Shepard rinsed her hair clean, and stood still for a few seconds under the shower head. The water would soon run out. Time was also running out; less than two hours remained till they reached the Omega 4 relay. She savoured, hungrily, the feel of water as it fell hard on her head and back; it made her think of the heavy passing rains on Virmire, warm and vicious, glittering silver as they mingled with the sun. It had been a beautiful world, lush and vibrant, a place one wants to go back to in better times, and cannot. The rain would still fall on Virmire, but the white beaches and green cliffs her team had stormed through were now scorched and grey, a friend's unmarked grave, thick with nuclear fallout; and this had been her doing. The rain had been one of the few good things in the middle of a relentless chase, and even those few good things were never pure, were never meant to last, Shepard thought. She lingered under the loud flow a little longer before she turned it off.
She stepped out of the shower; grabbed a towel, dried herself thoroughly, picked her comb, neatly combed her hair. She took a look at herself in the mirror – perhaps for the last time. The scars from the cybernetic implants were hardly traceable any more; the old ones she had carried before her reconstruction, completely gone. Her body was whole, healthy, stronger than ever, yet at times like this it felt detached, as if it didn't belong to her. Most of it was now synthetic, of course. Regrown by Cerberus to begin with, and repeatedly tampered with afterwards: tougher skin, increased muscle performance, accelerated healing – anything that could give an edge in battle, she would have it done. In the armoury they did this with weapons. Take apart, maintain, research, test, upgrade, retest, take to battle; shoot to kill.
Shepard had been out – no euphemism could cut being dead – for two years. On waking up, these two years' events had to slam into a tight spot where her memory tried to accommodate them.
Humanity led the new Council. She had lent a hand in that, and regretted it. The takeover had been too unexpected, too underhanded. It was a small consolation that Anderson was Councillor rather than Udina: her one-time captain was honest, if blunt, with a strong sense of justice; rare like a diamond in the rough, but not crafty like the ambassador. And the latter, Shepard thought, was inexorable, always wanting more – more power, more influence. There were many others like him, backing him up – for as long as he served their interests, – squabbling among each other, trampling on everyone else, vying for human safety yet with complete disregard to even human life; they had little to envy from Cerberus in that regard. The turians might have been right after all; humans were a potential threat to the Galaxy, in a way not much unlike the Reapers'. More and more Shepard had the gnawing thought that, throughout human history, her race's advancement was based on invasion and pillaging, coercion and economic manipulation, easily labelling entire populations as 'not our own', claiming that they 'were out to get us', to justify such acts. The same pattern was repeating itself out here, with that centuries-old justification seeming doubly valid. Humans were not like asari; they generally did not like aliens. In fact, they treated them with a good measure of paranoia.
And Shepard was in a tight spot. Aliens blamed her for the destruction of the Destiny Ascension, which enabled humans to scramble right at the top of decision-making for galactic affairs. Humans, on the other hand, derisively called her an alien lover, on account of her crew. (The truth of both accusations could prove to be oddly dynamic, she thought wryly.) Her death might have actually absolved her of all this; people are more sympathetic toward the dead; her, they would have made a hero for all the Galaxy rather for humanity alone. But she was no longer dead, and furthermore owed Cerberus her life (approximately estimated at four billion credits). The same organisation she had fought and held a grudge against for their brutal experiments, had fished her body from cold space; they rebuilt her as well as the Normandy; gave her carte blanche as to what she did, whom she allied with, as long as she took the fight to the Collectors – and through them, to the Reapers; the Old Machines.
But in the meantime, in those two years, people had moved on, moved away. The whole world had lurched forward while her consciousness remained with what was like a black hole, somewhere between death and coming back from it; it usually stayed in the background, insignificant like a distant point beyond the Galaxy, but sometimes it was in the centre of everything, and that centre could not hold.
