Actions

Work Header

and then you stay

Work Text:

Palaven looks like crap.

It's one thing to hear about it, but it's another thing entirely to see it. Turian architecture has never been particularly homely to start with, all utilitarian lines and artless practicality, with even civilian buildings retaining a sense of defensibility about them. Now, the landscape looks positively hellish, torn and jagged and utterly unwelcoming.

Still, it's his home, and years off planet can't change that. It's his home, and it's burning, and when they called him, he came. He could hear the mild accusation in Victus' tone, the put out realization that Garrus Vakarian was not, in fact, dead - and was instead sitting on Earth with his thumbs up his ass. There was a certain truth to it that Garrus couldn't quite deny, and so he left Vancouver with Liara's assurances ringing in his ears. No doubt Thessia held the same pull for her as Palaven did for him, the same that took Tali back to Rannoch. The real gravitational pull for all of them, of course, hasn't been a planet for quite some time, and they're lost without her.

And so, he's here, and it doesn't feel like they won, not when it looks like this. The worst of it is that it may as well be his own handiwork, in a way. He made the call, he held the fleets back for the Crucible, hedged his bets and felt the weight of millions of lives resting on his shoulders. The right decision, as it turns out,  but that doesn't do much to take away the bitter taste in his mouth. Not a call he'd ever wanted to make, and not one he ever thought would be his, but through a faintly hilarious twist of circumstance the Primarch looked to Garrus. Looks to Garrus, however perplexing that is, and it doesn't look likely to stop anytime soon. No rest for the wicked, he supposes, no retirement plan or sunny beaches or tiny little half turians -

He shakes his head. To think he'd thought that killing the Reapers would be the end of it.

He picks his way carefully across the rubble to what was once the building he lived in. The bottom floor is blown out, but the rest looks reasonably intact. There are lights flickering here and there in the seeming ruins of the street, proof that Palaven still breathes. When he returned, Garrus hadn't much to his name except a handful of good connections and a small helping of heroics no one really knew that much about. He took the basement apartment; it was cheaper. He had no particular need for windows.

The stairwell takes some clearing, but it's mostly superficial debris he can shift with relative ease. Shepard went back to Vancouver, and he holed himself up here. It never felt like a home, not in the same way coming back to the Normandy felt like home. That surprised him, slipping effortlessly into his favorite spot on her couch, having never realised he even had a favorite spot. There was no sentimentality to this apartment, it was always just a place to rest his head. Even so, it's good to be back.

Williams promised she’d feed the fish.

Two weeks of barracks living has him beat, too used to soft human comforts and plush hospital furniture you have to peel yourself off of, and he falls onto his couch with a groan. A cloud of dust floats up around him, as if in protest. He’s not entirely sure why he even came here, but the promise of an afternoon to himself on a planet that may as well be a graveyard doesn’t lend itself to pleasant distraction. For a moment he’d considered visiting his mom’s grave, but he doesn’t know if it’s even there anymore, which is a singularly depressing prospect that he feels is best avoided. He wanted familiar, he supposes, and this apartment is as close as he can get.

What he really wants is to be back in Vancouver, rubble and rain notwithstanding. It’ll be early morning, crisp and damp, and if he were there, he’d be waking up with the cold seeping right through to his bones. He doesn’t miss that, at least.

It’s late evening on Rannoch, where Tali is valiantly attempting the impossible - not that he’d ever say it aloud, but he seriously doubts her chances - and he wonders if she could use a friendly voice as much as he could. He calls her, and she responds so quickly it’s almost comical, voice crackling across the channel with an angry: “Those pigheaded fools!

He laughs; he can’t help himself. “Going well, then?”

“Actually, better than I expected.”

“Really?” Garrus is pleasantly surprised. “You’re getting through to them?”

“I wouldn’t say that, but we’re making progress.” Tali sighs, anger fading into exhaustion. “At least none of the units have been destroyed. That much I’ve managed.”

“You think they’ll go for it? Reactivate them?”

“I think,” Tali says carefully, “that Rannoch will take much longer to rebuild without their help.”

Garrus grins. “So that’s the angle you’re going for.”

“It’s one angle. It might even work.” Tali laughs tightly down the comm. “How is Palaven?”

“Oh, you know,” Garrus says, wearily sardonic. “You see one Reaper-torn city, you’ve seen them all.”

“I’m sorry, Garrus.”

“I just don’t know what I’m doing here,” he confesses, “I should be -”

“I know. Me too.” Tali makes a frustrated noise, distorted first by her filter and second by the comm line until it reaches him as an angry hiss of static. “How long do you have to stay?”

“No idea. It doesn’t seem appropriate to ask, somehow.”

“Chin up, Vakarian,” she says, and she can’t see him but he smiles. “It can’t last forever.”

He’d dispute that, but she’s been right so far. Tali, his one constant in those early days, the figure at his side to alternately kick him in the ass and squeeze his hand, thumb to thumb to finger to finger. It felt strange to fit so neatly with someone else after so long of wrangling extra digits and delicate human skin. That’s when you know you’re fucked, when you crave even the dissonance.

He hums in mild agreement, absently thinking of the lonely bottle of wine he knows is lurking somewhere in his cupboard. It’d be rude to just leave it here.

“Call her,” Tali says firmly, “you’ll feel better.”

“But Liara said -”

“She never sleeps anyway,” Tali says, and Garrus forgets how young she is sometimes, she’s a deceptively tiny bundle of worldly wisdom in an enviro-suit. “So call her.”

The line cuts off, and Garrus is alone again.

 

-

 

He’d wanted to be there when she woke up.

They found her in the early hours after the Crucible went off. He’d wanted to be there for that too, but he wasn’t. He doesn’t know how bad it was. He knows that it hurt; he knows that she took her first rattling gasp without the gentle humming assistance of Cerberus machines or the sharp attendance of Miranda Lawson. She wasn’t coaxed back to life by chemicals and cybernetics, but by a basic organic fervour to survive, and he knows that she was only a hair’s breadth away from failing.

He didn’t know she was alive until weeks later, until they made their steady, agonizing way back to Sol. Everything was very confused in those early days, with the relays flickering in and out of usefulness, and the buoys failing twice as often as they worked. Liara fed them everything she caught from the garbled channels she managed to salvage, but it wasn’t enough. They found her, the static told them, but what that meant was anyone’s guess. For a while, the Alliance was even reporting her as dead while she lay in one of their medical facilities.

And the truth is he hates hospitals, and it’s nothing to do with fighting through them, and everything to do with missed goodbyes.

He was afraid to touch her. There wasn’t an inch of her he could see that wasn’t damaged or broken or otherwise battered, and he’s always been horrified at the fragility and impracticality of human skin. They bounce back quick enough, but from this? Her chest moved up and down in a slow, comforting rhythm, and though Tali and Liara held her hand, he never did.

The first time she died, it was the damn memorial that got him, erected on Mindoir of all places, no less than seven days from the first time he saw the news on the extranet. Her face flashed across the vidscreen, immortalized in bronze and tin, and he was livid. He understood the impulse a little more then, peering anxiously down at a face he barely recognized beneath the oxygen mask. Shepard, his Shepard, was getting harder and harder to project onto this pallid canvas of skin before him, and he was so very afraid of losing that.

They planned to ease her off the sedation in a few days, which was when they’d know if it would stick, the cybernetics and sheer force of will that held Shepard together. Of course, that’s when Victus called. Of course it was.

So here he is, halfway across the damn galaxy, and he hasn’t even touched since her London, and his planet is burning and all he can think about is the first when really ought to be more concerned with the second. Still expecting the worst.

 

-

 

The main living space has fared pretty well, though the kitchen is blown half to hell. Things in his life have a habit of doing that. Like his apartment. His face. His girlfriend.

He wanders absently from room to room, rifling through the scant belongings he amassed during his time here. There’s nothing much worth saving, he lived like someone who didn’t plan on being there long. He was right, as it turned out. She kissed him goodbye and then she left, and he didn't ask her not to. He understood why she went back, and he understood why they all went their separate ways, and it never occurred to him it would be anything other than temporary. If he'd thought that between that hurried kiss and Menae so much would have changed, maybe he would've objected. He'd said to himself, never again, but war makes liars of everyone. If he says it again, he wants to mean it.

