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The dim lights of his bedroom sliced like knives through the thin tissue paper of his eyelids, stabbing right into the back of his skull as if nothing else was there. When he rolled to shove his face in the cool fabric of his sheets, the pressure took a solid hammer to the front of his head instead. Scott groaned, feeling the way the vibrations rattled his brain like a penny in a jar, and decided he was going to hate the universe today.

“Cranial pressure up three percent,” SAM said, his electronic voice perfectly smooth and the only thing that didn’t hurt right now.

They had a system, which was a very stupid system, but was also the only system Scott was willing to tolerate. SAM would inform Lexi of any abnormalities in Scott’s brain—which was both prudent and necessary, given the scarring left behind—and Lexi would log it while only intervening in the most critical of cases. Scott didn’t have to go in for screening unless he was about to keel over and die (though SAM always repeated the information he was passing on to Lexi) because if they tried to stick him in the medbay again, he was going to go fucking feral. He’d told Lexi he would go feral. Drack and Peebee had been totally on board with the ‘going feral’ plan.

In the name of keeping everyone on board polite and domesticated, Lexi and SAM had worked out the system. The nice thing was that Scott didn’t have to tell anyone about the crippling migraines that hadn’t stopped after finding Meridian, content with the knowledge that SAM was sending that information over to Lexi, who would silently provide appropriate painkillers and nonverbal admonishment for him to rest if he showed up at the medbay. Not talking about them made them less real. Not talking about them made him feel less broken.

Because he wasn’t broken. Just like Sara wasn’t broken, just like their mom was just… resting for a while longer. He needed to send her an email, Scott remembered guiltily. They’d gotten into the habit of daily messages, sent whenever one of them thought of something funny, and he’d neglected that sacred sibling task for three days now. Since she was taking the brunt of the poking and prodding back on Meridian, he owed it to her.

Though if he looked at a screen right now he might cry, so that was a problem.

“You should visit Doctor T’Perro if your pain does not improve,” SAM noted.

“Yeah, I’ll get right on that,” Scott mumbled, groping around for a pillow to lay over the back of his head. Maybe if he mimicked a car crusher with fabric, he’d just die and never have to hurt again. That would be fun and exciting.

It was a good thing Jaal was visiting his family this week. Havarl’s conditions had improved rapidly enough that there were talks of rebuilding the old cities that had been abandoned in the wake of the Kett’s attacks; given his role in opening the vault, the Pathfinder was expected to be on hand for the discussion. Somehow, he’d become the person everyone asked to fix things. The galaxy’s most beloved pest-control guy.

They were going to be here for a while, so Jaal had headed off and two days later, the worst migraine he’d had in months showed up. If he was a superstitious person, Scott would read into that. Since he wasn’t, he opted to be grateful that Jaal wasn’t here to see him laid out and miserable, because Jaal would drag him down the hall to medbay, no matter what excuses Scott managed to dredge up. The worst SAM could do was strenuously disapprove.

“Scott.” Oh, good. There was the strenuous disapproval he’d been dreading. Yayyy. “You should visit Doctor T’Perro. Your pain levels are abnormal and inhibiting your ability to recover.”

“Yeah, but also, what if I just lay here and die? I’m not actually dying. Don’t you dare try and resuscitate me.”

“That would be inadvisable.” If an AI could sigh in exasperation, Scott was pretty sure SAM would be doing it now. The silence that followed that sentence was a good equivalent.

Ugh. SAM was right, but also, Scott didn’t want to get up, or open his eyes, or make the trek to the medbay when the crew quarters were right there and he might get trapped in conversation. On the other hand, depending on how much he looked like death, he might get shoved into the medbay faster.

That might be worse. He’d died in front of them twice now—three times with poor Liam and Cora—and he didn’t want to scare them. Lexi never shared more than she needed to, and SAM had been circumspect with how much damage the Remnant left behind, so he’d just… let them all think that Meridian was the end. Sure, he and Sara were the only ones that could reliably activate it, but they’d managed to convince everyone but the medical personnel that the lingering effects were done with. No more headaches, no more heart attacks, no more full nervous system failures. Done. Kaput. Finished.

Meridian was a new beginning, for them and for Andromeda, and he wanted to keep it that way. Good ol’ Scott Ryder, definitely fine and definitely not dying.

The soft, pneumatic hiss of the door opening made him flinch. SAM must have tattled to Lexi, but it was a heavier step that echoed in his ears, the low wash of energy on his skin the tell-tale sign of an angaran that had recently been in the sun. Not that he’d asked if anyone else could feel it. Since he was pretty sure he was the first to engage in cross-galaxy multispecies relationships, he didn’t think anyone else would know.

“SAM tells me you are refusing medical care,” Jaal said, his sonorous voice so much less grating than Scott’s own. Not quite as good as SAM’s, given that soundwaves were still happening, but it only made him want to cry a little.

“Am not.” Scott didn’t pull his head out from under the pillow but he didn’t stop Jaal from removing it either, the smooth curve of Jaal’s hand sliding over the tufts of his hair. “I’m just taking my sweet time about it.”

“Lexi gave me medication for you. She also said that you are required to report to her the second you decide to leave your room, as she intends to get to the bottom of this.” Just the touch of Jaal’s hand on the back of his skull helped, stupid as that sounded. It made the idea of sitting up a little more tolerable, at least.

“Okay but fair warning? I may puke on you.” The low chuckle from above was a comfort, even if it meant Jaal was probably not taking him seriously. Then again, he hadn't eaten anything recently enough to bring chunks up, so maybe it would be fine. Scott Ryder, saviour of the galaxy, gagging up bile because his brain was slowly shrivelling to death in his own skull.

Right. Enough feeling sorry for himself. With a groan that hurt, Scott slowly rolled over and sat up. His temples throbbed, the pulse of pain almost enough to knock him back down again, but Jaal’s hand was firm around his bicep, keeping him upright. A glass was shoved in his hands, and then a pair of pills. Probably not aspirin, but maybe aspirin. He was pretty sure one of the colonies had started synthesizing an equivalent at some point last month.

Scott swallowed them down with an effort, fighting back the urge to throw the water back up immediately. Sitting up had been a mistake. Living had been a mistake. Everything about this was a mistake and maybe he should’ve gone to see Lexi last night when the migraine first started instead of waiting until now. Fuck.

“You shouldn’t hide when you’re in pain,” Jaal said, amusement gone from his voice. Since he’d only squinted his eyes open long enough to confirm where everything was, Scott couldn’t see Jaal’s face. Given that Jaal wore all his emotions openly, it was probably the sad, puppy-eyes expression he always wore when he was worried. Fuck.

“It would’ve passed eventually.” The sound of his own voice made Scott wince again, the throb in his ears much heavier now that he was sitting up.

“Without treatment of the underlying cause, that is doubtful,” SAM said, because SAM was a traitor and totally getting coal in his stocking this year.

“We can go see Lexi together if you do not feel well enough to walk on your own.” The firmness in Jaal’s voice said that arguing would be pointless, but it was the gentle brush of his thumbs over Scott’s cheeks that sealed his fate. He could do a lot of things, but resisting Jaal’s puppy-eyes was not one of them.

“Yeah, okay,” he said wearily, leaning into the touch. It was easier to stay upright if Jaal was doing all the work. “Fine. We’ll go see Lexi and she can yell at me for having symptoms syndrome and problems disorder.”

“Those are not real things,” Jaal said, though the doubt in his voice said that he wasn’t entirely certain about that.

“They’re not real things,” Scott agreed, even if it would’ve been hilarious to pretend otherwise. “Not that I’m not happy about you being within the splash zone, but why are you here?”

Because if Jaal was back because SAM had called him last night—because if it was just that Scott was broken now and Jaal was only sticking around out of obligation—because if that looming question about children was still there and totally unanswerable and Scott was keeping him from what he really wanted—if it was anything like that, he wouldn’t be able to stomach it. Sara didn’t want to be seen as weak after her coma and kidnapping, fought tooth and nail to be something other than the sick Ryder twin. And he got that. He understood, because he was the exact same fucking way: desperate to be something, anything other than a failed aspect of Dad’s legacy and an idiot in need of saving.

If he kept pretending like everything was fine, then he could keep being the Pathfinder instead of being useless, stupid Scott, who’d cracked his helmet open and gotten his dad killed.

“I missed you,” Jaal said simply, like it was the easiest thing in the world to see. “I missed my family too, of course, but it was lonely seeing them without you by my side. SAM contacted me once I was back aboard the Tempest, and I stopped by the medbay on my way here.”

That… was okay. That was okay. Slowly, he tipped over, pressing his face into the soft fabric of Jaal’s rofjinn, feeling the shape of armor underneath it. Even with Havarl getting better, it wasn’t technically safe. Jaal curled one hand over the back of his neck, thumb brushing at the fringe of hair at his nape. The electric hum under his skin was stronger but not unpleasant, more like a weird form of pain therapy than anything else. Maybe that was just the medicine. Maybe he was just really sensitive to Jaal specifically.

Maybe he should talk to Lexi about these migraines, just in case.

“I’m gross,” Scott said, trying not to cry because that would only make his headache worse.

“You are never ‘gross’, despite your refusal to shave. A refusal that none of the rest of the crew shares.” There was a beat of silence. “In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone else with hair on their face. Are you certain it’s not an abnormality of yours?”

Despite himself, Scott cackled. “Ow fuck, don’t make me laugh.”

