"The first three are ready. We'll drop Rolston off on Illium; I've found him a ticket home under another name. Kelly wants off in the first group, too – she really hasn't been doing well." Miranda frowned and passed Shepard a data pad. "Being off the ship will be good for her."
Shepard took the pad in her good hand, scanned it, and passed it back. The doc said she had at least four days left with the sling, and she wasn't arguing. Not when she still couldn't raise that arm above the level of her shoulder.
Kelly Chambers was having a hard time. The ordeal seemed to have hit her worse than the others. The second day after they emerged from the Omega-4 Rhi had taken Chambers aside and given her a chance to spill her guts. She sat calmly while Kelly cried, piecing together the words garbled by tears. Kelly had been reporting secretly to the Illusive Man; she'd wanted to believe the best of Cerberus, to deny the evils because she couldn't believe anyone could do those things; she'd been trapped and Shepard, had saved her, not Cerberus, ; she was guilty, guilty, guilty –
Shepard had waited for a gap in the tears, picked up her hand – Kelly would want physical reassurance – and gently told her that she'd known all of that all along. Chambers had gaped and gasped and eventually burst into tears again. Rhi patiently explained that she'd monitored the supposedly-secret transmissions and knew Kelly's regular reports had been standard psych evals, nothing that would do any harm. Privately Shepard thought the Illusive Man had picked an awful spy; Chambers was too naturally open for that kind of work. The horror of the collector abduction seemed to have brought her internal conflict to the surface, breaking whatever mental armor she'd put up.
Even with her secrets in the open and Thane's help working through the persistent memories of the attack, Kelly was a shell of her former self. Rhi wasn't surprised she wanted off the Normandy sooner rather than later.
As for the others, they'd gotten out with fewer injuries than Shepard would have imagined possible, all taken during the collector attack on the Normandy and healing well under Chakwas expert care. None had voiced any desire to return to the Illusive Man's control. The bulk of the crew had always been more ex-Alliance than Cerberu. Only Jacob and Miranda had been true believers, and when Miranda turned at the collector station, Jacob faithfully followed her.
Shepard's crew would stay with her if she asked, but she wouldn't. Idealism crumbled under logistics: without Cerberus funding, she couldn't pay them.
She'd promised Liara help going after the Shadow Broker, and it sounded like there'd be credits in that. She'd run with a skeleton crew while they worked that job, then… well, 'then' would have to take care of itself. She couldn't keep a ship the size of the Normandy running for long without outside funds. Not without an unbelievable amount of debt. Or an unconscionable amount of piracy.
The complex problem of dispersing the crew without dropping anyone into Cerberus' hands was a good match for Miranda's experience and guile. She rattled off a few more details, but interrupted herself part way down the list. "Shepard, why are they letting me do this?"
"Arrange their cover. I was one of the Illusive Man's top operatives. But they're trusting me to keep them out of his hands."
Rhi nodded. "Answer's in the question. They trust you, Miranda. Because you won't turn them over. Everyone knows you made your choice back on the collector base."
They walked on in silence for awhile, through the mess hall. When they reached the elevator Miranda spoke again. "I… I never had many people I thought I could trust. And those… some of them… betrayed me." She paused. "I suppose I've never really had anyone trust me, either. The Illusive Man relied on me, of course, but I'm not naive enough to think he trusted me."
Shepard smiled. "Changes things, doesn't it?"
"Yes." Miranda smiled self-consciously. "I have to admit, I… rather like it."
"It's a good feeling." Shepard smiled again. "Maybe you'll get used to it."
The elevator door opened on the command deck and she walked out, nodding at the crew on watch as she did a circuit of their stations. They saluted back, or nodded, or grinned. There seemed to be more grins than there had been; whether because they'd succeeded in their mission or because of her display with Joker directly afterward, she wasn't sure. Probably the latter – she'd caught a few of 'em winking at Joker over the last few days.
Mostly she pretended she didn't notice.
There'd been a few comments (which she clearly wasn't supposed to have heard) about what she and Joker had done after they left the medbay for her cabin, mostly based around how long her shower had run. She hadn't been terribly surprised to find out that someone scurrilous was monitoring life support, but she thought the happy gossipers would be surprised by what had – or mostly hadn't – happened in the privacy of her quarters.
For instance they probably didn't suspect that the heat had made her faint, or that she'd lost her balance, caught herself on the wall, and slid to the floor. They certainly guessed that Jeff had been in the shower with her – but not that he'd realized he couldn't help her up and joined her on the floor instead, sitting on the tile a foot apart, hot water streaming down them while they laughed their asses off.
The closest they'd gotten to physical intimacy during the half hour the water had run was when he picked up her good hand, kissed it, and muttered 'And they say romance is dead' while water dripped off the end of his nose.
They'd both been too injured for anything else. The next morning was even worse – everything always hurt more the day after, and even worse the day after that – but it didn't matter. It would pass; his ribs would heal, her abrasions would close, and in not-very-long-at-all they'd both be interested in doing more than lying on opposite sides of the bed, occasionally moaning at each other.
Having someone to moan at was novel in and of itself. She grinned at the memory as she finished her round. Patel saw it and grinned back at her.
Yep. On the lam from their employer or not, smiles were definitely flying a bit more freely.
She climbed to the command post, giving Kelly a supportive touch as she passed. Kelly grinned back weakly.
