It has been a few years now since Aeyna first heard about the annual human holiday. She was sold on it right away when it was introduced to her by her closest friend Marit, whose human father had observed it every year since Marit was very little. They have not yet had any snow on that day, and families celebrating it here all had their own opinions on when to push the day to keep it to a day free of school or other obligations.
Advent has been fairly short this year, and her and Marit only really started counting down 10 days ago. The tree downstairs is decorated, gingerbread has been made and sampled, gifts has been thoroughly inspected, and the human channels had provided cartoons aplenty. There has also been talk of a trip north for human new years where there is snow, but she was unsure about the plans for that yet.
This year still has not been the same. Renala went back to Aite before their advent even began, and made it clear early on that she would not be here today. That had caused a sour undertone to the whole holiday, but it was not until today that it finally hit home.
Aeyna woke up as the light of the sun peeked through the crack in her window blinds. She knew Nalena would be mad if she set an early alarm, she had done that on her first Christmas, so betting on the sun was the next best thing. It was tradition at this point, but unlike earlier years she rolled over to the other side again. A small part of her had held out hope that Renala would come home, but she could only hear the sounds Nalena starting the day below.
She closed her eyes again, and did her best to muffle her sobs so Nalena would not hear. This was her fault, she threw Renala out.
She awoke to the sound of her door sliding open and excited footfalls that came to an abrupt stop inside of her room.
"Aeyna?" It was Marit's voice. She was not supposed to be here until eight, which must mean that Aeyna fell back asleep. "It's Christmas!" Marit pulled away the blanket and grabbed Aeyna's arm.
"I'm awake," she groaned and pulled back her arm.
"You okay?" she asked, sitting down down at the bedside.
Only a curt hum was all she got in response.
"Aw, come on," she grabbed her arm again. "She was visiting just a few weeks ago. She even got you a present."
"It's not the same."
"It's still better than sleeping the day away," she said, without letting go of her arm. "I'm going to sit like this until you get out of bed."
"Just five more minutes," Aeyna mumbled.
"I'll think about it," she said and is quiet in a moment of mock contemplation. "Hmm. No. You don't get five minutes."
"Please," she mumbled.
"Nope," she said. "I give you to the count of ten, or I'll drag you down to the breakfast table by the tippy-tips of your scalp."
Aeyna sat up in bed, and turned around to place her feet on the floor.
"See? Was that so hard?" Marit said.
"Can you just... stop?" Aeyna snapped. "I'm up."
"You can't let Renala get you down like that," she said. "She got you a present, and she'll no doubt call you. She wants to make the best of it, so stop moping."
Aeyna gave her a gentle shove. "I'll be down in a minute, okay?" she said. "Can you go ahead?" Aeyna sounded angry.
Marit rose from the bed, but she did not leave the room. Instead she turned around. "No," she said, crossing her arms over her chest. "The moment that door shuts, you'll be bundled up in your blanket again. I just know it."
"I won't, so get out," she said, a biotic shimmer forming around her whole being. Both of them knew that it would at best unbalance her, but it was the thought that counted.
"Aeyna," Marit snapped. "I get it. I wish Ren was here too. Sitting up late playing with our new toys and games, and making Nalena to carry us all three to bed?" Her expression softened and a smile showed up. "That's what's Christmas Eve is all about, but... we can still have fun, okay? Maybe we can keep Erik up for a change."
Aeyna let the energy out, a wild uncontrolled burst that threw a pyjack plushie off the bed and pushed her omni-tool off the nightstand. She did not say anything, instead tears started trickling down her cheeks followed by loud sobs. Marit was quick to pull her up from the bed and wrap her up in a hug.
This was not the first time they have fought and then hugged it out after Renala moved out, and far from the worst it had gotten. Marit seemed to be getting used to it at this point, hardly flinching when biotics are brought to bear.
At least the weather is nice, Lema thought to herself. Snowflakes floated in the gentle wind, and the snowy ground reflected what little light shone on the dark road into town. This wasn't how she planned to spend Christmas Eve, but she was not surprised in the slightest.
She had decorated the tree, cleaned every nook and cranny in their home and the dinner was ready at six as promised. Then she waited. Messages would trickle in from her father. Just one more thing, something came up, another thing broke. That went on for two hours before she had had enough.
So, dinner is getting cold at home and Lema is pedaling into town on an old bicycle. The thing was still a work in progress and it was protesting her angry pedal strokes, but it's not like her father had any time to help her fix it. It is also not the season for cycling, but the deep truck tracks on the road offered enough for the tires to grip.
Aside from Freedom Falls, her trip had no destination. She just needed some space, and the dark quiet road had that in spades. The exercise in itself also was also a release for her frustration, even if it felt like that source would never run dry. The town was still four kilometers away, so she had time to think about what to do when she got there.
She made good time the rest of the way, but no answer came to her. She pulled the jacket hood up as she came into town, just before she passed Redrock's headquarters. She feared they might recognize her and take her home; undoing the last hour or so it took to get here. She was not here to cause trouble, but being here with no purpose would surely draw their suspicion.
Exhaustion did start to set in as she got deeper into the town, and she came to a stop by the Miner's Respite. While she would risk running into Redrock people there, it was the nearest warm place holding open. She stowed the heap of junk she had been riding on in the shade just around the corner and stepped up to the entrance.
The storm had passed two nights ago and in its wake were clear skies. The ring, stars, and even green and blue bands of lights made for a nice view from the coastal colony. There was a stiff breeze, however, which made the reflection from the sea muddy, and the very low temperatures meant this view was best enjoyed through a window.
