A/N: it'sbeen84years. gif Heeeyyy long time no see. I've had a tumultuous time since I posted chapter 9. I hope everyone's doing alright, and while it's not a nice egg, I would like to offer you this new chapter in these trying times. I don't feel like explaining what happened right now, but I will say that this story isn't dead, and I'm not giving up on it. It just might... you know. Take until the glaciers melt to finish :')
Also for some reason some of the settings for this story changed? Like, adding J. Garson to the characters list. It should be Shepard, not Garson wtf ffnet?
Sleep would not come. Or if it did, it came like a thief, stealing over her and then slipping away before she could really grasp it. Time had passed, was passing, but Elyse seemed to be trapped in a single moment: the heart-stopping moment in Nihlus' room at the hospital. The anxiety in the salarian's body language. The blank expressions of the armoured mercenaries. Nihlus, enraged and preparing to fight. Herself, frozen in fear.
Moving to counter, unable to think clearly but filled with something that was forcing her to act.
Annoyance on the asari's face, no time for it to change before being hurled through the window.
Uncertainty, then terror in the turian's eyes as his own armour was turned against him, fixed on his face in death.
Blood, deep purple-red and ocean-depths indigo.
On her hands.
A part of her was gibbering that this game doesn't let corpses linger, so why does the blood? The answer came from a part equally as cold as the other was hysterical: This isn't a game, if it ever was. And I don't regret it.
She blinked, her eyes refocusing on the bulkheads of the Normandy's infirmary, and Dr. Chakwas standing by her cot.
"Are you with us again?" asked the doctor, mild humour in her voice. It didn't distract Elyse from the concerned slant of her eyebrows. She knew she should respond, even if it was just an affirmative. But Elyse couldn't seem to bring herself to do so.
After a moment longer, and before Elyse's eyes could glaze over again, Dr. Chakwas carefully sat on the edge of the cot. "How are you feeling?"
Elyse sighed, long and heavily, but the doctor continued to wait for an answer. Finally, she forced out a word.
"Tired," It came out as a croak. She hadn't spoken much since waking on the Normandy after a strange dream about mirrors. After killing –
"That's to be expected. You've managed to find trouble even when you were supposed to be healing," said Chakwas, voice dry as the Sahara.
When she didn't respond, Chakwas put her warm hands around one of Elyse's.
"I know what happened at the hospital, Elyse," she gave her hand a gentle squeeze. "Spectre Kryik was unharmed thanks to your intervention. If he had been alone… he didn't have his weapons in the room. Your actions saved him. You were very brave."
"Brave?" The wave of rage welled up suddenly in her chest. "Brave? I wasn't brave! I wasn't even thinking! All I did was kill them!" The words scorched her throat, as if the heat and pain in her chest was coming out of her lungs with them. "I wasn't brave. I wasn't anything."
As quickly as it came, the emotion fled. She was numb once again, all aching and hollow.
Dr. Chakwas seemed to sense this, somehow, and didn't try to refute her. "Oh, child," she said on a sigh. "Anyone with empathy who is forced to take a life must face what you do now. It wasn't the killing that I called brave. You stopped them from killing Spectre Kryik; you faced two people who were, by all accounts, hardened mercenaries with no qualms about their orders, and you didn't hesitate to act; that is what I call brave."
"Doesn't stop it from being wrong," said Elyse, turning her head away from the doctor.
"Perhaps. But wrong or right, nothing can change the past. You will have to live with this for the rest of your days. And if you object to a life in which this happens, perhaps you should look for the ways you might change it, instead of condemning yourself for something you can't."
Elyse did not respond, her gaze distant once more. Dr. Chakwas gave her hand one more squeeze before releasing it and returning to her desk.
During whatever remained of the day cycle's hours, there were few visitors. Lieutenant Alenko was one – probably concerned for me because I'm a biotic, and I look like a child, damn these genes – but she was in too much of a daze to comprehend or care much about what he was saying. She was relieved when he left, until she remembered that she couldn't find sleep.