It’s 6am in Vancouver, now. Shepard’s military; he figures she’ll be awake. Nothing like abusing access to priority comm lines. She answers with a drawn out groan, the kind that means she's awake when she doesn't want to be, and if he closes his eyes they could almost be back on the Normandy, slotted around each other as best they can, angles and limbs and carapace be damned. He misses the stupidest things.

“I actually beat Vega's pull up record a few months ago," she says, and maybe one day, hearing her voice again won’t make something inside him ache, but he’s not quite there yet, "and now it takes me ten damn minutes to get to the bathroom."

The last time he saw her, breathing on her own but still heavily sedated, she already looked pissed. He’d tried to remember that in the days that followed, a promise and portent that she’d wake up again, furious to have missed anything.

"Well, these things take time."

"I’m crawling the walls, Garrus,” she says pitifully, and he bites back a laugh in favour of an unconvincingly sympathetic hum. Her impatience with her new limitations speaks volumes about someone who's never had any before. No doubt Joker is rapidly losing patience with her, not being the most sympathetic of visitors to begin with. ("Moving hurts," she'd moaned the last time they'd spoken, and Joker's snort had carried loud and derisive down the comm line. "Imagine that," he'd said, "I mean, what an inconvenience.")

She sighs. "I'm no use to anyone stuck here."

“Cut yourself some slack, Shepard. You did save the galaxy.”

“Saved the galaxy,” she says, “but can barely wipe my own ass.”

“That’s - wow,” Garrus says, “do you say that to all the boys?”

“Only the ones I’m trying to impress.”

“For that,” he says, “I’ll wipe it for you.”

“And they say romance is dead,” comes the dry reply.

This is how they do it; they keep it light and irreverent. It’s good. It keeps him going. He hasn't allowed himself the luxury of counting his blessings, the first time she called he managed an unsteady 'about damn time, Shepard,' and there's still a lot they haven't said. Until then, this works.

“So, how is it?” she asks, and it's his turn to sigh.

"Commander," he says, drawling the title out with pointed insincerity, "I'd like to file an official complaint about the retirement package you offer. Frankly, it's terrible."

"Retirement package? That's funny, I don't remember ever actually paying you."

"Yeah," he says, "I'd like to complain about that too."

She laughs, and he can hear the edges catching as she wheezes through it, the only indication down the mediocre line that she’s not the same as she ever was. "That bad, huh?"

"That bad." He could give her statistics, but they're past numbers. She has too many weighing her down already. "But it was always going to be."

"Right," she says with a bitter resignation he doesn't like at all.

“Shepard -”

“I’m just tired, Garrus,” she says, and there’s too much hanging in her words for him to tease out with half a galaxy between them when he can’t even see her face. I’ll sleep when I’m dead, she’d said, and even that wasn’t enough, even then they dragged her back and even now, they’re still not done with her. They never will be.

“So rest,” he says instead, “you’ve earned it.”

“While you’re out there? Not a chance."

“I can make it an order.”

“So I heard, General.”

He doesn’t know why this surprises him when the Shadow Broker herself is by her bedside more often than not. He’s also vaguely embarrassed to be called up on it like that. “It’s - it’s just ceremonial.”

“Sure,” she draws the word out with amused disbelief, and he can hear the laughter bubbling in her voice. “But fine. I’ll rest up, sir. If those are your orders, sir.”

“That just sounds wrong.”

“You’re a big shot now, Vakarian, you’d better get used to it.”

He groans. “Retirement. I was promised retirement.”

“And I was promised Allers couldn’t get clearance to this ward, but you can’t always get what you want.”

Now there’s a deflection if he’s ever seen one, but he’ll deal with it later. “Give her an exclusive?”

A snort. “No.” Shepard’s all talk, she likes Allers well enough. She goes quiet.

“Shepard?”

“I need another week,” she says, “at least, if I’m going to be walking by the time you’re back.”

“Huh?”

“You can't sweep me off my feet if I'm not on 'em in the first place,” she says, and to his relief, she sounds like she’s smiling. “At least a week, Vakarian. I need time.”

She’s giving him permission not to feel bad, he realizes. “It's a date.”

“Now there's my motivation," she says quietly, and he thinks he might have found his, too. "Go kick some Reaper ass for me."

"Sure thing, Commander," he says, and that -

- that sounds right.

 

-

 

There’s only one thing in the apartment that gives him pause; a small model of a turian corvette that takes pride of place on the table in his kitchen. He blows the dust from it and remembers being faintly embarrassed buying it, making such an awkwardly intimate gesture - acknowledging he was familiar with her cabin, that he'd noticed which models she did and didn't have, that he'd gone into a store specifically to buy one for her - when he wasn't even sure what they were to each other. After all that, and he never got to give it to her. The world was ending and Menae was burning and his thoughts went straight to the forgotten ship he never thought to take.

It's a HK-370, affectionately (or perhaps not so affectionately) referred to as the Feather for its manoeuvrability to the point of being almost uncontrollable, introduced and immediately retired after the Relay 314 Incident when Earth forces took ruthless advantage of this particular quirk. It's a point of turian pride to consider this a contributing factor to their losses, and a lucky break for the humans. He thought it would make her laugh.

He’s had an awful lot of second chances for being the unluckiest turian alive, and he knows now that you always take them, that you grab them with both hands, no questions asked.

He pockets the corvette.

 

-

 

Victus is calling it 'clean up', in that understated military way of his, which he supposes is better than the alternatives. The way he talks, all Palaven needs is a lick of paint and some elbow grease, but Garrus can hardly blame him for wanting to believe that. The truth is, Shepard may have saved the galaxy, but it feels like it ended anyway. Maybe inheriting a ruined planet that you never wanted in the first place is a bitter pill to swallow.

The Crucible incapacitated all synthetics, striking a crippling blow to the Reapers, but not a fully lethal one. They lie scattered across Palaven, semi functional and slowly fading, motionless but still issuing desperate commands to their indoctrinated ground crews. Their efforts are sluggish, hopelessly futile - but even at their weakest, they're something to be reckoned with. It's not clean up, it's still war, just with the stakes a little lowered, and the odds on their side.  

He was both surprised and touched to find his old task force waiting for him, their numbers only slightly depleted and a lot of fancy new titles to their names. The war was good to them, insomuch as war ever is. Their six months with Garrus put them in an unexpectedly advantageous position, but he's certain they deserve every last medal they're slated to receive.

He picked them himself, having been given free reign to build the task force as he saw fit. It reminded him of Omega, painfully so, and it's gratifying to see the comparison slowly fading. They're here, they're alive. Another second chance. They're going to make it count.

Most of them are with the main bulk of Victus' forces, holding position a little further back from Garrus and his ten man ground team. He works better on a smaller scale, and the Primarch is happy to indulge him.

He meets them at the camp they've set up on the outskirts of the suburbs, where they're suited up already and raring to go. They're only a little younger than him, but they feel so young sometimes. He thinks Shepard would laugh at them, all intensity and eagerness and still, after everything, a little naive. She'd laughed at him.

"So," he says, swinging his rifle over his shoulder. "Ready to take back Cipritine?"

"Born ready, sir," says Iuvak, because of course he does, and Garrus rolls his eyes.

"Including your heat sinks, Corporal?"

"That was one time -"

"Hey, if Iuvak’s so keen to take the Reaper in a fist fight,” Laetis cuts across, bright and sharp as ever, “I say we let him, it’d make a great training vid.” She grins, nods at Garrus. “General.”

“Major.” The still quiet of his apartment already feels worlds away. “I take it the briefing came through?”

“Yes, sir.” Laetis brings up the map on her omnitool, three points flashing red. “They’ve taken control of three of our anti-aircraft guns, if we can disable them then the fleet can get close enough to take down the big guy.”

“Easy,” Garrus says wryly, “did I ever tell you about that time I took down a Reaper on Tuchanka?”

There's a chorus of good-natured groans; they know the drill. “Only twice today.”

“Well, that’s three below my daily target, so you’re in luck.” Garrus examines the omnitool projection. “If they’re resorting to using our guns, we’ve got them beat. This could be it.”

Iuvak loads his pistol with an impatient click. “When do we leave?”

Garrus can’t help but groan. “No time like the present, I guess.” Downtime always was a lot to ask for.

