The general feeling of elation had swept over the ship. They had all stared into the face of certain death and not only survived but against all odds, they'd brought back the rest of the crew. Rea stood in the med-bay staring out the clear glass with her arms cross over her chest, index finger tapping lightly on her clavicle as she watched a full-tilt celebration explode in the crew area. A few of the less fortunate of the kidnapped crew members were lying on the beds, recovering from exhaustion and shock. Audrea placed her fingers lightly on Chakwas wrist, timing her heart rate. The elder doctor had been struck with an intense panic attack, sending her heart into tachycardia and shooting up her blood pressure. Rea had to dose her up with a sedative to prevent her heart from seizing. She was improving and wasn't showing any signs of regressing, but Audrea wanted to keep an eye on her along with the rest of those they had recovered.
She watched from the room, noting the oddness of watching uninhibited exuberance unfold from the confines of the sound proof infirmary. A small desire to go cut loose with the rest of the crew curled slightly in her, but the more pragmatic part of her still held the reins as she looked forward. They had survived, but there was so much more to come. There were so many things she had seen that still hadn't happened yet.
A dull headache was building in her skull, and the desire to celebrate was quickly dissipating. Audrea was pressing on the bridge of her nose when Shepard strode through the doors. The soft sigh of the mechanism breached the silence of the room, allowing a few moments of laughter flood into the room before they were cut off as the doors closed. The Commander held two beers in her hand, sipping on one as she handed the other to Rea, who smiled gratefully as she accepted the bottle.
Audrea stood shoulder to shoulder with Shepard, and they both stared at the silent picture moving actively through the windows. They both held their own silence for a moment as they watched and Audrea took the opportunity to study the Commander with a sideways glance. She was a little banged up from the assault, but hadn't sustained any serious injuries. There was also a slight flush to her cheeks, but she was by no means as sloshed as some of the rest of the crew they were watching. Audrea blinked in surprise as she thought she heard the steady thump of Shepard's heart. It was for all of ten seconds, and Rea shook her head trying to clear the sound. It dissipated rapidly, and Audrea was left feeling like she was just hearing the throb in her own head.
"How are they doing?" Shepard finally spoke, banishing Rea's curiosity over the sound.
"They'll all be fine, physically at least. Chakwas is a little worse for wear, but she's stable. I'm sure they'll all need extensive counseling to get over the trauma. Being a prisoner is one thing, even being tortured, there's often the small spark of hope, but being held in a tube and aware of the fact that any minute you'll be liquefied to be turned into a portion of an enemy that's out to destroy the rest of the universe, well that's an entirely different matter. That's certainly something that will leave scars."
Shepard looked at Audrea sharply for a moment.
"There are times I forget about the things that happened to you before you came to us."
"Aye, it seems it was several life-times ago. I don't ever forget about them but sometimes it does feel like it happened to a different person, like I read it in a book or watched it in a movie. With them, I can only hope they find a portion of that peace." Audrea gestured at the sedated crew members using the bottle as a prop.
Shepard frowned and her arms crossed over her chest with a hand resting by the curve of her neck in an unintentional mimicry of the pose Audrea had stood in before she had entered.
"Don't worry so, Shepard. We humans are incredibly resilient. A broken bone is stronger at the point of the break, after it is healed. I believe the spirit follows the same rules. 'The world breaks everyone, and afterward, some are strong at the broken places.' "
"Throwing Hemingway at me?"
"Well, he was a fairly wise man."
Shepard nodded, the look of concern fading, only slightly.
"Just don't worry so much, Commander. They'll be able to manage somehow. They'll just have to take it a day at a time."
The two faltered back into silence for a few moments.
"What's the plan from here?" Audrea asked tentatively.
"We're on our way back to Alliance space. It's time to finally convince the rest of the human race that there is a real threat. Plus, the Normandy needs a good scrubbing. I was picking listening devices out of the walls several times a week, and EDI let me know of twelve more of their bugs, that I hadn't found that she couldn't tell me of with her shackles on."
