Specialist Traynor regarded the coffee pot glumly. There was never a fresh pot on when her night-cycle shift was over, and whatever they did have wasn't exactly Presidium quality. She'd listened to Joker's tales from the days of Cerberus employment in wonder (and a tiny sliver of envy). They'd made the Normandy sound like a pleasure cruiser rather than a fully kitted warship, though Joker was always keen to stress that the only good thing about Cerberus was their money. While she had more technical and scientific resources at her fingertips than she could ever dream of back in her colony labs, the Alliance wasn't quite so free with their personal luxuries budget.
Which, unfortunately, extended to the quality of the coffee. She eyed the bubbling dark mud with suspicion, already tasting the stale bitterness. Switching off the percolator, she pulled the kettle out of a cupboard, deciding on a cup of good old tea instead. If there was one thing her Mum could be relied on for, it was keeping her daughter well-stocked in the necessities.
Only Dr. Chakwas and the commander seemed to make use of it as regularly as herself. In the thirty seconds Shepard allocated herself for food and drink every day, she usually spent it on cup of boiling Darjeeling.
As Traynor began the comforting ritual of brewing, she despaired on how to make her commander give more time to herself. Despite knowing her so little compared to others on the crew, there was a downshift in her spirits of late that even she had noticed. Like a leech had attached somewhere and was sucking the colour out of her personality.
Of course, everyone on board could be glum these days. But Joker still cracked jokes. She'd seen Lieutenant Vega and Officer Vakarian exchanging war stories in the mess. Even Dr. T'Soni could be coaxed into the lounge on occasion by the quarian girl. It was a tough battle they were fighting, but they still seemed to balance the needs of the mission with their own.
Except her. Something vital, some life spark had faded out of the hero, to anyone who cared to put the pieces together.
When Shepard had first come aboard, the specialist had watched as the crew readjusted around her, like planets finally settling into stable gravity around a sun. The first few weeks, the newer Normandy members could only watch on with pangs of awe and jealousy as the three aliens plus Joker had become the bodies in closest orbit. Those four seemed less like Shepard's subordinates and more like her arms and legs.
Through them, Traynor had seen snippets of the person Shepard was underneath her legendary reputation. Sitting in the starboard lounge, Tali laying her head in her lap while she recounted frustrations with her fellow Admirals and Shepard stroked her shoulder. The sisterly reprimands of Joker when he made an off-colour wisecrack on the bridge. The one-second, wordless exchanges of a joke with Garrus, (whose promotion to XO didn't surprise any of the old hands and scandalised almost all the new ones), sometimes made over the back of Liara's head as she struggled to grasp the rules of diamondback.
Eventually the protective shield they'd formed around Shepard had parted enough to let others join their circle during downtime, either unconsciously or by way of a quiet word from the Commander. But it was never quite the same as when those five were alone.
If it wasn't for what Traynor had seen thanks to the bond that group shared, she would never have known how disturbing Shepard's current behaviour was. After all, Shepard wouldn't be the first Alliance officer who'd been reduced to a dull shade of a person thanks to their military service.
Most of the fresh faces hadn't noticed anything amiss; their Commander was still issuing orders, completing missions, and ruining the enemy's day with consistency. But now there were no more card nights in the lounge. Now, she was in the war room when Traynor went to bed and she was in the war room when she returned eight hours later. Same clothes and darker pits under her eyes. She barely ate, and what she little she did was always in transit from one duty to the next. The timid virgin-cruise technicians had worshipped the ground she walked on when she first boarded, and she'd outdone all their expectations by stopping by their workstations at least once a day just to ask how they were adjusting. Now, they looked at their feet when she walked past, and she barely spared them a glance.
It wasn't as if she could blame the Commander for losing the energy for her crew. The hours she'd been forced to keep were brutal. If it wasn't Admiral Hackett paging her on the comm, it was Anderson. Or the Councillors. Or the Primarch had another meeting scheduled, or a journalist wanted another spot piece. Or she was due to stand again as the only peacemaker in a room full of aliens holding ancient grudges. In the meantime, Traynor spent every day forwarding emails and hourly reports from Earth and Palaven to her omni-tool. The worst were the requests for eulogies at funerals from Alliance families who claimed Shepard was their son/daughter's inspiration, so wouldn't she say a few words for their sacrifice? Traynor dealt with as many of those personally as she could, but there was only so much she could hide with Shepard now checking her console every spare moment. Every morning-cycle saw the inbox empty once more, and it baffled Traynor how she could sort all that correspondence even on days she had missions planned. She honestly wondered if the Commander slept at all.