“Nothing like a relaxing afternoon off followed by a bit of mortal peril,” Laetis says cheerfully, which makes him laugh. “Did you get anywhere nice?”

There’s nowhere nice left on Palaven, but that’s not what she’s asking. “No one shot at me, anyway, which is always a good start.” Laetis is still looking at him expectantly, so he relents. “Went to my old apartment.”

“Right,” Iuvak says knowingly, “romantic vidcall with the girlf - ow!” Laetis elbows him in the side. “What, are we not allowed to talk about that? Because it’s obvious -”

Laetis looks mortified enough for the both of them. “Corporal!”

Garrus just thinks it’s funny, and perhaps military protocol demands that he makes no comment and pretends like there’s nothing beyond the mission, but he never was a very good turian. He actually thought it was common knowledge, and honestly, he’s more than okay with being Commander Shepard’s scandalous interspecies dalliance. It beats Garrus Vakarian, exhausted war hero who has to pretend like he wouldn't rather be somewhere else. He grins at Iuvak, though he’s still rather far from the mark with his vidcall prediction. It would seem the Alliance is still playing Shepard’s medical situation pretty close to their chest. “I’ll send the Commander your love next time, Iuvak.”

He gets a bigger kick out of their flabberghasted looks that maybe he should. Laetis flounders hopelessly for a moment, before evidently deciding further questions are impertinent. “Are we moving out, sir?”

“Depends. Got your thermal clips, Iuvak?”

One time -”

It’s war and it’s hell, but it's familiar. That's what he wanted, isn't it?

 

-

 

The ground forces now consist mainly of marauders, weakened by the increasingly erratic hold the Reaper seems to have on them via indoctrination, but made dangerous for being unpredictable in their movements. Garrus hasn't been paying undue attention to the composition of the troops he's been shooting at, but his visor tells him there's been a higher percentage of marauders on Palaven than anywhere else. Perhaps their turian physiology gave them an advantage against the dry heat and radiation, or perhaps it's more calculated than that. They're eerie, twisted echoes of what might have been, and sometimes, when you get too close, it's unnerving.  

But Garrus doesn't get too close.

He splits the rest into two, Team Nanus and Team Menae, one per gun, taking Laetis and Iuvak with him to the one nearest the Reaper. Laetis is a biotic, politely but firmly shunned by most units until Garrus took her on, but he knows better. The tide is turning now, with Commander Shepard herself a proud biotic, and here Laetis is, a major in her own right. Garrus can't take responsibility for that. She's measured and decisive, the obvious pick for almost anything. Iuvak is a stranger choice, impulsive and borderline careless in his blinkered focus. Garrus likes him, though, and if someone had never taken a chance on him, he wouldn't be where he is now. It comes from working with mercs, looking sideways at a skillset and seeing the potential rather than assessing someone on unrefined ability.

Also, Iuvak has taken to wearing a Kuwashii in clear homage to his CO, which is as flattering as it is horrifying. Garrus has no idea what to do with hero worship, but he feels horribly responsible. Taking the corporal along feels like the best way to nip that one in the bud. If Shepard were here she'd laugh herself stupid.

It's times like this when it does feel like clean up, hunkering down somewhere protected and taking them down, one by one. Easy pickings. It's fast approaching dusk, but the heat is dry and intense, targets shimmering in his visor. He could turn the heat compensation back on, keep them steady, but where's the fun in that?

Laetis’ blue biotic glow in his peripheral vision is both familiar and unsettling, and he’s spent so much more of his life fighting without Shepard than fighting with her, that he really shouldn’t feel her absence this keenly.

They push forward, steadily and with increasing purpose, the scattered forces almost too easy to disperse. They disable the gun with little trouble and creep forward in the direction of the Reaper, picking off any stragglers with the kind of stylish carelessness you can’t usually afford. Garrus lets them have it, they’re earned a little self-satisfied conceit.

Then they see it, vast and immobile and pulsing somehow, though there's no visual indication that it's moving at all. It's just something he can feel, a deep thrumming that comes in rumbling waves up from his toes. It makes Garrus uneasy, and he hauls Iuvak back behind the wall when he peers round eagerly.

"Stay down. We don't know what it's still capable of."

“I can’t believe it’s still alive,” Laetis breathes, “it’s been lying here dying for weeks , and it’s still alive.”

“Machines don’t die,” Iuvak says, almost scornfully.

"They die," Garrus says, thinking not of the Reapers but of EDI's lifeless body slumped over the Normandy's controls. Geth ships drifting aimlessly amongst the fleet.

"So why hasn't it?" Iuvak says, "it doesn't stand a chance, it has to know that."

Laetis shrugs. "Maybe it's repairing itself."

Garrus knows a thing or two about hopeless last stands. "I don't think so. It knows it's finished, it's just hoping to take down as many of us as it can with it."

Some of his emotion must color his voice, because Iuvak gives him a strange look. "You feeling sorry for it, sir?"

"Not even close. It's just, if it was me -" Garrus looks back at the Reaper, the strange unease growing as the pulses shudder through the ground beneath him, and he has a sudden and extremely unwelcome thought. Shit.

"Sir?"

"Change of plans," Garrus says, "Laetis, get Menae and Nanus on the comm, tell them to forget about the guns and get the hell out of here." She nods, Iuvak’s eyes growing wide. Garrus patches himself through to the fleet, even as he scrambles to his feet, signalling urgently for Iuvak to do the same.

"Vakarian? Everything alright down there? Our ETA is set at -"

"Hold position," he says sharply, "I'm pretty sure coming any closer is a really bad idea."

"Do you need an evac?"

"Negative. Don’t come any closer.” He fights the urge to groan, because damn does he want that evac, but if he’s right -  "I'll keep you updated."

Laetis squints at him. "What are we -"

"We're running," Garrus says, "really fast."

And so they run, tripping clumsily over rubble as they go, and if he's wrong about this he's going to feel incredibly stupid, but equally, if he's right, they're about to get blown sky high and he's not exactly a fan of that, either. Familiar with it, sure, but definitely not keen to repeat it.

He knows he's right a few moments later by the way the thrumming is chasing them, deeper and louder and visibly vibrating now. He wonders how it's doing it - overloading the drive core, maybe, or perhaps it's a built in defence mechanism, but the heat signature was nothing out of the ordinary -

It blows, the blast directed mainly upwards as he'd predicted - hopefully the fleet was well out of range - though there's still enough force to do them some serious damage. He shoves Iuvak and Laetis in front of him, where they're half shielded by a doorway, resigning himself to taking the brunt of it, because he's nice like that.

Everything crunches unpleasantly, and then it all goes fuzzy for a while, his ears ringing. He's slumped against a wall, he realizes, and there's someone grabbing his hand, making him hold something. He's being ordered to press down, which he does, and it stings. Stinging is good, stinging means there's still something left to sting. He can work with that.

You goddamn idiot, he hears, clear as day. Shepard’s not there, but it’s her. Is it so hard to just not get blown up?

He know it isn't real, but he answers anyway. Look who's talking.

Higher stakes, she says. Had to.

So it's only okay when you do it, huh?

She laughs. Yep. Pretty much.

Just cleaning up your mess, he tells her. If you'd finished the job properly, I wouldn't even be here.

Oh, so that's how it is, she says, still laughing, cleaning up my mess. This is the thanks I get? I broke four ribs, one arm, one leg, half my skull, punctured both lungs, sustained serious burns to seventy per cent of my body -

Figures that his brain would remember the statistics perfectly. He knows she’s on the mend, and he winces anyway. Yeah, yeah, don’t remind me.

His subconscious can’t quite get her laugh right, it’s too sharp and too gentle all at once, with none of the dry humour he likes best of all. It’s the only thing that spoils the illusion.

There’s a brief silence before she speaks again, and he feels a little like he’s being yanked back into his body, slow and painstaking. It hurts.

Where would you be, then? If I'd done it properly?

With you, he says simply, and he can make out outlines now, colors and shapes that might arrange themselves into objects if he’d only open his eyes. His head aches. Look, Shepard, I - how do you tell someone you love them without it sounding like a goodbye?

There's a brief silence, and it's not her, but he wishes she wouldn't go all the same.

You say it, she says, and then you stay.

