Still a shithole.
Kasumi sat next to him at the diner counter. She was swaying her legs back and forth under her seat and sipping a soda through a straw. Next to her Tali was flipping through a magazine on her Omni-tool, occasionally showing Kasumi the best pages or asking her questions about makeup or perfume and what they felt like, or smelled like, or tasted like.
Turned out Kasumi did know what perfume tasted like. 'Not good' was apparently the answer.
Shepard sighed. He should have seen what Garrus was up to. Or Jack. Jack would have come out...
"I've gotta go," he said and slipped off the bar stool.
"Really, Shep? Or are we boring you?" Kasumi asked.
He smirked. "Honestly bored out of my mind. But I really should get back to the ship." He picked up his bag from the ground - this was the last time they would be doing any shopping and he had taken the opportunity.
It was also the last time some of them might see Omega...or worse. He waved to Kasumi and Tali and headed back to the docking bay.
He'd given the crew - the whole crew - the choice. Leave now or you were in for the long haul. He had no idea what was going to happen on the derelict Reaper, or what would happen on the other side of the Omega 4 Relay and he wouldn't force anyone to follow him. Anyone who wanted to leave could leave with no shame or guilt and no questions asked.
He'd know by tonight.
The Normandy would be leaving in - he checked his Omni-tool as he walked - two hours.
In his mind he knew who would return. He knew who he would be storming the Collector Base with. But there were still unknowns. Those he couldn't help, those who still held their grudges and anger, their sadness and pain. And who was he to tell them to leave it behind?
He still had his own. He would never be able to forget what happened on Mindoir. In his dreams he would always see his mother and father covered in blood, would wake to the smell of burning houses and fields. He would never forget Akuze. Seeing his squad die and feeling utterly helpless - again! - to do anything. More dreams that would wake him in the middle of the night breathing hard and hearing the ringing in his ears.
He hit the panel outside the Normandy's airlock a lot harder than necessary. His fingers tingled. This wasn't just his fight, but he wouldn't force anyone to join it.
Shepard waited patiently for the decon cycle. Miranda was waiting on the other side.
"Hey, Miranda. You not going out? Last chance."
"I don't really feel the need to get so drunk I throw up in an alleyway...but thank you. The crew appreciates the downtime."
"You wouldn't let them have it?"
Miranda smiled. "No, I wouldn't. It's an inefficient use of time better spent working. But that's why you're the commanding officer. The crew don't take to me as well."
She followed him across the CIC and smiled as she noticed him turn his head and look towards the cockpit. "EDI insisted he get some sleep."
"And he actually listened?"
Miranda chuckled. "Apparently it was a difficult argument. But EDI is a fast learner."
"I merely stated that based on previous data his efficiency and accuracy seemed to deteriorate due to prolonged sleep deprivation and that he had currently been at his console for 13.5 hours."
"How very nice of you, EDI," Shepard said. "It almost sounds like you care."
"What I experience could not be called 'caring', Commander. However it is in my best interests and the best interests of the crew that all staff operates at peak efficiency."
"And the creepy AI still doesn't bother you?" Shepard asked Miranda.
She gave him a look, one perfect eyebrow raised as she folded her arms.
"Alright...it's just me then. You can't really blame me, though."
Miranda shook her head. "I'm just going to pretend you're not speaking. Did you read my report on the final ship upgrades?"
He gave her a blank look. Vaguely he remembered one of the dozen reports she sent maybe being something about ship upgrades. Honestly, he had being paying attention, then Jeff started laughing next to him on the couch and...hmm...he probably shouldn't tell Miranda what happened instead of reading her reports. He doubted she would appreciate it.
Miranda sighed. "I'm not even going to ask what happened because I'm sure I can imagine." She pinched the bridge of her nose. "I've got it handled."
"I know. And that's why I don't worry." He gestured her into the elevator and pressed the console for the Crew Deck. "I'm not really sure how I would do this without you."
He laughed. "That's fair...and mean." He leant against the wall, feeling the familiar crunch of armour as it settled in place. "Before I became a Spectre I'd only just become XO for the Normandy. I'm a Marine, not a logistics officer. I'm bad at reports and plans and data. Hell, even Jeff would make a better XO than I ever would."
"If the job ever comes up I'll make sure I offer it to him. Though I'm not sure either of you would ever get anything done."
"We'd get lots done. He beat me fair and square in a game of Poker the other night."
"I did find those FBA couplings the kids in engineering were looking for."
Miranda followed him out of the elevator and nodded to two of the crew members passing towards their quarters.
"Shepard... Tris." She placed her hand on his arm as they walked. It was just a small slice of contact but they both smiled. "There's nothing wrong with you just the way you are...despite how I complain about not getting reports back, or your spelling mistakes-"
"You wanted the report back on time."
"I'm sure Kelly won't complain about how you spell her name, either."
He waved his hand at her as he helped himself to coffee, placing his bag on the floor. "I know I'm not the best CO... Definitely not the best XO..."
"Maybe not. But we need you. I'm only here to make up for your few failings. If that means I spend my time writing reports and running numbers...well..."
"Hey, Miranda..." Shepard paused and took a sip of his coffee. He and Miranda had their moments - they hadn't started out on the best foot. They didn't continue on the best anything. But now...honestly, he didn't know what he would do without Miranda. She was more than just an excellent XO or a good friend. Different to Tali or Garrus or Liara. "Look, if all of this goes pear shaped and I don't..."
