A/N: I would say that one of my favorite parts about Mass Effect 3 was the conversations that could be overheard. The war stories that made everything about the game so depressing and tragic (otherwise known as my cup-o-tea). One of my favorites was the PTSD soldier at Huerta Memorial- Aeian T'Goni, Neaira and what you later learn (if you connect the dots) is Joker's younger sister, Hilary. I had this ambitious idea to flesh out the 7 minutes of story Aeian tells the nurse. I wrote half of this months ago before picking it up again last week.
"Think we'll find any survivors?" Neaira asks.
"I hope so." Aeian T'Goni grabs onto the handlebar as the shuttle rocks violently, barely keeping herself from slamming into Neaira. Aeian hopes that in time her feelings for Neaira will fade. It's been nearly two hundred years now. "We're Commandos. When we signed up for this did you ever think we'd be running rescue missions for refugees in the Reaper war?"
Neaira smiles, the markings on her pale purple face making her look all the more alluring. "When I joined the Commandos all I thought about was kicking ass and getting ass," she rolls her eyes, flitting briefly on Aeian before clearing her throat gently and looking away. "Things change. We'll get in, save who we can and get out."
"I just keep thinking—shouldn't we be on Thessia?"
"Ever since humans got on the Council they've had some weight to pull. Maybe if that Spectre Shepard wasn't involved we could focus on our homeworld." She sighs. "But come on, you signed up for adventure, didn't you?"
"Reapers weren't part of my 'adventure' plans." She shakes her head, shakes the thoughts. Doing rescue runs is no doubt easier than fighting the forefront of a Reaper war. She's heard krogans and turians talk about the asari, hell, even the salarians don't think asari should be on the frontlines. Guerilla tactics don't really stand up to Reapers.
"You scared, T'Goni?" Samira asks. Aeian looks at her. Samira is young, new to the Commandos and eager to prove herself. She's always ready with a smart-assed comment and a display of bravado. Usually, she's a pain in the ass. "I'm not letting any mindless husks take me out. We've got biotics and guns, lots of guns."
"And they're still wiping us out," Aeian returns. She grips the handlebar more tightly and parts her lips, ready with more when Neaira touches her shoulder. The contact, brief and light is enough to silence her. She smiles gratefully. Neaira returns the smile. Aeian thinks that under different circumstances, if Neaira weren't an ardat-yakshi, they might have something together. Neaira never said so but Aeian recalls their near kiss, the blackness of her eyes, how Neaira disappeared for years before returning and telling her about her…condition.
"We may be commandos but we can't get cocky. Not with this," Neaira tells Samira. "We're fighting something that's never been seen, not even by the matriarchs. We've got to be careful. No showing off. We get the refugees and we get out."
Samira stands and looks out the shuttle window. "What's Tiptree, anyway?" She looks below. Aeian stares out the windows as best as she can. Green grass, rectangular buildings dot the landscape but no fires, no Reapers. None that she can see. "Farmers? Maybe we can get some decent food."
"Tired of MREs?" Neaira asks. "What kind of commando are you?" Samira scowls. Neaira looks at Aeian and winks.
Aeian smiles. "I just want a shower."
The shuttle begins its descent.
There are no fires but brutes and marauders run the plains. The similar flush of excitement takes over, fear fueled by adrenaline. Aeian is off the shuttle before it has settled, assault rifle at the ready, pulling the trigger to fire in bursts of three. Neaira and Samira are at her side as the other huntresses spread out.
The Reapers tools are spreading. Aeian wonders if the Reapers change them and transport them. They're turian, aren't they? The marauders, the brutes—how horrible. She can't imagine fighting whatever thing the Reapers would pervert her own people into.
Bullets tear through the air, gleaming in the bright, sunny day. The air is fresh, appropriately cool. It's only when she takes a deep breath that she finds the smell of decay beneath the grass. A huntress falls with a shriek that is violently cut away. Aeian doesn't look; she knows she can't.
A marauder head splits open at the stream of bullets that crack into its skull before the body falls over lifeless. There's shouting all around her and she sprints, diving forward and rolling out of the way of a charging brute. She's horrified when another one looms before her.
