Author's Notes: HAI GUYS. Sup? I've been playing Mass Effect now for waaaay too long and needed some creative outlet. I haven't finished the game. Nope. But I am pissed that Garrus isn't a romantic option. So, to retaliate, he's going to be one here. Got it? Bioware can deal. That being said, the general gist of this is going to be FemShepard and Garrus, which I'm going to try to develop slowly because I'm slow… like a rock.
You'll be seeing some flashbacks here. Some will be in-game events, others will be from what I'm imagining happened before all this jazz. Starting just before Artemis Tau. Spoilers to come in later chapters. You should be able to pick up on what kind of background I picked up, so I won't get into that.
Yeah. I'm not too hot at this stuff, so bear with me. I don't have a beta and I'm terrible at self-editing. These will actually come out regularly if there's interest and if someone can help me clean up my mess. Until then, here ya be.
Rated M for language and what I intend to do with these poor SOB's later. YEH. I'M GOIN THAR.
She had an entire galaxy at her fingertips. Albeit, she knew little of it from firsthand experience, but through the digital haze and virtual tours each command offered, it was as though she had explored them all. It was a privilege, she realized slowly, that many would kill for and few would achieve. This was Pressley's place once, back when she still had officers who stood above her command. But now, there was no one. This was the zenith with the world below her and the hundreds of systems with it. This was power… power she suddenly feared and yearned for all at once. It burned blue and hot, alluring amidst the darkness with the promise of warmth and the warning of pain. It was a new sensation, one she had tucked deep into the recesses of her mind along with the other memories and dilemmas she simply couldn't make priorities.
Among them lay the darker days of an uncertain future; of cooking flesh and searing pain, charred dreams and a past ripped to shreds. These were fuzzier, forced into obscurity though the years of systematic desensitizing. They may have been blurred, but never erased. Among them lay missions, botched, successes mingled together, the accomplishments certainly more appealing than the others. This subconscious had become a mess over time, but now existed as controlled chaos. She had a firm grip on these pieces of her past and thus knew the proper way to keep them all at bay. She would have been proud of such a coping skill, if she would simply call it coping. Years of telling herself time and time again, assuring her own inner voice that this was simply a work in progress had resulted in something like denial. She knew the bitter tang of failure better than most people and this mental mechanism had a similar taste.
But here, standing on the ramp before a sprawling sea of stars, she could reach out and touch so much more, more than her petty reservations and scars, mental and physical. Before her lay infinity.
And she couldn't even bring herself to set the course. She stood, arm outstretched, but motionless. Her eyes wouldn't focus.
"Commander Shepard?" Pressley spoke up from the console at the base of the map, brow raised in question. "Do we have a destination?"
The commander hesitated, the palm of her hand hovering over the Artemis Tau Cluster. Pale green eyes pierced through it, straight to the Knossos sector. They shifted from planet to planet quickly, giving little time to consider their individual attributes. She'd know it when she saw it. A heartbeat later, she did. Her fingers deftly slid across the cluster and brought the fiery planet to life.
"Set a course for Therum. We're going planetside as soon as we enter the atmosphere," Shepard announced aloud, earning curious glances from nearby crew who all seemed to find something of interest in her tone of command.
It was unconscious, truly, but she always spoke with the same depth and certainty. There was power in her words that few other women of her age would ever know. Sometimes, it seemed foreign to her. It was a sound hardly befitting the woman behind the gaze of ice.
"You have a remarkably poor combat record with no history of any military leadership. No commendations, never once a squad leader. None of your commanding officers have ever found you memorable, nor have you ever exhibited proper combat tactics in accordance to Alliance Navy basic training. Inability to execute evasive maneuvers… Have you ever not been shot in battle? This track record makes you out to be little more than human target practice, not to mention your psychological profile is a mess… So tell me, ensign; why do you seem to think you're a candidate for reassignment on one of our more promising colonies? Is this your idea of a joke? Because I've never been known for my sense of humor. In fact, I'd say I downright hate it."
Lieutenant Commander Harris closed the com file quickly and leaned forward, folding his hands atop his desk. "I feel like I deserve an explanation in exchange for you wasting my time."
Ren Shepard hadn't really expected much better, but the manner of the response had her straining to maintain composure. That tiny muscle between eyelid and brow twitched, subtlety she hoped, but briefly. The makeshift office was stifling, thanks to Harris' unshakable need to keep all of his weapons and personal belongings in this space rather than the lockers provided for CO's as well as recruits. His graying hair conveyed this appearance of aged wisdom and experience, but Harris in person was little more than an impatient, bigoted man who had pulled just the right strings to bring him to a comfortable position of command. Unfortunately, he rarely failed a mission and thus remained secure in that position. Damn her luck.
"Sir, I meant no offense. I simply don't think I'm an asset to this garrison here and I feel like everyone would be better off if I was stationed on another colony", Shepard spoke calmly, much to her surprise. She was sure some quiver of annoyance would slip through the cracks and make for a volatile conversation.
Harris leaned back in his chair and laughed mockingly, "Better off? Shepard, the only reason you're still here is because I've got a duty to keep you from ruining someone else's shit," Harris coughed through a smirk, "You're to remain here, safely tucked away from civilized society".