"It's back to Earth then." Rea stated, an odd sense of apprehension scratching at the surface of her awareness. She had just told Shepard it felt like some of the events of her life happened to another person. It was easier to feel that way knowing it happened on a different planet. Now it was time to connect all her lives. Excitement and trepidation warred with each other over the prospect.
"Yes, it's time to go home." A peculiar look was settled on Shepard's face. The two of them stood together, watching the party from the dark and quiet room, lost in their own thoughts of Earth. Audrea wasn't even aware when the faint sound of several heartbeats crept into her ears.
When Audrea opened her eyes, she was back on the red sands of her dreams. The sun was half hidden by the horizon, slowly sinking into its slumber. The black ocean in front of her was glassy with its stillness but she could see the storm raging in the distance. It seemed it was closer than it was the other time she had dreamt in this place between, but she wasn't sure if her memory was serving her right. A cool breeze picked up from the ocean, making her shiver, and rubbed her arms. The water still remained calm in a manner that defied logic.
Hugging her arms, Audrea spun slowly around looking for a clue to why she was back in this place, hoping she would see the faces of her departed family, and anxious to what words they would carry. On the slopes of the first red dune, she saw the figure of a man. Due to the glaring light of the setting sun, she was unable to discern who it was, but she was able to tell that he was pointing toward her. She tried to walk towards her visitor, but it seemed that no matter how many steps she took in the direction of the sandbank, she never came an inch closer. Rea opened her mouth to call out to him, but a realization swept over her before she spoke. He wasn't aiming towards her; he was directing her out to the sea.
She turned again, faced the tempest and gauged it. Without even realizing it, Audrea had walked forward, and when she finally aroused to her movements, she stood on the glassy waters. She looked over her shoulder, searching for direction from her visitor, but as she glanced back, there were nothing but the rolling sands and the shadows of the setting sun. Taking another careful step on the surface of the sea, she watched as faint ripples radiated away from where her feet touched. At a loss for what else to do, Audrea continued forward, hoping the storm wouldn't sweep her away. As she marched toward the storm, the sun set completely and the sky overhead changed to a normal starry sky.
Audrea was floating through the expanse of space. She could see the familiar constellations of the Sol system in a way she'd never seen them before. The bright flare of their burn held a definition that was never present in the pictures she'd seen. She could see in the far distance, the bright yellow sun that had been a part of her everyday life until her emergence into the future, and a few planets away, she could see the blue orb of Earth. The great urges to rush toward her home overcame her, to land on the surface and revel in the feel of warmth of the sun on her face. The logical part of her brain knew that there was no way she was actually there and that this was one of her dreams but the fact that this was one of her dreams made it more difficult. Her body might not be present but this was very likely, still the real Earth.
Her sight was still locked on the oceans of her home, her feet still planted firmly on the seas of her dream. Since this was one of her dreams, there was a reason she was here. Unease settled over her as she gazed at her home and she shifted around, trying to take note of other things around her. Her dreams may sometimes show her hope but more often than not, they were a warning, and she didn't want anything to happen to Earth. She knew war was inevitably going to bear down on them, but for now it was still in the future. For now, there was still time to plan. A sensation overcame her and suddenly, she was flying through the stars. Her stomach rolled around in a feeling that was similar to the first few minutes when the Normandy jumped through the relays. Audrea couldn't tell if it was a real sensation, or just her mind trying to attach it to something familiar.
