Content warning: Sexual situations and implied substance use. Different tone from my regular writing, and different from the regular hard sci-fi feel of Mass Effect. Romance, action/adventure, humour, relationships, and horror elements but nothing too graphic and no character death. Swearing as is customary for my Shepard.
To love a swamp, however, is to love what is muted and marginal, what exists in the shadows, what shoulders its way out of mud and scurries along the damp edges of what is most commonly praised. And sometimes its invisibility is a blessing. Swamps and bogs are places of transition and wild growth, breeding grounds, experimental labs where organisms and ideas have the luxury of being out of the spotlight, where the imagination can mutate and mate, send tendrils into and out of the water.
- Barbara Hurd, Stirring the Mud.
"This is hell on... " Shepard trailed off, and then scoffed, "Well, not Earth. But hell by any definition."
Shepard was shoulder deep in a swamp, her hands held above her head, trying to save her precious pistol from being jammed with thick, cloying mud. There were alien bugs swarming around her helmet, their buzz humming up and down her spine. The air pressed in on her, every breath heavy even under her helmet. Ash's face was the picture of misery beside her, her assault rifle held so tightly above her head. She gripped it like it was a precious baby, and the mud was lava that was dying to consume any that fell into its path. Tendrils of her thick, dark hair fell into her eyes.
Kaidan, on the other hand, looked far too unruffled for her liking. He struggled through the mud ahead of the two women, whistling.
It was one of the shittiest days in her career, Shepard decided. How could he pick today of all days to be in a good mood, when they were stuck in a swamp and having time stolen in which they could be hunting Saren?
"Skipper," Ash said, flicking a gnat the size of her fist away from her shoulder. The air seemed to thrum, thick with power, and heat and promise. "I have never agreed with you more. Why the hell are there turian insignias in a swamp and why the hell are we the ones retrieving them? Let the turians chase down their own damn baubles."
"Chief, the Commander promised to retrieve them. It's an interspecies cooperation thing. It's just our bad luck that it's become buried in this swamp," Kaidan said, pulling himself onto a dryer shelf of mud.
He scrambled up the steep shelf, feet scrabbling for purchase. Shepard found herself grateful for once he was so tall, she wasn't sure she could have made it up without the aid of biotics. To get out of this disgusting mud, she'd gladly suffer having to always cant her head up to meet his eyes for the rest of her life.
Kaidan stood on the top of the shelf, stretching his long legs, and stiff back.
Shepard puffed, moving torturously slow to where he stood. She needed dry land. She was a marine. Marines weren't meant for mud. She was an adult. She was not fighting the urge to scream that she was going back to the Normandy right this second and showering for three years.
She needed that turian insignia. She would get it or die trying. Shepard had often been told she had a one track mind. In fact, it was an accusation Anderson had often hurled at her in a long-suffering tone. Right then, though, it was the only thing getting her to her next step, the next tree stump, the next clump of mushrooms.
"Interspecies, my ass," Shepard mumbled under her breath. "I'll interspecies their face."
"Shepard, that didn't even make sense," Kaidan responded calmly. He pulled his helmet off and clipped it to his armor belt as he waited for the two women to make it to his mud-girt island. She almost threw a fistful of mud at him when he raised his eyebrow in amusement at her plight.
She was going to wipe that smirk right off his handsome face.
"Yes, it did," she growled, and attempted an awkward treading of mud. Her muscles protested, sick of fighting against the oppressive weight and slurp of the mud as her thighs cut a path through it. Ash groaned just a little bit behind her, and Shepard almost turned to lend a hand, but realized that would take far more energy to struggle back through the mud than she currently possessed.
In her mind, any battle versus mud was every man and woman for themselves. Any other day and she would walk over hot coals for Ash.
"Err, ok. It did." Kaidan nodded, evidently deciding against arguing with her in her current mud-encrusted state, not to mention tangling with her wickedly foul mood.
"This place is weird, isn't it?" he continued, gesturing to the swamp. Trees that resembled mangroves on Earth twisted around the mud, and grew to form an impenetrable canopy, blocking the light to create a gloomy, secretive atmosphere. The trees and mud were why they had to go on foot rather than roll in the Mako or get dropped in directly with the Normandy. Joker had said they could probably blast their way in, but Shepard had vetoed that wild idea, knowing the asari natives wouldn't exactly appreciate their sacred, ancient swamp being blown up.
Mass effect canons attached to state-of-the-art warships were meant for blowing things up in space, not blowing chunks of planets up.
