Summary: Your message to [ SHEPARD, JANE K. ] dated [ 2183.07.10 ] has not been read.
Notes: Chapter title from T.H. White. Many thanks to Odyle for the beta!


Chapter 1
The Ill-Made Knight


2183.07.10

Regarding the geth, no, Shepard, I don't think they'd be interested in having it out over a friendly game of poker. I had to look that up, by the way—are you sure the information listed in the Encyclopedia Galactica is accurate? Turian games have a lot more rules.

To answer your other questions: yes, I am already sick of C-Sec; no, I haven't quit and stowed away on the Normandy—your ship isn't that large, surely someone would notice an extra face aboard; and no, I have not talked to my father since your last message. I'll send you his address. You can contact him yourself if you're that interested.

Glad to hear you and Chief Williams had such a fun-filled time at the photo op on Arcturus Station, although I'm a little concerned to hear that you had to prop each other up on your way back. Take someone responsible with you next time, all right? Maybe Moreau...although I would pay to hear Al-Jilani's take on your fondness for fluorescent liquors.

Pass along a hello to Tali and the crew, and keep me updated on what you find out there. The only action I've seen lately was a pushy volus trying to talk his way into requisitions.

G.

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2183.07.12
MESSAGE RECEIPT

Your message to [ SHEPARD, JANE K. ] dated [ 2183.07.10 ] has not been read.

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2183.07.13
MESSAGE RECEIPT

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2183.07.14
MESSAGE RECEIPT

Your message to [ SHEPARD, JANE K. ] dated [ 2183.07.10 ] has not been read.


Garrus still talked to Shepard even though she was dead. He knew it wasn't healthy, in the same way he knew that Palaven was an M-class planet and that his father would be angry when (if) he found out what Garrus was doing on Omega; he knew, but he didn't particularly care.

You're pulling to the left, Shepard said.

Garrus lined up his sights and pulled the trigger again.

Better, Shepard said. Anyway, a dead merc's a dead merc, who cares if you hit his right eye instead of his forehead?

She was teasing him, he knew.

"You care," Garrus said. He sighted and shot a third (a thousandth) time and dropped a turian in Blue Suns armor with one slug. Seven-point-eight million people on Omega, and sometimes it seemed like all of them had signed on with one mercenary group or another. He was starting to run out of heat sinks.

Hey, Garrus, she said. What are you doing out here, anyway?

"Working," he grunted. "What does it look like?"

He pictured her tucking a piece of her funny human hair behind her ear; it seemed to be in constant danger of falling in front of her eyes.

Looks like you're trying to get yourself killed to me. What, you have a death wish or something?

"Don't be an idiot, Shepard. Neither of us are that kind of crazy."

You say that, but it doesn't seem true from where I'm standing. I'm dead and you're still rambling on like some FNG with a crush.

"Whatever," Garrus said. He'd heard stories before—men, good men, sane men, who spent too much time in isolation or were spaced a little too long or waded through one too many bloodbaths, and then started to lose the distinction between dreams and reality. Haunted by spirits until they started believing their ghosts were real.

He wasn't pining for Shepard. He wasn't Dr. T'Soni, who wept through Shepard's memorial and still refused to accept that the commander was gone, or Moreau, who changed the subject every time Shepard was mentioned. He wasn't broken or out of his mind—

Sure you aren't.

"Shut up, Shepard. You're screwing with my concentration."

Geez, Garrus, learn to take a joke. You need to watch more comedies, that's your problem. Those shitty telenovelas don't do your sense of humor any favors—there are only so many times they can remake 'Gone with the Wind' with asari.

"Haven't seen that one," he muttered, and then promptly wanted to kick himself. "Didn't I tell you to go away?"

Come on, you're not fooling me or that dumbass you just shot. You don't really want me to go away.

He seemed to have hit a break in the waves of fodder who thought they could stick their heads out of cover with impunity; it was well into Omega's night cycle, or what passed for night on a station that seemed to be an endless maze of back alleys. Garrus paused to appreciate the contrast with the Citadel, although 'appreciate' might have been too strong a word. If he made it off this rock, he was buying an apartment planetside—somewhere nice, with a day and a night and maybe a view of the sunrise. There were a couple of farming colonies not too far from Palaven that offered decent incentives for settlers—

Hey, Vakarian. You awake under that brain bucket?