“My apologies, darling one.” Jaal’s thumb smoothed down his neck again. Soft. Loving. Here for a reason that Scott could accept, and not running despite all evidence that he should.

It was enough.

To: Sara
From: Scott

Hey, I think Lexi wants to steal my brain. This is a warning so that when she inevitably steals your brain too, you can’t say I didn’t warn you. 

Whenever Harry clears you for flying again (and they stop asking you to unlock things on Meridian) you should come out to Havarl. It’s gorgeous. Better than the worlds we thought we’d find. Also maybe Lexi will get confused and steal your brain instead of mine first.

Pawn to F4.

“You should have come to me sooner,” Lexi said, because she had always been the least happy with the stupid system. Which, fine, okay, she was a doctor, he was her patient, Scott got that. But he’d always been certain that SAM would catch anything serious before it was critical, and lo! He’d been correct. Sort of correct. Mostly correct, which was what mattered.

Jaal wasn’t in the room, because Jaal was packing for him with the bright optimism that Scott would wear something other than a shitty sweatshirt for once. Ha.

“I didn’t think it was a big deal,” Scott said, grateful that Jaal wasn’t here for this at least. “I mean, I’ve had headaches since SAM was transferred to me. Pretty sure that was mostly normal.”

“It was not,” SAM said.

“SAM is vastly more integrated with your body than any other pathfinder, which I’d hoped you’d realized after the Archon seized him out from under you.”  Lexi gave him a quelling look when he opened his mouth to defend himself (because his sister had been kidnapped and also dying, so it hadn’t seemed like a big deal at the time.) 

Scott closed his mouth.

“There’s scarring on your brain, Scott. Sara’s too, so some of it is Remnant, but yours is much more severe than hers, and the buildup of cerebrospinal fluid is a problem. We didn’t have any of this on the initial scans right after the fight against the Archon, but something has changed in the intervening time. Right now I’m willing to try managing it with medication rather than surgery—which will only be done on Meridian or the Nexus, I am not performing amateur frontier brain surgery on the Tempest—but if this gets worse, we’ll need to put in a shunt, Scott. You’re not draining fluid like you should be.”

“But I sure can get a nosebleed on command, huh?” Scott blew out a sharp sigh through his teeth, grinding his knuckles into his forehead. “Sorry. Pulling back the snark mode.”

“You’re frustrated. You can’t really take a break, I understand that Scott, and you feel like your body is failing. But it won’t get better if we keep avoiding the problem instead of confronting it.” Lexi’s voice softened, went sympathetic instead of clinical. “Your legs healed up rather well, all things considered, and your heart is still beating fine. If we can just get your brain back on track, things will be as they should be.”

“You can’t promise that.” He didn’t need the reminder that the rest of him was broken too.

“I can’t promise you’ll be perfectly healthy again, but I can promise that you’ll be healthier. If you follow the medication regime I’m putting you on. No skipping doses. No avoiding refills. And no pretending like you’re fine when you really aren’t.” Lexi rested her hand on his shoulder, a single point of contact that was more comforting than it should be.

“I’m going to have to do regular checkups like Drack, aren’t I.” It wasn’t a question, and Lexi only smiled at him approvingly in answer. Looked like he got to join the cripple squad—which was a terrible thing to think about a close friend and the best father figure he’d ever had (Dad included) but there it was.

“Take it easy for the rest of the week,” Lexi said as she pulled her hand away, noting something on the datapad that probably contained his awful medical history. “Visit Jaal’s family. Relax. Stress will only make the problem worse.”

“Right, right, yeah. Don’t do drugs, don’t stay out too late, call you when I get home?” She gave him another chastising glance, then handed over a small packet of pills when he stood. Funny how the Tempest was stocked up on those and not just the usual range of medigel options. He’d bet that someone back on Hyperion had anticipated this.

Maybe Harry. Probably Lexi, since she’d been on his case about SAM from the first time his heart stopped. Hopefully no one else.

Rather than dwell on that fact—and SAM’s uncharacteristic silence, which usually indicated he was sending information over to someone else—Scott slouched his way back down to his bedroom. A good Pathfinder might use it as more than an occasional rec room, especially since the rest of the crew slept in shifts due to the lack of bed options, but he was a mediocre Pathfinder at best and also selfish. So selfish. So terribly, awfully selfish, and deeply protective of his very nice, very big bed.

Given all the shit he’d done for the galaxy, Scott was pretty sure he deserved a bed all to himself.

“You have no clothes,” Jaal said in wonder as he came through the door, his own small satchel of things resting on the bed next to the tight bundles of Scott’s workout gear. “None at all. Given how many kinds of fashion there were on the Nexus, I had assumed you would have something else tucked away, but it is all copies of the same shirt.”

“It’s a nice shirt,” Scott said defensively, stuffing his pills in a pocket and coming over to help Jaal pack.

“And yet, I cannot help but wonder what you would look like in a different shirt.” Jaal was picking on him, which was a cruel punishment when Scott had been good enough to sit through Lexi’s poking and prodding, but it was good to see him smile anyways.

“I swear I have another one around here somewhere, and a jacket… It’s all Initiative stuff though, most people weren’t allowed to bring anything personal. Storage constraints.” Standing on his toes, Scott hooked his chin over Jaal’s shoulder, squinting down at the sad display before them. Nothing to drive home the lack of work/life balance like AI branded sweatpants as his only wearable clothes.

“One of my brothers has an interest in textiles. If you stand still for long enough, he may try and design something better for your frame—when I made Liam’s rofjinn, he was quite helpful.” Jaal’s free hand found its way back, curling over the curve of Scott’s hip. The warmth in it was nice, burning through the soft cloth of his workout clothes.

“Angaran eyesight is not based on movement, noted.” He’d have to ask Liam to put some old Earth dinosaur classics on the movie watching list. His jokes weren’t nearly as funny without context.

Jaal chuckled anyways, able to recognize when he was being flippant, and went back to packing. It was still a sad affair, one overworked Pathfinder’s castoffs tucked in around a rebel leader’s bug out bag. If Jaal hadn’t chosen to go the whole way with him, would he have even fewer things in that bag? Would he have stayed on Aya or been transferred to Voeld? Would he even be alive right now?

Not comfortable thoughts to have, and Scott dug his chin into the hard curve of Jaal’s armor to push them out of his head. No point in ‘what-ifs’, not when Jaal was standing here now and puzzling over whether or not Scott would need a razor (yes.) He could wonder for the rest of his life what the Initiative would have looked like under Sara, under Dad, under anyone’s hand but his own, but he’d never know. Not really.

Maybe that was for the best. He’d been worried sick when Sara was stuck in a coma. He couldn’t imagine how messed up he’d be if he’d heard she’d died as often as he had—bad enough for the Archon to find her because of him, he couldn’t imagine hearing she’d gone through all the dumb shit he’d been slapped upside the head with. She’d always been the smart twin, though. Probably would have managed it without getting herself hurt as often.

“You will be okay, won’t you?” Jaal asked, soft and unprompted.

“I have to take medicine every twelve hours, but Lexi says I should be fine,” Scott said, bending the truth just a little. Better to keep the surgery conversation to himself for now; he didn’t want to freak Jaal out.

“Good. I will be making sure you do.” Jaal finished packing the clothes away, fastening his bag closed and rolling his shoulder a little to dislodge Scott from his pyjak-esque cling. “Come, we should leave soon if we wish to make it back home before night sets in. My mother has missed you.”

To: Scott

From: Sara                    

I’m absolutely not coming out to Havarl if you’re only telling me so Lexi will steal my brain. That is a violation of the Twin Conventions, as ratified during the Sibling Accords of 2137, and as such even mentioning the fact would put you in the realm of thirty years of jail time. You monster.

Since when have we played chess, anyways? You hate chess. I hate chess. I don’t think either of us actually knows how to play. And why do you get to be white?

Pawn to B5.

His last birthday had been back the Milky Way, three weeks before the Andromeda Initiative was set to launch. The two before it, he and Sara had skipped the whole thing—first, because they were stationed across the system from each other, and then because Mom was dying and none of them had felt up to putting in the effort. With the personal belongings restrictions as tight as they were, and with most of their friends distancing themselves from the Ryders after Alec’s fall from grace, it had been a sad, presentless affair. A poor send-off for the Milky Way, and even poorer because of how it contrasted against the last birthday party they’d had back on the Citadel.

In a lot of ways Cora had opened up to him, but her typical birthday wasn’t one of them. Scott could make guesses, and he figured they’d even be pretty accurate, but it wasn’t the same as knowing. Doing a garden-themed party on the Tempest seemed unfeasible and maybe a little trite, but they were between planets on the date of, so a trip down wouldn’t work either. For lack of anything better to plan, Scott enlisted Vetra and Drax in obtaining popcorn and birthday cake, while Liam and Lexi handled the drinks situation. It was their first birthday party as a crew. They had to do something.

And it was worth it, to see the way Cora’s eyes went a bit watery as everyone yelled “Happy birthday!” at her, that firm composure wavering for just a second before she got a hold of herself.

Movie nights were hosted in the Pathfinder’s quarters, and parties were going to be the same way. It was the biggest collective room in the ship, other than the bridge (which was too full of vital equipment to risk a party) and the cargo bay (currently occupied by the Nomad, which was very fat.) Giving his room up for a couple hours was a small price to pay for a crew of happy drunks.

