Well, long time no see. 2021 wasn't quite what I hoped from a writing perspective, I had the worst case of writer's block, even when I tried skipping the chapter all together and writing a different mission I just couldn't complete anything. Fingers crossed that 2022 will be better and thank you for sticking with me. Hopefully it's worth the wait.
Trish didn't notice her return to consciousness, her brain already abuzz. Thoughts somersaulting past in a flurry almost too fast to catch.
Such experiences often happened after tech fairs and conferences. Something new, or at least a different way of looking at something, catching her attention and her subconscious running with it while she was asleep, undistracted by mundane tasks.
She wasn't even aware of opening her eyes. The change from dark to light was insignificant compared to the potential ramifications of a simple change in production materials.
Her concentration was broken by gleeful laughter, her thoughts slamming to a halt.
She finally noticed the heavy curtains and pastel coloured walls of the hotel room, a frown marring her face as she tried to tighten her grasp on the thread of inspiration that was so determined to slip through her fingers.
She wanted to regain her momentum. Follow the thread to its conclusion. However already the earlier ideas were evaporating and so she focused on simply remembering as much as possible.
Another giggle hit her ears like a wave hitting a cliff and, like footsteps in the sand, her lingering thoughts were washed away.
She bit back a groan, rolling to the side of the bed that the noises were coming from and peering over the edge.
The sight that greeted her had her blinking in disbelief, but the image of her two Nicks remained unchanged.
Clearly her wife had chosen not to skip her morning workout today but Trish had no idea what caused a highly amused Little Nicky to be… well…
"Nicholas is a dumbbell?"
Nikki didn't pause or even slow her set of sitting twists as she mock gasped.
"Mini-me, did you hear that? She just called you dumb! Mummy thinks you're stupid."
"Now she's calling you an idiot!"
The toddler merely chortled as he continued to fly controlled arcs through the air with each rotation of the soldier's core, Shepard Senior's hands holding him securely under the armpits.
"Why are you using him as a dumbbell?"
"I'm not." The soldier refuted. "I'm using him as a medicine ball."
"Mama!" Little Nicky interrupted before she could retort, reaching out towards her. Nicola must have been near the end of her set for she did two more reps before placing him on the ground.
He waddled unsteadily towards her for several steps before stumbling to the floor.
"Oops." Nicola bit her lower lip, clearly fighting back a smile at his dizziness, glancing guiltily up at Trish through her eyelashes.
Fortunately Nicholas found the situation hysterical, bursting into laughter rather than tears.
"You're both idiots." Trish decided as she lifted him up and gave him a hug before heading to the bathroom for her morning ablutions.
When she returned she found her wife reading a children's story while in a plank position, Nicholas turning the pages as he led on his belly beside her.
There was also a small pile of what looked suspiciously like empty packaging for the little individually wrapped biscuits that came with the complimentary tea and coffee sachets.
Trish gave her partner a scathing glare but the spectre simply beamed back.
"N7's do whatever it takes to accomplish our goals."
"Was your goal to pee me off?"
"No." Nikki finally frowned. "It was to keep him quiet."
"You can't just bribe him all the time, Nick. He needs to learn good behaviours, not that screaming will get him whatever he wants."
"I know. That's why I gave them to him while we were calmly going through the book instead of waiting until he kicked off."
"You still shouldn't have given him biscuits before breakfast. How many times do I have to remind you: if you have to bribe, use healthy bribes."
"I apologise, and I promise to do better in future. Now…" Nikki flowed to her feet. "Are you ready to go? He's not the only one who's hungry you know."
"You expect me to believe that you gave him all those biscuits and didn't have any yourself?"
"I make great sacrifices for my family." The soldier deadpanned, collecting the empty wrappers and disposing of them in the bin.
"Idiot." Trish snorted, a smile gracing her lips completely unbidden. "You're really going down dressed like that?"
"What?" Nikki grabbed her N7 hoody from the back of a chair, zipping it up over her sports bra. "I guarantee no-one will complain."
Trish shook her head. Even as a civilian she knew the value of picking her battles. Instead she turned to her younger trouble maker.
"Nicholas, are you ready for breakfast?"
"Ood!" He was up and at the door in a flash.
"Not so fast mini-me. You need your shoes on first."
