Kaidan's hands were shaking as he stepped into the comm. room. This was it. After days of frantic work, trying desperately to figure out where they were, what had just happened, they had finally got the Normandy back to almost-functionality. Of course, they were still grounded until they figured out how to set up a serviceable runway on the edge of a cliff, but their FTL communications were back online. It was a start.
And that meant now they had to actually call. And nobody really wanted to know just what had happened. Nobody wanted to take the chance that the worst had come to pass.
This mess was made all the worse by the fact that this iteration of the Normandy didn't, technically, have an XO. They had all played fast and loose with the chain of command, and with such a skeleton crew, it had hardly seemed to be important. But it mattered now. It definitely mattered now, because whoever was in charge had to walk into that room and report to Admiral Hackett. Or whoever was left.
And it had suddenly occurred to everyone on board simultaneously that Kaidan Alenko was the highest-ranked Alliance officer on board, and, in fact, had been ever since he'd first stepped on board the SR2.
He didn't want to think about that. It had never occurred to him to think of it in those terms. It was too late now, anyway.
Disguising a tremble with a cough, he spoke. "Uh, EDI? Could you open a link with Alliance Command?"
"Certainly, Major," EDI's synthesised tones replied, and in that second Kaidan envied her- after all, she never had to worry about her voice cracking or her throat constricting at the wrong moment.
After a moment, the grizzled visage of the Admiral crackled into view.
"Admiral," he began, but Hackett cut him off.
"…He did it. Shepard did it." The script was right, but the direction was all wrong- he should have been laughing, dancing in the streets. He should have said it like a battle cry. There was too much still held back.
And Kaidan could feel the answer creeping up on him, hovering at the nape of his neck.
"They left. The Reapers… left. Back out where we can't follow them. That's what the Crucible did. It cast them out."
Kaidan tried to process this, and failed utterly. They were… gone? Actually, literally, gone? The idea was too foreign, too… wrong. But there was something else to occupy his attention. He couldn't stop until he'd stamped out every last ember of hope.
"What happened to him?"
Hackett sighed, and looked away for half a second.
"He was on the Crucible when it deployed. The whole damn thing was just a solid lump of molten steel by the time anyone got to it. I'm sorry. He's dead."
And there it was. Kaidan closed his eyes for a long moment.
"Yeah. Yeah, okay. Get back to you later."
He closed the link, and walked away, staring blankly at the walls.
She should have been prepared for this. She thought she had been. She'd always known she was going to outlive him, by a long, long time.
But not like this. Somehow, she'd never even considered that he could just… die. After all, he'd always made it through before. Strong. Indomitable. In her mind, she had made him a giant, a legend.
But in the end, just a man. Nothing more.
She had saved him once. Now all it meant was she had to lose him all over again.
He'd said it, and then he had left. Walked right up to the command centre, hit the intercom, given a dispassionate summation of what Hackett had told him, and then left. Left the bridge, left the ship. Just walked out, into the jungle.
He didn't remember how many miles he'd covered that day. Didn't even know how he'd ended up at the foot of the cliff. Everything before Cortez had arrived with the shuttle to pick him up had been a blur, but at the end of it his feet ached and his head was full of cotton wool and he could almost persuade himself that he was going to sleep tonight.
It had been a full day since Kaidan's announcement.
Nobody had seen Tali in all that time.
Garrus was pretty sure he knew where she was. He was also sure that everyone else knew. He wasn't sure that everyone else was looking to him to make sure that she was alright, but it certainly felt like it.
In a way, he was almost grateful. Something to do meant a way to stop thinking about it. Someone to look out for meant he didn't have to face himself in the mirror. At least not for a while yet. He could keep going, sprinting ahead of reality, make sure he had to keep his armour up until he could collapse in an undignified heap somewhere private.
So he collected some dextro gloop from the canteen, and headed to the elevator.
Garrus set his jaw, and opened the door.
For one dumb second, it occurred to him that he'd never seen Shepard's cabin while the man was alive.
"…He got a hamster? When did he get a hamster?"
