Chapter Thirty-Nine - To Feros We All Go
En Route to the Theseus System
April 23, 2183 CE
Riley had spent the last three days holed up in her cabin, thinking, and sleeping, and planning, and thinking some more. After the initial excitement of Liara's kiss had faded, and the reality of her own life had reasserted itself, Riley found herself uncomfortably unsure how to proceed.
She had spent a large portion of those three days on her couch catching up on paperwork, but there were other things on her mind. After looking over a report to Admiral Hackett, Riley had deleted the entire thing after realizing that about halfway through a detailed explanation of her crew dynamics and the possible future applications it represented in cultural diplomacy, she'd started rambling about just how damned cute Liara's little eyebrows were. Like, asari don't have hair, but by Celestial her little facial markings are the most adorable…
Riley tried not to imagine what Hackett's face would have looked like if she'd actually sent it while in a daze.
At that point, she admitted to herself that she wasn't going to figure anything out until she'd wrapped her mind around Liara's kiss and what it meant. It had been a really good kiss, Riley had to admit, though she didn't exactly have a lot of experience in the matter. Much to Rainbow's amusement, Riley had yet to ever actually date someone, much less kiss them. There had simply never been time for it between Mindoir, her healing on Equestria, and her subsequent enlistment in the Systems Alliance Navy and the multitude of missions she'd been a part of since then.
Now though, an Asari just barely out of her own teenage years (and goddess were there life cycles a mess to keep straight) had just made the first move and Riley was completely unprepared for it. If she was as Equestrian as she actually felt at times, she was sure that she'd have broken out into a heart song and worked through all her feelings and confusion about by now, but she wasn't and she wasn't that lucky.
After much contemplating (and more embarrassment than she would ever admit to another living soul), she came to the realization that deep down, she was afraid to approach Liara about the whole thing. She had absolutely no idea what to do. Should she act all coy, leaving little hints? Stupidly flirting? Act like a pegasus and do Rainbow's weird bird mating thing, where she'd puff up her wings and and try to impress whoever had caught her eye.
No. That was a stupid idea. She'd seen Rainbow crash and burn a few too many times to follow any patterns or habits that she might have had.
Getting up, Riley paced the room, tapping her data pad against her leg, though it made her stop and stare at it after a stray thought passed through her mind.Why do we even have these things? Everyone has an omni-tool, and they're far more useful than data pads could ever be.
After a few more moments of contemplation she cast it from her mind. It simply didn't matter, and she had other things to think about. No more stalling, Riley!
She was acting like an idiot, she decided. She was a Spectre, for Celestia's sake. She was one of the Alliance's most decorated officers, and there was no reason at all that she should be acting like an awkward high schooler. None. None at all.
Right, Riley. Buck up and act like an adult, why don't you!
Dropping the data pad onto her couch (and doing her best to ignore her sudden realization of its incongruity in its very existence), Riley straightened her back. She strode out of her room only after checking that she wasn't forgetting to wear any clothes, a woman on a mission. No when they saw the set of her face.
The backroom that Liara had made her home aboard the Normandy might not have been the most comfortable place she'd ever stayed, but it was quiet, private, and full of more than enough discoveries to keep her working for at least another ten years. That wasn't what kept her content though. For once, she wasn't just working to satisfy her own curiosity, but to help all of Citadel space. She didn't know many archeologists who could claim to have done the same. It was a good feeling, and she wouldn't trade it for anything else in the universe.
Currently, Liara was sitting at her little desk, slumped down in a way she was sure would make her dance instructor back on Thessia go into an apoplectic fit that she'd be hearing about for years. She'd never been particularly good at dancing, but as the daughter of one of the most respected Matriarchs in all of Thessia, Benezia had ensured that Liara would be able to effortlessly move through high-society. Of course, Liara had always been happier playing in the dirt, looking for lost societies as opposed to dressing up for the various functions and parties her mother seemed to enjoy at least biweekly. She'd disappointed all of her teachers and especially her mother when she'd declared she was going to be an archeologist.
She'd never regretted that choice, especially now. She'd never have met the intriguing and charming Riley Shepard if she'd followed her mother's dreams for her. If she'd done that, she would likely be another puppet for Saren, and that thought chilled her to her core. She banished it from her mind.
She tried for the upteenth time to focus on her work, mainly her workstation, which currently showed information and notes she'd taking on various prothean artifacts that they'd found on their missions. Once again though, she was completely unable to focus on any of it. That kiss had left her particularly unproductive for the past three days, though she couldn't find it in herself to regret what she did. That didn't mean she didn't wish she'd gone about the whole thing in a more thoughtful manner.
"Oh, Liara," she muttered, spinning her chair around morosely in a circle. "You've messed up again, just like you always do."
