Chapter 1: Distractions
Ryder is distracted from her Pathfinder duties due to a certain smuggler.
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."
"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."
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.
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.
He met her tongue with his, before nipping playfully at her bottom lip. She gasped.
Ryder jumped and slammed both her feet onto the pedals at her feet.
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.
"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.
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."
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.
"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…"
"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?"
"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."
Chapter 2: Anubis Rising
Ryder is forced to make a difficult choice, one that will haunt her forever.
It felt like her body was burning, Uncontrollable, the blue haze of her biotics glowed at her fingertips. Ryder's muscles were taught, her fists clenched, nails cutting into her palms.
"All this time you've been lying to me!"
It all made sense now. Investigating the Roekaar murders, the advice he gave her about Sloane, why Reyes had been missing when she reached Tartarus that morning. All the seduction and the half-truths had led to this. Incensed, she glared at him, her intense blue eyes glowing like the hottest part of a flame.
"Not about everything. You know who I really am."
It meant nothing. Less than nothing.
Ryder could hardly focus as Sloane and Reyes eyed each other, wolves fighting over a carcass, the carcass being Kadara port. It felt as though time was moving past her, leaving Ryder a statue, frozen, encased in shock. As the pair discussed a duel she interjected, "You want to avoid war by shooting at each other?"
"Two people shooting each other is better than a lot of people shooting at each other."
"I'll take those terms."
They began circling. Feeling useless, Ryder stepped backwards. She wasn't sure what her role was supposed to be. She had given Sloane her word she would watch her back, yet every time they had spoken previously, her every syllable had dripped with derision and contempt for the Pathfinder, the Initiative, and everything she stood for. On the other hand, Reyes had lied and manipulated her so easily that she was finding it difficult to discern whether any of his actions were sincere.
"Not everything is about credits."
Reyes, the Charlatan, moved so he was parallel to her and Sloane. A metallic glint caught Ryder's eye. She realised it was a sniper before SAM alerted her, her eyes widening in surprise. Instinctively, Ryder opened her mouth to call out to Sloane, her limbs were primed to push her aside, to protect her. It was the right thing to do, as natural to her as breathing. But something held her back. A small, reprehensible, desperate thought; if she saved Sloane, then there would be nothing to stop her gunning down Reyes. Unbidden, her mind took her back to the Kadara rooftop where they had sat seven days ago, the expression on his face when he had thought she couldn't see him. Not charming, not deceitful, not the Charlatan. That small glimmer of something genuine, good in him, was that enough to sentence someone else to a certain death? If today had proved anything it was that she hardly knew him, so why did the image of him on the ground, gasping for breath, bleeding profusely make her chest contract so painfully? In the end it didn't matter, she did not have time to settle on the right course of action. Her hesitation proved fatal for Sloane, and Ryder watched passively as the Outcast leader fell into the dirt after the bullet pierced into her armour and through her heart.
"Bang," Reyes stood over Sloane's body, regarding her dispassionately.
Ryder stared at Sloane's body, not able to fully comprehend what she had done. Reyes began shouting orders as a dozen or so Collective members scuttled out of their hidden positions around the cave.
It was only when Vetra's firm fingers enclosed her arm, that Ryder came to her senses.
"Are you okay, Ryder?" the turian asked, her perceptive gaze trained on her.
Ryder glanced first at Vetra then Cora. Se had almost forgotten they were there.
"I'll meet you back at the Tempest."
Cora stepped towards her, speaking loud enough that others around could hear, "Absolutely not, we'll wait for you at the mouth of the cave."
They exchanged a look that said more than words could; admonishment, support, caution. Then Ryder turned to follow Reyes, who was looking in her direction as though waiting for her. She fell into step with him as he passed through a tunnel into a separate part of the cave.
"Guess you got everything you wanted," Ryder muttered, the bitterness she felt apparent in the tartness of her words.
"What I want is peace. Sloane would've brought war to Heleus. We don't have the population to survive that."
His answer was immediate, simple, emotionless.
"Peace? You expect me to believe that was your motivator?" Ryder replied, sceptically, as a sour taste burnt at her mouth.
They were alone now. This part of the cave opened out, high above the badlands. Wind whistled through the crags in the rock.
"Why didn't you trust me?" she asked, stricken and unable to contain the question any longer.
Ahead of her, Reyes stopped walking. Every movement he had made and word he had uttered since he had revealed himself had been carefully assured, certain. Now it was as though he was hesitant to look at her, like a little boy that had been caught watching vids late into the night. He turned and a ray of light from a crack on the ceiling above him shone onto his face.
"I liked the way you looked at me. I was afraid that would change."
Although his face was held taut, the expression in his eyes was soft, far softer than usual.
"I can't imagine you being afraid," she replied, an edge to her voice. Before he could speak she moved towards the exposed part of the cave, standing at the cliff's edge and looking out at the dry, arid land, the steep, impossible bluffs and peaks. There was something beautiful about the harsh environment, untamable yet so full of potential. It was far easier to focus on this than her present company. She didn't want to look Reyes in the eyes, if there was more deception there she didn't trust herself not to throw him over the edge.
"You don't believe me?"
Footsteps confirmed he was moving towards her, and she span around to face him, "I knew you were a shady bastard but I never expected this... I trusted you."
He stopped centimetres away from her. A single strand of raven black hair had fallen from its careful parting, an accidental but attractive addition as it invited being swept back into place. Involuntarily, her eyes travelled over his face as she took him in in a way she had been avoiding since his true identity was revealed. Beneath strong cheekbones his lips curved as though he was perpetually considering doing something mischievous, his bottom lip slightly fuller than the top and achingly biteable. The long slope of his nose was almost perfectly, annoyingly straight, separating eyes with honeyed depths that glinted with the everpresent promise of something more. Her pulse quickened, and she could almost feel herself relenting. It was as though this man had been made to test her. But this made his betrayal burn all the more.
"The party, the emails, the flirting, all just so you could get to Sloane," she snapped, "anything to give you an edge over her. You used me."
"Ryder, Sara, that's not true…
It was the first time he had called her by her first name. Ryder could think of a thousand different situations that would have been better moments than this one. At least 7 of those situations currently involved Reyes slowly being eaten by an eiroch, but an alarming number still involved scenarios that would make her blush if she allowed herself to focus on them.
"I may have been misleading you about my identity, about my intentions for looking into the murders. I didn't say it was about undermining Sloane. But with my intentions towards you, it was different."
Reyes reached out to grab her arm. Without warning, her biotic barriers flared up instinctively and his arm recoiled as though he had been given a static shock. He winced, clutching at his hand momentarily, grunting in pain.
She ignored him, anger burning through her hotter than the Kadaran sun, "How can you expect me to believe you? That you can't still gain from this? I'm sure a Pathfinder's leverage is worth a lot on Kadara."
She knew immediately that she had struck a nerve. He turned away, talking a few steps towards the tunnel through which they had come. For a restless moment, she thought he was going to leave. He stopped, shoulders rigid, his reply coming through gritted teeth, "That's low, Pathfinder."
Ryder took a breath, trying to calm herself, surprised that what she had said seemed to have hurt him. For some reason, it felt easier talking to him whilst his back was turned.
"Look, I let Sloane die because of you. It goes against everything that I am supposed to be as a Pathfinder…"
Reyes turned around, his dark eyebrows knitted together, "You hated Sloane."
"That doesn't matter, I said I would protect her," Ryder was twisting her fingers into knots and looked down at them rather than facing the indignation in his face.
"I don't regret killing her, and I'm certainly not going to apologise for it," he replied, testily.
"I know you don't, I'm not asking you to," she glanced back up at him, her blue eyes met his brown ones. "It's just I let her die because I didn't want you to get hurt, or worse."
A look of slight bewilderment crossed Reye's face before he quickly masked it, his voice regaining its usually velvety tone, "You know I would never have let that happen."
She shook her head.
Gingerly, she reached out for his hand and was relieved when he didn't pull it away. Pulling off his glove, she noticed his hand was rough, a myriad of scars adorning his fingers. Inspecting the skin of his fingertips, she saw there were blackened slightly where they had met her barrier.
"I'm sorry. I didn't do it on purpose. My biotics have been a little unpredictable lately, this happens sometimes."
"Like a defence mechanism? Like an… erizo?" he grinned with the familiar smile she was so fond of.
"A hedgehog, Pathfinder," SAM interjected.
"Reyes Vidal, are you comparing me to a rodent?" she replied, incredulously.
"A prickly, angry one? Yes."
She tossed the glove in his face, trying her best not to return his smile even though the corners of her mouth were twitching.
He reached up, pushing strands of hair out of her face, "Cute one though."
This agitated the frenzied fluttering sensation in her chest and Ryder could feel the situation slipping from her control as if it were corporeal, physically in her hands.
He was maddening.
She studied his face carefully, "You said you were afraid, well I was… am afraid that I made the wrong decision, that you're not the man I thought you were."
"Well, who did you think I was?" though his face fell, lips a firm line, his eyes remained curious.
She thought for a moment, "The man that told me honestly why he came to Andromeda, that liked me calling him a better man. The man that woke up to talk to me at 3 in the morning."
"What I said before about you knowing who I really am… It was true. That was all me, no lies." He thought for a moment, "And for the record, I didn't know when I talked to you last night that we'd be moving on Sloane so soon, my operatives on the inside saw an opening."
Ryder frowned, "Would you have told me not to come?"
"No, it's better now you know. Even if it changes things."
She regarded him thoughtfully, eyes tracing over the lines of his face when she thought she caught a whisper of apprehension in his eyes.
Irresistibly, her eyes were drawn to his lips and she breathed, "Nothing's changed."
As though this was what he had been waiting for, Reyes stepped forward quickly.
"You have bad taste in men" he muttered, slyly.
In response Ryder stepped back automatically, heels colliding with the cave wall. Reyes placed his hand against the wall next to her head, kissing her so abruptly it took her a moment to react. She broke away from him, her blue eyes alight. She could feel his disappointment, the reluctance of his limbs to pull away from hers.
She had to stand on her tiptoes to whisper sultrily in his ear, "The worst."
He grinned and pushed her back against the wall. Her breath hitched at the sudden contact before his lips were on hers once more. It was different from the other times they had kissed. Above the streets of Kadara, he had kissed her softly, slowly, his fingers stroking her neck before tangling in her hair. He had taken his time, she realised, every press of his lips against hers was careful, considered. Only when she let out a long, ardent sigh had he deepened the kiss, pulling her close into his chest. This time his lips burnt against her skin with surprising firmness. Impatiently, he stroked his thumb down her lips so they parted, his tongue brushing against hers fervidly.
The first time they had kissed it had been a distraction, the second had been an invitation, this time it was about possession. He wanted to make her his.
His body was pressed so closely against hers she could feel the warmth of his skin through his clothes. Exhilarating, the distinct scent of his aftershave sent adrenaline firing through her system as it brought back a multitude of recollections; their firefight with the Roekaar, the first time she had seen him, his shock when she kissed him for the first time. She ran her hands up his back, one smoothing over the shaved hair along his neckline before twisting into his hair. Slowly he ran his hand down from her neck, only slightly brushing the side of her breast, to settle on her hip where his fingers clasped restlessly. At the same time, he slid his tongue softly against hers, teasing, torturous, repeating the same motion yet deepening it over and again. In response she entwined her arms around him, pressing herself against him so he could feel the lines of her body curve into his. This elicited a rumble of approval from his throat, and he spoke between kisses, "Ryder, I don't know if I should be relieved or disappointed that you have on armour right now."
She pulled away from him slightly to steal a look at his face. She smirked, "What if I was wearing nothing at all?"
Reyes chuckled, voice lower than usual, "Don't tempt me."
He leant forward to kiss her again, lips almost on hers then-
"Charlatan, sir we… Oh…"
Reyes' head snapped back and he pushed himself away from the wall, staring at a young salarian who looked as though he would very much like to walk off the cliff face. He nearly dropped his pistol when he found both the Charlatan and the Pathfinder staring at him, both looking disgruntled. It didn't help that Reyes' hair was sticking up at the back, and Ryder's mouth and chin were red with stubble burns.
Reyes cocked an eyebrow, "Yes?"
"I didn't know you were busy sir, I…"
"What is it?" There was a note of frustration in his voice.
"Sorry, I err, oh, I was just going to inform you we're heading for the port with the rest," he shuffled his feet uncomfortably.
"Very well, I'll expect your report later."
The salarian nearly tripped over his own feet in his haste to leave.
"Bye!" Ryder called after him, cheerfully.
Reyes sighed, leaning against the wall, "I suppose I should go and see to my end of things."
He looked almost petulant.
"That's disappointing," she smoothed out his collar before combing his hair back into place, "I wasn't done with you yet."
His eyes glinted wickedly. "Is that so?"
She kissed him, positioning her hips very precisely so they rested tantalisingly against his. Tipping his head gently to the right deftly with the tip of her finger, she moved her lips to the hollow of his cheekbone and down his neck before nipping at the skin just above his collarbone. The resulting sigh made her grin.
"Ryder-" he began.
"Err, Ryder. Are you okay? We've been waiting here for a while," Vetra's voice asked hesitantly over the comm, loud enough for Reyes to hear.
"I'm fine, give me a minute," she responded, crisply.
As she disconnected the comm she buried her face in his chest, letting out a cry of frustration. Reyes laughed, "It's probably for the best." He tipped up her chin so he could see her, "You really are something else, Ryder…"
"I'll come by tomorrow to talk outpost?" she asked, extricating herself from his grasp and moving to leave.
He grabbed her hand pulled her into one last kiss. He muttered breathlessly, "And finish where we left off."
Chapter 3: An Unfathomable Delight
Ryder visits Reyes to discuss the establishment of a new outpost, amongst other things...
Some direct quotes are used because these bits are written so damn well by the wonders at Bioware, but there's the odd amendment where I felt it necessary for the character (Ryder). Things should start taking a bit of a turn from here, more action is coming (promise), but I wanted to really establish how Ryder reacted to things such as Sloane's shooting etc. to give a bit of background.
Thanks for the Kudos so far, you will never know how much it is appreciated.
Bleary-eyed, Ryder sat yawning at her desk with a steaming cup of tea and a thumping headache. Her encounter with Reyes and Sloane the day before hadn’t been her only endeavour. She’d thrown herself into sorting some of Kadara’s many issues, which included extricating bodies from pools previously containing acid, and finally dealing with the anti-AI terrorist organisation that had tried to kill SAM. The way her head was pounding suggested she had perhaps pushed herself too hard, but it didn’t matter. She wanted Kadara as safe as possible for a new outpost. Rubbing her temples, she flicked lazily through her inbox. It was full of bullshit from the Initiative higher-ups, praise from various civilians who enthused as they took their first steps on new worlds, as well as the odd insult from angaran objectors. One caught her eye, however, with the subject ‘You know…’. She smiled as she read it.
From: Reyes Vidal
It’s hard to focus with all these flashbacks to a certain cave.
I blame you.
It wasn’t the first time she had felt herself grinning at memories from the previous day. If she hadn’t been so fatigued when she finally clambered into bed the night before, she suspected she would have lain awake half the night to recollections of a certain pair of hands caressing her body, imagining the fingers that had run over her back stroking bare skin instead, before sliding between her thighs. Unfortunately, such thoughts did not come without a nagging sense of doubt. She had knowingly and callously watched a woman die, someone that she had given her word that she would defend, then made out with her murderer in the very same cave, her deceitful pirate… boyfriend? Lover? She didn’t know what they were. When she thought about it now she was alone, it all seemed utterly disrespectful, loathsome even. Not something that Sara Ryder, Pathfinder, best in class, terrible liar, would do. However Reyes’ presence was intoxicating, it made her feel reckless, wild. A dark, hidden part of her revelled in it.
“Pathfinder, Liam is waiting outside your quarters,” SAM stated, in his usual monotonous way.
“He is?” Ryder asked surprised.
Quickly, she grabbed a hair tie from her desk, sweeping most of her hair back in a ponytail save for the spirals of her long fringe. She smoothed over the bedsheets that she hadn’t long since got out of, kicking her underwear from the day before under the bed. She grabbed a book, an odious looking tome she had taken from her father’s office on the Hyperion, and sat back in her chair.
“Let him in SAM.”
The door made a swishing sound as it opened.
“Ryder, I was wondering if you have a minute?”
She looked up from the book effortlessly, as though she hadn’t been dashing around in the moments previous, “Of course, although I must admit I’m pleasantly surprised to see you.”
Liam was all business, arms folded, eyes stony. Ryder still found it discomfiting to see him this way, so far removed from his usual even-tempered manner.
“Well, you might change your mind on that one.”
She stood up placing the book on her desk. She wasn’t sure why she stood up, but it seemed the sort of conversation that you stood up for.
“What is it?”
“Look, I heard what happened with Sloane and Vidal yesterday. I know you probably think I’m just jealous,” he avoided her eyes, “and maybe I am a bit. But I’m worried about you, it’s not like you to do something like this.”
She gulped. There was a lump in her throat, heat was rising in her face, “I don’t know what you mean.”
“Yes, you do. You let Sloane die, you’re better than that Sara, way better,” Liam responded, too discerning for her deception.
She gripped the edge of the desk behind her, before she said tentatively, “I don’t know what you want me to say.”
“I want you to say you’ll do better, that you haven’t forgotten who you are just because you’ve fallen for someone who’s bad news.”
With anybody else, she would’ve become angry and defensive. A frown darkened his attractive features but there was no trace of animosity there, only concern. She found herself thinking of when they’d first come to Heleus and found consolation in each other, trying to drown out the loss, suffering and turmoil.
Ryder wished the burning in her cheeks would subside, “How do you know that I’ve fallen for anybody?”
“It’s fairly obvious,” he replied, “and it’s fine, it really is. What isn’t fine is if you let it change you.”
He held up his hand, “Just think about it, okay?”
She nodded. The fact that he had spoken to her so softly, without anger, made her feel all the more ashamed. Far more than this, the look of disappointment in his eyes stung far worse than any of his words.
He turned to leave and she found herself calling out to him without thinking, her hand grasping for his, “Liam.”
He stopped and looked back, eyes widening, “What?”
“I… I’m sorry. I hate that I’ve let you down,” she was suddenly very aware of how soft is skin felt on hers, remembering how gentle those fingers could be, “I hope you can forgive me.”
For the first time in days he smiled at her, the sight warmed her skin like the morning sun.
“Sara I am always here, it’s just that means here for you, not this other Ryder I don’t know,” he squeezed her hand before letting it go. “Let me know if you need me out on Kadara.”
She stared after him, dumbfounded as to why his good opinion meant quite so much to her.
Hours later Ryder found herself in front of Keema Dohrgun in what had previously been the Outcast’s HQ.
“If you’re looking for the Charlatan he’s not here.”
She proceeded to explain that an angaran face had seemed the best front for the Collective leadership in Kadara, and that she had happily obliged, even helping Reyes along in the process of displacing the former ruler of Kadara. Keema did indeed look very happy with herself; cigar held aloft in her hand, leant back in Sloane’s throne, her triumph apparent in her relaxed body language. All Keema needed were some barely clothed concubines astride her seat, or a cat with a squashed, angry looking face perched on her knee, and she would be the very picture of a villain from the many vids Liam had sent Ryder. Although it made her slightly uneasy, Ryder smiled slightly at the thought.
“I told him to tell you earlier, but he was worried about what you’d think. It was adorable really.”
Ryder’s newfound distaste for the angaran lessened slightly.
“Reyes, adorable?” she had wanted her tone to sound sceptical, but Ryder couldn't conceal the hopefulness in it.
Keema continued as she breathed out a thick plume of purple smoke, “Don’t let all the bravado fool you, I’ve known Reyes for some time and I’ve never seen him like this before.”
Ryder wanted to say more but decided not to press the subject, “I’ll leave you to your… work. Thanks for your time Keema.”
“Pleasure as always Pathfinder.”
Ryder strode through the doors and back out to Kadara port. The familiar neon lights cast rays of pink and blue across many of the same faces, the same nefarious dealings were being made in darkened corners. The only obvious difference was that the guards dotted at intervals wore the mark of the Collective, not the Outcasts. Ryder couldn’t help but feel that eyes were watching her, whether this was because they knew she had a hand in Sloane’s downfall, or that she had the Collective’s protection, she wasn’t sure. She snorted with derision, she had long since passed needing anyone’s protection, not since before she had broken one of the plates of the biggest bully at her school, a Krogan called Kren. She was 14 at the time. Ryder made for the dock and, by extension, Tartarus.
Lost in thought, her feet led her automatically through the bustling docks towards the Tempest. Her ship was certainly the most impressive, as the largest and most advanced, and it was the only visible Initiative presence. Although the port was small, there were hundreds of vessels crammed in, organised in haphazard rows with little room to negotiate between them, making landing and takeoff difficult and causing endless arguments about chipped paint and damaged shields. Most ships were no bigger than two-man cruisers, many in various states of disrepair after having had to negotiate the scourge, scavengers and kett. Some had been crudely modified with additional weaponry, contorting the vessels into odd shapes, adorned in mismatched colours, a sea of browns, greys and whites. Between them bustled exiles making repairs and loading cargo, with Collective operatives visibly scrubbing away Outcast symbols that had been spray painted onto wing tips and hulls, replacing them with their own. As ever there was an abundance of homeless in the area, of all races, equipped with numerous signs with different messages but all invariably asking for free passage off-world, essentials like food or water, and most prevalently credits. Ryder paused as she passed a little human girl, sat alone next to a burnt out fighter. Her dark hair was long, an endless sea of knots. The old Initiative uniform she wore was dirty, off-white, wherever there was a cuff there was a tear, a seam unwinding. Her feet were bare, blackened and unwashed.
Ryder held out a hand to her, speaking softly, “Hey. I’m Ryder, but you can call me Sara if you like…”
The girl stared at her, large eyes wide and frightened. Before Ryder could stop her the girl set off at a run.
She made chase, winding between clamouring street merchants, squeezing between ships, tripping over loose cargo. It was to no avail as Ryder lost her almost instantaneously amongst the bustle of the port, like a small rabbit in a vast warren of tunnels. Ryder sighed, taking a moment to catch her breath before continuing on to the Tempest.
Usually whenever she visited Tartarus she was dressed in armour, ready for the wonderous desolation of the Kadaran badlands. This time however, she was only visiting Reyes and surely wouldn’t be needing it. That morning she had picked her outfit carefully and much more selectively than usual. Tight jeans, boots, a leather jacket tossed over a low cut vest. All black, just like the thick eyeliner that curved over her eyelids and formed wings at the edges. The only brightness of colour was her lips, the violent red complimenting her hair. It seemed a shame to change. Instead, she made a quick stop to the Tempest’s armoury to pick up her pistol, pairing it with the vintage leather holster she’d bought back on Earth; highly impractical but much more discrete. Before she left, she made a stop at the cargo bay, the girl playing on her mind.
Liam was tinkering with the Nomad, a quizzical look on his face.
“You okay?” she asked, watching him, a hand resting on her hip.
He stopped abruptly, “Just looking at that dent you made when you went smashing into that fiend, now I have time. Should bend right back out… How did you manage it?”
“Oh you know…” she laughed awkwardly. “Anyway, I just wanted to ask you something, really quick. In HUSTL you must have responded to disasters involving children, maybe where they were orphaned?”
He grimaced, “Unfortunately, yeah, lots. Why?”
“I never really realised… I’m worried about children on Kadara. There aren’t many but there are exiles whose children were released from cryo, whether they pulled strings or not, it doesn’t matter. I saw a girl today, she was homeless, it looked like she was on her own. She can’t be the only one, I’ll bet there are angarans too,” she spoke sadly. “This place swallows people up, and they get left behind...”
He looked at her thoughtfully, “I never really considered it before now, it’s weird because you so rarely see kids out here you forget…” He rubbed his chin, “You’re right. But first you have to look at the bigger problem, all those people out there with nowhere to go, no homes, no food. Once you have an outpost, I could look at getting something set up. You might have to okay it with Vidal though.” She thought she saw a shadow pass over his face as he said the name, but it could have been her imagination.
She nodded, “Thanks Liam, I’ll see what I can do when the time comes.”
As she turned to leave he called her name. She looked back at him.
“Ryder… Wherever you’re going, keep your guard up.”
She folded her arms, “And why should I need to do that?”
“You look…” He swallowed, clearly unable to select a suitable adjective. From the intensity of his gaze, she could guess at his meaning, ”You might attract some attention that’s all.”
She smiled, “I’ll keep my shields up.”
As Ryder made to leave the Tempest, she bumped into Cora in the cockpit.
“No need to ask where you’re going dressed like that,” Cora gave her a half smile, “be careful, Ryder.”
Ryder rolled her eyes, “Why does everyone keep saying that?”
Peebee wolf-whistled, leaning out of her room which was adjacent to the cockpit.
She cheerfully added, “Being careful is no fun! I expect details this time Ryder, y’know positions.”
Ryder checked her gun, grinning, “You can have them, as long as you promise not to tell Kallo anything.”
She had learnt from last time it was far worse to resist their teasing.
“Why you think I’d be interested, I don’t know!” Kallo cried indignantly, but he whispered in an undertone as she left, “But you’ll tell me won’t you, Suvi?”
Ryder dusted off her jacket, “How do I look SAM?”
She ran her fingers through the curls of her ponytail, hoping it had remained presentable, the humidity made her hair as lawless as the rest of Kadara.
“Pathfinder, I’m not really equipped to make that kind of assessment.”
“I know SAM, I’m teasing you.”
Ryder stepped through the doors of Tartarus, pausing for a moment to allow her eyes to adjust to the gloom. Similar to the rest of the port, the club appeared altogether unaltered despite Kadara’s radical change in leadership. Dancers still twisted seductively behind bars and on poles, the clientele looked just as treacherous as before; krogan with battle scars longer than her arms, asari who acted superiorly but secretly revelled in the chaos, and lost, wayward angarans. As she reached the top of the stairs, a bellowing drunk turian was roughly dragged out of her way by what appeared to be a Collective agent, an asari who simply nodded at her. It felt… thrilling. Even as Pathfinder she was never afforded such deference. Despite all her exertions, all her achievements, the 3, nearly 4 outposts that would not have stood without her, the deactivated Remnant architects that spiralled above Eos and Veold, the goodwill and alliances she had secured through meetings with angarans, the exiles, the lost krogan, Ryder was still often second-guessed by the Initiative leaders, with Tann seeking to command her as though she was some puppet after his attempts at flattery and coercion had failed. Ryder strove to carve out an existence in Helius for every being they had brought with them, without question, without pause, without… reward. It was exhilarating to be finally be given some recognition.
Then she remembered something her father had said, when she had asked him what being a Pathfinder meant and he had replied, in an uncharacteristically poetic way,
“To be the North star; the guiding light, the promise of home, the ambassador for those we left behind.”
She had given him a look that was a mix of awe and surprise and he had added ruefully, “I had to come up with something to inspire others to apply for the role. Of course, I had to change the North Star to the brightest star in the sky for the other alien races, as well as some of the other wording because it didn’t translate exactly into…”
“Dad, don’t run the magic,” had been her response.
Almost as soon as it had formed, the nostalgic smile dropped from her face as she was filled with shame. As she reached the doors to the backroom Reyes often occupied, she paused. She was not, as Vetra had asserted, the Queen or Baroness or anything of Kadara. She was the Pathfinder and should act as such, she had already done enough to sully the name of it. Ryder wavered for a time, unsure if she should scuttle back to the Tempest and converse via email with Reyes instead, to push down her desires, disallow herself any further trysts with the Charlatan. But even as she thought it she knew that it could not be so, knew it by the way her body ached when she thought about him, the skip of her heart whenever his name was mentioned. She would allow herself this one wicked pleasure, this one selfish reward for her efforts, keenly aware that a Pathfinder really should need no reward at all. She sighed and typed a command in her omni-tool, collected herself, and breezed through the doors as though nothing were amiss.
As she walked in his head snapped up reflexively. When he realised it was her, he flashed her an alluring grin, subsequently pushing all thoughts, guilty or otherwise, out of her head.
She smiled back at him as his eyes travelled up her body. If anyone else looked at her like that, she’d break their arm.
“Reyes.” She sat down on the corner seat diagonally from him and leaned forward. “I thought you’d be in the throne room. Tartarus is a little shabby for Kadara’s new leader, don’t you think?”
He was sat, cocksure as always, reclining, elbow resting on the back of the seat. The only difference she noted this time was that the flight suit he usually wore was tied at his waist, exposing the white t-shirt he wore underneath. Beneath the seam on his left arm, she could see black lines that marked the beginnings of a tattoo, but she couldn’t quite work out what it was.
“Come on Ryder, you know I prefer to rule from the shadows.” He took a swig from his glass, from the amber colour she surmised it was whisky. “Shall we get the business out of the way?”
He sounded impatient.
“Where’s my drink first?” Ryder pouted, mockingly.
“Aren’t you on the job?”
“Never stopped me before.”
“I don’t want to be a bad influence on you.”
“Aren’t you always?”
He laughed, “Ryder, I can’t imagine anyone making you do anything you don’t want to.”
The door opened and Kian Dagher entered carrying a tray with a single glass full of dark liquid. He passed it to her, “There you go sweethear- I mean Pathfinder.”
“Perfect, thank you.”
She smiled at Reyes innocently and took a sip.
As Kian left, Reyes frowned at her with the pretence of being offended, “Were you just trying to gouge me for an extra drink?”
“Perhaps, and to see if it’s true that you never pay your bar tabs.”
He coughed and swiftly changed the subject, “Anyway... With Sloane gone there’s room for the Initiative on Kadara.”
Ryder nodded, suddenly formal again, “I’ll start rounding up volunteers for an outpost. Might take a while… you exiles have a reputation.”
“Not all of us are thieves and murderers. I am, but some of the others are perfectly nice.”
She nodded, “Perfectly… Until you actually have to interact with them in any way.”
Although she kept her tone light and mirrored his humour, his words only reminded her of their joint culpability over what had befallen Sloane.
Unexpectedly serious he continued, “Jokes aside, I want this outpost to work as much as you do. It’ll have my full protection, I promise.”
She thought carefully about how to respond, tongue sliding over her teeth.
“I’ll hold you to that you know,” Ryder looked him in the eyes, as though probing them for a genuine response.
“I know,” he maintained her gaze. “I won’t let you down.”
Her eyes didn’t leave his, “I hope not.”
“If we’re done with all the boring business talk, there is something I want to do,” Reyes smiled mysteriously, the glimmer in his eyes provoking a familiar heat in her navel.
“You’re up to something. Again,” she replied flatly, as though his words hadn't had any affect on her.
Reyes tapped his omni-tool, and slow piano music began to play.
He held his hand out to her, “I neglected you on our first date. How about we fix that?”
She took it, cautiously, “Well, you did spend a good portion of it alone in a cupboard while I got drunk, so I can’t feel too angry with you.”
“Yes, Keema told me all about it,” his eyes sparkled.
“Great…” Ryder winced.
Reyes pulled her firmly into the centre of the room, confidently sliding his arm around her waist and closing the gap between them.
Ryder looked up at him, her eyes round, full of wonder, “I didn’t know you had a romantic streak.”
Just when she thought she just about understood him, there was something else about him that completely and utterly floored her.
“There’s a lot you don’t know about me.”
They turned in unison to the melodious rhythm. Fingers still intertwined, his face close to hers, he looked into her eyes with a fondness she had never anticipated.
“Since leaving the Nexus, my survival has depended on secrets.” Reyes murmured, “I don’t want any more of those between us Sara.”
The way he gazed at her, almond coloured eyes unwavering, his arms holding her, made Ryder feel vulnerable. Liam had been right that she was falling for Reyes, and it hit her just how hard she was. Without realising she stopped dancing, staring up at him. He was an enigma, a puzzle she wasn’t sure she could ever find all the pieces for, even if they were all still in the box.
“Sara?” Reyes looked concerned, his dark eyebrows creasing.
“Don’t make promises you can’t keep… You will always have secrets. I understand that, a man like you always will. I just don’t want you to lie to me again, not like that,” she said, her voice hesitant.
He looked relieved, “Thank you.”
“For accepting me.”
He drew her closer, frowning when he felt her resist slightly, “What is it?”
Ryder bit her lip, “You know, well, everything about me. Everyone does, it’s an occupational hazard. But I don’t really know anything about you…”
Inscrutable, he thought for a moment, “I’ve grown used to keeping my personal affairs to myself. People will use anything as a bargaining chip on Kadara, although, for me, it was the same on Earth... Give me time to get used to it Ryder.”
She nodded, the tension in her chest somewhat alleviated, “Thank you.”
He leant forward and kissed her with a tenderness that made her breath catch, her arms sliding around his neck automatically. One of his hands slid beneath her shirt, his fingers stroking playfully down her back, whilst the other held her cheek. The whisky on his breath tasted sweet, beguilingly so, as was the sensation of having no armour separating them, the feeling of his warm skin against hers. Deepening the kiss, his tongue pressing needily against hers, Reyes took a few steps backwards. He sat down, pulling her into his lap as he did so. Ryder straddled his hips, hands smoothing over his face and into his hair. Reyes clasped her thighs, and she eased herself forwards teasingly, stealing increasingly hot kisses. She felt a tremor run through his body in response, as a rush of air escaped his lips as he felt the warmth of her in his lap. With a salacious grin she locked eyes with him and rocked her hips forward again, this time eliciting a groan that along with the expression on his face alone could have fueled her late night fantasies for weeks to come.
He caught hold of her face, roughly, “Ryder, if you have no intention of-”
“I have every intention,” she replied, catching his meaning immediately.
He tugged at each shoulder of her jacket until it slid from her lithe frame and onto the floor, without dropping eye contact he slipped his hand up the front of her top until it rested on her breast. His fingers traced the outline of her bra as if daring at any moment to slide beneath the material. Reyes watched her face intently, reluctant to miss any flicker of a reaction on her face. Ryder was very aware of the warm, throbbing sensation coursing through her, it flushed her cheeks as her breath hissed through her teeth. As she kissed him she wound her own fingers under his shirt, gasping into his mouth as his hand squeezed with just the right amount of firmness.
“You know,” she pressed her forehead against his as he talked, “I have no intention of being a gentleman.”
The way he enunciated each syllable sent goosebumps prickling over her skin, and she marvelled at how he could disarm her with only words. She regarded at him for a moment, the dark, ruffled hair, the look in his eager almond eyes, a look that promised so many things, that whispered of regret and danger and pleasure, a look that was as commanding over her as if he had physically grabbed her and dragged her mouth on his. Licking her lips, Ryder slowly eased herself backwards, so he could see her, before pulling off her vest and letting it crumple to the floor.
In a singular motion, Reyes lifted her, mouth barely leaving hers, hands grasping her behind, before laying her down on the seat. He climbed on top of her and she was left in no doubt of his desire for her as his body ground against hers, and try as she might she could not stifle the moan that escaped her. Emboldened he murmured, “Lift up,” as he hooked his hand around her back to remove her bra. As he did so she fumbled with his shirt, kissing him again, hungry for his tongue against hers. That was when a flashing light caught her eye, and it felt as though her heart had sunk through her stomach and right out of her body. Reyes felt the difference in her demeanour at once, and immediately ceased what he was doing.
His gaze, no longer clouded by desire, looked tense, “What is it?”
“It’s my omni-tool, someone needs me,” Ryder sighed perhaps the most heartfelt sigh of her life.
“Oh,” Reyes looked relieved, “I thought… Just ignore it.”
“You know that I can’t,” she folded her arms over her face as she felt her eyes sting with frustration at the utter trainwreck that was the timing. “Fuck!”
Sitting back, his crotch still achingly against hers, he pulled her arm from over her face, “Then answer it and tell them to call back later?”
“What if it’s important?”
“What if it’s not?”
“FINE. But if it is…” she tapped her omni-tool and said grumpily, “Yes?”
Very much supporting the old adage, the devil makes work for idle hands, Reyes started kissing her neck, carefully sliding down one of her bra straps as he did so.
It was Suvi, “Ryder, Gil has news about the kett transponder.”
Ryder tried half-heartedly to bat Reyes away, but he merely held down her arm and began pressing his lips relentlessly against her now bare shoulder.
“Oh, well I’ll be back in a couple of hours, it can wait until then surely?”
Reyes sat back, mouthing ‘couple of hours’ with a mocking, scandalised look on his face, before resuming his previous pursuit. He kissed lower now, she could feel the sensation, feather soft, tickling, above her breast. Although she couldn’t make any sounds of approval, she gripped his arm with her free hand, fingers digging in.
“I know you’re quite… busy Ryder, but Tann has called requesting an update. He sounded impatient.”
“Yeah, when doesn’t he? Tann can kiss my-”
“Ezra has also been in touch-”
“Yeah, well he can kiss my other-”
“As has the Moshae.”
Ryder sighed in response. Reyes had intensified his kisses, curving down the cup of her bra so he could move his lips lower, nipping at her skin in a way that sent a shudder through her body.
“I’ll be right there.”
She ended the call.
“Reyes,” his name burst from her lips as his tongue slid over her nipple, velvety soft. Encouraged, he repeated the motion. She clasped his shoulder, momentarily immobilised before reluctantly pushing him off.
“You can’t say my name like that then leave, it’s cruel,” he teased, looking dangerously close to continuing his attentions.
“I have to.”
He paused, “You’re… serious?”
She nodded, glumly, “Please believe me when I say, I really don’t want to to go.”
Reyes sat up. He looked disappointed, exasperated, but not at her. Ryder reached for her vest, pulling it back on discontentedly.
Reyes watched her, his expression unfathomable again. He spoke as though a thought had suddenly occurred to him, “Do you ever get a break?”
She frowned, “Not really.”
He shifted so he was sat next to her, she was conscious that his thigh was touching hers, “Will you have to leave Kadara immediately?”
Ryder thought for a moment, “Not necessarily. It depends what Gil has to tell me… Maybe tomorrow?”
His face recovered its usual mischevious facade and he grinned, “Meet me tonight, outside Kralla’s.”
“Reyes, I can’t promise anything.”
He stood up and held out his hand towards her in the same way he had earlier. She took it and he pulled her to her feet.
“What are you planning?” she asked him, suspiciously.
He appeared as though he was trying to look innocent, but innocence was not one of Reyes Vidal’s virtues. It had the opposite effect, and in fact made him look more guilty of being up to something.
“Sara, you need to have some fun.”
“Don’t you want to?”
“Of course I want to see you, but…”
“Sunset. Kralla’s,” he kissed her briskly. “Now go do your hero thing before I change my mind.”
Chapter 4: Another Night on the Town (Part 1)
Ryder and Reyes' second date is interrupted by an unwelcome guest.
So, this chapter ended up being over 7000 words (whoops) so I separated it into two.
As soon as Ryder had returned to the Tempest, she had headed for engineering.
“I have the coordinates. The signal points to the Tafeno system,” SAM remarked.
“We sure we want to do this?” Gil looked at her, anxiously.
Ryder paused, the weight of the events they were discussing not lost on her.
“I know we’re still getting our feet wet, but I don’t see any other choice,” she shrugged back at him.
“I knew running off to Andromeda would be dangerous, but shit… this is dangerous .”
“Only if we die,” she grinned. “Thanks for your help with this Gil.”
“No trouble at all, I just hope my handiwork doesn’t lead us all to a gruesome and painful death,” he responded, turning back to the control panel he usually worked at.
“If we do, I’ll be sure to remind the others whose fault it is.”
She made to leave, but his voice made her pause at the door.
“By the way, Ryder-”
She glanced back at him, “Yeah?”
“You smudged your lipstick,” Gil smirked knowingly.
She groaned exasperatedly before heading off to the armoury to change for the Kadaran badlands. Before they left tomorrow, she had an Outpost to place.
As soon as she had selected Peebee to go with her, Ryder regretted it.
“So, Reyes… How is he..?”
Ryder splurted tea back into her flask. She had been taking a last sip before they left the cockpit.
“Peebee, we aren’t even in the Nomad yet.”
The asari managed another 17 minutes and 27 seconds before she brought it up again. They were nearly at the destination for the outpost. Ryder had been talking casually to Cora about Initiative reaction to a footing on Kadara when Peebee cut over them.
“Was he better than Liam?”
Ryder nearly drove them off a cliffside.
48 minutes later, after talking to Addison via vidcom and meeting the first member and mayor of the outpost, Christmas Tate, Peebee broached the subject a third time. They had barely left Christmas’ station before she commented, “He’s so assertive, I can’t imagine he’s into missionary style, did you-”
“Oh for heaven’s sake,” Ryder shouted, the old Earth saying her mother had often used spilling from her lips in her frustration. Several Initiative construction workers glanced over from their work overseeing placement of the white prefab buildings that were the backbone of every outpost. There were several structures in place now, Ryder grabbed Peebee by the arm of her jacket and dragged her behind one of them.
“Cora, can’t you order her to be quiet or something?” she asked the biotic who had followed them, snickering.
Cora shrugged with a slight smile that was almost sly, “Even if I wanted to, do you think she’d listen?”
Ryder shook her head, “I almost miss the days when you hated each other, y’know.” She leaned against the railing that ran alongside the building, “Look, I’ll tell you if you don’t go spreading this around.”
Peebee grinned, “I will absolutely not make that promise.”
Ryder made an exasperated noise, “I went over to talk about the outpost, Reyes and I agreed to terms and then, well…”
“Yes?” Cora acknowledged, expectantly.
“You’re just as bad as her!”
“Ryder, for the last couple of weeks you have had the goofiest smile on your face when you think people aren’t looking. I’m just intrigued to know why,” Cora reasoned, impishly, sweeping her long fringe out of her face.
“Well, one thing led to another and we were kissing and… we were interrupted before it went any further.”
The frustration must have shown in her voice because the two women shared a discerning look.
“Is that it? Lame, I was hoping for way more info than that! Ryder, you are such a cocktease,” Peebee rolled her eyes, pouting.
“Reyes probably agrees,” Cora responded.
The two women snorted with laughter.
“As ever, I’m glad to be a source of your amusement,” she glanced over at the Nomad parked several metres away. “C’mon we better get back.”
“Oh don’t be that way, Ryder!” The asari linked arms with her as Ryder began to walk back to the vehicle. Peebee leaned close, conspiratorially, “At least tell me, the fooling around, what was that like?”
Thoughtful for a moment, Ryder grinned for the first time since they had begun their conversation, “He’s… It’s…”
She struggled to find the words but the expression on her face told her two squad members everything they needed to know.
“That good, huh?” Cora arched an eyebrow as she walked at her other side.
“I’m going back to meet him tonight, provided nothing else comes up,” Ryder added, tentatively.
Peebee looked as though all her Christmases had come at once, if, indeed, asari celebrated the festive holiday.
“I know he’s been deceptive before, I know I should pick a fist fight with an eiroch rather than trust him after what he did, much less let myself get tangled up in it… But I can’t stop thinking about him,” Ryder surprised even herself with her honesty. Rather than embarrassed, she felt relieved to finally be able to share her feelings with someone. Despite her earlier surly demeanour, she realised she had probably chosen the two of them to accompany her for this exact reason, even though she hadn’t wanted to admit it to herself. Of the crew, they were the only ones had said anything positive about her budding relationship with Reyes.
“Oh Ryder, you’ve got it bad,” Peebee looked fairly serious, “but I don’t think you’re the only one. He seemed really touched when we helped him with Zia. And… It’s weird opening up when you’re not used to having anyone to rely on.”
Ryder glanced at her, realising this was as much Peebee’s truth as it was Reyes’.
“And if he isn’t being genuine, I’ll pull off each of his appendages, starting with the one between his legs,” Cora smiled, grimly.
“You know you are just terrifying sometimes,” Peebee stared at her.
Ryder privately agreed.
“I’m starting to worry at the length of this list of potential punishments you have for him if he hurts me again,” Ryder laughed, thinking of the time Cora had previously threatened to put Reyes through a wall.
“That’s what friends are for,” Cora looked at Ryder closely. “Look, all this must have been a lot to deal with, on top of everything else. What happened with Sloane must’ve been… difficult.” Ryder felt her pulse quickening the same way it did every time the topic was broached, her insides twisting. “If you ever need to talk, you know where we are.”
“Especially tomorrow,” Peebee winked.
Heeled boot tapping, she waited outside of Kralla’s Song, a number of emotions clamouring for her attention. Nerves fizzled alongside her impatience and unease. She glanced towards the markets and locked eyes with Vetra, who was bartering with one of the merchants there, she gave her a roguish grin. Upon their return to the Tempest, Ryder had quickly changed before heading out for the port, pulling on a short skirt that flashed pale legs that didn’t see anywhere as much daylight as her tanned face and neck, along with the same leather jacket she threw over everything. She’d styled her hair so it hung loose of its usual braid or ponytail, cascading appealingly over her shoulders. She wondered if anyone would recognise her as the Pathfinder looking like this, or whether they would take her as just another exile in the teeming port. The idea excited her, the thrill of getting to be someone else, to take a break from the relentless nature of her day-to-day life. There was nothing she would rather do, the need for adventure was definitely in her blood after all, but the thought of a night off was an exhilarating prospect. She just wished she wasn’t feeling quite so worn out. Overseeing the deployment of a new outpost was always a pleasure, to see an actual physical manifestation of their hard work. In truth, Kadara meant far more to her than the others as it symbolised a way back for the exiles, that they might be able to scrabble something back from Tann’s momentous fuck up. She also quite liked upsetting Tann. Despite this, it was still an exhausting enterprise, all the red tape and smiles, it seemed to have taken hours when in fact they hadn’t been required for long.
A band of exiles passed by her as they exited Kralla’s Song, cackling loudly, pulling her from her reverie. She watched them as they stumbled towards the doors which led to the docks, two turians half dragging a comatose salarian while a human woman laughed hysterically. She marvelled at them, unable to fathom what their lives must be like.
She jumped, looking for the source of the noise. Reyes was stood a metre away from her right shoulder looking at her expectantly.
“Look at you all dressed up, anyone would think you’d got a hot date tonight,” she replied, smiling automatically as a warmth spread through her body that was always evoked whenever her eyes met his.
He’d changed from his usual attire, switching for dark clothes, a black shirt with the sleeves rolled up and boots that laced up over his ankles. The change was not at all an unpleasant one, on the contrary, it allowed her a glimpse at the muscular outline beneath his shirt.
Ryder must have been staring too long because he continued with, “Are you checking me out?”
She was so used to his upfront way of communicating, she didn’t miss a beat with her response as she stepped towards him, “Well you got to see far more of me earlier than I did you, it only seems fair.”
He chuckled before reaching up, cupping her face in his hand, “True. I realised though I did do you a disservice… Have been doing you a disservice.”
This sudden motion felt strange in such a public space when all their other displays of affection had been somewhat secretive in nature. It felt as though it was forbidden. She liked it.
“All this time I’ve never told you…” he murmured.
Bewildered but ensnared by his lure she leant towards him eagerly, “What?”
“... you have a fantastic ass.”
“What?” she stuttered, moving backwards so his hand fell from her face.
Reyes laughed, “I’m joking, Ryder, I didn’t think you were so gullible.”
Ryder snickered, “You’re the ass.”
“Whilst what I’ve said is still true, I have done you a disservice of not telling you that you look gorgeous today Ryder, as ever. Particularly so when you have fewer clothes on.”
She pushed his arm and Reyes took the opportunity to grab her hand, pulling her into a kiss. She was aware of eyes on them and made to pull away but he only persisted with his affections, sliding his tongue against her lips enticingly and slipping his hands around her waist. Her resistance crumbled and she relaxed, her tongue meeting his for a few heartbeats before he pulled away from her.
“Are you trying to show off?” Ryder questioned, her brow furrowed.
“Can’t I just be pleased to see you?” he asked, and the way he looked at her made her regret her words. It reminded her of when she’d accused him of using her for leverage.
“I’m pleased to see you too,” she replied, slotting her fingers through his.
The frown faded from his face.
“So, it’s your night off Sara, if you could do anything, what would you do?” he asked, animatedly.
“You haven’t planned anything?”
“Well, I…” he looked the closest that Reyes Vidal ever looked to sheepish, “I have several ideas but then I thought, since you don’t get a lot of free time, I’d ask what you wanted.”
Ryder didn’t speak for a moment she was so taken aback, “That’s… That’s the nicest thing anyone’s done for me since I came to Andromeda.”
When she met his eyes, his slid away from hers, “Don’t be too taken in, I am trying to seduce you after all.”
“You know you’ve already done that,” she smiled.
His gaze flashed back to hers as he returned her grin and repeated his question, “So?”
She thought, playing with his fingers absentmindedly and observing as people passed them by. Her hunch about them being watched hadn’t been wrong. She saw an asari with yellow markings stood across the plaza quickly jerk her head away as Ryder looked at her, there were three angara who glanced over at them with narrowed eyes at interludes in their conversation, as well as two collective agents cloistered nearby, steely-eyed as though guarding against something. It had been naive to believe people wouldn’t recognise exactly who she was.
Ryder sighed, “To just be normal for one night.”
“Kadara is hardly what you’d call normal,” he lowered his voice, “and you are dating the Charlatan.”
“I know, it’s just I don’t get to do the things everyone else does, go for drinks, unwind. Every time I try I get pulled back into being the Pathfinder again. Even with us, every time we’ve met before this it’s been about business,” she shook her head. “I’m sorry, it’s silly.”
“Well if it isn’t Reyes Vidal and the Pathfinder,” a soft angaran voice purred.
Intent on their conversation, neither of them had noticed Keema Dohrgun approach, several angaran bodyguards in tow.
“Keema, I hope your new position is treating you well,’ Reyes nodded, acting for all observing as though he wasn’t the Charlatan. As he turned to talk to Keema, he enclosed Ryder’s hand with his.
