A woman in uniform sat at a desk, watching a holographic display, motionless except for the tiny movements of her right hand as she paged through reports.
Approved. Approved. Approved.
A half-full cup of coffee sat at her elbow, cold and long since forgotten. Next to her desk a window stood, overlooking the Presidium from two hundred meters in the air. She ignored the magnificent view.
Click. Click. Click. Seriously, who generates all this bullshit in the first place?
An observer would have found her space surprisingly generic: no personal items, no trinkets or memorabilia, not even an engraved name-plate on the door. As if no one, not even she, expected her to be in residence for long.
The end of the day just can't come soon enough.
Lieutenant Commander Ash Williams: ground-pounder, multiply decorated war hero, one of the three beings who finally took down Saren Arterius, the second human Spectre. Currently a glorified paper-pusher, working security and logistical support for the Citadel Council.
Reapers taking down planets all across the galaxy, Cerberus running wild across Alliance space, and they can't think of anything better for me to do?
Of course, she sat on the light-duty roster, still going through physical therapy and training to get her strength and her edge back. Nobody wanted to put her back in combat just yet. A fractured skull, a broken spine, and a smashed ribcage added up to serious harm, even with the best twenty-second-century medicine at work.
She glanced up from her desk, and found herself smiling. "Hey, Bailey."
Owen Bailey leaned in the door-frame, arms folded, peering at her with crystal-blue eyes over a hawk nose and a sensually full mouth. Even without a smile, he managed to look amused at her predicament.
As much as he and I have been working together, he probably knows down to the last comma what I've been dealing with.
"It's past nineteen," he said. "You going to camp out at your desk all evening?"
"Still have a lot of work to do."
"One reluctant bureaucrat to another: there's always more work to do. Leave it alone for the night, or I'll snitch to your doctors."
His face told her that he most certainly would.
"Damn." She shook her head and rose from the desk. "I suppose you win this round."
"I usually do. Besides, I just got word. The executor's clearing his calendar for early tomorrow morning. Something big must be going down. I think you and I had better get our beauty sleep."
"Sounds good." She stretched, feeling muscles shift and cry out with relief. "I suppose I should go scrounge up some dinner."
"Yeah, about that. I know a place."
She cocked a skeptical eyebrow at him. "Bailey, did I hear correctly? Did you just offer me a date?"
"Don't get too full of yourself. I just thought we could actually enjoy a meal together. Instead of scurrying off to our respective empty apartments at the end of the day, to eat leftover takeout."
"Hey, I can cook if I want to," she objected.
"Yeah? When was the last time?"
She quickly found that she couldn't remember. "Point taken. Where are we going?"
"Sushi place, down in the Wards. Line's usually a block long, but I did the owner some favors a while back. We'll get seated quick."
"Sounds good to me. Although I am going to swing by my place first. No way am I going out to eat in uniform."
Bailey's eyes lit up when she emerged from the cab: hair down, body-hugging silk dress in deep blue, high heels. She walked over to him as he pushed off from the wall he had been leaning on, putting just a little hip-sway into it for extra effect.
"Williams, you are a sight for sore eyes. Although I see you're still in Alliance colors."
"Why change a winning recipe? I've always looked good in navy." She unashamedly checked him out, and decided he would pass muster: open-collared civilian suit and trousers in dark grey, immaculate white shirt beneath, just a touch of color from a miniature red-on-black C-Sec medallion on his left breast. "Looking fine yourself, Bailey."
"Hmm. Had to dig in my closet a bit. It's been a while."
She slipped an arm through his. "Come on. I don't know about you, but I'm starving."
They stepped up to the front door of Ryuusei. As predicted, the maître d'hôtel recognized Bailey at once and bowed, offering them immediate seating at a table in the back.
"Royal treatment," she observed, as she glanced through the menu. "What kind of favor did you do the owner?"
"Well, you may have noticed we're in the Wards."
"Didn't look like a nasty neighborhood."
"Oh, it's not. You're probably safe walking the streets outside at any time in the day-cycle. Everything's clean and neat. All that means is that the local syndicates wear fancy clothes and don't bother with petty crime." Bailey paused to key his order into the table's pad. "Sato here ran into some logistical problems. He couldn't count on getting his supplies on time or in good condition, unless the right people got their cut. They were about to move up to breakage and harassment of customers, but C-Sec got called in to investigate. I ended up leaning on them a little, brought a few up before the magistrate, got them to move further down the ward arm in the direction of Shin Akiba."
