Reyes stretched his legs out onto the table. It was a rare day he could really relax. He was all caught up on his duties both as Reyes Vidal and the Charlatan. It had never happen before. It must snowing somewhere on Kadara. He chuckled and knocked back the last of the whiskey. The alcohol burnt its way down his throat.
“Ahhh, what would I give for some company.”
The booming bass coming from the ground level of Tartarus reminded him what was available just mere steps away. Sure, he would still look at the writhing bodies but they no longer move him like they used to. They were beautiful, seductive, even alluring. But they were pleasures of the flesh. His soul yearned for something else, something more. And that thought more than anything else worried him. he did not do attachments. It’s the rule, one learnt from hard lessons from the past.
The last adventure with Ryder had opened his eyes to who the Pathfinder really was. She was smart and good at her job, that much he already know. But she was also funny and quick witted. Or maybe his brain just shut down when she was around. What’s the difference? Either way she was fun and dangerous at the same time. She’s a worthy asset to cultivate.
Reyes shifted on the sofa, trying to get comfortable. One hand draped over the back while the other was lazily scrolling through the HNS news feed. Some good came out of having the Pathfinder visit Kadara.
Well, maybe more than some good. She saved my skin the last time after all. And Kadara might be something more than just bearable once the vault finally kicks into high gear.
His eyes spotted a familiar headline. “Oh yeah, the meeting is happening today.”
The meeting being the all important one between the angaras and the Nexus. They were formalising the alliance between them. Reyes snorted. The Menin purchasing everything he had on that particular meeting, and he made a tidy little sum from it. Jenny, he chuckled, remembered how the Menin operative was so unused to such dealings. But mostly he remembered Ryder being drunk and a little sad.
That was a pretty good day. But I wonder what did they do with the intel?
He barely spared a thought about them. “After all, it’s none of my business. My part ended when they gave me the money.”
Still it was odd that Kadara was the spot the angaras and the Nexus Leadership agreed upon. Maybe this is as neutral a spot they can agree on. Knowing Tann, that must totally be the case.
His lip curled at the thought of the Director. Reyes wasn’t so important that he was on the Director’s radar during the uprising. But he knew all about the shitty dealings Tann was responsible for. I wouldn’t lose any sleep if some Menin operative put a bullet between his eyes. He is more dangerous because of his incompetence.
As he turned his attention back to his omni-tool, breaking news were pushing the never ending scroll of headlines off his screen, making him lose his place. He sighed. Fucked up app, can’t even work properly.
Reyes’ eyes widened before he grinned. The latest headline read: Decisive meeting between the angaras and the Nexus attacked, details forthcoming.
“About time, someone did something about Tann,” he sneered.
Ryder sighed. “Remind me why I am here?”
“You’re providing security,” SAM helpfully supplied.
“But Kandros can do that. That’s his job if I remember correctly. Why I am doing his job for him?” She tried to pressed her hair down but it kept poofing back up. She snarled wordlessly at her hair, but they were not intimidated in the slightest.
“That’s because he has to babysit the rest of the Leadership,” Vetra pointed out. “You know you don’t have to make your hair nice.
“That’s Kesh’s job, not Kandros,” she said, shooting the turian a look. “And maybe they want me to speak during the meeting?”
“Nobody wants a glorified security guard’s opinion,” Gil chirped up.
“Who asked you?” Ryder mock growled, giving up on her hair and tucking it haphazardly into the hair cap of the compression suit she wore.
“She’s got a point,” Liam said.
“Who? Vetra? Me?” she whirled around.
Liam lifted his hands in surrender. “You, I mean about Kandros and Kesh.”
“Thanks for the vote of confidence,” she smiled sweetly at him, smirking at Vetra.
The turian flapped her mandibles in a silent chuckle.
“Anything for our mighty leader,” he bowed before buckling on his helmet.
The door slid open and Cora entered. She was already decked out in full armour, complete with helmet and weapons. “Jaal has left to join the angara delegation.”
Ryder nodded. “All right people you all have your assignments. Get to them. Tell stories about me when I die of boredom inside the meeting.”
“Don’t worry, we will,” Vetra promised.
Reyes tried to keep up with the feed but details were sparse and sometimes conflicting. Some talked about bomb and a structural collapse, others talked about poison being used. Either way it meant someone was restricting the actual news and the extranet were just making things up from rumours and hearsay.
Maybe some good could come out of this. It’s time someone with brains take charge of the shit show on the Nexus. And do some fucking good. Then maybe he could work with them once he consolidated his hold on Kadara Port. The party Sloane had invited him to was still a week away. He hoped it’ll help him in his bid to get rid of the tyrant of Kadara port. I wonder what Ryder is doing? Maybe I should send her a mail, just to check in, to make sure we’re still on for the party. There is nothing wrong with checking in on an asset right?
As he was half way through composing a mail that was supposed to be short but had gone on way too long about nothing important, his omni-tool buzzed. It was a call.
The ID was nothing but a string of random numbers. It was standard protocol for all Collective operatives. All of them used a burner omni-tool for their work and had a scrambler installed so that these number changed everything a call was put through. Also as a rule he didn’t tie names with numbers on his omni-tool. All the better that nothing of value would be discovered even if he got hacked.
“Report,” he said brusquely as he accepted the connection.
There was a screech of static before an artificially modulated voice came through. More security measures meant to protect him and his agents. “Charlatan, the Menin has attacked the meeting between the angara and the Leadership.”
“Go on,” knowing his voice was similarly modulated on the other end.
“Currently the room where the leaders were holding the sit down is sealed.”
“Locked down? To keep enemy forces at bay?”
“No, sealed as in they’re trapped inside. Security forces on both the sides are working to get the doors open. The Moshae is trapped inside with Tann along with their selected guards.”
“Are they still alive?” His mind racing ahead, thinking of ways to capitalise on the situation. Maybe this entire shit show can be framed as the Outcasts’ doing, makes my life easier if the Nexus is gunning for Kelly.
“Comms have been cut,” his agent replied. “But it seemed poison gas is being pumped into the room. The Pathfinder’s team is trying to disable the gas canisters but it’s rigged to blow if there is any attempt to touch them.”
Reyes froze. Cold sweat broke out over his body. “Repeat that again.”
The agent hesitated, clearing their throat before saying, “Comms have been-“
“Not that part,” his voice curt, his words clipped.
