Shepard kept her eyes tightly closed as she feigned sleep, careful to keep her breathing slow and steady. She didn't think any of the others were paying any attention to her, not just then, but she didn't want to risk drawing their attention. Not when she could hear muffled yells and curses coming from downstairs, a sure sign that the Reds were going to be down a member or two by in the morning.
It happened more nights than it didn't lately.
She wasn't sure who it was that was fighting this time. If she was honest, she didn't really care, as long as it wasn't someone who might get attention drawn to her if they went down.
She'd learned a long time ago that it was better not to make waves. Attention, good or bad, could be deadly in the Reds.
The distinct sound of gunshots rang out downstairs, and it took everything that Shepard had not to flinch. That would be a clear sign that she was awake if anyone was watching her. And she still didn't know enough about what the hell was happening to make any kind of guesses about the likelihood of that.
God, she hated her life. She really did.
There were footsteps nearby, heavy and moving too fast to be mistaken for anything even remotely casual. Shepard slowed her breathing even more, desperately listening as she tried to hold on to her ruse. Whoever it was that she was hearing, they were hurrying in her direction. She could hear them coming, heading straight her way...
... and then moving past her, as if she wasn't even there.
They weren't after her then. Not tonight. She'd be dead by now otherwise. The Reds didn't believe in things like second chances. If there was any reason for them to doubt her, they would have already removed her from the picture. Just like they had so many others over the years.
That thought didn't particularly make her feel any better about things.
Downstairs, there were more gunshots. Shepard managed not to react, at least not noticeably, but she felt her breathing speed up at least a little.
She couldn't keep doing this. Damn it, she couldn't.
Somewhere in the distance, there was a strangled cry that Shepard tried very hard not to listen to too carefully. If she couldn't heard them, then she couldn't recognize them. She didn't want to know. She really didn't. It was better that way. It was safer.
Fuck, she needed to get out of here. At this rate, she wasn't going to make it to see eighteen. She didn't know where she'd go or what she'd do, but she needed to get the hell out of here before she got herself killed. Either by one of her fellow Reds or from her own stupidity due to sleep deprivation, because this was the third night in a row this had happened and she was going to start slipping up at some point.
She needed to get as far away from the Reds as possible.
Shepard rolled over in her bunk, raising her eyebrows when she saw Johansson propped up on one arm and staring at her. "How'd you know?" she asked, a hint of surprise in her voice that she couldn't quite hold back. She'd had lots of practice hiding sleeplessness over the years. It was unusual for anyone to see through it.
No one else in her unit seemed to have picked up on it, other than him. And this was far from being the first night she hadn't been able to sleep.
Johansson gave her a sharp grin and shrugged. "Let's just say I've had lots of experience recognizing the signs," he said, his gaze flickering down to his left arm.
It wasn't the first time that Shepard had noticed that he had ink, but he usually kept it covered. She'd never had a chance to really see it clearly.
Her gaze followed his, and then she flinched. She recognized the tattoo. No wonder he kept the damn thing hidden whenever he could. "Devils?" she asked, not even trying to hide the incredulity in her voice. The Reds were bad, but the Devils... well, she'd heard a lot of stories about the Devils over the years, none of them even remotely good.
"Devils," Johansson agreed with a nod. He very pointedly didn't look at the mark on her neck that she'd never bothered trying to keep covered, in a way that made it clear that he was well aware that it was there.
Shepard forced herself to give him a grim smile that she knew didn't meet her eyes.
It wasn't that she was trying to hide the fact that she'd run with the Reds. It was in her permanent record, after all. The recruiting officer had taken one look at the dark red tattoo that ran from behind her ear and down her neck before immediately starting to make notes. And judgements. She couldn't forget the fucking judgements that the bastard had made before even asking her name.
Johansson just shrugged at her. "Like I said, I know what to look for," he said, shooting her another grin that showed just a few too many teeth.
Just a couple of years ago, Shepard wouldn't have trusted someone she knew had belonged to the Devils. Distrust would have been too ingrained in her since she was just a kid. But now... now she'd been part of the Alliance for some time. She wasn't exactly the most popular soldier, but she had at least a few people that she actually liked and who seemed to like her in return.
And she trusted her unit to watch her back, just like they trusted her to watch theirs. That was how it worked.
"You're thinking too hard, Shepard," Johansson said, shaking his head. He gave her a knowing look, like he could hear every thought passing through her mind.
It had been a long time since someone had been able to get such a good read on her.
"Get some sleep," Shepard said abruptly, turning her back to him and trying to curl back up in her bunk. "You'll be useless tomorrow otherwise."
Johansson snorted. "Pot, kettle, black," he said, just loud enough for her to hear him.
Shepard couldn't help but smile, just a little. Then she closed her eyes and tried to convince her racing mind to let her get some sleep.
Shepard opened her eyes again and stared up at the ceiling of the small, bare room that was her quarters for the time being. It wasn't a cell, not really, but it wasn't standard issue either. The brass didn't know what to do with her yet, and they were having her cool her heels while they deliberated and yelled and did whatever else behind locked doors.
There wasn't anything for her to actually see, even if there had been more light, but it was better than dealing with her own memories. She'd much rather stare into darkness than have her unit's faces judging her. That was the hardest part about solitary.
She didn't regret her decision. It had been the right one. Shepard had to believe that. If she didn't believe it, that would give her doubts a crack to start working their way through, and she couldn't deal with that. She fucking couldn't.
The Alliance trusted her to make the hard choices. That's why they had sent her to Torfan. Nobody could claim that they were surprised that she had done just that, making a decision when no one else would. It had worked. That's what mattered in the end. They'd won, no matter the cost.
Johansson had died screaming.
Shepard grimaced as Johansson's face flashed in her mind, followed almost immediately afterwards by Rodriguez and Smythe and Patel and Simpson and a wave of others. All of them were dead because of her. People who she had trusted and who had trusted her in return.
Then she'd killed the bastards that had killed them, shot the batarians that had surrendered where they stood. Because if her time in the Reds had taught her anything it was that you could never trust anyone who considered people to be merchandise.
And she'd do it again, if pressed. What the hell did that say about her?
