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Uncertainties

Chapter Text

How the fuck was she supposed to deal with this anyway?

Ryder flicked on her omnitool's display, saw the time was 0525 and decided to give up. She wasn't going to be able to get back to sleep after that, and it was only an hour before her usual wake up time.

She threw off the covers with a frustrated grumble and started her morning stretches.

Hiking around surveying dangerous planets in another galaxy? Fuck yeah! All about that shit.

Weirdass ancient alien terraforming structures? Sure! Before she'd run off to another galaxy, she'd been on dozens of Prothean digs. She had most of a master's dissertation on xenoarcheological studies through the lens of a radical constructivist epistemology. And anyway she had SAM to help.

Charming her way through first contact after landing on a sanctuary planet on fire? Bald faced honesty and humility always went over well, and years of experience receiving her father's Lectures had helped with Evfra.

Enemies that committed genocide with the exciting new twists of ritualistic cloning and existential horror? Okay, that one sucks. But she had a team and she was a goddamn vanguard. She had paid for that fancy education by punching the shit outta some pirates and slavers.

But this?

What, precisely, the fuck was Ryder supposed to do with dreams like that about him? The living kill switch who, turns out, is painfully insightful and compassionate?

Fuck.

Ok that's not fair. She knew exactly what she was supposed to do: shut the fuck up, jack off in private, and get her shit done. She was the fucking Pathfinder and she would fucking deal. Even if that was the fourth one. Even if his fucking thighs...shit.

Ryder grabbed her kit and headed to the shower.

She walked through the door and heard a positively melodic angaran hum echoing on the tiles.

Oh, fuck.

Sara you are an adult. You were in the damn reserves. You can do this. Remember that stupid crush you had on the LT? You managed then and you can manage now. Besides, you are a weird gangly alien who needs to wash. No one cares.

Ok.

She stripped, stowed her clothes, and walked into the showers before she could stop herself. 

"Ah, hello, Pathfinder Ryder!" the Moshae called from under the furthest shower head.

Oh. Yeah, ok, that made sense, and she was an idiot. Yep. Great.

Thankfully, politeness took the reins.

"Good morning, Moshae Sjefa," she smiled. "I'm surprised to see you up."

Ryder took the other shower head and stuck her face under the warm water.

"Out of medbay unsupervised, you mean?" The older woman sighed, a little bitterly. "I must return after, but luckily your automated cleaning system is thorough enough I am finally allowed to bathe myself without danger to my delicate immune system."

Fuck, she'd stepped in it. Her concern came through in her tone, and angara did not talk about illness.

"I apologize, ma'am, for bringing up an uncomfortable topic. I know it is impolite to discuss—"

"Oh, thank you for your consideration, Pathfinder Ryder, but I am the one who brought it up." The Moshae considered, then added, "I am also far too old to be concerned with propriety after being rescued from certain doom by a group of dashing young aliens."

Ryder laughed. Old women with no filters transcend galaxies, apparently. "In that case, please, ma'am, feel free to just call me Ryder, or Sara, that's my given name."

"Sara, then. Thank you."

Ryder was about to ask what song she had been humming, when the Moshae spoke again.

"I haven't had a chance to ask, but all the humans on board have been addressing me with that word, and it doesn't translate. What does it mean?"

Ryder paused scrubbing her foot to stand in awkward confusion. "What...oh! You mean the word ‘ma'am,’?"

"Yes."

Relieved, Ryder continued scrubbing and a said, "Oh, it's a general term of respect, specifically for a woman who—" but she never finished her explanation.

"Moshae! I apologize for the delay. I brought two other soaps, and borrowed a softer towel from Suvi. I also wasn't sure which scent you would prefer, so I brought you a selection of oils." Jaal rounded the wall. He was carrying a bin full of small bottles, with three towels of varying sizes and textures thrown over his arm.

Ryder, who had turned to rinse her back, saw he was wearing only a pair of tight black shorts that stopped somewhere halfway down his legs. She caught his eyes, and he smiled, surprised, and nodded a greeting at her. Did his eyes flick down? Ok, so? Curiosity. Gangly alien remember? Do not think about his thighs. She turned away to shampoo her hair and hide her absolutely burning face. Focus! You are an adult and you are in the shower with his god damned high school history teacher. Not. The. Time.

"Thank you, Jaal, dear, but you needn't fuss. I am sure anything will feel luxurious after the Archon's hospitality."

"Of course!" His voice was a mix of relief and solicitous concern. "Take your time. I’ll wait in case you need further assistance, and accompany you back to the medbay."

"I am certain I can walk down the hall on my own, Jaal," she replied.

Naked in an alien's shower and the Moshae still sounded regal and acerbic. That was poise. Ryder really had to learn how to do that. She switched off the water and saw Jaal scowl and cross his arms do not check out his biceps as she reached to grab her towel.

"And I am sure you will not turn away a former student who is concerned for his beloved teacher," he replied, implacable.

The Moshae sighed. "I suppose some fussing is to be expected."

"Sjefa," Jaal admonished, his voice deepening with emotion, "it has only been four days."

Ryder snorted quietly as she wrapped up in her towel. She shot a look of sympathy at Jaal's exasperation, which he acknowledged with a sideways glance and a half smile. Fuck fuck time to get out of here.

Ryder walked out, calmly, and totally did not flee, at all.

Chapter Text

Jaal sighed in frustration and dropped the component on the workbench. He took off his gloves and visor and rubbed his hands over his face.

They'd arrived at Aya and had a few idle hours of orbiting left. They were waiting for mid-morning in the city before landing, to give the officials time to set up a proper welcome for the Moshae and her rescuers. It had all been worked out in a call with the surface hours ago. Jaal wished they'd just send her home for a while after her ordeal, but the Moshae insisted she would be fine for that and a short trip to the vault. Ryder had understood his frustration, and gave him a reassuring clap on the shoulder after the discussion.

There was a problem. And why was it a problem? He rubbed his eyes hard and groaned. It was a problem because he was an idiot who decided to be unnaturally guarded for years and then develop an interest in a skkutting alien who almost literally fell out of the sky.

Baranjj was right. I should have followed through and made plans with Avela. If he'd been in a new relationship he probably wouldn't have...skkut. He wouldn't have become interested in a person he had no idea how to court, or even mention an interest in politely.

He abandoned his tinkering for now and left the tech lab aimlessly. The Moshae was probably napping, and anyway she had been testy about his "hovering" the last time he had checked on her. He heard voices up in the meeting room and went to investigate.

Liam saw him coming up the ramp and waved. He was sitting at a table with Gil and Vetra, playing a card game.

"More poker?" Jaal asked.

"No, no way in hell am I ever playing poker with this one," Liam said, pointing at a quietly smug Gil. "We're teaching Vetra gin rummy."

Jaal wrinkled his forehead in confusion. "Liam, that translated as alcohol nonsense," he said as he sat on a nearby couch.

Liam shrugged and drew a card, "Pffff, eh, close enough."

Vetra smiled at Jaal, her mandibles and brow plates crooked. "That's about what it sounded like to me, too. Don't bother looking up the etymology; Human Common is tangled and inexplicable. It's basically just matching cards."

Gil made a face and sighed in mock irritation. "Vetra, for the thousandth time, it is not Human Common. It's called English."

"Yeah, whatever," she sassed back, "Trade language, remnant of an old empire, cobbled together behemoth of crap from everywhere all over your planet? It's Human Common." Vetra punctuated her declaration by laying four cards down in front of her with a crisp plak.

Jaal envied the species from the Milky Way. They had problems with each other, but most individuals had an ease and understanding of the cultural quirks of other species. He thought that Vetra would probably have no problem expressing interest in a human, or Gil and Liam a turian.

Oh. Of course.

"Vetra, may I ask your advice about something?" he asked. "Or would you prefer I wait until after your game?"

"Sure, go ahead," she answered.

"Thank you," Jaal said. He considered for a moment. "I would like your opinion about how to...relate to humans."

Vetra glanced at him, skeptical. "You know, there are two humans right here."

"That's true, but I was hoping for another...external perspective."

"I guess that makes sense. So, relating how? You seem to be doing alright so far in the field and downtime," she smirked. "I mean, we all heard about how well your and Liam's info for armor swap went."

Gil laughed, "Not everyday I see naked men striding through the cargo bay, more's the pity."

"Hey! I wasn't naked!" Liam protested.

"Fair enough. Don't see too many scrawny half naked kids either."

Liam grinned and kicked at Gil. "You're only five months older than me, arsehole!" He sniffed in exaggerated affront. "And my abs are a gift you clearly do not properly appreciate."

"Anyway," Vetra said, "what are you talking about, specifically, Jaal?"

"Well…" he might as well be blunt. "I was wondering if you have any advice about how to respectfully show romantic interest in a human, without causing offense or a misunderstanding."

Liam snorted and said, "Well, you could try not hitting on everyone else in front of her."

Jaal turned and stared at him in complete surprise and confusion.

I was that obvious? I know humans are more subtle but how did he...wait I was obvious to humans? Then...she knows? She isn't interested? Why didn't she say? Wait hitting on must be one of their idioms...everyone else...I haven't shown interest in anyone else! I have been trying to avoid showing interest in anyone!

He wasn't quite sure how to communicate all this clearly.

Vetra was watching him in sympathy. She laid down her cards. "Boys, I better deal with this. I mean, look at him."

Jaal's head was cocked to the side and his brow was furrowed. He was holding his mouth half open, searching for words.

"Aw, mate," Liam said. "I'm sorry! You look like a purple space puppy I just kicked. It...might not be that bad? I mean, I'm definitely not an expert on women, and she's bound to cut you some slack for being from a different galaxy. And you've got that whole deep rugged freedom fighter thing going on, so that's—"

"Kosta." Vetra said pointedly.

"Ok, ok! Shutting!" Liam put up his hands in defeat. "I'll just...go...find...an excuse to deal with," he said, and left.

Gil shook his head as he stacked and wrapped the cards with a band. "Mind if I hang around, Jaal? I might have some insight and...ok, honestly, I am curious as hell."

Jaal was rubbing his face again. "No, please stay. I would appreciate it, Gil. Apparently I need more help than I thought."

Vetra had moved the table and come to sit next to him on the couch. Gil sat in a chair nearby.

"So," she began, "I'm guessing you're wondering what you did, and how it was so obvious Liam picked up on it, and how bad it was."

"Yes," Jaal said in relief.

"So, humans. Very uptight, right?"

Gil erupted. "What? Says the turian?!"

"Shut up, you are biased. And unhelpful at the moment." Vetra's voice reached into Gil's hindbrain and told it to wash its hands and sit up straight.

"...yes, ma'am."

Vetra nodded at him and turned back to Jaal.

"They have these uptight cultural rules about when and where to express certain emotions. It varies, but usually the average human is really good—extremely, kind of terrifyingly good—at subconsciously identifying subtle emotional cues. Even among other species. Even non-sapient species. So, to hide them from other humans, they often have to be really, kind of terrifyingly good at hiding them. Which makes them seem uptight to the rest of us, until we get to know them and they relax." Vetra paused, and Jaal turned to Gil, who shrugged and nodded in acquiescence.

"I guess that's fair," Gil said. "Just look at poker, right? It's all about paying attention to the odds while lying through your teeth, and detecting other people's tells."

"Angara don't do that. We just express ourselves. What would be the point in hiding it? It would be like not sleeping or eating when necessary," Jaal slumped, "So my attempts at expressing myself...subtly...were unsuccessful."

"Well, we noticed that you showed willing," Gil said. "And when you first came aboard you were skittish, naturally. Personally, I thought it was you trying to be cautious."

"You're right, I was. So, I assume you already know who I am interested in?" Jaal asked Gil with resigned amusement.

"Dude," Gil crossed his arms and leaned back with a smirk. "Every single human on the ship, except for her, probably, has suspected ever since you got back from that place on Havarl with the mystical sages...Mithrava, was it?"

"But that was...I didn't even—" Jaal gaped.

"Weeks ago," Vetra said with a sympathetic smile. "Told ya."

"So what's this I hear about you hitting on other people, then?" Gil asked, curiously.

"Oh don't play coy, Gilbert Brodie," Vetra said. "I heard you gossiping with Cora. You know exactly what Liam was talking about."

"Turians," Gil said to Jaal, "if you were wondering, have inconveniently acute hearing."

"I still don't know what I did to give that impression," Jaal said.

"The compliments," Vetra said. "Humans are also just...utterly obsessed with who's fucking whom, and any little hint of potential interest is blown way out of proportion and interpreted in the most suggestive way."

"Hey now," Gil said with a raised eyebrow, "it's not exactly a little hint when you're complimenting someone's body or say they 'move like a dancer' on the battlefield,"

Vetra closed her eyes with a sigh.

"What? Why?" Jaal asked in confusion.

Gil opened his mouth, closed it, and tilted his head to stare at Jaal like he was a particularly confounding puzzle.

"Completely obsessed, like I said." Vetra told him, ignoring Gil's protest.

Jaal was sifting through his memory and came up with a few potential instances they might be talking about.

"You are talking about when I was impressed with Vetra's skills in battle, and when I complimented Cora's physique," he said, understanding beginning to form.

"And probably Peebee, too." Vetra added with a sigh.

"Peebee? What?" Jaal was confused.

Gil started laughing. "Oh, yes, I remember now! She had such a fire in her eyes and you wondered about compatibility," his voice dropped into an breathy, wistful tone, slightly ruined when he started laughing harder.

"I am curious about a teammate and entirely new species!" Jaal snapped in irritation, but Gil was quietly hooting and wiping his eyes, paying no attention.

Vetra patted his shoulder in sympathy. Jaal was reeling, but he managed to form his next question.

"So I have accidentally broadcast interest in Cora, Peebee, and you, Vetra. How can I correct this politely and avoid it in the future?"

"Nah, don't worry," Gil said. "We figured it was accidental, but still fucking hilarious," Vetra glared at him. Gil cleared his throat. "But...Ryder probably didn't like it," he added.

Jaal growled in frustration and snapped out, "If my interest is so obvious to everyone else, how has Ryder missed it? And if she doesn't know about my interest in her, why would she be bothered if it lay elsewhere?"

Vetra smiled. "That one's easy. Remember when you asked me why I was so guarded with you?"

Chapter Text

Sunlight, familiar voices, and the scent of plants surrounding the marketplace helped soothe his mood back to something pleasant and polite. Hours of debriefing and paperwork had given him an ache in his back, right where he couldn't reach.

Despite his exhaustion and uncertainty, for the first time in years Jaal felt real hope. Despite their fear and suspicion, he could feel it from other angara as well. These aliens were helping. They might prove to be the allies, friends, that the angara desperately needed to survive the kett. Or at least...not die alone.

After nearly a century, his people felt hopeful. They had all been starved for it.

She had brought it to them.

He leaned on the railing in front of him.

He’d tried to maintain a wall between himself and the Tempest crew at first, but it crumbled quickly. Jaal knew from the start that though they might not prove trustworthy, they weren't like the kett.

He couldn't imagine the kett exchanging jovial insults. Worrying about a little sister. Arguing about ship modifications. Having trouble sleeping. He couldn't imagine a kett with genuine wonder.

These were people. They were people who wanted to help. They were people who had helped. And the Resistance didn't turn down people who were skilled and willing to work.

And then. She rescued the Moshae.

Oh, they had all fought hard, but Ryder had manipulated a kett into releasing his people and then shot it in the back and spat on its corpse. Ryder had stepped between the Moshae and an injured, enraged fiend and glowed with anger and power, throwing up a shield and yelling for him to get her on the fucking shuttle NOW.

Ryder had cried alone in the galley after the Moshae lashed out and said she didn't care about the angara. Jaal knew it was her trauma and fear speaking, and had gone out searching for Ryder after the Moshae had fallen asleep. He had wanted to offer comfort, but Drack had walked past while he hesitated and said, "I got her, kid. You go get cleaned up." So Jaal had left.

An hour later, she had come to check on him. To see how he was recovering after the horrors they’d discovered. She'd touched his arm and spoken softly, and when he looked into her eyes he could still see the alien redness where she had been crying. He’d had a wild urge to kiss her right then.

Then the next day they’d rescued more captives and taken information they'd gathered about the kett base all the way to Techiix. Because she had promised.

She was...he didn't have words for what she was. She was a star come down to light their way. She was a miracle.

Jaal sighed and decided he had spent enough time in his own thoughts. His feelings were clear, and action was called for. Regret is more painful was a lesson he'd learned all too well. He pushed off the railing and stretched his back left and right, trying to relieve the stiffness.

"Hey, Jaal," Ryder said quietly, walking up next to him and leaning on the railing he had just left.

He laughed quietly at the timing, and resolved to speak to her as he would an angara he felt the same way about. Play to your strengths, Gil had said. Yeah, charm the pants off our Pathfinder, Vetra had laughed. So, while he didn't feel entirely confident, he felt more comfortable being himself.

"Hello, Ryder," he said. "So, what do you think?" He smiled as he gestured at the view and glanced at her.

"It’s breathtaking," she said. "Honestly, everything about Aya is inspiring. It's amazing to me how you share access. How hard you try to support everyone fairly. I’ve been reading the information the arbiters put together for us and...I’m kind of awestruck how you’ve managed to maintain order and justice even after so long under the kett."

He was quiet as he leaned back on the railing, close enough to feel her warmth, but not quite touching. He hummed thoughtfully before replying, and glanced at her face, rapt in the view of the sunset. Still strange, but beautiful and open. He looked down at his hands as he spoke.

"Angara are...family. We surround ourselves with family, and when people join, it is important...joyful. We know that everyone, no matter how distant, is connected to ourselves. So in a way, we are all siblings. All angara deserve the same treatment we would give our family," he sighed. "That’s the guiding ideal, anyway."

"Whatever you do to the least of these, you do also to me," Ryder whispered.

"Yes," Jaal said, turning fully toward her. "You understand?"

"I do," she smiled at him, brilliantly, and he was drawn to the dark depths of her eyes. "I’m just amazed you're actually practicing it. We can learn so much from the angara. It's humbling."

Jaal didn't know what to say, and he didn't know how to look away from her. Her hair was loose, dark around her face, moving in the breeze like the delicate moss that hung from the trees outside his home on Havarl.

She broke his gaze, but he watched as she turned back to the view. Her cheeks got darker—he wondered if it was a blush.

"So," she said, and cleared her throat, "What is your favorite part of Aya?"

"The breeze," he answered, still watching her hair. "The scents it brings. The warmth of the sunlight."

She closed her eyes and tilted her face back toward the sun. He breathed in deeply and felt his pulse run faster while he watched. She hummed happily and he felt an ache in his chest.

"Agreed," she said, then with a deep breath she put her hands in her pockets and turned back to him. "So I’m heading back to the ship for the night. I've made sure all the other crew have as well. I just wanted to see if you would be joining us, or if you planned to spend the whole shore leave in the city?" Ryder tilted her head. "Figured maybe you’d like some familiar food, a familiar bed, maybe have someone...special to spend time with?"

Jaal chuckled as his heart soared, and he felt almost giddy with the realization that maybe Vetra and Gil had been right after all.

"No," he said. "I’ve restocked my supplies, and I ate my evening meal at the tavetaan earlier. Before joining your crew, I stayed in the Resistance barracks, but now that space has been reassigned."

She was smiling at him again.

"And as for anyone special to me…" Jaal took a deep breath and embraced his nervous hope as he stepped closer and touched her shoulder. He saw her cheeks flush an even darker shade than before. Yes! "There’s no one here who has my commitment. Or...attention."

"Oh."

 


 

In her mind, Ryder was screaming at herself to say something or do something other than stare into his amazing, glowing, fucking molten eyes and feel her face combusting.

*Ryder,* SAM sent on their private channel, *Your heart rate and body temperature—*

I KNOW SAM SHUT UP GO AWAY! she thought at him fiercely.

*As you wish,* SAM replied and closed the channel.

"Oh," she said. Fucking smooth, Sara. Great. "Um," she cleared her throat and looked down. "That’s...good. I mean. Um. So...would you like to...walk back...with me?" Aaaaaaaaah! Stop. Talking.

Jaal was smiling at her, and his pupils were widening in the quickly darkening twilight. FUCK.

"Yes, I would like to." He chuckled and removed his hand and oh she missed it. Stop it right now, Sara.

"Oh." oh my GOD what is WRONG with me?

"Shall we?" Jaal asked, tilting his head. shit shit shit

He held out his hand, palm up. He wanted to hold her hand. And she was blushing about it like she was twelve goddamn years old. She tried to smile back with less nervousness than she felt, and took it before she could chicken out.

Jaal’s grip was warm and firm, and he grinned and laughed, as if he were exhilarated. Ryder blushed harder but firmly ignored it in favor of squeezing his hand back. He started walking back through the streets, pulling her with a gentle tug. After a few meters he noticed she was half jogging to keep up, and he slowed to a stroll.

"We are leaving a day from tomorrow morning?" He asked.

Oh good. Work. Yes. That would help.

"Yes," she answered. "I have a meeting with the Moshae and Evfra tomorrow afternoon—actually I would like you to come too if you can make it. I'll send you the info tonight. She says he might have a lead on the Archon's ship."

Jaal stood straighter and looked at her in surprise, face turning serious. "I have no idea where his lead might be coming from, but I'm not surprised he hasn't acted on it. The Resistance hasn’t had the ability to strike back at the kett," his eyes softened slightly, "until now."

She nodded, not noticing his expression, and continued, "That makes sense. Anyway, after that meeting, depending on the intelligence, I am going to plan out the order of our next missions. People have brought me a few issues that we can help with, and I’ve got to prioritize. Once I have a handle on the general plan, I’m going to call a meeting tomorrow evening after everyone is back," she took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "Then we'll head out bright and early at 0700 ship time the next day."

She had this. She could do it. And the warmth of Jaal's hand was calming and grounding, helping her sound a bit more confident than she felt.

"Hmm. It doesn't sound like you are taking much shore leave, Ryder," he said.

She huffed a short laugh, "No rest for the wicked."

"What?" Jaal sounded confused and slightly affronted. "But you aren't—"

She waved her other hand dismissively. "Oh, no, sorry. It's an idiomatic phrase," she paused and thought for a moment, "I'm actually not sure where it's from? It's just...it's just something we say sometimes when...there's work in front of you, and you have to do it, and it can't be helped. There's another phrase we have that will probably make more sense," Ryder shrugged and glanced up at him. "You gotta do what you gotta do."

"That saying is repetitive and obvious." His brow was drawn down, and his mouth was pursed in thought. He looked so thoroughly annoyed by it that Ryder just started laughing. It was full, loud laughter from her belly that had her doubling over and gasping. She squeezed his hand and when she looked up at him, he looked so puzzled at her that she started again.

It was the first time she'd really laughed since she'd woken from cryo and fallen straight into the shit, and suddenly everything was lighter. She'd forgotten what it felt like.

Jaal had also started chuckling, and she was warmed to discover that laughter was contagious among angara as well. Ryder pulled her hand from his to wipe tears from her eyes and run her fingers through her hair. She glanced around—they were back at the docks, and only a few angara were still around, either on guard patrols or finishing things up. Most were watching the two of them with amusement, only one or two with annoyance or disapproval. Ryder wiped her cheeks as she turned to smile at Jaal, eyes bright. He was watching her with a look of patient, amused curiosity.

"Ohhh my god, I needed that. Thank you," she said, feeling more relaxed than she had in, well, years.

"You're quite welcome, Ryder," he said with an easy smile. "If I'd known my blunt opinions of your ridiculous idioms could bring you such joy, I would have mentioned it earlier." He held his hand back out for her.

She took it immediately and said, "Sara."

"What?" Jaal glanced at her with a raised brow. They walked up the ramp to the Tempest together and he put in his entry code.

"My first name. Call me Sara. In downtime at least."

His eyes lit up and his happy laugh made warmth pour through her. "Of course. Sara."

And ohhh fuck that did things to her. He said her name softly, with affection, and the way he rolled the R was enough to bring back her nearly forgotten blush.

They had walked through the cargo bay, empty except for Vetra, who had flicked one mandible and winked at Ryder as they passed. They were suddenly in front of her quarters and all her internal organs had turned into butterflies. He was still holding her hand, and she could feel him looking down at her. Ryder's heart pounded in her ears and she took a deep breath.

Say something witty or kiss him or something for the love of—

Jaal rescued her from her thoughts by completely shorting them out. He faced her and touched her cheek, gently, with his free hand. She looked up at him and a thud ran through her.

"Sara," he said, looking into her eyes and she couldn't breathe, "Sleep well." Then Jaal pulled the hand he was holding up to his mouth, and sensuously kissed her knuckles while looking directly into her eyes.

She was going to fucking pass out right here in the hallway.

After a moment that was way too short for her, he lifted his head and looked down at their joined hands, swiping his thumb over the fingers still numb from his kiss. Some part of Ryder managed to squeeze his hand and smile.

"Good night, Jaal."

He lowered and released her hand, and she slid into her quarters, feeling his eyes on her until the door closed.

Ryder stood just inside the door for five seconds, then, grinning hugely, she slowly walked to her bed and flopped face down. She buried her face into a pillow and screamed as quietly as she could.

That. That was. Holy shit. She was sure she was going to have a stupid grin on her face forever. SAM would have to intervene.

Oh. Damn it.

"Uh, SAM?" Ryder said, sheepishly.

"Yes, Sara?" the AI immediately responded. Of course he did.

"Shit. I...owe you an apology. I'm sorry I was so short with you earlier. You were just concerned."

"Apology accepted, but unnecessary. In context, your physiological response was quite reasonable. Once I was able to observe your continued interaction with Jaal, I realized I had interrupted a courtship behavior and sexual response."

Ryder buried her face back in the pillow and groaned, embarrassed and feeling ridiculous about her embarrassment.

"The strength of your reaction was completely understandable under the circumstances, given my intrusion," he continued. "I believe I actually owe you an apology, Sara. I am sorry."

"Oh, SAM. Apology accepted, but unnecessary," she repeated back to him, then laughed in realization. "So, was experiencing the real thing a little more intense than memories of it or theoretical knowledge?"

"Yes."

"Well, I'm not going to begrudge you experiencing the good with the bad. Just, please, in the future, only interrupt for actual emergencies. And keep any information about my...private activities...private."

"I appreciate that, Sara," SAM said. "I will do my best to maintain your trust and privacy."

"Cool. Night, SAM."

"Good night, Sara."

Chapter Text

"Isn't her CONCERN?!" Jaal bellowed, "Skkut! Evfra you stupid gosan yav daar ehnaad!" He yelled as he thumped both fists down onto the desk and loomed forward. The translators couldn't keep up because he was loud, and fast, and putting out static interference. "First you lie to us all and then you reject the help of a proven ally who was invited here by the Moshae herself. Vespaara? Hmm? Or have you really become as blind as the skkutting Roekaar?!"

Ryder wasn't quite sure what Jaal had just said, but the room had suddenly taken on that tense feeling that comes before shit goes down. The Moshae, who had looked thunderous herself a moment before, suddenly tensed her jaw and her eyes got hard and wary, looking between the two men. Ryder smelled ozone and the hair on the back of her neck started to rise.

"Do you want to rethink the words you just said to me, Jaal?" Evfra asked, his voice low and tense.

Ryder was very glad they were in a small office instead of the Resistance command center, but suspected the sound carried well enough that the walls only gave them the illusion of privacy.

Static snapped from Jaal's hands and danced across the metal of the desk. His eyes narrowed and voice was low and gravelly as he answered.

"I do not, until you stop acting like them," he said. Ryder's hair stood up further, and she swore Evfra was starting to glow with actual malice under his permanent scowl. Jaal continued, glaring menacingly across the desk, "Someone needs to tell you when you are behaving like a skkutting imbecile and I am one of the few people who can get away with saying that to you."

"You haven't yet," Evfra growled.

The Moshae took this excellent opportunity to intervene.

"If you are both quite finished," she said, in a tone that suggested they had better be if they knew what was good for them, "It is done. The important thing is to move forward."

Jaal straightened and pointedly stood next to Ryder. He maintained a steady glare and crossed his arms. Evfra closed his eyes and took a few deep breaths.

"Make no mistake, Evfra," the Moshae said, "I am angry and hurt that you hid this information, and Jaal is correct about Ryder. She has proven herself a trustworthy ally, many times over, and you do her a disservice."

Jaal looked slightly less tense at this, but still angry.

"However," she continued, "I assume that you have further information to share that you have not yet had the opportunity to reveal." The Moshae sent a quelling look at Jaal, who withered slightly and put his hands behind his back.

"Yes," Evfra took three more deep breaths and also put his hands behind his back before opening his eyes. "Terev is in custody on Kadara, being held by a group of your people," this was addressed to Ryder, "who call themselves the Outcasts. Their leader is named Sloane Kelly. If you are willing, Ryder, it would be most convenient if you could get him released to us."

"Oh, great," she said, and pinched her nose, "That's where they went. And fucking Kelly is probably sitting pretty as queen of the castle. I'm sure she'll be so happy to work with someone from the Nexus." Ryder's sarcasm came through clearly to all the angara in the room.

Evfra looked genuinely surprised at this. "My information about your factions...may be incomplete," he said cautiously.

Ryder sighed and closed her eyes. No wonder he didn't trust her yet. He didn't have all the facts.

"Ok, this is a long story and I don't have all the details, but SAM can help with records and dates." She gave them a quick overview of the timeline of events leading up to the Nexus revolts and the Tempest being assigned to her. It still took over an hour. They had all sat down and she had drunk two glasses of water by the time she was finished.

Evfra listened carefully, asking few questions, and nodded when she finished. "I see," he said, leaning on the desk and resting his forehead on his fists. Her opinion of him as a commander had risen significantly. He behaved like an officer receiving a debrief, which, actually, he was.

"If this is true," he held up a hand at Jaal's noise, "I am not doubting, but my duty requires me to check other sources. If this is true, I do owe you an apology, Ryder. I am sorry. I have been judging you based on the actions of this other faction, and as I have recently been reminded," here he sent a quick glare to Jaal, who remained unapologetic, "It is particularly distasteful to be lumped in with those whose ideologies you find abhorrent."

Ryder was honestly shocked by the immediate change in his demeanor towards her, and wasn't going to do anything to sour it if she could help it. "Thank you, Evfra. I appreciate your time and attention. I know they're very important to the whole Resistance."

He blinked slowly, and his glower might have softened a fraction. She'd take it.

The Moshae had been completely silent through the entire tale, and when she spoke, Ryder could tell she was exhausted but running on stubbornness. "So this will be more difficult than I had hoped, but perhaps not impossible? I would prefer we pursue every possible avenue to bring Vehn Terev back. I would like to speak to him myself and know why he did this."

Evfra nodded. "Yes. I do have a contact on Kadara I can put you in touch with, Ryder. If Kelly isn't willing to negotiate for Terev's release, perhaps they can help you. If you agree to it, I'll transmit the information once you are in orbit around Kadara."

Ryder took the opportunity to stand, suggesting an end to the meeting. Thankfully, everyone else seemed to agree and followed her example.

"Ok, that works for me," she said. "Hopefully he'll be willing to share information about the Archon's ship in exchange for being released to your custody. It's the only lead we have, so I'll do my best." On a sudden impulse, she held out her arm to Evfra for an angaran handshake. His brow rose slightly, but he accepted and they nodded across the desk.

Then the Moshae surprised Ryder by grabbing her by both shoulders and pressing her forehead to hers. "I have seen your best, Sara Ryder, and it leaves me awed and grateful. Thank you. Stay strong and clear." Leaving Ryder slightly stricken and feeling a longing for her mother, she left.

Tears pricked her eyes for a moment, and she took a deep breath before heading to the door as well. She turned back to see if Jaal was coming, and caught the end of a rough but vaguely respectful handshake between the two men. She actually saw Evfra smirk and say something she couldn't make out. Jaal blushed and scowled and punched him on the arm. Evfra snorted and rolled his eyes. 

Ryder was utterly shocked by such genuine emotion from Evfra. She was still gaping when Jaal came over with a flush on his cheeks and rushed her out of headquarters.

Chapter Text

She had obviously noticed Evra’s teasing. Jaal felt a flare of irritation that anger, cynicism, and occasional irksome ribbing seemed to be the only emotions the man would consistently express. He acted quickly to distract her from asking about it.

"I think it’s definitely time for a break, after that," Jaal said cheerfully, putting his arm over her shoulders and steering her to the right. "Have you had a chance to visit the tavetaan yet?"

She shook her head. "Just walked through yesterday. Drack was mixing tavum into his flask of ryncol and Liam was filming it. I think it probably went quite a way in convincing people we aren't exactly an imminent threat."

He squeezed her shoulders and laughed, imagining Roaan’s polite horror. "I truly thought he was drinking cleaning solvent the first time I smelled Drack’s ryncol," Jaal said. "I don't know if mixing anything with it would make it better or worse."

"I don't think anything can make ryncol worse," Sara laughed, "...of course it might not be possible to make it better, either. That shit is 80% ethanol and 20% evil."

"You haven't tried it?" he asked in horror.

"I once drank a cup of some horrible punch that had a teaspoon," she gestured a small space between her fingers, "of ryncol mixed into something like four liters of other juice and alcohol." She shivered. "I was sick for a day and a half. I still can't stand cranberry juice."

He looked down at her skeptically. "How old were you?"

She coughed into her fist and glanced up with a blush. "...seventeen."

"Liam said you're not considered full adults until twenty one, yes?"

"Yep."

Jaal nodded in amusement. "Then that sort of story sounds very familiar."

"Gonna tell me all about your teenage escapades, Jaal?"

He was thoroughly warmed by the teasing, flirtatious note in her voice and looked down with a smile. He started to speak, but saw she was staring into space like she was listening to something. Oh, SAM, maybe? Jaal felt a flare of anxiety. I hope there's no emergency.

Sara blinked and looked up at him apologetically, then moved his arm off of her shoulders and squeezed his hand. Before he could ask, she put one finger to her lips in a human gesture. Hands to lips...one finger is...secret? Quiet? Yes, quiet. Why? He lowered his brow in confusion, but didn't speak. She motioned for him to wait and held up the same finger, but extended away from her.

They were near the community message board just outside the entrance to the museum and the tavetaan. He didn't see anything out of the ordinary, but Sara was walking toward a woman who appeared to be absorbed in her work.

"Excuse me," Sara said, stepping close in front of her, "did you just try to get a full spectrum scan of me and my friend?"

The woman looked up in irritation and sighed. "Yes." She didn't volunteer any more information, but watched Sara impatiently.

"Would you please tell me why?" Sara asked with a disarming smile.

It didn't seem to work on the woman, but she answered anyway. "Because you are an alien on my homeworld. I'm trying to learn about all of you."

"Oh, good!" Sara said, to the woman's surprise. "Why didn't you just ask?"

The woman blinked and raised her brow. "Would you submit to a full spectrum scan and analysis of your biology?"

"You show me yours; I'll show you mine?" Sara tilted her head and hips with a grin. Jaal coughed quietly. Liam had explained that phrase already.

"What?"

"Sure, if I can scan you, too," Sara explained. "I can't answer for Jaal, though," she said, gesturing to him. He shrugged and walked over.

"I suppose that's fair," the woman said, closing her interface.

Sara scanned the woman and nodded. "Okay, go ahead, scan me."

The woman perked up and pulled up a scanning program which she ran from multiple angles.

"So, my name is Sara Ryder, but I'm guessing you probably know that," Sara said with another smile. "It's nice to meet you."

The woman closed her interface and sighed again. "My name is Daanfre," she said. "I'm a biological researcher."

"What are you hoping to find?" Sara asked.

"We share many external similarities," Daanfre said, glancing between her and Jaal. "I want to know if that's just superficial. How you live, reproduce, what your people need that ours do as well. That can help us prepare for what the galaxy might look like in the future. What changes will you bring for my grandchildren in ten generations? What will yours be like?"

Sara nodded. "If you'd like, I'll put you in contact with my ship's doctor, Lexi T'Perro," she said. "She's asari—they're the parthenogenetic species with blue and purple skin tones. I'm sure she would be happy to assist in your research."

Jaal smiled and crossed his arms, unsurprised at Sara's enthusiasm. Daanfre looked taken aback and suspicious, but seemed to decide that contact information wouldn't do her any harm, and accepted. Sara sent over the information, then opened a channel to Lexi to introduce them. Jaal managed to drag her away after Daanfre's hint that she would like to get back to work.

"You're very good at that," he said as they walked into the tavetaan.

"Hm? What?" She closed her omnitool guiltily and he chuckled.

"You're good at talking to people who aren't sure what to make of you. You're persuasive," he said. "A natural diplomat."

Sara laughed and started coughing. "Are you serious?" she asked.

"Yes…?" he answered. "You disagree?"

"I...not exactly." She looked thoughtful, and he let her be while they found a table.

"I'll be right back," he said, and she nodded with a smile, looking around curiously.

Drack was at the bar again, with a rapt audience of Resistance recruits. A few caught Jaal's eyes, then blushed and looked away. He sighed and went up to Roann.

"Looks like you may lose some of your admirers, Jaal," he teased, slapping him on the arm with a laugh.

"Drack's welcome to them, but I don't know if even a krogan could handle that much youthful enthusiasm," Jaal answered with a chuckle. "At least not at once."

Roann sighed. "Ah, youth. So! Nutrient paste and quilloa juice with one tavum, yes?"

"Actually, no. I'm showing Sara the tavetaan, so I'd like two servings of water, a regular serving and a small serving of nutrient paste, and two marljeh."

"Sara, is it?" Roann asked, swiping over Jaal's wrist tool and putting together a tray.

"Yes, Roann." Jaal answered, rolling his eyes. "Has it suddenly become uncommon to use a companion's name?"

"Not for angara, but things are different with these humans, yes?" Roann looked up while he dug around under the counter. "They're reserved. They introduce themselves with their family names. Just yesterday she was Ryder, and you talked about her the entire time you were here, so something has changed."

Jaal glanced away with a small smile. "Not...entirely."

"Hmmmm…" Roann said, adding utensils to the tray and sliding it to him.

"You have something to say?" Jaal asked, tilting his head forward.

"Nothing at all," Roann grinned.

Jaal took the tray and shook his head with a resigned smile. At least he isn't a gossip.

Sara wasn't at the table when he got back, but he quickly found her nearby. She was scanning the plants and talking to Lexi. A few tables of angara were watching her with a variety of emotions. She was completely oblivious.

"...for everyone?" she was asking. "Salarians are carnivores. And what about turians? They're mostly carnivorous, and won't be able to get much nutrition from levo-amino stuff anyway, right?"

"Well nothing's perfect, but it's a start." Lexi answered. "Turians...we'll have to find a better solution for. But all three of those fruits seem safe and nutritious for humans, asari, and krogan. Salarians may complain about plants being ‘baby food' but if it's that or starve, they'll eat plants. They can as adults, they just don't like to. It's cultural, not biological."

"Fair enough. I'll get a few samples from the market on the way back to the ship," Sara said.

"Great. Good find, Ryder. T'Perro out."

Sara kept working until Jaal gently touched her shoulder. She jumped. "Hey, sorry!" she said, like she had been caught snooping. He laughed and waved her to the table.

"Interesting findings?" he asked as they sat. He handed her a cup of water and distributed everything else.

"Turns out three of the fruit grown in the city gardens are safe and nutritious for humans, asari, and krogan," she said. "Turians and salarians might have some issues, but it's a step. They're the first native Heleus organisms we've found that we can eat."

"That's excellent news!" Jaal said, digging into his paste. "You'll be able to trade for it with us, then farm it yourselves."

"That's the plan," she said, drinking her water. "So...thank you for all this. What...is it?"

He swallowed and pointed to the glass. "Marljeh, an alcoholic drink made from paripo rinds," he moved to point to the bowl, "Nutrient paste, made from, actually, quilloa, paripo, and elmohk—the three fruits most common in the city gardens," he paused. "I...got you a smaller portion. In case you hate it."

"Probably a good idea," she laughed. "I hope you won't be offended if I scan it before trying it," she said.

He shook his head and swallowed his bite of paste. "Go ahead," he smiled.

She scanned the paste first, then the marljeh more carefully, which seemed to surprise her.

"Damn, this stuff is 15% alcohol by volume," she said, holding up the glass.

"That seems high to you?"

"Well, for something to drink at lunch, yeah. I mean, my biotics will help me burn through this like nothing, but it's a surprise. Humans have beer, made from grains, that runs around 5%, and wine, made from fruit, that's about ten or twelve. Then harder alcohols are around 40% up to nearly 50%."

"Humans drink liquids with that much alcohol?"

"Not straight. We mix small amounts in with juice or something. Or, well, not much of it at once, if you don't wanna get trashed." She took a cautious sip of her marljeh. Then another.

"Wow. That is dangerous," she said, pulling back to look at it with wide eyes.

"...what?"

She looked at his expression. "Oh!" she said, "I mean...it's...good, and goes down smoothly, and I can't really detect the alcohol at first? Which means it would be very easy to get very drunk on this stuff. Dangerous."

"Ah. That's why we serve it in small glasses."

She chuckled and moved on to the nutrient paste. "So, I remember Peebee trying some of yours and hating it," she said, cautiously scooping up a small bit and examining it. "but I don't think any humans have volunteered, right?"

He shook his head.

"Not even Liam?"

"No." Jaal took a drink of his marljeh. "I think Peebee's reaction worried him."

Sara nodded while she looked at the paste. "So, this looks like...pudding, or mousse, thick yogurt...or maybe a really really thick smoothie."

Jaal propped his chin in his hand and watched her. "Are those all human foods, or are some from other species?"

"Hm?" she looked up from studying it. "Oh, those are all human foods. Mostly this consistency. Goopy, we might call it."

He considered. "Goup-pii does not sound appetising, Sara."

She laughed. "Even when you say it."

Her eyes flashed with mischief and she smiled at him while she ate the bite of paste. His cheeks and neck flushed as he processed what she'd just said. He cleared his throat and looked down with a small smile, then took a bite of his own to keep from saying something foolish. When he looked back up, she had a thoughtful expression and took a drink of water.

"What do you think?" he asked.

"It's...better than meal replacement bars."

"I'm guessing that's a fairly easy mark to hit?"

"Very."

"Well, that's its function, so I suppose it serves its purpose. Different batches have slightly different flavors, but to me it just tastes like a blend of fruit."

"Hm. I bet we could adjust it for each species' taste buds if necessary. Maybe throw in some of our fruits...or sweeteners? Of course, if we could negotiate for the production information that would be extremely valuable."

He nodded thoughtfully. "After we're done, I'll introduce you to my friend Roann. He runs the tavetaan. He'll be able to help."

"Oh that's great!" her eyes lit up and she took another, larger bite of paste.

"So...I wanted to ask," he said quietly, fiddling with his napkin, "why were you surprised when I said you're a natural diplomat?"

Her mouth squished up and she looked to the ceiling while she thought.

"I guess that's not really something I've ever considered as one of my strengths. My dad and Scott were always the ones with the silver tongues—good at speaking, I mean. We always said that I got Dad's urge for adventure and Scott got his ability to talk anyone into anything," she took a drink of marljeh and smiled in memory. "Mom was the cautious pragmatist, along with Scott. Dad and I were the ones with the crazy ideas, they were the ones trying to talk us out of them." She took another bite of paste.

"I…" Jaal hesitated, then decided to push ahead. "feel privileged to hear about your family. I know how painful it can be to talk about those you've lost. Thank you for sharing it with me."

She smiled at him brilliantly, and his pulse climbed into his throat. "You're welcome. It's nice to talk about them, and you're...a really good listener."

Jaal swallowed his nerves and smiled softly. "I like listening to you," he said with a small shrug.

Her cheeks darkened and she took a drink of water. He had an ache in his stomach. He wanted to feel the heat of her blush.

She took her last bite of nutrient paste and a sip of her marljeh. "Dad and Scott are the social butterflies—uh, friendly talkative ones. At least, Dad was with everyone else. He never seemed to know what to do with us... Mom was more reserved, more into her work. Warm, loving, loyal, but...hard to get past her shell." She looked down, turning the glass with a few fingers. "I always...thought of myself like that, I guess," she looked uncomfortable. "But I'm really...not. Maybe it made me feel closer to her, and feel better about not being as influential as Dad and Scott."

Jaal slid off his gloves and reached out to cover her hands with his. Sara looked up in surprise and he took a deep breath before he spoke.

"The stories we tell ourselves have so much power. They can form our personalities, whether they're true or not," he said, rubbing his thumbs over her wrists. "I have some experience with that, too," he added with an embarrassed sigh.

"Common ground?" she asked with a smile.

He laughed and nodded. "Yes."

The sunlight dappled bright splashes on her hair, and her smile ringed her eyes with small lines. He wanted to gently trace them. He kept having to ground his field to keep from sending out to her hands, and he felt a dense ache in his chest. Why can I never look away?

Sara broke his gaze first, looking down at their hands and pulling hers back. "So, um, you said your friend might be able to help with the nutrient paste formula?"

Jaal blinked, then shook himself and started to put on his gloves. "Yes," he said, taking a deep breath. "I hope so."

She had gathered their dishes onto the tray while he put on his gloves and collected his thoughts. "Where do I dispose of...stuff?" she asked.

He took the tray from her and smiled. "Come on, I'll show you." They sorted out the dishes and trash up near the bar. Jaal caught Roann's giant grin in his peripheral vision and sent him a stern glare that didn't change his expression at all. It got worse when Roann realized they were coming over to him.

"Jaal!" he called loudly, throwing his arms wide like he hadn't seen him in months instead of minutes. This is going to be extremely annoying and there is nothing I can do about it. Best to get it over with quickly.

"Roann, I'd like to introduce you to the human Pathfinder, Sara Ryder. Sara, this is my friend Roann. He runs the tavetaan."

She smiled and offered her arm in greeting. Roann took it, then shook her hand, to her surprised delight. "They just let us in yesterday!" she laughed. "You adapt quickly."

"Ah, not as quickly as some," he grinned at Jaal, who glowered at him, "but I try. The tavetaan is an important part of a community, and I have to know people."

"Well, thank you for such a warm welcome," she said.

"Of course!" Roann beamed and leaned on the counter and Jaal knew— "Jaal has been speaking of you so enthusiastically" —there it was— "that I couldn't wait to meet you, Sara."

"Really?" Sara smiled and sat, leaning on the bar. "I can't imagine what he'd say about me," she said, glancing sidelong up at Jaal. He couldn't help but smile back.

Roann laughed. "I think you probably can imagine," he said, patting her hand and standing up. Sara was clearing her throat and tucking loose hair behind her ear.

"Um...So," she said, "I'd hoped to talk to you about nutrient paste. I've found that paripo, elmohk, and quilloa are edible and nutritious for quite a few Initiative species."

"Really?" Roann said, "How fortunate that organisms from two different galaxies could be biologically compatible. Don't you think so, Jaal?" He wasn't even trying to look innocent, and Jaal couldn't actually set him aflame with his glare, no matter how hard he wished for it. Thank all the stars that Sara was pulling something up on her omnitool and didn't seem to be paying attention.

"Learning how to grow and process Heleus native plants could make a huge difference in our ability to survive here," she said as she typed. Jaal saw she was pulling up contacts and attaching her scans.

"I don't have the ability to open any sort of serious negotiations for proprietary information, but since Governor Shie is allowing the opening of an embassy," she flashed Roann a grin, "I was hoping you might be able to tell me who I need to send our ambassador to talk to." Sara suddenly looked up from her interface with a charmingly sincere expression. "Would you be willing to help?"

To Jaal's quiet satisfaction, Roann looked momentarily stunned before replying.

"Yes," he nodded with a smile. "Have your ambassador contact me and I'll put them in touch with the head of agricultural processing on Aya. That should be a start."

"Wonderful," she said happily, turning back to her interface. "I'm sending a message about it now. May I include your contact information?" She glanced up, all cheerful energy and dark eyes. Roann blinked and agreed.

While she finished her message, Jaal crossed his arms and gave him a wry look. Roann laughed and punched him in the shoulder.

"There!" Sara said, closing her omnitool and looking relieved. "Thank you, Roann. Seriously." She squeezed his hand in both of hers. "I'm just sorry to have to send in the politicians."

He laughed and waved his hand dismissively when she released it. "If they're half as charming as you, Sara, I fear for Aya's economy."

She blushed, but scoffed. "They'll all talk circles around me."

"Whatever that means," Roann said, "I'm slightly worried now."

"You'll manage," she said, crossing her arms and smiling. "It was great to meet you, Roann. Thanks for lunch, Jaal. I've got to get those samples for Lexi and get ready for us to ship out in the morning. Ground squad meeting at 1900 ship time, remember."

"I'll be there," he said, reaching for her hand one last time. She ran her thumb over his knuckles, making his heart thump faster with the memory of kissing hers the night before. It was impetuous, incredibly forward, and slightly questionable. He knew it wasn't quite the same for humans. Still...the look in her eyes...he'd do it again.

Sara looked up from their hands with brightly flushed cheeks and when she met his eye he knew she was remembering it, too. He was caught, helpless and speechless until she squeezed his fingers and turned away. When she turned the corner to the steps, he sat and sighed heavily.

Roann slapped him hard on the back, and Jaal glared at him again.

"Invite me to the joining, okay?"

Jaal froze and his mind went blank.

"Why the surprise, Jaal? Of course I want to witness a momentous historical event."

"Roann."

"Ah, leave him alone, Jaal," a few thumps followed the gruff voice as it came over. Drack raised his flask of ryncol at him and sat. "He's right. I wanna come too."

Roann was bellowing with laughter now, bent over the bartop.

Jaal closed his eyes and sent his sparking current to ground. "Stars guide me and ancestors grant me patience," he hissed. "Neither of you are invited to any potential ceremonial occasions in my future, including my funeral."

Roann patted his shoulder and sent a current of sincere happiness, love, and hope before getting back to work. That helped soothe the sting of his slowly fading chuckles.

"It'll be ok, kid," Drack said, then turned one eye on him and waited until Jaal looked up. "Unless you fuck up. Got it?"

"My desire for a relationship with her to go well is fueled by far more than fear of an old man's vengeance," Jaal glared back at him. "If it wasn't, I wouldn't be worthy of trying in the first place."

Drack's eye narrowed and he grinned. "Quad on you, that's for sure." He gently slapped Jaal's arm with the back of his hand, only half knocking him off the stool. "Seriously though. Don't fuck up."

Jaal resettled himself. "If I do, it won't be on purpose."

Drack took a long pull from his flask and sighed. "Never is, kid."

 


 

That could have gone better, and it could have gone worse, Ryder thought to herself.

Discipline wasn't exactly a strength of her crew as a whole, but everyone had finally stopped bitching when she had slapped the table and told them if any of them wanted her thankless fucking job they could have it. Unless and until then, they had a plan that prioritized tasks by severity and urgency as she saw fit. She'd glared around at everyone and didn't notice that her hands were glowing with biotics until they'd all left, without being dismissed.

So, not the best meeting, but not the worst. She'd thought she saw a glint of approval in Drack's eye as he'd left, but that might have been wishful thinking.

Now she was on a couch in her quarters, indulging in not having to be The Goddamn Pathfinder for a half hour. She'd made herself a mug of her carefully guarded hot cocoa mix and was almost done with it.

They were headed to Kadara to deal with Vehn Terev and find out what he knew, then to Elaaden because Drack got word just half an hour before the damn meeting that some fucking asshole had stolen the krogan's fucking seed vault and there was no god in this galaxy or the last that would be able to protect them if they had damaged it. Drack was ready to fucking eat someone. Ryder didn't blame him, even if it had thrown the schedule all to hell.

After that, she'd probably end up rushing off to put out another extremely urgent fire that only the Pathfinder team could handle. While looking for the other missing arks, trying to protect their one fledgling outpost, and finding spots for others so people didn't starve. Without stealing from the angara. While getting bitched at by fucking Addison for not fixing the entire Initiative's fuckups fast enough and having to keep from wringing Tann's neck while he postured.

Easy peasy.

She needed a fucking drink.

And enough sleep.

And for someone who knew what the fuck they were doing to do this job instead of her.

But she couldn't have that, so she had her hot chocolate and warm fuzzy daydreams of Jaal kissing her hand like someone out of a regency romance. 

Chapter Text

Jaal hated Kadara.

The entire planet was toxic and people were beaten in the street for not paying their fees to not get beaten in the street.

Ryder also insisted he have nothing to do with any extraction attempts for that skkutting pustulence Terev, because of his close ties to the Moshae and the Resistance. It was the right decision, he knew it and agreed immediately, but he still didn't like it.

He'd originally stayed near Liam, but the human's agitation had been too much for him. Jaal realized that was probably a sign he was getting too irritable to keep himself safe, so he'd headed to the bar to keep Drack company. The ancient krogan projected an air of safety until something was the focus of his ire. He was observant, sympathetic, patient, and worst case, an extremely large bulk to hide behind.

Drack nodded at Jaal over his drink and asked, "Here to keep an eye on our girl?"

Jaal had no idea what he was talking about. Then, following Drack's gaze, he saw Ryder leaning back on the bar top, apparently flirting with a sleek fighter of a human who kept leaning into her space. She smiled up at the man, seemingly shy. The man laughed and touched her hand. Jaal felt a pang of jealousy, and glanced at Drack, who was watching him carefully.

Oh. More here than there might seem.

He looked again at the way Ryder was standing, and it was slightly stiffer than when she was truly relaxed. Her right hand toyed with her hair, and he'd never seen her do that. The movement looked...deliberate. The human man was close to her, but his gaze didn't go to Ryder's body, and the playful smirk looked somehow...tight, restricted to his lips only.

Evfra's contact.

He had a moment of irritation for Evfra not trusting Ryder but working with a human from this place, but it passed when he realized it made a lot of sense to have a non-angara working Kadara, for similar reasons as Ryder's presence on the op.

Jaal shook his head at Drack and said, "No. She can handle herself in the field, and downtime is her own. I got tired of Liam's fidgeting and thought the safest place in the port would be somewhere behind you."

Drack chuckled low and nodded as he took another drink.

The sleek human walked out, winking at Jaal and Drack as he passed their table. Ryder came over and flopped down loosely.

"So, who wants to come with me to meet the queen?"

 


 

Jaal and Drack ended up waiting outside what Ryder persisted in calling Sloane's throne room. The guards there tried to look intimidating, but were no match for Drack's placid boredom and Jaal's complete disgust for everything on this forsaken planet. The guards quickly went back to pretending they didn't exist.

Eventually, Ryder walked out. Her steps were casual and face calm, but her eyes were burning. The men fell into step behind her. Each step she took grew in force until her boots were thumping angrily down the walk. Jaal felt his eyes drift to the power in her hips before he blinked and chastised himself.

Later.

"Ah, Ryder! You are a vision of passion and purpose," Reyes Vidal hopped off a crate as she strode past and took up step beside her, slipping an arm around her waist. He leaned close to talk, giving the appearance of intimacy.

"Not in the mood to play, Vidal," she said, her voice low. "What do you have?"

He smiled and his eyes twinkled. "Ah, straight to business, then," he pulled up his omnitool to send her information, looking for all the world like he was sending her directions to a romantic tryst. Vidal leaned closer to whisper in her ear, "Smile for the audience, my dear. You should be able to spring Terev with this code."

He pulled back from her, slowly drawing his hand from her waist to trail down her arm, bowing over her hand and pressing a kiss to the back. "I do hope to see you again soon, Sara," he said, winking before turning to saunter away.

Jaal felt a moment of completely irrational rage and closed his eyes. This was a stealth mission. Reyes Vidal was an ally undercover. Stop. I don't have any skkutting claim over her, like some kind of animal, he told himself severely. By all the stars, he was being an idiot.

When he'd collected himself, he saw Ryder smirking at her omnitool. Then she grinned at them both.

"Drack, you need a new stock for your shotgun and some more cells for your flak cannon, right?" Drack immediately picked up on her plan.

"Always, if you're buyin'."

"Great. We'll take care of that while we're in port. Jaal," she said, turning to him, "why don't you head back and see if Liam and Cora have finished ‘negotiating?' We'll probably head right out to Elaaden after we grab what we need here."

She wanted the known and obvious Resistance member gone. He nodded, saying, "Of course, Ryder," before giving in to his impulse and squeezing her shoulder before he left. He heard Drack's chuckle and felt the old krogan's gaze on his back as he walked away.

Chapter Text

"The shuttle has cleared Kadara space and is on the way back to Aya. They weren't followed," Evfra said through the video feed. He grunted in grudging respect, "Give your human my thanks. Shena speaks highly of her."

"She is not—" Jaal began, but stopped when he saw the slight brow raise and crease in his cheek. For Evfra, that was practically a wide mischievous grin. "Fine. I will pass your thanks to Pathfinder Ryder," he sighed.

"Stay strong," Evfra said, ending their conversation.

"Stay clear," Jaal replied, and closed the channel.

They were heading to Elaaden as fast as they could. They'd left Kadara the day before, soon after they'd gotten the signal that the shuttle with Terev had taken off. They had coordinates for a buried device that might help them find the Archon, but Ryder had overruled all objections, saying this mission was more urgent.

Drack had been grumpier than usual and short with the whole crew. Jaal had noticed Ryder talking to him quietly in the galley that morning, and decided to come back later.

She still hadn't decided on a ground crew for whatever mission she was running with Drack, but given they were both close quarters fighters, Jaal suspected he and Vetra would be tapped to round out the squad.

Ryder had given the crew a general brief: they had to retrieve something important for the krogan colony, and it was more urgent than finding the Archon or establishing and supporting outposts. More information would be given to the ground crew, and complaints, if they remained, would be addressed after this mission was completed and the crew debriefed.

Years in the Resistance had given him the ability to set aside his curiosity about need-to-know info, but he was worried all the same. Drack, usually unperturbed by anything—including an anointed kett with a minigun—was extremely upset. Ryder held her body tense and seemed to only smile politely rather than genuinely.

In addition, skkutting Akksul had sent him a message that Ryder should see, but it could wait until after this mission. She was clearly already preoccupied.

Even if it was impossible for her to completely relax, staying this tense for the rest of the trip to Elaaden would affect her ability to complete the mission. So, continuing with his resolution to treat her as he would an angara he felt this strongly about, Jaal had made her something he hoped would help.

He opened his omnitool and asked, "SAM, where is Ryder, and is she working?"

SAM responded, "Ryder is in the meeting room attempting to concentrate on work, but has not made significant progress in the past hour," the AI sounded disapproving and concerned, "My attempts to persuade her to change activities have been unsuccessful."

"Ah, well, perhaps I can help," he said.

"Most likely," SAM replied, and Jaal could hear definite amusement in the synthetic voice. Before he could comment on it, SAM closed the channel.

He checked the time: 2037. Most people would still be awake, but probably relaxing quietly.

I suppose this is as good an opportunity as I will get. With nervous anticipation, he scooped up the gift and left the tech lab.

Liam was working at the research station and smiled. He nodded his head toward the meeting room and made a fist with the thumb sticking straight up. Jaal didn't think that was one of the common rude gestures he'd shown him. Liam started moving his eyebrows emphatically toward the meeting room along with his head. Jaal wrinkled his forehead and smiled at his friend, and shook his head as he walked up the ramp. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Liam point both his thumbs up and grin widely.

It was unexpected how quickly, how easily, he'd formed friendships here...and more. Jaal looked over the railing to where Ryder was ferociously glaring at her work. Definitely more.

She either didn't notice or didn't look up as he came closer. Ryder had her omnitool open, one data pad in her hand, and two others open on her lap. Her hair was twisted and looped into a...shape on the back of her head. She'd stuck a stylus into it. There was a mug on the floor nearby with brown sludge in the bottom.

Jaal felt his energy hum from his gut and flow up into a heavy affectionate ache in his chest. He had to talk to her. Keeping a feeling this beautiful inside would be a tragedy.

"Sara," he spoke quietly so she wasn't startled. She looked up at her name automatically, and her expression softened a little.

"Hey, Jaal," she smiled, and looked back down to the data pads she was holding. "I'm trying to get an understanding of what we're going to face on Elaaden, but most of the information I've got here is in bits and pieces because it's second hand gossip through exiles and scavengers, or it's reports for the Resistance that contain more specific Shelesh vocabulary than our translators can handle yet. Other languages are sprinkled in, too. SAM is helping with that, but he can't really do anything about how quickly and thoroughly I can synthesize the information. I asked."

She made a face. "He was kinda bitchy about it, actually. I mean, you can adjust my senses, biotic power, and reaction time, SAM—"

"Sara," he said, gently gathering the data pads from her lap and putting them on the floor. He held out a hand for the one she was holding, and waited patiently. Finally, her expression mutinous, she turned off the display and handed it over.

"Will you turn off your omnitool as well, taoshay?"

Her expression faded from stubborn irritation to cautious curiosity. "What does that word mean?" she asked.

Jaal sat down at the other end of the couch and faced her. He raised his brow and smiled softly. "I will tell you if you turn this off and take a break," he said, gesturing to the orange glow above her arm.

His field rose happily as he saw her expression change to something amused and challenging. "Promise?" she asked. He nodded. Sara pursed her lips, switched off her omnitool, and leaned back onto the arm of the couch. She crossed her arms and tilted her head with a smile and an expectant look.

He held out the hand holding her gift. A small piece of green fabric—a scrap he had trimmed neatly for the purpose—was wrapped around something cupped in his palm.

"What?" She tilted her head the other way, confused.

"I made it for you," he said.

Her face flushed and she gasped and he was suddenly so happy he thought he would never be able to move again. She looked to his eyes and he felt warmth settle into him. A low, involuntary rumble started quietly in his chest.

"You made me something?" she was quiet and careful. "I...what is it?"

He chuckled, "Why don't you see?" and tilted his head toward his palm.

She drew in a deep breath and held it as she carefully took the bundle from him. He caressed the tips of her fingers as she did, and her eyes widened.

"What was…"

"My bioelectricity."

"...oh."

She was staring at him again, and he felt his nervous uncertainty return. Jaal swallowed hard and looked down at his lap. He had a sudden fear she would be disappointed, or amused, or just...ambivalent. His pulse was thumping down the back of his frill, and his energy was unsteady.

"Jaal, you're glowing."

The amazement in her voice was a distraction. "I...yes," he said, "angara sometimes luminesce when...when we experience strong emotions." A flush had suffused him and lines down the back of his frill were thrumming with light.

"I've never seen you do it before," she said, wrinkling her forehead in an unspoken question.

"It, ah, hmm... it only happens for...some...feelings." He lifted his eyes to hers, but, afraid of what he might see there, flicked them over the rest of her face and to her hands.

"You're beautiful."

His eyes immediately went back to hers, a split second before she realized what she'd said. Then she was looking away from him and clearing her throat.

Before he could respond, she said, "Um. So. Anyway...thank you. I'm very curious what you would have had time to make for me." She smiled at him, fast but genuine, and unfolded the cloth. A small glass bottle with a pale green liquid was inside. She carefully held it up to the light to examine it. There were small reflective flecks in it.

She turned to ask what it was and he said, "Pull out the stopper. Carefully, try not to spill it."

She did, and he watched her face as she caught the botanical scent. Her eyes closed and she sighed.

"You made this?" Her mouth hung open and she stared at him. When he nodded, her shock gradually morphed to an incredulous smile as she shook her head. "Jaal, this is amazing. Thank you."

"You're welcome," he said, relieved. "I had Lexi check the ingredients, and they're safe for you to use on your skin. Some humans might have an allergic reaction, so they should check before you share it—if you share it."

"It's...perfume?"

"It can be, but I intended for you to use it to help you relax. Some scents are calming to angara, and I read that humans can respond similarly to certain kinds."

"Thank you, but I'm—" she started.

"Sara," he interrupted, using a tone similar to the one he'd used with Moshae Sjefa a few days before, "do not tell me you are 'fine,' because it is an obvious lie."

She sighed, closed her eyes, and slumped back against the arm of the couch. "Ok, fine. I'm kind of a mess and totally overwhelmed."

Jaal felt his subvocals start to return, and this time he didn't think his nerves would banish them. "You carry a huge responsibility, and it weighs on you, yes," he said, taking her empty hand, "but you carry it well."

She looked at him and smiled, squeezing his hand gratefully. His eyes suddenly twinkled. "You have certainly managed to remain more approachable than Evfra."

She giggled. "Kind of a low bar, there, but I'll take it. Thanks, Jaal."

"I try," he said. Then, "May I show you how to use it?"

"Use...this?" She held up the bottle, slightly confused. "There's more to it than 'put it on, smell nice'?"

"Well, that may help slightly, but yes—it's meant to be massaged into the skin."

Her mouth opened.

"Oh. Uh. Ok. Are you...really?"

He was delighted with her blush, and said firmly, "Yes, Sara. I wouldn't have offered if I didn't want to." He squeezed her hand again and let a small current, full of his desire for her, stroke her wrist. She shivered.

"Alright," she smiled, determined, and asked, "What should I do?"

He shuffled so that his back was against the arm of the couch. One leg was stretched out and the other was crooked at the knee, making a vaguely triangular shape where she could sit.

She smiled ruefully. "Our couches are really not large enough or the right shape for you, are they?"

"I will...manage," he said. He held his arms out. "Here, sit here in front of me, facing outward."

Ryder stiffened her shoulders and he might have caught a shudder, which seemed a good sign. But then she carefully sat, seeming to avoid touching him wherever it was possible.

"Sara," he said timidly, "if...you are uncomfortable, or don't want to do this, please, say so."

"No!" she blurted, "No I'm not—um—I…" she cleared her throat. "I'm just...nervous. And I don't want to...make you uncomfortable accidentally."

Jaal laughed, relaxed and open. "There's very little chance of that," he said. He took a deep breath and his subvocals deepened as he caught her scent. He moved slowly, giving her a chance to pull away if she wanted. First, he put his hands on her shoulders and smoothed down her arms. He adjusted his legs slightly, and scooped hers up so her knees were bent over his leg and her feet were hanging loosely. He nudged her shoulders back until she rested against him, head cradled on his chest.

"Well, okay then!" Sara laughed, but didn't move away. "Wait," she drawled, "you're purring!"

"...puhrrreeng?" He tested the sound of the unfamiliar word.

"That rumbling thing you're doing in your chest!" she laughed. "That's our word for it. We can't do it, but turians can. And cats—they're a small companion animal humans domesticated...or they domesticated us, one or the other."

She grew more animated. 

"Apparently, these little floofballs," she gestured an approximate size, "some of them decided, ‘Hey, those human things have plenty of prey and warm places to sleep. I'm gonna go catch some vermin and be adorable and maybe they'll let me hang out,' and it worked because when you come down to it, humans are total suckers for cuddles. It's our kryptonite."

"Sara?"

"Hmm?"

"I've noticed that you tend to either say very few words or very many," he chuckled and bent to see her face. She had a thoughtful frown and bobbed her head left and right.

"Yeah, I guess so," she said. "Sorry?"

He pressed a kiss to the top of her head and squeezed her shoulders gently. "There's no need to apologize, taoshay. It's endearing."

She held very still, and shivered. "You still haven't told me what that means," she said.

"You're right, and I did promise," he said. "Here, may I have your bottle?"

Sara handed it over and nestled back against his chest as Jaal rumbled happily. He carefully put a few drops onto each palm and handed it back. Then he rubbed his hands together, his body heat warming the oil and releasing the scents it carried. He reached for her head and then stopped.

Oh.

Hair.

"Hmm, I may have...overlooked something," he said, embarrassed.

"What is it?" Her eyes were closed and she seemed relaxed already. He hated to disturb her.

"I...don't know what to do with your...hair."

Sara laughed, "You sound so confounded," she said, and reached up to pull the stylus out, dropping it on the floor. A few passes with her fingers and her hair was loose. "There. Is this stuff oil based?"

"Yes?"

"Good, then you don't need to worry about getting it in my hair," she settled back down and sighed happily. "We often use oil for grooming our hair, depending on the texture or style. If anything it will probably be good for it, and my shampoo should wash it out just fine."

"What does oil do for your hair?" he asked, as he pressed his fingers to her temples and moved over to her forehead and back.

"Keeps it shiny, like that ash salve for your neck flaps," she smiled.

"You are teasing me," he laughed.

"No, really!" she said. "Remember Reyes Vidal?"

"...yes."

"Dunno what he uses, but he definitely puts something in his hair to get it to be that stiff and shiny." Sara yawned and settled against him and all thoughts of Reyes Vidal left Jaal's mind. He smoothed his thumbs down the back of her head until they reached the nape of her neck. He rested his hands on either side, letting his energy flow into her as he rubbed firm circles behind her jaw.

"Mmmmm, Jaal, that feels amazing."

Heat rose in his core and his subvocals deepened. This was the best idea he had ever had. He drew his leg closer, tucking her tighter against him and had to breathe slowly to keep from suddenly emerging against her. It seemed this was also the worst idea he had ever had.

He kept the rhythm of his hands steady and his breathing even. The marvelous sounds she would occasionally make made it much harder to focus, but he managed. After a while, he gradually let his his physical touch get lighter and his energy get stronger, until his hands were hovering over her shoulders. He slowly moved down her arms to her hands before making contact with her skin again, and gathered one of her hands in both of his.

He indulged himself slightly by leaning close to her before asking, "Is this still alright?" The shiver that ran down her spine was exactly what he wanted.

Her soft, "Yes," in response made him bite his lips and close his eyes. Jaal carefully let his energy flow into her, gently, through all their points of contact. She moaned and pressed against him and he wanted so badly to rock against her ass.

He didn't, but continued firmly tracing the lines of her palm and gently working over the bones in her wrist and hand. When he'd finished the first, he rested it back on her lap, closer to her groin than was strictly necessary. As he picked up her other hand, he let his energy extend downward. It was a gentle, warm stroke, one of interest and invitation.

She gasped and moved, but didn't have anything to press against. Her face flushed hot and her eyes shot open.

He pretended not to notice and continued with his relaxing massage on her other hand. He was determined to actually do what he said he would, no matter how much he wanted to move his hands elsewhere. He sternly reminded himself that he would not until he was invited, no matter how glorious she was against him. 

His arms were around her, holding her hand in both of his. He bent closer and noticed the skin on her neck seemed different.

"Are you…" he hesitated, not sure what exactly to ask.

"Hmm?" her voice sounded slightly strained, but not in pain.

"Your skin," he said, "the...texture has changed." Jaal suddenly felt a stab of fear, cutting through everything else. "The oil. Does it hurt? Do you think it could be a reaction? Lexi must have missed something." He turned her hand over and looked closely at her palm, searching for other symptoms.

Sara drew in a deep breath and laughed.

"No, it's—" she wheezed. "Of all the ridiculous things—"

He began to get annoyed. "I don't see how my concern is—"

"No, no, not you, I mean, just…" she waved a hand vaguely, "the situation. Your reaction is totally understandable, it's just...it figures." She sighed and leaned back against him, taking both of his hands in hers. She squeezed them and held them close to her abdomen. He was still confused, but noticed that her skin seemed smoother once more.

"They're called goosebumps, and it's an involuntary reaction we have to stimulation. It's probably like your glowing or purring? It can happen when we get cold, or something..." she paused and blushed.

He smiled, and leaned down, deepening his voice to whisper, "...feels good?" She shivered and the immediate reaction of the skin on her neck and forearms was unusual, but satisfying.

His sudden worry hadn't been ideal, but at least its arrival had calmed him down for now. And she was relaxed and calm, so he counted it a win. Jaal took a few moments to enjoy the feeling of her dense, warm, deceptively small frame against him.

Finally, he sighed and reluctantly said, "Sara, as much as I don't want to move, if I fall asleep here, I won't be able to move when I get up."

"I really don't see any benefit for me in moving from here," she said.

"Hmm. Perhaps this was not a sound strategy."

"Well, not entirely your fault. Plans never survive contact with the enemy."

He huffed and stood up, pulling her to her feet as well. "If only all my enemies were defeated so easily."

She turned in his arms to look up at him and he ached to drag her with him to his bed. "But then I would have all that competition," she smiled.

"No," he said, "You wouldn't." He drew his touch up her back to her forearms, to her hands. He held them for a second, squeezed gently, smiled, and turned to go.

"Y'know, you're really leaving me...unsatisfied here," she said, making him turn around, startled. She crossed her arms and cocked her hips. "You never did translate that word...tay-o'shay?"

Even though she didn't know the exact meaning, just hearing her try to say it made him smile. Feeling much more confident than he had in years, Jaal stepped closer and put a hand on her hip. The other he slid along her scalp and used to move her hair behind her ear.

"I never agreed to define it," his warm breath was moving her hair and brushing the skin under her ear. He could feel the speed of her pulse through his lips. "I said I would tell you what it meant," He pulled back and looked into her eyes. "I believe I have...made myself clear, taoshay?"

Her whole body was tense again, but it was an entirely different kind. He was so tempted by her lips, but not quite yet.

He stroked his fingers warmly through her hair, down her cheek, watching their progress to her chin, where he slowly pulled away. He smiled softly.

"Sleep well, Sara."

Chapter Text

He fucking purred. Like a glowing magenta space cat.

And he made her perfumed oil that he massaged into her neck.

And he just might have deliberately felt her up with his sexy electricity bullshit. While she sat in his lap. While. He. Fucking. Purred.

And then he didn't fucking kiss her and she couldn't kill him because then she would never get to kiss him and as soon as these idiots stopped dying and gave back the shit they'd stolen from the fucking krogan like that was ever gonna end well she was going to drag his tight purple ass back to the ship and they were going to make the fuck out.

"All right over there, Ryder?" Vetra's teasing voice came over the comm. "You're being a little rough on these guys, y'know? I don't think you need quite so many novas to disable them."

She couldn't kill Vetra either, because her baby sister would be sad. Fuck.

"Just working out some frustration," she growled.

Drack laughed, and all else aside, she was glad she could distract him a bit from his worry.

"You should get somebody to help you out with that, kid," he said. "There's probably a few whelps fresh off the Rite back at the colony you could train up, and they'd be glad of the practice."

Ryder heard Jaal grunt, and saw the pirate Drack was rearing back to headbutt fall, taken out by sniper fire.

"Bah, find your own ya sparkly little pyjak," Drack yelled, without any real malice. "Not my fault your mate is unsatisfied! Bet even Vorn manages that just fine."

Jaal's stony silence and Vetra and Ryder's choked, horrified laughter was all that filled the comm for a few seconds. Then salvation arrived.

"Oooh, a mech! Drack, I'll charge his three, you take six as hard as you can. Let's see if we can knock his ass off the platform!"

Twin yells of "Ryder, NO!" were not quite drowned out by Drack's amusement.

"Kid, you know I'm way too old for that kinda shit, right?" He was totally down.

"You're as young as you feel, old man! Let's go!"

 


 

They'd secured the seed vault and Vorn, with the additional bonus of a terrified and pissed off Aroane Tao. Jaal and Vetra went back to the Tempest to secure him for transport to the Nexus while Ryder went with Drack to return Vorn and the krogan's precious seeds.

After he'd returned to the hydroponics lab, Vorn had shyly brought out a pot with a small shoot peeking out, and asked if Ryder would take it to Kesh for him. She'd somehow managed not to squeal at him how adorable he was, but had definitely surreptitiously recorded him talking about how the flower he'd named for Kesh could only blossom in Heleus.

Sitting next to Drack in the shuttle ride back to the ship, Ryder hadn't even tried to keep the dopey smile off her face as she examined the plant she held in her lap.

Drack just glanced at it, grunted eloquently, and settled back to sleep. Ryder gave him a sly sideways glance.

"You like Vorn. He's a good match for Kesh."

Drack half opened the eye closest to her and grumbled, "He better be, or she'll take his ass apart. Now be quiet and let an old man have his nap."

Ryder grinned, but let him have his peace and quiet.

Chapter Text

Ok, Ryder thought, listing things in her mind. Gear dealt with and stowed. Aroane locked in Liam's room. Liam placated. Crew debriefed. Nexus contacted. Course laid in. Kesh's plant secured. I've eaten. Showered. Dressed. One drop of Jaal's perfume applied behind each ear. Operation Make Outs is go.

She could do this.

Her heartbeat was hammering in her head, and she decided to try a few of the asari breathing exercises Cora had taught her. She sat on her bed and breathed slowly, regularly. On every inhale, she told herself a truth. On every exhale, she tried to accept it. The goal was to repeat an idea until your doubts quieted or you realized something new about it.

Jaal was definitely interested in her. What if he's not?

Jaal was definitely interested in her. What if it's just wishful thinking?

Jaal was definitely interested in her. She had a vivid memory of him whispering to her with his hand on her ass and firm heat pressing into her.

He had pulled her into his lap and fucking purred.

Jaal was definitely interested in her.

Ok. Cool. Let's do this.

"SAM? Privacy mode, please," she said as she took one last deep breath and wiped her palms down her legs.

"Of course, Sara. Good luck."

She smiled fondly at his avatar and stepped out of her quarters. As she climbed the ladder to the catwalk, she realized anyone who saw her heading to the tech lab with a blush on her cheeks and smelling like alien flowers would know exactly what she was doing.

Worth it.

Cora and Vetra were in the research room, working together on stocking and procurement. She got a couple glances, a smile, and a lopsided mandible flap.

Get it, girl!

Ryder looked down and smiled to herself, filled with affection and gratitude for her crew. She was really lucky they were here with her. They were the only reason she could manage this clusterfuck as well as she could. With warm fuzzies and nervous anticipation, she entered the lab.

Instead of tinkering or reading, she found Jaal crouched in front of a video call. He had a serious, worried expression. A female angaran voice said something she couldn't make out, and he quietly responded, "Of course, mother."

Oh.

She should...go. Give him some privacy to deal with something that sounded very important.

He must have heard her come in, though, because before she could leave, Jaal looked up, tears in his eyes, and said, "Ryder, wait. Stay."

He turned back to the call and said, "I must inform the Pathfinder, but I'll be there as soon as I can. I will bring them back. I promise."

"Thank you, Jaal. We love you."

"And I love all of you. I'll contact you when I arrive on Havarl," he said, and closed the channel.

Ryder had frozen where she was. Jaal ended the video call with his mothers and curled in on himself, collapsing to the floor and weeping in angry grief. She went to her knees beside him, right arm tight around his shoulders and left hand stroking the other side of his cowl.

"Shh, it's ok," she said as she rubbed up and down. Ryder wasn't sure what exactly was going on, but she gathered it was some kind of terrifying family emergency. She'd had her share of those, and her heart ached in sympathy.

His whole body shook with his sobs, and she wasn't sure what to do but wait it out. Sooner than she would have guessed, Jaal took a deep shuddering breath and uncurled slightly. He wiped his tears off his cheeks, then pulled his gloves off and threw them aside.

"Thank you," he said, voice deep and gruff. "I…" he looked into her eyes, "that was kind. You're kind." The way he said it, sincere and quiet, made it a high compliment. She smiled briefly and looked down, pulling her hands back and sitting down cross legged.

"That sounded very serious. I'm sorry I intruded," she said, but he was shaking his head.

"No," he said, "I'm glad you were here. It's...Akksul," he grit out in exhausted rage. "The Roekaar. They have three of my younger siblings."

"They kidnapped children?!" Ryder roared and was on her feet instantly, "Where?"

But Jaal was waving his hands and shaking his head. "No, not that," he sighed. "I hope even the Roekaar wouldn't stoop so low." He moved over to sit on his mattress and waved at the empty space next to him in invitation. He leaned back against the wall and stared at the ceiling before he spoke again. "They're all adults, or near enough. They have run off to join Akksul, convinced by his poisonous rhetoric. My mothers had no idea, and are grief stricken, sick with worry." He sighed in exhaustion and his voice broke. "He has my family. They called to ask me to bring them home, but I don't think I can do this alone."

Ryder moved to sit on his bed, facing him. "You don't have to. What do you need?"

Jaal closed his eyes and took a shaking breath. Tears leaked down his cheeks. His eyes were filled with adoration when he turned to her. "That is what I love about you. No hesitation." He cupped her cheek. "Thank you."

As a way to completely ignore what he just said, and the way it made her pulse pound through her temples, Ryder went into planning mode.

"Ok. We need to head to Havarl immediately, and postpone our stop on the Nexus. We are stocked well enough, so that's no problem. I'll contact Kandros and have him send a militia shuttle to pick up Aroane. We can rendezvous in the Pfeiffer system."

Ryder stood and flicked on her omnitool's intercom. "Ryder to bridge: change of plans, guys. Set course for Havarl, via the Pfeiffer system. I'm arranging a pitstop there before we head on to Havarl."

There was a pause, then, "Roger that, Pathfinder," from Suvi, with Kallo's quieter response following. "Aye aye, changing course...course set for Havarl," he said.

"Good. Ryder out." She sat on a crate nearby and mumbled to herself as she checked they were still synced with Nexus time. Kandros should be up. That would make this easier.

Ryder opened a direct audio call to his omnitool, and he answered fairly quickly.

"Pathfinder."

"Tiran."

"Ah. This business or pleasure, Ryder?"

"Depends how bad you wanna get your talons on Aroane Tao."

"Shit. Really? We kicked his ass off the station once already."

"Well, call it an investment in the future. I've got some plans next time I'm on the station. Talk to Kesh."

"I see."

"Yep. Problem is, I gotta deal with something urgent before I head to the Nexus, and I'm short a brig. I need a shuttle to meet me in the Pfeiffer system for exchange."

A drawn out flanging sigh echoed from her wrist. "Alright. I assume you need it there ASAP?"

"We're scheduled to arrive in the system in…" she checked, "eight hours. I can give you ten, total, including docking and exchange. If you can't make it, I understand. Fair warning though, if you can't, he's gonna be in a hell of a mood when we get there, and you'll still have to deal with him."

"I honestly prayed to the spirits for months for a Pathfinder's arrival. I don't remember why."

"The electricity and food is nice," she grinned.

He laughed. "At what cost?" Then, serious, "Looks like I can have a shuttle rendezvous with you in nine hours, Ryder. Good enough?"

"Good enough. Thanks, Kandros, you're a peach."

"Kandros out."

Ryder sent confirmation of the rendezvous to the bridge. Then she switched off her omnitool and took a deep breath before looking around for a new target for her adrenaline. Her sightlines were obstructed by the large angara standing in front of her. Jaal put his hands on her shoulders.

"Sara," he said, and she wondered if the way he said her name would ever stop giving her a stomachache. "Thank you. That is all you can do right now, and more than I could. I…" he hesitated. "Would you...sit with me?"

He walked back to his bed, and sat in the same spot, leaving room and waiting hopefully.

Yeah, ok.

Ryder sat, fidgeted, clasped her hands in her lap, stilled. She looked at him. He was watching her.

"Um," she began, "would you...like to talk about it?"

"That might help. I'm not sure where to start, though."

"Well, I could...ask questions? I haven't fought the Roekaar much—just those couple skirmishes when we ran into them on Havarl."

Jaal sighed, and brought up a video message. He looked to her before playing it. "The leader of the Roekaar is a man named Akksul. I know him personally—he was a student of the Moshae at the same time I was. He is brilliant, an accomplished student, and excelled at understanding Remnant tech."

Jaal looked to the still of Akksul's face. "He was captured by the kett and held in one of their slave camps for nearly a year. He managed to escape, but it changed him. He started saying the Resistance isn't doing enough, that survival isn't enough. That the focus should not be on protecting our farms and daara, but exterminating the kett like vermin. No matter the cost, no matter what we sacrifice."

"The Moshae was heartbroken." Jaal sighed. "Akksul told her she was foolish and our morals, ideals, and history are useless if there will be no angara to teach them to. He would hear no argument. He refused all counseling for his trauma. Said he didn't need it, didn't want it, he saw with a clarity he never had before, and the rest of us were just being willingly slaughtered. When your people arrived, his zealotry got even worse," Jaal's voice twisted in grief.

Ryder put her hand on his, and he continued. "When he heard I had joined your crew, and that the Resistance was pursuing an alliance, he sent me this message. I just received it when we were on Kadara," he laughed bitterly, "I was actually planning on discussing it with you when I received that call from my mothers."

He played the video.

"What a fucking shithead," Ryder sneered.

Jaal laughed loudly, some tension leaving his shoulders. He closed his eyes and his omnitool display. "Yes, he is," he said.

"So, he is charismatic, and he has drawn many people to his cause, mostly young." His face hardened. "Now, including my brothers and sister."

"Hey," she said, touching his arm. "We'll get ‘em back."

He took a deep breath and nodded. "I'd like to ask Vetra if she will come with us. She understands about younger siblings."

"I think she will."

"Yes."

They were quiet for a moment, Ryder rubbing his arm gently. Then, she asked, "Will you tell me about them? Your siblings?"

Jaal took in a deep breath, as if he were drawing in more energy. He looked at her and smiled, eyes bright. "Yes, I'd like that."

"So," he began, "their names are Teviint, Lathoul, and Baranjj. Teviint and Baranjj are littermates--like you and Scott. Their litter was small, just the two of them. They are the youngest of my true siblings. They were born...shortly after our true father was taken. I was...nearly half grown?" He glanced at her with his brow raised in a question. She nodded her understanding, and he continued. "I was old enough to be given responsibility but young enough to ignore it too often."

"They followed me around all the time." He smiled at the memory.

"Did that bother you?"

"Mmm...sometimes, usually when I was following the older children and they were slowing me down," he chuckled. "Lathoul is a bit younger, but close in age to them. He joined them in following me as soon as he could walk. The three of them are vaasa-nari. They were always inseparable."

Jaal began moving his hands back and forth over each other in a subconscious pattern as he talked, voice taking on a calmer cadence.

"Baranjj is like...a missile. He is large, fast, destructive. Boisterous. A big laugh, and a bigger heart. He makes everyone feel...happy. Safe." Jaal laughed, genuinely, in memory. "Lathoul is...witty, rarely serious. Always telling jokes and stories, talking about adventures he'd like to have. He loves to climb, scout, explore...a vesoan. A bit like you," he gave her a fond glance. "Anyway, an example—and I witnessed this two separate times!—Lathoul had climbed somewhere he shouldn't, and called for Baranjj. Baranjj came to help, and Lathoul yelled for him to catch and leapt! Baranjj couldn't catch him, of course, but did break his fall."

Ryder barked a laugh, then clapped a hand over her mouth, and snorted.

"Yes," Jaal laughed, "That was my reaction. They were both unhurt, and started rolling around and fighting. Unfortunately I had to be the responsible older brother and report to the mothers. The second time, I threatened to feed Lathoul to a rylkor if I caught him doing it again. The mothers had blamed me for their misbehavior." He shook his head, smiling.

"They sound great," Ryder said. Jaal nodded.

"Teviint was usually smart enough to be nowhere nearby when Lathoul got one of his ideas. As children, she was usually the leader of the three. She's shrewd, observant, intelligent. Quiet until she explodes. Persuasive, because she is always convinced she is correct, until she is proven absolutely wrong. The problem is...she is intelligent, so she is correct about many things. Gosan yav daar. She mistakes it for wisdom."

Jaal huffed and crossed his arms as his voice deepened in anger. "I can't be sure, but I would guess this was originally her idea." He looked angry, with an undercurrent of hurt and betrayal.

Ryder wasn't sure what to do, but she took a chance. She scooted closer so their sides touched, and leaned against him, offering comfort. Jaal looked down warmly and put an arm around her, pulling her tighter against his side. His arm stayed over her shoulder, so she snuggled in and rested her head on his chest. She felt him relax slowly, barely noticeable, but a good sign.

"It sounds like they're young, recently adults? Maybe not quite considered full adults by your mothers, and deeply irritated by that?" she ventured.

"That is surprisingly accurate."

"Hmm. That's a pretty inevitable part of human development. Feels like you have something to prove." Ryder hesitated, but what the hell. "I...uh, probably just got over my own phase like that? I thought I'd been over it for years before joining the Initiative, but...well, grad school and Alliance reserves doesn't really compare to…" she trailed off and waved a hand vaguely, trying to encompass her entire life.

"I would say you have definitely left that stage behind, Sara."

She sighed in self deprecation. "I hope so."

After a minute she said, "I need to call a meeting and explain the sudden detour. Would you like to keep your...personal connection private?"

Jaal sighed, deflated. "No, there's no need. And the more information the crew has the better prepared we can be. Perhaps someone will have useful insight."

"All right. I'll call a meeting in—" she checked the schedule, "an hour and a half. That gonna be ok for you?"

"Yes. Thank you, Ryder. I will talk to Vetra beforehand."

She got up and he followed smoothly. Ryder squeezed his hand.

"See you in a bit, Jaal."

Back to work, SAM.

*Acknowledged, Pathfinder.*

Chapter Text

Later, the crew was gathered in the meeting room—minus Gil, Kallo, and Lexi, who were listening over the comm.

"Ok guys, here's the deal," Ryder said. "Roekaar: xenophobic terrorist angaran faction. We're headed to Havarl to extract three recent recruits and hopefully make peaceful contact with the leader, Akksul."

Jaal huffed incredulously at that.

"We will try," Ryder said, sending him a stern glance, "all diplomatic avenues possible. Because of the urgency of the mission, we will be transferring Aroane to a Nexus militia shuttle in the Pfeiffer system. Rendezvous scheduled for 0330 ship time. Liam, Drack, Cora, you're my backup for the exchange." The humans nodded, and Drack grunted assent. Ryder went on, "Jaal will have more details for us—Jaal?"

"We should continue to Pelaav. I will be able to meet my Resistance contact there, and we can take a shuttle to the location she provides."

"Fine, keep us updated," she said. Jaal nodded. "Ground squad for this mission will be me, Jaal, and Vetra. Backup: Cora, you'll have Liam and Peebee."

Ryder took a deep breath. "Questions?"

Cora piped up, "Yes. Why so suddenly and why are we extracting these three recruits? Surely there's a better way to negotiate with Akksul than showing up and snatching his operatives."

Ryder sighed. Yeah.

Vetra said, quietly, "They're Jaal's little brothers and sister. Not much older than Sid."

Drack grumbled something about whelps never having any sense, and Suvi gasped and put her hand on Jaal's arm. He rumbled his thanks.

Cora paled, and her jaw set. "I see. Well, I understand the...urgency."

Ryder stared her down, waiting for the admonishment she was sure was coming. None did, and Cora's eyes softened, glancing between Ryder and Jaal. Ryder looked down at the table and cleared her throat.

"Jaal hopes arriving with alien allies may give the Roekaar, or at least his siblings, a different perspective," she said, and ceded the floor to him.

Jaal patted Suvi's hand and wiped his eyes before speaking. "Yes. My reputation is not as widespread as some in the Resistance, but I have a record some of the Roekaar operatives are likely aware of. Even if my doubts about Akksul being swayed prove true, perhaps I will be able to bring back more than just my brothers and sister. If we are successful." His voice distorted on the last sentence.

"We will be," Ryder said. "If no one else has anything? ...Dismissed."

Drack stomped out, followed by a somber Cora, Suvi, and Peebee. Ryder clicked off the shipwide comm and turned to see Liam giving Jaal as much of a bear hug as he could manage. Jaal was clearly deeply touched and squeezed him back hard. Liam pulled back and nodded, clapping his arm as he walked off. Vetra said something as she passed, making Jaal nod and laugh softly.

Then, they were alone.

Jaal held out a hand to her and tilted his head toward the tech lab. She took it and followed him, hand in hand.

As soon as the door closed, he stripped off his shoes and gloves and sat down on his bed, lifting his arm in invitation. She immediately slipped under his warmth. The arm around her shoulders came up to stroke her scalp. She hummed and closed her eyes.

"Is there anything else you need to do before we get to Havarl?" she asked.

"The contact I mentioned may be able to give me more information on their cell's location. She likely won't be available until we reach the Pfeiffer system, so I will call while you are transferring Aroane to Nexus custody."

"That's all?"

"You mean other than retrieving three grown angara who may not want to leave from the hands of violent xenophobes?" he sighed. "Yes, that is all."

"Mmm. Yeah, the waiting and thinking, your mind racing? That's always the hardest."

"It helps to have you here," Jaal said, his breath warm on her scalp. She shivered. Not the time, Sara.

Jaal turned his head and pressed his nose and mouth into her hair and she felt a soft ache under her ribs.

"You're wearing the oil I made for you," he said quietly, sounding surprised.

"Yeah," she said, a little embarrassed.

"You like it?"

"Very much. It's lovely. It smells...like fresh cut herbs and grasses. And it's special."

"Because...it was handmade?" He might have sounded nervous, but she couldn't be sure.

"No, because you made it. Just for me. It makes me feel special."

"You are," he said plainly.

Just, of course, like that was an obvious trait of hers: Sara Ryder. Human female. Age: 24. Weight: 67.3 kg. Height: 1.7 meters. Special. She snuggled closer. "...thanks," she whispered.

They sat for a while, and Jaal kept his face nuzzled into her hair. He stroked along her scalp as well. She desperately wanted to kiss him, but stayed where she was. Eventually, Ryder let her eyes drift closed. Jaal's open affection made her stomach clench around butterflies, but she couldn't help but relax with him.

She was nearly asleep when Jaal moved his hand down to her shoulder and raised his head with a sigh. She sat up with a stifled yawn, and saw him watching her quietly. He might be flushed? Her heart thudded. She'd know what it meant if a human was looking at her like that, but she wasn't sure...or maybe she was scared of being wrong.

Ryder had just about mustered the will to say she should head to bed when his hand came back up to cup the back of her head.

"Would you like to stay?" he asked, breaking the silence.

"Stay?"

"For...a few hours? Until you have to get ready for the rendezvous? I was planning to sleep until then, and...I'd like your company."

His fingers moved slowly along her scalp and she could feel a gentle current from him. She swallowed and tried to focus.

"I know your responsibilities are far greater, though," he said, voice filled with affection and pride. "And if you can't...or would rather not, I'll understand."

There was no fucking way she was leaving this room.

Ryder set an alarm on her omnitool for six hours in the future and put it on do not disturb...and then changed it to allow highest priority through. He watched patiently, quietly. When she was done, she looked back up happily.

"All yours," she said with a smile.

 


 

When she said, "All yours," he couldn't breathe. She was here, right here, wearing the scent he had made her, and saying she was his.

Jaal stroked his fingers up through her hair and back down. His eyes traced over her, studying, thinking. Trying to think. He wanted to know if her expression meant what he hoped it did. He wanted to kiss her. If she were angara he would. He swallowed.

"Sara," he said her name like a prayer, "you...stars, you...make my heart sing."

Her eyes opened wider. She gasped and held her breath.

"That's beautiful, Jaal. You...I don't know what to say," she looked away and blushed. "I...feel the same way, but I'm not anywhere near as poetic."

He leaned forward and touched her cheek. She turned back to him. "Sara," he whispered, "may I…" He glanced down at her lips and back up. 

She closed the distance and her lips were so warm and soft.

Jaal groaned deeply as he opened to her, holding her closer and tilting into the kiss. Her hands were on his shoulder, his cowl. He felt her move closer and groaned again when he realized she was climbing onto him.

He left one hand on the back of her head and slid the other to her shoulder. He moved down her back to her waist, just above the curve of her hip. When he absently tightened his grip, she gasped and rocked her hips. Oh, he needed to be careful. He wanted to get lost in her. Right now was fighting with not yet. He hummed and spread his hands open to hold her gently.