She leaned her head back, staring up at the ceiling (which had precisely forty-two tiles bolted to the top, she could confidently say). She ignored how her shirt collar tickled the edges of her crest. "And now, she probably thinks that you're a crazy loon."
"Who's a loon?"
"Oh goddess!" Yelping at hearing the voice behind her, Liara toppled backwards over her chair in surprise, hitting the floor with an oomph, finding herself staring up at Riley's amused face.
"You okay there, blueberry?" Riley managed to ask in between her giggles.
"Blueberry?" Liara could feel her nose scrunch up in confusion. She'd been called that before, but she'd never quite understood what it meant. Obviously it was a nickname, but what it was a nickname of, she couldn't say.
Riley blushed, but didn't help Liara any with her confusion. Instead, she held out a hand. "You need some help up?"
"What?" Liara blinked owlishly at her, something she felt like she'd been doing a lot lately, before realizing she was still sprawled on the floor, her legs tangled up in her chair. She took Riley's hand, trying not to focus on how warm, strong, and gentle it was. "Oh! Yes, please."
Riley pulled Liara off the ground, and Liara was amazed at just how effortless that was for the other woman. Her lithe figure hid muscles honed through years of hard work and training, and Liara wanted to do nothing more than to explore every inch of it.
"I'm sorry." Liara brushed her pants off, not that there was anything actually there. She made sure to keep her room in perfect condition. "That wasn't very…"
"Don't worry about it." Pulling her hand from Liara's grip (though not unkindly), Riley stepped back and leaned against some crates stacked up in the corner. Liara took a moment to set her chair back upright, trying not to show just how embarrassed she feel.
"Right. Yes." Liara had the feeling that she wasn't quite succeeding in her goal, but Riley was polite enough to not say anything. There was no way that the Spectre hadn't noticed though, seeing as she was… you know, a Spectre. "Was there something you needed?"
"I… uh…" It was Riley's turn to blush and be embarrassed, and that more than anything else that she'd done set Liara at ease. Thankfully, she wasn't the only one to be horribly awkward with most forms of social interactions.
Riley shook her head, obviously pumping herself up for something. She took a deep breath, and Liara couldn't help but think she looked a adorably silly.
Not that she'd ever tell her that to her face.
Finished with her own internal argument, Riley just came out and said what was on her mind, as blunt as a krogan on a sports team. "You kissed me."
"Oh!" Of course it was about that. What else would it have been? That kiss had obviously been on Riley's mind just as much as her own. Liara shuffled her feet, torn between wanting to run away and melt into a puddle. "I'm so sorry! I didn't mean to-"
"No. No!" Riley stepped forward, a panicked expression crossing her face, though she hesitated before she actually did anything. "I'm sorry. Not like that."
"Oh goddess…" Liara hid her face in her hands, dropping down into her chair with a sigh. "I'm such a fo-"
"I should start again." Riley interrupted, but she didn't get the chance. The door slid open behind her and Riley yelped in surprise, darting back to stand beside Liara, just in time to watch the little rachni drone trot in, a tray of hot chocolate balanced proudly on her back. She paused in the doorway, looking confused at Riley's presence.
Riley glanced at Liara, who looked rather put out by the interruption. She looked back at the little rachni, who chirped uncertainly.
Liara looked between the two of them, not quite sure what she should say, but her new rachni charge couldn't have chosen a worse time to return from wherever she'd scampered off to earlier.
Ever so slowly, the rachni took first one, then two steps back, enough for the door to slide close, leaving Riley and Liara alone again.
"I'm sorry about that," Liara said after a beat, trying to get their conversation back on track. "What were you saying?"
"What?" Riley blushed, realizing that she'd done just what Liara had a few moments ago. "Right. Yes. I'm sorry, I'm not exactly doing this the way I imagined I could. Let me start over."
Liara ducked her head, hiding a small smile. It was comforting knowing that she wasn't alone in not having all the answers. They'd figure this out together.
"You kissed me."
Liara wished she could just fall through the floor, and right out of the Normandy. Maybe the vast coldness of space would cool her down. Was the thermostat malfunctioning? No. Don't lie to yourself, Liara. You're just embarrassed, and acting your age, andoh goddess, what must Riley think of me? She was eighty-five percent sure that Riley had enjoyed it, but there was always the chance... "Please forgive me! It won't happen again."
"No! No, no, no, no! Not what I meant. I uh…" Leaning back against Liara's desk so she was next to her, Riley rubbed her forehead. "We're both really bad at this, but... I wouldn't mind if it happened again."
"Me too," Liara said, her hands over her face muffling her words. Taking a deep breath, Liara let the rational part of her brain take over and tried to act like the adult she felt she pretended to be all too often. She lowered the hands from her face, looking up at Riley. "I mean, I would like that."
