eponymous_rose: (ME | Victus)
eponymous_rose ([personal profile] eponymous_rose) wrote2012-11-04 02:26 pm

[Mass Effect] Home Fires Burning (3/8)

Title: Home Fires Burning (3/8)
Word Count: 4,400 (this chapter)
Characters: Hilary Moreau, Aeian T'Goni, Solana Vakarian, Lantar Sidonis, Garrus Vakarian, Liara T'Soni, Donnel Udina, Dehkarr, Jeff "Joker" Moreau
Rating: T
Warnings: Canon character death, violence
Spoilers: ME3, from start to finish.

Summary: Khar'shan, Tiptree, Citadel, Palaven, Earth. Five tales from the Reaper War. This is the way the worlds end.

Night Winds: 2. Beginnings

Part of Hilary went away for a while. It was quieter there, where everything was footfalls on grass, was scrambling over sharp rocks and gripping trees for purchase, was following the blue-and-white shadow ahead of her. There was nothing else.

They stopped running.

Part of Hilary came back.

She was on the ground, arms wrapped around her knees, and someone was sobbing quietly but it wasn't her, and she rolled onto her back, staring up at the canopy of trees overhead. They were in the hills behind the farm, in the thick, uncharted forests nobody had bothered cutting down yet. Young colonies had all the time in the world, or so the saying went. Pristine, untouched.

Aeian was crying.

Hilary sat up, then stared at her own torn and bloodied hands like they belonged to someone else. She brushed them against her shirt, leaving smears of blood, then staggered to her feet. Aeian was sitting on a log, still wearing only the towel, making no effort to brush away the tears streaming down her face.

Hilary crouched down next to her, tried to stop Aeian's tears, but only succeeded in smearing blood on her face. The touch seemed to snap Aeian back to herself, though, because she looked up, met Hilary's eyes with a dawning horror, grabbed her arms. "Are you hurt?"

Hilary looked at her hands. There was blood on them. She brushed them on her shirt again. "I don't think so. Just cut my hands on the rocks." She was pretty sure there had been rocks.

"Okay," Aeian said, and seemed to realize she was still gripping Hilary's arms. She let them go, and Hilary took a step back. "Okay. Something's wrong, something's- I didn't know they could do that. Not to asari."

"The Reapers?" Hilary asked, because she was pretty sure only the Reapers could produce that kind of dread in someone's voice.

"Yeah. They change you, make you one of them. They-" Aeian's voice broke, and she started to cry again, her tears painting weird pink trails in the smudges of blood Hilary's hands had left on her face. "Oh, Goddess. Neiara."

It felt a bit like Hilary was looking at the world through some sort of ultra-focused filter. Everything was sharp. Everything made sense. "They're all dead," she said, and wondered why she wasn't crying, wasn't screaming.

Aeian sucked in a breath, expelled it, and when she spoke, her voice was brusque, professional. "Probably. I'm sorry. We can't stay here long. Those husks are slow, but they're good at tracking."

"Okay," said Hilary.

They ran.

The nights on this part of the continent were cold, but Hilary didn't notice all that much. They stopped, once, so Aeian could fashion a sort of kimono out of her towel. They stopped again so Hilary could sink to the ground and sob, clawing at the dirt, until Aeian picked her up and bodily shoved her back into a run. They stopped again when they heard something behind them in the undergrowth, and then they ran faster.

"Okay," Aeian said, eventually. "Okay. We'll stop here."

Hilary curled up on the ground and fell instantly into a dark, dreamless, silent sleep.

Aeian shook her awake some time later, just as the sun was starting to rise. Hilary felt hollowed-out, empty, and the screaming was still echoing in the void where the rest of her used to be. Her hands hurt, and moving them cracked the fresh scabs so that they started to bleed again. She'd torn part of her shirt against a tree branch, so it didn't take long to rip a few new strips to bandage her hands.

When she'd finished, she looked up. Aeian was watching her, and there was no sign of the tears she'd seen last night.

So this is an asari commando, Hilary thought, and felt cold and numb.

"Hilary, are you with me now?" Even Aeian's voice was curt, business-like.

"I'm not gonna freak out again, if that's what you're asking." Hilary rubbed at her hands, watched blood spot through the filthy cloth. "Some of them might still be alive," she added, because someone had to say it.

"Not likely."

"You don't know that. We should go back."