Shepard rolled her eyes and made no effort to hide it from Harris, who promptly growled, "You think I don't know we're wasting our time out here on this damn rock? We're babysitters for party after party of deadbeat miners. Oh, no one knows that better than me. But you know what, Shepard? You're pretty damn lucky out here. You could be roughing it out on Sidon right now, getting mauled by whatever abomination they're cooking up over there. But no, you're here, resident pain-in-my-ass. Safe and out of the way where no one will end up dead when you fuck up."
Her patience was waning, and fast. She snapped back, unable to curb the edge in her voice, "Then put me on a frigate, a carrier, whatever. I don't need to be stationed on a system, just put me where-"
"No, Shepard. You need to be far away from anyone less merciful than myself, because you'd be out on your ass faster than you can say 'krogan balls'," he spat, busying himself with another com file.
"I don't care, Lieutenant, just get me into space. Any vessel. There's got to be something out there…" she trailed off, cursing herself for not having some kind of trump card, something to seal a deal.
Harris took advantage of her thought lapse," Lieutenant Commander, Shepard. You think I fought in the First Contact to be anything less? I killed enough bark-faced freaks to be a damn captain. You forget you place out-"
"I show respect where it's due, sir," she spat back before she could fully process her choice of words.
The officer went quiet, forgetting the open file entirely as his cold brown eyes glared daggers at her. There was a pregnant pause as she braced herself for whatever verbal onslaught he had prepared. Nothing good could come of this and there were few avenues leading towards a brighter future. Shepard expected a slew of punishments; all-night inspection duty, a week in the mess. The possibilities seemed endless.
"You just don't have it in you, do you?" Harris spoke first, unusually flat considering the prior outburst. "You could have tried bribery, blackmail… hell, flattery to achieve your ends. But no, you're too stubborn, aren't you? Just had to bust by chops and work us both into this becoming state, here."
He sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose, as though it would some how relieve the pressure building there. "Get out of here, Shepard. Come back if you ever get a better head on those shoulders. I won't hold my breath though."
The next thing she knew, she was standing outside Harris' office, the door hissing shut behind her. She hadn't expected that. No, hardly. It stunned her into obedience and compelled her to just up and exit. It left her thoughtful, though. Perturbed, mostly.
"You'd think you didn't really want it, Shepard," came a familiar voice. She looked up to see the youthful face of one of the few recruits she called "friend" here.
"How'd you hear all that, McDowell?" she asked with genuine curiosity. Harris was pretty big on privacy. She had figured eavesdropping wouldn't be common within a five yard radius of the man.
McDowell shrugged, a grin ghosted across his face. Shepard wasn't even sure she had seen it once it had gone. He gestured to the door. "Just didn't cover my ears. You'd think you two were intent on broadcasting it through the whole camp."
"Oh… sorry," she admitted, suddenly embarrassed. It was one thing to know her own failures intimately, but they seemed all the more detrimental the more people got wind of them. McDowell especially held a certain place of reverence in her opinion of things. She had been deployed with him several times and he knew just as well as anyone how poorly she functioned under fire. Still, he continued to speak with her on a casual level and treated her with just as much dignity as a functioning member of the squad. The friendship had become increasingly valuable to her as, one by one, others refused to even make eye contact with her.
"Look, I know you hate it here. Join the club… but if you want to do anything about you, you need to commit. I mean, you let Harris get his way because you just didn't do things right. He had a point, you know. If you wanted out of here, you'd work with him," he suggested mildly. It was probably the most frank anyone had even been to her since her assignment here and the words didn't land lightly.
"I just… I couldn't stand to meet him on his own level, you know? But I don't know what else to do. I have to leave, McDowell. I don't know how much longer I'll last here. It's just… I can't explain,"
'Can't explain how I spend every night trapped in a nightmare. I see the dead when I close my eyes. I see the dead in your face, in every man and woman who holds up a gun beside me. I want to bury myself in the ground, I want to rip off my skin and run as fast as I can, all at the same time. How about that, McDowell? Now do you want to be best friends?'
"I can help you out, here. If you'll let me… if you can find the motivation, I can help you find the skill," his face grew serious.
"Help? What do you mean?" Shepard looked puzzled.
"Oh, come on. You get out there and it's like you slept through basic or something. You need to go back to square one."
"Ah", Shepard muttered, pushing some loose strands of jet hair from her brow. Yes, it was true. She was a wreck during combat. McDowell had the right idea, though. She had enlisted almost immediately after Mindoir and carried on in a less-than-steady state of mind. Her memories of training were muddled at best. How she managed to get through it and wind up in an active garrison were beyond her. Apparently, it was just as perplexing to the rest of the 130th division.
"I'm offering you a way out of here, Shepard. Weapons training, combat maneuvers, offensive tactics… Nothing extraordinary, but enough to get you up and out of the bottom of the barrel. When your reports start working in your favor, you'll have a ticket out of here," This was perhaps the most McDowell had ever spoken to her in one sitting and it was welcome at that. It'd been too long since her last remotely normal conversation Many years too long.
