Author's Note: Yay! I'm done. Much love to my beta/proofreader/captive audience/best friend Jen, who was of much help, in reading, proofing, offering opinions, and not killing me over cliffhangers. A big thanks, too, to all my reviewers. Reviews brighten my day, and I really appreciate them.
For reference, if anyone is curious, the Latin phrase that Shepard quotes in her speech-- Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori -- translates roughly as "It is sweet and right to die for your country." Originally from an ode by Horace, the phrase has been much used as military propaganda. One of its most famous uses was in the anti-war poem Dulce Et Decorum Est, by Wilfred Owen, who was killed in action one week before the end of WWI. I don't think it a stretch to have the phrase still kicking around in the future. (And, yeah, I was an English major. Is it that obvious?)
Disclaimer: I own nothing. It is all Bioware's. Everything. Bioware owns everything. Everything!
Dead Man's Switch
Part Five: Home
Shepard decided she wasn't dead after all. That was, unless the afterlife looked uncommonly like the ceiling of the Mindoir hospital's lunchroom. She had spent far too many hours last night staring at that, putting the pieces of her plan together.
She also felt as if she were ninety million years old. It had taken what had felt like hours to wake, struggling to lift her eyelids, consciousness battering at her in fits and starts. Every single muscle was knotted tight, her hands clenched into gnarled fists.
She took a very deep breath, and another, focusing on relaxing her muscles. First her hands, flexing her fingers, then her arms, and then the larger muscles of her torso and legs. After several minutes she managed to sit upward, staring at the floor and gagging at the taste the gas left in her mouth, which was somewhere between rotten turnips and wheatgerm.
With a herculean effort, she managed to sit up and swing her legs to the side of the couch. The change in elevation set her head to spinning, and she paused, elbows on thighs, head in hands. She took another deep breath as she pondered whether she had the strength and steadiness to actually stand up.
The door opened. "Commander. Good to see you awake."
Shepard risked lifting her head to look up. The speaker was a woman who looked vaguely familiar, tall with thin features, a no-nonsense black ponytail, and skin the colour of milky coffee. She was clad in marine fatigues, which Shepard found comforting. All was normal in her world when everyone was in uniform. Civilians were distracting.
Oh. Shepard finally recognized her. It was an odd experience meeting someone in the flesh you had only seen via comms. It was a shock realizing they weren't orange after. "Commander Singh," she greeted. "Good to be awake. I think. I feel like I've been on shore leave in a bar that served only turnip beer. Damn, it's embarrassing to be knocked out with your own knockout gas."
"But it did the job," said Singh briskly, leaning against a table opposite. "How are you feeling otherwise? Dr. Fletcher said you'd be alright."
"I've known that man since I was three years old," groaned Shepard. "He could show a little more compassion than dumping me on a couch and saying I'll be alright."
"You can cut him a little slack in that department," said Singh, crossing her arms. "He has forty-odd slaves to deal with. You familiar with slave jacks?"
Shepard winced. "Yes. Lovely batarian present. Put a jack that hooks right into your nervous system, plug a control system into it, and they can have all sorts of fun with you. You'll be begging to lick their feet after ten minutes." She rubbed the back of her own neck at the very thought.
"He did well with that gas, though." Singh changed the subject very quickly. "He didn't have much time to get that right."
"Yes," said Shepard, looking down to the floor a moment. "Regular knock-out gas wasn't going to help. We couldn't use it for the same reason we weren't going to go in guns blazing and shoot them. Well, besides the moral qualms we felt at killing slaves. Knockout gas would make them go limp—and drop the switches. Kaboom. Fortunately Richard knew of a compound he'd experimented with years ago until they decided it had no medical use whatsoever—one that induced rigour." She winced, and rubbed one forearm. "Quite well, I can attest. We hoped it'd meant they'd keep hold of the bomb switches. Apparently it worked."
