Athena watched, propped up on one elbow against her bed. Eyes unblinking, teeth worrying her lower lip as brow furrowed. Jaal’s chest rose and fell in a steady rhythm, but his face was twitching and his features scrunched up in a soundless sob. She waited.
It was coming.
His eyes snapped open, tears standing in them. His breaths came harsh and shuddering. Her heart ached. She shifted closer to him. One small hand against his chest, she could feel how his heart laboured underneath.
“Hey,” she whispered, a faint smile on her lips.
His startlingly blue eyes found hers, and he relaxed. The tension eased from his face, but his body remained stiff. “Hey,” he replied, his arms pulling her close.
His embrace was tight. There was a desperation and fear that ran through his touch.
“Bad dream?” she asked tentatively.
Jaal had been evasive about the demons that plagued his nights. But it was affecting his performance during their missions and that was what Athena worried about the most. She noticed it after they rescued the Moshae and learnt the truth about the kett. At first, he was handling the revelation well, or so she thought.
He stiffened at the question. She bit back a sigh. His arms loosened, and he pushed himself into a sitting position. “No,” he shook his head.
Concern and uneasiness pushing her, she tightened her grip on his arm. Her fingers barely able to maintain a good hold on his forearm. “Jaal,” she started.
He kept his eyes on everything else but her.
“You know you can talk to me, right? I’m here for you.”
His gaze rose from the ground he was staring at. For a split second, Athena’s hope rose along with it. Their eyes met. “I know,” he said, his voice hoarse and raspy. “Just… I can’t do it now.”
Her heart sank. She let his arm go as he pulled it from her grip. “Ok,” her reply was quiet. “I’ll be here-“
“Pathfinder,” SAM’s voice chimed in. “You have an urgent call from Director Tann.”
Athena sighed, but she refused to move. Her eyes were still on Jaal’s stiff back. He reached out and squeezed her hand. It was strong, but she could feel his fingers shaking a little. The nightmare still had him in its talons. How could she leave him like this?
He straightened and gave her a tight smile. “I’m ok. Go. You have work to do.”
Her eyes searched his eyes. He had hid the hurt and fear from the nightmare behind the shutter of the stoic resistance fighter. Her jaw tightened. “Ok.”
“No, we’re taking a break,” Athena declared.
Jaal looked at her. It was an odd choice to have the conversation right then. Her thighs were straddling his hips. Her oversized shirt falling off one of her shoulders, revealing a swathe of fair skin. Her hands pressed against her hips as she did her best to glower at him.
“But we have-“ He squirmed, but her thighs clamped down harder. Despite her size, it was surprisingly effective to hold him still.
“Nope. We,” she said, pointing her finger at her chest, then his, “are taking a break.”
His brow rose to see the diminutive Pathfinder being so authoritative, it was very much out of character for her. Athena Ryder tried her best in everything she did even if she might be in over her head. She was a trained Initiative member, but she wasn’t built for the front lines. Despite all that, she never stopped doing her best. For that, Athena had his heart. And she was trying very hard right now.
“You need a break,” she said. “I’ve told Tann the crew needs a break.”
Jaal relaxed and dragged her down onto him. She pressed her face against his chest, shifting to find a comfortable position. Her hand stroked his face, fingers tracing the scar on his cheek. “You need it, we need it.”
His heart clenched, his jaw tightened for a moment. He could feel his shutters coming down again. Why should the Pathfinder care about one crew member albeit one that shared her room, her bed and her heart? He couldn’t possibly be more important than the mission. They needed Athena to activate the vaults, to find the key to defeating the Archon once and for all. What were his inner demons compared to that?
“Stop it,” Athena said, her grey eyes narrowed in his direction. They were so clear Jaal could see himself in them.
“I did nothing,” he protested.
“You’re going away again.”
“I…” the words died in his throat. She had seen through him. And here he was thinking he was doing a good job keeping his turmoil under wraps. “Sorry, I just…”
She sighed and slid herself up to rest her face at the crook of his neck. Jaal ran his fingers through the blonde strands that fell across her face. For a moment, neither spoke. The hum of the Tempest’s mass effect core filled the space. Eventually, he sighed. It was a small huff of breath.
“You’re right,” he admitted. “I need a break.”