An arm, the size of two of her swings as she lies on the ground. Her eyes widen at a loud crash, at the splintering sound like glass. Neaira stands behind her, holding up a barrier, her lips thin in concentration. Goddess. She must have pulled it out of thin air in milliseconds—but she can't sustain it, not for long.
Aeain jumps to her feet and pulls the rocket launcher from her back, a clumsy, heavy piece of equipment that she's never fired. It's clunky in her arms and she's afraid that she's wasting it but the metal plating on the brute is solid and the force field Neaira's erected can't last much longer. He's almost on top of them.
"On three," Aeian says, feeling the tension of her muscles, the rigidity of her arms. This is a matter of trust. Neaira nods. The barrier comes down. Aeian fires. The sound is deafening. There's ringing. A hot wave of liquid splashes over them. Aeian lurches forward, nearly slipping on the goop and vomits on a fresh patch of grass. Her eyes are wet, sticky, she has to blink too many times to see.
Gunshots continue to fire in the distance. Neaira takes her arm and pulls her, gun firing as they move. It's starting to rain. The previously bright sky is giving way to gray. Teeth snap at the air, howls fill the approach of night. Aeian fires her gun several times over until the gun overheats and there's nothing left to threaten anymore.
She pants for breath. Neaira pats her shoulder. Samira approaches with a grin, along with another pack of commandos. This was easy, all things considered, but they aren't without casualties or injuries. They stoop and help the 'rescue' team to their feet. They patch who they can and mourn those that must be left behind. The shuttles have left for the time being for shelter. If they lost the shuttle and were stranded they would lose everything.
There's a farm in the distance, sanctuary.
"I thought they were going to get to us. We've been hearing them get closer."
The human girl—Aeian can't tell how old she is, it's hard with short lived humans— is afraid but her eyes gleam excitedly. Her freckled face is smudged with dirt, blue eyes bright and defiant.
"If it wasn't for us, I'm sure they would have, human," Samira tells her, looking around the landscape. The farmers look thin and frightened, wary, no doubt, of the asari squad that has landed. Aeian wonders how much time they've spent with her kind, if any.
"By that she means she's glad you're all okay," Neaira says with a half-hearted roll of her eyes. Aeian smiles at Samira's obvious irritation. "Manners, Samira?"
Samira scowls again but Aeian doesn't dwell on it. Erisa, the squad commander is taking her arm and pulling her aside. "Hanging in there?" Erisa asks. Aeian nods, flicking some goo off her hands in the process. She has never felt so disgusting. "Dirty work, but someone has to do it. Good job hanging in there. Three weeks and going and you're hardly showing any signs of wear and tear."
"We're commandos. I didn't know 'wear and tear' was an option."
Erisa slaps her arm gently and smiles. "Aren't you tough?" She hands her the radio. "I'm going to take a team to run a few sweeps of the surrounding area. Hang on to this. Stay vigilant. We cleared out that group but there could be more anywhere."
"How many civilians are here?"
"I have someone running the count now. Estimates were about a hundred but it's a small colony and who knows what the latest numbers are. I've counted about forty just walking around. These people are scared and who knows when the shuttles will return. They might have encountered some resistance elsewhere." Erisa says, looking off in the distance. "We've gotta make use of the little light we have left. If something happens, shoot a flare. If we're needed for another operation, use the flare. We'll double back. Got it?"
"I'll leave Neaira and a few others with you. Remember, be on your guard. Look around. Figure out how to defend this place if an attack comes. We're a team. As long as we all work together nothing can take us down."
"You can count on me."
Erisa and the squad she took returns hours later, alive and no Reaper forces to report. The commandos high five, tap fists and hug. They've lost more huntresses lately than they ever have and the war is still in its infancy. The group gathers, sitting on rolls of hay to plan tactics for holding the farm in the case of Reaper forces. They may have landed but they'll need several shuttles to evacuate those left and the planet is rife with people needing to be evacuated. They don't have the resources needed for a quick extraction.
"We should arm them," Aeian volunteers.
"With what?" Samira asks. "Hoes?"
