7. Endings and New Beginnings
A/N: I'm just about done with this series of chapter but I wanted to tie up a few loose ends.
Battle for the Citadel AD 2183
Battle for the Citadel AD 2183
"Weapons! Concentrate fire on the ships nearest the Destiny Ascension! Power up the GARDIAN! I will not have this ship taken down by mass-produced AI drones!" Captain Montgomery shouted orders even as the Tokyo and her sister ships, the cruisers Osaka and Nagoya, along with a six-ship wolf-pack of frigates emerged from the mass relay and into a maelstrom of hostile craft.
In the distance, laying waste to cruises and frigates, both human and Citadel Fleet alike, was the massive alien dreadnought, Sovereign. The immense craft, a titanic image of a squid from hell seemed to point its 'tentacles' and intense beams of light so bright it hurt to look at them flashed out, slicing a cruiser in half here and punching through the heart of frigate there. Standing in the centre of the CIC, Montgomery's lips thinned almost to nothing and her jaw clenched in futile anger. That thing was rending the fleet asunder and nothing that hit it seemed to have any impact. Worse, any ship that did fire upon Sovereign was next to fall victim to its wrath.
Deciding discretion was the better part of valour, the Tokyo's captain ordered the small task force she led not to directly engage the enemy dreadnought. Instead they'd take the pressure of the Citadel flagship by crippling as much of the geth armada as possible.
The main display in the CIC flashed an alert as the SSV Osaka disappeared in a brilliant flash of white. In response, a pair of frigates, Gallipoli and Marathon moved to fill the void left by the vanquished cruiser, sending volleys of mass accelerator fire at the geth cruiser that had killed Osaka. Later, the captains of the two frigates would have a good-natured argument over whose ship had landed the killer blow on the insectile geth cruiser.
In the depths of engineering, Hailstorm was aware of none of this. She stood by along with Chief Engineer Michaels and PFC Wilde, each armed with omni-gel and emergency hull patching kits should the unthinkable happen and Tokyo's hull become breached. Despite her best efforts, Hayley couldn't control the racing of her heart or the volume of her respiration that sounded too loud in the confines of her hardsuit helmet.
Hayley felt equal parts frustrated, angry and terrified. Her frustration and anger came from the fact that she was no longer in control of her own fate. Her life, as well as those of everybody aboard from the lowliest serviceman up to the Iron Bitch herself, lay in the hands of Tokyo's crew. If they screwed the pooch...Her terror came from the fact that she may never again see her family or cuddle her two young nieces or enjoy simple things like walking along a deserted beach, feeling the warm grains of sand beneath her bare feet, the sun on her skin and the wind in her hair. She regretted all the missed chances in her life. I should have told Bill how I felt when I had the chance.
Right then, she made a vow to herself. If I survive this...I'll tell him. I will. She half-expected the sarcastic voice from the depths of her mind to say something undermining but for a miracle, the bitch was silent, as though she too had been gripped by fear and muted. Despite the tension of the moment, Hayley smiled with real pleasure.
Six months after Sovereign
Things were not as they'd been. For First Lieutenant Storm, time could be neatly separated into BS and AS: Before Sovereign and After Sovereign. Before Sovereign, humanity had been, at best, tolerated by the Council races, like the annoying cousin you put up with because you had to. After Sovereign, it felt as though the Council would fall over itself to offer humanity concessions, starting with a seat on the Council. But humanity, thanks in no small part to Commander Shepard's bravery and tenacity (and some would say borderline insanity) had shown the rest of the galaxy the way and were now viewed seriously. And a little fearfully as though humanity was a barely-restrained dog that, given half a chance would turn on its masters and maul them.
With the Citadel fleet decimated, and humanity's fleets relatively unscathed by the fighting, many human politicians were pushing for humanity to take still greater control of galactic affairs. The more extreme ones, notably from the Terra Firma Party were most strident in forming an all-human Council but cooler heads, in the form of Captain Anderson, had prevailed and humanity stood on equal footing (theoretically) with its counterparts. It all made for very patriotic viewing on the vids, very much warm and fuzzy feeling-inducing. After a while, it made Storm sick. She'd been there. She'd seen the debris field left after the titanic struggle for survival, silent grave markers for the lost.
Even her squad was no longer as it was. Carver had announced that, at the end of his current tour, he was retiring to open that bar they'd talked about on Arcturus that time. As she watched his shuttle depart for home, she silently wept. She'd never said the words she promised herself she would. There just never seemed to be enough time. At least that's the way she told herself it was.
