Ritika ran a thumb across the scar on Jaal’s cheekbone, noting the subtle differences between his healthy and marred flesh. “It’s healed up nice,” she said with a yawn.
“You sound disappointed, Darling One,” Jaal countered. He tightened his grip around Riti’s bare waist then rested his chin atop her pierced naval. How he could manage a lucid smile after their lovemaking was a mystery to the young woman.
“A little,” she commented.
“Why? Worried fewer scars will make me less attractive?”
“Huh?” A wave of goosebumps raised the hairs across Riti’s body as the Angara pulled himself further up the Pathfinder’s bed, maybe so he could see his lover’s face without any obstruction from her breasts. “Idiot,” she told him. “It’s not that. It’s…”
Riti brushed the scar one last time then let her hand fell to Jaal’s shoulder. “You know this is a reminder for me, right?” Jaal remained silent, although the curiosity in his eyes meant he didn’t need to speak. “When Akksul shot you”—she gripped the Angara’s bicep—“my heart stopped. I—I’ve never watched life slow down so much. It was then I realized…how much I’ve come to like you. Even though you were an asshole for not telling beforehand what a shitty shot that guy is.”
Jaal sported the faintest of smirks, almost reminiscent of their first meeting on Aya. “Had I warned you, the test of faith would have been for naught.”
“Test?” Riti lowered her eyebrows, and try as she may to act casual, her grip tightened on her lover’s bicep—to the point where the Angara flinched.
“You already knew that, though,” Jaal said.
“Doesn’t make it any better.”
“Yeah”—Riti’s fingers relaxed—“I did that long ago.”
Jaal’s smirk morphed into a smile, and he placed a kiss on the young woman’s diaphragm. “Speaking of scars,” he added, “what of yours?”
“What about mine?”
“I do not know the story behind this.” Fused fingers brushed over the bubbled texture down Ritika’s left check. She only knew because she saw Jaal’s hand move.
“Oh, this old thing?” Riti smiled, but maybe not as easily as she had thought; Jaal frowned. “It was a mishap from my early years in the Systems Alliance.”
“You were a…Peacekeeper.”
“Initially. They stationed me in the Attican Traverse, around colonies like Mindior. To be honest, I think the assignment was a jab at my Dad. Didn’t matter if I was greener than a Drell’s ass. Daughter of a well-decorated N7? I must prove myself just as great. Or some shit.”
“Yes,” said Jaal slowly, “it is hard to match the expectations set by accomplished family members.”
Had anyone else told her as much, Riti would’ve rolled her tired eyes. Jaal understood, though—wholeheartedly—and the young woman appreciated the sympathy behind the strokes he gave her arm.
“Batarian Raiders are prominent in that part of the Milky Way,” she continued. “It didn’t feel like it, at first. I remember complaining about boredom, but if I could go back in time, I’d count those days as blessings. I was on lookout duty. Told myself, ‘nothin’s happened in the last two weeks. Why would tonight be any different?’ So…I let myself drift off.”
“The Batarians struck while you were asleep.”
Riti couldn’t meet Jaal’s gaze, not if she wished to finish her story. “First and only time, I guarantee you,” she said, stomach soured by the slight edge in her lover’s tone. “I woke up to fire and blood. A ringing in my ears that I swore the whole universe could hear. An Enforcer had found me. Guess he thought a head wound would keep me down. It didn’t. And I returned his actions in kind.”
“Is that how your scar came to be?”
“No. That’s how I got my skull fractured. The scar is from disobeying orders.”
“I thought that had already been done.”
Riti made a face, more towards the wall than towards Jaal. “Very funny, Ama Darav. My new orders were to help fortify the colony. Focus on the Raiders who were pushing forward, not those who had already gotten away with murder. I—I couldn’t do it, though. I couldn’t stand on the front line while women and children screamed behind me. It wasn’t my place, but…”
“You left your post.”
“I helped people who were suffering from my screw-up. Enough soldiers were holding the line, and—“ Ritika sighed. “I’m no prodigy like Commander Shepard or Dad. The night went south, fast. And I didn’t rise with the sun as a hero. The only way I could make amends was to save every colonist possible. It was only a hand-full. Still.” The young woman took a shuddering breath and didn’t realize how badly she shook until Jaal held her close.
“Mistakes are inevitable,” he said.
“This was a big mistake, Jaal.”
“True. But owning up to it shows a strength of character.”
“A lot of people were hurt.”
“Including yourself.” Jaal traced Riti’s scar again, his eye-ridges furrowed.
Did he empathize with her shame? Or did it disappoint him how careless and defying she could be? The Pathfinder was scared to ask.
“My scar was the best thing to happen to me that night,” she added. “I took a blast, so a little boy wouldn’t have to. The nerves were cauterized, but I don’t need to feel it to be reminded.”
“Reminded of what?”
Somehow, Riti had a feeling Jaal already knew the answer to his question. “Even when a storm isn’t present, I must stay vigilant. Can’t tell you how many times that’s helped me out here in Andromeda.”
“Then that is what I will think of whenever I see it.”
“That you should be vigilant around me?”
Jaal chuckled—a deep, uplifting sound that rumbled against his lover’s chest. “No. This scar is the mark of someone willing to make amends, no matter the cost, a symbol of one who strives to become better than what they once were. It is admirable.”
Ritika’s eyes stung, and she blamed Jaal’s tender tone. She had no words she could fight him with. Then again, why would she want to? The comfort he brought meant she had no need for defense—unlike when she had been approached by her father and superiors years earlier. Knowing that left the Pathfinder liberated like a dark secret had been lifted off her shoulders.
“Sometimes I swear you’re too good for me,” she whispered.
“I am not the better one,” Jaal argued.
Perhaps he added more words. A joke? Poetic sayings? Who knew? All Riti grasped was the lure of sleep as she finally passed out, and the faint sensation of a kiss on her forehead.