up during the first part of their day was quickly easing off after their recent violent encounter. Her fingers were loose and relaxed on the steering wheel, and she was driving at a pleasant and uncharacteristically easy pace. Safe enough that for once, Jaal wasn’t feeling sick to his stomach, and he leaned forward hesitantly as Ryder drove them back towards the port.

     “... Ryder?”

     “Mm?” she replied distractedly, her eyes distant as her mind began to drift towards her evening plans.

     “That scientist… you killed her without a thought. Your attack seemed instinctive, rather than conscious.”

     Ryder furrowed her brow, the rough texture of his voice invading her thoughts gently, and she nodded vaguely, not understanding where he was going with it. “She was going to kill me. All I needed to know.”

     Jaal nodded slowly, opening his mouth to speak, then pausing and closing it again for a few moments. He gave a quick glance to Vetra, who seemed to have fallen asleep, lulled by the rhythmic movements of the space buggy, and cleared his throat gently. “Yes, I’ve noticed that in the field you rarely hesitate. You are free and open with your emotions; they drive your choices, both in battle and as the Pathfinder.”

     “Guess so, never really thought about it,” she shrugged, pursing her lips as his words started to scratch somewhere in the back of her mind, shaking it off as she tried to steer her mind back towards her evening with Reyes and Sloane.

     “But outside of that… you are not so open. Why is that?” His words were slow and careful, and if she’d looked in the rear-view mirror, she might have noticed a bluish tinge to his cheeks, if she were paying close attention. But she wasn’t, too busy wrestling with herself to not stew over his expressed interest in Peebee earlier.

     “Anger’s easy. Self-preservation is easy. Acting on it doesn’t require any thought. It’s not personal,” she mused after a moment’s silence. “When feelings get personal it’s… not that simple. Not always.”

     Jaal took in her words, and turned them over in his mind, weighing and measuring them carefully before he looked at her through the rear-view mirror; her eyes focused only on the horizon as they approached the spaceport. “It is the opposite for angara. There is no hesitance when sharing feelings of a more personal nature. Whether building a friendly rapport with teammates or… expressing a deeper interest.”

     “... yeah, I’ve noticed,” she retorted dryly, only barely catching how heavily her words dripped with sarcasm before she flushed and cleared her throat. “I mean, nothing wrong with that. Lets people know where they stand straight away when you’re open like that. Makes it easier to… reciprocate, I guess, if someone’s clear about their… you know, interest.”

     “You prefer open communication? It... encourages you to be more open in return?” he asked trepidatiously, licking his lower lip as he slowly leaned back into his seat, rubbing his chin thoughtfully.

     “I think everyone does,” Ryder sighed, fingers pushing into her cheek with a mixture of annoyance and embarrassment, slowly becoming more aware of the nature of their conversation, and feeling increasingly resentful of it. She was not here to help him get with Peebee. He seemed to be doing a good enough job of that on his own. Ugh. “I don’t know about anyone else, but I don’t like games. I’d rather have someone tell me to my face that they’re interested, than be left guessing.”

     Jaal nodded, letting out a soft sigh as he rubbed his leg, brow furrowed as he continued to watch her through the mirror. “But if you are not open yourself, how is someone supposed to know if you are interested?”

     Ryder opened her mouth to say something, changing gears as they climbed up a steep hill, the port towering in the near distance. “Guess that’s my problem, isn’t it?” she muttered wearily, squeezing the back of her neck as they ambled towards the lower gates of Kadara. “The more I feel, the harder it is to show it. No wait, that’s not right. It’s… ugh. If I’m getting clear signals I don’t hesitate. Problem is when there aren’t any.”

     “... I believe I understand,” he replied quietly, mostly speaking to himself as she pulled up to the gates, watching her discerningly as she reached an arm back to poke Vetra awake.

     “C’mon, we’re here,” Ryder said abruptly, hopping out of the Nomad and stretching idly.

     “Mm, gotta get ready for your big date?” Vetra smirked, yawning as she exited the vehicle and joined her towards the elevator.

     “Big date? Yeah right. Last thing I want is to spend my evening stuck between an insufferable bitch and an unbelievably charming… whatever he is,” Ryder rolled her eyes and shook her head, kicking the ground as they waited for the elevator to descend.

     “Most people like charm,” the turian commented in passing, catching the way Jaal’s brow furrowed at the talk of Ryder’s impending outing.

     “It’s charming when it’s real, when it’s genuine. That guy… ugh. I don’t believe a word that comes out of his mouth. It’s too slick, too perfect. Like you know he worked those lines on a hundred other women before he finally got them right. Gross.” Ryder snorted and placed a hand on her hip, tapping her foot impatiently as she finally saw the platform making a slow descent towards them.

     “You’re awfully hard on a guy who’s bent over backwards to help us. Help you , specifically. I’m beginning to think you’re way fussier than you initially let off,” Vetra replied wryly, stepping onto the platform once the gates opened for them; Jaal following behind silently and attentively.

     Ryder smirked as the doors closed in front of them, and the platform groaned and creaked as it began its ascent. “Don’t even. You are not making me believe he’s doing this out of the goodness of his own heart, or as a way to get into mine. No one does that, especially not here. No, he wants something, everyone does. I’ll find out what it is soon enough.”

     “Oh I think it’s pretty clear what he wants. Or should I say, who,” the turian winked at the Pathfinder, chuckling with amusement when Jaal quietly pursed his lips in consternation, though he refused to join the conversation.

     “Uh, yeah, no thanks. Not interested in joining a long line of conquests. Seriously, I bet he’s got an ex in every port, and it’s been what… a year? Two years since he’s been here?” Ryder scoffed, completely oblivious to what was going on behind her, turning on her omni-tool and requesting a pickup from Kallo.

     “Just saying what I’ve seen. And heard,” Vetra shrugged, half-covering her mouth as Jaal’s expression transformed from confusion to annoyance.

     “Whatever, I’m gonna have a quick nap before I head out. Cause you know… I should be getting sufficient downtime or whatever it is Lexi is chewing me out for now,” Ryder said blithely, heading up the ramp once the Tempest landed, and gave a vague wave behind her as she headed for her quarters. “Good job guys, got a lot done today.”

     Vetra walked with Jaal into the cargo bay, tilting her head and noting how his eyes lingered when Ryder disappeared behind the doors. “So you do like her,” she commented with dry amusement, smirking when Jaal’s cheeks flushed blue and he cleared his throat uncomfortably. “Thought so.”

     “‘Like’ seems a paltry word to sum up the way she makes me feel,” he muttered with a frown, rubbing a neck fold idly as he moved towards one of the worktables. “She is an infuriating, heart-stirring, addicting mystery. The more I try, the less I understand, and the more I feel desperate to.”

     “Sounds familiar,” she chuckled to herself, heading to the armory and unloading her sniper rifle. “Friendly warning; she doesn’t know you feel that way. At all . You wanna get anywhere with her, you better step it up, and fast. Girls like her don’t stay single for long, if you know what I mean.”

     “You mean Reyes,” Jaal huffed, almost spitting out the name as he scrunched his nose. “Just another reason to despise this forsaken planet. But she clearly expressed no interest in him.”

     Vetra rubbed her cheek and smiled to herself before slowly taking the gun apart at the table, reaching for a cloth to clean each piece thoroughly. “Everyone loves a bad boy or girl, that’s a tale as old as time. And no one can resist being the one who caught them for good. And if you don’t start picking up your pace, that might be precisely how this story turns out.”

     The angaran brooded quietly over her words, frowning as he took apart his gun and slowly cleaned it, glad that it was only them in the cargo bay. After a few minutes of silence, he finally nodded. “... I understand. I will take your warning into consideration.”

     “Just trying to look out for a friend,” she replied quietly, sighing and shaking her head as she stared at her gun with an amused smile. “Or two...”

     Unfortunately for Ryder, it turned out that a few hours nap had done very little to improve her mood from before, and having to attempt any kind of pleasantries with Sloane Kelly simply ruined it even further. She was forced to say a sentence or two, and did so very reluctantly, before Reyes disappeared somewhere. Great, now she was left to mingle. She hated mingling.

     It’d become perfectly clear after the first hour alone with a bunch of strangers that this was no date at all. She knew it, she shouldn’t have bothered to come. He could’ve just told her what he was there for, she would’ve helped. Once she’d made the rounds with everyone in the room, she finally snuck out herself in search of the frustrating Spaniard. And thankfully, it didn’t take long to find him; skulking around in a storeroom not too far from Sloane’s ‘throne room’.

     “... really?” she sighed, leaning against the doorway, arms crossed over her chest as she watched Reyes looking over various crates discerningly. “So you used me as a distraction to go through Sloane’s stuff?”

     He turned back to look at her, a sheepish smile on his face. “I promise it’s for both our benefit…”

     “Yeah, you’ve been making a lot of promises lately,” she scoffed, arching an unimpressed eyebrow, standing up straighter when she heard footsteps approaching.

     “Shit, someone’s coming. We need a distrac--”

     Without warning she grabbed him by the shirt and pulled him in for a kiss, inadvertently making a soft approving noise when he wrapped his arms around her and pulled her in close. When the guard came into the room, she blushed brightly and cleared her throat, making a quick apology before vacating as fast as possible. Ryder smirked inwardly at their success, though it began to dawn on her that she hadn’t stopped kissing him, and he hadn’t pulled away. Her brain slowly focused on the way his lips brushed against hers, how his tongue dipped and stroked hers, coaxing just one more kiss from her. But just when it was beginning to register, he reluctantly moved back, a curious flush on his cheeks.

     “I think we’re in the clear,” he chuckled breathlessly, though even she couldn’t ignore the undercurrent of hope in his voice, the traces of unabashed desire. Or the strangely soft look in his eyes.

     … huh. She really hadn’t expected that.

     Ryder scrunched her nose slightly, a hand slowly trailing up his chest to wrap around the back of his neck, her nails gently scratching the bottom of his scalp. “How about one more, just to be sure?” she quipped, head tilting and eyes narrowing as she gauged his reaction.

     He shivered and sucked in a sharp breath, his fingers digging into her waist instinctively, before he laughed raspily and shook his head, letting go of her completely. “Now you’re just teasing me,” he said reproachfully, rubbing the back of his neck as he turned away from her.

     … interesting.

     “Maybe not,” she murmured, brow furrowed as she licked her lower lip, watching him steadily as he climbed up a crate, and revealed a single bottle. “... really? This was all for some whiskey?”

     Her eyes dulled as he lifted it into view, crowing about the exotic, aged rarity of it, looking at it doubtfully. “Well… I hope you plan on sharing it,” she found herself saying, though it wasn’t because she had any interest in drinking. In the back of her mind she was beginning to realize that she simply wanted an excuse to spend more time with him. Alone .

     “Maybe, let’s get out of here first,” Reyes replied, a twinkle in his eye as his lips spread into a smile, and took her hand as he led her out of the building.

     She followed silently, watching him with a curious and wry smile, staring down at their hands as they walked down the main pathway. He seemed to know exactly where he was going, heading towards the docks, though he took her up the stairs, keeping out of sight of any potential onlookers. Then up a short series of ladders, leading to a flat roof with a perfect view of the market. He held out his hand to help her over, a small smile on his face, and she took it before watching him take a seat.

     She silently sat kitty-corner to him and licked her lower lip slowly as she continued to observe him discreetly. Hm, tasted like him. What did he taste like? A little salty, a hint of sweet like honey, and a bit of something else. What was it, a spice? Like cinnamon maybe. The only way to know for sure would mean kissing him again.

     … she might be okay with that. For scientific purposes, of course.

     There was something different about him as they sat there, but she couldn’t quite pinpoint it. When they’d talked in the past he was cavalier in his flirtations, the devil danced in his smile, and there was an infuriating nonchalance in his charm. But now it felt… different. A little less flashy, and a little more real. The way his eyes twinkled as she shifted onto the roof, the boyish half-grin on his face as he sat on the edge, legs dangling over, waiting for her to sit next to him, the soft sigh that escaped his lips when he looked her way.

     He popped the bottle open and offered it to her, a knowing smile on his face, and she took it reluctantly. “Mm, not much of a drinker,” she remarked, though she took a long sip anyway, and handed it back to him. “Love a good roof though.”

     They continued to chat for a bit, but Ryder had to admit she wasn’t really paying attention to the words. She was tuned into the quiet yearning in his voice, the small smile in the corner of his lips that never quite left when he looked at her, the way he tried to glance at her when he thought she wouldn’t notice. It was like watching Reyes slowly pull off his mask, and she couldn’t deny she felt a thrill in her chest watching it happen. Still, she wasn’t a fool, and she wasn’t some starry-eyed schoolgirl. She had no delusions of grandeur, and she knew very well he wasn’t all that he seemed.

     Yet even so… there was something so easy, so natural about their rapport. And after her most recent and mind-boggling social-romantic hiccup, to say his company was a welcome relief would’ve been an understatement. She tilted her head when his eyes grew distant, looking out over the horizon, a small and wistful smile on his face.

     “I wanted to be somebody.”

     Her chest tightened and she sucked in a breath, her smile wavering as she stared at the market below. They could’ve been her words when she left the Milky Way, hell, they were the words inside her head when she woke up from cryo. She only hoped that Reyes hadn’t paid the same price she did for that ambitious longing.

     “Well… you’re somebody to me,” she shrugged, turning to him with a rueful smile as she passed the bottle back to him. Maybe it wasn’t enough to hear it, maybe her feelings didn’t run deep enough for it to make a difference but all she could say for certain was that it’s what she’d needed to hear when those thoughts ran through her mind. Except there was no one around to say it.

     Reyes froze for a moment, tilting his head and watching her discerningly, that smile still hanging in the corner of his mouth as he slowly placed the bottle down beside him. “I’m beginning to think that kiss was more than a distraction,” he murmured, a hand cupping the back of her neck as he boldly leaned in to kiss her, groaning contentedly when her lips parted easily so he could deepen it.

     They sat there for a while, one kiss slowly leading into another, each laced with a lazy sort of sensuality that sent ripples up and down her spine. His tongue felt so soft against hers, brushing it teasingly, no sense of urgency in his touch, though his other arm wrapped around her waist, pulling her tight to him. He was content to take his time, enjoy every moment she gave him, and make the most of it. He didn’t have to say it, she could feel it. And with that, a rush of butterflies danced around her stomach. Goddammit.

     Now this, she understood. This made sense.

     And just when she thought she might lose herself in the feel of his lips on hers, the way his fingers had started to spread around her waist, inching their way up, getting a thrill with every soft and pleased noise he made when she kissed him, or moved against him… he pulled back. A gasp left her mouth as she blinked, somewhat stupidly, brow furrowing as he stared into her eyes, an unreadable expression on his face. He licked his lower lip while his thumb brushed along hers gently.

     “You’re a dangerous woman to know, Jill Ryder,” he said quietly, the edge of his mouth curling upwards as his fingers slid through her hair lightly. “You’re the kind of woman that makes a man wish he was better than he is.”

     “You know my first name?” she asked with a jerk of her head, surprised to hear it fall off anyone’s lips. Not that it wasn’t a matter of public record, but there was always a certain distance between her and everyone else. She was always Ryder, or Pathfinder, never Jill. She’d started to assume no one cared to know, and that suited her just fine.

     Reyes laughed softly and nodded, reaching a hand to slowly scoop up her legs, and laid them on his, pulling her closer at the same time. “No one uses it?” he asked with amusement, trailing light kisses along her jaw and down her neck.

     “No,” she shrugged, biting her lip and smiling at his teasing, insistent ministrations, instinctively leaning into his touch.

     “Then I will,” he replied, nuzzling her neck briefly with a laugh, and sighing when she slid an arm around his waist, and settled more comfortably in his lap. He ran his fingers through her hair once more, staring at her in mild disbelief. “Mm, very dangerous.”

     Ryder just smirked and bent forward, barely having to move before his lips found hers, a hand sliding up his chest and wrapping around the back of his neck. Her stomach fluttered when he moaned quietly against her lips, feeling her tongue teasingly run along his. This is how it was supposed to be. This is what she wanted. Simple. No thinking too hard or looking too deep or talking too much. It just flowed, it was easy.

     When their lips finally parted again, his thumb was idly brushing along the inside of her thigh, and he gave her the kind of lusty smirk that sent heat straight to her hips. She furrowed her brow and licked her lower lip slowly, giving him a knowing smile. “Mm, definitely cinnamon.”

     “What?” he asked breathlessly, giving her a curious smile, running his fingers through her hair soothingly.

     She gave him a brief nod, biting her lip and fighting a grin. “Mm, how you taste.”

     “I taste like cinnamon?” Reyes laughed in disbelief, shaking his head as he squeezed her leg gently.

     “Honey and cinnamon,” Ryder answered easily, nipping his neck before leaning in for another warm and languorous kiss.

     “I suppose there are worse things to taste like,” he murmured with a throaty chuckle, wrapping his arms around her and sighing contentedly. “Well this evening turned out far better than I’d imagined.”

     “Maybe not the worst date I’ve ever been on,” she smirked, nestling her head in the crook of his neck.

     “I’ll make it up to you, I promise,” he relented, rubbing her back gently, and kissed the top of her head.

     “... uh-huh, sure you will.”

 

 

 

Chapter Text


 

 

     Ryder groaned and rolled over onto her stomach as she pulled the blankets tighter around her. “Mm, morning Sam,” she muttered, yawning and rubbing her eyes roughly.

     “Good morning, Pathfinder. Did you sleep well?” he inquired politely.

     “Yeah,” she smiled ruefully, scrunching her nose and burying her face in the pillow as she recalled the previous night’s rooftop adventures. “Surprisingly well.”

     “You did not return to the Tempest until quite late,” the AI commented, and she didn’t miss the curious tone in his voice.

     “Not normal for me, I know,” Ryder said wryly, easing her way onto her back and squeaking as she stretched her limbs as far away from her as she could. “Totally worth it though.”

     “Yes, you seem to have made considerable romantic progress with Reyes in a very short period of time. Have you transferred your affections?”

     She sat up slowly and rubbed her cheek, before running her fingers through her hair, smoothing it out lazily. “What? No. I mean… I don’t know,” she murmured, brow furrowed as she slowly slid out of bed and made her way to the couch, curling up idly. “I… it’s complicated, I guess.”

     Sam fell silent for a few moments before speaking up again, “Could you elaborate?”

     “On the one hand, Jaal is… I’m an idiot for him, plain and simple. There’s no good reason why I should feel the way I feel about him. He hasn’t shown any real interest, he flirts with all the girls and gives me crumbs by comparison, and it seems he’s got a major hard-on for Peebee. You’d have to be stupid to get butterflies and wistful daydreams about someone like that. But I’m stupid,” she sighed, gripping her hair tightly and hugging her knees as she stared at the view of Kadara from her room.

     “And Reyes? What are your feelings towards him?”

     Ryder opened her mouth to speak, but after a few awkward moments, she simply laughed sheepishly and shrugged. “I… I didn’t even really like him before. Don’t get me wrong, he’s handsome and charming and that accent… but it wasn’t enough. There’s more to him than he’s letting on; he’s hiding something, that’s obvious. But last night, last night was all shades of lovely,” she sighed, falling to her side on the couch, biting her lip and smiling. “I got a glimpse of the guy behind the mask, and he wasn’t as full of shit as I thought. I get under his skin, in the best way possible. He didn’t need to say it, and I didn’t need a translator to understand. For once, it made sense.”

     The AI considered her words, and she imagined him nodding sagely as he replied. “You observed some sincerity behind his advances, and it encouraged you to be more open to them?”

     “Yeah, that’s a good way of putting it,” she agreed, stretching her legs out and wriggling her toes. “Kinda makes things weird though. No idea what’s gonna happen the next time I see him.”

     “You foresee a complication, because of your long-held interest with Jaal?”

     “What? I… well, not for him anyway. I mean, pretty sure he doesn’t see me like that at all.”

     “I am uncertain if I can agree with that conclusion,” Sam mused after a brief pause. “While my attention is exclusively yours, I have continued to partition myself so that I am available to the rest of the crew…”

     Ryder tilted her head and narrowed her eyes mirthfully. “... are you saying you’ve been spying on them?”

     The AIs silence gave away an unusual impression of guilt, and she laughed softly as she reclined back onto the couch, propping her hands behind her head. “I do not log their private conversations, but I have a constant, background awareness of the crew. However, they are not free with themselves in the way you are with me. So I find myself in an unusual circumstance. Perhaps you could advise me.”

     “You want my advice? Talking about the tables being turned,” she smiled, shifting her position so she was stretched out onto her stomach, arms hanging over the side of the couch as she continued to linger on the craggy, barren view. “Go for it.”

     “Because of my continual, and oft ignored presence on the ship, I have attained a growing knowledge of the crew on a more… personal level. Due in large part to their conversations between one another. You have been the subject of some of those conversations.”

     Ryder’s eyebrows raised a bit and she opened her mouth slightly in surprise. “They’re talking about me? Well no, of course they might. It’s normal, people gossip.”

     “I find myself in a potentially difficult position. You are my first priority, and up to now I have placed no limitations on any information I may be able to provide, regardless of its nature or encryption. This was originally intended to speed the success of your overall mission as Pathfinder. But over the course of time, our relationship has… evolved.”

     “Guess it has, I hadn’t really thought about it, to be honest,” she shrugged nonchalantly, crossing her legs behind her and tapping her toes on the couch rhythmically.

     “It only occurred to me recently. You have been consistently open to my presence, my companionship, and have been forthcoming with any subject I wish to discuss. You didn’t discourage an investment in your personal welfare, and have allowed me a sensitive and intimate knowledge of yourself as a person, beyond your role as Pathfinder. Because of this I have a far deeper understanding of organics, and have attained it much faster, I suspect, than if I were connected to any other Pathfinder. I… value our connection. Greatly.”

     Ryder contorted her face and blushed, toes squirming a little as she rubbed her face on her forearms. “Awww, well… yeah. Me too.”

     “Despite the inherent danger coupled with my existence, you treat me no differently than you do the rest of your crew. A conscious choice that you enforce to any who question us, in open defiance of your father’s original intentions, I would like to point out.”

     “He was a brilliant man but a shit father growing up, and I doubt he counted for much more as a creator. Be glad you didn’t spend more time with him than you did,” she said with a wry smile, narrowing her eyes stubbornly as she thought of Alec Ryder. “You didn’t have a say in how you came to be, no one does; organic or synthetic. Sure, you could do some horrific things if you wanted, but so can anyone else, how are you any different? It doesn’t matter what you could do, it matters what you’re doing now; how you’ve helped us, how you’ve helped me . If I hide who you really are, no one will see that, no one will know. And they need to. The worst thing you can do is make someone feel like shit for something beyond their control. And being hated and feared, simply for existing? Yeah, doesn’t get shittier than that. No way I’m gonna let that happen to you.”

     Ryder’s voice was thick and heavy with anger, and Sam fell silent for a few minutes, his tone somehow softer than normal when he finally responded. “... you would protect my life with the same passion that drives you to protect others.”

     “You’re a person aren’t you? And you’re my person, in a way. You’re my closest friend and companion, I’m not going to let anyone do anything to you. That shit ain’t flying,” she snorted, glowering out the window as she thought of a couple particularly vocal anti-AI people she’d met since cryo.

     Sam remained quiet for several more moments, and Ryder rubbed her eyes tiredly, looking at the clock and debating if she shouldn’t have a post-wake up snooze, when his voice interrupted her slow blinking. “Earlier, I had told the Moshae that I could not say conclusively whether I ‘feel’ or not.”

     “Yeah, I remember,” she murmured, turning onto her side and reaching over vaguely for the tablet on the coffee table in front of her.

     “I believe I may have just experienced an emotion, as you might understand it.”

     “Really? What was it?” she smiled, swiping over to the list of missions boredly.

     “Your words… the way you see me. It is… I am touched. Deeply, if I am analyzing it correctly.”

     “Well, it’s the truth,” Ryder said sheepishly, scrunching her nose and fidgeting her feet.

     “I believe now would be an appropriate time to share my reciprocation of your sentiments. I would protect your life to any extent possible.”

     “God, listen to us; we’re turning into a couple of right mushballs,” she laughed with embarrassment, cheeks flushed with pleasure as she stood up and rested her feet on the coffee table. “Drack would disown us both.”

     “Not if this conversation took place mid-fight amongst a fleet of kett,” he offered, making Ryder smirk mischievously.

     “Too true.”

     “As unexpectedly meaningful as our conversation has become, we have detracted from my original quandary. May we return to it?”

     “Welcome to conversations with people; where nothing stays on topic if you talk for long enough,” she chuckled, dropping the tablet and standing up to stretch, scratching her tummy as it began to rumble.

     “Yes, I’ve begun to notice that. I will put it simply: I have overheard multiple conversations in the recent past where you are the subject. I am unsure if I should share the details; to do so would mean breaking the unknowing confidence of some of the crew, but up until now I have made you my first priority in all aspects. Should that extend to a personal level as well?”

     Ryder whistled and scratched the back of her neck, looking at the floor doubtfully for a while before letting out a resigned sigh, and shook her head. “No, it shouldn’t. As much as I’d love to hear the gossip directly… people should have their privacy. If anyone wants to say something, they can say it to my face. Otherwise, let’s leave them to it.”

     “Understood. I have another question.”

     “Damn, making me feel like I’m way smarter than I am,” she laughed, heading for the closet as she pulled on a pair of pants slowly.

     “Your overall intelligence is actually quite high, compared to other organics.”

     “Aw, well thanks. Nice coming from someone who’s IQ is basically unknowable,” Ryder smirked, filching through her tank tops and pulling the same old white one out.

     “Your social intelligence, however…”

     “Oh here it comes, Sassy Sam to the rescue. And just when we were having a moment too,” she groaned, though the smile didn’t leave her lips as she slipped into a fresh t-shirt.

     “Sarcasm has proven to be an effective tool when socializing with others. It is familiar to most, makes people laugh, puts them at ease, makes them more receptive to my presence and further conversation.”

     “And makes you an occasional pain in my ass. Your question?”

     “I have been keeping private logs of our conversations. I believed you wouldn’t mind, was I correct in that assumption?”

     “Of course. I mean, it’s basically just for yourself is what you’re saying?” Ryder grabbed her leather jacket and slipped it on, rubbing her cheek doubtfully as she quickly walked a few feet into the galley and picked up some meal replacement bars and a bottle of water before heading back towards her couch.

     “Yes. It allows me to go over some of our previous interactions, mark certain conversations that have proven significant to either of our personal progress.”

     “I get it, sticking things to memory. We do that too, that’s fine with me.”

     “Thank you. And one last thing, relating to our initial topic of conversation when you awoke.”

     “Sure.”

     “You have a new email from Jaal on your personal console. Originally sent last night when you were out.”

     Ryder had just taken a bite of her nutrition bar, and her chewing slowed down to a halt as she stared across the room at her desk.

     “... I believe you should check it.”

     She took in a slow and shaky breath, feeling her stomach suddenly twist into one giant knot, standing frozen in between the couch and the desk. “... uh-huh.”

     Sam paused for several seconds before venturing to speak again. “... would you like me to archive it?”

     “... did you read it?” she asked, her throat going dry as she swallowed the mouthful with difficulty.

     “I did. You gave me permission to access to all your personal communications and logs.”

     “And?”

     “And I believe you should read it.”

     Ryder pushed her lips out slowly, running her tongue across her upper teeth, a soft smacking noise echoing as she dragged her feet towards her computer. “... uh-huh.” She sat down uncertainly and furrowed her brow as she opened up her emails, seeing the new one from Jaal in bold. She chewed her lip for a moment before sucking in a sharp breath and clicking on it, her eyes slowly widening as she scanned the contents.

     “What.”

     “Pardon?”

     “What. The. Fuck.”

     “You are… I am uncertain how to define this reaction.”

     “What the fuck!?” Ryder’s heart started racing and she turned her chair away from the console, eyes darting back and forth in confusion, before she turned on her omni-tool. “Cora.”

     “Hey Ryder, morning!” the vanguard’s cheerful voice replied. “What’s up?”

     “I need you. My quarters. Now .”

     “What? Shit, of course, be right there.” Not more than a couple minutes later, Cora rushed into the room, breathless as she walked over to Ryder, observing the stunned expression on her face with worry. “What’s happened? You okay?”

     Ryder stood up in a daze and vaguely pointed to her console. “... that. Read that.”

     “What?” she asked in bewilderment, taking a moment to catch her breath before she dutifully sat down and scanned the open email. Slowly her face transformed from confusion, to a level of utter shock that matched Ryder’s. “... holy shit.”

     “Right!?”

     “What?!”

     “RIGHT?!”

     “This is… wow. Wow . Did anything happen that you haven’t told me about?” Cora asked with a quick exhale, turning to the Pathfinder with an incredulous look.

     “No! I told you about the balcony, right?” Ryder had begun pacing back and forth between her bed and the desk, hair starting to rise as she shook her hands irritably.

     “Yeah, kinda sweet really,” she replied, scrunching her nose and smiling, rubbing the back of her neck as she glanced back at the email. “But that doesn’t-- was there anything else?”

     “No! I mean… dearest? Flirting? When the hell have we flirted? Like… never. And I think I’d know. I’ve seen him flirt with you guys, I’ve had Reyes talking smooth to me from day one; I know what flirting looks like. When the fuck have we flirted? When he called me pathetic? When he told me to go away? Am I crazy? I’m not crazy, right? He’s crazy, right?” She stopped mid-stride and threw her hands up helplessly as she gave Cora a pleading look, but unfortunately her fellow biotic could only laugh and shrug in disbelief.

     “… maybe? It doesn’t-- we’re missing something here. Clearly there’s something we’re not seeing. Cause he’s seeing something. And he’s definitely feeling something. You keep saying he was flirting with us, but I know for a fact he hasn’t sent any of us emails like this. Just you. So that’s gotta mean something. Something’s happened between you two. You sure you didn’t trip and fall on his lips or something?”

     Ryder laughed and shook her head, her stomach alternately fluttering and churning. “I think I’d remember if I suddenly fell into Jaal’s arms, and miraculously smashed my mouth against his. Seriously, I wouldn’t be keeping that little tidbit to myself.”

     “Right, right, no of course you wouldn’t,” Cora sighed, chewing her lip gently as she re-read the email slowly, carefully taking in each word. She smiled ruefully as she glanced at Ryder briefly, shimmying subtly in the chair. “He said he could imagine your smile… Ryder, that’s really sweet. Like… this whole thing is so sweet. He seems really keen on you.”