"Negative. I have no weapons. I have no armor. And you-" Aeian cut herself off. "We're not equipped for a fight. When Neaira's shuttle doesn't report back in, they'll send someone to investigate. I'm trying to circle us back to the landing zone without getting too close. We'll be able to see when reinforcements arrive, and we'll leave with them. Until then, our only duty is to survive long enough to report in with what we've seen."

"What we've seen?" Hilary tried righteous anger on for size, found she liked it. It felt good. "What we've seen is people in trouble, Aeian. You're a biotic. Please, we have to try." And that felt more like terror, like desperation, like sorrow, because she knew they wouldn't, they couldn't. She bent double, breathing hard, and after a moment Aeian's hand was on her back, rubbing small circles.

They stayed like that for a long while. Shivers ran up and down Hilary's spine, but she wasn't crying, and her breathing was gradually coming back under control. "I- I almost wish you'd left me with them. I'll just slow you down."

The comforting touch on her back stilled. "Hilary, I try not to make a habit of leaving civilians behind. We're alive. The others will come. They'll help. We'll be safe."

Hilary glanced up, met the bright blue eyes, and almost believed what she saw there to be hope. "All right," she said.

Something made a crackling snap in the underbrush, and she'd thought she'd used up all her adrenaline in the past day, but there it was again, shifting everything into sharper focus, too-bright around the edges. Aeian's biotics flared, and then one of her arms came up and slammed into Hilary's chest, sending her tumbling back just as four husks charged into the clearing.

Hilary yelled and scrambled back, but the husks were ignoring her, swarming on Aeian, grabbing, tearing, and then Aeian's hands jerked in a pattern that was anything but subtle.

The husks shredded.

Hilary could feel the snap of the biotic energy in the air, cold and sharp and chill fingers dragging down her spine, and then she was pushing herself back, stumbling to her feet, trying to get out of the way as Aeian tore into another husk, her face calm, emotionless, her hands moving, glowing, destroying. Hilary thought, no, she thought, no, this is an asari commando, and then her stuttering mind caught up with the rest of her and she saw another husk coming up from behind, digging fingers into Aeian's shoulder.

The branch felt weird in her hands, like it was too heavy and too light all at once, and she thought briefly, dispassionately, that it should probably be hurting, the way her palms were all gashed up, and then she was moving forward, swinging back, swinging forward, connecting. The husk slumped away from Aeian, and the force of the blow was still singing up and down Hilary's wrists while she rounded, seeking another target, finding only Aeian's wide eyes.

They stared at each other. Hilary dropped the branch, looked down at her bloodied hands. "Um," she said. "That really hurt."

Aeian made a little choking sound that escalated to an undignified snort, then a full-out laugh. "You scared me half to death. I was not exactly expecting… that. I thought the husks were launching an arboreal assault."

Hilary felt the corner of her mouth twitching. "That's all we need," she said, weakly, and then they were both laughing, high and nervous and relieved all at once. Hope, Hilary figured, was what you made of it.

Time passed.

They ran, rested, ran, found water and drank, didn't talk about the hollow aches in their stomachs, the hollower aches in their minds. Aeian sat with her back to an old tree, stared up at the stars. "They're not coming back for us," she said.

Hilary, halfway through rebandaging her hands, paused. "What do you mean?"

"I mean they probably think we're dead, that our position is overrun."

Hilary snorted. "They're at least half-right."

Aeian said nothing, scrubbed one hand against her scuffed and dirty towel, looked up once more, and sighed. "You were right. We have to go back. My radio's there. I can call for help."

A terrible emptiness beckoned, that feeling of staring off the edge of a cliff again, and Hilary's breath caught, and then she was speaking without thinking. "I- I don't want to, Aeian. I don't want to anymore. I don't want to go back there." She shivered, rubbed her arms, stared at her hands. "I don't want to know. This way, I don't have to."

"I understand," Aeian said, and stood. "But we're going now."

They reached the farmhouse just as a faint dawn was starting to flicker at the horizon. One moon, the funny, lopsided one that had a designation instead of a name, hung low in the sky, and reflected light picked out its deepest craters and chasms. Hilary watched it, tried to remember the names of the peaks and valleys. She thought about how Dad knew them all – or at least made up the ones he didn't know, just so he'd have stories to tell her.

