“So, Ryder. I think we have to arrest your boyfriend.”
“He’s not my boyfriend, Peebee,” Ryder muttered, now automatically. She was definitely in the shower, absolutely having private time, most certainly had locked the door. And yet: Peebee. Inevitably, Peebee. Into the steam, Ryder sighed.
Peebee clicked her tongue. Through the hazy shower stall’s door, Ryder could make out the Asari slouching back against the sink. Even the vague outline of Peebee’s body seemed indolent. “Semantics. I happen to love the word boyfriend. So cute! So juvenile! A highly accurate representation of your love life. Did I mention: any and all comments on this topic put forth by myself, Peebee, are to be received with appreciation and reflection?”
There was shampoo in her eye. How appropriate. Ryder grimaced. “Did you come here to tell me something Peebee?”
“No, no. Nothing in particular. Just figured you could use some girl talk considering your boyfriend’s approaching arrest.” Peebee paused. “You should wash your back more.”
Back later. First, shampoo. Ryder dug at her eye. “I might not have to arrest him. I will hopefully not have to arrest him. I don’t think I really have the authority to arrest people? Like formally? At first I thought Addison was a bitch but then I saw the paperwork she gets because of me. Which has probably already been reduced by, um, by lower level office employees. I’m trying to be more considerate. Also he’s not my boyfriend. I haven’t seen him in months.”
Peebee laughed with shrill sarcasm. “Goddess. Ryder. Your ass is blushing.”
In all likelihood: she probably had to arrest her boyfriend.
“You knew this was coming,” Tann whispered, with some viciousness. Ryder tried to be patient. Maybe she could lighten things up by pointing out that there was no one in the room to overhear them. Tann continued whispering, “You knew that getting in bed with smugglers and vigilante criminal pseudo-lords was not the Initiative’s plan for Kadara.”
In bed with vigilante criminal pseudo-lords. How nice. If only. Ryder rubbed the skin between her eyebrows. She was aging into migraines. “Director Tann, we needed that outpost. The Initiative, including yourself, has and continues to profit tremendously from Kadara’s trade—”
“Oh, yes,” Tann interrupted, now throwing himself back into his chair. It was a nice chair. Choice cushioning for one bony Salarian butt. “Yes, we are all well aware of Kadara’s potential. But you don’t see what I see, Ryder. They are an independent, lawless entity that devours Nexus goods and personnel along with our reputation!”
Ryder squinted. Her migraine was getting worse. It was probably due to the shitty fluorescent lighting and, perhaps, just a spice of defensive rage. “Director Tann,” Ryder stressed, “You know we need a free market. You know we need an economic center that is separate from our government—”
Director Tann waved a hand, presumably to silence her. Ryder ignored him. “—just because you can’t control something doesn’t make it a threat. Yes, there are drugs on Kadara. There is probably every single fucking kind of trafficking going down in that city, but you know what? There will always be buyers. Prohibition has never worked, and that includes here on the Nexus. If anything, Kadara separates you from crime. I don’t need to tell you the other benefits.”
“No. You don’t.” Tann conceded. There was a resigned, but hard note to his voice now. He was done yelling. Composure settled across the director’s long body, and he drew himself forward. Ryder’s stomach clenched. Director Tann sighed. “Ryder. The fact of the matter is, Kadara Port became partners with the Initiative – with all of us—the moment we settled outposts on Kadara. You’re right, we can’t lose the Port. But the violence, the corruption—Aya is losing patience. More Angara deal with the port than any of our colonies, or the Nexus. They only see us at our worst; mired in greed, inseparable from violence. Even the Moshae has begun to express her concerns. If we don’t act—or at the very least appear to act—in such a way that curbs the Charlatan’s influence, and quickly, we risk losing our Angaran alliance. I don’t need to tell you their benefits.”
The Charlatan. Ryder did her best to maintain eye-contact. In bed with a vigilante criminal pseudo lord. She licked her lips. “I see your point.”
“I should hope so. It is glaringly obvious,” Tann replied icily. Ryder wondered if her impeccable calm was suspicious. Maybe she should try fidgeting. Normal people fidgeted. She bounced her knee, then stopped at once.