Happy loud drunks.

Everyone was in his room, which left the crew bunks empty. The silence was blissful, the lighting dimmed by someone else’s hand, and while he wasn’t about to climb into someone else’s bed yet, it was nice having the option. Even if it wasn’t an option he should take.

It was just—

It was just that Peebee had gotten four drinks in and promptly started trying to work on Zap, bringing it in line with Poc. His desk had all the necessary equipment and she had the vague but genuine idea of making Zap more capable of surveillance too, so of course she had to work on the idea now. Genius never waited, Ryder!

It was just that Lexi had grown up on Omega, not Thessia, but she had enough experience with other asari to swap the occasional story with Cora. In the absence of the other members of the asari ark, and in the absence of anyone else from Cora’s old squad, Lexi’s thoughtful recollections of her fellow students and some of the asari she’d met over the years was the sweetest ambrosia Cora could ask for. It was her birthday, after all, and even if she’d never admit it, everyone knew she was still sick with longing for the unfulfilled promise of becoming one of them someday. It was an unrealistic dream, the kind of dream Cora would never admit to having, but it was a dream that Lexi could indulge the very edges of. So she did.

It was just that Suvi was currently playing man in the middle for another Gil and Kallo argument, occasionally correcting their math with a good humor Scott could only dream of matching. ‘No longer actively hostile’ and ‘genuinely friendly’ were miles apart from each other, but slowly they were getting there. Even if Suvi had to drag Kallo there herself.

It was just that Vetra had gotten herself a birthday cake too, since he’d asked her to ‘acquire’ one for Cora, and she was bound and determined to make her way through it. When it was one turian versus a cake for six people at least, that was the kind of endeavor legends were made of. They’d gotten the commlines open, Captain Dunn and the rest of the Hyperion command staff wishing Cora a happy birthday, so Vetra had commandeered that to talk with Sid real quick. Real quick had turned into two hours, because of course it had. He couldn’t even fault her for it.

It was just that Jaal had run a fond, loving hand down his cheek and pressed a sweet kiss to his lips before being dragged into a debate between Liam and Drack on the best weapons in the galaxy. Given that he was something of an expert on kett and angaran weaponry, he was the obvious choice to break the tie. That he’d just added a third immovable opinion should have been the obvious outcome to everyone.

It was just that Scott had started hurting thirty minutes after finding Cora in the bio lab, a dull throb beating in his head to the tune of the party music playing over the speakers in his room. And he hadn’t let anyone see, because he didn’t want to be a letdown, didn’t want to harsh the vibe, didn’t want to ruin Cora’s birthday, didn’t want to make them worry, didn’t want them to see the weakness he’d been trained to hide.

And wasn’t that just the stupidest thing of all? No one on his team would care about him needing a break. Of course they wouldn’t. They were his friends. And yet…

“Don’t ever let them see you weak,” Dad had said to him once, his fingers so careful as he smoothed a bandage over Scott’s skinned knee. Sara’s knuckles, split open on the hard carapace of the turian child that had shoved Scott over, were already cleaned off and wrapped. In the background, their mother had been doing her best to smooth things over with the understandably frustrated teacher who’d called to inform her of the incident.

“Don’t ever let them see you like this,” Dad had said, and he’d said it with the solemn sincerity of a man who only wanted to protect his children. Being an N7 took him away so often, and even when it didn’t their father had been a distant, internally focused man. It was hard to remember the moments of real affection, because every single one of them had been buried in responsibility and duty, only peeking out from the crumbling dust of obligation that their father had for them.

“Don’t ever give someone the opportunity to hurt you,” Dad had said, and then he’d gone and twisted the fucking knife, killed himself for Scott because he’d been a coward. Dad, strong, unyeilding, uncompromising Dad, had been a fucking coward, the kind of coward that couldn’t pick between his kids and his wife, still frozen and unaware of what he’d done. Dad hadn’t known how to tell Mom that he’d let one, maybe both of their children die on this ill-fated venture, all for the sake of hiding her in a cryopod and hoping there would be a solution. Dad had seen two bad options and taken the third, most awful one.

“Don’t give people that kind of power over you,” Dad told him every time Scott closed his eyes, his true last words still inaudible in Scott’s memories. He had Dad’s perspective now, he knew what his father had said, but he always remembered those final moments in the high-pitched haze of suffocation, Dad’s lips moving while no sound came out. It didn’t matter whether Dad was right or wrong, because Scott had taken that lesson to heart in all the worst ways, and he knew it.

But he still couldn’t shake it off. Jaal knew, but Jaal was busy, and Scott didn’t want to drag him away from a fun conversation. Lexi knew, but Lexi never took as many breaks as she needed; if she was caught up in talking with Cora, he wasn’t going to interrupt that. Everyone else represented a shapeless kind of fear, the unformed dread of rejection. Would this be the straw that broke the camel’s back? Would this be the thing that made them finally wash their hands of him?

It was so fucking stupid, but here Scott was, trying not to cry or throw up or throw up and cry while in the crew quarters. This fucking headache was insane. What had he ever done to deserve this?

“Pathfinder,” SAM said, breaking through the low thump of music that Scott could still faintly hear, “you should take one of the triptan in the medbay for your headache. It will help.”

“I don’t know if you noticed, but I’m not a pharmacist,” Scott croaked, squeezing his eyes shut like it would help. It didn’t.

“It’s the medication that Dr. T’Perro most often gives you for your acute migraines. If you stand, I will guide you to it.”

He opened his eyes again, lifting his omnitool up and activating the scanner. Sure enough, SAM had laid out a path for him—like he’d forget the route to the medbay, though Scott was pretty sure that was SAM’s weird sense of humor at work again—and it was only a matter of finding the destination. With a groan, he hauled himself upright, catching the edge of the wall for balance as he heaved with the change in position. He was not going to throw up, because then he’d have to clean that up with a migraine, and no. No. Not happening.

“Okay,” he said, swallowing bile down and keeping his head as steady as possible as he followed the yellow guide. “Okay, I’m good, I’m fine, I can do this. Triptan in the medbay, water from the kitchen.”

“Jaal, when he does not sleep in your quarters with you, most often uses the bunk on the top left, closest to the bathrooms,” SAM said, putting another quarter in the ‘possibly a mind reader’ jar.

“Triptan, water, Jaal’s blankie.” The hiss of the door sliding open was whisper soft but still enough to make him wince. Only a few steps to the medbay, following the yellow line past the exam beds to Lexi’s desk in the corner. There were a couple medicine bottles sitting out, but SAM highlighted one in particular for him. “Do I really need them often enough for her to keep them out?”

“You have been requesting aid with your migraines with greater frequency over the last three months.” SAM’s voice was without judgement, but Scott felt his gut twist with shame anyways.

“That obvious about it, huh?” He shook two tablets out into his palm, then carefully sealed the bottle and set it back down. “I thought we did these in biodegradable packets now.”

“There are some exceptions to that rule. Would you like to hear the criteria that determines the vessel used to transport medication on space-capable ships, Pathfinder?”

Scott couldn’t tell if that was a joke or an olive branch, SAM’s way of making him feel a little less alone when he couldn’t bear the party any longer. It felt weird to turn him down. Really, Scott didn’t want to turn him down. “Uh, yeah. Let me have it.”

Their private line wasn’t audible, not strictly—SAM’s voice was delivered on micro vibrations in Scott’s ears, in practice a psychic little connection that no one could hear. It was much easier for him to tolerate in the middle of a headache like this, and the monologue SAM embarked on was a subtler, sweeter reminder that he was still there. They were still connected, with none of the agonizing, boundless terror that the Archon had left behind after Meridian.

He downed both tablets with a healthy swallow of water, leaving the cup behind as he shuffled towards the crew quarters, cutting a wide arc around the door to his own room. The last thing he needed was to set off the motion sensor and let everyone know he was sneaking around out here. Not that they’d miss the fact that he was gone (hopefully) but still. It was the principle of the thing.

SAM droned on as Scott hauled himself up into the bunk he’d been told was Jaal’s preferred one. There wasn’t a ton of space—he felt a twinge of guilt over that, given his own massive bed—and it was clearly a shared bunk, one of the photos taped on the wall featuring Liam and what seemed to be his family. But there it was, faint but still present, Jaal’s scent laced into the pillow and blankets, mingling with Liam’s hair product and the Initiative mandated body wash.

“Hey SAM?” Scott asked, cutting through an extended tangent about the purpose of vacuum-sealed bags in mass produced first aid kits.

“Yes, Pathfinder?”

“Can you let me know when it seems like the party’s winding down?”

“Of course, Pathfinder.”

To: Sara

From: Scott

It’s weird thinking about all the places I want to show you whenever we get Meridian figured out. It’s so fucking cold here, even after the climate fixes, that I nearly got my tongue stuck on the rim of a metal water bottle yesterday. It makes me wonder how many things you would’ve tried to lick if you’d been Pathfinder.

I’m pretty sure whatever you did with that rook is illegal, but I don’t want to look up the rules and actually learn how to play chess. Just know that I totally saw you and I totally know what you’re doing.

Knight to F7.

“I swear to you, it gets colder every time we land here,” Liam complained, snow crunching under his boots as they moved through the abandoned angaran settlement. The kett presence on Voeld was still strong enough that efforts to move anyone but Resistance to the planet were still on standby—like Eos, they were waiting for a secure footing before they took a leap of faith. Taerve Uni was more military than any of the other outposts, the hostile planet enough to warrant guards even without the kett to consider and the goal of mining water too important to go without protection.