And for a time it was true: the politicians all said the fighting was done but that was bare-faced lie to placate a populace weary of war. In the Traverse, there were still plenty of pockets of geth resistance that needed addressing. And her squad faced more than its share. A few times, during moments of down time, she tried to find the words but they never came. The moments came and went, one after another. And now the little bitch that lived in the back of her mind spoke up, tearing her apart from within: Goddamn, Hayles! Way to screw things up! All you had to do was grab the guy, kiss him and say 'I've wanted to do that for years.' But no, you had to keep fucking it up. Well, now you have what you wanted, are you happy?
Saunders and Wilde, like something out of a latter-day fairytale, first got engaged, and then married. Storm's wedding invitation arrived while Tokyo was conducting wargame exercises in the Skyllian Verge. By the time her next leave had come up, they'd happily settled into civilian life on Earth. Another missed opportunity.
Captain Montgomery called Storm up to her office and offered her a choice: stay on with the Tokyo or transfer out to the SSV Normandy. Word had gone out to the effect that, following a crew restructure, Shepard was on the lookout for somebody to lead her secondary shore party. Somebody well-versed in Alliance communication and encryption protocols. Somebody she could trust.
"I took the liberty of forwarding your file to Commander Shepard," Montgomery told her as Storm sat at the desk. Hayley managed to retain a neutral expression though she felt her right eyelid twitch minutely. "Just this hour, I received a high priority data-packet over the 'net. Apparently, you've impressed her, Lieutenant and made her short-list."
"Ma'am," Storm said calmly though the eye was twitching noticeably now.
"Shepard pulled some of her Spectre strings and a shuttle is en route to pick you up and express deliver you to the Citadel. If I were you, Lieutenant, I'd not this chance slip by." And it was almost like Montgomery were reading the thoughts rampant in her mind at that point.
"Ma'am, yes Ma'am.'
"Dismissed, Lieutenant. I'm sure you'll do us proud."
Hailstorm stood in the Alliance docking bay just off the C-Sec Academy on the Citadel and readjusted her dress uniform for the nth time. Various ribbons on the right breast of her jacket gave anybody with the knowledge to read them a snapshot of her career: the ribbon from Torfan, the ribbon from the engagement over the Citadel. Not that'd she'd done anything beyond grip her repair kit with white-knuckled hands and tried not to panic. Over the years, she'd picked up various other commendations: for bravery, valour, all the things that made for patriotic sound-bytes for the pollies to spout. At times she felt ill over it all. She'd just turned twenty-five, had celebrated aboard Tokyo before shipping out to the Citadel. Seven years in the Marines. Felt like seventy. Looking in the mirror that morning as she got ready for her interview with Shepard, she noted the fine lines around her eyes that hadn't been there this time last year.
Still, this was quite the honour: short-listed to be on Shepard's ground team, fighting alongside the woman the vids said was the changing face of humanity whatever the hell that was supposed to mean. Storm knew that, if she scored this job, she could learn a lot and hopefully see the real woman behind the public persona.
Storm's chronograph bleeped. It was time for her to face her destiny.
The interior layout of the Normandy was unlike anything she'd yet seen, harking back to its turian-inspired design. A corridor stretching from the bridge connected the CIC, the centre of which was dominated by the galaxy map display. Centred in the display was a zoomed-in view of the Argos Rho system. Feeling like she was in a foreign country or trespassing on hallowed ground, Storm came to attention and saluted a tall balding man whose ID identified him as Commander Pressly.
"First Lieutenant Storm to see Commander Shepard!" she rapped out, firing off a parade-ground perfect salute. Pressly nodded and led the way to Shepard's quarters. Saying not a word, he left and returned to his duties. Anxiety cranking up a notch, Storm pressed the control panel beside the closed door. The door sighed open, revealing a darkened room lit only by the warm amber glow of a desktop computer console. Storm felt the hairs on the back of her neck stand up.
She took a single step beyond the threshold and the door shut behind her, locking itself. The hell? Movement in her left peripheral vision caused her to turn that way, just in time to catch sight of the dully gleaming blade slashing at her. Reflexively, Storm blocked the strike with her upraised right forearm, grunting in pain as the blade sliced through the sleeve of her uniform, gashing her arm.
Operating purely on instinct, feeling the same rage that had propelled her on Torfan, Storm lunged forward, grabbed her attacker's wrist and twisted the knife aside, forcing her anonymous rival back against the bulkhead. Left hand lashing out, Storm struck her assailant in the face, once twice, feeling lips burst open and blood on her knuckles.
Storm slammed her right forearm, bleeding copiously, up against her attacker's throat, pinning the head against the bulkhead and cutting off his air.
Storm gasped loudly and even in these close quarters, she was unable to pierce the gloom and identify her attacker. Until a familiar voice chuckled.
"Nicely done, Storm...the first two guys Command sent didn't quite cut the mustard. You can ease off my throat now."