But I can't.

The voice is gentle. Maybe people like us don't get to, Garrus. Maybe we just have to say goodbye.

Every time?

Maybe.

He opens his eyes.

"General," Laetis says pleasantly, "nice of you to join us."

He groans at length, experimentally flexing his limbs in turn. "What'd I miss? Did Team Menea -"

"Menae and Nanus are fine, the fleet is fine." She presses something to his arm. "I think you're fine, too."

"That's reassuring."

"Saved our asses," Iuvak adds, and Garrus fights another groan. He can hear the awed gratitude in his voice, and he doesn't like it.

"Yeah, well. You run too slow." He pushes himself to his feet, his body protesting.

"Um, sir, should you be - "

"I've had worse," he says dryly, "remind me sometime to tell you how I got these scars." So he’s maybe milking it a little now, Iuvak’s eyes lighting up at the prospect. He might even actually tell him the truth.

Omega will always ache, and the names in his visor will always burn into the side of his head. You live with it. Maybe one day, it's a story you tell.

Iuvak lets Garrus lean on him, and doesn’t say a word. He knew there was a reason he brought him along. Like that, they hobble back the way they came, against all their better instincts. This is a win, Garrus thinks, as he gazes out over the gently smouldering crater where the Reaper used to be. More buildings flattened, more of the landscape broken and warped, and this is a victory.

“All clear,” he says quietly, and besides him, Laetis lets out a breathless laugh. “Cipritine’s all yours, Primarch,” he adds down the comm, and it feels pretty good, even if he has to grit his teeth against the ‘what’s left of it’ that he wants to add. Shepard would be unapologetic about it, but she’s not turian. He has to try.

He's so tired of trying.

It's flat, too, for the anticlimax of it all. There's no exhilarating finale. Even Iuvak, for all his dogged enthusiasm, is worn at the edges. You don't come out the other side of a war like this without a few bruises, and they've all lost something. He's turian, he knows how war goes.

They’d been too lucky, their victories too simple. They all walked into a Collector base and then, incredibly, they all walked out, and as he’d hauled Shepard onboard as everything exploded around them, he’d never really had any doubt that she would make it. She’d tumbled into the floor, still grasping his arm, flushed with exhilaration. Scratch one, she’d told him, and when she pressed her forehead to his with a laugh that rumbled through him like happiness, everyone had been polite enough to look away and hide their indulgent smiles.

No indulgent smiles now, just raw exhaustion and rubble and bodies and destruction. Scratch one, indeed. They had no idea.

 

-

 

His limp is much less pronounced by the time he’s summoned for a debriefing with the Primarch, though his head still aches and he wants nothing more than to lie down and sleep for at least two days. When was the last time he slept? It’s nearly dawn now, which makes it his second night without sleep. He doesn’t feel like he’s really slept since London. Since Cerberus, even.

“Cipritine,” Victus says, his eyes bright and enthusiastic, “we needed this, Garrus.”

He nods; because even if he’s not feeling it, that doesn’t mean it’s not true. He needs a lot of things, and none of them are Cipritine, but that’s just him. “We’re on the last leg.”

“With the capital back, we can start returning to functionality.”

“A stable government, you mean?”

“Yes.” Victus’ expression is hard to read, but Garrus rather suspects there’s relief in there.

“You planning on being a part of it, sir?”

“Yes,” Victus says, which puts that doubt to rest for the time being. He sounds a little wistful, perhaps, but he can hardly be faulted for that. “Continuity is the key, don’t you think?”

“You’re a good leader,” Garrus says, “you’ve led us through this war, and then some.”

“Did I?” Victus says mildly, but his gaze is sharp. Garrus really doesn’t like where this is going, but he meets his eyes with polite deference. “There’s a place for you there, too, Vakarian.”

“Sir, I really don’t -”

“You’re a lot better at politics than you think.” Victus says, and Garrus resists the urge to snort. “And you’re a hero.”

“I’ve been lucky.”

“Without you, there wouldn’t be a Palaven.”

“You should be thanking Shepard,” Garrus says firmly, “not me.”

"How is the Commander?" Victus asks, largely with genuine concern but with an undercurrent of amusement. Garrus supposes he's due a little friendly teasing. He gave them his full and unwavering commitment when they asked, but it must be obvious a part of him is still sitting by that hospital bed in the cold damp of Vancouver. Amusement is a reaction he can live with. It's better, after all, than the way he looked at him in London, with something close to a horrible kind of pity. He’d kissed her like she was the last good thing left in the galaxy, and maybe she was. Still is.

"She's doing good," Garrus says, and the first rays of sun are starting to spill over the horizon. It’s cool enough now, but the heat will start to build before long. The radiation is constant, though he can’t feel it. If Shepard were here, she’d have to stay in her suit. He’s seen human radiation poisoning and it’s not pretty.

And there it is; Palaven isn’t his home anymore. It can’t be.

“Glad to hear it,” Victus says, and Garrus finds he can’t quite meet his gaze, guilty and a little embarrassed. “I imagine you’re keen to see her.”

He should probably lie, but he doesn’t. “Yes.”

Victus never really laughs, but he exhales in a quiet, sharp way that amounts to the same thing, which he does now. “We owe Cipritine to you and your men.”

“They’re a good bunch.”

“I think,” Victus says, with another of those small huffs of amusement, “they’ll manage just fine without you.”

Garrus lifts his head. “Sir?”

“We can spare you, Vakarian. At least for now.”

It’s the best thing anyone’s said to him since landing on this damn mess of a planet, and if that makes him a terrible turian, then so be it.

 

-

 

It's not that he thinks Shepard isn't capable of doing things on her own - she is indisputably, incredibly capable and all sorts of deadly and terrifying - but the fact of the matter is that whenever she goes anywhere without him, terrible things happen. Sure, they happen when he's there too, but at least they're in whatever mess it is this time together.

Together: they defeat Saren, save the Citadel. Apart: she gets herself blown up, then rebuilt and thus indebted to an ethically dubious organisation. Garrus meets Sidonis. together: they defeat the Collectors, save the galaxy. Apart: she hands herself in and gets left to rot for six months. Garrus misses his first goodbye in a different hospital. Together: they rally the galaxy and cure the genophage. Apart -

The essence of it is, he's just glad to be heading back to her. When they separate, trouble follows.

“Personal favour to Hackett,” she’d said, strapping on her greaves. “Simple extraction, won’t be long.”

“I can be sneaky,” he said mournfully, and she just laughed.

“A few hours,” she promised, and stepped forward as if she might kiss him. She didn't that time, just grasped his upper arm instead, the goodbye implied but never given. He wasn't worried.

Two days, an urgent transmission, three hundred thousand dead batarians and one hell of a concussion later, and maybe he should have been. The real goodbye loomed ever closer.

They dropped him off at the Citadel, his plans to catch a transport to Palaven forming slowly and reluctantly. The final step off the Normandy onto the shuttle felt so final, so unknown, and he'd thought this would be it, that he'd be by her side until the end. Whatever the end was.

“What will you do?” she asked, and he rather thought he saw the same emotions flicker across her face, too.

“Take a leaf out of your book, I guess,” he said.

“Which one?” She grinned. “Not the going MIA for two years, I hope.”

He shook his head, half amused but half dejected, because it had been so good, the routine they'd slipped into after the Omega 4 relay. He didn't want to give that up, not for the Alliance, not for the whole damn Hegemony.

“I'll be disturbing the peace on Palaven,” he said, “you know where to find me.” The unspoken: I’ll be waiting.

“Good luck,” she said, her nod warm but businesslike, and he'd wondered if that was the end of that particular era, the era where old friends became something else. He hoped not, but it always was a long shot for people like them.

They looked at each other, and for some reason he hesitated, watching her do the same. There was no point dragging this out.

"I should get going -"

She grabbed him by the front of his armor, pulling him into a hurried, self-conscious kiss, Joker pointedly looking at the ceiling with a quiet whistle. Garrus felt warmth blossom somewhere in his chest.

“No more gunships,” she said, almost amused.

“No promises,” he said, and she pulled back slightly with a chuckle. “Stay away from angry batarians.”

“There's another kind?” She grinned. “Wanting to kill me is practically a national pastime at this point. It’d only be noteworthy if they weren’t out for my blood.”

