The sun is bright above. Bright and warm. Fall on Mindoir means waning sunshine — but for now I blink at the sunlight, still bright, holding my hand up, shielding my eyes.
"Pay attention, kiddo."
Dad's trying to teach Jason, Troy and me baseball. The three of us are rolling our eyes at how stupid and dull the game seems, especially compared to skyball, but I've got Dad's heavy wooden bat in my hands, feeling ridiculous.
"Just because its an antique, Thena, you don't have to be so gentle with it. Lower your center of gravity. Don't lock your knees. Stay loose. Keep your eye on the ball, and give that sucker a good whack!"
I do as he says, and despite the awkwardness of the bat, despite everything, the little white ball soars over the house, bouncing off the roof with a harsh, metallic thud and lands… somewhere. I just stand there, shocked I'd hit it with a wooden stick, shocked all of Dad's advice had worked.
He looks at me. Laughs. "Now you have to run, kiddo. Run! Jason, get that ball before she makes it back to home!"
I run and run and run home, run to the little dinner table in our little house, the five of us crammed around it. Troy complains bitterly as Jason takes all the mashed potatoes. Jason's been strutting around the house with that I'm Going to be a Marine swagger. He's leaving soon. Troy and I are rolling our eyes and shooting each other conspiratorial smirks over Jay, who we agree was acting like a butthead.
Mom, a linguist who would've been put to better use on any other planet than Mindoir, decoding dead alien languages, but teaches at our colony school instead, sighs one of her long-suffering sighs, though there's laughter in her eyes, in the quirk of her lips. "'Butthead,' Thena? Honestly. Clear the table, sweetheart."
I carry the plates to the kitchen and smell something burning. The stove. Something burning on the stove.
"Mom? Mom. I smell smoke."
My mother smiles and shakes her head. "Don't be silly, Thena. There's no smoke."
Where there's smoke, there's fire. There's always fire.
"Shall I tell you a story, sweetheart?"
I love my mother's stories. She never uses a datapad. Never uses a book. She simply knows them. "I'm too old for stories, Mom."
But she's still smiling. "The Iliad? The Odyssey? Oedipus? Lysistrata?"
There are things to do, and I shake my head. But I can't remember the things I have to do. There are always things to do. Miles to go before I sleep, I have promises to keep. "No stories tonight, Mom."
"You love Odysseus. You know how he feels."
She's right, of course. I love the Odyssey. Miles to go before I sleep. "Not tonight, Mom." I have promises to keep.
The cornfield at the edge of the colony. We sneak out there at night, my brothers and I. Sometimes to talk. Sometimes to conspire. Sometimes to scare each other witless among the tall, jagged shadows thrown by stalks taller than any of us. That's where are, sitting on the cold, hard ground. Jason's shipping off in the morning.
"Don't be a pair of wusses; I'm gonna write."
"Promise," Troy says.
"Fine," Jason huffs. "I promise. Dork."
I have promises to keep. Jay doesn't. He can't keep his promise; he's dead.
"You won't write, Jay," I say. I can taste smoke on my tongue. I can smell smoke. The earth isn't cold anymore. It feels hot. Everything feels hot.
Troy stands. "We have to go."
No. I know that smell. Everything's burning and I know it. I know our home is gone, our parents are dead, and the world has gone straight to hell.
We race home, but it's already aflame. Dad is in a crumpled heap by the front door, not far from where a batarian is sprawled, also dead. He's clutching his old bat, smeared with blood and matter. Inside the house, Troy screams. Horror, rage, sorrow cut through me until I want to scream with him, but I can't breathe, can't call for him, can't see through the smoke.
Jason's dragging Troy out of the back bedroom — Mom and Dad's bedroom — as Troy fights and thrashes and howls with rage, while flames lick at the walls around us, sending tiny burning embers down on our heads.
The smell. I know the smell.
Another batarian rushes into the house, even as it burns. Jason raises his arm, pistol in hand. Shoots. Falls. Too suddenly silent. Too suddenly still. He'll never write, now.
Troy pulls me off the batarian. I have our father's bat in my hands. The batarian is dead.