She just hadn't counted on the trees growing so thick, or the oppressive atmosphere. It was cramped, a lot of the time they had to move in a single file, scurry over roots, and scale giant fallen logs.
Shepard was fit. She could run for hours without breaking stride. She could lift twice her weight. She could arm wrestle and win against men and women twice her size. She had gene mods to turn her from someone unimpressively small, into someone formidable who could take men like Kaidan down with skill and training.
Even she was starting to flag in the uliginose wetlands.
"Yeah, no kidding," Shepard murmured in response to Kaidan's painfully obvious observation.
Even the comms were fritzing, something in the atmosphere, or perhaps the very trees themselves seeing to preclude noise and movement. Maybe the mud was frying their circuitry. Kaidan said there was nothing he could do in the field to fix them, so Shepard coped by sending short comm bursts to Joker and Pressly, apprising them of their progress, but otherwise maintained radio silence.
The asari who called this planet home said it was heavy with element zero, and was a veritable microcosm of life. In all the asari's long, thousands of years of galactic history, they still hadn't catalogued and classified a fraction of the species that live there.
It rained a lot, and the plant life responded, growing wild and untamed. Even the technologically advanced asari accommodated for the boon of life, making their homes in the trees. The settlement the Normandy ground team had left hours ago to begin their trek was an architectural and mechanical wonder that Kaidan had been practically drooling over to Shepard and Ash's amusement. He always did have a weird little kink for architecture that baffled Shepard.
The settlement had been a strange mix of nature and modern technology. Glass and metal wedged into tall trees to make beautiful homes. The roots twisted around them, holding them secure and tight out of the muddy streams. The asari had installed special lifts all over the settlement, powered by the abundant element zero. Ash had commented it was rather like Venice, but instead of water canals it was mud, and asari architecture rather than Venetian designs. Inside the houses they had all the modern amenities, but outside looked like Earth's old bayous. It was almost strategic, Shepard had commented. They looked primitive, but their technology was just as advanced as anything she could find on Thessia.
She had listened with half an ear to the Matriarch who had given the directions into the swamp, knowing her comm was recording for future reference anyway. She had been far too awed with the greenery, the settlement bursting with life and movement. Little monkey-like creatures scampered to and fro, and there seemed to be hordes of tiny asari children chasing after them. Gardens bloomed all around the houses, and natural creeks were directed down channels and into water systems to send water to the houses hundreds of feet above. Their water was recycled back into the gardens, mini-waterfalls falling down the trees. There wasn't a dead plant in sight. She doubted this planet even knew how to do 'dead'.
Shepard had never seen anything like it in her long career and all her travels with the Alliance.
"This place is disgusting. I don't know why those asari nudists or whatever would wanna live here. This is the worst planet I have ever been to," Ash said.
"Oh, but Ash," Shepard cooed, putting on a deliberately high voice, "They wanna get in touch with nature, didn't you hear? You can't do that with clothes on, apparently."
"Why are you two so critical? You're as bad as each other," Kaidan asked, frowning. "I think it's admirable to shun technology and get back to nature."
"Yeah. I'm sure that's what you were, ahem, 'admiring' back at the settlement, sir," Ash scoffed and Shepard giggled. "Their 'getting back to nature', otherwise known as buck naked and sporting a massive rack. I saw your tongue hanging out, LT. Don't pretend to be all innocent."
Shepard grinned. It was true. The planet Anjea (as it was known to the asari) was like a nudist retreat for asari. Some of them wore clothes, but a lot of them went bare. Shepard hadn't quite known where to look at first but had become used to it. They had no shame of their bodies, why should she be ashamed to view them? It was remarkably asexual and despite her joking with Ash, she did admire their lifestyle in a way. It seemed so relaxed and trouble free, an alien concept to Shepard. Their only caveat was that any males of any species weren't allowed into the heart of the settlement. Kaidan had to wait on the outskirts, and Shepard had to give him grudging credit. Ash teased him, but he had actually buried his nose in his omni-tool to avoid looking anywhere he wasn't supposed to.
Truthfully, if Shepard had enough money, she wouldn't have minded a shore leave back at the settlement. Although she held to the belief that getting naked was something private and intimate, the whole place had a healing and relaxation quality she would have liked to take advantage of. Her arm was panging lately, dull aches if she lay on it wrong in the night. Maybe they had some sort of miracle cure here for too many times shattered bones?
She scolded herself. That was ridiculous and uncharacteristic of her. She was a realist, not an optimist.