Shepard sighed and kept her gaze focused above her. She needed to sleep, but there wasn't any point in even trying just then. It wasn't going to do any good, and she damn well knew it.
It had been the right choice. She knew that it had been. But that didn't mean it had been an easy one, not by any means.
No matter what people claimed, she was still human. She wasn't immune to guilt or regrets or any other emotions. She'd made a choice, and she would make it again if push came to shove. Sacrifice the few for the good of the many. That had been one of the first things she'd learned from the Reds, back when she was just a kid, and the Alliance had never given her any reason to put that learning aside. She made the hard decisions, the ones that other people weren't able to make.
She'd made her choice, and now she had to live with the results of her actions. That was how life worked. Shepard was well aware of how it went, a string of choices and consequences already trailing behind her. She did what she had to do, and she lived with it.
The Butcher of Torfan. That's what they were already starting to call her, in whispered conversations that they didn't think she could hear.
Shepard couldn't really argue with the name.
Still, Shepard couldn't help but be a bit surprised by her orders. It was a definite switch from her usual missions since Torfan.
"They want me to be your XO, sir?" Shepard repeated skeptically. "Are you sure they didn't accidentally misspell the name of who they wanted when writing out the orders?"
The corner of Anderson's mouth twitched slightly, as if he was trying to hide a smile. "I assume you're referring to Commander Jane Shepherd," he said. "And, yes, I'm certain that they put the right name on the orders."
Shepard narrowed her eyes, but she didn't say anything. She wasn't an idiot. There had to be more to the Normandy's mission if they were bringing her on. Like it or not, she'd made a name for herself, and the Alliance tended to use her for a rather specific type of mission.
Which seemed to imply that they were expecting the Normandy to be going into that that kind of situation at some point. Why else would they want the Butcher of Torfan on board rather than the Hero of Elysium?
Anderson was watching her carefully, almost as if he was waiting to see what her reaction was going to be. Well, two could play that game.
"I'm honored, sir," Shepard said. She gave him a very pointed look. "Is there anything about the mission that I should know?"
There was another twitch at the corner of his mouth, but other than that Anderson's expression didn't change. "Not at this time, Commander."
It was a test. Shepard knew that it was a test. The question was what response would gain more respect from Anderson. Was he the type to want an XO who would push back and not be kept out of the loop, or did he prefer one who kept quiet and therefore had deniability?
Shit like this was one of the things that Shepard hated about being an officer. There was a large part of her that wished she was still just another soldier, one of the pawns that did what she was told and didn't have to worry about the more political aspects of being in the military. She didn't like having to think and rethink her actions, and she wasn't particularly good at it.
Well, fuck it. If she was going to be working under him, Anderson might as well get a feel for what he was in for. She'd rather he kick her loose now rather than later.
"I'm not exactly the type to be pulled in for a run-of-the-mill shakedown cruise," Shepard said dryly. Then, belatedly enough to make it as clear as possible that it was an intentional lapse on her part, she added: "sir."
This time, Anderson actually smiled. Or, at the very least, he bared his teeth. She wasn't entirely certain it counted as a smile so much as a warning.
"Neither am I, Commander," Anderson said somewhat pointedly. The rest of what he was saying was implied rather than outright stated, but it still came through clearly.
The two of them stood there for a moment, staring at each other. Then Shepard gave him a curt nod. "Understood, sir."
She spoke bullshit well enough to read between the lines. He had orders, and he'd tell her when and if he was ready. Whether she liked it or not, Shepard knew how the game worked.
Images from the beacon fluttered in and out of her mind like those mutant pigeons that had been everywhere back in Chicago, and she'd given up on the idea of getting any sleep before they arrived at the Citadel. Every time she thought she'd managed to get it out of her mind, something else from the damned vision – hallucination? nightmare? whatever the hell it had been – popped back to the forefront.
They felt more like memories than anything else. And, damn it, she had enough memories of her own to deal with. She didn't need ones from some long-dead aliens taking up space in her head too.
Of course, the universe had never really cared all that much about what she wanted. It had made that abundantly clear to her a long time ago.
"How are you feeling, Commander?"
Shepard glanced up from the cup of coffee she'd been staring at for the past ten minutes or so, suddenly aware that it was growing cool between her hands. She brought it up to her mouth and took a sip, using it as an excuse to stare at Alenko for a moment or two before replying.
His skin had an unhealthy pallor to it that she hadn't noticed earlier, and he wasn't even trying to hide the worried look on his face as he stared at her. There was something else mixed in with the worry, though, that she wasn't quite sure how to read. Guilt, maybe? Self-reproach? She thought that it was something along those lines, but she wasn't certain. She didn't know the man well enough to read his face.
"I feel like a Prothean beacon just dumped a bunch of data in my head," Shepard said dryly before taking another sip of her lukewarm coffee. She kept her eyes carefully focused on him.
Guilt it was then. Probably over the fact that he'd been the one to set off the beacon in the first place, but there might have been a bit of survivor's guilt over Jenkins mixed in with it.
Shepard half-expected him to try to apologize to her. He seemed like the type. She was already mentally preparing a response of the "shit happens, but don't let it happen again" variety when he did something that threw her off guard.
"Understandable, ma'am," Alenko said with a nod. The corners of his mouth twisted upward into a slightly self-deprecating smile. "Thanks again for the assist. I'll try not to let it happen again."
It was only years of practice that kept Shepard's eyebrows from raising. No half-hearted apology in an attempt to relieve guilt. No pushing the blame off on someone else. Just an acknowledgement that he'd screwed up and that he was aware of it. That was an almost pleasant surprise.
As it was, she simply nodded and took another sip of her coffee. "It'll make both our lives simpler if you don't, Alenko."
He gave her another nod, his eyes flickering to the cup she was holding. He very pointedly didn't comment on the hour or her choice of beverage, even though he had to be thinking it. Then again, he was awake and wandering the ship in the middle of the night too. Any comment he made would be hypocritical, and he apparently knew it considering he was keeping his mouth shut.
Shepard couldn't help but think she could get to like him. And that was a problem in itself.
It wasn't all that much of an exaggeration, if she was honest with herself.