She was living in the frontier now. Her new home a ring of three prefabs and a long concrete barracks that most lived in. While this prefab looked and functioned like a bar, it was the closest thing most had to a living room. People sat around tables and spoke amongst themselves. They had left Ehanis alone at one by the window for now.
This new life had its drawbacks. With a population in the double digits, people remembered her, not just another blue asari doing whatever puts food on her table and clips in the guns.
"I didn't imagine you'd be sort to look longingly at the stars," a male voice interrupted her train of thought and she looked across the small round table at him. It was Staciek, who had given her the ride from Leyto Pangn. He was a young, pale human with black untidy hair. He was holding a pair of beer bottles and an opener.
"It'll get old soon, I guess," she said.
"It is unusual for weather to be this nice," he agreed and set the beer bottles down on the table. "So, about what happened with mining laser. You good?"
Ehanis nodded. "Yeah, yeah," she dismissed and took the offered beer. A small warp field made quick work of the cap. "It won't happen again, Staciek."
"Let's toast for that," he said and lifted his beer bottle. "Cremelle speaks of you like you're her favorite daughter, and Miriam was happy that you gave her a ride to Leyto Pangn yesterday. I am willing to forgive that as a one-time thing."
Ehanis snorts. "So you went behind my back before coming to see me, huh?"
"We don't get new colonists often," he said. "So you were topic around breakfast table, yes."
"You told them about what happened?" she asked before taking a sip of her beer. It had a strong aftertaste that the asari did not find pleasing, but out here, alcohol is alcohol.
"Of course," he said. "A lot of people around here come with baggage. If it gets in way of work, we have a right to know."
Ehanis frowned and looked down at the bottle.
"Cremelle needs all help she can get over at greenhouse, and you handled that truck fine," he said. "And then there's God-knows-what you will be doing for matriarch's people." He let out a chuckle as he added, "You're not written off just yet."
Ehanis nodded. "It sounds like I'm still working with you guys most of the time," she said. "I'm seeing her in a few days after the doc's done with her stuff, though."
"Matriarch Malea can be cold, but her heart is in right place," he warned. "She spent most of her early days here helping us make sense of the educational VI's ramblings." He sips her beer again.
Ehanis was quiet for a moment as she cast a glance outside, and a window of the permanent barracks caught her eye. Miriam had hung up the star-shaped light she bought at the Leyto Pangn market. "So, did you have a good holiday?"
Staciek smirked. "Miriam got us presents, we dragged in tree, and we sang songs," he said. "It's perfect, and they're still going."
"Sounds nice," Ehanis says as she returns her attention to him. "So, why are you out here?"
"I saw you sat here all by yourself," he said. "The view goes both ways."
Ehanis shrugged. "I'm fine, though," she said.
"So, I know Anja might have my head for this, but you're welcome to join us for Christmas, Ehanis," he offered. "I think her rules are useless anyway. You've been here, in greenhouse, in mine, in a truck cabin with Miriam. If you were carrying some bug, it would be everywhere by now."
"I think they're mostly there for the matriarch's safety, though," she said.
"Still, useless," he said, "but enough about that. You coming?"
Ehanis downs the remainder of her beer, and nods.
Christmas lights were everyone around town, but as far as Mian was concerned, it was just a small change of scenery. It was a pleasant view of the town from where she was sitting, though, which was a roof of a two-story building further down the street of the Miner's Respite.
She was dressed in a full suit of black armor with the helmet visor opened up so she could take sips of the bottle of vodka in her hand. It was one of Ehanis', but if she had a problem with that, she could come home. She had a shotgun lying flat on the ground next to her. She has been on patrol for the militia for the last few hours, but the cold weather and festivities had left the town quiet so she took the opportunity to sit down on the roof with a drink where nobody would bother her. The snow was starting to fall, though, but it didn't faze the asari much. Her armor is doing an admirable job keeping out the cold, and it'll last her the whole night if she needed it to.
A sky-car flying overhead drew her attention, especially when it circles around to make a landing on the roof next to her. She recognized the vehicle as a colleague's, so she didn't move an inch. She glanced over her shoulder as the doors popped open, though, and saw an armored militiawoman stepped out.
"I've been looking for you all over, Mian," she said before taking a soft wrapped present from the seat before closing the door.
"Why?" she says. "I picked a roof to sit because I didn't want company, Carolyn."
She stepped over to her side, and she flattened some snow to put the present down on it. "I bought you a present," she said and went to sit down next to her. "And your patrol is over since a quarter-hour ago."
"I can take yours," she offered. "I haven't got better things to do anyway."
"No, no, that's fine," she says, with a dismissive wave, changing the topic. "You've been shutting everyone out, Mian, that can't be healthy."
"I'm a hundred years old, I know what's good for me."
"So your closest friends ghosting you is something you deal with often?"
"Fuck off, that's not-...," she said, "but I've been working solo most of the years since I was a kid. I know how to take care of myself."
"Are you expecting to find Ehanis out here then?"
Mian shook her head. "If she was in town, I would have found her by now," she said.
"Oh, so is this about this Sala-person you told me about?" she asked.
Mian shrugged. "No, but it would be nice if she showed up," she said. "This militia-job is dull. Just dumb people with dumb petty conflicts. I'm itching for something real, you know? I haven't had a good fight since those Redrock fucks needed our help at the spaceport."
Carolyn sighed. "You're pissed, I get it, but-..."
"I don't think you do," she said. "I just need time to get this shit out of my system so I can think clearly, and then I'll look for Ehanis."