It meant that reclaiming history was on standby too, the angaran scientists working on conjunction with the Nexus to oust their conquerors before returning attention to the past again. With a future now bright ahead of them, the frantic desire to find what was lost before dying no longer haunted the researchers that called Voeld home. The race against the clock had turned in angaran favor for once.

There were still naysayers, but Scott figured there always would be. Half a century of brutal oppression was hard to forget. A cute face and charming smile only went so far.

“You are pathetic,” Jaal said from somewhere ahead of them, his understanding of angaran settlements electing him as their guide for now. “It is only a little chilly.”

“As if! It’s frigid!” Liam’s voice was outraged, but there wasn’t any true anger behind it. The grumble of agreement from Vetra was a muted twin to it, half-joking but half-serious too. Voeld was brutally cold.

It was, if Scott was honest, kind of a relief. He hadn’t realized how bad the humidity and pressure from thunderstorms had messed with his head until they were off Havarl. The Tempest was climate controlled, so he hadn’t thought about it, but barometric pressure existed regardless of all the environmental perks of a personal spaceship.

If Voeld was cold and wet and miserable, at least it was consistently so. The crisp air was sharp in his lungs but it cleared out the cobwebs in his head. And it made Jaal happy to be here, weirdly enough. All the angara were more comfortable in the cold than their alien counterparts. He’d move mountains to make Jaal happy; a little snow was practically nothing.

Also Liam crying like a baby over snow would never stop being hilarious. He was a terrible friend, but on the other hand, Liam dumped pirates in his lap without warning once, so it was only fair to return the favor. 

“Seriously though, it can’t just be me, right?” Liam hauled himself up to one of the higher-set houses, testing the railing on the balcony before swinging himself over it. “Ryder, you’re freezing too, right?”

“I am in a state of snow-induced nirvana,” Scott said, scooping up a handful and taking aim. They’d taken care of the last kett patrol almost two hours ago and no Remnant or wildlife had shown up in the meantime. He’d never get a better chance.

“Come on, you grew up on the Citadel, how are you handling this better than I am?” Without a hint of suspicion in his body, Liam turned back around to peer down—fatal mistake.

Scott’s snowball hit him square in the face.

“Friendly fire!” Props given where they were due, Liam reacted instantly, ducking into cover with the tell-tale hunch of a man about to start stockpiling. With a laugh, Scott followed suit, swinging behind a doorway. He’d lost sight of Vetra and Jaal was still somewhere ahead of them, so it was one on one for now.

“That’s what you get for letting your guard down!” he called, rapidly forming another snowball. Voeld’s snow had been too cold to properly form the last time they’d landed, but the slowly rising temperature was at the point now that even the permanent chill left the snowfall fluffy and sticky instead of sharp and frozen.

“I trusted you! We should have been on a team together!” Liam’s voice was moving at an angle that sounded like he was trying to line up a shot to hit Scott’s doorway refuge. That wasn’t about to happen.

“All’s fair in love and war!” With a calculated risk, he burst out of cover, lobbing the ball at the last ledge he’d heard Liam behind. A yelp followed, his aim true, and Scott basked in the feeling of victory for a solid three seconds before a snowball hit him from the shadowy alcove of another abandoned building.

Scott let out a yelp of his own, scrambling over a crumbling half-wall as three more snowballs hit his back and shoulders. From above, Liam let out an inelegant squawk, caught off guard by a snowball to his face when he peered over to see who was taking shots at his enemy. The precision suggested a sniper, but the sheer number of projectiles said—

“Alright boys, two against one,” Vetra called, smug and triumphant, “let’s see how bad you lose.”

“How are you making them that fast?” Liam shouted, metal creaking under his boots as he crossed over Scott’s hiding place. He was going right, which meant Scott needed to bolt across the open space to the left to get Vetra in a proper pincer. A quick peek over his cover confirmed that she had a steadily growing pile to assault him with.

Damn. No time but the present to try. Scott shifted into a crouch, judging the distance to determine if he could do it without getting hit, then froze when a cold glove wrapped around his arm to keep him down.

“If you stay here,” Jaal whispered, his form cloaked by the stealth technology he must have activated when the snowball fight first started, “I will take position in the other house. With Liam above, there will be too many targets to hit.”

“Thought it was supposed to be two on one, not three on one?” Scott whispered back.

“We fight together, darling one.” The hand on his arm squeezed for just a second, then disappeared as Jaal slipped across the gleaming white stretch between buildings. His footprints left near-invisible divots in the snow, but Vetra was too busy bullying Liam to notice without a body’s movement to catch her eye.

There was a flush on his cheeks that cold alone couldn’t explain, but Scott wasn’t about to let that distract him. So maybe his alien boyfriend was smooth as ice, he still had a snowball fight to win. And Vetra was relying on emotional weaponry now that conventional weaponry wasn’t proving as effective.

“Don’t be a coward, Ryder!” she called, nailing Liam with a clean precision that her usual shooting couldn’t match. “Come face your maker!”

“You can’t call me a coward when you’re hiding behind superior weaponry!” he said, poking his head out long enough for her to take the bait. Two snowballs hit the wall in front of him, whiffing past his head fast enough to whistle a little.

Then Vetra shouted, “Shit!”

“Yeah, Jaal!” Liam whooped from above. Taking that as his signal, Scott popped his head out of cover again, aiming for the divot in Vetra’s armor where it curved around her neck plating. It hit her square in the neck, prompting an outraged yell, Jaal and Liam’s snowballs hitting her a second later. 

She teetered for a second, then fell back dramatically on her pile of ammunition, waving a hand in defeat. “Alright, alright, I give! Fuck, it really is cold out here.” 

“I’m telling you!” The soft pulse of jump jets sounded as Liam hopped down from his perch, landing in an easy crouch before extending a hand to her. With the battle over, Jaal emerged as well, shaking his head a little like he hadn’t hopped in on their antics the second he could. Scott grinned at the sight, swinging over the crumbling wall he’d been hiding behind and loping over to where Vetra was still sprawled out in the snow.

“You know, it’d be less cold if you sat up,” he pointed out helpfully, laughing when she rolled her eyes and attempted to drag Liam down instead. “Come on, I think this place has been picked clean. We should head back to the Nomad and see if there’s anything we need to do on the way back to the outpost.”

“Least productive afternoon ever,” Liam said, planting his feet and hauling Vetra up despite her best efforts to put his face in the snow. “Still, we know it’s not occupied by anyone now.”

“It is unlikely that the kett would have taken up residence, but that did not rule out the possibility of others,” Jaal agreed, squinting up at the sky. Checking to see if the weather would turn, probably.

“You need to take your acetazolamide, Pathfinder,” SAM said over their private channel. Scott grimaced for a second, but he wasn’t about to let the reminder ruin his mood, especially since SAM was just being helpful.

“—cheating to bring Drack in next time, not if you’re going to have Jaal on your side,” Vetra was saying when he started paying attention again, tipping herself forward to dump the snow out from the neck of her armor. “Maybe Peebee and Cora would like to get in on it too? Girls versus boys.”

“Drack is a girl now?” Scott asked, checking for any signs of an ambush as he started heading back to the Nomad.

“He’s an honorary girl. And I’m pretty sure he’ll defect to the losing side once we really get going, he likes fighting against the odds.”

“That’s true. So the question is, do I suffer the blow to my pride and let myself lose long enough for him to defect?” He ducked under the cuff at his head from Liam, leaning closer to Jaal as Vetra fell into step at their rear, her rifle held low and easy at her hip.

“I’m voting for ‘stick it out and try to win anyways’. I get the feeling Drack won’t swap sides if he thinks we’re losing on purpose.” Liam groaned as he hauled himself up into the Nomad, scooting as far down the back seat as he could. “Ugh, I hate the knee-knocking part.”

“Just for that, I’m poking you with my elbows too,” Vetra said, sliding around Jaal to climb into the middle.

“Play nice back there or you don’t get any s’mores when we set up camp.” The Nomad’s seat fit him like a glove at this point, the steering wheel worn smooth where his hands always rested. Scott put it into gear, pulling away from the abandoned angaran settlement and turning it towards the outpost. Techiix was closer, but Taerve Uni would have contraband chocolate substitute somewhere, he was sure of it.

The Tempest curved over the stretch of ice that was their landing spot, a delicate slice of black through the cold blue landscape in front of the outpost. He came to a skidding stop next to it, the Nomad’s tires kicking up snow as it slid. A few Initiative scientists looked up from the balcony of one of the modular buildings, then shook their heads and looked away once they realized it was just him, and Scott let out a soft laugh as he swung the door of the Nomad open.

“You’re crazy, Ryder,” Liam said, his boots crunching on the snow as he moved out of Vetra’s way. Jaal emerged from the other side, shaking his head a little in agreement with Liam’s assessment.

“I’m not, I’m just living a little. You would’ve done it too.” Vetra was already making a direct line for one of the salarian settlers, who looked alarmed to be the focus of her attention. The rest of the Tempest crew was probably scattered throughout the outpost, because he’d told them to take a break—no point in Kallo rotting away in that pilot’s chair of his when they weren’t lifting off for another day at least.

“Yeah, I would’ve! That’s how you know it’s a bad idea.” Liam’s laugh echoed over the ice right as Jaal’s gloved hand rested at the small of Scott’s back.

