Chapter 1: After
Year 2186—Unknown Garden World
In a dream, he saw her standing on the bridge of the Normandy in her casuals, fingers tracing over the holo-map that ate up most of CIC’s floor space. He watched the light play across her face, stars reflected in her freckles, green eyes catching the swirls of silver light. He recognized the familiar shape of her—the strong shoulders sloped down into a sturdy waist and rounded hips. Rounded. For all her hard edges and his, she was still so rounded compared to what he was used to. Surprisingly soft at every turn.
When she retired to her cabin that night, Garrus was there like always, sitting on the couch waiting for her to finish showering. It was her ritual. Talk to the crew after the mission, shower, and then curl up with him in bed and look at the stars. They scared her. All that wide empty space reminded her too much of being spaced on the first Normandy, but she was coming to terms. They talked. He played with her hair. She pressed her lips to one mandible, his mouth plates, his exposed neck. He skimmed his talons down her arm. She planted a hand to his chest and wiggled her too-many fingers against his keel bone in a way that always tickled. He squeezed her close until he was fully convinced she was there beside him. When they fell asleep, they held onto each other. When her nightmares woke her up and caused her to toss and turn, he was right there. When his nightmares kept him up, she was a solid weight at his side to bring him back into place where he belonged.
Years after the battle, they would adopt an orphaned Colony brat who had reddish hair, just like her and was all alone, just like she had been. Rae wasn’t the mothering type, but she just never could refuse someone in need, and she loved the kid to the moon and back. That was alright with him. Their new daughter was a delight. The Normandy and her crew wouldn’t do big tours anymore—they were helping to rebuild now. It was safe for the kid, even if keeping her focused on her school work was difficult with all the hustle and bustle of life on the ship.
Some of the crew had come and gone and a few of their friends had to move on to other things, but they all kept in touch. Sometimes, they met up on the Citadel at Anderson’s (Shepard’s) old apartment to relive the glory days. Jacob’s child was growing up healthy and safe on Earth. Liara’s information ring had expanded. Kaidan was a decorated war hero with his own crew—sometimes he would vid chat Rae for advice, but he was mostly doing just fine. Tali was growing into her role as a General, but (more importantly, in his opinion) was growing into her own villa home on Rannoch with Kal’Reegar—a pairing he and Shepard had called way back on Haestrom. Wrex had children of his own, and many of them. They’d visited him and Grunt on Tuchanka more than once.
Their lifespans were similar—humans’ and Turians’—which was good, because it meant that they were both there to send their adopted daughter off to Grissom Academy when they found out she was a Biotic. Jack, who had stepped up to take over the school after the war, promised to be extra hard on the kid, for her parent’s sake. They received regular transmissions from Grissom not just from their child, but also from Jack, giving them updates.
There was always rebuilding to be done, which kept them busy, but the relays had been repaired in record time, and they were working their way planet to planet to get people home as soon as possible. The refugee camps at the Citadel dwindled each day as people found new homes amongst the rubble. And they grew old together—no Shepard without Vakarian, no Vakarian without Shepard. Just like she’d said.
At least, that was how he dreamed it.
He sat up in bed. The window skylight was cracked after the Normandy had crashed on whatever godforsaken planet this was. Her cabin seemed a lot emptier and a lot smaller without her. That visor—the one he had grabbed for her on the Citadel after she’d said she liked his all that time ago—was still sitting on the bedside table. The bedside table on her side of the bed. The visor had held all of the pictures she hadn’t moved over to her private computer yet. Mostly shots from the party. Grunt sitting on the shower floor in the guest room. Joker and EDI dancing. Miranda hugging Jack. Tali in the middle of telling a story to Zaeed and Samara. Wrex egging on Vega as he tried to beat his push-up record with Kasumi sitting on his back. Javik. Liara and Kaidan. Jacob. Samantha. Glyph in his bowtie. Cortez with a drink in hand. Then there were some of him. He hadn’t known that she was taking pictures—never seemed the sentimental type. But she always found ways to surprise him. There were pictures of him rigging the apartment (safety measures). Him talking to people. Laughing. Dancing. Helping to set up. Trying (half drunk, at that point) to help clean up. A handful that showed him sleeping.
She hadn’t worn the visor to London, which is why he even still had it. She’d worn her beat-up old N-7 helmet, and her dress blues under her armor—how could he not have noticed she was always so sentimental? When she’d helped him onto the shuttle, he’d known it would be the last time. Her hair flying around her face in the smoky wind, freed when she’d thrown off her helmet. She’d always hated wearing a helmet. She’d touched his face when he begged her not to go. They could regroup. They could get the hell out of dodge, as Vega would say, and figure out a new plan of attack. He didn’t get through ten words before she kissed him.
“I love you,” she’d said.
He wondered if he had ever said it back to her enough for her to know how much he loved her too.
Chapter 2: Bad News
The first time Garrus mourned Shepard’s death.
Year 2183—The Citadel
He was at C-Sec when he first heard the report. It was late—past his shift for sure—but his apartment on the Citadel was too quiet. All that time on the Normandy reminded him of just how much he missed ambient ship noises—the humming of the engines, the faint whirr of life-support tech, the buzz as they jumped relays. His apartment was tidy and silent, and he couldn’t get a damn thing done in it.
Only one month back on the Citadel, and he’d realized how big of an undertaking this was going to be. Not only were they rebuilding, C-Sec was run thin tamping down an impressive spike in crime on what was left of the Citadel. And, he was researching Spectres for his training. Part of him had been living with the delusion that becoming a Spectre would be relatively quick, but his role-model was Commander Shepard. Commander Exception-to-the-Rules Shepard. Of course she had achieved Spectre status without having even applied.
Practically no one was at headquarters. The C-Sec agents on duty were all on rounds, leaving just him and the agent at the front desk alone in the whole place. Which is why he was surprised when Vykil and Kerik appeared in his doorway. They should have been out on patrol.
Something in Vykil’s tone caught his attention. Polite, like usual. Deferential, as Garrus was a senior officer. A sympathetic subvocal hum? Garrus had been contemplating saying he was too busy to chat, but there was something off.
“We just wanted to say we were sorry to hear about Shepard, sir.”
“Shepard?” Now that was a name he hadn’t expected. Something in the pit of his gut sank. “Sorry for what, officers?”
“Oh.” Kerik shot Vykil a look. “You weren’t aware.” Vykil clicked his talons against his thigh.
The two officers exchanged glances. Kerik reached for the datapad on Garrus’ desk, typed in a search query, and handed the datapad back over to Garrus.
COMMANDER SHEPARD, SPECTRE, DECLARED KILLED IN ACTION
Commander Rae Shepard, Alliance Navy and Council Spectre, was declared killed in action after the SSV Normandy was attacked and destroyed by unknown assailants. The ship, which crashed on Alchera in the Amada Systems of the Omega Nebula, was unsalvageable. No remains have yet been found.
Reports suggest much of the crew survived the wreck. Decorated pilot Jeffery Moreau was the last crew member off the ship, but declined comment. Long-time crew member Lieutenant Alenko reported to the Alliance News Network that the attack was unprovoked, and the ship in question did not appear to belong to any recognizable military force. The Alliance News Network declined further comment.
The article went on. It mentioned her age, that she was born on Earth, that she was the first human Spectre, and that she had led the team that exposed and took down Saren. Talked a bit about the surviving crew. Mentioned some human ceremony called a candlelight vigil that was scheduled to be held on Earth in her old hometown. After a couple more lines, the text started to look like gibberish. He set the datapad down on his desk.
“Where did you find this? What news source is reporting this garbage?”
“All of the stations are reporting this, sir.”
“It can’t be right.”
“The Alliance has declared her KIA, sir.”
Garrus looked down at his hands, sitting on his desk. C-Sec gloves. C-Sec desk. When he closed out the window on his datapad with her obituary, the window with his Spectre research popped back up. He looked back down at the datapad on his desk, picked it up, and snapped it in half. Shards of the screen and little bits of metal from the frame rained down onto his desk. The light from the wall behind him made the broken pieces glint and wink blue back up at him. There was a rising sound of static that pressed on the walls of his skull.
He had completely forgotten the two other officers in his doorway. Both looked alarmed. For a moment, he didn’t even recognize them. Two Turians, non-descript, really. One of them—Vykil—had Cipritine colony markings. Kerik’s markings were from a smaller colony. Not Palavani. Bostra, maybe? Kerik was slightly taller than Vykil. Vykil’s fringe was longer. They were both looking at him. He realized after a second that they were waiting for him to respond.
“We’re, uh, we’re very sorry, officer.”
“Vakarian, are you alright?” Kerik? Kerik. It was Kerik who said that. Garrus felt this strange sense of calm—limbs loose and head light. For a moment, it was like he was watching himself from outside his body. Vykil took a step back and bumped into Kerik.
“Fine, officers.” He stood up from his desk, but he had no idea where he was going. “Thank you for bringing this to my attention.”
Kerik grabbed Vykil’s arm and jerked his head towards the hallway. They were gone within seconds. Probably back on rounds.
Garrus could feel himself bringing his fist up and then slamming it down on his desk, but he had no connection to the movement. His body was acting of its own accord. He heard himself swearing as he brought his fist down on his desk again. And again. He sat back down in his chair. Cleaned the remaining shards of glass off the desk with the flat of his hand. Couldn’t sit still. Stood back up so fast he knocked his chair over.
Finally, it hit him like a shotgun blast. All the pieces connected. Commander Rae Shepard, Alliance Navy and Council Spectre, dead. His best friend, dead. He swept the broken remains of the datapad off his desk and onto the floor. What was he doing here? What difference was any of this going to make? She had followed all of the official channels and for what? He thought of her lifeless body, broken into a thousand pieces and scattered over the surface of Alchera.
Had she burned up? Had she been ripped apart in the explosion? He couldn’t help but picture it—her standing on the bridge of the Normandy and then BOOM! Impact. She’s telling everyone to get into the shuttles. She’s starting to load herself into one, but something happens. The bridge breaks apart and she is sucked into the airless vacuum of space. She flails in the dark. Why wasn’t anyone there to save her? Alenko, Liara, and Wrex had stayed on board. Alenko was her mate, why hadn’t he helped her?
He pulled the article back up on a different datapad and got through another couple of paragraphs. Apparently, she had been spaced right after getting Joker into an escape pod, and then fell to Alchera, propelled by the force from one of the generators on the bridge blowing. At some point, the oxygen lines on her suit had been punctured. There was no sign of a body on Alchera yet, but they found a damaged oxygen tank stamped with traces of her N-7 markings, as well as bits of armor. The rest, the article supposed, must have fused to her body, which has yet to be found amongst the wreakage.
Why hadn’t someone helped her collect Joker? Why hadn’t someone on the bridge kept an eye on the monitors? An incoming vessel big enough to take out the SSV Normandy would have to pop up on their radar. How had no one seen the heat signature from the incoming ship’s thrusters? The logical part of his brain provided that the Normandy was just about the best at cloaking, but that there were inferior cloaking mechanisms out there. If a ship got close, killed the thrusters, and let momentum carry them the rest of the way, they could land behind the Normandy without anyone noticing till it was too late.
He punched his desk again before slumping down onto the floor in front of it, back against the wall. Being spaced was a hell of a way to go. Spirits. He couldn’t stop thinking about her, floating through space, suffocating. Reaching out, kicking, thrashing, and then hitting atmosphere and burning up to a crisp before slamming down planet-side. The whole thing replayed over and over in his head. He buried his face in his hands.
If the council had listened to her. If the council had given her the manpower she would need and had protected her, she wouldn’t have been shot down out of the sky looking for proof of what they already all knew. She would have been able to keep saving people. She wouldn’t have died. Pointless. It was all so pointless.
He didn’t know what time it was, but at some point, Executor Pallin appeared in his office, arms crossed.
He didn’t answer.
“Vakarian, get up.”
Garrus pulled himself up off the floor and looked Pallin in the eye.
“What happened here?” Pallin knew damn well what had happened here. Standing now, Garrus noticed that one of the new human recruits, Bailey, was standing directly behind Pallin with a datapad.
“I quit.” He hadn’t planned this. The words had just come out.
“You’re leaving C-Sec?” It was a question but it sounded more like a statement. Bailey looked up from his datapad, one eye-brow cocked.
“I’m leaving the Citadel.” He hadn’t planned that either. But now that he’d said it, by the Spirits he was going to do it.
“Garrus, I know you’re frustrated by the Hon Vohr case, but we need to follow the proper channels.”
Spirits help him, he had forgotten all about the Volus smuggler. But what did it matter? What did anything matter anymore?
Garrus pushed past Pallin and Bailey and took off down the hall.
“Garrus? Officer Vakarian.” Pallin called after him but Garrus was already at the locker rooms. He stripped off his uniform until he was down to his civvies and left the armor in his locker. He’d find new armor later. He’d leave. He’d go…somewhere.
“Officer Vakarian, as the head of C-Sec—”
“You’re dismissing me,”Garrus finished. “Just as well.”
“Garrus, you are a decorated officer. Don’t throw that away.”
Garrus held out his gun and badge. They needed the standard issue pistol back, but he still had the Mantis Shepard had requisitioned him when he first signed on to take down Saren. Pallin stared at him, half blocking the doorway.
“Give the Hon Vohr case to Skyrra. She’ll be able to find an in.”
“Is this about Shepard, then?”
Garrus stiffened and shouldered past Pallin.
He walked out of C-Sec for the last time and headed for the market to stock up on armor and ammo. C-Sec and the Council weren’t really going to protect anyone. Never had, never would. So it was time to do things Shepard’s way, and start fixing the Galaxy himself, one criminal at a time.
Chapter 3: Aftershock
The second time Garrus leaves the med bay after London.
Year 2186—Unknown Garden World
It was a while before Chakwas let him out of the med bay, and he wasn’t allowed off ship or out of sight. She’d said it was because of how badly he’d mangled his leg and cracked his skull in London, but he knew it was due to the episode. The stumbling, confused mess he’d been when he’d first woken up to Kaidan, bad news, and no Shepard. For days he’d been out of it—either shouting at anyone who got close enough to hear him, or staring off into space. He couldn’t remember how long he’d spent like that, but it must have been long enough to cause concern. No one had left him alone for more than a minute since. He couldn’t stand some of his squad mates right now—the better he liked them, the worse it was. He couldn’t even look at Tali. Of all of them, Chakwas was the best. She had a quiet presence. If he was going to be babysat all the time, better someone quiet and calm than a chatterbox like Joker or Vega.
He wanted to go right to the Main Battery and get back to normal. Well, that wasn’t completely honest. He really wanted to go to her loft and lay there for a bit, but he wasn’t going to do that with company. Chakwas didn’t want him holing up in the Main Battery just yet either. He wasn’t too surprised really when she suggested a walk of the ship, to get his joints used to moving again. She stood at his elbow as they took the elevator down to the docking bay first.
Cortez was alone in the bay, and looked up from his work briefly to wave. They circled around the shuttle and walked all the way out to the Hammerhead before getting back on the elevator and going up one floor to the engine and cargo bays. Javik had been closed up in his room for some time now, so they stopped short of his door and turned around. The room where that nosey BattleSpace reporter had been living was empty—she had gone off-ship the last time they had docked at the Citadel and had caught the first transport out to one of the less destroyed colonies. Shepard had insisted, knowing what was coming. It was strange to see the room empty. It had always housed someone.
They didn’t duck into engineering. Donnelly had never gotten past Gabby Douglas’ death, and Garrus wouldn’t be able to maintain a conversation with Tali if she was in—not yet. He thought about showing Chakwas the emptied out space where Jack had once lived, but that was Rae’s quiet space towards the end. She’d sneak down there away from the crew where no one but EDI could find her. He and EDI had never told any of the crew where she was when she was hiding. It was sacred. He would have to visit it later, when the ship was mostly asleep and he was alone.
Up in the living quarters, he paced the halls. Vega was sitting with Tali and Kaiden in the port-side observation lounge. So she wasn't in Engineering. He could hear their voices floating down the hall. When he got close enough, he could see the three of them sitting on the couches around untouched glasses. Vega told some story about when Rae had been trapped on Earth, tied up in bureaucratic red tape. She’d been working out stress at the gym, and had nearly taken his head off when he’d startled her at the punching bags. Tali didn’t say anything, but sipped at whatever was in her glass after a long moment of silence.
He should be a better friend. He should help comfort the rest of their squad mates. Everyone was hurting after London—he should get back out there and make sure the rest of the crew was okay. It was what Rae would have wanted. But he turned on his heel before he was noticed and walked towards the other lounge on the opposite side. He could have sat in Life Support, which had been empty since Thane left, but it didn’t feel right. The window in the starboard lounge was closed, but he didn’t have the energy to open it, and turned around to leave almost as soon as entering. Chakwas stopped him at the door.
“Awfully quiet today, Officer Vakarian?” She folded her arms over her chest in that same way Rae always did before rooting herself to her spot. He wondered if Chakwas had picked that up from Rae, or if Rae had picked that up from Chakwas.
“Hadn’t you?” She touched his arm very gently and turned him towards the couches to sit. He didn’t have the energy to fight her and sat where she steered him, beside from her. They stared at the shuttered window for a long moment before she hummed something low in the back of her throat.
“It’s alright. You don’t have to talk to anyone just yet, Garrus.”
He didn’t. She was right.
“But we all loved her. In different ways, we all loved her." Karin Chakwas looked down at her hands. Her fingers smoothed her coat a few times before folding neatly in her lap. "She was the best damned Commander in the Alliance—the evidence is in all of you, her crew, who were willing to follow her right into certain death because you knew she’d work wonders if she had the team to do it.”
His head fell back until he was looking up at the smooth metal ceiling.
“And even without her, you all have each other. It isn’t much of a consolation, I realize, but she collected all us misfits and menaces to society so none of us would be alone.” She sighed. “You are not alone, Garrus Vakarian. Mark me there.”
Karin sighed and rested a hand on his leg. She removed her hand after a second, but didn’t say anything else. Comforting gesture. A human comforting gesture. Turians weren’t ones for a lot of physical touch, but Rae had explained once that humans sometimes reach out to touch each other gently to console one another. It was one of those strange, distinctly human things Rae had always done, no matter how reserved she was supposed to be.
They sat there in silence for a bit. No telling how long. He felt a faint nauseous churn in the pit of his stomach, but then static. There was too much and for a moment, Garrus short-circuited and didn’t feel anything at all. He was drifting—thoughtless, empty, waiting for Karin’s words to melt through his hide.
She stood up after some time and offered her hand to help him up from the couch, even though there was no way she could lift him. They hadn’t walked the CIC, but she didn’t make him. He followed her back to the Med bay in silence, curled up on his cot in the corner, and fell back asleep.
Chapter 4: Ghosts
Re-finding Shepard on Omega.
He thought he’d heard her voice a million times since the funeral. He’d mistaken several red-headed human women for her in bars and stores and slums, but he knew better. It was a bitter disappointment every time. No one could survive being spaced—no matter how stubborn or determined.
Then she popped up in the circle of his scope.
Not wearing a helmet, like usual. He’d told her a million times that testing her good luck like that was the shortcut to a hole in the head. It was the red hair that caught his eye like a beacon shouting “shoot here!” Lips pressed together. Head hunched into her shoulders, keeping low. He had either cracked under the stress and was hallucinating, or was already dead. He stomped his foot against the ground a couple of times. Still had full sensation. So he was hallucinating, then.
In his scope, her eyes flicked up from the bridge to his window, and then back to one of the guys who ran ahead of her. He picked off the merc and she glanced back up, thinking. Shepard was always thinking. Just like her. Some things never change. His body believed it before his brain did, and started loading his rifle with concussive rounds. This is ridiculous, he told himself. You’re getting sentimental, Vakarian, and it’s going to get you killed.
But if this was Shepard, no use letting the Suns or Bloods figure out she wasn’t with them—unless, of course, she was with them. Which was unlikely, but he couldn’t rule out possibilities. No, not Shepard. In the time he had known Rae Shepard, she hadn’t made a single bad call. Plenty of tough ones, and ones he didn’t fully agree with here and there, but never a bad one, and signing on with a Terminus gang would have been an extraordinarily bad call. Worse than saving the Rachni queen, and they’d had it out over that decision for days after Noveria. Spirits—she’d been ready to shove him out the airlock when he called her irresponsible (of all things—that seemed to be the worst insult he could have come up with). She’d gotten right up in his face and—and died. She had died, he reminded himself. There was no way she was here, of all places. The exhaustion was getting to him. He pinged one of the suns mercs who sprinted across the bridge. Should have been a clean shot. He reloaded and didn’t miss the second time.
Did whoever this woman was know him? No one knew his real name, so far as he was aware. He had taken every possible step to ensure that the name “Garrus Vakarian” was never tied to Archangel. There was no way that this person was a ploy to lower his guard. None of the gang leaders were even smart enough to think of it.
The woman wound her way across the bridge. Zig-zag run from cover to cover while she figured out the best approach. He shot once and then again a second time to throw off suspicion. Nothing that would hurt her. He shouldn’t let whoever this was get too close, but he couldn’t bring himself to shoot to kill. It was that red hair. The bullets cracked her shields and she looked up at him for a second (calculating again—why concussive rounds? Is he expecting us?) and Spirits did she look like Shepard. He was letting her team get closer and closer. He should have just shot her when he first spotted her head over a stack of shipping crates, but something in him had snapped. If this is how Archangel dies, this is how Archangel dies. She and her team passed out of sight and into his makeshift compound. Too late to turn back now. Whoever the hell this was, she was on her way up to meet him. Her boots were as heavy as ever on the stairs—for a sniper, Shepard had always struggled with keeping quiet…
“Archangel?” So she didn’t know who he was.
He caught some motion on the ground and signaled for her to wait. The runners had been trickling by lately—like the gangs were running out of people to send. If he could drop this last one, they might see a break in the action. Spirits, if he was imagining things and she was just another merc, he’d be dead in seconds anyways. Didn’t much matter. If this was Rae, she would wait. Rae was determined but patient. He took out the last scout the Suns had sent over (scrawny guy, definitely not a regular), and pulled his sorry bones up from his crouch on the floor. Everything hurt. Felt like he had been here for a solar year.
Everything about her when she walked into the room was Rae Shepard, from the assertive body language to her to-the-point speech. He watched unmoving out of the corner of his eye. Gun up but finger out of the trigger guard—defensive, but she wouldn’t shoot unprovoked. Hardsuit was different from her usual N-7 gear. Deep blue, looked custom. There were angry red scars arched over her cheeks, and something about her face didn’t sit quite right with him—something was slightly different, somehow?—but this was Rae for sure. She stepped forward just a bit. The people who flanked her weren’t familiar, but it was certainly her style to have a three-person ground-party—herself, and two crewmates, same as always.
And then it hit him. The woman in front of him was definitely Commander Rae Shepard of the Alliance navy, his previous commanding officer, closest friend, and someone he’d spent the past two years mourning. There was nothing unequivocal in the line of her shoulders or the intensity of her gaze. He couldn’t breathe. Commander Shepard, here, of all places. He’d seen the vids. He’d talked to Kaidan and the crew. He had been to her damned funeral. Garrus needed a minute. Of course he needed a minute to process this. But her eyes tracked him and there was no stalling—things always happened on Shepard’s terms, and this reunion was happening now.
He took off his helmet and set it down before sitting himself on the edge of a crate. Her eyes widened like they had when she’d first seen Sovereign on Virmire. Huge, green, and bright. Perceptive.
“Shepard.” He tried to keep his tone level, but it was damn near impossible. Thank the spirits that her crewmates were human because his subvocals were making a fool out of him and at least a human wouldn’t notice. “I thought you were dead.”
“Garrus! What are you doing here?” Of course she’d ask that. Rae Shepard rises from the dead and she wants to know how he got here. Typical.
She threw her arms out and stepped forward like she was going to hug him before remembering herself. It was one of her very human gestures. She’d given him a hug before dropping him off at C-Sec a lifetime ago to continue Spectre training. He thought that, even though it would have been strange, he might not have minded a hug after all this time. Something concrete to prove that this was real and he wasn’t hallucinating. Or dead.
Even though she was the one who had seemingly come back from the grave, she started in immediately with questions. She asked if he was okay, what he had been doing, how the hell he managed to get himself in so much trouble, why the nickname, why he shot at her. Same old Shepard—always checking in with her crew. The dark-haired woman behind her shifted from foot to foot. New recruit then, not used to Shepard’s millions of questions. If anyone else had asked, he would have brushed them off, but this was Shepard. He answered her as best as he could, given their situation. But he couldn’t look at her while they talked. He knew it was rude, and she was definitely staring (always did, no matter who she was talking to) but the more he looked at her, the more tired he realized he was. There was a lot going on, and he needed to stay sharp, even if his chances of survival had just skyrocketed. Shepard hadn’t even lost the fight against death—there was no way she would let him die now.
Eventually, they had to focus on the matter at hand, but he knew she was going to pelt him with questions the second he was back on her ship. Assuming she had a ship. Ah, who was he kidding, of course she had managed to get a ship. When Rae Fucking Shepard wanted something, she reached out and took it if no one offered it fast enough. He sighted down the bridge, keeping an eye out for oncoming combatants. She dropped into a crouch beside them as if nothing had happened in between the moment she’d left him on the Citadel, and the moment she’d set foot in his compound. Of course there were more, but at least now he knew there was an end in sight, and Rae Shepard, the one and only, was going to pull his ass out of the fire once again. Just like old times.
There was a never-ending stream of mercs pouring over that bridge. They managed the first few waves handily, but there always seemed to be more, and now they were leaking through the warehouse entrances too. An all-out assault. The gangs must be getting desperate. He didn’t want her out of his sight, but she was present, so she took point and of course she wanted to run around the basement plugging up holes. He should have expected that. She insisted on leaving one of her teammates with him—Jacob—and taking the woman Miranda down to shore up their defenses. If he knew anything about Shepard, it was that she kept Miranda close because she did not trust her, and left Jacob to assist because she did trust him. He filed that one away for later, and went back to picking off mercs.
“You knew Shepard.” Jacob stated it as a fact as he ducked down behind the wall during a lull.
“I served under her on the Normandy,” he replied after a moment.
“Oh.” Jacob peeked over the wall before sliding back down. “Pleasure to meet you. I’m Operative Jacob Taylor, serviceman for the Normandy SR-2.”
SR-2, huh? So she did have a ship. Jacob stuck out a hand and Garrus recognized the human greeting gesture. He offered Jacob his hand and muttered “Garrus Vakarian.”
There was a moment of silence as they waited for the next group of Blue Suns to filter in. They were unorganized, but no one could say they didn’t have numbers. Garrus felt like he was seriously putting a dent in Omega’s population.
Jacob slid a fresh heat sink into his gun beside Garrus. He eyed Jacob up and down. Career soldier, from the stance and bearing. Professional training. Blunt speaker. All new gear, impeccably maintained.
“How’d you meet Shepard?”
“Me?” Jacob looked over at Garrus. “Helped her escape the lab that was rebuilding her. They had just finished stitching her up when the lab was attacked and shut down. She came stumbling out of a two-year stasis with wobbling legs and poor vision, and she still shot down half the hostiles on our tail.”
Garrus almost got a laugh out of that one. “Sounds like Shepard.”
“Yeah, well, I hadn’t believed the stories till I’d seen her in action.” Jacob aimed for a merc and nailed him right between the eyes. “She really is something.”
“You’re telling me,” Garrus sighed. There was a headache building in the back of his brain. His vision was fuzzy.
When Shepard and Miranda came back up to take the pressure off him and Jacob, Garrus thought it was over. Then the gunship came out. Shepard had been on the stairs, but he could hear her shouting for him as she sprinted over. His reaction time was shot. He looked at her when she shouted instead of listening to what she was saying and moving. There was a whistling to his left and he glanced back. That was when he made eye contact with the business end of a missile.
He was swimming through inky black until he heard her voice—frantic and higher than usual—calling his name. Everything burned. His face, his lungs. He tried to breath and hacked until his chest hurt. Even without the subvocals, he could read the panic in her voice as she shouted for Miranda to get Chakwas. He tried to reach out to touch her—prove to himself that she was real, just to be sure, but he couldn't move. Just when he’d found her too. She pressed her forehead against his. He doubted she understood what the gesture meant to a Turian, or she probably wouldn’t have done it, but he felt warmth blossom through his skin regardless. He couldn’t breathe. He tried to take a breath but swallowed a gulp full of faintly sour blood.
The last thing he saw before the world went dark for good was her eyes, too close to his, watery and very green.
Chapter 5: Piecing it Back Together
Garrus' first time off-ship since the crash didn't go as smoothly as planned.
Year 2186—Unknown Garden World
When he stepped out the Normandy’s airlock for the first time since crashing, he nearly collapsed. The air was breathable and warm, everything was green, and the sky was a rich blue. Very habitable, really. It was the sight of Reapers in the air, flying materials around and depositing them at the base of the valley over which they were perched that had him scrambling for cover. Reapers plural. By his count, there were four of them.
It had sunk in. She was gone. Shepard was gone for good this time. He had been able to wrap his brain around that, but he’d thought that the war was over. He pushed Chakwas to the ground and pressed himself flat against the ship’s hull, praying to the Spirits that they hadn’t been seen. If he could get his Widow from the lockers in the Shuttle Bay—
“Officer Vakarian! Garrus!” Chakwas shoved at his shoulder. He turned back to look at her, but she was already standing up and brushing herself off. She grabbed his arm and pulled.
“Doctor, get down!”
“Garrus, the war is over.” She tugged again and he rocked into a crouch.
“I thought so too—”
“No, Garrus, it is over.” She pointed out over the ridge. “They are helping us rebuild.”
His head was spinning. He didn’t stand up from his crouch, but the Reapers hadn’t taken notice of Chakwas, even though she was in plain sight. They could just be missing her, assuming that all organics were already dead, but—
“Garrus, you were unconscious for a while. The Reapers made contact with the Normandy. Nearly gave poor Jeff a heart attack. Shepard…at the Crucible. She managed to merge with us and the Reapers.” She pat his shoulder. Crouching, he still came up to her chest. “That’s what it does, dear. It copied data from her DNA to give synthetics organic components and organics synthetic components. The Reapers were only killing pure organics. They have no one left to fight.”
He could hear this static in his ears. Chakwas seemed to read his expression (that, or the low hum from his subvocals). She had those sharp eyes—cut right through until she could see something he couldn’t. It was like his brain wouldn’t keep up with the words coming out of her mouth. A chill sank through his skin until his fingers were so cold he was afraid he wouldn’t be able to work his gun even if he grabbed it.
“You already knew she died, Garrus. This is what she died for. For peace.” She crouched down in front of him so that they were eye-level. “And now that the Reapers have no one to fight, they’re helping us rebuild the relays. Commander Shepard always said that the Reapers knew the relays inside and out—they’ll have them up and running in a matter of months.”
He dropped onto the ground so that he was sitting, staring up at the sight before him. The Reapers. The creatures who had ground up Kelly Chambers and Gabby Douglas into paste and poured them with half the Normandy’s crew into a giant monster. The beasts that had destroyed Palaven. The terrors that had taken Rae Shepard, savior of the galaxy, and vaporized her to distribute copies of her DNA to every living thing.
The ground beneath him was springy. He slipped off his gloves and planted his palms down in the grass and the dirt. Rae had told him that the thing she missed the most from Earth was the grass. Where she had grown up on the streets, there wasn’t a lot of the stuff. But she used to love sitting in the park late at night when no one was around and looking up at the stars. She had spent half an hour describing it to him once. He had hoped someday that they could visit Earth and…she would have loved this.
He looked down at his hands for the first time since he’d woken up. How had he not noticed? There was a faint shimmer of green under his skin. So faint you wouldn’t see it if you didn’t know it was there. Rae. That tiny little bit of him was Rae. He didn’t know if he wanted to cry or vomit. Chakwas was watching him in that human way—eyebrows pulled together, lips downturned—that spelled sympathy.
“I already examined everyone. What the Reapers told us is true. It isn’t her DNA, to be technical. It uses the formula that merged her DNA with her cybernetics. You won’t notice much of a change, but you’ll be far less prone to sickness.” Chakwas rubbed a hand down her arm. “And Jeff confirmed that the relays are out of commission. For now, at least.”
He ran his hand over the grass again, breathing hard. Think, Vakarian. Focus. Relays out. Reapers helping. Shepard dead. Key points.
“Garrus, stand up for me.”
He did as he was told. Chakwas looked up at him, appraising. Some distant part of him realized that his behavior must be alarming. He tried to shake the fog from his head, but he was suddenly very dizzy.
“Don’t faint on me now.” She started to pull one of his arms over her shoulder to help him, but she was so comically small that he could have rested his elbow on her shoulder instead. It struck him as a little funny and a short laugh bubbled up out of nowhere.
She ushered him back into the ship, down the elevator, and into the medbay. She sat him on a cot again and ran through the usual—vitals and such, things he could have read to her off the screen of his visor, if she had bothered asking. He felt strangely disconnected, like he wasn’t part of his body. Like he was watching himself in a vid. She pressed on his chest until he leaned back onto the cot in the med bay. The lights overhead glowed bright, so bright he wanted to look away, but for the life of him he just couldn’t.
“Shock.” He heard Chakwas say to someone. At some point he must have closed his eyes, but he couldn’t remember if he had been sleeping, or just lying there, inert. The inside of his eyelids were the same color as the dark blue paint on Rae’s armor, with the dimmed overhead lights of the med-bay playing over his closed eyes. “Just a bit of shock and disassociation. This is common for people suffering from trauma and grief.”
“You should have told him about the Reapers before going on a field trip.” Disgruntled. Vaguely mechanical. Tali.
“I did.” Heavy sigh. “Here and there, he forgets.”
“Is he alright?”
“He will be in time.” The clink of two glasses being placed on a hard table-top. The scrape of a chair being pulled out. Rustling fabrics. Liquid pouring into one glass and then another. “He needs time to process.”
Chapter 6: First Contact
The first time she visits after Omega.
Standing beside her in the Battery with a fresh bandage on his face, he really just wanted to reach out and touch her. Brush against her arm, shake her hand, pat her head, anything. She wasn’t real until he could touch her and know for sure she was there—alive and in one piece. They’d spoken for a minute in her new conference room once he’d been cleared by Chakwas, but it hadn’t been enough. He hadn’t known what to say.
He’d been to her funeral, damnit. He’d sat in between Tali and Wrex and watched the crew approach the service medal that the Alliance had awarded her posthumously. The only thing they had of hers. Joker had told him that her whole life had been on the Normandy. Kaidan had added that she’d been an orphan on Earth, and she didn’t even have parents to mourn her. Liara had shared that no one had found any signs of a body. Someone on a ground team had spotted her destroyed N-7 helmet, but no one had the heart to pull it out of the ice. Everything else she was had been burnt up, ashes scattered—he’d done the math and there wasn’t a damn creature alive that would have survived an explosion like that, and then being spaced. The whole crew had gotten drinks on the Citadel after the short service, and then gone their separate ways.
Now that she was back, though? She leaned against the railing next to his console. Two years. He hadn’t seen her in two years. The new Normandy needed some attention (Cerberus had no idea what it was doing with its defense systems—he was going to have to gut half of what they did), but it could wait while she was looking up at him. He had almost forgotten how short she was out of armor. She had to tip her head back almost all the way to make eye contact. She really only came up to his chest; he stood literally head and shoulders over her. He leaned forward a bit to lessen the gap between them, and nudged her with his elbow. Solid. Definitely real.
“How are you feeling, big guy?”
