Author's Note: Written for damalur for the Yuletide 2010 fic exchange.
There's a fish tank in my quarters.
For a moment, Shepard just stands and blinks at the aquarium, bathed in its gently rippling blue light. She turns, slowly, eyes scanning over the room and its furnishings. Tables, chairs, a couch, a bed—an actual bed with pillows and a comforter, not just some rectangular slab protruding from the wall—and toward the room's entrance, her own private bathroom with her own private shower.
Clearly, Cerberus has spared no expense to make its own personal (four-billion-credits-and-counting) zombie comfortable.
She steps forward to peer into the fish tank, eyes following the bubbles' lazy path as they float up and disappear from her view. Her gaze refocuses, skims across the glass, the surface so clean and polished she can see her reflection in it. No smudges, no smears, not even a single fingerprint. She's the grungiest thing in this room.
"When I first saw you, you were nothing but meat and tubes—"
Her reflection in the glass is little more than a dark half-formed shape, but she can just glimpse the outline of her scars, glints of mechanical red clashing with the aquarium's blue glow. She raises a hand to her face, index finger tracing the jagged edges on her cheek and neck.
Her fingers grasp at the wall's edge like claws, fighting to keep her weightless body anchored to the ship—what's left of the ship. She can hear Joker screaming something, the words drowned out by the explosions ringing in her ears, the screech of the enemy's weapon ripping through metal as easily as if it were tissue paper.
She bites down on the inside of her cheek, hard, tries to shake the memories away with a stiff jerk of her head.
It doesn't work.
She concentrates on taking deep breaths, forcing herself not to look down at the vast emptiness under her feet.
Deep breaths. Don't think about the cold. Don't look at the floating, burning pieces of Normandy. Deep breaths. Deep breaths.
The corners of her eyes seem to blur, and in her peripheral vision she sees the white puffs of air, the oxygen escaping her armored suit.
Deep breaths turn shallow as panic seizes her, crawling up her throat and choking her even as her hands claw at the back of her armor, their search for the breach as desperate as it is useless.
The dull thud of her palm smacking against the fish tank snaps her from the memory, and she stares down at the imprint, glaring at the smudged surface without really seeing it.
She casts one more glance at her reflection as she steps away from the aquarium, and the implants beneath her irises gleam red against the glass.
"'Are you real?'" Miranda echoes. She blinks, two dark lines creasing her pale, perfect forehead. "Of course you're real, Commander. What kind of a question is that?"
"You're the one who…rebuilt me," Shepard states. The words feel odd in her mouth, sound just as strange to her ears. "So you must know how much of me is me and how much is machinery."
Miranda folds her hands on her desk and arches one sculpted eyebrow, her serene composure back in place. "Many people have artificial enhancements these days, Shepard. It's neither out of the ordinary nor something to be ashamed of. I can assure you that you're just as much of a person now as you were before."
"Before I died?" Shepard finishes, eyes narrowing. No sense beating around the bush.
"Yes." Miranda's tone is even, hands still calmly folded. "Before you died."
Shepard glances down at her arms, ramrod-stiff at her sides, and forces them to relax. "You seem awfully blasé about this." She lets a little sardonicism leak into her tone. "You bring people back from the grave on a regular basis?"
"You know I don't." Miranda leans back in her chair, transferring her hands to her lap, eyebrow still stubbornly arched. "It was made quite clear on the Lazarus research station that the project was meant for you and you alone. What's this really about, Shepard?"
Shepard looks away, eyes darting to the stars streaking past Miranda's office window. She watches only for a moment before jerking her gaze away, fixing her eyes on the glowing computer interface instead. Space and stars don't hold the appeal they once did. "It's not every day you wake up and find out you've been dead for two years," she finally says, the words strangely reluctant. "I'm just…having a little bit of trouble adjusting."
For the first time, Miranda hesitates. Her fingers begin to knead together in her lap. "That's perfectly understandable, Shepard," she replies with a nod. "However, I'm afraid my area of expertise leans more toward the hard sciences than the soft. That's actually one of the reasons the Illusive Man hired Yeoman Chambers as your administrative assistant. You've met her, haven't you?"
"Yeah." Shepard's arms stiffen again, her fingers threatening to curl into fists. She distracts herself by folding them over her chest. "She seems nice."