He pressed into the kiss thoroughly, wanting to leave her with no doubt about his desires. Maybe she shouldn't stay. Maybe the temptation would be too distracting. He wanted everything right now. No, he would wait. He could wait. But not with her eager in his lap like this and he took a moment to indulge in the heat that pooled in him because she was eager and in his lap.

Finally, too soon, they had to slow down and breathe. She laughed, then he did too, exhilarated and relieved. He cupped her face. "Sara, I...want us to be together."

"Yeah, that...I'd...really like that, Jaal."

He kissed her again, breathless and happy, floating. He could feel her smile and peeked to look at her face. She was so beautiful. He had to close his eyes again. When they pulled apart, he had tears on his cheeks. She gasped and wiped them away, kissing the tracks left behind.

He pressed his forehead against hers. "I adore you," he said.

She huffed out a short laugh and closed her eyes. "You're amazing," she sighed.

They smiled at each other, catching their breath. Then she said, "Maybe...I shouldn't stay. I'd like to, but…" her lips flattened and she looked down.

Jaal kissed her forehead and pulled back. He put his hands down on either side of his lap, giving her space. "Whatever you feel more comfortable with, Sara," he said.

"I feel comfortable with you," she said, "I just…" she blushed hotter. He felt his field rise with the implication, sending his aching want before he was able to pull it back. She gasped at the feeling—she was so responsive to his energy. She noticed the slightest touch. His pulse throbbed through the back of his neck and he felt heat rising in his face.

"You're glowing again," she said, distracted. She reached to touch him, but hesitated. He tilted his head into her hand and closed his eyes. Her delicate fingers traced the lines of his luminescence back to his frill.

"Jaal, you're so beautiful," she whispered. He opened his eyes and she looked captivated. Nothing in the universe could have stopped him from kissing her again.

Her hands found a home at the back of his head, exploring. Her touch was so soft it tickled at first, but the kiss deepened and her strokes became firmer, soothing. He brought his hands up to her back, wanting to touch her but searching for a neutral place. He accidentally moved her shirt up and gasped when he touched the small of her back.

Stars above she was soft.

She moaned deeply and moved closer to him and before he realized it he was pressing both hands against her warm skin. She had small, soft hairs here, and he loved how they felt on his palms. He wondered if she had them everywhere. He wanted to slide his hands over her and find out. He wanted to feel her on his tongue, hear how she responded to his touch.

One or both of them moved, pressing their hips together and she was soft and warm, spread out over him, and moving. Energy bloomed from him. She made a deep sound in the back of her throat, scraped her teeth over his tongue, and he nearly peaked like a teenager fumbling around for the first time.

The pulled apart, panting, hungry. He felt himself swell firmly against her and the breath rushed out of his lungs. Jaal closed his eyes and leaned back against the wall. He tore his hands away from her, grabbing his bedding to keep from touching her again.

"Skkut, Sara," he groaned out.

"Yeah, agreed," she said, "Um...ok." She carefully climbed off him and stood up. He looked up, still craving her. She gasped, closed her eyes, and took a step back.

"If you keep looking at me like that, I'm never going to make it out of this room," she said.

He let out a small laugh and rubbed his face. "You're probably right. I intended to invite you to rest with me," he said, shivering as he calmed. "You are comforting, and comfortable," he smiled up at her again, more collected. "My worries are soothed when you're near. I feel safe."

"Oh, Jaal," she whispered.

He stood and held his hands out for her, and caressed her with his thumbs when she took them. He said, "If you stayed, resisting the temptation to continue would probably keep both of us awake."

She stood on tiptoes and gave him a series of sweet kisses. He leaned down into her and somehow his hands were on her back again, clutching her shirt tightly. She made a soft noise and moved closer and he wanted her, but no not yet. He didn't want something fast. That wasn't enough with her. He wanted to give her perfection and he knew he was too scattered to manage anything close right now. He pulled away.

He looked down at her, breathing hard. "This is exactly what I'm talking about," he said in mock annoyance, and she laughed.

"Ok," she said. "We both need some rest, but we are picking up where we left off as soon as we can, yes?" He was held by the strength in her eyes, and he nodded, feeling his field snapping around him and his subvocals deepen. Then she blushed and looked away, shy again somehow, but smiling. She reluctantly backed up toward the door. "Sleep well, then," she said.

"Sleeping is not what I'm going to be doing when you leave, Sara," he said, watching her hungrily.

She stared at him with her mouth open in shock. She glanced down to the very obvious bulge at his hips and he felt himself swell under her gaze. She closed her mouth slowly and swallowed. Her flush covered her from her neck to her ears. He wondered how far down it went.

"Are…" she blinked, "did you really just imply what I think you did?"

"Will you be able to rest without bringing yourself relief? After that?"

"Uh..." she was flushed even darker and refusing to meet his gaze.

"...I've made you uncomfortable, but I don't understand why," he said. He was concerned—hadn't she responded in kind?

"It's—no, it's not...shit. I...humans tend not to be as...direct as you are. It's just...new. But it's welcome." Oh. Nervousness with a new partner made sense.

"I'm nervous, too, Sara," he said, and she looked at him again, softness in her eyes. "But you are a beautiful person, a dear friend, and you share my attraction. It seems obvious. Why would I hide this?"

"Well, it does make it even harder to leave," she smirked, some tension gone.

Jaal stepped toward her again and kissed her cheek. Heat radiated from her. "Think of me," he whispered, "then sleep well. We will share this soon enough."

Her eyes were closed, her jaw held tight, and she shivered. He reached to open the door and stepped back from her. The look she gave him when she opened her eyes made him want to pull her back in, and the tone of her voice made him grit his teeth.

"Good night, Jaal."

Chapter Text

Ryder flopped face down onto her bed with an impressive groan.

Jaal was going to kill her.

She'd survived six centuries in dark space, being sucked out of a broken shuttle, suffocation and revival, dozens of battles, radiation exposure, flying killer robots with lasers, and running blind through the Scourge to get away from the kett.

This was how she died.

He'd actually said...and she couldn't...and then he'd been all sweet about it...and he said she made him feel safe—him! giant, scarred, cloak-and-stab-people-in-the-neck Jaal—she made him feel safe.

Then he had somehow managed to find a fairly classy way to suggest that she think of him while she masturbated and explicitly told her he was going to as well.

Shit.

Who the fuck does that? How the fuck...?

And right now—right. now.—he was almost definitely jacking off while thinking of her. Why the fuck was she here in her quarters alone? What the fuck was wrong with her?

You make my heart sing.

Oh, this was bad. She had it so bad.

She wished she could talk to Scott about it. He'd joke about eeew sister cooties, but they'd always been able to talk about anything and even if he didn't have advice, he'd understand and listen. She wasn't quite close enough with anyone on the crew to confide in them yet, and she'd left behind all her other friends. She was probably closest to Drack anyway, and the day she went to him to talk about relationships was the day she gnawed off her own leg. He'd probably tease her and say to bring Jaal the warm heart of an enemy or something, and have no patience for her clear and present twitterpation.

Shit. Ok, so...shit.

She was still blushing hotly, and all she could think of was how big he had been under her and how carefully he held her and how well he had kissed her. And how he might look right now. Would he undress completely? Just enough for relief? Would he cup himself over his suit first, press firmly, remembering her weight on him? His hand on her hip...the thick line of him under his suit…her heart hammered and she held her breath.

Shit. Fuck it. She couldn't stand it.

Ryder got undressed with shaking hands and turned off the light. She checked her alarm and crawled into bed in a t-shirt and panties.

"SAM, retain privacy mode until my alarm or if a highest priority message comes in," she said.

"Acknowledged," the AI replied, and his avatar dimmed slightly.

Ryder snuggled under the covers and made a cocoon for herself while she let her mind wander. What would he think about? She remembered the sound he made when he touched the small of her back, how he held her hands and stroked her scalp. He'd think of touching me, undressing me.

Yeah, that was the right track.

His hands were so big and warm, and he'd be thorough but not too slow. Start with something familiar, her straddling him, sliding her shirt up while they kissed, tugging it off and pulling her back to him. He'd let his hands stroke through her hair, down her neck, over her shoulders. She cupped her own breasts and teased her nipples with her thumbs. He'd move down over her chest and stomach and come back up to investigate when he saw her reaction. She'd show him how to touch her and drag herself over him when he squeezed her just right.

She squeezed her legs together and imagined the look he had given her after she stood up from his lap. She'd felt him swelling, and had seen a twitch run through him when she'd glanced down. He was so thick and he'd sent a current up through her. She flushed hotter. Just a little more and she would have gotten off right there. He'd looked so wrecked when he pulled back, too, like he'd nearly come in his pants. And his voice had gotten so deep. It had been so hard to stand up, and then he'd looked at her like that. Shit.

Oh, he'd definitely be touching himself by now, his suit open and loose around himself, hand moving slowly, eyes closed. Maybe he'd be thinking about her moving on top of him, what might have happened if she'd moved even once more down across him.

She reached down and pressed between her labia over the fabric and rubbed her clit with her thumb. He'd slide her pants down and move his hand back up the inside of her thigh. He'd be careful, explore, but she'd feel so tight to him, he was so big. He's probably thinking of that right now, how he'd stretch me open slowly. Would he use his mouth? Did angara do that? If not, he'd be eager to learn. His tongue had moved against hers like he wanted to taste more of her.

The heat he'd sent through his touch and the roughness of his breathing had made her ache deep inside. He'd be slow, and gentle, and strong. He'd hold her and whisper and kiss her neck as he thrust.

Was he thinking about it right now? Getting a little faster, his breath a little ragged? She wanted him on top of her, wanted to be spread open for him, feel the smooth constant motion of his hips against her. Would he want that? She easily slid two fingers inside herself and slowly circled her clit with her thumb. Oh, he'd be so careful at first, but they'd learn, find a rhythm, and soon he'd feel comfortable just taking her. Ryder gasped. Shit, she wanted that. She imagined the muscles in his shoulders and thighs moving steadily, imagined the sounds he would make as he fucked her.

He was probably thinking about that right now. He'd be close. So close. She squeezed her breast roughly and scratched over her nipple. He'd be tense and spread out, fucking his fist and saying her name—he'd hold her there, watch her, give her just what she needed and a little bit more. She thought of his head thrown back, eyes closed tight, steady strong hands moving on himself, driving himself closer. He wouldn't hold back, and he wouldn't let her wait, he'd push her over—she gasped and held her breath, then fell, shaking, curling around her hand as she thought of him coming into her.

She held herself tightly, remembering his touch, shivering in relief as her orgasm faded. Ryder wondered how long angara needed between rounds, how long they lasted. She'd find out one way or another, very soon.

She still wanted him, was nearly cramping with her ache for him, but at least now she could sleep.

 


 

Aroane had been docile during the transfer because Drack had glared at him the entire time. There was paperwork, but it all went off with as little trouble as possible.

Ryder had gotten her gear ready and sent Jaal a message requesting an update from his contact as soon as he had one. She had something to eat and finished her paperwork. He hadn't replied yet.

It was still another four hours to Havarl and Vetra was sleeping like a reasonable person who wasn't completely hung up on a crewmate. Ryder should really follow her example. She stood up from her desk and stretched, deciding to try for another few hours of sleep. She'd just finished setting her omnitool to alert her to new messages when her door chime rang.

It was Jaal. In soft sleeping clothes. Of course. She was immediately aware of her unmade bed and his proximity to it.

Be. Professional. Sara.

"Hi, Jaal, come in," she waved him to a couch. He stepped in carefully and stopped just inside the door.

"I made contact with my friend," he said. "She said the Roekaar have set up at the Forge. It's an ancient ruin on Havarl. Probably the oldest and best preserved pre-Scourge structure in all angara space."

"Oh, no," Ryder groaned and rubbed her forehead. "They trying to stake a claim on your heritage or something? Say they're the true angara and the rest of you guys are abandoning sacred tradition?"

He crossed his arms. "That sounds like something Akksul might try. Bold political move. I hope that's all it is." She nodded in agreement.

"Anyway, I have secured a shuttle to the Forge for the three of us. The pilot will drop us off a slight way off and we can walk the rest of the way."

"That should work."

Ryder crossed her arms and cleared her throat. Jaal seemed to be...fidgeting? He really is nervous, too. She smiled and relaxed a bit with the realization.

"Is...there anything else?" she asked slowly, trying to deepen her voice seductively. She sounded hoarse and silly to her own ears, but Jaal closed his eyes and shuddered.

Ryder stepped toward him, happy with her success. He breathed in and she noticed how his nostrils flared. Then he stared at her, pupils wide. His eyes flicked down to her right hand and back up. He swallowed hard.

Oh.

Oh shit. Really?

Heat flooded up her face. She'd washed her hands and face and brushed her teeth before she'd gotten dressed, just like always. How…ok, I am jumping to wild conclusions here. Maybe he's just wondering if I took his suggestion seriously.

But then he pulled her hand to his mouth and nuzzled her palm while holding her gaze. She held her breath. His tongue carefully flicked out and when he brushed against her middle and ring fingers he gasped and closed his eyes. He turned her hand over and pressed an open mouthed kiss against her knuckles. He looked down into her eyes and a deep reverberating purr poured from his chest as he licked and nibbled down her fingers.

Fucking hell. Yep, gonna die right here.

Jaal got to the pads of her fingers and gently sucked before scraping his teeth across them. He was still staring her down.

She took in a shaking breath and he pulled her into a kiss. His tongue swept over and between her lips, eagerly searching for hers. When they touched his rumbling dipped into a lingering groan. He breathed in hard through his nose, then lifted her up by her ass and turned to hold her up against the wall.

Oh. Ok.

Well, fuck it.

She locked her legs around his waist and spread her hands over the sides of his cowl. When she bucked her hips and sucked on his lower lip, he made a desperate noise and pulled away to bury his face in her neck.

"I couldn't stay away," he groaned, mouthing at her neck and rubbing his nose into her skin. "I tried," he rumbled, "three times to just send a message, told myself to wait, but…" he captured her lips again.

She wrapped her arms around him and pulled him closer, moaning into the kiss and making a soft noise when he pressed her harder against the wall. She felt him swell against her, the soft fabric leaving very little the the imagination. In the back of her mind she realized that he'd have an extremely uncomfortable walk back if they didn't stop but how was she supposed to stop when he was right here.

Waves of energy were pulling at her from his hands. A rough groan came from the back of his throat and he thrust as he stroked his tongue over hers. She squeezed her legs around him and he was tight against her clit, thick and spreading her open. Yes. Now. A whimper came out of her nose and she moved so her breasts brushed against him.

He pulled away with a broken gasp. His hands were shaking and he was taking in huge gulps of air. He carefully lowered her and sat down shakily on her couch. She stayed where she was and learned against the wall for support while she caught her breath.

"Guess we don't have to worry about compatibility, huh?" she huffed breathlessly.

He laughed. "No, we do not."

They were quiet for a minute, trying to catch their breath. Then Jaal spoke again.

"Sara, I want to take my time with you, learn you slowly," he looked up at her and a heavy ache settled low in her belly. "We don't have that time right now, and my willpower is too low."

"Mine too," she said.

"That's flattering," he smiled and looked away, getting a little quieter, "since you have the most indomitable will I've ever seen."

"Well, you're a hell of a temptation," she said, thrilled when she saw his cheeks and cowl darken with a blush.

He stood with a sigh and said, "I must get ready."

"Yeah," she reached for his arm as he walked past, and he paused. "We'll bring them home safe," she said.

He smiled softly and bent to press his forehead to hers, holding her there for a second. He spoke quietly before opening the door.

"With you there, I am sure of it."

Chapter Text

They had all been extremely unsettled by the apparently quickly abandoned govetaan, and sadly unsurprised at the Roekaar resistance.

"As I warned you, Akksul is not interested in peace," Jaal spat out as they headed to an ancient stone bridge. As if to punctuate his statement, explosives took out the bridge and they had to dive for cover.

Jaal's yell of disgusted rage echoed off the canyon walls.

"Ok what the hell are they up to that they're trying so hard to stop us from finding?" Vetra demanded.

"Nothing good," Jaal growled and took off, jetting down the rocks and over the chasm. They had to scramble to keep up.

"Jaal!" Ryder barked out over the comm, "You STAY IN formation or your ass is grass you hear me?"

He grunted angrily but answered, "Yes."

They caught up to him just in time for a Roekaar shuttle to land on the hill above them.

Jaal was getting even more agitated as they fought up to the Forge. Every time a new Roekaar appeared over the rise, Ryder feared she or Vetra would end up gunning down the people they were here to save. Peaceful contact and diplomacy were shot to hell, but they still had a slim chance of accomplishing that much.

"Jaal, keep a sharp lookout for them! Vetra and I have only seen reference photos and might not recognize them!"

"You really do not have to remind me of that, Ryder!"

They finally managed to clear the Roekaar that had landed and get their bearings. Ryder snagged a few quick scans of the ruins as they made their way up the slope.

"The Roekaar aren't trying to keep this place safe and pristine," Ryder said around a mouthful of an energy bar.

"No, given the explosions and firefights," Vetra said.

"So, what are they hiding here?" Ryder asked, stowing the wrapper in a pocket.

"Something...destructive," Jaal said, tossing them each a water bottle. "I can't think what Akksul would hope to do at the Forge, though. But he's clearly willing to sacrifice as many angara as it takes. Including peaceful researchers. I hope they're still alive."

Ryder was about to say—well, something would have come to mind, when they heard movement up the path. All three instantly took cover.

Vetra was aiming her rifle and Ryder took in a breath to charge when Jaal cried, "Wait!know those voices!" and stood up, hands out and empty. Adrenaline thumped through Ryder's temples, and she shot a desperate look at Vetra, who had her faceplates locked closed and her rifle only partially lowered.

Shit I hope those are his sibs and I hope they're alone, Ryder thought as hard as she could.

A chorus of incredulous angaran voices were echoing off the rocks, and Jaal had taken off toward them, calling their names. There was some chaos of punching and hugging and crying and yelling. Ryder signaled Vetra to stay down and keep ready just in case. Then, she holstered her shotgun and stood up, hands out.

"An alien?!" spat a young angaran voice.

"Jaal, what—" said another, and suddenly Jaal was bearing down on her with purpose and determination in his eyes.

"Follow my lead," he hissed, and a glance into his eyes and a nod relaxed his shoulders a fraction.

"I want you all to meet my friend," he said, settling her in front of them like a cat bringing home a present and that is not a helpful analogy right now! Why am I like this? "This is Sara. She's a human, from Jarevaon Imasaf, and she is not our enemy."

Ryder swallowed and met the gaze of an absolutely enraged young angara. Teviint stepped right into her space, towering above her.

She said, "We don't need anything you have, human. We don't want you here."

"Y'know," Ryder said conversationally, "your big brother pulled this looming intimidation shit when we met, too. He's better at it, but you're not bad."

Teviint flushed, and an angara man a head taller and even wider than Jaal stepped close behind her and glared. "Why are you here?" he asked.

"Specifically here? Because Jaal asked me to help him find you three," she crossed her arms. "You must be Baranjj. I'm Sara Ryder, and I'm trying to find my people a home."

"You don't know me. You had a home and you left, and now you want ours."

"No, we don't," she said, sighing and closing her eyes. "Ok, I won't lie, I'm sure some people will, but they are thieving assholes and they'll go through me first." Ryder opened her eyes and looked up with a stern scowl. "That's not why we came. We are explorers, and we are looking for our own places."

Baranjj watched her cautiously and she plowed on.

"We just want to peacefully coexist. I decide where our colonies go. Literally, me." She slapped her chest with her palm. "That's my job. We are not putting one foot anywhere near angara planets unless we are explicitly invited, like the scientists who are guests at daar Pelaav."

Jaal stepped beside her and glared at his siblings. Lathoul was hovering behind and looking uncertain, and before anyone else could speak, he shoved between them and looked pleadingly at Jaal.

"Akksul is going to destroy the Forge in two hours!" Lathoul blurted out, while his brother and sister yelled at him. He turned his desperate gaze to Ryder, "With bombs stolen from your people."

Jaal gasped in horror, Ryder cursed, a sudden pistol blast caused a shocked silence, and then Lathoul was falling toward her. Ryder moved her feet to keep her balance and got herself under one shoulder, trying to slow his descent. Jaal braced his other shoulder and they managed to lower him to the ground as gently as possible.

"VETRA medkit!" she yelled, but Vetra was already there, medkit open.

Ryder slapped her omnitool, "BRAVO SQUAD, med evac my location, NOW. Lexi! Adult male angara, about 120 kilo, energy shot, point blank, upper back. Conscious. Vetra's on first aid."

Cora and Lexi immediately responded, ETA 15 minutes in the shuttle borrowed from Pelaav. She looked around, but Teviint and Baranjj had disappeared. The pistol was on the ground.

Shit.

They didn't have time to wait for the evac if Jaal's siblings alerted Akksul.

Time to get your shit done, Sara.

She turned to Jaal, who was pale and holding his brother's hand. Lathoul was insisting he would be fine and it might be true, or it might be endorphins. Shit she didn't know enough about angara biology.

"Jaal," she said, with as much kindness as she could allow into her voice.

It was Lathoul who reached for her, over the others' protests. "I hate Akksul," he said. "Go. Stop him. Don't let him do this."

"I'll damn well try."

Jaal kissed his brother's forehead and tore himself away.

"Vetra, stay with him, then come with Cora and PeeBee and follow after he's evac'd," Ryder ordered.

"Got it," she answered, not looking away from her work. She glanced at Jaal, "I've got him. Go."

Jaal stared for a heartbeat, then nodded and turned to Ryder.

They ran.

 


 

Fuck that was close, Ryder thought. She was exhausted from charging everywhere and holding barriers around herself and the bombs. She also did not want to think about whether she'd have succeeded in disarming them if SAM hadn't been there to walk her through it.

They'd tried to disable the Roekaar they encountered, rather than kill, but a few were lying too still. She'd leaned on a pillar and started to ask Jaal, basically, what the fuck now when she heard a wail of grief coming toward them.

"Jaal!" Teviint was weeping and shaking, running clumsily for her big brother and looking nothing like the pissed off fighter Ryder had stared down half an hour before. Baranjj followed her, looking sick.

"He's alive, Teviint. We are lucky. You are so lucky. My friends are with him now," Jaal had gathered his sister into an embrace and pressed his cheek to her head, repeating reassurance that Lathoul was safe.

Baranjj had upgraded from sickly to deep anguish and was wringing his hands and avoiding Jaal's eyes.

"I lost my mind. I want to go home, Jaal," Teviint cried into his shoulder.

"But Teviint, what—" Baranjj began, sounding lost, "we joined because you—" but she just wept harder.

"Please, take them and go," said a self important voice from a far passageway. "I don't have any use for those so weak of heart."

Akksul stepped into the room, flanked by Roekaar. Ryder's pistol was aimed before she could think.

 


 

"Easy..." Jaal said, arm out toward Ryder. She glanced between him and Akksul and slowly holstered her pistol.

Akksul stepped close to look her over, sneering down in distaste. When she stared at his chest and sighed, Jaal had a manic urge to laugh.

"What, you don't think it would be a good idea to martyr me, human?" Akksul asked.

Jaal's energy spiked in fear and longing as he saw Ryder's face harden. Teviint, now standing next to him, gasped in surprise when she felt it. He grabbed his sister's arm firmly and took a step in front of her. Baranjj was larger than he was, but had always been fast. Jaal couldn't scoop them both up like he had when they were small, but he could at least shield one of them from danger if necessary.

Ryder slowly tilted her head up to glare at Akksul, squared her shoulders, and stepped forward so her armor clacked against his. She stared him down for one heartbeat, two. Then, loud and strong, echoing off the rocks, she snarled.

"Motherfucker, I only kill credible threats. You and your child army you send against their own families are not. You are a teroshe."

Akksul's energy visibly sparked up his back in absolute rage at her use of Shelesh to insult him, but he knew continuing the argument in front of his people was a risk. Jaal felt a fierce spike of pride. The self centered vehshaanan had underestimated her.

Akksul turned to the Roekaar, who were gathering their wounded.

"You see how they attack us, in our most sacred places!"

"You set those bombs to destroy the Forge and blame them. They are not responsible for your lies, Akksul!" Jaal thundered, stepping forward.

Akksul growled at him, "It is ours to destroy! They have no place here. Anyway, why should the opinion of a traitor matter to us?"

"I have seen Ryder save countless angara lives!" Jaal yelled back.

Akksul gestured to the dead that lay around them. "Like these?"

"Are those on her tally or yours? Should we start a ledger?" Jaal asked in disgust. "Hers contains the Moshae and all the angara held in the kett base on Voeld with her! Ryder has saved all of Havarl."

There were a few rumbles from the Roekaar surrounding them. Jaal raised his voice and asked, "Do you even know Havarl is healing? I saw her," he pointed at Ryder, "activate the Remnant vault myself. I was right there!"

"You're lying," Akksul said.

"Why would I?" Jaal threw up his hands. "Stars, Akksul, we climbed to Mithrava searching for the lost monolith! Taavos—one of your own! He's at daar Pelaav right now. He helped us. He will tell you the truth!"

"Taavos is a traitor to the angara like you!" Akksul aimed his pistol at Jaal, whose focus narrowed to the weapon trained on him. "The Resistance and those weaklings at Pelaav ally themselves with these invaders," Akksul yelled over his shoulder to his followers.

"The Moshae trusts Ryder," Jaal said, surprised his voice was steady. "Is she a traitor?"

Something pained flashed through Akksul's expression at his mention of the Moshae. Time slowed. Jaal could feel the fear and anxiety coming off his brother and sister. At the edge of his vision, he saw Ryder's hands starting to glow weakly. Please don't—!

Akksul closed his eyes tight, yelled in rage, and fired.

The shot would have missed him, maybe grazed him, but Teviint couldn't see that from behind Jaal. She screamed and threw herself in front of him. No! He wasn't expecting it. He couldn't stop it. He felt Baranjj move, too late, but then a blue blur was in front of them all and the shot ricocheted off to the side.

Ryder's skin was too dull and sweat was beading near her hair and under her nose. Her hands were shaking and her eyes were glassy, but the barrier held.

Akksul was frozen in shock. Half the Roekaar had their weapons up and half were gawking. Baranjj and Teviint were clinging to each other.

"The alien is not the monster here," Jaal said. His voice echoed in the silence.

Akksul stood wavering for a moment, then turned and walked out the way he came. Less than a third of the Roekaar followed him.

Jaal stepped closer to Ryder and said, quietly, "You can drop the shield."

"You sure about that?"

"I'm sure it will be better for you to do it willingly than to pass out."

Ryder glanced around the cave and saw mostly uncertain shuffling. She carefully relaxed the barrier and sat on a stone nearby. Then she pulled out another energy bar and started eating it. She hid the shaking of her free hand by crossing her arms. It was affected nonchalance, but some of the younger Roekaar were clearly impressed anyway.

Cora's voice came over the comm, "Ryder, almost at your position. Reading hostiles, but SAM says you're ok. Status?"

"We're good," Ryder responded, "Just making some new friends. Hold your position. We'll come to you in a minute. We need to deal with four deactivated bombs, too."

"Copy friendlies, holding position. We'll prep for ordnance disposal. Jaal, Lathoul is safe in the shuttle, heading back to Pelaav. Lexi and Liam have got it covered. Harper out."

Jaal glanced at Teviint and Baranjj, and they all shared a quick moment of relief.

"You guys are friendlies, right?" Ryder raised an eyebrow and the closest few Roekaar backed away. She opened another energy bar. There was a general shuffling to holster weapons and fuss over wounds.

"Jaal, funeral rites?" she asked quietly, nodding toward the dead. Five. None older than his own siblings. Plus more than a dozen on the way to the Forge. His throat clenched. He was...very glad he'd be visiting his mothers soon. 

"We should...leave it to them."

Ryder nodded, stowing her wrappers. "Ready when you are."

He turned to his brother and sister, put a hand on each, and said, "Let's get you home."

Chapter Text

They'd all headed back to Pelaav, where Lexi and Liam were waiting with Lathoul. It turned out he really was fine: deep tissue bruises and a nasty burn. He'd have to be careful and watch for infection, but he was safe.

Jaal had pressed his forehead to Lathoul's and moved to let Teviint and Baranjj fuss over him. He hugged Lexi and Vetra with tears in his eyes. Lexi responded in kind, and Vetra scoffed but smiled. Liam got picked up with a relieved laugh, despite his protests that he really hadn't had to do anything but be Lathoul's crutch.

After a few quick showers and changes out of armor, they took another shuttle to the daar where Jaal grew up. He had tried to get all of them to come along, but Vetra stayed to investigate sightings of other turians with Cora and Peebee. Lexi and Liam had stayed in case they needed help.

Jaal held her hand the entire ride there while they whispered their fears and relief to each other. She didn't even care about his siblings' curious confusion.

Ryder really should have expected to be ambushed by weeping angara, but it hadn't crossed her mind.

Their mothers had been updated and all of them plus additional unidentified relatives were waiting at the shuttle dock. It was chaos of clucking and crying and hitting and hugging with bioelectricity flying. Ryder had been watching fondly until two of the mothers spotted her. Jaal hadn't had a chance to introduce her, having joined the fray, but all his mothers descended. They were hugging, kissing, singing her praises, thanking her over and over for bringing back their children.

Ryder figured it was best to go along with the ride for now. She returned hugs and smiled and answered questions as best she could. Suddenly Jaal's voice boomed, "Wait, where is Sara?" and she raised a hand to wave it around.

Jaal laughed and came over to take her hand, admonishing his family about overwhelming her.

"No, I'm fine—they're fine. This is a big deal," she said. He looked at her with soft eyes and pulled her forward with him. They all started walking to his childhood home.

"Jaal!" one of the women who had ambushed her called out, "You and your friend are staying for a little while at least, yes?"

"Yes, mother, Sara and I will stay for a meal and to rest," he said.

Another person asked, "Where are your other teammates? Surely there were more than the two of you!"

"They went searching for turians who were sighted near Pelaav, and the ship's doctor stayed behind in case they needed help," Jaal said. Before they could object, he said, "Don't worry, I'll try to organize a visit with the whole crew."

"Well, then," said a sly voice, "who have you brought to visit us? Someone special?"

Sounds like an auntie, Ryder thought.

"Aunt Giraana!" Jaal sputtered and flushed.

Called it.

"Because it is about time," she continued, but was shoved by another woman who shushed her. Ryder laughed to herself and was surprised by the warm smiles she got as she walked up the steps into the house.

 


 

Jaal was terribly nervous about introducing Sara to his entire family at once, and had tried to warn her. She'd just smiled and said they weren't going to scare her off with a few embarrassing stories. It was the invasive questions he was concerned about, but she was being very good natured about the whole thing.

They sat down to the meal with Sara between him and his true mother.

"I hope you can eat angaran food, dear," Sahuna said. "We really have no idea about any of the Initiative species' diets."

Sara smiled, "I'll be honest, I did have a ration pack before I came, just in case. You don't have to worry about me going hungry. I would love to try a bite of everything after I scan it, though."

"That's actually quite a relief!" his uncle Eroa said as he came up to the table. He sat down across from her. "We worried over it all through the meal preparation. Of course it was mostly to keep our minds off of worry for these three." He slapped Baranjj hard on the back as he walked past. Baranjj flushed and fled to a far table.

"I appreciate the thought," Sara said, taking a sip of her tea and making a thoughtfully surprised face. "Oh this is nice! It reminds me of some of our plants...nettle and sassafras, with a bit of a mint aftertaste?" she smiled and turned to Jaal, "I think Suvi would probably like this. You know how she's always looking for Heleus plants we can eat."

"Yes, probably! I'll remember to take some back to share with her," he said.

His mother scooped a hearty portion of soup and roasted roots out for Jaal and a smaller bit for Sara to try. She ended up being unable to eat the soup—some trace mineral would build up in her system. She'd enjoyed the roots, though, and said SAM told her they actually had some nutritional value for humans.

They'd ended up discussing angaran agriculture after the Scourge, and how they had managed to isolate crops from all the wild plants that were mutating too fast to be safe any longer.

"It sounds like you had to figure out how to terraform your own planet," Sara said, amazed.

"That's nearly what they did," his mother said. "It's one of the only reasons we still survive on Havarl, and it's harder every generation."

"I hope the vault will change that for the next one," Sara said, sipping her third cup of tea and smiling over at a group of children.

"The scientists at Pelaav think it will," Jaal said warmly, putting his hand between her shoulder blades. Sahuna sent him a significant look, and he flushed.

They were the only three still left at the table, but a few of the children were playing under another and negotiating with his sister Koana to stay up later. Others kept sneaking up to stare at Sara through the doorway.

"If you don't mind," he turned to Sara, "I think I can help settle the children. I did promise to tell them about the new aliens I met when I came home next."

She propped her chin in her hand and covered a soft smile. Her eyelids wrinkled happily. "Go ahead, read some bedtime stories, Uncle Jaal. If I bore Sahuna, I'm sure she can find me a job to help with."

Sahuna made a noise of horror, but wore a smile. "You are a guest Sara, and you have worn yourself out keeping my children safe! If I bore you, you must let me know!"

"Well if nothing else," Sara said with mischief, "you can tell me all the terribly adorable stories of Jaal's childhood."

His mother laughed and glanced at him. "Yes, that is a good idea. I believe I have some pictures to share as well."

"Mother!"

Sara squeaked and slapped her hands over her mouth. Sahuna was already flipping through her files. Jaal sighed in defeat and went to help his sister with the children.

 


 

Jaal walked out of the room with one boy clinging to his back, a smaller boy and a girl hanging from one arm and shrieking, and an even smaller and extremely round child of indeterminate gender cradled in his other arm. Ryder watched with the goofiest smile on her face.

"Do you all want to hear about the Tempest? The name means violent storm in one of the humans' languages!" his voice carried down the hall over a dozen or so smaller ones. "Then you must listen to your mothers and wash your teeth and all the folds of your cowls and frills!"

"He was always excellent with children," Sahuna said, eyeing her speculatively. Ryder blushed and shook her head a little.

"He'll be a great dad," she said, a little sadly.

"If that's what he wants, yes." Sahuna smiled warmly at her and asked, "Are you involved romantically?"

"Uh, what?"

"With Jaal."

"Um," Ryder sat her mug down and looked at her hands. "I...yes? I think so? It's...very new. We're still...we've only...we've talked about it, and we both want to see…"

Sahuna took her hands. "Sara, dear, you seem so nervous. There is no need. It's clear you both care for each other."

"But I'm...well, even back home, I mean, even among Milky Way species, it can be a...problem for some families, dating outside your species. Is this…" Ryder hesitated, but Sahuna was just listening calmly. Big girl panties, Sara. "You've all made me feel so welcomed, and I appreciate it so much," she said. "I care about Jaal, and I'm afraid of driving a wedge between him and any of his family. I know you have no reason to trust me—Jaal didn't when he first met us—and...I'm not...really sure what I'm asking."

"We do have reason to trust you. Four very personal reasons named Jaal, Teviint, Baranjj, and Lathoul," Sahuna smiled and shook her head in disbelief. "Sara. You saved our world, our Moshae, my children."

Goddammit, now I'm crying.

*It is a healthy emotional release, Sara,* SAM sent privately.

Sahuna pulled her up into a warm enveloping hug and stroked the back of her head. "Oh, my dear. Have you—do you have any of your mothers with you?"

Ryder shook her head into her shoulder with a muffled no, and Sahuna squeezed her tighter, making soothing noises. Eventually, she calmed a bit, and Sahuna brought her to a different room and sat her down on some cushions.

"My mother—humans don't always live communally like angara," Ryder explained. "Some do, but my family was just my true mother, true father, me, and my twin brother. Humans usually only have one baby at a time. Twins aren't exactly uncommon, but they're...notable."

"That sounds so lonely to me," Sahuna said sadly.

"Well... Dad was an only child and his parents died before he even met Mom. He wasn't close to the rest of his family. Mom had her parents, a sister, and a brother, but we only saw them every couple of years, and neither of them had children."

Sahuna was listening with a somber expression.

"I came here with my father and my brother. My mother died a few years before we left," Ryder took a shaky breath. "My brother's pod was damaged and he's in a coma. My father was the original Pathfinder, and he died saving me. I almost died, too."

"But right before he died, he transferred Pathfinder clearance to me instead of his second in command for some reason! Now we can't transfer it to her, or my implant connected to our AI might stop working, which could kill me. My mother designed this implant and my father created the AI running it, and they're both gone. We don't have the resources or time to research it, because we're the only ark that showed up and we showed up a year late," Tears were streaming down Ryder's face, and she was trying to breathe through hiccups. "I have to do this. Everyone will die if I can't do this, and I don't really even know what this is!"

Sahuna pulled her down to pillow Ryder's head in her lap, stroking from her forehead to her temples. She started humming with her subvocals, and Ryder eventually recognized it as similar to the song she'd heard the Moshae singing in the shower. That made her cry harder and she had no idea why.

Sahuna kept stroking her head and humming until Ryder's sobs quieted. Then she said, "Oh Sara, you have had so much to carry alone. That's why we have such large families. We are strong together. You have your crew, you have Jaal, and now you have me."

Sahuna bent to kiss her forehead, and rubbed her arm. Ryder felt soft energy melt from her. It reminded her of sunlight and down blankets.

"Thank you. I don't know where this all came from. I've been dealing pretty well, I thought," Ryder sighed, "This is definitely not the impression I wanted to make with Jaal's family."

"If you were angara, I would say it came from you trying to do this alone. It seems the same holds true for humans?"

"Yeah...probably."

Sahuna chuckled, "You sound like a child given medicine."

Ryder laughed and wiped her face again. "Sounds about right."

 


 

Jaal stepped quietly out of the children's rooms.

Some had snuggled into their beds but quite a few fell asleep on cushions and in piles on the floor. He thought warmly about Sara's smile and the happy curiosity of his nieces and nephews.

He found her with Sahuna in one of the lounging rooms, cuddled up among cushions and laughing at a video of him playing with Teviint, Baranjj, and Lathoul when they were small. He was a ferocious beast and they were brave Heskarl defending the daar. He remembered playing it with them often, but didn't know anyone had ever recorded it.

Jaal leaned in the doorway and watched. Sara's face was darker than usual—he hoped Sahuna hadn't embarrassed her—but she seemed relaxed. His mother was obviously taken with her, and he wasn't surprised, but he was happy to see it.

"Neither of you appear to be bored," he said when the video ended.

Sara looked up and smiled at him. Sahuna hugged her and told him, "I am keeping her. She is my new favorite."

"We are all your favorites, mother."

"Then it is Sara's turn," she said serenely, kissing her forehead. "I am going to bed. I will see you both in a few hours."

"Good night, Sahuna," Sara said, to his mother's slight confusion. She noticed and said, "Oh, I mean...sleep well."

"Stay clear," Sahuna said. She stopped to give Jaal a hug as she left, sending hope and approval through her energy.

When she left, Jaal reached down for Sara's hand and pulled her up into a hug. She slid her arms around his waist and he hummed happily, breathing her in.

"She's a great mom. She thought I needed some mothering too—and I guess she was right," she laughed into his neck.

"I'm so glad you like my family," he said.

"Of course I do! I was much more worried they wouldn't like me. I still don't know all of them, and I don't know if I'll ever get all their names straight," she said, squeezing him. "Honestly I'm still waiting for someone to hate me because I'm a weird alien corrupting their sweet boy."

He laughed into her shoulder. "Sara if any of them were to be so ridiculous, my true mother is on your side. You have nothing to worry about. I am happy, and they can see it."

"That's good to hear," she said, pulling back. "I'm actually pretty exhausted. Where am I sleeping?"

"Ah, let me show you my tiny sanctuary."

Chapter Text

Ryder slept very well. It was surprising how easily they had molded themselves together without sparking the heat they'd found before. For her, the combination of physical and mental exhaustion had been a weight that dragged her down. She was even too tired to get a stomachache from the way Jaal looked at her when she smiled at his childhood mementos. He had just wrapped her in warm, heavy arms and the white noise of his purr had soothed her to sleep.

Unfortunately, it only lasted for four hours before the whole house was up again. Jaal kissed her on the cheek and left her to sleep in a bit longer, seeming disgustingly well rested. She waited until the bathroom rush was over, then went in herself. Grumbling about weird alien sleep schedules, she didn't notice the audience that gathered to watch her braid her hair.

"That's pretty! Can you tie it up other ways?" She looked up and three angara were watching her, apparently two girls and a boy. They had a lanky softness about them that said teenager. In a way, that was almost more intimidating than the adults.

"Thank you, and yeah, we can style our hair lots of different ways. Humans have a bunch of different natural hair colors and textures, and we dye it and cut it, too. People do all sorts of different things."

"You cut it?!" the magenta girl said in horror.

"Oh, it doesn't hurt! It's just keratin strands. Like...horns? Claws? Fingernails?" She flicked her hands and pointed to their fingertips as well. "We can only feel it where it grows from our skin."

"Weird!" said the blue girl. The boy elbowed her. "Ow! Neff!"

"It's ok, it is kinda weird," Ryder laughed and fastened off her braid. She zipped her bag and turned to them. "So, you're Neff," she said to the boy, "and I think you're...Etta?" she said to the magenta girl, who nodded. "I don't remember you, though, I'm sorry," she said to the blue girl.

"I'm Oliir," she said.

"Oliir, who thinks hair is weird. Got it." Ryder laughed, and Oliir blushed. Ryder held out her right hand. "I already know how to do an angaran handshake. Would you like to learn a human one?"

 


 

Jaal had spoken with Baranjj and Teviint, who were mostly quiet and thoughtful, and Lathoul, who was filled with eagerness to learn about their new allies. Jaal left him talking to two of their mothers about seeking an apprenticeship with the scientists at Pelaav.

He found Sara eating nutrient paste with three of his young cousins. They were talking about angaran education and their interests.

"I'm sure botanists are going to remain very important on Havarl, even with the vault working," she said to Neff. "And we need to learn more about Heleus as a whole. Let me put you in touch with a krogan named Vorn," she pulled up her omnitool and started typing. "He's part of their colony on Elaaden. He's trying to breed new species that provide nutrition for krogan, can survive there, and aren't terribly invasive. It's different from the challenge on Havarl, but I'm sure you can learn a lot from him."

Neff looked excited. Jaal walked in and put a hand on her shoulder. "Almost ready?" he asked.

She grinned up at him, "Jaal, I can't tell you how much I missed undergrads! These guys and their enthusiasm give me life! Let me finish networking, and we'll head back to the ship."

"Etta, I would love to chat with you more about xenoarcheology, or archeology in your case, but it'll have to wait until I'm...done pathfinding. Food and shelter take precedence, y'know?"

The girl agreed, and Jaal wished she didn't need to have the knowledge her eyes reflected.

"But I'll have Peebee mail you—she's all about the Remnant. Oh! You're almost old enough for your first vesaal on Aya, right?" Etta nodded. "Avela and the Moshae will need help cataloging all the new stuff we're sure to find in the field. I'll let them know to contact you and keep a lookout so they can request your help for the work roster."

Sara turned from Etta gaping at her casual reference to contacting the Moshae on her behalf and held her hands out for Oliir, who looked resigned. The girl took her hands immediately, which warmed Jaal's heart. Sara bent her head to catch her downcast eyes.

"I know it might seem frivolous to focus on art when we're struggling for survival, but I promise you it is important. Aside from all the practical applications—mapmaking, cataloging specimens, educational illustrations, historical recording...aside from that? We need you."

Oliir jerked back, surprised, and Sara nodded fiercely. 

"We need you to help us remember what is and dream up what can be." Sara paused, and Oliir was awestruck. Jaal felt his breath catch.

"I know angara records are scattered, so you can't easily find examples from your own history, but they must exist. That's where Etta and I can help!" She sent Etta a smile and turned back thoughtfully. 

"I wish I could just give you access to art history information from the Nexus cultural center, Oliir. Artistic movements—throughout human history alone!—they can revolutionize a society. In fact—it could be useful for all of you. When I get back to the ship, I'm going to write up a proposal about sending a link to the cultural archives we have to all angara worlds. There's no reason you should have to come all that way if you're curious about us."

"Regular access to information we have is a big problem," Etta sighed. "Between the mutated plants and the kett, having safe stable access to data nodes is always hard."

"That's what we're working on fixing," Jaal said, nudging Sara again. "And to get back to it, we need to leave to catch the shuttle."

"Thanks," Sara smiled up at him and stood. "I should really be the one on top of that."

He shrugged and smiled.

Oliir jumped up to pull her into a hug, which she returned happily. "C'mon over here, the rest of you, group hug!" Sara called. She hadn't even finished before they surrounded her, all talking at once. Jaal could feel the excitement of their energy from an arm's length away.

He picked up her bag while she was saying her goodbyes with promises to keep in touch. Jaal gave them each a quick hug, sending his love through his electricity, and got back excitement and good natured teasing about his obvious infatuation.

"Yes, yes, but I think you all see why," he smiled over his shoulder as he left, and got three matching blushes in return.

Sahuna was waiting by the door to walk them to the shuttle pad, and gave them each a big hug before they boarded. Jaal heard her telling Sara to contact her whenever she needed, and was pleasantly surprised to hear Sara agree.

As soon as the shuttle doors closed, she beamed at him. "I love your family," she said. "They're great."

Jaal couldn't stand it. He captured her in a fierce kiss and sat down to pull her into his lap. How was he going to manage to wait until they got back to the ship? Likely longer, since there would surely be a long list waiting for them. He'd just have to make himself perfectly clear and hope he made an impression.

He'd felt right watching her laugh with his mother and mentor his cousins. He'd felt joy without shyness showing her mementos from childhood. He'd never slept so well as he had with her in his arms. Jaal felt bare and rough before her, wanting to give her everything he was and take all of her in.

He loved her and wanted her. Fear and exhilaration thumped through him with every heartbeat and every press of her lips. Oh he knew this desperate hope. He also knew from painful experience that he couldn't stop it even if he wanted to, so this time he threw himself into it completely. He ached for her.

 


 

She'd barely finished speaking and Jaal was all over her, kissing the daylights out of her and pulling her into his lap. His hands ran up and down her back and settled, one at her waist and one between her shoulders. He tilted his head and stroked his tongue against hers, insistent and persuasive. She quickly accepted.

Ryder couldn't help the quiet hum in the back of her throat. She felt him inhale sharply through his nose and press his hands more firmly against her. She peeked and saw his eyes were closed. She could see a low, soft glow starting from the folds where his cowl and frill met his brow. His energy was contained, but she felt his breath getting faster.

He repositioned and quietly moaned her name before he pulled her back to his mouth and slid a hand up to cradle her head.

Ryder felt herself responding easily, remembering how he'd said soon enough and I couldn't wait. She rubbed her hands firmly up his arms and shoulders, feeling the thick, warm, power of him, and let out a whimper. She was loosely straddling his thighs and she felt a nearly overpowering urge to grind down onto him.

I am a grown woman, and I will not start rutting in a public shuttle. Even if it is empty.

Apparently he was either very happy she liked his family, or had all this pent up from their chaste nap in his room. Maybe both? Fuck they had to stop because she was sure there was probably something unpleasant waiting for her at the ship, despite SAM's reassurance. Her head had to be clear.

Then he nibbled her lip and she thought of his mouth on her hand, of him holding her against the wall. She pushed hard against him and grabbed for the back of his head, enjoying the soft noises he made when she stroked down the lines there.

Jaal finally pulled back, breathing hard, and took her hands in his. He rested his forehead on her shoulder to catch his breath.

"Wow," she said, and he laughed, shaking them both. The laughter seemed to calm him a bit, and when he looked into her eyes, his pupils were only half dilated.

"Sara, you are a treasure. I love you."

Words stuck in her throat, and a fist grabbed her heart. Oh, shit. He was so open and deserved someone so much better at this than her.

"I've...never been in love before, Jaal," she hesitated, "but...I think I'm definitely falling for you."

He laughed again, louder, relaxed and happy. She slid into the seat next to him and hugged his arm the rest of the ride to Pelaav.

Chapter Text

"SAM! Why the hell didn't you tell me they'd actually found part of the turian ark?!"

"Because Cora and Vetra had the evacuation well in hand, they said it wasn't necessary to contact you early, and you were either sleeping or bonding with Jaal's family," he answered, using what she'd labeled as his I-am-an-utterly-reasonable-computer-so-suck-it voice.

"Ok, fine, but why not at least update me?"

"I knew if I interrupted you it could distract you, and it was unnecessary. Your visit appeared important to you." Oh great, now he sounded sheepish and hurt.

"All right, all right, I'll lay off. It probably was the best choice. Damn good news to come home to, as well."

When she and Jaal arrived, two teams had just returned from tagging all the scrap from the Natanus that had scattered. The turians who had crashed grabbed anything useful from their camp and left a beacon behind for a Nexus team to collect the rest for recycling. Pelaav had been updated, and a message sent to the Nexus.

Ryder felt a little unnecessary. It was novel.

The trip to the Nexus would take about twenty hours. Things would be cramped, but rather than leave anyone behind, they'd spread out all their extra bedding plus some donated from Pelaav. People were packed into crew quarters and the meeting room. Lexi still had her hands full in medbay checking everyone over, and had drafted Liam and Vetra as nurses.

After quick security locks on SAM and her terminal, Ryder had given up her quarters for the trip as well. There were some token protests, but Ryder refused to listen, and the keen of relief she heard as one of the rescued turians lay down on her couch was well worth it.

Showers were harder, but the crew all elected to forgo them until the Nexus. Cora had set up a rotation so their temporary guests could all get clean.

They had enough food stocked for them, but just barely, and they'd have to restock at the Nexus. Vetra even shared out her last box of Blast-Ohs.

Everyone was relaxed, except Peebee, who had camped out in the escape pod and blocked the door. Cora read her the riot act, but it hadn't done any good. Finally, Ryder stepped in and pointed out that they were well over capacity and screwed in the event of emergency anyway. Cora threw up her hands and walked away muttering, but at least the argument was over.

There was an air of excitement aboard the packed ship that reminded Ryder of a slumber party.

She had an informal debrief with Avitus Rix, Cora, and Vetra over rations, and now had a few solid ideas of where to look for the Natanus. A call with the Nexus leaders (Kesh was quiet, Addison cautious, Kandros slightly relieved, and Tann insufferable) and she was free until their arrival at the station.

She grabbed a few essentials from her quarters and headed to the tech lab, betting Jaal wouldn't mind having her for a bunkmate again. Ryder spared a moment of gratitude that the ship was temporarily filled with turians, who generally thought relationship gossip and drama was boring as hell, and not humans or asari. No one gave her a second glance as she entered the tech lab.

Jaal was tidying the space and looked up happily when she walked in. He took a step toward her, then hesitated.

"Are you finished already?"

"It's been over four hours since we got back, Jaal."

He looked surprised. "Really?"

"Yeah. Have you been busy in here the whole time?"

"No," he answered. "First I helped move and set up bedding for the rescued turians. Then I came in here to write reports for Evfra about them and about our encounter with Akksul," He paused and actually blushed and looked away. "Then…I got restless and there wasn't really anything else I could contribute to, so I thought I would clean up all my projects...in case…"

Ryder smiled. "In case…?" she encouraged teasingly.

He glanced up without moving and huffed at her. "In case of guests," he said with heated eyes and a slight smirk.

"Oh? Are you expecting someone?" she asked lightly, not quite keeping the grin off her face. "I could come back later."

He closed his eyes and sighed with a shake of his head. "Well, that depends, Pathfinder," he stepped closer and paused, carefully putting one hand on her waist, "is this visit for business," he lightly touched her neck and leaned close, "...or pleasure?"

She laughed at the same time she shivered around the heat at the base of her spine. He was watching her with a crooked grin.

"Ok, you win," she rolled her eyes. "Where the hell did you learn that one?"

"Tiran Kandros said it when you called to request a shuttle." He shrugged and stepped back.

"And you noticed it, remembered it, parsed it, and applied it correctly, with everything else that's been going on?" Ryder raised an eyebrow and tilted her head.

"...yes? Is...this strange?"

"It's kind of impressive, actually," she said.

"Hmph. Really?" he looked thoughtful. "Well, I look forward to impressing you with other feats soon, Sara."

Ryder rolled her eyes again and gave him a peck on the cheek. She put down the small bag she had brought. I love how playful he is. I never would have expected it when he first came aboard.

"Really, though, I donated my quarters for the cause," she said, "so I was wondering if it'd be ok if I slept here on the way to the Nexus."

"Of course." He smiled at her warmly. "You don't need to ask. But, I wonder...is sleeping what is on your mind right now?" He'd crossed his arms and lowered his chin as he talked, and by the time he finished, his gaze was burning.

He was about a meter away and she could still feel his electric field, and his purr was at the edge of her hearing. She wondered how far away she could be and still feel his energy at maximum output. Then she shook herself. Priorities, Sara. "No. Sleeping is not at the front of my mind."

"Nor mine," he said, still watching her without moving, his purring getting deeper.

Ryder shrugged and smiled. "Well, then what are you waiting for?"

"An invitation," he growled, and suddenly she was up against the wall.

His hands were trying to touch her everywhere at once and she could only hold on and try to get her bearings. His mouth was on her neck, kissing back toward her hairline. He shivered when he pressed his nose into her hair and breathed in. One hand finally settled under her ass and one under the opposite thigh.

"Oh, holy fuck, Jaal," she gasped.

"You are so strong, Sara. So powerful." His fingers dug into her. She moved her hands to his shoulders for leverage and bucked her hips forward, trying to wrap her legs around him. "...and so impatient," he teased.

"Listen, you're the one pinning me to the wall, here," she said.

He left her neck for now and pressed his forehead against hers. "Yes. I am," he grinned ferociously.

She kissed him hard and he rumbled and stepped forward. Oh, he was finally bringing them together and it was so good to feel him between her legs.

One of his hands migrated up to her hair at the nape of her neck and gently tugged. It was like a string running down her spine and she thrust against him and held him tight with her legs. She wondered where the fuck he learned that and sent silent gratitude to whoever was responsible. He hummed unevenly into their kiss and thrust her back against the wall.

Shit, I could come like this. The thought wasn't completely coherent, nor was the urgent sound she made, but soon his hands were on her hips, tilting her against him. She was so well molded to the hard heat of him that she gasped. He took a deep breath before dipping his head to follow her mouth again. His tongue was rough, and warm, and tingled against her, and he was drawing her to him, stroking, promising.

She groaned into his mouth. Energy melted from him, a thick wave that went completely through her and left her wet and shaking.

"Jaal," she tried to put everything she felt into his name, hoping some of it came through. She wanted everything right now. He lifted her gently and rocked his hips closer, then pulled back to look into her eyes.

He was flushed and gasping for breath. Her nipples were so tight and she wanted to know where to touch him to make him as desperate as her. He was so thick and she had no idea how they would work but she couldn't stand it and rubbed herself against him while he watched her. The drag of her clit over him knocked the breath out of her and a hard throbbing clench rushed down from deep inside her. He was staring into her eyes in wonder and pushing up as he pulled her down and rolled his hips.

Fuck she really was going to come, just like this, and he had barely touched her. "I want—" she said, panting, her eyes wide.

"Yes," he moaned, rumbling, "yes, please, you're so open, my Sara," he moved in a firm rhythm, mouth open, eyes never leaving her face. "Please," he whispered, "my love, let me see you, show me, anything," his voice broke, "Everything, my taoshay, I will—"

She grabbed his hand off her hip and pressed it firmly against a breast. She nudged her nipple between his thumb and the side of his palm, urging him to squeeze, cup, stroke. He was warm and fascinated and she couldn't wait, and she tugged him closer so she could pull herself across the thick hot bulge of his dick. She felt his energy spike into her and he tensed hard and thrust closer. His hands were full of her and she wanted him inside and he kissed her hungrily and then she was coming, so fast, sobbing into his mouth and biting his lips and grabbing onto his big hands spread over her.

Jaal knew, how did he know, how was he so perfect, he knew to keep rocking tight against her through the quakes in her core. Waves of heat poured up into her through it. He kept kissing her until they stopped, then sighed in satisfaction and nuzzled back into the curve of her neck and shoulder.

Her muscles relaxed all at once, and she was soft and soaked, spread out over his absolutely solid crotch, which was the only thing really holding her up. Jaal was tight against her, eyes closed, energy sparking, breath ragged.

"Yes," he said, kissing up her neck. "More."

"Shit," was all she had time to gasp before he was carrying her to his bed. He somehow managed to sit down and settle her astride his lap without putting her down and that was really fucking hot and something to be explored later. Then his hands were in her hair and he was kissing her and she wanted him like he hadn't just destroyed her. She grabbed for the fastenings of his clothes.

Way too soon he was pulling away, but the deep sound he made told her he would be back.

"That was amazing," she said, panting and shivering.

Jaal laughed softly between his breaths and nodded.

"I...want to show you something," he said quietly.

"Okay."

He took a deep breath and closed his eyes. Then he looked down and took her hands in his. After a few seconds, she felt his energy again, similar to a pattern she'd felt before, but...slightly more complex. It moved slowly across her nerves from her palm to the pulse point at her wrist. She realized he'd held the strength of his electricity back before, and probably was again.

"Jaal, that...feels beautiful."

He smiled and flushed, still looking down at their hands. The energy stroked up her arms and she felt it in her legs, too, like waves pulling at her.

"It is beautiful," he said, sending a wave up each of her arms to the nape of her neck. "It's how I feel about you."

Holy shit.

"Sara," he moved his hands to cup her cheeks. One slid around to the side. He looked into her eyes and she was in so much trouble.

 


 

Jaal had already come once and was nowhere near finished. Her small hands were quickly opening the clasps of his suit and he wanted to just keep going forever. They hadn't even undressed. He wanted to drink her in. He'd had to slow down.

Now all of his feelings were running through her in a language she couldn't speak. He was exposed, exhilarated. She said it felt beautiful.

"Sara," he said, and she looked as shaken as he felt.

He stroked his fingers through her hair gently. Oh, he could sink into her eyes. It was so fast and he wanted to drown in her.

"I had wanted to...show you, thoroughly, how I felt." he said. "I had all these...ideas," he smiled in self deprecation, "of slow, thoughtful courtship. None of them went quite like this." He took a slow breath. "Sara, what you've done...how you throw yourself into everything you do…"

He kissed her, and she was so warm. He pulled back just enough to speak, his lips brushing hers.

"You are a thunderstorm. Powerful, wild. My energy rises to answer your call."

She gasped and he kissed her again. When he pulled away this time, she followed with an eager noise he would treasure.

"Your eyes are dark, rich earth. When I catch them, I feel...grounded, stable, like we could move the stars."

This time she was kissing him before he could press forward. She was holding him, pulling him into her kiss, moaning his name into his mouth. She was wild, and powerful, and drawing him in, and he needed her like air and sunlight.

"Sara," he said, voice rough and pleading. She made a deep, beautiful sound from the back of her throat and rocked her hips again. He pulled her closer and rolled them over and oh bright stars she lifted herself like an offering and cradled him between her legs. She pushed up against him when he rested his weight on her and all he wanted to do was sink into her and never leave.

He ran his hands over her. She was so soft and so small and so strong. How was she this soft? Her eyes were closed and she pressed back against his hands, wherever they were, like she needed his touch just as badly.

He licked warmly up her neck, drawing in her taste and her scent. A flash of memory: her voice husky and challenging him, the faded musk of her on her own fingers, knowing that she had found pleasure and release while thinking of him.

"I want to devour you," he said, voice thick with lust. He scraped his teeth down from her hairline and whispered into her ear, "May I?"

 


 

The only reason Ryder knew this wasn't an actual wet dream was because she had never in her life dreamed up anything this amazing. He was big and warm and loving and playful. He'd thoroughly dry fucked her against the wall and now he was literally growling his desire to eat her out.

"You cannot be real," she gasped. "My subconscious dreamed you up."

Jaal was propped up on one elbow and nibbling on her neck again.

Necks must be a thing for them too. I really need to return the favor if I can ever catch my breath holy shit.

He had one hand in her hair—he couldn't seem to stop touching it, but she wasn't complaining. At least she wasn't until the satisfying warmth of him above her left. She whined and lifted her hips, searching. He made a small soothing noise and started working his other hand up the inside of her thigh. She squeezed her legs together and he rumbled in approval.

Finally his hand was close to her, and she felt waves of his energy pushing and pulling at her, moving through her, making her pant and shake.

"Darling one, I want to touch you everywhere. You are so soft," here his voice caught, "I want to drag you slowly to your peak with my hands and mouth so I can watch you come apart."

His hand stroked her—light, gentle, a soft question, and then his energy was concentrated on it, rolling up through her.

What the fuck was he waiting for?

He kissed her forehead, her cheeks. She squeezed his hand tight against her, aching for more. Fuck he was kissing her again with thick languid movements she was desperate to feel between her legs. When he sucked on her lip and dragged his teeth across it, she sobbed.

"Tell me, please, taoshay. May I taste you?"

He was waiting for her to say it and she had forgotten how to speak.

"Yes, yes!" The words tore out of her and he was instantly straddling her, working her shirt over her head and spreading his hands over her. She scrambled to help, throwing her shirt and bra away and shimmying out of her pants.

"I want to feel you," Ryder said, sounding desperate. She tugged at the fastenings of his suit. He immediately started peeling it off and soon she could feel the smooth warmth of his skin on hers. She wrapped her leg around to stroke the inside of her foot down his thigh.

Then he was kissing warmly, fully, all over her. He worked down her torso, hands following. She moaned as he rubbed heavily over her breasts, and he stopped to give a reassuring stroke to let her know he hadn't forgotten what he'd learned.

He kissed her belly button, then a heated kiss on either hip, and then his mouth was on her. No hesitation, no warning, just his rough wide tongue licking into her and his subvocals vibrating up through her and his hands on her ass pulling her closer like would never get enough.

Jaal mouthed at her gently, tugging with his lips, then stroking deeper. He kissed his way up to her mound, his breath warm over her clit. His purr had to be echoing through the entire ship at this point. He was sucking and nibbling and working his hand around to slowly enter and explore. When he slid a finger into her, he groaned muffled words against her and rubbed his tongue over her bud, circling, pushing.

She felt herself swell against him, and moved so he slid in deeper. He brushed her sweet spot with the tip of his finger. She gasped sharply and pushed harder back against his mouth, and then he was sending waves between his tongue and hand, warm and shaking. His rhythm was slow and heavy. He groaned into her clit and she sobbed again, helplessly spreading her legs for him.

"I need—" she said as she pushed hard against him and moved to cover her breasts with her own hands. He opened his eyes to look up at her and her world narrowed to glowing heat and wide pupils and his mouth working so hard against her. He kept his steady, full rhythm. He was letting his electricity flow through her, into her, filling her, pouring up inside her deeper. It was washing over her chest, her neck, up the back of her head, each wave building on top of the last.

"Yes I—I can't—!" Her whole body was shaking and it felt like he was touching her everywhere at once and he was pulling her closer and his tongue was still rubbing and circling, never leaving her. His eyes drifted closed, reverently, as he pushed another wave through her, hot and harder this time, and she cried at her peak, just managing to stuff her fist in her mouth to muffle the next.

He stayed exactly where he was, pushing his hands and tongue even harder against her, giving her small weighty movements as she thrashed. His energy slowed along with her quakes, but he stayed, watching her intently and never letting up. When she would normally have felt herself falling back, she felt it building again.

"Jaal, I—" and he sent a charge through his tongue and stroked deep into her and she was crashing again, this time not managing to stifle the volume of her sounds. He held her, never stopping, until a final deep shiver ran through the base of her spine and she groaned, nearly as deep as his purr. Then he slowly, gently, relaxed his energy and his touch. He slid his hands to warmly cup her hips and pressed a closed mouth kiss to the cradle of her pelvis.

Jaal kissed slowly back up her body, burying his face in her neck with a warm sigh. "Sara, that was beautiful," he whispered.

"I...hah...words don't...quite...work yet…" she panted out.

He chuckled against her neck, satisfaction woven through the echoing timbre, and if she hadn't been thoroughly exhausted, that sound alone would have gotten her going.

"How are you so good at that?" she managed.

"Well, Lexi gave me some general information when I asked her to scan the oil I made for you. She was very curious."

Ryder groaned, "Of course she was."

"You were also quite inspiring, my darling one," he said into her hair as he settled down on his side beside her.

"Well, I haven't prepared quite as well, but let's see how you inspire me, then, hmm?" Ryder pressed a kiss to his cheek and slid her hand down his side, stopping at his hip.

Jaal's eyes opened, surprised. "What?"

"Jaal," she huffed. "I just got off three times. I'm not just going to leave you hanging."

He looked confused. "That doesn't—"

She rolled her eyes and shoved his hip gently. "I want to bring you to orgasm too, you big dork."

"Oh," he said. "But I have? Twice actually. Didn't you notice?"

Ryder looked down, and saw he was flaccid, starting to retract into a...sheath? It actually looked similar to her structures, but larger. She didn't see the mess she was expecting, and looked down further. Nothing.

"Really?" she asked skeptically.

"Yes?" he sounded baffled, and his voice was losing the deep distortion that had shown up. "It was right before your first, and then second, peak. I thought the release of my energy helped trigger yours?"

"Oh, it did. I just didn't realize that's what an orgasm looks like for you guys. Humans with your kind of equipment tend to be...messier."

"Oh. Um...I did notice...I suppose humans may not... Well, angara can reach orgasm without actual...emission, when we're intimate for bonding," he was getting flushed, and Ryder suspected there was some cultural disconnect here. She didn't want to push, so she left it for now and settled back down on his arm.

"Gotcha. Yeah, humans are...all in every time, so to speak. Guess you only got the necessary highlights from Lexi, and not the full bio lecture?" she smiled. "How'd you escape?"

"Stars, it wasn't easy," he laughed, awkwardness left behind.

"Well," Ryder said, kissing his nose, "if you're happy I'm happy, but next time, I get to do some pathfinding of my own." She idly wondered about coaxing him out of his folds.

Jaal groaned at her. "That joke was worse than one of Liam's. It was so bad it transcended language."

"Watch it, this next time is still not guaranteed."

"You are bluffing," he chuckled confidently. He reached down to pull a blanket up over both of them.

Ryder sighed, "I totally am."

Jaal settled around her, again demonstrating his excellence at cuddling. She felt herself drift, sleepy and warm.

Horror suddenly cut through Ryder's fuzzy afterglow.

Shit. SAM? she sent on their private channel.

*Yes, Sara?*

Please tell me you locked the door behind me.

*I did.*

She relaxed again. Thanks, SAM.

*However, I noted multiple reactions to the sounds coming from the tech lab.*

Fuck.

Chapter Text

The fallout wasn't as bad as it could have been.

When they woke up to her alarm and Ryder slipped out, none of the crew were in the research room and there was a murmur of turian voices from the meeting room. She made it to the bathroom without anyone really noticing, and quickly brushed her teeth and fixed her hair.

She almost made it to the galley without incident, but as she was leaving the bathroom, two turian women came through the door from the crew quarters. Drack caught her eye from beyond the door and let out a booming laugh. This got Gil's attention, who was reading in his bunk. He let out a shrill whistle and a whoof! with a huge grin.

One of the women rolled her eyes and closed the door behind her. Thank god for turians not giving a fuck.

Lexi had stuck her head out of the medbay when she heard the ruckus, and called to her, but Ryder barked out, "Later, Lexi!" as she quickly entered the galley.

Shit. Ok.

Ryder slapped her bright red cheeks. That were still pulled into a grin. She dug around for a meal replacement bar.

Morning, SAM. Back to work.

*Acknowledged, Ryder.*

 


 

Tann was waiting for them at the docking bay, looking constipated. He'd said a few short sentences of welcome, taken a picture with Rix and Kandros, and left quickly.

Ryder found out later that he'd had a whole speech written and Kandros had convinced him to trash it.

Turians were trained to be disciplined, but practicality came first. None of these people knew him, trusted him, owed him, or really had any reason to show Tann more than the most basic social niceties. If he had started monologuing, more than likely they would've just left, to register for housing or search for loved ones. Tann decided that a few dozen turians walking off in the middle of his speech welcoming them wouldn't play well with the press and opted to cut it short.

She fucking loved turians.

 


 

Krogan were pretty great, too.

Ryder was on the tram, holding Kesh's plant on her lap. She'd sent Vorn a picture and promised to message him with Kesh's reaction.

Jaal had been curious, and then when he heard the story, delighted about the plant. He'd kissed her cheek and wished her luck on her delivery. He'd been headed off to the cultural exchange.

Ryder had blushed at his quiet smile. She closed her eyes, remembering the bubbly, giddy, stomach clenching current he sent through his kiss and how it matched her feelings exactly.

She had it so bad.

Ryder managed to walk calmly to Kesh's office, despite her excitement. Not only was she eager to see how Kesh reacted to Vorn's gift, she had just received a message that confirmed the last bit of airtight evidence against Spender.

Today was a good day.

Drack was in Kesh's office for a visit, and grunted when he saw what she was carrying. He sat and held his peace, though.

Kesh reacted much the same as him, saying it was frivolous when they needed food, but then without a word Ryder had pulled up her recording of Vorn talking about the flower.

"So...should I take it back, or...?" Ryder smirked, knowing the answer even before Kesh snatched it from her hands.

"Did...he say how to take care of it?" Kesh asked quietly. She was smiling down at the tiny pot.

Oh. My. God. Do not call Kesh adorable, Sara. She will not appreciate it. With massive strength of will, Ryder refrained from comment and sent over the instructions. Then she sent a quick reassuring note to Vorn.

Apparently, seeing Kesh twitterpated as well was too much for Drack.

"Mmph, foolishness," he mumbled.

"Oh, Drack, don't be jealous," Ryder turned to him and crossed her arms. "I brought you a present, too."

He snorted. "I don't see you carrying anything big enough or spiky enough to catch my interest."

"I dunno, this information is pretty big. Remember that very inconvenient device we found when I snuck into Spender's apartment?" She had his attention. "Gil and Suvi finished with it, and got someone in Ops to check their work. With that and Aroane? We got the bastard."

The gradual dawning of malicious delight over the old krogan's face was a beautiful thing.

"HA ha ha HA!" Drack laughed and punched his fists together happily. He looked like he'd wanted to jump, but remembered his bum leg. Even that didn't really diminish his grin for long. "I knew I was right about you, kid! Oh, I'm gonna send Morda his head on a pike!"

"Drack." Kesh gave him a look.

"Oh fine, fine," he said, waving her off and scoffing. "Interspecies relations, she says. Legal shit and due process. Bah. Fancy dressing. People know where they stand with a head on a pike."

Ryder laughed and tried desperately to choke it down when Kesh turned her glare on her.

"Don't think I don't know that you encourage him, Ryder," she said severely. "I heard about the mech."

Vetra! That snitch! But there was a small twinkle in Kesh's eye and a curve at the corner of her mouth that said she didn't disapprove quite as much as she let Drack think. Ryder winked at her over Drack's grumbling.

"So, Kesh, when do you think would be the best time to call this meeting of the senior staff?" she asked.

"Right now," Kesh said, showing her teeth.

 


 

Spender was exiled in a moment of satisfying poetic justice.

Drack and Kesh just watched and waited on Addison to quit raging after Kandros and a few militia officers escorted him out.

"God DAMN it!" She turned away and pressed her palms over her eyes. "Of all the stupid weasley shortsighted crap that asshole could have pulled. I knew he was a slimy shit but I never thought he'd stoop so low."

Addison turned back, her face fallen. "This is on me. You brought this to me, Pathfinder, and Kesh you're my colleague and I dismissed your suspicion out of hand. I owe you both apologies. I owe all the krogan apologies and restitution." She looked down at her feet. "Fuck."

"That's rough, Foster," Ryder said. She put a sympathetic hand on Addison's shoulder. "Maybe next time you'll listen when people come to you with plausible accusations, even if those people are krogan or ‘annoying little children playing in Daddy's boots.'"

Addison looked at her and paled. Ryder squeezed her shoulder companionably. "Mention my father again, and we are going to have strong words, Addison," she said as she walked out. As she left, she heard Kesh and Drack starting to work out just how Addison could start fixing this mess.

 


 

After checking on Scott—no change—Ryder headed back to the docks. She figured she'd hang out with Jaal at the cultural exchange and finish her proposal about linking angara into their records.

She stopped in to drop off some survey information with Dr. Aridana, then strolled over to the cultural center.

"Oh, Pathfinder! I was about to send you a message," Launa T'Saphra, the cultural center liaison, walked over to meet Ryder at the door. "The angaran ambassador's entourage is due tomorrow, and I was hoping you would still be docked at the Nexus when they arrive? I would appreciate your help with orientation and helping them settle in."

"You're in luck, Launa!" Ryder answered. "We won't be shipping out until the day after. Tomorrow is scheduled for shore leave, so I'll be able to come over for a few hours. What time?"

"Wonderful!" She clasped her hands together. "We're meeting at 0900 station time. Thank you. I appreciate the help."

"Sure," Ryder said. "I was actually going to suggest starting plans for an angara exhibit and database here, as a sort of counterpart to the items we donated to the museum on Aya. Maybe the ambassador's staff would have thoughts about it."

"Yes, I've thought about that myself," Launa nodded. "I wouldn't want to start the project without the ambassador's blessing, and we can add that to the agenda for discussion."

"There's something else you might be able to help me with, actually," Ryder said, and the liaison perked up. "I'm writing a proposal to set up access to the cultural exchange databases on angara worlds. Wider access to our records would be a show of goodwill, and any angara who wanted to know about us could do it without the risk and investment of traveling all the way to the Nexus."

Launa was staring off into space and nodding now. She seemed to be getting excited about the idea.

"If they agree, we could coordinate with the Nexus ambassador and governor on Aya to start setting it up," Ryder said with a smile. "On our side, we could have off site backups of our databases on their worlds, and there's everything we could learn from any information they share."

"I agree, this seems like a sound idea, Pathfinder," Launa said with a matching smile. "Would you share your proposal with me when you've finished? I'll gladly add my thoughts and endorsement, and we can present it to Nexus and angaran leadership at the same time."

"That's perfect. I'll be glad to have your input. I'm off to finish it up, and I'll see you tomorrow," Ryder said, and they exchanged a wave. She walked down the steps, wondering where she'd find Jaal studying today.

She found him on a couch, wearing headphones and concentrating on a data pad. Thank goodness he'd managed to get angaran ones to work with Initiative data pads. She giggled, imagining him trying to wear human headphones. He looked up and smiled when she sat down beside him, and went back to his reading. Feeling warm and happy, she grabbed an empty data pad, opened her omnitool, and got to work.

Chapter Text

For once, Ryder had a plan. Getting the team to agree...was a work in progress.

Peebee was an easy sell, and agreed enthusiastically.

Vetra was reserved, but agreed to help. "Diplomacy is pretty far above my pay grade, but, really, it's all just schmoozing and dealing when you come down to it, right?" she'd said.

Drack was being...Drack.

He was currently eyeballing her the way only a 1400 year old krogan can. It was impressive, but she had youth and tenacity on her side. She also wasn't above using puppy eyes, and no grandpa of any species she'd encountered could resist her big brown puppy eyes. He sighed.

"Ryder, you're a good kid, and void knows I owe you, but this is a terrible idea."

"Please?"

He snorted and turned back to stir the stew he was making. Got him! "Why do you even want to introduce a cranky old krogan to the angara ambassador to the Nexus anyway?" he asked. "I don't even like the Nexus."

"That's why!" Ryder held out her hands and her eyes widened. "Because the angara have seen some shit, Drack, and I know you sympathize."

He grunted.

"It'll piss off Ta-ann," she said in a sing-song voice.

"Alright alright! Hope you know what you're getting into, kid."

"Shit, Drack, I just want you to be yourself with them. Be honest. Some of the angara leadership trusts me, and some of them really don't and probably suspect I've got some sort of mystical hold over the ones who do." She ran her hands through her hair and started pacing. "And they're right to mistrust us! And you? Have also seen some shit, and been betrayed, and are an example of how real the Initiative is! You are a prime example of the variety of our people. Who we are outside the sanitized shit approved for the surface level of the cultural archives."

She sat at the table and sighed at his back. Drack kept working quietly.

"Look, I am trying to make this alliance work, but old man, I need your help," she said. Ryder propped her head in her hands. "The Nexus leadership is an obvious goddamn clusterfuck. I love Kesh, but she's in charge of all the people and crap that keep the Nexus working, not tactical or diplomatic decisions. Kandros is perpetually exhausted trying to balance coming back down from martial law imposed before inevitable starvation. Addison will hopefully chill out since we've shown her Spender's ass, but she deals with her stress by working herself into inflexible snits at other people. Now she's finally got a colony and a Pathfinder to micromanage, but I still don't trust her to actually focus on us not being thieving invaders in her hurry to try and make up for lost time."

Drack turned the stew down to simmer and grabbed a packet of jerky. He sat and offered Ryder a piece, which she took, and gestured with.

"I will try my damndest to hold Tann's smarmy bean counting ass to the fire, but if it comes down to it, I just fucking know he sees the angara alliance as an asset instead of...a promise, or a bond." She took an angry bite. "He'd sell them out in a hot minute if it meant the Initiative survived and I will fucking die before that shit happens. I did not come to another fucking galaxy to be a goddamn plague."

"Don't chew with your mouth full," Drack told her. Ryder snorted and slumped in her seat. She ate her jerky.

He was eyeballing her again, and this time she fidgeted.

"You got a personal stake in it, huh?" he asked quietly.

She didn't bother protesting. She just sighed and ate the last bite to give herself time to think. He waited. Patience came easy to Drack. It was probably why she enjoyed hanging out with him. He had her back and let her be.

"Well, yeah, but that's not the point," she finally said. "Sure, I could try and argue, but anyone determined to distrust me is going to find some excuse. I know my reasons, and it's because this is the right goddamn thing to do, not because I'm…" Ryder felt tears suddenly threaten, and she swallowed.

She took a few breaths and recentered. "I have power, and that corrupts. I have weapons, and they kill. I'm a destructive force, whether I'd like to be or not. The Pathfinder team explores and protects, supports the builders, but the Pathfinder is a plow, the head of a spear."

She breathed in deep, shaking, and looked down at the table with a lump in her throat. "If I can't be someone who builds, I am at least going to destroy the right things."

Drack eyeballed her a minute longer, then nodded. He finished a piece of jerky and held the package out to her. Ryder sniffled and took another one.

They listened to the stew bubble.

"When are we going to meet this ambassador?" he asked.

"Gotta be at the cultural exchange at 0900 tomorrow," she said.

"Alright."

Ryder wiped her eyes and glanced over. He was carefully not looking at her. "Thanks Drack."

"Yeah."

 


 

At 0845 the next morning, Ryder finished her coffee and flicked on the shipwide comm from her omnitool.

"Okay people! Last day of shore leave, then we are headed out for Kadara. Grab everything you need from the Nexus, including R&R, but hangovers are your own problem because we are outta here bright and early tomorrow. Drack, Vetra, and Peebee, meet me at the airlock in ten. Ryder out."

Jaal smiled up at her from his seat at the galley table as she washed her dishes. She'd worked late finishing her cultural exchange proposal, and they hadn't spent the night together. He'd met her with a cup of coffee and a kiss as she'd walked into the galley this morning. She glanced over at him and asked, "What?"

He shrugged. "I enjoy watching you."

Ryder turned back to the sink with a smile and a blush. She put her dishes in the rack and dried her hands. Her butterflies had settled by the time she turned back.

"So...this ambassador, Isa de Navar," Ryder asked as she leaned on the counter, "know anything about him? Any advice?"

Jaal considered as he finished his tea. "I don't know of him specifically, no," he said, "I suspect he will be cautious, but curious and hopeful. I think your plan is sound." He shrugged and stood to wash his mug. She crossed her arms and sighed.

"Do you think he'll believe we're sincere?" Ryder chewed a fingernail. Jaal wiped his hands. Then he reached out to take her hand from her mouth and held it to his chest.

"Probably not at first," he said. She frowned and started strategizing until he leaned down to catch her eye. Jaal's wry smile was reassuring. "But you are exceptionally good at convincing reluctant angara to trust you, Sara."

She laughed. "I guess that's true."

"Don't worry. It will be ok," he said, sending a current through his hand that felt...bracing.

Jaal kissed her forehead and gave her a reassuring hug. Ryder returned it gratefully, feeling buoyed and stronger.

Peebee rushed in with her jacket unfastened and started rummaging around for a meal replacement bar. "No one better have eaten the last nilae berry flavored one," she grumbled. "I am not eating another cinnamon spice. Urgkk."

"You sure you're ready for this, Peebs?" Ryder asked, watching her scramble through the box one handed and try to fasten her clothes with the other.

"Oh please, I just stayed up too late working and overslept. Besides, you got time to suck face, I got time to eat breakfast."

"We were not—"

"Canoodling, cuddling, groping, murmuring the sweetest of nothings—whatever you're doing over there, if it's being done, I—YES! Triumph!" Peebee waved an Initiative issued bar in the air and shoved the box back in the cabinet. She tore open the wrapper and took an enormous bite. "C'moh, ‘ets oh!"

Ryder rolled her eyes and turned back to Jaal. "Meet you for lunch around noon?" she asked.

He kissed her softly and squeezed her hand. "Yes," he said. "I'll see you then. Stay strong, darling one." Ryder had to figure out how to stop blushing whenever he did something like that, because he did it all the goddamn time. She smiled and whispered, "You too."

Peebee was watching them, unimpressed and dripping crumbs. Jaal smiled and left. Peebee blatantly checked out his ass as he did, then turned back to her and shrugged. She swallowed the rest of her bite.

"Ok, fine, you get a pass this time, Ryder, because damn, but come on, are you ready now?"

"And which one of us has her pants buttoned wrong, Ms. B'Sayle?"

"Oh dammit."

"Made ya look," Ryder sang as she walked out the door. Peebee grumbled and threw away her wrapper.

"How old are you?" she asked, following Ryder up the ladder.

"Oh, about puberty in asari years."

"Ryder!" Peebee's voice actually cracked. "I thought you would be above tasteless lifespan remarks!"

"Full of surprises over here," she said as they walked onto the bridge. "Besides, it'll be a funny story for you to tell my great grandkids someday."

Peebee made a disgusted noise and rolled her eyes. Vetra and Drack were waiting for them already, and partially overheard.

"Stories for grandkids?" Vetra asked. "You planning out your dynasty, Ryder?"

"You want whelps, you're chasing the wrong tail, kid."

Ryder dragged her fingers down her face with a groan. "I love you guys, too. Good morning. Come on, let's go do this before I think better of the dignified diplomatic team we make."

They headed out through the Nexus docking bay commons. Peebee crammed the rest of her breakfast in her mouth as they walked. Ryder went over her talking points in her mind. Shared goals, offer space and suggest connections, open door and book policy. Sincerity. Bald faced honesty and humility. She'd won over Evfra for god's sake.

"Ok, but speaking of the tail you're chasing," Vetra began, completely derailing Ryder's train of thought. When Ryder glared at her, she gave an unconcerned lift of her mandibles. "Why didn't you bring him, too? He's our actual official envoy from the angaran Resistance."

"Yeah, what gives?" Peebee asked, brushing away crumbs and catching up.

Ryder sighed. Drack opened an eye a little wider at her—a krogran eyebrow raise.

"One: didn't want our relationship to become a focus. It could be seen as...me manipulating him, or trying to weasel my way in or something. Humans might see it that way, and since we aren't sure yet how angara will deal with it, I wanted to be careful of that."

They made their way to the ramps by hydroponics. Vetra held her mandibles closer, lopsided, then narrowed her eyes and nodded.

Peebee screwed up her mouth thoughtfully. "Okay, abundance of caution, reasonable," she said.

"Second: he's our official Resistance envoy. With the angara, that's not the same as official government envoy."

Vetra's eyes sparked with recognition. "Yeah. Sloppy of me to forget that. You've learned some things about playing angaran politics in those closed door meetings on Aya?"

"Yeah, enough to make the division crystal clear," Ryder said, then teased, "But don't tell me you haven't picked up your share of gossip about those meetings anyway."

Vetra raised one brow plate and quickly flicked out a mandible. "Just that Jaal will apparently eat Evfra alive if he besmirches your honor and that it took the Moshae to call him off. Heard some fresh recruits about to piss themselves because the parents were fighting."

"Oh fuuuuuck, I knew that would spread like wildfire," Ryder tilted her head back and closed her eyes. "I'll tell you about it later. You've probably got a good handle on the major points anyway. But see what I mean? That is a perfect example of why I didn't bring Jaal."

"Dunno. Krogan diplomacy often involves a round or two of intimidation and posturing. Might be useful here," Drack kept a straight face, but Ryder rolled her eyes at him.

"Not the time to give me shit, old man."

"You asked me to be honest," he chuckled.

"Ok, cool it, we're here guys," Peebee said. "Ryder, what's the plan?"

"Same as always: wing it, don't bullshit, be friendly, but with backbone."

"Humans," Vetra rolled her eyes fondly.

"Hey, it's worked for me so far," Ryder grinned up at her.

"Why do you think we all pay close attention to what you do, kid?" Drack snorted. "Let's go already." He pat her back with his giant hand.

Ryder took a bracing breath and wiped her hands on her pants. She could do this.

"I realize you would all feel more comfortable with your weapons, ambassador—" Launa was using a placate-the-demanding-customer voice that gave Ryder flashbacks to her job in high school. The one that had convinced her that biotic training and shooting pirates would be a less stressful way to pay her way through university. Can't leave an ally without backup.

"Hello," Ryder said, stepping forward to look between the liaison and the ambassador with a professional smile and a straight stance. "I apologize for being a few minutes late."

"Pathfinder!" Launa said in relief. "Good morning. I am so glad you're here to help me welcome our angara ambassador. May I introduce ambassador Isa de Navar from Aya. Ambassador Navar, this is—"

The ambassador chuckled and turned to Ryder. "Pathfinder Sara Ryder of the Andromeda Initiative. The woman who rescued the Moshae needs no introduction to anyone from Aya, certainly."

Ryder smiled and held out her arm, curved, fist raised. He accepted.

"Thank you for the welcome," he said.

"I mean it. Welcome to the Nexus. Thank you for coming," she said. Then she addressed the two bodyguards and one nervous staff member behind him. "Thank you all for coming. I'm so glad we're building these ties. I hope you're all comfortable here and have been given transmission access to keep in touch with your loved ones."

The bodyguards stopped scowling for a second and glanced at each other. The assistant clumsily fluttered their hand through their wrist tool interface, setting off warning beeps. The ambassador glanced at his staff and turned back to her with narrowed eyes.

Ryder quickly went on. "I'm sure you'll meet quite a few new faces during your stay, but I hope you'll feel free to call on the Pathfinder team," she said. "I've brought a few of my crew you might be interested in meeting."

Ambassador Navar raised his brow and held out an open hand, encouraging her to continue.

"This is Vetra Nyx, our procurement and requisition officer. She's knowledgeable about a variety of tech in the field, and there's no one I'd rather have working to solve a problem in a tight spot." Vetra smiled and rolled her eyes, nodding at the ambassador's team. Ryder glanced slyly at the ambassador's assistant. "Also, she's a sneaky big sister and knows all the best gossip, so stay on her good side."

Ryder went on. "Peebee, here, is interested in anything and everything, lately focused on trying to learn about the building blocks of Remnant tech. Good kid. We're trying to teach her to work better with a team in the field. Excellent technical analysis skills."

"Ryder, I'm 150 years older than you," Peebee said in annoyance.

"Like I said, good kid," Ryder grinned and Launa coughed into her fist. "Her full name is Pelessaria B'Sayle, but that's bigger than she is, so: Peebee."

"And this is Nakmor Drack. He's 1400 years old and has probably seen, killed, or eaten one of every single thing in the Milky Way. He's too old for bullshit. He can tell you our political history from memory. Nakmor Kesh, the Nexus superintendent, is his granddaughter. He's our team's tank, cook, and spiky grandpa." Drack grunted, but Ryder saw a smirk at the corner of his mouth.

She took a deep breath to calm her nerves, and when she turned back, the angara ambassador was watching her shrewdly. Just when she was starting to sweat, his narrowed eyes relaxed and he said, "Will you take a short walk with me, Pathfinder?" and inclined his head toward the doorway.

One of his bodyguards stiffened and touched his arm. "Sir," she said, with barely contained nerves.

The ambassador turned and put his hand on hers, then touched his other bodyguard on the shoulder. He murmured something quietly, possibly in a language the Initiative translators couldn't parse yet.

The ambassador's assistant listened closely, their expression calmer and thoughtful. When he turned back, Ambassador Navar's smile was polite and slightly more relaxed.

"Will you excuse us for a moment, Ms. T'Saphra? I hope the Pathfinder's teammates might help you facilitate my staff's settling into our assigned office?" He glanced over Ryder's team, noting Vetra's omnitool and Drack's shotgun before smiling persuasively.

Launa looked torn, but Vetra caught her eye and winked, and she seemed to relax. Damn, does Vetra know everyone?

"Of course, Ambassador Navar," the liaison answered smoothly. "Why don't you all follow me just through here, across from our research labs…?"

The ambassador smiled and left them to it. He put his arm over Ryder's shoulders as he led her to the balcony just outside. She stiffened in surprise, but as soon as they were mostly out of earshot and in a public space, he dropped his arm and leaned against the railing a few feet away.

She crossed her arms and leaned her hip against the railing, watching him take in the view of the docks.

"It's really too good to be true, you know?" he said, finally.

"What is, ambassador?"

He scoffed. "Isa, or if you must, Navar. I'd hoped to be able to actually have a real discussion with you, outside of political machinations, or did I judge wrongly, Pathfinder?"

She shrugged. "Well, I guess it depends on what those political machinations you're referring to are. You've got little enough to judge the entire Initiative on. No matter how sincere my efforts have been, I'm just one person."

He was still watching the docks, now focused on a discussion between a human woman and a salarian man. "One person people look to," he said. "Do they all look to you? Your Nexus leadership?" The ambassador turned to watch her response carefully. Ryder was in so far over her head she didn't know which way was up.

"We're a team," she answered stiffly.

"Ah. Yes. I understand you've met Governor Shie?"

"Rather dramatically," she deadpanned.

He coughed. "Well, she and General Tershaav are a team."

Ryder sighed. She was much too blunt for this shit.

"What did you tell your staff to get them to chill out?" she blurted out.

He glanced up in confusion, and she clarified. "To get them to calm down?"

He raised his brow and leaned his head back, considering her for a moment, then smiled. "That if the alien who rescued the Moshae was going to murder me in public, we were already in shit so deep there was no way they could ever dig me out anyway."

Ryder coughed out a shocked cackle and relaxed against the railing. He watched until she calmed, expression amused.

"That is the biggest advantage your Initiative has with the angara," he said. "You can laugh and cry. You know joy and heartache." He turned back to the crowds below. "Watching you all together, I see how it could have been so different," he said, sadly.

"Without the kett?" she asked.

"Without the kett," he nodded. "Alien life was an amazing discovery, but then…"

Ryder waited quietly. He sighed.

"The Moshae trusts you, and I trust her," he said with conviction. "I want to make this alliance work."

The ambassador turned to her fully, and waited, watching her.

"I do too," she said, desperately hoping her sincerity carried through. "And my whole team does as well. And most of the Initiative, too."

"Most?" he drew out the question.

"I can't speak for everyone, any more than you can speak for all of your people. Even on Aya alone."

He shrugged and nodded, conceding the point.

"Look," she sighed, "we both know you're gonna get a lot of sanitized bullshit, but the three people I brought with me? I trust them. They're dedicated to exploration, understanding, truth, survival. Not ‘political machinations.' Okay, Vetra is a smooth operator, but she's sincere and she knows everyone. And Drack is realer than a rylkor tail to the head. Peebee is devoted to trying to figure everything in the universe out, no matter what stands in her way. Personally, I trust them. And if an alliance works, it's because people make connections and trust each other. I'm not a politician; I just got thrown into the water and I'm trying to swim. That's the absolute truth."

The ambassador crossed his arms again and leaned on the railing.

"Even if I can trust you, or your team, what assurances can you give me about the rest of the Initiative?" He closed his eyes and tilted his head back.

Ryder grinned. "Actually, I have just the thing for that."

He looked at her sharply, suddenly reminding her of a professor she had as an undergrad. For a moment, Ryder wondered just how old this man was. Damn her inability to spot signs of aging in angara. She swallowed nervously and pulled up the proposal she had just finished with Launa the night before.

"Ms. T'Saphra and I have written up a proposal for Nexus and angara leadership," she said, showing him a quick view of the document. "I can send it to you or your staff for review as soon as you'd like. I'd planned on bringing it up this morning anyway."

He nodded and pulled up his wrist tool to send her a ping. She forwarded the document.

"It covers two things. The repository on Aya has a display about the Initiative, and I'd like us to have one about angara here on the Nexus in the cultural exchange. You would have control of information submitted—we would not remove any information, and would ask you to be as transparent with us as we are with you."

Ryder went on. "The second point is a request to duplicate and share the contents of the Nexus cultural exchange archives on all angara worlds that agree. That would allow any angara to learn about us, our history, our politics, our cultures—from safety and comfort. We just ask you do not censor the data and allow the entire archive."

She took a deep breath. "My hope is that eventually, once we've achieved peace in the cluster, the angara might be willing to share as much information about yourselves with us."

"Well, you don't lack for ambition," he huffed. Then, quieter, "You would be that open?"

"It's all there. I won't lie, there's layers of propaganda on the surface to wade through, but underneath is the truth. Plus: I introduced you to Drack. He'll set you straight."

"And what does your Nexus leadership...team think of this?" he asked.

"I am certain they'll see the imminent utility of the plan and goodwill it will generate."

"I see," he paused. "I'm glad my judgement didn't lead me astray, Pathfinder," the ambassador said, holding his arm out stiffly. Ryder slammed hers against his firmly, and his eyes narrowed in approval.

"Call me Ryder," she said.

Navar nodded and smiled, then switched off his translator. "Paavoa set jave jarevaon, vesoan."

Chapter Text

Ryder left the angaran embassy a couple hours later. Navar and Kandros had agreed that his bodyguards wouldn't carry arms on the Nexus, but a weapons locker would be accessible in the embassy and ambassador's quarters.

Drack had settled down to disassemble his shotgun for the ambassador's bodyguards. They were discussing repurposed kett weapons. Vetra had been talking about the situation on Kadara with Launa and the ambassador's assistant. A few other staff had trickled in and were setting up equipment. Peebee had corned Navar and was apparently trying to pry all his professional connections from him. He'd seemed amused.

Ryder slipped out after sharing a relieved wave with Launa.

Definitely time for a break.

Ryder checked the time. 1120. A bit early, but probably fine. She sat on a bench in hydroponics and sent a vid request to Jaal.

He answered after a few beeps. There was some shuffling around, a wobbly view of the Tempest cargo bay and Liam's knee, then Jaal's face entered the frame. He had a grin and a few smears of something on his cheek and the old shirt he was wearing.

"Sara! You're finished? How did it go?"

