Chapter 1: Distance
Sara stared at the crate across the room and tried to catch her breath.
“You’re doing great, Ryder,” Lexi said from behind the glass view port that looked down on the training grounds.
The Pathfinder nodded once, but didn’t smile. She’d managed to Lift the crate for the first time today, but it had felt far from great. It had felt wrong, like a muscle too stiff to stretch, and the thrum of her biotics was foreign under her skin.
“Can you do it again?” Lexi asked.
Another nod. She wasn’t actually sure that she could, but Sara was determined to try. She focused on the crate and took deep, solidifying breaths. She closed her eyes and ignored everything but the frantic buzz of her biotics. It was still too early to use her amp, and despite the month of rehabilitation, she still wasn’t accustomed to the wild, undulating nature of her powers.
In time with an inhalation, Sara pulled on the dark energy around her. It was an action she’d done too many times to count, but it still proved difficult. Her powers were sluggish, the energy unwilling to listen to her commands, but eventually she felt that familiar well of force deep in her chest.
She opened her eyes, her focus only on the crate. She exhaled, stepped forward, and lifted her left arm as she unleashed her biotics. She’d stopped using gestures for her powers before she’d graduated from the Academy, and the fact that she needed them now rankled her.
Blue and purple light roiled up from her hands and then around the crate. She grit her teeth as her biotics whipped through her, her powers unwieldy as she forced them to hone in on her target.
And then the crate shot up from the ground to tumble in place eight feet in the air.
Sara grinned as sweat trickled down her face. It was hard work, but that Lift was better than the last one.
“Good work, Ryder,” Lexi called. “I think that’s enough for today.”
She didn’t agree. She wanted to work her biotics until the power no longer resisted her, until calling up her aegis felt as natural as breathing again. Instead, she had to struggle to wrestle her powers into a simple Barrier. She didn’t agree with Lexi, but she also knew she simply wasn’t capable of more right then.
Sara released her hold on the dark energy, the wisps of blue and purple doused and the crate plummeted to the ground. She turned from it, shaking out her arms and rolling her neck as she left the training grounds and headed for the locker room.
After a quick shower Sara, met Dr. T’Perro in her temporary office on the upper level of the Docking Bay, across from the Labs. It was a small space tucked behind the Visitor’s Center, but Lexi somehow managed to make the sterile, Initiative standard issue space feel welcoming.
The asari sat in one leather armchair, her datapad in hand as she motioned for Sara to sit on the sofa before her.
“Tell me about today’s exercises,” she said as Sara sat.
She shrugged. “Probably the best day so far,” she said.
Lexi frowned. “Then why don’t you sound happier?”
Sara sighed. “It’s just frustrating, Lex. I should be better than this by now. I used to blow arms of Eirochs and now I can barely sustain a reliable Barrier!”
The doctor nodded and made a note on her datapad. Sara struggled to keep from rolling her eyes. There were downfalls to having you medical doctor and psychologist all rolled into one.
“Any change to the biotics themselves?”
She shook her head. “Still resistant,” she said. “It feels like I’m trying to corral bees.” She rubbed at her arms absently, as if the pressure of touch would settle the wild buzzing under her skin. “It was similar when I first got my implant, but my powers were never this…” she searched for the right word, “unresponsive?”
Lexi nodded. “I spoke with Doctors Nakamoto and Carlyle about this.”
“They seem to think that the change in implantation location coupled with the upgraded implant have reset your powers completely.”
Sara blinked at the doctor. “That sounds bad.”
Lexi tilted her head from side to side. “Possibly,” she admitted. “Thanks to the new implant, your biotics are stronger than before. The damage to your original implant extended to the connective tissue, meaning we couldn’t use the same spot twice.”
“Right,” Sara said. She knew all this. The surgery had been almost three months ago, after they’d returned from Alcaeus with the Keelah Si’yah in tow.
“So, your brain has to basically relearn how to channel the input from your implant.”
Sara frowned. “But, I already know how to use biotics. I didn’t forget.”
“It’s not a matter of memory, Sara,” Lexi said. “It’s a matter of your brain translating the new signals into the desired results. In this case, your biotics.”
She rubbed at her face. She’d started this conversation frustrated, and nothing about it had eased the feeling. “So, what then?”
Lexi smiled softly, knowing that her response wasn’t likely to soothe the irritated Pathfinder. “Keep practicing,” she said.
Sara groaned, collapsing back into the couch.
“We’re hopeful that with time and consistent practice you might experience a sort of accelerated learning,” the doctor continued. “It’s not unheard of for the brain to suddenly adjust to stimulus.”
“So, what you’re saying is, I get to slog through biotics basics and hope that somewhere along the way it all clicks into place?”
“I know that’s not what you wanted to hear,” Lexi said.
She shook her head. “It’s fine,” she said. “Well, it’s not, but it is what it is.”
Lexi blinked, her gray eyes surprised. “That’s very understanding of you.”
Sara shrugged. “We knew this would be difficult,” she said. “But, it was either this or no biotics at all. And that’s just not an option.”
The asari watched her for a minute and then made another note on her datapad. “And how is SAM?” she asked. “He’s been awful quiet through all of this.”
“I am well, Dr. T’Perro,” the AI replied from Sara’s omnitool. “Thank you.”
“Are you keeping yourself busy?”
“There are multiple projects available to me,” SAM said. “Dr. Anwar and I are cataloging and analyzing mineral samples from around Heleus. Ms. B’Sayle requests my assistance decrypting Remnant code, and Mr. Ama Darav sends me lines of Jardaan for translation. I have also been aiding you in Jardaan biology.”
Lexi raised an eyebrow. “Busy indeed.”
Sara kept her face neutral. SAM hadn’t mentioned his regular contact with Reyes as they worked to build a backdoor into Initiative servers. It’d been SAM’s idea, but both she and the Charlatan had made it clear to the AI that this would be their little secret for the time being.
She somehow doubted that Lexi would appreciate their subterfuge.
“Have you heard from Reyes lately, Sara?”
She bristled at the question, mainly because she didn’t like the answer. “Not since last week,” she said from behind clenched teeth.
“That doesn’t worry you?” Lexi’s voice was soft with concern.
“Of course it does,” she replied. “But his last message said he might be off the radar for a while.” She shrugged, feigning a nonchalance she most definitely did not feel. “Keema will contact me if something goes wrong.” It was her mantra, the only line of reasoning that kept her from going to Kadara Port right then and there.
“And you have no idea what he’s working on?”
He’d told her the bare minimum of his plans. She hated that, but she understood the need to keep her in the dark. The Charlatan had burrowed his way into Addison Foster’s servers and now he was following the trail of information to see how much the Director of Colonial Affairs knew about them.
Judging from his terse words on their last vidcall, he hadn’t liked what he’d found.
“Not really,” Sara said. “There was a security breach in one of the Collective cells. He’s following the leads.” She shrugged. It was close enough to the truth that she didn’t feel guilty keeping a few secrets from the asari.
Lexi nodded. “And how are you sleeping? The last time we spoke you said you were having nightmares?”
The last time they’d spoke had been two days ago. She’d had trouble sleeping since they attacked the Archon’s ship in Alcaeus, but since Reyes left a month ago her dreams had become relentless. She sighed.
“No improvement these last two nights,” she said.
Lexi frowned. “Would you like me to administer a sleep aid?”
Sara considered it. Her usual response to so much inner turmoil would be lots and lots of alcohol. But, that had been one of the conditions for Reyes to agree to leave the Nexus; she needed to cope in healthier ways. She needed to ask for help. He’d worked hard to keep his promises to her, she refused to break hers.
“Maybe a low dose?” She said. “What I really need is something to do.”
The doctor pursed her lips. “You’re not ready for active duty, Sara.”
No, shit, she thought. Maintaining a Barrier caused her to break out in a sweat and she couldn’t fall asleep without reliving her own death over and over. She wouldn’t be back in the field for months at this rate.
“I could do paperwork,” she said. “I could assist with the teams studying the Jardaan structures around Heleus, collate data or something.”
Lexi eyed her for a moment, tapping her thumb against the edge of her datapad as she considered Sara’s words.
“I’m going to physical therapy, I’m working on my biotics,” Sara continued. “But with my team spread out around the cluster and Reyes back on Kadara, I am bored, Lex.”
“I thought you were helping Drack and Kesh with the clutch?”
“I am,” she said. “But that’s not exactly a challenge. The kids know better than to cause trouble when they’re with their grandpa.” She gave the doctor her most pleading look. “I need to be useful.”
Gray eyes watched her for a moment longer, and then the doctor sighed. “I suppose I can clear you for light duty,” she said. “But your work needs to keep you either here or Hyperion. No Outposts, Sara.” Lexi glared at her. “I mean it.”
Sara grinned, the happiest she’d felt since Reyes left. “No Outposts,” she promised.
Reyes glared down at his omnitool as it vibrated, announcing a message from one of his contacts on the Nexus.
To: Reyes Vidal
From: Sidera Nyx
Ryder was just in CA. Met with Directors. Stopped to chat, cleared for desk work. Seemed tired but happy.
He smiled, picturing Sara bounding around the Nexus, a whirl of pent up energy after her months cooped up on the station. She’d be thrilled to be allowed to do anything, even if it was just paperwork. But his good mood at the news faded fast.
She should have been the one to tell him. He should have been in their flat on the Nexus, waiting for her to come home from physical therapy and seen her smiling face for himself. Instead he was stuck with vague, second-hand accounts of her joy. It simply wasn’t enough.
“Stars, just call her already,” Keema said as she sat on the barstool next to him.
Reyes scowled at his friend and closed his omnitool. He tapped the bar to signal Kian for a refill of his tumbler. “Not yet,” he growled.
“What are you waiting for?” Keema glared at him, her large, nebulous eyes seeing more than he liked.
Kian set the fresh glass within Reyes’ reach, and though the bartender saw and heard everything, he didn’t comment. Reyes knew that his mood must be foul indeed if Kian wouldn’t chime in.
“Until I know if communication is a risk.” He slammed the whiskey back, and when Kian raised an eyebrow to ask if he should refill it, Reyes shook his head. The bartender swept up the glass with palpable relief, which only deepened Reyes’ frown.
Keema rolled her eyes as she accepted the delicate, fruity cocktail Kian presented to her. “As long as she’s a Pathfinder, it will be risky. Stop killing yourself and call her.”
A month away from Sara had Reyes wound tight. He was about to snap something unkind at his lieutenant when his omnitool vibrated.
To: Reyes Vidal
From: <unknown sender>
I’m sorry, I know you said to keep contact to a minimum. I hate it, by the way. But, I got good news today. I know you probably already know (because you’re a shady bastard), but no matter how many people I told I still needed to tell you. Lexi cleared me for light duty! Paperwork, hurray! I’d tell you more, but it’s probably best that I don’t for now.
I miss you. Your face. Your skin. Your smell. Forget what I said before. I take it all back. Just come back and we can pretend nothing’s wrong.
…I know, we can’t. I’m sorry I broke our agreement to keep out of touch. That’s not fair to you.
This is dumb. I’m not even going to send this, because I made a promise, but I thought writing it would help.
All my love,
Reyes stared at the message, confused and crushed. He tried to trace the frequency, but he couldn’t get through the firewalls. There was only one security suite he couldn’t hack his way into. Reyes groaned and let his head fall into one hand.
“What is it?” Keema asked, concern pitching her voice low.
“SAM being ‘helpful,’” he said.
She snorted, and somehow managed to make the sound elegant. “And you say I’m nosy.”
A glass of water appeared, and Reyes looked up to find Kian’s green eyes watching him warily. Anger bubbled up in his chest as he pushed away from the bar.
“You’re all too damn nosy,” he snapped. He didn’t look back at his friends as he stomped out of Tartarus, then made his way up to his flat.
As promised, Keema had kept his apartment pristine in his absence, not that it had been difficult to do. All his personal belongings were still safely tucked away on his shuttle in its private docking bay. The studio apartment was small by most standards, but after months sharing spaces on the Tempest and sharing a room with Sara, his flat felt large and empty.