Shepard sighed and put the datapad she had been reading down on her desk. She could feel tendrils of pain welling up behind her eyes, and she knew from past experience that she was going to end up with a splitting headache if she didn't try to get some rest.
There was just so much that she needed to get done.
Sleep was hard enough as it was, thanks to the beacon and her own damn memories. She didn't need any extra reasons to not get enough of it. Not that the universe seemed to care all that much about what she did or didn't need. Every time she thought there was a chance things might be getting better, life threw something else at her.
It was getting old. Fast.
Shepard glanced at the closed door on the other side of her quarters.
Based on a handful of conversations that she'd overhead, not to mention some dark circles she'd seen under people's eyes, she had the feeling that she wasn't the only one who hadn't been sleeping all that well lately. Her entire ground crew felt the same pressure as her, even if it might not be to the same extent, and a large portion of the shipboard crew as well. If she were to leave her quarters, the odds were good that she'd find at least someone out there to keep her company.
That was a large part of why she was in her quarters after all. It would be easier on all of them if she didn't blur the lines. She needed to be able to make the hard decisions. That was part of why she'd been chosen as a potential Spectre in the first place, because she did what needed to be done. She was willing to make the hard decisions, no matter the cost.
She didn't think some of the crew realized exactly who and what she was yet, despite the stories they'd heard about her.
Alenko's face flashed in her mind, and Shepard sighed. He was definitely one of the ones who hadn't figured out yet just who she was. She could see it in his face. He'd heard about the Butcher of Torfan, just like everyone else, but they were still just stories to him. He was holding her up on a goddamn pedestal, convinced she was some hero who was going to save them all, no matter how much she tried to convince him to knock it off.
It couldn't last. It never did.
Shepard honestly didn't know what the hell she was doing. She normally toed a strict line when it came to not blurring the lines between her and the people under her command. This mission had been different from the beginning, what with so many non-humans on the crew who couldn't be expected to follow Alliance protocol on everything. She hadn't even realized that she was treating Alenko and Williams differently too until it had been too late to stop.
Or, at least, until it was too late for her to want to stop. Whether she liked it or not, they'd somehow gotten through her defenses, and she just knew it was going to end badly before too long.
It always did.
She'd known from almost the beginning that Asteroid X57 was going to be one of those places that ended up playing into her nightmares in the future. The moment they had found out that batarians were involved, she had known. Nothing involving them ever had a happy ending.
She wished that there could have been some way to save Kate Bowman and the other prisoners, but letting Balak go hadn't been an option. All that would have done was get more innocent people killed before it was all said and done. It was the same reasoning she'd used back on Torfan, and nothing she had seen in the years since then had changed her opinion when it came to slavers. Shepard had done what she'd had to do, and the blame for every single death that had happened on that asteroid rested on Balak's head.
Some of the others didn't hold the same opinion.
Shepard could see it in the eyes of the crew when they looked at her. Some of them were finally starting to realize that the stories about her were true, for better or for worse. Now that they'd seen it for themselves, it was a lot easier to believe the stories. And to make their own judgements based on them.
But the worst part had been Kaidan's reaction. And when the hell had she started thinking of him as Kaidan instead of Alenko?
It was stupid of her, letting him get through her defenses like she had. Shepard had long made it her practice not to let other people's opinions of her get under her skin. If someone thought she was a monster, so be it. All that really mattered was how she felt about herself. She was the one who made the decision, and she was the one who had to live with it. End of story.
Except for some reason she couldn't get the disappointed look on Kaidan's face out of her head. Like it mattered that he'd apparently had her up on some pedestal only for that delusion to come crashing down once he actually saw the real her. Like she was to blame for his delusions.
"Fuck," Shepard muttered under her breath.
She didn't have time for this. She really didn't. She had a rogue Spectre to stop and a possible invasion to thwart and the Council to deal with, and the last thing she needed was complications.
And, like it or not, Kaidan Alenko was one hell of a complication.
Not that it mattered, considering that the events back on the asteroid had probably killed any interest Kaidan might have possibly had in her. It was better that way.
If she kept telling herself that enough times, maybe she'd actually believe it.
Shepard didn't look up from the datapad that she was studying, although her grip on it did tighten somewhat at Kaidan's question. "Does it matter?"
"Yes," Kaidan snapped back, and it said a lot about the state of things that he wasn't even trying to pretend to be respectful.
She took in a deep breath and slowly let it out. It was her own damn fault for staying out in the mess instead of taking her coffee into the safety of her quarters. She'd assumed that it was late enough that it would be deserted. After everything that had happened back on Virmire, she should have known better.
"What do you want me to say, Kaidan?" Shepard asked quietly, not meeting his gaze. "It was the logical choice. The bomb was the most important thing. Protecting it, making sure it went off... that was the mission."
There was silence for a second. "Even at the cost of all those lives?" Kaidan asked, and damn it but she had no idea what that tone of voice meant. "Even at the cost of Williams's life?"
Shepard reached up and brushed a loose strand of hair out of her face, tucking it behind her ear. She was careful to avoid looking at him. "Sacrifice the few for the good of the many," she said quietly. "Ashley was a soldier. She knew her duty, the same as all of us."
There was another pause. "What if Ash had been the one to stay with the bomb?" Kaidan asked. "Would it still have taken priority? Would you have left me behind?"
She was a lot of things, but she wasn't a liar. Not when it mattered.
"Yes," Shepard said, finally looking at him. She met his eyes straight on, making sure that he could see that she was telling the truth. "Yes, I would have."
Kaidan stared back at her for a few seconds, his face carefully expressionless. Then he reached up and rubbed his eyes.
For the first time, she noticed the dark circles under them. Exact matches for the ones that she knew had to be under her own eyes.
"I don't know how you can do it," Kaidan said quietly. He wasn't looking at her.
Shepard raised her eyebrows. "Do what?" she asked, honestly curious. She was well aware that she might not like the answer, but she'd still rather know.
Kaidan brought his hand away from his face. "You have a code," he said, that unreadable look still on his face. "I didn't get it at first, but I think that I'm starting to."
If anything, Shepard's eyebrows went even higher.
He apparently could see the confusion on her face, because he shrugged. "If you think it's the right thing to do, you do it," he said. "No hesitation, no second guessing, no regrets. I couldn't do it."