The look Miranda gives her makes her feel as transparent as that damn fish tank. "You don't like her."
"It's not that." Shepard shakes her head. "Like I said, she seems nice. Very, uh, open. She's just a little too…"
"Cerberus," Shepard finishes. Her eyes tighten involuntarily.
Miranda doesn't fail to notice.
"Well, Commander," she says, voice cool, "I'm afraid you'll be hard-pressed to find someone on this ship who isn't Cerberus."
Shepard lets out a long breath, and suddenly feels unreasonably tired for someone who's spent the past two years lying on a table. "Yeah. I know."
On Omega, she catches a break.
When Archangel removes his helmet and reveals his face, tired and careworn but instantly familiar, the bolt of relief that shoots through her is so intense it leaves her momentarily euphoric. Almost giddy.
It isn't until later, when he's clinging to life and she's pacing the communications room awaiting an update that she realizes it was the first intensely good emotion she's experienced since her resurrection. She's never been one to complain over the general unfairness of the universe, but as her blank eyes stare down at the traces of blue blood still lining her cuticles, she thinks that if Garrus Vakarian leaves the land of the living just days after she's rejoined it, she might just have to choke a bitch.
But the relief returns when he walks through the door on his own two feet, making cracks about his new scars, and she scribbles a mental note to buy Dr. Chakwas a lifetime's supply of Serrice Ice Brandy.
Later, she goes to see Garrus in the forward battery, leaning against the railing and watching him punch in commands on the console. The interface wasn't designed for turian hands, but he doesn't seem to mind, his six fingers skimming the machinery with practiced ease.
"Need me for something?" he asks, the console dimming as he turns to face her. Scars and cybernetics aside, he looks much more alive now that he's got a little food and sleep in him.
"You have no idea," she says, her grin splitting her face. Come to think of it, she's not sure she's stopped grinning since he joined her crew. "Since the moment I woke up, it's been all Cerberus, all the time. Even Joker and Chakwas are getting their paychecks from Cerberus now. I can't tell you how glad I am to have someone I know I can trust."
"Likewise." His right mandible is still all but wired to his face, but the left twitches in a smile. "I've been meaning to tell you how good it is to have you back, Shepard. It's been…a long two years."
Shepard draws a deep breath, lips twisting. "Tell me about it. You know, when I first joined the Alliance, I was young and stupid enough to think I could handle anything. But even back then, I could never have pictured something like this—waking up after two years and finding out everything I knew has moved on without me. There wasn't anything in my N7 training that covered returning from the dead."
He tilts his head and makes a low thrumming noise in his chest. Somehow, it's oddly soothing. "Shepard, if anyone can figure out coming back from the dead, it's you. And hey, you can write the manual while you're at it."
She gazes at him, splayed fingers tightening on the railing. "I think you're the first person I've run into who hasn't questioned my identity, up, down, and sideways. Hell, I've been questioning my identity as much as anyone. What makes you so sure I'm really me and not some forged cyborg?"
Garrus watches her a moment before he answers, his eyes hooded in the battery's muted light. "Back on Omega, I knew it was you as soon as I saw you through my scope on that bridge. It wasn't just your face or the N7 insignia I recognized. It was the way you moved and fought and commanded your team—that sort of thing can't be replicated so easily. If you are some kind of clone or facsimile, you're a damn good one, Shepard."
The words turn over in her mind, and her breath starts to come a little easier. The doubts, scars, and memories of space and suffocation still linger, but it's a first step. "Thanks. That means a lot coming from you."
The light from the console plays on his armor as he gives a modest shrug. "Anything I can do to help. I still owe you for rescuing me from all that C-Sec red tape, not to mention tracking down Saleon."
She waves a hand. "Please, Garrus, you repaid those debts and more when you helped me take down Sovereign. Regardless, if we both survive our current situation, I think we can call it even. Not many people would agree to come along on a suicide mission, no questions asked."
"Well, you know me." His tone turns sly. "If there are impossible odds to be faced, I'll be right there in the thick of them. Besides, it's not every day you find out the Collectors are actually real and not just kekhinus."
Her translator hums and crackles on the last word, and her face screws up in bemusement as the translation protocol provides her with several possible meanings. "Did you just refer to the Collectors as bogeymen?"
