A/N: So sorry for the long wait between chapters! Those of you who followed along with my other big story, Inevitable, would be very familiar with that, unfortunately. For me writing fanfic is a hobby, which I love doing, but like any hobby, I don't love doing it all the time. If I start pushing myself to meet deadlines, it's only going to turn it into another job. So I write when I'm feeling the passion for a story, and I never force myself to write when I don't want to. Unfortunately this often means long waits between chapters, especially when I have to go back and do rewrites, which had to happen here. What I can promise, though, is that I do feel like writing a lot of the time, and that, like Inevitable, even if it takes me five years I will finish this story!
Thank you so much to all of you following, favouriting and sending me reviews. You're amazing, and you really keep me going!
"Dammit, Shepard, I'll take the risk," Garrus snapped, glaring at her.
Shepard glared right back. According to Aria's information, Mordin Solus' clinic was located behind quarantine lines for a particularly nasty virus that affected everyone but humans and vorcha, and Garrus was still determined to be on the ground team. Of all the stupid, stubborn… "No," she snapped back. "There's no guarantee Dr Solus has a cure for this thing. I just found you again, Garrus. I won't lose you to a goddamn virus!"
"We're wasting time," Miranda muttered from her position leaning against the wall on the far side of the briefing room. Her omnitool was open and the fingers of her other hand were dancing through the haptic interface, filling a document with text too small for Shepard to read backwards. One of her many reports to the Illusive Man, no doubt, she thought with a flare of irritation.
Revan was eyeing the text with a slight frown. Shepard wondered if she could read it. After all, she, Carth and HK could somehow understand spoken English despite being from a whole different galaxy. The significance of that wasn't lost on Shepard. It couldn't be coincidence. But what it meant… that, she had no idea.
Garrus pointedly wasn't paying any attention to either Miranda or Revan. "You need someone to watch your back," he murmured, lowering his voice.
Shepard shook her head, lowering her own voice in reply. "I don't think I need to worry about either of them," she told him. "Miranda needs me alive, at least until we get through the Omega 4 relay. And Revan needs me too, to help her get home. Even if she didn't, she wouldn't turn around and stab me in the back. I'm pretty sure she's not like that." She glanced over at the woman, who was politely focussing elsewhere, despite the fact that with those mystical Force powers of hers she could probably hear everything they were saying. "Isn't that right, Revan?"
Revan had the good grace to look slightly guilty as she moved to join them. "That's right, Commander," she agreed. Garrus stared at her in confusion, and Revan gestured towards her ears. "The Force gives me enhanced hearing," she explained.
Garrus stopped just shy of glaring at her. He clearly didn't trust her, which made sense since he had only met the woman yesterday, and that had been quite a spectacular introduction. Still, Shepard wondered at the intensity of that distrust. Were his instincts picking up something different to her own?
With an effort she pushed the thought away. She didn't want to get bogged down second-guessing herself when they were about to head out into the field.
"Fine," he finally relented. "I'll take you at your word." The 'for now' was left unspoken.
Miranda straightened, snapping her omnitool closed. "Lovely. So it'll be just the three of us again?" Inwardly Shepard sighed in annoyance. Of course Miranda's genetic modifications had included upgraded hearing. She had probably heard every word too.
"Carth and HK will be willing to come along, I'm sure," Revan offered. "HK in particular. It's been a while since he's seen combat, and he does, uh, enjoy it."
"Thanks," Shepard replied, "but no. Not this time. I need a small crew, and I'd like to bring Zaeed along. We've already seen how good he is with a pistol. I suspect he's just as good with other weapons, but I need to see if he can work within a team. Plus, he's bound to know his way around the lower levels." Speaking of the lower levels, where the air supply was much less assured than the rest of the station… She eyed Revan's tunic and pants and a thought occurred to her. "Revan, I want you in a hardsuit this time. You need to get used to wearing this galaxy's armour if you're going to be on my ground team. We may need to deploy to locations that are inhospitable for humans sometimes, and I don't care how strong this Force of yours is, I doubt it can conjure up air in a vacuum."
"Well, actually, the Force can allow me to survive in vacuum for extended periods of time," Revan offered. Garrus' mandibles twitched, and Shepard raised her eyebrows. Revan cracked a brief grin. "However, I would need to put myself into a Jedi hibernation trance, and I doubt I'd be very useful to you then." Shepard eyed her in consternation, and Revan's smile turned conciliatory. "I'll try a hardsuit. If I have to wear armour as heavy as yours, though, I won't be very useful. Do you have anything more lightweight?"