Shepard snorted. "Who said I don't have regrets?" she asked. "I just don't waste my time focusing on them when there's nothing I can do to change the past."
"That's exactly what I'm talking about," Kaidan said, shooting her a weak grin. It didn't quite meet his eyes, but the fact that he was even trying sent a spark through her that she hadn't been expecting.
It felt a lot like hope.
"Get some sleep, Kaidan," Shepard said quietly. "We're going to have a mess to face when we get back to the Citadel, and I'll need you rested."
Kaidan nodded. Then he hesitated, just for a second. "No offense meant, Shepard," he said carefully, "but I don't think I'm the only one who could use some sleep."
Shepard forced herself to smile, even though she really didn't feel like doing so. "I'll take that under advisement."
He snorted as he turned his back to her and started walking away.
Shepard's eyebrows rose, but she didn't call him out on it. What could she say, after all? They both knew she wasn't going to get any rest.
"We'll be at the relay soon," he said quietly, dashing that particular wish of hers. "You should try to get some sleep."
Shepard opened her eyes, not surprised to see him hovering over her. She shook her head, not sitting up. "It would make things worse."
He frowned at her.
"I mean it," Shepard said, cutting him off before he could say anything. It was the truth. She'd learned a long time ago that, when she was exhausted, a short rest wouldn't make her feel any better or help her be sharper. All it tended to do was make her sloppy.
If anything, Kaidan's frown grew even deeper.
She pushed herself up into a sitting position, barely noticing as the sheets slipped off of her to pool in her lap. "Taking a short nap at this point would do more damage than good," she explained. The fact that she was bothering to elaborate, to make sure he understood, said more than she was willing to think about just then. "I'll get Chakwas to give me some stims."
For a second or two, she thought that Kaidan was going to argue with her. He finally just shook his head and leaned back against the wall. "If you're certain."
"I am," Shepard said firmly.
She took a moment to take a closer look at Kaidan, since he was rather blatantly doing the same to her. There were still circles under his eyes, but they looked lighter than they had in quite some time. In a lot of ways, he looked healthier than he had since Virmire. The migraine that she knew he'd been suffering from for days seemed to have fully broke, and it showed.
The corners of his mouth turned upward in a somewhat rueful smile.
Shepard raised her eyebrows. "What?"
Kaidan didn't say anything for a moment. Then he sighed. "Are you sure we're doing the right thing?" he asked a little uncertainly. "Disobeying the Council, stealing the Normandy..."
He trailed off.
Shepard took a close look at him. He didn't look like he was trying to pick a fight.
"Yes," she said matter-of-factly.
Kaidan closed his eyes for a moment, taking in a deep breath and then letting it out. Then he opened them. "Good," he said, only a hint of hesitance in his voice. "I trust you. If you think it's the right thing to do then—" His voice stuttered, just slightly. "—then it is. It has to be."
Shepard didn't say anything. What was there to say to that? Instead, she simply leaned in and pressed a kiss against his lips, taking a moment to savor the taste of him.
She just hoped he'd feel the same way when she told him that he was staying on the Normandy once they went through the relay. That he would do more good on the ship than on the ground on this particular mission. Especially if everything went to hell, like she was fully expecting it to do.
Shepard went still at the quiet words that Kaidan had whispered against her neck, the sound muffled slightly by the fact that his lips were pressed against her skin. Part of her, a large part of her, wanted to ignore them and pretend that she hadn't heard.
But then Kaidan pulled away, his eyes shining brightly in the dim light of the private hotel room they had called home for the last three days. And Shepard suddenly was at a loss.
"You don't mean that," she said softly.
Kaidan's eyebrows rose. "I think I'd be the one to know," he shot back. Then his face softened. "I'm not asking for you to say it back, Shepard. I know it's only been a few weeks."
Shepard turned away from him, taking in a shaky breath. Despite her best intentions, it came across more like a sob.
Behind her, Kaidan went still. "Shepard?"
"I'm not the kind of woman someone like you should love," she said, not turning back to face him. "You have no idea what kinds of things I've done over the years. There's a reason the Alliance sent me to Torfan. They knew damn well what kind of call I'd be willing to make, if it came down to it."
Kaidan didn't say anything for a long moment. Then she felt movement behind her on the bed.
Shepard braced herself, not entirely certain what to expect. Then one of Kaidan's hands was suddenly sliding around her, pulling her into a somewhat haphazard hug.
"I know you," he said matter-of-factly.
"No, you really don't," Shepard said, forcing her voice to stay as still and cold as possible. Otherwise, she was afraid it might crack from the strain of trying to hold in her emotions.
There was another long pause.
"Fine," Kaidan said. He leaned down and pressed a kiss against her bare shoulder. "Then why don't you tell me?"
For a second or two, Shepard forgot to breathe. Then, before she could lose the nerve, she shifted in place so that she could turn enough to meet his gaze.
The look on Kaidan's face almost took her breath away all over again.
The terror Shepard had felt when she'd first realized that her suit was breached faded away, leaving nothing but a sensation of numbed regret. She'd never expected to live to an old age. Street rats like her were a dime a dozen back when she'd been with the Reds, and most people never made it to twenty. Then she'd joined the Alliance, and she'd seen people younger than her cut down time after time.
It wasn't a surprise, not really. She'd embraced that fact a long time ago.
But Kaidan hadn't been in the picture then.
I love you, she thought. I know that I never said it, but I do. I really do.
He was safe, at least. She'd seen him heading for one of the escape pods, as she'd gone back for Joker. Kaidan had made it off the ship, and he was going to live.
It surprised her just how much it helped, knowing that he was safe. That she hadn't gotten him killed by asking him to rejoin her on the Normandy. She almost hadn't. She'd been tempted to insist he stay behind, so that he wouldn't be a distraction. She'd known it was the right decision to make, to try and keep the already blurred lines from blurring any more than they already had.
For once, she'd been selfish. She should have known better. But at least her mistake hadn't cost him his life.
Kaidan's face was the last thing she saw in her mind as the universe went black.
I love you. I'm sorry. Don't forget me.
