A/N - The goal for this fic is to provide depth and context to the relationship of Shepard and Garrus, while staying within the bounds of estabished canon. In that respect, I will include specific, relevant scenes from gameplay, along with original scenes.
This story is dedicated to Brandon Keener, the absolutely amazing voice actor who truly brought Garrus to life, because it was my love for Garrus that inspired me to write in this 'verse.
Update: I have finally gotten around to rewriting the prologue for this story. Now that it's developed a life of its own, I felt it deserved a proper introductory chapter. :)
Shepard was dying.
Twisting. Tumbling. The Normandy splintered and cracked apart in the silence of space. Burning. Burning. Her lungs were burning, desperate for air. Her hands frantically clawed over her shoulders, grasping blindly for the air tube that hissed her life away into the void.
All she knew was the sense of burning. The Normandy, above her. The planet, below her. Her lungs, inside her.
Shepard breathed in and there was nothing there but cold and it tasted of death. Funny. She'd always thought she'd die with the taste of blood on her tongue. In the brief, splintered flashes of coherence between sharp bursts of panic, the frantic Commander tried to accept what was happening. She had saved the crew. She'd saved Joker. Hell, she'd even saved the Citadel. But nobody was going to save her, not before her air hissed away into the deep.
She was dying. She'd damned well saved everyone else, and surely that was enough for one lifetime. Surely she could give up now. She wanted to.
The problem was – the real bitch of it all was – Shepard didn't know how to give up. The only damn thing she knew how to do was fight, so she did. She fought for each second. She fought until the evac pods pushed off from the dying hull of the Normandy. She fought until she knew they were safe. And then she just fought for air, each breath tiny and gasping and smaller than the last.
Then when she couldn't breathe anymore, she fought to keep her eyes open.
And when they closed against the last flash of gleaming stars, she fought just to keep thinking. Flashes of cognizance that unravelled with each dragging second.
The cold sunk into her bones until the thoughts wouldn't come anymore and maybe it was time to give up at last and –
She was breathing.
She was breathing, there was sound. She was thinking. Her mind spawning its way back into awareness in lurching bursts of cognizance.
"...my god, Miranda, I think she's waking up..."
She could think. She could breathe. Shepard didn't know how to stop fighting, so she just kept doing it. Fought to open her eyes again, because she was damned if she was going to give up now. The light was like razor wire to her eyeballs, blinding and clawing into her brain. But she wasn't giving up now.
"...she's not ready yet... the sedative..."
Sound was intermittent, but her eyes were open and she could see a shape. White and outlined in black, hovering before her. The sounds didn't make any sense, so she focussed on what did matter. Breathing. Breathing mattered.
But it was hard to control it. Her lungs still thought they were burning and Shepard couldn't stop the sharp, savage gasps for air.
"...heart rate's still climbing... brain activity is off the scale... stat's pushing into the red zone!"
She could think, but it was scattered and out of control. She could breathe, but it was tearing her lungs apart in frantic hyperventilation.
"Another dose – now!"
The white-and-black shape before her moved and Shepard's vision blurred again. She couldn't think, so she fell back on instinct. Her breathing was steady. Her breathing was safe. Her thoughts drifted, and her eyes closed, but she'd fought to breathe and she'd won. She'd won, damn it.
"...too close... we almost lost her..."
If I can breathe, then I'm alive. The bastards haven't beaten me yet.
Her eyes closed but she could feel her lungs moving, slow and steady. The sounds faded and there was silence, but in the silence, she breathed.
"Wake up, Commander!"
The voice broke her world apart and she knew pain. Her awareness snapped into focus and it was defined by sharp, broken shards of pain.
"Shepard, do you hear me?"
It wasn't like anything she'd ever felt before, but that didn't matter. Shepard understood pain.
"Get out of that bed now – this facility is under attack!"
Shepard let a lungful of air drift slowly past her lips and gloried in the triumph of breathing. She could think, and breathe. She forced her eyes open, and was greeted with the blinding white brilliance of a pristine, sparkling medical lab ceiling.
She was alive.
She had to be alive, because being dead couldn't hurt this fucking much.
"Shepard, your scars aren't healed, but I need you to get moving. This facility is under attack."
She had the disorienting sense that a great deal of time had passed, much as one did when coming to after being knocked unconscious. It was a sensation Shepard was far too intimately familiar with and that, combined with the overwhelming medical feel of her surroundings, had her deciding she believed in miracles.
For once, someone had damned well saved her. She just wasn't sure whether it had happened before or after she died.