     “God, I hate him! I was right in the middle of-- I swear to god he’s been on Peebee’s tail! Just yesterday he was talking about her with Vetra while we were out! Just when I thought we were-- and I tried to talk to him and he called me pathetic. I told him I was interested in him and it just-- and then Peebee-- and then last night… oh my god. Reyes. What the fuck is it about that man?! I was this close to just letting it go and moving on. Fucking hell, I’ve got the guy to move on with lined up and waiting right outside the docks! And then he sends me this?! Just pulls me back in like it’s nothing. What the fuck! Is he trying to kill me? Is he just Evfra’s spy sent to drive me insane and foil my inevitable plans of taking over the galaxy? Oh holy shit, that makes so much sense. That asshole would do it. Both those assholes… it’s a conspiracy ...”

     Her words spilled out like a retching vomitous mass, and Cora felt dizzy trying to keep up with her. Her voice became more and more strained, her gestures more and more wild as all her thoughts and frustrations came bouldering out together in one long verbal tangle. Her eyes widened towards the end, mouth gaped open as she slowly sank into the couch. “That’s it. They’re trying to drive me insane. And it’s working…”

     “Ryder, please don’t repeat what you just said to anyone, or they will most certainly put you away,” Cora chuckled, shaking her head and sighing as she joined her on the couch, whistling softly. “He’s clearly got you a bit unhinged, but I think it is what it is: a really open, sweet, romantic letter. He’s laying his feelings at your feet, my god, who doesn’t want that? You should be thrilled, not panicked. Why are you so panicked?”

     “Thrilled? If I thought he meant it I might be. But he’s been so-- it’s felt so all over the place. He’ll say something, he’ll look at me a certain way, I’ll see a strange glimmer in his smile and I’ll think wow, maybe there's something there. Something amazing. That once in a lifetime ‘what the fuck did I deserve to have this magic’ kind of amazing. And as soon as I let myself think that-- it’s gone. He’s cold, it’s distant, it’s weird and warped, and his eyes are elsewhere and-- it just kind of kills me a little every time.” She sighed and held her face in her hands, hunched over her knees as she shook her head. “And Reyes. My ‘date’ turned out a lot more like an actual date than a mission. Him and I were making out on a rooftop for most of the evening. I’d thought-- and then Jaal sends me this? God, I hate my life sometimes.”

     “Reyes? I thought you couldn't stand the guy. Didn't trust him for spit, at the very least,” Cora replied, eyebrows raised in surprise. “Last night on the roof, huh? Yeah, that puts a wrench in things a bit.”

     “Just a bit, maybe.” Ryder sighed tiredly and slumped back against the cushions. “I don't trust him, he's lying about something, or a lot of things. And frankly, I’m fairly certain he’s this Charlatan people keep murmuring about, he's certainly slick enough for it. But last night, I don't know. I saw a different side of him. Or I got to really see him for the first time. And he is genuinely into me. And it… it felt good .”

     “Well, shit.” Cora huffed and fell back with her on the couch, staring at the wall, completely dumbfounded.

     “Yeah.”

     “And then this email.”

     “Yeah.”

     The vanguard pursed her lips and scratched the underside of her jaw silently, ruminating over their conversation so far. “I mean, this can't have come out of nowhere. You sure nothing happened since the balcony? Think. You said you told him you were interested?”

     “I must be a sucker for punishment, cause I've tried to tell him a couple times. Tried subtle at first, suggesting he could show me what he'd been doing to his gun. Like I couldn't tell from looking at it. Stupid, I've been tinkering with shit since I could hold a tool in my hand,” Ryder muttered with a bitter laugh. “Thought it was neat, seeing someone else who liked to take things apart and figure them out.”

     “And the next time you told him?”

     “I don't know, I got nervous and words just kinda spilled out and I think the words ‘you’, ‘I am’ and ‘interested’ made their way into the sentence. Hopefully. His response was kind of… bleh. Not yes, not no, didn't know what to make of it,” she shrugged, crossing an arm over her chest and stretching the other along the back of the couch.

     “Anything else before the balcony?”

     “Sure, I mean, made the rounds with him like everyone else. Mostly fruitless and awkward and terse. Pretty sure there wasn't chemistry building there.”

     “Then the balcony.”

     “Yup.”

     “I mean, that's pretty romantic, if you think about it. Beethoven and his favorite spot; beautiful view, just the two of you. I mean, you guys were there for quite a while, weren't you?” Cora smiled slowly, leaning her whole body to nudge Ryder with a knowing side glance.

     Ryder bit her lip and flushed faintly, giving a brief nod and a shaky sigh. “Yeah, I mean… listening to music. He asked about some of my favorites, and why they were. Told him about my mom and how she got me into it. But mostly we were quiet. And even when we spoke, it wasn't flirting.”

     She nodded slowly, brow furrowed in deep tonight, shaking her head as her mind kept stopping at a blank space. “And then?”

     “Well, the next day I was running around Aya while the Moshae gave me a lesson about the angara. Saw him at the end, at the Tavetaan. He had a drink with me and Leeral. Not like a drink drink, it was juice. Celebratory juice,” the Pathfinder chuckled sheepishly. “Again, we didn't talk a whole lot, and definitely no flirting.”

     “You never told me about that,” she frowned, lifting her legs into the couch and crossing them. “Still, doesn't quite fit.”

     “Nothing happened, didn't think it was worth mentioning. We weren't even alone,” she shrugged indifferently.

     “After that?”

     “At the bar he said he'd be happy to answer my questions. Who was he to deny such interest where the Moshae would encourage it. Thought, finally! We can talk. So on our way here I tried.”

     “I think we’re getting somewhere. How'd it go?”

     “Okay at first, I thought. He actually answered a few questions, and then I asked about biology and he ended up calling me pathetic. I guess I didn't pick up the cue that he didn't want to talk about it, and shared a bit about our biology. Called me a show-off. Ugh, embarrassing. I really thought I was getting somewhere.” Ryder exhaled slowly and rested her head on her shoulder, partly twisting her body so she could face Cora.

     “Then we got here, and you took Jaal and Vetra. You said he was talking about Peebee?”

     She groaned and scrunched her nose, her eyes darkening as she recalled the previous day. “Yeah. A while back Jaal commented to her that he noticed Peebee has been staring at him. She waved it off as that's her being her. Yesterday he brought it up again and said that he found himself looking back. And he's started his alien research with the Asari. Of course.”

     “Of course,” Cora muttered, rolling her eyes and smirking. “Everyone and their varren is intrigued by them.”

     “Yup.”

     “So what'd you do after he said that?”

     A slow and evil smirk started to nest in the corner of Ryder's mouth. “... I dove off a cliff and made him scream and get sick to his stomach. Had to stop the Nomad before he puked in it.”

     Cora’s eyes widened and she laughed in surprise, pushing the Pathfinder’s side firmly. “Ryder!”

     “What? Asshole deserved it. Doubly don't regret it now. Don't talk about looking at Peebee in the afternoon, and then send an email talking about my smile in the evening. What the hell,” she snorted with derision, picking at the cushion with her fingers agitatedly.

     “Yeah, that's… no, you're right. It's not exactly clear cut here.”

     “Hell no.”

     “Then that was it? You guys headed back? No more talking or anything?”

     “Mm, he talked to me a bit when Vetra fell asleep, after I killed that scientist lady,” Ryder mused after a moment, then waved it off indifferently.

     “What'd you guys talk about?” Cora slowly straightened herself, eyes narrowing as she watched her closely.

     “Uh… can't really remember? I was thinking about Reyes and Sloane. Something about how I don't hesitate in the field. I work off emotions and… I'm not like that when I'm not fighting? Asked why, I don't know. Figured it was gonna end up with some kind of criticism so I tried not to pay too much attention in case it left me wanting to punch him in the throat,” she admitted guiltily, shrinking a bit under Cora’s harsh gaze.

     “You're an idiot, he was asking about you personally! Think, what else did he say? What did you say?”

     “Ugh, I don't know! Said if it's not personal it's easy, when it gets personal it's sticky, hard to be open to people if I don't have a clear signal that they're interested.”

     “Well I think you got your clear signal. Finally it makes sense.” Cora sighed in relief and propped her head up with a hand, smiling knowingly.

     “Oh. Shit. I guess you're right,” Ryder laughed in surprise, rubbing her cheek and smiling bashfully. “Guess he meant what he wrote in that letter, huh?”

     “Laid his feelings at your feet. Adoring your strength and imagining your smile. He went all out, I'd keep that email if I were you. Not the kind of thing you get, ever,” Cora smirked, sharing a silent wistful grin with Ryder. “Shit, I think this officially counts as progress.”

     “Guess it does, huh? Except… Reyes.”

     “Right, almost forgot about him. Well, did he ask you out again? Express interest in a relationship?”

     “No, not exactly. Just… kissed like teenagers on a roof all night, and he dropped me off at the Tempest.”

     Cora scratched the side of her head, pursing her lips as her eyes went distant, then finally shrugged. “Sounds like one of those wonderful secret, stolen moments but… maybe that’s all it is? I mean, as far as romantic intentions go, I think Jaal finally made himself perfectly obvious. You really gonna give that up for a guy who you know is lying, one you’ve admitted multiple times that you don’t trust?”

     Ryder sucked in a deep breath and looked back at Cora doubtfully, finally shaking her head as she bit her lip. “Not when you put it like that. After an email like that, I guess I’d have to be a complete idiot to give up on him now.” Her eyes narrowed shrewdly, but she couldn’t quite shake the pink tinge to her cheeks, or the tiny smile that hung stubbornly off her mouth. “Shit. Progress .”

     And as the rest of the day progressed, that smile only got wider, and no matter what she did, there was no getting rid of it. Shortly after Cora left, she queued up the day’s missions on Kadara, and opted to take out Drack and Liam with her. There was a strong undercurrent of joy as Ryder charged enemies, and flattened them out with thunderous novas. An extra lightness as she jumped up with her jetpack, dodging enemies left and right. And an infectious sense of playfulness as she taunted kett; taking cover only to charge them, then immediately disappearing to the other side of the battlefield, like the most twisted and lethal game of tag. When they returned to the Tempest for dinner that night, all of them had refreshed looks on their faces, coupled with wide grins.

     And then the rumor mill began again. What had put Ryder in such an insatiably good mood? The crew had started speculate, but no one ever found out, though the knowing smiles between Cora and Ryder seemed to hint that at least one person on the ship knew what was going on.

     Late into the quiet hours of the night, Ryder was stretched out on the couch, staring blankly at the ceiling, butterflies still dancing without pause. Her head turned to look at the console hesitantly, brow furrowed as she scratched her cheek.

     “You are considering Jaal’s email again?” Sam asked quietly, gently interrupting her flow of thoughts, the way only he ever did.

     “Yeah. Am I supposed to reply to it? Started thinking I probably should,” she sighed, hand sliding across her bare stomach and tapping her fingers on it idly.

     “It would be polite to at least acknowledge it, particularly considering you are reacting so positively to his romantic advances,” the AI reasoned after a brief pause.

     She huffed and sat up, curling her legs to her chest, and hugged them lightly. “Yeah, except I’m shit with words. I guarantee you if I try to type something, it’ll be a complete gong show and I’ll ruin whatever chances I have.”

     Sam listened to her concern, calmly replying, “Then perhaps it would be better if you chose a gesture that didn’t require words.”

     Ryder jerked her head for a moment, pushing her lips out thoughtfully before a small smile began to sneak onto her face. “You’re onto something. The barkeep was telling me how expressiveness for the angara wasn’t limited to words. Gifts, gestures, affection, they’re valued just as much. It all shows how one feels. Oh my god. I could make something, that I could do. Maybe it’s time to stop trying to be someone I’m not, and failing miserably, and just be me. Which is… someone who does , rather than says.”

     “I believe this is a sound plan of action,” Sam agreed readily, and Ryder grinned, standing up suddenly before she began to slowly pace.

     “Okay, a gift. Something I can make. He’s got his gun, doesn’t need more, wouldn’t use it. What do I know about him? What do I think he’d like? What could I build with my own hands that might mean something?” She ran her fingers through her hair, staring at the door to her quarters with narrowed eyes.

     “A personal meaning?”

     “Yeah. I mean, I wanted him to feel welcome when he came, but I don’t think I did a good job of it. He took a risk coming with us, a ship full of strange aliens. He left everything he knew behind, just to help. And when he saw what we were about, he stayed…” she murmured, rubbing the back of her neck when her eyes suddenly lit up. “Oh my god, I’ve got it! It’ll take a while, I’ll need some help, but I think I’ve got an idea.”

     She grinned and bounced on her heels, grabbing her earbuds from her desk and popping them in, turning on her omni-tool and putting on some upbeat tunes. She checked the time, head starting to sway to the rhythm, and made her way out of her quarters and into the cargo bay. It was well after midnight, no one was gonna be up, except for maybe Drack, but he wasn’t there when she stepped inside; barefoot, in nothing but her underwear, dancing and skipping to the beat, unaware of anything but the schematics she began to build in her mind.

     Ryder stopped at the workbench to the right, pilfering through the different scraps and electronics, licking her lower lip and beginning to gather different parts and tools in her arms. She spun around and smiled, a tingling, fluttering feeling of hope and excitement taking over everything else. She looked in the different bins and crates next to the bench, carefully picking a few more pieces, swaying her hips and humming to the song, then turned on her heel and went back to her room, arms all but overflowing with the treasures she’d collected.

     She’d been completely unaware of the angaran on the other side of the cargo bay. Hadn’t heard him call her name, and step away from the workbench on the left, where he’d been tweaking his assault rifle. Jaal’s eyes widened when he discovered her state of undress, eyes involuntarily roaming the curve of her stomach, the planes of caramel-colored skin, the lithe muscles in her legs, the mesmerizing rhythm of her hips as she danced to the music in her ears. A shaky sigh left his lips and he cleared his throat, saying her name again, not wanting her to turn around and scream in fright. But she didn’t hear.

     Brow furrowed, he found himself frozen on the spot, unable to tear his eyes from what was a wondrous but private moment. What was she doing? Why was she gathering all those things so late at night? But there was a small smile on her face, a secret smile, as though only she knew the reason behind it. The smile everyone had been talking about earlier that evening. The lightness in her step, a sudden freeness in the way she moved. And it was perfectly evident, seeing it with his own eyes.

     … could it be?

     He opened his mouth and gasped, a twinkle starting to appear in his eye as he tilted his head, licked his lower lip and saw how she paused a moment, looking upstairs, her smile widening. She bit her lip and scrunched her nose, spinning a last time before she headed out the doors and back to her quarters. He felt a forceful ache in his chest and he rubbed it idly, before finally stepping back towards his rifle, a small smile hanging firmly in the corner of his mouth. A smile that would stay there all night and into the next day.

     So, she read his email. And if he was correct, it was very possibly the reason behind her sudden, infectiously uplifted mood.

     … perhaps he was making progress after all.

 

 

 

Chapter Text


 

 

     A few days later Ryder parked the Nomad inside the cargo bay; cheeks flushed and hands tremoring slightly. She opened the door and slid out, her steps short and measured as she pulled out her omni-tool, lips forming a smile so tight that it threatened to tear at the corners.

     “Kallo?”

     “Yes, Pathfinder?”

     “Please set a course for Eos.”

     “Eos?”

     “Yes, I think I’m done with Voeld for the moment.” Her smile never wavered and her voice was sweet, but there was a hollowness in her words that Jaal couldn’t help but notice, and he exchanged quizzical glances with Peebee as they exited the vehicle.

     “Course set.”

     “Good.” She let out a strained sigh and turned to them, her full lips all but gone as they pressed into a thin line. “Well, good job guys! For… you know, stuff.”

     With that she zipped straight past them and headed towards the galley, her smile quickly disappearing and her eyes hardening furiously. The door slid open and she leaned against the doorway, crossing her arms over her chest. “ Drack ,” she said flatly, rubbing her fingers together as she felt the static building between them.

     He turned around and scanned her up and down quickly, groaning as he rested an elbow on the counter. “... aw shit. What happened?”

     “I need some krogan time.” Ryder bristled when she heard the cargo bay door open, and caught Jaal pausing to look at her. She sucked in a sharp breath and avoided his gaze, swiftly stepping inside the galley and shook her hand a few times as the door shut behind her. As she ran her fingers through her hair she could hear the faint snaps of electricity as the topmost strands began to lift away from her head. “Fuck! I am having a very bad day.”

     “Yeah, the electric overcharge kinda gave it away. Well, that and your murder face,” he chuckled, shaking his head and looking at her warmly. “Another round of krogan talk therapy, huh?”

     “Yup.” She laced her fingers together and pushed the heels of her hands out, stretching her arms and grunting, muttering under her breath.

     “Alright, kid. You guys got my email explaining the proper format?”

     “Yup.”

     “Alright, so we pick a place and an enemy that reflects the problem. What you got in mind?”

     Ryder licked her lower lip, eyes narrowing, and Drack thrummed quietly at the dangerous glint in them. “... you remember that big Remnant thresher maw monster we ran into on Eos?”

     Drack rumbled and smiled, crossing his arms over his chest and puffing up a bit. “Yeah. You wanted to focus on some bullshit task instead. Promised me we’d come back and get it.”

     “Today’s the day we get it,” she quipped with a dark grin.

     “Shit, that’s a big problem. Well, it’ll be a good opportunity to talk, get your feelings out,” he boomed approvingly, pounding his fists together in anticipation. “Who’s coming with us?”

     “Why even ask? Only person I’ll ever bring to therapy,” Ryder smirked, flexing and curling her fingers alternately, and taking a deep breath in, trying to calm her body down.

     “You got the course set?”

     “The second I got out of the Nomad.”

     “That’s fast. Bad run on Voeld?”

     “I don’t think it gets any fucking worse,” she hissed, shaking her head as she rested her face in her hand.

     “Shit. You took Peebee and Jaal out with you.”

     “Yuuuup.”

     Drack’s eyes wandered over her face, then down to her hands, her fingers still flicking and sparking in agitation every once in awhile. “Don’t worry, I’ve got you, kid.” He pulled out his omni-tool and pressed a couple buttons. “Hey, Cora.”

     “What’s up?” Cora replied cheerfully on the other end.

     “We’re heading to Eos. You, me and Ryder.”

     A long groan could be heard, ending with a weary sigh. “Shit. Krogan talk therapy?”

     “You know it.”

     “... alright. I’m gearing up, lemme know when we land.”

     “Will do. Oh, and Cora?”

     “Yeah?”

     “It’s a bad one. We’re going for the Remnant maw thing.”

     “... double shit.”

     “She’s sparking like mad, gonna be a good session!”

     “God, you know what? I’m just gonna start warming up now,” Cora muttered before signing off.

     Drack laughed huskily, shaking his head and pounding his fists together. “Now you’ve got me excited. Your bad days turn out to be some of my best.”

     “I just need to nova the shit out of something. Hard. As many times as possible.” Her hands clenched into fists, fingers turning white she was pressing them into her palm so tightly.

     “Out of everything we’ve seen so far, I’d say it’s the best option. Man, I can’t wait to hear what happened. What’s our ETA?”

     Ryder shrugged and cracked her neck on both sides, and shrugged her shoulders a few times. “Soon.”

     “Alright well grab a snack real quick then. Can’t be low energy when you blow your biotics extra hard, we’ve seen it before. Your attacks get weak and it just pisses you off,” Drack noted wisely, taking a seat at as he pulled out the new shotgun Ryder bought him, inspecting it from every angle with a contented sigh.

     “Yeah, lemme just change real quick first, I think I anger-sweated through my clothes,” she nodded, shaking her hands out as she headed out the door and directly into her suite.

     “And they said humans were too soft for krogan talk therapy. Huh,” Drack smirked to himself. “Live long enough, you see everything. Hm, wonder if we can keep its head as a trophy…”

     A short while later, the three of them were speeding across the deserts in the Nomad; Ryder’s hair frizzing, fingers snapping and gripping the steering wheel tightly, jaw clenched so hard she risked damaging her teeth.

     “So…” Cora said after several moments of thick silence. “... something bad happen on Voeld?”

     “Yup,” she said shortly, slamming on the jets as they started to approach where they last saw the enormous Remnant robot-monster.

     “Should probably give us a summary before we head out,” the krogan prompted, loading his shotgun with a rough click, thrumming quietly with excitement. He’d been waiting a long time to get his gun in that thing’s face.

     “I told you about the email, right?” Ryder said slowly, nodding to Drack.

     “Yeah, not much, but you were finally going in the right direction,” he shrugged, looking out the window as he flexed his fingers stiffly.

     “Well I’m pretty sure it’s all just bullshit,” she hissed, eyes darkening as she saw the gracefully floating figure of the Architect in the distance.

     “What makes you say that? It really sounded sincere,” Cora asked quizzically, checking the sights on her rifle as the robot started to make its way towards the Remnant ruins they’d parked beside.

     Ryder snorted and unhooked the rifle on her back, unlocking the safety and loading it with an aggressive click. “Because him and Peebee spent the entire afternoon flirting with each other. Like she might as well have been in his lap kind of flirting. In the Nomad.”

     “Told you you should have shot him,” Drack grunted, hopping out of the vehicle, and running to one of the large square columns, quickly taking cover, raising his voice after the Architect landed and let out a deafening scream. “Remember your breathing! Focus on the fight, and make your words count. This is a big son a bitch, no time for bullshit.”

     Ryder clenched her jaw and charged straight for the Architect’s massive, metal-toothed mouth; Drack shouting with approval and Cora crying out in panic as she pushed forward and took cover closer to the Pathfinder. “Shit Ryder, you trying to get eaten by that thing?!” she said shrilly, aiming for the smaller energy cores as Ryder dashed away and took cover.

     She just growled in response, grinning darkly when some ‘smaller’ Remnant robots emerged to flank them. She charged them as well, laying down a nova with a resounding boom, before dodging the large and humming laser that ripped the ground directly towards her. “I can imagine your smile, your fucking smile?! And then he spends the entire afternoon flirting with her, in front of me?!?!? Fucking asshole!!!” Before anyone could reply, she was rushing the robots again, slamming a nova down, one after the other, roaring with anger until they were lifeless on the ground.

     Cora groaned and jetted to some cover further to the right, continuing to whittle down one of the energy cores. “No, no that doesn’t sound right. There must be a misunderstanding.”

     “Misunderstanding? There’s no misunderstanding, he’s a dick!” she shouted, lunging for the Architect’s mouth again when she saw the center light up. “Get him when he’s open!”

     Drack rumbled with acknowledgement, moving up as well after another gigantic laser beam chased after Cora, eyes quickly darting to the left as another round of Remnant bots headed for him. After a few shotgun blasts he roared and charged forward, headbutting the shielded one, and moving aside as Ryder finished him off with another charge and nova. “Peebee is a flirt, we all know that. She doesn’t mean anything by it.”

     “Oh she meant something, I swear to god she was ready to crawl into his lap! What the fuck, people! Right in front of me?! Get a fucking room!!” the Pathfinder yelled, hair standing on end, fingers snapping loudly as she pulled out her assault gun and helped Cora disable the smaller energy core. “I couldn’t even leave, I was driving!!”

     “You know what, I’ll shoot him,” the old krogan growled, laughing as he dodged a beam speeding towards him. “No one messes with my humie.”

     “Be my guest, I’m so sick of this bullshit,” Ryder snorted, dashing to take cover with Drack, and smacking him on the back roughly. “I love you, you grumpy old man.”

     Drack just smirked and huffed, his chest puffing out a bit before he yelled and charged forward, aiming his shotgun at the left-hand energy core. “... I know.”

     “I’m telling you, something about this doesn’t feel right!” Cora shouted, grimacing as the other two conspired their violent solution, ducking for a few harried moments before narrowing her eyes and aiming for the second energy core. “I’ve seen the way he looks at you! The day after he emailed you, he was all goopy smiles. He never goopy smiles!”

     “Fuck his goddamned smile, fuck his beautiful face, and fuck his fucking email!” Ryder called out furiously, grunting when the Architect let out another deafening scream; unlodging itself from the ground and soaring above them as it retreated. “Goddamned motherfucking asshole, don’t you run from me!!”

     Drack burst with husky laughter, hooking his shotgun to his back, and punching Ryder in the shoulder as they stalked back towards the Nomad. “That’s it, get that rage out! Better out than in.”

     Cora inhaled sharply, fighting to catch her breath as they got into the vehicle, and sped down a short ways to another set of Remnant ruins where the Architect had now planted itself. “I get you’re angry, and it’s not wrong. But I just… asari are pretty open with their feelings, and so are the angara, you said so yourself. Are you sure it wasn’t them just talking?”

     Ryder snorted and shook her head, murder in her eyes as she slammed her foot on the jet boosters, lurching the Nomad to a halt as she charged straight for the Architect’s face again; dashing to cover, and then charging its face again, shouting incomprehensibly. Cora groaned and ran her fingers through his hair, and Drack just continued to laugh as he hopped out, running forward to give the Pathfinder support.

     The vanguard joined her teammates behind some cover, giving Drack a furtive look. “She’s blowing her biotics something fierce, she’s gonna be more than rough when we’re done,” she warned the krogan, though he waved dismissively with a sniff, before whipping his shotgun out and aiming at a new wave of bots.

     “If it’s a good session, you come back with scars. This is some deeply rooted shit, you should be glad she’s being open enough to let it out,” he said dryly, cursing and dashing to the left as another laser tore through the ground near them.

     “You’ve got a point,” Cora sighed, zooming forwards to take cover with Ryder, who was currently panting desperately for breath, running her fingers through her hair. “So you’re sure they were flirting.”

     “What the fuck else could it be?? It got to the point where I was so fucking uncomfortable I actually said so!” Ryder bristled and licked her lower lip, leaning to the side as she aimed her rifle at the last sparking mini-core, emptying her clip before continuing. “And what’d they do? Rolled their eyes at me! ‘Clearly humans aren’t as open with their feelings’. What the fuck!!”

     “They’re not wrong,” Drack rumbled as he joined them, dangerously close to the Architect, its shadow looming over them as they finished off the last core, eliciting another earth-shattering cry. “We’re getting close, good work so far!”

     Ryder shouted and cursed when the Remnant giant screamed, charging for its face as soon as it lit up. She flew up in the air, fearlessly smashing its central core before jetting back to cover, her muscles yelling in protest at her relentless attacks, barely giving herself time to recover. “Yeah, I’m sorry we’re not as open as other races. I’m sorry that humans don’t dry-hump the legs of their team-mates IN A CRAMPED SPACE AFTER THEY SENT A HEART-STOPPING ROMANTIC EMAIL TO THE PERSON WHO’S TRAPPED DRIVING THE GODDAMNED MOONBUGGY!”

     Cora cursed softly as they split off when the Architect’s thrummed with a bone-chilling bass that vibrated their chests. “No, you're right, this has taken a fucked up left turn,” she reluctantly agreed, emptying her clip into the Remnant’s glowing mouth. “So what are you gonna do?”

     The Pathfinder’s hair crackled furiously, half standing on end as she made a last charge for its mouth, Drack and Cora following up with a few more rounds of gunfire when it let out a final deafening scream, the lights going out as the Architect fell to the ground with a thundering boom. She hunched over, hands gripping her knees tightly, her lungs raw as she gasped for breath. “Do? There's nothing to do,” she said wearily, struggling to find words. “I give up.”

     Drack and Cora exchanged meaningful glances before nodding, their breathing heavy as they slowly approached her. “Don't blame you kid, life's crazy enough without this bullshit.”

     “Yeah…” Ryder said hoarsely, sniffing and roughly wiping her eyes with the back of her hand. “I'm done trying.”

     The other vanguard bit her lip and hesitantly stood beside her, placing a hand on her shoulder and squeezing it gently as she strained to stand up straight. “I'm sorry Ryder, I know how much you liked him. I really thought there was something there.”

     “So did I,” she replied shakily, pursing her lips and flexing her hands a few times before she clipped the assault rifle to her back. “Guess I was wrong. Wouldn't be the first time. Whatever, just move on.”

     The ancient krogan nodded, waiting till Ryder started limping back towards the Nomad, cursing under her breath as her muscles screamed in agony. “I'll drive,” he said authoritatively. “You pushed hard.”

     Ryder nodded vaguely, too exhausted to argue, sliding into the back and slumping against the window. Cora pursed her lips, rubbing the back of her neck as she tried to make sense of the Pathfinder’s latest revelations.

     They drove back to the Tempest in comfortable, weary silence, Drack rumbling and muttering under his breath as he ruminated over the fight. “Good session,” he finally commented gruffly, hands sliding back and forth along the steering wheel. “Best one yet.”

     “Yeah,” Ryder said raspily, looking at her teammates fondly for a moment. “Needed this, thanks guys.”

     “We've always got your back,” Cora said with a small smile, patting Ryder’s knee lightly, rubbing her cheek as she looked out the window.

     “Course we do,” Drack agreed with a terse nod. “You're gonna be sore tomorrow, better get your ass some medi-gel when we get back. Have fun explaining it to Lexi though.”

     “God, right. Lexi,” Ryder sighed, scrunching her nose as she squeezed her stiff arms. “... she's gonna kill me.”

     “RYDER, WHAT THE HELL DID YOU DO?!” Dr. T’Perro shouted several minutes later when they arrived at the medbay, a mixture of anger and shock on her normally tranquil and calm face.

     “Nothing, just a little fight with an Architect,” Ryder mumbled, her arm slung over Drack’s shoulder, Cora on the other side bracing her waist as they helped her onto a bed. “Just need some medi-gel and I’ll be good as new.”

     “Explain yourselves,” Lexi hissed, pulling out her omni-tool and scanning Ryder, eyeballing all three of them with a death-glare that sent shivers up their spine, even the krogan’s.

     “It’s fine Lexi, just an intense session of talk therapy,” Drack said huskily, clearing his throat and shifting on his feet, shrugging nonchalantly as the doctor slowly turned to face him.

     “Talk therapy,” she parroted flatly, snorting as she looked at the results, and rubbed two fingers along her brow firmly. “Talk therapy does not involve the amount of damage that the Pathfinder has done to herself. You couldn’t even walk in here on your own!”

     “... leg cramp,” Ryder said easily, also avoiding Lexi’s direct gaze, rubbing her thigh idly. “Like I said, some medi-gel and I’m good.”

     “Medi-gel is not going to fix this!” the asari cried out with exasperation, throwing her hands up in the air. “You need rest. Serious rest. I’m going to have to give you an IV of fluids, muscle relaxants and painkillers. You’ve practically torn the sacs around your eezo nodes, you won't be able to use your biotics for weeks at this rate. You can’t keep doing this, you’ll end up killing yourself. Ryder, are you listening? I mean actual death. I’ve half a mind to pull you off this project entirely. I want a real explanation, and I want one now .”

     Cora cursed under her breath, looking worriedly between Ryder and Drack, and rubbed the back of her neck. “It’s like Drack said. Just a session of krogan talk therapy. She pushed herself hard, really hard, but she’ll be alright. It was bad, but I don’t think it’ll be half this bad next time.”

     “You’re damned right it won’t,” Lexi snapped, closing her eyes and exhaling softly as she pinched the bridge of her nose, fighting to collect herself. “Drack, kindly tell me about krogan talk therapy?”

