A/N: Wow, this is going to be the mother of all author's notes!
First off, let me start off by saying what an incredible journey this has been! In the few short months this story has been up, it has managed to amass over 13,300 hits, making it the most successful story I have ever done! I could not have accomplished it without all the loyal readers that have waited patiently and sometimes with baited breath every week for the next chapter. My heartfelt thanks goes out to everybody that has read, alerted, or favorited this story and me as an author - especially those of you who took the time to review and let me know what you think. You guys know who you are ;) And a very special thanks to everyone that cast their vote or told me in a review or PM that they wanted a sequel.
I have decided to pursue the sequel. (Honestly, how could I not?) It will basically pick up right where this story leaves off and will continue into my own version of ME3. I will also try to keep to my schedule of weekly updates. If you haven't put me on author alert yet, I highly encourage you to do so, as I do not yet know what the title of this new story will be.
For this chapter I took a little extra time so that I could make sure it brought the story to a satisfying close. I hope you like it.
Much love! ~Jamie
UPDATE: The first two chapters of the sequel are up. It's called If We Die Tomorrow.
The brave front she had fought so hard to put on for the members of the crew out in the mess hall crumbled. She had prepared herself to find his lifeless body lying on the cold table and her body was still weighted down from the anger and despair that resulted from having been physically removed from the room and denied the right to sit with him as the last minutes of his life ticked away. She could not help the fresh tears that sprang to her eyes at the revelation that he was still alive, just as she couldn't help the sobs that escaped her throat.
He was still lying on his back, but just as Dr. Chakwas said, the breathing tubes had been removed and the machines disconnected, now sitting silent and black against the wall. As she closed the distance between them he slowly lifted his hand to her. She clasped it firmly in both of hers and brought it up to her heart. For a long time all she could do was stare down at him, her vision made hazy by the tears that still clouded her eyes. His own eyes darted over her face, eyes that she had once feared she'd never get the chance to gaze into again.
"I thought I'd never see you again," he said finally, the flanging made more prominent by the hoarseness in his voice. All the humor that had been there only moments before was gone.
"I'm here," she whispered, "and I'm never leaving your side again."
"Good to hear." He had uttered that particular phrase not so long ago and he tried to smile at her decision to use it now, but even that small movement caused him to wince and groan in pain. Still, that didn't stop him from pulling his hand out of her grip and brushing one of his talons across the crest of her bruised cheek. "So are you going to tell me who did this to you?"
She caught hold of his hand and moved it away from her face. "Garrus, we don't have to do this now. There will be plenty of time to talk about it later. Right now you should just rest."
His eyes narrowed as he studied her. He raised his head slightly to catch her eyes, which were suddenly focused on the ground. "Nikole, what aren't you telling me?"
She took a deep breath and buried her fingers in the tangles of hair. After all he'd been through, did he really want the details? "There was a bomb," she said finally. "The Blood Pack rigged the building you were in…and…well, it went off."
He struggled to shift his weight to his elbow. The pain must have been torture, for even though he carefully tried to hide the discomfort, she could see it play across his eyes. Still he was determined, and she knew that no amount of nagging would get him to lie back down until he was good and ready. Once again he riveted his eyes on her face, now dark blue with intensity as he took in her injuries, lingering on the bruising and the long gash that disappeared into her hair. God, she thought, she must be a sight to see.
Propped up on his elbow his face was almost level with hers and as the realization dawned on him she watched the ridge of his brow crease into a frown. "You were in there too, weren't you?" he said. It came out as more of a statement than a question.
"Damn it Shepard, what the hell were you thinking? I told you not to come for me!"
"What was I thinking? Fuck Garrus, are you really gonna ask me that now?"
"How could you be so foolish?" he growled. "Why–"
"Why? Because I love you goddamit! That's why! I couldn't just leave you there to die!" she yelled, her anger dwindling into a sob as she pleaded, "Now, will you just let me hold you and be thankful you're alive?"
Ignoring the raging pain that coursed through his body he threw his arm around her neck and hauled her to him in a fierce embrace. "Okay," he whispered in her ear. She relaxed and melted into him as she wrapped her arms around his torso, taking care not to put to much pressure and his healing ribs and clavicle. She felt a slight pressure as he smoothed his hand over her hair. "Okay. I just don't like to see you hurt. And you look like you really took a beating."