"I have a better idea," she said. "Kirev sent out a message asking if a few of us could spend this lovely evening at the Miner's Respite and play some cards."
"I got it too," she muttered, "but no, I'm fine."
"At least go home if you're just going to sit up here," she said.
"I said. I'm fine."
Carolyn sighed and rose to her feet. "But if I get complaints from the building owner about you up here, you go home okay?" she says.
Mian nodded. "I'll try to keep this solo party quiet."
"I'll fly over at the end of my shift," she said. "You're a pain in the ass, Mian, but you're not freezing to death up here on my watch."
Mian didn't give an answer, instead she turrned her attention to the town ahead of her. It wasn't a good vantage point for watching anything, really, but that wasn't really her intention either. She wanted some peace and quiet while doing the minimum to fulfill her duties for the militia.
Carolyn picked up the present. "I'll drop this off at your place instead, I think," she said and headed over to put it in the car. "Merry Christmas."
Mian again didn't respond with more than a nod, and it was not long before the sky-car was airborne again and on its way to the market.
She took a long swig of her bottle and pit down in a small pit in the snow, and let out a long sigh.
"I hate you so much, Ehanis," she muttered to herself. "When I find you..." She pulled her knees towards herself and added in a quiet mutter, "I fucking miss her, though." Nobody would hear her, though, and just the soft howl of the wind responded to her words.
Emma swore as the foot of her crutch struggled to align its mass effect field with the icy ground, briefly unbalancing her. In retrospect, going for a walk in her current state may not have been the best idea, but she just couldn’t stand another evening lying on the couch. Especially not tonight. Healing was going to take time, even with the extra meds she’d been using to supplement Dr. Halisi’s recommendation. At least her position with Redrock meant access to the best medical care this place had to offer - which apparently included Citadel-quality crutches.
Still, falling over was hardly the only danger in taking an evening stroll in her current state. As peaceful as Freedom Falls was by Aitian standards, it was still a Terminus town. Her sharp blue eyes tracked a pair of laughing batarians that exited a pub further down the street, briefly stopping her slow, painful walk and stuffing her free hand into the pocket of her winter coat, gloved hand tracing the grip of her Phalanx. One of the batarians shot her an uneasy glance and whispered something to his friend, and they both hurried off. Good.
Her walk was taking her towards the less populated parts of town. The water treatment plant loomed large on one side. She wasn’t sure where she was going, really. Maybe somewhere where she could take a few practice shots without prompting an awkward conversation with the militia. It was already dark out, and together with the heavy snowfall it reminded her of home. Not what she needed right now, but was there really any avoiding it?
This was a bad time of year for her to be left with too much time to think. She hated being out of the action. Hated being unable to do her job. It had been stupid to volunteer for that mission, and she’d already gotten an earful about it, but what was she supposed to have done? There was no question in her mind that she had to help. That girl deserved a life. A chance. The chance that-...
A deep breath of winter air did little to calm her rising emotions, so she hobbled over to a crate outside an abandoned warehouse, slumping into a sitting position. At least the roof overhang meant it was clear of snow. Broken leg stretched out to rest she tugged the sleeve of her coat back to reveal her omni-tool, letting the interface come to life. She sucked in another breath, shivering a little against the cold that was setting in, and navigated the familiar path to the photo she was looking for. It was an ingrained motion at this point. She sucked in her dry lips as it filled the screen, illuminating her face in summery greens and blues.
The photograph was taken outdoors, with a blue sky and tall, verdant trees. A red wooden house with white corners took up most of the background, but her eyes were on the foreground. On the 4 people standing there. One of them was her. Younger. More freckles. Long blonde hair in twin braids that rested on her shoulders. She was wearing a light summer dress and a bored look, like she’d rather be off with friends. Behind her were two men, one tall and burly, with light skin and a neat, blonde beard. The other was slimmer, with tan skin and short black hair. They were both wearing button-up shirts and matching smiles. But Emma’s eyes lingered longest on the person next to her in the picture. The girl was a few years younger than the Emma in the photo - in her early teens - and she had long, curly black hair and a big, toothy smile that showed her braces.
The familiar face cut right through her like it always did, and she reached out to trace the photo, the holography fizzling a little as her fingertips pushed against the haptics. She didn’t even realize she was crying until she tasted the salt in her mouth and the picture started to blur. A couple of blinks cleared her vision, but before she could wipe at her cheeks the sound of crunching snow to her side drew her attention. Her Phalanx was out of her pocket in an instant, the blue targeting laser refracting against the cloaked figure standing next to her.
“Show yourself.” she demanded, voice still shaky with emotion. The cloaked figure obliged, and soon a green-skinned woman in sleek black armor stood in place of the distorted silhouette.
“Heyyyy. What’re ya looking at?” the unsettlingly reptilian woman asked, grinning widely and making a show of craning her neck to get a look at the omni-tool interface. “D’aww…”
Her skin had hints of scales forming in places, and her yellow eyes were anything but human. Gene-modded. Familiar. Viper. That was her name. Or what passed for a name, anyway. “Give me one reason I shouldn’t blow your brains out right this moment.”
Viper seemed unconcerned by the prospect of being shot in the head, even as the ascension of the laser sight to her forehead emphasized Emma’s threat. “Oh, unruffle your feathers. I’m not your enemy.”
Emma stiffened, and she tried to play off her sudden discomfort with a disdainful snort. “I know who you are. I know who you work for.”