“Unless you brought it with you, I can step up to the Tempest to retrieve your medicine, darling one,” Jaal murmured, soft enough that it could be ignored.

For a second, that shameful bitterness overtook him. He didn’t want to be sick, to need the stupid head pills, to show weakness in front of his team. They’d seen him collapse often enough and never judged him for it, but there had always been an active threat those times. The only thing trying to kill him was his own goddamn brain now, and that made him feel— 

Dad wouldn’t have fallen to pieces like this, but Dad had killed himself and run away from the possibility that he couldn’t save his entire family no matter what. So maybe Dad wasn’t the best example to follow.

“Uh, yeah, that’d be great,” Scott said after a second, trying not to focus on the worried glance Jaal gave him. “I’m gonna head in and see if I can scrounge up some stuff for s’mores, I feel like this is vital Milky Way culture you need to experience.”

“If you say so.” Jaal tugged him closer and pressed their foreheads together. “I love you.”

To: Scott

From: Sara

We opened up something that looks like an archive yesterday. There’s so many screens that you can’t take a step without running into one, but you can’t see them without an omni-tool. SAM’s been working on a universal translation tool with the fragments he’s gotten, but it’s slow going. They need me on site most days.

I miss you. I wish I could see where Dad died. Is that morbid of me?

Pawn to H1, promote to Queen.

It crept up on him slowly, a faint pressure on his sinuses and temples accompanied by the hazy blur of people and things moving around him. Scott figured he needed sleep, because he always needed sleep, and thought nothing of it—SAM would warn him if it was a big deal, and he’d been taking his medicine. He’d been good.

They were something like five hours out from Elaaden when he finally realized that he was stupid and that insubstantial increases in brain pressure were still enough to ruin his fucking day. And it would ruin his day, no matter which pills Lexi chose to throw at the problem, because he had Jaal’s armor mostly peeled off and his own sweatshirt half off his head before the first edges of pain hit.

Jaal’s hands were soft as they smoothed over his hips, skimming up under his undershirt and pulling it off too. He tried to ignore the headache blooming, chucking his top across the room and shoving Jaal back, his own fingers skimming over the alien ridges of Jaal’s chest. There was probably a really good reason for the way angaran collarbones were shaped, but in the absence of any science, Scott liked to think it was just to keep him on his toes. With the thick muscle roped over Jaal’s shoulders, it looked good.

But Jaal always looked good. From the first time he’d walked through Aya, he’d thought Jaal looked good.

“You look at me like you want to eat me,” Jaal said, but he didn’t sound unhappy about it. If anything, the slight lift of his lip and the drag of his palms over Scott’s ass strongly implied that he was very happy about the direction this was going.

“I may or may not be considering it,” Scott said with a dull throb at his temples. Light didn’t hurt yet and he wasn’t nauseous, so it was fine. It would be fine. They hadn’t fucked in almost a week, he was going to be fine regardless of whether or not his body intended to cooperate.

“I may or may not let you.” Jaal’s thumbs hooked firmly in his sweatpants, pulling the tight fabric down as Scott braced himself and lifted his hips to make it easier. If he shut his eyes and trusted Jaal to handle all the hard parts of undressing (i.e., every part, because Scott was lazy and Jaal took his clothes off way more often than expected) then he could put more energy into ignoring the migraine chewing on his skull.

“You should visit the medbay, Pathfinder,” SAM said on their private channel, tactful enough not to say it out loud from his spot on Scott’s desk. Little miracles.

He couldn’t voice an objection to that idea—headache or no headache, he was actually fully hard and not walking in on Lexi with a boner—so he ignored it entirely instead. The soft fizz of static followed Jaal’s hands as they dragged over exposed skin, hooked under his thighs and dragged him closer. Scott peeled his eyes open, dropping one hand down to the smooth plane of Jaal’s pubic mound, the near-invisible slit hidden between the thick muscles of his thighs. The flat, spade tip of Jaal’s cock already butted up against his fingers, and if it took a little more foreplay to get him going, it wasn’t much.

“Have I ever told you how much I love this?” Scott asked, spreading his fingers as more of Jaal’s length pushed up and into the open. It was hot and slick, carefully hidden away by clearly superior biology, and he did love it—loved it even more because with something to focus on, the headache was so much easier to ignore.

“You have, but I want to hear it again.” Jaal’s voice was deeper, lower, his grip on Scott’s thighs tightening as a very soft gasp slipped through his parted lips. “This is my favorite part too.”

And he couldn’t not kiss Jaal at that point, not when his eyes were half-lidded and his muscular body was arching under the pressure of Scott’s hand grinding into his swelling cock. There was something so goddamn powerful about knowing that he could do this, that even in the absence of the perfect romantic oasis, he could still ruin Jaal the way he’d been ruined on the shore of that spring. He braced his free hand against the headboard, leaning in to lock their lips together and putting most of his weight on his knees.

One of Jaal’s hands lifted, cupped his face and tipped it so their mouths slipped together more easily. The very faint brush of static over his temples helped ease more of the headache away, let him focus more of his attention on exploring Jaal’s mouth like familiar territory. He’d been told once that home was people, not places, and if that was the case, Scott’s home was definitely the drag of Jaal’s tongue against his own.

He groaned softly, feeling Jaal’s other hand leave his leg and grope around on the low side table next to the bed. The thick curve of Jaal’s cock pressed into his palm, the ridges down it’s length catching on Scott’s callouses. It was tempting to throw caution to the wind and just sit on it but—well, Jaal’s natural lubricant wasn’t enough and he was trying to forget the pain in his head, not add another layer to it. He could be patient. He really, truly could.

“If you don’t fuck me soon, I’m going to die,” Scott whispered, huffing when he felt Jaal’s lips curve up in a smile. “No, really, I mean it, I’ll drop dead on the spot.”

“Then by all means, give me the chance to do so.” The hand on his cheek slipped lower, Jaal’s thumb running down his jaw before he flattened his palm on Scott’s chest, pushing him back.

Which was deeply unfair when Scott wanted to rut against him and make out before the brunt of the migraine hit, but on the other hand: fucking. The trap of indecision didn’t get the chance to spring, not when Jaal’s palm dragged down to the flushed length of his cock in clear command. Scott was fine with that. He could follow orders when he wanted to.

Angaran hands and fingering didn’t go very well together. That was totally Scott’s field of practice right there, he was a fingering champion, when it came to anal he was probably the best person on the ship at it. (He was never telling Gil or Peebee that, because he was pretty sure both of them would take it as a challenge.) He plucked the small bottle out of Jaal’s hand, lifting up on his knees as he poured a drizzle of lube over his fingers. 

Scott drove those same fingers into himself carelessly, sucking a sharp breath through his teeth as he clenched around them. The heat of his body was obscene, comparable only to the hot length of Jaal’s cock where it slid slick against Scott’s own. The headache was a footnote now, easily ignored as he spread his fingers wider, let himself gasp as he brushed over his prostate. When Scott had said he’d die if Jaal didn’t fuck him, he’d meant it. Fingers were good, but he needed Jaal’s dick in a way that overrode everything else, his hole tight around his knuckles when he pulled his fingers free.

“Darling one,” Jaal groaned, the static of his touch chasing up Scott’s chest as he shifted forward, the spade tip of Jaal’s cock stroking over his perineum before pressing up against his hole.

It slid into him easily as Scott rocked his hips down, the tapered length of it slowly stretching him open far better than fingers could alone. He let his head fall forward, hands braced on the flat plane of Jaal’s stomach, a soft moan slipping free as Scott pushed himself down against the thick, twining curve of Jaal’s dick inside him. “Yeah. Fuck, yeah, I needed this.”

“As much as you desire, my heart.” The deep, low reverb of Jaal’s voice wrapped around him like a blanket, the heat under Scott’s skin only matched by the heat in Jaal’s eyes. His grip was tight on Scott’s hips, hands finally settling there as the muscle rippling under his skin flexed with the motion of his body.

He was beautiful. Scott’s breath caught in his chest, a shiver rolling through him as he drove himself down and finally took the last few centimeters of Jaal’s length, a flush rising on his skin. Jaal was so fucking beautiful and lucky Scott got to see every bit of him, got to watch the way his lips parted as he rolled his hips up in a thrust, got to feel the way the current between them swelled as Jaal’s control over his bioelectric field wavered.

“Fuck me,” Scott whispered, unable to look away from the gorgeous spectacle underneath him, his thighs trembling as he ground down on Jaal’s cock.

A sudden wicked smile was his only warning, Jaal’s grip shifting as he arched up off the mattress and rolled them both. The flat warmth of Jaal’s palm curved around the back of his skull, the static flushing up through the base of Scott’s head as Jaal kept him from bouncing against the pillows. They might have slipped apart but that old combat training kicked in, his thighs tightening around Jaal’s waist as Scott clutched at the ridges lining down Jaal’s chest.

“You keep asking,” Jaal said, his muscular body curved over Scott’s own until their lips were almost touching, driving his cock deeper as Scott gasped. “It would be rude of me to say no.”

“Not asking, definitely demanding.” If he sounded more desperate than he intended, well, at least no one could say he was hiding his feelings. And Scott really, really needed Jaal to move, needed to feel him buried so deep that he couldn’t breathe anymore. Needed every inch of him because the jarring motion of them rolling had reignited the headache with a vengeance.

