#FreedomFalls – July 30, 2019

Vasquez remains silent until they're clear of the 'town'. Until their surroundings are more nature than buildings or pavement. She draws in a deep breath, exhaling in a heavy sigh. She needed some air, although it's not the reason she's here. She's here because they need to talk. "How are you holding up?" she asks, breaking the silence. She studies Leah's face for a moment, before looking out at some trees, still walking.

Leah glances Vasquez' way when she breaks the silence. She gives a shrug of her shoulders as she turns her focus back to sticking to her own previous footprints in the snow. Her leg is in a much better place than it was a few days ago, but she still seems to favor it whenever she takes a long stride. The look on her face is that of someone who doesn't really know the answer to that question themself. "I'm... doing alright. I

guess." she lies, the humorless snort that follows it acknowledging that she realizes she didn't put very much effort into committing to the lie. "As alright as I can be?" she corrects, shooting another brief glance Vasquez' way.

Vasquez doesn't even acknowledge her first words, but the correction that follows elicits a small nod and a look Leah's way, meeting her gaze for a moment. It seems like that answer has her approval. "Good." she says simply, and it sounds like she means it. That's the best any of them can hope for, isn't it? They're not alright, not really. How can they be? But that doesn't mean they can't strive to be as well as they can be. Her

eyebrows furrow a little as she looks to the path ahead again. "Do you have someone to talk to? About... everything?" she asks, glancing her way again to catch her reaction. Her hands remain stuffed into her coat as they walk.

Leah lets a puff of air out through her nose at the follow-up question. Again, she doesn't seem to really know the answer to that question. Of course she has people. Her father. They've been through so much together. And, surely, he'd sit up all night listening to her worries with a heavy heart if she only asked. There's Tara. Ever the listener. As with her father, Leah has no doubt that Tara would listen to every word she had

to say. Nathan. The thought of him is enough to bring a soft smile to the corner of her mouth and causes her to shoot an embarassed glance the woman's way, as if worried Vasquez may know who she's thinking of. He, too, would listen. That much she's sure of. Hell, she's already dropped so much in his lap it's a wonder he hasn't run for the hills. Mendez. There's nothing she can't talk with the gentle giant about. There exists

few boundaries or barriers between her and Mendez. Good people, all of them, who she has no question would be there for her in the blink of an eye. But there's little doubt in her mind as to what Vasquez is referencing. Sure, she has people to talk to. But they haven't been through what she's been through. What both of them have been through. That cruel thread that binds them. "What is there to say?" she asks with a

humorless chuckle. She lifts her head to glance out over the snowy landscape as she fills her lungs with a chilled breath, the air escaping in a cloud of steam.

Vasquez flashes an unusually gentle smile, offering a small shrug. "I don't know..." she admits, her gaze falling a little. "I was never much good at it myself, but... I hear it's supposed to help." she says with a faint snort, her tone sounding like she's trying to inject a bit of humor, but it's at odds with the underlying, subdued sadness that's entered her face.

Leah snickers at Vasquez' response, but she doesn't offer anything else right away. She just plods through the snow at a slow pace, gaze fixed on the white in front of her as her mind wanders. "Heroes of the Terminus Systems." she finally says, repeating a headline she must've read over the past week with a glance to the other woman. "Saviors of the outer colonies!" she continues, her delivery dripping with

sarcasm. "What a fucking joke..." she adds in a mutter.

Vasquez lets out a heavy sigh, nodding a couple of times as Leah brings up the inevitable topic. "I couldn't fucking believe it..." she mutters, gaze darting briefly to Leah before going to the snowy path ahead. "I just-... I can't figure out how to feel. Am I relieved? Terrified? Disgusted? It's-..." she trails off with a shake of her head, blinking against the moisture in her eyes as she lets out a slightly shaky breath, keeping

her gaze ahead.

Leah listens in silence as she continues down the path. "Confusing." she finishes Vasquez' sentence, the conundrum all too familiar to her. Her voice is little more than a whisper, almost as if talking to herself. She lets out a deep sigh. "Did you have any idea they were this big?" she asks with a glance Vasquez' way. "Big enough to stop the Collectors...?" she clarifies. There's a caution in her voice, as if walking on

eggshells. Aware of the memories she may be trudging up.