Viper offered an exaggerated shrug and an ambivalent hand gesture. “Ehh… aaaactually my employment status has been kinda… up in the air, lately. Didn’t ya know? But! Things are looking up!”
Emma could feel her discomfort turning into confusion and annoyance, but she couldn’t let herself forget that the person in front of her was far more dangerous than she seemed. Her expression sharpened into a scowl, blue eyes vigilant as she gestured with her pistol, her words impatient. “What do you want?”
“When we finally kiss goodnight
How I’ll hate goin’ out in the storm
But if ya really hold me tight
All the way home I’ll be warm
And the fire is slowly dyin’
And, my dear, we’re still goodbyin’
But as long as ya love me so
Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow…”
Lucy could feel her voice tremble on the last lines, her composure on the verge of failing, but as the last chord rang out and her hand came to rest against the guitar in her lap she blinked back the wetness in her eyes and offered her crew a heavy smile. They were all gathered in the galley, digesting the Christmas dinner as they listened.
This wasn’t how Christmas normally went on the Jack. There was no cheering and dancing, no loud chatter. None of James’ laughter echoing through the deck. No twins off in their own corner as they pretended to be annoyed to be included. The weight of the last month’s events - the weight of the glaring absences in their little assembly - was heavy on all their shoulders. It was a quiet celebration. Somber. Careful. But not dishonest. They were all taking comfort in each others’ company. In their shared survival.
Lucy wasn’t sure she would have made it through the past few weeks without her crew. She had no doubt the same was true of Niklos. He’d been worse off than her after their last flight. It had taken Senya no shortage of effort to convince him to let her remove Nadia’s body from the cabin. After that he’d been an empty shell, roaming the ship like a ghost. He and his sister had always been a bit distant from the rest of the crew. But now he was here, sitting with the others. Silent, yes, but there was an unspoken appreciation over his presence going unquestioned.
Wrench was swaying a little from side to side, and her amber eyes had a shine to them as the song came to an end. She’d always had an appreciation for Lucy’s music - when she was younger she’d often come to the bridge to bug her to play one of her favorites, and it still happened from time to time. For the holidays it was practically mandatory, and it was a tradition that the rest of the crew had come to enjoy as well.
Lucy set down her guitar next to her with a heavy sigh. Makk seemed on the verge of falling asleep in his armchair, so if she was going to tell them today, it’d have to be now. “Thank ya for listenin’, everyone… but I’ve got somethin’ I wanted to talk to y’all about. As ya know, the Alliance boy, Jason, came by earlier today, and, well, he made me an offer.”
Elena perked up in her seat on the couch, gaze lifting from the beer in her hand and locking onto Lucy. “Now… ya know I ain’t the kind of captain that’d answer one way or another without talkin’ things over with my crew. So I'm bringin’ it to your attention now, so y’all can think it over. He wants us to come work with him and his wife.”
Lucy could see Makk’s displeased look as the krogan shifted in his seat, and she hurried to pre-empt his protest. “Not soldierin’, mind ya. He wants us to keep flyin’. Doin’ what we’ve been doin’ with the Jack. Cargo haulin’ and such. With a share goin’ to him and his. We’d have a friendly port here, access to their network. Stability that we’ve been… lackin’. And…”
Her voice was failing a bit, and she swallowed, forcing herself to go on. “...and a clear path to… restorin’ our security team.”
It felt wrong to talk about James and Nadia in such practical terms, but she was their captain, and she couldn’t afford to ignore the implications of losing half their muscle for their work, no matter how much she was hurting. She didn’t have to dwell on those uncomfortable feelings long since Senya interjected, tone wary. “Captain... you said yourself they have ties to the Alliance. You know that my situation-...”
Lucy brought up a hand to silence the doctor, who reluctantly leaned back in her seat, lone eye fixed on the captain. “I know. And ya know the well-bein’ of my crew is my number one concern. I ain’t sayin’ there ain’t risks involved with this - more than one. And truthfully I ain’t sure where I stand. But I want y’all to have a chance to think about it. Our financial situation is the worst it’s been in some time, and I know that affects some of ya more than others…”
The final words were said with a nod of acknowledgement to Elena, who returned it and took a sip of her beer as Lucy spoke again. “I want this to be a decision we make together. Take your time in thinkin’ it over. There’ll be more details comin’, and a chance to meet with the leadership, for those of ya with misgivings.”
Lucy’s gaze sought out Senya again. The asari gave a nod, seemingly satisfied that no rushed decisions would be made. Lucy relaxed a little once the announcement was over with, glancing around at the others. “But enough about that for now… Wrench, why don’t ya get over here and show the others what you've been practicin'?”
The half-hearted, improvised little Christmas celebration was winding down at the Dragon’s Den. It wasn’t really the same without Yan and Hiro. Spek was lost in his headset. Para had called an early night. Hotaru had dragged Argent up to her room a while ago, and considering Changying’s place was right above, she wasn’t in a hurry to go to bed. They’d rekindled their thing a while back - it seemed to be Hotaru’s way of taking her mind off of what had happened to her brother. A plan was starting to take shape, but there were still a lot of important things missing. It was a lot harder to get what they needed without Yan.
The thought made her expression sour, glowering at an arbitrary stain on their makeshift table. As she reached for another beer she noticed that Ethan was studying her, a faint frown on his face. “You’re thinking about her.”
“I’ve got a lot of things on my mind. In case you haven’t noticed, we’re in the shit.” she snapped, frown deepening as she pulled a beer from the crate and opened it against the table - a bit more aggressively than necessary. Another notch in the plywood.
