Chapter 5: Family Spirit
"I… I can't accept that." Ashley shook her head and took a step back. "It's an Armax heatsink, Garrus. Worth a small fortune. You can't just give it to me."
"It's a spare. I don't need it." Garrus took a step forward and put it in front of her face. "Take it. Please. It reminds me of my father."
"And… that's a bad thing?" Ashley blinked and stood frozen for a moment.
Garrus nodded. He didn't feel like elaborating that particular subject, though.
"If… If you insist." Ashley shrugged and accepted the device. "Wow. I never thought I'd own an Armax mod."
Garrus perked up his mandibles in amusement. The gleam in Ashley's eyes reminded him of a child playing with her favorite toy. The sense of joy, and the way of expressing it, was universal to all species, it seemed.
"Enjoy it." He hunched over the weapons inspection table and started putting his rifle back together. He wouldn't admit it to anyone, but it hurt to see the poor thing disassembled like that.
His rifle was part of him, tied to his spirit with a bond made of steel. When he fired a shot, it felt like the projectile left his fingertips, launched forward by sheer force of will. He wondered sometimes if that was how biotics felt when they used their powers.
"So… Your father." Ashley leaned her hip on the table and watched him with interest. "I guess you don't like him."
Garrus flinched and nearly dropped his sacred rifle. Sighing with resignation, he set it on the table. It was foolish to expect he'd get away without talking about his father.
"He's a good father by turian standards," he began. Spirits, why did it have to be so hard to explain the turian society to a non-turian? "It's just that I'm not a good turian."
Ashley nodded, waiting for him to continue. No, this definitely wasn't going to be easy.
"See, my father was big in C-Sec. I grew up watching him on the vids, in one news report or another. Like all good turian children, I was supposed to follow his footsteps."
"And you're not a good turian. I see." The corners of Ashley's lips turned upwards. "And yet Shepard plucked you out of C-Sec. Interesting."
Garrus straightened. Something resembling anger flashed in his mind, but he quickly subdued it. He continued, "I wanted to be a Spectre, but he talked me out of it. Instead… yeah. I ended up in C-Sec. That's the way our families work."
"You thought you could be a Spectre?"
Garrus shrugged. "Maybe it was a foolish dream, but he wouldn't even let me try for it. If I tried… If I took that training and it turned out I wasn't cut out for it, then I'd… I'd…" He stopped, panting. His fists curled into balls, talons digging into the palms. Nearly a decade had passed since that day, and he still couldn't think about it without seeing blue.
Unclenching his fists and taking a deep breath, Garrus forced himself to calm down. Any ideas of his Spectre candidacy were long gone, or at least they should be. Better to just go on with the story. "And when I joined C-Sec, things didn't improve. In fact, that was just the beginning of hell. Like I said, my father was a big name there, and that created all sorts of problems for me."
Ashley cocked her head to one side, frowning. "Wouldn't that make it easier for you?"
"No." He shook his head and had to look away for a second. "It wouldn't. Our society doesn't work that way. We're supposed to rise in ranks due to our competence, dedication and loyalty, not the fame of our parents."
"Does that even work?"
"It does, on our worlds. C-Sec is different. I learned that the hard way. I had… special treatment right from the start. See, my father was still active then, and he knew many people in the highest ranks of the Hierarchy… our government. Some of my turian colleagues thought that if they're nice to his kid, my father will… warm up to them."
Ashley's expression softened. "So, that's where the mods came from?"
He nodded. "Yeah. My father wasn't too pleased when he found out. It only made us argue more. Like I did something to make them give those mods to me."
A grin played on Ashley's lips. "But they are very good mods, you have to admit!"
Chuckling, he relaxed his mandibles. He wasn't even aware he held them so close to his jaw. "Yeah. I know. They saved my sorry ass on more than one occasion."
Did… did Ashley just cheer him up on purpose? The eternally grumpy, turian-hating Ashley? What was the galaxy coming to?
"Do all turian children go through that?" Ashley turned serious again. "Abandoning their dreams to please their parents?"