He held up his hand. "This is important." He looked around the crew deck. It was empty, most everyone either on Omega or working skeleton shifts around the ship. "I already spoke to Jeff...and I spoke to Garrus..." He sighed. "You know better than anyone that we may be forced to leave people behind. You may have to leave me behind. If that happens then you will need to carry on. The Reapers will still be out there."
"Shepard, we're not leaving you behind!"
"You may have to! I know you think you can't do this without me...but you can. So if I don't come back you need to carry on. Take the Normandy and go. Get help wherever you can - the Alliance, Cerberus, whoever. Make it work."
"Shepard, you make this work because people want to follow you. You give people hope."
"You won't be alone, Miri," he said. He knew she couldn't believe it but he knew that he was just a man. A man with fears and failings no more important or special than anyone else. If everyone believed in themselves half as much as they believed in him the damn Reapers wouldn't stand a chance. "Just try, okay? You're a strong, smart, amazing woman. And if I'm not here, you can all carry on without me. And I know you'll win."
"I brought you back once."
He placed his coffee mug on the bench and stared at it, watching the steam curl upwards towards the vents. "I know. And I'm asking you not to do it again."
Once was enough. Once was too much. People weren't supposed to come back from the dead. And while he could admit that some good, in small and almost entirely selfish ways, had come from his resurrection, he didn't want to go through that again. He didn't want the people he loved to go through that again.
"Humans aren't meant to play at being God. It's our frailties, our mortality, that keeps us strong and fast. Stupid and reckless and damn good at what we do. If we could live forever I don't think we would live at all." He picked up his bag and his mug, not giving him any free hands to touch her shoulder or shaking hand on the bench. "Please, Miri. Just do that for me...now that you know me." And he left her with that.
He didn't head back to his cabin. Everyone on board deserved his attention and he wanted to make sure those aboard really wanted to be there. He wasn't ready to let Cerberus bully anyone into duty or false loyalty.
So he started at the bottom. Theoretically, anyway.
"Commander!" Ken and Gabby snapped simultaneous salutes, which he sloppily returned as he tried not to spill his coffee.
"Sorry... I came to see how you were doing. You didn't go ashore?"
"No, we really wanted to make sure the engines were up to scratch. Don't want any surprises around a Reaper, y'know?" Gabby said.
"And those couplings?"
"Working out just great. Saves us a lot of time. Can't believe you found a set."
"I might be no good at filing reports but when it comes to scavenger hunts, I'm your man."
Gabby covered her mouth and tried to turn a laugh into a cough. "It's alright, Commander. I hear Flight Lieutenant Moreau writes excellent reports. EDI always uses his as an example when correcting ours."
"You mean when correcting mine," Ken groused. He leaned back against his console and stared accusingly at EDI's platform. "She never corrects your work. It's always me."
Shepard smirked. "Joker will be interested to hear that. He's convinced EDI just picks on his work."
"Nah. If EDI wasn't an AI I'd say she had a wee bit of a crush on your pilot."
Shepard looked over his shoulder. "EDI? Do I have to stake my claim here?"
"Shepard, I am incapable of forming a 'crush' on anyone," EDI said. The pale blue orb flashed up on the holographic podium. "I am not capable of emotions in that way. However, large portions of my runtimes have been engaged in conversations with and analysis of Mr Moreau. I find his work to be more than satisfactory in many aspects and he indulges my questions and facilitates learning and processing."
"Sounds like a crush to me," Gabby said.
Shepard almost had to agree. Almost. He wasn't sure what EDI was - she certainly liked to blur the lines of sentience - but he knew for a fact that she wasn't capable of human emotions, especially something as complex as love (Like? Lust? Companionable friendship? What would it even be?).
"Eh, Commander, you should stay and have a couple drinks. How about a quick game of cards?" Ken asked. "Gabby 'n I have finished up here for the night. We were going to ask Tali-"
"You sure you want to ask her to play cards? Sitting? Where you can't stare at her arse?" Gabby asked.
Shepard tried to hide his grin. Sounded like a touch of jealousy there. "Sure. A couple hands and a beer. It'll give everyone a chance to head back." Those that were heading back.
A little over an hour later he wished he could say that he let them win.
But at least he was leaving with his clothes.
Tali giggled at him as they headed back to Engineering. "I didn't know you were quite so bad at cards, Shepard. I'm glad I came back to witness it."
"Oh yeah," Garrus said. "Didn't I ever tell you about the time he lost everything but his underwear to Ashley?"
"Whoa there, Garrus. No need to share that one."
"Darn. It really is one of the best moments in Shepard history, though. I know...I'll sell the story. Make loads."
Shepard rolled his eyes. "No one wants to hear how the Hero of the Citadel almost lost his pants in a game of poker."
"I want to hear..." Tali said in a small voice and raised her hand.
"Just pretend I never said a thing," Garrus said but leant closer and added, "I'll tell you later."
Shepard stared up at the engine core. He listened to the hum, the background music to life on a ship. "I need to ask you both something..."
"What is it, Shepard?" Tali asked. She looked up at him and he didn't need to see her face to understand her expression or her emotion.
He turned to face them. "You have both been with me from the beginning. We took down Saren, fought Sovereign...you both know the Collectors aren't the end of this war."
"The Reapers..." Tali said.
"It does feel like this battle with the Collectors is somewhat of a diversion," Garrus said. "Just keeping us from getting comfortable."