     “Therapy, krogan-style,” he said shortly, clearing his throat when the asari arched a brow at him. “Talk therapy but in the field; you talk while you fight. Lets you focus on what’s really bothering you, cut through the bullshit cause you’re breathing heavy and have to use your words smart. Gets the excess energy out, productive-like.”

     “And does it always leave your patients a physical wreck?” she asked sharply, extending her hand and pointing to Ryder accusingly. “I am not going to allow this to continue if that’s the case. She’s been walking a fine line for weeks as it is, this ‘therapy’ is going to kill her if she doesn’t back off and back down.”

     “Sometimes,” Drack said with a wry smile, looking at the groaning Ryder fondly, who’d given up the ghost and laid down on the bed with a weary sigh. “It was an intense session, but she got it out. She’ll be good. Won’t you, kid?”

     “I’m good,” Ryder mumbled, covering her face with a hand. “Seriously, please. Medi-gel.”

     Dr. T’Perro’s eyes flashed sternly at the Pathfinder’s weak request, before sighing and relaxing her shoulders, shaking her head as she began to put an IV together. “I am taking you out of the field for at least a week. I want you in here for check-ups and IVs daily until your condition stabilizes. And I’m putting an end to this ‘krogan talk therapy’ if this is the result, getting it out or not.”

     “Nope, not ending it,” the Pathfinder huffed, exchanging glances with her teammates, a twinkle in their eyes despite Cora’s obvious hesitant concern. “It works for me, and I trust them.”

     “Yes, I can see that, so well,” Lexi said dryly, shaking her head as she delicately hung up the IV and inserted the needle into Ryder’s arm. “I don’t want to bar you from an emotional and psychological outlet that you feel is beneficial, but you absolutely 100% cannot push yourself this hard. You may have the heart of one, but you are not in fact a krogan, nor do you have their extra organs or iron-clad resilience. Is that understood?” The asari darted her eyes sharply to the three of them, arching an eyebrow expectantly until they each nodded and grunted in assent. “Fine. Everything else stands. Daily check-ups, which you will not miss, IVs until you are stable, two weeks off from biotics, and at least one week off from any physical strain; I don’t want you so much as lifting a finger . Have I made myself clear?”

     “Yes, mom,” Ryder said tiredly, groaning as she attempted to roll onto her side, before Lexi firmly placed a hand on her stomach to stop her.

     “Honestly, you three. Ryder has a penchant for recklessness, but I expected better from you. Especially you,” the asari huffed, giving Cora an extra shrewd look.

     Cora’s mouth gaped open and she scoffed, crossing her arms over her chest. “Me? Why’m I in trouble? What was I going to do, let the two of them go out alone? They’d get themselves killed without me, and you know it.”

     “You’re all in trouble, as far as I’m concerned,” Dr. T’Perro quipped smoothly, pulling her omni-tool out again and scanning them both. “Hmph, as I suspected. You’ve also pushed yourselves too hard. That’s it, get on the beds. IVs for everyone.”

     Drack and Cora looked at each other doubtfully, and Ryder turned her head to watch them with pained amusement. Finally, she wasn’t the only one to get into trouble.

     “I’m sorry, did I stutter?” Lexi asked serenely, arching a brow, placing a hand on her hip when Drack hummed stubbornly. “Beds. Now. The pair of you. You want krogan talk therapy so badly, you can face the consequences.”

     The krogan pushed his lips out, staring at the asari hard for several seconds before grunting and making his way to the furthest bed. “Most productive session we’ve had yet,” he grumbled, sitting down with an annoyed sniff.

     “I can’t disagree,” Cora said wryly, throwing her hands up in the air when Lexi threw her a disapproving glare, and followed suit onto the middle bed, lying down comfortably. “Can’t imagine what would’ve happened if she’d kept that in.”

     “Probably would have shot him,” Drack chuckled, extending his hand out when Lexi approached him with an extra large bag of pale green fluid. “Not that he doesn’t deserve it.”

     “Too true,” the vanguard laughed hoarsely, rolling up her sleeve and looking away as the doctor inserted her IV; always rather squeamish around needles.

     Ryder groaned and wiggled her toes, sniffing as she stared up at the ceiling, before craning her neck to look at her teammates; hooked up to IVs, with Lexi hovering between them like a mother hen, scanning and taking notes and clucking her tongue in annoyance. She licked her lower lip slowly, scrunching her nose as a warm feeling began to fill her chest. “... worth it.”

     Drack sniffed sharply, a small smile hanging in the corner of his lips, and Cora bit her lip, fighting off a grin as they met her eyes. “... worth it,” they agreed.

 

 

 

Chapter Text


 

 

 

     It’d been a few days since the Tempest crew landed on Aya for their impromptu week-long shore leave, but they’d seen neither hide nor hair of Ryder since she returned from her excursion on Eos with Drack and Cora. The news spread pretty quickly that something had gone bad while they were there, because the Pathfinder had been cloistered either in the medbay or her quarters, and wasn’t taking visitors. Drack and Cora were keeping mum on exactly what happened, with the ancient krogan simply commenting, ‘It was a great fight, we kicked some serious ass.’

     It wasn’t nearly enough to sate anyone’s curiosity or concern, but a subtle arch of the brow and no one dared press him further. After some discreet discussions back and forth, the conclusion became that whenever she recovered, she’d likely give them a proper explanation. At least, hopefully a bit clearer than the krogan’s cryptic responses.

     And while Ryder said she’d given up and needed to move on, it turned out Jaal wasn’t quite that easy to extract from her mind. Especially since she’d spent her days off stiff, sore and hobbling, muscles yelling in protest at most every movement; a constant reminder of the person who inspired her physical destruction. She refused to acknowledge it, but she was slowly sinking into a depressive state, and no one saw that more clearly than Lexi and Sam; the only people she’d spent any time with since the asari put her emotional antics to a halt.

     “Ryder… what’s going on?” Lexi asked gently, checking her vitals when her IV was nearly finished. “Your recovery has been startlingly quick the last few days; the worst is over, but you’ve withdrawn even more than usual. Everyone has been asking about you, yet you’ve refused visitors.”

     “Mm, thank Sam for speeding it up,” she offered a tired half-smile refusing to address the latter portion of the doctor’s inquiry. Her body felt sluggish and drained, though most of the throbbing, raging soreness had disappeared.

     “I have made an effort to temporarily improve the Pathfinder’s rate of absorption, both for the pharmaceuticals you’ve been providing, as well as the food and water she’s been consuming. I am glad to report that it’s increased her recovery rate by approximately twenty-five percent,” he responded helpfully, and the doctor responded with warily pursed lips.

     “While I appreciate your assistance, I would like to point out that you also allowed her to get into this state. Given how closely you two are tied, you were conspicuously silent when she first arrived here,” Lexi said calmly, though she arched an eyebrow.

     The AI didn’t speak for several beats, and Ryder smiled wryly at the conveyed sense of guilt, rubbing her stomach with her free hand as Lexi carefully removed the needle from her arm. “It is against my protocols to directly interfere with the Pathfinder’s choices. I am no less invested in her welfare, moreso now than when we first joined, but she has impressed the importance of free will; for myself and others. While I may not have approved of her abandon in battle, it was the least dangerous way to vent her emotions, given the other options she presented. And in all things, I choose to support her.”

     “So it’s four against one, is what you’re saying,” the asari sighed wearily, rubbing her cheek as Ryder slowly sat up on the bed, giving her a furtive look. “I would just like to remind you that if there is anything on your mind, big or small, I’m here to listen. Your emotional well-being matters just as much to me as your physical state.”

     “I know, sorry I’m such a pain.” Ryder offered her a rueful smile and patted her arm lightly, sliding off the bed and stretching her limbs out weakly. “I’m fine, I swear. Just sore and tired still, didn’t want people spending their week off fussing over me. Let them go out and enjoy themselves.”

     “You could attempt to do the same,” Lexi suggested softly, performing one last scan before she walked with Ryder to the door. “You have a few days left, and I’m half inclined to prescribe a few more. I wanted you to take it easy, but getting out and relaxing would help. Perhaps you might think about taking a walk; finding a nice, quiet spot and decompress for a while. Get some sun, read a book, listen to some music, perhaps even just tinker with one of your projects.”

     “You’re right, maybe I will, can’t stay holed up in my quarters forever,” she sighed, scratching the back of her neck as she offered her a half-guilty, half-warm smile. “You know Lex, you’re a great doctor, really. Everyone else would’ve given up on me by now.”

     “I’ve heard the stories about the infamous Ryders, and the heart palpitations they give their doctors,” the asari answered with a wry and knowing smile. “I was aware of what I was potentially taking on when I took my post here.”

     The Pathfinder chuckled quietly, nodding as she pushed a finger into her cheek. “We’re a handful, I know. I mean, don’t feel bad. You aren’t the first doctor to yell at me, believe me.”

     Lexi cleared her throat sheepishly, darting her eyes to the left for a moment, pressing her lips together. “Not my finest moment as a physician, and the first time I’ve ever raised my voice to a patient.”

     “I don’t think I’ve ever had a doctor that didn’t eventually shout at me,” Ryder grinned wider, giving her arm a gentle and meaningful squeeze. “I don’t mean to give you a hard time, I swear. We’re headstrong, impulsive and reckless, the lot of us.”

     “And it’s what’s taken us this far,” the doctor admitted with a smile, a small twinkle dangling in the corner of her eye. “But like everyone else on this ship, I’m here to support you, let me do that.”

     She sighed wearily, looking into the asari’s eyes in silence for a while, before reluctantly nodding. “Yeah, of course. Look, I’ll try and be good. I’ll put on some proper clothes and head out for a bit, take a walk or whatever.”

     “I’m glad to hear it,” Lexi exhaled contentedly, and gave a subtle nod when Ryder left the medbay, brow furrowed as she watched her head back to her room, opening her mouth hesitantly after a few moments. “... Sam, you sure she’s alright?”

     The AI took his time responding to her, as though debating on what to say and how to say it. “She has been experiencing some… personal struggles recently.”

     “I thought as much,” the asari murmured, going back to her desk and arranging a few tablets on it with unconscious precision. “Despite my worries, it’s heartening to see she’s been opening up to more of the crew. Equally to see how deep their loyalty to her is growing. In the long-run, I believe she’ll be much better off for it.”

     “I agree with that conclusion, Dr. T’Perro,” Sam replied calmly. “When she first arrived, she had only myself. But now it seems she is coming out of her shell, one might say.”

     “Yes, that’s exactly it. Well, I won’t pry further. If she wants to share with me, she knows my door is open. Thank you, Sam.”

     “You’re welcome, Dr. T’Perro.”

     Ryder headed back to her quarters quietly, shrugging her shoulders a few times and sighed as she dragged her feet towards the closet. She rifled through her clothes for several seconds before groaning and walking back to the couch, sitting down with a tired sniff. Her eyes fell on her most recent ‘project’; a mysterious medium-sized cube sitting on the coffee table, covered with a grey cloth, tools and bits of scraps strewn on the normally pristine and empty surface.

     “... Ryder, have you changed your mind?” Sam queried gently, and she rubbed her cheek idly, letting out a soft breath. “Do you not intend to go out?”

     “Where am I gonna go?” she sighed, leaning back on the couch and extending her legs onto the table. “If I go out now, I'll be stuck talking to people, and I'm not in the mood for useless chit-chat.”

     Sam fell silent as the Pathfinder continued to brood, leaning forward and sliding the cloth off, looking at the glass discerningly. “... your gift for Jaal is nearly complete,” he commented, eliciting a curt nod. “After all that's passed, do you still intend to give it to him?”

     Ryder's eyes narrowed and she pushed her lips out, running her fingers along the glass casing with a soft sigh, settling around the thick metal base at the bottom. “I don't know…”

     “When you originally began, you expressed the desire to make him feel welcome, to create something personal that would reflect your sentiment better than your words. Has that changed?” he asked, rather pointedly she couldn't help but notice.

     “... no, of course not,” she said wryly before she covered the large container again, and headed back to the closet, grabbing a pair of shorts and a large low-necked white t-shirt. She changed slowly, her muscles still grumbling quietly with every large movement she made. “I just… no, I guess it doesn't matter now. I'll give it to him, just don't know when.”

     “Your teammates have become increasingly concerned because of your absence the last few days. It’s well known that something happened in Eos, and that it’s the reason for their sudden shore leave. They also know that you were injured seriously enough to spend regular amounts of time in the medbay.” Sam’s words always seemed so calm and matter-of-fact, regardless of what kind of news he was relaying. She wondered if his inflections would continue to change the more time passed.

     “Yeah, I know,” she murmured, wrinkling her nose as she put on her boots, staring at the door uncertainly. “I’m just kind of embarrassed now, when all’s said and done. I wrecked myself over a guy I liked, that didn’t like me back. Seems really childish and stupid now.”

     “It could be perceived that way, yes,” he agreed, making her give him a shifty side glance. “However, you are not nearly as emotionally expressive as the rest of the Tempest crew, at least not about personal matters. It is unlikely they would judge you as harshly as you judge yourself. You have few emotional outlets, and Drack’s therapy does appear to settle you after a session.”

     “It does,” she smiled ruefully, sitting down on the edge of the bed, resting her elbows on her thighs as she leaned over, eyes still fixed on the door. “You two are right, I shouldn’t hole myself up in here. I should get back out there, do something. Just don’t know what. I thought going after that Architect would help me get it out but that stupid, beautiful purple angaran is still on the brain. Wish I could let him go as easily as he dismisses me.”

     “Romantic interest is a curious phenomenon that I am still uncertain I understand. There are numerous other factors involved, beyond sexual attraction. Although it has come to my attention that some people choose simply to acquire bed partners, rather than romantic ones,” Sam observed, pausing for a moment expectantly, waiting for her opinion.

     “Depends on what people want, sure,” she shrugged, clasping her hands together slowly. “Nothing wrong with it, and I know some people who’ve ended up together after starting off with a no-strings situation. Problem is… I like strings.”

     “You prefer an emotional attachment to be coupled with sexual activity.”

     “You make it sound so clinical when you say it like that,” she chuckled, a small smile growing on her face. “But yes. Maybe it’d be easier if I just cut out feelings and went for some adult fun but I don’t know, there’s something about being emotionally connected to someone that just… heightens everything. It runs deeper, adds to the thrill, the excitement, an element of risk.”

     “The Ryders do have a reputation for being ‘thrill-seekers’, and you’ve certainly displayed that behavior since you woke up from cryo. It seems logical that you would seek an adrenaline rush from all aspects of life, not only in the dangers of our work together,” he reasoned after a few quiet moments, making Ryder roll her eyes and laugh softly.

     “I’m not an adrenaline junky,” she said with mirth-filled defensiveness, rubbing her cheek and leaning back on her arms. “Well… okay, maybe that’s not strictly true. But it’s not like I’m hunting for the next thrill without a thought or care. Not like I don’t enjoy some peace and quiet.”

     “True, you have proven to be quite an introvert, particularly of late,” he said gently, and she could feel the reproachfulness in his voice.

     “Yeah,” she murmured, scrunching her face and shrugging. “I just need to distract myself; a night to forget about the stupidness of my crush, and the disastrous results it's yielded.”

     “Do you have any ideas about what you might do?”

     Ryder craned her head back to look out the windowed wall of her room; the sky a wash of fading colors as the sun had recently disappeared from the sky. “What time is it?”

     “It is approximately 7:30pm, Pathfinder.”

     “Mm,” she nodded thoughtfully, licking her lower lip and furrowing her brow. What would her brother do if he wanted to distract himself? If he were with her, she’d be far more inclined to ‘break’ and get a little wild, as she was wont to do every once in a blue moon. He’d crow and cackle as she let down her guard and let go of her iron-fisted control; more than happy to come along for the ride and stir up even more trouble with her.

     But he wasn’t, and she wasn’t sure if there was anyone else she trusted enough to really let loose with. On top of the fact that her ‘letting loose’ usually ended up with her and Jack in some kind of tight spot; sometimes hilarious, sometimes dangerous, sometimes both. It always made for a great story, but could she really afford that, now that she was the Pathfinder? Back in the Milky Way, it was easy enough to be reasonably discreet, keep her name out of things but now? Not likely.

     Ryder sighed and pressed a couple fingers into her temple, licking her lower lip as she continued to brainstorm. Well… what could she do alone that would properly empty out her mind, and give those relentless churning mental wheels a break? And then it dawned on her.

     She could get drunk.

     It wasn’t really her thing; her brother was the real drinker and party-er between them, but… why not? She could go to the Tavetaan, have a drink or five, and stumble her way back to the Tempest. It’d clear her head, get her a little stupid in a much more tolerable way than recently, and she was far less likely to injure herself in a manner that she wouldn’t want to explain to everyone. She could sneak out without anyone knowing, and just grab a quiet table by herself. And if all else failed, she could chat with Sam if she really wanted some conversation. Yeah, that was a good idea. After all, she was young, and for all the other stories she’d acquired, she’d never gotten properly drunk before. Gotta experience it at least once, and if there was ever a person to drive her to drink, it was Jaal.

     She pressed her lips together, eyes narrowed on the door as a twinkle started to dangle in them, and stood up, brushing her hands on her shorts. “Alright, I’ve got a plan,” she said, taking in a slow and determined breath, when suddenly there was a knock on the door.

     “Ryder, I know you’re in there. We need to talk,” Peebee’s muffled voice interrupted Sam’s tentative inquiry.

     Her chest suddenly tightened, and her heart leapt into her throat at hearing the asari, fidgeting with her hands uncertainly. What was she doing there?

     “You can stay quiet if you want, but I know you can hear me,” Peebee huffed, and the Pathfinder could imagine a small and knowing smirk on her teammate’s face. “I know something’s been going on, I know I’m part of it, and I think we need to clear the air.”

     Ryder’s stomach churned fitfully and she chewed her lip, brows pinching together nervously. She knew? What could she know? She wanted to forget all that bullshit for a night, not air it out with yet another person. Of course she could simply deny it, try to redirect the conversation away from the asari. Or she could remain silent and wait for her to give up and go away, and sneak off the ship after she’d disappeared.

     What to do?

     In a split second she let out a soft groan and pulled out her omni-tool, unlocking the door and crossing her arms over her chest when it opened, and Peebee stepped in immediately, hands on her hips and tapping her foot.

     “About time, I was ready to give up,” the asari said ruefully, taking a moment to scan the Pathfinder up and down, pushing her lips out thoughtfully. “You don’t look so hot.”

     “Been a bit under the weather, thanks for noticing,” she quipped dryly, attempting to keep her tone casual, even though there was a certain vein of bitterness pulsing in the back of her mind. She’d always gotten along really well with Peebee, enjoying a certain light-hearted flirtatious banter, but she couldn’t help becoming more aloof the more Jaal seemed interested in her.

     “Not hard to see, considering you’ve been an antisocial hermit since you came back from Eos,” Peebee sighed, jutting out a hip as she dropped an arm, raising an expectant brow. “Rumors have been going around that you blew your biotics extra hard and it left you a mess. No judgement, I’ve done it before, and I suspect our reasons weren’t that different.”

     Ryder flushed slightly and cleared her throat, avoiding the biotic’s shrewd gaze, which only made her smirk triumphantly.

     “Yeah, that’s what I thought. Look, I think we need to talk, there are some serious crossed wires going on. Let’s go for a drink and iron it out, okay?” she said with a half-smile, her tone cheerful but subdued.

     She furrowed her brow uncertainly, her stomach clenching uncomfortably as she considered the offer. Iron things out? Ugh. Really not what she was looking to do tonight. Still… she could get a drink or five, and maybe Peebee could get a little tipsy with her. Maybe then they wouldn’t have to ‘talk’ talk. The asari was always down for a laugh, and as long as they avoided the subject of the angaran that drove her so batshit, maybe it wouldn’t be that bad. “... okay, I guess,” she said reluctantly, giving Peebee a vague nod as she followed her out, sticking her hands in her pockets.

     The asari gave her a sigh of relief, her eyes twinkling as she instantly looped an arm with Ryder’s, moving at a good clip as she led the Pathfinder off the ship and down the long pathway towards the Tavetaan. “Good, maybe we can get things back to normal,” she said, giving Ryder a meaningful squeeze with her upper arm. “You haven’t really stopped by to talk to me lately, been missing our little chit-chats.”

     Ryder sniffed and darted her eyes away guiltily as she licked her lip and tried to think of an acceptable response. “I’ve just… had a lot of things on my mind lately. You know, chasing after the Archon and all.”

     “Ryder, come on. Do I look like I was born in the last decade?” the asari snorted, her steps driven and determined as she looked ahead to the bar. “There’s only one reason you’ve been avoiding me, and we both know who that is.”

     She bristled and wrinkled her nose, her hands loose in her pockets as they walked in silence for a while; not exactly able to deny it, but refusing to confirm it. God, she was so embarrassing. Why couldn’t she just be a normal, not awkward person and behave how any normal, not awkward person would when they found themselves with an unrequited crush? Why hadn’t she just ignored Peebee’s insistent goading? This was the last subject she wanted to discuss, but there was no avoiding the asari’s shrewd focus now.

     “We’re not a thing, you know,” Peebee said casually as they turned the corner and headed down the steps to the Tavetaan. “And we’re not gonna be a thing either.”

     “What?” Ryder asked quizzically in spite of herself, taking a seat as Peebee motioned for her to grab a table in the far corner, neatly tucked away from prying ears, and went to the bar to get them a couple drinks.

     A minute later the asari re-joined her, two drinks in hand; one a bluish-purple and the other a mix of red and yellow, slowly blending into each other, which she slid across the table towards Ryder. “Yeah, I thought you’d gotten it wrong, especially since you went loco after Voeld. Couldn’t wait to get out of there, huh?”

     The Pathfinder shifted in her seat uncomfortably, taking a small sip and testing it out; hm, sweet, kind of fruity, but rather strong. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

     “Hun, come on. Jaal may not get us Milky Way aliens, but I’ve been around enough humans to know what’s what. You got upset because of the way we were on Voeld. Cause you like him, like… a lot. And you thought he was into me,” Peebee said with a tired sigh, taking a large gulp of her drink, and leaned back into her chair, a small smile on her face. “But he’s not, believe me.”

     “Do I look like I was born in the last decade?” Ryder scoffed, her irritability showing as she took a bigger sip, flexing and curling her fingers on the table. “I think I know heavy flirting when I see it, I’m not that clueless.”

     “Sweetie, I flirt with everyone, including you I’d like to remind you,” the asari smirked, running her finger around the rim of her glass. “Jaal’s comfortable around me, I get him in a way you guys don’t seem to yet. The asari are more open with our feelings, relatively speaking. And he’s been having a hard time adjusting on the ship, though he tries not to show it too much. We can talk about stuff together, joke around. Thought maybe if you saw us being relaxed around each other, it might encourage you to take the stick out your butt and join us, but I thought wrong. That was my bad.”

     She frowned slightly and sat straighter in her chair, her spine going stiffer at the pointed teasing. “I don’t have a stick up my butt.”

     “... really?” Peebee quipped with a deadpan stare. “Look, I get it, and it’s not like I blame you. You’ve got a lot of crap to deal with, a lot’s been thrown into your lap. And you’re clearly already kind of weird and shy to begin with, and that’s okay. But you really haven’t noticed the way he stares at you? Cause the rest of us have, he’s not even discreet about it. Honestly, you two are kind of adorably hopeless.”

     “I don’t get what you’re-- what?” Ryder asked with mild frustration, shaking her head slightly as she tried to recall her interactions with Jaal around the ship. Staring? He’d never stared. Except maybe during some embarrassing, awkward pause right before she’d make her excuses to go after another of their disastrous ‘chats’ on the ship. “He doesn’t stare.”

     Peebee laughed and shook her head, rubbing the back of her neck as she took another slow sip. “Goddess, seriously Ryder? I know he’s a new alien and all, but some things are kind of universal. You walk by and he gets stuttery and flustered, when we’re out in the field he’s a useless turd half the time; just gawping and watching you fight with stars in his eyes. After you guys hung out on the balcony, he had me hunt around the Nexus for classical music so he could listen to more. I mean… how could you not know? You got his email, didn’t you?”

     “Wait a minute, how’d you know about the balcony? Or the email?” she asked slowly, narrowing her eyes suspiciously at Peebee.

     “Uh, cause he couldn’t stop gushing about it to me? Seriously, you’ve got that loveable idiot under some kind of spell. I couldn’t turn his head if I tried, and I might have tried a couple times. For science only, I swear. I’m not some kind of heartless man-stealer,” Peebee grinned, holding her hands up in the air innocently when Ryder’s mouth instantly curled downwards.

     “I don’t… I don’t get it. What you’re saying doesn’t make any sense. You’re saying he likes me?” Ryder furrowed her brow, staring into her glass silently before she downed the last half of her drink quickly. She was going to need another; this conversation was not going in the direction she thought it would.

     “ Hello , yeah, the guy likes you. Like major, serious crush on you. I can’t believe you’re this thick. I mean, the email! Does it get any clearer than that?” she scoffed, eyes twinkling when Ryder threw her drink back, joining her enthusiastically as she motioned to the bartender for a couple more. “You’re welcome, by the way, that was my idea.”

     “Your idea,” Ryder repeated in disbelief. “You’re the reason he sent that email.”

     “ Duh . He told me about what you said on Kadara, needing clear signals. I mean, it made sense. I warned him humans weren’t as open as us. That there was a fifty-fifty chance our banter would be taken the wrong way. But he was too nervous to say something directly to you, so I told him to just put it in an email. I mean, you’re pretty crap with your words too, unless you’re threatening someone or being a snarky bitch. Which I love, by the way. You really know how to put people in their place if a situation calls for it. Anyhow, thought it was the best option for him to make his intentions stupidly obvious… can’t believe it still didn’t sink in after that.” Peebee nodded in thanks and smiled at the bartender when he brought over another round of drinks, quickly taking another large sip.

     The Pathfinder took her glass in hand slowly, brows knitted together as she tried, with considerably difficulty, to take in the asari’s nonchalant revelations. “I… what? You’re saying this entire time, he’s been into me, and not you. That his comments about you, your flirting with each other… wasn’t totally flirting? What?”

     “You’re so cute when you’re stubbornly confused,” Peebee chuckled warmly, lifting her drink to her lips before sighing contentedly. “Changes things a bit, doesn’t it? Or was it easier to be in the throes of an unrequited crush? Not getting cold feet now that you’re realizing what’s what, huh?”

     Ryder’s cheeks began to flush a bright pink in spite of herself, and it had nothing to do with the tingling beginning to spread to her fingers. “Uh…”

     “Well I’m not letting you chicken out. Mad butterflies are good for the soul. And it’s simple; you two are stupid for each other, just go for it,” the asari waved dismissively, though there was a rather obvious and mischievous twinkle in her eye.

     “Uh-huh…” she replied, frowning slightly as she picked up her drink and took a few large gulps. She was gonna need another drink or three, otherwise her brain was going to start spinning like a whirling dervish. “... just go for it.”

     “Hell yeah just go for it! Life’s too short, at least for you guys. Can you really afford to let that gorgeous, deep-voiced alien out of your grasp?” Peebee smiled, leaning her forearms on the table, and laughing when Ryder’s eyes flashed at her briefly. “Oh come on, I have eyes, you really gonna get pissy with me cause I think you have good taste?”

     Ryder scrunched her nose, a smile beginning to lift the corner of her mouth as she finished the last quarter of her drink. “... no, course not. I mean, you’re completely right. He’s seriously fucking beautiful.”

     “All the angara are, I haven’t seen an ugly one yet, have you?” she grinned as she saw the Pathfinder’s shoulders finally start to relax, licking her lower lip as she nodded to the multitude of angara filling the Tavetaan. “I’ll tell you what though…”

     “What’s that?” she quipped, returning her grin as she bent forward, a warm ripple of comfortability starting to return as she looked at the asari.

     “If I could have my pick? I’d go for that one. Something about that hard-nosed surliness that just… mm, makes me shiver,” Peebee sighed wistfully, discreetly nodding to the angaran sitting at the bar alone.

     Ryder followed her gaze and her eyes widened before she scoffed. “Oh my god… Evfra? You’d have better chances with the Archon than you would him. I mean, Jesus, he’s the grumpiest asshole I’ve ever met. Have you tried talking to him? It’s like pulling teeth.”

     “I know, but doesn’t that make you want to crack his hard shell so much more? Plus, facial scars . Gets me every time. You have to admit, he’s hot as fuck.”

     “Obviously. Like… toe-curlingly hot. Except for the whole ‘I hate everyone and I know you’re here to kill us all’ thing. That’s kind of a damper,” Ryder smirked, her limbs starting to feel much more loose and relaxed. Hm, the drinks must be kicking in. She tilted her head and nodded when the bartender, Leeral, looked her way and smiled, preparing a third round of drinks for them.

     Peebee pushed out her lips as she considered her words, a devious smile on her face as she turned back to Ryder with an innocent shrug. “I dunno, could add to his whole mystique. I mean, who doesn’t like it a little rough every now and then? I’d let him get rough with me any day, seriously.”

     Ryder coughed and laughed, banging her chest lightly and quickly looking away when the Resistance leader turned his gaze towards them, her cheeks turning a warm pink as she avoided it. “Oh god, I hope he didn’t hear you,” she chuckled huskily, shaking her head as they exchanged amused and mischievous glances. “You are a trouble-maker.”

     “If it’s the fun kind of trouble, hell yeah,” the asari quipped, letting out a satisfied sigh as she watched four drinks get placed onto their table, two for each of them. “Looks like we’ve got round four already prepped for us.”

     “Looks like it. I should probably slow down though, I’m not much of a drinker and I don’t want to get messy,” she said ruefully, tapping her fingers on the glass before taking a long-drawn sip.

     Peebee scoffed and waved dismissively, resting her drink on her chest as she slouched back into her chair. “Eh, you deserve to get a little messy after everything you’ve been through. If anyone needs a break from reality, it’s you. And I’m happy to join,” she replied, raising her glass towards Ryder.

     “Gotta admit, this is a lot more enjoyable than drinking alone. Which I’d been considering before you knocked on my door,” Ryder said slyly as she mimicked the gesture with her drink, wiggling her toes inside her boots and tilting her head as she took note of the strange pinpricks in them.

     “Goddess, I’m glad I stuck it out, that would’ve just been sad,” she chuckled, shaking her head as she eyeballed the Resistance leader again. “Well sweetie, if you ever wanna grab a drink or let loose in the future, you just let me know. I’m always up for an adventure.”

     “Good to know,” she said softly, rubbing her cheek with mild embarrassment, given everything the asari had rather generously shared. “The only person I ever got a little crazy with was my brother. Kinda nice to have someone else who’s up for some fun.”

     “Oh yeah? I’m guessing your brother was the wild child?” Peebee inquired, pulling out her omni-tool and typing something as Ryder stared into her glass and took another sip.