The Commander was another, but other than a perfunctory greeting and inquiry after her health, she let Elyse be. Shepard took Dr. Chakwas aside a bit, and they spoke quietly together, though not for long. Wonder if they're following the game's dialogue. But their chat was brief, and they spoke too lowly for her to even attempt eavesdropping.
Nothing else really gained Elyse's attention beyond that. She managed to fall into a light doze at some point, and the rest of the day cycle passed in muted dimness.
The pat on her shoulder was what roused Elyse from her haze at some point in the night cycle. She looked up into the piercing eyes of Nihlus, and was abruptly much less distant.
"You're up! How –" She glanced at the crutch under his right arm, and the jarring oddness of the prosthetic where his leg had been.
"Yeah, I'm still getting used to it," He shifted around and made a face that Elyse figured might be a grimace. "But the projected period of physical therapy for rehabilitating after prosthesis transplant was much lower than for having the original reconstructed on top of PT and rehab."
"Ah," She could no longer meet his gaze.
Nihlus wasn't having that. "Hey. Look at me."
She hunched her shoulders in, but dragged her eyes up to his again.
"Why are you still in the infirmary? No, don't point at your shoulder, that's healed enough that you can be up. Look at me. I can't crouch down right now, look at me," Nihlus took in her appearance for a moment. "You stood up against those mercs, despite the odds. You didn't even consider them, you just acted. You did the same against Saren. You're not a soldier, but you did it anyway. Why?"
"I don't know."
"Yes, you do."
"I don't know! My body just moved on its own!"
"Exactly," Somehow, even lacking a lot of features analogous to a human's, the turian managed to convey smugness. "You don't have to be a soldier to have good instincts. You jumped in. Sure, it was unplanned, but you can learn how and where to jump. It's much harder to learn to make the jump in the first place."
Why does that give me a bad feeling? "What are you talking about?"
"Didn't I just say it?" His mandibles lifted slightly, away from his mouth and up, baring interlocking rows of very sharp teeth. Elyse recalled something about turians being apex predators as Nihlus said, "You're going to learn how to jump."
With that ominous pronouncement and a, "Get some rest," thrown over his shoulder, Nihlus left her to her own devices.
The beginning of the day cycle brought an unappetising reconstituted breakfast delivered by the suddenly much more imposing turian Spectre. Elyse considered resisting, but ultimately deemed it pointless. Though she still couldn't feel much more than numb emptiness and certainly wasn't hungry, she forced the food down, clearing her dish. The nod she received was probably meant to be encouraging, or at least satisfied.
"Right. Let's go," said Nihlus.
Again, she hesitated, wanting to resist, but the sheer intimidation factor got Elyse moving despite herself. Nihlus directed her to precede him out of the infirmary but said no more than that. She found herself hyperaware of the sound of his prosthetic and crutch, which made the pattern of his footsteps seem louder than they should have been.
They made for the elevator, passing the ship's crew going about their business. She noticed Lieutenant Alenko pause in the middle of his conversation with someone as he caught sight of her and Nihlus, and wondered what he was thinking. Then they were in the elevator, just the two of them, and Elyse didn't know whether to feel grateful or even more awkward. Instead of either, though, she began to feel somewhat belligerent. She didn't even want to be here, why couldn't she be allowed to hide away and sulk?
It was only as they left the elevator that Elyse realised she hadn't experienced any sort of vertigo symptoms since before she'd first woken up on the Normandy again. She was so surprised, immediately trying to analyse what she remembered, that she didn't realise she'd stopped walking.
"Keep walking," ordered Nihlus. He gave Elyse what was probably supposed to be a nudge with his crutch, but ended up being more of a jab.
She gave him a glare, which was completely ineffectual, and slouched along ahead.
They reached the open hall of the cargo bay, which looked vaguely like Elyse's memories told her it should – and it continued to be a wonderful thing to not induce seizures with idle thoughts. The differences were mostly that people she expected weren't there. Instead, several crewmen were doing various exercises in a group, chatting idly together.
"What you're starting with is laps," said Nihlus. When she showed no inclination to begin, he leaned in close and told her, "Run."