He nodded. "I don't need to convince either of you about the Reapers. But we have to convince the rest of the galaxy. I trust you both. We'll do what needs to be done."
Garrus nodded to him. He'd already shared his fears with Garrus, explained what would happen if he didn't make it back. Hell, he'd asked the turian to look after his damn hamster. But Tali was different. Sweet and strong with such a big heart. He didn't want to hurt her.
"Look out for each other...if you need to. Look out for each other and make sure the Reapers pay."
Tali took his hand and stepped closer. Shepard put his arm around her and drew her in close. "It'll be alright," he said. "I trust both of you."
He left them together. Garrus touched his shoulder as he left and Shepard knew he would look after Tali. They had each other - they'd always had each other, all of them. They were there from the Citadel, before he was a Spectre, before they all knew what Reapers even were.
It was hard to talk to Grunt and Zaeed. He actually found them together in the trash compactor room. Zaeed was recounting a fight from his Blue Suns days and Grunt was staring at him in rapt fascination. With Wrex it had been different - Wrex was older, experienced, wise. He had been able to discuss the krogan people, talk about their future like they actually had one. Shepard had enjoyed talking to Wrex. Grunt was a baby. The only thing Shepard wanted to do with him was put him in a daycare.
Though he could imagine the calls he'd get when Grunt wrecked up the place and came home crying.
No, he was not putting his krogan baby in daycare.
Though, Zaeed was doing a good job of playing Nanny.
He left them to it. He didn't really have much to say to either of them. Zaeed nodded to him and Grunt had pulled his thick lips back in a wide grin before turning back to Zaeed and urged him to continue his tale of bloodshed. They were good for each other. Grunt was full of new enthusiasm and undirected anger, while Zaeed had been there and maybe learned from the experience. He could pass on that information to Grunt. One day, Grunt could be a leader, maybe take over from Wrex, but he had a lot to learn before that happened. But neither of them was leaving. They were taking this through to the end.
He found that the majority of the crew seemed to feel the same way. As the deadline ticked closer more of the crew wended their way back to the Normandy; none were drunk but most had that look of quiet melancholy that came from a night with a few beers and deep conversation. He exchanged pleasant words with the crew that he didn't know all that well but seemed to like him just fine. They patted him on the arm or back, gave friendly handshakes, or offered prim salutes in the case of ex-Alliance. It was unexpected but welcome.
Though he wouldn't honestly be able to say whether he was missing any of the crew without checking a duty roster. He just didn't know them that well.
He looked back over his shoulder and saw Thane standing in the entrance to his temporary quarters.
"Can I do something for you, Thane?" he asked. He felt his stomach drop. He and Thane hadn't spoken much. Not since the incident with his son. What had there been to say? He couldn't help Thane, couldn't change what had happened, and the drell had nothing to say to him afterwards. You couldn't force friendship or loyalty.
"I wanted to ask how you were feeling about the mission," Thane said. He gestured into his room and stepped aside.
Shepard hesitated. He wasn't great at making conversation with those he didn't have much in common with and was even worse at forcing conversation with someone who he had negative history with, and he and Thane had some negative history.
He sat in the chair in front of Thane's desk and nervously tangled the handle of his plastic bag around his fingers. He really should have stopped by his room and changed, too. Though he had a feeling that if he went up there he wouldn't be coming back down. He could imagine Jeff's fingers winding through his hair and tracing the scars on his shoulders and back... Shepard rubbed his forehead and looked at Thane.
"You have appeared stressed during missions," Thane said. "Is there anything I can do?"
Shepard held back a laugh. "No...I'm afraid not. But I wanted to ask you the same thing."
Thane clasped his hands in front of him on the desk. "No... I have been spending time with the Justicar, Samara. She has helped me. We have both lost much."
The sick feeling in his stomach doubled. He hadn't been able to help Thane and he had lost his son. He had helped Samara and she had still lost her daughter. Help, don't help...same outcome.
"I know you said that Kolyat is lost but...maybe after this is all over you can try contact him. I can ask Bailey to give us a hand. Don't give up on him, Thane. Maybe he just needs you to reach out to him."
"I can remember each moment with my son in excruciating detail. I can see each time I failed him. Drell have perfect memories."
"I'd rather not live like that. I can see my own failures clear enough without remembering every last detail or reliving the moment like I was there."
"Is it not better to relive a good memory? If you are alone staring at walls of steel and plastic?"
Shepard folded his arms, the bag settled on his lap. He'd spent so much of his own life analyzing things he had done. If he had acted quicker, could he have saved another life? Would he have changed things by acting differently?
But it didn't matter. He couldn't change things that had already happened, just deal with the aftermath.
This was an aftermath to a decision, to a situation, to actions that he had been responsible for.
"Memories are just memories. They don't actually keep you warm at night or make you feel better when you're hurting. You need people for that. You've spent your whole life alone, Thane."
"I did what had to be done. Work fulfilled me."
"And now you're alone. But you can still find Kolyat. He's still out there somewhere." Shepard stood and suppressed his guilt just one more time.
Thane stared at the tabletop, his hands still clasped in front of him, unmoving. "I have known I was dying for many years. I tried to leave the galaxy better than I found it. But I could not right this wrong…and I cannot be at peace."
Shepard shook his head. He couldn't do any more than what he had done. "I'm sorry, Thane."
