Ryder rubbed the back of her neck, her fingers brushing against the familiar bump of the biotic amp under her skin. She stretched her neck from side to side, trying to work the kinks out of her sore muscles. This ten hour flight was the last leg of her journey back to the Citadel. Hitching a ride on an Alliance transport was the best afforded to someone of her rank. And all that got her was a seat on a packed transport.
But hey, it got me home.
Home… Home was the Citadel, home was the little apartment she spent her childhood years, home was her room she spent nights looking at her poster of Commander Shepard looking all heroic, calling on people to join up. The day she walked out for good she joined the early biotic intake programme and she had never been back except for some scattered visits.
And now she was almost home.
The transport shuddered as the docking procedures took over. The rest of the soldiers were mostly like her moving from one assignment to another. She had just finished her training after being promoted to Corporal. The spanking new chevron was sitting pretty on her collar.
I earned this on my own.
The cost was a pretty little wound across her ribs. The medical officer promised no scars, but for now it still twinged at the oddest times.
“Grunts, welcome to the Citadel. Thank you for taking the Alliance shuttle service,” the announcement came from overhead.
Everyone chuckled. Ryder grabbed her duffle and made her way off the transport along with the rest.
And she promptly found herself in a queue for the single counter open at the Alliance checkpoint. There was already a long line forming when she got there. Every soldier on shore leave were usually dropped off on the Citadel. Everyone was expected to make their way from there, wherever home might be.
Sara Ryder was home. It was just a skycar ride away, as soon as she could get out of the Alliance docks.
Being back on the Citadel brought back memories. Most of them weren’t happy ones. Her earliest memories were of mock-training and later real ones, competing with Scott and vying for their father’s attention. Then as she grew up, moving from an Alliance school to a regular one brought on bullying with as few human biotics there were. And there was also the constant worrying about her mother’s condition. Finally culminating in the realisation that nothing she did would ever be good enough for her father. Without a push from her mother, Ryder would never have joined the early biotic intake programme. She would never have learnt what it was like to be appreciated for being who she was and not in spite of it.
The solider on duty sighed as she stepped up. “Name?”
The soldier did a double take. His mouth opened ready to ask a question. Ryder nodded and said, “Yes, that Ryder.”
She shrugged and took a deep breath, looking at the soldier again.
“Everything is in order, enjoy your shore leave Corporal.”
“Thank you, Private,” she replied.
Her combat boots clanked against the metal plates that lined the docks and joined every other soldier as they all made their way out of the Alliance docks to the civilian end of things. She looked at the sea of human ahead of her and sighed. “It’s going to be a long day.”
The queue for the skycar was too long. She braved the public transit even though it was the peak hour. Her omni-tool was buzzing near incessantly as soon as she managed to cram herself into the tram with scores of other Citadel denizens. One arm was tight against her side while the other clung onto the handle bar so that she didn’t fall on someone.
Fuck it’s irritating.
Eventually the tram arrived at her stop. “Sorry, I’m getting off here,” she said as she squeezed her way out.
It took some effort but she made it out before the doors closed and immediately bumped into someone. “Oh shit, sorry,” she started apologising when she looked up.
Ryder found a familiar set of eyes staring back. “Sara!” the dual flanged voice said.
“Senana!” she exclaimed and wrapped her arms around the turian.
Senana’s mandibles flapped happily as she hummed. “You remembered me,” she cooed. “I had figured after you joined up and went all Alliance you would forget about little old me.”
Ryder took a step back and shook her head. “Little? You’re still at least 20 cm taller than I am.”
“Figure of speech, you and your brother rubbed off on me,” she said. “Are you back for good?”
“No,” she shook her head, “just a visit. I actually got my next assignment already so this is just a quick popping by.”
Senana nodded emphatically. “Yeah all you Alliance types just hoping from place to place all the time. How’s your mother? I hear…”
Her voice trailed off when she saw the grimace on Ryder’s face. “Oh spirits, you just got home,” she said, gesturing at the duffle bag in Ryder’s hand. “All right, I won’t keep you. Drop by the range when you have some time? It will be good to see how much you’ve improved since.”
Ryder waved good bye to the turian. She would only be the first of many reminders of the past.
Home wasn’t too far off now. She used to race the distance between the range and their home against Scott. Sometimes she won, other times Scott did. They were mostly an even match, well… other than her biotics. Her hand drifted to her amp again before she forced her hand away.
“Time to go home,” she muttered under her breath.
It didn’t take long. Ryder stopped in front of a familiar set of doors. She sighed and straightened her Alliance BDU, dusting off invisible dust from her shoulders. Her fingers rubbing against the double chevrons on her collar. With a firm grip on her duffle bag, she tapped the holo-lock. It spun and cycled, eventually it turned green and opened.