She figures the expression crossing his face is the turian equivalent of the same one she's wearing. Ah, the wonders of modern technology.
"Kekhinus," he repeats. "Imaginary villains that parents use to scare their stubborn children into obedience."
"Exactly," she says with a laugh. It's a little rusty from disuse, but feels good all the same. "Lots of times human children get threatened with the bogeyman if they don't eat all their vegetables or go to bed when their parents tell them to. I didn't know turians had the same concept."
"Oh, yes." He stretches the words, tone turning dry. "My father was fond of telling me I was going to turn into one. The worst of the deadbeats, liars, and rule-breakers."
"Hmm." She grins. "Our version is more of a shadowy, scary monster that skulks around in the dark or hides in naughty kids' closets. But I guess turians would probably find dishonesty and dishonor more frightening than a dark and stormy night."
His mandibles click faintly in puzzlement. "What's scary about storms at night?"
Shepard laughs. "Nothing, really. Just chalk it up to being a human thing."
"I can do that." Amusement flickers across his face. "Good to know some things never change."
"You and Garrus are really close, aren't you?"
Shepard swings around, twitchy fingers almost going for her gun before her brain reminds her that she's on board her own ship, walking around in her casual clothes.
"Kasumi." She lets her voice grind a little on the word even as a wry smile crosses her face. "Didn't anyone ever tell you not to sneak up on a special forces marine?"
"Sorry, Shep." The hooded young woman dismounts her nearby perch on the mess hall table in one fluid motion, the ever-present cheerfulness in her voice overriding any trace of apology. "I am a professional thief, you know. Sneaking is what I do."
"Point taken." Shepard quirks an eyebrow, crossing her arms over her chest. It still strikes her as a little strange, putting together a combat team out of thieves, psychopaths, and professors. Then again, in another life, her squad included a krogan mercenary and an asari archaeologist.
She presses her lips into a thin line, firmly chasing away the memories of Wrex and Liara. Life goes on.
In front of her, Kasumi clears her throat delicately. "Bad time?"
Shepard smoothes her expression, blowing out a deep breath and unconsciously straightening her stance. "Not at all. Did you need something?"
She's momentarily surprised when Kasumi laughs, a light and carefree sound, then realizes just as quickly that she shouldn't be—the thief nearly always sounds amused about something.
"Always the Commander!" she grins, her eyes sparkling like firecrackers under her hood. "You know, you should stop by Port Observation sometime. I've got a nice little lounge set up, and you look like you could use a drink."
"I might just take you up on that." Shepard smiles in spite of herself. "You do know they're calling this a suicide mission, right?"
"Well, sure, but that's no reason to be gloomy." Kasumi's voice is airy. "If we're all going to perish in a big, glorious fireball on the other side of the Omega 4 relay, we might as well make the most of the time we have left. Which brings me back to the question that I notice you stealthily avoided answering."
Shepard has the grace to look sheepish. "There was a question?"
Kasumi's eyes dart toward the main battery doors in a quick gleam. "I was just noticing that you and Garrus seem to be really good buddies."
"We are," Shepard confirms, raising an eyebrow. "We've been through a lot together."
"Oh, I know," Kasumi chirps. "So does everyone else on the ship. It's such a great story. The determined human soldier and the dashing turian cop brought together by a twist of fate! Together they save the galaxy, side by side, only to be cruelly torn apart by forces beyond their control, then reunited just in the nick of time." She gives a happy, humming sigh before noticing Shepard's slack-jawed expression.
"…What? I happen to own an extensive collection of romance novels." One glimmer of light disappears beneath her hood as she winks. "But seriously, Shep. Half the ship thinks the two of you would be great together, and I agree with them. If you think about each other that way, of course. If not, feel free to ignore me. Or tell me I'm full of it. Whatever you like."
It's a silly idea, Shepard knows. The middle of a probable one-way trip to battle against malicious, human-hunting, near-mythical aliens on their own turf is the absolute worst time to get embroiled in all the complexities and obstacles of an interspecies relationship, especially when she's still grappling with life after death—
"I admit the thought has crossed my mind on occasion," she hears herself saying.
She blinks. Where did that come from?
If Kasumi notices the angel and devil sitting on her shoulders, she gives no sign. "I knew it!" she exclaims, notes of glee and triumph mingling in her voice. "Well, in that case, I wish you two the best of luck. Let me know if you need any tips on how to distract him from his calibrations. I've perfected a few techniques that used to work wonders on Keiji."