     “Uh… you could say that, I guess. I mean, he’s the extrovert. Way more outgoing than me; he got all the smooth in the family. But I’d uh… I’d tag along with him every once in a while. Or he’d tag along with me,” she said slowly, licking her lower lip and fighting a smile when the asari suddenly looked at her with shrewd amusement.

     “He’d tag along with you , huh? Be careful of the quiet ones, is that it?” she grinned, wiggling in her seat enthusiastically, finishing up on her omni-tool and powered it off with a quick swipe. “Ooooh Ryder, you’ve got some stories, don’t you?”

     Ryder laughed raspily and pushed her lips to the side, offering her an innocent shrug in response before taking a big gulp. “I might have a few stored away.”

     “Don’t be a miser, come on, I wanna know what the infamous Pathfinder gets up to when she lets her hair down,” Peebee prodded her eagerly, finishing off drink #3 and going straight for #4.

     “Trouble, usually,” she smirked, licking her lower lip and running her finger up and down the glass idly before she took another sip.

     “The good kind of trouble, or the bad kind of trouble?” Peebee watched her fondly, her smile widening as she realized just how much more relaxed Ryder was getting around her. Finally, she was starting to make it over that thick wall of hers.

     “Depends on the story, sometimes both,” she quipped nonchalantly, laughing and avoiding Peebee’s eyes when she arched a brow expectantly.

     “ That story, I wanna hear that one,” she pointed at Ryder eagerly, suddenly sitting up in her chair as she reached for her second drink on the table. But just as the Pathfinder licked her lips and opened her mouth to speak--

     “What story is this?” Jaal asked curiously, drink in hand as he gracefully sat down at the table.

     Ryder’s eyes widened, blood flooding to her cheeks as she clammed up and gave Peebee a ‘What the fuck?’ expression.

     “Oh hey Jaal, fancy seeing you here!” Peebee grinned devilishly, eyes twinkling brightly as she took a sip. “What a funny coincidence, we were just talking about you.”

     “Coincidence? You just emailed me and told me to come--”

     Ryder’s eyes narrowed viciously at the asari, who waved her anger away with a laugh and threw her drink back with unusual gusto.

     “Such a coincidence! What are the odds? We were just talking about the angara and what a good-looking lot you all are. Ryder was just sharing how beautiful she thinks you are. What were her words again? Seriously fucking beautiful, yeah, that’s it,” Peebee smirked, her eyes hopping between Ryder and Jaal, both who’d opened their mouths slightly, clearing their throats in embarrassment one after the other. “Oh no, would you look at that? My drink’s empty. Guess I should get another one. And would you look at the time? It’s time for me to get shot down by the hottest angaran on Aya. Have fun guys!”

     She stared helplessly as the asari shot up from her chair and headed for the bar, taking a seat beside Evfra and tapping on the bar for another drink; the Resistance leader tilting his head to look at her with a blank face and an arched brow. “Oh my god, he’s gonna eat her alive…”

     “It’s highly unlikely he’ll be warm to her advances, he hasn’t taken a mate since--” Jaal stopped himself before he finished his sentence, thinking better than to reveal anything too personal about Evfra, and cleared his throat as his eyes drew back to Ryder. “Was it true, what Peebee said?”

     “Huh?” she asked distractedly, preferring to focus on the inevitable disaster in front of her, than the stomach-fluttering mess to the left of her. “Yeah. You’re fucking beautiful, like you don’t know it.”

     “I’m good-looking, certainly. But I had no idea you considered me that attractive,” he said slowly, taking a quiet sip of his drink, a soft, pleased rumbling in his voice that tugged at the back of her head.

     “God, please. I’ve spent weeks making an ass of myself in front of you. You’re beyond attractive, you’re practically addictive,” she snorted with a wave, licking her lower lip and realized it was starting to get a numb tingle to it as well.

     Jaal jerked his head back, eyes widening at Ryder’s sudden openness, ignoring the tipsy-induced glaze over her eyes. “I… pardon? Addictive?”

     Ryder groaned and turned back to him, freely roaming his face systematically, as though cataloguing every single feature. “Beautiful and stupid . Seems everyone knew what a huge crush I had on you, except you. Are we really so alien to each other? I mean god, I brought you on every single outing ever, just so I could be near you. Just so I could hear that deep, husky voice of yours. Fuck, it’s embarrassing.”

     He let out a gasp and furrowed his brow, staring down at his drink for a moment, shaking his head slightly. “... that’s why you did it? I thought it was because you valued my skills in combat over the others--”

     “Jesus, Jaal! I even went to the Moshae to learn about the angara, cause it was clear I was being some sort of awkward ass-hat with you. Wanted to figure out how to talk to you. Fucking hell,” she said gruffly, finishing off her third glass and reaching for the full one just beside it.

     “I had no idea… it was impossible to tell how you saw me. You were far more open and friendly with the other crew than with--”

     “But you know what really got my goat? I’m there, bending over backwards to try and figure out how to show my interest, without looking like a total asshole, and there you were chatting up all the other women on the ship. So fucking charming, so fucking smooth. In all our conversations you’d said two things like that to me, two things! And that’s all it took. Fucking butterflies and bullshit. How the fuck did you manage to hook me that hard, that fast?! So hard that I was just hanging onto those crumbs while you flirted with everyone else,” she rudely interrupted, her lips twisting into a deep frown, and gave him a stern look of disapproval.

     Jaal tightened his grip on his glass and leaned forward, trying to meet her eyes with an earnest shake of his head. “But I haven’t-- you’re the only one I’ve ever flirted with--”

     “Oh my god, please,” she snorted, taking another grumpy sip of her drink, tingling heat spreading to her extremities. “When have we ever flirted? Your email, while completely heart-wrenching, made no sense whatsoever. When have we flirted? When you told me to go away? When you called me pathetic for sharing a bit about biology? When? We haven’t. I mean, that makes no sense. I’ve heard more than I could stomach of your open, poetic compliments for everyone else. You never gave me anything close to that.”

     “You made me nervous,” he said with an embarrassed snappiness, taking a rather large gulp of his drink. “Your presence left me at a loss for words, made my heart race faster than it has in-- Peebee suggested I express my feelings in an email. Which I did, which I thought had been received well.”

     “‘Well’? ‘Well’ doesn’t come close to how it made me feel,” she huffed, giving him a dirty side glance as she continued to drain her glass slowly. “It knocked the wind out of my chest. I mean, I’d been carrying a torch for you for how long? And finally, seemed like I was getting somewhere. It made no fucking sense, but I was more than happy to take it.”

     Jaal rubbed his cheek as he stared at her in confusion, tapping his glass with mild irritation. “If it pleased you so much, why do you sound so angry with me? It’s you who doesn’t make sense.”

     “No, it’s you !” she exclaimed, throwing her hands up in the air, unaware of just how snarky she sounded. If she wasn’t drunk yet, she was only a hair’s breadth away. “Cause you sent me that email and only a few days later, you were flirting like some kind of Casanova with Peebee. In front of me! What the fuck! I was so pissed. Because of you, I face-punched that Remnant worm-thing until I was a fucking wreck.”

     “You… punched it in the face?” he asked with growing amusement, slowly ignoring her frustrated tone of voice, and putting together all the words that had been spilling out since he sat down. “No wonder you ended up so badly injured. I would very much liked to have seen that myself.”

     “Punched it in the face repeatedly. And you couldn’t have seen it even if you wanted to. Cause you can’t come to krogan talk therapy when you’re the reason I’m going to krogan talk therapy!” Ryder snarled, scrunching her face and finding herself annoyed at the smile firmly fixed on his face. “What? Why’re you smiling?”

     Jaal let out a long and shaky sigh, before resting on his forearms; his expression becoming more and more wistful. “You like me.” 

     Her eyes deadened as she stared back at him, having difficulty registering the foreign and almost adoring look on his face. “... that’s it? That’s what you got? I like you? I more than like you Jaal, you big beautiful dumbass. I really, really, really like you.”

     “Even better,” he grinned, propping his chin up with a hand. “I’m very glad that Peebee emailed me.”

     “Well I’m not. I’d wanted to forget about your stupid pretty eyes and your stupid sexy voice and your stupid charm and… and now I’m here with you, rambling like a drunken idiot,” she muttered, grunting as she sank back into her chair, taking an agitated sip of her drink. “God… listen to me. Just going off on you. I think I’ve said more to you in the last bit than I have in the last several weeks. And way more than I’d ever meant to.”

     “Yes, you do seem to be rather inebriated, but you’re not an idiot. This is the most open you’ve been with me since I boarded your ship. It’s… thrilling,” he admitted with a small but dreamy smile, making her blush and laugh derisively. “I knew the passion I’ve seen in battle still burned brightly out of combat, but you’ve never let me see it until now. It makes my heart ache to realize my feelings were so deeply reciprocated.”

     Ryder’s jaw dropped as his words began to sink in, and stared at him as though he’d suddenly jumped up and turned into a pink elephant. “I… you are… really annoying,” she finally stuttered, her cheeks a rosy pink as she tried to wave away his tantalizing sentiments. “How am I supposed to stay pissed at you when you say things like that?”

     “Why would you want to stay angry with me?” he asked quizzically, taking an idle drink as he waited for her to muster her words together. “I have feelings for you, you have feelings for me, why would you seek conflict between us?”

     “I… because you…” The Pathfinder’s words began to trail off as she considered his question. Why did she want to stay angry? There was a reason, wasn’t there? What was it again? She was sure there was one. She fell silent, taking a thoughtful sip as she tried to dig into her fuzzy, butterfly-laced memory. “Ah! Right. Because you flirt with everyone.”

     “But I don’t. I told you that. Only you,” he said gently, his mouth curling with amusement.

     “Yeah, Peebee said that too. Don’t know if I believe you though,” she said warily, desperately holding onto the last vestiges of vindicated grumpiness that she could. It was like sand slipping through her fingers, because the way he was looking at her… “Goddammit Jaal, stop looking at me like that!”

     “How am I looking at you?” he quipped, a mischievous twinkle in his eye; his voice low and rumbling in a way that sent shivers up her spine.

     “... that! Like that. Right there,” she huffed, waggling her finger in front of his face with annoyance. “Don’t look at me like that.”

     “Like you’re the most breathtaking, captivating woman I’ve ever met, and I have no idea how I could be so lucky that you’d ever seriously consider me?” he asked smoothly, his hand dwarfing hers as he brought her weakly pointing finger to his lips, kissing it lightly before letting it go.

     A gasping whimper escaped her lips and she swallowed hard, quickly shoving her hand back into her lap and staring at him with a mixture of confusion and suspicion. “You’re weaving some kind of voodoo spell with your words. You are… a bad man,” she finally said, brow furrowed and stomach lurching at the way his smile began to lift higher on the right side.

     “If that’s what you’d prefer,” he answered easily, his voice dropping to a low growl, and she squeaked loudly, immediately standing up and bracing her hands on the table.

     “That’s it, I’m going home!” she declared nervously, her fingers tightening around the metal as the world began to wobble left and right. “You are… I can’t deal with all of… this .” She gestured meaningfully to him, eliciting a husky chuckle as he tilted his head.

     “Did you just point to all of me?” he asked mirthfully, getting up and instinctively hovering his hand on her lower back as she slowly wove her way towards the stairs.

     “Yeah, cause I can’t deal with any of you,” she mumbled, shying away from him when she realized how close he was, walking next to her. “No no no, I’m going, you stay back there. I can walk to the ship by myself.”

     “Ryder, I doubt that very much,” Jaal smiled, his hand quickly reaching for her waist when she began to lean too much to the right, gently pulling her upright. “I would feel better knowing you returned to the ship safely.”

     “Well I don’t care how you feel,” Ryder huffed, crossing her arms over her chest and snorting when he smiled down at her. “What?”

     “I don’t believe you mean that,” he answered, giving her waist a gentle squeeze, causing her to elbow him roughly.

     “Okay fine, you can walk me home, but you’re not allowed to talk anymore. I can’t take anymore of your brain-fogging charm,” she muttered resentfully, leaning against him slightly as the world continued to tilt back and forth in front of her.

     “Brain-fogging?” he asked with a smile, reaching his other hand out to push a lock of hair behind her ear.

     She quickly smacked his hand away with a grunt, grumbling under her breath. “I said no talking! And none of that with your gentle hands and-- do you want to make me throw up? Cause I might vomit if you keep this up. On your feet. Between those drinks and your butterflies, it’s a recipe for disaster, and I’ve had enough of those lately.”

     Jaal laughed quietly and nodded, raising his free hand innocently though he kept the other on her waist; helping to keep her steady as they headed down the pathway. She waited a few moments and nodded curtly, resting against him more comfortably when she could finally enjoy some silence, her mind thankfully too muddled to make sense of how completely bizarrely her evening had turned out.

     If anyone had told her that morning that Jaal would be spilling his poetic guts all over her, and walking her drunk ass home, she probably would’ve punched them in the throat. But there they were, nearly at the docks. Together. With his hand around her waist. And he’d kissed her.

     Well, kissed her finger, but damned if it still hadn’t made her toes curl. Who the hell could do that, just by kissing a fucking finger?? Jaal, of course.

     Asshole .

     They walked in a quasi-comfortable silence onto the docks and towards the Tempest, the ramp already lowered for the few remaining crewmembers that were expected to return. At least, Jaal seemed comfortable. Ryder’s heart was racing and her stomach was fluttering something awful, leaping to her throat every time he idly brushed his thumb on her waist. How did this happen? Was this even real?

     On the one hand, she’d never be able to complain about lacking his attention again. On the other, he’d pretty well drowned her in it that evening, and she was still struggling to come up for air. Because even she couldn’t ignore the fact that no matter what he’d said to any of the other girls, nothing came close to the pile of pretty things he’d laid on her tonight. Not even close .

     She sighed shakily as they made their way into the ship, simply allowing herself to be led down the hallway, turning to the right when he took her into the galley. She slouched against the doorway, watching him idly as he grabbed a couple water bottles from the fridge, thoughtlessly taking her hand as he brought her the few steps into her quarters, letting her sit rather haphazardly onto the bed. He placed one bottle of water on her bedside table, and opened the other before handing it to her.

     “Drink,” he said quietly, watching her drain half the bottle before giving it back to him. “Alright, into bed with you then.”

     Ryder eyed him curiously for a while, biting her lip when she was met with a small, warm smile. “Hmph. You’re annoying,” she said reluctantly when she caught herself staring at him just a little too closely, flopping over and awkwardly crawling under the covers, scratching her head in bewilderment. Was she going to wake up and find out that this was all just some blurry, surreal dream?

     Well, not the worst dream she’d ever had.

     Jaal chuckled softly and offered a wistful sigh, bending down to tuck her in lightly, and dropped a gentle kiss on her forehead. “And you are an adorable drunk.”

     “Oh shut up,” she groused with an indignant sniff, rolling onto her side so that her back was turned towards him. “I’m sleeping.”

     “My apologies,” he replied wryly, quietly making his way towards the door. “I’ll check on you in the morning.”

     “... uh-huh,” she mumbled, rubbing her face into her pillow tiredly, and balling a fist into her stomach. Stupid butterflies, when would they stop already?

     “Sweet dreams, dearest,” he murmured before leaving her quarters, and her stomach made another massive leap up to her throat.

     “... night, Jaal,” she whispered back, pulling the covers over her head entirely and burying her face in the pillow.

     If this was all just a dream, she hoped she’d never wake up.

 

 

 

Chapter Text


 

 

     At 10:01am there was a knock on Ryder’s door and she grunted before pulling the covers over her head. “Go away,” she mumbled, though nothing could be heard outside her quarters, her voice muffled by the pillows she buried her face in.

     “Pathfinder, Jaal is requesting to be let in,” Sam prompted quietly, eliciting a whimpering groan as she rolled onto her side.

     “Tell him I’m dying, he can come back at my wake,” she muttered, sucking in a sharp breath as her head throbbed angrily. “Fucking hell, how much did I have to drink?”

     “A considerable amount, given your size and frame,” the AI replied helpfully, and Ryder threw a pillow out of her bed to nowhere in particular, imagining it was his face. “You’re dehydrated, perhaps you should drink some of the water that Jaal left for you.”

     “I’m going to puke,” she said after several seconds, licking her lower lip and swallowing; her throat dry as the Sahara. “Drinking. Such a bad idea.”

     “I’m uncertain if that is entirely accurate, given the additional outcomes of last night, aside from this morning’s hangover.”

     Ryder let out a shaky sigh as she peered her head out of the blanket, scrunching her nose and fighting a smile. “You’re talking about Jaal.”

     “Yes, who I would like to remind you is still waiting outside.”

     “Ugh, let him in I guess,” she huffed, rolling onto her back and painfully sitting up, squinting her eyes as the Aya sun shone happily through her windows. “Oh dear god, turn it off, turn it off! It burns.”

     Sam paused for a moment before dimming the windows, though he still hadn’t unlocked the door for the surprisingly patient angaran. “Pathfinder, I think now might be an appropriate time to provide you with an update.”

     “Huh? About what?” she asked blearily, smoothing her mussy hair in anticipation of her impending and not much wanted visit.

     “... seventy-five percent.”

     “Oh shut up and open the door already, let’s make this quick. I need to go back to wallowing in physical anguish,” she muttered, throwing another pillow out onto the floor, once again aiming for Sam’s non-existent face.

     The AI silently unlocked and opened the door for Jaal, who peered in hesitantly, eyes searching the room before they fell on Ryder. He offered her a small smile and she tilted her head quizzically when she noticed he was holding a tray.

     “What’s that?” she asked, watching with interest as he headed for the coffee table and rested it on the corner, looking at the mess strewn on it; a large cube covered by a cloth, and various tools and scraps littering the top. He pursed his lips thoughtfully before carefully placing the extra bits to one side, and slid the tray down fully onto it.

     “Breakfast,” he said simply, taking a seat on the couch and looking back at her expectantly. “I have eggs and toast and some juice. I’m told this will help ease your discomfort.”

     Ryder opened her mouth to say something, slowly sealing her lips again as her face wrinkled with barely-hidden pleasure. “... you made breakfast for me?”

     Jaal cleared his throat and looked away shyly for a moment before shrugging nonchalantly. “I brought breakfast, but I didn’t cook it. Cora did.”

     “That sweetheart, of course she did,” she replied with a small smile, fidgeting her feet as she debated her choices; bed, or breakfast? It certainly would have been nicer if he’d brought it to her, but she suspected he was trying to coax her out. Finally she let out a weary sigh and slowly got out of bed, wrapping the blanket around her as she shuffled to the opposite end of the couch.

     “How are you feeling?” he asked gently, leaning back and extending his arm along the back of the sofa.

     “Like death,” she chuckled, poking an arm out so she could run her fingers through her hair, and bent over for a piece of buttered toast. “Don’t know if this is such a good idea, my stomach’s not feeling so hot right now.”

     He sucked in a sharp breath at seeing her bare arm, eyes automatically following the trail of toffee-colored skin up to an equally exposed shoulder. “It will help,” he stuttered after a pause, clearing his throat when Ryder caught his gaze and looked at him curiously.

     A small smile began to curl her lips before she took a bite, her eyes narrowed with mild amusement. “Really? A bare arm is all it takes? Interesting.”

     “It’s not the bare arm, it’s what it implies,” he said somewhat stiffly, though she couldn’t help but catch a flash of thinly-veiled hunger in his eyes, making her cheeks flush brightly.

     She took another bite of toast, licking her lower lip as she found herself caught in his gaze, and it was her turn to clear her throat as she tried to find something, anything , to say in response. “Well… it was put on clothes or get out of bed, couldn’t do both,” she quipped after a while, curling her legs onto the couch as she turned to face him. “Thanks for this, really sweet of you.”

     His smile widened and his chest puffed out subtly as he shook his head. “It was nothing, the least I can do to make up for upsetting you as much as I have,” he answered softly, giving her a meaningful look that sent a flutter through her body and made her choke on her toast, and she reached for the tall glass of orange juice quickly. “I hope you realize now that I never meant to.”

     “Wait, what? What are you talking about?” she asked warily, jerking her head as she took another sip and placed the glass down, nose wrinkling as she tried to recall the prior night’s events. Peebee came and took her out for drinks… a lot of drinks. She attempted to clear the air, and had done a half-decent job, until she deviously invited Jaal to join them and then… what happened? She took another bite of toast and rubbed her cheek ruefully, exhaling tiredly and closing her eyes as her head pounded.

     Her memory felt fuzzy around the edges, but she remembered some really pretty things he’d said, then he’d kissed her finger, and there was something in his eyes that had her yelping inside and she tried to escape. Except he left with her and walked her home. She must’ve said something in and between all that, but what exactly had she said? A sinking feeling began to pool in the pit of her stomach as Jaal inched closer to her on the couch, a warm and apologetic look on his face.

     “It was my fault you ended up in medbay, was it not?” he asked, pressing his lips together with overt regret, moving closer still.

     “I… what?” she sucked in a sharp breath, groaning slightly as her legs went slack, dangling over the couch. “... what the hell did I say last night?”

     “Everything,” he replied with a knowing smile, eyes twinkling far too brightly, and her stomach churned.

     “... oh god,” she muttered, dropping the toast in her lap and covering her face. “What do you mean ‘everything’?”

     “Your feelings towards me; how deep they are, and how long you’ve harbored them. How you brought me to every mission because you wanted me close. That you find my appearance and voice exceptionally pleasing.” Jaal’s smile began to curl on the left side higher the more he spoke, and the blood rushing to her face only made her head throb that much more sharply.

     “Fucking hell, shoot me now,” she mumbled, completely mortified and wishing she could curl up into a ball and disappear. “This is why I don’t drink. God, me and my big mouth.”

     “There’s nothing to be embarrassed about, your openness made my spirit soar,” he sighed contentedly, finally near enough so he could reach a hand out to smooth her hair. “But afterwards I realized how badly my behavior was misunderstood, and how much it hurt you.”

     Ryder groaned and curled her knees up to her chest, hugging her ankles as she hid her face in her legs. “Do we have to talk about it? I really don’t want to talk about it,” she murmured, finally turning her face to the side, and huffing as the angaran continued to stroke her hair quietly.

     “Do you realize the truth of things now?” he asked with a smile, leaning over to drop a tender kiss on her head.

     “Yeah, I guess,” she said with a shrug, her nose curling along with her lips as she felt his kiss.

     “You understand that I have feelings only for you?”

     “Uh-huh.”

     “That my warmth towards our teammates was meant only as friendly, and not as a romantic advance?”

     She gave him a sidelong glance and bristled slightly, picking at the blanket as she remembered hearing said ‘warmth’ over the intercoms. “... uh-huh.”

     “And that I consider Peebee a dear friend, but nothing more?”

     Ryder groaned and rolled her eyes, nodding vaguely and giving him a dismissive wave. “Yeah, yeah, you both said that.”

     Jaal frowned slightly, tilting his head and trying to meet her eyes, though she stubbornly avoided them. “You don’t believe me.”

     “Um, obviously kind of not,” she scoffed, sucking in a sharp breath when he gently scooped her up in his arms and settled her into his lap comfortably.

     “Why not?” he asked, wrapping one arm around her torso, while the other covered her legs.

     “Just because,” she groaned, shaking her head as she leaned over to pick up her toast that had fallen to the ground, and placed it on the tray, taking the opportunity to have another mouthful of juice.

     “Tell me,” he said simply, squeezing her calf lightly through the blanket.

     “Jaal, come on, I really don’t want to talk about this,” she pleaded tiredly, turning around so that he was little more than a large and admittedly very comfortable chair, and picked up a fork to poke at the scrambled eggs Cora had made.

     The angaran sighed quietly, licking his lower lip and fighting a smile when he suddenly parted his legs, and she fell between them onto the couch with a soft squeak. “You had no issue speaking with me last night,” he murmured, boldly wrapping his arms around her, and rested his head in the crook of her neck.

     “Uh, yeah, cause I was drunk,” she said sarcastically, shivering at realizing just how completely enveloped in him she was. And what’s more, there was a curious warmth that seemed to radiate from him, although it was beginning to make things feel stuffy inside her blanket. He didn’t seem to have any intention of moving though, so she grunted and shrugged her blanket off, slinking to her hips and leaving her torso exposed, except for an attractively strappy sports bra. She took a mouthful of scrambled eggs, chewing slowly and testing to see how her stomach was going to take it, more relieved at the air cooling her skin than anything else.

     Jaal’s mouth slowly dropped open as his eyes were flooded with a sudden and unexpectedly gut-pulling view. He pulled back, brow furrowed as his mind teetered back and forth, trying to determine what to do, and his hands hovered above his thighs, suddenly unsure of where to place them. He became positively tongue-tied, but Ryder didn’t seem to mind the silence, her stomach not completely disagreeing with the idea of nourishment, so she went in for a few more bites. With the softest and shakiest of sighs, he finally ventured to run a knuckle along the side of her upper arm, the lowest of rumbles vibrating in his throat at feeling how soft she was; the closest thing to a purr that she’d heard in a long time.

     It sent a visible shiver through her body and he paused for a moment, but she didn’t stop him so he licked his lower lip and brushed the back of his hand up and down her arm, enjoying the simple feel of his skin against hers. Her eyes fluttered shut at the gentle caresses, and her heart started to pound in her chest, but she continued to chew slowly, suddenly finding it a bit more difficult than normal to swallow. There was the faintest tingling wherever his fingers traveled, enough that she noticed it but not quite strong enough to question it yet.

     “You are… so soft,” he finally said, his voice barely above a whisper, his tone almost reverent as his other hand made circles in the divot on the inside of her elbow. “Softer than the finest cloth we have.”

     “Poetry is starting early today, I see,” she smirked slightly, glad that he couldn’t see how quickly she was beginning to blush. “I’m not that soft.”

     “Far softer than angara,” he sighed contentedly, his fingers running along the inside of her arm. “It’s a delight to touch you.”

     Ryder chuckled and shrugged, shaking her head as she finished the last of the eggs, leaning back against him for a moment as she rubbed her temples; still throbbing angrily. “Ugh, did Cora leave any meds with this? My head’s going to explode,” she muttered, and Jaal quickly bent over and picked up a couple pills, dropping them into her hand and put the glass in the other. “Perfect, thank you.”

     She threw them back and took a couple sips of juice, her stomach beginning to rumble, but she wasn’t sure if it was a good or bad thing. Regardless, the moment she put the glass down, his hands were back to running up and down her arms gently. She shivered and propped her chin up with a hand, partly waiting for the meds to kick in and relieve the pressure threatening to crush her skull, and partly quizzical at how the hell any of this had happened. At this time the previous day, she was moping and sulky over Jaal, certain that his interest was all over Peebee. And now only a day later, he was literally all over and around her.

     … how?

     “What is it, dearest?” he asked with a small smile that widened when she exhaled shakily at the term of endearment.

     “This is… so fucked up,” she chuckled in disbelief, offering another vague shrug before propping her other hand under her chin as well. “Guess I have Peebee to thank for all this; you and the hangover.”

     “Yes, I’ll have to remember to thank her later,” he agreed, making her roll her eyes and laugh huskily, and his hand traveled up her arm and across her shoulder, his fingers spreading on her upper back tentatively.

     The tingling continued wherever his hand went, enough finally that she lazily turned her face in his direction, tilting her head curiously. “Is that you, the tingling? Or am I still drunk?”

     “Do you dislike it?” he asked, hands frozen suddenly at her query.

     “No, just asking,” she said casually, her stomach beginning to flutter as she looked back at his legs engulfing hers. “It’s… never felt anything like it. Like static but smoother. I forgot angara are bioelectric.”

     Jaal nodded silently, rubbing her upper back lightly until she sunk into him with a tired groan, sliding his hand into her hair with a contented sigh. “How is your head feeling?” he murmured, his other hand wrapping around her arm, his thumb brushing back and forth gently.

     “Bit better,” she murmured, making a soft pleased noise when his thumb pressed along her skull firmly, massaging her scalp rather skillfully. “Mm, that’s nice.”

     He smiled to himself and continued, bringing his other hand to join in, and she let out a sigh of relief as the pressure in her head began to dissipate. Her body went limp against him and she closed her eyes tiredly, relaxing enough that she could ignore the insistent tremors in her belly. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d been fussed over like this, and damned if it didn’t feel kind of amazing.

     “What were yours plans for the day?” he asked, breaking comfortable silence, and she shrugged vaguely in response.

     “Dying. We’ve got two days left till my ‘prescription’ expires and we can get back to work,” she yawned, wriggling contentedly as she got extra comfortable, her hand rubbing his knee idly.

     “I would like to spend time with you,” he replied, and she noted the hesitance in his voice. He was a strange one; on the one hand bold and confident, and on the other hand uncertain and nervous.

     “Mhm,” she hummed, hoping that he wouldn’t push her to talk about her feelings. It was bad enough that she’d spilled so much into his lap the previous night, but she wasn’t sure she wanted to make it a habit. It went beyond embarrassment at her admissions, it was made worse by realizing how horridly she’d misinterpreted things. She couldn’t help but believe the sincerity in his voice, the regret on his face, and the way he’d been spoiling her this morning, but her brain was struggling to untangle the bitterness and anger she’d held onto for so long.

     “You’re deep in thought; what are you thinking about?” he asked with a small smile, his fingers sliding down from her scalp and down her arms again, stroking them soothingly and eliciting a shaky sigh from her.

     “... you,” she chuckled, opening her eyes reluctantly and shivering when he wrapped his arms around her, giving her a gentle squeeze.

     “Tell me?”

     Ryder exhaled loudly before shrugging sheepishly, hesitantly clasping her hands around his thick forearms. “Just feeling like an idiot, realizing how wrong I got it, how mad I was. Seems so stupid now with you here, like this.”

     “You weren’t the only one who misunderstood,” he reasoned, resting his head in the crook of her neck again. “I was wary in the beginning, perhaps because of my strong attraction to you. My nerves got the better of me, and I see now how it appeared to you; as though I preferred the company of others over yourself. It couldn’t have been more false.”

     “Yeah well you made me nervous too,” she admitted reluctantly, running her hands along his arms, and smiling when she felt him shiver at her touch. “I’m shit with my words to begin with, trying to figure out a totally new alien felt… impossible.”

     “But now we know,” he rumbled happily, tilting his head to softly kiss her jaw. “I will make sure you always know how amazing you are.”

     She groaned and squirmed, her stomach writhing at his words, her cheeks turning a lovely shade of crimson. “Oh god, this must be karma out to bite me in the ass.”

     “What do you mean?” he asked with a mild frown, always puzzled and increasingly frustrated at the amount of idioms she peppered her words with.

     She huffed and curled into him, twisting around in his lap so that her head was comfortably resting in the corner of his chest. “There I was complaining I never heard anything nice from you, and now you’re drowning me in beautiful words. Determined to give me a case of permanent butterflies in my stomach, huh?”