"Yes, I do," he said reflexively, and Shepard cackled at him.

No, you don't.

"Believe me, I really, really do."

Nope, Shepard said. And I can prove it.

"Do tell." Garrus let himself close his eyes for five seconds. It was all the rest he could afford, knowing that every shot he didn't take might mean the death of one of his men tomorrow.

You've got my dogtags tucked up in your hard suit, for one thing.

His hand clamped automatically over his side, where the chain was safe in a pocket under his armor. He did have a set of Shepard's tags, although he hadn't done anything as indulgent as actually wear them; Joker had passed them along in private after the funeral. He'd been drunk enough that Garrus wasn't sure he remembered what he'd done with them, but Garrus wasn't about to surrender them now. His own serial number was branded on a fragment from the ammo block of his first rifle and looped around his ankle, as was customary, and if he died, he expected his sister would carry it with her. It was what you did for family, and Shepard was family.

"Go haunt Tali or Williams if you're going to be a pedantic ass."

Yeah? Maybe I will. Maybe I'll stroll out of your life right now. He imagined her turning, hair (longer now than he'd ever seen it) falling down the back of her fatigues, a slight hitch in her step from a slug she'd taken to the kneecap on some long-ago campaign; and he couldn't stop the refusal that shuddered down his spine.

Ha! You flinched.

"You know, traditionally spirits are supposed to pass along wisdom or comfort. Something wholesome. Maybe you could at least try not to laugh at me."

Tough, Shepard said. Now here's some advice: eat something. You look like you're about to fall over, which is going to put the fear of Archangel in exactly no one.

"Thanks, Shepard," Garrus said, more sincerely than he'd intended; and then he set to work again.


2185.10.19

Garrus—

Hey, it's me. This is probably coming as a shock, but I swear I'm back and that I had a good reason for not—it's a long story. I don't know if I can explain everything, but contact me and we can figure out a way to talk. I'm in a clusterfuck that puts the situation with Saren to shame.

Remember the time we took Tali to that firing range on the Citadel and she outshot your old boss?

I'd really like to hear from you.

J.

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2185.10.20
MESSAGE RECEIPT

Your message to [ VAKARIAN, GARRUS ] dated [ 2187.10.19 ] has not been read.


That was the last conversation he had with her. Garrus couldn't decide if she'd made good on her promise or if he was finally too worn out to hallucinate; those waking dreams, or delusions, or whatever they'd been, were one of his last comforts in an increasingly desperate situation, although he was well aware they could be early symptoms of a traumatic anxiety disorder.

One night when he was too exhausted to sleep he looked up Gone with the Wind on the extranet. His team was audible through the floor—they were drinking and telling lies, no doubt—but Garrus kept a measured distance from them. He wasn't so removed that their commander was a complete unknown, but he did stay far enough away that they learned to turn to each other for support and to him only for direction. It wove them together like the interlocking pieces of a rifle; Garrus had only to aim and pull the trigger.

The images he pulled up on his display were quaint: women dressed in impractical clothing made of meters too much fabric, elaborate houses almost as large as the women's clothing. He tried to imagine Shepard in a dress like that and failed. The handful of times he'd seen her out of uniform, she'd donned a pair of coveralls—and then only to clean her armor.

The history of the story was much more interesting; it was set in the midst of an old Earth nation's civil conflict that reminded him of the Unification War. He read a little more and was troubled to discover that the conflict had been about not only sovereignty but slavery. Sometimes he forgot how young Shepard's species was. When his people were razing krogan colonies and salting krogan soil, humans had yet to discover the combustion engine.

Gone with the Wind. He'd probably overhead someone talking about it during his C-Sec days and filed the name in his subconscious. It didn't seem like the kind of thing Shepard would appreciate, at any rate, even if he believed he was truly being haunted instead of going nuts. He didn't know what kind of dramas Shepard liked, but he doubted her tastes ran to anything like that.