For over two years he’d called the tiny apartment home, and now he could hardly bear to face the bed knowing he would have to sleep there alone. He stared at the mattress, the covers neat and crisp from the last time he’d made them, two night ago. He’d slept on the couch in the room at Tartarus rather than confront the lonely sheets.
He sighed, sat at the foot of the bed, and pulled up his omnitool. Before he could talk himself out of it, he dialed the frequency he knew by heart.
The vidfeed didn’t change, so he wasn’t sure if she’d picked up at first.
“Hm… ‘ello?” Sara’s voice was thick with sleep, cracking with disuse through the dark. Hearing it soothed him and hurt him in turns.
“Princesa,” he murmured. He fell back onto the mattress to watch as she drew her omnitool closer to her face. The faint light of the video illuminated her face in shades of orange, but he could imagine the green in her eyes as they widened at the sight of him.
“Reyes? Why are you calling me? Has something happened? Are you okay?” She sat up and ran her free hand through her hair. It was so much shorter now, with one side reaching her collarbone while the other was shaved close thanks to the fresh scar on the right side of her head.
He smiled. “Everything’s fine,” he promised.
“But we agreed that we shouldn’t communicate right now,” she said.
He sighed. “I know. I still think that should be the plan.”
“Then why’d you call?”
“Ask SAM later,” he said. “For now, tell me your news.”
She rolled her eyes. “You already know.”
He smiled, but the expression felt foreign on his lips. “Tell me anyway.”
She searched his face and then returned his smile. “I’m officially on light duty! I’ve never been so excited to do paperwork before.”
He chuckled and silence spanned between them. He wanted to ask about her physical therapy, about her biotics, but he also just wanted to look at her. He wanted to touch her, to feel her warmth against his chest and know that she was safe and sound.
But that could only happen if he stayed on the Nexus, and they both knew he needed to keep away from the station.
He swallowed against the lump in his throat. “I miss you,” he whispered.
Her smile crumpled at the corners. “I miss you,” she replied. “Sorry I don’t have any fun pictures or anecdotes to send you this time.” There was more silence as they watched each other, relieved just to hear the other breathe. “I’m allowed to go to Meridian,” she said. “I don’t have an excuse other than visiting Scott and Gil, but we could meet up for a weekend?”
He closed his eyes against her words. “Sara,” he warned. They both knew that was a dangerous idea.
“What?” The word was sharp on her tongue, defensive.
“We need to create distance between us,” he said. They’d talked about this. The Collective had delved deep into the Initiative’s servers hunting for information about himself and the Pathfinder. So far, there hadn’t been anything concrete, but Foster Addison had an entire file of rumors and information that linked Sara to him. The woman had their scent and the consequences could be dire if they didn’t stop her.
“Then what is this?” She asked.
He sighed. “A mistake,” he said.
Hurt flashed across her face and he groaned.
“Not like that,” he said. “I shouldn’t have called, I just…”
“You just what, Reyes?”
“I missed you.”
Her shoulders slumped as her anger evaporated. “I wish you were here.”
Reyes nodded. “This is harder than I expected.”
“You look tired,” she said after a moment.
One corner of his mouth lifted into a wry smirk. “I haven’t been sleeping very well,” he admitted.
That caught his attention. “Nightmares?”
She took a deep breath, but nodded. “Lexi gave me a low dose sleep aid today, but I haven’t tried it yet.”
Sara’s sleep had often been fitful, and nightmares weren’t uncommon for her, but since Alcaeus they’d become a nearly nightly occurrence. She’d only just started to sleep through the night when they decided he needed to get back to Kadara.
He would never tell her, because he didn’t want her to worry, but he had nightmares of his own. Since he’d left the Nexus, Reyes often dreamed that he was back in the cargo bay of the Archon’s ship, kneeling over Sara in her dark purple N7 armor as he performed CPR. But in his dream, no matter how hard he tried, no matter how hard he rocked his palms into her chest, he never could save her. SAM would tell him that he had failed, and then he’d jolt awake, covered in a cold sweat.
He had never asked what she dreamed of and she’d never offered to tell him, but he heard her desperate words in her sleep. He knew she spent her dreams trapped in a hellish landscape of volatile planets and Kett ships, reliving all the deaths she couldn’t prevent, including her own.
“Where’d you go?” She asked. He smiled at the phrase, their way of pulling each other from thoughts they knew were far from pleasant.
“Nowhere,” he promised, like he always did. It was an evasion, an easy way to avoid what plagued them, but it was a thank you, too. A way to express gratitude to the other for noticing the far away looks and nervous habits that signaled traumatic lines of thinking.
Another silence. There was so much he wanted to say, so many words in so many languages, but he couldn’t seem to make them fit together. He wasn’t convinced they could ever convey everything he felt. He’d always relied on his hands, his skin on hers to tell her what was in his heart.
And now they were worlds apart.
“We won’t talk again anytime soon, will we?” She asked. Her voice was so small, so defeated. So unlike his Sarita.
He swallowed and shook his head. “Not for a while, no.”
She nodded. They knew this would be hard, they knew it would test them, but they had agreed that it was the best course of action until they could get the upper hand on the Director of Colonial Affairs.
She leveled determined eyes on him. “Consider what I said about Meridian,” she said. “Please.”
Reyes wanted to look away. He wanted to escape those eyes and the promise they demanded just as much as he never wanted to see them close. “I’ll keep it in mind,” he promised.
Her expression softened. “I love you, Reyes,” she said.
He still didn’t understand how that could be true, didn’t know what he could have done to deserve her love. But he was done doubting his good fortune. He let his gaze wander over her face, allowing his memory to paint a picture of who she was in that exact moment.
Her new haircut, and the way it showcased her new scar and accentuated the purple tattoo that radiated out from her right ear and onto her cheek. The three piercings in each earlobe, actually noticeable since she’d been wearing earrings while on leave. The lines that had started to form at the corners of her eyes, brought on more from pain and stress than from years.
She was perfect.
“I love you, Sara.”
Chapter 2: Priorities
A/N: Oh look! Another chapter! I hope you all like it! And thank you to everyone who commented on the last chapter. I can't begin to express how much it means to me that you've come back to read more of these two.
Sara sat at the bar in MacTavish’s, spinning the straw in her drink idly in an effort to distract herself from the sinking sensation in her gut.
It was her third visit to Meridian in as many months. She’d made her travel plans well known, talking with Sid and Vetra about them because she knew they were both in touch with Reyes. She’d even drafted a couple more letters, knowing full well that SAM would anonymously forward them to the Charlatan’s personal frequency.
It was her third visit to Meridian in as many months, and Reyes Vidal was nowhere to be seen.
“I’d ask how the Pathfinder is doing this evening,” Dylan, the bartender, said in his rolling southern accent. “But it appears she’s sulking.”
Sara frowned at him. When she’d first met the bartender, she’d expected a thick but charming brogue, but Dylan MacTavish was shockingly American. And just like her other favorite bartender, incredibly nosy and sometimes insightful.
“I’m not sulking,” she said. “I’m just… drinking.”
He raised a thick eyebrow at her. Her drink was still mostly full, the ice steadily melting to form a clear layer at the top of her long island iced tea.
“Slowly,” she added.
“Looks to me like you’ve been stood up.” He continued wiping down the bar, though Sara knew it was just an excuse to continue the conversation. MacTavish’s was quiet, only a few groups and couples seated in the various booths, and just the Pathfinder perched at the bar.
She sighed. “There’d have to be an agreement to meet in order to be stood up.”
“So, what then? You’re just sitting here, pining, hoping they’ll show?”
“Pretty much,” she said with shrug.
“Sounds like you’re courting heartache to me.”
“I thought you were a bartender, not a poet.”
He flashed her a grin. “A little of both most days.”
She groaned and took a sip of her cocktail.
The door hissed open behind them, letting in the warmth of the late Meridian summer. Sara fought the urge to look behind her, she was tired of being disappointed. She hunched her shoulders and focused on her watered-down drink.
“Look alive, Pathfinder,” was the only warning she got from Dylan before someone settled on the barstool beside her.
“Figured you’d be here,” Scott said. He ordered a beer and watched the bartender pour the beverage and set it in front of him before he said anything more. “Still no sign of him, huh?”
She sighed and shook her head.
“Are you really surprised?” He asked after sampling his drink.
“No,” she admitted. “We agreed to keep our distance. He’s just better at keeping his word than me, apparently.” She looked up at her brother in time to catch his smirk.
“Who would have thought,” he mused.
Scott had reamed Sara when she’d told him it’d been her idea for Reyes to go back to Kadara. That she had been the one to point out that being on the Nexus made him a potential target for Initiative brass and that he couldn’t remove Addison’s threat from within the station’s walls. Scott had yelled at her for a solid half an hour and Sara had listened dutifully because she knew he wasn’t wrong.
But neither was she.
“How’s the apartment?” He asked.
“Fine,” she said. She ignored his skeptical gaze. “He’s not a sentimental man,” she continued. “All his personal belongings are on his shuttle, not in either of his apartments.”
“Still,” Scott said. “Has to be weird staying there without him.”
“Of course it is.”
“The spare bedroom is all yours whenever you want it,” he said.
She didn’t bother telling her twin that it didn’t matter where she stayed. Sleeping anywhere without Reyes felt wrong. But, at least he’d left some clothes behind in his place on Meridian. After so many months stowed in a dresser, they didn’t really smell like him anymore, but that didn’t keep her from sleeping in one of his old tank tops each night.
It was the little things that helped keep her sane.
“How’s the wedding planning going?” She needed to stop talking about Reyes.
Scott rolled his eyes, but humored her. “Good, we’ve at least agreed on a venue.”
“Oh?” Last she heard, Gil had suggested the bridge of the Tempest and Scott nearly called the whole thing off in protest.
“The bridge of the Hyperion.”
She snorted. “Way to compromise.”
Her twin scowled at her. “We first met here on Meridian, if you’ll recall.”
“You were practically unconscious!” Gil had first met Scott after their battle with the Archon. Yes, they did technically meet that day, but it wasn’t until weeks later, after another stint in a medical coma, that Gil and Scott actually spoke to each other.
Scott fiddled with the coaster under his pint glass, an unusual tell for her brother. “He’s one of the few good things to come out of that whole shit show,” he murmured.
Sara’s teasing smile faded in the face of her brother’s somber tone. That day had left scars on all of them, but Scott still actively dealt with his. Sara rubbed his shoulder, extending a little comfort. “If you’re happy, I’m happy,” she said.
“Thanks. Plus, this way I get the small ceremony I wanted.” He grinned at her.
“What about Gil’s giant party?” Gil had been adamant that they throw have a huge reception, his argument being that it wasn’t everyday that the Pathfinder’s brother gets married.
Scott groaned. “I couldn’t talk him out of it. We’re looking at possible locations still.”
Sara smiled. She’d been on Gil’s side when it came to the reception. The bigger, the better. “Let me know if you want any help.” She smirked at him. “It’s not every day my baby brother gets married.”
Scott glared at her, but it only made her laugh. The twins sat in peace, sipping their drinks and ignoring the curious glances from the bartender. When Scott’s glass was empty, he signaled Dylan for a refill. Once it arrived, he glanced at Sara.
“We sent him an invite, you know,” he said.
Her gut clenched. Of course Scott and Gil would invite Reyes to their wedding; he was their friend. Until recently, she’d assumed they would attend together. She’d imagined it at length, enjoying the idea of each of them having an excuse to wear something besides their armor. But, after three months of almost no contact, she wasn’t so sure anymore. And the more she thought about it, the less she was certain she could forgive him if he didn’t show up.
“When?” She asked, trying to bury the swirl of uncertainty in her gut.
“A couple days ago.” Pale blue eyes, so much like their father’s, swept over her face. “I’ll let you know what we hear back.”
She nodded, but her shoulders were tense, and the smile was nothing more than a memory on her lips.
“Hey,” Scott said, his voice low and soothing. “He’ll come.”
She inhaled and finished her drink, though it was mostly water now. “What makes you so sure?”
He smirked. “It’s the perfect excuse to see you.”
“Yeah,” she agreed. “That’s a good point.” But she somehow doubted that Reyes would see it that way.