After too long a pause, Ryder cleared her throat. “Okay. So we’re in agreement, something has to change. But Director Tann, I’m the Pathfinder. I’m supposed to be eradicating the straggler Kett on Eos—is this really the mission I should be taking on right now?”
Director Tann surveyed her for a long moment. He did a weird thing with his face. Something like a smile. “It must be you. Do you know, Pathfinder, I have considerable respect for you. Your contributions to the initiative cannot be overstated. During your battle against the Archon I took it upon myself to watch the skies and the coms. I wondered who would help us, who would leave us to die. You can imagine my surprise, when an entire fleet of Kadaran ships began appearing, like endless waves to break the Kett fighters. You can imagine, how I wondered, when I saw the man who led them join you fighting on the ground.”
Ryder reminded herself that normal, unconcerned people did things like breathing. She tilted her head slightly, waiting, staring into Tann’s cold, analytic eyes. Alien.
He blinked. “Well, it’s not as though I think he’s the Charlatan. That seems almost laughably stupid, not to speak of reckless. Perhaps a trusted lieutenant. Regardless, anyone would suspect you’d made a deal with the Charlatan personally based off of the ease with which our foothold in Kadara was established. Their participation in the battle at Meridian only confirms that.”
Pathfinder, SAM piped up, Situational analysis suggests that you appear less cornered. Disengaging sweat glands now.
Ryder recoiled. Sam, never again.
Tann couldn’t have missed her discomfort, but he didn’t acknowledge it either. “I am not a fool or an idealist, Pathfinder. I acknowledge the value in established, underground networking, and your consistent victories thus far are why I have chosen to delegate authority to you, rather than intervening directly with the Nexus militia. Use your knowledge of the Collective and its higher officers to find the Charlatan, and convince them to reform. Or remove them. I trust you understand my position and will act appropriately.”
Ryder forced herself to smile, nodding at the director and rising too quickly from her seat. “I do understand. Completely. I’ll see what I can do, Director Tann.”
She had begun to turn away to retreat, when Tann called her back, “Pathfinder. I am not unsympathetic to your position, but you should know that this mission comes with a deadline.”
The Director seems to be acclimating to his authority, SAM noted.
Keema wouldn’t stop calling. Reyes jabbed his omni-tool. “Busy. What?”
“You might want to wash the blood off your hands,” Keema drawled in her usual arch way. “A friendly suggestion.”
“Why? Is my mother coming?”
Damn. There actually was blood on his hands. Reyes tried rubbing his smudged omni-tool clean with his sleeve. “When, why?”
“Not sure, but soon. Probably to arrest you.”
“She wouldn’t arrest me.”
“Oh, I don’t know…” Keema smirked, “You haven’t seen her in a while.”
“I sent gifts.”
Keema looked at him pityingly. “Anyway. Find anything decent?”
Reyes sighed, “Nothing conclusive. I want a better scanner. It’s so dirty, everywhere. Turian and Angara and human, all this DNA mixed together. Like a molecular sex party. Except frustrating, not fun.”
“Humans and your ‘sex parties.’ The Angara call it dinner.”
“Speak for yourself.” Reyes glanced at the sticky wall, its dark blue blood. “I should clean up.”
They ended the call without salutations, as usual. Reyes stared at the grit, the corpses, the ugly painting someone had made on the wall with the Turian’s blood. He honestly couldn’t tell if it was supposed to be a face or a volcano. A little artistry never hurt anyone.
Ryder was coming.
Back to the bloody painting. Probably a face? Maybe a mask. Could be a Charlatan reference, but not what he was looking for—annoyingly amateur, not worth his time.
Sara was coming.
He tried the sink. A stream of orange liquid pooled in the basin. Reyes splashed his hands, sighing. Kadara. Dirty, ugly Kadara. His kingdom.
“Sucks about Reyes,” Liam noted, smiling widely. Ryder ignored him. The shit.
“Boyfriend,” Peebee mouthed. Everyone was getting ignored.
“Approaching Kadara,” Kallo called over his shoulder. “Seatbelts. Or at least hold on to something, Gil.” The pilot snapped back around to face his flight path. A beat of silence. Suvi’s pretty head poked around her chair.