Shepard had seen a lot of asari who in their regular life were galactic business shareholders or CEOs, rich beyond her wildest dreams. They all came here for sabbaticals, health retreats or vacations. They had insisted to Shepard (while trying to sell her pots of skin cream and fertility totems) that a lot of the plants had healing properties, or were just held as a sort of 'asari feng shui' able to cure whatever ailed them through the power of the life in the planet.
Shepard had barely refrained from rolling her eyes. What a load of bullshit.
Who was she kidding? She'd go nuts inside a week with their spiritual mumbo jumbo. She supposed the asari had a kind of deeper mental connection with the planet, or the plants, their brains allowing them some insight Shepard was unable to achieve. The Matriarch had said some of the plants had complicated enough nervous systems to pique some salarian interest into declaring them sentient. Ash's eyebrows had risen so high up her forehead Shepard had severe concern they were going to fall straight off, and she couldn't deny it reminded her uncomfortably of the Thorian.
Shepard shook herself from her thoughts and watched, amused, as Kaidan's face went red at Ash's pointed gibe, and pressed his lips firmly together. He was probably realizing that he was just going to dig himself a massive hole with his two fellow marines, one that he wouldn't be able to climb out of, even with the aid of all the ladders in the galaxy. She felt a little bit sorry for him, Ash had been on particularly sharp roll today.
Shepard finally made it to the edge of his island, and he crawled down onto his stomach to wrap his arms under her armpits and haul her out of the mud with a wet squelch. She clutched his shoulders, trying to gain purchase on the steep slope with her boots and scale it. They slipped in the mud.
"Betcha wishing I didn't have that huge breakfast, eh, LT?" she panted.
"Nah." He smiled back, his face inches from hers. "You're pretty light."
"Just you wait." Shepard smirked. "One of these days I'm going to lift you, and make you all embarrassed. Carry you around all manfully. How'd you like that?"
"Hell, Shepard." Kaidan laughed. "You could lift Wrex and I wouldn't be surprised in the least."
He settled her down on the ground, finally freed from the mud, and she took the opportunity to stretch her aching muscles and pull off her confining helmet. Her hair spilled out of the bun she had tied it in, the hair band falling to the ground. His eyes lingered on the freed strands.
"Here," he said, and bent to pick up the hair band. "It fell out."
Shepard's breath caught when he pulled off his glove and used his clean hand to gather the strands. His bare skin brushed the back of her neck and she shivered, feeling a jolt in the vicinity of her navel.
The wild strands tamed, he stepped back. She was pleased to see he wouldn't meet her eyes. Maybe he was just as surprised as her with the naturalness of the act, the way he just thought nothing of touching her intimately.
The swamp was not the only dangerous thing on Shepard's mind.
"Y-your hair was messy. I was, uh, just was fixing it, Commander. It's, um, dangerous. Could get caught on something. For the team, you know," he stammered, and she had to hold back a grin.
"Thank you, Lieutenant. That's...well, um, really above and beyond the call of duty."
"Ahem!" Ash coughed. "Little help here, sir?" she said with a pointed glare.
Kaidan threw himself onto his belly (half to escape her scrutiny and knowing eyes, she was sure) and hauled Ash up onto the dry shelf of land as he had helped Shepard. Unlike Shepard, Ash scrambled up, insisting on doing half the work herself, and nearly unsettling him enough to pull him back into the mud.
Shepard's lips twitched. She thought wickedly that it would have been hilarious to see him fall face first into the mud with no helmet. A little bit of payback for teasing her all day. She winked at Ash.
Her Gunnery Chief never let anyone think she couldn't do anything perfectly fine by herself. Shepard appreciated her go-get-'em attitude more than she ever let on. Ash was a breath of fresh air, brash and gutsy with just the right amount of sass to regularly make Shepard have to bite back inappropriate smiles.
Shepard didn't flatter herself to think they were similar, but she did think she had found some sort of kindred spirit in Ash, someone who was quickly turning into a lifelong friend, despite Shepard's terrible friend making skills.
"Alright! Thank fuck that's over," Ash chirped, patting down her pink armor. She just succeeded in smearing mud further around. She sighed, pouting, so Shepard bumped her shoulder with her own.
"Cheer up, Chief. I'm told mud is great for the skin. We'll get back to the Normandy and poor Kaidan here will be forced into a great love affair with Wrex and Garrus. Those two never could resist baby soft skin. Look at him, he'll be so even more pretty. We'll never be able to compete now."
Ash nodded seriously, eyes gleaming.
Kaidan narrowed his eyes. "Shepard, have I done something to you today? I said I was sorry for eating the last of the cereal. I didn't know it was yours! I'll buy you some more. Adams helped me eat it too; I don't see you getting mad at him."