The mission kept it away, the people of the new Normandy as well; their stories, their bonding in battle, their time together. Fighting to keep a straight face in the mess hall while hearing the banter between Gardner and the crew members, about his cooking and the percentage of food and ass in it. Helping doctor Chakwas to one of her own benches in the med bay, after they had been hitting that bottle of Serisse Ice Brandy, with a stupid grin plastered on both their faces; that one lucky game of Skyllian Five on the engineering deck with Ken and Gabby and Tali that nearly sent the ship's power core into overload. Whether they were meant to last or not, good things were still to be found, in defiance of their predicament; like Joker at the helm, mocking everyone in general – and the Galaxy in particular. Even in battle, dodging rockets in the midst of heavy barrage, there would be Garrus, crouching next to her in cover, the click of a fresh heat sink in his rifle and his piercing look, eagle-like, when their eyes met – they never had to speak much on the field: one look, one nod, one word, and they'd push forward. And then there were always plans, strategies, estimations, thinking ahead, thinking around; Shepard had a job to do, and would see it done.
But sometimes there was just waiting, or winding down, and at the centre of it there was always that massively empty spot. She then had to remind herself: It was no good focusing single-mindedly on one purpose, forgetting who and what you were doing all this for. You had to stay in touch. It was easy to lose oneself to the thrill of killing – she had seen Garrus almost fall prey to that. It was easy to let people become either tools or targets – but this what they were ultimately fighting against: the Collectors had shown them that much, having themselves become empty, mindless husks in the service of the Reapers. As for her, Cerberus had brought her back in order to play her, and with the way things were unfolding, she had to play along; but she didn't forget. She made sure she would not forget: do what you have to do, but take things as they come; go with your instincts, but keep your values. Inner pep talks like the ones she gave to others when it was needed. It took, however, more effort to reassure herself.
She used to talk about such things with Garrus. They always had sat down and talked for long in the days of the old Normandy; it had been curiosity at first, a wish to understand each other's culture and mentality, but that bridge was soon crossed. He had looked up at her back then, even though she was an alien – and a human, at that. He was younger then and eager, outside the chain of command, ambitious, opinionated, and he always asked, directly or not. Sometimes she thought that perhaps it was no good filling his head with her ideas and convictions. But he always asked; and his open curiosity meant that she was inclined to answer, freely and with open honesty down to the core. He had at one time expected her to be something, a model perhaps for his own rogue tendencies, a force to pull him away from the heavy tug of the turian hierarchy and the red tape of C-sec. But she had never complied to that; she would insist on the right thing being done even when reason told her it could not be afforded, tempting her luck; and he was always there, keen-eyed, to perceive it. They pushed and dragged each other and within them, duty against instinct, renegade against paragon, and before they knew it, fast friendship against old turian-human enmity.
It had been a rare thing. It had also been binding, an uneasy feeling. It was important to care about the crew, about the people she worked with. It was just as important to not form attachments. That was what got her through Akuze when the thresher maws got her whole squad, through Virmire when she had to leave Kaidan Alenko behind with a nuclear bomb in his hands, through the destruction of the old Normandy, when she drifted into space, all fear gone away with her last breath, her consciousness imploding, at peace, in her final few moments.
It was what kept her going now, steps away from death again, steps echoing across a ship empty but for the ten of the ground team and Joker. He had saved the ship; but the crew were all gone, abducted by the Collectors.
Shepard was going after them. She didn't know whether she and rest of her team were going to rescue them and survive or they would be blown to pieces as soon as they hit the Omega 4 relay, but if they failed, it could well be the end of all the life they had known as the Reapers would sweep in to cull it. She should have been afraid of that thought, but she wasn't. She was angry.
She strode out of the small bathroom into her quarters, but as soon as she crossed the door she froze in her tracks. Barely three steps away stood Garrus.
Not Garrus as she was used to seeing him; he was unarmoured, in only a blue and green daily turian outfit, in his hand not a rifle, not even a datapad, but a bottle, somewhat fancy-looking. He started too at the sight of her. Small wonder: anything wearable she had, barring the towel left in the bathroom, was in a locker on the other side of her cabin.
'Hey,' they both said. Garrus' mandibles flared – in embarrassment or a smile, or perhaps both. 'I, uh...' He half-turned, looking away.
'Sorry, ' she managed, putting her hand through her hair, old trite reflex. 'I was just taking a shower. Probably didn't hear you come in with the water running.' Her face felt hot, but she kept it straight, and managed to stick to a semblance of her usual manner. She shifted her weight from one foot to the other and cracked her knuckles. The familiar small sound and motion arrested his gaze, and he turned back to look at her.