“Kallo’s been quiet anxious about the upcoming safety inspection. Please don’t be so hard on him and take your seats. You really should, anyway, you know. Might be a good time to do some relaxing, get some thinking in. It’s not all bad.”
“Thank you, Suvi,” Kallo sniffed.
Being unfortunately burdened by boss duties (and Cora’s impressive stare), Ryder slid grudgingly into one of the deck’s seats. Vetra joined her. “You know, Ryder, if you’re already out arresting boyfriends maybe we could add a few more to the list. Like Sid’s.”
“Give the kids a break!” Liam objected, definitely not wearing a seat belt. “Who cares if he isn’t perfect! She’s got the right to mess around, make some discoveries about herself!”
“Oh, what discoveries?” Peebee jibed. “I like discoveries.”
“My little sister isn’t going to mess around with some hotshot kamikaze Krogan with five hundred years on her and a beat-ass shuttle called Trade Enlargo,” Vetra snarled, over-enunciating every word. “If you’re going to make a gross euphemism it should at least make sense!”
“Kid’s right,” Drack agreed, “And anyway, everyone knows Krogan men aren’t worth shit until they’ve cleared seven hundred. Sad but true.”
Surely, still a notable improvement over dating the mob, SAM speculated over loud speaker. Drack snickered.
“Traitor,” Ryder muttered, then bit her tongue as Kallo landed with unusual force. Liam went flying, slamming his shoulder painfully on the bridge door before he caught himself against the mandated safety railing. Kallo swiveled as Suvi steered the Tempest into its docking bay. “Seat belts,” was all he hissed.
Kadara was different. Ryder could smell it, before anything else. The smog of sulfur and ozone had dissipated thanks to the terraforming. In its place—food smells. Animal smells. The market was massive, sprawling, spilling out to the docks. There were hecklers and beggars and vendors and street performers. There were old-school neon signs and grungy sewer pipes and very real, very noticeable infrastructure.
And the people. Human, Salarian, Turian, Nexus, Collective, Angaran. Was that a church? They’d built a church. Ryder could feel her migraine coming back.
“Might as well start with where things used to be,” Drack muttered. He’d appointed himself to her squad, and in the wake of so much change, Ryder was unexpectedly reassured. At least she’d brought the big muscle.
“Pardon me Ryder, but I think I will speak to the resident Angara,” Jaal announced, turning to her. “Much has changed since we’ve been here last. I would like to hear from our elected representatives.”
“Take someone with you. Let me know what you find out,” Ryder agreed. “Okay everyone? Split up but no solo missions. Keep your eyes open.”
There was a sort of generalized nod among squad members, and in pairs they began splitting off. Ryder watched as her team filtered into the greater market, many lingering over the new stalls.
“That looks tasty,” Suvi’s voice could just barely be heard.
“Don’t,” from Kallo.
Dependable as always, Cora had hung back, and she smiled now. “Need a ride along?” she offered, with a little head tilt. Sometimes Ryder would begin to think Cora was cute, and then remember how many times she’d watched the other woman blow people in half using her pinkie and some creepy mind powers.
Prime bodyguard material. “All aboard,” Ryder agreed. She led the other two into the market. “Guess we should see if the Collective’s changed addresses.”
“I doubt it,” Cora offered. “Keema’s the type who likes attention. It shouldn’t be hard to find her.”
“We could always beat someone,” Drack offered.
“That doesn’t really fix anything,” Cora protested. Drack grunted.
“I know. I’m just saying. We could always beat someone.”
“SAM, you got anything?” Ryder mumbled. For a second, nothing. A weird, artificial buzz—or a drone?—some kind of static. Ryder blinked, shook her head. “What the hell?”
Apologies Pathfinder. I was taking a moment to upgrade system functionality, SAM chimed from her omni-tool. Locating Collective data traces now.
“He installs updates?” Cora snapped, with disbelief. “Ryder, did you sanction this?”
“Uh,” Ryder shook her head. Buzzing again. Ignore it. “No. Not sanctioned. SAM, no more updates without, um, user permission.”
The Collective’s base is carefully hidden. I would speculate that there are likely many locations. Their front for operations remains the same, with some upgrades.