He could feel Athena’s smile against his neck. The brush of her lips sent shivers down his spine. “Good, I’ve contacted your true mother. I’ve told her we are going to Havarl for a visit.”
“Come on,” Teviint said. “It will be way more fun at the Tavetaan.”
Athena watched as she tugged at her brother’s arm. It was nice to see Jaal relaxed and among his family again. He needed it desperately. His eyes darted in her direction. She offered him a smile as she folded her arms over her chest. Sahuna had cooked up a storm with Jaal’s other mothers. Athena had to unbuckle her pants’ button just to accommodate the sheer volume of food she had inhaled. Biotic or no, she was sure she had gained a couple of kilograms from the meal. It was their going away dinner, so it was extra special. The break had done Jaal good, he was laughing more, living in the moment more often. Athena was glad to have battered Tann down for the break. The rest of the crew were scattered across Havarl, all of them doing some form of rest and recreation. They all deserved it. It had been a hard six months since they arrived.
She looked up and found Jaal looking at her. “My siblings want to take us to the new Tavetaan.”
“Is it near?” she asked.
Lathoul nodded. “It is just a 20 minutes walk away. With the amount of food I’ve eaten, I know I could use the walk.”
Baranjj laughed. “Come on.”
The walk took longer than usual with all the antics Jaal’s siblings were up to. They didn’t hesitate to tease him, to ask questions of her and just be noisy but caring siblings. Athena missed Grace intensely, but she was glad Jaal could have this time with them. The situation with his siblings and the Roekaar had broke Jaal’s heart when he found out. She didn’t want to imagine what would happen if Jaal was forced to choose between his loyalty to the Resistance and his siblings.
By the time they got the Tavetaan, they were thirsty. Between the five, they put away a good bit of the liquor supply on Havarl. Lathoul and Baranjj had their arms around Jaal’s shoulders as they sang and stumbled their way out. Athena was chuckling. Their voices warbled unsteadily as they attempted the high notes. The night air was chill against her skin. The wind weaved its fingers through her hair. She smiled. Right there in that moment, she was contented. Despite the mess Andromeda was still in, she was happy.
Peace was shattered in an instant.
Gun fire erupted. One of them cried out in pain. Fear drove a spike into Athena’s chest. Was Jaal hurt? It was her only thought as she drew her pistol. She crashed onto the ground heavily as she dove for cover. “Jaal! Are you all right?” she shouted as she returned fire without really aiming.
“I’m fine, Lathoul has been shot!”
“Shit,” she cursed.
“Death to the traitors!” one voice cried out.
“Death to those who abandoned the Roekaar,” another shouted.
The gears in Athena’s mind churned and ground as she tried to get into a better position to flank the attackers. It was clear they were gunning for Jaal’s siblings. For once she wasn’t the target, but this meant Jaal was in danger.
She was dressed in nothing but the white Initiative uniform, she had nothing except her pistol. They were not ready for an ambush! This was supposed to be relaxing, this was supposed to be a break. Havarl was supposed to be safe. Anger like never before surged up her chest.
Athena wasn’t confident in much, but she was sure in her ability to generate a barrier. If she couldn’t attack, she would defend. With her right hand outstretched, a blue shimmering sphere formed. She was the epicentre, and she extended it to envelop Jaal and his siblings. Shifting from cover to cover, she made her way over to Jaal and his siblings. They were still trading bullets but none of the Roekaars’ were making through her barrier. She quickly handed Jaal her pistol and got to work tending to Lathoul’s. Healing and mending was what she was trained for, it was what she did best. It was better to leave the attacking to those better than her.
Jaal squeezed her shoulder once before taking her pistol. He stood up, confident in her barrier.
“We shouldn’t fight each other,” he called out, using his body to block Baranjj from view. “We are all angaras here. We are facing the Archon and we are killing each other. This is wrong!”
“You’re crazy! You side with the vesagara. Nobody should listen to you!” one shouted as they continued firing even though the bullets fell harmlessly to the ground.
“It’s the traitors who should fear us. Nobody leaves the Roekaar alive!”
“You will not threaten my family. You will not harm them,” Jaal roared. “I will not permit that!”
Despite his words, Athena couldn’t hear any return fire from Jaal. She quickly slapped some medi-gel on Lathoul. With a quick jerk of her arm, she tore the sleeve of her shirt and used it to bind Lathoul’s wound. He hissed as she tightened it.