Suddenly, she stopped and she was in a different system. It was unfamiliar but a sun still shone brightly and planets still turned on their axis. She glanced down at her feet, and the inky watery substance she was now questioning if it was even an ocean. Frantic ripples trailed behind her, making her wonder if she really had been dragged here. Audrea turned as she regarded the planets, trying to pinpoint where she was. The sun held an orange tint, and she could see a relay in the distance, but other than that, and the asteroid belt that circled steadily, she couldn't tell the difference in the planets. A flicker of light caught her attention and she looked around. The stars had morphed and in their place, there were hundreds of thousands of fireflies. Rea laughed in unabashed appreciation of the phenomenon. The tiny bugs weren't native to where she had been raised, so she had only witnessed their strange lightshow a handful of times. Seeing their chaotic dance in such a strange context was bizarre and beautiful all at once. She thought she heard the faint hints of music somewhere in the distance, desperate and full of longing. It was similar to the music she had heard during some of her meditations. The whoosh of something large passed by her, was the only thing that made her fix her focus back on why she was here.
It was an asteroid, enormous, with a frozen tail that fanned out behind it like a flag. The fireflies dodged out of its way with ease as the rock circled on its lazy elliptical path. Audrea's attention was riveted on the asteroid, when Shepard unexpectedly appeared on top. She watched in horror as the Commander somehow managed to change the course of the rock as it passed by the relay and led it straight into the mass relay. The explosion made her flinch and turned away. When the overwhelming light subsided, the relay and the asteroid were both gone, and the fireflies had all disappeared. Rea shook her head, unable to fathom why this would even happen.
"It's just not possible." She whispered to herself. "There's no way she could do that."
As if on cue, the scene reset.
She watched as the asteroid pass by, this time not deviating from its set path. Shepard wasn't piloting, wasn't anywhere to be seen, and it passed by the relay, not even showing a hint of coming within a dangerous distance. The fireflies were back, flickering silently around her.
Something pulled her attention back toward the relay and she watched in horror as thousands of Reapers emerged from the technology that defined the time she was in. The machines swept over the system, consuming all before her, and the light from fireflies were fading quickly, being extinguished by the ancient force. Fire beings were starting to creep around her, and Audrea was aware of the danger she was in. Her heart started racing and the breath quickened in her lungs. It may be a dream but the feel of danger never diminished. She felt a pinch on her leg and jerked away, then one on her arm and she tried to twist the other way. Suddenly, she was being swarmed by the fire and she was a chasm had opened under her feet, threatening to suck her into the inky abyss of the starry sea. Audrea started swinging wildly at the shadows, and tried to rip the indiscernible creatures from her back. She threw elbows and knees, but all her attacks just seemed to pass through as if their very essence were made of smoke. Her flesh was seared as she fought, and she knew through her terror, she was going to be burned alive. She lost her fight and arms were pinned painfully. The fires encircled her neck, sending a searing pain over her. The fire choked her frightened cry as she fell into the abyss.
She thrashed wildly and she was jerked out of sleep, confused and in intense pain. Her skin felt like it was cracking away from her body. Her elbow pulsed from where she connected with something. All she could see were the images of the Reapers swarming relentlessly, and the fireflies, as their lights were extinguished. All she understood were the fires trying to push her into the abyss. Her wrists were pinned together above her head and her knee made solid contact as she flailed, followed by an oomph. Warmth spread from her neck as she inhaled sharply.
"Audrea, you must calm yourself." A steady voice scratched at the surface of her reasoning.
Her incapacitated hands made a stronger impression then the calm words and she continued to try and escape her captor.
"Audrea please…" The voice held a hint of urgency to it as she tried to combat the force that was holding her down. Her limbs were getting steadily weaker, not responding as they should. A sense of cold crept up her extremities as her thrashing subsided. She was vaguely aware of her erratic heartbeat and a heat that spread across her neck and chest as the rest of her skin cooled.
"Re-ha, I need to get you medical attention, please stop fighting me!" It was finally the urgency in the plea that triggered her memory, the sound of her name as no one else spoke it. Her eyes had been open but her vision finally cleared the ghosts of the Reapers from her mind. She was met with the panicked eyes of Thane. There was something off about his face. It confused her. He was always so calm, with never more than a mild hint of concern. His lip was split down one side and his nose looked slightly crooked. She opened her mouth to say as much, but he immediately hushed her.
