But Dr. Chakwas was gone and Mordin had his hands full just running triage on the team’s injuries. We got Thane settled into a bed, back on oxygen as dry and pure as it came. I wanted nothing more than to stay beside his bed, stroking his forehead and holding his hand. He shooed me away, however, speaking calmly despite the rumbling in his chest.
“Joker needs you now,” he said, “more than I do.” I wanted to argue but I knew that we had to go straight after the Collectors. I would be damned if I would let them have my entire crew, regardless of their nominal employer. These were my people. I kissed his fingers and headed for the bridge.
All around were signs of struggle. No seeker swarms had calmed these people. I found black blood splashed on walls and crushed consoles, a grimly satisfying display of how hard my men and woman had fought. A few dead Collectors lay crumpled as well and I spared a moment to kick one with a snarl. I strode onto the bridge, trying not to see the empty stations that lined the walls.
Joker and EDI explained that the IFF had had a subsignal buried in its identification that had broadcast the Normandy’s location to the Collector ship, yet another trap in the long string that had plagued me since I’d started working for Cerberus. I covered a sob by clearing my throat. I was so tired. I wished that I could rewind time and go back to lying in my bed, curled up in Thane’s protecting arms. My whole body was swollen from steam burns and shots that my armor had stopped but which had still hit hard. I sucked it up for a moment, stuffing the pain deep and recalling the anger that would have to fuel me until I could rest. “EDI,” I said, “get Miranda to the briefing room. Joker, set up a link with The Illusive Man. We need to have a little chat.”
By the time I’d stalked across the CIC, Miranda was already in the holographic chamber and connected with TIM. I wasted no time on polite conversation, cutting her off mid-sentence.
“You will do the following without delay and consider Miranda a hostage until such time as I can verify. You will arrange a complete resupply of the Normandy at Illium, paid in full and waiting at the docking bay. You will arrange for every weapon and ammunition upgrade available to be included. You will include a full complement of medical supplies and program upgrades for the ship’s equipment to apply them. You will refrain from contacting me in any way until such time as I either return via the Omega relay or am dead. We will dock at Illium in seven hours. If you fail to accomplish any of these things I will execute Miranda.”
I pulled my pistol and aimed it at her head. At that moment I wanted nothing more than an excuse to pull the trigger unless it was TIM sitting before me in her place. The Illusive Man made his usual protesting noises but I didn’t care what he said. Treachery had cost me too much on this voyage and I wasn’t giving Cerberus another opportunity.
“Shut up,” I snarled. “The only thing I want to hear from you is ‘yes, Shepard’ and orders to someone to make these things happen.” I hadn’t spent months hunting mercs without learning a thing or two about negotiating. “If I hear the word ‘misunderstanding’ from you again I’ll shoot her in the knee. We can work our way up from there.” Miranda’s biotic powers flared but I was too close. I gave her a whack with the butt of my pistol before she could release anything more than a blue glow and she crumpled to the deck. “Cute,” I said. “Got any other moves you want to get out of the way?”
The Illusive Man gave a weary sigh, as though he were accustomed to dealing with wayward adolescent behavior and couldn’t be bothered fighting over something so petty. I wasn’t fooled. “Yes, Shepard.” He turned and spoke to someone out of view, ordering them to contact EDI and arrange anything the AI requested to be bought and stacked on the docking bay we’d previously used at Illium. Then he shut down the signal. I wanted to kick Miranda while she was down but decided I was above that. I called Garrus and Grunt to fetch her and lock her in the brig. I knew we had to have one somewhere, although I’d never actually seen it.
While I waited for them to arrive I gave Joker our itinerary: hop to Illium for supplies, hop to Omega, jump the relay, kill collectors, retrieve crew and colonists, and return as heroes. It seemed pretty straightforward to me. He knew better than to argue. I told EDI to calculate the supplies we would need for a return with a full crew, with a generous margin for error, and communicate them to TIM’s staff. Garrus arrived and glanced at Miranda, his mandibles flaring nervously. To his credit, he simply said, “Cerberus showing their true colors, Shepard?” He’d been on Feros and seen the other colonies decimated by the organization’s mind control experiments based on the thorian there.
“Yeah,” I replied. “She tried to flare me and I had to crack her one. When Grunt gets here get her locked down and set a guard rotation. Once we get through the Omega 4 relay she can come out and play. Is anyone in the med bay with Thane?”
Garrus said he’d left the Drell alone. Mordin had treated everyone else’s injuries, including his own, and sent them off to rest in their own quarters. Thane had requested some quiet so they’d left him to calm his breathing with meditation. The moment Grunt arrived in the comm room I bolted for the med bay.
I’d never seen it so dark. The only light came from the monitors around Thane’s bed and the windows into the mess hall. He lay, rasping and pale, on the bed nearest the AI Core door behind which Legion stayed. I walked across the room softly, not wanting to disturb him. As ever, he knew the moment I arrived and turned to face me. I’d never seen him without his shirt and, despite my concern, couldn’t help but notice how finely muscled his upper body was regardless of how thin he appeared in his usual dashing attire.
“Are you…” I fought down my tears. “Is your breathing any better?” He sounded awful and I was almost afraid of his answer.
“Yes, siha. And seeing you unharmed does more for me than any medicine.” He raised a hand to my cheek and I kissed his fingers. The purr of his voice had deepened to a grind. I knew that he’d been given pain killers but he still sounded strained. “I will be ready when we pass the Omega 4 relay.”
I recalled how dank and utterly sloppy the collector ship had been. “No,” I began. I wasn’t about to let him breathe that filth for hours when he was already injured.
But he trumped me by saying, “It is why I came, why I joined you at the beginning. I must atone for my failures and my mistakes, whatever second chance I may have gotten with Kolyat.” He spoke slowly, stopping to breathe every few words. “If you do not include me on your team then I will undertake a solitary mission as I have long been accustomed to doing.”
“Damnit, Thane,” I sighed. He’d do exactly as he said. Whatever feelings he had for me could not outweigh his perception that he had failed his son in abandoning him and his training in seeking revenge. There was no guarantee that he’d have lived long enough to face the Reapers, whether things had gone well on Zorya or not, and I was fresh out of other galactic threats to offer. He believed he needed to do this and I knew I couldn’t change his mind. I kissed him sadly and agreed to bring him on the team.
“Come,” he said, sliding to the left. “Rest with me for a time. You are exhausted and in pain.” I shucked my armor on the floor in a pile and climbed onto his bed. We wrapped our arms around one another and I touched the cool skin of his back for the first time, stroking the unprotected ridge down his spine as I rested my head on his shoulder. I tried not to put any pressure on his chest.
He kissed my forehead gently and asked, “Have you left this soot as camouflage for whatever battle awaits us on the other side?” I chuckled and wiped a smudge from his lip. I hadn’t had time to bathe and I was too tired to drag myself all of the way up to my cabin just then. “Later,” I said. “Right now all I want is to take a nap with you.”
It seemed all of five minutes later that Joker’s voice came over the intercom, giving me twenty minutes to prepare for docking at Illium. I kissed Thane one more time before struggling back into my armor and heading to my cabin for a quick shower.