Their house hadn't burned to the ground, no windows had been shattered, no bodies littered the ground around it, but in the too-early-morning light there was an appropriately nightmarish feel to the place, something not-quite-right. Shivering, she rubbed at her arms again, glancing over to Aeian. It hadn't taken her long to figure out that there'd been something between Aeian and Neiara, and now there was a strange look on Aeian's face, halfway between hope and terror. Hilary knew, without a doubt, that Neiara was gone, that there was nothing left of her in the screaming, the tearing, the killing. She also knew that Aeian didn't really believe it, the same way Hilary didn't really believe – couldn't really believe – her father was probably dead.

After a moment's pause, Aeian straightened her towel – the primness of the action was nearly enough to send Hilary into another fit of helpless giggles – and took a deep breath. "Okay," she said. "You stay here. I'll slip inside, activate the radio, come back out. Shouldn't be too-"

"I want to come with you." And a voice in Hilary's head was screaming at her that no, she really, really didn't want to, that letting a professional handle it was by far the best course of action. Except that Aeian still had that weird, wistful look, like maybe she was hatching some insane plan to rescue Neiara. Except that Aeian was starting to seem like maybe she was perfectly fine with dying in the attempt. Except that Hilary wasn't sure she could promise to stay in one place anyway, not when she was so close to where Dad- "I mean it, Aeian. I'm coming."

Aeian exhaled, rubbed a hand over her face, smearing it with dirt. "Just stay back, okay? And if things get bad, don't waste time flinging foliage around. Run."

As they took their first tentative step out of the forest, into the open, Hilary figured she wouldn't have any trouble following that particular instruction.

She wasn't sure what she'd been expecting – maybe some hub of husk activity, Reaper forces murmuring in every corner, but hell, it wasn't like this was a huge settlement. If everyone was dead, there'd be no reason to keep troops around. For all that they could pull off the whole eldritch horror thing, she was pretty sure the Reapers wouldn't be particularly good at the sort of insane organic reasoning that made sneaking back into an enemy stronghold seem like a good idea. And they had certainly seemed to stop sending scouting parties after the one in the forest clearing, which was another mark in favor of their having planted an I-win flag and gone on to more important things.

So if everything was supposed to be so quiet, what the hell was that moaning?

Hilary shuddered, trying not to hear familiar voices in it, but as they snuck closer, she realized there were words among the mumbles, whispers, sounds that were distinctly human. She glanced over to Aeian, whose brow was furrowed in thought. This was unexpected, she knew, and tried to extinguish the brief, quavering flicker of hope that jumped to life in her chest.

Then, while Aeian glanced through the still-ajar back door, Hilary risked a quick peek through a window, and the flicker turned to a flare.

There were… fields of some kind, flickering barriers walling off rooms, and from her vantage point, she could only see the bathroom and Dad's bedroom, but there were shadowy figures inside. Prisoners.

She stumbled back a step, heart pounding, breathing hard. Prisoners. The rational part of her mind asked her if she really thought the Reapers bothered taking prisoners, but the rest of her was whispering, Prisoners can be rescued.

Aeian shook her head. "I don't like this," she mouthed. "I don't want you in there."

Hilary was too tired to force a wheedling expression, to remember how to be persuasive. She just stared at Aeian, blankly, until Aeian sighed, activated a biotic barrier that glimmered around her, and padded cautiously into the house. Hilary followed.

It felt weird inside, wrong. She remembered when Mara at school had talked about her home being broken into by thieves, how it hadn't been right afterwards, how it hadn't been safe. This was a bit like that, she figured, only now her bone-deep exhaustion was starting to sink in, and the instinct to flee was warring with the fact that all she wanted to do was crawl into her bed and pull the covers up to her head and sleep for a week.

Her bedroom was on their left as they stepped through the door. She turned her head and glanced through the barrier.

Dad was sitting on her bed, staring back at her.

She wanted to yell, wanted to shout, wanted to make noise, but all she could do was move her lips, choke back a sob. His thinning hair was sticking up in tufts, and his eyes were hollow, and he wouldn't quite meet her eyes, staring at the wall somewhere over her shoulder. Her lips moved again. Sound came out. "Dad?"

Aeian's hand was on her shoulder, cautioning, and Hilary could feel the flicker of biotic energy, but she didn't care, because Dad blinked slowly, focused on her, and then his face was flickering into a smile, weak and confused and relieved. "Hilary?" His voice cracked. "Oh, God. Hilary?"

