John Shepard should have known.
The Mako's engine revved up as its wheels hit heavy silt, the rocky hills of Edolus giving way to the smooth desert-like expanse of a plateau, devoid of any living being and Shepard should have known.
He'd been listening to Garrus and Wrex bicker over their choice weaponry in the back, letting the now-familiar chatter on the comm link wash over him as he focused on getting them to the structure on the distant horizon in one piece. Questionable driving skills aside, the Mako was still a handful to handle but he was getting better at it.
At least that's what Joker had assured him, with minimal smirking. Shepard'd take what he could get.
A dot on the radar marked their goal, blinking, getting steadily closer. Shepard kept glancing at it, trusting the device over the bland landscape around them, something about it setting his teeth on edge. There was no movement to be seen.
“– am I right, Shepard?”
“Oh now you're playing dirty.”
Shepard turned his head with a highly eloquent “Huh?” – judging by his squadmate's deadpan expressions, they'd both been counting on his opinion to win whatever argument they're having.
Wrex stepped forward, a grin tugging at his scarred face. “Just say biotics are superior. Nothing like bursting into battle head-first.”
Before Shepard could go beyond raising an eyebrow, Garrus shook his head sharply, clicking his tongue. “And get yourself killed, you mean? Be my guest – I can shoot well enough for the two of us.”
“See, that's the problem with you turians. Always relying on tech to get the job done.”
Wrex laughed, Garrus bristled, Shepard prepared himself to interrupt–
And the Mako went flying, ripped off the ground as if it weighed nothing at all. Warning lights flashed, equipment shook loose, clanking, metal on metal – all the air in Shepard's lungs left him in a rush of gravity and vertigo; the belts keeping him in his seat dug into him hard enough to bruise but that was the furthest thing on his mind as they came down with a heavy crunch.
Finally the pressure on his chest lessened, a weak “Fuck” making it past Shepard's lips as the world settled around him, upside-down. Trembling hands searched and found the clasp holding everything together and once it was gone, he spilled on the roof like a box of tools turned on its head.
“Garrus!”, he coughed, picking himself up, straining his eyes to see in the sudden darkness around him. “Wrex!”
Someone groaned to his right, “Present. You alive, krogan?”, and further away: “'m here. I thought you're getting better at this shit, Shepard.”
Ignoring the jab, Shepard's first instinct was to hail the Normandy. Static. Figures. Only local access, then. He readjusted the fit of his helmet before following the nearby wall with glove-covered hands until he hit the door, then started pushing against it. It didn't budge. Behind him: shuffling steps and the distinct sound of a new magazine sliding into place.
Garrus huffed. “Looks like we'll get to test that theory of yours sooner rather than later.”
The ground rumbled, swallowing Wrex's answering quip and shaking the downed Mako enough that Shepard practically felt every bone in his body rattle with it – and a dawning realization made his pulse spike, blood running cold with the instant panic rising within him.
Because he recognized this feeling. It's the same that haunted him in his dreams, the same that had announced the beginning of the end all those years ago.
Shepard should have known.
Power gathered at the palm of his hands and before Shepard could think about it, the door exploded with a blast of biotic energy. “Move!”, he yelled over his shoulder, barely waiting long enough for his squad to make it outside; Shepard turned and threw up a shield just in time to hold off the worst of the debris bursting around them.
“What is that?”, he heard Garrus growl, saw him and Wrex pointing their guns at the phantom hidden in sand and dust out of the corner of his eye–
Shepard didn't need to look. He reached out, grabbed and jerked Garrus' rifle down, “We gotta get out of here”, he said hoarsely, darkness dancing at the edge of his vision, drained from his biotics or fear or both yet adrenaline still sang in his blood, kept him going.
There's no time to check the look in Garrus' eyes, the flash of confusion and indignation enough for Shepard to know retreat was the last thought on the turian's mind, no time for careful strategy, for second-guessing.
“We have to run”, Shepard repeated, louder over Wrex's angry “What?!” – and Garrus yielded, just as a high-pitched shriek pierced the very air around them–
And for the first time since Akuze, Shepard stares into the opened jaws of a Thresher Maw.
It all goes to hell faster than Garrus can blink.
Suddenly, they're running. Garrus is dimly aware of the insistant tug of Shepard's hand clamped around his arm, of the blurred blue of biotic shields building and falling around them, of Shepard's strained pants over the comm link. Wrex is only a few paces behind them, a mass of reds and browns and seething rage, cursing under his breath so colorfully Garrus' translator chip simply gives up.
Their boots sink into loose sand with every step, burning the energy they could put into standing their ground and fighting instead. Garrus chances a glance at Shepard, wishing he could see his face beyond his helmet but the glimpse he gets makes his gut drop.
Whatever that thing is: It made Shepard, vanguard fighting machine Shepard, bail instantly. That alone makes the soldier in Garrus swallow his doubts and follow his lead.
It seems to have the opposite effect on Wrex. They bypass a formation of jagged rocks – perfect for cover, Garrus can't help but think sullenly – and the krogan's patience snaps. “What the hell, Shepard?!”, he bellows, breaking a path through the sand like it's the front line of a hostile army. Shepard says nothing.
A few paces are spent in silence, alerting Garrus to the sudden lull around them; looking back, he sees the worm... creature is gone, the horizon once again plain, unassuming dust. Garrus feels Shepard's grip on him tighten. He noticed it too.
“Not yet”, he hears him mumble, almost to himself, “not yet.”
Then the very desert under their feet trembles, shifts, breaks apart–
–and Shepard's words start making a lot more sense. Even with two people fueling it, the biotic field around them shudders visibly, flickering out after a second or two – enough to get them out of the immediate blast zone, if just so.