The lights of Ditaeon shone through the murk of dawn, guiding Reyes to his usual landing zone, not unlike the old lighthouses back on Earth. He avoided the Initiative Outpost as much as he could, but even Reyes couldn’t refuse when Christmas Tate demanded an audience.
Vidal the Smuggler did a lot for the Outpost. He delivered goods between Outposts and Exiles, he found those sought after items the Initiative simply couldn’t provide, and he served as a point of contact for Tate when the man needed the Charlatan’s ear.
It was no secret that Reyes was a high ranking member of the Collective, only that he was the high ranking member.
Tate’s message had been terse, only a couple lines suggesting Reyes make his way to Ditaeon as soon as possible. Christmas was never one to waste words, but his urgency had been clear. So, Reyes took a moment powering down his shuttle to get his nerves under control.
If Tate needed to speak with him that meant there was something going on between the Initiative and the Collective. And lately that could only be one thing.
So, he steeled himself for an unpleasant conversation as he disembarked his shuttle.
Dru Senecus waited for him at the foot of the cargo ramp.
“Thanks for coming so quickly,” the turian said as he extended a hand for Reyes to shake.
“It’s not every day Christmas messages my personal frequency,” he replied. Christmas Tate didn’t have Reyes’ actual personal frequency; very few people did. But it made it easier to earn Tate’s trust if the mayor of Ditaeon thought he had a direct line to his Collective contact. “What’s going on?”
The men stepped off the landing pad and hurried across the dusty street towards the mayor’s offices.
Dru shook his head. “I’d better let Tate explain it,” he said. The turian used to be a miner, but he came to Ditaeon to be the outpost’s requisition officer. That soon turned into a job as Tate’s right hand man after he proved himself reliable and resourceful.
The march to Tate’s office was blessedly short, and the mayor was up and pacing the room when they entered.
“Vidal,” the man greeted, turning to face him. “We’ve got a problem.”
“So I gathered. What’s going on?”
Tate sat at his desk, and motioned for Reyes to do the same. Dru remained standing by the door.
“During routine server maintenance our techs discovered a trail of scrubbed data,” the mayor began. “Someone was digging through our systems, and they were damn sneaky about it.”
Reyes’ brows lifted. “What were they after?”
Tate leveled a hard gaze at him, his bright blue eyes cold as steel. “I thought you might know already.”
“You think it was the Collective?” Reyes let his surprise into his voice. He had been digging through Initiative systems, just not Ditaeon’s.
Christmas sighed. “More that I was hoping it was you,” he admitted. He ran a gloved hand through his gray hair. “If it was the Collective, I’d understand. I’d be pissed,” he added. “But I’d understand.”
Reyes shifted uncomfortably in his seat. “There’s been no order from above to tap into Initiative servers,” he said. That wasn’t even a lie. He was the one doing the digging, no orders necessary.
Dru stepped forward. “Then this security breach is worse than we thought.” His words were for the room, but his eyes didn’t leave Tate’s face.
Christmas nodded, his expression suddenly weary. He leaned back in his chair and looked down at the several datapads scattered over his desk. “The trails were numerous, but they all circled back around to the same thing.”
Reyes felt his stomach lurch, a very real panic building in his chest. “And what was that?”
When the mayor of Ditaeon settled his eyes on Reyes he knew he wouldn’t like the answer. “Ryder’s connection to the Collective.”
Fury and fear swirled in his guts, but he only blinked at Christmas Tate. “It’s no secret that she has contacts within the Collective,” he hedged. “Why would someone hack your servers for that?”
Tate and Dru shared a heavy glance. “This was more than a casual grab of general information,” the turian said.
“They accessed comm logs,” Christmas continued. “Outpost security reports.”
Both Initiative members settled their eyes on him. “And security footage,” Dru finished.
“Why would that matter?” What footage did they have that was such a concern to him? He didn’t visit Ditaeon unless he delivered a shipment, and even then he never left the shuttle pad. The last time he and Sara had been to the Outpost had been…
“Shit.” He scrubbed at his face. “Tell me those cameras don’t have audio.”
“You know they do,” Tate replied. The man’s face was carefully blank, but the gray stubble on his chin made the expression bleak.
Reyes sighed. “How long have you known?”
“Since that night, Dru and I both.”
He’d been so distracted by his personal problems that night, with Sara leaving him, that he hadn’t even thought to wipe the security vids. In the heat of their argument he hadn’t exactly been subtle about his role in the Collective.
“Why didn’t you report me to Tann?”
Tate shrugged. “As far as this leadership is concerned, the Charlatan is our ally. We see no benefit in revealing your identity.”
“Unfortunately, the rest of the Initiative doesn’t agree with you.”
Steely eyebrows rose high over Tate’s bright blue eyes. “You think this was internal?”
“It wasn’t my people,” he said. Since Meritus’ betrayal, Reyes had carefully weeded his agents. He’d made an example of the turian, as much as it pained him to do so, and he trusted his operatives to heed the warning.
Dru’s mandibles flared. “Why would the Initiative want dirt on Ryder?”
Reyes snorted. “Have you met the Directors? Addison has had it out for her since she arrived, and Tann isn’t exactly her biggest fan.”
“And Kandros hasn’t said a kind word about her since…” Dru paused and glanced at Reyes. The turian cleared his throat. “You know.”
Tate’s expression went from carefully neutral to downright stormy. He spun in his chair to access his terminal. “I’ll get you access to staff logs,” he said. “We’ll figure out who’s gunning for the Pathfinder.”
“No,” Reyes said. He glanced around the room. “Can you make it look like this meeting never happened?”
Christmas and Dru glanced at each other, and then nodded.
“Good. Do your own internal investigation,” he said. “We need you to be free of the Collective in this, otherwise our hacker will go to ground at the first signs of prodding.”
“So, you’re just going to leave it us?” Dru asked.
Reyes chuckled as he stood. “Hardly,” he said. He turned to glance at Christmas. “Thank you, for bringing this to my attention. We’ll be in touch.”
The mayor of Ditaeon nodded to him. “Good luck, Vidal.”
For once, Reyes figured he just might need some good luck. This wasn’t just about Sara’s ties to the Collective, this wasn’t just about their relationship. Somewhere out there someone in the Initiative knew who he really was.
He doubted they realized they’d just signed their death certificate.
Sara pulled on the dark energy around her, the power coating her in tongues of cool blue and violet flame. It flickered and shuddered along her skin, at once feeling at home and utterly foreign. Her biotics still weren’t what they used to be, but she didn’t have to struggle so much anymore, either.
“Ready, Sara?” Lexi’s voice called down from the observation room.
Sara nodded and couldn’t fight back the grin on her face. She focused on the target dummy closest to her, as Lexi had instructed, and pulled her biotics in tight against her body. The energy thrummed and buzzed, momentarily protesting and then obeying her command. With one last pull, Sara inhaled and then released the gathered power.
Purple and indigo light weaved and whirled around her as her world phased out of focus. The charge took only a few seconds, but they were the best seconds Sara had since returning from Alcaeus. All too soon the training grounds flashed back into focus and Sara collided forcefully with her target. The rubber and plastic dummy rocked back away from her, its stand creaking ominously before it managed to right itself.
Still grinning, she assessed herself. No pain in her head, no snapping twig sensation, no nosebleed. Hell, she wasn’t even sweating. Before Lexi could even ask, Sara spun to look up at the large glass window and gave two big thumbs up.
“Excellent job, Ryder,” Lexi cheered. “Do you feel up for more?”
For the first time since the Archon’s ship, Sara felt like she could use her biotics all day.
And so she did. Sara worked through her arsenal of biotic maneuvers, testing and pushing the boundaries of what she could do with her new implant. Containment biotics were the easiest; Singularities, Annihilation Fields, and her Barrier, while the more offensive moves required more focus. Biotic Charge, Pull, and Throw didn’t require much finesse and so were the easiest of those. But her two favorite moves, Lance and her biotic Aegis, were still difficult to pull off.
By the end of their session Sara was drenched with sweat and panting, but her grin never once faded.
“How’re you feeling?” Lexi asked as they met for their usual post-workout therapy session.
“Great,” Sara said.
“No headaches, neck pain, changes in vision?” The doctor prepped her datapad to make notes on Sara’s progress.
“Nope,” she said. “I’m tired, but that was one hell of a workout.” She was still smiling, her good mood irrepressible.
“Definitely the most use your implant has had to date.” She smiled up at Sara and then looked back at her datapad. “SAM, any unusual readings?”
“Heart and respiratory readings were within acceptable limits,” the AI said. “Implant function, while still below optimum levels, was considerably higher at 83.6 percent.”
Lexi raised a thin eyebrow at Sara. “That’s a big jump,” she murmured.
“It felt like it.” She rubbed at her arms, but the buzz of her biotics wasn’t as persistent as it was even a month ago. “Things aren’t normal, but they’re definitely getting there.”
“Where would you say you have the most difficulty?”
Sara was sure Lexi could tell from her careful observation on the training grounds, but she knew the doctor liked to hear her patient’s point of view on the subject.
“Lances and shields,” she said. “The Lances don’t want to go where I tell them, and the shield doesn’t want to hold its shape.” She paused, careful to scrub any hope from her voice. “Do you think an amp would help that?”
Lexi scowled at her. “I don’t think you’re quite there yet, Sara.”
“I earned my first amp after I pulled off my first biotic charge,” she countered.
“That was the Alliance,” Lexi said. “They were training you for combat. I am your physician and I am maintaining your health.”
Sara pouted. It wasn’t very mature and it definitely wasn’t behavior befitting the Pathfinder, but she didn’t care. Almost six months without an amp was slow and painful torture. But, one look at the stern glint in Lexi’s eyes told her an argument would be hopeless.
She sighed. “Tann wants to know when I’ll be back in the field.”
“When you’re ready,” the doctor said, adding something to her datapad.
“Yeah, he’s not a big fan of that answer.”
“What’s so pressing?”
Sara smiled again. “We’ve been scanning planets for signs of Jardaan structures, and we’ve found a few, but they’re in remote locations. Mountain peaks, canyon floors, you know,” she shrugged, “places most scientists can’t get to.”
“He’ll just have to send one of the other Pathfinders.”
Sara groaned. “Lex, none of the other Pathfinders have my background or my experience!”
“Avitus was a Spectre,” the doctor countered. “I’m sure he could get a team into remote locations.”
“You know he prefers to work alone, or with a small squad. Besides, he’s busy quelling scavs on Elaaden.” Sara widened her eyes. If she wasn’t too good to pout, she definitely wasn’t too good to beg. “Please, Lexi. I’m so close, I can feel it.”
The asari eyed her critically, her full lips pressed into a hard line. “Another month,” she said.
Sara jumped up from the couch and raised her fists into the air. “Yes!”
Lexi smiled, but tamped it down quickly. “Don’t celebrate just yet,” she said. “We’ll outfit you with an amp in one month, then we’ll talk about the time line to return you to active duty.”
Sara cleared her throat and forced herself back onto the sofa. “Okay,” she said. “That’s fair.”
Lexi smirked, but said nothing more on the subject. “How’re you sleeping?”
“Fine,” Sara replied. “The sleep aids are helping.” That was an exaggeration. She didn’t want to take them, so she tried each night to sleep without them. And inevitably the nightmare returned. Then, after working through her breathing exercises to get her heart rate under control, she would take one of the capsules and get a few hours of quality sleep. It was better than before the meds, so she couldn’t complain.
The asari didn’t look like she believed her, but she didn’t pry any further. “And how’s Reyes?”
Sara shrugged. “Alive.”
Lexi frowned. “That’s it? Alive?”
Sara ran a hand through her hair and scratched at her implant scar. “He’s busy and he can’t talk about his work. He checks in sometimes, but mostly Keema or Kian lets me know how he’s doing.”
“And this doesn’t bother you?”
“It was my idea,” she said. “Can’t exactly be upset when he’s just doing what I asked.”
Lexi’s smile was unnerving in its understanding. “Sure you can, but if it helps you get through the separation, by all means, keep telling yourself that.”
Sara rolled her eyes. “Are we done?” She struggled to keep her fingers from tapping at her knees.
“Somewhere to be?”
“I’ve got some paperwork to finish, and a dinner date with Drack and the kiddos.” Neither of which was untrue.