He was angry at himself, yes, but he was angry at Thane. He had every opportunity to fix this. But instead he chose defeat. He had options and that was the one he picked.
He left and didn't look back. Stormed out into the hall and let the door slide shut before he put his hand to his eyes, pinching the bridge of his nose.
No, he wasn't angry. He was hurt, upset, guilty—
He inhaled sharply, the air burning as it raced through his constricted throat as he turned.
"I apologize. I have startled you," Samara said.
"Uh, no… No, it's fine. I was just with Thane."
"Yes. I understand. Shepard…would you join me?" Samara asked and gestured towards the observation lounge.
He took a deep breath in and followed her. Both Samara and Thane deserved his attention, deserved to have their thoughts and feelings heard.
He couldn't like everyone. He couldn't always be the perfect friend, the brother, the protector and respected Commander. That's how real life worked.
"Can I help you with anything, Samara?"
She sat down on the ground, her legs crossed. She was the picture of the calm before the storm, that deadly silence that created false security.
"Sit, Shepard. I think it is I who can help you."
He frowned. He dropped his bag on the couch and came to sit next to Samara. The blast screen was down while the Normandy was docked and he found himself staring at metal and plastic.
"Close your eyes, Shepard."
Samara smiled at him. "I believe I can help you. You live your life as a torrent of emotions, of thoughts and feelings. Your body is pulled in so many directions, sworn to protect the weak, fight injustice. We are similar in many ways. It has taken me many years to still the crashing waves in my mind."
"Oh, Samara, you're not suggesting-"
"Close your eyes, Shepard."
Shit… He huffed out a long breath. He couldn't sit with his legs crossed, his armor too bulky. But he did close his eyes.
There was no silence. There was noise, buzzing, a feeling of dizziness and disorientation and a sickening weight that settled on his head and shoulders.
"You are the centre of the storm, Commander," Samara said. Her voice was even and calm and it slid through the fog of his thoughts. "You are the pivotal point in which motions are set into action. The calm that rests at the heart of chaos."
He scrunched his eyes closed. This was stupid. It wasn't like he hadn't tried the whole meditation thing before. He had. The Alliance practically forced it on biotic cadets. They had to learn control, discipline. Or they became Vanguards.
He became a Vanguard. He was the storm.
Vanguards had no choice. The raging ocean, the earthquake that broke the ground, the supernova of a dying star. That was how Vanguards lived – on a timer. A timer that ticked faster with each shockwave, each time he threw himself through the corridor of space as he manipulated and stretched his mass effect field. And each time he slammed himself into a krogan, felt his bones shake in his body, he knew he was one step closer to the end.
Vanguards didn't meditate.
"What was on your mind before I called you, Commander?"
"I was angry at Thane," he blurted out.
"Thane has accepted his mortality. And his limitations."
Shepard ground his teeth together.
"His actions…or inactions…are of no concern to you."
He opened his eyes and looked at her. Samara was still the picture of tranquility, her biotic energy subtly displacing matter around her, the bright, brilliant glow circling her body. She didn't look back at him. So he sighed and closed his eyes and tried to make himself comfortable and ignore where his armour was pressing into his thigh and how his toes were tingling. "His inactions," he snarled the word, that bubble of uncomfortable anger resettling in his stomach, "Are my fault."
Shepard could feel his fingers pressing the plates of armour on his thigh, forcing them to dig into his flesh – anything to suppress the rising urge to blow up. He generally had a bottle on his anger, forcing it down and capping it before it could explode but that seemed now to be a futile endeavor.
"But what has happened is in the past and can't be changed. Thane will do what he believes right. You cannot change that. You cannot save everyone."
There was no eruption of his anger, just a strange moment of clarity as the weight settled. Shepard shook his head and then dragged himself to his feet.
"I can't save everyone…but that doesn't mean I shouldn't try." The anger wasn't in his voice. It stayed in that lump in his stomach, burning in his lungs, swirling in his head but fuelled his conviction. He wouldn't – couldn't – sit in a room and meditate, force his feelings down and hide away. His life was meant to be lived on the edge of a knife. "I appreciate your time."
Samara didn't look up when she spoke, "No, it is I who appreciates the time. You have given me many things to think about."
He glanced back just the once before he left.
Life could lead people on such different paths. He could imagine Samara as the honored matriarch, her daughters off making their own stories but returning home to the love and warmth of family. In another life Thane might still have his wife and son, might have been able to protect them from the future he now lived. While Shepard wouldn't change the difficult parts of his life, he knew that also wasn't true for everyone. His experiences had made him who he was and without them he might not be the man he was now: the Commander, the Vanguard, the friend of so many unique and wonderful individuals from across the galaxy. But his life was his own.
So many lives… Lives that he had touched in a multitude of ways. If he hadn't been there, how differently would the lives of others have played out?
He couldn't stop those thoughts as he headed down the hall. There were others to see.
"Commander… To what do I owe the pleasure?" Chakwas asked as the doors to the Med Bay slid open.
"Didn't think you would be up, Doc."
She gave a small shrug. "It is difficult to sleep when you know that so much is in your future. I thought I would stay awake and see to those who might overindulge tonight. Were you after something for a headache?"
"No, nothing so bad. I uh…" He crossed the room to let the doors close behind him. "You sent me a message?"
"Yes…about your scarring. Dr Solus and I believe we might have a solution for you."