"He's called Gene. I bought him for him when we were on the Citadel. You were busy being persuaded not to shoot an unarmed man in the head." Her voice emanated from deeper in the room, out of sight for the moment. She sounded flat. Disinterested.
Tentatively, he took a few steps forward, into the main area of the cabin. Tali was there, on the sofa, propped up where it turned at right-angles to fit the contours of the room, knees tucked up under her chin, just sitting, staring blankly at the fish.
"Garrus," she rasped, throat raw and cracked. He set the food down on the coffee table. She didn't look at it, and he didn't expect her to.
"Tali," he said, arms fidgeting at his side uselessly. What was he going to say? 'You alright?' and all variants seemed insulting in their uselessness, but he couldn't think of anything more helpful to say.
She started for him. "I keep thinking about it," she began, quiet and (if he didn't know her, he could almost have said) composed. I keep thinking about that day on Earth. Just thinking about what I said, and what he-" a hitch in her throat, almost silent, but he could see her clenching and unclenching her fists, and hear the creak of the leather upholstery as her feet shifted under her "-and no matter what I do I can't get away from it, and-" suddenly she lashed out, her voice jumping to a screech "he left us! He left me! Why did he say he was coming back? Why did he dare tell me he was coming back?"
Garrus bit on his tongue, choking down his gut reaction. He didn't know. He just didn't know, because damnit, Shepard had been his friend too, and knowing that he was dead was a hole in his chest, and he wanted nothing more than to sit and scream at the walls until the galaxy started making sense again. But he didn't, because Tali needed him. So he'd damn well suck it up, lock it all away, and in a year and a half he'd go to a fancy psychiatrist on the Citadel and pay them five hundred credits an hour to be blank and condescending at him.
"Hey," he said, taking the seat next to her, opening his arms. She collapsed into him, and something inside her snapped. The fury that had been animating her drained away as a great, racking sob tore through her, and she buried herself into his shoulder as she cried, gulping, gasping chokes that shuddered through Garrus and broke him a new way every second.
As he put his arms around her shoulders, he realised his hands were shaking. He held her just a little tighter, and they stopped, for the moment.
"…I just," she managed, after a long while "…I just feel… was there something I could have said? If, back on Earth, I'd told him 'I love you, don't go'… would he? It didn't have to be him. He could have stayed. Javik would have done it. Javik would have done it with a smile on his face. He didn't have to go."
Garrus considered it carefully.
He didn't want to. He didn't want to think about that day on Earth for one second. Still too raw.
But he remembered. He remembered the look in Shepard's eyes as he admitted he was about ready to retire. And something hit Garrus right between the eyes.
He knew. Somehow, some part of Shepard had known that it was the end of the road. That he wasn't walking out of this one. And he went anyway.
Of course he did. That son of a bitch. He'd known his luck was about to run out. After all, you can only cheat death for so long.
Would he, though? Would he have stayed? It wasn't something Garrus had ever considered before- Shepard was notoriously hard to dissuade, once he got an idea in his head, and besides, Garrus himself would never have even tried. Wouldn't have been very turian of him to go second-guessing the man in charge.
But for Tali? Would he have stayed behind, let someone else lead the last charge? He'd done a lot for her. He'd assaulted a geth stronghold to get data for her pilgrimage. He'd gone toe-to-toe with the quarian admiralty board in a court of law with no evidence to back him up, nothing but earnest fury in his corner, for her. He'd shouted down the entire quarian people to give her a future. But go against his own nature? Could he have found it in himself to sit on the sidelines, to let someone else make the sacrifice in his place? If she'd asked him?
"...I-" Garrus blinked heavily, and looked up at the ceiling. "I've never been good at this. At guessing how people will react. So I don't know. I don't know what he would have done. But I do know that he loved you. Hell, I'm pretty sure the whole ship knows that. 'Cept Javik would probably call it something tawdry, like joined, and EDI would have been all clinical and given you a pheromone count or something. But you only had to watch the way his face lit up whenever you walked in."
"He loved you, too."
"Let me finish. He loved you. He loved Liara too, and Joker. And Kaidan. He loved very freely. So why would he stop, just for me?"
The universe stopped turning as Garrus considered his answer.