He begrudgingly trundled back and sat down, the adults not even trying to hide their smiles at his adorable pout.
Trish watched as Nikki lightly tapped his left leg and he followed the tactile instruction, raising his foot so she could wrestle his shoe on, securing it with velcro before repeating the procedure on the right.
His tiny fist clenched around the soldier's index finger and she let him drag her out the room and across the hallway.
"Do you want to press the button?" Trish heard as she locked the door, safely storing the keycard in her handbag. Turning, she found Little Nicky with arm outstretched, feet off the floor as he was manoeuvred into position. Pudgy finger stabbing at the down arrow to summon the elevator.
Instead of returning him to the ground, Nikki's arms continued to rise, depositing him on her shoulders. His bright laugh echoed across the landing, hands clinging tight in his opie's hair as she bounced lightly on the balls of her feet, her eyes flicking between sets of rapidly changing numbers, trying to guess which elevator would reach them first.
Trish stepped up beside her and Nikki's face softened even further as she entered her peripheral vision.
"So, what do you want to do about lunch?"
Trish snorted. "Why are you talking about lunch already? We haven't even had breakfast yet."
"Why are you acting surprised?" The spectre countered. "Have you met me?"
"Fair-" Trish conceded only to be interrupted by a call of:
"Blackjack!" As the floor indicator finally settled on 21.
Trish rolled her eyes as the leftmost elevator's doors slid open with a ding. It was already pretty cramped inside but everybody shuffled closer together to create some space.
She stepped in and turned round only to find Nikki paused outside, narrowed brown eyes roving across the mixed species crowd that would be at her back if she followed conventional elevator etiquette.
If she hadn't memorised her partner's subtle tells, Trish probably would have missed the brief rapid tapping of thumb against loosely clenched forefinger.
Before she could check she was alright, or ask if she wanted to wait for an emptier elevator, the nervous tick ended, a wide smile splitting the soldier's face as she yelled:
"Race ya!" And darted for the stairs.
Jack may have been drinking. Alcohol and adrenaline mixed in her bloodstream. Booze and biotics tingling pleasantly as she sent shockwaves towards a mixed species assortment of armoured assholes.
Beside her came a roar of laughter as Grunt happily charged into the fray, utilising the butt of his shotgun to take down foes.
Stray shots struck her barriers and she spun with a snarl to find a salarian shithead spraying and praying from behind cover.
Dark energy converged around her fist but before she could release it in a wide wave of wrath, the enemy exploded into pixels of light.
"End of Round one." The tannoy announcement broke her immersion.
She was dimly aware of Grunt running for the bonus points but she didn't give a damn about the score, turning on their third team member.
"Fuck you, Torma! That asshole was mine!"
"Too slow Jack." The batarian bastard shrugged, unperturbed by her ire as he reloaded his assault rifle.
She still held a crackling ball of power in need of release and briefly debated lobbing it in his direction as payback. A flicker of light caught her attention first, new opponents springing into existence and she diverted her attack.
She'd just have to steal his kills, see how he liked it.
It took awhile before he noticed, but when he did the sodding git laughed. Laughed! Pointing his arm at a target, shouting:
"Jack, chekt! Chekt!"
Like she was a damn attack varren or something.
She was going to ignore him, leave the highlighted target alone and hope it downed him, but a quick sweep of the battlefield revealed it was the last opponent, Grunt charging towards them from the other side of the arena.
Like hell was she going to let anyone else have the last kill.
She swung her hand in a familiar mnemonic.
A warp crashed into the digital foe and dissolved it.
Grunt slid to a stop, whining: "Jaack, I wanted to kill him."
"Too slow Grunt."
Torma erupted into fresh laughter.
"Fuck you, Torma!"
"Sorry Jack, I'm not interested in human females." He casually threw out as he checked the ammo for his assault rifle.
She was half tempted to ask if that meant he was interested in human males or other species' females but reminded herself she didn't care. They weren't friends. She neither had nor needed friends.
"Damn it, only two clips left."
"Here." Jack threw the batarian her barely used pistol and thermal clips.
Well, it wasn't actually hers, she wouldn't let him touch her actual gun. It was just the facsimile weapon armax arena had given her for use in their simulation.
"Thanks Jack." Torma smiled as if the gesture actually meant something.