There was an audible gulp. “The Pathfinder’s team-“
It was a stupid question, there was only one Pathfinder of note. Sure, Ryder had found Avitus Rix and confirmed Sarissa Theris as the asari Pathfinder, both weren’t Pathfinder of note. Neither were risking their lives venturing into Vaults and attacking kett at the heart of their operations.
There was nothing but the bustle of activity in the background. Reyes clenched his fists, forcing his voice to remain calm. “Which pathfinder,” he repeated.
“The human Pathfinder, Kate Ryder’s team.”
His heart pounded against his ribs even as his mind attempted to rein in his imagination. The poison gas was meant to be deadly. Any possible poison gas the Menin might have used wouldn’t be pleasant.
“Who is in the room?”
“The Moshae, Tann and their respective security detail.”
Reyes took a deep breath. “I select my operatives because they are smart, they can think on their feet and anticipate what kind of information I may need. You’re neither of those things now. Do not make me repeat myself,” he growled, the first hint of his anger.
“Evfra, the Resistance leader is acting as security for the Moshae, while Pathfinder Ryder is acting as security for the Director.”
Reyes didn’t speak. He had shoved his knuckles into his mouth and bit down on it. How did selling information to a meeting somehow got Ryder into trouble? She wasn’t even supposed to be there. In that instant he truly considered how much he actually liked Ryder. Images of her smiling, laughing and being an all around badass flashed into his mind.
I can fix this. I will fix this.
Ryder sighed, folded her arms across her chest, wishing she could stand and pace. But she could feel Evfra’s eyes trying to drill a hole into her forehead through his helmet. How could he maintain his upright posture next to the Moshae for so long? Her back was already aching and she was only 22 years old. Inactivity was the bane of her existence.
She glanced at the Moshae. The elderly angara had eschewed her usual leathers for a full armour like Evfra’s. They were after all in Kadara, it was stupid to be anything less than prepared. She held back a sigh as she looked at Tann. He, on the other hand, had insisted on wearing his usual decidedly unarmoured clothes.
And here I am talking about people being stupid. Guess that’s what I’m here for, being the big old human shield for Tann.
Tann droned on and on. Ryder wondered if Evfra had fallen falling asleep inside his armour, and he was somehow maintaining his posture through sheer stubbornness. If anyone could do it it was Evfra. She had no such luxury having opted to remove her helmet the moment they had secured the room. She could only stifle her yawns and prayed Tann wouldn’t complain too much about it later. It took all her willpower not to lay her head down on the table and just sleep.
I’ve told him to have this meeting on Aya but nooooo... he wants to fling his big dick around and insisted on neutral ground. It’s almost like he doesn’t trust me. Oh right, he doesn’t.
“As I was saying,” Tann said. “We require suitable planets to settle our people.”
“I understand, Director. But among the planets you listed are ones within our home system. That’s unacceptable,” the Moshae explained as if to a slow child.
“Yes but we could compensate you for it.”
“Not everything can be solved with credits.”
“What about goods and services?”
The Moshae narrowed her eyes and Ryder refrained from nudging Tann’s ribs. Her elbow would only reached his hips at best given his height.
She sniffed. Did someone just fucking fart?
There was a decidedly pungent smell in the air. She glanced at Evfra. There was no indication that he detected the scent. Maybe he was the one who farted? She turned back at Tann. He was gesturing with his hands. She edged away lest one of his spindly fingers take out her eye. Maybe it’s Tann? It couldn’t be the Moshae, her farts would be made of stardust and butterfiles. She’s the Moshae after all.
The scent grew more pungent and her throat started to itch and hurt. All ill thoughts towards Tann were quickly dismissed. No fart can be this bad. She stood, chair scraping against the floor with screech. Three pairs of eyes focused on her. Shock and surprise on the Moshae’s face, annoyance on Tann’s and Evfra’s remained a mystery behind his opaque helmet.
“Do you smell that?” she asked.
Tann frowned at her. “Ryder, I’ll appreciate if you’d refrain from interrupting the meeting. We do not need your input at this stage.”
She ignored him, sniffing at the air and wrinkling her nose. “SAM, is there something in the air? Did someone fart into the ventilation system?”
The burning in her nose and throat was near unbearable. She launched into a coughing fit before recovering enough to pull on her helmet.
“Pathfinder, I detect an airborne poison.”
Reyes terminated the call and launched into motion. He paced his room like a tiger. It was suddenly too small and cramped. Ideas popped into his mind, each examined and discarded quickly. His goal was clear in this situation.
Step one, make sure asset remains viable. Step two, offer aid. Step three, secure their good favour.
Instructions were sent to Nakamoto. The doctor will prep the small but well equipped med-bay he had set up. Reyes was no medical professional but he knew the value of having access to medical care nearby under the care of a doctor he trusted.
Nakamoto was his man. Reyes had presented himself as the representative of the Charlatan. This offer to keep the doctor well supplied was too good to pass up. In return the doctor would drop everything if the Charlatan ever called upon his services. The arrangement was untested thus far, but he trusted Nakamoto to honour it. The doctor was a smart man after all.
Instruction sent, med-bay was being prepped. Now, how was he going to offer the Charlatan’s aid? I need more information. I can’t rely on the agent. I need to be there. To monitor the situation if nothing else.
Decision made, he grabbed his jacket, the one Ryder gave him. His grip tightened on the leather, dismissing the sharp pain in his chest. He holstered his pistol and headed out the door. All the while, he denied the dread that had taken up residence against his heart. It was an old fear, one he had left behind on Earth. Get a grip on yourself, you’re just ensuring all the work you’ve put in buttering up the Pathfinder hasn’t gone to waste. You’re just protecting your investment, that’s all. That’s all.
He couldn’t explain his pounding heart, his sweaty palms and his dry as fuck mouth. One press of his palm against the Nomad’s control panel, the drive core roared to life. Without hesitation, he stepped on the pedal and it peeled out of the garage into the wide expanse of Kadara.
Hang on, Ryder.
“Moshe, please put on your helmet,” Evfra’s voice was tight with concern.
Should I be happy it isn’t a fart? Just a poisonous gas that only I can smell? Thank fuck for being the only human here?
Ryder glanced at her charge. He was coughing so hard he was doubled over. “SAM, where is the gas coming from?”
“Please check the room, Pathfinder.”
