Meanwhile takes place during Limbo. All the side scenes that I don't go into but my muse is like "YOU MUST" will go into here. So far, story plans focus around Grunt/mini-Shepard aka Pyjak, and other chapters will be Liara/Javik on planet Normandy. Blinky probably deserved a side story of his adventures zipping about being a forward guide... but I unfortunately can't channel my inner Reaper without going completely insane... more insane... whatever.

MEANWHILE... the story begins.


Chapter 1 – From the ashes


If you've seen one battleground, you've seen them all.

Or at least, that's what it should have been like.

Earth was a ruin, rubble from once towering skyscrapers making the roads impassable and destroying smaller buildings in their tumbling. The sky was stained black with ash and smog, if it was daytime no one would have known aside from the eerie orange haze that hung near the horizon. Everything was coated in a layer of dust, the dirt was even a gray color and anything green was long lost in the destruction.

The wasteland looked like Tuchanka on a bad day. The krogan homeworld, once locked in nuclear winter, seemed positively sunny compared to this. Small squadrons of trooper ships and pods traversed the sky endlessly, only adding to the pollution that sullied the air.

But the Reapers were gone. That counted for something, right?

According to the human Admiral: we've only just begun to feel the sting left behind.

Grunt had been assigned to a clean up team and at first the young krogan was horrified. Until he was passed an assault rifle and told to go make sure that all the Reaper's converted troopers were taken care of. Of course, if they had passed him a mop it probably would have been the same result... only with a lot more bludgeoning and with the pole finally shoved somewhere uncomfortable if he found any enemy troops. It was probably why he was given an assault rifle over a mop: gunshot wounds were easy to patch up with medigel assuming nothing vital was hit (and for a krogan it would take a fully spray of 'vital hits' to be that bad), but 'non-standard damage with an impromptu weapon' tended to throw the medics for a loop and tick them off.

When the Reapers left, they simply abandoned their disposable once-organic troops. In response, the troopers seemed to lose intelligence at the loss of the massive vessels. Marauders and Cannibals could only use a weapon with low accuracy now, Banshee troops all but lost their biotic power, and the Ravager units tended to pop like balloons and then deactivate without spawning swarms. Only the Husks and Brutes were still the same, already reduced down to the most mindless they could get and still move around.

"Good to see you're still alive. Afraid you missed all the fun." There was the familiar voice of Urdnot Wrex, returned to the human base of command only at Admiral Hackett's insistence. The krogan now spent his time shouting orders to any troop (of any species) he thought wasn't pulling it's weight. "Sounds like you are on 'clean-up' duty, heh. Take this while you are out there." The elder launched a dull gray pack at Grunt, who swiped it out of the air.

An Alliance symbol was stitched into the fabric, and the bag was packed entire full of human based survival gear. "I'm not going out for a camping trip, I'm just going to shoot anything that moves out there." Grunt frowned.

Wrex gave the young krogan as glare that promised to end in a skull rattling headbutt if he didn't comply. "You'll take it with as a sign of 'good will'... and because Hackett is going to tear my plates off if I refuse the gesture. Humans are glad to spare anything to assist saviors of the universe, but until they can asses what happened to the relays this is your entire personal belongings... and you might be here a while, boy."

The rumor was the relays were totally destroyed, but there was such a state of denial in the air that if it was true there was going to be a mass breakdown of sanity. Earth had only two working QEC systems, one comm linked to the parked in it's orbit, and the other was on the Normandy... who was no longer responding to hailing messages. All other communications were down, though at least the quarians were convinced they could get those repaired.

Survivors had started to gather together in the old battle HQ, civilians and injured soldiers limping their way to a sense of civilization again. Food might become an issue eventually, but the quarians had brought every live ship armed with guns they could spare – at the least the turians and quarian forces weren't going hungry. Everyone else was supplied with a massive stockpile of MRE, canned foods, and some basic grown crops being sparsely used to fill in meals. The largest supply of meat came from a can marked 'Spam'... and was quite possibly the saltiest damn thing that Grunt had ever had the misfortune of eating.