"Do not try and speak, it is not wise."
He released her wrists, which he had easily held together with one hand. His other was pressed tightly to her neck. He scooped her up, cradling her close to his chest, never releasing his hand from her neck. It felt like the choking from the shadows, and Audrea tried to bat his hand away. Her limb didn't work as she wanted and it twitched in a random direction. She didn't even realize they were moving but as soon as her jerking arm stopped, she realized his chest was incredibly warm and she just let herself sink into it. She roused herself when she felt cool air and realized they weren't in the warm, arid confines of life support. The lights above glared down and she closed her eyes tight trying to block them out.
"Oh my god." Chakwas voice cracked through the silence.
Med bay, that can't be right. The thought flittered across her mind.
Rea was jostled and she felt herself being lowered.
"How…" Thane's warmth disappeared from her side and she felt several hands on her neck. The throbbing pain started to subside.
"She…I…" His voice quavered as he tried to organize words that made sense. "I awoke to a crack across the face; I was being attacked."
"There's someone on the ship?" Chakwas was audibly rattled.
"Audrea was the one who attacked me."
"Wha-…." Her voice gave out in the middle of the word with a huff. "That doesn't make any sense."
"I…reacted, before I even opened my eyes. I have slept with a knife since I was a child."
"You did this?" The doctor's voice pitched in disbelief.
Audrea squinted through her eyelids as she looked up at the doctor who was hovering over her with hands moving in a steady motion.
"I started to cut before I realized who was attacking and I almost slit her throat."
"Jesus, Thane, you might not have killed her outright but you did knick her carotid. If I can't get this bleeding stopped… " The doctors voice trailed off, and Thane let out a strangled noise.
The sequence made sense suddenly, and she jerked in recognition of what was happening and what she had just dreamt. Now wasn't the time to sleep.
"Shhh, you're okay. You've lost a lot of blood but you'll be okay. Just stay still, I need to repair this." Chakwas set about in a flurry of hands, her face impassive. Audrea let her eyes sink closed, her mind wandered back to the dream, organizing the meaning. She concentrated on that instead of the pain in her neck and the dizziness that threatened to sink her into unconsciousness. Within a few minutes, Chakwas had slathered on the medi-gel and wrapped her neck carefully with a bandage. Audrea opened her eyes when she felt a pinch in her arm as an IV was inserted.
"I'm glad we took an excessive amount of blood to study. I'm not sure how your system would react to blood that wasn't infused as yours is. Now please just try and rest."
"No, I need to talk to Shepard." Audrea rasped out. Chakwas tried to argue, saying she needed to just lie still until she had finished transfusing blood into her system, but Rea was insistent. The doctor caved eventually, realizing Audrea was agitated and wasn't going to calm until she had spoken to the Commander.
Minutes later, Shepard was standing in front of her, and held a look of fire on her face. Chakwas was talking low and steady to the Commander and Thane had disappeared. Audrea signed heavily; what a mess.
"What happened, Audrea?" Shepard managed to vocalize as she withheld the venom in her voice. Her face blatantly displayed, barely contained rage as she shot a look over her shoulder at the door, presumably at Thane. Audrea struggled into a sitting position, Chakwas protesting as she did so.
"They're coming Shepard, but there's a way to delay them a bit longer." Audrea struggled through what she had seen, the Reapers spilling through the relay, the fire starting to spread after. She told the Commander of the asteroid being driven headlong into the relay. Shepard wasn't exactly sure what to say as she looked down at the women in front of her. Rea was ashen and covered in blood, but she held a clear look in her eye as she spoke and a heavy certainty on her face.
"EDI, any such relays about?"
"There is one such, Commander. The Alpha relay in the Omega system fits Audrea's description of sun, planets and asteroid."
"Tell Joker to change course to it, I'm not certain about blowing up a relay but we can at least check out the system. And you still haven't told me how you ended up almost bleeding out."