Tris touched his free hand to his cheek. The scars had faded, the angry, open incisions closing and healing. There were still lines across his abdomen, slices along his arms, and the feint web of scarring on his cheek, but the worst had healed.
"Unless you've changed your mind."
That was the thing…he didn't know. Now that he was used to the scars – the faded scars – they didn't bother him like they had when he awoke in the Cerberus lab. They were a part of him now, like any mole or birthmark or the scars he had earned all by himself. "Let me think about it," he said. "Sounds weird…doesn't it? To become attached to them."
"Not at all, Commander. Scars are often a physical representation of the lives we have led. I have a scar on my arm that I feel quite attached to, really. I gained it when I was just a teenager. It reminds me of the life I led back then."
He leant against one of the medical beds and stared at the bright lights above him for a moment. He'd woken up here too many times. "Doc, do you regret the life you've led?"
"Well…" Chakwas started, the word drawing out into the silence. "I don't believe in regrets, Commander. Our lives are led for a reason. I told you once before; if we meet our end, I will know that it was together and that we were doing our best. No regrets. But I sense that you don't feel the same way about our situation."
He gave a short, sarcastic huff of a laugh in response. "You could say that. I think about the difference I could have made by just doing things a little differently. Small things, inconsequential things a lot of the time. I shouldn't think so much about it."
"Commander, if you had a chance to relive your life, with no pain, no regrets…would you?"
"Everyone experiences pain."
"Yes. And it has made you the man you are today. Embrace it."
He pushed away from the bed and nodded to the Doctor. "Thanks, Doc. I'll think about that Med Bay upgrade. Maybe you could try it out on Garrus, first."
"I heard Garrus is growing quite fond of his scars. He suggested the same of you, Commander. Something about you having trouble picking up ladies?"
He had a final task. An important one. One he could only trust to a single person. Someone he had a deeper connection with, beyond the shared understanding he had with Zaeed and Grunt, the friendly fist-bump that Jacob had thought was appropriate (and Shepard had felt wildly uncomfortable with), and stronger than the words from a scientist salarian (though he didn't think he would ever forget Mordin singing Gilbert & Sullivan. In fact, it might haunt his dreams).
Kasumi leant back, her hands slipping away from her knees as she rested against the black leather sofa. "I don't know if I can promise that, Shep."
"I need someone to keep an eye on him."
She pressed her thumb to her lower lip as she thought. He couldn't see her eyes, her hood shielding her face in shadows.
"I just... I need to know that someone will understand. That someone will be there for him."
"It's not the same. You know it's not the same. Kasumi...you've lost someone."
"Shep, I just don't know that I'm the best person to do something like that."
He sat down next to her, careful not to catch his armour on the soft leather. "I know what I'm asking is difficult...and rude. I just..." He rubbed his forehead. "I know what I've told him, and I know what I've told the others, but I can't trust anyone else to understand and be there if that's what happens."
"And if I don't make it back? What happens then?"
"I haven't really put a whole heap of contingency plans in place here, Kasumi."
"Hm." She wrapped her arms back around her knees and they sat in silence.
Shepard stared at the floor, not sure where else he should look.
"You talk like you're going to be the only one who doesn't make it back, Shep."
"Yeah..." He knew that. But he was prepared to go down with the ship...or without it. He would use his last dying breath to make sure everyone made it back to the Normandy and got the hell out. And he wouldn't regret it.
"We want you to come back too, you know. Some of us kind of like you." She nudged his thigh with her toe.
"I'm not keen on dying again," he said. "I'm just trying to be prepared."
"It doesn't suit you."
"Hm." His turn at otherwise silence, unsure of how to answer. He wanted to think optimistically but really...he wasn't that optimistic a person. Realistic, to a fault. He weighed possible options and charged and if it didn't work, well, not surprising. When he over thought, planned and evaluated, things just never seemed to work out how he expected anyway. He quite liked the surprise of something going much better than he expected. Other people were annoyingly optimistic for him - everyone seemed to think he could perform miracles.
One day, if someone decided to catalogue all of his accomplishments, his life would still just be a footnote in the novel that was human existence. And he was fine with that. He'd never even wanted that.
"I love Jeff," he said and saw Kasumi grin, her fingers tightening on her legs. "I know he'll suffer. I know I would. I want you to be there for him, that's all. That's all you have to do."
She nodded. "I can do that. But you're coming back. I know it. Call it intuition. You just have to want to come back."
He leaned forward and clasped his hands together between his knees. It would be easy to give up. Slip up and miss a shot, come out of cover too soon, drop his shields as he charged an enemy and wind up dead. It would be easy to let the Collectors have him, perhaps even bargain for his crew's freedom (if they would listen. Could they listen?). But no...he wanted to come back. And he didn't give up. He wasn't that person. He would do everything he could, give everything he could, until he had nothing left.
He had made that promise to himself.
Don't give up, don't stop, don't wait, just act, go, move. Don't look back and save who you could. Try to save everyone.
He nodded, cementing the idea in his brain. He may not be optimistic about their chances, but he could be realistic. They knew nothing about the Collector base and they had just as much chance of all making it back alive as they did of all dying.
"I'm really happy for you both," Kasumi said. "I know I didn't say it...but I am. Shep, before I met you I was still so lost and you came along like a knight in shining armour. You helped me recover Keiji's memories...and you helped me let him go. But more importantly, you brought me here. I like it here."
He touched his hand to her knee. "I like it here, too. Best place in the galaxy."