She stepped in and found it dark and empty. A breath caught in her throat. Instantly she checked her omni-tool. There were more than 30 messages and missed calls there. All of them from Scott.
Her heart thudded as she raced towards the nearest skycar kiosk. There was a long queue. Fuck it’s Friday and everyone wants a skycar!
Her messages were being ignored. She glanced at her omni-tool again, still no reply from Scott. The messages from him were alarming to put it mildly. Her finger stabbed at the call button again. “Come on, come on!” she muttered as she bounced on her heels.
She watched as skycar after skycar whizzed passed, all of them occupied. Should I just take the tram?
The ringtone rang and rang. Then it clicked. Her heart leapt. “Scott!” she blurted, ignoring how loud her voice was as the other people in the queue stared at her.
“You have reached Scott Ryder. He is busy at this moment, he will-“
“Fuck!” she cursed as she terminated the call, immediately setting it to dial again.
5 minutes. The omni-tool just rang on and on.
10 minutes. Not a single fucking skycar stopped.
15 minutes. Ryder was seriously contemplating the tram again.
Finally at 20 minutes, she spied a skycar approaching. “Fuck this shit.”
Ryder elbowed her way to the front, ignoring the growls and hisses she got along the way. She had an emergency. It didn’t matter if she had to step on a few toes to get her way. One asari was already half way into the skycar when she got to the front. Ryder could feel her biotics just shimmering under her skin. It was so tempting to just Pull the asari off balance.
Her jaw tightened and ran faster instead. One hand clamped onto the wrist of the asari, she whispered, “Sorry.”
And Ryder yanked. The asari caught off balance fell heavily on her ass. She took the opportunity to dive into the skycar. Slamming the door shut to cut off the asari’s indignant shrieks in her direction, she said, “Huerta Memorial Hospital.”
Ryder spent the ten minute ride over running through all the possible scenarios in her head. But an old memory kept resurfacing, blood on the kitchen floor and she crying as she tried to staunch the bleeding.
She shook her head and pressed the heel of her palms into her eyes. A sigh, loud and long escaped her lips as she started praying. “Please be ok, please be ok.”
Ryder wasn’t religious. Her family of military and science parents left no room for religion. She was taught the basics of several main religions practised by the council species. It wasn’t something to occupy her mind beyond learning new things. Now scared and afraid, Ryder pleaded with the cold unyielding sky for a reprieve.
The skycar purred as it slowed down, docking neatly at the visitor’s drop off point. Ryder tumbled out and started running.
Shit, where is Ma?
Her boots squeaked as she detoured to the concierge. “Where is Ellen Ryder?” she asked breathlessly.
“One moment,” the VI said.
Ryder waited, sweat beading across her brow. As much as she would love to yell at the VI, it would only serve to delay her purposes. An eternity later, the VI chimed. “Ellen Ryder, Level 5, Room 23.”
And she was off again, ignoring the admonishments of “No running!”. She took the stairs, unable to stand waiting for the elevator.
“Leve 5, level 5,” she repeated as she launched herself up the stairs two at a time.
The branching hallways of Huerta Memorial Hospital was arrayed before her as soon as she got to the fifth level. Breathlessly she picked a hall at random and started searching for Room 23. She stiffened when she finally found it. The holo-lock was a forbidding red. Her heart faltered in its rhythm.
“Please be ok, please.”
Her steps echoed slightly as she walked towards the door. BDUs rumpled despite her best efforts, sweat stained clear lines across her back. Her hand shook a little as she pressed it against the holo-lock, requesting entry.
It beeped, alerting the occupants inside. The door slid open and her breath was caught in her throat. Inside, even with his back towards her, she knew who that was. Ramrod straight in his Alliance BDUs, even as he sat beside his dying wife’s bedside.
It felt like forever before her father faced her. Her eyes took in his crease free uniform, stiff collar and the gleam of his rank on his collar. Always proper and not a single hair out of place. She stifled the urge to straighten her uniform. As her eyes drifted upwards, tracing the grey in his hair, the deep furrows on his forehead that weren’t there the last day she saw him. It was the day she graduated from the early intake biotics programme, the day after was when she shipped out for boot camp.
The only words he spoke that day echoed in her head. “You didn’t top your class.” It wasn’t a question, it was barely an admonishment. It was calmly spoken, a statement more than anything else. Sara Ryder, forever a disappointment in her father’s eyes. Of course it didn’t matter she was in the top 10% of a highly competitive cohort. It didn’t matter all her instructors had commended her on her discipline and proficiency.
Nothing was good enough.
Ryder blinked and she was back in the present. With a conscious effort, she forced herself to step into the room, taking care to keep her eyes away from her father’s eyes. She didn’t need to look to know what she’d find there - disappointment, anger and most of all disgust. Instead, her eyes flicked over to the most important person in the room - her mother lying prone and still on the bed.