"Can't have Grunt missing out on his prize just cos you're too fucking weak to kill shit without a gun." She said so he wouldn't mistake her action as friendship. Then she realised it made it sound as if she cared about the krogan and his stupid fixation on winning a silver prize.
She only joined the pair of them on shore leave cos it involved shooting shit. She didn't like or care about either of them.
And if she had consoled Grunt when they only earnt enough points for a bronze prize after their first match, and suggested they go in again with a limited ammo points modifier, it was only because of the euphoria she'd been conditioned as a child to feel when fighting and that she didn't want the high to end.
She didn't enjoy their company. She didn't give a flying fuck about them.
Admittedly they were slightly more tolerable than the rest of the crew but that was it.
They could drop dead tomorrow for all she cared.
She'd kill them herself if they looked at her funny.
And if, several silvers and a gold prize later, she joined their celebrations at Fish Dog Food Shack that was just because she was hungry.
She was a biotic, she needed to eat. It was just common sense to let someone else pay the bill if they were offering.
If she talked shit with Torma and rough-housed with Grunt, it didn't mean anything.
"Please Shepard, we can't leave yet, just a couple more hours."
Nikki stared at her friend in bemusement, everyone had been aware of the scheduled departure time when they started their shore leave. What could be so important that Garrus would make such an impassioned plea?
"You remember Sidonis? The one who betrayed my team. He'll be at the Orbital Lounge in an hour."
Of course she remembered. It had been impossible to miss the darkness that lay heavy upon his carapace, the way he constantly threw himself into calibrations as a coping mechanism.
She'd tried to help, leant him an ear, and promised him that she was there for him if he needed her. This… wasn't exactly what she'd had in mind.
"What are you planning to do?" She asked, although she already had her suspicions. After all, killing Dr Saleon without trial had been his first choice, not his last resort.
"You humans have a saying, 'an eye for an eye, a life for a life'. He owes me ten lives and I plan to collect."
Humanity had another saying too: 'an eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind'.
"Killing Sidonis won't bring your squad back, Garrus." She reminded him softly.
"I know, but it will make me feel better."
Nikki wasn't so sure.
She remembered Miranda's rage at Niket's betrayal.
The Cerberus operative's determination to kill him.
Her devastation when he actually died.
The assertion that it would have been easier to handle killing him herself and, much, much later the quiet thanks for stopping her.
Sidonis had been Garrus' friend once. She wasn't convinced his death would bring the peaceful closure Garrus hoped.
Sure, he might get a brief flash of satisfaction, but he'd wake up the next day just as empty, just as pained as he was now. Only without the goal of vengeance to provide himself a sense of purpose.
Sooner or later the doubts would creep in. The questions.
Questions such as: "Don't you want to know why he did it?"
"I don't care what his reasons were, he screwed us. He deserves to die."
"You might not care now Garrus, but one day you might. You can't ask why after you pull the trigger."
The turian said nothing. Gaze hard on the empty air in front of them and Shepard sighed.
"Do you remember our conversation after we took down Dr Saleon? When you told me you were going back to C-Sec?"
"That was years ago, Shepard."
"For you perhaps." Nikki replied, unsure if his retort meant he had forgotten or if he just didn't want to be reminded. "You said you wanted to do things right, not fast."
There had been more.
About how if the people he'd sworn to protect couldn't trust him then he didn't deserve to be the one protecting them. However, that felt too much like pouring salt on the wound considering what had happened to his team, even if originally they'd been talking about civilians.
"Who's going to give Sidonis justice if I don't? Nobody else knows what he's done. Nobody else cares. I don't see any other options."
"Justice?" Nikki parroted. "Are you sure that's what this is about? It sounds a lot like revenge to me."
"Why should he get to live, Shepard? When ten good men lie in body bags."
She didn't exactly have an answer for that.
She wasn't even entirely convinced Sidonis deserved to live, she just wasn't sure they had the right to kill him in this way.
She'd joined the military to protect civilization. Both the people and the principles upon which society stood. Ok, originally it had been more humanity and the Alliance rather than the global community as a whole, but the point stood.
The right to a trial and the concept of 'innocent until proven guilty' were key cornerstones of civilisation.
