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The Mask of the Jackal

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"Pathfinder?"

SAM's emotionless voice rang in her head.

She carried on moving.

"Pathfinder, you've been pacing now for five minutes," he continued, matter-of-factly.

"I have?" Ryder stopped immediately, glancing vaguely around her quarters.

"Your heart rate is elevated, are you in distress?"

Ryder moved towards the rail that lined the immense windows, leaning against it heavily. Outside in the vastness of space, a planet loomed, clad in vibrant oranges and greens, defiant of the creeping darkness that surrounded it. She tightened her grip on the rail, the coolness of the metal pleasant against her warm, clammy hands.

Ryder gazed at the distant planet. He was down there.

Barely cold, hours old images flashed through her mind. A warm steady hand clasping hers, gloved fingers sliding over her soft skin. A flash of a grin from a smile so brilliant it didn't belong in the recesses of Kadara port.

"Sara. If you do not answer me then I will have to call Dr T'Perro."

The same fingers later lightly brushing her cheek, tactilely tucking her loose hair behind her ear. Almond eyes trained on hers, a glint of something different in them this time, more heated than flirtatious desire. "I'm beginning to think that kiss was more than a distraction."

Ryder shook her head quickly, suddenly aware of her flushed cheeks and racing heartbeat.

"No SAM, I'm fine-"

"You do not seem fine, Sara."

"Perhaps I drank too much at the party," she answered quickly.

"Well, you did dance erratically on several tables."

Ryder sighed and rubbed her forehead as she sat on her bed, "Yes SAM I did."

"Asked a krogan for a piggyback."

"Also yes."

"And you sat in Sloane Kelly's throne," SAM continued.

"That too," she flopped back onto her pillows, still fully clothed.

"You're also lying to me. Although I cannot directly read your mind, your blood alcohol level is significantly lower than it was earlier, and your pulse quickened as you were talking."

Ryder closed her eyes, "Maybe I'm lying because I don't want to talk about it SAM?"

She did not say this unkindly, but firmly.

"I understand Pathfinder, I will leave you to your thoughts."

Sara frowned as she kicked off her shoes and tossed her jacket onto the floor before sliding between her bedsheets. She had never considered before, nor had she wanted to, the implications that her own emotions could have on SAM, least of all lustful, romantic feelings. Ryder imagined her father's love for her mother would likely have been stalwart yet aggrieved. The feelings she had for Reyes were different entirely, unrecognisable to the AI. They were almost unrecognisable to her.

"What about you? Why did you come here Reyes?"

"To be someone."

For the first time there was a softness in his voice, an honesty she had not expected. It broke her resolve.

"You mean something to me."

For a moment, Reyes had let down his guard. His eyes were wide, almost childlike, as though no one had spoken to him that way before. Then his lips curled as he purred his self-assured reply and pressed his lips firmly against hers. Her entire body had responded eagerly to his touch with sighs and shivers, arms twisting around his waist, lips parting.

Ryder groaned into her pillow, as she felt her traitorous limbs tremble at the memory. As soon as she had met him she had recognised the darkness buried beneath his wily charms. Ryder was not naive, she knew the type, she was not the sort of young woman whose knees went weak at a wink from a handsome man with a stylish haircut. Or she had never thought she was.

"He's dangerous" she murmured aloud into her pillow, as though this would somehow make this idea more concrete, as though to forbid herself from wanton thoughts of the smuggler. But try as she might she could not regret. Not the flirting, not the date, nor the burning kisses that still tingled one her lips. Ryder sighed loudly, placing her pillow over her face with a dramatic flourish.



She pulled away from him abruptly, and he stared at her, breathless, almond eyes bright. She trailed her thumb across the stubble that lined his chin until her hand rested on his collarbone. Sunset cast brilliant colours across the buildings below them, but neither of them noticed.

"SAM says I'm needed on the Tempest."

"Right now?"

"Soon."

His hand was resting against the small of her back, and he pressed her against him, their warm breath intermingling, and she felt her stomach twist once more. His face was so close to hers. The curl of his lips, the dark line of eyelashes that framed irises that blended from honey at the centre to deep brown at the edges.

"Ryder?"

A smile played at his lips as he ran his hand up and down her arm, drawing circles with his fingers.

"Stay a little longer…"

She kissed him, satisfied at the surprised yet satisfied 'mmf' she received in response.

"Ryder!"

He met her tongue with his, before nipping playfully at her bottom lip. She gasped.

"RYDER!"

Ryder jumped and slammed both her feet onto the pedals at her feet.

"Shit!"