“Stay low,” she instructed before turning towards Jaal.
The strain of maintaining the barrier was getting to her. Sweat beaded across her brow as her head pounded. “Jaal,” she called.
His back was stiff, shoulders taut. His hands were frozen with fingers that refused to pull the trigger.
“Jaal!” Baranjj shouted. “You can’t just stand there!”
It seemed to pull him out of whatever trance he was in. Athena had seen minor versions of exactly this. When faced with the kett or Roekaar, he hesitated even to his own detriment. Her jaw tightened.
“I can’t hold for much longer, we have to end this,” she said, one hand pressed against his back. “If you can’t…”
The shutters were back down. His face twisted in a grimace as he pulled the trigger. His aim was true. Before he emptied the pistol, there was no return fire. Athena dismissed the barrier with a flick of her hand. Her lungs struggling to seize enough air for her body. She tightened her grip on his arm, willing for her Jaal to return. As he turned to look at her, tears were standing in his eyes. She gasped. The depth of his guilt and sorrow slammed against her like a sledgehammer.
“Are you all right?” she asked.
But instead of answering, Jaal’s eyes widened. “Where is Teviint?”
His heart clenched and relaxed in an odd stuttering pace. His bio-electricity flared and sparked as his agitation flared. His feet took him back and forth between the space separating the tech and bio lab.
They had taken Teviint. They had his sister because she was smart enough to leave the Roekaar, because she dared to leave. They attacked his siblings because of that. His head throbbed as he leaned his weight against the central console. Frustration mounted, and a growl ripped out of his throat.
The sound echoed in the space.
He was glad there was nobody there. He wouldn’t be the best conversationalist at this moment. His grip on the console had turned his knuckles white. Why had he hesitated? Why had he waited? It was his fault Teviint was taken.
A tentative touch brushed against his knuckles. He flinched. Whirling around, he realised it was Athena. The surprise, heartache and worry that reflected off her eyes made his chest ached.
“Don’t apologise,” she said, taking his hand into hers. “This is not your fault. We will get her. I promise.”
All Jaal could do was nod.
She straightened her back and took a deep breath. “SAM has tracked the shuttle. They had taken her to Farrum.”
“More accurately it is a space station orbiting Farrum,” SAM interjected.
Athena cleared her throat. “Yes that. Because of our need to give pursuit I’ve went with whoever we could gather. Kallo, Gil and Lexi are all nearby so once they have boarded we will make our way to the space station.”
He stiffened when he realised she was expecting a response from him. He couldn’t find words to speak. Afraid that by opening his mouth, his guilt and frustration would spew forth on the one person who deserved none of it, he nodded. Then, it clicked.
“What about the ground team?” he asked, his voice strained.
“There is no time. Vetra is the nearest, but she is at least four hours away by Nomad.”
“So it is just us.”
Athena nodded. Her hands tightened her grip on his. “Do you want to get help from your family?”
“No!” Jaal yelled, feeling heat rising to his face. Shame coloured his face, making it clear to her. It was not her fault why was he shouting at her. “Sorry. It’s my responsibility. I don’t want to get the others involved.”
She let go of his hand and he felt bereaved. His hand felt so cold and abandoned. But instead of withdrawing, she reached up towards his face. His eyes widened as he bent to accommodate her height. Her hands warm and so small held his face like it was a precious gem, gentle and tender. She whispered, “We will get your sister back, we will bring Teviint home.”
“Ok,” his voice broke.
Athena turned her head to the ceiling and spoke. “What’s the ETA, SAM?”
“Six hours, Pathfinder.”
She turned to him. Her hands sliding down his chest to take his arm again. “We should rest.”
She was insistent as she tugged him towards her room, their room.
Bit by bit, she undid Jaal’s soft leather armour. It was splattered with Lathoul’s blood. It smelt of gunfire and battle. She unzipped it and take it fall to the ground, heedless of how messy it was. Rummaging through her drawers she found the enormous t-shirt he sometimes wore when he slept with her.
