“Hail, Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.”
The prayer was unfamiliar, the deities foreign. But the pain in the worshipper’s quiet voice was unmistakable, and plaintive enough to draw Thane out of his own meditations. Opening his eyes, he searched discreetly among the small gathering at the Memorial Wall for the owner of the voice.
“Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen.”
There: a dark-skinned human male, standing near the center of the memorial with his head bowed, clutching a beaded chain. Not a refugee like the others—this man wore an Alliance officer’s uniform. And Thane knew of only one Alliance vessel currently docked at the Citadel.
The human looked up, wiping tears from his startlingly blue eyes, as Thane approached. “Sorry. Praying out loud helps sometimes. Was I bothering you?”
“Not at all,” Thane reassured him. “I simply… noticed you. I believe we have some friends in common—you serve on the Normandy, do you not?”
“Not too many Alliance ships out this way these days,” the human said with a nod. “Lieutenant Steve Cortez, shuttle pilot. Who do you know on the—oh! You’re Thane Krios, aren’t you? Not too many drell in these parts, either.”
Thane inclined his head in a small bow, brows raised in surprise. He found it disconcerting to be so easily recognized by a stranger.
“Commander Shepard talks about you a lot,” Cortez explained with a sad smile. “She misses you.”
“And I, her.” Thane swallowed hard around the sudden knot in his chest. He cherished the times when Shepard’s mission brought her here to the Citadel and she could visit him at the hospital. Each moment they spent together became a precious memory, knowing as he did that any one of them could be their last. Without her by his side, he would have only those memories to ease his passing. And the day was fast approaching that she would arrive to find him gone.
Cortez fidgeted with the chain in his hand, and Thane belatedly recognized it as a rosary, a set of prayer beads used by members of a human religious sect called Catholicism. It seemed he had interrupted a longer ritual. “My apologies. It would appear it is I who am bothering you.”
“What? Oh.” Cortez opened his hand and watched as the faceted beads caught the light and shimmered in his palm. “No, not really. I, uh… well, it’s a little hard to focus on the Sorrowful Mysteries when there’s… all this… right in front of you.” A gesture took in the Memorial, a huge collage of photographs, holos, flowers, and trinkets left to honor the lost. “They’re not as comforting as I hoped.”
Thane nodded. “There is little mystery in the sorrows that plague us now.”
“Yeah, you’re right.” With a heavy sigh, Cortez pocketed the rosary and picked up a holo from the ledge at the bottom of the display. “My husband, Robert. He was at Ferris Fields when the Collectors hit.” He closed his eyes briefly, then gestured toward the remaining pictures. “Which one’s yours? Who did you lose?”
“To the Reapers, no one close.” Yet. He shook off the disquieting thought. “But I did have a family, once. My wife, Irikah… died, eleven years ago. I know what it is to lose a part of your own soul. And so I find myself drawn here often to pray.” He placed a hand on Cortez’s shoulder. “Both for the fallen, and for those who still stand.”
His eyes still fixed on the holo in his hand, Cortez asked softly, “Does it ever help?”
The silvery note of despair in the other man’s voice stilled the breath in Thane’s throat, resonating as it did with the same tones that still echoed within himself, amplifying and intensifying them. He had to remind himself to breathe, had to fight to keep the tide of memories (her vine-wrapped body slides into the waves) from dragging him under. He bowed his head, tucking his hands behind his back. “Yes… and no,” he said finally. “When one feels hopeless, faith can be comforting. But sometimes, the Gods decide in Their wisdom that to be comforted is not… part of Their plan, for us. It is often through suffering that the soul learns best. Or so it is said.”
Though Cortez had long since lost patience with platitudes about better places and time heals, Krios’s more honest perspective still hit him like a punch in the gut. “That’s, uh…” Cortez drew a shaky breath. “That’s a little hard to swallow, man.”
Krios rumbled softly in agreement. “Mm. A bitter truth, but truth nonetheless.” He shrugged, looking up at Cortez again. “Such has been my experience, at least.”