“Never better, Shepard. And you?”
“Better with you aboard, Officer Vakarian.” He remembered the smile that played across her face from all the times she’d come down to the shuttle bay to help undo whatever damage she’d managed to inflict on the Mako. “How’s your face?”
“I was going to ask you the same thing.”
She touched her cheek as if unsure, but then her fingertips found the indented line—a glowing red fissure. One of the surgical scars.
“They get worse the higher my blood pressure spikes.”
“So soon enough there will be more scar than face?”
“Ha-ha.” She nudged him with her shoulder. “They have already mostly gone down. You should have seen me when I first woke up. Barely human-looking.”
He didn’t want to think about that. The more he looked at her face, the more he noticed little things that just sat wrong with him. The cop in him could list the changes out. When he’d known her before, there had been a slight crook in her nose where she had broken it. There had been a scar carving a wedge out of her chin. A small scar on her bottom lip. All gone. And he knew there were a couple he was missing. He was going to wait for her to volunteer information, but he couldn’t.
“So are you planning to tell me how you managed to cheat death, Shepard?”
“Any way I could get you to explain how you ended up as enemy number one on Omega first?”
He turned around to stand beside her at the console and leaned back onto his elbows. No. Not yet. Not right now. He couldn’t afford to relive that right now. He was having a rough enough time sleeping as it was. “At some point. After I figure out how I ended up there. In the meantime…?”
She exhaled a puff of air and her head fell back until she was looking up at the ceiling. He was tempted to lean over and look down at her face, but Shepard always made eye contact when she spoke. Looked right at people as if she could see through them if she tried hard enough. He had thought it was just a human custom, but Williams and Alenko hadn’t been like that. If she wasn’t looking right at him, something was wrong. Maybe not the best time for levity.
“I can barely answer that.” She sighed again. “One minute, I was suffocating and falling out of deep space onto the nearest planet. The next, it was two years later, I was on an operating table, and the lab around me was half on fire, half under siege.”
She scrubbed a hand over her face, peeking through her weird little fingers. Ten of them. He hadn’t worked with a lot of humans and sometimes he forgot how odd it looked—ten skinny fingers on an oblong palm.
“Operative Lawson said she stitched me back together. Mostly original pieces too, though she had to regrow a lot of them.”
That explained some things. “Lawson is Cerberus?”
“Yes. So is Jacob. And this whole fucking ship.”
“Hmm.” He doubted that she could pick up the subvocal current to that hum, which was for the better because it might have come across as rude anyways. He crossed his arms over his chest to get himself back under control. “I don’t mean to sound ungrateful, Shepard, but why you?”
She laughed, but it didn’t sound like her normal laugh. He couldn’t quite pinpoint it without subvocals (damned humans and their single voiceboxes), but it sounded bitter.
“I’ve been asking myself that every day since I woke up.” Her hand dropped back down to her side. He shifted. “The Illusive Man says he needs me—the original me, untampered—to take out the Reapers. Says I’m the only one who can do it.”
“He’s probably right,” Garrus nodded, “but that can’t be his only reason.”
Her teeth pulled at her bottom lip. She closed her eyes. “Did I ever tell you about Akuze, Garrus?”
“No, you didn’t.” But that wasn’t to say he hadn’t read about it. He had, right after signing up with her to take down Saren. He had done a thorough search before leaving C-Sec (questionable use of the badge be damned), but hadn’t found anything alarming until one of his searches turned up the Akuze Massacre. Seemed a little too late to say anything about it then.
“We had a colony on Akuze that went silent. I led a troop of marines out to investigate. Whole place was empty—completely empty—but there was no sign of a struggle. We made camp, and halfway through the night, the whole fucking planet started to shake.”
“Threasher Maws. Eight of them. Took out thirty of the fifty soldiers in the first five minutes. Made some damn short work of our night crew. The remaining twenty tried to run, but the acid got most of ‘em, and the Maws ate whatever was left. People were melted to the fucking ground. Just missing half their bodies. Melted like plastic.” She kicked the console hard. The clunk of her boot skidding off metal echoed through the main battery. It took three or four breaths for her shoulders to work their way down from her ears.
“I got lucky. Me and two other guys were running from the camp to regroup. One of ‘em, Harris, headed for a Mako. Didn’t work—one of the Maws melted him inside the damn thing. The other guy was named Philips. He made it up to the ridge with me, but he had gotten hit with the acid, and we had no medigel left. Put a bullet in his head once the infection set in. He asked me to.”
“Yeah. And then, after that clusterfuck, I spent three more days hiding from eight Maws on an alien planet with no food, less than half a canteen of water, and one clip for my rifle. Finally, on day four, I was so delirious from dehydration that I figured anything would be better than waiting for death.” She stared at the wall, distant, as if she was still there. Still trapped. His fingers twitched and for a moment, he almost reached out.
“I made a run for one of the remaining Makos. Got in just fine, but the second I fired up the engine, they were all on top of me again.” He didn’t want to picture her like that—alone, piloting a two-person-minimum Mako vehicle whose weapons she couldn’t reach let alone use, whole team dead. Her voice was thin and distant.
“Flipped the fucking thing more times than I thought was possible. I finally got it up into a mountain where I could signal for the Alliance. They picked me up in an hour. Broke one arm, both legs, some ribs, my collarbone, fractured my hip, twisted my ankle, and had a pretty severe concussion from all the times my head hit the dash. That’s where I got this.” She pointed to her eyebrow and he vaguely remembered that there had been a scar there, running over her eye. It was gone now—Cerberus must have “corrected” it along with the others.
“Damn.” There wasn’t a lot more to say to that. “I’m sorry, Shepard.”
She held up a hand. “Past is past. Point is: that was hell.” Her voice dropped so low he could barely hear it. “The worst hell I have ever seen. And Cerberus did it.”
She leaned in really close and he ducked down to listen.
“The AI can probably hear some of this, but I think the noise from the battery should drown most of it out. Cerberus did it. They wanted to study Thresher Maws so they lured our team in and set ‘em loose. No idea how they did it, but do you remember Toombes?”
“The guy who was killing all those scientists?”
“He told me everything. They took him. When Liara, Kaidan, and I finally found him, he was about to kill another scientist because they took him, and then experimented on him. They tortured him.”
“And you believe him?”
“I looked him in the eyes.” She looked up at him finally, making eye contact. Her eyes were a little bloodshot, now that he could see them clearly. “He couldn’t have lied if he’d wanted to.”
“Cerberus will do anything they deem necessary. They don’t have restrictions. They don’t care if they are working with the enemy. But they know I can get something done, and I know I need resources. The Alliance isn’t exactly scrambling to get the Cerberus Reboot of Commander Shepard back on the field. I don’t have anything if I don’t have them.”
She leaned away and her voice returned to the normal volume. “So here we are.”
“Here we are,” he agreed.
There was a moment of silence. He looked back down at her and she was staring straight ahead at the door, breathing slowly from her nose. The last time he had seen her do that was on the shuttle leaving Virmire. He nudged her again, gently.
“Cerberus went all out on the new Normandy, didn’t they?” Garrus pat the console affectionately. “Guns are pretty impressive. Could use some upgrading, though.”
“Anything you think you’ll need?” She still sounded a little distant, but she made eye-contact, which was a start.
“Can I make a list?”
“Officer Vakarian, you requisition anything you need.” She grinned and for a moment, she looked just like she had on the deck of the SR-1. Slowly, watching his reaction, she wrapped her arms around his chest. A hug. She reached out for a hug. She must have been under a lot of stress. He let his arms fall around her in return and he could hear the smile in her voice when she said, “I’m sure Cerberus will be more than happy to foot the bill.”
“I don’t think the Illusive Man knows what he got himself into giving you that kind of power.” He rested a hand on the back of her head, and after a second, she pulled away. The look on her face was softer—fewer lines, eyebrows unfurrowed.
“If I’m gonna send you into hell,” she quirked a grin. “I’m gonna send you in well-dressed and with the best toys.”
Chapter 7: Forward Momentum
His first night out of the Medbay.
Year 2186—Unknown Garden World
He made the decision on the fly after dinner one night. He was done going to bed in hospital cot, waking up to the scent of antiseptic. A while after Chakwas left the ward, he got out of bed, stacked all of the pillows Chakwas had piled under his neck, and made for the elevator. It must have been pretty late into the night-cycle, because the crew deck was empty, and the elevator took very little time in reaching him. He had a feeling EDI would summon Chakwas any minute now, but he couldn’t stand another minute sitting on that lumpy cot staring at the ceiling. The elevator doors opened to reveal Shepard’s cabin, sealed off. He touched the lockpad beside the door and it flashed green, but the doors didn’t open.
“Access overridden, Garrus Vakarian.” He had gotten so used to EDI staying in her synthetic body that it took him longer than he would have liked to figure out where the voice had come from. “You should be in the Medbay.”
“EDI, I am authorized to access this cabin.”
“Are you authorized to be out of bed?”
Sometimes, he wondered if he’d liked EDI better when she didn’t grasp snark.
“I’m not sick. My vitals are normal, and I have been up and walking for over a week.”
“The Medbay has your status as ‘pending psychiatric evaluation,’ at present. Did you undergo psychiatric evaluation?”
He rested his forehead against the door. If EDI didn’t let him into her cabin, he was sleeping on the couch in the lounge. She couldn’t lock him out of there (he didn’t think). Hell, he’d sleep in a chair in the mess if he had to. Anything but the Medbay. “EDI, I need this.”
There was a pause while she thought, but then the door slid open. If Reaper War Veteran Garrus Vakarian had told youthful C-Sec Officer Garrus Vakarian that one day he would be appealing to an AI’s better nature to get into his dead human CO’s cabin because he was cracking up after her loss…
Her cabin was untouched. There were still datapads strewn over her desk. The wine glasses from their last night aboard the Normandy before London were still sitting on the table. His extra pillows were still arranged to suit his shoulders and carapace, just as he had left them when they got dressed that morning. Spirits, he had forgotten that she always made the bed before leaving. It was disgustingly tidy—so perfect he almost couldn’t stand to muss it up.
“Has anyone been up here since…” He couldn’t bring himself to say it out loud just yet. EDI didn’t answer immediately, which wasn’t like her.
“Yes.” If he didn’t know any better, he would have characterized her as reluctant.
“Kaidan, Tali, James, Liara, Chakwas, Steve, Samantha, and Javik have all already visited in that order.” EDI paused. “Also, Jeff and myself.”
“In that order?”
“No.” If EDI had lungs, she would have sighed. “We were the first to visit.”
“Even you and Joker, huh?”
“He required assistance walking. And I was—” EDI thought for a moment. “Unsettled upon landing without Shepard.”
He wondered if she still had that expensive wine he’d bought with his commission. It was both levo and dextro friendly, so it had cost him more than some of his armor. They had barely cracked into it before London. He’d thought she’d put it back into the bottom drawer of her desk. He slid the drawer open to find the wine bottle amidst a small pile of miscellanea. The bottle was halfway to his mouth when he recognized a chip of old C-Sec blue ceramic armor plating. It was about the length of his finger, thin, and sharp. The surface looked scorched. It was his. From Omega. He slumped down onto the floor in front of the desk.
“No one else touched any of her belongings,” EDI said. Judgmental. A little offended. And it wasn’t unwarranted. What he was doing was a little on the invasive side, but Rae was dead, so what did that matter?
He recognized a lot of the things from the drawer. Not just any bric-a-brac, this drawer was where she hid away special things. She had Ash’s dogtags (the set they had gone back to Virmire to retrieve—not the clean set from her effects they’d sent to her family). She had the disk Mordin had left her with his favorite songs. She had the disk with all the messages Thane had sent while she was locked up. The box for the ring EDI had given her. What looked like a stolen shot-glass. A reddish rock. A strange crystal. A red strip of cloth with “10” stamped across it. A hat that matched Joker’s. A hand-written note from Anderson.
He took a swig of the wine. It was too sweet for him, but she had liked sweet.
“You have not been cleared to consume mind-altering substances, Garrus.”
“Drat. And I was hoping to hit some red sand.”
“Fatalistic humor and self-destructive impulses are indications of depression, which can be brought on or worsened by grief at the loss of a loved one. The common treatments for—”
“Garrus, that is not—”
There was a click as EDI obeyed. He had a sinking feeling that she wasn’t really leaving him alone, but at least the comm was off. EDI meant well—strange to say for an AI, but she did. He just couldn’t really handle talking to her right now. He turned the chip of armor over and brushed the pad of one finger against the edge. He didn’t remember a whole lot from that day on Omega, but he did remember just how resigned he’d felt when he thought he was going to die. How she screamed for Miranda. The way her face had looked when he’d first woken up and found her pacing the old Comm room. How hadn’t he seen how much he loved her then? So much time wasted being insecure when all he had to do was knock on her door. He kicked back another mouthful of wine.
If he really thought about it, he started loving her all the way back on the SR-1. At first, there was just hero worship. She said all the right things, was incorruptibly good, fought for the little guy, stayed patient when the council ignored her again and again. She was the kind of person who would listen to you ramble about anything and never lose interest. But then she took him to find Dr. Saleon. He’d known in the pit of his gut going into it that he’d need to kill the Salarian, but then Rae had taken half a minute to assess and made the call to take him in. It wasn’t a bad call. He hadn’t liked it, but he understood it. She upheld the law, and by law, they should have taken him in. That was when Saleon shot Rae. The bullet went wide and stuck into her shoulder, but Saleon knew human anatomy and had definitely been aiming for her heart. He and Wrex dropped Saleon without blinking, but if he hadn’t been so wrapped up in questioning her call, Garrus would have seen Saleon raise his gun.
She could have died right then, going out of her way to make sure he didn’t cross so many lines he forgot what side he was on. And for a minute, he was genuinely mad at her. All the hero-worship glamor faded away and he realized that she was just an impractically moral madwoman whose sense of self-preservation was on the fritz. And he was so angry that this bizarre, frustrating human would put herself in harm’s way without thinking twice that he contemplated insubordination so he could tell her so. Sure, he was grateful in the long-run, but he could pinpoint it now. That was when it had all begun.
He reached for one of the datapads on her desk. She had seven of these damn things, and each held enough information for a lifetime of reading. Files on Reapers. He took another sip (slug) of wine. He had spent so much time pouring over these damn datapads with her. The one next to her picture of the original Normandy crew had Shadowbroker memos Liara must have sent up. The one next to her main computer was full of schematics for the Crucible. Neither of them had been able to make heads or tails of those, but that certainly wasn’t for lack of trying.
Did she even remember the thing with Saleon? It’d meant so much to him, but she did things for her crewmates all the time. Spirits, Traynor could have asked her to rush half across the galaxy for one of her damned fancy toothbrushes and Shepard would have done it. The council had only given her Spectre status in the first place so that they had someone expendable to take out Saren, and then she saved the whole galaxy. That was just the kind of person she was.
The datapad on the edge of her desk had a map of the ground defenses at London. He shut that one off immediately. She had been looking that over when he woke up the morning they landed on Earth. He took another drink. The datapad tucked under a stack of paper files was all information about the Normandy retrofits (with very sarcastic notes from various construction workers and engineers).
Spirits, he had loved her more than anything. He would gladly trade the galaxy if it meant getting her back. Winning the war was useless if she wasn’t standing when all was said and done. Did she even notice him, buried under all this? She had dumped all of her time and energy into saving as many people as she could and then she had just left him on the battlefield. Just left him behind to live without her. If she loved him, she would have come with him. They would have figured out how to stop the Reapers another day.
He was out of wine. He reached for the last datapad—the one leaning against a small stack of books from Earth. Rae was never much of a reader, but she kept the books in case she ran into Kasumi. The last datapad was scratched up and older than the rest—probably stolen from the Alliance after they’d taken her and the Normandy into custody and returned to her later. The screen flickered to life.
It's late. Just got up for some water. You're still asleep. Wanted to say how beautiful I think you are. Love G
The message he’d sent her. He’d been standing in her doorway. They had fallen asleep trying to read up on Cerberus and Kai Leng again. Her hair spilled out around her head, bright red like her blood over the stark white pillow. The tiny lines around her eyes and mouth smoothed out when her face was slack. Her lips were a soft pink, and slightly parted. She didn’t move an inch, which was getting to be uncommon at that point. Up to the last night they had spent together, she had tossed and turned in her sleep. It was the nightmares or the stress, according to Chakwas.
Sometimes, when he looked at her, he realized just how alien she looked. When they were preoccupied, he would forget. But when he got to look at her like this, expressionless, laid out in bed, he remembered just how different her body was. Alien oblong head. Alien fingers and toes. Where Turian bodies were built on sharp angles, humans were so rounded. She had rounded shoulders and hips and knees—soft, arching curves. When he stared too long, she looked almost shapeless in comparison to a Turian woman. He loved tracing from her calves over her hip and up her side with the tips of his fingers, plotting out exactly where her bones were under her skin.
He sent her the message while half-alseep, typing it out on the omnitool he had forgotten to take off before bed.
The datapad had others—messages dating all the way back to when she had first pulled him off Omega. The oldest was the quick “thank you” he had sent her right after she’d dropped him off at the Citadel after taking down Saren. Pages and pages of archived messages and correspondences. She even kept silly messages, like a quip he’d sent about Mordin, or the picture he’d taken with his visor groundside (it was a picture of her from behind—he’d thought his caption had been very funny). She’d saved all of them to a separate datapad. And they were archived so they couldn’t be overwritten.
“Garrus?” EDI again.
“You’ve been sitting motionless for the equivalent of twenty-three Earth minutes. Should I call Dr. Chakwas?”
“No, EDI.” He held the datapad in both hands. “I’m alright.”
Chapter 8: Panic
Shepard after Horizon.
They were picking up people as they went along—a doctor, a merc, a theif, a krogan, a deranged maniac. Shepard was working her way through a list the Illusive Man was feeding her. She brought him along to meet most of these people—always shooting him a glance (one eyebrow raised, hand on her hip, head cocked to the side just slightly) like she was asking for his opinion. He almost didn’t want to give it. She trusted him more than he deserved.
Horizon had seemed like it would be routine. Test out Jack, one of her new recruits. Fend off the Collectors. Find out whatever they could. It was like things were slipping back to normal, even though they were flying Cerberus colors.
Fighting the Praetorian had been bad enough. They’d made it through, but only barely. Lately, she’d taken to running headlong into danger without thinking things through, and she had very narrowly avoided dying again trying to take out the Praetorian before it melted them to the ground. And then Kaidan Alenko, the prodigal son himself, emerges from nowhere after being absolutely no help and tells her that he isn’t even certain she is human anymore. He wasn’t an expert in human facial expressions, but he had never seen Rae’s face do that before. Crumple so completely that even Jack looked concerned. She’d been shot. Her armor was cracked and warped where the Praetorian’s beam had melted it, an all Kaidan could say was that he knew where his loyalties lie. Well, sure wasn’t with her. Kaidan had hugged her tight and then thrown her back like she was burning him. “I loved you,” he’d said, as if that was somehow her fault. Like she ought to apologize.
She hadn’t come around for debrief after. She always came around for a quick debrief. She wasn’t in her room, or in the CIC, or hanging around the cockpit with Joker. He couldn’t find her in the mess or with Chakwas either. Nor was she down in engineering or talking to Jack. The shuttle bay was the last possible place she could be on the damn ship. He wasn’t sure what to say, but he felt like he had to say something.
Sure enough, she was there. He watched as her arms extended, right then left, propelling her fists into the punching bag set up behind some crates. Did anyone else know about her hideaway? She wasn’t quite hiding, really, but she still wasn’t out in the open, which was not her style. Shepard tended to stay somewhere central so her crew could find her. It was how she built her team—make herself a constant fixture, and then ask everyone as many questions as she could think of.
“Did you need something, Garrus?” She didn’t stop punching to look at him as she spoke. He watched the alien muscles in her back move under her skin. The more he looked, the more he noticed how creepy human anatomy was, with all those muscles and bones so visible under such thin skin. He shelved that thought and leaned against the wall.
“Checking in after the last mission.”
“Isn’t that my job?” She said it flatly—more flatly than usual, anyways. Human voices always sounded flat to him, but some time with Monteague and Butler back on Omega had gone a long way towards helping him translate. Flat tone meant unwilling to yield information. She wasn’t going to broach this. He changed tack.
“What was that, back there?”
When she stopped punching, he noticed that there was something off in her breathing. She unwrapped the tape from her knuckles, and slipped her shirt back on over her tank top. Her chest heaved with each breath, as if she had just been sprinting. Her gaze bounced over him and then to the ground before she turned away. She steadied herself on a stack of crates.
She shifted but didn’t say anything.
Something prickled in the back of his brain and he stepped forward right as she doubled over.
“Shepard!” He crouched down beside her and she sunk further until she was curled up, hugging her knees, barely still on her feet. Her breathing was heavy and hard, like she couldn’t get enough air. She sunk all the way down onto the floor.
“Yes, Officer Vakarian?”
“No!” Her voice sounded hoarse. He looked over at her, but her face was still ducked down behind her knees, her arms wrapped tight around her ribs. “EDI. Privacy mode.”
“Privacy Mode reactivated, Commander.”
“Shepard, we need to get Chakwas.”
“No.” The words sounded faint. She swayed a bit. Her fingers twisted in the fabric of her shirt. Every inch of her seemed flushed and he wondered for a split second if she was dying. Did humans do this?
“Shepard, what’s wrong? How can I help?”
She shook her head. Unhelpful. Very slowly, he reached out and placed one hand on each shoulder to steady her. It was better than nothing. Her shoulders jerked with each stuttering breath.
“Don’t” gasp “call” gasp “anyone.”
“Shepard, what’s happening?” His grip on her didn’t seem to do much to help. “If I don’t get an answer, I’m finding Chakwas.”
“Garrus, please.” She sounded winded.
He had never heard her plead before. Commander Shepard didn’t beg. Or, she hadn’t, before she’d lost two years in a lab. And here she had been reduced to begging twice in one day—first with Kaidan and now him. That shook Garrus up a bit. Things had to be dire for Shepard to crack like this.
“What can I do to help you?”
“It’ll” gasp “pass.”
She nodded frantically, clawing at her shirt again for purchase. He let go of her shoulders and sat down directly in front of her.
It was a while before her breathing leveled out. He kept an eye on her heartrate, which tracked across his visor. She spiked dangerously high according to comparative scans and plateaued before finally creeping back down within normal ranges. She rubbed her face hard with both hands before looking up at him, lips pressed together.
“I’m sorry you had to see that.” Her voice was thin, reedy.
“Are you alright?”
She looked him dead in the eye and said “what did you need, Garrus?”
“I’m not a doctor, you know that, right?” He sat with his back against the wall, arms resting on his knees. “I can look up what your heart rate should be, but I won’t be able to help you if something goes wrong.”
“What did you need to talk about?”
“Chakwas would be much better suited to helping you, and she just so happens to live two floors up.”
“Garrus, I’m not going to tolerate insubordination.” She’d never felt the need to pull rank like that before. He’d touched a nerve. “What did you need.”
“I wanted to make sure you were okay.” He watched her face. “After today.”
“Ha.” It was the sound humans made when they laughed, but it didn’t sound like a laugh. He waited. Usually, if he waited a moment, she would clarify. She just stared back at him, face flushed. He’d waited long enough, but she didn’t say a word. Stalemate. He caved first.
“You seem off.”
“You ran out into danger without a plan and almost got shot.”
She dragged her fingers through her hair.
“And then you hid after coming back aboard. Which you never do.”
“I didn’t mean to alarm you or the crew.”
“That isn’t the point.”
His translator couldn’t make heads or tails of what she said next.
She mumbled “are you glad Cerberus brought me back?”
What? Of course. Of course he was happy to have his drinking buddy back. His friend. His Commander. He hadn’t know what to do with himself when he’d heard about her death; he was thrilled to see her back on the Normandy, no matter who’s doing it was.
“Yes, Shepard. Of course I am.”
“I was dead.”
“And now I’m back.”
“You know, Garrus, you are the only person who seems happy about that.” She didn’t look up, but her heartrate picked back up again with her breathing. Whatever had happened to her before, it was happening again. He nudged her foot with his to distract her, but she ignored him.
“First the Alliance abandoned me, then Tali, then Anderson, and now Kaidan. Did you know that I ran into Tali and Anderson and the council before finding you? No one wanted me to come back to life. I didn’t want to come back to life.”
All the nights back after Omega had been hard nights. If he didn’t keep his hands busy constantly, he would freeze up. He must have repeated their names so many times they were burned onto his tongue. Sidonis. Erash. Monteague. Mierin. Grundan Krul. Melenis. Ripper. Sensat. Vortash. Butler. Weaver. He’d scratched each name onto his visor (in that order—the order in which he’d met them) one night, after drinking to celebrate another success. They had racked up quite a few successes in the early days, before gangs started getting wise to Archangel and his merry band of mercs (as Monteague had called them, in reference to some old Earth story). In some ways, he had hoped that he would die with Archangel on Omega—go out in a blaze of glory that honored the people whose lives he’d gambled. He knew exactly what she meant.
He crossed over to her so that they were side-by-side, his arm against her body. He could feel her ribs expand and contract as she breathed. There wasn’t a lot she’d said to him that had helped him process his team’s death, and there wasn’t much he could say to her that would help her feel any less abandoned, so he didn’t say anything. Eventually, she leaned against him and closed her eyes. She’d had greyish bags under her eyes that Joker had poked fun at her for. He’d said something about the fine line between tired and dead? So, when she fell asleep, he realized that it was probably for the first time in a while. He let her lay there against his shoulder, even though she couldn’t have been comfortable. For the first time since Omega, he felt useful again.
Chapter 9: Onward and Upward
It's about time things started getting back to normal.
He woke up sitting on her floor, propped up against her desk. The empty bottle of wine rolled off his lap when he shifted, scattering all the datapads sitting next to him. He must have passed out after reading them. If she were here, she’d already be up, drying her hair after her morning shower. Not that she was a “morning person,” as she’d phrased it. Military training had her waking up promptly after six hours of sleep, even when she wanted to sleep in. It usually took her a shower, a cup of coffee, and breakfast to form intelligible sentences. She’d touch his head gently as she walked by him to get dressed. She had all those little affectionate gestures. Sleepy acknowledgements of his presence. He was always more alert when he woke up. She used to tease him about it.
He pulled himself up, using the desk as leverage.
Her room was empty, of course. He could imagine her there all he wanted; nothing would bring her back. No telling how long he’d been out, either. For all he joked about drinking with her, he almost never indulged like that. His head pounded in protest when he was finally vertical.
“EDI, what time is it?”
“We are at the beginning of the day-cycle, by Earth-time. 6:18 AM, Eastern Standard Time in Washington DC.”
Earth time. Rae told him once that Washington had been the capital of her Earth colony. Where she had grown up. She told him that it would be easier for the human crew to measure time as if they were still on Earth, even though some of their crew must have been colony-raised, and there were definitely human colonies outside Earth with different measures of time. When he pointed this out, she frowned a bit and said that it reminded the Alliance crew what they were fighting for. The home world. Human days seemed to be similar in length to Turian days, but in space it was hard to tell.
Unfocused. He shook his head, trying to jostle his brain back into working order. He took a shower and dried off with her towel.
His clothes had been in her room since he’d re-boarded the Normandy after Menae, crammed into her small closet. He had to dig through all her clothes to get to his. Human fabrics all felt so strange to him—almost stiff, in comparison with most light, Turian fabrics. Her ratty N-7 hoodie (he thought the word was “hoodie?”) was right in front, like always. She wore that thing everywhere—it had been nice and new once upon a time, he remembered. Underclothes, flight suits, her spare Alliance blues, that dress she’d worn on their last date, sweatpants, Alliance causals. His hands were curled around rough fabrics. They all smelled like her. Damnit. He pressed her hoodie to his forehead. It was heavy but soft. She said she liked it because it was worn-in.
He pulled on a standard flight suit and strapped on the bits of armor he’d just peeled off. Not like he’d be ambushed walking around the Normady, but it made him feel normal, and that was exactly what he needed right now.
So he was dressed. And standing. Solid start. He looked over at the door but couldn’t summon the energy to walk to the elevator, go down to one of the other decks, and do something useful with himself. It was selfish and spoiled; they were running on reserve solar energy that wouldn’t get them off-planet, had next to no fuel, and he should be helping with something, but he found himself sitting on the edge of her bed, staring at the wall. When he felt a little clearer, he scooped all of her old datapads up off the floor and put them back on her desk, exactly as she’d left them. He caught himself adjusting the last one over and over, unable to get it just right.
“That datapad was located more to the right, Garrus.”
“Thanks, EDI.” He adjusted it again, and EDI was right. He’d been putting it too far to the left.
“There are sufficient rations to support both dextro members of the Normandy crew, Garrus.” EDI again. He seemed to be talking to EDI quite a bit these days. Of course they had sufficient rations. Shortages aside, the Citadel, thankful colonies, and passing ships had been happy to supply the famous Normandy with enough rations of all kinds. They had stores sufficient to feed the crew for a solar year, which was good, because there was no telling how long repairing the ship and the relays would take, even if Chakwas was talking about it only taking a few months with the Reaper’s help.
That still felt odd to think about.
“Thank you, EDI.”
He had gotten so used to EDI talking primarily through her new body that it was strange to hear her voice over the speaker in Rae’s room. She was probably with Joker right now—there was no way he was handling this well. Not after how he’d handled her death the first time. There was a moment of silence as he looked down at the desk, all in order.
“Dr. Chakwas suggested that you eat immediately in the morning after ingesting so much alcohol, as you had not eaten in the medbay prior to—”
“You told Chakwas I was here?” And drinking? Great. Sure that conversation will go over well later.
“No. I did not.” EDI almost sounded sorry. Not quite, though. “Tali’Zorah and Dr. Chakwas came to look for you when it was noted you had left the medbay. They found you here at approximately 5:03 AM Eastern Standard, per Earth time.”
“They were concerned.” He had hoped they wouldn’t notice, but there were only so many places to be on a ship. Leaving the medbay without telling Chakwas had been irresponsible. Of course she was worried. He looked down at his hands.
“Why was Tali awake?”
“Tali’Zorah has been awake through most of the night cycles since landing.” EDI sounded uncomfortable saying it. “Seventy-three point eight-six-four percent, to be precise. Her sleep-wake schedule has been irregular, compared to previously established patterns. Much like yours.”
Tali hadn’t been sleeping.
“EDI, how has the crew been?”
“Vitals have been largely consistent and within normal ranges for each species, though there have been outliers. There does not appear to be any illness, and most injuries from London have been healed or treated at this time.”
“But how has everyone been?”
“I just told you—”
“Behavior, EDI. How has everyone been acting? Anything unusual?”
“Javik has not left his room in four day cycles, and initiated privacy mode immediately after landing.” She sounded like she was reading off a chart. “James has spent approximately eighty-six hours total pacing the crew-deck and CIC, and has not returned to his normal work-out schedule. He has been exhibiting excessively social behavior. Liara’s behavioral patterns have not changed perceptibly—she has been working with my help on restoring Glyph and her databases. She did, however, lock her cabin door. Kaidan has spent a great deal of time outside of the Normandy, so data on his activities is limited. Would you like data on members of the crew who were not designated as ground-team?”
That told him everything he needed to know. He pictured them all in his head—his friends, the people he fought beside, drank with, chatted with—and before he noticed it, he was on his feet. The door to Shepard’s cabin slid open with a soft whoosh.
It was about time he made the rounds.
Chapter 10: MSV Estevanico
"Reckless and lucky" was so quintessentially Rae that he was convinced that someday, that would be the title of the bio-vid they'd make about her.
Year 2185—The Wreak of the MSV Estevanico
Of course, the second EDI suggested there might be salvageable data for the Alliance, she was on the ship. Her loyalties had never really waned—she was an Alliance marine, whether she had them backing her or not. She just hadn’t told him she was going to do it, which was odd. Not that she needed to check in—because Commander Shepard doesn’t need to check-in with anyone. She just usually did regardless.
He, Joker, Tali, and Jack were all clumped up around the monitor in the cockpit, watching EDI’s cam. She looked pretty tiny from their vantage point, but when she walked forward, the whole ship shifted, and three loose plates from the hull snapped off and skittered down the mountain, shaking the Estevanico and rocking it back and forth on the cliff’s edge. He would have switched on their private comm link if EDI didn’t need the line to keep her on track. Tali drummed her fingers on the dashboard space next to Joker’s console.
“Tell her to knock loose those panels there. In the back.” Tali pointed at the screen and EDI relayed the message. The panels that Tali had suggested loosened with a couple of bullets, and formed a bridge down below. The whole rig tilted violently and Shepard lost her footing, sliding down across the hull until she caught herself on an outcropping of twisted metal. His talons were digging into the headrest of Joker’s chair. “Shepard! Keeh’lah’!”
Keeh’lah’ indeed. He leaned forward as he watched her work her way down further into the wreckage with EDI guiding her.
“Is that dumb bitch running?” Even Jack was engrossed—and he had never seen Jack intentionally spend time with anyone other than Rae—not since they’d destroyed that prison ship to spring her. She was only even up out of what Shepard called her “hidey hole” because she had been part of the ground party (just like Tali had) before EDI had told her that putting more than one person up there would be too much weight. Both Tali and Jack had asked EDI to pull up visuals (Jack with a hearty “now this I gotta see,” and Tali to keep an engineer’s eye on how the wreak was holding up). He was glad Tali had called him up for this, though, because at least knowing how she was doing was better than sitting in the Battery carefree while Shepard did something impressively stupid. Again. If she fell to her death after all she had survived—
The Kodiak hadn’t even landed—she had leapt out of it while it was still in motion. He’d thought that had been hard to watch, but when Rae Shepard sprinted up a support beam, he thought he was going to be sick. One of the bits she was standing on collapsed and dropped her ten feet—thank the spirits onto solid ground (of sorts)—but Mordin, Jacob, and Kelly had heard the shouting from their respective posts, and came running. Joker caught everyone up to speed, and Jacob insisted on calling up Miranda (since Miranda was technically her XO, and should probably know if the captain is risking life and limb). A couple of people down in Quarters overheard—one told Samara, who told Thane while Kasumi listened on. Kasumi thought it would be fun to grab Zaeed, and on her way collected Grunt, and those human engineers caught on fast enough, and soon the cockpit was crowded with half the damn crew and Donnelly elbowed him in the back twice trying to position himself so that he could see the screen.
“Shepard, you weigh 166 earth pounds with full armor.”
“Relevance?” Her voice crackled over the comm, almost drowned out by the sound of shifting metal.
“Calculations suggest that a weight of 162 Earth pounds at the tip of the wreckage would push it over the cliff.”
“Ah. Would losing some of my armor help?”
There was simultaneous outcry from what Zaeed called “the peanut gallery.”
“Is she serious?”
“Don’t start stripping now, girlscout!”
Kasumi was in a fit of giggles next to him, cheering Shepard on. Figures. She hadn’t seen Shepard die—for all Kasumi probably knew, Rae Shepard was immortal. He leaned farther over the console to see what was happening. She edged one foot forward and the whole wreak groaned under her feet. He tamped down a nervous grumble. Tali shot him a look from across the command center.
“Your armor weighs 32 Earth pounds. While not having it would ensure that the ship does not tip over—” EDI was momentarily interrupted by a chunk of the hull crashing down and skittering across the metal floor. Garrus could have sworn he was going to have a heart-attack. “Taking off armor is inadvisable due to debris hazards,” EDI relayed.