     “If the truth is sweet to your ears, so much the better,” he smiled, gently wrapping a hand around her neck as he kissed the top of her head, keeping an arm around her waist, and sucking in a sharp breath as his eyes slowly drifted down her half-naked torso.

     He began purring again lowly as she furrowed her brow in confusion until she looked up at met his gaze; well-contained hunger meeting her eyes shamelessly. “Oh. Yeah. Underwear,” she said in an awkward staccato, suddenly aware of her state of undress, though the blanket was still wrapped around her lower half. “Well… it’s your fault. You’re too warm. You’re like an electric blanket cranked all the way up.”

     “I’m not complaining,” he chuckled as a thumb brushed her waist, shaking his head and sighing as his eyes continued to roam freely. “You are… prepossessing. The way your body curves in the most delightful places, other parts lithe, and all of you strong. And wonderfully soft to touch; your body was made to be worshipped.”

     Ryder let out an awkward mixture of a whimper and a groan, hiding her face in his chest as she pressed a hard fist into her stomach. “You trying to make me throw up? My stomach is feeling iffy as it is, stop it with your perfectly polished charm. It’s enough to make a girl swoon.”

     Jaal just laughed raspily and rubbed her waist, giving it a gentle squeeze and kissing her forehead when she finally revealed her face again. “But I enjoy seeing what an impact my words have on you.”

     “You won’t enjoy it when I’m puking in your lap,” she snorted, scrunching her nose and losing a fight to not smile when he tilted her chin with a finger and began covering her face in light kisses. “You’re too much, I’m half beginning to think you’re not even real. Who says things like that and actually means it?”

     “I do,” he said smugly, though his expression turned to disappointment and he kissed her forehead, wrapping his other arm around her tightly, as though not wanting to let her go. “... I have to leave soon. I told Evfra I’d give him an update on our progress, and run a training session this morning. I already postponed it so I could tend to you first.”

     “You did an amazing job of tending,” she admitted with a disbelieving laugh, looking at the tray, and recalling how much he’d fussed over since he arrived. “You’ll spoil me rotten if you keep this up.”

     “But I enjoyed spoiling you, would you take that pleasure away from me?” he asked teasingly, nudging her cheek with a chuckle before he kissed it, squeezing her a final time before he scooped her up and placed her beside him on the couch. “I should leave now before you tempt me any further, and I abandon my duties to the Resistance. I’m certain to get some harsh words for postponing as it is.”

     “I’d say have fun, but he’s brutal,” she grinned, wrapping the blanket around herself again, feeling a bit chilly without his natural warmth.

     “He is… stern, but not without reason, and not without results. He is responsible for allowing us to maintain the numbers we have,” Jaal said generously, giving her a longing sigh and a small, sheepish smile. “I would like to visit you again before our shore leave ends, would that be alright?”

     “Uh… yeah, I think I can manage that,” she smirked, biting her lip and fighting a stupid grin from spreading on her face. “Now go on, before you get him yelling at you.”

     “Yes, he does enjoy doing that,” he agreed with a wide smile, stars in his eyes as he left her quarters, and Ryder flopped forward onto the couch, trying very hard not to giggle like a schoolgirl.

     Good lord, and she thought she was smitten before. Goddammit.

     Not even a minute later, Peebee rushed into her room unannounced, sitting on the couch and prodding her with an eager finger. “Sooooo… how’d it go last night after I left? Just saw Jaal leave. I want to hear everything.”

     Ryder laughed at the friendly poking and sat up properly, chewing her lip and smiling stupidly in spite of herself. “Yeah, okay… you were right. Guess he likes me.”

     “You guess?” the asari smirked, nodding her head towards the tray. “He went out of his way to get breakfast made for you so he could deliver it himself, and make sure your hangover wasn’t too bad. He’s so into you it’s almost disgusting if it wasn’t so adorable.”

     “Yeah…” she shrugged sheepishly, unable to wipe off the grin that hung stubbornly on her lips. “He was… I don’t know, all shades of lovely. I mean, who does that? The pretty words were full force, giving me a scalp massage to help my headache, and the way he touched me… fuck. Like I was the most wondrous, precious thing in the world. I don’t know what to do with all this.”

     “You revel in it is what you do,” Peebee quipped, crossing her arms over her chest and looking at Ryder triumphantly. “ Finally . Been waiting weeks for this to happen. Gil’s gonna owe me big time.”

     “Gil?” she frowned quizzically, reaching over to the tray for another piece of toast, chuckling when the asari leaned over to do the same.

     Peebee gave her a shifty sidelong glance, fighting off a smile as she shrugged nonchalantly. “Oh you know, him and I had a friendly bet going on if you two would get together or not, and how long it’d take. I win, he was certain it’d take a few more weeks before your stupids finally came together.”

     “Sad thing is I can’t even argue your description,” she laughed, taking an energetic bite of toast, and perking her head up when the doors opened again.

     “How’re you feeling? Brought second breakfast, we’re uh… the girls are coming,” Cora said sheepishly, frowning as she saw the crammed coffee table. “Peebee told us what happened last night, and after he asked me about breakfast for you… well, we all want in on the news.”

     Ryder flushed and bit her lip, looking around and moving the cube and her tools to one edge of the coffee table, leaving a good amount of room for a second tray; laden with sausages, toast, more eggs, a pot of coffee, a couple more pills for Ryder just in case, and some dextro equivalents for Vetra. “Holy shit, you really went all out,” the Pathfinder commented with surprise, shifting back to the edge of the sofa so the vanguard could take a seat between her and Peebee. “You are awesome, seriously. Thank you for breakfast earlier too.”

     Cora’s chest lifted unconsciously and she offered her a wide smile, smirking as Peebee instantly grabbed a fork and picked up a sausage, nudging her with an elbow. “He gave her a massage,” the asari said luridly, then took a bite and gave Ryder a mischievous grin.

     “A scalp massage, it wasn’t like that,” Ryder laughed, sticking her tongue out at Peebee. “He was pretty free with his affection though, he seems like a bit of a cuddler.”

     “Well I think some kind of congratulations are in order. Was a long time coming, didn’t think it would work out after what happened on Eos,” Cora grinned, picking up a fork and cutting off a bite of scrambled eggs.

     “Congratulations? Did we finally make some progress with our local angaran?” Vetra said dryly, sauntering into the room, and made a pleased noise when she noticed Cora had made her some food as well, and sat on the floor next to them.

     “Yes we did,” Cora quipped happily, leaning back against the couch with a satisfied sigh. “Morning hangover checkups with breakfast and massages and cuddles.”

     “Yeah that sounds like progress,” the turian answered with a husky chuckle, cutting off a slice of soft dextro cheese and spreading it on a slice of bread. “Just wait a minute before getting into it though, Suvi’s coming; she just had to make some tea, of course.”

     “Of course,” Ryder replied, letting out a shaky sigh as she looked at her teammates for a moment. Despite the dull throbbing in her head, and the continued half-grumbling in her stomach, her chest flooded with a rather tender warmth at seeing how quickly they rushed to hear her ‘good news’.

     When she’d been made Pathfinder, she was alone, without a soul in the world except for Sam. And now, several weeks later, here she was; with friends, confidantes, a krogan grandpa slash therapist, trusted teammates. People who were there when she was down, and there to cheer her on when she was up. She was almost certain they wouldn’t really get it, but having them there, even with their presumptive nosiness… it meant the world to her.

     “Sorry, sorry! Had to let it steep a bit longer,” Suvi huffed, breathless as she rushed in; large teapot in hand, placing it on the table before she took a seat beside Vetra. “Alright, give me a fork so I can dig in, and let’s go.”

     Ryder laughed and shook her head, taking another bite of buttered toast as she shrugged helplessly. “You guys are acting like there’s some huge story to share, but there isn’t really.”

     “There was cuddling, there’s a story,” Peebee smirked, waving her hand dismissively as she took a bite of crisp bread as well, licking her lower lip and continuing with a full mouth, “Start from last night. We went for drinks.”

     “Yeah, we went for drinks. Way too many drinks,” she groaned, rubbing her cheek and smiling in between bites. “Still feeling rough. Anyway, Peebee cleared the air, told me he hadn’t been flirting with you all, and that he’d liked me all along.”

     “We kinda told you that already,” Cora sighed, rolling her eyes and smiling as she grabbed another forkful of eggs, and began to divvy out mugs to everyone. “Told you he wasn’t flirting.”

     “I told her too,” Vetra chuckled, humming pleasantly as she ate her bread. “Cora, where’d you get this cheese from? Haven’t had this in ages.”

     “I have my ways,” the vanguard said mysteriously, giving the turian a friendly wink. “So you realized you were an idiot, which we all knew. What happened then?”

     “Then Peebee was an ass-hat and emailed Jaal to come join us, without telling me,” Ryder smirked, narrowing her eyes in amusement as Peebee shrugged indifferently.

     “You’re welcome. It was that or let you two writhe around in romantically inept agony, and I think we all had about as much as we could take.”

     “Hear, hear,” Suvi teased, pouring a cup of tea for herself and Cora. “Ryder, I’m assuming you want coffee?”

     “Yes, black please,” she answered, taking another large bite as she curled her legs up on the couch. “So apparently I rambled to him like a drunken fool, and laid everything on the line. Going on about how hot he was, and how much I’d liked him, and all the stupid crap I’d been trying to do to let him know I was into him…”

     “And how’d he respond?” Vetra asked idly, reaching with her free hand to grab a slice of dextro ham. “I’m guessing well, if he came and visited you this morning.”

     “Yeah, he was really happy to hear it,” Ryder said sheepishly, scrunching her nose and avoiding their teasing gazes. “Like… really happy.”

     Suvi sighed dreamily and sipped her tea, resting an elbow on the coffee table as she offered the Pathfinder a warm smile. “Of course he was, he’s been moony-eyed over you for weeks. What then?”

     “Nothing really, I mean… he got kinda flirty. Like the hungry eyes, rumbly voiced, stomach-churning kind of flirty. Couldn’t take it so I headed for the ship, and he walked me home and put me to bed,” she said, giving Peebee a face when the asari scoffed and wagged a finger at her.

     “Ryder!”

     “What?!”

     “He was right there, and you didn’t go for it?”

     “Oh my god Peebs, it was too much! You dumped all this new info in my lap, then threw Jaal in my face, and then he got all dreamy-- and I’d had so much to drink, I couldn’t take much more,” she huffed defensively, sticking her tongue out at the asari’s devilish grin. “If I’d stayed there any longer, I would’ve ended up puking on the table, not exactly what you want to happen in front of the guy you’ve been crushing on like a fool.”

     Vetra rolled her eyes at the bickering and waved a hand before finishing off her cheesy toast. “Okay, so we got to last night. What happened this morning? He was all jittery when I saw him, putting your little tray together.”

     “Yeah, Peebee said something about massages?” Cora grinned wickedly, stabbing her fork into a sausage and nudged her leg gently.

     “So he brought me breakfast and was all… you know, beautiful gut-fluttering words and stuff. Saying how bad he felt for how he’d upset me, and how he was gonna make sure I always knew how amazing I was…” Her words trailed off and her voice dropped to a mutter, face turning bright red as she hid her face in her knees, and the girls exchanged knowing chuckles and grins.

     “That is so romantic, honestly. I can’t remember the last time a girl brought me breakfast and spewed lovely sentimental things like that,” Suvi sighed, finally grabbing a fork and digging into the eggs. “I hope you realize how lucky you are.”

     “Suvi, come on. He was all soft words and gentle caresses and keeping me close and fussing over me like a mother hen. I think I know. I’m pretty sure he’s some kind of unicorn, cause nobody gets this kind of… whatever this is. Nobody!” she laughed, ruffling her hair before looking up at them with a stupid grin.

     “Well I think this is cause for a real celebration,” Peebee nodded determinedly, emphasized by a particularly enthusiastic bite as she finished her sausage. “We should go out.”

     “Why not? We haven’t done anything together since we got here, might be fun,” Cora shrugged in agreement, looking around the room. “Girl’s night?”

     “I’m up for it, but what should we do?” Suvi asked, taking another forkful of eggs and wriggling in spot, just as thrilled with Ryder’s progress as everyone else.

     “It’d be nice to let loose, think we’ve all been wound up a bit tight since this started. Probably good if we blew off a little steam,” Vetra agreed wryly, though there was a shrewd smile on her lips as she nodded to Peebee. “Think she’s already got an idea though.”

     “Of course I do,” the asari quipped, stretching back onto the couch and extending her arms languorously. “One word: Tartarus.”

     Ryder’s lips pressed tightly together for a moment, before lifting on the right. “... Tartarus? That club on Kadara?”

     The girls fell silent for a while, considering the option before Cora finally nodded slowly. “Yeah, why not? Get out of uniform, have a few drinks, dance. We’ve got another couple days before shore leave is over. We can just gather everyone together and head over there.”

     “Been a while since I’ve visited a club; not entirely my thing, but if you girls are there, I’m fine with going. Not a bad idea,” Vetra agreed, rubbing her jaw thoughtfully.

     “Pfft, it’s a great idea,” Peebee scoffed, her eyes falling on Suvi as she waited for a reaction.

     “What are you looking at me like that for? Of course I’ll go!” the science officer laughed, waving a hand and shaking her head. “It’s been a long time since I’ve had a proper girl’s night, and I think we can all agree we need a night off from the stress.”

     The Pathfinder groaned and chuckled, rubbing her cheek ruefully as she gave them a doubtful look. “Seriously? I’m still recovering from last night, now you guys wanna go out and drink some more?”

     “Hair of the dog that bit you,” the asari shrugged with a mischievous grin, sticking her fork into a sausage and chewing with satisfied noises.

     “Hair of the dog, huh?” she repeated and sighed shakily, eyes scanning their grinning faces before she threw her hands up in the air in defeat and gave a short laugh. “Yeah, alright. Girl’s night at Tartarus. What the hell could possibly go wrong?”

 

 

 

Chapter Text


 

 

     “Ryder, you’re not leaving wearing that,” Peebee groaned, scrunching her nose and shaking her head with disapproval as she watched the Pathfinder throw on a simple white t-shirt. “We’re going drinking and dancing, not hiking.”

     “What’s wrong with this?” Ryder chuckled, looking down at her ensemble, twisting slightly in the mirror to look at her cargo pants and baggy shirt. “I mean… it’s clean, not like there’s holes or anything.”

     “It’s girl’s night! The whole point is to get dolled up a bit. You look like you’re about to start working in the bowels of the Nomad,” the asari quipped with a smirk, sighing as she nudged Ryder aside and went to rifle through her closet.

     “Come on, Peebee. Tartarus is kind of a dive, not exactly the place to get dressed up. Besides, this is comfortable, I like comfortable,” she shrugged, crossing her arms over her chest with a wry smile as Peebee began to comb through her other options discerningly.

     “Doesn’t matter if it is, it’s the principle of the thing. Not like I’m saying get into a ball gown. Just something a bit more… you know, nice ,” she murmured, pushing her lips out thoughtfully as she pulled out a pair of low-rise black leather pants. “Oh hello, what have we here?”

     Ryder’s nose wrinkled and she rubbed the back of her neck, clearing her throat slightly when Peebee arched a questioning brow at her. “What?”

     Peebee rolled her eyes and threw it onto the bed, and continued her meticulous search to complete the outfit, muttering quietly with annoyance.

     A moment later Cora came in, wearing a slinky sleeveless black dress, and Ryder’s eyes caught on the short collar that edged around her neck and dipped down into a rather enticing V. “... I’m over-dressed aren’t I?” the vanguard commented sheepishly as she observed the Pathfinder’s casual attire. “You guys said Tartarus and girl’s night, so I thought…”

     The asari glanced her way, eyes twinkling as she let out a soft wolf-whistle, eliciting a warm laugh and a slight flush. “See Ryder? Now that is what I meant,” Peebee scoffed, pulling out a flowy crimson, sleeveless top; holding it out and turning it around, and made a noise of approval when she noticed it was backless. “Don’t worry Cora, she’s changing outfits. Hmph, and here you were trying to pretend you didn’t know how to dress. I see what’s hiding in your closet; okay, put these on instead.”

     “I wasn’t pretending! I just didn’t think we were going all out,” Ryder protested, sighing and holding up her hands in amused defeat as she pulled off her t-shirt and began changing.

     Cora looked over Peebee’s choices, making a soft noise and motioning her head to the asari. “She got any jewellry? You know, a simple earring or a necklace? I think that’d finish it off nicely.”

     “Ooh good idea, lemme look,” the asari nodded, quickly pulling drawers out and scanning the contents.

     “I love you guys,” the Pathfinder chuckled, pulling on the leather pants and sitting down to put her black combat boots on. And just as Peebee turned around to make a remark, Ryder held up a finger and wagged it. “Uh-uh. You can pick everything else, I don’t care, but the boots stay.”

     Cora watched with amusement as Peebee and Ryder made faces at each other, turning slightly when the doors slid open and Vetra sauntered in casually, nodding to the vanguard as she took a look at her companions. “Well well, girls. Looks like we all clean up pretty nicely, huh?” she said dryly, leaning against the back of the couch and crossing her arms beside Cora.

     “Yeah I guess we do. Good color choice; purple suits you,” the vanguard commented, noting Vetra’s purple and black suit.

     “Don’t look at me, Sid’s the fashionista, she bought it,” Vetra smirked, checking the time and observing the room. “We waiting on Suvi? No concept of time, that one.”

     Ryder chuckled and nodded, taking the long, plain silver earrings Peebee handed her and put them in. “Eh, probably got lost in one of her reports again.”

     Peebee placed her hands on her hips, letting out a satisfied and approving sigh as she inspected the other girls, distractedly wriggling her finger to prompt Ryder to turn around. “Damn, we look good,” she crowed, turning slightly to show off her own outfit; a purple fitted pencil skirt and a dark pink low-necked top.

     “So how annoyed was Jaal when you announced that we were all going to Kadara?” Cora asked wryly, pausing to page Suvi before Ryder could answer. “Dr. Anwar, your presence is required in the Pathfinder’s quarters. Immediately .”

     Ryder grinned and shook her head, gripping the back of her neck and sighing. “Really annoyed, actually. He hates this place. I’d told him we could spend time together before shore leave ends, but we didn’t say when exactly. But we’re just stopping in for the night, so we can take off somewhere else for our last couple days.”

     “A change of scenery might be nice; where were you thinking of going?” Vetra asked mildly, fighting a smirk when Suvi rushed in; breathless and flushed, but wearing an attractive, vivid blue dress with matching heels.

     “Sorry! Sorry, I didn’t realize how late it was already,” their science officer apologized earnestly, her mouth curling into a grin as she nodded approvingly. “Good job ladies, you look fantastic.”

     “So do you,” Ryder grinned, sliding her black leather jacket on and ruffling her hair idly before she headed out the door. “Alright, shall we?”

     “So where should we go for our last bit of shore leave?” Cora asked curiously as they made their way towards the cargo bay.

     “Eos might be nice; warm, dry… we could get a campfire going at night and watch the stars and shoot the breeze,” Peebee suggested, eyes twinkling when she realized the men had been hanging around, likely to see what all the fuss was about.

     “I like that idea, what about you guys?” Ryder asked, craning her head slightly, clearing her throat and scrunching her nose when she realized that Jaal, Liam, Gil and Drack were strewn about the room, eyeing them intently. “... hey all.” She couldn’t help but flush as Jaal gave her the slowest once-over; resulting in the barest smile, the softest purr of approval, and a hungry twinkle in his eye. Whoo, there were those butterflies again.

     “Girl’s night, huh?” Liam said wryly, crossing his arms over his chest and giving them a curt nod. “Looking lovely, ladies.”

     Peebee offered a brief but flourishing bow as they stopped next to the ramp, eyes twinkling with mischief. “We were thinking of going to Eos after tonight, any opinions?”

     Liam pushed his lips out, exchanging silent glances with the other guys, and offered a noncommittal shrug. “Sure, why not?”

     “I’ll see you girls at Tartarus; got a card game there later tonight,” Gil nodded, rubbing his hands together mirthfully. “Besides, someone’s gotta make sure you get back in one piece.”

     “How messy do you think we’re gonna get?” Vetra quipped dryly, although she specifically looked at Peebee and Suvi with the barest of smirks. “Them, maybe.”

     “I don’t know what you’re talking about! What makes you think I’m some sort of tee-totalling wild child?” Suvi scoffed indignantly, though her cheeks turned the faintest pink.

     “Gut instinct,” the turian answered casually, her smirk deepening when the doctor cleared her throat gently. “Alright girls, let’s go already.” They all nodded, waving or winking at the guys before heading down the ramp, and continued their journey towards Kadara’s only club.

     Several minutes later they’d made their way into Tartarus, which was quickly beginning to fill, and grabbed one of the few tables by the dance floor. Peebee and Vetra went to the bar to order drinks for them, and Ryder leaned on her forearms as her eyes roamed the patrons milling about. The music’s bass was thumping enticingly, people were packing the dance floor, and her eyes caught on the dancers behind their prison-like bars.

     “Well, we picked a good night to come at least,” Suvi said loudly, approval thick in her voice as she followed Ryder’s gaze. “Would’ve been weird if it’d just been us.”

     “True, and it seems like we blend in pretty well. Doesn’t look half as sketchy in this light,” Cora grinned, leaning back to see what Peebee and Vetra were bringing over.

     Suvi began to sway and bob her head to the music, nodding gratefully as Vetra came back with a tray, sliding blue-green drinks to each of them. Peebee on the other hand, had a wicked grin on her face as she plopped down purple shots in the center.

     Ryder groaned and chuckled, shaking her head and giving them a woeful look. “Really? Gonna start hard already? You guys remember I’m still coming off a brutal hangover, right?”

     “Hair of the dog,” the asari quipped, picking up a shot and raising it towards the center of the table. “It’ll help, trust me. Alright, here’s to us; the sexiest badasses Heleus will ever know. Cheers!”

     The girls laughed and echoed ‘Cheers’ as they carefully clinked glasses, exchanging some mirthful (and doubtful) looks before they downed their shots.

     “Mm, not bad actually,” Cora commented in surprise, licking her lower lip. “Not too strong.”

     “That’s what worries me,” Ryder said wryly, giving Peebee a shrewd smirk. “I don’t trust this one. I had four drinks last night and I was hooped.”

     “Um, you’re welcome ,” the asari scoffed, taking a small sip of her larger drink. “If I recall I single-handedly untangled your romantic ass-hattery, finally brought you two together, and got you some cuddles this morning. You can deal with a hangover.”

     She opened her mouth to throw back a witty retort, but sealed her lips shortly after, huffing as a smile tugged at the corner. “... yeah, yeah. Thanks, Peebs.”

     “My pleasure, hun,” Peebee waved with a smug sigh, tilting her head curiously at the devious twinkle in the Pathfinder’s eye. “... what?”

     “I’ve been meaning to ask; how’d your flirtations with Evfra go last night?” she asked with a shit-eating grin, sipping slowly and leaning forward on her forearms.

     “You tried to flirt with Evfra?” Cora laughed in disbelief, rubbing her thigh as she took a quick drink. “Now this I’ve gotta hear about.”

     “No way anything happened, I’ve heard the stories about him; he’s scary ,” Suvi added helpfully, tapping her fingers on the glass rhythmically.

     “I don’t know, we shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss Peebee’s flirt game. At least, not yet,” Vetra smirked, beginning to bob her head to the music unconsciously. “So dish; what happened?”

     Peebee sighed wistfully and propped up her chin with a hand, a finger running around the rim of her glass. “Not nearly as much as I wanted, but more than I thought I’d get. He actually stuck around for another drink with me… before he told me I was a fool to pursue him and it’d never happen.”

     Ryder laughed loudly and slapped her hand on the table, rubbing her cheek as she gave the grinning asari a fond look. “Yeah that’s definitely more than I thought you’d get. I was certain he’d just chew you a new one and stalk off.”

     “Me too,” she chuckled, sighing again before a twinkle hung in her eye stubbornly. “Pretty sure he’s just playing hard to get though.”

     “You’re serious, you’re gonna try again?” Cora laughed, humming softly to the music as she took another sip. “You’ve got some quads, Peebee, I respect that.”

     “That or she’s been pre-drinking before we got together,” Vetra chuckled throatily, shaking her head and tapping her fingers on the table.

     “I’m telling you, I can get through that hard shell, just gotta keep at it. I mean… I’ll make progress, or he’ll shoot me in the middle of Resistance HQ. But don’t you kinda feel like it’s worth the gamble?” Peebee grinned mischievously, eyes twinkling brightly as laughter reverberated around the table.

     “Only you Peebee, only you,” the turian sighed warmly, patting her on the back before tilting her chin towards the dance floor. “If you guys want to dance, now might be a good time. Looks like a few people left to go to the bar.”

     “Sure, let’s go. I’m surprised, this is actually a decent playlist,” Cora nodded, getting up slowly and adjusted her dress discreetly.

     “Goddess, feels like 600 years since I last danced,” Peebee smirked, smoothing her hands over her stomach and eyeing the nearby patrons lasciviously.

     “I’m game,” Suvi nodded, standing up and doing the same, looking at Vetra and Ryder questioningly, sitting comfortably and making no move to join them. “Aren’t you girls coming?”

     “Not a big dancer, I’ll hold the table,” Vetra said dryly, taking a slow sip and leaning forward on her arms. “I’m good with people-watching.”

     “Ryder?” Cora asked, tilting her head and offering a friendly smile, brow furrowed at the way Ryder flushed and cleared her throat.

     “Yeah… I don’t know,” she said hesitantly, scratching the side of her neck. “Maybe later.”

     “Oh come on Ryder, don’t be embarrassed, I saw you dance the last time we passed through. You’ll make us look good by comparison,” Peebee teased, placing a hand on her hip. “Besides there’s so many people here, who cares if you can’t dance?”

     “Liked my lame shuffle, did you?” the Pathfinder quipped congenially, a twinkle in her eye as she took a sip. “I dunno, I was on the rhythm, wasn’t I?”

     “You were… something,” the asari chuckled, shaking her head and waving to the girls. “Fine, we’ll start without you, but I expect you to join us later!”

     Ryder rolled her eyes as they disappeared into the crowd, clinking glasses with Vetra as they finished their drinks and enjoyed the opportunity to bob their heads to the music and watch the patrons spread around the first floor of the club. It was the liveliest she’d ever seen Tartarus, although admittedly she’d never visited at night before.

     The three girls danced on the floor for a handful of songs, hips swaying to the beat and talk-shouting amongst themselves happily. Vetra had left in the interim to get her and Ryder another drink, and their comfortable silence continued. The turian would never know just how much Ryder enjoyed the fact that they didn't always have to talk.

     When her companions decided to take a break, awkwardly squishing past people, they were flushed and breathless and all smiles. “Alright, the music is solid, I want you both with us when we get back,” Cora said, taking a seat and looking at the empties on the table. “Mm, we should get another round.”

     “Suvi, I think you should’ve talked to that girl, she was giving you eyes the entire time!” Peebee grinned, getting everyone’s attention and discreetly pointing to an attractive blonde who was dancing with a couple friends. “She’s cute, right?”

     “She’s more than cute,” Suvi sighed, shaking her head as she sat down beside Ryder, laughing when the Pathfinder wiggled her eyebrows teasingly. “Ugh! Maybe I’ll try… after another drink, I need some liquid courage.”

     “I’ve got your back, I refuse to be the only one of us in a romantic tangle,” Ryder grinned devilishly, starting to get up when someone approaching caught her eye, and she suddenly felt her stomach leap to her throat.

     Reyes offered a small smile, holding a tray laden with drinks and shots, motioning for her to sit back down. “Ladies, I heard you were coming, and don’t you all look stunning,” he said smoothly, going around the table and depositing new drinks and a shot glass in front of each of them. “Consider the rest of your drinks on Tartarus; I’m glad you decided to come my way again.”

     A bright flush rose to her cheeks and she cleared her throat, grateful that the music drowned out the sound. And though Cora gave her a knowing smirk, the rest of her companions smiled obliviously and made various nods and murmurs of thanks; pleased by the generous gesture.

     “May I offer a toast?” the roguish Spaniard quipped, picking up the last shot for himself. “To the ladies of the Tempest; bold and brilliant.”

     The girls picked up their shots, Ryder the most reluctantly, and raised it in the air before they threw them back in turn. She felt an odd spicy burn hit the back of her throat, licking her lower lip curiously and exchanging quizzical glances with the others.

     “What was that?” Cora asked, reaching for the drink he’d offered, giving it a curious sniff. “Sweet but kind of spicy… it’s on the tip of my tongue…”

     “Ah, that. Cinnamon,” Reyes smiled innocently, and there was a wicked twinkle in his eye when he slowly glanced the Pathfinder’s way. Inexplicably, Ryder turned beet red and began to cough violently, pounding her chest and eliciting a warm and throaty laugh from Reyes before he motioned inquiringly to the table. “Do you ladies mind if I join you for a bit?”

     “No no, of course. We could always use some up close and personal man-candy,” Peebee smirked, making some room and patting the spot beside her. “You can sit by me.”

     “Me, man-candy? Goodness, I’m the one with the enticing view,” he grinned, staring directly at Ryder, who was awkwardly avoiding his gaze. “You all clean up very well, I’m not ashamed to admit.”

     “Smooth-talker,” Vetra said accusingly, though her voice was laced with mirth, taking a sip and making an approving noise at the Spaniard’s drink choice. “Ryder, maybe you could take lessons. Our Pathfinder here seems to suffer from chronic foot-in-mouth disease.”

     “Oh, there’s nothing wrong with her mouth,” Reyes quipped wryly, making Cora cackle gleefully and suddenly Ryder shot up from her seat, grabbing her drink and draining it in a few large gulps.

     “Shots, we need more shots,” she said loudly, ignoring the warning bells in her head that it was the last thing she needed. She was already starting to feel the initial tingles from their first few drinks. But there was no way she could handle hearing another of his innuendo-laden comments. Fuck, she’d almost, almost forgotten about their rooftime excursion.

     Welp. Throw that idea out the window.

     She ignored Reyes’ mischievous smirk and made her way to the bar, offering Kian a small smile when his eyes widened at her approach. “Hey, can I get a round of… something for me and my table?” she asked, realizing she knew nothing about drinks, beyond simple descriptors like ‘sweet’ or ‘fruity’ or ‘strong’.

     “Pathfinder, you’re the last person I figured to see tonight, guess Reyes wasn’t lying after all,” the Irishman chuckled, rubbing his cheek with mild amusement. “Alright, what’ll you have then?”

     “Um. Shots. Something strong and… fruity?” she asked doubtfully, giving him a sheepish shrug, her eyes slowly drawn back to her table, watching how animated they were as they talked and laughed together. “I don’t know, I’ll trust your judgement on this one.”

     “Shots coming up,” he quipped, turning back to the bar and perusing his options.