A chitter of laughter travels through some of the younger commandos. Aeian frowns. "With anything. We're commandos and we're here to do the rescuing. I get it. But if the Reapers overrun us hiding isn't going to be an option. They'll help themselves, they'll help us if they have anything to fight back. So yes, we should let them use some of our reserves. Hoes or pickaxes or scythes won't do against those things, Samira. Unless you want to show us all how to use them?"
Neaira laughs, leaning forward on the bale of hey she sits on. "Samira doesn't need weapons. She can rip anyone apart with her biotics. Isn't that right, hot shot?" She looks at Samira, who has coiled herself in biotic tendrils.
Erisa shakes her head. "Enough, all of you. Get the humans armed. It couldn't hurt things. We'll be rotating through and who knows how long before we can get everyone evacuated. We need every advantage." She stands and looks around. "Everyone find a place to crash for the night. We'll rotate who stays up and who gets some shut-eye. Dismissed."
They all get to their feet, shaking the absurdly bright hay from the black of their leather uniforms. Aeian moves to Neaira who cocks a grin at her. "I can think of a few hos to start arming the farmers with," she says.
Aeian smiles. "Can we just shoot her?" her eyes skirt over to Samira. "Shoot me if I was half as cocky as she is when I first joined the commandos. Did you see her when they came back without reports of scouts? She looked like a kicked puppy."
"You always get the girls who get off on the fighting. Admit it, you wouldn't be here if some part of you didn't get a thrill from battle."
"Fine, I admit it." She looks as she walks, stepping over farming equipment, looking at the primitive torches that keep light in the place. She can see the same girl from earlier on the second story, looking down at her and Neaira curiously. "But this is different. I don't think anyone's ready for this."
"Can anyone be ready for the Reapers?"
"You've seen what they've done to the turians. And those husks," she shivers. "I don't want us to end up like that. Tool for the Reapers?"
"That won't happen." Neaira grips her arm. Aeian stills. "I've got your back. And Samira may be a smug shit but we need that kind of fire right now. Don't let this beat you down." Her hand slides away from her arm, she looks away reluctantly. "Goddess. How do things change so quickly? It seems like it was only yesterday we'd never heard of the Reapers. Now life as we know it may be at an end."
"Weren't you the one just telling me not to get beat down by all of this? I wish everything was different."
"No one more than me." She shakes her head. "Let's stop talking as if this is the end of everything. It isn't." She touches Aeian's face. Aeian flicks her eyes away, her face warming beneath Neaira's fingers. Neaira chuckles, inclining her head up. "Looks like you've got a fan. I'm going to find a place to crash."
Neaira cuts her off. "Not tonight." Aeian grows warmer still, embarrassed. They're commandos. They have to sleep in tight quarters. They often do. They have to be professional. Aeian knows she can't be with Neaira but she enjoys the little moments they share. "It's… harder lately." She squeezes her hand and moves away.
Aeian tries not to feel the empty, vacuum feeling growing inside her. From the second story of the farm, the freckled red-headed girl peers down at her, raising a tentative hand to wave, a nervous smile on her lips.
The farm girl's name is Hilary. Aeian climbed a rickety ladder to the second story of the farm, taken aback at the space and furniture above: a couch, a small bed and a few worn books. Aeian's surprised the humans aren't duking it out for the spot. "Nice digs, Kid. Where are mommy and daddy?"
"Mom's gone. Dad's showing your people around." Hilary crashes back onto the couch. She's restless. Aeian can't blame her. A minute later Hilary's leaning forward, watching her movements. "Can I hold your gun?"
The girl has been following her like a clingy puppy. Aeian is run down but if a fifteen-year old human girl is the worst she has to contend with, she'll take it. She needs a rest. She wonders where Neaira has gone. "A gun isn't a toy." Hilary pouts. "They're not for kids." Her lower lip juts out further. Aeian sighs, turns the safety on and hands it to her. "Never, ever point that at anyone unless you're ready to shoot."
"You'd probably be better off with a stick if those things come." Hopefully that won't be necessary.
Hilary stands, lifts the gun to point it at the wall. What looks to be a family picture hangs in a wooden frame. A younger Hilary is in the picture, along with what's probably her father and a soldier in an Alliance uniform. She sees Aeian looking. "My brother's a pilot. I haven't seen him in a while, but he sends emails and vids." She stops suddenly, whipping to look at her excitedly. "Do you know someone named Liara? Or is it Riala? She's an asari."