Jaal sat numbly at the edge of her bed. His eyes tracking her movements, but he wasn’t really doing anything. Athena recognised it. It was shock, it was guilt and sorrow. She had been there herself in the initial days and weeks of suddenly being made Pathfinder. She was only better when Jaal boarded and he drew her out. Now she was returning the favour.
Jaal sighed as he lay down. She kept hold of his arm, afraid if she let go, he would go away again into a space where she couldn’t follow. She could feel the tension in his muscles, how he held himself still and rigid. “Jaal,” she whispered, “talk to me, please. This is more than your sister. Something has been bothering you for months.”
He shuddered and started pulling away from her. Her heart sank as she loosened her grip. She bit her lip, blinking back tears. She wanted to help, but she didn’t know how. Helplessness seeped into her bones in a way she had never felt before. It was worse than seeing her sister being left in a coma because of bad luck, it was worse than being told she was the Pathfinder and her father was dead. Those were things she was bad at anyway, it was logical she was helpless. But this, this was what she was trained for. Healing the hurt, stopping the bleeding, binding up wounds, and she couldn’t do it for the one person that had supported her through these tumultuous times. What good was she?
Athena stared at his back. Her hand reaching out to touch his back before withdrawing. Her fingers curling into a fist. Jaal needed his space. She had to give it to him. She couldn’t force this upon him. A quiet huff as she pressed her hand against her mouth.
His voice broke the silence. It sounded brittle and hollow as if all life had been drained from him. Athena bit her lip and remained silent, afraid the slightest noise would scare him away.
“I need to speak about this. It’s affecting my ability to do my job. It’s affecting you,” he went on, his voice breaking at the last word.
“Jaal, I’m fine,” she whispered into his back, her forehead resting against it. “I’m worried about you. Whatever it is, I want to help you.”
“But you can’t,” he said, turning over to face her. “It’s beyond you, beyond me. Every time I fire my rifle, I see myself killing a fellow angara. Every single kett I’ve killed before, and since, all of them had family, people they cared about. And I took their loved ones away with my bullets. And that’s the kett. What about the Roekaar? They are our brothers and sisters, misguided as they are. And I killed them. Just like I did today.”
Tears were streaming down Jaal’s face in earnest. His eyes seeking hers. Athena had nothing to offer. All his concerns were true and valid. She couldn’t help. She could only be there for him. “I’m sorry, I’m really sorry, Jaal,” she whispered.
Jaal curled and buried his face into her chest. His sobs sent shudders running down his body, his tears soaked her shirt and all she could do was to hold him.
Jaal dressed. A fresh set of leather armour pulled on. Zips and buckles tightened and secured. After the short nap, he felt better. Just the simple act of putting his fears and thoughts into words helped. It was purging his mind and body of the poisonous and destructive thinking.
He glanced at the figure in the bed. Athena was still sleeping. She was exhausted. Jaal had no idea how long she had held him, how long she watched over him as he slept fitfully. He remembered her voice humming and singing softly every time he roused.
He snorted softly. There he was thinking he was protecting Athena from himself. He was so focused on himself; he hadn’t realised his withdrawal had been noticed. It was a futile gesture, she saw through him like a piece of glass.
Jaal approached the bed and planted a kiss on her head. He whispered, “Thank you.”
She groaned a little but never woke. He held himself still till her breathing deepened again. Satisfied that she was resting, he spoke aloud. “SAM, make sure she gets some rest. Don’t wake her till we’re one hour away.”
“Understood, Jaal.” came the reply.
The Tempest was empty, devoid of all of its usual chatter and the simple noises of people living and working in close proximity. He had his preparations to make. Making his way to the tech lab and he said, “SAM, are we close enough for some scans on the space station?”
“Yes, one moment.”
Two seconds later, the holographic interface of the space station popped up on his terminal. His eyes quickly examined it for possible ingress and egress points. He took a deep breath and whispered, “Hold on, Teviint. I’m coming.”
It was an hour later when Athena was all suited up. She was sliding down the ladder to the cargo bay where he was putting his rifle back together after cleaning it. Her eyes sought his. Hers a little apprehensive, more than a little worried. Jaal offered her a tight smile. It was as genuine as he could manage at that moment.
“I’m ok,” he said as the words left his mouth, he realised it was true.
