A/N: Happy birthday Parallel Lives! Wow, I can't believe I've been writing this story for three years. THREE YEARS. And you've all stuck with me. That is amazing! Your dedication and devotion to both me and this fic are what keeps me going when things rough.
So where have I been the last six months? (Yikes, I REALLY need to stop updating like this.) Lots of things have happened. I finished construction on my basement, and wrote most of this chapter from my new office. It's awesome! And, I got it in my head maybe I needed to do something else career-wise, and have spent the last four months applying for various positions and interviewing. Talk about stressful and a drain on your creativity. Oy.
I didn't really realize how much I missed writing and missed the characters until I picked it back up again in May. It's been a whirlwind since then, as you can tell by the length of this chapter. It's super long, not only because I felt you guys deserved a huge chapter after my long absence, but because all of this stuff literally had to happen now in order for the plot to progress. And the next chapter promises to be just as long.
I hope you enjoy it, and I hope that you'll tell me what you think. I've had so many fantastic conversations with people over the last year about things. I love it. I cherish every review, alert, favorite, and PM.
Okay, you didn't come here to listen to me prattle on, you came here to read! So here it is! ~J
"Do I detect actual concern for my well-being?" Richard Castle – Castle
Chapter Twenty-Eight – Friends and Enemies
"Read it already…don't care…don't care…garbage…," John muttered as he sorted the messages in his inbox. Sipping from a mug of freshly-brewed coffee, he scrolled through the long list of email. He'd been at it for over an hour now and had only managed to get through half of it so far.
"Forward all…," he said, drawing out the last word as he typed, "to Jane. Shepard. There!" he announced, slapping his hands together with a satisfied smirk. "A good day's work done."
He switched off the terminal, grabbed his coffee, and sauntered across the CIC. Some people liked the comfort of following the same routine, day in and day out, week after week, but not John Shepard. He liked the variety of switching things up. Some mornings he would start his rounds on the lower engineering decks, and other days he would begin by checking in on Mordin or seeing what new concerns Kelly had for him. Today, he thought he'd start off with Joker.
"I'm telling you, EDI, I know what I'm doing."
"What's going on?" John asked, coming up behind them to see Joker arguing with the blue orb.
"This thing seems to think I'm going to let it take over the ship," the pilot scoffed. "Like I'm going to just hand the Normandy over to an unshackled AI."
"Actually, EDI took over most of the systems and helped the other Joker when the Collectors boarded the Normandy and abducted the rest of the crew."
"Ughhh!" Joker grimaced and rolled his eyes. "That is sooooo annoying!"
"Every time I turn around it's 'the other joker' this, and 'Mr. Moreau' that. I can't even take a piss on this ship without her telling me that I'm doing it the wrong way."
"I was merely making helpful suggestions, Jeff," EDI said.
"Oh, was that you being helpful? 'Cause it sounded a lot like nagging to me," Joker fired back.
"I thought you and EDI were getting along now."
"That was before she started telling me how to do my job."
"What is this, high school?" John cried, throwing his hands in the air in exasperation. "Does everyone on this goddamn ship have issues? God, as if I'm not already up to here with trying to figure out how to stop the Reapers, I've got to deal with the crap Ashley is causing, and the bullshit between Garrus and Jane, and now this? Jesus H. Christ, it's like I'm living on a ship full of six-year-olds!"
"Yeah, well you're no picnic yourself, boss."
John glared at him.
"I know, I know," he said, holding his hands up in front of him. "Just fly the ship. I got it."
John snorted and whirled around, stomping down the gangplank back to the CIC. To his great surprise, someone was waiting for him at the end of the walkway.
"Miranda?" he said, genuinely shocked to see her standing there. "What brings you all the way up here?"
The Cerberus Operative hesitated and wrung her hands together, a surefire sign that she was agitated. John stifled a sigh and folded his arms across his chest, bracing himself for what was about to come next.
"I wanted to apologize," she said.
All traces of his irritation, which had been so abrupt and intense only moments earlier, dissipated as his eyes widened. "For what?"
Miranda pushed a hand into her hair and scratched the back of her head, shifting her weight from one foot to the other. Once she realized what she was doing, and how uncertain it was making her look, she straightened up and assumed her usual business-like manner.
"I didn't fully believe you'd be up to the task of the last mission, and," she paused, "it seems I was wrong."
John's expression softened. "Do you really mean that, Miranda?"
She tilted her head and studied him contemplatively. "I do."
He walked down the steps to join her, and they fell in step together, slowly meandering through the CIC.
"Your methods may be unorthodox," she continued, "but they work for you. The longer I'm on board, the more I'm beginning to see that you aren't afraid of doing whatever it takes to get the job done. Take this last mission, for instance. Things could have very easily gotten out of hand, but your quick thinking and instincts not only helped us complete the mission successfully but also probably saved our lives."
They reached the elevator and turned to face one another.
"It wasn't just me, you know," he said quietly, thinking back to the impromptu make-out session she'd initiated in order to get them into the back room. "There was stuff you did that I certainly wouldn't have come up with."
"Well," she said, smiling as she ran her fingers across her collarbone coyly, "perhaps I'm picking up a few things from you."
She turned her shoulders toward him slightly before she spun around and stepped into the elevator. Leaning against the far wall casually, she raised her eyes to meet his and kept them there until the doors closed, leaving John to wonder if instead of skills she had picked up on his desire to be with her.
Up, down. Left, right. Back, forth.
Over and over, the simple pattern was repeated until the cup traced the path in the air without error. The movements were basic, the first thing a child learned when they were taught how to control their biotics, and Kaidan couldn't help feeling resentful at having his skills reduced to such an amateur level. He told himself that he had extenuating circumstances—that it wasn't every day an L2 was upgraded to an L5— but it didn't help much. In his current state he was pretty much useless. Other than developing a new and unique way to serve coffee, he really couldn't offer any sort of assistance or aid to his team, and that bothered him to no end.