“Please tell Drack he’s overdue for a check up,” the asari said as she stood.
“I always do.” Sara thanked Lexi for her time and hurried out into the hall. She did have dinner plans, and some paperwork to finish for Tann, ranking Jardaan sites for possible exploration. But all she could think about was crafting a long, excited message so it could sit in her draft folder until SAM forwarded it to a certain crime lord.
At least she still had her priorities straight.
Chapter 3: Missing
A/N: Oh my gosh! You probably thought this would never update, amiright? Well, here! Have a new chapter!
To: Reyes Vidal
From: <unknown sender>
I know, I know. I’d say I’m sorry, but we both know that’s a lie. Besides, I want to be the first to tell you something for a change. One more month! I can get an amp in one more month! And then it’s just a matter of persuading the doctors to let me loose. I am so ready to get off of this station, I can’t even tell you.
And, no. Trips to Meridian don’t count.
I thought some down time after Alcaeus would be a good thing. But after two years exploring Heleus, staying in one place is the literal worst. It’s too confined. The Directors know where I am at all times, they know where I live. I feel like there’s no escaping them when they really want to talk to me. It’s not like the vidcon on the Tempest. It’s much easier to ignore that blinking notification light than it is Tann’s screeching outside my door.
I miss you. But you know that. I’m worried, too. I know we agreed to keep our distance, but I really hate hearing about you second hand. Why am I so bad at upholding our agreement?
Why are you so good at it?
Reyes had barely finished reading the message when his omnitool pinged again.
To: Reyes Vidal
From: <unknown sender>
That wasn’t fair. I’m sorry. I just miss you and I’m worried that this is just as hard on you as it is me, and you’re not talking to anyone about it. I agreed to take care of myself in your absence. I hope you’re doing the same.
I love you.
He scowled at the message. Sara was right of course; he wasn’t talking to anyone about how much the distance ate away at him. How the silence between them seemed to stretch on, until he felt almost as hopeless as he had the long months after she’d ended things. How the memory of her lying still before him, her life literally in his hands, haunted him each night.
Reyes tried to bury himself in his work, and some days that was enough. He had a lead on the Ditaeon hacker, and that had kept him up and active these last few days, but when even the constant stream of data couldn’t keep his thoughts from drifting back to the Nexus, there was always the whiskey.
He eyed the bottle where it stood on the round table in his room on the second floor of Tartarus. It was half empty already, and the buzzing warmth behind his eyes told him he should leave it that way. He groaned, rubbed a hand over his face, then pulled up an old contact on his omnitool.
He typed a quick message and smiled. He couldn’t let himself talk to her, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t show her he cared in other ways.
“Mr. Vidal,” SAM’s voice filtered through his omnitool. Reyes startled at the sudden voice; he wasn’t sure he would ever get used to SAM’s ability to be anywhere and everywhere all at once.
“I believe I have located the culprit behind Ditaeon’s security breach.”
Reyes sat up on the sofa, his dour mood and brief joy both swept away in the face of news he could actually use. “Tell me.”
“Vladimir Brecka, formerly stationed in Nexus Operations. Transferred to Ditaeon five months ago,” the AI said.
“Current location?” Reyes stood, zipping up his flight suit as he stepped out the door and into the bar.
“Ditaeon’s water filtration station. Shall I notify Mayor Tate?”
“No, SAM,” he said. “The less Tate knows, the better.” Reyes ignored Kian’s curious glance as he marched out of Tartarus and typed a message to one of his lieutenants. They would grab Brecka in the cover of darkness and meet him at the tiny prefab in Spirit’s Ledge.
He slammed the call button for the lift and sighed. It was good to be moving, to have something to do. But he was in for a long and gruesome night.
Sara grinned down at the datapad as she flipped through the reports Suvi had collated for her. There were Jardaan sites on most of the planets, especially those inhabited by the angara. She’d been in a good mood for days, ever since Lexi told her she was on track to get her amp back, but this grin was wider than usual.
“Do you have to be so happy where I can see you?” Liam asked from the other side of his desk. Sara sat in the chair across from him in the new HUST-1 wing of the Security Office in Operations.
She cleared her throat, sat up straight, and tried to erase the smile from her face. “Sorry,” she said in her most serious, Pathfinder voice.
Liam chuckled and shook his head. “What’s got you beaming, anyways?”
Sara’s smile returned as she leaned forward in her seat. “Suvi just sent me the scans of Kadara.”
He raised an eyebrow. “And…?”
“And there are at least three separate potential dig sites across the planet!” She bounced in her chair as she swept through the scans. “That’s the most we’ve found on any planet in Heleus so far.”
“That’s obviously a good thing,” Liam said.
“It means I can make a reasonable argument for Kadara to be my first assignment.”
Liam scowled. “You’re not even cleared for duty yet. What makes you so sure they won’t just send someone else?”
She shook her head. “Tann doesn’t want to send scientists in until a Pathfinder can clear the sites. Who knows what we’ll find there?”
“Right,” Liam hedged. “But why not just send one of the other Pathfinder teams?”
She shrugged. “They’re busy. Sarissa is working with Morda to find homes for the Drell from the Keelah Si’yah. Hayjer and his scientists are working with the angara on Aya to optimize resources on the planet. Cora and Vederia are bouncing between Havarl and Voeld researching plant life that might be able to survive the cold and help bring the planet’s temperature up. And Avitus is hunting the last few Kett out of the system.”
Liam stared at her. “You really are bored, aren’t you?”
“So bored! I am living vicariously through all of them.”
Liam laughed. It was good to hear. After everything that happened in Alcaeus, Sara had worried that she had lost her friend forever. And at first, it seemed like she had. After her surgery he’d only visited her once, to make sure she was all right. Then he’d disappeared behind stacks of dossiers and his work to start up HUST-1.
It wasn’t until a month or so ago that she had finally cornered him in his office, bribed him with some of Drack’s roast, and eventually talked their way past all the awkwardness that lingered between them.
It felt good to have her friend back.
“What about Laela’Vaar?” He asked.
“She’s been on H-047c with a small team.”
He frowned. “Why? The place is hopeless.”
“The quarians have spent the last 300 years living in space. I think anything on solid ground sounds like a good start to them.”
“But living under a dome?”
“It’s definitely not ideal. But it’s a good base of operations. Set up enough environments get their colonists out of cryo, then solve the problem of finding a permanent home.” She took one last glance at her omnitool before closing Suvi’s report. “They’re actually due to arrive at the Nexus sometime today. Want to join us for dinner?”
Liam grinned. “Gettin’ the old squad back together, huh?”
“Well, except Cora,” she said.
He shrugged. “Eh, she probably would have found an excuse not to come anyway.”
They both laughed at that. “Meet us at Vortex at seven,” she told him. He pulled up his omnitool and added it to his calendar. She raised an eyebrow. “You that busy you have to schedule dinner?”
“HUST-1 isn’t running itself,” he said.
Sara’s omnitool pinged and vibrated, announcing a call. Her heart stuttered; she never received vidcalls anymore.
“Ryder,” she answered. The sharp angles of a turian face flickered into being above her wrist. “Avitus.” She blinked at him. “What’s going on?”
“Ryder. Are you alone?”
She glanced up at Liam. “No, I’m in the HUST-1 office with Liam Kosta.”
“Close enough,” he growled. “Can you get down to Colonial Affairs? Addison is up my ass about something in Ditaeon.”
“Hell if I know. I left two weeks ago to follow a Kett trail off the planet.”
“Did you reach out to Christmas?”
The turian shook his head. “He’s clammed up. Won’t tell me anything beyond Addison’s spiel.”
“Tell me about it.” Avitus sighed. “I’m out in Elaaden territory, finishing off a Kett troop. I won’t get to Kadara for a few days at least.”
“I’m still grounded,” she said. “But, I’ll talk to Addison and see if I can’t figure out what’s going on.”
“Thanks, Ryder. I owe you one.”
“No problem, Avitus. Be safe out there.”
He nodded that he would and then ended the call.
Sara sighed. “Sounds like there’s trouble in Kadara.”
“When isn’t there?” Liam asked.
She scowled at him. “I hate it when you’re right,” she said.
He smiled. “Have fun with Addison.”
She groaned and stood to leave. “Do I have to?”
“Pathfinder’s work is never done, right?”
“Right,” she said. She made it to the door before Liam called to her.
“Sara,” he said. “Let me know if I can help, all right?”
She nodded. “I will, Liam. Thank you.”
She didn’t linger in the Security offices. “SAM,” she whispered as she moved through Operations. “Do you know anything about this?”
There was a suspiciously long silence from her fancy AI. “Yes, Sara,” SAM said over their private channel.
“Care to clue me in before I go toe-to-toe with Addison?”
Another long pause. “I am uncertain that would be wise.”
“Because, there is no way for you to know what has happened in Ditaeon if you are not talking to Mr. Vidal.”
She ran a hand through her short crop of hair. “Because you aren’t officially working with him.”
“Correct. You need to be adequately surprised by what Director Addison shares with you.”
She measured her breathing as she climbed the steps up into Colonial Affairs. “I’m not going to like what she has to say, am I?”
“It is… unlikely,” SAM said.
She shook her head. “Reyes,” she murmured. “What have you done?”
“I believe Mr. Vidal would say, ‘what he had to.’”
Sara grunted at that, but couldn’t reply further as Foster Addison caught her eye as she made her way up the stairs.
“Pathfinder,” the woman drawled. “What can I do for you?”
Sara took a deep breath and tried her best not to appear irritated. “I got a call from Pathfinder Rix,” she said. “He’s worried about whatever has happened in Ditaeon and wanted my help.”
Addison glared at her but said nothing.
“What’s going on, Addison?”
“He shouldn’t have dragged you into this,” she snapped. “You’re still on medical leave.”
“I’m back on limited duty,” Sara countered. “Which includes desk work and personnel issues.”
Addison’s lip curled for a second, and then she composed herself. “Vladimir Brecka has gone missing.”
Sara blinked. “What? How?”
“If I knew that I wouldn’t need a Pathfinder,” she sneered. “He was last seen headed to Ditaeon’s water filtration system. He never returned to his bunk. That was four days ago.”
“When did Brecka get stationed in Ditaeon?” After Spender’s exile Brecka had become Addison’s right hand man. His presence on Kadara set a klaxon blaring in Sara’s mind.
“He requested the transfer about five months ago,” Addison said.
That would have been while both she and Reyes were in Alcaeus. Convenient. “Do you know why?” She asked.
“He said he wanted to get his feet on solid ground, and that Ditaeon needed more colonists.”
A bullshit line if she’d ever heard one. She wondered if Brecka had fed that to Addison, or if she’d come up with it all by herself. Either way, Sara didn’t believe it for a second. But, calling the Director out on it would force both of their hands. She wasn’t supposed to know about Addison’s prying into her private life, orabout the director’s theories about her connection to the Collective and Reyes.
“What did Tate say?”
Addison frowned. “Mayor Tate had little to report. No security footage, no evidence of Brecka’s whereabouts after he clocked out of his shift that evening.”
Sara crossed her arms. “If he was clocked out, why was he going to the filtration system?”
The Director of Colonial Affairs shrugged. “No one knows. But his omnitool has been completely deactivated. With no GPS, no omnitool, and no footage, it’s like he disappeared into the goddamn night!”
Sara ignored the sinking feeling in her gut. If Brecka was in Ditaeon at Addison’s insistence, if he was there to look into her connection to the Collective and Reyes found out…
Her omnitool pinged, startling her from her thoughts.
To: Sara Ryder
From: Vetra Nyx
Just landed. Laela’s headed to Ops to debrief, see you at Vortex?
She shot back a quick affirmative, then returned her attention to Addison. “Rix is on Elaaden hunting Kett,” she said. “It’ll be a few days before he can follow up in Kadara.” Addison sighed and rolled her eyes. Sara ignored her and continued, “I’ll talk to Tate and see if I can’t get a head start for Avitus.”