     Ryder sighed and tapped her foot against the wall idly as she waited, wondering how the hell she was supposed to tell Reyes that she was kind of no longer available. Probably. After all, it wasn't as if her and Jaal were dating or in a relationship… yet. But she hit a landmark; she made it to the top of that salty grind and she could finally see a way down.

     Still, the rogue’s boldness threw her for a loop, and may or may not have caused at least one major case of butterflies.

     “Here you go, Pathfinder, enjoy!” Kian said with a grin, offering her a tray with not six but twelve shots, and gestured to one of his ‘helpers’ behind the bar to clear up the empties from their table. “And don’t worry, I’ll keep them coming.”

     “Oh goodie,” she said with a tight smile, furrowing her brow as she wondered if it were possible to bring the tray over without spilling anything. Nah, she was good. Bit tingly, slightest bit fuzzy, but she could still walk a straight line.

     Moments later she made her way over, and Reyes instantly got up to help her dole out the shots, and Cora groaned when she saw how many there were. “You guys trying to kill me? We’ve had… how many have we had so far?” she chuckled, sighing and shrugging as she rearranged the new ones in front of her.

     “Not enough if you’re still trying to count,” Suvi quipped with a laugh, shrugging when the girls looked at her with dropped jaws. “What, I can’t let loose every once in a while?”

     “Suvi, I am loving this side of you,” Peebee grinned, waiting till everyone was seated before she raised the first shot; a bright pinkish red. “Okay guys, bottoms up!”

     Ryder sucked in a sharp breath, and for half a second she thought it was a terrible idea, and then her eyes caught a glimpse of warm brown eyes scanning her up and down, and she threw the drink back quickly. No, that was not a conversation she was going to risk sober.

     Vetra whistled as she watched the Pathfinder, clucking her tongue at the number of empty glasses and shots in front of her. “Lookit you Ryder, and here I thought you might be a stick-in-the-mud.”

     “No, our girl’s got some stories... although you know what? You never got around to sharing them with me. See, I’m pretty sure she’s got a bit of a wild streak. Beware the quiet ones, remember?” Peebee grinned, waiting till they’d finished their second shots before she leaned forward and tapped her fingers on the table eagerly. “C’mon, time to share.”

     “Stories, what kind of stories?” Cora asked, her lips spreading slowly into a small smirk. “Your dad always said you were the ‘good’ one. Your brother got into trouble all the time, never you.”

     Ryder laughed mischievously, rubbing her hands on her thighs, and licked her lower lip to test how tingly it was. Damn, it was half-numb. Was that better or worse than tingling? She had no idea. She sucked in a long, quiet breath and looked around the table discerningly for a moment, just enough time for the alcohol to really start blurring her common sense around the edges. Then she leaned in and gave them a devilishly knowing look. “... you know what a good girl is?”

     “What?” Suvi asked, brow furrowed and head tilted with a curious smile.

     “A bad girl who’s smart enough to not get caught.”

     They broke into surprised laughter at the smug and triumphant look on Ryder’s face, which she was beginning to think she couldn’t feel anymore, and she let out a satisfied sigh as she straightened her normally slouchy posture.

     “A woman after my own heart, I knew there was more underneath the surface,” Reyes commented, and there was no missing the flirtatious glint in his eye.

     “You have no idea,” she chuckled, waving dismissively and beginning to sway to the beat, tapping her fingers on her thigh idly.

     “Alright, enough drinking for now, lemme dance off the last few rounds,” Cora protested, standing and swaying just a tiny bit, laughing and shaking her fingers out idly. “Yup, I’m starting to feel it.”

     Peebee stood up and huffed, gesturing impatiently towards Vetra and Ryder. “You two are coming, no excuses. You said you’d join us next time.”

     “Yeah come on, I need moral support if I’m gonna try and talk to that girl,” Suvi pleaded gently, and Vetra sighed in defeat and nodded, getting up and leaving the table.

     “I can’t say no to being a wing-man,” she said dryly, placing a hand on her hip and looking at Ryder expectantly. “Well? You going to leave Suvi in the lurch? We’ve all been there for you…”

     “I don’t dance for free,” she quipped cheekily, eyes narrowing on the packed dance floor doubtfully.

     “You don’t dance, but you do shuffle so let’s go,” Peebee teased, coming around to tug on her arm and help her up. “Reyes, you’ll hold the table for us, won’t you?”

     “My card game doesn’t start for a while yet, why not?” he shrugged, scratching his chin and watching as the girls made their way to the dance floor and carved out a corner for themselves.

     The rest of her companions were quick to find the beat, exchanging silent looks as they each searched for Suvi’s target of interest, and Ryder gripped the back of her neck awkwardly, not sure what to do. It wasn’t that she couldn’t dance, but she’d done that awkward nonsense just to get a laugh out of Peebee. And the asari had been so amused at the sight, she didn’t bother to tell her it wasn’t real.

     So… keep dancing like a fool, or dance like herself? Mm, good question. She was pretty sure it’d open a can of worms either way, and she wasn’t quite drunk enough to deal with it yet. Then suddenly an idea popped into her head and she perked up. Peebee had actually turned out to be a pretty good wing-man last night, hadn’t she? Maybe she should take a page from her book.

     Ryder crossed her arms over her chest, ignoring the looks of her team mates as her eyes scanned the floor… what had that girl looked like again? Ah! There she was; blonde, classically pretty, not overly made up and stylishly dressed. Was she Initiative? There was a certain edge of roughness, the subtlest air of shabbiness that seemed to be par for the course for Kadara’s native citizens. But the new outpost had been up for a few weeks and…

     Ooooh, if she was a scientist, Suvi might lose her shit. Ryder was about to be the MVP of the night. She could totally be a great wing-woman.

     She sucked in a sharp breath, chest puffing out as she broke away from the cramped oblong shape her compatriots had formed, and began to weave through the crowd. She heard Peebee calling out, but she couldn’t make out what she was saying. Not now guys, she had a mission. Mission: Get Suvi the Girl. Ignore the fact that she was terrible with her words most of the time, that was only when she was talking for herself. She was sure she could do better if it was on behalf of a friend, not like she had a reason to feel awkward and fluttery. Nope.

     She tapped a finger gently on the girl’s arm, offering her a mischievous smile when she turned around, not missing the slightly disappointed look on her face. So maybe she was waiting for Suvi to approach after all? She’d have this sorted soon enough. If Peebee could make it work, why couldn’t she? “Hey, I know this is kinda weird, but I was told that maaaybe you were checking out one of my girlfriends. The redhead?”

     The woman’s mouth dropped open and she flushed slightly before letting out a laugh and scrunching her nose. “... maybe. How come you’re here and she’s not?”

     “She’s a bit shy, I think she didn’t want to approach you cause, you know… club and strangers and maybe you weren’t really looking.”

     “I was looking,” the girl grinned wryly, craning her neck to see that they’d returned to the dancefloor. “So you’re her wing-woman, huh?”

     Ryder shrugged nonchalantly, placing a hand on her hip as she tilted her chin. “What are friends for? Would you uh… like me to make some introductions? We’ve got a table over there by the wall; you and your friends are welcome to join us if you want.”

     The girl turned to her friends, who were smirking and exchanging knowing glances, and nodded confidently. “Yeah, why not?”

     “Great, follow me,” she said (shouted), and turned around to squish her way back to the girls. She wore the smuggest smile on her face when she saw their eyes widen at seeing who was trailing closely behind her. “Hey, look who I just happened to stumble into! Why don’t you introduce yourselves, I’ll see about drinks and a bigger table or something.”

     And with that she turned sharply and sauntered back to the table, cracking her knuckles and plopping herself next to Reyes. “I am the best. Friend. Ever,” she sighed, leaning against him slightly as she realized the table was empty. “What happened to our drinks?”

     “You finished them, remember?” he chuckled, smoothing her hair back and leaning in to kiss the side of her head. “I think you’ve probably had enough for now.”

     “I’ll decide when I’ve had enough, you don’t tell me what to do,” she snorted, nose wrinkling as she felt his lips, and leaned away to give him a glassy-eyed dirty look. “Nice move, by the way. Cinnamon shots. Cheeky .”

     He laughed and shrugged innocently, smirking when someone came by with another round of drinks, laying them in the center of the table. “I thought you might appreciate it.”

     “Well I didn’t. I’d almost forgotten about our rooftop time. Almost . That brought memories flooding back damn quick,” she huffed, slowly inching her arm across the table, wriggling her fingers as she coaxed a glass towards her.

     “You wanted to forget it?” he sighed, his smile tightening with disappointment, though it relaxed with amusement at her fuzzy-headed, childish grasping.

     “Yes! No… I don’t know,” she frowned, running her fingers through her hair and giving him a suspicious side glance. “I hadn’t planned-- I mean, it happened and it was more than lovely but-- I mean… it’s complicated.”

     “Hm, like someone else in the picture kind of complicated?” he asked knowingly, letting out a soft sigh as he rested his forearms on the table. “Of course there would be, I’d have to be a fool to think I was the only one who could see you.”

     Ryder groaned and shook her head, waving lazily before leaning against him again. “It was-- ugh, it’s girl’s night. Can I go one evening without being awkward and saying all the things?” she laughed, giving him a pleading look that made him soften and smile.

     “Of course, just enjoy yourself; you deserve an evening to relax,” Reyes nodded agreeably, tilting his head to observe her more closely, a dim twinkle hanging in his eye. “You’ve avoided dancing with your friends. Why is that?”

     “What?” she asked innocently, clearing her throat and taking a small sip of her drink, averting his gaze uncomfortably. “I don’t dance.”

     “You don’t dance for free , is what you said,” he said with a teasing nudge, the smile on his lips beginning to spread. “One can’t help but wonder what that means.”

     “What?” she repeated lightly, running her fingers through her hair again as she took another sip.

     But before he could press her further, everyone had returned to the table, including the blonde and her friends. They attempted to squish together on the circular bench, and after a few laughs and a few grunts they managed it, alternating their bums in and out to make room. As the girls reached into the center for another drink, Ryder caught Suvi’s gaze and grinned wickedly.

     “So… do I win best wing-man of the night?” she quipped, noting just how close the doctor and her new friend were nestled together.

     “I’d say so. I’m Liv, by the way,” the blonde grinned, awkwardly extending her hand across the table.

     “Jill, nice to meet you,” she replied with a chuckle as she stretched to shake her hand quickly, looking around the table and sighing contentedly until she caught Peebee’s small, knowing smile. “What?”

     “Taking a page out of my book, huh?”

     “It worked, didn’t it?”

     “Yeah… and don’t think I didn’t notice you not dancing with us, again . Honestly Ryder, it isn’t that bad. I mean, have you seen some of the people here?” Peebee smirked, and the girls exchanged wry smiles when their new companions’ eyes widened.

     “Ryder… wait-- you’re the Pathfinder?” one of Liv’s friends gasped; a pretty short-haired brunette.

     “Shhhh, don’t tell. I’m here incognito,” Ryder grinned, holding a finger up to her lips. “No one can know. And I told you Peebs, I don’t dance for free.”

     “But you will dance for credits?” Vetra asked wryly, looking at her doubtfully as she scratched her cheek. “If you’re as bad as Peebee says…”

     “Oh my god, it was a joke, I don’t actually dance like that!” she laughed, shaking her head and resting it on Reyes’ shoulder thoughtlessly. “Seriously, now that’d embarrassing.”

     Peebee downed her drink quickly before plopping it on the table and waving her hands eagerly. “Wait wait wait… are you saying what I think you’re saying? Is this one of your stories? You’ve danced before? Like… that?” she grinned, nodding her head back towards the hired dancers along the walls of Tartarus.

     Ryder’s brow furrowed, even as a devilish twinkle danced in her eye, and she gave them a noncommittal shrug. “Not like-- I was never a dancer dancer. But you know, stuff happens when you’re out with my brother and his friends,” she chuckled ruefully, rubbing her cheek and scrunching her nose when Reyes shifted and tilted his head to look at her mischievously.

     After a thick but amused silence spread around the table, she sighed and shrugged. “It was a dare. A rather profitable one, actually. Though the evening ended in a fight; Jack can get a bit rowdy when he’s drunk.”

     “I really want to meet your brother now,” the asari said with a small smirk, tilting her head and eyeing her discerningly. “If he’s half as good-looking as you are…”

     “Well, you’re his flavor of trouble, that’s for sure,” the Pathfinder quipped, rolling her eyes and laughing as she sat up straight and took another small sip. “He’s always had a soft spot for asari. Who doesn’t though?”

     “You do realize what you’ve started, right? We’re not leaving here until you show us some moves,” Cora teased, laughing loudly the dirty look she was given, and held up her hands innocently. “Oh come on, Peebee’s like a dog with a bone. If she didn’t say it, I’m pretty sure Reyes would’ve.”

     “It’s like you know me,” Reyes said wryly, scratching his jaw and nodding deferentially to the vanguard. “What do you say, Ryder? What would it take to get a dance out of you?”

     “Pfffft, another drink for starters. And credits, a lot of credits,” she laughed, taking another sip. The world was beginning to sway gently back and forth, and she definitely couldn’t feel her face anymore, but what the hell. Not like anyone would believe it if a story came out, right?

     “Reyes, I’ve been looking for you everywhere; our game’s starting soon. Hey ladies, looks like you’re having fun. How’s girl’s night going?” Gil waved, standing just behind Ryder and Reyes, crossing his arms over his chest and noting the new faces with a smirk. “Well, by the smiles plastered on everyone’s faces.”

     “Depends on your definition of good,” Vetra commented dryly, taking a slow sip and turning to wink at the engineer. “They’re trying to convince Ryder to dance. You know… dance .” She motioned a hand towards the women behind protective bars before laughing huskily.

     Gil threw his head back and laughed, eyes sparkling as he rubbed the back of his neck. “Wow, you really are letting loose, seems I showed up at the right time. This I’ve gotta see.”

     “Pffft, I’ve agreed to nothing!” Ryder said blithely, waving a hand vaguely when another round of drinks was delivered to the table. “You want a show, you gotta pay for it.”

     “Okay, I’ll play. What do you say to… fifty credits?” the engineer replied with a smirk, pulling out his omni-tool and swiping a few times, finger hovering over a button with an arched eyebrow and a devious twinkle.

     “Fifty credits? Pffft, my boot’s worth more than that,” she huffed with mock-offense, crossing her arms over her chest and attempting to look indignant, although she failed miserably as a grin kept tugging at the left corner of her mouth.

     “I’ll add another fifty to that, cause I don’t think she has the guts to do it,” Peebee quipped, pulling out her omni-tool as well.

     “You know what? Me three, I think Peebee’s right,” Vetra chimed in, eyes narrowing with amusement as Ryder’s brow began to furrow with uncertainty. She shouldn’t have been surprised at the light-hearted goading, but she was. Uh-oh. She may not have thought this through. How many drinks had she had again?

     Reyes watched her team mates make bids one after another, pushing his lips out thoughtfully and scratching his chin before turning to face Ryder, a dangerous glint in his eye. “I’ll match what they’ve put together. So that makes… three hundred credits. By my estimation I’d say that’s worth a pair of boots, that jacket… and one dance. Unless of course you were merely bluffing,” he said smoothly, fighting a smile from appearing on his face.

     Ryder sat up straight and wriggled slightly, tilting her chin defiantly and placing her hands calmly on the table. “I. Don’t. Bluff,” she said evenly, sucking in a deep breath before standing up and facing the bar. “Finish your drinks and clear the table. I’ll be on in five.”

     She sniffed, rather dramatically, and squared her shoulders as she left, eyes narrowed as she made her way to Kian, who smiled curiously in response. “Pathfinder, everything alright?”

     “Yup. Nope. Pretty sure I’m about to do something very stupid,” she laughed sheepishly, rubbing her cheek and realizing it was really warm. “Could you uh… do me a favor?”

     “Maybe, what is it?”

     She leaned in and gestured for him to come closer and whispered in his ear, fingers tapping on the counter nervously. His brow furrowed and he jerked his head back, licking his lower lip and giving her a wry smile. “... yeah, sure thing,” he said with a short nod, chuckling when she grinned at him, and waited until she was a decent distance away before leaning in to one of his servers. “Think it’s time to start alternating with rounds of water for the Pathfinder’s table…”

     When Ryder returned, she smiled innocently and inspected the table, pushing her lips out hesitantly at how bare it was, except for the circle of shit-eating grins from everyone around it. She took in a deep breath and shrugged indifferently, bending over to unfasten her boots, and shoved her socks inside. She tucked them just below Reyes and climbed onto the table top barefooted.

     Damn her pride, she couldn’t back out now.

     “Holy shit, she’s actually doing it,” Cora hissed, leaning over to Peebee with wide eyes and a pitying chortle.

     “I believe our agreement included your jacket,” Reyes pointed out with amusement, eyes sparkling at the haughty arch of her eyebrow.

     “You’ll get it, don’t worry,” she smirked, flexing and curling her fingers slowly, and shrugged a few times, cracking her neck on either side. This was girl's night, and what would it be without at least one good story? Especially if no one believed it.

     “Gil! Quick, grab it before someone else does,” Peebee motioned urgently to the table immediately to their left. The engineer frowned slightly and nodded, making a questioning shrug as he sat down. The asari only licked her lower lip evilly and bent over. “... we’ll need the extra seats.”

     Ryder closed her eyes in the meantime, head tilted slightly to the side as though listening for something. And in a few moments, she got the cue she was waiting for; the music faded into a new track. It had a steady beat and a deep bass, with the kind of catchy, sultry tempo that encouraged any listener to get up and dance. Perfect. Now to let it drown the rest of the world out as she dug deep for a bit more courage and a bit more confidence. Those fruity shots were definitely helping in that department.

     Her companions exchanged amused looks, when suddenly her hips began to sway sharply and purposefully to the beat. Her eyes slowly opened and the barest smirk curled her lips as the rest of her body began to follow; the undulating of her hips spreading up to her torso, curving her back in and out rhythmically. She shrugged gently and her jacket began to slide off her shoulders. It was a teasing and playful dance as it stopped at her elbows, and she slowly turned with the thumping bass to show off the backless side her top, impeded by her usual sports bra.

     In those first moments, her face had transformed in a way that made her nearly unrecognizable; her normally bright grey eyes were dark and hooded, heavy with the kind of sensuality only seen behind closed doors. Her body twisted and swiveled smoothly to the music, showing an instinctual finesse that harkened to the way she fought in the field; if the intensity were drawn inward, and time had slowed. And as she ran her fingers through her hair, letting them slide teasingly down her body, a small smile hung dangerously on her lips; warning of the empty promises her body was making.

     She slid her jacket off completely, tossing it to Reyes as she spun around, arms sliding up her body and into the air as her body slithered and curved to the beat. Even when she made eye contact with a smiling stranger here and there, she was in her own little world. She was back in her quarters on the Tempest, in her old bedroom on the Citadel, on a table in Chora’s Den, in Afterlife, in an old lover’s home. Simpler times, when she had no cares, no fear, no self-consciousness and no thought to consequences. Those wonderful, stolen moments where she was the woman she wanted to be, pretended to be, if only for a little while. Where she was a brainiac, a warrior, and a seductress all at once. Everything out in the open and on display, even if no one but her knew it.

     She was vaguely aware of people approaching, looking, and she twirled around, her fingers lifting the loose front of her top; offering a teasing view of a lithe, curved stomach and hipbones that peeked out from the edge of her pants. Her brain registered the catcalls, whistles and encouraging slaps on the table from her companions, and she let out a husky laugh in spite of herself. Maybe she’d regret it in the morning, maybe she wouldn’t, but who cared? She was owning it, owning herself for once.

     No one would ever mocking her ‘shuffling’ again. 

     When the song ended, blending into something new, Ryder stopped and ran her fingers through her hair, and her eyes came back into focus. And that’s when they fell on the last person she expected to see standing in front of her.

     Jaal .

     “... shit,” she said with a breathless laugh, squeezing the back of her neck and scrunching her nose with uncertainty at his oddly blank stare. “What're you doing here?”

     “I told him and Liam to hustle here or they’d miss a show. And what a show!” Peebee whistled and clapped loudly. “You could give those dancers a run for their money; that was fifty credits well spent.”

     “Can’t say I have any complaints,” Vetra teased dryly, reaching up to hand her a glass of water. “Won’t lie, I’m surprised you had any coordination after how many shots you had.”

     “Didn’t know you had moves like that, color me impressed,” Liam grinned, about to take a seat with Gil when Reyes held up his hand and stood up from the table.

     “Please, gentlemen, why don’t we swap tables? I think we should move our card game down here. It’s starting to quiet down a bit, and I wouldn’t want to miss another dance,” he smirked, giving Ryder a flirtatious nod and a wink.

     “Yeah, think I’m good unless I get some serious incentive,” Ryder laughed, finishing her water and sitting down on the top of the table, reaching for her jacket when Reyes quickly picked it up, along with her boots, and took a seat on the opposite table. “Hey! I’m done, I’d like my jacket back.”

     “I think you mean my jacket. I paid for it after all, didn’t I?” he quipped with a devilish smile on his face.

     “Can I have my boots at least?”

     Reyes just chuckled and headed upstairs, likely to inform his other card players of the change in venue. Hm, well it could be worse. She came out a bit richer, couldn’t be mad at that. She sighed and shrugged, watching as Suvi and Liv snuck back onto the dance floor, and the guys sat down since there was finally some room. Jaal motioned his fingers toward her and patted his thigh, and with a wry smile she complied, legs dangling over his lazily.

     “Well, now that we know she can dance, I say we get back on the floor and shake our tooshies,” Peebee exclaimed, grabbing a drink from the circling server, and Ryder reached back for another glass of water.

     “Mm, give me a few. I’d really like the world to stop swaying so much,” the Pathfinder replied with a sigh, shifting in Jaal’s lap and leaning her side against him.

     He’d been conspicuously silent, but she couldn’t quite tell why; his face seemed a blank mask. Was he pissed? And then he raised a hand to stroke her back, and she felt electricity thrumming from his fingers strongly, and her whole body tingled despite the numbing effects of alcohol.

     Well ... guess she got her answer.

     She propped an arm on his shoulder, tapping it lightly and arching an eyebrow. “Should I consider that a gesture of approval?” she said slowly, fighting the smuggest smile from smearing her face. And the only reply she got was another hum of electricity; flowing through her and seemingly back into him, along with the barest and hungriest of smiles. Her stomach fluttered and her pelvis throbbed loudly, and she let out a shaky sigh before resting her head on his shoulder. God, and she thought his words were heart-stopping.

     “Glad to see you two are fully sorted. Took long enough,” Liam commented with a knowing glint in his eye, taking a sip of something bright bluish-purple that had been passed around. “You know, this place isn’t half bad. Good music, decent drinks, colorful crowd.”

     Ryder just scrunched her nose and smiled sheepishly, flushing brightly when Jaal tilted his face and kissed her forehead gently. Good grief, he really was out to give her chronic butterflies. She cleared her throat and sat up, nodding towards the remaining girls. “Alright, let’s go dance. Girl’s night is still a thing, even if these two showed up.”

     They chuckled and nodded, standing up and waiting as she snuck over to the other table and grabbed her boots, slipping into them even as Reyes turned to her with a smirk. “Those are mine ,” he said smoothly, though he didn’t stop her.

     “I’m borrowing them, I refuse to dance on this scuzzy floor bare-footed,” she smirked, sticking out her tongue as she tapped her feet sloppily to secure them.

     “So if 300 credits gets me a pair of boots and a jacket, what would say… 600 credits yield?” he asked teasingly, briefly glancing at Jaal with interest. “Or is your ‘complication’ forcing you to retire for the night?”

     “You’re a horrible person, you know that?” she laughed in disbelief, shaking her head with amusement, and placed her hands on her hips as she considered his offer. “No one tells me what to do, and I’m pretty sure he has no intention of stopping me either way. Double it and we can talk.”

     “I’ll have to make sure to win tonight then,” he quipped with a husky chuckle, watching her saunter off and wave at the girls to join her before returning to his game.

     The next couple hours went by in a happy blur; dancing, laughing, light-hearted conversation, a couple more drinks, a lot more water, and discreet electric caresses filling all the nooks and crannies in between. As promised, Reyes had managed to do very well that evening with poker; it had come down to him and Gil in the early hours of the morning. The end result was her, Peebee, a table top, an extra sultry song, and the remainder of Ryder’s clothes folded neatly beside Reyes.

     Talk about a story no one would believe. And Jaal made no complaints, despite the Spaniard’s teasing, flirtatious boldness. After all, whose lap had she been sitting in all evening?

     She had no idea what time it was when the poker game was over; but for one reason or another they’d all lingered behind as the club emptied, tired and bleary as they were. It’d been a long night, but an unexpected fun and adventure-filled one, and they seemed determined to squeeze every last ounce of enjoyment that they could. After all, who knew when they’d get another chance to do this again, not with the Archon breathing down their necks the way he was.

     “Well, might be chilly but I’m 1500 credits richer,” Ryder chuckled as she stared down at her sports bra and boy shorts, covering her mouth as she yawned, and rubbed her cheek tiredly as she nestled against Jaal. Thankfully she wasn’t too cold; the angaran’s touch emanated warmth along with electricity. “Looks like Peebee can get that new assault rifle she’s been eyeing.”

     “Score,” the asari smirked, automatically yawning after the Pathfinder. “Alright folks, I’m giving up the ghost. Anyone want to head back with me?” Most of the table ended up joining her as they waved and said their farewells to the remaining patrons, until only Jaal and Ryder were left to linger behind.

     “Mm, let’s get you dressed,” Jaal said softly, lifting her off his lap and onto the table top, brushing her arms quickly a few times before he got up and went to the poker table. Reyes sensed him approaching and handed over her clothes, and after a tense pause they exchanged small and surprisingly friendly smiles.

     Ryder, in the meantime, had propped her head up with a hand, shutting her eyes tight as she fought another yawn. At Jaal’s prompting she extended a leg, scrunching her nose and smiling softly as he put one pant leg on, and then the other. With a reluctant groan she slid onto the floor, shivering slightly as he tugged them upwards, but it wasn’t because of the cold. If she thought he’d looked hungry before, it was nothing compared to the smoldering eyes that met hers when she raised her arms and he slipped on her top.

     Ooooh throbbing butterflies, now that was a new and not unpleasant sensation.

     She grasped his arm lightly as she haphazardly shoved her feet into her boots, and slung her jacket over an arm, turning to the poker table with a wry grin. “Alright, we’re out. Night all, and thanks for the credits, Reyes.”

     “No, thank you ,” he smirked, nodding amiably to them both as they left, and Jaal instinctively rested a hand on her lower back.

     “At least I’m not as drunk as I was last night, not anymore anyway,” she chuckled as they reached the elevator.

     “Hopefully you won’t have a repeat of the discomfort you experienced this morning,” he commented with a nod, sliding his fingers just inside her shirt as he pulled her in closer by her waist.

     Ryder nodded and shut her eyes tight again as he signalled the elevator, leaning against him comfortably and fought another yawn. “Mm, think I should be okay. Mostly drank water after you arrived. You’re a good sport, you know. It’s not just anyone who can be okay with me getting a lil’ crazy.”

     “I believe you know how much I enjoyed watching you, why would I begrudge anyone else who might feel the same? Especially when you move like a seductive goddess out of one’s deepest dreams,” he purred, his hand fully stroking her waist as he kissed the top of her head. “Besides, I’m the only one who was given the privilege of touching you. That’s worth more than any view.”

     “And your touch is… damn,” she sighed shakily, wrapping her arms around his waist and resting her head on his chest after they got onto the elevator. “Talk about electric communication.”

     Jaal chuckled throatily and hummed, patting her back lightly when they arrived at the docks. It was eerily silent as they boarded the Tempest, but they were far closer to sunrise than they’d thought, and the angaran squeezed her hand gently as they stopped in front of her quarters. Ryder furrowed her brow as she met his eyes, realizing that they were simply idling, trying to stretch their time together just a little bit longer.

     With a shaky exhale, she licked her lower lip and looked at the door, and tugged on his hand lightly. “Hey, before you go can I uh… can I give you something? Made you a… something.”

     “For me?” he murmured in soft disbelief, though he smiled and followed her inside, taking a seat on the couch as directed.

     Ryder felt another nervous flutter in her stomach as she kicked off her boots and dropped her jacket on the bed, worse than anything else she’d felt all night. She’d gotten over the worst anxiety with him, now that their feelings were out in the open, but all the closeness and caresses in the world didn’t prepare her for vulnerability she felt in giving him her gift. She’d been working on it for weeks but…

     … would he even like it?

     “It’s uh… well, it’s kind of a really, really belated welcome gift,” she said awkwardly, scratching the back of her head as she took a seat next to him, sliding the cloth-covered cube into the center of the coffee table. “After a while I realized that I probably wasn’t quite as open and friendly as I meant to be, cause… shit with words. So I thought maybe it’d be easier if I made you something. You know, it’s the thought that counts and all. If you don’t like it, it’s fine, I just… you know…”

     Jaal smiled and rubbed her back soothingly for a moment, and she felt the gentlest pulse of electricity from his fingers, making her relax against the couch. His eyes twinkled as he slipped the cloth off, sucking in a sharp breath and gasping as he saw what was underneath: a sealed terrarium, and inside a living miniature jungle with plants, ferns and even some small flowers. All native to Havarl.

     “You… when did you do this?” he asked breathlessly, leaning over as his fingers waveringly grazed along the glass, and a sheen began to cover his eyes.

     “Um, been working on it for a while. Turned out to be a bit more ambitious than I’d thought, had a lot of help,” she smiled ruefully, tilting her head as she tried to see his expression. “Gil helped me figure out the more intricate stuff, Cora helped with general gardening stuff, got the scientists on Havarl to recommend the best plants, Vetra arranged to get them delivered discreetly. It was a group effort really.”

     Jaal sucked in a shaky breath, barely able to tear his eyes away from it, a deep ache pulling in his chest. “What gave you this idea?”

     Ryder shrugged sheepishly, curling her legs on the couch as she nestled up to him, biting her lip and smiling when he automatically rested a hand on her knee, squeezing it lightly. “Well I… I dunno. I thought, you know… you took a huge risk coming here. You gave us a chance, chose to stay, even though it took you away from everything you knew. I know what that’s like. I just thought, wouldn’t it be nice to have a little piece of home with you, wherever you went?”

     “You…” His words were hoarse and thick with emotion when he finally turned to her, and she felt her heart squeeze painfully at the tears welling in his big blue eyes. But a smile spread on his lips as he cupped her cheeks, staring at her with the kind of awe and wonder that had her squirming with embarrassment. “You are… there are no words for how much this means to me.”

     “Aww, well you’re welcome. I’m glad you like--” But her words were cut off by his lips suddenly pressing against hers, making them tingle, and she made a muffled noise of surprise before her arms snaked around his neck and she found herself kissing him back.

