Shepard panted, wiping perspiration off with the towel hanging around her neck. “That’s all you got, Williams?” she asked, her hand reaching out to the Chief.
“Skip, not everyone has your stamina.”
With a grunt, she pulled Williams to her feet. “I didn’t even use biotics. It was a fair fight.”
Williams laughed. “You need to spar with the LT if that’s what you are looking for. I’m completely wiped and I’m on duty soon so that’s it for me.”
Shepard sighed and dried off before she started on her biotics training. Travelling was the most boring part of the job. Her life was long periods of dullness punctuated by the quick flashes of battle and pure adrenaline. And now with a load of civilians she couldn’t even swing by a couple of pirates’ hideouts for a quick raid here and there.
“Get the civilians back to the Citadel. That’s the priority. They must be debriefed.” Udina’s words echoed in her head.
What else could she say but, “Yes sir”?
At least Joker was making good time. In 48 hours, they would be cleaning out “Geth” again. “Fuck.”
Shepard turned on her music and started running through her usual biotics routine. It was a mix of things she picked up in the slums and the stuff she was taught later in the Alliance.
Ryder felt like a stalker. Her ears caught a familiar refrain coming from the cargo bay. She walked towards the music, wondering who was playing it so loudly. Down time without a routine, without a job grated on her.
It wasn’t like this the last time she was hurt. Her team had survived, banged up but alive. She was following orders and she did her job well. They came out on top. They fucking won. Now, with her slinging orders, Ryder didn’t feel the same.
Her people died.
Kovács’ death stung the most. He died as a direct result of her orders. She told him to go with the others. And he fucking died because of it.
Ryder walked woodenly to the dimmed med-bay after a night of no sleep. Turns out the hum of the drive core can be heard everywhere on the Normandy.
Chakwas took one look at her and sighed. “Get out of your hoodie and get on the table.”
Ryder unzipped the jacket and shivered a little. The air in the med-bay was a little too chilly for bare skin. The table seemed to press the claws of death into her back. She suppressed a shiver climbing up her spine.
Chakwas noticed. “Cold?” she asked.
“I’ll be quick,” she promised. With a scissors, she snipped through the bandages covering the multitude of shrapnel wounds. “You’re healing nicely. You don’t need to keep them bandaged any longer. Just remember to keep up with the medi-gel application for a couple more days. I believe these won’t even leave a scar.”
The doctor applied a thin coat of medi-gel over the wounds. “Let them dry a little,” she instructed as she activated the diagnostic scanner.
The table started humming and vibrating slightly as scanner swept over twice. Chakwas looked at the results on the monitor as Ryder sat up. Her ribs protested, but they were much better. Wonders of modern medicine.
“How’s your sleep?”
“Fine,” Ryder replied easily.
“Why?” Chakwas asked, “why do soldiers think being stoic and all tough is the right thing to do? You’re not as good a liar as you think you are, Ryder.”
Ryder gulped as Chakwas levelled her a look. “Now let’s try this again,” she said. “How is your sleep?”
She averted her eyes, pressing the heel of her left hand into her face. Kovács fell from his perch again in her mind, this time the sniper took out his entire head. Brain, blood and bone splattering across her mind’s eye. She flinched, when she felt a hand on her shoulder.
“I’ll be recommending you talk to a therapist before you get re-assigned.”
Ryder inhaled sharply. “But—”
“No buts, soldier. You lost people. It is protocol, not just for you but all of your other squad mates. The Alliance will get you professional grief counselling. If you want, you can talk to me. Find someone and let it out meanwhile.”
Her jaw tightened as she nodded, trying to swallow past the lump that formed in her throat.
“All right, take it easy for a week or so. And I’ll say you will be cleared for light duty.”
After that, Ryder felt the need to be alone. Under Chakwas’ gaze, as kind, as well meaning as it was, she felt exposed and raw. And that led her seeking out that familiar music, like a rat entraced by Piped Piper.
We were the kids that left home probably too young (too young)
Music punctuated by grunts of effort, hisses of exertion.
But we took our share and maybe then some (then some)
Flashes of blue light reflected against metallic surface of bulkheads.
Tired of beatings and battles and being sewn up (sewn up)
Then the scent hit her. Ozone, strong and heady in its intensity.