Gaze turned skywards, Garrus's heart almost stops as the creature towers over them. He's never seen anything like it on Palaven. Does it even have eyes? All he can make out is it's huge jaws, gaping and empty and dripping with–
Garrus acts on pure instinct. Diving for his squadmates, he tackles Shepard to the ground and makes Wrex stumble, too; a spurt of clear liquid flies over their heads, close enough that a few droplets land on Garrus' back.
He doesn't pay attention to the burning sensation running up his spine, doesn't stop to worry about the dazed way Shepard's crawling back on his feet – Garrus grabs his Commander, throws him over his shoulder and runs, trusting Wrex to follow.
No matter his previous grievances with krogans: they can take more hits than anyone in a brawl. Even if that brawl includes a hundred-foot monster in the middle of the desert.
The enraged screeches of it only spur Garrus on. He can feel Shepard struggle in his tight grip, hissing at him to “calm down, Commander” as respectfully as he can; “there”, Shepard snaps back, gloved hand pointing past Garrus' head to the left where the slopes of a mountain range meet sand.
“The mountains, huh?”, he hears Wrex's gruff voice behind them. “Keep going, I'll keep that acid shit off of you!”
Protest is halfway out Garrus' mouth yet it's Shepard who goes ballistic, biotics running hot enough that Garrus can feel it through his armor.
Wrex bares his teeth, “Shepard”, full of warning.
“Do not engage. That's an order!”
A glob of acid splashes on the ground. Garrus side-steps it in the last moment. “Can we save our asses first and then talk about details?”
“Just trust me”, Shepard growls. Wrex doesn't reply.
They don't stop until their boots hit rock.
Shepard slides off Garrus' shoulder the moment they do, all kinds of dizzy and disoriented, waving away Garrus' attempts to steady him. What he needs right now is solid ground under his feet and some space to think.
His hands are trembling.
The panic he's been holding back since the Mako is a tight coil in his chest, slowly spreading out. Not yet. He can feel the others' eyes on him, painfully aware how weak he must seem to them: This is not the Commander Shepard we know, he can almost hear them think.
The memory of his therapist is blurry, one vague face among many by now but he still remembers her calming tone of voice. Breathe. Shepard does. Forces his back straight, balls his hands to fists.
His amp port is numb with pain. He'll deal with that later.
He closes his eyes in the privacy of his helmet. “Wrex”, he sighs, turns around to face him.
Wrex looks like he's doing some holding back of his own, cracking his neck, shifting weight, crossing his arms. “Care to explain?”, is what he comes up with, jaws tight.
Shepard rarely sees him so... fidgety. It's clear he's furious – having to back down from a fight does that to a krogan – yet Wrex listened to his orders when it counted the most, and Shepard knows he owes him for that.
So he nods, “Yeah”, calls Garrus' over from his silent watch over the horizon. A sudden chill runs down Shepard's back as he's reminded why that might be necessary. Threshers rarely hunt outside their territory, however, and Shepard counts on that fact now just as he did during their rushed escape.
They make themselves comfortable on a nearby slab of rock; Shepard sits down heavily while Wrex paces. Garrus stands to his right, a steady presence in the corner of his vision. He's tinkering with something – his comm link, Shepard recognizes with a quick glance.
No more distractions. His squad deserves to know the truth.
“Six years ago I lead my first mission for the Alliance.”
His words are hesitant, and Shepard hates himself for it, hates the fact that what should've been a cornerstone of his career is the reason he can't wear the title of Commander with pride. He stares ahead and sees the arid planes of Akuze, hears the hushed conversations of his marines around him.
“We'd lost contact to one of our colonies and my unit was sent to investigate. Found the settlement empty, colonists gone yet no bodies, no sign of violence... So I told 'em to set up camp in the dunes. No point in searching at night, right?”
A mirthless chuckle catches in Shepard's throat. Wrex's gaze is on him. Shepard holds it for a long moment.
“That's when those things attacked. Woke up to complete chaos around me, made it out in time to see them just... tearing the camp apart.” Wringing his hands, the dry noise of plating on fabric distracts Shepard from the memories that bubble up like bile. He looks down, swallows heavily around the lump in his throat.
“The smell, the– the screaming, I'll never forget it. Went through a unit of fifty marines like it's nothin' and we didn't even know what hit us. Never encountered Thresher Maws before so we didn't know about the acid and, well.”
Others might've been forgotten but Shepard remembers every name, every face of the squad that set foot on Akuze with him. Writing the condolence letters had taken weeks. It was the only way to honor them for their sacrifice.
Shepard exhales slowly.
“Turns out they don't follow you forever. Dragged myself to the LZ and got the hell out of there... I was the only one who made it back.”
Wrex has stopped pacing and even Garrus is motionless. There's more he could tell them: of the months and years he spent wishing he'd died with them, how much he hated it to be hailed as a hero for his biggest failure.
In the end, Shepard settles for: “Doesn't matter if we could've taken that thing on. I won't let it happen again.”
Then he falls silent with a helpless shrug, out of words to say. The silence stretches on, lingers – follows them persistent as a shadow as they board the Normandy hours later. Shepard goes through his post-mission duties on autopilot: skips the med bay by pointing Dr. Chakwas towards Garrus, writes up his report, takes heat from the Alliance brass for losing the Mako. The three migrane pills he's dry-swallowed knock him out eventually.
Hours later he gasps awake with the afterimage of melting flesh and torn limbs burned into his eyes. He spends the rest of the night puking his guts out, the bathroom door firmly locked behind him.