“...and it probably doesn’t help that a lot of our problems tie back to her leaving. Right?” Ethan pressed, unfazed by her poor mood. He was leaned forward in his chair, arms against his knees.
“You better have a point coming real soon…” she warned, shooting him a glare and taking a long swig from her beer. This was not what she needed right now.
“Look, I know I wasn’t around back when… all of that went down, but… maybe that’s not a bad thing? If you want to talk with someone that wasn’t… friends with both of you.” he explained with a shrug and a cautious smile.
“I swear to God, Ethan, if this is your way of trying to get in my pants…” she let the warning trail off, but his response was an immediate, horrified look and a defensive gesture, palms out. She started to regret her words pretty quickly. He’d never done anything to warrant them.
“No! Wh-... no! I just wanted-... you took a chance on me, I know that. You’ve had my back, trusted that I’m genuine. I know not everyone was thrilled about me joining. I just wanted you to know it goes both ways, alright? I’d like to think we’re friends by now.” Ethan explained, studying her for a reaction, looking a little worried.
Changying let out a sigh, sinking a bit in her seat. Her expression softened and she nodded, but before she could say anything the door opened. The roof door. The woman that staggered inside was small, wiry and pale, with jaggedly uneven black hair and sunken eyes. Her tanktop was stained with blood and her knuckles were bruised and bloodied.
“Tox?! What the fuck?!” Changying leapt out of her seat, hurrying to the injured woman’s side and helping her over to the couch. “How bad? You need medigel? A smoother?”
Tox shook her head, waving off her concern. “Water.” she said in a raspy voice, looking half-dead as she leaned back in the couch. Changying rushed off to fill up a glass, a dozen questions running through her head as she returned and handed it to the once-familiar woman, but once she got a look at the twin streaks of nosebleed running from her nostrils to her lips only one remained. “I thought you got clean.”
Tox took a gulp of the water, a bit of blood mixing with what was left in the glass. Ethan handed her some tissues while Changying frowned at her, awaiting an answer.
“I was.” she said defensively, voice still strained. “But-... but there’s always another asshole, and what am I supposed to just-... j-just sit around and-” She was gesturing animatedly with her messy hands, eyes wild.
“I think you’ve still got bits of whatever asshole you came across stuck to you!” Changying interjected, caught between shock and frustration. Ethan just looked on in absolute confusion - Tox was from before his time.
“He deserved it.” she replied sharply, leveling a scowl on Changying, as if daring her to question that. She gestured defensively, quick to reply.
“I don’t doubt it! I just-” As Changying spoke one of Tox’ hands curled into a fist and flared with biotic energy, causing her to cut herself off and take a step back, showing her palms.
“Fucking what?! What?! You gonna fucking turn me in?! Stab me in the back?! Huh?!” the agitated woman snapped, the glow intensifying a bit as she rose halfway out of the couch.
“Tox-... Tox, relax-... nobody is-... we’re your friends. You know that. I’m sure you had good reasons for… whatever you did, but right now you have to calm down, have some more water, and wait for the sand to wear off.” She dared to move a bit closer, keeping eye contact while carefully placing a hand on Tox’ shoulder and urging her back down. “Okay? You’re safe here. We’ve got your back.”
Amel was sitting in the observation lounge, staring out into the blackness of space. She couldn’t help but ponder whether Typhon was visible from here. It was a silly thought, for a younger, less jaded mind. In her early days on Mars she had often gazed up at the starry sky and wondered what was out there. Now, she had the answers, and they were nothing like she’d dreamt.
The galaxy was a cold and uncaring place, and humanity was but a temporary flicker of life and warmth destined to be extinguished like so many that had come before. Less an anthill about to be stepped on and more a field of wheat about to be harvested. She wasn’t sure what chance they could possibly stand against such a foe, but she knew that their only hope was in understanding their enemy. Reason. Thought. That was their strength. A stalk of wheat could not learn to wield a scythe, but maybe, just maybe, humanity could.
She had done many ugly things in her life, and she would do many more if it meant that her children would have a future. Even with the defeat of the Collectors, time was running out. Everyone on the Barn knew that. Seeing the invisible weights lift from her daughter after the news broke of Shepard’s deed had only solidified her resolve.
“Professor? Are you alright?” It was a woman’s voice that broke her out of her grim thoughts. She was standing next to the bench, changed out of her labcoat. A woman with freckled, brown skin, and her dark hair in a sleek bob. Dr. Brynn Cole, one of Cerberus’ brightest young minds. Amel straightened her back a bit, schooling her face back into neutrality and nodding.
“I’m fine, Brynn. Just… lost in thought, I suppose.” The admission cost her little, it must be obvious. Besides, she liked Brynn.
“You looked lightyears away…” Brynn commented, taking a seat next to Amel and offering the cup in her hands. “Coffee?”
A faint hint of a smile tugged at the corner of Amel’s mouth and she accepted the cup with an appreciative nod. “It can’t hurt. And… that’s not far from the truth.”
No one was working tonight. The labs stood empty as people celebrated Christmas in their own ways. Some found companionship among others on the station, others were sending messages to their loved ones - carefully screened by UDI, of course. Life was strict on the Barn - their work was paramount to humanity’s future, after all - but people were still people, and some allowances had to be made. Someone had even wrangled permission from the Director to play holiday music on the PA system in the living quarters. There were decorations too. It was almost bizarre when contrasted with their work. With the contents of the station’s labs.
Brynn seemed to consider asking what was on her mind, before no doubt recalling her abject failure at getting personal details out of the Professor in the past. Instead she shifted a bit. “I was looking for you. I wanted to tell you something, actually.”