Traynor took a long draught of her tea. She sloshed the lukewarm dregs with a sigh. She didn't have the first clue how to convince Shepard that she was going to put herself out of commission if she kept this up, and then where would they be? They might as well roll out the red carpet for the Reapers if they lost her. But working with the icon of the human military for a few months was not nearly enough time to know how to tactfully remind her she was still, well, human.
Her tea was finished, a pattern of sweet smelling leaves sticking to the bottom of the cup. She raised it to her nose – and saw Dr. Chakwas darting about her office through the mess window. The elderly medic was gathering up a bundle, her quick hands flying over her supplies. She wasn't quite flustered, but she was in an awful hurry. A lead weight dropped into Traynor's stomach – the commander was due back shipside about now. The Normandy ground team had been defending evacuation ships on the elcor homeworld, helping refugees. Had something gone wrong?
She made her way to the door of the medbay.
"Doctor? Has something happened?" Traynor kept a firm grip on the spiking fear threatening to creep into her voice.
Chakwas looked up but didn't pause stuffing a roll of sterilized suture thread into a field bag. She had the 'medical zen' expression, as Traynor called it. The face of a doctor who'd gone into a mode of calm even surrounded by dangling limbs or exploding shells. It did not comfort her to see.
"Is it Shepard? One of the officers? This assignment was supposed to be a dawdle- "
Chakwas held up a hand to interrupt her. "The mission was a success, they're all back on board. This is just a precaution." Traynor watched her rifle through a drawer full of pre-filled epinephrine needles, and pick out four. Two levo-amino, two dextro-amino.
"Doctor, precaution for what?" Traynor asked in confusion. "What the bloody hell is going on?"
The doctor sighed, zipping her bag shut. "You'd better come with me. They're at it again."
Shepard spat out a mouthful of blood. There was a faint ringing in her ears that seemed to be getting louder. It matched the red haze in front of her eyes.
"I'll break that jaw with the next one, human," her opponent snarled.
"If you get close enough you'll lose something you'll miss, lizard." Shepard's arms came back up in a close, high guard as they started to circle again. Both their chests were heaving. Their eyes darted from from feet to hands, mirroring positioning with care, waiting for the other to expose a soft spot. Two hunters, sizing up their prey. The agitated sounds from their onlookers had faded to nothing as the field of her senses narrowed.
His guard stayed low and loose, a subtle turian insult. If you didn't think your enemy was worthy, you didn't bother to raise your claws. She breathed deep, shoring up her anger into a tool to make her sharp and strong. She'd take that slight out of his hide. He was going to be a broken wreck of an alien by the time she was done.
She feinted a minor stumble, baiting him. He waded in with a left hook, easily dodged with a forearm and a quick sidestep. She used his forward momentum to bring her knee hard into his solar plexus, earning a heavy grunt. Too late though, she realised her mistake; he'd already clamped both hands on the back of her bodysuit. Even through two layers of reinforced neoprene, his talons were hooking into her skin like tiny pincers.
She made two desperate jabs with her elbow into the space where arm met torso, hoping to loosen his grip. One blow skittered off, the other found flesh and sunk home into connective tissue. She went deep, using her other arm to push down on her fist. He roared in pain. But his hands stayed tight and she cried out as she was lifted and thrown as easily as she'd seen him throw his cases of spare ammo on the battlefield.
Shepard had only a split second to turn and lead with her shoulder instead of her forehead, before she landed in the salvage crates with a deafening crash. They disintegrated into shards of plexiglass, pouches of field rations tumbling to the ground. Agony bloomed across her collarbone, and she knew she'd fractured something.
It only made her angrier.
"Will you listen now? You need another round?" To her satisfaction, his voice was wheezing, liked he'd been kicked in the chest by a mule. She shook off the wisps of a blackout that hovered on the edge of her consciousness. Sharp edges on the crates sliced her hands and stomach as she dragged herself out of the debris, new trails of blood joining the rest already drying on the floor.