“Ma.” her voice hushed as if anything louder would send the situation spiralling.
Monitors beeped quietly, the only things that dared to make a sound in the room. An oxygen mask strapped over her face while wires snaked out from her medical gown. Ryder swallowed and sought out her brother. He wasn’t in the room. She inhaled sharply, a little too loudly and her father’s eyes jerked over to her. Brown met grey.
Failure, displeasure and loathing. Ryder’s spine stiffened and she drew up her chin.
No, this isn’t how our first meeting in years is going to go. I am my own person. I am a fucking corporal. I’ve proven myself many times over. I am more than what you’ve made me.
Something must have showed in her eyes because her father looked away, turning back to her mother. “Where were you?” he demanded harshly.
“I just landed on the Citadel,” her voice tight.
“That was more than an hour ago.”
There it was, the reprimand. Ryder drew herself up and shifted into a standing at attention stance. She was the little soldier he had trained. And he always wanted them to report whenever he returned home from some secret N7 mission. Those were such innocent times. I was innocent, the times weren’t.
Ryder reported, everything she had done, the actions she had taken since she stepped off the Alliance transport. Facts, not emotions. The only thing she left out was the thudding of her heart, how hard she ran and the scattering of prayers in the skycar. Those were hers to keep.
“You should have seen the messages sent to your omni-tool.”
“But-“ Ryder cut herself off. Why am I still defending myself? Nothing will be explanation enough.
“What if your mother needed your help and you took the scenic route home?” he pressed.
Ryder’s jaw tightened and kept her eyes focused in the middle distance. Her father’s question echoed in her head. Her body wound tighter and tighter with every word her father spoke.
“Sara, I’m disappointed with you. I’d thought enlisting would make something out of you. You-“
The door hissed open. Ryder didn’t turn her head, a credit to all the training her father had put on them. Her eyes did flick in that direction.
“Sara!” Scott said as he entered the room.
His presence sliced through the tension in the room like a hot knife through butter. “Pa, this is not the fucking time or place. She is here and that’s enough. I’m sure she got here as soon as she could.”
With Scott in the room, Ryder gave herself permission to relax. She dared to shift into an at ease stance. Their father turned to face Scott, his eyes softened. She bit back the disappointment that inevitably well up in her chest. Stupid girl. What were you expecting? Open arms and a hug? Don’t waste your time looking for his approval.
Without another word, their father left the room. As soon as the door closed, Scott sighed. “Hey Sara,” he exhaled.
“Hey,” she replied, her own voice a little shaky, a little tired.
Not two hours on the Citadel and here we are again.
“Come here,” her brother opened his arms and beckoned at her.
She crossed the space between them and wrapped her arms around him. His arms tightened around her chest. The physical contact unlocked a binding she didn’t know she had and she relaxed.
Ryder blinked as she wiped the corner of her mouth with the back of her hand. Damn, I fell asleep.
Then a light chuckle came from beside her. She straightened and jerked her head over. “Ma!”
A sense of panic washed over her, she stood up, unsure what to do. “Are you in pain? Do you need the doctor?”
Another short chuckle as her mother started to push herself up. “No, no, just lie back, the doctor is not going to be happy with this,” Ryder said.
Her mother levelled her a look. “There is only one doctor in this room and that isn’t you, Sara.”
Ryder snorted and the tension left her shoulders. She hit the button so that the bed shifted into a better position, allowing her mother to sit up without effort. “Better?”
Her mother nodded. “Why are you still here?”
“I wanted to see you,” Ryder replied, reaching out to hold her mother’s hand under the covers.
A wan little smile and her mother let the lie slid. Of course, her mother would see her through. Wanting to see Ma was only half the reason, the other reason was just avoiding going home. “I’m ok.”
She looked into her mother’s name, disbelief and worry shimmering on the surface. Her mother ran her fingers over her knuckles. She looked down. Her mother’s fingers were bone thin. The years were not kind.
I should have visited more. I should have been here.
“Hey,” her mother said. “Look at me.”
Guilt pushed tears down her face as she met her mother’s eyes. “Silly girl,” her mother chuckled and wiped her thumbs over Ryder’s eyes. “Come here.”
She scooted a little towards side and patted the space she just vacated. Ryder hesitated. She wasn’t the kid that needed her mother to comfort her all the time. In fact she was supposed to be here for her mother, not the other way around.
Then, her mother blinked rapidly and frowned. She cocked her head and seemed to be seeing Ryder for the first time. “Sara, you’re here,” she said.
The breath caught in Ryder’s throat and the lump grew. Her jaw tightened. she nodded and forced a smile. “Yeah I’m here now.”
AEND wrecked Ellen Ryder’s body, taking her physical strength, taking her ability to do research that she enjoyed, giving her fainting spells. Most of all it was slowly but surely eating her mind from the inside out.
It’s fucking unfair.