He let the cup settle to the ground and turned his attention to the metal crate sitting next to it. The blue energy of biotic power enveloped his body as he focused, and slowly the heavy box rose into the air.
Up, down. Left, right. Back….
The crate wavered, swaying dangerously as it rocked side to side. His hands shook, the muscles in his forearms screaming out in protest from the weeks of disuse, and a fine layer of sweat shimmered across his brow. He bit his lower lip and fought to maintain control, concentrating all his energy on getting the object stopped and centered once more. However, the swaying increased. The box began rotating, picking up speed as it shifted unevenly on its axis. Suddenly it broke loose from the biotic barrier and careened across the room, slamming into the far wall with a deafening crash.
"What in the fucking hell is going on?" Jack raged as she stormed into the cargo hold. "It sounds like two krogans having hate sex up here!"
Kaidan turned around to look at the angry biotic, raising an eyebrow in incredulous amusement as he mouthed the last part of her exclamation, and then dissolved into a fit of laughter. Jack, who had worn a panicked expression on her face at stumbling upon him, relaxed slightly and joined him, albeit somewhat reluctantly, in his mirth.
"That would be me," he wheezed when he could finally talk again. He took a couple of deep breaths and swiped at the corners of his eyes. "I was trying to lift that crate over there in an attempt to use my new implant. You can…uh…well, you can see how that turned out."
She tilted her upper body to the side to see past him, taking in the mess of mangled metal against the wall. "Nice work."
"I'd agree with you, if I had meant to do that. I couldn't control it and it got away from me." He sighed and flung his hand at the cup on the ground. "I can barely even get this cup to do what I want it to."
"So what, you're just gonna sit there and whine about it like a fucking baby?"
"You gonna let a little coffee cup kick your ass, Alenko?"
"Then quit pissing around and crying in your fucking breakfast cereal and get on with it!"
Kaidan's hand lit up with biotic energy as he lifted the mug into the air and winged it at Jack, barely missing her nose by a few centimeters. She whipped around in time to watch it shatter against the closed door of the elevator.
"You mean to do that?" she asked, clenching her teeth as though she was trying to bite back her rage until she had her answer.
"Yes," Kaidan said, panting from the exertion.
Jack wiped her nose and sniffed, screwing her lips together as her eyes narrowed determinedly. "Fair enough."
Suddenly her entire body was encompassed in the same blue energy. Without any further warning she picked up the crate nearest to her, and with a vengeful cry, sent it flying back at him. Kaidan's eyes widened in stupefied shock, but luckily he had the presence of mind to attempt to block it.
He threw his hands in front of him and willed his biotics to slow the crate down enough so that he could direct it to the floor. When Jack felt the shift in power, she pushed harder, making it impossible for him to drop it without getting hit. It took Kaidan a minute to realize what she was doing. He accepted her unspoken challenge and forced it back toward her, much like they had done the first time they had tested each other's strength.
Sweat glistened at the edges of his hairline as he fought to keep the crate away from him. Jack however, showed no signs of fatigue, acting as if she initiated games of tug o' war everyday. He grunted and gritted his teeth, focusing all his energy into gaining the upper hand. A sharp pain throbbed right behind his eyebrows and he could feel himself tiring out, but he couldn't give up. He couldn't let Jack think he was weak. With everything he had left, he pulled the crate toward him, using the power of her own biotics as a catalyst to help propel it up and over him. It barreled through the cargo hold and smashed into the exit hatch with a tremendously loud crack.
Both of them instantly doubled over, heaving and panting as they tried to catch their breath. Kaidan put one hand on his knee and the other on his stomach, and hoped that he wouldn't pass out from exhaustion. He was tired yet satisfied.
"Thanks," he finally gasped.
"For helping me."
"I didn't help you," she shot back defensively.
Kaidan grinned and stood up. "Okay. Call it what you want. See you later, Jack."
He bit the inside of his mouth to smother his amusement at how flustered his little observation had made her and tried to maintain his casual air as he got into the lift.
The doors closed and the elevator lurched into motion. When she thought he was out of earshot he heard her let out an exasperated sigh of resignation and mutter, "Awww, fuck."
"Why in the hell do I have all these emails?"
Jane sat back in her chair and crossed her arms, her mouth slightly agape as she eyed the amount of unread messages in her inbox.
"I just organized everything and emptied it last night," she complained, as if speaking out loud would help her comprehend why it was suddenly full again. "Wha— Wait a minute…."
She narrowed her eyes and hunched forward, using her finger to scroll through the list. She tapped on the screen and the email opened, revealing an advertisement directed to John. She clicked the next one down and 'Your Fornax subscription is expiring! RENEW TODAY!' jumped out at her in big, bold letters.
"Ewwww. That was more than I needed to know, John. Thanks."
She kept going down the list and sure enough, every email was meant for John.
"That son-of-a-bitch," she muttered, realizing what he had done. Stretching across her desk she jammed her finger into the intercom. "Kelly!"
"Good morning, Commander Shepard," Kelly answered in a sing-song voice. "What can I do for you?"
"Commander John Shepard," the redhead replied, putting emphasis on her male counterpart's name, "has left explicit instructions that he does not want to be disturbed."
"I bet he did," Jane muttered. "I'm sure that doesn't include me, Kelly. Is he in his quarters?"
"Uh-uh. Sorry, Commander. I'm acting on orders. He said everybody."
"Wait!" Kelly exclaimed. "Since I have you on the line, Gunnery Chief Williams would like to speak to you. She says it's urgent. Shall I send her over to you?"
"Yeah. Thank you, Kelly."
"Have a good day, Commander."
Jane disconnected and leaned back again, silently fuming that John had intentionally made himself unavailable just so she couldn't yell at him for sending her all his junk mail. She sat there for a minute and then began deleting all the email, no longer bothering to open them to see what was inside.
