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I. 2185 - 2819

 

The last thing he remembers is the stasis pod closing and the thought that takes him into six hundred years of sleep: I hope Macen’s the first thing I see when I wake up.

He doesn’t know how long the darkness lasts. Just: one minute he’s thinking of Macen and then the world is on fire.

Waking feels like drowning. Feels like dying. He sucks in the first air his lungs have held in six hundred years and his chest burns and he opens his eyes to darkness and the first thing he thinks is: Macen. Where’s Macen.

His fists slam against the smooth metal of the stasis pod, once a protection, now a prison. His thoughts are moving sluggishly, the oxygen hasn’t quite reached his brain yet. But he’s alone, his head silent, so Macen must be alive. Still alive. Still breathing.

Macen is alive, and Avitus is a Spectre, and he’s not going to suffocate in his own damned cryopod.

He takes a deep breath. Opens his omnitool. Winces in the sudden light, and gets to work.

It’s worse than he thought and he always expects the worst. There are eleven pods, their power arrays flickering weakly. He curses under his breath, wishing for one brief and traitorous moment that he had a SAM to scan them with. But he doesn’t. All he can do is manually key them open, one by one. His hands are steady. The first settler is dead, her eyes cloudy and her mouth open in a silent scream. There’s a lot of blood on his hands, but somehow that hurts him in a way the kills haven’t. This woman hadn’t done anything wrong except put her trust in something bigger than all of them.

Something ultimately foolish.

He doesn’t have time for sentimentality.

He opens the other pods. The humid jungle air fills with gasps and cries.

Where are we?

What happened?

Where is the Pathfinder?

And all he can tell them is, I don’t know, but I’m going to get you out of here. We’re going home.

 

II. 2181

 

“Macen Barro,” the man says, holds out his hand, and smiles. The subvocals are… flirtatious.

Avitus does a double take. Fucking subtle all right. Barro is tall and muscular, his clan markings from a colony world, not Palaven. Handsome. The smile is wry, a little self deprecating. The uniform looks good on him, but Avitus’ eyes focus on the little pip that marks him as a member of a cabal. And further, the insignia that marks the cabal as a part of Blackwatch.

He’s impressed despite himself.

Avitus has run into cabals during his military service, of course, but he’s never actually seen them in action. Really seen them in action. They are isolated for a reason and often under-utilized, although their specific assignment would mean that’s not the case here. But after seeing this—Avitus can’t understand why anyone wouldn’t want them on the field. They are—impressive. They’d taken the mercs apart with mathematical precision. No—mathematics isn’t the right way to describe it. It’s like a dance. Something beautiful. Art. Barro, the kabalim, had been in the middle of all of it, calmly coordinating orders in the thick of the battle, armed only with his pistol and his biotics, the purple glow a warning and a weapon both. They’d accepted his help but they hadn’t really needed it. Just the way he didn’t need them.

He works best alone.

Avitus had ended up on this godforsaken rock, tracking down a rumor about the geth, expecting to go it alone. He certainly hadn’t expected to find the military already there. Certainly hadn’t expected to meet anyone like Barro.

He takes the hand as it’s offered, and realizes, belatedly, he holds it a little too long.

Barro doesn’t seem to mind. That smile again, blinding.

“Avitus Rix.” He shifts, suddenly uncomfortable, feeling exposed in some way.

“Thanks for the assist,” Barro says, pretending he hasn’t noticed. But he’s laughing under the words, and Avitus’ stomach is twisted in knots. “So what’s a guy like you doing on a rock like this?”

Avitus surprises himself with a snort of laughter of his own, and Barro grins again.

“Council business.”

“A Spectre?” The brief shadow of something flickers over his face, like it often does when people figure out who he is, what that means. Sometimes they hate him for it, and Avitus realizes, suddenly, that he wants Barro’s approval more than anything he’s wanted in a damn long time. “Didn’t know they kept an eye on things this far out.”

They didn’t. This was a favor for Saren. “You’d be surprised, Barro.”

“Please—it’s Macen.”

Avitus spends most of his life in danger, but right now, he can’t imagine anything more dangerous than Macen’s smile.

 

III. 2819

 

He wakes alone on the jungle planet, aching with the memory. He tells himself, again, that SAM hasn’t transferred to him, so Macen is still out there somewhere, probably looking for him. That’s the kind of person Macen was: a singleminded, occasionally blind-sighted optimist who never knew a lost cause he could resist. And specifically, a lost cause he could rescue. Avitus wishes this thought was more comforting than it is. He knows in his gut that Macen’s probably dead, but he tries not to think about that. Doesn’t want to think about that. If he says it aloud, it might make it true.

And in the meantime, there’s work to do here.

He organizes the other settlers, deconstructing the stasis pods to form a rudimentary fortification. This world is humid and dark, full of glowing bioluminescent mushrooms like some kind of drug induced hallucination. He can hear the howls of unknown creatures in the distance, so fortifications are necessary. And it’ll give them something to do, something to focus on that isn’t the impending shock of waking up and discovering they’re in a galaxy six hundred years in the future and the people they were counting on to be there for them are missing.

They’re all looking to him for leadership and guidance, and all he can tell them is that he’s not their leader, he’s just a stopgap until they find Macen again.

But in the meantime… someone has to make sure there’s something for Macen to find.

It’s a grim proposition. They don’t have much food. He doesn’t know if the wildlife here is dextro, levo, or something completely unknown and indigestible. He doesn’t know if cooking it will help. He doesn’t even know if the flora will burn. He just has to get them through this night.

And the next.

And the next.

And the next.

Avitus isn’t used to hope and it doesn’t suit him. What he’s used to is sheer fucking stubbornness, a mean steak a parsec wide, and an absolute refusal to curl up and die.

It’ll have to do. For now at least. Until Macen finds them or a fucking miracle occurs.

Who knows? Maybe the Natanus will appear on the skyline. Maybe it’s possible. Maybe some of Macen’s boundless optimism’s rubbed off on him after all.

The aliens attack for the first time that night, big creatures with tentacles winding down the sides of their heads. They’re formidable warriors but they die just like anything else he’s killed, their blood blue and hot. Avitus takes some comfort in that.

He knows killing.

He can do this.

 

IV. 2183

 

Macen’s hand rests on the curve of Avitus’ waist while he tries to catch his breath. Macen laughs. “Tired already, Avi? You only lasted one round!”

“I’m old. I can’t keep up with you.”

“You’re not even middle aged.”

“Wait until you turn thirty-five and come talk to me, Mace.”

“It’s not that far away.”

“You’re not even thirty.”

“Stop talking like you’re an old man, Spectre.”

“Mace…”

“I know. You don’t like when I call you that.”

He rolls over to face Macen, searching his face in the dark. Macen’s skin has a coppery sheen to it, and his clan markings are pale in the dark, and it’s somewhat impossible that in such a relatively short time it’s become so familiar to him. A strange thing, but welcome. Macen’s face is such a contrast, the infectiousness of his smile with the burning earnestness of his eyes. “I don’t like to bring it home with me.”

Macen’s hand moves again, stroking his face, thumb trailing over the line of his mandible, and Avitus shudders under the gentle touch. “You don’t like what you do anymore.”

