Jack’s soul was on fire. It blazed out of her eyes as she glared at everything and nothing, her entire body tense, fidgeting with the detonator in her hand. Thane watched as she flicked its cover open and shut, open and shut, while Pragia and the Teltin facility receded beneath them. Click-snap. Click-snap.
He understood her agitation. Hearing her describe the brutality to which she’d been subjected had been bad enough. But to see firsthand the labs, the equipment, the logs—to hear the voices of those claiming to be men of science speaking in cold, clinical terms of the torture and murder of children—that had been more than he could bear. He kept picturing his own son strapped to one of those tables: Kolyat as he had last seen him ten years ago, small and innocent and afraid. The mere imagining caused his stomach to turn and his throat to constrict. He could most certainly understand why it would haunt one who had lived through it.
Thane recognized what he saw in Jack: disconnected, sunk deep in a battle-sleep, and focused solely on revenge for so long that she didn’t know what to do with herself now that she was about to achieve it. Restless pain and pent-up anger thundered and shrieked within her, and she would soon learn that vengeance couldn’t change that.
That had been him, not so long ago. Consumed by grief and rage and guilt, he had hunted down those who had murdered his Irikah and killed them slowly, cruelly, so that their agony might be a dim echo of his own. He’d had his revenge—and the discovery afterward that it didn’t make anything better had very nearly destroyed him.
It had been a difficult lesson to learn, but a necessary one. And there would be no avoiding it for Jack.
Click-snap. Click-snap. Finally, Jack locked eyes with Shepard, a silent snarl of defiance on her lips, and jammed her thumb down on the button.
Shepard’s eyes widened, and she pounded on the bulkhead that separated the team from the pilot. The engines roared, the acceleration throwing the three of them off-balance as the landscape below erupted into flame and the shockwave rattled their very bones. Just ahead of the fireball, the shuttle screamed toward its rendezvous point with the Normandy.
Avina’s voice echoed loudly in the empty corridor. “Restricted access granted. Authorization: Commander Shepard, Spectre. Please proceed directly to shooting range.”
“Nice of Shepard to get us use of the range while she’s off playing vigilante with Vakarian. Didn’t think you’d be looking for target practice, though.”
Thane turned at the sound of Jack’s voice, surprised to have company at this time of the night. “It keeps my skills sharp… and my mind occupied. You are well?”
Planting her fists on her hips, Jack ignored his polite inquiry. “Yeah? At oh-three-hundred, most people’s minds are occupied by sleeping.” She stalked ahead of him into the Spectre office to retrieve her plasma shotgun, and set up at the medium-range target.
“Then it would seem that neither of us are most people.” Thane selected his Viper from the weapons locker, then set the long-range target at maximum distance. It still wasn’t far enough to present a challenge in and of itself, but perhaps he could put some shot groups to the test.
Jack barked a short, sharp laugh. “Ha! You can say that again, Krios.” She slammed a thermal clip home and took aim downrange. “So what brings you down here at this godforsaken hour? I thought I’d have this place all to myself.”
Thane waited as she emptied the clip into her target, leaving it a shredded, smoking ruin. “My illness often makes it difficult to sleep,” he confessed when the noise abated. “And recent events have left my mind… unsettled.”
“You’re telling me,” Jack snorted. She reloaded her weapon, leaving the used clip hissing angrily on the floor. “It’s like an itch that only gets worse the more I scratch it. I can’t sit still, can’t think straight. I just want to shoot something.” The range VI had hung a fresh target, and this one, too, soon drifted in charred tatters to the floor. “I want to shoot something alive until it’s not. And then I want to do it again.” Jack loaded a third clip, then turned to glare at Thane as she gestured downrange with her weapon’s triple barrel. “This shit helps, but only a little. And not for long. I thought blowing that place to hell would make me feel better—but it didn’t.” She sighted on the target once again.
Jack lowered her shotgun and rounded on him, eyes narrowed and blazing. “You understand? Don’t tell me you fucking understand, you son of a bitch! Not unless you spent your childhood being tortured and experimented on, too.” Her breath hissed between clenched teeth, and her small frame trembled with barely contained rage.
“No,” Thane replied softly, calmly. “But I do understand the need for revenge. The obsession. The way it warps your mind and twists your soul, and makes you capable of… unspeakable things.”
And in an instant, he was elsewhere.
Suddenly, in the middle of their conversation, Krios’s eyes went unfocused and his voice got distant. “The smell of death in the air. My hands slick with blood. He taunts me still, even as he howls in pain. ‘She was worth it!’ I twist the knife again, no longer certain which of us is screaming.” Then he blinked, shuddered, and seemed to force himself back to reality with a gasp.
What was he, possessed or something? More than a little freaked out, Jack took a few wary steps back. “The fuck was that?” she demanded, her voice pitching higher than she’d intended. Shit, she sounded like a scared kid.
“My apologies,” he rasped as he collected himself. “Drell are blessed—or perhaps cursed—with perfect recall. Such memories can come unbidden, and are often… difficult to control.”
“That was a memory?” Jack blurted out. “Shit, Krios, what did you do?”
The question hung in the air, tense and glittering. It had left her mouth an instant before she realized she didn’t really want to know the answer.