He wasn’t going to let his stupid brain ruin this. His heels pressed into the curve of Jaal’s ass, encouraged him to thrust deeper as Scott arched deliberately and pushed his head into the electric touch of Jaal’s hand. If he could just—

“Pathfinder,” SAM said disapprovingly, out loud now that Scott was ignoring their private line.

Jaal paused, his other palm curved over the muscular line of Scott’s thigh. The haze of lust in his eyes cleared a bit, something sharp and critical entering them instead—he was a sniper, a rebel, a dedicated scout, and it was all very sexy of him when he wasn’t analyzing Scott instead of fucking him.

“No,” Scott said, before Jaal could make whatever reasonable argument he wanted to make. “I’m not going to the medbay with a boner, and I’m not taking a cold shower to get rid of it either.”

“If you’re hurt—” Jaal started, only stopping because Scott grabbed his face desperately and kissed him.

“After, I’ll go after.” He broke away just long enough to whisper the words, clenching around Jaal’s length and feeling the shudder that rolled through his body. “Just, please, Jaal, I need this. I need you. Please.”

Jaal’s thumb brushed over his temple, the wash of static over Scott’s skin more deliberate this time. The look in his eyes was softer, worried and hungry and adoring all at once, and Jaal’s lips were terribly gentle when they pressed into Scott’s own. “Then we will go together, darling one, once I am done with you here.”

“I fucking love you,” Scott breathed, letting his eyes slip shut as he sealed their mouths together again. The hand on his thigh shifted to the small of his back, hitching his hips up higher as Jaal drove into him with intent. Jaal’s breath mingled with his own, coming in quiet gasps as he pinned Scott down and finally fucked him.

A sharp, desperate noise escaped him at the sudden jolt of lightning through his nerves, his back arching as he let Jaal take control. His head still ached, but Jaal’s hand on his face forced the tension away, redirected it into the muscle of Scott’s thighs where they wrapped tight around Jaal’s waist, bled off enough of it that Scott was groaning for reasons that were all good. He wanted, and if his stupid head wasn’t going to get with the program, at least someone had listened.

Scott’s grip slipped, his hands coming to rest on Jaal’s chest as he pushed his face into Jaal’s palm. The migraine kept threatening but it couldn’t match the rush of pleasure that Jaal’s cock brought instead, the way each ridge on his length dragged over Scott’s prostate until he was shaking with how good it felt. The lightning between them and the lightning under his own skin, both built up until he was chanting Jaal’s name, desperate for the second everything tipped over the edge.

Jaal’s breathing went ragged, his grip on Scott’s thigh sparking for a brief second as his field flared up, and then he groaned as he slammed himself home, the twining length of his cock pulsing as he came. Frantically, Scott shoved a hand lower, curling it around his own dick and jerking—it didn’t take much more than that, his body oversensitized and Jaal still buried deep inside him. The surge of pleasure that swamped him made it all worth it, took the throbbing pain in his skull and snapped it in half, destroyed it utterly.

An ache still lingered, but it was nothing like the agonizing crush that had threatened him earlier. Whether it was the faint prickle of Jaal’s energy still soothing away the pain or just the miracle of finally getting a fucking orgasm, Scott didn’t care. For once, everything was okay

“You promised,” Jaal reminded him, his breath damp against Scott’s sweaty cheek, the curve of his brow hot where it pressed into Scott’s forehead.

“I have already informed Dr. T’Perro that you’re on your way,” SAM said, no hint of reproach in his artificial voice.

Everything was almost okay, but close enough. Scott huffed out a laugh, resigning himself to his fate with good humor. “You guys can’t tag team me forever, you know that right?”

Jaal’s thumb ran over his temple adoringly, his body heavy where it draped over Scott’s own. “We will see.”

To: Sara

From: Scott

Well, you’ll see me sooner rather than later I guess. I think maybe I should’ve let Lexi steal my brain a couple weeks ago. She’d probably get more use out of it than I will.

Looking at screens hurts. Since when have pawns been able to do that?

Queen to F3.

Theoretically, Elaaden was getting cooler.

With the Initiative handling the distribution of water, and New Tuchanka more than set from their previous purchases, at least most of the planet’s population wasn’t fighting for scraps just to stave off dehydration for another day. He hoped, like he knew Morda and Kariste hoped, that there were other Remnant structures buried deep underground, pumping out a limitless supply of water to keep the planet alive. It was just a matter of finding them at that point.

He wondered whether the Jaardan knew their terraforming tools would be so necessary at some future point. Had the golden worlds all been inhospitable at one point? Were the Jaardan from some further galaxy and only saw Andromeda as a testing grounds for their life-making technology? They’d built the angara, then built the vaults on angaran worlds to make sure their crafted race would survive on carefully tended planets, left in automatic protocols that kept the Remnant self-sustaining and able to adapt to anything that came as long as an Administrator could reactivate their programming. It was impossible to do anything but speculate, especially with the massive monolith that the crashed Remnant ship represented.

Sara had her hands full piecing together the secrets of Meridian. Scott had a duty to try and figure out the things that had been left behind on the imperfect first worlds the Jaardan had started with.

“If we’re lucky, we’ll find another water cave,” he said, his voice echoing off the glossy black and green walls of the Remnant ship. It was cooler down here, much cooler than the surface, in the way that only dry heat could vanish. The rising humidity on Elaaden hadn’t grown enough to even the temperature out between the shade and the sun, only enough to make the heat less murderous.

There was the slightest beading of dew on the wall when he reached out to touch it. The chill was a welcome relief, combining with the darkness into something altogether pleasant compared to the world outside. Remtech hummed in the back of his head these days, sure, but it was better than the needles that Elaaden’s bright, hot sand drove into his temples. He’d rather follow that thread of alien technology than go dune bouncing right now.

“Would be nice to get one of those under New Tuchanka,” Drax grunted, poking one of the crumbling columns suspiciously.

“Might make the sinkholes more of a problem though,” Scott pointed out, reaching for the console he could feel humming to life. They hadn’t gone this direction last time, this section of the ship mostly blocked off, but the scavengers had stopped hunting in this area and he’d quieted the Remtech enough to let some Initiative excavators start unearthing new areas.

A bridge shuddered into place in front of him, stretching across the gap to the unexplored section none of those explorers had been able to reach. They’d been patient. The Pathfinder would always come back eventually, after all.

“You’re not wrong about that.” Drack eyed the bridge suspiciously, following after a few minutes of consideration. Peebee had been with them five minutes ago, but she’d hared off to… somewhere. Scott wasn’t entirely sure. “They’re a good line of defense against ground attackers though.”

“Is that why New Tuchanka was built there? Worries about the scavengers?” There weren’t any other consoles that Scott could see, but the hall ended abruptly at a sharp right angle, so there was more to see.

“Well, we also needed a spot that was protected from the heat. Don’t know if you noticed, Ryder, but most of this planet’s fucking inhospitable, and the scavengers had already set up shop in that canyon.” Drack’s gun lifted as they rounded the corner, automatically tracking the hibernating Remnant constructs. “So it had a couple purposes. Paradise had the same idea, did you notice? Cooler around the sinkholes. Limits avenues of attack.”

“Not arguing the logic, because it seems pretty sound to me. Just wondering.” The dew was more concentrated here, slick enough to make his footing a little uncertain. Scott braced his palm against a wall as he carefully stepped down onto a lower platform, the ship all at odd angles from how it had been buried in the earth. 

“Yeah, well. We might end up expanding once the kids start showing up in force. Nakmor’s having better luck now than we were six hundred years ago. Any growth’s going to take some careful planning.”

“The first lake’s not going anywhere. And if we can get some of the secrets out of this thing, New Tuchanka won’t have to worry about any other resources either. Energy, water, space, that’s what you need.” A console caught his attention, built halfway up a wall that was probably meant to be a floor. He paused, reached up for it, shifting his weight slightly as he went up on his toes, and— 

The soles of his boots, otherwise perfectly capable of gripping, couldn’t keep hold on the mirror-slick surface of the ship. He felt it the second before he fell, a sickening sense of zero gravity, his center of balance shifting backwards as his legs slid forward, and even if he wanted to catch himself, he couldn’t. No place to put his hands. Nothing to grab. He just—

His ears were ringing, head throbbing as pain chewed through the meat of his brain while massive hands tightened around his shoulders.

“Ryder? Ryder!”

“Pathfinder, you’ve suffered a serious concussion.”

“Shit! Scott! What happened?!”

“I’m okay,” he croaked, slapping a hand against Drack’s as he tried to sit up. “No, really, I’m okay, I just slipped is all.”

“Like hell you are,” Drack said, though he did pull his hands away. Peebee was a blue and purple blur behind him, her face drifting into focus a few seconds later than was comfortable.

“This place is a minefield of places to fall.” Peebee’s voice was entirely too shrill for him right now, slicing through his thoughts before he could fully gather them. Fuck. Fuck. He might actually throw up.

“Yeah, we’re getting out of here. Can you walk, Ryder?” With Drack’s help, he hauled himself upright, staggering a little when a wave of vertigo hit him all at once. Peebee was at his side in an instant, her arm around his waist as she hauled one of his over her shoulders.

“I can walk, guys,” Scott protested, though Peebee made a noise of disagreement while Drack scoffed openly. “Alright, fine, help me out, but seriously. It’s okay. I just banged my head a little.”