Amel raised an eyebrow, turning her full attention to Brynn while taking a sip of her coffee. Whatever it was sounded important - important enough to have the young doctor excited.
“I’m being transferred. I’m going to be a project lead. Project Mia.” Amel wasn’t exactly shocked, Brynn was the obvious choice, but it was still big news. She wasn’t quite sure how to respond, but after a moment of hesitation she placed a hand on the doctor’s shoulder.
“It will be a blow to lose you, Brynn, but I know you will excel. You’re the brightest mind here.” Brynn seemed a little caught off-guard by the praise, but she composed herself and nodded.
“Thank you, Professor.” she said, a small smile crossing her lips. “What about you? Have you gotten your new orders?”
Amel nodded. “I will be returning to Project Phoenix once we’re done sorting through Archer’s mess. The Director believes that it is time to renew our efforts, given recent… events.”
Brynn gained a look of distaste. “I can’t say I’ll be unhappy to not be working under the Director any longer. That man is-”
“Mind your tongue, Dr. Cole. That’s the kind of talk that could see your contract terminated.” Amel warned, cutting Brynn off. “And that would be a terrible waste. We need you if we’re going to be ready.”
Brynn was caught off-guard, looking unsure whether to be angered or embarrassed, but she settled for a nod. “I-”
Someone clearing their throat behind the bench interrupted the conversation, and Amel felt a brief tinge of concern on Brynn’s behalf, but upon looking over her shoulder, the figure she saw was familiar. A lean, grim-looking woman with tan skin and tightly cropped black hair. Scars and tattoos covered most parts of her body that weren’t concealed by her fatigues. “Operative Bondoc.”
The severe-looking woman nodded and held out a datapad for Amel. “The… personal matter you wanted me to oversee has been dealt with.”
Renala looked up from her screen to verify that the door had locked and then leaned back. It was a busy morning, and she was headed to the Respite later today to keep Steve company as they celebrate this holiday. She had helped Uvena earlier this morning and wrapped up her work on Ilyna's gift to Li. She has even been down to the market once. She locked herself in because she did not want to be disturbed as she performs the most important task on the schedule for today: calling her daughter Aeyna.
This was the first Christmas she could not be there to celebrate with her, and a call was the least she could do. She blanked all the screens on the walls around her and started the call.
The call connected immediately, but she could not hear anything yet. The distance and poor infrastructure meant she had to dig deep into her video compression arsenal to make a face-to-face call work. It would still be choppy and at times resemble a cartoon, but it will do.
"There we go," Renala said as the setup was completed, and she could see the living room at home in Armali. On the couch sat two small asari, Aeyna, and a paler face Renala recognized as her friend Marit. There were sounds of cooking and preparations, but they were not in view of the camera. "Merry Christmas, you two!"
"Hey," Aeyna said, sounding deflated.
"Hello Renala," Marit said with a bright smile. "At least I'm glad to see you." She nudged Aeyna gently in the side.
"Oh?" Renala raised an eyebrow. "Is something wrong?"
"You're not here," Aeyna grumbled. Renala could barely understand what was being said from the compressed audio, but the words were obvious.
"I had no choice, dearie," she said. "If I had known the Collector menace would be over a couple of days later, I would have stayed."
Aeyna made an even, dissatisfied hum.
Marit tilted her head. "Were they coming to Aite?" she asks. "The news said they only went for human colonies."
Renala shrugged. "Aite has a lot of humans," she said. "There were also other technical concerns after a few ops, but I won't bore you with that crap." Renala sighed. "So, Christmas," she said. "Got any good gifts so far?" She tilted her head with a knowing smile.
"We haven't opened any yet," Aeyna said, her voice still low.
"I was just testing you, Aey-aey," Renala replied. "I wanted to make sure you hadn't broken the rules without me around to hold your scalp."
Marit grinned. "That's my job today," she said, "but I'm happy to report there have been no attempted gift thefts... so far." She casts a suspicious glance to her side.
Renala narrowed her eyes. "You were her trusted accomplice last year," she said. "There's a conflict of interest in that, so why should that be left to you?"
Marit sighed. "Aeyna has been such a grump today," she said. "She-..."
"Have not," Aeyna shot back.
Renala frowned. "Aeyna, dear, I'm sorry, okay?" she says. "I wish I could be on that couch with you right now, playing games with the two of you and making up every excuse not to help Nallie with the dinner, but I can't. I have responsibilities here today."
Aeyna looked down at her fidgeting hands, and Renala can see her eyes getting watery despite the heavy video compression.
Marit shuffled closer, but she still looked up at the screen.
"I'll be home next Christmas," she said. "I promise."
"The Collectors were killed two weeks ago!" Aeyna shouted and stood from the couch. "You-... You could have come home again!" She stomped out of view, and she could hear a door slamming shut shortly after.
Marit looked up after her but stayed on the couch for now. "I don't think it's your fault," she says, "but... come visit her soon."
Renala shook her head. "Don't make excuses for me, Marit," she said with a weary sigh. "It's still early here, so tell her she can call me back for a one-on-one later if she wants."
Marit nodded and stood from her seat.
"I'm sorry I'm not there to talk to her," she said.
Marit offered a tiny smile. "It's fine, Renala," she says. "I got this." She picked up a remote, and the call terminated a few seconds later.