It didn't keep him from eating more, however. Fucking humans and their ridiculously addicting foods.

Blue eyes darted to the pack doubtfully but Grunt fixed the gear to his armor anyway. "I get to keep my guns, right?"

"Boy, they couldn't pry them from our cold, dead fingers." Wrex gave a wry grin, his own shotgun fixed to his hip. "Just stay alive out there until we can set transport to return to Tuchanka. If I have to explain to the female camp that you died due to botulism or some stray bullet... Bakara is going to tear my plates off and serve me my quad." There was a wince from the older krogan, as if remembering a sharp pain in a very tender area.

Grunt nodded and took three heavy steps towards the checkpoint and then froze. "Any news from Shepard?" He whirled, looking back at Wrex.

The elder krogan scowled, his scars twisting. "No. We only just got up to the Citadel again, boy, give it time. If Shepard's still up there, she's probably holed up with survivors trying to keep them out of trouble. Or hitched a ride on the Normandy. It scuttled off just before the Reapers did. She must have succeeded either way, that was a full retreat they did for no apparent reason."

A wide grin spread over Grunt's face. "I bet Battlemaster told them what she was going to do if they stayed. Enemies fear her... and those are the ones that live." Shouldering his shotgun, the one Shepard had Mordin design just for him, Grunt lumbered out the checkpoint and past an alarmed human and salarian guard.

Wrex watched the young male leave, nostrils flaring in amusement. Twisting around, he addressed a woman that was behind his flank. "The boy could have had worse for a parent to imprint off of... that's for damn sure. I suppose you regret taking him out of his tube?"

The woman's white bodysuit was perfectly pristine, despite the choking clouds of dust and dirt in the air. "At first, of course. Who doesn't regret coming face to face with an angry krogan? He more than changed my mind on the matter though." Miranda Lawson shook her head, a wry smile for only just a moment on her lips. "Just hope he's right though... universe isn't ready to lose their heroes just yet."

With every heavy step Grunt took, clouds of dust followed in his wake like he was a traveling volcano spewing clouds of ash. Krogan really don't sneak... at all... and any remaining Shock Trooper in the area was going to know he was coming. The synthetic troops no longer had the intelligence to attack in coordinated packs or plan ambushes, they just tended to wander until they found a target and then tried to revert back to their old method of attack.

A group of humans each with a dog and two krogans with a set of varren were combing the area, the creatures giving a sharp growl or bark at the smell of someone injured nearby. After the Reapers left, command had hesitated for several hours until they were sure the Reapers were in full retreat. Then they had issued orders to expand the perimeter and bring everyone to safety. Buildings had collapsed in the Reaper's wake, vehicles had flipped over, and fallen rubble had tumbled again to trap survivors where they couldn't be reached or pull themselves out of. Humans had brought out trained service dogs, and the krogan had retrieved their varren to search the rubble. There had been a bit of snapping and growling at first but the two species of 'dog' fell back into obedience at their handlers order and soon moved as one mixed species pack.

"Ugliest varrens ever." Grunt mumbled, watching as a sand colored dog gave a sharp bark and stood near a crumbled wall to indicate someone was trapped under there. A white and lavender striped varren stood nearby, also giving the indication that someone was trapped. For being so soft and fluffy looking... Grunt had to admit the earth 'varren' were effective in searching. Though almost everything on Earth tended to be 'soft and fluffy' by design.

Even Shepard fell into that category. However with her it was deceptive... soft and fluffy on the outside, murderous biotics and killer instincts on the inside. Even knowing what the woman could do and what she had done previously, Grunt felt she had deliberately cultivated that look to throw people off. There were not many soldiers who put on their battlepaint ('makeup,' Miranda had corrected) everyday to intimidate ('...not touching that one,' Miranda quickly ended the conversation) her enemies. Even her own squad seemed to underestimate her at times, the look of surprise on their faces when the Commander survived yet another suicide mission or brokered some kind of new record in galactic peace. Only Grunt had remained unphased by everything Shepard had done, and if asked why he seemed to accepting he would simply reply, "It's Shepard, that's why," as if that was a reason unto itself.

