A hundred days have made me older
Since the last time that I saw your pretty face
A thousand lies have made me colder
And I don't think I can look at this the same
Three Doors Down - "Here Without You"
Prologue- The Awakening
That single word served as a rooting point for my addled brain, anchoring me violently back in reality. As if it had only been waiting for me to pay attention, my body instantly assaulted me with a variety of sensations: hungry, thirsty, cold, and the need to pee. Any one of these would have been bad enough. In combination, they were more annoying than that time Garrus had played keep away with my pudding cup...
Any smile that memory would have inspired was interrupted by the Goddess saying, "Shepard, you have to get up. This station is under attack." The slight Australian accent carried an air of arrogance, one that immediately made me question my faith in said Goddess. She sure didn't sound like I expected her to, but then again, if I'd created the universe I probably would sound a little holier-than-thou too.
Wait... why would I be expecting the voice of the Goddess, anyway?
Memories came back with force as I tried to make sense of my surroundings. I could feel my eyes widening as realization dawned.
The Normandy being blown apart. Joker, that stubborn jackass, thinking going down with the ship was a good idea.
The broken air tube. Taking my last breath. Garrus's voice calling my name as the final blackness overtook me, almost like he was actually there.
I remembered everything.
I had been dead. I mean, really dead. And I'd known it. Felt it. Wait, can someone actually "feel" dead? I physically shook my head at my own musings. Looking around at what could only be described as a lab, I knew this sure wasn't the Summerland. Not the one I believed I'd be in, anyway. Every person's version of the afterlife was supposed to resemble something of her choosing, but with my track record, maybe I should have expected I'd get screwed over in that regard, too. Spirits damn it all, wouldn't I ever get to rest?
Would it ever actually be over?
"Shepard, get UP. There's a pistol and armor in that crate." The tone was more insistent now, barking orders at me as if she believed that would really make a difference in my reaction.
Will you shut the hell up, lady. I'm getting there, I said, or at least, I would have, if my vocal cords hadn't felt as if I had been gargling sand.
...like I hadn't used them in years.
I cleared my throat painfully, as I shoved the implications of that revelation aside, and tried again. "Where the hell AM I?"
"We don't have time to go over specifics. Terrorists are attacking this station to kill you. You need to MOVE." That cinches it; definitely not the Goddess. Deities do NOT sound annoyed when they need something from you.
"Fine, fine! Keep your panties on, I'm going." Action suddenly overcame my lethargy, and I made my way to the container she had indicated, donning my familiar armor quickly before examining the weapon within. My annoyance surged to new levels as I looked at the "bounty" the "goddess" had so "graciously" provided.
This should tell you how bad things looked from where I was standing, if I was using that many mental air quotes in one sentence.
"Really? Not only do you give me a gun with no ammo, but it's a fucking little pistol? I feel like I'm gonna break this thing." I didn't figure she would get the reference, and I wasn't disappointed. Hell, most people didn't get my references. Even the ones that everyone should have known.
Like that old saying about only resting when you're dead. Apparently, I thought ironically as I moved through the first doorway, picking up a clip as I ran, that doesn't even apply to me.
Omega... this place reminded me of Charleston with a forcefulness reminiscent of homesickness. Not that I'd really ever felt that emotion. You have to have an actual home for that to happen, but it's the closest thing I could find to describe how I felt. It was probably the first time in my life that I'd ever missed Earth with such severity.
True, it was dirty, grimy, and disgusting, but it also carried an air about it that I found achingly familiar. It had a sense of... history, of multi-faceted cultures, all melding together without fully trusting one another. I watched as a small asari kid reached into a distracted salarian's pocket, her illegal activities rewarding her with a credit chit. The victim didn't even notice, so intent was he on the loud batarian who entertained the crowd with his prophetic doomsday blather.
Definitely like Charleston.
Ah, the good old days. I'd have almost killed for such great pickings once upon a time.
I was grateful for the familiarity. It reminded me that I'd been on my own for a very long time. For years, I'd lived untethered by the restrictions of relationships, unhindered by the hurt and pain that always accompanied such entanglements. Finch may have been a sadistic bastard, but his lessons in having a cast-iron heart had proven themselves over and over again. If you don't care, you can't truly be betrayed or abandoned. If you don't 'form attachments or get emotional,' then you never have to worry about feeling uncomfortable in your own solitude.