Audrea sighed heavily and shook her head slightly.
"It was a terrible accident, Shepard. Don't blame Thane for it. If it's anyone's fault, it's mine. The dream…" She trailed off trying to find the words to explain. "I'm already much better."
Shepard's face softened.
"I'm just glad you're okay. I have a few more questions about what you dreamt, if you're up for it."
"Commander, Admiral Hackett is on the vid-com for you." EDI chirped before Audrea was able to answer.
"We'll talk more later on, he never calls without reason."
Shepard swept from the room and Audrea was left sitting a little steadier. Dr. Chakwas finished the infusion and checked her blood pressure, shaking her head incredulously as she did so.
"You shouldn't recover as fast as you are but with your unique body chemistry, you're improving twice as fast as a normal human would with that much blood loss."
"Good, now I need to go find Thane."
"Absolutely not, you need to…"
"I need to what? Sit here for a while longer, while my body has already recovered."
"You've lost a lot of blood." Chakwas floundered in her argument, medical knowledge inhibiting her from reconciling her traditional habits with Audrea's physiology.
"Yes, I did. And now Thane is out there blaming himself for reacting with years of training, to being attacked. I'll be fine; now I need to make sure he is too."
Dr. Chakwas just shook her head as Audrea exited the room. She wasn't dizzy anymore, and she could feel her heartbeat steady in her chest, but she still felt a little unsteady on her feet. She moved slow and steady as she walked away from the med-bay. A few moments after she left, Legion appeared by her side.
"Chakwas, Doctor instructed me to assist you." He whirred at her. She laughed as she took the Geth's arm.
"Alright my motorized cane, let's go."
Legions facial flaps contracted into a puzzled look, but they moved forward. After a brief search, Audrea found Thane pacing agitated in the starboard observatory. He didn't even look up as the door hissed open.
"Shepard, I can't forgive myself for this. Deal with me how you will."
Audrea had never seen him in such a state. Even in the heat of battle he was calm and steady. The pacing was almost as bizarre as all the many outlandish things she'd encountered in this century, combined.
"Well, you're going to have to work on forgiving yourself."
"Audrea," Thane jerked around startled, "What are you doing?"
She was tired from all of it and moved to sit on the sofa, Legion obliged her wordlessly.
"Well, I'm pretty sure I broke your nose." She stated bluntly as she eyed the offending structure. "Among other things, I wanted to make sure you got it set."
Thane hovered around the edge of her reach, looking at her with a stunned expression. She gestured for him to come closer and he hesitantly knelt down in front of her, his face still awash with insecurity. With deft movements, Audrea realigned his nose with a small crack. There was only a hint of a wince on his face, as she did so. There was a flutter of a memory of her resetting another lovers nose years before. She let her hands rest lightly on his cheeks when she was done, and noticed for the first time, what a mess they both were. The fronts of them were covered with the dark crimson of her drying blood. Thane's normally fastidious appearance was in complete contradiction. His hands were still smeared from where he had held her artery closed. As she held his cheek, he ducked his head in shame.
"I almost killed you Audrea."
"Perhaps, or it was my vision that almost killed me. I was being burned alive in my dream, Thane. I'm not sure how the rules work in these and if I die in my visions, I could very well die for real." Audrea thought she could still feel the singe on her skin.
"I cut your throat without hesitation."
"Yes, but you only nicked my artery. You could have easily cut through all the rest, and then I would be dead. I sleep next to an assassin that's been trained for the last thirty years to not hesitate. What stopped you?"
"I…don't know. I was just suddenly aware it was you at the end of my knife, horrified that I was responsible for all the blood that was spilt. There is a reason I never participate in the rest of the crews' combat games. There has been little reason to hold back over the years."
Audrea nodded empathetically, and watched as Thane's brow furrowed and his eyes closed.
"Stop blaming yourself. You reacted as you were trained."