"N-no." He wondered if Ashley heard how his voice broke. It was the primary one, so it was possible. "A turian is free to choose whatever profession he wants… unless his family happens to have military or C-Sec tradition."
"Ah," Ashley sighed. It was a simple sound, but he could tell she felt for him. "It had to be hard for you."
"Y-yeah." This time, a deaf hanar could hear how his voice broke. In all these years, ever since he turned fifteen and joined turian military because he had to, no one had ever admitted that being the son of Torel Vakarian wasn't easy.
Then again, he had never tried discussing it with a human. As newcomers to the galaxy, they had a different perspective, not burdened by millennia of tradition. Now, the gentle smile on Ashley's lips and the shine of compassion in her eyes begged him to open up and say what he never dared to.
It seemed like he was getting better at reading humans without an extranet guide.
He took a deep breath and looked past Ashley, focusing on an imaginary point somewhere far away. "He was never there for me… for us. Always on one case or another. He never even saw my sister hatch, because he was away fighting in the… in the war…"
Something told him it wouldn't be smart to continue. He trailed off even before Ashley straightened and jumped away from him, her eyes turning into real ice. If looks could kill, he'd be a dead turian.
Of course. He didn't have to say it. Anyone with at least one working neuron could tell what war it was. And it appeared that Ashley had a pretty strong opinion about that war.
Forcing himself to look straight into those steely eyes, he continued before she had any chance to speak. "See, that's the bad side to our society. When the Primarch of Palaven says, 'Go to war', you aren't asked for opinion. You reply with, 'Yes, sir' and you go. That's what most turians do. They may think that the order doesn't make any sense, but they go."
"So, you're saying that's the reason why your people wanted to eradicate mine?" Her eyes didn't soften even a little as he kept staring into them. "Someone in the - what did you say, Hierarchy? – had a bad day, and we paid the price in blood? No one objected?"
"That's… that's just how it is…" He trailed off again, looking away from her eyes. There was something else in them than cold anger and hatred, something….
Suddenly, he knew what it was. Sorrow. Grief. His mandibles flapped in surprise. He never really thought that…
What a fool he was.
"Look," he began again, "I don't know what made the Hierarchy to make the decision to wipe out humans. I was little more than a hatchling then – my carapace was still soft. I only remember my mother staring out the window for hours, holding Solana in her arms, praying to the spirits to give my father strength and courage to return home. I don't think he really wanted to go to war. I mean, I hope he wanted to stay with his little hatch—" His voice broke again. He didn't really know. It never sounded important enough to ask while he still talked to his father, and now he might never have the chance. He didn't see them patching up things anytime soon.
Ashley's expression softened as he spoke. Pain was the only thing left in her eyes now that the steely glare disappeared.
His father returned eventually, safe and sound. What if Ashley's father or grandfather (he wasn't entirely sure how old she was) didn't?
It seemed like he had just learned a great deal about the human version of the Relay 314 Incident without research.
"I… I never thought about the war that way," Ashley spoke at last. "About how it affected turian families. It's… it's… same everywhere, isn't it?" The last part came out with a deep sigh.
Now he knew for certain. Ashley's family suffered in the war. He didn't know how, and he didn't dare to ask, not yet, but he knew they did.
"I guess it is," he replied. Heavy air floated between Ashley and him again. And they just started to bond and share.
Shepard, he thought suddenly. What would Shepard do?
She'd make them laugh and bond again, dispersing the heavy clouds with her magic touch of command. No matter how hard he tried, he couldn't think of anything to say. He just didn't have her gift.
"So, hatchlings?" Ashley broke the silence first. "I never realized you guys come out of eggs."
It felt very tempting to make a remark about hairless primates, but he managed to hold his tongue in. Ashley gave him a chance to divert the conversation from hurdles and rocks, and he didn't intend to screw it up. Instead, he said, "We're birds, human. Your kind calls us that for a reason."