Hastily she lifted her arm to start scaning only to be halted by Tann tugging on her arm. “What are you doing?” he shouted before launching into another coughing fit. “Surely the angaras had planned this assassination attempt, arrest them!”
Ryder opened her mouth to placate the glorified accountant only to be interrupted by Evfra. The large angara handed the Moshae’s helmet to her before turning his attention to Tann. They were both of a similar height, meaning both towered over her. Where one was muscular from a lifetime on the field, the other was lanky from a lifetime bossing people around. Evfra wasted no time and drew his pistol. “You clearly are the one who is trying to poison us. Odourless? Detectable only by your Pathfinder?”
“You’re the one equipped with breathing gear. I’m the only one coughing my lungs out,” Tann pointed out. A massive coughing fit made him press both hands against his mouth. He lifted it away only to stare at it horrified. There was a green glob on his hand.
“I’m coughing blood, Ryder! Get me out of here now!”
She sighed, wishing she could personally put a bullet into his head just to shut him up. Wishing death upon one’s own boss was a time honoured tradition for all employees. And apparently Pathfinders were no exception.
“Tann!” she shouted.
It was then and only then he stopped talking long enough to allow her to get a word in edgewise. “I’m fucking trying to stop the gas, now will you let me do my job?” She turned to Evfra and the Moshae. “On behalf of the Nexus species I apologise for our Director’s behaviour. He retracts all accusations. He clearly is panicking.”
“Clearly,” Evfra replied. The single word groaned under the weight of all his disdain and scorn.
“Now, Evfra would you please try and get the doors open while I track the source of the poison?”
He inclined his head and turned to work. Ryder nodded contritely at the Moshae hoping she’d understand. Tann was too busy coughing to have breath to protest. This time she lifted her hand to scan the room, there was no opposition.
“The gas is being vented into the room through the ventilation system.”
“Is there a way to seal it off or maybe stop the system?”
“Not unless you have access to canisters of omni-gel, you will not be able to seal the room off. Also the ventilation system is only accessible from the outside, this is one of the security measures put into place.”
Great. Just great.
Ryder grimaced and glanced at Evfra. He shook his head. “The door has been hacked shut. And it is resisting my attempts to get it open. Brute force would serve us no use.”
She nodded. “Please let Cora know we’re in trouble, SAM.”
“Already informed her.”
Yet another coughing fit wrecked the director’s body. He was looking decidedly pale at this point. And she was beginning to worry. “What are the effects of the poison, SAM?”
“The lining of an organic’s lung and throat will swell, blisters will form, eventually leading to asphyxiation.”
Her jaw tightened. “How long?”
“No longer than 30 minutes.”
“The director been exposed to the gas for 20 minutes now.”
“How long do you need to hack open this door?”
“I can’t be sure, there are too many variables-“
“SAM,” Ryder interjected, glancing at Tann. He looked worryingly pale and frail. “Speculate.”
“30 minutes,” came the reply.
She took a deep breath, fingers tight against the buckles of her helmet. “Are you sure?”
There was a pause. It wasn’t long but for SAM it was significant. “What are you planning Ryder?”
She noticed SAM’s switch from Pathfinder to Ryder but this wasn’t the time to examine why. Instead of replying, her only answer was to take a good deep breath and unsealed her helmet. She instantly regretted it. The gas wasn’t only stinging her nostrils, it was also making her eyes water. She thrusted the helmet into Tann’s gut.
“What do you want me to do with this, Ryder?” he hissed, staring at the helmet ungratefully.
Ryder ignored him. “SAM, get hacking you have 30 minutes, starting 30 seconds ago.”
Another long pause. “Ryder, please keep your hand on the holo-lock. It will help the process.”
She didn’t question it and pressed her palm against the holo-lock. The breath she held was long depleted. As much as she won those breath holding contest she used to have with Keith, she wasn’t superhuman. Grimacing, she took a deep breath and it burnt all the way down her throat. Evfra looked at her. Was it pity? The thought burnt away as she coughed. Tann still had her helmet in hand, trying to work out a way to fit his nose and mouth into the opening.
If he fails to find a way to do it, he deserves to die.
“I hope you know what you’re doing Ryder,” Evfra said.
“I hope so too,” she muttered as she started coughing, tasting iron on her tongue.
Reyes made it in record time. He was there in time to see Ryder being loaded up onto the Tempest on a stretcher. He caught no more than a glimpse of her too pale face. Her body curled onto its side as she coughed. The sound was way too wet, way too hoarse for it to be healthy.
“Ryder!” he shouted.
She tried to sit up only to be pushed back onto the sketcher by Lexi. The doctor shot him a look before they disappeared into the ship. He made to follow only have his way to be barred by Cora.
“What are you doing here, Berto?”
His mouth twisted. “My name is Reyes Vidal,” he pointed out. Berto was a nickname only Ryder got to use.
“What are you doing here?” she repeated, her eyes tired but keen.
Reyes cleared his throat and looked at the prefab that was the site of the meeting. It was new and clean, but now it was sealed by a large omni-field. No doubt to preserve the evidence within so that they could investigate. An investigation that would inevitably lead back to his door. He grimaced. He pushed the worry aside. There will be time for that later.
He tugged on his leather jacket, the one that Ryder had given him. “I’m here on behalf of the Charlatan,” Cora narrowed her eyes at that proclamation. “He wants to offer you the use of his facilities.”
She nodded, prompting him to go on.
“He has a medical facility all prepped to receive any and all victims.”
Her eyes darted back towards the Tempest. Worry creased her brow. Of course she’s worried. Who wouldn’t be? Ryder was the Pathfinder, a lot was riding on her shoulders, shoulders a little too narrow for the burdens she bore.
“Why should we trust you?”
“Me?” Reyes asked, pretending to be surprised as he pointed at his chest. “You shouldn’t trust me. But I’m here on behalf of the Charlatan, not Reyes Vidal.”
She shifted her weight from one leg to another, her eyes darting to the other shuttle was taking off. A gust of hot air slammed into them forcing Reyes to twist out of the way. The thrusters sent a shower of sand and grit everywhere. He shielded his eyes as he watch the shuttle ascend.
“We do not need your help. Run along back to your master and tell him that. We can take care of our own,” Cora declared before turning back towards the Tempest.