"Pretty well, I think," she said, relaxing in her seat a little. "I left the other three making friends. I think I made a good impression."

"I said you were good at winning over reluctant angara," he laughed.

"Is that what we're calling it now?" Gil's voice carried from off screen. Ryder rolled her eyes.

"You look like you're right in the middle of something there. Are you ready for a break yet?" She asked.

"Nearly!" he sounded excited. "I'm trying to figure out a way to install a shield burst like the nomad has onto this EVA module. Liam is helping me put the nomad's shield system back together."

Ryder closed her eyes and groaned. "You know, I have schematics for that. Or we could fabricate some parts? Did you have to take apart the working one we have?"

"I could have reassembled it myself!" he protested. "Liam insisted." Liam grumbled something inaudible. Jaal scowled and moved and Liam yelped. She heard Gil's laughter in the background. Ryder sighed.

"As long as it's fixed by tomorrow morning. If it's not, I'm telling Sahuna."

Jaal laughed. "She would probably be sympathetic."

"Happy she isn't dealing with it, more like. You were a terror, weren't you?" She squinted at him.

"Of course not," he twinkled. "I am her favorite."

"Of course," Ryder said, then more seriously, "Really, though, fix it. Or you'll be walking on Kadara."

"I promise," he said easily. "There's no need to threaten such dire consequences."

"Well…" she drawled, grinning, "I suppose you might be able to persuade me to leniency."

"I would take...thorough advantage of such a generous opportunity," he said, letting his voice drop and lowering his chin to look from under hooded eyes.

"Ugh, I'm right here, guys!" Liam's muffled protest interrupted them. "Jaal, if you're so confident you can fix this mess, quit flirting with your girlfriend and come help me!"

Jaal sighed dramatically. "I suppose I must. Give me an hour to finish and shower?"

"Sure," she said. "Meet at Vortex? Anan says they'll be serving nutrient paste now that there are a few angara living on the station."

He nodded and smiled. "See you there."

 


 

Sara was chatting with the asari behind the counter in Vortex when Jaal came up behind her and kissed her cheek.

"Hello, my darling," he murmured into her ear. He smiled when he felt the heat of her blush spread up her cheek.

"Hi," she said quietly, looking up through her eyelashes. Delicate, lovely. He remembered how they felt brushing his cheek. "I ordered our food already. Why don't you grab us a table?" she suggested.

"Okay." He squeezed her shoulder before sitting at a table nearby.

Jaal saw the asari glance at him and wink at Sara. Then she elbowed the bald human, who scowled and ignored her. She leaned close as she handed over their food, and something she said made Sara flush darker.

He leaned on the table to watch as she walked over. She smiled and handed him his meal as she sat. "So I assume we have a shielded nomad once more?" she asked.

"Yes," he sighed, opening his packet. "Despite Liam's worry, I am quite capable of reassembling anything I can take apart. I'm careful to take notes and photos when something is unfamiliar."

Her eyes widened at his tone. "Didn't mean to insult you," she said mildly.

Jaal sighed again. "Don't worry, you didn't," he said. "Liam and Gil have been joking at my expense for hours."

She made a sympathetic noise, but he shook his head. "It was...comforting, in a way," he smiled, "A bit like spending time with my brothers."

Sara nodded, but her smile faded and she absently picked at her food. Jaal was quiet and leaned on one arm to watch her. After a moment, he reached out to nudge her arm with his energy, then his hand. She hummed but otherwise didn't seem notice.

"What's bothering you, Sara?"

"Hmm?" she jumped, looking up suddenly.

"What is troubling you?" he asked again. She hesitated, then swallowed hard, looking back down.

"It's just…Scott," she answered quietly.

Her brother.

They had brought the scientists back to Pelaav and made plans to make an attempt at Mithrava. He was hopeful and had called to reassure his mothers. She'd come to check in with him and since he'd felt slightly more comfortable, he'd opened up a bit about his family and asked about hers.

"Are you close to your family?" he asked.

She held very still and her face was almost eerily expressionless. He tensed and pulled his energy close in alarm, but then she cleared her throat and slumped with an exhale.

"I am. Well, I was," and he felt a weight in his chest, suddenly wishing he could pull the question back in like his field. Surely not her whole family...or had she left them behind? He shuddered. Anyone capable of that...

"Humans don't always have big families like angara," she explained. "Well, we aren't always close to our extended relatives anyway. Most long term relationships between humans are monogamous. We often only live with what you'd probably call your 'true' parents and siblings? That's how I grew up anyway."

She crossed her arms over her chest and seemed to shrink. She didn't look anything like the desperate, brash, confident woman he'd met on Aya. Someone who'd stepped into his attempt at intimidation and not backed down.

"My mother died a few years before we left. She got sick and…" she cleared her throat. "Anyway, I joined the Initiative with my father and my twin brother—um...littermates, I suppose? Just us. I don't have other siblings. Dad...died when we first landed. The air was toxic. My helmet broke and he gave me his. The shuttle was too far away to save us both."

Jaal held his breath. Her grief was quiet, sheltered, alien, but he could see it now.

"My brother, Scott, he's alive, but...he's in a coma. We hit the Scourge right as they were bringing him out of cryo and his pod malfunctioned."

"So I guess I'm...kind of an orphan right now," she shrugged and her face twisted, strangely expressive. "but even so, this crew, I feel like they can be like a family sometimes." She took a deep breath and put on a smile like it was armor. "Vetra and Cora are big sisters. Kallo and Gil are the bickering adolescents. Lexi's mom, Drack is grandpa."

He offered condolences that she waved off. He was relieved when she left, unnerved by the way she seemed to hide her unpleasant feelings, twisting away from them.

"Has anything changed?" Jaal asked. He held his hand out, palm up, in case she wanted to take it.

Sara shook her head. "Just went to visit yesterday, and checked before you got here. Same thing. Wait and see."

"That can be difficult to bear," he said.

"Yeah."

He watched her solemnly for a while, trying to think of some comfort to offer that he might have overlooked before.

"I'll be happy to listen whenever you need," he said.

Sara looked up and her eyes shone. How could she have ever seemed unfamiliar? He brushed her wrist with his energy.

"Thank you," she said, with a small half smile. She brushed the back of her hand against his. "It's…out of everything that's happened since we got here, Scott not being here is the weirdest part. Even when we were systems apart, we'd chat all the time, tell each other stories about our days, share gossip…"

She put her face in her hands and took a few slow breaths.

"I'd just about gotten used to Mom being...gone, before we joined the Initiative, y'know? And Dad...it's...it's still raw, but I haven't really had time to think about it. Scott, though. It—" her breath hitched and she stopped talking.

Jaal moved his chair closer and turned fully toward her. He put a hand between her shoulder blades and sent soothing warmth. Sara's arms shook and every muscle seemed to tense.

"Shit shit shit," she hissed.

"Sara…" he began, but she just shook her head and held her breath. A shaky gasp leaked out despite her efforts. Jaal kept his hand and current steady. He wasn't sure whether he was making her feel better or worse, but he couldn't just sit there.

Eventually, her breathing evened out, and after a few heartbreakingly quiet sobs, she sighed and wiped her eyes. "It feels like I've lost him, too. Like I'm just waiting to hear that I have. Or worse, it sometimes feels like I left him behind," she choked out.

Jaal took a shaky breath and blinked away tears of sympathy.

The bravery, the audacity, the recklessness every one of these people needed to make such a huge leap… Jaal thought of everything she had left behind, and how this one—one!—brother she had left was such a tenuous thread.

"I would feel so lost," Jaal said. "I don't know if—no, I know—I wouldn't be able to carry your burdens alone. I don't think it's fair of anyone to ask that of you, including yourself."

Sara wiped her eyes and looked up at him. He'd been expecting the redness in them, and it did still seem strange, but now his reaction was interwoven with concern.

"That's very similar to what your mom told me," she said, resigned.

"I'm not surprised," he said, nodding. Jaal stroked her back once more. Then he moved his chair back, knowing she would probably prefer more space. She watched him, looking like she might start crying again.

"Thank you, Jaal," she whispered.

"You are always welcome, taoshay."

 


 

After her mini breakdown, the rest of lunch went by smoothly. She'd ended up telling him stories about her childhood, like the time she'd tried to help Scott make a special dessert for this kid he had a crush on, and utterly ruined it, but it was just as well, because it turned out they were allergic to one of the ingredients anyway.

Jaal had led the conversation to happy memories and seemed genuinely interested in the stories she shared. He asked questions and nearly seamlessly found the right balance of support and distraction that was exactly what she needed. If she hadn't already been half in love with him, that would have shoved her in head first.

They walked back to the ship hand in hand, and Ryder noted a few raised eyebrows from humans they passed. A few members of the angara delegation were chatting near the Tempest docking ramp, and she nervously squeezed Jaal's hand. He looked down thoughtfully and glanced over to them and back. She sighed and shrugged with a lopsided frown.

Jaal suddenly looked determined and stopped in the middle of the walkway. Right in front of the group of angara.

Oh no what—

"Sara," he said softly, cupping her cheeks and leaning down to kiss the top of her head. She felt his field rise slowly, bringing her hair up with it, and found herself mirroring the small smile she felt against her scalp.

"I just don't want to cause...problems...for you," she said quietly. His energy lowered and he put his hands on her shoulders, then tilted her face up gently.

"Whatever you bring to my life, I welcome it all," he said. "Let me decide what problems are too big for me, hmm?" His thumb brushed back and forth across her bright, burning cheek. She felt lightheaded.

"Okay," she sighed.

"Okay," he said. His smile softened and he glanced down to her mouth and back up, but didn't lean down. Acceptance. An opening. A question.

Ryder felt adrenaline spike and bit her bottom lip. He would—he wanted—hell, she wanted—fuck it. She smiled nervously, glanced quickly to his lips, and back up. Yes. His eyes sparkled as he leaned down.

A split second decision had her stretching up on tiptoes and cupping his jaw as they met. She gasped when his energy flooded her. A few seconds later, he pulled it back, then pulled her closer with a low rumble in his chest.

Before, she'd felt exposed and uncertain, but now the warmth of his arms grounded her. He surrounded her, caught her, filled her senses. The ache in her abdomen was blooming into a lower heat. When his fingertips pressed harder into her, she knew he felt it too.

They parted slowly, then he tilted the other direction and recaptured her mouth with a quiet hum. A new gentle current came from him. Something she hadn't felt before. It was glowing, warm, and settled in her chest. Joy? Satisfaction? She suddenly remembered the night before their first landing on Elaaden, when he'd held her and whispered into her ear. Confidence.

Oh, sweetheart.

Ryder leaned into him and wrapped both her arms around his neck, kissing him back harder. Jaal gasped and pressed closer, letting out a deeper hum that was almost a moan.

She shivered and slowly relaxed back down to her feet, dragging her hands down from his neck. He followed her with closed eyes and a sigh, and rested his forehead against hers. Ryder was on fire and couldn't bring herself to open her eyes or stop smiling.

Well. That's one way to say ‘tough shit, everyone deal with it.' I can't believe we just did that. It'll be all over the station by tomorrow.

She was going to have to look around at some point. Her nerves came back and she took a deep breath before looking up at him. Jaal stood up when her eyes opened, and kissed her cheek softly.

The general noise level of the docks sounded about the same as it had before. Ok good, always reassuring to find you're not the center of the universe. Then a shrill whistle cut across from above, and they both jumped.

Peebee was leaning over the upper railing and waving at them. She had an absolute shit-eating grin. Jaal's laugh was gigantic and must have echoed through the entire damned Nexus. Ryder groaned and hid her face in his chest, but he patted her shoulders and leaned down to quietly reassure her.

"I think the most common problem I will face is gossip, taoshay," he said, glancing at the group of angara nearby. One angara woman was staring with her mouth open and blushing while another was shaking a man's arm and chattering at him with a grin. The man's eyes were narrowed at them thoughtfully.

"Oh my god," Ryder groaned and hid in Jaal's chest again. His laugh was so warm and beautiful it lifted her mood in spite of herself. "Still…I don't want you to become a Roekaar target," she said, taking his arm and pulling him toward the ship.

Jaal sighed low. "We both already are, whether we're involved or not," he answered. He seemed to hesitate while they waited on the door to unlock. The warm confident glow she'd felt earlier was gone, replaced by a soft buzz.

"You're right," she said firmly, turning toward him and taking both of his hands. The airlock doors slid open, but they ignored them. "I think I'm nervous about being a public figure. Everyone, total strangers, are going to have opinions about my personal choices and it's not like I can just nova everyone who looks at us sideways."

Laughter melted from him and his nervous buzz faded as he gathered her in a hug. "No, you can't," he said. "But I love that you want to."

Jaal cupped her cheek and gave her a warm smile before heading down to the cargo bay. She stood in the airlock and grinned after him in a fluffy haze so thick that Suvi had to shake her to get her attention.

"Ry-der!" she said, laughing when Ryder jumped and blushed. "Director Tann asked that you visit his office or call him when you returned to the ship."

Ryder blinked and cleared her throat. "Uh, thanks Suvi. Sorry."

Suvi just grinned and rolled her eyes and shooed her down the catwalk.

Ryder stopped to use the bathroom and wash her face before calling Tann. She knew he'd had time for a meeting with Navar's staff and to look over the cultural exchange proposal. Plenty of time to get good and pissed. Hopefully that could work to her advantage.

"Cora," she opened a channel as she headed for the ladders, "got a call with Tann. You free to listen in out of vid range?"

"Sure thing, Sara. I'm in hydroponics. Be right there," she answered.

"Hey, SAM?" Ryder asked as she headed to the meeting room.

"Yes, Ryder?"

"What are the odds Tann will actually approve of our proposal?"

"I would say quite high. I estimate greater than 80% likelihood. I doubt he will approve of your method of delivery, but will most likely overlook it in favor of political expediency."

Ryder walked up to the bio lab doors just as Cora exited. She had a headband on and was wiping her hands on a cloth.

"Ready to justify how you did your job?" she asked wryly.

Ryder sighed. "Yeah, let's do it," she said. Cora nodded and leaned on the railing at the bottom of the ramp.

Ryder took a few centering breaths and called Tann's office. His assistant answered.

"Hello, Pathfinder Ryder!" she chirped. "Director Tann should be available soon. May I put you on hold for a moment?"

"Of course, Siel," Ryder smiled and put her hands behind her back. She rolled her eyes as the hold tone started and heard Cora snort quietly. Less than 30 seconds later, Tann picked up the call.

"Pathfinder," he greeted her.

"Director," she nodded.

"I've just met with Ambassador Navar and his staff. Before that I had a short discussion with our cultural exchange liaison regarding a proposal you co-authored."

"Oh, good," Ryder smiled. "Launa and I have high hopes that our proposal will open diplomatic and informal interpersonal connections between angara and the Initiative."

"Hmph. Yes," he answered shortly. "I would have appreciated a chance to review the ideas with you before you presented it to the ambassador."

"I understand your position," she said carefully, "but in my judgement, sharing this proposal with the ambassador's staff encouraged dialogue and established trust that is sorely needed between our peoples." Ryder smiled stiffly. "However, I'll keep your feedback in mind in the future, Director."

"Thank you, Pathfinder. As I have said before, I do appreciate your enthusiasm on behalf of the Initiative." Tann nodded in a way he probably thought was dignified. He went on. "Speaking of your meeting with the ambassador this morning, I understand you brought a few members of your team with you."

"Yes," she nodded. She waited, smiling placidly. Tann blinked. Ryder blinked.

Jarun Tann had nothing on Ellen Ryder's piercing stares. He cleared his throat.

"I would request you elaborate on your reasons for including these particular team members?" he said.

She was slightly surprised. No dancing around it. Ok, fair's fair.

"Honestly, I think introducing a wide variety of Initiative members will promote the ideals of transparency and openness, which will be key in establishing diplomatic ties with the angara. Their first contact with any alien life led to them being under siege for nearly a century. They are understandably cautious."

Tann looked like he was about to speak, but she held up a hand, palm out, and frowned. His mouth shut.

Wow. Huh. Thanks, Dad. That works surprisingly well from this side.

"We need each other to survive," she said firmly, staring him down. "I'm far from an expert, but with what I know of the angara, any kind of secrecy, propaganda, or hedging our bets will blow up in our faces. That's why I introduced the ambassador's team to these three team members. They help represent the diversity of the Initiative, which can only help us strengthen our ties with the angara."

Tann had crossed his arms as she spoke, and his frown deepened.

"Well, I see you are convinced of the efficacy of your strategy. We can only hope you are right, Pathfinder."

Ryder grit her teeth and nodded once. Tann sighed and paused with his lips pressed together, and she had a sudden premonition she was not going to enjoy what he said next.

"Speaking of...ties to the angara and the...variety of your team," he began, "I wanted to discuss your discretion as a representative of Initiative leadership. I have just heard of some rather salacious gossip being passed around the docks—"

At this point, Ryder reached her bullshit capacity for the day.

"Director Tann." She cut him off abruptly. "If the next words out of your mouth concern any information about my personal relationships you will quickly find yourself in the middle a personnel department nightmare the likes of which you may have only heard whispered from under your clan dalatrass' doors as a child. Keri T'Vessa's exclusive and candid interview will be the least of your concerns. My personal life and the personal lives of my team are. off. limits. Is that clear?"

Tann's mouth closed and he blinked a half dozen times. He pursed his lips, but nodded. "Of course, Pathfinder."

"Excellent. If there's nothing else, Director?"

"No. Thank you for your time, Pathfinder. Tann out."

He closed the channel, but Ryder made sure it was off before leaning on the table with a groan of frustration.

It hasn't been fifteen minutes. Does the man monitor video feeds? Does he have someone tail me every time I'm on the station? Nosy asshole.

Ryder walked over and looked down to get Cora's opinion. She was waiting at the bottom of the ramp with crossed arms and a smirk. She gave Ryder a thumbs up and a nod before she headed back into the bio lab.

Ryder stretched and ran her hands through her hair. Okay. What next?

She stared at the wall for a minute.

Hundreds of things.

She sighed.

The door to the bio lab opened again and Cora gave her a speculative look. "Come on," she said, waving her over.

"What?" Ryder asked.

"Come on," Cora repeated. "Help me separate these seedlings into pods."

"Really?"

"Yes. It's good for you."

"Y'know what? Sure." Ryder shrugged and headed down the ramp.

"Great!" Cora grinned. "I've just about mastered spinach and peas. I've even started compost bins."

"Just Earth crops?"

"Nope! Come see," she gestured excitedly as Ryder followed her in.

It had been a few weeks since Ryder had really paid attention to the bio lab, and Cora had made progress. The bay to the right was reserved for specimen examinations, but the desk and racks of hydroponics shelves were all in use and neatly organized. Three metal compost cylinders were spinning slowly just to the left of the doorway.

"I've got human and asari crops here in this column," Cora gestured as she talked, "and there's this perennial ground cover herb from Palaven I'm trying to grow here. It's common in turian dishes, and Vetra likes it, and it smells great. But I'm really hopeful for these little guys."

She stopped near two trays of fluffy purple and green shoots and opened her omnitool to check them. She turned to Ryder with an excited grin.

"And what are these little guys?" Ryder asked, buoyed by Cora's enthusiasm.

"Naashoay."

Ryder blinked. "What?"

"A Heleus crop!" Cora said. "I got the seeds when we were on Aya. We don't have room for the fruit you found right now, but this we can handle. It's kind of like...clover? It looks like clover anyway. The flowers are dried and steeped as a tea. Jaal actually brought some to share when you came back from visiting his family."

"Oh cool! That mint-sassafras stuff." Ryder gently touched a couple sprouts.

"Yeah, it's one of the first things I've found that actually seems to be safe and palatable for all of us."

"Really?"

"Well, maybe not hanar, volus, or quarians, but everyone on the Tempest can drink it safely, and it at least tastes like food to humans," she shrugged. "I don't know if anyone else has tried it yet."

The women stood in companionable silence. They listened to the shuffling turns of the compost bins and the background hum of the ship while they looked over the plants.

"You've been spending most of your free time in here, huh?" Ryder asked quietly.

Cora nodded. "It's done wonders for my stress levels, honestly. Not just having a project, though that's nice too, but…" she turned to the desk, where two and a half cramped trays of spinach waited. Cora smiled and sat back down to her work. "There's so much depending on us—I don't have to tell you that," she raised an eyebrow at Ryder, who snorted and pulled up a chair. "It's nice to have tangible results. Something that, no matter how bad things are, I can look to it and say I contributed this."

Cora teased out a clump of plants and separated them, then tucked tiny white roots into individual bulbs. "Keeps me centered," she said.

"I'm glad," Ryder said, picking up one of the individual pods. "Plus, we'll have salads and smoothies soon, right?"

"Oh god, Sara, you're not one of those spinach smoothie people!"

"What!? I thought you were all about fitness!"

"Fitness yes, but vegetables belong in stews and salads, not smoothies," Cora gave her a hard side-eye.

Ryder gasped in shock and put her hand over her heart. "Carrot juice is the nectar of the gods!"

Cora laughed, "I prefer not to liquify my carrots, but whatever floats your boat."

"More for me I suppose," Ryder shrugged, then scooted her sleeves up with a smile. "So, what are we doing here?"

Chapter Text

Jaal found her there hours later. He entered the bio lab looking triumphantly exhausted.

Ryder glanced up from where she was looking through the Nexus seed vault directory.

"Hey," she said.

His eyes softened and he came over to her. He leaned down to kiss her temple and briefly nuzzled his nose into her hair. Heat bloomed everywhere.

Out of the corner of her eye, Ryder saw Cora suddenly cover her mouth. A glance showed the corners of her eyes crinkling.

I can't just fall to pieces every time he touches me.

Jaal moved his hand down to her neck and whispered, "I love making you blush, darling one."

She laughed and stood stiffly, reaching up to pull his hand from her neck and hold it with a squeeze. "Yeah," she said nervously.

He pulled back and looked her over, then made to step back. The slightest flash of hurt flickered through his eyes, and she held his hand tighter and pulled closer in apology. Ryder stretched to give him a peck on the cheek.

"Progress?" she asked.

"On the shield? A bit!" he smiled and relaxed, "The power draw is the main issue. I've modified the mechanism to work with the EVA's power sources, but they can't hold quite enough to make the shield burst and still operate the controls, so it would be an act of desperation before a crash landing...and the pulse isn't strong enough to be worth that," he sighed. "I'm also shorting out the wiring half the time and I need to figure out the problem there. But I'm happy with what I've accomplished."

The shipwide comm clicked on and Drack's voice came out. "Food's ready if anyone wants it."

Jaal gestured and stepped toward the door. Ryder smiled and closed her omnitool. "Seems like soon I'll the only one on the ship without a hobby."

"Not enjoying gardening?" Cora asked. She settled the last tray of spinach pods on the rack and made sure the lights were set properly.

"I see why you like it," Ryder said as they left the bio lab, "but I don't know if it's my thing."

"You're welcome to join in my projects, Sara," Jaal said, looking over his shoulder.

"Hmm, I don't know," she said as they walked to the ladders. Kallo came out of the bridge and smiled at them before sliding down. "With tech, I'm kind of like you with biology. I'm less interested in how it works than how to use it effectively."

Jaal paused halfway down the ladder and looked up at her with restrained amusement. She realized everyone was silent. Liam was frozen midstep down the lower hall. Suvi had just stepped out of the bridge with wide eyes.

Ryder rewound a few seconds, then closed her eyes with a sigh. "I wasn't talking about—" she started.

Cora coughed, which started Suvi giggling.

Liam laughed as he walked up. "I think we've all heard how effectively Jaal uses biology, Ryder."

Kallo groaned.

"God damn it." Ryder said, muffled by her own hands.

Jaal thumped to the floor with a short laugh.

"I realize how it sounds," he said, slightly smug amusement laced through his tone, "but she really wasn't referring to sex."

"Nooo…" Kallo put his hands over his tympanic membranes, "don't get the humans talking about mating, they'll never stop."

"Wait, who's mating?" Gil asked as he came through the door from the cargo bay. "Is everyone on this ship getting some but me?"

Cora was leaning on Ryder's shoulder and shaking. Kallo groaned louder and headed to the galley. Ryder sighed and shoved her palms against her eyes in an attempt to rewind about 90 seconds. It didn't work. Suvi ducked in front of her and climbed down.

"It's ok, Kallo, I'll rescue you," she said. "We can get Drack and Lexi to talk about krogan mating instead!"

"I thought we were friends, Suvi!"

Ryder sighed and slid down the ladder. She tried to avoid eye contact. The less she said at this point the better.

"I'm taking a vow of silence. If I don't say anything, I can't put my foot in my mouth," she said.

"Why would…" Jaal paused, then in baffled horror, "What does that one even mean?"

"Too embarrassed right now," Ryder groaned. She waved her hand at Liam and Gil. "One of you guys explain," she said as she fled into the galley.

 


 

Most people grabbed a plate and dispersed, but Jaal, Liam, and Ryder had stayed in the galley and chatted with Drack while they ate.

Ryder's embarrassment faded and she cuddled up next to Jaal. His energy ebbed and flowed as he spoke and listened, emphasizing and reacting. It was like unfamiliar body language. She felt she could almost see the pattern, and looked forward to figuring it out.

She was getting pleasantly sleepy, and she didn't really want to move, but it was late.

"Peebee, you and I are on cleanup duty tonight," Liam said into his omnitool.

"I didn't even eat any of it," she complained from his wrist.

"So come eat and then help me clean up," he said. "Or don't eat. Whatever. But if you don't do your share of the dishes, half of them are getting shoved in your bunk."

"Fiiiine. Five minutes." Peebee closed the channel.

"Thanks for dinner and clean up, guys," Ryder said, getting up and stretching. She felt eyes on her and saw Jaal's gaze on her hips. She smiled and turned to go.

"Night," she said over her shoulder.

She'd just opened her door when she heard Jaal softly call her name. Ryder turned with a smile, and he came to take her hands in apparent relief.

"I…" he hesitated, "feel I have done something to apologize for, but I'm not sure what, which makes no sense at all."

Ryder squeezed his hands and slid her arms around his waist. She sighed and pressed her face against his chest. Jaal relaxed a bit and kissed the top of her head.

"Because I was embarrassed?" she asked.

"In the bio lab, too?"

Ryder had to stop and think, then remembered how she'd been awkwardly surprised at his affection in front of Cora.

"That's probably just different social norms," she said. "You didn't do anything wrong. I was mostly surprised. But it looked like I hurt your feelings."

"A little, but I understand. You were nervous this afternoon, too. Do you want me to be less...affectionate in front of everyone?" He sounded uncomfortable, but determined.

"Oh sweetheart," she said, and smiled when his breath hitched and he held her tighter, "No. I just...it's been a while since I was in an actual relationship, and when I was, I was much younger and had less...galactic civilization on my shoulders."

Jaal's breath was warm as it puffed through her hair. "I know exactly what you mean," he said.

Ryder pulled back to look up at him. "Then we'll figure it out together, okay?"

Jaal's eyes widened as he looked down into hers and she felt the same energy pattern—it's how I feel about you—running through his hands. "Yes," he whispered as he leaned down to kiss her.

He was sweet and slow. She could feel his desire in his movements and the heaviness that entered his current, but he didn't press forward. Where urgency was before, now patience had taken hold. His touch was precise and he moved like he had all the time in the world to consume her.

Ryder spread her hands on his sides and made a soft sound at the warm, firm give under her touch.

Jaal slid a hand down to her hip and then cupped under her ass with a short breath. He squeezed her and pressed down to her thigh with a rumble that echoed up his throat.

"I'll never get enough of you, Sara," he whispered against her lips.

She gave him a short kiss, then leaned up to press her lips just under his brow, right where his aural canal was hidden. "I'd absolutely tie you to my bed and keep you there forever if I could," she said. She bit the top of his cowl gently. He shuddered and nosed into her hairline.

"When we have the time, I am definitely open to exploring that idea further," he said. She gripped him firmly. "But for now, I'll have to be content with memory...and other ideas."

Ryder was gritting her teeth so hard it hurt.

"Tomorrow?" she asked, shivering.

His answer was a shudder and a wordless moan into her neck. He bit and pulled her closer.

"You're killing me," she groaned. 

Jaal chuckled low and kissed under her ear. "Sleep well, my love," he said, and sent one last pulse through his hands before he stepped over to the ladder. He glanced down with a smile as he climbed up.

At least I'll die happy. She grabbed her kit and headed to take an extremely cold shower.

Chapter Text

Jaal somehow managed to make it back to the tech lab without fully unsheathing, and, mercifully, met no one on the way.

He locked the door behind him with a low groan and headed straight to his bed.

His dick was tight, still half trapped from the pressure of his suit. He cupped himself and remembered how Sara had pulled him close with her thighs. How he'd held her against the wall and felt her pulsing and quaking with pleasure. He hadn't believed it, but then she had again on his hand. What would that feel like—he couldn't—how could he stand it—every time it would feel like she was ready to completely…and she'd expected him to—

A few quick tugs relieved the pressure and the cool air made him twitch and gasp. He threw away his gloves and reached for himself. What will her hands feel like on me? Soft, small, strong. She'd be gentle, cautious, yes, but…focused. He thought of her eyes sparking and her face flushing as she looked down to his aching heat.

He pressed one palm at the bulge of his sheath, right at the upper base of his cock. Firm pressure. He sighed in relief as he swelled out, fully released. He shivered hard and felt his field thrum through his hips. She couldn't—Sara's field was barely strong enough to notice, only occasional glimpses, but the way she'd actually physically pulsed around his touch… He'd pushed her to a third peak just to feel her coming again. He'd never known how it could—he felt his current react in memory.

The fingers of his other hand carefully reached underneath to stroke into the folds of his sheath. Pressure at the warm, hidden base of his cock. Her fingers inside, the soft give of the pads stroking him, exploring. He imagined her face, concentrating, flushed, fascinated. Her lips wet and parted in a gasp. He groaned quietly.

The memory of I want to feel you and her hands tearing desperately at his suit. A soft thigh against his.

Jaal lifted his hips against his hands and closed his eyes.

"Sara," he gasped, working himself faster.

I'd absolutely tie you to my bed—he peaked hard and held himself tighter as his energy burst through him. Heat shuddered up his spine and through his hands, out from his hips and back in, building, harder.

He wanted her so much. He kept moving, panting through his fast, sudden climax. He wanted more. He really wouldn't ever get enough.

She'd push him down, straddle his hips, be so unbelievably wet that he'd somehow manage to fit inside her. The soft stretch he'd felt on his hand, how tightly she came. He breathed faster and moved his hand up from his base, moving his energy along his length.

I want to feel you, she'd said.

Yes, she'd take what she wanted from him. Her thighs had held him so well. She'd grabbed his hands and put them on her body exactly like she wanted.

Sara would spread herself onto him, fuck him down into her bed, tell him exactly where to touch her. He felt it building again, heat and want for her to take him in completely.

She'd said—she'd expected—would she really want him to…she would physically pull him in every time she...skkut he had to slow down. A heavy ache had started to build at the base of his cock, and he shivered through the heat pooling at his hips. She'd expected him to fully release and...it's not the same, she doesn't know. He shouldn't. His breaths were burning in his throat. He hadn't felt this wild in years. Hadn't been this absolutely intoxicated since…maybe adolescence? It must not...it's just...it has to be something else. He held himself tighter and panted, trying to calm down.

It didn't help at all. He didn't want to calm down. He wanted it so much. He wanted to fill her, pour himself out, mate with this brilliant force who pulled him into her orbit. Letting himself name his desire made it that much harder to resist. He was already hers anyway.

His hands moved faster and he growled her name as quietly as he could. He could feel it, right there, the heat, the weight that he could so easily release deep into her and it would feel so...

He pressed further into his sheath and squeezed his cock gently as he let energy from his hand into his length—and hot rolling waves flowed from him. His dick was pumping under his hand. He felt it, wet and warm on his hands, his abdomen. He throbbed into his fist and bit his lips to hold on to his sounds. He wanted to cry out his need for her. hard. please. more. Sara. Sara.

Tears ran down his cheeks from the strain. His face was caught in a tight grimace as he started pulling in deep, harsh breaths.

His energy burst from him, erratic and free, snapping and thrumming until his breathing slowed, slower. He relaxed his hands and felt himself soften, entirely spent. He opened his eyes and groaned, leaning up to confirm the complete mess he had made of himself, like an unrestrained hormonal oaf. Then he closed his eyes and thumped his head back down on his pillow with a heavy sigh.

Skkut.

He was in serious trouble.

Chapter Text

Ryder headed to the bridge at 0730 the next morning, coffee and meal bar in hand.

"All set, Kallo?" she asked.

"As long as Gil hasn't decided to put the engine in upside down," he griped.

Ryder decided to leave that one alone for now, and took it as a yes. She flipped on the comm. "Ok people, we are heading to Kadara. Don't drink the water, leave pissing off Sloane to me, and leave the scale itch off the ship, ‘kay? ETA is 40 hours."

"Course laid in, Ryder," Kallo said.

"All ground squad members: meeting room at 1030 with your latest Kadara intel. Ryder out," she said, and flipped off the comm.

 


 

Ryder perched on the arm of a meeting room couch and leaned on Drack's shoulder while she pulled up a list on a data pad. Everyone was milling in. She caught Jaal's eye and he smiled at her as he walked over to a chair nearby.

"Vetra, you ok to start?" She nodded from across the table, and Ryder held out a hand to give her the floor.

"Word is, Kelly is not happy with us," Vetra began. "The Outcasts strongly suspect the Pathfinder team had a hand in extracting Terev, and they've been working to find the leak or vulnerability. Vidal does good work, though, so they haven't found it. They've increased security and there's some internal finger pointing."

"She out for blood?" Ryder asked.

Drack spoke up. "Kelly's ruthless, but practical. She isn't gonna bother wasting resources on us if she doesn't have to."

"As long as we don't challenge her too badly, she'll leave us alone," Vetra said. "She knows she can't reasonably hold a whole planet, and I bet she won't want to try."

"Plus," Liam added, "I bet at least some of her people left behind friends and family on the Nexus. They'll be putting pressure on her to re-establish ties eventually."

Ryder nodded. "That's the hope. It's our only bargaining chip right now." She flicked through her pad. "Any suspicion about the Resistance being involved in Terev's escape?" She looked from Vetra to Jaal and back.

Vetra flapped her mandibles and looked at Jaal, who crossed his arms and sighed. "Maybe?" Vetra answered. Jaal nodded.

"Evfra hasn't said anything about operations on Kadara one way or the other, beyond acknowledging Terev's arrival on Aya," he said. "He sends his thanks for our work, specifically your efforts, Ryder."

"Well, in that case we'll assume Vidal isn't compromised for now," Ryder said, then smiled crookedly. "Evfra probably trusts me enough to warn me if he is."

"Ryder," Jaal admonished.

"I said he probably does!" she said. Jaal looked up and shook his head.

"So," Ryder went on, "if Kelly lets us dock, we play it cool and try not to rock the boat."

"...what boat?" Jaal asked.

"Shut it, I know you know that one," Liam cheerfully called.

"Moving on," Ryder said, glancing at them both. "If the Outcasts decide they won't let us dock: Strategies?"

"Airdrop." Drack rumbled.

Ryder coughed and patted him on the shoulder. "That's the bottom of the list, Drack."

He laughed. "Effective though."

"Are there other locations suitable for landing?" Cora asked, pulling up a holo of Kadara over the meeting table. Ryder updated and pinged Kallo and Gil to join the meeting over the comm.

Jaal started fiddling and superimposed a layer of information. "This is a very old map of Kadara," he said. "Roads and cities. The planet never had a large angara population, and Kadara Port is the location of the only space port. But there may be old shuttle and aircraft landing strips large enough that we could use."

"SAM, analysis?" Ryder asked, walking over to the table.

"I note two possible secure locations within reasonable driving distance, Pathfinder," SAM replied and highlighted two areas with blinking circles. Ryder pulled them both up and zoomed.

"One is a shipping platform near an abandoned mine, approximately 50 km from Kadara Port," SAM said. "Our scans from our last visit showed no activity other than wildlife in the area. There are, however, a number of pools of water between the mine and the port, suggesting hazardous terrain."

"The second is closer, 32 km, a natural plateau. Scans have shown Remnant in the area, and minor seismic activity. A Remnant monolith lies between it and the port."

Ryder rubbed her eyes. "Ok, so, acid and animals or killer robots. Great. Pros and cons?"

Peebee said, "I'd obviously love to study the Remnant location, but I don't want them to skeletonize the ship."

"I think we can all get behind that," Cora said, leaning forward to zoom into the Remnant ridden plateau. "SAM," she asked, "any records of towns or anything nearby? What's the route to the port from here look like, other than Remnant?"

"Jaal uploaded the most thorough information I have access to, and it shows no settlements within at least 40 km of the area," SAM answered. "The terrain is rough, but dry. Any resistance you would encounter would most likely be Remnant."

"What are the odds they'd attack the ship while the ground crew is out?" Kallo asked over the speakers.

"Unknown, but probably unlikely," SAM answered.

"Don't like the sound of that," Gil said.

"For once, we agree," Kallo said.

"Well," Ryder said, "the other option might include us dissolving in acid, so neither is ideal, guys."

"SAM, can you run some possible scenarios with risk assessments for each location?" she asked.

"Of course, Pathfinder."

"We could still just airdrop down into the badlands," Drack said.

Ryder sighed, "Y'know, fine. Please also run a scenario where a team airdrops in the nomad right outside the port, SAM. We can spray paint something insulting on the side and flash it through Sloane's window."

"I will assume you wish me to exclude that variable from the calculation, Pathfinder," SAM answered primly.

Cora sighed and rolled her eyes. Drack's rough laugh rolled through the room, and Ryder grinned.

"Yes, please, SAM," she said. "When they're done, I'll meet with Cora, Gil, and Kallo and we'll go over our alternate landing options. Let's hope we don't need them."

Ryder looked around the room.

"Anyone got anything else about Kadara?" she asked.

No one did.

"Ok, good," she said with a nod. "We have a plan, which is better than usual. Dismissed."

 


 

That evening, Jaal found Liam headed to the galley, and called to get his attention. Liam waved and said, "Hey buddy, just grabbing some dinner, what's up?"

"Would you mind if I joined you?" Jaal asked. "I was hoping we might have another session of information swapping."

"Alright, cool!" Liam dug around in the cabinet and pulled out a few things. "Any particular topic?"

"Romance and relationships mostly."

Liam raised an eyebrow and looked up from where he was adding water to a bowl. "Things seem to be going well with you and Ryder. If I'm going by all the flirting and all the cuddling at dinner last night." He grinned at Jaal, who shrugged and smiled.

"No, I don't think there are problems. I just wondered about context for a few things." Jaal reached for a bowl and his open container of nutrient paste. "As you've said, reading only gives you so much information, and it's so clinical. I also thought you might like to find out about angaran romantic relationships."

"Ooh! Gonna help me find a sexy green alien chick?" Liam grinned as he heated up a packet.

"Uh...I did not have anyone in mind, no. Also, it's...it is considered distasteful to voice a preference for certain skin tones. Compliments to someone you're interested in are usually welcome, but...I would never say I'm looking for a partner with a specific appearance." Jaal dug a bag of dried fruit from the cabinet and added a few slices to the bowl with his nutrient paste.

"Good to know. Similar to human racial lines. It's cool to date whoever you're into, but stuff like ‘no Asians'? Or fetishising someone? That's racist bullshit." Liam made a face. "Wasn't talking about that, though. It was a reference to an old show—but probably dumb to make anyway. Not like you guys know about 200—shit, 800? never gonna get used to the cryo time skip—year old human shows."

"Yes, I want to try to avoid missteps like that," Jaal said.

Liam nodded and carried his food out the door, motioning him to follow. He headed to the storage room off the cargo bay. Liam sat his meal on the box in front of him and dropped on his couch with a smile.

"Make yourself at home!" He waved at the other end of the couch as he started on his food.

Jaal sat and took a drink of water while thinking of his first question. "Are humans generally embarrassed easily about romantic relationships? Are those connections something to keep...private?"

"Nah, I mean, the military has these regs about not fraternizing within your chain of command, and if you work together and have an ugly breakup sometimes there can be a mess. But we're happy to show our attachments. Flaunt them, sometimes."

"Hmm. Sara was embarrassed to discover we had been overheard the first time we were intimate. I thought that was probably just a cultural difference, but then she was uncertain a few times yesterday as well, so now I wonder...do you think she doesn't feel comfortable with our relationship?" Jaal's worry leaked into his voice, and he fiddled with his spoon.

"Oh, no way, man! Sex is different," Liam said. Jaal was confused, but reassured. Liam went on. "Relationships, yes. As in, I am involved with this person or people, we hold hands in public, maybe cuddle a little, give hugs, a short kiss hello or goodbye. And she could be uncertain because you guys are like, the very first human/angara couple. Might take a while to find your comfort zone?"

"Maybe…" Jaal hesitated. "You think that's all it is?"

Liam nodded. "Probably. Most human cultures have different levels of acceptable public touching and stuff. Even internally between cultures there might be differences. But it's pretty widespread for us to not really want our sexual activities to be...overheard by people who aren't...directly involved. Or to overhear or see other people."

"But don't you have pornographic material? I'm certain I overheard you talking about it with Gil."

Liam's neck, ears, and cheeks suddenly flushed very dark. He cleared his throat. "Uh...well, um. Sex work is its...own thing? Watching porn, reading porn, it's...I mean, everyone does it but no one really talks about it openly."

"Why not?"

"That would take...just...so much background, man. Just remember that humans are often private about sex, especially the sex that we, specifically, are having. Sometimes we aren't, but those are the exceptions. Even then, we don't really talk details unless it's for education or among really close friends."

Jaal nodded and swallowed a bite. Liam made a thoughtful noise and waved his empty fork. Jaal waited quietly until he'd taken a sip of his drink.

"I've been meaning to ask for more details about angara family structures," Liam said. "Humans are sometimes polygamous, but more often serially monogamous. We usually only legally acknowledge one marriage at a time? It's gotten all weird since first contact, though. Child custody is a whole...thing with blended families and adoption. We've got...history with legally recognizing certain marriages. It's...it got ugly. I wonder what it's like back in the Milky Way at this point," he paused thoughtfully, then shook his head. "But anyway—that's why I'm curious about how you guys deal with that. Your family structures seem more complicated than ours, even our extended families. Like...do most angara have more than one partner at a time? Or more than one mate? Or different levels of commitment? Or...groups? Or…?"

Jaal hummed. "Yes and no," he said with a shrug. "Each individual has their own comfort zone of course, and each romantic relationship has to be...decided about individually, by the participants. Open communication is important. From what I've read humans tend to be...more possessive of your partners? Monogamy is usually assumed? For angara, it isn't, unless discussed. Jealousy is usually considered a sign of insecurity, lack of communication."

Liam nodded in recognition. Jaal sighed and took another bite while he thought. It wasn't like he had that much context to compare angara to other species. Yet...everyone but salarians seemed to have such small families.

"Hmm," Jaal thought, leaning back and crossing his arms. "Legally, we're probably more permissive than you, I'd guess? As long as people want to join families, officially...they do. Whenever they want. At this point it's mostly for census and taxing, tracking people's skills and records, connections. As best we can, anyway. But relationship connections come and go. We have joining ceremonies without legal connections, and legal connections without joining ceremonies. One is for joining families, romantic ties, bonding, and one is for…formally blending families in our records. Does that make sense?"

Liam shrugged, but nodded. He seemed to be paying close attention. Jaal sighed, and tried to think of what information would be important to an alien.

"Some people have multiple mates, some never do, some bond with some, mate with others," he said. "In my family, my true mother, true father, and another of my mothers were joined. When my true father died, my mothers decided to join families with their friends who had also lost partners—not a romantic connection between my original and additional mothers, but a blending of families."

Liam's forehead was wrinkled, considering this. "How do you know how someone is related to you? If they're related to you?"

"That's what the records are for," Jaal shrugged and smiled. "Also, most people will know how they're connected to people who live nearby."

"What about accidental inbreeding?"

"Accidental?" Jaal tilted his head and stared. "How...oh. Oh, yes, humans don't have ushaara. We bond with sex without fully mating. Honestly, how do you not, accidentally?"

"Shit, most humans are accidents, probably. For the rest of it, latex and chemistry." Jaal just...left that alone for now.

After a drink, Liam went on. "As far as inbreeding, we've got an extremely strong incest taboo. Instinctive level shit. If we're raised with people in our formative years, we're usually seriously squicked out by the idea, genetics or no."

"What if people are genetically similar, but raised apart?"

"Rare, but I guess it could be a problem. I dunno."

"This is very strange."

"You're telling me."

Both men ate in silence for a few minutes, digesting information.

"So," Jaal asked after a while, "what sorts of traits are attractive to humans?"

"Physical or personality?"

"Hm...both."

"Well, it can vary a lot," Liam said. He put his nearly empty dish down and turned sideways to face Jaal. "Some people prefer their partners to have specific physical traits, like, some people go for really tall people? Things like that. Some people prefer thin or bulky, different hair or eye color. We look at things like...hair, facial features, muscle tone, smooth skin complexions, breasts, butts—just about everyone can appreciate a good ass. Some people are only attracted to one gender, some more, some aren't at all," he shrugged and took a drink before continuing. "In general, we look for health and symmetry, cleanliness, obviously. But...at the same time? I think there's something kinda hot about a girl who's worked hard all day. Makes me want to get her a little dirtier, and then clean up together, y'know?" Liam grinned.

Jaal laughed. "Yes, I think that's all similar enough."

"Now personality, man, that's even harder to say?" Liam rubbed his hands on his pants and sighed, looking up at the ceiling. "I suppose...it just depends a lot on the individual. For me? It's important that a woman has...passion, a focus, something that drives her, whatever that is. Someone who would have patience with my...well...my mouth's an idiot sometimes, you know?" He shrugged in self deprecation and Jaal laughed. Liam went on with a smile, "It'd be nice if she was high energy like me, and I'd like her to be interested in learning about my hobbies and want to share hers. Honesty and dependability are important to me, too."

"Those all sound like reasonable things to desire in a partner," Jaal said. "Angara are similar."

"Yeah, but...I'm kinda boring, maybe? I want to go out and do something to help people, then come home to someone cute who'll cuddle with takeout and watch bad movies." He looked a little wistful. "For some people, physical attraction and passion, being swept off their feet, is very important to them. Some people don't want a commitment or want something with an edge, someone who is charming but cagey."

"Angara tend not to seek out partners like that, even for casual relationships. Physical attraction, yes, but even at that level only, I can't imagine becoming intimate with someone I wasn't sure I could trust," Jaal said. He shuddered. The idea was unnerving. How could you relax enough to enjoy yourself?

"I dunno, some people like the thrill, I guess. Of course, then you've got the love 'em and leave 'em types," he sighed, "I don't have a problem with casual flings, sure, but I've known some people who just...lay on the charm until they get in someone's pants and then just never call 'em back. Then half the time they brag about it? What, like being bad enough at sex no one comes back for seconds is something to be proud of? It's some skeevy shit. You want something casual, be upfront. If you feel like you gotta trick someone into the sack you've got some problems, right?"

Jaal nodded, thinking about what he'd said. Angara were apparently far less divided on this subject than humans. He was about to say so when Sara showed up.

"Knock knock!" she called out as she walked up and leaned in the doorway. "Who's tricked you into the sack, Liam?" she asked. "I need to go kick some ass and defend your honor?" She grinned and he laughed.

"Just hypothetical, Ryder, no worries," Liam waved dismissively. "What's up?"

"I was looking for you," she said. "I wanted to see if you and Lexi could organize a field medical training session with us, maybe throw in some info we might not have about dragging around wounded?" Liam nodded thoughtfully and pulled up something on his omnitool while she talked. "Lexi's got some angaran medical texts too. I was hoping you could work with her and Vetra to add their field medical practices to ours. Maybe run some drills with everyone."

"Yeah, sure! I mean, definitely yes to most of it, but pretty sure Vetra hates me, so...I'll try my best there."

Sara rolled her eyes and sighed. She crossed her arms and looked up at the ceiling with her eyes closed. "You ever apologize for your crack about dragging a kid here when you had no idea what their life was like before? You ever acknowledge that none of us ordered the shit sandwiches on our plates? Or that she was eating it for a year before we even got popped outta cryo?"

"Uh...sorta." Liam looked sheepish.

"Mmhmm. Might try it."

"Yeah. Will do. Thanks, Ryder."

"Yup. Lemme know when you've started working on that with them? I'd like to be able to run some drills when we're done with whatever Kadara's got for us."

"Sure! I'll send them a message now."

"Thanks Liam."

"Yeah, definitely. It's a good idea."

"Here's hoping," she nodded, then smirked. "I'll leave you to it. At least you aren't naked this time." She winked at Jaal.

"I was not naked!" Liam cried, but he was smiling. "And don't think I didn't see that wink!"

Jaal smiled and Sara shrugged. "Later!" she said.

Her hips seemed to curve differently as she walked away. Her thighs curled seductively into each other with every step and Jaal was deeply disappointed when she walked out of view. He sighed and turned back to see Liam shaking and holding a hand over his mouth. Jaal was alarmed for a second until snickering laughter bubbled out of his friend.

"Oh, buddy, you've got it so bad, huh?" Liam chuckled.

"Got what?"

"Got it bad for Ryder. You are hopelessly smitten. I saw how you were watching her."

"Oh."

"Of course, I also saw how she walked away, and I'm guessing it wasn't intended for my benefit."

"What...was…that?" Jaal trailed off.

"Don't angara have a...don't you have seductive moves you'll use to attract someone's attention?"

"That was...she did that on purpose?" Jaal paused, impressed. "It was...hypnotic."

"Yeah, I hear ya, man. Nothing like a girl swinging her hips. Speaking of? Probably means she wants you to follow her." Liam raised his eyebrows and smirked.

Jaal flushed and smiled. "Truly?" he asked. Liam nodded solemnly. "Well, I wouldn't want to keep her waiting. Thank you for talking, my friend."

"Anytime, buddy. Night."

"Yes, sleep well," Jaal said.

He grabbed his dinner and headed to the galley to clean up. His omnitool pinged when he was drying his dishes, and he smiled in anticipation. He looked, and sure enough, it was a note from Sara. 

To: Jaal Ama Darav
From: Sara Ryder, Human Pathfinder team 

Stop by my quarters when you're done? Wouldn't say no to some company.

Sara

He grinned and headed quickly down the hallway to chime her door.

Chapter Text

To: Jaal Ama Darav
From: Sara Ryder, Human Pathfinder team

Stop by my quarters when you're done? Wouldn't say no to some company.

Sara

He grinned and headed quickly down the hallway to chime her door.

"Come in!" she called.

He realized as he entered that the last time he'd been here had been right before they reached Havarl, when he had been roiling with nerves, fear, and lust. He glanced at her bed, unmade, and...he shivered and looked away. There was no guarantee she'd invited him here for that, and if she had, he could wait.

"Hey, Jaal!" she turned back to her terminal and finished typing something. "Just a sec. Thought you'd end up taking longer to finish dinner with Liam and get my message. Just gotta send this off."

"Of course, take your time." He sat on a couch facing away from her bed and glanced around.

Her quarters were extremely large, larger than a family lounging room in his home on Havarl. More than twice as large as the crew quarters. It seemed strangely inefficient, when they had such a small galley and bathing facilities. Despite the unmade bed, her quarters were fairly neat, especially compared to the chaos in the tech lab.

A few photo frames were arranged on a small table next to his seat, and he watched them as they cycled through images. 

One of two young human children, one very serious, one with barely contained energy. One of them both again, on a beach near a huge body of water. They were working diligently on something made of sand and water. A human woman sat on a towel nearby and watched them with a smile. One of a human man and a human woman, older than Sara, in an embrace. Her true parents? The location looked similar to the Nexus docks. Sara, nearly grown, wearing a strange rofjinn-like garment and flat hat, arm in arm with a young man who must be Scott, two turians, and another human, all similarly dressed. One of Sara and Scott in some sort of training range, wearing protective gear. The older man was gesturing to a shotgun instructively. One of Sara and the older woman—both adults. They were laughing, facing each other, sitting on the branches of some kind of tree. Scott, wearing armor and a sidearm, hugging the woman while the man stood stiffly nearby. Sara, in an office, her hair held up with a stylus, glaring at a datapad while surrounded by fragments of something. More people in the same office, one an ancient asari with patient eyes that reminded him of the Moshae.

Jaal was fascinated, and didn't notice her leaving her desk and coming over to him until she sat down at the other end of the couch. He startled. "Oh! I'm sorry. You are finished?"

"Yeah, don't worry about it."

"Your pictures—they tell a lovely story of your life so far."

"Thank you," she smiled, but tears pooled in her eyes. "I...really miss everyone, sometimes."

"Yes," he held out a hand, and she took it. He stroked over the backs of her fingers. "I am here to listen if you would like."

She squeezed his hand and brought her other to hold it as well. "Thanks. Yeah, let's go through my pictures some time and I'll tell you about everyone."

He gave the back of her hand a quick peck. Sara had wiped her eyes, and was watching him with a restless energy. Finally, she spoke. "Would you like to stay with me tonight?"

Jaal barely snatched back the excitement that rang through his field as his heart pounded. "Yes. That would be wonderful," he smiled widely.

She grinned, and seemed relieved. "Good," she said. Then she stood up and tilted her head at him. "Would you take off your visor and...turn around for a little while? Just a minute or two," she asked.

He raised his brow, but she just made a little circle motion with a finger. He shrugged and stood facing her desk. Jaal took off his visor and gloves and laid them on the empty table in front of him, then he heard her walk over to her bed. Fabric moved. He smiled and shook his head fondly. She was making her bed, of all the things. He'd started to unfasten his rofjinn by the time she asked him to turn back.

Her voice was quiet, shy. Jaal carefully removed and folded his rofjinn and set it aside. Then, with anticipation and curiosity, he turned.

 


 

Ryder knew she was blushing like crazy and her heart was beating way too fast. She'd hastily tidied her bed and stowed her clothes neatly, and turned the lights down a bit lower. Then she'd tried to stand seductively, and had given up and just fiddled with her hair and clasped her hands behind her back to keep them from shaking.

Now she was standing here, completely naked at the foot of her bed, and he was slowly taking off his rofjinn. How long did that take? She was starting to feel pretty cold and silly for her playful whim, so she watched the muscles in his shoulders as he set the cloth down, and tried to stay calm.

He turned and she held her breath. She stopped worrying when she caught his eyes and heard his breath stutter. She blushed harder as she felt his stare trace over her and she took a slow breath. He was about to say something, so she rushed the words out of her mouth.

"I thought that we hadn't really had a chance to...see each other. And it might be nice to take our time and...explore differences and similarities?"

"I would love to," he said, and his voice was so deep, so suddenly. He started unfastening his clothes, no extreme modesty taboo holding him back. Her eyes followed his fingers and her mouth opened as she watched. He slowed and she glanced up to see him smiling.

"I see," he said, "would you like to turn around and wait for me?"

"Not...really," she smirked and crossed her arms in front of her, relaxing a bit.

"Hmmm…" he continued with the fastenings down his chest, but slower. "I remember you standing like that and telling me I was leaving you unsatisfied, Sara." He stopped at his waist and tugged at the arms of his suit. She sighed when he shrugged it off his shoulders.

Her gaze was glued to the muscles of his arms and side, trailing down to the firm plane of his stomach. He moved smoothly as he walked toward her, and she closed her mouth and swallowed. "I'll try my best to make sure I never leave you in that state again," he said, hand tracing her neck and shoulder.

Ryder's eyes twinkled as she frowned pitifully, "But think of all those disappointed krogan, eager to learn!"

"Sara," Jaal said, and not in the good voice. He looked very unimpressed.

"You love me," she said, smirking up at him.

"So much," he answered, leaning down as if to kiss her, but stopping when their lips barely touched. "But I would really rather you didn't mention other partners when you're standing naked in front of me. Unless it is to discuss inviting them to join us, of course."

Jaal stood straight, took a step back, and began working on the sides of the legs of his suit.

Well, shit, he's got me and he knows it.

"Alright, no more smartassery tonight," she conceded.

"Are you...quite sure you can manage that?" He paused and glanced up with a smirk.

"Only if you plan to actually take those off."

In answer, he unfastened the last clasp and hooked his thumbs into his waistband.

"Wait," she said. He glanced at her, questioning. She raised her eyebrows. "Let me?"

"Of course," he said warmly, and gasped as she stepped close to him. Ryder slid her hands under his waistband and around the side and back, enjoying the feeling of soft warmth over dense muscle. She stepped closer and pulled herself flush against him.

"As...nice as that is," he said, "my clothes are still on."

"Shush. You had your turn. This is mine, remember?"

"Ah," he said, rubbing his hands over her arms and up to her shoulders, warming her skin. She kissed his chest and moved her hands back up to his side to start sliding his suit off his legs. He took over halfway down and quickly peeled it off, standing on one leg, then the other.

As soon as he straightened, she started moving her hand down the crease of his hip. When she touched it, Jaal gasped and closed his eyes. There's one to remember.

He had mostly emerged, and the fleshy folds that surrounded him when he was flaccid were swollen tight around his base. The line of his hip naturally led her hand there, and she carefully hovered close, not quite touching. He rested his forehead on her shoulder and breathed in huge gusts of air.

He seemed similar in shape and proportion to a human, but the shaft exposed was purple and lightly lubricated, twitching at every small brush of air.

Watching carefully, she brushed his swollen base. His dick bobbed upward in reaction. Well, that's familiar. I can work with this. His grip on her shoulders got tighter and he held his breath. Gentle pressure made him groan heavily and sent his dick swelling further out of his protective folds.

"I'm guessing you'll still be too sensitive here," she said, ghosting her hand over the tip of his exposed erection, "but I bet here," she said as she curved her hand to press firmly above and on both sides. His purring deepened and he buried his face in the curve of her neck.

"Ah, yes," Ryder said, satisfied. "That's a good start." She was a little rougher, more direct than she would be with her clit, but kept working on the same principle. Pressure around, over, hovering her hand close, barely brushing, letting him feel the warmth of her palm.

Jaal hissed and twitched under her touch, moaning and rocking forward when she came back to tease at his base. She shivered and felt throbbing pressure between her own legs in response.

After his skin stopped tightening under her touch, she explored. She carefully rubbed her thumb and index finger around, slowly encircling and gently gripping him. She let her palm rest on his shaft, not quite able to make her fingers meet without straining.

His panting became a groan and he started suckling and nibbling, dragging his teeth and tongue slowly along her neck. She squeezed him a bit tighter, making him gasp.

"Ah ah ah," she said, "my turn, remember?"

"Saraaaaa," Jaal groaned in frustration. She felt a heavy throb rush into him and he stiffened even more under her hand. Warm wetness leaked down from his base. He made a desperate noise and she saw the muscles of his thighs spasm with tension.

"Why don't we lay down?" she suggested, and he nodded against her. She stepped back and he climbed to the middle of her bed, leaving room for her to find a place wherever she wanted. Ryder took a minute to just appreciate him laid out before her. His hand was resting at the base of his cock, thumb above and fingers below, not touching, but ready. His eyes were soft and a flush spread from his forehead all the way down to his waist.

Ryder knelt beside him, facing his head and putting a hand on his abs. He stroked her thigh with his free hand. "I'd like to...return the favor," she said. "Is that something angara do as well?"

"Yes," he said, and oh there was that deep chuckle, "we bring our partners pleasure with our hands...and mouths...in many different ways," his pupils widened, "I would enjoy it very much if you were to do that for me, Sara."

"Good."

Ryder climbed up to straddle him at his waist and leaned down to stroke from the top of his head down his cowl. "So," she said. "I notice you touch my hair a lot—and the scalp and neck can be sensitive areas for humans. Is it the same for you?"

She traced the curved edges of his brow around the side with her hands, then his breathing got a tiny bit faster when she leaned forward to kiss him there. Next she slowly moved her fingers down the frill on the back of his head. Jaal hummed warmly, but not quite with the edge she was looking for.

He moved her hands down his cowl, near his jaw, the crease at the side of his neck. His breath got a little faster. "Kiss here, like I do on your neck," he said. He moved her down further, then back up his neck between his jaw and cowl. "And here, gently."

She carefully stroked her fingers along the creases there, then up to his chin and back down firmly. He shivered and his breath got shallower. She leaned forward and let her breath warm his skin, and started nibbling her way up his neck. That made him grab her thighs and bite down a moan, sending what seemed like an involuntary pulse out through his hands.

Ryder traced up and down a few times, noting where his reaction seemed strongest. She glanced up to find him watching her with a soft look. She kissed him, familiar territory already, and felt the vibration of his subvocals through her thighs. Soon, she pulled back, not wanting to get too distracted.

"Ok, so that's one I will be coming back to," she said, leaning to kiss him gently at the base of his throat. She traced curiously to the hollows below...his collar bones? "What about here?"

He smiled, watching her, "No, that's just the hollow of my joints, see?" He moved his arms to demonstrate. She moved on. His chest and sides were likewise not very exciting for him. She spread her hands over his shoulders and arms, biting her lips and squeezing him between her thighs as she did.

"I thought you were looking for my erogenous zones, dearest," he teased, and she rolled her eyes.

His wrists and hands were more promising. When she carefully kissed and rubbed her way down his forearm and gently bit the base of his thumb, Jaal grit his teeth and hissed. She sucked firmly on the webbing of his thumb, and that sent deep rolling vibrations through his chest.

She rose up a bit, moving away from the temptation for now, but the warm waves he was sending up her legs made her squeeze herself tight, eager to have him inside. She breathed in hard through her nose and scraped her teeth over him, nibbling like she might on a human lover's earlobe.

"So, I just realized something," she said slowly, narrowing her eyes at him. Jaal hummed curiously, focused mostly on her lips and hands. "When you walked back to the ship with me, on Aya, after we took the Moshae home?" He made a breathless noise of acknowledgement and kept his eyes glued to her mouth.

"You kissed my hand," she purred against him. He closed his eyes and shuddered under her. "Human hands aren't really a secondary erogenous zone, so for us, something like this…" She slowly kissed his knuckles like he had done to hers, letting her lips softly brush against the space between his forefinger and fused fingers. He puffed out a breath through his nose and groaned deep in his chest. "Mmhmm, thought so. You, sir, are sneaky." Ryder chuckled and kissed his palm. She moved down toward his hips with a satisfied hum.

"Hmmm," she said, thinking, and leaned down to kiss just above his pelvis. He jumped and she smiled and pressed harder, kissing her way closer to him while his breaths got rougher. She breathed along the sensitive spaces at his hips and pulled back. She paused, then carefully, thoughtfully, pressed her tongue between the folds of his sheath below his cock.

A burst of electricity ran up under her tongue and he shuddered and rocked his hips. She looked up and he was staring at her with his mouth open, his frill glowing, his expression almost pained.

Jackpot.

Ryder sat up and gently kissed his tip, then climbed to straddle one thigh. She leaned over to look down at him. "Well, I think I've got enough to start."

"I don't know how much more starting I can handle," he said. Jaal closed his eyes and dropped his head backwards with a shaky groan. "You are driving me mad with all this careful investigation."

"You knew what you were getting into," she said, smiling.

"No. I had no idea how wonderful it would be," Jaal said happily, his eyes shining up at her.

Ryder knew she was giving him a stupid grin and wondered if she ever wanted to get used to this. Shit, I am in deep here.

"You deserve something wonderful," she smiled, and kissed him warmly. One of his hands stroked up her thigh and the other up her arm. His purring was happy and light. Bright energy danced up from him, and she felt giddy as she pulled back with a smile, then lay down to nibble her way down his cowl.

The strong warmth of his thigh and hands, his short breaths, and his building tension were all definite motivators. She kissed down to his chest and back up the other side, then kissed him again. This time when he pressed into her mouth, she bucked her hips down, spreading her wetness along his thigh. He made a short, deep noise and she felt his electricity cut off, like he was afraid to overload her.

She stroked her hand down his stomach suggestively, and when she got low enough that he groaned, she pulled back and slid down between his legs. Elbows on either side of his hips, she started with firm love bites a short way above his pelvis and made her way down. She softly brushed her fingers down the sensitive line of his hips.

Jaal had grabbed handfuls of the bedding in each hand and his eyes were tightly shut. His thighs were shaking and the noises he was making were completely obscene. Perfect.

She cupped over him with one hand and worked her way slowly around to gently explore the folds under his erection. She kissed him with warm, slow strokes. He twitched and gasped under her, and she kept going until she was drawing rough rhythmic sounds out of him. When he was shaking under her, she pressed the tip of her tongue inside, firm against the root of his cock. The sound of his echoing moan pulled a deep throb down from inside her.

She shivered around the slick pulsing between her legs and pulled back with a soft kiss. Jaal sighed and groaned, relaxing into the bed. Then he tensed back up immediately when she started licking and kissing her way up his cock.

He was fully, beautifully erect, solid and curved slightly upward. The skin was soft, lightly lubricated, and his shape similar enough that she felt herself clenching in anticipation.

Even the littlest touches or whispers of air made him swallow a groan. She breathed over him just to watch a pulse run through him. He was thick, and slowly working him into her was something she was definitely looking forward to.

But that was for later. She gently stroked him with both hands, not wanting to overstimulate. His relieved sigh and the warm energy she felt from him said she was on the right track.

She slowly moved from base to tip a few times, then carefully circled him with both hands and covered the head with her mouth. She felt him gasp and partially sit up. She closed her eyes and kissed him, firmly stroking from the left, then the right, warmly sweeping and swirling her tongue while holding him in her lips. His breathing was fast and shallow.

Ryder opened her mouth wider, just enough to let in a few centimeters, which had to be making him crazy. She gently squeezed her hands and sucked while she insistently rubbed over his dick with her tongue.

His thighs were shaking harder, and she wasn't sure if he'd want to finish like this, but she'd damn well keep going until he stopped her. She had a feeling it wouldn't be long.

She let one hand wander and started gently probing the folds of his sheath again. She slid the pad of her middle finger against the underside of his cock. His lips were puffy, warmer, and apparently much more sensitive. After two careful strokes, he moaned so deeply she didn't realize he was talking until he repeated himself.

"Sara...Sara, I can't take this," he said, then, almost whispering, panting, "I want—so muchstars it's so fast, I didn't...nnn...aah! ah! I—Sara, I want to be inside you."

That sounded like a great idea.

She looked up at him, expecting to see him watching her. He was propped on his elbows, but his eyes were shut tight and he was breathing deliberately through his open mouth, like he was concentrating hard.

Fuck, she wanted to make him come like this, but the idea of him between her legs again...Ryder shivered. She carefully pulled back, kissing and sucking with gentle pulls of her lips. She slowly trailed her fingers up to his tip. She looked back up, and he was watching her now, looking both relieved and disappointed.

She straddled his hips as he lay back, pressing his dick between them. "So…" she said, nibbling up his neck and moving his hands to her hips. "Did I hear something about you being inside me? Because I think this is an excellent idea."

"Oh, Sara, you have no idea what hearing that does to me," he said, settling her down on him, "but I didn't...I didn't mean to...say that aloud," he flushed darker, "I'm not...I want to, but…"

She smiled down at him and shrugged. "It's ok if you're not ready," she said, "but just so you know? The sentiment is very welcome."

Jaal closed his eyes and tilted his head back. "Shit," he gasped and thrust up against her.

She smiled and moved slightly, so his tip was probing at her clit and she could feel his shaft nestled between her labia. She flexed herself against him. His cock twitched and and he pulled her down tighter against him. "Stars, Sara! Are you trying to drive me insane?"

"Not the goal, but it might be a nice consolation prize if we're not going to fuck until you lose yourself inside me," she said, grinning and rocking her hips on his solid heat.

He cursed again and grabbed her hips tighter. "You said no more joking tonight, remember?"

"I am not joking," she said, staring into his eyes and letting her voice get husky. She leaned down closer. "Whenever you want, I want you inside me, Jaal. I want to feel you release into me," she rocked her hips, "as I come around you."

He stared at her hard, looking for something, but she wasn't sure what. He swallowed. "Sara," he whispered, "I...want that so much, but I want to be able to take more time. I want to practice until I know your body thoroughly, and…"

Ryder half smiled at him and shook her head. "I would fall for a hopeless romantic. We'll wait. Whenever you're ready." She kissed him, expecting something sweet and slow, but he was hard and possessive, putting one hand up behind her neck while he held her hips tight to him with the other. She moved against him and he lifted up sharply.

When they stopped for breath, she said, "Well, I'm happy to continue what I started, unless you have something else in mind?"

"Ride me like this," he said immediately, rubbing up and down her back, "Let me see you and feel you, and send my energy to release into you and push you over the edge."

She shivered and closed her eyes, remembering the pulse that had run through her, and moved to rub her clit down the warm curve of him. She leaned over to kiss the base of his neck. "Yes, that sounds perfect."

He tilted his head back and gripped her hips. Ryder felt him rock upwards and pull her against him, and he gasped when she slid easily. She sat up to prop herself on his arms and watch his face. She tilted forward, pressing her clit right against his tip and feeling her wetness spread onto his shaft. Jaal's hands were holding her tightly, fingers spread down over her cheeks and thumbs hooked over the crease of her thighs. She moved forward and back just a little, enough to feel herself pulling over him just right, and his breath rushed out as his fingertips dug in.

"Yes, hold me tight like that," she whispered. "Oh, this is just right, Jaal. Do you remember how fast I came on you?"

"Yes," he groaned out, rocking with small movements, "I can't think of anything else, Sara. I felt you—when you—" he was panting hard and his eyes were closed tight, "I felt you pulling me, quaking and—aah!—mmnnn...how can I stand it—"

"You only have to if you want to," she said, and her voice was almost a whine, "I would love it if you decided to slide back just a little and start pushing into me."

"You are trying to kill me," he groaned, building on his force a little, but staying slow and deliberate. Ryder started to feel intense waves stroking up through her. His electricity was spreading deep into her, catching in places she hadn't known she wanted it. She closed her eyes and clung to his thighs with her legs, hooking her feet around him.

"Shit," she hissed, and his energy flowed further, seeking up her torso and stroking warmly over her breasts. Her nipples, neglected till this point, felt a sharp spark, and they throbbed in time with her clit. It knocked the breath out of her and she thrust against the thick heat of him, chasing relief for the emptiness she felt.

She looked up at him, and his expression was raw. "Yes, Jaal, like that, I can't take it either," she sounded so desperate, "I just want to feel you, slide down onto you. I want to swallow you in completely," she whispered, and he held his breath. She slid her hands up his shoulders and kneaded her fingers in steady movements he matched his thrusts to.

"Mmm," she arched her back, spreading herself over him, pressing down softly onto the sensitive skin at his hips, "you're so thick, and heavy, and warm, I can't wait," she met his thrust, "for you to fuck me, you'll fill me so well. I can't wait to feel you come, bursting, pulsing, emptying into me—"

She was suddenly on her back and he was tight, tight against her, his face buried in her neck, hot bursts of energy pouring straight up from his dick. He'd grabbed a handful of the blanket hard in each hand. His knuckles were white and he was alternating between holding his breath and gasping through his release. He was shaking. He felt so powerful above her, and she had shattered him. Ryder hooked her legs around his waist and squeezed him just for the feel of it, not that she could pull him any closer.

His waves rolled through her, shaking her core and teasing her everywhere with almost enough before they started to fade to a caress. She softly kissed his cheek, his cowl, his shoulder, everywhere she could reach. He was taking huge gulps of air and she felt him relaxing, but he was still hard against her.

"Sara," his slow satisfied groan and his weight on top of her brought her right back up out of the fuzzy place she had started to drift into. He nuzzled his lips against her neck and pressed his nose to her hairline—wait was he smelling her? Did that bother her? Was it kind of hot? She was still considering when another deep groan and a rumble in his chest shook through her and he licked warmly up her hairline to her ear. Ok, yeah, that was hot. Then he started talking and one hand slid into her hair.

"You are wonderful," he kissed just behind her jaw.

"You are strange," she laughed and felt his smile as his lips moved to hers and his other hand made its way up her side.

"You are perfect," he said, thrusting gently and kissing her. She breathed in sharply through her nose as he took her apart with his mouth and stroked his fingertips through her hair. His hand wandering up her side stopped to cup her breast like she'd shown him. She hummed eagerly as he stroked over the soft swell and squeezed firmly at her nipple.

He pulled away from the kiss and caught her eyes, but kept his hands and hips moving steadily. "When we're ready? I will take you, fill you, just like you want," his voice caught and he closed his eyes for a second, breathing, then continuing, "but before? I'm going to taste you everywhere, and stars you're so small. I'll have to exhaust you with my mouth and hands before you'll be able to take me in. I can't imagine how you'll feel, so soft and tight, you get so wet, it's the only way I'll be able to fit inside you."

She tugged him down for a desperate kiss, using her legs to pull her hips up toward him. She writhed and bit his lips and there was that sexy chuckle again.

"Fuck," she whispered.

He moved to the other side of her neck and she felt a small wave pulling at her clit as he spoke. "Once I'm finally inside you, we'll reach our first peak together with you above me, and then I'll take you like this so I can get deep inside," he panted and tilted his hips and she felt him resting heavily, warmly, against her opening. "Do you think you'll be able to take all of me, Sara?" she whimpered and nodded, digging her fingernails into his sides. "Good. I want to rest against you as I thrust, I want you to feel me swell for you, big and tight, full, aching with heat, until I can't stand it. I want to make you come hard around me before I break into you."

"Shit, Jaal, fuck me, please," she panted and he groaned hard into her neck, "I need it, I need you—" and his energy suddenly flooded up inside her again, stroking into her core as he thrust slowly against her and shivered hard. She moved restlessly. He covered both her breasts and rubbed his thumbs roughly over her nipples. She let out a harsh cry.

"Yes, my beautiful Sara," he was pulsing against her and she was so close, "let me see, show me again, always," a warm shiver deep inside, and he thrust, he tugged at her, teeth bared, voice gravely, "I'll never get enough of pushing you—" and she crashed through her orgasm, gritting her teeth, begging him for more, always, never enough, as she shook against him.

Jaal gently rode her through it, rocking and soothing, holding and whispering, kissing along her jaw and finally taking her mouth as the last few shivers ran through her. He brought both hands up to her hair as they kissed and carefully pulled his hips back from her. She was sore and aching and so satisfied she didn't care at all.

Stealing kisses and climbing off of her, he settled beside her and pulled her to face him.

"Fuckin' shit," Ryder said, collapsing onto his arm.

Jaal laughed. "Your cursing is ridiculous and I love you," he said, a little breathless.

"Well, how the hell else am I supposed to react to...that?"

"I didn't say I disagree," he smiled down at her. She made some sort of sleepy grumble and tried to climb under the blankets without getting up. He chuckled and stood, shakily, to pull down the covers for them. He climbed back in and she immediately snuggled close.

She smiled. "You're a gentleman," she said as she yawned and patted his chest. She kissed his arm where she rested her head on him.

Jaal bundled her close and kissed her forehead joyfully, then followed her into sleep.

Chapter Text

They arrived at Kadara the following afternoon, ship time.

Sloane was angry but couldn't prove anything about Terev, so they were eventually allowed back into Kadara port—with twice as many eyes on them at all times.

Ryder storming in to yell at her probably didn't help relations very much, though.

They had just disembarked and were making a quick stop at the market before heading out to look for the transponder. Jaal had been with her, fairly happy, considering, until they found a body lying ignored in the street.

"What the fuck?" Ryder gasped and ran to check the angara for a pulse—but it was far too late. Jaal guessed the man had been dead for at least a day at this point.

She turned, looking murderous, and grabbed the nearest Outcast by the collar with a biotically enhanced fist. Three others nearby had readied weapons but not actually aimed them yet. One was calling for backup.

"What. The fuck. Is this?" she hissed, pointing at the body.

"A dead frog leg?"

Jaal hadn't heard that insult for angara yet, but Ryder's face was explanation enough.

Her fists were haloed in blue. Jaal hit the silent squad emergency call on his omnitool and got ready to cloak. There were crates near the stairs they might use for cover.

"That. Was the wrong. Goddamn. Answer." She pulled the Outcast closer and shook him with every word. Two of the three nearby had raised their weapons. Six others, that Jaal could see, were coming from two different directions.

"Pathfinder, I recommend against the course of action I predict you are about to take." SAM sounded nervous.

"Don't care, SAM." The Outcast's face was turning a blotchy red. Jaal drew up his energy and loosened his firaan from its sheath.

Just before everything exploded, Drack came stomping out of Kralla's Song looking annoyed. His gruff voice echoed. "Would all of ya just stop for one damn minute?"

They all did, mostly in surprise. Drack glared like an adult who had caught a bunch of dirty children climbing on the furniture. He managed to look at everyone all at once.

"How about you all just think before attacking the damn Pathfinder and getting your dumb asses killed? And kid, would ya put him down? Come on, he probably didn't kill this poor bastard."

Drack clomped over to Ryder. He looked like he was paying no attention to anything else, but he stopped just where he'd block fire from the two Outcasts with weapons aimed. They were looking tense, but started to lower their weapons. She lowered and released the man she'd been holding, but the glow of power stayed on her hands, and her expression hadn't changed.

Jaal felt his energy settle slightly, and his breathing start to slow. Vetra tore around the corner with weapons drawn. Cora shot right behind, glowing blue. Drack waved a hand at them and they slowed.

"You know who you gotta talk to if you wanna know what's going on," Drack said.

Ryder grit her teeth. "Fine. Drack, would you come with me please?" She was still staring down the man she'd grabbed. "Jaal, can you work with Vetra and Cora to identify the deceased and respectfully deal with his remains?"

"Of course, Ryder." His voice sounded harsh to his own ears.

She nodded and stomped away.

 


 

Sara was incandescent and pacing in the Tempest meeting room. Vetra, Cora, Jaal, and Liam were with her for an informal strategy session.

"Not my problem, she says. Guess he didn't pay enough protection money to those soulless shit eating BASTARDS who leave people to rot in the street! She had the gall to tell me they were working on it when I assaulted her people!"

"You are kinda lucky she didn't throw us out of the port, Ryder," Vetra said.

"She's lucky I didn't throw her out her god. damned. window." Sara was still fuming, but quieting down. She sighed. "You guys couldn't find a next of kin?"

"Not on Kadara," Jaal said. "I arranged to have him cremated and we can take his ashes with us back to Aya."

She nodded. "Any luck, Vetra?"

"Well, the Outcasts think it's the Collective trying to sow dissent between Sloane and the angara," Vetra shrugged and lifted her mandibles. "This isn't the first. There have been at least three in as many weeks, all angara. Couldn't get a handle on what the angara in port are thinking. Mostly scared and keeping their heads down."

"That works in Sloane Kelly's favor," Cora said. "She isn't going to do any more about this than she has to, and she doesn't have any incentive to doubt her suspicions about the Collective. So much the better for her if that rumor is true. It'll sway sympathy to her side. She's just going to want things to stay quiet."

"Evidence in the port is going to be next to useless, too," Liam added. "It's not like there's any legal structure on Kadara, anyway, but this scene and any others are a huge mess by now. There's been so much opportunity for tampering, I don't know if I'd even trust SAM's ability to make sense of it."

Sara crossed her arms and slumped against the meeting table. "Shit."

A silence descended.

"Pathfinder, I have a suggestion," SAM said.

"Go ahead, SAM."

"Reyes Vidal might have more information about these murders, or the Collective presence in the port," SAM said. "He seems knowledgeable and well connected."

"If we can afford his information," Sara said. "He's reliable to a point but I don't know what his angle is yet."

SAM added, "I also calculate a 73% likelihood he would respond favorably to your request due to his apparent attraction to you."

Sara blushed hotly while Liam laughed. "SAM, we were undercover," she said.

"Yes, I am aware. That is why the chance is as low as 73%, Pathfinder."

Liam laughed louder and Vetra coughed. Jaal sighed. It wasn’t as if it was a surprise, but he still felt anxiety bouncing around in his chest.

Sara rubbed her forehead and sighed. "Laugh it up guys. Not interested in a smuggler I barely know."

"Don't go for the bad boys?" Cora asked.

"No."

"Maybe don’t let him know that just yet, huh, Ryder?" Cora suggested.

"Oh my god, Cora. You too?" Sara’s mouth dropped open at Cora’s quiet smile and shrug. "I am shocked. This cannot be a commando sanctioned strategy."

"Honestly, joking aside, it totally is. Anyway, showing a little skin can’t hurt, yeah?"

"Fine, fine, I’ll throw in my wiles for the greater good," she rolled her eyes. "We need to find out more about the Collective anyway. If they’re murdering people and leaving them in the street as a tactic then Sloane may actually be the lesser of two evils here." Sara shuddered and pointed at Cora, "Just so you know, if I get any chemical burns on all this skin I’m apparently going to be showing, it’s your ass."

Cora laughed, and Liam grinned and caught his eye in a way that slightly worried Jaal.

"And hey, if you need a burly bodyguard, you got Jaal right here," Liam said, winking at him. "He already looks like he’s about to break someone in half."

Sara turned and gave him a secret smile that soothed his irritation. "What about it Jaal? Liam’s right—a large male companion is probably better for show. Cora’s the other powerhouse, but we'd probably just end up throwing someone through a wall when they wouldn’t go away. Not subtle. I’d probably be able to talk Drack into it, though. I understand if you’ve had your fill today."

"Sara!" Cora sounded offended, "Did you really just suggest that Drack would be more subtle than me?"

"As a bodyguard for a night out on the town in Kadara port? Hell. Yes." Sara crossed her arms again. "You’re a stacked blonde. Most drunken assholes don’t hit on krogan...more than once, anyway. They don’t know we can cave their skulls in with our minds until we're giving them a demonstration."

"...okay, fair point." Cora said.

Sara turned back to Jaal and asked again, quieter, "So, you up for it?"

Her consideration was touching, but he wanted more than her concern right now. As foolish and unnecessary as he knew it was, Jaal wanted her to be thinking of him when she was with Vidal. So, he took a deep breath that he let out as a slow sigh and leaned back. He stretched out one leg, tilting his hips slightly, and felt heat as she tracked the movement. He spread his arms out along the back of his seat and slowly looked up at her, enjoying the flush on her cheeks.

"Aren’t you concerned about those drunken assholes hitting on...me?" he smirked and gestured down his body. Liam and Vetra whooped, Cora coughed, and Sara’s blush deepened as she rolled her eyes. Yes.

"You’re classy," she smiled and shrugged. "I trust you to let 'em down easy."

"Hey!" Cora yelled, but she was laughing.

Jaal chuckled with them briefly, then stood. "Truly," he put his hand on her shoulder and leaned to catch her eyes. "Kadara or not, if you ask, of course I will be there."

He was close enough to see her eyes widen, then she glanced down as fast as her blush rose. She swallowed and gave him a small smile. He squeezed her shoulder and stepped back.

"Alright, alright, it’s settled. Everyone be quiet while I call him, ok?" she leaned back against the table and pulled up her contacts. Vidal answered her call quickly. Of course he did, said a hidden, jealous part of Jaal's mind that he tried to dismiss.

"Hello again, Sara! I'm so glad you called." Vidal sounded like he was trying too hard, trying to deflect attention with an exaggerated persona. It made static dance from Jaal's fingertips. He crossed his arms to calm himself.

"So, Reyes. I’m back in port."

"So I hear. Do you know, by the time it reached me, the Pathfinder and her menacing krogan had strong armed their way through the market and stormed Sloane’s headquarters, accusing her of murdering innocent angara in cold blood."

"Eh, that’s...not entirely inaccurate. Anyway, I’m calling because you still owe me a drink."

"Well, I would never turn down a drink with a beautiful woman," he said.

"Especially if she's buying, right?" she said.

"You wound me, Sara."

"You handed me the weapon, Reyes."

"Tsk. I am out maneuvered," he sighed. "Very well, my dear, I have been drawn in by your many charms. Would you care to join me in my private room in Tartarus?"

"Oh. My. God. What a trashy cliché. What kind of name is that for a shitty bar in the shitty part of a shitty port town?"

"A...shitty one? I didn’t name the bar."

"At least you're honest about it," she laughed.

"Hmm...not something I have been called very often. You are full of surprises, Sara Ryder."

"Yep. I know half a magic trick, too, I'll show you some time. See you in a couple hours, 'k?"

"I will think of nothing else until then."

Sara closed the channel with a roll of her eyes.

"Well I better go dress up. Jaal, I’ll give you an ETA soon, ok?"

"I'll be ready," he said.

 


 

Jaal was waiting by the airlock an hour and a half later when she walked up. His entire field flared at the sight of her and he had to tamp it down.

She had arranged her hair in a tidy, smooth shape at the back of her head. It shone. Mismatched pieces of jewelry glittered on her ears. One side dangled down to brush the skin of her exposed neck. She had used pigment to highlight certain features, making her lips and eyes stand out.

She was wearing different clothes than he'd seen her in before: a fitted jacket and boots made of some kind of leather, pants that sat low on her hips and a dark blue shirt with a loose collar. Each step showed a glimpse of skin when the soft fabric skimmed her body.

So this is how she decorates herself for seduction.

She stopped and looked him over slowly. He was wearing his under armor with a few light armor pieces. He had his sidearm and firaan easily accessible.

"I expected you to be in civvies," she said, stepping into the airlock.

"These are better for the mission."

"It's not likely we'll actually see any combat, Jaal," she shook her head. "It’s not a mission, just getting a drink and talking."

"You are getting a drink and talking. I am guarding you, taoshay." He stepped into her space and leaned down to kiss her cheek. "I take that very seriously, Sara."

He breathed in deeply and she shivered. Jaal noted she was wearing the oil he’d made her and closed his eyes with a sigh. She kissed his cheek.

"I know. Thank you," she said. She stepped back and opened her jacket to reveal a holstered pistol. "Besides, I've got this, my omnitool, and my biotics."

"That is reassuring, but I don't think it would have been quite enough earlier if Drack hadn't intervened."

She rolled her eyes, then gave him a skeptical look. "Kinda surprised you didn't notice I was packing right off the bat."

Packing? ...for carrying a weapon? Doesn't that imply it would be inaccessible? At least Liam had told him about 'right off the bat’ already. He shook his head and ignored it for now.

"I was distracted," he said, letting his voice get rough. He deliberately looked her over, then back up to her eyes. He held her gaze without blinking until he saw her flush, then looked away, satisfied.

Jaal hit the airlock cycle and turned back to her. "Coming, Sara?" he asked innocently, and smiled when she narrowed her eyes and stalked out in front of him.

 


 

When they arrived, Reyes made a show of kissing her hand. Ryder felt a quickly muffled snap of static from Jaal. She stepped closer to Reyes and cocked her hips.

"I believe my chaperone would prefer to guard the door this evening," she said.

Reyes put his hand over his heart and said, "Of course. I swear to be the perfect gentleman."

Ryder crossed her arms and raised an eyebrow. "What if I don't want you to be?"

"Ah, why don't we discuss that possibility over drinks?" Ryder took his arm and Jaal took up position in the open doorway with his jaw clenched.

Jaal was obviously jealous and keeping it under wraps. Knowing how little experience angara tended to have with keeping feelings quiet, he seemed to be doing a decent job. She'd make it up to him later.

Ryder sat as Reyes opened a trunk. He pulled out a bottle and two glasses and held them up to her with a question in his eyes. She nodded and he poured them both a couple fingers of whiskey.

"I know the rumors, but it's not the Collective," Reyes said, cutting to the chase as he slid onto the bench beside her. "I'd bet on it. That's not their way. The Charlatan is known for being discreet, and bodies dumped in the street are anything but."

"You being straight with me, Reyes?" Ryder put her chin in one hand and toyed with her glass.

"As straight as a man can be with those heated looks your large angaran boyfriend is sending our way," he smiled, seemingly genuine.

Ryder laughed and blushed, leaning slightly closer to maintain the appearance of flirtation. "It’s...well, is it that obvious?"

"Not really. His interest is, but I wasn't sure about yours until just now," Reyes winked and took a sip of his whiskey. "I admit, I’m slightly disappointed this visit is only business."

Ryder smiled, looked into her drink, and shook her head. "I'm really not good at subtlety."

"No, but you do blush attractively," he said, stroking her cheek and glancing over at Jaal.

"Thank you?"

"You’re welcome." Reyes sat back closer to her and took a drink. "And thank you for the dangerous eye candy." He raised his glass and sent Jaal a flirtatious grin. "But back to business. I've been investigating the murders on my own, and I have another explanation. The Roekaar."

"But the victims are angara," she said skeptically. "Why would the Roekaar go for them and not any of the rest of the people in the port?"

"They're on Kadara recruiting. Word is they've taken a hit in their numbers lately." Reyes glanced at her, and when she didn't volunteer any information he shrugged. "I don't think they like all the interspecies mingling going on. Check the victims for yourself. They aren't actually all angara, and the angara victims were known to be friendly or sympathetic to species from the Milky Way."

"That would make sense. I don't suppose there are any records around here I could check?"

"No, but...the bodies are probably still identifiable by their DNA. Most are out in the pool just outside the gate to the badlands.

She froze. "Are you fucking kidding me?" she asked.

"Ryder, who the hell would have buried them?"

"You for one, Vidal."

"Idealists," he sighed. "We've all got our hands full with the living here, Ryder. I've been trying to find the killers so we don't end up with more bodies."

"Because you're an altruist now?" She raised an eyebrow and crossed her arms.

Reyes shrugged and finished his drink in a long swig. "Hard to sell smuggled merchandise to dead people," he said.

He was obviously cagey, but his motives didn't matter as much to Ryder at the moment. She narrowed her eyes and asked, "So, if you had backup, what would you do about this?"

He looked speculative, then said, "There's another victim I heard about, a krogan out in the Sulfur Springs. His name's Zear. Maybe there's more evidence at his place that can point us in the right direction."

Ryder looked at him for a beat, then said, "Ok, give me the navpoint. I've gotta head out that way for something else anyway, so my team and I can check it out."

Reyes nodded. "Good. I'd like to know if it is the Collective, honestly. I thought they were better than that."

"The lesser of two evils is still evil, Reyes," she said with a glare.

"The lesser of two evils is less evil, Sara," he answered mildly.

She sighed and threw up her hands in defeat. "Alright, fine. We're on the same side in this. We're going to head out tomorrow...uh, our ship time anyway. Whatever the fuck Kadara calls a day, that's about 12 hours from now. I'll radio you when we investigate Zear’s place, ok?"

"Sounds good to me," he said.

Reyes stood up and bent over with a flourish, holding out his hand. She rolled her eyes and took it, expecting him to kiss it dramatically again. Instead, he pulled her up to his chest, so her face was inches away, then leaned close to whisper.

"I'll see you then," he said, breath brushing her earlobe. Ryder shivered involuntarily and glanced over to Jaal, who was flushed and stiffly avoiding looking at them. Shit.

"Reyes," she hissed angrily.

He glanced at Jaal and chuckled. "You can thank me later."

"I don't think angara work like that," she whispered as she stepped back.

"You might be surprised," he said, with a knowing look.

"You speaking from personal experience?"

"Just a reliable informant," he shrugged.

"Anyway," she said, turning to leave, "talk to you tomorrow, Reyes."

Chapter Text

Sara was still talking with him.

He is a contact. She needs information and doesn't want the Outcasts to know where she is getting it.

Jaal knew his feelings were from his insecurity and not any real worries he had about their relationship. That knowledge wasn't really comforting.

Vidal kept catching his eye and touching her or leaning to her. What is he doing? Some sort of...territorial behavior? Do humans do that? Jaal shook away the distasteful thought and looked around for threats he might miss if he was distracted by jealousy. It was a clear weak point to be exploited.

They both looked much more comfortable with each other than they had during their first meeting in Kralla's Song.

Of course they do, they've worked together. It didn't matter what Vidal wanted. She had explicitly said she wasn't interested in him.

It was just...Jaal objectively knew things were going well, but there were the barriers of species, language, culture...and seeing her flirt with another human reinforced that in a deeply uncomfortable way. A human wouldn't have to pause to parse her body language and would respond as she expected.

It would be his own fault. They hadn't even discussed boundaries for their relationship, really. He'd spent more time talking to Liam about it than her.

Stars. Now is not the time. I need to stop. I told her I take this seriously and what am I doing? I need to pay attention.

They were nearly done with their drinks and seemed to be finishing their conversation. Jaal tried to watch for other threats while still keeping watch on them. Vidal was still an unknown...

Stop. Evfra works with him. He will not harm her. Flirtation will not harm her.

Sara let Vidal pull her close and blushed as he whispered to her. Jaal saw her glance at him in his peripheral vision. What did that expression mean?

He took a deep breath and turned so they weren't in his line of sight. He returned to a neutral guard's stance and tried to breathe evenly while he marked all the exits and occupants of the bar for the fourth time. He'd made it halfway through the fifth when he heard her footsteps.

"...talk to you tomorrow, Reyes," she called out.

"Let's head back to the ship," she said quietly.

"Of course," Jaal said, not quite able to pull his voice out of the deep register his feelings had pushed it into.

She looked surprised at his tone and shared a glance with Vidal. Jaal flushed darker, feeling...intrusive and entirely out of place. Sara looked concerned, but he cleared his throat and said nothing else.

"Until tomorrow," Vidal called out. "And please, do remember to bring your impressive associate as well."

Jaal grit his teeth and glared at the man, who winked at him. Sara sighed and waved dismissively at Vidal, and headed for the elevators.

 


 

The walk to the elevator had been excruciating, but maybe the ride could be only uncomfortable. Ryder didn't find any obvious bugs with a quick scan, and counted her blessings.

As soon as they were alone, she carefully touched Jaal's arm. He jumped and met her eyes.

"Hey," she said quietly. He closed his eyes with a shuddering breath that almost broke her heart. She rubbed his arm and took a step closer. "I appreciate you playing the part. I got some good intel. Reyes figured out we're a couple, anyway. All the apparent flirtation you saw? Him teasing me about you. He's still wearing a flirtatious mask, but now he's roped you in, too, I guess."

Jaal cupped her face and pressed his forehead to hers, closing his eyes. "Thank you, Sara," he whispered.

"Didn't know it affected you this bad. You seemed ok. Too much emotional repression for you?"

"Maybe. Not exactly. It...brought up old pain."

"Oh. I'm sorry, love."

He gently shook his head while keeping it pressed to hers. "There is nothing to forgive, taoshay."

When the elevator approached the top, he pulled back and wiped his eyes. He sighed and seemed much more relaxed, but his face hardened as they stepped off the elevator. She touched his arm gently again, and he looked at her with a slightly softer expression. Still upset, but better. Good enough to start.

She gave him a hug in the airlock, and he returned it with a kiss on top of her head. They parted with soft smiles. When the cycle ended, she touched his arm and asked, "Talk later?" and he nodded. As she watched Jaal walking down the catwalk, Ryder silently vowed to throw Reyes Vidal head first into one of Kadara's lakes. Or at least threaten to.

Then she sighed and climbed down the ladder to her room. She was thoughtful as she undressed and took down her hair. Then she wrapped in a towel, grabbed her stuff, and headed to the showers. Vetra was under a shower head when she came in.