Aeian smiles wryly. "We don't all know each other." She extends her hand and Hilary dutifully returns the gun. Aeian holsters it. "Ever been to space?"
"Not yet. But I want to go. I want to be a pilot, too. Just like my brother."
"What's your brother's name?"
"What's he like?"
"Awesome. He's like the best pilot, ever. He can be a tool, though." She falls back onto the couch again. "Whenever he makes fun of me, I threaten to kick his ass."
"Terrorizing younger sister, huh?" She looks at her. "Are you the only kid here? I thought the kids were evacuated a few weeks ago."
"Hey, I'm not a kid. I'm fifteen." Hilary explains. Aeian waits. "A few shuttles came a while back and took everyone else. The other 'kids'," she uses her fingers to quote. "But I didn't want to leave Dad. Jeff's gone, so's Mom. I didn't want to leave him alone."
"I see. That was brave of you."
Hilary looks sad for a moment and then brightens. "Is it true that asari strip through their teenage years?"
Aeian glowers. The nerve of this human. Yes, there were several friends that decided to go into dancing at clubs. Aeian wanted something more adventurous. She never regretted it. She still doesn't. And she wouldn't have met Neaira at a club on Omega. Still, shaking her ass at a club doesn't sound half so bad anymore. "Do I look like a stripper?"
Hilary looks her over, pulling her knees into herself. "I guess not. Unless all strippers dress in leather and are armed to the teeth." She's quiet. Aeian moves to the ladder to return to the ground floor of the farm. She's got a chance to get some shut-eye and she's going to take it. "Hey. You're going to get all of us outta here, right?" She folds her arms on the arm of the couch and lays her head down. "Jeff pilots the Normandy. But this is just a small, nothing farm colony. Does anyone even care about Tiptree?"
Aeian wonders what it must be like to be such a short-lived species. A fifteen-year old is particularly young for humans, she believes. It must be frightening to be so powerless. The girl looks scared. "We're here to help. Don't worry. We're not leaving until you're safe. Okay?"
Hilary, smiles, relieved. "Yeah." She nods. "Okay."
Aeian watches the shuttle lift into the air, lights pulsing in the darkness. Worried farmers crowd around her watching it go. Aeian crosses her arms. A call on the radio summoned Erisa the other huntresses to a nearby colony where support is needed, another squadron of huntresses is being overwhelmed and the colony on the bring of being overrun. They took the rocket launchers, the assault rifles. Neaira and Aeian are left with only their pistols and a comm radio as lifelines.
"So much for rest," Aeian mutters to Neaira.
"I don't think I could have slept anyway," Neaira's lips hook up faintly. Her smiles are never quite there. Aeian sometimes wonders if she's the only one who sees them. Many of their conversations are like inside jokes. Sometimes she thinks they speak their own language. "Look on the bright side—at least Samira is gone."
"The colony will be saved," Aeian rolls her eyes. "Why did Erisa take the entire squad? Doesn't she know Samira can do it on her own?"
"No doubt Samira will remind her."
Aeian grins. "Do you wish you'd gone with them?"
"I like a good fight as much as anyone… but it wouldn't feel right if I left you here alone." She bows her head, thoughtfully. "I'm not convinced we can guard this place successfully," she confesses quietly. "Wooden structures won't hold up to the Reapers or their forces. The space is just… too open. There's nothing around here to fortify it."
It scares Aeian that Neaira is scared. Aeian turns her face to better look at Neaira. "Hey." Neaira doesn't look up. Aeian takes her hand. Neaira's fingers curl tentatively around hers but she still won't look at her. "Erisa and the others didn't see any scouts."
"But they can arrive so quickly. Out of nowhere—"
"It's going to be okay. We're in this together. You and me, right?"
Neaira looks at her for only a moment. They both look away. Aeian bites her tongue. All these years later and still science hasn't developed a breakthrough to cure the ardat-yakshi. Aeian wonders how lonely Neaira's life must be, how frustrating. Granted, Aeian has gone two centuries without taking a lover—as long as she has known Neaira. Perhaps she should move on. If only she knew how.