“You were out for almost two minutes, Ryder,” Drack growled. “Peebee showed up thirty seconds ago, but she wasn’t anywhere near our position when SAM sent out the alert.”

SAM sent out an alert. He processed that, tried to think past the agonizing throb at his temples, then gave up on whatever protest he might otherwise form. There were bound to be consequences, because Lexi and Jaal would both be on his case the instant they made it back to the Tempest, but shit. Maybe they had a point. And he hurt too much to try and think of a better way to move forward.

“How far is the Nomad?” Peebee asked at his right, her grip on his waist tight enough to hurt if he weren’t so preoccupied with the split in his skull.

“Only a couple yards from the hole we came through,” Drack replied, a half-step ahead of them, his stride no longer hesitant as they crossed over the Remnant bridges that he’d been so cautious of before.

“And that’s what, maybe a seven minute drive back to New Tuchanka?”

“Three if you punch it,” Scott said, swallowing down the surge of bile that threatened to well up in his throat. He could walk, he was great at walking, but he was pretty sure that if Peebee weren’t holding him up, he would have fallen again.

“Always wanted to drive that thing,” Drack rumbled, his form black and heavy against the blinding brightness of the desert. They emerged into the sunlight and Scott gave up on any pretense of walking by himself, his eyes squinched shut tight and Peebee his only guide. The sand was loose and dangerous under his feet, trying to upend him again. Even that brief amount of time in the sunlight was almost too much, the climate-controlled interior of the Nomad blissfully dark when Peebee shoved him into the backseat.

“Man, fuck you guys,” he mumbled, letting his head roll back against the headrest, “the suspension in this thing is great. You can’t complain about my driving at all.”

“Maybe Drack’s just better at it than you.” Peebee’s fingers were cool on his forehead, the black bar across her eyes blending into the darkness of the Nomad’s interior.

“Ha! I’m not.”

Scott laughed, then sucked a careful breath through his teeth, concentrating on keeping his lunch down instead of Drack’s driving. The pain wasn’t easing up any, which was a bitch and a half. He’d fallen off something back when he and Sara were kids—something green and flowering up in the Presidium that neither of them should have been climbing on, probably—and cracked his head pretty good. Then, it had only taken maybe ten minutes before his headache eased. This one was proving to be a lot more tenacious.

He felt the Nomad jump and spin wildly for a second before straightening out, its breakneck pace slowing as Drack pulled up on (presumably) the outpost. Opening his eyes to check seemed like a bad idea, so he left them closed; the only thing he’d be able to see was Peebee anyhow. She was great. Scott liked her. But not enough to stare at her right now.

“Right up into the Tempest?” she said, her voice softer now.

“Figure it’ll be easier for the doc to haul him out that way,” Drack agreed, the sound under their wheels changing as they rolled up the ramp into the depths of the ship.

“Dr. T’Perro is waiting in the loading bay for you, Pathfinder,” SAM murmured over their private line. Leave it to the AI to realize that sound hurt more than the ephemeral connection between them. Too bad SAM couldn’t just turn the pain parts off.

“Yeah, got it. Loud and clear. Naughty Pathfinders get sent to the medigel wiggler to atone for their…” Scott swallowed and winced as the Nomad braked. “...Concussions. Ow.”

“You’re damn right they do,” Lexi said, helping Peebee haul him out. “Come on, I want scans on your head that SAM can’t give me detail on.”

He squinted an eye open long enough to ascertain that yes, she was there, yes, Jaal was there too, and yes, everyone was looking at him like he was dying. Which he wasn’t. Having done it three times now, Scott considered himself something of an expert at that.

This was just a bump in the road. It wasn’t that serious.

To: Scott

From: Sara

What happened? Are you okay?

Queen 2 to H4. Check.

He’d taken enough painkillers to blunt the edges of the headache, but Lexi still didn’t want him to lay down. For the last twenty minutes, Scott had been sitting on the edge of one of the medbay beds, head in his hands while she walked around him with her scanner out, SAM providing helpful details. Harry had called in roughly fifteen minutes ago, which meant all three of them were discussing his head. Great. Fantastic.

There were so many stupid things that could have killed him, and this was probably the stupidest of all. She’d already checked for bleeding (none) and then checked again when Scott complained of the feeling of dampness (still none) and then started trying to get Harry on the line. At this point, Scott was just waiting for one of them to tell him he was dying. Because that was probably the truth. Lexi wouldn’t have kept him in here if he wasn’t fucking dying.

Fuck, he hated concussion protocol. He wanted to sleep, to escape the dull throb echoing through his skull for just a couple hours, to embrace the blackness so that everything would just stop for a second.

Lexi came to a stop in front of him, her omnitool glowing as she sighed in frustration. “Okay. Scott. Have you been listening?”

“Not since, like, twelve minutes ago,” he groaned, dragging his hands down his face as he lifted his head. “Why?”

“We’re taking you back to the Hyperion—to Meridian. Harry says that the last of the medical personnel have been woken up, and there’s a neurosurgeon there that specializes in traumatic brain injuries like yours,” she said, flicking through files on her scanner with a frown. “This is not up for debate. You need to authorize the trip back.”

“If it’s not up for debate, why are you even asking me?”

“You have command of the ship,” SAM said patiently.

“And you’re not bad off enough yet for me to override that command,” Lexi agreed, though she didn’t look happy about it.

“It’s for the best, Scott,” Harry said over the vidscreen, the resolution of the image low and the quality poor. Upstairs, the conference area had much better streaming, but Lexi didn’t often need high definition video calling in the medbay. That was just the sort of thing Scott brought along with him, apparently.

“Yeah, I get it’s for the best, just—What the fuck is it that we’re doing? Back on Meridian.” Scott threw his hands in the air and regretted it when it made him dizzy. “SAM, tell Kallo to take us home. Can someone explain, in little words, what we’re doing?”

“Your CSF buildup is too high, and medication isn’t enough to control it anymore. You’ve got issues with swelling now due to the trauma you just experienced, and we want to avoid you dying of a cerebral edema if at all possible. That means lifting the pressure. We’ll put in the shunt—as we discussed a few weeks ago—and may shave down the interior of your skull around your implant site, to make sure that any further swelling will have less bone to press against.”

That was… a lot. Harry’s blurry face was sympathetic, but this was clearly Lexi’s call even if he’d been brought on to consult. SAM wasn’t talking to him, possibly because he was trying to not cause extra stress on Scott’s brain, and that was somehow worse. He’d gotten so used to SAM’s soothing record of his various ailments, categorizing and triaging any hurts he experienced, taking all the fear of the unknown and labeling it in ways that stupid squishy Scott could understand. Losing that was like losing the ground under his feet again.

His head hurt so much. Scott dug his knuckles into his forehead, the Tempest’s engine kicking up as Kallo took them to FTL speeds, even that slight vibration through the ship enough to make him wince again. He knew they were right, he did, he’d just… He’d gotten so used to ignoring it. After saving the galaxy, he shouldn’t have had to worry about this shit ever again. The medicine should have worked.

“Are you doing the surgery, Lexi?” he asked, grinding his knuckles in a little harder.

“No.” She hesitated, half-turning towards the screen Harry’s face was displayed on. “I’ll be on the team, of course, because I’m the one most familiar with your brain scans next to Harry, but neurosurgery was never my specialty. I would prefer to leave this to an expert. She’s very good, Scott, I can promise you that much.”

“And she’s been awake for a few weeks, so no worries about cryo sickness,” Harry assured him.

“And you know she won’t try and pull SAM out?” Scott asked, trying to force down the bubble of white-knuckle terror that wanted to rise with the thought. A year ago, he might have wanted that. A year ago, he was a very different person.

“No, of course not,” Lexi said, so sure of the fact that it was impossible to disbelieve her. “I’ve documented, thoroughly, the fact that it would kill you, and I’ll still be in the room. SAM will be helping us as well, monitoring your condition while you’re under.”

“No one will separate us, Scott,” SAM said over their private channel, something almost like fondness in the artificiality of his voice. “The entire team will make sure of it.”

“Okay.” He dragged in a slow breath, pressing his palms to his thighs and trying not to throw up. “Okay. Let’s do this.”

To: Sara

From: Scott

I’ll tell you when we get there.

Bishop to G3.

Mom’s cryopod was one of the few left on ice. She wasn’t the only one who’d been brought to Andromeda in the hopes that their new home would have the clues to solve her illness, but space had been limited. With Meridian established now and more of the modular buildings going up every day, the rest of the Hyperion was emptying. It was just her, Ruth, and a couple others, forever frozen in cryo sleep until medical research caught up.

The metal of its exterior was cool under his hand, exactly as worn and anonymous as every other pod left. With the same pragmatic resourcefulness that the Initiative had shown in designing their ships, the rest of the pods had been dismantled and repurposed once their occupants were awake. The materials could be put to use elsewhere; with as lush and developed as Meridian was now, humanity still didn’t want to repeat their mistakes from their home planet. Earth had been a wreck the one time he’d seen it, the strange mix of ecological damage and technological innovation leaving coastal cities lifted high above their historical foundations, the divided nations still squabbling when not diverting their attention to the Alliance.

Andromeda was meant to be better. Meridian was going to be united, to the best of their ability. And they would cannibalize the remainder of the Hyperion long before they committed to using up the resources of their alien paradise.

