AN: This story is a sequel to 'A Degeneration in Mass.' Reading it is essential. I would like to thank you for returning to read this, and also for reading the last if you did. Please review, I appreciate feedback. For now, this story is rated T, with a warning for strong language.
Thanks again for your support – let see how long this one gets. ;) HB.
Chapter 01: The Way Things Are.
She thought about what Aria said and it bothered her. Not so much the asari's words but the fact that she couldn't dismiss them. When she had just left the interview with Aria in which she had told the asari where she came from, the fact that she hadn't believed her hadn't really bothered her. But, she was drunk on life at that time, ecstatic with Asura's presence and unconcerned by anything but the fact that she had found a cure for her condition. Now, in the week that has passed, things had changed a little.
Dr. Abigail Gable sighed and put the book down that she was reading, aware of the silence that stretched around her. If it was only because she was alone in her room she'd have just moved to the mess hall or the infirmary but the truth was that most of the ship was like this. Everybody was... waiting.
Things had changed since Kasumi and Asura left though Abby knew it had nothing to do with them either. It didn't even have anything to do with her; she was merely a passenger, just somebody else who was waiting. No, the person who lay at the heart of it was Commander Jane Shepard, the woman who had barely left her room in the past couple of days. Another person had left the Normandy seven days ago and her departure had left a searing hole that stood out more than anybody else's. The Justicar Samara hadn't left because she needed to do another job, or because she was coming back. She left because she could not see her relationship with Shepard working out and left before matters became too complicated.
There was more to it than that of course, Abby thought bitterly as she stood up and went to get herself a glass of water, putting down the galactic encyclopaedia of different medical compounds. And for that, I might be partly to blame.
Kelly didn't see it that way of course. "It's who they are," she had said the night before as they shared a meal. "If anything, I think the situation with you and Asura gave them a chance to... To connect. However briefly. It must be worth something. This isn't your fault – your arrival was just the catalyst. The ingredients were already there, waiting."
It didn't make Abby feel any better.
She went to the unused bar counter, taking a glass from the back cupboard. When she drew it out though, her fingers slipped and it dropped to the floor, shattering. Abby stared at it for a long time, before she closed her eyes and took a steadying breath, struggling not to become angry with herself.
"Focus Abby," she whispered and bent down to carefully gather up the broken shards. "Damn it." It was difficult to tell what caused her to drop the glass as she hadn't been paying attention. Was it truly just an accident? Or was her disease returning? She shuddered and considered going to the infirmary to have her coordination tested but immediately pushed the thought from her mind.
What will be will be.
It was inevitable that she would regress back to her former state but they were still unclear about the time line. Abby could understand to an extent why Jane had told her to wait. Their arrangement had been that Abby would spend a week or two on the Normandy while it was docked in Omega so that she could decide what she truly wanted to do with her life here. Aria had given her the option to open up a veterinary practice, though she hadn't shared that with Shepard yet. And then of course Asura was going to come and get her. When the asari had just left, she had thought that she would go with her, no questions asked. But she began to understand what Shepard was aiming for when she told her to wait. Asura's presence was like drug and it made you want to be with her, to let her shape your life. She said that she tried to control it but Abby had a feeling that this level of social manipulation was at the very core of her species' being. Now that she had not seen her in several days, she found that she was more reserved about accompanying the Ardat Yakshi. She knew that she still wanted to do it but... She had her doubts.
As she walked to the garbage disposal, Abby once again found herself thinking about what Aria had said to Asura.
"I think that your bond mate here is an experiment set loose. And, at some point her masters are going to come to collect the data that she's been gathering. I want to see who it is. And don't protest Dr. Gable, you can't trust your memories."
She liked to believe that she could. She found herself reciting medications that she used in her clinic and then looking them up to make sure that she had remembered correctly. If people had altered her memory they wouldn't have been that thorough... Would they?
Abby closed her eyes as she dumped the broken glass into the garbage disposal and rested her head against the wall's cool frame. "My name is Dr. Abigail Gable," she whispered softly. "I am a veterinarian. I am real as are my memories. I won't harm anybody. Again."
There was a laugh from the other side of the room, startling her and she turned around to see Jack standing in the door way, her one hand on her hip.
"Fuck Doc," she said. "Now I know you've been spending too much time on your own. You're fucking talking to a wall. I've come just in time."