Reyes followed as she stepped onto the ramp. She whirled around quickly, biotics flaring. “Vidal, my patience is on short supply here. My Pathfinder just got carted to the medbay after inhaling who knows what, protecting Tann. I’m doing this on account of Ryder, just go. We cannot accept help from a shadowy person we haven’t even met.”
“Then do this for her, she needs medical help. I have a med-bay fully equipped with everything Dr. T’Perro may need. It’s prepped and ready. Just take her there, it’s got to be nearer than wherever you have in mind,” he growled before schooling his features.
Liam walked down the ramp and signalled to Cora. “Lexi is looking for you,” he said. “I’ll secure the site with Drack and Peebee, I’ll just need the Nomad, in case we need to make supply runs.”
Before Cora could answer, Reyes said, “I’ll send you the access codes to the Nomad out there. You can use that one.”
Liam cocked his head, glancing at Cora for direction. She grimaced, squeezing the bridge of her nose before finally nodding. He hefted a pair of bags and headed towards the Nomad. Drack and Peebee followed. The krogan stopped as he passed Cora. “Take care of the kid, we’ll get to the bottom of this. This whole damn meeting was supposed to be secure. I’ll wring the neck of the fucker when I find out who leaked the info.”
Cora patted the krogan’s massive arm. “I will take care of her,” she promised. “Try not to butt heads with Kandros’ people.”
Reyes bit on his tongue, a cold weight heavy against his chest. His eyes locked onto Cora’s, beseeching her to see reason. Liam tossed the bags into the Nomad and called out. “And Cora, Lexi says to bring Berto along.”
Reyes bristled as his eyes flashed, shooting Liam a look. Liam just shrugged and continued to pile supplies into the Nomad. Reyes knew he was taking a big gamble, offering the Tempest crew the use of his Nomad means if Cora refused him, he would be stranded without means to get back to the port.
But Cora sighed eventually. “Fine, come on.”
Breathing was hard. Her throat was burning and painful. Ryder lay flat on her back as the scanner swept over her body. Lexi stared at the readouts with a frown on her face. She prided herself on being a reader of frowns. This frown said things weren’t looking good.
“So am I dying?” she asked, hoping to break the tension.
The doctor sighed, rolling her eyes. “You won’t leave a pretty corpse Ryder.”
“It’s a joke,” Lexi quickly added.
“Bad joke,” she hissed as she coughed again.
Curling over her middle, she pressed both hands against her mouth to hold it in. Lexi hurried over with a nasal cannula. Tiny plastic tubes slipped into her nostrils, it was uncomfortable but they provided some much needed air. However they did nothing for the cough.
“Very bad joke,” she said, her voice hoarser by the minute. “Do not do that again.”
Flashbacks of Habitat 7 pressed against her mind as she doubled over, wishing SAM would hurry with his hacking. It felt the same. Being unable to breathe, the coughing, the watering eyes, but Dad wasn’t there to save her. She had chose to give her helmet to someone else like Dad. I didn’t die, why the hell did you die Dad?
“If you’d stop giving me heart attacks like this, I’ll stop with my bad jokes,” Lexi said. “Giving away your helmet and safe supply of air, how is that a good idea?”
“How is allowing the Nexus Director dying on my watch a good idea?”
“Touché. Still, I’d prefer that over this. You’re exposed to the poison longer than Tann was. The damage it has done to your lungs and throat is extensive. And the poison remains in your body.”
“Do you have the antidote?”
“It will take time to synthesise it. I’ll need a proper medical lab to do it.”
“Isn’t there one on board the ship that Tann came on?”
“Tann didn’t hang around. The ship was headed for the Nexus the moment he was on board.”
“Why am I not surprised?” A third voice spoke. “The director is always good at saving his own skin and leaving everyone else holding the bag.”
Ryder sat up before doubling over again in a coughing fit. Someone came to her side and was rubbing circles into her back. The motion, despite being through her compression undersuit, helped to ease the ache a little.
“Here,” a blurry hand offered her a tissue.
She clung onto it like it was a life buoy, dapping her watering eyes with it. When the fit passed, she realised Reyes was looking back at her.
“Are you all right?” he asked, brown eyes earnest and sincere in a way she had never seen before.
His dark skin turned grey at her reply. The hand he had against her back tightened around her arm. She grinned. “Joke, it’s a joke.”
The relief that rippled across his face was palpable. “Fuck Ryder, don’t do that to me.”
Ryder jerked her chin at Lexi. “My doctor just did that to me. I’m just following her example.”
“Dr. T’Perro,” SAM spoke up. “I’m doing my best to suppress the Pathfinder’s coughing fits but they are getting more frequent and are harder to suppress. I suggest we make haste to a medical lab to formulate the antidote. Her condition will worsen if she didn’t get the antidote soon.”
“Yeah that,” Ryder chimed in.
“The Nexus is at least two days away,” Lexi pointed.
Cora leaned against the counter. It was only then Ryder realised the asari commando had entered the room. Stop that, biotic ninja lady!
“The Charlatan has a medical facility here on Kadara. It’s being offered up for our use,” she said.
Ryder’s eyes narrowed, still wary about the Charlatan. She had been keeping her ear on the ground. The things she had dug up about the man had been mixed. Is it even a man, maybe it’s a woman for all I know? There were stories of good being done but also reports of the Charlatan torturing prisoners and dealing with questionable substances. It made her hesitate. “What strings?” she asked, coughing again.
“No strings,” Reyes replied quickly. “Offered freely as a sign of friendship.”
“Friendship eh?” Ryder exchanged a look with Cora. The older woman shrugged.
Thoughts were jolted from her mind as she pressed the tissue against her mouth, trying to hold back a cough. But there was no denying it. Pain radiated across her chest and up her throat as she coughed hard. She winced as she pulled the tissue away. It was all red and bloody.
Lexi’s eyes widened. “Tell the Charlatan, we’ll be happy to take up on his offer.”
By the time the Tempest docked, Ryder looked paler than he had ever seen her. Her skin normally fair albeit a little tan under the Kadara sun, looked positively ashen now. But more alarmingly she wasn’t teasing him, she wasn’t looking at him with that glint in her eyes. Weariness hung over her like a cloak even as she tried to put on a show of being ok. But Reyes knew she was far from fine.
“I’m going to get the synthesisation process started,” Lexi said. “Vidal, can I trust you to get her to settle in the suite you’ve prepared for her.”