"You'd better pray you've got more than that," she gasped out between whistling breaths. She gripped her injured shoulder, willing the pain back behind the veil of rage clogging her senses. "Roachson," she added with a deliberate spit, calling up the old slang for the enemy she'd heard her father's vet buddies use when they thought she was out of earshot. It was a filthy term, a dark term. Far more potent when spoken on Palaven than on Earth. Calling a turian 'ugly' had little of the effect the Alliance soldiers had wanted, but insinuating same turian had descended from pondscum had somehow managed to cross xenocultural boundaries and land like a poisoned dart in turian pride.
She knew her low blow had hit the mark when she saw his posture freeze, hands curling and uncurling slowly. Maybe she'd regret that later, but right now, she didn't care. She felt drunk with fury. It was amazing. She couldn't even remember the last time she'd truly lost control. Absolutely nothing penetrated the thick shroud beyond 'put him through the floor'. She was drowning in that one thought, and it felt like an impossible luxury. A vacation in her own head. She grinned, teeth bloody and sweat stinging her eyes, her pain contracting to a single point before disappearing entirely.
His face was a dangerous mask, eyes glinting with something feral. His jaw and mandibles were open, showing his pointed teeth. If the aliens from old human horror vids had a name, it was turian.
He was advancing on her with a speed and purpose that would make most humans run for a bunker. Even she had to fight a jolt that came courtesy of a military that had made its name fighting these particular aliens. When you saw a big one closing in on you, you ran. No sane soldier risked hand-to-hand with a turian if there was an option to flee.
Luckily, she didn't feel at all sane right now.
Eyes, throat, knees, spurs. She could hear her father counting them off, as though she was fifteen again and back in front of that dummy on the CIC of the Calcutta. If they ever got you in melee range; eyes, throat, knees, spurs.
She dropped as he came in range and swept for the knee, twisting out of the way of a blow heading straight for her nose. But he'd clearly been expecting it and let the punch drift, his eyes down instead of watching where his fist landed. His foot lifted clear and her ankle smacked harmlessly into his other calf. When it came back down, it pinned her leg to the floor.
"Alliance. You all fight the damn same -"
Shepard rolled up, forcing herself into a sitting position. His mandibles tightened in surprise; he'd clearly forgotten about the rotational capacity of the human hipbone. She was tempted to laugh even as her thigh muscle burned with pain, contorting at an odd angle.
In a flash, she had snaked both arms behind him and gripped his spurs. Then she pulled until she was almost back on the floor, using her bodyweight like she was in a rowing machine.
She gritted her teeth, feeling sweaty hands slide on his skin. Her blunt nails dug deep for purchase as a claw began sailing towards her throat. Her biceps tightened as she wrenched with her complete strength. After a moment of resistance, the tension peaked. There were two thick, satisfying snaps and her hands slipped free. Garrus threw his head back and screamed in two tones.
Eyes, throat, knees, spurs. Four points on the turian anatomy that will disable even the most bloodthirsty veterans. However, living long enough to enjoy your victory was another matter.
She knew he had strength and stamina on his side. She wouldn't win a battle of attrition. If this didn't bring him down, she was in trouble.
To her dismay, he didn't even stumble. His weight shifted and before she could blink, a foot was in the middle of her chest, putting her flat so fast the back of her skull bounced off the shuttle bay concrete. Thrashing her legs, she attempted to find a throwhold somewhere on his slippery, skin-tight undersuit. When that failed, she drew a knee back and kicked squarely at his groin. On a human, a kick that hard in that place would have ended their brawl immediately. Garrus only staggered, hissing in continuous pain but still upright.
The pressure began to increase and she gasped, feeling her spine click. Yeah, definitely in trouble. He leaned over, his face made into a blank silhouette by the bright lights above his head. She had another flash of gut-churning premonition, and bucked like a mad varren to dislodge him enough to give herself a window to roll out. But he was too strong, and it was too late. His foot moved backwards, talons raking her bodysuit, and he dropped to his knee. Two hundred kilos of bone, carapace and muscle drove down on her chest, cracking her sternum and what felt like a handful of ribs.
Shepard couldn't breathe. Too much agony. Too much weight. He might as well have slipped a few knives into her ribcage. One of his talons gripped her injured shoulder and squeezed mercilessly. Now it was her turn to scream, though the lack of air made it soundless. Her lungs felt like deflated balloons. She turned and sank her teeth into the tensed sinew of his wrist, tearing a chunk away with a flick of the head. Dots began speckling her vision, and she barely registered the heavy blows to the jaw that left her teeth loose.