"Hey!" One of the humans with the rescue group was waving at him, trying to get his attention. Half of the dogs looked over, heads cocked curiously as well. "Comm chatter says there is a group of zombies holed up in the church a block ahead. You heading to clear them out?"

"I am now." Grunt rumbled, changing direction and aiming for the crumbled steeple of a human religious building..

"Hail Mary, we have krogan!" The human cheered him on. His words didn't give Grunt any pause, but he did wonder why he'd have to hail Mary when he got to the church. Didn't she have a fucking comm in this mess? If not, she totally deserved to be buried in rubble.

There were live flares in the road in front of the church, a sure sign that a scouting party had been here earlier. Leading with his assault rifle, Grunt prodded the door open and twisted himself inside. Colored glass windows had imploded into the building, showering the center dais in pieces of glass and casting the red/orange glow of the haze into the building. Inside the ruined building almost two dozen 'zombies' squatted, dazed and making their terrible noises.

Grunt only smiled. He probably laughed too, but the report of the rifle drown it out.

A dozen mindless zombies verses one angry krogan wasn't really a fair fight... so Grunt ended the battle by dropping his weapon and simply punching them all in the face until there was a wet splattering of head contents on the walls. Searching the rest of the church, Grunt found neither more zombies or 'Mary'. Wiping his face with the palm of one hand, it came away splattered in gore and the young krogan discretely wiped it on his armor, leaving a giant bloody handprint smeared up his knee.

Dropping to the ground in front of a stone basin of water, Grunt pulled off his pack and fished around for some more thermal clips. His pack contained a few medi-gel patches, plenty of thermal clips, a basic human survival kit (humans had more than enough of those to share, since their own army had gotten chewed up and spat out before the war had even started), some MRE and a small supply of water. However staying outside long enough to actually need any of these things were a different matter. The soldiers who weren't buried in rubble or barricaded somewhere tended to die really fast.

Pulling out a heavy cellophane wrapped ration bar, Grunt shucked the noisy wrapper aside and shoved the whole thing in his mouth as he finished checking over his shotgun. What was meant to be a human sized meal ended up lasting for two chews and then was gone so fast the krogan fished another out of the bag. Taking a bite out of the ration instead of just inhaling the whole thing, Grunt took the time to realize just how terrible these things tasted. Trail rations were meant to 'stick to the ribs' but mostly just made your mouth feel gritty. Jack had once bitched about how they tasted like flavored beach, disturbing fish-taste included, and Grunt completed agreed.

There was a strange stone table of standing water water that was cool in the gritty church, and the krogan paused only for a seconds to make sure there were no enemies present before dunking his head in the pool for a long drink and to rinse the grime off. Pulling out of the water, Grunt swiped at his eyes to clear away the chilly water and sank heavily down next to the basin. His hand wandered up to his crest where the only remaining scars from holding off the entire Reaper production line at the cost of Aralakh company remained. Grunt really had no clue what made him do it – fighting to the death was a typical krogan tradition (so says Okeer), but fighting to the death so another doesn't have to? That is exactly what would have happened as well... Shepard would have remained behind to see her squad, the rachni queen, and Grunt escape. She didn't even try to hesitate or look repentent when the krogan had silently put a hand on her shoulder to stop her.

'My fight, to show you what I have learned, Battlemaster.'

This whole thing was still Shepard's fight. In the wake of her path, she blazed the trail for others to follow. Grunt's fingers stroked down the gouges in the heavy plates, each scar was like a path too. The four scars on his crest would never grow out or fill in, it had struck down to the thick hide under the plates and his unformed crest would always bear those marks even as the plates thickened.

Maybe not as impressive as Wrex's massive (and potentially life threatening) scars, but it was sure to turn some heads.