“I don’t know if I ever liked it. But it was an honor I couldn’t turn down.”

“You and your honor. You’re tired of living in the shadows.”

“Nothing so damned dramatic, Mace. I’m just old and tired. Period.” Over a decade of washing the blood from your hands wears you down in a way he can’t quite explain, even to a member of the military. He can’t even tell Macen what he does on the day to day. All of those deaths, all of those secrets, he tucks behind his ribs.

“Hmmm, certain parts of you say otherwise right now.”

“You’re cheating.”

“Not cheating. Taking the law into my own hands. That’s only fair, isn’t it?”

“Oh… Mace… Please…”

“Think about it, won’t you?”

Avitus is sure that Macen knows he’d give him whatever he asked in that moment, and probably all of the other moments too. But he doesn’t tell him that. No need to give him even more of an advantage.

Instead, he says, “Yes. Yes.”

 

V. 2819

“Avitus! Iovita’s sick.”

He startles himself awake from another dream of Macen and back to reality. “What?” He pauses. Iovita. Her stomach growling, begging, please, please, I’m so hungry. “What did she eat?”

Desma is young, determined, and stone-faced. “I’m not sure, it was some kind of mushroom—”

“Damn it, she knew not to—”

“I know, Avitus, but we’re starving, and she didn’t think a small bite would—”

“We’re running out of medi-gel and it’s not like she can eat it.”

“I’m sorry. I didn’t think—”

“Spirits, it’s not your fault. It’s just—there’s not much we can do for her at this point.”

Every instinct he has screams that he needs to go scouting, to find some way off of this forsaken rock. But he also knows the minute he leaves, someone’s going to eat a poisonous plant, or the aliens—the Roekaar, they call themselves, the translators are starting to pick out words from their language—are going to attack and the motley group he’s managed to shepherd through the last few weeks isn’t going to last until he makes it back. All of them have done their military service, of course, but there’s military and there’s surviving day after day on not enough food and not enough sleep on a planet where everything, including the plant life, wants to kill you.

Macen would never forgive him if he left them alone.

It’s a First Battle of Menae all over again, without the deus ex machina at the end.

Working alone is one thing, but when he’s got so many people relying on him, and every move could kill them—that’s entirely another. Getting himself killed is one thing. The only damned person in the Milky Way who would have missed him is Macen. And now, he has… so many people looking to him. Gallus, dead in a Roekaar attack. Iovita, unable to control her hunger. The rest of them. His responsibility. He can’t leave to save them, and he can’t save them without leaving.

He sits with Iovita while she vomits blood and thinks, they’re all going to die, I failed you, Macen.

 

VI. 2184

 

“Avi, you really did it? I can’t believe it. I’m almost afraid to believe it.”

“Turned in my badge. Told the council to go fuck themselves.”

“Spirits, tell me you said it in those words.”

“Verbatim.”

“Damn, I love you. Just like that. After all of these years.”

“Fifteen.”

“I never thought you’d actually do it.”

“I didn’t either. But I just… The whole damned mess on the Citadel, and Saren… I’m just fucking tired, Mace. What the hell have I been doing for fifteen years? What’s the point of it all? If he could do something like that—and I know there was some kind of a reason, there had to be—what am I capable of? What could I have been—”

“You’ve done a lot of good too. It hasn’t been all blood and subterfuge, has it?”

“No, but—Mace, there’s things I’ve done that I can’t tell you about, there are so many things and… It was a rash decision. And now I don’t know what I’m going to do. I’ve lived my entire life in the shadows, Mace, and I don’t know what I’m going to do now. I don’t know what I can do now. What the hell kind of skills do I even have, besides killing people?”

“Whatever you want to. I’ve told you a hundred times—you deserve a life outside of the shadows.”

“I don’t even know what I want. All I want is you, and that’s not enough.”

“Avi… do you trust me?”

“With my heart. And my life. And with more than that.”

“Good. Just. Don’t laugh me out of bed, all right?”

“Mace, I wouldn’t. Is this a Blackwatch thing?”

“No… not exactly. What do you know about the Andromeda galaxy?”

 

VII. 2819

 

The Roekaar batter themselves against his defenses over and over again in an endless wave.

There’s some satisfaction in killing them, but they’re going to run out of ammo eventually, and Avitus doesn’t like to think about that. He’s not afraid of dying. He’s come close a hell of a lot of times over the years and never flinched. But he doesn’t like to think about Macen finding his corpse on this spirits-forsaken jungle world, chewed to bits by adhi and rotting in the humidity. And he’s gotten to know the other settlers over the months they’ve spent here. Heard about their families. Missing the same way he’s missing Macen. He can’t do that to them.

They remember their training at least. Keep their heads down. Conserve ammo. Let the Roekaar come to them.

But there’s only so long this is going to last. Avitus knows a lost cause when he sees one.

The sound of gunfire—Milky Way gunfire, he’d know the sound of a Black Widow anywhere—from behind them. The saboteur who’d had a bead on him drops, a smoking hole in his helmet. A human appears from thin air as the tactical cloak dissolves. The attackers scatter.

“Remember your training!” he cries. Take advantage of any confusion. Press your edge. The battle joins in earnest now, and if he wasn’t so damned worried about keeping his people alive, he’d be able to revel in the savage joy of his enemies’ decimation. The bloody deaths of the aliens who’ve harried their footsteps for weeks. Taken apart, mercilessly, efficiently. Watch your temper, Avi, Macen had said, but Macen isn’t here and Avitus’ temper is all he has left.

When it’s over Avitus realizes he’d been holding his breath. He can feel it in his chest. Relief that they’re not the only refugees from the Milky Way still alive. And the sharp, crushing grief when he realizes none of them are Macen.

Krogan. Asari. And human.

One of the Roekaar stumbles towards them, gun raised, and Avitus is suddenly filled with a righteous fury that he is here on this damned planet, that he’s lost men and women to these fucking fanatics… He shoots. He knows exactly where he’s aiming. The man groans in pain, and drops.

“Shot to the gut. Painful.” The three Initiative officers are looking at him. Good. And Avitus shoots the Roekaar again.

The human moves forward first, unclips his helmet, smeared with blood across the blue glass. When he takes it off, Avitus notes that he’s young, in his early twenties. Also for a human, he looks—rough. There are dark circles under his eyes and his face is hollow, like he hasn’t eaten enough for some time. The shadow of a beard does nothing to hide it. His eyes are such a dark brown that the pupil is almost lost in the iris. He’s watching Avitus with an intent look, inscrutable. Hard to read, even for humans, who make all kinds of strange expressions he’s only learned through careful study over the years.

“Name’s Avitus Rix. Sorry if my methods seem extreme. Civilian life is… trying.”

“Lior Ryder. Human Pathfinder. You former military?” Ryder’s eyes flick up and down, sizing him up. It’s not exactly a judgmental look but it rests a little too long. A little too carefully.

For some reason, Avitus is angry again, but he reins it in. His subvocals are withering, but Ryder won’t pick up on that. “A Spectre. Special Tactics and Reconnaissance. Did the council’s dirty work for fifteen years.”

“So you’re used to being above the law.”