"Best place in the universe."
She unwound herself from her spot on the couch and shuffled closer. Shepard let her flop back against him, resting her head in his lap, her hood falling back off her head as she looked up at him.
"You're not like anyone else, Shep."
"So I've been told." He touched his fingers to her forehead and back through her hair.
"I've known Marines before... Soldiers, Adepts... You're not like a Vanguard."
"Oh? Should I tell the Alliance they got it wrong?"
"No...I think you should tell the other Vanguards they got it wrong. I like your way better." She closed her eyes. "Everyone says they're insane. Vanguards get off on death and pain is a reward...but you're not like that. You act with your heart, charge in. The last bastion of hope in a fight, throwing yourself in the way of certain destruction to save those around you. I like your way much better."
"Well, I don't know about pain being a reward, but I'm fairly sure I've messed up the part of my brain that processes it. Still...I prefer other things."
"You don't get all excited about the thought of Joker biting you?"
He shifted uncomfortably and Kasumi laughed.
"What's it like, anyway?" Kasumi asked. "I always wondered about biotics…what it really feels like."
"You've never tried Sand?"
"If it was the same, the Alliance would just drug their soldiers on dust."
"I can hurl a crate across a room or rip something apart on the molecular level. Having that sort of power is incredible and intimidating and horrible."
She took his hand and he flared his biotics around his fingers. He could feel it move through his body, could feel every part of his flesh and blood like he was aware of each individual cell. Kasumi would see pretty blue lights and get a bit of a buzz. But she smiled anyway as the blue glow enveloped her hand.
"The last time I met an Alliance Vanguard…" She shook her head. "I'd never met anyone like him. Insane, passionate, but blind. He saw the world how he wanted to see it. Everyone was a threat. He sought out the rush of pain like others seek out pleasure."
"Mm, I know. I know quite a few of them."
"Then why aren't you like that?"
He shrugged. "I guess I could be. I keep throwing myself into impossible situations. Maybe I do get off on it."
Kasumi looked up at him and she raised her other hand to poke at his cheek. "Nope. Different."
Biotics were something inside of you, so entwined with every part of your physiology it was impossible to imagine life without them. There had been a time, long ago, where biotics were something mentioned on the news, or something they read about in class, but never something he thought he would wield, but it was almost impossible to remember that life.
He still got that buzz, his skin overly sensitized after a long fight, where a simple touch felt like a mix of pain and indescribable pleasure. But there was the bad side of biotics – the pain of having an amp socket installed, the failed attempts at getting a power to work, the agony of burning an amp beyond capacity. He'd always thought biotics would give him an edge. If he didn't have a weapon he was a weapon. He was trained as one of the deadliest forces in the galaxy but facing down a Thresher Maw with an empty weapon and a damaged amp made a man feel pretty small pretty quick.
He closed his eyes, felt his forehead tense. He had moved past this. He was fine.
"Shep?" Kasumi sat up and he could feel her lean closer, her chest pressing against his arm, her knees near his thigh.
"Sorry. Sorry, it's fine."
"Uh-huh. Fine." She wrapped her arms around his neck and didn't take no for an answer. She wasn't a 'no' kind of woman. "What were you thinking about?"
He could feel her fingers in his hair and he wished he'd stripped out of his armour long ago. He couldn't feel her against his skin or through thin clothes, just the press of armour which meant she was close to him and those fingers against his scalp as she stroked through his hair.
"You're here. With us. Safe, at least for now. Can't speak about tomorrow but hey, at least the chances of a Thresher Maw on a derelict Reaper are fairly slim. I don't know if that's good or bad, really."
He laughed and wrapped his arms around her and hugged her back. It was comfortable there with Kasumi. The Normandy left port at the designated hour and wheeled out into the stars. The blast screen opened and Kasumi fixed him a drink and he was content just to talk to her. He didn't often get the chance to just talk; talk about nothing and everything with a crew member. Not like before. In the old days aboard the SR-1 when he would stay up all night with Liara or Tali, spend his night with Garrus and Kaidan playing cards or cleaning their weapons, or just sitting with Joker in the cockpit. Back then it always seemed like all they had was time. Chasing a rogue Spectre across the galaxy with few good leads meant a lot of traipsing around on backwater planets, following rumours from pirate groups and eventually stumbling over the information they needed. They had stumbled into a lot back in those days. Always a step behind the game, catching up, knowing what they had to do was important but with no real idea how important until Virmire.
Where it all changed.
He thanked Kasumi for the drink and told her to get some sleep. He needed the sleep, too. Maybe he was getting old. He felt old, some days. He felt old tonight. Old and bone-weary.
He placed the bag down carefully on his desk. He didn't turn the lights up and tried his best to stay silent. After all, his quarters were no longer just his own.
He smiled fondly at the sleeping figure. "EDI…" he said quietly. "Grab a picture of that, would you?" He gestured to the bed where Jeff had passed out. Maybe he'd tried to stay up, half out of his uniform, his cap thrown haphazardly at the table, but it had gotten the better of him. Now he was lying atop the blankets, his arms curled around Shepard's pillow.
"Would you like me to upload the picture to your console, Shepard?"
"Yeah…I would." He smiled and opted to change out of his armour in the bathroom. Not that Jeff usually woke. He slept like the dead. Probably because he didn't do much of it.
Out of his armour and warm shower later he felt, at least, more human. An old, tired human, but he would take what he could get. "Jeff…" he said and carefully shook the sleeping man's arm. Typically he got absolutely no response.