Her thoughts are mercifully disrupted. The freckled Hilary is there again, looking between the two of them. "Are you two, like…?"
"No," Aeian says too quickly. Neaira smiles, shaking her head at Hilary. "What is it?"
"When will they be back?" Hilary asks. "Are we stuck here? What if those things show up? I felt better when there were more of you here."
Aeian doesn't tell her she agrees. Did she overhear their conversation? Neaira is all smiles. She ruffles Hilary's hair. "Luckily for you, two commandos are worth twenty soldiers. We're well equipped to kick plenty of ass. Guns have nothing on biotics. We'll keep you safe until the evac shuttles arrive."
Hilary considers this and nods. "They're preparing dinner now. Are you hungry?" Aeian's stomach grumbles. She clutches it absently, wishing she'd fallen asleep before being reminded of her appetite. "It's settled then. Dinner! I never thought I'd have asari commandos eating with us. This is awesome! If I ask you to pass me something, could you use biotics?"
"Yeah, sure," Neaira says.
Dinner consists of poor vegetables and bread eaten at a large table in the middle of the farm. Aeian doesn't know what animals may have been housed here prior—but whatever they were, they're no more. Perhaps taking care of them became impossible with the Reaper war. It must be difficult to feed animals when you scarcely have resources to feed yourself.
"What's it like being a commando?" Hilary takes a large bite of the hard, dried out bread, chewing for a long while before washing it down with a cup of water. Aeian hadn't expected for water to still be available in planets under attack by Reapers but is grateful for it. "Can humans join? That would be so cool."
"It's not bad," Neaira leans into the table, looking at the farmers gathered around the table. "I don't think a human could make the cut, though. We usually study martial arts for at least thirty years, not to mention biotic studies. That takes centuries."
"So I'd be old before I was any good. Too old to be any good," Hilary mourns.
"I'd say so." Aeian says. "But… it's not all fun. Ships can get gross. And sometimes you're stuck for weeks on end with people you don't particularly like."
"Like that Samira huntress?" Hilary volunteers. "I asked her what it was like to be a biotic and she said I could never know, no matter how simply she put it, just like she'd never know what it was like to dig up dirt for a living." She sighs, wrinkling her face. "What a jerk."
Aeian hides her smile. "She's a good fighter."
"Because she has no soul," Hilary retorts. "Which one of you is the better biotic?"
"Neaira," Aeian knows Neaira has experienced guilt in the past for how her powers were amplified, how she got the power without wanting it. It was something confessed on that dark night when she returned long ago from her absence. Neaira's voice had been hard but her eyes were wet. Neaira doesn't take credit where it is due. Aeian remembers how hard it'd been to not be able to hold her hand during the difficult conversation. She shakes the thoughts away. "But I'm not bad."
"'I'm not bad'," Neaira teases. "Don't ever piss this one off," she cocks her head at Aeian. "She's vicious when she needs to be." Her fingers graze along Aeian's head tentacle briefly removing the hand. Did Neaira experience the same electricity coursing through her, Aeian wonders. It is more than just simple biotic release. "I make it a point to stay on her good side."
"What good side?" Aeian sighs, lifting an arm to examine the sticky goo that sticks to her leather. How long since she's showered? Weeks. Do the farmers think she reeks? Maybe she does and they're too afraid to tell her. "Ugh, I'd kill for a shower."
"You don't have to go that far," Hilary stands. "We have one here. Ah, don't kill me or anything but… you… could use one?" She puts on her best smile.
Neaira stifles a laugh. "I think you smell finer than any rose on Thessia."
"Shut up," Aeian tries not to blush. How pathetic, after all this time. The farmers watch them, curious and smiling, a welcome change from their previous timid, frightened expressions. "I'll take you up on that offer." She looks at Neaira. The comm radio rests on the table. Aeian thinks of grabbing it but is sure she or Neaira will hear it if Erisa or the others think to make contact. "I won't be long."
Neaira nods, lifting a hand to wave. "Don't hurry on my account. The scene's dead. Enjoy your shower. I'll take care of things here."