At his tone, Elyse's protests dried up in her mouth. So she ran. First at a jog, just to see if he'd comment on that. The turian began to stretch, careful with his prosthetic, but kept sharp eyes on her. She slowed to a walk. He didn't seem to care how fast or slow she moved, but she didn't want to push too hard and outright stop yet.
Laps around the cargo bay, no further talking.
She picked up a lighter jog on her tenth or so lap, partly out of boredom, partly frustration. Nihlus, apparently finished with stretching, began to pace along behind her, and the sound of their footfalls joined the murmur of the crew coming and going about their business.
At some point, Alenko had seated himself at the bench by the lockers – where Williams usually was – and begun to check over his equipment.
After twenty-five laps of jogging and walking around the cargo bay, Elyse was breathing hard and sweating a lot. But she also felt… not good, but something close to it. She slowed down, about to stop.
"You'd better not be thinking about stopping!"
"Uh-uh, you walk if you want, but you keep moving until I tell you otherwise."
Elyse walked to the other side of the cargo bay before stopping. "Why?" She wasn't being petulant. Not at all.
The turian didn't growl, or sigh, or show any sign of frustration. He turned sharply from the lap he was on and stalked across the deck to loom over Elyse. She couldn't help backing up and hunching her shoulders.
"Because I haven't told you to stop," he said, enunciating clearly.
Unable to look him in the eye, Elyse backed up another couple steps before turning and starting to jog again.
She lost count of the laps some time after that. Panting raggedly, sweat dripping into her eyes, one plodding step after another, never stopping. Until finally her legs wouldn't hold her up and she collapsed to hands and knees. The deck was cool against her skin, so she let herself fall onto her side and pressed her overheated face to it.
Nihlus' odd footsteps approached from somewhere in front of her. A cool metal canteen dropped with a quiet clunk to the floor by her hands.
"Rehydrate," he instructed. "Five minutes, then you'll start on push-ups."
Yeah, Elyse thought as she fumbled for the canteen's lid. I'm screwed.
Elyse did the push-ups. And sit-ups. And then wall-sitting, arms outstretched before her, parallel to the ground, "without a gun in them, for now," as Nihlus directed her. The routine was only broken for meals, which Elyse had to scarf down as fast as she could, despite the violent shake in her arms, because she was only given a few minutes to eat.
By the time Nihlus allowed her to stumble to the cot set aside for her in the crew's quarters, Elyse could only think how grateful she was to be on the lowermost bunk in the wall; she could just roll into it instead of having to climb. She was asleep before she could strap herself in.
The next day, Chief Grey took over her training. Any relief or hope for an easier time Elyse might have had died quickly. She was folded into his squad, and Nihlus watched with eyes that reminded her yet again that turians were their planet's apex predators.
It was almost the same as the previous day, except she was exhausted despite having slept like the dead, and she ached like she'd been beaten all over, and she almost couldn't do any of the exercises right, and she was still forced to try to keep up with the rest of the squad. This time, a female crewmate had to drag Elyse to the showers before she could crawl into her bunk.
The third day was worse. Elyse's every movement – lifting her spoon, breathing, blinking – hurt, and all her muscles quivered with fatigue. Even the warm-up and cool-down exercises Chief Grey walked her through were nearly impossible. Nihlus was doing his own training, but she could feel his gaze like an extra weight.
She told herself it was just sweat that stung her eyes and squashed the desire to stop with the memory of hosts of shadows darkening the skies of every world.
The one silver lining to this torture training was that Elyse didn't dream.
On day six, Elyse was surprised – and grateful – to find that she wasn't as achy or weak as she had been the previous mornings. Her hands didn't shake when she ate breakfast.
The chief noticed, too. He had Elyse add squats and burpees to the regimen, and then after lunch, put an assault rifle in her hands and showed her how to field strip it.
"You'll have drills in the afternoon between sets," he told her.
"Between sets" turned out to mean "whenever he felt like it" and drills were the loading, unloading, and field stripping of the weapon, which she now had to carry throughout the day.