The voice over the radio was getting quite insistent, with a note of panic threading through the accented words. To her surprise, Shepard found herself in a distinctly serene frame of mind as she reviewed the situation. Perhaps it was due to being unexpectedly and inexplicably alive. As she moved to sit up, Shepard felt pain rip its way along every muscle in her body, her face twisting into a grimace. A sudden, blinding red shot raced across her blurry vision. It froze her still, because Shepard knew that flash all too well. The cast of light, the pattern of it. The sounds.
She was moving before she even realized it. It hurt like fucking hell, but Shepard forced herself to sit up, levered her legs off the bed and her bare feet hit ground. Another moment and she was standing on her own, her vision clearing more with each passing second. The pounding of adrenaline through her system was clearing her head as quickly as any medical stimulants ever had.
I'm in a hospital gown, I hurt like hell, I think I may have just died, and I'm still being attacked. Great.
"There's a pistol in a locker on the other side of the room. Hurry!"
Shepard's head turned sharply to peer across the room, eyes narrowing to try to focus. A weapon sounded like a fucking brilliant idea just about now and she embraced the concept whole-heartedly. Grimacing, she began to limp towards the locker.
"You don't have time to wait around, Shepard."
The injured woman hissed slightly in pain as she lurched across the room. Shepard made it to the locker and pried it open with bare hands, blinking in bemused pleasure when she realized it held armor, as well as a gun. Her N7 armor.
The gunfire was still going on outside, and Shepard began dragging on the armor.
As she did so, she considered the situation as carefully as her still slightly fuzzy brain permitted. She was scarred and everything hurt, but there didn't seem to be any kind of wounds or damage. She had no idea where she was, how she'd gotten here, or how long she'd been there. She had no idea who was fighting who in the halls outside this lab. It was entirely probable that the explanations for all of those things were going to be reasonably unpleasant, but for just this moment, none of that mattered.
She hefted the pistol and grinned tightly.
She was back in armor. She had a gun.
She was Commander Shepard and she was fucking alive.
Anything else, she would handle as it came up.
Cerberus. Fucking Cerberus.
Twisted, xenophobic fanatics with a terrorist bent who spent far too much time playing about with Petri dishes and eye droppers. It had been Cerberus who were behind the sick experiments with the rachni and the thorians creepers. Cerberus, who had lured Alliance Marines into thresher maws for the sake of scientific research. Cerberus, who had turned human colonists into fucking husks.
And it was Cerberus who had murdered Rear Admiral Kahoku.
Now Cerberus were her only allies, and that made her skin crawl.
Shepard operated on instinct and raw determination throughout the mission to Freedom's Progress, relying on her ability to compartmentalise to see her through it. Once she stopped distracting herself with immediate issues, three key facts surfaced to spiral around and around in her mind insistently.
The Normandy was destroyed. My team is alive. I was dead for two years.
One bright relief squeezed between two horrors. The Illusive Man had been blunt as hell about the fact that her old team was alive, but otherwise engaged. All except for Garrus, who had apparently vanished from the galaxy completely. The thought that he, too, could be dead – killed in some anonymous, idiotic little fire fight somewhere, with nobody to mourn him – made her heart clench in her chest. Strangely, that stung more than learning she'd been stone cold dead for two years.
At least I'm not a clone. Fucking Cerberus.
The Commander had nearly lost everything to take out one Reaper. She didn't have a clue how many hundreds, thousands, millions, were waiting to crawl into their galaxy and gobble up every living organic being.
The world had changed forever while she was dead, and she was stuck with this fucked-up version where Cerberus were her only allies. So she would fight with them, because it was her nature to fight and being dead hadn't changed her determination to destroy the Reapers. The Alliance had disavowed the Reaper threat, but ignoring it didn't make it go away.
So Shepard stood before the great puppet-master of Cerberus, looked the Illusive Man square in the eye and signed on for another suicide mission.
Because at the end of the day, she had no choice.
Shepard left her post-Freedom's Progress debriefing with the Illusive Man feeling like the ground had dropped out from underneath her again. Staring at the familiar frame awkwardly limping ahead of her, the Commander reflected that it was an experience she should be growing accustomed to. Lately, every time she felt she had a handle on what was going on, the universe seemed to turn inside out and leave her questioning whether she was going insane.
Like seeing her pilot on a Cerberus station.
Joker led her through the corridors away from the Illusive Man's communication chamber, his step awkward and limping in that very familiar way. It was hard to believe he was really here. It almost felt like he was the ghost, not her.
"I can't believe it's you, Joker," Shepard managed after a moment, letting her eyes feast on him. His tilting, brittle-boned walk, the baseball cap, the three-day-stubble that graced his jaw. The former pilot of the Normandy turned to throw her a cocky grin over his shoulder.