Renala shut the terminal screen off and just sat in the relative darkness of her office. It'll take a lot to bring this asari to tears, but this was the closest she's felt in years. She knew there were unresolved issues between them and that this Christmas would not be the same, but she had not expected the call to end this way. Every day she is here, she's putting the burden of these issues on the shoulders that do not deserve them.
She reached for the half-empty cup of coffee on her desk and drank the remainder of it. It's lukewarm, but she needed the caffeine to shake these feelings in case she runs into anyone else.
Renala then stood and picked up the wrapped gift from the floor by her desk and went to leave it on Ilyna's desk. Renala tried to stay out of others' offices as much as her work permitted, but she did not have the time to hand this over in person.
A few cameras needed new eyes, and the mainframe needed a replacement bulk storage device, and then she planned to get the hell out of there before any other automated alerts reached her desk.
"I'm not going to be done any sooner with you hanging over me," Renala said with a sidelong glance at Uvena, who was leaning over the desk. On it was a flat device with the innards exposed, and Renala was poking and prodding at it with a pair of wires while a microscope overlooked it.
They have spent the entire morning together, including a trip down to the market to buy more parts and a few gifts.
"I've got nothing better to do," Uvena said with a shrug. "How's it looking?"
Renala rolled her chair over to the terminal and tapped on it a few times. "I think the power supply to the screen has broken," she said, pointing up at a monitor hanging over the screen. It looked dirty, but Uvena could not tell what was wrong with it. "I could clean it up, but it was a standard part forty-fifty years ago, so I'll just fabricate a new one instead. It'll last longer that way too."
"Is that how you're getting rid of me, hm?" Uvena said, pushing away from the desk to stand up straight. "Telling me to go wait by the fabricator while nothing happens for a while?"
"That was a network failure," Renala shook her head, a grin showing up. "I didn't do it intentionally."
"Uh-huh," Uvena said. "I'll get it for you."
Uvena stepped out into the hallway and headed for the hangar. She could see the fabricator hard at work creating the piece, a tall flat plug with golden plates. The fabrication was complete by the time she had crossed the hangar, and she reached in to pick it up. She did not touch any of the metal parts, just the omni-gel-based plastics on the edges.
She was back in Renala's office just a minute later, holding it triumphantly between her fingers before putting it gently on Renala's desk. There was a bounce to her step as excitement mounted. Renala had replaced nearly everything inside this old drawing tablet, but she assured Uvena that everything Va'ynna drew was recoverable. However, Renala has missed every estimate she's given Uvena about how many things were left to replace, and they have been at the market twice. So, she had good reasons to doubt her.
"Thanks," Renala said and slotted the plug into its place, having taken out the dirty one while Uvena was out.
"Anything else I can do?" Uvena offered.
"I think this is it," Renala said. "I just got to solder it on and hopefully we'll have a picture."
"Good," Uvena said, leaning on the desk again. "So, what are your plans for the night? The offer is still on the table, you know."
"I'm going down to the Respite to keep Steve company," Renala said with a shrug. "I'm just going to give Aeyna a call once we're done here, then I'll sneak out before the next alert goes off."
"But won't they call you back in if everything stops working?"
"Of course, but they won't notice a missing fourth eye or a degraded storage pool," she says.
"I guess," Uvena said, letting the technical terms go out the other ear.
"Alright, give me a few minutes of peace and quiet," Renala said. "This isn't hard, just finicky."
Uvena wondered why the connector was soaked in some viscous fluid while Renala poked and prodded at it, but she wasn't going to ask. One, she has probably wondered about it at least twice before. Two, she knows better than to interrupt Renala while she's doing her a favor. Instead, she stepped away to look at the wall of cameras, absent-mindedly observing the dinner preparations going on in the rec room upstairs.
She never got a great answer for why Renala is doing these favors one after the other. Never a consistent one, at least. She either says that she likes this kind of work, that she's doing it for Va'ynna, or that she's helping a colleague out. Renala has also been quick to establish that she is not doing this out for romantic reasons.
However, It doesn't always look like she's enjoying this work from all the cursing. Some of the things have more than fifty years of dust, wear and tear, most of which didn't have much more than eight years of warranty. Uvena is also the only one that can unlock this office when Renala is absent, too, which is also something to ponder.
"There," Renala said. "Let's see if this thing lights up."
Uvena turned around and stepped over to Renala's side. Renala had turned the device around, circuit boards still exposed, and pressed one of the buttons. The holographic screen flickered to life quickly, showing a list of files.
"This thing really is sixty years old," Renala said, turning the screen so Uvena can get a closer look. "Does this look right to you?"
Uvena gave a sharp nod. "That was when she got it," she said. "She had asked for it for the longest time, but finances were tight."
Renala opened a new file and drew a simple shape with her finger to make sure the paper-like display still behaved correctly; then, she shut it off. "Great, just give a minute to get this thing sealed up," she said.
"Thank you, Renala," she said. "It's taken its time, huh?"
"I didn't expect it'll take this long," she said as she took one more look at the innards of the device, "but that's in the past. Are you going to wrap all her old stuff up?"
Uvena shrugged. "That would be a colossal waste of wrapping paper," she said. "I'll wrap this tablet, then hide the rest somewhere until we're done opening presents."
"I hope she appreciates how much effort we put into this."
"The effort you put into this," Uvena corrected. "You're not this nice to everyone." She tilted her head.
Renala waved her off. "I like what you're doing for her," she said. "She's been through some shit and then some."
"I know," Uvena said with a sigh.
Renala tightened the last screw, turned the device on and off to check, and then handed it to Uvena. "Now, get out of here," she said. "I've got a little one to check in on."