Concentrate, Shepard, or this is all over. She kneed him in the spine with all the strength she could muster, forcing him forward and off balance. Pressing the brief advantage, she sent an uppercut into the softer flesh under his chin that actually connected. His reaction time was starting to slow. Another hit caved his windpipe. While he tried to pinion her arm, she followed with a wild haymaker aimed at his mandible. It shattered under her fist with a dull crunch, changing direction in two different places. He recovered almost immediately, whipping his head around to close his jaws over her hand. She pulled away just in time, and his teeth clicked on empty air. His mangled face now started to run with blue blood, and she smiled.
"My round, you scaly asshole," she managed to gasp.
"Barefaced pyjak bitch, I'll bleed you dry -" but his eyes were rolling into his head even as he spoke.
And then, she blacked out.
When she woke up, it was to the steady beep of the monitors in the sickbay. She could feel the burn of a bright spotlight behind her eyelids, and opted to keep them closed. A rustle and the gentle brush of hands covered by sterile gloves told her someone was working further down her body.
Pain filtered in, like a glass stuck under a tap until it overflowed. She hurt. Down to the bone. There were aches in places she didn't even realise she had muscles, let alone been hit. Running a fast self-assessment, she realised the pain was definitely the worst in her chest and one of her collarbones, but it wasn't the white-hot spiking jolts she'd felt before. This was more of a day-after pain. Less intense, but far more agonising now there was no adrenaline saturating her blood.
She groaned and shifted slightly, which seemed to catch the attention of whoever was working on her torso.
"Hold still. You've got a few stitches left."
"Hurts." Shepard's tongue felt thick and unwieldy. "Hurts so much, Chakwas." Her voice was a gravelly whisper.
"I know. I gave you both the bare minimum of anaesthetic."
"Only on sites at risk of infection." There was something very clipped about the doctor's tone. Shepard winced as the suture needle pinched her again. "You two behaved like complete animals. You can be treated like animals."
Shepard felt a surge of pain entirely unrelated to physical wounds. She reached down the bed awkwardly, grasping at the doctor's sleeve. "Chakwas..."
"I've seen soldiers -" the needle went down "- in dozens of sparring matches." The needle came back up. "But nothing like this. I have never seen such a - a sickening display between military personnel. Between two commanding officers, no less!" Shepard heard a clatter, like forceps being thrown in a bowl.
"How could you put yourselves at such risk? How much peril would our mission be in if you two had thrown your lives away on the floor of the shuttle bay?" The doctor's words were part accusation, part shock. Cracking her eyelids, Shepard saw the tight lines in the jaw that seemed to age her medic's face by years. She had no good answer to give.
"Well! You can have a day or two lying in pain to think about it," Chakwas said, every inch the reproachful school marm. The doctor snipped off her thread and pulled down the gown which Shepard realised had been folded up near her chest.
After washing her hands, Chakwas picked up another shallow tub filled with sundry medical items and crossed the room. Shepard followed with her eyes, the only parts that felt up to moving, and finally noticed the room's second patient.
His eyes weren't open. His breathing seemed very shallow, and the mandible was still stuck out from his face at a unnatural angle.
Chakwas, however, had no mercy. "I'm going to reset your mandible now, Garrus. I've given you another shot for the pain but we have to do it now."
He nodded, barely. Both talons were gripping the side of the bed hard enough that Shepard could see the plates in his upper arm shifting under the neoprene. The doctor finished pulling on her gloves, coded powder blue for dextro work. She bent over him and narrowed her eyes, dragging up a spotlight overhead to focus on his mangled face. Now Shepard could see the drying blue blood running in a thick swathe from his face to chest.
"You're lucky. There are two clean breaks, you won't need surgery. But I'm afraid I have to realign the rotator joint once they're straightened."
Garrus raised his head, seemed to be trying to form a word. His breath was tiny, rapid sips of air.
"No, don't speak. Just lay as still as you can." The doctor placed one hand under and over the length of his mandible. "You know how this goes. Breathe through it, don't bite your tongue. On the count of three, Garrus."
He made a low keening sound deep in his chest. The deathgrip he had on the mattress redoubled.
There were words tumbling over each other in Shepard's brain, something like stop but they refused to surface, tripping up somewhere en route to her vocal cords.