Hilary touched the barrier, which flared briefly under contact with her fingertips, then stepped back with a frown. "Hang on, Dad. We'll get you out."

Dad's brow was furrowed, as though he was trying to remember something that had happened a long, long time ago. "The others," he said. "What about the others? I think there was some sort of release mechanism. I think the Reapers are coming back for us."

Hilary nodded, turned. Aeian stood in her path, mouth set. "We can't risk it," she said. "They'll be okay. We just need to call for help."

And already Hilary could feel her tense muscles relaxing, could feel herself shifting back into the blissful ignorance of little-kid mode, where other people made the decisions, where other people told her what to do and she was safe, she was always safe. Except that her hands, at her sides, kept coiling into fists, and a rage was building somewhere inside her, in the part of her mind that knew she'd leave home someday, the part that knew she'd make it on her own, the part that stood at the edge of a sheer drop and told her to jump.

"No," she said. "No, this is my father. We don't leave him behind. We don't leave anyone behind. If it were Neiara in these cages, would you be able to just turn away?"

Aeian's biotics flared, briefly, and the lapse in control was answer enough. Hilary turned away, walked down the corridor to the kitchen, offering nervous waves at the dazed, staring people slumped in their makeshift prison cells. When Aeian's hand came down on her shoulder again, Hilary twisted away from the touch, but Aeian was pointing to a hub of machinery that definitely didn't belong next to the kitchen table.

"That looks like a power source to me," she said. "We should-"

She froze, staring over Hilary's shoulder, wide-eyed. Hilary turned, followed her gaze out the window.

Neiara was standing just outside the window.

Even as Aeian dragged her down to her knees, out of the window's line of sight, Hilary was playing back that brief glimpse again and again in her mind. Neiara looked different, wrong, strange light glowing around her, and there was an oppressive feeling of heaviness to the air around her – and now Aeian was rubbing at her temples, eyes closed, murmuring to herself – and there were more of those husks standing around her, things that looked like turians, and bigger, monstrous creatures that Hilary had only ever imagined in her most fevered nightmares.

"We can't fight them," Aeian whispered. "I don't think they saw us. We have to get out of here now. There's no time."

"We're not leaving alone," Hilary said, simply.

Closing her eyes for a long moment, Aeian exhaled again, looking more tired than Hilary had ever seen her. "Okay. You're right. We have to try. There's some data I should recover while I'm here, too." She moved closer to the machinery running the barriers, crouched down next to it. For a moment, Hilary was reminded of the time only days ago – how could it have only been days ago? – when she'd watched Aeian repair her ship. Now, as then, Aeian's hands moved in small, cautious gestures, tugging components this way and that. "Goddess protect us," she whispered. With a brief flare of light, the barriers faded.

Hilary scrambled to her feet, barely remembering to keep low and out of sight of the window, and ran back down the corridor, nearly careening into the wall in her rush to get back to her room, back to Dad-

She turned the corner, grinned at him, trying to scrub away the tears running down her face. He was staring at the place where the barrier used to be.

Her smile faded. He was still staring. "Dad?"

He looked at her, met her eyes. For a moment, she fooled herself into thinking there was something there. For a moment, she fooled herself into seeing the weeks and months and years to come, the long, slow rebuilding, the new silences, the new things they never talked about. For a moment, she fooled herself into hoping.

Then he opened his mouth and screamed.

The others, mere shadows at the corners of her eyes, screamed along with him, and then hands were grasping at her, and she found Aeian's fingers locked in hers, the only real thing, the only true thing, no future there but the running, and they ran again, they ran and they were outside and something was following them, something huge and monstrous and nightmarish that shook the ground when it walked.

Aeian turned to face it, shouting something, and for a moment, in a trick of the dawn light, Hilary thought her eyes had gone dark, and then she sent a wave of biotic energy crashing towards the monstrosity. It stumbled, then batted her aside like a rag doll, charged at Hilary.

She didn't have time to think, to run, before a huge, massive claw crashed into her, and she heard a crunch of bone, felt a shifting inside that wasn't right, it wasn't right, and then she was landing, curling into herself as the pain hit, and wasn't adrenaline supposed to take care of this sort of thing, wasn't she supposed to be numb to pain by now, and there was an explosion somewhere nearby and then Aeian was dragging her to her feet, just dragging her when her leg gave out, bending the wrong way, and that wasn't right, why the hell wasn't she unconscious, why the hell couldn't she just fade away.