The red tattoo on her neck, a visible reminder of her time with the Reds, was gone as if it had never been there. She'd purposefully kept it over the years, even when the Alliance had offered to pay the cost of having it removed. It kept her from forgetting where she had come from and what she had done to get where she was. And now it had been taken from her, just like that.
Her scars were missing as well. The long, jagged one that went over her left eye and halfway down her cheek, a reminder of Torfan. The splotchy mark on her stomach where she'd been stabbed back when she'd still been with the Reds. The shrapnel scars going up and down her right arm, from a shoddy explosive that had gone off unexpectedly during her N7 training.
They'd been a reminder, just like the tattoo. And Cerberus had stolen them from her, just like everything else. They'd taken them and replaced them with... with... with whatever the hell the glowing red cracks that covered her entire body were supposed to be.
Shepard tore herself away from the mirror and stomped back into the main room.
The unnatural light from the empty fish tank in her wall lit up the room, the blue from it mixing with the red light pouring from cracks in her own damn skin. It had an otherworldly feel to it, a purplish aura that simply felt wrong.
With a strangled cry, Shepard punched the wall.
She grimaced as she pulled her hand away, shaking it for a second or two as she willed away the pain. There was a small dent where her hand had collided with the metal.
She'd always been a monster. Now she looked like one on the outside as well as the inside. It was almost fitting, in its own way.
Shepard didn't know what to do. She really didn't. For the first time in her life, the utter certainty that she was doing the right thing seemed to have deserted her.
The damned AI didn't say anything, but Shepard was under no illusions that she was alone. It was always watching, reporting back to its masters exactly what she did and said. The Illusive Man would probably have a field day over the next report.
Shepard wasn't an idiot. She was well aware that she was being played, that the array of options Cerberus was offering her was nothing but a thinly-veiled illusion. She didn't really have any choices, no matter how much they claimed otherwise.
Anderson had made it clear that neither the Alliance nor the Council could offer her anything more than they already had. The Council didn't trust her because she was the woman who had let their predecessors die, and they knew damn well that she'd sacrifice them in a heartbeat if she thought it was the right thing to do. And the Alliance knew just how dangerous she could be.
Damn them all.
Shepard dropped down on her bed, pulling her legs underneath her so that she was sitting cross-legged on it. She took in a deep breath, holding it for as long as she could before slowly letting it out. Then she repeated the action again and again and again.
It took several minutes, but she finally felt the harsh anger that had been running through her starting to fade. Oh, it was still there, ready and waiting to come back to the surface when it was needed. But for the time being it was pushed at least somewhat to the side.
She'd take what she could get.
Shepard opened her eyes, her gaze flickering to the empty picture frame that was sitting on her desk. Miranda had asked her if there was anyone specific whose image she'd like in it, a knowing look on her face that made Shepard pretty damned sure that Cerberus knew all about her relationship with Kaidan. She'd simply glared at the woman before spitting out "no."
God, she missed him. It surprised her just how much she did.
She'd put out some feelers, trying to find a way of getting in touch with him, but she hadn't had much luck. Then again, part of her wasn't sure if she should even try.
Two years was a long time.
She still remembered the way Tali had reacted back on Freedom's Progress, how skeptical she had been that it was even really Shepard. It still hurt, just a little, that Tali hadn't even hesitated for a second before making it clear she didn't trust Cerberus – or Shepard – enough to join her on the Normandy. And then there was Garrus. He had joined her, yes, but he wasn't the same man she remembered from their fight against Saren. He was colder, the most idealistic parts of him stripped away by the passage of time.
Time that hadn't passed for her.
Who was to say that Kaidan would even want anything to do with her? Two years was practically a lifetime, in the grand scheme of things.
"Fucking Cerberus," Shepard muttered her breath. Then, in one swift movement, she stood up and headed back to the empty patch of wall she'd punched earlier.
This time, the dent was twice as large.
Ignoring the throbbing pain in her hand, Shepard smiled.
Fuck him. Fuck him.
There was a part of her that was well aware that she was being unfair. He didn't know what had happened, that she had fucking died and then been brought back by goddamn Cerberus of all people. He thought that she had faked her death, that she had ignored him for the past two years. He felt betrayed, and something deep inside of her understand that.
Of course, if he'd let her talk for five damned seconds then she would have been able to actually explain herself to him.
No, forget it. Fuck him.
The eerie red cracks in her skin had been starting to heal the past month or so, growing smaller and less monstrous looking. In the twelve hours or so since they'd left Horizon, though, it was as if all of that work had been completely undone. The cracks had split back open as pure rage flooded her system, as red as blood and looking as angry as she felt.
Shepard held up one of her hands, staring at the red lines running along her skin and glowing like flames. Or like hellfire. Yeah, she supposed that was fitting in its own way. She'd never been the religious type, but she she'd attended some services back when she was a kid. Mainly in the hope of getting a handout. Still, she'd picked up on at least a few things even if she didn't necessarily believe them.
She hated working for Cerberus, even though she knew damned well that it was the right choice. The only choice. In its own way, it felt like she was stuck in the Reds again. She had nowhere else to go, and so she did what she had to in order to get by. Even if that meant working with people that she didn't trust not to stab her in the fucking back whenever they had the chance.
If it meant stopping the Reapers, Shepard was willing to work with almost anyone. Even Cerberus. It would save lives in the end, and she knew it. But she was damned sure that the Illusive Man wasn't telling her even a fraction of what she needed to know, and she didn't like being kept in the dark. Not with someone that she didn't think she could trust.
Shepard sat straight up in her bed, abruptly giving up on the façade of actually attempt to get some sleep. It wasn't as if EDI would be fooled by her usual methods of feigning sleep. The damned AI was probably running scans on everything, including her heartrate.
God damn it. She didn't know what to do. And it scared the hell out of her. Shepard had always prided herself on her ability to push feelings to the side, to focus on what needed to be done and nothing else. Except for some reason she couldn't do it. Not this time.
Kaidan's face flashed in her mind, shock and elation and disappointment and confusion and a million other emotions flooding over it in within a period of seconds as he'd seen her standing there in front of him. And then ending on anger. Anger at her for something she couldn't control and that he wouldn't give her a chance to explain.