Sure, Sidonis sounded guilty, but she hadn't seen any evidence. Only heard Vakarian's side of the story. She didn't believe he'd lie, but there was a chance he didn't have all the facts.
He liked to point to Sidonis leaving Omega as proof that he sold them out.
However even if Sidonis was innocent (and she had to admit, it was a pretty big if), returning to a location to find everyone dead and the three biggest mercenary groups in the galaxy intent on killing all the deceased's acquaintances seemed like a pretty good reason to get the hell out of Dodge.
Garrus was still convinced of his betrayal. Adamant that death was the only acceptable punishment. That there were no other options.
But were there?
They could arrest Sidonis, take him in, submit him to official judicial proceedings, but where?
C-Sec had no jurisdiction over crimes committed outside the Citadel.
Normally they'd extradite criminals to the territory where the crime was committed but Aria was the only authority on Omega and technically he hadn't committed any crimes against her.
The final option was Samara. While justicars normally remained inside asari space, their code didn't recognise such a thing as a limit to their jurisdiction. Again, if he didn't resist she'd have to hand him over to local authorities but if he did resist…
Nikki couldn't rely on Sidonis' intelligence (or lack thereof) in the face of a justicar to fix this, especially when what Garrus was proposing would likely break Samara's code.
It was certainly against Citadel law.
Of course as a spectre she was above the law. Answerable only to the council, her conscience and Trish.
It was that middle one that was causing her grief. Although the other two likely wouldn't be too impressed if they found out either.
"We're soldiers Garrus, not murderers. Killing people is part of the job, but there's supposed to be rules. Lines we don't cross."
"He crossed them first."
"Two wrongs don't make a right. It's not too late. You don't have to go through with this."
"Yes, I do."
Her eyes closed briefly, thumb tapping rapidly away as her thoughts whirled.
She could emphasise with him in some regards. She knew what it was like to lose your whole squad. However at the same time she wouldn't claim to understand how he felt.
For years she had believed that Akuze was an accident, a coincidence.
She'd had time to grieve, to come to terms with events without thoughts of vengeance clouding her mind.
Even so, when she had found out it was deliberate, when she was faced with the perpetrator in front of her…
It had taken all her self control not to pull the trigger.
Hell, she hadn't even needed to. Toombs would have done it for her if she'd let him. Her hands would have been clean, but not her conscience.
The only thing she regretted about that day was not being able to save Toombs.
It was practically the embodiment of a book quote from her formative years:
'Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement.'
She was also reminded of another quote from a different author: 'personal is not the same as important'.
She didn't think Garrus would appreciate that one right now. He was hurting, he needed closure and he'd asked for her help.
Maybe they'd get lucky and Sidonis would start waving a gun around as soon as he saw them. If he was a threat to nearby civiliansshe could put him down with a clear conscience.
She swallowed thickly, seeking eye contact as she insisted:
"Look at me Garrus. Look me in the eye and tell me, is this about revenge or justice?"
"Get off me!" Sidonis' fear flecked grey eyes blew wide, his voice high pitched and panicked, as he raised his arm to flick her off.
"I'm the only thing standing between you and a hole in the head." She snapped, desperately hoping that wasn't true. That she wouldn't end up regretting this.
She was close enough that, if Garrus took the shot, she'd see his skull shatter. Blue blood and bone fragments staining her armour and imprinting on her mind.
"Fuck." His eyes darted impotently round their surroundings. "Look… I didn't want to do it… I didn't have a choice."
"Everyone has a choice." Shepard proclaimed, the same words echoing in her ear in translated Cipritine.
"They got to me, tortured me, said they'd kill me if I didn't help. What was I supposed to do?"
"Let me take the shot Shepard. He's a damn coward." Garrus raged, but Nikki didn't move. Cowardice might be a personality defect but it wasn't a crime.
Neither was self-preservation.
She was a soldier, she was supposed to be prepared to die so others could live. Had died in fact.
But Sidonis hadn't been a soldier. He was a civilian.
As strange a concept as that seemed for a turian, but it was true.
He'd grown up on Omega, outside of Hierarchy space. Outside of compulsory conscription. He had taken up a gun because he'd wanted to strike back at the gangs that terrorised his neighbourhood, his life, but owning a gun wasn't enough to turn someone into a soldier.
"That's it?" Nikki queried. "You were just trying to save yourself?"