Distracted, Grunt dropped his hand back to his pack to retrieve the ration bar, but his fingers met only the thick canvas and empty cellophane. Jerking back to attention, Grunt twisted his head down in confusion. The half eaten ration bar was gone... but the cellophane was still carefully on the floor next to where he had been sitting. Grunt noticed for the first time that the stone basin that held the water seemed to actually be more like a table, with a low arch only a foot tall on two sides of the deep stone. Slowly, dropping down to one knee and leaning his head towards the floor, the krogan peered under the fount, his hand clutching at the shotgun at his waist. Something shifted under there, and he could hear the sound of chewing and a snuffling breath.

His finger crept through the trigger guard.

With a sudden lunge, Grunt jammed one hand under the fount and grasped. Sticking your hand into the den of an unknown animal is a very very poor idea for a human on Earth to do... but for a krogan on Tuchanka, they call it 'fishing'.

His fingers found some coarse fabric and snapped shut on it, hauling backwards. A shrill wail and thrashing caught him by surprise as the definately-not-a-zombie began to struggle to stay under the basin, catching into the underside arched lip from the inside. There was a sudden fit of kicking and scratching and more than once Grunt felt a row of sharp little teeth try to sink into the thick hide at his wrist.

A pair of furious crystalline blue eyes stared back at him from the darkness and there was a flash of silver on the forehead and for a moment Grunt thought he had just been startled by his own reflection. The krogan felt his fingers release the figure out of surprise and it scrambled back into the darkest part of the fount.

It was a small human child. Though Grunt had never seen a human child in person, Okeer's imprinting insisted she was very young. She had some sort of light colored hair that Grunt had mistaken for silver and hung down to cover her entire forehead. Blonde or white or some sort of mix of the two colors, her hair was now covered in what seemed to be a week or more of grim. Her mouth was half open in a squeak of alarm, a gap in the row of white that could only be a missing tooth.

Had the kid been out here for two days on her own? Judging by her appearance... the human had been roughing it for a lot more than just two days. Humans had developed an odd tactic for staying alive with Reapers everywhere while the giant vessel's occupied Earth: they split into small groups and hid. And a hiding human is remarkably hard to find.

"Hey. Human, right?" Grunt craned his neck, his armored hump bumping into the basin's legs. He should call her out and explain his sudden and probably terrifying grab, he realized. However if talking to adult humans was odd and confusing (that you, Miranda, for making the problem worse), what was talking to half-incoherent children like? Could they even talk at that age?

"You're krogan." The girl's voice was dusty and low, almost a whisper with only a slight English accent. "Are you gonna eat me?"

Getting a response wasn't something the krogan had anticipated. Small talk was not his thing. So he tried to do what Shepard would do... and not the thing where she biotically charged into battle either. He tried to talk her out. "You don't even have a drumstick on you, all bones. I'd rather eat a salarian."

The child's blue eyes, the same shade as his own, blinked in surprise. Perhaps she didn't expect small talk either. "And I taste terrible." The kid said by way of explanation. "I'm fulla poison." It was perhaps the most futile threat ever. Pathetic. And adorable.

… Krogan don't do adorable very well.

"That's turians. They're full of poison. Don't try to eat those guys, plus those plates just get in the way." Nudging the bag, it toppled over the canvas topped popped open, revealing a set of the MRE dehydrated meals. "Here, these are... slightly better than eating a turian." Grunt shoved one of the MRE packages towards the kid.

Short little fingers poked at the foil until it broke open over the package. Drawing out what might have been dehydrated grilled cheese or perhaps an orange brick of macaroni, the child curiously tried the MRE. However after a few bites she pulled a face. "It is terri-bul."

"HA! I know! And krogan eat just about anything!" Grunt laughed, his voice booming in the empty church.