"Ryder!" she called, "How'd your hot date go?"

Ryder sighed and got out her facial cleaner. Wonder how long it'll take us to have any sort of industry set up? Maybe the angara make something we can trade for. She stood at the sink and called to Vetra. "Well, good news: got a possible lead on the murderers. Nicely dovetails with the transponder pickup. Debrief at 0800."

"Uh huh." Vetra didn't sound impressed. "And? Humans only say 'good news' like that when there's bad news to follow."

"Goddamn Vetra! You take all the mystique out of cross species communication! Is there anyone you haven't cracked?"

"Still working on angara, and I never got the hang of hanar." Ryder could hear Vetra's amusement. "But come on, stop evading. What's the bad news?"

Ryder rinsed her face and hung her towel. "It's...personal," she sighed, turning on the other shower head.

Vetra turned off her water and started brushing her plates vigorously. "Jaal take it a little personally?" she asked.

"Maybe?" Ryder sighed. "Gotta...deal with it."

Vetra made a noise of sympathy as she scrubbed.

"Probably one of those things all cross species relationships have to deal with," she said, lathering her hair. "It's just kinda hard with Jaal because...angara have a lot in common with humans, you know?"

"You think?"

"Yeah, actually. It's kind of like...you could almost forget they're another species, and just think they're a different culture that's more...communal and open with each other, and insular toward outsiders."

"Never seen a human with legs that shape who was happy about it, Ryder."

"Ha. Ha. Appearances aside, which honestly? They look more like us than turians do," Vetra made a noise of agreement. "It's just...sometimes hard to remember how different his context can be from mine."

"Basic xenopsych," Vetra said, grabbing her towel and wrapping it around her hips.

"I know, that's what sucks about it. I should know better."

"Well…" Vetra picked up her kit. "I was running a job with this grouchy old human once. Real old bastard, basically Drack if he were human and missing fewer parts, right?"

"...yeah?" Ryder wondered where she was going with this.

"He liked to hand out 'wisdom' to everyone. Most of it was shit, but one thing stuck with me because it kinda helped with Sid over the years."

"What was it?"

"He said 'we always hurt the ones we love.'"

"Yeah, you're right. It wouldn't hurt if we didn't care about each other. Something to build on," Ryder glanced over. "Thanks for the talk, Vetra. You're a good sister. Sid's in good hands."

Vetra smiled and looked down as she left. "Thanks, Sara. Anytime."

 


 

All residue of Kadara was washed down the drain, and Ryder was comfortable in Initiative sweats. Much better. Time to talk with Jaal. She put her hair up and tossed on her thin sneakers.

"SAM, privacy mode please?"

"Of course, Sara."

Ok.

Lexi cornered her before she even got both feet on the ladder.

"Ryder, I believe we may have a few things of a personal nature to discuss," she said pointedly.

"Lexi," she half whined and half sighed, "I just got done with a very stressful day and I just want to unwind. Can't this wait?"

"Actually, if you're headed where I think you are, I will follow and kill two birds with one stone," Lexi said firmly. "You have both put this off long enough."

Ryder sighed. Fine. Best get it over with. The longer they avoided her, the worse it was going to be. As they headed to the tech lab, Lexi pulled up some documents and got them ready to send. Ryder made a face and entered with her following.

Jaal was sitting in the middle of the floor, holding a meditation crystal in each hand. The current surrounding him hummed. When she stepped through the door, he looked up with a gentle smile and the charge in the air dissipated.

"Sara," he greeted her softly and stood for a hug. Ryder hugged him back, relieved to find him in a better mood. Then she turned to face Lexi. He stood behind her, arms loosely around her, not letting go. He smiled at Lexi over her head. "Hello, Lexi. What can I do for you?" he asked.

A serious blue face stared at them for a few seconds. "I know this is possibly—probably—going to be an uncomfortable discussion for you both, given human taboos about sex and angara taboos about illness, but it is important."

Jaal stiffened and Ryder covered her eyes with her hand and blushed. "Lexi—" she began, but was interrupted.

"No. You will both listen." She put every single one of her nearly 300 years into her tone, and they did.

"First, I am sending you both information about human courtship and relationships and angara courtship and relationships. Interspecies romance can be difficult to navigate, and it is best for you to understand the context your partner is working within."

They both started to relax a bit. That didn't seem too awkward.

"Second, reproductive health. If either of you would like me to be able to share information on the subject with your partner, I need you to fill out this form for consent. Until then, I cannot ethically divulge any information to them. I mention this because, Jaal, you fled before I was able to inform you about the possibility of sexually transmitted infections."

Jaal held his breath, and Ryder wished deeply for the cold embrace of space.

"Ok ok, time out!" Ryder said, throwing up her hands and stepping out of his arms. Lexi turned a darker shade of blue and raised a brow but closed her mouth and waited. "Don't worry! Just a pause in the lecture, Lexi. Let me fill this out right now so you can inform Jaal of my status right now, ok?" She typed furiously, refusing to look at Jaal, and sent it.

Lexi opened the document and nodded. "Very well. Jaal, Sara has recently tested negative for all known STIs, and is up to date on all available vaccinations. There is an extremely low risk of her passing on any to you."

He cleared his throat, sounding uncomfortable and slightly confused. "Um...thank you for letting me know."

"I would have said if I wasn't," Ryder said from the crate where she took refuge. "I'm not irresponsible."

"Nevertheless," Lexi said. "To continue: angara apparently do not have STIs of any kind, Sara. My colleagues on Aya had never heard of or even considered such a disease vector."

"Wait, what? None?" This startled Ryder out of her horrified health class flashbacks.

"Apparently so. However, we have no information about whether they can become infected with any from other species. You see why this is extremely important," Lexi said.

Ryder nodded soberly.

"As far as other microflora and microfauna, we really do not have enough information yet about any possible transmission or long term effects," Lexi sighed regretfully. "If either of you would allow regular exams and data collection, even cursory scans, during your relationship it could prove immensely valuable in the future," she glanced up hopefully, then sighed at their expressions. "But that's for another time."

"Anyway, third," she continued, "bioelectricity. At maximum output, angara have a significantly higher voltage than humans, but a healthy adult has extensive and instinctive control. The amperage is always well within safe range. Outside of extremes and combat situations, the voltage is as well. It should theoretically transfer like signals through your own nerves, Sara, with much the same effect. Jaal, you should be able to use your energy with Sara as you would an angara partner, however, I advise caution as this is completely new territory. You might find helpful, safe suggestions from the human sexual practice of BDSM."

"Okay, Lexi," Ryder said. She was curled up on a crate, hugging her knees to her chest with her face hidden in her arms. Lexi sighed at her, but moved on.

"As far as pregnancy is concerned, one would assume that to be an impossibility, and it appears that is the case. In addition, Sara, your conception blocker is still functioning as intended, and you are not due for a routine gynecological exam for another year," she closed her omnitool and crossed her arms. "Regarding sexual compatibility and erogenous zones, I will leave that to the two of you to discover on your own, but if you want or need further biological information I can provide it. I highly recommend you look over the cultural documents I sent you—they may prevent misunderstandings and hurt feelings."

She paused and looked between them, face softening. "I am happy for you, and it pains me to make you uncomfortable, but I would rather do that than make you unsafe."

"Oh Lexi," Ryder said, getting up and hugging her, "You're right. Thank you." Lexi hugged her back, tight. Jaal cleared his throat and mumbled something in vague agreement.

"You're welcome, both of you," and she smiled and left.

 


 

Ryder stared at the door, and thought about fleeing back to her quarters, but didn't. She took a deep breath, and when she heard Jaal do the same, turned around apologetically.

"So...uh...sorry to pull you into that ambush," she said, "She wouldn't take no for an answer."

Jaal looked down at his hands and huffed a small laugh. "Yes, I see that."

"Um," Ryder cleared her throat and backed away. "So...I can...go, if you want. I was coming to see if you wanted to talk about..."

"No, don't go," he looked up and reached out for her, "I...was hoping you might. I have…I'd like to tell you...explain some things."

"Even after…"

"Yes." He looked into her eyes. Worried, open, asking her to stay.

These moments still left her dizzy. She felt like he was sharing something precious every time he looked at her. Like he held his heart out for her to touch.

"Ok."

She sat back down on the crate she'd been on before, and he sat down on one nearby. He gave her a warm smile that made her heart thud. Jaal settled to prop his arms on his knees.

"This will be...a long story. I'd like to share it with you, though." He was quiet, meditative.

"I came to listen," was all she said.

He nodded. His field was held close, and he looked down at the floor as he started talking.

"Years ago, I fell in love. It was during my first vesaal on Aya. I was so young. She was a bit older," he looked into his memories in sadness. "Allia. We worked on the same farm. She was a researcher, a scientist," he closed his eyes.

"I can still remember her eyes," he whispered, "and her laugh. She kissed me, and I was hers."

He was quiet for a minute or so, remembering.

"What happened?" Ryder asked. She gently squeezed his shoulder and stroked a short way down his back, then clasped her hands together in her lap.

Jaal took another deep breath. "My older brother. He was...experienced. He'd already made a name for himself in the Resistance. They got together, married. She joined our family, moved to Havarl. They had children."

"Oh," she said quietly. "I...don't remember meeting them."

"A few years ago, they were both taken by the kett. Their children survived."

"Oh no," she whispered. Jaal nodded, then continued.

"We met...hmm, about a decade ago now?" He shook his head. "I was heartbroken for years, but...I still couldn't begrudge either of them their happiness. He was...they were better together than she and I could have been. I wasn't…" he stopped, and she didn't think she'd like the place his mind was going. He pressed his lips together and shook his head.

"Then I—my family—" he spat, "secured me a place as the Moshae's student during the rest of my vesaal. I've always been interested in taking things apart, and had usually managed to put them back together successfully," he shrugged. "So I tried with Remnant. I was looking for...something. A purpose? I'm still not sure what. But anyway, I was absolutely terrible at it. I couldn't understand what any of it was supposed to do, no matter what I tried."

"The Moshae was kind, but...suggested I would be better suited elsewhere," he huffed dismissively.

"After that, nearly five years ago now, one of my older sisters in the Resistance suggested I join. It was right after Evfra had unified us, and there was a feeling of...confidence. Renewed enthusiasm for the fight against the kett. I joined, and left for Voeld. I felt like a complete failure at everything. I remember thinking I would build a protective wall around myself like the ice covering everything there." Jaal sighed.

A few tears had trailed down his cheek. Sara stroked the back of her fingers along the track they left. He reached up to take her hand in his and glanced over at her with a self deprecating smile.

"It was dramatic folly, but hindsight still wouldn't change my decision. It was…" he took a deep breath, "I grew, learned, changed. Made friends. Learned how to track cloaked kett through a blizzard. Then how to snipe cloaked kett through a blizzard. Gradually my experience built and Anjik included me in her tactical briefings. I led missions, usually successful. I was making a measurable difference."

He paused and swallowed. She stroked her fingers over the back of his and waited. He turned his hand over and squeezed hers before continuing.

"And slowly, one of my companions thawed my frozen walls. Neraav," Jaal sighed the name mournfully and Ryder was struck anew by how much destruction every angara experienced. How much Jaal had experienced.

"Neraav was the one who taught me about sniping in Voeld's freezing storms. He grew up on Voeld and his father had taught him." Jaal blushed and shook his head. "In retrospect, he was far more physical about it than necessary. He was brilliant and strong...everything I wanted to be."

He fell silent again for a moment.

"He saved my life," Jaal said bluntly, gesturing to the large scar on his cowl. "We were ambushed on patrol. Kett blade. Neraav stabbed it through the eye and dragged me to a medical cache in a panic. We...got closer during my recovery. He took me to visit his family, and his true father—he embraced me like his own." Jaal looked at her sideways. "Then he asked if I had been keeping his son warm."

She huffed a quiet surprised laugh. Jaal smiled and nodded.

"Yes, and Neraav was the same. Stars, if he could have met humans, I think it would have become his goal to make every single one he met blush." He looked down and smiled fondly for a minute. Then he closed his eyes again.

"We became lovers. Just...comfort in the arms of a friend, I told myself," Jaal let go of her hand and leaned forward to rest his forehead on his palms. "I was afraid. He didn't push or pry. He seemed to just...know what I needed, and he gave it to me. I didn't even have to ask. Just...he was just there, and…" he took a shaky breath and swallowed, "and then he wasn't."

"He was on a squad clearing a small kett installation. It was too close to a daar filled with scientists and their families," Jaal swallowed and tensed. "We joked with each other just before he left."

"I took a team of new recruits still in training on patrol. The kett were sparse, the weather was clear, there was even some sunlight that came through the cloud cover. It was a beautiful day for Voeld."

"When we came back to base, I remember being grateful for how easy the day had been," he took a deep breath, "and then, I heard."

"The scouts had been wrong, or maybe the kett had brought in more troops recently, but...it didn't matter. The squad was gone. Only three out of fifteen people survived to make it back," his voice caught as tears fell, "Neraav didn't."

Sara scooted over and put a hand in the middle of his back, rubbing gently. He took a deep shaking breath and wiped his eyes, but didn't look up. When he spoke again, his voice was as dull as she'd ever heard it.

"Days later, the kett destroyed the daar his squad had been trying to protect."

She didn't say anything, but stayed close and kept her hand steady on his back.

"I left for Aya after that, a little more than two years ago. Based on Anjik's recommendation, I became one of the trainers there for new recruits, and one of Evfra's lieutenants. One of a few he was training to replace him if necessary. I might have…can you believe, before you arrived, I was actually starting to look at everything the way he manages to?" He looked at her then, layers of pain raw in his eyes. "Ruthless, calculating, walled off. It...wasn't as painless or easy as I had thought it would be. I couldn't manage it. Another failure, but I'm glad of it now."

Sara was still quiet, not sure what to say. She touched the bend of his elbow with her other hand.

"I wanted to tell you all this...so you might understand how, sometimes, old feelings...come back to me. Old fears. Failures. Grief. I'm afraid of losing you, and afraid of telling you that. I am afraid of...so many things," he said quietly.

"Watching you together highlighted our differences. When that combined with fear, insecurity…" he paused with a look of discomfort, but continued, "and jealousy, our differences seemed more like difficulties. Obstacles. It feels trivial now, but for a moment, all I could see was another inevitable loss." He was almost whispering by the time he finished, but his breath was even, stilled. He centered himself with closed eyes, and she waited for him.

"And I realized, this might…" Jaal took another calming breath. "I've had counseling on Aya. We meditate, talk, share our grief. It's necessary for any of us to survive in the Resistance, you know?"

He looked up with clear eyes and turned to her. She brought her hands back to her lap.

"War leaves all kinds of wounds. While sometimes we have only scars," he gestured to his cowl, "some injuries leave us with pain even when they're healed. Even though I've mourned my losses...they're still with me. My family. My friends. I may not...ever be able to leave them behind. Or want to. All I have known, every part of my life, has been touched by loss." He paused a moment and closed his eyes before looking back into hers.

"I may never feel truly secure, but I want you to understand it's not at all because of something you lack. If we are together...is that something you can accept as part of me?"

His eyes were bright and he was facing her, accepting whatever she reacted with. Owning and baring his truth before her. It was revelatory, and Sara shivered. Shit. Talk about strong and clear, huh?

She scooted closer. She didn't know if she'd ever get used to how openly, unabashedly, he wore his feelings, but she wanted to try.

"Jaal...this…" she started, and had to look away from his eyes because it was too much. "I haven't ever felt anything like the connection I feel with you. I know I'm not alone, we're all a team, but…" she sighed. "You show me it's possible to face...all this awful shit and still retain my soul," Sara took a deep breath and looked back up, determined. "I can't promise I'll always understand—who could? But I can promise to listen. And...you know even better than me how much danger we're in. I can't promise you won't lose me, too," she sniffled back tears and swallowed around the lump in her throat. "But I'm not giving this up. Not unless you ask me to."

"I love you," he said softly, "and it terrifies me." He had more tears on his face and his pupils were wide. His eyes were shining and his soft smile was heartbreaking.

"I love you, too. I've...never really been in love before," she said, standing and stepping between his knees. She put her hands on his cheeks. "It's crazy."

Jaal laughed quietly, and she felt some of his tension ease. "Yes, but it's a beautiful gift as well," he said, turning to her and putting his hands on her hips.

She sniffled and nodded.

After a minute, he spoke. "I'm so glad we can talk like this." He looked up and reached one hand up to the side of her neck. "When I first realized...well, I was certain I would drive you away with a clumsy mistake. Humans...seemed so reserved, secretive. It's still...I hope…" He paused to gather himself, then looked deep into her eyes. "Thank you for listening, Sara."

"You are very welcome, always," she kissed his cheek, "and yeah, I guess we can be kind of emotionally constipated. At least until we're comfortable with people."

"That is a vivid metaphor," he chuckled. "But similar to the advice Vetra gave me."

"You went to Vetra for advice about me?" Sara pulled back and smiled.

"Yes? Why not? It made sense to get a perspective from someone else who wasn't human, but was more familiar with your species."

"Sure," she nodded and shrugged. "Vetra's good at advice, too."

"She is. She's a good friend," he said sincerely.

Sara stepped back and held out both her hands for him, and smiled when he took them and stood. "Would you like to spend the night with me? In my quarters, again? Or...at least...the first part of the night? For your sleep period? I guess I should learn more about angara sleep habits. Um. Not that...we have to just sleep," she blushed, "but no pressure! I mean, I know, it's...staying over at your girlfriend's, that's a relationship thing for lots of humans…and you've only been there the once and I didn't want you to think I just want you to stay because..."

"Yes," he said, cutting off her rambling with a touch to her cheek. "But I thought you were embarrassed by the crew knowing when we are...together?"

"Fuck it," she shrugged and threw up her hands. "Civilian ship. We get shot at on the regular. I already nearly died once. Carpe diem."

"What?"

"Old human language. Carpe diem means ‘seize the day.'"

"Oh. Yes, I like that. I've definitely learned to seize what I want while it's in front of me. Let's." Jaal kissed her cheek, and smiled. "Let me gather a few things?"

"Sure, I'll just...actually, Peebee wanted to talk to me about something, so I'll leave the door open for you, ok?"

He kissed her cheek again. "I'll see you soon, Sara."

"Yeah," she said softly. She quickly squeezed his hands and left.

 


 

It turned out Peebee was working on some super secret Remnant project (what else is new) and wanted to come with her when she activated the monoliths on Kadara. Fair enough. She probably would have taken her anyway, but good to know.

Ryder told her to come tomorrow, too. They weren't planning on making any Remnant related stops then, but it wouldn't hurt just in case. And having someone else well versed in tech would be useful. Looked like a four man squad for the transponder retrieval. Vetra for combat tech and exile schmoozing, Peebee for tech and remtech, Ryder because she had to be The Goddamn Pathfinder, and Jaal because tech and potential Roekaar. Was she including Jaal just because she wanted him around? No, no, both those reasons made sense. And she worked well with a three or four man squad, so there was no worry there.

Ugh. Am I gonna be second guessing myself forever? No, missions are missions, downtime is downtime. I'll bring him when necessary and not when not. I know I'm not showing favoritism because Cora at least would definitely say so. I will not worry a problem into existence.

Ryder walked into her quarters to find the object of her thoughts pulling a shirt down over his head. He was wearing long black shorts like she'd seen him in before. His shirt was faded grey and loose enough for movement. The cloth looked soft and well worn. His visor and a few other things were neat on one of her bedside tables. He smiled when he saw her.

"Finished for the evening?" Jaal asked.

"Yes, I just have to get ready for bed."

He sat on the edge of her couch, which let him fold his legs comfortably and rest his forearms on his knees. It looked a little strange to her, but perfectly natural for him.

"I was wondering what you usually do before sleeping," he said. "We haven't shared a typical sleep period yet."

Ryder felt a lump of warmth in her stomach at that statement and the quiet smile that came with it.

"Well, you're welcome to watch and ask questions," she shrugged and pulled out a tank top and boy shorts.

"Alright," he said eagerly.

Ryder smiled at his happy curiosity and grabbed her bathroom supplies. She gestured and he followed.

He waited by the sink while she slipped into the toilet stall, and was quiet as she washed her hands. She thought he was about to say something until she pulled out her toothbrush. He startled at the sound of it when she switched it on, and she nearly choked on her toothpaste laughing.

When she finished and rinsed, he asked, "Is that...usual? You seemed to have...trouble."

She huffed. "No, I don't usually nearly aspirate toothpaste. Your surprise made me laugh. Haven't you seen any of us brushing our teeth yet?"

"Maybe? I suppose I never paid attention. What is it for?"

She wrinkled her eyebrows incredulously. "It's for cleaning our teeth. You guys do that, right?"

"Of course, but it's not so...frothy? I rinse with a wash after my sleep periods."

"Really, that's enough? Don't you get...plaque, or cavities?"

Jaal glanced around as if checking their privacy. "Um. That's...rare, as I understand it?" He cleared his throat. "But yes, a cleaning rinse is all we need."

"Oh, sorry, illness. Forgot. Yeah, I guess we have lots more mouth bacteria that can attack our teeth, or more places for them than you guys." She fabricated a piece of floss. "Case in point. This is for cleaning between our teeth."

He looked interested and then really weirded out as he watched her. When she was finished she ran it under the water, flash sterilized it, and recycled it back into omnigel. "Wanna try it?" she asked with a smile.

"No." He shuddered and she laughed as she zipped up her bag.

"Ok that's it," she walked out and he followed back to her room. "I'd usually wash my face, but I already did that to remove my makeup before I showered. What is it with Kadara? Don't have to go anywhere near the water and I always smell like sulfur after."

"Yes, one of the planet's many charms," he drawled. Ryder chuckled and started to undress. Jaal sat on the back of her couch and watched her. He looked relaxed, and smiled when she caught his eyes.

She continued as usual, stowing her shoes and folding her ship clothes. They were left on a chair since she'd only worn them an hour or two. Ryder turned away while she put on her tank and shorts. She took down and brushed her hair, then turned back to him with her hands on her hips.

"Ta da," she said with a smile.

He returned it, tilting his head and thinking as he looked her over. "You have a single word that presumably means, 'Look, I'm done, see what I did,'?"

"It...might be two really short ones?" She shrugged and he shook his head as he laughed.

"So, now you're ready for sleep?" Jaal watched her softly.

"Yes, and you look extremely cuddly right now." Ryder switched off her lights and climbed into bed, patting the space beside her.

The dimmed light from her "window" screens played over him as he walked. Jaal was much quieter than it felt like someone his size should be. His eye shine and the small glowing flecks in his irises were still strange, and she shivered. He climbed under her covers with a smile and propped himself up facing her.

She couldn't help reaching out to stroke down his arm from his shoulder, biting her lips when her fingers moved over the firm curves of his muscle. He caught her eyes and his narrowed.

"Is cuddling all that's on your mind, Sara?"

She smirked. "Maybe not."

Jaal scooted closer and slid a hand onto her abdomen, gently moving up her shirt. He leaned closer and his cowl brushed her shoulder. "And what thoughts occupy your mind, my love?"

"Oh, nothing much…" Ryder answered airily.

She turned toward him and let herself sink into the well his weight had made. His hand slid around her side to the small of her back, and he fluffed a pillow comfortably before settling. He pulled her flush against him. She rubbed a hand up the arm he held her with and smiled up at him.

"How soft this shirt of yours is may have been something I wanted to find out," she said, sliding the fabric along his skin. "The way you look in soft sleepwear in my bedroom probably crossed my mind, too. Right now, though, how warm and solid you are under all this is really my priority."

"Those sound like intriguing subjects to explore together, dearest," Jaal's breath was warm in her hair.

"Mmmmm, I love how you do that," Ryder said, gently pressing against him as he nuzzled into her hair.

"Hmm?" he asked.

"Nuzzle into my hair. Is it similar to an affectionate gesture angara share?"

"Mmmmm...maybe? Not exactly. It…" Jaal inhaled with a deep sigh before pulling back. He brought his hand up to trace along her hairline, gently trailing behind her ear and down her neck. She shivered and he smiled. "Your scalp and the...edge? of your hair, they carry your scent. It's...we...memorize the scents of our m…" he stopped suddenly, and swallowed, "our partners."

"Really?"

"Um...only…" He seemed to slow, and she felt his field buzzing against her. "Only in...serious relationships." His voice stretched and deepened as he spoke, and she shivered again. Jaal was holding very still.

"Sweetheart," Ryder spoke quietly. She smiled and reached up to cup his cheek. "this is serious for me, too. I...thought I was clear about that earlier."

He relaxed, drawing his hand over her shoulder and down her arm. "You were," he sighed. "I suppose I'm still afraid of moving too quickly for you."

Ryder scooted up and cupped his face, then stroked her thumbs over his burning cheeks. "You won't," she said and rubbed her nose against his.

Jaal closed his eyes and pulled her in for a kiss that he eagerly hummed into. She hooked her leg between his. His hand went back up to her scalp and she arched against him, sliding her hand under his shirt. Ryder was thoroughly enjoying herself when her toes lightly brushed the tarsal joint of his lower leg and minor hell broke loose.

Jaal pulled away from the kiss with a squawk and grabbed her ankle with his foot. A snap of static from one of his hands frizzed through her hair and she stared at him in shock. A split second later, he was laughing so loud it would have hurt her ears if he hadn't partially muffled it against a pillow.

The situation was absurd and surprising enough she joined him with giggles. He let go and patted her leg absently with his foot while he shook with laughter. He rolled onto his back and threw an arm over his eyes.

Ryder shook her head and sat up. She wiped her eyes and ran her fingers through her hair to disperse the static. She sighed and lay down facing him with a patient smile. Eventually he calmed down, wiped his eyes and let out a hooting sigh. He turned his head to look at her.

"Uh, so...ticklish spot?" she asked.

Jaal snorted. "I'm sorry, Sara," he said with a small chuckle. "It was quite a shock."

"Yes, you shocked me, too," she said, fluffing her hair in demonstration.

"Oh no!" He turned to face her. "Darling, I'm so sorry!" He cupped her cheek with a worried frown.

"I'm ok, don't worry. Just a small snap," she said. "Definitely learned my lesson: gotta practice before playing footsie."

"What is…" Jaal blinked. "You are joking."

"Yeah, mostly."

"This sort of thing never crossed my mind, that is certain." He smiled and stroked her hair.

"Hazards of sleeping with aliens, I'm afraid." Ryder shrugged and he laughed. "Pretty cool how you can grab with your feet though!" she added, snuggling close again and tucking her feet onto his. "We can only kinda pick up things with our bare toes." She spread and wiggled hers against him in demonstration.

He laughed into her hair. "Well, we have definitely explored something, but not necessarily what we started out to," he said. He stroked the back of her neck fondly.

"Plans never survive contact with the enemy?" Ryder slid an arm around him and back under his shirt while she looked up at him with a smile.

"Hmmm," he leaned down to kiss her gently. "You have no competition, my love," he whispered.

She hummed happily and squeezed him, and they drifted off together.

Chapter Text

Just getting to the coordinates took them hours. It seemed like every time they crested a hill or rounded a boulder there were exiles shooting at them.

Then the thing was fucking broken. Ryder hoped Gil and Suvi could help with that, because if not she was going to feed it to Terev, no matter what the Moshae said. Jaal was particularly annoyed, and Ryder's patience had almost run out.

"Ok, well, we have it, let's see...Vetra and Peebee? You guys wait in the nomad and get a few scans of it. Send 'em in a message back to the Tempest, too. Maybe they can start brainstorming while we deal with this. Make sure to pack it in a low static stasis container when you're done, alright?" Vetra nodded. Peebee already had her omnitool open and was checking out the damage. Ryder called around the corner, where Jaal was keeping a lookout, "Jaal, let's head up—"

She was cut off by the sound of Jaal and someone else shouting, and the pained squawk of a turian man. Ryder jetted around the corner, cloaked in blue, with Vetra right behind her in tech armor.

A human woman had a shitty pistol aimed at Jaal, who had a turian man in a lock. His mandibles were flapping quickly at the woman. "Reilly! Reilly, put the gun down!" he croaked.

"Mallox…" she was wavering, and glanced from Ryder and Vetra back to Jaal. As soon as the woman’s attention was off her, Ryder moved. She threw up a barrier and pulled the pistol as she stepped between them.

"Jaal. Stand down." Ryder set her jaw and watched the human woman carefully.

"Ryd—"

"Stand. Down. I said."

A deep turian sigh of relief came from behind her, and she signaled Vetra. Ryder saw her walk past, escorting the turian man over to his companion, who was looking a little green.

Vetra came back over, turning her back on the strangers and raising one mandible and spreading her brow plates at Ryder before flicking her gaze to Jaal and back. Ryder narrowed her eyes and carefully brought the pistol to her own hand. Then she flipped the safety on, removed the heatsink, and knelt to place them both on the ground in front of her.

"So," Ryder said, drawing extensively on her father's Lecturing Voice. "My name is Ryder. I'm the human Pathfinder. Would you please tell me why you had a pistol pointed at my teammate?" Jaal walked up to her left side, nearly touching. His arms were crossed and he held his field closely, barely giving anything away. Vetra was loose and standing on her right.

The human was sweating, and she gaped while some color came back to her face. "Pathfinder?!" she choked.

The turian had a little more presence of mind, and held up a hand. He used the other to rub his throat and coughed a few times before he spoke. "It was my fault," he said. He cleared his throat again and took a few shallow breaths, before standing straight and looking at them. "Name's Mallox. This is Reilly," he gestured at the woman, who had closed her mouth, but was still pale. "Got a few other people around. This is our place—Charybdis Point. I was heading down to our storage," he gestured to a locked door, "and just about walked into your friend here." Mallox glanced and flapped his mandibles at Jaal, excessively chagrined. "Guess we startled each other. Most strangers we run into out here aren't too friendly. Bet the same’s true for you?"

Something was off. She'd figure it out once she was certain no one was going to attack anyone else. She kept her face solid and asked, "Jaal?" without looking away from the strangers.

Jaal took a few seconds to reply. "It...appears to be the case," he said, tensely. She could hear his scowl, but she'd figure it out later.

"Ok," Ryder said. "Good. Glad no one got hurt too badly. I'm sorry for the misunderstanding." She looked closely at Mallox. "You aren't hurt, are you? We have medigel if you need it."

He was shaking his head and waving a hand. "No, no, I'm fine, thanks," he said, "But...I wouldn't mind knowing what a Pathfinder team wants with us, or our place?" His eyes were flinty, defensive of his property and his people.

"Not you," Ryder said, carefully ignoring how relieved Reilly suddenly looked, "we're looking for a krogan named Zear, or his place anyway. My information says he's around here somewhere?" She knew very well exactly which building to head for, but these people didn't need to know what else they’d come for.

Mallox had a better poker face than his friend. "Zear? His place is up the hill there." He gestured. "Haven't seen 'im for a few days. Might not be home. Anything else we can help you with, Pathfinder?" Don't worry about us, we're just folks. Nothing here.

"Nope, that's it. Thanks," Ryder smiled and stepped forward to hold out her hand. Mallox took it quickly, squeezing too hard. "We'll head up there. Sorry again for the trouble."

"No harm done," he said, then glanced at Jaal with a smile. "That was a smooth takedown. Must be getting rusty. Haven't gotten pinned that fast since training."

Jaal was silent, then let out a small grunt. Mallox let his mandibles droop slightly. He looked back at Ryder with a nod and stepped back. "Good to know there's actually a Pathfinder team out here now. Hope you'll keep us exiles in mind, Ryder. We're just trying to survive too."

She nodded at them both with a smile and turned. She kept the placid smile on her face as she walked past the others. Vetra didn't react, Jaal stared incredulously, and they both followed silently. Peebee was waiting for them around the corner, her pistol ready. Ryder silently pointed in the direction they'd stashed the nomad. They headed back and all piled in. When the doors were closed, she rested her head on the steering wheel and took a few deep breaths. Then she dug out her water bottle and finished it. Jaal was, surprisingly, silent and staring out the front. A check in the mirror showed Vetra was thoughtfully quiet, and Peebee’s eyes were wide. Ryder looked at him and waited. He broke first, turning to glare at her.

"They are lying," he growled. She started up the engine.

"Yep," she said, backing around to head up the hill.

"He attacked as soon as he saw me. I was nowhere near their storage, and you just listened and accepted their—" he continued louder. She waited, and he cut off as her word filtered in. "What?!" he demanded. Jaal turned as far sideways in the seat as he could manage, wedging his knee against the gearshift. Ryder glanced down mildly, and he flushed and moved it, but his glare stayed.

"I said, 'yep,’" Ryder answered sarcastically. "It should have translated as an informal affirmative—"

"Sara." Vetra's mandibles clacked quietly, and Peebee muffled a snort. "I am in no mood—"

"No, you are in a hell of a mood, and I understand, up to a point, but my patience is wearing thin, Jaal."

Ryder stopped the nomad and turned off the engine. She turned to glare back at him. "I could tell they were hiding something, obviously. I don't know what kind of shady shit is going on there, but we will check it out later. I have to prioritize, and sometimes that means letting assholes believe they have pulled the wool over my eyes when I see right through their smokescreen, so I can come back later and fuck shit up. And when I do that I expect my team to have my back and trust that I am not a fucking newbie who can be taken in by some two bit con man."

Ryder looked into his shocked eyes and swallowed. She stared him down for a couple seconds, then closed her eyes and sighed through her nose. "I know. I believe you. He lied about the reason behind whatever happened just now, but it has to wait." She spoke a little quieter, letting some of her hurt into her voice. "I thought you trusted me more than that."

There was silence. Then Jaal took a deep breath. "I’m sorry, Ryder. You're right."

She opened her eyes again. His expressions were almost always open books, and this one was no different. She felt a stab of remorse for being so hard, but knew it was necessary. If anyone else had acted that way, the dressing down would have probably been harsher. Despite his stress level, angaran culture, or the fact they were a civilian ship, she needed everyone to follow her lead, especially in delicate situations. This would probably turn out ok. Jaal had come across pretty clearly as bad cop, so they were probably still complacent. And whatever they were hiding, it was probably no worse than some shit they stole from the Nexus when they were exiled. Still.

Ryder sighed, her eyes softening, and opened her door. "I'm gonna get some scans of the exterior. Vetra, Peebee, work on that transponder. Jaal, I'd like you to investigate for signs of Roekaar. If we find any, I need to know if it's plausible evidence or planted."

Jaal nodded silently. She climbed out and closed the door behind her.

 


 

Sickly skkutting festering shit. Jaal knocked his head back against the seat and closed his eyes. Why am I such an idiot?

Vetra clacked her mandibles in the back seat and hummed quietly. She was probably about to say something sarcastic.

"I did tell you," she said. "Really, kind of terrifyingly good at it, I said."

He sighed heavily.

"Yes. Thank you for the reminder, Vetra," he said. "It apparently doesn't hold true for all humans, though. That woman—Reilly?—was so afraid of something being discovered a skkutting Remnant would have noticed."

"Hey, stress messes with everyone...obviously," she emphasized, thoroughly unnecessarily in Jaal's opinion. He grit his teeth and swallowed his response. His irritability distracting him had gotten him into this. I hate this awful skkutting planet.

Peebee reached forward to pat him on top of the head. "She'll forgive you, big guy, don't worry."

He sighed. "Thank you, Peebee." She patted him again, and he opened his door with another sigh.

She'd been so angry she spat out three or four phrases that didn't even entirely translate. When we’re in the field, I must try to remain...detached? distant? Neither would work at all. But still. In the field, she remained Ryder. He’d had no problems anywhere else. Skkutting Kadara got under his skin. Another vivid metaphor he had quickly adopted from the humans. Jaal shook himself and took a deep breath.

Ryder was systematically scanning the perimeter. Jaal started at the steps and looked around the outdoor floor and walls. A flash of blue drew his eyes instinctively. A smear of blood? Yes. Blood on the floor and some crates near the entrance. He knelt and pulled up his own scanner, weaker than Ryder's, but capable of cataloging some information. He sent the DNA sequence through a record search. It would take a while, but eventually he'd have a result.

"Ryder?" he called, and heard her behind him on the steps.

"Find something?" she asked.

"Angaran blood," he answered grimly, pointing, "smeared by angaran footprints."

"Well, that's...something," she said. "When I was scanning the perimeter, I picked up something behind those crates, but couldn't get close. When you're done, let's move them and see, alright?"

Jaal stood. "You should get a scan before I step onto the surface," he said. She nodded, and did.

SAM interjected, "Jaal, if you allow me to access your DNA search, I believe I can speed up the process."

"Go ahead, SAM," he said, changing the authorization.

Ryder closed her omnitool interface and waved him over to the crates. She'd scanned the top of them and found more traces of angaran blood, and something small between them. He helped her move the closest one, and heard a thunk-clink.

Ryder pulled her scanner up again and said, "Wait a second," when he reached down. He stood and looked at her curiously, but she was focused and had the expression she sometimes used when talking to SAM on their private channel.

"Hmmm, maybe SAM," she said thoughtfully. "It's kinda sloppy, though. Oh! Hey, public channel, bud."

"Apologies," the AI said. "Jaal, I just told Ryder that her scanner only shows DNA from two angara and one krogan in the area, which supports Reyes Vidal’s theory about the Roekaar."

Ryder finished scanning and looked between the crates. "Looks like a firaan to me. Can't find anything dangerous about it. Check it out?"

Jaal was nodding and reaching down for it before she finished talking. He picked it up gingerly and held it close to examine it. Made in a traditional style, but fairly new, so it might not have sentimental value, meaning it could reasonably have been lost. An inscription...he rumbled angrily and lay it down, pointing out the words.

"This inscription," he pointed, and Ryder took a closer scan. "It says ‘A home filled with strangers becomes a prison.’"

She winced. "That sounds…"

"Yes," he said. She raised and wrinkled her eyebrows—a question. "They are Akksul's words," he said.

"Potentially Roekaar," she said. He shrugged. She fabricated a sterile container with her omnitool and placed the knife inside.

"Ok, that's all we've got out here," Ryder said, turning to the door. "Let's see inside. SAM, what’s up here?"

"There are no lifesigns in the building, but there are signs of traps having previously been laid. They have all been sprung or detonated."

Ryder shrugged. "All right. Be ready just in case," she said to Jaal. He readied his firaan and sidearm, but when the door opened, the only thing to attack was the stench. They both gagged and backed away. Ryder grabbed for her helmet and nearly knocked him off the porch in her haste to retreat. He just jumped backwards over the steps and quickly attached his breathing mask.

"Fucking CHRIST why didn't I use my goddamn brain!?" Ryder yelled as she retched. Jaal managed to take a few cleansing breaths and collect himself before she was able to. She shoved past him quickly and bent over, gagging. For a horrified moment he thought she might actually vomit right there, but she managed to gather herself and put on her helmet over a torrent of curses that only partially translated.

Ryder stood and took a few more deep breaths. "Shit. Ok. Let's...see." She steeled herself with a grim expression and headed for the door with her scanner up.

The view wasn't quite as bad as the smell, but it was close.

Ryder hissed angrily as she systematically scanned the interior, ending with the body of a krogan, approximately four days dead, according to SAM.

The body had countless wounds with burn marks characteristic of electrical shocks. The largest was around the edge of his bony crest, which had been removed while he was alive. He died of a point blank shot from his own shotgun.

Jaal noted a few angaran footprints in the dried blood on the floor, and pointed them out to Ryder.

"Look at the spacing and smears," he said, pointing. "They were limping. One was helping the other."

She sighed and nodded, then held up a data pad from a footlocker at the other end of the room. "Found a plausible motive," she said. "This looks like his journal. It's in a krogan script, and reads like it's written by one. We can get Drack to check it for authenticity." Ryder looked back down at it and scrolled through it. "Couple weeks ago he went to the slums to trade and got in a fight with a few angara along the way. Killed one—as a warning? well, krogan—and left the others. Says they called him ‘vesagara,’?"

Jaal sighed. "Vesagara are those without a home or a family, as a result of their own malicious actions. Shunned. Uprooted. Unanchored. Not...angara. Not real people."

Her lips were thin. She nodded, then stood and gestured him over. She had scanned an angaran data pad that was laying in front of the body. She waited until he was near to pick it up. The script wasn't in Shelesh, the only angaran language Initiative translators could reliably manage, so she handed it to him.

Jaal felt his expression harden as he read.

The Roekaar see with clear eyes, and our hearts are pure. We won't succumb to these new invaders like the cowards and traitors who bargain with these foul things.

The way I have seen my own people act with these creatures—disgusting. I have witnessed a horrific number. I saw a man with one of the deformed blue ones, and the look in his eyes...I was nearly ill. It took all my willpower to wait until I could kill him quietly and not gut him in the street. The thought of my own people with these animals. Filth. At least their deaths can serve a useful purpose, disrupting the internal squabbling of our enemy. May they achieve in their next lives what they failed to in this.

These thieving vesagara offer extinction disguised as hope. Fools believe these lies meant to divide us. The invaders clearly display their intent to steal everything from us and turn us into slaves. They are vermin and should be destroyed.

Angara must stand ready to defend our birthright. This is not a matter for debate or diplomacy.

If you are true angara, join us. If you are not? Pray for the kett, for they will be more merciful than the Roekaar. Collaborators will share the fate of their masters.

His hands were shaking when he looked up at Ryder and shook his head. "SAM can give you a translation. I will not read this aloud. It's Valeshe, SAM. Originally from Havarl, older dialect, too. You should have files containing enough of it to manage."

"Noted," the AI said quietly.

"Roekaar?" Ryder asked.

"So the author claims. Convincingly. It was meant to be found."

"Shit. Ok." Ryder fabricated another container and held it out for him.

Jaal dropped the data pad inside carefully, trying to suppress the desire to immediately strip his gloves and discard them. Then he turned and left. He called out that he would take the firaan with him to the nomad, which she acknowledged. He had spent enough time surrounded by this horror.

Once he was back at the nomad and had stored the knife, he threw himself into the seat and slammed the door. He immediately tore off his mask and gloves and reached for a pack of sterile cleaning cloths. He scrubbed his hands and face. When he was done he grabbed a bottle of water and drank the whole thing.

"That bad?" Vetra asked quietly. Jaal only nodded and kept breathing deeply.

Ryder sent a dozen incineration bursts from her omnitool into the prefab. Then she locked the door and talked to SAM, probably ensuring the body wouldn't be disturbed. She walked over and stowed sterile containers holding the data pads and other evidence, and threw her helmet in the storage space as well. She climbed into the driver's seat, took off her gauntlets, and ran her hands through her hair.

"Fuck. That was awful," she said as she cleaned her own face.

"Is it the Roekaar?" Peebee asked.

Ryder looked at Jaal and raised her eyebrows unevenly, deferring to him. When did it become so easy to understand those movements? How long have they been so recognizable? He blinked slowly, staring, then closed his eyes and sighed.

"Almost certainly, at least here," he said. He reluctantly looked into her eyes again. "The note you found made reference to killing an angara specifically because he was flirting with an asari."

Peebee gasped and Vetra’s breath hissed through her mouthplates.

"SAM," Ryder said stiffly. "Please read me a translation of that note on our private channel." She closed her eyes as she listened.

The only sound in the vehicle was the team’s breathing as they waited. Jaal watched her face and wanted to hold her, touch her hand, something, but knew it would probably not be welcomed yet. At least he could witness her pain as she heard it. Her jaw got tighter and her skin duller as they waited. She took in a sharp breath through her nose and he felt her biotics flare briefly before she held them and her breath tightly. It didn't take long for her to open her eyes and nod.

"That tears it," she said hoarsely, and opened a channel to Reyes Vidal.

 


 

"And there's our proof!" Reyes said, holstering his pistol as he walked up. "I do love a happy ending."

"Happy?!" Jaal turned on him menacingly and Reyes leaned back with his hands up placatingly. Vetra stepped toward them, but Ryder beat her to it.

"Jaal. Hey." Ryder dropped the data pad she had found and put a hand on his chest. She put the other on his arm and stepped into his space. He turned anguished eyes to her and she pulled him down into a hug. He closed his eyes and shook. "Hey, I know. I know. We'll...deal with it. Send word to families. See if we can find...things. Why don't you wait upstairs for a bit, ok?"

Jaal pressed his forehead into her neck and nodded, then braced himself and slowly headed up the stairs. Ryder grabbed the data pad and silently fabricated a sterile container for it. Not that it would really make a difference, but protocol was comforting right now. When she heard the bunker door clank behind him, she turned with a weary sigh.

"For fuck's sake, Reyes, try thinking before you open your mouth, huh? Your shiny armor of +10 charisma is literally splashed with the blood of his people."

He raised his eyebrows, but crumpled his mouth and nodded with a shrug.

All they could do for now was carry the bodies into the large entry cave and cover them. They did manage to confirm that both angara who left DNA at Zear's home were accounted for, at least. Then they took half an hour to look around for more evidence, salvage, and personal effects. There wasn't much.

Reyes helped them load it all into the nomad, but declined a ride when offered. Peebee was in the vehicle poking around with the transponder again. Jaal and Vetra were near the bunker entrance, on the comm with Cora, discussing how to deal with remains.

Ryder leaned on the open hatch of the nomad and closed her eyes. Shirt sleeves environment. Breeze, sunlight, exotic animals calling in the distance. If it wasn't for the smell and everyone trying to kill everyone else, Kadara wouldn't be so bad.

Reyes walked up beside her while she took a minute to breathe and calm herself. She glanced at him.

"So, Ryder," he said, his facade of easy confidence back in place, "I think we work well together." He gave her a charming smile.

Ryder slammed the nomad hatch closed.

"I think I work best with people who are actually at rendezvous points and don't spring sudden explosions on my fucking team, Vidal." She scowled and crossed her arms.

"Hey," he said sharply, starting to sound irritated, "I scoped the place and was here at least an hour before you! It's not my fault you barrelled in and sprang the trap without any finesse!"

"If you did such a great job scoping the place, and had time to set up such a delicate trap why the fuck couldn't you warn us, Reyes?" She stomped closer. "I thought I could trust you. To a point, anyway. But you're just testing me. Why do you really care about these murders? How did you get the tip about Zear? Why did you suspect the Roekaar? How did you find their hideout? Why didn't you just sell this information to Sloane Kelly?"

Reyes scoffed in disgust and rolled his eyes, but Ryder stepped right into his space.

"No. More. Bullshit." Ryder was close enough to feel his breath on her face, but he stood his ground, staring back. "What are you really doing and why do you want a Pathfinder on your side?"

Reyes sighed. No twinkle, no roguish smirk. "You tell me, Pathfinder," he said.

"You're Collective."

He pursed his lips and raised his eyebrows in approval. "Faster on the uptake than I expected, Ryder," he said.

"Don't fucking flatter me. What do you want?"

He laughed, sounding more genuine than he ever had, and stepped to the side to sit on a rock. "You are something else, Sara Ryder," he looked up with a smile.

She crossed her arms again and waited, face blank. His smile faded and he sighed and closed his eyes. Reyes held up a hand.

"Fine. No more bullshit," he said, then opened his eyes and looked up into hers. "We want you to help us take Kadara Port."

Ryder felt her face stiffen just enough for him to notice. Damn it. Need to work on my poker face. She held still and stared while she thought about it, just on general principles.

"Why?"

He raised an eyebrow skeptically. "Because Sloane Kelly is a tyrannical mobster who keeps control through intimidation, drug dealing, and racketeering."

"And the Collective would bring liberation to the downtrodden?" She sneered.

"We'd fucking try," he snarled. "And do a damned sight better than Kelly and her crooked pigs."

Ryder leaned back and cocked her hips. She considered him with pursed lips.

"Might be the first real thing I've heard you say, Vidal."

"I haven't lied to you, Ryder."

"Sure, what's a few prevarications among friends?"

He put his face in his hands and made a noise of disgusted frustration. "God damn it, Ryder!" he yelled, jumping to his feet and throwing up his hands. "What, exactly, do you want from me?"

"Proof of your sincerity," she answered immediately. "Proof you'd be better than just less evil. Proof you can handle it. Proof you'd actually work for everyone."

Reyes deflated and sighed, running a hand through his hair. He looked down at his boots and nodded.

She waited in silence.

"Okay. I'll give you the coordinates for one of our bases and send them a message to expect you to visit," he pulled up his omnitool and started typing. "I'll also send out a recommendation that Collective forces not engage with you, unless attacked first. You can head over there and check it out. Talk to people. Look around."

"Your Charlatan gonna be ok with you making those decisions?" Ryder asked, cautiously.

"I'm in charge of bringing the Pathfinder into the fold," he smirked and the corners of his eyes crinkled. "I have quite a bit of leeway in my actions toward that goal." Reyes closed his omnitool and let out an exaggerated sigh. "Still a bit disappointed my charm offensive couldn't get through your shields."

She rolled her eyes. Vetra and Jaal had made their way over while she and Reyes were arguing, and were waiting by the nomad for her.

"Okay. You've at least earned a chance," she said, and he might have relaxed slightly. "No promises, no commitments, but I'll try to check it while I'm here on Kadara this time. Fair?"

"Fair," he nodded, and held his hand out. She narrowed her eyes, but shook it and nodded.

"See ya 'round, Reyes.”

 


 

It was a little quieter on the way back—either they'd cleared everyone out, or more likely, word had gotten around. At least through the Collective.

They were heading back to the extraction point during the last light of the day. Jaal and Peebee were in the back seat looking over the broken transponder.

Ryder said, thoughtfully, "If it weren't for all the violent criminals and toxic water, I'd actually really like Kadara."

"What." Jaal said. It wasn't a question.

"Look at that sunset, it's beautiful! Sure it's a fixer upper, a little sulfuric acid here and there," she gestured out the window with a grin, "but it's more hospitable to humans than Eos. Plus, the hills are nice."

"This is the worst planet," Jaal said. "Thieves, murderers, traitors...even the water is like a festering wound. Those hills you enjoy are excellent places for ambushes to hide."

Ryder glanced at him in the mirror. He'd turned sideways to stretch his legs out as best he could and had his eyes closed. Peebee had curled up on the other side to give him room.

"I did say without those things, Jaal," she said mildly.

He sighed hugely and shuffled around. Then after a minute or so he said, "I'm irritable and taking it out on you, and it is unfair. I'm sorry."

"Kadara's really getting to you, huh?" Peebee asked. She reached out to squeeze his hand, and he took it gratefully.

"Maybe," he said. "It seems beautiful on the surface, but even a scratch shows the rot underneath."

"There are different levels of lies, Jaal," Ryder said quietly, wondering if he really was talking about Reyes and the Collective, or if she was assuming too much. "Some broken things can be mended."

"Sometimes," he agreed, but still sounded unhappy.

They were all quiet for the rest of the drive.

Chapter Text

Back on the Tempest, everyone piled out of the nomad with various grumbles and started dealing with post-mission chaos while Kallo flew back to their dock.

Gil and Suvi took custody of the transponder and started asking questions of Peebee and Jaal. Liam and Cora came to deal with the evidence, salvage, and personal items they'd gathered in the field. Drack showed up to check over Vetra and Ryder, slapping them both too hard on the back and telling them to get something to eat. Lexi came down to do a more thorough scan of everyone, but her advice was the same.

Ryder dropped her damaged hardsuit pieces into the ship's refabricator and hung her weapons in the auto cleaning rack. She trudged into the galley, grabbed a standard ration pack and some water, and headed for her quarters. The rest of her hardsuit went into her personal armor storage. She pulled off her undersuit's gloves and socks, then collapsed into a filthy heap on one of her couches, still in her undersuit.

"SAM," she groaned, "if anyone wants to come in, vaporize them."

"Luckily for your crew, I have been working on my humor and sarcasm algorithms, Sara," he admonished.

She weakly flipped off his avatar and closed her eyes.

 


 

When she woke up, Ryder had an ache in her neck and her stomach, her hair was sweaty and plastered to her face, and her feet were cold.

The lights were low, so SAM must have turned them down.

What woke—her door chimed loudly and she winced. Apparently a headache too. Excellent.

Ryder tried a few times to yell at SAM for letting it chime, but by the time she'd worked enough saliva into her mouth and sat up it had buzzed three more times. She realized her body was also sending her obnoxious signals she needed to deal with. Ugh.

The door chimed again.

"Fuck! Okay, okay! Come in, god," she croaked, reaching for her water. Whoever it was came in quietly and left her lights off, at least.

"Sara, are you alright?" Jaal asked softly.

Fuck.

She sighed and groaned. Of course. He was sweet and checking on her and she still smelled like death and really needed to piss.

"Just...filthy and exhausted. The usual," She tried to inject a laugh into her tone but it fell flat. She drank more water.

"We got back to the ship nearly three hours ago," Jaal said. He came over and sat next to her. Ryder combed her hair clumsily through her fingers and put down her water. He reached for her, concerned, but she stood.

At least it's dark and—she caught sight of his eyes, pupils wide and reflective—fuck, right, he can see me just fine. Great. "Ugh, I'm...still really gross. I fell asleep before I could eat or shower." She backed up a step.

"That's why I came. To see if you need help."

Ryder sighed. "Thank you," she said. "I just...I'll be right back."

She left before he could say anything else. After using the toilet and washing her hands and face, she felt a little more human. She took down her tangled hair and stuffed it back up into a bun. She'd deal with it later.

Her head and stomach yelled at her and her hands shook. Fucking biotics. She got out a giant water bottle and filled it, then grabbed two energy bars and headed back to her quarters.

Her lights were on when she walked in, and Jaal had opened and set out her meal. He was folded up at the end of the couch she'd been on, wearing lounging clothes, and typing on his omnitool.

He looked up immediately when the door closed behind her. He opened his mouth, then closed it, uncertain and hesitant.

She smiled softly and came over to sit next to him. At this point, she was awake enough to be absolutely ravenous, so she ate one bar and drank the rest of her glass of tepid water before speaking. Jaal curled one foot under himself somehow and leaned on the back of the couch to watch her. She blushed and looked down, then wiped her palms on her legs.

"Sorry," she whispered, looking up with her mouth crooked.

Jaal flicked his eyes over her face and blinked. "What for?" he asked.

"Being short and standoffish."

He shrugged. "Physical discomfort causes that. You didn't do anything wrong."

"Maybe a little rude, by human standards."

"Not by angara standards."

"...and for..." she said, waving vaguely at herself.

His face wrinkled in confusion. "What?"

"I am still absolutely filthy from the field. I can't be pleasant to be around right now."

Jaal tilted his head forward sternly. "I’m setting aside these bizarre apologies for not being properly groomed after you collapsed in exhaustion as some sort of inexplicable human behavior."

He lowered his brow further. "If you’re really so concerned about it, you need to eat so you don't pass out in the shower, darling one. That's why I came down. SAM told me you had fallen asleep and your...blood...sugar? was nearing dangerous lows, and you needed to eat. So I came to wake you up," he forcefully pointed to the meal laying on the table, "So eat, Sara."

"Oh." She reached for the bag of crackers. "Um...thanks for getting it out, by the way. That was sweet."

"You're welcome," he rumbled, blinking slowly.

Ryder felt extremely awkward with him watching her, but he seemed content. After a while she started to relax, and he pulled up his work again.

"Thank you, Jaal, really," she sighed as she finished her bottle of water and second energy bar. Her headache was almost completely gone and her hands had stopped shaking. He smiled and reached out to gently stroke her temple. She shivered. She didn't realize he could reach her from where he was sitting. His arms were so long.

"You're welcome, Sara, really," he said, gently teasing. "You seem to be feeling better?"

"Much," she said, opening the pack of mint candies that came with the meal pack. "And thank you, too, SAM, for calling him instead of just yelling at me yourself or calling Lexi in to fuss at me."

"I thought you would respond more favorably to Jaal’s assistance," the AI said, slightly smug.

Ryder snorted, then suddenly sneezed. Alien pollen, weird air, dehydration, yuck. She grabbed for a tissue and caught Jaal's eye. He had actually jumped back. Her eyes watered. She was suddenly laughing and trying to blow her nose at the same time, and ended up coughing and curling up around herself because the completely aghast look on his face was the best thing she had ever seen. That triggered another sneeze.

"SAM—shchoo—hahahuf!" she switched to her private channel, SAM! Tell him what's up before he freaks out worse! Ryder coughed a couple more times, wiped her eyes, giggled, and reached for another tissue. She blew her nose one last time, stopping to wheeze at Jaal's face morphing from horror to appalled confusion as SAM explained she was having a normal, temporary, physiological response. She tossed her used tissues on her table with the rest of her garbage.

"Oh. My fucking. God." Ryder sighed, wiping her eyes again. She couldn't stop grinning and every few breaths she giggled again. She held her aching cheeks and managed to meet Jaal's eyes.

"What in all the skkutting stars above us was that?"

Ryder nearly lost it again, but managed to restrain herself to a few giggles.

"A—haha—a sneeze," she said, smiling.

"That was a sneeze. That did not sound like the other sneezes I've heard."

"Well, it was big, and more than one. And I blew my nose. It was weird, because I started laughing at your expression." She was still smiling so hard her cheeks were numb.

"That was horrifying," Jaal said sincerely.

Ryder fell back onto the couch laughing at the top of her lungs. Jaal just stared at her.

The door chime rang and a knock echoed through the door. Gil’s muffled voice carried. "Ryder, you dying in there or something?"

She waved and sent a mental message to SAM to open the door, still laughing helplessly. Jaal glanced over to the door with a look of suffering patience. Ryder rolled off the couch to her knees and buried her face in the cushions.

Gil and Cora were at the door, with Lexi and Liam peeking behind in uncertain concern/amusement.

"SAM, what the hell?" Cora asked.

Jaal sighed.

"Ryder blew her nose," The AI deadpanned.

Ryder slapped the cushion and took in a deep breath. "Oh my god!" she wheezed, "If, a picture, I nee—I need a minute—" and started giggling again. Lexi rolled her eyes and walked away with a smile. Liam guffawed in the background.

Jaal was shaking his head and smiling fondly at her.

Gil started to chuckle. "Tell me, please, there's some sort of record of Jaal's reaction?" he said.

Jaal groaned. "I cannot wait until I do something unexpectedly alien and one of you reacts with reasonable surprise."

Ryder was sitting on her heels and sighing in happy exhaustion at this point. "You guys. You guys, I wish you could have seen. Holy shit. Wait. SAM!" she turned to the avatar on her desk, "Replay audio from when you said you thought I'd respond better to Jaal's help!"

"Sara—" Jaal groaned and rested his forehead on his palm, but the recording was already playing over her quarters' speakers.

Apparently, Ryder hadn't noticed the squawks of alarm Jaal let out as he jumped back when she first started. Her diaphragm was aching, but she doubled over and bit her knuckles again, laughing as hard the second time to hear the others’ reactions.

Jaal joined them this time, forearms across the back of the couch and his face resting on them while he shook with laughter.

SAM played until Jaal’s heartfelt That was horrifying! which was what finally got Cora. She leaned on the wall and slid down, hands on her face. Gil and Liam were propping each other up. Suvi, Kallo, and Peebee were peeking over the catwalk in confusion.

"We need—" Cora said, "We should all—warning labels—so we don't cause—" she coughed, "diplomatic incident!"

Jaal roared and Ryder's face lit up with glee. "Can you imagine?" she said, then her eyes got wider. "Jaal!" she shook his leg, "Next time I meet with Evfra! You can record it!"

He looked up from his arms and his cheeks were bright purple. "You are—" he took in a deep breath that bubbled back out of him, "terrible," he said.

She giggled. "You love me," she said.

He wiped his hands down his face and leaned down with a chuckle. He cupped her face and smiled. "So much," he answered.

Ryder smiled and leaned into his hand, then startled at the high pitched squeak that came from the doorway. Oh yeah. Audience. Um. She looked over.

Suvi had come down and was grabbing onto Liam's arm with a deathgrip. She had a wide delighted grin and he had one to match. Cora's eyes were bright and she had one hand over her mouth. Gil was smirking and rolling his eyes.

"Cora?" Ryder guessed with wide eyes, "Did you make that noise?"

She shook her head as she stood. "Nope."

Ryder's eyes went to Suvi, who was bouncing and shaking Liam's arm. She gave her head a tiny shake. Ryder's eyes narrowed. Gil was looking at his boots. Liam raised his eyebrows kicked Gil's foot.

"Hey! Ow!" He yelped.

"Gil?" Ryder screeched in delight. His ears turned bright red and his face got all blotchy.

"Oh my god that was not you," she said.

He cleared his throat.

"You're adorable," Suvi said. "He can't help it!"

Ryder rolled her eyes and smiled. "Ok, ok, show’s over. Everyone out. I need to shower."

There were a few more chuckles as they left, and Liam called out, "Thanks for the warning, don't want to walk in on anything!"

"Alone, you perv!" Ryder yelled back with a laugh.

Cora was the last to leave, standing there shaking her head. "Stay sweet, Jaal. She needs someone like you," she said. Then she smiled softly at both of them and left.

 


 

Sara returned from the shower looking far more relaxed and comfortable. Jaal had tossed her garbage in the refabricator and compost and gotten out comfortable clothes for her to sleep in. Then he'd waited on her couch to make sure she was okay.

She smiled when she saw he was still in her quarters, but then looked distraught when she saw the empty table and neat clothes on her bed. "You cleaned up my mess and set out pajamas for me?" she asked, sounding upset. Jaal was suddenly worried he'd crossed a boundary he hadn't known about.

"Um...yes? I didn't think you would mind…" he said as she came closer. "I asked SAM for help finding your clothes so I didn't have to look through your things. I only opened the drawer where you keep your sleeping clothes. If I've—"

She was suddenly in his lap and his face was surrounded by damp hair. He really didn't mind, though, because she was kissing him ferociously and digging her hands into his shoulders. Oh. Not upset, but overwhelmed. He wrapped his arms around her waist to pull her closer.

Once she was settled sideways in his lap, Jaal gently pulled back to brush her hair out of their faces. Then he smiled and pulled her in for another warm, thorough kiss before nuzzling against her cheek.

"Sara, you're welcome," he said.

She laughed and leaned against him contentedly. "You're so...thoughtful and caring. I feel so lucky."

He felt himself flush deeply and a sweet ache bloomed in his chest. He didn't answer immediately, but hugged her tight and pressed his lips against her hair.

"I'm glad I can make you feel cherished," he said quietly, "but if small acts like these overwhelm you, you must have needed it more than I realized."

She burrowed into his chest and curled her feet up to tuck them under his leg. "Maybe? No one I've been with before has supported me like you do."

"What?" he asked, surprised. "That's...terrible, Sara."

"Might be because we were so young," she shrugged thoughtfully. "Young human guys often expect women to take more care of them than they do of us."

Jaal considered. Quite a few responses came to mind, but he finally asked, "Why?"

"It's kind of...subconscious cultural zeitgeist at this point?" she half mumbled, sleepy. "Uh. Zeitgeist probably didn't translate. Shit. I am just...way too tired to explain our history of gender norms and feminism and masculinity and...all that shit. Short answer: old habits we haven't really unlearned yet even though it's unfair."

He hummed in acceptance and held her, rubbing her back over her towel.

After a while she said, "My hair is soaking your shirt." He shrugged and made a dismissive noise, then kissed her head. She laughed, and he smiled as she stood and tucked her towel more firmly around herself.

Jaal stood as well and kissed her forehead. "Sleep well, my love," he said, and a frown briefly sped across her face.

"Good night," she said, blinking and putting on her strange human armor-smile. He frowned and considered her.

"You don't want me to go?" he asked.

Sara blinked in surprise, then blushed and looked away. "I didn't say that," she said quietly.

"No?" he asked softly, bending down and sliding a hand to the side of her neck. "This heat in your cheeks, the forced smile you hid your frown behind, the disappointment that sped across your face...those don't say that you want me to stay?"

A small genuine smile teased at the corner of her mouth and she shook her head. "Really gotta work on my poker face," she said ruefully.

"I welcome the challenge," he said with a chuckle and a swipe of his thumb over her jaw, "but I don't think figuring out my partner's cues is a sign she's bad at hiding them. It means that how you feel is important to me."

Sara gasped and looked especially touched. He appreciated it, but didn't really understand. Wouldn't that be a common sentiment for human relationships too? They aren't direct about this either?

His thoughts trailed off when she cupped his cheeks and stretched up to kiss him. He loved her soft touch, he loved feeling her reach up, like she couldn't wait for him. The smell of her soap was sharp, strong...plain and pragmatic...like her, he thought, and smiled into her kiss. She pulled back with her own smile and walked over to her bed.

"What are you smiling about?" Sara asked, grinning over her shoulder as she dressed.

"You," he answered, delighted with her immediate blush. It spread down her neck, across her chest.

She pulled her shirt on and picked up her towel to rub it over her hair. That reminded him of the damp patch on his own shirt, so he took it off and draped it over a railing to dry. When he turned back she was twisting her hair together and smiling at him softly.

"What are you smiling about, Sara?" He asked, coming over to sit on the end of her bed.

"You," she said as she wrapped the end of her...braid? yes...and came to stand in front of him. She put her hands on his shoulders and leaned down to kiss his forehead.

Jaal closed his eyes and leaned into her. "I know I've already apologized, but...about earlier today...I'm sorry. For not trusting your judgement in the moment."

She was still, but relaxed, and stroked around the side of his brow and down. He leaned into the comforting gesture.

"Thank you," she said quietly. "I do understand. I've certainly had my share of fuckups on bad days. I know it was just that, not that you don't trust my judgement or understand me. You need a break. You should stay behind tomorrow while we're out activating monoliths and checking out the Collective."

He sighed, relaxed a bit, and nodded. He felt her move and the lights dimmed to darkness. "Ready for bed?" Sara asked.

He turned and kissed her chest, then stood. Her small warm hands were on his sides, stroking around to the small of his back, and she was soft against him. The dim light glinted off her hair, and she held him with the deep rich darkness of her eyes. He shivered.

"Yes," he answered.

She snuggled against him and he slowly let his energy expand around her. If she were angara, hers would meet his and they could...he shivered again, thinking of her resonating with him, against him, back and forth, finding their way together. Then he was distracted by her hair waving in time with his current. Some of the longer strands brushed his cowl. He smiled and held a hand up to touch them as they floated.

"Wow, this is...new?" Sara left the question open, waiting for an explanation. He looked back down into her eyes. They seemed most alien...mesmerizing...in the dark, with the bright sclera contrasting so strongly. Her bottomless gaze encompassed him. He could sink into her.

"It's…" he blinked to find his words and break her accidental spell, "a question...or an invitation," he said.

"To do what?"

Jaal hummed and stroked her hair again. "Well, you recognize this current?" he asked.

Sara grinned, blushed, and squeezed her arms around him. "It's how you feel about me," she said happily.

His heartbeat thumped through his frill.

"You're glowing again," she reached up to stroke his luminescence.

"Yes," he smiled. "It's...an invitation to...show how you feel about me," he said.

Her happiness faded slightly, but she looked thoughtful.

Sara squeezed around his waist and spread her hands up his back, pressing firmly into the large muscles framing his spine. She was quiet, serious. "Sit back down," she said softly.

He did, and she stepped forward between his knees.

First, she kissed the top of his head, then brushed her fingers around both sides of his brow back to his frill. She held him there and leaned down to press her forehead against his.

She whispered, "I love you," then stepped away. "Just a second," she said, walking over to her bedside table.

When she came back, she climbed up on the bed behind him. She kissed the crown of his head. He was confused until her hands followed the bottom of his frill downward. She was using the oil he'd made for her, exploring and soothing out the tension in his back.

Jaal sighed and closed his eyes, soaking up the feeling of her hands and the calming scent rising from them. He let his love for her thrum along his skin, relaxing into her touch.

She massaged downward, then back up to his shoulders. He hummed along with his energy against her hands. Her fingers slowed to move with the frequency of the waves he was sending and he closed his eyes with a shaky breath. He felt her hands smooth forward over his cowl, and she leaned over his shoulders. Her arms wrapped around him warmly and she stroked her cheek against him.

He shivered and turned to look at her, but she was standing up and moving in front of him again. She smiled softly and kissed his forehead. He closed his eyes.

One leg came up over his, then the other. Her weight settled onto him. Her breath carried a scent that was cool and just on the verge of familiar.

"I love you," she whispered, softer, and kissed him. He brought his arms up around her and realized she was still matching his waves with her movements. She held his jaw gently in both hands and brushed her thumbs back and forth in time.

I'm going to melt into her and never leave.

He sighed into the kiss and rubbed her back to the same rhythm. Her knees squeezed him gently and he shuddered.

When she pulled back he felt himself lean in for more, more Sara, please—and sighed when she accepted him. He kissed her as he let his field slowly dissipate. She moved to gently kiss each of his eyelids, and he opened them to her soft, beautiful smile. He smiled back and nuzzled into her neck.

"It's...not the same, I know..." she began.

Jaal hugged her and shook his head. "But it's you," he whispered. Sara's breath caught, and she was quiet for a while.

"Thanks for tonight," she whispered.

"You're welcome. Always."

Chapter Text

Ryder, Liam, and Peebee stepped off the creaky lift down from the port. One benefit of the damn sulfur is it masks the other smells down here, at least.

Aloud, she cheerfully asked, "So, whaddaya think, Liam? Potential for an outpost, right?"

She spread her arms out, indicating the view beyond the fence. A small puff of smoke drifted over it. Liam jetted left to see where it came from and made a face.

"Ryder, I think Jaal’s right. This place is Satan’s arsehole," he screwed up his face and pointed. "That water is on fire."

"Oh come on!" she grinned. "It just needs a little love!"

"Havarl just needed a little love," Liam said skeptically. "This place needs...I dunno, some kind of ancient wedding ritual with sacrifices and shit? And a huge bender of a stag party?"

"This is why I like humans," Peebee said. "You guys are weird."

Ryder turned toward her to say something snarky and movement caught her eye. She froze and signaled the others. Two figures kneeling, a third face down. She pulled up a barrier and ran over.

"Hey! Stop!" She brought her hands up around her mouth so the sound would carry. She saw fear flash across the human man’s face, but the asari next to him ignored her as she ran up. "I said stop," Ryder glared at them both and the human reached out to shake the asari’s arm.

She looked up at Ryder and rolled her eyes. "Yeah, so?" she said, and kept rifling through the body’s pockets. "Like I’m worried about a human a few decades old who thinks she’s a hero."

Ryder’s face hardened and she signaled Liam toward the human man, who was carefully standing up and backing away from the body. She glanced at Peebee, who grinned and nodded.

Ryder pulled the asari’s feet from under her and slammed her upside down against the prefab’s wall before she could react. Curses older than human civilization assaulted Ryder, but she ignored them with a smile and lifted the asari so she could look her in the eye. Peebee layered on a stasis.

She struggled, but with both Ryder and Peebee holding her, she could barely budge.

Ryder smiled sweetly at bright blue hatred. "Now, let me introduce myself, my name—" the trapped asari spat, but Ryder had been expecting it and threw up a shield so it bounced back into her face, "—is Ryder, and I don’t care much for people fucking around with dead bodies in the street. Or...whatever this place is. I’ve seen far too much of it on Kadara, and I would appreciate it if you would refrain."

"Suck my tight le’weth you fucking ardat-tzu."

"Hm. Demon’s asshole." Ryder frowned thoughtfully. "Never been called that one before. Points for creativity. Flattering you threw in the ‘fucking’ too—it’s an ancient human heirloom. Touching. But how ‘bout you drop all the shit you took from this poor bastard and fuck off, okay sugar?"

Untranslatable vitriol erupted from the asari, interrupted by Liam. "Ryder, this guy’s alive," he said.

"Shit, really? Peebee, drop her—" she did, and Ryder tossed the asari toward the puddles between the lift and the gate and turned to the fallen man.

"SAM, medical facilities anywhere in this hole?" she asked as she knelt and pulled up her scanner.

"Yes, three alleyways east of your current position, up the stairs. Local chatter indicates a free clinic set up in an abandoned shipping crate."

"Really?" Peebee asked.

"Beggars can’t be choosers," Ryder responded. "I’m not getting any major nerve damage or hemorrhaging on my scanner. Think it’s ok to move him, Liam?"

"Better than leaving him here," he answered.

"Ok, Peebee, can you manage a delicate lift? I’m more of a brawler, but I’ll try if not."

"Please, my hardass big sister had me doing shit like this by the time I was thirty," she answered with a roll of her eyes. Her hands and the unconscious man glowed blue. He floated straight up, stopping a little over a meter off the ground. "I could do this all day."

"Biotics are a hell of a thing in an emergency, that’s for sure," Liam grinned.

"Ok, let’s find this...doctor. Hopefully," Ryder said. She glanced around for the thieves? muggers? opportunists? She settled on assholes, but didn’t see any sign of either of them. Cool. They probably wouldn’t get jumped on the way.

They walked past some sort of flop...container for people high on whateverthefuck. Ryder ignored the sneers of the dealers and headed for lights and the smell of antiseptic.

She opened a rusty metal door with a harsh creak and saw a fairly clean area with three cots. One had an injured salarian, the other an unconscious angara, and a griping krogan was leaning on the third. In the middle was a very harassed and exhausted human man. He looked up and glanced over her armor and weapons in alarm. She held up her hands peacefully and stepped to the side so Peebee could bring in the injured man. The doctor’s eyes immediately focused on the new patient and he threw up his omnitool.

"Put him down here," he pointed to the empty cot. "What happened? How long has he been unconscious?" he snapped as he scanned.

Ryder grabbed Liam, ignored his panicked expression, and shoved him forward. "Just found him like that about five minutes ago," she said. "Liam’s the closest thing we have to an EMT at the moment."

The doctor started asking Liam rapidfire questions, and he answered as best he could, clearly starting to remember things as he went. Ryder and Peebee stepped out of the container to give them room to work.

Ryder leaned on the door and scanned the people passed out in the other containers. She nudged SAM through their private channel.

*The drug they are under the influence of is called Oblivion, Pathfinder.*

Symptoms?

*Euphoria, muscle relaxation, hallucinations. In high doses, toxic. Three of the occupants of the nearby crates are recently deceased. This drug also seems to have slight antibiotic properties.*

These dealers Outcasts?

*Yes.*

Guess Reyes was telling the truth about Sloane dealing.

*That seems to be the case.*

Fuck. I have careful about this shit, don't I? Can't just throw all these fuckers in the lake out there.

*That would likely be an ineffective long term strategy, Ryder.*

Yeah. Thanks SAM. I'm going to rename you Smart Ass Matrix.

SAM didn't respond, and the door creaked behind her. Ryder turned and met Liam, who looked relieved.

"So, the guy is as stable as he can get him," Liam sighed. "The doctor is named Ryota Nakamoto. Apparently he wasn't exiled, but left with them to make sure they had someone with medical training. He's...making do. Gave him all my medigel and put him in touch with Vetra and Lexi to see if we can help."

"Good work," Ryder said, nodding and patting Liam's arm. "Let's—"

"Uh, Pathfinder?" Dr. Nakamoto stuck his head out the doorway. "Could I have another minute of your time?"

"Sure," Ryder answered. "Be right back," she told her team as she stepped into the makeshift clinic.

"Name's Ryder," she said, taking off her glove and shaking his hand, "what can I do for you, Dr. Nakamoto?"

He still looked exhausted, and was distracted by work on a data pad he was holding. He typed a bit more, then sized her up. "Probably a lot more than you have time for, but: word is you're not a fan of Sloane?"

"Don't know much about her personally, but I don't care for her tactics, management style, or apparent morals, no."

The doctor snorted. "Yeah, absolute power, right? Listen, I used to work with...for her. Outcasts supplied a clinic up in the port and a research lab out in the badlands. In exchange for patching up Outcasts whenever they needed it and sharing research breakthroughs with Sloane, I was free to use the rest of the supplies on anyone who showed up."

"Sounds reasonable, in theory," Ryder said cautiously, putting her glove back on.

"Yeah, that's the problem. I found a way to make a pretty decent antibiotic from one of the local plants, but it had some side effects. When I took it to Sloane to ask for more resources to refine it further, she was more interested in the side effects."

Ryder sighed and closed her eyes. "That Oblivion shit. You made it."

"No." His jaw was tight and his eyes were steely. "I refused to do that, which is why I'm working with scraps in a garbage can."

Ryder raised her eyebrows and crossed her arms. "So?" she asked.

"So," he sighed, "if you want to shut down the Oblivion trade and give the Nexus a lead on a local antibiotic source, I can give you the coordinates to my old lab."

"Sloane wouldn't have a backup somewhere?" Ryder asked.

"Won't do her much good if you grab this list of equipment, too," he answered, handing her the data pad he was holding. "I know for a fact she doesn't have backups of those, because I swiped them myself when we left the Nexus."

"You want me to steal your stolen equipment back for you?" she asked skeptically.

"Nah, keep it. Return it to the Nexus. Maybe consider it trade for future help for my clinic?" Dr. Nakamoto shrugged. "It’s not like I have the time or space for research here, and it's better if Sloane doesn't have it."

"If you're the only doctor on Kadara, how is she using it?"

"I started training people, and they're still working for her. Arenna Farenth is probably running it. She can patch holes and make poison, and that's all Sloane really needs, apparently," he said, bitterly.

Ryder glanced at the coordinates and compared them to her map. Well, at least it's not too far out of the way.

She glanced over him and the clinic again, making a decision.

"I'll see what I can do, Dr. Nakamoto," she said. "It's worth a look if it'll stop the flow of Oblivion. Three people in the containers across from you are dead."

"Goddamn it," he hissed and closed his eyes. "I've been trying to get them to just let me in to examine people, keep them hydrated, make sure they don't overdose—but they won't even let me do that. It's not like I can stop the flow of addicts with my presence, but Sloane says I'm persona non grata and her sycophants jump."

Ryder sighed. "You’re the medic," she said with a smile, "You can't expect to fight the dragon on your own."

"Not something I'd expect to hear from a Pathfinder," he laughed softly.

"Not the original Pathfinder," she shrugged. "I fell in the shit like everyone else. I signed up to explore. Shooting pirates was just supposed to be a way to pay for grad school." Ryder sighed again and put her hand on his shoulder. "The people Liam put you in touch with, Lexi T’Perro and Vetra Nyx—they'll help. Maybe you can actually get some sleep."

He crumpled against the edge of the nearest cot. "That would be nice," he said.

She gently patted his shoulder. "I better head out," she said.

"Thanks, Pathfinder," he said as she left, then smiled. "Glad you're here in the shit with the rest of us."

She grinned and closed the door behind her.

Peebee and Liam had wandered and stopped near the stairs to talk to some people behind a counter.

"...does this for free? Really?" she heard Peebee saying as she walked up. "Why?"

The turian she was talking to held his mandibles tight and narrowed his eyes at her. "Because they're starving, and we have food," he said in disgust.

"Hey, I agree with you," Peebee said quickly, "I'm just surprised to see a mercenary band on Kadara doing charity work."

"Look, I'm here to feed people, not make a sales pitch for the Collective. Head to Kralla's Song. There's usually a rep there."

Ryder touched Liam and Peebee on their backs and tilted her head toward the stairs. They followed her around the prefab toward the entrance to Tartarus. She hit the chime on Reyes’ door and got a ping on her omnitool requesting ID. She sent it, and the door opened for her.

He was lounging too casually and flicking through a data pad. He looked up with a grin. "Sara! And your merry band of do-gooders. What can I do for you this morning?"

She waited for the door to close behind her and tossed him the data pad Dr. Nakamoto had given her. "Get your shit," she grinned. "You're helping us activate a Remnant monolith and liberate some equipment from the Outcasts."

"Seriously, Ryder?" Liam hissed. She glanced out of the corner of her eye and gave him a small nod. He widened his eyes and flattened his lips, but shrugged. You're the boss.

Reyes raised his eyebrows as he looked over the list, and kept them raised when he looked back up.

"Do I have a say in this, Ryder?" he asked. "It's possible I have prior commitments."

"Sure," she shrugged and crossed her arms. "but you’ve got some Pathfinder convincing to do, and you did say you have leeway in that department, didn't you?"

He narrowed his eyes and tapped the data pad on his thigh. "And if I decline your gracious invitation?"

"That’ll be useful data too," she said, cocking her hips.

"Uh. Huh."

Ryder waited calmly, trying on one of her father's bland expressions. Reyes screwed up his lips and sighed through his nose.

"Alright," he said, tossing her the pad. "Five minutes?"

"Sure," she nodded. "Meet us out by the forward station outside the gate. Bring disruptor ammo if ya got it."

"Ryder, please. Of course I have some."

She chuckled and waved as they left.

"Y'know, I really kinda like him," Peebee said thoughtfully.

"Between Reyes and Kalinda, I'm starting to think you have a type, Peebee," Ryder teased.

"Psh. Reyes Vidal is so much more real than Kalinda."

"Damn, B’Sayle," Liam said over his shoulder. "I think I'm starting to understand why you're so cagey."

"About time," she grumbled. "Doesn't help that you're such a judgy bitch about anyone with different motivations than you, Kosta."

"What the hell?" he yelled.

Ryder glanced between the two of them. "Can it for a sec, guys?" she said.

They went through the gatehouse and headed toward the forward station. The nomad was waiting there for them. Word had gotten around about the Pathfinder team, and the shield overload, so she was far less worried about sending the Tempest to drop it off before she got out to the badlands.

"Alright, we don't have an audience anymore," she sighed and raised her eyebrows. "Have it out."

They both glared at her. She glared back.

"I swear to god," she growled, "if the two of you don't stop sniping at each other, I am going to jettison you both in the escape pod and come back to get you when you've decided to play nice."

Ryder raised her voice as she stepped toward them. "I trust my entire team. If you trust my judgement," she looked pointedly at Liam, "you will trust your teammates. And if you have trust issues," she looked pointedly at Peebee, "you need to be honest with your teammates about them so they can work with you. Because you are both part of a team."

She paused and gave them both one last glare. "So work this shit out. Now. Or you're both off the ground team until I decide otherwise. I'm gonna go check out that pumping station over there. Radio when Reyes gets here."

Ryder turned and stomped off, exaggerating her annoyance slightly for effect. They needed to know how seriously she took this. Why does no one lose their shit on the ship when we're not stressed out and under pressure? It would be so much more convenient.

Liam in particular was snappish lately. She sighed. Maybe Jaal might teach him meditation? No. Liam wouldn't hold still long enough for that. He had to be moving. That was part of the problem. Dammit. She understood where he was coming from. She was anxious about their survival, too, but he had to find some sort of useful positive outlet that didn't involve pissing off half the team.

Maybe Cora and I could take turns sparring with him. No, that would only be temporary and wouldn't help the root of the problem. Maybe Lexi will have some ideas...maybe there's some sort of...Resistance exchange we could do? Maybe he could train with them, or...work with joint APEX teams? Something. He needed to feel progress of some kind.

Peebee was her own bag of problems, but at least "once bitten twice shy" had fairly straightforward treatment. Patience, slow movements, give her space, and she'd eventually come out of her shell. If Liam stopped bitching at her for being in a shell in the first place because he was stressed and scared himself.

Ugh, Dad, what the fuck were you thinking? Why didn't you give Cora this job like you were supposed to? What good was saving me if I end up getting us all killed because I don't know what the fuck I'm doing?

She'd made it to the pumping station. She pulled up her scanner and readied a shield just in case. No hostiles...one asari, one turian, sidearms, arguing about something.

She left them to it and walked around the side, remembering what Reyes had said about bodies dumped here. Which...if this supplied drinking water to be treated...what the fuck? Ugh. Sulfuric acid for diseases, filters for sulfuric acid, horrors all around. Maybe this planet needs an exorcism instead of a little love.

Ryder started scanning the water, picking up signs of at least five bodies, maybe more on the other side.

SAM can you make out the DNA from these scans?

*I detect six distinct DNA sequences from your scans at your current location. Two angara, three turian, one human. Would you like me to search records to identify the bodies?*

Yeah, start a file with all the information you can get from my scans and records.

*Of course.*

"Hey! Who are you?" an annoyed asari voice called out from behind her.

Ryder closed her omnitool and turned slowly, hands visible. An asari and a turian man were standing on a walkway overlooking the pool. The asari had a stern expression, but the turian looked bored.

"Sara Ryder, human Pathfinder," she called over. "I was cataloging the bodies dumped here."

The asari’s expression slowly changed to thoughtful. "Huh. You got a minute to chat about that, Pathfinder?" she asked. The turian next to her scoffed, and the asari glared at him.

Ryder glanced them over and shrugged. "Sure," she called as she headed over.

The asari met her at the ramp to the deck surrounding the pumping station and held her hand out with a smile. Ryder raised her eyebrows, but shook it.

"I’m Saneris, and my asshole buddy over there is Drexel," she said. The turian yelled something and the asari made a rude gesture over her shoulder at him. "I know, you're Nexus, we're exiles, what do we want—short version: we used to be militia, defected because Tann and Addison were fucking everyone over, got kicked off the station and discovered Sloane was worse, so we left. We're fine—surviving, that's not why I want your help."

"Well, you've...definitely anticipated my questions pretty well," Ryder said. "Care to answer the next one?"

Saneris grinned, "Yeah, got a good feeling about you. So. People are dumping bodies in the sulfur pools all over Kadara because it's easy disposal and the sulfuric acid will dissolve any evidence. Can't do shit about it now except get pissed off, right?"

"Yeah…" Ryder said. Her comm beeped. "Just a sec," she said and opened it. It was Reyes. He sounded annoyed.

"Ryder, what the hell? I'm here, on time—since that's so important to you—and not only are you not here, your team members are locked in your nomad and from the sounds I can make out, I'm not sure if it's going to end in murder or fucking, or fucking murder, but it's gonna be one of those." She could hear a note of amusement and decided to take a chance on his patience.

Ryder sighed dramatically. "Sorry, Reyes. I had to put ‘em in time out. They're...working some things out. Let's give ‘em a few more minutes? I’m over at the pumping station talking about bodies being dumped in the sulfur pools. Wanna join us for a bit?"

"I don't know," she could hear his smirk. "the show over here might end up being more interesting."

Ryder grinned. "Suit yourself. I'll be back in a few minutes and beat some heads, ok?"

"Alright, I'm coming down," he sighed and closed the channel.

"Sorry," Ryder turned back to Saneris, "Pathfinder duties include herding cats sometimes."

She smiled crookedly. "Teams can be...hard," she said. "Anyway, you’re exploring everywhere, right?"

Ryder shrugged. "Pretty much?"

"You've got all your Pathfinder gadgets, too, so you'll be able to get more information than I could. If you keep a record of any bodies you find, we might eventually be able to track down their killers and they can get some sort of justice," she sighed. "Once we have a justice system anyway."

"Do you have...plans?" Ryder asked.

"Not firm ones, no, but I was C-Sec for 175 years," Saneris sighed. "What is it humans say? Old habits die hard. I came to build a society, not live in anarchy, or whatever you call Sloane's corrupt mess."

"Tyrannical oligarchy seems appropriate to me," Reyes said as he came up.

Saneris narrowed her eyes at him. "You're...Vidal, right? Smuggler?"

He gasped. "I follow all the applicable laws," he said with a twinkle.

"Pretty easy to claim on Kadara," Saneris scoffed. "Also, applicable is a tidy loophole you've left yourself there."

"I favor direct action," he said mildly, leaning his hip on the railing.

"Can't really blame you," she sighed, then turned back to Ryder. "I've got a list of all the bodies I could find and identify that I can send you. I’d appreciate if you'd add to it, and share what you find with me."

"Other than satisfying old habits, what would you do with the information, Saneris?" Ryder asked.

She crossed her arms. "If you can perform miracles and set up a colony here? I'd like to see if I can join. Help set up a non-corrupt justice system. Maybe make amends, patch up some connections I broke during the uprising."

Ryder nodded. Even if Saneris wasn't being truthful about her motivation, it was a good idea, and she could always withhold the info if necessary.

"Okay. Send me the list you've got," she said, pulling up her omnitool. "I've started a record that will be backed up on the Nexus and the Tempest."

"Great!" Saneris sent her a text file. "It's not much, but it's nice to find decent people after...everything."

They shook hands. "Alright, I need go deal with some...personnel issues," Ryder sighed.

"If they're still in the car and quiet, trust me: don't open the door," Saneris grinned. "Just bang on the window and give them a fifteen minute warning."

Reyes laughed and Ryder grinned. "Sounds like wisdom," she said, waving as they left.

 


 

They were out of the nomad, or at least sitting in the cargo area with the hatch up. Ryder smiled in relief when she got within earshot.

"...protect yourself...I get that. Really. But it’s hard to trust someone who's always hiding something."

"Well, you're not the only one who's scared, Kosta."

"Yeah. I'll try to keep my head out of my ass if you try to keep yours out of your shell, fair?"

Peebee made a face, but then spit in her hand and held it out with a grin.

"Eeugh! Why did you do that?" Liam yelled and scrambled away.

"Isn’t this the way your people make sacred pacts?" she gasped innocently.

"If you’re seven and disgusting!"

"Yeah, that works with my image," she laughed, "Gotta keep people on their toes, and serious is boring."

Liam sighed, then, looking defiant, spat in his own hand and held it out. "Fine. If you're gonna insist on being weird, you're gonna commit," he said.

Peebee looked surprised, then grinned wider and shook his hand. Her face distorted a little, and Liam grimaced, but they held on for two firm shakes.

"That was nasty," Liam said with a shudder, wiping his hand off on his pants and grabbing for a wipe. "Let's never do that again."

"What, you don't like swapping spit with a pretty girl, Liam?" Ryder asked as she walked up. He looked up quickly, with a slight blush.

"Uh…"

"Ryder!" Peebee cried, "You think I'm pretty?" She made to playfully jump on her, but Ryder backpedaled.

"Not interested in cold spit in my hair, Peebee."

"Tsk. Spoilsport," Peebee said over her shoulder. She wiped her hands on her pants and climbed into the back seat.

Reyes shook his head and made for the front passenger seat.

"You're just all about the cultural exchange, huh, Liam?" Ryder grinned, gently shoving him. He snorted and shoved her back as he shut the hatch.

"Yeah...uh...sorry, Pathfinder. I've been...taking out my stress on other people. It's...I'm aware of it. I'll…" he sighed and made a face. "I'll talk to Lexi. It's just…"

Ryder clapped him on the back. "If we fuck up, everyone dies?"

Liam leaned his head and arms on the nomad and laughed in shock. "Shit, Ryder, you really rip that bandage off don't you?"

"Hey, what do you think keeps me awake at night, Liam?"

He looked up mischievously. "...Jaal?"

Her mouth dropped open and she turned bright red. "Get your ass in the car, you little shit," she laughed and shoved him, and was happy to hear him laugh a little lighter.

"All. Right." Ryder said as she shut the door and started the nomad up. "Here's hoping this closest monolith," she pointed out the windshield and up the hill, "doesn't have any Remnant or scavengers. Reyes, you favor mid-range, right?"

"If I have a choice," he said. "But sometimes things get too close for comfort."

"Have you fought Remnant?" she asked.

"Now you ask?" he said.

"Well?"

"No," he crossed his arms. "I avoid killer robots."

"Ok. The ones with the legs build other ones. Take them out first. They're usually unshielded. The flying ones with shields have this awful laser that will ruin everything, so hide. Even Drack doesn't close on those things. Of course, they're flying, so that makes it a problem. I've charged them before...wouldn't recommend it."

"Wonderful," he groaned. "How do you expect a humble smuggler like me to keep up, Ryder?"

"You're a humble smuggler and I'm a krogan princess, Vidal."

"I agreed to no more bullshitting, remember?"

"Yeah. I’m still trying to decide if that was bullshit."

Reyes let out a long dramatic sigh.

"Fine," Ryder rolled her eyes, "Peebee, babysit Reyes and don't let him get fried by an observer, 'k?"

"Roger," she said, not looking up from fiddling with her pistol.

Reyes grunted in annoyance but didn't say anything else.

They were getting closer and the nomad radar still wasn't picking up signs of activity at the site. Ryder hoped luck might be on their side. She pulled up as quietly as she could behind one of the larger structures.

"Radar isn’t picking up hostiles, but be careful anyway guys," she said, turning off the engine and climbing out. "Peebee, Reyes, take right," she pointed, "Liam, left with me."

Ryder readied a shield and her scanner and looked around the structure. "Clear on my side!" she called.

"Clear up here, too!" Peebee answered.

Liam and Reyes confirmed, and she relaxed a bit.

"Alright, Peebee, Liam, you know the drill. Look around for data caches and salvage. Reyes, you’re lookout." She headed to the main console. "Let’s see if I we have enough information to decrypt this thing, SAM."

 


 

"Oh goddess, please, just don’t hurt me!" a timid voice called from behind a large crate.

"Arenna Farenth?" Ryder called out.

"I’m Doctor Farenth! Please, Sloane is holding me, forcing me to make these awful drugs—if I don’t, she’ll kill me!"

Ryder exchanged glances with Reyes, who rolled his eyes so hard his entire head moved. Peebee made a very rude asari gesture and Liam choked.

"I think this one is your problem, Reyes," Ryder cheerfully announced.

"My problem?" he hissed.

"You wanna run shit, show me what you’ll do with all these suddenly out of work Outcasts that doesn’t involve mass murder."

"Ryder…! Fucking...fine. You get her out, I’ll deal with her," he grumbled.

"You can always apply for a transfer out of the Pathfinder recruitment office," she said with a grin. "Dunno what the turnaround time for the Charlatan’s queue is, though."

"Ryder, I was under the impression that no bullshit agreement went both ways." Reyes said, giving her an irritated glance.

"Never said anything about sarcasm," she said. He laughed.

"Never met anyone who could keep up with me before," he said.

"Please, I run circles around your ass," Ryder scoffed. She checked to make sure the asari didn't have a barrier up and threw a pull to float her out from behind the crate.

"Aaaah! HEY! What are you doing?" She struggled but couldn't break free of Ryder's field.

"Peebee, help me out with a stasis please?" Ryder said, pulling the tumbling, cursing asari out the door.

"Gotcha covered," she said, taking over.

"Liam, help me survey the lab. Reyes, she’s all yours."

"Thank you so much."

Liam rolled his eyes as Reyes headed down the steps, then followed Ryder inside. "I'll take right, you take left?" he suggested.

"Works for me," she said, removing her helmet. Ryder pulled up her scanner and the file containing the list from Dr. Nakamoto. She found crates of medical supplies, some marked, some obviously Nexus, but unmarked, and...uh oh.

"Fuck," she said.

"Yeah?" Liam called.

"Just found a few crates of Resistance medical supplies."

"Oh shit," he whispered and turned to her with wide eyes.

"Yeah," she sighed. "Help me set them aside for now?" Liam nodded and came over. Ryder scanned them and SAM confirmed they appeared unopened. They moved all four large crates outside before continuing the search.

Ryder found three of the nine items on the list and a whole bunch of dried local flora before she reached the back wall.

"Got a terminal," Liam said.

"Encrypted?" she asked.

"Ha. No. Cocky bastards. Here we go…" he started transferring the contents to his omnitool. "And there we are. Oblivion. Nakamoto's original research looks like, too. And some pretty damning evidence that the Outcasts were deliberately selling it to prevent uprising. Oh damn, it's apparently extra potent for angara? They're more likely to overdose, and that was considered a bonus."