"Look who's talking. I saw you get spaced," Joker retorted.
"I got lucky," she answered, following him through the station. Recalling her recent interview with the oh-so-mysterious Illusive Man, Shepard grimaced. "With a lot of strings attached. How'd you get here?"
Not that she was complaining. Oh, hell no. Seeing Tali on Freedom's Progress was like all of her birthdays come at once. If every present she ever got was a kick in the teeth. But this was different. Joker wasn't walking away, and she wasn't even recruiting him. He was already here... with Cerberus. And as much as she trusted him, Shepard had to remind herself that it had been two years. Could she really trust anyone, after that much time?
"It all fell apart without you, Commander," Joker was saying, as they continued through the station to wherever he was taking her. "Everything you stirred up, the Council just wanted it gone. Team was broken up, records sealed, and I was grounded." Shepard flinched in sympathy at the raw wound in his voice. "The Alliance took away the one thing that mattered to me. Hell yeah, I joined Cerberus."
Shepard could almost taste the bitterness in his words. Joker could barely walk without breaking a leg bone, thanks to his condition. She knew this man. Flying was his life, it was his purpose. Taking it away... yeah, she could see why he'd turn to damn near anyone who'd give it back to him. But still...
"You really trust the Illusive Man?" she asked sceptically.
Joker threw that familiar smug smirk at her as he paused before a set of doors. "I don't trust anyone who makes more than I do. But they aren't all bad. Saved your life. Let me fly..." He reached out to touch the door controls and they slid open.
The ex-pilot gestured her into what seemed to be a darkened observation room, looking out into the void. Shepard followed silently, curiously.
"And... there's this..." he said quietly, and the first of the lights came on.
It was a ship. That was clear immediately, but it wasn't until Shepard stepped deeper into the observation room that she got her first clear view. It was moving silently, gliding with the slow grace of a predator out of the blackness of space to dock with the station. She had no idea where it had come from, but that first clear view sent a frisson of familiarity down her spine.
She felt vertebrae click into place as she straightened in shock.
It was the Normandy. Except the Normandy was destroyed. So was I, she reminded herself.
The station's docking lights glanced across it, illuminating the vessel. All its straight, sleek lines. Clean, sharp angles. Shepard felt her eyes widening in incredulity as she stepped up towards the glass. It cruised in majestic silence towards the waiting docking clamps, and Shepard's eyes locked onto the markings as they passed in front of her.
"They only told me last night," Joker said softly to her right and she startled, because she'd forgotten he was there.
The docking clamps locked in place and the vessel rested fully in the light. Shepard's gaze swept over the ship now that she could see it clearly. It was almost impossible to accurately judge size in space, without some kind of comparison, but she had the impression that the SR-2 was much larger than her predecessor. Her throat clenched shut and she couldn't speak. She kept her eyes wide open, unblinking, but she couldn't look away.
"It's good to be home, huh, Commander?" her pilot sighed contentedly.
It was like a miracle.
She had her life. She had a mission. Now Shepard had her home back again. She wasn't blind enough to forget where these miracles had come from, or to ignore the undisclosed price tag attached to them all. But that could be dealt with later.
Shepard let her eyes pause over the achingly empty stretch of hull which had once proclaimed the name of the original ship. She put her hands on her hips and looked out over the Normandy, feeling a real smile tug at her lips for the first time since she had died. The Commander looked sidelong at her pilot and he grinned back at her.
"I guess we'll have to give her a name."
Both of them locked their eyes on the familiar lines of the ship as it sat patiently, expectantly, in the docking clamps. For an instant, there was silence. Then Shepard's gaze slanted sideways, and Joker tilted his head to grin at her, and the two of them moved in unison, heading unerringly for the docking ramp. She tamed her pace to Joker's off-kilter stride, feeling it would be somehow wrong to enter this new Normandy without him.
More than any others, these two had belonged to the ship. Joker was its pilot, and she was its captain.
With Joker at the helm, Shepard thought maybe she had a chance, after all.
The new Normandy was already crewed. That wasn't entirely a surprise; it couldn't have flown itself here, after all. However, as Commander Shepard conducted her first tour of the vessel, she was startled to realize just how well crewed it was.
She had a damned P.A.
Shepard took her time going over the ship, starting at the lower deck and working her way up from there. It was jarring to see the familiar, yet strangely different, interior of the Normandy. This ship was bigger, much bigger. The layout was different in a lot of ways, but the design of CIC was still so close to the old Alliance vessel that it made Shepard's heart clench in her chest to walk through it. It was hard not to remember fighting her way through it towards the bridge of the old Normandy as it shrieked and died around her. Like ghosts of the past, the memories assaulted her throughout her tour.