“Exceedingly,” she smiled in a self-satisfied manner, before turning to Ryder, “you found him in the end I see?”
Ryder blinked for a moment before she realised what Keema was talking about. With all that had happened, it felt like days since she had seen her that morning not hours.
She nodded in response, “Hiding in plain sight.”
“Ha! I don’t think Reyes has any desire to hide from you dear. It is nice to finally see you together, I thought it’d never happen…” her eyes flicked to their entwined hands.
“Actually we were just about to-” Reyes swallowed.
“I love it when you make him squirm, Keema,” Ryder sniggered.
He glanced at her, “Whose side are you on?”
“Ryder, you should come and have dinner with me sometime, see if we can make him squirm some more,” Keema chuckled.
Keema’s lilting laughed reminded her of rainfall in a forest, and of why Ryder had first liked her when they met. She decided that perhaps she had been a little harsh to judge her for simply enjoying the advantages of her new station.
“I’d be delighted,” she replied, warmly.
“I’ll be in touch… I won’t keep you from your charming companion any longer, Reyes.”
Keema swept away just as suddenly as she appeared.
“It suits her… almost too well,” Ryder mused aloud.
“Enough about that. Let’s get a drink,” Reyes nodded towards Kralla’s Song, “I can’t promise you normal but I can promise not to call you Pathfinder.”
“That’s a start,” she agreed.
As soon as she laid her eyes on them, the bartender Umi was rolling them, “Great. You two. Just order something quick before I have to be subjected to any more of your truly atrocious flirting.”
Ryder leant against the counter, “I have no idea what she means, do you?”
“No idea,” he circled his arm around her waist, hand sliding underneath her jacket. Despite getting to know him rather more intimately, the unexpected motion was still enough to make her chest and throat feel tight. “What would you like?”
Umi looked like she didn’t like where this was going, “You both know I only serve whisky.”
They ignored her.
“I think you know what I’d like,” Ryder turned her body towards him pointedly, running a hand down his chest.
“Hmm, I’m not sure what you mean, Ryder,” Reyes replied, playing along. “Maybe you should demonstrate?”
Umi made a thoroughly disgusted noise before slamming two empty glasses on the counter.
Ryder resisted the urge to laugh and continued, “Well, I could represent it pictorially for you… A few line graphs, maybe even throw in a pie chart if you’re lucky.”
“Ah well, you see, I learn best when I use my hands, I’m a very physical learner.”
Despite the fact they were talking in jest, his comment sent Ryder’s imagination into overdrive.
“By the goddess,” Umi looked as though she wanted to put several holes in them both with the knife she kept concealed beneath the bar, “just take your drinks and go.”
As it always was at night, the cramped bar was incredibly busy, so instead of sitting, they leant against the bottom pane of one of the open windows that looked out onto the Kadaran sunset. As soon as they were out of earshot of Umi, Reyes laughed, and the sound was so infectious it made Ryder snort as she took a sip of her drink. This sent whisky burning down her throat and up her nose, only serving to send her further into hysterics. Once Ryder had composed herself they stood huddled close together, discussing Kadara and the Nexus, both finding amusement over imagining and reimagining Tann’s reaction when he found out about the Kadaran outpost. She told him about the other planets she had seen, the beauty of Havarl, the tenacity of the angara living on Voeld, describing some of the missions and adventures she’d had that weren’t classified. Ryder even found herself talking about the desolation of Habitat 7, glancing away when it came to the death of her father and swiftly changing the subject. It surprised her how easy it was to talk to Reyes, beforehand she had worried that outside of the flirtatious exchanges they might struggle to converse but it was quite the opposite. Unexpectedly, Reyes had spoken a little about himself, chipping in when she talked about Elaaden (having visited it himself once or twice). He talked briefly about the years he’d lived on Omega in the Milky Way, somewhere she’d never been but had heard colourful stories about. Reyes also elaborated on what life on the Nexus had been like before he had left, how he had been a pilot before Tann’s reign had become too much to bear. Whatever the subject, when it came to his personal life he was vague on details when he talked. Ryder didn’t probe him any further, however, remembering Peebee’s advice. Draining their glasses for the third time Ryder felt a little light-headed and cursed herself for not stopping for something to eat beforehand. She wondered if Reyes felt slightly nervous, like she did, considering the rate at which they were drinking. She corrected herself immediately; there was no way he would possibly get apprehensive considering how forthright he had been with her, how unabashed.
“It was never just about business you know.”
“What?” she frowned at him, her attention had deviated a little as she lost herself in the intonation of his voice, his accent always stirred something within her, left her feeling feverish.
“What you said earlier… Well, it started off being about business, but I wouldn’t have asked you to Sloane’s party if it was just that,” Reyes elaborated, he twisted a section of her hair in his fingers cooly. She responded by smiling softly which he returned with a curl of his mouth.
“I’ll get us another drink?”
She nodded, watching him as he moved over to the bar, her eyes travelling over his body admiringly. Her smile lingered for a few moments before fading. Now he was gone Ryder took a sharp intake of breath, for a brief second letting in all of her nagging doubts; that she was losing her mind she was so completely enamoured with him, that she could die tomorrow and none of it would matter, that she was being stupid and reckless even being here… and breathed it all back out again. It was a technique her father had taught her for dealing with battlefield stress, how effective it was however, was debatable. Steadying her nerves she glanced around. She’d been so focused on Reyes that she hadn’t observed much of the other clientele. They couldn’t have been there more than a couple of hours but it seemed busier than it had been before, roudier as many voices shouted over the regular thump of the music. Some people had started dancing, and, as wasn’t unusual at Kralla’s, there was a krogan slumped in the corner asleep that no one dared wake. A woman crossing the room caught Ryder’s particular attention, only because she was painfully familiar and yet Ryder was having difficulty placing her. Her vivid red hair was cut in a stylish bob and she wore a self-assured smirk that was the only thing that detracted from her charms, as she was clearly fully aware of the many eyes that were following her approvingly across the room. The bodysuit she wore was skintight, almost giving the illusion it had been painted onto her body, hugging each of her ample curves. She moved with a delicacy Ryder could never master, as her own figure was sculpted by combat. She parted the crowd with mere taps on shoulders.
Ryder had a sinking feeling.
When she reached the bar, Ryder’s misgivings were proved legitimate as the woman tapped Reyes on the shoulder. As he turned she leant in close to speak to him, grasping his arm. Ryder felt a burning, bitter sensation in the back of her throat. Reyes’ first reaction seemed peculiar, as though he were in less control than usual. He stepped backwards, although he did not have much room to do so, and glanced over at where Ryder was standing. He looked remarkably uncomfortable. Sensing that he wanted her to do so, Ryder stepped towards them. The woman followed Reyes’ eyeline and looked at her, taking Ryder in with an unimpressed expression, one she had definitely seen before.
Ryder gasped as she finally recognised the brown eyes and the contemptuous look within them, “Zia? Zia Cordier? But you…”
“Died?” the woman laughed, but it contained no humour.
Utterly confused Ryder stared at Reyes instead, “She was… dead.”
A thousand possibilities flooded her brain. Had it all been a set up? Had Zia survived their altercation? If so, why would Reyes not have told her?
“Sara, this is Aria Cordier, Zia’s twin sister,” he took this opportunity to move closer to Ryder, extricating himself from Aria’s grasp.
Ryder stared at him in disbelief, muttering under her breath, “SAM?”
“Accessing Initiative personnel files… It would appear Mr Vidal is telling the truth. There are records of two female human twins with the surname Cordier, last footage of either of them is on the Nexus before the uprising. And this is Aria, their DNA is, of course, identical but Aria has a childhood scar on her cheek that Zia did not,“ SAM replied over their personal channel.
Reyes’ gaze darkened as he observed Ryder’s scepticism and he passed her her drink. Ryder had to resist the urge to drink it all in one gulp in an attempt to lessen her creeping feeling of anxiety.
“First name basis with the Pathfinder, Reyes, my you have moved up in the world,” Aria mused, her eyes fixed back on Reyes’ face, they had an eager look to them. “Although you always would do anything to end up on top.”
The innuendo in her words was not lost on Ryder, who blurted out, “You’re not angry? Your sister is dead because of us.”
“Oh no, my sister was a piece of work, we were always in competition, always wanted the same things. I wanted to come to Andromeda, so did she, I carved a name out for myself in Kadara, so did she, I wanted a certain man, so did she,” he eyes flickered suggestively to Reyes again. “You did me a favour, really.”
Reyes chuckled, though he didn’t look quite so laid back as usual, “Funny, and to think I thought we were doing for it for our own reasons.”
“Yes, particularly as I didn’t even know you existed,” Ryder said, tartly. However, something else was bothering her just as much as Aria’s overt flirting with Reyes, “But she was your twin. Surely you grew up together? And you don’t even care that she’s gone?”
Ryder thought of Scott still unconscious on the Hyperion, recovering from the news that their father was dead and that their voyage to Andromeda had gone spectacularly awry. She tried most days not to think about him as when she did her chest ached at his absence.
“What’s it to you?” Aria glared at her for a moment, before reassembling her features in a more relaxed expression. Ryder couldn’t help but feel she’d touched a nerve. “She obviously started something she couldn’t finish, more fool her.”
Her accent was just as beautiful and alluring as her sisters. It made Ryder want to punch her in the throat.
“Ryder has a twin brother, he’s on life support, “ Reyes snapped, defensively. “Now if you excuse us.”
Reyes placed his hand on Ryder’s lower back, which did not go unnoticed by Aria. In sync, they both immediately finished their drinks, neither keen to remain in present company any longer.
Aria’s eyes widened in fake shock, “Oh I’m sorry, am I interrupting? I thought you looked as though you’d made an effort, Reyes.” She looked at Ryder, “I just hope you know what you’re in for honey, I hope you like sharing, my sister didn’t.”
Unlike the last time she had met one of the Cordier sisters, Ryder didn’t have a retort ready.
She slammed her empty glass on the bar, “Absolute pleasure to meet you.”
Ryder stalked off, unsure if Reyes was close behind her or not. Full of adrenaline, she pushed through the crowds blindly, until she found herself next to a particularly large krogan with bones attached to his armour and a very familiar gait.
“And that’s when their heads fell off!” Drack roared, completing what was clearly an incredibly funny joke as the small crowd surrounding him, who she soon identified as Jaal, Vetra, Liam and Gil, had collapsed into various levels of drunken laughter.
“Pathfinder!” Gil cried as he recognised her, “Fancy seeing you here! You’ve got to hear this, tell it again Drack.”
“Err, actually I’m on my way out so-”
“Nah, it’s not as funny if you’ve heard the punchline,” Drack interjected.
“Ryder, I did want to ask you something about tomorrow…” Jaal began but stopped as Reyes appeared at her shoulder. “Oh.”
Overwhelmed, Ryder took hold of Reyes’ hand and carried on walking straight through the doors and into the plaza area of the port. She turned and moved to one side, where there were fewer people, and leaned against the wall.
“Sara?” Reyes said her name, tentatively.
Ryder pressed her hands over her face, “I really shouldn’t have asked for normal, should I?”
Chapter 5: Another Night on the Town (Part 2)
Ryder and Reyes finally manage some time alone.
Ryder felt him draw close, his breath sweet, warm on her cheek.
She opened her eyes and for the first time since she had met him, Ryder thought Reyes looked anxious, “If it’s about what Aria said, she was exaggerating…”
Ryder lifted an eyebrow, “You didn’t sleep with both of them?”
“Well I did, but…” he shrugged his shoulders. “That was different to this.”
She looked at him contemplatively, eyes searching the lines of his face for signs of sincerity, “How?”
“With everyone else, it's been about money and leverage. Same with Zia, same with Aria. You don’t seem to care about any of that,” Reyes folded his arms over his chest, clearly discomfited at sharing so much.
“I don’t,” she admitted. I care about you, she thought, but daren’t voice it.
Unable to continue staring at the troubled look on his face she grabbed his arms and pulled them apart, winding them around her methodically and squeezing into his chest. Shocked, he stared at her.
“Everyone has a past, Reyes. As long as it stays the past, I don’t care.”
Apparently satisfied with this he leaned down to kiss her but she stopped him, pressing her fingers against his lips.
“Shall we go… somewhere else? I’ve had quite enough of other people today.”
“You and me both,” Reyes agreed and glanced down at his omni-tool to check the time, “Hmm, I have just the thing."
Abruptly, he pulled her off at a jog towards the docks.
They sat atop the barrier that marked the division between where Tartarus stood and the dry, hazardous plains and mountains that stretched out towards Varren’s Scalp. Ryder had never been there after the sun had set, the darkness casting Kadara in an ethereal light. Steam rose from the distant pools of water, now non-toxic but still bubbling, scorchingly hot. Behind them were several bottles of beer, some empty and discarded, that Reyes had snagged on his way past Tartarus. Ryder used her biotics to make the empty bottles hover in front of them and they took it in turns to shoot at them. She purposefully gave Reyes pointers he didn’t need, just to tease him, before laughing and kissing the irritation from his disgruntled face. This would have ended any further discussion of any kind, had Ryder not nearly slipped off the edge and out of their passionate embrace.
“Where did you learn to shoot, anyway?” she asked, catching her breath, admiring his slender frame as Reyes aimed at the last bottle.
“Earth. My uncle. I was 12.”
He shot and the bottle shattered.
Ryder frowned, wondering at what the context could have been behind teaching a child to shoot, but said nothing as he sat back down next to her. Though she longed to ask, she knew he would likely just shrug off her probing with a joke. Reyes looked sombre as he took another drink.
She laid on her back, legs dangling over the edge of the barrier, staring up at the section of sky she could see beyond the cave admiring the still alien constellations, “It’s funny. I spend half my time amongst the stars, and I never take the time to look at them.”
He followed suit, his shoulder touching hers.
She sighed, the alcohol making her unusually contemplative, “The urgent business I have tomorrow, it’s dangerous.”
“Isn’t everything you do?” he chuckled.
“Yes, but this is… something else,” Ryder paused, considering how much she should tell him. “We’re going after the kett directly, we’ve never done that before. The odds aren’t brilliant, but we have to try.”
“Sara, it’ll take more than a few kett to kill you,” he responded, firmly.
Despite the confidence in his voice, he crooked his arm around her neck, pulling her against him. She readjusted herself, curling around the hard lines of his body. The heat of his hand on her arm and the regular thrum of his heartbeat as she laid her head against his chest had the effect of a tranquiliser hitting her bloodstream, easing her jagged nerves and the constant anxiety that had dogged the periphery of her mind all day.
“How about a few thousand?”
He shook his head his breath tickling her hair enticingly, “No, my odds are still on you. Especially if you take the krogan… You are taking the krogan, right?”
Ryder shifted her head so she could take furtive glances at his face, her body pressing tighter against his, knee resting on his thigh, her hand on his chest. At each point of contact, her body throbbed, her pulse thrumming headily in response. Perhaps aware of this, or perhaps experiencing something similar, his eyes flicked from the view above him to her.
“Reyes Vidal, are you worried about me?”
“Absolutely not, I have every faith in you,” Reyes grinned, but she was sure he was bluffing. “It’s just that, that krogan of yours is massive and I imagine makes the perfect shield.”
“I’ll tell Drack you said that,” she threatened.
There was a moment's silence in which she yearned to reach up, brush her lips against his, trace the line of his lip with her tongue, tangle her fingers in his hair, teasing it until, instead of being perfectly coiffed, it was a mess of curls.
“Well if I do die tomorrow, I’ll be comforted by the fact we finally managed to spend one night together without interruption,” Ryder murmured instead.
“The night is still young,” Reyes countered, leaning so his face was closer to hers, “besides we haven’t gotten to the best part yet.”
His eyes looked darker in the gloom, somehow more wicked. Sinful thoughts, thoughts she had been suppressing all night, every time they touched, were now at the forefront of her mind.
“You don’t know that… we might have no sexual chemistry,” she muttered, jokingly.
“You already know that’s not true,” there was no lack of certainty in his eyes, it made her skin bristle in anticipation.
He was right, of course. Every time she was in his presence the deep, visceral attraction between them was palpable, the heat of it inescapable, overpowering.
“Hmm, well it was cruel of me to depart so suddenly earlier and rob you of a chance to find out.”
“Terribly cruel." His eyes flickered closed as he took her in one hot press of his lips, fingers curling around her back of her neck, “Ordinarily I would not have waited so long, so I thought a few more hours couldn’t hurt.”
“Is that so?” she whispered, fingers skimming over his slender waist, her body practically humming in response to his advances.
“Circumstances have been against us,” he ran his hand up the thigh that was resting against his. “However, I am finding it... Ah, increasingly difficult to restrain myself.”
Ryder leant forwards, clutching his face, fingers trailing into his hair, thumb stroking along his smooth jawline. Her pulse was such a hard drumbeat she was sure he must be able to feel it, the familiar heat that collected deep within her at his touch slowly uncoiling.
His lips were millimetres from hers below dark eyes that held a hunger she couldn’t resist any longer
He led her along by the hand. It was slow going due to pauses filled by wandering hands and wanton kisses.
As they passed Tartarus she stopped, “Aren’t we going inside?”
“I don’t live at Tartarus. Where do you think I sleep?”
Ryder shrugged, "You don't hang from the roof like a bat?"
"Funny," he wasn't laughing, "I could take you to Tartarus but I was going to take you home. That alright?"
"I don't, usually. No one knows where I live."
"Reyes," she kissed him gently on the cheek, "I know far worse secrets about you than when you live."
He nodded and they kept walking, back up the elevator and through the docks. Reyes guided her through familiar parts of the port before turning onto a backstreet Ryder had never been down. Usually, she would’ve been intrigued by her surroundings, taking all of it in instinctively, eyes alert for potential dangers or points of interest, but her mind was focused elsewhere. Another few turns later, past curved buildings and groups of exiles still cavorting in the early hours, they reached a nondescript looking building. Reyes let go of her hand for a moment, unlocking the door with a few taps of his omni-tool, before taking it again.
She followed Reyes inside slowly, gripped for the first time with a feeling of hesitancy. Ryder realised how lucky she was to have SAM, if she found herself with a need to find her way back she had him. They ascended several flights of stairs until they reached the top and Reyes accessed his omni-tool again before stepping through another door. The apartment was dark, and he moved down the corridor before them, switching on low lighting.
“Should I take my shoes off?” she joked, trying to mask her nervousness.
He looked at her, eyes inscrutable, and shook his head, “Give me a minute?”
Ryder nodded, not trusting herself to speak again as she cringed at her words. Reyes stepped through a door to a room adjacent. Boots clacking with each step, she moved towards the end of the corridor and entered the adjoining room. This was obviously Reyes’ bedroom, though even that thought seemed strange in her head. She glanced around and was surprised at how ordinary it seemed; a bookcase full of datapads and vids, a human-made desk, an Initiative style bed. Reyes had left some music playing in his absence, old Earth music she half recognised. Her eyes were drawn to a pair of shutters opposite her and she stepped forward curiously, opening them with her omni-tool. Spellbound, Ryder stared at the view which encompassed not only the mountaintops of the wilds of Kadara, but in the foreground an excellent view of the main plaza of Kadara port. As she was several floors up she could see small, neon-lit figures scuttling across it. Squinting, she thought she saw the flash of Initiative blue and white as a small band of people left Kralla’s Song, though she couldn’t be certain from this distance. Something touched the small of her back and she jumped, spinning around to see Reyes with a slightly amused expression.
‘I-I didn’t hear you come in,” she stuttered.
“Smuggler, remember? I’ve learned to be discreet,” he said, the teasing tone having returned to his voice. He ran his warm hands up her arms.
That was all she could muster. The way he was looking at her, with the same intensity as before but this time in an altogether more private setting, had made her throat go dry.
“Sara, are you nervous?” Reyes sounded slightly surprised but seemed to be enjoying tormenting her.
“No,” she responded defiantly before relenting, “maybe.”
“You needn’t be.”
Reyes closed the remaining gap between them, pulling her into his arms. He kissed her softly at first, coaxing, easing her overactive mind until it returned to one simple base thought, the urge that had been plaguing her for weeks now. Her hands ran over his body, curving up his back, sliding beneath his shirt. Feeling her begin to relax he curved his tongue assertively against hers, until their kisses assumed the familiar rhythm that left her aching all over. Ryder’s jacket fell to the floor for the second and final time that day, as Reyes tugged at her clothes restlessly. She stopped for a second, taking in the eyes that drove her to distraction, the mouth that had fueled impassioned dreams.
“I won’t hurt you,” he breathed, almond eyes mischievous, as he quirked his eyebrows, “unless, of course, you want me to.”
She made a sound between an exhale and a moan, kissing him fiercely, nipping his lip almost too hard, and within breathless seconds they were both shirtless. One-handed he undid her bra before hoisting her up by her thighs, her breasts pressed against his bare chest. Obediently she pulled off her boots before wrapping her legs around his waist, pressing her head against his, exhilarated by his scent and the secure feeling of his hands fastened around her. Reyes stepped back towards the bed, but between attempting to kick off his shoes and sitting down his foot slipped. They both toppled backwards, Ryder landing on top of him as Reyes made a grunting sound. She launched into uncontrollable laughter, which Reyes joined with momentarily before, undeterred, he pulled her further up the bed next to him. He stole the giggle from her lips as they parted into a moan as he kissed down her neck, taking her breasts in his hands firmly, stroking and tickling expertly with his thumbs. She felt exhilaratingly powerless in his hands as one wandered further down her navel until it reached her skirt. After briefly meeting her eyes, he pulled down her skirt, exposing the laced underwear underneath. His head close to hers, he glanced down her body and made a soft chuckling sound.
“What?” she breathed.
Reyes leant over her, turning her gently so she was flat on her back. Feather-light he began kissing down her body, first at her neck and over her breasts. She writhed and groaned at his touch, at the way his tongue twisted over her skin, her nipples.
“Sara…” his hand trailed along her skin, playing with the waistband of her underwear, before gripping them tightly. She inhaled heavily as he eased them down, “... you are...”
What she was she would never know as his fingers moved lower, over her skin, over part of her that had been pulsing, slick hot, waiting for his touch, and she cried aloud. He repeated and slightly varied the motion over and again, carefully teasing, kissing further down her stomach until his chin was level with this hands. Ryder’s breaths were coming out in increasingly desperate gasps as she tried to control the irresistible heat that was rising inside her. Reyes clearly had other ideas, however, as he replaced the soft touches of his fingers with skilled strokes of his tongue and her body shook, her fingers creating divots in the surface of the mattress. She made the mistake of glancing down at him, and she groaned at the sight of his head between her thighs, the salacious grin as he felt her eyes on him, the flash of his tongue. Every deft lick and suck of his mouth made each beat of her heart feel quicker and heavier than the last, the sensation spreading through her body, muscles shuddering in response.
She twisted her fingers in his hair, gasping out his name, “Reyes.”
Reyes paused, his voice low, “Hmm?”
As he spoke, throat resting on her thigh, his voice sent a satisfying vibration up her leg.
“I want…” she managed before her body shook again at his attentions.
She felt his weight shift and when she opened her eyes they were met with his, “What?”
She took in the slightly swollen appearance of his lips as he wet them with his tongue. The slight dilation of his eyes as they fixed on hers, as though impatiently waiting for an invitation. The absolute fucking need she felt for him almost rendered her speechless.
“You know,” Ryder moaned, so low it was almost a whimper, sitting up so their faces were closer together, their bodies were closer together.
He wiped his mouth on the back of his hand, a motion that made her insides feel as though they’d turned over, “Maybe I just want you to say it?”
“Just do it,” she replied restlessly, her cheeks burning, flushed with colour.
Reyes laughed under his breath in his usual suggestive way, sat back and began unbuckling his belt, “Just this once. Next time I’ll make you beg.”
Ryder arched an eyebrow to try and cover the responding lurch of her stomach that made her physically flinch, “Is that so?”
As he kicked off his pants she was able to observe him properly. Her eyes trailed over his muscled shoulders to his chest, the light brown skin dotted with the odd scar accompanied by a light covering of dark hair that trailed off and thinned as it descended his body. They lingered as she was able to get a closer look at the tattoo on his arm. Stretching from his shoulder blade to just above his elbow was an image of Anubis, the Ancient Egyptian God of Death. Distracted as she was, at that moment she could think on it as barely more than an attractive addition to a body that already made her quiver in anticipation. Reyes lowered himself over her again and her breath hitched as he pressed himself against her and she could feel his bare skin, every inch of him. She shifted her thighs as he moved, knees brushing against his hips.
Tantalisingly close, he whispered in her ear, “Sara, you have no idea how long I’ve wanted to do this.”
Reyes took hold of her chin and tilted her head back as he slid inside her. She moaned, no longer an aching whine, instead his name tumbling from her lips in a gasp of pleasure. He pressed deeper inside her, filling her over and again, as her fingers inched from the mattress to his body, trying to ground herself, finally clinging to his shoulder blades. Her nails dragged, biting, over his back, and his body convulsed, shuddering just like hers. His eyes met hers in a gorgeous blaze of honeyed gold, the satisfaction, the uncloaked earnest desire, his eyelids flickering as he thrust inside her, was nearly enough to undo her right there and then. The ghost of what would have been a smirk if his face were not furrowed with aching pleasure passed across his lips, coming alive as a spark in his eyes. He drove her hard into the mattress and her spine arced automatically, something close to his name tangling from her lips. His hands ran over her body possessively, grasping at her hips, her breasts, increasing the pressure when he felt goosebumps prickle across her skin as her body responded agreeably to his firm caresses, rough in a way that her toes curled. Another low, wanton sound escaped her lips, as she felt the tingle of her biotics at her fingertips, rendered all the more pleasurable by Reyes' heavy breaths, the shudder in response to the noise. For a moment she struggled to repress the blue haze at her fingers, Reyes clearly noticing her distraction as he dropped his lips to her throat, sucking at her neck and leaving searing kisses tingling on her skin. Her thighs tightened around him as they shuddered uncontrollably, weak as the impossible heat throbbed, waves shattering, crashing over her, threatening to overwhelm her. The sounds that ripped from her throat were more desperate, craving, needing. Licking his way up to her ear, he muttered breathless words, words that were chosen just to drive her over the edge, words that explained just how long he had wanted to hold her down and fuck her, how he had ached to make her shiver beneath his hands, how the reality was even more arousing than he could have ever imagined. Reyes nibbled at the lobe of her ear, then, moving, dropping kisses until he found her lips again, clumsy in his urgency in a way he would never be in any other circumstance. A soft groan escaped against her lips as he rocked forwards again and her body constricted even tighter in response, and he scraped her bottom lip harshly with his teeth. She pulled their lips apart, vision keened on those impossible, golden eyes, the lips that left every part of her wanting with even the briefest touch, and at his next shuddering pulse she came undone in his hands, unravelling at the seams, only just able to contain her biotics to a light shower of cerulean sparks. Reyes followed her, his cock pulsing intensely as he came, trembling into her arms for one moment vulnerable, eyes screwed shut, face pressed into her neck muffling his own moans as they collapsed into each other.
They lay facing each other, her curled into the crook of his neck, him stroking a hand through her hair. Any memory of his deception, any misgiving she had about his identity as the Charlatan was gone. Ryder was content to lie with her eyes closed, breathing him in while she enjoyed the motion of his fingers combing apart strands of her hair. In that moment none of it mattered, he was perfect.
Reyes shifted slightly and she felt him kiss the top of her head.
“It’s still weird when you do anything romantic, like… This ancient vid I watched once, where everyone’s bodies got taken over by aliens,” she muttered into his neck. “That’s not happened to you has it?”
She could hear the laughter in his voice and smiled herself, before asking facetiously, “You’re not going to kick me out are you?”
“That depends… do you snore?”
“I’ll just have to wake you up then.”
She untucked herself from beneath his chin, gazing at his vaguely discernible features in the darkness.
“Well, the last time I called, you made certain promises about what would happen if we were in bed together and I woke you up,” she reminded him.
He opened his eyes, “Huh, you’ll just have to hope you snore then.”
Ryder wriggled back into her previous position, pulling the sheet from the bottom of the bed and covering her bare waist with it. Perhaps conscious she might be cold Reyes responded by enclosing her tighter in his arms.
“Be careful tomorrow.”
Chapter 6: Behind the Mask
Reyes walks Ryder 'home'. Ryder is distant after her mission aboard the Archon's Ship,
His name broke the soft silence of daybreak, but not in an unpleasant way. It was a welcome sound, unfamiliar in this context but altogether an agreeable way to be roused from his half doze. As she spoke her breath tickled under his chin, causing pinpricks on his skin where it touched.
“Hmm?” he mumbled, far too relaxed and contented to issue much more of a response.
She sighed into his neck, and even in his sleep-addled state he realised why. He allowed the fingers that were resting on her waist between each rising curve of her naked body to wander idly, stroking, soothing, easing her back to sleep. The hand resting on his chest gripped at his skin as her body moved infinitesimally closer to his, the leg that rested over his shifting slightly. They laid there for minutes on end until he was sure from the rise and fall of her breaths that she had fallen back to sleep. Satisfied he moved a piece of her hair that was tickling his cheek before drifting off himself.
“Reyes.” More insistent this time.
“Sara, it’s probably still early…”
“You know I have-“
“An important mission, you may have mentioned it once or twice.”
Her body shifted until she was on top of him and he grumbled in response, not sure whether he liked this development or not.
He eased his eyes open, and he could not be displeased at the sight that beheld him. Full lips pursed, the ghost of his name lingered attractively on them. Her glistening blue eyes crinkled at the corners a fraction of a second before her lips upturned as he returned her gaze. He reached up for her face before he could stop himself, pushing back locks of scarlet that tumbled over her shoulders and onto his chest until he could see her face properly. The barely visible freckles that dotted her tanned skin, her teeth becoming visible as she grinned at the motion, the front two slightly larger than the rest.
There were a number of ways he wanted to end that sentence, assurances of his interest, remarks on her undeniable beauty, but… He reminded himself that Reyes Vidal did not do mornings after the night before, did not do warm embraces in the afterglow, did not do bashful, half stuttered compliments. He’d already broken the first two rules, he held himself back from breaking the third. He shuddered to think how many of his unspoken rules he’d erred from on their date, too. His expression hadn’t been able to completely hide these thoughts, so he kissed her to mask his indecision.
“Sara,” he repeated, “if you must go, then do not tease me further by positioning your body in that… manner.”
Back to teasing flirtation, it came to him as easy as lying although he wasn’t sure of that anymore either. Lying to her was different.
She frowned for a second, “Have you brushed your teeth?”
“Well yes because, I hate to break it to you, you taste like shit.”
She punched him in the arm and he grinned. He knew that would annoy her.
“I’m kidding! I didn’t think you’d want to kiss me properly after I-”
“Yes, yes, I get the picture!”
He liked that even though she met most of his jibes with confidence and almost always had an answer, there were rare moments where he caught her off guard. When he did her face would flush, as it was now, in a way he suspected she didn’t for anyone else. Hesitantly she drew away from him, and he listened as her feet retreated down the corridor and into the bathroom. He heard the shower turn on.
“Make yourself at home!” he called sarcastically.
Sara returned a couple of minutes later, the ends of her hair were wet, but she was fully clothed in her outfit from the night before.
Reyes sat up and frowned, “That’s not fair, if I’d have known you were getting dressed I’d have kept you in bed a little longer.”
She rested a hand on her hip, “You’ll just have to get me naked again another time then won’t you?”
“That can be arranged.”
The smile didn’t remain on her face very long as she stepped towards him. Reyes slid to the edge of the bed, still completely naked other than for the sheet. Sara looked down at him, reaching for his hands and slotting her fingers through his, “I have to go.”
“Give me 10 minutes?” he asked.
“I’m going to walk you home.”
The smile he received in response assured him he’d made the right choice.
After Reyes had showered, dressed in his usual attire, and quickly styled his hair (which Sara found great amusement in), they left the building hand-in-hand. It was considerably later than Sara had likely wanted as she kept taking glances at the time on her omni-tool.
“So… Doesn’t this go against your whole man of mystery thing? Walking through the port with the Pathfinder, won’t people ask questions?” she asked him.
Reyes shrugged, “Something like this would be impossible to keep secret with you being who you are, if we tried to do so people would likely ask more questions. Best way to conceal something, to lie, is to keep it as close to the truth as possible.”
“You don’t think they might put two and two together? Work out who you really are?”
“Sara, just because you fell for my irresistible charms, that doesn’t make me the Charlatan. You have a business relationship with him, you have a personal relationship with me,” he replied. “At least, that’s how it should look to anyone who does not know my true identity.”
Sara seemed satisfied with that and they walked without talking for a couple of minutes, through a pair of automatic doors and past Kralla’s Song. He wondered if she was quiet because she was thinking about how long it would be before they saw each other next. He felt a tightness in his chest he was unaccustomed to. He gripped her hand a little tighter.
“Your tattoo, does it mean anything?” Sara inquired, breaking the silence.
“When I was a pilot, my callsign was Anubis,” he informed her, matter-of-factly. There was more to it than simply that, but it wasn’t something he needed to share with her yet.
“Oh, we’re here,” Sara stated, glumly, as they entered the docks.
Thus far they had, for once, avoided walking past anyone they knew. There had been eyes on them of course, there always would be, however there were considerably less than usual as most exiles weren’t strictly morning people. As they advanced towards the Tempest down a row of exile ships, Reyes couldn’t help but admire Sara’s ship. He had never really seen it this close up before.
As they continued walking Reyes gazed up at the ship, “It’s… gorgeous. Must be a hell of a kick to fly…”
“You should see the engine, it’s a thing of beauty,” a red-haired man commented as they approached. He was kneeling behind a crate he was in the process of unpacking.
“Hi, Gil,” Sara acknowledged him.
“Morning, or should I say afternoon?” Gil winked, “Had a good night Ryder?”
At the foot of the ship, there was an asari gleefully waving in their direction, Pelessaria B’Sayle. She was some sort of remnant expert, although she really didn’t look like one. Beside her there were two humans and a turian. All four of them were overseeing, or rather it looked like arguing, as several crates were being loaded onto the Tempest. Reyes placed the turian immediately, Vetra, he’d heard she was almost as good at acquiring things as he was. As for the humans, one was the female biotic, Cora Harper. Strong-willed, but she moved with a lack of confidence that suggested she was still not sure about her place in the world. She glanced at them with a knowing half-smile. To the right was Liam Kosta. Good looking if a bit clumsy with it, he was young, closer to Sara’s age than Reyes was. Reyes knew that Kosta cared about the world around him to the point of recklessness in the same way that Sara did, although in Reyes’ eyes he was far less capable at seeing where to draw the line, considering some of the information his agents had passed him. His collective informants reported things of interest to him on a daily basis, and knowledge about the movements of the Initiative, Nexus and Pathfinders afforded a type of power that couldn’t be bought. Reyes didn’t need this though, didn’t need to be the Charlatan to suspect that Kosta was harbouring a thing for the Pathfinder. On the couple of occasions he had seen them together, Reyes had noticed how familiar he was with his body language, with glances Kosta clearly thought were subtle that were as clear as day to Reyes. Another indicator was the barely-contained sullen expression he had worn whenever Reyes had flirted with Sara, the one he was also wearing at present.
Sara made a sound that suggested she would rather drink an entire barrel of ryncol then be in her current position, “I was hoping the walk of shame would contain less shame and less of an audience.”
“Chin up, it’s character building,” Gil responded to her, before standing up and looking at Reyes, “Gil Brodie, chief engineer. You’re the Reyes Vidal I’ve heard so much about?”
Reyes raised an eyebrow at Sara.
“Not from me it’s that lot, they gossip like a bridge night full of elderly elcor,” she grumbled.
Reyes grinned and shook his hand, “Apparently. Nice to meet you.”
Gil laughed, “Oh, and here comes trouble.”
Kosta was stalking towards them, “Ryder, we’ve been trying to contact you all morning.”
He stopped in front of her, looking frustrated.
“Oh? I’m sorry I must’ve missed your calls” she replied, breezily in a way that nearly made Reyes laugh out loud.
“You have SAM in your head?”
“Ha, well that doesn’t mean I always listen to him, does it?” Sara sighed, “Look, I’m here now. You needn’t have worried.”
Kosta continued irritatedly, “Just answer your comms when you’re on Kadara, you know what this place is like. You can’t trust anyone.”
Reyes couldn’t help but feel this was levelled at him.
“If I was going to kill her, I wouldn’t have taken her to a bar where everyone knows exactly who we are beforehand,” Reyes interjected. He was careful to keep his tone level, smooth as always. He didn’t want the other man to think he saw him as any kind of threat, wanted him to think that the very idea that she would even consider Kosta when he was around was inconceivable.
Kosta’s expression resembled that of someone who had just bitten into something very bitter, “Well, you can’t exactly blame me for being concerned, you’ve proven you’re not above murder.”
“Come on you,” Gil walked over and grabbed Liam by the arm and pulled him towards the Tempest, “let’s not start an argument with the Pathfinder’s new boyfriend, bad for morale.”
Waiting until they were out of earshot before he spoke, Reyes said, “Well, he certainly fusses over you.”
“What, Liam?” Sara replied. She didn’t meet his eyes.
“You two have a history, don’t you?”
The question came out much blunter than intended. He already knew the answer, knew in the way her voice had fluctuated when she replied.
Sara looked at him before speaking reluctantly, “We did. Something happened, once. But it was a couple of months ago… It wasn’t anything serious.”
Reyes tried to keep his tone offhand, “When were you going to mention that?”
“Well, at an appropriate time? Not when I’m about to leave for what could be weeks.” Sara looked at him in disbelief, “Are you jealous?”
Reyes bit the inside of his lip. Although he knew it shouldn’t bother him, the more he thought about it the more it did irritate him. He had suspected it had all been one-sided, hadn’t imagined Kosta had seen her in the same way that he had, done with her the same things he had.
“Look,” she reached out and touched his chest, “when it happened I was terrified. We awoke to this… absolute shitstorm, I didn’t know then that it would turn out like this, that there was a way out. We’d managed one outpost on a planet that had already had two obliterated by the kett. I hadn’t even heard of Kadara then. And I was on my own. My dad died, my brother was near death, I was on this ship full of near strangers and I just needed something… familiar.”
He folded his arms but his eyes met hers. Reyes wasn't used to his, wasn't used to feeling insecure about anything, wasn't used to feeling such sourness, more intense than a bite of lemon after a shot of tequila. Sara stared back at him unblinkingly, her eyes unwavering in their sincerity. Although it shouldn't have, that in turn only made him feel more uncertain. In recent history, he had only had suspicion for people that showed so much regard for how he felt. He'd been right to. They were always false.
Sara looked at him uncertainly, “Please talk to me, it really is like an alien has invaded your body when you don’t talk. Usually, I have the opposite problem, trying to get you to shut up.”
“He still cares about you, Sara,” he replied simply. It wasn’t an accusation, just fact.
Sara shook her head, "Even if he does, it doesn’t matter. What matters is what I want.” She wound her arms around his waist tentatively, leaning into his chest, “Reyes. If after last night you think I’m interested in anyone but you, you’re out of your mind.”
He relented, his heartbeat was steadying at her touch, “That good, huh?”
“You really don’t need your ego boosting anymore,” she laughed.
He returned her embrace, pulling her closer to him. She ran her fingers over the shaved part of his hair at the back of his head, looking as though she was about to kiss him.
Instead, she spoke, eyes glittering intently, “Is this your way of saying you don't want me to sleep with anyone else?"
He pulled her face towards his slightly rougher than usual, his lips grazing hers with a growl, "Yes."
"Good," she sighed into his mouth as her lips claimed his, her fingers inching into his hair, clearly having forgotten they still had an audience.
It had been 5 days since he had last spoken to Sara and Reyes was feeling agitated. Since she had left Kadara, when she had promised to let him know how her mission went, he hadn’t received anything. He leant back in his seat. He’d just finished a meeting with his Collective ambassador to the Nexus outpost, who had informed him that mining was due to begin the following week as more colonists arrived each day, Collective patrols were managing any Outcast threat, and although clearly distrustful of the shadowy organisation, Mayor Tate had been an accommodating host. Although all this was positive, it hadn’t done much to lift his foul mood, if anything it made him feel like a dogsbody maintaining the Pathfinder’s outpost while she was off galivanting amongst the stars ignoring his messages. Reyes checked the time. The group working in the confines of Draulir should be reporting to him via voice call within the next hour, other than that it was growing late and he had nothing else scheduled for the evening. He considered meeting Kian for a whisky downstairs, but he didn’t quite have the energy. Kian would inevitably ask him probing questions about how he, as a renowned degenerate, had ended up seeing the Pathfinder. When Reyes had told Sara he didn’t mind the rumours, he’d forgotten that he would be the one having to deal with them. He rubbed his forehead tiredly. It wasn’t as though he’d been waiting around for her to message, he had more than enough of his own business to attend to and he wasn’t the sort of person to hang around moping in his lover’s absence either. He also knew, despite her secrecy, something of what her mission entailed. Infiltration of a kett ship. His connections had also informed him that she had returned successfully a couple of days ago, so it wasn’t a question of her safety. Reyes just couldn’t fathom why he had no response, not even an email. To save himself the displeasure of sitting and brooding over it all evening he dragged himself up, locking the room behind him as he went. He waved goodbye to Kian and swiftly left the club before he could ask him any further questions, trudging out into the dry evening air with the intention of getting to his destination as quickly as possible. As he sidled through the port he glanced at his omni-tool. He had sent an email (granted, this was more about the outpost than anything else) and tried to call her once already. He felt very uncomfortable about calling her again, he was uncomfortable with affording anyone that much power over him. This would be his last attempt, after that he was so stubborn she’d be lucky if he answered her calls.
Reyes tapped his omni-tool, “Sara it’s me, again. I’m assuming you took my advice and took the krogan with you as, as the Nexus hasn’t collapsed in on itself yet, you must have survived.”
He waited for a few moments but was met with silence. Reyes groaned, his feet carving out the familiar path home. Hadn’t he let her distract him enough? The Collective was in an advantageous but critical point in its ascension over the Outcasts, that was more than enough to be filling his mind with. At the moment it was filled with someone else.
His omni-tool flashed and Sara's voice replied, sounding weary, “I did take the krogan but he’s not very happy with me at the moment, so it was bad advice.”
“Can’t have been that bad if you’re still alive,” Reyes replied, shortly.
“Care to tell me why you’ve been ignoring me?” he asked, careful to keep the edge from his voice.
“I… I haven’t been ignoring you,” she sounded shaken, the seriousness of her voice disquieting.
“You have, Ryder.”
“Oh is it Ryder now? You must be angry.”
“It wasn’t that I didn’t want to talk to you, not at all,” she sighed, ”the mission was a success but at one point things got bad, really bad. I just needed a few days to process it.”
Her voice sounded heavy with worry.
Reyes paused, surprised at this new information, “Is everyone alive?”
She took a moment to respond and when she did her voice was breathy, “Yes.”
“Yes, he’s fine.”
“It’s not funny.”
“It’s a little funny.” Reyes thought for a moment, unsure how to proceed. Previously he had never had to press her to talk to him, he had always been the one that withdrew from conversations with emotional depth. At the same time, he couldn't escape the urge to draw her out, he wanted, like he couldn't remember wanting with anyone before, for her to feel as though she could confide in him. “Do you want to talk about it?”
“With you? The king of empathy?” Sara sounded dubious.
Reyes had reached the building where he rented his apartment, not under his own name of course, and he entered.
“I’m being serious."
“I know... You also sound tired," she responded, still evading his questions.
“I am. It’s all those sleepless nights imagining you dead at the bottom of a crevasse,” he quipped back doggedly, as he reached his apartment door.
“So, you were worried about me then.”
“I was worried about the fate of the galaxy if you died and left us all in Tann’s slimy, incapable hands.”
“Well, that thought is enough to keep anyone awake....”
“See?” he yawned, as he kicked off his shoes and sat at his desk, having locked up for the night.
‘I hate that it really is nice to hear your voice, even when you're being smug.”
He grinned as the usual tone crept back into her voice, the one he was so fond of, the wicked tongue that always kept him guessing. He would stop pursuing what had happened on the kett ship. For now.
“I know. I have a charming accent.”
“I am immediately regretting answering the call.”
“You’ll still call me tomorrow though.”
“Yes, because you can’t resist me.”
“I hate you.”
“Because you’re right.”
They said their farewells and he ended the call feeling a great deal better than when he had started it. He checked the time again, and his emails, before making another call.
“Keema, you busy?”
“Not for you, of course. What is it?” than angaran asked him immediately.
“How is our prisoner doing?”
“Not well… He’s still refusing to eat, I think he cared about Sloane more than anyone realised. Poor thing.” Despite her words, Keema did not sound the least bit sympathetic.
“Just make sure he’s taking on fluids, we can’t risk losing him yet,” Reyes thought for a moment. “If this continues I may pay him a visit personally.”
“I’m sure that isn’t necessary, not if you send one of your interrogators.”
“We’ll see. Thanks, Keema.”
Chapter 7: Two Sides of a Coin
Ryder's brother regains consciousness. The Charlatan tries to extract information from Sloane's second-in-command.
Ryder was tapping her hand impatiently on the rail before her, eyes fixed on her fellow Pathfinders. Since she had boarded the Archon’s ship, time seemed to have passed by in a blur. She’d thrown herself into action, only delaying her return to the Nexus to follow up on some intel she had received from Drack regarding the Krogan colony on Elaaden. She had kept herself so purposefully busy she hadn’t realised how long it was that she’d kept Reyes waiting for a response. Well, perhaps that wasn’t entirely true. Every time she had thought about messaging him she’d also thought about having to tell him the truth of what happened with the Archon, and a cold sweat would creep across her brow and down her back. When she did eventually talk to him a singular thought played in her mind, I died, I died, I died, until she allowed herself to be distracted by the lull of his voice, and the humour of his words and she returned to some state of normalcy, her breathing less constricted, her mind unfogged. Then he had gone and the intense fugue that was plaguing her had returned, crushing, draining.
“Ryder?” Avitus Rix was staring at her, and she realised he had posed her a question. After being infuriatingly stonewalled by the Nexus leadership when she had proposed going after Meridian, the other Pathfinders had stepped up in support of Ryder. All three were looking at her expectantly, and yet she felt barely able to utter a word, her mind having wandered back to that darkened room, the pain in her heart, the complete and utter nothingness…
“Pathfinder, apologies. There was an urgent message for you - they said your brother is awake,” Tann’s Aide informed her, from her desk.
“What?” she gasped, her attention immediately returning to the present
“Go, we’ll talk later in the Tech Lab.” Pathfinder Raeka said, ushering her out of the room.
“There you are!” Scott grinned at her.
She threw herself into his arms almost a little too hard as Scott grunted slightly, and Harry Carlyle chuckled, “Careful!”
Doctors bustled past them in the still too crowded cryo bay, the hubbub of voices of patients just waking still droned in the background, but it all dissolved away for Ryder. The only thing present was her brother. Her fingers slid over his wrist, feeling the steady pulse drumming beneath them soothe her own as, briefly, they beat in time. It was as if, for a moment, all her troubles had subsided, all her fears alleviated by the very fact that her twin was finally with her at last. This was how Andromeda was supposed to be. The arm over her shoulder was weak but it would strengthen, he was shaken by the death of the father but he would never be alone in his grief, not like her.
“Sara you’re starting to restrict my blood flow,” Scott wheezed.
“Sorry,” she grinned, pulling away from him. “Don’t you think you’ve slept in long enough?”
Despite her smile, she scrutinised every aspect of her brother's face, his demeanour, for signs of pain or discomfort. There were dark circles around his eyes, even though he hadn't been fully conscious for 600 years. Where Sara naturally tanned under the sun, Scott was pale and, due to current trauma, his skin was almost white, though less grey than when she had last visited him. Though a crooked smile slid naturally over his lips, there was an underlying fragility to his movements that she immediately identified, no matter how hard he tried to conceal it. As the older twin, she had always felt protective of Scott, even when they were small. With great affection, she ruffled a hand through his dishevelled hair, it was the same chestnut as hers if she kept it her natural colour. Suddenly, she was reminded of sitting him on their kitchen counter when they were 7, her mopping up a cut on his face as he bawled.
“I thought it was Saturday. Then Sunday. Then I figured someone turned off the alarm,” Scott retorted, with the same quickness that she herself often did.
“Well, I sure missed having you around. We hit a few rough patches on the way,” Ryder sat on the bed next to him.
Blue eyes almost identical to her own met hers, “I’m sorry I wasn’t there when dad died.”
Ryder sighed, “It was… all a blur really. It wouldn’t have made a difference, no one could have done anything to change it.”
“Thank you for telling me, it can’t have been an easy choice,” he replied, his eyes reflecting her own pain.
“It wasn’t, I thought I’d nearly killed you when I passed on the news,” Ryder shook her head, “it’s still weird accepting he’s really gone, y’know?”
Scott nodded soberly, “Yeah. He always seemed so indestructible, except with mom of course.” He nudged her arm. “Which is exactly why he wouldn’t want us moping around, Ryder stiff upper lip and all.”
“We definitely take after mom,” she shook her head, “especially you.”
“I’m not the one that cried at the end of Fleet and Flotilla 2, Scott.”
“Sara, Heirax died? You have a heart of stone.”
“Maybe I’m just not a hopeless romantic like you.”
“Whatever you say, sis.”
It felt good to see the light in his eyes brighten, a reassuring warmth spilling from them with a brilliance that her own cooler blue ones could never quite match.
“And Andromeda, it’s not all as bad as you think. I mean, yes, there is a terrifying race of hideous, white-eyed, aliens that have a sort of… vorcha had sex with a crab vibe, but other than that…” she grinned at him enthusiastically, “I have so many amazing things to tell you.”
“Yeah, I hear you’re the Honourable Madam Pathfinder,” Scott responded, quirking his eyebrow.