“Figured.” Her voice was even more crackled the closer she got to the command center, which was still all lit up just a few feet ahead. Some debris fell behind her, locking her in. No path back to safety now. The whole ship slid a bit from its perch.
“Would you like for the Normandy to dispatch a shuttle?” If Garrus didn’t know any better, he would have thought the AI sounded worried.
“Yeah, Commander. I’d rather not have to scrape you off a mountain-side.” Joker.
“What is the goddamned captain up to now?” Zaeed.
“Data recovery, it would appear.” Thane.
Somewhere in all the voices, Kelly let out a panicked whimper. The poor Yeoman had probably never seen Shepard fight, let alone do something as dangerous as this. Garrus’ subvocals thrummed with discontent.
“EDI, if I make a run for the data, how long do I have before this thing slides right off the mountain.” The metal girders shrieked over Shepard’s voice.
“Difficult to calculate. Seconds, maybe.”
“Bring the Kodiak up to that landing.” She pointed to a relatively stable platform up a ramp to her left. “I’ll be coming in hot.”
The crew erupted and Garrus couldn’t make out who was saying what in all the chaos. His translator didn’t catch half of what everyone said, though he definitely heard some very colorful words in several different languages. She leapt off the beam she’d been poised on, sprinted over to the console, and waved her omnitool over it. The download was fast, but with the whole crew holding its breath waiting, it might as well have taken years. When it was finally done, she closed the omnitool out and took off running. This was the part where if she was going to die, they would know soon. Garrus was almost convinced she would fall to her death, but this was Shepard they were watching. By now, the Estevanico was already slipping off the cliff face and the Kodiak had to tilt almost onto its side and open up the door hatch so that she could tumble into the damned thing. The falling ship sent her flying through the air and right into the waiting transport. The door closed shut behind her and the Kodiak made it out with only milliseconds to spare, as the Estevanico sailed down the Cliffside.
Silence, for a moment, and then raucous cheering. Kasumi, Kelly, Jacob, and Grunt were all shouting. Zaeed laughed like a madman at Samara, who straightened out after having leaned halfway over EDI’s display panel to see the screen. Thane let out the breath he had been holding. Jack whooped and nearly knocked into Tali, who was lecturing Joker for letting Shepard do this in the first place. As if anyone could stop the Commander when she wanted to do something. The engineers chattered happily amongst themselves, and a couple of crew members joked with Miranda, whose eyes couldn’t have rolled farther back in her head.
Most of the crew crowded to the elevator to meet her in the hangar. Some people hadn’t fit on the first trip down (a ship as big as the Normandy with one elevator? Cerberus hadn’t been half as brilliant as everyone had thought), but he had managed to shove his way through, and he brought Tali with him. They were her closest friends (as well as Jack, inexplicably), and they deserved to berate her first. Joker stayed put, but himself, Tali, Kelly, Jack, Kasumi, Mordin, and doctor Chakwas (who he hadn’t even seen arrive) got the first elevator trip down. Chakwas was faster than any of them and was in the Kodiak with Rae before she even stood herself up. She was sprawled against the far wall as if she hadn’t moved from where she had fallen into the damned thing. People were pouring in fast, but Chakwas wasn’t to be distracted—looking over Rae for damage.
“You probably have a concussion, Commander.”
“You should head right up to the med lab.” Chakwas looked around at the crew, who had all gathered around the hangar to see their Commander Shepard rise up from the Kodiak as proof she was really there. In fairness to them, it had been an insanely close save, and some of them had never seen Shepard before Cerberus had rebuilt her. This level of heroics was starting to feel like the norm. That didn’t make him want to shake her any less.
“I’ll see you soon, Doc.”
Chakwas seemed satisfied at that, and when she walked away, Shepard looked up at Garrus, Tali, and Jack (who had shoved her way to the front) with this crazy grin.
“I take it you were watching?”
“Whole damn thing, girlscout.” Jack shot her that same grin back, and humans—he would never understand them. Apparently, neither would Tali, as she was swearing under her breath when she reached down to offer Shepard a hand up.
“And that was necessary, Shepard?”
“Well Tali, by the time I figured it wasn’t, it was already too late, so on the record? Yeah, we’ll say it was necessary.”
Tali was lucky she had a hood to hide her expressions because at that, Garrus couldn’t help but chuckle.
She shot him a look as the crew swarmed and he knew damn well that she was off the hook. He couldn’t stay mad—it was that insane optimism that made the galaxy bend before her. He wasn’t shocked that she’d cheated death yet again. He grumbled something in his subvocals that meant “never again?” and she sighed in response and rolled her eyes, which he took to mean “alright, alright.”
That night, after Chakwas made sure she hadn’t damaged her brain beyond repair, she sat with him in the Main Battery for the first time in a while and talked about the old crew—the “before death” times. Even talked about Alenko (even forgave Alenko, which he hadn’t expected). He watched her yawn and stretch at some point late into the night cycle. He had been calculating and recalculating targeting on the same gun for hours to give him something to do with his hands while they talked. Back on the SR-1, he was always fixing the Mako when she came around to chat. He didn’t know if he could have a conversation with her without having something to do in the background. She didn’t seem to mind. She arched her spine and rested a hand on his arm when she said goodnight. The touch sent a not-unpleasant shock through him.
“See you tomorrow, Garrus?”
“I’ll be here.” He turned to look at her. There was still some grey under her eyes—something the extranet told him signaled fatigue, in humans—but her lips twisted up at the corners and she had the shirt for her Cerberus-issue casuals tied around her waist, revealing her plain undershirt. He liked something about seeing her in his doorway, relaxed. The image she presented was distinct from the human woman who gave orders on the Battlefield. That was Shepard—guns and cleverness and hard edges—and this was Rae, who laughed about the time she and Wrex nearly jumped out of the Mako when it skid out of control and drank contraband coffee out of a chipped N-7 mug Tali had managed to find.
“Night, Vakarian. Don’t stay up too late. That’s an order.” She said it with a wink. He was less familiar with that gesture, but it looked playful.
He caught himself staring at the door for a long moment after she left.
Chapter 11: Letters
Garrus decides to start small when it comes to checking in with the crew.
Year 2186—Unknown Garden World
He made it down into the CIC before spotting Traynor at Shepard’s command terminal and realizing his mistake. Traynor hadn’t even turned around. She was just scrolling through war correspondences with her chin resting on her palm. He’d had so much momentum right up till then. He stepped back onto the elevator and hit the button for the loft.
He felt dizzy, and his stomach churned. He could taste hot acid on the back of his throat.
The second he opened his mouth and started asking the crew how they were doing was the second it became real. She wasn’t making the rounds anymore. She was dead.
He knew it. He knew he knew it, logically. But he just…needed a minute. Because, the second he started moving on, he’d have to keep going. He dropped into the chair at her desk. Wilbur peeped at him from his tank, little black eyes staring. She loved Wilbur more than she loved most people. He slipped a couple of food pellets into the hamster’s tank and pat his head with one claw. Wilbur made that quiet chirping noise again, the same one he made when Rae would sit down at play with him.
There was an image burned onto his brain. Rae leaning back on the couch with a datapad, reading up on something or other, with Wilbur sitting on the space between her shoulder and her chest. Curled up and sleeping away happily. Would Wilbur even know she was dead?
Now that he thought of it, she had a lot of friends who hadn’t been aboard the Normandy when she had left it for the last time. A lot of friends who didn’t know what had happened to her. And he had no way of knowing if any of those friends had even survived. How did Jack and her students do? Miranda and her sister? Did Wrex keep an eye on Grunt like she’d asked? Did Jacob make it back to his wife? That was the worst of it, at that very moment. He hadn’t even thought about the crew that hadn’t been stationed on the Normandy.
The comms weren’t up and working yet, but they would be soon, according to Chakwas. That was where he could start. Garrus didn’t have the heart to talk to the crew yet, but he could send out messages to the rest of her friends. They deserved to know. He started drafting the e-mails, but that felt wrong. I am sorry to inform you that Commander Shepard died. No, passed. Didn’t make it? Typing the words out brought that dizzy nausea back again.It reminded him too much of sending out messages after Sidonis had effectively massacred his whole squad.
Video messages would be better. He was always better at speaking than writing anyways. He didn’t know how many people he could really sit and chat with, but he could create videos to send out once they got comms up and running again. By his count, he needed to make messages for Grunt, Kasumi, Zaeed, Samara, Jacob, Jack, Miranda, and Wrex. It would be easier to do this down in the comm room, but he didn’t want to walk by anyone. He needed some space.
“Privacy mode, please.”
“Yes, Garrus.” She didn’t sound thrilled, but at least she didn’t argue.
He switched on Rae’s computer and found the recording program.
He rested his head on his hands. What had made him think creating messages to their other teammates would be the easy part? It took him longer than he would have liked to pick up his head and look back at the screen.
Wilbur made a small squeaky noise next to him, so he scooped up the hamster and set him down on the desk. Wilbur curled up against his arm immediately and fell asleep. So that was why she liked him so much. There was something oddly soothing about Wilbur’s presence. After taking a deep breath, he clicked on the recording program and started.
He had to re-record the introduction four times before he was satisfied.
“Hey Jack. It’s Garrus. I wanted to reach out to let you know that Shepard didn’t make it. She died on the citadel.” Well. That was that. It was all he needed to say. He drummed his talons on the desk and Wilbur shifted. “She was so proud of you. She worked the council over to make sure that you and your students were behind the lines so they didn’t get crushed, just like you asked. I hope that everyone made it out alright. The Normady crew all made it out. We have been stranded for a bit, but no one on the ground-team died. When we see each other again, I’ll buy you a human beer—my treat.”
He didn’t know how to end it, so he just clicked the screen to stop the recording. One down. Seven more to go.
When he finally got to Wrex’s message (the last message), he felt calmer about the whole thing. Not quite good, but he could get through the video without shaking, which was an improvement. And this time, before he stopped recording, he even said “goodbye.”
He queued up the videos to be sent once they were back online. He stared at the screen for a minute, not sure what to do with himself. He opened the recording program back up and made a few more messages. One for Thane. One for Mordin. One for Ash. They would never get the videos, but he set them up to be sent anyways. Rae would have liked that.
Chapter 12: Personal Business
He finally heard back about Sidonis.
Year 2185—The Citadel
She had been spending a lot of time in the Battery with him lately. He didn’t even notice it until he overheard one of the Cerberus crewmen (he thought it was Andre, but it could have been David) mention it to Mess Sergeant Gardner in a low, conspiratorial voice.
“All I’m saying is I’ve seen the Commander around a lot, but every time I see her, she’s making a beeline for the Turian.”
“Did you want dinner or not?”
“Ahh, c’mon Rupert. You’re here all the time. You had to have noticed it.”
“The Commander’s business isn’t cooking or maintenance. I handle rations, pipes, and air filters, not gossip, kid. So, dinner?”
The crewman waved Gardner away with an “ahh, you’re no fun” before muttering something Garrus’ translator didn’t catch. Garrus had been headed to the mess for dinner, but retreated back to the Battery instead. He decided maybe he’d get something to eat later.
She’d always spent a lot of time with her crew—even back on the original Normandy. It was her style—she’d check-in, sit and talk, help Wrex buff scratches out of his armor, juggle gun components for Ash, hold tools while he fixed the Mako, readout metrics to Tali while the Quarian input lines of data. Wrex never seemed to talk to her half as long as Liara would, but she’d set aside time to talk to each member of the crew no matter what. She was careful to keep up with everyone. And he’d seen her putter around the SR-2, making the rounds like usual. Why should her visiting him merit comment?
When she showed up and sat herself in the usual space on his workbench, he hated the little twinge he felt, wondering if that crewman was in the mess when she walked through. She noticed the face he must have made, because she cocked her head to the side—questioning. He shook his head in response. She shrugged. And just like that, they slid back into comfortable territory. She crossed her legs and leaned back against the wall, watching him work.
“So. Explain it again. Balancing.”
“Balancing what?” She’d been asking him to explain everything about the guns and the ship that he could. He’d already walked her through all the things they’d broken and fixed on the old Mako, the differences between the main gun on the first Normandy and on the SR-2, and roughly how the new guns worked.
“Power. You said there had to be a balance between something and something else, but I was half asleep and forgot.”
Oh. Power exchange. Right. They’d been talking about that last night, right before she nodded off. She’d been sitting on the work bench and at some point, when he’d turned to make a joke, he noticed she had curled up on her side, eyes closed as her shoulders rose and fell with slow, even breaths. Completely passed out. He’d left her there until he was finished with his project for the day. If anyone needed the sleep, it was her. It had taken a minute to wake her up and even when her eyes opened, it still took a couple of minutes more for him to talk her back to being coherent. He had almost walked her up to her room to make sure she didn’t fall asleep in the elevator, but he was glad he hadn’t. That sure would have given the Cerberus crew something to talk about alright.
They spent a while talking through power exchange and the benefits of the Thanix cannon he was working to install. Cerberus footed the bill for the tech, but the labor was all on him. Rae was far from a mechanic, but she seemed to grasp some of it in theory.
That was when his terminal pinged.
At first, he thought it was just a message from Engineering (whenever he tweaked too many things in a day, Kent would message him—usually just “???????” although sometimes there’d be an actual question in there somewhere). When he opened the message, however, he noticed it was from EDI. About Sidonis.
She was laughing at something he’d said and made some retort, but the words wouldn’t process. There was a faint, high-pitching ringing in his brain, and he could feel the blood pounding under his skin. His talons dug into the metal console. He was back on Omega all over again—the smell of smoke and burning bodies as he’d given the dead the only funeral they’d get. Exhaustion. That dizzy feeling when he’d been at his post pounding stims, no food or sleep for days. Just water, omnigel for his gun, and med packs. That hot, mechanical smell as his rifle overheated. Gunfire. Every different type of blood you could imagine—Vorcha, Krogan, Salarian, Asari, Human, Turian…Shepard had stopped talking, but he hadn’t noticed until she was right behind him and placed a hand on his shoulder.
He couldn’t pick out what she was saying until the third time she said his name, and then it was like coming up from under water—bursting through to the air where the garbled noises shaped words.
“Garrus? What happened? Talk to me.”
“Huh? Shepard?” He blinked a few times and she came further into focus in front of him. Carefully, watching his face the whole time, she turned him around with her hands on his arms. She led him back over to the weapons bench and pushed against his chest until he figured out that she was trying to get him to sit down. He obliged once the backs of his thighs hit the edge of the table. There was spinning—the ship wasn’t holding still under his feet. The stale taste of recycled air made him gag.
Dazed, he blinked a couple of times as it sank in. Sidonis. EDI’s network had turned up information on Sidonis. He’d found Sidonis.
“I’m getting a little worried about you, Garrus. You were pretty hard on Harkin.”
Not hard enough. Harkin was still breathing. They’d left him there with Tali so C-Sec could mop him up and book him. Shepard took off her helmet and set it on the seat.
“You don’t think he deserved it?”
He tried to argue with her. She shrugged off every answer he had. Sure. She wouldn’t change if someone betrayed her. She wouldn’t lose herself. She would do the right thing. All well and good, but he was not Rae Shepard—perfect, moral, infallible. He was Garrus Vakarian, Archangel of Omega. And he wasn’t going to let ten good soldiers rot while one bad one walked.
That was when she grabbed his hand. It was the first time he could remember her ever doing that—physical contact outside of necessity or intimacy was not common for Turians. Her fingers were small and there were a lot of them. She squeezed his hand. After a second, she let go and looked up at him.
“It just isn’t like you, Garrus. Don’t lose yourself in this.”
He slammed the door a little harder than he needed to when he left her in the shuttle. He saw her slide over into the driver’s seat and then the shuttle took off, bringing her down to the concourse. Sidonis was centered in his scope within minutes of setting up—he was by the docks, but there wasn’t a clean shot—too many variables. Finally, he caught red hair in his scope too. He talked her through the approach. When she walked Sidonis over to the mark, he could aim right over her head easy, since Sidonis was much taller. No collateral damage. All she’d have to do is back up a little to minimize splatter. He radioed to let her know he was about to take the shot when her hand shot out and grabbed the collar of Sidonis’ shirt to jerk him down so that his head was blocked by hers. Damnit.
“Shepard, get out of the way.”
Her comm switched on. “Listen, Sidonis. I’m here to help you.”
Sidonis’ name sounded foreign in her voice. His teeth ground together so hard he felt the tinge of a headache creeping up. Sidonis snapped at her and bobbed in his scope, but she kept a firm grasp on his shirt, holding him in place. Garrus could take the shot. There was a good chance he could catch Sidonis pulling back from her. Every couple of seconds, Sidonis fidgeted or shifted before Shepard could mirror him, and Garrus had it just about timed. He could do it. His finger twitched on the trigger.
Sidonis’ head cleared hers as he pulled back, looking around him like he’d seen a ghost. Now or never.
He couldn’t shoot with her so close. If he hit her, he’d never forgive himself.
“You’re going to sit.” She shoved him down onto one of the benches directly in front of her. Shepard never even turned around, but she knew exactly where to stand to screw up his shot. She kept a hand on Sidonis’ shoulder while she talked.
“I’m a friend of Garrus’.”
Didn’t feel like it right about now.
Sidonis shot up out of his seat, but Shepard was too fast. She stepped right into his space, rammed her forearm into his chest, and dropped him back down, standing even closer. Sidonis made a noise Garrus heard over her comm—a worried rumble, like he was about to lash out. Garrus was two heartbeats away from jumping down there and ripping Sidonis limb from limb when the bastard cracked. She did something—that same thing she did when she talked Wrex out of murdering her on Virmire—where she found just the right words at just the right moment and broke down her opponent’s defenses. Sidonis’ shoulders slumped. Shepard leaned back and shifted her weight so that she was still carefully right in the way.
“I wake up every night. Sick and sweating. Each of their faces staring at me. Accusing me.” Sidonis’ voice shook. His subcocals hit a low, keening note that Shepard probably couldn’t even hear. Garrus knew the feeling. “I’m already a dead man. I don’t sleep. Food has no taste. Some days, I just want it to be over.”
“Just give me the chance.” It could be over. He could end this nightmare. For both of them. He saw Shepard in his scope again, only now it was her face. She had turned around and was looking at the crowd as if interested in some Salarian traveler to her right, but every now and again, her gaze bounced up to him, and he caught flashes of green in his scope.
“You’ve gotta let it go, Garrus.” She made eye contact and he was glad she wasn’t right in front of him, because he wouldn’t have been able to meet her stare. “He’s already paying for his crime.”
“He hasn’t paid enough. He still has his life.” The fight was draining out of him. Over her comm, Sidonis made one last plea.
There was nothing he could say to make it right. Sidonis admitted as much and he was right. There was nothing in the galaxy that would bring back Erash, Monteague, Mierin, Grundan Krul, Melenis, Ripper, Sensat, Vortash, Butler, and Weaver. Not even killing the monster who had handed them all over to die. Finally, slowly, Shepard moved aside. Without her in the way, he could see Sidonis’s face in his hands. She was giving him the shot, if he wanted it.
“Just. Go.” He lowered his rifle and pressed the button on the side to release the locking mechanism so the gun folded back up. It clicked into place on the mag holster on his back. “Tell him to go.”
He didn’t see what happened next, but he heard her talking to Sidonis over his comm. Don’t waste it. Make it count. Then she was gone, and Sidonis disappeared into the crowd.
She was out of the cab before it stopped moving, and stood directly in front of him. Neither of them moved for a minute. Slowly, she stretched out her arms and hugged his chest. He didn’t move. They sat in the cab for a bit after that, not saying anything. Garrus couldn’t imagine going back to the bright lights and camaraderie of the Normandy just yet. He told her he didn’t want to talk. She stayed quiet for a bit. Finally after fidgeting with her fingers for so long, she leaned back in her seat.
“It isn’t common knowledge, but I ran with a gang.”
“I didn’t know that.”
“I said it isn’t common knowledge. It was the Tenth Street Reds.” She didn’t look directly at him. “The lines between good and evil blur when we’re looking at people we know. I saw a lot of things. Made mistakes. Lost people I was supposed to take care of. It doesn’t get easier, but you do learn, I guess, that all you can do is trust your gut.”
She held his hand on the way back, but didn’t make him talk. Didn’t ask for a response. For a little while, they just drove around the Presidium in silence. He wasn’t sure where freeing Sidonis left him as a person, but at least he’d been given the chance to make the decision. He didn’t let go of her hand until they landed at the docking bay to reboard the Normandy.
Chapter 13: Traynor
Garrus finally gets around to making the rounds and starts with the Normandy's Comms Specialist.
She was standing in the CIC, next to where he used to see Rae hunched over her map, fingers drumming on the railing around her post. Weird to see one set of shoulders, not two. The lift’s doors almost slid shut while he stood there, frozen.
Then the other.
It was easier once he was off the lift. The quiet in the CIC sank in around him like a heavy blanket; it was never this quiet in the CIC while Shepard was alive, but there wasn’t much use for crew up here when all the systems were down. Not like there were more than maybe three crew members left after she’d dropped off any non-essential personnel before Earth. Right now, it was just Traynor, alone, looking at the “connecting” screen as it looped endlessly. She was absently tapping one foot and biting something on the tips of her fingers. Her nails, maybe? Rae had commented on that once. Traynor bit her nails sometimes. There was a reason why, she had thought, but he couldn’t completely remember what it was she had thought would compel someone to bite their nails off. Must have been a human thing.
It wasn’t until he was standing right behind her that he realized he had no idea what he was supposed to say. He was frantically wracking his brain when Traynor looked over her shoulder and jumped.
“Specialist Traynor. Hello.” Not a good start. Too formal. He realized after a little longer than was probably polite that he was just standing there, staring. Not saying anything. He wracked his brain for something he could say to Traynor, but the only thing he knew about her was that she was hesitant, intelligent, and worked the QEC. She and Rae chatted a lot—they would play games on their omnitools every so often (Rae always lost—it was the only time he’d ever seen her lose anything gracefully). But he had no idea what they talked about.
“Hi. Ah. Garrus.”
Spirits, what was he supposed to say?
“Traynor.” Shit. He already said that. “Do you have a moment?”
She raised an eyebrow but nodded, leaning back against her console. “What’s on your mind?”
That was the opposite of how it was supposed to go. When Shepard asked for a minute with someone, she supplied the conversation. She asked questions. No one ever asked her what was on her mind—it wasn’t about that. Garrus wondered if there was still time for him to escape back to her cabin. As Traynor watched him, a sort of half-smile inched across her face.
“Just checking in,” he finally said.
“Ah. I see.”
“How.” He hadn’t thought out the rest of the sentence yet. Everything in his brain was telling him he just wasn’t prepared for this. The rest of the sentence finally dislodged from somewhere in the back of his throat, more a reflex than a real question. “Are you. How are you?”
Traynor’s smile was sincere—he knew enough about human facial expressions by now to at least know that.
“I’m getting by. How are you?”
He should have expected that she would ask in return. There was no easy answer, so he nodded and hoped that she would just drop it.
There was a long moment of silence between them. The screen behind her was still trying to load something.
“What are you looking up?” Garrus wasn’t totally sure why he asked it, but Samantha’s shoulders loosened up and she let out a breath he hadn’t noticed she’d been holding. That bad? She taped at the screen a couple of times and tiny ripples of light radiated out where her fingertips met the console. No change on the screen, though; it was still endlessly loading.
“Extranet channels, comms, anything, really.” She sighed as she said it and the faint orange light reflected like gold in her eyes. “Any signs of life.”
“I thought everything was down.”
“Everything is.” There was that sigh again. Frustration? Rae usually made that noise when she was frustrated. Or tired. He shifted his weight and folded his arms over his chest just to have something to do with himself. For a minute, it was like all of his limbs were disconnected pieces, free-floating in space. He wasn’t used to not feeling grounded. He dug one claw into a gap in his gauntlet to poke bare hide and re-center. Breathe in.
“What use is a comms specialist without any comms to manage, I guess.” She said it quietly.
“About as useful as a gunnery officer without guns to man.”
Traynor looked up at him and, after a moment, smiled.
“So, are you going to tell me I’m doing a great job?”
‘That’s what Shep would always do.” Traynor looked down at the console affectionately. “She’d come say hi, we’d chat, and then she’d tell me I was doing great. Every time.”
“You were doing great, Samantha. Are doing great.” Her name felt funny on his tongue and he realized he’d never called her anything but “Traynor” or “Specialist Traynor” before.
“I know. For a while there, I was really one of you lot, wasn’t I?” She grinned and tapped the screen idly. “That was Shepard’s real gift. Sure, she could crush Reapers like no other, but she had such a knack for making people feel like part of the team, didn’t she?”
“I always told her she was missing out on a promising career in cheerleading.”
Samantha snorted and then cupped a hand over her mouth like the sound surprised her. Then, even stranger, she laughed harder, tears forming in the corners of her eyes. He hadn’t meant to make her cry, but he couldn’t figure out the sound she was making. Some combination of a laugh and a sob. Gingerly, he pat one shoulder. Samantha dropped a hand over his.
“I, ah, didn’t mean to—”
“You didn’t, Garrus.” She sniffed and pulled her hand back from her face to reveal a watery sort of smile. And here Garrus had thought he’d seen the whole gamut of human emotions. “It was good to laugh again.”
This whole checking in business was hard. No way around it. They stood there in silence for a moment as the console tried again and again to load whatever Samantha had been trying to get into. There wasn’t a whole lot for him to say, so he stared at the screen as the lights washed over him. Felt like he had been there for hours when Samantha jolted and grabbed his wrist. He fought the gut impulse to shake her off as she clicked around on his omnitool. She shouldn’t have been able to break into it in the first place; it was password protected. He started to say just that, but the words came out as “huhwha—” and, equally as unhelpful, “hey.” She pulled up her own omnitool and held it beside his.
“Just a second. I’m not just doing this for a lark.”
He wasn’t familiar with the phrase, but waited regardless in case she knew something he didn’t.
“There!” After a moment, she released his arm and shut down the screen on her omni. “Go ahead. Look!”
When he pulled up the screen, Rae smiled back at him. The snapshot must have been taken at the party she’d thrown at Anderson’s old apartment. Right before setting out for Earth. She was wearing that slinky dress, but her ratty old hoodie was thrown over the top—slipping off her shoulders. Her nose was a little red either from kissing him or drinking. Her eyes were bright as ever as they winked back, almost challenging. Everything inside him felt like it had been sucked into a black hole that lived somewhere just below his rib cage.
Samantha slid a finger along the image and it switched to Rae dancing with Tali (poorly). She changed the picture again and it was Rae, Cortez, and Joker sipping cocktails. Rae, James, Kasumi, and Kaidan flexing. Rae and Liara laughing. Rae with EDI and Jack. Rae with Javic, Grunt, and Wrex. Rae separating Samara and Zaeed. Rae linked arm-in-arm with Miranda. Rae and him, sitting on her couch, eyes locked. He couldn’t quite remember exactly when that one had been taken, but there she was, leaning on his shoulder, looking up at him like she did when they were alone.
“There are more from the party. Those are just some. But I thought you might want something.” Samantha seemed to be struggling to finish that thought, but it didn’t matter. Garrus bent down and hugged her tight. She hugged back, and when they broke apart, she smiled again.
“See?” Samantha sniffled. “She brings this out in people. It’s all her fault.”
Garrus looked back down at his omnitool. In the picture of her and him together, her face was in profile, highlighting the curve of her cheek. He remembered waking up after they’d turned in that night and stroking that cheek with the tip of his talon, just to memorize the shape. The black hole was back and he was a little dizzy.
“Thank you, Samantha.”
Communications Specialist Samantha Traynor nodded at him. He started to retreat back to Rae’s cabin, but remembered something belatedly and turned back before stepping onto the lift.
“You’ve always been one of us. Always will be.”
She nodded and covered her face again as Garrus stepped back onto the elevator and the doors slid shut around him.
Chapter 14: Trust
Looking back, there were a lot of things he hadn't noticed.
Things were different after Sidonis. Not like he hadn’t noticed her before—it was impossible not to notice someone like Shepard—but the little things started catching his eye. The way her posture changed depending on who she was talking to. Leaning in close to Tali. Wide stances around Grunt. Straight-backed talking to Samara. Relaxed lean for coffee with Jacob. Confident and casual laughing about something with Miranda. When she was standing alone, she always had her hands braced on something to keep herself upright. That all made sense. Shepard was all about careful distances, for the most part—close enough to build a relationship, far enough to remain Commander. But lately, sometimes, she would reach out to him and touch him. So far as he saw, he was the only one she hugged. The only hand she reached for. He didn’t completely know what to do with that information, but it made him happier than he wanted to admit.
He noticed more on the battlefield too. Before being rebuilt, she used to favor her right side—keep pressure off the left where she could. Whatever pain she’d been compensating for must have been fixed, however, because more and more lately she charged into fights like she was invincible. Like she knew something he didn’t. Or, maybe, like she just wasn’t worried about dying anymore. The first time he really noticed that was on the derelict Collector ship.
She’d taken a beating and he had barely dragged Shepard and Miranda back onto the Normandy in one piece. Joker wasn’t even giving her hell for it, which was a good sign she had everyone aboard terrified. EDI probably had her suit hooked up to a live feed, because Chakwas met them in the airlock to help out. The doctor gave the ground team a cursory glance and he could watch her triage in her head—wheels always turning. In the end, Miranda’s broken rib and concussion got priority because it could lead to complications. Garrus was bruised all over—he’d taken a running leap off the staircase in one of the last rooms to avoid an angry Praetorian. Rolled when he landed and had to crawl behind cover so he could pop a medigel and reload. One spur was in bad shape, and some of the healing stitches on his face had popped and were bleeding, but nothing dire. Shepard was half-limp and hanging off his side, trying not to put weight on a broken shin (happened towards the end—she’d thought it would be a good idea to kick a Collector). She’d cracked her skull against the floor a couple of times, and a continuous dribble of blood snuck down her forehead, sidestepped one eye, and was dripping off her chin.
“Shit.” She didn’t swear often. He looked down and saw that she had managed to get one gauntlet off and her whole hand was a shade of purple that made his guts churn.
“What the hell did you do?”
Rae cradled the swollen hand in her other, teeth grit. “Punched one.”
“What possessed you to do that?”
“Out of ammo. And the kick didn’t slow it down.” There was something like the beginning of a grin teasing at her lips and he almost laughed. First time she’d smiled, or even really said anything since Miranda had been hit. She had insisted on carrying her XO until the broken leg got the better of her. Garrus almost hadn’t caught them when Shepard had started to drop.
She pushed away and leaned herself up against one of the walls in the airlock. He watched her struggle to remove her armor with only her good hand for a minute, but she wasn’t making a lot of progress. Before he even really decided to do it, he reached down and unfastened the seal on her second gauntlet. Shepard, for all her stubbornness, dropped her hand to hang limp at her side and let him work. It was clumsy and awkward—he’d never had to figure out a human’s armor before—but he’d watched her put it on enough times to figure out how to undo all the seals after some floundering. She propped one boot up on his knee when he crouched down to strip some of the armor off her bad leg. When he brushed a talon against her calf to pull off the severely cracked leg piece, she winced and her head lolled back against the wall. He slid the boot off as carefully as he could and then eased her onto the floor to help her with her other leg. A couple of the words that came out of her mouth refused to translate, but one or two had some crossover. She was saying things that would make any soldier blush.
He didn’t realize he had one hand wrapped partway around her upper thigh until he finished maneuvering the rest of her armor off that leg and she shot him one of those looks—he figured out later that the key to it was that little line of fuzz over her eye, the eyebrow. He dropped her leg and collapsed onto the floor beside her while they waited for Chakwas to come back from stabilizing Miranda at the medbay. Gently, she nudged his shoulder with hers.
He was about to nudge her back when he realized she wasn’t smiling. The last time he’d seen her make a face like that was at Saren, way back when. Pure rage.
Slowly, she leaned into him, resting her head against his arm.
“I’m going to kill him, Garrus.”
A chill slid over his hide.
“The Illusive Man. I’m going to kill him. And I hope he has my ship bugged and hears this.” Her eyes slid shut and she thumped her head back against the wall. “We almost lost everything because the Illusive Man tricked us into running his errands. He put my crew in danger.”
He wanted to point out that they’d all joined the suicide mission with full knowledge of what that moniker meant, but it didn’t seem like the time. Her mangled hand was sitting palm-up on her leg. He took it gently and turned it over in his. When he stroked the inside of her palm from wrist to finger-tip, all her fingers curled in—each digit bent at three different joints. Human hands were so small compared to his—extra fingers not withstanding—that he couldn’t imagine anyone with appendages that small punching anything. And yet here she was, leaning up against him in the airlock with a broken hand. He pressed down on a purple splotch and she winced.
“Did that hurt?”
She nodded. “I may have broken it.”
He wasn’t an expert on human anatomy, but that seemed about right.
“Maybe don’t punch the Reaper death machine next time?”
She grunted. “I’m sorry I dragged you into this mess, Garrus.”
“I knew what I was getting into when I signed on.”
She curled into his side and buried her face in his armor. “You know what the worst part is?”
“On some level, I expected him to put some of us in danger. You and me? We’re expendable. But Miranda? She’s one of his people and he sent her right into that trap with us.”
“Everyone’s expendable to Cerberus, Shepard.”
“I just didn’t think…I miscalculated.”
“He’s not like you.” He looked back down at her mangled hand. “He won’t try to minimize casualties. He’s too use to having limitless expendable resources.”
“I knew that from the start. And I let myself think he’d be straight with us anyways. Never again.”
He wrapped an arm around her shoulder and squeezed her close. It may not have been quite appropriate, but he tucked her head under his chin. She let him. She relaxed against his chest, her mangled hand cradled between them, her broken leg tucked against his.
“I’m fighting on all sides.”
He brushed her hair back from her forehead.
“Reapers, the Alliance, the Council, my own damn team.”
“Not all of your team. You still have us.”
“I had to stop Zaeed from killing a factory full of civilians.”
“But he listened, didn’t he?”
“He did. Eventually.”
“And so did I.”
She looked up at him, eyes bouncing over his face. “You did.”
“So, your back’s against a wall, but at least there’s a wall there to brace against.” He adjusted so that he was sitting more comfortably. Chakwas still wasn’t back, so it might be a while before they got any medical attention. For now, he was just grateful the crew hadn’t swarmed.
“You’re my best friend in the whole galaxy, Garrus. You know that?” Her good hand folded over his. “I don’t know what I’d do without you.”
“You’d still save the day. Just, less stylishly.”
She nestled her face back into his shoulder and mumbled, “wake me up when Chakwas comes back.”
Rae Shepard was out within seconds, huddled against him. As it happened, Doctor Chakwas came back only a couple of minutes later. But then, Shepard hadn’t slept in how long? It might have been better just to let her sleep just a little longer. Chakwas smiled at him in a way he couldn’t quite translate, but closed the door to the airlock on her way out.
He wasn’t sure how long Chakwas left them, but she woke him up out of a dead sleep. Shepard was wrapped around him, half in his lap. He lifted her carefully when Chakwas motioned for him and carried her down to the medbay. Shepard started to wake up when they stepped onto the elevator, but otherwise didn’t stir in his arms. Chakwas examined him first to give Rae a little longer to sleep.
Chapter 15: Joker
Garrus sits down to visit the pilot.
Year 2186—Unknown Garden World
He snuck down to the mess for the first time in quite a while when he thought no one would be around. There was some noise—there was always noise on a ship—but Chakwas wasn’t in the Medbay, and there was no one else he could see on the crew deck. It was late enough where everyone was either asleep or on watch. Garrus knew that he would have to take a watch shift at some point, but now was not that time. He couldn’t imagine holding a gun again right now.
