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Volume 2.5: Thunder Before the Storm

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Fourteen days of round the clock work. Fourteen days of parts inspection, armor installation, and barrier checks. Fourteen days of minor repair and restock, of EDI's recommendations and processing for hiccoughs. Fourteen days in the grand pisshole of Omega that she was getting rapidly tired of even in her gratitude to its self-professed badass asari Queen.

Merchants had attempted to rack up prices for minor necessities on day two, but one tired, ragged, and eye-twitching look from Shepard had fixed that alongside Garrus's openly carried rifle and Jack's challenging sneer. Pickpockets had given them wide berths once Aria had been seen inspecting progress on day six. End of week one, an idiot of a human had asked Samara for a dance in Afterlife while they took a break to try and relax, and said idiot found himself flat on his back with a solid punch from Zaeed, of all people, with a roughly voiced grunt of learn some respect.

Dozens of other inane interactions and repeated guard rotations at the SR2's docking bay to deter sneaky salvagers quickly proved to Shepard and the rest that day fourteen couldn't come fast enough—not just for them all to be away from Omega as many were still processing very recent psychological trauma, but for some to make decisions about their next steps. Shepard just wanted them all to make their own decisions without her as a consideration because they'd survived enough in her eyes already. Enough eyes strayed to the elevator in fear when repair echoes banged about or workers moved up and down through the days for Shepard to understand.

The night of day thirteen, she told them all, Cerberus crew and team, about the Illusive Man's offer.

People crowded in the mess as two of Aria's personal guards watched the docking tube. Her team stood among the Collector base survivors, many of whom moved silently about to sit.

“Okay, listen up. I know the silent question on everyone's minds this entire repair job has been what's next on the agenda, and I've got some options since we got a message a couple nights ago,” she said, stepping into the center of the mess and waving a datapad in her hand. “First, are we all accounted for here?”

“Yes, Commander,” Miranda replied from her left, standing at attention with respect.

“Good. There's been an offer on the table from the Illusive Man. A project called Overlord run through a research base seems to have had some trouble. Beyond some odd radio silence, we have no news yet on what's going down,” Shepard began, pacing slightly and doing much better after nearly two full weeks of Mordin's spiffy knee brace. “He's agreed to let us decide if we accept, and that includes Cerberus ship crew if they wish to stay on for it. Payments will be rendered, etc., but here's the thing he doesn't seem to get. We've all had a hell of a time this past month—past several months—and some of us are done. So...I want you all to take tonight to yourselves. Think, seriously think, if you are prepared for this if we accept it. Consider if you need out.”

Glances were exchanged. Shaky sighs exhaled from more than a few.

And in the middle of the quiet uncertainty, Shepard stood calm and relaxed, indicating no pressure as they whispered softly.

She gazed over them, green eyes understanding and firmly compassionate. “There is no shame in taking reassignment, quitting, or going your merry way, folks. None. We did what we set out to do. We accomplished our task. And if that's what you signed up for and need to walk away, then that is your damn right to do so. You've done all that was asked of you. You are heroes to this galaxy, whether they know it or not. This mission, if we agree to it, is something else. All I ask if you are reassigning or leaving is that you let me know for accountability or replacement purposes. No questions asked as to why you're going wherever you are. I can't spare fuel at the moment to take you all home, but I can help organize ways to get you where you need to go. Maybe a quick pass to the Citadel to get you all sorted out.

“I am grateful for your service, your strength, and your aid in getting the ship back to rights. She's carried us well just as you have kept us all going together. And that, people, matters most to me to know, and that is what I will take away from this run to remember. For those interested in accepting this mission, I'd like a head count from Miranda by early tomorrow morning. I'll give you through the night to think about it, talk with someone, and make a decision. If you'd like to talk to me, you may do so. My cabin will be open first come, first serve style until probably late through the night. This goes for anyone, crew, team, or AI.”

EDI's soft voice sifted through the comms in the mess as she quietly murmured, “Thank you, Commander.”

“Welcome, EDI,” Shepard nodded, glancing about for a camera location she knew. Her eyes rested over faces she'd come to know well, over personalities loud and small, over people who had fought at her side and those who had kept her second chance at life functioning. Quietly she exhaled through her nose. “Any questions?”

“Any more info on mission parameters?” Garrus questioned to her right, tone open and supportive with the accompanying subharmonics for her.