"Not quite perfectly," replied Singh, voice a tough grim. "We were a bit lucky, however. As far as I can tell, it seems Balak had used his most impressive explosives earlier, on the individual bombers, so each slave in square carried less. Collectively, they'd have done serious damage, yes. Probably leveled the town. But when one either wasn't affected by the gas or managed to throw the switch before…we managed to survive that. My denotation team had an…issue with defusing the bombs on another." She bit her lip for a moment. She looked even more tired in person than she had on the comm, dark shadows threatening to overwhelm her eyes. "We lost two soldiers and about eight slaves. And through all that, the damned memorial statue is still standing, can you believe it? We might even be able to have that unveiling, after all."
"And Balak?" asked Shepard. She almost didn't want to ask.
Singh scowled. "Gone, I'm afraid. He'd arranged a quick getaway for himself, and we've no ships to pursue. The Alliance reinforcements are on their way and hopefully they'll be able to intercept. He's about the Alliance's most wanted now." She sighed. "You're alive, I'm alive, too many casualties, and the prime suspect's gone. I'll give us about a B…B+?"
"Hey," said Shepard, "the town's still standing and it looked hopeless a few hours ago. A- at least." She arose to her feet, very slowly and experimentally.
"You okay?" asked the other commander, straightening up.
"I'm fine." In truth, Shepard felt a little unsteady, but she was going to walk out of here if it killed her. She took a deep breath and squared her soldiers.
The other woman was a soldier, too. She understood.
Shepard stepped out of the lunch room, resisting the urge to stop and grab hold of things. Singh was riding herd behind her.
Richard was sitting just down the hallway, white coat hopelessly stained, his head in his hands, pose not all that different from Shepard's earlier, except she was relatively certain he wasn't coughing up turnip-flavoured goo. And, somehow, there was a sense of abject despair to the way Richard sat.
She wasn't sure if she wanted to know.
He looked up at the sounds of their footsteps. He looked even more tired than Singh, eyes reddened and shadowed. "Oh, thank god. Good to see you on your feet, Meg."
"I'm hoping to stay on my feet," she said, taking a moment of respite to lean against the doorframe, although her head was feeling clearer the longer she was awake.
"Meg," he said, as if repeating her name somehow comforted him. "Is it normal to win and feel as if you've lost?"
"Yes," said Shepard, not softening anything today. "You have no idea how often it happens. First, you're elated you're alive, and you've won. And then as the glow seeps away, you realize just how much it cost you, and you feel—empty. Lost. And you don't know anything's going to be normal ever again."
"And how do you get through that?" he asked. His voice was low and husky and he spoke with an effort. "Over and over and over again?"
"You do," said Shepard. "You get another mission, and a new purpose."
Singh touched Shepard's arm lightly, and murmured "I have things to see to, Commander. I'll be around. We'll get it all tidied up." Her tone was closer to gentle concern than her earlier business-like tone. Startled, Shepard glanced over, but the other commander had already left.
Richard ran his hands through his hair. His hair was standing up in earnest, rumpled and spiky, and combined with the exhaustion in his countenance, he looked like a man at the end of his tether. Shepard felt that little tug of tenderness at her heart again, the same little tug she felt when she first saw him again. She hadn't realized she would always care. "Richard, what in the world is it?"
It took him a long time to speak, but when he did, it was to the point. "Jade was among the slaves. She—she was one of the ones who died."
"Oh god." Words were inadequate. "I'm so sorry, Richard."
He looked away, hands resting on his thighs. "I hate to say it, but maybe it's better this way." Another long pause. "Come," he said, heavily, lurching to his feet and took her by the elbow.
She arose, a trifle unsteady on her feet, and followed him down the hall and around the corner, to a large ward near the entrance. Soldiers stood at the door, guns at the ready, and bed after bed was filled with the frail figures she had seen hours ago, shivering in the wind.
He paused before a bed, and said, simply, "There."
She looked to the occupant. It was the suffering she saw first, before all else. The thinness of the form, the half-healed burns on the hands, the scars over neck and jaw and shoulder, the shaved head, the slave jack still jutting from the back of the neck. It was the face she saw next; the face of a stranger; a man who looked forty-five, but was probably still In his twenties, grown old with suffering. The nose was like her father's, overlarge and slightly arched; the chin was like hers, square and firm. Those burnt and gnarled hands had something of her mother's lively grace in them, nearly lost through the years.