“Good thing there are no laws in Andromeda, huh?” Where the hell does this human get off on judging him that way? But it’s not judgment. It’s assessment. There’s something a little off about him, like he’s looking at a point a little beyond Avitus’ head. Avitus has the sudden urge to shake him, to ruin his calm. To figure out exactly what’s so damned unnerving about him. “The Initiative was my retirement plan. Then the Natanus hit the Scourge and bam! Woke up here.”

The corner of Ryder’s mouth turns down. “What happened? Where’s the ark?”

“No idea. Had to break out of my own damn stasis pod.” Avitus is cradling the gun, still, like there’s any need for protection against this human who’s almost built like a turian himself, tall and skeletal, gangly limbs folded over his chest.

The arrival of other Initiative officers has thrown him off, he decides. That’s the only reason he says so defensively, knowing Macen, he’s out there looking for me. Macen dedicated his life to Andromeda. He’s too stubborn to die now, realizes how hollow and desperate it sounds. Ryder doesn’t respond, just slants one of those dark gazes sideways again and says, We need all the Pathfinders we can get.

When they leave again, it’s with the knowledge that the remaining survivors will be picked up by Nexus shuttles, but somehow, Avitus doesn’t feel any damned better.

 

VIII. 2185

 

This is probably the craziest thing he’s ever done, and he spent fifteen years as a Spectre. There’s a lot of terrifying shit in his past and a lot of times he probably should have died where he didn’t. He’s used up too many chances to be risking everything like this, but here he is, on a colony ark ship, the Natanus.

There’s something about Macen that inspires this in him. Something about that idealism that rather than make him scoff, as he usually would, makes him believe. Avitus isn’t particularly religious, even for a turian, but if he has anything close to religion, it’s Macen. That’s the only other way to describe this leap of faith he’s making as his retirement plan. Allowing himself to be sealed in cryogenic storage for six hundred years on a blind trajectory to a world that might not even be there when they arrive. He’d almost laughed Macen out of bed when he suggested it, but the more they’d talked, the more the romanticism of it got the better of him.

The more Macen’s eagerness got the better of him.

What better a fresh start could he ask for than a whole different galaxy? Macen’s eyes got so wide when he talked about the possibilities—a new world, a new society, new possibilities. A fresh start for everyone. Exploration in the great unknown. Avitus can see why the Initiative had chosen him as the Pathfinder. It wasn’t just his special-ops background and his biotics, but just—it was hard to listen to Macen talk, really, truly listen to him, and not come away believing in what he was trying to sell you.

The preparations haven’t exactly been easy, and more than once he wondered whether he wasn’t selling them both short, not trying to talk Macen out of this plan of his. It’s too late for second guessing now, though. Here he is in brand new, shiny Andromeda Initiative armor, listening to the hum of the Natanus’ systems as things are slowly shutting down for the long dark journey. The non-essential colonists had gone under first, with ark leadership, security, and the doctors who oversaw the cryosleep last. Some of them had spent their last hours invoking spirits of travel and luck.

Avitus had spent his time reviewing the emergency exits, which he already had memorized, and checking his guns. The terminal pings. A message, from Macen.

“Jacana said it was fine if you oversaw my pod closure. I know I said I wouldn’t go against procedure, but I want your face to be the last thing I see in the Milky Way. You can scold me while I enter cryo.”

That feeling in his chest again. Expanding warmth, the terrible fondness that drove him into bed with Macen in the first place.

He responds: I’ll be there. Don’t go under without me.

Macen is waiting for him when he gets there, in Initiative white and blue. He looks far more relaxed than Avitus feels, chatting companionably with Jacana.

“Avi! You made it.”

“I wouldn’t miss it.”

“You did promise me a scolding.”

“Now that I’m here, I forgot everything I was going to say,” Avitus admits. He had had a whole speech planned, which involved the phrases fuck procedure, and I can’t believe you gave me such a damned hard time about it only to give in in the end, but it’s hard to scold Macen when Macen just smiles, broad and fond and a little loopy with excitement.

Jacana’s moved away, busying herself with some of the other pods, giving them the privacy he so desperately wants. Against procedure, of course, but that was everything about their relationship. It was dangerous, serving as Macen’s second, knowing that if anything happened, he’d have to make hard choices about who and what he’d have to save—but he couldn’t imagine being anywhere else right in this moment.

“You don’t need to say anything,” Macen says. “I love you.”

“I love you,” Avitus says. “I’ll be here when you wake up.”

He is the last thing Macen sees. His worried face above the cryopod, arms crossed over his chest like a shield against the future.

 

IX. 2819

 

The search for the Natanus goes like this:

Avitus, alone, in the small ship the Nexus gave him for this purpose. It’s not quite as grand as Ryder’s Tempest — it’s built for heavy travel but for less even than the Tempest’s skeleton crew.

At the bridge he watches the stars and planets streak by. If he keeps going, maybe none of this will have happened. If he travels far enough, maybe time itself will warp, and somewhere, Macen will be waking up in the undamaged ark.

It’s not all time alone in the ship.

Some of it is planetside. Pushing his way into bars where he’s not wanted. Talking to people who don’t want to talk. He’s good at this, at least. A Spectre always knows the right way to get people to talk, and if he has to break a few fingers and arms to do it, maybe press his talon against a few flinching eyes, that’s nothing when the fate of twenty thousand turians and Macen are on the line.

In Kadara Port a mercenary takes offense to his strong-arming and Avitus kills him. A single shot to the head. A clean kill. Nothing to be ashamed of. Nothing to be proud of. For a moment he feels the way he used to when he worked for the Council: that singleminded pursuit, knowing that no matter how much blood caked his hands, it was for the greater good.

He doesn’t want to be that person anymore. Spirits, he needs Macen.

The search for the Natanus goes like this.

Chasing leads across the Heleus cluster, rumors whispered on one planet about another. He follows them all, exhausting as it is. He doesn’t sleep much. That’s fine. He’d never forgive himself if he slept and somehow missed something important. Somewhere out there, Ryder is maybe searching himself, but he doesn’t put much stock in Ryder’s efforts. The humans have always cared more about themselves than anyone, and they have problems of their own. Legitimate problems.

On the ship’s terminal, a message reads, the turian settlers recovered from Havarl have been safely resettled on the Nexus. Several were treated for malnutrition, hypothermia, and dehydration. However, all of those rescued will survive, thanks to prompt attention and your care. Avitus closes the message. This was Macen’s purview, not his. If he spends too much time doing it… he’s never been one for magical thinking, but he’s found his thought processes growing increasingly illogical. If I do this then everything will resolve itself neatly. If I don’t do this he won’t curse the Natanus to drifting in limbo.

He finds debris on more planets than he wants to. But none of the debris has bodies. Macen isn’t there.

The search for the Natanus goes like this:

Every night, staring at the star map, telling him nothing. Every night, telling himself that he just has to make it through the next night.

On Voeld, finally, a Roekaar mercenary choking on his own blood tells him, “You want your ark, vesagara? It’s in pieces on Elaaden.”

Avitus steps on his neck and snaps his spine and doesn’t look back.

Writing the message to Ryder doesn’t feel like a surrender, exactly.

But there’s a reason he doesn’t go himself.

 

X.

 

He starts having the dreams shortly after that.