Some of the things he said made sense to her, and she wasn't nearly as squeamish as others on the crew about bringing an assassin on board. Some people deserved death, after all, and taking someone dangerous out of the picture before they could hurt anyone else was perfectly acceptable in her book.
Taking out innocents, though, was something else entirely.
Shepard had no right whatsoever to judge anyone else, and she damned well knew it. Still, she couldn't help but keep a close watch on him. She wasn't foolish enough not to know that there were plenty of innocents who had died because of her actions over the years, but they had died for a reason. Sacrifice the few for the good of the many.
An assassin killed whoever he was hired to kill, no matter who they were or what they had done. Yes, Thane had probably taken out plenty of people over the years who deserved death. And he'd probably saved untold lives by killing some of those monsters before they could kill others. But from what he had said, some of the people he had killed hadn't deserved death. When they died, it hadn't been for a worthy cause, to save the lives of others. It had just been murder.
She wasn't sure how to feel about that, if she was honest with herself. God knew she didn't have the right to call him out on it, not after some of the things she'd done over the years. But still. There was something about it that just didn't sit right with her.
And she was well aware just how hypocritical that was of her.
Still, the man was clearly trying to make up for some of his past mistakes. And she had invited him to join the crew of the Normandy. Whether or not she liked him, there wasn't any point in bringing him on board if she didn't plan on putting his talents to use.
Shaking her head, Shepard took a sip of her coffee. It was growing cool, but she didn't want to make a trip down to the mess to get a fresh cup. Despite the late hour, the odds were good that someone would be down there, and she wasn't in the mood to deal with people just then.
Besides, she had work to get done.
"EDI," Shepard said, not taking her eyes off the datapad she'd been reading from. "Is Thane still awake?"
"He is, Shepard," EDI replied, her voice coming from the speakers near Shepard's desk.
It said a lot, that Shepard was almost getting used to the AI that she was still fairly certain was spying on her for the Illusive Man. If nothing else, EDI made things easier sometimes.
"Tell him that I'd like him to come on tomorrow's mission," she said, taking another sip of coffee. Then she grimaced, because it definitely wasn't the type that still tasted decent when it wasn't hot.
There was a long pause.
"He says he would be honored, Shepard," EDI replied.
Shepard snorted, but she didn't argue.
The voice talking to her was familiar, but for some reason Shepard couldn't quite place it. Her head was pounding, and she couldn't find the energy to open her eyes. They felt ridiculously heavy for some reason, as if someone had put weights on them.
There was a suddenly pressure on her shoulder, as if someone was squeezing it. "Shepard?" the voice asked again.
Damn whoever the hell it was for not letting her sleep. It was hard enough for her to get rest nowadays. It figured that the one time she actually felt like not opening her eyes, someone wouldn't let her.
It took a surprising amount of effort, but Shepard forced her eyes open. Then she immediately squeezed them shut as her head exploded in pain.
"Shepard, are you conscious?"
Thane. It was Thane's voice that she was hearing. But why—
Memories flooded through her mind, and Shepard couldn't help but groan. There had been an ambush. She and Thane had went one direction, trying to draw fire away, while Jack and Garrus had headed the opposite way. She had a vague impression of heat and bright light, followed almost instantly by darkness.
That didn't bode well.
"How screwed are we?" Shepard asked, grimacing as just moving her mouth to form words made her head feel like it was going to explode.
Thane chuckled. "Well, we are alive."
It sounded like she could add "comedian" to the ever-expanding list of things she was learning about the drell. Lovely.
"That's not much of an answer," Shepard said, reluctantly forcing her eyes open again. This time she was prepared for the pain, and she breathed through it as best she could.
Her vision was a little blurred, but she could see a little bit. Enough to make out the figure of Thane kneeling beside her, his gun carefully placed in his lap where he could get to it instantly if needed. It was dark around them, the only light coming from the glowing red scars that traced patterns in her skin.
She couldn't help but notice that Thane hadn't answered.
"What happened?" Shepard asked, deciding that bluntness would probably work best in their specific situation.
Thane's mouth twisted into a wry grin that didn't hold much amusement. "The tunnel we are in was not sound."
It took Shepard longer than it should have to parse his meaning. When she realized what he was saying, though, she swore rather vehemently. That explained why it was so fucking dark.
"Indeed," Thane agreed, inclining his head forward a bit.
"How long have we been trapped?" Shepard asked, pushing herself up into a sitting position. She swayed a bit as her aching head protested that action, but she managed to stay upright. "And have you heard from the others?"
Thane reached out to put his hand on her arm, steadying her. "It has been an hour," he said. "The Normandy has been alerted, and they are working on a means of freeing us."
"That's something, at least," Shepard muttered, closing her eyes for a moment. It didn't particularly help with the dizziness.
Thane's grip on her arm tightened, just slightly. "It would be better if you stay awake."
Shepard couldn't help but let out a sharp bark of laughter. Still, he wasn't wrong. She forced her eyes open again.
Beside her, Thane was eyeing her with a puzzled look.
"It's not every day someone tells me not to get more sleep," Shepard said tiredly, reaching up to rub her eyes.
Understanding flickered across Thane's face, but he didn't comment. He just nodded and kept his hand on her arm, a steadying presence at her side while they waited.
Without saying a word, she walked over to the counter and opened the cabinet where she knew Gardner kept the coffee.
She glanced at Thane once or twice as she brewed a pot for herself, but he was never looking in her direction that she could see. He was good, she'd give him that.
As her coffee finished brewing, Shepard brought it up to her nose and took a deep whiff of it. The corner of her mouth turning upward a little, she turned and made her way over to the table where Thane was sitting. Still not saying anything, she sat down in the chair across from him.
The two of them sat in silence for several minutes.
"Thank you again for helping my son," Thane said softly.
Shepard glanced at him, but his gaze was still pointedly not aimed in her direction. She took a sip of her coffee. "It seemed like the right thing to do."
Thane's eyes did flicker in her direction at that. It was only for a moment, but it was long enough for her to notice.
Shepard raised her eyebrows. "What?" she asked, taking another sip of her coffee.
"I could not help but notice that you did not hesitate to kill his hostage," Thane said, after only a moment's pause. "Do you also believe that was the right thing to do?"