Uvena put the device on the table's edge before yanking Renala out of the chair into a hug. The other asari let out a displeased grunt, which made Uvena's smile more tight-lipped. "Not without a proper thank you," she said. "Have a good Christmas eve, okay?"
"Yeah, you too," Renala said dismissively before pulling out of the hug, and she was back in the chair before Uvena could blink.
Uvena picked the tablet back up again and made her way out of the office.
Nalota stepped through the front door of her apartment, carrying a heavy cardboard box. Her eyes settled quickly on Kirev, who was poking his head through the doorway to the bedroom.
"Hey," she said weakly before putting the box down by the clothes rack.
"What's in the box?" he asked, irritation seeping into his voice.
"Just some Christmas decorations," she said, with a self-satisfied smile on her lips, and began to remove her winterwear.
"Thought we agreed that-"
"No, we agreed not to spend credits on it," she said. "I got this for free; a colleague was moving to a smaller place and didn't need it."
"We agreed to not get it," he said. "Apartment is cramped enough."
He was right, but Nalota shook her head regardless. She picked the box up again and carried it over to the couch. The apartment was cramped. They had no dinner table, even. It looked tidy but look under a bed or in a cupboard, and that illusion soon fades.
"So, why did you get it?" he pressed, still irritated.
"Because everyone in this building has at least a star in their window, even the batarians."
"Maybe they have space for it," he suggested. "We don't."
"We'll worry about that later," she said. "You can throw it out for all I care, but let me hang it up for however long the holiday is, okay?"
"Good luck then," he said curtly as he turned back to resume his cleaning.
"Don't be like that," Nalota whined. "I need your help with some of it, I think. She didn't know if it was all in working order."
"Would if we agreed on this," he said, still in the other room.
"Who is it that has two sets of armor, and a whole repair shop's worth of tools?" she says. "Not me, so allow me my box of baubles."
"Cannot afford to lose job over equipment failure," he said, "and need the tools to keep that from happening. Much more important than 'box of baubles'."
"Shut up," Nalota said and stepped into the bedroom. "I'll find somewhere to stove it." She knew that she won't, but that was a problem for future Nalota. She reached down into the bucket to grab the map, wringing it, and then she took it out to the living room.
They cleaned in silence for a while, working in opposite rooms. It was a pointless argument, they both knew, but such is life in this cramped apartment.
"So, who's coming with us to the Miner's Respite tonight?" she asked to break the silence while she was back at the bucket to soak the cloth.
"Mian hasn't answered, and Carolyn has night shift," Kirev said, "but rest are coming."
Nalota sighed. "I'm not surprised about Mian," she said. "The two of them have stuck together for thirty years. That's not a short time, not even for us." She stands back up. "She'll come around," she added. "We get used to loss."
Kirev shook his head. "This is not loss, not yet," he said. "She wants to go after her roommate, just looking for where to start. Inadvisable, but asari driven by feelings and impulses."
"Says the one grumpy about colorful decorations," she said, her mouth a thin line.
"An impulsive, stupid decision."
"One I'll live with," she said. "Now let's get this all sorted and hung up before we have to go." She picked up a spray bottle hanging off the bucket and headed for the bathroom.
The weather was mild this Christmas eve, and despite their situation, they needed to get out of their apartment. Wenera did not let her guard down and kept a watchful eye on their surroundings. Natalie was heavily wrapped in winter-wear, while Wenera looked lighter dressed.
"I mean, if she was looking for a time to strike, today would be the day," Natalie broke the silence as they rounded a corner.
Wenera gave an affirmative hum. "Yeah, and there wouldn't be much we could do about it," she said. "Just calling for Redrock's help and hoping they're not all too full on Christmas food to fight."
Natalia patted the holstered pistol at her side. "We'll see about that," she said. "I'm not a bad shot."
"But she has every advantage," Wenera said. "We're not winning that fight without backup."
"For all we know, she's dropped the whole thing anyway," she said. "It's been... what now? Two months?"
Wenera shook her head. "We cannot count on that," she said. "Two months is nothing for an asari. We may be holed up in there for years waiting for her to make her move."
"My money is on her dropping it," she said, though her body language mirrored the same tension in Wenera. "She fucked up by getting Redrock involved. Now her face has made the rounds."
"We cannot underestimate how advantaged she is," she said. "The militia has no official exile on her; and they and Redrock can only respond so soon."
"She can get in, but can she get out without leaving a trail to follow?"
"A trail right leading back to where she has the advantage," Wenera corrected.
"Fine," Natalie sighed. "I guess you know a thing or two about stalking." She gave her a nudge.
"If I did, I would have waited until you were drunk and scooped you out of a ditch," Wenera returned the nudge.
"I wouldn't be drinking if we weren't neck deep in this shit," she retorted.
Wenera sighed and gave a slow nod. She knew Natalie's situation and where her anger towards Sala Piros came from. That it hasn't already driven her to drink before Wenera got involved is a miracle. Or she's lying, which is more likely. "So," Wenera begins. "Let's... uh, let's drop it for now, Okay? You are going to teach me how to play cards."
Natalie shrugged. "Yeah, of course," she said. "We're probably just going to play some simple stuff, a drinking game at most. I'm not playing for creds with a salarian at the table."
"I don't like the sound of that," Wenera said. "I'll pass, someone needs to walk you home at the end of the night."
"That's why I keep you around, Wennie," she says. "So I... I don't freeze to death."
Wenera picked up the hesitation in her voice, but she did not need to ask. Instead, she gave her a silent pat on the shoulder, and they kept going.