"One, two, three- " There were two dull pops. Shepard saw Garrus' eyes roll. "And one more," the doctor said calmly over the pain-filled trills and hums now filling the room. There was a third pop. Shepard fought down a brief, violent wave of nausea.
"All done." With an efficiency born of practice, Chakwas bound a small splint and a bandage limned with medi-gel to the side of his jaw. She had daubed off the worst of the blood in the time it took for Shepard to get her stomach under control.
The doctor stripped off her gloves and seemed to be on the brink of delivering a lecture similar to the one she'd just given the commander, but another look at the state of her more recent patient seemed to change her mind. She settled for shaking her head with a heavy sigh as she washed and dried her hands.
"Keep an eye on them, EDI. I've had enough of this pair for today." She paused, glancing out the medbay window. "And no visitors without my express permission. Blank the windows."
"Yes, Dr. Chakwas." Even EDI's dulcet tones seemed meeker than usual.
The doctor gave Shepard another bitter glance before buzzing open the door and dimming the lights. Shepard could only watch her go, all her explanations buried under the shroud of fuzzy wool enveloping her thoughts. She closed her eyes and tried not to think about the expressions on the faces she'd glimpsed peering inside their little white room, before EDI had opaqued the glass.
A grey silence fell. She had nothing to listen to except her own breathing. The subharmonic hums coming from the bed a few metres away had died out. There were dark thoughts starting to turn over in her head, like the staccato reps of a heat sink in the barrel. She could hear their rumbling like the approach of a storm.
Shape up, marine. Shepard chided herself. There was a hell of a lot of work still to be done, she had no time for laying flat and brooding. Experimentally, she began flexing muscle sets in her legs from the feet upwards. The calf that had been pinned to the floor twinged but it was nothing she couldn't handle. Maybe she could stand up, find where Chakwas kept the morphine, and get to the comm room in time to give Hackett a report before he heard of the day's events from elsewhere. She braced her hands, gritted her teeth, and attempted to sit up.
Frissons of electric agony ran in an arc from her collarbone down across her ribs. Streaks of fire unrolled through her chest. She choked and cursed involuntarily, falling back the minute distance she'd risen. Engaging any muscles in her core made her feel like she was taking one of Jack's shockwaves at point blank range. Even breathing suddenly became an immense labour of pain and effort.
That damn doctor. She'd pinned her to this bed as surely as if she'd strapped her in.
"Commander Shepard, Dr. Chakwas wishes me to remind you that any excess movement is not advised. You are not heavily medicated for your injuries. Your bones require a period of rest to allow the nanites in your bloodstream to repair them to full function."
"Thanks, EDI." Shepard gasped through clenched teeth.
"I have already updated Admiral Hackett on the success of today's assignment - and your current indisposition." It was still tricky to parse the AI's nuances in speech, but right now she sounded downright pleased with herself. "Specialist Traynor and I have already agreed to share your administrative duties until you are recovered."
Shepard couldn't work up the energy to groan. But she had to be sure of something. "EDI, did you tell - " she paused to hiss with pain, "- the Admiral how I got injured?"
"I told him there was a brief disagreement between yourself and Officer Vakarian. I did not inform him of specific details."
Shepard closed her eyes. "That will be all," she managed to get out, struggling to raise her voice above a wheeze.
"Logging you out, Shepard."
She swore again, quietly. She'd better start writing her tribunal speech now, in case by some miracle Earth survived long enough for them to hold it. EDI might have thought she'd covered her tracks, but Shepard knew damn well the Admiral could add up two and two, and she doubted it had been so long since he'd commanded a squad that he'd forgotten what a 'brief disagreement' followed by a hospital visit actually meant. A Commander and her XO breaking each other's bones onboard, in full view of crewmembers? If it was some other pair of officers she'd be shipping them to the nearest brig.
There was a panel pulled off on one corner of the ceiling, where someone had been working on wiring repairs until they'd been interrupted by their unscheduled arrival. She watched the thick tubes glow and dim rhythmically with the surges of the drive core, and wondered how the hell she was going to live through the next conference call with Anderson. The man living in the blood-soaked trenches finding out she'd potentially put back the cause by god-knows how long, all because she buckled in the field today and threw a tantrum about it.
She exhaled slowly into the silence. "I'm Commander Shepard, and I'm the biggest fool in the Alliance," she whispered.