A flicker of wariness ran through her, but it didn't change her answer. She shrugged. "Yes," she said matter-of-factly. "If he'd walked out of that room, Talid would have gotten people killed before long. Men like him always do."
Thane was watching her now. "Turians?"
"If I'd meant turians, then I'd have said turians," Shepard snapped, giving him a pointed look. A bit more emotion than she'd meant slipped through, although she was quick to try to bury it. "There are people like that everywhere, alien and human both."
"I meant no offense, siha," Thane said, giving her a respectful nod. Then he took another sip of his own drink.
Shepard took in a shaky breath and then let it out. "Do you think I shouldn't have killed him?"
Thane's eyes flickered in her direction again. "Do you think you shouldn't have killed him?" he asked.
There was a part of her that wanted to be childish and insist that he answer the question, since she'd asked first. She pushed it down, with a little bit of effort. "No," she said. "I think that killing him saved lives in the long run."
"Then what I think should not matter," Thane said, the corners of his mouth turning upward slightly. "It was your decision, and you are the one who must live with it."
Shepard went still. That had been her mantra for as long as she could remember, the words that she had turned over and over in her head every time she made a choice that was difficult to live with. She had explained it to others before, on a few rare occasions, but no one had ever understood without her bringing it up first.
No one. Not a single person that she could remember.
Thane continued as if he hadn't noticed, even though she knew he must have. "That said, I agree with your decision. I would have done the same."
His gaze met hers, and in that moment she was lost.
For the first time in a long time, she couldn't help but hope that maybe the suicide mission they were going on wouldn't be quite as suicidal as they all expected it to be.
If this mission went well, if they stopped the Collectors, she thought that it would make everything she had done worth it. She'd sold her soul to work with Cerberus, to do what needed to be done when nobody else would do it, but if this mission succeeded... well, she thought that maybe she could live with everything she had done.
Sacrifice the few for the good of the many. That had always been the motto she'd clung to. And she was more than willing to sacrifice herself and her morals, if that's what it took.
But damn it, she hoped that she wasn't about to get all of her people killed.
She still didn't trust the Illusive Man. Nor did she trust most of Cerberus. But her crew was a different story. They were her people, even the ones who technically were working for Cerberus and weren't specifically there for this mission. She was careful not to say it out loud, but she hoped to hell that they would be able to find everyone the Collectors had taken. Just like she couldn't help but hope that maybe, just maybe, her team would come out of this mess in one piece.
They were all soldiers, in one sense or another. They'd known what they were getting into when they agreed to join the mission, and they were all willing to die for it if needed. If sacrifices were needed to save the galaxy, then it would be what it would be.
But they were her people, damn it. And Shepard was getting tired of sacrificing people she cared about, unless there truly was no other choice.
"You should be resting, siha."
Shepard startled, a soft gasp escaping her lips before she could stop it.
Thane's eyes were still closed, and his breathing was calm and steady. If he hadn't just spoken, she would have thought he was asleep. Hell, she had thought he was sleeping.
"I'm not tired," Shepard said honestly.
At that, Thane did open his eyes. There was a skeptical look on his face, but it faded somewhat as he took a closer look at her. Then he nodded. "I see."
Shepard didn't want to think about the understanding she could see in his eyes. So she didn't. Instead she leaned forward and pressed a kiss against his lips, ignoring the slight tingling sensation that brushing her skin against his caused.
As she kissed him, her hand slipped under the covers to reset on Thane's chest. And then it moved somewhat lower.
Thane groaned against her lips.
Yes, most of them had been batarians. Some of them had been slavers, the same type of scum she had killed back on Torfan and on Asteroid X57 and a hundred other places over the years. But how many hadn't? There had to have been civilians that were killed, innocent men and women and children. And how many of those hundreds of thousands had been slaves? It couldn't have been a small number.
She had sacrificed them all to buy the galaxy more time, slavers and civilians and slaves alike. She had killed 304,942 people in order to save billions.
And she would do it again. God damn her, but she'd make the exact same choice if the decision was put in front of her again.
Shepard stared out the window, letting her gaze drift out over the night-darkened scenery. Oh, it was no doubt the nicest jail she'd ever been in, but it was a prison nonetheless. House arrest was still house arrest, no matter the apartment they had locked her up in. There were guards everywhere, inside and out, and she knew without a doubt that she was being watched at all times.
She missed the Normandy. And everyone on it. Thane's face flashed in her mind, and Shepard couldn't help but smile just a little. Some more than others, she supposed.
Out of the corner of her eye, she caught a flash of red. Shepard glanced down at her hand, the corners of her mouth twisting upwards a bit at the sight of one of her Cerberus scars. They had faded significantly over the last few months, making it easier for people not to see a monster when they looked at her.
It actually made her almost happy to see that they hadn't disappeared completely. That there was still a physical sign of what she had done, even if it was faint.
304,942 lives. That deserved some sort of reminder.
Shaking her head, Shepard turned and headed to the small kitchenette on the far side of the apartment. She'd put some coffee on earlier, when she'd first woken up. Well, about twenty minutes after she'd woken up, at least. For the first time in ages, she'd woken up from her nightmares yelling instead of staying silent, and it had taken a good fifteen minutes to convince Vega and the other guards who'd come running in that there wasn't any actual danger.
Not outside her head.
Shepard reached out and rested her hand on the bed beside him. She wanted more than anything to touch him, to put her hand on his body and convince herself that he was there, but she knew better. With the injuries he had, even the smallest touch could be deadly.
It was so odd, standing beside him again. She'd almost forgotten what it was like, having him by her side during a mission. It hadn't been exactly like before, too much time passed and distrust on both their parts to simply ignore, but it had still felt right in a way that she hadn't expected.
She'd never told him that she loved him. There had been a few times when she'd thought it, during those few short months they had together, but she'd never said it. And then she had died, and she'd come back, and everything on Horizon had happened, and... well, and then she'd thought it was behind her.
For the first time in over a year – or, she supposed, in over three years depending on how you looked at it – she couldn't help but regret that the words had never actually been said. She wasn't entirely certain how she felt about him now, but she still wished that she'd told him how she had felt back then. He deserved to have known.