He was as normal as he felt in a long time. Firing upon kett or the Roekaar would never be the same for him again, but it was something he had to reconcile with. For now, his priority was to get his sister home safely. Beyond that, his goal was to stop the Archon. In time, that would lead to safe guarding his fellow angaras from being turned to the kett. As for the Roekaar, Athena was right. It was up to her and her fellow Milky Way species to prove themselves to be trustworthy and honest in their dealings. Hopefully, he could aid them to show how foolish the Roekaar were.
Athena sighed. Tension lifted from her shoulders as she nodded. “So what’s the plan?” she asked, getting down to business.
“Are you ready?” Athena asked.
Jaal nodded tightly, his face mostly obscured by his helmet. But she could see his eyes through the visor. His gaze was steady albeit a little anxious.
“You don’t have to shoot to kill,” she went on. “Disable, maim if you have to.”
He stiffened. “Where there is life, there is a way?”
She smiled. “Something like that. You can’t change the minds of dead angaras. But alive? Maybe, one day?”
Jaal nodded. This time standing a little straighter, a little taller. His grip on his rifle sure as he took the lead. Athena kept close. Being down to a two-person team meant she couldn’t hang back like she used to, relying on her teammates to mow down the resistance. She forced herself to be more aggressive than usual. Utilising, her barriers to protect Jaal. Flinging out Lifts to disable and neutralise the opposition.
The Roekaar that took Teviint weren’t expecting them, they had no plans beyond taking her. They were unprepared, and it showed. Jaal and Athena left Roekaar moaning and groaning on the ground in a wide swathe behind them.
“Teviint!” Jaal shouted, spotting his sister caged inside a cell similar to what the kett used.
“Not so fast!” a voice shouted.
The angara stepped out, clad in armour purple and gold. She had a rifle trained on Jaal’s chest. Athena wasted no time to pull a barrier around them. A drop of sweat ran down her face and collected at her chin, her amp was hot, almost searingly so. She knew she would pay for overdoing her biotics but it didn’t matter. Jaal needed her.
“Who are you?” he demanded, his rifle pointed squarely at her chest.
“Shora Nor,” came the easy reply.
Nor seemed unaffected with having a rifle aimed at her. When five other Roekaar emerged from behind cover, the reason was made apparent. Athena stiffened as her eyes traced the red laser dots tracking over her chest and head. Jaal was facing a similar situation.
“Shall we test how much your barrier can withstand, Pathfinder?” Nor shouted.
Jaal growled, stepping in front of her.
“Protecting the vesagara,” she went on. “You are a disgrace to your name.”
“Let my sister go!” he yelled, bristling with anger.
“The traitor must die. All traitors must die. You do not join the Roekaar on a whim. You are a member for life.”
Teviint slammed her hands against the barriers of her cage. “No! I do not want to die. I’ve made a mistake. It was just a tiny mistake!”
Fear so tangible rippled through the space. Athena’s eyes darted about the room. It wasn’t very large. Probably on par with the Tempest’s cargo bay. With the six angaras arrayed before them, they had to seek cover.
“Teviint, hang on!” Jaal shouted, desperation lacing his voice. “I will get you home, I swear!”
“Do not promise what you can’t fulfil.” Nor shrieked
Athena stiffened as Jaal reached a hand behind to seek hers. She took it. The churning in her guts immediately dialled down. He bent his head as he whispered his plans via their comms. She nodded urgently. Working under pressure was something she was used to, but strategizing battle was something beyond her. With Jaal by her side, she was as much bolstered by his presence as he was hers. Legs bent, muscles ready. All they needed was the starting signal.
“Kill them all!”
That was what she was waiting for. They both dove for cover, one on either side. She withdrew the barrier instantly. It was foolish to waste her energy trying to keep it up. Jaal was quickly returning fire, taking the pressure off her.
The plan was simple. She was useless at combat. What she could provide was support. Jaal would cover her, taking out anyone who might be in her way. Her job was to get Teviint out and put a weapon in her hands. That would go a long way to evening out the odds.
She gritted her teeth and summoned her biotics again. “Let’s do this.”
Jaal watched with his heart in his mouth. Athena was inching her way through the space towards his sister. He could only make sure she made it there. His rifle bucked in his hands. A cry of pain rang out. His heart clenched but his aim was sure. One bullet took out an arm, another taking out a leg. Nor was down to herself and two others. The numbers were even as long as Athena could get Teviint out.