“I didn’t prepare the suite, it was all the Charlatan’s doing,” he pointed out.
The doctor levelled her eyes at him, her look was eloquent in its simplicity. “Right, will do,” he straightened.
Ryder wiped her mouth again, it was coated alarmingly of red. She was quick to crumple the tissue and disposed it. He couldn’t tell if it was to spare them the sight or she was afraid of it herself. “I’m a perfectly functional adult,” she pointed out. Her voice could barely rise above a whisper. Every word was a barb against her raw throat.
“If you’re an adult, you’d had stop talking by now,” Lexi shot back.
Ryder just shrugged. The doctor rolled her eyes and turned back to him. “Get her to rest. I’ll be over quickly.”
The facility was situated near the Port, but not quite within the Port proper. It would be too hard to keep things hidden otherwise. This afforded them a modicum of privacy. “Come on,” he gestured towards the hover-chair.
She glowered at the chair as if he had told her to lick Tann’s boots. Her brown eyes though weary still held an energy as she shot him a look. He lifted his hands in mock surrender. “You’re an adult aren’t you? Do the adult thing.”
She sighed, a sound long and drawn out before sinking into the chair. He programmed the chair to follow and they were off. As they passed Cora, Ryder opened her mouth to give her second instructions, but Cora lifted a hand. “Yes, I will see to the resupply. Yes, I will check in with Liam and the others. Yes, I will check to make sure Tann doesn’t actually die. And yes, I will make sure nobody steals the Tempest,” she listed off on her fingers. “Have I got everything?”
Ryder couldn’t look grumpier. She nodded and folded her arms across her chest. Cora’s gaze caught his. One eyebrow raised as she jerked her chin towards the back of Ryder’s head. Yes, yes, I’ll take care of her.
“I will,” he mouthed.
Cora’s gaze sharpened, she lifted two fingers and pointed at her eyes and levelling them at his chest. Got it, you’ve got your eyes on me.
He didn’t speak and they continued on their way. Nakamoto was already there to meet Lexi so he didn’t worry about that. His focus was wholly on Ryder and her alone.
The facility was small but clean and maintained. That was somewhat a matter of pride for him. They walked down the short corridor past a junction. One branching towards the left towards the labs, another towards the right which led to a surgical theatre. Instead of turning to either branches, he led them straight on towards the only suite here. Ryder made a noise. He kept going, giving her privacy. But he felt a cool hand tightening on his pinky. He glanced back. She had one hand pressed against her mouth as if her life depended on it, the other hand clinging onto his pinky. Under any other circumstances, he’d have teased her. But here and now, it only made the pain in his chest flared.
He dare not name the feeling. Naming it was giving a face to the monster. He didn’t want that. It made it real, it made it tangible. And that only fed the monster.
She coughed, curling in on herself, eyes squeezed shut. Pain etched across every line of her body. Reyes pulled his hand away. Her eyes opened, hurt and disappointment in them. It disappeared when he scooped her up into his arms. She tucked her head against his shoulder, her body jerking in time to her coughs.
“This is way more comfortable than the last time,” he remarked.
She looked at him, a question hovering on her lips. He grinned, false cheer and bravado, he was as much of a master as she was. “That piggy back almost killed me.”
She laughed before devolving into coughs. He waited as she recovered. “How’s my chest? Also known as the best pillow in the world.”
Her eyes turned to half moons, this time from a stifled laugh rather than from a cough. “Not half bad, Reyes,” she rasped.
His chest squeezed again. The door opened and the bed was right in the middle of the room. The sheets were fresh and clean as was everything else in the room. As he put her down on the bed, his hands were reluctant to let her go. She sank into the mattress with a sigh.
The ordeal had exhausted her. She really needed to rest. And she was still dressed in her compression undersuit. That had to be really uncomfortable. “Come on, let’s get you changed out of that suit.”
She grunted and nodded. “Clothes?”
One check of the drawers revealed the standard shapeless hospital gown. She looked at the gown and sighed. “Not my favourite colour.”
“If that’s your worry, tell me what’s your favourite colour I’ll keep those stocked for next time.”
Her gaze sharpened. Reyes stiffened, some sixth sense telling him to tread carefully. But she just shook her head. “Once is enough. But for reference moss green is my favourite colour.”
She tugged the hair cap down from head, it collected at the back of her neck. Her hair puffed up, sticking out every which way. She groaned as her attempts to press her hair down were in vain.
“You look fine,” he reassured.
Her brown eyes glared at him. He couldn’t help the shiver down his spine. “This,” she pointed at her hair, tugging at the ends that refused to lay flat, “is not fine. But it will have to do.”
Reyes carefully placed the gown on the bed and turned his back respectfully. There were grunts of exertion and eventually a long sigh. He refrained from looking as much as he was tempted.
Sweat was beading across her brow, hands twisted towards the zipper at her back. It was stuck. He pressed one hand against her back, the other took hold of the zipper. A quick hard tug and it came free, travelling all the way down to her hip. Her eyes met his, the glint was back.
The suit was tight. It left nothing to the imagination, all soft curves and sharp edges. A body honed by combat and battle, but Ryder’s face retained the gentleness and innocence of youth.
The hair cap was detachable and that came off easily. The rest not so much. His fingers slipped into the space between suit and skin. Heat rose up his face on contact.
“It can’t be your first time,” Ryder teased.
He shook his head. “No, it’s decidedly not. But it’s my first time peeling clothes off a girl and not having my way with her.”
It was her turn to turn red. She turned away, refusing to meet his eyes. The small contact between his fingertips and her bare back made her flinch. Reyes stiffened, pulling away.
“It’s fine,” she whispered. “Your fingers are just cold.”
He peered at her. “Are you sure? I could get Lexi or Cora.”
She shook her head. “They’re busy.”
“And I’m not?”
“You’re busy protecting your investment.”
Reyes froze. How can she see through me so easily? She was the worm that lived in his brain, knowing his thoughts before they were formed.
“Are you my investment now?” He kept movements slow and deliberate, telegraphed ahead of time. One eye always on her, ready to stop at the first sign of discomfort.
“You tell me? I don’t see the Charlatan offering help to anyone else.”
“You’re the only one foolish enough to prioritise Tann’s life over their own.”
She rolled her eyes. “Well I guess I’m enjoying the perks of risking my life now.”
“Using the Charlatan’s med-bay?”