Shepard sighed, reaching up to brush her hair out of her face. She needed to try to get some rest. They would be at the Citadel soon, and she knew that the odds were pretty damn high that the Council would put her straight to work. They might not always approve of her methods, but they'd be the first to admit that she got results.
And with the Reapers no longer hiding in the shadows, there were bound to be a lot of hard decisions to come.
Her eyes drifted over Kaidan's still form again. She needed to get some rest, she'd be the first to admit it, but it was a moot point. There was no way in hell that she'd be able to close her eyes without seeing him. Not right now.
With a tired sigh, Shepard turned and headed out the door. If resting wasn't on the table, then she had a lot of work to get done.
Shepard could still feel the warmth from Thane's lips on hers, a hint of a tingle that she knew from past experience stemmed from the venom in his skin. She reached up to press two of her fingers across her lips, trying to force her face to remain expressionless.
"It doesn't have to come to an end just yet," Shepard said quietly, trying to keep her voice even. Judging by the way that Thane's eyes widened, just slightly, she didn't think she had succeeded that much.
He reached out and rested his hand on her arm. "Shepard," he said softly.
She pulled away. "No, I get it," she said, trying to keep as much emotion as possible out of her voice. "I do."
There was even a part of her that did. It was the same part of her that given the order to kill prisoners back on Torfan, that had sacrificed hostages on Asteroid X57 to stop Balak, that had spent all those months working with Cerberus because they were the only ones doing anything about the Collectors, that had sentenced 304,942 people to death in order to buy the rest of the galaxy six months.
Sacrifice the few for the good of the many. It would be a distraction, one that could get people killed. She needed to be focused on the mission, on stopping the Reapers, not—
Thane grabbed her arm again, his grip on it surprisingly tight considering his health. Shepard snapped her head up to meet his gaze.
"No," he said slowly, tilting his head. "I do not think you do."
For the first time in years, Shepard wasn't certain what to say. She opened her mouth and then closed it, well aware that her confusion must be showing clearly on her face.
"There is an Alliance major staying here in Huerta," Thane said, not breaking his gaze on her. "I have seen his face before."
Shepard's breath caught in her throat, her mind flashing back to the picture frame that had been in her quarters back on the Normandy. She had turned it facedown after they had returned through the Omega 4 relay, but she should have known that Thane would have seen it before then. He noticed everything. And she knew damn well that he never forgot anything he saw.
"Are you trying to break up with me so that you can set me up with my ex?" Shepard asked, forcing some levity in her voice that she didn't quite feel.
Thane leaned forward to press his forehead against hers. "I do not have much time left, siha," he said quietly. "I would see you happy."
Shepard smiled at him. She didn't think it quite met her eyes, but it was the thought that counted. Or, at least, she hoped that it was. "I am."
It said a lot that he didn't call her out on her blatant lie.
"You should get more rest," Thane said suddenly. He was still staring at her, but the look on his face had shifted to something that she wasn't quite certain how to read.
Shepard snorted. "Subtle," she said. "It was so very subtle, how you changed the subject there."
Still, it made her smile. That had probably been what he'd intended.
"I love you," she said suddenly. Impulsively. Three years ago, she'd held back on saying it, and she would always regret that. She didn't want to make the same mistake twice. "You know that, right?"
Thane blinked once. He didn't look surprised, not really, but then he had always been good at masking emotions. "And I you, siha."
Thane wouldn't want her to mourn him. She knew that he wouldn't. He had gone out the way that he had wanted, trying to make up for the deeds of his past, and she couldn't begrudge him that.
But God, she was going to miss him. She really had loved him.
She startled, spinning around to face the doorway. She hadn't even heard it open, and that more than anything worried her.
Kaidan was standing in the doorway, his eyes wide as he stared in at her.
"Kaidan," Shepard said, quickly trying to smooth the surprise off her face. She pushed herself to her feet, grimacing a bit as her back let her know that she'd apparently been sitting on the floor for longer than she'd realized. "Can I help you?"
He didn't say anything for a long moment. Then he seemed to shake himself out of whatever spell he was under. "I was going to ask you the same thing."
Shepard went still.
"EDI said you'd been sitting in here for over three hours," Kaidan said, a bit more pointedly. "She seemed, uh, somewhat worried."
Three hours. She honestly hadn't realized that much time had passed. She hadn't been able to sleep up in her own quarters, the florescent blue from that goddamn fish tank mixing with the red from her cybernetics and making her feel almost sick to her stomach. It had seemed fitting for her to head down to life support instead.
Except then she had apparently lost herself in memories.
"I'd ask if you're okay," Kaidan said, giving her a bit of a wry grin, "but I know what the answer is going to be."
Shepard couldn't stop the corners of her mouth from twisting up at that. "You know me too well."
If anything, Kaidan's grin grew even wider. There was still a shadow on his face, though, his amusement mixed in with something darker.
"I should probably also say that you need to get some sleep," he said slowly.
Shepard's mouth twitched again. "But you won't," she said, "because you know what the answer's going to be."
Kaidan nodded. "Some things haven't changed."
Her growing smile faded a bit. Because so many things had changed, and both of them knew it.
They fell into an almost awkward silence, neither of them saying anything. Kaidan shifted uncomfortable, and Shepard looked down at her hands. The red scars that crisscrossed them looked somewhat larger than she remembered them being, a sign that she should probably be careful. They were usually a pretty good indicator of her state of mind, and she didn't want to start being careless.
There was a fine line between making a decision because it was the right one to make and making one for more selfish reasons. Thane had taught her that.
"How about a coffee?" Kaidan asked suddenly.
Shepard's gaze snapped back in his direction.
He looked older than she remembered, threads of silver mixed in among his dark hair. There were dark circles under his eyes that reminded her of those last few weeks during their hunt for Saren, and there was something about his expression that made her think that he was probably fighting the beginnings of a migraine.
And despite that, he had come looking for her. Despite everything that had happened between the two of them, all of the harsh words and everything that had remained unsaid.
Shepard gave him a weak smile. "You know what," she said, "I think that a coffee sounds great right now."
Kaidan smiled back at her. "Good," he said, not taking his eyes off of her. "That's good."
He held out his hand. After a moment's hesitation, Shepard reached out and took it.