Thankfully, she saw Admiral Hackett's name before it was too late. A video image popped up on the screen once she opened it.
"Shepard. The MSV Cornucopia has gone silent. The last transmission we received was over a week ago and even then there was nothing that would give us a clue as to what happened. I need you to investigate the ship and report back to me on what you find. I've attached the coordinates. Fifth Fleet out."
Good, she thought darkly. A mission was just what she needed right now; something to occupy her mind and get her off the ship for a few hours.
The doors to her cabin parted, and Ashley walked in. Jane immediately sensed that something was different about her. Her strides were curt, her manner almost formal. It instantly put her on edge.
"You wanted to see me, Ash?"
"Yes, ma'am." Ashley said. She stepped forward and handed her a data pad.
Jane took it from her, shooting the gunnery chief a questioning look before dropping her eyes to read the text on the screen. What she read left her stunned. "You're requesting a transfer?"
"Yes, ma'am," she replied. She clasped her hands behind her back and assumed the stiff posture of the at-ease position. "That's correct."
The Commander's eyes narrowed suspiciously. She tossed the data pad on the desk and laced her fingers together in front of her as she leaned forward and demanded, "Why?"
Ashley's bravado wavered slightly at the directness of her question. She swallowed hard and then squared her shoulders in order to stand up a bit straighter and reinforce her professionalism in the matter. "I just think it's for the best, Commander."
Jane's lip tightened into a grim frown. The chief's continued use of proper titles was bothersome, and a clear indication that there was something significant behind her sudden desire to relocate. Ashley was a soldier loyal to their cause, and she could only think of one reason why the Gunnery Chief would be contemplating a move to another post.
"Is this about John?"
She shook her head. "No, ma'am."
"Cut the shit, Williams," Jane snapped. She got up from her desk and placed her hands behind her back, grasping one balled fist in her other hand as she paced back and forth. If Ashley wanted to go all formal on her and start using last names and titles, then she could do it, too. "We both know you're a damn good soldier. You've been through a hell of a lot—in the 212, and here on the Normandy, and everything in between—and I've never seen you back down from a fight. Not once."
Ashley dropped her gaze to the floor and said nothing.
"But you make one bad judgment call and suddenly you're ready to throw in the towel? Just give up and transfer to a different unit? No, that doesn't sound like the Ashley Williams I know. Okay, yes, you got involved with a superior officer, and yes, things didn't turn out the way you wanted them to, but damn it!" Jane slammed her hand on the desk. "Man up! You don't quit when things get shitty, you push through it! I understand what you're going through and I know how much it sucks right now. But do you see me in here crying my eyes out and begging Hackett to reassign me?"
She shook her head.
"That's right, you don't. Because this mission is bigger than that!"
"That's another reason why I'm requesting a transfer, ma'am. I'm the one who told John about your relationship with the past Garrus."
"No, Ashley," Jane replied, her tone much softer than it had been moments ago. "It's my fault. It's my fault for keeping the truth from him in the first place. And I will live with those consequences." She sat back down at her desk with a sigh. "I'm not going to say I told you so, and I'm not going to demand that you stay. If you really want a transfer, I'll sign off on it. All I ask is that you think really hard about it before you make a decision."
Ashley seemed to deflate right before her eyes. The stiff military stance fell away as her shoulders hunched, and she sank into the reclining chair in front of the desk. "How do you do it?" she whispered.
Jane shifted her eyes from the Chief to the monitor and stared at the messages on the orange screen. "I focus on work. I keep my eyes on the big picture."
She took a long, deep breath and exhaled through her nose. "I'll think about it."
"Okay. Dismissed, Chief."
Jane watched her leave and as soon as she was gone, put her head in her hands and breathed a heavy sigh. There was nothing like a military pep talk to get them both thinking about what was really important. She'd just gotten a glimpse of what she could end up like if she left didn't get her own emotions under control, and quickly. If she kept going down this path of grief and self-pity she'd be an absolute wreck in no time, and that wouldn't do anyone any good. She was better off keeping herself too busy to feel anything and sticking to her plan of trying to be more like John.
Thinking of John reminded her that she still needed to address his little prank. She grabbed the keyboard and started angrily typing out a message. He might be avoiding her, but there was more than one way to get through to him.
Miranda stepped through the doors of Life Support and touched the panel, locking the doors behind her. She found that if she left them open, it was like hanging a sign for people—John especially—to just come waltzing through any time they felt like it. She wasn't a social person to begin with, but the thought of having to interact with the crew any more than was strictly necessary made her shudder with barely contained revulsion.
The drive core droned lowly in the cavity outside her window, sending out waves of energy that vibrated through her floor and rattled the glass in its casement. Its incessant hum echoed relentlessly around the small area, and upon being greeted with it as she entered the room she let out a frustrated sigh. How much longer would she be forced to stay on this godforsaken hunk of scrap metal?
She sat down at the desk by the window and opened her terminal, entering the encrypted password required to access the confidential files she had been keeping on the crew. Although she detested every moment that she had to spend flirting with John, she had to admit that the Illusive Man was right. The more effort she put into making nice with the Commander, the more he unwittingly divulged to her in the process.
The ping of an email alert drew her attention away from the list she'd been compiling. She swiped the document aside and opened her inbox. A message from Jane to John was waiting for her. Looking to glean as much information as she could, Miranda had hacked into the Commanders' account and set up parameters so that everything they sent to each other, as well as the Alliance Brass, was also surreptitiously forwarded to her. The idea had paid off and so far had allowed her to stay one step ahead of them.
"What have we here?" she mused. She clicked open the email and skimmed the message contained within.
That little stunt you pulled today with the junk mail was sophomoric and asinine. How are we supposed to maintain command of our crew if you cannot even treat me with the most basic respect? This is not a game. I suggest you grow the hell up.