At first it’s just like static in his head when he drifts off to sleep and he writes it off as a hallucination born from sleep deprivation. It’s happened before on long and stressful missions and if he doesn’t pay them any mind, eventually they go away. But the static is more insistent, flashing through his entire body like an electric shock. He can’t ignore it any longer. He hauls himself out of the small cot behind the bridge, shakes himself off, and blearily stares at the controls.

He turns the ship in the direction of the Remav system and something about that feels so fucking right he shudders. The static is clearing. Numbers. Particular combinations of numbers—

Coordinates?

Maybe he’s just completely losing his mind.

It’s entirely possible.

He rubs his forehead, talon catching over the tiny scar where they’d put in the SAM implant, and he realizes—this could be Macen. Avitus never had the full SAM experience himself, since he was only the designated second, but he had the implant installed so he could easily communicate with Macen and SAM, and—could it be possible that Macen was sending him a signal across star systems? An SOS?

Avitus doesn’t do hope, especially not these days. But the fact that the numbers are coordinates and that he feels stronger and more certain about his hunch the closer he gets to Remav, the more he starts to feel it. This is right. The Natanus is close. Spirits, he’s got to get Ryder over here. They need a Pathfinder, just in case—

He’s already in his armor and preparing his gun before he reaches his destination. As the ship slows and the system slowly resolves into his sight, the little commlink pings and when he presses the button, Ryder’s image pops up in hologram over the controls. He looks like shit, but Avitus is beginning to expect this. This time, he’s got a black eye and a split lip to go with the five o’clock shadow.

“Ryder. I was just about to call you.”

“Is everything all right?” Humans don’t have subvocals, but even for a human, Ryder’s voice sounds flat.

He knows how crazy it sounds, but he can’t keep the excitement from his voice. “I’ve got numbers—coordinates flashing in my head. I think it’s an SOS. From Macen.”

“That’s quite the leap.” Ryder studies his face. Expressionless, though the cavernous dark circles under his eyes do some of the work for him.

“Just hear me out,” he says, starting to sound desperate. When Ryder pulled them off Havarl, he thought he’d be different, maybe, once they got underway, once Ryder understood the gravity of the situation—but the urge to punch him in the face and mess up his blank face has returned. In everything he’s learned of Lior Ryder thus far, his impression is mostly… there’s something wrong with him. Pull yourself together, Avi. Do it for Macen. “What if Macen’s using my SAM implant to send me his location?”

Ryder flicks an invisible thread off of his wrist. “We did find evidence Natanus might be intact.”

Avitus is going to find a way to teleport himself through the commlink and strangle Ryder. And they hadn’t told him—“What evidence?”

“A bunch of stasis pods were jettisoned from the ark. No survivors. But the logs show it happened long after Natanus hit the scourge.” Ryder pauses, and adds, “That’s why I was going to call you. We’re still in Zaubray.”

Avitus is doing the math in his head. There’s no way the Natanus could have taken the path it did just drifting. There’s no way it could have left that trail of debris through Heleus’ star clusters. “Someone’s still flying the damn thing.”

“Or keeping it afloat, at least.” Ryder’s voice, for once, has some hint of an emotion. Avitus can’t tell what it is.

“Here are the coordinates from my implant. Meet me there. We’ll find answers.”

He makes it to the ark first and docks. The readouts from the life support systems don’t look good. Gravity is negligible and debris floats in the air. His feet barely touch the ground. The atmosphere is gone and the power systems are severely damaged. He has to pry apart the inner airlock door with his bare hands once he gets past it. His heart drops even further once he surveys the damage. If anyone’s still alive they’ve got to be safely in their cryopods, but there’s almost no other way there’s anyone living. If Macen had woken up and piloted the ark this far—where would he be? Would he have suffocated to death? He can’t consider the possibility.

He almost doesn’t notice when Ryder and his companions show up, but he briefs them anyway. The krogan looks down the long hallway and frowns, and the female turian is watching him with something close to pity. He turns away so he doesn’t have to see it anymore, and asks Ryder, “Think your SAM can get us in?”

It’s hard to see Ryder’s face behind the glass mask, but he exhales a short breath into his ventilator. “Don’t give the AI all the credit. I help.”

“Excuse me,” Avitus says, as they push forward.

He tries not to panic the further into the ark they go and the more damage he sees. He knew it would have to have been bad based on the jettisoned pods. Macen wouldn’t have done that unless the ark had been hit by something, unless it was the last resort. But the more he sees, the more he wonders whether any of the settlers are still alive in there. By the time they make it to a terminal, he’s fighting the kind of crawling, furious panic that makes his gizzard churn.

They finally find a terminal with an audio recording and Ryder’s SAM cleans up the data. And when he hears Dea’s voice, her panicked recitation, something’s tearing the Natanus apart—half the cryo chamber is gone—trying to get anyone awake to the escape pods—find Macen! That’s almost the end of it for him. He takes a minute to pull himself together.

“Dea was abandoning ship,” Ryder mutters.

“She wouldn’t leave unless the situation was dire. Natanus didn’t get here on its own. We need to know what happened next.” He says this, stubborn, knowing that what happened next might have been a mass ejection or death. With half of the chamber gone… Macen would’ve been the first one awake, and he would’ve headed straight to the heart of things.

Ryder is looking down. His head is bent to examine the terminal and Avitus remembers that he’s had some tech training. His profile listed his background as an operative. It’s almost comical. Macen and Ryder, both of them with special forces training, both of them in positions so out of their depth that Ryder looks like a walking corpse and Macen is… still missing.

“The rest of the data on this console is corrupt,” SAM says politely. Avitus still isn’t quite used to it, hearing that voice in his head. “Perhaps if we find another—or the ark’s SAM node.”

“All right. Let’s keep looking.”

He walks through the ruins of the ark in a kind of daze. He’s already put his gun away. There’s no need for it. It doesn’t look like whatever happened to the Natanus involved an invasion. It doesn’t look like—

“Avitus! Over here,” Ryder says. It’s the first time Ryder’s used his given name, and he doesn’t like it.

More importantly. The terminal.

“There’s still life in this one.”

When Ryder presses the button, Macen’s voice is in his ears for the first time in six hundred years, give or take, and Avitus almost goes to his knees.

“SA…SAM. How—are we doing?” Macen’s voice sounds exactly as it always does—smooth, warm, a hint of a joke trembling at the edge of it—but even now Avitus can tell it isn’t good. Macen, wherever he is, is wounded.

“Macen! Bring it back!”

He’s aware it sounds almost petulant, panicked, a child with a toy dangled in front of him and yanked away. But he’s so close now, so close.

“The video’s corrupt on this one, too,” Ryder mutters. His fingers are dancing over the terminal now, and he does not look up.

“What about audio?” Avitus asks. Desperate. Trying not to sound desperate. If he can get this terminal to work—if they can just—

“Repairing now.” SAM’s polite chime. “One moment, please.”

Ryder’s stepped back. His arms are crossed over his chest. “We need to remain objective.”

A gasping laugh, almost a sob. “Yeah, I’ve… never been objective when it comes to Macen.”

“Try,” Ryder says, “for his sake.” It’s strange. Ryder was the last person he expected to offer any kind of emotional support. The implacable glass front of Ryder’s helmet is turned towards him. They’re not comforting words. More of an order. Strangely, that’s what he needs right now. He pulls himself together.