She swerved the Nomad violently to the right but it was a few seconds too late. The left side of the vehicle impacted heavily into the flank of what looked to be a very large and very angry fiend.

"Hope you're ready guys!" Ryder exclaimed, her attention snapping back to reality with a jolt.

"Oh no not ag-" Jaal began as, cackling wildly, Ryder hammered her hand on a button on the dashboard and they were all ejected abruptly from their seats.

"Oh lighten up Jaal," Peebee shouted over the roars of the creature, landing effortlessly. With the grace only possessed by asari she pulled out her pistol as she landed, immediately aiming and firing at the exposed fleshy parts between the creature's skeletal-like carapace.

"It's not as bad as the time I ejected you into that crater on H-047C," Ryder replied as she landed, laughing. Scanning their surroundings, Ryder could see little in the way of cover on the endless stretch of sand. In a burst of blue light she jumped atop a large rock nearby, attempting to use the high ground against the creature as she fired down upon it with her Sandstorm.

"And you wonder why I don't like it!" Jaal called back. "Kallo had to fly down and extract me himself!"

"How did no one tell me THAT?" Peebee laughed, "Kallo has time to explain 99 ways to check if your ship has been fitted with Citadel certified thrusters, but he leaves out THIS?"

But the others were too distracted to reply. The fiend had lost interest in chasing Peebee and was now barrelling towards Jaal where he had taken cover behind the Nomad. If he didn't move quickly he was in danger of being crushed by it. At the last possible moment Jaal dodged to the side expertly, turning to land more shots on the exposed parts of the creature's back. Green blood oozed from its wounds, and it wasn't long before it laid motionless, defeated in the sand.

Ryder walked over to inspect it. Even in death, the teeth that were the length and width of Ryder's arm were still bared.

"This one looks even angrier than the others did, if that's possible," she mused.

Ryder glanced back at the two members of her team. Peebee had her hand on Jaal's shoulder, she placed the other hand on her heart in mock sincerity, "Jaal if you ever feel the need to talk about your traumatic experience in the crater, my shoulders are comforting and so is my-"

"Peebee get in the Nomad," Ryder cut across her, smirking.

"I was going to say so is my conversation, what did you think I was going to say?"

"Don't answer that question, Ryder," Jaal said, shaking his head.

"Alright, let's get going."

The trio made their way back towards the Nomad, wiping sweat from their brows caused by the relentless Eos sun, and brushing turgid green stains from their armour. Jaal paused to clear the sand which was jamming his rifle, muttering Angaran expletives that did not translate.

As Ryder reached the Nomad Peebee grabbed her arm, "Ryder, do you really think I would let that go?"

Ryder frowned, feigning ignorance, "Let what go?"

"Oh you know, just the little thing of sending us crashing into the jaws of a ten-foot beast that couldn't decide in what order to kill or eat my sweet little blue body?" Peebee replied, eyes gleaming.

Jaal glanced up from his rifle, "Not cold, Sara."

Ryder laughed, "Are you still taking those lessons on Milky Way slang from Liam, Jaal?"

"Well, now you mention it... yes."

"Maybe sign up for extra sessions?" Ryder raised an eyebrow.

"Stop deflecting!" Peebee poked Ryder's chest with her finger. "You totally spaced out on us! We were calling your name forever and you didn't respond!"

"Yes, it was… odd," Jaal added, leaning against the Nomad. His lilac flecked eyes looked concerned.

"Oh, that… I do that sometimes," Ryder waved them off, climbing inside the Nomad hastily.

She pressed her foot down on the accelerator, not waiting for her companions to fasten their seatbelts.

"No Ryder, you really don't… Hold on!" Peebee continued, her playful voice full of victory.

Ryder winced, she could perfectly visualise the wicked grin on her friend's face.

"What?" Jaal asked quizzically.

"You just wait until we reach Prodromos, Ryder!"



As soon as she got out of the Nomad, Peebee was on top of her, this time figuratively speaking.

"You went on a date last night didn't you, that's why you're so distracted," the grin Ryder had so accurately imagined in the Nomad spread across Peebee's face.

Ryder quickened her pace towards one of the curved buildings of the outpost, "I think August wants me-"

"A date?" Jaal frowned, keeping in step with them. "Really?"

"It's really not… How do you know anyway?" Ryder stopped retreating, folding her arms and turning to stare at Peebee.

"Oh Ryder, you're sweet. Everyone knows. Vidcoms aren't exactly discreet and neither is Kallo," Peebee continued, her expression resembling that of the Tempest's resident Pyjak the first time it ate a banana. To their left, Ryder saw Cora and Liam approaching, both perhaps wondering when they would be leaving Eos. Ryder found herself wishing they were on Elaaden instead then, at least, she could throw herself headfirst into a sinkhole.