Miranda cleared her throat. "I'd be happy to lend you one of my jumpsuits, if you'd like," she offered. Shepard stared at her, surprised. Miranda ignored her. "I have several versions of this model," she explained, indicating her own white, figure-hugging outfit. "They're all rated for zero-g and capable of being fully sealed against vacuum, and they'll give you a lot more manoeuvrability than a standard hardsuit."
Revan eyed her for a moment before replying, looking slightly uncomfortable. "Thank you, Miranda," she finally said, "but I uh… don't think I could pull it off quite as well as you do."
For a moment, Shepard could have sworn she spotted a flash of vulnerability, mixed with a little envy, in Revan's eyes. It was the last thing she had expected to see from someone she had thought so confident and self-assured, but Shepard could certainly relate. She was loathe to admit it but she had occasionally found herself a little envious of Miranda too. How the Cerberus operative managed to glide into battle, completely wreck her opponents, then glide back out again while still looking as though she had just stepped off a Thessian catwalk was beyond her.
Miranda stiffened. "I'm genetically engineered to look this way," she said briskly, almost defensively, before seeming to catch herself. When she continued, her tone wasn't quite as abrupt. "Don't sell yourself short, Revan. I think you could make it work. But if it would make you feel better you could always wear your own tunic over the top. You could even wear your own boots. I can jury-rig the seals for you."
Shepard exchanged a glance with Garrus. Miranda being kind and generous was all too strange for her liking. It had to be faked. But why?
She hid a grimace. Whatever the reason, Shepard couldn't deny that her idea was a good one, and judging by the newly-interested expression Revan wore, she agreed. "Thanks, Miranda," Shepard said grudgingly. "Go and suit up, Revan. I'll find Zaeed and meet you two at the airlock."
She spun around and palmed the door from the briefing room open, heading through the armoury to the bridge. Garrus followed close behind. Jacob tossed her an awkward, casual salute as she passed, and she nodded stiffly in his direction. The man seemed relatively happy to keep to himself, for now, which was probably a good thing. Meat and tubes.
When they stepped out into the CIC, Garrus bent his head and lowered his voice to a level the surrounding Cerberus crew would be unlikely to hear. "That was strange, Shepard. Too strange."
"I know," she murmured in reply. "I doubt Miranda was offering out of the goodness of her heart. The Illusive Man needs me on side. Maybe he told her to make more of an effort."
Garrus seemed unconvinced. "Maybe. But I bet whatever jumpsuit Miranda lends her will also have an onboard VI set up to monitor its inhabitant and send the results back to Cerberus."
She stopped beside an empty station and gave him a sharp look. "Shit. I didn't think of that."
He halted beside her. "This—" he waved an arm around vaguely at the Normandy as a whole, "—is not a good situation, Shepard."
Shepard grimaced. "No kidding," she bit out before catching herself. "Sorry, Garrus. No, it's not ideal, but there's not much I can do about it right now, and there's not much I can do about Cerberus trying to spy on Revan either, if that's what they're doing. I'm – we're – pretty stuck." She gave him a wan smile. "I'm just glad you're here with me now. It's good to have someone I know I can trust." And someone who is just as paranoid as I am when it comes to Cerberus.
Garrus' expression softened. "And I'm glad to be here. I still can't really believe that you're… back. Cerberus has done a lot of terrible things, but at least they got that right."
Shepard bit the inside of her lip, and the smile she gave him was forced. "Yeah," was all she could think of to say. She didn't have the heart to tell him any of what she really felt about that.
He clapped a hand on her armoured shoulder. "I'm going to go see what I can do about the main gun. Watch your back out there," he warned her. "I'm not… sure about Revan, but we both know you're only the means to an end for Miranda."
Shepard watched him leave, fighting to keep a sudden sadness at bay. She had been so excited to find him on Omega, and she was so glad he was here with her now… but that also meant he was now caught in the same trap she was.
Shaking her head, she spun on her heel and continued on toward the cockpit. When she got there, Joker spun around to greet her. "Hey, Commander. Heading back to the station again?"
"Sure am," she confirmed. "Page Zaeed for me, would you? Tell him to meet me at the airlock."
"Aye aye." Joker spun around, back to his panel.
Carth Onasi was sitting beside him in the little-used co-pilot's position, surrounded by displays. Some showed smaller versions of the galaxy map she used to plot the Normandy's route, and others displayed technical schematics of the Normandy. Seeing the details of her ship laid bare to someone who was, for all intents and purposes, a complete unknown, made her a little uncomfortable. But she had agreed to let Carth help with the EDI situation, and he would need to understand more about this galaxy's ships if he was going to build the Normandy a hyperdrive. It was necessary, but still, a niggling little voice wondered if she had made the right call.