“Playing audio now,” SAM says.

SAM. How far to Avi’s pod?

300 meters.

An easy stroll then. Macen gasps. Damn it. Maybe not so easy.

Macen is wounded, and his first thought was still to find Avitus. His heart swells with love and fear and all kinds of emotions he hasn’t felt in centuries. He isn’t sure how much more of this he can stand. “Where’s the rest of it?” He knows that Nyx will be able to pick up on the subvocals—he’s practically howling—but she’s too polite to say anything.

“That is all I could recover.”

Avitus is going to have a word with whoever programmed the SAMs to sound like that, unflustered and cool. “Damn it!”

“He was looking for your pod,” Ryder murmurs. “Do you remember anything before waking up on Havarl?”

“I told you.” His voice is bitter. He can’t help it. “My first memory was clawing out of my stasis pod.”

“Then we keep looking.”

He follows Ryder down the twisted hallways, tracking the pipes and power lines that hold the shell of the ark together. Everything is spitting sparks, and each step feels heavy and leaden. His ragged breath is the only sound in his ears, trapped in the rebreather. He’s memorized the entire layout of the ark, even if things aren’t always in their proper place. And so he knows it when he sees it.

“This door leads to the SAM node. We’ve gotta get in there.”

The momentary inconvenience of the lock is nothing to him. Time stretches strangely, like it means nothing, like every last moment of the six hundred years is happening to him right now, all at once.

The Node looks like a tomb. Dark and flickering. He’s seen Ryder’s SAM on the Nexus, calmly glowing green, welcoming. But Macen’s SAM is a maelstrom of biotic blue. Flickering wildly like a power outage. AI or not, it looks like it’s in incomprehensible agony. The room is empty. He doesn’t know what he expected to find. Maybe Macen, on the ground, waiting for him across the years. Maybe a corpse.

“SAM!” Avitus says, running towards it. “Where’s the Pathfinder? Where’s Macen?”

“Avi. Avi. Avi.” SAM’s words are clipped, even agony. “Commence. Stars.”

Ryder looks sideways at him. “‘Avi,’” his tongue caresses the word. “Isn’t that what Macen called you?”

“He’s the only one who calls me that,” Avitus says, both information and a warning. He can’t pay attention to Ryder now, everything is focused on SAM. If he could plunge his hands into the hologram and wrench the information out of it he would.

“My counterpart is suffering from severe trauma,” Ryder’s SAM says. “If I partition the data, it may be able to speak with us.”

As SAM works, Avitus watches as the light slowly resolves itself into something calmer. It’s still twisted and tortured, but it almost sounds like the exhale of a sigh when it says, “Avitus Rix. Welcome home.”

“SAM. Macen sent coordinates to this location. Please—I need to find him.”

“You are mistaken. I sent the coordinates,” Macen’s SAM says calmly, and crushes the last bit of hope Avitus had beneath its calm regard.

“Okay,” Ryder says, looking from one to the other. “This is officially getting weird. Next you’ll say you flew the Natanus here.”

“I did. The Pathfinder ordered me to help Avitus find the turians a home.”

Where’s Macen?” The words rip from his throat. The subvocals are raw.

He knows already. He knows, but he doesn’t want to have to be the one to say it.

Welcome home. A crushed wreck.

“Gone,” SAM says.

“This thing’s still busted,” Avitus says, stubbornly, refusing to give in even now. Maybe it isn’t true. Maybe Macen made it to the infirmary and patched his wounds, found a helmet that would let him survive the depressurized ark atmosphere. Maybe. Maybe. “It doesn’t know what it’s talking about.”

“We should have access to Macen’s logs,” Ryder says. “Maybe there’s something in there.”

Avi. Macen coughs and Avitus can hear the fluid in his lungs. Whatever we hit a piece of, it shredded my suit. Stings like hell, but spirits, it’s beautiful. I need you to go on for the both of us. Don’t let that temper get the better of you. SAM. Commence transfer.

Yes, Pathfinder.

Even the stars look brighter—

It’s too much. It’s too much.

He can’t…

He can’t.

Somehow he is still on his feet even though gravity’s turned completely upside down.

Even though his world’s just ended.

“He died before the transfer was complete,” Ryder is saying, and Avitus wonders whether the krogan would shoot him if he hauled off and punched Ryder in the face. “That must be the source of SAM’s trauma.”

“Why bring me here? What was the point?”

Answers are one thing. But Macen is dead. The only thing in his life that had meaning. The only thing that mattered.

Macen is dead.

Macen is dead and Avitus is six hundred years in the future in another galaxy, alone again.

“To complete the transfer,” Macen’s SAM says. “The turians need a Pathfinder.”

“I—I can’t.” Especially now. Especially after everything—no, someone else would have to—

“What do you mean you can’t?” Ryder demands. It’s the first genuine emotion Avitus has heard out of him and he sounds… furious.

“I never thought I’d get the job,” Avitus says, the words falling from his mouth against his own will. He couldn’t stop them if he tried. He’s a raw nerve stripped of his carapace, everything exposed to the air. “My whole career. I worked alone. I don’t know how to lead people. I don’t want to lead people.” The panic is clawing at his chest now, pressing against the bone. If anyone was monitoring his vitals his heart rate would be through the roof. He never wanted to lead people, that was Macen’s job. Avitus was just—there for him. Not for…

“Avitus,” Ryder says. “You found the turian ark. You’ve already been playing the part of Pathfinder. Just without the title.”

“A title that belongs to Macen,” he spits out the words. He needs a drink. He needs several drinks. He needs—he needs to not think about anything right now. He needs Macen.

But Macen is gone.

“Which he wanted you to have,” Ryder says. There’s something strange trembling in his voice. Not anger. Not grief. Not exactly a vulnerability. “Rejecting it won’t bring him back.”

Maybe it’s just the truth. So he gives Ryder the truth in return: “What if I let him down?”

“You could only do that by walking away.”

Damn it. You’re right.” And he is. He doesn’t want him to be. Doesn’t want this strange human telling him anything about himself or about Macen.

He’s accepted this responsibility.

Somewhere, maybe, Macen is proud of him.

 

XI.

 

The transfer goes about as well as he can expect. It feels like his brain is on fire for approximately ten seconds, and in those seconds, it feels like time itself is stretching out of control and he can see each and every neuron building on itself, slowly stacking their way towards symbiosis. And then his vision snaps back into place and he’s aware, for the first time, that he’s not alone in his head anymore. It’s not exactly like he can hear SAM thinking. If asked to describe it, he couldn’t. Just the knowledge that while Avitus is there, someone else is, too, filling out the hollows of his skull.

Very poetic, Pathfinder.

Are you going to listen to me all the goddamn time?

If you ask for privacy, I will sequester myself.

Hah. I got nothing to hide.

His grief, his shame. SAM already knew. Everyone already knew.

They make him stay in the medbay for a night until they’re certain he’s functioning properly. He passes all the tests.

In that time, he tries not to talk to SAM or acknowledge it too much. If he does, that will be admitting the gruesome inheritance. The thing that had been bonded to Macen’s brain is now in his.

I am sorry, Pathfinder. I do not mean to cause you distress.