She laughed through her tears and stood back to look at him with a smile. "If you think I look bad, you should look in a mirror."
He laughed and then immediately groaned. "Unnnhhhh, I'll take your word for it."
"You really should get some rest," she scolded softly.
She helped him into a more comfortable position. She could see the fatigue settle over him as soon as his head touched the small pillow. She waited until his eyes fluttered closed and then turned to tiptoe out of the med bay. He reached and caught hold of her hand just as she was about to walk away.
"Stay with me?" he asked groggily.
Squeezing his hand reassuringly she pulled the chair she had been sitting in earlier up to the exam table and sat down.
"Always," she smiled.
Sometime during the night Shepard woke up to someone gently shaking her and she looked up sleepily to see Dr. Chakwas standing before her in her nightclothes. After checking on Garrus to make sure he was still doing all right, she agreed to head up to her cabin, trusting that the good doctor would keep an eye on him while she slept.
Once she was through the door she trudged down the steps and crawled into her soft bed, not even bothering to strip out of her uniform. She was out before her head even hit the pillow.
She woke up a while later, though it was hard to keep track of exactly how much later since the scene around her never changed. Day or night, it was always the same dismal gray walls, the same shine from the fluorescent lighting that lined the ceiling and the edges of the floor. One thing was certain though; she felt more refreshed than she had in a long time. The heavy feeling that seemed to have found a permanent spot on her neck and shoulders was gone.
She inhaled deeply through her nose and let the breath out slowly through her mouth, relishing in the feeling of contentment before rubbing her hands over her face to chase away the last vestiges of sleep. The bed was comfortable and the sheets were warm as she stretched her limbs to get the blood flowing. Even the soreness of her stiff muscles seemed to have diminished. What was more; her mood had improved significantly, bordering almost on optimistic. And Garrus was alive and waiting for her in the med bay. Everything was perfect.
Well, as perfect as it could get while preparing for battle with the reapers and hunting down the Illusive Man, anyway.
With the threat of Garrus's imminent death removed, Shepard finally allowed herself to relax and take things a bit more leisurely than she had in a long time. She indulged herself by taking a long shower, enjoying the seemingly limitless supply of hot water. After she was done she took the time to dry her hair and comb it out so that it curled slightly at the ends, and even applied a bit of makeup. It wasn't enough to make the deep bruising on her face completely disappear, but it did make them so they weren't so prominent and did wonders for making her feel human again. Finally, she slipped into her black tailored uniform and pulled on her boots, intentionally ignoring the fact that they could use a good shining. There would be plenty of time for that later.
Garrus was sitting upright on the exam table when Shepard entered the med bay.
"Look at you!" she exclaimed, coming to stand next to him. "I didn't sleep a week away, did I? How long was I out?" He had made significant progress in just a few short hours.
Dr. Chakwas set down the datapad she had been studying and came to join them. "You've been asleep almost thirteen hours. And," she interjected before Shepard could say anything, "I see it's done you some good. You look like you feel much better."
"I do," she conceded. "You were right. I was exhausted." The doctor's eyes lit up as a smug smile settled over her face. "Oh don't look at me like that! I would have gone up for some sleep eventually."
"Mmhmm," Dr. Chakwas replied with an exaggerated eye roll. "I'll resist the urge to say 'I told you so'."
"You do that," Shepard muttered, although she tried to suppress a grin at the good-natured ribbing.
Dr. Chakwas picked up the datapad again and resumed her reading, moving closer to the door seemingly to give the couple more privacy, although Shepard knew that her keen ears would be listening in on their conversation anyway.
"How are you feeling?" she asked Garrus lowly once they were alone.
"Like I've been run over by the Mako," he replied.
"Garrus honey, I think in your case it ran over you and then backed up!" she cackled. She was pleased to see his eyes light up at her playful banter.
His spirited expression faded as he once again grew somber. "Dr. Chakwas told me what you did."
"Shepard…" his voice took on a reprimanding tone, "you know what I mean."
She folded her arms over her chest defensively, expecting further rebuke. She had purposefully avoided the conversation last night because he had gotten so heated just knowing that she was in the building, she couldn't imagine how he would have taken the news that she'd actually sustained the brunt of the impact. In a way she was sort of glad that Dr. Chakwas had been the one to inform him of that little detail.