Meeting the drell’s dark-eyed gaze, Cortez felt… well, he wasn’t really sure what he felt, to be honest. Confused, frightened, faintly horrified—that last would do. The past year had been hell since Robert’s death, made bearable only by the hope that the pain of it might eventually subside. But now here was someone who’d suffered the same loss, someone who’d been walking the same nightmarish road far longer than he, telling him the view from ten years further on was just as bleak?
“No.” Cortez shook his head, gritting his teeth as anger flared bright behind his eyes. “I don’t accept that. I don’t know your Gods, Krios, but mine is a God of mercy. And I don’t believe for a minute that He would… that He would…” The anger faded as suddenly as it had come, leaving him defeated, deflated. “Ah, who am I kidding.” Hot tears burned trails down his cheeks. “How do you do it? How do you live with… with this, for so long? I’m about at the end of my rope here.”
Krios cleared his throat. “Actually, you’re handling it far better than I.”
He can’t be serious! Cortez blinked at him incredulously. “What do you mean?”
Krios was silent for a moment, staring up at the Memorial as he gathered his thoughts. “I found myself in a… a dark place, after Irikah’s death. My conscious mind slipped away from my body, and I willingly succumbed to the battle-sleep. I wanted revenge for her murder. I became obsessed. I hunted down her killers—and I was neither swift nor merciful when I took their lives. And when it was done…” A cough ripped itself from his throat, and a look of distress flitted across his face almost too quickly to notice. “When it was done, there was little of me left. I had only to gather the courage to move quickly to my end.”
“But you didn’t,” Cortez prompted when he paused.
“I did not,” Krios agreed with a nod. “It was Shepard who finally awakened me—Shepard and her mission, and her love.” His brow knotted. “Lieutenant Cortez—“
“Steve. Losses such as you and I have suffered… they never truly heal. The pain does not lessen. You can grow accustomed to it, but it marks you. Changes you. And only when you accept that it is now part of you can you begin to move forward.” He shifted his weight uncomfortably, his hands remaining tightly clasped behind his back. “Forgive me. This is a… difficult topic, and I fear I’m making little sense.”
“No, I think I get it,” Cortez replied thoughtfully. “You know, humans have a saying they like to pull out with people like us, one that I’ve gotten really sick of hearing. They say, ‘time heals all wounds.’”
Krios laughed darkly at that, the sound degenerating into another strangled cough.
“But what you’re driving at, I think, is that time… teaches. Hardens what’s soft. Softens what’s hard. Makes things less… raw.”
“Precisely.” Krios’s voice was strained, and this time, when the coughing started, it didn’t stop. He staggered, bracing one hand on the wall as spasm after spasm tore through him, choking off every desperate gasp. The sound was awful, deep and rattling and relentless. Cortez could only watch helplessly as the drell’s knees buckled, his slender frame wracked with pain. Some of the other mourners began to draw back warily.
After what seemed an eternity, the fit passed, leaving Krios bent nearly double and panting for breath. Slowly, he straightened, his eyes glazed and unfocused. “My apologies,” he rasped, though it clearly hurt him to speak. “I should return to the hospital.”
“I’ll come with you,” Cortez offered. “You don’t look so good, Krios.”
“Thank you, but I’ll be fine.” Krios reached out to shake Cortez’s hand, the polite lie ringing hollowly between them. Then more genuinely, he added, “I hope we meet again.”
As Cortez watched him leave, his hand stole into his pocket almost of its own accord, pulling out the rosary again. Turning back toward the Memorial Wall, he poured it back and forth from one hand to the other, watching the beads slither and flash, his mind racing. Faith, hope, and love, he thought wryly. Love was pain these days, and hope was in short supply.
The rosary dangled from his fingers as he found where he’d left off. Faith, though—even the Reapers couldn’t take that. In a steady voice, he began to pray once more.
“Our Father, who art in Heaven, hallowed be Thy name. Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on Earth, as it is in Heaven.”
On Earth, on Palaven, on Tuchanka, on Thessia… on Sur’Kesh and Kahje and Rannoch… deliver us from evil.