“Your bot’s been getting uppity,” Drack chuckled. “Careful Ryder. If you go on a rampage I might have to start taking things personally.”
“Wonderful.” Ryder rolled her eyes. “Thanks Drack.”
As they neared the Collective’s base, Cora caught Ryder’s arm. “A moment, Drack?”
“Take it,” the old Krogan gruffed, now wandering away. “Last chance to beat some sense into her before things get shady. I know Cora will say it better Pathfinder, but listen to me this time. Nothing in the universe makes people as stupid or worthless as love.”
Before Ryder could even retort, Cora’s hand was on her shoulder again, firm. “Has a sort of poetry about him, don’t you think?” she asked lightly.
Ryder glanced up, then away again, feeling guilty. Cora had pretty eyes. Hazel. “I think I know what you’re going to say.”
“Well, I’m saying it anyway. I meddle. And it might not have been for long, but I’m still one of the only people in this galaxy who knew you before you were made Pathfinder.” Cora paused. She sucked in one cheek, chewing. “Look. I’m going to sound like an ass. But: you’re young. You’re really young. To be honest, it kind of pissed me off at first because—well, I mean, I’m sure you can imagine. I’m not bringing this up to be a jerk, I got over Alec choosing you to be his successor a long time ago. And you know, he was right. You’ve done a great job. I’m proud that you’re the human Pathfinder.”
Cora was looking at her warmly, with almost sisterly affection. Ryder blushed. “Um. Thanks, Cora. That means a lot to me, coming from you. Just, uh, wow.”
“No problem,” Cora dismissed the moment briskly. “It’s the truth. But like I was saying before, as much as I respect and care for you, you’re young. You’re not stupid, but there are things that you have to learn the hard way. And normally, I’d say okay. Go learn them. But not this time. Not when you’re the Pathfinder. Not when the Angaran alliance is riding on this. Not when we both know exactly what kind of a man we’re dealing with.”
“Do you?” Ryder joked weakly. “Because honestly, I was never sure.”
“No.” Cora said firmly, not letting Ryder look away. “You know.”
A long silence passed between them. Cora’s hand was still on Ryder’s shoulder, a familiar gesture, a comforting one. Ryder sighed, long and slow, turning back to the market. So many people. So much had grown, so quickly. It took someone special to make that happen.
“I hear what you’re saying.” Ryder admitted. “What everyone’s saying. I’m just…I don’t know. I don’t think you’re wrong. But I don’t think he’s evil either.”
Cora’s faint half-smile quirked sympathetically. For a moment, Ryder thought the other woman might hug her. She didn’t. Instead, she let go, and waved Drack back over. She checked the holster on her gun. “Just remember that people don’t have to be evil to do terrible things.”
The Collective’s base (or their front for one) had indeed undergone some modifications. Namely, it was basically a palace.
“I like what you’ve done with the place,” Ryder called up to Keema, who was lounging on what could only be called a throne. The armed guard was sort of hard to miss, but Keema smiled in welcome nevertheless.
“Pathfinder. It’s been too long.” She paused thoughtfully, “Do you know I’ve actually missed you? I heard you were coming of course—excuse the spies, darling—and do you know, I’ve spent the whole morning thinking about it. Things always seems so much more interesting when you’re around. And then I considered your long habit of making things go well for me.” For extra corruption points, Keema added a complicit smile. Ryder smiled back.
“I’m a people pleaser. Do I have to shout up at you like this or may I be granted permission to approach?”
“Excuse me, darling,” Keema chuckled. She rose gracefully, waving a cool hand towards her guards. They slid almost noiselessly from the room.
“Don’t get mad,” Ryder whispered, “But I think you two should maybe leave too.”
“I’m mad,” Cora said immediately.
“Urgh. Pathfinders and their cultural sensitivity. Angara and their ceremony.” Drack growled. Ryder wasn’t sure, but she thought the Krogan might have rolled his old alligator eyes. “Fine. Come find me when you’re done with the parades.”
“You better watch yourself,” Cora hissed loyally. She was making quite the snake-eyes up at Keema. “I mean it. She talks nice but she doesn’t give a damn about anyone. Don’t lose your gun.”