Vasquez ' gaze remains on the ground, once again sucking on her cheek as she ponders her answer, trying not to let her mind go down the wrong paths as her mind inevitably goes to the Barn - a lot of it still shrouded in a haze - and, of course, to her mother. "I..." she starts quietly, having to make a concious effort to keep herself in check. "I knew they were powerful. I knew they... claimed that was their goal. I didn't

think-... I never thought they'd actually do it." she says with a small shake of her head, dwelling on her mother's words as they walk.

Leah gives no response to the answer. Head low, she just keeps moving forward at a slow, steady pace. Even if that was their intention, the answer brings her no peace. Sure, the Collectors are gone. Nobody is going to shed a tear for them. But she can't help but wonder if they've just traded one monster for another. At least the Collectors were a known threat. After their victory, Cerberus now has many singing their praise.

They 'did what the Alliance wouldn't'. That just makes them all the more dangerous. "Do you think they'll try coming after us again?" she asks bluntly, keeping her gaze on the ground in front of her. Since the news broke, that one question has haunted her.

Vasquez considers the question in silence for several moments, gaze on the ground in front of her. "I don't know." she says with a faint shrug. Of course she doesn't. "I, uh..." she trails off, walking a few more steps in silence as Leah's house comes into view. She grimaces to herself, willing herself to continue. She ends up stopping in place partway down the path, turning to face the woman next to her. "I-... there's... I need

to tell you something, Leah." There's no shortage of discomfort in her face as she looks at her.

Leah gives a faint nod to the response her question is met with. She's not sure what she expected. Vasquez doesn't know any more than she does. All they can do is wait. Wait, and hope that the other shoe never drops. She draws in another breath, exhaling in a cloud of mist as she continues on her way towards the house in the distance. She gets a few steps ahead when Vasquez' stops, the absense of snow crunching underfoot at her

side the only thing that causes her to cast a glance back Vasquez' way. The statement causes her to furrow her brow, pivoting in place to face the woman. "...Oookay...?" she says, Vasquez' apprehension plain as day. "...What is it?" she asks as the nagging feeling that she's not going to like whatever Vasquez has to tell her settles into her gut.

Vasquez nods a couple of times when Leah turns to face her, gaze on the ground for a moment as she tries to force herself to just do it. "I-..." she can't help but glance around. Nothing but snow and a few trees. It's a pointless and paranoid gesture. "I... need you to promise me you'll keep it to yourself. Understand?" Her gaze locks onto Leah, almost frighteningly focused, pushing her unease down.

Leah mimics Vasquez' actions and glances about as well, as if worried Vasquez may have seen something, her posture growing more rigid as Vasquez' works her way up to speaking. Her green eyes lock onto Vasquez and she shifts her weight off of her wounded leg. "Of course." she's quick to respond, attempting to usher Vasquez towards whatever it is she needs to tell her.

Vasquez once again nods, drawing in a long breath. "My mother was a researcher at the Prothean Archives. She died when I was 19." she says, offering no context for that little tidbit at first. "That's-... I was an Alliance rookie at the time, garrison duty. And that's what I was told." she continues with a small shrug. Her nerves are rather obvious. "Only... some time ago, about-... about a month ago, I guess... I, uh... I was

contacted by someone. A Cerberus scientist. 'The Professor'. Professor Amel Vasquez. My mother. It was my mother, and she's... with them." She sucks in her lips and licks them, they feel too dry, her whole mouth does. There's a pause as she watches Leah for any sign of her reaction, eyebrows furrowed in an awkward scowl born from unease rather than any malice.

Leah seems a bit confused as Vasquez begins, the unsolicited bit of personal information about her mother's passing catching her off guard. She simply mutters a soft, "I-... I'm sorry..." in that way that a person tends to because it's what's expected of them. That doesn't make it any less sincere, of course. But she falls silent, assuming that bit of information is leading somewhere. And boy, does it. The more Vasquez speaks,

the lower her gaze falls until, by the end, she's looking at the snow, expression unchanged, almost as if she didn't even hear what Vasquez has said. She just remains still, processing that bomb that's been dropped on her. It's her eyes that move first. Peering off to the left, then to the right as she probes her mouth with her tongue. A small bulge in her throat as she swallows. Hard. A tightening of her jaw. "Wh-..." she

begins through clenched teeth, the drop in her stomach prompting her to cut herself off. "What?" she asks. It's barely a word. More of a deep breath exhaled, carrying a sound with it.