"Fuck, between that and stealing from the Resistance…" Ryder whistled. "That won't play well with all of Sloane's subjects. Keep that shit for sure."

"On it," Liam said. "Found four of the things on that list and marked them, too," he added, pointing without looking up from his work.

"Good. Two more...looks like they'll be small items."

"Good thing too! We're gonna have to get Kallo to swing by as it is, right?" This time he did look up. "No way all this is fitting in the nomad."

"Hm. Yeah, good point," Ryder said, looking up from her scanner. "Not like we want to leave it and have them come back in force. SAM?"

"Yes, Pathfinder?"

"There a convenient and relatively safe place for the Tempest around here?"

"For a quick pickup, yes," SAM sent a navpoint, "a few kilometers east. However, you may want to choose a location further away to divert suspicion."

"Thanks," Ryder said. "I’ll talk it over with Reyes. Ok, let's find these other two...oh, here's one." A little more investigation revealed the other, dusty and fallen behind a desk. Apparently it wasn't necessary for Oblivion production.

"Ok, Liam, I've marked the equipment I found. I'm heading outside to check on the others. Send a copy of the data to me and the Tempest when the transfer is done, ok?"

"Yup," he said, sending her a thumbs up while he worked.

She headed outside to find Peebee bored and Arenna Farenth floating sullenly. Reyes was a short way away talking into his omnitool.

"You...didn't have to keep her in a pull field, you know," Ryder said as she walked up.

"Oh, I didn't at first, but she's much less annoying this way," Peebee said, crossing her arms and giving Ryder a look of incredulity. "She tried to convince us she is the real doctor and Nakamoto is just in it for the money."

"What?" Ryder looked up at the asari, who was still glaring silently. "I've heard some awful lies, but damn that takes the cake, lady. You deserve some kind of prize."

"Reyes laughed in her face," Peebee said.

"Not surprising," Ryder said. "Speaking of, what's the deal? We're pretty much done inside."

"He’s doing some sort of shady planning," Peebee shrugged.

Ryder looked over to Reyes, who seemed to be arguing with someone on his call.

"Ok," she said to Peebee, "give a yell when he's done. I'm gonna help Liam move stuff out."

"Wanna trade jobs?" Peebee asked hopefully.

"Pathfinder’s prerogative. I take the blame so I don't have to take the boring work."

"Ryderrrrr, I'm dying."

"You'll live, and I'm sure you’ll have other opportunities to watch Liam flexing," Ryder grinned and turned to walk backwards so she could see her expression.

"Seriously?"

"I did catch you swapping spit, Peebs."

"Ugh."

 


 

They got all the equipment out and stashed for retrieval, along with quite a bit of Nexus medical supplies that Nakamoto could use.

A Collective transport came for Farenth and the supplies. Peebee was grateful to hand her over and made Ryder swear she wouldn't be on guard duty next time.

Ryder was inside coordinating with Reyes and Kallo. She had a map pulled up.

"If the ship can land somewhere in this area," Reyes circled it, then drew a route to their location, "you can head this way, which should be clear of any Outcasts. There are a few pools here and here that you'll wanna be careful of." Ryder sent the path he’d traced to Kallo.

"As long as the ground is stable, landing there shouldn't be a problem, Ryder," Kallo said.

"Good. It's a plan, then. We'll need a couple trips to get everything. We're just about done here, so head over there as soon as you can, Kallo."

"Roger that. ETA 20. Kallo out."

"What are you going to do with Arenna Farenth?" Ryder asked, shutting down her omnitool.

"We'll put out the word that she helped the Collective take over the Oblivion business and defected with all the equipment," Reyes said. "The supply will taper off because we’re still figuring the manufacturing out, or maybe some equipment was damaged. The Outcasts should be taken care of by the time any suspicion arises."

"Decent plan," she nodded. "One monolith down, one criminal caught, and a bunch of equipment retrieved. Good day's work. I think we'll have to postpone the visit to the base until tomorrow. Can I expect to find our new friend there, being treated reasonably?"

"Yes, Ryder. I’ll make sure to let them know you’ll be inspecting with white gloves," he sighed. "It's not ideal that Arenna Farenth knows my connection, but we can keep her secure for now."

"Good. And don’t worry, I won’t kidnap you tomorrow, Pathfinder’s honor."

"I’ll hold you to that," he said. Reyes lounged on a desk and crossed his arms. "So, how are you planning on diverting suspicion from yourself? They don’t have the best information network, but the Outcasts are bound to notice you were in the area. Eventually."

Ryder sighed. She didn’t like the idea, but it was the best one she had. "Uh, well," she said, awkwardly clearing her throat, "I was hoping you might agree to help with that."

"Oh?" he said, smirking and raising his eyebrows in curiosity.

"Well, we already have a decent basis for a relationship established," she said, bracing her hands on the table behind her to keep from fiddling with them. She stared at the floor in front of her feet. "It would be easy enough to expand on that. It could be a good cover for whenever we need to meet or work together, and as long as we fabricate a few ‘secluded trips’ in the badlands, a few visits to the Tempest, it should provide enough of a smokescreen for our activities that we stay under the radar. If you’re willing."

"Why Sara, are you asking me out?" Reyes grinned.

"God damn it, Reyes—" she started, but he laughed and waved a hand at her.

"Just teasing," he chuckled. "You’re right, it should work."

She relaxed a bit.

"I just have one concern," Reyes said, half seriously. She looked up to find him considering her thoughtfully. "I was under the impression that angara don’t really do jealousy—that they’re usually in open relationships, or at least happily flattered when someone else shows interest in one of their partners. But that Resistance lieutenant who follows you around like a mastiff puppy? He looked like he wanted to incinerate me. So. Is that going to be a problem? Or does he just hate me in particular?"

Ryder sighed heavily and crossed her arms with a nod. That was fair, given Jaal’s reaction to their meeting a few days ago. A jealous human boyfriend could be like a bull in a china shop. She considered how to reassure him.

"Everyone has their own hangups," she shrugged, "but we’ve got nothing to worry about on that front. We’ve talked. Jaal’s definitely not one to keep his feelings locked up."

Reyes narrowed his eyes, but nodded. "If you say so," he said, shrugging.

"Yeah, it’ll be fine," she nodded. "Let’s make sure everything’s settled." She tilted her head toward the door.

Farenth was being loaded into the transport when they came outside, and she finally decided to speak up. She called over to Ryder, "Sloane's gonna kill all of us because of this, you know that right?"

Ryder crossed her arms and called back, "Sloane Kelly is welcome to fucking try me, and if you wanna try to convince her you haven't defected to the Collective, go ahead." She didn't get a response.

Reyes turned to her after the transport left. He was solemn and serious. "Don't underestimate Sloane Kelly," he said.

"No, but bravado never hurts," she answered.

He smiled, winked, and clapped her shoulder before following her back over to the prefab.

"Okay, Ryder, what's the plan?" Peebee called. She was sitting on one of the Resistance supply crates and swinging her legs. Liam was digging around in the back of the nomad.

"The Tempest should be at the rendezvous soon," Ryder said, "and I'd rather not leave the rest of this stuff unguarded." She sighed. "I guess we fill the nomad as full as we can, one person ferries stuff and the rest guard it until it's done.

"Sounds like moving," Liam said, coming up and handing out bottles of water and energy bars. He sighed. "Not exactly the glamorous adventure we all signed up for, huh?"

"Ugh," Peebee said, leaning back against the side of the prefab. Reyes huffed his agreement as he caught the bar Liam tossed his way.

"Can't all be dramatic fiery landings or being sucked out of shuttles, Liam," Ryder said.

"Wait you were sucked out of a shuttle?" Peebee sat up and stared at him. "How have I not heard this story?"

"Not just me," Liam said, tilting his head and eyebrows at Ryder.

"Both of you?" Reyes said, staring up at them in surprise.

"I thought everyone heard about it," Liam said. "Surprised it hasn't made it all around the cluster. First thing right outta cryo."

"Hold on," Ryder said before he got started, "let's get the nomad loaded and you can tell them both while I take the first trip."

 


 

"Didn't know you turned pirate on us," Vetra teased as Ryder climbed out of the nomad.

"Yes, you're hilarious," Ryder rolled her eyes. "C'mon, guys, the sooner we get this unloaded the sooner we can head back to port."

Cora and Jaal started unloading crates from the back.

"...about that…" Vetra said, grabbing some equipment.

"What happened?" Ryder asked, resigned.

"Nothing yet," Cora said as she came back for another crate, "but don't you think it'll look a little suspicious to the Outcasts? They know you talked to Nakamoto, went out with Vidal, their Oblivion set up was trashed, and their medic who was making it 'defected’ to the Collective."

"If they put it all together, yeah, it looks suspicious," Ryder admitted, gathering up a piece of equipment. "But Vidal and I talked about that, and I think we've got a good cover story."

"Ohhh," Cora said, "I see. You're trying out those commando tactics we talked about after all?"

Vetra caught Ryder's eye and her brow plates widened. She glanced over to Jaal and back in concern. He was busy scanning the Resistance crates, looking for any identifying information that might help them figure out where they were taken from. Ryder gave her a thumbs up and a reassuring nod.

"Sorta?" Ryder answered. She closed the hatch of the empty nomad and leaned on it. "An affair with Reyes would be a decent, believable cover for a variety of situations, if I do decide to throw in with the Collective."

"If?" Jaal asked in surprise, paying attention now. "You haven't made up your mind yet, even with all the problems with the Outcasts? Even after all this?" He waved at the pile of crates and equipment hastily stowed around the cargo bay.

"No, I have. Probably. I'm still...testing the waters, though. Making sure I can work with them, I mean," she added for his benefit. Ryder sighed. "The Collective might prove just as bad in different areas, and then…" she threw her hands up and crossed her arms. Jaal came over to pull her into a hug.

"Don't borrow trouble, Ryder," Cora said.

She sighed into Jaal's chest and hugged him back. "Yeah," she answered, muffled.

Cora turned and chuckled fondly at them. "And don't take your actual partner with you on shore leave, or the jig will be up."

"Jihg...the...ruse? Why would that ruin it?" Jaal asked in confusion.

"Uh…" Cora answered with confusion of her own. "Because you two are obviously, over-the-top crazy about each other?"

Ryder blushed, and felt a gentle current from Jaal's hand on the back of her head. He sounded pleased, but like he was still waiting for an explanation when he asked, "So...how would that ruin the cover story?"

Ryder pulled back to watch Cora's face when the penny dropped.

"What...oh damn it, Jaal," Cora sighed and rubbed her forehead.

His giant laugh filled the cargo hold, and Ryder squeezed him with a giggle before pulling away. Jaal walked over to help Cora secure the new cargo while Ryder headed for the nomad again.

"So, angara aren't usually monogamous, are you?" Cora sighed.

"No, not usually," he chuckled.

"But you know humans usually are," she said, crossing her arms.

"Yes," he answered.

"So you were just giving me shit."

"Why would I do that?" He asked in horror.

"Don't even try!" she yelled through her laughter, "I specifically heard Sara explain that phrase to you the first week you were on board!"

Ryder smiled at the happy note in Jaal's voice as he answered, then closed the nomad door and headed back out.

 


 

Jaal wasn't in the cargo bay when Ryder came back with everyone on the final trip. She hoped he was feeling okay and just taking space that he needed.

"Okay, Kallo, all aboard and secured. Head back to port," Ryder said over the comm.

"Aye aye, Pathfinder," Kallo answered. "Docking ETA 15 minutes."

"Thanks," she answered. "Ryder out."

"So this is what they set aside for the Pathfinders, huh?" Reyes said as he looked around the cargo bay. "Looks pretty nice so far."

"Wait’ll you see the Pathfinder's quarters," Peebee winked.

"Not gonna happen, Peebs," Ryder said as she headed over to weapons storage.

"But how are you supposed to have an affair if he doesn't even know what your bedroom looks like?" she pouted.

"You wanna be the Collective liaison, Peebee?" Ryder asked, giving her a sideways glance.

"Nah, I'm good. I think he might be a little tall for fooling around in the escape pod anyway," Peebee answered, looking Reyes over thoughtfully. Ryder smiled when she glanced over and caught a blush on his cheeks. Serves him right, getting a taste of his own medicine.

"You know, this is not how I ever pictured two people fighting over my affections going," Reyes said conversationally.

Liam laughed. "Welcome to the Tempest!" he said as he stowed his rifle.

"Tell ya what, Reyes, lemme shower and I'll give you the grand tour in a few, okay?"

"Including the Pathfinder's quarters?" he asked.

"Don't push your luck," she said, smiling. "In the meantime…" she glanced around and didn't see anyone else working down here right now, "HEY GIL!"

A loud clatter came from the upper deck, followed by, "CHRIST, RYDER!" Gil's angry face stuck over the edge of the railing.

"There you are!" she gave him a sunny smile.

"Was that necessary?" he scowled.

"Probably not. Anyway, this is Reyes Vidal. Reyes, this is Gil Brodie. Gil, entertain Reyes while I shower."

"I'm right in the middle of—"

"Something that will piss off Kallo and give me another job tomorrow, so stop it for now and flirt with a cute boy for ten minutes. It can't be the worst favor you've ever been asked for."

Gil grumbled in annoyance and stepped away from the railing. "Send him up," he sighed.

"I feel welcome already," Reyes said, raising his eyebrows.

"Sorry," she said, but he just rolled his eyes and waved it away before climbing up the ladder.

Ryder checked her gear, all still in good shape. She headed to her room to stow it, grabbed her stuff, and went to shower.

 


 

Fifteen minutes later, she had dressed and was drying her hair. Her door chimed.

"Come in!" she called from under a towel, then pulled it off to find Jaal standing in the doorway looking serious. "Hey, something wrong?"

He crossed his arms and leaned in the doorway. "Probably, but we aren't sure what."

"Those problems suck," she said as she quickly dealt with her hair. "What's going on?"

"The medical supplies you found. They were on a shuttle from Aya that was investigating voneroa satellites—"

"Wait, what kind of satellites?"

"Voneroa doesn't translate? Voneraana study and map the stars and celestial bodies."

"Ah, astronomy. SAM, note and update for translation software."

"Already done."

"Good boy."

"I am fully sentient, Sara," the AI admonished.

"And you’re a good boy," she threw over her shoulder at his avatar, "Ok, scientists working on satellites? That's who last had them?"

Ryder hung her towel and headed for the cargo bay, waving for him to follow.

"Scouts, mostly, it seems," he said. "Maariko, our head voneraan on Aya, sent them to investigate because we lost signals from a few satellites, and they didn't report back in. Evfra had assumed the shuttle and team were lost."

Ryder nodded as they entered the cargo bay. They walked over to the cyan medical crates.

"Ryder..." Jaal sighed. "It doesn't look good that these supplies were in the hands of Nexus exiles."

"Yeah. I know," she crossed her arms, "So is it just basic supplies, then? First aid and common medication? What should we do with them?"

"Yes. Evfra asked that we just drop them off on Aya or Voeld during our next stop on either planet. They had already been assumed lost, and they're only enough for a small expedition, so it's not urgent enough to divert our plans."

"At least there's that," she said. "We still need to figure out how the Outcasts got them. I doubt they're raiding Resistance shuttles. That would have made a much bigger stink before now."

"Mmm. Maybe they traded with the raiders?"

She nodded. "Liam pulled the records from their lab this afternoon. We'll look through and see if they have anything about it. Reyes might be able to dig up other information, too. I’ll ask."

"I’d like to investigate the satellite coordinates ourselves, if we have time," Jaal said. "We still don't know what happened to the satellites, and it might help us figure out what happened to the shuttle."

Ryder nodded again. "Yeah, we’ll do that after we...deal with Kadara. Upload the coordinates to the map?"

"Already done."

"Good boy," she said, in the same tone she'd used with SAM, and smiled up at him.

Jaal relaxed a bit and shook his head. He huffed as he turned and hugged her loosely. "I'm not sure if I like being referred to that way either, Sara," he looked down at her.

She stood on her tiptoes to press her lips under his brow ridge and whispered, "Maybe later...in a different context?" She grinned when he shivered and moved his hands to her hips.

"You said you were going to shower, not make out with your boyfriend," Gil called down from the upper level. Reyes stuck his head over the railing curiously.

Ryder sighed. She stepped away from Jaal, but kept hold of his hand.

"Well, don’t stop on my account," Reyes grinned.

Ryder jumped at the sudden sharp, spiky current from Jaal that abruptly cut off. She looked over in surprise, and he cleared his throat. She squeezed his hand reassuringly and got an apologetic glance.

"Wait’ll you hear—" Gil started.

Ryder cut him off. "Thank you, Gilbert. Don’t you have a salarian to piss off?"

"When I have a human and an angara right here?" he grinned, but walked away from the railing and started back in on his project. Reyes headed over to the ladder.

"I’ll see you for dinner?" Jaal asked quietly. She nodded and kissed his cheek before he left.

Jaal nodded stiffly when he passed Reyes, but didn’t say anything. Reyes glanced at Jaal’s back and raised his eyebrows at her.

"He really doesn’t like me."

"You’re fine," she said, leading him to the lower hallway.

"Uh huh."

"C’mon, let me show you around."

They took about twenty minutes to walk through the ship. To her surprise, Reyes was most interested in the bio lab. He spent a few minutes talking about roses with Cora, and blushed at the look Ryder gave him when they left.

When she didn't look away, he just shrugged and said, "Everyone has grandmothers, Ryder."

She let it be and led him to the airlock.

"Well, that's the Tempest," Ryder said, as they waited for it to cycle. She reached out and patted the wall affectionately. "She’s taken good care of us."

Reyes nodded. "Thanks for showing her to me," he said, smiling genuinely. "And I'll see what I can dig up about that angaran shuttle."

"Thanks."

The cycle ended and the door opened. Ryder blushed with guilty nerves and Reyes chuckled at her as he stepped out onto the docks. He scanned the area and drew her attention to few idle Outcasts with a quick glance before taking her hand and suddenly pulling her close for a passionate kiss.

She froze in shock, but managed to close her eyes. At least she didn't have to fake her breathless reaction.

He pulled back with a smirk just as suddenly, then leaned forward to whisper, "Please forgive a small amount of bullshit for a good cause."

He dramatically kissed her hand and said, a little louder than really necessary, "Thank you for an invigorating time today, Sara. I warmly look forward to our next meeting."

He raised his eyebrows and twinkled at her. It was all she could do to keep from glaring at him.

"Well, you’ve definitely...satisfied my curiosity, Reyes," she said. "Good night."

He grinned and swaggered off. Out of the corner of her eye, Ryder saw a few people watching and whispering to each other. She closed the airlock door.

Well, at least that should do it.

Chapter Text

Jaal was meditating in the tech lab when she came in. He stopped and looked up.

"You don't have to stop when I come in, you know," Ryder said.

He smiled. "I was waiting for you," he said, stowing his meditation crystals and hopping up. "Are you free for the evening?"

"Almost," she said, sliding under his arm. "I have to go through those files Liam stripped from the Outcast lab, but I'd like company." She wrapped her arms loosely around his waist. "Let's get some food and hang out in my quarters?" she suggested.

He kissed her head and squeezed her gently. "Yes," he said. She took his hand.

"Did the day off help?" she asked as they walked through the research room.

"Yes, quite a bit," he said. "I spent time thinking and meditating, and I realized I haven't done much of it since I joined the Tempest."

Ryder slid down the ladder after him and followed him into the galley.

"That's...actually not that long ago," she said. "A couple months. Wow. That's kind of weird to think about."

"Yes," he said, giving her a look that she wasn't sure how to interpret. "But that's quite a while to go without properly meditating, for most of us. How often do humans take time to calm your minds and be still?"

She dug out the last of the leftover stew and scooped some into a bowl to reheat.

"Uh. Well, it depends on the culture. Lots of us? Maybe even most of us? Hardly ever."

Jaal sucked in a breath and turned to stare at her. He looked like he might drop the glass of water he was holding. "That...might be the most alien thing I've heard any of you say, Sara."

"It's not good for us, I'm sure," she shrugged.

"I don't see how it could be."

"You know how you say stubborn? Clinging to a rock?" Ryder gingerly held the hot bowl and stirred her food. "Well, sometimes we are the rocks."

Jaal leaned on the counter laughing. "And as Vetra says so well, you can smash things between rocks."

"Yeah, for all our faults, humans are excellent at breaking shit."

"Those I know certainly are," he said. He got out some nutrient paste and dried fruit for himself.

Ryder grabbed a glass of water and a supplement bar to round out her calories for the day. "Maybe my workouts are kind of like that?" she ventured as they entered her quarters. "I know it's harder for me to keep my mind and body still at the same time."

"It certainly doesn't seem difficult for you to keep them both moving," he said, looking down at her fondly.

She laughed as she sat on a couch. "Is that a reference to my prowess on the battlefield or in the bedroom?" she raised her eyebrows and smirked at him.

"Both." He smiled warmly. His voice was completely serious, and his expression held absolutely no mischief that she could detect. He was just...sincere.

Oh.

Jaal grinned and came over to kiss her cheek. "It is so easy to make you blush, taoshay. It's delightful."

"I think you probably have a unique talent for it," she said, looking down at her lap and smiling.

He sat facing her. "Maybe," he said softly.

Ryder smiled, took a bite of stew, and tried to ignore the lump in her throat. She pulled up the files Liam had found and gave SAM access while she looked through them manually.

*Some of these files do appear to be inventories and logs, Ryder. However, record keeping appears to have lacked organization.*

Well, do your best.

*I don't know if I have ever willingly not worked at my utmost capacity. This is an interesting avenue for exploration.*

Hey, don't start learning how to slack off right now. Wait until we're done, okay?

*Does it really count as ‘slacking off' if it is within a sanctioned window?*

Also lay off the philosophy until we're finished, smart ass. Make sure to flag any mention of angaran medical supplies.

*Of course.*

She left the spreadsheets for SAM and started looking through correspondence.

They were quiet for a while, eating and working. She finished her stew and put her bowl down. She glanced over at Jaal, who had work open that he was ignoring. He was watching her with an expression that...she couldn't describe. Hope? Love? Desire?

She took a slow breath to calm her nerves.

"Would...you stay tonight?" she asked, blushing again.

"Yes," he answered with a deep sigh.

"Only if you want to—"

"I want to."

"Good." She shared a smile with him and turned back to finish her work.

One email referenced bartering with a group of scavengers. She made note of the location and sent it to SAM for reference.

Ok, I think I'm done for today. Let me know in the morning if you find anything. Night SAM.

*Good night, Sara.*

Ryder turned off her omnitool and stood to stretch. She ended in a loud yawn and heard Jaal chuckling quietly. She looked over to see him lounging in the corner of her couch and smiling up at her. His arms were loose and he had one leg folded up. He was completely relaxed and beautifully, carelessly displayed.

Ohh...wow. She raked her eyes over him and flushed.

"I still can't believe..." she blurted, then stopped herself.

"What?" he asked warmly.

She pushed on. "I still can't believe this is real."

He hummed. "We could remind ourselves," Jaal said, looking up under lowered eyes.

"I...have some ideas about that," she said.

He raised his brow and smiled, gesturing to himself in invitation and staying in exactly the same position.

Ohh...wow. She crossed her arms and considered him. He looked calm at first glance, but she could see some tension in his arms, and his pupils were wide.

"Really?" she asked.

He blinked and nodded slowly.

Shit. Ok. I can do this.

She took a step forward. He took a shaky breath, and she smiled. He shrugged and looked down. He was starting to blush.

Oh, fuck. Confidence and lust roared through her. I am going to swallow him whole.

Ryder stood between his legs and reached down to cup his cheek. Jaal looked up at her with a small smile and soft eyes.

"Let me know if..." she said.

"Yes," he said, leaning into her hand.

She moved her knee up over his leg and settled it beside his hip. He didn't move, except to keep his eyes on her face.

Ryder shivered.

She nudged him to lower his other leg, then settled on his lap and moved his hands down to her hips. She warmly kissed each side of his brow. She kissed his cheek, then his nose, which made him smile, then pressed their lips together.

His hands were warm and held her gently. He happily responded to her kiss, but he was waiting for her, following her lead. Memories blinked past and she wondered...does he want...?

Testing, she braced her hands on his shoulders and kissed him hard, demanding, and he moaned so deeply. Ohh...wow. He definitely does.

A rush of desire forced a gasp from her, but Ryder quickly came back to his mouth again. Her hands slid down and started roughly unfastening his suit, which sent another moan from the back of his throat. His breathing was shallow and she felt a low wave of electricity from his hands.

She pulled back from the kiss and gently bit his bottom lip, his chin. Her hands slid inside his suit, spreading it open down his torso. In response, Jaal closed his eyes and rested his head on the back of the couch with a groan.

Ryder ran her hands down his sides and started nibbling down his neck. When he shivered under her and whispered her name, she decided to keep going. Down his chest, down his stomach, down below his waist, just above the delicious heat between his hips. She slid off his lap to kneel in front of him and he spread his legs wider with a gasp. She smiled and hummed into his lower abdomen.

"I'd like to take my time," she looked up into his wide eyes and flushed face. She bit him gently, just over his pelvis. "I want to see how to get you ready, right from the start."

He was suddenly sitting up, and she moved so he could pull his arms out of his suit. He reached for his waistband and smirked at her. "If you keep undressing me like this, you'll miss your chance," he said.

She giggled and sat back to give him room. He sat back down and shivered when she eagerly ran her hands up the inside of his thighs. She pressed into the sensitive creases at his hips, and he leaned his head back with a groan.

Let's see.

He had a thick, softly defined ridge curving around the top of a deep fold. The fold ran down between his legs, starting at about the middle of his pelvis. The thickness tapered down around halfway between his legs, where the folds of his skin grew shallow again. The whole area was warm, flushed, and seemed already swollen in anticipation.

She carefully brushed her fingers over him, and he jumped. Ok, too gentle.

When she pressed her hands on either side he rewarded her with a deep breathy rumble. She rubbed her thumbs up and down along his seam, spreading heat and moisture. His color deepened further into his sheath, fading to a dark purple.

His breath shuddered and his hips tilted into her hands. She held him and kept moving her thumbs. He was swelling open quickly, wetness leaking out and internal pressure building. He rocked against her and she pressed a gentle kiss right at the top of his sheath, then licked straight up from it. She moved her fingertips in firm circles.

"Sara, please—"

"What is it?" she whispered against him, keeping her hands moving and carefully suckling at the top of his opening. He shuddered and sighed. She gave him a firm, shallow lick and he let out a hoarse gasp.

"Is this what you want?" she asked, letting her lips touch him as she spoke. She smiled to feel him swell wider at every soft brush of her lips.

"Harder."

"Where?" She pressed her hands against him harder and kissed him, working her tongue further inside. He groaned and spread his legs, and she felt his hands gently threading through her hair. "Let me know," she whispered against him, then took him hard in her mouth again.

"Like that—yesSara, you're—stars, yes—"

She chuckled warmly and gently pressed her teeth to the tough outer skin. He arched under her and pulled her against him with a muffled yell. Then he collapsed, shaking, panting, trying to restrain himself.

She rubbed her hands over him, kept stroking her thumbs along the sides of his spreading slit. He'd moved his hands to his thighs and was gripping himself tight enough to look painful. His chest was heaving and deep, full groans followed every breath. He was desperately holding onto his control.

"Are you ok? Do you want me to stop?" she asked.

"No, don't stop—"

"Do you want me to..."

"Yes."

Ryder chuckled and kissed his stomach. "You didn't let me finish the question, Jaal."

He raised his head with a deep breath and swallowed. His eyes opened and they were black, the central focus of bright glowing lines. "It doesn't matteryes, please, Sara." His voice was deep, soft, shaking.

Fuck.

She looked into his eyes as she leaned back down and took him into her mouth again. He gasped shortly and held his breath. His hands were fisted at his side. She held him gently with her hands and mouth and slowly let a low level stasis field surround his arms and legs. His breath came back with a ragged sob and he dropped his head back down.

She shivered and groaned into him, squeezing her legs around the hungry throbbing between them.

"Sar-aaa—" his voice cracked and she couldn't stand it.

She moved her hands so one was pushing down from above, where his heat was concentrated. A rhythmic charge was building under her attention and she kissed him harder, eager to draw more from him.

With her other hand, she pressed her first two fingers against his seam, sliding up and down firmly. She sucked at him hard and slowly slid her fingers inside, just under her chin. Jaal was panting quickly and deep purrs were rolling through him in time with the current in his hips. She slowly moved her fingers up toward her mouth and felt him swelling out against them. She moaned and pressed her tongue deeper.

He whispered something and strained against her hold. She looked up to see him staring, mouth open, overcome, helpless. Her clit throbbed and she groaned against the ache that plunged down from inside her. She closed her eyes and pulled away slightly to catch her breath. She shivered and licked her swollen lips. He whispered her name so softly.

His dick was brushing against her fingers now. He was opening for her. When she dipped back down, she found she could cup his tip with her tongue. She rubbed the outside of his sheath and swept her tongue inside. She probed deeper to lick along his length and back up to the tip. The head of his cock swelled free and right into her mouth.

"Sara I—I'm—I'm not even—"

She cupped his base with her hand and tugged with her lips. He froze and held his breath, then his energy exploded as he emerged completely, swelling out hard onto her tongue. A current poured through her, and it was the strangest feeling. She shivered and chuckled around him while he bucked hard against her. She extended her stasis field up to his shoulders and hips, strengthening it and holding him down completely. He strained and let out rough noises between gritted teeth. His breaths were raw and heaving until his energy started to lower, withdrawing back into him.

Ryder gently rested her hands around his cock. He was full, exposed, and thoroughly oversensitive. Jaal was still gulping down air and gasping whenever she moved, so she settled quietly to give him time to come back to himself. When he seemed to relax, she slowly let up the stasis field on his limbs and he sighed through a deep shiver.

"Hmm..." she said, pressing her hands firmly into his base again. He groaned her name. "It seems like you'd like to keep going..." she said. He held his breath while his dick pulsed and bobbed in response. She warmly licked up the underside and chuckled when he hissed and clenched his fists.

"Sara, will you..."

"Whatever you want," she whispered, letting her lips brush the weeping head of his cock.

Jaal let out a gasping cry and his hips shook with the effort of restraining himself. "Hold me, again, I—"

She grinned and spread her biotics over him, increasing the gravity under his arms and legs until he couldn't break free.

"Yesss," he sobbed, dropping his head back and biting his lips through a heavy groan.

She could feel him pushing against her hold and spread her hands out, tracing the curves of his straining muscles, digging her hands into the thick weight of his body, following the crease of his thigh. "Mmm, you're so solid," she groaned. He chuckled breathlessly.

Her thumbs brushed the hot, soft skin of his inner thighs. She closed her eyes and shuddered, swallowing her own moan as wet heat bloomed between her legs. She leaned forward, letting her breasts rest against him while she nibbled her way back down his stomach.

"Sara—" he cut off with a gasp when her tongue tucked into the top of his sheath and she carefully gripped the head of his cock. He let out a solid groan when she sucked his sensitive flesh into her mouth. She hummed against him happily and trailed her fingers along his length, spreading the moisture seeping from his sheath.

"Mmmm," she groaned, curled her hand around him, and softly stroked. He throbbed in her warm grip. She glanced up to find him with his eyes shut tight and breathing through clenched teeth. Oh, yes.

Ryder gently, quickly, teasingly flicked her tongue out over the tip of his cock. "Jaal?" she said, letting her voice get sultry and hoarse. He swelled and hissed.

"Yes," he swallowed hard. "Sara."

"Open your eyes."

He sobbed and his head thumped down onto the back of the couch. His eyes were still closed and he was forcing out regular gasps to keep from hyperventilating.

"I'm going to hold you down," she said, sliding both her hands to grip his base, "and take in your cock," she pushed him down harder with her biotics and another solid groan burst from him, "and I want you to watch me." She covered her teeth with her lips and gently mouthed at his tip.

A short cry broke from him. "I—can't. It. It'll be—over too fast if I...stars, you're—"

"Look. At me. Jaal." She growled and his eyes flew open. They were immediately captured by hers and she bared her teeth in a vicious grin. "Good," she whispered low.

He let out a helpless sound and his mouth dropped open.

Ryder held him firmly with both hands and slowly licked from base to tip twice, teasing him with a kiss each time. "You're beautiful," she whispered, spreading her mouth over the head of his cock. She gently sucked before pulling back. "I want you inside me," she breathed, squeezing him. "I'm going to swallow you," she groaned, pressing her tongue over his slit. All while holding his gaze. Jaal heaved in a huge breath as she took him into her mouth as deeply as she could.

"I—I—mmnnngSara I'm—" His skin was getting darker. A flush was spreading from his hips, up his abdomen to meet the glowing streaks that were spreading down his chest now. Heat and pressure was bulging under her hands and she wanted it. Jaal was hissing through his teeth. He felt close. Her nipples were tight and her panties were absolutely sodden. She held him and gently squeezed while she sucked him as far in as she could, ignoring the ache in her jaw. She couldn't look away from the helpless want in his eyes.

"Ah! aah—aaaaahh Sara—Sara!" A charge burst from him, hard from his hips and rolling across his body against her biotics. She felt it as a shuddering vibration against her hands, her chest, her throat, and tried her best to move along with the rhythm of his waves.

Her lips were raw and her jaw was sore, but Ryder didn't want to stop. He was completely at her mercy. She moved her hands faster around his cock and took him in further. She rubbed her tongue over him and he let out a desperate cry. She looked up into his eyes, sucked, and swallowed, and he was suddenly coming again, harder, hot on the heels of his second, beautiful sounds spilling out of him.

Jaal closed his eyes, hung his head, and wept through his third climax with deep gulps of air. She stroked him, held him firmly. His control was shredded and she wanted to keep him there. Just a little more. She could feel it. She wanted to keep going until she felt him empty into her mouth, but he finally found his words.

"Sara, Sara, you need to—stop, you need to stop, it's, it's too much, I—stars help me I don't want you to but—please, I need you to stop—" Tears were streaming down his cheeks while he panted.

Ryder shivered and let her biotics dissipate, then pulled back carefully. She gently moved her hands down to his thighs and he collapsed. She panted for a second, then stretched her legs. She got up shakily and sat beside him.

He was quiet for a few minutes, shivering and catching his breath, shaking through the aftershocks. She wiped her face and drank the rest of her water, then ran her hands through her wild hair. His breath gradually slowed, and he let out a lingering groan. She laughed. He chuckled breathlessly in response, and turned to look at her. His luminescence had slightly faded and his pupils were slowly shrinking again.

He was still breathing deeply, but a little calmer. "I...don't have...any words to..." he swallowed and laughed.

She sat her glass down and chuckled. "Yeah, um..." she slid her hand into her hair and propped up facing him. She caught his eye again and looked down with a blush.

Jaal reached a shaking hand out and stroked down her cheek.

"Thank you. That was...incredible, Sara."

She smiled shyly and glanced up. He was watching her with amazement and adoration. Her heart leapt to her throat.

"You're welcome. I had no idea you'd be...that sensitive," she said.

"Neither did I," he groaned. "Dark skkutting skies, Sara...when you touch me, I...skkut. Shit."

She giggled. "I don't think I've heard you at such a loss for words before, Jaal."

"Well, I think you probably have a unique talent for it," he laughed, and she shoved his shoulder playfully.

His breathing was almost back to normal now, and he turned to her with a calculating look. She shivered.

"That expression has me worried..." she said, biting her lip and smiling.

"What could you possibly be worried about?" Jaal slowly looked her over. His happiness charged the air around him.

"Well, you are looking kind of predatory right now," she said.

He narrowed his eyes. "How else could I hope to overcome the skilled predator who just mercilessly took me?"

Holy shit.

"You have plans, I suppose?" she asked lightly.

"Yes."

Holy fuck.

Her pulse pounded and she was trying to calm the shivers running through her. She leaned back and slipped off her shoes before deliberately, slowly, crossing her legs. She looked at him with challenge in her eyes. She raised her eyebrows and smirked.

"Well?" she said.

"Sara..." His voice did sound predatory. She heard the question and the desire threaded through it.

"Yes, Jaal," she said, then, firmly, "please."

Chapter Text

"Yes, Jaal," she said, then, firmly, "please."

He was suddenly on top of her, with one hand behind her head and one on her hip.

"Sara," he groaned into her neck.

"Fuck," she gasped and arched up against him.

"I want...so much, Sara, more than—" he sucked roughly at her neck and shoved his hand between her legs. "Mmmm, yes, you're so open and wet already," he pressed the heel of his palm over her clit and stroked back, rubbing the fabric smoothly over her.

"You have no idea—" he groaned and worked between her folds, pressing harder, closer, she needed him inside—

"Bed," she demanded, biting the edge of his cowl. He stood, roughly tugging her up by her waistband and a hand between her shoulders.

Just the pressure from the seam of her pants made her shiver. He kissed her while he started unfastening her clothes. She leaned away long enough to pull off her shirt and bra, then pulled him back down. When he slid her pants and underwear over her hips, she wrapped her arms around his neck and shook them off, rubbing her feet together to remove her socks. He scooped her up bridal style and she laughed.

"What is it?" he asked, glancing down with a smile.

"It's just...this is...kind of a cliché in human stories—the hero carries a damsel to the bedroom to ravish her or something." Ryder rolled her eyes.

Jaal lay her on the bed and leaned down onto her. "Hmm, so you...don't want me to ravish you, Sara?" he whispered. "Because that is exactly what I'd planned on doing."

She shivered and found her legs were weighed down by his. "I have no idea what to say to that," she laughed. He held her ankles firmly and his hands slid up to hold her wrists above her head.

"You held me down and tore climaxes from me until I had to beg you to stop," he nuzzled into her neck, "so just imagine what I'd like to do to you." He finished by letting his cock rest, still hard, hot, and heavy, down over her clit. She drew in a breath but could only let out a hoarse whimper.

She was surrounded by him. He moved up along her neck, then pulled at her earlobe with his lips and whispered, "Are you sure that doesn't interest you, Sara?"

"I want you to fuck me senseless," she groaned and shivered, turning to catch him for a kiss. He chuckled warmly into her mouth and a deep heavy shiver ran down her spine.

"I will never tire of hearing that," he said, then plunged back down.

His movements were slow and heavy, weighing her down. His hips—fucking god, his hips—were rutting his cock against her, and he had taken over their kiss. He moved with intense, weighty thrusts that opened her, marked her, that could go on forever.

His cock was nestled just right, spreading her open for him. He breathed slowly, deliberately, and swelled down against her clit. She felt him shiver as wetness seeped down and between them. He thrust smoothly, dragging them together. He was completely—he was so close and—

She wanted to cling to him, wrap her hands and thighs around him, urge him to go faster, angle her hips so he would slide into her—but he was holding her down and she couldn't. She was so wild she nearly tried to break free, but then she felt his energy. Not urgent and powerful from his hips, where she might have expected it, but from everywhere else.

It started with his hands on her wrists. He moved up to hold her hands, to rest his cupped in hers. His fingers pressed up along her palms and soft tendrils spread out.

It's how I feel about you.

It ran down her arms in soft waves and she sighed. He pulled back and smiled, gently kissed her lips.

It's how I feel about you.

His feet held her gently, stroked down to her ankles, and a few heavier waves ran down to her feet and up her calves. She shivered and laughed softly. He pressed his forehead to hers and rocked his hips. His smile mirrored hers.

It is beautiful. It's how I feel about you.

He kissed her lips, her cheeks, her eyelashes, came back to her lips, her chin, her eyebrows, back to her lips. He couldn't stay away.

"Sara, may I…" he smiled against her as he asked.

"Yes, alw—"

He softly took her mouth again and they moaned together.

He slid down slightly, adjusting so he was loosely propped on his elbows. He shivered and pulled back with a soft sigh.

"I thought you wanted to pin me down and ravish me?" she laughed.

"What makes you think I'm not?" he asked, moving to her collar. "I have an idea."

She gently licked her swollen lips. They felt strangely cold now. His mouth belonged against hers.

Then he slid down further and his lips and tongue warmly closed over one of her nipples. She amended that. His mouth belonged against her, anywhere he wanted to put it.

His hands were still sending out energy and he slid down even further. When his grip was between her waist and hips he stopped. She was confused until she felt the familiar pattern melt into her from both sides.

He rested his head on her chest and kissed over her heart. "I've never done this before, though, so...it may take some practice," he said.

"What are you up to, Jaal?" she asked, cheerfully teasing.

"You'll feel in a moment," he said, smiling up at her.

And she did. Warmth stroked down through her. A wave from her belly button down through her hips. She gasped and felt his hands moving, holding her steady. His thumbs brushed into the crease of her thighs and sent out a rolling current down through her mound, around her clit, deep into her. She felt herself throbbing and swelling, hard and sudden.

"What..." Ryder gasped and Jaal hummed warmly, nuzzling between her breasts.

"Yes, I'd hoped," he whispered and kissed up the curve of her other breast to warmly take in her nipple. She rocked her hips and groaned. More—he pushed harder into her—but, no, it was—he was—how was—she couldn't think. She moved her hips upward, but he kept a firm, gentle grip on them, holding them down. He met her movements with a harder current and she moaned.

"I—how are you—" she managed to gasp. He kissed back up toward her neck as he answered.

"I've never done this because it wouldn't work with an angara partner. They'd push back instinctively. Our fields would meet, clash or resonate, merge or repel—mmm…" he reached her shoulder and nibbled over to the curve of her neck before continuing.

"But you, Sara, your field is delicate, barely there, and…" he panted and thrust softly, and she felt a hard clench inside her that she was definitely not responsible for. A broken gasp came out of her mouth. "I can touch you with mine directly, make you come—I want to take you, Sara."

He bit just behind her jawbone, just a little harder, and she was almost coming. It was soft, and building, but he hadn't even touched her. She squeezed her legs together but there was nothing there—but there was. His current was rolling between her legs and she was aching, panting.

"As much as you can, Sara," he groaned into her neck and sent another warm wave through her. "You can't stop it yourself, and I'm going to make sure you never ask me to. I want to keep you here—"

The waves rolling into her convulsed so hard it mimicked a soft peak, but it kept going for so long. He was there, pushing, pushing, pushing at her, pulling waves of pleasure from deep inside, keeping her cresting, higher, higher, more—Jaal! She was calling his name and he kissed her hard. He swallowed her cries and he kept. fucking. going.

She was lost, tossed in the waves he pushed through her, could barely hold on while he poured pleasure directly into her nerves. She spasmed and he extended it out somehow, smoothing it and bringing it back. Then he was sending another uneven current of warmth around and into her, touching her from the inside and drawing it out. She couldn't take it she couldn't stop she didn't want to stop take it take me don't stop please yes more—

She couldn't tell what she was actually saying and what was flooding through her mind. The division blurred and all she could focus on was him. How he held her and kissed her and kept her from drowning in the waves she was caught in.

Eventually he relaxed, slightly, but by then she was completely fractured. Every nerve between her waist and her knees was on fire. Her cries ran out, her stamina ran out and she collapsed again, shaking, shivering, restless. He was still sending low heat through her. Warm, gentle caresses were building again. Oh god he's—he's going to— She didn't know if she could handle it. She didn't know if she could wait. Her breaths burned harshly in her throat.

"I feel so greedy for it. I want to keep you coming. I don't want to stop. I want to feel you around me—you're captivating—" he moved over to her other side and resettled. He squeezed her hips and moved down to her thighs. His hands dug into her.

"Your thighs, Sara," he groaned, "they draw me in. They're thick, and smooth, and strong, and soft,"  he took a deep breath. "I love to feel you around my hips. I want to fuck you while you cling to me."

"Oh, yes—I want—"

"I can't, I can't my love, not yet, I can't withstand it," he pressed his forehead to her collar bone. The energy in her core followed the same rhythm as his breathing. She groaned and lifted her hips for him.

"Please—again," she panted out, and shouted as a charge flowed down, then up inside her, deep, circling around through her clit. He thrust against her thigh and rubbed his leg against her as he sent out another. It flowed along her and up deeper, deeper, wringing through her like he was directly squeezing out her release.

"Yes, fuck, oh god—" she arched up and her voice gave out into panting moans. He rumbled and leaned down to take her breasts again, sending gentle currents through his tongue as she came, and she held her breath as her quakes pushed thick wetness out between her thighs.

"I'm so empty, Jaal, please," she sobbed as his dick dragged hot against her thigh, and she felt pressure, yes, finally, but it was his hand, his fused fingers, pushing, filling. He groaned and thrust against her thigh as he worked himself into her. She gasped out broken pleas for him to take her, anything, yes, Jaal, now

Another current flowed into her, from his thumb on her clit, from his fingers as deep inside her as they could go. His dick was hot and slick on her thigh, he was moving closer, yes, closer, please and rubbed himself through the excess that had overflowed from her.

She felt like she would never stop coming. She wanted him inside her, coming with her. He moaned her name into her chest and she realized she was talking, crying, begging him for it—more, please, all of you, now—and then he was coming, hard, sudden, massive waves from his hips instead of his hands and he groaned as he tore his grip from her to grab at her thighs. He was right there, yes, oh fuck, god, yes—but he still wasn't inside and she clung to him with her desperately slick thighs.

"Jaal, please—" and she couldn't speak because his cock was heavy on her clit and spreading her open, throbbing against her cunt as he pushed his climax through her. He held her thighs tight, dug his fingers in hard, and growled against her neck, so frustratingly close to fucking her. She gasped and shook, grit her teeth so hard her jaw hurt, gripped him so hard her nails left marks.

Again. She couldn't—she was—she called his name one last time, not caring if the entire planet heard her, she was his, only his—and he was crying and whispering the same to her, how much he wanted her, needed her. His energy faded through their peak and he rocked them together, kissed her forcefully until he started to give out.

Her throat was hoarse and she felt numb. A shiver ran up her spine and she laughed as a final pulse pressed down through her. She lifted herself up and rubbed her clit hard against his dick until they both winced and gasped.

He held her tight against him while they both gulped in huge gusts of air.

Fuck.

"Fuck," she groaned as she collapsed back down onto the bed. Her breath was burning in her throat. She looked up to see him grin, but he couldn't find the breath to laugh. He pressed the bridge of his nose against her cheek.

"I'd...call that...successful, wouldn't you, taoshay?" he asked breathlessly, still not moving from where he'd been braced over her. His cock twitched hard against her and he winced. She groaned and pushed him over to the side. They managed to laugh together.

"Successful is—a bit mild, I think," she laughed. "Explosive might be a better word for it. You goddamn genius."

Jaal huffed and closed his eyes.

Embarrassment suddenly ran through her. "Shit, I was really loud, wasn't I?" she asked timidly.

His eyes shot open. He got a look at her expression and rolled to his back with a huge laugh that shook the whole bed. He laughed until his face started turning dark purple, but when he gasped in a giant breath, he kept going with abandon.

"Okay, I get it," she said irritably, but that just made him laugh harder. He took a deep breath and tried to suppress it, and looked over to say something.

"Ta—tao-ssshhhh—" but he couldn't hold back the force of it and laughter poured out of him again.

She punched his arm and he rolled over to hold her hand while he waited for his laughter to die down. She sighed.

"Yes," he managed to get out between gusts, "you were."

"I know," she said, hiding her face in his neck. He kissed her hair and she enjoyed the warmth of his breath puffing through the strands in spite of his laughter.

"I love you, Sara," he said happily.

"I love you, too," she chuckled. "I just hope everyone is...forgiving of, um..."

"Your wonderful enthusiasm?"

"You're probably slightly biased in my favor, there," she said, looking up to see him smiling.

"I am," he said, unconcerned. She chuckled and snuggled close.

After a few minutes, Ryder turned out the lights and they climbed under the covers.

"Come with us tomorrow?" she asked.

"Of course. What are our goals?"

"We're going to deal with the other two monoliths and check out the Collective base. I promised to take Peebee to the monoliths and I want Cora's opinion on the base. You'd balance out the squad and might be better at getting real information out of angara working for the Collective."

"That's ambitious for one day."

"I'm an overachiever," she said. He rolled his eyes and smiled. She went on, "I'm hoping our travel times will be a little better since the Collective is off our ass and the small timers are intimidated. Just gotta watch out for Outcasts who are totally not at all acting on Sloane's orders to make life difficult for us."

"Hmm, yes, we can hope," he said. He adjusted his arms more comfortably and kissed her forehead with a contented sigh. "Thank you again for the break today."

"You're welcome. You've been in the field with me more than anyone else. You've needed it, especially after yesterday."

"You know, you have been in the field the most and you don't take much downtime at all."

Ryder groaned into his chest. "It's not like I'm avoiding it, it's just that there's so much to do. If I don't...every time I take a break, people die."

"That's not true, Sara," he said, stroking her hair.

"It's all opportunity cost," she said, waving her hands in emphasis. "If I'm here, I'm not there, and people there are in danger that I could help them with. How can I take a day off when someone might die because of it?"

"Someone will always die, no matter what you do," he said, sadly. "Someone might die because you're not at your best—because you haven't taken care of yourself."

Ryder sighed. "Yeah. That's...a point I don't like remembering. It's so hard to actually relax, knowing that."

"You are one part of a whole. APEX teams, engineers, scouts, farmers, archaeologists, botanists, and artists," he emphasized with a pointed look, "are here with you. We are here. You do have tremendous power, Sara, but you're not all powerful. Remember what I said before? No one should expect that of you, not even yourself." He was propped up on his arm and looking down at her sternly by the time he finished.

"I'll try to hold onto that," she said, "but I really appreciate the occasional reminders."

Jaal stroked her hair, then lay back down and kissed her cheek. "You'll have them," he promised.

"Thank you," she said. "I love you so much."

She snuggled close to his chest, so she missed the sparkling, starry-eyed expression on his face. He held her closely and buried his face and hands in her hair.

"You really do make my heart sing, Sara," he whispered, and smiled at the gentle squeeze she gave him in response.

Chapter Text

They left early the next morning, and Ryder didn’t even try to convince herself it wasn't an attempt to avoid everyone she possibly could.

Kallo had left a pointed requisition for salarian style noise cancelling headphones on the crew message board. Ryder quietly approved it and sent a private note to Vetra that she’d cover the credits for him.

Maybe she could follow through on that movie night idea Liam had a while back and spring for snacks for everyone. Something to try to make up for their boss being the obnoxious roommate.

Gil had kept his mouth shut, but didn't bother with a straight face while he helped them get ready. Cora had been professional, but Ryder swore she caught a few smile lines. Peebee outright leered gleefully and Ryder was not looking forward to the amount of shit coming her way today. Jaal clearly noticed them all, but was completely, shamelessly, unperturbed. She found herself wishing someone would make a crack, just to see what inevitably heartwarming thing he'd say.

She got her wish about halfway to their first stop.

Peebee leaned on the back of the passenger seat. "So, Cora…" she said.

Cora sent Ryder a sympathetic glance out of the corner of her eye before she turned to answer.

"Yeah, Peebee?"

"How'd ya sleep?"

Oh god.

Cora visibly schooled her features and took a short breath through her nose before she answered. "Fine, I suppose."

"Really? Hm. I was in the galley grabbing a snack at around...oh, what was it...2200? Something like that. And there was the strangest racket. I don't know how anyone could have slept through that."

"Oh, I wasn't in bed yet," Cora answered, glancing over. "I worked late and headed to the showers a little after 2200."

Ryder's cheeks were burning.

Any gods, spirits, angels, or fairies out there? It’d be an excellent time for an eiroch to come over and try to eat the tires right about now.

Her prayer went unanswered.

"Hm," Peebee said, tapping her chin thoughtfully.

"I think I know what you're talking about, though," Cora said, entirely too innocently. "I did hear something as I was climbing down to the lower level last night."

Peebee gasped in shock. "Really? How strange!" She looked in the rearview mirror and caught Ryder's eye. "What about you, Ryder? Did anything...disturb your sleep?"

Round blue cheeks and big, bright, innocently blinking eyes met her glare. She rolled her eyes with a long-suffering sigh and kept driving.

Peebee's eyes narrowed at the implicit challenge. She crossed her arms and pursed her lips.

"What about you, Jaal?" Peebee asked slyly.

He looked over from the window. "Hm, what? I'm sorry, Peebee, I wasn't listening."

A Cheshire grin stole over Peebee's face. "Did you hear anything unusual last night? Say...around 2200 or so?" Her brow rose in question.

"Hmm...unusual? No." He crossed his arms and tilted his head, then blinked at her in confusion.

Peebee crossed her arms and squinted at him. "Really," she said flatly.

"Certainly not, given the circumstances," he answered. Ryder grinned. Cora started chuckling. "Although, Peebee," he went on in concern, "your past intimate encounters must have been disappointing, if you found those sounds unusual. I'm sorry you haven't found a properly attentive lover."

Ryder had to stop the nomad to keep from driving into a rock.

"You unbelievable ass—" Peebee was yelling at him with a huge grin. Jaal was collapsed on the door shaking with laughter. Cora was bright red and howling, and Ryder just rested her arms and face on the steering wheel until it was over.

"Okay okay, the elephant in the room has been addressed," Ryder said after everything had calmed a bit. "I'm sorry, guys, I'll...try to avoid creating awkward situations like this in the future, but in my defense it has been over 600 years."

Cora snorted. "I don't know, it didn't sound like you were the only one responsible for the...situation, Ryder."

Jaal was lounging with his arms crossed and a small smile, and said nothing. Ryder chuckled and started driving again.

"I'll say one thing," Peebee smirked. "man am I ever kicking myself for turning down your offer to test our reproductive compatibility, Jaal."

"I only ever wondered in general terms about whether our species were compatible," Jaal said, glancing sideways at her. "You were the one who suggested we see if we were, Peebee. I don't recall responding with anything beyond awkward hesitation."

"He's right," Ryder said. "Then you said it was just harmless flirting."

"Ugh, you guys remembering things accurately," Peebee complained. "Takes all the fun out of teasing you."

Ryder rolled her eyes again, but smiled this time. Things were quiet for a while.

Then Jaal started asking about elephants.

 


 

The southernmost monolith was swarming with scavengers, and they'd gotten hold of a hydra from somewhere. That was a pain in the ass. At least some had run rather than put up a fight. They tended to do that when Peebee started lifting groups for Ryder and Cora to knock over like bowling pins. Jaal just found a sniping perch and stayed out of their way. Two vanguards and a cloaked ally didn't mesh well.

The monolith was straightforward, once Ryder was able to access it. They covered the bodies with rocks and scanned for identifying information before they left.

"I can't help but wonder," Cora said as they walked to the cave entrance, "what if we find a monolith or vault that is just...broken? Could we ever hope to fix it? Should we just leave it, in case we unbalance things like on Havarl?"

"With everything the angara know and SAM to help, we'd figure out how to fix it," Peebee said firmly, "eventually." She'd stopped to rummage in the Remnant piled at the cave entrance.

"Before we could even try, the kett are the bigger problem, after we have enough food," Ryder said. Jaal hummed in agreement. "And this is the most promising planet for farming until Eos is better, so knock on wood we don't run into that problem on Kadara. Five minutes, Peebs," she said, and got a wave in acknowledgement. The rest of the team headed back to the nomad.

"'Knock on wood'?" Jaal asked.

"Oh. Yeah. You should start keeping a list of all the weird shit we say," Ryder chuckled.

"That would take up all my free time," he sighed. "But honestly, what does knocking on wood mean?"

"It's...just a saying at this point, but I think it's a reference to old superstitions?" she shrugged. "Actually knocking your knuckles on certain kinds of wood when you mentioned something bad that might happen warded off bad luck, I think. Certain kinds of woods were spiritually significant in different ways to different faiths. Maybe it was related to one? I'm not sure."

Cora piped up. "I remember asking about it when I was little and my grandpa told me his grandma always actually did it—" she knocked on the side of the nomad as she closed it, "when she said it."

She handed Ryder a few energy bars and smiled in memory as she opened hers.

"Said he never understood why she bothered, because it was just the nearest hard flat surface and hardly ever actual wood."

"It's...an expression of hope, then," Jaal said. "That you won't have to deal with a problem you are afraid you might."

"Close enough," Ryder shrugged. He nodded.

Peebee came over with a few pieces of salvage, cutting off more discussion.

"Alright, ready to meet the Collective?" Ryder asked. "We'll check it out, eat lunch, then deal with the northern monolith. If we're lucky, we might be able to locate the vault before we head back tonight."

"That'd be nice," Cora said.

"Knock on wood?" Jaal asked, tilting his head toward Ryder. She felt his mischief buzzing around him, tickling on her scalp and raising her flyaway hairs.

She laughed. "Can't hurt."

Peebee stowed her salvage and yelled, "SHOTGUN!" as she shut the hatch.

Jaal's energy disappeared and he'd ducked and cloaked before she could blink. Reassurance was already coming out of Ryder's mouth before her brain caught up to what happened.

"Jaal, we're clear, stand down! It's ok, it's a human...game...thing."

"WHAT in all the skkutting storms of the skkutting LOST COLONIES—"

Peebee was laughing and climbing into the passenger seat, and Cora just shook her head and climbed in behind her. Jaal was scowling darkly and griping under his breath as he walked around from the front of the vehicle.

"I know! I know! Sorry!" Ryder winced and put her hands up.

"You're not the one who suddenly yelled about a weapon, Ryder," he said, voice still slightly raised as his adrenaline drained slowly. "You don't need to apologize," he grumbled, glaring at Peebee through the windshield.

"Still," Ryder said, climbing into the driver's seat, "I would have warned you about it if I thought anyone would do that in a combat zone, Peebee." Ryder tried to channel her mother's you-kids-are-on-my-last-nerve stare, and it seemed to be at least partially successful. Peebee paled and looked sheepish, shrinking into her seat.

Jaal was settling in the backseat with his feathers still ruffled. Ryder started the nomad.

"Oh," Peebee said. "Yeah. Sorry, Jaal. I didn't think about how you wouldn't get it. Obviously. Um. Sorry. I'll...um...avoid sudden loud cultural in-jokes in the field, Ryder. Sorry."

Ryder shook her head and tilted it to indicate Jaal. He scowled at Peebee for a bit longer before sighing and closing his eyes. "Thank you, Peebee. No harm done, beyond a sudden scare."

She made a small sound of acknowledgement, and quiet took hold. After a while, Ryder glanced in the rearview mirror and saw he seemed back to normal.

"Surprised you're not asking what the hell Peebee was doing, Jaal," she said.

"I was trying to decide if the answer was likely to irritate me more or not," he said, smiling crookedly.

She chuckled, then frowned thoughtfully. "Hmm...it might?"

Peebee turned to look back at Jaal. "Humans have this thing where the first person to yell 'shotgun' gets to ride in the front passenger seat," she explained.

"Of course they do," he rubbed his forehead and sighed. "Why wouldn't yelling about a weapon mean you want to sit in a specific seat."

"I know! Humans are great," Peebee said, grinning happily.

"It's not just yelling about a weapon, guys," Cora said severely. "It's a reference to a historical practice."

"What was it?" Peebee asked.

"Peebee! You didn't even know—" Jaal started. Cora patted his arm and he subsided with a fresh round of grumbles.

"First of all," Cora said, "very few people older than, say...Ryder—sorry Sara—"

"No prob."

"—even do that. It's a silly game among friends and not appropriate for a combat zone," she glared at Peebee as well, then sighed, "but it's from before we had motorized vehicles. We trained animals to pull carts. Horses. We had some that could run really fast to deliver packages and things over long distances. To protect the cargo from theft, one person would control the animals and one would ride next to them with a weapon ready. Often a shotgun. So: riding shotgun."

"Huh," Peebee said.

"Hmm. I envy you," Jaal said quietly. His arms were crossed and he was staring at the back of the seat in deep thought. "I wish my people had access to such ancient history."

"It's old, yeah," Cora said, "but maybe not ancient. It's from around...three hundred, three hundred fifty years ago? Not counting the trip here, of course."

Jaal blinked a few times, then turned to stare at her. "You...not counting your trip here...you mean just three hundred years before you, Cora, were born, humans didn't have space flight yet? That's only...three or four human lifetimes! Maybe five!"

Ryder laughed. "We didn't have atmospheric flight until about...two hundred fifty years pre-contact? Two hundred seventy five years or so before the Andromeda Initiative left?"

"What?"

"I thought you'd been reading about our history," Ryder said, glancing at him in the mirror.

"Only post-contact," he said, still looking stunned. "I've been focusing on cultural information, and I've been spreading my time between the Initiative species."

"See, this is why I like 'em!" Peebee said, bouncing in her seat. "Humans get shit done. None of this ‘wait a couple centuries and see what happens' crap." She turned and stared at Cora abrasively.

"The grass is always greener," Cora said, shrugging. There was a pause.

"...than what?" Jaal asked.

Ryder sighed. Today is gonna be a long one.

 


 

"Reyes could have warned us that rylkor like to nest in these caves," Peebee griped as she crouched behind a rock and reloaded her pistol.

"Probably his attempt at a joke," Jaal rumbled.

She snorted.

Cora's voice carried up the passage. "Ryder what are you—"

Jaal looked over in alarm just in time to see Ryder charging through the air straight into a rylkor's head. She grabbed around the animal's neck with her legs and viciously stabbed through its eye with her omniblade before it could start trying to shake her off. As it fell, she caught herself with a combination of her jump jets and biotics and settled onto the ground with a laugh.

His heart stuttered when she threw him a smile. She was radiant.

Ryder was wiping the sweat from her forehead and the back of her neck while Cora berated her recklessness.

Jaal agreed with Cora completely, but...

"Damn…" Peebee whispered.

Jaal closed his mouth. Yeah.

Peebee gave him an appraising glance. "And now I'm kicking myself for not inviting her for a little zero-g action in the escape pod before you snatched her up."

Jaal smiled and gave her a sly glance before standing to walk over to Cora and Ryder. He heard her grumbling something about "stupid smug angara," and chuckled.

Ryder was checking her radar and scanning while she talked to SAM. Jaal patted Cora reassuringly as he walked up. She had her arms crossed and was scowling at Ryder.

"Still thinks she's invincible," Cora sighed, then said under her breath, "I'm trying to keep her safe, old man, but she's too much like you."

"Ryder's father?" Jaal asked quietly. Cora nodded and frowned.

"He had trouble talking to them, but...he was so proud of Sara and Scott, and so scared for them to face the kind of danger he did."

"You feel a connection to them because you knew him."

"Yeah. I knew Alec Ryder better than Sara when we first got here. Worked more closely in training. Now I'm closer to Sara than I ever was to him. I just...I guess I wish I could show her what I saw from him, what he saw in her," her jaw set and she took a deep breath. "And I wish he was here to see her now."

Jaal looked down and suddenly recognized the expression she was wearing. "Yes," he nodded. "I feel protective of my younger siblings, too."

She startled and looked up at him. He smiled down at her and watched the idea flit through her mind. Cora's lips pressed together and she nodded firmly, looking away when tears threatened. He looked away as well, to give her the privacy he knew humans preferred, but stayed nearby.

Peebee and Ryder came up at about the same time.

"So where are we heading?" Peebee asked. "This place is a maze."

"Yes, we should be careful," Jaal said. "It would be very easy to get lost in here."

"What, me lost? Pffft," Ryder said. He sighed at her and she grinned in response. "Seriously, it's a few hundred meters deeper and to the right. SAM picked up on a bunker through my scans of the rocks. Let's go." She tilted her head toward the back of the cave.

Two turns brought them to a set of rough steps leading down to a pair of old blast doors set into the rock. They'd been modified with an Initiative style lock.

Ryder pinged the lock and an asari with an assault rifle opened the door for them.

"Pathfinder," the asari said, nodding. "Welcome. I'm Lynx. The Charlatan told us to give your team the VIP treatment, so if you'll follow…"

Jaal's stopped listening to her. Veeai pii? Why didn't that translate? He glanced at Cora and Peebee, but both of them seemed to understand it. Jaal sighed. I'll ask later. Patience is important. We're doing quite well to communicate at all given how recently first contact was.

"...then your team will be welcome to explore the base," the asari was saying.

The cavern was huge. It was at least ten meters tall and much, much wider. More rough steps were leading down to an open area that held a multi-level structure. It seemed to have been put together from Initiative prefab materials modified with angara construction.

They followed the asari toward it and up a staircase to an office. Ryder and Cora started chatting with the leader—Crux?—and Jaal quietly looked around. A window overlooked the cavern, and he saw a grouping of garden pods.

Skkut that is a lot of kvastyr. Are they trying to poison eiroch?

"Well, first," Ryder was saying, "I'd like to see where Farenth and the rest of your prisoners are kept."

Crux shrugged. "Sure, go ahead. Here, I'll unlock our holding cells. Arenna is working over in the garden. She's under guard for now, but I think she'll actually work out surprisingly well."

"The garden?" Peebee asked. "In here?"

"Making poison directly does seem slightly more honest than packaging it in an addictive drug," Jaal said.

Crux looked at him with raised eyebrows, and he crossed his arms and met her with a mild expression. She sighed and turned back to Ryder.

"If you have time, come see me again before you leave. There's a problem you might be able to help me with."

 


 

Of course they're trying to justify beating their prisoners. Of. Fucking. Course. Ryder clenched her teeth and closed her eyes.

"...and what the Charlatan doesn't know won't hurt them," the guard was saying.

"No, but I will hurt you," Ryder hissed, stepping into her face. "This stops. Now. Or I stop it."

The woman scowled, but called off the guard who was beating the prisoner.

"This doesn't happen again," Ryder said quietly. "Or I walk, and I make sure the Charlatan knows exactly who to blame. We clear?"

"Crystal."

"Good."

Ryder turned to go and waved for the team to follow. She caught Cora's microscopic nod and Jaal's clenched jaw. Peebee had wandered off somewhere.

"You know, Pathfinder, these people are scum," the guard called to her back. "They kidnapped, tortured, and murdered Collective agents and innocent people."

Ryder stopped and took a deep breath in through her nose. "So?"

"What do you mean, so?"

"Exactly what I said. So?" She turned back toward the guard. "I don't give two fucks what these people did before this. They can't do it now. They're at your mercy."

"They deserve it!"

"No one deserves this! No one should do this!" She pointed at the prisoner bleeding and curled up in the corner. "You think they're too dangerous to live? You think they don't deserve to live? Put ‘em down clean. Own it. I'm not going to argue. I don't know shit about it."

The Collective agent jerked back in surprise, and Ryder's face hardened.

"This just makes you the kind of person who beats people who can't fight back."

 


 

They were there longer than they planned, almost three hours. Kadara's sun was already edging down behind the mountains.

Ryder had talked to everyone who wasn't extremely busy and had even helped them find an agent who was impersonating the Charlatan. Crux had been so grateful she'd readily agreed to commit to better treatment of their prisoners. They'd have to wait and see if she actually followed through.

"So, thoughts?" Ryder asked as they left the cave.

"No worse than the Outcasts," Cora sighed. "Glad you stopped them from beating those people."

Ryder's face was grim. "Yeah. For now at least. That was just what they were willing to let me see. I'll have words with Vidal. That's gonna stop."

"At first glance, they seem to treat angara equally," Peebee said. "What do you think, Jaal?"

"The angara all appeared to be telling the truth. They seemed as satisfied as you would expect them to be," he shrugged.

Ryder nodded.

"We'll discuss it later. Make notes of your observations when you get back to the ship," she said. "Let's go find this last monolith."

 


 

An abandoned raider camp sat at the foot of a hill surrounding the final monolith. Ryder sent them to look for salvage, but everything useful or valuable had been taken already. They gathered back at the nomad.

"Well, looks like there's a hidden canyon just around this rise," she said, looking up from her scanner and pointing. "It probably leads to the base of the monolith, and hopefully the controls."

"The nomad won't fit through there, will it?" Cora asked with resignation in her voice.

"No," Ryder sighed, looking at her scanner. She closed it. "Oh well, the sooner we do this, the sooner we can scout the vault and head home." She caught Jaal's eye with a small exhausted smile.

A meal and relaxing with her was definitely something to look forward to.

They headed out.

Halfway up the canyon, Cora and Ryder suddenly startled, exchanged looks, and started running. Peebee and Jaal sped up with them, relying on the humans' more sensitive hearing. After a few meters he heard the sounds of shouting and gunfire. After another meter, he started making out human and turian voices through his translator. Then angaran voices yelling in a language he didn't recognize. It came through his translator as broken Shelesh. Jaal pulled out his firaan and ran faster, easily overtaking the rest of the team.

He slowed as he reached a rock he could crouch behind and cloaked before he looked to survey the area. He flicked on the team comm. "Exile pirates, count 10, one krogan, attacking. Count 12 local angara defending," he whispered.

Ryder's voice came through his visor speaker. "Almost there. Peebee, take cover and support with Jaal. Cora and I are on CQ. Target exiles ONLY. Jaal, any way to let these angara know we're here to help?"

"Kill the exiles," he grumbled as his cloak ran out and he took cover. He heard Peebee's laugh.

The rest of the team caught up and took cover. "Grenade out!" he called. He threw one in an arc into a cluster of exiles hiding behind one of the Remnant structures, then the chaos of battle took over.

The local angara took advantage of their assistance, and the pirates were quickly taken care of. After the last raider fell, the leader of the group turned to them with a stern expression. None of the other angara holstered their weapons.

"Thank you for the help," the leader said in stiff Shelesh, "but I think you need to go, now." He didn't offer a name or his arm in greeting. The entire group watched them warily. Jaal was monitored as closely as the others.

Ryder holstered her weapons slowly and signaled the rest of them to do so. Peebee and Cora were carefully still. Ryder glanced up at him. The angle of her mouth and movements of her eyebrows wordlessly asked for his input. He nodded.

"Wait," Jaal stepped forward and raised both hands, out and empty. He let his energy free, sending nervous honesty that would be easily read by the nearest angara. A gesture of peaceful appeasement. He nodded toward Ryder. "Ryder has experience using Remnant technology. We're trying to reactivate the vault and make Kadara more habitable. She has already activated the other two monoliths. Please, let her try."

The other angara looked at him dubiously, but their leader waved her forward after a moment's thought. He holstered his weapon, but the rest kept theirs ready.

"How can you do this?" he asked her as she walked up to the console.

She shrugged. "It'll be easier to show you," she said, reaching forward with her hand glowing orange. The leader watched closely.

She narrowed her eyes, concentrating, and chose a few symbols on the interface before placing her hand carefully. Her omnitool sent out a strong charge that carried outward for a few meters. It clearly startled the other angara. Jaal closed his eyes and smiled as it flowed over him and he heard and felt the giant, ancient structure hum to life.

It felt like renewal, like the first drink of water after waking.

The other angara let out a few gasps and murmurs that he needed his translator to understand. He sighed and relaxed his muscles and energy, sending a charge to ground through his feet.

He opened his eyes and glanced around. A couple of the nearest angara had put away their weapons and were watching him with a little less apprehension. He nodded at them cautiously and looked around for his team. Peebee was waiting near the entrance to the cave and Cora was checking the bodies of the exiles for identifying information.

Ryder was near the activation console, trying to explain...everything...to the suspicious leader of the local angara. Jaal recognized the gradual bloom of astonishment on the man's face. He went over to join them.

"You claim you have activated the Remnant terraforming vaults on Havarl and another planet? And you escaped from the Archon?"

Ryder nodded. "Yeah, we did. I've got footage if you want to see it, but...that'd be a hell of a lie to try to get away with."

The leader grunted.

"So," she continued, "the Initiative is trying to build an alliance with the Resistance and the government on Aya—"

The other angara sent out a burst of scornful irritation at the mention of the Resistance. Jaal tried not to bristle and just restrained his energy.

"I'm here to try to mend ties between us and our exiles…" Ryder indicated the bodies with a sigh, "and hopefully establish a colony."

"What place do we," he indicated his group, "have in those plans of yours?"

"Well, I won't try to establish an Initiative colony on any angara world without approval or invitation, but really, we need the potential farmland Kadara can provide. And everyone benefits from me activating the Remnant vault. If I can establish diplomatic ties with the angara on Kadara as well—"

Sudden laughter interrupted her and a few of the local angara startled to see their leader cackling uproariously. He was braced on his knees and resting on a Remnant blast shield for support. Jaal saw Ryder cross her arms and cock her hips while she waited. After a short while, the man stood back up and wiped his face. He looked more amazed and much less suspicious.

"By stars and sulfur, you're serious aren't you?" he shook his head at Ryder and glanced at Jaal. His expression asked, Is this crazy alien really saying this? Jaal nodded and crossed his arms, feeling a moment of sympathy.

"There's no kind of government on Kadara for you to establish ties with. Whoever was in charge of the port was the closest thing to it, and now that's in the hands of these criminals you dumped on us," he said, tired anger woven through his words.

They both knew he was right. There was nothing they could say in response. He looked them over with a piercing expression, then nodded.

"You've obviously done something to this monolith, and you were a help with those pirates just now, so I'm willing to wait and see. Honestly, most of you new aliens I've met have tried to cheat, steal from, or just murder us, so you're already ahead. For now. My cousin swears she's joined some group that isn't like that, but I don't have to trust them and I don't have to trust you. But, if you wanted to try to earn a bit, I've got a favor you might do."

"What's that?" Ryder asked cautiously.

"Haven't heard from some of our friends for a few weeks. No one from their place has come to trade, and no one has answered calls. We're getting concerned, but I can't let my people risk a trip to check on them. If they were raided or fell to some sickness...whatever caused this could still be a threat."

"And if we encounter whatever problem they might have?" Jaal asked.

He glanced over and shrugged. Jaal scowled.

"Very mercenary of you," Ryder said mildly.

"Welcome to Kadara," the leader answered.

I hate this skkutting planet so much.

"Alright, I'll see if we can stop by. Where are we headed?" Ryder asked.

A few minutes later, they had coordinates of an angara town and Ryder had managed to exchange names (his was Elijj) and contact information with the leader of the group.

When Ryder offered him her arm, he commented that the gesture was a little formal, but shrugged and took it. He exchanged a tense nod with the rest of the team before they left.

Jaal breathed out in relief as they headed back to the nomad. That could have gone very badly, but she'd somehow managed to make a connection. A short laugh puffed out of his nose as he thought of the Tempest's first landing on Aya.

"Something funny?" Ryder asked, smiling up at him. She'd kept pace beside him as they walked.

He smiled back. "Just thinking about what I said before. You're very good at that," he said, gesturing behind them toward the monolith.

"Guess that Ryder charm breeds true after all," she said. Cora snorted from somewhere behind them, and Ryder grinned back at her, then shrugged as her smile faded. She added, softly, "I just don't want to be deceptive or manipulative."

"Well, I was also looking back at how it worked on me," he said. She gave him a nervous glance, but he smiled and shook his head. "It's more than just charm, Ryder. It's sincerity. Then you follow up on your sincerity with action. You haven't bewitched your allies. You've earned our trust."

After a few steps, he realized she was no longer walking next to him. He paused and turned curiously to find her still and staring at him with wide watery eyes. Oh, Sara. Before he took a step, Cora was next to her with her arm around her shoulders, bringing her forward.

"He's right," she said, squeezing Ryder's shoulders. "You're doing great. Better than I would have so far, I'm certain."

"Cora—"

"No, Sara. It's true," Cora said firmly, no sadness or regret on her face. "We tried to plan for what Pathfinders would need to do, and we got some of it right, but the stuff we had no idea about? You took it and ran. That's what we need."

"Guys!" Ryder yelled with a sniffle, wiping her face on part of her undersuit. "Don't make me cry when we're in the field! It's undignified," she protested. "Thanks, though."

She smiled and patted Cora's hand on her shoulder, and nudged Jaal affectionately as she walked up to the nomad. Peebee huffed impatiently and climbed into the back seat.

"Come on," Ryder said as she opened the door. "Let's go check out this town and hope it's just a bunch of really busted comm equipment."

 


 

It was so much worse.

No one responded to any of their comm hails as they drove up and no one was visible outside. When they got out of the vehicle, Ryder realized she couldn't hear the sound of the water pump running. She shared a worried glance with Jaal, who was pale and attaching his helmet. She put on hers and ordered everyone else to as well.

Halfway to the first building, Jaal's comm gave out static and mangled curses. She looked over to see him staring down at...the remains of an arm. The grass was flattened in a circle and there were animal tracks and other remains around it.

"Challyrion," Jaal growled, tearing his firaan out of his sheath and surrounding himself with a cloud of static. Ryder didn't have time to grab her shotgun before she heard a rattling rumble behind her. She threw a shield around herself and Jaal as she rolled, and came up with a lance and her omnitool ready. She got the animal in the face with biotics as it decloaked, which staggered and distracted it. Jaal stabbed its neck and twisted, electrocuting it. It turned to throw him off and he kneed it under the chin. She stabbed the other side of its neck as it turned and sliced down, tearing its throat out and flash incinerating the flesh near the blade. It dropped.

"Cloaked challyrion!" she called over the comm. "Call your shots!"

Cora set off a nova to their four. Ryder got a throw and shockwave ready as she turned. Three challyrion flew up, and Peebee caught them in a lift. Jaal knelt to pick them off with his rifle. Ryder crouched behind him and watched for more. Nothing.

"We're clear!" Peebee called.

"Clear!" Jaal answered.

Ryder double checked with scans before confirming. Cora called confirmation as well, and Ryder sighed as her adrenaline drained. She turned at the sound of Jaal standing up and hesitantly touched his forearm. He took a deep breath and some of the enraged grief faded. She squeezed his arm, then stepped back into her Pathfinder role.

"Ok, systematic sweep, starting here," she said, pointing at the nearest building. "Cora, Peebee, be ready with defensive biotics. Jaal, take point. I'm scanning for anything and everything." They acknowledged and took position.

The first two buildings held no bodies, but Ryder was able to access and translate a terminal with SAM's help. The records she found made her blood run cold.

Those. Mother. Fuckers. She took a slow breath. Wait, Sara. Finish gathering evidence.

She downloaded the logs and records from the terminal and looked around. Jaal was flipping through a data pad. Cora and Peebee were waiting, looking grim.

"Find anything?" she asked him.

Some tension left his shoulders with his exhale. He nodded. "It seems there weren't any children here, at least," he answered. "Only adults."

"Oh shit," Peebee whispered. Ryder swallowed her nausea and took a deep breath.

"Yeah, that's...at least there's that," she said. "You found a record of the population?" He nodded. "Good. Send it to me, ok? Let's go check the last building."

It was the largest, housing the water filtration system. The rest of the bodies were there. Two careless macabre piles inside, just inside either door. There was evidence of one pile having been outside, explaining what had drawn the challyrion.

Ryder carefully scanned the bodies, and didn't see any signs of fatal wounds.

"SAM," she said, "how long since time of death?"

"The most recent death was about three weeks ago, Pathfinder."

"They didn't all die at the same time?" she asked.

"No. Your scans suggest they all died within a span of a few days."

"Cause of death? Illness? Poison?"

"Sulfuric acid poisoning, likely from drinking improperly filtered water. Their esophagi and stomach linings show ulcers and their teeth show signs of exposure as well."

Jaal turned to her with a worried expression. "That doesn't make any sense, Ryder! Angara have lived on Kadara for hundreds of years. We know better. This was a stable settlement. They have all the proper equipment here!" He gestured emphatically around them.

"Sabotage?" Cora suggested.

"Wouldn't they notice, if they knew what they were doing?" Peebee asked.

"Yes," Jaal said, "They definitely would."

"Ok. Here's what we'll do. Peebee, you check the terminals and data pads in this building for any information. Look through boxes, storage, see what you can find. Jaal, you examine this equipment and see if you can find out why it's stopped and what might have happened. Cora and I will try to identify and deal with these bodies."

Everyone nodded grimly and got to work.

The entire population of the town was accounted for, including the three bodies the challyrion had found. No survivors. In the end, she and Cora ended up using biotics to carefully transport the remains to a small flat area at the edge of the settlement. They built a large cairn around them, also with biotics. Ryder grabbed a data pad and filled it with all the information she had gathered, then carefully added it inside the cairn before Cora added the last stone.

"Thanks, Cora," Ryder said, stripping off her gloves and removing her helmet.

Cora nodded. "That's not a job for one person."

"Yeah, and you've got much better fine control than I do," Ryder said, giving her a wan, exhausted smile.

Cora rolled her eyes. "Commandos," she shrugged.

They each ate an energy bar before heading back to check on Jaal and Peebee.

Peebee had found an inventory list showing the town had eight spare water filters in storage, but the storage area for them only had two.

"I don't know why these were left behind when I'm assuming the others were taken," Peebee said, "but they were in the front of the shelf, ready to be used next. There's also one still in the equipment over there."

"Hmm." Ryder pulled up her scanner. "SAM, what can you tell me?"

"Very little, unfortunately. I can tell you what the filter contains, but I see no traces of DNA that doesn't belong to an angara from this settlement or a member of your team. I don't know what a normal filter would look like, Pathfinder, so I have no baseline comparison."

"Here, SAM," Jaal said, pulling up his omnitool. He typed, then sent a file to Ryder. "Look for these chemicals in these places in the filter structure. It should be obvious if it was tampered with."

Ryder carefully took another scan of the used filter, then the two others. SAM responded almost immediately.

"Yes, a few vital chemicals are missing in key areas of these filters. Without them, the filters would be useless."

"How were they scrubbed?" Ryder asked.

"Unknown," SAM replied.

"Like this," Jaal said grimly, picking up one of the dry filters and using his electricity to pop a hidden latch on the side apart. "A current of the right voltage in the right pattern would work, no matter the source," he said. He pulled out a few containers inside and carefully opened them. Sand poured out of two of them. He sighed and nodded, then sat them down.

"The filtration system has been gutted," Jaal said, turning to the machinery. "This was done by someone in a hurry, or someone who didn't know what they were doing, or both," he said, sounding disgusted. He squatted and pulled off a panel. "See here? Straight cuts through these conduits, and a piece here has been pried out of the way rather than removed to get access."

Ryder nodded grimly. I hate being right. Fuck. "So, either they didn't have time to do it properly, or they weren't sure what was important, so they took everything that looked like it might be," she said.

He replaced the panel and stood. "I would say both."

"Shit," she sighed. "Ok, Peebee, send me the information you found?"

"Sure," she said.

"Let's...get some air, ok?" Ryder suggested to Jaal. She exchanged a look with Cora, who nodded encouragingly. Ryder had told her of her suspicions while they buried the townspeople. She'll talk to Peebee.

He followed her outside and over to the deck outside one of the other buildings. She sat on the edge and pulled up her omnitool.

"I think I know what happened here,” she said.

"Nexus exiles," he sighed grimly.

"Yeah. Think I know which ones. Here's what I found on the terminal in that first building." She sent him the files and waited while he opened them to look.

A few seconds later he gasped and she felt him stiffen next to her.

"The place in Sulfur Springs," he whispered. "That's what they were afraid of. They must have thought I knew." Jaal turned to her, thrumming with rage.

"We have to do something about this," he demanded, heading to the nomad.

"We will," she nodded, following him. "I'm going to tell Reyes to send the Collective after them."

"What? Why? We can go right now!"

"Because first, we're all fucking exhausted. Second, they're a better choice for the work than we are, and it'll give me a chance to see what they do. If we're not satisfied with how they deal with it, we can always deal with it ourselves afterwards."

He made a noise of disgust and raised his voice in annoyance. "And what are we doing while we wait on the Collective to act, maybe, if they want to?" Jaal yelled as he turned and thumped the hood of the nomad.

"I'm doing my job!" Ryder yelled back. She closed her eyes and grit her teeth, then sighed. "I'm trying to get the Collective to prove that they'll represent everyone. Also, they can probably investigate and deal with it faster than we can. And they can spread the word about it and be believed, unlike people affiliated with the Nexus," she gestured at herself, "or Aya," she gestured at him. She took a deep calming breath, then added, "And it's the closest thing to official justice these people will get."

Jaal stood carefully still with his muscles rigid and his eyes closed. He took three deep deliberate breaths before he opened his eyes. He looked into hers and nodded before climbing into the passenger seat.

Ryder closed her eyes and propped her head on the side of the nomad. I might be starting to hate this planet, too.

Chapter Text

Ryder pulled up to the forward station and turned off the engine. She took a deep breath and rested her head on the steering wheel.

Shit.

Jaal sighed raggedly from the seat beside her.

"We could deal with it ourselves, if it's really important for you to see it done," she said. "It's a chance to see what the Collective will do, but I'm sure we'll come across another one."

"No, if they're going to be the faction in charge, we need to see how they will rule," he sighed again. "It's uncomfortable to admit, but my motivation for dealing with it ourselves today was just...anger and desire for revenge."

His voice was soft and thick as he trailed off. Ryder looked over and he was holding his gloves tightly, staring at his hands. She reached over to rest her hand on them. Jaal looked up with an exhausted, grateful expression.

"Having the urge is normal," she said. "Not acting on it is what takes strength."

He nodded and a corner of his mouth pulled up slightly. His eyes were soft, and for a moment she felt like she was free falling.

"I love you, Sara," he said softly, under his breath.

Cora's quiet gasp from the back seat reminded Ryder of their companions, but she couldn't muster the will to give a damn.

"I love you, too, Jaal," she whispered, squeezing his hands. He gasped and froze, staring at her, knowing that this was different from when they were alone.

The moment was interrupted by a sudden sniffle from the backseat, and they jumped. Ryder turned to find Peebee blushing and wiping her cheeks. Her eyes widened when Ryder smiled at her, and she scrambled for the door.

"Nothing! Nothing!" Peebee said, "Don't mind me! Gah, such sappy crap, you guys, yuck!" The door slammed firmly behind her.

Cora sighed and got out too. She leaned back in. "We'll head back up to the docks, Ryder, and send Kallo out for the nomad, k?" Ryder nodded and Cora shut the door.

She rubbed her thumb back and forth over his hands a few times, then pulled her gloves back on.

"You're welcome to go back with them, too. I know you're not a fan of Kadara, or Tartarus, or Reyes."

"I'd rather be with you," he said.

"Me too."

Jaal cupped her cheek and leaned over to kiss her forehead, then got out. She followed and locked it.

"The shield burst is really handy, but I don't know if I'd be willing to leave it here overnight," she said.

"I wouldn't," Jaal said. "I'm sure someone would figure out how to dismantle, disable, or sabotage it, given that amount of time."

They walked to the gates, and the warden and evening guards grudgingly waved them through. Ryder called Reyes as soon as the door closed behind them.

He sounded grumpy when he answered. "You promised. No abductions today."

"Not why I'm calling. Just got back from the badlands and I need to talk about something in person. You home?"

"I just got here in fact, and I was looking forward to some sleep," he sighed. "but my door is always open for the Pathfinder."

"So, is that a downgrade or an upgrade from 'a beautiful woman'?" she asked.

"Come up and find out," he said, and clicked off his comm.

Ryder shook her head. Jaal sighed. She glanced up, but he was just watching her fondly.

"You say your brother is better at talking to people? He's more persuasive than you?" he asked.

"Oh, yeah," she said, nodding firmly.

"Stars guide us," he said. She shoved him and he managed a small smile.

To their surprise, the door opened at her chime. Reyes was out of view of the doorway, looking disheveled and exhausted. He looked up from the terminal he was working at and waved them over to a table nearby.

"You alright, Vidal?" Ryder asked mildly. "Not used to seeing you without your face on."

He squinted and tilted his head. "Trust for trust," he answered.

She frowned thoughtfully, then nodded firmly. "Good," she said.

"So?" he asked.

"I've got another opportunity for the Collective to prove your abilities."

Reyes raised his eyebrows and waved his hand impatiently.

"You know Charybdis Point?" she asked.

His forehead wrinkled and he looked off into space. "Oh, yeah, a little flophouse out in Sulfur Springs," he said. "They've got water filtration tech somehow, even though the angara are supposed to have a monopoly on it."

"Guess how they got that tech?"

Reyes hissed. "Fuck."

"Yeah," Ryder sighed. "It's worse than you think." She glanced at Jaal, who had his arms crossed and was breathing very deliberately. Looks like it's all me.

"We retrieved a dead drop from near their place the other day, right before we went to Zear's place. While we were there, a few of the people were very concerned about our presence. I figured they were cagey about shit they took from the Nexus, but in hindsight, they were pretty spooked by Jaal specifically."

Jaal interjected. "The excuse was they were worried we were going to loot their storage room," he scoffed. "I wasn't anywhere near the locked door and he immediately attacked when he saw me."

"Could still be suspicion," Reyes said cautiously.

Jaal looked at him. Reyes shrugged.

"It might have been, except today," Ryder said, "we ran into some local angara who asked us to check on their friends they hadn't heard from in a while. We did, and we found an entire town of angara, over a dozen, dead. The water filters had been tampered with. They were poisoned too slowly to notice before it was too late. Their bodies had been thrown together in piles. Animals got to some of them."

Reyes' face was stony. Ryder sighed and continued.

"The filtering system had been taken apart," she said. "It was an obvious hack job by someone who was in a hurry and wasn't sure what was important." Jaal nodded in confirmation.

"Anything else?" Reyes asked.

Ryder sent him copies of the files they'd found. "Journals and records," she said. "They'd traded with a group of exiles, lead by a turian. After a while, the exiles wanted to buy the water filtration tech, but the angara refused. The exiles tried to raid them, made off with a few filters, but not much else. They thought. A few weeks later, everyone had stomach pain and chalky teeth. A week after that, there were no more entries."

Reyes had rested his eyes on his palms while she talked. "Comemierdas comelónes," he growled under his breath.

Ryder sighed. "Yeah, that covers it."

Jaal glanced at her curiously, but didn't ask.

"So, the evidence isn't conclusive, but it's damning, and I bet there's something interesting behind that locked door in Charybdis Point," Ryder said. "Our guess is they raided to steal a few filters, studied them and sabotaged them, then snuck back in to plant the ones they'd tampered with, and waited."

Reyes nodded with his eyes closed.

"I want the Collective to deal with it," she said.

"That's it?" he asked.

"Yep. Investigate. Deal with it. That's the only requirement."

Reyes looked up skeptically. She shrugged.

"If I'm not satisfied I'll let you know," she said. "Like I said before: you guys wanna run shit? Run shit. I helped you deal with Roekaar when they attacked. Now deal with exiles when they attack."

He flattened his lips and nodded. "Alright. I'll let you know when it's done."

She nodded and stood. "Good. Here's the serial numbers of the ones that had been tampered with. If you find any in Charybdis Point, see if they're in the same sequence."

He nodded.

"Night, Reyes," she said.

Jaal followed, then held his hand out to Reyes. He looked up in surprise, then took it and shook.

"Thank you," Jaal said.

Reyes nodded solemnly and walked them to the door.

 


 

The ship wasn't back at the dock yet.

"We just secured the nomad, Pathfinder. ETA 10 minutes." Kallo said when Ryder opened a channel.

"Thanks Kallo. It'll be good to get home. Ryder out."

She closed her omnitool and looked around for Jaal. He was leaning on a railing and watching the sunset with an exhausted frown. Four Outcast guards were very obviously watching them both.

Sloane probably won't have us shot in the back.

Still, Ryder silently asked SAM to keep an eye on the area through her senses, too, in case she missed something. Then she went over and stood close to Jaal.

He looked over as she settled next to him and bumped his arm, then threw his arm over her shoulders and pulled her closer. It wasn't the most comfortable position with both of them in armor and still filthy from the day. Still, the emotional comfort the weight of his arm gave her was just as important. She wrapped an arm around his waist and leaned into him.

"Angara are very cuddly," she observed.

"True," Jaal hummed thoughtfully. "I also hear it's an excellent way to subdue and overpower humans? I should mention this to our embassy staff on the Nexus. Could be useful during negotiations."

"You looked up kryptonite?" She chuckled with him and he gently squeezed her.

"I asked Liam. Our last day on the Nexus? When they weren't teasing me, he and Gil were talking about the 'super hero' stories humans have."

She smiled and nodded. "Yeah. A lot of our popular fiction centers around that kind of story. Lots of little humans want to be heroes when they grow up."

"Hmm...did you?"

She huffed and shook her head. "Not really. Dad actually had a whole Lecture specifically about how setting out to be heroes gets young soldiers killed."

Jaal nodded. "He was right."

"Yeah. I remember, before...everything, how he was always frustrated about how he was held up as some kind of icon of humanity. He'd play the part, but...he said Mom helped, maybe even saved, thousands of lives with her work, and no one gave her a medal," Ryder smiled in memory. "She'd fluff his hair and say if it put her in the public eye as much as he was, she'd just as soon avoid the medals altogether."

The sounds of conversation and the calls of animals from the badlands drifted over them. Lights were coming on around the docks. Jaal was looking down at her and she sent him a soft sidelong smile. She knew he was probably restraining himself to preserve her cover with Reyes. Angaran polyamory aside, humans might think something was amiss. They might already, but she honestly couldn't give less of a fuck about it right now.

A chirp came through both their omnitools.

"Kallo to ground squad, Tempest is docked."

"Thanks Kallo. We're headed back."

"Acknowledged Pathfinder. Kallo out."

Ryder closed the comm. Jaal dropped his arm and clapped her shoulder as they headed over to the Tempest's bay.

"What is your plan for tomorrow?" he asked.

"Well, I was thinking about what you said, about how I don't take much downtime?"

"Oh?"

"Yeah. I think tomorrow, maybe even the next day too, are going to be shore leave."

He made an expression of distaste. "I certainly won't begrudge you the break, Ryder, but on Kadara?"

"Ugh," she said, rolling her eyes. "Would you give it a rest?"

He was laughing before she finished her sentence. She glared at him, then shoved his arm and chuckled with him as they stepped into the airlock. Jaal hit the cycle to close the door. He turned to her with a smile, sliding his hands onto her waist.

"You love me," he said, deep and slow. She smiled and pulled off her gloves to touch his cheeks.

"So much," she whispered, standing on tiptoes to kiss him.

They ignored the airlock's cycle finishing, and everything else, until Cora's cough interrupted them. They looked over and she was watching them with agitated impatience. Ryder immediately turned and stepped out of the airlock.

"What is it?" she asked. Cora was nearly vibrating.

"I've got a lead on the ark! The asari ark, I mean."

"That's great! What happened?" Ryder asked.

Jaal touched the small of her back and caught her eye with a smile as he slipped past.

Cora started pacing. "I got a message from Eos. A bunch of asari just showed up at Prodromos. Their escape pods crashed a few days ago, and they were able to follow Initiative comm signals to the outpost while avoiding the kett."

Ryder nodded and motioned for Cora to follow to her quarters. She stripped and checked her armor, then stored it for cleaning while they talked. Her weapons were set aside for later.

"How many made it?" she asked.

"Just a couple dozen, but there might be more on other planets. Search parties are heading out from Prodromos and the Nexus, but they can't cover much territory very quickly. The Nexus will probably want us to try to find them, because they don't have any other teams with our capabilities. That's a fight Addison and Tann can have," she shrugged. "I'm worried for the rest of them. These people were so lucky to crash close to Prodromos, and to crash now, after you cleared the radiation."

Ryder hummed in agreement while she grabbed her ship clothes and shower kit. She stripped off her undersuit and wrapped in a towel, then started the cleaning cycle.