Shepard gave him a small smile for it, then schooled her face serious again. “As of right now not much. Possible overtaking of the station. There's been an alert for help after staff seemed to be dealing with an internal problem. We're unsure at this point if there's an environmental problem or an external one as well, as the location is, apparently, quite hot with minor volcanic activity nearby.”

“So maybe no enemies,” Grunt mumbled at Garrus's side. “Boring, Shepard.”

She snickered at that icy-eyed shrug. “Could be. But I doubt it, not with him extending us the job over others. Won't be as engaging as the Collectors, I imagine.”

“Bounty offer?” Zaeed questioned, sounding just as on the fence.

“Limited equal pay for all, bonuses for saving tech, research, and any staff.”

The old merc hummed as he considered her words.

Joker huffed and crossed his arms where he sat at one end of the tables. “You wanna get shot again, Shepard, that's on you. But I know you can't do it without me.”

The grin stole across her reddened lips. “Nope, Joker. I can't. But you can still leave, you know.”

“And miss out on messing with EDI and hauling you around? Nah.”

Joker,” the AI chastised over the comms.

“I'll take that as a compliment,” Shepard teased, snorted, and took one last glance about the many unsure faces. “At any rate if you do have mission questions, you can ask them privately, too. Those staying will take vote in the morning on shipping off for this Overlord business.”

“And say we all vote nay. That mean we're taking this bitch pirate, Shepard?” Jack questioned, glint in her dark eyes. Her smirk was proud and well earned after all of her help the past run. “Still the way to go, you know. Stop doing Cerberus favors, and let's do it.”

Miranda angled her legs, shifted her weight, and rolled her black hair over her shoulders across the room from the intense, tattooed biotic. “Though I've come to...not entirely disagree with you on some things now, the ship's ownership is still in Cerberus control, and we would be tracked and disabled once we ran out of money or fuel.”

Jack rolled her eyes and held her glowing fist up. “Duh, Cheerleader, that's the point of pirating. We whip some mercs or other pirates around, take their shit, and make profit. Fight any people sent after us. Steal another ship, hell why not.”

“Jack, if you wanna go pirate, there's plenty of opportunity to start here off Omega. I'm dealing with the Illusive Man as I have to in order to try and keep this ship if possible,” Shepard said with a shake of her red hair.

One hand raised up near the corner by the battery's entrance as Tali straightened herself by the kitchen counter. “I do have a question.”

“Name it, Tali'zorah.”

“What comes...after? Say we do agree to this mission. What comes after, Shepard?”

All eyes zoomed back onto the Commander with curiosity at organic comparable FTL speed.

Shepard rubbed her eyes with her forefinger and thumb. “I'll be honest, Tali, I don't know. Not yet. I need to speak with Anderson if we go and accomplish this to figure out what's going on with Alliance and myself. Clear that air now. Eventually crew here will all go our own way, and we know that deep down. This offer just...extends that time out a little longer, should people want to stick around yet.”

Legion took a step forward from Samara's side near the medbay door, its little brows wiggling as its programs made a decision to speak. “Shepard-Commander, this unit would like to stay longer if possible for furthering its intended goal.”

Her head swung to the side to view the geth that had saved her life more than once, and she smiled. “Sure, Legion. You pulled your weight. Fine by me.”

“Commander, I'd like to make my services available tonight for people as well. I cannot promise I will stay, personally, for anything after tomorrow, but I will do what I can for everyone until then,” Kelly Chambers piped up, her once bubbly voice now more muted since her recovery from the Collector base.

Shepard didn't speak. She just gave the brave survivor a gentle nod of acceptance. Kelly had been instrumental in helping some of the worst cases of trauma in the first 48 hours of docking, despite Kelly herself being one of those cases. Chambers' true potential showed itself in those first days especially as she battled her own demons while aiding the others with theirs, and Shepard ran with her recommendations for quiet spaces from each day's work zones on the ship. Card games were common as a result as was some mild drinking, but Shepard drew the line at anyone trying to blitz themselves into a stupor.

Miranda took in the more somber atmosphere the room had fallen back into being; she and Shepard both noticed how even Dr. Chakwas seemed to grow a bit vacant sitting next to Joker silently.

Shepard coughed slightly under her breath and wrapped up the meeting at Lawson's subtle expression of concern, stating, “EDI, Kelly, and I talked a few days ago about continued help resources for anyone wanting them leaving the ship. EDI will forward you her findings with Kelly's approval on therapy groups, services, and such. This information will be available to anyone, not just Cerberus staff relocating. You gave to us. Let us give back to you.”