"Interesting….," Miranda drawled, copying the text so she could move it to a folder in one of the confidential files. "Very interesting."
She worked for a while longer, categorizing everything she'd learned or overheard, and then sat back to examine it all. What she saw was startling. Tapping her fingers indecisively on the desk in front of her, she debated on the merits of waiting until later to report back to the Illusive Man.
No, he needed to hear it now so he could give her guidance on how to proceed. She jumped up and hurried out to the elevator, hoping that no one would stop her on the way to the comm room.
"You took a big risk contacting me at this time of the day, Miranda," were the first words out of the Illusive Man's mouth once the QEC fired up. "I'm curious to hear why you thought it was necessary. Have you discovered anything new?"
"Yes. There seems to be a rift among the Commanders and the crew members," she replied. "And it looks to me like it's getting worse."
The Illusive Man repositioned himself in his seat, shifting his weight from one elbow to the other. With an unhurried grace that almost bordered on indifference, he reached into his pocket, a gesture that Miranda knew to be one of habit, and pulled out a cigarette. His steely blue eyes never left the Operative as he centered the cigarette between his lips and leaned forward to light it. The tip glowed brightly as he inhaled slowly, letting his head drift back slightly as the smoke rolled around in his mouth. Then he exhaled and leaned back, tapping the cigarette against the ashtray in his chair.
"Is that something we can use to our advantage?"
"Perhaps. Both Shepards appear to be at odds with one another right now, and the crews' loyalties look to be split between them."
"Is there any chance that we can divide and conquer?"
"No, I don't think so. Even with all the infighting, everyone still seems united in the goal of defeating the reapers."
"Then why, exactly, are you telling me this?"
"Because, as long as the crews' focus is on their Commanders and the considerable drama they are creating, no one is paying attention to me," Miranda said. An arrogant smile spread across her alabaster features as she crossed her arms and jutted out a hip. "They don't suspect a thing."
"Good. Keep it that way." He took another drag. "Anything else?"
"Yes. I overheard John and the pilot talking on the bridge. It turns out the ship's virtual intelligence is actually an unshackled AI. I did some research and discovered that we—I mean the other Cerberus—installed it during the reconstruction of the Normandy with the intention of it acting as a spy. I'm not sure why, but for some reason it defected and now considers itself part of the crew."
"Find out. And stay on John," the Illusive Man said. "I want more information on his cybernetics. You might have to up the ante to get him to talk."
Miranda grimaced and exhaled begrudgingly.
"I have faith in you, Miranda. I know you will get the job done."
He leaned forward and hit a button on his chair, disconnecting the feed before she had a chance to argue further with him.
Jane Shepard had seen a lot during her time as an Alliance marine. Hell, she'd seen a lot just during the past twelve months, and that didn't include a time-traveling, alternate doppelganger and his wayward crew. But the one thing that she would never get used to, the one thing that unsettled her more than anything else, was walking into a ship or a base that was completely and utterly deserted.
When Admiral Hackett had sent a message asking her to investigate why the MSV Cornucopia had suddenly gone silent, she had figured that pirates were to blame. But as the ground team slowly made their way through the eerily quiet hallways, it soon became apparent that it was something infinitely more sinister. They had cleared two rooms now, and had yet to come across the crew, or even signs of a struggle.
"Is anyone else here totally creeped out by this?" Kasumi asked in a hushed whisper.
"Totally," Tali responded.
Jane nodded. She kept her pistol positioned at chest level, the barrel pointed towards the ceiling, and motioned with her head that they should advance down the hallway to the right.
The room at the far end was more of the same; empty, with no trace of any foul play. Kasumi let out a small squeal of delight at the lockers in the corner and hurried over to them to see what was inside. Tali glanced back at Shepard, and then jogged over to join the thief. Jane remained in the doorway and kept a wary eye on the hallway behind them.
Something was very wrong.
"Awww, this stuff is all junk," Kasumi sighed, sifting through the cache of supplies. "These shield capacitors look ancient. Where are the heavy skin and muscle weaves, the redundant field generators, and trauma modules?"
Tali looked up from hacking one of the locks. "The what, the what, and the what?"
"Oh, that's right. I guess all this hasn't been invented yet. I keep forgetting that we're stuck two years in the past."
"You say that like it's a bad thing."
"Well, when it comes to medical science, it is! Even ask Mordin."
"Oh Keelah. I don't have that kind of time," Tali said.
Kasumi just giggled. "Who does? Sometimes when I run into him—before he sees me—I use my cloak and hurry out of the room so I don't have to hear the details of his latest experiment."
"That's terrible! And incredibly unfair!"
"Shhh!" Jane whispered harshly. "Did either of you hear that?"
The other two women stopped talking and listened.
"I don't hear anything," Tali said.
Somewhere in the distance the bulkheads let out a low creak, followed by an even lower moan.
"There!" Jane exclaimed. "Did you hear that?"
"That's just the ship settling, Shepard," the quarian assured her. "It's normal."
"No," Kasumi interjected, tilting her head back to survey the room. "No, I hear it too."
Jane checked the thermal clip on her pistol and then gestured down the hallway. "It's coming from the other side."
The Commander took point as they inched their way down the corridor, her gun trained on the door ahead of them. As they drew closer, the sound of moaning steadily grew louder.
"I don't like the sound of that," Kasumi said, her voice wavering slightly.
Suddenly the door to the chamber opened and the three women were confronted with a room full of humanoid zombie-like creatures. There had to be about thirty of them. Dragon's teeth littered each of the corners of the room.
"Husks!" Jane shouted. "Spread out!"
Sensing the presence of intruders, the husks' attention quickly shifted, and they immediately began to converge on the ground team. Jane switched to her shotgun and with a determined, angry yell, marched right into the horde, firing a shot with each step she took.
"Shepard!" Tali shrieked.