We have to run.
"Now you have to run, kiddo."
We can't run home. Home's not safe. The cornfield isn't safe either, but we run there anyway. Troy has Jason's pistol and I have Dad's bat, and we run. Gunfire rattles behind us, nearly drowned out by the roaring fires and screaming — terror, horror, pain, all wrapped up in a deafening cacophony. A bullet whizzes by my ear and nicks it. I scream, stumbling and Troy grabs my arm, hauls me up, and pulls. I know somehow the bruise will be there weeks afterward. It will be the last thing I have to remember my brother by.
The two of us run in wild panic for the tall stalks, dark shadows in the moonless night. We can lose the pirates in the cornfield. We can make it somewhere safe if we lose them. We have miles to go before we sleep. But we have to find somewhere safe, first.
"Go! Go, and I'll meet you on the other side! Go, Thena! Run!"
My lungs burn as I gasp awake, and I sit up, struggling to breathe, the scent and taste of smoke fading as my heart pounds, thundering in my ears. I breathe, slowly. In. Out. In. Out. Reaching out with a shaking hand, I grab the glass of water on my bedside table and drain it, a vain attempt to wash away the phantom taste of smoke from my tongue.
I settle back against the pillows, even though I'm pretty sure by this point sleep isn't going to happen for me. So I try to think about something else, anything else — anything but Mindoir would be good.
At least that's what I think until the memory of our most recent trip to the Citadel surfaces in my mind. That little weasel, Fade. Sidonis. Garrus' voice in my ear, increasingly frustrated as I refuse to move aside, out of his scope. The silence between us, uncharacteristically tense and thick, as we drove back to the docking bay.
And now I'm pretty sure we have the most-calibrated damned ship in the galaxy.
It's an excuse. I know it's an excuse by now, so I just let the damned stubborn turian perform his damned calibrations. He's pissed with me about Sidonis. I don't like that he's not talking to me, but I do get it.
So, nights like tonight, I work, even if I'm just scanning and probing planets until my eyes burn. And then I fall into bed and attempt to sleep, and try not to wish Cerberus had left well enough alone. And nights like tonight, I sleep for a few hours, until dreams push me out of my slumber. I don't usually dream of Mindoir, though — I haven't dreamt of the raid in… well. I haven't dreamt of the raid since before I died. Usually I dream of stars, countless stars, stealing my breath, the soft hiss of escaping oxygen filling my ears.
The first night I had that dream on this ship, and woke up to see nothing but stars above me, I lurched from my bed to the bathroom, where I fell to my knees in front of the toilet, my stomach emptying itself violently. I haven't gotten used to it, exactly, and I sure as hell can't fall asleep watching the stars pass above my bed, so I close my eyes and mentally calculate just how much platinum we'll need for Garrus' Thanix cannon install. Because if I think about how much platinum we'll need, I won't be thinking about why it's so important to me to give Garrus his cannon. Because once I've started down that path, I start trying — and failing — not to think about how damned relieved I was it was him I saw when he pulled off that helmet back in Omega. How much I missed him.
My clock glows steadily, and I watch as the minutes tick by. I close my eyes again, roll onto my stomach and try to sleep, and for a little while it does feel like I doze off, but I jerk awake again, and discover it's only been eight minutes since I closed my eyes. Fantastic.
I know there's something to be said for second chances, and if I were anyone else, I'd tell them to make the most of the chance they've been given. It's hard, though; before I cared about nothing more than being good at what I was, no matter what I was at the time. Be good. Be better. Be stronger and faster and don't make the same mistakes as before — learn from them. And I want to. I want to be even better than I was. I want to learn from my mistakes. I want to prove I'm still me, that Cerberus brought me back same as I was. I want to prove I'm not their damned tool.
Nine minutes. Ten.
But what's it matter anyway? I was still the Alliance's tool, wasn't I? Oh, they gave me a title and fancy privileges to go with it, but I was still the one they sent out to fix problems. Sure as hell wasn't the Council trying to retrieve data modules from a herd — herd? Gaggle? Litter? Flock? — of pain in the neck pyjaks. I saved the Alliance's asses and still they doubt and deny. Reinstatement felt more like a slap in the face than the honor it was when I'd earned it the first time.