“Having the Charlatan-“ she coughed, while Reyes’ heart skipped a beat. “-the Charlatan’s little helper peel me out of my suit.”
He grinned, hiding the unease he felt. “Glad you know how good you've got it.”
He pulled. Her back and shoulders came free of the suit easily enough. It was extremely reluctant to relinquish her arms. There was a minor tug of war between him and the suit. He stumbled backwards as it came free with a plop.
“Very practical choice,” he remarked. She was wearing a black sports bra underneath.
“I’m a practical girl,” she proclaimed.
“Until it comes to your hair,” he pointed out.
“A girl has got to have some standards right?” She stood, wavering on her feet a little.
He reached out with a steadying hand. Her skin was warm, more so than usual. How would I know what’s usual? He dismissed the thought as she wiggled her hips to work the suit down.
“Not my best dance, I’ll admit.”
“You know you don’t have to do that.”
She looked up. “Do what?”
“This,” he said, gesturing at her.
“What? Taking off my suit? It’s fucking weird to sit around in it. Not the most comfortable.”
“No, I mean the jokes. The banter. You don’t have to do that for me, Ryder.”
“Kate,” she said, lifting her legs at him.
Reyes blinked, gripping the suit at the side of her thighs. Again the contact, fingers against thighs. He looked away, willing the heat of his face to disappear.
“We’re past that, Reyes.”
He lowered his eyes, pretending his heart didn’t lurch at the sound of his name. With a grunt, he pulled.
“And you’re supposed to call me Kate. I mean if it makes you uncomfortable...” her voice trailed off. Is that disappointment?
The thread of the conversation got lost as they worked together to get the suit down. It rolled down to her thighs, revealing the plain black panties. Then it stopped. Their eyes met. “It’s stuck.”
“It’s always hardest at the legs for some reason, just pull. Come on, my big strong man. You’ve eaten a good lunch or something right?” Ryder said. “Just put your back into it.”
Reyes grunted and pulled while she moaned, scooting back on her butt, tugging in the other direction. It peeled back an extra couple of centimetres. They stopped simultaneously, panting from the effort.
“This is a nightmare,” he said. “I much prefer the regular clothes I peel girls out of. What the hell is this material?”
“I know right?” she rasped. Her voice was all but gone by then. “And no sex at the end of this too. This must be such a disappointment for you.”
“Where are you going? What are you looking for?”
“Scissors, shears? Something to cut this thing off you.”
“No!” She stood, making a grab for his arm. But her legs were trapped by the half tugged-down suit. She stumbled and yelped as she threw her arms out to catch herself. He twisted and caught her. His arms wrapped around her. Time seemed to stop in that split second. Heat rushed up against both their faces. Ryder chuckled. “You’re cute when you blush you know?”
That broke the spell. He lifted her back to her feet and helped her back to the bed. “You shouldn’t tease the one who is helping you strip. It’s tiring work. If I don’t know better I’d say you’re enjoying this.”
“Maybe I am?” Her eyes taunting, her lips tempting. Then frowned as her hand pressed against mouth holding back another coughing fit. “Anyway, too expensive. No cutting.”
He snorted but acquiesced. “Fine, then brute strength it is.”
Reyes grunted loudly and gave it one last good pull. The noise wasn’t obscene if she wasn’t also moaning in pleasure at finally being free. The suit came free with an audible plop. The strength at which he pulled was so great, he collapsed against the far wall, clipping the back of his head.
“Let’s not do this again,” he panted.
“Why not?” she rasped. “It was a good workout wasn’t it?”
Lexi cleared her throat. They froze like children caught doing something naughty.
“Mr. Vidal,” she said. “I see you’ve successfully stripped our Pathfinder.”
Reyes stood quickly, balling the suit up in his hands. “Erm, yes. She needed help getting out of her suit.”
“I’m sure.” Her voice indicating anything but belief.
Ryder smiled before launching into another coughing fit. The pain in her throat was spreading into her chest. It felt like acid searing her from the inside out. Lexi hurried over. Reyes turned his back as she quickly stripped out of her undergarments and pulled on the medical gown. She felt like she was wearing a giant paper bag. The gown was only loosely secured at her back, leaving feeling a little more exposed than she’d liked.
With a sigh, she settled into her bed, a blanket pulled up to her chest. Her skin tingled as she remembered where his fingers touched her. The strength of his arms as he carried her, steadied her. It was reassuring in a way she truly needed. Being Pathfinder was tiring work, needing to have all the answers all the time, being responsible for everyone’s survival was taxing to say the least.
Lexi hooked up a heavy duty clear mask to a tank, motioning her to lift her head up. The doctor put a four way rubber strap and indicated she should lay down on it. The mask went over her nose and mouth, then secured by the strap. As the oxygen supply was turned on, Ryder felt instant relief. She could almost weep.
“Is that the antidote?” Reyes asked.
Lexi shook her head. “The synthesis will take at least half a day.”
“That’s too long,” Reyes pointed out. “She is coughing up blood.”
“It’s fine,” she said but her words came out all muffled thanks to the mask. She started to pull it away from her face only to be met by Lexi’s stern stare. Hands lifting in surrender, she left the mask alone.
Either way, she wasn’t concerned. She was in good hands. Lexi knew what to do.
“I’m going to start an IV for some pain relief, some anti inflammation and a mild sedative. You’re dehydrated and I want you to rest. And to stop talking,” Lexi said, this last part she directed it to Reyes and herself.
Lexi approached her with the needle and she turned her head away. Combat was one thing, needles quite another. Reyes noticed and reached out with his hand. She took in instantly. Fingers wrapped around his offered hand as she waited for the inevitable pinch of pain.
“Done,” Lexi announced, installing the bags of medication onto automatic dispenser.
She opened her eyes to find Reyes wincing. She had dug half moons into his back of his hand. Some drawing blood. Sitting up, she tugged at Lexi’s hand and lifted his hand to show her. “Medigel for him,” she said, it came out as muffled speech.
Lexi frowned. “It’s just a scratch,” she pointed out. “Mr. Vidal can take care of it himself.”
She scrunched her brow up to indicate this was not okay, she wiggled his hand in Lexi’s face more forcefully to get her point across. The doctor sighed and fished out a small tube of medigel and tossed it to Reyes. He caught it deftly.