She cut a path of carnage down the middle of the room, leaving a trail of dead bodies in her wake. It felt good to let loose and channel some of her rage and frustration into the empty, mindless husks.
Tali and Kasumi did their best to keep them from swarming her, but even as they took out the husks on the outer edges, the creatures only seemed focused on the Commander. It didn't take long before Jane was completely surrounded, and her position in the middle made firing into the group extremely risky.
Undeterred, Jane raised her shotgun in the air, savagely beating the husks back with the stock. For the first time in a while, her mind was blissfully clear, only concentrating on the task at hand and not weighed down by the stress she had been carrying with her for the past few months. With each thrust of her gun, she thought less of Garrus and the horrible decisions she had made. And every time she heard the satisfying crack of one of the husks' skulls, she felt more and more liberated from the chains of pain and uncertainty that had held her captive for so long.
When it was finally over, Jane returned her shotgun to the holster on her back and triumphantly turned to her teammates. "I think I know what happened to the crew."
"Are you crazy?" Tali screamed at her.
She lifted her shoulders in a casual shrug. "Relax, Tali. They were just husks. I had it under control."
"Still, we're here too, you know. You didn't need to go charging in to the group of them," Tali argued, her voice rising up an octave as she went on. "We couldn't even provide back up!"
"Tali. I said I'm fine. Now, let's check these crates and get out of here. I need to report back to Admiral Hackett."
Later on that evening the mess hall was abuzz with tales of the mission. A few members of Jane's crew were just finishing up dinner. Wrex had his head down, his attention on the food on his tray, Liara was washing off her plate at the sink, and Jane stood at the counter, watching Tali as she sat across the table from Kaidan and waved her hands emphatically.
"And then, without waiting for us, she just charged in and started beating them down."
"It's not funny!" the quarian retorted. "It was a stupid, reckless move."
"Oh, for the love of God," Jane sighed and sank down to lean an elbow on the kitchen counter. "It's not like I charged into a room full of armed Eclipse soldiers. They were husks! They didn't even have weapons."
"That's not the point," Tali said.
"I don't see anything wrong with it either," Wrex rumbled. "But the next time you go into a blood rage, Shepard, take me with you."
"You got it," she replied, pointing her index finger at him like a gun as she smirked at his enthusiasm.
"Me too," Liara said. "I can hit them with a series of biotic attacks and—"
"Heh heh, biotic explosions," the krogan chuckled, "those are always fun."
"You guys! Don't encourage her!" Tali cried. "Ugh!"
Realizing she was outnumbered and wasn't going to win the argument, the poor quarian got up and stomped out of the mess hall. Liara, finished with washing her plate, said good night to the group and quietly excused herself. Wrex followed suit shortly after.
"Wrex," Jane nodded.
Soon, only Kaidan and the Commander were left. Jane poured herself a cup of coffee and settled down in the chair that Tali had been sitting in.
"She's just worried about you," Kaidan said.
"She's right, though. Charging into the fray doesn't sound like you. You're usually more strategic and precise."
She set the cup on the table and linked her fingers around it. "I needed to blow off some steam," she said simply, not looking at him.
Kaidan didn't get to finish his sentence, because at that same moment the battery doors opened and Garrus walked out. Jane immediately stiffened. Trying to appear as though his sudden presence didn't leave her completely flustered, she met his gaze and held it. He locked his cool blue eyes with her, but only long enough to address her with the obligatory greeting.
Inside her heart lurched, but she kept her expression neutral and softly replied, "Garrus."
He continued passed them and rounded the corner to the elevator. Kaidan watched as Jane dropped her gaze and waited for him to leave. Once he was gone, she sighed heavily and pushed away from the table.
"Well, that report's not going to write itself. I should go get to it."
Kaidan's eyes narrowed questioningly, but all he said was, "Okay, Jane. Have a good night."
"You too, Kaidan."
She whirled around and started jogging toward her cabin, almost running into Miranda in the process. The Cerberus Operative appeared somewhat startled, and then recovered enough to smile and nod in her direction. Jane apologized, offered a nod in return, and hurried to her quarters.
Once the doors closed behind her she let out a heavy sigh. Moving on was going to be harder than she anticipated. How much worse it was going to get before things got easier?
"Hang on, everybody! Prepare for evasive maneuvers!"
Garrus froze, the wrench still in his hand, as Joker's frenzied voice screeched over the intercom. Seconds later the Normandy suddenly pitched and banked hard to starboard. The Mako slid sideways, its front tire narrowly missing his foot in the process.
Across the way, Wrex lumbered heavily from side to side as he tried to maintain his balance. But his bulky form was too much to compensate for, and as he stumbled to the ground he growled, "What the hell is that damn pilot doing?"
Their answer came from below in the form of a white-hot stream of fire. It ripped through the Normandy's hull, slicing a gaping hole in the ship's sub-decks before expanding into the cargo hold. Garrus dove underneath the Mako just in time to miss being cooked alive by the beam. The rapidly rising temperature inside his armor and the smell of burning plastic told him just how close he had come to certain death.
He yanked his visor off, tossing the melted eyepiece to the side, and glanced over to see if the krogan had managed to get out of the way. The area between them was now engulfed in flames, creating a huge chasm of fire that separated the two of them. He saw Wrex clamber to his feet, muttering a string of curses that would make even the most seasoned war veteran blush.
"You still alive, turian?" he called out.
"Yeah," Garrus replied. "What in the hell was that?"
Wrex shrugged. "Don't know, but I don't feel like sticking around to find out."
Garrus grabbed his helmet, securing it to his armor, and followed him to the emergency access panel located behind the table where Gunnery Chief Williams used to clean and maintain their rifles, waiting anxiously as the krogan forcefully dislodged the hatch. They could hear shouting and cries of shock and pain coming from the deck above them. The sounds chilled the turian to the bone, despite that the stifling heat from the fire was damn near suffocating them.