Twelve minutes. I roll onto my other side. The bed is soft and the sheets are cool, and there's no reason why I shouldn't be able to sleep.
The thing is, no matter who I work for, I'm going to be viewed as their tool. And I know the only way to prove I'm still me is to make the same decisions I would have before — to be me. But that's the hardest part — there's a line between acting on instinct and acting on what you think your instinct ought to be. I'm not sure what I'm doing anymore. I don't know whether I'm making the calls I need to make because I need to make them, or if I'm trying too hard to act like Commander Thena Shepard. Am I being me, or am I just acting like it? And what's the difference? Just how thin is that line between the two?
Fifteen minutes. I can't take any more tossing and turning, and I really can't take this window above me, so I roll out of bed and pull on some clothes. It's clear I'm not going to be getting any sleep any time soon, and those planets aren't going to scan themselves.
I think, somewhere along the line, my give a damn broke. Maybe it's the one thing Cerberus couldn't patch up and make shiny and new. But Garrus… he always had more than enough give a damn to go around. If the bastard would talk to me, I'd see if he could spare some of it. Just a little. As I make my way blearily to the elevator, I try not to wonder too hard about Garrus and whether he's just as low on give a damn as I seem to be. He can't be; I'm screwed if he is.
The galaxy's screwed if he is.
But I've got to get him to talk to me first. There seemed to be hope for a while, but then the mess with Sidonis turned everything on its head, and it's back to all calibration, all the time.
The mess hall is nearly empty. One of the engineers — Davidson? Delacroix? — no, Donnelly. Donnelly is slouched in a chair, tapping industriously on a datapad, a steaming cup of coffee nearby. That tells me all I need to know and I make a beeline for the pot, pouring myself some. The coffee's quality generally depends heavily on who makes it, but I hardly care at this point; it'll keep my yawning at bay, which is what it needs to do. Or so I think — one gulp is enough to leave me breathless, like I'd been hit hard in the solar plexus. Donnelly looks up with a jerk, alarmed.
"You all right, ma'am?"
I swallow the urge to cough and tamp down on another urge to ask in whose boot this swill got brewed. "Fine," I manage. "It's nothing."
"Careful, Shepard." The easy, familiar drawl laced with twice as familiar — and twice as welcome — subharmonics comes from behind. "I'm pretty sure human coffee isn't supposed to have bones, but you probably can't be too careful." Garrus pauses a beat, adding, almost apologetically, "Especially since I think Jack made it."
Something's pulled him out of the battery and away from his precious calibrations for the moment. And for that moment, I'm actually a little stunned he's speaking to me. "Jack made coffee? Jack can make coffee?"
"I think it's obvious by your reaction that she can't."
I take another, more cautious sip, grimacing as the hot, black liquid scorches a path down my throat. It still tastes awful. "Is she trying to kill all of us?"
"Probably not. Jack strikes me as someone who'd prefer a more… direct approach."
I grimace anew at the taste. "So, contrary to all appearances, that's a no on the death-by-coffee."
"Not unless she throws the cup at your head first. But then, you never know; the night is still young." Garrus looks at me a moment and I can almost feel the calculations swirling around his mind. And then he leans against the countertop, entirely at ease. Too at ease. "Actually, it isn't. You're up late," he observes mildly, nodding at the cup in my hand.
I can only shrug. "There's a lot to do." And it's true, but what else can I tell him? My quarters are too large to be comfortable? That every time I gasp awake from yet another dream where all I can see are stars and all I can hear over every panting breath is the sound of oxygen escaping from my suit, the last thing I want to see is a sky full of stars? Am I supposed to admit I'm lonely? That's the hardest thing for me to admit to myself, especially on a ship full of people. I'm pretty sure my presence unnerves them. Hell, there are days when it unnerves me.