Addison nodded, but said nothing. Sara lingered for a moment, her frustration building at the Director’s petulance. It’d been years of proving herself to the Directors, paving a way for life in Andromeda when they had all but given up, succumbed to petty back-stabbing and arguments when they couldn’t have their way. She had fought tooth and nail to keep the Initiative from overstepping their bounds in angaran space and to reestablish relations between New Tuchanka and the Nexus.
She was done being treated like a child. She was done suffering their ungratefulness as if it was just part of the job.
“You know what? On second thought, no I won’t.”
Addison stood from the console she leaned on and blinked at Sara. “Excuse me?”
“I came here to help. Avitus, you, Vladimir.” Her voice was raised. She realized she was shouting, that workers in Operations had stopped what they were doing to watch her. At the moment, she didn’t care. “I have killed myself, literally, to keep Heleus safe. To make it home.” She took a deep breath and stood up taller, her chin lifted as she held Addison’s gaze. “I have sacrificed so much for the Initiative. For the colonists. For you. My family, my friends, my personal life. But if that’s not good enough for you,” she shrugged, “maybe my time would be better spent elsewhere.”
Complete silence filled Operations as everyone stared at her, mouths agape and eyes wide. She stared at Addison, unwilling to look at the shocked faces around her. “Or, you can treat me with the respect befitting my role in the Initiative.”
The director stared back at her, her face stony and furious. And then she noticed the silence that filled Colonial Affairs. Addison glanced around the room to find every face watching for her reaction. Sara might not be well loved among the Directors, but among the people?
She was practically a saint.
Addison’s face softened and she dipped her head, shoulders deflating under the weight of the room’s collective glare. “Of course, Pathfinder. I apologize if my behavior has been… unsatisfactory. Any help you could provide would be greatly appreciated.”
“Thank you,” Sara said. “I’ll see what I can do.” She didn’t linger; the interaction was awkward enough without prolonging it. Besides, there was a cocktail with her name on it waiting for her down at the Vortex. Literally. When Dutch had used one of her scavenged ingredients to conjure up something that tasted somewhat like pineapple, Sara and Anan had convinced him to name it the Easy Ryder.
After her run in with Addison, she could use a drink or three. And she’d be with friends, so she would still be within the limits of the promise she’d made to Reyes before he left; no drowning her sorrows in booze.
Reyes washed the blood from his hands in the rusty sink of the Collective’s small pre-fab in Spirit’s Ledge. He ignored how they shook under the scalding water, didn’t hiss as the soap burned its way into the split knuckles. He ignored how, once the blood was gone, the heat of the tap and the force of his scrubbing left his arms red and raw. He ignored the labored, sticky wet breaths that came from the room behind him, where Vladimir Brecka struggled for his final lungfuls of air.
He made a cup of his palms and splashed water onto his face and through his hair. He blinked away the drops and forced himself to look into the mirror. His eyes were bloodshot with dark circles beneath them. There was no luster to his golden eyes, no shine. Just weariness and something else.
Something that looked remarkably like fear.
He turned off the faucet and ran his fingers through his hair once more. Only once he was done did he notice that the tiny building had fallen completely silent. Reyes turned his back to the sink and looked at the man sitting in the chair in the center of the room.
Vladimir Brecka reclined in the chair, his head lolled back and his eyes staring up at the ceiling, sightless. His chest did not move, his eyes did not blink.
Reyes sent instructions to Crux to clean up the facility and hurried out into the Kadaran night. He needed to put distance between himself and the taunting memories of his interrogation of Addison’s second-in-command.
“What would Ryder say?” The man had asked, spitting blood and tooth fragments onto the floor. He panted and gasped, then turned accusing eyes on his captor. “If she saw you now, like this?”
He didn’t have the answer to that. And if he was being honest with himself, he was afraid to find out. But Brecka had more to offer than just pithy rhetorical questions. He had info, and over the course of the evening, he eventually shared it all.
The video had made it to Addison’s inbox. The Director knew everything.
Which meant the Charlatan needed to know everything there was to know about Foster Addison.
And, despite his tough talk, Vladimir Brecka had delivered.
Reyes powered up his shuttle, his knuckles turning white as he gripped the flight controls, and set a course back to his private landing pad at the Port. There was one way he could put this cluster-fuck of an evening behind him, and luckily there was a fresh bottle of Kian’s best whiskey waiting for him in his flat.
His people had their orders, the immediate threat was identified and handled. For at least one night, Reyes could disappear into a bottle.
The Charlatan would deal with everything else in the morning.
Chapter 4: Decisions
A/N: I'm so so sorry that this took so long to update. I have a small backlog of chapters, and have recommitted to this story in the new year. I have to say, as I reread this chapter, I got a little misty-eyed because I really really missed these two. They've been through so much, and the thought of abandoning them here is unacceptable. I hope you like this chapter, and wish you the best in 2019!
Sara’s omnitool chimed, pulling her from her first dreamless sleep in months. She groaned as she answered, not looking up from her pillow.
“What is it?”
She’d expected Scott, forgetting the time difference between the Nexus and Meridian again, or maybe Peebee calling to gush about some new remtech she found on Havarl. What Sara hadn’t expected was the lilting, rich voice of Keema Dohrgun.
“Ryder,” the angara said. “I apologize for calling so late.”
Sara sat up and turned on the small lamp on her bedside table. “What’s wrong, Keema?” Her heart fluttered in her chest and her stomached did an anxious flip. She spoke more to the angaran representative now than she ever had, but that didn’t mean she expected a social chat at three in the morning. “Is Reyes -?”
“Reyes is fine,” Keema said, then frowned. “At least, physically.”
“What does that mean?” Sara had a pretty good idea of what the angara meant, but the more details she had, the better.
“He’s spiraling, Ryder,” Keema said. Her voice was thin and tremulous, the most fearful Sara had ever heard it. “He won’t tell anyone what he’s doing and it’s obvious to all of us that the work is killing him.”
Sara threw off the covers and pushed out of the bed, uncaring if Keema got an eyeful as she pulled on a tanktop. “I’m on my way,” she said.
“Stars,” Keema breathed. “Thank you, Ryder.”
“Where is he now?” She didn’t bother looking at the orange hologram of her friend as she moved around the room. She needed her coat. And shoes! Where were her shoes?
“He’s locked himself in his room at Tartarus,” she said. “He won’t see me or Kian anymore, and only comes out to demand another drink.”
“How long has he been this way?” She’d found her shoes and tugged them on without undoing the laces.
“He’s been insufferable for months,” Keema said. “But not like this.” There was a long pause, and for a moment Sara thought she’d dropped the connection. “I’ve known Reyes for years, Sara. He’s like a brother to me.”
Sara looked down at the wide, intelligent eyes for the first time and saw something in them she never had before.
Her heart pounded in her chest and her throat constricted, even as she nodded at her friend’s image. “I’ll be there as soon as I can.”
“Hurry, Ryder,” Keema said and then ended the call.
Sara shrugged into her coat. “SAM, please tell Scott that, if Lexi asks, I’m with him.”
“Right away, Sara.”
“And don’t tell Reyes I’m on my way.”
The AI was silent for a moment before he said, “Mr. Vidal will disapprove of your appearance in the Port.”
“Well,” she said. “I disapprove of missing Initiative personnel.” The door to her apartment opened, revealing the dark and quiet hall of the Nexus in the midst of its night cycle. “We don’t always like the decisions people make.”
She dialed Vetra’s frequency, and winced when her friend answered with a bleary, “Ryder?”
“V, I’m sorry to call so late, but I need a favor.” She kept her voice low as she maneuvered the dimly lit hall.
Vetra’s voice was more alert; she’d noticed the urgency in Sara’s tone. “Of course. What do you need?”
“I need to get something to the Port, as soon as possible.”
“I owe you one, Vetra,” Sara said as the rust colored shape of Kadara loomed in the viewport of the Quarian Pathfinder’s ship.
“I don’t make a habit of smuggling people, you know,” Vetra growled from the bridge of the Kelek’miin.
“All right, I owe you two.” Sara uncrossed her arms and stood up straighter as Laela’Vaar entered the flight deck. “Pathfinder,” she greeted. “Thank you for your help.”
Pale blue eyelights burned behind the Quarian’s mask, but there was a smile in her voice when she spoke. “I do not think I will ever be able to repay you, Ryder, for all your help in Alcaeus. But this is a start.” She sighed as she moved to lean her shoulder against Vetra. “If the Directors learn that you are in violation of your medical leave, and that I helped you?” She shook her head.
“And who’s gonna tell them?” Vetra asked. “The whole galaxy owes Ryder at least three favors, and it’s not like the Directors are well-loved.” Vetra smirked at Ryder, humor twinkling in her green eyes. “The real person we need to worry about is Lexi.”
“Scott’s aware of the situation; he’s agreed to cover for me.” She smiled. “Just like when we were kids.”
Laela spoke to her pilot, a very quiet Quarian man, and directed him to request a berth in the Port. She turned back to Sara. “How will you get back, Ryder?”
She shrugged. Honestly, she hadn’t thought that far ahead. Reyes was in trouble, she could worry about travel plans once she was certain he was all right. “Avitus is en route to look into Addison’s missing person case. I’ll catch a ride back with him.”
“That’ll be pretty suspicious,” Vetra said. She knew that Sara and Reyes were trying to establish distance between them, and she had a point. But Sara didn’t know what else she could do.
“I’ll figure it out,” she said.
The ship made its descent to Kadara, swift and silent. It was a similar make as the Tempest, but the ship full of Quarian engineers had worked miracles on her drive core. Gil had begged Vetra to get him on board, but with a wedding to plan, Scott had argued against it. And won.
As the crew worked through the Port’s docking protocols Sara retrieved her few belongings; a bag with a couple changes of clothes, her repaired purple N7 armor, and her Equalizer, just in case. Her biotics were not up to snuff for combat, especially since she didn’t have an amp, but she wouldn’t be completely useless in a fight if it came to it.
“Welcome to Kadara Port,” the pilot’s voice filtered over the ship intercom as Sara entered the cargo bay. “Pathfinder needs Kaaf, Rama, and Eshonu ready in ten.” She raised an eyebrow at Vetra, who stood next to a stack of crates, her omnitool scanning away.
“You not in the away team?’
Vetra shook her head. “She doesn't need me here. Besides, I’ve got my own work to get done.”
“More of those infamous back channels?”
Vetra’s mandibles flared with humor. “You know it.” She eyed Sara for a moment, and then stepped closer to the human Pathfinder. “Is Vidal gonna be okay?” She asked, her voice low.
“How do you know he isn’t?” Sara countered. She’d been purposefully vague with her friends about why she needed this ride, simply because she didn’t have enough details to set their minds at ease.
Vetra rolled her eyes. “Please, Ryder. If this were a fun trip you’d be gushing about seeing him again. Besides, you’re breaking the rules of your medical leave, sneaking around to get here. Something’s wrong.” Vetra watched her, searching Sara’s face. “Can I do anything else to help?”
She sighed. She wished she could tell Vetra everything; she was one of her best friends. She ran a hand through her short hair. “Whatever he’s working on has him… in a bad place,” she said. “Keema called me asking for help, so here I am.”
Vetra said nothing and instead moved to initiate the ship’s cargo ramp. They both watched as the ramp descended until it finally came to rest against the launch zone with a quiet thud. Sara shouldered her bag, her Equalizer nested under her t-shirt at the small of her back, and stepped out onto the ramp.
“Ryder,” Vetra called.
Sara turned to look at her friend and was surprised at the weight in the turian’s eyes.
“Be careful,” she said. “If it’s so bad that Keema had to call you…” she trailed off.
Sara nodded. Her mind had been plagued with similar thoughts the whole trip to Govorkam. Keema had known Reyes for years, had worked with him closely when he’d orchestrated the coup of the Port. She had seen him weather the most stressful times of his life in Andromeda.
And now she didn’t know what to do?
What had happened over these last few months? What had Reyes done? Would he even be the same man when she finally did see him again? And what would she do if he wasn’t?
Her stomach roiled and she felt the blood drain from her face. “Thanks, V. For everything.”
Sara marched down the ramp, her bag slung over her shoulder and ignored the way her stomach dropped with every step. “SAM?” She murmured.
“Yes, Sara,” the AI replied over their private channel.
“Does he know I’m here?”