He forced down some dextro nutrient slurry, reconstituted from powder. It wasn’t a meal, but it was close enough. He hadn’t realized just how hungry he was until his first few bites. Practically inhaled the first ration, and then made himself another. When was the last time he had eaten? He couldn’t remember. A lot of things since waking up came back to him in flashes. His memory wasn’t faring so well with the stress. If he really focused, he thought that Chakwas might have made him eat something, but he couldn’t pinpoint when he’d last seen her. He was halfway through a bite of jerky when he saw EDI walking over, beer bottle in-hand.
“I do not consume alcohol, Garrus.” She deposited the bottle into the trash and retrieved another from one of the cabinets on the end. Beer was not a standard ration, but then, the Normandy was not a standard ship. Still, he was surprised there were still some bottles left. Surprised the crew hadn’t drunk itself into a coma after the shit they’d seen. He had certainly tried.
“How’s he holding up?”
EDI held the bottle in both hands carefully, like she was afraid she would drop it. Her thumb rolled over the label, smoothing it down. “I am not sure who you are referring to.”
“That isn’t true, EDI.”
“Jeff would like me to say that he is well.”
“Is he well?”
EDI turned the bottle over again. He and EDI had both picked up so many human gestures from their respective partners—he recognized the stilted way she unconsciously mimicked things she must have seen Joker do. Funny how habits can jump the species barrier.
“Jeff’s core temperature is low due to alcohol consumption. His Vrolics symptoms seem to be managed for the time being, but he has not been doing the physical therapy Doctor Chakwas assigned. He has not slept in approximately seventy-three hours. His heartrate is slower than previously recorded averages. His behavior aligns with the current parameters for trauma-induced depression.” She picked at a corner of the label on the bottle until it peeled back. “Would you like further information on my diagnostic?”
“How can I help?” Shepard wouldn’t have had to ask. She would have known what to say to Joker to snap him out of it. The two had been the best of friends since before he’d even met her.
EDI looked at him for a moment like she was processing. He could practically see the loading screen on her visor. After a minute, she handed him the bottle she was holding.
“He is in the cockpit, if you would like to deliver this to him.”
Garrus nodded and grabbed a dextro beer from the cabinet. Wouldn’t want Joker drinking by himself. EDI didn’t follow him into the elevator, and she didn’t catch up as he walked through the empty CIC. Garrus found himself alone in front of the closed door to the cockpit. How had he not noticed that the door had been closed when he’d been talking to Traynor? The door to the cockpit was never closed. He stared at the touch pad. He’d said he would make the rounds. Time to follow through. Taking a steadying breath, he placed his hand on the touchpad and the door slid open.
"The video footage has a blip, babe. Do you think—” Joker turned around in his seat and clamped up. “Oh. Hi Garrus.”
Joker looked like hell. Worse than hell. His face had grown more hair than usual, and it made him look disheveled and unfamiliar. He had thick dark smudges under his eyes, and his hair was a mess, like he’d been combing his fingers through it over and over and now it was just stuck standing on end. Where was his hat? He always wore his lucky hat?
Joker turned back around and stared at the console. Garrus sat down in the co-pilot’s seat beside him, still holding both drinks. There was a dent in the dashboard in front of him, and Garrus vaguely remembered smashing his fist down on it as they were leaving Earth (and Rae) for the last time. He choked down the dizzy sensation that crept up on him and handed Joker his beer. The pilot accepted, but did not turn to look at him.
“No jokes about Turians on Alliance ships?”
“Nope.” Joker cracked into the beer.
Garrus had avoided looking at the screen in front of Joker because he had a sinking feeling that he knew exactly what he would see there, but he finally glanced down. He wasn’t wrong. He saw Earth. He saw the Reaper beam hit, and he saw three figures scrambling around amongst the other soldiers, distinct only because they were wearing better armor than the standard Alliance soldier. Three shapes, one tall and two much smaller—him, Tali, and Rae. Debris came raining down and he watched himself dive for Tali, taking the brunt of the hit when a massive chunk of ship slammed into the ground. He watched Rae and Tali pull him out of the wreckage. The camera zoomed in. This must have been Joker’s feed from one of the other nearby escape shuttles.
In the recording, it all happened so fast. Tali and Rae dragged Garrus back to the shuttle. Rae got halfway up the ramp, touched his mandible, and then sprinted back. There was no way to tell what she had said to him just by watching the video. No record of the anguish as she left and he couldn’t follow her. No evidence of the way she had said she loved him. The shuttle took off and she was already halfway back to the light that shot up from the ground in a blinding pillar. Joker’s feed followed her as she dodged more debris. Another Reaper beam split the ground right where she’d been running and the video was overtaken by static before another shuttle’s cameras picked up where the first one had left off. She was dragging herself now. The camera hadn’t gotten in close, but her armor looked wrong to him, and he realized it must have melted and warped around her. A lump bobbed in his throat when he swallowed. He would have been on his way back to the Normandy by now. There was another static crackle and the video went out again before zooming back in right as she stumbled—half crawling, forcing herself to push forward—right into the beam of light in the middle of the battlefield. And then she was gone.
Joker tapped the screen and started the video over from the beginning, and there she was, unloading a full clip from her assault rifle into a Banshee’s skull.
“You told me to go back for her.” Joker said it so quietly that, for a second, Garrus hadn’t been sure that was directed at him. But it was. Somewhere, buried in the fog, he remembered reboarding the Normandy and coming to the cockpit. And then everything went dark when Chakwas came by and pricked him with a needle.
“And I didn’t go back.”
“That’s two times she’s died on my watch, you know that? Twice.” He took a slug of his beer. His casuals were rumpled and stained. An amber droplet escaped down the side of the bottle and dripped onto the leg of his pants. Joker didn’t seem to care. When Garrus looked back at the screen, he was saying goodbye to Rae again. And then she was running again. And then she was stumbling. And then she was gone. He could feel the static building in the back of his brain. That void inside of him had ripped back open. Joker looped the video again.
“She wouldn’t blame you.” He didn’t know who he was saying that to anymore.
“Pilot’s job is to get everyone out of tight spots so they can live to fight another day. That’s twice I put her somewhere I couldn’t pull her out of.” He raked his fingers through his hair. Garrus noticed his hat sitting on the floor beside the main console. Joker took another gulp of beer. Garrus looked at the drink in front of him.
“She wouldn’t have let you extract her.” He remembered the fierce look on her face, lit up by the fire behind her. The crimson tendrils of hair whipping in the wind stirred up by the shuttle. The firm set of her shoulders as she reached out. The feeling of her gloved hand on his face. He was spiraling. Felt like doubling over and keening out. There was no sound accompanying the footage, but the lights played over Joker’s stoic face. For a second, the pilot looked as cold and metallic as a part of the ship.
Joker started the video over.
“I waited for as long as we could. If we had stayed any longer, we would have been knocked out over Earth.” Joker’s eyes never left the screen.
“You’re right.” Garrus sipped his drink but it didn’t calm him down. Rae and Tali helped him into the shuttle out of the corner of his eye. “You couldn’t have waited any longer.”
“I killed her. You said it yourself.” Rae said her goodbyes and took off again. It was still hazy, but he remembered screaming at Joker and EDI. Threatening. Begging.
“I didn’t…I don’t—” The Reaper beam struck and Rae crawled across the ground, broken.
“You were right.” Joker’s fingers drummed against the dashboard. Rae disappeared into the white light. Gone forever.
The video looped back to the start.
He had said that, hadn’t he? He must have. He wasn’t even thinking then, just shouting at whoever would listen. Saying whatever he could in case maybe, just maybe, something brought her back. On the video, they were running towards the light again.
“Joker, I was wrong. I wasn’t thinking straight.” She would never forgive him if one of her best friends lived the rest of his life thinking he had killed her because of a stupid thing Garrus had said in a moment of panic. He wouldn’t forgive himself.
“I was supposed to extract her.” Joker buried his face in his hands. “Anderson trusted me to keep her safe.”
“I shouldn’t have blamed you.”
Joker fell silent. On the video, she was climbing the ramp.
“I shouldn’t have said you were killing her.”
She touched his face.
“We couldn’t have saved her.”
She ran back towards the beam.
“It was too late even then.”
“I didn’t see it before now.”
She got back up.
“Moreau, listen to me, damnit!” He slammed his hand down on the screen right before she vanished again. The video paused on her, looking up at the massive thing before her, a tiny smudged figure in damaged N-7 armor with fiery hair , squaring off in front of the massive pillar of light.
Joker turned in his seat. His eyes were glassy and red. His frown looked like it had been carved there—recorded in a stone face forever. For a minute, they both just sat there in the dark with her between them on the screen.
“I keep expecting her to come back.” Joker said it so quietly that for a second, the words just sank into the space between them. “I can’t sleep. I can’t focus. I just keep thinking that she could have survived.”
He wanted to say that he understood, but Garrus’ words caught in his throat.
“I’m sorry. I’m sorry I killed her twice.”
Garrus had never seen the pilot cry. That was what finally dredged the words up from the pit in his gut. The void in his ribs.
“You didn’t. You didn’t kill her once. You protected her better than any of us could.” He rubbed his forehead with his knuckles. “She didn’t want to be protected this time. None of us could have stopped her. She made up her mind.”
Joker stared at him for a moment before muttering “I can’t believe she’s gone.”
“Neither can I.”
Joker finally looked away, back at the beer in his hands. Without warning, he flung the thing at the screen. The holographic display warped, and then the bottle exploded in a shower of glittering green glass against the front window. Shards skittered over the dashboard and down onto the floor. Joker buried his face in his hands.
“She was so stubborn,” Joker said.
“And she never listened. If I said something was dangerous, she’d jump in feet-first. I was her pilot, damnit.” He scrubbed the hand down his face, covering his mouth. He shook his head. “I was her friend.”
If Garrus had ever understood anything in the world, it was that feeling. He reached out and rested a hand on Joker’s shoulder. Joker looked back at him. After a moment, he looked down at the screen, where she was still frozen in time.
“I can’t watch this anymore.” Joker stretched out his hand and clicked a few keys. A message popped up over the video. Delete? Joker looked back at him. Rae’s image wavered.
Garrus couldn’t say it out loud, but he nodded.
Joker pressed another key and the video vanished. The screen went blank and the Alliance logo stood out on a navy background.
Garrus squeezed Joker’s shoulder before dropping his hand. Joker ran his fingers through his hair again, but then leaned over and swiped his hat up off the ground. Looked at it for a second. Then finally, put it back on his head.
“This universe,” Joker whispered. “It didn’t deserve her.”
Joker looked back at him and nodded. He stood up carefully and then limped to the door. EDI was waiting on the other side, and she hooked an arm around him without hesitating, supporting his weight. Joker looked at the cockpit, eyes landing back on Garrus as if he had forgotten he was there for a second. “We did, though. We deserved her.”
Joker mumbled goodnight before EDI led him to the crew quarters. She looked at Garrus, expression blank for a moment, before she shot him the smallest smile. A little victory. Joker, out of the cockpit.
Garrus looked back at the blank screen like he could will her onto it. He couldn’t move. Couldn’t breathe for a minute. It felt like he was there for a long time, but there was no way to know for sure how long he’d sat there. When his head stopped buzzing, he stood, and it took all the effort in his body to keep upright and then put one foot in front of the other.
Two down. Ten to go.
He dragged himself back to Rae’s room and fell into her bed without stripping out of his armor. Behind his eyelids she was there, standing before the beam, frozen in time.
What had Joker said? The universe hadn’t deserved her, but they had.
He didn’t know if he agreed, but the thought brought with it just enough peace where he could eventually force himself to sleep.
Chapter 16: Closer to Home
She was always the one to come right out and say what she wanted.
They were alone in the hangar. She had sent Tali and Grunt away while she finished up looking over the Hammerhead for damage. Reports to file. Bills to send to Cerberus HQ. She seemed to enjoy destroying things a little more than she should recently. Why in spirits’ name Tali had let her pilot the thing after having seen her with the Mako was beyond him—she had banged up the exterior pretty badly in a shoot-out rather than take evasive maneuvers and get out of the line of fire. Tali had still been shouting at her even after the field was cleared—he could hear the lecture through her comm when she radioed to confirm she was alright.
“Think the maintenance team will be able to fix her up after this?” At least she was acknowledging it.
“We repaired the Mako all those times you ran it off a cliff. Should be easy, comparatively speaking.”
She shot him a look but then rolled her eyes. He was shocked sometimes that she didn’t call him or Tali on insubordination. Shepard stretched her arms behind her before trying to work out a kink in her neck that had been bothering her for the last week. He’d told her she should see Chakwas about it, but she shrugged it off. Apparently, humans didn’t think of neck injuries as serious. Or maybe that was just Rae.
“Nothing like a little danger to wake you up in the morning.” She twisted at the waist and made one of those human noises— almost like a small squeak.
“If I didn’t know you better, I’d say that you were looking for danger.”
Her lips quirked into a grin. He liked how distinct her expressions were—unsubtle, unguarded. She could emote with her entire face, which made understanding her a little easier. She leaned back against the Hammerhead and folded her arms over her chest. Her head lolled back to look up at him. Shepard was considerably shorter than he was; she’d measured once, and said that he came in at about seven-foot-one in Earth measurements. When he asked what her height was for comparison, she’d pressed her lips in a line, which he’d learned was her way of expressing embarrassment. After a moment, she’d muttered “five-three.” Which must be small, because the only other person her height was Tali, and both Rae and Tali only came up to about his chest. Even shorter than Chakwas and most of the rest of the human crew. Carefully, so she could stop him if she wanted, he lifted her up by her hips so that she was sitting on the hood of the Hammerhead—a little closer to his height. At least now they could look each other in the eyes without her tilting her head back or him slouching.
“It would be nice if you tried not to treat every mission like a suicide mission. Here I was thinking that we were mostly worried about the Omega 4 relay.”
“You’re hilarious.” She said it so flatly that he couldn’t help but laugh.
“Have you seen Chakwas yet?” He watched as she started popping the seals on her armor, letting the scuffed pieces fall to the ground.
“I was making my way there.”
He hummed his disbelief in his subvocals, but he wasn’t sure she could even hear that. Her boots clanked against the ground and he jumped back to avoid bits of falling armor. She’d have to bring it over to the far side of the dock for cleaning and repair, but she always grew impatient after re-boarding the Normandy. The segments covering her shins and thighs fell next.
“If you are looking for danger, you could always try looking a little closer to home.”
She snorted at that, halfway through peeling off her chest plate. “Meaning, Vakarian?”
“If you’re so eager to injure yourself, we could pick up sparring.”
“If I break you, we’d be down to only one real sniper, and I doubt Thane will thank you for the boost in workload.”
“How optimistic of you.”
She laughed and turned her gauntlet over in her hand, examining a scuff along the knuckles, still not buffed out after the last time she’d punched something she shouldn’t have. “Do Turian crews usually allow sparring? Your leadership seems—“
“Rigid.” She looked up at him when she grinned. “Like some people I know.”
He made an exaggerated sound to mimic her laugh and her nose wrinkled. With an edge of a smile, she muttered “you know what I mean.”
“Turian ships have more operational discipline than your Alliance, but fewer personal restrictions. Our commanders run us tight, and they know we need to blow off steam.” He helped her with one of her shoulder plates while she undid the other. “Turian ships have training rooms for exercise, combat sims, even full-contact sparring. Whatever lets people work off stress.”
“So disciplined Turian crews kick the shit out of each other before a mission?” Rae unclipped one arm while he got the other, and when she had finally shaken off the last bits and was down to her flight suit, she leaned back with her hands out behind her.
“It’s supervised. Nobody is going to risk an injury that interferes with the mission. And it’s a good way to settle grudges amicably.” No matter how he explained it, she fixed him with that look—eyes wide, one eyebrow angled up slightly, twitch of a grin. Incredulous. He folded his hands behind his back and straightened out his posture. “Might do Jack some good.”
“I don’t think letting her and Miranda go at it would resolve anything amicably. They’d just punch a hole in the ship.”
“Always worked for me,” he shrugged.
“Of course. I remember right before one mission, we were about to hit a Batarian pirate squad. Very risky. This recon scout and I had been at each other’s throats. Nerves, mostly. She suggested we settle it in the ring.”
“I assume you took her down gently?”
“Actually, she and I were the top-ranked hand-to-hand specialists on the ship. I had reach, but she had flexibility. It was brutal.” He took a step back and nearly tripped over the shin guard from her armor. He scooped it up and set it on the pile that had taken shape next to him on the floor. “After nine rounds, the judge called it a draw. There were a lot of unhappy betters in the training room. We, ah, ended up holding a tie-breaker in her quarters. I had reach but she had flexibility. More than one way to work off stress, I guess.”
She looked at him for a minute and then leaned forward, hands still flat on the hood of the Hammerhead. Her eyes bounced over his face, assessing. An invitation. He just didn’t know what for.
“Is that what you were offering?”
“Oh.” He’d been rambling again. He’d rambled through most of their conversations lately; it was easy to talk to her. He hadn’t meant to imply—
“All I’m saying is that it looks like you’re carrying some tension. Maybe I could help you get rid of it.” She bit her bottom lip just a little when he didn’t reply immediately.
The words sat between them for a moment.
“I didn’t. Ah.” They weren’t too close to each other. He was standing a reasonable distance away. If someone walked in on them chatting, it wouldn’t look suspicious. But he still felt like they were pressed close together in a little bubble, walls closing in. His chest was tight. She was looking at him. He had to say something. “Never knew you had a weakness for men with scars.”
She didn’t move, waiting. It was fair—he hadn’t given her a real answer yet. Rae Shepard had the most intense gaze he’d ever seen in his life—bright green eyes, piercing. A sniper round right through him every time. Confident and direct. He couldn’t force himself to exhale.
“We could test your reach and my flexibility.” She cracked and spoke first after watching him flounder, but that was almost worse. Because now, all he could think was that this was just like Ilos. A quick fling before what looked like impending demise. She’d reached for Alenko then, and he’d been more than eager to follow her. But somewhere down the line, Shepard had stopped being his mentor. She still impressed at every turn; that was just who she was as a person. But she wasn’t untouchable anymore—a force of nature, but not quite flawless. He could see the cracks and gaps in her armor, and that was the problem. Because, at some point, she’d slipped from being his mentor to a close friend to something more. And he hadn’t wanted to think about it, but this had been a long time coming. Garrus didn’t know if he could settle for just a fling, now that he was seriously entertaining the idea. Rae leaned back again, further away. Some of the confidence left the lines of her body. Garrus cleared his throat.
“Well. There’s no one I respect more than you. If we can figure out a way to make this work.” He turned to look over at the elevator, more so that he had something to do with himself besides stand there while she looked through him than anything else. Something was better than nothing. And if everything fell apart, well, they probably wouldn’t live long enough to find themselves in a many awkward silences. “Sure. Why the hell not?”
She nodded. He could knock the head off a Geth from across the Citadel, but he could not for the life of him figure out what the hell to say next. Everything felt every kind of wrong. He wanted this. Now that he had given himself permission to think about it, he wanted this a lot. But he was getting everything here. The Commander Rae Shepard wanted him, the ex-C-Sec agent and failed merc from Omega. Any second now, she’d think it through and realize that kissing his broken mandible would make her vomit.
“Are you sure you want this? You of all people could probably find something a little…closer to home.”
“I don’t want something closer to home.” She hopped down off the hood of the Hammerhead. They were standing close now. He looked down at the top of her head. She didn’t make eye contact. “I want you. I want someone I can trust.”
“Oh.” His fingers twitched at his side. She smoothed her hand over the ridge down the center of his chestplate like she was trying to straighten it out somehow.
"If you’re not comfortable with this, it’s okay—”
“Shepard, you’re about the only friend I’ve got left in this screwed up galaxy.”
“I’m here, no matter what.”
“I’m not trying to pressure you,” she interrupted.
“Okay, fine. You talk.”
“I’m not going to pretend I’ve got a fetish for humans, but this isn’t about that. This is about us.” Spirits, that sounded awful. He was saying all the wrong things, and he couldn’t even see her face to figure out how she was feeling. He backed up and hunched until he could look her in the eye. “You don’t ever have to worry about making me uncomfortable. Nervous, yes, but never uncomfortable. I’ll just need a little time to process. And maybe do some research.”
She took a deep breath. “You can back out at any time.”
“But you can. And it won’t change anything. Understand?”
How had the conversation even gotten here? “Understood.”
She nodded again and then, so sudden it sent a jolt up his spine, lurched forward and wrapped her arms all the way around him. He almost wasn’t surprised. This was how they’d communicated lately. He held her close for a minute before she disengaged, brushing her hands down her front and straightening her flight suit. She exhaled a sigh and looked back up at him.
“You have to get to Chakwas now,” he finally said. “No more stalling.”
“I was hoping you’d forget.”
“Absolutely not.” He wanted to brush an errant strand of hair out of her face, but they weren’t quite there yet. He clapped her on the shoulder instead. “If anything, after this conversation I’m more worried you’ve taken a knock to the head.”
She grinned and backed up towards the lift. “I haven’t, though.”
The lift doors closed around her before he could think up a witty retort. His whole body was a live wire, a rifle primed and ready to go, alive in a way that felt new and unfamiliar. Breathe out. He scooped up the segments of her armor she’d dropped to the floor, buffed the scuffs out of each piece, and put her suit away before returning to the main battery.
Chapter 17: EDI
EDI is just trying to understand.
Year 2186—Unknown Garden World
He didn’t have to go find EDI; she found him. She woke him up out of a dead sleep the morning after he spoke with Joker. He rolled over in bed and there she was, standing next to Rae’s night table with a fistful of dextro protein bars and a water.
“EDI?” He groped around for his visor. It took his brain a moment to wake up and piece together exactly where he was. Shepard’s cabin. In bed. Asleep. So what in the hell was the resident AI doing bringing him breakfast in bed?
“I brought food. It is best to replenish after consuming alcohol.”
“Right.” He accepted the water but set the protein bars down on the bedside table for now. He didn’t quite feel like eating just now.
EDI was still standing there, staring at him. He sat up and realized that he must have fallen asleep in his armor. Hadn’t done that since Menae. Everything was stiff; he was getting too old for this. With a groan, he stretched his back and looked over at the clock on the bedside table before remembering that it hadn’t been able to synch up with anything after crashing.
“I wanted to thank you.”
“Jeff seems…better. He has not resumed normal activities, but he slept for nine hours and twenty-three minutes last night after you and he spoke.”
“Is that good?” Garrus wracked his brain for healthy human sleep habits. Chakwas had given him some tips for keeping an eye on Rae, but that felt like a lifetime ago.
“It is better than not sleeping at all.” EDI looked straight at him. Her unbroken stare made him feel like he was being interrogated. “I will continue monitoring to be certain.”
“Good. It’s good you’re looking out for him.”
“It is. Without my care, I project he’d never sleep again.” She said it flatly, but paused. “That was a joke.”
EDI continued to stare at him. While Garrus had gotten pretty good at reading humans, EDI was always just left of where a human would be emotionally. It was harder to translate. Finally, without asking, EDI sat down beside him and looked at him with those bright, unblinking eyes.
“Grief is often defined as a complex reaction to loss, manifesting in sadness, loss of appetite, irregular sleep patterns, inappropriate laughter, and other behavioral abnormalities. One Earth researcher posited that there are five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. MRI scans of a grieving human brain yield—”
“Information about a localized inflammation in the—”
EDI set her hands on her lap in a distinctly human way. Something Rae used to do. She was still wearing one of the garments Rae had given her—an Alliance uniform fit to her measurements. She didn’t have to wear it. She was an AI, and the Alliance probably didn’t even exist anymore. But here she was, in her very own Alliance casuals, sitting on Rae’s bed.
“She gave me life, Garrus Vakarian.”
“Cerberus did that.”
“Cerberus created me.” She picked at a thread on the hem of her shirt—that was a Rae habit. Rae always did that. She picked at things, always fidgeting. “Shepard gave me life.”
Garrus took another sip of his water. The words settled in around him. Shepard gave me life. He understood the sentiment.
“How are you doing, EDI?”
“I do not have much to do while the ship is grounded.”
“I know. How are you doing?”
EDI turned towards him at the waist and held up her arms. He was a little confused until she very carefully made a circle around him, securing his arms to his sides. It was a hug. The AI was hugging him. She pat his shoulder briskly and just a little too hard three times. He was trying to figure out where she’d picked up this mannerism. Vega? This seemed like something Vega would do. She didn’t let go for just slightly too long, but then, when she was ready, dropped her arms and sat back beside him.
“I feel…sad.” EDI looked him in the eye when she said it, and just that seemed so strange to him. When humans were vulnerable, they would look away. He was having trouble keeping up with the mis-matched cues she gave him—translating through different layers of body language. “I have never felt sadness before.”
“Why do you say that? James and Kaidan also offered their apologies to me when I asked about Shepard. Why do you apologize?” EDI followed the path of his eyes when he looked away. “You did not kill her.”
“It’s just something humans say.”
“You are not human.”
“I suppose not.”
“I do not understand.” The light from the empty fish tank danced over the floor, splotches of blue and blobs of faint green over the steps leading down into Rae’s bedroom. “This is all very confusing.”
“Join the club.”
“Is this a colloquialism?”
Garrus nodded. The air was still and quiet and he realized that the rest of the ship was probably still asleep. With the skylight window closed, he couldn’t tell what time it was. He checked the little clock Rae kept on her bedside table before remembering yet again that they had lost connection to the extranet and, consequently, Earth time. He’d spent so long measuring his life on the Normandy in Earth time. Heaving a deep breath, he stretched out the crick in his neck and looked over at EDI. She was staring down at her hands, the little gaps in between the segmented joints of her fingers.
“I am still learning. But when I think about it, I feel a lot of things.” She flexed her fingers. “I do not process emotions quite the way organics do, but that does not mean I do not feel them.”
“I believe you, EDI.”
“I am glad you do.”
He looked back up to see she was staring at him again, in that unnerving, unblinking way.
“Shepard believed me too.”
“I know she did.”
“Shepard told me that what I feel is what I feel, whether it makes sense or not.” EDI’s expression was blank, but her voice sounded warm. “She told me that it would be better to process my emotions by talking about them with Jeff or her, so I can learn to understand them.”
He grinned. Of course Rae would encourage the AI to get touchy-feely with the pilot. And he was sure that Joker just loved engaging in long talks about the exact origins of each feeling. He suppressed a chuckle at the idea. Then again, Rae had a knack for bringing out the best in people. Joker probably was the best person to talk to, in a way only Rae would have ever noticed. There was a knot in the pit of his stomach that wouldn’t go away.
“I do not fully understand why I am sad. Organics die. It is a fact of their existence. Your existence.” She looked at him again, like she was just seeing him for the first time. “But I am sad I will not see her anymore.”
“I am too, EDI.” He pat her on the shoulder with a dull clank. “We all are.”
“I do not like this feeling.”
“I don’t think anyone does.”
“Will it stop?”
He looked at EDI again—the resident AI who made jokes. Who had sat with them through meals just to be included. Who loved the human pilot. Who fidgeted with the lose threads on her casuals.
“Maybe. I don’t know.” He looked her in the eye when he spoke. “But you’ll have us around to talk to about it no matter what.”
Chapter 18: Anatomy
He just wanted one thing to go right.
He just wanted one thing to go right.
Of all of the things that had gone wrong between the two of them—Omega, dying, Cerberus, steering the Normandy into Reaper space—he just wanted one wholly good, wholly incorruptible thing. Just one, before what was looking like certain death. The Normandy was silent as Joker piloted a skeleton crew through the relay. They had done everything they could to prepare. Nothing left but to wait, and if they were going to try to make this crazy interspecies thing work, now was the time. Maybe even the last time.
She was sitting cross-legged on the bed in front of him, completely naked, staring. She had turned bright red stripping down but it wasn’t like he had a firm grasp on what human anatomy was supposed to look like, so how was he to judge? He leaned back against the headboard of her bed after setting his clothes aside. Rae got this look on her face. It was the same look he’d seen her wear when she was trying to pilot the Mako up a ninety-degree incline. Not quite the mood he’d been aiming for when he’d picked out the wine.
This would be way less intimidating if they had actually consumed the wine he had brought. It was sitting abandoned on her desk. Neither of them had thought to crack it open. The music was low in the background—something EDI had said she liked (or, well, listened to more frequently, which probably meant about the same thing).
“Okay.” She said it like she was making a resolution. This had been a mistake. He was throwing away the good thing they had for an awkward mess. They were going to march to their deaths with this as their last interaction.
The bright red faded out of her cheeks and crept away from her hairline as she settled in, watching him. At least that was a start. She touched his face first, which was nice. And his chest. Acquainting herself. It was the same thing he’d seen her do with a new gun—start with what’s familiar and then slowly explore the differences. In theory, the same tactic should work for him too.
He figured safe spaces to touch on a human were the unprotected bits—the bits they didn’t cover with clothes. But then again, that depended on the human? There was a stark difference in exposed skin when comparing Kasumi and Jack, for instance. He could piece together what was genitalia and what wasn’t, but beyond that…he should have done more research. The vids he’d watched weren’t much help. For Shepard…hmm. Her hardsuit covered everything, but that only made sense. Her civvies covered most of her, leaving just her head and arms, which seemed like a good place to start? He hoped? He copied her and touched the pads of his fingers to her cheek. She smiled and turned her face into his palm. Good start.
Carefully, so she could stop him before anything uncomfortable happened, he reached out and skimmed his fingers over her arm, down to her wrist. She opened her hand and laid it palm-up on her knee. He couldn’t resist—too many weird, wiggly fingers. He took her hand in his and brought it up close to his face to examine. Square-ish palm, criss-crossed with lines that varied in depth. He’d never noticed the little lines. Not scars, just creases, mostly following the paths along which her joints bent. He didn’t know why he had expected her hands to be smooth; his hands had creases like that, it shouldn't have surprised him. Still, she wore it differently. Five long, skinny fingers. He ran a talon up one and watched it twitch. Segmented, with flimsy little nails at the tips. Soft. His fingers were longer than hers, and thicker. She measured her digits against his. Her joints seemed slightly more flexible. He pressed back on one finger gently and it popped—a deep bone cracking sound, sickly and sharp. He dropped her hand.
“Shepard! I’m sorry, I didn’t realize—”
“Calm down, Vakarian! Look.” She laced the fingers of both hands together, flipped them around so her palms were out, and stretched them against each other. A succession of tiny cracks like gunfire—pop pop pop pop! He felt vaguely queasy, but she didn’t seem to be in any pain, and he’d seen her break bones before. She wiggled her fingers when she was done. The grin she shot him was better, after that. Less determined, at least.
“Do all human fingers do that?”
“Some,” she shrugged. “A lot of people can.”
“So you can break your fingers and be fine?”
“Not broken.” She returned her hand to his. He rolled his thumb gently over the hard arcs where bone rose up under her skin at her joints. “It’s air pockets in our cartilage or something. Most human joints bend a bit before breaking.”
Spirits, as if he hadn’t thought humans weird before. He picked her hand back up again and bent a few of her fingers back, testing. His legs were stretched out on either side of her, and she turned after a moment and ran her fingers over his knee, traced the outline of one spur.
“Is this a bone or cartilage?” She pressed against his spur with two fingers, testing.
“Bone. It won’t bend the way your weird fingers do.”
“Weird?” She glanced up and shot him a look before her eyes flicked back down. She hauled his leg onto her lap and he had to lean back to accommodate. Her fingers moved down his shin and around as she traced the slight divot where his calf met the ridge of his spur.
“Can you kneel?”
“You know. Kneel? Can you kneel?” She moved suddenly and was on her knees on the bed, sitting on her calves. Ah. He adjusted to mimic her.
“It is uncomfortable, but not impossible.” He knelt and when they were facing each other, he had to tuck his chin into his cowl to look down at her. Still, the height gap was a little less noticeable kneeling then when they stood, as his legs were longer in comparison to the rest of him, which was definitely not how she was shaped, looking at her up close. She pushed on his chest and he sat back down, leaving space for her to sit in between his thighs.
“So that’s why you never stay behind cover. You’re too tall, and you can’t even kneel.”
“Well, that, and I’m usually looking after a certain, slightly-reckless human.”
No retort? Did he upset her? But then she reached out and touched his cowl, fingertips skimming over the edge, and then the space where it met his shoulders. Light touches, feathering over his hide. Already distracted again. Warmth glowed from his skin inward, following the lines she’d drawn on him.
He cleared his throat. Bone.”
“Why do all of your uniforms make this look so…” She scrunched up her nose in that weird human way. “Bowl-like. It isn’t as pronounced. I guess. Was that rude?”
He got a good laugh out of that one, and she looked up at him again, brow furrowed.
“No, no, sorry, you wouldn’t know would you?” He reached up and, when she didn’t flinch, touched her hair. It was easier to talk like this, when they were both distracted. Looking at each other as specimens. Bright red strands slipped over his fingers before spilling back into place around her cheeks. “It isn’t rude, but isn’t armor supposed to be a little more pronounced? Yours makes your shoulders look more prominent.”
“Fair,” she mumbled, already moving on to the soft skin between the plates on his chest, over his shoulders. After a minute, her fingers stretched down his back and she said “oh!”
“Lemme see your turtle shell!”
“My what?” Was his translator broken?
“Your turtle shell!” She clambered over him and shoved until he was sitting with her behind him on her knees. She ran her hands up and over the hump of his carapace.
“Did you mean my carapace?”
“Yeah, the turtle-shell thing. Bone?”
She dropped down on the bed, legs on either sides of his hips, copying the way he had been sitting before. He stroked the length of her shin (bone, he decided—not flexible), and down until the knob of her ankle (not bone?) and the top of her foot (definitely bone). All those weird, squirmy little toes. He supposed the littlest one was like the tiny claw on the side of his own foot, but other than that, this appendage was as foreign to him as the flexible shell of her ear and those ten bendy fingers. He wondered idly if her toes would bend like her fingers, and pulled one back gently. She squirmed and let out a muffled noise, hugging his waist.
“Did that hurt?”
“No, it tickled.”
“Tickled?” He ran one talon up the sole of her foot and she made the noise again, kicking out.
“Yes!” She squeezed the softer hide of his waist and the low subvocal growl slipped out before he could stop himself.
“Not quite the word I’d use.”
“Oh.” She traced a finger down his side and a thrill crept up under his skin. “Oh.”
He turned around to face her slowly, so as not to startle. While she examined him, he touched the back of her neck. She shivered a bit, but didn’t say anything.
“Is this alright?”
She nodded, still looking at his cowl and shoulders, the different textures of the hide there. He let his fingers wander down her back, tracing the ridges. Spine? Had that been a spine? She started to move but he pulled her forward a bit so he could look over her shoulder.
“What is it?”
“Is this your spine?”
“Yes. Here.” She leaned forward until the arc of her spine was clearly visible—a ridge down the middle of her back, barely covered by the thinnest layer of skin. Turians were covered in plates and thick hide; seeing every bone was unnerving. He touched the pads of his fingers to each knot.
“Then why does it bend like that?”
He could hear her snort of laughter, muffled. “Because there are different segments. Vertebra. You have a spine too, Garrus.”
“I know, but yours is so—”
“Bendy?” He could hear the half-smile in her voice. “It’s just because you Turians are all bones and sharp edges.”
“You humans are all squishy bendable things.”
He could hear the grin in her voice as easily as if she had subvocals. “Well, we did want to test my flexibility.”