"I'm going to kill that salarian!"

Ryder imagined throwing Kallo into the sinkhole instead, but it did not improve her mood.

"I didn't know… Vetra, did you know Ryder went on a date?" Jaal asked the turian, directing his question via the omni-tool on his wrist and through the Tempest comm.

"Of course I did," Vetra replied, immediately.

"Kid, even I knew that," Drack's voice drawled, "not that I'm particularly interested in who you squishies decide to… squish."

"Oooooh, I didn't even think about that! Did you get some action Ryder?" Peebee asked, grinning.

Ryder's complexion resembled a tomato that had been stood on, part embarrassment, part rage.

"Don't worry Jaal, I didn't know either," Liam had arrived with Cora, his face was carefully dispassionate, but the tone of his voice was uncharacteristically hard. Silence stretched for a few seconds. Even Peebee had the presence of mind to look a little rueful, her olive-green eyes looking towards the ground, the cerulean skin of her cheeks slightly pink. In contrast, Ryder's face had darkened past tomato so that it almost matched the deep red of her hair. She could feel Liam's intense gaze upon her, yet she could not bear to meet it with her own. Ryder wanted to tell Liam that she had been going to tell him. That she hadn't foreseen anything like this happening. That she hadn't really thought Liam had been that interested, even though his current demeanour suggested otherwise. That if she had known, she would've handled everything differently.

"Look, Reyes-"

"Vidal, really?" Liam cut across her. His usually kind eyes widened with shock then narrowed. The easiness which she liked so much about him was gone. "I've got some things to do on the Tempest."

He turned and walked away without so much as a backwards glance.

Ryder sighed before turning to Peebee angrily, "Are you happy?"

"Hey it was Jaal's fault, he announced it to everyone!" she deflected.

"I think I'll go with him," Jaal murmured, following Liam.

Cora, who had previously remained silent, her arms folded, spoke, "Well it's hardly surprising. The way you two were flirting, there were enough sparks to light a campfire. It was sweet, really."

"Peebee please resist the urge to make a joke about Reyes pitching a tent…" Ryder sighed, as she stalked off with the appearance of speaking to August, but in reality wanting to put as much space between herself and the conversation as humanly possible.

Peebee looked at Cora, "What's a tent?"



Ryder drummed her slender yet somewhat calloused fingers against her desk, swinging absent-mindedly in her chair. Her brow furrowed, she stared at the computer screen in front of her. Despite herself, she kept checking and rechecking her emails. There was nothing from Reyes.

"It's been 4 days since you last saw Mr Vidal, it might be wise to request an update on the situation in Kadara," SAM stated.

"Not now SAM…" she ran her fingers through her hair, teasing out the knots roughly.

With the help of Drack and Jaal, she had successfully established an outpost on Voeld that day and should be in high spirits, particularly as neither of them had breathed the words 'Kadara', 'Reyes' or 'Vidal' all day. Instead, she felt as conflicted as ever. She frowned again before she got to her feet decidedly and headed for the cockpit. After exchanging pleasantries with Suvi and Kallo, whom she had resigned to never confront about his loose tongue to save herself further embarrassment, she stood facing the galaxy map, hands on hips. She considered Kadara for several seconds. There was still the matter of Remi Tamayo, the turian ark, and other similar pressing concerns… With a surge of sudden defiance, she changed course, instead analysing the possibility of landing on the newest habitable planet they had found, Elaaden. She nibbled absentmindedly on her bottom lip, before she turned to Kallo and stated firmly, "New heading Kallo, Elaaden."
"At once, Pathfinder."

Deep in thought Ryder slid down the ladder to the lower part of the ship, turning to her left with the intention of visiting Jaal. The side of her face impacted unexpectedly with something hard, and as she stumbled backwards a hand grabbed her wrist, steadying her balance. As she looked up, Ryder discovered the something hard had been Liam's chin which he was rubbing with his other hand. She still half expected him to start laughing, the well-worn laughter lines around his eyes crinkling, the familiar light shining in his brown eyes accompanied by the careless energy that always seemed to exude from his very pores. Instead, he let go of her arm and moved to pass her without uttering a word.

"Liam-"

He didn't look back, "Leave it where it is, Pathfinder."