Ryder winced, “Hey, I didn’t ask for it.”
“Well, you don’t have to be the lone rider anymore,” he laughed, a little too hard, at his own joke, “get it, lone RYDER?”
She pressed her face into her hands, “You are just the absolute worst.”
“I know. This is why I need to be out there…” Scott tried to stand, as soon as he did so his legs buckled. Ryder stood quickly and caught him, lowering him back into a sitting position. Dr Carlyle rushed over and fussed around him until he laid back in bed.
Ryder sat beside him, “Bet you feel a little out of the loop, huh? Those aliens I was telling you about… the kett. They follow the Archon, he’s an absolute nutjob-“
“Didn’t he… kill you?”
Ryder blinked confusedly, “What?”
“I shouldn’t have been eavesdropping, but I heard your name and well… It’s not like I could have moved out of earshot to give you privacy. When I woke up Harry was on a call with, I’m guessing, your ship’s doctor.”
Scott reached out to touch her hand, but she flinched.
“Sara, I’m sorry…”
“It’s just… It’s the second time this has happened, the second time I’ve died, technically.”
“What?” Scott stared at her, aghast.
“When we first came to Helius, Dad died saving me, Scott. We went out onto what was supposed to be our golden world, but it was a fucking hellhole. We tried to activate this... alien planet terraformer, I’ll explain later, but it exploded with this energy and my helmet got blown open. I couldn’t breathe… Dad didn’t even hesitate, he gave me his…” words were spilling out of her at a pace so she stopped herself, cautious of overloading her brother with information.
“I didn’t know… Guess he really did love us, in his own way,” Scott said, sounding subdued.
Sara nodded, “And then a couple of months later, I spit in the face of his sacrifice by marching onto the Archon’s ship, knowing how dangerous it was. I was caught in this field and SAM had to stop my heart to get me out of it… I almost didn’t come back.”
“Pathfinder, I had no idea you felt that way. I’m sorry if you felt I was disrespecting your father’s memory, that was not my intention,” SAM interjected.
“I know SAM, I don’t blame you.”
“Sounds like you’ve been through hell,” Scott sounded frustrated, “and I’ve just been laid here, useless.”
“Don’t say that,” she touched his arm.
Although it eased the tension in her shoulders to finally talk about it, she knew it wasn’t the right time to unburden the complex shades of her mental state, to discuss how much her death had shaken her. She swiftly changed the subject.
“Like I said, some of the things we’ve seen…”
Ryder proceeded to fill her brother in on the things he had missed, about the harsh planets she’d visited and the strange, beautiful creatures that inhabited them. She enthused about the angara, explained the situation between the exiles and the Nexus, and they both wondered over the identity of the suspicious benefactor Ryder had uncovered. She began telling him about the oddball family she had forged on the Tempest when her omni-tool flashed, and she realised the other Pathfinders were still waiting for her.
“I better go, Scott,” she stood up abruptly, “it’s urgent.”
“Don’t worry, I’m not going anywhere,” Scott paused, “Sara, you are okay, aren’t you?”
Ryder wasn’t sure what would happen if she opened up about her real feelings about her death. The façade she wore every day was her armour, and if she let it slip, even for a second, it would fall, clanging to the ground.
She arranged her features into what she hoped was a convincing smile, “Of course. I’ll come back to visit as soon as I can. Make sure you rest.”
As she left she squeezed his arm, breathing a sigh of relief as the doors of the med bay closed behind her. More than one of her team members had commented that she looked a little vacant at the moment, as though always lost in thought, and she was glad of their teasing for once, as they’d put her demeanour down to being lovesick. It was different with Scott. Throughout her life Scott had been the one person whom she could consistently rely on and, no matter the distance between them, they were fiercely close. They’d had to be, with a father who felt as though he were absent even when he was in the room and a mother that loved them ceaselessly but whose life had been tragically cut short. Unlike the others, he would have seen right through her protestations if she had given him the chance.
After setting plans in motion for Meridian with the other Pathfinders and a rather hurried interview with Keri T’vessa, Ryder returned to the Tempest. She made her way swiftly past Peebee’s escape pod turned bedroom, eager to avoid any further probing questions from the insistent, irrepressible asari. Since her night with Reyes, Peebee had been looking for opportunities to interrogate Ryder, but luckily things had been so hectic recently that she’d been able to avoid her for the most part. The morning they left Kadara, to placate her when Peebee had cornered her in the kitchen, Ryder had muttered, “Put it this way, the codename Shena is very fitting.”
Peebee had looked at her round-eyed, and Ryder had used this opportunity to slink out of the room, only to hear Peebee say, “Shena…? Mouth? OH.”
Had the incident not happened on the Archon’s ship, Ryder supposed she wouldn’t have minded the fuss. Right now, she’d probably be welcoming the opportunity to share her thoughts with someone, since she’d kept the extent of her feelings for Reyes concealed for so long. They’d all seen them flirting, anyone who’d been in her party at the time would’ve found it hard to miss, but until more recently none of the crew had ever taken it seriously. Ryder knew she should still be savouring it, the heart-hammering, stomach-flipping sensations that coursed through her whenever she thought about him, or when she relived certain breathless moments in her mind. Instead, most of the time she had felt numb.
Ryder found Lexi in her clinic as she’d hoped.
She was careful to make sure her statement didn’t sound like an accusation, “Lexi, did you talk to Harry about me… dying?”
Lexi looked immediately affronted, “I have done nothing to break patient confidentiality, nor would I. Harry had heard about the events aboard the Archon’s ship, which in itself is worrying as the Initiative leadership seems to have been a bit slack with this information, anyway, I told him you seemed to be dealing with it as well as could be expected and we spoke no more of it.”
“I know Lexi, I wasn’t trying to imply you were. It’s just Scott brought it up and I just wanted to make sure you weren’t overly concerned. I’m fine.”
“Ryder, outside of our discussion with SAM about his role in what happened, we still have not had a conversation about it. I know you are resilient, but this is not something you just get over in a matter of days,” Lexi reasoned, her eyes watching her closely.
Ryder squirmed beneath her gaze which felt as though it pierced right through her, down to her bones.
“Thankfully because I'm clearly a superior, higher level of being, I’m fine,” she quipped.
“You can’t disguise everything with humour.”
“You just watch me,” Ryder replied defiantly, folding her arms.
“Well if you don’t want to talk me you should at least talk to someone else about this. Your brother…”
“Has only just woken up from a coma and doesn’t need my baggage.”
“Is still learning about human emotions from me, Lexi. Y’know, the one not dealing with her emotions and deflecting with witty remarks?”
“Good point,” she thought. “What about Reyes?”
Ryder’s skin suddenly felt hot and not a comforting warmth, more of a creeping, feverish feeling.
“What about him?”
“I know you’re only just at the beginning of your relationship but if he truly cares about you then I’m sure you could talk to him.”
“Bit difficult considering I haven’t told him.”
“Ryder!” Lexi admonished her. “How would you feel if you were in his shoes?”
“Weird because I’d have a di-“
“Ryder.” Her voice was firm this time.
Ryder sighed. She remembered the creeping feeling she’d had back in the cave in Draulir, when she’d imagined Sloane killing Reyes. The idea that he could be lying there cold somewhere, the spark drained from his eyes, the familiar smiled ripped from his lips, and she didn’t know… It sent a bitter chill through her, worse than anything she'd felt on Voeld, as though she were freezing from the inside. Although she couldn’t be sure how deep his attachment to her was, it was always so difficult to be sure of anything with him, she had to admit that he’d probably want to know.
“I’ll tell him,” Ryder relented, “well, I’ll try… He’s not exactly forthcoming with his own problems, either.”
“Well, maybe you should lead by example,” Lexi smiled in a self-satisfied fashion.
“Ugh,” Ryder groaned, “I hate it when you’re right.”
Lexi gave another of her penetrating stares, “Think about what I have said, Sara. Your mental health is just as important as your physical wellbeing in helping or hindering your abilities as Pathfinder. We will be having another discussion about this, soon.”
“You sound like my mother.”
“That’s my job.”
Ryder slouched out of Lexi’s clinic, feeling slightly like a naughty child but also a little lighter. Although the idea of telling Reyes what had happened still made her chest tighten uncomfortably, the thought of seeing him again alleviated this considerably. She thought of his last email. He had ended it: Thinking of you always, Reyes. Her heart skipped in response.
“We’re getting nothing, sir,” a gruff voice crackled over the comm.
“Then hit him again,” came the cold, swift response.
There was a crunching sound as a gloved fist connected with mandibles. In the darkened room the screen was the only light. A man was reclining in his chair exhaling smoke as he talked, wafting it aside as it filtered in front of the screen. He ran a hand frustratedly through his dark hair, eyes fixed on the display before him. At its centre was a turian tied to a chair, his face was thick with dark blue blood as it streamed from his nose and mouth. One of his eyes was sealed shut due to swelling. Despite the tortured shaking of his limbs, the turian recovered quickly, sitting back up, his head held high in quiet defiance. He didn’t say a word. A grim-looking asari was stalking around him, her fist alight with the blue haze of her biotics.
The voice that was emitting from the man’s omni-tool was insistent, “I don’t think this tactic will work with him”
The asari on the screen repeated her question, her voice cool, “What can you tell me about Sloane’s operation?”
His mandibles clicked as the turian laughed, his voice cold, “Tell the Charlatan this. He and his pathfinder are marked for death. It’s only a matter of time.”
The voice sounded stunned, “We’ve been at it for 3 hours and that’s the first time he’s uttered a word.”
“Hit him. Harder.”
This message was relayed and without a word, the asari kicked the turian in the chest. Assisted by her biotics the chair upturned, and he was sent sprawling onto his back. The turian lay there, coughing and spluttering as his own blood filled his throat.
The man let out an impatient noise, “Sit him back up before he chokes to death.”
“We’ll give him a break, then try something else.”
“Fine. But you should know the Charlatan expects results. Do whatever you have to, I don’t care what as long as you don’t kill him or damage him irreparably, we may need him later. Understood?”
There was a pause.
Reyes disconnected the call with a grimace, before slamming his fist on the surface before him, frustrated.
He. His pathfinder.
What did Kaetus know?
Chapter 8: Lines in the Sand
Ryder tries to convince Reyes he is a better man than his actions suggest, and gets him to live up to his title as 'King of Kadara'.
Nearly two weeks since her last visit to Kadara, Ryder was planning her return to the planet. She was pacing back and forth atop the sandy cliffside that overlooked Prodromos, having spent time on the planet with some of her colleagues. After planting seeds with Cora, a football game with Liam had thankfully eased some of the tension that had fallen between them since he had exchanged heated words with Reyes. Liam still clearly disapproved of her relationship with the Charlatan, but he certainly hadn’t been the only one with misgivings. Although generally disinterested, when the subject had been broached in his presence Drack had muttered something along the lines of “I’m not above shooting someone in the back, but let’s hope for Ryder’s sake he’s not actually quadless.” Jaal had given her something of a pep talk about the dangers of choosing ‘bad boys’ and recited from an old angaran text about the traits of a steadfast man. She couldn’t be entirely sure if Jaal was deliberately fudging some of them, but a lot of them seemed to fit the profile of Liam a little too well (17 – sentimental about household furnishings, 26 – prone to falling from a height). She found herself wondering to what extent Reyes had been correct, how deep Liam’s feelings actually ran. After their tryst several months ago, she and Liam had always been familiar with each other, but she had always assumed his intentions had been platonic. If this wasn’t the case she couldn’t understand why he hadn’t been more direct about what he wanted, it wasn’t as if Liam was shy. Ryder had still felt a lingering attraction to him, which she herself hadn’t taken great caution with obscuring, but as she received what seemed like nothing in return they’d assumed a close camaraderie instead. Other crew members, although issuing warnings about completely trusting the Charlatan, had been a lot more positive. Suvi and Gil appeared to have embraced the situation with the same zeal that Cora and Peebee had, given that Ryder had caught them mid-conversation the day previous discussing whether they could sell the movie rights to the story of their epic romance. Along with Kallo, they mused about potential titles, trying to make them as awful and cheesy as possible. Ryder humoured this until she heard ‘Pirate and Pathfinder: The Quest for Booty’, and the inevitable sequel 'The Plundering of Pathfinder Cove’, and she coughed loudly behind Suvi in the cockpit. This resulted in Suvi turning an interesting shade of magenta and hastily cutting the call.
She and Reyes had been in contact whenever they had the opportunity, both busy, her with her missions and him with business. Despite Lexi’s advice, she still had not talked to him about what had befallen her on the Archon’s ship. On the contrary, she had kept their conversations light, playful, full of musings about what they would be doing if they were together. Reyes had some intriguing ideas. The more she talked with him, the more Ryder realised she was in danger of becoming dependent on their conversations, on him. She had learned before, the hard way, that she could be misguided when choosing who to place her reliance on. She was not deaf to her friends’ warnings, they spoke from a place of genuine concern and Ryder knew that were one of them in her place, she would be giving the same advice. Incredibly fond of him or not, even she recognised this could end poorly. And, yet… this was the choice she had made, if it could be called a choice. She had never been able to resist the pull he had over her.
Ryder slouched down, sat with her back resting against the Nomad, twisting strands of red hair between her fingers pensively. From this angle, she could watch the colonists scurrying back and forth across the outpost, dashes of colour in an endless sea of sand. She shifted slightly so the sun that glinted off the Tempest’s wing no longer shone into her eyes. Ryder knew she should really talk to Reyes about what had happened before she got to Kadara. She tapped at her omni-tool.
“You free Reyes?”
“I am, as it happens,” he replied, smoothly. “Everything okay with you?”
As it always did, the silky sound of his voice relaxed her instantly.
“Yeah, I nearly broke my neck when I tripped down a dune this morning but otherwise good. You?”
“Sara Ryder. Destroyer of Kett, Saviour of the Galaxy, defeated by sand.”
She smirked, “That’s what my gravestone will say.”
Ryder immediately regretted saying this as this brought her mind back to what she had originally intended to talk to him about.
She steeled herself, “Reyes…”
“I had to deal with a traitor today, it got quite grisly in the end,” his voice rushed, suddenly taking her by surprise.
“Are you alright?” Ryder replied, carefully.
“I’m just shocked. She’d been around since the beginning, nearly became one of the few who knew my real identity...” there was uncertainty in his voice, “and all that time she was leaking information to the Outcasts, information that could have killed all of us.”
“Maybe she had a reason? Did you ask?” Ryder reasoned.
“No, had to make an example out of her,” Reyes responded, soberly.
“What does that mean?”
“Sara, you know what that means.”
“You didn’t even let her defend herself?”
Ryder was not a fool. Even in the Milky Way there had been places like Kadara, she had travelled enough and seen enough to know how they worked. She knew the sorts of the things Reyes would inevitably be engaged in under the guise of the Charlatan, but it was hard hearing the truth of it. It was easier to lie to herself that the Collective was better than the others, was better than the Outcasts had been. Gangs, smugglers, slavers, they lived by their own morals, held to their own code. It was easier to tell herself that the Collective was less corrupt when at her core she knew this couldn’t be true.
“I had proof. I had no choice,” he continued, his tone resolute.
“You always have a choice, Reyes.”
“Maybe you do, but it’s not that simple. On Kadara people expect blood. If the Collective shows any hesitancy to act, any mercy, it would be seen as weakness and other groups would try to muscle in. It’s how it is. That’s how you win the game.”
“Well, sometimes you need to change the rules, if you want to play the game how you want,” Ryder challenged.
“Who says I want to change the rules?”
“Well, it bothered you enough to want to talk to me about it.”
Silence drew out for a few seconds and Reyes seemed hesitant to respond. Ryder drew lines on the ground with her finger, tracing spirals in the sand.
“I don’t want to argue with you, Sara,” he replied eventually.
“You don’t like me because I agree with you all the time,” she insisted, “you like that I challenge you.”
“You...” he hesitated again, almost sounding frustrated, “you know, you have killed a lot of people yourself.”
“That’s true, but I don’t make a habit of executing them…”
Ryder’s voice trailed off as she thought about the Cardinal, and the fact she had killed her without warning when she had been unarmed. The context was different but at the same time, her words smacked of hypocrisy.
“Sara, we both have our own battles to fight. You know the sort of man I am. It doesn’t change who I am to you. Is this going to be a problem?”
Ryder knew that it should be. This, in conjunction with what had already happened with Sloane, should be a big enough issue for her to walk away and never look back. To refuse to see Reyes ever again, to talk to him only when her duties required it. Had he tried to hide this information, lie to her again, then she would have done. But he had told her, surely knowing that she would disagree with him. He had wanted to know her opinion, which suggested he wasn’t completely confident in his decision, that there was uncertainty there. The more she came to understand Reyes, even though it was piece by painstaking piece, she knew that whatever had happened in his past had sculpted him this way. It was in the way he was so guarded with information about himself, that he was sometimes so confident and yet in rare openings, she had seen a far more tender side to his personality that was otherwise scrupulously hidden.
“You’re a better man than this, Reyes.”
He chuckled but this time it lacked mirth, “I’m flattered, but I’m not sure you’re right.”
Despite what he had done, the soft, uncertain tone to his voice made her more impatient than ever to see him again. It made her want to reassure him that he was someone, and that was someone worth being. With everything that had happened, it felt a lot longer than days since they had last been together. Now wasn’t the time to bring up her original intentions for calling him, but she needed to see him, needed to feel his skin on hers.
“Anyway, as I said before you like a challenge,” she smiled, “I actually have one for you.”
“Now that sounds intriguing,” his tone shifted to an alluring one, clearly more than happy to change the subject, “although, if it’s a test of endurance I think I have already proven myself beyond question. You have been gone such a long time and I do not have nearly enough recollections of you in compromising positions to keep me going.”
Below her navel, a familiar pulsing warmth was spreading and Ryder reminded herself she was atop a cliff, not in the confines of her quarters.
Ryder knew she shouldn’t, but she allowed herself to fall back into the familiar routine, the teasing back and forth they engaged in whenever they spoke to each other, “Oh really? Have I disappointed you?”
“You only ever disappoint me by your absence. In person, you are always a delight. Especially when you are beneath me.”
“What about on top of you?”
“Sara, I don’t care what position we are in. I just want to hear you moan my name.”
Ryder made a strangled sound and her body shivered, uncontrollably. Reyes chuckled in response.
“Where are you?” he asked, his voice low, seductive, dangerous.
“P-Prodromos. We’re leaving soon but I wanted a few minutes to myself.”
“Oh? That’s a shame. Just thinking about it had made me…” Reyes took a heavy breath that sent another ripple through her body and Ryder’s shoulders slid further down the Nomad, her pulse quickening, “I was hoping we could continue discussing what I will do with you when I next see you. In detail.”
“Well,” Ryder took a moment to steady her voice, “I may be able to do you one better than that.”
“Is that so? This something to do with your challenge?”
“As a matter of fact, it is. I’m coming to Kadara tonight. There’s something that requires my attention, it’s something I don’t think you’ll want to miss,” Ryder enthused.
“Meet me at Kurinth’s Valley. it’ll be worth it.”
“You had me at Kadara and tonight.”
As the ship reached the coordinates Sara had sent him, Reyes felt slightly disappointed upon finding Sara in company. He jumped from the open hatch of the ship, signalling the pilot to take off but remain in the area to patrol. The Nomad was parked on the prow of a hill overlooking vast blue pools of steaming water, two people astride it. Reyes strode towards them, past the angaran resistance fighter, Jaal, who was stood a little away from the vehicle, looking off at something in the distance with great interest. His focus was so intense Reyes thought he hadn’t noticed him at first, not until he muttered, “Vidal,” without even a glance in his direction.
“Clear skies?” he responded.
Reyes returned his attention to the Nomad, which Sara was sat on top of, talking to her other companion. Peebee was perched next to her and, mid laugh, Sara pushed her off the vehicle in what appeared to be response to something scandalous her companion had said, considering the matching wicked grins on both their faces. Reyes found himself wondering for a moment what it must be like to have people to confide in, to have people he actually spoke to about him and Sara. The idea seemed strange. As he drew closer, she turned her blue gaze on him and her body language changed immediately. She pushed herself off the edge of the Nomad, one foot tucked behind the other, limbs stiff, expectant. As she shifted her hair fell over her shoulder. Tied in a long plait, the dark red was vibrant against the stark white and blue of her armour. His eyes lingered over her body, the lines of her armour accentuating the rise and fall of her curves, so tight that he didn’t need his imagination to remember how she had looked beneath it. As much as he would’ve liked to have approached in a cool, nonchalant way, he couldn’t stop his lips curving into a grin as her eyes locked with his, glinting with restless excitement.
“Reyes, we’ve been waiting-"
Reyes abandoned all his intentions of putting on any front, instead allowing his eagerness to show by moving swiftly towards her and kissing her without warning, without restraint. He pinned her in place against the Nomad, her lower back against the metal, her front curved against his body. He could feel her need for him in the way she caressed his tongue with hers, in the way her body loosened to his touch. He found himself again wishing that they were alone, which was only exacerbated by the asari interjecting playfully, “I am still here you know.”
“We both are,” Jaal’s more distant voice added.
Reyes held onto her a few seconds longer before he let Sara pull away.
“You missed me then?” Sara gave him a coy smile, her cheeks dimpling in the attractive way they always did. If she was embarrassed by this public display of affection, it was overridden by her pleasure at seeing him.
“I missed this.”
Reyes leant towards her again, but she pushed him back, laughing.
Reluctantly he let his hands fall from his sides, “Care to tell me why you brought me all the way out here to this delightful location?”
“If you can bear to spend 2 minutes not making out with Ryder then you’ll see for yourself,” Peebee pointed somewhere over his shoulder, in the direction Jaal was looking. Reyes turned and frowned, unable to discern what she was talking about.
“Here, look,” Sara led him towards Jaal, stopping when they were at his side. She leant on him and pointed with her other hand, “See that shimmering in the sky, over there?”
Reyes squinted, his gaze travelling over the rocky landscape, past the steaming lake and across the fantastically tall, mushroom-like plants that dotted the area. In the distance, there were several remnant structures, tall columns that glowed with an eerie blue light, their surfaces shimmering with an unknown script. Above them was something gigantic, so impossibly gigantic that he started when he saw it. Although he was not close enough to make out all of it, as it spiralled in the air the light glinted off its metallic surface.
Reyes stared at Sara, aghast, “What is that?”
“That is what we’re going to fight,” she smirked at him, “you are game aren’t you?”
He regarded her calculatingly, “You really want my help? I didn’t realise the Initiative was so understaffed.”
“Well, I thought the so-called King of Kadara would want a hand in taking down a ferocious beast threatening his kingdom,” Sara shrugged, “but I mean if you’re too-“
“It’s on the move!” Jaal announced alertly, “it’s coming this way.”
Sara’s head jerked back to its previous position, her attention back on the sky. Suddenly businesslike she muttered, “We better go, you in Reyes?”
“Of course, I am. I always rise to a challenge, Ryder.”
Sara pulled her assault rifle from its holster and jumped over the edge of the hill, “Last one there is a space cow!”
Jaal and Peebee followed suit, and Reyes called after them, “That’s cheating, I don’t have a jump jet!”
He dropped over the edge, taking the short drop rather more carefully than the others, and sped forwards until he was running in step with Sara and her companions. The pounding of their feet kicked plumes of dust as they ran, skirting the border of the blue lake and continuing on towards the remnant structures.
“This is the fourth architect I’ve seen, they’re on nearly every planet we’ve been to,” Sara informed him between panting breaths, “I thought you’d want to see it, in case anything happens and it returns after we reprogram it.”
“And how do you do that?”
It was drawing closer now and Reyes could finally decipher what it was. It was clearly remnant, albeit a huge one, although it did not resemble anything like what he had seen before. The way it moved reminded him of a sea creature, carving its way through the air as though it were liquid. There was something peaceful about it, almost melancholy, a lone soldier of a civilisation passed, lost without its orders. That was until they drew close enough to be visible to the architect, which thrust its three tentacle-like limbs into the ground, turning its bright, glowing face towards them.
“Aim for the legs when the red light is exposed, then the face when it opens. As for weapons, it has turrets, it’ll summon smaller remnant so watch out for those, and it has bombs too! Oh, most importantly it fires out a blast of energy that’s really nasty and will completely rinse your shields then starts to burn away at your skin instead. Other than that, smooth sailing!” Sara called to them all as they reached the cover of a low cliff surrounded by rocks. She took cover behind one and began firing rapidly.
“It’s not lacking in ways to kill you!” Reyes cried back, as he too began shooting at the monstrosity, wondering quite how he had let his ego get him tangled up in this. The others fanned out, each taking a similar defensive stance. As Sara had predicted, as soon as they had trained their weapons on the leg nearest to them and it started taking damage, the remnant summoned others of its kind. Emerging as though from nothing they appeared, namely (from what he could remember from some of his agent’s field notes) observers and assemblers.
“Peebee you flank the right side, Jaal you take the left. Drop back if you get too much heat,” Sara directed them as she seamlessly holstered her Sandstorm and took out her sniper rifle. She knelt down and fired three shots, an observer dropping to the ground as the first collided with its shield and the second and third hit the eye at its centre. Reyes rolled forwards, so he was lodged behind a rock, this position providing better placement from which to shoot. He shifted his body upwards, peering over the top of his shelter, firing at an assembler until it exploded dramatically.
“You not going to give me any orders, Pathfinder?” he asked, as he reloaded before popping out of cover again to aim at another observer. Sara caught the same one with her biotics, hurling it against the ground, and he finished it off with gunfire. Having cleared all of the smaller remnant, they, and their more distant allies, began firing repeatedly at the leg nearest them.
“You wouldn’t listen to me anyway!”
The leg buckled, and the architect elicited a robotic whine, exposing its face.
“Depends what you asked me to do!”
They all fired upon it in unison until the architect took flight, spiralling back into the air.
“We have to follow it, come on!”
Sara took off at a run and he followed, the others meeting their path as they appeared from either side.
“Isn’t it beautiful?” Peebee cried as she nearly stumbled over a rock, her gaze fixed on the gigantic remnant.
“I’m sure you won’t be saying that when it blows your legs off,” Reyes replied.
“Or one of its friends slices you in half,” Jaal added.
“Well aren’t you two just a barrel of laughs today!” Sara interjected as they closed in upon the architect once more, as it wove above the strange remnant structures Reyes had seen earlier.
“A barrel of…? Ah, another idiom. Shit,” Jaal responded.
They continued in the familiar pattern alternating their fire between the leg, the smaller remnant and the architect’s face whenever it was exposed. Despite the formidable force, their tactics were working, as one by one, the smaller remnant fell. Reyes threw a grenade that sent three of them spinning in a cascade of sparks, the rest of the team finishing the job with gunfire. A remnant that was slightly larger and more intimidating than the others blasted them with an explosive attack that was difficult to dodge, pinning both Reyes and Sara down behind a barrier that had been aligned between the structures for some old, forgotten purpose. This was until Peebee dispatched it with a shockwave of biotic energy that shook the ground and tore the machine inside out. Little by little, they chipped away at the architect. However, as its health declined, the architect’s attacks were becoming more aggressive, as though some failsafe in its programming had triggered. Reyes grunted as he ducked a little too slowly, and several shots from the architect’s turret grazed his shoulder, bloodying it. He heard Sara call his name as he threw himself behind a remnant column, applying medi-gel to his wound from one of the pockets of his flight suit.
Before he could look up, she had knelt beside him, “Are you okay?”
“Relax, it just caught me.”
Automatically Jaal dropped back to assist them, providing them with covering fire. Sara moved forwards, shifting her gun into one hand as her fist crackled with electricity, dispelling this up towards the machine’s face. The resulting shock fizzled across it and Reyes moved up next to her, shooting an observer that had Jaal pinned. The angaran nodded at him curtly but appreciatively.
Before long the ground shuddered as the architect threw itself into the air once more. From behind the barrier next to him, Sara stood and watched it rise higher into the sky.
She looked at him, mischievous grin in place, “Maybe you should wait here, technically you are a civvie.”
Reyes stood abruptly, indignantly, “So are you. Besides, I was in the Alliance.”
She arched an eyebrow at him, “As a pilot.”
“That may be but I’ve been on Kadara for-“
“You coming or not lovebirds?” Peebee called as she zipped past them, followed closely by Jaal. Wordlessly they followed the pair, weaving their way between the mass of remnant columns that pointed toward the sky and back out onto open plains. The architect descended for what Reyes hoped was the final time. All talking between the four of them ceased besides warnings of imminent fire and Sara’s advisements on where to take cover. After several minutes and following more near misses, the architect was weakening, straining under their sustained fire upon its glowing face. From somewhere nearby, Reyes heard Sara let out a cry. He span round as a flying remnant clawed at her armour, and Reyes focused his shots upon it. She let out a gasp at it released her and bounced to the ground, breaking into several pieces. Sliding to the floor, Sara rubbed her chest and coughed for a moment before adjusting her grip on her weapon and getting to her feet. The architect let out something akin to a death rattle. Distracted as he was, Reyes didn’t notice the final blast of energy that passed through the rock in front of him. The air around him was very suddenly a crackling haze of red and blue.
“Shit,” he hissed as he attempted to throw himself out of its path.
Accompanying a sensation that felt like several thousand thorns pricking at his skin, the energy field seemed to slow him down, almost paralysing him completely and making it difficult to escape. Any attempt to move further exacerbated this, as though the barbs were forcing themselves into his flesh. As he groaned something collided with him so heavily that it sent him flying out of the energy field by several metres, until he ended up sprawled face up on the ground. The pain immediately receded, that was until the same something collapsed on top of him, knocking the air out of his lungs with a rasp. Slowly he opened his eyes, and he realised it was Sara that was laid on top of him, his vision a blur as red hair obscured his vision. He could feel her body shaking and after a moment of alarm, he realised it was because she was laughing.
She sat up, her thighs straddling his, eyes alight, “Well, you did say you didn’t mind which position.”
It was hard to imagine she was the same person that a few days before had sounded so despondent when he had called her, so downcast. He didn’t understand why she always seemed so carefree, so cheerful when the things that were going on around her were enough to bring anyone ordinary to their knees. His entire body felt tired and sore after the battle, yet she barely seemed to have broken a sweat, laughter so ready on her lips. Lips he realised he desperately wanted to kiss again. Her blue eyes were locked onto his, all the brighter as they almost perfectly matched the hue of her armour. As she chuckled, her nose scrunched, emphasising how it turned up delicately at the end. He had known a lot of beautiful women in his life, but none had gripped him in the way that she did. None had ever risked their lives for him in the same way either. Reyes was considering dragging her back down on top of him when he heard Peebee calling out to them. Sara shifted to her feet, holding out her hand to help him up.
“When I said that I hadn’t planned on it being in the middle of a field,” Reyes replied as he sat up and patted down his flightsuit, dust rising off it in plumes. He reached to take her extended hand.
“Well, beggars can’t be-”
Sara began her sentence with a familiar grin, but it ended with a grimace and a cry of agony. A sound like the tearing of a ship’s hull ripped through the air as a shot struck Sara in the shoulder.
Chapter 9: An Honest Charlatan
Reyes and the Pathfinder team deal with the aftermath of Ryder being shot. Ryder sees a a different side to the Charlatan.
Thanks again to all who have left kudos!
The agony that had exploded in her shoulder as skin and flesh and muscle was torn away in a single searing shot cast a lone cry from her lips. Ryder stumbled backwards onto the ground, her hand automatically gripping at her wound, dark red already seeping into crisp white. Her breath fell from her in great gasps as arms took hold of her waist, secure fingers gripping her tightly as she was propelled forwards. Guttural, she heard Reyes grunt as she was dragged, shade cast over her eyes as her back met cold stone. She squeezed her eyes shut, trusting her life momentarily to the Charlatan without pause, without question.
Ryder felt his arms slide from beneath her and he was so close she could feel his ragged breaths on her face, “Sara, are you alright?” She felt something being tied, tightening around her shoulder, probably a bandage of some kind, and she exhaled sharply trying to fight back the light-headedness caused by further pressure on her wound. “I’ve used all my medi-gel, that’ll have to do for now.”
“I’m just fucking peachy,” Ryder hissed between gruelling intakes of breath.
SAM’s voice played in both her head and through her omni-tool so Reyes could hear, “That was a shot from an Isharay, I have analysed all potential trajectories and have a nav point available of the assailant’s most likely position.”
“Send it to my omni-tool, I have agents nearby,” Reyes replied, as SAM accommodated his request and Reyes tapped at the device, “also remind me to never fuck with you SAM.”
“I’m glad you are finding this amusing,” Ryder grimaced. “All that will be no good if I bleed to death.”
Ryder squinted at her companion. Reyes’ keen eyes were turned upwards, over the edge of the rock they were perched precariously behind, “Whoever they are I think they’ve bolted, they didn’t follow it up with another shot. They could’ve easily killed us both,” he snorted, “amateurs.”
Ryder moaned as the adrenaline which had been previously coursing through her body was beginning to subside, the throbbing pain arcing through her body like tendrils, spreading through her arm and into her fingertips, making root in her chest. Her fingers shook as they clasped over her shoulder, over the bloodied bandage. Reyes turned back to her abruptly, the shadows on his face rendering it inscrutable.
“Be that as it may, I’m rather glad they didn’t,” she snapped wearily, “I’m also glad you are being so very casual about all of this!”
“I’m not, I-“ Reyes peeled her fingers away gently and she squeezed her eyelids shut as her skin seared, “shit, that’s deeper than I thought. We need to get you out of here.”
A light voice and padding footsteps announced Peebee’s presence, along with a crackle in the air that suggested she had raised biotic shields around them, “I stayed in cover because I heard the shot and I couldn’t see where it came from… Oh shit, Ryder!”
“Come on,” Reyes murmured, as he leant over Ryder. He placed one hand firmly around her waist, fingers trailing down her side and resting over her ribs as he tried to avoid knocking her arm. Gingerly, she looped her uninjured arm over his shoulders and, after glancing at her for a second to check that she was ready, he hoisted her to her feet. They slipped out from under her, but Reyes held her steady until she regained her footing.
Ryder swayed slightly, her teeth grinding against each other as she fought back another groan.
A hand tilted her head upwards carefully in a feather-light touch, and even though she did not open her eyes she knew it was Jaal. He sounded deeply concerned, “What happened?”
“The Pathfinder was shot by an unknown assailant in the hills. Mr Vidal has called in Collective agents…” SAM informed him.
“Who are currently closing in on their position,” Reyes finished his sentence, “I also have a ship coming in to pick us up. We need to get Sara to a doctor.”
“That’s not necessary, we’ll take her in the Nomad,” Jaal responded.
“She’s better off with me, you can’t go shaking her around in that death-trap.”
“We’re the Pathfinder team we should come with you, stay with her,” Peebee reasoned, “but then there’s the Nomad…”
“SAM can’t the Tempest come directly to us?” Jaal insisted.
“The terrain is not suitable, the ship is already at the nearest accessible extraction point which is Ditaeon,”
Ryder’s hand slipped on Reyes’ shoulder as she struggled to keep standing, she let her head loll forwards, finding it difficult to concentrate on anything but maintaining consciousness as the red dirt at her feet blurred in and out of focus. Reyes’ grip tightened in response.
“You can’t take her to the outpost, that’s where they will be expecting her to go,” Reyes sounded impatient, “this was an assassination attempt, that’s where they will wait to finish the job.”
“An… assassination?” Jaal gasped.
“They waited for an opportunity when her shields were down, what else could it be?”
Ryder thought she could hear the heavy sound of a ship’s engines as it descended.
“Where do you propose taking her then?” Jaal’s voice sounded testy.
“I… I don’t know. They could have the Port covered, same as the outpost, we could go to Draulir but that’s….” Reyes sounded hesitant.
“They don’t all know you’re the Charlatan, do they? Other members of the Collective would learn who you are...” Peebee finished.
“I’m sure I could spin them some story...”
There was little conviction in Reyes' voice.
Having listened to them talk, Ryder had been trying to force something of a plan from her frenzied mind. She heaved an agonised sigh, forcing her eyes open and her face upwards, fighting to keep her voice even, “Look. Let Reyes take me, I’ll be fine. Both of you get the Nomad back to Ditaeon. SAM, tell Vetra and Drack to scope out the area around the outpost, make sure it’s safe for the settlers.”
“I assume you have a plan for where I am taking you?” Reyes asked.
“Tartarus,” Ryder forced out the words in a jumble of half-uttered syllables.
“What?” Reyes breathed, staring at her from beneath her arm with a confused expression.
“Are you insane?” Peebee shook her head vehemently.
“The Pathfinder’s logic is sound. It is unlikely to be somewhere that anyone looking for her would expect. I will alert Dr T’Perro and she will meet us there with an escort," SAM stated.
“I’ll get men on the boundary to the slums that know who I am, they’ll watch us while we get inside,” Reyes nodded, before glancing over his shoulder, “the ship’s here, we should go. Now.”
In the periphery of her vision, Jaal stumbled forwards in a motion that suggested he wanted to stop them, “Wait-“
“Hold on…” Ryder murmured, “…the architect, it needs reprogramming.”
“You can’t be serious, Sara you can barely stand," Reyes rebuffed her suggestion, incredulously.
“Reyes, I have to. I’m not fighting this fucking thing again.”
After further protestations made it clear she would not change her mind, Reyes guided her the excruciating hundred metres or so it took to reach the architect’s face. Ryder clung onto Reyes’ shoulder as she held out her arm, activating the remnant’s code and sending it careering into the sky at speed.
“What the…” Reyes muttered.
Ryder fell against him weakly and the constant security of his hands did not falter as he held her close to his own body. Her vision hazy, she looked over his shoulder and saw they had the same length to walk back to reach the ship, “Fuck.”
“You could let me carry you?” Reyes asked, though with her senses dulled Ryder couldn’t tell if he was serious or not.
“I’d rather bleed to death.”
Reyes steered her around, guiding her back towards the ship with firm, stable hands. She was vaguely aware that Peebee and Jaal were still close by.
“That reminds me, did I ever tell you about the time I accidentally sat on a krogan mercenary’s chocolate rations?” Reyes continued.
“Krogans… like… chocolate?”
“You never want to find out just how much. You see…”
Reyes lowered her onto a seat.
“Lie down,” he murmured.
Tears stinging her eyes, Ryder wheezed as she did as she was bidden.
Everything after the fight had been a blur. They had climbed onto a ship, she hadn’t even seen what it looked like, where what she assumed had been a Collective agent had staunched the blood flowing from her wound. Reyes had continued with his story as though nothing were amiss, telling her about how, after a fist fight in which Reyes was grossly overpowered, the krogan had thrown him through a window, resulting in him nearly flattening a family of elcor and spending the following month in intensive care, re-learning how to walk. It was only now that they had reached their destination, after her semi-conscious walk from the ship, up the stairs and into Tartarus where he had fended off questions from exiles with a wave of his hand and a “Pathfinder can’t hold her alcohol,” that Reyes sounded concerned.
“They’ll be here any minute.”
The only sound that accompanied his voice was the low beat of the music carrying from the next room. Aching, she squeezed her hand into a fist as splintering pain jackknifed down her arm. Although the bleeding had stopped, they'd had nothing in the way of painkillers to give her, and there was still a hole in her shoulder which sent lances of fire through her body at every vibration of her quickened pulse.
“Thank you,” she croaked, her throat dry.
He chuckled warmly, “For what? Not leaving you to die?”
She felt his fingers brush the length of her hair, tentatively at first until they assumed a regular, reassuring motion. At intervals, his thumb would slide, tracing delicately the angular lines of her cheekbone, before tangling back into waves of red. The softness of his touch surprised her, when before his caresses had often been so firm, so commanding. Despite the fog-filled pounding of her head, the sickening tremors that shook through her, Ryder opened her eyes a fraction so she could look at Reyes. Reyes was knelt on the floor next to her. Kadaran dust covered his flightsuit accompanied by the streaks of crimson she had left, as well as the culmination at the rip at his shoulder where the shirt beneath was stained a darker red. One rather more profound alteration to his appearance was the unusual expression on his face. His tapering black eyebrows were furrowed, the almond eyes below wide open, exposed, not cloaked by a guise, anxiously flicking from her face to the door. Although his face was lined with experience, several years more than hers, the apprehension made him look younger somehow. When he saw her looking his expression shifted and he smiled at her so convincingly she found herself wondering, not for the first time, at why he had had to learn to deceive so easily, his lips turning up at the corners like the grin of the Cheshire Cat, the warmth even finding a place in his eyes.
Far more than comforting her, it filled her with a soreness that was unrelated to her injuries.
“You don’t have to do that. Not with me.”
Her words came out faintly, but she was determined he should hear them.
His voice sounded different. Quieter. Before, like a wounded animal would don its defence mechanism, his face transformed as he attempted to cloak his vulnerability with his usual mask, the creases in his face smoothing out, the worry in his eyes hidden as he glanced away from her. “Sara, you…”
“Don’t,” Ryder reached for the hand that he had leant against the seat, her voice as determined as she could make it, “pretend.”
He gazed at her uncertainly, façade slipping again. In his eyes she could see the unfamiliarity, even the hurt, at being so exposed and she trailed her fingertips over his knuckles as though this small gesture could convey that he was safe with her. After a moment, in which the troubled honeyed haze of his eyes didn’t leave hers, he enfolded her hand with his, his fingernails arcing into her palms as though to make the motion more finite. He leant closer, less by conscious thought and more by instinct, and she saw his jawline harden, his lips setting into a line as he clenched his teeth together. What had looked like a haze in his eyes had whipped into a storm, anger and concern searing with such an intensity it made the amber flecked amidst the light brown look as though it were ablaze.
“Sara, I am going to find whoever did this.”
Reyes’ voice was low and terrible and resolute. That together with the look in his eyes would have made her shiver were she not already. She felt a different kind of ache in her chest, one that blossomed into a warm fluttering. Without thinking she reached up and touched his face, her fingers sliding over his cheek until she winced as the action sent a burning twinge through her chest. She hissed aloud, all strength in her limbs failing as she let her arm fall back onto the seat, biting her lip in an effort to stifle another whimper at the contact. The anger in his expression dissipated as swiftly as it had come. Reyes’ eyes flickered at her reaction, his dark eyelashes no longer disguising that he was worried about her. Although she knew it shouldn’t, this knowledge only served to add to the growing warmth in her chest that was the only thing she could feel besides the throbbing of her wound.
“That’s not… That’s not necessary. I’ll be alright,” Ryder responded, watching him now beneath heavy eyelids.
“Now who’s pretending?” Reyes smiled affectionately, and this time it was so genuine, so warm she felt heat rise in her face.
Maybe it was the loss of blood, but she felt braver somehow.
“I like you when you’re like this.”
“What? Upset? Wow, Sara. Just wow,” he responded, jokingly, the way he always did. The way he knew she liked to be teased. The way he liked to tease her.
“No. When you’re… just you.”
Usually she wouldn’t have dared to say such a thing, careful as she always was to open up to him slowly.
“You know… you’re not like anyone else I’ve ever met,” Reyes responded, thoughtfully.
“In a good way, or a bad way?”
“A good way,” he said carefully, before frowning slightly, “I think.”
Ryder was unable to keep the surprise from her face when he responded seriously, she had been expecting him to taunt her again.
“Huh, if I’d known before that all it takes is getting shot for you to be nice to me…”
“Don’t make a habit of it.”
His nose brushed against hers as he leant towards her, those glorious eyes so very close to hers before they closed as his lips ghosted hers with the lightest touch. The doors to his private room opened, and Reyes jerked upwards, hand moving reflexively to the gun he had placed on the floor at his side. Feeling vulnerable, Ryder strained to sit up, exhaling sharply as this sent a stinging sensation through her chest.
“It’s alright, it’s us.”
In unison their bodies relaxed as several people walked in, all clad in Initiative white and blue, all with familiar faces. It was Cora that had spoken.
“I let them in,” SAM announced.
“You could have warned us,” Reyes replied, agitatedly as he stood up.
Ryder’s vision was momentarily obscured by Lexi as she bustled over to her, “Ryder, why is this shockingly familiar?”
The asari knelt and placed a bag at her feet and as she was emptying its contents Ryder watched Cora and Liam take up defensive stances by the doorway as SAM locked it securely behind them. There was a sudden pressure in her hand. She glanced at Reyes as he stepped to one side and let go of her, moving out of the doctor’s way, “I’ll be over there, don’t go anywhere, Ryder.”
She only had the strength to smile weakly at his joke as Lexi leant over her, gently peeling back the bandages that had been placed over her wound, causing Ryder’s fingers to dig into the material of the seat beneath her. After a few more piercing prods and pokes, something metallic stabbed her arm and Ryder flinched.
“Give that a few minutes and the pain should ease a little,” Lexi continued, “lie still while I take a closer look at your wound.”
Ryder nodded dumbly, closing her eyes once more. The asari fussed and tutted, likely admonishing her, but Ryder found it difficult to focus on what she was actually saying, and after a while stopped trying to listen in at all.
A moment or so later, a hand pressed on her uninjured arm and squeezed, “That would’ve made it the second time you died in two weeks, careful Ryder, you’re beginning to look like a bit of a drama queen.”
She smiled at the sound of Liam’s voice, not sure if it looked more like a grimace, “You know me, I just love the attention.”
“You don’t get enough as Pathfinder?”
“Nah, there’s four of us now I needed the edge," she wheezed.
Liam laughed, “Well you should stop cockteasing Cora like that, she’s been eying up your bedroom.”
“Have not! Ass!” Cora added, her voice coming from somewhere near the door.
The weight of Liam’s hand moved from her arm, “Seriously though, you really shouldn’t make it a regular thing, Ryder.”
She chuckled weakly, “Believe it or not, I’m not trying to.”
Liam moved away. Though the pain had not been completely alleviated by the medication, it had dissipated somewhat, making it easier to breathe, to think. She wondered vaguely what Reyes was doing, wishing he would return to her side, return his comforting warmth to her hand. Curiously, she eased her eyes open. Distracted, Cora was stood by the door speaking to someone over a comm. Lexi knelt next to Ryder, fixated on something in her bag. Ryder turned her head a fraction. Reyes was stood a couple of metres away, arms folded, a look of displeasure on his taut face, eyes dark. With a sinking feeling, she realised he was mid-conversation with Liam, who looked equally discomfited, his stance more rigid than usual. Uncertainly, and with a foreboding she couldn’t quite place, she returned her heard to its original position, closing her heavy eyelids, too exhausted to do anything else.
Although he had been reluctant to engage the other man in any way, Reyes gave in and asked the question that had been bothering him.
“What did you mean, second time she’d died in 2 weeks?”
Kosta shrugged, “Look, if Ryder hasn’t told you it’s not my business to get involved.”
A multitude of questions slid simultaneously onto his tongue, but Reyes bit them back.
He tapped his fingers on his arm impatiently, “You do realise there are other ways I could find out, covert mission or not.”
“Well, if that’s the case then you don’t need me, do you?” Kosta responded, brown eyes filled with a scorn that didn’t suit him. “I’m sure Ryder would appreciate the Collective poking around, invading her privacy.”
“Which is precisely why I have asked you,” Reyes responded, testily.
They were stood fairly close together now, speaking in low tones. The air between them was heavy with scathing comments unsaid, fierce accusations and rebuttals unvoiced. Their companions didn’t appear to have noticed the heated nature of their conversation, each of them already occupied with other things.
Kosta swallowed, as though he were choking back a number of things he would like to say, “Look, I don’t know what your angle is with Ryder…”
“You assume I have to have one?”
“It seems too convenient. Especially when there are a thousand ways a man like you would benefit from a relationship with the Pathfinder.”
“Well perhaps I, unlike you, don’t pay so much attention to her title as much as I do the woman behind it,” Reyes responded, unfazed by the comments aimed at his character.
“I’m well aware there’s more to her than that. We’ve been through a lot since we woke up on the Hyperion,” he sounded as though he was trying to keep his irritation in check, although a frown ghosted his features.
A bitterness twisted within Reyes at his words as he thought about quite how often Kosta would have been alone with Sara, all the memories, a history that she did not have with Reyes.
“Well that’s something we can agree on, Sara has far more charming qualities than simply being Pathfinder. So why you think that should be my only reasoning is more of an insult to her than anything else,” Reyes shrugged, forcing a sardonic smile onto his lips, trying to keep his appearance cool.
“That isn’t what I meant,” Kosta’s eyes were narrowing, slim shoulders tightening, “and I have every reason to be suspicious of you. Just because she trusts you doesn’t mean we all have to.”
“So, you don’t trust the Pathfinder’s judgement?” Reyes asked, deliberately trying to pull at the other man’s strings.
“That’s not what I,” Kosta sighed, breath hissing through his teeth, “look, fucking with me isn’t going to get you what you want. You should ask her yourself.”
“I would, but she’s a little preoccupied with the hole in her shoulder,” Reyes bristled, his eyes unconsciously darting back towards Sara, who was sat forward, her face concealed by the asari that bustled around her.
Something of his thoughts must have been betrayed in his face, his careful control slackened in the impulse of the moment, as when he returned to scrutinising Kosta he found the other man’s gaze had softened, eyes wider, jaw unclenched, “Something happened on the last mission and I think it stuck with Ryder. She hasn’t talked about it with any of us but I… I think she’s hurting underneath. If by some miracle you’re genuine, then you should ask her about it.”
The other man was trying to ease the tension between them, but Reyes could not let the animosity slip from his determined clutches so readily.
“Hmm, you seem to have thought about this a lot.”
“What are you getting at?” Kosta snapped, looking suddenly flustered and indignant, pressing his lips together before exhaling a small puff of air.