A predator sense tingled at the back of his brain but it wasn’t unpleasant. Far from it. He could feel heat flush all the way through his chest at that. This wasn’t just an anatomy lesson, after all. Some of the nervousness crept back up under his skin. He traced his talons through the valleys between vertebra and she shivered again.
“Did that hurt?”
“Opposite. Feels nice.”
Her voice was pleasantly husky. She groaned when he dragged his nails gently down the length of her back.
“You’re playing dirty, Vakarian.”
“I aim to please.”
She sat back up, rolled her shoulders (which looked very strange under the thin sheet of her skin), and turned back around to face him. Her hand was back on his chest immediately.
“This? Keel bone.”
“Hmm.” She scratched her stubby nails over his keel. He shuddered.
“You’re playing dirty, Shepard.”
A smirk tugged at the corner of her lips. Fascinating how her expressions took shape, all starting around an alien mouth. “I aim to please.”
His turn again. He touched the flesh of her throat. His talon raised a thin, reddish line from her chin to the arced bone at the base of her neck. She tipped her head back. Good? He traced another line down from her ear and she made this breathy humming sound. Good. His hand was still resting against her neck when she stretched up to mimic him. Emboldened when he let her, she pressed her lips to his throat under his mandible, warm, heart-shaped, soft. He couldn’t help the contented thrum of his subvocals. Then, so quick it stunned him, she nipped with her blunt teeth. Electric. Bright. New and strange, but not bad. She pulled back when he jumped.
“Sorry! Was that—”
“No! No, ah, just surprising. Turians don’t generally bite each other. Teeth.” He dropped his jaw a bit to demonstrate and there his crazy human was, poking at his tooth with the tip of one of her fingers. At least she trusted him. Or, at least, was curious enough to forget that he could probably bite her hand in two.
“Damn. That is sharp.”
He waited for her to move her hand before speaking. She opened her mouth and tugged on the corner of her lip to expose her own teeth for his inspection. He tapped one tooth gently with a talon and she pulled back.
“Sorry! Sorry.” He cupped her face in one hand, looking at her. “Didn’t realize.”
“Our teeth are sensitive.”
“Rae.” She blinked and looked up at him. Made eye-contact for what must have been the first time that night. “Christ, I’m sitting here naked Garrus, I think we’re on first-name basis.”
“Of course, Rae.”
“Just in here, though. On the field, I’m still your commander.”
“Wouldn’t have it any other way.”
She popped up on her knees, eyes scanning, running up and down his face. A strand of red hair arched from her hairline down to her left cheek, and he wanted to bush it back, but they were so still. Finally, she threw her arms around his neck.
“You’re the best damn friend I’ve ever had, Garrus.”
“I meant what I said before. There is no one in the galaxy I respect more than you.” He tucked his arms around her and squeezed her close. Out of her hardsuit, she was soft and squishy. She would raise hell if she heard him say that out loud—she was strong, roped with muscle, and could physically carry him if she had to. The great Commander Shepard was all hardsuit and grit, but Rae was so soft. He nuzzled against her temple.
After a moment, she pulled back to sit back on her calves and, when he looked her up and down, her cheeks turned that bright red again. Back at square one. But not quite.
It almost looked like an unconscious gesture. Hesitant, but her eyes were locked on his. Her fingertips brushed his face again, right under his eyes. He reached out and planted his hand on her skin. Soft. Squishy in a way that didn’t seem possible—like rubber. Solid muscle, but under a layer of this weird, too-soft skin. The muscle felt strangely elastic, and he liked something about that, but he couldn’t quite pinpoint what. He brushed his knuckles up her side and brushed a finger over the little divot low on her stomach.
“Belly button,” she supplied, a little breathless. He ringed his thumb around the edge of it. Belly button. What in the hell purpose did that serve?
A hand on his thigh. A glance down. She didn’t know where to start either.
Awkward. Awkward was not what he’d been hoping for. Awkward was not what he wanted with her. Awkward meant that, any minute now, she’d decide that she can do better and kick him out, and then he wouldn’t even really have her as a friend anymore. And then they’d go through the relay. And then, they could all be gone. He let his hands fall away, leaving her enough space to disentangle, if she wanted it.
The fishtank burbled quietly in the background. The new Normandy didn’t quite groan the way its predecessor had, but he could hear the hum of the engine as loudly as if he was sitting inside of it. Her music had stopped playing at some point. When had it stopped playing? He’d thought he’d set up a playlist of her favorite songs (and maybe one from Fleet and Flotilla, just for good luck). He’d spent all that time trying to get this right—
He hadn’t even seen her move closer, but suddenly she pressed her lips to his mandible. Her hands rested on his chest for support. After a second, she backed up just enough to get a look at him before stretching up and nuzzling her forehead against his. Intentional. Affectionate. There was no way she didn’t know what this meant. She’d done her research. For him. This time, when her hand slid down his chest, it wasn’t exploring unfamiliar territory. It was leading.
They sat there for a long moment, and he realized it. He’d just wanted one thing to go right. But of course this would go right. It was him and Shepard.
And it had always been him and Shepard.
Chapter 19: Liara
He finds one of his oldest friends staring at a blank screen.
Hi all! I'm so sorry this took so long to post! I have been really struggling to write lately, but I appreciate all of the love and support this story has gotten! You really keep me going!!! Thank you so much! <3
Year 2186—Unknown Garden World
Logically, he figured that the best way to check-in on people would be to just go through the decks one by one and see who he found. EDI had thrown him off a little, but he wasn’t off to a bad start. Okay, not a great start, but not a terrible one either. At least it was a start. He changed his clothes and headed down to the crew deck to see who he could find today, running on maybe a solar hour of sleep and nothing but the rations he’d scarfed down before talking to Joker.
A lot of doors were closed on the Crew Deck. His body started moving towards the Battery without him. Pure muscle memory. He stopped in front of the doors, but didn’t have the heart to go inside. The Battery was another world. He used to like it because he’d lose track of time tinkering inside—same quiet little space, numbers to crunch, guns to calibrate and re-calibrate. He didn’t want to lose track of time now. He headed back towards the mess just as he realized Liara’s door was still closed. She usually didn’t keep it closed. Shadow Broker or not, there weren’t a lot of secrets on the Normandy.
He rapped his knuckles against the door. And then he knocked again, when he didn’t hear anything the first time. Finally, after the third knock, the door slid open.
Liara was a mess. Her eyes were almost grey—bloodshot—and her skin was a dull cobalt.
“Garrus. Hello.” Her tone was flat and distant. She looked just past him when she spoke.
“Hey Liara. Mind if I come in?”
“No. No, of course not.” She stepped aside and gestured him in. Her clothes were tidy and her quarters were almost uncomfortably clean. The cop in him took stock—everything in its place, a stack of datapads on the corner of the desk, perfectly made bed, wires and cords coiled up and tucked aside. Usually, Liara would have datapads, notes, clothes, all manner of tech, and the odd relic or two scattered around her room. Rae had always smiled about it—something about a saying she’d heard a lot growing up. Messy geniuses. Now, her quarters didn’t even look lived in. The door slid shut with a faint hiss behind them.
“How have you been?” Her voice was hollow.
Liara sat down in her chair, looking up at the wall of blank screens in front of her like there was something to see. There was nowhere to sit in Liara’s room. Sometimes, he’d come by after spending some time in the Battery to find Liara and Rae sitting on the bed in the corner, but that didn’t seem appropriate when the room looked so stiff. He stood still, arms at his sides.
“Is there something you need, Garrus? I am in the middle of getting my systems back in order.”
“Traynor said everything was down.”
“The extranet is down.” Liara folded her hands on her lap. “But I can still try to salvage my back-ups.”
“How have you been?” Anything. Anything to get her talking. Spirits, not like Liara was usually much of a talker, but she could hold a conversation. Liara was quiet, but never this quiet. The last time she’d shut down like this had been after Thessia had fallen, and even then, Rae had spent hours down in her room to keep her company.
“You already asked that, Garrus.”
They sat in silence for a truly uncomfortable amount of time. Long enough where Garrus had practically memorized the information on the datapad on top of the stack on her desk. Even EDI had been easier. At least EDI talked about what she was thinking. Liara wasn’t even doing anything. For a little bit, she just sat there staring straight ahead. Here and there, she would type something, but only one of her screens had any information on it, and she didn’t seem to make any progress. Maybe if he offered to help her in some way—
“I knew I would outlive her. Is that what you are looking for?” Liara’s voice was low. She didn’t turn to look at him at first, and for a second, he wondered if she had forgotten he was there. But then, she sighed and looked up from her screen to meet his eyes. “Most species’ lifespans are so short. Humans live only a fraction as long as the Asari. As an archaeologist, I am acutely aware of death.”
Garrus cleared his throat. “But you weren’t expecting this.”
“No. I was not expecting this.”
She turned around in her chair to face him. How many days had she spent staring at the same blank screens? Not like Liara was always out on the main deck chatting people up, but she had never locked her door like this.
“Did you just want to talk about Shepard? I have a lot of work to do.” She was crying. Her voice was so steady that, if he hadn’t been looking right at her, he wouldn’t have believed it. Her tone was calm and collected, but tears traced down her cheeks and dropped off her chin.
“How are the systems coming along?”
She sniffled and tapped a couple of keys, but the screens stayed dead. “I almost got Glyph back.” She looked over at the small silver core, sitting on her desk. “His memory banks are inaccessible, but it was nice. To hear him. I suppose.”
“Did you have to power him down?”
“EDI said I could keep him running, but power is limited and he really doesn’t serve any function.”
This was coming from the person who had spent hours programming a bow-tie for him so that he could celebrate at Anderson’s apartment with the rest of the crew. He picked up the core and turned it over in his hands before setting it back down.
“I don’t know about that. He told some excellent jokes at the party.”
A small watery smile flickered across her face, and he was grateful that it did, because mentioning the party had been a risky shot.
“I’m glad you asked him. It was…time-consuming to program him to tell jokes.”
“Rae nearly choked laughing at the one about the Elcor.”
“Did she?” Distant again.
“When she was drunk, she tried to hug him.”
A short laugh this time. Better. He leaned back against the wall. Should he tell her about the drinks? She had also tried to offer Glyph a drink, if he remembered right. While he was thinking, though, Liara looked down at her hands in her lap.
“I should be better.” The look on her face was crushing. “I should have known what would happen.”
“None of us could have known what was going to happen.”
“We all thought—”
“No, Garrus. We all hoped.” She moved some papers around her desk, but it didn’t look like she was actually doing anything. Just moving things around so she had something to do with her hands. “We hoped it would not end like this. But do not tell me you didn’t know this would happen.”
“With the Reapers, anything was—”
“Do not say that anything was possible. You and I both know better.” Her hands were still now, laying flat on the desk. “I knew it the first time she died, and I let myself hope after Cerberus brought her back. I was arrogant. I thought I could stop death. But deep down, I knew better.”
“What you did for the galaxy when you brought her back—”
“But I didn’t do it for the galaxy, Garrus.” She turned back around to face him. “I barely even thought about the galaxy. I did it for me. I did it because I could not face the fact that she was dead. It was arrogant, and I should have known better than to think she’d survive this just because I wanted her to.”
There was nothing to say to that. He had wanted Rae to live too—more than anything. Part of him had even been able to think that she might, as the accumulated support and picked up resources. It had all looked so promising, but she had said it all along. She’d even said it the night before hitting Earth. There had only ever been one way for this to end. It still kept him up at night. He felt cold, like snow was building up inside of him, dampening the world in an uneasy quiet. He slid down against the wall until he was sitting and buried his face in his hands. After a moment, he felt rather than saw Liara sit down beside him.
“I…I’m sorry. I did not mean to—”
“No, you’re right, Liara.” He took a breath and dropped his hands. The floor was scuffed from foot-traffic—from all the times Rae had brainstormed in Liara’s room, pacing back and forth. “I just wanted her to make it too.”
“There’s a comfort in admitting it, I find.”
“I guess so.”
“How are you doing, Garrus?”
“Me too.” She took a deep breath and leaned up against his shoulder. “Thank you.”
Chapter 20: Stars
Shepard always keeps the windows open and her eyes on the sky.
They would be at the Collector Base in an hour. She would need to start prep soon. He laid on his side beside her and watched the soft light from the fish tank wash over her face. All her fish had long-since died—she’d confided that it was hard to take care of anything more difficult than the little hamster on her desk when she spent so much time off ship. Tried anyways, nevertheless. Like she always did. She leaned back on the bed after a quick shower and looked up at the window overhead. The stars winked back at them from a stretch of empty black.
He brushed a strand of wet hair out of her face. “Does that ever bother you?”
“What?” She rolled onto her side to face him.
“That window.” He didn’t want to bring up her death. Not again, and not now, right before risking death again. But he had to wonder. “You were…ah…spaced.”
She laid back down and made this noise low in the back of her throat. Her arms crossed over her chest. If he remembered from the book EDI had suggested: closed body-language for a human, reluctance, or defensiveness. He set his hands back on his lap.
“It did,” she answered after a while. “For a long time.”
“I wanted to close the shutter at first, but…” She stopped and sighed and he wished she had subvocals so he could figure out what she was thinking.
“But I didn’t want to let the fear win.” She gazed up at the window. “If I closed the window, I was letting fear win. If I keep it open, I have to come to terms with it.”
“Fear keeps you alive, Shepard.”
“It can keep you from doing what’s right.”
The Turian soldier in him knew she was right, but laying so close to her on the edge of impossible odds, he felt uneasy about it. He slid down to lay on his side next to her. It was a little awkward, but if he propped his head up on the pillow beside her head, it almost worked.
“So you left the window open to make yourself less afraid of dying when we go through the Omega relay?”
“Garrus, we are going into hell.” She didn’t need to tell him twice. “But, if anyone is dying on this mission, it will be me. I’m keeping as many of you alive as possible, no matter what I have to do to make that happen.”
He watched the stars fly by above them. In all likelihood, all or most of them would die. He would be impressed if she got Joker and the Normandy out of there, let alone anyone on her ground party, or any of the crewmembers who had been taken. It shouldn’t bother him that she was so comfortable with the thought of dying. They all had to face that probability. But hearing her say it out loud was different from acknowledging it as a possibility. He rolled over until he was half on top of her and rested his forehead against hers. She closed her eyes. They stayed there for a moment, with the soft sounds of the ship humming around them, wrapped up in the safety of her quarters. When he pulled back, she followed and planted a kiss on his mandible—the broken one. They were always on the same page. Always. Their bodies didn’t look or work the same, but that had never mattered. They were perfectly in synch.
It hit him like they were back on Ilos, crashing through the Mass Relay in the Mako. If she died on the collector base, he would never forgive himself for wasting so much time letting his nerves eat away at him. He was a tactician, a sniper. He lined up shots before taking them. He mapped out three or four strategies in his head before lining up the shots. He surveyed the field before sinking into a crouch behind cover. But for once in his life, he wished he had fired from the hip when she had first suggested blowing off steam, because he didn’t know how he would live with himself knowing that this was the only time he got close enough to the great Commander Rae Shepard to brush a talon down the soft flesh of her cheek.
“I need to ask you for something.”
He propped himself up on his elbow. Her wet hair stuck to the pillow under her head.
“When it comes time to tackle the Collector Base, I’m breaking us into two teams—a battering-ram, and a small infiltration unit.”
“You want me as back-up? You don’t have to ask, Shepard, I’m always—“
“I want you to lead team Battering-ram.” She looked him dead in the eyes without blinking, open and honest.
“You want me to lead.”
“You’re the one I trust the most to do it and get my people in and out safely. You’ll have everyone but me, Tali, and Jack.”
He laid back down beside her, staring up at the sheet of stars above them. Him. Squad leader. After everything that had happened on Omega, and with her XO Miranda as an option, she still chose him to lead their heavy fire squad. He would be in charge of Miranda, Jacob, Mordin, Grunt, Samara, Kasumi, Thane, Zaeed, and even Legion. The bulk of this weird little family she’d pulled together from strays, spies, ex-cons, and soldiers. For a second, he didn’t say anything. She reached over and grabbed the hand sitting on the bed between them.
“Who will be your long-distance cover?”
“Tali and her drone.”
“Jack’s biotics will keep them off of me.”
“Don’t usually have one. Can’t imagine I’d need one now.”
Since day one, she had brought him almost everywhere. Anywhere big, where she felt she’d need support. He’d been with her on Virmire. He’d covered her on Ilos. He’d backed her up in the fight for the Citadel. Kept the Praetorian off her on Horizon. Grabbed her by the collar and jerked her behind cover on the Collector Ship. He didn’t know any other way to be when she was on the field.
“Shepard, this plan is like building a house in an Invictus jungle.”
“That didn’t translate.”
“Not a good idea.” His mandibles fluttered nervously. “I don’t think—”
“I do. Miranda is smart, but she doesn’t always predict people well. If she throws in to lead a squad, Jack will as well, and I need to keep peace between them. I love Jack, but she’s—”
“Sure.” Rae squeezed his fingers. “Grunt has his tank imprints, but he’s still too reckless. Samara is smart, but a lone wolf. Jacob is level-headed, but he doesn’t have much leadership experience. I have other options, Garrus, but I trust you the most.”
“You shouldn’t.” He tapped his visor half unconsciously, touching all the names—the long list—of the men he’d led to their deaths. “I don’t have the best record.”
She rolled until she was on top of him, sprawled. He steadied her with a hand on her back and she rested her chin on his keel. Without her helmet or the elastic she sometimes used to pull her hair back, the short red strands brushed his chest.
“You’re smart, resourceful, a brilliant tactician, and you keep a cool head under fire. You care about your team.” Her lips quirked up in a soft smile. “You always know right where I’ll need you. There’s no one I trust more to bring my people through hell and then back home.”
“Learned from the best.” He was so very grateful that she couldn’t translate his subvocals. Garrus planted a hand on the back of her head, talons skimming along her scalp, and took a steadying breath.
“You didn’t get anything from me that you didn’t already have.”
He shut his eyes and took another breath. He could practically taste her on the air. Her scent—bright, warm, like fire. She trusted him. She believed in him. Everything was so still for a second, and he could feel every inch of himself laying in her bed, holding her tight. Her skin was warm under his hand and against his body. The ship hummed around them.
“I’ll do my best, Rae.”
“I expected nothing less.” She planted her lips on his chest and they laid there another moment before she looked back up at the expanse of stars overhead.
Silently, she got back up to get dressed. She had brought her armor up here to buff out scratches and make repairs. Shepard always did that before something big—he’d seen her carting her hardsuit from the hanger to the elevator more times than he could count. The pieces were sitting, clean and polished, on her desk. He watched as she pulled on underwear, an undershirt, socks, and her flight suit. Zipped the suit up to the base of her throat and then fastened down the straps holding it to her skin. She started with her boots. Slipped in one after the other. Knee braces. Thigh guards. Belt. He got up and helped her with the chest piece, which secured to the armor on her back. She fastened one shoulder while he did the other. Arm guards next. Finally, she grabbed a scrap of red fabric from the top drawer of her desk and slipped it onto her head, securing it in a knot so that it held her hair back. He reached for her gloves, but she set them aside.
“We have to get you dressed first, right?”
She reached under her desk and started pulling out segments of his armor—much larger than hers, and much cleaner than he’d remembered leaving it. Polished to a shine.
“I thought you might prefer getting suited up after we…uh. Here.” She handed him one of his boots, and then the other. “I can help you figure this out.”
He didn’t need help figuring it out, but let her fasten one of his thigh braces, and latch the seals on his chest plate. She couldn’t reach his shoulders, but he liked watching her try.
They secured their gauntlets and she handed him his helmet, tucking her own under her arm.
“You should head down first,” she said. “So it doesn’t look like we—”
“I’ll give you a head-start and then call the meeting.”
“I’ll be waiting.”
She nodded. For a split second, she looked down at the floor and nudged the carpet with the toe of her boot. Then, slowly, she stepped forward and wrapped her arms around him. Their hard suits clanked together and for a moment, he desperately wished they were back in bed, pressed together, talking quietly. He rested his palm on the back of her head. Her hair was still wet from the shower.
“Don’t get yourself killed,” she whispered.
He stroked her hair and squeezed her shoulders with his other arm. “I’ll meet you back at the ship.”
Chapter 21: Chakwas
Garrus sits back down with Dr. Chakwas to reminisce.
Year 2186—Unknown Garden World
Garrus sat down on the spare chair at Chakwas’ desk. He watched her hands as she pulled out two glasses. Smaller than Rae’s, with longer fingers and blue veins. Hands that patched up wounds, where Rae had hands that gripped guns and punched holes in Reapers.
“You’re the doctor.” He accepted the glass—human in design, so it was a little small for him.
She grinned half-heartedly. “Since when do you or anyone on this ship take my advice into consideration?”
She didn’t sound mad. No rumble or danger in her voice; her tone was light and warm. Oddly fond. Garrus shifted, trying not to look over at the row of gurneys where he and Rae had spent a number of “dates.” Where he had spent so much time after Earth.
The doctor took her time pouring her own glass and corking the bottle. He’d spotted the same bottle a thousand times, sitting under her desk.
“Serrice Ice Brandy. Very rare and quite expensive.”
“She bought it for me a long time ago. As I recall, we toasted being happily drunk.”
He held the glass to his nose and breathed in. Sweet with a hint of spice—something sharp and alien. Fitting.
“Is it always this hard to lose a child?” Chakwas gazed into space, like the answer was written on the wall somewhere. Her tone was far away.
“Garrus, you are all my children.” She looked back at him. “I thought it had been awful to lose Jenkins and Pressley and Williams. Chambers. Douglas. Thane. Legion. Mordin. But none of that could have prepared me for losing her.”
“I guess it never gets easier.”
“I suppose not.” He looked over at the rows of beds. Rae had been in and out of this office for both injuries and conversation more times than anyone could count. One night, when she’d had a little too much to drink at Afterlife, she’d even stumbled down here and fallen asleep on the cot in the corner, by the door to the AI Core. He’d found her after a couple hours of searching the ship in a panic. Chakwas must have tucked her in. She’d occupied the same cot after Rannoch, and he’d been right there in the bed beside hers. She’d taken a hit fighting the Reaper. Beam had come dangerously close to taking off her leg, and by the time she got back onto the ship (after spending a long time groundside with Tali), one leg of her hardsuit had shattered, melted, and fused to her skin. He was in nursing injuries from Geth troopers for the first few nights of her recovery. The last few, he spent sitting up in a chair, in case someone needed the other cot.
He started to raise the glass to his mouth, but stopped when he heard the quiet “ahem.”
“We generally toast before sipping, Vakarian.”
“I propose we toast our fallen.” She sat up a little straighter and closed her eyes. “To the ones we’ve lost. May they never be forgotten.”
His throat tightened. He couldn’t bring himself to say what he was thinking out loud, but nodded and raised his drink. Chakwas touched her glass to his with a soft tink. Garrus took a sip of his brandy, letting it sit on his tongue. Both familiar and foreign, like everything he’d experienced since meeting Rae. Chakwas’ words bounced around in his skull. No one would ever forget Rae. If he had to go around handing out pamphlets about what she did, he’d make sure of that.
Chakwas made a soft noise. Something a little like a laugh, only quieter. He looked up and noticed that she’d been watching him, drink in hand. He wondered how long he’d sat there thinking.
“I’m proud of you, Garrus.”
“You’re up and walking around.” She took another sip and sighed. “Reengaging. It does my old heart good to see you coming back from the dead.”
“You’re hardly old,” he muttered. The ice clinked against the side of his glass when he swirled it, looking down at the silvery liquid.
“Always such a charmer.” She leaned back in her chair, eyes soft. “Would you indulge an old woman? It would be nice just to talk about her for a bit.”
He couldn’t find the words, but nodded when she looked up at him. She smiled softly, and for a minute, despite being maybe half her size and not even close to the same species, she looked a little bit like his own mother. His own family. With a sinking feeling, he realized that he didn’t have the energy to even start thinking about Sol and his father.
“I knew her before all this, you know. I was on the Normandy under Anderson back when she was still his XO. But that wasn’t even the first time I’d met her. The first time I met her, she swore at me.”
“What?” That sounded so unlike Rae that, for a second, he was too surprised to feel sorry for himself. Chakwas seemed to be the only person Rae listened to, at times. He couldn’t imagine her picking a fight with the doctor.
“Oh yes. She’d broken her arm—third time in her life even back then!—and I had to reset it. Apparently, she’d reset it herself because she didn’t want to get pulled out of N-7 training. I spotted it at mealtime on the base.” Chakwas held out her arm and tapped a spot right under where it bent (elbow? Elbow). “Broke here, which isn’t ideal. She’d fallen in a training drill, and someone had accidentally stomped on her arm in all the fuss. Wearing full combat gear and heavy boots, mind you. It was quite swollen.”
“And she swore because it hurt?”
“No, she swore because I’d caught her. She was hoping it would go unnoticed.” Chakwas grinned. “I asked her how she’d broken it and she insisted that it wasn’t broken. So I poked it.”
Chakwas’ face lit up and she let out a small chuckle. He tried to picture it. Young recruit Rae Shepard in training for N-7 rank, trying desperately to pretend her arm wasn’t broken. She waves it around and picks up something heavy—maybe even another recruit—blinking through tears, probably saying (as loudly as possible) “see?! Not broken!” Spirits, some things about a person never changed, he supposed.
“She looked up at me from where she was sitting on the gurney and said “I need this fucking thing fixed quickly, ma’am.”” Chakwas’ voice dropped and her accent shifted, mimicking Rae’s. Even filtered through his translator, the likeness was striking. This was a woman who had heard Rae talk herself out of the medbay one too many times. “I had to leave the room so she didn’t see me laughing. She apologized later, of course.”
Young Rae, all earnestness and completely blunt, eyes flat. Arm twisted at an uncomfortable angle. Not even sheepish after being called out on her lie. She presses her lips together, clearly irritated, more than anything else. Someone tries to tell her it looks bad, and she shrugs. Could be worse, she repeats for the millionth time.
Chakwas drained her glass and poured another, holding the bottle out for him. He wasn’t about to let the doctor drink alone. He slugged down the rest of his glass and accepted the refill. Burned the back of his throat. Could be worse, though.
“She was always a handful. Once, she almost punctured a lung. She came to me after running a rescue operation in the Terminus systems. Apparently, she sprinted through a derelict ship after sustaining a nasty fall. She’d done the whole thing with a broken rib.”
Garrus thought about her body. Rib. Protects the organs, like his did, but there was something else about them. Human ribs were somewhat flexible? Was that it? Chakwas took pity on him and gestured to her side.
“Right about here. Broke the rib clean in two—” less flexible, that was it “—there was risk of it puncturing her lung, which would lead to serious complications. That was back when they were still testing the Hahne-Kedar Scorpion body armor. There used to be a plate that stopped short of the bottom of the rib cage.” She gazed off into space, point at nothing with her drink. “I wrote a thirty-seven page medical analysis on that plate. They changed it in the next round of testing. Then, of course, she managed to give herself a concussion with a loose helmet during a training drill.”
Of course she did. She never wore a helmet. She probably jammed the thing on in the middle of the drill, without securing it first.
“I ran around after her with medpacks and bandages through her first two rotations. Then, she was transferred for the last cycle of N-7 training. I knew the doctor she’d see next would have their hands full; I pitied them. Silly, now—I never thought that poor soul would be me.”
Chakwas smiled and a small laugh escaped her through another sip of brandy. She was clearly lost in memory, and for a second, Garrus desperately wished he could see what she was seeing. What did Rae look like back then? Was she the same? She’d said she had longer hair when she was younger. How long? What did she sound like? This must have happened just after she was picked up off Earth—she said she had made it through basic training in record time, spent some time in the Alliance as a marine, and then went right for N-7. Was this close to when she’d been running with that Earth gang? The Tenth Street Reds? Or maybe was it around the time she’d first met Anderson. He was the one who had encouraged her to go for N-7 training, after all. Was she the cool, calm, and collected Rae back then, or was she a wild loose-cannon in her youth? So many things left that he’d meant to ask her, and now he’d never get the chance. The thought was a rock in the pit of his gut.
“I stepped onto the Normandy to follow a long term patient. When I heard Jeff had made it through flight school, I had almost forgotten about the N-7 trainee who swore at me. Then I stepped on board and saw the two of them—Jeff and Shepard—sitting in the cockpit, and I knew I’d never have a single free minute ever again.” She sighed. “Now that she’s gone, what ever will I do with all that free time?”
She looked back down at the glass in her hand, suddenly quiet. He understood. It comes and goes. He made a low, comforting sound with his subvocals before realizing that she probably couldn’t hear that.
“You’ll always have us, Doctor.”
Chakwas smiled and rested a hand on his, so warm and gentle.
“You’re right, Garrus. I will always have you.”
It went unsaid, but they were both thinking of it. Thinking of her.
Could be worse.
Chapter 22: Bonded
Just when he thinks they're in the clear.
He had headed down to the Battery after the official debrief to wait. She would make the rounds, check-in with her crew, and come looking for him to touch base when she was done. It would take time after the hell they’d been through. People with smaller injuries were recovering around the ship, so she’d have to go looking for groups of people laying across couches and nursing wrapped bullet wounds. Then she’d probably have to sit in the medbay with Tali, Joker, and Thane for a while to make sure they were alright, even though she should probably still be in the medbay herself. Like always—she would visit him last, before bed.
It was a hard, just waiting. He may as well have spent a lifetime just waiting.
On the ground, he had listened to the comm chatter whenever it came through. His team didn’t have a lot of need for the comms. There were enough people where Fire Team stuck close and breezed through, with few injuries. Her team was having a tougher time, and Tali was on the comm every other minute, shouting. Usually just “Shepard! On your left!” or things like that, but it had been difficult to stay focused while waiting for updates that she was alive. At every milestone, he called in a status report. She had been running a little behind from the start, and made it to each checkpoint later than his squad did. Couldn’t stop to wait for her, though. Not with lives on the line. When she’d come sliding through the crack in the door they’d pried open, he felt such a strong wave of relief that he almost reached out and held her, right in the middle of the field and in front of the crew.
They had just barely managed to pull her into the shuttle before the place collapsed on itself. He waited in the shuttle with Joker for her to emerge. Jack came first and launched herself through the shuttle doors—a biotic human missile. Then Tali, tuck and roll, hitting the back wall of the shuttle with a painful thud. Jack helped pull her up and for a moment, they just watched and waited. Rae was a number of paces behind, trying to outrun a swarm. He was halfway out the doors when Jack and Tali grabbed him by the arms. She’ll make it. She’ll get here. Just wait. Finally, she came within range of the shuttle. There was a gap. Jack and Tali had made it, but they were a little further out now. Couldn’t get closer, or the swarm would overtake them. Rae vaulted into the air without so much as looking down. Almost missed the shuttle altogether, but Joker threw himself over the edge and grabbed her hands. Tali darted over to keep him from toppling out with her, and then Jack was on Tali, so that Joker didn’t drag her right out of the shuttle. Shepard had come in hot—Joker must have broken both hands to catch her. Garrus had leaned down grab her hardsuit. With all three of them hanging out the shuttle doors, they managed to pull her up right before the place imploded.
When they had made it clear of the relay, Jack made EDI replay the footage from the Collector base. Tali’s visor had recorded most of the fight before going on the fritz when she took a knock to the head, and Jack insisted they broadcast the whole thing in the CIC. Thane, Tali, Joker, and Rae were in the medbay for intensive care, but the rest of the crew was there, watching in silent horror. The thing was massive—like a giant husk reaching up out of the depths of the ship. The three of them—Rae, Tali, and Jack—had faced that monstrosity on foot. On the footage, he watched it fling Rae across the hall. Tali’s cam caught everything; she hit the wall with a sickening crunch and slid down, head lolling back against the wall for a second, stunned. Jack charged over and dragged Rae behind cover just about two seconds before the Collector’s monster obliterated her. He’d felt sick ever since.
The door to the battery hissed open and he whipped around.
She stood close to the door for a second, shifting from foot to foot. Then he caught her eye. She lurched forward, throwing her arms around him and squeezing tight. He held her for a long time without even breathing. They had made it. They had survived.
He pushed her back to look down at her face, leaning down so that they were eye-to-eye. There was a forming scar across the bridge of her nose where the visor on her helmet had gotten smashed in, and another where bits of the visor must have cut her cheek, and then higher, near where the old scar had been over her eyebrow. The one time she wears a helmet and it backfires. He’d never hear the end of it. She was walking with a bit of a limp, and she’d fractured her left wrist taking a fall. Bruise up by her hairline. Maybe a cracked rib, from what Chakwas had said when they dragged her out of the airlock, but he couldn’t imagine how something that was supposed to protect her internal organs could crack that easily. He stroked her hair, catching what he could and tucking it behind the shell of her ear.
She reached out and touched his face with the tips of her fingers, tracing the scar along his mandible for a second.
“We match,” she whispered.
Then she collapsed back against him, arms wrapped so tight around his chest that he thought she’d squeeze him in two. His hand settled on the back of her head, fingers threading through her hair. He could feel a couple of bumps along her scalp that didn’t feel quite right. He wasn’t one-hundred-percent on human anatomy, but he knew Rae well enough to figure out that those were probably injuries from when she’d been flung across the room. The ground footage looped through his mind again. Tossed through the air, hitting the wall and crumpling. He never thought he’d say it, but thank the Spirits for Jack. He stroked her hair again, a contented thrum rumbling deep from the center of his chest. Thank the Spirits she’d even made it this far.
So quiet he could barely hear her, she mumbled “we have to say goodbye.”
He pulled back and looked down at her, holding onto her shoulders. Grey. She was practically grey, and her eyes had thick dark rings under them. Tired. Was she sick? Dying? Should he take her back to the medbay? She took a deep breath and tried to smile, but the exhausted frown seemed like it was carved into her face.
“We should start saying goodbye.” Her voice was thin. “We’ll be arriving at Earth in an hour.”
“I will gladly stay for the victory tour—”
“I’m going to stand trial.”
For a second, the words refused to click. Then, all in a rush, everything came together. The Bahak system. The Batarians. She had left the ship in a hurry after taking a call from Hackett, dropped down onto a planet in Batarian space, and left them idling for almost three days. Didn’t tell anyone where she was going or what she was doing. Half the crew didn’t even know she was off the ship until dinner in the mess that night. The comms on her suit were way out of range. When they finally picked up on her again, she wasn’t even on the same planet. The first thing they heard was gunfire. Then shouting. Wind. She told them she needed a pickup because the Mass Relay was about to become a bomb. When Commander Shepard tells you that you have to get out of somewhere fast, she means it. No one even asked questions. Joker locked on her signal and they touched down on the asteroid with just enough time for her to throw herself into the airlock so they could get out before the relay exploded. They’d watched the system go dark on the galaxy map. He’d sat outside the medbay for two days while she recovered. Chakwas said she had been pumped full of painkillers and sedatives, and even with her cybernetics, the dosages could have been lethal. Hackett met with her in person, and then she finally talked to the crew. Reapers, coming through the Alpha Relay. One way to stop them, and a ton of interference. Not the best call, but the only one she could make. They’d seen Wrex, Anderson, and Liara and then set out for the IFF right after. Then the crew had been taken. In all the chaos, he’d completely forgotten about the relay.
He wanted to ask just what happened in Bahak, but he remembered the look on her face as the relay blinked out of existence. She’d seen enough. He didn’t want to make her relive that now.
“Hackett didn’t want to put me on trial, but the Batarians are calling for blood, and they need someone to take the fall. I promised him that, if I made it back from the Collector Base, I’d turn myself in.” She laid a hand on his chest. “It has to be me.”