"You know that it's my favorite, but you just had to go and be a massive pig. That's not fair. It's my job to be the sole pig on the Normandy."
"Oh please. There was like two spoonfuls left. You snooze, you lose," he scoffed, moving closer. Shepard gazed up at him, lips twitching. He was so close she could see the flecks of amber in his eyes.
"Oh yeah? I'll hold you down next time and beat your ass if you eat my cereal," she said, poking him in the chest.
"Maybe that's my master plan," he rasped and they glared into each other's eyes, a silent battle of wills. "I like adventurous women."
There was a grin hovering in the shadows of his face, held back with only his determination not to break their stalemate first.
"Maybe I just like watching you squirm," Shepard said lowly. "Besides, I heard the med bay nurses gossip. They do think you're pretty with your soulful gaze and tall, dark and broody shtick."
"I'm not pretty. I'm manly as hell."
Shepard smiled and crossed her arms. "Hmm. Manly, huh?"
His dark eyes twinkled warmly at her, and she felt a pull low in her stomach. She wasn't imagining when he seemed to stand a little bit straighter and puff his chest out.
"Should I leave and let you two get a room or something? 'Cause I can just tramp back the way I came and leave you to your vomit-worthy flirting. No biggie," Ash interjected, breaking the moment. She shook her head with an impish grin. "I swear, you're worse than my parents used to be. And they were married for over twenty years."
Shepard coughed and busied herself fussing with her helmet, folding it down and clipping it to her belt now they were out of the worst of the mire. Kaidan suddenly found a cluster of mushrooms very interesting.
Ash's laugh startled a nearby toad off his log.
"Alright, Chief," Shepard said. "That's enough."
Ash shrugged. "Yes, ma'am. I'm just teasing."
She scooped up a load of mud from her pauldron into her palm, and on Shepard's mischievous nod, threw it into Kaidan's hair.
He yelped and danced away; scowling so fiercely that Shepard couldn't help but break into gales of ugly, loud laughter that startled birds from the trees.
"Think that's funny do you, Commander?" he said, trying to get the mud out but just succeeding in having it slide down the side of his face. Shepard tried to bite her lip and stop laughing, really she did. Absolutely.
That'd teach him to be happy while she was grumpy and covered in mud.
"You look ridiculous, Kaidan! Your hair, oh my god."
He growled and leapt for her, wrapping his arms around her as she tried to escape, squeals of amusement escaping.
"Not so funny when you're all dirty like me, is it?" he laughed and scooped up some more mud, smearing it down the back of her neck and into her hair. It was cold and she shivered, goose bumps springing up on her skin.
She was sure part of that was from the way his lips were oh-so-accidentally pressed against her cheek, his body wrapped around hers, his breath warm, and his voice husky.
"Stop, stop!" she cried, laughing so hard tears were falling down her face. His arms were around her waist, holding as she struggled (very half-heartedly) and she could have sworn he pressed his lips to the back of her neck for a moment. "Ash! Your Commander needs extraction from the seditious LT!"
"I got ya, Skipper."
Ash was at their side, wrestling Kaidan off Shepard with mud and threats and a lot of creative hand-to-hand movements. A flick of her wrist and she had somehow wrestled his right hand behind his back. Shepard almost winced, the smile slipping off her face, and had to steel herself to stop from pulling Ash off him.
If someone had wrenched her bad arm like that it would have snapped.
She reminded herself that his arm had probably never been broken and the worst he felt was some mild discomfit.
"Yield," Ash demanded as Kaidan struggled, still smiling. She dug her fingers into her side, and Shepard placed her hands on her hips, glaring at him as she would a prized newly captured prisoner of war.
"You have abused my CO's authority and I'm afraid I just can't stand for that, LT." Her eyes danced and Shepard tried to catch her breath, giggles still escaping at the smirk on Kaidan's face.
"You started it, Chief," Kaidan protested. "And she's cruel."
Ash paused, considering. "Yeah. You're right. She is pretty evil."
Shepard's jaw dropped.
"Alliance?" Kaidan asked, nodding seriously at Ash.
"Truce," she replied, and released him. They stood for long minutes, smiles dying from their faces and their breaths evening out.
Some of the stress of their long trek deeper into the swamp left the team, the atmosphere suddenly lighter. Shepard felt buoyant, as if an inflating balloon, finally freed from the grasp of gravity. There was a heavy perfume in the air, and a gurgle of volcanic gas. She was sure there had to be some hot springs nearby.