"Doing a little research?" she asked him, forcing a mild tone.
Carth glanced up at her, startled. He stood up hurriedly, arm moving up into what she thought might be a salute before awkwardly stopping halfway there. He made a face. "Sorry, Commander, force of habit. I was a pilot in the Republic Navy before I joined up with Revan," he explained, clearly embarrassed.
She waved it off. "Don't worry about it. Have you found anything useful?" she asked.
He gestured in the vague direction of the displays. "Well, every star map I can find backs up the theory that we've somehow travelled here from another galaxy," he told her. "EDI has, uh, been quite helpful."
EDI's little blue avatar popped up next to Joker. "I was glad to be of assistance, Captain Onasi."
Shepard eyed it distrustfully. They would need to confirm Carth's findings with an independent source. "Thank you, EDI."
"Commander, I'm willing and able to help out on Omega if you need me," the man offered, laying a hand on the strange-looking pistol that was strapped to his side with a leather thigh holster. "I'm a pilot, but I'm also a decent shot with a blaster."
"Blaster?" Shepard frowned. "Is that your word for gun?"
"I think so, yeah," he replied, with a shrug and a smile.
That smile blindsided her out of nowhere and made her thoughts come grinding to a halt. Shepard swallowed against a suddenly dry mouth. Carth's smile was a little more rogueish, but otherwise so much like Kaidan's. And his earnest, helpful attitude was exactly like Kaidan's.
She forced a thin-lipped smile and a nod in return. "Thanks, Carth, I'll let you know when I need you," she said mechanically.
She spun on her heels and hurried away, ignoring the confused eyes on her back, retreating down the passageway and rounding the corner to the airlock. Once she was out of sight she leant back against the bulkhead and closed her eyes.
Fuck. It had been months, even if she didn't count the amount of time she had spent dead. But still, every now and then, it hit her once again that the man she been falling in love with was gone. She had thought she had it under control… but then Carth had come along, with that voice and that smile.
Obviously she had been wrong.
She and Kaidan had only known each other for a few months, but those months had been intense. Everything had been heightened and stressful while they were on the hunt for Saren, every emotion multiplied, every reflex in constant hair-trigger reaction mode. There had been a mutual attraction, and both of them had picked up on it right away. To start with they hadn't done anything about it but talk, and flirt, and exchange meaningful glances across the mess hall table. There were regs to worry about, after all. But then, when it became clear they had practically been abandoned by the Alliance and the Council, they had said to hell with the regs and started something.
The few weeks they'd had together as a couple had been more than she could have hoped for. More than she'd ever thought she'd find.
And then, on Virmire, she'd had to choose to save Ash.
She took a deep breath, and it caught in her throat. It had broken her heart. She'd had no choice. Ash had been working on the bomb that would destroy Saren's cloning facility, and under no circumstances could she have allowed that to fall into the rogue Spectre's hands.
Intellectually, she knew she had made the right decision, but that didn't do anything to blunt the pain. Or the guilt.
"Shepard," came Zaeed's rough voice, jolting her out of her memories. He was striding down the aisle in full armour, guns secured to his back. "What's the mission?" he asked, blunt as always.
She felt a flash of anger at the intrusion. Blinking hurriedly, she scrambled to pull herself back to the present. "Search and rescue," she snapped back. "I'll brief you all when the others arrive."
Zaeed either didn't notice her tone or didn't care. "Revan's coming?" he asked. Shepard nodded, and Zaeed clapped his hands together with a sharp crack, causing a few nearby crew members to jump in their chairs. "Ha! Good. I want to see what that woman can do with those swords of hers."
"She and I both fight primarily in melee range," Shepard told him, unable to keep a touch of mild disapproval from her voice. "We'll need solid ranged support. Think you can provide that?"
He snorted. "Can I play nice, you mean? Don't worry, Shepard, I'm good at my job. I know what I've been hired to do."
"Good," she muttered, glancing over his shoulder. Revan and Miranda were approaching, and it looked like one of the Cerberus operative's jumpsuits had been to Revan's liking.
She wore a midnight blue version, with her own black, layered tunic over the top, her own belt with its special hooks for her lightsabers, and her own well-worn black leather boots. Only the arms, the gloves, and part of the leggings of the suit were visible. A collapsible full-face helmet was attached securely to a magnetic plate at her thigh.
All the black and blue made Revan's green eyes even more disconcerting than usual, but it suited her. More importantly, it looked as though it would suit her fighting style perfectly as well, while giving her all the protection of light armour and full vacuum seals.
Shepard nodded, satisfied. They were all ready to go. It was time to put Kaidan behind her once more.