That was the difference between them, he supposed. Shepard was a soldier. He was trained to be suspicious, cautious. Sleeping was something you did with one eye open and one hand on your weapon. Jeff slept like a civilian, despite being Alliance. He'd never be expected to be battle-ready, never had to change into armour in under a minute and field strip a weapon in under 30. He just was – he skirted the lines of what he should be and what was expected of him.
Shepard pulled back the blankets and gently eased his pillow out of Jeff's arms. With a startled, choked cry Jeff finally looked up.
"Shh…sorry. I didn't want to wake you." Shepard smiled in the darkness. The way that Joker's hair curled, the creases in his cheek from lying against the pillow, the wide-eyed surprise of being woken, it was all something he committed to memory, along with all the other small pieces of this man that he'd been collecting, storing away, in case he ever needed them. Though he preferred the real thing.
Joker scrunched his eyes up and then raised his hand to rub at one. "Wh—What time is it?"
"Hadley just took us out from Omega."
Joker frowned. "He better not be breaking anything."
"I'm sure he's wrecking up the place. Just to spite you." Shepard leant forward and kissed the line of concern on Joker's forehead. "So go back to sleep. Otherwise you're going to be damned tired tomorrow."
It was a psychological comfort thing, more than anything, to pull Joker against him under the covers. He didn't need the extra warmth and his arm tended to go to sleep in whatever position he put it in, but the feeling of another warm body pressed against his and the slight snoring all made a hell of a lot of difference to a soldier who couldn't sleep without waking in a cold sweat most nights when left alone. Like this, he wasn't alone.
Joker wound his fingers through the gaps between Shepard's and pressed their joined hands against his stomach.
Definitely not alone.
"Y'were late coming back," Joker mumbled.
"Sorry. I was talking to Kasumi."
Joker yawned but was seemingly content with that answer at least. "Anything good go on?" he asked.
"Just talking." Shepard pressed a kiss to the back of Joker's neck and ran his thumb over the back of his hand as he returned to sleep.
At least here, pressed against Jeff, their bodies skin to skin, he felt…safe. It was a strange word that tasted funny but it was the right word. Jeff made him feel safe. And he hated that he had to pull him into this. Oh, it's not like he had a choice, after all it was amazing he was actually even letting Hadley take over for the night (though Tris was sure that had something to do with the fact that EDI was watching and with her guidance there wasn't too many drastic ways in which anyone could go wrong), but he still hated it. He had hated leaving the rest of his crew aboard during the battle for the Citadel, had hated that uncomfortable clenching in his stomach every time he saw a ship destroyed and thinking 'was that the Normandy?'
He breathed in against Joker's neck and closed his eyes. Here though, he could forget. Forget that tomorrow they would be storming a derelict Reaper, forget the insidious glow of a husk's eyes or the stench of a downed Scion as he tried to push aside the fact that these corpses had once been human.
Once upon a time, a long time ago, he had none of these concerns. He had run through fields barefoot, thrown the football with his dad and devoured books and information eagerly, always hungry for more. A long time ago he had never expected the strange things that happened (a coffee mug flying off a table, a pen that returned to his hand before he could reach for it) could possibly be biotics, because he had never known about the eezo shipments and the accident that had exposed his pregnant mother, and the summer before (the same summer the batarians came, just after his sixteenth birthday) he'd just been sick and never put two and two together (kids didn't know about shipping accidents and illegal smuggling). It had only been after. When the Alliance juggled him back and forth between hospitals and clinics and tried a foster home but they just didn't know what to do with him. He was too damaged.
Damaged. The woman (his foster mother, he supposed) had said over vidlink to the Alliance psychiatrist. "We don't know what to do. We're at our wits end."
He'd never run, never did anything except what they asked him to do. Maybe that was the problem.
But the doctors came to get him and they took him back to the hospital and the care centre in one of the wards where they said they would look after him. The big hand came down on his shoulder (he had been a particularly scrawny kid at seventeen, not anywhere near a growth spurt, with shaved hair and the scar on his lip that he ran his tongue over, back and forth) and he pushed. The energy swam through him and he blacked out.
And when he woke he had a shotgun in his hands. The firing mechanism had jammed as he tried to force one more round through the superheated metal and the whole thing was useless. If he had time, he would have tried to fix it. Would have pulled apart what he could and manufactured a new replacement part with his Omni-tool. But he didn't have time. He slid behind the low wall as the ground shook and he saw Toombs disappear into the churning earth. He screamed out through his wrecked throat but they were all gone and the silence was deafening. The ground settled, debris falling around him and pinging off his armour as he ran with Liara at his side, her hand clasped tight in his. He cast a quick look back at Alenko and Williams, just to make sure they were following. They followed. They followed him to hell, followed him out of hell, the Normandy lifting off and flying into the stars, firing at the huge mass ahead of them, black fingers stretching out towards them as he fell backwards, slamming his head against a beam.
He cradled his head in his hands, blood dripping down his face. He looked up at Wrex who was holding a pistol, Ashley lying in a pool of her own blood that was staining the Virmire beach. He reached out and shook Ashley by the shoulders.
"Go, Skipper. You know this is the right decision."
He didn't know. He never knew. He'd chosen Kaidan because… (Because I felt something for him. Because I couldn't stand life without him. Because I liked him more than I liked Ashley).