Commander Jane Shepard stared at the list in front of her, silently reading the names even though she knew them off by heart. There were private security firms, retired alliance officers, rich mining corporations and even a film company – all demanding her attention in exchange for some indemnification. Staring at their offers, Jane wondered whether she should get Miranda in to try and help her sort out what might be legitimate offers and which weren't. And for that matter, who they wanted on their side and who were just trying to get close to them for some inside information.
She was very bad at these sorts of things. She was a soldier, a combatant. She didn't want to navigate political land mines or for that matter wonder where her next pay check was going to come from. It made her feel all too much like a mercenary and she didn't like it. Even when Cerberus funded them, she was relatively ignorant of the financial implications that running the Normandy had. Now? She had suddenly become employer and organizer of every person associated with the Normandy. It hadn't been in her original job description.
This was not what she signed up for.
Jane closed her eyes as she sat back and pinched the bridge of her nose, reaching for a glass of scotch though it didn't bring her any pleasure. She couldn't even get drunk anymore, her body metabolizing the alcohol so fast that she hardly felt buzzed. She hated it, because there were times like now that she just wanted to pour back a drink and forget about everything.
She didn't want to think about the Reapers or Cerberus or the Council or the Alliance or anybody else that seemed to think that she owed them something. They had had two years to get used to the fact that she was a supposed hero, that she could do anything and they expected the impossible from of her. But, the truth was that Jane was tired and a part of her still felt like the dazed officer who stepped up to the Council to become humanity's first Spectre. And even that didn't help her now, her title almost void because the Council wasn't officially ready to back her in her campaign to prepare the galaxy against the imminent Reaper attack.
No, she didn't want to think about any of it and she certainly didn't want to think about Samara.
As usual, she cringed when the asari's name slid through her memory. If she kept her eyes closed, she could still feel her touch, her soft kisses and the way she held her, making her feel safer than she had felt in long time. Samara had made all of this worth it and now...
The urge to cry came and went as she stood up sharply and berated herself for her lack of self control, firmly pushing all emotions or memories that belonged to the asari out of her mind. What good would they do after all? Samara was gone and Jane knew that she would most probably never see her again. What good would it do to come back if she could not separate her code and the love that she had for her?
It probably wasn't even love, Jane thought bitterly but immediately knew that she was wrong. She could feel it inside her, pulsing against the gaping chasm that had been left in her soul by the asari's departure.
Samara loved her, but it had not stopped the asari from leaving.
"If you ask me," Jack was saying. "Shepard just needs to get out of her room, get laid and get over it. I mean, it's not as if this was her first love."
Walking through the streets of Omega, Abby couldn't help but think that the last time she and Jack had been here they had ended up fighting for their lives. The biotic looked much better. She picked up some of the weight she lost during her time in the infirmary and she moved well without a limp or even a hint that she had been fighting for her life less than two weeks ago. It was amazing how good the medicine was here.
"It's... Not that simple Jack," she said with a patient smile. "It's... different with asari. They sort of... take you. Make you a part of them and them... a part of you. And then... when they leave..." She trailed off her mind not on Asura suddenly but on Lenelle as she shuddered. Something brushed across her memory, the vision of a young human male caressing her face.
"I've always heard it's for keeps with an asari," he whispered in her mind. "Is it true you wait for your lovers to die before you get another?"
She remembered smiling at him and bringing her mouth close to his ears. "Yes," she whispered. "But I'm always willing to wait. However long or short that time might be..."
Abby shivered, feeling a wave of remembered pleasure and pain burn through her as she tried to focus on Jack. "Excuse me?"
The ex-convict gave her a curious look and motioned around them. "Drinks," she said. "Afterlife or somewhere else. Then you can wallow about your fucking asari love life all you want." She seemed to brighten. "Better yet, I should actually just fucking send you back to the Normandy so that you and Shepard can do some wallowing together."
Abby cringed, the last time she did it still to fresh in her mind. "Rather not," she said. "Or rather, never again." She hesitated. "And... you can choose where we go. It's fine, I'm happy with anything."
Jack grinned at her and motioned her to follow her as she started weaving through the crowds again. She and the convict had not always been on socialising terms and she had been surprised when Jack showed up at her door to ask her if she wanted to go out for drinks. Things were definitively easier between them now and Abby appreciated it because she had not been comfortable with the way Jack glared in her back during her first visit to Omega. Shepard had assigned the girl to be her protection detail. She suppressed a residual shiver of worry, remembering that Aria had said that she would take care of the mercenaries who were after her. She didn't trust the asari completely, but she had to believe that she was going to keep the mercenaries away from her.