It worked. Ashley chuckled and said, "I trust you. Both here and on the battlefield. Don't think otherwise. It's just… the war is difficult to talk about for me."
He nodded, picking up his rifle and storing it in the locker. "Well," he hesitated for a moment."I'd better go check on the death machine—uh, Mako. Therum wasn't kind to it."
Time to return to his regular duties. Besides, better to leave while they were still on good terms, before he had a chance to screw up again. He turned around and crossed the hangar.
"Garrus?" Ashley called when he nearly made it to the Mako.
He turned around.
"Thanks for the mod."
He nodded again and turned his attention to the toolbox he kept near his console. Picking a random tool from the box, he toyed with it to keep his hands busy without actually doing anything. The conversation with Ashley kept repeating itself in his head over and over again.
Despite the difficult road they ended up on, the talk with Ashley made him feel better. She made it clear that she trusted him, and understood his woes with his father. He couldn't ask for anything more. It made him feel accepted. Part of the crew. Part of the ship itself.
Any place could feel like home, an old turian saying said, if it had the right spirits. Was that at work here? Did Shepard and her crew attract the spirits it took to make this place more than a ship – a home?
At the thought of her name, Garrus put the tool back in the box. He felt the need to talk to her, to share his worries with her. As she was his commander, he valued her opinion the most.
Not thinking any further, Garrus put the box away and took the elevator to the crew deck. There he saw the Commander and froze still.
She sat with Kaidan Alenko. They talked and laughed, forgetting about the cups with dark brown liquid in front of them. And their hands, laid across the table in a casual manner, were nearly touching.
He didn't need a guide for this, either. Turians did the same when they wanted to… show affection. What he needed a guide for was the answer to the question why he felt uneasy while he watched them.
Garrus slipped back into the elevator, hoping he didn't draw any attention to himself. Fixing the Mako seemed like a much better idea than thinking about what he saw.
Shepard spotted Kaidan sitting at one of the mess hall tables with a cup of coffee as soon as she got out of the medbay. He sat with his eyes closed, hands pressed against his temples. The migraine Chakwas spoke about must have been bad.
Grabbing her own cup of coffee, she sat across him. "Kaidan," she called, keeping her voice low.
His eyes flew open and he let out a small gasp. "Commander!"
So much about not startling him. "I'm sorry," she said. "Dr. Chakwas said you looked more distressed than usual. I thought… maybe you want to talk?"
He blinked several times before replying. "Uh, I was just worried about you—I mean you and the entire search and rescue team, ma'am. Joker told us he had to pick you up in the middle of an active volcano. It sounded urgent." He ran his hand through his jet black hair, hesitating again for a moment. "My implants… go on a fritz when I'm stressed out, that's all. Good to see you're back safe and sound."
Kaidan moved his hand like he wanted to run it through his hair again, but stopped in mid-movement and laid it on the table. Shepard caught herself wanting him to see it. She liked how his fingers dug trails in the field of darkness atop his head. Her own hand found itself on the table fairly close to Kaidan's, but still far enough to avoid any contact.
Oh, dear god. What was happening to her? This was worse than ogling his butt in the Council Chamber, because he at least had his back turned on her then.
Shaking her head, Shepard stopped staring at his hair, hopefully before he noticed anything. "Good to know my crew cares," she said, trying to cover embarrassment with a quick smile. "It was tense, but Joker really pulled through. Remind me to be more tolerant of his jokes in the future."
Kaidan chuckled at this, a smile appearing on his lips for the first time since she joined him. Her humor-therapy worked on him, too.
"We're all fine," she continued, "but what about you? You looked like you're still in pain when I joined you."
"Dr. Chakwas gave me my usual medication. It still hasn't kicked in properly." He shrugged. "L2 implants. You don't know how lucky you are to avoid them, Commander."
Shepard froze for a moment, but wouldn't let the memories from the past burst to the surface of her mind. Searching for something, anything to take her mind off the burning farm, she said, "I've heard they took all early biotics to Jump Zero. I avoided both that and L2 implants. I guess it can pay off to be discovered late, huh? I didn't even know I had the ability until I turned sixteen."