     He rumbled with approval as he pulled her in closer, coaxing her lips open with a soft and almost leathery tongue, deepening their kiss with a barely-contained hunger. She moaned quietly, and her fingers dug into his skin, making him shudder and he pressed her tighter against him. He reigned himself in after a few more kisses though, slowing down and letting his lips linger, his tongue exploring and teasing hers, savoring every moment she offered him. His fingers relaxed as they trailed up and down her back, and she felt that strange flow of electricity; running through them both, connecting them in a way she’d never experienced before, and couldn’t get enough of. Something so sweet, so simple, and so comforting, drawing them closer than any other kiss had.

     There was no going back now. Not a shred of doubt as they sat there, half-wrapped around each other. There was no choice but Jaal, there never was.

     Finally their lips parted, and she stared at him breathlessly, licking her lower lip and smiling with a twinkle of mischief in her eyes. “Hm, so that’s what it’s like to kiss an angaran,” she said wryly, laughing softly when he groaned and nuzzled her neck.

     “Thank you,” he murmured against her skin, dropping a trail of tender kisses up towards her jaw.

     Ryder yawned discreetly and hummed, scrunching her nose and smiling at the kisses, meeting his lips warmly when they finally hovered against hers again. A hand smoothed her hair back and he let out a reluctant sigh, dropping just one more kiss on her lips before squeezing her waist gently.

     “... I should go. It’s getting late,” he said slowly, and she nodded in agreement, although neither of them moved.

     “Yeah…” she murmured, running her fingers along his neck-folds curiously. But after a few more moments of silence, they exchanged small, sheepish smiles. “Maybe you could stay just a bit longer?”

     Jaal let out a wistful sigh and leaned in for one more ‘last’ kiss, wrapping his arms around her securely as he laid back down on the couch, letting her settle comfortably on top of him. “I think I won’t mind visiting Kadara as much, after tonight,” he said quietly, eliciting an amused chuckle from Ryder as she scratched her cheek before wrapping her arms loosely around his broad chest.

     “Yeah, there’s only one thing I’ll remember when I think of Kadara now, thanks to you,” she smirked, tapping her fingers on his side lightly.

    “What’s that, dearest?” he said, his words stretched with a quiet yawn, rubbing her back gently as he stared at the ceiling.

     “... peaches and cream.”

     “Peaches and cream?” he asked, craning his neck to give her a confused frown.

     “Mhm, peaches and cream,” she murmured, rubbing her face in his chest before she exhaled sleepily and her eyes began to flutter shut in spite of herself.

     But before he could inquire further, she’d fallen asleep, and it wasn’t much longer before the weight of her against him had him following suit. Minutes later, the only sound to be heard was the faintest hum as Sam dimmed the lights, leaving them alone to enjoy a comfort and closeness that was months in the making.

 

 

 

Chapter Text


 

 

     The next morning Ryder woke up to soft, lyrical humming and the feel of fingers combing through her hair. She groaned and her stomach fluttered uncomfortably as she rubbed her face into a wide, warm chest. With a determined huff she lifted her head and met a pair of large, mottled blue eyes and scrunched her nose with mild disbelief.

     “Hm. Morning,” she said wryly, propping her chin on her hand while he scratched the back of her head with a small smile.

     Jaal didn’t reply immediately, tilting his head as he brushed his thumb against her cheek, though he’d stopped humming.

     Ryder furrowed her brow, her smile becoming lopsided as she slowly turned a bright cherry-red. “Jesus, intense. So… you wanted to spend time together? It’s our last day of shore leave.”

     He nodded thoughtfully while his thumb traced her lower lip, and she felt her stomach turn into a cluster of tight knots.

     “Okay, well we’re heading for Eos so…” she said shakily, finally making a half-exasperated half-amused noise as she hid her face in his chest. “Dear god, would you stop that? You’re making me nauseated.”

     “Hadn’t you complained about lacking attention?” he asked innocently, though if she’d looked up she would’ve seen a surprisingly smug smirk on the angaran’s lips. “I wouldn’t want you to go without.”

     “Oh shut up,” she groused, poking his side before she finally sat up, straddling his hips and crossing her arms over her chest. “I’m gonna need to carry a vomit bag around with me at this rate.”

     “I feel the same way… when you drive,” Jaal said blithely, and she didn’t miss the small glimmer in his eye as he sat up, keeping a hand on her lower back so she wouldn’t be caught off balance.

     “Ha. Ha. Ha. Funny,” she replied, scrunching her nose as she gave him a sidelong glance, still grumbling when he leaned in to kiss her cheek. “So what do you want to do today?”

     He paused to think, his hands cupping her face as he dropped a light kiss on her lips. “What do you normally do on shore leave?”

     “I don’t know, don’t usually take shore leave unless I’m forced to,” she shrugged, kissing him back with a decidedly resentful air, despite her fingers idly tracing along his neckfolds. “Haven’t been that good at taking time off since all this craziness started.”

     “What do you do for fun?” he asked, letting his knuckles slide up and down her back with a soft, approving thrum.

     “Shoot people,” she said with a dry smirk, rubbing her cheek and poking him in the side when he let out a raspy chuckle. “Or tinker. Not exactly date-worthy.”

     “Why not? I enjoy both activities,” Jaal said lightly, pulling her in close and nuzzling her neck for a moment, inhaling deeply and letting out a wistful sigh. “Perhaps the latter more than the former.”

     “... seriously? God, we’re nerds,” she laughed, squeezing his waist idly before trying to wriggle out of his grasp. “Alright, tinkering it is. Next question is what do we mess with.”

     He rumbled disagreeably and kept his arms tight around her, nudging her cheek to coax another kiss from her before reluctantly letting her go. “What are our choices? Liam mentioned you modify the crew’s armor and weapons.”

     “Yeah, or I work on the Nomad. Any preferences?” she asked, huffing when she finally pushed him off and headed for the closet, grabbing a fresh towel and picking out a change of clothes.

     Jaal leaned against the couch, propping his head up with a hand as he watched her. “I would enjoy seeing some of your weapons; I would like to see how they work up close.”

     “Alright, well I’ve been needing to make some upgrades on my assault rifle, Drack bent the trigger on one of his shotguns again, and I promised Vetra I’d work on the sniper rifle I bought for her. We can work on those I guess,” Ryder replied distractedly, stretching her arms with a groan and rubbing the back of her neck as she turned back to the angaran, who was watching her rather closely. “We could get a picnic together, maybe drive out somewhere. I mean, it’s all sand and mountains but I’m sure we could figure something out.”

     “... picnic?” he asked quizzically, tilting his head and watching as she threw the towels and clothes over her forearm.

     “Oh. Well it’s… you lay down a blanket or something and eat outside. Supposed to be romantic. Thought maybe that would make it seem a little less dorky and a little more date-y,” she laughed self-deprecatingly and offered him a sheepish shrug.

     “Eating outdoors is romantic?” Jaal mused quietly, rubbing his chin while his eyes focused on the towel over her arm.

     “You know, you put a meal together and share it. Don’t think it’ll quite work in our case; not sure you can eat our food, and I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t want to eat paste even if I could,” she chuckled, following his gaze to her towel and catching the odd glint in his eye. “Yeah, I need a shower. Feel pretty gross from last night. Surprised you didn’t comment on my smell, pretty sure I smell.”

     “Perhaps I will ask Lexi before we depart, there may be something of your food that I can try,” he shrugged, standing up with a stiff groan. “And I have no complaint on your odor. On the contrary, your scent is… enticing.”

     Ryder flushed and cleared her throat awkwardly, that barely-veiled hunger in his eyes as he followed her out the door. “... uh-huh. Well, if Lexi says it’s okay I’ll see what I can rustle up for us. I’d been thinking about cooking for everyone tonight. You know, the whole campfire under the stars sharing stories thing, seemed like a good opportunity. Gotta be back in the afternoon so I can start though.”

     “The exchange and preparation of food is important in your galaxy, I understand. It was the same for us once,” he said with a sad and wistful sigh, rubbing her back briefly before hovering by the bathroom door. “Let me know when you’re ready. I will attempt to not spend the interim thinking about what you’re… about to do.”

     Almost immediately she turned a bright pink, certain it was spreading down her neck as she stared back at him, mouth opening and closing a few times as she tried to come up with a witty response. Nope. Nothing. Just her toes squirming painfully tight. “... uh-huh. I’ll um… you know… yeah,” she motioned vaguely towards the bathroom and then again at her forearm before coughing and making a hasty retreat.

     She could hear a faint and husky laugh as the doors closed behind her and she shut her eyes tight, cursing under breath as she stripped quickly and got into the middle stall. “For fuck’s sakes Ryder, get your shit together. You’re supposed to stop being awkward. You’ve kissed him! It shouldn’t be awkward anymore!” she exclaimed, huffing irritably as she turned on the water and stood under the hot stream.

     Moments later the door to the crew quarters opened, and a melodic whistling drifted in before pausing and she could see a cloudy figure stop in front of her stall. “Hey Ryder, that you?” Peebee asked, and she heard the asari get into the stall next to her.

     “Yup. You cleaning off last night’s grime too?” she smirked, pumping some shampoo and lathering her hair idly.

     “Mhm, so you get into any trouble after I left?” She could hear the mischievous tone in Peebee’s voice and let out an odd mix of a chuckle and a sigh.

     “No, not exactly. Kissed though.”

     “Oh yeah? Any different than one of ours?”

     “Uh-huh. Tingling .”

     “Oh reaaally?”

     Ryder couldn’t fight the grin on her face as she rinsed her hair out, biting her lip hard and trying her best not to cackle outright. “Yup. Tingling.”

     “Bioelectricity here I come,” Peebee whistled, going quiet for a moment before piping up again. “Hey, did you ever consider what it’ll be like if…?”

     “... shit.” The thought hadn’t occurred to her, but then again whenever Jaal was around, her brain took a sudden and inconvenient leave of absence. “Well now I am.”

     “Can you imagine--”

     “Fuck… I’m imagining.”

     “ Shit .”

     “Shit.” Ryder’s toes curled tightly again and she sucked in a shaky breath, pumping some conditioner into her hands and rubbing her palms together. “... he might kill me. I might actually die.”

     “But what a way to go,” Peebee sighed wistfully, humming under her breath idly.

     “Can’t argue with that, assuming I get that far. Might die of mortification and butterflies before something really interesting happens,” she chuckled, hiding her face in her hands and shaking her head.

     The asari laughed with her and made a dismissive noise. “You’ll be fine. He likes that you get nervous around him, he gets nervous around you too.”

     “Wish it showed a bit more, might make me feel better,” Ryder muttered, rinsing her hair out again with a weary sigh.

     “Wanna hear something that’ll make you feel better?” Peebee asked, and there was no mistaking the sly and eager tone in her voice.

     “You have gossip? I wanna hear it,” she smirked, reaching for some soap and tilting her ear up to the ceiling.

     “Guess who didn’t come home last night?”

     “... no.”

     “Yes!”

     “No!”

     “ Yes .”

     “Oh my god. Is she back yet? That sneaky girl!” Ryder laughed, scrunching her nose and smiling at the thought of Suvi having a wild night of her own.

     “Tell me about it! They left the same time as the rest of us, but they must’ve ducked out before we got on the elevator.”

     “Wonder how it went.”

     “She’s still not back. It went well,” Peebee said smugly, turning off the water and grabbing her towel from the door.

     “Good for her, nice to see someone is getting… well you know, getting some,” Ryder grinned, standing under the water for a few more moments before reluctantly turning it off. “Maybe the tide is turning. Can’t wait to hear about your next attempt in woo’ing Evfra.”

     “Pfft, not woo’ing. Banging . I’m not looking to settle down, I’m nowhere near my matron years,” she scoffed, stepping out of the stall as she finished drying herself off. “Besides, I’m still kinda holding out for your brother. Kinda. You’ve got me curious now.”

     The Pathfinder chuckled and shook her hair out, patting herself down before slipping on her underwear. “You’re trouble.”

     “You said I’m his kind of trouble,” Peebee smirked, pulling on her clothes idly as she waited for Ryder to come out. “You got a picture of him?”

     “Sure, in my quarters,” Ryder nodded, opening the stall door and grabbing the rest of her clothes, and motioned for her to follow. They quickly shuffled into her room, and as she pulled on her pants, she nodded to the side table on the far end of the couch. “Family picture there. Took it before mum died.”

     The asari sauntered over, tilting her head when she saw the framed picture, and picked it up discerningly. After a moment she whistled and clucked her tongue, making Ryder chuckle as she slid her shirt on. “Damn Ryder, you’ve got a good-looking family. Even your dad is--”

     “Stop. Gross,” she said, making a face and snickering softly.

     “Just being honest. Okay, I want a fair shot when your brother wakes up,” she said with a childish grin, an unmistakable twinkle in her eye when Ryder stuck her tongue out at her.

     “I’m making no promises. I like you Peebee, but I’m done dealing with my brother’s troubled forays into romance. Sick of picking up the pieces,” she sighed, running her fingers through her hair and giving her an amused sidelong glance.

     Peebee gasped and put her hand on her chest with feigned shock, before settling into a small and warm smile. “I joke Ryder but I don’t play games, not like that anyway. I want it easy and effortless. You know, comfortable.”

     Ryder nodded thoughtfully, making a soft noise of agreement. “Can’t argue with that. Life’s too short to try too hard. Oh wait, what am I saying?” she snorted self-deprecatingly, sighing quietly as she threw on her leather jacket. “I’m the definition of a try-hard.”

     “Yeah, you kind of are,” the asari smirked, putting the photo down and crossing her arms over her chest. “But it works for you, and maybe you should be as the Pathfinder. It's been working out pretty well so far.”

     “Mm, guess so,” she said wryly, running her fingers through her damp hare as they made their way out of her room. “What’ll you be doing with your last day off? Was thinking about cooking dinner for us tonight.”

     “You mean apart from hunting Suvi down and winkling out the details of her evening?” Peebee grinned, idly looking through the fridge when they turned into the galley.

     “Apart from that,” Ryder chuckled, pushing her lips out thoughtfully as she tried to decide what she could make that would be quick and easy for a picnic.

     “Soak up some sun, work on my pet project, catch up on some vidcalls. We still on for hanging out tonight? Liam and Drack left this morning to hunt for wood or something for a campfire before we left for Eos.” The asari perused the shelves before finally giving up and grabbing some cereal and a bottle of milk.

     “Definitely tonight, it’ll be nice to hang out with everyone. A chill evening before we have to get back into the swing of things,” she murmured, finally shrugging and pulling out some stuff to make sandwiches with.

     Peebee nodded while she sat down, watching Ryder idly between bites as she prepped some food. “Maybe we can get Drack to share some of his war stories.”

     “What’s that?” the old krogan asked brusquely, sauntering into the galley and squished past Ryder as he rummaged through the shelves for something to eat.

     “War stories, for around the campfire,” Ryder replied, nudging his shoulder with a wry grin when she saw the left corner of his mouth curl ever so slightly.

     “I’m not a storyteller, don’t know what you expect me to say. Killed rachni. A lot of them. For a long time. The end.”

     Peebee took another spoonful of cereal and groaned. “Come on gramps, a thousand years and that’s the best you can come up with?”

     The krogan grunted and smacked his lips for a moment, reaching into the fridge for a baked varren leg. “Guess I could figure something out, if you kids really wanted to hear something.”

     “We do, that’s why we’re asking. Oh hey, give me your shotgun, gonna fix the trigger. Again ,” Ryder smirked, hooking the gun to her belt when Drack handed it to her with a huff. “Think I’m gonna have to reinforce it, this is the third time you’ve jammed it.”

     “Not my fault it’s flimsy,” Drack countered an annoyed sniff, taking a seat beside Peebee and digging into the varren.

     “Not flimsy, just not made to withstand a krogan’s raw strength,” she countered, grinning widely at the pleased twinkle in his eye.

     “Yeah…” he agreed in between bites, pausing to swallow before motioning his head towards her. “Got some firewood. Might be a bit bloody, but it should be dry by tonight.”

     “... I’m not even gonna ask,” Ryder laughed, shaking her head as she cut up the sandwiches and wrapped them up tight. “We’re still waiting on Suvi before we can leave, right?”

     “Nah, she’s here. Got in a little while ago,” the krogan answered, oblivious to the mischievous glances that Peebee and Ryder exchanged.

     “Alright, I’ll tell Kallo we’re good to go. See you guys tonight for dinner, and come hungry,” she winked, adding some of her meal replacement bars to her pile before packing it all up.

 

     A couple hours later, Jaal and Ryder could be found sitting on top of the Nomad, legs sprawled with spare parts littering the roof. She’d taken them to the Initiative’s original outpost, reasoning that if something bad happened they’d see it quickly and would have several options for cover.

     “Cryo rounds,” Jaal mused thoughtfully, nodding to Ryder vaguely as he continued to take apart her assault rifle. “You’ve switched to these recently. Why?”

     “Easier to catch them with a charge. Don’t really use my rifle much,” she shrugged, grunting as she unjammed the reload mechanism on the krogan’s shotgun. “And this is why Drack has more guns than all of us combined; he keeps busting them. Easier to buy him a new one while I try to find the time to fix them. There’s actually two more I need to work on, but this is his favorite.”

     “He seems to be quite fond of you, I noticed you visit him more often than the rest of the crew,” he commented, giving her a curious sidelong glance.

     Ryder scrunched her nose and shrugged, a small smile tugging her lips as she loaded the gun and tested it again, shooting at a rock several feet away from them. “He gets me. Has from day one.”

     Jaal nodded quietly, beginning to put her gun back together, and licked his lips before darting his eyes her way. “Yes, that certainly makes it easy to establish a rapport. I felt similarly about Peebee.”

     She made a soft noise and pursed her lips, still feeling a certain amount of resentment towards their ‘misunderstanding’. For all the efforts she’d put into learning about angaran culture, there was still a lot she didn’t know and couldn’t quite make sense of. “Yeah. Asari are more open than the rest of us, I guess.”

     “I didn’t mean that as a criticism,” he said quickly, giving her a furtive look that she didn’t catch as she put the shotgun down and picked up Vetra’s sniper rifle. “I only meant it was easier to-- you were-- you are a mystery to me. I would like to ‘get’ you.”

     “Not that hard, to be honest. I’m an introvert. I’m awkward around people I don’t know. I suck at words. I’m good at things that don’t involve words. I like hitting enemies in the face with biotics,” she shrugged, crossing her legs and resting the gun on her lap as she began deconstructing it.

     A small smile curled Jaal’s lips and he let out a soft sigh, filching through her toolbox once he’d finished putting her gun back together. “Yes, I do enjoy watching you fly across the battlefield. A beautiful and deadly dance.”

     “You make it sound a lot more impressive when you say it like that,” she said ruefully, looking over as he removed the scope and began tweaking it.

     “I’d never seen biotics before, my people haven’t developed such capabilities. Have you been a biotic from birth?” he asked, peering through the scope idly before watching as she tossed some small bits of the gun back into her toolbox.

     “Yeah, me and my brother. Didn’t manifest till we were older though. Then it was implants and training and… the rest is history.”

     “Implants?”

     “Helps us manage it, use it so it’s not just some freakish lumps of eezo in our body that create mass effect fields willy nilly,” Ryder chuckled, turning the gun over and pulling out the ammo clip.

     Jaal nodded thoughtfully, opening his mouth to ask another question, then closed it in hesitation. “... Ryder?”

     “Yeah?”

     “This is the first I’ve heard you mention your family.”

     “Is it? Guess our conversations haven’t really been that personal.”

     “You have asked me personal questions, but you’ve never given me the opportunity to do the same.” She didn’t miss the gentle reproach in his voice, and her nose wrinkled before she gave a reluctant nod.

     “You didn’t really seem interested. Figured if you wanted to know something, you’d ask,” she reasoned, rubbing her cheek with embarrassment.

     “May I ask now?” He tilted his head and paused his work to gauge her reaction, noting how her body stiffened and she shifted in her seat uncomfortably.

     “Uh… sure, go ahead,” she said casually, though her face was tinged a warm pink.

     “Are you close with your family?”

     “With my brother, yeah. We’re twins, maybe it comes with the territory. We’re all we’ve got now,” she murmured, brow furrowing as she felt her stomach churn at the thought.

     “Your father passed shortly after you arrived here. What of your mother?” he asked carefully, lips pursing at her obvious discomfort.

     “Died before we left.” Ryder let out a shaky sigh and rubbed her arm a few times before shrugging it off and going back to expanding the ammo clip. “Dad was pretty… distant. Mom was busy, but she tried to make time for us. I don’t know, my family wasn’t nearly as close as angaran families are. Sounds nice to have that though.”

     “It’s comforting, to be surrounded by others who support your endeavors, are invested in your well-being. You’re never really alone,” Jaal smiled to himself, licking his lower lip before nodding to her. “Not dissimilar from how your crew is beginning to behave with each other. They’re growing closer the more time passes it seems.”

     She bit her lip and smiled, eyes staring off in the distance towards the colony. “Guess so. Suppose that happens when you spend all day every day together, get to know each other better.”

     “Yes, I appreciate that perhaps we’re not quite as alien to each other as we might have seemed on the surface,” Jaal agreed, putting her gun to the side and motioning for the sniper rifle in her lap. “May I see what you’ve done?”

     “Sure,” Ryder nodded, picking up her assault rifle with interest. “Hm, what have you been up to?”

     Jaal cleared his throat and scratched his neck sheepishly, watching nervously as she inspected the gun, unsure what to make of her interested noises. “You said we would tinker so I…”

     “Oh it’s alright I don’t mind, lets me see how you work,” she murmured to herself, offering him a small smile when she noticed the faster reload and overall increased damage. “Huh, you’re good. Maybe I can get you to help me with these when I’m bogged down. Mostly Drack’s fault.”

     “I’ve asked to look at his shotgun in the past. He said the only person he allowed to touch his guns was you, but he could shoot me with it if I really needed to see how it works. I was unsure if his attitude was typical of krogans, or meant as humorous, or if perhaps he doesn’t like me,” he said with a confused frown, looking through the sights.

     Ryder coughed and laughed, shaking her head and turning pink as she listened to Jaal’s story, toes squirming in her boots. “I don’t think he dislikes you but you know, he’s uh… well, he’s a complete curmudgeon. Not that I blame him; if I was around for a thousand years, I’d probably be grumpy too. And he might be a bit protective of me, in his own way.”

     “Ah, you were not the only one who misunderstood my behavior,” Jaal sighed wearily, pressing his finger along his temple. “I suppose I should be grateful that he didn’t shoot me anyways when I declined his offer.”

     “Think that’s just his default choice for conflict resolution. Not that I don’t see the efficiency in it, and not that I wasn’t tempted to take him up on his offer to shoot you,” she smirked, holding the gun in position and shooting off a few rounds into the ground. “Less recoil too, nice.”

     “... he offered to shoot me? For you?” His head jerked back and he watched her with uncertainty, trying to tell if she was joking or not.

     “Yeah, don’t worry I never seriously considered it. Just his way of saying he cares,” she smiled, picking up some of the spare parts and organizing them inside her toolbox.

     “That is… disturbing,” Jaal frowned, making a surprised noise as he finished inspecting Vetra’s rifle. “You’ve made several modifications here. You only made these today? You work fast, if that’s the case.”

     “Uh-huh,” she nodded, closing the toolbox shut once she’d had it perfectly organized. “It’s just guns.”

     “Just guns?”

     “Well yeah. I mean, that’s easy stuff,” she shrugged, stretching out and leaning back on her forearms, extending her legs and letting them dangle over the Nomad. “Stuff like the moonbuggy is more difficult. Lots more moving parts.”

     “You more than tinker,” he said quietly, looking down at the toolbox separating them and put it on his other side before moving in closer to her. “You’re highly skilled.”

     “Suppose so, always been good with machines. Maybe it’s weird, but it just… makes sense to me,” she replied nonchalantly, feeling her heart begin to pick up pace as he breached the distance between them.

     “Is that why you were so quick to solve the mysteries of the Vaults?” Jaal asked, nudging her arm and giving her an uncertain smile as he motioned towards his lap.

     Ryder sucked in a shaky breath and gave him an awkward nose-wrinkled smile before nodding in assent and settling between his legs, leaning back against him comfortably. “In part maybe. I like puzzles, but the real hard stuff was all Sam. He’s brilliant.”

     “Yes, I’ve been told that the connection between you two is permanent. He’s always with you?” he murmured, quickly wrapping his arms around her and nuzzling her with a contented sigh.

     “Always, isn’t that right Sam?” she quipped with a grin, patting the angaran’s thick forearms before hanging onto them lightly.

     “That is correct, Pathfinder. Although I am frequently on ‘standby’, rather than actively present… in a manner of speaking,” the AI replied immediately, not missing a beat in the conversation.

     “Standby?” Jaal mused, finally taking a moment to look around at the scene around them.

     “I’m always available should Ryder need me, but when she doesn’t I focus on other tasks. I’ve partitioned myself to assist the Initiative and the Tempest crew.”

     “Downside to being brilliant and capable of being in several places at once, everyone has you working,” Ryder chuckled, tapping her feet against the wall of the Nomad. “Sam, you do take time for yourself, don’t you?”

     “Please clarify.”

     She opened her mouth to respond, then frowned slightly and shrugged. “You know, take time off. Pursue your own interests, hobbies. I mean… do you have a partition that’s just for yourself?”

     Sam fell silent for a few moments, and Jaal took the opportunity to kiss her cheek lightly, both curious and interested in their interactions. “I do not. You believe I should have one?”

     “Of course! You have a job like the rest of us, but we get time off and shore leave and lulls between missions. We get to do what we want, you should be no different,” Ryder reasoned, scratching her nose and curling her legs towards her chest.

     “... I understand; I shall create one for personal use.”

     “Glad to hear it… hey Sam?” She asked, pulling Jaal’s arms down when she could it starting to get stuffy under her t-shirt, and he settled his arms loosely around her hips.

     “Yes, Ryder?”

     “What's the first thing you'll do?”

     The AI didn't immediately respond, but after some consideration he finally spoke up, “I believe I will implement a system to assign value to music.”

     “Ah, yeah. Music,” she nodded, a crooked smile making its way to her mouth. “I'd be interested to know what you end up liking.”

     “Perhaps it's something we can discuss after I've completed it.”

     “Sounds good to me,” she agreed, patting Jaal’s leg idly and turning her head slightly when he squeezed her hip. “Hm?”

     “May I join that discussion? I'd like to know what an AI thinks regarding music,” Jaal said with a smile, wrapping a curly lock around his finger.

     “Sam?” Ryder asked, shivering as he rubbed her hair between his fingers, making her scalp tickle strangely.

     “I would welcome your company, perhaps you could provide some angaran music,” Sam suggested graciously, and she felt a flutter in her stomach. Seeing even the smallest social seeds being planted for her constant companion made her bubble with warmth. The more people began to accept him as a person, and not just intelligent software, the happier it made her.

     “I will see what I can procure,” Jaal said agreeably, scratching the back of her head idly before kissing it.

     “We should head back soon, need to start cooking,” she sighed, groaning as she bent forward and stretched her legs lazily. “Stew’s the easiest, and very campfire appropriate. Checked the fridge earlier, and looks like I should have enough dextro-friendly stuff to make Vetra some too. I’ll have to use her food but you know, I cook a lot better than she does.” 

     “You enjoy cooking?” he asked, getting up with a groan and picking up the guns while she grabbed the tool box.

     Ryder nodded as she slid down the front of the Nomad, opening up the back so they could deposit their things. “Yeah, did most of it when we were growing up and our parents were gone. Then in the Alliance I ended up doing a bit as well. I don’t know, feels good to see people enjoying what I’ve made.”

     “Dr. T’Perro said she would consult with the doctors on Aya as to whether your food is compatible with angarans. Perhaps I’ll be able to try some of your cooking myself one day,” Jaal replied as he got into the front seat, sucking in a slow, deep breath and grasping the handle just above the window.

     “... I swear, you’re just being dramatic. I’m not that bad a driver,” she chuckled, seeing how tense he was, as though bracing himself for a crash. “I was mostly just torturing you for flirting with Peebee, and talking about her. Again.”

     “I believe I’m beginning to understand why you and Drack get along so well,” Jaal muttered, jerking when Ryder sped off and shifted uncomfortably in his seat. “You would rather feign at murdering me than speak openly about your feelings.”

     “Don’t say it like that, I wasn’t trying to murder you. I just wanted you to think I was maybe trying to murder you,” she said defensively, sniffing as her fingers tightened around the steering wheel.

     “I just said that,” he said dryly, groaning when her foot slammed on the accelerator. “... dearest…”

     “And I’m sorry, I’ve never been the type to be open. I don’t just… I can’t just put it all out there like that. I need to know someone, trust them,” she huffed, twisting her fingers forward and backwards in agitation.

     “Ryder…”

     “And you can’t blame me for misunderstanding what was going on. I mean… you talked about Peebee all the time, all the time! And the way you talked to the other girls-- I mean, you never talked to me like that,” Ryder snapped, her face threatening to twist into a scowl as she recalled her previous failed attempts to get Jaal’s attention.

     “Dearest,” Jaal groaned, a hand rubbing his stomach worriedly, his fingers so tight around the handle they threatened to rip it right off. “Please slow d--”

     “I mean, seriously? Does everyone talk to each other like that? Is that normal? So if I was talking like that to other angarans, they wouldn’t think I was hitting on them? And if that’s not hitting on someone, what is hitting on someone? If I dry-hump someone’s leg, is that when they’ll get a clue I’m interested?” The words came tumbling out of her mouth quicker than she could catch them, and there seemed no way to stop the vomitous stream of frustration she’d harboured for weeks.

     She shouldn’t be mad about it anymore. After all they’d cleared the air, right? He was definitely interested in her and no one else… right?

     “Ryder, stop this vehicle or I’ll vomit!” Jaal said loudly and desperately, throwing the door open and rushing out when she slammed the brakes. He shut his eyes tight, hands braced on his thighs as he hunched over, waiting for the inevitable payback.

     She sighed and rubbed the back of her neck sheepishly as she exited the Nomad and walked around the front to check on him. “... sorry. Didn’t mean to go off.”

     He shook his head and waved a hand, taking another minute for his stomach to settle before pushing out a raspy response. “I understand, I failed to-- angarans are--  you were--” Jaal groaned and exhaled slowly before straightening himself, brow furrowed as he looked at her with obvious frustration. “I appreciate your attempts to open up, but perhaps such discussions can take place… anywhere but the Nomad. You’re not a good driver on your best day, and exponentially terrible when upset.”

     “I’m not terrible,” she muttered, scrunching her nose and crossing her arms over her chest as she kicked some sand idly.

     “You are without a doubt the worst driver I have encountered. You may not intend to murder your passengers, but perhaps that’s what makes it horrible, it’s not on purpose,” he replied, lips pursed with equal indignation, shoulders squared as she gave him a shady side glance. “The passion you normally display, which I admire so deeply, is tragically misplaced in the driver’s seat. I will drive us back to the Tempest.”