She did not even have to look at the datapad resting on the table beside the bed, its screen firm with the results of a DNA test.
"Oh god," she whispered again. "Kyle. My baby brother."
"I'm not a writer, or an orator," Shepard said, "and what words I did prepare don't really apply to the new situation, so I'll be brief."
There was a surprisingly large crowd in the town square considering recent events, sitting quietly in rows. They were colonists of all sorts; people of the soil with dirty fingernails, soldiers, hospital staff. She saw the old man from the transport, sitting quietly at the end. Behind her stood the monument, still miraculously untouched despite two bombs going off in the square. It was a simple obelisk of dark, glossy stone graven with the names of those who had died during the first batarian raid on Mindoir.
Does anyone else remember him? Singh had asked. Well, they would. The names would remain, even if the humans left.
"We tell a lot of lies about war," she said. "About war, and about space travel, and about space colonization. Perhaps not lies exactly. Heroic myths. They write poems and songs and make stirring, action-packed vids, Glory and death and heroism. Standing against the oppressor. Settling the wild lands which no human has seen. Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori. But it's not really like that, is it? It's death, yes, but ugly, gasping death, and dirt, and hard work. Trivial, ugly details. And, in the end, it's the simple things that keep us going, not the glorious ideals. Companionship. Love. Home.
"The people who died thirteen years ago had this in common with you — they came all the way across the universe to make a home here. That's one thing we do — we look for home, as we look for love, or light.
"And home is always worth fighting for."
She hadn't been home in thirteen years.
It hadn't been completely neglected. The pastures behind, rocky and rolling and once filled with sheep, were empty now, and overgrown, the purple grass of Mindoir almost crowded out by the bristly purple brush that was almost, but not quite, like the Earth plant gorse. The little plot where once their vegetables had grown had long gone to weeds, purple and pink and a few even green. The little barn where they had kept seeds and straw and their horses — because, even after centuries of tech, no one had yet invented something more efficient and affordable for daily transversal of rough terrain than the horse — was beginning to tumble down, rusted from years of rain. But the house still stood, and the yard in front of it was tidy, if no longer full of the flowers her mother had loved so much.
Sometime after the raid, before the colony was reopened to general settlement, well after she had been whisked away with the few surviving children of Mindoir, someone had come in and taken the bodies — her mother and her father, her elder brother Will, their dog Patches — and buried them in the large cemetery beyond the town, the one she couldn't bring herself to visit. Something had been done with the livestock. She never asked what. When she was younger, she used to think they'd all been given a good home, but now she was older and wiser, she suspected the sheep had been shot, and the horses commandeered for military use.
But every year, since she had turned eighteen and left foster care to enlist, finally pulling her own paycheque, she had hired someone to visit the farm each year, prune the yard, dust the house, and make sure the house wasn't going to collapse. She didn't even know who did it. She sent some emails, paid some credits, and was told it was done. She had to trust that it was.
It was. As she stepped up the porch steps, the wood creaking underfoot (the last time she had seen these steps, her mother's blood had been trickling over them, but she shied away from that thought) and opened the door, she noticed that the family belongings had even been neatly boxed away, assembled in metal shipping crates that filled the living room. Waiting for someone to collect them.
She kept getting offers to buy this place. For the past four or five years, since Mindoir had recovered as a colony. It was a nice spread of land, if good only really for sheep. The strange purple grass of Mindoir had proved to be strangely nourishing for Earth-born livestock, a fact colonists more shrugged and accepted than questioned. Livestock was big business in the colonies; grazing space was at a premium on Earth, and the money very good for real meat and wool, as opposed to the stuff cooked up on labs.
She had never answered a single offer. Some of the latest ones had been rather large, too.
She paused in the hall and waited for Kyle to join her, the steps creaking beneath his feet. The nice young therapist they had been speaking to over the comms, from an Alliance therapy centre on the Citadel, had said it might help for him to see something familiar, since he didn't appear to be a danger to himself or others.
She had expected him to be rebellious, troubled. What was that term, after some old city on earth? Stockholm, that was it. Stockholm synodrome. She had seen it in action. She had steeled herself to watch him be conflicted, angry, long for his old masters. What she had not expected was for him to be so lost.