Another quick flash shines under her hood as she grins, then disappears from view, the air shimmering with her cloak's activation.
Shepard cocks her head, staring at the spot vacated by the thief. How did she even know about Garrus and his calibrations?
The passage of time sees the team's numbers grow, the galaxy's killing experts lining up to throw themselves into the fray. To Shepard's mild surprise, things go off without a hitch for the most part—at least, aside from the destruction of a prison ship and the substitution of an adolescent krogan for a hardened battlemaster—until the Collectors attack a small, inconsequential human colony called Horizon.
Horizon, to put it bluntly, sucks.
When she returns from the colony, she throws herself into work—sorting through the emails and reports she hasn't looked at yet, overseeing mineral scanning, picking out the most necessary ship upgrades. None of it keeps her mind from going into overdrive, endlessly rehashing the caustic words until they jumble and spin together, and she finally retreats to the dark and quiet of the Starboard Observation deck.
"I would have followed you anywhere, Commander—I wanted to believe you were alive, I just never expected anything like this—You've turned your back on everything we stood for—"
Minutes blend into hours before the quiet whir of the door sliding open yanks her from the quagmire, momentarily silencing Ashley's repeated accusations. Shepard throws a glance over her shoulder, raising an eyebrow at the turian-shaped silhouette framed by the doorway.
"Shepard." Garrus clears his throat.
"Hey." She half-turns but doesn't rise from her spot on the floor, craning her head to look up at him. "Need something?"
He steps further inside and the door shuts behind him, momentarily throwing him into shadow. His visor's glow seems abnormally bright. "Actually, I, ah, thought you might need something. EDI told me I could find you here." He pauses, lifting one hand to scratch at a mandible. "I'm not really great at offering advice, but if you need someone to vent to, I can do that. Or I can leave, if you'd rather be alone. I don't mean to intrude."
Tension radiates through his body, and she can just make out his mandibles fluttering. She sends him a reassuring smile.
"You could never intrude on me, Garrus." She motions with her head, injecting a bit of playfulness into her tone. "Get over here and sit next to me."
Garrus relaxes visibly, lowering himself into the vacant spot beside her. She shifts in place, bringing her knees to her chest and wrapping her arms around them, studying the turian. With the observation deck shutter closed and only one small lamp lit, the lighting in the room is dim at best, and the shadows seem to pool at his scars.
"I'm glad you came," she says after a moment, raking her fingers across the top of her head. "I think the past few hours have been driving me a little crazy with no one to listen to but Ashley."
"You aren't listening to her too closely, I hope." He peers at her, the light catching his eyes. "You're doing what you have to do. If she can't see that, it's her problem, not yours."
"I know, but…" She huffs out a short sigh. "I'm just frustrated. With her, yes, but also with myself. I should have communicated better on Horizon. I just wish I could have made her understand that I don't trust Cerberus. They just happen to be the enemy of my enemy. A very powerful, resourceful enemy of my enemy."
"Do you think it would have made a difference?" Garrus asks. "She seemed pretty dead set in her conclusions. I didn't interact with her a whole lot back on the original Normandy, but she always struck me as the emotion-driven type."
He coughs, catching Shepard's raised eyebrow. "All right, I guess I'm not really one to talk."
She gives a soundless laugh, intertwining her fingers around her knees. "I don't know. Maybe it wouldn't have made a difference. But I figure things couldn't have gone much worse."
"Oh, I don't know about that." Garrus tilts his head. "You could have opened fire on each other."
"True." Shepard pauses a moment before slowly turning to look at him, one eyebrow arching up her forehead. "Wait. Looking on the bright side? Who are you and what have you done with Garrus Vakarian?"
"Ha." His mandibles flare in an expression she's come to recognize as amusement, then he ducks his head. "Uh, you may have a point."
She grins, but the expression doesn't quite reach her eyes. The silence stretches a moment before she speaks again.
"I just keep going back to how accusatory she was, even right from the beginning of the conversation. Why didn't I let her know I was alive? I wasn't alive!" Her hands ball into fists, the skin on her arms stretching painfully over still-healing incisions. "I think maybe both of us were expecting or hoping we were still the same people, but of course we aren't. She's no doubt been through a lot in the past two years, and I'm still trying to figure how to deal with—"
She cuts herself off, makes a brusque gesture at herself. "This. My new-found zombiehood."