But that made us grow up, and that made 'em scared
Ryder leaned against the wall, half hidden by the crates shoved to the side. They formed a circular ring, looking like a fighting circle, with a single person in the middle — Shepard. Her striking red hair dark with sweat, her tanned skin flushed red from her training. Shepard’s movements were lightning quick, her blows hit hard, fists pounding away at a swinging sand bag.
Ryder couldn't believe her eyes. She had come into her biotics early, had training under an ex-Alliance soldier for years before joining a biotics program. By her own estimation, she was good, maybe not the best but one of the top tier biotics of her own cohort.
But Shepard, she was something else. In that instant, Ryder realised what differentiated the Saviour of the Citadel and the rest of them. It wasn't just about raw power, it was having pinpoint precise fine control.
Shepard took a can of soda and placed in the middle of the ring. Layer by layer she built, shimmering barrier after barrier over the can. Each successive layer was paper thin but packed so closely they looked like a single solid block. She nodded, satisfied with her handiwork.
Ryder gasped. Step by step, Shepard walked on the blue shimmering layered barrier she placed over the can. No, how can it hold? As her weight pressed against the barriers, one after another, the layers flickered and died. But there was always another one below. By the time she got to the top of the rounded dome, there were plenty more layers still underneath.
It was the LT, Alenko if she remembered correctly. “Sorry, I didn't mean to startle you.”
“Sir, I didn't mean to be watching I was just—.”
He laughed, it was a sound warm and smooth like a wool blanket in the middle of winter. “Don't worry about it. She probably know you were watching. She likes showing off.”
Before Ryder could speak, Shepard shouted, “Alenko, you don't have to be such a spoilt sport and reveal all my secrets to baby Ryder.”
She was grinning as she let the barrier go. With a solid thump, she landed on the ground next to the can. Picking it up, she popped the tab and drank deep. “Ahhh,” she sighed. “That's the good stuff.”
Ryder frowned. She recognised the can, it was the cloyingly sweet energy drink that every biotic she knew avoided like the plague. Alenko noticed her expression, he smiled, “Yes, only she can stomach the stuff.”
Shepard walked over, draining the can as she came. “You're a biotics too, baby Ryder?”
Ryder winced at the nickname. Fuck, this is going to stick. “Yes, I am, mad—”
Her words got caught in her throat when she saw Shepard’s gaze hardened. “Ma’am…Shepard, Commander Shepard.”
The Commander and LT laughed. Ryder felt her face burn.
“You should train with me sometime,” Shepard said, ignoring Ryder’s blush.
“I would love to, but Doctor Chakwas has not cleared me for anything more strenuous than getting myself to my cot and the mess.”
Shepard nodded. “Maybe later then.”
With that she left with the LT, both of them had their head together talking about the resupplying the Normandy when it docked. Ryder watched as the door closed behind them. “If only she wasn’t just saying it to be nice.”
Hands gripping hers, holding them still. She struggled, but air wouldn’t come, it just wasn’t enough. Fear choked her. It was the arm that pressed against her throat, it was the knee nudging her legs apart, it was the leering face that stared at her.
It was Melnik.
She flinched. The pressure was gone. She bent over heaving, gasping for air. As she straightened, she could feel the heat. It was oppressive and overwhelming. Her boots clanked as she walked in the upside down world of the Sinion, light flicking at the end of the corridors. Dread was the tightening of her guts, it was the need to check even if she knew who she would find there. Her mouth dry as her hands tightened on her rifle. The body slumped, blood pooling under it. Her breath hitched as she met the pair of glassy dead eyes.
It was Ishida.
A loud bang made her jump. She pulled on the trigger but realised she wasn’t holding anything. Gone was the darkness and heat, instead she was sitting in a familiar chair. Another bang made her search for the source. It was coming from the monitors. She was back in the control room. Across the monitors arrayed before her was one scene being replayed over and over.
A soldier rising his arms up in victory. A bang. A head exploding. It looped and repeated. Guilt was the sharp pain in her chest, it was the tears stinging her eyes, it was the next breath that refused to come.
“I’m sorry, I’m fucking sorry.”
Victory, gunshot, death. Rinse and repeat. Looping, burning into her eyes, searing into her mind.
“It should have been me.”
Ryder surged upright, her ribs protested at the sudden movement. She glanced at the person snoring in the next cot. It was Melnik. She squeezed her eyes close as the feeling of helplessness washed over her. “Fuck.”
It was too soon after the nightmare. The sensation of his forceful hands and rough treatment were too fresh in her mind to look at him and remembered he had her back. Coupled with Kovács’ look of surprise as his head vanished under the sniper bullet, it just too much to sit still.