“You did, Commander,” Gabby Daniels whispered next to Kelly Chambers. “You all saved our lives.”

Ken Donnelly stood up from his chair as he agreed, “Exactly, lass.”

Each of the Cerberus crew readily nodded, some murmuring their own thanks yet again. Shepard smiled to herself as all of her twelve team members seemed to withdraw in awkward thanks. Kasumi muttered something to Jacob next to her, and Thane and Samara shared a peaceful look.

Mordin inhaled loudly enough to catch their attention, then blinked. “Part of job. No one left behind.”

Ken, Gabby, and Kelly all smiled at the older salarian. Dr. Chakwas finally did, too, after Joker gave her a soft pat to the shoulder. It didn't surprise Shepard, not when Mordin had guided the group back to safety with Kasumi at his side and nursed all of them back to shape. But Doc's smile quickly fell, and her eyes didn't blink again for another moment or two.

Shepard viewed Karin Chakwas, her friend and almost second mother, with concern, exchanging a glance with Kelly and Mordin after. She shifted her weight and took a step forward. “Take some time for yourselves tonight, too. Play some cards, eat whatever grub you want. Relax. Talk to me or Kelly if you want. Meeting in the morning at ten, same place. And then, like the big family we've come to be, we'll make our decisions known and take vote on the mission. Okay?”

“Yes, Siha,” Thane kindly replied with a small bow of his handsome face. “The time is respected. Thank you.”

“Welcome. I'll be upstairs all night until anyone who wants to be seen has the chance,” Shepard reminded them as she gave a brief wave. “Dismissed.”

Voices rose up as bodies shifted and people walked out of the cramped area. Some went into the bathrooms, others crew quarters. A few of her team went to the docking bay to get themselves some last minute things, Jack griping loudly about a type of power bar she'd grown to like needing to be available galaxy-wide and not just found on shithole stations.

Garrus appeared at her side. His strong, naturally reassuring presence helped, and Shepard stepped up on her toes to kiss his bandaged cheek.

“This almost ready to come off?” she wondered as she looked it over.

“Doc says within the month, yep,” Garrus answered with a happy sigh. “About damn time.”

“Hey, you, I'm just glad you had a functioning face.”

“Yeah, fair enough.”

“Shepard, can I get you anything set upstairs while you handle things? Or would you like me preparing anything else?” Miranda asked, stepping closer in her heels. “EDI's run another check on supplies, for my sake at this point. She tells me it's all calculated for a couple of months.”

Shepard leaned forward and hooked her arm around Miranda's shoulder. “Miri, you're awesome, but that suggestion I made for people to take time for themselves applies to you, too. You've done the hard work. Take one evening, please.”

Miranda huffed and crossed her arms with a smirk that Garrus and Shepard both returned. “Keeping my peace of mind by running checks is taking time for me. I'll have a glass of wine later.”

“Good,” Shepard grinned. “Might do you some good, Miranda.”

Garrus held his big palms up. “Can't kill you, anyway, to try and take five like the rest of us, Lawson.”

The perfect woman laughed under her breath and elbowed Shepard as she strode for her office out of the mess. “Then be sure our Commander does the same, Vakarian.”

Shepard stuck her tongue out at Miranda's dark head.

Garrus chuckled and slipped his arm about her waist, walking to the elevator with her. Turian blues eyed her hotly when the metal doors shut and the box lifted through the ship.

“If you have any energy left after this, you know what I wanna do to relax.”

“What, watch you calibrate?”

Garrus licked up her throat and kissed her jaw. “Hah, hah, A. Could give you something to calibrate.”

Shepard's hand brushed Garrus's chest armor and slid downwards, cupping over the area protecting his groin briefly before giving him a warm kiss on the mouth. Garrus watched eagerly, soft interested sounds echoing in the tight metal elevator. Then Shepard winked, let go, and turned to exit it as they settled on the top floor. "Good thing I'm good with my hands, then.”

Her turian boyfriend growled behind her, the sound raw and sensual and very familiar at this point in their lives. It easily warmed her belly and sent flutters through her heart, even as he grumbled, “You can be such a tease, babe.”

She shook her hips as she walked out, laughing after he groaned and hit the elevator control panel for another floor. Twenty minutes later her fish were fed, her notes were arranged on the sofas in the cabin, and Shepard nodded to EDI's holo to open the door as the first of many knocks that night rapped itself into her awareness.