Reyes knew he shouldn’t keep baiting the other man. Reyes knew he was projecting his own insecurity over the fact that Sara had not confided in him, intermingled with his shock that someone on Kadara had the audacity to attempt to take the life of the Pathfinder, his Pathfinder. He was using all this to fuel his misplaced anger. But he didn’t care.
“I’m just surprised you have such an insight into her feelings when you’ve kept her so distant, held atop that pedestal you’ve been carrying around for so long,” Reyes replied, grinning viciously as he landed his low blow.
“You’re such a twat,” Kosta scowled at him, “I will never understand what she sees in you.”
“That’s a shame then because you’ll be seeing plenty of me,” Reyes stepped closer to him assertively, the fiery intensity of his confidence making up for the fact he was slightly shorter than the other man. The image he’d been unable to rid himself of, of Sara strewn, bleeding on the ground, brittle in a way she had never been, was making him prickle possessively. “I’m not going anywhere.”
Kosta was not to be intimidated, the usually amiable man responding with a surprising ferocity, “If, when, you hurt her, because you will, I’m going to hit you so-“
There was a sudden cry, one which tore right through Reyes' defences and made his heart hammer. It had a similar effect on Kosta, who jerked his head in the direction of the sound, towards Sara. For a moment, they were like a mirror image of one another.
The Pathfinder was on her feet, with Cora supporting her in the same way Reyes had, her hand clutching at Sara’s arm which was cast over her shoulder. Sara’s eyes, which usually sought out his own when she had the opportunity, were downcast and barely open, dim lights in her white face. He hated, no loathed, how uncharacteristically delicate she looked. It made him want to find the perpetrator, find them and beat them against the brunt of his rage until there was nothing left.
Cora looked taut, angry, “If you two are quite finished.”
“She’ll be alright, but she needs blood, soon,” the asari doctor stated, and Reyes realised she had directed this at him, “is it safe for us to pass through the port?”
“I have already positioned men at intervals between here and the Tempest,” Reyes nodded, “they will watch for any suspicious behaviour, but her shields are down, they can’t stop a rogue bullet. Cora, can you shield yourself and the others?”
Cora nodded confidently, “Of course.”
“Then we should go, any further delay is just prolonging Ryder’s discomfort,” the doctor added.
“Let me take her, you need to focus on the barrier,” Kosta suggested as the biotic agreed, transferring Sara’s weight onto his shoulders.
Seeing her so limp against Kosta’s strong form caused another surge of sourness in his gut, until it felt as though it was rising up his throat. Reyes choked it down. He had to let the other man be the one to take her home. For now. For he had an assassin to find.
Then they were turning to leave, the doctor striding in front, Kosta and Sara at the centre, Cora taking up the rear.
Her voice was soft, yet very rough. He was relieved to hear it.
Kosta paused reluctantly. Reyes stepped past him towards Sara, angling her pale face upwards with his hand, “Stay safe, cariño.”
“Reyes…” she murmured, but that was all she was able to muster as she rocked backwards on her feet and both men steadied her.
“Go,” Reyes looked at Kosta, who looked satisfyingly envious of their exchange.
After they had left Reyes paced backwards and forwards, feeling irritated, useless. He wondered whether he should have gone with them, even though he would not have gotten on the Tempest he could have served as extra protection. That was foolish, however, his men would be watching over them and would soon send reports assuring him of her safety. Frustrated, he stopped moving, heaving out a sigh as his mind mulled over another option. Then, after kneeling to check the knife he had obscured in his boot, he slipped out after them, intent on watching from afar, ensuring for himself that Sara boarded her ship without incident.
Chapter 10: Someone
Ryder struggles to deal with the slow pace of her recovery and is comforted by a stowaway.
Ryder wondered if she would go blind from the sheer amount of times Lexi had shone that damned light in her eyes.
“Lexi, I feel fine!” she protested, attempting to bat the other woman’s arm away but failing as she scooched gracefully out of Ryder’s reach. “Other than, you know, the complete annihilation of my retinas!”
“Sara, it is part of a standard physical exam, the less you bitch about it the sooner it will be over,” Lexi replied coolly.
Ryder sighed, kicking her dangling legs like a petulant child, but allowed the doctor to finish her examination, “Until you repeat it again in three hours time? How many times do you need to re-examine me to establish that I’m alright?”
Lexi leant away from her, the cold intelligence in her eyes giving way to a gentler expression, “Alright, I suppose I may have been a little… overzealous. You can hardly blame me, you do have a propensity for dying or sustaining life-threatening injuries.”
“Why does everyone think I’m doing it on purpose?” Ryder exclaimed, huffily.
“Because you throw yourself headfirst into any and all trouble you encounter?” Lexi suggested as she packed away the medical equipment she had been using to check over Ryder, before moving towards her desk to update the Pathfinder’s records.
Ryder sat in silence and allowed her to concentrate for a moment. Clothed in a vest and sweatpants, the bandages which were wrapped from the tip of her shoulder blade to her lower bicep were visible. Gingerly, Ryder rolled her shoulder and was unsurprised when this motion was accompanied by a familiar jolt of pain that made her breath catch. Although it was hardly surprising, she couldn’t help but feel dismayed at the frailty of her body. It had only been two days and already she yearned to have her feet sink into real earth, or even sand, even snow, again. To breathe in the still new air of one of the planets they had discovered. What she would really like would be to hurl a kett Chosen into a wall, to feel the wild power of her biotics crackling at her will. However, she doubted that right now she had the energy to move a cup she still felt so frustratingly, impossibly tired.
“If you think I’m bad, you should wait until Scott joins us. He’s horrendously accident prone, he’s broken more bones than the average human has in their body,” Ryder mused, rubbing at the bandages, trying to ease an itch beneath them.
Ryder switched her gaze back to the asari and dropped her hand from her arm sheepishly.
Lexi turned in her chair so that she could cast Ryder a disconcerted look, “What am I going to do when there are two of you?”
“Cry?” Ryder laughed slipping slowly from the bed, voice hopeful, “So… does this mean I can go?”
Lexi rubbed her temples, Ryder wasn’t sure whether this was from the stress of imagining having twin Ryders to look after, or frustration at her current charge, “Out of this room? Yes. Off the Tempest? Not yet. You still need to give your body time to rest, otherwise, you risk reopening the wound.”
“Okay, now you do literally sound like my mother, grounding me,” Ryder teased, leaning back against the bed with a grin.
Lexi exhaled, “Don’t mistake me Ryder, I am fond of you, but I am also thoroughly, thoroughly relieved that I no longer have to spend all day caring for you and enduring your incessant, misguided attempts at humour.”
Ryder held a hand to her heart, “Are you trying to imply I’m not funny, Lexi? I think I need to lie down again, I’ve been grievously injured. It’s true that there are worse things than death, a more agonising pain I have never-”
“Ryder, Sara, just go,” Lexi ordered, though there was no hardness in her words and Ryder thought she looked as though she was trying not to smile. “Besides, it’s been two days and you haven’t had a shower.”
“So, I stink and I’m not funny? Lexi, you need to work on your bedside manner,” Ryder shook her head as she stepped across the med bay, towards the door.
“Just don’t get your bandages wet!” Lexi called after her as the doors to the med bay were sliding shut, “And take it easy!”
An hour later, Ryder had to admit, albeit begrudgingly, that Lexi had been right to confine her to the Tempest. The exertion of showering and getting dressed had been completely draining, not to mention the strain of trying to fend off various team members with assertions that she was alright. Thankfully, due to the rotation of sleeping hours many of them had retired to their bunks for the night, so she was able to go about her business with only some interruption. Jaal had caught her in the hallway on the way back from her shower, wet hair sopping into her shirt, legs already aching beneath the weight of her body. He had only let her go after what felt like a thousand apologies for not spotting the sniper, another few hundred more for not insisting he remain at her side, and an attempt to hug her that caused a tremor to pass through her body as he haphazardly knocked her arm. Then, when trying to sneak an extra pillow from an empty bunk (the only way she had been able to sleep comfortably the night previous was with an extra one wedged against her spine, keeping her shoulder elevated), Vetra had awoken, talking at a hundred miles a minute, offering to press her contacts for the identity of the sniper, or to requisition a tub of ice cream for the Tempest. She then went on to explain ice cream was something she had not tried herself, as it would likely make her throw up her own organs, but understood it was a human delicacy that was not only a favourite of children but actually had medicinal properties, healing not only pain but also negative emotions. Ryder didn’t have the heart to tell her the truth. Ryder was relieved she hadn’t bumped into Liam or Peebee, who had visited her in the med bay the most frequently and had bickered any time they were there at the same time. That was until she finally slid into her quarters and found a mug of steaming tea on her desk and the original Blasto vid loaded up on her display. Only Liam could have left it, as the only crew member who understood her great love of both the beverage (having taken to it when she had visited her English grandmother) and the cheesy exploits of the hanar spectre. As overwhelmingly touched she was that they worried over her, Ryder had never enjoyed being mothered, didn’t like being fussed over like she was some delicate, breakable thing. Liam’s gesture was perfect, it was just like him to know what would make her feel better. As her fingers curled around the handle of the cup, she felt disquieted for a moment, and a small part of her felt sore. She sank into her desk chair, drawing her bare knees up to her chin, blanket pulled over her shoulders.
“Liam, thanks,” she murmured over the comm, via private channel.
“Don’t mention it.” She could almost see his smile, warming like the glow of the low sun in winter. “How are you feeling?”
“I’ve felt better, but then I felt worse after Habitat 7.”
She wove her fingers in and out of the blanket, creating frills between them.
“Yeah, that was rough.” There was understanding, not pity, in his voice. “Let me know if you want any company, Ryder. It’s been ages since I watched Blasto.”
It had not been an uncommon arrangement, they’d had a fair few movie nights now, with and without the other members of the crew. How easy it would be to say yes. To stretch out on her couch with her back to his steady heat, to listen to his running commentary on how the fight scenes were choreographed while they laughed at the unnecessarily long sex scenes, and tried to tally up the number of times the titular character shouted, “Enkindle this!”
Everything about Liam had always been so easy; easygoing, easy to laugh with, easy on the eyes… Even after what had happened between them, maintaining a friendship had been easy enough. But things were different now. The ugliness between Liam and Reyes had altered their relationship, made it difficult where it had never been before. She knew how she felt about Reyes, as if she wasn’t made keenly aware whenever she saw him, her body betraying her with the way her skin prickled at just the thought of his touch, whenever those wicked eyes met hers. Although she didn’t feel the way about Liam that she did about Reyes, that didn’t mean she didn’t care about him. She was aware, now more than ever, it had hurt him when she had started dating Reyes, no matter how he tried to pretend otherwise.
“I can barely keep my eyes open,” she yawned, not having to lie.
“Well, I’ll say goodnight then. Get some sleep, Sara.”
Despite herself, the affection in his words was an all too tangible reminder of what could have been, and the soreness in her chest ached once more.
Ryder sat staring into space for a moment, hands still curved around her mug. Shaking herself, she took a sip and felt renewed as the warmth spread through her body.
“Pathfinder, you have 103 unread emails,” SAM announced, nearly making her flinch his voice was so sudden.
She sighed, “But of course. Are there any that are urgent?”
“There are several from Tann…”
“Transfer them to the junk folder. I’ll rephrase that, are they any I’ll actually care about?”
“One from Scott on the Hyperion.”
Sara rubbed her forehead, feeling very worn, “He’ll flip when he hears about this.”
“August Bradley has sent you an update on Prodromos.”
“Okay, I’ll respond in the morning… or whatever time it is when I wake up,” Ryder was already switching off, turning away from her computer, ready to sink into the soft solace of her bedsheets.
“And there’s one from Reyes Vidal, sent yesterday.”
“What?” her body twisted back urgently. Ryder asked suspiciously, “You deliberately left that one until last, didn’t you?”
“I don’t know what you mean, Pathfinder.”
Ryder made a noise that suggested she didn’t altogether believe SAM as she opened her emails, scrolling, searching for a certain name.
How are you?
From: Reyes Vidal
There are rumours spreading on Kadara that I killed the Pathfinder after our display at Tartarus. I would be grateful if you could show your face soon and prove otherwise. I would be grateful if you showed your face anyway, for purely selfish reasons.
Get in touch when you are well enough, I can think of several ways I could make you feel better.
Thinking of you always,
The more she read, the more the pink heat spread across her cheeks. As she read the last line, which he had signed the same as his last email, a smile crept across her lips. She began to type a reply, smile turning to a grin as a sudden idea struck her.
Ryder stretched her hands above her head again, for what felt like the fiftieth time, doing her best to mask the severity of the tremor this sent through her body from her doctor.
“So, Ryder. You are still not well enough for the field, however well you try to convince me otherwise,” Lexi responded, typing the results of Ryder’s physiotherapy session into her omni-tool.
“It has been four days Sara. For the last time. Give. It. Time,” Lexi looked at her beseechingly, “please.”
“Meridian can’t wait any more days Lexi, it couldn’t even wait four!” Ryder replied testily.
“Sara,” Liam rested his hand on her shoulder, but the reassuring pressure of his hand was not quite steady enough to quell her nerves, her fears of what could befall the galaxy if she remained convalescing any longer.
Knowing she would regret it later, Ryder shrugged off his hand and stalked from the room without another word. She knew it wasn’t Lexi’s fault, or Liam’s, it wasn’t them she was angry with. Fists clenched, she stalked down the hallway, passing Cora whose head tilted as she passed, cat-like eyes following her perceptively.
“I’m fine,” she replied, curtly, without turning her head in response, without pausing.
Ryder entered her quarters letting out a long, indignant groan, pulling off her jacket and throwing it angrily into her desk chair.
She flinched, eyes flicking towards the source of the noise. And there he was. Reyes Vidal in her quarters, on her bed, wearing that smile. He was dressed more casually than usual, a t-shirt tossed over combats, the brown skin of his arms so exposed, so available to the touch. He’d sat up straight as she entered, eyes flicking from the omni-tool at his wrist to her face. The grin on his lips dying in response to the troubled expression on her face, the walking thundercloud that had just exploded into the room.
It felt surreal, seeing her in her quarters, seeing her so angry. As she muttered his name in surprise, the furrowed lines on her forehead smoothed out, the spark at her fingertips she appeared not to have noticed dissipating at once. He rose to his feet and she stepped towards him so assuredly it was hard to believe she had been shot mere days before.
“Sara, you should not take your sexual frustration out on the chair,” he said, shaking his head in mock disapproval.
Her eyes found his, their familiar blue full of warmth, “Why? You here to fix that?”
“Depends, how are you feeling?”
He reached for her, the motion more tentative than usual, grin faltering slightly. It felt strange seeing her here, so animated, when the last time he had seen her she had been so out of it. His eyes darted to the bandage at her shoulder that wound a couple of inches below the sleeve of her shirt, as if to remind himself their eventful encounter on Kadara had even happened at all. All else was the same, the smile etched on her lips as though it had never left them, as though she hadn’t been bristling with anger a few moments before. The deceptively delicate features alight with the same amiability that seemed to emanate from her pores, the same draw that pulled so many disparate strangers to her cause. Sara slotted her fingers through his in the way he’d grown used to, drawing close and enveloping him in her smell, a scent that reminded him of sweet peas and summer rain.
“Better now you’re here.”
The look in her eyes was coquettish, and he would have almost believed it was sincerely demure if he didn’t know any better. This together with the matching smile weakened his composure and made his stomach feel as though tight knots were uncoiling, as he remembered what it felt like to steal away her grin with a press of his lips.
“Did anyone see you?” she added.
“No, SAM was very helpful,” he chuckled at the memory, “as was your pilot’s singing.”
“Do you have any other salarian pilots tucked away in here?” he lifted a dark eyebrow.
She shook her head, “Not that I’m aware of.”
The loose curl of red hair escaped from behind her ear and she tucked it away again reflexively, a habit that she repeated often without realising it. It was both reassuringly, attractively familiar and, at the same time, off. After what had happened it simply didn’t seem normal to be this composed, particularly when taking into consideration what Kosta had said. That she had died. She had died, and he didn’t know. Hadn’t been told. And now she was achingly, beautifully normal and it set his teeth on edge. Hadn’t she been the one teasing him for being so closed off?
Sara must have sensed his hesitancy as she looked at him searchingly, “Are you alright?”
“Sara, I wasn’t the one who had my arm nearly blown off.”
This came out far more tensely than he had intended, and the smile faded from her lips. She tilted her chin upwards to look at him. On closer inspection she looked paler than usual, usually faint freckles pronounced against her skin.
“I get shot at a lot, Reyes. I’m fine.”
“So you say,” he slipped his fingers from hers and wound them gently around her wrists, “and yet you were assaulting an inanimate object mere moments ago.”
“I’m…” her eyes flicked away from his, the action more telling than any of her words, “I’m frustrated that I’m not fit enough for the field. That’s all.”
As he had feared, he was going to have to be direct.
Reyes sighed, “Sara. Look, I know something happened when you boarded the archon’s ship, I just don’t know what. I know it stopped you contacting me. I know it’s bothering you.”
One eyebrow arched dangerously but she allowed him to finish.
“I could pretend I don’t know about your mission, but you’re an intelligent woman, you must know I have contacts everywhere,” he finished, cautiously.
His chest squeezed as he finished his sentence, very aware of the tightening of her shoulders, the shadowy flicker in her eyes. For a moment she looked as though she were about to shout at him, about to push him away, violently. Beneath his fingers, her skin hummed as though her biotics were ready to be dispelled at any moment. Instead, she breathed a heavy sigh. Sara slid herself away from him and moved towards her bed. She sat down, her eyes still on him, reflecting the low light emanating from the lamp at her desk, her irises cast a midnight blue in the gloom.
“I didn’t tell you because I didn’t want you to act like the others, like I’m made out of glass,” she frowned, fingers squeezing the bedsheets into balls in her fists.
“Oh, I don’t think the comparison is completely undeserving… Glass is also sharp and cutting?” he responded, sitting down next to her, knee sliding next to hers.
She cast her eyes down towards her knees, a melancholy in her countenance he had never seen in her before. Reyes found himself wishing for the first time in a long time that he was better equipped at comforting people. It was something he had little practice in.
“What happened?” he murmured.
She turned to look at him, knee sliding onto the bed, hand resting on her thigh, “We were caught in a containment field in the Archon’s chambers, trying to find the map to Meridian,” she continued as though much of this wasn’t news to Reyes, which of course it wasn’t, “but it only holds living material.”
Reyes stared at her, momentarily, uncharacteristically speechless as the implications of this set in.
“So, the only way out was for one of us to die and it just so happens that SAM has the ability to stop my heart,” her eyes slowly drifted away from his as she spoke, settling somewhere over his shoulder, “and he did. And for a minute I was just… gone.”
For a moment it was as though the whole ship was quieter, the hum of the engines dulled, the intermittent sounds of voices, the footsteps on the ladders, stopped. He placed his hand over hers. Her fingers felt cold but not as cold as his insides suddenly felt.
“Sara, that’s… shit, that’s… you should have told me.”
“How could I?” Sara stood up suddenly. “And tell you what? That I’d failed? That I got myself captured?”
Reyes frowned, “What?”
She began pacing back and forth at the foot of the bed whilst Reyes stared at her, an incredulous expression etched on his face.
“So much is at stake, thousands upon hundred thousands of lives and I keep making such stupid, idiotic mistakes,” the same anger as before flared in her eyes, “I strode in there like I was infallible. I was so reckless, such a fool.”
He rose to his feet, “Sara-”
“My dad did not die just so I would follow him,” she continued as though she could not hear him, “if he was here things would be different. He wouldn’t have been so fucking naive.”
As he stared at her a thought struck him, hard. Harder than it should have. Deep down Sara Ryder was just as vulnerable as everyone else. Whilst she might be special, might have some greater purpose the ordinary civilian could only marvel at, that did not make her any less human. Reyes had accused Kosta of putting her on a pedestal, but he was in danger of doing the same himself.
“I did the same the other day with the architect. I let my guard down, I should have been ready. My injuries have put the search for Meridian on hold, they could have killed me,” she turned and looked at him, “and… they could have killed you.”
Her eyes were round and wide and impossibly lost, lost in an infinite cosmos of the terrible implications of her perceived past failures.
Reyes used this opportunity to interrupt her, stepping towards her and brushing her loose hair aside, holding her face with one hand, “Sara. Stop.”
She looked at him, shrunken pupils dilating as her eyes focused on his, “I have to hold myself accountable, there is too much at stake.”
“You have escaped death twice, only to continue killing kett, and raiders, and sort out all the other shit that the Nexus sends your way. You’re walking around as though you weren’t just grievously injured… and now you’re worried you’ve failed?” Reyes reasoned, speaking slowly, eyebrows knitted into a frown.
“I… Well, when you put it like that…”
Her lips pursed as though she was going to continue but she did not. Reyes slid his hands over her shoulders, his fingers trailing delicately as they reached bandages. Her body relaxed at his touch, the far-off look in her eyes fading. Sara looped her arms around his waist and he pulled her securely into his chest, fingers meeting at the small of her back. She sighed into his neck as Reyes curled his hand into her hair, the soft strands silky beneath his fingers. She pressed herself against him tightly, her arms tucked securely beneath his, as though drawn to the warmth of his body. Although his skin still bristled excitedly at the contact, her embrace evoked a feeling of consolation that ran deeper than desire.
“I may have been wrong before, you can’t be all that that intelligent if you blame yourself for such things,” Reyes added, mockingly.
She laughed against his neck, expelling a puff of air that tickled his skin, “I hate how self-satisfied you get when you’re right.”
“So, you always hate me?”
“Well, you do love the smell of your own shit."
He laughed. As he held her, allowing his eyes to drift closed, he felt the rise and fall of her breathing steadily synchronise with his own. Relief from a tension he didn’t know he still had emanated through his body, the twist of anger and pain that had knotted in his side since she had been shot, that he had tried to avert his attention from, subsiding at the soft brush of her cheek against his neck.
As she shifted a hand further up his back, tightening her hold, Reyes wheezed slightly, his ribs throbbing as though he’d been winded.
“What’s wrong?” Sara asked sharply, face upturning to his.
“I may have… cracked a few ribs,” he responded in an offhand way. The barely withheld grimace gave him away, however.
“How?” her uncertain gaze bored relentlessly into his.
The way she said his name, keen eyes firm yet brimming with concern had the truth spilling from him like blood from a wound.
He sighed, “I also may have gone after your assassin. I was reckless, he used biotics and threw me into a cliffside… I lost him.”
Sara stared at him for a few seconds, a mix of emotions swirled in her eyes like a thunderstorm at sea, “I told you not to go after them.”
“Yes, you did.”
“I do not need protecting,” her words were resolute.
“Trust me I am well aware.” He remembered how she had summoned a ball of biotic energy that had pulled in and obliterated three Roekaar, how she had dispatched another with a single shot to the skull. He wound his fingers through to the ends of her hair, “I was angry, and I was not thinking. I also felt responsible, this could well have been an Outcast reprisal.”
“Reyes,” her eyes flicked away from his, “I would hate for anything to happen to you because of me.”
“And yet you expect me to bear it when you are shot, or killed?”
The words came out reflexively, indignant and uncomfortably honest. As soon as he said them his body tensed, heart pounding roughly in his chest, ripping his breaths away in a sudden moment of panic at his earnest, unguarded words. Sara didn’t say anything. Her eyebrows furrowed, eyes impossibly deep.
“It-it was my own doing, I could have let my agents deal with it,” he continued hesitantly, “I let it become personal. Because they targeted you.”
A mix of emotions pooled in her eyes, troubled yet taken aback, cautious yet affectionate, “Please don’t go looking for him again.”
“Relax, I’m sure the Pathfinder has more pressing things to worry about than the scrapes a smuggler from Kadara gets himself into,” he replied, deflecting, “even if he is the Charlatan.”
“Reyes,” she smoothed her hands over his chest, gazing at her fingers intently and biting on her bottom lip, “you’re more than just some smuggler from Kadara.”
As her eyes flicked upwards he could see the sincerity in her expression and it was exhilarating, yet terrifying, in a way that battles and shady business deals never could be. Without conscious thought his mouth was on hers, driving a surprised yet amenable gasp from her parted lips. Then tension of days of waiting and wondering, of hurried conversations via omni-tool, of scouring the port, of putting pressure on every source he had ebbed away into the kiss. He pulled her face against his, the other hand yanking her hips toward him so he could enfold her supple body inside his. Every stroke of his thumb on her cheek, every feverish brush of their tongues drove the image of her lying lifeless on the floor of some far-off ship further from his mind. Instead, she was there beneath his fingertips, beautifully soft and alive and his. Sara was sucking, tugging at his lip with her teeth with the same restless desire, tongue pushing back against his, pushing him to drive his deeper into her mouth. He obliged her, and he felt a shiver pass over her skin, his own body thrumming in response, heart convulsing in his chest. A delicious moan escaped her throat that caused his hips to rock forwards, leaving them both breathless, as her lips, her tongue was interrupted in their usual rhythm as she let out another low sound. Her palms moved to his hips, on which she applied gentle pressure until he was backed onto to bed. Accommodating, he sat as Sara pressed forwards possessively until he was forced onto this back, the soft weight of her body resting over his, her thighs warm and inviting and enticingly close. Although he was used to taking the lead, he allowed himself to bask in the thrill of her command for a moment, as the soft contours of her curves pressed arousingly against him. His breath shuddered out as her hair licked at the skin of his neck, as her fingers travelled the lines of his body as though charting her course on a map. She broke their kiss for a moment and looked down at him, lips reddened from their contact with his, waves of scarlet hair gliding over her shoulders. But it was her eyes he sought out, their infinite blue narrowly framed by thick, sable eyelashes. He thought he may never tire of the look held within, a look of unflinching desire, of affection, that said he was definitely someone, even if to no one but her.
“You are beautiful, you know.”
The tender, nearly but not quite shy smile he received in return only confirmed this was so.
Perhaps Reyes Vidal did do bashful, half stuttered compliments, after all.
Chapter 11: Bitter Consequences
Ryder finally visits Kaetus and is confronted with the consequences of her actions.
Reyes leant up to kiss her once more, but as his abdominal muscles tightened this sent a whip of burning pain of his body, so sudden that he moaned aloud, hand shooting to support his back. Sara jerked away from him, eyes as round as saucers, “Are you alright?”
“Ribs,” he groaned.
She scrambled from on top of him even as he grumbled his disapproval and reached for her. Sara batted his hands away with a grin, “Lie still.”
“As you command,” he responded half smirk, half grimace.
Tucking her fingers underneath his t-shirt, she began to ease it up over his stomach carefully.
“You know, Sara, you don’t have to look for excuses to undress me,” Reyes mused.
“Well that goes without saying, it’s harder to get you to keep your clothes,” she teased, before pausing mid-sentence as her eyes took in the mottled, dark purple bruising that spanned over his stomach, up over his lower rib cage and curved round to his back, “on. How…?”
“Well, I may have got thrown into the cliffside more than once…”
“No kidding. You’re part man, part eggplant.”
She ran her fingers delicately over the bruised area and when he winced in response she withdrew her fingers immediately.
“How are you not in agony?” Sara frowned at him.
As the large windows were shuttered they allowed in no light from the port beyond, so her outline was framed by the low light of several lamps dotted around the room. Even so, he could still see worry cross her partially obscured features.
“Pain drugs, lots of them. I think they may be running out, however.”
“You think? You haven’t been to a doctor?”
She shook her head disapprovingly, “You need to let Lexi look at you…”
“That’s not necessary.”
He sat up, the resulting sharp exhalation of breath this caused immediately rendering his argument void. Sara merely raised an eyebrow at him.
“Err, at least give me a minute…”
When she looked confused, he glanced pointedly down at the area below his navel.
“So, the cat’s out of the bag,” Reyes purred into her ear, his breath tickling as it stirred the curls of her at the back of her neck.
“It would appear so,” she responded, “although it never really mattered. It just felt more exciting when it felt like it was forbidden for you to be here.”
They were back on her bed, laid on one side so neither of them was straining their injuries, her back against his chest, his arm about her waist.
“All this talk of forbidden things,” he tutted mockingly, “you heard what the doctor said.”
Despite his words his hand slipped beneath her shirt, fingers ascending her body deftly until she trapped them against her skin with her own.
“No strenuous activity tonight,” Ryder responded, resembling Lexi’s serious tone.
Her impression was fairly uncanny in its accuracy at echoing the asari’s earlier words. During the hour previous, Ryder had dragged her reluctant companion to the medical bay, accompanied by the knowing glance of her chief engineer, and the distant giggle of her science offer echoing down the hallway. Fingers intertwining with his, Ryder he had muttered something to Reyes about the Tempest being worse than a school playground for rumours, and he acknowledged this with a sideways grin that made her chest flutter. Lexi, on the other hand, had looked remarkably unsurprised at the Charlatan’s sudden appearance on the ship, leaving Ryder wondering if Reyes had been as inconspicuous in his entrance to the Tempest and her quarters as he believed, or if Ryder herself was just far more predictable than she believed. As Ryder had expected, Lexi scolded Reyes for not seeing a doctor sooner as she bade him remove his shirt. As the doctor inspected him, Ryder allowed her eyes to wander over his body in a way she had been unable to in the shadowy gloom of his apartment. Whilst his frame was slim, tight muscles traversed his torso, muscles that spoke of long hours working on machinery, of carrying equipment on his back for long stretches of distance, of sprinting between cover during battle, with arms strong enough to pin her in place against a wall and hold her there whilst he… Reyes eyes caught hers, full of mischief, and she realised he had caught her staring. Unwillingly she felt her eyes drop to his lips as he wet them, a warmth raising through her body and creeping up her neck. He gave her a cocky smile, and she realised with a jolt he was doing it on purpose. Because of course he was. Ryder quickly averted her eyes, trying her best not to allow the flush to rise to her cheeks. Lexi was, thankfully, completely oblivious to this unspoken exchange and proceeded to inject Reyes with a stronger painkiller (which Ryder noted with some satisfaction wiped the smirk from his face), whilst also prescribing rest, though she looked doubtful even as she said it. Reyes put his shirt back on to Ryder’s relief and slight consternation. He was, after all, certainly satisfying to look at, and more built than Liam, an approving, yet unwanted, voice in her head noted. That was when Lexi had given them both a stern, straightforward look, behind which Ryder knew her well enough to know she was hiding a smile, and ordered them both to keep strenuous activity to a minimum. Reyes had the audacity to blink innocently at this and asked the doctor if she could clarify specifically what constituted ‘strenuous’ and what did not. Lexi rolled her eyes, muttering something about Reyes being just as insufferable as Ryder, while Ryder dragged him from the room before her face became any redder.
Now they were back in her quarters, Reyes was making following the doctor’s recommendations very difficult.
“You see, it just so happens that I can be very gentle when needs be,” he murmured in her ear, before kissing the ticklish part of her neck beneath her ear, making her squirm in his arms. This made her free his hand, which he slipped beneath her bra, fingers sliding over her skin, her body jolting in response as he softly squeezed her nipple.
The touches of his lips, his tongue, on her neck were so delicate they were barely even perceptible on her skin, but they had her limbs trembling in response.
“… You know we can’t,” she breathed, wishing her voice held more conviction.
“And here I was thinking you were coming around to the idea,” he nipped at her earlobe before sucking away the sharpness, at the same time trailing his fingers over the soft skin of her nipple. The growing, aching heat between her thighs was making it difficult to tangle together a logical argument for why she wasn’t immediately succumbing to his advances.
Abruptly, an orange glow emanated from beneath her shirt, and she realised with a start it was a notification to Reyes’ omni tool.
Noticing it too, Reyes grumbled, “Damn thing.”
Reyes extricated his arm from her shirt and raised his wrist to check the display. He sighed, pressing a kiss onto the back of her head before swiftly shifting his body away from hers.
She felt cold in the sudden, sharp absence of his warmth.
Ryder turned to look at him as he stood up, “What is it?”
Reyes sighed as he looked around for the jacket he’d left on the back of a chair, “There are a few things I need to attend to.”
Ryder slid to the end of the bed, avoiding his eyes so he wouldn’t see her disappointment. She needn’t have bothered, he’d caught it in her voice.
“You know how it is, business,” Reyes responded, voice lighter than usual.
Ryder realised it was hypocritical of her to feel disgruntled, after all, she’d had to abandon her plans with Reyes for her responsibilities before, but that didn’t mean she could stop herself feeling so.
Ryder pushed the thoughts from her mind and the frown from her expression, “I understand. I was hoping you might want to stay the night, that’s all. You could always come back, after?”
Reyes looked at her, with the irritatingly inscrutable expression he sometimes wore, “I shouldn’t.”
Her front slipped a little at this, “Well, I know Lexi said we can’t anyway, so…”
Ryder twisted her fingers in her hands, realising there was every possibility that she sounded hopelessly, unattractively desperate.
“It’s not that,” Reyes shook his head firmly, guarded eyes met hers, “it’s just… Well, I have something I need to see to, I need to focus on that.”
The atmosphere of the room had turned cool where it had been the exact opposite before.
“Yeah, I get it. See you later.”
It was with great effort that she kept her face smooth, warped her features into a smile. He leant forward and kissed her on the cheek, the motion feeling stiff, awkward in a way that was unfamiliar in their interactions. Hastily, he murmured his goodbyes, leaving with barely a backward glance. Ryder sank back onto her bed, numbly. Insecurity twisted through her, taking hold and embedding itself like the barbed roots of a weed. Her cheeks stung. Whilst she had thought the fact they were exclusive indicated their relationship was about more than just sex, it could be that she had misread things. Perhaps staying over when sex was likely out of the question was just not something he wanted. If that was the case, she could hardly be upset, neither of them had ever promised each other anything, he wasn’t deceiving her in any way. In fact, Ryder hadn’t truly considered what she wanted herself, although she couldn’t escape the reality that at her core, she knew it meant far more to her than casual flirtation, more than hurried rendezvous whenever she was on the planet. Perhaps Reyes simply felt differently. That can’t be true, a smaller, more stubborn part of her argued, not after everything that had happened. Not after the way he held her in his apartment, not after the way he’d cared for her when she’d been shot, not after the barely concealed flicker of horror she’d seen in his face when she’d told him she’d died. And what he’d said… “And yet you expect me to bear it when you are shot, or killed?" He didn’t make sense. It didn’t make sense. Then what? Why had he left so abruptly? Why had he suddenly brought his walls up again after being so open with her before? Perhaps he really was dealing with something urgent. Something he didn’t want to tell her about. She let her shoulders fall back onto the bed, heaving a heavy sigh as she resigned herself to spending hours with little more to do than stare at the ceiling and wonder about his intentions.
“Sloane should’ve killed you the day we met!” Kaetus spat, eyes filled with hatred, fingers gripping the bars of his prison cell so tightly it looked as though the metal should warp beneath his sharp digits.
Despite preparing herself for this conversation, this sudden venom shook her, and Ryder unconsciously took a shaky step backwards. It was her first real excursion off the Tempest since she had sustained her injury, and she already felt somewhat disoriented from this sudden thrust back into the world beyond the narrow halls of the spacecraft. The rage that flared in Kaetus’ silver eyes was so intense she could hardly withstand it, the snarling, grinding of his teeth so vicious that her every muscle screamed with the instinct to flee, as though thrust back into a primaeval world where if turians and humans met, the latter would be slaughtered in the wake of the far superior predator. But she needed to prove to Lexi she was ready, and she had been putting off this meeting for long enough.
“Don’t blame me, Sloane agreed to the duel,” Ryder responded, wishing she could bluff was easily as Vetra, as Reyes, make herself sound confident, uncaring.
Kaetus scoffed, “A duel? I know what happened! The sniper who pulled the trigger rubbed it in my face when they locked me up. You were there. You could’ve saved her… but you didn’t…” The anger ran from his face like rainwater, only to be replaced by a deep anguish she wasn’t sure if she preferred. Aghast, he asked the question he had clearly been waiting to for a long time, “Why?”
Why. As if that wasn’t a question she’d spent hours trying to answer, that didn’t require an answer that was without end. The short, imprecise version: Reyes Vidal. But that was not an answer she could give.
She was reminded now of Reyes’ words.
“Best way to conceal something, to lie, is to keep it as close to the truth as possible.”
Perhaps he was rubbing off on her after all.
“Sloane made it clear she would never forgive the Nexus,” she responded, her tone clipped. “How soon so you think she would’ve declared war on the Initiative?”
“Not soon enough, apparently,” Kaetus replied, coldly. His mandibles twitched agitatedly, as though he was going to say something else, but he remained silent.
Behind the anger was sorrow, Ryder knew that. She had long suspected, and it was evident now more than ever, that he had loved Sloane, perhaps more than the Outcast leader herself had ever known. There was some irony to it, or perhaps not irony but it was some mocking twist of fate that she had taken away the person that he cared so much about to protect Reyes, who she had undefined but undeniably similar, deep feelings for. She and Kaetus were the same in a way, both entangled with Reyes and Sloane, who were so different yet so similar in their tenacity, their conviction, the brilliant spark of deviance that set them apart from the other exiles. She wondered how this conversation might look the other way around had Reyes died instead. Before she had even really come to know him as she did. Would she have been heartbroken then? Surely not as sorely as Kaetus, but she had still been quite taken with Reyes, even then.
“Did she know? That you loved her?” Ryder asked softly, not sure why she wanted to know, not sure why she allowed the question to form on her lips.
Kaetus stared at her, the line of his mouth falling. His voice took on an iciness colder than anything she’d ever felt on Voeld, the bitter sting of agony apparent in every syllable, “No. Now she never will.”
“Kaetus, I’m so-”
“Don’t!” Kaetus cut her apology short with a hiss. He pressed his face forward against the bars, so his eyes shone between them, small, dark pupils retreating to cat-like slits, centring on her large round ones, “You better hope the Charlatan kills me Ryder, because if I ever get outta here…”
More apologies rose in her throat, but she swallowed them down, knew they were empty, knew they meant nothing to the turian.
“Goodbye Kaetus,” she mumured, before turning away from the eyes that scorched holes into her back, on the broken, aching, grief-stricken man she had created. Only when she exited the Collective headquarters, when she was back in the bustling plaza of Kadara port, did she let her legs tremble. She sank to rest on her haunches, fists clenched, back against the wall. She took a few steadying breaths, grateful for the breeze that ruffled her long hair, blowing strands into her face, glad to be outside away from the dry, fabricated air of the jail cell.
“You alright, Ryder?” She opened her eyes to see Vetra stood over her. “It’s not your arm is it?”
Ryder shook her head and took the turian’s extended hand, rising back to her feet. From the direction of the weapons dealer, Cora appeared at Vetra’s side, her eyebrows furrowed in a concerned, questioning fashion.
Ryder took a steadying breath, rubbing her clammy hands on her thighs, “I- I’ve just been to see Kaetus.”
Both women nodded, neither needing any further explanation.
Vetra’s wry gaze caught Ryder’s, “You did what you had to.”
“Sloane was not a good woman, remember that,” Cora added, “it wasn’t anything she didn’t deserve.”
Ryder’s eyes slide from Vetra’s to Cora’s. Neither of them wavered in their certainty. Both women were shrewd enough to understand that her decision in the cave had been confused, influenced by a certain smuggler but still also steered by the desire to the right thing. Perhaps it hadn’t, had been the wrong thing, yet they still stood by her, still believed in her. Not for the first time, Ryder was overwhelmed with gratitude for her crew.
“You all healed up now then Ryder?” Vetra changed the subject swiftly, perhaps hoping to raise Ryder’s spirits, “Drack has bested the rest of us at arm wrestling, but I have money on you kicking him right in the quads.”
Ryder sniggered and flexed her injured arm, “Depends, I don’t think Lexi will let me compete even with my good arm.”
“That’s why we won’t tell her!” Vetra winked, conspiratorially.
“I have it on good authority Liam’s going to have another attempt,” Cora added gleefully, “so, naturally, I have bet against him.”
“This I HAVE to see!” Ryder grinned, and the three women fell into step as they made their way back towards the ship, their shadows cast across the plaza under the low evening sun.
As they passed Kralla’s Song, a figure with a familiar confident posture and sly grin gave Ryder pause. Reyes was stood outside the bar conversing with two exiles. Although she could not hear him, Ryder could see both exiles nodding enthusiastically, clearly falling for whatever scheme he was peddling with his wily charms. She and Reyes hadn’t spoken since he had abruptly left her quarters the night before. Ryder quickly shifted her head away, focusing her gaze on the doors to the docks. Even if things between them were normal (or as normal as her relationship with the Charlatan ever was), after her conversation with Kaetus he was the last person she wanted to see. Seeing the flesh and blood consequence of her actions only made the poisonous churn of her stomach increase, her breath, which had only just soothed, gasping out again. Either side of her, Ryder’s companions quickened their pace, aware, to some degree, of her feelings. Although she couldn’t be certain, Ryder thought she felt his eyes on her face, their magnetism pulling at her. She shrugged it off as she passed through the double doors, also trying to pretend she didn’t hear the sweet call of her name from his honeyed lips.
Chapter 12: The Many Faces of Anubis
Reyes tries to make amends for his aloof behaviour. They come to an arrangement about Kaetus.
The next day, Ryder ran into Reyes in almost the exact same spot outside Kralla’s Song. This time, he made sure she could not avoid him.
“I don’t need an army. I’ve got a krogan! I’ll remember that one!” Drack roared appreciatively as they strode out of Kralla’s Song, leaving dozens of semi-conscious exiles in their wake.
“I was only telling the truth,” Ryder shrugged, chuckling in response.
After agreeing to meet the old krogan for drinks at the bar, upon her arrival Ryder had been accosted by several drunk exiles, desperate to work out their displeasure over tensions between them and the Nexus. Ryder and Drack had obliged.
“Do not tell Lexi about this, if she finds out I’ve been involved in a drunken brawl she’ll never let me leave the Tempest again, and we’re supposed to be leaving tomorrow.”
“Don’t worry Ryder I’m no snitch,” Drack replied, “besides, her and Kesh will probably have my ass for this if they find out.”
“It’ll be our secret,” Ryder grinned weakly, her muscles already aching from the extended fistfight, her shoulder throbbing from the exertion.
Another voice addressed them, “See Miss B’Sayle, if there’s a brawl, that is where you will find Ryder.”
She didn’t even need to look over even though she did. From the way her pulse reacted to the timbre of his voice, the speaker could only be one person. Reyes and Peebee were stood before them looking amused, each with their arms folded expectantly.
“You were looking for me?” Ryder frowned.
Although she was somewhat recovered from her bout of remorse the day before, (thanks in part to watching Drack smash Liam’s arm through a table during their arm-wrestling match, sending the crew into hysterics for the best part of the previous evening) she still felt uneasy around Reyes, unsure where they had left things. She knew if she looked in those eyes she would be powerless to think at all rationally, so she was careful to look anywhere other than at his face.
“Lexi sent me to let you know she wants you back on the ship within the hour, for the last part of your physio,” Peebee explained, “and I happened to bump into this one.”
Peebee gestured to Reyes but Ryder’s gaze did not follow her extended hand.
“Right, well, I better head straight there then,” Ryder nodded, moving to brush past the two figures before her. Ryder summoned Peebee and Drack, “You both coming?”
“Ryder, could I borrow you for a moment?” Reyes asked, voice even silkier than usual.
Ryder stopped but replied belligerently, “You heard Peebee, Lexi needs me ASAP.”
Peebee shoved her (thankfully unwounded) shoulder jovially, “Since when did you worry so much about Lexi? We’ll go on ahead and let her know you’re on your way.” Her olive eyes flicked deviously to the large krogan, “Any chance of a piggyback old man?”
“Only if we take it in turns,” Drack grunted in response, and the pair stalked off towards the docks. To Ryder’s disappointment, neither of them offered the other a piggyback.
After following the pair until they reached the doors, Ryder’s gaze settled uncomfortably somewhere past Reyes’ left shoulder, “I really don’t have long…”
Her words trailed off as he grasped her arm gently.
“Sara, I have upset you.”
Cautiously, she glanced down at her hands, “I’m not upset with you.”
“Come on, it’s not like you to ignore my calls. Well, not without dying first anyway.”
Ryder fought back the smile the joke evoked and replied simply, “I talked to Kaetus yesterday.”
A note of understanding crept into his voice, “Ah. We should probably talk somewhere else. I could come to the Tempest again?”
Ryder hesitated, “I’m going to be busy for the next few hours with physio and training…”
“Tonight then?” he persisted.
“Reyes, I need it to go well today, I have to be well enough for ground missions. I can’t take anymore sitting around.” Ryder sighed as fear constricted her chest. She continued quietly, “Things with the kett, things with Meridian, everything feels like it’s coming to a close now and I don’t know what’s going to happen. I need to be focused, I…”
The hand on her arm squeezed slightly. Ryder glanced up at Reyes. A smile tugged at the corner of his lips, his golden eyes unwavering. Looking at his face after having avoided it was like returning to the warmth of a campfire after venturing out into the cold night air.
Ryder shook her head, more at herself for being so easily swayed than anything else, “Okay. I’ll call you when I’m done.”
When Ryder arrived at her quarters to find Reyes waiting there for her, she slipped wordlessly onto her bed, exhausted. She felt a pressure on the mattress beside her as he joined her, sliding his hand up her arm. Ryder curled against his body, muscles still trembling from the exertion of the intense training session she had put her body through. Tucking her head underneath his chin, she eased her fingers beneath the folds of his flightsuit until she could feel the warmth of his body through his shirt. Ryder closed her eyes, hair still wet from the shower drying on his shoulder, appreciating the steady weight of his arm over hers, the rhythmic beat of his heart against the flat of her palm. She was too tired to ply him with any questions just yet, his mere presence, his touch, comforting enough for now. She realised that this probably should have felt strange, alien even. She was used to him being distracting, stimulating, she couldn’t remember when Reyes’ presence had become soothing as well, when his touch had become something that in some moments eased the anxious beating of her heart, and excited it at others.
After allowing her several minutes to collect herself, Reyes spoke, “Everything alright?”
“Lexi says I’m fine, I just have to take it easy, no displays of brute force or excessive use of my biotics. So basically, she’s taken all the fun out of field work.”
Reyes shifted, sliding the ends of her hair onto the pillow so the shoulder of his flightsuit was not completely sodden, weaving his fingers through it as he did so, “No punching raiders for a while? Devastating.”
“Yeah, or throwing them into the air and timing how long it takes for them to come back down,” she grumbled before relenting, “although after today I have to admit, she is right. Everything aches. Muscles I didn’t even know that I had ache.”
Ryder shifted so she could look at him, eyes lingering uncertainly on his, “Why?”
Reyes chuckled in return, sending a thrill of nervous tension through her body, “You’ll like it. Promise.”
She sat up obediently and he did the same, leaning back on the headboard. She was still trying to pick apart what the intentions were behind the mischief in his expression, the gleam in his almond eyes, when Reyes manoeuvred her so she was sat between his legs, facing away from him. Reyes ran his hands from her shoulder blades to the base of her neck and began to press circles there with the pads of his thumbs, softly.
“Oh,” she murmured.
Ryder nearly purred in appreciation as he began to apply more pressure, brushing his thumbs firmly from the base of her neck to her hairline. Where he found a knotted muscle Reyes pressed harder, the sensation intensely pleasurable and painful in equal measure.
“Told you you’d like it,” Reyes responded, sounding pleased with her reaction.
Ryder lost herself in the motions of his hands, allowing her mind to wander, relaxing as her muscles did. However, there was one thought she could not clear from her mind entirely, “I suppose you want to know about my conversation with Kaetus?”
“Only if you wish to tell me,” Reyes replied, voice sounding a little too offhand.
“What are your plans for him?” Ryder asked, her tone cautious.
He began pinching along the back of her neck, “I hope he can become an asset. But he’s proven… stubborn.”
“Sloane was very important to him. He needs time to cool off.”
“Well, he’s got all the time in the world now. Hopefully, he sees reason,” Reyes responded, dryly.
Ryder was quiet for a time before she spoke, “Reyes… I’m aware that you, well I mean the Collective, have been trying to extract information from Kaetus less than delicately. A lot of those bruises are fresh.” Reyes’ fingers slackened in their movements, but she continued as though she hadn’t noticed, “I don’t like it, but I know how places like Kadara work.” She twisted so she could see his face and he let his hands fall back to his knees, frowning as though he were mulling over her words. Ryder pressed on hurriedly, “I don’t know if you’re aware, but he idolised Sloane, loved her, I don’t think you’ll be able to beat out of him what you need. He’s going through his own personal hell already.”
Reyes didn’t say anything, the contours of his face looked harder, almost stern. It made her feel uneasy, as he withdrew and became the Charlatan, reminding her that her version of him was not the only one, reinforcing there was a Reyes that had ordered people killed, had killed them himself, seemingly without a second thought.
“I know it’s not my place to tell you what to do but I-”
“Still feel guilty about Sloane’s death?” Reyes finished her sentence for her sharply, but there was no malice in his voice, only a glimmer of understanding in his eyes.
“Yes, but that’s not why I’m asking,” Ryder replied, firmly.
“Are you sure? You know she was not gentle in her exit from the Nexus, neither was Kaetus. They fought their way out brutally. They do not deserve your sympathy.”
“What about you?”
“Me? I jumped on the first ship I could possibly hijack and go the hell out of there. I wasn’t getting dragged into all that messy shit,” Reyes shook his head. She could tell he was telling the truth from the look that passed over his face at the memory, his distaste for how the other exiles had handled the situation. “I still don’t understand why you still care so damn much about someone who never gave a fuck about you.”
“It’s not about caring about Sloane, because I don’t particularly, it’s about a sense of honour. It’s implicit to the role of Pathfinder, people need to be able to trust me. If I give my word, I do not break it. That was the exception.”
Reyes glanced over at her, eyes piercing. He thought for a moment, but when he spoke the words didn’t sound like the ones he’d wanted to say, “You won’t find a lot of honour on Kadara.”