"You are, sometimes."
Shepard stiffened. She'd assumed he'd been passed out.
"But not for the reason you're thinking of right now. You think there's any military in the galaxy that would court-martial you less than a week after you killed a Reaper on Rannoch, right after reuniting the quarians and geth?" His voice sounded strained. Forcing turians to talk without moving a mandible was like asking a human to talk without moving their eyebrows; very trying.
She didn't bother trying to deny that he'd guessed her mind. "Alliance doesn't take quite the same view of shipboard violence as the Hierarchy."
"Luckily though, both the Hierarchy and the Alliance take the same view of Commander Shepard."
"I've never seen proof of that," she said levelly.
"Don't try that on me, Shepard. I was C-Sec long enough to learn how every species sounds when they lie."
She pressed her lips together, privately conceding that truth. "Look, I'm an asset, same as the others. And I don't want to be exempted from the rules," she said.
"You're exempt whether you like it or not, Commander." The bed creaked in degrees, like he was turning over very slowly. "You've got a special responsibility and you've got a special set of rules." There was a sharp hiss, as though he'd jostled something he shouldn't.
Shepard shook her head in the dark. "I'm another Alliance officer, just like the rest of them." Even as she said it, it sounded too hollow. "Just like the rest," she tried to repeat more forcefully.
Garrus sighed, his flanged voice quivering slightly in the lower harmonic. "How long are you going to keep pretending that's true?" he asked quietly.
Unbidden, the memory of the marines in the Citadel nightclub rose in her mind. Their adoration. A private hiding his lit joint behind his back. Her stumble covered by Vega when she hadn't known their sound-off, and how she'd secretly felt as she'd walked, stiff-legged, back to the Normandy. She pushed it out. "It's still true," she argued. "This is an Alliance ship and I'm N7 designation. I'm not above the law."
"They're asking you to undo civil strife between races that were fighting before your own even discovered electricity. To somehow compose a fighting force out of a galaxy that didn't even believe its enemy existed until now. They've told you to stand in a tide and try to convince it to turn back." He paused. "The crazy thing is, the thing I'll bet half our respective governments never expected, is that you're succeeding. And you're taking a few Reapers down with you."
"I still don't think I'm as much of a golden child in their eyes as you think I am. I haven't exactly endeared myself to the authorities over the years," Shepard countered, turning her face to see his expression in the dim light. He was staring at the same tubing she'd been staring at.
"Cipritine, Vancouver, the Citadel, it doesn't matter now. You're their champion. You think all those times you put old noses out of joint weren't forgotten the moment they looked up and saw a Reaper in the sky? They'll throw endless amounts of money and liberties at you and they'll never stop asking for miracles. They'll exempt you from every rule they've got if it means you'll save Earth for them. And Palaven." His voice caught slightly on the last word.
Something was struggling to fight its way out of her stomach. A writhing, gnawing snake she feared would slither upwards and curl around her throat. It felt like the same something that had made her see such vivid red when Garrus had snapped at her for what had happened on Dekuuna today during the shuttle ride back to the Normandy. She'd stood and thrown the first punch without thinking as he'd been telling EDI to cancel the recon debrief for the elcors. At the time, she'd just wanted to make him shut his mouth. But then she'd realised she wanted more. She wanted to inflict an ugly violence on something. She had been filled all the way up with an empty anger and could do nothing to stop it bursting free.
"I'm not special. I'm just Shepard. I don't need to be some kind of protected puppet to get the job done."
He saw her looking at him, and levered himself slowly to an elbow. "Shepard, come on- "
"I'm normal, goddamn it! I don't need anyone making excuses for me. I still deserve the heat if I can't keep my head on straight and throw a punch at my XO!" Her chest ached as she wheezed with the effort to make her voice sound even halfway usual.
"I'm not doing anything that can't be done by others." The words tumbled out now, slipping off her tongue quicker than they could be reined back in. "This is just where I am, and what I can do. Christ almighty, why are the choices between sitting on my ass or being destined for a life as some- some pastured figurehead they wheel out occasionally to pin medals on, completely disconnected from the marine I once was, everyone -" and she turned her head over to the far side of the medbay because even if he'd heard the choke in her voice, she was damned if he'd see it too.