She could have dealt better if there had been more fight in him. She was used to dealing with fight. Instead he just stared at her, with huge soulful brown eyes that were far too much like the ones she saw the mirror everyday. She had put her hand on her breast, and said her name loudly over and over. He would never recognize her now, not after thirteen years, but perhaps her name would trigger something.
He didn't say anything. He hadn't seen anything at all. She had asked for Richard to check his vocal cords, only to be told that there was nothing wrong with Kyle's vocal cords. He could speak. He just wasn't.
On the second day, he started following her around the hospital. He wouldn't speak, he wouldn't let her touch him, shying away like a restless horse, but every time she glanced up, he was there, hovering just behind her. It was the day she was supposed to leave. Instead she called back to Alliance command, politely told Hackett that since no one yet given her a firm date for when the Normandy would be ready to ship out, she was taking another week of leave, until the next transport from Mindoir. To her surprise, Hackett had saw 'Oh, of course, your brother," and agreed so easily Shepard almost felt guilty.
So here she was now, at her old family home with her silent brother, grown wraith-thin from thirteen years of slavery. He had been meant to be a big man, broad-shouldered, like her father, like Will, but he was nearly skeletal, moving with a shuffling step. His hands hung loosely, as if he had forgotten what to do with them.
They moved among shrouded furniture and dead vidscreens, he following close behind. In the kitchen, the curtains were open, and she could see the view her mother had loved so much, looking down the small rise to what had been the sheep pastures, and beyond, to the hills. Hills and darkness.
Her mother's plants had died long ago, but the pots remained, empty and faded by over a decade of Mindoir sun, shrouded with a faint grey layer of dust. Most of the kitchen had been packed way, but a few containers still remained on the shelves that her mother had built herself years and years ago, putting them up just so, exactly the way she wanted.
Shepard picked up one at random; a square tin with a tightly fastened lid. It was air tight; when she lifted the lid off, the faintest scent of tea still wafted up. All the way from China, she thought vaguely, closing her eyes as a wave of memories washed over her with the scent.
It was then she realized Kyle hadn't followed her into the kitchen. She put the tea away — no matter how good it smelled, she certainly wasn't going to use it after thirteen years — and went out to the living room. Kyle had flopped down there, legs crossed, staring at the empty vidscreen, thirteen years dead, as he once had a child. There was something very child-like in the way he sat, the way his legs crossed, his chin proppe. on one hand, but his face was blank.
What would he have been, had she not let go of his hand? A farmer, a colonist, perhaps, like their father and brother. A soldier, perhaps, like her. Perhaps something entirely of his own, something none of them had been.
What she would have been, if the raiders had never come?
It was a question she didn't have an answer to. Perhaps she didn't want to answer it. Because she was sure, without the raid, she'd have never been a soldier.
She looked at the ruin of what had been her brother, and understood, quite clearly, why Richard had said maybe it was for the best that Jade had died.
He looked up at her, and spoke, for the first time, "When will Mummy be home?"
Although his voice had the depth and timbre of a man, there was something childlike about the way he spoke, too.
"No," said Meg. "No, Kyle, she won't be home."
"They're all gone, aren't they?" he whispered. At her wordless nod, he broke into tears. He cried like a child, too, face scrunching up , rocking back and forth.
"Ssh," she whispered, dropping to her knees, and wrapping her arms about him. For the first time since he had woken up, he let her touch him. She pressed her cheek against the top of his head, the bristle of his hair rough against her face, and she rocked gently with him. "It'll be okay now. I promise, Kyle, I promise."
The wind was cold, and baby Isabella was wearing a truly ugly hat. It was pink, and shaped rather like a star. Or possibly a starfish, if one that had encountered a sudden burst of radiation that had left it malformed.
"That is the ugliest hat I have ever seen." It hadn't been what Shepard had intended to say, but it sort of slipped out.
"Of course it is," said Sue (Richard had asked that Shepard at least try to call his wife by her first name. Shepard's retort that she was a soldier, and used to calling her friends by their last names didn't seem to convince him.) "That's why people have babie — to dress them up in embarrassing clothing."