“Leave,” Ryder moaned. She felt like a teenager trying to shake her parents for a date. Keema was chuckling softly as the two left, and Ryder spent most of the ascent up the stairs trying to school her expression into one of dignity.
“Charming. I do love a good old war story, don’t you?” she was already carrying on before Ryder could answer, “Darling, I hate talking in this stuffy old room. Won’t you have lunch with me?”
“Lunch and drinks, I hope?” Ryder tried smiling conspiratorially. Unprompted, SAM reported a 34 percent accuracy rating.
Keema chuckled again. “You survived Kadara once, didn’t you? Why the hell not?”
“I’m sorry our friend won’t be joining us,” Keema sighed. She’d led Ryder out onto a rather magnificent balcony, all white stone and cushions. A number of silent servants slid in and out of the shadows laying out platters of rather frightening looking food. There were also, unexpectedly, grapes. Ryder set to nibbling.
“Is something wrong?”
Keema snorted. “Please, no. I expect he’ll find you later. I’m sure he just doesn’t want me around.”
Ryder blinked, uncertain. Keema drew out the moment of superiority then, at her leisure, elaborated. “Well. As you know, we’re of course aware that Nexus sent you here to…well, deal with him. In some way.”
Ryder shrugged. “There’s no point in hiding it.”
“None whatsoever. We knew this would happen eventually. In fact, I have several ‘Charlatan’s picked out for you to take back to Nexus—you may choose from amongst them at your discretion.” Keema leaned back, resting gracefully on her forearms. A long, slender sunbeam glistened across her brow. The Angara stared at Ryder for a long, considering moment. And then, the unexpected.
“I’ll be honest with you, Ryder.” She said slowly. “I’d like to believe you’re a friend to us. You have a way of seeing the bigger picture—the best way forward. Reyes likes to think you’re innocent enough to believe in us—well, him, but I don’t think you’re quite as starry eyed as his ego wants to believe.” She paused now, visibly choosing her words. “Rather than the Nexus and Aya, there’s something else to be addressed. Something worse.”
“Worse?” Ryder echoed. She shifted her weight, trying to chase her own sun beam. The breeze across the gallery was unexpectedly cold.
“Yes.” Keema breathed out, rose up. Ryder couldn’t remember a time she’d seen the other woman look even mildly stressed—much less afraid. Keema was afraid. “There are complications,” Keema said delicately. “Some expected. Some we could not have prepared for. There is a group of Roekaar remnants who aim to take my life—and the Charlatan’s. Expected, but a threat nevertheless. They have evolved past reason, into a place of religious extremism. They cannot be reasoned with. I would be lying if I told you that did not upset me. But that is not the real problem.”
“Tell me,” Ryder urged. “Enough prancing around it Keema, if I can help you, I will.”
Keema nodded slowly. “We think…we think there is another Charlatan.”
Ryder stopped. Her mind turned things over. “How?”
“I don’t know. But there’s someone. Someone leading a lot of people. And they aren’t afraid to do things—terrible things.” Keema’s voice dropped, letting in some ice. “They rape, they kill—children. Of all species. They leave their bodies in the streets. Ryder, they use our name. It doesn’t matter how many times I say that the Charlatan, the Collective, isn’t responsible. Because the people hear things, they whisper. It has only just begun, and already, they are terrified. Already, to some, the Charlatan has become the demon of Kadara, a monster who feeds his city with the suffering of its most innocent.”
“You don’t have any leads?”
“None,” Keema shook her head wildly. “We built this city to be a free and open market. There was always going to be some crime, but this—things feel wrong. Unnatural. Intentional. Ryder, this butchery, it benefits no one. We would never do this. And if it doesn’t stop, the Nexus and Angaran home worlds will be forced to act. We will be destroyed.”
It was cold, on the balcony. Ryder pressed a grape against the roof of her mouth with her tongue, and it burst. There was a note of something rank, lurking in the sweetness. It was going to storm soon, the air smelled of it. She wondered what the storms on Kadara looked like.
She didn’t know how to feel. Afraid? Hurt? “Why wouldn’t Reyes tell me?” Ryder wondered. “I would have come. I could have helped.”
Something harsh flashed across Keema’s face, then vanished. “Because you’re young, Ryder, and you’re a hero. And Reyes is neither of those things.”