"Alright, alright," Shepard said, re-establishing some professionalism. Her head felt a little woozy. She wished Kaidan would stop watching her like that. "Enough fun."
"We're filthy," Ash said, picking at the mud. "How far until the turian insignia? We might have to camp if we can't make the trek back to the LZ by nightfall."
"Wait 'til the mud dries, Chief," Shepard said, eyeing her own filthy attire and knowing Ash trying to clean it now would be a fool's errand. Ash blinked slowly, rubbing the thick mud between her fingers and frowning. "Then you'll be able to just pick it off. LT, how's that navpoint on the insignia coming?"
"Commander," Kaidan responded, omni-tool manifesting and lighting the gloom with a sickly orange glow. "I have some more readings from the insignia. It's this way. Shouldn't be more than a klick."
Shepard nodded. She raised her pistol and stepped forward, guided by Kaidan's 'tool.
"Do you hear that whispering?" Kaidan asked as they drew close to the heart of the swamp. More and more light was being cut off by the trees, and dead animals began appearing, trapped by the mud as they were.
To Shepard's alarm, some of them showed signs of struggle. There were marks and wounds on their bodies, slices and teeth impressions.
She passed some sort of dead, giant elk and frowned, the light heartened rough-housing she had with the two marines that afternoon forgotten and her bad mood returning.
"No. I don't hear anything, LT," Ash responded. Her eyebrows were drawn over her forehead, giving her a hawkish air and her shoulders were held in a wickedly uptight line. She pulled out her standard issue Ka-Bar, and with a lightning fast movement, sliced through some vines blocking their route. Beside her Shepard unsheathed her own and held it in her standard ice-pick grip, flicking it over and over in agitation.
She saw Kaidan's hand ghost over his own knife, strapped to his thigh.
Something was humming in her brain. Something that made her teeth tingle, and had her grinding her jaw. The military issue knife was a comfort in her hands, something solid, and something real.
Kaidan raised one dark brow at her and she started, realizing what he was questioning by the blue glow suddenly filling the cramped confines. Ash looked at her warily. She'd been flaring unconsciously, the dark energy dancing over her skin.
Shepard breathed, and he stepped closer to her, using his presence as some sort of unspoken comfort. She felt her eyes return to their usual color and his frown lessened.
She glanced down and saw he held his pistol in a white knuckled grip. She put a hand over his briefly when Ash's back was turned, and his grip loosened a fraction. In turn, he placed a hand on her shoulder and squeezed and she sheathed her knife.
"You alright, Ash?" Shepard asked, but she didn't answer, just gave a cursory bob of her head.
Now that Kaidan put into words what she was hearing, the hum resolved into small, sinuous voices. The words made no sense, no rhythm or reason. It didn't have the normal cadence of speech, no ebb and flow, but it was like continuous, monotonous chatter. Perhaps the same words over and over, with no breath in between them. A chant? A prayer? A hum? Shepard didn't know. She didn't think they were in English, and her translator couldn't even pick it up. It was ancient and cloying. Like rotting flesh, picked clean bones. Or bodies in a bog, preserved forever.
The whispers made her stomach clench. It was like the heavy, pregnant air before the rainstorm, bursting with promise and malice. If she could see the clouds, Shepard would have said they were black. As it was, the gloom pressed in on them. Every time she turned her head too quickly, she would see shadows out of the corner of her eyes.
"I hear it, Kaidan," she said grimly. She felt relieved that someone had broken the silence and put into words the thing surrounding them. It was like he had brought into in the forefront of her mind something that was supposed to live in dark shadows. "Don't you hear it, Ash? At all?"
Ash shook her head. "No."
Ahead Shepard could see something shimmer, a ray of light just glancing off the metal. It was her turian insignia. Shepard jogged forward and grabbed it from the branch it hung from, still attached to its owner's chain.
Where its owner's body was she couldn't say. Probably swallowed by the bog hundreds of years ago, she thought grimly. She slung it around her neck and trekked back to the waiting Kaidan and Ash.
"We should leave, quickly," Shepard said. "I don't like it here. It feels like we're being watched. It's getting dark but I'd rather risk walking by omni-tool light than settling in here for the night."
They nodded, their weapons held aloft and turned to begin the arduous four hour trip back to the settlement and the Normandy waiting in orbit for pickup from there.
Both Kaidan and Ash's dusky skin was grey, their normal healthy casts washed out by the light and the nameless fear creeping upon them. Shepard was sure she was so pale that her freckles would stand out harshly. Her mouth was dry, and as she watched Kaidan's Adam's apple bob in a wretched swallow, she knew his was too.