“No!” Nor roared.
Their plans were discovered. This wasn’t the time for apprehension and doubt. His family needed him. He surged out of cover and barrelled towards Nor. His rifle rattling as bullets zoomed by him. His shields shimmered against them but it held.
He launched himself on Nor. Their weapons were clattering away. Instantly she was grappling against his weight, seeking to flip him onto his back. But he used his superior weight to keep her pinned. His eyes desperately searched for Athena. Relief flooded him as he saw Teviint receiving a rifle from her. But his relief was short lived as Nor punched him square in his jaw. His head snapped backwards. Pain seared up his neck to his head as stars flashing across his eyes.
“You are the worst of the worse, Ama Darav,” she growled. “You not only abandoned your kind, you are taking the human to bed!”
Every word was punctuated with a punch to his head. Despite wearing his helmet, he could feel the material cracking under the repeated blows. Nor curled and kicked out, unseating Jaal. He was quick to find his feet. But before that could happen, a battle roar, high and sharp cut into his consciousness. Athena, glowing blue and leaping high like an avenging angel, rammed her fist into Nor’s unprotected face. There was a crunch as the bones crumpled under the biotics fueled impact. Nor fell limply on the ground, knocked out by Athena’s punch.
Jaal stared at Athena from his position on the ground. Their eyes met. “That felt good,” she whispered almost reverently.
She looked away as if distracted. Her eyes widened. Her hand that was holding the pistol drifted upwards. Before Jaal could turn to see who was behind him, there was a bang. It was loud. He watched as her eyes widened in pain. Athena fell backwards onto the ground.
“No!” he roared.
This was not happening. Jaal refused this reality. He surged to his feet and deflected the last standing Roekaar’s pistol. It took Jaal a couple of seconds to disarm him. Anger and fury fuelling his strength, he bodily lifted the angara and threw him across the room. Teviint stood a distance away, shock and awe dancing across her face. “Watch him!” he growled.
Feet scrambling, he made his way to Athena’s side. She was lying still, so still on the ground. No, no, no. This was all his fault. She couldn’t be dead, not because of him, not because of this.
“SAM!” he shouted as his hands fumbled with buckles and zips.
“Where is she shot?” he cried frantically. “I can’t find the entry wound. Is she bleeding internally?”
Pieces of armour discarded around him. He knew he saw the bullet impacted her abdomen. But with the armoured plates removed, he still couldn’t find any blood or wound. There was nothing he could apply medi-gel on.
“SAM, help me!” Panic colouring his words.
He quickly took a blade to her body suit. Underneath, all he found was skin reddish and slightly raised. Then, Athena groaned. Jaal sighed, tears prickling at his eyes. “Ancestors, I thought… I thought…”
“The Pathfinder had merely fainted from a sudden drop in her blood pressure. Her shields had mostly absorbed the impact. The affected area is bruised, but she is fine. Dr. T’Perro might prescribe painkillers for the soreness.”
Athena blinked confusedly at her state of undress. “What happened?”
Athena moved stiffly. The battle had seen her coming out of it mostly unscathed other than a bunch of pretty bruises across her body. She leaned against the door frame and watched. Jaal was laughing as he listened to Liam talk about the drinking contest he had gotten into before leaving Havarl.
Jaal’s eyes lit up when they found her. “Darling one,” he proclaimed loudly.
Heat rose up her chest to her face. She was sure she was glowing red for everyone to see. The pet name was endearing and flattering but still extremely embarrassing to hear it being used in public. His arms enveloped her as he pulled her into a hug. She hissed a little. Jaal quickly bent down and planted a kiss on the crown of her head. “Sorry, I forgot.”
“It’s ok,” she said as she pulled him down for a proper kiss.
There was utter silence in the room when their lips parted. Liam and Cora watched with their jaws agape. “Did something happened while we’re on shore leave?” he asked.
“I guess you can say that.”
Jaal’s grip on her side tightened. “She lifted my soul.”
Liam’s eyes narrowed. “What does that even mean?”
She smiled enigmatically. The tension was still there if one knew where to look, but he looked more at peace with himself. He had come to some kind of answer within himself. He could forge a way forward again. Whatever it was, Athena promised to be there with him every step of the way.