What was going on?
The crew deck wasn't in much better shape. The table had been upended and all of the chairs were strewn about. While it lacked any direct damage from the beam that had decimated the cargo hold, the hull had been breached just behind the battery and several small fires were burning in multiple locations. Billowing black, acrid smoke was quickly filling the area, making it difficult to see.
In the middle of the dark clouds, Kaidan was quickly ushering crew members through the debris towards the stairs, where the escape pods were located.
"Where's Shepard?" Garrus shouted.
Kaidan pointed to the deck above them. "Went to get Joker. Commander's orders are to abandon ship and make for the escape pods!"
Garrus charged past him, taking the stairs two at a time. The CIC was in complete ruin. The top half of the hull had been blown open, the edges of the metal glowing eerily orange against the black backdrop of space. Outside, the bluish-white radiance from a nearby planet lit up what was left of the galaxy map, casting an ethereal glow over the darkened chamber. The ship's gravity simulation systems had been severely damaged, and the kinetic barriers were holding, but only just enough to keep the crew and the equipment from floating off into space.
His breath caught in his throat, his stunned gasped echoing harshly in his helmet as he surveyed the scene. There was nothing left. The Normandy would go down, that much was certain.
He was about to make a run for the cockpit when Wrex grabbed him by the cowl of his armor and shoved him into one of the escape pods.
"You heard the Commander," he said gruffly. "Orders are orders."
Kaidan hopped in behind them. "Everybody's here. Let's go."
"Wait!" the turian yelled, struggling to make his way back to the door.
Alenko slammed his hand against the eject button and Garrus was thrown to the floor as the escape pod rocketed away from the hull. He scrambled to his feet and pressed himself against the window. In the distance he saw the final pod disengage from the hull moments before another blast from the beam tore completely through the cockpit. It felt like everything was happening in slow motion as the Normandy broke apart and exploded.
The tiny cabin grew quiet as the crew looked on in shocked silence, no one daring to voice the question that was burning in all of their minds.
Did they make it out in time?
The fireball dissipated, and all eyes fell upon a form writhing in the empty void above the blue planet. Shepard had somehow—miraculously—survived the blast, but the Commander's hard suit had been torn in the process and now oxygen was rapidly leaking out from the ruptured seals.
"We have to go back!" Garrus shouted. He whipped around to face Kaidan. "Turn this thing around!"
"You know we can't," Kaidan said softly, sadness and defeat filling his voice. "You know the pod isn't equipped with controls like that."
"She's dying! We have to help her!" he screamed, smashing his fists into the window repeatedly. He was completely helpless to do anything other than watch as the last of her life was sucked out of her body. Several hairline cracks snaked through the window under his hands, and the glass made a sickening sound as it shifted underneath the pressure. "Jane!"
"Cut that out, you stupid turian!" Wrex barked. "You're gonna kill us all!"
"Somebody grab him!" the krogan roared.
Multiple pairs of hands fell upon Garrus' shoulders, pulling him away from the window before he could do any more damage.
"Let me go!" he snarled, his rage suddenly centered on his crewmates. He fought to push them away, lashing out with fists and feet, desperately trying to put more distance between them.
"It's over, Garrus," Kaidan said. He glanced out the window despairingly and then turned back to the turian. "It's over."
Garrus wrenched his arms away from the two crewmen that were restraining him and lunged for the window. Shepard's body had gone completely still and had already started its descent into the planet's atmosphere.
His anguished cry filled the small space and reverberated around them. "Jane!"
"That's it!" Wrex growled from the back.
The krogan pushed his way through the crowd and delivered a solid right hook to the turian's jaw, knocking him out cold.
Garrus' eyes snapped open, and he sat straight up, looking around feverishly as he tried to get a grasp on reality. He was in the battery. On the SR-2. The collectors hadn't attacked. The Normandy hadn't been destroyed. And he hadn't watched helplessly as Jane died right before his eyes.
He swung his legs over the edge of his cot and put his head in his hands. What was that all about? For starters, it was John that had been killed when the Normandy SR-1 was attacked. And Garrus wasn't even on board at the time; he was on the Citadel, starting his Spectre training.
Was his dream what it had actually been like? Did Kaidan and Wrex and the rest of the crew actually watch John die? He remembered being on the Citadel and hearing the reports come in, remembered feeling lost and overwhelmed and uncontrollably angry. But somehow those feelings were made so much worse when he thought about it Jane being instead of John. The ache in his chest was very real, despite the fact that it had only been a nightmare.
Getting back to sleep was going to be impossible now. His heart was pounding so hard he could hear his blood thumping in his ears. He needed to know that she was safe. He wouldn't be able to rest until he did.
He quietly made his way out of the battery and through the mess hall, trying not to make too much noise as he hurried around the corner to her quarters. The panel on her door was green, even though it was still very early in the morning. He raised his hand to knock and paused, his closed fist only inches away from making contact with the cold metal.
As the haze of sleep faded and his mind became clear, he recoiled in horror at what he was about to do. What was he thinking? Even if it hadn't been the middle of the night, there was still the issue that she had pretended that he was someone else. She didn't care about him, so why was he wasting his energy caring about her? He needed to let her go—let the idea of them being together go.
Garrus let his hand drop back to his side with a sigh, and, with a hollow feeling in the pit of his stomach, slowly trudged back to the battery. He sat on his cot, staring at the way the Thanix cannon was bathed in the subdued red light. It reminded him of Omega. Everything on that station had a red hue to it, like a beacon guiding all the rebels and the outlaws of the galaxy home.