It’s not you. It’s… Macen was very special to me.

He will be missed.

Avitus declines transport and walks his way across the entirety of the Nexus, back to the small quarters he’s called home since Ryder pulled him off Havarl. He’s kept it neat not out of any desire to feel comfortable, but because he doesn’t own anything except his armor and gun. He has nothing to remind him of Macen. Nothing to remind him of their life together in the Milky Way. At this point, it’s probably better that way. If he stops to think about it too long he can feel the claws of grief digging into his chest.

The only thing he has left is the Palaven Reserve he’d brought to celebrate their new beginning. It’s half gone already—some of it went to sterilizing wounds on the jungle moon—but the rest of it, well. It’s not a celebration, but it is a wake, a private communion with his grief. Not exactly private.

He’s lying in a drunken heap on the cot, feeling the room spinning around him and the kind of nausea that means he’s probably going to regret this in approximately fifteen minutes, when SAM picks that particular moment to speak up.

Pathfinder, may I do anything to assist?

No, SAM.

Your blood alcohol content is .299, Pathfinder. I do not advise drinking any more. Or perhaps some water. Or I could flush your system.

No, SAM.

You choose to—

I don’t choose shit. I just don’t want to think, SAM. It’s too fucking hard. I miss him too much.

I could… show you his memories, if you wish.

You could—please, SAM.

Normally I would ask you to go to SAM Node. It is safer that way. However, with the Natanus so damaged, that is impossible.

I don’t care. Show me what you have.

Lay still.

The memories flood him one after another. At first, it’s almost like being drunk in another way: turning every which way inside his head, seeing some new thing he’d forgotten, dizzy and off kilter. Some of the memories are painful. He sees their first meeting through Macen’s eyes, realizes how immediately Macen had wanted him. The dance they’d made together in the field; the purple light of Macen’s biotics flickering behind Avitus’ eyes as together they decimate the geth. More domestic moments. Waking up next to Avitus in the few mornings he had in their apartment, nuzzling against his shoulder. The terrible food Avitus tried to cook for him and which he ate with relish. As he moves through Macen’s thoughts everything speeds up. A blur of life. Laughing. Crying. Gasping. Sex. Sleep. Love. Everything blended together, twenty eight years of Macen’s memories, so many of them coming back to Avitus himself.

Even in the memories he can feel Macen’s love for him, strong and warm and encompassing, and for a moment, he doesn’t want to wake up.

The onslaught stops only when Macen wakes up in the cryopod, the stabbing pain through his chest, and Avitus screams.

No! Stop!

I do not know whether you should make this a habit, Pathfinder.

When I want your advice, SAM, I’ll fucking ask for it.

He returns to the memories. They lull him to sleep. In his dreams, he falls asleep in Macen’s arms.

 

XII.

 

It’s not like there isn’t anything to keep him occupied. Ryder is certainly busy, scouting, hunting the kett, doing whatever it is a real Pathfinder with an intact ark and ship does.

Avitus, on the other talon, spends most of his days putting out small fires and coordinating a larger-scale rescue operation with Director Tann. The Natanus is still floating in Remav, too damaged to move. There are at least 15,000 turians still asleep onboard, and it will be a delicate operation to remove the cryopods and ship them back to the Nexus, where they can be categorized and stored until the colonies are ready to handle them. Macen wouldn’t trust an outsider with overseeing this so Avitus can’t either. Then there are the pods that SAM ejected all across the galaxy… at the end of each day he returns to his apartment and watches memories until his mind shuts itself off

I do not think your course wise, Pathfinder.

SAM, kindly fuck off.

Noted, Pathfinder. There’s more than a hint of reproach in SAM’s gravelly voice, but Avitus ignores it.

Will you leave me alone if I leave my quarters tonight?

Yes. Socializing with others will do you good.

Did you nag Macen like this?

I never needed to.

That’s how Avitus finds himself in the Vortex, hating both the club and everyone there. The dim lights hurt his eyes—he feels almost like he’s been on a week-long bender, even though it’s not really a bender of anything except his own head. Combine that with the fact that he hasn’t had much of an appetite or slept particularly well since the ark, well. There’s a reason his body’s breaking down. He’s lost some weight. His armor fits a little differently.

It’s fine. Grief is understandable. As long as I can do my job, what the hell does it matter?

He waves the asari bartender over because at this rate he might as well make it a real-life alcohol bender, too. He’s only got meetings tomorrow. Begging Tann to give him more ships—the longer they wait the more colonists remain at risk, the more likely the Natanus’ eventual collapse—and swallowing his fucking pride.

Ryder is in the corner, already well on his way to soused, if appearances have anything to do with it. His head droops down so Avitus can’t see his face, just the thick curly hair, hanging ragged in front of his eyes. A small forest of glasses decorates the table in front of him. Even though he’s an immediately recognizable figure, no one approaches him. His hands are splayed on the table, long fingers spread.

Avitus downs some of his own whiskey and lets it burn down his gullet. He can feel SAM’s silent disapproval and ignores it. He wonders whether the AIs communicate about their Pathfinders. He doesn’t know if he’d want to be a fly on that wall. He looks down at his talons.

“Rix.” It is not a question or even really a greeting. The voice is steady. Not slurring. A baritone that would be pleasant if it weren’t almost hostile.

He looks sideways and finds that Ryder has sidled up next to him. “Ryder,” he says, warily.

He’s not drunk enough for this but Ryder certainly is.

Avitus has the chance to look at the human Pathfinder for the first time in almost normal conditions. Not in a jungle planet war zone, not on the ruined remnants of his hopes and dreams. Not in meetings in pristine conditions before Initiative officials. In a bar, almost like they’d met anywhere in the Milky Way. He snorts at the thought. If Ryder had come up to him on Palaven, or at least Palaven before Macen, Avitus would have turned him down. Or at the very least said, maybe come back when you can stand on your own two feet.

Ryder is, in fact, swaying. He almost misses the barstool when he goes to sit down on it. He just barely catches himself, his hands gripping the counter.

In this light Avitus can note not just the dark circles beneath his eyes but the shadows cast by his cheekbones. Ryder is human, with all of his soft parts on the outside, but there’s a kind of sharp-edged hardness to his face and body that reminds Avitus more than a little of a turian. His skin is patterned haphazardly with dark splotches, which are not clan markings but sun damage, the result of not possessing a protective metallic coating. His face is scarred. An old burn, maybe. Some claw marks. There is a short, thick fringe of hair around his eyes, the same color as the fringe on his head. He is wearing soft clothes that are too big for him and bag around his body. The neck is high enough that he can sink down into it like some of the small, shelled creatures that lived in Palaven’s seas.

There is something deeply disturbing about his entire person.

“Didn’t think I’d see you in public ever,” Ryder says. His voice is soft, detached. Like he’s remarking on the weather.

“SAM has a particular way with words.”

Ryder’s lips curl upward, but it’s not really a smile. Avitus can see his teeth. Humans have canines—like predators—in the front, but an herbivore’s teeth in the back, and Ryder sure has several of the former on display. One of the canines is chipped a little at the edge. “SAM sure does.”

“You got started early.”