"Do you remember that conversation we had about the 'ultimate sacrifice'?" she asked him. He stared at her, waiting patiently for her to continue – to give him a good reason for doing what she did, she assumed. "When I finally found you, there wasn't much time left before the bomb went off. I made the decision in those last few seconds that since we were both screwed that I might as well try to…try to…hell Garrus, I didn't even know if you were alive at that point, but I figured if there was even the slightest chance that you were, I had to do everything in my power to keep it that way."
"Thank you. For everything."
Shepard opened her mouth, ready to protest further and then stopped. He slipped his hand into hers and pulled her close to him so he could place a quick kiss on her cheek. She blushed furiously and flicked her eyes to Dr. Chakwas, who was pretending not to notice.
"There's something else I need to tell you, but not here," she said, turning her attention back to him. "Do you think you can manage a trip up to my cabin?"
"I strongly advise that Officer Vakarian stay in the med bay. I highly doubt he'll get any rest up there with you," Dr. Chakwas retorted without looking up from the datapad.
Hah! She knew she was listening!
"It's not like that!" she claimed. Once again she could feel the heat rise to her cheeks. In the background she could hear Garrus chuckle. "I just thought it might be more comfortable and–"
"No problem Shepard. I can make it."
Garrus's hand fell on her shoulder, sufficiently stopping her rant. She turned and gave the doctor a self-satisfied look. She helped him slide off the table and inserted herself underneath his arm to offer support. The progress was slow and more than once he sucked in his breath in an attempt to mask his grunts of discomfort, but they made it to the door.
They were almost through it when Dr. Chakwas called out to her. "Shepard, go easy on him. I've spent too much time patching him up for you to go and break him," she said with a snicker.
Now she was just toying with her. And Garrus wasn't helping, no matter how hard he tried to hide his smile from her.
"Don't worry Doc," Garrus said with a wink, "I won't let her be too rough on me."
"Both of you just shut up," she mumbled, which only made the two of them laugh even harder.
Shepard managed to get Garrus to the elevator before anyone else could see them and make a comment, no small miracle considering how slow she had to move so as not to jostle him too hard. The steps in her cabin proved to be the most difficult and by the time she situated him on the bed they were both panting from exhaustion.
"That was mean, you know," she said. Absently she tucked one side of her hair behind her ear and the folded her arms. "Now you have her thinking I'm up here ravaging you instead of letting you rest. Thanks a lot."
"Trust me, if I could move I'd be doing just that."
Her stomach fluttered at the mere thought of the last time they were together. God, she'd missed him. It was still hard to believe that he was right in front of her, staring up at her with the same cockiness and playful humor that she had come to love so much.
She pivoted on her heel and without saying a word walked across the expanse between the bed and the couches and grabbed his eyepiece from the table. He studied her with interest as she held out her hand so that he could pluck it out of her fingers.
"Where did you get this?"
"From the Illusive Man," she said and sat with a heavy sigh on the couch so that she could look at him directly.
Garrus looked from her to the eyepiece and slowly turned it over in his fingers, noting that it still had spot of his blood on it.
"It was a present," she continued. "He made a big goddamned show of catching me off guard. Which it did, I might add. By the time I opened it, you were long gone. I should have never let you go without me. Maybe if I had been there I could have done something to stop them."
"There was nothing you could've done. The minute I realized it was all a trap it was too late. I heard a shot ring out and then that was it. I don't remember anything else."
Shepard pulled her knees up to her chest and looked at the floor. "It was an ambush. They killed Denny, and would have succeeded in killing Zaeed too if that bastard wasn't so indestructible."
"No one would tell me the reason I was being held captive," he said after a minute. "They just seemed hell bent on making me suffer."
"I don't know how to tell you this Garrus, but that was the whole point. They hurt you to get to me" She sucked in her breath, gathering the courage to stay the next part. "And I'm afraid that it's all my fault."
"You? What makes you say that?"
Suddenly looking at him was unbearable. His brow was creased in confusion as his eyes bored innocently yet intently into her. This confession wasn't going to be easy. She got to her feet and paced over to the aquarium. The soft blue light washed over her as she brought her forehead to the glass. It was cool on her face and she could feel the slight vibration from the filter as it hummed somewhere hidden behind the wall. Slowly she brought her hand up next to her face and placed it on the glass as well as she spoke.
