I smiled gently, hiding my reaction to how ashen his rich complexion had become. I recovered my balance and took his hand. “Thank you for keeping your promise,” I said softly. I wondered if he was somehow holding on until I released him from it but I couldn’t let him go, not yet. That may have made me selfish but just then I had too much to say to him.
“Always, for you,” he whispered around the breathing mask. I could hear the weight of his guilt, of the broken promises he’d made to his family, in the phrase. Even this close to death, after saving the entire human race from extermination, he couldn't forgive himself. I kissed his hand gently as Dr. Chakwas stopped beside me.
“How long?” I asked her. The answer terrified me but I had to know. His injuries and the conditions he'd endured had worsened the situation precipitously. As much as I would have preferred to pretend that he would recover, I couldn't hide from the truth.
She fussed around the bed, looking at Thane instead of me. “I’ve given you something to dry you out and fight any secondary infections,” she said, “but there isn’t much more I can do besides manage the pain. The disease has spread nearly everywhere. I’m afraid you won’t have much more than a week.” She tried to speak matter-of-factly but I caught her sidelong glance of sympathy and it nearly undid me, especially given her fondness for Kaidan.
I fought back a rush of panic and tried to think. What would he want? And then I knew. “Rest, Thane,” I said. “I’ll be back soon but I have to arrange a few things.” I rested my cheek against the ridges of his then headed straight for my quarters. I commandeered EDI’s help in setting the itinerary I had in mind. We worked out a rough plan while I showered off Collector filth and then started hitting everyone we could reach.
It took almost an hour to bully my way through clearances and convince people that I really had completed and returned from the mission that Cerberus had apparently leaked to explain what they had intended to be my second, more-permanent death. I lied, connived, and pulled strings until I got exactly what I wanted. Captain Bailey helped as much as he could at the Citadel once I told him why I asked.
Most colonies still accepted charges from us on Cerberus accounts and I used that money freely to get what I needed. Finally, everything was ready. I sent the necessary information to Joker, who’d had his leg set and was back in the saddle. “Why not just go to the Citadel?” he asked when I arrived on the bridge. The series of events unfolding on his screen looked impossible to pull off in two days but they were the last things that Thane would ever have and I was determined to make it work.
“Just do it.” I could barely keep my voice steady and didn’t dare add anything more.
“Okay,” he said doubtfully. I keyed into the intercom for another announcement. “We are traveling to Earth. All transport to reunite you with any family will be provided free of charge. If you choose, you may record your experiences and help us to prevent it from happening to anyone else. This is strictly voluntary. Counseling and medical attention will be provided en route regardless of your choice. We will arrive in four hours. All team members please report to the briefing room immediately.” I shut off the intercom. “You, too, Joker. Let EDI drive for a few minutes.”
When we limped into the comm room, a dozen faces stared at me. Miranda shot daggers with her eyes and I smiled at her coolly. “Miranda, you and Zaeed will be released with the colonists. Whether TIM wants you back is no longer my problem. Consider yourselves lucky I don't let you out right here.”
I nodded to Jacob on her right. “Jacob, you can choose whether you remain on my ship or leave with them.” He shifted subtly to his right, toward Jack, and then thought better of it and stepped back, away from both women. Jack offered him a feral grin that I thought might frighten him off of the ship entirely. “After you drop us off, the rest of you have every Cerberus symbol removed from the Normandy, inside and on the hull. My team stands alone from here on out. If anyone else wants off the ship, let me know.”
I didn’t point out that I had no idea with what I would pay them or what we’d do next. I couldn’t think beyond the plan I’d mapped out for the next few days. I’d given EDI instructions to purge every Cerberus link and listening device. I asked Garrus and Tali to find some disreputable but independent characters to make sure we were as free from oversight as we could be, including giving the AI a good going over to remove any lingering chains that tied it to its creators. While they were at it I wanted them to trace the holographic signal to see if we could get a bead on The Illusive Man. I didn't intend to go after him just then but a little extra knowledge couldn't hurt.
I dismissed everyone and went back to the med bay. Thane stirred uncomfortably but didn’t wake as I pulled a chair over to his bed. Dr. Chakwas had cleared everyone from the room, sending the malnourished and dehydrated crew and colonists to mingle on the rest of the deck or get on with their jobs. I’d received a few expressions of gratitude on my way in but everyone seemed much more subdued that they had earlier. The reality of the situation was settling in as they counted the missing and considered how many had been left behind on the base we’d destroyed. The doctor laid a reassuring arm across my shoulders and spoke in a low voice.
“I’ve given him a sedative that should keep him resting quietly for another few hours.” I nodded my thanks, unable to speak. She’d received the details of my intentions but was kind enough to resist trying to change my mind. “I have also arranged for any useful medication to be ready when we dock.” I squeezed her hand. With one last pat she left me alone with Thane.
I stroked his head, sadly unsurprised that his usually-cool skin was warm under my touch. When he woke I wanted everything to be ready for him. The events I’d set into motion were the only gift I could give him and I spent this quiet time hoping that he’d be able to know how much he meant to me and how much I wanted him to be at peace. Minutes ticked by and I sat with only my thoughts and Thane’s grating breath for company. I dozed beside his bed, waking every time he tossed, until Joker announced that we'd arrived on Earth.