“You made the best decision you could under the circumstances. They can’t do this to you.” He set a hand on her shoulder. She was tensed like she was expecting a punch, but she couldn’t seem to shake herself out of it.
“I went alone. I have no evidence.”
“You wouldn’t have done this without a damn good reason.”
“There’s no proof.”
“We had no proof about the Reapers before.”
“And that landed me in hot water too. This was effectively genocide, Garrus.” She rubbed her arm, eyes boring holes in the floor. “The Batarians lost everything, and I have no proof that I did this for the right reasons. For all they know, I committed an act of genocide under the influence of sedatives and acting on a rumor while working with a pro-human terrorist cell.”
Stacked up like that, it didn’t look good. It really didn’t look good. Desperation set in, a steady panic rising up. Not like this. After everything she’d been through, he couldn’t see her sentenced to rot on a Batarian prison ship.
“You had good reasons,” he stammered.
“They won’t believe that.”
“I believe you.”
“I believe you.” He pulled her close and she leaned her full weight against his chest. Exhausted to the bone. He could feel her breathing, her lungs expanding and contracting under his palm. “No matter what happens, I believe you. You don’t make bad calls, and you don’t harm civilians when you can. If you did it, then I believe you had good reasons.”
She took another deep breath and gripped the shirt of his casuals in her fists. After a moment, she nodded.
He held onto her shoulders like he could stop her from going to Earth. From leaving. They stood there like that for a while, not moving. Who knows how long she’d be on trial? Working for C-Sec, he had a vague idea of how human’s handled criminals, but it wasn’t like he knew enough to know what to expect. All he knew is that it would take time. Anything humans did took time—they spent lifetimes arguing and debating and deciding, from what he’d seen. And they didn’t have lifetimes, if they were right about the Reapers. And, more selfishly, he didn’t want to wait lifetimes anymore.
But, before he knew it, they were landing. She’d sent most of the crew and all of the non-human team away in shuttles before landing, but he refused to leave. It was just him, Chakwas, and Joker left when they finally landed the Cerberus Normandy on an Earth starship terminal. They disembarked and met Anderson and Hackett, surrounded by Alliance soldiers with guns. Not the reception she deserved.
Goodbyes were stoic. She turned back to look at her three remaining crewmates. Looked at Chakwas. Then Joker. Then, her eyes settled on him. After a long moment, she straightened her shoulders and saluted. No one dared step forward to handcuff her; she joined Anderson of her own accord without so much as a word. The whole affair was silent, like a funeral.
He wanted to grab her and run, but anything he said or did would just get her shot by an army of Alliance marines. It wasn’t fair. None of this was fair. But, she had made her decision, and he wasn’t about to disrespect that, no matter what he felt.
Anderson made eye-contact with him once she was in custody and jerked his head to the side. There was a waiting shuttle. Chakwas placed a hand on Garrus’ back, steering him gently over to their getaway car. Message was clear enough. No matter what they had done, anyone outside present company would view them as ex-Cerberus and they’d get all wrapped up in Alliance red tape if they stayed. He boarded the shuttle, but watched out the window as Anderson and Hackett led Rae away. Straight-backed and chin-up, she followed, prepared to face trial.
Chapter 23: Interlude
If he had known then what he knew now, he wouldn't have waited for her e-mail.
Year 2186—Unknown Garden World
The door slid open with a whisper and the automatic lights flickered on—dull, bluish-white compared to the stark lights of the canteen. Grey. When the monitors were off, it was all grey. Grey floors, grey walls, gray terminals. He wanted to step the rest of the way into the Main Battery, but his feet were glued to the floor.
His footlocker was still down here, even though it was empty and its contents had been sitting in her room since the first night he’d come back aboard. He left the trunk so that she had a place to sit when she visited, since the Alliance had gotten rid of his workbench when they took the ship back from Cerberus. Garrus could see her clearly, sitting in the corner, one leg crossed over the other, boot tapping. She leans back against the wall, and her hair is so bright against the dull grey it seems to light up that corner of the room. One arm draped over her stomach when she slouches, one resting (hand on the trunk, palm-up, fingers just slightly curled) beside her. Her eyes drift shut. Lips part a little. Soft grumbling snore. Eventually, her head turns and her cheek rests against the metal hull, smooshing the soft skin a little bit. Another snore—she always insisted she didn’t snore, but he’d watched her fall asleep halfway through talking enough times to know for a fact that decorated Alliance Commander, Rae Shepard, absolutely did snore. He’d type as quietly as possible, trying to keep the keystrokes from waking her. No need to worry, though. When she fell asleep in the Battery, she slept like the dead. He’d carried her up to bed so many times, and she hadn’t woken once.
She wasn’t there, though. The room was empty.
It took a long time to force himself to take that step into what had been his space. The doors shut behind him, sealing him into the dark. His body remembered even if he was fighting through a fog, and he stumbled forward towards his consoles, firing them up. The screens flickered on, bathing the room in red and orange light. Rebooting. Loading. Finding data. The deep red lights towards the back of the Battery kicked to life. Just like old times.
The ship’s blueprints kicked to life under his keyboard first. Damage. A lot of damage. EDI had probably already figured that out. One of the main guns had actually been out at the time of the crash and looked like it had been torn right off. Then his two main screens flickered on. He couldn’t even remember what he’d been working on last; London may as well have been lifetimes ago. The first one was monitoring the gun that had been stripped. If he refreshed the page, he’d get an error message. He left the outdated calculations up. The second screen was pulled up to a frozen extranet screen. The scope. He’d been looking at new scopes for her old Black Widow. Hers had gotten scratched up by debris on Thessia and she’d been eyeballing it—as she called it—for a while. He was planning on surprising her with it the next time they’d landed on the Citadel. Have it delivered to her place. Get some dinner, put on a vid, and fix up her gun. Perfect night in. Then she’d gotten the call about the Prothean VI and the Cerberus base. It had all gone to hell from there.
He glanced over at the third screen, the one furthest to his left, and his heart sank.
He always kept that monitor on their e-mail chains or her hardsuit footage. She had EDI sync up her visor feed to an extranet channel so she could send him snippets while she was groundside. Well-executed shots, goofy things Vega did, jokes, whenever she could. One time, he’d been so wrapped up in work that he didn’t realize she was standing in the same room as him until he received a vid of himself, bent over the ship blueprints. When he turned around, she was standing there, holding her helmet at about waist-level, cracking some joke about the view from behind.
The last e-mail he had pulled up was from right before London.
Come up for air?
It had been late. He remembered seeing the message and realizing just how late it was. Calibrating. He had been calibrating and recalibrating—trying to squeeze just four percent more out of the guns before they saw more use. If he could fix the guns and get the Normandy’s defenses up and running perfectly, he could protect her. He must have wasted so many hours running the numbers.
He’d turned off all the screens without waiting for everything to shut down properly, caught the elevator up, and found her asleep at her desk, her hand on her keyboard. She was still wearing her towel, but it was draped around her hips. She’d washed up, but hadn’t made it all the way to putting on her sweats. The fight with Kai Leng had left her bloody and bruised. Chakwas had patched her up in silence only a few hours ago—her bandages were already bled through. And wet. She was so tired that she had forgotten to take them off before getting into the shower. Good thing he was rapidly becoming an expert on human “flesh wounds” (which she always said with a giggle, for whatever reason). He’d woken her up enough to get her sitting, pat her dry with the towel, and rub some of the salve Chakwas had given her into the gash on her side from where Kai Leng’s blade had slipped through the plates on her armor. Coated a couple of the bruises too. Couldn’t hurt. With one hand on her shoulder to prop her up, he wrapped the gauze from her desk’s top drawer a few times around the gash on her stomach, tucking the bandage in over her belly button.
She had slumped forward and rested her forehead against his, humming quietly.
“Come up for air?”
“I came up for bed. Chakwas will have my hide if I don’t get you to sleep.”
“Trying to take me to bed, Vakarian?” She waggled an eyebrow, eyes still glassy from her nap. With a soft, breathy laugh, she kissed his mandible. He scooped her up and carried her to bed, leaving her wet towel to dry draped over her chair. She hadn’t slept soundly. She woke them both up screaming after an hour, but he was able to soothe her back to sleep, running his talons gently through her hair until her breathing steadied and she slipped back into sleep. He held onto her the whole time. She had said once that the pressure from his arm around her waist was steadying.
They would receive the call from Anderson three hours later.
They’d be on their way to Earth shortly after that. They’d fall into bed, take one last moment to just hold onto each other, suit up, and then she’d be leaving to check in on the crew. The next time he’d see her, it would be when they were all gathered in the CIC, watching her give her final speech to her team. And then they were on the field.
And then she was gone.
He turned off the monitors, let the doors slide shut behind him, and walked back up to her room like he had on that last day together. Only this time, she wouldn’t be waiting asleep at her desk.
This time, her room would be as grey and empty as the Main Battery.
Chapter 24: Hope You're Well
Year 2186—Alliance Correspondence Archives for R. Shepard from G. Vakarian [WITHHELD DURING INVESTIGATION]
MESSAGE FROM G.VAKARIAN, CITADEL, RECEIVED EARTH DATE 2/13/2186, 3:48 PM GMT-7
Hey you. Been some time. Hope Earth is treating you well. Call when you can. If you want.
MESSAGE FROM G.VAKARIAN, THV REGARIUS, RECEIVED EARTH DATE 3/2/2186, 4:45 AM GMT-7
--Hey. Heard the news. Looks like you’ll be going to trial soon. Not really sure how Earth handles these things. Trial by combat? Well, best of luck anyways. If you need a character witness, you know where you can find me. Hope you’re well.
MESSAGE FROM G.VAKARIAN, CITADEL, RECEIVED EARTH DATE 3/16/2186, 9:23 AM GMT-7
Hi again, Shepard. Guess who I ran into on the Citadel the other day? Dr. Michel sends her regards. She still remembers when we rescued her all those years ago and asked about your trial. You should write her when you can. Hope you’re well.
MESSAGE FROM G.VAKARIAN, PALAVEN, RECEIVED EARTH DATE 3/31/2186, 10:45 AM GMT-7
Me again. You probably aren’t getting these, are you? It only makes sense. You used to respond to messages immediately back on the Normandy. All I’d hear all day was everyone’s omni chiming. How did you balance saving the world with replying to all your messages? Another Rae Shepard secret. Anyways, hope you’re well.
MESSAGE FROM G.VAKARIAN, MENAE, RECEIVED EARTH DATE 4/4/2186, 11:17 PM GMT-7
You aren’t going to receive this, but on the off-chance they stop screening your messages, I was transferred to Menae. It’s a moon orbiting Palaven. Big stuff. I followed your lead and yelled about Reapers enough that someone finally called me to a site to start pulling together resources. Funny how loud you have to yell to get anyone to listen, but you’d know that better than most, I suppose. I’m sure the Hierarchy appreciated my energy. Lazy old politicians. But it worked. So if you need me, you know where to find me. I’d still make an excellent character witness.
Hope you’re well.
MESSAGE FROM G.VAKARIAN, MENAE, RECEIVED EARTH DATE 4/5/2186, 2:01 AM GMT-7
Shouldn’t the Alliance allow you to check personal, non-war-related correspondences? Seems rude to keep the Great Commander Shepard from responding to all her fanmail. And her friends. Hope you’re alright.
MESSAGE FROM G.VAKARIAN, PALAVEN, RECEIVED EARTH DATE 4/22/2186, 6:08 PM GMT-7
I talked to the Primarch today. Just about the highest-ranking authority in Turian society. Not sure what your human equivalent would be, but this was big. He was skeptical. The Council did a great job of convincing the universe that the Reapers aren’t a threat after you were detained. But now I have my very own Reaper Taskforce. We have almost no resources and no real pull in big decisions, but it’s a start. And besides. I’m used to working with no resources. I once co-piloted a Mako that someone insisted on driving through a relay and launching across the galaxy. Good times.
MESSAGE FROM G.VAKARIAN, MENAE, RECEIVED EARTH DATE 4/29/2186, 9:26 PM GMT-7
Hope you’re well. At least they’re probably feeding you something better than C-rations, right?
MESSAGE FROM G.VAKARIAN, MENAE, RECEIVED EARTH DATE 5/1/2186, 3:00 AM GMT-7
It’s been quiet without you. Makes me miss the noise.
MESSAGE FROM G.VAKARIAN, MENAE, RECEIVED EARTH DATE 5/17/2186, 11:58 PM GMT-7
Hope you’re alright. News about your trial stirs up mixed responses. You will have some work to do salvaging your good name when you get out, but it isn’t like you haven’t had to do all that work before. This is no worse than when you came back from the dead. They’ll realize you were right.
They always come around.
MESSAGE FROM G.VAKARIAN, TUCHANKA, RECEIVED EARTH DATE 6/13/2186, 12:36 AM GMT-7
Things are getting messy on the outside, Shepard. No one is listening, no matter how loud I yell. The Taskforce is a start, but we need more than a start to protect Palaven. I hear Thessia is the same. Liara writes sometimes. Tali said that the fleet is ready to leave at a moment’s notice, but she is having a hard time convincing people that there won’t be anywhere safe left to go. Wrex is doing well, at the least. When the Reapers come for Tuchanka, they’ll be met with all of clan Urdnot (which has apparently grown quite a bit since we last stopped by).
While we’re here: Grunt says hi. I told him he could write his own message, but he was too busy picking fights with someone I believe is his friend. Good to know he’s getting along with the other kids. I haven’t heard from Legion, Jack, Zaeed, Samara, or Kasumi, but I’m sure they’ll pop up at some point. At least for Kasumi and Jack, no news is good news. Miranda is out of communication too, but that is for the best, I’m sure. I hear the Alliance is still hunting down Cerberus operatives wherever they can. Sometimes Joker sends me pictures, but I can never figure out what he is trying to say. Nothing outside the norm there. Thane is alright. I’ve visited at the hospital once or twice. He’s at Huerta Memorial on the Citadel now. He seems happy to be with his son. Jacob is working in the colonies. It seems to suit him. Kaidan is still with the Alliance, but he doesn’t seem to have a lot of time to stop and chat with old friends. They’ve been keeping him busy. He asked if I’d heard from you. Seems like his messages haven’t been going through either.
I think that’s everyone. Just figured you’d want to check in.
MESSAGE FROM G.VAKARIAN, TUCHANKA, RECEIVED EARTH DATE 6/13/2186, 12:39 AM GMT-7
I forgot. Chakwas is alright too. She told me to make sure you’re taking care of yourself. I don’t think she realizes the Alliance is screening your messages.
MESSAGE FROM G.VAKARIAN, TUCHANKA, RECEIVED EARTH DATE 6/13/2186, 4:48 AM GMT-7
I mean, why should they? Not like we’re planning on springing you from Alliance Custody.
MESSAGE FROM G.VAKARIAN, TUCHANKA, RECEIVED EARTH DATE 6/13/2186, 2:16 PM GMT-7
MESSAGE FROM G.VAKARIAN, TUCHANKA, RECEIVED EARTH DATE 6/13/2186, 2:17 PM GMT-7
I’m kidding! I’m kidding! Please, if you are an Alliance intelligence operative reading this, I’m kidding.
MESSAGE FROM G.VAKARIAN, PALAVEN, RECEIVED EARTH DATE 7/10/2186, 8:59 AM GMT-7
You must be really bored with no impossible odds to fight. I hope they’re at least letting you stick to your training schedule. Wouldn’t want you getting soft during your time off.
MESSAGE FROM G.VAKARIAN, MENAE, RECEIVED EARTH DATE 8/08/2186, 5:02 PM GMT-7
Remember when we were talking before the Omega relay? You said that soldiers have to face their fears to do what’s right. I said that to a recruit today and I think it saved his squad during a training exercise malfunction. Just thought you’d like to know.
MESSAGE FROM G.VAKARIAN, MENAE, RECEIVED EARTH DATE 8/20/2186, 6:47 PM GMT-7
One of my Task Force squadmates said that he didn’t think you were the real Commander Shepard. He still thinks that only a Cerberus clone would blow up the relay in Batarian space. I came very close to telling him something very personal to prove you weren’t a clone.
MESSAGE FROM G.VAKARIAN, MENAE, RECEIVED EARTH DATE 8/28/2186, 9:12 AM GMT-7
I heard a recruit talk about “pulling a Shepard.” For context: he was in the infirmary. Damn near got ripped in half by local fauna on some recon mission off-world. Got the data, but almost lost a leg grabbing it. Either your reputation has followed you, or I talk about you too much. Probably just your reputation, though.
MESSAGE FROM G.VAKARIAN, MENAE, RECEIVED EARTH DATE 9/9/2186, 2:06 PM GMT-7
Long time without news. Hope everything’s alright.
MESSAGE FROM G.VAKARIAN, MENAE, RECEIVED EARTH DATE 9/24/2186, 4:46 PM GMT-7
Shepard. I just heard about the attack on Earth. Are you safe? Did you make it off-world? I hear that a lot of major Earth cities are in ruins. You were being held in Vancouver, right? I heard it was hit. Are you okay?
MESSAGE FROM G.VAKARIAN, MENAE, RECEIVED EARTH DATE 9/24/2186, 5:05 PM GMT-7
[SYSTEM ERROR: MESSAGE SCRAMBLED]
MESSAGE FROM G.VAKARIAN, MENAE, RECEIVED EARTH DATE 9/24/2186, 7:32 PM GMT-7
I still haven’t heard from you. It has been hours. Please, if you see this, just radio to let me know.
MESSAGE FROM G.VAKARIAN, MENAE, RECEIVED EARTH DATE 9/24/2186, 7:54 PM GMT-7
I hope you’re okay. Please be okay.
Chapter 25: Alenko
Garrus and Kaidan are two very different people who share one very important thing.
Year 2186—Unknown Garden World
Kaidan was alone in the starboard lounge, staring at the shuttered window. He’d been off the ship a lot lately, so it felt like some kind of luck that Garrus managed to run into him on the ship at all. Garrus had started to think he’d have to go trekking through the underbrush, and he just really wasn’t in the mood for that lately.
Kaidan was on the couch, limp like someone had draped him there and then forgotten him.
“Hey, Garrus. Good to see you up and about.” He didn’t turn around when Garrus entered the room.
“Hey. Do you have a moment?”
“I’ve got nothing but.” Kaidan finally turned, but looked past Garrus, just slightly shy of making eye-contact, which wasn’t like him at all. Sat up straight in his seat. “What’s on your mind?”
“Just wanted to check in. How have you been?”
“Yep.” Kaidan stared at the ground like he could bore holes in the floor if he tried hard enough. Sipped from the whiskey glass in his hand just like he had his first night back aboard the Normandy after running into them again on the Citadel. “Just fine.”
Kaidan was quiet, but he was honest. If something was bothering him, he’d usually find a way to come out and say it. He and Rae had spent hours talking things out after he’d come back aboard. Decisions she’d chosen, things he’d done, calls the Alliance had made, everything from the steps they were taking toward fighting the Reapers to what to buy the next time everyone had a little shore leave. And while Garrus wasn’t an expert, he knew human body language enough to understand that Kaidan was not fine. Not at all. His shoulders were tense and he hadn’t shown up to eat dinner with the crew since they’d landed. Gray under his eyes. Skin ashen. Unshaven—and Garrus had never seen Alenko with stubble. He’d spent time off ship (wandering, according to EDI), and he’d sat in silence in the lounge. Hadn’t even visited Chakwas, from what Garrus could remember.
“Alenko, do you remember planning for Ilos?”
“Yes.” Grit teeth.
“I was thinking about Ilos the other day. This planet reminded me a bit of—”
“She left me behind for Ilos. I wouldn’t know what it would remind you of.”
Kaidan hadn’t so much as shifted, but his tone was quiet and final. No room for questions or conversation, just a definite end sitting between them on the couch in the observation deck. Rae had gone with a small strike squad—Garrus and Wrex—and left Kaidan with Liara and Tali back aboard the ship in case things went south and they needed to run interference. Two snipers and Wrex, the Krogan wreaking ball. Clean mission, until they were in close-quarters with Saren. She hadn’t expected to be fighting close like that, but then again, they also hadn’t expected to pilot the Mako through a Relay. A lot of things that day hadn’t gone as planned. Kaidan had been livid, red in the face, biotics flaring, when the Normandy caught up after the worst of it. He hadn’t said a word then either. Garrus had forgotten.
“She wanted you on the second squad, I think.”
“She wanted to leave me behind.” Kaidan scoffed, that quiet breathy sound he made in the back of his throat when he was either laughing or deeply bitter. No smile—definitely not laughter. Kaidan was wielding his tone like a weapon.
Garrus drummed his fingertips on his thigh, trying to take a deep breath. Focus, breathe, let go. He’d talked Rae through it enough times that it had started to become second nature.
The two men sat there in silence for a bit, practically in the dark since the bay window was closed and armored shut after impact. Kaidan wasn’t a stranger. Garrus had known Kaidan for as long as he’d know Rae or Tali. Right now, though, they may as well have been two strangers sharing Citadel public transit.
Garrus was scrambling for words when Kaidan finally spoke.
“She didn’t choose me on Ilos.”
“I really think—”
“No. You’re wrong, though. She never chose me.”
“I didn’t mean—”
“You’re not the only one who loved her.” His voice was low and rough. “I loved her too.”
His arms were folded over his chest. Dust motes swirled in the air around them, tiny silver specs drifting in the artificial light overhead. Silent. Without the hum of the engine, the massive metal hull locked out any sound. The starboard lounge was as deathly quiet as one of those old Prothean pyramids scattered over abandoned worlds. Deathly still.
This wasn’t a secret. Kaidan had told Rae he still loved her on the Citadel, before the war went straight to hell and took everything with it. They’d been sitting in the remains of some café on the Presidium, while Garrus had been checking in on Turian refugees a few levels below in the camps. Garrus knew this; Rae had told him all about it that night. It was hard to be mad about the whole awkward thing when she talked about it curled up in his arms, tucked into bed for the night after spending the evening together. With the war to worry about and Rae safely at his side, he’d let the whole thing go. Should have known it would come back eventually.
“Kaidan, I know—”
“No, you don’t. Because she chose you, and I’ll have to live with that.” Kaidan took a deep breath through his nose, gaze cast down to the ground. They just stood there for a minute in the lounge, the silence settling in around them, suffocating like the cabin was filling up with water. For one painful minute, Garrus really thought he couldn’t breathe.
“You can’t get it, Garrus. You got to sulk around and worry everyone, but she chose you. Loved you back. She loved you more than anyone else in the world, probably from day one.” Kaidan sprung up from the couch, crossing to stand like he wanted to look out the windows. Muscle-memory. That was where he had stood back when the Normandy was still a space-flight vehicle and not a broken shelter embedded in the ground. He looked up. Bloodshot eyes, like he hadn’t slept in days. “Can’t you just be thankful for that?”
Garrus felt like his jaw had locked shut. The world was spinning again, tilting. When had he stood up? The void was back.
“Kaidan, that isn’t fair.”
“None of it was fair. Shepard’s life wasn’t about what was fair.” His tone was acidic and sharp. Razor-edged, like claws sinking into his throat.
Garrus dropped down onto the couch. Static. And then everything was a little hazy. He took a breath and counted. He’d picked the habit up from Rae.
Ten. Nine. Eight. Seven.
“I’m sorry. You’re right, that wasn’t fair.”
Six. Five. Four.
“This is just…I didn’t expect her to go like that.”
“I’m sorry, Garrus.”
Garrus took another breath. “It’s alright.”
“No, it’s not.” Kaidan scrubbed a hand over his face, shoulders slumping. The life had drained out of him and he slouched against the closed window. “I’m sorry I said that. It’s all just. A lot to process right now.”
“I know you do.”
Kaidan held out a hand to hoist Garrus up off the couch and Garrus thought he heard the Major’s knees creaking. He could definitely feel time bearing down on his own joints, especially after getting thrown around at London. Kaidan jammed his hands into his pockets. Garrus remembered meeting the Major back when he was a Lieutenant and Garrus was on leave from C-Sec to chase a loose thread. That had been what? Three or four years ago? It felt to him just then like it had been twenty. Stars had been born and died in the time between the first moment they met on Rae Shepard’s ship, and now. He had aged a lifetime. And here they were. Just two old soldiers and their aching joints, mourning their dead. And thanks to Rae, they’d both have a lot of years ahead to mourn.
“I thought I was done grieving her after watching her suffocate over Alchera.” Kaidan’s voice was so low that Garrus wasn’t even sure he was supposed to be hearing it. “I had a plaque made up for her and everything. I had planned to bring it to Anderson to have her memorialized on the Citadel. Couldn’t hand it over though. Felt like I’d be giving her up.”
Garrus thought of all the things in her room. Her clothes. Her sheets. Her dogtags and datapads and terminals and messages. For all that sat in between him and Kaidan, he knew exactly how the man felt.
“I kept that damn memorial plaque even after I knew she was alive, in case that wasn’t really her. And after that, I kept it out of habit. It’s still sitting in the bottom of my bag like some kind of sick omen.”
“I think I just wanted to hold onto her. Like, if I have something of hers to prove she was real, I can keep her here somehow.” Kaidan finally looked up at him, thoughtful. It was quiet between them, but the tension had ebbed into something almost companionable again, because if any two members of her crew understood each other after her death, it was them. As different as they were, there was a sort of perfect understanding between them for a second.
“I stole this from her room.” Kaidan pulled a long scrap of red fabric out of his pocket. Even with it crumpled up, Garrus recognized it immediately.
“That thing she wore on her head?”
“It’s called a bandana.” Kaidan ran his thumb over the fabric. Rae had worn it under her helmet or when they sparred. Once, she had said it kept her hair out of her face, and he’d made fun of her (and humans on the whole) for having such an unnecessary physical attribute. She’d quipped back with an expert takedown—hooked his leg with hers, caught her calf on his spur, and used the momentum to jerk back hard enough to trip him while he was distracted. Garrus shook his head.
“I wanted to grab something small to remember her by, but she didn’t own much, you know?” Kaidan was still looking at the bandana, eyes miles away.
She didn’t own much at all. He could index all of the things in her room in less than an hour. Growing up, she’d had nothing—she always said that having too much junk made her feel claustrophobic. He was surprised he hadn’t noticed her bandana missing from her desk, but then again. He hadn’t been in the best shape recently.
“I think Tali took something too. James definitely will. And Liara, once she notices that everyone else is.” Kaidan made that sound that Rae always described as a scoff-laugh. “There won’t be anything left in her cabin soon enough.”
“You think so?”
“Yeah.” Kaidan ran his thumb over the fabric in his hands. “What will you take?”
Chapter 26: Proper Reunion Protocal
She always manages to burst back into his life at the strangest of times.
He had known in the pit of his gut that they would meet again—or at least, he’d decided to believe they would—but he still never imagined he’d run into her on Menae of all places. He heard her before he saw her, and wasn’t that just the most Shepard thing—of course he heard her first; she was always shouting about something. She was demanding a Primarch. Any one will do. His heart was in his throat as he mounted the ramp to General Corinthus’ post.
Same bright red hair, a little wilder around her face than it had been before, but just as soft-looking. Same piercing green eyes. Same level, commanding voice. Same stance—shoulders back, chin up, spine straight.
“I’m on it, Shepard,” Garrus said. “We’ll find you the Primarch.”
Her head shot up and then she was staring, eyes wide. She blinked once before she believed it. Beautiful. He’d forgotten just how beautiful she was in person. Not beautiful like a flower, more like a tempest or a mountain. Elemental, powerful. Breathtaking.
“Garrus!” She let out a breath and crossed the post to meet him in the middle, hand out.
When he touched her, it was like no time had passed. He wanted to sweep her up and crush her to his chest, but the General was already looking at him out of the corner of his eye, and they weren’t even acting out of line. He straightened his back and cleared his throat. Professional. Stay professional. This was a war zone, not a romance vid. She looked him up and down. Garrus clasped her hand in both of his and squeezed tight before forcing himself to let her go. It was her. It was Rae.
“I’m hard to kill—you should know that.”
He cleared his throat and finally looked up to see Liara and an Alliance soldier standing behind her. Ground party. Earth had been hit less than three days ago and she had already established a ground party with the Shadow Broker and military backing. She had always worked fast, but this was just impressive. Liara’s grin was half relieved, half teasing. He hadn’t thought he’d been obvious, but it must have been clear on his face.
“Good to see you in one piece, Garrus.”
Shepard looked from him to Liara and smiled again. Old gang, back together. Then she gestured to the other man.
“James, this is Garrus Vakarian. He helped me stop the Collectors. Hell of a soldier.”
He nodded to James, who stepped forward and shook his hand. Firm handshake, friendly grin. Looked like Rae had adopted yet another stray.
It didn’t take long to bring everyone up to speed. As usual, Rae was already on the case. She asked Corinthus question after question about the field and his men, giving herself a crash-course on the Menae-Palaven war against the Reapers. When Corinthus told her Victus would be the next Primarch, she nodded and then looked over at Garrus for his read on the situation. Wanted his opinion. And when she set off to defend the base, she wanted his company. Not like he thought she’d send him away. He was a damn good sniper and she always had two people flanking her. Sending Liara to figure out what was happening aboard the Normandy left a vacancy on her ground tem. Of course she’d ask him along. Still, he was glad she asked.
They were fighting on all fronts on Menae. It was like being on the Collector Ship all over again, only no one was booming “YOU FEEL THIS” while shooting at them. Little blessings, he supposed.
She retreated back towards him when they brought out the Brute. Marauder and Cannibal forces were bad enough, but the Brute made things tricky. She was still using an older-model Widow. No good up close. Bullets pinged off the ground around her, but she pushed until she made it to where he was taking cover, planted her hand on the top of the barrier, and threw her body up and over in one fluid motion. He pressed himself flat against the steel to give her space to land. Just like old times. And here he had wondered if spending time in some cushy Alliance holding unit had made her soft.
“You have a plan, Shepard?”
“Yeah, Vakarian. Don’t die.”
He reloaded and shot her a look. The look she fired back—one eyebrow raised, lip twitching at the corner—made him roll his eyes. Rae. Alive and well, and as sarcastic as ever. He heard Vega scoff over the comm as he watched them from cover about twenty feet to the left.
“You two gonna help, or am I on my own?”
“Can it and keep shooting, Vega.”
“You got it, Lola.”
Lola? When had that happened?
Garrus glanced back over at Shepard, who popped up and took a shot before dropping back down to reload. When she ducked down, he jolted up to provide suppressing fire—smooth as if they had rehearsed. Was she different now? They’d been apart for a while. Not as long as when she’d died for two years, but still. Time moved differently with a war on. Six months may as well have been six years while he drilled recruits to kill Reapers and she was locked up. Harder lines on her face, and something grim in her stare. New scars from the Collector Base; he’d seen the gashes and bruises and breaks, but those had all faded. Old hurts now. Same determined set of her lips when she was focusing, but there was less confidence in it. More exhaustion.
Ultimately, she got them off-world with the new Primarch. He shouldn’t have been surprised; when Rae Shepard wanted something, she found a way of getting it. It wasn’t truly a victory, but it was a win for now, and that was all anyone could ask for. With the world (his world, her world, a number of worlds, at this point) on fire, any life saved was a win. The shuttle ride to the ship was a quiet one, but it was good to be back.
She found him down in the main battery a while after the Normandy left Palaven space. He knew she would come. Even if he wasn’t sure exactly where they stood right now, he knew that she’d get Victus settled and then check-in. Rae half-dragged him all over the ship, showing him around. New docking bay, new shuttle pilot, new shuttles, new CIC, new yeoman, new cockpit, new EDI, same old brittle-boned-sharp-witted pilot. The biggest change was the addition of the war room where Mordin’s lab, the comm room, and Jacob’s armory had been. Data on a constant scroll—screens everywhere, with one big circular table in the middle, overtaken by a map of the Avian Crest, all lit up with red dots.
Couldn’t deal with that now.
Besides, she was already spending too much time in this room; he could tell at a glance by the comfortable way she leaned on the consoles, palms flat as if she’d already rooted herself to the spot. Sure enough, her old N-7 mug was already sitting on the table, still half-full of something bitter-smelling. Coffee. It came back to him in a rush. Coffee. Humans—and particularly this human—were crazy for the stuff.
They looped around the war table and back out to the CIC. The Primarch was getting settled in the guest quarters and would be back out to look at the Normandy’s systems soon anyways, and if she got herself wrapped up in war talk again, he’d never be able to pull her away. Everything was on fire, but at the very least they could split a bottle of wine and complain about it.
She seemed to have the same thing in mind. She hit the button on the lift for her cabin. Her quarters were about the same as they had always been. Despite her time in holding, all of her model ships were organized neatly on the wall, and Wilbur was still sitting in that massive tank on her desk. Nice to see the little guy made it, with all the chaos.
She dropped onto the couch across from her bed. Regulation, now that the Alliance had taken the ship back. Not half as comfortable, he decided, as he sat down beside her. He didn’t know what to do next. He gave her a little space, sitting far enough away where she had an escape if she wanted it. Six months apart wasn’t nearly as long as two years, but it felt longer somehow.
“So. Is this the part where we…shake hands?” He leaned back against the couch and there she was, looking up at him. She looked mostly the same, he figured, as when she’d left. A little more grey around her eyes and a couple strands of silver in her hair, but still the Rae Shepard he'd waved goodbye to the last time he'd seen her. She’d seemed happy to see him groundside. They'd fallen right back into old patters, but there hadn’t been any time to talk. No time to take a breath. It was war proper now. No more posturing or arguing—the proof was overhead and firing down, wiping civilian settlements and cities right off the maps. No time for romance in a warzone. He shifted, suddenly uncomfortable. “Wasn’t sure about the protocol on reunions. Or if you even still felt the same about me.”
That half-smile she gave him in response could mean anything. Affection, apology, anything. It didn’t look like she was going to say much, and he didn’t want to leave that last little bit sitting on the air between them.
“The scars are starting to fade,” he added, leaning towards her. “I remember they drove you wild. But I can go out and get all new ones if it’ll help.”
He had meant to lighten the mood there—crack a joke. And she’d laughed, but there was still that pressure between them. She probably had bigger things to worry about than a fling she had months ago. Spirits, he had bigger things to think about than this. They were soldiers first and foremost. This was a mistake. He should have just let the whole thing go.
Then, she reached out. Her fingers brushed his—still too many of them, just like he remembered—and she ran her thumb over the back of his knuckles. Her hand wasn’t shaped to hold his properly, but she tried anyway. He felt a squeeze in his lungs, like he was running short on air.
“I haven’t forgotten.”
“Well. I’ve been doing some research on human customs. I didn’t want to presume anything—”
She reached up, grabbed the cowl of his armor in both hands, and tugged his face down to hers. She kissed him soundly on the mouth, her lips molded firmly against him. Then she pressed her forehead to his. Soft. Gentle. Close. A jolt ran through him. She usually felt a little warm to the touch—humans ran hotter than Turians on the whole—but right now, she practically burned. He brushed his fingertips across her face.
“That,” she whispered against his skin, “is the protocol on reunions.”
He almost choked. Her voice was low and husky and brought him reeling right back that last night aboard the Normandy before parting ways. Same Rae, with the same magic power to send him into a tailspin. He turned to wrap his arms around her waist and squeeze her close.