Ash shook her head. "Pretty cynical, Bailey."
"Ah, you have to take the Citadel the way you find it. It's a lot like New York City or Los Angeles back home, except bigger and a lot older. The rot is so ingrained, it's become part of the organism. We humans are newcomers here; we can't just sit down and dictate how things are going to play."
She blinked. "You remind me of Shepard. Something he said, the first time Normandy came here, right after Eden Prime."
"Yeah, well, Shepard's an idealist but he understands how things really work when he needs to." Bailey cocked his head, watching her for a moment. "That's right, you were part of his crew back then. Always wondered what that was like."
Just then their food began to arrive, a chirashizushi bowl for Bailey, an assortment of hosomaki for Ash, beer for them both. Conversation lagged.
"It was . . . a revelation to me," she said at last, once the sharp edge had worn off her appetite. "I've mentioned what my career used to be like. Long series of crap assignments, most of them perfectly safe and boring as hell. Then my entire unit got wiped out on Eden Prime, and I was sure I was about to follow them. Until Shepard turned up, and I got transferred onto his ship, and then he was the first human Spectre on a mission from the Council itself. He taught me more about soldiering in those few months than I'd learned from seven years in the service. Not to mention he finally broke that damn glass ceiling for me. Got me the commission I'd given up on."
Bailey watched her, his eyes alight with understanding. "Then he got killed."
"Yeah. Even worse, he came back working for Cerberus."
"That's not how I heard the story, when I met him."
"I know. He wasn't working for the Illusive Man, he was just working with Cerberus to take down the Collectors. I've seen the intel reports too." She shrugged. "I'm just not sure I buy it. Cerberus are serious bad news, and we know they've been working on ways to brainwash people. What if they've gotten to Shepard somehow? Would he even know?"
"Don't know what to tell you, Williams." Bailey took a long sip of his beer. "The Alliance seems to trust him. So does the Council. He sure wasn't working with Cerberus on Mars, and none of the reports I've seen say he's up to anything suspicious."
"Yeah, you're right. I suppose I should just shut up and soldier." She took a deep breath, mustered a smile on her face, and dug into her food once more. "It's not as if Cerberus is going to be an issue much longer, from the sound of it."
"We can hope." He appeared to change the subject. "Hey, I haven't had a chance to drop by Huerta in a while. How are Thane and his son doing?"
"Not badly, all things considered. Thane is the calmest terminal patient I've ever seen. It helps that he and Kolyat get along so well now. I understand that used to be a rough relationship."
"You could say that." Bailey peered at her while he took a bite of rice and raw fish. "Funny thing about Thane. Look at him now, you'd never think he used to be one of the most dangerous assassins in the galaxy."
"Yeah." Then Ash did a double-take. "Hey, that was pretty sneaky. We're still talking about Shepard, aren't we?"
"Hey, all I'm saying is that people aren't always what they appear to be. Sometimes they're worse than you expect. Once in a while they're a lot better. I get the impression Shepard is one of the second kind."
An hour later, on the street outside Ryuusei:
"Hey, Bailey. Thanks. I had a good time."
"Me too, Williams. Maybe we should do it again."
She tilted her head, watching him, liking what she saw.
He's a good friend. Maybe more than that?
"Why don't you come on up to my place?" she suggested on impulse.
He snorted. "What, so we can have a cup of coffee?"
"I will gladly give you a cup of coffee. Later."
"Or not. We still need that beauty sleep, remember? Big day tomorrow."
"You'd rather go to sleep?"
"Didn't say that." He made a production of checking the time on his omni-tool. "Seems to me we have some more time before we both turn into pumpkins."
She couldn't help but laugh at the homely turn of phrase. "God, Bailey, you sound like my mother."
"She did the pumpkin thing too, huh?"
"I was a teenager before I got up the courage to ask her what a pumpkin was. That's when she realized none of her kids had ever seen Cinderella. She corrected that gap in our education on the spot."