'Maybe I should let you, uh, you know.' Garrus was also fidgeting by the door, but he was looking at her straight in the eye now.
'No, it's okay – it's not like all sorts of people haven't seen me go full frontal,' she said, thinking of the bench in the med bay and the Cerberus operating table. 'And since you're really here, for, well – I guess? – you know,' she said with a grimace.
That sounded bad: apparently it was her turn to be awkward now.
It had been a stupid thing, that half-joking pass she had made at him only a few weeks ago.
When she had found Garrus on Omega, holed up in a tight place with all three merc bosses of the station going after the C-sec officer-turned-vigilante's head, it was like she found a missing piece that brought her a little closer back to life. When he was hit, and she ran to him only to find him in a pool of dark blue, rasping and choking and clutching at his rifle, her insides wailed; hold on, just hold on, she pleaded, and to herself she thought, with a rising panic she had not known for years, I can't make it on my own, not this time.
He had walked with a swagger, not two days later, into the communications room on the Normandy; the right side of his face badly scarred, his neck heavily patched with cybernetics, the broad collar of his armour a mess, but declaring ready to stand by her and take on the Collectors, or the Reapers, or whatever the Galaxy threw at them, just like old times, Shepard.
It wasn't like old times, it couldn't be. He had come a long way on his own, had all the confidence experience could grant him. He didn't need Shepard as a mentor; rather, on board a Cerberus ship she commanded but could not fully control, she needed him more; someone she could trust, just like old times. She had nearly lost him on Omega to a rocket, but he had held on; she had nearly lost him again in his want for vengeance thereafter, but he had held up. He was always on her six, solid under fire from within and without.
And Shepard wanted him. She had wanted the old Garrus back, and she wanted the new Garrus even more. Her want could find no physical grip on the alien; it was vague, confused, blind. But one day he spoke of things he'd never mentioned before, his look on her was odd, almost challenging, and she had taken him on; joked about him carrying some tension and whether she could help him ease that off. It was just a joke, but when it was said, that lingering black hole inside her head sipped a little light, hungrily.
And she had thrown him off balance. Since then it had been mostly a business of 'well, why the hell not?' and unintentional humour, and Garrus obligingly putting his foot in it every other time he brought the matter up, and both of them having second and third (and really, fourth and fifth) thoughts. They had put the whole thing off so as not to disrupt the crew, for one thing among many to consider. In the meantime, extensive research on the extranet had revealed all sorts of physical incompatibilities between humans and turians, and Shepard had come to agree with him that they were probably crazy for even considering... 'blowing off steam' together.
But Shepard couldn't imagine him going back on his word, nor her for that matter; and that brought them where they were now, less than two hours away from biting off more than they could possibly chew of the Collectors, with the whole crew snatched under their noses, and possibly all organics' fate in their hands. And Garrus was fretting at her doorstep, and she stood before him stark naked but for a tenuous air of dignity.
'Well, I –' he lifted his hand to his forehead; his knuckles clicked against its hard plating. 'I brought wine,' he said abruptly. 'Best I could afford on a vigilante's salary,' he joked.
'You know, I don't think I've ever seen you without armour on.' Without the bulk of it he looked strangely diminished. His legs were long, very thin, too far apart. The jacket he wore hid the ring-thin waist she had always liked on him. His alienness was even more obvious this way, but at the same time, there was sense of familiarity in seeing him breathe and move under only a thin layer of cloth. There was little attraction – rather the reassurance of another, different, sentient living being of bone and flesh, even if with a good measure of metallic exoskeleton.
He looked down at his clothes. 'This?' he shrugged. 'Figured it would be easier to take off than armour.' Then he froze. 'Wait. That was probably the wrong thing to say.' His mandibles flared, in embarrassment this time.
Shepard grinned back. 'Yes, probably. It's... nice,' she added, sparing him as he just had.
'Uh, thanks. You look nice, too. That is, if you were turian...'