Downstairs Erash laughed, and Garrus jumped at the sound. Before he went to bed he meticulously disassembled his rifle, cleaned it, and put it back together. Then he sorted the crate of heatsinks he'd bought earlier into smaller packs to be distributed tomorrow. And then he went to bed. His dreams were oversaturated. He met Shepard in the middle of a field under a gray sky, and she didn't speak; but she smiled.


2185.10.24
MESSAGE RECEIPT

Your message to [ VAKARIAN, GARRUS ] dated [ 2185.10.19 ] has not been read.

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2185.10.27
MESSAGE RECEIPT

Your message to [ VAKARIAN, GARRUS ] dated [ 2185.10.19 ] has not been read.

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2185.10.30
MESSAGE RECEIPT

Your message to [ VAKARIAN, GARRUS ] dated [ 2185.10.19 ] has not been read.

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2185.10.30

Vakarian—

CHECK YOUR DAMN MAIL.

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2185.10.31
MESSAGE RECEIPT

Your message to [ VAKARIAN, GARRUS ] dated [ 2185.10.30 ] has not been read.


Maybe if he checked his messages more often he wouldn't have been so stunned to see Shepard storming his two-story coffin. Early in his career as Archangel he'd taken the time to wade through his inbox every couple of days—not as often as he should have, maybe, but his letters from home were filled with bad news and nagging, and hearing from the handful of friends and colleagues who still bothered to keep in touch with him served only to intensify the feeling of remoteness from his old life.

If he'd bothered to log into his personal address or his C-Sec account, he would've seen the string of increasingly curt notes from eight different fake personas and two authentic ones, all controlled by the mistress and commander of the Normandy. He read over her messages as he rehabilitated; thirty minutes after he'd escaped the medbay Chakwas had run him to the ground, and he'd been confined to bed ever since.

It was somehow easier to read Shepard's messages than it was to look her in the face. Most of her more recent letters had been filtered into his archives alongside the long strings of exchanges from the time after Sovereign's attack. In contrast to those early letters, the first few she'd sent after her resurrection were stilted and formal, explaining her new association with Cerberus and asking where he was. After that she'd tried to contact him almost daily, usually with one or two terse lines instructing him to respond.

Better to read the messages from Shepard than the ones from Mierin or Weaver. Shepard had come back; good as her reappearance was, he doubted the universe would extend the courtesy to the team he'd lost.

His face hurt.

"Officer Vakarian, if you look any more concerned I'm going to drug you again," Dr. Chakwas said. "I'm letting the Commander know you're awake for visitors."

"Doctor—" Garrus said, but she was already paging Shepard.

He sighed. "I wish you hadn't done that."

"Nonsense," Chakwas said. "I had to bar the door to keep her away when we were performing surgery, and later drag you away from her before the anesthetics had worn off. It will be good for you to do something other than stare holes in your omnitool. I'll be in the crew quarters if either of you need me."

He wasn't trying to avoid Shepard, he was just—it was just—

"Garrus," Shepard said, ducking through the hatch just before Chakwas sealed it on her way out. "How you holding together?"

"Fine," he muttered.

"What was that?"

He cleared his throat. "I said I'm fine, Shepard."

"Good. Good to hear." She crossed her arms and cocked her hip with classic Shepard confidence, but to Garrus the pose seemed forced. Out of nowhere his vision swam and he went dumb—literally speechless with rage—not at Shepard, but at the whole ass-backwards situation, at Cerberus, at Garm and the Blood Pack—and a little at Shepard, for dying, for arriving when she did and not one day earlier, or one day later

He tamped it down. He set aside his anger, and he set aside his personal failings, and he let himself feel the relief that had tinted even his guilt and grief since Shepard stormed back into his life.

"The Doc said you're lucky to be alive yourself," he said. "Sounds like you have more robot parts than I do."

Something went out of Shepard, and she relaxed against the bulkhead, looking less defensive and more like a person, like a soldier and his commander and the woman who had been his comrade.