There was a long silence as she wrestled her emotions back into shape. Every silent shudder sent a fresh wave of pain down her chest. For god's sake, Shepard. You're a walking wreck today.
"I don't know if that's true," he said eventually. There was a careful tentativeness in his voice, like he was disarming a tripmine. "But even if you don't pull this off, you're Commander Shepard, hero of the galaxy for the rest of your life. You'll never be normal again."
Whether or not he'd heard or even recognised what her seesawing voice meant, she silently thanked him for his tact in ignoring her lapse in control. She surreptitiously wiped her eyes with the back of her hand.
"I don't know how to be anything else than this," she began weakly. "There's nothing in me except a soldier. I can't be anything but that."
And she trailed off, knowing there was no fire in any protest she could come up with anymore. The only person she was trying to persuade was herself.
A few long minutes of silence stretched out in the semi-darkness.
"But you're right," she finally finished quietly. "I know you're right." And to both her dismay and strange relief, she found that was the truth. She knew that no matter the outcome of her future battles, she'd never be treated like a normal officer - let alone a normal human - ever again. She'd just been denying it for so long, ignoring the uncomfortable reality, stubbornly hanging onto that cliff edge by her fingers. Now she'd finally fallen off, there was no more struggle. "I do know," she said again, clearly. It felt surprisingly good to say.
"I can't think of anyone else in this whole damn galaxy that could do what you're doing. We're all going to succeed or fail with you. But you've got people on your six, Shepard. All of us, to the bitter end." She turned her head back towards him. He was still on his elbow, his torn hand cradled to his chest. The bandage on his face stood out in bright contrast even in the grey light. "You're not disconnected from us. Not now, not ever." His voice was quiet and emphatic.
She stared at him. There was something she wanted to say, right now, while her heart was getting squeezed in a vice. The words were on the tip of her tongue as she took in the sight of her closest friend swaying slightly with the effort to stay upright, half-drugged out of his mind. But not for the first time in these moments, courage failed her.
"Does that mean I've still got the world's worst turian as my second? Maybe now I could pull a few strings, get an upgrade," she eventually said instead. You're a huge coward was what she said to herself, but her lips twitched as he fell back to the bed and laughed. She wished he was pleased for a different reason, but - shelve it, Shepard.
"You think you can shake me off that easy? Someone needs to get this shambles up to rate, and you're too damn busy building all those ship models."
"Then congratulations, you've just been promoted to Commander. My purview is now exclusively the pursuit of the ultimate figurine collection. Welcome to the Alliance."
His resulting laugh turned into a groan halfway through. "Spirits, I can't laugh like this."
"Yeah, well." She turned back to watch the ceiling, hands clasping over her middle. "You won't laugh when the paperwork goes through," she murmured, half to herself.
He didn't say anything in response. For a few minutes, all she could hear was the soft skrrtch skrrtch of his talons, as though he were drawing a pattern on the canvas bedsheet.
"What happened to us today?" he said eventually, his voice low. He didn't seem to be asking her directly, just voicing his thoughts to the room. And she knew she wasn't talking about literal details. He was talking about them. The double-act Shepard and Vakarian. Never one without the other. The worst opponents to see on a battlefield and card table for the same reason; they were so in sync that sometimes they just read the other's mind with one word, one look.
It wasn't as if it was the first time they'd argued; hell, it wasn't the hundredth. But the advantage of being friends first and colleagues second was that neither were afraid to give it straight, which made ironing out the kinks in their disagreements usually just a matter of a few more drinks on their tabs. She'd trusted him to watch her back so many times that these days she felt a little strange going into the field without a turian shape over her shoulder.
But none of that had stopped the darkest, ugliest sides of themselves from spilling out all over the shuttle bay floor that afternoon.
She had no answer to his rhetorical question, and stayed silent. A hollow feeling wormed through her at the thought that the curtain could finally be drawn on the Shepard and Vakarian show. No encore, no second chances, just the end of its run. The last one to leave, please turn off the lights. It happened all the time in a career that transferred or killed off personnel regularly - friendships formed, friendships parted.
But not like this one. This one had grown, subtly and slowly, into a bond she could no longer easily live without.
She glanced over at him. He'd turned, his back facing her now. She noticed, for the first time, the plastigel casts fitted over his spurs. It's like someone folding back your hand until it meets your forearm when you break one of those, she heard her father's voice say.
It was a good show while it lasted.