“If I find out you've died again,” he said, and the jokes still rolled easily off his tongue then, “I'll be pissed, Shepard.”

“Noted,” she said, hand finally dropping from his armor with a laugh.

He'd left with her laughter echoing in his ears and never thought he’d have to face up the horror of seeing Earth burn via stuttering comm link, knowing she was down there somewhere in the carnage.

 

-

 

Hospitals still make something heavy and ugly settle in his stomach, but he pushes that down as far as he can. He’s still nervous, and he can’t quite account for that. There’s also still a small part of him that’s expecting this all to be some kind of cosmic joke, to find an empty bed inside and a new name on the Normandy’s wall. Expecting the worst is finally backfiring on him.

He stands outside for a moment turning the corvette over and over in his hands, thinking about doing the same with a bottle of cheap wine, and then a more expensive bottle, and then no bottle at all. He thinks about standing outside her door after Menae even though he knows there’s no expiry date on reunions and they both have so much more important things to do, thinking that if this is love, then love is weird, and he forgot the wine and she didn’t even call him up on it.

He remembers standing outside another hospital room and being too afraid to go in. Something else he'll have to live with.

She doesn't notice him enter, and he stops in the doorway for a moment to take in the changes since he was last here. Less machines, no constant vigil, bed empty. She's stood by the window, gazing out at what's left of Vancouver shining in the drizzle. She grips the windowsill tightly like she's less than steady without it, but she's standing, and she's alive, and it's all so much more than he could have ever realistically hoped for. He's thought about this, far more often than he'll ever confess to, a hundred scenarios from the cheesiest of cheesy vids running through his mind, but this beats them all. He’ll keep this forever, if he lives to be old and withered and his memories start to fade away, this will be the one he fights to keep.

So, of course, he ruins it.

"What's a nice girl like you doing in a place like this?"

She turns around, startled. "Garrus," she breathes, like he's the best thing she's ever seen, and that's when he feels like maybe they really did win. "Well, aren't you a sight for sore eyes."

"Isn't that my line?"

"Probably not," she says, carefully self-deprecating and more than a little wry. "I'm still pretty beat up." She is; there's no disputing that. She's still the best thing he's ever seen.

A few steps brings him in front of her, and she's grinning, fingers reaching up to brush along his scars and neck. What are they on now, their sixth second chance? Seventh? His luck has to be stretched pretty thin by now.

"You have got to stop dying," he murmurs, and she reaches up on her toes to kiss his forehead, an apology but not quite a promise. He wraps his arms around her very carefully, her own arms wedged awkwardly in his carapace as she does the same. They'll never quite fit. He’s okay with that.

"God, I missed you," she says, eyes half closed, and he almost wants to laugh because she has no idea. "I didn't expect you this soon."

"I wrangled some shore leave," he tells her, "see, my girlfriend saved the galaxy single-handed and I haven't even had the chance to thank her in person."

"Saved the galaxy, huh? She sounds like a keeper."

"That's my thinking," he says, "but she does have this nasty habit of getting into all kinds of trouble."

Shepard raises an eyebrow. "And you don't?"

"Learned from the best," he says, and she grins right back at him, bright and sharp beneath the exhaustion. If anyone deserves retirement, it's her, and it's the last thing anyone will offer.

“I know it’s traditional to bring flowers,” he says, “but we don’t really have any on Palaven that aren't radioactive, so…” He produces the corvette with a flourish to cover up his sheepishness, placing it on her bedside table.

She smiles, running a finger along a wing. "I think I prefer it to dogtags." She twists to look at it, but doesn’t break the embrace and neither does he. "Wrex brought me krogan moonshine, but I figured I can only cheat death so many times."

"How thoughtful of him," Garrus says dryly, happy that she's had friends around her but pissed that he wasn't one of them. It's an ugly emotion, but he can't shake it. "Is he still here?"

A look of amusement shoots across her face. "Nah, he's in demand."

That figures; Tuchanka's still in one hell of a mess. "Fighting?"

"Well, that," Shepard says with a grin, "and, uh, the other thing."

"Huh?"

"Repopulating the planet."

Garrus laughs at that, properly laughs in a way he hasn't in weeks. "Ahh, yes. The burdens of leadership." It's another reminder that not everything is burning, and it warms him. "The krogan have the right idea."

That earns him an amused look, but honestly, that wasn't where his thoughts were going. Not this time.

"I wasn't kidding about those half turian babies," he says, more into her hair than anything. He's not embarrassed, except that perhaps he is. Everyone wants so many things of her and he's no different, and he'd hate to think it's another burden piled on her shoulders.

"Neither was I," she says, almost too lightly. "Even if genetics aren't against us, if you think I'm pushing something out with even half an exoskeleton, you can think again."

He doesn't really laugh, though it's his cue to do so, settling for huffing a small amused noise into her ear. "A krogan, then, if Wrex is as busy as you say he is."

She pulls back with a startled laugh and looks at him, but it's considering, not mocking. She's worn optimism cautiously for so long, it's like she doesn't know how else to do it. "Well," she says slowly, "first things first."

"And what's that?"

"Damned if I know," she says, the heaviness back behind her eyes, and there's nothing he can do save wrap one arm around her a little more firmly, all his platitudes run dry.

"We'll figure it out."

She curls her fingers round the back of his neck, like if she grips tight enough, he'll have to stay. "What about you? I take it they want you back on Palaven."

"They, ah. Yeah." Garrus must sound dismissive, but he makes no attempt to check himself. "But I'm not staying."

Shepard raises an eyebrow. "I thought you didn't say no to the Hierarchy."

"Well, you know me," he says lightly, nuzzling into her neck so he can feel her surprised laughter vibrate through his jaw. "I'm a trailblazer."

He can’t stay so he doesn’t say it, though he’d like to wash the taste of London from his mouth. He presses a hand into the small of her back like the promise he won’t make and kisses her, and he doesn’t stay, but he waits until she falls asleep, holding her hand thumb to finger to finger in a messy, familiar grasp.

 

-

 

If there’s anything worse than Earth’s weather, it’s their damn food, which is why he find himself chewing irritably on a tasteless packet of something unpalatable as he trudges back to the shuttle port, hungry and tired and fighting the childish urge to delete Victus’ message.

Here's the thing: turians don't get shore leave for being lovesick, however famous their girlfriend is, and turians definitely don't get shore leave when their name is Garrus Vakarian. Victus is many things, and kind is one of them, but he's also a clever bastard who knows exactly how to use every opportunity given to him. However he framed it, Garrus is here at least partially on business, and he can admire Victus' strategy even as he wants to throw his omnitool out the nearest airlock.

And he is a clever bastard, there's no doubting that. The in-person offer of additional turian forces from a valued member of Shepard’s crew was never something Victus expected to follow up on, and Garrus had disapproved on principle of the empty promise, but they turn it down, flattered and defensive all at once. He hadn't thought of that. They even returned the few turian squads that remained in Sol, with gracious thanks and the insincere insistence that they're no longer needed. Even now, after everything, and it makes Garrus laugh. Still trying to one-up each other. He takes half, which maybe isn’t what Victus would do, but he doesn’t care. He’s grown worryingly fond of these stubborn humans. Some more than others.

Perhaps Victus is just using Garrus to regroup his scattered forces for the final push, or maybe he's trying to show him that bureaucracy doesn't have to be objectionable. If he is, he'll have to try harder, because Garrus is not at all convinced.

Maybe once he would’ve stuck out here like a sore thumb, but Sol got diverse almost overnight, with the galactic fleet and their wounded finding themselves there when the war ended, the Citadel still in situ above Earth. At least there’s solidarity in seeing another dexto chewing on another tasteless ration bar.

It still beats being on Palaven.

"Need a ride?" comes a familiar voice, and there’s Joker, leaning against the wall with a grin. It's good to see him, and even better to see him looking so chipper. "Or you just gonna glare at the departures board some more?"

Garrus lets out a low disgruntled hum. "Who says I'm glaring?"

"Your things," Joker says, making a big show of bringing his index fingers up to his face and wiggling them animatedly. "They're doing the angry thing." Garrus snorts. "Where's it you want to go?"

"Nowhere," Garrus says truthfully, with a wry tilt of the head. "But I'm headed to the Citadel, if you're actually offering. I thought you were grounded."