Ryder had wandered from her meeting with Keema in a near daze, her mind roiling. She’d reported her discoveries to Drack and Cora—she’d promised herself, long ago, to be honest with her crew no matter what lies she might flub to the Nexus—and they’d taken things about as well as could be expected.
“We should leave.” Cora announced. “A fight’s one thing, Ryder, but a city that’s swarming with assassins and death cults and serial killers is another. We’re at a disadvantage.”
“The Textbook is right,” Drack grunted, not appearing to even notice Cora’s glare. “I told you this place was about to get shady. Let’s regroup, kid. I’ve seen your man’s type before, a roach won’t die so easy.”
“He’s not a cockroach.” Ryder said, then, “I need a drink.”
“That’s fair,” Drack agreed. Cora rolled her eyes at the both of them.
“I need a drink alone,” Ryder corrected. “Drop me at Tartarus?”
Cora snorted, “If there’s anything left of it.”
“It’ll be fine,” Drack protested.
A short journey revealed that Tartarus was still standing and, even better, had invested in actual liquor instead of what Ryder had long suspected to be alien moonshine. Cora already had her arms crossed when Ryder turned around. “I’m not about to leave the Pathfinder alone in some shitty bar on this murder rock,” she announced.
“It’s a good bar,” Drack argued.
“But,” Cora continued, “I suppose we can wait downstairs.”
“Thanks Ma,” Ryder groaned. Cora narrowed her eyes, but was too mature to respond. Ryder watched as Drack lumbered over the last stair and out of sight, and sighed heavily.
Pathfinder. I believe I can install substantial system upgrades that will dramatically increase our combat prediction matrices. Permission to proceed?
“How’s brain re-wiring mix with booze?” Ryder asked. “Wait. Don’t tell me. Just do it.”
She spun, heart in her throat. He was there. Hadn’t she been watching all the doors? But somehow he was right behind her, leaning up against the bar, as easy as the day she’d first met him. She hadn’t been ready to see him. She’d thought she would, had come to the bar for just that purpose, of course—but not so soon. “Oh,” she said, staring at him. What was different? He was different. Somehow.
Reyes grinned. “I hear you’ve come to arrest me.”
“I, uh,” Ryder stammered, then swallowed. Get a grip. She swallowed again. “If you heard that, then why are you here?” she squeaked. He wasn’t running away. He was sliding nearer. She watched him approach, with thrilled trepidation, a buzz of static in her brain.
“Are you kidding? I wanted to see you try.” He was doing the thing. The thing where he pulled his gloves off with his teeth. His hands were brown and familiar and a little too big for the rest of him. Ryder stared, physically willing herself to flirt back. She could be smooth. She could be hella smooth.
“It’s been a while,” she managed. “I thought we should start off slow.”
His smile spread, evil. Was she naked?
No, SAM reminded.
Definitely not naked.
“Slow isn’t really my style.” Reyes almost purred. That fucker. Ryder tucked her hair behind her ears, and in a flash his hand was there with hers, and his face was right there, and he was whispering, “I can get that.”
“OKAY!” Ryder yanked herself away, reeling. “I, um, I don’t think I can really—do that—right now. Since I’m kind of supposed to be investigating you. Or at least very seriously persuading you to join Nexus. Or arrest you. I don’t know.”
“And? Does the Pathfinder turn in a time sheet when she’s making her reports?” Reyes demanded. He looked like a cat, watching her like that. “Do that later. Me first.”
“You’re so…” she trailed off. She didn’t know what he was. That was the problem. “You said you have whiskey?”
“Until the day you stop leaving me, yes, I’ll always have whiskey.” He signaled the bartender, just flicked his fingers. So unfair. She was the damn Pathfinder and she still had to wave and holler to get served. Reyes was eyeing her. “Let me look at you. You seem different.”
“Me?” Ryder stuttered. She laughed. “I thought the same thing about you.”
Reyes shook his head slowly, tutting. “How cruel. You lived without me.”
Their drinks arrived, two low glasses with whiskey the color of honey. Reyes handed her a glass, toasted her. There were other people in the room. They were in a room full of people. She couldn’t stop looking at him, almost like she was afraid he’d attack, the second she looked away. He drank slowly, watching her with heavy eyes as he swallowed.