Apparently the bastardized phrase translates well enough, as Garrus appears thoughtful rather than confused. "That's still bothering you a lot, isn't it?"
"Yeah." Shepard grinds the heel of her hand against her eyes. "It comes and goes. Some days I feel like myself, and other days I look in the mirror and wonder why my frozen corpse isn't floating out in space somewhere. I've got questions I don't know how to answer. Why do I get to cheat death when no one else does? Am I more deserving? Just more necessary? Do I even have any say in what happens from here on out, or am I just a sack of flesh and robot parts for Cerberus to manipulate?"
"—just what Cerberus wants you to think—"
She takes a deep breath. "And I think the worst part is that I can't show any of it. I have to be Commander Shepard, Savior of the Galaxy. I can't let the crew see any weakness or uncertainty."
He watches her, eyes unfathomable. "You're letting me see it."
"You're more than just a crew member," she says simply. "You know that."
Gradually, she becomes aware of pressure and fabric against her palm, and looks down to see her fingers curled around Garrus' gloved hand.
Somehow, nothing more needs to be said.
She blinks, looking up from the datapad in her hand to the undulating blue globe across the room. "Don't you ever knock, EDI?"
The AI pauses, as though thinking it over. "If it would be more comfortable for you, I could produce a sound similar to that of a knock or a bell before appearing in your quarters."
Shepard suppresses a smile. "Never mind. That was a joke. What did you need to tell me?"
"Ah. Yeoman Chambers wished for me to inform you that Crew Member Tali'Zorah would like to speak with you."
She sets the datapad down on the table, a frown crossing her face. "Is it urgent? Something wrong?"
"Tali'Zorah is not in any physical peril. However, her emotional state is less certain. According to Yeoman Chambers, she appears to be in some distress. Yeoman Chambers would also like to submit her professional opinion that the likely cause of this distress is the recent traumatic events Tali'Zorah has suffered, such as the death of her father and her near-exile from the quarian flotilla."
"All right." Shepard stands, rolling kinks out of her shoulders. "She's in engineering, I assume?"
"I'm on it. Thanks, EDI."
The AI disappears, and Shepard heads for the elevator.
When she arrives on the fourth deck, she finds Tali bent over the engineering controls as usual, poking at the console and muttering largely unintelligible phrases under her breath. Shepard's translator snags and blips on the few audible words, offering little information other than that they are of an obscure quarian dialect and pejorative in nature.
She clears her throat. "Not having a great day?"
Tali spins around, the widening of her eyes just barely visible under her helmet. "Oh, Shepard! I didn't realize you were coming now. I told Yeoman Chambers it could wait until you weren't busy."
"I would be a pretty lousy Commander if I was too busy for my crew," Shepard says, giving Tali a smile that fades into concern. "Especially since Chambers said you were upset about something."
"Oh." Tali looks away, angling her helmet over toward the other engineers. Ken and Gabby's animated bickering carries easily across the short hallway. "Could we go someplace else to talk? Maybe up to the mess hall?"
"Sure." Shepard gestures toward the door. "After you. I was just hankering for some of Gardner's cooking, anyway."
Tali gives an inelegant snort that turns into a laugh. "Somehow, I find that a little hard to believe. Though I will admit, some of his dextro creations haven't been half bad."
Though her tone is light, her body language is agitated. Shepard doesn't press the matter until they're seated in the mess area, situated in a quiet corner away from the few off-duty personnel. Tali rests her hands on the table, fingers twisting together in a near-universal display of disquiet.
"So what's bothering you?" Shepard asks, keeping her voice low.
The quarian gives a long sigh, staring down at the patterns covering her hands, steeling herself to speak. Finally, she leans back in her chair and looks over at Shepard.
"Actually, I have a question to ask you. A very…" She swallows audibly, even inside the suit. "Personal question."
Shepard feels surprise flicker across her face before she can stop it. "Wasn't expecting that," she admits. "But all right, lay it on me."
"Okay, if you're sure." Tali flattens her hands on the table, the cafeteria's light casting tiny three-pronged shadows on the polished surface. "Ever since we got back from the flotilla, I've been thinking about everything that happened. The trial, the geth…" She trails off. "My father."