"Because I underestimated the Illusive Man," she eventually said in a small voice. "He threatened to hurt those I love and I called his bluff. I didn't think he would actually follow through with it. You may hate me for causing you all this unnecessary pain, but you needed to know."
"This have to do with him getting his ass in a knot back at the collector home world?"
"And I'm assuming you told him to go to hell? You always did have a delicate way with words."
Keeping her forehead pressed to the glass she twisted her body so that she could look back at him. "Yeah." What was he getting at?
"Then I'd say you were just doing your job. You aren't the type to just lie down and let people walk all over you."
"That may be true, but you still didn't deserve what they did to you." She flipped around and pressed her back against the glass and wrapped her arms around herself sullenly.
"Nikole, come here." While his voice still managed to sound affectionate, there was an unmistakable note of command in it as well. Reluctantly she pushed away from the aquarium and came to stand before him. Still not satisfied he clasped her hand and directed her to sit on the edge of the bed. "I know you feel terrible about what happened," he said, pausing to sweep her hair away from the cut on her forehead, "but it's behind us now. I'm here, you're here, and we've got bigger issues to deal with than trying to lay blame to the whole situation. You have the fate of the galaxy to worry about."
Unexpectedly, her bloodshot eyes welled up with unshed tears. He leaned forward and tenderly placed his hands on her upper arms. "Garrus, I was so scared," she whispered. "I thought I lost you. And suddenly, nothing else mattered. Not the reapers, not the Normandy, the Council, nothing! I sat up here and I cried and hated myself for what I'd done. And then that video – oh God!" His arms were strong around her upper body then, holding her tightly, protectively, to his chest. She never wanted to leave them. "That was it. I knew I had to find you and the crew agreed to help me. I even put a gun to Harkin's head."
The hand that had been smoothing her hair stilled. "You did what? Shit, I almost feel sorry for the guy. What else did I miss?"
Shepard pulled back and shook her head. "Cerberus had their own intentions all along, and I played into their plan like a dimwitted fool. Once I made it clear that I wouldn't give the Illusive Man the technology that he wanted and refused to work with him, he enlisted the help of the Shadow Broker and orchestrated your abduction and subsequent torture."
Garrus's eyes widened.
"That's not even the half of it," she continued. "Liara and I were able to uncover the location of the Shadow Broker and after an attempt on her life by yet another rogue spectre, we managed to infiltrate his ship and take him out. The best part is that Liara is now the new Shadow Broker and is using his resources to help us with the upcoming war with the reapers." She paused to catch her breath. "And that information is how I finally found you. You know the rest."
He was speechless. A strangled noise emanated from somewhere deep within in throat but in the end all he could do was stare at her. "They just haven't learned not to piss you off, have they?" he said finally, which immediately made her laugh.
"I love you Garrus," she declared.
He brought his forehead down and gently touched it to hers.
"I love you more."
"We're approaching the citadel Commander."
"Copy that, Joker," Shepard said.
The heavy sound of her boots echoed loudly on the floor as she walked purposefully across the CIC on her way to the comm room where she had told the crew to assemble only minutes earlier. It had been roughly about two weeks since Garrus had regained consciousness and as soon as she was certain they were both healed enough she had directed the pilot to the citadel for a much needed overhaul. When she opened the door ten pairs of eyes looked up at her expectantly, eagerly awaiting her orders.
Shepard tapped her datapad, making a few last minute adjustments before she set it down on the table in front of her.
"When we dock at the citadel," she began, "I want everybody to break up into groups. Samara, you're in charge of overseeing the work on the fourth deck; Miranda, the third; and Kelly the second. Garrus, I want you to supervise everyone's progress while I talk to the council."
He nodded and stood a little straighter. The rest of the crew listened intently, but Shepard could see the confusion in all of their faces.
"Anything with a Cerberus brand or logo is to be removed immediately," she continued in an authoritative tone, "no matter how insignificant it may seem."
It would not be an easy task expunging the sinister company from the Normandy. The offending logo was on just about everything from the walls, their uniforms and armor, painted on the exterior of the ship's hull, right down to the plates in the mess hall.