Ryder waves one hand. “It’s five o’clock somewhere, right? It’s a new galaxy. A new world. There are hundreds of possibilities for five o’clock. Pick one. Cheers.” He lifts a shot glass in the other hand and clinks it against Avitus’.

“They haven’t cut you off yet?”

“I’m the Pathfinder,” Ryder says brightly. “The only person who tells me no is Tann, and I mostly ignore him.”

“Charming.”

“That’s me.” He drinks, and makes a noise that sounds like urghh. “A charmer.”

Avitus drinks. It’s not enough to actually get drunk. Not yet. He orders another one, since he can’t go home, and it doesn’t look like Ryder’s going anywhere.

Ryder says, “I heard you’re sending rescues to the ark.”

“Trying to. Tann won’t give me the ships I need.”

“He will. Wear him down. ’S the way it always is here. He’s got some kind of. Of. Idea, about how things should be. What his image should be. But that’s not how life is. Not in Heleus.” Ryder looks down at his hands. “Like to put him down in Kadara Port and see how he fares for a few hours.”

Avitus doesn’t say anything more. They drink in silence—not companionable, exactly. Avitus feels like he’s about to jump out of his plates, waiting for whatever Ryder’s going to say next. For someone so carefully expressionless he’s beginning to realize that the uneasy feeling he has around the kid—because he looked at the bio again, and Ryder is a kid, he’d have just finished his first tour of duty in the turian military—is probably due to the barely contained loathing that simmers beneath his skin. Avitus isn’t sure if it’s directed at him, at Ryder himself, or whether he doesn’t discriminate. It’s been a while since he’s met someone this young who’s so—would it be too on the mandibles to say lost.

The music pounds around them. Some of the lounge-goers are dancing, but Ryder just slumps further over on the counter, his head resting on his hand, watching in silence. The regard makes him uneasy. At that point Avitus is seven or eight shots in. Ryder is… something. His eyes are glassy and his face is flushed, and he’s retreated further and further into his sweatshirt until only his flat, baleful eyes are visible over the edge, fixed on Avitus’ face. His words are muffled by the cloth.

“I thought you were gonna turn it down,” Ryder says.

Avitus’ body goes hot, then cold, a white lance of rage that Ryder would even dare reopen this wound so soon. Watch that temper of yours, Macen had said, and instead, Avitus digs his talon into the bar counter. He says nothing.

“I thought you were gonna just… disappear, after Barro died. But here you are. On the Nexus.” He pulls himself back up into a sitting position, though he can’t quite sit straight. His eyes are fixed on Avitus’ face, unwavering. His lips are parted and Avitus has that strange feeling again, of rage and revulsion and something else, something dangerous he doesn’t want to admit to himself. “Here you are.”

“So Ryder… you’re the spare too, huh? How’s that feel?” It’s a nasty jab. Ryder just lost his father, after all, but that doesn’t matter. At that moment Avitus feels like he could destroy the entire Nexus and piss on the ruins.

You don’t mean that.

Shut up, SAM.

“Like shit. Universe has a hell of a sense of humor when it comes to us. Hey, Dutch. Hit me.”

“How do you figure?” Avitus asks. He holds out his glass for a refill too. He is, if he admitted it, pretty smashed at this point. Whatever turian alcohol the bartender’s mixing, it’s the kind that sneaks up on you.

“Don’t know you well enough for that, Rix,” Ryder says and bares his teeth again. There’s a long silence. Then he adds, “Being the spare… If you believed in a god, you’d have to assume they’ve got a nasty sense of humor. Because Hyperion’s stuck with me.

“I’m stuck with you,” Avitus mutters to himself.

At that, Ryder lurches to his feet and stands, gently swaying. His eyes are huge, the pupil lost in the iris. He can’t quite look straight at Avitus. And he’s still smiling, wide and pleasant. “And the rest of us are stuck with you, Pathfinder. Are you just gonna…” he waves his hand at the bar, “or are you going to do something.”

Stung, Avitus stands as well, but Ryder is already walking away.

 

XII.

 

He’s not sure why he immediately goes tearing off after Ryder. First of all, it’s not like the bastard’s moving that fast. He can barely walk in a straight line, let alone run off. Second of all, he doesn’t even have anything to say to him. That wordless fury is propelling him forward and he has just enough sense left not to yell where the fuck do you get off after the human’s retreating back, because that would cause a scene, and he already feels so damned exposed on the Nexus, he doesn’t need this, too.

Instead he stalks after Ryder like a patient grex in Palaven’s mountain forests, following him down the halls, away from the bar and towards the Nexus’ personal quarters. Ryder seems to be making his way towards a door. Of course the human Pathfinder would have extra space here; the fancy ship wouldn’t be enough for him.

Or maybe, the part of him not consumed with rage whispers, sometimes the ship is too much.

“Hey!” he finally snaps, when they’re well enough alone, and Ryder turns to look at him.

Ryder’s eyebrows shoot up. “Well isn’t this a pleasant surprise,” he murmurs, and stops. He’s standing against the wall, loose-limbed and cruel, completely unflappable. Like the entire conversation in the Vortex hasn’t touched him at all.

It’s too much.

He’s wanted, at varying points in their acquaintance, to ruin Ryder’s calm flippancy. And maybe it took alcohol and fury and grief to lower his inhibitions enough to do it. Avitus lunges forward and slams him against the wall, holding him up by the shirt.

Pathfinder! SAM says, horrified as much as an AI can be horrified. Avitus doesn’t bother to answer him. Avitus! No!

Ryder doesn’t make a noise except a small sigh, exhaling some breath he’d been holding the whole time. “Rix,” he says quietly.

“Don’t fucking talk about him,” Avitus says. His voice doesn’t even sound like himself. High and desperate. “Don’t talk about the ark. Don’t even say his name.”

Ryder’s tall enough that he’s still got his feet on the floor, though his weight isn’t on them. He lets Avitus do this without fighting back. Lets Avitus slam his bony body against the wall again. He doesn’t react to the show of force except to smile.

It does not reach his eyes.

“Okay,” he agrees.

The rage isn’t gone, exactly, but it’s subsumed in the yawning void of grief and a growing sense of what the fuck am I doing here. Avitus lets him go, too abrupt, and Ryder loses his balance. Crumples to the floor in a heap of uncoordinated, gangly limbs, looking up at Avitus with hooded eyes. He doesn’t get up, exactly, but shifts forward so his weight is all on his knees.

Ryder slides towards him like that, legs spread and his hands clasped like a penitent, and Avitus is frozen in place, watching him.

“What the hell are you doing?”

It should look ridiculous. It should not be—he should not be having this reaction. He should not be feeling heat like this in his stomach, not now, not so soon. Macen used to do this for him, sometimes—kneel, playfully, a kind of power play that both of them enjoyed because there was love and respect and trust behind it. Ryder is not joyful. Ryder’s eyes are dark and fathomless and bleak, and his mouth is parted just enough that Avitus knows exactly what’s going to happen next. All he can feel is despair that he’s like this, despair that he’s so desperate to feel something, anything, that when Ryder leans forward and touches his foot, he can feel the plates shifting already.

“Offering an apology,” Ryder says, in a low rough voice, his head tipping forward again. “Or a distraction.”