Vasquez shifts uncomfortably in place as Leah processes, remaining silent. Her reaction prompts the faintest of nods, gaze shifting to the snow past Leah, avoiding her face. A quiet "Yeah..." slips out, sounding almost like there's a little part of her that still doesn't quite believe it. "She's the one that..." she brings a hand up to her temple as she trails off, tapping the cognition chip with a faint grimace.

Leah brings herself to look at Vasquez once again, studying her in a mix of confusion and disbelief. An uncomfortable silence fills the air as she fails to come up with anything to say right away, her mind sailing through a whirlwind of thoughts. "And you-..." she trails off, tearing her gaze sharply to the side. So absorbed in her thoughts, it's only the light tingle across the surface of her skin- little more than a gentle

vibration throughout her body- that causes her focus to resurface. Causes the blue glow that had begun to emanate from her to dissipate. Causes her balled up fist to uncurl. "...You didn't think to tell me this...?" she asks as she meets Vasquez' gaze. It's less anger that colors her tone and more... confusion. Uncertainty.

Vasquez remains silent as she waits for Leah to speak. The faint biotic shimmer causes her to tense and shift slightly, but she remains firmly in place, biting down as she watches her apprehensively. The question causes her to swallow and look away. "I am now." she says, the tension obvious in her voice. Her eyebrows furrow as her gaze returns to the much shorter woman. "Leah, I-..." An uncomfortable sigh as she fumbles her words.

"I was blindsided, I didn't know how to-..." she trails off with a shake of her head, going quiet.

Leah doesn't acknowledge Vasquez' response, her eyes turning towards the ground. It's unclear if the words that follow even register with Leah, seeming far too preoccupied with processing everything. Sifting through her memories. Trying to make sense of it. Lines of scrolling text across her vision. Instructions. Orders. Lies. Deception. A sickening SNAP that always sounds much louder in her memories than it could have possibly

been. That dirty feeling of having been used like a tool. Like a weapon. "Was she-...?" she begins but trails off, emerald green eyes flicking up to search for Vasquez'. She lifts a gloved hand, almost instinctually reaching up to touch at the top of her cheek, just beneath her eye. "...Was she the one that-...?" she begins, but her question hangs in the air, eyes watering as a sudden realization hits her and she breathes

out a soft, "...No." to herself. A few tears silently escape the corner of her eyes, running down her cheek. It's another few breaths before she speaks again. "...She was the one that helped me, wasn't she...?" she asks, sounding quite sure of that much, but unsure of whether or not Vasquez already knew that. "She-... it was because-... it was for you..." she decides in a whisper.

Vasquez watches in silence as Leah processes the news she dropped on her. She seems prepared to respond to Leah's first question when the soft 'no' sounds, and her mouth closes again, going quiet. Leah's revelation is met with a small nod of confirmation, blinking a couple of times as she finds herself in danger of tearing up herself in the face of Leah reliving the all-too-familar trauma in her head.

Leah draws in a heavy pull of air through her nose in an attempt at combating the breathlessness brought on by the revelation. The realization that nobody came to rescue her. They came to rescue Vasquez. She's not quite sure what that means, but it feels like a punch in the stomach. Vasquez' confirmation prompts a heavy sniffle and Leah gives a few distant nods of her own as she blinks at the tears streaming down her face. She

was just a pawn. A means to an end in someone else's agenda. There's an emptiness that comes along with that. Unanswerable questions that immediately begin to nag at her about what would have become of her if Vasquez hadn't needed help on that night. How many more people would have been hurt?

Vasquez struggles to read Leah's face, to figure out what's going through her head. Her gaze falls away as she draws a heavy breath, trying to figure out what she wants to say. She has no interest in defending her mother, that much is sure, but she feels the need to offer what she knows. "She... said-... she claimed that the people responsible for-..." she deflates, gesturing towards Leah's head. Towards her eye. "...that they'd

been out of line. That she'd..." she trails off, eyebrows furrowing as she recalls the exact words. "That she'd... 'dealt' with them, whatever that means..." she says with a small, careful shrug, studying Leah as she goes silent. Her expression is... hard to read. Withdrawn, contained. Not wanting to spill her own emotions overtop Leah's.