     “... fine,” she huffed, rolling her eyes as she got into the passenger’s seat, and propped her feet on the dashboard.

     Once inside Jaal took in a slow, calm breath and began humming as their journey continued, clearly much more comfortable in the driver’s seat. “And I would prefer to drive when we are on missions together,” he said firmly, eliciting another disbelieving grumble as Ryder stared out the window.

     “Whatever,” she huffed, propping her face up with a hand. “Nobody else complains about my driving.”

     “They should,” he said dryly, licking his lower lip and looking at her with a small smile. “I’m glad you were honest, even if it makes us both uncomfortable at times.”

     Ryder pressed her fingers into her cheek and grunted softly, nose wrinkling in embarrassment at having another outburst, and a sober one no less.

     “And the harrowing drive aside, I enjoyed spending time alone with you,” he continued, tilting his head and trying to catch her gaze though she stubbornly refused. “I would like to do this again.”

     “... yeah, me too,” she sighed, running her fingers through her hair before giving him a sheepish half-smile. “Usually working on that stuff by myself, nice to have someone else who knew what they were doing.”

     “It’s a privilege to get to know you better,” Jaal replied contentedly, a wistful breath escaping his lips as he kept driving at a leisurely pace.

     “You’re too much,” she smirked, visibly relaxing as they came closer to the Vault. “It’s just getting to know each other, no big deal.”

     His brow furrowed for a moment at her words, his thumb brushing along the steering wheel thoughtfully. “Yes, well… still, I’m happy that we’re becoming friends.”

     Ryder’s head jerked for a second, arching an eyebrow as she slowly turned her head towards him, noting the small smile on his face as he began humming to himself in her silence.

     Wait, what?

     … friends?

     FRIENDS?!

     She didn’t snuggle with friends. She didn’t make out with friends. She didn’t think about her friends naked or in the shower. Was this an angaran translation thing? This had to be an angaran translation thing. Not that they were together together but still, she’d definitely have classified them as more than friends.

     Friends?!

     “... friends. Yeah, me too,” she said lightly, though her face was wrinkled with a mix of frustration and confusion. “Always happy to have another friend.”

 

 

 

Chapter Text


 

 

     “Knit one, pearl two, knit one—Ryder, stop,” Suvi laughed, waving her hand as she saw the disaster that was the Pathfinder’s attempt at knitting; a tangle of wool wrapped around her long needles. “I think we should start over.” 

     Ryder muttered and huffed, pulling them apart with difficulty as she began to undo her work. “This is stupid, de-stressing my ass.”

     The science officer let out an amused sigh, motioning for the knotted jumble as Ryder stood up and checked the large pot on the stove, smelling it discerningly. “It’s not that hard once you get the hang of it. You’re just impatient; go slow, take your time,” Suvi said gently, tilting her head as she watched her chop some herbs and drop them in. “Smells good, can’t wait for supper.”

     She turned back to Suvi with a half-smile and shrugged, checking the oven as she watched some meat roasting inside. “Yeah, hopefully everyone will like it.”

     “So you were out with Jaal this morning, and you returned irritable and frazzled, and asked me to teach you how to knit. Everything alright?” Suvi asked slyly, a smile tugging the corner of her mouth as her fingers deftly worked to loosen the knots.

     “It’s fine, it’s just— angarans . All that research and I still feel like I don’t quite get them, you know?” she sighed, shaking her head as she stirred idly.

     “Did something happen?” the scientist asked with a slight frown, wrapping the yarn around the oblong bundle again.

     “No, not exactly. Went for a drive, hung out on top of the Nomad, messed around with some guns, had a nice talk. It’s just… I don’t know, I’m thinking too much,” Ryder sighed, squeezing the back of her neck and shrugging her shoulders a few times to ease some tension. “He said he was glad we’re becoming friends. Which just-- it’s a translation thing, right? I mean, I don’t kiss and cuddle my friends.”

     Suvi smiled and shook her head, patting the spot on the table beside her and gave Ryder the knitting needles again. “You’re spending proper time together, getting to know each other better, you are becoming friends. You know, going beyond attraction. I’m sure that’s all he means.”

     Ryder scrunched her nose distrustfully as she took a seat beside her and watched Suvi as she looped some of the yarn around a needle, carefully mimicking her actions. “Yeah, probably. It’s just-- I got things wrong once already, really badly. I don’t want to get it backwards again.”

     “You’re definitely thinking too much,” Suvi chuckled, making a soft noise of approval as Ryder continued to slowly knit with her. “Relax, it’s obvious how he feels about you, we’ve all seen it for weeks; stop fussing.”

     She sighed and nodded, exchanging small smiles and bumping shoulders before a mischievous twinkle appeared. “Soooo… how’d your night go? Do I officially hold the title as best wing-woman?” Ryder grinned, her smile widening the pinker Suvi’s cheeks became.

     The officer opened and closed her mouth a few times to reply, before she finally let out a soft chuckle. “You do. It was-- she’s so-- we just clicked . She’s a research scientist; assisting with water filtration and studying the local flora. We spent hours on the roof talking about everything and nothing: our experiences in Heleus so far, what we’d been studying. It was wonderful… and she’s an amazing kisser.”

     Ryder sighed wistfully and nodded, lips pursing as she tried to loosen the row she’d been working on. “Well, we’ll have to make sure to stop by in Kadara again soon, I’ve always got something on my list to clear. Every time I think I’ve finished everything, three new things pop up,” she winked, exchanging knowing smiles with Suvi as they continued to knit in silence. Or rather, as the scientist knitted and she attempted not to make a complete muck again.

     A few moments later the door slid open and the Pathfinder’s head shot up, an amused but wary expression transforming her face. “No. Stop right there,” she warned, pointing a knitting needle at Drack as he hovered just inside the door. “You’re not getting any.”

     The old krogan rumbled and sniffed sharply, shifting on his feet back and forth. “Could smell it from the cargo bay,” he said gruffly, his gaze steady on the large simmering pot. “Smells good.”

     “Of course it does, I’m a good cook,” Ryder said wryly, biting her lip and fighting a laugh when Drack shuffled a bit closer to the stove. “Drack, stop! If I let you have some, everyone’s gonna want some and there’ll be nothing left for tonight.”

     He pushed his lips out thoughtfully as he watched her, taking another step closer, a dim twinkle in his eye. “It’s a big pot.”

     “No!” she laughed, shaking the needle at him. “Don’t even think about it.”

     “Haven’t eaten yet,” he replied raspily, scratching under his chin as he peered at the stew.

     “Then have something else,” she quipped, dropping the needles into her lap as she found herself in a stare down with the krogan. “And don’t give me that look.”

     “What look?” he asked with amusement, though he continued to meet her gaze unflinchingly.

     “The ‘I’m a million years old and weary and battle-worn and on death’s door and you should do what I want… because I’m a million years old’ look.”

     “Oh, that look,” Drack said dryly with a throaty chuckle. “Well, if it works…”

     “You’re a spoiled brat,” Ryder said accusingly, though a grin quickly spread across her lips. “I’ve half a mind to tell Kesh.”

     “Maybe I’ll tell her I’ve started leading therapy sessions again,” he countered, arching a brow slowly and smirking when she opened her mouth and closed it again after a few moments, glaring at him. “You know how she worries.”

     “That’s blackmail!” she laughed, scrunching her nose and attempting to look annoyed or displeased, and failed miserably.

     “What’re you roasting? Not varren,” he continued, peering down into the stove with interest and smacking his lips hungrily. “Putting it in the stew?”

     “It’s beef, and yes I am,” she replied, groaning when Drack stood beside the pot and gave her an expectant and patient look. “Come on, give me a break. You know I can’t say no to you.”

     “I know,” he said smugly, crossing his arms over his chest as he leaned against the counter. “Just a taste.”

     “Oh go on Ryder, give him a bit,” Suvi teased, winking at Drack as she nudged her arm. “He hasn’t eaten today; you’re not going to starve the old man, are you?”

     Ryder glared at both of them, not nearly as harshly as she’d intended, before shaking her head and sighing. “You’re impossible, fine . Just a taste, and not a word to anyone or I’m telling Kesh on you,” she relented, grabbing a bowl and muttering with annoyance. “Haven’t even put the meat in yet, needs to simmer together.”

     “Give me a slice then, I’m not picky,” he smirked, thrumming contentedly as he took another whiff of the stew. “Been a long time since I’ve had a proper meal like this.”

     “Well if you guys like it maybe I’ll considering doing this more often. Might be nice to have a meal together every once in a while,” she replied, opening the oven and laying the large roast on the counter, giving Drack an unimpressed side glance when he took in a deep breath and rumbled approvingly. “Hmph, impossible .”

     Drack simply smacked his lips with anticipation as he watched her cut him a thick slice of roast, putting it on the side before spooning him a full bowl of stew. “Thanks, kid,” he replied appreciatively, taking another discerning sniff before digging in immediately, indifferent to how hot the food still was.

     “And eat it in here, don’t want you giving everyone else ideas,” Ryder smirked, tilting her head and smiling as she watched him eat, making quiet noises as he ate. “So… good?”

     “Good,” he agreed between bites, nodding vaguely as he watched her sit back down and pick up the knitting needles. “What you two doing?”

     “Knitting you a scarf,” she replied wryly, turning to watch Suvi before picking up again. “You know, to keep you warm on Voeld.”

     “… uh-huh. Not wearing it,” he grunted, almost humming as he ate, clearly enjoying the meal.

     “Oh yes you will. If I make it, you’re gonna wear it,” she quipped mischievously, her tongue poking out as she attempted to start another row.

     “Krogans don’t wear scarves.”

     “Not yet.”

     “Not ever .”

     “Don’t be such a grump.”

     “I am a grump.”

     “It’s a gift, you can’t refuse a gift,” she argued with a grin, getting up to take his empty bowl and give him another serving. “And this is why I made a vat, you greedy old codger.”

     “Didn’t ask for more,” he said dryly, though a small smile hung on the right corner of his mouth as he took it from her, thrumming happily.

     “Didn’t need to,” she sighed and smiled, lips suddenly pursed tightly when the galley door opened and Liam came in, eyes widening as he watched Drack eating contentedly. “Nope, get out, not ready yet.”

     “What? How come he gets a bowl? You wouldn’t even give me a taste!” he laughed, crossing his arms over his chest as his foot tapped on the floor.

     “ Two bowls,” Drack said smugly, a throaty chuckle escaping when Liam scoffed and took a deep whiff.

     “Two bowls?! Come on, Ryder, playing favorites again?” Liam quipped, a twinkle in his eye as he stared enviously at Drack, who continued to eat silently.

     “Do you see what you’ve started?” Ryder said accusingly to the krogan, who shrugged his shoulders indifferently, shaking her head and motioning for Liam to come closer. “Fine, just a bite.”

     “Smell’s filling the whole ship, anticipation’s killing us,” Liam grinned, quickly shuffling to the stove and eyeing the roast curiously before spooning a bit of the stew and blowing on it. “Didn’t know you could cook.”

     She smirked and rolled her eyes, giving him a sidelong glance before she finally started slicing the roast, dicing it into large chunks. “Well now you do.”

     He watched her for half a second before putting the spoon back in and leaned against the table beside Suvi, a grin on his face. “… I can wait till you’re done before testing. Suvi, you teaching Ryder how to knit?”

   “Trying to,” Suvi said wryly, having already completed several rows in the short time since she’d joined Ryder in the galley.

     “Making anything in particular?” he asked congenially, leaning to the side as he watched Ryder drop the mound of juicy meat into the pot.

     “A scarf for Drack,” Ryder said casually, biting her lip and fighting off a shit-eating grin when the ancient krogan grunted annoyedly in reply.

     “Not wearing it.”

     “A krogan wearing a scarf? I’d pay to see that,” Liam chuckled, clearing his throat and whistling when he felt a cold, reptilian eye boring into him.

     “Not happening.”

     “Well if he doesn’t want it, I’ll take it,” he quipped, waiting until Ryder had stirred everything thoroughly before getting up and taking the spoon from her.

     “All yours then, at least someone will appreciate it,” she replied, leaning against the counter and watching Liam as he blew on the spoon several times. “You and Jaal figured out where we should go?”

     “Yeah, up on the ridge near the Remnant tower. Close enough to be safe, far enough to be away from prying eyes,” he nodded, carefully taking a bite and groaning happily. “Shit Ryder, this is brilliant.”

     “Thanks,” she said with a smile, scrunching her nose but not stopping him when he quickly took another bite.

     “Did you know Vetra got us marshmallows for the campfire? Don’t ask me how she got it, but she picked it up on Kadara before we left this morning,” Liam nodded, laughing softly when the turian entered the galley and smirked at him.

     “Thought I saw you trying to sneak in here,” Vetra said dryly, eyeing the smaller pot towards the back of the stove. “That mine?”

     “Yeah. Liam said you got us marshmallows?” Ryder replied, sighing in defeat as she nudged Liam to sit at the table and waved for Vetra come closer. “You guys are killing me, can’t you just wait a few more hours?”

     “Not when it smells this good,” the turian said with a smirk, stirring her stew around and making a surprised noise after taking a spoonful. “Wow Ryder, didn’t expect you’d be able to cook this well.”

     “Had a couple turians on our digs back home, not so different,” she said, grinning widely and puffing her chest out proudly.

     “You know you’re gonna have to cook for us again, right?” Vetra said with a contented sigh, taking another small bite before putting the lid back on the pot. “Made enough for leftovers too? Fantastic.”

     “Ryder was suggesting we do this regularly, nice idea don’t you think?” Suvi asked, pausing to let Liam inspect her knitting more closely.

     “Almost like a family dinner thing, sounds great,” Liam added, feeling the yarn between his fingers. “Damn, this is soft. It’ll make a great scarf.”

     Drack rumbled softly and handed Ryder his empty bowl, patting his stomach contentedly. “Gotta leave room for dinner, but that was damn good.”

     “Thanks old man,” Ryder said wryly, giving him a wink before he stood up and stretched with a groan.

     Shortly after Peebee stood in a doorway, pointing at them all indignantly. “I knew it! You said I couldn’t have any till tonight, what’re they all doing here? She let you have some, didn’t she?”

     “She gave Drack two bowls,” Liam said with an amused huff, crossing one leg over another casually.

     “Not fair, you can’t play favorites,” the asari grumbled, quickly grinning when Ryder rolled her eyes and waved her forward. “Just a bite, smell’s driving me crazy.”

     “That’s what I said,” Liam chuckled, rubbing the back of his head and smiling when Peebee hastily slurped some stew, then moaned happily as she took a proper bite.

     “Not my fault she loves me most,” Drack answered smugly, chuckling when Cora walked in with Gil, their jaws dropping as they saw the cluster of people hanging around the stove.

     “You’ve got to be kidding me, you yelled at all of us to stay out of the kitchen,” Cora snorted, giving Ryder an amused side-eye before joining Peebee in front of the simmering stew. “Damn, gimme the spoon.”

     “Save some for me,” Gil huffed, squishing past the krogan with a grunt, everyone shuffling a bit to try and make room in the cramped galley.

     “I give up,” Ryder sighed, throwing her hands in the air and pointing to Drack once more. “This is all your fault.”

     The krogan simply let out a raspy chuckle and nodded briefly before making his way out. “Uh-huh. Thanks, kid. I’ll see if the wood’s dry yet.”

     “Yeah about that, Liam. Drack said there’s blood on it, care to share how that happened?” Ryder asked mirthfully, stirring the stew a few times before putting the lid back on. Thank goodness she’d made as much as she had, hopefully there’d still be plenty left over.

     “Uhhh… Suvi pointed us to a tree that would work, and we got ambushed while we were chopping one down,” Liam said slowly with a grin, shrugging when Peebee and Vetra gave him amused smirks in response. “Hey, we got firewood and there’s one less group of bandits on Kadara. I’d say that’s a win.”

     “Oh my god, this is good,” Cora murmured, pushing the spoon to Gil’s lips as he took a bite, making a loud, pleased noise.

     “Ryder, think we need to officially make you our cook,” the engineer commented with a grin, licking his lower lip and getting another spoonful to share with Cora. “Why the hell haven’t we been eating like this from the start?”

     “Oh you know, that little issue with saving the galaxy,” Ryder said wryly, shoo’ing the asari away when she reached for a mug and began to pour a couple ladles in. “That’s enough, all of you out! You can have more when it’s dinnertime.”

     “I’m getting a bit for Kallo, he didn’t want to put the ship on auto-pilot,” Peebee said defensively, holding a hand up after she put a spoon in. “Come on, we’ve all gotten a taste, he should too.”

     “Fine, fine! Would you guys get your asses out of my kitchen already? Dinner’ll be ready in a couple hours,” Ryder laughed, waving them all out with an exasperated huff.

     She watched them shuffle through the doors, crossing her arms and sighing with amusement, and Suvi began humming contentedly as she continued knitting. “This was a great idea, Ryder, glad you thought of it; we’ve barely caught our breath since we started.”

     “True, I need to remember to give us shore leave more often. I know I’m a workaholic but there’s no reason you guys should be worked to the bone,” she agreed reluctantly, sitting back down beside her and picking up her knitting again, taking a deep breath before she slowly continued.

     “We could all use a break sometimes and I won’t lie, this is one of the best shore leaves I’ve had so far,” Suvi grinned, biting her lip as she stopped to admire her progress. “Full of surprises, in the best way possible.”

     “Yeah, it’s been eventful, that’s for sure,” Ryder chuckled, shaking her head and sighing. “Feel like I’m in a daze. Went from being frustrated and salty as hell over Jaal to… well, wherever it is we are now. It’s been what, a few days? Crazy.”

     “A lot can happen in a day,” Suvi sighed wistfully, shaking her head and tucking some hair behind her ear. “Not like I expected to meet someone who gives me mad butterflies.”

     “Oh I know all about those,” she smirked, finishing off her second row before putting her knitting aside. “Just a couple more hours and we’ll have a proper meal and a campfire, hope everyone’s got some good stories to share.”

     

     When dinner was finally ready to be served, the crew of the Tempest was gathered around a roaring fire, seated on crates from the cargo bay. A comfortable silence had fallen between them as they ate, and even Jaal had ventured to try a bit after Lexi had given him the okay.

     “Ryder, you are definitely doing this again,” Peebee sighed contentedly, placing her bowl beside her and leaning back against an arm as she patted her belly. “I’m stuffed, couldn’t eat another bite… at least for another half hour.”

     Liam chuckled and nodded, nudging the Pathfinder’s arm before taking another spoonful. “I’ll second that, nothing like a good meal to lift your spirits.”

     “Back to the grind tomorrow; where’re we going next?” Cora asked as she dished herself another serving.

     “Might as well clear up some stuff here while we’re at it. Should be good to follow the kett transponder after that,” Ryder shrugged, crossing her legs and tucking her feet underneath neatly.

     “You think you’re really going to reach the Archon?” Gil asked, a tense uncertainty on his face, and relaxing slightly when Vetra patted his back.

     “If we don’t, at least we’ll be a step closer,” she replied with a sigh, putting the bowl next to her with a swift wave. “Enough work talk though, it’s our last night off for a while. Let’s make the most of it.”

     “No, you’re right. It’s a beautiful night; not a cloud in the sky, and the colony is safe and sound. Take it in guys, we did this,” Cora said with a wistful smile as she turned to look at the well-lit buildings below.

     Ryder nodded and ran her fingers through her hair, following the vanguard’s gaze. “Yeah… we make a pretty fantastic team if I say so myself.”

     “I’m still in awe of how much has been accomplished in the last weeks. We’ve done more in that time than my people have in decades. It’s both humbling and thrilling,” Jaal ventured after a few moments, looking around at the crew, his eyes finally falling on Ryder from across the fire.

     “We’ve just started,” she replied with a lop-sided smile, unconsciously biting her lip and scratching her nose when she felt an all too familiar flutter in her stomach. “There’s still a lot to do.”

     “Yeah, we’re beginning to hit our stride,” Vetra nodded, sighing contentedly as she put her bowl down. “I’m going to third the earlier sentiment; think we should do this again. Easy to forget the simple comforts with everything going on, but nothing beats a home-cooked meal. Don’t know the last time I had one.”

     “Really glad you guys enjoyed it. Used to do this once in a while back on our digs. Did a lot of the cooking back home before biotics training, Jack can’t cook for shit,” she chuckled, squeezing the back of her neck as her mind drifted off. “Can’t wait till he wakes up, there’s so much he’s missed out on. We’ve had some amazing adventures.”

     “I don’t think I’ve heard you talk about your brother before, you two sound close,” Lexi commented gently, a small and uncertain smile on her face as she took a quiet bite of stew.

     “Mm, yeah. But you know, fate of the galaxy and building a relationship with the angara took priority from day one, but he’s always in the back of my mind,” Ryder said with a vague nod, giving the asari a rueful smile. “Glad you agreed to join us. I know, patient-doctor boundaries and all, but there’s no reason we can’t eat together now and then.”

     “And an excellent meal at that,” Lexi replied appreciatively, finishing the last spoonfuls before sighing and standing up. “Still, I don’t want to encroach on team bonding, so I’ll head back to the Tempest and finish some reports. Good evening all.”

     Everyone murmured or nodded farewells, and Peebee let out a long sigh of relief as she watched the doctor disappear down the slope. “Well Ryder, we started sharing stories before we started eating, think it’s your turn to give us one.”

     “I for one would like to know how you managed to slip under the radar while your brother got the reputation he did, at least from what little your dad said about you two,” Cora smirked between bites, leaning forward onto her forearms, a twinkle in her eye as she looked at the Pathfinder

     “Guess you could say I was a bit of a daddy’s girl, as much as you could be if Alec Ryder was your dad,” she chuckled with a sheepish shrug. “Helped when you had a brother who always took the fall for you; he’d never let me take the blame, no matter how hard I tried.”

     “Protective, I get that,” Vetra nodded as she put her bowl down. “It’s the same with me and Sid.”

     “Same with Kesh, though she fusses more about me these days,” Drack grunted, getting up with a groan and serving himself some more stew.

     Ryder smirked as she watched Drack, scratching the side of her neck with amusement. “That’s your third bowl.”

     “It’s good,” he said indifferently, sniffing as he sat back down. “Still plenty left.”

     “Back to the topic at hand, not letting you winkle out of this one,” Peebee said with a wink, her foot idly tracing shapes in the sand. “I want an adventure. What’s the most trouble you got into?”

     “Just getting right into it, huh?” she said wryly, pushing her lips out as she gave the question some thought. “Didn’t get into that much trouble, really. But there was that one time in Omega…”

     “What were you doing in Omega?” Drack asked gruffly, eyes narrowing slightly when Ryder grinned mischievously. “No place for kids.”

     “Yeah, we were in over our heads,” she laughed softly, tapping her fingers on a thigh and shrugging. “Curiosity, I guess. Got passage to go to the Citadel for a mini holiday and we… took a slight detour.”

     “Just you and your brother? You’d have stood out a mile wide,” Vetra chuckled, shaking her head as she stretched back onto her arms. “How long were you there for?”

     “First time? Just a night. Was about all we could risk, and all we could handle if I’m being honest,” Ryder replied, sliding off the crate and lifting her knees, feet digging into the fine sand gently. “Still, was a night to remember.”

     “What is Omega?” Jaal asked with a confused frown, dropping the empty can of nutrient paste behind him.

     “Who wants to explain that one?” Peebee asked with a laugh, coming over to sit in front of Vetra, against the crate next to her.

     “I’d rather not,” Kallo said with a quiet sniff, carefully taking a small bite of stew.

     “You still working on that? Isn’t that your first?” the asari asked with a blend of curiosity and amusement.

     The pilot shrugged indifferently, looking down at his half-full bowl. “Salarians don’t require as many calories, particularly when I’m not as physically active as the rest of you. I’m savoring it,” he said lightly, giving Ryder a small and appreciative smile.

     “It’s a hunk of rock, out in the Milky Way. Filled with thieves, mercs, smugglers. Place for desperate and dangerous people,” Drack finally said with a disapproving sniff, resting a hand on his knee.

     Jaal jerked his head back in surprise, tilting his head as he looked Ryder over curiously. “Why would you want to go there?”

     “For the danger, the thrill, to say we had? And you’re right Vetra; we stood out, as much as we tried to blend in,” she laughed, a wistful sigh escaping her lips. “Spent most of the night at Afterlife. How the hell we got in I couldn’t tell you, beyond Jack working his usual magic. Ended up sharing a table with a band of smugglers who’d just arrived. Rough people, but decent. You can find friends in the weirdest places sometimes.”

     “That’s lucky, probably kept the vultures away,” the turian nodded knowingly, a twinkle in her eye as she looked at the Pathfinder. “You’re full of surprises, Ryder.”

     The Pathfinder shrugged, fighting a smile that threatened to hang in the corner of her mouth. “We all have stories.”

     “So you get to Omega, befriend a band of smugglers… and then what?” Peebee asked with an impatient wave, trying to return focus to the topic at hand.

     “Then we drank. A lot .”

     “I think I see where this is going,” Liam chuckled, leaning against Ryder briefly to bump arms with her. “A fight broke out. But what I wanna know is; who started it?”

     Ryder grinned incorrigibly and shrugged, extending her legs and curling her toes tightly. “You’re skipping ahead. Somewhere in the midst of drinking we started taking bets for shits and giggles. I bet that I’d do just as well as the dancers.”

     “Of course you did - and you fleeced them, huh?” Peebee smirked, drawing her knees to her chest and hugging them loosely.

     “Damn straight.”

     “That’s my girl,” the asari grinned, cocking her head to the side after a moment’s thought. “That start the fight?”

     “Naw, I just used the money to buy us more drinks. And that was the problem. One of ‘em was poisoned.”

     Liam’s mouth dropped and he let out a disbelieving snort. “No way, whose was it?”

     “One of the smugglers, but they might’ve all been poisoned. Jared grabbed his first, threw it back and boom; started gasping and wretching. We left the rest alone after that.” Ryder gripped the back of her neck firmly and shook her head, half sighing and half chuckling. “That sobered us up pretty quick.”

     “No shit,” Vetra interjected with a scoff, resting her forearms on her knees. “They find out who did it?”

     “Don’t know to be honest. There was a rival gang on the other side of the club, and our new buddies assumed it was them. So… yeah, that’s when the fight started,” the Pathfinder replied, a small smile teasing the corner of her mouth. “Got ugly real fast, never saw people fight so dirty before.”

     Drack grunted softly and tilted his chin towards Ryder, a hard and discerning look in his eyes. “You get your asses handed to you?”

     She snorted indignantly and gave a curt shake of her head. “Please. Do you not know me?”

     The krogan chortled raspily and smacked his fist onto his knee enthusiastically. “Kicked their asses, atta girl.”

     “We stopped the fight, I guess you could say. Don’t get me wrong, we didn’t go nuts and kill everyone or something. Knocked them out good cold though, and just in time for Afterlife security to come in and throw everyone out,” Ryder said, offering them a lop-sided smile. “Was a lot of fun.”

     Jaal’s eyes had been bouncing back along with the conversation, a perplexed look contorting his serene features. “I don’t understand. Being nearly poisoned and ending up in a brawl with dangerous criminals was… fun?”

     “Well, yeah. I mean, we were on an adventure to one of the most dangerous and infamous places we could think of. You kinda expect something like that’ll happen, and we got to stretch our biotics in a real fight...” Ryder said slowly, realizing how twisted that must have sounded, based on Jaal’s bewildered expression. “I mean… angarans don’t like… get into brawls and stuff?”

     “... no,” he replied after an awkward pause. “Not for fun. Not like that. This is a common pastime in your galaxy?”

     “No, not really,” Peebee chuckled, eyes twinkling with delighted mischief as a contented exhale escaped her lips.

     Vetra smirked and shook her head before standing up with the asari, brushing her legs off briskly. “Only if you’re Ryder.”

     “Or a krogan,” Drack quipped, groaning deeply as he stood up and stretched his arms. “Alright kids, I’ll leave you to it, I’ve got some stuff to take care of.”

     “Stuff, what kind of stuff?” Peebee asked nosily, stretching her hips left and right before she made to follow him.

     “Stuff,” the krogan grunted, giving the asari a slow side-eye.

     “Has to check in with the granddaughter,” Vetra chuckled, idly trailing after them. “Lecture time.”

     “It’s worse when I don’t call,” Drack muttered, giving Peebee an idle thump on her back. “ Kids . Like I don’t know how to take care of myself. Done it for a millenium, think I’ve got this.”

     Liam grinned and shook his head, getting up to gather everyone’s empty dishes to take back with them. “It’s cause she cares.”

     “Must be, not like she’s got a massive fortune to inherit if I keel over,” the krogan chuckled, slowing down as the others caught up.

     “So morbid, must be wonderful to be able to live that long. Imagine all the research I could do if I had that kinda time,” Suvi sighed wistfully, folding up the blankets with Kallo before shaking her head.

     “It’s not the amount of time you have, it’s what you do with it,” Kallo quipped, propping his arms out as Suvi laid the thick fleece over them.

     “Very true,” Cora agreed, picking up the pot with a grunt and motioning her head towards Ryder as she stood up. “I’ll pack this up, feel free to linger. You two can put out the fire.”

     The devilish twinkle in her eye had the Pathfinder flushing and clearing her throat before she stood awkwardly and turned back towards Jaal. “Uh… you uh, wanna stay out here for a bit longer?”

     “I would enjoy spending some more time with you alone,” Jaal said softly, the barest smile on his lips, and Ryder felt blood rushing to the back of her neck.

     “Alright, bit of star gazing might be nice,” she shrugged after a brief pause, and sat down beside him, leaning back against the half-empty crate.

     The angaran agreed with a motion of his head as he tilted it upwards, and a comfortable silence fell between them. After a while it occurred to Ryder that she couldn’t remember the last time she’d been able to enjoy someone’s company without a word spoken. Or when her head had been empty enough that all she paid attention to was the brightly dotted sky, a whispering wind shifting the sand around them, the smell of burning wood filling her nostrils. It was almost blissful.

     Just as she leaned back further, her ears perked when Jaal let out a shaky sigh. “It’s beautiful, isn’t it? I can’t remember the last time I had a moment to watch the stars.”

     Ryder nodded, her legs slowly curling towards her chest. “Yeah, bit strange though.”

     “Oh?”

     “Learned all the constellations as a kid, but this is a new sky. Don’t recognize anything now,” she murmured, a strange flutter passing through her stomach when she felt smooth, large fingers sneakily intertwining with hers.

     A low and ear-tickling thrum emanated from the angaran’s chest as his fingers tightened around hers. “Then I shall teach you.”

     She scrunched her nose and bit her lip, feeling his eyes slowly turn towards her, but she couldn’t quite meet them, not when her stomach was doing a drunken flip-flopping dance. So she just gave his fingers a gentle squeeze and settled their hands in her lap.

    “... I'd like that.”