From his left, the soft click of hard soles on the flooring came closer. Since no one else really came down here anymore, Scott knew it was his sister—of course it was her, he always knew where she was even if he wanted to pretend like he didn’t. She didn’t say anything though, only came to stand beside him and touch Mom’s pod too. Both her kids sending their blessings, hoping they would one day find a cure.

“Harry told me,” she said as he struggled to find the words. “He’s been monitoring the Remnant scarring on my brain too, because I represent the best baseline that Lexi can use. Unlike a certain someone, I’ve never died.”

“Just rub it in, why don’t you?” He tried to keep his voice light, but it was hard when he knew what was happening that evening. Broken bones and trauma injuries were standard for Initiative medics by now. Brain surgery was something else entirely.

“I totally will. I got to be the lab rat for the medical staff here already, it’s your turn now.” She bumped into him, her hip into his, her elbow brushing against his own. He always forgot how comfortable it was to stand next to her, how good it was to have his family all around him. Dad had always been distant but he’d been physically available once upon a time, and Mom had been a rock, steadfast and true. With Sara, he’d never questioned for a second that she had his back, because they’d always been there for each other. Always would be.

Now the only thing he had left was Mom, sleeping, and Sara, leaning into his side as he wrapped his arm around her. It wasn’t the same. But it was better than when he’d thought he had none of them anymore.

“I…” His voice trailed off as he slammed into the wall made of all the things he couldn’t say. “Lexi says that it’s a pretty standard surgery, even if it’s going to be the first one done out here in Andromeda. Just putting the shunt in, draining the fluid out, and off we go. You know, simple.”

“Is anything ever simple with us?” she asked, resting her head on his shoulder.

“No, probably not.” Scott sighed, staring at the gently fogged glass of Mom’s cryopod.

“What do you think she’d say about this?” Sara’s fingers dug into the soft fabric of his sweatshirt, clenching a little. He understood. Neither of them had ever been enough, compared to the amazing things their parents did. 

“I think Mom would be pissed that Dad kept her around but—” Scott swallowed, blinking away the tears that wanted to form, the same dull headache that hadn’t left for days throbbing back to life. “I want to think she’ll be so happy to see us that it won’t matter. That we’ll find a solution and she’ll get to watch us grow old.”

“Yeah. Yeah, I want to think that too.” Sara sighed as well, finally pulling her hand away from Mom’s pod.

“Of course, grandbabies totally aren’t in the picture, so maybe she won’t be too excited,” he said, following suit. It startled a laugh out of her, like he’d hoped it would, and she hooked her arm in his to lead him out of the cryo bay.

“What, you don’t want to engage in dangerous cross-species genetic experiments? Tube babies, Scott!”

“Yeah, no, no tube babies.” He grimaced as she laughed again. “Though I guess Jaal might be game to try. Families are like a really big deal to the angara. Huge deal. He’s got so many moms, Sara.”

“Maybe they’re doing it right and we’re doing it wrong,” she said, still grinning. “I want a harem of MILFs, don’t you? I mean, pre-MILF personal status notwithstanding.”

“No, no, absolutely not, you don’t get to use the word ‘MILF’ while I’m talking about Jaal’s family. And you don’t get to seduce Sahuna either, because I’m pretty sure she’d chew you up and spit you out before talking about how adorable you are.” He shook his head, already imagining the battery of questions Sara would open herself up to. And he liked Sahuna, blunt and curious as she was, but damn she was a lot of woman to handle.

Sara, for her part, just sighed dreamily. Because she was a menace. “Fine, but you need to give my number to Vetra instead. Or… email address, I guess. I’m sure she has it, but I’ve gotta make a point of giving it to her. Harry says I’ll be cleared for travel in a couple more weeks, so you’ll be able to take me to Havarl and I’ll be able to seduce all the people you haven’t yet.”

“Don’t flirt with Lexi, she’s taking a break from relationships, and if you do flirt with Peebee, be totally prepared for zero-G propositions when you least expect them.” One of the medics glanced their direction, then looked away with a smile. “Uh, Drax is focused on being a grandpa right now and I think Gil’s exclusively into guys? Soon to be a DILF though, so maybe that fits your criteria.”

“You’ve prepared me a dossier on the eligible crewmembers? I’m so touched. That is the most Mom thing I’ve ever heard.” She bumped into him again as they stepped into the hall, turning towards the Pathfinder apartment.

“You think? I would’ve called it a Dad thing, personally. I was always afraid I’d kiss a boy and then he’d come home three months later with a file of secret intel on the terrorist connections anyone I kissed had.”

“Yeah, okay, that’s kind of a dad thing. You make out with one turian supremacist…” Sara huffed out a laugh that turned into a sigh, pulling him to a stop in front of the door. “Tell me you’ll be okay?”

“I thought that was my line,” he said, smiling weakly.

“I did my time. I’m getting cleared in a month. But you’ve been out there, getting hurt, doing all these things that put you in danger, and I haven’t really had a chance to think ‘at least if Scott’s hurt, he’s in the best hands possible’. It’s always been wondering if this is the time Harry or Captain Dunn has to tell me that you’re gone forever.” She tightened her grip on him, held him in place so he couldn’t duck away and deflect. “So tell me, and mean it: you’ll be okay?”

Scott hesitated, the constant ache behind his eyes creeping up in intensity. There wasn’t a good way to lay out how terrifying it had been to see Sara in a coma, to see her weak and recovering after the Archon used her to access Meridian, to see her struggling in a new galaxy beyond the cryosleep sickness some of the colonists had been afflicted with. Gunfights were one thing; he’d never been worried about her in a gunfight, because Sara was every inch as good as he was and more. But she’d been destroyed by some random fucking accident, left behind as the Other Ryder for the annals of history, shoved out of the limelight and into his shadow when it should’ve always been the other way around.

He’d been so, so afraid that she’d never wake up, never recover. He’d been so, so afraid that when she did wake up, she’d hate him for leaving her behind and chasing after Dad’s title, Dad’s dream. Up until the second the Hyperion had hit the Scourge, they’d been twins—together in everything, no matter how far apart they flew. And then everything had changed, and now he was… 

“I’m going to be okay,” he said, sagging forward a little as he leaned into her grip on his arm. “Maybe not right away, maybe not without more work, but I’ll be okay. Best medical staff in the galaxy, right?”

Sara’s expression softened, went sad and sympathetic in a way he figured no one else’s could. “Best medical staff in the galaxy. Lucky you; you get to wake up in Andromeda twice. It’s a paradise, this time.”

“Lucky me,” Scott agreed, hearing the things she wasn’t saying.

To: Scott

From: Sara

You’ll see this when you wake up. I’m still going to visit you, but I wanted the satisfaction of checkmating you first. You idiot. Don’t hide from me when you’re sick. Don’t be like Mom and Dad. We’re supposed to be better than that.

I love you. Stupid.

Rook to E1. Checkmate.

It was funny, the things people could get used to. For the first time in what felt like forever, Scott woke up without pain, without vertigo, without the swelling nausea that made every meal a warzone. His eyeballs fit into his skull properly. He didn’t have a nosebleed. There wasn’t any pain.

“Holy shit, you gave me the good stuff,” he mumbled, blinking over and over again as his sight slowly cleared. The medbay of the Hyperion was mostly empty, his bed near the back and the lights dimmed in this section. Scott couldn’t remember how long surgery was supposed to take.

“You should be able to return to your quarters in two hours, Pathfinder,” SAM said over their private line, his presence a balm to the low anxiety Scott hadn’t even been aware of. “The neurosurgeon was able to give me full control over the shunt, so I can manually adjust your CSF flow should it be necessary. Your prognosis is good.”

“I mean, yeah, that’s great, but this is some serious shit, SAM.” Scott squinted down at his hand, then blinked again when he realized that Jaal’s was resting over it.

“You’re in a much better mood than I expected,” Jaal said, his thumb dragging over the knobby curve of Scott’s wrist. His voice was low and soothing, soft in the low lighting of the medbay, and Scott was so aware of Jaal’s presence now that it almost hurt. Almost.

“I’m feeling a little more high than I expected,” Scott told him, guilty and delighted all at once. Jaal was here. Jaal had waited for him to wake up, not knowing one way or another how Scott would feel coming out of it, and he’d stayed. Every step of the way, he’d stayed. “Am I on antibiotics?”

“Yes.” Jaal smiled, his other hand lifting to brush away the dark hair frayed over Scott’s temples. “The ones from Kadara, as Lexi believed they would be more effective. She gave me a schedule, as she determined you would be unlikely to follow it otherwise, darling one.”

“You guys are so mean to me. I am an adult who does adult things like surgery.” All the mock outrage in the world couldn’t keep Scott from leaning into that touch, the lack of pain in his head wonderful in its novelty. The light fuzz of static under Jaal’s skin felt like winter sunlight, just strong enough to leave a presence without having an effect.

“You are the bravest man I know, Scott,” Jaal said, low and sincere as he leaned in to press their foreheads together.

Scott swallowed, his throat tight with a hundred affectionate nothings piling up inside it, and felt the way his eyes burned with tears for a reason that had nothing to do with his old headaches. Jaal was here, and the novelty of that curled into the novelty of moving without pain, pouring into his heart until he felt like he’d burst with how wonderful everything was.

“You know I love you, right?” Scott whispered, blinking a few times to clear his vision.

Jaal’s eyes crinkled at the corners, the affection in his voice ringing true. “Always and forever, my heart.”