"Please. I was always a cyborg—you think this good an aim could be anything but mechanically perfect?"

"Whereas my flair for witty repartee can't be duplicated by any VI." As always, Garrus's mouth ran itself automatically. "We're a lucky couple of bastards, Shepard."

She grinned crookedly, which was a better reaction than he got from anyone else when his jaw flapped without his permission. "Thought you didn't believe in luck."

"Yeah, well, I've been rethinking a lot of my life choices lately."

"You're tellin' me." She hopped up at the foot of his bed; he shifted his feet out of the way to give her room to breathe. "This ship is so damn big I could park the old Normandy in the mess hall. They gave me my own deck." She looked so hilariously offended at this display of civilian opulence he had to chuckle, and the outrage caging his lungs loosened just a little more.

"You'll be wearing armor plated in platinum next."

"Wouldn't surprise me. I've got a fish tank. Biggest waste of water this side of the Presidium."

"Come on, I always thought those lakes were—"

"Pretty?"

"Scenic," Garrus said, dryer than wine.

"You would," she accused. "When's the Doc letting you out of here?"

"Officially, not until tomorrow. Unofficially..."

"You've already given yourself the grand tour?"

"Well, of the forward battery and engineering. Who's your XO? That's her office across the way, right?"

"Miranda Lawson. She's Cerberus right down to the tips of her pretty pointed toes, but she knows what she's doing. Wish I knew what she's doing—it's tough to run an operation like this when I'm not sure where my authority ends and hers begins. For all I know, she's got the whole crew leashed to her boots."

"Is there anyone else you can trust on this boat?"

"You. Chakwas. Joker's up on the bridge—"

"Yeah," he said, "I heard." He couldn't say he was thrilled at the news; he respected Moreau, but they'd always been wary of each other, circling around Shepard like varren.

"The engineers seem like good people, they're ex-Alliance, but who can tell how they'll behave under fire. Same goes for Taylor, the armory officer, although he's a little more seasoned."

"Great. You, me, the doctor, and your crazy pilot against a shipful of human imperialists. You know I hate it when we aren't outnumbered."

"Laugh it up, Vakarian. At least I'm not taking on every major criminal organization on Omega at the same time."

He must have—flinched, or Shepard read something in what was left of his face, because she backpedaled immediately. "Shit, sorry. Way too soon."

"No, Shepard, your timing is impeccable." He leaned on the last word, and she rolled her eyes even as she patted him awkwardly on the ankle; Shepard wasn't one for physical comfort.

"I get it. That was dumb of me. Aw, fuck." Shepard's language always took a dive off a tall cliff when she was under fire. Not like Garrus—he slipped up sometimes, as would anyone who'd been a soldier and then a cop, but he heard an echo of his father's reprimands whenever he resorted to vulgarity.

"Shepard. It's fine."

"Yeah, okay. Hey, get this, I might have a fifth ranger for our insurrection."

"Taylor?" he said doubtfully.

"No, Tali. Ran into her on a colony called Freedom's Progress. You haven't kept in touch with her, have you?"

"Not for the past...ah, let's just say it's been a while." Since Shepard's funeral, in fact, but he wasn't about to bring that up.

"She's running errands for the admiralty board now, believe it or not. Tried to convince her to tag along, but she had some top-secret assignment she had to finish. Now that I know exactly how one-way this trip could be I'm glad she didn't, but she might still turn up sooner rather than later."

"I'm flattered I don't get an exemption from suicide missions," Garrus joked, but instead of huffing a laugh, Shepard frowned.

"You don't have to come along. No, I mean—it isn't that I don't want you, and god knows I could use you, but—"

"Shepard, shut up," Garrus said. "Or I'm paging the doctor to check your head for lesions."

"Oh, whatever." He had the impression she wanted to slug him companionably in the shoulder; since he was still 'technically' hospitalized, she settled for patting him on the ankle again.

His crew was dead, largely through his own actions; his family's long collapse was speeding to an end; his head looked like it'd been minced and grated; he was signed onto a one-way death run; but Shepard was in front of him, flesh and blood and bone and intent. The scales were tipping in his favor.