"Shepard? What the hell?" Storm shook her head. This wasn't right. Why the hell was Shepard attacking her? Warily she released her hold on the Commander and backed off.
Shepard spoke to the ship's VI, "Lights!" and the room lit up, forcing Storm's pupils to contract in response. Before her, clad in blood stained fatigues, arms hanging loose at her side was Commander Shepard.
Now that the adrenaline was seeping out of her system, Storm felt the wound in her arm throb and closed her left hand around the cut.
"Sorry if I scared you there, Lieutenant but instead of the usual interview, I thought I'd subject you to the N-ops hazing ritual."
"Hazing ritual, Ma'am?"
Shepard smiled through her split lip, wiped blood away with one hand. "I broke an arm and three ribs fighting off my old instructor before I graduated from the special forces program."
Pulling herself to her full height, Shepard came to attention and saluted Hailstorm. "Welcome aboard, Lieutenant."
Earth. Three years after Sovereign
I found a love I had lost
It had been gone for too long
Hear no evil in all directions
Execution of bitterness
Message received loud and clear
Don't change for you
Don't change a thing for me
INXS, Don't Change
After ten years in the service, the last three aboard the Normandy, Storm made the decision to cash out after her last tour. At twenty-eight, she was still young enough to enjoy life as a civilian but the things she'd seen and been made to endure had marked her. The fine lines around her eyes and in her formerly smooth forehead had deepened, making her look older than her years but those who knew her best, her parents and brother, still saw the old Hayley in the spark of her hazel eyes.
She took her time catching up with family and friends and spent long hours after the rest of the family had retired, talking to her brother. He wasn't military but she felt he understood what she'd been through and she unburdened as much of herself on him as she could. As always, he stood firm by her side and never let her fall.
After spending time with the family and readjusting to civilian life - relearning to enjoy luxuries others took for granted like waking up at 0800 instead of dawn for example and eating whatever she felt like - Hayley tracked down Wilde and Saunders. Lucy had elected to keep her maiden name after she married Saunders and, knowing her as she did, Storm wasn't at all surprised. She was more surprised that Saunders had been surprised by the decision. The young couple had settled into a comfortable life and were already planning on starting a family. Hayley envied them their happiness and wished them all the best before she left for her final stop. The one that she dreaded the most.
"Hey boss, there's a girl here to see you."
Bill looked up from the computer in his small office at the rear of the bar he'd bought and renovated. He loved his new life. Except for the damn accounting. And next week the auditors were arriving. He felt grateful for the interruption.
"What girl?" he asked Sullivan who was tending bar at the moment. Bill referred to all his staff by their surnames. You can take the man out of the military but you can't take the military out of the man...
Sullivan shrugged, "Tall, blonde, pretty. Asked for you by name."
Alarm bells went off inside Bill's mind. There were countless women who'd fit that discription but hope springs eternal. "Any scars or identifying marks?" he asked.
"What is this, a friggin' police interview? Fine. She's got these two star-shaped tats on the inside of each wrist and some scarring on her right arm. You know her?"
Wordlessly Bill nodded, feeling his throat tighten. He knew her all right. Rising from the desk, he went to the front bar, wiping palms suddenly damp with sweat on his pants as he went.
The sight of her, after so much time took his breath away. She stood by the bar, clad in a floral-print dress that fell to mid-thigh, feet in sandals. Her hair, longer now, fell unbound past her shoulders and as she reached up a hand to brush a lock of hair from her eyes, a pair of bracelets clinked together, the gentle sound reaching his ears even over the sound of the bar patrons chatting.
For a moment, their gazes met and it was like the rest of the world ceased to exist, as though they were the only two people left alive. Bill's mouth opened and he said the first thing that came to mind, "You look more beautiful than I've ever seen you." Sullivan took this as his cue to leave and retreated to the far end of the bar, furiously polishing glasses and trying not to eavesdrop on his ex-marine corporal boss and his long-lost girlfriend.
Hayley smiled, crossed the distance between them until only the dark wood of the bar itself stood between them, reached up her hands, pulled his face down to meet hers and kissed him.
Pulling away from him and oblivious to the cheers of encouragement from the barflies, she smiled and said "I've been wanting to do that for years."
Final Thoughts: The ending takes place after the end of Fade to Black but you don't need to have read that for this to make sense. I had this idea for a reunion between Hayley and Bill in his bar and decided to run with it. As for Shepard's N-ops hazing ritual, I figure any special forces program designed to produce the most absolute badass soldiers would, over time, develop its own unofficial way of 'greeting' the FNGs and making sure they're hard enough. Hence Shepard trying to take Hayley's head off. Also, my vision of Shepard has the Commander slightly unhinged after everything she's seen and done.
As always, thanks to the reviewers and those yet to review. Come on, you know you want to :P
We now return you to your normal programming.