“No honour amongst thieves, right?” Ryder shrugged, “But that wasn’t my point. Kaetus is so full of anger towards me, towards the Collective and by extension, you… I don’t think you’ll get anywhere with him with violence. He doesn’t care what happens to him anymore.”
“I knew they were close, he was more to her than second in command that’s for sure, that’s why we targeted him in the first place, but… How do you know?” Reyes asked her, eyebrows furrowing curiously.
“Well, he always got so defensive whenever she came up. Sometimes just the way he looked at her, or the way he didn’t. It was all the more obvious since he tried to hide it, not sure from who. Sloane, perhaps? Although perhaps she knew, maybe felt the same, I could never read her. Maybe instead he was trying to hide it from everyone else? It would have been an exploitable weakness,” Ryder mused.
“You’re incredibly sexy when you’re being devious, you know,” Reyes grinned, grabbing her knees and pulling her towards him across the bedspread. Despite this his shoulders were still tense, his eyes still colder than normal.
“Don’t change the subject,” she stopped him when her knees bumped into his.
“I’m not. You know, he spoke more to you than any of my-” Ryder noticed how he tripped over and quickly amended the word, “any Collective interrogators. Would you consider visiting him again?”
Ryder looked at him thoughtfully, slightly taller than her even when they were sat down, his shins against hers, hands resting, still, for now, on her thighs.
“I could next time I’m on Kadara, although it might be a while,” she ventured, cautiously, “and there’s no guarantee I’d get anything useful out of him.
“That’s fine, it’d give him time to calm down. I just want him talking, for now, doesn’t matter about what.”
“This would be based on the proviso that, my dear Charlatan,” she poked his chest playfully, but her eyes were serious, “you leave him be until that time.”
“Ah, you are a hard woman to please…” Reyes stared back at her as they weighed one another up, each slightly wary of the other’s intentions, “but I cannot refuse you.”
“Since when?” Ryder arced her eyes eyebrow sceptically.
It was as though a spell had broken, the harsh lines of his face smoothed out, his eyes rounded and regained their usual gleam and he was utterly charming again, “Have I ever refused you?”
“Well, if that’s the case then you can continue to massage me,” Ryder winked as she turned her back on him, keen to move on from the intense topic of conversation, to hold onto her version of Reyes before he changed back again.
Reyes complied, his legs extending either side of her, pressing the flats of his hands against each of her shoulder blades, “Also, who said I was your Charlatan exactly?”
“Just a feeling I got,” Ryder shrugged.
Reyes chuckled in response before continuing the previous pattern, fingers drawing circles on her back, easing away the tension from her tight frame. The uneasiness that had ghosted their conversation abated at his touch, replaced by a flustered feeling, drawn by the warmth of his thighs brushing against her hips, the way his fingers deftly traversed her skin.
“You’re distractingly good with your hands, you know,” Ryder muttered as she let out a heavy breath.
“Well, if you remember, it’s not the only part of my body I’m skilled with."
Reyes' hands eased down her shoulders and wound tightly around her waist.
Ryder eased herself backwards so she was lying against his chest, “How could I forget?”
Reyes laughed, his voice lower this time, “Well I did endeavour to make it memorable, but it has been a while.” He dropped a kiss on the crook of her neck that made her shiver. Ryder turned in his arms until she was knelt between his legs, eyes catching his. Reyes had the same expression he had the night he had approached her in his apartment, the one that made her unravel. One that made her afraid of the easy control he held over her.
“That’s one thing we agree on,” Ryder murmured.
Reyes’ hand slid up her neck, drawing her closer as she allowed herself to be steered, his eyes suddenly darker, wilder. This man had the ability to ruin her in so many ways, and yet she jumped so obligingly to every snap of his fingers.
Ryder voiced this uncertainty, “Reyes, you’re not going to take off again are you?”
Her question took him by surprise, and although he tried his best to mask his discomfort, the hand that had so easily been resting on her thigh tightened reflexively and his eyes held an uneasy, strained look, “I was waiting for you to bring this up.”
“Well, are you?” Ryder pressed.
“It’s not that I don’t want to stay.”
“And the other night?”
“It’s not that I didn’t want to then, either,” he responded irritably.
Ryder returned his frown, “Then what?”
His jaw clenched as he withdrew his body from hers defensively.
Reyes folded his arms, “Look, can we just... move on from it?”
“You expect me to just drop it? I’m not just here whenever you want to pick me or put me down,” Ryder snapped, frustratedly.
“That’s not…” Reyes sighed, “You wouldn’t understand.”
Reyes stared at her, limbs folded in on himself, his body language blocking her out whilst his eyes searched hers for a reason to draw her close again. Vulnerability Ryder glimpsed so seldom in him she often wondered if she imagined it flickered in his troubled gaze.
“You know you can trust me,” Ryder assured him.
There was no resonating flash of understanding in his eyes however, just a look of unrelenting wariness that did not dissipate with her words.
“You’re probably the only trustworthy person on this rock,” Reyes admitted, following a pause.
“Well then,” Ryder slid her hand over his knee. “Reyes, if something’s bothering you I’d rather know.”
“I’m just not used to it. To this. I’m used to being alone.” Reyes’ frown deepened, confusion apparent in his attractive features, “Can we just leave it at that, for now?”
He looked so earnest she nodded in response before asking hesitantly, “It’s just… it didn’t bother you when I came to yours?”
“Well I’d invited you over and I was kind of expecting it,” Reyes’ eyes moved away from hers, “look I know it’s strange can we just…”
Ryder leant forwards and Reyes’ arms parted, allowing her to fold herself into his chest, her hands smoothing their way over the folds of his flightsuit, up to the collar, “Shall we take a break from heavy conversation topics for a bit?”
Reyes nodded looking relieved, and he looked so unlike himself devoid of a smile on his lips or in his eyes that she slid forward and kissed him keenly. His body greeted hers readily as she pressed into his lap, his fingers curling around the edges of her shirt. It took him a moment to warm up to her, as though their conversation had ridden him of his usual composure. His mouth rough, hard against hers, fingers a little too tight on her skin. She was going to break away from him when, sensing her discomfort, he slowed his motions. With a sudden sweetness he caressed her lips with his, his fingers sliding along her chin, ravelling gently in her still wet hair. As it so often did, the sensation of his mouth against hers ripped every other thought from her mind, refocussing her on his motions, his breathing. In a haze of restless tongues and impatient caresses, Ryder found herself on top of Reyes, her heart drumming against his chest, her legs tangled in his.
“You know,” he mused as his lips traced her cheekbone and down her neck, “it wasn’t long since your doctor advised against all sexual activity.”
“I won’t tell if you don’t,” she murmured back.
He brought his face back up toward hers and she stifled his wicked reply with her mouth, bringing their lips, their tongues together a little inelegantly in her eagerness. Reyes made a deep noise in the back of his throat that suggested he liked it as she felt his hips buck against her, her own body flush to his, feeling impossibly hot, keenly aware of the hard press of his erection against her receptive thighs. Reyes wound his fingers tightly in her hair, pulling it only slightly, teasingly too hard, his other hand curving down her back to hold her in place. Ryder eased herself backwards slightly, fingers fumbling for the zip of his flightsuit, easing it down.
Reyes pushed her away gently, “Wait.”
Ryder stared down at him, “Is on a list of words Reyes Vidal has never said before…”
“Hush,” he growled, punishing her for her words with a searing kiss. Reyes drew his wrist close to his face, his omni-tool glowing, “Keema? I know I said I’d drop by this evening, but I’ll have to meet you tomorrow.”
“But of course. Say hello to the pathfinder for me,” Ryder pictured the angaran’s knowing smile and sniggered, “and I do hope you’re treating her well, Reyes, you spent enough time mooning over her-”
Reyes cut the call and coughed awkwardly, “So… I’m all yours. I’m not going anywhere.”
Searching for a witty retort and finding herself incapable for once, Ryder simply smiled at him brightly, aware of the weight behind his words.
Grinning he shook his head, “Fuck.”
He dragged her lips against his abruptly, simultaneously taking hold of her hips and repositioning them so they fit against his, hands sliding beneath her top, brushing, burning against her skin.
“What?” she breathed between kisses.
Ryder took a moment to take him in whilst they were a fraction apart. Eyes tracing over the devilish upturn of his lips, the slightly red tinge to his cheeks, the dark hair falling back onto her pillow. Although he may be immeasurably complicated, sometimes frustrating, often closed off, always mysterious, he was undoubtedly worth it. The indescribable rush he gave her, the blood pounding in her ears, nothing else in Andromeda, or indeed the Milky Way, ever made her feel like this.
“When you smile at me like that…” Reyes made a noise that sent hot prickles over her back.
She arched an eyebrow, ready to respond, but he quietened all her further questions by pulling her against him and sliding off her shirt.
A sudden motion jerked her awake, and Ryder sat bolt upright, her heart hammering in her chest, fingers extending out to push away clawing hands that grasped at her. As her fingertips met no resistance her eyes accustomed to the gloom of her quarters and Ryder’s dream-fogged mind refocused. All was as it should be. The darkness was only broken by the light of the monitor on her desk, lighting the familiar edges of the chairs, the coffee table, and the ship models. A constricted breath beside her brought her attention back to the bed, as she suddenly recalled the events of the evening and glanced down. Reyes was laid flat on his back, one arm extended towards her, having fallen from its place about her shoulders. For a moment he was a welcome sight, bedsheets only obscuring the lower half of his naked body, her eyes able to travel freely over the bare skin of his chest, the low light framing the muscular lines of his torso. Then, his dark eyelashes fluttered slightly as his eyes rolled beneath their lids, his sleeping state troubled, far from the satiated one she had observed hours before. She reached out and felt the bare skin of his chest. It was hot, slick with sweat, and his breathing rose and fell erratically.
“Reyes?” Ryder whispered, grasping his arm gently, her fingers stark in the gloom against the darker tone of his skin.
He twitched but didn’t waken, the muscles of his face contorting, black eyebrows drawn in an expression she had never observed when he was awake.
“Reyes,” she repeated more firmly this time, shaking him softly.
With a start that nearly made her fall backwards from the bed, Reyes’ eyes snapped open as his fingers ensnared her wrist tightly, painfully, inhaling great breaths as though he had been running at a great pace.
“Hey, hey it’s just a dream…” she stammered urgently, fighting back the urge to summon her biotics in response to the flicker of fear his sudden ferocity provoked.
He blinked, his eyes wild, cast black in the grey shades of darkness, but didn't let go. Her powers itched beneath her skin, fingertips trembling from withholding them. The intensity, the incomprehensible rage that was held in his expression slowly faded from his face, but it was like a picture that had been hurriedly painted over and parts of the original canvas were still visible. The disconcerting glimmer of anger remained, as did the thinness of his lips.
“Sara?” Reyes shook his head and his grip slackened on her wrist, "Shit, I'm..."
"What the fuck?" Ryder breathed, usual composure shaken from her.
“I thought I was back on Earth… my father… that bastard...” Reyes let his head fall back onto the pillow, eyes flickering as though they were searching the darkness above him for something. “… Instead, I’m with you."
"So you are," Ryder responded, tone softening as she lay down next to him cautiously.
Although he did not speak, eventually Reyes snaked his arm around her waist, and she allowed him to draw her close. As she trailed soft kisses up his neck and onto his cheek, he turned his mouth to hers and she tried to project as much warmth as she could, fingers stroking through his hair, lips gentle. Soon their kisses became longer, more heated, and his hands began to stroke slowly, provokingly over the curves of her body. Even though she could not see him, his scent and the feeling his bare skin against hers sent an exhilarating rush through her. He shuddered when her fingers descended deftly below his waist, and Reyes responded by pushing her commandingly against the mattress.
They didn't talk after that, and Ryder wasn't able to really ponder the meaning of his words until the morning afterwards.
Chapter 13: Violets and Sapphires
Liam discusses his misgivings about the Charlatan over drinks.
“I just don’t get it,” Liam sighed, shaking his head morosely.
Gil raised an eyebrow, smirking in his usual wry way, “Really?”
Liam frowned back at him, “Really.”
The other man was framed by the muted lighting of the Vortex, the violet shade tinting patches of his ginger hair fuchsia. Although the bar never really closed, with citizens of the station waking and working at all hours, there were fewer people than usual, caught as they were between the night and day shift of Nexus personnel.
“Well, some women are attracted to dangerous men… So are some men,” Gil pointed out, shrugging casually and glancing over at the bar.
Although the heavy beat of the music continued no matter the hour, there was no one dancing and the club looked strangely desolate with an empty dance floor. This only added to the feeling Liam already had that they shouldn’t be here, a reminder that this was only a fleeting pause before they faced perhaps their greatest ordeal - finding Meridian.
Liam snorted in response, “So daring and dangerous he paid someone to shoot his enemy in the back.”
“What are we talking about?” Jaal asked loudly over the music as he arrived at their booth, carefully setting down the three drinks he was balancing before sitting next to Gil diagonally from Liam on the L-shaped seats.
Gil leant forward to grab his bottle eagerly, “I’ll give you one guess.”
“Sara?” Jaal asked, but it wasn’t really a question.
Liam laughed, “Hey, I’m not that predictable!”
“You forget I was with you earlier when we bumped into Vidal leaving Ryder’s quarters,” Jaal reminded him, propping his feet on the coffee table between them.
“I knew there was something wrong, you’ve had that look on your face all afternoon. Like a puppy chewing on a wasp,” Gil added facetiously.
Liam flashed Gil a sardonic look before shaking his head, “Don’t remind me.”
Even the memory was enough to bring an acrid taste to his mouth; rounding the corner to see Vidal with his deceitful lips on hers, his arms twisted around her waist. Then the Charlatan had turned to leave, flashing Liam a grin he took to be malicious, intended to remind him of the last words Vidal had spoken to him. I’m not going anywhere. Worse still was the way Ryder responded to Vidal’s presence, seemingly lit up as she looked at him, the way she always did. The vivid blue of her eyes glimmered like the surface of the sea as the all too familiar worry lines on her face retracted temporarily, replaced instead by a smile so bright she practically shone. He missed being on the receiving end of that smile. Liam took a deep gulp of alcohol.
“There’s that look again,” Gil commented, casting Liam a slightly disbelieving look. “You might not like the man, but Ryder obviously does. And not completely without reason.”
Liam regretted the question even as he asked it, “And what possible reason would that be?”
“We’re really going there?” Gil glanced sideways at Jaal perhaps hoping for support.
Jaal looked just as sceptical as Liam, “No, I don’t get it either. He’s a vehshaanan.” He thought for a moment, “… Ah, he’s a… dick.”
Liam nodded approvingly at Jaal’s choice of expletive, “Nice, you’re getting better at this.”
Gil shook his head and took a swig of his bottle, “Well, I can only go on a very brief meeting and what I’ve been told. But he’s charming and easy on the eyes, those are two fairly convincing reasons to like someone, generally speaking.”
“Yeah, but he’s also a mob boss and a glorified murderer,” Liam retorted, indignantly.
“No one’s perfect,” Gil shrugged, then laughed at the disbelieving expression on his face, “no I know, but I mean, you lot kill people all the time but I don’t hold it against you. I still play poker with you… or try to.”
Gil glanced at the poker set on the coffee table pointedly.
“That’s completely different, we’re the good guys, we do it for the right reasons. The Outcasts, the Collective, the Charlatan, they’re all out for themselves,” Liam countered.
Jaal nodded enthusiastically in agreement, so enthusiastically Liam wondered whether angaran alcohol thresholds were lower than that of Milky Way species. It was only their third drink.
“Everyone thinks their own reasons are right, the end result is still the same – lots of corpses. And is he really that much worse than some of the company you keep? Just look at Drack, he’s done some serious shit over the years. Would it bother you so much if she started dating him?” Gil grinned, clearly enjoying his role as devil’s advocate.
Jaal sniggered into his drink.
“Aside from the fact that he’s over 1,000 years old, making banging him the krogan equivalent of having sex with an extremely muscular great grandad?” Liam raised an eyebrow, “No, I wouldn’t have a problem with it.”
“Pleeease. Face it Kosta, you’d have a problem with anyone dating Ryder,” Gil said, shrewdly.
“This isn’t about jealousy, Gil. Vidal’s corrupt, a con artist…” Liam sighed.
Gil’s grin faltered, giving his face a rare sombre look, “I know you worry but you shouldn’t. Ryder is smart, and she can look after herself. She’ll be alright.”
Jaal leant forward conspiratorially, “Liam does a point though. I was with Ryder when she visited Draulir, there were Collective agents torturing captives there.”
Liam swiftly flicked his gaze from Gil’s brown eyes to Jaal’s blue ones, “What? What did Sara say?”
“Well… She questioned it. Said she didn’t think torture was the Charlatan’s style-”
“That’s funny considering the state Sloane’s turian is in,” Liam interjected.
“- but the agent just shrugged it off saying he didn’t know,” Jaal continued, “Sara pushed it and the agent called it off.”
“Well then, if he was ignorant of it you can hardly blame Reyes,” Gil shrugged.
“He must know about Kaetus though, he's black and blue, well, he would be if turians bruised black and blue,” Liam shook his head.
“And if he does then there’s every chance Ryder already knows. And if she does then it’s her choice.” Where he had been sat back easily, languidly in his chair before, Gil sat forward. “Liam, I’ve been down this road before myself so believe me when I say you need to just accept this is happening. I know you want the best for her but if you continue down this path, you’ll just put more distance between you. She’s made her choice.”
Liam stared at him, tripping over his words in his haste to respond, “It isn’t like that…”
“You Milky Way species all make things so complicated,” Jaal mused, “if an angaran falls in love they don’t waste all this time talking about it. You should just tell her how you feel.”
“Tell her how I..?” Liam looked at him blankly.
“Make a grand gesture,” Jaal nodded.
“That’s… Look no one said anything about anyone being in love alright? Don’t go spreading that around the Tempest, it’s already bad enough that everyone knows I fancy the boss,” Liam replied, hurriedly.
“Also, I’m not sure I could think of advice worse than that, no offence Jaal. Next you’ll be telling him to duel Reyes to the death for her hand,” Gil chuckled.
Jaal’s laughter joined Gil’s, “Could you imagine her face?”
“She’d kill us both,” Liam grinned despite the cold feeling in his gut. The same cold feeling he always got whenever the topic of the Pathfinder and the Charlatan came up. The same cold feeling that crept upwards and into his lungs late at night when he was trying to sleep.
Draining his glass, Jaal looked at him closely, “What exactly happened-”
All three men’s heads turned towards the origin of the voice. A woman was staring at them from the other side of the coffee table, fringed by flashing lights, her large eyes round and apprehensive, “Oh, I interrupted you, I’m so sorry.”
She was young for an asari, Liam noted, not likely much over 100 and obviously still in her maiden stage. It was clear in the slightly self-conscious way she held herself, the way she fiddled nervously with the datapad in her hands, how her violet eyes flitted between them.
“That’s alright, can we help you?” Liam ventured, whilst Gil muttered that they were talking a load of shit anyway and Jaal nodded affably.
“Y-you’re the Pathfinder team, right?” the asari continued, her soft voice steadier now. “Well, the human Pathfinder, Ryder’s?”
“What gave us away?” Gil asked, playfully. “The stench of death?”
“Your faces are literally everywhere?” she pointed out, a small wry smile forming on her lips.
“Oh,” Gil sounded disappointed.
Liam shook his head and grinned, “Ignore him.”
Her eyes rose tentatively to his and she returned his smile, “It wasn’t really a question anyway, everyone knows who you are; Jaal Ama Darav, Gil Brodie,” she nodded to each of them in turn before she lingered on his name, “Liam Kosta.”
“You’ve done your homework, if you even know who I am,” Gil muttered approvingly.
“Yes but, who are you?” Jaal asked curiously.
“Oh right,” she coughed lightly, “I am Sanese Pyxiris, but non-asari usually just call me Pixie. And to answer your other question… I have been scouted as a potential member of Pathfinder Damali’s team because of my technical abilities…” she caught the slight look of incredulity on Gil’s face and continued in a sharper tone, much sharper than Liam would have expected from the seemingly shy asari, “and my ability to crush every bone in a target’s body using my biotics.”
Although diminutive in stature (she stood only a few feet taller than the backs of the chairs) and anxious upon first meeting, she clearly was not afraid to stand up for herself.
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to offend. Drinking makes me a bit of an ass,” Gil shrugged apologetically.
“Try always an ass,” Jaal muttered.
“What is it we can do for you, Miss Pyxiris?” Liam asked quickly, folding his arms, keen to get to the point.
“I wondered if I could discuss with you what it’s like being selected for the Pathfinder team, what the role entails… Your contact details are public, but I thought it would be rude to contact you without introducing myself first,” she placed the datapad in the crook in her arm as she tapped at her omni-tool. “There’s my email, in case my messages go straight to your junk folder, I appreciate you must be extremely busy, but really, any advice you can provide that might help me reach a decision would be so helpful… And call me Pixie.”
Liam nodded as his omni-tool vibrated as her message reached him, “Uh, ok. It might not be immediately but I’m sure I, we, could help.”
Pixie beamed, “Excellent! I’ll be in touch!”
Without stopping to say goodbye, Pixie scurried across the bar and towards a human girl in a matching Nexus personnel uniform who was waiting for her with a raised eyebrow.
“Well, that was interesting,” Gil ventured, his eyes brimming with a devilish knowing.
Liam sighed, “What now?”
Pulling an expression that made him look ridiculous, Gil leant across the table. Pouting and doe-eyed, he looked up into Liam’s eyes beseechingly, “Mr Kosta, here’s my email, for strictly professional reasons.”
Liam rolled his eyes, “She was talking to all of us?”
“She was flirting rather obviously, Liam,” Jaal agreed.
“I’d keep an eye on your inbox, might get a bit steamy,” Gil wiggled his eyebrows suggestively.
“What’s getting steamy?” a female voice spoke, causing all three men to start. Cora was leaning against the end of the high-backed booth next to Jaal, who had nearly fallen out of his seat in his surprise. Not one of them had seen her approach, they were so engrossed in their conversation.
“You need to stop with that shit, it’s creepy,” Liam chided her, clutching his heart dramatically. “Do they train huntresses to sneak up on people or do you just enjoy it?”
“Both,” she smirked. “And don’t shirk the question.”
“What’s steamy is yours and Jaal’s future sex tape. When are you getting on with that again?” Gil snickered.
Jaal turned a brilliant shade between mauve and plum, Cora threw back her head and laughed.
“Any time, stud,” she winked jokily at Jaal.
Jaal blinked rapidly in response.
“Anyway, it’s time to get moving. Ryder’s on her way back to the ship,” Cora’s voice was suddenly commanding again. As abruptly as she had arrived, she made towards the doorway of the club.
“Liam… What’s a stud?” Jaal stood up, staring at him searchingly.
“Ha! You can work that one out on your own mate,” Liam chuckled.
Gil looked forlornly at the poker set before packing it away, “I’m bringing Drack and Peebee next time, might actually get a game out of them.”
A reticence that was endearing with a curious tenacity hidden beneath. A small, slim frame, fetching in the Nexus uniform she was wearing. Flecks of deep purple that curved along high cheekbones, vivid against the periwinkle shade of her skin. Liam listed these attributes matter-of-factly in his mind, took no joy in recollecting them, no interest in turning them over again.
Eyes the exact hue of lavender that focused on his…
Well, not without any interest but certainly far less than he would have had before Andromeda. Before Ryder. Surely though, he would have noticed all the signs of an attractive woman flirting with him?
Liam Kosta, she stretched out his name, her accent giving it a musical quality.
At one time he would have noticed Sanese Pyxiris.
Liam exhaled heavily as his feet automatically carried him towards his usual spot, the storage room at the back of the cargo bay. He gave Drack a passing wave as he walked by the medical bay but didn’t stop. As he reached the storage room, the regular sound of the door hissing open was strangely comforting, eager as he was for a moment’s respite to think. He strode through it just as someone was exiting from the other side. All too quickly her fingers were encircling his triceps to steady him, the sweet scent that always lingered about her hitting the back of his throat, provoking forth a flurry of images that had been hidden carefully in the recesses of his mind.
Full lips parting as they murmured his name, a flash of white teeth as they nibbled playfully at his skin.
Liam forced his mind back into the present.
Piercing, her eyes shifted awkwardly away from his, “I was just leaving…”
Despite her words, Ryder didn’t move other than to let go of him. Even this motion sent a hot, prickling sensation over Liam’s skin.
“Did you need me for something?” he asked, voice a little rough.
“I know I shouldn’t be here, but the others wouldn’t understand. You know me better…” Ryder looked visibly rattled, paler than usual, words racing, linking together in her haste to speak. Her long hair was loose and she was twisting a thick curl distractedly in her fingers.
“Is this about Meridian?”
She nodded but didn’t say anything else. This was the first time she had visited him here since… Since she had kissed him on that couch and he’d responded keenly, hands pulling her closer to him, her shoulders arcing back as he eased forward until he was on top of her. Their hands desperately exploring each other’s bodies, tongues clashing against each other, eager for something to help them forget, forget, forget everything. He could never have known then how such an evening could affect him, how what had seemed like nothing more than finding solace in another could have ignited… something. How a small feeling could intensify, become far more, could become something uncomfortably close to obsession.
He knew it wasn’t fair her coming here. She did too. He wanted to be angry, but he couldn’t.
A soft expression crossed over her face that he thought for a moment contained pity, “I’ll go…"
The very idea she might feel sorry for him was repugnant, so repugnant he nearly physically grimaced before he caught himself.
“It’s fine. What did you want?”
“I’m... afraid,” as she voiced the last word he saw her face twist with pain at relinquishing it, as though vocalising it was painful, “about what comes next. If we fail… If I fail…”
He knew how much it had taken her to admit she was frightened. He doubted there were many others she would admit it to.
Liam placed a hand on each of her shoulders warmly, eyes fixed on hers, their intensity commanding hers to remain in place on his, “Ryder. Sara. You have never failed us before.”
Ryder squirmed beneath his gaze, “I have… I died… I…”
He did not loosen his hold.
“We can do this. You can do this. I know it.”
Like cut sapphires in firelight, her eyes flashed as they analysed his features, penetrating deeper than SAM’s scans ever could. After a few seconds she relented, had found what she wanted in the look he gave her, in that and the unwavering loyalty and conviction of his words.
“Thank you.” It was as though she had shaken herself, shaken off the fearful spectre of the Pathfinder and fully relinquished herself again. “I shouldn’t have lost faith in us.”
“It’s natural to have doubts, we all do. But we can do this.”
Ryder nodded vigorously, “We can do this.”
After she left, Liam sank back into the battered sofa. As he sat, the leather squeaked, the sound evoking further memories of the evening he had spent with Ryder. He covered his eyes as though to block them out, block out memories of that smile, the smile he still kept seeing but that she was wearing for someone else, but the image was playing inside his head and could not be so easily obstructed. His chest felt as though the air was being pressed from it, the weight of his regret and envy and suspicion, that which he carried with him but avoided, physically forcing him down into the chair now he had given it chance to take hold.
Of course he had not noticed Sanese Pyxiris. All he ever noticed, all he ever saw, was Sara Ryder.
Chapter 14: Whisky and Blood
Ryder goes to Khi Tasira to find the path to Meridian. Reyes tries to distract himself from thinking about the Pathfinder.
As the Tempest descended toward Khi Tasira, Ryder stood on the bridge clad in Initiative armour, helmet under her arm. The white and blue paintwork shone, stark under the artificial lights. The night before she had sat repeating Liam’s earlier words to herself like a mantra – “we can do this, we can do this” - buffing each armour piece over and over in turn, helmet, chest piece, gloves, boots, helmet, chest piece, gloves, boots, until she had fallen asleep with them propped between her legs. SAM had to quicken her pulse to jolt her awake, before firmly ordering her to bed. A similar solemnity rested over other members of the crew, and as the hours had drawn closer, it felt as though even the ship itself felt it, the hum of the engines reducing to a whisper. Even Suvi and Kallo, who so regularly chatted (gossiped) throughout their shift, were only speaking when necessary to exchange information that was critical to the mission, although Ryder only caught brief snatches of what they were saying. Ryder’s free hand rested on the rail to the viewing platform, above which the vast Galaxy map usually sprawled.
Her gloved fingers tightened more the lower the ship flew.
She shifted her weight from foot to foot impatiently before reaching a hand inside the neck of her chest armour and the thin suit she wore beneath. Her fingers probed over her skin until they hit metal and she pulled out a thin chain. As the remnant city came closer into view, the dark outline of its towers reminding her of gothic buildings she’d once seen in Barcelona, she twisted her fingers along the chain until they reached the ring linked around it. She rubbed its smooth surface, slightly warmed from contact with her skin, between the tips of her fingers. One finger slid under the rim, tracing the etches of the familiar inscription inside. She didn’t need to read it to know what it said.
For my north star.
As a last stop before their search for Meridian, Ryder had directed the Tempest to the Nexus to visit her brother, only to uncover information that had left both twins stunned. They had learned that their mother was alive and could possibly be revived, that their family was not so shattered as they had thought. This revelation had ignited such a fire within her, renewed Ryder’s focus so that she jumped the Tempest immediately to her current destination: Khi Tasira, where they had unearthed both the truth about the angaran’s true origins, the existence of the Jaardan and that Meridian was, in fact, at a different location entirely. This had started a race from system to system in order to scan the scourge and map the route to the real Meridian following Suvi and SAM’s recommendations. Now they had returned to Khi Tasira to follow the trail from its source. Before her walk to the bridge, Ryder had retrieved the chain with her mother’s wedding ring on it from a small box enclosed in her desk. Since her death, Ryder had thought about wearing it several times but even the thought of retrieving it had been too raw, too painful. Now there was a chance they would see their mother again she felt ready. As she stared at Khi Tasira, as spellbound as she had been when she first beheld it, the reflection of the lights emitted by the strange craft glowed in her eyes like a thousand iridescent fireflies. She rubbed the ring with her thumb one more time before slipping it back underneath her armour and reminded herself that she was not the first Ryder that had dared to do the impossible.
A shiver, one of expectancy, of contained adrenaline, passed over her shoulders as she struggled to swallow past the lump in her throat. They were so close now, close to an eventual future for both the Milky Way refugees and the Angara, one that had even weeks ago seemed entirely impossible. And now here she was. Hurtling ever faster towards the end game even though she was stood still. But the weight of the expectation of millions was not weighing on her alone; astride her stood Liam and Peebee, comrades not only for the mission, but in her silence. The extent of their task appeared to have even ridden the loudmouthed asari of words to express. Instead, the three of them simply stared at the tremendous sight before them together, and when she took both of their hands for a couple of seconds, neither pulled away.
“Pathfinder, I have located a safe landing zone close to the tower where I believe we could find the controls that deployed Meridian. Are you ready?” SAM asked.
Ryder nodded, turning to her companions, “Let’s go.”
“Up for a drink, Reyes?” a warm voice with an Irish lilt asked.
Reyes glanced upwards with a grin, “Wouldn’t have let you in if I wasn’t, would I?”
“Very true,” Kian Dagher nodded in response, sitting across from him on the corner seat in Reyes’ hired room. He pulled the small table at the centre of the room towards the seat and set down two glasses, pouring a sizeable amount of whisky into both.
“Business is doing well, I take it?” Kian asked, conversationally.
Although he had never explicitly stated it, and Kian had never asked, Reyes was quite sure that the bartender was intelligent enough to at least suspect that the man renting his room, that was part of numerous business deals and often turned up at the centre of situations that he really had no place being involved in, was actually the Charlatan. Luckily, the bartender seemed happy enough to maintain his ignorance, and Reyes felt secure enough to continue in this manner. Kian was one of the more interesting people he had met on Kadara. He was fantastically loyal and obliging when you helped him, and the last sort of person you would expect to be an exile he was so approachable. However, he was also not someone to be crossed. One of Reyes’ own agents had been there to observe when, during the time when the Outlaws prevailed over Kadara Port, an unwitting band of exiles, unaffiliated with any particular group, had threatened to kill all the bar’s patrons if Kian didn’t transfer them a hefty sum of credits. After muttering that he needed a minute, Kian had burst through a side door, shotgun in hand, and fired upon the unsuspecting exiles. He gunned all three of them down himself, without calling for either of the two krogan he employed as security, before walking back into his enclosed, barred room as though nothing had happened. The Collective agent describing this to Reyes had a charming way with words and had likened their corpses to swiss cheese. After that, Reyes often wondered if Kian had been previously acquainted with being behind bars before he took over management of Tartarus. Whenever interacting with the bartender, Reyes kept such unpredictability in mind.
“You’re not hurting for customers,” Reyes countered.
“Yeah, we do alright. About what you’d expect from the last club before you hit the wasteland on a planet full of pirates,” Kian nodded, knocking back his first shot before immediately refilling his drink, as he always did. “That is, we do before the Collective takes its cut.”
Kian’s hazel eyes glinted mischievously, crinkling in a way that suggested he wasn’t altogether serious. Reyes was careful not to react in any way that would implicate himself as having anything to do with the organisation, merely shrugging disinterestedly in response. Like all business owners on Kadara, Kian was so deeply indebted to the Collective that even if he were to air any thoughts on the possible identity of the Charlatan, Reyes was in the position to make things very difficult for him. Moreover, Kian also owed Reyes a rather more personal debt which made it very unlikely he would ever try to use such knowledge to his advantage. Despite this, Reyes still kept the bartender close, invited him to his private room for drinks, swung by to visit Kian when he was serving from time to time. Well, that and he was one of the few people in the port that Reyes actually liked. Most other residents in the general populace either smelt like the drains back on Omega, were relentless pickpockets or set his teeth on edge for other nefarious reasons.
Reyes leant over the table and reached for his glass, draining it with the same speed Kian had his. Kian refilled both their glasses immediately.
“You’re here late tonight, you waitin’ up for somethin’?” Kian asked, thin lips curving into a crooked smile.
Reyes knew exactly what he was getting at, but he wasn’t taking the bait. Not yet anyway.
“Nah, just can’t be bothered to drag my carcass home,” he responded, with a limp wave of his hand as though to express his tiredness.
Reyes didn’t really have to exaggerate, he was tired, having dealt with some particularly unpleasant business that had taken up most of his day. But he couldn’t sleep yet.
“Why not? If the bar’s doing that well you can stand to lose a few credits to a lowly smuggler such as myself,” Reyes nodded.
Whilst Kian set out the cards Reyes rummaged through his pockets until his hand closed over a pack of cigarettes in one pocket, and a lighter in another. He flipped open the top of the lighter, the flame illuminating the gold casing before dying out again. He’d had the lighter a long time, and it was older than both he and his companion’s ages combined.
Kian frowned and paused mid-shuffle, “Didn’t think you smoked, Reyes. Too smart for that, aren’t yeh?”
Reyes frowned as he took a drag, “I only do it occasionally.”
Only when I’m stressed. Only when I need it, he thought but didn’t add.
Panting after fighting through a sea of remnant, Ryder beheld the model of Meridian displayed on the interface before her. The three of them stood at the centre of a long dark corridor, filled with the familiar, angular structures that marked all remnant (or Jaardan?) architecture. They had just witnessed the impossible: the scourge had parted, they could see their path to Meridian right in front of them, and with it, they could activate the vault on every planet in the cluster, make Heleus liveable.
Ryder smiled broadly, scarcely able to believe their luck, “This is the day everyone in the Initative has hoped and worked for, ever since we left our own stars.”
“Congratulations Pathfinder,” a deep voice spoke as if from nowhere, it had a sinuous quality, like a worm sliding inside her ear, “a great day for us all.”
She knew that voice. Although the last time she had heard it, it had not been reverberating inside her head. The last time, she had died. Frantically, Ryder glanced around for the source of the sound, any trace of the Archon, and saw her companions were doing the same. Liam’s gun was held high, tucked tight to his chest, and Peebee was biting her bottom lip, hard. Both were immobilised by shock, trying to gulp down their terror.
“SAM? Tempest. What…what is going on?” Ryder gasped, as a tremendous pain seared through her, pulsing through her skull and forcing her onto her knees.
It felt as though the synapses in her brain were firing the wrong signals, causing an electrical storm inside her head. An image of the Archon flared in her eyes, obscuring her vision, projecting pride, victory, fulfilment that he had finally swatted a fly that had been buzzing, buzzing in his ear incessantly. Ryder clutched at her forehead, the ringing of her ears such a cacophony that she barely recognised the sounds of her own screeches of agony. A hand pulled her upwards and she could hear indistinct voices that were not her own. Through strained eyes, sight cleared again, Ryder could see the open doorway and attempted to navigate towards it, guided by the steady fingers that encircled her arm.
“I believed you a fitting rival, but you are a false thing. A lie,” the Archon spoke again, and with his words came another surge of torment, hot agony trickling down from her head and onto her shoulders, coursing lower down her body via her bloodstream.
As she continued to stagger forward a body pressed against her other side as both Liam and Peebee were trying to guide her out of the room, though her shaking legs barely had the strength to hold her up.
“SAM, SAM…?” she called for the AI in desperation, but there was no response.
Deep down she had known there wouldn’t be.
As she edged painfully towards the exit, the Archon continued to mock her in his dispassionate tone. Ryder tried to block out his words, but the plunging fear and hopelessness they ignited were almost overpowering. He understood how her connection with SAM worked. He had torn SAM from her. He was going to use SAM to control Meridian and exalt the entirety of the Helius cluster. As she reached the open doorway it slid closed and Ryder crumpled to the ground, the hands of her colleagues grasping to steady her, so close yet they felt an eternity away. When the Archon landed his final blows she was on her knees, holding her head together as though frightened her skull would burst apart and shatter.
He was going to use Scott to control SAM, and he was going to take the Hyperion to get to him.
“Fall to darkness, Pathfinder. You were almost worthy.”
“That’s it,” Kian huffed and threw down his hand, the cards scattering over the table, “you’re unnaturally quiet, Reyes. What’s wrong with yeh?”
Reyes raised an eyebrow and peered at the other man over his own cards, a straight flush, and chuckled, “Is this a new tactic, Kian? Feigning concern for me won’t make me go easy on you, it will only make flattening you more satisfying."
“You’re smoking, you’re barely drinking. It’s weird,” Kian frowned and rubbed the back of his neck, “you’re making me uneasy.”
“Not as uneasy as the Pathfinder makes you,” Reyes snorted, remembering how the other man had stuttered in her presence.
“Yeah, well, powerful women do that to me. I don’t know what to do with meself when Keema comes in here.”
Reyes sniggered, “And here I thought I was in with a chance, always bringing me drinks, trying to get me inebriated..."
“That’s a bit of an occupational trait?”
“… asking me about my feelings, trying to get me to talk to you about them…” Reyes continued over him, with a sly grin. His tactic, to distract Kian from pressing him further about why he appeared off, seemed to be working.
“Ha, you’re not my type. Too slutty. Slept with half the port, you have,” Kian laughed.
In a manner that was far less dignified than he would have liked, Reyes spluttered into the glass of whisky he had just raised to his lips.
“Oh, come on, far less than half,” Reyes shook his head before muttering, “it has to about a thousandth, at best.”
“Okay, I’m sorry mate, that was harsh. A quarter.”
Reyes cocked a disbelieving eyebrow at the bartender.
“Nah, you’re right. More like a third.”
Reyes rolled his eyes even though the corners of his mouth still curved into a smile. He realised he was glad he had chosen to help Kian, grateful that he had someone to joke with, shit talk with. Even for someone as enterprising as himself, there was seldom little else to do in the port unless you wanted to get off your tits on Oblivion.
“You do seem sweet on the Pathfinder though. I’ve not seen you with anyone else since you met her, come to think of it,” Kian grinned, clearly acknowledging the look in Reyes eyes that said, really, again?
Reyes sighed, “You’re desperate to talk about this aren’t you?”
“It’s only what everyone is whisperin’ about...”
“Well, they don’t whisper very quietly,” Reyes grumbled, though he didn’t mind half as much as he pretended.
“Who would’ve thought? Reyes Vidal, getting all misty over a woman,” Kian teased.
“Oh don’t start, I’ve had all this already from Keema,” Reyes groaned.
“Although if you were, I couldn’t say I blame you. The Pathfinder is one hell of a woman.”
Reyes grinned slyly back, “She is, but I’m afraid she is spoken for.”
At one time the very idea would have been unthinkable. Reyes had been so embroiled in the politics of Kadara, so hellbent on carving out a name for himself, in carefully constructing the persona of the Charlatan, he’d had no time for any personal relationships. He hadn’t wanted them either. Hadn’t for a long time, even before Andromeda. Of course, that didn’t mean he didn’t enjoy the company of attractive women, and men, but it had never really been anything that had any depth, anything more than easy seduction. Not on his side at least. If anything, the sort of people he met were usually only attracted to the money he had, the things he could provide for them in his position as a smuggler. Certainly, the day he had met Ryder he’d had no expectations of her being anything more than a business associate.
It hadn’t taken more than one meeting to shatter that illusion.
Upon entering Kralla’s Song he’d identified the Pathfinder immediately. It wasn’t difficult, he’d seen her in the vids pre-Andromeda, however, he could have guessed who she was simply by the fact she was about the only person in the bar, other than himself and Umi, that looked to have bathed in the last week. This previous familiarity hadn’t prepared him for her actual presence. Although obviously Alliance trained and athletic, her body hadn’t been yet been sculpted by heavy fighting, and her curves were still obvious even under the thick leather jacket she had thrown over her off-duty uniform. Her eyes were large conveying her obvious youth, mid-twenties at the oldest, yet she didn’t look uneasy and was more comfortable in her surroundings than most other Initiative personnel, who usually struggled to acclimatise to the rough diamond that was the port
You look like you’re waiting for someone.
He had expected her to recoil at the line, blanch even. Reyes had seen enough of Alec Ryder in Initiative propaganda to know he was uptight, virtuous, some might even have considered him sanctimonious. He quickly realised expecting this of his daughter too had been a grave miscalculation on his part. Despite all the semblance of a Pathfinder, the Initiative colours, the fancy AI, she was something different entirely. Instead of looking at him with scorn, her eyes glittered, eyes the exact blue of the South Pacific ocean in the midst of summer. When he offered her a drink she took it, allowing her fingers to briefly linger on his.
This woman, the Pathfinder, might be just as good at playing the game as he was.
I was expecting someone more… angaran. But don’t worry, I’m not disappointed.
That’s what he’d first thought. That it would just be a game, their back and forth flirtation, teasing, trying to see who would break first. He had never thought it would be him, that he’d ask her on a date, even if he’d had to tie it all up with business in order to justify it. But after many nights of lying awake, hard, remembering the way her armour perfectly formed to the shape of her breasts, her thighs, and thinking about the sultry way she’d flick her eyes over to him whenever she knew she wasn’t supposed to be – like when he fought beside them against the Roekaar, or when she’d passed him in the port when already in deep conversation with Liam - he’d given in resisting. That it would turn into anything more than attraction had also completely blindsided him. But being blindsided by the Pathfinder was something he’d gotten used to. This Ryder was completely at odds with what he’d expected. Witty, beautiful, and with perhaps a little too much of a taste for danger. There was no surprise that he’d found it difficult to rid his mind of her ever since.
It was also no surprise that he was finding it difficult to distract his mind from the fact she was almost certainly in grave danger.
“Has something happened?” Kian asked curiously, perhaps catching the far-off look in Reyes’ eyes.
“Not that it’s any of your business,” Reyes started off gruffly, but relaxed his tone when he realised that his nerves were affecting him, “but shit’s really hitting the fucking fan.”
“Oh, is that why your expression looks like sour milk that’s been solidified and moulded into somethin’ resemblin’ a face?” Kian quipped.
Reyes threw a poker chip at him, but chuckled nevertheless, “Probably.”
Dodging the chip, Kian grinned before beginning to gather up the cards on the table, “You want me to leave you alone now?”
Reyes nodded, but caught the bartender’s arm before he left, “Thanks, Kian.”
It felt as though she’d had a badly performed operation undertaken by an inept surgeon where an organ had been ripped from her, and her body ached, ached without it. Something was absent and it took a moment for her to realise what. SAM.
Ryder sat up abruptly, her breath coming out on a rush, nearly headbutting Liam in the process.
“Shit!” Peebee shouted from overhead.
“You were… gone,” Liam said, quieter than she had ever heard him and as she looked up into his eyes they shifted away from hers.
Ryder dragged herself to her feet even though it felt as though her entire body had been scrubbed inside until it was raw.
“Ryder, hey, take it easy…” Peebee called out, moving towards her.
“We need to get back,” Ryder answered resolutely, taking a few steps and practically falling onto the remnant terminal.
“Ryder, the door… it’s rem-tech. We can’t get through it,” Peebee murmured, standing beside her.
“The Tempest… the Hyperion… Scott…” Ryder mumbled, words tumbling from her like she was drunk.
She held her hand out to the controls like she had done so many times before. It was insane to even attempt it, she knew that. There was no way it could possibly work, SAM was gone, as severed from her as if her head had been cut open and the chip in her brain had been forcibly extricated. But Ryder was powered by adrenaline, instinct, not logic or reason as she flexed her fingers and waited for the console to respond. For an aching moment, nothing happened. Then, beneath her fingers, the machine began to slide into action. Her heart fluttered with excitement, with wonder, before scorching pain wracked through her body and she collapsed against the console with a loud groan.
“Ryder, don’t be so fucking stupid. You can’t do this without SAM,” Peebee cried.
Ryder pulled herself upward, holding out her trembling hand again. It was like powering the console was draining away all her energy, as though she had replaced the power source, the connections required to use it. The old machine stuttered into action again, the doors twitching open slightly, her body shuddering along with it.
“Sara, you’re going to kill yourself,” Liam grabbed her wrist, voice shaking.
“We… need… to get back.”
Ryder ripped her hand away from his grasp with a snarl before trying again, eyes squeezed shut, her other hand balled against her chest as she felt her body weaken, feet slipping on the floor’s smooth surface. But the door was moving, she could hear the old stone scraping apart, agonisingly slow. Then the sound stopped.
“The door… it’s open,” Peebee gasped.
She could taste blood at the back of her throat and the ringing, the high-pitched whine in her ears had returned, but it didn’t matter. As she panted, buckled over, she could see that the door was open. Ryder let out a soft. sharp moan before taking a deep breath. She let herself feel all the aches of her body, taste the iron in her mouth, probe the empty, hollow void where it felt like SAM should be, contemplate the abject fear she felt that she had failed, that everything she loved would be ashes, hundreds of faces flashing past, all dead, all gone all- And then she breathed it out again. Then she was running, running through the open doors with her aghast crewmates trailing behind. Kallo’s voice was streaming in her ear again and she was calling out commands barely knowing what she was saying.
She caught Liam's voice as she sprinted for the gravity well, “Let the doc know that Ryder is hurt and doing weird shit without Sam.”
Ryder threw herself into the blue light of the well and had barely stepped spinning out of it and they were outside again, most of the crew waiting to meet them. They were stood in a semi-circle, faces a mixture of fear, despair, concern, and Ryder stood still for a second taking them in. Lexi with her ridiculously huge heart that she tried to hide beneath cold professionalism, Cora, desperate for a command even though she was an incredible tactician in her own right, Jaal, the only angaran that believed in her, in fact, the first person to always believe in her, Drack, a terrifying hulking grandfather who made the best stew she'd ever eaten, and Vetra, the most badass bitch she'd ever met who only cared about making sure her little sister was safe. All of them needed her to fix it, they needed her to tell them she could make it right. And all at once she knew what she needed to do, for them, for Liam and Peebee who'd tried so hard to protect her, for Suvi, Gil and Kallo waiting for her anxiously on the ship, for her brother out there somewhere caught up in this mess because of her. So Ryder stepped past them, it was easier to show them her plan than tell them, besides, she could barely string a cohesive sentence together. There was another terminal at the edge of the platform they were standing on and she marched straight towards it, deaf to the debates that raged around her, to the questions posed to her. As she held her hand above the terminal she bit down on her lip to stifle another moan as she accessed it. Whoever the Jaardan were, their structures, their technology was so far advanced passed their own that it made even the asari look like nothing more than children tinkering with toys. As such, she wasn’t able to comprehend how it worked, merely that it reacted to the requirements of the user, as long as these were within the limitations of the interface’s programming. Ryder knew what she wanted it to do, and within seconds could feel the connection being passed, felt the strain of it as thousands of remnant ships were activated and supplicated to her will. Khi Tasira shuddered beneath them as the ships rose into the sky, a long shadow passing over Tempest and its crew.
“Well, fuck a pjak,” Drack roared.
Whilst the others stood, eyes fixed on the sky, mouths agape, Cora and Peebee moved towards her.
“Can you keep that up? Have them fight for us?” Cora asked.
Without hesitation, Ryder nodded. Blood spattered on the panel of the interface below her and she reached for her face instinctively. When she inhaled the taste of iron hit her tongue again and she wiped at her nose, dark red smearing thickly across the back of her hand, before sucking at the cut on her lip from where she had bitten down. Apprehension clouded Cora’s features as she observed this, but she nodded back. As Ryder turned to face the others, she saw their faces lightening, smiles returning as a glimmer of hope was restored, and it was that that kept her on her feet, prevented her from curling into a ball and lying there until the pain of the last few hours subsided. As she moved back towards them to formulate a plan, she saw Liam’s eyes linger over the crimson that streaked the remnant interface’s console.
Chapter 15: The Way Home
Ryder readies herself to face the Archon, enlisting help from unexpected places. Liam's mouth runs away from him.