"So…" Riley's gaze wandered the room, before she met Liara's eyes, making the asari feel as if she was staring into her very soul. "You wouldn't be opposed if I gave you a kiss right now?"
"I think I'd like that." Liara whispered, heat blooming in her chest. This wasn't the way she'd imagined her day going, but she was finding herself incredibly pleased with the way things were going.
Time seemed to slow, and as Riley stepped closer to her, putting a hand on her shoulder, Liara knew for certainty that she would remember this for the rest of her life. Liara stood, staring into Riley's eyes.
They grew closer, closer, until they kissed, a delicate meeting of lips that left both of them feeling more alive than they ever have before. It was an electric feeling, sending their hearts racing.
It was a perfect moment.
Like all things though, the moment passed.
It took each of them a few seconds to regain their bearings, and when they did, all that Riley could mutter was, "Wow…"
"Indeed," Liara breathlessly agreed.
"What would you say to dinner with me once we're done with Feros? I know this great little place on the Citadel, the best Equestrian dishes outside of Canterlot." Riley grinned goofily at her.
"We have dinner together every night." Liara cocked her head in confusion. They did have dinner together. She'd always sit between Riley and Tali. If Riley was forgetting that, maybe she should bring that up to Dr. Chakwas. Brain injuries were no laughing matter.
"I mean alone," Riley said, giggling at Liara's words, "as a date."
"Oh!" Liara got it at that moment. She'd done quite a bit of research on human mating rituals when she'd realized her attraction to Riley. Thankfully, asari literature kept extremely detailed books on what each and every race's way of pursuing relationships. When you were able to have a child with anything that had an advanced enough nervous system, it was only the smartest option available. The texts on humans had been quite… enlightening. "Yes, I would like that. I would like that a lot."
"Then it's a date!" Riley grinned, more than pleased with herself.
It had been a long time in its coming, but Adams was finally confident that he had figured out what was causing so many problems with integrating Equestrian technology with humanities. He had managed to track down the problems with the help of Tali, who had taken to the task with an overabundance of enthusiasm that made most of the engineering crew feel inadequate in comparison. WIthin a week of her coming onboard, efficiency outputs on the Normandy had risen by on average five percent, if not more. They were now the single smoothest running ship in both the Systems Alliance Navy, and the Turian Navy, which engineering now lorded over the rest of the ship as a badge of honor.
The problem, as it turned out to be, was that the shipyard had constructed the entire crystal array wrong. On a cursory glance, everything appeared normal, but upon closer inspection, each crystal was misaligned by several millimeters, if not centimeters in a few cases. Upon finding that, Tali had spent the rest of the afternoon cursing up a storm in khelish.
Sitting in the pilot's seat, Joker tapped his fingers impatiently on his armrest. Spitfire stood at the side of his chair, forelegs crossed over the other arm of the chair. They were both staring intently at the center holo-display.
"Anything?" Adams asked over the comms. Joker and Spitfire could hear the frenzied working of the entire engineering team in the background.
"Negative." Joker shot a frustrated look at Spitfire, who just rolled her eyes, dropped down to all fours and started pacing behind Joker's chair, with the occasional harrumph of frustration.
"Are you actually doing anything?" Joker asked, staring out at the nearby Hercules system (at least it was nearby in terms of astronomical distances. Space is big, get over it).
"We're working on it, you bosh'tet."
"What she said." Adam repeated, a laugh in his voice.
"You've been saying that for the past hour." Joker couldn't help but think of what else he could have done with the time that he'd wasted on this mess of a test system. Most of it involved things that couldn't be mentioned in polite conversation, as well as gaming with Spitfire.
"And we're working on it," Adams insisted, frustrated.
"It doesn't look like it."
"I know where you sleep, Joker." Tali's annoyance oozed from every word she spoke. "I can program your pod to always stay at a nice thirty-two degrees whenever you want to sleep."
"That's not very nice, buckethead." Before either he or Tali could say anything, Spitfire's wing cuffed him in the back of the head (though of course she was mindful to not break bones), and he belatedly flinched.
"No name calling." Spitfire said, with all the patience of a mother of ten. Joker definitely equaled ten children at times, so she considered the comparison fair.
"She started it." Joker pointed at the holo-display.
"And I ended it." Folding her wings against her back, Spitfire polished a hoof on her uniform, grinning coyly at him.
"Jesh. Yes, mom." Joker rolled his eyes.
"I've met your mother. Don't drag her into this. We're all annoyed enough as it is." Spitfire had very much enjoyed meeting Mrs. Moreau. She was a lovely woman, and the two of them had gotten along splendidly, much to Joker's consternation. Their bonding had only deepened once the baby pictures were pulled out.