"An officer there, Hydaria, has intel that might lead to the Leusinia," Cora said, following her into the bathroom. "I'll set up a QEC call with Prodromos whenever I have your go ahead."

"That sounds great, Cora. Tomorrow, any time. As soon as I get cleaned up, I'm going to announce a 50 hour shore leave," she stowed her clothes in a cubby, "We can have that call whenever we can coordinate with Eos."

"That sounds like a plan. I'll announce shore leave if you want."

"I'd appreciate it," Ryder said, hanging her towel and turning the water on hot. "Thanks, Cora."

"You're welcome," she said, "it's a relief to have good news."

Cora headed into the crew quarters, and a minute or two later her voice came over the comm announcing shore leave. Ryder smiled and stuck her head completely under the faucet.

She'd just reached for her shampoo when she realized someone else was coming into the shower. "Hello!" she called, trying to sound less exhausted than she felt. Ryder closed her eyes and lathered her hair.

"It's just me, Sara," a quiet deep voice said, making her startle. She stuck her head back under the water to give herself an excuse for sputtering, and internally screeched at herself.

What is wrong with you? Why does this embarrass you?

"Have...I done something to bother you?" Jaal asked, sounding confused.

She shook her head hard and wiped water out of her eyes before looking over at him. Then she swallowed.

Oh. That's why this embarrassed her.

Ryder had, until this point, somehow avoided sharing the shower with Jaal. She didn't know how anyone else had survived it. The way he looked, relaxed under warm water, guard dropped, lathering himself...was nearly indecent. Wait, no. It wasn't nearly indecent enough.

He caught her eye and laughed in realization. She blushed hotter, looking away with a smile and a shake of her head.

"I see..." he said, drawing the word out and dropping into a hum.

"You shut up." She scrubbed herself mechanically, the only way she'd be sure to remember to clean everything.

"Maybe there was some merit to Liam's suggestion the other evening, then?" he asked, too innocently.

"Shut. Up." She firmly closed her eyes again.

"Really, Sara?"

Oh fuck, he was right next to her. His hands covered hers, then he crouched to move his touch down her leg. He warmly kissed her hip.

"The hot water is going to run out soon," she said quickly, "and anyone could walk in." He stood and gave her a peck on the cheek, before moving back over to the other shower head.

"Hmm. Maybe later, then," he said mischievously. "I enjoy a challenge."

The bottom dropped out of her stomach. He wanted a quickie in the shower. Him behind her, warm water pouring over them. His hands covering her body with smooth soap suds. His cock tucked under her ass, she'd tilt just so and freezing ice cold what the fuck! She shrieked and wrenched the water off, then shivered while Jaal braced his arm on the wall and laughed.

She grumbled and grabbed her towel to dry herself, scrubbing roughly.

"I didn't know the idea would be quite that distracting, taoshay," Jaal said affectionately. He was rinsing himself as well.

"Well, I'm glad you're feeling better, anyway," she said with an amused sigh.

Jaal turned off the water and reached for her and is he really going to but he just gently kissed her lips and smiled. "I am. A few quiet moments with you always helps," he cupped her cheek with a tender expression. "...more than you know, Sara." He nuzzled her forehead and she held her breath until he pulled away.

He grabbed his towel and rubbed it over his head and arms. Then he moved loosely down his chest and stomach.

Fuck.

"I'm sure I'd love to hear whatever was on your mind just now," he said, looking up at her slowly.

She shivered and went over to grab her clothes. "You probably already have a general idea," she said, jerking on her underwear and reaching for her undershirt.

He came over with his towel carelessly thrown around his hips.

He's doing this on purpose. She quickly pulled on her pants and shirt.

"Yes...but I'm very interested in specifics," he said. He dried his legs and feet and grinned over his shoulder while he reached for his clothes.

She blushed and rolled her eyes while she tucked her feet into her sneakers. "Come on, let's get some food," she said, standing up and leaning on the lockers to watch him. She wrung out her hair into her towel and left it loose to dry.

He stopped with only his arms in his shirt and smirked at her. His back was curved and his pants were still unfastened. Her gaze was drawn to the thick flesh of his side and stomach, soft curves over heavy muscle. Her face burned while her eyes smoothed over the bulge of his upper arms, the width of his shoulders. His smile widened. Fuck. He is totally doing this on purpose.

"Patience, Sara. I thought the crew objected to me walking around the ship naked?" Jaal said, just as Gil walked through the door.

"Well, not all of us," Gil said, squeezing past to wash his hands. Ryder snorted. Jaal laughed and finished getting dressed.

"Best to err on the side of caution there," she said.

"Easy for you to say, Ryder," Gil said while drying his hands.

"No one's stopping you from finding your own giant purple boyfriend, Gil," Ryder teased. "Jaal, any of your brothers single and adventurous?"

Jaal paused fastening his shoes and looked up thoughtfully.

"Whoa, whoa, whoa! No, thank you," Gil waved his hands and headed out to the hallway. "I have a firm rule: no blind dates."

"What…?" Jaal asked.

Ryder sighed and followed Gil out into the hall. "Ok, a date: I assume that translates fine?" she asked.

"A romantic outing?"

"Yeah. So, a blind date is with someone you've never met before."

"Why would you want to be in a romantic situation with someone you've never met?"

"Exactly my point," Gil said.

"Well, not the first few dates," Ryder rolled her eyes at them. "That's just...getting to know someone. Talking, seeing if you're compatible."

"Too much pressure," Gil said, entering the galley with them. "I'd rather get to know someone without the knowledge that our friends are watching and waiting to see if we're gonna smooch."

Jaal coughed and gave Gil a wry glance as he got out a bowl.

"What?" Gil asked.

"Let me see if I remember your exact words…" Jaal paused and fiddled with the spoon he was holding. "Ah. I believe you said every human on the ship suspected Ryder and I were attracted to each other. And Vetra mentioned something about you gossiping with Cora?"

"You assholes!" Ryder's mouth dropped open and she punched Gil in the arm. "No one said anything?"

"Look, that's different!" he protested, laughing and trying to block her with a box of dehydrated soup.

"How the fuck is that any different!" Ryder shoved him.

"No one set you two up!" Gil said, "That was just us noticing what was in front of our faces. You can't blame us for that."

"I know no one set us up! You little shits didn't help at all!"

"Hey, now, that's not true!" Gil protested. "I told him to play to his strengths—which he has apparently done." He gestured to Jaal with a small flourish.

"Vetra helped," Jaal said, getting out his nutrient paste. He raised his brow and smirked as he glanced over, "you...mostly laughed at me."

"Alright, fair, but I helped a little."

Ryder sighed and sat at the table with her meal.

"It sounds like you're comfortable observing others but not comfortable being observed yourself," Jaal said.

Gil shrugged. "Well, that's just the human condition."

"...hypocrisy?" Jaal asked, chuckling.

"Honestly? Pretty much."

Jaal laughed louder.

"It sounds to me like I could have avoided a few weeks of awkwardness if someone had clued me in," Ryder grumbled.

"It was good for morale," Gil grinned at her.

Jaal sat his meal on the table and leaned down to kiss her cheek. "I think we managed alright, taoshay," he said.

She smiled up and leaned into him. "Yeah, I guess," she said. "It probably wouldn't have made a difference anyway. It was nerve wracking enough making friendly overtures when your job description still included destroying everything and everyone on the ship if we fucked up."

He stroked through her hair and kissed the top of her head. "I'm very glad it never came to that," he said. "Not that we ever discussed it openly, but I don't think I ever actually said: Evfra has rescinded that order," he smiled, "Nor could I be trusted to follow it at this point, obviously."

Ryder laughed. "Such a romantic sentiment, Jaal."

"I'll make it up to you later, darling one," he said softly, with a deeper undertone. He looked over from under his brow and held her gaze. She shivered.

"Yeah, yeah, you two are sickeningly sweet and keep us all awake at night. No need to rub our noses in it," Gil said, breaking through their tension. He rolled his eyes, but was smiling and shaking his head. "I'm out, guys. Disinfect the counters when you're done, 'kay?"

"That is unsanitary," Ryder yelled, "and I am offended by the insinuation we would do that in a shared space!"

"So, you've decided against my suggestion in the shower, then?" Jaal asked. She widened her eyes and stared at him, but he just grinned.

Gil cackled as he walked out the door. "Gonna save that information for blackmail for sure," he called.

Ryder grumbled, then sighed. Jaal rumbled in amusement and she kicked him. "Laugh now, but if he really does, you're on the hook."

"What hook?"

She looked up, but he shook his head with a snicker before she started to explain.

"Goddamnit," she hissed, shaking her head and smiling again. "Peebee's right. You are an unbelievable ass."

"You love me," he smiled, reaching over to take her hand.

"So much," she said, kissing the back of his hand. "But you're still in trouble for teasing me."

Ryder watched his eyes widen as she moved her lips down to his knuckles and slowly kissed each one. She dragged her mouth over over to warmly lick and nip the webbing of his forefinger. With her eyes closed, she nibbled down to his fingertip and sucked him into her mouth past the first knuckle. Then she looked into his eyes and dragged her bottom teeth over the pad.

Jaal was tense and holding his breath. She couldn't feel his energy at all. Perfect. She sat his hand back down on the table, patted it, smiled, and placidly turned back to her meal.

He cleared his throat. "I am duly chastised, Sara."

"Good. You should be."

"It's only fair I warn you, though: your methods are hardly a deterrent."

"Well, I don't want to crush your spirit," she said. Her eyes twinkled over her mug of tea.

He chuckled around a bite and swallowed before asking, "What was your goal, then?"

Ryder shrugged. "Gotta remind you who wears the pants around here," she said, smirking as she took a bite. She got a glimpse of his expression and narrowly avoided choking.

"This time I am honestly confused," he said.

She wiped her mouth and smiled. "It means who's in charge in a relationship. That's the one who wears the pants."

"Well, you're...wait." He sat down his water and looked at her carefully. "You're not talking about jobs or command structure, are you?"

"No."

"You're talking about some sort of...dominance?" He looked highly skeptical. She shrugged and nodded in amusement.

"Why...ok let me think." Jaal put his forehead in his hands. "I have multiple questions."

She snorted. "I bet. That phrase has plenty of baggage I didn't think about before I threw it out there. Just, before we get into this, I want to be clear: I was joking. This is an equal partnership, of course."

He sighed and looked over at her like she was...completely inexplicable.

"What...does it have to do with pants?"

Chapter Text

Midmorning the next day, Ryder and Cora got in touch with the asari who had found their way to Prodromos. The officer in charge was relieved another Pathfinder team was searching for their ark. Ryder and Cora were relieved that the asari Pathfinder and her second were confirmed alive recently.

"Finding the Periphona is the best bet for finding the Leusinia," Cora said after they closed the QEC. "Hopefully the transponder survived the crash and we can get information from it."

Ryder nodded.

"We'll head to Voeld as soon as we can, then, once we've established a colony on Kadara," she said.

Cora raised her eyebrows and frowned. "I don't want to sound pessimistic, but...what if we can't manage that in a reasonable time period?"

"Then we'll reevaluate, but getting a farming settlement on Kadara is key to the survival of all of us from the Milky Way. Won't do the asari much good to be found and then starve." Ryder shook her head. "We'll have to trust their Pathfinder team to handle things on their own for now."

"Not questioning that," Cora said mildly. "I agree with your assessment. Just wondering what your contingency plan is."

Ryder laughed hollowly and leaned on the meeting room table. "Shit or go blind?"

"The eternal question," Cora chuckled darkly, "and it is the Pathfinder's job to make the big decisions."

Ryder sighed and rubbed her palms over her eyes. "Yeah," she said. She stood and headed toward the ramp. "Anyway, I need to check with Gil on the status of the kett transponder, and—"

"Gil's off the ship for shore leave," Cora said, crossing her arms. "Something that you clearly need, Sara." She followed Ryder down to the research room.

"I gardened with you just a few days ago!" She said defensively. "And I am going to take a break. That’s why I allowed shore leave! I just wanted to get a few urgent things done first."

"And I saw you flipping between the seed catalog and APEX mission reports," Cora said. "A ‘few urgent things’ will turn into you working all day. Seriously, take a break. An actual break. Do something for you, or I'll sic Lexi on you."

"Alright!" Ryder put her hands up in acquiescence. "You win. Already got my fill of Lexi lectures recently."

"Really?"

"Uh," Ryder blushed and hesitated, "she...kind of sandbagged me and Jaal with the 'safe xeno sex’ talk the other day? I don’t recommend the experience."

Cora swallowed a chuckle. "I’ll keep that in mind for the future," she said, "but if I ever find myself in that situation, I think I can manage to be a little more discreet than you guys."

"Listen. I mean. If you knew? You wouldn't blame me."

"Aaaand that's a line I'm definitely not stepping across today," Cora said with finality.

Ryder chuckled. "Have you seen Vetra? I need to ask her about supplies for Liam's movie night."

"Nope, sorry."

"Alright, well I'm off to find her. After shore leave, I want to talk about bargaining with the Collective and overthrowing Kelly. That's…gonna take planning."

"Sounds good. Now go do something unnecessary." Cora waved her hands at Ryder and smiled.

 


 

She caught up with Vetra as she was entering the airlock.

"Vetra, got a sec?"

She let out a flanging hum and stuck out one mandible. "How long a sec?"

"A short one," Ryder smiled and entered the airlock with her. "You know how Liam is trying to set up a movie night? I'm looking for snacks for everyone. Know where I might find stuff?"

Vetra hit the airlock cycle while she thought. "Hmm…" Her mandibles waved slowly and absently. "Oh! You know, I did hear someone was selling a stash of popcorn. Check the vendor on the lower level outside Kralla's Song. I wonder if they have any graxen…"

"Awesome!" Ryder bounced on her toes. "Popcorn would be perfect. Graxen is a green hard shelled nut, right?"

"Yeah, that's the one," Vetra nodded, then looked thoughtful. "I wonder if there are any freeze dried tesvil beetles around? I know Kallo loves them."

"Great," Ryder said, pulling up her omnitool. "Popcorn, graxen, tesvil. I'll leave a message on the board asking for requests, too."

"Good hunting," Vetra said and stepped out of the airlock.

"Thanks, Vetra," Ryder said, waving absently while she looked at her screen.

*******
Movie night snack requests

I'm checking out what Kadara Port has for the movie night Liam is setting up. Looking for popcorn, graxen, and tesvil beetles. Any other requests? I'm buying. [Sara]
*******

Ryder closed her interface and adjusted her bag before stepping out onto the docks. Thermos of hot cocoa, two energy bars, bottle of water, a couple of pencils, and one of her favorite style of sketchbooks from home. It felt almost...normal. Like a real day off.

After she was done shopping, she planned to find a place to sit undisturbed and sketch. She'd gotten pretty rusty in the year or so before the ark left, and it wasn't like she'd had time to really sit down and do detailed illustrations of the artifacts and tech they'd found. Scans and photos had all the information an illustration would have, but she always felt like she could understand an artifact or location more intuitively through drawing it. It helped her see the details she might miss otherwise.

It would be nice to get back into the habit. Make her feel more like herself. She perked up at the thought.

Yeah, I guess I needed this break more than I realized.

She found the vendor easily enough. To her surprise, they actually had warm salted popcorn for sale. They must have more than she'd expected them to. The smell went straight to her memory, making her mouth water. It was obviously an effective sales tactic, going by the huge crowd surrounding the stand. Armed Outcasts were standing by warily, ready to break up any fights that got too big.

Even a few curious angara were bartering for and apparently enjoying it. She smiled. Salt and starch seemed to have pretty universal appeal.

There seemed to be less a line and more of a crowd, but it was moving forward and people seemed to be walking away from the front with packages. She hovered at the back and a few others came up behind her in a cluster. The group moved forward. Her omnitool showed an alert from the crew board, and she opened it to check.

*****
If you can find any tavarv (it's a Heleus plant) I'd like to try to make an angara snack I found a recipe for. [Suvi]

I doubt you'd be able to find it on Kadara. I also wouldn't trust any of the vendors to sell you a quality product, especially since you don't know what to look for. I'd recommend waiting until you can shop on Aya. Yveth is almost certain to have some in stock, and if not, Felaan will. [Jaal]

I suppose it can wait. It's dried, right, Jaal? So it should keep for a while whenever we get some? [Suvi]

Yes, as long as we keep it dry and cool. The freezer would be ideal, if there's space. What are you going to flavor it with? If you plan to use human spices, the result will be...interesting. [Jaal]
*****

Ryder smiled and typed a response.

*****
I'll make a note of it, Suvi. Jaal, if there are common spices for it I could buy on Aya as well, let me know. Also let me know any requests you have and I'll look for them there as well. From the looks of things out here, popcorn is going to be pretty popular with angara, too. [Sara]
*****

She closed her omnitool again and shuffled forward with the crowd. The sulfur smell was usually nearly drowned out by the port anyway, but today the smell of popcorn and sound of happy voices made the market seem almost festive. The apparent anonymity she currently had was a nice bonus.

She was just feeling a knot of tension start to melt away when a flash of purple from the upper level caught her eye.

Peebee. Arguing with two humans and a turian.

Ryder frowned. Didn't look like Outcasts, but they were all armed. She felt her biotics ready, buzzing power at the edge of her senses, and was just about to head up to help when Peebee suddenly punched one of the humans in the gut, knocking her backwards. The turian started forward, but Peebee was glowing blue and glaring while she spoke to him. He backed up. The human she'd punched gave a dismissive shrug and walked off. The other two followed. Peebee watched them carefully, then turned and leaned back on the railing in front of her when they left. Ryder caught her eye, and Peebee gave her a thumbs up.

Okay. She breathed slower. Her biotics dissipated.

When Ryder came back to herself, she realized she had a much wider bubble of space around her and the nearest dozen or so people were staring. Great. She sighed and noted the way the nearest Outcasts were holding their weapons much more obviously than before.

Ryder raised her hands with a sheepish grin and glanced around. "Sorry. False alarm," she said. Someone behind her laughed shortly, but the Outcasts just scowled. She sighed. "I just want some popcorn, guys, I promise," she said, trying for disarmingly casual. It didn't work.

The next five minutes weren't anywhere near as relaxing, but some of her tension had started to fade again by the time she made it to the counter. Four young salarians were running things, but one immediately peeled off as soon as she caught his eye. He came back around the corner following an ancient salarian walking with a cane.

She tottered up to the counter and squinted at Ryder through cloudy eyes, then smiled. "Hello, Pathfinder! Interested in our merchandise?" she asked.

Shit. She's gonna try to get the drive core and my left leg too.

It wasn't quite that bad, but she did end up spending twice as many credits as she'd hoped to, plus 10 kilo of raw nickel and 30 kilo of renderable plates. Ryder justified it with the knowledge that they had plenty of surplus and needed to offload some anyway, and that this was for the whole crew.

The old woman had been surprised at her request for tesvil, but she didn't have any for sale anyway. When she found out the Tempest pilot was a Jath, she started chattering at Ryder about how a son from her third clutch had negotiated such a good mating contract with them, she was so proud. Her granddaughters were still in stasis on the Nexus last she'd heard, and she hated to leave them behind, but some of her grandsons had gotten mixed up with the rebellion and she just couldn't let them go by themselves without anyone to take care of them. Though they were twelve years old already, grown and lost their tails long ago, how time flies. But men are always so impulsive, yes? Like that Tann Jarun, losing krogan support! Short sighted! Knew his aunt, dalatrass before she was twenty five! She would have something to say to the boy if she were here. Shame. But oh they were good boys, her grandsons, building a solid foundation for a clan here in Heleus. Just hope that they'll be able to manage without a woman to guide them once she's gone. Six hundred seventy seven standard years old! Ha! Not bad for a salarian, yes? A brother had bonded with an asari and moved to Illium, she might have an adult asari niece somewhere younger than her, strange to think. Is that everything you need, Pathfinder? Salt as well, maybe? Another half kilo of popcorn? No? So, your pilot is Jath Kallo? Hm. You know his mother's name? No? Pity. She'd heard of him, good teacher, took care of his trainees. She wondered if he'd be interested in a contract with her granddaughter. You tell him to contact Rithga Kreli, yes? Good! Yes, yes goodbye Pathfinder!

Somehow amongst all this, Ryder had been convinced to buy a packet of some kind of bark instead of the beetles they weren't selling. As she walked away, slightly dazed, she overheard a few salarian customers bartering for it enthusiastically, so hopefully Kallo would like it.

She found an open public space to sit and took a drink of her water while she assessed her collection. A full kilo of popcorn was probably overkill, but it would keep. A few hundred grams of graxen and two packs of...bark. She sniffed it. It smelled sweet and spicy. She shrugged.

Well. Now that she'd been thoroughly fleeced by a salarian grandma, it was time for a real break.

 


 

She found a quiet space on a rooftop where she could see the market and sketch in peace. A couple Outcasts had been stern when she started climbing up, but rather than fight with them, she just shrugged and showed them her bag. Happily, they didn't try anything cute like “accidentally” ruining her stuff. Maybe almost choking one of them the other day had made an impression. A few minutes after she'd climbed up, a couple nervous young Outcasts wandered into her sight and took up sentry. Ryder figured if Sloane wanted people to watch her minding her own business that badly, she'd let 'em waste their time.

First she took a few drinks of her cocoa and closed her eyes, letting the sunlight warm her while she listened to the sounds of the port.

SAM, I am alone up here, right?

*According to the scans you took before sitting down and the data I have from your senses, yes.*

Awesome.

She opened her sketchbook and smiled at the note she'd left herself before she'd packed it.

***
Dear Future Self, or whoever ends up with this if my pod explodes or I get eaten by something the first day:

This book came millions of light years for you to draw something amazing in it. Find something you've never seen before and document your adventure.

Sara Ryder - April 17, 2185
***

Ryder sighed, remembering the hope and excitement that felt so recent and so shockingly long ago at the same time. Nothing was like it was supposed to have been, but she was definitely having an adventure. Careful what you wish for, Sara.

Now. Where to start?

 


 

A few hours later, Ryder had finished her cocoa and energy bars and felt like she was hitting her stride. A few pages of poses of people in the port, fast gestures of mantas flying in the distance, some detailed illustration of the edge of the building and her own shoe. It felt like stretching a stiff muscle. Maybe I'll fab a small field sketchbook to carry around with me. She was just considering fabricating a ruler for a perspective drawing of the port from her angle when her omnitool pinged.

She sat down her pencil and stretched before she checked it. Her back popped. Probably a good idea for a break anyway. She looked at her wrist.

Reyes. The weight of their last discussion settled onto her and she picked the mantle of Pathfinder back up before answering.

"Reyes. What’s up?"

"I have an update on that job we discussed."

"Not the best time. I'm out in the port. Pretty secluded, but a public area."

He sighed, sounding drained. "Just as well. Better to talk in person."

"General assessment?"

"Worse than I'd hoped, better than I feared."

"Yeah. You sound like shit."

A surprised bark of laughter came from her wrist. "Such flattery, Sara. You'll make me blush."

She rolled her eyes. "You still in the field?"

"No, just got back."

"Alright, why don't you clean up, then come find me at Kralla's. We'll head back to the ship. Drack's making dinner."

"Really? An ancient krogan's cooking is the best you've got to offer?"

"I dunno," Ryder shrugged. "Play your cards right and Peebee might be willing to try to squeeze you into the escape pod after all."

He snorted.

"Seriously though, don't knock Drack's cooking. He's been doing this since the actual Dark Ages. He knows his shit."

"Alright, fine. I've probably survived worse. I have a dashing air of danger to maintain, anyway. See you in a little while then?"

"That works. Bye Reyes." Ryder closed the call and sent a message to Cora and Jaal about the meeting. She spent another ten minutes working on a close-up of a nearby tarp, then started packing up. She took some time to loosen her shoulders and back and shake out the kinks in her legs. Then she dusted off her pants and scooped up her pack.

"SAM, this was a good idea. You officially have my permission to remind me of that next time I'm being extra bitchy."

"Should I make a note of that for the Tempest crew as well?" SAM asked.

"Don't push your luck," Ryder laughed. "You only get special privileges because you've got direct access to my neurochemistry. You're impossible to fool."

Crates were stacked alongside one wall and she easily climbed down, hopping the last few feet and cushioning herself with her biotics. She waved at her guards and grinned.

"Have fun, guys?" she called. They looked like they weren't sure whether to scowl at her or not. Ryder headed down the stairs to Kralla's Song.

Vetra, Peebee, and Suvi waved from a table by the open window. She headed for them with a smile.

"Ryderrr!" Suvi drawled, raising her cup and smiling. Her cheeks weren't quite as red as her hair, but close.

"Are you guys corrupting Suvi?" Ryder asked.

Peebee laughed. "Other way around, maybe," she said.

"Ach, I'm fine," Suvi rolled her eyes and sat her cup down. "Always get rosy cheeks no matter how much I drink."

"She was just telling us about how she tried to get under Jien Garson's dress," Vetra said with crooked browplates.

Ryder's eyes widened and she turned to Suvi with her mouth open.

"I might have had a wee bit too much champagne at the time," Suvi said, giggling behind her hand.

"Well don't let me interrupt. I'm just waiting on Reyes, then we're heading back to the ship for dinner. You guys coming back, or is it a wild girl's night?"

"You could stay with us and find out," Vetra winked.

"Sorry, I really do have something to deal with," she said.

"It's not even 1800 yet, Ryder!" Peebee scoffed and finished her drink. "This is supposed to be shore leave!"

"Some of us have responsibilities," she said. "Rain check, though? Maybe bring Cora and Lexi, too?"

Peebee groaned and lay her head on the table.

"Come on Peebee," Vetra said. "I thought you were supposed to be adventurous. Don't you wanna know how much it'll take for Cora to dance on a table? Bet it'd be less than you think."

"Mmm...I wouldn't take that bet," Ryder said, shaking her head.

"I can be persuasive," Peebee said with a smirk. Suvi whooped a laugh.

Ryder chuckled. "Yeah, I really don't wanna miss the next one. Lemme know, ok?"

"Sure," Vetra said. "Another round?" she asked, standing. Peebee and Suvi agreed. "Ryder?"

"No thanks, need to keep my head clear."

Vetra nodded and headed to the bar.

"Oh, look, here comes your something to deal with, Ryder," Suvi said, nudging her arm.

"Never gonna live any of this down, am I?" Ryder sighed.

"What have you done that you need to live down?" Reyes asked as he walked up and leaned on her chair.

Suvi snorted into her drink and Peebee grinned.

"You, apparently," Ryder sighed and crossed her arms before glancing up. Reyes paused and blinked, and she saw a blush start to creep up his cheeks. He coughed a laugh and cleared his throat. "Anyway, have fun guys, and stay safe," she said as she stood up.

"Good night, ladies," Reyes winked at them and offered Ryder his arm. She took it with a roll of her eyes.

Just as they got to the stairs, Peebee whistled and yelled out over the din, "How do you always snag the ones with the cute butts, Ryder? Not fair!"

Ryder blushed and flipped her off over her shoulder.

"Love you too-oo!" Peebee called over Vetra and Suvi's laughter.

Ryder mentally sighed. Never. Ever. Going to live any of this down.

Chapter Text

"Hello Ryder," Kallo called as she stepped out of the airlock, "did you enjoy your break?"

"Yeah, actually, and I got snacks," she said. "Sorry though, I couldn't find tesvil. But a salarian in the market was selling some of this bark stuff and she swore it was a popular snack—"

"Faldabis?" Kallo gasped and whirled the pilot's chair around.

"I think that's it," Ryder said, digging the pack out.

"You found faldabis!" Kallo leapt up to give her a hug.

She laughed and patted him. "So I guess she was telling the truth, huh?"

"Yes! It's...it's like...chocolate? Chocolate. It's popular like that. We like it as much as humans like chocolate."

"Wow."

"Yes! This is amazing, Ryder!" Kallo was literally bouncing. "I can't believe someone was selling theirs! It must have cost you a fortune!"

She waved her hand dismissively, but smiled. "Don't worry about it. It'll be nice for all of us to have a taste of home."

"Thank you, Ryder," he said, seriously.

"You're welcome," she said, then remembered, "Oh! The old salarian lady I bought these from was trying to set you up with her granddaughter." She grinned and waggled her eyebrows at him. Kallo froze and blinked.

"Uh. Really?"

"Yup. Lemme see," she opened her omnitool, "Clan Rithga. Her given name is Kreli. Here's her contact. Good. Luck. She's terrifying."

"I'm not even twenty yet!" Kallo sputtered, "I was never planning on bothering with mating contracts anyway! Is it too late for you to return the faldabis instead?"

"Definitely," she laughed, "but you'll be fine. Her granddaughters are still in cryo on the Nexus anyway, so you don't have to worry about it for a while. She seems sweet, but overwhelming."

"The kindly ones are always the worst," he sighed. "This is why I became a pilot. I'd rather not deal with clan politics."

"Don't worry, if it doesn't work out, we've got your back."

"Are you sure you know what you're getting into?"

"Actually, now that I think about it, I really don't. It was intimidating enough just buying popcorn from her."

Reyes laughed from somewhere behind her.

Kallo smiled, wide and toothy across his whole face. "Maybe you could introduce her to Drack," he said.

She laughed. "Only if you can guarantee you'll get us off planet before the explosions start," she called over her shoulder as she left the bridge. He chuckled and headed back to the cockpit.

"Your people like you," Reyes said, following her down the ladder.

Ryder smiled and headed into the galley. "I like them," she said.

The room was crowded with smells, steam, noise, and Drack. He was sauteing a pan of vegetables and trying to teach Jaal about cooking for multiple species. A large pot held something that was bubbling heartily and the smell of warm bread emanated from the oven. Jaal was investigating a row of open spice containers curiously.

"Now, if I was just cooking for me and the humans," Drack was saying, "I'd be able to add a bunch more stuff, but the rest a ya can't handle it."

"Like what?" Jaal asked.

"Well, I actually don't know what they'd do to you. Better ask Lexi first. Anyway, they got a bunch of vegetables and spices they use all the time that are poisonous to asari. Tomatoes, onions, garlic, some of their mushrooms, all kinds of peppers..."

"Wait, asari can't eat nightshades?" Ryder asked, digging her purchases out of her bag. "Or onions? Or garlic?" She crouched to store the snacks in the lower cabinet.

"Nope," Drack said. He opened the oven and drew out a pan with two fresh loaves of bread and motioned for Jaal to lay out a cooling rack. "Some tree nuts from Earth are poisonous to 'em, too. You humans are surprisingly tough when it comes to all the weird shit you can eat. Not as tough as us...but nothing is."

"They can't eat pizza," she said in slightly exaggerated horror. She stood and put her bag on the table, then dug two cups out of the cabinet.

Reyes took the water she handed him with quiet thanks. He'd sat at the table to watch Drack puttering and seemed highly entertained. She edged over to sniff the hot bread.

"Oh yeah: don't feed salarians any dairy. Or anything made with yeasts. Ain't pretty," Drack said with a toothy grin. "Heh. Put that knowledge to good use a couple times."

"What's...daiir-ii?" Jaal asked, looking between Ryder and Drack.

"Milk and products made from milk proteins and fats. Sometimes fermented," Ryder said.

"Milk?" Jaal's head jerked back in surprise. "Milk, the substance your mothers produce to feed infants?"

"Not human milk! We have domestic animals we breed for food and we use their milk."

"That's...disgusting."

Drack whacked his spatula on the side of the pan, then smacked Ryder on the wrist with the handle when she reached for the bread. "Wash your hands," he said sternly. "Humans. Bunch a filthy pyjacks, I swear. You wanna spread germs like that, least you could do is grow a decent immune system."

Ryder laughed, but backed off. She finished her water and obediently washed up.

"What about eggs?" she asked Jaal.

"What about them?"

"Do angara eat eggs?"

"No?"

"Really? Wait, you guys are omnivores, right?"

"We can eat animals, but we usually don't, unless under duress. It's much less efficient to raise animals for food, and hunting is usually too dangerous and time consuming to risk."

Drack grunted. "Good food ain't about efficiency."

Jaal shot him an irritated look. "Survival often is," he said.

"Ain't just about survival either," Drack said, eyeballing him.

"Wait," Ryder interrupted, "Jaal, if angara are vegetarian most of the time, you can just...suddenly eat meat too? And be fine? You won't have trouble digesting it or anything?"

"We can do that," Drack said.

Ryder's mouth twisted wryly. "Krogan are curve breakers, Drack," she said. Drack shrugged. Jaal was obviously working through the possible meaning of the phrase. He shook his head and considered her question.

"As far as I know?" Jaal shrugged. "Like I said, biology never interested me."

"You guys must have some crazy gut bacteria."

"I have no idea and absolutely no desire to learn more about it," Jaal said, making a face. Ryder chuckled and slid in for a hug. He squeezed her warmly and nuzzled the top of her head.

"You know, cooking for a multi species crew is perilously close to biology," she teased.

"It's biochemistry at most," Jaal answered, then lowered his voice smoothly. "Besides, sometimes applied biology has its place, hmm?"

Ryder rolled her eyes and smacked his arm, Drack snorted, and Reyes nearly drowned himself. He coughed and wheezed, accepted the towel Drack absently threw him, and rubbed his eyes with a chuckle.

"That was awful," Reyes said, looking up and smiling at Jaal, "but apparently I needed to hear a cheesy joke after the last couple days."

"One of the unexpected side benefits of having Jaal on the crew," Ryder said.

Jaal chuckled good naturedly, but then hummed thoughtfully. "You know Sara, I seem to recall a comment about pathfinding that you'd probably rather I didn't repeat."

Reyes lay his head down and snickered.

She jerked back and playfully shoved Jaal. "Then why did you just repeat it?"

He laughed happily and pulled her back into his arms. Then he leaned down and softly whispered, "Because I adore your blush, darling one."

She blushed deeper, but smiled.

"Alright alright, if you're not helping or learning, get outta my kitchen!" Drack grumbled. "Shoo! You got the rest of the ship to do that in."

"Okaaay," Ryder sighed. She picked up her bag and turned to go.

"You coming, Reyes?"

"Honestly? This room is the best thing I've smelled in Heleus. I really don't want to leave."

Ryder shrugged. "Not up to me. He's emperor in here." She jerked her head at Drack.

"Eh, you're fine if you stay outta the way," Drack said. "But if you wanna help, you better not be useless."

"Cross my heart," Reyes said. Drack grunted.

Ryder smiled, then tugged Jaal's hand and led him out of the galley.

"You seem rejuvenated, taoshay," he said.

"I feel it," she said, grinning up at him. "Just a sec, ok?" He nodded and she ducked in to use the bathroom. He was leaning on the wall with crossed arms and a smile when she came out.

"So, what did you do other than get treats for the crew?" he asked.

"I'll show you!" Ryder led the way into her quarters and sat on a couch. "I'm out of practice, but it was so nice to get back into sketching. I think I'll make a field notebook to record things we find when there's time." She handed him her book and pulled her locker out from under her table to store her supplies.

"You brought this with you?" Jaal asked softly, looking at the binding and turning it in his hands. She hummed and nodded. "It's remarkably well preserved," he said.

"I like working on paper, so I brought a few of my favorite style of sketchbooks, highest quality I could afford. When they're full...that's it. I made sure they're acid free and made well, and with asari stasis tech, they seem to have held up."

He carefully opened the cover, then righted it once he saw the orientation she'd drawn in.

"Field drawings are still a large part of human archaeological work," she explained. "Making sure to get details of pieces and sites we find in addition to photography and scans. I always enjoyed examination and illustration. It really helps me feel like I understand what I'm looking at."

"Yes," Jaal said, turning the pages carefully. "I agree. I'll often sketch a new project or piece of tech, even if I have existing schematics."

"You do?" Ryder asked, feeling her face light up. He nodded and glanced at her, smiling in return.

"I'd like to see some time," she said.

"I'll show you tonight." He closed her sketchbook carefully and handed it back. "Thank you for sharing that with me."

"It's just practice," she shrugged.

"It's important," he said, seriously. "When your hands are moving, your mind is still, and a still mind hears the soul."

"Wow," Ryder said quietly, eyes wide. "That's beautiful."

Jaal blushed. "It's something my true mother always said to me when I would get upset as a child. Then she would send me to do something. I hated it," he chuckled, "but I see the wisdom in it now."

"That's why you're always tinkering with something?"

"Hmm," he nodded, "probably at least partially."

"Is that what you did today?" she asked, scooting over next to him. He wrapped his arms around her warmly and immediately burrowed into her hair. She ran her hands down his arms and sighed happily, enjoying the warmth that settled into her chest.

"No," he said. "I finished reports for the Resistance and sent them, then I sent messages to some of my family and friends. I had some tea and a long conversation with Suvi, and helped Drack prepare food."

Ryder snuggled closer and held one of his hands between hers, tracing over it. "Sounds like a nice quiet day."

"Mmm. Yes, it was."

She rubbed the side of her head against his arm, and he chuckled. "What?" she asked, smiling up at him.

His eyes were soft and he let gentle affection into her. "You're very affectionate this evening," he said. "I like it."

"I do too. It's not often we have the luxury of time for relaxation. I feel like I've been running since I came out of cryo. I think this was my first real day off."

Jaal hummed softly and sent a warm charge flowing down her arms. "You have earned it, my dearest."

"We all have. Thanks for encouraging me to take it."

"You're welcome." He kissed her neck lightly. She shivered and felt a rumbling purr from his chest.

"Oh no, we don't have time for any of your sneaky sexy rumbling. These are chaste cuddles."

"I suppose," he said regretfully, "it would be tragic to try to rush all the detailed attention you deserve."

"Unless it's in the shower?" she teased.

He laughed and nuzzled along her jaw. "So you are interested…"

"Look, my interest has never been an obstacle, Jaal."

His rumbles got deeper and he pressed his lips warmly under her ear.

"Mmm…" she hummed and leaned against him. She shivered and took a deep breath, then stood quickly. "It seems like I have to be the one with restraint right now," she crossed her arms and sighed at him.

Jaal's expression was amused and completely unapologetic. He stood as well. "Alright, I'll behave for now."

Her breath caught softly when she looked up at him. She swallowed, feeling nervous energy speed up her heart. "I love you," she said. I wonder if I'll ever get used to this.

All his mischief melted away, replaced with warmth. "I love you, too, Sara," he whispered.

Ryder smiled and stood on tiptoes to kiss his chin. He smiled down at her. "I love you," he whispered again, "and I am so grateful for these peaceful moments with you."

Her omnitool chimed, interrupting, and she sighed. Jaal kissed her forehead and let her go.

"Ryder here," she answered without checking who it was.

"It's Cora. Ready to meet with Reyes? Drack says dinner's done."

"Alright. We'll be right there." Cora acknowledged and closed the channel.

They walked in just as Drack announced dinner over the ship speakers. Lexi, Cora, and Reyes were already crowded in the kitchen.

"What's this? Slow cooked meat?" Cora asked, lifting the lid of the large pot and letting out a rich, spicy aroma.

"Rylkor loin, barbequed krogan style," Drack said, grinning. "Don't worry, though. I used dark rum instead of ryncol, and only about a quarter the usual amount."

Reyes sent Ryder a worried look and she laughed. "Tastes like chicken," she told him. He rolled his eyes.

"It does not," Lexi said, making a face. "It's far too gamey for—" then she realized the humans were all chuckling and sighed.

Jaal patted her on the back. "It's reassuring that even someone familiar with them can be ensnared," he said. Lexi glanced at him and nodded.

"It's just...a reference to an old joke that's so old it's not even a joke anymore," Ryder told him. "Funny because it's not really funny."

Jaal blinked at her patiently.

"What?" she asked.

"I was waiting for you to explain the funny part."

Lexi chuckled and Cora barked out a laugh. Ryder sighed and shook her head. Jaal kissed her temple with a smile and she bumped him with her hip. She grabbed a bowl from the cabinet, then got in line.

The rest of the crew was starting to crowd the doorway. Ryder exchanged happy glances with Cora and Liam when Lexi sat down next to Drack at the galley table. Jaal was pleasantly surprised by the vegetables and decided to have some along with the bread, which he declared bland, but nicely warm and fresh.

The four of them grabbed their meals and headed to the meeting room. Cora scooted a couple couches together with biotics as they walked up the ramp. Jaal ducked into the tech lab and came out holding a data pad and putting on his visor.

Ryder pulled up her omnitool to take notes as she sat. She saw Cora do the same. "Alright, Reyes, what happened?" she asked once everyone got settled.

He swallowed the giant bite he'd just taken before he spoke.

"A team investigated Charybdis Point last night after dark and found more evidence in that storage area. Data pads with plans and schematics, parts, a few vague messages about some people getting squeamish and worried. We also found the rest of the filters from that town, presumably. The serial numbers on them were in sequence with the tampered ones you found."

Jaal was tense next to her. She surreptitiously adjusted her position so her knee touched his.

"They got out undetected?" Ryder asked.

Reyes nodded. "Small team."

"Alright. What did you do with the information?" Cora asked.

"We made a note of who had an attack of conscience before or after, figuring we might be able to turn a few," he said. "Two agents paid a visit this afternoon. I was with the small backup. Once Mallox realized the jig was up, he tried to make a last stand. We took him and the two who sided with him out. One surrendered and is in custody in our base. Might be able to turn him. Two other members of the original group are still out there." He speared a chunk of meat, evidently deciding to risk it.

Jaal's energy was a worried tangle against her knee, and Ryder tapped her foot thoughtfully.

"You have footage of this afternoon? Records of the evidence?" she asked Reyes.

He swallowed and raised an eyebrow. "Of course."

"Names and descriptions of the two at large?"

"I'm not an amateur."

She raised her hands and eyebrows placatingly. "Just making sure," she said. "I'd like to send all that to the angara who asked us to investigate. You have any colleagues who might be a good contact for them?"

Reyes chewed thoughtfully, then nodded. He put down his plate and opened his omnitool to send her an address and the files she'd asked for.

"Thanks," she said, checking when she got the ping. "I'll mediate."

Ryder looked over to Cora, who shrugged and nodded. She glanced at Jaal, who was staring down at his lap with his arms crossed. She nudged him and he blinked. She tilted her eyebrows at Reyes, and Jaal sighed, then frowned and nodded. Two for two. Well, three counting her. She turned to Reyes.

"So, we've been to the base," Ryder said. He perked up.

"I have some qualms, but we can talk about them later." Ryder crossed her arms and leaned back. "I assume you've been fomenting unrest and dissatisfaction with and among the Outcasts?" she asked.

"Oh yes. At least some of the people in the port believe that the Roekaar were responsible for those murders. The angara seem to be more willing to believe it, but some Outcasts do, too. We've been sending out trickles of information about Oblivion." He shrugged. "Just leave the rumor mill to us. There's actually an opportunity for us to find more dirt for it coming up. Sloane throws regular parties for us non-Outcast riffraff. Trying to keep the peace and make a show of listening to the angara."

"Don't think I'd rate an invite on my own," she said, picking her food back up.

"No, but I do," he said. "Care to be my plus one?"

A quick glance at Cora got her a thoughtful frown and a couple raised eyebrows. Jaal sent a bracing, encouraging charge through his knee.

"I'm not really one for stealth," she said reluctantly. Jaal laughed, and turned it into a cough that he covered with his hand. She glanced at him and he gave her a small smile. "As my team can attest," she sighed, "but I could probably be a decent distraction. I can't imagine Sloane letting me wander around freely. I can bullshit, but I'm not that good."

"I could make you a cloak," Jaal offered, picking up his data pad.

"Really? When's the party, Reyes?"

"Day after tomorrow, around sundown."

"Is that enough time?" she asked.

Jaal nodded, flicking through the data pad interface. "As long as we have the materials, which it looks like we do. Nothing as sophisticated as mine, but enough to fool security cameras that aren't heat sensitive, people drinking in a crowd, and distracted guards. It's actually easier than it would normally be because I don't have to worry about masking your bioelectricity."

"What about her biotics?" Cora asked.

"Oh. Hmm...I might not have time to do that well," Jaal said. He pulled something up on his wrist tool.

"If you can cloak, this will work great," Reyes said, wiping his plate with a piece of bread. "We'll network with people, then sneak away for 'privacy' and you can cloak and hack into their systems. We can either make a drunken exit together, or I can head back in after we have a conveniently distracting fight."

Ryder rested her bowl in her lap and rubbed her eyes. "Me. Stealth," she groaned. "This is an awful idea, I want to go on record with that."

"It's a plan. Better than we usually have, right Ryder?"

"Not helpful, Cora."

"You're good at improvising," Jaal said distractedly.

She shared a glance with Cora, who shrugged. "Alright," Ryder sighed. "It's a shame I don't have a slinky dress to make this a proper heist movie, though."

Reyes grinned. "I don't have a tuxedo, either. We'll have to make do."

She sighed again. "We're sure it's too late for Reyes to dump me for someone better at this?" Ryder asked.

Jaal didn't look up from his work, but chuckled and said, "Yes. You're stuck. I'm the best one at stealth on the team, anyway."

"Well," Reyes smiled, looking Jaal over with smooth appraisal, "not that I would be opposed, but I doubt there's enough time for a convincing cover at this point."

Jaal sent him a deeply irritated glare and Ryder felt the same sharp spike of energy she'd felt in the cargo bay a few days before. Reyes grinned incorrigibly, and she wondered what would happen when he reached the inevitable limit of Jaal's patience. He'd deserve every bit of it, whatever it was.

"Anyway," she said, looking at Cora and silently begging for backup, "this should work. Probably makes sense to extend shore leave another day for the rest of the crew. We'll spend the day after the party strategizing. I'll be leaning on you two and Vetra to help me prep, alright? I need to brush up on infiltration techniques and learn to use this thing properly."

Jaal glanced up and nodded, then went back to his work. Cora said, "Sure, Ryder," then turned to Reyes. "If that's all, I'll walk you to the airlock. I wanted to ask you about seeds I might find for sale on Kadara."

Reyes nodded and reached to pick up his dishes, but Ryder waved him off. "I'm on cleanup duty tonight. I've got it. You too, Cora."

Cora murmured her thanks and Reyes stretched as he stood. "Well, you were right," he said. "If the way to a man's heart is through his stomach, I think I'm smitten with your krogan."

"Yep. Do something for a thousand years and it's hard not to become an expert," Ryder said, grinning.

"That's pretty clear," he said. "See you in a couple days."

"Bye, Reyes." She waved as they headed down the ramp.

She stacked up everyone's dishes while they made their way down the catwalk, then turned to Jaal once the bridge doors had closed. He seemed calmly absorbed. She scooted closer to kiss his cheek and he looked up with a surprised smile.

"What is it?" he asked.

"It's still shore leave," she said. "Put that away until tomorrow, at least."

"I'll need to start work on this tonight if I'm to have any hope of masking any of your biotics with it."

"I'd rather spend time with you right now, and just restrain my biotics during the party."

"But what if you have the urge to nova someone, as you seem to so often?" His brow furrowed in exaggerated concern. "That seems very risky, taoshay."

Ryder chuckled and kissed his cheek again, while he smiled and wrapped his arms around her.

"I'm not that impulsive," she protested, climbing into his lap and pulling off his visor.

"You are," he said, shaking his head with a smile.

"Okay, fine, but I only ever act on it in combat."

"Such remarkable restraint."

She giggled and set his visor on the table near his data pad. "You love me," she said as she turned back.

"So much," he whispered.

After they kissed, Jaal pressed the bridge of his nose against her jaw and sighed. "We should clean up before we get too distracted," he said.

"I thought I had cleanup duty with Suvi tonight," Ryder said.

"I traded with her," he said, "so I could spend time with you and she could go out with Peebee and Vetra."

"That was thoughtful of you," Ryder stood, "and this is a nice bonus."

"No," he said, shaking his head and standing to cup her face. "I traded so I could spend time with you."

"Really?"

"Yes. I crave these quiet moments. You're a balm to my soul, Sara."

"Oh," she gasped, staring at him. How can he make doing the fucking dishes romantic? This is amazingly unfair. What the hell.

He smiled tenderly at her expression and kissed her cheek. A quiet longing tugged at her chest. She thought of curling up and him being fascinated by gray streaks in her hair. Of him walking into the room carrying a few children. Of climbing a mountain on Kadara to watch the sunrise and asking him if...the longing turned into an ache and she shied away from her thoughts. He was still close and warm and smiling at her, like he was thinking of the same things.

Then, with no apparent knowledge of the chaos he'd just stirred in her mind, Jaal stepped away to scoot a couch back into position. She just stared for a second before she managed to shake herself and start moving the other one. Ryder blinked, surprised by sudden tears, and viciously wiped them away before taking a calming breath. Later. Maybe. Once you're done being The Goddamn Pathfinder. Then you can think about that. Maybe. If...maybe.

She picked up all the dishes on the table with her biotics and smiled at his surprised laugh.

"Easier to get them down the ladder in one trip this way," she said.

"It works," he shrugged.

"My mother was not quite so understanding when we broke some of her grandmother's china doing this."

Jaal winced. "I suppose that is an advantage of having only one mother."

"I don't know," Ryder said as she climbed down, "She yelled enough for five that time."

His laugh soothed all the raw corners left on her feelings, and warmth ran through her chest at his bright smile. A balm to my soul. Yeah, that sounded just right.

 


 

"So, how was cooking with Drack?" Ryder asked. They had put most dishes in the washer, cleaned surfaces, and were working their way through the pots and pans. She was drying.

"A bit overwhelming, honestly," Jaal said. "He has a wealth of knowledge about the differences and similarities between all the Initiative species. Even humans, which is surprising, considering the time he's known about you has been so small in comparison."

She nodded quietly and stored the pan she was holding. "I told Aya's ambassador that Drack could tell him our political history from memory. I wonder how much of an exaggeration that really was."

"I wonder what I would do with that much time," Jaal hummed while he scrubbed. "The different cultures and variations within a single entire species are staggering, but when I'm faced with all the Initiative species at once...I think it would take even krogan or asari multiple lifetimes to study it all."

Ryder smiled and slid her arm around his waist for a hug. He leaned down and absently rubbed his cheek against her hair.

"Even as I learn more about humans," he said, "I find myself wondering what will apply and what won't. And I've only skimmed the surface." Jaal smiled and shook his head. He rinsed and set the final pot on the drying rack, then wiped soap suds from his hands.

"At least you won't get bored?" she said, smiling apologetically. She picked up the pot to dry it.

"Definitely not. I don't know if I'll ever fully understand," Jaal said, shaking his head while he stared into space.

A lump of nerves settled in the pit of her stomach and she bit her lip. "I know it's...a lot," she said, quietly. She turned to put the large pot away. "We're...pretty different from angara."

"Sara."

Ryder sighed and let him turn her to face him. He cupped her face with slightly damp hands.

"I want to learn. You're...a fascinating, delightful puzzle. You're kind, beautiful, vital. I'd want to learn about humans anyway, but...I'm drawn to you. You."

"I worry it's all too...weird for you."

"Do you feel that way? About me?" he asked.

"No." She looked up at him suddenly, searching his face.

Jaal smiled softly. "Then we have nothing to worry about."

"I know you understand where I'm coming from. You were just feeling like this a few days ago."

"Yes, and we have talked about it. Dealt with it. I feel better, for now, until something else happens. And then we will deal with that."

"You sound so sure about that," she said, half smiling and sighing.

"Yes, I am sure. Because that is how you build strength."

She hugged him tightly and burrowed into his chest. "I'm so glad I came to Andromeda, even with all the chaos."

"And I'm glad you crashed on Aya, despite all the fire and panic."

She snorted. "Met by a commando team and the planetary governor. Then there was this giant guy who ignored the planetary governor and the commandos to get right up in my face. It was all pretty intimidating."

Jaal hugged her and hummed. "You didn't show it."

"Adrenaline. And you guys seemed more open to talking than the kett."

"Hardly a difficult achievement."

"It was a place to start," she said, turning to smile up at him.

"Yes," he chuckled, "it will make for a dramatic story in our old age."

Sudden intense longing poured through her again, shocking her with its force. Jaal had been sending softly affectionate energy through his hands and it cut off as he realized what he'd said. He stiffened and was starting to pull away as his eyes widened.

"I…" he froze.

She grabbed the collar of his suit and pulled him down into a kiss. Her tongue thrust firmly against his, stroking him into her mouth. A rough sound came out of his throat as he spread his hands on her back. He pulled her flush against him. She ran her hand from his collar and up along his neck, moving to cup his jaw. Her other slid around and dug into his back.

He broke away for a quick breath with a question in his eyes.

"Yeah, it will," she said firmly.

Jaal's breath shook and he kissed her again, just as furiously as she had. His energy flooded back, then calmed, and she found herself with tears pricking under her eyelids. He moved up to kiss them both, then her forehead, and let out a shuddering breath.

"Sara, my love," he whispered, "I never knew I could be this happy."

She laughed, sniffled, and nodded. They stood, just breathing, reeling together at what they had stumbled into.

"So, you said you'd show me some of your sketches," Ryder said, letting him go.

"Oh yes! They're in the tech lab," he said, eyes shining. He headed out of the galley with giddy energy.

"What materials do you like to use?" she asked as she climbed the ladder.

"Whatever I can," he said with a shrug. "Most of the time, I don't have physical media to work on. Software takes less resources and is more portable, you know?"

She made a noise of understanding and nodded.

"I don't usually keep them, unless they're useful for reference," he added as they entered the lab.

Jaal headed to a box in the corner and started rummaging, removing parts, half finished projects, and data pads before finally pulling out a rigid plastic folder. He handed it to her and sat down on a crate. Ryder looked around before she opened the folder.

"This place is a mess," she said.

He laughed. "Organization was never my strong suit," he said. "But this is extreme, I agree."

"And you need a chair," she continued, crossing her arms and looking around critically. "If we ever unpack all this crap," she waved her hand at the boxes that had been there since the took command of the Tempest, "you'll lose all your furniture."

"I suppose I should consider moving into the crew quarters now, " he said. "Then everyone could more easily use the tech lab and finish unpacking this equipment."

Ryder shrugged and sat cross-legged on his bed. "Maybe ask everyone first? There might be a compromise."

He hummed in consideration and nodded while he came to sit next to her. She smiled up at him and snuggled under his arm as she opened the folder.

The first few were recent, studies of Remnant tech pieces from different angles, with labels in Shelesh and script she didn't recognize.

She lay the folder open in front of her to carefully turn each sheet over.

There were a few different thicknesses and dimensions of paper. Some were in ink, some in a softer medium that seemed smudged.

A careful close-up of part of the nomad's undercarriage. An omnitool bracelet, disassembled and annotated. A design for a cloak modification of some kind, with options. Ideas he was considering. She smiled and turned the sheet over.

Ryder gasped.

The Forge. A wide view of the area the Roekaar had set explosives in, with details that seemed remarkably accurate. She smiled. Careful scale measurements, or she assumed, were called out in places. Other areas were labeled for reference.

"This should be framed and preserved," she said.

Jaal shrugged next to her. "That would make it harder to transport, and I like to keep it with me, to remember," he said.

She nodded slowly, looking closer at the light and shadow.

"Did you learn on your own, or did someone teach you?"

"Mostly on my own, but a few older siblings and an aunt taught me some basics about scale, perspective, and shading."

"You're really good at this."

"Really?"

"Yeah," she nodded and looked up. "How long have you been practicing?"

"Since...I'm not sure. I was very young." Jaal blinked and stared into space. "I suddenly remember being small and my father showing me structural drawings of the mine he was working in. Explaining what they were, how he used them to keep people safe."

She scooted closer and leaned her head against him. His arm tightened around her waist. He wiped his eyes with his free hand.

A few more detailed drawings from the Forge, close studies of carvings, and that was it. She gently closed the folder and handed it back with both hands. Jaal smiled and reached over to put it away.

"Thanks for showing me," she said, leaning back against him when he returned.

"Thank you for asking," he said, pulling her close. "I feel safe sharing these things with you."

Ryder sighed happily and cuddled into him, rubbing her head against his shoulder. "I suppose I should head to bed," she said reluctantly. "I'd...like to invite you again, but I don't want to pressure you, or not give you enough space."

"Sara," he kissed the top of her head and cupped her cheek. "I love sleeping next to you, and I'm pleased you enjoy it just as much. If there's ever a reason I can't or don't want to, I'll be sure to let you know. And it won't be because you've asked too much. Always feel free to ask for what you want. You expressing a desire to be near me," he breathed out unevenly and stroked his thumb along her cheek, "will never be unwelcome."

She smiled and pressed her head against him harder. "You're too good for me."

"No, I'm not," he chuckled. He gently tugged her ponytail loose and handed her the band. "Why don't we stay right here?" he asked quietly, running his hand warmly up the back of her head and down through her hair.

"Hmm," she said, leaning into his touch. "That might be nice, but my bed is bigger."

"It is. But we're already in mine."

"Excellent point," she said, slipping her shoes off her feet and looking up.

Jaal smiled, kissed her softly, and laid down, lowering her with him. Ryder scooted close while he tucked the blanket around them and turned out the light. She fell asleep with his lips on her forehead and his hand in her hair.

Chapter Text

Peebee was asleep in the galley when they entered the next morning. She had her head on the table next to a cup of cold tea.

"Girls night must have been successful," Ryder chuckled, digging out some instant oatmeal and coffee.

Jaal smiled and shook his head. "I hope Vetra and Suvi have fared better," he said. "I'll see if Lexi is awake and has anything for her. Would you start some water heating for me?"

"Sure." Ryder glanced over her shoulder and caught a tender expression and a quiet sigh before he left.

She smiled while she filled and started the kettle, then dug out some sugar and cinnamon. She grabbed Jaal's nutrient paste and some dried fruit for both of them.

I'm going to miss cinnamon. I know we've got some in the seed vault, but I don't know how soon we'll be able to start growing it.

Peebee made a rough noise followed by a thump and a scuffle. "Fucking—!"

"Good morning, sleepyhead," Ryder said, turning and tossing a towel her way.

Peebee missed, grabbed the towel off the floor, and grumbled while she wiped herself, the table, and the floor. Ryder picked up the broken cup and tossed it in the refab. "Want some more tea? Coffee?" she asked.

Lexi came in before she could answer. "Hungover?" she asked Peebee.

"Very." Peebee groaned.

Lexi sighed and got her a glass of water, then handed her a container from her pocket. "Take three," she said, pulling up her omnitool to scan her.

Jaal patted Lexi on the back and came over to finish getting his breakfast ready. He slid behind Ryder and kissed the side of her neck before he did. She hummed happily and leaned back against him. He squeezed her shoulders and sent a smooth warm charge before getting a cup and a bowl out for himself.

"Was that a thank you?" she asked, reaching for the kettle.

He looked up happily. "It was," he nodded.

She grinned as she stirred her food. "Good, I'm getting better at that."

"You are," he said warmly.

Peebee made a gagging noise and Lexi shushed her before coming over to get a cup of tea for herself.

"Where are you going to work on the cloak?" Ryder asked Jaal.

"I'll probably spend most of the time in the tech lab, but I've got to get some materials from the cargo bay."

"Let's head out there and eat, then, since Peebee seems to loathe cheerfulness so much this morning."

Lexi coughed and smiled. Jaal swallowed a chuckle and glanced over at Peebee, who was glaring darkly at everything. He nodded and picked up his breakfast, motioning for her to leave first.

Vetra was sitting on the workbench closest to the armory, drinking something that smelled metallic and eating a dextro ration pack. She raised her bottle in greeting when they came in.

"Morning," Ryder said, settling down on a crate of omni gel canisters. "You seem to be dealing better than Peebee is."

Vetra's mandibles waggled. "I stayed hydrated and took painkillers before I went to sleep. Peebee gets distracted."

Jaal leaned on the nomad and sat his tea on top while he ate. "Vetra, do you know where the adaptive polymer wrap is? I know we picked up some on the Nexus, but I think it's gotten moved around with all…" he waved his spoon around at the equipment salvaged from Nakamoto's lab.

She hummed and glanced around thoughtfully, bringing her brow plates together in concentration. "Oh, yeah, the rolls got shoved onto the shelves in Liam's storage room."

He nodded and glanced up in thought, "I have some aluminum sheets, and Peebee must have some EMF suppressors…" he took a sip of his drink.

"Got a new project?" Vetra asked. Jaal hummed and nodded.

"He's making me a cloak," Ryder said. "Which brings me to something I need your help with."

"What are you up to that you need a cloak for, Ryder? And why my help? I was never actual infiltration material."

"Yeah, me neither, but you gotta do what you gotta do." She shrugged. Jaal snorted into his cup and Ryder rolled her eyes and threw him a smirk before explaining to Vetra. "Sloane Kelly apparently throws these fancy soirées up at her palace to pay lip service to listening to all the little people. Reyes and I are going to try and dig up some dirt."

Vetra's facial plates all tightened and her eyes narrowed. After about ten seconds she relaxed them with an annoyed clack. "It's a good thing I'm an advanced human interpreter, Sara," she sighed.

Ryder rolled her eyes and ate her oatmeal.

"Do you offer lessons?" Jaal asked with brightly feigned enthusiasm. Ryder threw her wadded up napkin at him. He stepped back with a grin and it tumbled in a pathetic arc to fall well short of him.

"Are you sure you want them to start making sense?" Vetra asked. "Some knowledge changes you. You can't come back from that."

Ryder grumbled and leaned over to grab her napkin back. "We are well worth the time investment," she said, throwing it at Vetra, who laughed and batted it away.

Jaal had finished eating and was watching her fondly while he drained his cup and stacked his dishes. He came over to trail one hand across the top of her head before picking up her empty bowl and taking it back to the galley with his. She held her coffee cup in both hands and smiled as she watched him walk away.

"Knew I should have started taking bets," Vetra said.

"I'm pretending I didn't hear that," Ryder said, turning back to her with raised eyebrows.

Vetra crossed her arms and hopped down from her perch. "So, what do you need my help with?" she asked.

"Getting secure intel. Reyes has the schmoozing covered. No Outcast is going to give any information to me, anyway. I have my doubts about whether they'll talk to him either if he shows up with me, but that's his problem," she shrugged and took a sip of her coffee. "I need to hack into their systems undetected."

"Hmm," Vetra tapped her left toe talon thoughtfully. "So you need logs, records, things that they don't want people knowing. They'll have an unsecured level—that's no problem. We'll strip it out just in case. I can only guess how many levels of security they'll have. Sloane never seemed too paranoid before, but she's hardened. From what I know, I'll assume two levels of access over unsecured. I can write you a program that will be able to crack through low level no problem, no flags, but if there's a second level…" she looked down while she thought.

"I'd like something fairly comprehensive, but fast and undetected is the big requirement. I'd rather leave behind some data than get caught."

Vetra nodded and hummed, then pulled up her omnitool.

"And I need it by early afternoon tomorrow."

"I thought we were supposed to have two days of shore leave, Ryder," Vetra said, sticking out one mandible and glancing up.

"I know, I'm sorry," Ryder winced. Vetra waved her hand and shook her head. "Can you do it?"

"I can definitely help, and make sure you're undetected, but you're probably not going to get anything that's really strongly encrypted."

"Good enough. It's better than I could manage. Thank you, Vetra. And shore leave is going to be extended by a day because this party is tomorrow, so you'll have your two days."

Vetra chuckled. "It's no problem. I'll start working on it soon."

"Good," Ryder said.

The doors opened again, letting in Jaal and Liam. Ryder smiled, half listening to them chatting as they both headed over to the storage room.

"Liam ever talk to you?" she asked quietly. Vetra looked up, surprised, then glanced over at Liam and drew in her mandibles. She looked back to Ryder.

"Yeah," she nodded. "Your doing, I assume?"

Ryder shrugged and bobbed her head back and forth. "Partially. He said he thought you hated him—" Vetra huffed. "—and I asked if he'd ever actually apologized for being an asshole, and he got all sheepish, so I suggested he actually do that. Anything he said was all him, though."

Vetra hummed shortly and Ryder glanced up at her. She was fiddling with her omnitool.

"I'm not making excuses for his behavior, and I've talked to him about it, because he's been really abrasive with other people too, but," Ryder said. Vetra looked up with her brow plates raised and her mouth closed tightly. "I think it's probably coming from poorly managed stress and fear. Not actual animosity or disregard."

"Yeah, I know," Vetra sighed. "That's why I accepted his apology. He seemed sincere, and he's a reliable teammate. Just...some people just scuff your plates, you know?"

"Oh, yeah," Ryder chuckled. "Anyway, I want you to know that I notice and appreciate your patience. Not just with him. But definitely come to me if you need to, ok?"

Vetra smiled. "Yeah. I appreciate that, Sara. I will."

"Good," she said as she stood. "Let me know if you need help or information for that project?"

"Yep."

Ryder waved as she headed off to deal with the rest of the day. She smiled at Jaal as he carried a box of stuff to the lift, then she headed for her quarters.

She wasn't looking forward to delivering the bad news to Elijj. How can I endorse the Collective when I'm still hedging my bets on them? She took in a deep breath and let it out through her nose slowly. Bald faced honesty. It's the best tool you've got.

She tidied her desk and anything that was in view of her camera, then fidgeted and drank the rest of her coffee.

If you can't run from it, use it.

Angara appreciate emotional openness. Express your nervousness, your grief, your shame.

Stay strong and clear, right? Fuck.

Ryder took a deep breath and opened a channel.

 


 

"Your people did this?"

"Yes."

"All of them? Even Kariina...she was so soft-hearted, there's no way she would have been a threat." Elijj looked down in grief and shook his head. "I bet Skylaar had to keep her from just giving everything away...and they killed her, too." He looked back up, eyes blazing. "Why?"

Ryder took a deep breath and blinked away tears. "Probably greed and anger. I can't tell you for certain."

"Have you dealt with them?" His voice was stony.

She pressed her lips together tightly. "Most of them," she held steady when his expression tightened in rage, "two weren't there when the team raided, and we're still looking for them. One, a human named Semaj, had been against it from the beginning, and was torn up with remorse. He surrendered, and we're trying to rehabilitate him."

"He was against it, but he didn't stop them. Or warn our friends. Why does he deserve mercy for what he's done?"

"I'm not saying he deserves it. I'm not making that judgment. But isn't it better if some redemption comes from this?"

"That's much easier to say when your friends haven't been poisoned."

She nodded. "Just...talk to the person I put you in touch with. Please? If you don't agree after that, contact me. I'll see what I can do."

"You'll see what you can do?" he yelled incredulously, "Are you a leader for your people or not, Ryder?"

"What I am, Elijj, is a glorified scout who has to clean up everyone else's messes. Some people listen to me. But these exiles who were kicked out before my ass was even thawed? They don't give a single fuck. You're lucky I have enough allies on Kadara that I could do this much."

"That's another question: why didn't you deal with this yourself? I've seen your team in action. You could have easily surprised them."

Ryder sighed and rubbed her eyes. "I'm gonna be completely honest with you and hope it doesn't bite me in the ass, okay?" He leaned back with a suspicious look.

"Those allies I mentioned? I'm probably going to try and help them take control of the port away from the Outcasts," she shrugged and crossed her arms. "It's a group made up of Initiative species and angara, called the Collective."

"They're not perfect, but they're better than what's there now," she leaned back and started ticking off reasons on her fingers. "They're less likely to be complete tyrants: they feed people who need it, support medics, and helped me find and stop some murders of other innocent people. They're established here and everyone is much more likely to listen to their reports than mine. I had them do this so I could test how they would deal with a situation like this. They say they won't just stay isolated in the port, and I wanted to make sure to hold them to that. Plus, they could strike sooner than we could."

Elijj was silent for a few seconds, then nodded stiffly, keeping his eyes narrowed. "These are the people who are holding the human you mentioned?"

"Yes. They hope they can put him to use."

"And you want to put them in charge of us? Why should I let you?"

"You don't have to let me!" She threw up her hands in frustration. "Talk to them, tell me what you think! Tell all your friends to tell me what they think! Why the hell do you think I gave you a contact? Why the hell do you think I told you all this? Are you even fucking listening?"

He suddenly laughed, bitterly, but it let out some tension. "Alright. That's fair," he nodded, "and at least you're talking like a real person. I'm not satisfied, but I do believe you."

"Thank you," Ryder said in relief. "I have information and pictures of the two remaining members of the group from Charybdis Point if you would like them. I also have recordings from the raid on their place, and all the information and evidence we've found. Should I send it to you?" He nodded, looking down again, apparently thinking.

She hesitated, then continued. "We...buried them together, with copies of the evidence and a list of their names. The cairn is a short way away from the buildings of the town. You should be able to find them easily, if...you wanted to."

"Thank you," he said stiffly. "That was...considerate."

"You're welcome," she took a deep breath. "I'm sorry we couldn't take out the whole group, but we'll keep looking, I promise. I'd appreciate it if you tell me if you find them, so we know. And if any of you oppose the Collective being in charge of the port for any reason, tell me. I want to know, and I want to make sure they actually listen to everyone. They're not going to reap the rewards of power without doing the work, if there's anything I can do to help it."

"I will," Elijj nodded, cutting the call abruptly.

Ryder made sure the channel was closed and collapsed. She pressed her palms over her eyes with a groan.

"SAM, it's too early to drink, isn't it?"

"Ship time is 0947."

"So..."

"No, Sara." The AI sounded like he wanted to sigh, but couldn't quite work it out.

"Ugh, fine," she grumbled.

Ryder sat up, sighed, and dug out her hot cocoa mix.

 


 

Jaal was mumbling to himself while he worked, checking schematics, then soldering connections. Every once in a while he'd hiss when he accidentally scraped himself or touched the hot metal.

Ryder smiled and turned back to her work. She had her knees raised and her sketchbook propped on them. When she'd settled down, she'd picked up...something...that looked partially finished and set it on a box in front of her. She'd been working on detailed illustrations from multiple angles since just after lunch. It was helping her recover from the morning's grueling call.

"Hey, Ryder, where are you?" Cora asked from her omnitool. Ryder answered.

"Hanging out in the tech lab. What's up, Cora?"

"It's time for your crash course in commando infiltration techniques."

"Is this like those other commando tactics we discussed? Because if so, I think I'm good."

Jaal snorted and Cora laughed. "No. Get your workout gear on and meet me in the cargo bay in 10."

"Alriiiiight," Ryder groaned and closed her sketchbook.

"Whining gets you push-ups."

"Yes, ma'am."

Ryder closed the comm and gathered her supplies with a sigh. Jaal put down his work and turned to her. "You did ask for her help, and it's a good idea," he said.

"I know," she made a face, but nodded. "In combat, I'm about as subtle as a boulder rolling down a hill. Not helpful for staying under the radar."

"No," he chuckled, accepting her hug and giving her a kiss on the cheek. "but I'm sure you'll manage. Good luck, taoshay."

She smiled and kissed his cheek as well. "Thanks. I'll see you later."

 


 

Ryder climbed up the ladder with bare feet and damp hair, then knocked before entering the tech lab. Jaal was still focused on his work, but set it down and took off his visor when she came in. He rubbed his eyes and smiled.

"Hello, darling one," he said warmly, stretching an arm out toward her. She slid into his embrace and squeezed his shoulders before kissing his head. "How was training with Cora?" he asked.

She shrugged. "It wasn't exactly anything new, but it was probably a good idea to refresh my memory and practice."

"Mmm, yes, you don't usually have to worry about staying quiet," Jaal said, then smirked up at her, "...in combat." She made a face and smacked his shoulder under her hand. He chuckled and picked up her partially finished cloak.

"So, I've abandoned the idea of masking your biotics, given the time constraint," he said. "I can't seem to figure out a way to do it without actually suppressing them, and I assume you would rather not do that." He glanced up to confirm his assumption, and she shuddered with an emphatic nod. He went on. "The rest should work fine. I'm trying to give you as long a cloaked time and as short a recharge as I can manage, but again…" he shrugged.

"Time constraints," she said. He nodded and sighed. "I'm sure you're doing your best," she said, kissing his head again. "Thank you. This will be invaluable."

He smiled softly and turned it over in his hand. "There are also dimension limits," he said. "Is this small enough? Will you be able to conceal it and still move unrestricted?"

"I should," she nodded. "If it's going to stay about that size, I was thinking I'd hollow the grip of one of our old pistols that's getting thrown in the refab and attach it there. Conceal it with paint or something, then I can just wear it under my jacket in my shoulder holster."

"Hmm. Yes, that's a good idea. Even if the weapon is discovered, the Outcasts will probably allow a few small arms."

"That's what I hope."

He squeezed her waist one last time and released her. He put the cloak on the workbench and turned to her fully.

"You're ready for bed?" he asked.

"Yeah, just came to check on your plans for the evening."

"I think I'll need to stay up late working on this if I want to finish it in time for you to practice with it tomorrow."

Ryder nodded. "Okay. Thank you," she said, kissing his forehead and stroking back along his brow and down his frill. Jaal smiled and leaned into her hand. "I'll make it up to you later," she said softly, resting her forehead on his. He cupped her cheek and leaned up to kiss her. She shivered as one of his hands smoothed down her back.

Sweet, warm, slow and relaxed. His arms were solid and safe, his touch settled and patient. She smiled and he chuckled before capturing her more firmly. Jaal pulled her close, stroked his tongue warmly against hers, and let a heavy current roll through her from his hand on the small of her back.

"Mmmf—" she tucked herself further between his legs and brought her hands to his cheeks before pulling away. One last quick peck on his lips, then she was standing straight again, blushing and swallowing a laugh. He moved down her arms to squeeze her hands. Ryder shivered hard, then kissed his forehead with a wide smile. Jaal smiled happily and kissed her fingers.

"I'd better go to bed before I'm too much of a distraction," she said.

"It's far too late for that, taoshay," he said, soft and deep.

"Good night," she whispered, squeezing his hands and letting go.

"Sleep well, Sara. I'll see you in the morning."

She gave him one last kiss on the cheek and slipped out. Liam was poking around in the research room and looked up with a mischievous grin when he saw her. She couldn't stop the blush, but she rolled her eyes and waved.

"Night, Liam."

"Night," he said with laughter in his voice.

Ryder headed to her quarters feeling bittersweet and internally rolling her eyes at herself. Just chill, Sara. You'll survive one night. Get a grip. Things are going really well.

They really were. Kind of shockingly well. And fast. Very, very fast...but she wasn't scared, and that itself was kind of scary. She took a deep breath and let it out slowly as she turned out her lights.

"Night, SAM," she said.

"Good night, Sara," he said, and his avatar dimmed.

Ryder snuggled under the blankets and curled around an extra pillow. She let her mind wander, and it was inevitably caught in the gravity well of Jaal. She sighed. Yes, overwhelming heat still sparked whenever they touched, but this wasn't the same. She just. She wanted to be near him so much it hurt.

You are comforting, and comfortable.

My energy rises to answer your call.

I crave these quiet moments.

I'm drawn to you.

A few tears leaked out and she laughed at herself and shook her head. Fuck. How am I supposed to resist that? She sighed and hugged her pillow tighter. No one could possibly blame me.

Chapter Text

Ryder woke up almost two hours before her alarm and couldn't focus on her morning stretches. After about fifteen minutes of frustration, she took her restless energy to the upper level of the cargo bay.

No one else seemed to be up yet, or at least they hadn't made it down here. The lights were still dimmed for the night cycle. Just in case, Ryder made sure the lift was locked at the upper level. She hopped in place, stretched a bit, and took off running.

By the second lap, the thumping of her feet and the stretch of her muscles had started to quiet her agitation. By the tenth, she stopped counting and let the rhythm of her breath and movement carry her forward.

thump thump breathe in

thump thump breathe out

thump thump breathe in

If things got hairy at the party, she could bail. Reyes would be nearby for cover. They'd stage some over the top making out to deflect suspicion, then find a secluded corner. She'd slip out. Slip back in. Wander out looking scruffy and flushed. The Outcasts wouldn't bother with suspicion.

thump thump breathe out

It'd be fine.

Move like Cora showed me. Fast. Quiet. Smooth.

thump thump breathe in

She could do this.

thump thump breathe out

She wasn't sure how long she ran, but she was just starting to tire when the door to the research room opened. Jaal's head peeked out as she sped past. She waved and started to slow, then took a couple cool down laps. He leaned on the wall and waited.

"Morning!" she said breathlessly, scrubbing at her face and hairline with her towel and gulping water. She sat and started stretching her legs and back.

Jaal smiled as he watched her. "I've just finished your cloak if you want to test it out."

She looked up in surprise. "Really? What time did you get up?"

"I haven't slept yet," he said. "I wanted to make sure I finished in time."

Ryder looked at him sharply and noticed his eye sockets looked a little darker than usual, while the rest of his face was paler. "Wait, wait—you stayed up all night working on this?" she asked, scowling in concern. "When you said you had enough time, I didn't know you were planning on that! I figured you'd work for a few hours and start again when you got up this morning."

Jaal shrugged. "I'm fine. I'll sleep later."

"You won't have trouble getting back into your normal sleep schedule?"

"No?" he was incredulous. "Why would I?"

"Huh. Humans have trouble with that. If an adult doesn't get regular uninterrupted sleep, it messes up...everything. All kinds of systems get…" she waved her hands at her body vaguely, "...weird."

"Why does your age matter?" Jaal wrinkled his forehead and blinked.

Ryder shrugged and took another drink of water. "We just lose the ability as we get older. Younger humans recover from it with less trouble." She chuckled. "I remember pulling three consecutive all-nighters once as an undergrad. I had a couple naps. Maybe seven hours of sleep out of seventy? I was tripping balls. No way could I do that anymore."

"That sounds...inconvenient."

"Well, yeah," she scoffed, "but it's not like convenience is a strong evolutionary drive."

He was still looking at her like she was being weird and confusing, but shook his head and sighed. "Anyway, as I said, your cloak is ready if you want to test it."

"Let's have breakfast first?"

"Okay." Jaal offered her a hand and pulled her up when she grabbed it. She gave him a quick kiss on the cheek and started down the nearest ladder. He followed, and when they entered the lower hallway he asked, "Oatmeal and coffee?"

She smiled softly. "Yes, please. I'll be right there." He nodded and veered toward the galley while she headed to drop off her things in her quarters.

Jaal was nibbling on a slice of dried paripo when she came back. A bowl with instant oatmeal and a cup with instant coffee were waiting for her, next to his cup of dried naashoay.

She nudged his arm up and snuggled under it, sliding her arms around his waist. He made a soft, contented sound and kissed her forehead.

No one else had wandered in yet.

"So, with the cloak, what's first?" Ryder asked.

"First, you'll need to install the controls on your omnitool and get used to them," he answered. The kettle clicked and she turned to get her breakfast ready. "Then I'd suggest you try a few drills to practice timing. You might try to evade me around the cargo bay? Once others are up, you could try with multiple opponents. For straight infiltration, you'll mostly need to work on staying undetected."

He carried his meal over to the table while he was talking. She sat down next to him with her own breakfast.

He took a sip of tea and leaned back while he thought. "To do that, you'll need to be able to move quickly and quietly—which I imagine you worked on with Cora yesterday?" She nodded and he continued. "Focus on keeping your biotics calm, building an intuitive feel for the cloak's active and recharge times, and awareness of your surroundings—which you're already proficient in, but the context might make it more challenging."

"Yeah, I'm a little nervous. This is not my usual approach."

"Staying calm and collected is going to be a large part of staying undetected," Jaal looked up from his bowl and smirked. "No novas."

Ryder rolled her eyes. "I think that goes without saying."

"I've learned to take no chances with you, Sara," he said wryly. She gently kicked him and he chuckled. "Here's the control software," he said, sending it to her.

She installed and fiddled with it. "Looks straightforward," she said. "So you're up for some hide and seek?"

He propped his chin in his hand and narrowed his eyes in thought. "That's a very literal description. But yes, I'll help you practice for a while before I go to bed."

"Ok, great. Cargo bay after breakfast?"

"Yes," he smiled. "This should be fun."

 


 

"Gotcha!" Ryder cried. The cloak ran out just as she wrapped her arms around his neck and her legs around his waist. Jaal laughed and hooked his arms behind her knees.

"I believe I have you, actually," he said, standing from his crouch.

"Not if I don't want to get down," she said airily, kissing the back of his cowl.

They'd been practicing for a couple hours and she felt confident she had the timing and controls down. Everyone else was up at this point, and Vetra in particular seemed amused by their training session. That might have had something to do with the way Liam shrieked when Ryder snuck up behind him.

"You know, Ryder," Vetra called across the cargo hold, "tackling the Outcasts like that might blow your cover."

Ryder laughed and patted Jaal's shoulder. He released her and she slid down. As soon as she was on her feet, he stretched with a loud yawn.

"Time for bed?" she asked.

He nodded, then checked the time before leaning down and speaking quietly. "Do you have time to join me? Until I fall asleep?"

Ryder checked the time as well, then smiled and nodded. His eyes brightened and he tugged her toward the ladders. Jaal grabbed her hand again at the top and didn't let go until they were in the tech lab. Ryder pulled off her shoes and socks and took her hair down to fluff it out while he got ready for bed. She'd shower after she left.

When she looked up, Jaal had already changed and turned down the lights. He was tucked into bed and watching her with a soft smile and warm eyes. Ryder lay down on top of his blanket and fluffed up an extra pillow. She cupped his cheek and kissed his forehead, feeling his soft laugh against her neck.

"I missed this last night," he said, sliding his hand over her waist and tucking it under her shirt. She shivered and scooted closer.

"Me too," she said, gently brushing his lips with hers.

He leaned in and deepened the kiss with a breath and a hoarse, slow rumble in his chest. She pressed closer, feeling heat curl inside her and stretch down to her toes. Jaal's hand came up to cup the back of her head, and when they parted, breathless, he immediately started kissing down her neck.

"Really?" she chuckled, then gasped when his tongue swept upwards. "I'm covered in dried sweat."

"You are warm," his breath was hot under her jaw, "and you are bold, and you smell amazing."

He smoothed down her bare arm and brought her hand up to his mouth.

"And you are right here," he whispered. He looked warmly into her eyes and slowly kissed her palm.

"I thought you just wanted my company?" she smiled.

"Mmm, I do," he said, nipping the tip of her thumb.

She giggled. "You need sleep, Jaal."

"For some reason, I'm not as tired as I was," he mumbled against her wrist. He kissed quickly up to her elbow. "I can't imagine why." He nuzzled the rest of the way up her arm, licking and nipping at her bared shoulder before moving over to kiss her and roll his legs over top of her.

She clung to his thigh with her legs and wrapped her arms around his neck. He cupped her head with slow gentle strokes and scooped under her thigh to knead his grip into her. She gently rocked her hips and smiled when she felt him gasp and shake. A stuttering burst of energy fanned out from him and he froze, then pushed her down harder with another shudder. He pulled back and rested his forehead in the curve of her neck. He whispered something short and fervent, then shivered again.

"Something wrong?" she asked, kissing the side of his cowl and soothing her hands down his frill.

He shook his head and huffed quietly before rearranging his hands and propping himself up. "Not exactly," he said. "It just seems that I am still as tired as I was. It's hard to...concentrate." His smile was slightly crooked by the time he finished his sentence, and while his eyes were warm, she noticed their color wasn't as bright as it usually was.

She cupped his cheeks and shook her head. "Don't worry about it, then," she said, and kissed his nose.

"It's just a little disappointing," he sighed.

She bit her bottom lip and considered, then with a flash of mischief in her eyes, she moved. One arm came down and inside his to unbalance him, then a twist of her hips and a shove of her feet threw him onto his back. She slipped astride him with a grin.

"I might be able to help with that. If you want," she said.

With wide pupils and a breathless grin to match hers, he pulled her down for a bite just under her ear. He whispered, "You can do whatever you want to me, Sara."

She pulled back and smirked at him. "Are you sure about that?" she narrowed her eyes, "I think I could come up with a few surprises."

Jaal leaned his head back and let out a full laugh. His hands slid down to her hips and sent out a bouncy, complicated pattern of energy. Slowly, his laughter trailed off into chuckles and his gaze moved warmly over her face. "I should have known you would take that as a challenge," he said with an affectionate sigh.

"Just kidding," she said with a soft smile.

"I wouldn't care even if you weren't," he said, moving his hands over her thighs.

Ryder stroked her hands back along his brow ridge, then down his cowl and smiled. "I love you," she whispered and leaned down to kiss him.

One hand smoothed up to her back and one strayed down behind her knee. His energy flowed into the pattern she was starting to think of as hers. He was still sending it when she slipped back down beside him.

"So," she said, "let's see…" Ryder kept eye contact while she slid her hand down his bare stomach. Soon, she brushed the tip of his dick, hard and pressing against the waistband of his shorts. Jaal froze and gasped, sending a pulse of energy before quickly pulling it back. A flush was moving up his neck and she smiled.

"You're having trouble concentrating?" She breathed against his brow and nipped him while her fingers played over the small area of exposed skin.

"Mmm—" he groaned.

"I think I understand why," she whispered, sliding her hand fully into his shorts. Jaal closed his eyes and groaned again, deeper.

Ryder smoothed her hand over him, stroking in a heavy, suggestive rhythm. He rocked into her hand and she leaned in to kiss up the side of his cowl. His breaths were quickly getting rougher. She smiled and nibbled the space where his cowl faded into his brow ridge.

Time to tease him. Just a bit.

"Oh no," she gasped softly and squeezed him tightly when he pulsed in response. "Looks like I made it worse," she whispered. "Should I stop?"

"Sara," he groaned, and she chuckled deeply and kept moving. "Sara, you are—yes—you are—" he panted faster, breaths falling into sync with her movements, "indescribable," he gasped, "I love you."

"I love you, too, Jaal," she whispered and his release burst from him with a soft breath. She kissed him and held him through it: short, sweet, and exhausted. He was already softening, and she rubbed her hand back up to his stomach and around his side. He rolled toward her with a drowsy laugh.

"You are wonderful, but I am too tired to continue," he sighed, too warm and sleepy for embarrassment. "I'm sorry. That wasn't what I intended. Thank you, my dearest."

"It's not about keeping score," she said, snuggling close. "You're welcome, always. Go to sleep, love."

"You are a dream," he whispered into her hair. Ryder smiled and hugged him tighter. She hummed and rubbed his back until his breath was deep and even, then kissed his forehead and both cheeks before slipping out.

 


 

It was a couple hours until the party, and Ryder was fidgeting in her quarters after her shower. She was wrapped in a towel and feeling like a cross between a teenager getting ready for a dance and a spy getting ready for an op. Neither made her feel particularly comfortable.

Cora was digging through Ryder's underwear drawer with an exasperated expression. "You seriously only have sports bras?" she looked over her shoulder and sighed.

"No, I've got a regular one in there somewhere."

Cora pulled out a plain black cotton bra and held it up looking unimpressed.

"What? It's not like I've got plans for formal events and my boyfriend is an alien. I don't need or want fancy lingerie."

Cora sighed and waved her hand. "Fine, fine." She held the bra and a pair of black panties out to Ryder.

She tossed them onto the bed with a pair of dark jeans. She'd also gotten out a red sleeveless shirt and her leather jacket and boots.

"Good enough?" she asked Cora.

"What are you going to do with your hair?"

"French braid, pinned up?"

Cora pursed her lips and nodded.

"It's not like I'm actually going to be able to disguise myself," Ryder said, rolling her eyes. "I'm going to have eyes on me until I can slip away and cloak. I don't know why we're spending so much time on this."

Cora crossed her arms. "If you don't look like you usually do, at least you won't be immediately recognizable. It might help you out of a tight spot, you never know."

"I guess that makes sense," Ryder said reluctantly.

"It does," Cora nodded. "Anyway, you asked for my help, so be quiet and take it."

Ryder let out an exaggerated sigh and started getting dressed. "Yes ma'am."

"That's better," Cora laughed. "Now where's your makeup? I brought mine and borrowed Suvi's. Between all of us we probably have a decent selection."

"Bottom drawer of my desk. I'm starting to think this is just an excuse for you to do something girly, Cora." Ryder picked up the oil Jaal had made her and rubbed a drop onto her wrist with a small smile.

Cora snorted. "You're just mad you can't go in your sweats."

"I am! I'm tired of dressing up for undercover work when I don't really want to instead of for an actual date with my actual boyfriend."

"I thought you didn't need fancy lingerie."

"It's the principle," Ryder grumbled, pulling on her boots. Cora was spreading cosmetics out on her coffee table and surveying them critically. She looked up as Ryder came over and sat on the couch next to her.

"Nothing's stopping you from getting dolled up some other time, you know."

"Other than, y'know, the fate of the galaxy." Ryder said.

"Yeah, that puts a damper on things, doesn't it?" Cora said. "So, with that outfit and your complexion, I'm thinking warm undertones and gold highlights. What do you think?"

"Not my usual eyeliner and lip gloss," Ryder grinned, "so it'll at least be different."

"Alright, close your eyes."

Chapter Text

"I just hope Sloane doesn't decide I'm too much of a security risk," she whispered as they walked up.

"She only will if you keep fidgeting and draw attention, Ryder," he hissed through gritted teeth. "Stop it."

"Alright, alright! Sorry."

For all her nervous preparation, entry to the party was anticlimactic. They walked up and one of the guards held out an omni interface and asked for their invitation. Reyes swiped his omnitool over it, and they were waved in dismissively.

He leaned close and whispered, "Told you."

"Alright so now what?" she asked.

"Now you calm down," he said, patting her hand on his arm. "We'll mingle."

"Ok, I guess I'll grab us drinks," Ryder said, taking a deep calming breath.

"Good. I see a friend over there," Reyes said, squeezing her hand before he walked away. Just "friend" is a Collective affiliate. "Meet us by the east wall."

"Will do," she said, noting the angara woman who seemed to be waving at him. Ryder got two whiskey neat from the makeshift bar and headed over to meet them.

"Sara, this is my friend Keema Dohrgun," Reyes said as she handed him his drink. "Keema is one of Sloane's angara liaisons. Keema, this is Sara Ryder, who I'm sure you've heard of."

"Yes, mostly from you, Reyes," Keema said, chuckling warmly. Ryder's eyebrows rose and Reyes avoided her eyes by taking a sip of his drink.

"Hmm," Ryder said. "Does she actually listen to anything you say?"

"Rarely," Keema sighed. "But...a token position is better than none at all. I do what I can."

Ryder nodded. "I hope you won't judge all of us on the Outcasts' example," she sighed, "but I won't blame you if you do."

"Don't worry, Sara. I judge individuals, not entire species."

"That's extremely considerate of you, considering the representative sample you're working from."

"It pays to be generous when you can," Keema said. "You never know when you might need some yourself."

Ryder acknowledged the point with a thoughtful frown and nod.

"If you ladies will excuse me," Reyes interjected, "I'll leave you to get better acquainted for a moment." He slid an arm around Ryder's waist and whispered, "Scouting. Five minutes," before kissing her cheek and walking away with a smile. She bit her cheek, blushed, and forced a smile she hoped looked shy instead of guilty. Undercover Sara. You're undercover. Don't fuck up. Fuck, this is why I hate stealth. Jaal was right. I do want to nova everything.

"He really likes you, you know," Keema said quietly, watching Reyes' retreating back.

"Well, he's barking up the wrong tree," Ryder said under her breath.

Keema squinted at her and drew back to consider, then shook her head. "Tell me, why do humans use metaphors no one but other humans will understand, no matter who you're talking to?"

"Thought you judged individuals, Keema." Ryder raised her eyebrows as she took a drink.

She smiled. "I still notice patterns, Sara."

"Well, why say something boring like 'that's too bad,' when I could say 'he's barking up the wrong tree' and have a stimulating conversation with a new friend about my culture?"

Keema chuckled. "Now I'm beginning to understand why Reyes is so fond of you. You're annoying in similarly charming ways."

She laughed. "Really?"

"Hmm," Keema hummed as she took a drink. "So, are any of the other rumors about you that are making the rounds through the port true?"

Ryder's eyes widened over her cup. She swallowed and considered. "I'm a little nervous now. What are the rumors about me?"

Keema's eyes wrinkled and she smirked. "Oh, there are quite a few. Humans and asari do love to gossip."

Ryder groaned and tilted her head to a nearby empty table. They sat. She set her cup in front of her and crossed her arms. "Alright, hit me."

"What?" Keema leaned back in surprise and Ryder laughed.

"Sorry. It means tell me. I'm ready."

Keema tilted forward and looked at her searchingly, then shook her head. Probably thinking something dismissive about weird aliens. Then she shrugged and leaned on the table with a grin. "Well, let's start with your...sexual proclivities," she said.

"Oh my god," Ryder blushed and lay her head on her arms. Keema chuckled.

"You are apparently having sex with with Reyes, Ryota, and Sloane."

Ryder groaned and shook her head, then looked up. "Wait. Who's Ryota?"

"Ryota Nakamoto, the doctor in the slums."

"Oh. Yeah, I forgot his first name."

Keema raised her brow and pursed her lips. "Very casual with him, then?"

"No!" Ryder's eyes widened. "I mean—no I'm not—ugh!" Keema twinkled at her and started giggling. Ryder flushed again and put her head back down with a defeated groan.

"Oh, humans, you are so easy to tease!"

"Damn it," Ryder grumbled into her arms. "By the end of the night people will probably be saying I'm sleeping with you."

"Wouldn't be your first angara, I'd bet."

Ryder tried not to tense. She kept her head down and scrambled for a response. She ended up taking too long.

"Hmmm. I thought so," Keema said quietly.

Ryder sighed and sat up. "Anyone else on my crew?" she asked, resigned.

"People can't decide between him, your asari with the eye paint, or your krogan."

Ryder closed her eyes. "Please tell me you made that last one up."

"Sorry, no." Amusement was laced through her voice.

"Oh. My god."

Ryder rested her elbows on the table and pushed the heels of her palms into her eyes. The mental images stayed. She downed the rest of her drink.

"Alright," she said, blinking her watering eyes. "How'd you know, anyway? Reyes say something?"

Keema shook her head. "I played the odds." She shrugged and finished her drink before leaning closer to whisper. "You smell like flowers from Havarl," she smirked.

Ryder's blush intensified. Oh well, nothing for it now. She was here to spy on Sloane. She stood.

"Well, this has been...enlightening, but I think I'm going to get another drink and go see if I can find where my date has wandered off to," Ryder grabbed her cup and smiled.

Keema held her hand out and Ryder took it to shake. "It was nice to meet you, Sara."

"You too, Keema."

Ryder let out a breath and walked to the bar with a shell of external calm. She had the distinct feeling she'd just been talking with the Charlatan.

"Come on...n onNn...I...I'm fine." An absolutely wasted turian was negotiating with Umi for another drink. She wasn't budging.

"Sloane's paying me to keep people from getting ugly drunk, and you're getting close. The answer is still no. Now go away before I have Kaetus throw you out."

He wobbled away sadly. Ryder caught Umi's eye and held up her glass. Umi grunted and filled it. Ryder mumbled thanks and was ignored. She stepped to the side and surveyed the room while she surreptitiously scanned her drink. Still just cheap booze. Reyes wasn't around, as far as she could see.

SAM, you see Reyes?

*I do not. I believe he is most likely in a different room, Ryder.*

Thanks.

Well. Seemed she was on her own. She'd need a distraction. Her eyes fell on the pitiful turian who'd failed to get a drink. She headed over to his table.

"...ruined everything...she'll never…"

Oh boy.