Her voice warbles, growing thinner and higher, and Shepard reaches across the table to give her arm a reassuring squeeze. "Take your time."
"I'm sorry." Tali exhales a shaky breath. "I don't even know why I'm so upset. We live with the threat of death every day, so in a way, we're always ready for the possibility. But still, I guess it's just hard because of how sudden it was. When my mother died, we had time to prepare. Time to say goodbye."
She gives a quick, watery laugh. "Damn it. It's so hard to cry inside a suit. My face itches. But anyway, I dragged you up here for a reason." She presses her twitching fingers together. "I wanted to ask you…what did it feel like? Dying, I mean. Did it hurt a lot? Was it…scary?"
Silence covers the mess hall like a layer of thick, newly fallen snow. Shepard just blinks for a moment before drawing a long, slow breath, so deep her reconstructed lungs twinge in protest.
Colored spots spinning wildly before her eyes as her body screams for oxygen—piercing cold, more frozen than anything she's ever felt—stabbing pain in her chest as her heart overloads, tries to compensate—
"I'm not sure if you want me to answer that question, Tali." Her voice seems far away, as though spoken by some other distant individual, and she's momentarily amazed at how calm it sounds.
"Please, Shepard," Tali whispers. "I'd rather just know. One way or the other."
For a fleeting moment, Shepard envies the quarians' masks, their ability to hide their emotions from the world.
"My death…" She hesitates, trying not to dwell on just how strange those words still feel on her tongue. "It wasn't the easiest way to go. Yes, it was painful and scary—for a little while. Mostly I remember the cold, then the panic, then the choking. Obviously at some point I blacked out before the end."
"Do you remember what you were thinking?" Tali's voice is hushed, her hands finally still.
"Just vague fragments. Everything was really jumbled." Shepard reaches up to lace her fingers behind the back of her neck, rubbing at her knotted muscles. "I remember disbelief, primarily. Thinking that I couldn't possibly have survived Saren and Sovereign and hundreds of geth just to get spaced by some random, unknown enemy." She gives a humorless chuckle. "Pretty arrogant, if you think about it."
"It seems like a natural reaction to me," Tali says. "I had a similar feeling when I crawled out of the escape pod on Alchera and they told me you…you hadn't made it. Everything we went through together was such an incredible experience, and then it just…ended."
"Yet here we are again." Shepard tries a smile. "Thanks to good ol' Cerberus."
Tali makes an unidentifiable noise deep in her throat, staring down at her hands folded on the table. "Bringing you back was the only good thing Cerberus ever did."
And even that's open for debate. Shepard doesn't voice the thought.
"Listen, Tali," she says, voice gentle. "Your father's death and mine were completely different. I got spaced. If he wasn't killed in the explosion when the geth blew in the door, then they no doubt took him out quickly. I'm sure he didn't have time for pain or fear."
"You're probably right." Tali lifts her head, letting out a small sigh. "It helps to think that, if nothing else."
Shepard peers at her face. "Are you going to be okay?"
"I think so. I just need some time to adjust—like you." Her tone lightens. "Thanks for being willing to talk about this with me. I'm sorry if I made you revisit things you rather wouldn't have."
"No, it's all right." To Shepard's mild surprise, the words ring true. "It's actually refreshing to have someone acknowledge the fact. Almost no one on the ship besides you has been willing or able to talk about the fact that I was dead—at least, not to my face. On one hand, I'm glad they're not treating me like Frankenstein's monster, but on the other, sometimes I feel like getting on the comm and telling everyone, 'Yes, I was dead. You can talk about it.'"
"You've talked about it with Garrus, haven't you?" Tali asks.
"Yeah, some." Shepard tilts her head, forehead furrowing. "How did you know that?"
"What's that human word? 'Scuttlebutt?'" Tali chuckles a little. "Actually, the real reason I know is because Garrus and I have discussions sometimes. He worries about you, you know. He tries not to show it, but he does."
Shepard's lips quirk up in a smile. "He's just a big bundle of feelings under that tough turian exterior. But…it's getting better, as time goes on. I'll be fine. I have to be. Because if I'm not, chances are good the Collectors will tear us to shreds—and I have no intention of letting those bastards kill me again."