Back in her quarters on the Tempest, Ryder felt like her body was slowly being crushed into the ground by the weight of a large eiroch. With a lurch she staggered from her chair, throwing herself out of the sliding doors and into the hallway. Not for the first time, she cursed whoever had decided that the Pathfinder didn’t need their own private bathroom. Coughing, she passed through crew quarters and into the female toilet, leaning over the sink just in time as hot blood ran down her throat, spattering the white porcelain in spots of crimson. Since accessing remnant technology without the aid of SAM she’d felt lethargic, her limbs were difficult to lift, and she was starting to worry that she had permanent tinnitus. That and she had become disconcertingly used to the taste of her own blood. But she had little time to worry about it, the voyage to Meridian would take only a few hours at current velocity. Deeply unsettled at the way Ryder had so recklessly risked her health (despite the Pathfinder’s protestations that it had, of course, been the only way they’d had any chance against the Archon) Lexi had ordered her to rest up in her quarters until they reached their destination. Although Ryder found this exasperating, with everyone else busying themselves with last minute preparations, the intense look in Lexi’s eye made her back off. It would be best not to give their only doctor a heart attack.
Although they had the remnant fleet on side, they were still going to need as many of their allies as they could gather. Every member of the crew had been reaching out to their own contacts, sending out directions to Meridian, asking if not for bodies, at least for supplies, medical supplies, guns. Cora had overseen most of those they could reach through regular channels, like Efra and the Resistance, those Ryder herself would have gotten in contact with if she were in any fit state. Which, judging by the fact that every orifice on her head had at one point been bleeding, she had to admit was probably wise. There was one contact, however, that she’d offered to get in touch with herself. Her eyes slid up to the mirror, they looked shockingly large in her reflection and alarmingly bright against the paleness of her skin in her weakened state, the skin beneath darkly shadowed. Well, at least he wouldn't be able to see her. After rinsing out her mouth she exited the bathroom and attempted to slip back into her quarters unnoticed.
She winced. She had not been successful.
Liam was stood at the door to her quarters and had two steaming mugs of tea in his hands.
Smiling, he held one the slightly more worn mug that had a picture of the fictional hanar spectre Blasto on it, “Brought you a present.”
Despite the grin Ryder could tell he was anxious. His eyes looked puffier from lack of sleep, the bright flecks of chestnut around his irises more dimmed than usual. At one time she would’ve been itching to kiss that look from his face, to tease him about the patch of long hairs stuck out under his chin that he’d missed because they’d been so busy lately. Being this close to him, so close that she could see the patch of freckles on his left cheek, see the lines around his nose that creased when he was trying to look happier than he felt, she could remember the fluttering sensations in her chest such proximity would have caused. If she let herself, she could feel a ghost of the feeling, like the impression left by a handprint in sand. But Ryder was not the same as she was then, she was different from the frightened girl that had been desperate for a source of comfort. Taking command of the Pathfinder team (really taking command, not the half stuttered attempts she’d made in the beginning), carving out safe havens for outposts, standing her ground against Tann, against Addison, marching onto the Archon’s ship, telling her brother that their father was dead, and the utter, sheer pain of dying over and over again… it had changed her, not altogether, but those short yet significant months had made her different from before. And when she’d lost that inexperienced, frightened part of herself, she hadn’t needed Liam in the same way she had before.
“Thanks, Liam,” she responded, and although he didn’t know it, she was thanking him for more than the drink. Thanking him because, even though she was stronger now, she was still not strong enough to drive a wedge between them, to give him the distance he may not want but certainly needed.
“You’ve got blood on your chin,” he observed, trying to sound offhand.
She wiped it with the sleeve of her shirt, “Brilliant.”
“You… scared me, you know,” he began tentatively, stopping speaking abruptly as though concerned if he continued he might misspeak.
“We’ve got this,” Ryder replied firmly, keen to avoid that avenue of conversation, too tired to focus on much else than her throbbing skull.
Liam nodded as though he understood, “I’ll be ready.”
Once he had retreated along the corridor and into the cargo bay, Ryder leant against the wall and let out a heavy sigh. She didn’t know how she was going to tell him she wasn’t taking him as part of her ground team to Meridian.
Back inside her room Ryder climbed into the centre of her bed and dragged her bedsheets around herself like a cocoon. She pulled her wrist towards her face, the orange glow of her omni-tool illuminating the undersides of the sheets, a smile briefly flitting over her features as it drew to her mind an old memory she had thought forgotten. The torchlit interior of a pillow fort she and her brother had built in the middle of the night when they 9, where they had stayed up until the early hours chatting and playing video games, only to be found slumped slumbering within it by their mother when she came to rouse them for school the next morning. The corners of her lips fell however, as with a pang she wondered if Scott was even alive, if he had left her as the lone Ryder after all. Lone Ryder. Some warmth crept back into her bones as she remembered his joke and she breathed deeply to ease the hard beating of her heart. It would not do to unravel with panic now. The Archon needed Scott, he was not dead yet, she would find him and make the vile kett pay for ever even contemplating taking her brother within his filthy grasp. It was in moments like this, when she was alone or feeling despondent at Andromeda’s many challenges, that she would usually talk to SAM. Despite the fact the AI was inexperienced with human emotions and at the beginning of their relationship had given somewhat clinical responses, the longer they had spent together and the better he had understood her, the more profound, even comforting, his replies had become. Although Ryder was over the initial shock of his removal, SAM’s absence had still left her feeling sore, the empty space he left behind as abrasive as any physical pain. Ryder tapped at her omni-tool a few times, fingers tracing the pattern of the keys instinctively she had pressed them so many times before. It was time for her to do her part, to call the last remaining contact, although how she was going to explain everything that had happened, she didn’t know.
When she finally called him, Reyes was asleep, laid back on the seats of his private room in Tartarus. When his omni-tool made a sound he started awake, grunting at the stiffness in his neck as he leant forward and shook his head groggily. Some voices emanated from the bar outside, but it was far quieter than it had been when Kian had visited.
Snatching the bottle the bartender had left behind, Reyes took a swig of whisky to clear his throat before answering the call, “Buenas noches. No vidcom this time?”
“Sadly not. It’s hardly private and you definitely can’t be trusted after last time,” Sara answered, and it took him a moment to piece together her words he was so relieved that there was nothing particularly abnormal about her voice, that she didn’t sound badly injured. She had called him the day before to tell him they were going after Meridian, and he’d been rather more distracted than he cared to admit ever since.
Reyes eased himself back into the seat, his words smooth in an attempt to disguise his initial pause, “I only asked you to show me one of them…”
Sara laughed and the sound was so full, so sincere he found himself grinning. It struck him he would look like a fool if someone were to see him now, smiling to himself in the dark, but found he didn’t care.
Sara’s laughter was cut short by coughing, and when she next talked her breathing sounded wheezy and uneven, “Besides, I look like hell.”
“Impossible. If I was still there, I’m sure I’d still ravish you.”
“I’m sure you would,” she sniggered.
“You saved the world yet, angel?” Reyes kept his voice level, tone calm.
She might be speaking as though there was nothing amiss, but he knew her well enough by now to know that she was particularly gifted at playing things down, pretending she didn’t hurt when she did.
Her voice was muffled for a moment as if by her hand, “Things got… intense today. We’re a couple of hours out from Meridian, it’s a long story, I’ve lost my connection to SAM, the Archon severed it.”
“Didn’t that hurt?” he asked, playful banter forgotten for a moment.
“Reyes Vidal, are you worried about me?” she asked, voice a few shades away from mocking. Although she’d meant it as a playful reminder of when he’d asked her the same question after they’d fought Zia, he instead recalled the last time she’s asked him the same thing, the night before she boarded the Archon’s ship. The night before she’d died. Such thoughts did nothing to alleviate his concern.
“Sara Ryder, are you evading the question?”
“Always,” Sara paused, “yes, it did, but I’m okay. Well, apart from the fact the Archon has gone after the Hyperion and my brother and by now he must be headed to the same way we are.”
Reyes winced. He’d been so casually joking when, if her brother was in danger, he imagined that internally Sara was in a state of near panic.
“I’m… sorry. That’s, well, it’s shit.”
“Yeah…” her voice trailed off for a moment as genuine emotion blossomed in it for the first time, no longer held back by a façade, “I’ve already sent you the mission logs, so you know the details of what’s happened. I’m pretty beat and it’s hard enough putting it all into place in my own head.”
“Should you be sharing something like that with the Charlatan?” Reyes frowned.
“I should be if I want his help,” she sounded slightly tentative.
“What do you need?”
“Oh only everyone, we need everything we have against the Archon. That means members of the Collective, if you can spare them.”
He could hear the trepidation in her voice and could tell that the entire conversation had been building to this moment. She needed to know that she could trust him, this was his opportunity to wipe away the doubts he still sometimes observed in her countenance, the guarded way she beheld him at times, to redeem himself after the debacle of revealing himself as the Charlatan in which he had come very close to losing her. Rid her of the idea that he was nothing more than a liar, that he was using her for her station, ideas which he had no doubt Kosta was inflating at every opportunity.
But Reyes was still getting used to being sincere.
“All along I knew you were using me for something, I just thought it was my body,” he quipped, reflexively.
Sara’s response was quick, “Don’t forget who helped you into that throne, King of Kadara.”
“Well, since I suppose you have helped me in the past, in a very minuscule and almost ineffectual way…” he chuckled and continued seriously, “I’ll review the mission logs and get some men debriefed and ready in ships as soon as I can. Sound fair enough?”
“Reyes… Thank you.”
They both were silent then, and he wondered if she was thinking the same as him. He had tried to ignore it throughout their conversation, but the idea that had pulled at him had become more real the more he tried to avoid it, like an oddly shaped shadow in the dark becomes more sinister the more you avert your eyes.
This might be the last time we talk. The Archon might kill her tomorrow.
And he didn’t know what to say. Perhaps he should tell her how he felt, but how could he when he didn’t fully understand himself? Reyes did not credit himself with having great powers of introspection, did not linger long on mulling over his feelings, his deeds, over the man he had become. Perhaps that had changed a little recently, when Sara prodded and poked at his conscience, or what remained of it. But that was just it. She had forced him to face himself because she seemed to care about the man he was. And the fact that he wanted, really wanted, her to approve of the man he was, was something altogether alien to him in itself. Alien and yet welcome, such that he didn’t want it to end, certainly not yet, maybe never.
“I…” His words struggled to find form. “Just be careful alright?”
“This is it. You don’t need me to tell you how important this is,” Ryder began.
Two hours after her conversation with Reyes she stood in the Tempest’s meeting room clad in her father’s armour, back straight although her shoulders were aching, expression impassive although fear and anger lashed at her insides. Around her stood the rest of the team, all armoured, all ready. Through the tinted glass above them, the orbed outline of Meridian grew steadily larger as they approached through a flurry of meteoroids. Dotted amongst the stars, other ships with Initiative colours, anagaran resistance fighters, vast remnant cruisers and other unmarked corvettes and frigates flew alongside them, following the same trajectory, ready to jump into FTL speed and oppose the waiting kett fleet.
“I’m not going to rattle off some speech that’s supposed to inspire you, you don’t need it, I know how much you all want this, and no matter what, each of you is exceptionally capable. I have no doubts you will fight to the best of your ability.”
“Funny, that still sounds a lot like an inspirational speech, Ryder,” Cora grinned.
“Maybe there’s more of my father in me than I thought,” Ryder nodded, briefly returning her smile.
“What’s the plan, kid?” Drack asked, swinging his shotgun upwards so it rested on one of his massive shoulders.
“Our intel about what the surface will actually be like once we get there is limited, so I’ll update you once we’re there. We'll be splitting into two teams. Drack and Cora will be with me, just the three of us, that way if we need to drop in the Nomad we can. Vetra, Liam, Peebee, Jaal, you will follow behind us for extra fire support, or for any secondary objectives we acquire,” her eyes circled the room, catching as many of their gazes as she could. “All I can tell you is be ready for anything. And be safe. Dismissed.”
In a flurry of nods and back clapping, the group began to disperse. Only Liam remained still, staring at her.
He stepped towards her, voice low, “After all this, you can’t just leave me behind.”
“You’re not being left behind; your role is vital. You’ll be there to make sure nothing surprises us, and you’ll be on hand if we need you for support,” Ryder kept her voice level, although a flicker of heat ran beneath it. She had expected him to be hurt, perhaps a little angry, but she had not thought he would question her.
“No, I want-”
“Specialist Kosta,” her voice rose sharply, “this is a mission. It isn’t about what you want.”
Eyes rounded Liam stared at her, swallowing as though pushing down a retort and his eyes fell away from hers. Behind him, Ryder noticed Cora ushering the others from the room.
Ryder continued, tone soft but clear, “This whole team care about each other and that sometimes makes things difficult, but we can't let it cloud our judgement. On Khi Tasira you tried to stop me using the remnant interface...”
“Because I thought it was going to kill you,” Liam muttered, defiantly.
“That doesn’t matter,” Ryder shook her head, “it does not matter more than the mission. We may not be military but there is a chain of command, Liam. You shouldn’t have interfered.”
“It’s not always as simple as that though, is it?” Liam countered, dark eyebrows forming a v shape.
“Excuse me?” Ryder breathed, features hardening.
“You say that but then you endangered the mission when you let Vidal kill Sloane, ” Liam rebuffed, his tone a touch scathing. Ryder was so taken aback by his words and the bitterness in his voice she was speechless for several seconds. Liam continued, as though now the words were finally out of his mouth he couldn’t stop, “You couldn’t know at that point whether the Collective could’ve actually overthrown the Outcasts. You also couldn’t have known he’d play ball with the Initiative. But that didn’t seem to matter when your precious Charlatan was in danger-”
“Stop,” she snapped.
A long silence drew out between them in which she felt herself practically glowering at him, well aware of the intense heat in her neck that was spreading up all the way to the curve of her ears. Where Ryder felt herself growing angrier, Liam looked as though he was deflating, the wrinkle of his nose smoothing over, the stone in his eyes losing its sharpness.
“I… I didn’t mean,” Liam began, words trailing away beneath the ferocity of her gaze.
“If you ever interfere with my tactical choices on the field, if you do anything that undermines my authority again, you will be straight off this fucking ship Specialist Kosta.”
With that, Ryder stalked away to the bridge where a call from the Archon awaited her.
As the shuttle descended lower, Reyes found himself wishing he had more eyes with which to take in the sights before him. The sky was littered with ships locked in conflict, filled with the rattle of gunfire from barrels of disparate sizes, with smoke coughed out from downed cruisers and burning vegetation. But beyond this, the sky was a blue so vivid it looked like it had been produced by editing software for a holiday brochure, and the peaks and valleys that stretched before him were abundant in lush greenery, like nothing he’d ever seen in any galaxy. He started, his sense of wonder shaken from him as he jerked the ship swiftly to one side as a downed shuttle blazed passed them, before readjusting their position so they were still following the coattails of the rapidly plunging Hyperion.
From behind him one of his passengers approached his chair, he could tell who it was in his peripheral vision from the hesitancy of the salarian’s gait.
“Relax, Daven, it was just a bit of turbulence,” Reyes murmured, eyes not flicking from the scene before him as he rolled the ship to avoid impact with a kett fighter. This made the salarian grab the edge of the pilot’s seat hastily and Reyes chuckled.
“That was a fireball that nearly took off our wing, not turbulence!” Davendar squealed.
This only made Reyes snicker more.
“Charlatan… sir… Are you sure that it wouldn’t be wiser to let Andor pilot the ship? I’m sure you have more important things to be concerning yourself with,” he continued, hesitantly.
Reyes barked out a laugh, “Absolutely not, I’ve missed this… Besides, I’ve seen Andor drive before and that's only a good idea if you want to wait another 600 years to be part of the action.”
From the back of the shuttle where a trio of Collective agents were sitting, one of them spluttered. Although Davendar was right, it would have been more fitting for the Charlatan to be escorted, for him to be flown in, Reyes knew that there weren’t many pilots amongst the Collective’s ranks that could rival his ability in the cockpit. When the stakes were as high as they were, Reyes Vidal, Anubis, was not being flown into the fight by a pilot whose previous experience summed up to little more than flying commercial tours of Illium.
“True, but we might get there in one piece,” the salarian murmured under his breath as he turned and went to join the others.
Reyes grinned but didn’t look over. Although young and less experienced in combat than many other agents, Davendar Helon had a brilliant mind, particularly brilliant even amongst salarians. He had a keen worldview that enabled him to assess a situation and envisage several different stratagems, particularly those that would be unexpected by an adversary. There also wasn’t a great deal of technology that he wasn't able to hack. As such, his expertise had seen him rise in the Collective’s ranks quickly, with his proven loyalty winning him his position of one of the chosen few that knew of the Charlatan’s real identity. He was, admittedly, a sassy little shit, but that had never stopped Reyes liking someone.
“Keep your weapons ready, we’re going in hot,” Reyes muttered, the gunfire in the sky thickening before him the closer they flew to the arc. “Opening the hatch in thirty.”
“Affirmative,” Davendar responded.
Reyes flicked on the comm channel just in time to pick up a familiar voice, “Kandros? Who’s with you?”
“The whole damn cavalry, you know I can’t resist a party,” Reyes' replied over the comm, unable to resist.
“We’ll hold the kett, you secure Meridian,” Kandros responded.
“Let’s find the Archon!” Sara acknowledged.
Reyes dipped the shuttle a little closer to the ground, scanning a line of trees until he picked out a tell-tale flash of white and blue that suggested the Pathfinder’s Nomad had boosted below them. Above it he caught a blur of green, a kett cruiser was gaining on Sara's vehicle. Tapping at the console before him, Reyes turned his ship’s guns on the cruiser. Catching the pilot by surprise, the kett ship flipped several times in the air, crashing to the ground just as the Nomad passed.
“Sorry for the mess,” Reyes said, sarcastically.
“Any closer and you’d have singed my eyebrows,” Sara’s voice crackled over the comm.
As Reyes sped ahead of the Nomad he noticed the pathway below narrowing, with kett already ensconced behind rocks, waiting.
“Be ready to land,” Reyes commanded the others.
Charging forward, Ryder barrelled into a chosen, knocking it backwards before finishing it with a blast of her sandstorm. Next to her Drack laughed, voice mired with bloodlust as he cascaded into a tightly packed group of kett, sending them flying in different directions before saturating them with shotgun fire while they lay on the ground. A destined approached them and wordlessly Ryder overloaded its armour as Cora threw it into the air in a haze of blue. All Ryder was, all she knew, was gunfire and biotics and fury. Her brother had been taken into the structure that was still at least fifty metres away, and these kett stood between her and it. Ryder boosted over a rock, instantly regretting her haste as an anointed waited for her on the other side. It spun, heavy machine gun in its hands, which caught Ryder around the head, cracking the visor of her helmet and causing lights to dance in her eyes. Snarling, she took a step backwards to steady herself as Drack buried several shots in its back, before Ryder ruthlessly tore the anointed in two with her biotics. She had barely registered that their reinforcements must be close, and it didn’t even resonate until the anointed, the last kett, fell to the ground in pieces and she was suddenly faced with the surly expression of the Resistance leader Evfra, surrounded by his men.
“That all of them?” she panted, half to him, half to SAM.
Ryder tore her broken helmet from her head, and let it drop to the ground, massaging her forehead where it had impacted the inside of her helmet.
“Yes,” SAM replied, “although more are incoming.”
“We’re ready Pathfinder,” Evfra nodded.
“You could’ve left a couple more for me,” a voice behind her posed, and Ryder wheeled around.
However focused she was, however agitated, so abruptly seeing those almond eyes amongst all the insanity of battle caused her breath to catch.
For the first time since they had left Khi Tasira she smiled and meant it, “I’m sorry for being so inconsiderate.”
Her eyes quickly flitted over his outline, but he looked the same as ever; flightsuit unmarked, hair perfectly styled, knowing grin in place. Whatever action he had seen, Reyes was managing just fine. Two Collective agents flanked him on either side, a salarian she was sure she had seen before and an asari with a frown so pronounced Ryder wondered if she knew how to smile. They dropped back as he approached her, and although every muscle in her body was screaming that she had to move, Ryder allowed herself this one moment’s pause.
“Shouldn’t you be up there, flyboy?” she asked, cocking her head towards the sky.
“Well, let’s just say I have more of an interest in keeping what's on the ground safe,” Reyes took her face in one hand, a shiver running through her body at this sudden proximity, his gloved fingers on her face. He tilted her head to one side gently, before brushing his knuckles against her ear, and when he drew his hand away his glove was stained with a drop of crimson.
“You alright, Pathfinder?” Reyes’ eyes flashed over hers searchingly.
She was aware there were several pairs of eyes watching their exchange with a level of interest and some confusion.
Ryder lowered her voice so the others couldn’t hear, “Hazard of using remtech without SAM. But I’m alright.”
Reyes nodded before squeezing her shoulder resolutely, “You go get him back then, and give that kett fucker a kick from me."
Chapter 16: A Solemn Prophecy
Reyes helps defend the perimeter of the remnant tower while Ryder fights on the inside. When she emerges, her greeting surprises him.
I cannot apologise enough to anyone actively following this story! Life got crazy and I wrestled with this chapter for a while, but I think (hope) it's better for it!
I also took a lot of time editing out any errors I found in older chapters/making slight alterations, although nothing big enough that it changes the story in any major way. (For anyone that is interested, I mostly changed some thoughts from Reyes' POV that perhaps revealed a little more emotion than he likely would. Having spent more time writing as the character I felt some parts needed tweaking. The biggest changes were in Chapter 6, particularly with his reaction to find out about Sara's previous brief relationship Liam. I just feel that even in his head he'd be more subtle/reserved than I'd previously written him).
This chapter was my attempt at giving Ryder a bit more of a rewarding end game scene... as much as I enjoyed the wink! ;)
A brisk squeeze of her shoulder and a graze of her knuckles with his lips was all the contact they’d had time for. Though the sensation of her warm skin beneath his fingers lingered with a vague memory of her scent on the breeze, Reyes had been left feeling uneasy. So much had happened since he had awoken on the Nexus, it was difficult to pinpoint exactly when he had last left Kadara. It could be six months, could be a year. However long, it was long enough that he felt twitchy, twitchy because Reyes was keenly aware that he knew next to nothing about Meridian. He didn’t know the lay of the land and, excepting his agents, he didn’t know any of the people scattered around him at all well, and therefore knew little of their motives. For someone who conducted a business that required he always knew exactly what was going on in his vicinity, he felt incredibly exposed. His fingers were drumming a heartbeat against the barrel of his gun, which he grasped with loosened fingers. Reyes was leant with one ankle crossed behind the other, breath still catching in a pant, shoulders slumped against a boulder. It was one of many in the clearing that led into the entryway of the remnant tower Sara had disappeared inside what felt like hours ago but was likely only minutes. The Charlatan and the other… what? Defenders? Guardians? Stragglers? Whatever they were, the unlikely group had fought off several waves of kett during her absence, and the grass beneath their feet was littered with their twisted corpses and marred by thick pools of pungent, olive blood. Even their innards smelt wrong, clinical like the bleached-out insides of a sanatorium. He shoved away the chosen that lay at his feet with his boot, grimacing, trying hard not to think about who they might have been before they were exalted. Some of the figures around him had had the same idea, and were dragging the bodies aside, clearing paths between rocks and remnant barriers. No one was paying him much attention. Yet. He was sure the way he had greeted the Pathfinder would be enough to draw their thoughts back to him once their more immediate concerns were removed, once they were no longer either being shot at or preparing to be shot at.
“How long do you reckon we have until the next wave?” Reyes murmured.
From somewhere to the left of his feet, Davendar’s voice responded in a bored tone, “My drone has picked up transmissions suggesting another dropship is inbound. We have maybe… 3 minutes or so?”
Reyes grunted in response, exhaling deeply through his nose and shifting forwards so he could holster the weapon across his back. He reached inside his pocket, his tight shoulders relaxing slightly as his fingertips met smooth metal, warm with the heat of his body, and he pulled out his flip lighter. Lighting a cigarette, he took a drag before letting the smoke billow out of him. Three minutes. An acceptable amount of time to garner at least a little information. He shifted forwards, kicking up one leg against the rock in front of him, eyes flicking between the figures that darted to and fro.
“They say that’ll kill you, you know,” Davendar remarked, disinterestedly.
“So will the kett, yet here we are,” Reyes retorted, yet his eyes did not flick to the salarian, instead tracking a passing turian in Initiative armour.
He had to hand it to the Pathfinder, the sheer amount and variety of people she had attracted was no mean feat. They had come from all over the cluster. New Tuchanka, Havarl, Prodromos, even a couple of gangs based out of Elaaden. Though not all of them were groundside (they were only a group of 30 or so) he’d identified the disparate groups from the storm of comm chatter and the assortment of ships that had streaked past them in the sky, glittering like multi-coloured beetles caught in Saajor’s blazing light.
Davendar stretched his legs out from their crossed position beneath him, looking up from the omni-tool he’d been poring over, “Are you just going to stand there and watch?”
Reyes nodded, his eyes falling on an angaran crouched nearby cleaning her assault rifle. He identified her immediately as a resistance member by her aquamarine rofjinn.
“Well, I hope you’re better at that than flying…” Davendar remarked before adding, as though as an afterthought, “… sir.”
Reyes ignored the comment. He wouldn’t had it been anyone else under his command. The resistance fighter holstered her weapon, dark eyes flicking suspiciously over the lone dark-haired human and the odd (although all the Milky Way species were probably still odd to her) salarian sat on the ground next to him, before slouching off towards the rest of her squadron huddled a few metres away. In their midst stood an angaran with a furrowed brow and a turned down mouth. He was gesturing energetically as he spoke, and his forceful tones carried over to Reyes. Although he couldn’t quite decipher what he was saying, he had heard that voice before. Evfra.
“Two minutes,” Davendar warned.
Another figure amongst the resistance fighters caught Reyes’ eye, between the sea of blue uniforms, glinting assortment of rifles, pistols and other weaponry. She was stood just outside of their circle, hands twisting in her robes, head bowed as though she were meditating. Resplendent in mauve and ivory and gilded in jewels, she was the closest thing the angara had to royalty. Moshae Sjefa.
“How are the others doing?”
There was a thump to his right as boots met dirt. Reyes didn’t flinch, he was used to the asari’s heavy-handed, or in this case heavy-footed, entrances.
She nodded at him respectfully before responding, “They’re holding up alright. No losses yet. The group from Prodromos seem shaken, not used to so much action, but the angarans haven’t even broken a sweat.”
To the left of the resistance fighters were half a dozen or so Milky Way natives, all dressed in the uniforms of an outpost that must be Prodromos. In their midst stood an asari, who in their last stand off with the kett he had seen erect an impressive biotic shield, clasping and unclasping her hands. Close by, a couple of humans and a salarian were stretched out on the ground, clutching at various serious, but not altogether life-threatening, wounds. Glancing over them, Reyes’ eyes scanned over the assembled group, but couldn’t see their leader, August Bradley, among them.
Reyes looked back to the asari beside him, a gesture which she correctly recognised as a sign for her to continue.
“As for the division from APEX? Well, as much as I hate to admit it, they’ve obviously dealt with worse shit than this before,” her sharp tawny eyes narrowed, a stern line set into her jaw.
Sure enough, as Reyes surveyed the last group, the one gathered furthest away, he identified immediately the confidence in their stances. They were cloistered behind the barriers closest to the remnantt tower, each moving with purpose; securing their positions, radioing other troops, checking the status of their weapons. Although there was an assortment of skillsets; engineers, heavy soldiers, biotics, they all wore and used specialised, in some cases custom, gear and were all on high alert. In the shadow of a hulking krogan, Reyes identified the crest of a particular turian clapping the back of one of his comrades. Tiran Kandros.
Reyes nodded, his lips curling slightly, pleased at having finished his assessment of the gathered troops.
“You sure they won’t try and arrest us when this is all over, boss?” Reyes could see the asari watching him in the periphery of his vision. “As much I’d love them to try.”
“You worry too much Lymora,” he replied, expelling one last plume of smoke, “that won’t be happening. We’re here at the behest of the Pathfinder.”
He pretended not to notice the sidelong look his companions gave each other.
Davendar clambered to his feet, eyes flicking away from his omni-tool at last as he removed his pistol from its position at his hip, “One minute. Coming in from the east.”
“Anything to worry about?” Reyes asked, sliding the assault rifle back out of its holster.
“Same size group. None of those mutated krogan, this time. Manageable, no need to call in the others.”
From the tone of his voice, he could have been reading aloud the limited menu of a mediocre restaurant for all the interest he showed.
Reyes nodded briskly, “Get ready.”
Davendar pinged a warning message to the omni-tools of the troops gathered nearby, in case they hadn’t received alert of the imminent kett via some other channel. Wordlessly, Lymora plied them with ammo clips and medi-gel, before the three of them bunkered down behind the closest remnant barriers.
They came the same as before. The next wave, and another, and a third, and it had become so he almost couldn’t keep track. If the kett were losing, if the Pathfinder’s assault had shaken them, there was no indication in their blank, emotionless faces, in the relentlessness of their attacks. For his part, all Reyes had heard were a few rasped, rushed syllables over the comm channel that indicated that Sara was now facing down the Archon directly. This was something he had not had time to fully process amongst shouts, gunfire, and the occasional blaze of light from a biotic. As much as Reyes tried to ignore it, he was tiring now. Though he did prefer to settle issues in ways that avoided all-out violence, preferred not to get his hands dirty, he was not immune to the rush of battle, a fire that burned like hot coals in the pit of his stomach. But it had drawn out too long, adrenaline ebbing away so quickly now that he could almost feel his body sagging without it, as row after row of kett, identical to one another, lined up before them only for their bodies to crumple under the weight of shots, fire and the angara’s bioelectric attacks. His knees were stiff from crouching for such a long period of time, the unhealed network of bruises across his stomach twinging as he stretched over the barrier, strained from the constant weight of the weapon in his hand. There were a series of gashes across his forearm where he hadn’t reacted fast enough, and a wraith had clawed at him just as Lymora sank several slugs into its skull. He knew he was getting sloppy, but Reyes wasn’t the only one. Even Lymora, by far and away the most adept in the art of killing of any of his agents, was exhaling heavily. On his other side, Davendar was leaning against their cover for support, pistol clasped in a clammy hand. Further away, the other fighters were in much the same position, and had taken further injuries in the last battle; one angaran resistance member, the female who’d eyed him so quizzically, and another settler from Prodromos. All there was, was the disarray, the ebb and flow of battle; the loading and reloading of his weapon, the flash of blue of Lymora casting herself across the battlefield, a cataclysm dashing herself against her foes, the hum of Davendar’s combat drone as it dropped back on occasion for repairs. Sliding a hand into the deep pocket at his thigh, Reyes’ fingers curled around the last of his grenades. He aimed away from their, albeit temporary, allies, and threw it towards a close-knit bunch of kett. As it flung several of them into the air with a roar of sound and a shower of earth, he wondered how long this could continue before they suffered their own casualties, if he should call in their back up who were engaged elsewhere. Kicking back an anointed that was sluggishly dragging its huge weapon, attempting to skirt around the side of the barrier they were clustered behind, he very suddenly felt tight fingers grab his flightsuit at the collar, dragging him backwards.
“Get down, close your eyes!” he heard Lymora hiss.
Nearly tripping over his own feet, he acquiesced, his back knocking clumsily against Davendar’s. Not a second later, a white light flared so brightly he could see the underside of his eyelids, the thin patchwork of veins staining his vision even as he reopened his eyes. From the accompanying burst of sound, a dull thud that somehow resonated around the clearing, he identified the source as a flash grenade. A number of anointed and several other of the kett that had been advancing towards them lay dead on the ground, as a hail of new gunfire thundered over the Charlatan and his Collective agents’ shoulders. A moment later several brilliant figures darted past, blasting kett aside as they did so, powerful against the backdrop of weary fighters. A chosen was pulled into a pulsating blue vortex, whilst another was sliced aside by the vivid orange strike of an omni blade. It was the rest of the Pathfinder team. As a whirl of violet passed him Reyes leant out from behind their cover and reached out a grasping hand. Reyes’ clutching fingers managed to ensnare the cuff of Peebee’s jacket, catching her off guard so that she nearly tumbled to the ground and him with her. Davendar tutted beside him but tapped at his omni-tool so the drone defending their position dropped back in and patrolled a tighter circuit around them.
“Hey! Handsy, what do you think you’re…” Peebee made to snatch her arm away before her eyes focused on his face and the look within their olive green reverted from shock to recognition, “Oh, hi Reyes, should’ve known you’d be here.”
He glanced off her remark, tugging her downwards so as to avoid kett fire and breathed, “What’s happening?”
“Our girl’s going in for the kill, so we’re moving in for the last push. I don’t think it’ll be long now,” Peebee answered, the wild glint in her eye, the one he didn’t quite trust, all the brighter for the excitement of battle. If she was nervous, she was hiding it remarkably well.
Reyes hesitated, still gripping unconsciously to the edge of her jacket, “Won’t be long?”
“Until he dies, or we do,” she shrugged, as though unconcerned.
Reyes swallowed as he contemplated her words, and for a just a moment his mind extended inside the remnant tower towards Sara, and he was met by a flickering of thousands of possible realities passing by. A knot was burgeoning in his chest before he realised what he was doing and he stopped himself, slamming the wall back up that he’d so carefully constructed to keep his mind away from the Pathfinder and the danger, the sheer impossibility of the task that rested on her shoulders.
Peebee’s bright eyes roved over his face, seemingly finding delight in it somewhere as she giggled and remarked, “Ha! Look at you. The big, bad Charlatan worrying over the Pathfinder.”
His fingertips slid from her jacket. Reyes laughed a little too loudly, “Worried?” Please, I’m just dying for a drink. We’ve been here hours.”
“Peebee, what are you doing?!”
She gave Reyes a significant look before turning her back and disappearing into the fray towards the direction of the voice that had called her, that sounded like Kosta.
Her words remained in her wake, hanging in the air.
A hand gripped Reyes’ shoulder, and he grunted and hoisted himself upward to blast a kett chosen in the jaw.
Not an hour later, a message over the comm announced the Pathfinder team would be emerging from the remnant tower, unscathed and from what could be gathered from their scattered, excitable comments, triumphant. As the last kett fell to the floor, Reyes couldn’t help it as a heady grin spread across his features, and he leant all his weight onto on side, wiping sweat from his forehead.
“I’m registering no losses, sir. All Collective agents accounted for. All ships in working order and have sustained negligible damage,” Davendar was already assessing their resources and beginning his mission report.
Reyes simply nodded in response as he strode closer towards the tower, throwing himself down underneath the shade of a tree off to the side of the clearing, not far from the entrance. He pulled down the zip of his flightsuit before leaning back on one elbow, taking in great, steadying gulps of air. Similarly, the other groups that had remained to defend the tower were gathering themselves together, as smaller ships started to land about them, some arriving to collect the injured, some dropping off important figures like the turian pathfinder. Davendar dropped down close by to him, engrossed in his reports, whilst Lymora stalked around them like a restless wolf. Reyes remained where he was, leant forward, elbows on his knees, assault rifle resting against one thigh, and continued his earlier visage of the forces gathered around them. Excepting the kett bodies still piled about them, the scenery could almost be described as beautiful, sunlight cascading between gaps in the trees, refracting off the sides of the tower in a myriad of colours, the sky an arc of impossible blue above them. Reyes sighed. Perhaps if he closed his eyes, he could convince himself he was back on Earth, alone in the woods on a summer’s day, not still stained with his own blood anxiously waiting for the Pathfinder to emerge from what seemed like an impossible victory that he wouldn’t entirely believe until he saw her for himself.
It didn’t take long before Reyes caught Kandros’ eye, and he and a number of his APEX team drew nearer. Reyes didn’t get up. Instead, Lymora strode forwards, cocking the butt of her gun upwards aggressively, regarding the members of APEX as though she was desperate for them to give her a reason to fire on them. There was an exchange of narrowed eyes, and an exaggerated repositioning of weapons, which Reyes simply watched coolly from the shade. Davendar glanced up briefly, disinterestedly, before returning to his work. Kandros however, looked past the asari and gave Reyes a cutting look that might have made a meeker man shudder, one that blew clean through him. He regarded Reyes like this for a few seconds, before scowling, causing his mandibles to quiver with annoyance. He jerked his head away silently, motioning for the others to follow him.
As they drew away, a turian with blood red markings muttered, “Tch, won’t always be the Pathfinder’s pet…”
Lymora flinched forward but Reyes called her back with a quick bark of her name. With a dissatisfied glance over her shoulder at him, she stalked off on another patrol. Reyes let her go, satisfied they were in no immediate danger. No one would threaten them after that.
Reyes leant back on his elbows, eyes glinting as he caught the familiar colours of a ship approaching as the Tempest arrived in their midst. He wondered whether its crew could illuminate him on how much longer they would have to wait.
“The Pathfinder is fond of you.”
It wasn’t a question and yet her tone lingered over it as if it were one, the Moshae’s eyes scanning over him analytically. When she had arrived, he could not say. She was stood there, as sure and as strong as if she had always been there, rooted to the ground like a tree. Although she was alone, Reyes could see Evfra glancing over from amongst the resistance fighters now clustered outside the doorway to the tower, with a look that for him was likely pensive, but just made him look more bad-tempered than ever. In response Reyes shrugged non-committally, reluctant to respond until he knew what it was that she wanted. He used her surprised pause at his lack of an answer to get to his feet.
“And you seem fond of her,” Moshae Sjefa nodded, continuing as though he’d replied.
Reyes glanced over at Davendar a few metres away. The salarian was boring a hole into his omni-tool with the focus of his gaze, however that did not mean he was not listening. When he turned back to her, the Moshae’s solemn face was entirely impassive, unreadable.
“We’re business partners,” Reyes paused, quashing the rising urge to tell her to mind her own business, “and friends.”
“Mr Vidal, though I do not claim to have an in-depth knowledge of human behavioural patterns my head is also not full of daar.” Her blue eyes were sharp as blades, “And you don’t give the impression you’re very good at making friends.”
He couldn’t hide his surprise as she said his name, and he knew from the satisfied look in her eyes she had caught the expression on his face.
Reyes combed back dark hair that had become unslicked over the course of the battle from his eyes, “Why does everyone keep saying that? I’m starting to get a complex.”
His stalling revealed no new emotion in Moshae Sjefa’s expression. She stepped towards him almost conspiratorially, “A man should hardly be surprised that others find it difficult to trust him when he has more aliases than he does fingers on his right hand.”
Reyes caught himself this time, covering his astonishment with a forced warmth, “I’m flattered, honourable Moshae, to have garnered your attention. I think, however, you may have me confused with someone else. I am but a lowly exile.” No sooner had the word lowly exited his mouth she was already scoffing, intelligent eyes mocking in their disbelief. He continued slowly, “I am curious why you would be interested in my relationship with the Pathfinder, though.”
She smiled, although it did not fully reach her eyes, “Sara Ryder has proven that she will be the future of what is to come in Andromeda, what path she chooses will affect all of us, even the angara.”
Reyes nodded, understanding, his eyes cold, “And you think I could draw her down the wrong path.”
Though she did not look abashed, her eyes darted away from his for a moment as though she were uncomfortable.
There was a sudden hubbub by the entrance to the tower and Reyes’ attention flicked to it immediately. The Pathfinders were clustering by the door, along with Kandros and the crew of the Tempest that had remained behind. Without a backward glance he made towards the group, before a light hand on his shoulder stopped him.
“The Pathfinder being so intimately involved with the de facto leader of the exiles, even worse a leader that murdered the previous one. You must know that it will not go without objection. There will be consequences."
Her voice was not unkind, if anything there was more of a softness to it than in anything else she had said.
Reyes paused but didn’t turn.
“Daven, send for Lymora and wait here.”
He stalked off towards the tower entrance, leaving the Moshae once again without an answer.
The shoulder of her armour was scorched, she had a bleeding cut on her cheek, but she was grinning as she emerged through the doorway, supporting her injured brother. The doctor, Lexi, ran forwards cupping the Pathfinder’s face as she glanced in her eyes warily, as though checking their alertness, before nodding in a satisfied way and transferring Scott’s weight to her own shoulder, guiding him back towards the Tempest. Without the added weight Sara stood tall, even though she wasn't, unshakeable, even though beneath it Reyes thought she looked tired, as she blinked around at them all with a half-smile.
The Tempest’s red-haired science officer, Suvi he thought her name was, moved towards Sara and the other crew members excitedly, “The word’s out, everyone’s elated but… the Nexus wants to know what’s next? What do I tell them?"
“Tell them…” Sara glanced down, as though searching for an answer. Then she smirked mischievously at Suvi, placing a hand on her hip and shrugging, “Tell them, let us have our moment.”
Suvi nodded in response, a giggle on her lips, before moving to one side to embrace Liam as the others began to congratulate each other. Sara hadn’t moved. Instead, she folded her arms, and grinned, grinned straight at him like there was no one else there. He found he was already smiling back, had been since he’d first caught sight of her. It will not go without objection. He frowned slightly, but only for a moment, before he winked back at her, in a way he hoped she knew meant that they’d have their own private celebration later. He turned away and let his face fall, a sigh rushing out of him he hadn’t realised he was holding in. He picked his way back through the boulders that littered the clearing, nearly back to the tree Davendar, and now Lymora, were stood beneath waiting for him. Reyes stopped abruptly as he thought he heard his name, darting his head back towards the crowd. He couldn’t even see Sara. She was surrounded by members of her crew, embraced, clasped, loved, by what he realised was her family. A family he was not part of. Not that he wanted to be. A family wasn’t something he even knew how to be part of, as far away and unfamiliar as the life of an honest man was from his own.
Reyes was about to leave but remained, unmoving, as suddenly Sara emerged, extricating herself from Drack’s tremendous grip and purposefully marching towards him, “Hey, flyboy!”
At her call he twisted his body back towards her as with a laugh she sped up to a jog, and he realised almost too late what her intentions were. Reyes nearly stumbled backwards as he caught her hips, her chest knocking into his with such a force that she winded him, bruised ribs and all, knocking a choked laugh from his throat as she wrapped her legs around his waist. Reyes grasped her thighs underneath, so she wouldn’t slide down his body as she slipped her arms around his neck, soft fingertips sliding through his hair at the nape. For a moment her face looked uncertain, eyes regarding his carefully, aware that he might not welcome such an open display of affection.
There will be consequences.
Why didn’t he care?
The look he gave her must have been enough to allay her doubts however, as a smile broke over her features. It was only a small curve of her lips, but her eyes glistened like sunlight catching the swell of a wave. He brought one hand up to her face, balancing her precariously, pulling her mouth against his, and he could feel his heart beating in his neck as he kissed her. As her tongue met his it had the bitter taste of blood, though her lips were so welcome upon his it did not ruin their sweetness.
“Think you can stop throwing yourself into life-threatening situations now?” he mumbled against her lips, only half aware of what he was saying.
She tugged at the collar of his flightsuit, pulling herself closer, “I don’t know, you seem so pleased to see me.”
Then she was kissing him again, tongue flicking across his lips, clinging onto his flightsuit even as her thighs slid further down his waist, boots scraping his ankles until her feet were planted back on the floor. Now he was no longer holding her up, his free hand found a place at her lower back as she arced into him, one hand still at his neck, nails scraping his hairline with a slight sting. He grazed her bottom lip with his teeth in response, catching her sharp intake of breath with his mouth. Just as he was wondering how it was she still tasted so fucking good after a day of fighting kett, a voice interrupted them.
“Mr Vidal. Pathfinder. There are several people watching you, as well as a camera recording you in holoview,” SAM’s voice announced, playing through Sara’s omni-tool.
“Oh,” Sara breathed, and they withdrew from one another, but Reyes’ hand remained on the small of her back, “can’t get any privacy these days.”
As SAM has claimed, there was more than one head turned their way with interest, though thankfully people not in their immediate vicinity were still distracted with their own merriment. Reyes caught the Moshae’s eye for a moment, looking over at them amidst her conversation with the salarian pathfinder, but her face betrayed none of her thoughts.
“You did not choose to embrace Mr Vidal in a particularly private place,” SAM retorted, the tone of his voice closer to chiding than an AI’s really ought to be. “Due to Mr Vidal’s proclivity for secrecy, I have wiped the camera’s memory. Fortunately, all observers are either already had previous knowledge of your relationship or are in positions in which their professions require the strictest confidence. I do suggest, however, that if you do not wish for Mr Vidal to come under closer scrutiny in future you keep your… impulses indoors from now on Pathfinder.”
As she listened to him speak, a sheepish smile formed on Sara’s face, “I’m sorry SAM. I’ll try to contain myself and my ‘impulses’ from now on.”
Reyes chuckled, “Thanks SAM. Never thought I’d say this, but it’s good to hear your voice. Did you enjoy your little vacation from the Pathfinder’s brain?”
“No, Mr Vidal. I did not,” SAM responded, firmly.
Sara grinned, “SAM, he’s teasing you."
“I know. I am currently calculating a multitude of possibilities for revenge, one of which includes an elaborate firework display above Kadara Port that reveals Mr Vidal’s true identity in fluorescent colours.”
Reyes raised an eyebrow, “Sara. You’re a bad influence on him.”
He found it very difficult to resist kissing her again to smother her counter-argument.
Chapter 17: Advice Unheeded
Reyes and Ryder steal a moment. Scott confronts Ryder about her love life. Keema is worried about the Charlatan.
I appreciate the overall story arc has been a slow build, so thanks to all who've stuck with it! The next chapter will be mostly pure smut, then after that should be mostly plot, plot and more plot so I hope that's a welcome change! :)
It was quiet, quieter than anything Ryder had experienced in a long time. I felt strange to be without the sound of a ship’s engine, humming in the background like the breathing of a great beast. Out here there was no stubborn rev as the Nomad kicked into gear, no idle buzz as her companions chattered beside her, no blasts of gunfire to crouch and run and hide from. What there was instead, were trees and hills and valleys stretched out below her, held in artificial moonlight, caught so they looked ethereal, too perfect in their illumination. Although there were no stars for her to gaze at, if she cast her eyes upwards the land seemed to run on into the sky unending as they blurred into one another due to Meridian’s unnatural spherical shape. Though it all should feel fake, manufactured, the breeze that caught the edge of the cliff top and sent the ends of her hair dancing in the gust felt as real as anything she’d felt in the Milky Way, as did the grass that dampened the seat of her combats, the evening dew leaving the back of her thighs cold. It felt more real, at least, than the warmth of Reyes’ chest at her back, than the rise and fall of his breath, than the weight of chin against her shoulder. Of all the outlandish things that had happened that day, this seemed the most absurd of all. That she should have the Charlatan at her back, tired limbs wound about hers like she was some precious thing. That she had survived to be allowed to have this at all. She would laugh aloud at the absurdity of it, her lips already curling, but Ryder did not want to break the silence’s spell. On another day Reyes’ muteness would have worried her, but she had known just from a look that he felt the same exhaustion she did, the same weight in his bones. And yet he was here, even after she had kissed him with half the world watching (well, what had felt like it afterwards at least). After meeting outside the remnant tower, they had both returned to their own duties only to concede after a few hours and agree to meet at the peak of the cliff that looked like it was touching the clouds. She had arrived before he did, watching as more and more ships joined the Tempest and clustered around the Hyperion, as the sunlight finally dwindled and cast shadows in shapes that reminded her of Earth. Then he had appeared behind her, announcing his presence with a playful nip at her neck as he extended his legs either side of her, arms slipping around her waist, hands folding beneath her chest. Then she had told him. About the Archon, about what he had done to Scott, about how they had wrestled back control with the help of SAM. She had told him what she hadn’t told anyone else; that underneath her calm demeanour she had been shaking and shit scared. And he had muttered assurances and although she couldn’t be totally sure, she thought he gripped her a little harder during the difficult parts. For once it was like they were regular lovers, not the Pathfinder and the Charlatan, not a pairing so unlikely they’d only be rivalled if Nakmor Kesh and Jarun Tann were to spend the night together.
Now they sat in silence, but it was unlike other silences. Usually she associated silence with an awkwardness, want as she was to always fill them with words, but this was different. On the ground, on the ship, it was noise and fuss and repeated reiterations of the days’ events, understandable pride, excitement, victory still on everyone’s tongues. Here, for a moment, there was calm. Her throbbing skull was thankful for it, still sore with SAM’s loss even as his voice reverberated occasionally through it, still sore from expending all her energy into using remnant interfaces without him. Even now, hours later, as she sniffed she wiped a trail of blood from beneath her nose. Before she could hide the motion, Reyes swiftly caught hold of her wrist and studied the blood on the back of her hand.
He sighed, “SAM, is this something that I should be worried about?”
“Why? Don’t you have tissues on Kadara?”
Reyes ignored her, but she had the feeling he was rolling his eyes at the back of her head.
“Dr T’Perro assured us this may happen. It is due to some residual inflammation in Sara’s brain and may occur sporadically for the next day or two, but there should be no long-term effects as long as she does not attempt to utilise any remnant technology without my assistance,” SAM replied, also talking as though Ryder had not spoken.
“Ah, so no more holidays SAM.”
Ryder harrumphed grumpily, “You know, you could have just asked me…”
“Only for you to avoid answering it because you like to pretend you’re invincible?”
“Fair,” she shrugged before tipping her head back onto his shoulder so as to hinder any further blood flow. She allowed her eyelids to close, “Although even I can admit today was… a long day.”
Behind her he readjusted himself, sliding one hand down to her hip as he pressed his lips against the shell of her ear then gently along her hairline. She smiled as a swell of warmth coursed through her. Ryder found herself glad of the evening chill that nipped at her exposed neck and forearms, as otherwise she would've been in real danger of drowsing off.
“How are your people doing?”
“Fine. We sustained minimal injuries, no losses. Bit boring really. I did play a rather stimulating game of tug of war with a wraith for a bit to liven things up, used my arm for a bit of rope. I won though,” Reyes murmured, with a yawn that was meant to sound affected but was too deep to be fake.