It didn't make it right. Nothing could make it right. But at least he hadn't been bought out. Hadn't valued credits over lives. That had to count for something.
"I know what I did." He admitted. "I know they died because of me, and I have to live with that. I wake up every night… sick and sweating. Each of their faces staring at me… Accusing me. I'm already a dead man. I don't sleep. Food has no taste. Some days I just want it to be over."
"Just give me the chance." She heard Garrus mutter in her comm but she was pissed for a different reason.
"Can you hear yourself Sidonis? You condemned ten people to death because you didn't want to die and now you don't want to live? Then what was the fucking point? Why trade their lives for yours if you're not even going to have the decency to live it? You should have just chosen death back then, maybe they'd still be alive."
"You think you're telling me anything I don't already know?" His voice was quiet, anguished. "If I could go back and change things I would, but I can't."
She tried to put herself in his position. What would she have done?
That was easy.
She'd already given up her life once to save Joker. Her life for ten of her comrades? It was an easy call to make.
She tried to imagine the situation from a civilian perspective. From someone who hadn't had advanced SERE training. Who hadn't sworn an oath of service.
It was hard. She'd been a soldier her entire adult life.
She tried to imagine Trish in his position instead, that was even harder but for a different reason.
It pained her to even conceive of Trish being captured and tortured. Would she blame her wife for seeking an end to the torment? For just wanting the pain to stop?
She struggled to see how she could.
Hell, even at the Villa the instructors had warned them that everyone had a breaking point.
Whether it be hours, days, weeks or months… Everyone had a limit.
She didn't know how long Sidonis had held out, but could she really judge him for cracking under interrogation?
It hardly mattered. It was not her but Garrus who insisted on playing judge, jury and executioner.
She still wasn't entirely happy about that but he was her friend, her brother in arms, she'd always have his back.
She realised things had been quiet for too long, Sidonis staring anxiously at the ground.
"Garrus?" She asked softly. "Is there anything else you want to know?"
The sound of his breathing in her ear assured her their comms still worked, but there was no other apparent attempt at communication.
In the end it was Sidonis that found his voice first.
"Tell Garrus… I guess there's nothing I can say to make it right…"
"Just … go." Garrus sounded physically pained by his words. "Tell him to go."
"He's giving you a second chance Sidonis." Shepard passed the message on. "Don't waste it."
"I'll try Garrus. I'll make it up to you somehow." Sidonis was shaky on his feet, disbelief and relief reflected in his eyes in equal measure as he turned to her. "Thank you for talking to him."
"I didn't do it for you, I did it for him." Shepard stated as she turned and walked away.
She'd be lying if she claimed she didn't hold her breath.
That with every step she took, she half expected Garrus to change his mind and take the shot.
Maybe she was doing him a disservice, but she still wouldn't entirely blame him.
She made it to the car without witnessing any homicides and found Garrus already strapped into the passenger seat.
"I know you want to talk about this." He said in lieu of a greeting. "But I don't. Not yet."
"I understand." The commander assured. "But we will talk about it at some point, Garrus. I'm not letting you bottle this shit up again."
She started the engine up and drove back to the Normandy in silence. Casting occasional glances to the brooding form beside her.
"Did I do the right thing?" He finally broke the silence with a sigh. "Not just for me. For my men. They deserve to be avenged. Don't they? But when Sidonis was in my sights. I just couldn't do it."
"Right and wrong, good and evil those lines can get rather blurry Garrus. Especially when we're looking at people we know."
"Yeah, I guess. It's so much easier to see the world in black and white. Grey… I don't know what to do with grey."
"You think shades are bad, wait until you discover actual colours." Nikki couldn't help but joke. "Red and blue, and greeney orange."
"Fuck you Shepard." His tone was more weary than angry. Nick assumed he was just too tired to properly laugh, or at least snort, at her attempted humour.
"Nuh-uh, that's Spectre Shepard to you Vakarian."
"Whatever you say Commander."
"You do know that's not actually my first name, right Garrus?"
The knock to her armoured shoulder would likely have been harder if she hadn't been driving.
"Fuck you Spectre Shepard."
She smiled. She knew he wasn't alright. Not by a long shot. But hopefully they'd get there.
This time she wouldn't wait until he asked for help before she supported him.