Before their conversation could devolve into an argument, a chirp from behind them drew their attention. Looking back, they found the little rachni looking at both of them, edging its back with the mugs of hot chocolate towards them in offering. Spitfire hesitated for a moment before taking one of the mugs and sitting back on her haunches.
"Thank you." Spitfire said, rubbing the rachni's head fin affectionately.
The rachni preened under the attention, chirping proudly with herself before trotting away, leaving Joker and Spitfire staring after her.
As soon as she left the neck of the bridge, Joker turned to Spitfire. "I don't know about you, but that thing creeps me out."
"She's cute." Spitfire looked like she wanted to whap him over the head again, though she decided not to. "Don't you dare tell that to her... or Liara... Actually, you should probably just keep that thought to yourself."
"Noted." Joker slumped deeper into his chair.
"I wonder if Liara's given her a name." Spitfire wondered, looking after the rachni.
"What?" Joker chortled, rubbing an aching thumb, just another side effect of Vrolik's syndrome. "Is creepy bug alien not good enough for you?"
"Because I know you like being called the guy who can die if you're sneezed on too hard." Spitfire just gave him a flat look.
"Hey! Low blow." Joker's tone contradicted the offense his words suggest suggested, and the laugh in his voice just sealed the deal.
"Okay. That should do it. Try it now." Adams broke up their little conversation, sounding quite pleased with himself.
Joker and Spitfire glanced dubiously at each other, but they didn't say anything in protest. It would either work, or it wouldn't. Nothing they could say or do could make engineering work faster, and the whole team was tired enough as it was. Joker leaned forward and, hesitating for only a moment before hitting the button on the holo-display. A moment passed, and then a green light. It worked.
A moment after that, the Normandy noticeably began to cool a few degrees to a more comfortable temperature, the heat sinks draining nearly instantly into the Equestrian crystals. The diagnostics reflected the rapid change, reading the Normandy's core temperature and how much more the heat sinks could take before boiling them all to death dropping to zero.
"That did it, Adams. Congratulations." Spitfire was more than pleased with the results. The Normandy had only been working at half its projected ability since they launched from the Vancouver docks. It was nice to be at one-hundred percent finally.
"Certainly took you long enough." Joker groused, not at all impressed.
"Hey, you try making magitech and Citadel technology play nice together, and then you can talk." Adams sounded miffed, but Joker could hear champagne bottles being popped in the background. He vaguely wondered if he should rag on them for ignoring Alliance liquor regulations, before remembering he just didn't care.
"I found it a delightful challenge." Tali added, and Joker wondered if she'd be joining in the festivities. It wasn't like she could drink any of the champagne, not with the helmet that she literally couldn't take off. Maybe she had a straw or something. Whatever. He didn't actually care.
"Delightful?" Joker said instead of mentioning his ponderings on whether she imbibed alcohol or not. "Really? That's not what you were saying yesterday. If I remember right, you said that Equestrian technology could suck some Admirals-"
"It. Was. Delightful." Tali insisted, her voice low and dangerous.
Joker and Spitfire sniggered as he activated the stealth system, and marveled for a moment at what the diagnostics spat back at him. It was running much more efficiently than it had been before, and they were both already picturing the possibilities that they could use them for.
"Crew of the Normandy, this is your incredibly sexy and bodacious pilot Joker," he said, triggering the intercom. "I just wanted to let you know, our ship is finally working at one-hundred percent, thanks to the wonderful technological prowess of our engineering team. You can now all put the fear of roasting alive if we go too long without dumping our heat core. We will now be running in stealth mode indefinitely. Thank you for flying the Joker skies, you can now get back to your regularly scheduled programming."
Sarcasm finished, he leaned back, pleased in himself.
"You're such a dork." Spitfire said with a tone of long suffering and familiarity.
"You like me anyway." He called after her as she started to saunter away. At that though, Spitfire whipped him in the face with her tail.
"Hey! Watch what you do with that thing." Joker spluttered, spitting out golden tail hairs from his mouth.
"You like me anyway," she called over her shoulder, trotting away with a saucy saunter.
"I'll call you when we reach the Theseus system. Get some rest." He didn't bother turning. Spitfire had excellent hearing and he knew she could hear him all the way at the end of the neck without him having to shout.
"Thanks, Joker." He however, was not as gifted auditorily as her, and she had to raise her voice for him to hear.
Alone on the bridge now, Joker idly flipped through the comm channels. As expected, there was the regular radio chatter, static, the drone of pulsars, and… he stopped, looking at the single channel before him. It was coming over a distress frequency. He listened, but it was indecipherable static. There was the hint of something that could be a voice, but even with his equipment scrubbing it and trying to clean it up, it was still a mess.
Looking at its origin, he found it was coming from Feros, and a pit began to grow in his stomach. Whatever was waiting for them on that planet, he had a feeling that it wasn't going to be good.