"You killed her!" Kaidan shook him. The blue energy of biotics washed around them as Kaidan shook his shoulders, as hard as he could, and Shepard didn't struggle or fight against him. Just accepted it.
"Tris! You killed her. Tris. Tris!"
He blinked through the line of blood that trickled down over his eye, dripping onto the sand (sand? Steel?) below him. He had to blink, realign his vision, his head swimming.
Joker. Joker and Ashley had been… They were… "I'm sorry."
He opened his eyes and looked up. Looked straight into Joker's eyes and sucked in a harsh gulp of air as he got his bearings. His cabin; dark except for the soft blue glow of the fish tank. He looked over and saw the school of small orange fish breeze by the glass.
"Shit…warn a guy if you're going to have some crazy bad dream, okay?" Joker said and rested back on his knees.
Shepard ran his tongue over his lips, over the scar. Dream…right, of course. "I'm sorry…" he croaked out, his voice trapped somewhere in his throat.
Joker swatted at his leg and looked away and even in the pale light Shepard could see a bead of sweat on his brow. He reached up and ran his hand up Joker's arm. It still felt surreal, like his body sat separated from what was really happening. His mind was still racing with images (stupid images. Images of stuff that had happened so long ago and had never happened at all) and his heart ramped up a notch in his chest, shuddering and clenching before racing away.
"Mm, well…warn me, yeah? And don't give me that 'oh, but how am I supposed to know' bullshit." Joker slid back down into bed. He kissed Shepard's jaw, the corner of his lips, the new scar on the flesh there and the healing scars on his cheek, all while running his fingers into black spikes of hair and holding him close.
Shepard looked over at the clock. Three hours? He'd been sleeping for three hours. "I didn't hurt you, did I?"
"What? No. What gave you that idea?"
"If I was having a—" He couldn't bring himself to use the word 'nightmare'. "If I was dreaming, thrashing around, I could hurt you."
Joker snorted. "Not likely. You just curled yourself into a tight ball and pulled all the blankets onto the floor. For someone having a nightmare, you're pretty placid."
Joker wasn't afraid of the word. He wasn't afraid of a lot of things.
Shepard looked at the corner of the blanket still clinging to life on the bed. "Ah. So I didn't…?"
"Not a scratch. Actually, I thought it was weird when you rolled away so I was already awake. Usually you're pretty clingy at night."
Shepard made a small noise in the back of his throat. He didn't really know what it was supposed to mean or express but it just happened as he sat up and reached for the blankets, pulling them back onto the bed. But Joker was there, reaching out his arms again and dragging him closer, pressing more of those small, soft kisses to his neck and chest, one hand nestled against his hip.
"Did I actually say anything about not liking it, Tris? 'Cause I don't think I did. So don't get all tense on me, here. It's just something I've noticed. At night you like to cuddle and it's so freakin' adorable I could do a fairly good impression of a squealing girl." He rested his head against Shepard's chest, tucked just under his chin. "And hey…if it makes you feel better and helps you sleep then I am one hundred percent okay with that. Maybe even one hundred and ten."
He couldn't help the slight twitch of his lips and he ran his fingers into Joker's hair, carding through the soft curls. The cool air seeped into his sweaty skin so he grabbed the blankets and pulled the covers over them both.
It did help. He didn't want to admit how little sleep he had been getting. How little sleep he had survived on in the old days. He'd found himself with Liara or Tali just to give himself an excuse to stay awake, or had fallen asleep in the chair next to Joker's, listening to the hum of the ship as the stars wheeled outside. He was used to little to no sleep, just another thing that sped the dial of his demise. Because sleep was hard and daunting. Sleep was something that ultimately woke him feeling worse than ever, his head racing with images, true, false, it didn't matter, and would keep him up longer the next night in an effort to just keep the memories at bay. Sleep was something you got when you finally passed out.
His heart rate slowed, his veins no longer feeling as though they might burst. Joker's leg was draped across his, entwined there, and his fingers ran idle patterns across his bare chest. Whatever he'd been missing before, whatever he'd needed to ease his mind? This was it. Although his mind still jumped at figures in the darkness, memories of things long past, he felt…light? Uncomplicated, maybe. Right here he felt like a man. And ordinary man. No more special than anyone else, with an uncomplicated history, uncomplicated memories and thoughts. Just the warmth of another body and the soft hair under his hand. Maybe it wasn't true, but if he could wake like this, be torn from another nightmare based around his failings and fears, and still feel warm, safe? That wasn't so bad at all.
And he kept that with him as he suited up; clamping down heavy pieces of armour, checking seals and strapping his weapons to his back. He kept that with him as he gave Jeff one last lingering kiss before turning from the Normandy with Miranda and Grunt.
He looked down the line of the Reaper, the lights on his HUD blinking bright across his vision. "Let's get this done," he said and grinned at Miranda as he pulled his shotgun free, the weight heavy and familiar in his hands. The familiar weight of everything.
A/N: One of the main things I wished had been included in ME2 was the culmination of dialogue trees with squadmates you didn't romance. If you don't romance them, any further interaction is just ended. So...if you don't like dialogue and don't care about character relationships then this chapter was probably pretty boring, sorry!
This whole fic has now also been posted to AO3 with any naughtiness intact. So if you're interested in that, you'll need to go read new chapters over there *waves away*
I also caved to peer pressure and now have a Tumblr (EmotionalMorphine) so...add me, maybe?