Ryder took a deep breath and sat down noisily, drawing his attention. Bleary eyes blinked at her and his mandibles drooped. She smiled sympathetically.

"You sound like you're having relationship trouble. Maybe I can help."

"Why?"

"Honestly? You're depressing as hell right now, and I want it to stop."

A couple fluttering thumps came out of his throat and he rested his face in his hands. "I fucked up so bad, you don't know. I don't think anything can help."

"Come on, at least talking about it will help." She cajoled him and nudged his arm with her cup. He looked up and she slid it to him. "It's yours if you want. Looks like you need it more than me," she smiled. He sniffed it, shrugged, and downed it.

"Alright. So, there's this woman..." Obviously. "I really like her. She's angara. We've worked together at the docks, and...I planned this for weeks. I was going to tell her...I even filed my talons…" TMI buddy. Ryder bit her tongue and nodded encouragingly when he glanced at her. "But when I saw her, I kind of...panicked," he said miserably.

"That's it?" she asked.

"Well, because I panicked, I might have...um...compared her to her sister. And suggested her sister was more attractive."

"Dude."

"I know, okay! It was stupid. I was trying to make her jealous, like...maybe she'd think she had competition so I'd be more desirable..."

"Dude. No."

"I know! I said I ruined everything!" He keened and buried his face in his hands again. Oh fuck. If she didn't get him straightened out, it would be like nails on a chalkboard, and attention would be on her too. The exact opposite of what she wanted.

"Okay, I won't lie, this is bad," she said, patting him on the shoulder, "but maybe not completely hopeless."

He looked up, hanging on her words. "What do I do?"

"Is she still here?" Please say yes, please say yes, that will make this so much easier...

"I think so," he said, looking around. He warbled a sigh when he looked over into the corner. "Yeah...there she is."

Excellent. Ryder followed his eyes and saw three angara women chatting in the corner.

"She's the blue one with the...smile. And the eyes. Her eyes are so pretty…"

Ryder cut him off. "Back to the corner, green shirt?"

"Yeah," he sighed.

"Those her friends with her?"

"Sisters."

"Dude."

"Can you help me or not?" he keened. Ryder sighed.

"Alright, here's what we're gonna do," she said. What the fuck am I gonna do? She stood and tugged him up by his upper arm. "You're gonna stand up straight." Ryder put command into her tone and some part of him straightened his spine. She patted his arms. "Good. Now, take a few deep breaths." He did. "Good, now—wait, what's your name?"

"Velus."

"Now, Velus, you're gonna go over there and tell her you are a huge fucking idiot. You like her so much and wanted her to like you, so when you panicked because of your nerves, you tried to make her jealous. But you didn't mean it and again, you are a huge fucking idiot because you like her so much. And you are very sorry. Then, you are going to turn and walk away, and leave her alone unless she contacts you."

"You really think that'll work?" he asked pitifully.

"Can't possibly make it worse, buddy."

"Okay. Okay. Can't make it worse, so what do I have to lose? Okay. Thank you," he said, smiling clumsily and shaking his head, trying to clear away too much alcohol through force of will. She patted his arm and smiled encouragingly. He steeled himself and walked off.

SAM, surveillance blind spot?

*One is a meter past the bar, just down the steps. There is an irregular corner on the outer wall approximately two feet deep. It is the largest in the room.*

That'll do.

Ryder stood and headed back to the bar. Before she got there, she veered left, down the steps, and curled around the corner. She leaned on the wall with her arms crossed to watch the scene unfold.

He was clumsily bumping into people and furniture, drawing attention like a charm. Now her sisters had noticed him and were giving him some severely displeased looks. The woman in the corner looked hesitant. Good. She likes him. This should work. Velus was talking, hands behind his back and head tilted submissively—the angara woman seemed to be softening. Ryder twitched her hand in the cloak activation mnemonic. He looked down, back up, and turned to walk away. Just a second...

"Velus, wait!"

Heads turned. Ryder activated her cloak and headed to the door as quickly and quietly as she could.

50...49...48...

SAM helped her keep count with a repeating signal.

She was at the door. No one was opening it. Fuck.

38...come on...35...34...33...

Yes! The door opened and she was slipping out before she realized it was fucking Reyes finally coming back and looking around for her. Damn it. Oh well. Too little too late.

She quietly sped over near the holding cells, where the guards looked extremely bored. One was bitching about having to guard empty cells while everyone else got to party.

"We're not guarding cells, dumbass," the other guard was saying, "We're guarding those storage rooms in case any of those people wander where they're not supposed to. And if Sloane catches you slacking, you'll have a lot more than boredom to gripe about."

Ryder slipped under a desk nearby, uncomfortably close to them. At least she hadn't bumped the box being used as a chair. Her heart pounded and she tried to keep her breathing even and quiet.

SAM, camera sightlines?

*Clear. Current position is hidden.*

She breathed softly in relief just as her cloak silently ran out. Fuck she hated stealth. Okay. Nearly two minutes until it recharged. As long as no one came over to use this desk she was golden.

Ryder pulled up Vetra's program and set it to rifling through the terminal on the desk and the one nearest the storage area.

Any servers I can reach from this location, SAM?

*None accessible from within ten meters of your current position.*

Nothing in either storage area?

*Negative.*

This'll have to do, then. Here's hoping.

Vetra's program was smooth as silk. She checked the countdown on the cloak. Still over a minute left. Ryder slowly wiped sweat away and breathed shallowly through her mouth.

She could do this. She could. Even if it made her skin crawl.

Vetra's program blinked once, then closed. Done.

15 seconds left to wait for the cloak.

I'll activate it, head just past the entrance to that side storage room—SAM, there are some boxes just outside that room, right?

*Affirmative, when you passed it a moment ago.*

Okay.

Her cloak was ready. She took a few calming breaths, then slowly rearranged herself. Her heart pounded through her head and every movement seemed to make a deafening sound, no matter how carefully she moved. Thankfully the guards nearby didn't seem to notice, so she hoped it was just her adrenaline.

Hit the cloak. Active. Go.

She quietly avoided a guard on patrol and made it to the boxes she'd seen.

Cameras, SAM?

*Yes, in your current position. There is a small blind spot near the corner, two meters to your 8 o'clock. If you stand still and straight, you should fit.*

Shit. There was no cover there. Fuck it, she could bullshit a few people, but not security cameras suddenly registering a figure where there wasn't one before. She'd set off alerts and then a bunch of people would come to check and she'd have to explain why the Pathfinder was wandering around Outcast headquarters unsupervised. She moved quickly.

25 seconds left.

Am I in the blind spot, SAM?

*Yes. Hold still.*

Ryder desperately willed the door to open, Reyes to come out, or her brain to give her something to work with here.

10...5...

The cloak blinked out.

Fuck.

There was no cover.

And that guard was coming back.

And the cloak was still recharging.

And the fucking door still wasn't opening, not that it would do her any good now.

And Reyes was doing who knows what that wasn't part of the plan.

And adrenaline was clouding her mind in ways that it never did when she could just fucking hit something.

I hate stealth.

At least she wasn't near any sensitive areas.

Shit shit shit. Ok, I can pretend to be trashed. I'm a terrible actor. It's ok, Sara, just lie. You can lie, right?

*Ryder, I can alter your brain chemistry so that you feel slightly intoxicated, if that would assist.*

Do it SAM!

*I have also silently alerted Reyes Vidal of your location.*

Why the fuck didn't I do that? I hate stealth!

*Noted.*

Oh fuck you, smart ass.

Ryder swayed as warmth poured down her face and her hands suddenly felt much lighter than they should. She braced herself on the wall.

Fuck, yeah, that worked. Uh. Thanks. Probably?

"What the hell are you doing?" A voice from behind made her jump, and her slowed reactions made her turn clumsily. Anyone monitoring video feeds would just see this guy dealing with a drunk person and chalk it up to a glitch. Hopefully.

"Uhh…" she blinked at the guard's annoyed scowl. Her face heated up. The guard sighed and waved his mandibles in irritation.

"Another one that can't hold their damn liquor," he grumbled, then, to Ryder, "Who are you? Who are you here with?"

"Rey-ey-esss…?"

Might've...overdone a little. SAM.

*Apologies. Mitigating now.*

"There you are!" Reyes came up quickly. "Tsk. You need to remember to drink water. Here," he said, handing her a bottle. He turned aside to the guard. "She never wants to admit she's a lightweight. Sorry about this."

"Yeah, I think you should get her home," the guard said, then turned to Ryder. "Are you ok with that?" he asked her, "Do you want someone else to go with you?"

"Ppfffsh, it's fiiine," she giggled and gave him an exaggerated waggle of her eyebrows, "We talked about whether or not I want him to be a gentleman."

The guard grumbled something about humans and waved them both toward the exit before continuing his patrol.

Reyes slid her arm over his shoulders and supported her back. Ryder leaned heavily on him while her head cleared. They passed the guards at the entrance, and the krogan ignored them while the human rolled her eyes.

"You're lucky he didn't recognize you," Reyes hissed as they made their way around the corner.

"I know."

"Get anything?"

They were out of sight and she stood up, then took a big drink of the water he'd handed her and shook her head. Nearly clear again.

Thanks, SAM.

*You're welcome.*

"Some. Gotta go through it, though."

"Why'd you head out without me?" he asked.

"Because you took your sweet time. What were you doing, anyway?"

"Checking some things. Acquiring some things," he smirked and pulled a bottle from some hidden pocket.

"How the fuck did you hide that?" She stared at his pants, one side, then the other.

"I'm a smuggler, Sara," Reyes said wryly. She laughed.

"Alright," she nodded. "I know better than to ask questions I don't want to know the answers to."

"Wanna share?" he asked, waving the bottle. "To celebrate a successful heist?"

"Y'know, sure. I could use a drink after that."

"That was a pretty convincing act." He raised his eyebrows in a silent question.

"SAM helped."

"That's...more than a little freaky," he said with widening eyes.

"I would never deliberately harm her," SAM interjected over Ryder's omnitool. "In a very real way, she is part of me. It would be akin to harming myself."

"That too," Reyes said with a shudder.

"You sound like Drack," Ryder told him.

"I knew I liked him for more than just his cooking!"

She laughed, relieved shakes running down her arms as her adrenaline crash and after effects of SAM's meddling filtered through her system. "So. Where are we celebrating?"

 


 

Kadara's sun had set half an hour before, and the lights in the port didn't reach to the stacks of cargo containers surrounding the market. They easily found an unobtrusive place to climb up, then settled on top of one to watch the stars come out.

Reyes opened the bottle and sighed happily. "This is the good stuff," he said, savoring a drink and handing it to her.

She took a sip, appreciating the smooth burn. "So...I gotta ask," she said. "Roses?"

"Ah," Reyes sighed. "My grandmother. She loved her roses. Her yard was lined with big bushy shrubs of china roses. Blood red were her favorite." He held out his hand for the bottle and took a drink when she passed it over.

"You liked to help her garden?"

"No, I hated the damn things," he chuckled, "I'd lose toys in them when I was little and get thorns trying to get them back. Then when I got older, my mother made me weed and prune them for her, water and fertilize them. Her eyesight was starting to go, but she'd still be out there fussing at me that I was doing it the wrong way. It wasn't like I could actually do any real damage. Those things were bigger than me."

He was sitting with his legs bent up in front of him. His elbows were propped on his knees, leaving his hands to hang loosely between. One held the pilfered bottle. Reyes took a drink and handed it back over with a sigh.

"Every weekend, helping abuelita with her roses," he said. "It grated when I was 15."

Ryder hummed in acknowledgment.

"Every time she'd start talking about how they'd been there since before she and my grandfather had bought the house, how they'd been there before her and would be long after she was gone. Same depressing shit every visit, like I hadn't heard it my entire life."

She took another sip before handing him the bottle. He grabbed it and took a long drink.

"Got worse as she got older. Her mind was going. Sometimes she had trouble remembering who anyone was, when it was, where she was. No symptoms you'd notice if you weren't looking for them. Just...getting old. We didn't notice for a long time because her routine helped her more than we realized. She'd lived in the same house for fifty years, taken the same bus to the market every Tuesday and Friday, gone to the same café every Saturday afternoon before coming home and making arroz moros the same way as always. Harassed the same grandson about her damn roses every Sunday…"

Reyes stretched out one leg and leaned on the knee he left up. He held the bottle in both hands and ran his hands over the logo etched into the side.

"But eventually...Mamá had to move her to a care facility close by. She and her sisters sold the house. I didn't pay much attention. I was too busy getting stoned and failing half the classes I signed up for."

"I came home one weekend and my mother and I had a stupid fight. The kind that happen when you're 19 and want to be somebody but you don't know shit, let alone who you are." She reached over to gently take the bottle. He let go and stared up into space.

"I went to abuelita's house on autopilot. So many years of Sunday visits, I guess." He sighed. "The new owners were tearing out her rose bushes. They'd been just about to bloom."

Ryder took a drink and set the bottle down. Reyes ignored it.

"I started crying, right there in the middle of the street. I went up and asked the woman why she would do that. She looked at me like I was crazy and said, 'I don't like roses.'" Reyes laughed and wiped his eyes, then reached for the bottle. "I called her a heartless bitch and grabbed a few of the greenest branches I could reach before I left. Scratched my hands bloody. Went right to the garden store for supplies. Stuck the cuttings in with way too much water. Didn't matter. Those fuckers can survive anything." He chuckled to himself. "Anyway...then I got drunk." He took a swig of whiskey and wiped his mouth. "I woke up to my mother screaming about buckets of dirt in her kitchen."

Ryder snorted. Reyes looked over with a grin.

"She calmed down after I told her what happened. Gave me a hug and called me a good boy." He took a deep, quiet breath. "I went with her to buy my grandmother some red roses."

"Abuelita's face lit up like Christmas morning when I walked in with those flowers. She asked if they were from her garden. I told her no, those weren't quite blooming yet, but it didn't register. She kept calling in nurses and bragging about how her sweet handsome grandson had brought her such beautiful flowers, cut from her own rose bushes. Said the same things she always did about how they'd been there long before her and would be long after. Told me she knew I'd take good care of them for her and patted my cheek. I stayed for hours that visit, listening to her retell stories and answering the same damn questions over and over. Mamá just sat in an awful chair and cried while she watched us."

"Shit, Reyes."

He took a drink and put the bottle down.

"Eventually, I'll plant some here. I brought a few cuttings with me. Some seeds. It's all in a stasis container in my personal locker."

"Shit, Reyes." She sniffled and wiped her nose and eyes on her sleeve.

He looked up with a smile and shook his head at her. "Didn't peg you for a weepy drunk, Sara."

"Didn't peg you for someone to bring your grandma's roses with you to another galaxy," she said, sniffling again.

He blushed and looked down. "I kinda like the idea of rose gardens blooming in Andromeda. Somethin' beautiful and completely unnecessary...but tenacious. Even if I don't accomplish anything else, I wouldn't mind leaving that as my legacy."

"That sounds like something Cora might say."

"Yeah," he nodded. "We talked a little."

"Really?" Ryder raised her eyebrows.

"Yeah."

"So…you talked, or you talked?"

Reyes shook his head. "Maybe a fleeting attraction, but nothin'll ever come of it. M'not really relationship material, Sara," he smiled wryly and offered her the bottle. It was nearly empty. "I'm sure she can do much better."

"You're not any kind of material," she frowned. "You're a person, and you can be whatever kind of person you want."

He put his head in his hands and chuckled. "Y'sound like propaganda for the Initiative, y'know?" he sighed. "Back when we all believed in it."

"That was mostly about these awesome Golden Worlds that totally didn't have any flying murderbots, we promise. I haven't tried to sell you any real estate."

He chuckled. "I just meant you're optimistic. I could never sustain that for very long."

Ryder shrugged. "It's the only way I can keep going, y'know? If I start thinking about how bad things could get, or how bad I could fuck up...how many people need me not to…" she shook her head and took a long drink.

"Yeah...puts my whining in perspective," he scoffed, accepting the bottle as she handed it back. He drained it.

"Pain's not a contest."

"There ya go again."

"What, bein' right?"

Reyes laughed and set the empty bottle down between them, then lay down and let his legs dangle down the side of the crate. "You're not what I expected a Pathfinder to be, but you might be what we need."

"Thanks," Ryder said, feeling touched. "It's...not why I wanted to come, and nothing's like it was supposed to be, but...I hope it'll work out. There've been a few nasty surprises, but the good ones outweigh 'em."

"Well, for you. Look at that boyfriend of yours."

She laughed.

"Ok, yeah, that was definitely a surprise. Not just him, but...y'know we crash landed right at Resistance HQ, right? First contact for the Nexus and the angara: Hey, guys! We're suddenly here in your secret hidden base! On fire! It was...so bad," she snorted through a chuckle and rested her forehead in her hand.

Reyes laughed and waved a hand in a flourish. "Like the Wizard of Oz. Too bad the Archon wasn't there to land your house on."

The alcohol encouraged a mental image of Evfra dressed in a munchkin costume from the old classic movie. She wheezed and wiped her eyes. Wait he's more like...oh fuck...

Ryder started cracking up and had to lay down to keep her head from spinning. "Oh god—"

Reyes chuckled at her. "Havin' fun over there?"

"Ok. I wish you understood how angry Evfra looks, ok? Like. He matches his voice. He's so mad. And. And you said Wizard of Oz. And if I'm Dorothy, and he sent me on a mission, that makes him—"

Reyes started laughing louder, following her thoughts, "Glinda the Good!"

"Oh. My. God." Ryder slapped her forearm over her mouth and snickered, thankfully catching the drool that had started to leak out because she was just that attractive. "So, this giant, blue, scarred up, angry as fuck angara—"

"—with a glittery wand?"

"With a glittery wand!"

"I'm never gonna be able to talk to him again."

"I have to face him, Reyes."

"Okay, you win."

Their laughter started to fade, then Reyes started snickering again.

"What?" she chuckled, looking over.

"Does that make Jaal your—shngk—your ruby slippers?"

Ryder howled. She couldn't breathe. "Oh that's not even funny, why'm I laughing so hard?"

"Cause you're drunk," he laughed. "But...tttshk…hah...he, he could probably pull off red glitter."

That was a vision.

"HA—h-h—hoh my god, Reyes!" She shook and rolled over onto her back. "He could!"

"Ff-fff-fashion sssen-sation…"

"Okay, but, but really: glittery. red. hot pants."

"Oh god, it—it would be honestly hot, Sara. You gotta make it happen. For the rest of us."

She pressed her hands to her aching stomach and tried to stop her laughter, but as soon as one of them would calm down, the other one would start again, louder.

After a while, an angry voice yelled out of the darkness across the port. "HEY ASSHOLES. Would ya shut the fuck UP?"

Reyes sat up clumsily and yelled back, "NO!" while Ryder rolled to her side and cackled.

"Oh god, Rey-reyes—I better—" she took a deep breath, then another, shaking through the chuckles she tried to swallow, "I better—fucking—Tann and Addison—will have my ass if I get caught bein' drunk 'n disorderly in Kadara port."

"Ohhhh…" he sighed and swayed, wiping his face and smiling, "yeah, ok. But—" he snickered, then breathed out shakily and smiled at her when she sat up. "But thanks," he said. "I needed this. It's all been...a real shit show, y'know?" He looked back out across the port.

"Yeah," she said, smiling and patting his back. He took a slow breath that seemed to deflate him and looked back into her eyes. A warm, clumsy hand cupped her cheek.

Shit, Reyes. No...

He must have seen it in her eyes, because he smiled sadly and nodded. "Yeah, I know," he said quietly, "but I just wanted you t'know it wasn't...all an act. And...thanks. Really. For, for trusting me."

She sighed quietly and pressed her lips together. She leaned over and gave him a small peck on the cheek, and he held his breath. She sat back. "You're welcome. You're a good man when you wanna be, which seems like most of the time."

He blinked and looked away with a shaky breath and cleared his throat. "Let's head home, huh? I'm sure your crew's startin' to wonder what's up."

"Yeah. I just hope I can get down these things without breaking my neck."

"You're a biotic," Reyes said. "You should be over this in no time. I hafta make it all the way back t'my room."

*I can try to mitigate some of the effects of the alcohol.* SAM said privately.

Nah, SAM I think I'm...I'm. Not thinking well? Yeah. Do that.

"Ok SAM's helpin' me sober up, too. I can help," she said, scooting over to the edge where they climbed up. She carefully placed her feet and hands, testing before she moved. Like rock climbing. Drunk...rock climbing. Remind me to never do that SAM, no matter how fun I swear it'll be, ok?

*If it becomes necessary, I promise to do so.*

"But I need to be a gentleman and walk you home," he insisted, turning while he was halfway down the second container. He fumbled his way down and started on the last one.

"Yeah, y'know what? You're sleeping this shit off on a Tempest meeting room couch."

"Please," Reyes scoffed as he hopped down, "I—" he stumbled and she shoved him against the side of the container to keep him upright. "I should prob'ly do that, huh?"

"Yeah, c'mon," Ryder chuckled, taking his left arm and pulling him around to the main walkway. "You're the one who needs the water now."

"N'the whole fuckin' planet with me."

"Yeah. I'm working on it."

"I know." Reyes turned and awkwardly patted her shoulder with his right hand. He moved slowly, like he was concentrating.

"It's really starting to hit you, huh?"

"Yeah I...guess? I'm gonna shut up now."

"Believe that when I see it."

"Okay. Now you're gonna shut up now too," he said sternly, waving a finger at her and wrinkling his eyebrows. He blinked. "I'm...really drunk, Ryder," he said seriously.

She giggled and started pulling him along again. "Yeah, half a bottle of whiskey in under an hour is a lot for me and I have biotics and a robot in my brain to help. Let's get you to bed, huh?"

He smirked and wobbled. "In the Pathfinder's quarters?"

"Hey, remember how you were shutting up? That was a good idea."

 


 

No one was on the bridge when she dragged Reyes through the airlock, and she got no answer when she called for Peebee to help. Ryder made a face. She better be asleep and not just ignoring me, or I'm stealing her jacket.

"SAM, anybody awake? Locations?" she asked.

"Three crew members appear to be awake. Vetra is in the cargo bay, Lexi is in the medbay, and Jaal is in the tech lab."

"Thanks bud. Can you ask Lexi for something for Reyes? Let Jaal know I'm home, too, ok? Heading to the meeting room."

"Acknowledged."

Ryder was far from sober, but she was doing much better than Reyes, who was quietly snickering to himself and letting her drag him around. She adjusted her grip to make sure he'd stay upright. "Don't fall off the catwalk," she said, heading across.

"I have excellent reflexes!" Reyes insisted.

"Well, use 'em and don't fall off the catwalk."

He made a very damp noise at her shoulder.

"Reyes. Ew."

The tech lab door slid open, and Jaal came out, looking tired but happy, until he saw them. She smiled apologetically and started heading up the meeting room ramp.

"Darling one, what…" he trailed off, sounding confused.

"He calls you darling one?" Reyes hissed in a very loud stage whisper. "That's...sssnice," he chuckled.

"Sit here, Reyes. Do not lay down. Do not go to sleep yet. I'll be right back, ok?"

He nodded placidly and looked around.

Ryder turned to Jaal, who had his arms crossed and was slowly shaking his head.

"Got to talking...got to drinking," she shrugged. "I brought him back to sleep it off here."

"Did you accomplish your goal?" Jaal asked, glancing at Reyes with tolerant distaste.

"I hope so. I got some raw data. I'll go through it tomorrow."

"So, why did you drink too much?" he asked, looking irritated.

"Because…" she waved her hands expressively, saying nothing and everything. "I wanted to."

He looked up at the ceiling and sighed.

"Would you please stay here while I grab some water and a blanket for him?" she asked, touching Jaal's forearm. "Lexi's on her way, too, so it shouldn't be long."

Jaal sighed again and nodded. "Anything I should know about drunk humans?" he asked, resigned.

"Don't let us sleep on our backs when we're drunk, or we can vomit in our sleep and aspirate it and suffocate."

He startled and stared at her, eyes wide. "Really. You're serious?"

"Very. Look it up. Ask SAM. Or Lexi."

"I never puke!" Reyes volunteered stoutly.

Jaal shuddered and shook his head while a look of dismay spread across his face. "That's ok, I believe you," he told her, heading over to sit across from Reyes.

Lexi was just stepping off the catwalk when Ryder got down to the research room. "What's going on, Ryder?" she asked.

"Had too much to drink too fast with Reyes after the party. SAM and my biotics are helping, so I'll have some water and aspirin and be ok. He's...a little worse off."

Lexi sighed and looked annoyed. "He's up there?" she asked, pointing at the meeting room.

"Yeah. I'm heading to get water."

Lexi nodded and headed up.

Ryder carefully made her way down the ladder to gather up a spare blanket and pillow, and filled two large bottles with water. She drank two glasses herself, then after a few minutes of thought, she grabbed a large bowl and a towel. Her biotics were a little wobbly, but she managed to lift it all up to the catwalk with only minor chaos.

Lexi was gone when she got up to the meeting room, and Jaal's face was...expressive. Reyes was sprawled, not quite laying down.

"Thanks, love," she said to Jaal, kissing his forehead when she put down her armload. He smiled at her briefly.

"Alright, Reyes. What'd Lexi do?"

"Said I was irresponsible, and gave me something to help absorb alcohol. And some aspirin," he said. "Put a monitor on m'omnitool," he held up his wrist, which had a glowing orange band spinning slowly around it. "She's pretty. And angry. I like her."

"I think she's only got eyes for Drack."

"Eeeevryone on this ship," Reyes scowled. "Ss'not fair, Sara."

Jaal sighed.

"Drink your water," she said, handing him a bottle. "Here's another one. And a bowl and a towel in case you throw up. Try not to get it on the couch if you do."

Ryder dropped the pillow and blanket on the other end of the couch.

"Thank you for your lovely hospitality," he said, kicking his boots off clumsily.

"Please repay it by not dying of alcohol poisoning on my ship."

"I'll try my best," he yawned, putting the water bottle on the floor next to the other one and falling sideways down onto the pile made by the pillow and blanket.

"Night, Reyes."

"G'night. Enjoy your sexy boyfriend."

Ryder laughed and glanced at Jaal curiously. Jaal said nothing, but crossed his arms and looked annoyed. They headed down the ramp and she stopped in front of the tech lab.

"Thanks for the help," she said quietly, holding out her hand for him. Jaal smiled and took it, then pulled her into a hug.

"You're welcome. You are a caring friend, Sara," he said warmly. He kissed her head.

She squeezed around his waist. "Ok, it's bedtime for me, too. You're welcome to join me if you want."

Jaal hesitated, then sighed. "Yes, I would like to."

She pulled back and looked up at him in concern. "It's ok if you don't."

He smiled and stroked her hair. "I know, darling one. Let's go to bed."

She nodded and headed down to wash her face while he ducked into the tech lab for a minute. Ryder was turning off her lights and climbing into bed when Jaal finally came in.

"Hey," she said quietly.

He came over to slide his arms around her waist and bury his face in her neck with a deep inhale.

"You alright?" she asked.

He nodded and kissed her neck, then walked around to climb into the other side of the bed. They settled, her head on his arm, his hand on her waist, his lips gently kissing her hairline. Ryder sighed contentedly to feel his warm breath in her hair.

"I could get used to this," she said.

"Mmm...please do," he rumbled quietly.

She snuggled closer and tucked her hand under his arm before drifting off.

Chapter Text

The next morning, Ryder woke up alone with her mouth feeling like it had been plastered shut. Time? 0923. Shit. Well, it could be worse. Lucky I plan out our schedule. She groaned and grabbed for the aspirin and water she'd left for herself the night before.

Assess.

Head: Clear, but slow. No pain. She moved it around experimentally. Seemed alright.

Eyes: A little dry. She took another drink of water.

Body: Fine. Right side a bit numb from not moving for hours. Had to pee. No nausea. Food? The idea wasn't repulsive.

She smiled and took a deep breath in relief before finishing her water and grabbing her shower kit.

Once she was clean and dressed, she headed to the galley. Reyes was at the table, jealously guarding a cup of coffee. Cora was at the stove.

"Morning, Ryder!" she called cheerfully. "Want some reconstituted eggs? I'm already making enough for us, so it's easy to add more."

"Thanks Cora. I'll make some toast," she said. Ryder dug out half a loaf of leftover bread and got herself a cup of coffee.

Cora glanced over at her. "When I found him this morning," she tilted her head at Reyes, "and heard the story from Jaal, I was expecting you to be in almost the same shape when you got up."

"I cheated," Ryder smiled while she sliced the bread. "Biotics and an AI bolstering my liver function." She set it to toast and sat at the table with her coffee and some dried fruit.

Cora nodded and Reyes grumbled.

"You're better off than you would have been if I'd let you head home alone like you were planning," Ryder told him.

"True enough," he said, taking a sip. "But if you had, I wouldn't have had the opportunity to complain to Jaal about how unfair it is that the two of you are in a relationship and you won't share."

She laughed, spilling some coffee as she sat her cup down. "You didn't," she said, covering her mouth with both hands.

"Oh, yes," Reyes groaned in resignation. "I did. At length. Then I started griping about all the other attractive people on the ship."

"Shit, no wonder he was irritated," she chuckled. Cora cleared her throat and a hard puff of air escaped her nose.

"Yeah. He didn't really respond, so I gave up after a while. Thank goodness." Reyes sighed and took another drink of coffee. "I don't think I mentioned the glittery hot pants, at least," he said, rubbing his eyes and gently shaking his head.

Ryder laid her head down on her arms and slapped the table. Cora switched off the stove and turned to them with her arms crossed.

"Okay, I need to hear this story right now."

 


 

After breakfast (and staging a romantic goodbye with Reyes for the benefit of everyone at the docks) Ryder got to work.

Cora took Vetra and Liam out to scout the location of the Remnant vault and potential colony locations. Gil and Jaal were in the tech lab trying to get the kett transponder to work. Suvi was going through the information they'd gathered about flora and fauna from Kadara, and Kallo was halfway into his console, surrounded by parts, wires, and salarian curses. Lexi insisted Drack submit to an exam and calibration of his prosthetics. He’d complained, but not strenuously. Peebee was doing something in the cargo bay that involved goggles and a blow torch.

Ryder sat down in the meeting room with a cup of coffee and started trying to make sense of all the data they'd gathered on the Outcasts. She went through the older correspondence and reports first, and left the new information for SAM to scan.

A few emails from Kaetus to Arenna Farenth about Oblivion preventing uprising. Set those aside.

The logs Liam had found from the Oblivion lab showing they knew angara were more susceptible to overdose.

General negative chatter from Outcasts about angara. Might be useful.

The records of trading with some raiders and receiving Resistance medical supplies.

She also collected tangential information separately: All the files about Charybdis Point and the angara town they'd destroyed. Files about the Roekaar murders. Photos, logs, Outcast chatter about it.

Ok, time to start going through the data I got last night. She took a drink of coffee and tapped her stylus thoughtfully as her comm buzzed. Cora.

"Ryder here."

"Wanted to make sure I reported this in before we got back. I got Reyes to use his connections to send out a shuttle for a pickup."

"Why do you need a pickup? Is the nomad down?"

"No, it's..." the sound of a woman weeping in the background and Liam speaking slowly came through. Ryder's eyes widened. "...not for the team. We overheard this Outcast talking about how he'd accidentally booted someone who'd paid her protection fees, and we investigated. Followed the trail here...SAM has the footage. Liam's got her, and we're sending her to Nakamoto for now, but I'll forward some info to Lexi."

"Alright, I'll look through the footage and wait for your report when you return. If Reyes gives you trouble, call me."

"Don't think that'll be a problem, but will do if necessary. Thanks Ryder. Harper out."

So they’d rescued someone the Outcasts screwed over, but what the fuck had spooked Cora so badly? She started to ask SAM to give her a summary of the team’s findings when the AI spoke in an urgent tone.

"Ryder, I have made a discovery in this data from Outcast headquarters."

"What is it, SAM?"

"There are still kett at large on Kadara. Sloane Kelly and her lieutenants have been keeping the information quiet."

A breath hissed in through her teeth. "Have they been working on it?" she asked.

"They seem to fear that action would draw attention to their initial failure to eradicate the kett, which would create unrest," SAM answered. "However, I have run a search on comm chatter with this information in mind and have discovered rumors of kett activity. It seems the information suppression will not last."

"So, they’ve just hushed it up?"

"So far, yes. Kaetus favors asking for your assistance, but Sloane refuses because she does not trust your motivations."

"Well, she’s not wrong. Fuck, though. This is...big. They’ve got to know they can’t sit on this forever. Any information on what they’re planning to do about it?"

"Not yet," he said. "I suggest you review the records as well."

"Yeah, I better," she sighed. "When I’m done, I want you to give me a summary of the situation Cora called in about, and then I’ll view the footage."

"Yes, Pathfinder. A warning, the footage is extremely...graphic. The team was quite upset."

"Yeah...that’s not ominous at all. I’m definitely starting to think this planet needs some kind of exorcism."

SAM not responding with a quip or a joke told her just how serious their discovery was. Ryder shivered and tried to put it out of her mind before opening the first of many files from Outcast headquarters.

 


 

Ryder ran laps around the cargo bay upper deck, music blasting in her ears. She needed to break something. Preferably Sloane Kelly’s face, but at this point, anything would do.

Why don’t we have a heavy punching bag? I need a fucking punching bag.

She thought longingly of the padded rooms the Alliance had for vanguard training. Slamming into a wall at the speed of sound would be just the thing right now.

She couldn’t head outside to blow off steam, either. She couldn’t trust herself not to start shit with the first Outcast she saw in the port. Everyone else was busy, and it was a terrible idea to head out to the badlands alone. The team was still out in the field for another couple hours. Drack would probably oblige her with sparring, but Ryder didn’t want to draw Lexi’s ire by messing up his prosthetics right after she fixed everything up. There was also no way Ryder could tell him that without deeply insulting him. Besides, he’d been napping when she went looking for him an hour ago.

So she ran, and tried to convince herself that it was a bad idea to murder Sloane and all her lieutenants. With her bare fucking hands. Right in the middle of the market.

Revenge is not good enough motivation, Sara.

stomp stomp stomp breathe

Absolute power corrupts, even when you think you’re using it for good reasons, Sara.

stomp stomp STOMP breathe

Maybe especially then. Righteousness should be fuel, not an end.

stomp STOMP breathe STOMP STOMP breathe

She swiped the sweat off her forehead with her wrist. Her legs were starting to ache.

*Ryder, you are showing signs of dehydration.*

A little while longer, then I’ll break for water.

*I will remind you in ten minutes.*

She nodded.

I have to stop her. I have to stop this.

She took a deep breath and kept running.

 


 

Jaal stood with a stretch and removed his visor to wipe his eyes. They’d made progress, but the transponder still wasn’t quite working. It was time for a break.

"So, it looks like we’ll need the comm engineers on Voeld to help us after all, huh?" Gil asked, sounding tired. Jaal looked over at the frustration in his voice.

"Yes," he nodded. "I’m sorry I couldn’t do more."

Gil made a dismissive noise and picked up the transponder. "Please, I wouldn’t have been able to get half as far without your help. At least now I kind of understand what’s going on," he said. "I better get this thing back into storage. Ryder will have kittens if I leave it out."

"Kittens?"

He chuckled, and Jaal followed him out of the tech lab. Gil turned back with a grin as he stepped through the cargo bay doors.

"Cats—domesticated animals. Their babies are kittens."

"Yes, I know, but why—" Jaal grabbed Gil to pull him out of Sara’s way at the last second. She went stomping past at high speed, shouting "Sorry!" over her shoulder as she slowed.

Gil headed into engineering to store the transponder while Jaal leaned on the railing by the lift and waited for her. After taking another lap at a walking pace, she came over to throw herself down near him with an angry noise. She picked up her water bottle and drank half of it before beginning to methodically stretch her muscles. An exhausted scowl covered her face.

"Was your work that frustrating today?" he asked her.

"Mmm," she nodded, folding herself over toward her toes. She sat back up and sighed. "I’ll call a meeting tonight after the team’s in."

He nodded in acceptance.

"Hey Ryder," Gil called as he came out of engineering. Jaal saw her close her eyes and swallow a groan.

"Yeah, Gil, what's up?" she asked, leaning back against the wall. She picked up her water bottle and took slow sips.

"I think I've just about figured this damn thing out, with Jaal's help," he tilted his head in Jaal’s direction and crossed his arms. "The thing is, there's still a chance the kett might find us when we switch it on, if they're paying attention—and they're just the kind of sneaky anal retentive bastards to do that. Basically, if we can find them, they can find us—if they're looking for it during that open window. We might be able to work around that, but I need help from some of the comm engineers on Voeld."

"We might mask our signal in the noise from the Scourge, or generate a false response code," Jaal said.

"Right," Gil nodded and turned back to Ryder, "but that's what I need to talk to experts on Voeld about, because—"

She interjected and held up a hand, "Before you start talking shop—I'm correct in assuming we don't want to use this thing's real IFF, because the kett are also the kind of anal retentive bastards to notice that it's the one they gave Terev, and extrapolate from there?"

"Yeah," Gil shrugged. "You did say safety first about a million times, Ryder."

"Okay," Ryder nodded and took a large drink of water before setting it down. She leaned forward and pulled up her omnitool. "With this and the lead on the asari ark, looks like our next stop will be Voeld, after a resupply on Aya. I'll have the Nexus send some supplies there for us to pick up."

She looked up with a stony expression. "Before we enter the system and while we are there, this thing stays locked in a lead box, lined with aluminum foil, surrounded by copper wiring, in a stasis field, clear?" Gil sighed, but nodded. Ryder glared at him. "I'm not kidding. I'd break out the goat's blood and burn some incense if we had either one. I'm half tempted to surround the damn thing with a ring of salt. I want all the bases covered twice. This thing is your brand new puppy until I say otherwise, Brodie. Do not leave it unsupervised, and do not let it pee on the carpet. Take. No. Chances."

Jaal shook his head and looked down with a smile. Ryder turned to him and he looked back up. "Will you connect Gil to the people he needs to talk to, and update Evfra?"

"Of course."

"Thanks," she said, typing. "when the time comes, I’ll coordinate with the Nexus. We should be about ready to plan our move here, and after the port is settled we can start negotiating a colony." She looked back up at Jaal with a tired smile, "Then I can finally trade your griping about Kadara for Vetra's griping about Voeld."

"I thought you liked Kadara?" Jaal teased, holding out a hand for her.

"I'm pretty sure I said without the murderers and the sulfur," she said, rolling her eyes and standing. "Feels like I'll have to shave my head to get the smell out of my hair at this point." She gestured around her head.

Jaal pulled her close and kissed her cheek. He whispered, low and only for her, "I think I can make you something to help with that...and I'd...like to learn. Maybe during the stop on Aya?"

Sara’s mouth dropped slightly and her eyes brightened, half surprised and half charmed. "Really?" she asked.

In answer, he gave her a slightly widened smile and raised brow. She blushed and he couldn’t resist another kiss, closer to her temple so he could taste the salt of her sweat. He smiled in satisfaction when she shivered.

Gil cleared his throat. He was watching them with crossed arms and raised eyebrows. Sara stuck her tongue out at him.

"Jealous?" she asked smugly.

Gil pursed his lips crookedly and cocked his head. "Honestly? Kinda. Uh...not that I'm into you, Jaal, no offense," his ears were turning red and he looked down for a second, "but...yeah, you guys have something special, and...that'd be nice."

Sara’s eyes softened. "Yeah, it's…" she looked down and blushed again, "it is nice," she said quietly.

Stars above, this is adorable. Feladyr and Sahuna would be speechless.

Jaal crossed his arms and looked between them with wide eyes and a restrained grin.

"...What?" Gil asked nervously.

"Humans," Jaal said. "You're so careful with your feelings. It's like watching pups make new friends for the first time."

"Pups!?" Gil actually sounded slightly offended. Jaal started laughing.

Sara rolled her eyes and squeezed Jaal's arm affectionately. He smiled after her as she slipped away, then turned back to bicker cheerfully with Gil.

 


 

After dinner that night, Ryder called the entire ground squad to the meeting room. When everyone was settled, she leaned on the table facing them.

"You all know that I’ve been investigating the Collective to see if I want to back them in a coup to oust the Outcasts. Today we made a few discoveries that I think support that choice." She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. "Cora, Vetra, and Liam rescued a woman who’d been kicked out of the port—even after she’d paid her protection fees. She’d been taken by a group of cannibals."

Jaal gasped in horror and Drack crossed his arms with a tired creak and a sigh. Peebee was silent with wide eyes.

Cora cleared her throat. "It was...as bad as you can imagine. We took out the gang, but she was the only survivor. Dr. Nakamoto’s got her, and Lexi’s been updated to help with some treatment."

Ryder nodded. "So as awful as the Outcasts’ standards are, they can’t even be trusted to hold themselves to them. I found more evidence of that while the team was out today," she sighed. "In the data I swiped from their headquarters, SAM and I found evidence that not only did they not completely eradicate the kett from Kadara, they’ve been suppressing rumors about it to protect their power."

Drack grumbled, Liam cursed, and Peebee winced. Vetra nodded grimly. Jaal crossed his arms and stared and the floor looking worried and pissed off. Cora thinned her lips and took a slow breath.

"Even worse, they’ve known about it for weeks, but haven’t made a move because the port isn’t currently threatened, and any activity might show their hand. Rumors seem to be getting out of their control, though, so time’s running out. I think if we team up with the Collective to clean up the kett, that will swing support over to their side pretty substantially."

Ryder waited for a few seconds.

"So," she said, "with the Outcasts we know: They specifically don’t allow angara to join. They fund themselves through extortion and manufacturing a highly toxic drug, which they know angara are more susceptible to. When people in the port are murdered, they don’t investigate it properly or make any effort to stop it. They literally beat people in the street if they don’t pay their 'protection fees'. They keep such horrible track of their own records that they even turn out people who have paid their extortion money. They focus only on the port and leave everyone else to fend for themselves. They trade with pirates that have raided our allies, and have shown no sign of being willing to cooperate with the Nexus."

"The Collective is secretive and beats their prisoners," she shrugged. "I’ll be making surprise inspections to make sure they have actually stopped that, but it’s not going to be perfect. They’ve got just as much potential for corruption, and I don’t know who this Charlatan is, but I’m going to insist on meeting them as a condition of my support. On the other hand, they support Dr. Nakamoto, helped us stop the flow of Oblivion and provide support for Nakamoto to treat the addicts, and hand out free food in the slums. They also investigated and helped stop the murders in the port, and they’ve taken out most of the group responsible for the murders of that town of angara. They’re not focused solely on protecting the port and their inner circle."

Ryder looked around the room at grim faces. "It’s far from perfect, but it seems to me like the Collective is the obvious choice here. But this is a big deal and I’m not going to make a decision like this unilaterally. Tell me what you think."

"Hmph, I’ll probably be dead before it really matters," Drack said. Ryder rolled her eyes. "Anyway, I trust your judgment, kid. Makes sense to me."

"Lesser of two evils, right?" Liam said with a grimace and an overwhelmed shrug.

"Yeah," Ryder sighed and nodded. "Anyone else? You guys are pretty quiet."

Vetra laughed. "We don’t wanna make this decision any more than you do, Pathfinder."

"Taking out corrupt governments wasn’t covered in training, okay?" Ryder chuckled.

Cora smiled. "We better update the handbook," she sighed. The joke fell flat and silence took over once more.

Ryder looked to Jaal, who was still scowling in thought. Peebee’s eyes were huge and she held up her hands and shook her head wordlessly. Yeah, me too, Peebs.

Jaal suddenly spoke up. "Back the Collective."

Ryder raised her eyebrows, and he nodded decisively.

"Ok, so it sounds like we’re all agreed?" Ryder looked around and received only solemn nods. "Collective it is. I’ll set up a meeting with Reyes."

Chapter Text

Reyes met her at the door and curled his arm closely around her shoulders. He glanced over to the table where Liam and Cora sat and threw them a wink as he guided her inside.

When the door closed behind them, he dropped his arm and clapped her shoulder before making his way over to his trunk and pouring them each a glass. Reyes looked at the level on his bottle and sighed, then put it away. He brought over their drinks and let her choose one before picking up the other.

"So?" he asked, leaning back with affected nonchalance. "What did you want to discuss?"

Ryder took a slow drink and set it down carefully before answering. "I'll do it," she said, simply.

He sat up slowly and leaned on the table, considering her. "Really," he said.

"We all know the Nexus needs an outpost on Kadara. It's the closest thing to farmland we have until Eos starts producing. We all know I'm the only one who can get that Remnant shit to work. And we all know Sloane Kelly is a greedy xenophobic dictator." Ryder scowled into her drink and took a sip before looking up at him. "The Charlatan's willing to deal? I'll deal."

"And what about being more than just less evil?" he asked. "Have we managed to convince you?"

"Well, you're fairer with recruiting. You support Nakamoto and helped me stop them selling that awful shit. You're feeding hungry people. You took care of those...thieving murderers at Charybdis Point. I can't really complain about vigilante justice when there aren't any laws, so...good enough for now. Crux agreed to better treatment of prisoners. The Collective at least tries to treat angara equally. You work with the Resistance."

Reyes held his face calmly neutral.

"So," she said. "You let your Charlatan know that if they're willing to play nice with Initiative colonists then I'm willing to reset Kadara's vault and put in my best word for them with the Nexus. Once I meet them in person. Maybe we can open doors for exile reconciliation and contact between separated loved ones." She took a sip of her drink and leaned back. "They go for that, we can deal."

"I'll pass along the message," he said quietly.

She looked at him sharply. "One point I want to make crystal clear: no more fucking 'enhanced interrogation' or I walk. Non-negotiable."

He nodded solemnly.

"Good," she said. "Let's do it."

Reyes raised his eyebrows and his glass. She clinked hers against it and finished her drink.

 


 

Ryder was in her quarters looking through records of comm chatter and comparing it the team's scouting reports. They'd found few personal lockers from the Paarchero, and apparently others on Kadara had as well.

She'd gotten a message from Bradley saying that some APEX troops had been clearing kett from near Prodromos and had found some stasis pods. They were also from the salarian ark, and the kett seemed to be studying them.

Dread filled her stomach. Please just let it be a coincidence.

It probably wasn't. She'd have to tell Kallo.

Her omnitool pinged, startling her out of her worry. She threw the vid call to her screen before answering. Keema Dohrgun smiled at her.

Wonder if I was right?

"Hello, Keema," Ryder smiled back cordially. "Is there something I can help you with?"

"I have a meeting time and a navpoint for you, Sara."

A message flashed on her omnitool and she nodded at it, then looked back up. "Uh huh. I'm a bit surprised Reyes isn't the one calling with this information."

"He's moved on to a new project," Keema answered smoothly. "I'm to pass along an invitation and reassurance of your safety, but also make sure you understand that you are welcome to take whatever precautionary measures you feel necessary."

"Generous."

"I've said before: it pays to be generous when you can," Keema smiled.

"Well, I accept your invitation, Keema. Thank you."

"You're welcome, Sara," she said, and closed the call.

Tomorrow afternoon in Draullir. Jaal was going to love that, but there was no way they were going in without sniper backup. Vetra and Drack would work well, and might have connections that would be helpful.

Ryder took a deep breath.

Ok.

She left her quarters to prepare.

 


 

"You look like you're waiting for someone..." a familiar voice said.

Vetra held her breath and Drack started to growl. Jaal cursed quietly over the comm. Everyone drew weapons.

Surprise hit first, then hurt, before both were drowned out by the blood rushing through her temples. Ryder felt her face twist in rage.

"Reyes," she started in a whisper and got louder with every word, "Reyes Vidal. What the fuck? You asshole."

"Ryder, come on—" he started, hesitantly holding his hands out.

"Don't you fucking do that. You agreed. No more lies, remember?"

"Technically, you said no bullshit," he said with a sheepish grin. He tilted his head down slightly and held his hands up higher, like he was trying to appease her. It just pissed her off even more. She slammed her pistol into its holster, but didn't signal anyone else just yet.

"Then why are you bullshitting me right now?"

"Ryder, why does this even matter?"

"Because I trusted you! I gave you a chance! Twice, you asshole. You thanked me for trusting you while you were lying to me. I trusted you, and your goddamn Collective, to do the right thing!"

"That's what we want to do," he pleaded.

Ryder looked up with a pained laugh. "How am I supposed to believe that? When are you going to drop the next bombshell on me?"

She started toward him in anger. "I asked you before: Who are you, really? Are you actually in league with Sloane? Did you really not know your agents were torturing people? Have you really stopped, or just moved it to a better hidden location? Will I ever know? Have you been selling Resistance information you get to the Roekaar? To the kett? Can I trust you to do anything that you said you'd do if you take over? Are you pulling some kind of elaborate bait and switch? What else are you hiding from me and why the fuck should I ever trust you again?"

"That's not fair! None of it." Now Reyes looked like he was honestly hurt, which made her feel a vicious flame of satisfaction. "You didn't need to know the Charlatan's identity before, and now you do. I've done everything you asked. Met all your conditions. Tried like crazy to prove myself. I haven't lied."

"For someone who doesn't lie, you sure like your lies of omission!" Ryder yelled louder as she came closer.

"That's all they were!" He backed away, still holding his empty hands out. "Nothing I have ever said to you has been untrue, Sara! I swear it on my life."

"Do you swear it on mine? My crew's? On everyone on Kadara? On everyone in the Resistance that you have information on? Because that's what you're asking me to risk. The people I'm responsible for. The alliance I have bled for."

"Sara—"

"Don't call me that like you're my friend!" Ryder blinked away angry tears. "Even Sloane Kelly has been more trustworthy than you! At least she had the decency to be shitty to my face!"

"Sara. I swear. On my grandmother's roses," he whispered. His face looked open, raw, honest. She couldn't trust it.

Shit.

*Pathfinder,* SAM sent privately, *I believe he is currently being truthful. I am reviewing all your previous interactions with Vidal to look for patterns and discrepancies. I will alert you if I find anything.*

Thanks SAM.

"God damn it, Reyes." She pressed the heels of her palms to her forehead and turned away.

"Ryder. I'm unarmed," he held out his hands and turned slowly. "You're one of...six total people who know who the Charlatan is, counting me and your team here. Please, let's talk."

"Because we couldn't have talked about this at any point before now. When you hadn't just ambushed me. Now you want to talk. In a goddamn cave. Do you have any other ludicrous requests?"

"Well, honestly, I would feel more comfortable if you called off your sniper. Or at least had him come out in the open. I'm sure the four of you could take me out if it came to that."

She sighed. Even if he was bluffing, it was a safe bet. "Fine, if you bring out your squad." Jaal hissed over the comm.

"I didn't bring one."

"Bullshit."

"I promised," Reyes gave her a smile, which withered under her glare. "I trust you, Ryder," he said quietly. "Trust for trust, remember?"

*I do not detect anyone else in the immediate vicinity, Pathfinder.*

"God damn it, Reyes," she whispered again, signaling Jaal. He didn't say anything, but a minute later he uncloaked as he was walking up. He'd holstered his rifle, but crossed his arms to clearly display the firaan he held along his forearm.

Ryder pulled up her scanner and started going over Reyes with it. "Drack, stay there. Vetra, Jaal, check if there's anyone else, especially Keema Dohrgun. Bring in anyone you find."

"Keema is here, but she's the only one," Reyes said. "She should be near the entrance keeping watch. I can call her in if you want."

"And give you a chance to send out a kill code? No thanks," Vetra said. Her mandibles closed again as soon as she was done talking.

"You just hold still," Drack growled, holding his shotgun steady at center mass on a human. At this range it could probably tear Reyes in half, armor or no armor.

"Guess I deserve that," Reyes sighed.

"Yep," Ryder said, still carefully scanning him. "Sit," she ordered, "and take off your boots." He sat cross-legged on the dry cave floor and slowly took them off. She scanned and examined them carefully. Nothing hidden that she could find.

Think he might actually be telling the truth, SAM?

*I'm still going through data, but I think so. In your previous interactions, there have been points where he was hesitating, as if on the verge of revealing information, but did not. It seems likely he was nervous.*

So he's just a fucking dumbass, is what you're saying.

*I wouldn't have put it that way, but...yes.*

Goddamnit Reyes.

*Yes.*

Ryder dropped his boots next to him and stepped back. She crossed her arms and watched him. Reyes sighed and looked down at his clasped hands while he waited.

"What do you think, Drack?" she asked.

"Mmph. He's a good liar."

Reyes chuckled hollowly and shook his head.

"Think he's lying now?"

"Mmph."

"Uh huh. Well, if you decide, lemme know."

"Hmph."

Vetra called through the comm. "Sweep complete, Ryder. Found Dohrgun but nothing else. She's armed but not putting up a fight. Seems...agreeable."

"Good. Bring her in here."

Reyes sighed. "Can I put my shoes back on?" he asked.

Ryder let out a disgusted grunt and waved her hand in acquiescence. She turned away and took off her gloves to rub her eyes.

What was the fucking point of all this artifice?

"Reyes, you dear little clod. What did I tell you?" Keema's voice called from the passageway. Ryder looked up. Jaal held one of her arms firmly, and carried her rifle and firaan in the other hand. Her hands were in omnicuffs in front of her. Vetra followed with her weapon out.

Reyes had his arms rested across his bent knees. He groaned and rested his head on them.

"Yes, Keema, you were right. Happy?" 

"Why are you boots unfastened?" she asked, sounding surprised and curious.

Reyes sighed again. "Ryder checked them for weapons."

Keema doubled over as best she could and laughed until tears came from her eyes. Jaal deposited her on a flat rock a meter from Reyes and handed her weapons to Vetra. He drew his firaan and stayed close to watch her.

Gradually, Keema's laughter slowed and she held up her hands. "May I—" she chuckled, "may I explain, Pathfinder?" she asked, mirth still bubbling under her words. Reyes was looking less worried and more deeply irritated.

"Go ahead," Ryder sighed and crossed her arms.

"I told him to tell you long ago. Before the party. After you'd helped Ryota, actually. He didn't listen because he was afraid of how you'd react to the information. He's fretted over it for weeks. It was adorable, really."

Ryder stared at her. Because this has gone so well for him. Her face must have given something away because Keema chuckled again and nodded. "Yes, he is as dense as a rock," Keema said with affection. Reyes grumbled. "but also sincere, and sometimes far too trusting," she added.

Ryder snorted and raised her eyebrows at Reyes. "Really."

He looked uncomfortable. "Everyone's a cynic compared to you, Ryder. You're a shining beacon of sarcasm and hope."

"Why a fucking cave, Reyes?"

"Okay, I admit, it was melodramatic—" Ryder heard Vetra choke off a squawk. "but I wanted neutral ground and privacy in case you reacted...this way."

"You know if you'd told me before I probably wouldn't have reacted this way, right?"

Reyes nodded and stared down at his knees. "Like Keema said, I was afraid of what you'd think of me," he whispered.

Ryder sighed again. "What on earth made you think this was a good idea, Reyes?" she asked, pressing her palm between her eyebrows. "And why did you go along with this, Keema?"

"I would never contradict the plans of the Charlatan himself!" Keema laughed again.

"Would you stop that?" Reyes yelled. "You've got just as much—"

"Okay." Ryder said, cutting off the squabbling. "One: we have a lot of talking to do, because god help me I apparently have no common sense whatsoever. Two: we are leaving this goddamn cave and going somewhere with chairs. Three: I am fucking done right now and you've got long climb if you want off my shit list, Reyes. I'm not happy with you, either, Keema."

Keema raised her hands and brow and tilted her head as if to say fair enough. Reyes looked at the ground and nodded as if he'd expected that.

Ryder rubbed her eyes and sighed one more time. She looked around at her team. Vetra looked thoughtful, and had holstered her weapon. Drack still looked like he'd happily shoot someone. Jaal was watching Keema and Reyes sharply.

"Let 'em up and take her cuffs off," she ordered. "I'm going to radio for pickup. We're doing this on my turf."

 


 

Ryder sent everyone else to the meeting room and went to her quarters for a private debrief with Cora while she changed out of armor.

"You can't be serious," Cora said, staring at her.

"Yeah, I know. I know. Trust me, I yelled for a good ten minutes. And I had Drack threaten him with his shotgun at point blank range."

Cora's incredulous anger faded a bit at that, but she shook it off.

"How can you consider actually working with him after this? This is at least twice, that you know of."

"Honestly? Because he's only good at keeping secrets when he keeps his mouth shut and can throw up a flirtatious shield. I ignore it and demand he stop bullshitting, so he doesn't really know what to do with me."

"Neither do the rest of us, Ryder," Cora sighed. She groaned and looked up at the ceiling. "Shit. Even after this, the Collective is still a better bet than the Outcasts, aren't they?"

"You think so too?" Ryder asked, looking up from her shoes. "That makes me more nervous than if you disagreed. I was wondering if maybe the devil you know…"

"No. The Collective was already helping people before we got here, and Reyes himself has directly intervened to stop murderers. They fund Nakamoto's clinic, feed people…"

"And Sloane throws people to cannibals if they can't pay enough protection money."

"Yeah."

"Shit. What the fuck."

Cora laughed. "What'd he say anyway?"

"A bunch of panicked bullshit. Seemed sincere, though. SAM thinks there's a good chance he's telling the truth."

"Well, then…" Cora shrugged and held her hands out toward the door.

"Yeah." Ryder rubbed her eyes again. "Okay, let's go."

Chapter Text

The scene in the meeting room was...uncomfortable.

Reyes and Keema were sitting in chairs next to one another, backs to the railing.

Drack was standing at the top of one of the ramps, still holding his shotgun. He wasn't pointing it at anyone, but it was obvious that this was an option he was keeping open. Jaal was looming near the other with his arms crossed, still wearing his sidearm and firaan.

Vetra was lounging too casually on a couch. Liam was at the other end with wide eyes. Peebee was sitting on the central table kicking her legs and looking entertained.

Ryder took a deep breath. "Alright. Everyone but Cora, Vetra, and Jaal, out."

There were protests, of course.

"Aw, Ryder—"

"Wait, you want me to stay?"

"Kid—"

"Stop."

They stopped. Ryder closed her eyes and took another deep breath.

"I promise that none of you want to be the target of my deep and abiding annoyance right now," she said firmly. She pointed to the catwalk. "Out."

Liam hopped up and grabbed Peebee's arm to drag her out. Drack narrowed his eyes and looked around, then left with a grumble and a steely glare at Reyes. Cora went to sit next to Vetra, who sat up straighter and looked nervous. Jaal hadn't moved.

Ryder rubbed her forehead. Gonna have a headache for a week after this.

"Ok, first: Cora, Vetra, help me rearrange things so we can all talk a little easier. Second: Jaal, come over with the rest of us and stop brooding over there like a bird of prey."

She started by dragging a chair over in front of Reyes and Keema, and the others followed suit until there was a rough semi-circle. Ryder sat in the middle with a data pad and stylus. "SAM," she said, "start private archival recording."

"Acknowledged, Pathfinder. Recording beginning now."

Reyes looked uncomfortable at that, but stayed silent.

"So," she said, looking between Reyes and Keema, "give me your pitch. All of it. No bullshit. No omissions. Everything. Why do you want the port, and what will you do once you have it?"

Reyes looked over at Keema, who smirked and held her hand out in invitation. He sighed hard through his nose and closed his eyes.

"Well, like I told you before: Sloane Kelly is a tyrant who uses extortion and intimidation to control the port, and ignores everyone else," he folded his hands together and took a deep breath. "We want to change that," he said, looking Ryder in the eye. "We'd allow anyone who was in the port before Kelly took over to return. We plan to continue outreach outside of the port through additional food and medical support and establishing friendly connections to groups of local angara. Eventually, we'd like to form a militia with them in case of further kett invasions."

"You think the local angara will listen to you?" Vetra asked, surprised.

"They'll listen to me," Keema said. She had crossed her legs and had her hands folded in her lap. She was lounging in her chair, observing with a serene expression.

"And what will you say to them?" Jaal demanded.

Keema turned to him with mild surprise. "Whatever is appropriate for the situation, of course. One Kadaran traitor to another," she smiled derisively, and he bristled.

"Stop." Ryder raised her hand and looked between them. Jaal quieted with an expression of distaste, and Keema shrugged.

"Will you establish any sort of laws or legal system?" Ryder asked.

Keema shrugged again. "Maybe, if necessary. But only basic things."

"Like representation?"

"Sara," Keema sighed indulgently. "This is Kadara."

"Look, I just want to establish that you will actually be reasonably fair to everyone, you'll earn your keep, and you'll negotiate with the Nexus so we can establish a farming colony on some unclaimed land."

"So you will activate the Remnant vault?" Keema asked, showing some enthusiasm for the first time.

"I'll discuss that with the faction in charge, once the port is stabilized," Ryder answered blandly.

Keema smiled and nodded in apparent approval.

"Moving on," Cora said, "how do you plan to take control, and what do you want from us?"

"We've already got a decent number of dissatisfied Outcast members who will probably happily switch ranks," Reyes said. "We've also got people in the slums and badlands who were kicked out, along with plenty of dissatisfied people in the port. When we make our move, I'm confident we'll have support."

"What move will that be?" Ryder asked.

"That depends on what support you can provide," Reyes smirked and raised his eyebrows.

He seems to have bounced back easily. Ryder blinked at him, unconvinced.

"Alright," he sighed. "We will take out specific key Outcast members, including Sloane and Kaetus. We want control of the port and independence from any Nexus colony that may be placed on Kadara."

Ryder nodded, made some notes on her data pad, and sent a file to Cora, Vetra, and Jaal. She folded her hands and closed her eyes while she waited for them to look it over. Reyes shuffled around. Keema was silent.

After a few minutes, she asked, "Any additions?" and looked around at her team.

Vetra shrugged.

Cora shook her head and rested her chin in her hand.

Jaal let out a puff of air and said, "No."

"Good." She took a deep breath. "First, Kadara is an angara world. However, Initiative exiles have pretty thoroughly colonized it, and it seems like at least some of the angara here are willing to deal with them. Is that true, Keema?"

"They're just people," she shrugged and nodded. "Some are worth the time."

"So," Ryder said, "the Initiative abandoned them on your doorstep and you took them in. Some are good roommates and some aren't."

Keema chuckled. "I'd say that's a reasonable summary."

"What do you want to do about it?" Ryder asked. "I don't have the option of rounding them up and throwing them off planet, and you probably don't want me to do that with all of them, anyway."

Keema hummed and threw Reyes a smile. "Maybe just a few," she said. He rolled his eyes.

"The cat's out of the bag, and there's no getting it back in now," Reyes said.

"He means you're stuck with us," Ryder told her, "So what do you want to do? How can we make sure they pull their own weight and don't try to take over?"

"Leave that to us," Keema said slyly, crossing her legs again. "I have some ideas."

"That sounds...ominous," Cora said.

Keema glanced at her. "I'm not as shortsighted as Sloane Kelly. There's no reason to alienate people who are already here. I'm not going to extort them or force them out of the port, but they'll have to get used to abiding by our rules."

"Well," Ryder shrugged and looked back down at her data pad. "in that case, here are my conditions for backing your coup and restarting the vault."

Reyes and Keema listened closely as she started listing them.

"No torture. No favoritism. Whatever due process looks like here, it will be applied equally. People outside the port have representatives. Former Outcasts are treated equally after a probationary period. If Soane Kelly or any high ranking Outcasts surrender, you allow them to peacefully leave the planet instead of executing them."

Reyes looked up suddenly at that one, then over to Keema. She had been listening calmly, but sat up straight once Sloane was mentioned.

"No." Keema said with finality.

Ryder stopped and raised her eyebrows. "To which part?" she pursed her lips.

"I'm not letting Sloane and her lieutenants go," Keema said. "The rest of it, fine, but I am not leaving an enemy to come back for revenge later."

"Agreed," Reyes said.

"You can't be sure they would," Cora said.

Keema turned to her and glared. "Yes. I can."

Ryder tapped her foot and rubbed her mouth while she looked around at the group. "Vetra?" she asked.

A pause, then a flanging sigh. "I agree with her, Ryder," Vetra said reluctantly. "Sloane Kelly was always ruthless, and...she's changed. It's a definite possibility. Maybe even probability."

"It's what I would do in her position," Keema said with a dismissive shrug. Jaal took a calming breath and glowered at her.

Ryder bit her tongue and looked down at her feet while she thought. Fuck. "Alright," she sighed, "I don't like it, but I'm going to defer to your judgement."

Jaal let out a noise of disgust. Keema sneered at him. "I suppose that wouldn't meet with the ideals of decent angara, would it?"

He grit his teeth and breathed slowly. Electricity sparked down the back of his head and from his fingers.

"For the second time: stop," Ryder said sternly, staring at both of them. "We are not doing this now. This is not my fight, and I am not taking part in it, and if you want to stay in this meeting, neither will you. This is not the time or place to rehash a centuries old divide. You can argue later."

She tucked her datapad and stylus next to her and rubbed her eyes while everyone shuffled awkwardly.

"What is going on with Sloane?" Ryder asked. "She was the leader of the Nexus militia. A hothead, but well respected. What the fuck happened?"

Reyes sighed, and she looked up. He shrugged. "Tann."

"Yeah," Vetra said, nodding. "She really believed that Tann was dangerous, and when the revolt failed..."

"Ok, but there's a big gap between conscientious mutiny and becoming a damn mobster," Ryder said.

"She was always a little power hungry," Reyes said. "But fighting Tann and losing...something snapped. She decided that negotiating wasn't going to work anymore, so she just stopped doing it. She doesn't trust anyone other than the people she surrounds herself with."

"And their loyalty won't be swayed?" Ryder asked.

"Some, maybe," Vetra shrugged, "But others...no. Kaetus, for example? Never."

"Ugh," Ryder said, flopping back in her chair. She rubbed her forehead. "Why did Kandros throw in with Tann instead of Kelly, anyway? How did the militia split go down?"

"Well, most turians prefer order over chaos," Vetra said. "They don't really go in for revolutions the same way humans do. Kaetus on the other hand...he followed Sloane all the way to Andromeda, so Kadara was a short hop."

"Wait. They?" Cora asked.

"I'd say 'we,' but I don't really have a strong connection to the rigidity and order of most turian cultures," Vetra shrugged. "I've had to be more flexible than that to survive."

Ryder sighed. "So anyway, Sloane went off the deep end and you're convinced she can't be reasoned with or taken down peacefully?"

Reyes flattened his lips and shook his head. Vetra brought her mandibles in and did the same.

"Alright," Ryder said, sitting up straight again. "Do you both agree to the other terms I proposed?"

They shared a look, then Keema answered for both of them. "We do."

"Once you have control of the port, do you agree to negotiate in good faith for the placement of an Initiative farming colony on unclaimed land, in exchange for my activation of the Remnant vault?"

"Yes," Keema nodded.

"Then we're agreed," Ryder said. "Unless anyone else here has a complaint about the terms."

She waited, but no one objected.

"Good. Reyes, lie to me again and I will feed your balls to an adhi. Keema, next time he comes to you with a harebrained scheme, do not go along with it."

Keema laughed and agreed readily, while Reyes crossed his arms and looked down with a shake of his head.

"SAM, end archival recording."

"Yes, Pathfinder. Recording terminated."

"Alright," Ryder said, leaning forward to prop on her elbows. "now let's talk strategy."

Vetra made a distressed noise, and Ryder gave her a sidelong glance. "Just briefly," Ryder reassured her. She noticed Reyes relaxing a bit as well.

"So, the information I managed to pull during the party not only confirmed rumors of kett troops remaining on Kadara, but there's solid evidence the Outcasts have known about them for a while."

Reyes hissed and scowled, but Keema just nodded her head with a resigned expression.

"We suspected," Reyes said, "but couldn't confirm it. The kett are...behaving strangely. More stealthy than usual. Any sites we suspect they attacked could also have been plausible hits by pirates. There are no confirmed sightings."

"Well, the Outcasts have beaten you to the punch. They're definitely here. Their scouts have photo evidence," Ryder said, "but Sloane doesn't want to tip her hand, so she's just sitting on it."

Keema scoffed and rolled her eyes.

"The rumors are getting out of hand," Cora said as she nodded at her. "They won't be able to keep this quiet much longer."

"It's really too pathetic, isn't it?" Keema sighed. "For all their tough bluster, the foundations the Outcasts are resting on are so flimsy."

"But if we take them out," Reyes said, nodding slowly, "and get proof that we did, and that they knew and did nothing, that would be a huge mark against them and should swing more support our way."

"It should at least gain you some sympathy," Vetra nodded. "And even if people still aren't sure about you, it might be enough to convince people to oust Sloane on its own, on top of everything, leaving a handy power vacuum."

"Alright," Ryder said, bracing her hands on her knees and drawing everyone's attention, "I think that's enough to start. We can meet again tomorrow to make more detailed plans, but I think we are all done for today." She looked around for confirmation and got a few exhausted, relieved expressions. "Good." She stood, and the tension started to disperse.

As they scooted furniture back into position, Vetra lifted her mandibles unevenly and sighed at Ryder. "You know, I didn't sign up to be an expert advisor to a Pathfinder, Sara."

"Well, I didn't sign up to be a Pathfinder," Ryder patted her shoulder with a grin. "Join the club."

Vetra laughed with an exhausted subvocal keen as she left. Cora had already headed toward the biolab with a stern expression. Reyes followed after her, looking worried. Jaal rubbed his eyes and stalked off to the tech lab without a word.

Keema watched him briefly, then turned to Ryder with a raised brow. She cleared her throat and blushed.

"So it looks like Reyes is going to be a while," Ryder gestured to where he was lingering in the doorway of the biolab. "How about a cup of tea?"

 


 

Ryder had sent a text to Cora: Say the word if you need a rescue. [Sara] but never got a response. She and Keema went through two pots of naashoay while they waited. Keema was surprisingly good at aimless smalltalk, which was refreshing after everything else. Eventually, Ryder's mind wandered back to more serious topics.

"So...do you think Kadara might ever reconcile with the other angara worlds?" Ryder asked over the cooling remnants of her last cup.

Keema sighed and considered. "People on Kadara are hardened," she said. "We're cautious. There's quite a divide between us and more communal angaran cultures."

"Where did it come from?" Ryder asked.

Keema looked surprised and slowly finished her tea. "You haven't already heard the story from your...excessively virtuous partner?" she asked.

Ryder rolled her eyes and ignored the dig at Jaal. "No."

"Well," she said, sitting her cup down and looking at it while she talked, "we Kadarans tend to prefer to take care of our own first, and we're...cautious about offering aid or extending our arms in alliance." Ryder was surprised to feel her energy from across the table. It was...dense, spiky. She crossed her arms and looked over Keema's posture. Defensive.

"Hmm, that...isn't entirely unfamiliar," Ryder said slowly. "but it doesn't seem to cover everything. It actually sounds pretty similar to the reception we received on Aya."

Keema laughed bitterly. "Hypocrites."

Ryder relaxed and settled her hands together in her lap while she waited. Keema shrewdly examined her posture before her defensive energy dissipated and she seemed to relax a bit.

"You know how the Scourge separated angaran worlds?" Keema asked. Ryder nodded. "Well, Kadara wasn't as eager to rejoin the collective government. They preferred to stay more separate, which was not met with approval from other angara at the time. Then, the kett came and..." Keema gestured eloquently.

"Everything went to shit?" Ryder asked.

"Yes," Keema sighed.

"So, where do you get 'it pays to be generous' from, then?" Ryder asked. "That sounds more altruistic than you're painting Kadaran culture to be."

"It's more than blind altruism," Keema said. "You'll notice I do add 'when you can' to that statement?" she looked up with a crooked brow, then sighed. "Sometimes, you can't afford to. I think we're practical about that. When the kett struck, the people on Kadara reserved their strength for defending themselves, and were branded traitors for it. After a while, vesagara from other worlds started making their way here to start new lives, find new families. A fresh start, such as they could manage. If they didn't cause trouble, they were allowed to stay. They hadn't wronged us, and survival is hard enough here without policing people who haven't done anything to us yet. So...our world became..." she looked into space, searching for a description.

"The dirty little secret?" Ryder offered.

"Yes. I was going to say the compost heap," Keema smirked, "unpleasant and smelly, but full of necessary activity."

Ryder laughed and stood to carry their dishes to the sink. "Vivid, but apt," she said over her shoulder. Keema chuckled and went quiet. She seemed to be about to ask a question when her wrist tool blinked.

"Seems he's finally ready," Keema said with amusement in her eyes. "How shall we explain away my presence on your ship?"

"Got just the thing," Ryder said, heading for her gear storage in her quarters. Keema followed. She was waiting curiously in Ryder's doorway when Reyes climbed down the ladder with a noise of wounded pride.

"Sara," he gasped, "after everything we've shared, you invite Keema into your quarters before me?"

"Don't push it," Ryder said, pointing at him sternly. "You're still on my shitlist. Besides," she said, tossing Keema her cloak, "she's a much smoother operator than you. Take notes."

Ryder climbed the ladder with a smirk while Keema laughed and Reyes sputtered behind her.

This might just turn out okay. I hope.

Her goodbye with Reyes was easily covered with allusions to a lovers' spat. Keema slipped out and made herself scarce before the cloak ran out. She'd be able to use it to come and go for planning before the actual coup.

Ryder closed the airlock behind her and took a deep breath to center herself. When she opened her eyes, she noticed Suvi and Peebee were avoiding looking at her and Kallo was blinking at her anxiously. She sighed and rubbed her forehead.

"Okay, guys, let's have it. You just wanna know the scoop, or you have other questions too?"

Suvi turned her chair around and frowned sympathetically. "Well, I'd like an update on our plans, if you don't mind, Pathfinder," she said carefully.

Ryder groaned and walked over to lean on the console. "Ugh, don't Pathfinder at me, Suvi. Not unless it's sarcastic."

"Alright, Sara," Suvi smiled softly. "What's going on?"

"Better," Ryder said, glancing to make sure Peebee and Kallo were listening too. "Reyes was apparently a bundle of nerves and waited too long to tell me he was actually the Charlatan, and got nervous and stupid. Anyway, after I yelled at him, and Keema Dohrgun, that's the angara woman who was here, and the new face of port leadership if this coup is pulled off—we came to an agreement. We're still backing the Collective."

Suvi looked surprised, but Peebee just nodded.

"Cool," Peebee said. "Keep me posted if you need something," she said, and ducked back into the escape pod.

Kallo hummed and tapped his hands on his knees.

"Thoughts?" Ryder asked, glancing between Suvi and Kallo.

"Not...immediately," Suvi said, "but thanks for the update. It's time for me to break for the evening now the tension on the ship has come down by about 80%," she said, picking up her cup and heading for the door. Ryder smiled and lifted her hand in a short wave.

"What about you, Kallo?" Ryder asked.

He turned large, sharp eyes on her, with a rare serious expression. "Just be careful," he said. "I'm sure they have plants already, in the port and within the Outcasts. Some could be double agents. Whatever they plan, Sloane won't go down easy."

"Those are good points," Ryder said, "which sound remarkably insightful for someone who doesn't care for political intrigue." She crossed her arms and smirked at him.

"I'm not completely hopeless, Ryder!" Kallo scoffed and crossed his arms with a wide grin before quickly fading back to seriousness. "Really, be careful," he said.

"We will. Thanks Kallo." He nodded sharply and turned back to his console with typical abruptness. Ryder patted him on the shoulder before she left the bridge.

Her feet took her to the tech lab without conscious input, but she hesitated outside the door.

Jaal had been quiet for the past couple days, ever since they'd decided to throw in with the Collective. Today hadn't helped. He'd barely said a word to her since yesterday, when she'd briefed everyone on the plans for meeting the Charlatan. At the time, Ryder had been too busy to think about it, but now that she had a chance to pause for breath...shit. He'd been incredibly pissed off about the deception, clearly didn't trust Reyes or Keema, and was obviously unhappy about the decision to execute Sloane and her inner circle. It wasn't like she disagreed, exactly, but...shit.

She couldn't please everyone, and he'd either trust her judgement or not. They'd already had one fight about it, and she wasn't looking forward to arguing about command decisions that she wasn't happy about either. Especially with her damn boyfriend.

Instead of knocking, Ryder sighed and turned away. Maybe the Alliance did have a point or two with all those rules about fraternization.

There was some small solace in the realization that Jaal wouldn't expect to hold sway with her because of their relationship. She huffed an exhausted laugh, remembering him thumping Evfra's desk and calling him an imbecile at the top of his lungs. If they did end up fighting, it would be because he disagreed and adamantly refused to mince words about it.

She just didn't have the wherewithal to face that right now. Or, if she was honest, the experience to help her deal with the situation. Not like that was anything new, though.

Thanks Dad, once again. Excellent decision. Gold star. What the fuck were you thinking?

With another sigh, Ryder rubbed her eyes and turned toward the research console to pull up some APEX reports.

Chapter Text

Once the tech lab doors closed behind him, Jaal stopped. He carefully placed his weapons down on the workbench and turned to start stripping off his skkutting armor. He threw his rofjinn carelessly onto his bed, followed by his suit. He yanked comfortable clothes on, then kicked the mess to the end of his bed before flopping down.

He bent his legs and propped his elbows on his knees.

He pressed his palms into his closed eyes and let his thoughts free.

He breathed for a moment, feeling his bioelectricity arc across and around him in wild flares.

You're such a coward.

No. I am not. I need some time alone to calm myself before I can have a productive conversation.

Sara doesn't need a productive conversation. She's overwhelmed and too busy. I just left her to deal with them without even checking if she wanted help. We haven't properly talked in days. Is she avoiding me?

She is busy. She is an adult, and capable of asking for help when she needs it. I am not responsible for her.

What did Lexi say? She's working from a different context. When I'm calmer and she's open to it, I will ask to talk. We're all stressed, but we will manage. I have managed through worse. I also can't help anyone if I can barely contain my anger.

Anger is the right response to betrayal of trust and cold blooded execution of people who might willingly surrender.

Maybe, but I trust Sara and Vetra, and both of them have good reasons for conceding to the Collective's demand.

I do not trust either of them.

No, but my reasons for that are complicated and I'm not unbiased. That's why I'm not the only one making this decision. Neither is Sara. She's gotten multiple viewpoints. She's making an informed decision, and she obviously doesn't like it either, but it's a reasonable choice.

Evfra wouldn't hesitate. Sometimes there are no good options available.

I still hate it. I hate being part of this. I hate that Sara is part of this. It's just like the Roekaar. I hate killing our own people.

Yes.

He slid his palms up to his forehead and focused on breathing evenly while the tears fell.

 


 

Ryder spent about half an hour prioritizing future APEX missions based on her intelligence and sent the list off to Cora to review before she forwarded it to Kandros. She leaned on the table and stared at the console for a while until the information started to blur. She still had no idea how to talk to Jaal, or even if she should.

Guilt settled in her chest. Maybe I should actually read some of that stuff Lexi gave me. Ugh. I just...

She rubbed her forehead, trying to relieve the tension headache that had been getting worse all day.

A shower. Sleep. That would help. Okay.

Ryder took two steps toward the ladders and froze as the doors to the tech lab opened. Fuck, was her first thought, and oh hell if that didn't fuel the guilt that was already burning strong.

She tried to relax her muscles and expression as she turned to face him.

Jaal looked slightly surprised, and hesitant, but gave her a small, genuine smile. "I thought you would be asleep already, taoshay."

She crossed her arms and looked down. "It's ok, I was just about to get ready for bed. We don't have to...this fight can wait until later. Can't say I'm looking forward to it, either," she shrugged and looked up with a half frown.

"What are you expecting us to fight about?" he asked, sounding concerned. He came closer and tentatively touched her arm.

"What?"

"Are you upset with me?" he asked.

"What?"

Jaal chuckled in surprise, sounding relieved. "It seems...can we talk, Sara?" he asked, "Or are you too tired? I wouldn't be surprised if you were after the past few days."

Ryder sighed, stepped closer, and felt some of her tense nausea fade. "Yes. Please," she said, resting her head on his chest.

Soft warmth flowed from his touch and he slid his arms around her shoulders for a hug. He bent forward and kissed the top of her head.

Her eyes burned and sobs trapped in her throat were suddenly threatening to explode. She grit her teeth and took a slow breath before squeezing him and stepping back. She looked up to find Jaal seeing right through her.

He cupped her cheek and said, "Why don't you get ready for bed while I get us some tea?"

She smiled and leaned into his hand. "Okay, but none for me. I had my fill while waiting for Reyes with Keema."

Jaal nodded and kissed her forehead. "Okay."

They each headed down a ladder and Jaal reached out to stroke her hair before ducking into the bathroom. Ryder sighed while she pulled out pajama pants and a t-shirt.

Talk about missed signals. I really need to read that information Lexi gave us.

No time now, though.

She grabbed her extra fleece and wrapped it around her shoulders.

"Hey SAM, privacy mode for the night, ok?"

"Of course. Good night, Sara."

Ryder dimmed the lights and plopped on the end of a couch to wait. She'd gotten the blanket properly tucked under her feet by the time Jaal came in, holding a mug of tea and a glass of water.

He glanced around as his eyes adjusted and started toward her with a smile, then started laughing when he saw her position. She had pulled up her knees and was nearly completely wrapped in her blanket. It was tightly tucked around her and pooled around her neck, revealing only her head.

"You—" he started, paused, "what are—" he sat the glass of water on the table near her and leaned down to kiss the top of her head. "You look comfortable, Sara." His chuckles puffed through her hair.

"I am, thank you," she grinned at him while he settled at the other end of the couch.

"I love you," he sighed, stretching a leg out to pet her with his bare foot.

"I love you, too," Ryder said, squeezing her knees tightly.

"You've been very busy and very stressed the past few days. I haven't wanted to interfere and I haven't been sure how to help," Jaal said, gently tucking his foot under hers.

Ryder shuffled to rest her head against the back of the couch and rubbed her feet over his. He glanced down at them with a small smile. "I figured you were pissed off and stressed out yourself. Especially today with..." she sighed deeply and rolled her eyes, "everything."

He nodded and took a sip of tea before putting his mug down.

"I wanted to offer, but I hesitated because I didn't want to make it worse. Some of the information I've read about how humans deal with stress, and more about...gendered expectations?" He glanced at her quizzically and shrugged. "I didn't want to give you the impression I didn't think you could handle it, so I just waited for you to come to me if you needed support."

She nodded and slumped down. "Which I should have. I thought you were angry about backing the Collective, about Reyes lying, about Keema being extremely Kadaran, and about me agreeing to help them execute Sloane and high ranking Outcasts. I know you're not happy about any of it, and you're not one to hold back your opinions."

Jaal crossed his arms and considered her with his brow furrowed. "This is why it's better to talk about these things," he said while a smile slowly curved one corner of his mouth.

"Yeah," she sighed. "I guess. I worried I'd have to justify my decisions, or at least get you to back off. So I avoided talking to you, because I already had to justify my decisions to myself and I just didn't..." Ryder closed her eyes and swallowed. Her throat burned again and she forced herself to breathe shallowly. She felt his weight shift and move away, then he was kneeling beside her and his hand was smoothing over her hair, sending warm comfort.

His thumb gently stroked from the corner of her eye back to her temple and she turned to look at him. His eyes were swimming and he looked so heartbroken that an apology was ready to leap from her mouth. He spoke first.

"Sometimes the best choice still doesn't feel completely right," he said, stroking her temple with his thumb again, "but that doesn't mean you've made a mistake. The right decision can still hurt."

The painful pressure in her throat burst out into an agonized sob and she burrowed into him. His arms immediately enveloped her and he started whispering soft nonsense into her hair. Jaal's arms tightened and shifted, and he carried her over to the bed while holding her in a soothing cocoon of energy.

She shook through overpowering hiccuping cries that she'd had no idea she was holding back. Her jaw ached and she could barely breathe. Her tears were soaking his neck, saturating his shirt, but she couldn't stop.

"It's alright, Sara," he whispered as he lay down next to her, "I'm here."

"II'm—so-ho-ry—I"

"It's alright," he said, kissing her hair and starting to hum softly.

Jaal held her under his chin and ran his fingers through her hair, from her temples down the back of her head. Once her sobs softened into something quieter, he tucked his other hand under her head and scooted down to rub her back and press his forehead against hers.

"I know it hurts," he said, "but it's good to grieve. I wish you hadn't been holding this in alone."

Ryder drew in a few shuddering breaths and wiped her face. "II didn't know I was! But I still need to stay strong for everyone. I can't just lose it like this when there's so much at stake."

She sighed and sat up to reach for tissues. Jaal watched her quietly, then went to get the water he'd brought her. She accepted it with a small rueful smile and sipped. When she was done, he took it from her to put it on the bedside table. She fiddled with a clean tissue.

"You do need to stay strong. This is how you do that," he said, taking one of her hands and squeezing.

She scoffed. "Crying like a baby whenever I have to make a tough decision?"

"Grieving when you're surrounded by tragedy."

Ryder frowned, but nodded before she looked up. His cheeks had dried tracks where he'd been crying with her, and the skin around his eyes was flushed. She sighed again. "How do you do that? Be so...understanding? Accepting?"

He smiled softly. "Practice."

She felt tears burn again and grabbed another tissue to blow her nose.

"Everything's so fucked up," she said. "We left with all this eager curiosity and hope and...here we are making the same fucking messes with different people."

"I'm still glad you came."

Ryder quickly glanced up, but his expression was the same open patience as before. He's a damn miracle. She swallowed and tucked away the thought while she tossed her tissues into the bin next to her bed.

She turned back and softly smiled at him. "Even knowing everything that would go wrong...if I could be sure you were here waiting for me, nothing would stop me from doing it all over again."

His expression barely changed, but there was a subtle shift of his eyes, a small flush, an aborted opening of his mouth. He looked down and reached for her hands. His love poured into them and he squeezed them while he took a deep breath.

Jaal looked back up and steeled himself. "I need to tell you something," he said. The smile he followed up with soothed the worry that snaked into her chest. She squeezed his hands back and scooted closer so her shin was tucked against his thigh. He seemed to deflate in relief and rested his head on hers.

"Sara, I love you," he whispered. She chuckled. "That's not it," he added, smiling. She nodded.

"I haven't been sure...and I wanted to wait until we had a quiet day or two, but I think I'll just have to manage, since that doesn't seem likely."

"No, it really doesn't," she laughed. "What is it?" He must have noticed the nerves that crept into her voice, because she felt a soothing warmth layer on top of the current he was sending.

"Have you read any of the material Lexi sent us?"

"Um..." she looked away guiltily. "No. I know I should have, but there's always work and... I'm sorry. You're important to me, and you've learned so much about us—you deserve the same attention from me."

Jaal nudged her face back up and smiled at her while he shook his head. "I understand. I asked because I didn't know how much I'd have to explain."

"About what?"

"Ushaara," he whispered, letting his hand drop back to hers.

"Ushaara..." she thought back through all the Shelesh words she knew, "is that the same root as ushior? Resonance?"

"Yes," he nodded. "It's...knowledge about your resonance. But knowledge isn't the right word. Humans don't have it. It's more instinctual knowledge, like...how certain smells attract and others repulse."

Ryder nodded, paying close attention. His energy was slowly withdrawing and his position was more closed off.

"So, this is about...bioelectricity? And attraction?" she carefully asked. Well, I am an alien. I figured we'd run into problems like this. She pushed aside the worries that were clamoring in the back of her mind. One thing at a time, Sara.

"Yes. And no. It's...I'm not...you know I don't know much about biology," he shrugged, "so those texts will probably be able to give you a better explanation. We say that partners have ushaara together when they are able to mate. It's necessary for reproduction to happen. It takes a variety of things to trigger it, and if it's not there, reproduction just doesn't occur," He paused and looked into the distance. "I suppose it...might be possible without it? But it's rare."

Ryder crossed her legs and propped her elbows on her knees. She leaned forward with her forehead wrinkled in concentration. So, like, an estrus cycle...? Is...what is he getting at? Does he want kids?! Like, with me?! Right now? That's not—we can't! Or maybe because we can't, he doesn't... Stop Sara. Listen to him.

Jaal was watching her cautiously. She swallowed and looked away.

"What are you afraid of, Sara?" he asked, worried.

She shook her head and forced herself to turn back. "Just...waiting to see where you're going with this," she said, trying to smile.

His eyes narrowed, but he let her get away with the lie for now. "It's...well," he said, "you know that angara aren't always fertile, and we often have sex for social bonding?"

"Yeah, it seems convenient. We're similar, but humans are fertile almost all the time. When you couple that with how we use sex for bonding, it...well, we've got a...long history of problems."

"I've read about it, a bit. It's sobering," he said, frowning. She nodded. "Instead of cycles like you have, we have ushaara. It shows up when partners have established a bond. When the people in the relationship are stable. I think it's something to do with chemicals and bioelectricity familiarity..." he shrugged. "I just know that...it happens later. Long term."

Ryder nodded. "And...you're...not going to be able to have that with me," she said in a small voice.

He actually laughed and she looked up in surprise. He was rubbing his forehead. "No, Sara, that's...not what I'm talking about at all, it—" he sighed. "I just want to make sure you understand that it's...it's not something that happens quickly, or with new partners. It's...we actually, physically, cannot reproduce without it. We just...don't."

"Okay...?" She stared in confusion until suddenly something clicked into place in her mind. "Wait...shit!"  Oh god, have I... Jaal's nervous expression confirmed her fears and she scooted away from him.

He'd wanted to wait.

He'd wanted to wait.

And she'd kept...but didn't he say he wanted...fuck, was he trying to appease me? A wave of nausea layered over shame and she curled around herself.

She felt him touching her arm and flinched away. "No, no, you don't—you shouldn't—" she stood and crossed her arms while she stared at him in anguish.

He looked gutted.

Fuck fuck fuck

"I...I don't..." she closed her eyes and shook her head, "I'm so, so unbelievably sorry, Jaal," she whispered.

The pained sound he made tore into her. I deserve that. She retreated to sit on the back of a couch.

"I have no excuse, and I promise I'm not trying to make one. I...didn't realize what..." she swallowed, but the painful lump stayed in her throat, "what that meant for you and...I'm so sorry. I never, ever, wanted to pressure you into something you didn't want and—and I did, and...even after you said...fuck. It's no excuse. I don't know how I can ever apologize, but..." her words choked off. It had clearly taken so much just for him to tell her and...

His big, warm hands were on either side of her face. "Taoshay, please, look at me—"

"No," she said, shaking her head. He immediately let go and backed away because he was a decent person who listened to people he was supposed to care about and she covered her face with her hands. "I don't...you don't need to comfort me," she wept in shame. "I know I can't be—if you need—just...whatever you need. If..." The words wouldn't come out. If you need to leave the ship. If you need to get away from me.

"Sara, what in the name of all the skkutting ancestors are you talking about?"

 


 

It had been uncomfortable, but he'd thought he was making progress, and was building up the courage to actually tell her. Until she suddenly tore away from him with a look of fear.

Then she flinched and started apologizing and the bottom fell out of his heart because he knew, he knew she wasn't...it was too much. She didn't want...

I've lost her.

It felt like his lungs collapsed.

But then some of her words filtered through his heartache and he realized that the problem was not at all what he had been afraid of. He still had no idea what it actually was, but that had been enough to move him over to her, where she'd flinched away again. His confusion and fear compounded together until they broke apart under their own weight.

"Sara, what in the name of all the skkutting ancestors are you talking about?"

At least that got her to look at him so he might be able to start figuring out where he went wrong.

"What are you talking about, my love?" he asked in a softer voice. "You haven't done anything wrong."

"But—I—" she looked even more confused than he felt.

"Sara, please, tell me what you think you did?" Jaal asked. He held a hand out for her to take. The hesitant, terrified longing on her face broke his heart again. He carefully trailed the back of his hand along her cheek while she tried to compose herself. When her breaths evened out, she looked exhausted.

"When...whenever we've been together, I've kept bringing up...well..." she cleared her throat and looked uncomfortable, "even after you'd said no, that you weren't ready. I was thinking about it in my context, not yours, but that's no excuse. Even if I acted in ignorance, I didn't listen to you, and I pressured you for something you weren't ready for. I would have realized something was off if I'd paid proper attention. And it took you telling me for me to realize. I should have...you deserve better. I'm so sorry."

Oh. Oh.

"You think you've hurt me," he whispered.

"Didn't I?" she asked, looking absolutely lost. "Isn't that why you needed to tell me?"

"No."

She stared at him.

"What the fuck is going on?" she asked.

A flood of tension broke and he staggered when his laughter hit. He braced himself on the back of the couch next to her and doubled over. She's not—I haven't—she doesn't—! Shock and relief overtook him while he tried to process the absurdity of it all.

Sara looked offended, almost angry at first, but after the second time he glanced at her and went off into another peal of laughter, she started to smile as well.

Eventually, they were sitting side by side in her floor with their backs against the couch. They finally managed to catch their breath.

Jaal closed his eyes and sent his gratitude to any ancestors listening. I'm so glad I didn't wait longer. This could have been disastrous. ... Skkut, I still need to actually tell her. He opened his eyes. Her eyes looked raw from all the crying she'd done, and he felt a wave of sadness that he'd caused some of it.

"If I hadn't hesitated, I don't think you would have had a chance to get the wrong impression," he sighed.

She shook her head at him and rubbed her reddened eyes. "You're not responsible for my fuckups. I'm sorry I jumped to conclusions. I was just so...horrified that I might have violated your trust."

She hugged her arms around her stomach and Jaal was overcome by the desire to hold her.

"You didn't," he said. "You haven't done anything I don't want, and if you did, I would tell you."

She closed her eyes and nodded, looking relieved. Stars, I love her. He took a deep breath and started talking before his fear stopped him again.

"The reason I told you is because I..." his nervousness sped down his arms and back up, "I've felt..." he closed his eyes and swallowed, "I've felt a shockingly strong resonance with you. I haven't ever gotten to that point in a relationship before. It usually takes years. It only happens in relationships that are already...I don't know why or how it's....it's so soon. Maybe it's because you're not angara. Maybe it's just you," he smiled and glanced at her shyly, "nothing else about you is predictable."

Sara was staring at him with an intensity that made him shiver. He looked away.

"Whenever we're together, it's been getting more difficult to resist. And you didn't know, and I was worried you wouldn't...that it would be too much, too soon...too confusing. Maybe for me, too. I don't really know what to do about it, but..." He trailed off into a sigh, then gathered his courage to look over again. "Sara," her name came out as a sigh and he reached up to ghost a hand over her cheek, "it was overpowering. Inevitable."

Jaal felt heat rise from her. She drew in a shaky breath that made desire and hope dance faster along his palm. He carefully moved closer and brushed along her skin, letting her feel it as he tilted her face up to him. She was flushed and her eyes were as deep as they always seemed when he was this close. I love you, I love you, sped between them.

She pressed her lips together and took a deep determined breath through her nose. "You're not going to scare me off. I've said it before: I'm not giving this up unless you want me to."

"I can't believe how much I love you, Sara."

She closed her eyes and leaned into his touch. "Jaal, I don't deserve you," she whispered.

He held both her cheeks and kissed her. "You do. You deserve all I can give you and more."