Bailey's smile turned wistful for a moment, but the mood vanished before she could do more than notice it in passing.
"Sure, Williams, let's head for your place. I've always wanted to see how Spectres live."
"You'll be disappointed," she warned him. "It's a closet. Of course, at least I have an apartment, even if it's on loan from the Alliance. All poor Shepard has is a footlocker. I suppose with the Normandy to fly around in he barely notices."
"If it has you in it, I promise I won't be disappointed," he said seriously.
She linked her arm through his as they set out. "Bailey, that's about the nicest thing anyone's said to me in a while."
They stayed that way all the way to the cab stand, walking side by side, chattering like old friends. Bailey held her hand while they sat in the cab, exchanging warm glances. Up the lifts to her floor, down the hallway, through the front door . . .
He certainly didn't seem to believe in wasting time. Ash felt the wall pushing against her back, but she had other things to think about at that moment. Such as the taste of his mouth. Or the sharp scent of his breath. Or the feel of his skin under her hands, as she slipped them under his jacket and shirt. Or the weight and heft of his body in her arms.
Oh yeah. This, I needed.
She growled deep in her throat and brought one arm around to pull him closer, her fingertips riffling through the interesting roughness in the buzz-cut hair on the back of his neck. His lips and tongue crossed her cheek, moved down the side of her neck, and finally located just the right set of nerve endings tucked away in the space behind her collarbone. She let out a long, shaky breath.
"Something wrong?" he murmured against her skin.
"The only thing wrong is that I am wearing way too much clothing."
"No argument from me, hon." He drew back a few millimeters, just enough to look into her eyes. "You sure about this?"
"Bailey, if you pick now to turn into a chivalrous white knight, I'm going to rip your guts out."
He chuckled, a deep rumble that set off a burst of warmth in her belly. "Aye-aye, Commander."
A few moments later, he leaned against the bedroom door-frame, watching while she peeled herself out of her clothes. Quick and efficient, like field-stripping a rifle: evening gown, holdout weapon, bra and panties.
"You forgot something," he observed.
She stood hip-shot, glaring at him. "The dog-tags stay on."
"I suppose I can work around them."
Ash decided that Bailey looked pretty good in the buff. Nice shape, broad shoulders, narrow hips, hard and fit. Apparently he wasn't the sort of man to let himself go, even if he was stuck in a desk job. He knew what to do with his hands, too. Ten minutes twined together in the bed and she felt like purring.
Fuck the Reapers. Fuck Cerberus. Fuck smarter-than-thou blue princesses. Fuck Udina . . . well, on second thought, let's not. Fuck physical therapy and nosy doctors and feeling weak all the time.
I've got a hot man in my bed, and it is currently my mission to Blow. His. Mind.
She took charge, pushing him onto his back and straddling his hips. She showed herself to him, holding his gaze while she touched and fingertip-massaged and squeezed his flesh. Then, when she judged he had reached a low boil, she moved down and began to use her lips and tongue.
A deep groan, one hand clawing at the sheets while the other tangled in her hair.
Score one for the Spectre.
It became a game of sorts. How close could she bring him to the edge without quite going over?
Very close, as it turned out.
Then he shifted his weight under her, pulling away. "Oh no, you don't," he growled. "A gentleman always lets his lady go first."
"Well," she said. "If you insist."
She lay back and let him explore the unknown territory, encouraging him with small sounds that became more urgent as time passed. She could feel her back arch almost without her will, her torso moving like slow waves on the ocean. By the time he had methodically worked his way down her body and up her thighs, she could no longer hear her own thoughts. The climax, when it came, was like falling off the edge of the world.
Still half-conscious, she felt him rise over her, the merger clumsy for a moment, but then he adjusted his position and it became as smooth as if they had been practicing for years. His movements were strong but shivering, tense, as if he wasn't entirely in control of them. She pushed back against him, aftershocks building down deep, but she had done her earlier work too well. Long before she was ready, he tensed over her, and she could only hold on. It was still very nice, to look into his eyes at the critical moment.
Fire from heaven.
She drifted for a while, holding him, caught between euphoria and mild frustration. Then he stirred in her arms, flopped over onto his back, one hand to his forehead. He took in a deep breath.
"Phoo," he said at last, letting the air out in a gusty sigh. "Williams, that was something remarkable."