He thought about the time he had spent there and the war he had waged with the mercenary gangs. Grief over Shepard dying, and a desire to make a difference had driven him to that rock. Grief over the brutal murder of his team and the betrayal of a friend had made him reckless. He thought about his state of mind at the end of that three-day siege and had to wonder, how different would things have been if it had really been Jane that had gone down with the Normandy? Dreaming about it was one thing; thinking about the implications was another. Would he have had the strength to honor her memory and fight it out on that bridge, or would he have decided that suicide by mercs was better than living without her?
Garrus pushed those thoughts aside, disgusted with himself for even allowing his mind to entertain such a thing. It didn't matter, anyway. None of it mattered now.
Jane was awakened by the sound of a low, guttural cry.
As she lay there in the dark, clutching the covers to her chest, she listened for any signs that what she heard had been real. She wasn't sure whether she was just dreaming or imagining things—which would have been a perfectly acceptable side effect given her current state of tormented restlessness—but she could have sworn she had heard her name in that long, tortured moan.
The silence in her cabin stretched on, sharing with her nothing but quiet uncertainty, and soon enough she felt her eyelids getting heavier as sleep tried to pull her back into its warm and welcome embrace. She exhaled and turned on her side, wrapping her arms around her pillow and hugging it tightly to her chest.
A heavy sigh filtered through the darkness, and Jane's eyes flew wide open. She darted into a sitting position. There was no way she could have imagined it this time, as it sounded like it was coming from right outside her door. And on top of that, the sigh had a distinctive flanging effect to it. Her already elevated heartbeat sped up even more at the thought that Garrus might be standing on the other side of her door.
Jane flung the covers away and ran to the door, eagerly pressing her hand against the access panel. The gears turned and seconds later the metal parted, only to reveal the empty space beyond. She exhaled sharply, her shoulders drooping in disappointment, and peeked around the corner. The deck was dark, isolated, and disturbingly quiet.
"It's just stress," she told herself. "That's all. Just stress. I just need to get some sleep."
But she knew, even as she said it, that getting back to sleep was out of the question after this. Too much had happened, and it was all still sitting in the forefront of her mind.
Resigned to another night of wakefulness, she walked back into her cabin to get dressed for the day. Then she went over to her desk, her eyes roaming over the mess that littered the surface. She really needed to take a day to organize all the dossiers and reports, but between John and Ashley and the mission for Hackett, she hadn't had the time.
"Where is that datapad?" she muttered out loud, rummaging through the files. "I know I saw it here somewhere…."
Jane frowned. Her inability to get a decent night's rest was starting to become a problem. She didn't normally misplace things.
Finally, she spotted it lying face down on the floor in the corner. It must have gotten pushed aside during the day and eventually fell off the desk, but she couldn't remember doing anything so dramatic that it would've ended up over there. She crouched down and picked it up, laughing at her own ineptitude.
"You need to get a grip, Jane. You can't be expected to run a ship if you can't even remember where you put things."
With the datapad tucked securely under her arm she returned to the mess hall, thinking that since she couldn't sleep she might as well start planning their next course of action. She went to the cupboard to dig out the coffee and measured out enough water and grounds to make a couple cups.
Briefly she wondered if all the coffee she'd been drinking was contributing to her inability to sleep, but she dismissed that notion just as quickly as it had surfaced. There were worse things to find solace in. For instance, she could have been drowning her sorrows in alcohol instead.
While she waited for it to finish brewing, Jane turned around and leaned against the counter, trying not to let her gaze wander down the hallway to the main battery. Would things ever be tolerable between them again? She knew better than to hope that things would go back the way they were, but they couldn't exactly stay the way they were now, either.
The buzzer on the coffee pot brought her attention back to the task at hand. She poured herself a cup, and, drawn by the sudden need for space and a change of scenery, made for the starboard observatory. A favorite spot of the crew during the daytime hours because of its large picture window, it afforded her a sense of peace and a moment of quiet, uninterrupted contemplation.
Tossing the datapad on the couch, she slowly approached the window and gazed out at the infinite sea of stars. She never tired of staring into the galaxy, even though she had served for years on spacefaring ships and frigates. There was so much to see, so much to discover. There were some people who allowed that vastness of space to completely overwhelm them, but Jane found it inspiring. Even with the Reaper threat looming before them, she could still look out the window and feel hopeful for the future because she would fight with everything she had, even if it cost her her own life, to make that threat go away.
She wrapped her hands around her mug and breathed in the coffee's intoxicating aroma. The warmth of the steam under her nose was oddly comforting, and soon she felt the tension start to ease out of her shoulders. She released one hand and lightly placed her fingertips against the window.
"Garrus," she whispered softly, "I don't know if you're out there somewhere, if you're looking down on me. I don't know if there's such a thing as turian heaven—or if there's even a heaven at all—but…I miss you."
A small lump had formed at the base of her throat, causing her voice to crack slightly.
"I can say that now. I was afraid to say it before." She shook her head and reached up to swipe the tears away before they had a chance to fall. "So much has happened in the past few months. I haven't even had time to think straight, let alone get used to the idea of you not being here. I—"
The door whoosed open behind her, and Jane whipped around with a startled yelp, nearly dropping her coffee.
"I'm sorry, Commander," Thane quickly apologized. "I did not expect anyone to be in here at this time of the night."
"Thane! No—no you're fine. Oh my god," she said, her eyes going wide as she sucked air in through her teeth remorsefully. "I didn't wake you up, did I?"
"No," Thane replied and smiled.
"Okay, good." She relaxed, and then, suddenly remembering that these weren't normal waking hours said, "Wait, if you were already up—is everything okay?"
The drell moved farther into the room, allowing the doors to shut behind them. "I do not require much sleep, between three to five hours at most. In my line of work you learn very quickly how to get by with the least amount possible."
Jane glanced down at her omni-tool and groaned. 0230 hours.
"What about you, Commander?" he inquired, his eyes searching her face. "What has you losing sleep?"
"The mission," she said mechanically. It was her fallback excuse. There was no question that the pressure of commanding a crew on a suicide mission could keep her up at night.
