A/N: First story, please help make it better! I'm unsure whether there will be a friendship or romance between Tali and James yet. Or do you think he would be better off with someone else?
1. Omega: What A Pisshole
In which there are slightly intelligent vorcha
"Commander Shepard! Can we take a minute of your time?"
His eyes flickered over the clambering masses of reporters. How had they managed to find him and then arrived so quickly? He knew that he had been dead for years, and was news ever since the Battle of the Citadel, but they could have been foaming at the mouth. Well, they did look practically feral; just about ready to attack each other for an exclusive interview with the elusive Commander. There were many faces, and he thought he should be able to recognise some of them as famous correspondents, but he didn't anyway. He had better things to do than watch someone talking trash about someone else on the extranet – he hadn't seen a report that told the slightest bit of truth about Shepard, not since Emily Wong, at least, and that had been two years ago.
One button on his omni-tool and the extranet link was terminated. He did have better things to do than practically stalk Shepard – the pile of dirty dishes, for example, seemed to be calling to him... or it could have been the smell making him hallucinate again. It wouldn't be the first time, anyway. He risked a glance over his shoulder and noted with relief that his boss, Ordan, was still on his break. If he'd been gone this long, it probably meant that he'd somehow gotten into Afterlife and had a few too many, and wouldn't be back for the best part of an hour at least. Again, it wouldn't be the first time.
But such is life on Omega, James Shepard sighed dramatically, as he armed himself with gloves and brush and scrubbed at the first plate. A passing turian recoiled at the smell and James met his gaze incredulously as he quickened his pace. Must be new to react like that, he concluded. He then wondered how the turian would react when he saw that batarian that always seemed to be passed out just around the corner from Kenn's Salvage. Or the vorcha. Or if he crossed paths with the merc gangs. James wished him luck; he had looked pretty well off and questioned whether he should have warned him about the countless numbers of petty thieves lurking the streets.
He found himself wondering what his brother would have done.
What would John Shepard do? He'd changed a little ever since mysteriously reappearing. Not quite bipolar as some people would joke, but he did seem to be... sensitive to new options. Before his disappearance, some would call him a hero. A paragon, even. Now he wasn't so worthy of idolism. But he wasn't a bad person like some people would depict him – far from it! He was just... open to new options. His older brother had taken a fall from grace, sure, but at least Mother loved him.
James sighed again and looked down and his filthy apron. While his brother was out saving the galaxy, getting named the first human Spectre, having girls throw themselves at him left and right, and being surrounded by a great crew on a beautiful ship – every spacer kid's dream – James was washing dishes in the dingiest food stand on Omega. He'd been a marine once, too... for about a month. Why was he even washing dishes anyway? Surely there was some kind of technology to do that for him... Just goes to show how cheap Ordan is, he thought. As if my pay wasn't proof enough.
He looked at the clock. Five minutes until the end of his shift, but he almost wished it wasn't. At least washing stains that looked far too close to skid marks for his liking off of plates in this piss-hole of a stand put credits in his pocket. His apartment was tiny and filthy and it depressed him. He always ended up thinking, while picking at whatever kind of slop he had bought or made for dinner, about his brother and the Normandy; he had seen one extranet report where they had snuck a camera on board to get a glimpse at the inner workings of the ship. It was always gleaming, and James could just imagine the perpetual new-ship smell it would have. One night he'd even cried about it. That was a phase, though, like a quarian on a Pilgrimage missing the flotilla, he guessed. Though he'd only seen the Normandy in person once.
James looked at the clock again. Three minutes and he was free to go, but he'd be back at the stand at seven in the morning the next day. And the next. And the next. He roughly replaced the plate among the others, producing a loud crash. Hearing this, a human man glanced at him. James put on an indifferent expression, but when the man looked away, he gingerly checked the plate for cracks. Luckily, it had sounded much worse than it really was, and the cheap thing hadn't even been chipped.
One minute left on that clock. James shrugged, hung up his apron and shoved his hands in his pockets. He made a show of nearly tripping over his own feet, then nearly missing when he tried to grab onto the counter for support. He was tempted to kick the counter in anger, but realised that with his luck, he would probably break his toe or something, and there was no way he could afford the medical bill for that.
He'd had enough of the stall and decided not to waste any more time there, quickly leaving the scene. Still annoyed by his earlier blunder, James slammed the door behind him as he unlocked and entered his apartment. It felt good. He practically threw himself onto his bed and grimaced as it creaked beneath him. He wasn't overweight; he was actually surprisingly fit for someone of his occupation – the job he'd had before was as a courier.