“Oh, such a shame, a bit of dismemberment can really liven up your day too,” Ryder sniffed.
Despite the casual nature of her words she glanced down at the hand on her thigh and saw it was gloveless, his sleeve rolled up to make way for a bandage that covered his entire forearm. She took his hand in hers carefully, guiding it to her lips, pressing them to his knuckles, over the back of his hand and up to his fingertips. He didn’t respond immediately.
“Well, my day might not have been as interesting as yours, but I have to say it has improved with age,” Reyes punctuated this with an open-mouthed kiss to her collar bone. Freeing his hand, Ryder slid back into his lap so the back of her head was flat against his chest and she could see his face as he glanced down. The gold of his eyes was caught in the orange light of her omni-tool, more incomprehensible, more mercurial than ever in the gloom. The way he looked at her through those dark eyelashes made her feel terribly bare beneath his gaze, but at the same time caught her so she didn’t want to look away.
It dragged the next question from her lips, “What now, Reyes?”
Whilst she posed it as though she was talking about what he was going to do in the immediate future, how long he and his Collective agents were going to stay on Meridian, that wasn’t quite what she meant.
The peculiar smile that curved over his lips said he knew this, “Shouldn’t I be asking you that question?”
“Well,” she shifted her focus forwards away from his eyes, momentarily fearful of what she might catch there, and towards the greying sky instead, “between all the bureaucracy, and bullshit, I’m sure I’ll be tied up in tidy circles of red tape for a few weeks…”
“Hmm, but after that? What of your outposts?” He paused as though reluctant, but when he continued his words were firmer than those before, “What of Kadara?”
Ryder shifted forwards, arching her back to soothe the ache at the bottom, one of the numerous lesser pains that nagged at her body. She turned so her knee crossed his thigh and she could look into his face properly, “Well, Kadara is setting out to be just the most troublesome of my outposts,” she fidgeted with the sleeve of his flightsuit, trailing her finger up the seam, “and the last time I was there someone did try to kill me…”
Reyes arched an eyebrow, eyes sliding away from hers and back again, “Really though, that’s nothing new. People are always trying to kill you.”
“Charming.” Ryder’s eyes fixed on his, her fingers still caught around his sleeve, “I suppose it all depends if Kadara will have me back.”
“Oh, Kadara will certainly have you,” he grinned with a flash of white teeth, and as he did so a knot in her chest unravelled, relief and affection filling the space it had taken. She smiled, fingers trailing over his neck and up to his chin, her own skin tingling from the contact, before brushing her thumb over his bottom lip. Ryder felt him inhale sharply as she did so.
“I never thought you were coming yourself, you know.”
He looked surprised, whether from her words alone or her sudden change of subject she wasn't sure. She was leant so forward now that she was poised between his thighs.
“Like I said earlier, I thought there’d be a party. Anything for free booze.”
Ryder’s other hand ran up his chest and she had slid so she was straddling his hips. Reyes' hands shifted to catch her waist.
Ryder rolled her eyes, not fooled by his bluster, “You are an impossible-” she kissed him gently, “-impossible man.”
“And yet here you are,” Reyes’ grin was widening, mischief implicit in it, and yet he had that curious look in his eyes that made him look younger somehow. The look that was still as maddening as that night atop Kadara's rooftops, that still held her far more enraptured that sense should allow.
“Because I am a fool,” she sighed dramatically, “and to think I was considering wasting some well-deserved shore leave in that shit hole of a port…”
She had no chance to finish, nor to register the flicker of intensity in his gaze as Reyes kissed her.
“As much as I am tempted, I don’t think it would be a good idea if I was seen slinking away from the Tempest in the early hours of the morning, do you?”
Reyes had been right, but she couldn’t help mourning his absence as she boarded her slip alone.
As she crept through the cockpit the only greeting she received was the blinking of lights from Suvi and Kallo’s empty stations, and Ryder breathed a sigh of relief. She had no desire to explain her absence. Descending the ladders to her quarters, Ryder was about to stumble through the sliding doors, still grinning to herself like an idiot, when a familiar voice piped up from the direction of the kitchen.
“And where have you been?”
Ryder paused mid-step, cursed under her breath and turned on her heels, “Nooooowhere.”
Scott let out a barking laugh as he leant against the doorway, “You’re lying, quad-sack.”
As she looked at him Ryder realised leant was probably too kind a word. Scott sagged against the doorway, grip so tight on the frame she could see the whites of his knuckles. Even so he looked overwhelmingly pleased with himself.
“Am not, varren-turd,” Ryder replied, not missing a beat, and she felt an overwhelming desire to push him over before she remembered quite how badly he had been hurt by the Archon. She moved closer, eyes straying from his wan face to the shake of his shoulders. She folded her arms, “And I could ask you the same question.”
“I was hungry,” he inhaled deeply, making a performance of it, “but now I’m here my legs really hurt and I’ve been propped against this wall for about 10 minutes waiting for someone to rescue me.”
“Come here,” Ryder sniggered as she looped his arm over shoulders. She continued more gently, “You really should be resting, not hobbling about.”
“I’ve had 600 years to rest,” her brother grumbled back petulantly, but he didn’t resist her as she led him back towards the empty med bay.
“You’ll be resting for an eternity if you keep pushing your body like this,” Ryder admonished him as she helped Scott inside and sat him on the cot he had recently vacated, “you’re lucky Lexi is asleep. She might put you in the grave herself if she catches you.”
“If I don’t starve first.”
“You know, you really scared me,” Ryder sighed, teasing her fingers through his hair, attempting to flatten it. It resembled a pile of twigs stacked ready for a bonfire. “Please listen to your doctor and don’t do that to me again.”
“Okay,” the tired blue of his eyes softened as they looked into hers, “but you haven’t exactly had an easy day of it yourself to be wandering around at this time.”
Ryder sat on the bed next to him with a soft huff as even this small motion worsened the ache in her head. For a moment she picked over what to say, unsure how to explain all that had transpired, unsure how much, if anything, to explain to her brother. As much as Scott had been her best friend, her confidant her entire life, Heleus, Andromeda… it was still all new to him.
“I’ve, well, I’ve met someone.”
Her words seemed a feeble explanation but they were true nonetheless.
Scott snorted his usual too loud almost-guffaw, “Oh I know about that already. He the one you were snogging earlier like Meridian has no other oxygen supply? Or are there others?”
He tutted and she frowned at him, trying to pretend she didn’t find him even the least bit funny even as her mouth twitched, “How do you know about that?”
“Oh me? Your poor, poor wounded brother? The one you were too preoccupied to notice what with all the enthusiastic lip smacking you were doing-”
“You’re enjoying this far too much.”
“-which was very unkind of you to do while I was in the vicinity, by the way, thank you for the mental scarring –
“You are so ridiculous,” she groaned.
“- you know I was just minding my own business, having a momentary rest against a boulder whilst I recovered from the all the brain fucking I have endured over the last few hours, only for my eyes to be assaulted by that scene.”
“Are you quite finished?” Ryder quirked an eyebrow at him.
“With that sentence? Yes. Talking about it so you’re uncomfortable? No…” Scott grinned and it lit up his whole face despite the paleness of his skin, the redness of his eyes. “I mean I can see why, he’s handsome in a dark, mysterious, I-definitely-might-sweet-talk-your-ship-from-under-you sort of way...”
Ryder stood up abruptly, the conversation too much for her battle-addled senses, “Well, I’m off to bed.”
Scott grabbed her arm, though his grip was not nearly strong enough to stop her from going anywhere if she wanted to.
His voice dropped the teasing tone it had adopted, “Sara you looked happier than I’ve seen you in ages. Since before mum died, or, well, we thought she did.”
She looked at him for a second before squeezing his arm back, “We’ll see. Also because you are the luckiest little brother ever, I am going to make you something to eat before I sleep.”
Scott was so focused on the topic at hand, he didn’t even react to her ‘little brother’ remark, “We will talk about this! When I have the energy to follow you!”
Ryder smiled as she walked back towards the kitchens still not sure what she was going to tell him when he inevitably asked again, though a smaller, softer part of her was glad for the asking.
Though it was very difficult to tell over the comm channel, Keema thought her employer sounded incredibly pleased with himself.
“Of course, for all intents and purposes I have simply been admiring the beginnings of the construction of what will likely be Heleus’ new centre of commerce and diplomacy…”
“Naturally,” Keema responded as she moved to the window of her newly claimed office, the pale blue of her irises bright in the orange glow of Kadara’s setting sun. She paused to allow him to continue, as he always did, want as he was to revel in the sound of his own voice.
“But it has been a very productive few weeks. I took your advice about being more social. I called in on some old friends, even made some new ones.”
Friends clearly meant contacts and there was more to it than that besides, but Keema was unsurprised. Reyes hadn’t dragged himself from the bottom of the scrap heap of detritus that was Kadara port to assume the mantle of ‘Charlatan’ without utilising every and all opportunity available to him. Keema remembered the hungry look he’d had the first time she met him as clearly as if it were reflected in the pane in front of her. A half-starved dog not content with gristle, eying up the fatty meat on the bone.
“And are they treating you well? Your allies from the Nexus?” Keema laboured over the word allies, rolled it over the tongue like the word didn’t belong in the sentence. The same way Reyes didn’t belong amidst Initiative personnel and knew it.
“Well, the room they’ve set me up in is cosy, adjoining bathroom, there’s even a window with a gorgeous lookout… Although it’s far inferior to the view I get of Daven’s skinny backside when he climbs down from the top bunk every morning,” Reyes' voice was all sarcasm, but she detected a steely note beneath it.
Keema’s rich laughter burst from her before she could contain it, “I see. Most… generous.”
There was the snub. The leader of Kadara expected to hole up with his own agents like a common smuggler, just one of a rabble of traitorous pirates. Keema supposed the official line would be that it was to further protect the identity of the Charlatan, given his links to the highest echelons of the Initiative. But the unofficial truth was that the Charlatan was less welcome than a visit from the Roekaar.
She pressed her digits against the warm window pane, keen eyes flitting over the usual hubbub gathered below in the port’s main plaza. There didn’t appear to be anything out of the ordinary she need concern herself with.
“I suppose it’s been useful, saved setting up something in a false name. Anyway, I’m more or less done here. I should be back in Kadara by tomorrow.”
Yes, there was definite annoyance beneath the easy charm. Since Reyes had established his and the wider Collective’s dominance over the Outcasts, the hound within that bayed for power had been somewhat satiated. At times like this, when Reyes felt his position was questioned or threatened, it was like she could still hear it still, ripping, clawing, beneath his cool exterior.
Keema frowned and turned away from the window.
She changed the subject, "And here I thought you’d be lingering back to spend time with your darling Pathfinder. I’m sure the poor girl could do with some… company. You spend your lives planets away from each other after all."
“Ha! I’m sorry to disappoint. It’s been nearly three weeks and I’ve barely seen her and even then it’s been brief glances in the hallway.”
Although Reyes was good at disguising his emotions even to Keema, who knew him better than most, she always thought he slipped when he talked about Sara. The warmth that often ghosted his words but didn’t settle felt real when he talked about her. It filled the corners of each syllable. She liked it when he talked about the Pathfinder.
"Brief glances in the hallway? That's what they'll call your romance novel."
"I'm pretty sure I could come up with a more... stimulating title than that, Keema."
"I'm sure you could, dear." Keema smiled, “But she’s well? Exciting as it is I’m sure saving the world takes its toll.”
“As well can be expected,” Reyes paused. Keema thought she knew why - the Charlatan was not a man that confided in people. But she and Kian were trying. “Sara always takes it in her stride.”
He worded the last part like it was a question, like he wanted some affirmation. That was new.
“Hmm, just keep an eye on her if you can. The stars that burn brightest burn out all the sooner."
“Would if I could get within 10 metres of her. Anyway, this conversation has digressed…”
“Reyes.” That got his attention. Not Charlatan, not Mr Vidal, Reyes. He stopped talking. Keema gripped her biceps, rubbing her digits up and down over the cloth of her jacket. “Can I offer you some advice? As a friend?”
He sucked in a breath and she couldn’t tell if he was just taken aback or if he was irritated until he spoke. He sounded jovial enough, “Well, Keema, it seems like you’re going to."
“You know what I think of Sara. I do so like her,” Keema kept her voice light, emphasising it’s musical quality the way she always did when she was placating someone, trying to get something she wanted.
“Not that you were ever asked…”
“Well, given everything that’s happened. I think you should tell her about the sniper. You were worried once about how she’d react to finding out you were the Charlatan. I advised you to tell her and in the end she took it well. I think she'd understand."
That’s when she had seen that other side to him. Admittedly, Reyes Vidal was already an interesting figure in Kadara Port due to his secret identity, but it was this that had really caught Keema's attention. His concern that the Pathfinder would turn against him, that something else mattered to him other than his own gain, than his control of Kadara. Keema was used to the sort the port attracted, used to the type of man Reyes was, charm and guile and looks but hollow inside. Angaran, turian, human, it made no difference. But to find there was something underneath, something different. That had truly surprised her. It had made her like him, rather inconveniently. She was not accustomed to liking people on Kadara.
“That’s not going to happen.” His tone changed again, and quickly. A chill ran through her though she was perfectly warm. “With everything that’s happened she’s all but forgotten about it. It’s probably better that she thinks he got away.”
“If you think that's best..."
“I do. Drop it."
His words were each like sharp individual points.
“Reyes Vidal. You do not have many in the way of friends, I say this because I care. Remember that,” Keema retorted firmly, exposing the steel of a woman that betrayed Sloane Kelly, the only person that had ever betrayed her and got away with it.
“Keema, let’s not do this…” Reyes sighed agitatedly.
“I quite agree. I’ve said my piece.”
“Yes well… I’ll see you tomorrow.”
As they cut the call Keema strolled to her desk and leant on it, a grim feeling in her gut. She wasn't worried about Reyes' return, they'd disagreed on matters before and neither of them bore a grudge afterwards. It wasn't that that concerned her.
Chapter 18: Postmarks
During the leaving ceremony, Ryder takes up Reyes' offer of a secluded spot with sturdy crates. Also, the Moshae still has opinions.
He had always thought of her as beautiful, Reyes had a certain eye for beautiful things and Sara Ryder was no exception. He’d known that from their very first meeting when she’d flashed him that dimpled, coy smile that he now understood was certainly not the way she greeted everyone. But he decided that right now, her head cast backwards, lips parted in a rapturous gasp, a rosy flush creeping up the skin of her neck and inflaming her cheeks, right now she was at her most beautiful. As he looked at her, the desperate fingers entwined in his hair tightened and she let out a whine.
“Reyes… please…” Sara panted, her voice catching as he pressed his fingers deeper inside of her, punishingly slowly against the spot that was making her tremble.
He knew what it was she wanted. His lips, chin, fingers were slick enough, the shivering tightening of her thighs enough that he knew how tantalisingly close she was.
“I don’t know Sara, what if people hear? You’re not exactly being quiet…” Reyes admonished teasingly, even though he was half mad with arousal himself at the sight before him. His eyes grazed, lingered, over the lines of her body as she bucked urgently against his knuckles, taking in the bare curve of her hips, her free hand bunched tightly in the shirt that obscured the top half of her body pulling it taut, and beneath he could see the impressions of her raised nipples. As well as this was the ridiculous idea that he was, him, Reyes Vidal, pleasuring the Pathfinder atop a crate in a storage cupboard not two hundred metres away from members of Nexus leadership, all of whom he was entirely sure were extremely unimpressed with his presence at Port Meridian in the first place, and would likely execute him without a second thought were it not for the very woman curled so exquisitely beneath his attentions. As he raised his free hand to brush away hair that was obscuring his view of her face, Sara flashed her tongue over the skin of his thumb, taking it into her mouth and sucking it, forcing images of those teeth scraping, that hot, wet mouth closing over his cock instead. As much as he didn’t want to admit it, as much as he really, really fucking loved teasing her like this he was so achingly hard it was becoming increasingly difficult not to give in and bury himself inside her instead.
Sara’s eyes flashed open, searching for his, their glazed blue locking on his beseechingly when she found them, “I… please-”
Her words were cut off as he did as he was bidden and his mouth slid back between her thighs, lapping at delicate flesh that caused her to grind herself forward with a whimper. He had been rocking his fingers back and forward, always just shy of enough, but at her insistence he quickened the pace.
“Like this? Is this what you want?” he asked, taunting like he didn’t already know.
The long moan this ripped from her lips confirmed her satisfaction and he ran his hand down her body to lock her hip in place as she shuddered against him, groaning as the spot he was tormenting luxuriously with his tongue became almost too sensitive. Her breath became increasingly ragged, fingers darting out, nails clawing at the shoulder of his flightsuit as he spread her ruthlessly with his fingers assuming an unforgiving pace. The soft whimpers she made stimulated his pulse as it hammered at his throat, urging him on as he wondered at how just the taste, the feel, the sound of her could have him so stiff and wanting before she had even touched him. Reyes felt her tense abruptly and he pitched his body upwards and crashed his mouth against hers just in time, stifling her cries, catching them in his mouth greedily as her body quaked against him, his hand still working between them as she spilt over his fingers. Reyes held her firmly as her back arched, continuing his motions even as she twitched and gasped in shuddering waves, driving her deeper. Then her body softened around him and he slid a hand under her back so she wouldn’t slam back against the crate as she whispered breathy “ohs” against his neck. After she took a moment to regain herself, Sara laid back against the crate, breathing deeply, eyes scrunched closed, “Well… shit.”
“I did say you deserved to celebrate,” he mused, aware his voice was still rough with desire.
“That was… if that’s what I get every time I save the galaxy then…” she exhaled again and made a choked sound of approval.
“Well, no one else was showing you the gratitude you deserved so, I thought I’d give it to you…”
He leant back trying to centre himself, legs far less steady than usual. As he did so Sara caught hold of his collar weakly, eyes already bright again as they flickered open yet still drunk on his touch. Her gaze made his throat feel dry, his face, his body already entirely too hot as she rose to her feet with him, not helped by her thigh sliding between his legs, the contact scorching even through his flightsuit. He tried to dull a groan, catching it in his throat, as she leant towards him and his eyes fixed on her full bottom lip, inflamed, reddened from biting. The covetous flicker of her eyelashes suggested she’d heard it as her probing fingers found the zip beneath his throat and she began easing it down, “Your turn.”
He allowed her to skim the garment off of his shoulders, eyes fixed on hers, on the thirst that still danced in magnificent blue.
“Hmm, not this time,” he slid his hands over her naked hips, thumbs skimming across the bones that jutted out just enough to be a pleasing anchor for his hands. The question lingered in her eyes for a moment. Reyes answered by turning her slightly, her bare feet twisting on the tiles, guiding her until her back was against the wall, “I want all of you. Now.”
As much as her brilliant tongue excited him, the desire to feel her shiver and strain against him, to watch her come apart in his hands again was as all-consuming. He was done waiting.
He thrust his hips forward as he kissed her, making her forget her words, Sara’s mouth parting in a soft gasp. Reyes savoured the touch of her like he hadn’t been able to for weeks, the breathy press of her lips against his, the distinct, sweet scent that lingered in her hair as he combed pieces of it behind her ear. His mind was fogged with it, his tongue tangling with hers, taking her mouth with his. She was like a wild thing pinned beneath him, hands roving over his torso until fingernails found purchase instead, mouth pushing for more even as his lips were bruising on hers, skin humming wherever he touched. His fingers were biting into the cheek of her ass, the other hand stroking over her neck, her collarbone, down to her breasts. Sara was pulling down the back of his flightsuit, groaning against his lips in frustration as the heavy material resisted her. Reyes’ hands left her body for a moment to help her, kicking off his boots before wrestling his legs free of his clothing. When he returned his hands, fingers climbing her back, he halted, startled, a surprised yelp wrenched from his lips as a shudder wracked through his body. Sara’s hand had skimmed down from his hips until the pads of her fingers trailed gently over the length of him, the corner of her lips curling. He remained, paralysed for a moment as her touches ascended his shaft, thumb skimming ever so delicately over the tip. Then she squeezed and he had to place a steadying hand on the wall beside her.
His head sank onto her shoulder, burying his face in her scarlet hair, strength sapped in a groan as her palm taunted his inflamed skin and her fingers clenched around him again. There was an appreciative sound in her throat as he submitted, momentarily, to her touch, before he wrenched his face back up towards hers. Reyes pushed her backwards, hard, so her shoulders met the wall, hitching himself forwards so he was pressed against the warmth of her hip. Her eyes snapped to his, her pupils impossibly wide.
“Take it… off,” Reyes murmured, words far less pliant than he’d wanted them to be.
She caught his meaning anyway. Reaching up, she pulled the fabric over her head, letting her shirt fall onto the ground. Sara paused as her fingers traversed the lace straps of her bra.
He thought it was the appreciative weight of his eyes on her that caused her to pause until she mumbled, “What if someone manages to get in here?”
“Sara Ryder,” he chuckled before continuing, tone chastising, “if someone somehow managed to get in here, past SAM’s encryption on the door no less, they would see you taking such a fucking that you lose all sense. Surely after that, it doesn’t matter if you’re topless or not?”
He saw her delicate throat working as she swallowed, “Oh… no…”
“Well then?” Reyes paused, hand sliding over her arm, pale beneath his darker skin, trying to distract himself from the endless throbbing, the searing urge to buck into her side. She reached behind her back, an alluring grin back in place that pulled at his self-control, unhooking her bra. As soon as her delicious - really fucking delicious, annoyingly, distractingly so when he was trying to think about other things, or just fucking sleep – breasts were free, his fingers were working over them. Sara caught his chin urgently as he rolled her nipples gently beneath his fingers, eliciting a strangled whine from her throat.
“Reyes… fuck me…”
He had changed his mind. When she was giving him that look, that said she wanted him, needed him and those words were rolling off her tongue, that was when she was at her most beautiful.
“Yeah?” Reyes slid his hands under her thighs, lifting her, shifting her weight so her hips were anchored against the wall just above his before positioning himself so the head of his cock was rubbing, aching against her wetness. All it would take was one thrust of his hips and he would be inside her, and he clenched his jaw with the strain of it.
She gasped out the words, voice thick, “Yes… fuck me… please…”
He nudged his hips upwards just a little but stopped so he was only just pressed inside her, hands shaking from the strain of holding back as he held her above him, and Sara jerked like someone had blown her biotic shields.
“I’m sorry, what is it you want?”
She scrabbled at his shoulders, eliciting frustrated sobs as she realised he had her pinned too strongly and she couldn’t ease herself down onto him.
“Reyes, I am going to throw you through this fucking wall if you don’t-”
A cry, louder, higher than the others cascaded from her as he slid inside her, and he had to focus for a moment on maintaining his footing as a tremor ran the length of his body at the feel of her tightening around him.
She nodded furiously, back flat against the wall, angling her hips back and forth so he filled her, nudged all the right places, her small movements so agonising that his eyes nearly rolled back into his head. Reyes shifted himself back so she could feel his cock drag nearly all the way out again before thrusting back inside her, his own breath hitching back out of him with the motion. Sara caught her bottom lip with her teeth to stop herself from crying out, her body bending to meet his, and the last measure of restraint he had snapped like a rubber band. He kept her pitched just above him so she could feel the entire length of him as he thrust in and out of her, again and again, falling into a steady rhythm. She rocked her hips, following his motion the best she could, punctuating the air with a muted but no less wanton sound every time he drove into her. Before long her thighs were trembling against him, her moans descending into desperate mewls, and he had to refocus his attention away from her and on his own measured movements lest he lose control. Just as he could feel her clenching around him, her breaths short rasps in her throat, there was a sudden, loud voice outside.
“You brought us all this way and we haven’t even seen the human Pathfinder yet. Typical.”
Automatically Reyes turned his head to the doorway which had remained, as he had predicted earlier, firmly closed. Sara tensed, although this time it wasn’t through desire, and as he turned back to look at her an expression of panic was coursing over her flushed cheeks.
“Well, I’m sorry Narinda, I thought we were here for diplomatic reasons, not just so you could gawk at her,” a haughty voice responded, sounding just as close.
Sara quickly brought a hand to her mouth, stifling a nervous laugh. She looked down at him, still wanting, still breathless but clearly uneasy.
“Well, yes of course, but her ship’s leaving today.”
Still burrowed inside her Reyes readjusted himself and she hissed his name sharply, shaking her head.
“Trust me,” he mouthed and after a long moment she nodded.
With a sharp exhale of effort he slid her downwards, her breasts against his chest, resting one of her feet on the floor as he carefully hooked the other knee over his arm. Her eyes watched him, caught between trepidation and lust, as the buzz of conversation between the two women outside continued. Now his other hand was free he curved his thumb over her full bottom lip, moving to the skin of her cheek before sliding his hand over her mouth. Then Reyes snapped his hips forward without warning and the brief alarm in her eyes was snuffed out as she gasped against his hand. He resumed his previous pace and despite her previous reticence she demanded more without words as she squeezed against him. Silently he fucked her, and it was the single hottest thing he had ever experienced; feeling her pant against his fingers, knowing that Sara was just as aware as he was of the possibility of being caught, and was just as exhilarated by it. Every nerve ending in his body felt like it was firing at the same time. When her body wracked suddenly, violently against his and she bit the inside of his finger to stop herself screaming, he had no idea how he managed not to come with her. Instead he continued driving into her languorously, lengthening out the quivering, fluttering swells. Gently she peeled back his hand from her mouth as the voices from beyond the door retreated. Sara’s wide eyes traced over the lines of his face as though they were worth taking the time over, before her nails inched into the short hair at the back of his neck and she pulled him towards her.
“I really,” her breath caught as he thrust upwards, “really,” she dropped a brief kiss on his lips, “want you to come with me.”
Her gaze met his own and he was transfixed for a moment, breaths cascading out of him. He nodded, for once not trusting himself to form any sort of clever response. Then her soft mouth was on his again, reminding him of how much he’d missed it, missed her, missed this, her clever tongue gliding over his bottom lip at the same time his cock drove into the deepest part of her making him groan and swear under his breath. She smiled against his mouth. Then he was grinding harder, making her ride him a terrible, urgent tempo, a flutter of worry of hurting her passed at the insistent rock of her hips back against his, the slipperiness of her thighs. His hand locked onto her hip as he licked, bit down her neck, sucking in hard breaths against her skin. This time he couldn’t withstand it, didn’t want to, the pitch of her cries, the rake of her nipples against his skin, how she clenched around his cock, soft and wet and hot all at the same time. He came with her, hard, lurching forward as the tingle of her biotics crackled over his skin like a lick of electricity, instead of hurting, a pleasant hum as he twitched and growled low in his throat. Then he sank, forehead against hers, as she gingerly lowered her other leg to the ground and he withdrew from her with a shiver, shaken, broken breaths still tumbling out of him. Sara was pressing slow kisses against his cheek, up to his ear and over his neck, each one careful, velvety soft yet considered as though they were postmarks. Each one said he was hers and somehow, somewhere along the way he had come to agree with her.
“I bet you’re fucking tired,” Sara breathed, a note of amusement in her voice.
He nodded back woodenly. Now he was no longer consumed by lust and adrenaline the very real ache of his limbs from holding up both their weight for so long was making itself painfully apparent. When he opened his eyes she was smiling at him, satiated, eyes sparkling, and rather than revising his thoughts about when actually she was at her most attractive again, he simply decided that any of the ways she looked at him were beautiful.
“Come here…” Reyes sank to the floor, planting his back against the wall, pulling her down with him with only a slight insistence, not demanding, but asking.
Sara followed him, curling between his legs, head on his shoulder. They were both still damp with sweat but that didn’t seem to both her either, as she sighed in a satisfied sort of way, breath tickling his neck. Reyes rocked his head back against the wall, the stubs of his nails trailing lightly over the faint freckles on the back of her shoulders. He frowned slightly as his fingertips ran forwards over the knotted skin that indicated the fresh scar at her collar bone, involuntary pangs of anger and guilt flaring at the memory of how she had received the bullet wound. As if she had sensed something of his thoughts she kissed his neck twice.
“So, whilst what I said about the crates being sturdy was true. I’m not sure I was entirely right about the secluded part,” Reyes smirked, twisting his mind away from such thoughts.
“You lying shit, I wouldn’t be surprised if you picked this place on purpose,” Sara responded, her tone mocking, “you loved that.”
“Hmm, well if you didn’t you have a strange way of complaining.”
He nipped at the skin of her side playfully, just at the place where her hip started to flare out, and she flinched away from him for a moment before leaning back against him.
“Oh, I’m certainly not complaining. Bit worried about greeting the adoring public with bird’s nest hair, grinning like a shitting fool though.”
She turned her head so she was looking at him again and he found he was looking back for an inordinate amount of time. It was a welcome change to see her smiling, really smiling, for once not looking harassed by something Tann had said or concerned over the threat of the kett. With a pang, he realised he actually felt… good himself. And not the good he felt after making a particularly brilliant deal, not the kind of good he felt after ‘liberating’ competing smuggler’s supplies from right under their noses, certainly not the same as when he’d finally gotten rid of Sloane and secured his ascension. It was stronger and more fragile all at once, and that wasn’t something he was ready to even begin to process. He was greatly relieved when her eyelashes flickered, a strange, soft look on her face, and she pressed three quick kisses against his lips. They felt too far too chaste so he pulled her back but she resisted him, laughing, “If I stay here any longer they’ll really start to wonder where I am. Some sending off party it’d be if I only reappear for the last five minutes.”
“There are worse places you could be found…" he faltered as she made to rise to her feet, "oh..."
“What?” Sara’s eyes narrowed suspiciously, catching what must have been guilt in his expression.
“Well… I may have been a little… overenthusiastic…” Reyes replied hesitantly, tapping a spot over her collarbone that had started to discolour into a purple shade, a bruise beginning in the shape of a bite. He'd unintentionally left a rather more lasting postmark of his own. Although she couldn’t see it, she could evidently feel it as she flinched slightly as he touched it, her expression moving between shock and annoyance and most surprisingly amusement.
She choked down a laugh, eyes warm, “You are such a git.”
Thankfully, most of the sodding lovebite was covered by her shirt. When she entered what at one time was the Hyperion’s habitation deck, having hastily neatened herself up, the eyes turning to look at her made Ryder feel uneasy. Although she knew they were likely doing so because of who she was, what she had done, rather than having any knowledge about what had just happened, that did not make her feel any less paranoid. Just carry on walking. Carry on walking like you’ve not just been banging your exile lover/boyfriend/undefined something in a nearby storage cupboard not nearly quietly enough.
“Sam… Is anyone aware of…”
“No, you were not overhead. Pathfinder. Do I need to edit my internal dictionary?”
“Because I’m not sure we have the same definition of ‘contained’ if that is you containing your impulses."
Ryder snorted, “I think I preferred it when your only reference for humour was my dad, SAM.”
She straightened her face as she passed the Nexus leadership team. They were still clustered together after their earlier conversation about the appointment of a new ambassador and, rather predictably, Tann was looking disgruntled at something Kesh was saying. Ryder noticed Drack lingering nearby, arms folded as he eyed the salarian coldly. She sped up her pace towards the doors to the Tempest’s dock where many of the crew were already gathered. As much as she would thoroughly enjoy watching Tann’s limbs being plucked easily from his body, she had to admit it might ruin the party atmosphere. Halfway across the atrium she caught Liam’s eye. He was mid-conversation with an asari but he paused to smile at Ryder, one of his old goofy grins, all teeth. She responded in kind and meant it. Weeks before when she had emerged from the remnant structure, they had embraced each other firmly, both fumbling over apologies, just so grateful they had the opportunity to do so. They never mentioned their argument again. It didn’t matter.
Elsewhere the crowd was thinning now where the room had been positively heaving before, filled with angaran diplomats, emissaries from the different outposts and planets, many figures of importance, most of whom she knew, but some she didn’t. Now it was mostly familiar faces and the atmosphere was all the more welcoming for it. It didn’t take her long to notice Reyes stood at the other side of the atrium talking animatedly with a turian she couldn’t identify. His appearance gave no inkling that he’d been in a rather compromising position not an hour before, his clothes uncrumpled, demeanour entirely composed.
“You ready, Ryder?”
Cora had approached her. There was no drink in her hand and there was an eager gleam in her eyes.
“Well, you sure seem to be.”
“We’ve been stuck here for weeks! Aren’t you?” Cora asked, curiously.
Ryder nodded, distracted, “Yeah. Of course.”
“I thought you’d be raring to go… oh,” Cora said the last word resolutely, as though she’d worked something out.
Cora angled her head pointedly to her right, in Reyes’ direction. Ryder realised she’d been gazing at him as Cora had been talking to her and that was how she’d noticed him. An itchy, hot feeling crept over her neck as she tried very hard not to flush. She hastily flicked her eyes away.
“Oh stop it it’s sweet,” Cora grinned, before cocking her head, “you’ve not really had any time together what with everything going on, huh?”
Ryder sighed, the excited buzz she had felt earlier starting to dissipate as reality began to set in, “Not really. We did catch up a little today,” a smile twitched at the corner of her lips, unwarranted, “but it’s been weeks, over a month really, since we spent more than a couple of hours together. It’s hard to gauge where things are between us.”
“I wasn’t sure about it at first, I’m still not, not totally, but you’d have to be blind not to notice how he looks at you,” Cora was looking at her closely, “you deserve it, Ryder, you have more than enough shit to deal with.”
“Thanks, Cora. It’d just be nice to have a bit more of a chance to see each other when one or both of us isn’t being shot at.”
“Hmmm… leave it with me,” Cora smiled in an elusive sort of way.
Ryder frowned at her, “What?”
“Let’s just say I have friends in high places… namely human resources…” Cora shrugged, offhand, before walking over the join the others.
"We still have a human resources?" Ryder questioned Cora's retreating back, sceptically.
When Ryder glanced as surreptitiously as possible back at Reyes she was surprised to see he was stood alone now, already looking at her, leant against the wall nonchalantly. He winked at her in his usual way and it made her stomach turn over like she’d flipped the Nomad. Although it was exhilarating, the familiar sensation was accompanied by an unexpected uneasiness that made her chest contract. She’d had casual lovers, serious relationships, friends with benefits before but how she’d felt then was entirely different to this. With Reyes it was entirely more intense, more complex, more perilous… and yet she knew without question that it was what she wanted. Even if it frightened her more than she liked to acknowledge because she knew how easy it would be for her to be hurt if this undefined something was far more meaningful to her than it was to him. Reyes looked as though he had caught the expression on her face and moved as though he going to come over when he paused sharply, dark eyebrows furrowing. Someone else had already approached her.
Moshae Sjefa was looking at her, pale blue eyes deep as whirlpools. She looked more regal than ever dressed in a sumptuous ivory cloth rather than her usual violet. The jewels set about her head glittered in delicate shades, casting her face in an otherworldly light, “I fear you are in some degree of danger, Pathfinder.”
“Excuse me?” Ryder snapped, harder than usual in her surprise. “What are you talking about?”
“Sometimes people are,” the Moshae’s eyes drifted across the room then back again, “not always what they seem.”
It could not be more obvious who she had been looking at.
“I…” Ryder frowned, bemused about the Moshae’s apparent knowledge of her and Reyes’ involvement, bewildered in her sudden interest in her affairs, irritated she had been caught on the backfoot, “I don’t…”
“Believe me, it is not my intention to pry,” Moshae Sjefa’s gaze portrayed sincerity, though there was a hard knot caught in Ryder’s throat as she looked at her, “it’s just I’ve met many like him. Every one a black hole.”
Ryder blinked at the suddenness and sheer absurdity of the conversation, “You’ve lost me entirely.”
“The attraction is unavoidable, almost magnetic,” she wove her fingers between each other and Ryder found her eyes drawn to the angaran’s hands, watching her digits weave in and out, “it drags you towards them until you are totally in their power,” she snapped her palms together, “then it destroys you, utterly.”
Despite herself, Ryder started at the sudden motion, the hardness of her words. Her eyes slid back up to meet the Moshae’s, who looked more solemn that she had ever seen her, though it wasn’t enough to quell the bubbling, churning swell of irritation that hissed and spat in the pit of her stomach.
“Even if that were so, why are you warning me of it?” Ryder answered, eyebrows furrowed, angry heartbeat pummelling her ribcage.
The Moshae laughed lightly, “Do you not realise the effect you have on the world around you?”
Ryder stared at her, swallowing hard, not trusting herself to speak.
A shadow crossed Moshae Sjefa’s face and she leant towards her, voice low and soft, “I am not saying it would even be purposefully done. He may care for you as much as he portrays. But I fear he will be your downfall.”
Ryder drew away, not aggressively but firmly. She held the other woman’s gaze for a moment.
“Funny. I’ve known that since the moment I met him..." Ryder muttered to herself as she turned on her heel, swiftly, so she wouldn’t see the concern in the other woman’s face, or the hard line in Reyes’ when he regarded them conversing, or any of the other eyes that watched her retreating back that also knew more than they should and given half the chance would use that information to do something about it.
Chapter 19: Crash
Ryder's flight to Kadara does not go entirely as expected... That is to say. It's a disaster.
I realise there is a part of this chapter that may be slightly triggering for some readers, so I thought I'd pop this in as a bit of a warning. There's some implied intention of sexual assault, also with drugging and canon-typical violence.
Summary at the end in case anyone does want to skip this one.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Life outside of active duty in Andromeda was a strange thing, unnerving in its unpredictability, its unfamiliarity. Wearing her own clothes, not armour or an Initiative uniform, walking around without companions at her heel, boarding a transport to the Nexus docks alone. Somehow Ryder went unnoticed, hood of her jacket pulled up over her instantly recognisable, vibrant red hair, collar high over her chin, training her eyes towards the wall of the transport, body angled away from the assembled commuters and tourists and diplomats. Once she reached the bustle of the docks, she scanned for a shuttle marked with a yellow cuff on the wing, the one Vetra had told her to look out for. Her eyes trailed over the coordinated rows of ships, engineers and deck hands in Initiative uniform weaving in between them, talking with pilots and passengers, registering vehicles, assessing any damages. It could not be less like the disorganised clusterfuck of the port at her destination and for some reason that made her feel all the gladder to be leaving it. It was all too clean, too bright, too… officious. When had that happened? When had she become more comfortable in the presence of pirate and exiles? She shrugged her mind away from the idea that it was because she no longer knew how to be around normal people. Not after months of killing, months of fighting and kicking and screaming at everything that turned a weapon, or a fist, or a claw against her…
As soon as she had identified the stripe of mustard, she stepped towards the shuttle, gaze darting away from curious glances that analysed the lone figure with familiar poster-girl bright blue eyes and a posture, a set to her shoulders that did not invite inspection and thereby provoked more interest. She boarded the ship with just a swift nod to the pilot (who was surprisingly young looking with lilac markings curving over her mandibles and bright eyes) and a pointed tap of her omni-tool to indicate she’d paid her the necessary credits, and then they were away. It was not the steadiest of flights. Although the turian was not an incapable pilot and the journey was made all the easier without the added difficulty of having to navigate around the scourge, the fact remained the shuttle was not the Tempest. Instead of the Tempest’s steady hum, seemingly motionless in its stability, the shuttle shook like they were caught in a sandstorm on Eos. After anxious minutes spent rebuckling her seatbelt, tapping her fingers against her knee, twisting her mother’s ring between her fingers, they were safely travelling at FTL. Ryder let her body relax a little, pacing the narrow space behind the cockpit to stretch her legs whilst sharing pleasantries with the pilot, whose green eyes reminded her a little of Peebee when she turned and cast them briefly Ryder’s way. The way she chatted animatedly also reminded her of the asari as Ryder learnt an inordinate amount of information about her in a very short period of time - how she knew Vetra through her sister, how it would take a couple of hours to reach Kadara, how Andromeda was finally shaping up to be what they’d hoped for, thanks for that Pathfinder, how it was an absolute honour to meet her, could she perhaps sign the wing tip as she jumped out? Although the girl chattered like a songbird she had enough about her not to ask the obvious question – what was the Pathfinder doing flying alone to Kadara? – however, she did cast Ryder long, curious gazes when she thought she wouldn’t notice. Ryder settled back into her seat, taking slow breaths in an attempt to tame the giddy frazzle of nerves that had been building since their departure. Eventually, the repeated back and forth vibration of the ship and the seat beneath her, the brilliant cascade of stars streaming past the cockpit window, lulled Ryder into an almost-doze, the silence punctuated only by the slight rattle of the thrusters and the vague music drifting over to her from the cockpit. She had to admit, although it was weird, certainly, not reporting to anyone, not being obligated to do something, it felt… freeing. Since the battle for Meridian, for the galaxy, she’d had little reprieve thanks to the fact she was almost certain Tann had caught wind of something going on between the Pathfinder and the Charlatan and did not at all like it. Just as likely was the fact he knew he could do nothing directly about it, so he’d been making her pay by sending her on the most menial of ‘urgent’ errands (pockets of kett that could’ve been attended to by APEX teams, distress signals that led her on extended chases) that took her entirely away from Kadara, so much so that following her five days shore leave she would have to remain on the planet anyway to clear up a lot of loose ends she’d been unable to attend to due to Tann’s insufferable meddling. Not that she minded that of course. Depends how pleased he is to see me. An anxious knot of bunched nerves twisted in her stomach.
She flicked through the messages on her omni-tool distractedly.
To: Reyes Vidal
Did you mean what you said? Because if so, I think I can swing a few free days next week.
Or, y’know, you can just play with your dick on your own instead. No hard feelings as long as you promise to look a bit forlorn while you do it.
She’d never reworded and retyped an email so many times, editing out the nervousness, the vulnerability of her first messages. What they’d had so far had been circumstantial, heated and of the moment. Yes, they’d maintained a steady stream of flirty (so much so she was now very careful about where she talked to him) exchanges both over voice call and via messages, but this was different. This was Ryder going out of her way to see him, to stay with him, and that somehow made this undefined something real. Really real. Who knew what Reyes was going to do with that?
Re: Shore Leave
From: Reyes Vidal
When I said Kadara would love to have you? Yes.
Then, received two minutes later than the last message:
Re: Shore Leave
From: Reyes Vidal
… Did you not get the subtext? That I would be having you instead?
I’m disappointed in you,
Re: Re: Shore Leave
To: Reyes Vidal
I got the subtext you ass.
I’m looking forward to it…
Re: Re: Re: Shore Leave
From: Reyes Vidal
Ryder took a steadying breath attempting to calm the hammering of her heart as she reread their words, as she considered the implications behind them.
“Pathfinder, are you sure this is a good idea?”
She ignored him.
“There are a lot of variables that could prove dangerous.”
“That’s the fourth time you’ve mentioned it SAM. Don’t worry your thoughts are on record.”
His words brought a bemused smile to her lips as she wondered at how much he’d changed, how he’d picked up her sarcasm, how he’d begun to generate his own opinions that sometimes varied from her own.
With an impatient sigh, she rocked her head back and closed her eyes.
Her vision was red, but not like seeing through the scarlet of her hair, it was a dark crimson yet with a glow, a heat behind it that was like opening her eyes against the blaze of the midday sun. Choking, her breaths rasped as she inhaled lungfuls of smoke and she could feel it cloying on the inside of her throat. She pressed her hands against what felt like ground and as her fingers dug in there was earth sliding between her fingernails, but that was impossible because she’d been… she’d been on a ship… And there was a sound, a sound was repeating in her ear, a buzz that was becoming louder and louder until it was ear-splitting.
Ryder staggered to her feet, ankles, thighs, stiff as she rose, stumbling against something hard and burning hot that clanged as her weight fell against it. Everything was dark, suffocating, thick smoke pressing in on her as she staggered forwards blindly. She caught her shoulder on something that seared her barriers, the barriers she didn’t even remember putting up. At this realisation, her biotic fields glowed all the brighter, the blue-violet glaring against the roils of the blackened fog that surrounded her.
“Keep moving,” SAM continued.
She did as she was bidden, limbs tucked into her body, staggering until she reached an absolute, opaque expanse that could be either a wall or the door to what she presumed was the shuttle. Without outward movement, she reached, gingerly at first, towards the vibrating root of power that existed without physical form yet still very much present, at the centre of her being. Her biotics snarled with desperate, restrained energy as she struck out at the obstacle in front of her. She felt the force burst from her fingertips as it tore the metal aside, immense power flowing from her easily, the way it always seemed to work in excess whenever her life was threatened. Ryder took several steps forward, through the gaping hole and out of it, before her legs buckled and she fell to her knees, gasping as fresh air filled her lungs, rushing passed her cracked lips. She dropped her head against the ground, breathing against it for a moment, trying to collect her thoughts, sewing back together the patchwork of memories that was the last 48 hours. Saying goodbye to the rest of her team, an overnight stay at the Nexus, the shuttle to Kadara then… blackness… Ryder spluttered as she sat up, throat still slick and sticky with ash, wiping the blood from her vision with her sleeve and casting her eyes about her. There was a low sun in the sky casting the scene around her in dark pink hues and over the mountains that carved black chunks out of the sky either side of her. Although it was evening, the cracked earth beneath her hands was still warm with the last caresses of the day’s heat, and there was no soft breeze to relieve the residual warmth that remained on her skin, that stuck her clothes to her back.
Ryder croaked out a laugh of relief, “We made it to Kadara.”
“Yes, Pathfinder. We’re at Spirit’s Ledge.”
She dragged her scorched jacket from her shoulders, discarding it on the ground, “What happened, SAM?”
“A projectile was fired at your vehicle which caused the crash. I am analysing the trajectory now to assess its point of origin.”
Ryder reached instinctively for the pistol at her hip only to find she wasn’t even wearing a gun belt. She hissed in annoyance, “This was deliberate, someone knew I was coming.”
She glanced back the shuttle, or what was left of it. The combat gear she had packed ‘just in case’ was still trapped with the confines of the burning vehicle, which was by now nearly entirely engulfed in flames.
“I will contact Ditaeon and ask them to send combat personnel to our position-”
Ryder shook her head, wincing when this sent a searing pain through it, “Ow, ah… no, I’ll contact Reyes, the Collective are better equipped and we’re closer to the port.”
“Pathfinder, there is every possibility that someone within the Collective knew you were coming and set this up.”
Delicately Ryder ran her fingers up along her forehead, sweeping her bloody fringe out of the way. She could feel torn skin, a cut curving over her eyebrow, the area around it sensitive to the touch as though it were bruising. She just hoped she wouldn’t have a cracking black eye to match.
“Reyes will have thought of that.”
SAM was silent for a moment, then, “Pathfinder, there is an unregistered vehicle inbound. I will contact Mr Vidal as you have requested as you will likely need to concentrate on readying yourself for combat.”
“Brilliant,” Ryder murmured, dragging herself to her feet, trying to ignore the sweep of nausea that accompanied the motion. Now adrenaline was ebbing from her body, the stinging sensation in her forehead was growing worse and she had to set her teeth to stop them from jittering.
Ryder squeezed her fingers in her palms and with a grunt flared her biotics into life, hoping the purple blaze about her would be enough to make her look intimidating despite the obvious injury to her head and the rips in her tight jumpsuit. The tight jumpsuit that, now she was no longer wearing a jacket over it, revealed the curves and lines of her body, highlighted by the white trim at the edges that separated the black. The tight jumpsuit that Cora and Suvi had helped her pick out, and that Peebee had said was definitely the sort of outfit you should wear when confronting your undefined something of a lover about defining it as something. The tight jumpsuit that was definitely not what she would've chosen had she known her shuttle would be taking a nose dive into the planet's surface shortly before she was hurtled into battle, hackles raised, with only biotics, luck and grit on her side.
“SAM, my head fucking hurts but I don’t feel… I feel like I should feel worse.”
“Yes. You should be dead.”
A vehicle, similar to the Nomad but an older, dirtier model without out any brands that identified it as belonging to any particular group was approaching up the dirt track of the incline she was stood upon. Ryder felt very small without her armour.
“The initial impact of the projectile must have caused the blow to your head, rendering you unconscious. But the wound is mostly superficial, as is the bleeding. Your barriers must have activated instinctively as you suffered no damage from the crash.”
A sudden thought occurred to her and she glanced about the wreckage surrounding her. To one side, part of the cockpit had detached along with the pilot’s seat, next to which she could see just beyond it a body laid on the ground. A soft exhale escaped her lips at the sight.
“She died on impact. I’m sorry.”
“I didn’t even know her name,” Ryder responded quietly.
“Nilia, Nilia Prevetus. I will inform Vetra of her death and request that settlers from Ditaeon retrieve her body.”
Ryder nodded then gritted her teeth as the approaching vehicle pulled up several metres in front of her, the shriek of the brakes jarring, sending another pulse of pain through her aching head.
“Well, well,” a voice called, crooned, mocked, “what have we here?”
Ryder spat on the ground, trying to rid her mouth of the black taste. Four armed figures had stepped out of the vehicle. At the fore was a burly, skin-headed human, his small eyes roving over her greedily. Slung showily over his meaty shoulder was a Cobra missile launcher and Ryder didn’t need SAM’s confirmation in her ear to tell her that was the weapon that had been used to down her shuttle. Behind him were three other exiles, an asari with a scar that started at her chin and ended on the opposite side of her forehead and two turians, one of whom had a limp. They paused and stood to form a line, weapons loose in their slackened grips, eying her up. Finding her on her feet had clearly not surprised them, nor had the display of her biotics, so they knew enough about her to have expected this outcome. Only the asari looked wary. The others were relaxed, self-assured, stupid. She liked stupid.
“If that’s your opening gambit, you’ll have to do better than that to impress me,” Ryder replied scathingly, anger, anger for the poor young dead turian chipping her words like they were being cut into a headstone.
“No. My opening gambit was crashing your ship,” the large human grinned, exposing a mouth with too many teeth, all of them yellowing.