Good. She could say it without breaking down. It was about damn time.
Kaidan closed his eyes for a moment and took a deep breath. "One day I came home from school," he began, avoiding eye contact. "Turns out we had guests – guys with sunglasses in black suits. Working for Conatix, they said."
"Black suits and sunglasses?" Shepard had to chuckle. "Sounds like something from an old sci-fi vid."
"Yeah, I thought so too. Only it turned out that a bad sci-fi vid was about to become my reality. They took me from my home and brought me to Brain Camp – sorry, Biotic Acclimation and Temperance, or BAaT – on Jump Zero."
"Brain Camp?" Shepard raised an eyebrow. "Doesn't sound very fun."
"It wasn't," he added without hesitation, looking her in the eyes now. "It's not like they outright experimented on us… but we were lab rats. Add in bad teachers and some casualties… and you get a shut down project that nobody likes to talk about."
"Casualties? It was that bad?"
"It happens when you hire a wrong teacher." Kaidan lifted his hand from the table and pressed it against his forehead. "How about I tell you the whole story when my head isn't falling apart in pain?"
Shepard got the feeling that there was more to this than Kaidan's headache, but decided not to press the issue. A good leader knew how to make people open up without prying too much. She nodded.
Kaidan laid his hand back on the table, a little closer than before. His fingers brushed against hers for a fleeting moment, but Shepard felt it like a shower of sparks. And she didn't feel like pulling her hand back.
What was happening to her, indeed? She didn't flirt with her crewmates. And when they tried to flirt with her, she'd withdraw. However, right at this moment, she couldn't tear her eyes away from the gleam in Kaidan's dark orbs.
"Anyways, BAaT was shut down and the Alliance-sponsored Ascension program took over." Kaidan shrugged, trying to keep his face calm, but one corner of his lips kept twitching. "Conatix bankrupted soon after. That's it. The great story of my biotic beginnings." He grinned. "Now it's your turn."
"My turn for what?" Kaidan's question returned her back to reality. He didn't… He couldn't possibly want the story of her biotic beginnings. She reached for her cup of coffee to buy her some time, but it was cold and forgotten. No help there.
"Come on, every human biotic has a story to tell."
Maybe it was the sparks she felt earlier, maybe it was something else, but Shepard found herself speaking without her brain's permission. "My hand flashed blue while I was hiding from the batarians on Mindoir. That's the first time it manifested. I guess it got triggered by panic."
"Aw, crap!" Kaidan pushed the chair away from the table, panic spreading across his face. "I didn't mean…"
"It's alright, Kaidan." Shepard felt surprised at her calmness. "You were right; each of us has a story to tell."
She smiled at him, trying to reassure him that everything was indeed alright. Somehow it was. Talking about Mindoir never felt easier. She didn't know what he did to her, but it worked.
"We both got to play in a bad sci-fi vid," he said, drawing his chair closer again. "My plot was about conspiracy theories and yours about alien invaders."
"I guess we have that in common," she said, glad that he smiled again.
He chuckled again. "It seems so. It's a start."
A start? She liked that. Kaidan's presence chased the ghosts of Mindoir away for now, filling the gaping hole in her chest left by the loss of her family with warmness. It felt tempting to imagine spending more time with the dark-haired biotic, and shut them up forever. Still, she wouldn't give him too much, too early. It just wasn't her style.
"I better go check if Dr. T'Soni woke up." She stood up, resisting the urge to brush her fingers against him "by accident". God, why did she have to be so terribly rusty at flirting? She had no clue if that was appropriate at this point or not. "Commander duty calls."
And now this. She just couldn't resist putting him in his place, could she? What if she screwed up… whatever it was that formed between them?
"I understand, Commander." Kaidan's smile didn't fade in the slightest. Good. "I've taken enough of your personal time today already."
Yeah, yeah, it's in canon that turians give birth to live young, but I've always seen them as birds, and as birds they LAY EGGS. So, eggs they lay!