“Not yet. Though, as locals sight you it is more likely that your presence will be reported.“
“Can you do anything about that?” She pressed the button for the lift and tapped her foot as she waited for the machine to make the climb up to the landing pad.
“I can,” SAM replied. “However, I do not think Mr. Vidal would appreciate our interfering with Collective operative correspondence.”
She cursed. SAM had a point, as usual. Reyes trusted her, had put enormous trust in her to allow SAM access to the Collective so he and the AI could tackle the Addison problem together.
“Guess I’ll just have to keep my head down, then,” she mumbled. With her new haircut, her prolonged absence from the Port, and her civilian jeans and t-shirt, she just might be able to sneak through the city unnoticed.
The lift descended, pausing briefly at the Port level to let other travelers on board. She kept her eyes on her omnitool, pretending to work on something as the other passengers stepped into the lift. Then they made the slow journey down to the slums.
It had been months since Sara had visited Kadara, the last time being when they’d stopped in the Port to stock up before her and her team made the trip to Alcaeus. Her memories of that visit were not fond ones. She and Reyes had still been separate then, and he had very nearly stayed in Kadara rather than be forced to be near her when they couldn’t be together. But she’d begged him to stay, and as always, he couldn’t tell her no.
But, that night, he’d done what he had to in order to prepare for the trip. She’d seen the evidence of his one night stand firsthand, marked on his skin, and though she had no claim to him, the pain of that moment still ached in her chest whenever she thought of it. They had never discussed it; Sara didn’t want to know who he’d visited. She didn’t need that jealousy festering in her heart.
That didn’t mean that she didn’t consider each of the Tartarus employees as she entered the ground floor of the bar. She knew Reyes didn’t have a gender preference when it came to his romantic partners, and for the first time she felt a stab of insecurity as she looked at the servers and dancers Kian employed. They were all beautiful, in their own ways.
The leggy brunette with the sharp pixie cut and eyes so dark they pulled at Sara like black holes. The lithe man whose skin glowed in the pulsing red light, a delicate sheen of sweat glittering invitation at her. And of course, there was Kian himself. Sara had always suspected that the bartender harbored feelings for Reyes, or that the two of them may even once have been a couple. But again, that wasn’t a question she really wanted an answer to.
Her doubts percolated in her mind, manic and fearful in the absence of Reyes’ touch and affection, but when Kian looked up and spotted her across the room, her insecurities melted away.
The bartender bounded around the bar and enveloped her in a hug, which she was not expecting. Sara considered Kian a friend, but they were hardly on a hugging basis.
“Thank the gods you’re here,” he said as he released her from his crushing hug. “I told Keema to ring you sooner, but she was so blasted sure she could talk him through this.”
“Kian, slow down,” she said. “What’s going on?”
His smile faded, his wide eyes blinking. “Did Keems not tell you?”
“She told me he’s a mess. Reclusive.”
“And angry.” Kian shook his head. “I haven’t seen him like this, Ryder. Not in a long time.”
She glanced up the stairs, and then turned back to Kian. “Does he have whiskey in there?”
He nodded. “Last I saw the bottle was half-empty. He’ll be due for another soon.”
Sara nodded. “Give it to me.”
Reyes blinked at his omnitool, rereading Crux’s report for the second time. Brecka’s corpse had been dumped out by where Old Skinner used to be. There’d been recent scav activity in the region, and if Crux was good at her job, and she was, then the body would be nothing but adhi kibble at best.
He wrote Christmas Tate a message that his men had lost track of Brecka somewhere in the area, and that he’d been injured in the pursuit. Let the mayor of Ditaeon decide what to do from there.
With the message sent, Reyes resolved to obliterate Vladimir Brecka from his memories, for once and for all. He reached for the bottle of whiskey, something from Kian’s lower shelf, and growled at how light it felt in his fingers.
Had he drank that much already? He should have proofread his message to Tate more thoroughly; heaven forbid the Charlatan have a typo. He snorted, tried to pour from the bottle anyway, and then sighed when only a faint dribble made it into his tumbler.
He dropped the bottle to the floor at the foot of the couch and it clinked against the others that had accumulated there. Reyes scrubbed his hands over his face, then rolled his neck until the vertebrae popped.
He didn’t even feel drunk. He was exhausted, his eyes heavy from so much more than alcohol. His mind and heart were heavy too, and no amount of booze seemed to help.
But, that didn’t mean he wouldn’t keep trying.
He stood, stretched, and then dragged his feet over to the door. He should sleep, could lay out on the sofa and let his blood clear out. But then he’d have to cope with the hangover, and after the week he’d had, it was probably better just to stay drunk.
There was a knock at the door before he could type in the command to open it for himself. He shook his head. Kian knew him too well, and after the way he’d treated the man, Reyes knew he didn’t deserve him as a friend.
He entered the code to unlock the door and tried his best to smile. Kian deserved some fucking decency for a change. “You’re a saint among…”
Maybe he was farther gone than he thought, because it wasn’t Kian who waited for him on the other side of the door. But, it couldn’t be her. She wasn’t cleared for travel to Govorkam, and she’d promised. They’d promised to keep their distance.
“Sara?” He breathed. It was her. He could smell the mint of her hair, the heat of her skin radiated out toward him, beckoning him to touch, and her eyes were wide as she took him in for the first time in months.
What a sight he must be. His hair hadn’t been styled in days but his hands had run through it enough that the waves were tamed into slick, greasy strands. His breath had to reek of the whiskey, and his eyes would be bloodshot with dark bags beneath them. He was a mess.
She glanced around him, taking in the state of his room. Her gaze lingered on the heap of empty bottles and then flickered back up to look him in the eye.
“You can’t be here,” he said. He kept expecting her to disappear, to vanish like the apparition she was. But she was there, real and healthy and so painfully alive that it felt like standing next to a cleansing fire just to be in her presence again.
She frowned, and despite his addled senses, Reyes didn’t miss the quiver of her chin before she locked her expression into one of neutral calm. She held out her hand to him.
“Come with me,” she said. She didn’t take his hand, didn’t force him to agree, but it wasn’t a question either.
How could it be? After so long apart, how could the answer be anything other than a deafening, resounding, soul-envigorating yes.
He took her hand and let her lead him from the bar. He caught Kian watching from the corner of his eye, saw the man’s shoulders slump in relief, and then he caught a whiff of her hair again and was lost to her.
He would follow her anywhere if it meant escaping the hell he’d built for himself these past months. All he wanted was to lay with her, his head on her chest and listen to her heartbeat while she ran her fingers through his hair and murmured promises that she would forgive him.
Because that’s what he’d really been drinking to forget. His fear that he had finally crossed a line she couldn’t pull him back across. He had gone where she could not follow, his shadows had grown too long, and now he would be alone and lost in the dark.
She couldn’t, woudln’t follow him there. He wouldn’t let her. She deserved so much more than what he’d become, and yet he was still wracked with desperation that she might still save him. His Santa Sarita.
Maybe she could fall from grace one last time.
Chapter 5: Memory
A/N: Hi guys. I'm really sorry I've neglected this story for so long. I've been writing an original Urban Fantasy novel since November, and I finally just finished it (huzzah!). I don't know if this means I'll work on Sarita again, but I have a couple chapters done that I want to share with you. I still intend to finish this story, I just have no sense of the timeline on that. Thank you for reading all this time, and for all the wonderful comments, support, and encouragement over these last couple of years.
She needed a plan. Her first thought had been to corner him at Tartarus and demand an explanation, but as soon as Sara laid eyes on Reyes, she knew that wouldn’t be an option. Her back up plan, such as it was, had been to drag him to his flat, but halfway there she realized that it wasn’t private enough. Whatever had happened to spiral Reyes out of his own careful control would require more soundproofing than his place in the Port to exorcize.
So, she led him to the docks, to the landing pad she knew he kept under his name to maintain his smuggling business. She glanced back at him and winced.
Reyes wobbled behind her, his eyes downcast and a deep frown on his face. He looked on the verge of tears. Or of vomiting. Maybe both.
“Reyes,” she said.
He looked up at her and blinked. A slow smile claimed his lips as he looked at her. Despite her concern and her very real fear for him, warmth blossomed in her at the sight. She had missed him so much.
“Can you fly?”
He considered her words for a moment and then shrugged.
“That’s promising,” she muttered.
“Pathfinder,” SAM chimed in on their private channel. “Mr. Vidal’s blood alcohol content is currently point two-five. I do not recommend he operate machinery.”
“Thanks, SAM.” It was obvious to her that Reyes was impaired, but she also didn’t know how to fly his shuttle. She glanced back at him again. “Could you help me fly your shuttle?” She asked.
He shrugged again. “Sure.”
“I can assist, Sara,” SAM added.
The lift opened, revealing the shuttle bathed in a swathe of afternoon sunshine. As they approached the ship Reyes keyed the command to lower the cargo ramp into his omnitool. Sara watched him as they made their way to the cockpit. She wasn’t used to him being so quiet. Reyes was always quick to fill the silence with a joke, usually an innuendo. Or he at least watched her from the corner of his eye, smiling when she did something he found endearing.
But now? He was dutifully quiet, following her lead with a concerning level of obeisance. She’d seen him tipsy before, they’d shared drinks and laughs. This quiet introspection was not like him and it terrified her.
He sat in the pilot’s chair and immediately set about firing up the shuttle’s engine. His hands didn’t so much as quiver as his fingers flicked switches and entered commands on the control panel. Watching him go through the motions of preparing for flight Sara could almost imagine that he was fine, that the hammering of her heart when she looked at him was nothing but eager anticipation of time spent alone with him.
Then he looked up at her and his tired, bloodshot eyes destroyed the fantasy. “Where to, Princesa?”
She hadn’t thought this far. They could go to the caves in Draullir, or they could just stay in the shuttle. Though, she doubted the cramped space would be advisable once the alcohol left his system. Once he was done being the obedient, drunk Reyes, he would be angry with her for breaking her promise. And she was already angry, it was just stuffed down in the face of Reyes in crisis.
“I don’t know,” she whispered.
He hummed and turned back to the control panel. “I know,” he said. And then he took the flight controls in hand and lifted the shuttle from the launch pad.
Sara was surprised at how smooth the shuttle moved as Reyes guided it out of the Port. He spoke over the comms to the dock manager, for all the world his normal self. Even blitzed he could slip into whatever mask he needed. That realization stabbed at her, reminding her that when they weren’t together, Reyes was so rarely himself. They never should have agreed to separate. What if, after months of playing so many parts, he didn’t know how to come back to himself?
And it was all her fault.
They didn’t speak as he flew. She kept a wary eye on him, ready to jump in at any moment if he showed even a hint of being unable to pilot the shuttle, but she never needed to. The Kadaran landscape blurred beneath them, the waning sunlight glowing on the iron-infused cliffs and mountains. Sara had spent a lot of time in the badlands; she knew Kadara well. So when the shuttle crested a steep jagged peak only to steadily descend toward a plateau with a glittering pool of sapphire water, she gasped.
“The casita?” She gaped out of the windshield, taking in the small prefab building as it appeared out of the growing shadows. She looked at Reyes in time to see the slow, satisfied smile claim his lips. “You still have it?”
He snorted. “Of course.” He didn’t look away from the control panel, didn’t take any risks as he initiated landing protocols. As far as she could tell, he performed perfectly, to the letter, and he was almost blackout drunk. She was awed and disconcerted by the fact. Reyes had said his father had been a damn good pilot when he could put the bottle down, but here he was, a damn good one even when he couldn’t.
She wondered if he realized how much he was like the man in this moment.
The shuttle landed, light and even, and Reyes went through the process of shutting it down. Once the engines whirred into silence he looked at her and his exhaustion was plain.
“Come on,” she said. She took his hand and led him off the shuttle and into the house he had built for her. She had such mixed feelings coming back to this place. The last time she’d been there had been one of the best times of her life, and the beginning of the worst. And judging from the hard expression on Reyes’ face, he felt the same.
The door opened with a pneumatic hiss, letting stale air escape into the warm twilight. She glanced at him, but he wouldn’t meet her eyes.