"If you hear anything—"
Neaira stands. "I'll get you. Shower or not." She crosses her fingers. "Promise." Aeian nods. "I'm going to take another look around the parameter before we settle in for the night. See if there's any improvements to be made." She touches Hilary's shoulder. "I'm leaving Aeian in your hands. Take good care of her, all right?"
The shower is in a cozy bedroom with a small, simple twin bed with thin, worn sheets. Aeian skirts her fingers along it before thinking better of touching other's belongings. Another framed picture sits on the nightstand, this one older, of Hilary's father and a woman. Hilary's mother, perhaps? Aeian unholsters her gun and sets it on the nightstand.
She strips. The leather always takes a few minutes but not so many as it takes to don it. It sticks to her as she peels it away, some of the goo having soaked through, leaving sticky, pungent liquid on her, the remains of Reaper blood, if there is such a thing.
The shower is tall with walls that press on her. Small, white tiles line the walls. They look old, faded and cracked. When the water comes on it doesn't matter. Hot and cleansing, it washes over her. Aeian closes her eyes and tries not to think of the past few weeks.
It's remarkable what bodies are capable of. Even commandos aren't used to such long, uninterrupted fighting with little rest. Maybe when it's all over they can brag to the other races of their superior abilities, their contribution to the war effort. Maybe they'll all get medals.
How are things in Thessia? She thinks of her home planet and the colony that Erisa and Samira have gone to. They're all huntresses with a remarkable and frightening gift for killing. What they do is no longer sport. It's hard to think that all life may soon be wiped out.
She's grateful Neaira was left behind. Huntress or no, Aeian worries when Neaira is on missions she isn't a part of. They're a squad but she and Neaira have paired up more often than not. They know how each other thinks, how they fight, they can fight, like a mirror, in perfect unison, graceful and deadly.
The water relaxes her. Neaira should have a shower as well. Aeian prompts herself to hurry but leaving the hot water is difficult. Her imagination runs away from her. She thinks of Neaira walking through the door, joining her, the two of them pressed—
"Stop it," she mutters. She forces the thoughts from her mind. Wipes at her eyes as if somehow she could erase her desires. Maybe she should leave the squad. Maybe she should go to Omega and do some work for Aria T'Loak. Is she still there? She heard a rumor that she might be on the Citadel but can't fathom why she would be. She hears a muffled voice, looks towards the bedroom but it doesn't come again.
She considers the plan again. After the war she could leave. Maybe she could work in Illium. There's gotta be work there, right? But could she leave Neaira? They're partners, best friends… huntresses. They don't abandon one another.
Hilary's voice banishes the thoughts, coming from somewhere outside the bedroom. "There's a… tall asari here…!"
"What?" Aeian cocks her head to listen. "What was that?" She calls again. No answer. "Are they back already?" And here she was so worried. Erisa, their fearless leader is one of the most capable people Aeian has ever known. Even Samira has earned some right to her cockiness. Aeian should have known they wouldn't be long. Maybe they've brought back other huntresses to help fortify the farm.
It does mean an end to the shower. She sighs, finds a towel folded over the shower curtain and wraps it around herself. She already misses the heat of the water.
The tall, hunched figure that comes through the bedroom door is… Aeian's breath strangles her, lodging painfully in her throat. A thing. A reaper thing. An asari reaper thing. How did it get past—how did—where did—she wasn't in the shower for more than—
The thing is—emaciated, naked and barbed. Aeian focuses on it's jagged edges, the knife like tentacles, razor sharp claws and synthetic blood that flows through it almost crudely drawing attention to its breasts.
It sets its sights on her and wails a loud, miserable sound that makes it impossible to think, to stand. Aeian stumbles back, hits the wall. A frame falls over.
Its eyes. She can't look away from—
A voice is pressing into her mind, pounding against it, a familiar— memories. Memories of her. Memories of Neaira. Neaira's voice.
Aeian presses to the wall, unaware of how she tries to keep the towel up, unaware of how she hyperventilates. Neaira. Neaira it's her. It's her. No. No. Goddess, no. Tears spring to her eyes. Despair and rage at the unfairness of it all crush her.
They scream at the same time.
Husks begin pouring into the room.