Avitus should not do this. Ryder is drunk. That he’s drunk doesn’t mean anything, he shouldn’t—

“I’ll be good,” Ryder drawls, and leans forward far enough that his forehead presses against Avitus’ boot.

Avitus’ body is acting on autopilot and SAM is blessedly silent when he reaches forward, intending to pull Ryder to his feet and shove him away again. Instead, his talons tangle in his hair, and the gesture is rougher then he’d intended as he yanks him up. Ryder gasps and struggles to follow, still uncoordinated with drink, and can’t quite manage it. He yanks again, and Ryder groans in pain—or something else—and tips forward into Avitus’ arms.

“Ryder—”

Instead of responding Ryder tries to kiss him.

It goes about as well as you could expect given the anatomical differences which is to say that it’s a complete disaster. Ryder’s face crushes against his but Avitus’ skin and jaw are hard and unforgiving and in his clumsiness, Ryder ends up splitting his own lip open on Avitus’ jaw, laughs, and then tries to kiss him again. Avitus gives in and opens his mouth, and Ryder’s tongue toys with his, hot and wet and alien. His blood is coppery in Avitus’ mouth. He feels a surge of revulsion even as Ryder’s hand twists in his tunic.

“What are you—”

“You’re going to need to practice that,” Ryder mutters, pulling away, before leaning in again. The kiss is still awkward, Ryder’s lips against his jaw, the thin strips of exposed skin between his neck place.

An electric shock riots through him and Avitus shudders. “Not here.”

“If you’d given me a minute, I could’ve—” Ryder fumbles with his scanner. He doesn’t turn around when the door opens, just takes a few steps back.

Avitus follows on autopilot, the part of his brain that’s always set apart screaming at him, what the fuck are you doing? SAM is silent and Avitus doesn’t know what he would do if it wasn’t. The room is dark and empty. A space for Ryder alone, without adornment or personality. A bed and little else. It looks more like a jail cell than a bedroom.

Ryder has turned and his blank eyes are on Avitus again. His face is carved lines and planes, whittled down to the essence of him. “I didn’t think you’d…”

“Stop talking.” He knows fury isn’t the right way to start this but he doesn’t want to start it at all, and he can’t stop himself.

Ryder says nothing, only grabs Avitus by the shirt again and pulls him forward into the room and Avitus at least has the presence of mind to kick the door closed behind him. They stand there, staring at each other in silence. Avitus doesn’t want to be here. He doesn’t like Ryder, his bleak dead eyes and his soft mouth.

But he doesn’t want to be alone tonight because he’s going to be alone every night in the future. The only thing he has left of Macen are memories and Ryder, for all that he’s human, is…warm, alive, and dropping to his knees again. Ryder’s a fucking mess, but Avitus isn’t much better. All he wants is to feel something—anything—for a time. And maybe Ryder’s no different. So he lets the human crowd him back against the wall and doesn’t stop until he’s braced up against it.

He’s not sure what Ryder was expecting when he hooks his fingers in Avitus’ belt and pulls it and the pants down with it, exposing Avitus’ thighs and ass to the cooler air, but his dark eyes with their thick fringes blink, then look up questioningly.

“It’s under the plates.”

“Seriousl—no, never mind. I’ll figure it out.”

Ryder leans forward with such a curiously intense expression on his face that Avitus almost laughs. Like Avitus’ anatomy is a puzzle he’s going to figure out, or a nut he’s going to crack. His hands are warm for a human’s and sure on Avitus’ plates—the thighs first, learning the texture of alien skin, then tracing the lines of his legs. Instinctively Ryder finds the sensitive parts, the strips of exposed hide where the plates join, and his fingers, smaller and duller than talons, drag strange new sensations into them. The flush of heat in Avitus’ groin is unexpected. Maybe it’s the strangeness of the whole thing. Maybe it’s the way Ryder licks his lips when he leans forward.

When the wet heat of Ryder’s tongue dips into the line between his groin plates, Avitus almost kicks him in the face in shocked reflex. It’s different than it was with Macen—Macen knew him, knew turians—but Ryder’s at once doing too much too fast, and not enough. The first thing Avitus’ alcohol-fogged brain can focus on is that he has too many fingers and it’s almost like being touched by two people at once. The other is that human tongues are strangely rough, particularly in that sensitive place, and he shudders again. The plates are moving.

His talons tangle in Ryder’s hair, half looking for purchase, half seeing whether he can scare him away. Instead, the harder he pulls, the more Ryder makes rough, pleased noises, low in his throat, and his hands curl in reflexive fists against Avitus’ leg. His eyes are closed and his face is flushed, from alcohol or something else. Strangely that’s what finally does it and shifts everything into the open.

It’s always a strange feeling: both the pleasure of being exposed and the vulnerability of it.

Ryder opens his eyes and Avitus can see the what the fuck expression flicker across his face. Ryder’s mouth opens and closes and Avitus catalogues the ways that human anatomy differs from his own—less flexible, certainly softer, smoother, that strange pinkish red color—and is almost impressed that Ryder doesn’t really hesitate much after that. He takes Avitus in his hand, running his fingers along the length, like he’s testing it, and jumps when the skin twitches and ripples under his hands.

“Ryder—” He’s not sure what he’s about to say. It’s a warning and a plea. His entire body is on fire with lust and guilt and rage and grief and he doesn’t know what he’s asking for. Turians don’t do this—mandibles don’t allow for suction, and the teeth alone are a deterrent—and he doesn’t know, doesn’t want to—

Ryder says nothing. He leans forward and with his hand still wrapped around the base runs his tongue along the length before fitting his lips around Avitus’ cock and sliding them down. Whatever Avitus had been going to say chokes off in the back of his throat. Spirits—

He closes his eyes and gives in to the sensation of it. If he’d been overwhelmed before that was nothing compared to now. Ryder’s mouth is hot and wet and he has absolutely no fucking problem pressing forward to take all of Avitus in, even when his cock slams against the back of Ryder’s throat and Ryder’s eyes water. With anyone else Avitus wouldn’t have done that—would have used care, would have—but it’s Ryder, on his knees, face flushed, and when Avitus tries to pull back Ryder’s hands are gripping his thighs hard to prevent it.

Maybe that’s what he wants: pain, humiliation. Maybe he just wants conscious thought fucked out of his head for a time and if that’s what he wants, then Avitus can give that to him. The sounds in the room are obscene. Ryder’s tongue and lips against his skin, the occasional muffled gagging noise. Avitus’ breath, panting, harsh and ragged.  All of it is almost too much—the shame of this, of needing it, of how good Ryder feels around him, of how much he misses Macen, spirits, Macen

It’s completely fucked up that that’s the moment Avitus’ vision goes white and his entire body is a livewire circuit of pleasure. It lasts the barest of seconds before he slams back to reality.

Ryder is still kneeling on the ground, wiping his mouth—SAM will probably tell him to see one of the Nexus doctors—with that blank smile on his face again. “Thanks,” he says, “now get out.”

“Wait, what?”

Ryder is standing. “You heard me, Rix. We’re finished here, and these are my quarters, and you should return to yours.”

Avitus finds himself unceremoniously bundled out the door, pants hanging awkwardly around his waist.

He catches the briefest glimpse of Ryder’s face, the hollows under his eyes, before the door shuts again.