“Apply as needed,” Lexi said. “Do not keep her up for too long. She needs to rest. SAM will inform me if there is any change to her vitals.”
“Understood, Dr. T’Perro.”
And they were alone again. Ryder made a lunge for the tube. But Reyes pressed her back down on the bed. “What are you doing? You’re supposed to be resting.”
Ryder lifted the mask enough to speak clearly. “Give me that, Reyes.”
He narrowed his eyes but obliged. Pushing herself into a sitting position, she uncapped the medi-gel and applied it liberally over the cuts. Her finger drew circles over his hand, over and over. She looked up to find him looking at her with a bemused smile.
Is he laughing at me?
“Sleep,” he said.
It sounded like a good idea. Her eyelids were getting surprisingly heavy.
Do sedatives work this fast?
He stood and gently guided her onto her back again. His hand warm and strong and so present. “All right, all right. You win,” she muttered through the mask.
“Sleep, Kate. I’ll be here when you wake up,” he said. “You’re safe,”
She nodded, allowed her eyes to close. That was the word she was searching for. Safe. That’s how she felt when Reyes held her.
And darkness claimed her.
He held her hand as she slept, watching her breath fogged up the inside of the mask pressed against her face. The slow rise and fall of her chest was reassuring. His fingers twitched, they moved of their own volition towards her face, brushing away the stray strands of hair. The door hissed open and he jerked back as if burnt.
It was Lexi. Her eyes narrowed at him.
“How is she?” she asked.
“Out like a light,” he replied lightly.
He had been sitting there for hours. He should be back at Tartarus, marshalling his people to hunt down the Menin, to make sure nothing led back to him. This was one thing he couldn’t afford for it to happen on so many levels. Better for him to clean the Menin up before the Nexus or the rest of the Tempest crew interfered. But, he looked at the grip Ryder had on his hand, he couldn’t bring himself to go now.
Lexi didn’t remark on the hand holding. Instead she busied herself with installing new packs of medication into the auto dispenser and adjusted the dosage.
“This facility probably saved her a lot of pain,” she said.
Reyes nodded but didn’t speak. The pain in his chest returned.
“She wouldn’t have died. She’d make the trip back to the Nexus, but the two day trip wouldn’t have been pleasant.”
He nodded again, finding Lexi’s eyes on him. “So,” she said, “thank you.”
Reyes hadn’t expected that but he accepted it. He pressed a hand against his chest when it twinged.
The door slid open. It was Nakamoto this time. “Dr. T’Perro, the antidote has been synthesised.”
The antidote was brought in. The hoses was quickly changed from one tank to the other. She groaned a little in her sleep from the disturbance. His hand reflexively twitched to pat her arm. Lexi watched but she made no mention of it.
“The sedative will keep her under for the next three days. It takes as long for the antidote to work now that we got her on it,” she said. “You don’t have to keep vigil. SAM will take me know if anything is wrong.”
He shook his head. “I promised her I’ll be here.”
Lexi shrugged. “Suit yourself.”
Reyes sank back onto the chair. Three days was a long time but if that’s what it took for Ryder to recover, it’s not that bad. The Collective could run itself for a while. Keema could keep a lid on things. He fired off a message saying as much.
A groan, it was low and drawn out. His eyes snapped open, hands immediately going to his hip. But his left hand was trapped. Ryder’s grip was vice tight around his fingers. His fingers were quickly turning numb and white. She was still asleep but moaning in her sleep. Her brow scrunched together as her features twisted.
She’s in pain.
Loathed as he was to pull his fingers from Ryder’s grip, he needed to go get Lexi. He sighed, rubbing circles into Ryder’s back as she tossed and turned in her sleep, coughing slightly into her mask. He pulled.
“Let go, Ryder,” he hissed.
But there was no reasoning with an unconscious person. He tried pulling harder, even wriggling his wrist to get free, but all he succeeded with was making her tightened her hold on him. He winced.
“Do you require help, Mr. Vidal?” SAM asked, his voice chimed from Ryder’s omni-tool.
“Yes, could you get Dr. T’Perro? Ryder seemed to be in pain.”
Just a few minutes later, the asari doctor entered, sleep heavy in her eyes. But it was burnt away in a flash at the sight of her patient. She activated her omni-tool and started scanning. Reyes tried to hide his predicament and just observed. She sighed in the end.
“What is it?” his voice urgent and tight.
“She is running a fever but it’s nothing serious. I was expecting it. The antidote is working and I had given her an additional healing accelerator to help with the damage she had sustained. It’s what’s causing the fever.”
She walked out and quickly returned with fresh IV bags. She hooked them up and nodded. “This should help her sleep better. I’ve increased the sedation.”
Reyes nodded. The doctor eyed him suspiciously. “Is there something wrong with your hand? The scratches are giving you trouble?”
Ruefully he lifted his hand, pulling up Ryder’s arm at the same time, she moaned a little before settling again. Lexi chuckled. “You’ll have to figure that out on your own. If you need me to amputate those fingers, let me know.”
“I hope it doesn’t come to that.”
“With Ryder, you’ll never know,” Lexi sniggered as she left.
Reyes opened and closed his fist and Ryder’s hand moved along with it. “Hey, Ryder what if I need to pee? I have to leave my hand here with you?”
Ryder had no answer beyond the heavy breathing.
“It’ll be ugly if it really comes down to amputation.” He chuckled but shifted the chair closer to the bed. Ryder was sleeping on her side again, curling towards him like he was the sun. I don’t deserve this.
“Kate,” he said, trying the shape of her name on his tongue. Ryder’s breathing deepened. The pain in his chest intensified. And he could no longer lie to himself. He had gone beyond ascertaining the status of an asset. The hurt he felt wasn’t nameless. It was guilt, plain and simple. “I'm sorry.”
And just like that her grip loosened. Blood began to flow back to his fingers, making them all tingly. He sighed, shifting in his seat, missing the excuse of the contact. His hand moved before he gave it conscious thought and wrapped around Ryder’s as he settled in to sleep
Music pricked at her ears. Ryder groaned turning her head into the pillow only to be met with the resistance of the mask around her face. She sighed in frustration and peeled her eyelids open. The room was dark and empty. No light to pierce my fucking eyes. She took a deep breath. There was no pain. She swallowed tentatively. It didn’t hurt. I’m cured! Eagerly she pulled the mask off her face.