His eyes were drawn to a drawer by his cheap bed. That courier job had ended in violence. As it turned out, his boss had been a crooked guy – James had nearly been shot to pieces by Eclipse mercs when he had gone to deliver a package. He couldn't tell exactly what it was – possibly red sand – but Eclipse had wanted it. Badly. But by some work of God he had managed to escape them and deliver the package. He almost missed that job... the pay had been good.
Getting up, he opened the drawer and felt inside. There it was. James retrieved it from its resting place, being careful in his handling. A Predator heavy pistol. He turned it in his hands slowly. There was a thermal clip in the drawer, but he had never considered loading it. He wasn't even sure why he had bought it; it had made sense at the time, at least. Why had it? He tried to remember. Was it because of the gangs? No, they wouldn't waste their time with him. It was probably just because owning a gun was a necessity on Omega.
Then he remembered. The sound of a bullet fired at him, and barely missing. The feel of adrenaline racing through his veins as he sped away from the Eclipse mercenaries like a bat out of hell. The way he could feel his heart pounding as he ran. The stiffness of the muscles in his legs as he succumbed to his burning lungs and gasped for breath. The feeling of victory as he realised the mercenaries were gone. The way everything just... fell into place.
Even the lowliest dishwasher on Omega has dreams, and that had been his. To be a soldier, to represent humanity. James looked down at the gun in his hands. The only thing stopping him from chasing that dream was him, he realised, and he didn't intend to hold himself back any more. Usually, a man like James's hands would be shaking as he held a gun for the first time in years, but his were steady as he loaded the thermal clip into the gun with a click and aimed it experimentally. Things were going to change. James smiled and set the gun on top of the table. Tomorrow would mark the beginning of his new life. He knew it would be hard, but he would survive anyway. That, he thought, was what it meant to be a Shepard. He wished it was tomorrow already.
I probably should have bought something on the way back from work, he mused. But he was too excited to eat anyway. The galaxy was waiting for him, after all. He didn't have time to be hungry.
That night, he dreamed of new worlds, waiting to be explored. Of ships, leaping through endless fields of stars. Of friends, who would help him along the way. And of destiny, calling him to find it.
He was disappointed to find that he was still in Omega when he awoke the next morning. It was a typical day on the station as far as he could tell; James thought he could hear some vorcha assaulting each other and some Blue Suns breaking it up (with their guns), someone being mugged, and a group of people gambling all at the same time. It sucked, but it was still home. Not for long, he thought cheerily.
It took an energetic ten minutes to shower and throw on some relatively clean clothes, with his gun strapped to his belt. When he had caught himself in the mirror, he'd thought he looked badass, but he knew it would make no difference to any gangs. James had also stripped his apartment bare for any spare credits lying around or anything else of interest, and had been rewarded with a pouch of them and an edition of Fornax he didn't know he owned; bringing him to a decent total of credits and the revelation of what a female turian looked like minus clothes.
James was barely out of the door when he realised that he had no idea what he was doing. He was a dish washer, not a soldier; he'd worked up the courage to do something about his crap life, but now he was lost. What was he going to do now?
A plan, that was what he needed, so a plan he would make.
"1. Get a ship. 2. Get a crew. 3. Save galaxy somehow."
It had sounded better in his head.
James decided he would have to take small steps; he would start with the first two, and somehow stumble upon the third. That was how his brother did it, anyway. Unfortunately, he knew of two ways only to acquire a ship – the first being to buy one, and the second to steal one. He had nowhere near enough credits to buy a ship – not even a used one – and he had nowhere near enough balls to steal one.
He had started on his journey not ten minutes ago, and already he was stuck. Depressed, he slumped onto a bench and watched as the citizens of Omega went about their business. A shifty-looking salarian paused to look at him, then presumably try and sell him something, but decided that James probably couldn't afford a pot to piss in and moved on. It disheartened James to realise that salarian had probably been right. Then it occurred to him that Omega was the most run-down, grimy piece of rock he had ever stood on and he needed to get the hell off of it. Why he hadn't realised this before, he didn't know, but he did now.
Doing his best to avoid more attention from people, he made his way through the crowds to the dock. The only thing I'll miss about Omega is... actually, I won't miss anything. he realised with a smile. I'm going to get out of here somehow. Smell some fresh air. Well. It'll be fresher than this place, anyway! His good mood attracted more attention than his gun, summing up Omega quite perfectly in his eyes.