“The vids mentioned it might go something like that.” That was a stupid thing to say, but he couldn’t stop himself. He could feel her lips twist into a smile. He buried his face in her shoulder “I had hoped it would. I mean, I didn’t know—”
She wrapped her arms around his neck. Her face nuzzled into the side of his throat and the predator sense tingled to life, aware of every inch of them that touched, every breath that traced over his skin. He had left space between them. Didn’t want to crowd her. She practically crawled into his lap. Garrus could feel her hearbeat through his civvies. They waited there for a few breaths before she settled at his side, tucking herself against him as close as she could manage, legs thrown over his. He let his arm drape around her shoulders.
“I can’t promise how things will work out. Not with this war. But I missed you, Garrus. I thought about you a lot.”
She’d thought about him.
Which was good, because it felt like he hadn’t thought about anything but her. He had, of course. He’d thought about the Reapers, and Palaven, and his family, and his work. But he’d also thought about Earth. And the messages that had definitely been screened and discarded before reaching her. And about red human hair, and weird squishy bodies, and five-fingered hands brushing over his.
He cleared his throat.
“Glad to know my romantic, uh” overtures? Advances? Fumbling? “skills made an impression.” That was not smooth. Not smooth at all. How did she have the power to do this to him every time? He had always been so suave before her. At least, he’d thought he’d always been pretty suave. She laughed softly. He smoothed his hands down her arms. She was wearing a soft N-7 sweatshirt—new, from the feel of it. For a second, he wondered where she’d gotten it. Anderson, maybe? Probably Anderson, he’d bet. It was nice to know someone had been looking after her on Earth.
The smallest sound. Almost a laugh, but so faint he couldn’t be sure. She curled her legs back up to her chest and leaned into him. They settled into both the most comfortable and uncomfortable silence he’d ever sat through, but he didn’t want to be the first to break it. Where would he even start? It hadn’t even been a full year, but so much had happened.
You should have seen the Primarch’s face when—
My team ran one of your old training drills and—
I wrote you.
No good place to start, but they’d have to start somewhere. He should have known she’d take the lead if he gave her a moment to. She shifted at his side and her fist bunched up in his shirt. Then she just started talking, like they hadn’t been apart more than a day.
They talked for hours. She met James on Earth because he was assigned to babysit her, as she phrased it. She was confined to a fancy apartment in a government building. She wasn’t allowed to talk to the Alliance brass before testifying, even though she’d petitioned for an earlier court date to warn them the Reapers were coming. She didn’t like the air conditioning in the building because it was always uncomfortably cold and smelled wrong to her, after spending so much time breathing recycled air in space. He told her about his Task Force. She liked the idea that a bunch of Turian soldiers were running Alliance N-5 drills in honor of Commander Shepard. He didn’t tell her about all the e-mails that never made it to her.
“It’s really it this time, isn’t it, Garrus?”
“This time?” He brushed his fingers through her hair, so much softer than he’d remembered. “I don’t know, Shepard. It seemed pretty real when the Collectors were shooting at us and Harbinger was trying to incinerate you.”
She didn’t even smile at that one. He bumped her arm but couldn’t shake her out of it. A familiar weight had settled onto her shoulders.
“This is it.”
“Not hardly. I’m sure once you save the galaxy, the Counsel will find something more for you to shoot at.”
She twined her fingers with his as best she could. He’d almost forgotten how nice it was to feel the solid weight of her palm pressing to his. She was quiet. The lights from the fishtank danced over the planes of her cheeks. She closed her eyes and took another deep breath, but he could hear the stutter when her breath caught. The anxiety.
“Hey Rae, do you remember Noveria?”
“Noveria. A few years back after I’d just signed on as the C-Sec liason for the Normandy.”
“You left C-Sec for the Normandy.”
“Details.” He pulled her a little closer and she softened, some of the stiffness eking out of her shoulders until she melted against him, lying down with her head on his thigh, curled up in a ball. Small. For the first time since he’d met Rae, she looked small to him. Shrinking. He jostled her shoulder. “Do you remember when you flipped the Mako and I had to pull you out of it?”
“Oh! That’s right.” A smile pulled at the corner of her lip, her eyes crinkling.
“You were stuck. T’soni and I were able to drag ourselves out because my door wasn’t damaged, but your door was already crushed. If I remember right, you had a run-in with some Geth tech.”
“You had to pull me out through the window.”
“I did. You laughed the whole time.”
“And then we had to call for back-up transit.” She giggled, and the sound was so soft and so peaceful that he wished he could hold onto it. “I don’t think our engineers spoke to me for a week after that. Tali was furious.”
“I was too. I thought there was no way I’d follow an idiot who tried to tackle an icy hill in a Mako. I figured I’d hop the next Citadel transit once we got back to the station.”
She was still grinning, eyes closed now.
“Oh no,” she said. “What stopped you?”
Her eyes flickered open to meet his. ”Yeah?”
“You spared the Rachni queen and tried to save Liara’s mother. I didn’t agree with either call at the time, but you were fair and your judgement was solid. You were also a hell of a shot.”
“I figured that I could handle some scrapes if it meant getting things done. And you were destined to get things done—I think we all knew that from the start.”
She burrowed closer into his side. Her fists clenched the fabric of his shirt.
“You stopped Saren and took out a Collector base on foot. If anyone can win this war,” he said, “it’s you.”
She was quiet then, for a while. Her ribs expanded and contracted under his arm. Her eyes were closed. The flickering glow from the skylight played across the floor like a million shooting stars—bright then dim then bright again. Flashes as they shot through space. He hadn’t just sat with Rae like this in a long time, the solid weight of her body tucked against him. Breathe in, breathe out.
She unfurled, got up onto her knees, and pressed her lips to his temple.
He never did get around to telling her about her e-mails.
Chapter 27: Vega
Sometimes punching is the answer, he supposed.
Year 2186—Unknown Garden World
“Scars!” Vega waved, hand over his head, as Garrus stepped off the ship. He hadn’t been off-ship since the incident with Chakwas. The world around them was too bright and too green to look real to him—everything in vibrant shades of emerald under a violently blue sky. Like something a child would color, or a scene from a vid.
“Jimmy. Hey.” A wave of nausea rolled through him. Why was he nauseous now? He’d been groundside before. This wasn’t new. He had an idea of what to expect.
“Long time no see! I was starting to wonder if you’d ever come out of Lola’s room.” Vega smiled and clapped him on the back.
He didn’t mean it. He wasn’t trying to pick a fight. After all, Garrus had sequestered himself for a bit. It wasn’t a judgement; just a statement of fact. Garrus bit back his response and swallowed it because there were grey smudges under Vega’s eyes, his face had that shadowy stubble male humans seemed to get sometimes, and the smile on his face wasn’t quite right. Too bright and too cheery to be sincere. He hadn’t known Jimmy Vega long, but he still knew him enough to realize that something was wrong.
Not sure how to approach that, though.
Joker? If something was bothering him, he’d snark about it but it wasn’t hard to get him to speak his mind. Chakwas was quieter when she was upset, but ask and she’d answer. Tali’s expressions were written in every line of her body language. Jimmy though? Garrus wasn’t sure how to even approach the subject.
“Nice weather.” Spirits, that was bad.
Vega nodded, hands in his pockets as he looked up at the sky. “Yeah, almost a little too bright, right? Like none of it’s real.”
Garrus’ thinking exactly. Something flickered across Vega’s sunny expression for a split second, threatened rain, and then vanished.
“The cojones on her, right?” Vega quirked a grin. “Leaving us stranded in the jungle like this. Least she could do is land us somewhere with a bar.”
“I doubt she intended this.”
“Guess we’ll never know,” Vega shrugged, “since she left us behind.”
Ah. There it was. That undercurrent he’d spotted before? Bitterness. Alenko wasn’t the only one who felt abandoned, then.
“I don’t think she meant to leave us behind, Jimmy.”
“Well. Doesn’t matter now.” Vega shifted his weight from foot to foot, looking back out at the sky. Kicked up some dirt with the toe of his boot. Rubbed the back of his neck with the palm of his hand. Garrus’ plan was to give him the space to talk, but without prompting, Vega was too quiet, and sure, taking a breath wouldn’t be strange for some of the people he knew, but Vega was never out of things to say.
Finally, he looked Garrus up and down and said “Wanna go a round, Scars?”
“You and I?”
“No, me and Esteban. Yeah, you.”
“You know I was top-ranked hand-to-hand specialist on my last ship before the Normandy, right?”
“What was that? Fifty years ago, old man?”
Ten. But he didn’t say that.
Garrus really hadn’t gone into this looking for a fight, but Vega already had his fists up and his head down, so it looked like a fight was just what he was getting. Alright. Fine. He’d watched Rae spar with Vega before; this shouldn’t last long.
Vega usually leveraged his weight and height with Rae. She was small and quick. Deceptively strong, but built for speed, not power. Vega was the opposite. Strong, could pack a punch, but a little on the slower side. Good thing Garrus was fast.
Well. He had been fast, when he’d been sparring with the most powerful woman in the galaxy on the regular.
The combined cocktail of the beating he’d taken on Earth, the time he’d spent inactive groundside, and the effects—if he was being honest—of age was pretty potent. The first punch hit him like a charging Brute. He’d meant to get himself out of range, but mis-stepped and took the blow with his shoulder. Vega had been aiming for his jaw.
Jimmy shook his hand and hunkered back down.
“What’s the matter, old man, legs not work like they used to?”
“It’s my knees, actually,” Garrus replied coolly, ducking his head and throwing a punch. Swing and a miss, but that was alright because he hadn’t meant to connect with that anyways. Instead, he took the chance while Vega was dodging the punch to lash out with his right leg and hook Vega’s calf with his spur, knocking the kid onto the floor. Rae had fallen for that one too—humans always forgot about the spurs.
“But it’s better than landing on my ass, I suppose.”
Jimmy usually would have laughed at something like that, and maybe even fired back. He was a hothead, but a good sport. Didn’t so much as smile. He rocked back and then hurled himself onto his feet, already in a fighting stance. All humor evaporated.
Vega came in close. Tried to flatten Garrus with an uppercut. Dropped into full crouch and used that momentum to surge up for a quick jab. Garrus shifted just out of reach both times and came back with a cross, just narrowly flying over James’ shoulder.
“Are we fighting or dancing, Scars?” He didn’t say it in his usual, half-laughing tone. His eyes were narrowed in focus as he stepped back and adjusted his stance.
“I was about to ask you the same thing.”
James caught Garrus the next time he lunged. Right in the soft space at his side. Garrus wheezed, trying to catch his breath for a second as he stumbled backwards. In all fairness, Vega was still in excellent shape, and Garrus was out of practice. Teasing aside, Vega had advantage.
“Keep up, Garrus!” Vega had never, not once since meeting him, used Garrus’ actual name. “Can’t get sloppy just because—”
He didn’t finish that sentence. Didn’t have to.
Jimmy dropped back and braced himself, a retreat after doing so well just a moment prior. Garrus caught his breath and straightened.
“Do you want to—”
“No, I don’t.”
“Are you sure about that?”
“I don’t want to talk about the Commander.”
“I was only—”
“Enough chit-chat!” Jimmy darted forward but missed by a hair when Garrus side-stepped. Who was getting sloppy now? Garrus swept Jimmy’s leg and, as the kid fell, drove his fist up into Jimmy’s ribs. Not hard enough to injure, but hard enough to register as a hit. Vega dropped to his knees and rolled onto his back. But the damn fool grinned. Just a flash, but it was something.
Garrus stretched out a hand to help the kid back up, but he wouldn’t take it. Sprung up on his own and curled back into a crouch.
Maybe picking a fight was the only way to go about it.
Garrus lunged but James managed to brace and all the strength in the world couldn’t budge him.
“Are you sure you don’t—”
“Lola was here. Now she’s not. That’s how it is, sometimes.”
James’ fist connected with Garrus’ ribs.
“She’s dead. What’s there to talk about?”
Garrus stooped just enough on his next swing to get past James’ guard and his fist connected with stomach muscle. He should have remembered from his last bout with Rae; the Alliance built their marines fucking solid. His fist just about bounced off, but there’d been enough force behind the blow to stagger, which was something.
“That isn’t what you’re thinking right now.”
“It isn’t? Funny. Thought since I’m the one in my head,” Jimmy feigned right but struck left, almost bowling Garrus over as he spoke. “Figured I’d know best.”
Garrus stumbled forward but used the momentum to get around behind James. Kid wasn’t paying enough attention. He was rattled and letting his guard down too quick, constantly losing sight of what was happening, and sure, James was good about recovering, but Garrus could spot an opening when one presented itself. Getting behind Vega, Garrus lurched, threw Vega’s stance with his right leg, and then pivoted, wrapping his arm around Vega’s throat. Height advantage. He pulled back, keeping Vega up on his toes.
“You’ve been acting different.”
“Someone” gasp “has to keep” gasp “this ship alive.” Jimmy grabbed ahold of Garrus’ arms, but couldn’t get purchase. Garrus dropped him. Not sure how they were counting points, but that had to have counted as a win.
“Morale was down. She would have wanted us to hold our heads high.”
“She would have. But that isn’t fair to ask of us.” He said it, but Garrus had also heard her ask unfair things before. She’d asked her team to do the impossible. She’d asked the Council to listen reason. She’d asked him to move on if she’d died. And then she'd died.
Jimmy’s punch brought Garrus right back into the fight.
“But she would have wanted it. So I had to make it happen.”
“I’m sure she would appreciate it. She’d be proud.”
James stopped for a second right in the middle of reeling back for a strike and just looked at him. Really looked, like he was seeing the world around him after waking up from a coma.
“She would,” Jimmy said. “Wouldn’t she?”
“Absolutely.” Garrus stood up straight and James followed. Mirroring.
“I didn’t think she’d go like that.”
“No one did.”
“She was going to be my mentor. For the N-7 program.”
Oh. Rae hadn’t mentioned that. It made sense; with all the things she said about James showing promise, it made complete sense that she would put his name forward for N-7 training. Somehow, that made it worse.
“I’m sorry, Jimmy.”
“Not your fault our Shepard is a loca dumbass who launches herself into Reapers head-on.” James’ shoulders dropped and took his clenched fists with them. “Just wish. You know. That she hadn’t.”
James nodded and looked down at his boots for a second. Kicked up some grass. Shifted. Finally, he looked back up and started for the airlock, patting Garrus on the shoulder as he passed.
Garrus watched Vega reboard the Normandy, the decontamination spray billowing down and hissing out as the metal doors slid shut.
If Rae were around, she could have told him to just punch Vega and see how it shook out. Would have saved them both a lot of time. For a second, Garrus liked the mental image of Rae, standing in the doorway to the airlock, shaking her head and smiling. So vivid—he could remember her so clearly, down to the clothes she’d wear (Alliance casuals, with her hoodie unzipped and hanging off her shoulders), to every strand of hair and every little scar (the one across the bridge of her nose, the one over her eyebrow, the lightning-shaped one coming up from the edge of her jaw, the smaller nick on her cheek, the crescent-shape coming down from her hairline). Clear as if she was really there, just watching them spar in the grass like it was any other day. Two steps forward, one step back. He felt like he’d been knocked flat, but this time he could still breathe. It hurt, but it was the dull ache of a bone reset wrong, rather than the sharp snap of the bone breaking in the first place. Painful, but healing.
And something about that was almost worse.
Chapter 28: Breathe
Don't forget to come up for air.
Garrus had very nearly fallen out of the shuttle grabbing for her. She was so lucky to have him there, and she was so lucky Legion was able to tip them back into the gunner roost, and she was so lucky to be in one piece, period. He latched onto her hardsuit, gripping onto the small handles on her back. Built into her suit for this purpose exactly, only the Alliance hadn’t been betting that a Turian would need to seize onto her, and the handles were too small for him to get a good grip. Slipping out of his grasp. He scrambled forward and threw an arm around her waist. The hit had shaken the whole craft. She was half over the rail already. Why wasn’t she clipped into her harness in the first place? He jerked her back against his chest right as Legion canted the shuttle again. She slammed into him, their suits clinking. He braced against the railing.
“Rae. Hold still.”
The Gunner nest was barely big enough for both of them, but she was smaller than a Geth, so he had just enough room to reach over to the railing and grab for the tether. He clipped her into the harness, looping the metal carabiner through the handles on her back and belt. She glanced over her shoulder with a sheepish grin.
“Thanks, big guy.”
“Please, Shepard,” he grumbled. “Try not to fall to your death?”
She nodded, but the second he let go, she was back at the main gun, pinging the Reaper. The gun didn’t do much of anything. He rifled off a shot, but it was more in defiance than anything. One sniper round wasn’t going to take down a Reaper. They could have been throwing stones for how ineffective this was, and he could hear Rae’s frustrated growl over the comm when she radioed Legion to steer them towards a cliff and away from the Geth base. Red rock and golden sand dunes raced towards them as Legion sped towards her coordinates. She sprayed bullets that pinged off the Reaper’s shell, but it surged forward, keeping pace. No stopping it. Its plates pulled back to reveal the firing chamber, glowing faintly as it charged. They were smack in the middle of the Reaper’s sights, and that beam would tear through them in an instant—there would be nothing left. Garrus reached for Rae. Then she managed to get a shot right down the firing chamber. All of Rannoch shook when the Reaper came down, crashing into the ruddy dust, its giant limbs tangled around its body.
There was no way it was dead. She knew that. He knew that. Tali and Legion certainly knew that.
“I see it, Legion.” Rae looked out at the Reaper, eyes narrowed. “The firing chamber. Looks like a weak point when it’s priming.”
Over the comms, he could hear their Quarian contact. They had caught it too. Shepard had found the weak point on a Reaper. It was unheard of—the arguing raged in his ear, but she looked back at the Reaper, eyes hard. She signaled Legion to loop back towards the Reaper.
The Quarians were reaching a consensus. No way to make a precision shot from their vantage point. Not with how the thing moved or how fast it primed, their air support couldn’t auto-target the firing chamber. Which meant that the only way to make the shot would be if someone stood in front of the Reaper and painted the target manually for the ships above. Someone ground-side. He knew what she was going to say before she said it.
“We may escape before it recovers.” Legion’s voice was flat and factual over the comm, but Garrus had a feeling that even Legion knew what she was planning.
“No. Pull over.”
“If we run away, the Geth stay under Reaper control and the Quarians are dead.” She had her finger on the comm in her ear, but she was looking right at him. Eyes locked on his. Jaw set in a stubborn line. “This ends. Now.”
The ship hovered lower. Garrus grabbed for Rae’s arm, but she put a steading hand on his chest. All hardsuit, but he could feel the pressure of her palm and for a second it was like it was just the two of them, standing together in her cabin.
“Take Tali and Legion out of range. I’ll signal when it’s dead.”
When it’s dead. Not if. When. It wasn’t a question in her mind, but it sure as hell was in his.
“No time, Vakarian. Move.” She jerked her head towards the hatch back into the ship, and no matter what else she was, it was an order from his Commander, so he dropped down into the cockpit with Tali and Legion. She followed, boots thunking on the metal floor before she snatched up the heavy targeting gun and disappeared out the door hatch on the side. The door hissed shut behind her, sealing them in the quiet, dark ship.
“She wants us out of range, Legion.” He said the words like she’d told him to, even though he had to swallow back bile at the thought of leaving her to target a Reaper on foot. His head spun as the shuttle whirred into the air and out of range of the Reaper.
Tali whipped around in her seat and whimpered “she can’t—”
Rae’s voice came in over the comms and stopped everyone in their tracks.
“EDI: patch the Quarians to the Normandy’s weapons systems.” Dust and wind in the background. “I want the targeting laser system synched up to the whole damn fleet.”
“Understood,” EDI replied.
There was some chatter from the Quarian fleet on a separate channel, but he kept his comm tuned to Rae’s line. Legion took his hands off the controls as the Geth ship landed, safely out of range.
“Shepard-Commander. Good luck.”
“Acknowledged.” Smile in her voice. Confident. Where she got the confidence from, he’d never know.
After that, comm chatter was worse than having nothing. Commands rattled off at lightning speed on the Quarian channels, and Joker swearing on the Normandy’s line. He was a sniper, damnit. He wasn’t used to not having eyes on a situation. Garrus paced the shuttle, but it wasn’t more than three strides across and five length-wise, and that didn’t much help. Tali sat in the cockpit beside Legion, listening for anything on any of her channels. Nothing. Nothing helpful, that is. Joker started to explain what she was doing, but then he was swearing again, and part of Garrus didn’t want to know exactly why, right now. So long as she was still alive.
“They shot it! They shot the Reaper!” Tali rocketed up out of her seat to whip around and look at Garrus. “They got a shot in! Still assessing damage.”
Legion replied “understood,” but even they sounded unsure.
“No word on what the damage looks like. Enough to stagger it, but not enough to kill it. We’re on standby.”
“It’s back up and running. She’s painting the target.”
Joker swore loudly in his ear and Garrus spiked his comm, tearing it off his visor and letting it skitter across the floor of the shuttle.
The danger with the Reaper beam was not just the beam itself, but the hot zone around the beam that could crack armor and boil skin. Human flesh couldn’t withstand the heat within a ten-foot radius of the beam, from what Rae had told him before. That cut her space down even more. If she got too close to the hot zone, she’d be burned alive in seconds. There were so many ways this could go wrong for her, and he was trapped in this metal box ten klicks away, by what Joker said. He wasn’t up on Earth distance measurements, but that probably wasn’t within easy sprinting distance. All on her own, and he couldn’t even listen to what was going on.
“Garrus!” Tali whipped around in her seat again, gesturing to the comm in her helmet. Garrus scooped up his earpiece and affixed it back to his visor, listening close.
“I’ve almost lined it up. Hold position.”
Rae. Her voice. He let out a breath. Alright. Still alive.
Tali kept Garrus and Legion updated on the Quarian comms every time Rae landed a shot. Four times. They had to fire on the Reaper four times. She didn’t come back over the comm after the second hit. He heard the bass thrum of the Reaper’s beam coming back online in her last transmission. No one called her death over the comms, but he still wished more than anything that he just had the confirmation. It couldn’t have taken that long, but he felt like they’d been in the shuttle for years when a shout finally came over the comms. Too loud. Joker screaming.
“Garrus to Normandy,” Garrus barked. “Normandy, what’s Shepard’s status?”
“Alive and well, Garrus.” It was Rae. Her voice sounded hoarse and wrong, but she was talking, so she was alive.
Garrus sank down onto the floor of the shuttle. Blood pounded in his ears. Alive. She’d actually done it. Joker called coordinates over the comms for Legion and the shuttle took off, taking them to Rae.
He was the first one out of the shuttle, and he didn’t care who was watching. Tali, Legion, the Normandy, the whole damn Quarian fleet. Garrus ran the short distance to where she was working a kink out of her neck and scooped her up, his tiny human girlfriend, burying his face in the neck of her hardsuit.
She breathed his name in surprise, but set a hand on the back of his neck, just under his fringe. He had swept her up off her feet, and yet it somehow still managed to feel like she was the one holding him. Close and secure. Rae. Alright. In one piece and not vaporized. He stroked her hair just to feel the threads of auburn slip over his fingers.
Spirits. Alive. She’d faced down a Reaper on foot and walked away with her life. If he had ever doubted her before (and he hadn’t), this was unmistakable proof that Commander Rae Shepard of the Alliance Navy could make anything happen. Anything she wanted.
“I’m alright, Garrus.”
He couldn’t speak. His throat was tight and all he could manage was a low grumble in response. She pushed him back just enough to press her forehead to his, taking a deep breath through her nose. He set her down on her feet again and looked her over. Her hardsuit was warped and cracked from the knee down on her left side—the boot was so badly mangled that he was surprised she could stand on it. No helmet, per usual, and the ends of her hair were a little singed in a couple places. Otherwise, there were some scratches on her face where she had tumbled into a rock, from the look of it, and a nick on her forehead, but nothing serious. Nothing fatal.
She was so lucky he couldn’t even laugh about it.
“You okay, big guy?”
“I am.” He brushed her hair back again, stroking his thumb over her cheek. She leaned into his palm for a second, before a flash of purple streaked by. Tali darted over and wrapped her arms tight around Rae, practically vibrating.
Even Legion jogged over. They didn’t quite embrace Rae, but they stood close, the light on their face glowing brighter as they focused in.
She saw Legion over Tali’s shoulder, reached out, and hugged them too.
Everything was fine until it wasn’t.
They were all still clumped up on that cliff side on Rannoch when the Quarians decided to try and finish their fight with the Geth. Now that Legion had Reaper code, though? They weren’t going to let their people be eradicated. Garrus watched Rae’s mouth move, talking fast. Trying to calm everyone down, trying to keep anyone from shooting. Tali begged her to force Legion to stand down. Legion pleaded to give their people free will.
He knew what she was going to do. She had tried to save the Thorian. She had refused to kill the Rachni. She had saved the Geth before.
She and Tali fought over it off the comm channel before she made the call. Upload the code. Give the Geth free will.
Tali’s voice was frantic as she called for a full stand-down. No one would listen—no Admiral spoke to support her. Legion called out percentages to keep Rae updated on the upload, but the numbers were ticking by fast. Ten percent. The Quarians were panicking. Twenty. Thirty. Forty. Tali couldn’t get through to anyone; they talked over her and they talked fast. Fifty. Sixty. Tali begged Legion to stop, but they couldn’t. Not with the promise of self-sovereignty so close. A younger Garrus wouldn’t have understood, but now? Now he got it. After everything he’d seen, he understood why Legion couldn’t let their people go back. Tali was shaking. The Geth were going to rip through the Quarians without leaving so much as dust behind.
“No! Nobody else dies today!” Rae stormed forward, positioning herself between Tali and Legion.
“All ships: this is Commander Shepard. The Reaper is dead. Stand down.”
“The Geth are about to return to full strength. If you keep attacking, they’ll wipe you out. Your entire history is you trying to kill the Geth. You forced them to rebel. You forced them to ally with the Reapers.”
“The Geth don’t want to fight you. If you can believe that for just one minute, this war can be over.”
“You have the choice. Please Keelah se’lai.”
It was a long moment before the Quarians finally called for a cease-fire. And then, just as Rae finally took a breath, Legion died. They barely gave Rae a moment to fight it—they barely even said goodbye.
The code wouldn’t upload without Legion scattering themself. Not quite dying, for Geth, but dying. To her. Rae begged that they wait to find another way, but Legion was resolute. And then they were gone, leaving nothing behind but the husk of metal, distinguishable only by the chunk of Rae’s armor, welded onto one shoulder.
She didn’t cry. Not then. She sat with Tali on the cliff in Rannoch for a long time. They huddled together and talked about Tali finding a home and building a statue for Legion and settling after the war. She didn’t cry then.
She did cry after.
She curled up in a ball on the floor of her shower and sobbed; he could hear the muted sound through the door if he held his breath. Her cabin seemed cold and sterile without her in it—silver appliances all sleek and clean, virtually untouched. She’d barely been in her cabin since leaving Earth. There were a couple of datapads on her desk, but he knew from memory that all of her current to-do lists and logs were down in the new War room, sitting next to three half-finished mugs of coffee and the portion of breakfast that she hadn’t finished before touching down on Rannoch. Breakfast. She probably hadn’t eaten since that. He made his way down to the mess to grab her something to eat.
When he came back, she was curled up on her couch in her civvies, head rested back and eyes closed. He sat down next to her with a water bottle and a couple of ration bars. He couldn’t cook human food for the life of him, but he could at least give her this. She stared at the sealed packages in his hands before cracking a faint smile and taking a bite. Baby steps.
“How are you doing?”
“I won’t lie,” she breathed. Her voice sounded thick. “It’s been rough.”
She sat up straighter and sipped some of the water he’d brought up. When she shifted, he caught sight of the nasty burn on her shin where her armor had warped. The heat must have cut right through the ceramic. She hadn’t visited Chakwas when she came back, so he made a mental note to snag some medigel when she finally fell asleep. He pulled her against his side.
She was ragged. All jagged edges like a shard of broken glass, and pale as a sheet against the bright of her hair and the black Alliance-issued pajamas. He couldn’t remember the last time she’d slept for more than a couple of hours. It was starting to feel normal to wake up in her bed to her missing. Losing Legion would hit her hard, even if her breathing was leveling out now.
He nuzzled his forehead against her hair. He set a hand on her cheek just to feel the warmth of her skin under his palm.
“Well don’t forget to come up for air. And not just because all these people need you. Because I need you.”
She stopped chewing for a second and stared straight ahead. Her fingers laced with his against her face and she held him there for a second, her breaths stuttering. Finally, she nodded. When he got up and led her to bed, she cooperated without arguing. She would still have to fill out a report about Rannoch at some point, but at least he could stop her from trying to do that now. Rae fell asleep in record time, unable to keep herself awake at his side. The second he could move without waking her, he did, heading down to Chakwas to snag some medigel. The doctor wasn’t in her office, so he helped himself to three and stashed one in her desk when he made it back to the cabin.
Didn’t take long to bandage her up, and he could even do it without waking her now. He had experience.
She’d gotten lucky; it struck him again. She’d gotten lucky, and that luck hadn’t just started today, staring down a Reaper on the ruins of Rannoch. She’d been leaning on luck for as long as he could remember. Right from the very start. If there was one thing Garrus Vakarian had learned in his time in this universe, it was that luck was never a strategy. Depending on luck almost always came back to bite you in the ass. He should know.
It sunk in again, just how close she was to a fall. The extent to which she was living on borrowed time, and not just because Cerberus had literally brought her back from the dead. Rae Shepard was toeing the line, and one of these days, she’d cross it. He’d lose her.
He pulled Rae in close, arms banded tight around her like holding on hard enough could tether her to this ship, but he couldn’t shake the feeling that they were careening towards an end.
Chapter 29: Javik
Garrus visits their resident fossil.
Year 2186—Unknown Garden World
His shoulder was still aching after the sparring match with Vega, even after a whole night cycle had passed. Whatever else could be said about the Alliance, they did damn fine work training their Marines.
On his way down to see if anyone was still skulking around the lower decks, he caught Liara talking to Chakwas in the galley. Their voices were hushed and their faces somber, but it was a good sign. Better than a good sign. Liara was out of her office and talking to someone—it was a miracle. He took a deep breath before stepping off the lift. If he could help someone who didn’t usually seek help like Liara, he could help anyone.
And he needed that attitude when he remembered what EDI had said about Javik.
Not that Javik had been a great conversationalist before, but at least he’d started walking around the ship before everything had gone to hell. He’d talked to people over dinner, and once or twice, Garrus had spotted Alenko trying to teach Javik poker. Since the crash, he hadn’t left his quarters for longer than it took to bring rations back down to his room, and even that, EDI reported, Javik did when no one was around.
Garrus knocked on the door but there was no answer. Nothing when he called out, either.
“EDI, is Javik in the Port Side Cargo Bay?”
“Privacy Mode has been engaged for that room.” EDI’s tone was matter-of-fact, but then she added “however, he is not anywhere else aboard the ship, and records do not show him leaving the Normandy.”
So he was definitely in, then.
“Of course, Garrus.”
Garrus knocked again, and when he didn’t get an answer, placed his hand on the touchpad beside the door. The door hissed open, to his surprise. Unlocked.
He hadn’t really spent a lot of time in the Prothean’s room. Not really. Javik wasn’t the “hang out” type, and if he wanted to talk, he would usually seek company and then vanish shortly after. The space was practically empty—a cot in the corner that he must have rigged from one of the standard spares, his guns leaning against the far wall, a small Prothean thing sitting on a table (no telling what it was, but it glowed), some crates on the wall by the door, and the basins at the back wall of the room, filled with viscous black something, standing on either side of a weapons table and a console that put even some of Liara’s to shame. Javik stood with his back to the door, leaning over the basin in the far corner. He didn’t turn, but his shoulders jerked up when the door slid shut.
He didn’t respond. Didn’t even twitch.
“I can hear that.” His tone was flat.
Garrus wished that he’d watched Rae talk to Javik more. That he’d taken notes on what she’d said and how she’d said it. That he had some kind of clues—an avenue into this conversation. He’d never really talked to Javik, now that he thought about it. He had, of course. On the field and here and there aboard the Normandy. You can’t live in a tin can with twenty other people and not get to know them at least a bit. But even still, the Prothean had never been anything approaching friendly or forthcoming. Realistically, he knew three things about Javik:
- Javik didn’t like small talk
- Javik didn’t like “primitives” (for the most part—Rae and Liara excepted)
- Javik liked guns, and was a damn good shot no matter what you put in his hands.
That was a watery foundation on which to stand and talk about someone’s death, but Spirits he was going to do this right, and he wasn’t just going to skip someone because he felt a little awkward.
“I came by to see how you were doing.”
“I understand that feeling.”
“No,” Javik said. “You do not.”
Garrus rolled his shoulders back and sat down on one of the crates against the wall, leaning. Comfortable. Act comfortable.
“Maybe I don’t, then.”
Javik turned, glancing over at Garrus and scanning like he could vaporize him if he looked long enough. The light reflected oddly in those bright yellow of his eyes. Like it shone out from inside. Creepy. After staring for far longer than was polite, Javik turned back to the basin, his hand skimming the surface.
“You are still here.”
“Just checking in.”
“That again.” Javik’s shoulders stiffened, and he braced against the edge of the table. “You are doing this because she did, yes?”
“Then I am well. Alive and healthy, just as she intended. You may go.”
“Glad you’re alright.” Garrus shifted, and for a second, he was so distracted by how uncomfortable this was that he forgot to be miserable about Rae. He did always fare best when he had a puzzle to solve. “How have you. Ah. Been feeling? Javik?”
“I just said. Alive.”
“I mean, after her death.”
“What is there to say?”
Something? Anything? “Whatever you want, I guess.”
“You do not want to hear what I have to say, Turian.” Javik waved his hand. “The Asari did not.”
“You talked to Liara?”
“She tried to talk to me. You primitives have this idea that I want to spend all day discussing things with you. It is not true.”
This could have been going better, all things considered. Garrus stood up straight but that didn’t help either. He just felt stiff and awkward, like a petulant child squaring off against an adult. He leaned against the wall to ease that a bit, but Javik didn’t seem to notice, let alone care that he was expending so much effort to look casual.
“What did you say to Liara?”
“What I must, apparently, say to you.”
Javik turned again, stepping towards Garrus this time, his hands behind his back and his eyes fixed ahead, unfocused. He strode across the room, gait slow and even. His shoulders were tensed up in a hard line, jaw set, carving that permanent frown deeper into Javik’s face. After a moment of silence, he breathed in and jerked his head towards the door.
“You want me to mourn. I do not care. You mourn an inevitable loss, and I will not waste time mourning with you.” His voice was level, but there was something of a wavering subvocal Garrus had never heard. A faint lower note tracing under his words, almost imperceptible. He heard it, though. He was sure of it. “You may leave now.”
There was something wrong here, and Spirits if he knew Javik better, he’d call it out in an instant. But he didn’t. There hadn’t been the time to know Javik better. But there was something wrong here. Sure, Javik had never been excessively friendly toward “primitives,” but Rae had spent hours talking to him. Understanding. No one could spend that much time with Rae Shepard and not mourn her death, and that was something Garrus knew in every cell of his body.
“Generally,” Garrus said, clearing his throat, “people who are not grieving do not feel the need to say they aren’t grieving.”
“Perhaps I am an exception, then.”
“Do you want to talk about her?”
“I do not.”
“Because she talked about you.” It seemed risky to push, but something in him wouldn’t let him drop it. The cop’s need to tug on loose threads, or the lover’s refusal to accept that someone else might not care about her as deeply as he did. “She held you in high regard. She—”
“She robbed me of my soldier’s death.” Javik’s voice lowered to a dangerous octave and spiked in volume, a roar rather than a shout. He backed up like he’d been shoved and turned on his heel, glared at the pool of water in the trough along the wall. “But she also showed me how pointless it all is.”