He seemed to sense that—or maybe he just didn’t want to talk about it. “Suffice it to say for now that I exacted retribution. The situation was different from yours. But what is important is that when it was done… I found that nothing had changed.”
A chill shivered up Jack’s spine. “What do you mean, nothing changed?” she demanded. “You killed him, right? Whoever he was, whatever he did to you—you got him.”
“Yes, I killed him,” Krios answered, his crushed-velvet voice haunted. “Eventually.” He closed his eyes briefly, and Jack wondered if he was trying to keep from speaking another memory out loud. Finally, he continued, “But it didn’t change what he had done. No matter how much pain I inflicted upon him, it did nothing to ease my own.”
Oh, fuck, he was about to go all righteous on her, wasn’t he? Jack sneered. “Let me guess: now you’re gonna tell me how it ‘weighs on your conscience’ or some shit. And how you’d let him live if you could do it over.”
Krios actually looked surprised. “I pray every day to be forgiven for it—but I would do it all again, given the chance. She…” He trailed off, the anguish on his face as fresh as if it had been written there yesterday. Jack wondered just how recent these memories were. Though if he really did have total recall, she supposed it could have been ages ago.
“She was worth it, huh?” Jack finished, deliberately tossing his old mark’s words back at him. “Whoever she was.”
The assassin fixed her with a penetrating stare, those huge eyes of his coal black and gleaming dangerously. “Yes. She was.”
Meeting his gaze, Jack’s blood ran cold and she swallowed hard. Krios was so goddamned nice most of the time, it was easy to forget what a scary motherfucker he could be. Until he looked at you like that.
She folded her arms, shotgun dangling precariously from her fingertips, scowling to hide her discomfiture. “So, this has exactly what to do with me?” she challenged.
To her surprise, Krios’s expression actually softened, and Jack wasn’t sure whether to be relieved or resentful. “Jack,” he said gently, “it’s not my place to judge your actions or your motivations, so please, do not misunderstand me. You must find closure where and how you can. However, it has been my experience that vengeance is never a path to healing.”
Healing? Oh, please. Jack rolled her eyes and scoffed as she turned away. “I’m fine.” Resentful—definitely resentful. Was everyone on this damned ship going to try and analyze her? Did they all think she was some broken thing? “Shepard tried this prison psych bullshit on me, too.” She froze as realization dawned. “You asshole. Did she put you up to this?”
“No,” he replied, still infuriatingly calm. “I assure you, our meeting here was a coincidence. But a fortuitous one, I think.”
Rage and frustration and confusion reacted and boiled over. “What’s that supposed to mean? What do you want from me?” she howled. She whirled back around to face him—
—and stumbled back when she found him practically on top of her, having closed the distance between them silently. He steadied her with gentle hands on her shoulders. “Jack—”
“Don’t touch me!” Without conscious thought, Jack’s biotics crackled and a gesture knocked Krios sprawling. Her breath came hard as he hit the deck.
Dizzily, he struggled to rise, but only managed to prop himself up on his elbows before a fit of coughing doubled him over. The sound was terrible, deep and painful and rattling. Yeah, great, hit the dying man, Jack thought angrily. Because these people don’t already hate you enough. And before her brain caught up with her body, she was approaching him again.
“Hey.” She extended a hand toward him, the last traces of blue light fading. “Sorry.”
Krios’s gaze flicked from her hand up to her face as he caught his breath, his expression inscrutable, and for a moment Jack thought he might lash out at her in retaliation. A hand-to-hand specialist and a powerful biotic himself, she could imagine a thousand different ways he might attack her, even from his seemingly weakened and vulnerable position. He could probably think of a thousand more. But instead, he placed his hand in hers and allowed her to help him to his feet.
The feel of his scales under her fingers was weirdly pleasant: warm, smooth, and unexpectedly supple. Jack found herself staring at the open front of his vest as he dusted himself off, wondering if the somewhat larger ones on his chest would feel the same. A fluttering heat coiled low in her belly as she imagined the sensation of scales against skin, pictured drowning in those deep, dark eyes as she ran her hands over all that finely sculpted—
No. She shook her head, scowling. Not gonna go there. Not with him. Maybe not with anyone ever again. She’d been down this road before, and been burned for it over and over.
Abruptly, Jack spun on her heel and shoved her weapon into the locker, slamming it shut. “Thanks for the chat, Krios,” she bit out with every ounce of sarcasm she could muster. “Need anything, I’ll be in my bunk.” She started to leave, then paused. “That’s not an invitation.”
Thane watched, puzzled, as Jack stormed from the range. She was difficult to read, even for a human, her reactions unpredictable. She wore her anger like armor, wielded cruel words like weapons—and then a flicker of kindness would shine through, only to be snuffed out before its light could illuminate her vulnerabilities. And that look in her eyes right before she’d left… he didn’t know what to make of that.
He could only hope she had taken some of his words to heart. Despite what he’d told her, he didn’t truly believe in coincidences. It seemed clear that Arashu had placed him in her path tonight, so if was at all possible for him to help her find peace, he was obligated to try.
And perhaps in doing so, he could find some for himself.