"How long do you think it'll take until I stop looking like a clown out there?" Shepard tried to crack a smile back at him, but her lips were unaccustomed to the movement and managed some kind of awkward grimace that she cursed herself for.
"Months. Maybe a year. It depends on how far back we're going to go," he added lightly.
Shepard balked, "Months? Are you serious?"
McDowell straightened up, stern gaze fixed on her, "If we're going to do this, we're going to do it right. If I'm going to get you off this rock, you've got to be able to hold your own once it's out from under you."
Her heart nearly fell into her stomach as that brief thought of immediate freedom dissolved into years of strenuous training. She had to remind herself of his generosity and the curiosity of it. The more she mulled over it, the more appealing it became, until she realized that was, in fact, her only ticket out.
She had made up her mind, but she had to ask, "Why help me, McDowell? You don't owe me anything and you never struck me as a humanitarian… Or is it the other way around?"
He laughed heartily and the sound of it made something inside her flutter. It was an alien sensation, but not unnerving. Like seeing an old friend after years of silence.
"All I ask, Shepard, is that after you've gone out there and made something of yourself, you remember me. Put in a good word for me at C-Sec. Not sure I'll ever see it, but I can dream, right? But I want your word on this," his smiled never wavered, even though he must have known as well as she did that soldiers on systems like this did little more than disappear into anonymity.
"Why me? You're ten times the soldier I am. Get yourself out of here, first," she sorely needed out, but knew there had to be more than this. She couldn't take complete advantage of the opportunity without knowing the real story.
McDowell's expression wavered, giving Shepard a startling glimpse into a face worn and tired. It couldn't have been the same man she had just spoken to, the man with the laugh that made her feel like she might truly smile again one day. "I've earned this, Shepard. I am where I am because the path I created for myself led me here. I have no intention of leaving. But you, Shepard… maybe it's not about skill or talent, but I know you've got something there. I know there's more to you. I've seen it. You've been shot more times than I can count on my fingers, but time and time again, you come back here. You get right back up and go out there with the rest of us. All this time, this look in your face… It's like you could just curl up on the floor and die, like you really want it. But you don't. I see'm kill you out there, Shepard. But you don't die," McDowell stopped, a look of slight surprise flickering over his features.
Shepard felt like someone had run ice cold fingers down her back and left a pound of lead in her stomach. She did, at that moment, yearn dearly for a place to curl up in the darkness, but McDowell's smile came back.
"To me, it's a flashing sign telling me that there's way more to you than this gangly girl I see right now. I wouldn't mind helping the Alliance in finding a soldier they can really be proud of. Hell, especially if it means putting Harris out of a job," he cast a sideways glance at the nameplate beside the door panel.
"I'm in. When do we start?" Shepard replied firmly.
McDowell nodded, "Tonight after rounds. Suit up and meet me at the checkpoint just before the pass. There's a clearing back there that used to be a Mako drop point, but… well, the rest of the navy doesn't visit too much anymore."
"You've got clearance to leave the barracks after curfew?" Shepard stared, incredulous.
"Nope. I'm pretty sure you don't either, so let's not get caught. This will not be fun and you're probably going to be in some fierce kind of pain for a good long while, but trust me, Shepard. You need every second of it and it will be worth it."
Shepard turned down the ramp, reflexively heading towards Joker for comfortable, if not bland conversation. Most of the crew continued to treat her as they did before, but there was this air of uncertainty about them since her admission into the Spectres. Joker remained the most irreverent of them all and rarely acknowledge any change in her position.
She had heard mutterings in the mess of doubts among the crew. Word came through the grapevine about worries regarding her loyalties. Some wondered if she would waver in her dedication to the Alliance and shift towards the council. While most regarded the galactic board as a respectable means to maintain peace, humans still maintained their suspicions. No one could ignore humanity's struggle to attain respect among the other galactic civilizations, much less its plight to earn a seat on the council. Most humans were wary of these other races, even after all the strides to be heard in these galactic proceedings. At any moment, the council could reject the species entirely and turn all other life in the traverse against them. It was a precarious position that was so unfamiliar to this once sovereign race that had only known itself… and even proclaimed themselves to be the only life in the galaxy. Their arrogance had proved destructive in the First Contact war and many sang a different tune these days.
Humanity had stumbled upon something far bigger than itself and had been effectively humbled. Everyone from then on knew some sort of few. All at once, the species fell to the bottom of the food chain and nothing would be the same. Efforts were made, success aplenty, but the prejudices remained: fear and hatred of the turians, suspicion of salarians and mistrust towards asari.
The paradigm had shifted and few could keep up to move along with it. They were forced into the future and stared forward, fighting to make sense of this new existence.
Shepard couldn't demand trust from them anymore. She had to earn it now. She had two worlds to appease and both held their own authority over her life. The Alliance was all that a home should have been for her. It was the past and the comfort of familiarity. The Citadel and Council were the future, a change in life and promise of something different ahead, while not necessarily better.
The irony of it never ceased to plague her.
She made for the aft of the bridge instead, settling for solitude.