Neither Joker nor Tali had wanted to send the Normandy through another relay until she'd had a thorough going over, and Shepard didn't want to dock at Omega looking like easy pickings, so they took their time, drifting from the relay in towards the station on minimal power. It had taken four days to reach the first comm buoy; four days in which they licked their wounds, patched up their ship, and thanked their lucky stars. Four days before they had to deal with the world outside the Normandy.
The world was waiting for them at the buoy; a backlog of messages and bulletins that suggested their journey through the Omega-4 hadn't been quite as unnoticed at it seemed. The Alliance wanted intel (through both official and unofficial channels, Shepard was amused to note), Liara wanted reassurance, and Wrex wanted an immediate real-time call.
Why Wrex, of all people? Curious, she had a call patched through the main display.
An image started to shimmer into place where the galaxy map normally glowed, but she heard Wrex's voice before it cleared.
"ARE YOU DEAD AGAIN, SHEPARD?!"
He roared so loud the whole CIC heard him, and Rhi rocked back on her heels. When the image came through the massive krogan was standing too close to the pick-up, filling the entire screen. "WELL, ARE YOUD DEAD AGAIN?"
Shepard spread her good arm in an innocent shrug. "Don't think so," she said.
"Good," Wrex grumbled. "Good. Once is enough for anyone. Hmph. Watch your back out there."
She smiled to herself, charmed and befuddled. "What brought this on, anyway?"
He stepped back enough that the vid pickup could catch more than just his face and brandished a helmet at the screen. Her helmet; the burned and broken one she'd picked off Alchera in her daze.
How the fuck did Wrex end up with that? She hadn't given it a second thought after dropping it – she didn't even remember where – somewhere in the Normandy.
"Thought it was some kind of message. If you're not dead again, then what in the name of Shiagur is THIS about?" He waved the helmet.
Shepard planted a fist on her hip and swept a disapproving look over her crew. "I haven't the faintest idea. Anyone? Why does Wrex have that thing?"
Beside her, Chambers cringed. "I, er, mailed it to him…"
She dropped the scowl. "What? Why?"
"I, it, uh – Joker said to!"
"For shit's sake, I was being sarcastic!" Joker's voice came through her earpiece, but he said it loud enough she could faintly hear him from the helm, too. "I can explain later," he said more quietly, for her ears alone.
"When?" she asked Chambers.
"Right after Alchera – as soon as we hit a transfer station. Shipping from the Terminus Systems to the Krogan Demilitarized Zone isn't exactly regular," Chambers pointed out.
Wrex nodded. "Got held up in customs. Have to let the turians poke it and prod it and cover it with official stickers before they let the krogan have a chance at it." He grinned, revealing a huge mouthful of teeth. "Never know what kind of super weapon we could make out of a broken helmet. HA!" He looked at it again. "Mistake, huh? Want it back?"
"No!" She realized that came out a bit too forcefully and backed off. "No, no, just toss it out or something. It's trash."
Wrex held it under his arm. "Think I'll keep it, then." He grinned again. "Good to remember you came back from that, Shepard."
"Shepard." He nodded and closed the connection.
Rhi stared at the place where his image had been, bemused. What the hell was that all about?
Joker would never have thought it possible if he hadn't heard it himself, but there was no doubt about it: Wrex's speech had 'protective family member' dripping from every word.
Rhi's walked up behind him and he turned to grin at her. "Wow. Wrex, huh?"
Joker chuckled. "It's like he's practically adopted you. What happened on Tuchanka?"
"Nothin'. Adopted? What the hell are you talking about?"
"He had 'overly protective family member' written all over him. You may not recognize an angry paternal figure, but I sure as hell do." In his mind's ear he could hear Wrex bellowing 'keep your hands off my little girl' – which was hilarious any way you looked at it. And slightly terrifying.
Maybe krogan don't get like that when their kids date.
I can hope.
Shepard's brow creased. "Meaning?"
"Meaning, if he's ever on the Normandy, I'll be hiding under the bed."
She was totally at a loss. Finally she said "I don't think there's an 'under' my bed – it's solid."
"Leave it to Cerberus to build a ship without basic safety features," Joker muttered. "Nothing's ever easy."
It was no wonder she was confused. Rhi had run away before she'd reached the age where people even joked about scaring away the prospective suitors, and Wrex had been a member of her team.
He was about to explain when the light dawned. She raised her eyebrows at him. "Wait. You mean – really?"
"I mean, I'm not saying I've pissed off anyone's dad before – " a brother, once, when he was 17. That had been frightening, "– but it sure sounds like that."
"That's ridiculous." She rolled her eyes and leaned down, resting on the back of his chair, speaking more quietly. "Anyway. He'd probably just buy you a drink or something."
"Drinks with a krogan? That's a slightly slower way to kill me, I suppose." He leaned his head back, smiling up at her.
Her eyes were sparkling, warm with quiet laughter. "Just fly us to Omega, Joker."
"Aaaaye, Com-man-der." He winked.
She placed the briefest of kisses on his forehead – the only part she could reach – and sauntered back to the CIC, her happy laugh filling his heart.
Writing aStSHB has been a long and rewarding adventure, thanks in large part to the truly unexpected response from all my readers. Thanks to everyone who's stuck with me through almost 400 pages of text and almost two years of writing!
And an extra special thank you to Tera Danielle, who's been beta-reading this monster and letting me bounce ideas off of her (occasionally at high speeds) since chapter four-ish. Tera, you've been amazing.
Update: The sequel is Sunset and Evening Star, posted here and at AO3.