"Nope." Joker pops the 'p' gleefully. "Got the all clear this morning."

That goes some way to explaining the spring in his step; Joker's never been one to relish having both feet on solid ground. Garrus neither, though he reckons he could stand to learn.

Once, he would've doubted the sincerity of Joker's offer, assumed the Normandy had more important things to do and more pressing places to be, but that's another thing London changed. He's been through so much with Joker, from Ilos to Thessia to the Omega relay, but somehow it all paled in comparison to those few weeks after the Crucible. Weary nights in the AI core, as fruitless as they were sleepless, and Garrus knows about as much about giant guns as he doesn't know about artificial intelligence. It only added to the desperate helplessness of the situation.

He doesn't want to say it, to tempt fate or remind Joker of everything he lost, but the way he's grinning -

Garrus folds his arms, sneaks a sideways glance at Joker as he gazes out at the ships departing through the glass panes. "Found a new copilot?"

"Nah," Joker says, "EDI might have something to say about that."

And that's really something, Garrus thinks, another silver lining they never dared hope for. Their grins don't match physiologically, Joker's is all tooth and lip and bunched up cheeks where Garrus' is more a subtle shift in the arrangement of his features, but their expression is the same somehow.

"Does Shepard know?" He asks, skipping the part where it would be customary to say something positive about the news, because they're past all that now. They never rejoiced about Shepard, either, because amidst every celebration is tragedy, and it's best to just accept the gifts they're given without thinking about it too much. That's another thing about war that he wishes he didn't know.

"On my way to tell her, actually,"  Joker says, nodding over his shoulder in the direction of the hospital. "Figured I'd find you moping out here."

Garrus decides to let the moping comment slide. "EDI can't tell her herself?"

"Yeah, about that." Joker rubs his forehead. "She's not mobile, as such? I mean, she's a ship, that's about as mobile as you get, but try getting that in through the front door."

"Her body's still damaged?"

"It got pretty trashed, yeah."

"Isn't that weird?"

"She's an AI," Joker says, "it's always weird. Just this way I'm not kidding myself, right?"

Garrus shrugs; Joker isn’t really after reassurance, and weird is relative. Their weird is especially relative. "Can you fix it?"

"It's a work in progress. She's hooked up to those mechanical arms, the hospital ones Chakwas used for operating, you know? She's making much better progress than I was on my own once Tali left, but it's creepy as shit." Joker pauses. "She tried to hug me and I screamed. Is that a boyfriend faux pas?"

"Wouldn't know," Garrus says, "never made one."

"Oh, sure, if you'd been there when Shepard woke up, you would've screamed too, she -" Joker breaks off abruptly at the expression on Garrus' face, switching subjects before he can even register what his face was doing. "Seriously though, you try having a pair of freaky disembodied claws descending on you all like, Jeff, it was never my intention to alarm you - Reapers ain't got nothing on that, let me tell you."

"That's what you get when your girlfriend's built by Cerberus."

"Uhuh," Joker says, amused. "Because you'd know all about that."

"You're saying Shepard doesn’t scare you?"

"Oh, she's terrifying," Joker agrees, "no arguments here, Vakarian. I'm just glad they're indestructible."

Garrus nods, and they're silent for a moment, the sound of the shuttles in the background a reassuring hum.

"Are we bonding?" Joker asks, allergic to silence as ever. "Did we just have, like, a macho bonding moment?"

"No," he says, and Joker just grins at him. "Let's go deliver the good news."

The telling thing is the way he knows exactly how to match his normally impatient stride to match Joker's carefully ambling steps.

 

-

 

Shepard hasn't talked about the Crucible, or at least, hasn't talked to Garrus about it. No one asked; there wasn't much to say. She was unconscious while they were figuring out what was going on, and by the time she woke, it all seemed a little redundant. As far as the galaxy is concerned, she pushed the button. Boom. World saved. She isn't offering any additional details.

Shepard isn't big on telling stories; he gets it. She tells the worst anecdotes he's ever heard, rushing impatiently to the punchline and skipping important details and context. She's wordy when she's thinking ahead, good at rallying and motivating and laying out complicated battle plans fluidly and concisely. She's just not as good at looking back. He's read some of her mission reports, she's sparse even in them, beyond military economy.

There's something, though, about the way she took the news about EDI and the geth, something that sits wrong with her, and he might not know the details of what happened up there, but it weighs on her.

There was always the next mission, and without it -

- well, they're all figuring that out.

Joker doesn’t tease it, he must know what it means to her as well.

“EDI’s online, Commander,” he says, “thought you’d like to know.”

Garrus leans against the doorframe, enjoying the smile that spreads across her face. They’ve said their goodbyes already - or rather, not said them at all - and her expression turns puzzled as she spots him, frowning over Joker’s shoulder as he rattles off technical details about EDI’s repairs a mile a minute.

“Like a bad smell,” he says by way of explanation. “Can’t get rid of me.” She grins.

“We’re giving Garrus a ride,” Joker says, “just like old times.”

“Just like old times,” Garrus repeats, the phrase tripping out his mouth more melancholy than he intended.

Shepard looks from him to Joker, her mouth setting in a familiar stubborn line.

"The Normandy isn't grounded?"

"Not any more, Commander. Time to take her for a spin."

"Absolutely," Shepard mutters, and Garrus detects a hint of something in her tone that isn't quite the resentment and wistfulness he expected -

She yanks the IV from the back of her hand in a decisive movement, swinging her legs over the side of the bed and out from under the sheets. Garrus starts to laugh; she's fully dressed.

Joker blinks. "Uh, Commander? Didn't you need those?"

"Painkillers didn't do shit anyway," she says, pocketing the model ship as she delicately puts her weight on her feet.

Garrus folds his arms. “Shepard, you do know this is a terrible idea, right?”

“Yeah.” She takes a few steps forward, pulling a face and reaching for his arm. “You gonna stop me?”

He catches her by the elbow. “Do I ever?"

“Just like old times,” she says, Garrus still grinning, and behind them, Joker groans.

“Seriously? Are we seriously doing this?”

“I’m assuming that’s rhetorical,” Shepard says, and before they start to make their ungainly, furtive way down to the docking bay, she grabs something from the desk, something small that she curls her fingers around before dropping it in her pocket, the distinct sound of ball chain against metal as she does so.

 

-

 

She heads straight for the AI core, hobbling past an indignant Dr Chakwas to stand in the middle. It's a strange gesture; she never felt the need to treat the core like EDI's body, happy enough to talk to her anywhere on the ship, but perhaps that all changed since they got used to their resident AI milling about among them. Now, she doesn't know where to look, spinning uncertainly on the spot as EDI whirs around her.

"Shepard," EDI says, evenly as ever. "I am impressed by the improbability of your continued existence."

Shepard laughs, but her eyes are shining. "Right back at you."

"Impressed," EDI adds, "and pleased."

"You getting emotional on me, EDI?"

"I don't experience emotions in the strictest sense of the word." EDI pauses for a moment. "So, no."

Shepard just grins, unperturbed. "What about in the looser sense?"

EDI's reply is dry even by her standards. "Further analysis would be necessary."

"Good to see you too, EDI," Shepard says quietly, pausing at the door on her way out, finger tracing circles on the wall. "And - I'm sorry. I don’t know how to -"

"I understand completely," EDI says immediately, as warm as Garrus has ever heard her. "You had no choice."

Shepard doesn't look up, and there’s that bitterness he hates so much again, the heavy misery in her shoulders. "Right."

 

-

 

It's strange, being back, different and the same in disorienting ways. Shepard presses a hand to the fish tank with an expression he can't quite read, sad and happy and exhausted and something else, the blue light dancing in her eyes.

"Hey, little guys," she says softly, and he places a hand steady on her back. She leans into it, and they stand there a while, quiet and comfortable. In truth, he hasn't been in here since London. He couldn't bring himself to. He nuzzles into her hair with a pleased hum, and waits for it to hit him, all the memories and emotions he was so afraid of. They never come.

She twists round to face him, and he's always liked her like this, half illuminated by the glow of the tank, a gentler blue than her biotics, but the resemblance is striking. He loved her first that way, and second like this.