"You are going to be the universe's worst mother," replied Shepard.
"Meg," exclaimed Richard, aghast.
Sue only grinned in response. "You bet." Shepard was beginning to think she might actually like Richard's wife. "I subscribe to the theory there is a chain of embarrassment visited by parents upon children and the only way to avenge yourself for what your parents saddled you with is to have children."
Shepard turned sombre a moment later. "I need to ask something important of the two of you." She took a deep breath. "I wanted to ask if you would take care of Kyle. I—I can't do myself. There's the problem with my job. I don't have the time to take care of him. It's the problem with being humanity's hero," she said dryly, "there's not a lot of time to take care of family. I'll probably never have children either, or even marry. You don't have to—I mean, I do have other choices. There are centres and therapists, some of them very good, and I have the money. Somehow it seems to build up when you're a Spectre. Anyway." She realized she was babbling, and took a deep breath. "In any case, I could take him elsewhere, and I realize it is unfair to ask you two when you have so much else on your plate. But I would like him to be among friends."
Husband and wife exchanged glances, but Richard spoke up quickly, "Of course we will take him in.'
"You needn't worry about money," said Shepard. "I'll take care of that. When I get back to the Citadel, I'll deal with all the banking and the legal." She paused. "In fact, if you can, bring in people to help former slaves. Here, I mean. My money, of course. Wouldn't be it fitting if the colony must famous for being raided by slavers becomes a renowned for helping victims of such raids?"
"It's a great idea," said Sue. "A good legacy for this place. It'd take a lot of work."
Shepard nodded. "And you have a lot of other things to do for this colony. Let me know. I want to do what I can help—not just for my brother, but everyone in Mindoir. Whatever I can do." She cleared her throat, still trying to put her thoughts in some sort of order. "Richard told me," she said steadily, "that there were people here who don't like me. Well, that's their prerogative, of course. I can't make people like me if they're determined otherwise, and I have a great many more important things to do. I refuse to worry over whether some people on home world who've never met me dislike me. But I don't want to be the hero who turned her back on her home. This I can do for Mndoir."
"I did some work in med school counseling soldiers suffering from PTSD," said Sue, something that suddenly made her make a little more sense to Shepard. "I know some people. We'll see what we can do."
"Thank you," said Shepard. She turned a step away, awkwardly.
"And Meg?" called Richard. Shepard looked back over her shoulder. "Don't be a stranger," he said.
She paused for a moment, uncertain of reply, and Sue leapt in. "Yes, we know you're busy and you do stuff you can't talk about and all that. However, call sometime. Drop us an email. For god's sake, talk to someone who isn't a soldier or victim sometimes."
"What's wrong with talking with soldiers?" she replied, just a little defensive. "Some of them are actually really smart, well-rounded people, believe it or not. Some are even doctors."
"I don't doubt it," said Sue. "But they're all in your world. Talk to someone outside it. See things the other way occasionally."
A smile twisted around Shepard's mouth. "Are you volunteering, doctor? Do you want to be my girlfriend?"
"I don't do sleepovers or braid hair," the doctor replied, "and I'm really iffy on the spending hundreds of credits on impractical footwear. But if you promise not to be too girly, I'm sure I can manage some trivial chat now and then."
Shepard laughed. It felt good to laugh. It seemed dissolve the weight she was carrying on her shoulders. "All right, then. Oh, and one other thing. The farm is Kyle's, unless one day he tells me he doesn't want it. Send someone out to dust it occasionally and send me the bill. Dear god, at this rate, I'll need a secretary to handle all this." Her words were light, and, for the moment, her heart was too. All the troubles of the universe would descend upon her again in a moment, she knew. But for now she was light.
She gave the pair a bright grin, and waved her fingers at Baby Isabella, in that little wave that seemed to come naturally to some people for babies. "Good bye, little one," she murmured. "Make your aunt proud."
And, for the briefest of moments, things actually seemed right for a change.
Shepard had forgotten the momentary lightness by the time she returned to the Citadel. Hours of civilian transport would do that to anyone. However, she was soon in uniform and on the Normandy again, and she felt better for it. Perhaps this was really her home, then, the sleek expensive warship, the grey marine uniform, the lonely commander's quarters.
