Written for the Mass Effect Kink Meme on Livejournal, July 2011.
Edited February 2012, with indispensable help from Smehur.
It's one hour and thirty minutes into the trek before Desolas realises that Saren hasn't said anything since they left. He frowns. Usually, the silence only lasted for the hour.
The sun is directly overhead, casting the blue-violet shadows of the rich foliage like a cloak around the brothers. The trail—an old one, and their favourite—is well nigh covered by the undergrowth, a bountiful spread of waxy green and red leaves and strings of small white flowers. If he listens closely, he can still pick out the jingle of the river they crossed ten minutes ago, using the same old log that he helped place in the summer of '39. He smiles to himself. Saren hadn't even been born, then. And now, it was difficult to imagine life without the little ankle-biter.
"Let's take a break here." He points to a relatively flat and completely plant-free slab of rock some distance into the forest.
Saren cocks his head to the side, as if to say 'but we haven't gone halfway yet'. Desolas rolls his eyes. "You need to eat to keep up your strength. Go. Shoo."
Obediently, the child ploughs through the plants, sending a few somethings scurrying away in a rustle of leaves. Rolling his eyes again, Desolas follows. He's definitely making a show of it. He could be as stealthy as a black ops commando when trying to nab some discs; it was getting to the point where Desolas was running out of places to hide them. Children who don't even know the names of all the Primarchs shouldn't be trying to learn how to disassemble a sniper rifle. Needless to say, it's never stopped Saren.
The rock, it turns out, juts out from the edge of a cliff at an awkward angle. It isn't slippery, but the perch is precarious nevertheless. He tells Saren to sit away from the edge. The calm section of the river is directly below; its laminar flow only breaks out into teal-white turbulence some distance downstream, where the log was placed. Paradoxically, it's the least dangerous section because the rocks there made it shallow—the water there is about as high as Saren, as he has learned from embarrassing experience.
"Here you go." He rummages through his pack to finally close his talons around a hydration packet. Standard issue. "Drink up. I'm looking forward to a lot of these, too, in the near future."
"Lucky." Saren punches through the mouthpiece with a tiny but sharp talon, sips, and pulls a face. "To already be recruited."
"No, luck doesn't have anything to do with it. You will be, too. That's what the training's for. An edge." He casually turns over a clump of dirt with one toe and flicks it aside. "They might even let you in early."
"I don't think that they will," Saren announces after a while.
"Oh? Why not?"
"I dislocated a classmate's arm last week."
And there he was, thinking that something serious had happened. "That's unfortunate for him, but normal. I'm sure your teacher told you? I recall a couple of incidents like that back when I was your age."
Saren flexes his hand around the empty packet. "He said to not worry about it, since it was an accident."
"It was, right?"
"No. I did it on purpose because he was trying to take someone else's belongings. The teacher didn't believe me."
He lets out a sigh. And this is exactly why he will not sleep soundly at boot camp.
"Then he deserved it. But try to leave these things to the teacher, Saren. Save your energy for the training. You always look so tired when you get home."
"Arestus said that I won't be recruited."
"Nonsense." He rubs the Saren's budding fringe. "You're going to make Palaven proud. I know it."
"But I'm not going to the regular legions, am I?"
"That doesn't matter, though. What does he know?"
"I looked it up on the extranet after. I found this Hierarchy site—"
"You can't believe everything you see on the extranet." He tries to flash a grin, but finds he can't.
"But you've heard about it, haven't you?" Saren looks up at him with his sharp eyes, and Desolas swallows.
When Saren was between four and five years old, Desolas would often come home to a strange sight. The door would be locked, the windows airtight, the shutters letting in razor-thin slivers of sunlight. Every holoscreen would be turned off, and even the clock would be tucked deep under a pile of old hardcopies.
Saren would be sitting on the common room floor, eyes closed, still as a piece of furniture, their mother's badge face-down in front of him.
Desolas would pull up the shutters and open the windows as quickly as possible. The other residents of the compound weren't gossips by any standard, but he didn't want to attract needless concern over this new quirk. (Except it wasn't a quirk, and that was even worse.) More selfishly still, he was about to enter one of the most honourable legions that still accepted recruits. And frankly, he could do without the constant murmuring.
I saw him yesterday.
Me too. The albino kid?
I kind of feel sorry for Desolas.
But Desolas wouldn't stop him. The light and noise from the outside world would break his concentration in time. The doctors had already told him to let things take their natural course, long ago. There was very little he could do, they had said. Just stand by and watch as the nodules devour your brother.
He would wipe from his mind the voices of his peers and begin to prepare dinner. Saren would pull himself up on one of the chairs at the opposite side of the counter and fiddle with the fiercely blue badge.
"Put that back," he would say, eyeing the memento.
"I won't drop it. Promise."
They would carefully maintain a silence of several minutes, each lost in his own thoughts.
"Put that back, Saren." It's not going to bring her back to life.
And then, only then, after he'd finished making something palatable out of a combination of vatgrown and last night's leftovers, would little Saren put the badge back into the padded case. The plastic and the velvet were a faint eezo cyan.
"I'll do it someday, mama." He would whisper. "I'm not a cripple."
"The cabals," Saren continues, dismay clouding his gaze. "They won't let me be with other soldiers."
"You'll have comrades of your own." Desolas tries not to think about how happy he'll be when he leaves planetside the day after tomorrow, tries not to think about the packing list and the brand-new bag waiting for him at home. How happy, and how extremely worried.