There are things — memories — I keep… tucked away. Safe. Frozen and perfect in the back of my mind. Mindoir, before it was reduced to ash and bodies. Parents and friends and siblings and neighbors. A time before the stench of burning prefabricated homes sent choking black smoke swirling up into the air. I can remember when things were normal. When "lonely" wasn't a part of my vocabulary — when I probably would've given anything for some alone time.
I blink suddenly, feeling a little too cold and a little too unsteady, and I'm pretty sure it's got nothing to do with Jack's coffee. Pretty sure. When I look up, it's in time to see Garrus watching me too keenly, and for one starkly terrifying moment, I'm afraid he can see into my head and know everything filling it just then.
"You okay?" His mandibles flare, but he seems to catch himself, and smoothes his expression out to something significantly blander. "Maybe you should go pay Chakwas a little visit and make sure that crap isn't poisoned."
"No, it's fine. I'm all right. You just…" I pinch the bridge of my nose and shake my head. "You reminded me of something."
"Good memory, or bad?"
I hedge for a moment. "…A little of both."
Garrus doesn't ask me to elaborate, though I'm pretty sure at that moment he wants to. I try another sip of coffee, hoping the sheer foulness of it will chase away the lingering ghosts of sense-memory — the smell of crops and homes and people burning, the sensation of cornstalks whipping across my face and arms, the heavy weight of my father's baseball bat, bloody and slick in my sweaty hands. I swallow with a grimace; it works well enough for the moment, and "well enough" will suffice, will give me a chance to rebuild the walls around my memory, will let me settle the ghosts down into that quiet, still place in my mind again. That's the problem with memory — you can't recall the good without some of the bad bleeding in. The bad always seems to bleed in, doesn't it?
"So, what's the pressing matter keeping the intrepid Commander Shepard from her rest tonight?" I'm really not keen on the way he's watching me, like he already knows. I mean, I've got to be honest with myself — this is Garrus. There's a good chance he might already know.
"We need more resources — platinum, particularly. Only one way to get them."
"And if all else fails, I hear planet-scanning is a sure-fire cure for insomnia." I send him a questioning look and he shrugs. "Joker may have let it slip you were drooling on the console."
"I do not drool, Vakarian."
One of his brow plates lifts a fraction. "Right. I forgot. You'd have to be sleeping first."
He knows I'm not sleeping? I must admit, I'm surprised. For him to notice, he'd have to leave the damned battery once in a while. "We need resources more than I need sleep right now," I say. "We especially need upgrades, and good tech doesn't come cheap."
"Well, I'd hate to think I'm keeping you from something so vital, but have you got a minute?"
"Sure." I nod and keep the mug cradled against my chest as I follow him back to the battery. The door opens and closes behind us, but instead of turning to the display, Garrus leans against it, looking at me.
"The crew's worried, Shepard," he says simply.
I think again of Tali, of her reaction to my being a Cerberus employee, and I can feel the old hackles going up. "How many times do I have to—"
"This isn't about Cerberus, Shepard. This is about you. You aren't sleeping. You barely eat. We're… concerned."
It's impossible to ignore how the conversation has gone from "the crew" to "we," and I'm pretty damned near certain "we" consists of Garrus, Chakwas, Tali, and Joker. Well, maybe not Joker — his biggest worry these days is potentially being undermined by an AI. My surge of defensiveness flickers out, and I take another sip from my mug just so I have something to do that doesn't involve looking at Garrus. "So what's your… what are the crew's concerns?" I ask as lightly as I can, lifting my eyes from the pitch black liquid in my cup.
"Depends on who you ask. Chakwas seems worried you're running yourself too ragged, spreading yourself too thin. Tali's worried Cerberus is screwing with your head."
"Mostly he's worried you're going to kick his ass for telling me about the drooling." I chuckle at that, and something in his eyes goes warm for a moment.
I give him a steady look. If the crew's got concerns — if he's got concerns — I'd better hear them out. "So, what are you worried about, Garrus?"