Ryder didn’t know where she was going but her feet had their own ideas. The lights flickered on as she stepped into the space, motion sensors detecting movement. It was the cargo bay she had observed Shepard training in earlier.
Now, it was still and silent. Lights were kept dim. The Normandy was on the night cycle. Only the essentials were manned. Most of everyone else were trying to get enough rest for the day cycle. The cargo bay was silent except for her own harsh breathing. The ring Shepard used earlier stood empty.
Ryder sighed and slid to the floor, her back leaning against some crates. Drawing her knees to her chest, she folded her arms on top of her knees and buried her face. Darkness swallowed her up as she tried to calm herself.
All she could hear was her heartbeat, her ragged breathing and the hum of the Normandy. Her senses turned inwards. She had no idea how long she stayed that way. Was it mere minutes or hours? Time ceased to have meaning. It was just her and the gnawing guilt.
Ryder stiffened, her head jerking up. A steaming cup of tea was being thrusted in her face. Automatically, she raised her hands to receive it. The steel double-wall cup felt cool in her hands. A packet of tissue landed on her lap. A warm body slid next to hers. Shoulder pressing against her own. With the cup shielding her face, she glanced to see who it was.
All Ryder needed was to catch a hint of red hair from her peripheral vision to realise who it was. Fuck, did I mess up? Ship board protocol is not to have non-crew wandering around areas they weren’t supposed to. Shit.
“Nightmare?” Shepard asked, she kept her eyes staring straight ahead.
“Yeah,” Ryder replied, tired and resigned. She noticed Shepard didn’t have a cup of tea of her own. She sipped a little and placed the cup on the floor, sliding it towards Shepard.
A soft chuckle and Shepard accepted the offer. She sipped and hissed. The tea was steaming hot after all. “Want to talk about it?” she asked.
Ryder froze. Do I want to? The awkward silence that hung between them was apparently answer enough.
“We should be docking in the Citadel late tomorrow, ship time. Joker made good time. The Alliance is hot on my ass to get you guys back for a debrief,” she said, bulldozing through her lack of an answer. “Have you met Joker?”
Ryder shook her head.
Shepard snorted. “I think you’d know if you have. Best pilot in the Alliance just don’t tell him that I said that.”
The cup of tea went from steaming hot to lukewarm to stone cold as it was passed back and forth, sipping from it. Shepard spoke, Ryder listened. Anecdotes of the crew, funny stories that made her chuckled, impossible stories that left her on the edge of her seat. Eventually, even Shepard ran out of words.
“Does it get better?” Ryder asked in the wake of a particularly funny story about an asari being caught in a Prothean trap.
“The weight of the lives lost.”
“Oh, that,” Shepard shifted to face her. “Yes and no.” She took a deep breath as one hand pushed her hair out of her face. It was as if she aged ten years in the span of seconds.
Ryder regretted the question. “You don’t have to—”
“Baby Ryder,” Shepard interrupted. “Shut up and just listen.”
She hid her grimace and clamped her mouth shut. She waited.
“We’re soldiers. You and I, we’re not that different.”
Except you’re the Hero of the Citadel and I’m not.
“I know that look,” Shepard narrowed her eyes at her before sighing and continuing, “It’s our lot in life to stand at the frontlines, to hold our rifles and charge into danger. We know we may one day be called to lay down our lives.”
Ryder found herself nodding along. These were all hard truths she knew. But knowing it might happen was one thing, seeing the hard consequences of her orders was a whole other thing. Her jaw tightened as she shoved her knuckles into her mouth and bit down.
“It is also our lot in life to see this happen to friends and comrades. It will always hurt, it doesn’t matter if it is someone you know well, or a faceless grunt you just know they exist. It will always hurt. It should hurt. These are people, they have lives and their lives have weight. But eventually there will come a time you would remember the good times more than the bad. There will be a day you will remember and it will not hurt as badly as it does now.”
Tears made her vision swam. Ryder dashed them angrily away with the back of her hand. “Shit, but it fucking hurts now.”
She turned and looked at Shepard. The commander had her brilliant green eyes aimed forward. Her eyes looking at something that wasn’t there. The pain reflected there was old but raw, giving lie to her words.
“I know, I know. It does. But it will be better one day.”
Ryder couldn’t tell who the words were meant for.
Lyrics taken from We Fight by Dashboard Confessional