She didn't want to spend the rest of her life living here in fear. She had enough problems as it was and the memory had just reminded her of it.
Another thing that she had noticed when Asura departed was that her memories seemed to fade to the background and Lenelle's presence, the menacing essence that she had carried over unknowingly to Abby's mind – came forward. Abby's mind was beginning to become very saturated with emotions, more than enough of them not even her own to process. She didn't like it as it made her head feel as if it had been torn into three. The only way she had managed to get some grip on Asura's mind was to live through the memories, to deal with them and sort them out in her own mind.
She didn't know whether she had the strength to do it with Lenelle because she didn't know what other horrors the Ardat Yakshi had committed.
Yeoman Kelly Chambers had the sense to knock before she had EDI open the Commander's door for her. If they had still been with Cerberus, she would've waited for confirmation that she could enter but now she felt that Jane could hardly court marshal her or fire her. She knew the Commander well enough now to know that she wouldn't send anybody away over something as trivial as that.
Besides, the woman hadn't left her room in three days.
Jane was sitting by her desk when she entered, her eyes wide as she stared at her.
"Kelly," she breathed and sat back a little. "You scared me." Her eyes narrowed immediately. "I didn't give you leave to enter."
Kelly smiled at her and pulled a chair closer. "You know I don't need it," she said with a small smile. "I'm allowed to go into any room. I told you remember? It's to do with safety protocol."
Jane looked at her for a long time and closed her eyes, shaking her head slightly as her mouth tightened. "Kelly," she said, her tone blunt. "I'll be frank. I don't want to be talked to, I don't want to be shrinked. I just want to be left alone. I'm busy."
Kelly chuckled slightly and shook her head, pulling the data pad that Jane had in front of her away. "You know it's gone off right?" she said, flipping it at her. "Come on Commander, I haven't come to shrink you, I've come to invite you. Jack's taken Abby for drinks in Afterlife and I want to know if you want to join me. You've been in this room for three days. We're starting to forget what you looked like." The last was a joke but Jane didn't smile as she sniffed and turned back to her desk, pouring herself half a glass of scotch. Kelly wondered how much of the bottle she had drunk and, for that matter, whether she had eaten anything in the past couple of days.
"I don't want to go out Kelly," Jane said, her tone filled with forced patience. "Would it kill the world if I decide to take a break for just a couple of days? I don't want to be seen and frankly, I'll appreciate it if people forget what I look like."
Kelly didn't let the subject drop and sat back a little, crossing her legs as she regarded the wounded woman. "Then take a break," she said softly. "Leave the Normandy. Go and visit your mother, when last did you see her Commander? Have you seen her at all since you've returned?"
Jane's mouth thinned as she turned the glass around in her fingers. "You know that answer as well as I do, Kelly."
The yeoman nodded and sat forward, gently putting her hand on the woman's shoulder. "That's my point Jane," she said softly, dropping her voice. "You've been pushing forward ever since you woke up at the Lazarus Station. Even before that. You haven't had a single moment to yourself ever since you became a Spectre and frankly I think it's time. You need time. And don't tell me you don't have any. We've defeated the Collectors, the Reapers haven't reared their heads yet and we don't have anything to do now anyway. So go to your family Jane. Come to grips with everything that's happened. You need it. The galaxy won't end if Jane Shepard turned her back on it for just a few days."
She could tell that Jane didn't like what she said, which made her realise that she wasn't going to like her next words either.
"And you need space to get over Samara."
The Commander's emerald green eyes shot to her like a whip and her face went stark. Anybody else would've looked away but Kelly met her gaze boldly, keeping her hand on her shoulder. She watched as the emotions inside Jane stirred and turned until she finally sighed and looked away, bringing her hand to wipe at her eyes. She wasn't crying, but the motion told Kelly that she wanted to. Samara's departure had left a hole in the woman that she must've felt could not be filled.
When Shepard swallowed and pulled away from her, Kelly sat back and watched as she got up, her clothes rumpled as if she had been wearing the same set for days.
"Drinks at Afterlife?" she queried, not looking at the yeoman who smiled and nodded.