He kisses her languidly, one hand braced against the cool of the tank where hers had been. Her fingers leave misty silhouettes where his scrape and tap, talons clicking softly. They should talk, probably, but he crowds her playfully against the glass instead, because melancholy and worried and bone-achingly tired as he is, he's found the brightest spot in the whole damn universe, right here.

"Remind me," she says, "what exactly were the protocols on reunions, again?"

“Well, this is different,” he says, suddenly very aware of the way she grips his elbow, as if for support. He curls his arm around her a little more firmly. "Do they apply here?"

She is indignant. "Why wouldn't they?"

"I don't know if it's such a good idea, Shepard," he says without much real conviction, "you're only just back on your feet."

"Who said anything about being on my feet?"

Garrus laughs at that, further protests dying somewhere before they reach his mouth. "When you put it that way," he says, and she runs a thumb over his scarred mandible with a smile tugging her lips up at one corner. An expression, he likes to think, that's only really for him. He's not prone to possessiveness, but there are things he doesn't mind not having to share.

"Fair warning," she says as he brushes a hand back across her waist, "they didn't do as neat a job as Cerberus."

He pauses, tips of his fingers hovering at the gap between her pants and sweater. He can feel the skin beneath, fresh and raw and with raised edges here and there. "If I'm hurting you-"

"Nothing like that," she says, quick to reassure, "I've just looked better, that's all."

"Always looked weird to me anyway," he teases, though he holds her with extra care now, a little worried.

Shepard laughs quietly, sensing his hesitation. "Look, just -" She pulls the sweater over her head in an awkward, stiff movement - he doesn't miss that, she's not fooling him - and gestures down at herself with a grimace. "Impressive, huh?"

His hands hover for a moment before settling back on her waist, as he looks her over before pulling her closer. Impressive is one word; she's an intricate lattice of scars and pink shiny skin, a patchwork canvas of what giving everything you have and living to tell the tale looks like.

Beautiful is the other, but he's a little biased.

"Impressive," he agrees, "not quite as roguish as mine, of course -"

"Dream on, Vakarian," she says, swatting at his arm, "now it's your turn."

"My turn?"

"Let’s see your leg," she says, "I see you've been blowing up Reapers without me."

"Being blown up, you mean."

She raises an eyebrow. "Who says they're mutually exclusive?"

He has to give her that. "I'm guessing Liara told you."

"Didn't have to," Shepard says, grinning widely. "You're limping."

"I thought I was being very stoic."

She laughs. "I know you too well." She knocks her knee against his injured one, making him wince. "Can't fool me."

He glares balefully at her. "What's that expression? Those in glass houses, huh, Shepard?"

"You big baby," she says, nestling happily into him. "I'll kiss it better."

One thing they've always been good at is shutting everything out, at being fully present in the moment and forgetting everything else. They have to be. You can't be thinking about the slim odds of your survival when you're under fire, can't be focusing on all the things you stand to lose when bigger things are at stake. With this, too, they don't really let anything else creep in, never let their unspeakably terrible odds intrude on the bubble they build around themselves.

Which is why it's odd, as they fall into the familiar routine of it all, that she stops for a moment to press their foreheads together, suddenly very serious.

"I didn't think I'd get to do this again," she says, and he could make a thousand smart replies but there's something heavy in his throat.

"Me neither," he manages hoarsely, and it feels less like a conclusion that he'd hoped. It's not over. Maybe it won't ever be over. "Shepard -"

The good thing about Shepard is she tends to hear even the things he doesn't say.

“Good to be wrong,” she says, and chuckles quietly in his ear. "No one listens when I'm right, anyway."

The heaviness lifts; though they stay still for a few moments longer. They don't think about what's going to happen next, they just are, by the cool light of the tank and the stars overhead.

 

-

 

Later, when she's half asleep with her head on his lap, reading the latest from Victus and running his fingers through her hair very carefully, he almost, almost relaxes. They haven't been contacted yet, Shepard’s absence not yet pieced together with the absence of the Alliance's most infamous ship. Or perhaps it has, and they're resigned to her particular brand of decision making. He grins, silent laughter rumbling through him.

She opens an eye. "What's so funny?"

"Stealing the Normandy?" he tells her, putting the datapad down and pushing a lock of hair behind her ear. "Isn't that a bit extreme?"

She smiles lazily up at him. "We could still turn around."

"Well, we wouldn't want to keep the Council waiting."

"Uhuh," she says, the drowsiness of her voice at odds with the sharp way she looks at him. "But troop deployment could be discussed over the comms."

"Could've spoken to Hackett over the comms, too."

"Yeah, but that's just standard military bootlicking," Shepard says, "you were there anyway."

"Really? I don't think turians lick boots, in that case."

She's still watching him through half closed eyes. "They want to make you a spectre."

"The thought has occurred to me," he admits slowly, hand going still in her hair. "Why else would they - I don't know, Shepard."

She tilts her head to see his face better, eyes following the nervous movement of his mandibles. "Not the retirement you hoped for?"

"The Primarch wants me to go into politics," he tells her, "so it's not my worst option. What about you?"

A wry twitch of the lips. "I'll get back to you on that."

She yawns expansively, awake now and looking up at him with something fond and curious and uncertain. They still don’t know what happens next.

"You never did tell me," he says, "what is your one thing?"

"Huh?"

"The one thing you want to do before you die." If he trips over the last word, she pretends not to notice.

"This time, you mean?" She always did have a morbid sense of humor. "Hell, Garrus, I'd settle for just living first."

It makes his heart lurch, but he ignores it. "That's a boring answer."

"Fine," she says stubbornly, "I'll stick with the first one."

"Still boring. You've already woken up next to a turian."

Shepard reaches for his hand where it’s tangled in her hair. “Maybe I want to do that some more.”

“More turians?” Garrus teases. “Or have you got a particular one in mind?”

She snorts. “Sure. I’ve got a type, apparently. Tall, smug -”

“Not too bad with a gun?”

“- pain in the ass,” she finishes, still holding his hand. Her two middle fingers slot between his, smooth with practice and still an unexpected fit.

He bends down to kiss her then, upside down and his mandibles in all the wrong places. She laughs and shoves him away, protesting half-heartedly (‘watch the eyes, Vakarian,’) and boring sounds pretty damn perfect, come to think of it. He settles her head back down in his lap.

“I’ve got a few hours,” he says, “get some sleep and that's another one under your belt.”

“Another what?”

“Waking up next to a turian,” he says drolly, reaching for the discarded datapad.

She laughs, and closes her eyes.

 

-

 

Once, being in the council chamber would have delighted him. Did delight him, even. Standing behind Shepard marvelling at the interior, the Council, the pomp of it all.

And now?

He sees a once-grand room falling to pieces in the hopeless aftermath of war, a worn down turian and two exhausted aliens trying desperately to pretend nothing’s changed. There's still no human councillor, no obvious candidate besides Shepard, and she'd laugh them out of town for so much as suggesting it. He suspects they'd be relieved.

If it was up to him, he'd pick Williams. Her brash determination would be a breath of fresh air, and he'd pay good money to see her stick an indignant finger in Sparatus' face and tell him he's talking out his turian ass. Speaking personally, it's an... edifying experience.

On second thoughts, maybe not such a good idea. He'll just have to sit in on her next comm briefing and hope a holographic Sparatus is as satisfying to see get yelled at. Maybe Shepard could give her some pointers.

"General Vakarian," he says, "we heard about your victory at Cipritine. How's the situation down there?"

"Better than it was," Garrus says, opting for weary optimism, "still a way to go, but we've pushed them back."

"How does it compare to Earth?"

"Worse, even without Cerberus. The military presence in Sol scared off the worst of it." Cerberus, the neverending pain in their ass, even leaderless and disgraced, active cells still tangling with the Alliance trying to 'salvage' Reaper tech.

The asari narrows her eyes at him. "Your previous employer, you mean?"

"No," Garrus says, with a dangerous sort of evenness. "I worked for Shepard."

"Tevos," Sparatus' tone is sharp. She ignores him.

"Who worked for Cerberus."

"They joined forces," Garrus says tightly, "to do what had to be done. What no one else would do."

"An oversight," Sparatus says, even if it’s a bit begrudgingly, "on our part." Well, that's one for the history books. Garrus inclines his head slightly, surprised and wrong-footed.