The music continued to play as her eyes adjusted to the dim light. The chair nearest to her bed had a folded up blanket. A couple of datapads were placed neatly on top. She was alone. Reyes wasn’t here.
But I'll be shadowing
And waiting till you make it through
A hollow pang of pain echoed in her chest. She had a name for the feeling. It was disappointment. He promised to stick around, but he was nowhere to be seen. She sighed. He had things to do, plans to make, people to seduce, she’s sure.
I am no angel
But I'm willing to watch over you
She plopped back down onto her pillow. The song played itself out and there wasn’t another one. She narrowed her eyes and was about to ask SAM for a status update when muffled voices came through the door. Curiosity pricked at her. The voices were familiar and they were rising in volume.
Can’t a girl sleep in peace?
She shuffled out the door wheeling her IV stand with her. A short distance away she saw Keith, with his perfect fucking hair, confronting Reyes. Her lips lifted upwards at the sight of the Kadara smuggler. But it quickly faded as she listened to the conversation. Neither had noticed her.
“What are you dong here?” Keith snarled, stepping into Reyes’ space. Effortlessly perfect hair bouncing as he moved.
“This facility belongs to the Charlatan. I’m here as his representative,” Reyes replied evenly. His own normally nicely styled hair looked a little limp and sad.
That prompted Ryder to press her hands against her own unruly strands. It was a lost cause.
“My sister should have been taken to Nexus immediately. Why are you keeping her here?”
Ryder frowned. She understood Keith was being protective, but this was taking things too far. He was no doctor, he shouldn’t be making medical decisions and where the hell was he coming from questioning Reyes like this?
“Answer me,” Keith growled, flaring blue.
Lexi popped her head out of her lab and Cora was hurrying over towards the commotion. Both spotted her as she waved them off. This was her brother, he’s her problem to deal with.
Reyes gapped as he watched Ryder stalked towards them, leaning against her IV stand for support. Keith oblivious, flared brighter. His hand twitched, instincts screaming at him to go for his pistol, to shoot first and ask questions later.
But this is her brother, this is not how you greet your brother-in-law. What the fuck, where did that come from?
She growled low in her throat as she placed herself between him and her biotic twin. “What the fuck do you think you’re doing?” She jabbed a finger against her brother’s chest.
Reyes looked down and blanched. Her gown was loose at the back and she was wearing nothing underneath. Her butt was practically just inches away from his groin. He averted his eyes in time to see Lexi shooting him a thumbs up. This bunch will be the death of me.
“I got poisoned because I pulled Tann’s balls out of the fire,” she said, pushing her hand against her brother with every word. “I am here because my doctor thinks this is the best option.”
Keith backed away, his biotics subsiding in the face of a pissed off older sister.
“What the fuck do you think you’re doing coming here, scaring people with your biotics? Reyes hasn’t done anything but help me. You’re lucky nobody has shot you yet.”
“Why would anyone shoot me?” Keith asked incredulously.
Reyes studied Ryder’s twin. He had won the genetic lottery with his hair and good looks. Black hair, thick and luscious almost as if he just stepped out of a shampoo commercial. Just based on this fact alone, he could see where Ryder’s insecurity about her hair came from. Who wouldn’t be with a twin looking like a super model all the damn time?
“You walked into a Collective facility, showing off your biotics? And threatening one of the Collective’s people, how do you think that would look?”
Reyes cleared his throat. “I am merely a freelancer, I am not one of the Collective agents.”
“Right, that,” Ryder went on without stopping for breath.
She was mesmerising, she was powerful in her stance and her confidence. Reyes couldn’t take his eyes off her, bare butt facing him notwithstanding.
Keith shot her a look, anger at being made a fool in front of a stranger. Then he shifted his attention to said stranger. “Anyway, Berto,” he growled. “You just stay away from my sister. I know your type, just out to toy with my sister’s feelings. She deserves better.”
Before Reyes could defend himself, Ryder surged into action, seizing Keith’s finger and twisting it. He yelped. “What are you doing?”
“You do not get to call him Berto,” she hissed, low and quiet but oh-so-dangerous. It sent a shiver down Reyes’ spine. “His name is Reyes Vidal.”
“Got it, got it,” he yielded. “Fuck, Kate. You're fucking up tight about this.”
“This is common courtesy, Keith. Learn it, you’re already fucking 22,” she spat, fire in her eyes. “And who I associate with is my business. You’re not my keeper. Just like I’m not yours.”
“I was just trying to look out for you,” he whined, rapidly turning into a young boy being berated by an older sister.
“You get to do that when you’re not behaving stupidly,” she snapped.
Without waiting for another word, Reyes found himself being dragged by his hand back towards her room. She didn’t seemed to remember she was wearing a flimsy medical gown. The back was open to the world and her ass was hanging out for all to see. He grinned as he took a backwards look at the rest. Lexi and Cora stifled a laugh while Keith made a strangled sound.
“Way to make an entrance,” he said, holding the back of her gown close for her.
“No, no don’t go that,” she hissed, batting his hand away. “This is my chance to moon the lot of them.”
“Hey can you do me a favour later?” Ryder asked.
“Yeah, sure. What do you need?”
“Can you get me some hair product? Do you have any here on the facility?”
Reyes snorted, he had been expecting the request but he hadn’t had the chance to step out of the facility. “I can get you some but they are likely to be men’s products.”
“That’s fine, anything is fine really.”
Another backward glance at Ryder’s twin’s head of black hair. It was all shiny and impeccable, not a single strand out of place. “Would’t your brother have some?” he asked.
“Keith?” she scoffed. “No he won’t have any. He doesn’t use them.”
“Really?” Another glance and this time with a little more heat in his gaze. “How? His hair-“
“I know!” Ryder said heatedly. “Argh, anyway. Hair product, all right?”
As the door slid shut behind them, she seemed to have deflate. The entire walk and conversation seemed to have sapped her energy. She stumbled towards the bed and collapsed into it. Reyes kept a steadying hand around her waist.
“Anything for you, Kate,” he said as music started playing from Ryder’s omni-tool again.
All my life I've been waiting for moments to come
When I catch fire and watch over you like the sun
And she bestowed him with a smile that lit his heart on fire.
I will fight to fix up and get things right
I can't change the world but maybe I'll change your mind
Lyrics taken from Catch You by Dashboard Confessional
Lyrics taken from Catch Fire by Five Seconds of Summer