Soft tendrils brushed him when she opened her eyes. Lashes. The word almost sounded Shelesh. Maybe it would be a word for...wind, or flowers...a gentle touch. He felt relief and exhaustion in her every movement when she leaned forward to kiss him again.

Her hands slid up his chest, up his neck and cowl to wrap her arms around him. Jaal happily moved his hands down her back to pull her into his lap. She curled up for him to hold her close and he rubbed his cheek against her hair. Sara held one of his hands between hers, running her fingers along his, pressing, gently moving the joints, exploring. He rubbed her back with his free hand and relaxed into the contented hum that rose from his subvocals.

She kissed his knuckles and squeezed his hand before she spoke. "So today was exhausting," she said.

Jaal's breath puffed through her hair. "Yes it was."

"Will you stay?" she asked.

He mirrored her smile and nodded. "I'd love to."

Sara cupped his face and kissed his cheek. "Be right back," she said as she stood. He watched while she grabbed her toiletries and stretched. She glanced over her shoulder and smiled as she left.

Jaal braced his hands on the floor and just sat for a moment while he tried to catch up to his spinning thoughts. She'd...accepted it. It hadn't even seemed to occur to her to do anything else. She didn't seem to fully understand, but skkut neither did he at this point. He'd been so afraid, but all she'd cared about was if she'd hurt him somehow.

She wasn't worried about his sudden and strong reaction to her. When I blurted out something about spending our old age together, she just kissed me and agreed.

Even knowing everything that would go wrong...if I could be sure you were here waiting for me, nothing would stop me from doing it all over again.

Sara drew people in, protected them, demanded their best, and fought like rage incarnate. She was indomitable, and caring, and brave. She carried a mantle that should have crushed her, and she'd still take it up again if it meant he was waiting on the other side.

And she thought she didn't deserve him? Jaal shook his head, awestruck, and went to reheat his tea.

Chapter Text

Ryder woke up before her alarm and considered getting up early for about thirty seconds. Then Jaal rolled over and pinned her with an arm and leg, giving her an excellent excuse to play hooky for a little while. She smiled at his warm, sleepy weight and how he snuggled his face down into her hair with a happy rumble.

They'd talked a bit more and cuddled before falling asleep. Mostly reassurance and affection. She felt like she had a slightly better understanding of what had worried him. Ushaara sounded kind of like some sort of second stage of limerence, after partners were already strongly attached. It was necessary for reproduction, but apparently any combination of partners could experience it, whether they could have children together or not. So it's like falling in love? Sort of? She was sure she was missing something, so she needed more information.

All Jaal could tell her was that it was caused by hormones and bioelectricity...doing...things. She'd rolled her eyes and he'd laughed and said he'd never expected to fall in love with an alien, or he would have been better prepared. She'd rolled her eyes again but he'd turned off the lights and scooted closer, ending the conversation.

I better read that stuff from Lexi sooner rather than later, I guess. I wonder if she knew about this but didn't think we'd have to worry about it, or if she didn't know either. He kept worrying about it being "so soon" or "too much" so it's definitely culturally related to commitment. And...yeah, it's fast but...

She slid her hand over his arm where it was thrown around her waist. Maybe he's freaked out by how little he's freaked out as well? She smiled and tucked his hand into hers and snuggled back against his chest to steal a few more minutes of peace.

She was starting to drift off again when Jaal stirred, squishing her with his stretches. Ryder smiled and rolled over to face him while he yawned and shuffled.

"Morning," she mumbled, scooting upwards to face him.

Jaal slid his hand into her hair and gave her a quick kiss on the cheek. He tucked his leg firmly over both of hers and pulled her closer with a smile.

"How soon do you need to get up?" he asked in a hoarse sleepy voice.

"Not yet," she said.

"Mmm...good," he rumbled, rubbing down her back and nuzzling her cheek. "I love waking up with you, dearest," he said as he gently kissed the side of her neck.

"Yeah," she said, stretching and enjoying the weight of his leg holding her down. "I could get used to this, too."

He shuffled back down onto his pillow and looked thoughtful while he rubbed back and forth on the small of her back. Jaal glanced over her face and back to her eyes. "Whenever you want, Sara," he smiled.

Maybe...later. After we leave Kadara. After I read up on things...I might...well, we can talk.

"Is something on your mind?" he asked, his good mood fading slightly in concern.

Ryder smiled brightly and leaned forward to rub her nose against his. "Yeah," she said, "but it'll keep. I have an idea we can talk about later."

A sparkle of mischief flashed through his eyes and he chuckled. "I'll try to prepare myself," he said.

She laughed and kissed him, just a soft brush of lips, but he spread his hand up her back and leaned into it with such a happy sigh that she soon found herself wrapped up in him.

She pulled back slightly, gently bumping him with her nose again. "We probably have awful morning breath," she laughed.

"I don't care," he groaned, leaning forward again.

With his leg and arm holding her close and his tongue against hers, she realized she honestly didn't care that much either. When one hand wandered down under her waistband and his other slid up under her head, she nudged her leg forward. Gentle pressure right where he wanted it made him gasp and cant his hips against her.

Ryder pulled away. "SAM, do not disturb mode unless there's actual blood or fire," she ordered.

"Acknowledged," the AI answered.

Jaal pulled her back toward him and thrust hard, grinding onto her thigh with a deep satisfied groan. He shivered as his erection slipped free and quickly hardened against her.

"That was fast," she said, scratching down his abs.

"I want you, Sara," he gasped, squeezing her ass.

She grinned and shifted so her thighs were around the heat of his cock. He closed his eyes and rocked against her, then started working his hand down from her ass and between her legs.

"You're warm and—" he nuzzled into the side of her neck and she shivered at the heat of his breath. He nibbled his way down, having apparently decided on better uses for his mouth than talking.

"You said it's harder to resist," she said, moving her hand up his arm and lifting a leg to give him easier access. He immediately pressed between her folds and let a gentle charge tease into her. "Shit! I—I'd love to hear what, exactly, you're resisting," she whispered, grinning and firmly biting the side of his brow ridge.

He breathed harshly and thrust as he moved and rolled onto her. His arms were solid and surrounding her head and shoulders, and he hummed into her as he dragged his mouth down her body. His hands buried into her hair, grabbed her shoulders, ran over her firmly. She felt tense restraint in his movements. His frill flushed with a glow and his low purr was muffled against her chest. It felt like he was holding himself back from grabbing her, biting her.

"Mmm," he hummed against her stomach, sliding her pants down and kissing lower while he watched her face. "I will tell you everything I want from you, Sara."

Her mouth dropped open with a gasp and he kept going. "If you go down on me, you can't tell me about it," she panted, "I want to hear what you've been drawn to, what you think about when you get yourself off."

"I want to make sure you have time to finish, and I can definitely make you come faster this way," he said, lowering his eyes and running his tongue hard over her clit.

"Shiiit—I know, but—" she lifted her hips against him and he groaned, "I don't even care if I'm frustrated all day. I really, really want to hear you tell me what you want. What you think about—" he cupped her hips and sucked gently until her thighs shook, but then he was kissing back up her stomach and running his hands up her sides.

"You really want to hear it that much, taoshay?" he whispered against her neck.

"Yes," she said, grinning up at him. She kicked her pants off before moving his hand down and nudging it between her legs. His expression tightened as he ran his fingertips over her and watched her face.

"How am I supposed to think of words while I watch you on my hand, Sara?"

"You—you'll—manage somehow," she answered, shivering.

He gently searched between her folds, sliding closer and pressing just outside. "Yes, Sara," he whispered, closing his eyes. "I want..." Pressure. Relief. Pressure and a delicate current.

She whimpered and rocked her hips. "Mmmph! Jaal. Please."

His breath cut off and he pressed his forehead against hers with his eyes closed. "I can't resist when I'm alone," he whispered. "I don't resist when I'm alone," he said, swallowing and gritting his teeth. The pad of his finger slipped inside to rub against her front wall.

"What does—" she gasped, "what do you mean?"

He huffed and she felt the heat of his blush against her cheek as he nuzzled closer. "Sara, every time I feel you come it's almost overwhelming. Instead of a release of energy, I feel you quaking and pulling me like all you want is to swallow me in." He pressed deeper and settled the heel of his palm over her clit. She grit her teeth and rocked down onto his hand. His voice stretched deeper, quieter. "It takes so little to have you writhing and I never want to stop and I want to empty myself into you."

"Fuck," she thrust against his hand and he slid fully inside, holding her just right.

"That's what I feel, that's what I want with you. And if—when—I—" he ground his hand against her while he let a charge into her clit. "Whenever you do eventually take me in? I won't be able to help but fill you, Sara."

He kissed her cheeks, her lips, her eyelids. "Open your eyes, please, my love," he whispered. She did, staring, panting, flushed and frantic. He looked the same. "That's what I meant," he swallowed again, breath coming faster. "I feel it, our resonance, when you come for me, when I send my energy into you, I, I want to mate with you, Sara." A rhythmic charge flooded into her through her clit and she threw her head back and sobbed.

"Ja-aal!" she moaned, closing her eyes again and squeezing her thighs around his hand. "That's—yes, that's what I want. I think about you taking me, I—"

"You are a skutting temptress," he hissed, "and I don't want to resist anymore."

"Then don't," she whispered, looking up and lifting her hips for him. His mouth dropped open and his breath cut off. She flushed hotter and stared at the rapt expression on his face. "Hold me close. Bite my neck. Pull me onto you until I feel the thick weight of your cock inside me," he let out a beautiful, desperate sound, "Fuck me. Take me. Let me swallow you in like you want. Like I want to."

"Shit," he sobbed and closed his eyes while he curled his hand around her, into her. "I will," he gasped, pouring his electricity through her nerves. She dug her fingernails into his shoulder and bowed backwards while he held her on the brink. "I'm close Sara, just—watching—hearing—knowing you want—"

"Jaal, please." She squeezed him hungrily between her thighs and panted.

He gasped roughly and shifted to shove his other hand between his own legs. "Sara, I—" he sighed in relief before gasping again and holding his breath. Her eyes flew open and stared into his.

"Come with me, fuck, just—just let me—please, please, come for me, Jaal"

A wave of heat and pleasure crested over his face when his energy grabbed onto her climax. They shared it as it poured, melted, down through them both. Hungry cries, mouths open, huge gasping breaths, heated, sweating, flushed faces, joined by the wordless love in their eyes as they came apart together.

Ryder breathed in hard and whined, riding it out on his hand. Jaal looked intense and frozen until he suddenly hitched a breath and relaxed with a shuddering groan. They lay together, shaken, trying to catch their breath.

Jaal laughed and she grinned and pulled him down for a kiss. He groaned again and slowly moved his hand down the inside of her thigh. Eventually, he pulled back to breathe and collapsed with an exhausted smile.

"Holy shit," Ryder laughed, pressing her face into his neck.

Jaal's breath shook slightly, not quite a chuckle. "Yes. I wasn't—oh. Skkut," he said, gently pushing her back by her shoulder. Ryder glanced down, then back up to his brightly flushed face. She rolled her eyes and handed him the rest of her tissues before hopping up and rummaging in the tangled blankets for her pants. By the time she'd found and put them on, Jaal had cleaned up and was sitting on the edge of the bed making a face while he examined his shorts.

She went over to stand between his knees and tilt his face up toward hers. He looked slightly nervous and she smiled to reassure him. "So...I'm guessing that's the first time you've ever ejaculated with...company."

He snorted and put down his shorts to wrap his arms around her waist. "Yes," he said. "It happens sometimes in adolescence, but..." he shrugged.

"Mmhmm," she nodded. "Puberty's a hormone fest for us too."

Jaal sighed and rested his forehead on her chest. "Is..." he started, "are you...?"

"Still here," she said, smiling and tracing down his frill.

His breath was warm when it gusted out. She kept soothing him with her hands and leaned down to give his head a gentle kiss. He burrowed closer.

"Um...I think...I made a mess of your sheets as well." He cleared his throat. "...sorry."

Ryder snickered against the top of his head. "Benefits of an alien girlfriend: she's used to weird messy sex."

He muffled his guffaw against her and leaned back with a smile. She smiled back at him and traced the lines up from his cheeks. Jaal watched her for a few seconds, then, sounding amazed and confused and happy, he said, "I love you, Sara," in the tone that always made her melt.

Ryder leaned down and nuzzled her nose against his. He closed his eyes. "I love you, too," she said, then sighed, "It's probably time to face the day." Jaal nodded, but kept his eyes closed and his arms around her until she kissed his forehead and stepped back.

"Alright SAM, back to work," she said as she stretched.

"Acknowledged. Good morning, Sara. Good morning, Jaal."

Jaal was standing on one leg to put his shorts back on. He glanced at her in surprise, then over to SAM's avatar on her desk. She shrugged.

"Um. Good morning, SAM," he answered. The avatar blinked at him.

Ryder dimmed the multiple message alerts that were flashing from her omnitool now that SAM had removed her privacy filter. She grabbed her shower kit and kissed Jaal on the cheek. It'd be much more convenient if he had a change of clothes and some toiletries down here...but later. We'll talk later.

Jaal was watching her. "You're thinking again," he smiled.

"Just planning," she shrugged.

"We do have a lot of that to do today," he nodded, heading out the door. He turned back with one hand and foot on the ladder. "Breakfast in a bit?"

Pink fluffy warmth settled in Ryder's chest. "Yeah." She let her eyes trail after him, then turned toward the showers with a smile.

Chapter Text

After a quick breakfast, (and a chat with Drack about playing nice with the Collective, which he snorted and grumbled about but agreed to) Ryder started organizing. By 1030, Reyes and Keema had shown up, the latter being easily smuggled on with the help of Ryder's cloak. Now they and the ground team were settled in the meeting room.

It was still awkward, but less so than yesterday. Low bar, but still. I'll take what I can get. Drack looked pissed, and Liam was whispering with Jaal in a worried tone of voice. Cora was looking stoic and avoiding looking at Reyes. Ryder sighed internally.

She crossed her arms and cleared her throat to get everyone's attention. It worked, more or less.

"Alright. Everyone knows what we need to do. Let's figure out how to get it done," she said, picking up a data pad. "First thing: track down and destroy the remaining kett on Kadara, or at least everything that we can find. SAM, display those satellite readings we talked about."

A hologram of Kadara floated over the table, crisscrossed with lines. Ryder flicked through the menu and patches of color showed in a heat map pattern ranging from pale blue to deep indigo. A few blinking Shelesh characters floated in places.

Keema grinned and came over to get a better look. "Those idiots didn't think to lock you out?" she asked.

Ryder shook her head and tapped her temple with a smile. SAM explained, "The Outcasts apparently stripped the old code and replaced it with only Initiative security protocols. I was able to obtain access without their knowledge."

"Excellent," Keema laughed. "No wonder our attempts didn't work."

"Given the timeout limitations and safeguards within the programming, it would have been exceedingly difficult for an organic hacker to circumvent unless they were very familiar with the code," SAM agreed. "I don't believe anyone exiled from the Nexus has the knowledge, and the language barrier would have proven difficult for an angara programmer."

"So...what is this, Ryder?" Liam asked.

Ryder looked to Keema and gestured to the map in invitation. She nodded and turned a dark indigo patch to face Liam.

"These are images from some of our monitoring satellites," Keema explained. "We've used Remnant technology to create a network of small self replicating bots that constantly transmit data to public data notes on the surface. Or did before the Outcasts locked them down. We use it to monitor weather, animal migration patterns, mineral levels, tectonic activity, Remnant, and signs of kett." She crossed her arms and let a small amount of pride into her voice. "It's been in place for a couple centuries. The kett haven't ever managed to destroy the network because the satellites replicate and recycle themselves so quickly."

"These things are like shoals of fish," Ryder added. "No matter how many bites the sharks take, there's always more. They'd take too much time for the kett to destroy, so they stopped trying."

"Awesome," Peebee said, taking notes. "Why didn't we notice the network when we arrived?"

"We did," Ryder said. "You were too busy to pay attention, and they weren't a problem. They easily get out of the way of orbital traffic. Anyway, this is the information they've collected about potential kett activity since the Outcasts took over. Darker spaces are more likely to have activity."

Jaal came closer and turned the holo to examine it. "Is this aggregate data, or only recent?" he asked Keema.

"It should be aggregate from the past six taevoana," she answered. He nodded and turned back to the map.

Ryder glanced around and noticed only she and Liam seemed confused. "Taevoana didn't translate for me. Anyone help me out?"

"Months," Cora said. "Give or take."

"How'd it work for you and not us?" Liam asked.

"Got mine set to English or Siari, whichever has a more seamless translation," she explained.

Peebee snorted and Cora turned to glare at her. "I am fluent in both," Cora started.

"Stop," Ryder said. "Not the time." Peebee rolled her eyes. Cora cleared her throat and blushed. At least both subsided. God. It's like cats. Ryder rubbed her eyes. She could feel a headache starting already.

"Can we compare this to data from the last few days only?" Jaal asked.

"Yes," SAM answered, shrinking the holo and displaying a second map next to it.

Jaal changed the newest one to display as yellow and superimposed them on top of each other. Overlapping areas glowed bright green on the display.

"They concentrated after they retreated," he said, pulling a section out to zoom in. He gestured along a faded blue path, leading away from the port toward the mountains. "It looks like there are two bases, here and here." He marked two green locations along the same range. "The pictures the Outcasts got are from this area," he circled a basin nearby and added a marker.

"That's to the south," Reyes said, "and all our suspected raids are to the north of that range. Is it possible the caves in those mountains connect through to multiple entrances?"

Keema laughed. "I'd be surprised if they didn't. There's probably plenty of room for them to spread out."

"And plenty of nooks and crannies for them to hide nasty surprises in, too?" Liam asked, resigned. Reyes made a face.

"A survey of the cave system would help," Vetra sighed. "Even an old one." Jaal nodded and started rifling through files on his wrist tool.

"An assault is possible," Cora said, "as long as we have a tight plan, knowledge of the terrain, and we block off all the exits. Dangerous as hell, and who knows what they might have waiting for us, but it's possible."

"What kind of tactics can we expect from the kett in this kind of situation, Jaal?" Ryder asked.

He closed his files and sighed, leaning on the table to look at the holos again.

"What if we caved it in on them?" Drack's voice cut through before he answered, drawing everyone's attention. He shrugged. "Anything dies if you drop enough rocks on it."

"You'd be surprised how many rocks is 'enough' to kill a kett," Jaal shrugged, glancing over his shoulder at Drack. "And if any survived, they'd eventually be able to get out. Kett don't eat or drink. They can survive in a vacuum. I don't know if they heal, or how, but their exoskeletons are stronger than our armor."

"Then how the hell do they fuel themselves?" Vetra asked.

"No idea," Jaal sighed. He shook his head. "My true mother told me that decades ago, before I was born, she was part of a cell that captured a few as prisoners. They were offered food and water, but didn't take either. They didn't bother to go outside when offered access to sunlight. They refused to talk other than to repeat their platitudes and threats. They survived for three years before the Resistance decided to put them down. We learned very little."

"Well, fuck," Liam said into the silence that followed.

Jaal nodded. "We'll need to be fast and methodical," he said. Then, to Keema, "Do you have any survey information about this area?"

Keema's energy flared in worry. "No," she said.

Ryder leaned on the table. An idea was trying to work its way to the front of her mind, and she just needed to let it find its way forward. Cora was asking a question that Ryder didn't pay much attention to. There was a piece here that—oh.

"...at least two teams, right?" Vetra was saying. "Does the Collective have enough ground transports for a whole squad?"

Reyes was tapping at his omnitool and his forehead was wrinkled in thought. Before he answered, Ryder cleared her throat to interrupt. "I just realized that we know someone who might know the area a little better," she said. "Elijj and his people."

Cora's eyes opened wider and she started nodding.

"Oh yes!" Keema said in recognition. "They're the group of angara Feila is working with, aren't they?" she asked Reyes.

"Yeah."

"I bet they'd love to help take out some kett," Peebee offered.

"We can hope," Ryder shrugged. "Even if they can't or won't work with us, they deserve to know what's going on." She crossed her arms while she thought. "Okay. I think it'll work best if Cora and Jaal take the lead on the kett mission," she said, reaching up to rub her temple and suppressing a wince, "since you've both got more relevant experience. We'll break, then the three of us, Reyes, and Keema will call Elijj to talk about it. Once this mission is done, we'll plan the final takeover of the port. Counterpoints or objections?"

"Actually, yes," Keema said. "I've already got a plan for taking the port, and I think it's best if both happen at the same time."

"That might be more than we can manage." Jaal said, concerned. "We don't know how many kett are bunkered down, or how strong their foothold is. We could need the entire Tempest team."

Keema shrugged. "It might be necessary, but with Collective forces and these angara, I doubt your whole team will be needed. Also, the Outcasts are monitoring the kett anyway, so attacking will reveal our strategy to them. We do have embedded agents, but it would be much harder to keep this secret for a few days than for a few hours. If they happen at the same time, I think it'll work quite nicely. We can also use footage from the battle as it happens as proof," she smirked. "Nothing like a little live drama to emphasize a point."

Jaal narrowed his eyes and his voice was low when he spoke. "Your dramatic entrance is not worth risking lives—" he started.

"It's basic tactics" Keema scoffed.

"Okay!" Ryder interrupted, slapping her hands down on the table. Vetra's brow plates and mandibles spread and Liam raised his eyebrows in surprise. She turned off the spinning holo so she could see everyone. "We need more information about the kett base than we got from the Outcasts, and we will see if Elijj can help. Then we will make that decision."

Cora stepped closer to Ryder to back her up. Jaal's jaw was tight, but he nodded in agreement. Keema shrugged.

"Ok. Everyone else go take a break while we make this call. We'll reconvene at..." she rubbed her forehead as she looked at the time, "...1600. Dismissed."

Chapter Text

Elijj and his people had been very happy to have backup with the kett. It turned out they'd been scouting the area, but didn't have the manpower for an assault. They had a wealth of useful intel about the kett camp and the caves' structure.

Cora and Jaal spent a few days planning and coordinating, even meeting in the badlands a few times. Ryder was reassured about her choice. They had the mission completely under control.

She hoped.

No, they did. Really.

She was just worried because she wasn't there and there was nothing she could do until they returned. She'd seen them off before dawn that morning, sneaking Jaal a kiss for luck in the airlock. He'd returned it, and of course the rest of the team started teasing them.

"Where's my send off, Ryder?" Liam laughed and gently shoved her. She rolled her eyes.

Vetra stuck out one mandible and said, "I hear equal treatment is important for unit cohesion." Cora snorted and fumbled her gauntlet.

Ryder glared around at them all, then quickly gave them each a peck on the cheek. She ducked out of the airlock with a grin, followed by Jaal's laughter.

Suvi and Kallo were monitoring bravo team's comms and video feeds, and Kallo would be there as fast as possible for pickup if necessary. They've got this.

Ryder had her own mission she needed to focus on. It was midmorning out in the port, and she was trying her best to look as though she really was out on a date with Reyes, just enjoying the sunshine.

In reality, her subdermal implant was tuned into multiple comms and she was monitoring Keema's progress toward the gates from the badlands.

Drack was in Kralla's Song, regaling a half dozen young krogan with stories and pretending to drink. He'd collected a small following during their stay on Kadara. When he couldn't persuade them to leave for the colony on Elaaden, he'd gotten Ryder to advocate for them with the Collective. Drack insisted they be treated as more than meat shields, and Reyes had been delighted to welcome them. They'd disperse into the crowd once it became necessary.

Peebee was perched as lookout.

Gil was busy scrambling comm traffic to keep the Outcasts unaware.

An angry krogan voice came through from Keema's comm. "Hey, that's too many, what are you trying toA scuffle, a roar, a muffled explosion, and a few exhausted grunts came through.

"Warden is down. Gate secured. Proceeding," Keema said.

"Cameras overridden," Gil added.

Ryder felt a little nauseous, and she put her hands in her pockets to keep them from shaking. Almost time. She glanced around for Reyes. He'd headed over to the vendor that she'd bought the popcorn from a few days ago.

"No no, I'm sorry dear," Kreli was saying. Reyes made a very sad face that didn't appear to move her. She grabbed a grandson as he hurried past. "You look at this sweet boy! Just starting out! I have to provide for his future! Can't afford those prices."

Kreli patted the younger salarian's cheek and he bowed with a few fast blinks and a smile before hurrying off. She turned back to Reyes and leaned on her cane.

"You keep appealing to my soft heart, Madame Rithga," he sighed and leaned on her counter. "I might consider lowering the price by 5%, but only if you can commit to the entire shipment."

The ancient salarian's eyes narrowed and she flicked them sideways to Ryder as she walked up. "You have new business partners?" Kreli asked.

He flashed her a twinkly grin and glanced at Ryder and back. "You know how I enjoy new friends, Kreli," he said.

Her eyes closed slowly, then opened halfway. He stood and nodded firmly, as though an agreement had been reached. Kreli nodded, grunted, and walked off, calling for a grandson to follow her. Reyes took a slow relieved breath.

Ryder grit her teeth and dragged him around the corner by his elbow. "You're seriously doing this now?" she hissed.

Reyes wrapped an arm around her shoulders to guide her to the railing, where they'd appear to be taking in the view. His contented smile was belied by the irritation in his quiet voice. "What exactly do you think I do?" he asked. "I just guaranteed the support of at least 95% of the salarians in the port. Until the Paarchero shows up, that woman is the closest thing to a dalatrass we have in this whole galaxy."

"Oh shit. Really?" Ryder gasped, looking at him out of the corner of her eye.

"Yes," Reyes said, smiling in satisfaction. "Tann was shitting himself when she left with the exiles."

Ryder huffed, feeling a little relieved. "Sorry," she said, "shouldn't have assumed."

"I understand," he said quietly, squeezing her shoulders and moving to lean both arms on the railing. "I used up all your trust in one go. But don't worry," he added with a hint of pride, "we're well prepared for this."

Ryder sighed. Before she could respond, Keema's voice came through the comm again. "Lower level secure. Remi and I are entering the elevator."

Shit. Showtime.

Ryder stood, but Reyes reached out and took her hand to keep her still. "Wait for the signal," he whispered.

"Right," she said, leaning on the railing again. "Right. I hate this," she whispered, scooting closer to stave off suspicious witnesses. "I can't wait to go deal with the krogan instead. They're straightforward. Killing a few fiends should win me some friends."

Reyes squeezed her hand and gave it a pat.

"Go," Peebee said over the comm, then cut off. That meant Keema had left the elevator and Collective agents throughout the port had made their moves: signalling allies, hacking security, and disabling Outcasts. More people would soon start pouring up from the slums.

"And that is the signal," Reyes said, releasing her hand and standing. "Shall we?" he asked, holding out an arm and bowing.

"Not really feeling like screwing around right now," Ryder whispered, taking his arm.

"Nothing wrong with a little bravado, right?" he winked. "Try to look less sickly."

She laughed flatly, then screwed her eyes shut and took a deep breath. SAM, I've got another damn headache. Little help, please?

*There seems to be an imbalance in your neurotransmitter levels, most likely from stress. It may help you to know that bravo team is making good progress and has no injuries. I will work to alleviate symptoms, but I recommend a visit to the medbay after this mission.*

Got it. Thanks, buddy.

Ryder opened her eyes. They came around the corner and saw Keema approaching Outcast headquarters with Remi Tamayo, the woman they'd rescued from the cannibals.

"Drack, two minutes," Peebee said. His voice grunted an affirmative and his comm cut off.

Reyes settled against a wall and tugged Ryder close by her waist. He opened his omnitool casually, as if to show her something.

Ryder breathed evenly and tried to relax. SAM's help seemed to be working, and her head was clearing. Portable shield generator. Omnitool. Sidearm. Biotics. Ready. Okay. She turned her attention to Keema.

"...so I would quite appreciate it if you'd ask Sloane to come meet with us," she was saying to one of the Outcast guards.

The human woman sneered up at her. "Sloane doesn't just jump at the request of...her advisors."

The obviously omitted word hung between them.

Keema nodded and smiled amiably, turning as if to go. The guard's sneer deepened. She opened her mouth to speak just as Keema swung back around, swift and savage, cloaked in lightning, to knock her off her feet.

The guard's shield generator overloaded dramatically and she went down with the smell of burning hair. She folded, stunned and trying to catch her breath.

"It wasn't a request," Keema told her softly. She glanced at the other guard and tilted her head at the fallen human. "Clean her up and fetch Sloane, would you?" she asked. He flicked one mandible and saluted lazily before jerking his fellow guard up by her collar.

Ryder glanced at Reyes. A few notifications scrolled past on his screen and he closed it with a smile. "Like clockwork," he said. "If Sloane plays true to form, she'll leave Kaetus behind to hold the fort. He'll listen to her, despite his better judgement. It's a shame. He's a sharp one. We could've used him."

"He's a fucking person, Reyes."

"A person who backs a madwoman, Sara. You know it's necessary."

"I'm here aren't I? Just...let's just get it over with."

The door opened, revealing Sloane flanked by four bodyguards. She crossed her arms and sighed at Keema, who launched into her speech. Ryder tuned it out and scanned the gathering.

People had been gradually trickling in from the docks and most of the vendors had disappeared. A moderate crowd was milling about. Ryder left Reyes and edged around the back. Drack caught her eye as he exited Kralla's Song and gave orders to his groupies. She nodded at him and turned back toward Keema, who was just hitting her stride.

"...taking our homes from us, and then not even properly providing for your own people!" Keema said, pointing to Remi, who looked nervous but defiant. "She was banished even after she abided by your rules! Taken by the cannibal filth you unleashed on us. How many others didn't survive?"

Murmurs through the group, incited by Collective plants.

"You took the port because you said you deserved it after saving us all from the kett," Keema growled. "But you haven't, and you knew it." She turned to face the crowd.

"Everything the Outcasts have is built on lies!" Keema called, pulling up the video feed from bravo team and transmitting it publicly across the port. "Right now, we are finishing the job they couldn't!"

Jaal's voice came through, ordering Vetra to time a concussive shot with his overload. A group of kett were caught in an electrical field. Cora charged into the cluster, causing an impressive explosion. A few angara voices cheered in the background of the feed.

There were angry whispers in the crowd as Collective agents started encouraging port residents. A turian looked like she was going to argue, but one of Drack's kids got her attention and said something that made her stop and look thoughtful. The salarians in the crowd were whispering and signaling each other with rapid body language. Every once in a while, one would look over to Kreli. She had established herself in front of her shop, flanked by two grandsons.

Ryder readied her shield mnemonic and started shoving around the crowd.

"It's not just angara who suffer under the Outcasts," Keema cried, raising her hands. "We are your allies, and we are all held back by the greed of a few!"

Keema turned back to Sloane with a flourish, who looked bored. "Very nice, dear. Are you finished?" she turned to her bodyguards. "Get rid of...this," she ordered, gesturing to the crowd.

Her bodyguards nodded. Two stepped forward menacingly, and the other two smoothly shot them in the back of the head. Sloane reacted immediately, firing her pistol at Keema and shoving away one of the guards who'd betrayed her. Ryder's shield flew up around her and Keema, deflecting the shot. She readied an overload and a throw.

Sloane snarled at her and tried to retreat—just as Peebee dropped down from the roof and fiercely headbutted her. Sloane staggered in surprise and got caught in Peebee's stasis.

"Nice one!" a krogan voice shouted from the crowd. Peebee grinned and waved while rubbing her forehead.

Sloane's previous bodyguards slapped omnicuffs on her arms and legs and held her firmly. A few Collective agents came up to drag the bodies away. More came up from behind Keema and Ryder, forming a semi-circle around them. Peebee lowered the stasis, concentrating it around Sloane's hands and feet.

Ryder dropped the shield, drawing Sloane's eyes again. Her nostrils flared and she spat. "Should have known," she growled. "I fucking told him, but no, I had to listen to Kaetus. Should have listened to him today."

"Well," said Keema, "now that's done, why don't you order the rest of your people to surrender, and we can get on with things?"

Sloane's hatred tore from Ryder and focused on Keema.

"Eat my shit, you lying cunt."

"Sloane," Keema sighed, "see reason. You're clearly outnumbered and outclassed." She gestured around. "Doesn't some small part of you still care about your people? Why order them to fight to the death?"

Sloane laughed. "Why would I give the order to surrender when we both know there's no way in hell you're going to let me live?" She bared her teeth. "My loyal people are secure, and I'd bet my left tit that your little pet there," she spat at Ryder again, "will turn on you if you mistreat me. All you can do is kill me, so I've got nothing to lose."

Keema nodded thoughtfully. "You have a point there," she admitted, "but you also don't have all the facts." She opened her comm and said, "Give me video."

Sloane's jaw tightened, but she said nothing until Keema enlarged and flipped the display so she could see. Her eyes widened and she sagged with a sound of shocked grief. Kaetus was bruised and bloody, gagged and tied to Sloane's throne. His leg armor had been stripped and his spurs taped together, in addition to cuffs around his ankles. His hands were each wrapped tightly and cuffed behind him. In a particularly nasty twist, his mandibles were held open by a wire tied behind his head.

Ryder swallowed hard and took some shallow breaths to keep from throwing up. Her headache slammed back. She didn't notice Peebee's look of alarm, or the alert she sent out on her omnitool.

The camera panned around and down to the floor behind the seat, where a small section had been pried up. An impressive amount of explosives filled the space.

Reyes. He did this. This was the preparation he was so proud of. Nausea pounded through her, and she flinched at a firm grip on her arm. WhoPeebee. Ryder steeled her spine and made fists while she breathed through her mouth.

Sloane was sweating, looking pale and sick. Keema turned off the feed, crossed her arms, and waited. Sloane seethed for a few breaths, but finally closed her eyes and hung her head.

"What do you want?" she croaked.

"Order the rest of the Outcasts to stand down. Security codes. A full roster of your people and their assignments. In exchange, I'll release Kaetus and you'll die quickly."

"Done."

"Wonderful," Keema said, heading for the door. "Let's get started."

When Ryder made to follow, Peebee's grip on her arm tightened. She turned back and suddenly stumbled with swimming vision. She closed her eyes tightly and shook her head.

"Whoa, whoa," Peebee said, grabbing her other arm and tugging her sideways to prop her against a shipping container. The crowd shoved past them, getting louder. Ryder doubled over with a pathetic groan.

A fucking migraine? Really SAM? NOW? I thought you were going to help?

*I am trying.*

Reyes rushed up to Peebee. "What's wrong? Was she hit?" he asked, yanking a pack of medigel and a first aid kit out of a pocket.

It sounded like their words were echoing down a tunnel.

"No, I don't know, she just suddenly looked like she was going to pass out!" Peebee said, worried. "I've got to get back up there to keep watch for Drack now that Ryder's down. Get her to the ship."

Peebee rushed off while Reyes cursed under his breath and slid under Ryder's arm to support her.

"Used dirty tactics," Ryder panted, trying to glare at him.

He rolled his eyes. "Yes we did, and I'd do it again. If getting myself a little dirty will prevent a lot of bloodshed, I will do it every time. Isn't that the choice you just made, too?"

Ryder stumbled as a spiked vice tightened around her head. "Mother fucker!" she hissed.

"Hate me later," Reyes growled. "We don't have fucking time for this..." He scooped her up in a fireman's carry. The world spun.

"Might...puke..." she groaned.

"Aim away from me if you do," he grunted, shoving his way around the edge of the mob. Ryder focused on trying to breathe through the blood rushing to her head. At least it didn't seem to be making anything worse?

SAM? She sent, but didn't get a reply. She...should probably be worried about that?

Reyes jostled her as he stopped. Three hundred kilos of angry krogan was in his way.

"What did you do to her?" Drack rumbled menacingly.

"Nothing!" Reyes glared. "Peebee dumped her on me like this. I'm taking her to your ship, hopefully before she throws up on me."

Drack grunted and motioned to one of his minions. "Jeva, go with him. Don't leave until she's with Lexi."

"Yes, Drack!" A young krogan woman ran up.

"I'm calling Lexi now," Drack said, eyeballing Reyes.

"Good," he said. He rushed off, tailed by the young krogan.

Lexi met them at the airlock, all business. Before Ryder knew what was happening, she was flipped over and floating in a biotic field down to the medbay. She retched and dug her hands into her forehead to try to alleviate the pain.

Lexi was flying through her omnitool, demanding information from Reyes and SAM. She settled Ryder on a bed and shined a light into her eyes, making her whimper and turn away.

"Sara, can you tell me what happened?" Lexi asked. Her cool hands on either side of her neck brought tears of relief to Ryder's eyes.

"Lots of headaches lately. Migraine?" she breathed quickly through her mouth and pressed the heel of her palms to her eyes. "SAM didn't work. It hurts. M'gonna throw up. Wish I could."

"I'm going to give you a sedative and a painkiller while I try to figure out what's going on, okay, Sara?"

"Yes!" 

She sighed in relief when she felt the needle prick.

Lexi lowered the lights and got to work.

Chapter Text

Ryder woke up to a darkened medbay and complete confusion. What the fuck...? She remembered shielding Keema, Sloane's defeat...Peebee?...Lexi floating her down to the medbay?

"You can see through the window that she is sleeping peacefully," Lexi's voice came through the medbay door from the hallway. "Her senses seem to be heightened along with her neurotransmitters, which means she will be very easy to wake up. That's really not the best thing for her right now."

"But what happened?" Jaal asked. His worry carried through more clearly than his words. "...wasn't...or injured? ...has been stressed, but..."

Oh. Yeah.

She sighed and covered her burning face with her hands. Taken out by a headache in the middle of a mission. She'd had to be carried home. Just...great. She glanced around and found a glass of water sitting nearby. Ryder slowly scooted to a sitting position and gratefully took a drink.

What the fuck was that, SAM? she asked.

No answer.

Oh shit. That had happened, too. What if...

"SAM?" she asked aloud, tentatively.

"I am still here, Sara," he answered. "Dr. T'Perro has placed a medical override on our private channel because of her findings. Use of it may exacerbate your symptoms."

She sighed in relief, but before she said anything else, the medbay door slid open and the lights rose slightly.

"...monitors show she's conscious," Lexi was saying. "Sara, are you awake?" she asked quietly.

"Yeah, apparently," she answered. "I'm alive, and feeling much better. Please tell me it was just the migraine from hell?"

"It might be," Lexi said, "but since you don't have a history of them and it was so sudden and severe, I'm doing a thorough investigation."

Jaal was hesitating in the doorway, looking exhausted, filthy, and terrified. Bravo team had clearly just gotten back. Ryder waved at him sheepishly.

"Hi?" she said. "Hope your mission went better than mine?"

He sighed and came around the side of her bed to sit on the stool there. He pulled a glove off and rested his bare hand near hers, carefully brushing her fingers.

"I hear you were successful as well, despite unexpected obstacles," he said. Jaal smiled and reached up to take off his visor with his other hand.

"Lexi knows more than I do, but I'm feeling much better," she said, trying to sound reassuring. She held his hand. "You should shower and eat, love."

"I will," Jaal said. "I just..." He looked down at their hands and took a shaky breath.

Drack's footsteps thunked outside the medbay doors just before they opened. He glanced around, quickly taking in the scene and giving Jaal a critical once over.

"Yeah that's about what I figured," he said, stomping over to rest his hand on Jaal's shoulder. He leaned down to widen one giant eye at Jaal's worried face. "You can't do shit right now, and she's gonna need you in better shape than this later, so come on," he said.

Ryder smiled and squeezed Jaal's hand again. He looked at her, anguished, and then beseechingly at Lexi.

"He's right," Lexi said, pointing at the doorway. "Food and a shower. By the time you're done, Ryder will probably be able to go to sleep in her own bed."

"Am I allowed overnight guests, Dr. T'Perro?" Ryder asked cheekily.

"If sleeping is all that happens until I give you medical clearance," Lexi said severely, "then yes."

Jaal looked horrified. "Of course!" he gasped. "Sara is injured, or ill, and I would never—"

Ryder snorted and squeezed his hand again. "Kidding, Jaal."

"Well I am not," Lexi said primly. "This is highly unusual, and until I investigate further and consult with Harry, I do not want you adding any variables to the problem, understood?"

Jaal nodded seriously.

"Yes, ma'am," Ryder sighed.

"Good. Now Jaal, get out of my way."

He resisted Drack's tug for a second so he could press a kiss to Ryder's palm. She brushed her fingers along his cheek and he gave her a weak smile before letting Drack drag him away.

 


 

"Alright, that's the last reading I need for now," Lexi said.

Ryder rubbed the inside of her elbow where she'd drawn a few vials of blood.

"Stop that, you'll bruise," Lexi said absently, tapping Ryder's knuckles with her stylus. "You're excused as long as you behave yourself. You're off duty for the next thirty hours, at least. No work. No reports. No official correspondence. No planning. Nothing."

"What about negotiating for the colony, and our agreement with the Collective?"

"They've been informed and Cora is dealing with it," Lexi answered. "It's bad enough you have to be the one to activate the vault, but I'm hoping I can figure out what's going on before you do."

Ryder rubbed her forehead and sighed. "It's still embarrassing to be taken out by a headache."

"This is far more than a headache, Sara," Lexi said, putting down her data pad and stylus. She turned back and crossed her arms. "The tissue surrounding your SAM implant was swollen, and your serotonin and norepinephrin levels were dangerously high. Use of your private channel with SAM seemed to be making it worse. He was working to correct it, but every transmission itself caused a minor surge. I've got to compare this to your and your parents' medical records to see if this has happened before."

"To my knowledge it has not, Dr. T'Perro," SAM offered.

"You see?" Lexi encouraged. "Not just a headache. Especially since your SAM implant now supports your autonomic nervous system."

Ryder laughed and wiped her hands down her face. "Thanks. How weird is it that I feel better about having a life threatening medical condition than a harmless but painful and embarrassing one?"

"I'm just glad Harry gave me some tips about working with Ryders," Lexi smiled and squeezed her upper arms. Ryder laughed again.

"Eat something if you feel like you can handle it, and make sure to stay hydrated," Lexi said. She handed her a bottle of pills. "Take these anti-inflammatories every four hours. Sleep as long as you feel you need to, and come back in the morning."

"Ok," Ryder nodded. "Thanks, Lexi."

She stretched before standing carefully, still feeling a bit light-headed. Lexi walked her to the door and she headed for the galley.

Peebee and Suvi were sitting on either side of Jaal, occasionally exchanging worried glances. He looked up when the door opened and nearly knocked over the table in his haste to meet her. Peebee rescued mugs and plates, settling them with her biotics.

"Taoshay," he whispered, gently cupping her face and kissing her forehead.

She squeezed tightly around his waist and felt his breath hitch. Stupid brain glitch scaring my boyfriend.

"I'll be ok," she said. "Just gotta take it easy while Lexi figures it out."

He was holding his energy so close she couldn't feel it at all, but he nodded. "Would you like something to eat?" he asked.

"I can get it myself," she said. "I was just going to have a meal bar and some tea and go to bed."

Jaal gestured to the table with a smile. "Sit, I'll get it for you. What would you like?"

"Jaal, I'm not—"

"Sara, please," he said, letting a bit of his worry out through his touch. "Let me do something."

Ryder sighed and smiled gently. "Okay," she said. "Rooibus tea and a peanut butter meal bar, please. Red box, yellow wrapper." He kissed her cheek and nodded before turning to the cabinets.

Peebee scooted over to make room and Suvi gave Ryder a relieved smile when she sat.

"Good to see you on your feet," Peebee said, stacking up the empty dishes in front of her. "That was some scary shit."

"Yeah, it wasn't fun," Ryder sighed. She glanced over to where Jaal was filling the kettle. "Thanks," she said quietly, nodding toward him.

Suvi reached over to squeeze her hands. "Of course," she whispered.

Peebee nodded and took the dishes to the sink.

Ryder sighed and rested her chin in her hands. I'm really lucky to have these guys. Suvi finished her drink and added her cup to Peebee's stack.

"Hey!" Peebee complained.

"Thanks, Peebee!" Suvi said, darting out of the room with a laugh. Peebee grumbled and elbowed Jaal when he chuckled.

"Still didn't hurt," he teased, filling Ryder's mug with water.

"It would if I used biotics," she answered.

"If you cheated, you mean?" Jaal asked over his shoulder. He put a mug and an unwrapped meal bar down in front of Ryder and kissed her head as he sat.

"I'm half your size, Jaal!" Peebee protested.

"And twice my age," he shrugged. "What's your point?"

"Such an ass," Peebee sighed in a stage whisper, shaking her head.

"You're pretty spry for ninety-something, Jaal," Ryder said, smiling around her mouthful. Peebee snorted.

"More or less," he smiled, reaching over to stroke her cheek.

She blew on her tea, then looked up curiously before taking a sip. "How old are you, actually?" she asked. "I can't believe I don't know that."

Jaal finished his drink. "Liam asked me that, too," he said. "One of his first questions. Age is important to humans, then?" he asked.

Ryder shrugged. "Sort of? Depends. People closer to your age will have more similar experiences, usually. It's just...information that helps us figure people out. Figure out what part of their life they're in."

"I suppose that's understandable," Jaal nodded. "Anyway, once we found a translatable unit of time, Liam figured out that I am about..." he paused and thought, "twenty seven Earth years? For reference, the Moshae is nearly old enough to be my great-grandmother."

"Babies," Peebee scoffed as she dried her hands.

"Who's making tasteless lifespan remarks now?" Ryder asked.

"You started it," Peebee said, sticking out her tongue. To Ryder's surprise, she came over and gave her a quick but firm hug before leaving. "Glad you're feeling better," she blurted, and dashed out.

Jaal watched with a smile. Ryder raised her eyebrows and he explained, "It's good to see Peebee being more open. Letting herself get attached."

"Yeah, it is," she agreed.

Companionable silence surrounded them while she nibbled on her meal bar and slowly sipped at her tea. The food seemed to be settling fine, at least. She glanced over at Jaal. He looked drained. She wanted to apologize for worrying him. Instead she said, "Thanks for waiting up for me."

He smiled and reached for her empty hand with both of his. She finished her tea, and before she could move to wash her mug, he was already at the sink with both of their cups.

"Thanks," she sighed.

He turned back and pulled her to her feet. "You're welcome," he said, burying his face in her neck. "Thank you for letting me help, even if you don't actually need it."

Ryder reached up to stroke down the back of his head. "Lexi will figure it out," she said softly. He nodded. "I'd like to hear about your mission, but I think I'd get in trouble," she sighed. "I do want to thank Cora, though. SAM, where is she?"

"Cora is in the crew quarters," SAM answered.

Jaal hugged her. "Is there anything else you need before bed?" he asked.

"Just you," she smiled, shaking her head. He blushed and looked down with a smile. "Meet you there in a few minutes?" she asked.

He nodded and kissed her forehead. "Yes."

Chapter Text

Lexi was chatting with Harry in real time when Ryder walked into the medbay the next morning. That's taking up a lot of comm bandwidth. I guess the one and only Pathfinder being on the fritz counts as an emergency.

"Oh, and here she is," Lexi said, glancing over her shoulder to Ryder. "I'll call back after her check-up, okay?"

"Sure," Harry said. "Hey Sara: Do me a favor and listen to your doctor, okay, kid? You and Scott are giving me more gray hairs."

"Will do," she said, sticking her head into the frame and waving hello.

"Talk to you soon, Harry," Lexi smiled. "T'Perro out." She turned and gestured to the nearest bed and Ryder hopped up.

"Let me know when you're done," Jaal said from the doorway.

Ryder waved to the stool nearby. "You can stay, if you want. It'll save me having to repeat everything later."

"Um..." he hesitated, "are you...sure?" His eyes were huge, his posture uncertain.

She tried to smile reassuringly. "If you're not too uncomfortable, yes," she said. "But it's ok if you'd rather not."

Jaal fidgeted awkwardly.

Lexi was already scanning Ryder and making notes, and piped up sternly, "In or out, Jaal."

He quickly sat down. Ryder whispered, "Thanks," and he smiled back.

"Any symptoms since we last spoke?" Lexi asked.

"Just a bit of lightheadedness last night," Ryder answered, "and I don't remember dreaming, if I did. I slept hard."

Lexi nodded and made a few more notes before closing her omnitool. "Good," she said. "The swelling I noted yesterday is down significantly. I've been working with SAM, and actually consulted with Suvi a bit about it—apparently, SAM is having...similar symptoms? So to speak?"

"What? SAM!" Ryder squawked. "You didn't say?"

"I apologize, Sara," SAM answered over the medbay speakers. "I did not actually notice until I began investigating with Dr. T'Perro. I do not feel pain, so the issues I have experienced did not capture my attention as sharply. The problems appear to have developed gradually."

"Well, what's going on?" Ryder asked in concern.

"The efficiency of my overall information processing and transmission has been compromised. Upon review, those processes have become approximately 12% slower as compared to when you were first instated as Pathfinder. There also appear to be a few sections of long term data storage that are...not accessible." The AI sounded worried.

"Not accessible?" Ryder asked, eyes widening. "What the hell?"

"I was surprised at the discovery as well," SAM said.

"Okay, this is officially scary," Ryder said. "What are the chances you were...hacked? Or compromised somehow?"

"I think the chances are very small," SAM said, still sounding worried, "However, given this information, I cannot be certain. This is unanticipated and unsettling."

"Hell yeah it is," Ryder said. Jaal took her hand and she squeezed it gratefully. She sat back against the raised head of the bed and started strategizing.

"Sara, stop," Lexi interrupted with a hand on her arm. She opened her eyes to a soft blue smile. "We're working on it already. You don't need to fix everything by yourself."

Ryder nodded with a sigh. "Alright, so what's the plan?"

"I have enabled security protocols on SAM node," SAM said. "Captain Dunn has been informed. You are the only one authorized to enter SAM node alone, Sara. Everyone else must be accompanied by another authorized visitor, and submit to a thorough scan beforehand. This will be maintained until further notice or your override, Pathfinder. Any request for my assistance from outside the Pathfinder team must be authorized by Lieutenant Harper, or you once you have medical clearance."

Ryder sighed. "That's a big relief. Good work, SAM."

"Thank you," SAM answered.

"Now as for your treatment," Lexi said, "your neurotransmitters are nearly back down to the high end of average, but I want you to take some daily medication to keep them stable," she walked over to her desk for the bottle. "I also want you to keep taking the anti-inflammatory I gave you. Contact me immediately if you have any headache, dizziness, or nausea. SAM is passively monitoring you, and will also alert me. I'll observe your progress for another day or two, and after that, if I think it's safe," she paused for a stern look, "you'll be cleared to activate the vault. As soon as the colonists arrive, we'll head for the Nexus. We'll probably have to reset your connection to SAM."

"Crap, we've got a ton of stuff that needs to go to Aya," Ryder sighed and closed her eyes.

"I'll deal with it," Jaal said. "The embassy can ensure safe transport." Ryder tossed him a smile and squeezed his hand again.

"What if you don't think it's safe for me to activate the vault?" she asked.

"Then we head for the Nexus and come back later," Lexi answered firmly. "You'll do no one any good if you push yourself into a brain injury, Sara."

"Yes ma'am," Ryder said, holding up her hands in acquiescence. "Do you need anything else from me?"

"No," Lexi shook her head. "But we should update Cora. Is it alright if I call her in now?"

"Yeah," she agreed. "Might as well."

Cora quickly answered Lexi's call and showed up a few minutes later. She pulled over a stool and crossed her arms while she listened. Afterward, they all waited for her input.

"I used to have a private channel with SAM, but we deactivated it because things got...weird," Cora stared at the foot of the bed while her mind worked. "Something about my connection to SAM was never quite as...solid? I guess?...as yours or Alec's," she glanced up with a shrug. "I don't know how it works for the Pathfinders from other species, but I've wondered if maybe...there's something about how the SAM implant works that's tied to genetics? Maybe that's why you're able to use the enhancing profiles Alec created and I never was. I don't know enough about it, but..."

"Maybe? Mom and Dad kept me and Scott as far away from it as possible. Anything to do with SAM and his design was underground, experimental, literally contraband. And...Dad was...well, he was obsessed with SAM," Ryder sighed. "Sorry, buddy," she said to the ceiling.

"Thank you, Sara. I take no offense," SAM said. "In fact, I agree. Alec's focus on my development followed unhealthy patterns."

Ryder crossed her arms as she leaned back. "By keeping us at arms length, he didn't have anyone to hold him back after Mom died. If he altered the implant design without Mom's input, who knows what he fucked up," she scoffed bitterly and closed her eyes. "Thanks, Dad. Again."

Cora frowned and nodded. Lexi put a comforting hand on Ryder's arm.

"Whenever he heard 'don't do that' or 'you can't do that' he never stopped to consider if the person saying it might mean I don't want you to or there's a reason that's against the rules," Ryder said. "Always took it as a personal challenge. He said he didn't want to be called a hero, but he sure as hell loved the validation. Once they kicked him out, everything was about proving the Alliance wrong. Sure, he wanted to save Mom, but that was only part of his motivation. He'd never admit it, though."

"He was...definitely hard to divert once he had an idea," Cora agreed. She looked up with narrowed eyes. "Does that sound familiar, Sara?"

"Yeah," she grinned, opening her eyes. "Scott's the same way."

Jaal choked on a cough that had definitely not started out as a laugh.

"Well," he said, clearing his throat, "if we're going to the Nexus instead, I need to send a few messages." He leaned over and kissed Ryder's forehead with a smile. "May I check on you when I'm finished?" he whispered. She nodded and he sent a short wave of warmth before leaving.

"I need to update the Nexus, too," Cora said, then turned to Lexi. "Do you think she'll be able to handle the end of the colony negotiations? Or a debrief at least?"

"Probably," Lexi said, "but I can't promise."

Ryder nodded. "Sorry, Cora," she grimaced and got a scoff in return, "and thanks."

Cora's eyes wrinkled. "You act like I wouldn't have been doing all the heavy lifting here anyway," she said.

"Ohh, I see how it is," Ryder laughed, "kicking me when I'm down. The commandos teach you to play dirty like that?"

"Nope, that's all me," she grinned, standing and patting Ryder's shin. "Feel better, and try to enjoy the break," she said.

 


 

To no one's surprise but hers, Ryder slept most of the first day. After the second, Lexi cleared her for paperwork and official correspondence. She'd also been allowed her regular workout, but only with regular medical check-ins. By the third afternoon, she was starting to go a little stir crazy.

"Thankfully, the inflammation has completely disappeared," Lexi was saying. "Heavy use of your SAM implant may have played a part. Once we're on the Nexus, we can investigate." She closed her scanner and turned off the display above the bed. "For now, let's see how you handle a debrief about the colony agreement."

"Great," Ryder said, sitting up. "I'm getting a little antsy."

"I'm glad you're feeling better, but I want to be cautious. Come back for another scan after you talk to Cora. If I'm satisfied, you can have a trial run in the field tomorrow, and start planning for the vault."

"Sure, Lexi!" Ryder called over her shoulder. Finally I can actually do something. She zipped up the ladder.

Cora was in the meeting room floor with three data pads, half a cup of cold coffee, and a harassed expression. She looked up with a tired smile when Ryder came in.

"You finally get clearance to help with this mess?" she asked.

Ryder laughed. "A debrief at least. We'll see if that makes my brain melt out my nose."

Cora made a face before turning back to a data pad. "Addison wants all kinds of concessions," she sighed, "but I've managed to convince her that we are asking for a favor here, which got her to back off a bit."

"Good," Ryder nodded. "I get the feeling we're going to have to revisit that reminder."

"Here's the draft of the agreement I'm going to present for their review," she said, handing up one of the datapads.

Ryder sat on the couch behind her to read through it.

It began with a clear stipulation that the Pathfinder team would activate the Remnant vault before colonists were dispatched from the Nexus. The location of the colony was clearly outlined with maps and survey information, and the process for eventual expansion was outlined. General agricultural plans were included. The colony would have its own separate government based on Initiative guidelines, which were appended. Trading was referenced, but not in detail. If any colonists wanted to leave the colony but stay on Kadara, they would have to petition port leadership. If denied, they would have to return to the colony or leave the planet. If any angara wanted to join the colony, there was a simple process and trial period.

Ryder nodded. Good. It seemed pretty comprehensive without getting bogged down in unnecessary details. Her eyebrows rose in surprise at the next clause.

"Wow," she said, drawing Cora's attention. "You got the Nexus to agree to letting exiles back in? I'd hoped to do something, but that seemed like a long shot."

"Their probationary period is twice as long as any angara applicant, and they need a sponsor from within the colony—someone who isn't a former exile and is currently in good standing—but yeah," Cora smiled and curled her arms around her knees, looking quietly proud. "Keema helped with that one," she said, "emphasizing how the exiles have already had a huge impact on Kadara. She mentioned Sloane in passing, but the details from Charybdis Point were what really pushed Addison over the edge. Looked like she'd eaten a lemon, but she conceded."

Ryder nodded firmly. "They're still our responsibility."

"That was my argument."

"This looks great, Cora," she said, handing it back. "You think they'll go for it?"

"Hopefully," Cora sighed. "They should, anyway. It's an organized write-up of everything we've discussed, so any objections or additions should be minor."

"When's the next meeting?"

"Tomorrow morning."

"Good work," Ryder said, patting her shoulder and standing. "Gotta go check in with Lexi. Hopefully I can start planning the trip to the vault while you finish this." She looked down with a thoughful grin. "I think I'll need to bring someone Keema trusts with us, just to ensure full transparency."

Cora's face lit and she leaned on the couch. "That is perfect! Take pictures."

"Will do!" Ryder laughed, waving on her way down the ramp.

 


 

Ryder threw an incineration burst and ducked behind a blast shield with a grin. "Man, I missed this!" she yelled.

Peebee caught two breachers for Jaal to pick off. "You sometimes come off all serious," she laughed over the comm, "but you're really my kinda girl, Ryder!"

"That's a flattering way to say absolutely crazy!" Reyes yelled. "Who the fuck makes resetting a terraforming system this fucking dangerous?" He was squatting behind a column and throwing grenades at a Remnant nullifier. He switched to an assault rifle. "Why are there two of them? Why are there any of these things at all?!"

"Hell if I know!" Ryder yelled. She popped out of cover to overload an observer that was closing on Peebee. "I'd build a giant box with glowing arrows and a big red switch."

"We probably tripped an alarm and activated automated defenses," Jaal said over the comm. "I shudder to think the kind of threat they were expecting to defend against." He tossed a grenade between the two nullifiers, cracking their armor.

Ryder charged and vaulted over one, landing between them with a nova. They staggered and Peebee threw a shockwave, breaking a few legs. Ryder's omniblade shoved into a glowing crack and took one out. Jaal sniped the other while it was trying to turn its gun to face her. She gave him a thumbs up.

"Think we're clear!" she called, and got answering affirmatives. "Ok, I'm gonna open this giant door. Be ready to haul ass."

She headed for the console and got confirmation everyone was settled before activating it. Then she crouched behind the console to get a glimpse of the room beyond. Oh fuck. Not good!

"Shit, run!" Ryder yelled. "Destroyer!"

Peebee cursed in three unrecognizable languages and boosted away with her jets and biotics. Jaal cloaked and his comm went silent.

"What the fuck is a destroyer?!" Reyes cried.

"It destroys things! Like walls! And lives! RUN!" Ryder grabbed his arm as she sped past, dragging him along.

"SHIT!"

They dove behind a blast shield just as its machine guns let loose.

"They're programmed for systematic sweeps!" Ryder yelled. "Stay down until it fires the rockets, then run like hell while it's spooling!"

"Fuck me! Why does it have rockets?"

"Shit, I see another one behind it!"

"Another rocket?"

"Another destroyer! Go NOW!"

Reyes pelted out of cover behind her and they scrambled behind another blast shield just as the second destroyer let fly.

"There are two of these fuckers too? What are they hiding back there?"

"RIGHT? They can keep it!" she yelled over the din, then called over the team comm. "Status report!"

"Safe across the gap," Peebee answered. "Jaal is trying to take out the turrets for you guys."

"Good. Thanks. Don't draw attention if you can help it."

"I won't," Jaal said, followed by a loud explosion from one of the destroyers. Turret parts were hanging in pieces and sparking, and it was trying to turn to keep them in range. Its clumsy movements blocked the second one for the moment.

"GO!" Ryder yelled, grabbing Reyes' arm with her fist and biotics.

"Ryyyyyyyyy—"

She jetted across the gap, shielding behind them with her biotics. He activated his jump jets late, boosting them forward, but making their arc unsteady. They crashed into the brush surrounding the tree that Jaal was perched in.

"-der!" Reyes finished, rolling over onto his stomach.

"We out of range?" Ryder panted, glancing around.

"Yes, they're returning to their base," Jaal called down.

"Awesome. Let's not do that again," she laughed and slumped back against the tree trunk.

"Sorry, guys," Peebee said sheepishly. "Whatever's over there must be a big deal, but it's not worth getting killed for." She squatted next to Reyes and shook his shoulder. He grunted and flapped a hand, but stayed down.

"No way to know if we don't look," Ryder grinned at her. "No harm done."

"Speak for yourself," Reyes said, finally sitting up.

Jaal thumped to the ground and held his hand out to Ryder. She grabbed it to pull herself up.

"Okay. Five minutes? Five minutes. We've earned five minutes," she said, stretching and pulling out an energy bar. "Then we'll make our way to the nanobot murder cloud!"

"You're not exaggerating, are you?" Reyes groaned. Jaal let out an exhausted laugh and Peebee snorted some of her water. Ryder took a bite and shook her head. "Do you have to sound so happy about it?" he asked.

She smiled, waggled her eyebrows at him, and swallowed. "I just expect you to report to Keema that you've definitely gotten your money's worth out of this deal."

"If I survive, you have my solemn vow."

"How much is that going for these days? Ten creds? Twenty?"

"Didn't you say we'd earned a five minute break? I want a five minute break from you giving me shit."

"I'm not pointing a krogan with a shotgun at you anymore. Suck it up and count your blessings."

"God damn it, Ryder."

"See, now we're getting closer to even."

Chapter Text

"Wonderful!" Lexi said, looking over SAM's records from the vault. "Reasonable changes in neurotransmitters and no swelling, even when you used SAM's enhancing profiles and when you activated the vault. Your blood pressure was within expected levels. Did you have any negative symptoms at all?"

"Nope," Ryder said, swinging her legs. "A bit of adrenaline in combat, but nothing unusal and nothing distracting. I feel great, honestly."

"That's excellent news," Lexi said. "Let me do a quick scan."

Ryder closed her eyes and held still, but her mind wandered to the message Reyes had sent a few hours before. Not looking forward to tomorrow.

"Your blood pressure just rose sharply," Lexi said. "What are you thinking about, Sara?"

She looked down at her lap and sighed. "The execution of Sloane and her deputies. It's tomorrow." She locked her jaw. "I've got to go."

Lexi pursed her lips. "Did someone ask you to?" she asked.

"No, but I need to do this. I share responsibility. I have to see it through."

Lexi hummed quietly. "Are you going to order the rest of the crew to attend?" she asked, turning off her scanner and looking at the readings displayed over the bed.

"No," she said in surprise. "Why would I? It's my duty."

"This isn't the military, Sara," Lexi said mildly. "The Initiative is paramilitary right now, yes, by necessity. Until we're established. But everyone on the crew shares responsibility for the choices we make. Don't try to protect us by taking away our agency."

Ryder groaned and pressed the heels of her hands over her eyes.

"That's not—" she sighed. "Ok, that's exactly what I'm doing, but that's not what I meant to do."

"What did you mean to do?"

She threw up her hands in frustration. "I don't know! I'm flying by the seat of my pants here, Lexi. I just...don't want to fuck up."

Lexi nudged her over and sat down, hugging her shoulders gently. "Too bad," she said, "because you're going to. A lot." Her voice held an undertone of gentle amusement.

Ryder sighed and smiled in resignation. "Speaking from experience?" she asked.

"Absolutely."

"Okay. I'll let everyone know that I'm going, and anyone who wants to can join me."

Lexi nodded. "Bring Drack and Jaal," she suggested. "Cora, too."

"Why them?"

"Because they'll watch you closely and be able to get you out quickly if necessary."

Ryder rolled her eyes. "Lexi," she groaned, "it'll be awful, but there's nothing to worry about."

"It's my job to worry about all of you. Besides, you told Harry you'd listen to me."

"Alright, alright. I'll bring the heavy hitters."

Lexi patted her shoulder. "Good."

 


 

It ended up making more sense for Cora to remain on the Tempest and coordinate with the Nexus, since the colonists were due to arrive within a few days. So Ryder headed out the next morning with Drack and Jaal on either side, one slightly behind and one slightly in front. She felt more than a little ridiculous with their hovering, but tried to let it go while they settled into a space to the side of the crowd.

A slightly raised platform had been quickly assembled in front of port headquarters. To the side, about a dozen high ranking Outcasts were shackled and guarded. Kaetus was in the center, trembling with anger and grief. Ryder clenched her jaw and swallowed hard. Jaal briefly touched her back for reassurance.

Soon, Keema exited headquarters and walked past the prisoners, regally climbing onto the stage. She opened a program on her wrist tool to magnify her voice and cleared her throat. The noise of the crowd faded into nervous anticipation. She started speaking without preamble, pausing between each point for emphasis.

"The Outcasts did not exterminate the kett!" Keema called. "They hid the truth and lied about it in order to keep their power!" She glared into the silence.

"Rather than pool and share resources properly, their protection fees were extreme, applied unequally, and improperly tracked. Their carelessness and cold hearts sent innocent people to gruesome deaths at the hands of Nexus exiles." An intense wave of anger ran through the audience.

"When people were murdered in the port, the Outcasts stood by and did not investigate. They blamed the Collective, with no proof, and ignored the Roekaar in our midst attempting to divide us!" This got a few murmurs and one or two isolated sobs.

"The Outcasts created and distributed a toxic addictive drug. They knew angara were more susceptible, and deliberately spread it to prevent revolt." Ryder could feel the agitated charge in the air from all the angara.

"We have gathered proof of these violations, and more, which have all been made public. You have reviewed them and we have made our decision." The crowd whooped, but quieted when she raised a hand. "The Outcasts have pitted us all against each other, but we are stronger together! Today we break their stranglehold on us!"

She gestured to the doors behind her, and they opened to reveal Sloane being brought out. The crowd roared with bloodlust and seethed around them. Sloane was standing as straight as she could, color drained from her face, staring at nothing. Kaetus' keen wove through the thundering of the crowd.

Ryder started breathing deliberately through her mouth. Just get it over with. She knew it was a futile hope. The people were here for a show, and Keema was well into the theatrics. Sloane's guards stopped in front of the platform, and Keema started speaking again.

"Yet our freedom would not be possible without the help of my friend—our trusted ally—Pathfinder Sara Ryder!" Keema grinned widely and gestured to her through the crowd. Most people turned to face her. Some cheered.

Ryder froze. She heard Jaal's gasp and felt the vibration of Drack's growl. What the fuck is she doing?

"I'd like to invite her to join me for this," Keema called. "Please, make way!"

A path immediately started opening in front of her, leading straight to the stage. A quick flare of what could only be burning fury escaped from Jaal, before he immediately dampened it.

"You want company, say the word," Drack said under his breath. "Nobody stops a krogan."

She swallowed and took a deep breath before patting Drack's forearm. "Thanks gramps. It's ok, though. Gotta pay the piper."

Jaal said nothing, but his worry was palpable in the air around him. Ryder nodded and headed through the crowd.

Sloane was still looking straight ahead at nothing, but Kaetus was straining at his bonds, yelling, keening through his subvocals, cursing Ryder and everyone she'd ever known. The guard assigned to him hit him under his fringe, but he couldn't be stopped without a gag.

Ryder bit her cheek and accepted Keema's hand up onto the stage. She smiled stiffly at the friendly shoulder pat that followed. "Sorry, for the ambush," Keema whispered. "I knew you'd understand." Ryder nodded and got a short bracing current before Keema turned back to her audience and raised both hands.

She stepped to the front of the stage, readied her sidearm, and aimed it straight at Sloane.

The crowd went silent.

"Sloane Kelly," Keema said. "Do you have anything to say?"

Sloane closed her eyes. This close, Ryder could see tracks of tears running down her cheeks.

I kill all the time.

This is different. This is wrong.

She lied and hurt thousands for her own gain.

This is wrong.

We need this colony. People will starve.

This is wrong.

Tarnish on my soul in exchange for the survival of millions. That's a fair trade, and I've already made it.

This. Is. Wrong.

Ryder was starting to feel lightheaded, but forced herself to watch.

"Just get this shit over with, you lying bitch."

Keema nodded and fired. The crowd yelled, half in shock, half in triumph. Kaetus' cry was cut off as the guards behind the prisoners all fired in unison. Bodies dropped.

Ryder's throat constricted. Pain stabbed behind her eyes and her hands shook. Keema was suddenly beside her, supporting her, saying something she couldn't process, waving to the crowd as the bodies were quickly removed. She led her toward headquarters, flanked by guards.

The arm across her shoulder was bracing, and Keema was sending a soothing current, something cool and comforting. It helped...a bit. Ryder managed to keep a stoic face until the doors closed behind them. Once inside, she lunged to the side and doubled over, crumpling to the floor while she vomited.

She'd managed to turn away from everyone and brace a hand on the wall, but that was all she could do. She heard Keema barking orders behind her, footsteps running, doors opening.

"—let him in if I were you," Drack was saying over a scuffle, and Jaal was suddenly next to her, reaching for her and making soothing noises.

Ryder felt pathetically grateful, letting him hold part of her weight as she retched. Someone handed her a cloth and she spat, wiped her mouth, and spat again. Jaal tugged her backwards gently, and she let him settle her against the wall. She closed her eyes and breathed evenly through her mouth as the spinning of the world started to settle. A cool metal bottle slid into her hand and she pressed it to her face before taking a few small sips of water.

After a minute, she opened her eyes to an angara trying his best to not look absolutely panicked. She smiled weakly and took a larger drink of water.

"Pathfinder, I have notified Dr. T'Perro," SAM's voice came from her omnitool. "My passive monitoring indicates that your norepinephrine levels are higher than currently desirable, and your blood pressure has risen significantly. I recommend a cessation of stressful activities."

Ryder laughed and closed her eyes again. She wiped them with a clean corner of the cloth. "I'll get right on that, SAM."

"Yes, we're just about finished with them. For now," Keema said, sounding amused and relieved.

Ryder felt an air current move and opened her eyes just as Jaal slammed Keema against the wall. She did something complicated with her legs and shoved him back. He caught his balance and lowered to a defensive stance while she spat out curses.

"Stop—" Ryder tried, but it went unheeded.

"You...selfish...vesagara!" Jaal snarled. "How can you live with yourself? Do you care only for what use people can be to you?" Something flashed in Keema's eyes and she launched herself at him, electricity arcing from her hands.

They moved in unfamiliar patterns, too quickly for Ryder's fuzzy brain to follow. They both let out angry grunts and growls as they grappled and fought. The angara guards were backing away, watching carefully, but giving them both space. Guards of other species seemed to have disappeared.

"Drack," Ryder croaked, looking around and finding him already standing next to her. He patted her head gently.

"I got it, kid. Just give 'em a minute."

She caught a few half translated phrases while she watched in concern.

"You come to my planet and—"

"—any decency, you'd—"

"—old stories you've swallowed like your mother's milk!"

Keema punctuated the last one with a punch at Jaal's face. He dodged and used her momentum to bring her to the floor. She managed to throw him with a strong knee to the gut. While he was catching his breath, she yelled something untranslated in what sounded like deep annoyance.

"I have no use for your false platitudes, you traitorous mercenary," Jaal roared.

"And I have no use for your skkutting hypocrisy!" Keema yelled.

Jaal was about to answer, when Drack finally stepped between them and caught his attention.

"You idiot, you're making it worse," Drack said, pointing at Ryder. Jaal whirled, anger forgotten and replaced with worry. He gasped when he saw her.

"Darling one, I'm..." he took a hesitant step toward her.

"Ugh, just...stop it, and help me up," Ryder groaned. "I'll yell at you later."

Keema snorted, and got a krogan in her face for her trouble. "We don't have a problem," he growled, "but if you don't keep your mouth shut, we just might."

She leaned backwards to look him over and scoffed dismissively. "Fine." She turned to leave and cheerfully called over her shoulder, "Don't worry about the mess, I'll have someone unpleasant clean it up."

 


 

Lexi's anger was impressive.

"Absolutely reckless, allowing an escalation of a situation that was already highly stressful for you," she was griping while examining Sara, who was dozing in a semi-conscious haze. "I'm glad you listened to me at least, so we were able to extract you quickly. I can't believe this was more stressful than combat for you, but I'm sure Harry will tell me that I really should have known better..."

Sara closed her eyes and laughed softly. "Y'w'right. Thannnss, Lecks," she mumbled, vaguely patting in the doctor's direction. She seemed to fall asleep with her hand in mid air.

Lexi lowered her arm gently, then kept working quickly while she fumed.

"I cannot believe Keema ambushed you! I briefed her myself when you were first put on medical leave. I made sure she was aware of the dangers and she still did this. If this is how the Collective treats allies..."

Jaal shifted, drawing her attention to his position near the door.

"And you!" Lexi dropped her tools onto the table and glared at him. "Jaal, I expected better."

He looked down at his clasped hands and nodded, abashed. The combination of worry, rage, and betrayal had felt like vindication of his distrust, and he'd lunged with laser focus.

He wasn't worried about damaging the alliance between the Collective and the Nexus—their personal disagreements aside, Dohrgun was angara. They argued. Sometimes physically. She'd understood and answered him in kind, and the other angara around them had waited for them to work it out.

But Sara wasn't, and physical fights were a much more serious escalation for humans. He'd added to her strain, when it was already so extreme. She'd looked even worse than before when Drack had pulled him out of himself.

Lexi stopped in front of him and held her hands out in an asari gesture of acceptance she'd taught him. Jaal returned it. She patted his upper arm.

"You didn't do any damage, but next time, save your arguments for after you extract the injured teammate."

He smiled ruefully and nodded.

"This doesn't even come close to being as bad as the first episode," Lexi went on. "The medication she's been taking helped, and she got to me much more quickly. It was an acute flare up, but manageable. We've got nothing but downtime until the colonists arrive in a couple days, and we'll figure this out at the Nexus. She'll be ok."

Jaal looked over to where Sara was resting, apparently peacefully, and let out a shuddering breath. "This is all...so..." he swallowed. "I believe you," he said, "but I have no context for it. When angara are this ill...we..."

Lexi nodded, and the compassion in her eyes had him sending his questions and unease through his field before he realized it. She smiled, just like one of his aunts might, and squeezed both his arms firmly.

"Humans are a lot tougher than they seem at first glance. Go do something to get out of your head," she said. "A partner's illness or injury is always painful."

"Thank you," he said, blinking through his tears.

"You're welcome. I'm here for all of you, when you need it." Lexi stepped back and opened the door. "Go on, I'll let you know when she wakes up."

Chapter Text

A couple days of downtime had been good for the entire crew, but everyone was eager for the colonists to arrive the next day.

Keema had sent her apologies, along with a certificate of credit for the head of the Nexus colony. No one but Sara had laughed when she joked about using her new limitations as a diplomatic strategy. Still, it had been a welcome sign of her recovery.

Her episode had been noticed, despite their efforts to keep it quiet. Speculation was running wild through the port. Vetra reported the most popular rumor said Sara was pregnant, because apparently nausea and headaches were common early pregnancy symptoms for humans. No one spreading the rumor seemed to care that all the Initiative members still had working contraceptive implants, or that those were apparently common symptoms for hundreds of human ailments. (Jaal had done some highly distressing reading about human biology over the past few days.) Sara pointed out that explanation sounded less frightening than the Pathfinder having a brain injury, so they'd let it be.

Her biggest obstacle seemed to be how hard she'd taken the execution. She was treating it as a personal failure. Jaal had done what he could to listen and comfort her, but...he remembered the first time he'd had to make a decision that would directly lead to someone's death. It would take time for the pain to dull.

She was currently in the cargo bay, distracting herself with checking their inventory in preparation for departure.

Jaal was across the room, working on his rifle and chatting with Vetra and Cora.

"So, how long have you had that rifle, Jaal?" Cora asked, reaching for a rag. Her asari shotgun was in pieces in front of her. "Looks like she's been through a lot with you."

"She? Was that a translation error? You used a feminine pronoun for...my rifle? That hasn't happened with your language before."

"Yeah. It's a common human convention. Guns, vehicles, tools. They're 'she.'"

"That's...strange."

"Well…" Cora pursed her lips in thought, "it's pretty old, but it stuck around. Now...sometimes it just doesn't feel right to use 'it' for something that's been there with you through so much, helped you survive or accomplish so much."

Jaal paused and looked down at the trigger mechanism in his hands. That...was a lovely sentiment, actually. His rifle, another prisoner he'd liberated. He smiled.

"Yeah, but humans personify everything," Vetra said. He glanced up. "They'll name their weapons, their vehicles, their combat drones. Worse than quarians for it. Swear they can tell the difference between theirs and one exactly like it. And the damndest thing is? They usually can, whether it's been modded or not."

"Don't turians place sentimental value on some objects?" he asked. "Angara certainly do."

"Sometimes, if we hang out with humans too much," she said, sticking a mandible out crookedly and glancing over at Cora.

"Weren't you just talking about some ugly lamp you missed the other day?" Cora asked without looking up from her work.

Vetra laughed. "Alright, ya got me there."

"Pathfinder," Suvi's voice came over the cargo bay speakers, "we have a visitor requesting permission to board."

A shuffle revealed Sara, climbing out from behind a few crates and wiping dust out of her hair. She glanced over at the three of them, but they all shrugged. Apparently no one was expected.

She spoke into her omnitool. "Who is it, Suvi?"

"Reyes Vidal."

Her eyebrows rose and she looked to Cora, who had stiffened. The two of them exchanged a glance and a few expressions filled with meaning Jaal couldn't follow. Sara smirked.

"Okay. Have Peebee bring him down to the cargo bay, please," she said.

"Roger," Suvi answered.

Sara put down her data pad and came over to sit on the hood of the nomad. "Wonder what he wants?" she said, smiling at Cora and swinging her feet.

Cora frowned, shrugged, and turned back to her work. Vetra gently scraped her mandibles against her mouth plates and laughed quietly.

Jaal glanced at Sara curiously, but she just smiled and tilted her head significantly toward Cora. Who was turning pink.

Oh. Well, that's unexpected.

The opening of the upper door drew his attention. Peebee shooed Vidal inside and stuck her head through. "All yours, Ryder!" Peebee called, ducking back out and closing the door behind her.

"Down here, Reyes!" Sara waved. He swung a bag over his shoulder and climbed down the ladder. "What's up?" she asked.

"I brought presents!" he said. "For the whole crew, via Cora."

"Really?" Sara said, glancing sideways at Cora. "Should we give you guys some privacy?"

Cora was still industriously cleaning the barrel of her shotgun and ignoring Sara's teasing. Vetra let out a muffled noise. Jaal put his work down and turned to watch.

Vidal cleared his throat, but waved one hand dismissively. "No, no, it really is for everyone. Mostly. You'll see. I do have something specifically for you, Ryder, but it's just...a small token." Vidal grinned and dug out a soft lump from his bag. He tossed it to Sara. Jaal noticed Cora's curious eyes tracking the object.

Sara caught it and tore off the wrapping, revealing something bright red. An expression of impressed horror came over her face as she slowly unfolded it. Light glinted off of the cloth as it moved, and when she held it up, her mouth agape, Jaal realized it was a...garment? Of some sort? Definitely unlike anything he'd seen any of the crew wear.

Cora suddenly whooped and lay her head down on the workbench, shaking with mirth. Jaal glanced around and met Vetra's eyes. She shrugged her mandibles and shook her head in confusion as well.

Sara's mouth was moving silently and she was staring as if she couldn't believe what she was holding actually existed. Vidal was leaning against a crate with exaggerated detachment, looking satisfied with himself.

"Where the fuck did you find this?" Sara cried, laughter interweaving her words. Cora turned to see Vidal's response.

He just grinned and winked at Sara, then flicked his eyes to Jaal and back. What?

Sara turned nearly as red as the fabric she was holding and started laughing until tears came from her eyes. Cora bellowed.

Jaal turned to Vetra with a bewildered smile. "So, about those lessons on human interpretation...?" he asked. She laughed and shook her head.

"This one is beyond my abilities. It's probably a private joke. You're gonna have to get them to explain."

"Nope!" Sara said, sitting back up. She shook her head and wiped her eyes. "I am way too sober and way too embarrassed to explain this right now," she laughed, folding the cloth up and tucking it into her pocket.

Jaal leaned against the nomad next to her and crossed his arms. "Hmm..." he narrowed his eyes at her smiling blush. "Humans are usually only this embarrassed about sex, so this must have something to do with that."

Cora chortled, starting to calm down. Vetra's subvocals bubbled with quiet amusement.

Sara's mouth dropped open and she blinked quickly. She was almost definitely about to lie, or at least deflect. "That is not true. Yes, for the majority, but it's not universal. We're also embarrassed about being improperly groomed, dramatic stupidity...smelling bad, cultural faux pas...oh! and bodily functions, among others. Plenty of things that have nothing to do with sex. There's no reason to assume this is about sex."

"Other than the fact that this is unquestionably about sex."

She raised her chin and announced, "I refuse to continue this discussion."

Jaal laughed and kissed her cheek. "You are ridiculous and I love you," he said.

She rolled her eyes, but leaned against him briefly, before turning back to Vidal.

"I really hope you didn't come all this way just for that," she said.

He chuckled and shook his head, pushing off the crate. He carefully sat the bag down in front of Cora and opened it to reveal a small Initiative stasis container.

Jaal was confused, but he heard Sara gasp in realization. He glanced sideways at her for a clue, but she was just watching carefully. Vidal sat on the stool Jaal had been using.

"Go ahead," Vidal said. Cora looked dubious, but unlatched the lid and slid it open.

Sara leaned on Jaal's shoulder, craning to get a peek. When she saw inside the box, she made a small high pitched noise and shook his shoulder vigorously. He glanced at her with a smile, but she just grinned and nudged him, pointing emphatically. He shook his head and turned back.

Cora stared inside, started to reach, then hesitated with a glance at Vidal. He chuckled again. "Go ahead. They're yours."

She pulled out a few small containers with...seeds? They were labeled with a human script, but some looked almost familiar.

"The far left column are all either edible or useful for angara in some form. This one, I think, they use to make soap. That one is the source of an analgesic, so maybe your doctor can get some information on how to process it...or maybe you can trade it." He glanced over at Jaal and shrugged. "Sometimes it's just nice to have a little piece of home with you."

Jaal stared in shock and fumbled for words for a moment. "That...is...surprisingly thoughtful of you," he managed. "Thank you."

Vidal laughed. "I occasionally have my moments," he said, turning back to Cora. She'd replaced the local seeds and moved on to the other sections.

"This is an engineered tomato cultivar for milder climates! And...groundcover blueberries? I didn't think we had any of these," Cora gasped, examining the labels. "Or if we did, they were already specifically earmarked, not for public access." Her gaze shot up and she glared suspiciously.

"Don't worry!" Vidal smiled and shook his head. "These aren't spoils from nefarious deeds. They're from my personal collection, not the Nexus seed vault. We were allowed a small amount of organic cargo, as long as it passed inspection. This is some of what I brought and collected while I was here."

Cora looked skeptical, but turning back to the box. Her eyes widened and she pulled out a longer container with a short green stem inside. It branched once, with small curved thorns dotting the sides and delicate roots growing from the other end.

Sara gasped and covered her mouth. Jaal sent her a curious look, but she shook her head silently.

"Reyes, no, this is—" Cora held the stem out to him.

He shook his head and pushed her hand back. "I've got more. Since I'm settled here, I thought it would be nice to send some out to the rest of the cluster." He cleared his throat and crossed his arms. "This one is smaller. Made for pots. Flowers are only a couple centimeters wide when fully open."

"I hoped you might..." he shrugged and averted his eyes. Cora looked distraught.

Jaal felt a sympathetic ache in his chest. He wasn't sure about the details of the situation, but it was clear this was as honest a view as he would ever get of Reyes Vidal. It was a far more compelling glimpse than he'd ever shown before. Why do so many humans hide away their fragile beauty?

That thought brought the realization they would probably want privacy now. Vetra had already disappeared. Jaal turned to Sara and she tilted her head toward the door. He nodded and took her hand, and they quietly slipped out.

 


 

Ryder walked through the colony site with the leader, Christmas Tate. The prefabs were being assembled quickly, but solidly. She glanced around with a satisfied smile.

"Well, any contacts you have would be much appreciated, Pathfinder," he said. "We'll need all the help we can get."

"No problem," Ryder nodded. "Let me see if he can chat right now." She pulled up Reyes' contact and sent a video request. He answered immediately.

"Sara Ryder, you are an unexpected delight!" His voice was as open and sincere as it ever got in public. "What can I do for you?"

"The outpost staff just landed and they're assembling the prefabs now. This is Christmas Tate," she turned to include him in the frame, "the guy who takes the fall with me if it all goes tits up."

Christmas looked harassed and impatient, but nodded.

"Christmas, this is Reyes Vidal, my contact in Kadara port." Reyes winked at her. "He's the guy to talk to if you want to work with port leadership. Don't let the trashy bar he stays in fool you, it's just for aesthetic. He knows his shit. And he might not be an honest man, but he's a good man. Mostly. Never lied to me about anything important." She caught Reyes' eye and saw his face soften a bit before he turned the charm offensive on Christmas.

"I am sure we will enjoy working together," he said with a smile.

Christmas grunted. "If the Pathfinder backs you, good enough. I'll be in touch about guard patrols and to get a better understanding of all this Outcasts vs. Collective shit. I also wanna talk about relations with local angara."

"I look forward to it," Reyes answered.

"Thanks Reyes. I'll stop by before we head out tomorrow morning," Ryder said, and signed off. She sent their contact info out to both and closed her omnitool.

"Thanks Pathfinder, but if that's all, I got a colony to build here," Christmas said.

"Sure," she said, shaking his hand, "let me know if you guys need anything, and if some miracle happens and you don't, send pictures. And it's just Ryder, please."

He smiled and nodded. "Alright. See ya, Ryder."

Ryder nodded back and left to round up Liam and Cora. Thank everything they were almost done with this sulfur pit.

 


  

That evening she went to say goodbye to Reyes. She'd taken Jaal with her, and Reyes had made a comment about his ass. (Thankfully without mentioning the hot pants. She still wasn't sure how to explain that story.) Jaal had not been amused.

"So…" Ryder drawled mischievously. Jaal gave her a look but she continued anyway. "I thought you said you were open to inviting people." She waggled her eyebrows at him as they walked back to the docks.

Jaal scowled and grumbled under his breath before answering. "Not...people I feel insecure about."

Ryder's heart melted.

"I didn't know that was still on your mind. You have no competition, sweetheart," she stopped him with a hand on his elbow. "Listen: You are loving, honest, playful, insightful, and romantic. I feel like the most important person in the universe when we're together. You move like sex and lightning, and your eyes are...galaxies."

"I'm blushing," Jaal said quietly, looking down at their feet. A low, pleased current thrummed from his chest. She kissed his cheek.

"I'm not finished. You are curious, intelligent, adorable with children, and you can pick me up with one hand." Ryder hugged his arm and they started walking again. "No contest."

He kissed the top of her head. "Thank you, my love," he said.

She was quiet for a minute, then added, "Besides, he's right about your ass. Have you seen your ass? I should take a picture for you. It's not fair that you should be left out when the rest of us are so blessed."

"That is hardly an accomplishment," he grumbled darkly, "many people are physically attractive."

"Oh ho ho, so you might be interested after all?" she teased, trailing her hand up his arm and leaning against him. She stood on tiptoes and whispered right under his aural canal, "Do you have a list, Jaal?"

He glanced down sidelong and she shivered around the heat that rose inside her. He kept walking without comment until they rounded the corner. Then—so fast—he had her up against the wall with his thigh tight against her, lifting her off her feet. His left hand cupped her bottom and his arm held her right thigh against his side. His right hand was fisted in her hair and his breath was warm on her neck.

"Yes, I have a list, Sara."

Fuck.

"Do you want to know who's on it?"

She swallowed. Jaal chuckled. He tugged lightly on her hair once, then gently cupped the back of her head.

"My list is you," he sent a wave of energy between her legs, "and me," his voice was soft, but he punctuated his next words by digging his fingers hard into her ass, "and no one else." By the time he finished, he was growling and she was breathless.

Jaal pressed his lips to her neck and lowered her. Then he slid both hands to her hips and kissed her deeply, pressing her back against the wall.

"Shit," she said. He pulled back with a smile.

"I believe I have...made myself clear?" he asked.

"Yeah, I'd say so," she said shakily. She held onto his arms for balance.

"Good."

"Like I said, no contest."

His laugh was big and carefree as they walked the few yards back to the ship.

Chapter Text

Halfway back to the Nexus, after a mountain of paperwork, a crew meeting, a checkup with Lexi, a smaller mountain of paperwork, dinner, and another checkup with Lexi, Ryder finally settled down (with a hefty twinge of guilt) to learn more about angara.

She flipped through to the biology section, intent on starting with ushaara since it had freaked Jaal out so much.

Here we go, general information about the reproductive system. This should help.

They weren't fertile during adolescence, when hormone levels were wild.

So, their puberty analog is like a systems function test. A demo. Okay. Maybe when they evolved, adolescent parents had a low survival chance? But what about males? What could have presented a danger to a non-carrying partner? She made a note and moved on.

Once they were fully mature, ushaara tended to only occur in long term relationships. Barring rare medical irregularities, it was was necessary for the release of sperm or egg cells to be triggered, for conception to even be possible. Sexual partners would use their bioelectricity to help each other build on multiple peaks, gradually encouraging ovulation, ejaculation, and a hospitable environment for gestation.

Yet it was apparently equally possible for all kinds of relationship varieties, regardless of reproductive viability. It also released massive amounts of bonding hormones and neurotransmitters. She found references to poetry, songs, and other art pieces inspired by the experience.

So it also serves a social function, then? What causes it? Familiarity? Is there a stigma if you don't have it? Is it private?

It was a complicated system of bioelectricity, pheromones, and hormone interaction and it seemed like angara scientists were still trying to work out all the details themselves. After skimming over a few paragraphs and annotated diagrams, she quickly realized she was deeper into biochem than she could manage.

Moving on. Back to cultural articles.

Sex was an open topic and was freely used for bonding in casual and serious relationships. They were mostly quite comfortable talking about what they wanted. Everyone could get their jollies without unwanted commitment, so they did. Unplanned pregnancies were vanishingly rare.

How the hell don't they have STIs? Are their immune systems that strong?

That all seemed remarkably convenient. How the hell did ushaara evolve? What environmental pressure could possibly have forced that adaptation? Safety maybe, but they're already fecund, already strongly communalWhy limit reproduction that way?

She dug around, looking for popular hypotheses. Nothing. What the hell? Roughly 50/50 major sex distribution, fewer genetic outliers than humans...average litter of six, short gestational period...long fertile period...but less than half the population had biological children. Why? They easily maintained a stable population, but growth was regular and slow. Maybe they faced resource problems?

Ryder found no answers. A few references were made to animal reproduction, suggesting the lack of this trait was characteristic of non-sapient creatures. Yeah, okay. Sure. Good to know science was accidentally biased everywhere, she supposed.

How did they maintain a stable population in their stone and pre-stone age? If ancient angara weren't the ones who built the Remnant and lost the knowledge, maybe some other race tried to uplift them and sent their evolution down a different track...

Don't go down that rabbit hole, Sara. Focus. There's a more urgent issue here.

It seemed she may have...accidentally...sort of...proposed? In bed. The second time they were together. Or at least referred to something only really committed people do. Repeatedly.

Accidentally.

But repeatedly.

Ryder put down the datapad and slid fully down onto the couch, sinking into her embarrassment. She rubbed her hands over her burning face.

Shit.

Okay, assess.

What the fuck.

So, it wasn't a specific act he'd been hesitant about, it was what might result if he participated, and the implications of that. Because, apparently, after being together for, what, a month? Two? His body was basically trying to settle down with her without consulting him. It was a biological marker of commitment without a cultural one, and it was happening completely out of order for him.

And...he didn't mind?

No, he minded. He'd been nervous as hell.

But...he kind of...wanted...it?

Don't get ahead of yourself. It could be a chemical imbalance or some weird reaction because I'm an alien. We should talk to Lexi. Maybe he should see a specialist on Aya. Maybe I fucked something up with my weird human germs.

That was far more likely than not.

I mean, would he really want to establish a long term commitment with someone he's only known for a few months? Really? Already?

No. No way, that was crazy.

But...I do.

Holy shit what.

Ryder stared at the ceiling blankly and rewound through her thoughts.

Fuck.

She remembered nervous hope and his damp hand on her cheek, joking about their old age. How she'd already been toying with the idea of inviting him to move in with her. She thought about staring into his eyes and how much she'd wanted...

Fuck.

She was an idiot.

She was as dense as a black hole.

And she had absolutely no idea what to do about it.

Chapter Text

Ryder had tried to look through APEX reports, but her thoughts were too busy to distract. She headed to the cargo by to clear her mind with a run, but that was a bust too.

When she walked in, Gil and Peebee were on the upper deck, blatantly staring at something across from them. She looked up.

Oh.

Jaal was shirtless, doing...situps? Except he was holding onto the upper deck railing with his feet and dangling head down. With each rep, he slowly curled himself upward until his face nearly touched his knees.

She gaped.

His legs were... his back was... he...

He noticed her there, smiled, and went back to his exercise. After three or four more reps, he caught the railing with his hands and shook his head to clear it. He let go with his feet, swung down, and dropped to the lower level floor.

She blinked, swallowed, and searched for words. Gil was laughing at her somewhere in the background, but that barely registered.

"Did you come down for a run before bed?" Jaal asked, scrubbing his towel over his head.

"I...uh. Yeah."

He turned to grab his shirt and flashed her a small smile.

"You're late, Ryder!" Gil called. "You missed the chin-ups."

Jaal snorted and Ryder blushed harder. He pulled his shirt down and turned to her with a low, relaxed current. She managed to find her voice when he took her hand.

"That actually looked a little dangerous," she said, "Head first, and you didn't have anything to pad your fall if you slipped."

He shrugged. "I wasn't going to, and anyway, Peebee agreed to spot me with biotics if I did."

Ryder coughed and raised her voice so it carried. "That would only work if she managed to roll her tongue up in time to keep from tripping on it before you hit the floor."

"I am capable of ogling and lifting at the same time!" Peebee insisted. "I'm multifaceted!"

"What does her tongue..." Jaal trailed off and shook his head. He grabbed his towel and turned back. "Would you like to spend the evening together?" he asked, quietly hopeful.

"Actually," Ryder said, "I read about...I mean, I was wondering..."

"What is it?" he asked, turning serious.

"It's probably better if we talk in private," she said. "Do you have a minute?"

"Of course," he nodded and gestured to the door, tugging her along with an arm around her shoulders.

Out of the corner of her eye, Ryder saw Peebee open her mouth, then Gil touch Peebee's arm and shake his head. She th