She can't tell for sure, but she thinks Tali's smiling under her mask. "That's the spirit, Shepard."
Hours before the attack on the Collectors' home base, Garrus comes to Shepard's quarters with a bottle of wine and a bundle of nerves.
Later, when the wine is gone and the nerves have dissipated, she lies with her arm flung lazily over his chest and her face resting against his neck. Somehow every sensation seems heightened, from his talons tangling in her hair, to the brush of the sheets twisted around their legs, to the thrum of his pulse against her cheek.
She smiles, her eyes drifting closed.
"Don't fall asleep, now." His voice rumbles through his chest, sending pleasant vibrations into her skin. "We've still got Collectors' days to ruin."
"Mmm." Her grin widens, eyes still closed. "You mean kekhinus?"
The rise and fall of Garrus' chest stills beneath her arm, and she cracks one eye open, lifting her head to glance at his face. She bursts into laughter at his expression.
"I completely butchered that pronunciation, didn't I?"
His mandibles flare, and he joins her laughter. "Yeah, you should probably stick to your own version."
She waves a hand, settling back against his side. "What can I say? I'm a soldier, not a linguist."
"Thank the spirits for that," he quips, his rumble growing appreciative as Shepard lightly punches his chest.
"Bastard," she mutters fondly, fingers tracing winding patterns on his skin. "You know, it's a good thing you turned out to be Archangel. Saved me a lot of time."
"Because if you hadn't been," she says, "I would have had to scour the galaxy looking for you. Just think of all the colonists you saved by being kickass enough to pop up in the Illusive Man's dossiers."
He chuckles into her hair. "Glad to be of service."
"Oh, you're of service, all right." Her fingers travel lower, her grin turning wicked as his breathing grows strained.
"Shepard, if you keep that up, the base attack will have to be put on hold while you and I finish round two."
"Aww, well, we shouldn't keep them waiting. Guess I'll take a raincheck on that second round." She lifts her head, pressing a kiss to his mandible. "We'll save it for a celebration, after we destroy the base and make it back alive."
His hand slides up her back, eyes growing serious. "Shepard…"
"Shhh." She rests her fingers on his mouth. "Since I came back, between dealing with Cerberus and my resurrection and everything, I've had my good moments and my bad moments. This is a good moment. I want to make it last for as long as I can."
He cups the back of her head, gently pulling her forward until her forehead meets his. "Okay."
Comfortable silence falls, broken only by their steady breathing and the occasional scrape of Shepard's fingernails across rough skin. Several moments pass before Garrus speaks up again.
"You know, I was thinking about your, uh, situation, and it reminded me of this science fiction vid program I used to watch when I was a kid. It was about this superhero who went around saving the galaxy—you know, the usual—but every so often, the villains would get the upper hand and kill him. But he would always come back, every time. The explanation they would give was that his work wasn't finished yet. He still had injustice to fight and people to save, so it was like death wasn't allowed to keep him until he had finished what he needed to do."
Shepard props herself up on her elbows, raising an eyebrow, a grin tugging at the corners of her mouth. "Garrus, are you comparing my life to a children's sci-fi program?"
"Hmmm," he rumbles, twining his talons in her hair and massaging the pads of his fingers across her scalp. An obvious distraction tactic, and a good one. "Maybe?"
She huffs out a breath through her nose, giving in to the grin. "I'll overlook it just this once if you keep doing that." She lets her eyes fall closed, giving a contented hum. "You think it could be that simple? Fate or destiny or whatever you want to call it has decreed that this is my purpose?"
"Well, I don't know about fate or destiny," he says, amusement leaking into his tone. "But I'm a turian, Shepard. We like to keep things as simple as possible."
Her responding chuckle is cut off by Joker's voice over the radio.
"We're about fifteen minutes out from the Omega 4 relay, Commander. If you want to suit up or make any other preparations, now's the time."
Shepard's lips twist as she reluctantly hauls herself off the bed, holding out a hand for Garrus.
"I guess there's no time like the present to put that theory of yours to the test." She tilts her head, sending him a look of affection mixed with contemplation. "And Garrus, no matter what happens…thank you."
"Everything," she says simply, then breaks into a smirk she doesn't think she's worn since before her death.
"Come on," she says. "Let's go kill some bogeymen."