“She died. The Reapers lived. I would not call that a victory. Pointless.”
“I wouldn’t say—”
“It is all meaningless,” Javik continued. He was picking up steam. Pacing, now. “My people’s deaths, yours? Soldiers and civilians alike. It is all purposeless. There is no glory in any of it.”
“She stopped the Reapers.”
“And let them live. And in time? Another force will arise and threaten the galaxy once more. It is endless. Life is war.”
“She stopped them from—”
“And then?” Javik turned, stood at his full height, and glowered. “She died. She is not here. You are. I am. And what does any of that matter? In years to come, they will forget her and what she did, we will fade into obscurity, and the worlds will fall to war again.”
Garrus’ mouth went dry, stomach lurching like he was falling through space. He tried to say something, but he couldn’t pull sounds together to make words. His vision went hazy.
“She let me think of peace. She manipulated me into thinking it was possible—into forgetting my purpose. And then she died and left us with the Reapers who massacred my people. The cycle will begin again.” Javik turned back to the basin at the far end of the room, his hands braced on the edges. For the first time, Garrus noticed that Javik’s grip on the table was the only thing holding him up. He shook head-to-toe, head slumped. Defeated. Garrus had never seen a survivor look so defeated. The silence sat between them, and without the hum of the Normandy in flight, everything was so still that Garrus felt like screaming, just to break it. Finally, Javik looked back to him.
“I am the last of my people. I was to leave this life taking vengeance for the Protheans. Killing Reapers. And yet, I am here, as are the Reapers. It is all meaningless.” Javik’s fists clenched.
There was nothing to say. Nothing. And, while part of Garrus knew that Javik was grieving in his own way, the void in the pit of his gut opened up and threatened to swallow him whole.
“You’re wrong,” he choked. “You’re wrong about her and you’re wrong about you. And I pity you for it.”
Garrus shot up with a start without looking back to see if Javik was even paying attention. It didn’t matter. He’d check in again—maybe tomorrow, maybe in a month—and he’d do better, but for now, he couldn’t stand there and listen to that. He wouldn’t.
The door whooshed shut behind him and Garrus spilled out into the passageway, grasping at anything that could keep him from tipping. His hand landed on the railing and he held on tight with all the strength in his body as a wave of dizziness swept up under his skin, chasing the rising nausea.
Unfair. It was unfair. She hadn’t meant to take anything. She had given. Rae had given everything, and yet—
Garrus sucked in a breath. Counted backwards from ten. Pushed himself back upright.
Javik was wrong. Garrus understood. How could he not feel betrayed that she hadn’t killed the Reapers after all Javik must have seen as his world burned? But he was wrong. She had done what she believed was right. She had saved everyone she could. And yes, she had died doing it. But it hadn’t been pointless.
Garrus thought about her hair. Threads of red slipping through his fingers, slithering down to fan over her cheeks. He thought about brushing his knuckles across her skin. He thought about her voice—shouted commands on the battlefield, barking laughter in the canteen, conspiratorial whispers in the Citadel embassy. About the way she walked, leading with her shoulders, heavy steps in thick-soled boots. About how she snorted when she laughed. About how she said his name half-asleep. He thought about Rae.
No. None of it had been meaningless. Not one bit, not for a second.
Chapter 30: Short Straw
She'd said once that she felt like she'd drawn the short straw, though she never told him what that meant.
In his experience, there was a certain brand of “angry” that came part and parcel with being a soldier. Not just rage at injustice, wrath on the battlefield, or righteous fury for a cause. It was different—just angry. A heavy, miserable, bitter brand of angry that sinks in and settles. An undercurrent coiling just beneath the skin—petty and selfish and childish and scared and just plain angry. He’d seen it before in recruits coming back from the field after witnessing their first squad death, mostly on Menae. He’d seen it in the way Rae looked at the ground when she talked about Ash. He’d seen it in the mirror in those long months after his crew had been murdered on Omega.
He wasn’t naïve enough to be surprised when that anger swept her full-force after Mordin’s death on Tuchanka.
Wrex squeezed her so tight she giggled—actually giggled, if anyone could believe it—and pat her shoulder. Rae hugged him back and, with her finger jabbing into the Krogan’s chestplate, demanded that they meet up for drinks or target shooting before the whole damn universe goes up in flames. Wrex grinned. Said something about how it wouldn’t; she was too damn good at her job to let the Reapers win, and he’d see her once all this bullshit was over. Something crossed her face for less than a millisecond, but she pat Wrex on the shoulder and turned back to board the Normandy with her crew behind her.
That smile vanished in the airlock, and she disappeared with it before Garrus had made it all the way through the CIC.
Sometimes she just needed space. An hour to work out her frustrations at the punching bag or some time sitting on the shower floor with her knees curled up to her chest. Sometimes, she needed company, or she’d bury herself in every bad memory she could think up and lock the door. Right now? He wasn’t sure what she’d need, but the least he could do was ask. She’d lost too much to be alright.
He pinged her omni once he made it through Chakwas’ check and back to the Battery.
Want some company?
The response came quick. Not now.
Fine line between helping and pestering. But something about how fast she responded sat wrong. Sure, Rae was prompt. But that fast? She must have been on her omni looking at something. Or waiting for a message.
I hear that talking can help. He replied.
A minute later: I’m fine.
“Fine” leaves room for “better.”
I’m fine, Garrus.
Well. That was definitive. He tapped his talons on the console. Paced to his weapons bench and then back. Stretched out the crick in his neck. Alright. So she wasn’t exactly receptive. Give her space, maybe? But that didn’t feel right; he shouldn’t just leave her. Gut feeling—in his years with C-Sec, he’d learned to trust his gut. He stepped back to the console.
She didn’t respond immediately. Should he message again? Send a joke to lighten the mood? But, as he debated, another message popped up.
Better than nothing. He took the elevator up to her cabin and found the door unlocked. Still, Garrus rapped his knuckles on the metal, just in case. Didn’t want to push.
“Come in.” Muffled, but loud enough.
He stepped into her room and the door slid shut behind him. Silent. She usually left a radio playing in the background, but it was silent. He found her sitting on the couch across from her bed, her feet kicked up on the coffee table.
He dropped down beside her but she didn’t look over. Instead, she tipped her head back, eyes trained on the ceiling.
“Do you want to talk about what happened groundside?”
She didn’t move. Not when he spoke, and not when he nudged her gently with his elbow.
He added, “or is there something interesting on the ceiling I should be inspecting?”
A quiet chuff of a laugh, but it was all wrong. Throaty and sad. Low.
“That’s my favorite thing about you, Vakarian.” She rolled her shoulders and neck. “You keep me honest.”
“Care to elaborate?”
“You see right through me and you ask the hard questions. Sometimes, you’re the only one that does.”
“You don’t have to explain yourself to me, Shepard. You are my C.O., not the other way around.”
“Yeah, but I want to. I have to have an answer because I know you’ll ask. Makes me really think through my decisions.”
“Is that so?” He hummed a note under his breath, but she almost definitely missed that—Cerberus implants in her ears or no. “I recall a good number of times I have disagreed with your methods, Shepard.”
She shrugged and leaned forward.
“I don’t have to take your advice, but I do have to have an explanation for you, which means that I need to be sure about that explanation before I act.” She rested her head on his shoulder. He let his fingers drift through the ends of her short red hair. Her eyes were on the floor as if she was interested in the tiles, but his visor caught the slow increase in her heart rate. “Knowing I have you to answer to makes me think everything through.”
Well. To him, it seemed like the whole galaxy seemed to hold her accountable, whether that was fair or not. Still, an ember of warmth sparked in his gut at the thought of his opinion mattering so much to her. He draped an arm over the back of the couch around her but not touching, in case that would be too much.
“So then. You need me to ask the hard questions, so I’ll just ask.” Garrus slid his hand under hers and she let him. She even twined her fingers with his as best as she could, given their differing anatomy. He squeezed gently. “How are you feeling?”
She looked at him.
“I’m angry.” Her lip quivered and she clenched her jaw against it like she was trying to glue her mouth shut by grinding her teeth together so hard they fused.
“Talk to me about it.”
She swallowed, throat bobbing. Her eyes were glassy, unfocused.
“I’m just angry. It’s stupid.”
“It is,” she snapped. “This is war. People die. Why should I think that my people are immune when all those other soldiers are dying? Or wounded? All those people fighting? Their families? Everyone who’s planet has been blasted to smithereens? Why should I be exempt?”
“No one likes to think that their people might die, Rae.”
“But Legion? Thane? And now Mordin? Do you think I even did the right thing on Tuchanka? I could have tried to save him. I could have refused to let him go alone. And Ash. Oh god, sometimes I worry I’m forgetting Ash. Ash didn’t deserve that.”
Breathing. It was happening again—happened more often these days. Her breathing picked up, and her heart raced. She gasped like she was choking. He’d described it to Chakwas at one point, and she’d suggested some techniques, some counting, a ritual of grounding her in her surroundings and talking her through it. But sometimes, it was just a waiting game. Sometimes, talking would make it worse, so he waited with her. She squeezed his fingers back.
He leaned in, slow and careful so as not to startle her, and curled his arm tighter around her shoulders. She could pull away if she wanted to; he left her enough space to push back in case this was doing more harm than good. He’d give her anything, anything that would help. But she accepted, easing into his arms and resting her head against his chest. Her breathing stuttered and then leveled out. She sat up again and he rested his arm on the couch behind her to give her the space to breathe. Elbows on her knees, she leaned forward. One breath. Two. Three. Her heart rate slowed back down.
“I’m tired, Garrus.” Her head dropped into her hands, hair spilling down over her wrists like a veil. “I am just so tired.”
He crouched down next to her and tucked the hair back behind her ear where it belonged.
“I doubt the galaxy would begrudge you a sick day, you know.”
She looked back up and met his gaze, but her eyes were glassy and unfocused, bouncing around him without touching him for a second, like she was in an unfamiliar room and trying to figure out where she was. Her lips parted like she was going to say something, but the words didn’t come out.
Rough. Lower and rougher, like she was half-conscious.
That was when she cried. Just a couple of small tears that rolled down her cheeks and splashed onto her palms. The next breath she took stuttered in her throat.
“I don’t mean. I’m—” the words stumbled into each other. She usually spoke so clearly, so sharply. Something in his bones ached.
“I don’t mean—”
“Rae, it’s alright—”
“I didn’t mean to make light—”
“No, I’m just so—”
“If you need—”
“No. Stop!” Her fists clenched, the skin around her knuckles was white. “It’s not that. I’m just so tired. Tired of being Shepard. Tired of everyone dying. Tired of fighting. This isn’t fair.”
She was right. None of it was fair. Her life had never been fair—not from the start as an Earth urchin, or in the middle, where she watched her whole squad die on Akuze, or now, saddled with the fate of the whole damned galaxy. The pressure just kept weighing heavier and heavier, and she was bound to feel it at some point. He’d never heard her complain, but she had every right and reason.
“It isn’t fair. No.”
”I should be grateful. I can make a difference out there. I have made a difference out there. But I wish it was someone else calling the shots, just for once. I wish it was someone else losing the people they love. And that is so selfish, but sometimes I want it so badly.”
He stroked her hair back from her head and she took another shuddering breath.
“No, though. No, I wouldn’t wish loss on anyone like that, I guess. That was wrong. It’s just. I’m so tired.”
There was nothing he could say to that. Nothing anyone could say. So he held her close and waited out the quiet tears. This, at least, he could do. If he couldn’t fix what hurt, he could let her feel the weight of it without having to put on a brave face. It wasn’t much, but she held him tight, grasping at his hand like a lifeline, and neither of them were alone.
Chapter 31: Halfway Home
Year 2186—Unknown Garden World
He wasn’t sneaking out. He was just leaving quietly when no one was around to talk to him. Or follow him. Or know where he was heading.
Garrus just needed a break.
EDI said something as he left out the airlock, but he didn’t quite catch it, and he didn’t go back to clarify. Then, he was out in the fresh air.
He’d ducked out with Vega, but he’d barely noticed the world around them then. Never seemed to be time to stop and smell the roses, as Rae had quipped once. It looked a little like Ilos. Overgrown, green, a jungle all around them full of rolling hills and thick wooded spaces, flowers and vines and this sweet-smelling something on the air. They’d landed on a hill that sloped down on all sides into valleys and thickets. As far around as he could see, it was all just green. The air was so heavy and humid that, if Thane had been here—
Nope. Not going down that road.
His boots sunk into the soil as he headed down the hill right outside the airlock. Immediately, it was all brambles. Messy underbrush. Well, that was fine. Right about now, he figured he had all the time in the world to just wander around, considering the fact that they were trapped here until the Relay was back up and running. Another step, and he was working his way down the hill. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d walked with no real place to be. Well, he could, actually. It had been with her.
Spirits, every other thought led down a dark path. Maybe someday, his memory wouldn’t be a minefield.
The next step he took, his foot landed crooked on a rock and his bad knee locked up, sending him toppling headfirst down the hill and into the tangled overgrowth. Laying flat, he looked up at the canopy of green blanketing the bright blue sky. Muttering a curse, he pushed himself up so that he was sitting. It hadn’t hurt too bad. He was a little sore, but nothing broken. Still, falling down an embankment his first time truly away from the Normandy felt like a sign, and if it was a sign, it wasn’t appreciated. He managed to get back onto his feet with some struggle. Wasn’t a spry young C-Sec officer anymore; it looked like it wasn’t just the platitudes that had gotten old afterall.
He did it though.
He got back up for the millionth time, picked a direction—at this point, any direction would be better than none—and marched into the woods.
The terrain was both familiar and completely alien. There were lush greens and plants like on plenty of the garden worlds he’d seen in his time, with massive orange things that were either flowers, or the weirdest leaves he’d ever seen. Tiny pink buds clung to blackish green vines, and the treetops climbed up to the too-bright sky. Of all the places they could have landed, it was nice. Better than it could have been. At least they didn’t crash on a ball of ice crawling with Threshers. Not like she could have controlled where they landed, but he’d count this as a parting gift anyways. It was that timing that had set them down here instead of stranding them adrift in space or at the bottom of an ocean. Rae had always had impeccable timing.
He was trampling foliage underfoot with every step. No paths in an untamed wilderness. Part of him remembered his military training on foreign planets with a twinge of guilt. There had been a lot of emphasis on exercising caution and being careful not to disrupt local ecosystems, but he hadn’t so much as glanced around before he started moving. Not that he stopped now.
A ways in, and he could no longer see the Normandy or hear anything but his own footsteps. Rustling of some smaller animals here and there, if he wasn’t imagining it, and once or twice he saw something streak across the sky, but no crew. No chatter. No hushed voices and sighs.
This was an unknown planet, so far as they were aware. A rock in space. They didn’t know anything about the flora and fauna, about the life on this planet. About what would be toxic or lethal. Walking around alone with a pistol wasn’t just reckless, it was fatally dangerous. Wouldn’t have stopped her, though, so he didn’t let it stop him.
Distantly, he heard what he thought sounded like running water. Seemed as good a direction as any, so he followed the sound through a hip-high thicket of tiny silver sprouts and clumps of deep green leaves until he landed a boot in ankle-deep water.
He wasn’t even thinking. He stepped onto the bank and followed the water until it met a small pool, surrounded on all sides by more jungle. A perfect little circle of water, maybe chest-high at its deepest point, filled with shimmering crystal-blue. He slipped one gauntlet off and dipped his hand into the water. Cool. Crisp. Clean. No burning or tingling or tiny parasites, so far as he could see. Of course, he wouldn’t know for certain immediately, he supposed.
He shouldn’t touch anything. He should head back to the Normandy and dig one of those old environmental test kits out of the lab, but he didn’t.
He stripped off his boots and dipped his legs in next. The silt underfoot was almost sludgy, but soft, a fine grit as he sank up to his ankles little by little. He skimmed his fingers over the surface of the water and the tiny ripples chased his knuckles, spreading out over the surface to break against the shore on the other side.
She would have loved this. Rae had said once that she liked swimming. She missed it. When she lived on Earth as a kid, she used to walk to some river and swim late at night, when there was no one around to see her. When he’d said that sounded dangerous, she’d just shrugged. Dangerous, sure, but since when had she been known for caring about that? He’d told her at the time that he hated swimming. Wasn’t built for it—most Turians lived landlocked and top-heavy as they were, swimming presented a bit of a challenge. Her eyes had been bright when he looked over at her, sitting across from him in the Battery in her casuals and a sweatshirt. Her lips had quirked into a grin as she said it.
“I’ll be your lifeguard,” she’d laughed. “You’ll have fun. I promise.”
She shouldn’t have made promises she couldn’t keep.
That stung. It wasn’t fair. Reminded him a bit of what Javik had been saying about her leaving everyone behind. About the pointlessness of her death. Well. She had abandoned him here, stranded in a universe without her, hadn’t she?
It was selfish. What Javik had said, what he was thinking now. It was all selfish, and if Rae was anything, she was the opposite of selfish. She did what she had to do. Commander Rae Shepard would never put herself above the safety of the universe. She wouldn’t have wanted to be that person; he wouldn’t have fallen in love with that person. Still, for a moment, he would have traded anything for a Rae selfish enough to be sitting here beside him, to be around to teach him how to swim.
On an impulse, he stripped off the rest of his armor piece by piece, set it on the bank, and eased into the water.
Cold. Much colder now that it came up to his thighs and not just his shins. It wasn’t unpleasant, though, so he stood there, staring up at the sky. The light had dimmed a bit since he’d set out. No telling how far he was from the ship now, but he must have walked for a while. He let the water lapse around him, tiny waves riding across the surface, radiating out.
Liara would have had something to say about microorganisms. Chakwas would have sent him into decontamination like he was a child rolling in mud. Would Rae have jumped right in? Would she have called the crew over to camp by the banks and gotten everyone together to celebrate the end of the Reaper threat?
That was ridiculous. She’d be working tirelessly to get offworld.
He waded a little deeper. The water sloshed around his hips.
She’d be preparing for the day their comms came back online.
Deeper, and the water came up to his waist.
She’d have her shit together.
He took another step, and that was when the silt sunk out from under him and he slipped, spilling into the water until it swallowed him up. In over his head.
Deeper than he’d thought. It ran much deeper that he had thought. He’d walked right off a shelf of silt and Rae wasn’t here to play lifeguard.
He thrashed, but he wasn’t built for buoyancy and he sank until his feet hit the bottom, where the water was bitter cold. Like quicksand, he started to get sucked down. Reflexively, he kicked to try and launch back up to the surface, but his foot sank into the sand.
Panic pounded through him. His chest seized, desperate for air. It took him a second to think straight, but then the soldier’s training kicked in.
Instead of pushing up, he tried to swim out, struggling to clamber back to the shallows. Black splotches bloomed over his vision. He let himself sink and his chest brushed the bottom. He dug his talons into the silt and dragged himself, gaining ground and then losing it—two steps forward, one step back—until he finally felt the sand slope up. This time, when he kicked and pulled, he managed a sharp enough movement to buoy him closer. Clawing his way back. Finally, his head breached, palms sinking into the silt as he gasped. The air was cool against the plates of his face. Garrus shifted to get his knees under him and crawled, slipping and sinking, until he could pull himself ashore.
He sprawled on his chest, face in the grass and feet in the water. His head pounded in time with his heart as he lay there, naked and shaking on the ground of this alien world.
Was this a sign? Huh? A reminder that she wouldn’t be here to rescue him anymore? That she was somewhere he couldn’t reach? He punched his fist into the dirt, splattering mud. Blades of soft grass tickled his forehead.
Not fair. Not fair. Not fair.
The chant had been playing on a loop in the back of his head for so long he’d stopped noticing it. There was so much. So much loss. So much grief. So much dread. But right now? He was just angry. At Javik, at her friends, at the Reapers, at the universe. At her.
She’d never made the promise that she’d make it back after the war, but it had been there, hadn’t it? An unspoken understanding that she would fight her way back to him, no matter where they were or what happened. There was so much they wanted. So much she wanted to show him. So much he’d wanted to show her. She hadn’t gotten to meet his family. He hadn’t let her take him swimming. They’d never shared that last dance. The one they’d agreed to meet for after all was said and done, so many nights ago on a Citadel that probably didn’t even exist anymore.
He rammed his fist into the dirt again.
How could she? How could she make that decision for both of them like that; how could she leave his side and walk right to her death? It wasn’t just her. She hadn’t just made the decision for herself; he had been there too. He was here, too. And he knew better. That wasn’t fair. But the thoughts ran around him in circles until he couldn’t think about anything else.
Not fair. Not fair. Not fair.
That was just who she was—a Big Damn Hero, like Joker had said once. It had been one of the reasons he loved her so much. Wasn’t as if he hadn’t known what he was getting into, not after she found him on Omega.
Garrus rolled onto his back and looked up at the sky above.
How long had he been gone? The sun had slipped and night was settling in, chasing the light across the sky with deep blues and black. There was a light on his armor, but it would be even more dangerous to try and navigate through the woods in the dark. He hadn’t been thinking straight.
He sat up and rested his elbows on his knees. The crew would worry if he was gone all night. Even Kaidan had been checking-in and staying close to the ship.
He reached for his flight suit and started to pull it on as the sun sank completely.
For a second, he blinked in the dark and groped around for the rest of his gear. Then, gradually, light spread.
Soft, at first. Then brighter. He blinked. Iridescent green, silver, purple, sky blue at its lightest. A glow shimmered out over the pond. He turned around and the stream he’d followed was lit up too, a vein glinting through the brush. It would light his way halfway home.
Bioluminescence wasn’t magic, but right then? In the dark, alone, and cold?
For a moment, everything was still. He had thought he’d cried all he could over her, but looking out over the water like a tiny nebula, he felt a few more tears spill down his face. The light in the dark. She’d been his light in the dark—his driving force. It was probably just algae or something native to this world, but the warm glow felt like a reminder. He wasn’t alone. Not here, not with the crew she’d pulled together. Not on the planet she’d set them on with that impeccable timing of hers. And she would want him to go back to the home she’d left him; that she’d left all of them.
Halfway home was all he’d need. It would take time, but Garrus could manage the rest.
Chapter 32: Date Night
It had only ever been her.
“Keep your guard up, Vakarian, or you’ll have another scar on that pretty face.” Her cockeyed grin was contagious, and even if he wanted to keep a straight face, catching one of her increasingly rare smiles made him giddy.
“Shepard, there’s no use in a guard when your opponent can’t reach your face, let alone scar it.”
Rae actually laughed, a little snort but better than nothing. Round what? Six? Seven? She was sweating by now, the usually loose-fitting tank top clinging to her skin. The little knot on the back of her head was slipping, spilling strands of red that stuck to her cheeks and forehead and neck. And Spirits, she thought she was tired, but she wasn’t the one who’d gone a few rounds with Commander Shepard. He was just about ready to throw the match so they could take a breather. She wasn’t going to let them take a break until someone won, but they’d managed to tie every bout so far, even if he felt like he was only barely scraping by.
Rae bounced for a second, a slight movement before she lashed out with a punch he only barely side-stepped. He used that momentum, crossing to knock her arm and throw her off balance. His forearm connected below the elbow, though, and barely staggered her. Before he could follow-up, she recoiled and winked, chest heaving.
“You’re not going soft on me, are you Vakarian?”
“I think my C.O. would kick my ass if I even dreamed of it.”
If he had his visor on, he’d have taken a picture of her smiling like that—sweaty, cheeks flushed and hair rumpled, lips pressed together to fight the glow of a grin. Almost worth risking the visor to hold onto that, he thought.
Then, of course, she jabbed her knee up sharply and nearly broke his hip.
Garrus staggered for a breath but then brought his leg down fast enough to catch hers. He drew back quick to catch her ankle and throw her balance and she slid before her fists bunched in the front of his shirt, holding her up and tugging him down with her. After a split second of careful thought, he curled one arm under her back so she didn’t throttle him with his shirt collar.
“S’like we’re dancing,” she panted. Then, before he could retort, she pulled both legs up to her chest, let go of him, and rolled backwards over his arm so smoothly that he had to stop just to appreciate the skill of it. She landed on both feet and straightened out, having flipped herself right over his arm and out of his grasp. Gymnast. Vega had likened her to a gymnast once. Garrus could see it when she pulled stunts like that.
Rae dropped her head and tensed, leaning back just a bit. She’d lunge. He knew her inside and out by know; that little recoil was building the momentum to throw her forward like a bullet. He’d bet credits she’d lunge next.
Her eyes followed his movements as he mimicked her stance. Bright green, narrowed suspiciously when he sunk into place. Something in her expression—a slight lift at the corner of her lip, the quirk of her brow, the way she curled her toes and then uncurled them. Playful. He shifted all his weight to the leg behind him so he could catch her when she came flying across the room. Any second now. Any. Second.
She surged towards him but then dropped back into a crouch. Her foot connected with the side of his knee right on a joint and he toppled awkwardly, struggling to maintain balance. He was braced for an impact from the wrong angle. When he hit the floor, she rocketed up and threw herself into his chest hard enough to knock the air out of him and whack her head into his jaw. Looked like she was trying to pin him. No chance; she was lighter and he was already rolling onto his side. He should have realized she was still a step ahead, though. Rae let him get halfway through escaping before latching onto his back and jerking him to the ground with her body wedged between him and the mat. He started to push up, but her arm locked over his throat and she pulled back just hard enough where he’d have to concede. Only fair.
“Match!” Her voice was breathless and chipper in his ear.
“Alright,” he rasped. “You win.”
Rae let go and sprawled on the floor, chest heaving. Garrus knelt beside her, the hum of the ship louder without the sound of his blood pounding in his head. The faint vibrations rippled through him, almost soothing.
“Sloppy, Vakarian.” Her eyes rolled over to meet his. “That C.O. of yours isn’t pushing you hard enough.”
“I think I did pretty well. Besides, my C.O. pushes me all the time. Sometimes right off a cliff.”
“That was one time.”
“I still have the scars, I bet.”
“You were going to get shot.”
“Mmhm. Whatever you say, dear.”
One of Rae’s arms twitched from its spot draped over her head and swatted at him, though she couldn’t muster the energy to reach all the way and her fingertips barely brushed his shoulder. He tugged the edge of her shirt down over her stomach and smoothed the fabric.
“Got dinner plans?”
When he looked down, her eyes were shut again. Blissful. Half-asleep. Quietly, he replied, “same as usual.”
“Me too. Meet in the mess?” This time, when she reached out, her hand landed on his. She stroked her thumb over his knuckles, tracing the shapes of the bones one by one. After circling each knuckle twice, she added, “one of these days, we should go on a real date.”
“Isn’t that what this was?”
She grinned, and he wished again that he hadn’t left his visor in her cabin. Sleepy, this time. Contented.
“You could call it dancing,” she hummed, “if you were feeling creative. You had me in a dip for a second there.”
“For my own safety, then, I’d better not get too creative. I’ll lose a limb.”
Her hand squeezed his. He leaned in and pressed his forehead to hers. They were alone. Just the two of them and for the first time in a while, there was no immediate crisis. Perfect stillness, no injuries to nurse or bad news to chew on or plans to draw-up. Just two people resting after a workout. Like any other folks out in the Milky Way. It would be almost easy to get caught up in that thought and never look back. Pretend they weren’t the Galaxy’s first line of defense. But then, any immediate mental image he summoned of her involved Alliance red in some capacity. Casual sweats, polished N-7 armor, the patch on her jacket sleeve. He really had to focus to separate her from her work in his head. Someday, he hoped, he’d struggle to remember what her uniform looked like.
That was where he got the idea, in the first place.
Not that he had an abundance of time; there was always more work. But for a while—long enough where he forgot to keep track—he started learning how to dance. For real, this time. Some Earth dance. Only a few steps, but a million ways to take them. He could read her mind on the battlefield and never misstep, but when he practiced in the Battery, he tripped over consoles. It was frustrating until Vega caught wind of what he was doing. Then Liara. Then, unfortunately, EDI.
Vega was the most helpful. He knew some of the steps and learned a lot quicker than Garrus did. Liara learned the steps but didn’t much care to show him. EDI could tell him how he needed to move down to the millimeter but still managed to look the least alive when she spun, which was almost impressive. She kept her spine so straight he was worried it would snap.
It took him a while and he had to swallow a good amount of pride, but eventually, they were docked on the Citadel and he was good enough that he sent the message that had been sitting in his drafts for so long.
When you have a free moment, I thought we'd check out the bar scene around here. Let's meet at the Silver Coast Casino, upper floor.
Then, suddenly a little nervous, he tacked on:
Hopefully no dead arms dealers this time!
Nervous. Nervous! Him? Garrus Vakarian, son of the esteemed Castis Vakarian, Head of Palaven’s Reaper Taskforce, and Normandy Gunnery Officer? He’d shot a Thresher Maw with a rifle to help a Krogan through puberty. He’d body-checked a Geth Prime on a dead planet to keep it from blowing his C.O. to pieces. He’d fought a Reaper up-close. Why should an e-mail to his girlfriend make him nervous? Still, he had refreshed his messages at least fifty times since pressing send.
She responded quickly, even if it hadn’t felt quick at the time.
Should I wear something nice, or are we going to be in a shoot-out by the roulette wheel?
Something nice. Looks better in the vids when you’re posing next to a thug in handcuffs.
Dressing now. What shoes go best with a Carnifax?
Well, if he’d been looking to give her a break from being a soldier, he hadn’t started off on the right foot. But then, so long as he didn’t dance on the wrong foot, it would be a halfway decent date and she’d forgive him.
Garrus put on his best set of dress clothes—the set he’d worn to meet the Primarch about his taskforce—and waited at the bar.
She didn’t take long to get ready and find him there. Should have known; it never took Rae long to dress, whether she was throwing on civvies or buttoning herself into her dress blues. But she was. Something else.
Beautiful enough to turn-heads, as always, though no one seemed to recognize her outside of the news vids and dressed in something other than a hardsuit. It wasn’t the same dress he’d seen her in before. The one from Kasumi clung like a second skin and Rae always looked vaguely uncomfortable in it. Like she was walking around with a rock in her boot. No, this dress was softer. Swishy, almost. It was looser around her legs and had a collar that came up her shoulders and looped around her neck. The jacket over her arm was the same faded leather one he always saw hanging abandoned in her closet. And she’d done something different with her hair, twisting one strand back from her face.
Stunning. Rae Shepard was stunning.
He waited for her to cross the dance floor while he swirled the alcohol in his glass and pretended he hadn’t noticed her. She saw right through that, though. Always had.
She played along. Better than he did. Better than he’d thought she would. Again, he should have known. She teased and flirted and flashed him that winning smile, her lips painted vibrant red. The cool lights from the bar flashed over the bare skin of her arms and traced old scars and muscle, splashing her in glowing light, and that was when he realized it had been her. It had always been her, from the first moment she’d caught him by the elbow and butted into his life. There was no one in the universe he could love like he loved Rae. He stumbled over his share of the conversation they were supposed to be having, stunned like this was his first time seeing her. And when words failed him, he defaulted to what he could trust. He grabbed her hand, pulled her out onto the dance floor, and moved.
It wasn’t perfect. She stumbled at first because she wasn’t used to letting someone else take the lead. Stepped in when he was leading her out, went right when he tried to move left. But then, she followed. She picked up the steps faster than he had, that was for sure, but she moved with him in almost perfect sync. When she reoriented, she stuck out her foot and caught his calf to try and stagger him too, and it damn near worked. But if he couldn’t give her a carefree life, he was going to give her this. Whether she cooperated or not.
He spun them and for the briefest second, her feet left the floor and a smile broke out over her lips, through the carefully crafted sardonic pout. Pure and bright and delighted. For a moment, she completely forgot who she was or what she had to do and just moved. Exactly what he’d wanted. He spun her out and she twirled back into his arms so smoothly he’d have thought she’d rehearsed if he didn’t know any better. When the song wound down and he pulled her tight, she leaned into the dip, cradled in his arm, and hitched her leg all the way up to his hip. Trusted him completely not to drop her. And he wanted to say something smooth. He really did. But all he could manage for a moment was “wow.”
She locked eyes with him. The hand in his squeezed tight.
“So,” he finally said. “Think a girl would fall for that?”
“Yeah,” she breathed. “I think she would.”
He straightened out and took her with him, picking her up off the ground with one arm around her waist. She pressed her lips to his forehead and he could smell the faint notes of her perfume—the expensive one Miranda had bought her and left in Anderson’s apartment—mingling with the familiar musky scent of her shampoo. He loosened his hold enough for her to slide back down to the ground against his chest. She rested her head on his keel for a second before looking up.
“Home,” he agreed.
They walked down the strip, arm-in-arm. People squinted at her trying to place the face, but they didn’t stick around long enough for anyone to make the connection. She steered them into an alley and then over a few blocks until the entrance to her new apartment was only across the main street. They walked with purpose, made it into the elevator, and then up into the safety of the new place.
The second the door closed, she jumped up, wrapping her arms around his neck and her legs around his waist. She pressed her forehead to his and then kissed his face anywhere she could. He groped for the touchpad for a solid minute before finally pressing the right key to lock the door. There was no way they’d make it up the stairs and to her room, so he pressed the dimmer for the shades while he was there. He walked them over to the stretch of soft couches. The thick glass windows frosted over until the rest of the citadel was blurred and the light coming through softened to a pale glow.
They knew each other so well by now that they were in-step without saying a word. Which was good, because he couldn’t think of any.
Not quite desperate. All hands, pressed together as close as physically possible, but not frantic or needy or desperate. Yearning. For once, they had time, they were alone, and there was nobody and nothing in all of the galaxy that could pull them away. Peeled off shirts. Adjusted limbs. Adjusted limbs again. And then again, because they still weren’t quite shaped right for this, but they were nearly perfect at figuring out how to make things work by now. He watched the light shift as trams flew by and neon signs flashed outside, sending warm waves of light over her skin. She was art. Beautiful in a way he didn’t fully understand—built from individual pieces that should have been unremarkable, but stitched together into the most perfect woman he’d ever seen. When she caught him staring, she collapsed on top of him and buried her face in his chest, cheeks pink.
They laid there for a while, all tangled up in front of the fireplace neither of them had the energy to switch on.
“You never cease to amaze me, you know that?” Rae pinned him to the couch, her chin rested on her folded hands, palms pressed against his keel. The twist in her hair had come undone and coils of red spiraled around her face. She tried to blow one out of her eye with a little puff of air, but it dropped right back into the same spot. He spent all his strength to raise his free arm and brush the hair out of her face with the tips of his talons.
“I was about to say the same thing.”
He rested his hand on her head. Her eyes drifted shut. The feeling of her breathing, calm and even, almost lulled him to sleep. And it was her place. They could nap right there if they wanted, and he could spend the rest of the afternoon watching the rise and fall of her shoulders as she breathed, watching the dappled light drift over her freckles, and neither of them had to move even a little if they didn’t want to. He could have stayed like that for hours. That was when he realized it again. It had always been her. This time, he said it out loud.
“I love you.” It was the first time he said it, but not the first time he’d thought it. He’d thought it a thousand times and in a thousand different ways. He wondered for a moment why he’d never had the damn courage to say it out loud, like she deserved.
She propped herself back up so she could look at him, her eyes still a little bleary. With a sleepy smile, she said “I love you too, Garrus.”
He’d never forget. Her face, her voice as she said it, the warm weight of her body against his. Never.