"You're pretty good yourself," she told him. "Although I hope you're up for another run in a bit."
He chuckled. "Well, it's been a while since I was on the right side of thirty, but I've never been one to just roll over and fall asleep. At least not on the first round."
"Works for me." She rolled onto her side, propping her head up on one arm so she could look down at him. The other hand riffled across the fur on his chest, enjoying the texture. "Thanks, Bailey."
"That was just what I needed."
"Yeah, I thought I detected a few issues that needed working out." He grinned at her. "Not going to complain, hon. That was fun. It's been a while for me too."
She watched his face for a moment, making up her mind. "Bailey . . . I'm not normally one to pry, but why the hell are you single?"
He sobered, looking back at her with blue eyes gone suddenly bleak. "Not sure what you mean."
"Good-looking guy like you. Keep yourself in fine shape. Smart. Competent. Mature, not an overgrown man-child. Great in the sack." She shrugged. "Any woman would be a fool to pass you up. So what's up with that?"
"Not sure that's your business, Williams."
"It probably isn't," she agreed, and waited.
"I was married," he said after a while, no longer looking her in the eyes. "I've got a son who's just about to turn twenty. My ex and our boy got off Earth in time. They're probably okay, although I'm not sure where they are."
"Ah, crap," she breathed. "Never mind, Bailey, I shouldn't have asked. That's tough."
"Yeah." He sighed deeply, shook his head as if to clear it. "Liz and I got married when I was twenty and she was eighteen. Good match. We got along well enough when we were together. Problem was, we weren't together very damn often."
"One after the next," he agreed. "This was a few years after the First Contact War. All those little colonies that needed protection. All those bloody skirmishes with the batarians. I'd be home for a little while, usually just long enough for the big welcome-home fight and the makeup sex afterward, and then yank the Alliance would call and off I had to go. For months at a time, sometimes, and she always had to worry some damn squint out there knew my name."
Ash nodded, listening.
"Eventually I got out and looked for another job, ended up on the Citadel. Good pay, and I thought it would be stable enough, but then Liz put her foot down. No way was she going to spend her life off Earth, out among a pack of bug-eyed monsters. She was a good woman, but she carried around a lot of prejudice. By then, Armando was fourteen years old and barely knew his dad. I couldn't figure out how to reach him, and every time I tried I just drove him further away. So when I got the mail from the lawyer, I didn't put up much of a fight."
"Man, that bites." She shook her head in sympathy. "I know where you're coming from. My dad served while all of us were growing up too. He used to joke that my sisters and I each arrived nine months after a gap between deployments."
"How did your mom take it?"
"They had trouble, but she managed. She's a tough-minded Catholic girl. You know the type: you do your best to know what you're getting into before you tie the knot, and afterward you stick with it no matter what. She was lucky, too. Dad was able to get out into the garrison formations after a while. He could bring Mom and all us girls along with him, so we grew up all over human space but we got to see him fairly often."
"It worked out." She bent close to kiss him gently. "Hey, Bailey."
"I don't mind working on the Citadel. Even with all the bug-eyed monsters."
"What are you saying, Williams?"
"I have to draw you a chart? I like you, Bailey. We've got a lot in common. We get along pretty well."
He grunted. "You saying you want to make this a permanent thing?"
"That might be going a bit far. The way things are, I don't think anyone can plan on permanent right now."
"True." His arm tightened around her waist, pulling her close. "No way to know if any of us are even going to be alive in a year's time."
"Yeah. So let's go out on a few dates, have some fun together. Drink life to the lees while we have the chance. You never know what might happen."
He blinked at her, a slow smile spreading across his face. "Somehow, Williams, I would not have pegged you as one for Tennyson."
She grinned back at him, her eyes wide and warm with surprise. "You know Tennyson?"
"I guess a few scraps of culture have gotten stuck to me over the years. Like burrs on my coat."
Later she found him ready once more. This time it moved pleasant and slow, Ash riding his hips, a long crescendo until the lightning struck for both of them. Then they finally slept, nestled together in her bed, barely remembering to set the alarm for the small hours of the morning.
Wonder where this is going?
Someplace interesting, I hope.
Morning came too soon. Cerberus arrived with it.