It was also jarring to see so many Cerberus uniforms. Everyone was polite, respectful, damn near worshipful in their reverence for the 'infamous' Commander Shepard. The Illusive Man was smart enough not to have given Shepard any raging xenophobes, at least. Everyone she spoke to seemed like rational, reasonable human beings and more than one or two had been Alliance personnel. He was manipulating her to get her to take the ship and his mission and work for him. She'd known it when she saw Joker, but stumbling across Dr Chakwas in the medical bay made it clear as daylight.
The level of his manipulation became even more blatant when she entered her private cabin.
Everything was fully stocked, from underwear to toiletries. The armor locker held Cerberus uniforms in the Alliance style she had favored. The few personal items she had kept in storage on the Citadel - items which would normally have been forwarded onto her next-of-kin, or destroyed upon her death, since she didn't have any next-of-kin - were now placed carefully around the cabin.
A framed photo of Kaidan Alenko sitting on the desk was a deliberate commentary about Cerberus' information-gathering abilities. Shepard sat down slowly in the chair before the personal terminal, refusing to surrender to the pang of loss at her lover's image. She and Kaidan had only had the one night together. Even if she hadn't died, she had no idea if they would ever had had another. To her, that night had only been a few weeks ago; for Kaidan, it had been over two years. She studied the photo regretfully, lifting a hand to lightly touch the familiar features. Even if she did know how to track him down, it would be ridiculous to think they could have a future now.
It was the small collection of hardbound books stacked neatly along the desk which broke through her careful composure.
The only hard copy books Shepard had ever owned had been the few bequeathed to her in the last will and testament of Ashley Williams. Alliance personnel were limited in the size and weight of any personal items they wanted to bring on board, so Shepard had carefully packed Ashley's books and sent them back to be stored on the Citadel. If she'd had the chance to think about it, Shepard would have assumed they, too, had been lost or destroyed upon notification of her death. Cerberus had saved them. Cerberus had planned her resurrection that long ago.
Slowly, carefully, Shepard reached out hands that trembled slightly to withdraw a leather-bound book from the middle of the stack. It was titled 'The Collected Works of William Butler Yeats' and had the dog-eared quality of a well-loved book. With a gentle touch, Shepard opened the book and found an inscription written lovingly into the inside cover.
'Happy Birthday, Ashley. All my love, Abby.'
Shepard stared down at the book in her hands, running her fingers along its pages. She found a thin edge of ribbon marking a place in the book and flicked numbly to the indicated page. It was a poem, clearly a favourite of Ash's, to be marked so carefully. Shepard felt an ache in the region of her heart, and dropped her eyes to the words which Ash had found so meaningful.
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Shepard felt numbness spread across her as she sat at her desk, Ashley's book cradled in her hands. She could not guess how long she sat like that, reading and re-reading those words. If Ash had been here, Shepard had no doubt the woman would find some way to use those words to illustrate her current situation. It wasn't a hard stretch, to be honest.
The best lack all conviction. And the Council had turned their back on her again, denied the Reaper threat.
While the worst are full of passionate intensity. And Cerberus, her enemy, held forth its open hand with support and resources and certainty.
Finding that she shared a goal with Cerberus was almost enough to make her doubt herself.
She could walk. Try to convince the Council, try to get her old team back together.
Or she could risk it, and stick with Cerberus; an organisation she already knew to be entirely untrustworthy, unethical, and incredibly dangerous.
In the end there wasn't much of a choice. Trying to do this the right, and proper, way would take too long and lose vital time they simply didn't have. Cerberus had the resources. Not just to help her fight the good fight; they were also the best chance Joker had of ever living a normal life too. He must have known that, when he joined up.
Shepard eyed the poem and resolutely closed the book, placing it reverently back in its place.
"Well, then," she stated firmly, spinning her chair and stepping lightly to her feet. She felt the steely note of command leech into her voice as she eyed the ship's AI interface, EDI. "If we're going to do this, we're going to set a few ground rules first."
Shepard lifted her right hand and accessed her omni-tool. A program she hadn't needed to use for a while ran quickly and efficiently and – unsurprisingly – bounced back with a list of listening devices implanted in her room. Shepard felt the smile curving her lips and knew that it was vaguely wicked.
"EDI. I'm afraid I'm going to have to revoke your invitation to my cabin."
If Cerberus was her only option, she'd take it.
But she was going to do this her way.