She assessed the group overtly, pointedly roving her eyes over each of their faces as they had done hers. Apart from the Cobra they were equipped with a couple of assault rifles and the asari had a pistol. Nothing out of the ordinary for raiders. Nothing that worried her.
“So, you’re responsible for the death of this girl?” Ryder asked starting to slowly approach them, rolling her fingers over spheres of biotic energy, each burning voraciously like a wildfire. She could feel the element zero coursing through her, humming through her veins, remember the pure thrill of releasing it.
The asari sniggered nastily, “Who?”
“The pilot,” Ryder replied, tone sanguine even as her fingertips twitched, as she had to bite back the craving to let go, to engulf them in a single Nova bomb, to puncture and crush and hurt.
“Sara, your heart rate is elevating to an excessive level.”
“You worry too much SAM,” she muttered.
“Ha! You praying to yourself, girl?” the human sniggered. “Thought the Pathfinder would have more balls.”
Ryder stopped in front of them, mass effect fields weaving through her hands as she clasped and unclasped them, “I can arrange for yours to fit inside your throat if you like.”
“How about if I shove them down yours instead?” he jeered back. “I’m sure it wouldn’t matter much if I took you back a little broken.”
The turian to his right sniggered, “From what I hear she’d probably enjoy it, practically gagged on the Charlatan’s sack to get that shitty outpost set up here.”
Ryder looked at the turian sharply. There was no trace of any further meaning in his words, no look of sly knowing, of an understanding in his narrow yellow eyes. His words were entirely coincidental and he, likely they, had no idea of the Charlatan’s true identity. Without warning she dragged the turian towards her with a flick of her wrist, before slamming him bodily into the ground. As he spiralled he lost control of his limbs, one of his arms catching and folding beneath him, cracking satisfyingly under his weight.
Ryder cocked her head to one side coyly despite the venom that simmered beneath, “Oh, so you’re outcasts?”
The end of the sentence was punctuated by the turian groaning on the ground, writhing at her feet.
“Bitch!” the other turian, the one with the limp, spat as they raised their weapons in unison.
“See,” the asari hissed, “there’s no taking her back, she needs to die now. For Sloane.”
“That’s not part of the plan,” the thick-necked human grunted as he slung the heavy weapon over his back in exchange for a battered assault rifle.
“Perhaps it would be worth revising your plans?” Ryder’s gaze flicked between their weapons as she spoke. Although her barrier could take the brunt of it, it would be preferable to avoid a direct hit at this range as the impact would cause deep bruising underneath. “You know I don’t have to slaughter the rest of you. I will if you really, really want me to, don’t worry. But I’ve had a bit of a rough day. So, if you could tell me who masterminded this shitshow, because it clearly wasn’t you, then, well... I mean I'm not going to let you go, but I could just arrest you instead of ensuring you spend your last moments getting intimate with your innards."
The human and the remaining turian exchanged a confused glance before their eyes darted back to her suspiciously.
Ryder rolled her eyes. "I'm going to shove your heads up your asses? Create some sort of ouroboros... Outcast ouroborous..?" She shook her head, "But I digress. Short version: tell me what I want to know, or I'll kill you. Painfully. "
The human stared at her, though there was more caution in his gaze now. She wasn't sure if this was fear of her strength, or fear that she was insane. She didn't really mind which.
“You’re not even armed.”
Ryder laughed coldly, “Now that doesn’t really seem to be an issue, does it?”
“Look, you just can just fuck-”
The other turian’s words were cut off as he went soaring into the air in a purple haze, his progress only halted as he smashed into a cliff face. The sound this made caused the remaining man in front of her to flinch and the asari to blink furiously.
“You know, I’ve been in situations like this time and time again.” Ryder paced back and forth in front of the asari and the human, stepping on and over the previously floored turian’s torso as she did so. Still conscious, he groaned beneath her weight. “Really, it ultimately results in who will crack first. Hmm... I know who my bets are on."
A bead of sweat rolled down the side of the human’s bald head as he readjusted the rifle in his hands. The asari was made of sterner stuff. That's when Ryder realised her mistake. She should have cut all the bluster and gotten rid of her first. As this dawned on the Pathfinder, the asari released a cluster of shots. Ryder just anticipated her, raising her hand, the bullets melting against the force of her biotics like raindrops easily consumed by flames. With a growl the asari leapt forwards, unfurling her own biotics and attempting to lift Ryder from the ground, flickers of blue and purple deepening the shadowy groove down her face, her eyes flickering and turning white with the sheer force of power she expelled. Ryder flinched out a hand, flinging the asari upwards and into the sky even as her own legs were ripped out from under her. She was held aloft, only a few inches off the ground thanks to her own defences, before tipping backwards and falling hard on her back. There was a long, agonized shriek and then a sickening thud that confirmed the asari had met a worse fate than she. This was not a victory however as thick, sinuous fingers grabbed the collar of Ryder’s jumpsuit and pulled her upwards, suspending her so she was rocked back on her heels, stumbling to regain a true footing.
The remaining outcast pressed his face to hers with a nasty grin. He holstered the assault rifle, “You were saying?”
Angrily she reared back, twisting, fighting against his grip. Pulling her arm back for a punch her fist burnt with energy, the white-hot centre of a flame, when something pierced her side. It didn’t hurt particularly but it was a small sharp shock combined with a cool sensation that made her hand jump to it reflexively. Her fingertips pawed, fumbled at the something sticking in her side until Ryder pulled it out and raised it to her eyes. The outcast let go of her and she staggered backwards, feet sliding in the dust. Ryder stared at the hypodermic needle in her hands, the attached syringe empty. It had been injected right through the thin material of her clothing, somehow penetrating her barrier and into the skin at her waist.
“What the fuck?”
Then a heavy boot met her chest and she was spent sprawling in the dirt. Instinctively she threw a hand in front of her, desperately trying to put some space between them, to throw the man backwards. But nothing happened. The familiar tingle of her biotics at her fingertips was absent, as was the connection to it that had always existed deep within, one she could never remember having lived without. Instead, there was emptiness, like someone had carved out her core.
“What did you-”
He lunged down and grabbed her by the throat, thumb pressing down on her windpipe stopping her words, suspending her breathing. The outcast was leant over her heavily, a knee between her thighs.
“You’d have been better off with the others alive,” his thin lips drew back over the teeth that overpopulated his mouth in a sickening leer, “rather than being left alone with me.”
Panicking, struggling for breath Ryder pushed at his chest to no avail, fingers scuffing at his jacket, his sheer bulk immovable. SAM’s voice was chiming in her head but it was hard to make sense of it. Whether it was from the lack of oxygen to her brain or the shock of losing her biotics she felt addled, dazed liked she’d hit her head for a second time.
“Not much point struggling, little bird, your biotics are fucked after that shot I gave you. By the time you can use them again, you’ll be dead,” the human continued, lessening the pressure of his thumb and she took several fast breaths. “Don’t worry though, we’ve got time for some fun before that happens."
Her vision was filled with him, wide-set eyes watching her face with rapture as he held her trapped beneath him, the grimy bristles along his chin, the skin of his cheeks covered with large pores and callouses. This couldn’t be it, he couldn’t be one of the last things she saw.
“The Charlatan,” Ryder spluttered, grasping for something, anything, “I can tell you who they are.”
The human’s eyes widened and he leant closer, “What? Who?”
Playing on his distraction, Ryder pulled up her knee and buried it into his crotch. Although unaided by biotics it was still enough to cause him to screech and curse in agony as she rolled quickly out from under him. Ryder threw herself to her feet, though her steps still felt oddly uncoordinated. She saw the asari’s dropped pistol several metres away and she staggered towards it, but it was like the ground beneath her was rising to meet the sky and then her hands were pressed in the dirt and there was the taste of dry grass in her mouth. Something gripped her ankle hard and dragged her backwards, away from the pistol, her nails tearing grass, leaving grooves in the earth. Ryder twisted her body with a snarl, kicking out at the hand that gripped her ankle with her free foot, repeatedly stamping against fingers until the hand slackened and let go.
“You're going to pay for that, you and that fucking smart mouth are going to pay...” the outcast stood over her, reaching for her again. Ryder was already scuttling backwards, trying to rise to her feet but her ankles felt like weights, her arms, which were meant to be pushing her up, folding at the elbow. She realised her entire body was shaking, and although she was afraid, very, very afraid, it wasn’t because of that, it was like the shakes she’d get if she didn’t eat enough calories, when her own biotics ate away at the last scraps of her energy reserves instead. He was bearing down on her, victorious sneer in place, ravenous gaze boring into hers, telling her she was alone, telling her she was fucked, telling her there was nothing she could do... Until a panic bloomed behind his eyes, starting as a tiny glimmer amongst the dark of his irises, until it slowly wormed its way over his thickset features. Her hand had reached the gun behind her. Fighting against the sickening stupor that was taking over her body, sick from whatever it was he'd injected into her with, or perhaps sick with the sheer force of her fear and rage, she wrenched the gun upwards and pointed it in his face.
"Back up," she ordered, words rasping like his fingers were still around her throat, "back the fuck away from me. Now."
As he stepped away, the outcast raised his massive hands in a compliant gesture, Ryder rose to her feet, legs trembling, sweat beading along her scalp. The gun was practically jumping in her hands. Something was very wrong.
"What is in this shit, what did you do?" Ryder spat as she realised how fast she was breathing, that there were spots of light dancing in her vision. "You know what, doesn't matter, you won't know you're a fucking lackey. May as well as just get it over with."
"I'll tell you... I'll tell you what you want to know. About who sent me... all of it..." the outcast practically squirmed, his eyes not leaving the gun pointed at his face, "you said... you said you'd just arrest us if we complied."
"I did. But you didn't comply like a good fucking dog, did you?" Ryder glanced over at the turian on the ground close by, "SAM, is he still alive?"
"Great," she looked back at the human, "don't need you then do I?"
"Pathfinder. He may have additional information the other one does not-"
"SAM, I'm not letting this disgusting pig..."
The outcast's head exploded in a burst of crimson and his body fell away from her, the large expanse of him meeting the ground, sending a plume of bloodied sand scattering into the air.
"... live," she finished aghast.
Her finger hadn't squeezed the trigger.
She whipped around. Cascading over the ascent were a number of people whom she quickly identified as Collective as she saw who was accompanying them, whose voice she had recognised as soon as she heard it. For the moment though, she was more interested in the woman at his side, the grim-faced asari who was holding a rifle aloft, still pointed at the spot the outcast member had stood in just a second before. Ryder staggered towards her, past the Collective members who were striding over the check the bodies and investigate the wreckage, past Reyes who turned to greet her with a guarded expression. The asari was lowering her gun, and couldn't have anticipated the Pathfinder grabbing her suddenly, violently, by the collar.
"He was mine," Ryder hissed, her nose so close to the asari's they almost bumped together.
"Well, you were taking your sweet time about it. The Charlatan's orders were to kill anyone threatening the Pathfinder's life and when we got here he had you on your arse," the asari shrugged, nonchalantly. Although her words were casual, her eyes were daring her to start something. Do it. Do it Nexus scum.
"Lymora, take it easy." Reyes barked sharply before Ryder felt the warmth of his hand on her shoulder, "Sara, we aren't your enemy..."
She let go of the asari and span around angrily, ready to scream and rage at him instead, but she lost it somewhere between his fingers tightening over her arm and the blaze of those almond eyes intent on hers, the honey at the centre bright with the light of the setting sun.
She exhaled sharply, "He was... he was mine to kill, Reyes."
There was a silence as she became aware of about a dozen Collective agents looking in their direction, waiting for their leader's reaction. Reyes' eyes flicked over to them and back to her again.
His face was harder than usual as he holstered his own weapon at his hip, "Take anyone alive back to headquarters for questioning and search the corpses for anything valuable."
None of them moved. Ryder glanced at the closest, a human who she recognised at the gunman that killed Sloane, and realised he was staring at the pistol still clutched in her hand.
"I'm not going to shoot anybody, you can calm down," she practically growled, still all adrenaline and weariness.
At her words, the Collective members began to move past them silently, Lymora casting her a dark look which caused Reyes to tighten his grip on Ryder's arm to stop her stalking after the asari. As he did so he muttered so only she could hear, "I'll talk to her. Later."
Ryder took a few steadying breaths. It felt as though the world was still quaking around her, so she gripped at the pocket of his flight jacket to anchor herself there.
She scowled, "What's their problem?"
Reyes nodded in the direction of the fallen outcast members, "Probably scared shitless."
"I meant what I said," Ryder pressed him, pushing against his chest insistently then immediately regretting it as this made her feel all the more light-headed. "I don't care if you're angry with me. He was mine and I fucking wanted to kill him. I wanted to."
"I know you did." Reyes caught her chin, a ghost of a wry smile on his face, "I'm not angry," his thumb brushed her cheek, "well, I'm not angry with you."
Then he was looking her over, face inscrutable, moving her loose hair aside with soft fingers as he assessed the cut on her head. His eyes didn't quite meet hers until they did, briefly, and then they were wary, wary in a way that made her feel like something fragile. Wary in a way she didn't like.
His jaw was clenched, his eyes close, furiously intent on hers. Despite this, his words were hesitant, “That bastard, the one she shot, when we got here he..."
Ryder stared at him for a moment, until she realised what he thought, what he was asking. She shook her head firmly, even though nothing about her felt firm, everything felt vague, her body still jittering in his grasp. She just wanted to rid that look from his eyes, “No, no. I’m, I’m fine. I just need a minute…”
What looked like relief shattered the angry expression on his face, "SAM told me what was happening, said you were injected with something to suppress your biotics...” his fingers curled tightly in her hair, "Sara, I.."
As much as she wanted to draw closer to him, it was like everything was suddenly too close, confining, suffocatingly warm. As she pulled away she couldn't quite make out his reaction, his face becoming increasingly more indistinct, blurry at the edges.
An overwhelming wave of nausea swept over her and she rocked back on her feet, "Something’s wrong…”
Everything had become darker and she felt herself slipping downwards. Ryder caught hold of Reyes’ shoulder to steady herself even as he must have caught her, arms hooking beneath hers to hoist her upwards as she found her footing again. But her vision was dim, black around the edges until it had narrowed to a needlepoint and all she could see was a fraction of his face, paler than usual, then the material of his jacket, her eyes fixating on one of the fastenings. As she reached to touch it, it disappeared entirely into blackness and she was falling again.
She jerked up violently, breaths gasping out in great pants, eyes flicking about a room that was unfamiliar in its semi-darkness. The thin light that shone through it suggested it was early morning, and as her eyes became more accustomed charcoal tones gave way to lighter shades of silver, and she realised where she was. There was a desk at the foot of the double bed scattered with datapads, a half-drunk bottle of whisky perched on one of the corners and a flightjacket thrown over the back of the chair that tucked underneath it. It was Reyes’ room. The shutters over the large windows onto the balcony were open a fraction, aqua rays of light streaking in from a neon sign attached to a building adjacent. Gingerly, Ryder swung her legs over the edge of the bed. There was no accompanying dizziness, no blurring of her vision, and so she slid onto her feet carefully. She turned her palm upwards, skin pale in the gloom, flexing her fingers slightly as with an almost crippling sense of dread, she reached for the root of power at her core. Though it seemed to take a little longer than it usually would, her frantic heartbeat counting the seconds, it was all the more powerful a rush when it responded, a blue-white orb of energy expanding out of her hand and over her skin, until her barrier hummed about her almost electric in its ferocity. Ryder exhaled a breath she didn’t know she’d been holding, rocking back on one foot as raw relief flooded her. She emitted a strangled laugh, high-pitched in its relief, its fervour.
Her eyes flicked towards the open doorway opposite the window. Reyes was there, shirtless, dressed only in his underwear, rubbing his eyes perhaps at the brightness of the light emitting from her skin, “You do choose your moments, I swear I nipped out for a second…” He clocked the slightly manic grin on her face and asked sceptically, “You alright?”
“My biotics… they’re not gone… they’re back,” she breathed, words still tripping over each other as she laughed.
“Of course they are. Ryota said it might take a few hours and you’ve been out longer than that. According to him, you had a particularly nasty reaction to it. You would,” he shook his head and moved closer, “hence the passing out, and the vomiting everywhere…”
She took a moment to place the name Ryota, before remembering him as the doctor she’d retrieved the Oblivion drug formula for, then caught up with everything Reyes had just said.
“I didn’t,” Ryder paled, the light that shimmered about her dulling to nothing as she allowed her barrier to ebb away.
“You did all over my bathroom, and a bit on me.”
Now he was in front of her she could see his gleeful, albeit tired looking, expression.
“But I don't remember…”
“Another side effect apparently. That, oh and yes, you repeatedly telling me that you want a summer wedding and wondering if they'd build any schools on Kadara…” He must have seen the abject horror in her expression, and he relented, “No, no I’m kidding. You were far too busy being sick to talk.”
Ryder punched him on the arm lightly, face practically scorching with embarrassment, “Dickhead!”
“It even went in my hair…”
“You… I…” she spluttered, certain that her face was about as red as the trees on Elaaden.
He reached for her, laughing, “No, still kidding, you were surprisingly neat for someone so completely out of it, remind me never to get you steaming drunk though.”
“Such a fucking ass…” Ryder glared at him, tugging her arms from his grip.
“Sara, is that any way to treat the man who was up half the night looking after you?” he was smiling at her now in a way that, even in the dark, made her feel giddy rather than cross.
“Were you really?”
He nodded, "Didn't have much choice."
But his expression was softer, more sincere, as he stifled a yawn. Everything about him was softer in the gloom, in his just wakened state. Well, everything except his words apparently. His dark hair was no longer slicked back and stuck out at odd angles as he had clearly been asleep, and his eyes were heavily lidded and a bit vague, his long, dark eyelashes flickering narrowly.
"And I suppose, you did come to help... even if it did get a little... heated," she huffed, allowing him to pull her hands into his.
"Are you going to kill my best agent?" Reyes asked, brushing his fingertips lightly over the back of her hands, over the jutting bones of her knuckles, touches so soft they sent ticklish shivers up her arms, covering them in gooseflesh.
Ryder sighed and shook her head, "Who, the salarian? Nah, I liked him. He was very polite when you introduced him on Meridian. And it was a lot less awkward than the first time we met when he interrupted us in Draulir..."
"You know I mean Lymora."
"I won't kill her... But I think I'd better avoid her for a while."
Reyes nodded back at her, hand ghosting up her arm. He swallowed and she'd have said he looked awkward if she didn't know he was far too self-assured to ever look so, "And you're... alright?"
"I think so..." Ryder nodded, changing the subject to hide her uncertainty, to divert her mind from the unpleasantness of the night before, "unless... How does my face look? I'm not hideously disfigured?"
He pulled her into his arms abruptly, face close to hers, "It'll scar but it's nothing major. They'll still be using you on the Initiative promotional material, gorgeous."
"Flatterer," she smiled.
The sudden rush of him after so long without him was dizzying, his firm hands smoothing over her back, the smell of his neck as he pressed her closer. She felt him swallow as she tucked beneath his chin, her arms winding around his waist.
“Do you think you could manage to see me just one time without getting hurt? I don’t really want to spend the next few days following you around with a stretcher…”
“I’ll try,” she kissed his neck, stomach tightening at the warmth of his bare chest emanating through the thin bodysuit she was still wearing, the feel of the soft skin along his lower back.
He caught her chin in his hands, and she drank in every line of his face, eyes lingering on the curve of his lips.
As though he’d caught the look in her eyes he grinned, “You look dead on your feet. We should go back to bed, Pathfinder.”
"I thought you preferred sleeping alone?" she cocked an eyebrow.
"I thought you might say that. I decided braving your snoring would be better than sleeping on the sofa for the next four nights," Reyes levelled back, warmth blossoming where his hands were resting on her hips.
"I do not snore... that much,"
He rolled his eyes and yawned as if to say he was too tired to argue. "Coming or not?"
She nodded, motioning to the tatters of her bodysuit and wordlessly he helped her strip it off until she was bare except for her underwear. Reyes took her hand and pulled her towards the bed, sliding between the sheets, her following after him, her bare thigh crossing over his as she settled into place beside him.
And so started Ryder's first day of shore leave on Kadara, her eyes fluttering closed as soon as her head touched the pillow, arm wrapped around Reyes' waist, his warm hand settled on her shoulder. Little did she know that by the end of the five days she would bitterly wish she'd savoured this moment, that she wouldn't be able to look back on it without a cold aching hurt in her chest.
Summary: Ryder's shuttle crashes and she's attacked by outcast members. She kills all but one who injects her with a substance that suppresses her biotics. As she about to kill him the Collective arrive and Lymora shoots and kills the remaining (creepy jerk) outcast member. Ryder is pissed off. She passes out due to the weird shit she's injected with and wakes up in Reyes' apartment. Ryder is relieved at being able to use her biotics again, and Reyes is relieved (less obviously) that she is ok.
Chapter 20: Safety
Reyes finds himself in an uncomfortable situation. Ryder fights to retain her shore leave. Both are oblivious to what is really going on behind closed doors.
Sorry about the delay but the word count is HIGH so hopefully that makes up for it.
The shore leave segments are a bit like this. Short titles, long chapters.
Cora Harper folded her arms before her sharp eyes flashed his way, assessing him keenly over the circular table that separated them, “And you say you’ve had no luck tracking the sniper involved in the original attack?”
“We attempted to apprehend him the days following, but we think he was tipped off ahead of us. He just managed to escape after a brief altercation,” Reyes’ hand twitched to his side at the memory of the pain in his ribs. He dropped his eyes to his omni-tool, swiping several message notifications from the screen after scanning them briefly, “however we haven’t been able to get a lead on him since.”
It was almost the truth.
“Shit!” Liam Kosta, who was stood on Cora’s left-hand side, dropped his fist on the table top frustratedly. “Dropped the ball a bit there didn’t you?”
“I have already passed on his information to SAM so the Initiative can release an all-points bulletin if they wish as he is likely no longer on Kadara,” Reyes continued, before switching his gaze to Kosta, “and at the time I was far more concerned with ensuring the Pathfinder’s immediate safety. Should I not have been?”
Kosta glared at Reyes, clearly still smarting from their last dispute, the one they’d had the very day of the original attack. Kosta opened his mouth to speak again, lines around the bridge of his nose furrowing, before he was interrupted.
“Oh, don’t start…” the engineer, Gil, muttered under his breath.
The redhead was stood closest to Reyes and as Reyes cast a sidelong glance at him Gil smirked back, cheek twitching as though he was amused.
“What did you get out of the remaining outcast, the turian?” Cora asked, fingers tapping impatiently against her tricep.
Reyes sighed, “Very little, that is to say, nothing at all.”
“That’s… odd. Word is the Collective is extremely thorough when attempting to extract information,” Vetra posed, speaking for the first time since their conversation began.
Liam’s face twisted darkly as Vetra lingered over the word ‘thorough’ and Cora let out a soft sigh.
“This whole thing stinks,” Drack added, unhelpfully.
Whilst they were really just making conversation (it was not as though any real decisions could be made until the Pathfinder returned) Reyes didn’t doubt that some members of the crew viewed this as a golden opportunity to interrogate him, to uncover any deception they thought the Pathfinder too soft on him to catch. Reyes half regretted leaving his escort at the door.
“You shouldn’t believe everything you hear,” Reyes responded, meeting the turian’s sceptical gaze, “besides which, he couldn’t talk much because he’s dead.”
“Dead?” Cora blanched.
She and Vetra exchanged significant glances and the krogan let out a dark, rich laugh. Reyes’ hand slid down to settle on the reassuring weight of the holster on his hip.
“I knew we should’ve pushed for the Initiative to take custody of him,” Kosta sighed, leaning away from the table, suspicious eyes not leaving Reyes’ face. It was a wonder his pupils hadn’t left permanent scorch marks.
“He died on the way to HQ. Bled to death, you can blame that one on our dear Pathfinder,” Reyes feigned a grimace.
Still, they didn’t believe him. And why should they? It wasn’t as though he was being altogether honest with them, even if he was about this. Distrust was inlaid in every one of the thousand creases that spanned Drack’s tree bark skin, whilst Vetra was wound up all tight, pointed shoulders stiff and spikey in her armour. Kosta was, as always, a pacing, petulant dog howling, begging to be let off the lead. Though they’d always treated him amiably, even Cora and Gil looked dubious, Gil’s tapering eyebrow flicking up towards his hairline. In addition to the five clustered around the table, Kallo Jath was also present in the Tempest’s meeting room. The pilot was stood to one side, one arm resting on the other, rubbing the tips of his fingers together, dark eyes unfocused as though he wasn’t listening, though Reyes was sure this disinterest was entirely feigned.
Reyes continued, begrudgingly, smoothing a hand through his hair in a disarming way, “You can have the body for an autopsy if you require it. It’s not… pretty though.”
Cora leant forward sounding tired, planting her hands on the table, “I’m sure that won’t be necessary. Though of course, it is up to Ryder.”
The tension in the air alleviated a little at Cora’s words even though no one else said anything. It was clear that when the Pathfinder wasn’t present Cora had garnered enough respect that the others had no difficulty following her lead by default.
Gil yawned widely and patted Reyes on the shoulder, “You’ll have to excuse us, all of us that made it here are running on about 2 hours sleep and we’re a bit tetchy.”
That so many of the crew had jumped halfway across the galaxy in under 12 hours when they’d heard Sara was in peril would have surprised him before he became better accustomed with the Pathfinder, but by now he was used to people reacting towards her in extraordinary ways. After all, hadn’t she had an effect even on him? Where the rest of the team were he wasn’t sure, but he very much doubted it would be long before they too arrived on Kadara.
Reyes exhaled sharply.
He’d had little time to acclimatise to the day’s events. He’d woken, unbearably hot, opening his eyes to find Sara’s form pressed against him in such a way he was already stiff, breath catching in his throat. Just waking up to her presence at all felt strange and new yet pleasing in a way that it was strong enough to override the old, familiar voice in his head that told him allowing her near him like this would only end in disaster, as any such closeness with someone always did. Then she’d brushed against him, making a noise in her throat as she awoke that caused him to grin into her neck. Not ten minutes later he’d been hastily dressing, throwing a flightjacket on over his clothes, grumbling before he and Sara made their way to the recently docked Tempest. He’d since decided he really needed to have a discussion with the fucking AI about the necessity of passing on information that had in this instance had all the impact of kicking a beehive, with the particular hive in question being the Tempest, its crew bees frantically buzzing to the defence of their queen. Thus Reyes was, still fairly bleary-eyed, cross at being dragged away from what had been setting up to the most pleasant way he’d awoken in quite some time, stood in front of most of the Pathfinder team whilst Sara had been accosted by her ship’s doctor who’d demanded an immediate physical examination as soon as they had boarded.
“Ryder, she’s alright though?” Kosta asked, and his were not the only eyes that trained on Reyes’ face somewhat anxiously.
Shaken out of inattentiveness Reyes blinked and looked at the other man but before he could speak, a voice interrupted him.
“You shouldn’t worry about my sister, she just likes to make an entrance. Arriving in a flaming shuttle? Pretty great way to make sure everyone remembers you,” a new voice remarked, light and amiable, a sounded partnered by the door behind Reyes swishing open.
Cora laughed and muttered under her breath. She shifted her long fringe behind one ear, “A family trait evidently.”
Reyes turned, catching himself before the surprise he felt carried across his face. A man that could only be Scott Ryder was grinning at him, and it was a grin that was so precisely his sisters’ it was unnerving, his cheeks dimpling in the same way, his blue eyes somehow catching all the light in room just like hers. Reyes half expected Scott to shake his hand, he looked like a hand-shaker, but instead he joined them in standing around the table, bumping Reyes’ arm companionably as he did so. Of all the ways he’d imagined meeting Sara’s brother (and it had crossed his mind more times than he’d care to admit), being greeted by an undeniable beam hadn’t been what he’d expected.
“Scott Ryder. You’d be forgiven for not recognising me since I got all the looks in the family, really, there’s no resemblance here, at all…” Scott waved a hand vaguely towards his face.
“By Nakmor’s hairy nutsack, they’re both like that,” Drack groaned.
Reyes blinked, nearly caught on the backfoot (clearly another Ryder family trait) before he nodded back, “Reyes Vidal.”
“Mhhmm,” Scott gave him a look that suggested he already knew a lot more about Reyes than just his name, “pleasure to meet you.”
There was that grin again. In some places they were remarkably similar, but the longer Reyes looked the more differences jumped out at him. Though the shape of their mouths were near identical and implicit with the same playfulness, Scott’s front teeth were smaller. Scott was also paler, right down to the blue of his eyes which were lighter than Sara’s, yet brighter in a way that suggested a freeness perhaps due to a lack of the responsibility that beset his sister. Reyes nearly winked back automatically as he did whenever he met someone as good-looking as Scott, because in that regard the twins were similar too, but smiled instead. He also tried not to flash as many of his teeth as he normally would, “Likewise.”
Scott chuckled and on anyone else the laugh would’ve sounded foolish, too loud to be allowed rather than infectious. Scott raised an eyebrow, “Oh, I know why she likes you.”
“I always had a thing for strays?” Sara remarked, sounding amused.
Reyes turned far quicker than was subtle, evoking another chortle from Scott beside him. Sara had entered the room closely followed by the doctor Lexi, who bustled in after her looking grim, though less so when he had last seen her.
Reyes recovered quickly, “Are you sure you don’t mean a thing for devilishly handsome exiles?”
“She did always have a thing for a charming accent and a mysterious backstory,” Scott jibed.
Sara’s eyes flicked over her assembled team and she stared at them for a moment, perhaps realising her words had more of an audience that she first anticipated. She flashed her brother a look that suggested she was going to do something to him later he wouldn’t like, but Scott just smiled back, undeterred. Reyes wondered how his face didn’t ache. As she passed her brother Sara tugged at the dark hair at the back of his neck with an impish look of retribution, and Scott swatted her away affectionately. Then Sara moved in close to Reyes on his other side, her fingertips trailing the back of his hand where no one else could see. She cast him a questioning look, as though she were checking the others hadn’t grilled him too fiercely. He shot her a look back that said really? I’ve handled far worse. All the while he pretended the softness in her eyes and her simple touch hadn’t filled him with a warmth akin to the first rays of sunshine after a long winter.
“Ryder, good of you to join us. We’ve only been waiting, oh… 45 minutes…” Vetra began, but there was mirth beneath, “your poor Charlatan here has had to deal with alllllll the fallout.”
“I’m sure he has…” Sara had the audacity to smirk at him before she turned to Vetra, “I needed to freshen up once Lexi checked me over since you demanded my presence here so immediately this morning.”
Aside from the still sore looking cut through her eyebrow, it’d be difficult to tell that only the night before she’d stumbled out of a burning vehicle and survived an altercation in which she had almost literally pulverised one of her attackers. She was wearing fresh clothes, dark black pants and a crop, and over the top she was still wearing the spare flightjacket of his she’d commandeered from his wardrobe that morning. He felt a warm tug of something like sentiment when he noticed she’d had to roll it up over her elbows where the sleeves were too long. Her dark eyeliner was curved back into place over her eyes instead of smudged over her face, her loose hair carefully plaited as it curved behind her ear revealing a freckle that kissed the join where her chin met her neck he’d never noticed before. Reyes realised he was staring and turned his body swiftly back to the table.
“Immediately? It took you 30 minutes to even get here in the first place,” Cora responded, the corner of her mouth curving.
“I was,” Sara cleared her throat evasively, “busy.”
“Evidently,” Gil sniggered, and Reyes felt his eyes on him again.
“We weren’t exactly expecting company,” Reyes added, hoping he was the only one who heard the bitter edge to his voice. “I, and that is by extension the Collective, have the situation under control.”
Sara elbowed him in the ribs with a huff, “What Reyes means is I didn’t need the cavalry riding in. I’m alright.” She glanced around at her crew, “Not that I don’t appreciate it.”
Reyes turned to frown at her when Drack snorted, “The situation is so under control you’ve no leads on who organised the attack or why.”
“They were Outcasts, they told me so themselves. This was just about reprisal for Sloane, nothing more,” Sara countered, lines appearing at her forehead.
“Which could just be what they want you to believe,” reasoned Lexi perceptively, who had taken up position next to Drack.
“I told you she’d lay a fucking egg when she found out,” Sara muttered so only Reyes could hear.
“I have people looking into it but they’ve yet to report back. We’ll have a better gauge on the situation then,” Reyes cut in firmly, lest he be interrupted again.
“Whatever the case, Ryder, you’re better off staying on the ship whilst we investigate,” Kosta gestured at Drack, Vetra, Cora and then to himself, “then when the others arrive, they can…”
Sara shook her head vehemently, hand pressed against the tabletop, “That is not happening.”
And that was how the stubborn back and forth started. Reyes didn’t partake. He knew if he attempted to back up Sara’s protestations at being confined to her ship that it would further solidify their intentions to dissuade her since the crew were still so distrustful of him. Instead, he folded his arms, carefully assessing the others, chewing the inside of his mouth indignantly, nearly breaking the skin when his eyes roved over Kosta’s stubborn features. He disliked this powerlessness, being held in a situation that was outside his control. First the outcast attack and now this. He scrubbed his palm across the shaved hair at the back of his neck. Any chance he’d had to spend time alone with Sara now seemed slim to none, and the tightening coil this knowledge created in his stomach was just another alien emotion that only added to his uneasiness. Scott remained similarly silent for the duration of the conversation. When Kosta suggested, for the third time, that the Pathfinder at least remain on the Tempest for the remainder of the day, until they had more information, he saw Sara’s hand ball into a fist.
“I am not some…” she flailed her other hand as though searching for the word, “damsel, Liam! I’ve already consented to a Collective agent tailing me all the damn time and I’ll keep my barriers up. But this is still my shore leave and how I choose to spend it is my business.”
Cora sighed, rubbing her forehead in a tired fashion, “Ryder, whilst we cannot force you…”
“You’re right, you can’t,” Sara grumbled obstinately, “so now we’ve cleared that up. I’m going. Particularly as I am starving, and no one thought to cater this meeting for the energy deprived biotic.”
The second-in-command shook her head slightly and shared yet another look with Vetra, who sighed.
“Look, conduct whatever investigation you want. But I’m not hiding myself away just because someone tried to kill me,” Sara shrugged, pushing herself from the table as though that cleared the matter, “besides, staving off an assassination attempt is just like every ordinary Tuesday.”
For the first time, Scott’s face fell slightly.
“To be clear,” Reyes interjected, coolly, like his words wouldn’t have all the impact of dropping a live grenade in their midst, “no one has been given clearance to conduct an investigation on Kadara. Whilst we may have an alliance, the Initiative does not have jurisdiction over what happens here.”
Sara turned to look at him, her searching eyes roving over his features in a way that felt intrusive in front of the others.
“I have agents looking into it. It’s not necessary to have Initiative trampling all over this as well. Particularly if you were hoping from some privacy,” Reyes added, his voice dropping low towards the end, so quiet in fact she’d had to lean closer to hear them.
The Pathfinder looked at him like she couldn’t quite work out what to say in response to this, though he couldn’t miss the flash of indignation in her eyes.
She was so close he could catch the smell of toothpaste on her breath before she turned away from him pointedly and spoke to her brother, “Scott, let’s go. I should show you around the port.”
Sara turned and marched towards the door, her shoulders stiff and resolute. Scott nodded his agreement, shrugging at Reyes as he passed him, before tapping the time displayed on his omni-tool and mouthing something like ‘give it half an hour’ at him.
He hadn’t gone after her immediately. The Collective agent assigned as her security had already informed Reyes she was safe. First, he made his rounds in the port; collecting information, passing certain things of interest to particular associates, withholding it from others. It had been little over an hour before he tracked her down to a backstreet restaurant that was the only place on Kadara, perhaps in the entire galaxy, that served noodles. It was just off of the main plaza of Kadara port, sandwiched between several other establishments peddling ‘the best’ of what Heleus had to offer. The waiting staff that wound between passing potential patrons cajoled them with promises of delights never tasted in the Milky Way. They were all invariably lying. Most were barely any better than the food paste doled out on the Nexus. Some were worse. He leaned against a wall next to the entryway to the street, eying the growing crowd that was collected across the thoroughfare in response to the presence of the Pathfinder. Amongst them, he saw the Collective agent tailing Sara and their eyes met for a second.
“Keema, if you catch any Initiative sniffing around let me know, particularly if it’s a human by the name of Liam Kosta,” Reyes commented idly down the comm, fingers sliding over the metal of the lighter in his pocket automatically.
“Our allies are not so faithful as we thought?” Keema asked sounding only mildly interested, as she always did.
“They’re getting close to things I would rather they didn’t… at least not yet,” Reyes continued, eyes flicking over to Sara as she laughed gleefully at something her brother said, Scott gesturing animatedly over the table at her. A sudden weighty sensation on his chest caused Reyes to suck in a sharp breath through his teeth, his throat tight with it, the palms of his hands itching like something crawled there.
He swallowed, trying to ignore it, “Especially now they know about the biotic drug.”
“Well, that’s hardly our concern. We’re not the ones developing it,” Keema replied nonchalantly, and he could hear things clattering in the background as though someone was moving something.
Reyes looked down at his hand, remembering how his fingers had strayed over the shallow of Sara’s back, over the now pleasantly familiar contours of her face, drawing soft lines on clear skin. He felt a surge of that same sensation, his heart beating quicker in his chest, the sound of it a low pounding in his ears. Glancing over at Sara again she was all brightness, even from this vantage, expression light and spirited as he watched her searchingly. He wasn’t sure what he was looking for. A black stain, some outward sign of the vestiges of his corruption? Or a red cross that singled her out, marked her as affiliated with the Charlatan and therefore punishable for his crimes? Something was going on, yet he still couldn’t get a clear picture of it. Why were they striking at out at her instead of him? Where the last remnants of the Outcasts so eager to avenge Sloane that they would risk the combined retribution of the Collective and the Initiative? He grunted his frustration and clenched his fingers over the cold metal in his pocket.
Oblivious to this, Keema responded, “Don’t worry, I’ll deal with it should the need arise,”
Her words were followed by the sound of scraping wood, shaking him from his own thoughts.
“Busy, Keema?” he asked, distractedly.
“I’m rearranging my office again, still can’t seem to get rid of the smell of exile… no offence dear,” despite her words there was no note of apology in her voice.
He chuffed a laugh at that, though even this could not render a lasting smile from his features, “None taken.”
“Oh and do let me know if you find out anything about who attacked your…” she was searching for a suitable word, “beloved. You must be very worried.”
Keema sounded triumphant, as though she had found the phrasing most likely to lead to his discomfort and knew it. Reyes automatically shook his head at her even though she could not see him, used to her hiding her sincerity in needling digs. She laughed at him anyway, and he swiftly said his goodbyes before she could tease him further. As Reyes pushed himself off the wall and sidled towards the restaurant, he pretended not to notice the eyes of the inquisitive crowd straying from the Pathfinder to him.
As soon as Sara locked eyes with him she was all fire and brimstone, far from the carefree demeanour she’d displayed only a moment before. Perhaps she was almost as good a chameleon as he was. Scott rose to his feet and mumbled a few words to his sister before extricating himself from the clustered tables and chairs that fringed the outside of the building, making off in the direction of the Tempest. He nodded at Reyes companionably before he disappeared out of sight and exited through the doors back into the port’s main plaza. His sister flicked Reyes a dark look as she saw him approaching, banging down her fork on the table in such a way that several onlookers dispersed immediately. She still came when Reyes he beckoned for her to follow him, however, still begrudgingly slipped her hand into his when he offered it as they traversed several back alleyways and stairwells until they reached a familiar rooftop.
Ryder waited until they were definitely alone before she finally spoke.
“What was that all about? Stonewalling me like that in front of the others?” Ryder slid her hand from his and frowned at him, fingers lingering as though they regretted their withdrawal even now. Similarly, the ends of Reyes’ fingers hooked reflexively as she pulled away, though she was sure she was likely reading far too much into that. As she regarded him Ryder cursed, not for the first time, the unreadable nature of his expressions. The neutral, almost-smirk on his lips was as infuriating as it was inviting. It had been so long since they’d had any extended time together uninterrupted, and even more maddeningly she knew this was skewing her judgement, just as those gorgeous fucking eyes always did.
“You can’t just tell me what’s happening in my port, Sara,” Reyes replied, and though his tone was light there was an underlying sharpness to it.
Unconsciously they had stood in the exact positions they’d been in the first time he’d brought her here, exactly where he had kissed her that night after Sloane’s party.
“I nearly died to come to your port to see you,” Ryder muttered, keen to ensure he was not so easily let off the hook she was now only half-heartedly dangling in the water.
This reminder softened his expression, the stiffness she so often perceived in his jawline relaxing, “I know.”
She was softening too, and she knew it. She wanted to punch herself. She pinched her thigh instead. Hard.
“The least you can do is let them poke around a bit so they feel useful. Unless of course you’d rather I leave?” Ryder replied, her words hissed under her breath.
Her stomach clenched uncomfortably as she waited for his response.
“I don’t want that,” Reyes leaned closer, hand straying down her arm, hooking beneath her jacket so he was holding her waist.
Well, his jacket. The one that smelt so deliciously like him. Focus Ryder. The one she didn’t want to take off unless it was him that was giving her a reason to. Focus, focus, focus Ryder. She took a steadying breath.
“Why don’t you want them to help with the investigation, Reyes?” she asked him, eyes training on his even as he looked over her shoulder and down towards the port below them.
Reyes seemed quieter than usual, less cocksure, his eyes had met hers less and he hadn’t even said anything overtly flirtatious yet. This only exacerbated the tense feeling in her stomach.
“The Initiative cannot be seen as having too much influence. The people here are exiles for a reason; the Collective could lose their support if it was seen as being dictated to by the Nexus.”
“I see,” she nodded, eyes seeking his curiously.
His gaze was still fixed over her shoulder, and she could not tell whether this was a deliberate move or if he was simply lost in thought. This did not dissipate the heat spreading from the hand on her hip, however.
Reyes smiled, but it was thin and wry, “You don’t. Look, I’ll deal with this. And you will be safe, protected, while you’re here,” he caught the indignation in her expression with a brief glance, “yes, I know you don’t need protecting but I want to all the same.”
Thought his words caused a definite swooping sensation, as though her stomach had dropped through the floor, she wouldn’t allow herself to relent just yet.
“The others…. they don’t think I’m safe with you,” she replied, stretching out the last two words, inquiring gaze still intent on his face.
He’s still the same man that killed Sloane Kelly.
That caused Reyes to finally look her in the eye.
“They don’t,” he agreed, fingers tightening on her waist, “do you?”
His honeyed eyes were closely fixed on hers.
Lying’s not something you try once and quit.
If he was such a fraud as the others thought, then why did he care about how she answered that question?
“Would I be here if I didn’t?” Ryder replied, carefully.
“Is that a yes, Sara?” Reyes glanced down before reaching a hand out and playing with a strand of hair that had fallen into her face. His eyes fixed on that instead of hers and she wondered if it was just another way of masking his vulnerability.
“You feel safe with the Charlatan, the exile leader, murderer, third-rate smuggler, liar…?” his voice had dropped to a murmur, but his tone rang hard as though it were someone else voicing cold judgement not him.
His words were enough to bring a chill to the exposed skin at her waist and chest. His thumb slid through her hair until it was brushing her neck, and it pressed, not hard, but firm against her collarbone.
He fooled everyone. Hard to trust a guy like that.
Ryder paused for a moment, eyes flitting over his jaw, his mouth, his eyes, “Yes. Reyes, I feel safe with you.”
He looked at her, then… By everything divine in that galaxy and the next, it made her weak when he smiled at her like that. Whatever dark cloud had previously settled over his countenance lifted. Reyes was grinning as he smoothed his hand up her neck, over skin already prickling at his touch.
“Although I will admit your influence over me is… dangerous,” she added, voice almost hoarse, her attention drawn to every brush of his fingertips at her throat.
“Hmmm,” Reyes wet his lips and there was a dark, ravaging look in the depths of his eyes that made her breath catch. This only caused his lips to draw back further over his teeth in a triumphant grin, “We’re well matched there then.”
She was going to ask him what it was about her that made her quite as dangerous as him when another more pressing question arose. Ryder took a step backwards to put a little space between them since it was all very much too close, too hot, too much for her to conceive of even stringing words together without becoming otherwise distracted. His hand fell from her face.
“Reyes… did you not come here with anyone? To Andromeda I mean.”
It had been gnawing at her for a while.
“Why do you ask?”
His smile slipped but didn’t falter entirely.
“Well you’re very…” she searched for the right word, “charming. It’d hard to imagine you alone.”
“Perhaps,” Reyes looked at her as though deliberating something, then continued slowly, “in truth, it’s been a long time since I was close to anyone. No one you’d consider a true friend at least, and it’s been even longer than that since I had family.” She was surprised when he held her gaze, “In truth, I didn’t want to be close to anyone.”
“Now I have a nosey bartender and an angaran advisor both badgering me about feelings, and a bitchy salarian tactician fussing over my decisions,” the hand that was still resting on her hip pulled her gently, invitingly, and she followed its path until she was so close she could taste his breath, “and you, who are probably to blame for all of them.”
She smiled coquettishly, aware of every draw of his breath as his chest rose and fell against hers, “I’m sorry.”
“I’m not,” Reyes murmured, and as though to seal his words he grazed her lips with his, soft in their welcome. After a moment they parted and she breathed a faint sigh of surprise against his lips, taken aback by the tenderness of his kiss, a dizzying, plunging feeling in her chest accompanying the moment his dark eyelashes flickered, and his gaze met hers.
“Ready to start your shore leave now?” he asked, a warmth glimmering in the gold of his eyes, nose so close it was nearly brushing against hers.
Ryder nodded, eyes sliding closed as she closed the gap between them.
She was stopped abruptly as he caught her chin, “Where do you want to go, mi hermosa?”
“Anywhere,” she replied, eyes darting back open, tongue thick she was so spellbound by the feel of his hands on her body, his smell filling her senses. She restrained herself from letting her eyes drift from the mole on his cheek to the curve of his lips, “Well, anywhere your agent isn’t eyeballing everything we do, anyway.”
Reyes chuckled, and it sent a pleasant vibration through her own chest, “That can be arranged.”
As much as he knew he shouldn’t, wouldn’t, couldn’t get too used to it, the smooth sweep of her skin against his as Sara readjusted herself was intensely satisfying, as was the dusky pink flush that still remained in her cheeks, still visible even in the half glow through his shutters. As she rested her head on his shoulder, Sara hooked her thigh over his sliding just so and his eyes jumped to hers, body twitching in response.
Reyes quirked an eyebrow at her and tutted mockingly, “Tssssk, Pathfinder do you work all your subordinates this hard or is it just me?”
Sara’s free hand drew lines over his chest, down to his stomach. Her breath was hot against his cheek.
“There’s a joke in there about you working under me, isn’t there?”
“Well, as much as I love working under you, or over you,” he replied, hand traversing her back which was still damp with perspiration, “I need a minute.”
“Of course,” she murmured back, “it’s not as though we’re in a hurry… unless you’re planning on ditching me anytime soon?”
“Well…” he began hesitantly, “I do have some business tomorrow, but it won’t take long. Unless…”
“Unless what?” she asked, eyebrows knitting together.
“You could come with me…”
He wasn’t sure whether the flash of excitement, the light twinkling in her blue eyes, made him feel more pleased or guilty. It had been a question hastily asked and ill-conceived, the implications of it not even fully formed before the asking. Hadn’t he only a few hours earlier been mulling over the potential consequences of her relationship with him? Was she not in enough jeopardy as it was?
Sara shifted so she was resting up on one elbow, a ray of light lingering over the curve of her nose where it pointed delicately at the end.
“Only if it’s dangerous,” she grinned back, top teeth scraping her bottom lip in a way that made her look a little wild and at the same time attractive and he was suddenly more aware of the heat of her thigh against him and press of her breast against his side.
“You are…” he shook his head affectionately, tangling his fingers in the loose curls that had earlier been smoothed into a plait but now fell into her face and over her shoulders, “completely mad.”
Perhaps noticing the slight change in his expression, she slid so her body was over his, “And you like it.”
“I do,” he acknowledged, smoothing a hand over her side, grinning as she shuddered as his fingers trailed so feather-light they tickled.
As she looked down at him he watched her succumb to ever increasing desire, blue eyes wide and round, breath ragged, as he trailed one hand along her spine, curving over her ass cheek until he squeezed, the stubs of his fingernails biting into her skin ever so slightly. She squealed, half-surprise, half-lust at this, and he let out a heady breath as this caused her to shudder forwards, rubbing against his semi-hard cock. She crashed their lips together and moaned into this mouth, “Bastard,” cupping both hands under his chin. Reyes laughed, throat dry, and curved his other arm around her waist, rolling her so she was underneath him, misgivings forgotten amongst the ecstasy of her cries.
He called her. Silence. He called and he called and he called for her. Silence. Stillness. Then a corner, a corner of the house so welcome in its familiarity until it was turned. Then… red. Crimson. Warm and sticky and everywhere and on her, oh Christ, oh Christ, oh fuck, no, no, no, on her, and then on him and then… A bang. The door. The door, the door. That face. That face so often reflected. That fucking face. Then red. No white. The hottest part of the flame, searing and fury and vengeance and… Pain.
Reyes’ eyes flew open, limbs scrambling in the dark as she righted himself, his back stinging with pain from an impact that made no sense. He’d been amongst soft things; pillows, sheets, the warmth of her body and now he was on the floor still naked and she was…. Reyes staggered upwards, forcing himself off the floor next to his desk, back twinging as he did so. Sara knelt at the centre of his bed. Reyes stared at her as she stared back at him, her eyes cast a dark violet shade, raw with power.