"My treat," she said. "I don't have to fund a whole ship remember…"
Jack had decided to go to the main floor of Afterlife which, after some consideration Abby realized had actually been a mistake. She really didn't want to run into Aria T'Loak, frightened that the asari might ask her what her decision had been concerning the practice but a quick look up to her booth showed her that she was busy. She could see the asari standing upright near her couch, her back obscuring the person she was talking to. There was something dangerous and angry in her body language but then again, Abby couldn't help but wonder whether it wasn't just a permanent frame of mind. As always the club, which was open at all hours, was packed, its occupants varying from travel weary traders who came in for a quick drink to dancing socialites out for a good time. Jack immediately moved them over to the bar, her slight frame easily gliding through the club goers. It must've been something in her body language because they seemed to part a way open for her, only to close in just before Abby passed.
She stumbled once but was sure that it had to do with someone who bumped into her rather than her reducing coordination.
Stop it, she berated herself. No use worrying about it. It's the way things are.
"Kelly said she'd join us," Jack said when she ordered them two drinks and passed the one glass onto Abby without informing her what it was exactly. "Said that she just had some things to do."
Abby nodded distracted and slid onto a bar stool, glancing back at Aria. The asari had turned slightly so that it was possible to just make out her face. She wasn't talking now, but standing with her hands crossed over her chest, her eyes narrow as she stared at her visitor. As she watched, Aria turned around and swept her gaze across the club. Abby didn't think it would be possible but the Matriarch asari spotted her. Before she could gauge the woman's reaction, Abby turned around quickly and took a quick sip of her drink. It was rich and tasted almost like beer though it had a funny sweet spice in it that made Abby sneeze, her eyes watering. Jack, who had said something she didn't hear, patted her on the back, laughing.
"Fuck Doc," she said. "The night's only started."
Her tone wasn't encouraging and she had to push the glass away, rubbing her nose to get rid of the tingling sensation in it. When she looked up, Aria was still watching her, the figure whom she had been talking to joining her at the window. He was a pale man with eyes hidden below a hat which he kept quite low on his brow. His face looked neutral as she noticed him but when their gazes met, he smiled.
It was all too familiar and Abby jumped up from her seat, seconds before something sliced through her memory. She grunted in pain and clutched her temples, bracing herself against the bar.
"Doc," she heard Jack say but then when she blinked, the pain sliced deeper and the woman's voice became unfamiliar. "Doc, what the fuck's wrong with you?"
She didn't want to admit it, but it felt good to be off of the Normandy. Jane strode next to Kelly, happy for the younger woman's happy demeanour. In the beginning she had underestimated the yeoman, bluffed by her easy nature and general 'happy go lucky' attitude. She knew now that, although Kelly was generally very content and happy wherever she was in life, it was also a front that she used to hide the deeper understanding that she had of human and alien nature. Kelly could spot a problem before it started and knew how to read all beings better than anybody Shepard knew. She also had a way of... getting you to do things that you didn't want to, or point out how foolish your self-destructive rituals were. She often found herself thinking that Kelly was the heart beat of the Normandy and had become as indispensable as EDI, the mind of the ship.
She had lost track of Kelly's monologue, though she was a bit dismayed to realize that they were heading towards Afterlife. She had really hoped that her crew members had found another place to drink but it wasn't to be. She didn't particularly fancy running into Aria T'Loak but, on the other hand, she was the first one to admit that the asari probably wasn't waiting for her to put her foot in the club so that she could talk to her. Their last meeting had not gone very well. It felt like a life time ago when she met Aria in her stark dining room and warned her to stay away from Abby or at least share with her why she helped the vet. It hadn't gotten her anywhere except for realizing that she wasn't going to do Aria any favours if the asari ever asked her to.
She was about to ask Kelly whether they could maybe move the social somewhere else when the yeoman stopped and grabbed her arm, listening into her radio.
"What?" she asked startled. "What do you mean?"
Shepard didn't hear the reply but could immediately tell that it wasn't a normal call. Looking at Kelly in alarm she met the woman's gaze as she shook her head.
"We're on our way," Kelly said and grabbed her hand. "Shepard's with me." She pulled her forward without explaining, dragging her into Afterlife.
"Kelly," Shepard said sharply, trying to keep pace. "What's going on?"
The yeoman looked worried as she took the steps two at a time.
"I don't know," she confessed. "But something's wrong..."
The End of Chapter 1 and the Beginning of Shadow Play