Either completely oblivious to the very thought that a krogan probably COULD eat her or just beyond caring, the child scooted closer to Grunt with her eye on the massive shotgun he was wielding. The kid had watched a front row showdown from her hiding place between krogan and zombies, and when the thermal clip had jammed he had simply pummeled everything. To the kid, Grunt was some sort of unstoppable juggernaut.

Which was just about right, because to the krogan, Grunt was an unstoppable juggernaut.

Small talk had never been Grunt's strong point. Laughing at other's misfortune or sarcastic remarks (thanks to Garrus' repeated examples) were more his forte. The kid didn't seem to keen on talking either and by the time she finished her unidentified orange brick, the child had bumped into his knee and was staring at the shotgun with open awe.

While Okeer had tried to imprint on Grunt the 'old-ways' of rearing children, the young krogan had learned more from his six month stay on Tuchanka than he had from all his time in the tube. Krogan on his homeworld cherished children (sometimes by walloping them upside them head when they misbehaved, but that's what thick skulls were for) and the thought of a defenseless child got every woman in the female camps in a complete uproar. From his week-long stay fulfilling breeding requests in the female camp, Grunt had learned one thing about children: He had no clue what to do with them.

This one had to be brought back to the civilian camp as soon as possible though. "You done there, little Pyjak? Still got to get back to HQ before nightfall, and you have tiny legs." This last part was said at an accusing rumble, as if it was the kids fault for having a pair of the tiniest legs he had ever seen before.

At this, the child scoffed, not quite a giggle but certainly more amused than a snort. It was such an odd gesture, especially on a child. The only person Grunt had ever seen do such a thing was Shepard.

"What?" Grunt asked, a little thrown by the gesture.

"My legs aren't small, your legs are really really huge! You are a really huge ... huge-krogan, yeah, see!" Holding up one tiny hand with fingers spread wide, the child could barely span Grunt's limp palm.

"Runt." Countering back, Grunt reached down and put his palm to the child's forehead, nearly tipping her over with the simple tap. Then he seized her jumpsuit by the scruff of the collar and lifted to kid to her feet, pulling on his backpack.

Dangling from the krogan's hand like some kind of dainty purse, the little girl was completely limp like a kitten being carried by it's mother. "I'll get bigger! I'm f-fo...five. I'm five, I'll get bigger!" The kid retorted, pausing to remember just how old she was.

"Yeah, well I'm now one year old. And I'm only going to get bigger too." Grunt smirked.

There was a loud outburst of protest from the child of 'are not!' and 'liar!' as the kid suddenly swung in her clothing trap as if a live wire. The kid alternated squirming like a larval Thresher Maw and then going limp and trying to slid out of his grasp. It was like trying to keep a hold of a bar of soap, and Grunt found twice he had to adjust his grip or risk dropping the kid even before he got the door of the church.

"Damned little Pyjak! We're going into a live combat zone. Wiggling is going to get you killed." There was no placating or sugar-coating this, leaving the relative safety of the building meant entering a zone where bullets would be flying.

Explaining war to a child should have been like explaining world peace to a yahg... but the little girl's eyes went wide and all the fight dissolved right out of her. Becoming instantly silent and still, the child allowed herself to be hoisted up to sit in the crook of one of Grunt's arms, both her hands curled around his neck and looking over his shoulder. The position kept the kid safe from gunfire from every direction except straight forward, and Grunt compensated for this by advancing sideways and using every bit of fallen rubble as cover.

"I've got your back." The kid whispered, eyes wide and her pupils contracted into tiny black dots as she watched behind him carefully. Whether she knew the weight of her words or not, but Grunt felt like he was holding a tiny incarnate of his Battlemaster.

Only five years old, and already a master of watching her own back. Grunt made a noise in his throat, the soft hair of the child's neck pressed into the underside of his jaw. "Then I'm watching forward. Keep an eye open, right Pyjak?"

The child nodded, crystal blue eyes darting from side to side, paranoia that was far too skilled to be a child playing a game of pretend war. Through the whirling dust and smog of the ruined planet Earth, Grunt advanced back towards the camp.