Tevos still looks at him with barely concealed distaste. Charming. "You applied to be a spectre before, yes?"

There it is, and it does nothing to put him at ease. "Twice."

"You withdrew your application the first time?"

"Joined C-Sec," he says, trying not to be as curt as he's inclined to be. "Career change."

"And the second time?"

Garrus looks right at her, a little insolently. "Something came up."

The look she gives him in return is unnerving, but he doesn’t look away. "Funny, it would’ve been around the same time the Commander was reported dead.”

“I suppose it was,” Garrus says, and reminds himself that walking out on the Council is probably only not career-ending if you’re Shepard. He clenches his fists. “Funny.”

“You never responded to the Council's offer."

That throws him. "Your offer?" He hadn't given his application a backwards thought on Omega, hadn't imagined the wheels would keep turning once he'd turned his back on them. Foolish, really.

"We were forced to rescind it when you - ah, left," Sparatus says, "but following your exemplary work during the war and subsequent field recommendation -" Garrus is blindsided by that, too, because field recommendation? " - we’d like to extend it again in light of our renewed need for spectre agents, and the glowing reports from the Hierarchy regarding your work on Cipritine.”

"As chance would have it," Tevos says ungraciously, "you seem to end up with one of our agents whether we send you or not. We may as well make it official."

Garrus gives her a grin that's all teeth; it's not friendly. "I have impeccable timing.”

“Apparently.”

He still doesn’t give them an answer, folding his arms. “Renewed need? What does that mean?"

"Galaxy’s a mess, Vakarian,” Sparatus says, “we’ve lost a lot of people, and we could really use your expertise.”

To think that once he’d - well, not idolized, but certainly held them in some kind of high, mysterious regard, thought of them as an unreachable authority who would be reasonable if only they weren’t mediated by Pallin.

This is the part where he accepts gratefully, and tells them how honored he is to fight the good fight, to make Palaven proud. He’s supposed to want this bad enough to accept it graciously, however ungraciously it’s offered. Once, he did. A part of him still does.

Except -

“I’ll think about it,” he says, and their mouths drop in perfect unison. He enjoys it far too much.

 

-

 

Shepard is waiting for him outside the Council chamber, hood pulled over her face in some kind of futile attempt at anonymity.

“They asked you?”

“Yeah.” Garrus falls into an easy step with her.

“And?”

“I said I’d think about it.”

Shepard laughs. “I wonder how often they hear that.” A pause. “Will you take it?”

He sighs, rubbing at his neck. The fountains still bubble quietly amidst the destruction, infuriatingly calm in the chaos. “I don’t know.” He chances a quick sideways glance at her, but her face is inscrutable. “I could use your input, Shepard.”

“Well, it’s not quite politics.”

He barks a laugh. “It isn’t?”

“I said not quite.” She elbows him playfully, pushing her hood back with a laugh. “It’s funny, I met you right here, bellyaching about untouchable spectres, and now look at us.”

He’d almost forgotten; it feels like another lifetime. “The good old days,” he says, more sarcastic than nostalgic.

“Something like that." She looks sad, distant and unreachable, so he reaches for her anyway, fingers grazing her elbow.

“Shepard?”

She doesn’t answer for a moment, seemingly switching subjects without precedent. "I'm headed to the memorial wall."

He closes his hand gently around her arm, the offer of company. She leans into him gratefully.

 

-

 

It's quiet at this time of the Citadel's simulated day cycle, and the docking bays are quieter with each passing day as the inhabitants move on. The wall is just as full. Shepard stands motionless, hands shoved in her pockets as the faces stare back at her. He wonders what she sees. Accusation, perhaps, knowing her. She always did want to save everyone.

"It's traditional to bring flowers," she says, quiet enough that he almost misses it, "but there aren't so many of those to go round, right now." She draws the corvette out of a pocket, and places it on the metal rim already littered with photo frames and keepsakes, finger shaking a little. She reaches back into her pocket, pulling out dog tags, intact but burnished, though she doesn't let go of them for a few moments.

She swallows hard, and she's not much of a crier but her eyes are damp. I think I prefer it to dogtags, she'd said, and he brushes a hand between her shoulder blades. There's nothing left to say.

She rubs her thumb over them in a way that says the gesture is familiar, closing her hand around them one more time before tipping them reluctantly to join the corvette, metal clinking on metal as they hit the shelf.

"He took out a few HK370s in the war," she says, "I think he'd like it."

"I think he would."

David Anderson to Garrus was a determined voice at the end of a comm line, the punchline to Shepard’s stories from the old days, a fancy apartment filled with happy memories. He can’t comprehend quite what he was to Shepard.

"I slept through his memorial service. I should've been there."

"You were there when it counted."

“He’d retired,” she says, wiping her eyes with the heels of her palms. “His twilight years, that’s what he called them." Her laugh is humorless. "Some retirement.”

Garrus doesn’t reach out for her, but he stands as close as he can. “Wrong time, wrong place.”

“People like us don’t get to retire,” she says, and it sounds like a challenge. "There's no right time, no right place."

“Shepard - “

“I recommended you,” she cuts over him, rubbing the back of her hand across her face in a frustrated gesture. “To the Council. They asked, and I said they’d be idiots not to.”

She won’t meet his eyes, staring resolutely at the dog tags. Garrus nods slowly. “I figured.”

She laughs again, another unhappy bark. “C-Sec training still coming in useful, huh?”

Garrus bumps his shoulder gently against hers, unsure what to do with her tears, and even more unsure what to do with the misery in the way she sets her shoulders. “Something like that.”

“You wish I hadn’t,” she says, and so that’s what she’s afraid of.

“No,” he says, “but why didn’t you say?”

She shakes her head. “You’d’ve took it. You wouldn’t have even thought about it.”

“Probably,” he admits without any particular embarrassment. It’s well documented that he’ll follow her lead into hell and back, and he really isn’t interested in doing otherwise. It’s not a weakness. “But why?”

“Why’d I recommend you?”

“Yeah.”

“I guess,” she says, “the short answer is that I’m selfish.”

He tilts his head to one side, watching her curiously. “And the long answer?”

She grins at that, albeit half-heartedly. “I don’t want to go through the past three years again, and I don’t have to. But I can’t just stop either, not while there’s still all this going on. You'll be good at it, Garrus. You already are.”

Garrus sighs, thinking of how quickly he found himself on Palaven. “It's never over, is it?"

"I don't know about 'never'," she says, "but not yet, anyway. I know you wanted this once, and I thought maybe - I don't want to do it alone."

He nudges her shoulder again, fondly exasperated. "Was that ever an option?"

"It's a lot to ask, isn't it? I don't want to ruin your idyllic retirement plan."

"Shepard," he says, heart impossibly full, "you are my retirement plan." He wraps an arm around her then, head tucked under his chin. "I guess I wouldn't know what to do with a quiet life, anyway. I could do with a few less life or death situations, sure, but it'd be boring if no one was shooting at you."

She winds her arms round his waist with a cautiously delighted smile. "You know me, can't even get some damn sushi without getting shot at."

"I’d better stick around," he says, "I've seen the trouble you get into when I'm gone."

"If I can’t have a quiet life, I figure I’ll settle for a quieter one,” she says, and he laughs at that.

“Quieter, huh?”

“Unless you’d rather go into politics, of course,” she says, with a knowing smirk. Garrus pulls a suitably horrified expression.

“You’re forgetting something,” he tells her, “the Council don’t have to assign us the same missions.”

“I think they know we’re a package deal. It’s not unusual for spectres to work in pairs, anyway.”

“So this is all an elaborate ruse to get me alone?”

“Basically,” she says, finally meeting his eyes with a sheepish grin. “I love you, you're damn good at this, and I wouldn't want to clean up the galaxy with anyone else."

“You know,” he says, “you should’ve just led with that.”

"What, appeal to your sense of pride?"

"The other one," he says, grinning into her hair. "I'll do it. But I nominate you to tell my dad how you've led me horribly astray again." He presses a kiss to her temple. Truth be told, it's not as horrifying a prospect as it could be. They've reached a place where he might just understand.

They're surrounded by rubble and ruin, but here they are. It’s enough.

"I love you," he says.

And then he stays.