He speaks slowly, hesitating here and there as he chooses his words with care. "I'm… inclined to agree with the good doctor. Though, where she's afraid you're pushing yourself too hard without realizing it, I'm pretty much convinced you know exactly what you're doing." At my expression, which is probably painfully articulate, Garrus shakes his head and pushes away from the console, looking down at me. "Are you going to tell me everything's fine and that you're up in the middle of the damned night scanning planets because it's what you want to be doing? Because I'm pretty sure I'm not going to believe it."
I toss back the rest of my coffee. It's still hot, but not scalding, and still tastes like it could potentially pass for krogan sweat. I swallow it down — with effort — and glare up at him. "Maybe it is."
"What the hell do you want me to say, Garrus? No, I'm not sleeping, because when I sleep, I dream. And if I'm not dreaming about dying, I'm dreaming about other people dying. I haven't got the first damned idea how the hell we're going to make it past the Omega-4 relay, just that we haven't got a choice. And there's not a damned person I can talk to about it." Emotion runs hot in my chest, fueled by frustration and uncertainty and, yes, probably even exhaustion warring with the coffee. Normally I'd have thought before turning the words loose, but "normal" feels like a lifetime ago. The words are tumbling out, and I'm so angry at them — angry at myself for thinking them, for saying them. "I don't even know if I'm me anymore, or if I'm some constructed fabrication of what I'm supposed to be. I have people under my command, people I'm responsible for, and I don't know if I'm the person they need me to be to get them through this. But I have to believe I can be that person, because if I don't believe it, they won't believe it."
He looks away and breathes an almost-laugh. "The burden of command," he says, and there's… something there, in his voice. A million apologies and regrets, all unvoiced. "Yeah, I get it." And I know he does. Then he falls silent, saying nothing for several seconds. The sounds of the main battery surround us, humming with power, vibrating gently beneath our feet. Finally, Garrus sighs, and speaks. "I believe it, Shepard."
"How can you be so sure?" I'm certainly not sure about it, and haven't been for a while.
Garrus only shrugs. "Because I know you."
He could have sounded positively insolent, saying something like that, and Garrus has definitely had his fair share of moments rife with insolence and insubordination. But what hits me the hardest is how true the words sound. "How?" I ask. "How can you know me? Hell, I'm not sure I know me anymore."
He tilts his head a little and gives me a funny little look. "Well. Maybe you've just got to get reacquainted with yourself all over again."
This time it's my turn to lean against the console, folding my arms and trying not to give in to the exhaustion that pulls down my shoulders, makes me want to slouch. "Garrus…"
He takes another step closer, letting out a deep, resigned sigh. "The Commander Shepard I knew years ago wouldn't have let me take that shot either. It took me a while to realize that."
I shake my head, feeling suddenly weary. "You would've regretted it. I couldn't…"
"Couldn't let that happen. Yeah. I know. I… get it. Now."
"I know you were angry with me."
"Well, I wasn't happy. I mean, you kind of…"
I cough. "Butted in."
His grin is one of amused exasperation, and I feel myself beginning to grin in turn. "I was going to say interfered, but yeah."
"So I butted in, but classily?"
"Haven't you noticed, Shepard? That's how you do everything." His mandibles twitch, giving me the faintest impression of a human, grinding his teeth, but with thoughtfulness, rather than the attendant annoyance. "I thought… I thought you were keeping me from what I needed to do. I needed to make things right for my men. I thought…I thought it was no less than you would've done. But I was wrong — the Shepard I know is stubborn enough to interfere and hold her ground — even if the ground she's holding is directly in my scope — when she thinks it's the right thing to do." He breathes in deeply and exhales in a rush. "My point, Shepard, is that you're you. And you are already more than the person we 'need' you to be."
"…Does this mean you're done blowing me off in favor of calibrations?"
"See, unlike your obsessive planet-scanning, I actually do enjoy my calibrations."
"I notice you aren't denying blowing me off. And speaking of my obsessive planet-scanning…" I push off from the console and start for the door. The air between us feels clearer now. Better. I'm still not going to sleep anytime soon, but I feel… a little better. I'll take it.
"Just… watch yourself, Shepard," Garrus says over the door's hydraulics. "I hear Joker's made the CIC a no-drool zone."