He suddenly closed in on her, and she had to restrain herself from taking a step back. Even without armour or clothes there was no felt exposure worth speaking of, but with that sudden motion of his, she had a primal sense of prey and predator. She remembered him on the Citadel, when they had got Harkin to reveal Sidonis' location. She remembered his boot on Harkin's throat, how he had trashed him around. She remembered the violent gleam in his eye, the anger widening the natural flanging of his voice, and her own sudden fear at that time; do I really know this turian? Does he know himself?
But then she looked up at his face and it was really just Garrus there before her, her friend Garrus, who always had her six, whom she loved more than sense allowed, standing there before her, aware and acute, if hesitant, and she was at ease again.
'If you were turian,' he went on, 'I would be complimenting you on your waist, or your fringe. So your, uh, hair, looks... good. And your waist is...' his eyes trailed over her torso, which had little of the taper his had, 'very supportive.'
She brought her fist to her mouth and coughed, trying to suppress the mad grin that was forming again in her lips. He saw that, and was ruffled. 'Hopefully that's not offensive in human culture. Crap. I knew I should have watched the vids. Throw me a line here, Shepard!'
'Never mind, smooth talker. Consider me seduced.' She flashed him a crooked smile. But then she was serious. She reached for his free hand, hard and resilient under pressure, and took it in hers.
'Garrus, we need to rethink this. You mean too much to me. I couldn't pull any of this through without you; stylishly or not,' she smirked briefly. 'But right at this moment, this whole thing just seems wrong.'
He took his hand away from hers and rubbed his forehead again. 'Yeah,' he said, rather hastily. 'I guess you're right; let's leave it be.' He shrugged, and looked away. 'Probably would tear a ligament or something anyway.'
Shepard searched for his hand again, crowding her fingers between the wide gap of his own. 'I don't mean it's necessarily wrong between you and me. I mean it feels wrong at a time like this, with so many things at stake.'
'I know,' he said. 'I thought about it. On the other hand, you know I couldn't not come to you. Exactly at a time like this.'
'Besides, I won't lie to you, Shepard: I told you before, I never had a fetish for humans. If you really were turian and standing like this so close, I – well, it could be... problematic. In a good sort of way.' He scanned her face. 'No offence – you do look... nice. Strange, soft. Solid. But I don't want to fuck you, Shepard. I've had thoughts, sure. I just wanted to... I don't know.' He broke away again, put the bottle on her desk. He went to the railing separating the lower level of her quarters and leant heavily on it. Blue light shone on his unmarred left side from the soft light of the aquarium on the other side of the room. He stared at it; a few colourful fishes swimming, a few floating in the surface, lifeless. Life was too fragile, death too random. He gripped at the railing tightly.
'I've just seen so many things go wrong, Shepard. My work at C-Sec, what happened with Sidonis. And all this time, all I've done is to try to follow your steps; see where it got me. My team –' the flanging in his voice widened.
'I know,' he cut her. 'We've talked about it. I've come to terms with that. But I had thought I could make a difference on my own, and here I am again, following you.'
'Do you resent that?'
'I would – damn, I should. But I don't think of that now.'
She walked up to him. 'Then what?'
He turned towards her again, his face now inches away from hers.
'I want something to go right,' he said. 'Just once. Just...'
She reached out and touched the scars on his face, and he fell silent. His plating was hard, but its rigidity deceiving. She could guess the movement of muscles underneath, and it felt smooth, except where the scarring marred it. If she had come to him a little earlier on Omega, these scars would not be there. If she had come a little later, he would not be there. She too wanted something to go right, just once. She whispered, a thing that ought not to be heard, I don't want to lose you; but he heard, and caught her hand, I don't want to lose you again, either.
'It's a selfish thing,' she said.
'Perhaps. But I'm not sure I could make it on my own.' His face was immobile, but the grip on her hand tightened.
'We'll do what we can,' she said, steadily. 'We'll take things as they come. It's what we've always done.'
They looked at each other, alien and yet well-known, wholly different in aspect but clinging on memory upon memory of each other, and wordlessly he leant towards her and she to him, and their foreheads touched. He tentatively reached for her shoulder with the tips of his fingers, and the touch blunted nervousness and awkwardness and every other fear on the eve of their final battle. They stood in silence, with the mass field enveloping the Normandy glowing furiously through the hull window above them as she sped, faster than light, into the heart of their enemy.