Elyse didn't eat supper or shower that day cycle because she made the mistake of sitting down before getting food and fell asleep at the table. She woke up enough to realise someone was carrying her to her bunk, but not enough to see who, and was out again before she was strapped in.
She deeply regretted missing supper and the shower when she was woken for the morning.
Field stripping was hard. Grey made her do ten push-ups each time she dropped components, and with her hands shaking so much again, that was often. She did more push-ups when she didn't put it back together correctly. Or when she didn't complete the drill fast enough.
Elyse couldn't feel her arms the next night. The day after, she wished that was still true.
The squad under Chief Grey, two men and a woman, pushed her on relentlessly. Other crewmembers came and went, but a haze occluded them from Elyse's notice until only the squad existed. Even Nihlus' constant scrutiny faded from her perception. The squad cajoled and threatened and shoved and drove her ever on, heedless of her protests or complaints.
Whenever she truly felt like giving up, it was Grey who changed her mind.
The first time she had let herself crumple to the deck, he'd stopped beside her.
"Up you get," he'd said.
Facedown, she had wheezed out, "I can't."
And he'd responded with a shrug. "You're right, then." It had shocked her enough to squint up at him, and he had looked down with a bland expression. "You're always right when you say you can't do something. It's the easy thing to do when you face hardship, say that you can't and quit. But I know you can if you want to, and most importantly, you know you can."
Elyse had stared at him for a handful more panting breaths, considering. Then she'd pushed herself back to her feet. Grey's bland expression had then become a proud grin.
From then on, each time she came close to stopping, each time she cried out, "I can't do this!" with sweat and tears – and blood, once, from a bitten lip – running down her face, or if she simply collapsed, too spent to even form words, all it took was a brief look from the chief.
"Yes, you can," Grey would tell her each time, neither pity, nor frivolity, nor mercy, nor schadenfreude in his voice. Just certainty. "You can do it."
And when he said so, it always turned out that she could.
During the later part of the day cycle, sometime in the third week – or was it the second still? everything was blurring together – Elyse had finally managed to find the right temperature in the showers to scald her aching carcass clean without boiling her away completely, even with how short they had to be.
With more energy than she'd had since before the training began, Elyse felt she could indulge in a little vanity. She was alone in the bathroom; a rare occurrence, and one she gladly took advantage of to admire the changes her body was going through. The water ran in rivulets over a much-less-bony frame than it had been not long ago. Draping a towel over her shoulders, she stepped up to the mirror over one of the sinks, watching her arm muscles flex as she wiped away the condensation.
Then Elyse met the eyes of her reflection and was reminded that she had been avoiding looking at mirrors since finding her appearance unfamiliar that first time… and since the dream. The dream she still couldn't quite remember, but which haunted her in every reflective surface from the corner of her eye.
But the girl in the mirror just stared back at her, swathed in the towel, wet hair seeming black against the spacer-pale skin. The new muscles made her look less like she'd blow away in a stiff breeze, though she was still on the scrawny side. Her face was still oval shaped with sharp cheekbones and chin. Her eyes were still the only part that didn't feel wrong at all; at least the treatment had stopped the nausea that had first accompanied those wrong feelings.
As she watched her reflection raise an arm to touch the glass, Elyse was struck by how fragile she looked. Apprehension coiled in her guts and fear closed around her throat. Broken shards inside her chest sliced and cut her up as they shuddered and ground against each other.
There is nowhere in this galaxy that is safe for me, she found herself thinking as she stared at her reflection, expecting blood and torn flesh but seeing only a pronounced clavicle and sternum. Even Nihlus isn't safe. Even Shepard. The hand on the glass withdrew to press against the pulse fluttering in the thin neck. And they're in more danger than they need to be if their attention's split, looking after me.
"Then I guess I'll just have to not need looking after," she mumbled, watching her reflection's lips move. Her hand drifted to the back of her head to trace the edge of the implant. "Can't be a burden. No more. Hopefully, never again."
The lights glinted in her reflection's eyes. Elyse tried to pretend it was a sign of determination.
The very next day cycle, the pilot's voice came over the ship's intercom speakers, announcing their approach to Feros.