Leah bites down, desperately trying to reign in her emotions with little luck. 'Out of line'. Such a throwaway statement about something that ruined lives. Ended lives. It's enough to tie a knot in the pit of her stomach. Vasquez' relay of information seems to do little to comfort her. Whatever suffering fell upon the people who did this to her, it wasn't enough. It couldn't have been. The wetness on her cheeks only makes the

wind all the more biting as it blows through. But it seems to be enough to snap her out of her thoughts. The distant look on her face seems to fade and there's a wrinkle along her forehead as she scans Vasquez' face. "You don't-..." she sniffles, "...You're not in contact with her, are you...?" she asks. There's confusion on her face as she tries to make sense of it all. As she tries to decide whether she should feel

betrayed. Whether she should be angry. Scared.

Vasquez is quick to shake her head, biting back the urge to be offended by the question - it's not an unfair one after what she was just told. Instead she holds Leah's gaze, making sure she sees the truth in her eyes as she shakes her head. "No. I-... I told her to go to hell." she says, flashing a bitter, hollow smile. There's no shortage of pain behind the words. It's obvious that it's not something she took any joy in. But

it's also clear that it was the only valid option in her mind. There's no forgiving, no looking past what's been done to them.

Leah lets out a long, deep breath, her shoulders dropping as Vasquez answers. It's a bittersweet response. It's enough to satisfy her concerns, but it, too, brings her little comfort. Why would it? Despite the whirlwind of emotions, she hasn't lost sight of the fact that she wasn't the only one whose life was pulled apart by Cerberus. She gives a few small, empty nods as she reaches up to run the back of her glove across her

nose. "Of course you did. I know you wouldn't-... I-... I'm sorry..." she offers as she looks to Vasquez, guilt settling in at having doubted her. "... I can't imagine what you must be-..." she swallows, unable to even finish forming her words. Even in her distraught state, her natural instinct is to try and comfort Vasquez. "...I'm sorry." she settles on repeating herself, the words cracked and broken as they escape between

sniffles.

Vasquez shakes her head faintly in response to Leah's apologizing. "It-... it is what it is." she says with another empty smile and matching shrug, trying not to show just how much it still hurts. Just how fresh those wounds still are. "I meant to tell you from the beginning. Just... didn't know how to deal with-... it's not every day your dead mom comes back as an evil terrorist scientist, you know what I mean?" Another shrug

accompanies the odd attempt at humor as she draws on Jason to try and keep it together. To not unravel in front of Leah because she's dealing with enough. It wouldn't be any kind of fair.

Leah gives a small, knowing nod of her head to Vasquez' initial statement. The dark joke results in an abrupt half-snort-half-sob. But it seems to help in tempering the emotions that are running high. A few moments pass as she lets everything sink in and she gives another deep sniffle and begins wiping beneath her eyes with the finger of her glove, patting at the wetness. It's only once she's managed to begin reigning her own

emotions in that she takes a step forward to place a hand on Vasquez' arm. A gentle gesture to assure her that she isn't responsible for the evils her mother has enacted. Not in Leah's eyes. She was just as much a victim as Leah. "You're telling me now..." she offers softly with a small rise and fall of her shoulders, her words punctuated by another sniffle. "...Thank you for that. For-... trusting me."

Vasquez waits in silence. Comforting isn't exactly in her wheelhouse, but she feels confident that Leah will pull herself together without her help. The small gesture causes her gaze to fall away, lips thin as she nods in response to her words. There's a relief there. In knowing that they're still on the same side. That there's someone that truly gets it. Her gaze goes back to Leah as she nods again. "I do." she says. "Trust you."

she's quick to clarify. Despite recent events, that much is still true, at least on a personal level. What happened before - with Damien, with Decker - that doesn't even factor in. That wasn't Leah. "You'll... keep it to yourself?" she asks, sounding more careful now, seeking confirmation that she understands her desire not to make this public information.