“The climate control will need a minute to cycle through the old air,” he said. He stepped into the house, turning on the lights as he went. “I haven’t been here since…”
She didn’t try to finish his sentence, didn’t prod him or insist that he continue. Instead, she squeezed his hand and her heart stuttered when he squeezed back. They said nothing more as Reyes settled down onto the couch and Sara checked the casita’s food stores. She ran the tap, letting the old water from the cisterns drain through the pipes before she filled a glass for Reyes.
He thanked her and drank it in one go. She took the empty glass, set it on the coffee table, and then settled onto the sofa. She leaned back to let him lay out, his head in her lap. They lay like that for a while, Sara running her hands through his hair, until she thought he was asleep. But then he spoke.
“You’re actually here,” he said. His voice was so soft, as if he feared that being any louder might scare her away.
“Did you think I wasn’t?” She forced the smile onto her face and into her voice. She wanted to enjoy this moment, even as her fear of the looming conversation grew in the pit of her stomach.
“At first,” he said. “I thought I was dreaming.” He frowned, but didn’t open his eyes. “Why are you here?”
What could she say? If she suggested it was anything other than an impulsive decision on her part he would know Keema or Kian had called her. He would know his subordinates had disobeyed him, had meddled in his personal affairs. He would hate that, it would raise his defenses and make getting the truth out of him even more difficult than it would already be. No, for once she couldn’t tell him the truth.
“I missed you so much,” she said. That was true enough. “When Vetra and Laela said they were coming to Kadara, I begged them to bring me.” She had actually begged them to smuggle her off of the Nexus, at great professional risk for all involved. She really did owe the Quarian Pathfinder more than she could say.
He hummed, but the little crinkle between his brows told her that he didn’t quite believe her speech. “Keema called you, didn’t she?”
Sara laughed. “Don’t be mad at her,” she said. “She’s worried about you.”
“She’s always worried,” he grumbled, his voice heavy with impending sleep.
She watched him a moment, unsure if she should say the words that spilled over the edges of her heart and onto her lips. “I’m worried about you,” she whispered. Her fingers trembled through his hair. “I’m scared, Reyes.”
He hushed her, taking her hand in his. He opened his eyes and looked up at her. “It’ll be okay, Princesa. I promise.”
She continued tracing her fingertips along his scalp and nodded down at him. He closed his eyes again, and it didn’t take long for him to succumb to sleep.
Sara wanted to believe him, wanted to ignore the anxiety that bubbled up inside her. But she knew Reyes Vidal. She knew all the masks he hid behind; the frigid detachment of the Charlatan, the charming warmth of Vidal the Smuggler, and the breathtaking vulnerability of just Reyes. She knew Reyes Vidal, when he was happy, angry, and even when he was sad.
But most of all, she knew the flicker in his eyes when he lied.
Reyes hated this room. Terrin said Massani bribed the building manager to let the Suns conduct their more unsavory business there. Which made Reyes hate the building manager too. He hated Terrin and his stupid, unflappable turian face and his cold calculus that rendered people down into nothing more than credits. But most of all, he hated Zaeed Massani.
Not that it mattered. Half the mercs in the Suns hated the bastard. It was only a matter of time before someone took him out of the picture and won the Blue Suns for themselves. If Reyes had his way, he’d be long gone before that day ever came. He just had to fly below the radar, keep out of trouble with his bosses, and be a good boy. Then he’d jump ship to the Alliance before Terrin could say ‘Spirits’.
But, sometimes, keeping out of trouble meant shadowing Terrin on his more gruesome responsibilities. That’s how Reyes found himself standing just outside the glare of a spotlight while the turian took his talons to some Red Sand dealer that was dumb enough to try and cut the Suns out of their take.
The man screamed as a talon sank into the flesh of his shoulder. “Please! Oh, God, please,” he sobbed. “I’ll get the money.”
Reyes’ stomach roiled as the dealer’s words conjured up memories of his father’s last moments. The sobs, the pleading, the desperation, it all rankled under his skin. This man was weak, caught up in addiction to his own product. And he only made matters worse by making promises they all knew he couldn’t keep.
Just like his father had.
But, Reyes kept his feelings buried deep down, far from his face. As far as Terrin was concerned, emotional displays of any kind were a weakness, a tell a Blue Sun could not afford to have. The first time Reyes had followed his glorified babysitter into the building, he’d puked his guts out on the floor. Then Terrin had beat him for being affected by the sight of mutilation and torture.
Now, months later, Reyes kept his gag reflex in check and his face almost painfully plain as he paid witness to Terrin’s brutality. The man screamed again, and this time his voice broke, the sudden, strangled quiet cutting through Reyes’ careful facade.
Terrin craned his neck to look at his protege and his mandibles flared. “Kid,” he called. He never called Reyes by his name, which was perfectly fine with him. The less Terrin said to him, the better. “Get over here.”
Reyes didn’t move. His mind raced with possible motivations for Terrin to request his presence within the circle of light. None of them were good.
“Don’t make me say it again,” the turian growled.
Be good, he thought. Don’t draw attention to yourself. He tamped down the dread that clawed at his throat and stepped out of the shadows.
Terrin’s mandibles flared, clicking together softly in what Reyes had come to interpret as satisfaction. “You have a knife on you?”
Reyes nodded that he did. That had been Terrin’s first lesson: never find yourself unarmed. He tried not to think about why Terrin would ask such a question.
“Good.” He turned pale green eyes on the sobbing human. “It’s your unlucky day, Grayson. The kid’s new.” Terrin gestured for Reyes to come closer. “And this? Well, this is going to hurt.”
And so began Reyes’ education in the art of inflicting pain. He did his best not to make a sound as he followed Terrin’s directions, but his hands shook as he left jagged tears in the dealer’s flesh. The man cried out, begged with his broken voice, and Reyes couldn’t help it. He cried, quiet and resolute, and hoped the turian wouldn’t hold the tears against him.
“Reyes,” Terrin said from behind him.
He blinked. The cruel turian never called him by name, not once in the two years he’d followed in his shadow.
“Reyes.” Again, but this time the voice was softer. Feminine. “Reyes!”
A hand on his chest jolted him awake. He grabbed the wrist in a harsh grip, prepared to twist the arm attached to it if he had to. He blinked in the sudden darkness and then gazed around the room. Starlight filtered through the glass wall behind the bed, illuminating the sheets tangled around his hips and legs, and Sara’s pale face. She stared at him, her eyes wide and her lips parted, completely still.
He blinked at her, confused, until the haze of memory returned to him. The casita. They’d flown to the casita after she materialized in Tartarus. He blinked again and released his vicelike grip on her wrist as if her skin burned his palm. He rolled away from her as a wave of revulsion crashed over him, the fear in her eyes as she looked at him seared into his memory.
And then the headache caught up to him. Days of binge drinking, of staunchly refusing to be sober, had effectively kept the nightmares at bay. It had also allowed a hangover of extraordinary magnitude to build in his skull like a monsoon sweeping the desert.
Reyes flung himself from the bed and into the bathroom, and managed to reach the toilet just in time. He puked, his head threatening to burst with each heave, but even as his vision went white behind his eyelids, all he could see was Sara’s wide eyes and the jagged slices in his first victim’s skin. It took little imagination for the two images to overlap and flash into the Archon’s ship, Sara dead before him.
He stayed like that for a long time, until the vomit turned to bile and every inch of him screamed in exhausted pain. The touch of a cool, damp rag to his forehead startled him, and he flinched when he opened his eyes to see Sara kneeling beside him.
“Why are you here?” He asked. He hadn’t meant to verbalize the question, and certainly not in the accusing tone that fell from his lips. But, there was no energy left in him to try and take them back. Maybe if she was faced with the truth of him, here at his worst, she would realize how much better off she’d be without him.
Then he could go back to drinking himself to death in peace.
“Because you need help,” she said. “And you wouldn’t let anyone else near you.” She pressed the washcloth to his forehead and used one of his hands to keep it there. Then she stood and started the shower. “Come on, Vidal,” she said with false cheer, her hands on her hips. “You’re a mess.”
He snorted and groaned softly at the discomfort the sound caused him. She had no idea. But, even now, in the depths of his despair, he couldn’t tell her no. With her help, he stood and made his way into the shower. Conveniently, he was already naked, though he had no memory of getting undressed. The last he remembered was laying on the couch with his head in her lap, convinced it was all some elaborate dream.
A moment later Sara joined him, and despite the shivering ache in his very bones, he let his eyes wander over her body. It had been months since he’d seen her, felt the warmth of her skin under his hands. He wanted nothing more than to skim his palms over every inch of her, to reassure himself that she was real. But he couldn’t bring himself to touch her. He was tainted, steeped in blood and pain. He would not pollute her perfect skin with his filth.
However, Sara didn’t seem to notice his blemished soul. Or, if she did, she chose to ignore it. Instead, she set to the task of washing him. She started with his hair, using her own mint shampoo that still resided on the little shelf set into the shower wall. She massaged his scalp, taking her time to work the suds into his hair and soothe his headache. And then she moved on to his body.
Her fingers rubbed and scrubbed at his skin, and with each pass of her hands Reyes’ demons were called up and washed away in the stream of hot water and her soft words of reassurance. He listened to her, unwilling to face her in his darkest moment, and let her devotion absolve him.
In the little home he’d built for her, the home that held all his hopes and had housed his greatest heartbreak, Reyes was baptized in the force of her love. In the steam of the shower, he bowed his head and cried, and this time when she touched him, he did not pull away.
Chapter 6: Confessions
A/N: All right, just a little bit more emotional stuff and then on to the reunion smut!
Sara ignored his tears as she went through the motions of washing Reyes’ hair and skin. The steady drum of the water drowned out any sounds he made, and she found his quiet torment so much more devastating than if he’d sobbed openly. This was Reyes, the most controlled person she knew, and he stood before her, back bowed and hands over his face as he wept. She had never seen someone more broken, and only her own terrible fear kept her from breaking into tears of her own.
Once clean, she took a deep breath and reached around him to turn off the water. Reyes took a shuddering breath and scrubbed at his face. She made to pull her arm back from the tap, but he caught her arm with gentle fingers and held it before him. Already her skin had started to bruise where he had gripped her wrist.
“I’m sorry,” he said. His voice was so soft she hardly heard him over the drip of the shower head. He kissed her wrist with the lightest brush of his lips and released her.
She shrugged. “I knew better than to touch you, but you wouldn’t wake up.”
He nodded, but still didn’t turn to face her. She was desperate to know what demons lurked in his dreams, what had dredged them up and haunted him. But she knew if she asked he would simply shut down on her, even more than he already had. She stepped out of the shower, wrapped a towel around herself, then handed the other one to him.
He took it without looking at her. She suppressed the strong urge to sigh. Instead she asked, “how’s your head?”
“Is there a first aid kit here?”
He nodded again and pointed at the bathroom mirror. She pried at the edges of the large oval, and sure enough it pulled open to reveal a medicine cabinet. She rifled through the surprisingly well stocked supplies, and found the painkillers. She took the small cup from the sink counter and filled it with water from the tap, then she turned to watch him dry off.
Reyes had always been fit, if comfortably so. He was strong and unlikely to shy away from physical work, but he wasn’t vain, and as his role as the Charlatan solidified, his belly had lost some of its sharper lines. As Sara’s eyes roved over him, she was surprised at how thin he looked. His collarbones jutted out from his chest in hard angles that matched his cheekbones. And though she couldn’t quite see his ribs, he’d definitely lost the softness he’d carried in his torso the last time she’d seen him.
He looked hungry and wiry, like a creature that’d been caged for far too long.
He looked at her, amber eyes guarded, and turned his gaze to the floor when he caught her watching him. His shoulders hunched and he wrapped the towel around his waist, suddenly self-conscious.
“Here,” she said and handed him the water and the pills. “These should help.”
He took them, downing the painkillers and the entire glass of water in one go. She took the empty cup from him, returned it to the sink, and nodded. He looked a little better, though his skin still bore the pallor of nausea and his eyes were conspicuously flat when she looked into them. Sara considered him, visibly damaged and so uncertain, and any lingering anger she felt toward him melted away.
She went to him, slowly, but he didn’t try to evade her. She brushed his hair back from his forehead, and his eyelids flickered at her touch. “Come back to bed,” she said.