"Ah yes, but the success of the mission is also contingent on everyone being in their top form. That means getting adequate rest, Commander."
She looked down into her coffee and turned halfway back to the window. "I know."
He clasped his hands behind his back. "Forgive me if I seem forward or out of line, but you seem troubled as of late, and I suspect the reason for that is more than just the mission. I won't pretend that I know you well enough to know why, but I sense that this," he waved to encompass the room, "is not normal for you."
Jane bit her lip and continued to stare out the window. This vulnerability that she was apparently wearing on her sleeve had to stop. She was trying so hard to be the Commander that everyone needed her to be, to press on and act like everything that happened wasn't bothering her. So why was it that Thane could see right through her?
"I should go," Thane said after a moment. "I'm sorry to have disturbed you."
"No, wait," she replied hastily, feeling guilty that her dour mood was chasing him away. "You don't have to go. Maybe we can just sit and talk, you know, since we're both up anyway."
A hint of a smile ghosted across his lips. "Very well," he said and approached the window to stand next to her. He clasped his hands behind his back and looked out into the starry abyss. "What would you like to talk about?"
Jane grew thoughtful. "The last time we spoke, you were telling me about growing up on Kahje, what it was like to be an assassin, and," her eyes twinkled mischievously in the dark, "you promised to tell me what had brought you to Illium."
There it was again; that fleeting glimpse of understanding and loneliness.
"I had a family once," he began. "But I was careless. I took them for granted and didn't realize how valuable they were to me until it was too late."
He smiled sadly, wistfully. "When I met my wife, Irikah, the hanar released me from the compact so that I could settle down with her and start a family. But I lacked the skill set required to adjust to a normal life. I only knew how to do one thing really well, and so it wasn't very long before I started freelancing as an assassin. It was what I knew best.
"My work took me away often. 'On business' she would say. I was always away on business. Eventually, as is often the case in such instances, I abandoned them—not in the literal sense," he corrected when he saw her mouth drop. "Nothing dramatic. No final argument or sneaking out in the middle of the night. I simply was not as involved as a father and a husband should have been. I watched my son grow up from a distance. Every time I came home, he would be a little bit taller, a little bit older."
He turned his head from the window to give her a sidelong glance, and the light from the stars danced over his face.
"I was away when batarian mercenaries stormed our house. They were seeking revenge. I had killed their leader. They were too cowardly to come after me directly so they went for those closest to me instead, the ones I loved. Irikah was a sweet soul. She never stood a chance."
Jane's hands fluttered to her mouth. "Oh god, Thane," she whispered. "I'm so sorry."
Thane bowed his head.
"What about your son?" she breathed, hardly daring to ask.
"Kolyat was studying at the time and thankfully wasn't home. He…didn't take it well." His body went rigid as he was suddenly gripped with images of his past. "They wrapped her body in sea vines. Weighted it with stones. He tries to pull from me. Calls for her. The hanar lift her off the platform. They sing like bells. 'The fire has gone to be kindled anew.' He begs them not to take her away. They let her body slide into the water. He hits me. 'Don't let them! Stop them! Why weren't you—?'"
"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to make you relive that."
"Perfect memory. It can be…a burden sometimes. After the funeral I left Kolyat in the care of his aunts and uncles. We have not spoken for many years."
"How long has it been?" she asked quietly.
"Eight years." Thane directed his attention back to the window. "After Irikah was murdered, I left Kahje and tracked down her killers. It took some time to find them all. The last one was on Illium. In the past, whenever I've performed an assassination, I always make sure the kill is quick, clean. The men who took Irikah from me, I let them linger. They are the only lives I've ever taken of my own accord."
Jane pushed a hand through her hair and sat heavily on the couch as everything he had revealed sank in. She hadn't known what to expect when she suggested they chat, but it certainly wasn't this. It all made perfect sense now that she thought about it. That was the reason she found herself so drawn to him. She was surprised she didn't pick up on it sooner. They shared the pain of losing a loved one. They both knew what it was like to suffer that kind of loss, to walk in a world that no longer held the pleasure it once had. And strangely enough, knowing that Thane understood what she was going through—even though she hadn't told him about it—brought her comfort, and to some degree, a little bit of contentment.
He twisted around and followed her to the couch, standing in front of it as he regarded her. "I realize that perhaps this wasn't the best topic to talk about when you can't sleep."
"No, no it's okay," she responded softly. "I'm glad you trust me enough to share this with me. I know it's not easy. So, that's why you were on Illium?"
"Originally," he said. "I set up operations there afterward. Illium is just as sordid as Omega once you strip away all the glitz and glamour. Acquiring new contracts was relatively easy, and I have been there ever since."
Jane reclined against the cushion quietly, not knowing what else to say. She remembered the pitying glances and the softly spoken platitudes that people showered her with after Mindoir. Everything they said seemed so empty and obligatory. Sometimes it was just better to say nothing at all. Thane eventually wandered back to the window, and they stayed like that for a while. She closed her eyes and tried to imagine what Irikah had been like, how she and Thane had interacted with each other, how she dealt with him being gone all the time.
"Mmm?" Her eyes blinked open to Thane standing above her, his hand resting lightly on her shoulder. She hadn't realized that she'd fallen asleep.
She was rewarded with a warm smile. "You were drifting off. I debated on waking you but ultimately thought you might be more comfortable in your quarters."
"Okay," she murmured.
Her eyelids felt like they weighed a ton. It was hard to keep them open. She'd just sit there for a few more minutes and then get up and go to her cabin. Presently she heard the rustling of Thane's clothes and the hiss of the door as he left the room. She thought that he had decided to go back to the crews' quarters, but he returned a moment later and she felt something soft and warm settle over her. She breathed in a deep, contented sigh and snuggled into the blanket.
"Sleep well, Siha," Thane whispered before slipping quietly from the room.