The last couple of nights had played out similarly. Ryder checked her emails to find nothing that excited her, that would distract her mind from her current conundrum. Then she would give in to thinking about Reyes and begin by listing all the reasons why any future entanglements with the smuggler were definitely a bad idea. The remainder of the time she then spent imagining what such entanglements might look like and very nearly obliterated all her previous reasoning from her head. Since coming to Elaaden however, there was one event in particular that had caused this, a thought that had then dug in like a thorn embedded in her finger. The fact remained though that if she was interested in seeing Reyes again, if she were to overlook the insistent, indignant creeping feeling she had that this was all a terrible idea, then it would have to be soon.

Ryder sat back in her chair letting her head roll back, her long hair falling in waves of scarlet. She closed her eyes.

He looked at her thoughtfully, more earnest than she had seen him before.

"What you said back there, about me being a better man. Thank you."

"You're welcome."

Ryder turned off all the lights in her quarters, stripped to her underwear, and laid on top of her covers. She took a deep breath and lifted her left arm.

"Hey, Reyes. you have a minute?" Ryder spoke into her omni-tool, which sent her voice call request immediately. She laid back, readying herself for minutes upon minutes of agonised tension when her omni-tool blinked brightly in the darkness. She tapped it quickly and Reyes' voice spilt, silken from it, "Hmmm… For you, of course. Although I must confess Ryder, I thought you'd forgotten about me."

Despite herself, she was already grinning.

"That's funny, I was beginning to think the same thing," she quipped back, effortlessly.

"Ryder, I'm beginning to worry about your memory. I thought I made myself clear enough the last time I saw you. I'm happy to give you a reminder next time you come to Kadara, I will ensure I am more vigorous next time so you do not forget…"

Her stomach tightened at the teasing tone in his voice, the implied meaning behind his words.

Trying to ignore the distracting images this brought forth, Ryder replied coyly, "I bet you say that to all your business associates."

For the first time his voice faltered, "Why Ryder you wound me! Why ever would you think such a thing?"

Ryder smiled, she had him on the back foot.

"I bumped into a turian today I believe you're familiar with, Velonia" she kept her tone laid-back, playful, as though she hadn't rehearsed this ten times in her head, "she was telling me that you have many…. associates." She emphasised the last word the same way he had the word 'vigorous'.

"Reyes knows everyone, some a little too well."

"Does that… bother you?" his voice was smooth and unreadable again. It made Ryder nervous.

"Should it?"

"Well, if I said that, apart from present company, in the last few weeks I have lost interest in meeting any new or old… associates for anything other than business… Would that make you feel better?" he continued in the same tone.

Ryder was suddenly very aware of the deep, rhythmical beating of her heart.

"I suppose it would if had bothered me to begin with…" Ryder's tone was as inscrutable as his.

Reyes laughed, "Is that so?"

"Would you like it if it did bother me?" Ryder grinned, she enjoyed playing him at his own game.

"Well, Ryder, you did wake me up at 3 in the morning to discuss this, so I think we both know it did," he replied, skilfully sidestepping her remark.

"What? It's 3 in the morning on Kadara? Were you asleep?"

"I usually sleep at night, yes." Despite the sarcasm, there was no hint of annoyance in his voice.

"Ah, I'm on Elaaden and there's no night time here, I didn't realise how late it was there. Sorry."

"It's fine… I'm glad you called Ryder, even if it is because you were jealous… My my, this is becoming something of a pattern, first with Zia, now this…"

"Oh shut up," Ryder smiled and even though he could not see her, it was apparent in her voice, "that's not why I called."

"I know. In truth I thought about calling you…"

"But you wanted me to call you first, didn't you? Reyes, is everything a power play with you?" For the first time, she allowed some vulnerability to show in her words.

"Not everything," he replied earnestly. He paused for a moment before continuing, "I'll make it up to you, promise."

"You say that a lot."

"Because it's true. When are you next coming to Kadara? I can prove it to you."

"Well, now you mention it I have concluded my business on Elaaden, and there are a lot of things that require my attention on Kadara…"

"So…?"

"I mean I was about to go to sleep… I could be there by the time I wake up…"

"I'll be expecting you then. Oh, and Ryder?"

"Yes?"

"You are lucky I am not there in person."

She frowned and sat up slightly, "Why?"

"Because if you had woken me up in the middle of the night," he spoke slowly choosing his words carefully, "and I was in your quarters and we were finally alone. You wouldn't be getting any sleep at all."

Ryder wanted to snap back with a clever retort but she was finding it very difficult to reply at all, as though her tongue was stuck to the roof of her mouth.

She gulped, "Oh..."

He laughed, his voice husky, and disconnected the call.

Ryder let her head fall back onto her pillow, her entire body felt hot.

She let out a long deep breath and closed her eyes, "... Shit."