"I can't Audrea. I caused you grievous harm and I can't forgive myself for it."
"Well, dwell on it if you want. I'm going to choose to forgive you."
Thane looked up from his position and studied her for a minute. His hand reached up to touch the bandage that was wrapped securely around her neck. Audrea caught his hand and held it tightly as she smiled reassuringly at him.
"How about we just compromise; I'll continue to forgive you and you don't bring any more knives to bed."
Thane snorted slightly and Audrea grinned broadly at him.
"How can you forgive me for hurting you?"
"Well, as I said, I can't blame you for using your decades of training when being attacked. I also see how much you're beating yourself up over it. It's obvious it was unintentional, and that you're remorseful. I'm also serious about how I think you pulled me away from death."
"I have met few hearts as generous as yours."
Audrea just smiled in response and Thane pulled her into a careful embrace.
"I swear to you, on what is left of my life, that I'll never let any more harm come to you."
Audrea buried her face in his neck, inhaling his familiar scent, salty and dry. She was relieved he was steadier than he was when she entered the room. She had learned that she relied on his quiet strength and unassuming manner. Legion stood to the side watching silently on the exchange that seemed so alien to him.
A few hours later Audrea sat in Shepard's cabin, freshly bathed and far steadier on her feet, though exhausted. Chakwas had retested her several times over, and concluded that her blood levels were back up to normal, and scoffed that Rea could probably take a cannon shot to the chest and survive. EDI inserted tritely that Audrea had already accomplished such a feat. Shepard was staring at some data pads, looking unhappy.
"So Admiral Hackett asked me to do him a favor. He has a friend he believes was captured by batarians, in the same system as the relay you just dreamed about. She was working on some sort of archeological find on, get this, an asteroid." Shepard gave her a significant look as Audrea nodded silently, waiting for what the Commander needed to say.
"How can I do this, Rea?"
"I'm not sure on the mechanics, just the results."
"Even if we figure out the mechanics, how can I drive an asteroid into a relay and kill an entire system? EDI ran the numbers; an explosion of that size would wipe out the whole area, over 300,000 batarians. I have no problem risking my own life, the life of my crew, or anyone else on this ship. We all knew what we signed up for and are willing to pay that price. How can I kill civilians, some of them children, just to delay them for…we don't even know how long? How can I commit genocide?"
Audrea assembled her thoughts carefully, knowing in her heart it needed to be done, but just as terrified over the implications.
"Back in the war, there were times I had to make snap decisions. We'd be out in the jungle, sometimes for weeks at a time. Supplies could easily get lost; medications would go rancid in the heat. Men would sometimes get these tiny injuries that would be nothing at home. It would be nothing now with medi-gel, but out there in the jungle, those miniscule scratches could spell death. I remember this one kid; he got a little cut on his leg. He was starting to go septic, and the only way to save his life was to cut off his leg. He begged me not to take it but it had to be done. So I amputated. I'm not saying that it was the choice I wanted, or even a good choice, but it was the only choice available. Sometimes you have to hack off a limb to save the body."
Shepard sat hushed, considering this for a moment. She sighed heavily, rubbing her face with a hand.
"I get your not so subtle hint. What happened to the kid?"
"He died. I waited too long, and the antibiotics I had were ineffective."
"Thanks for the reassurance." Shepard huffed sarcastically. "You could have just lied to me and told me he lived to a ripe old age."
"I could have." Audrea confirmed, watching the Commanders face carefully.
"Point made. We should be in the system in a few hours, let me know if you remember any more details."
With that, Audrea was dismissed. She left the cabin with a glance over her shoulder. Shepard sat with the visible weight of a decision on her shoulders. Rea felt empathy for her, and sick that she had to be the one to direct her to that decision.
A/N Huge thanks to my new beta Liso66, for helping me add a little polish and pointing out my grammatical mistakes! I hope you all enjoy, and as always read and review! It's serious crack, I check a million times for the comments=)