"Tali, you'll take Engineer Daniels with you to the markets to buy any necessary replacements that the crew will need." She picked up the datapad again and scrolled down to the bottom. "Jack should have sent you the information on everybody's size. Mess Sergeant Gardner, you're responsible for your own area. While you're out, why don't you pick up some high quality provisions? Spare no expense. The crew deserves a good meal after a hard day's work." She then turned her attention to Jacob. "Jacob, you and Grunt are in charge of paint. What cannot be torn out or removed will be covered up. I'm forwarding the color details to your omni-tool now."
"Anything else, Commander?" Miranda asked in her heavily accented voice.
Shepard took a deep breath and gazed at the individuals around the room. "Yes. I wanted to thank you all for all that you've done, on the mission to defeat the collectors, on helping me find and rescue Garrus, and for just being part of my crew. Thank you."
"Let's kick this redesign into high gear!" Jacob whooped and the crew joined him in rallying approval.
Having received all their assignments the crew dispersed, leaving Shepard alone in the debriefing room.
"Yes," she said softly and smiled, "let's."
"We find this information to be most fascinating Commander Shepard," the asari council member said a short while later.
She was once again standing in Captain Anderson's office, but unlike last time she now felt more confident in her opinions of Cerberus.
"So you're telling us that the reapers used their technology to transform the protheans into collectors and were using them to do the leg work in abducting human colonies?" the salarian asked. His tone was noncommittal though and Shepard couldn't tell if he was impressed or just mocking her.
"That's right." She could be noncommittal as well.
"Incredible," the turian mumbled to himself, to which Shepard raised an eyebrow. Were they finally going to believe that the reaper threat was indeed real? She certainly hoped so. "And when Cerberus demanded that same reaper technology and you refused to give it to them, they turned on you?"
"Yes." She shifted her feet nervously and looked at Captain Anderson before she continued. "And to get even with me they kidnapped and tortured a member of my crew."
The asari straightened. "Though we knew that working with Cerberus was a bad idea to begin with," it seemed to Shepard that she just couldn't resist the extra jab, "your sound judgment and upstanding motivations have always been a constant Commander Shepard."
"Does this mean you'll help me? The reapers are coming and I can't do it alone."
"We will do what we can, but council law dictates to us how involved we are allowed to become," she said.
"Maybe the law should be rewritten," Shepard said flatly. "The only way life as we know it stands a chance is to unite all the races together to fight one cause."
"An admirable goal Commander." She actually smiled. Shepard was shocked. "We'll talk more later."
The three holographic figures flickered and disappeared, signaling the end of the conversation. But what had transpired actually left Shepard feeling somewhat optimistic about the unknown future. She nodded at Captain Anderson and as she left his office she couldn't help the large smile of satisfaction from spreading across her lips.
"That good huh?" Garrus said as Shepard joined him and Joker at the loading dock.
The two men stood by the railing that overlooked the Normandy. Since the painting of the exterior was still in process, a giant brown sheet had been hung up around it to control the overspray and effectively blocked the ship from their view. Shepard stepped up between them and placed her elbows on the railing.
"Call me crazy, but I actually think the council is on our side this time," she said.
"Never thought I'd see that happen." Garrus shook his head.
"Commander look!" Joker yelled and pointed to the Normandy.
At that moment the sheet was released and billowed gracefully to the ground below, revealing the Normandy in all it's sparkling clean – Cerberus free – glory. The color scheme of the SR-2 had really appealed to her, so when it came time for the redesign she had decided to keep the sliver-gray hull with the black accents. The eyesore of a logo had been completely removed, as were any traces of the iconic yellow, replaced instead by a mixture of red and orange. And in place of the old serial number, the new upgraded Normandy bore a new one. In the grand tradition of its predecessors, SR-3 was painted in white along the sides.
"Can it get any better than this?" Garrus asked her. With Joker so caught up in the new Normandy, he could pull her back against his chest without the pilot noticing. Not that Shepard cared anymore.
"I don't know," she replied, letting her head fall back against his hard blue armor. "We've taken back the Normandy, succeeded in gaining the council's support, and we're going up against impossible odds once more for the good of the galaxy."
"Yup," he said, tightening his embrace. "Just like old times."
Encumbered forever by desire and ambition,
There's a hunger still unsatisfied,
Our weary eyes still stray to the horizon,
Though down this road we've been so many times – High Hopes, Pink Floyd
A/N: That's it! Now that it's over, I'm interested in hearing what your favorite part of the story was. Thanks to everyone again! ~Jamie