Saren blinks, reaches up, touches the fresh markings on his brother's face. "Yeah, but I won't have these." He pauses. "I want them." He looks as if the words are strangers on his tongue. Which they are; it's so rare for him to voice wants and needs. Rare, and slightly disturbing.
"Why do you want them? They're just a few symbols," he lies.
Saren crumples the packet in his hands and stares at the reflective foil for a while, a small eye ridge lowered in concentration. "They're our symbols," he finally tells his brother. 'Our' refers to four people, two of whom Desolas wishes could be right here, right now.
He succeeded on a crisp, sunny winter afternoon. The sky was cloudless, but the air was so cold that it was almost brittle. Like glass, put under too much stress. Desolas came home to the now-familiar sight. Familiar in every aspect, except for the fact that Saren was glowing, painting the shadows of the furniture across the walls.
He tossed his bag aside and ran to his brother, leaving the door wide open. A frigid gust followed him, rattling the shutters and sending a low, throaty howl through the corridors. Saren did not even shiver. He shrugged away Desolas' arm.
"Please close the door. I want to show you something."
Numbly, Desolas retraced his steps and closed the door, drawing the bolt as an afterthought.
Saren shut his eyes very tightly, and the expression would have been comical if not for the fact that he was lifting the badge without touching it, something that he had no right to do or to even attempt.
He held it there for a few seconds. And then he gave a sharp exhale, and Desolas had to catch him before he tipped to the side, and the badge flipped itself over, and the insignia of the munitions factory stared at the two children without a hint of shame.
As he was lowered gently to the ground, Saren looked up with an exhausted smile and said, "Just like that asari Spectre in the news…"
Desolas' nightmares were coming true, one at a time.
He looked down at the badge. It was not broken, but had become lodged by its point between two tiles. He returned it carefully to its case before tending to his unconscious brother.
"You don't need them for people to know who you are." He runs a thumb fondly over a side spline that was just beginning to arc, over still-rounded plates above blood-silver eyes. "They'll be able to tell right away."
Saren shakes his head. "I think everyone in the compound have forgotten about us." Desolas opens his mouth, but his brother is continuing. "And everyone I've heard about had markings. Vitruvius had them. And—and Clausius had them, and—and—"
"And you, so I can remember you and mama can recognise you. What if you forget me, Solas? You're going to be away for I don't know how long and when you get back I bet I'll be something completely different…"
Oh Spirits. His brother can't be having this crisis now. But then again, he thinks, you don't expect a tainted kid to turn out right.
Inside, he bashes himself on the head. Deal with it, he tells himself. Deal with it and stop thinking of him like your friends do. Blame the Hierarchy agents if you want. Blame yourself for how meagre an existence you could provide. Blame those engineers all the way back when—back when—
"Of course I won't forget you, silly. I'll visit."
"What if mama does? And what about papa? He's never seen me." He tugs at Desolas' sleeve. "Can you ask them? Can you tell them that they'll have to look really hard if they want to find me?"
One day, Saren will outgrow the belief that Desolas, as the elder, is able to communicate with their parents. Until that day comes, though, Desolas will use this for all it's worth. He kneels down in front of his brother and takes both his hands, foil packet included. "They've already answered."
"They have?" He inches a little closer, hesitant.
"Yeah." And he pulls his brother suddenly into his arms, feeling him tremble with apprehension. "They're always here. With us."
"What did they say?"
He takes his thin shoulders, pushes him away slightly, and tries to convey the lesson exactly as his mother would have wanted. "Vitruvius wasn't famous because of these, Saren." He gestures at the markings. "He was famous because he risked his life to build a bridge over the river Niniel. Clausius wasn't famous because of these. He was famous because he sacrificed himself to allow the Hierarchy to take aim at an enemy base.
"As for you—people might know you by the markings you do not bear, but you shall be known by what you accomplish while not bearing them. It's complicated, but there's a difference." Saren is stock-still, rooted to the ground as he listens. "And our parents and I—we'll be behind you every step of the way. I can see them in your eyes."
"Same with yours," Saren replies after a while. It's hard to tell, but he sounds sincere.
"So don't worry about me leaving." He pats his shoulders. "You know where to find me if you need to—and besides, you have a lot to accomplish in the meantime." It is easier for him to smile now. So he does, brightly. Saren looks more at ease, if not happier.
The summer is all in bloom around them. The sky above the river is free of forest canopy, and, looking up, it is cloudless. A small breeze wanders by, rustling the strings of bell-shaped flowers. It is almost noon.
"Tell you what, Saren, there's still a ways to go before we reach the top. What about I race you?"
He is still at eye level with him, and he sees the expression change from comfortable to interested to resolute. "Head start?"
"Of course not." He laughs. "You'll have to take care of yourself when I'm offworld. Come, follow—if you can." He stands up and takes off, pretending to sprint for the goal. He can hear the rustling of leaves as Saren leaps after him.
The trail turns steep after a while. He looks back at his brother, striving so hard to climb the slope, always faster, braver, and more foolhardy than he has any right to be. It reminds him of a front-line commander who fell on a faraway and forgotten world, and a powerful woman, willing herself to take every laboured breath while lying prone on a hospital bed.
A stray sunbeam falls against his pigment-less carapace, bright and metallic in the otherwise hazy surroundings. Saren is looking right back; relentless. I can see them in your eyes.
And, for a moment, he can.