“I missed you,” she admitted, and quickly buried herself in her drink. He was still there when she surfaced, and still smiling. Pleased.
“Was that so hard?” he asked.
Trying not to sulk, Ryder slid onto the stool next to him. She scooted to the edge, close enough for their shoulders to press together. “I hear you’ve been keeping things from me.”
“Can you be more specific?”
“Typical,” she snorted. He ordered another round. Why did they always drink so fast? “Keema says you have an evil twin running around. Well, an eviler twin.”
Reyes kept his face away from her, but she watched him openly. Just for a second, he bit his lip. “You know, I have a lesson for you. When the person you’ve hired to be a mask starts divulging classified information, you don’t have a mask anymore.” He slugged the double shot. “You have a business competitor.” He set down his glass a little too hard, fingers tight around the crystal. His foot tapped, slowly.
“She’s afraid,” Ryder protested. “You should have told me. I could have helped—”
“I didn’t want to talk about this with you,” Reyes interrupted. He turned to her, sliding himself over and around her, so that she fit tightly against his side. “You only just got here. I thought I said we could leave the paperwork for later.”
Ryder gazed up, an uncomfortable cramp building up somewhere inside. He had changed. He’d gotten harder. His face was the same—still charming, still handsome—but something new was there now, something rigid, and vicious. She considered him, in all his new violence, wondering if these changes made her sad, or excited. “So did you miss me?” she asked.
Reyes smiled, and relaxed into her. “I missed you. Kadara missed you more.”
“Because without you to distract me, it earned my undivided attention.” He was going to kiss her. She was sure of it. She turned her face to meet him and he caught her lightly, too lightly. For a second his mouth was on hers and she remembered that he could kiss like no one she’d ever met, not roughly or sweetly but savory—as though she were something to be relished.
And she wanted more.
“You taste like expensive whiskey.” Reyes told her. She wanted to kiss him in bars. She wanted to kiss him in alleys. She wanted to kiss him in locker rooms, closets, bathroom stalls, somewhere dirty enough to bring her down, somewhere ugly enough for balance.
Ryder nipped his lip. “I better not be buying.”
Reyes smiled at her, teasing his fingers through the roots of her hair, yanking things out of place. “Much as I’d like to continue—”
“—your friends are coming upstairs and at least one of them will murder me. I’ll talk to you tomorrow.”
“Where?” Ryder insisted. Reyes smiled, and winked, and in the time it took Ryder to hear Cora’s shout, and look back over her shoulder—he was gone.
Cora and Drack drew even. “So,” Cora began, almost dripping poison. “He pay for drinks?”
Ryder looked down. “Fuck,” she said. Then, again, with considerable, misplaced frustration, “Fuck!”
Drack clapped her on the back. It was meant as a friendly gesture, but had the ultimate effect of slamming Ryder’s belly against the bar. “It’ll be okay kid,” Drack said gruffly. Ryder was sure there was a note of sympathetic understanding there.
“No, not okay,” Cora interjected, while Ryder coughed. “Not okay because now we’re spending what’ll probably be the last week of our lives on a planet where lizards are considered fine dining. Oh, and then we get murdered.”
“If you drink enough, you don’t have to eat.”
“Thanks, Drack,” Cora snarled. Ryder got unsteadily to her feet, paid off the tab (absurdly expensive) and led her crew out. Cora had a point. A very solid point. A request for better provisions would need to be filed, ASAP.
“I know you don’t like it,” Ryder wheedled, trying her best to appease Cora (who was objectively, inarguably, right about everything but was also probably immune to human weaknesses such as: food cravings, the lethargy between bed and toilet, and hot space pirates). “I know you don’t like it, but I think it’ll be okay. And, it’s our mission. And, we’ve been through worse.”
“Mortimer’s Stellar Tattoos, No Appointments Necessary!” Cora read off a passing sign. “Hey Ryder, no appointments necessary.”
“The next time you want to imply I get Reyes’ name permanently inked onto my ass, please just tell me to go fuck myself.”
“Go fuck yourself.” Pause. “Pathfinder.”
Drack sniggered appreciatively.