She sat for a long time at her desk, trying to find the words for the report she was typing up on the Mindoir incident, such as it was. Balak was still on the loose, and the Alliance intended to hunt him down. So did Shepard. She had let him go twice, and she didn't intend to let him go a third time.
How hard it was, to put all that anger and suffering and confusion into simple, straightforward, unemotional language for the military reports. This was a hard one. It was not the hardest mission report she had ever wrote; that distinction belonged to Virmire, which she had typed up holding back tears and praying 'Ashley, Ashley, forgive me,' to the god Ashley had believed in and she had not.
She had apparently written a mission report for Akuze, which, by rights, should have been the hardest of all. But she didn't remember the writing of it. It involved a rather massive dose of painkillers.
She'd never reread that one.
The door chirped at her in the gentle way it had of letting her know someone was waiting on the other side. "Come in," she called out, and minimized the report window, grateful for the excuse to ignore it.
It was Kaidan, rubbing the back of his neck in the way he did when he felt awkward. "Ma'am," he said formally.
"Lieutenant," she replied, suddenly painfully aware of how much distance time and military protocol put between them. "Kaidan. Come in."
He entered, still a little awkward, as if not sure whether she was his commanding officer or his girlfriend. She wasn't sure herself. "It…was an eventful trip back to Mindoir, I hear," he ventured.
"It's all over the vids, I'm sure," said Shepard. "The reporters found us eventually. I'm beginning to hate all reporters. Like vultures, but worse. They don't wait for their prey to be dead."
His mouth twitched momentarily, but she couldn't tell if it was from amusement or something else.
Her eyes slid back to the vidscreen, which seemed to waver and blur before her gaze. "People died, Kaidan," she said quietly. "A lot of people. And there was nothing I could do to save them. Nothing at all." She was blinking now, because she didn't care. Soldiers didn't. "All the slaves, so thin and ragged and being programmed to kill. I knew them, when I was a girl."
He moved closely to her, silently. One hand crept toward her, as if he wasn't quite sure he had permission to touch.
"And my brother," she said. "Such a wreck. I don't know if he can ever really grow up. I left him there because I thought it was best he be with friends, with purple grass and sheep, instead of in a treatment centre with bright lights and sterile walls. But if he had come back to the Citadel, I could at least see him regularly. I don't know anymore, Kaidan. My brother's life was ruined because I let go of his hand when I was sixteen. Balak killed people because I let him go—"
"Don't you dare say it's your fault, Shepard," he said, interrupting her. "Life's a complicated thing. Just because X leads to Y, doesn't mean that not doing X would mean something just as bad or worse wouldn't happen. You have to make the best choices you can at the time and then do the best you can with them. Don't blame yourself, because you don't need to be carrying that around. It's not your fault those people died. It's Balak's, and we'll get him."
"Funny," she said. "That end bit sounded uncommonly like a pep talk I gave you once."
He shrugged. "I learnt from the best." He hesitated, dark eyes watching her, and said, finally, "You sent an email…"
She bit her lower lip. "Yes." It was hard to speak about it somehow; those three words she had sent him before a Mindoir dawn. "I wasn't sure I was going to live. I didn't want to leave it unsaid . . ."
He was quite close, and her words trailed off as she fought off a very strong urge leap into his arms and weep on his shoulder like a schoolgirl. How silly she had been. All those worries about Mindoir, and the Normandy, and she had been entirely wrong. Home wasn't there. Home was here, standing in front of her, in those strong arms, and all she wanted to do was dissolve into it.
"We're going to have to talk, Kaidan," she said, very quietly, looking away from him. "About how we are going to manage to serve on the same ship still. We'll have to set some ground rules. Only . . . not tonight. I don't think I can tonight."
"Are you all right?" he asked. His voice deepened and turned husky with concern.
"Yes," she said, lying without thinking, and then corrected herself with an effort. "No. No, I'm not all right."
Almost without thinking, her hand reached for his, interlacing the fingers, battle-hardened palm to battle-hardened palm.
"But I will be," she said.