At least, that's what I'd spent years convincing myself. I was still working on that last part, a fact that was proven by my joy at seeing Joker again. Everyone else? Well, apparently they'd had no trouble accepting my death without question and moving on.
Two years shouldn't change so many things, but it had. Tali was "all grown up and off to destroy people." Wrex was dealing with clan boskaverna, though at least that sounded like something he'd do. Liara possibly working for the Shadow Broker, according to Cerberus Intelligence, which seemed like something she'd never do. Kaidan with sealed files, disappeared off to Goddess knew where.
That last one, I found to my surprise, actually hurt a little bit. He and I had become closer in Garrus's two week absence from the Normandy. It wasn't some overly romantic, "I think I love you," crap. I still thoroughly believed myself incapable of even feeling such an emotion, even if it did actually exist. With Alenko, it was more like I'd come to a realization that if I were willing to let go of my past, to act like the things I had endured had never happened... then I could have a future with the biotic. He was willing to overlook any past transgressions I may have committed, (probably because he didn't actually know about most of it) and give us a shot at a life together.
The question had been, did I even want to? Was I willing to forsake myself and how the events of my childhood had shaped me in order to try? Before Garrus, I'd have scoffed at the sentimentality. Afterwards? Well, I'd still been mulling that question over in the back of my head when the SR1 had been attacked. What had stunned me most was the realization that I was going to need something, no, anything, to replace the gaping hole left in my life by doing the right thing by the turian.
I'd gotten a courtesy copy of his Spectre candidacy acceptance letter in my inbox the day the Normandy went down, forwarded from Anderson. He'd fielded my efforts to streamline the application process, using his new influence and my name judiciously to make my best friend's acceptance into the program happen. Blackmailing the council hadn't hurt either. The message, which had been there the whole time I was gone, gave me a huge dose of relief. I'd found it on the heels of my conversation with the Illusive Man, including discussing my former shipmates. Not that I should have allowed myself to care, but seeing that he'd been given his dreams gave me hope that maybe they all hadn't given up on me.
I was somewhat convinced that's why Cerberus couldn't locate him. I had no doubt he was off on some undercover mission somewhere for the Council. He'd probably completed Spectre training with flying colors, given his loyalty and admiration of the service itself, and immediately sent on assignment the Spirits only knew where. It gave me no small measure of pride to know that even if I'd screwed up my own life, I'd managed to salvage his. That's all that mattered.
Unfortunately, that left me to face the latest trip to Mordor with backup that I knew only slightly better than my dead parents. Without anyone I trusted enough to take my six unsupervised.
Jacob I can almost deal with... I thought as we entered the cab that would take us to our destination. He reminds me of Kaidan, the way he looks at me, but I won't make that mistake again. Fortunately, the man was also someone who saw Cerberus as a means to an end, not as a great, misunderstood organization that could do no wrong. Plus, he'd been straight with me about everything since I woke up, not even trying to gloss over anything. I respected that, the way he treated me as a soldier. His professionalism was a breath of fresh air, as was the fact that he didn't try to bullshit or manipulate me.
Miranda, on the other hand? That bitch and I were going to have it out if she didn't keep her tongue in check. We get it. You're perfect. Now, can we do the damn mission, please?
The Collectors weren't going to care if she wore nothing but latex (unless their latest acquisition forms listed 'anti-social streetwalkers' as their latest requirement), or if she were a visually-striking specimen. They would care if she were a threat, which was exactly what I needed her to be if she were going to tag along with me. I briefly wished I could have snagged that merc (what the hell was his name? Kahleed?) to bring along instead of her, but he had a bounty he needed to turn in before he'd be mission ready.
"Shepard, you sure about going after this guy first?" Jacob asked, interrupting my thoughts in a tone that implied he didn't agree with my decision. He'd follow orders, that much I knew, but it was nice to know he could express his own opinion, too.
I laughed. "Oh, yeah. The doc will be fine. His dossier said he was former STG, so I have no doubt about his ability to take care of himself." He'll hold the line, I thought with a snort, rolling my eyes at my own internal joke. "You guys want me to save the galaxy? I need to think about what I need for once in my life, even if it may be like pulling an Edna Pontellier."
Jacob shot me a quizzical look, but Miranda actually scoffed. "You really think you've sacrificed that much for the galaxy? Well, I don't, so, comparing yourself to a good little housewife is woefully inaccurate, Shepard."
I rolled my eyes. Figures she'd miss the Men in Black reference, but would recognize Chopin. Sanctimonious wench.