She faded.

She opened her eyes. She was on the floor of a barn. Aeian was crouched over her, breathing hard, her face and body streaked with blood that was shockingly red - human blood - and she was rocking back and forth slightly. She had something in her hand, a little data chit. She was talking in a low, hoarse voice. She wasn't a commando or a friend or a pilot. She was dark and broken and wrong. She was wrong.

"I'm sorry," she was whispering. "I'm sorry. Just stay quiet. Just please stay quiet. They're coming. They're coming. I have to get this data out of here. This will all be worth it. I have to survive, do you understand? I have to survive. This has to mean something."

Hilary turned her head, feeling stupid and sluggish and slow. Something about her leg was wrong, she knew that, so she didn't look at it. Something about her head was wrong, she knew that, so she didn't think too hard. Her pulse was pounding in her ears, quick and deep, and she knew she'd drown in the rhythm of it before long.

Aeian was still muttering to herself. "I had to. I had to. I had to do it. They would have killed you. They would have taken the data. I had to go back for the data. I had no choice. They can't have died for nothing. This has to mean something."

The words stopped making sense for a little while, and that was because something else was clawing at the door to her mind, something cold and sharp and angry, and then the pain broke through, really broke through, and she was sobbing, reaching for her shattered leg, falling back with the new blood on her hands, and Aeian was fumbling, reaching for her, whispering, "Goddess, no, stop, stay quiet, stay quiet, they're coming, they'll find us, I can't die here, I can't die here. It has to mean something. It has to mean something."

Someone screamed, outside, and someone answered the calling, each to each, and Hilary wanted to join them, wanted to scream and scream and let someone else lead her through the screaming, but there was a hand over her mouth, and Aeian was shaking, crying silently, her face a mask of blood, so much blood, and then her eyes went hard and cold and a faint glow was dancing around her, a faint energy crackling, and then Hilary felt a new touch at her throat.

A long time ago – must've been almost ten years – she'd been sitting at the crest of a tall hill overlooking the farming settlement, her new home. Jeff was beside her, sprawled on the grass, pretending to be asleep, sneaking little longing glances up at the sky when he thought she wasn't looking. It was his first leave since the end of his training with the Alliance, and he'd opted to spend it helping her and Dad move. It wasn't until way later that Hilary had picked up the subtext, the uncomfortable feeling of obligation, the still-open wounds between Dad and Jeff about how things had gone after Mom's death, the hawkish, brittle defensiveness that was always under the surface with him, but for now, she was just happy to have her big brother around.

She picked a few of the weird little red flowers that cropped up everywhere in the spring, sprinkled them on Jeff's face until he sneezed and laughed, swatting her hand away. "Come on, kid, you're killing me here. I'm a grizzled Alliance pilot now. Show some respect."

She thought about that for a bit, then poked his stubbled chin. "Old man."

That caught him off guard, because he just stared at her for a moment, and then he burst out laughing, and after a while she thought maybe he wasn't just laughing at her, he was laughing at everything, so she started laughing, too, flopped down next to him. After a few moments, he broke off into a wheeze, grinning at the sky. "Shit. If I crack a rib here, I'm blaming you."

"Dad'll take my side. I'm cuter."

He snorted. "Right. I'll have you know that I'm adorable."

"Uh-huh. That explains all your girlfriends."

"Jeez, straight to the heart. Sarcasm is a seriously disturbing thing in a kid your age, you know that?" He propped himself up on one elbow. "So what do you think of Tiptree? Better than the station?"

Hilary sat up, then clambered to her feet, stared out at the view of the settlement. The sun was high in the sky, glinting off the buildings below, and the woods were dark and mysterious to her left, and somewhere down there she heard the shrieks of other kids playing. The grass was scratchy and the dirt below was warm under her bare feet. The air had a taste to it, sort of sweet and soft, and she knew Dad would be cooking something, and they'd all go home and eat it together, sitting around a bright, warm table while the night-things outside whispered their songs in the dark.

"Yeah," she said. "It's home."

Aeian's eyes were blue, so blue, and her touch was almost gentle, in the end.

Hilary closed her eyes, thought again of that chasm, of standing at the edge of a sheer drop, of looking down and down and down, of feeling that urge to run, to fall, to fly.

She soared.

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