He nodded, but didn’t move. So, she took his hand and led him out of the bathroom and back to the oasis of their oversized bed.
His silence unnerved her. It was simply unnatural for Reyes to let the quiet go on so long between them, for him not to wink at her or make some innuendo as she dropped her towel to the floor and climbed under the covers before him. Instead he just watched her, his eyes dark in the frail starlight that filtered into the room, and blinked when she held the covers open for him to join her.
It took him a second, but Reyes finally crawled into bed and settled on his back beside her. Sara didn’t fail to notice the careful distance he left between them, but she ignored it and scooted closer to him until her head lay on his chest and her arm looped around his waist.
“Do you want to talk about it?” She asked after a long silence.
He stiffened beside her, and Sara was certain he would decline to give her the details, but then he exhaled. “It’s a recurring nightmare,” he said. His voice was low, rough from his tears and sore from being sick, but she caught them. “I haven’t had it in a long time, but these last few weeks…”
“Whatever you’re working on triggered it,” she said. She kept her words vague for the time being; if she pushed him here he would only shut her out.
She wanted to ask what he was working on, but didn’t think he was inclined to tell her just yet. So she opted for second best. “What’s the dream about?”
Stillness. Silence. Again, she thought he wouldn’t answer her, and again he surprised her.
“It’s a memory, from my time with the Suns.”
“Obviously a bad one,” she said.
He grunted. “There aren’t many good ones from that time.” He inhaled shakily. “It was my first lesson in interrogation… in torture.”
Her arm tightened around him, and she whispered his name at his ear.
“I became someone else that night,” he murmured. “Whatever was left of Reyito died, and the beginnings of the Charlatan replaced him.”
“Hey.” She used her fingers on his chin to convince him to roll over and look at her. “You are Reyes Vidal, grandson, son, brother. Boyfriend, lover, best friend.”
He watched her as she said it, but his eyes were guarded. He wasn’t ready to hear it. “Smuggler, crime lord, torturer,” he spat.
“And who have you tortured lately, besides yourself?” It was a risky question, but he obviously needed to talk about it. Plus, this sounded like big stuff. Stuff he shouldn’t be keeping from her, no matter what stupid terms they’d agreed to.
The fear behind his eyes told her he knew it, too. “I found Addison’s operative,” he admitted.
And there it was, the truth. When Addison said Brecka had gone missing on Kadara, her instincts told Sara that the Charlatan was responsible. Her heart had just been desperate enough to hope otherwise.
Her heart could be foolish, especially when it came to Reyes Vidal.
“Brecka,” she breathed.
Reyes closed his eyes at the name and nodded. When he opened them they were bright and shining in the dark. His hand found her hip and clung there, as if desperate to keep her from moving away. “I didn’t want to do it,” he said. His words were rushed, pleading with her to understand. “But he knew, Sara.”
Her stomach flipped and her throat constricted. “He knew what?”
The word was heavy, a gavel falling to condemn them both. Because that’s what it meant. Until that moment, Sara wasn’t sure how she would react to Reyes’ confession. She had known, deep down, that he had either ordered Brecka’s murder or committed it himself.
But, if Brecka truly knew everything, knew about their relationship, about Reyes’ role in the Collective, then what else could be expected? She had no illusions as to the Charlatan’s response to threats; he would remove them, swiftly.
And by all definitions, Vladimir Brecka had been an undeniable threat.
Sara closed her eyes and braced herself for what she was about to say. “Please tell me it was worth it.”
His fingers dug into her hip. “It was,” he promised, and for the first time, he sounded like himself, certain.
She inhaled and nodded. “Okay.” She wanted to ask what their next step should be, she wanted to leap into planning, but it was late. Plus, they both deserved a little peace, even if only until the morning.
“Okay?” He asked. “I just told you I tortured and killed a man and that’s all you have to say?”
She blinked at his anger; that wasn’t the reaction she’d expected. “Obviously I wish things could have been different, but you did what you had to.”
Reyes sat up suddenly, putting distance between them. A chill swept over her at the loss of his warm skin against hers.
“What have I done to you?” He asked, his head in his hands.
“Excuse me?” It was her turn to be angry.
“You shouldn’t be okay with this,” he said. “You’re good, the light in my shadows.”
She thought about that for a moment. It was true, Reyes lived a lot of his life on the dark edges of morality. Smuggling, stealing, torture, even murder. She had no doubts that he’d done it all; he had told her so himself. She sat up to wrap her legs and arms around him, giving him that which he would deny himself. Her warmth, her care and understanding. Her love.
“Remember when I called you in the middle of that interrogation?” She asked. It’d been a tipping point for their relationship, and though it’d only been about two years since then, it felt like a lifetime.
She rested her chin on his shoulder and felt the muscle in his jaw twinge. “Remember what I said afterward?”
He stiffened against her, unwilling to hear her, still so deep in his self-loathing.
She squeezed her arms around his chest. “I said, ‘I want all of you,’” she whispered in his ear. “I meant that, Reyes. I still do.”
“Why?” He asked, his voice ragged.
How could he expect her to put all of her feelings into words? Did he really think her feelings for him were so simple? They were complex and constantly growing, they’d outgrown her vocabulary months ago, when she woke up in that cargo bay to find his face smeared with her blood and his hands clinging to her chest. He’d brought her back to life, literally.
“Do you really have to ask?” She chuckled and nuzzled her nose into his neck, inhaling the metal and smoke smell of him. “You’re it, babe,” she said. “For better or worse.” She felt the tension lesson in his shoulders somewhat, and caught the hint of a tired smirk on his lips.
“You have terrible taste in men,” he said. It was soft, and though it was always a light joke between them, the words were heavy now.
She squeezed him again, this time with her legs. “Stop trying to convince me to break up with you,” she said,” and come to bed.”
He sighed. “What about Addison?”
She dragged him down onto the mattress to lay beside her. “We can figure out Addison in the morning,” she promised. They lay facing one another, Reyes’ hand on her neck, his thumb tracing her jaw, Sara’s fingers entwined in the hair at the back of his head.
“I missed you,” he whispered, after she’d thought he’d fallen asleep. “I lose myself without you.”
The words tugged at her heart enough to bring tears to her eyes. “Sleep, amor,” she said. “I’m not going anywhere.”
She didn’t know if she could keep that promise, but they could both believe it long enough to sleep. For Sara, it was the first night of dreamless sleep in months.
Reyes woke early, the sunrise cresting the peaks surrounding the casita and streaming pale orange light into the house. He blinked his gummy eyes for a moment, disbelieving of what he saw before him. Sara lay in his arms, her back pressed to his chest, the fragrance of her mint shampoo thick on the sheets.
It wasn’t a dream then, she really came for him.
Reality reasserted itself in the form of a feral headache behind his eyes, and the distinctly wrung out feeling of consistent dehydration. He was exhausted, a little queasy, and as he looked down at Sara, he couldn’t recall feeling quite as happy.
She was there, in bed with him in the house he’d built for her. He pulled her closer against him, pressing his nose to the crook of her neck and breathing deep. She smelled like mint and lavender and that distinct sun smell that was all her. Like she carried the desert in her skin.
She smelled like home.
Sara hummed and rubbed against him as she stretched in his arms. It felt so good that he was hard instantly. His hands had been bereft of her soft skin for far too long, his lips denied the taste of her had left him parched and desperate, like a man left wandering the badlands. He pressed featherlight kisses along the column of her neck, pulling a gasp from her lips.
He watched as she writhed against him, her eyes flickering open to reveal pupils blown wide with lust. With her lips parted, dark eyelashes fluttering against her cheeks, he savored the image. It had been too long since he’d last seen her wanting.
He trailed fingers down her side, swirling along her hip to skim across her belly. She inhaled sharply and the soft skin of her stomach tightened at his touch, making his cock twitch against her. Her hand coiled up to tangle in his hair as his own explored even lower, finding the soft curls of hair at the apex of her thighs.
“Please,” she breathed. “Oh, please.”
It took every ounce of his control not to give her what she wanted. He wanted to go slow, to cherish yet another reunion. Hopefully it would be their last; he didn’t know if he would survive being separated from her again. He ghosted his fingers up her thigh, guiding her to hook her leg over his hip, spreading herself for him.
He flicked the sheets off of them. How dare they keep her body from his sight? He let his eyes wander over her, drinking in her flushed beauty, her eagerness and need for him. She was perfect.
She gasped his name as his fingers found her most sensitive places, and the slick heat of her made him growl low in his throat. He wanted her now, and painfully so, but it had been too long. Once they started he wouldn’t last long. She deserved more than that, and he was determined to give it her her.
Reyes was diligent and methodical in his attentions. It had been months since he’d touched her, and he listened to her cries and moans, relearning what she liked best and savoring each of her sounds. Her grip on his hair tightened, her back arched as her hips rolled against him, and he kept his touch to light but persistent circles.
Sara gasped, the muscles of her stomach contracting as she curled in on herself and then straightened abruptly. She cursed, but the word broke off as her raspy voice gave out and her hips jerked arrhythmically. Reyes moaned, trailing his fingers so gently around the swollen nub of nerves, but did not actually touch it. He watched her as she came down from her climax, her cheeks flushed and her eyes blinking lazily.
Her hand released his hair and she rolled to face him, slinging one leg over his hip. She cupped his cheek and kissed him, soft and blissful. He lost himself in the familiar taste of her, the heat of her tongue against his, the press of her lips, the tug of her teeth. All of it combined to release the tension from his shoulders and let him forget about the last few months, of all the nightmares and fear. In that moment, his world did not exist behind the gravity of her mouth on his.
Which was why her hand on his shoulder took him by surprise as she rolled him onto his back and straddled his hips. Sara rolled her hips against him, brushing her wet heat against the tip of his erection to pull a growl from deep within Reyes’ chest.
She smirked down at him, her lips plump from their kissing, and held his eyes as she slowly settled onto him. Reyes groaned and struggled to keep his eyes open. Her eyelids fluttered and she licked her lips, her hips rolling gently in small circles so she could get used to the feel of him again. As she acclimated, her rolling turned to rocking and she rode him in increasingly longer thrusts.
He watched her, enraptured as she overloaded his senses; the mint of her hair mingled with the sweat and salt of their sex, the taste of her tongue still lingered in his mouth, and her little gasps brought a delighted chill to his skin. She consumed him, and it was the sweetest sin. His hands roamed over her, too desperate to linger anywhere too long. He had to touch all of her, feel her soft skin and the familiar scars and the fervent pulse in her throat.
She was alive and writhing above him, a sight worthy of songs, if only he could write them. Her hips maintained their rhythm, steady and unrelenting, making his blood sing. His hands settled at her waist, pressing her to him, and she gasped as she dropped to her elbows and ground her body against his.
He knew this look. Sara’s eyes were closed, eyelids flickering, and she had one corner of her lip pulled between her teeth. Her breaths came fast and irregular, like she forgot even to breathe as she sought out the wave of pleasure they both knew was so close. Reyes kissed her collarbone and let one hand trail up to tease one of her nipples. He smiled at her gasp, pleased with himself as her hips stuttered and she pushed against him even harder.
In the force of her orgasm, Sara lost her careful rhythm, but it didn’t matter. She trembled and shook, her body pulsing around him as she cried out, her hands digging into his shoulders. The pain of her nails digging into his skin coupled with the absolute perfection of her climax tumbled Reyes over the edge after her.
His hands returned to her hips as he thrust upward, a strangled groan on his lips and his world flashed white behind his eyelids.
When he came to again, Sara lay sprawled on top of him with her head tucked under his chin, their breaths synced as sweat cooled on their skin. He ran tingling fingers through her hair, massaging her scalp and tracing the new scar above her right ear. She took a shuddering breath and it took him entirely too long to realize she was crying.
“Princesa?” He asked, fear gripping his heart.
“Never again,” she said.
He cradled the back of her head, but she only nuzzled further into his neck.
“I will not separate myself from you ever again,” she said. It was a promise, a proclamation to the universe, and it set his soul at ease.
He tugged on her hair gently, and this time she looked at him. “Never again,” he said, and sealed the promise with a kiss.