Going after this Archangel guy instead of the doctor? It was my way of saying, "I need my sniper team." Hell, his dossier said his operations are "noted for their technical expertise and strategic brilliance."
Honestly, he had me at "small unit tactical skill." Everything else was just gravy.
I was going to need another second-in-command, as I had no confidence in Lawson. She spent too much time questioning my authority for me to trust her to make decisions in my stead. I'd known her for barely three days, and already I knew she would never understand my way of thinking. Someone who was taking down gang leaders, however, could only be a kindred spirit. I doubt he's doing it in quite the same way I did, but hey. Beggars can't be choosers, right?
Maybe I'd get lucky and his sniping skills would rival even Vakarian's. If Cerberus was trying to recruit him, he had to be good, and I would need all the "good" I could get to pull this off. No, I'd need "great." Especially if I was back to square one with a whole new group of crazy, suspicious recruits. A salarian and Spirit's knows how many other species... Time to start Tolerance 101 all over again. It really grows tiresome being the only person in galaxy who doesn't judge based on the look of the chassis rather than the horsepower beneath it.
Briefly, as the cab slowed when we approached the staging area, I remembered my trepidation over being in enemy territory. My discussion with the Illusive Man had been frustrating, due to his distinctly unflappable demeanor. But, as infuriating as that situation had been, it had also been rather informative. I wouldn't hide my intentions to kill him as I had my first victims, though given his reputation for bedding heroes and starlets the thought had crossed my mind. However, I didn't have to play nice, either. I was going to take every chance I could to gather intel on the people who had destroyed my life, and annoy the hell out of the man who'd had the final say in letting it happen. Let's not forget that part. It was my own petty form of revenge for the atrocities and horrors the organization had thrown at me over the years.
"Okay, I get it. They're not available. Doesn't change the fact that I'm not fucking working for you people. I don't trust you as far as I can biotically throw you, and I'm not a biotic. Get it?"
The man in front of me seemed completely unaffected by the outburst, a fact that irritated me. I depended on people taking me seriously. "It is now my personal goal to piss you off, Mr. Let's-See-What-The-Thresher-Will-Do," I thought petulantly.
"Actually, you are a biotic now, Shepard. Plus, we've added a few other enhancements over the last two years."
"Yeah, I noticed the cloaking technology. Hope you don't expect me NOT to try to use it to stab you in the back."
His expression remained unchanged as he said, "You need to look at the bigger picture here, Shepard." He took a drag off of his cigarette, a habit that made my own look modern by comparison, and also disgusted me. "The Collectors are attacking human colonies..."
I cut him off before he could give me another one of his prepared speeches. "Which is why I'll do the mission. But by the damn Spirits, I wish you people had actually been competent enough to find my old team."
He nodded, though at my comment about their failure or at my agreement to work with them, I wasn't sure. He didn't so much as quirk an eyebrow at the turian curse, which surprised me, him being the pro-human advocate that he was. I rolled my eyes at the lack of response. He was going to be one tough nut to crack, but I always got my target in the end. Always.
The memory faded as my boots hit the ground, a batarian approaching to debrief us as we entered what I was coming to affectionately call "Mercville."
Life goes on, as does the mission, one way or another. That was the harsh truth any military girl had to face in the end. And infiltrating and smooth-talking my way into enemy territory with the intent of back-stabbing them? Well, I was an old hand at that, too.
In every man's existence, there is a single moment which transcends the humdrum of everyday life so forcefully, you find yourself forever altered. It supersedes everything else with the sheer volume of joy it provides. For me, battle-hardened and world-weary warrior that I was, this moment was the instant Teandra Shepard mystically reappeared from the dead. Her very presence helped cleanse the bloodshed and violence the last two years of my life had contained. It served to ground my wandering sanity back into the realities of a life that was suddenly worth living.
Yet when faced with her once again, after two years of obsession and revenge-laden actions, that last word turned to ash on my tongue.
Dead or not, how could I ever have entertained the idea that we were more than friends? That our pleasant banter and battle camaraderie were the basis of a bond much more complicated? No matter whether you thought of the political, emotional, or physical obstacles, the reasons I'd left our friendship as such came crashing back down on my head. Hard.
Even with her nestled once again in my arms, with the hole in my soul filled once more by the very smell of her, I knew that my promise to confess the whole of my feelings to her was void. I might have won her before I became the Archangel. But now, with so much blood and pain on my hands?
She deserved better than me.