Leah brings her hand back, a smile crossing her lips as Vasquez speaks. It's little more than a slight upturn at the corner of her mouth, but she can't muster much more than that right now. Vasquez' question is met with a nod of her head. "Of course..." she repeats her earlier sentiment, confirming that nothing has changed since the conversation began despite the emotions involved. She's well aware of the potential damage this

could do if this information got out. The others might not understand. They might not be so eager to follow orders from the daughter of a member of a known terrorist organization full of human supremacists. She draws in a deep breath to try and calm her nerves a bit. "How in the hell did everything end up so fucked up?" she muses aloud to herself through a sigh, cheek tears-stained and eyes red and puffy. But she's confident

that Vasquez is probably no more likely to have an answer than she is.

Vasquez seems to relax just a little at the confirmation, and the question prompts a faint smile of her own. It's tempered by the heavy emotions underneath, but it's there nonetheless. "Been asking myself that a lot over the last year." she says quietly, the hopeless smile widening slightly before her gaze turns to the house and she lets out a heavy sigh. "Alright if I come inside for a bit?" she asks, her attention turning back to

Leah, studying her tear-stained cheeks and reddened eyes with an inevitably soft expression.

Leah glances back towards her house, a bit of embarassment taking hold as she realizes they're just standing out in the cold rather than taking things inside when her house is right down the road. Of course, this isn't exactly a conversation she would've wanted to have with Tara and her father about. When she turns back to Vasquez she gives a few nods of her head. "Yeah, of course!" she assures. "I need to check in on Mendez in a

bit but-..." she nods again as she starts to walk towards her house, "...Yeah. I've got some time. I can make us a pot of coffee." she offers, shooting a quick glance back over her shoulder to Vasquez.

Vasquez shoots Leah a faint smile, offering an approving nod at the suggestion as she falls in next to her on the way to the house. She considers asking how Mendez is doing, but judges it too easily taken as an accusation. She's not here to accuse or admonish. Not now. "How... is Tara doing?" she asks instead, seeming genuinely interested to know how the girl is adjusting, especially considering what has just happened. She doesn't

disagree with the action Leah took - it was the right call to secure her freedom. Her disapproval is entirely focused on the way she did it, going behind their back.

Leah gives a small shrug of her shoulders. It isn't a simple question to answer for a multitude of reasons. "I don't think all of it has sunk in yet. But... she's safe now." she decides on, reaching for the bannister of the railing as she climbs the steps onto the porch. There's another shrug that follows her words as she realizes just how empty of a statement that is. "As safe as any of us are, I guess... But that's more than

she's had in a long time." That thought seems to push her to draw in another deep breath. "...She's still... getting used to everything." she continues, shooting a glance Vasquez' way, assuming she doesn't need to explain just how strange this all must be for Tara. "But she's come a long way." She stops at the top of the few stairs and begins tapping her boots against the bottom of the railing to free any snow. The porch is

well maintained. Along with a short path, it's shoveled and free of snow. A task that Leah and Tara share. Once she's sure her boots are clear of any large bits of snow, she begins rubbing at her face, seemingly unwilling to let Tara or her father see that she's been crying. She blinks her big green eyes a number of times as she dabs her gloves fingers at any lingering wetness beneath them.

Vasquez watches from the bottom of the steps as Leah speaks, offering an understanding nod. She's seen her share of people in Tara's situation. Her final statement brings out a small smile, and she nods before heading up the steps and stomping her boots clear of snow. "She's lucky to have you." she says, the skepticism she once had over Leah's ability to help Tara all but gone by now. She's seen glimpses of the progress made, and

it would be hard to doubt Leah's devotion to helping her after the last week's events. Her eyebrows furrow slightly as she watches her rub at her face, but she doesn't comment, giving her the time she needs to compose herself.

Leah allows that hint of a smile to resurface at Vasquez' words. She gives a few final pats beneath her eyes and bothers with the bangs that slip out from beneath her hat for a few more moments before she's convinced that her family won't be suspicious of her appearance. She sniffs one last time before opening the door and leading the way inside. "I'm home~" she calls out in a singsongy voice, the anxiety that the morning has

piled on all but buried beneath her desire to keep the weight that just keeps stacking up on her shoulders from affecting those she cares about. They deserve better. So she pushes it all down and does her best to prop up that bright smile of hers.

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