The dock wasn't as busy as the streets he had just walked along, but that could possibly have been due to the fact he had chosen the busiest part of town: the main entrance to the heart of Omega, Afterlife. James had never been inside, himself. He'd heard too many stories about it, and on Omega, there was no way of telling the truth from the lies other than experiencing it himself. James would rather not take the risk.
There were only a couple of ships at the dock he had chosen, which was, he thought, perfect. What wasn't so perfect was the kind of ships that were there: he'd dreamed of a seamlessly beautiful frigate, like the Normandy. What he saw in front of him was a shuttle and... well, it WAS a frigate, at least. It was considerably smaller than the one commanded by his brother, and it looked old. Ancient, even. But it flew, which was enough for him. He'd worry about finesse when he was far, far away from Omega.
But how, exactly, did he plan to acquire said frigate? He didn't know. Again, he'd hit a solid wall in his beautiful plan.
Maybe he just needed to rethink his plan. It seemed solid in his head... maybe too solid... too simple? If he were to think out each step –
A hissing, almost rasping voice. Without looking up, James knew it couldn't belong to a human, and when he did, he saw a distinctly alien face looking back at him. He tried not to flinch, but he did anyway. A vorcha was standing, looking straight at him, arms folded. It was hard to tell, but James thought it could be amused. He didn't know vorcha could be amused.
"You want on ship?" it continued, unfolding its arms. It didn't break James's gaze, making him feel all the more uncomfortable. He coughed nervously. "No, um, it's not my ship-"
The vorcha screeched. Was it laughing? "Steal! You want ship, you will steal! Obvious! But do it alone, no. Too young. Weak. Stupid, too."
"I'm not going to sit here and get talked down to by a vorcha," he snapped angrily. His hand brushed the handle of his gun. "Piss off."
It screeched again. "Better. Still stupid, still weak. Me help. Steal ship. Leave Omega."
Two brain cells fired in unison in James's head, and he realised exactly what was happening. This vorcha wanted to help him steal the ship and get the hell off of Omega. This was it; his chance to start his new life. There was no way he was going to pass this up.
"So what do we need to do, um...?"
"Shrike." This vorcha, or Shrike, had a habit of finding James to be funny. James didn't know whether to be offended by this or not, but he knew that he was willing to help him, and that was enough. At least, he thought this Shrike was a he. "Stupid? All we need is find owner. Steal departure code. Then leave. So easy. Already checked ship. Big ship. But only one crew member. Easy, easy."
The reality of the operation hit James then and there. They were going to find someone and steal their ship. Someone's day was about to go horribly wrong. Someone's life was about to go horribly wrong, maybe. What would John do? How badly did he want to get off of Omega?
"Let's do it, then. I'm James Shepard, by the way."
He was met by another discordant laugh. He wished he could explain how it really grated a human's ears, but decided not to, against his better judgement. The events of the whole day were against his better judgement, actually. But luckily, without another word, the vorcha started off towards Afterlife.
Wait. "Hey, uh, Shrike, I can't go in there."
"Can go in... You are J. Shepard. John, James, no-one will know. Give ID." James passed it to him, more than slightly confused. And with that, Shrike passed straight by the angry line to the bouncer, nothing but confidence in his stride. James couldn't hear what Shrike was saying to the guard at the door, but it ended in the guard nodding and stepping aside, watching James wonderingly. The vorcha looked back over his shoulder before stepping inside.
"Hey, wait," James had to run to keep sight of Shrike in the busy club. "How did that work?"
Shrike bared his teeth slightly in a grin, and James couldn't help appreciating how sharp they were... "Tell later. Look now." He extended one claw to a figure at the bar. A turian. "Owner of ship. Me, steal codes. You, distract."
Something was a little strange about this turian, though. He got a little closer, and it took minimal scrutiny to recognise what had been off about them. This turian was female; it was simply hard to realise that underneath the armor. And unfortunately, she kept reminding him of the one James had... uh, seen... in Fornax. He didn't mention this to Shrike.
The turian female was leaning against the bar idly. His vorcha cohort nodded in his direction and blended seamlessly into the crowd... as seamlessly as a vorcha can, anyway. James took a deep breath and a step forward. I have to do this to get off of this rock. How hard can it be, really?