What was he supposed to say? What the hell was he supposed to say? That he knew the mind of a dead man well enough to just make that call? That yes, he would have listened to her? That he died because she didn't speak up? Or no, that there was nothing she could have said, that she meant so little to him in the end after all?
The truth? Who cared about the truth? There was no truth, there was no right answer. Either answer hurt, so the only thing to say was…
"Tali, I hate to break it to you, but he never shouted down the entire Turian Hierarchy for me. But the truth is, I don't know what he would have done. He might have just said 'you worry too much' again. But I know, without a doubt, that he never meant to hurt you. And whatever the hell he faced on the Citadel, he meant to come back to you. I guarantee it." He just… hadn't made it. He hadn't made it.
Tali didn't respond, but then he hadn't expected her to. He just held her, and she him, for a long time.
It wasn't an official wake. Nobody was really ready to go through the process of having a ceremony. Nobody could summon the energy to get organised. They had already attended one funeral for him. They weren't going to have another.
What happened was, one evening, perhaps a couple of weeks after everything had ended, James and Karin were drinking in the lounge. This wouldn't have been so unusual, except this evening Kaidan happened to walk in, and join them. Liara would always claim that her appearance a few minutes later was entirely spontaneous, and she definitely didn't have hidden spy cameras anywhere. Javik, of all people, was next, flanked by the engineering crew. Garrus took one step in and immediately turned around.
He came back, some minutes later, with Tali by his side. She flinched for a moment at the sight of a full room, but Garrus placed a hand to her shoulder, a ghost of a touch, and she quickly took a seat, dragging one of the chairs from the poker table into a corner, and sitting, still and quiet.
And so they came, in ones and twos- Joker, hobbling along, accompanied by EDI's mobile platform (a pointless gesture, given that she was the Normandy, but a gesture nonetheless), Cortez, looking slightly awkward, Traynor, looking more uncomfortable still. In the end there were maybe twenty people crammed into that small room. And there was really only one thing on their minds.
Liara waved her drink like a conductor's baton.
"…And so he's standing there, just looking at me, with the biggest, dumbest smile on his face, and he says 'don't worry, Liara, she's on our side!' Like he couldn't even conceive of how she could be crooked."
"Well, that was him, wasn't it?" Kaidan managed, sitting back, heavily. "Always saw the best in everyone. Even when it wasn't really there."
"Hell, he even tried to get along with the Illusive Man," Garrus chimed in, with a smile. "Up to a point, anyway."
"Do you remember how he tried to talk down Saren?"
"He never did learn, did he?"
"No, he did not," Kaidan agreed, vehemently, with a kind of fondness.
"I remember the time he wasted an entire clip of his rifle attempting to hit a single husk. Every time he missed with that overdeveloped Spectre rifle, he grew angrier and angrier, until eventually the husk was upon him. He beat the thing to death with the butt of his rifle, swearing the whole time."
A blank silence swallowed up his burst of laughter. "Well, it was amusing to me," Javik groused into his drink, sitting back down.
The evening wore on, everyone (almost everyone) sharing memories, laughing at stories. Most of them hadn't heard of the Citadel Endorsement Scandal, or the way Shepard had reacted to finding out he was the unofficial mascot of Tupari Energy Drink. Laughter was a good cleanser, Garrus reflected, from his corner. Not as effective as having a good cry, but certainly more socially acceptable in mixed company.
Eventually, most of the crew retired, leaving only a few. Garrus, Tali, Liara, Joker, Kaidan, and Chakwas. The talk continued, but the mood was slightly different.
"D'you remember," Garrus began, slumping forward in his seat, "d'you remember that one time he cured the genophage? That was a hoot."
Kaidan snorted with laughter. "Or that time he charged right to Ilos?"
"Or that time he ended a war by shouting?"
"Or that time he persuaded an indoctrinated Spectre to shoot himself in the face?"
"I don't think he actually meant to persuade Saren to kill himself," Joker replied, with a sardonic smile. "That was just an unexpected bonus."
Nobody wanted to say it. Nobody wanted to say what about the time he drove the Reapers out of the galaxy? That was too real. It wasn't safe. They had all worked hard to preserve the veneer of fond remembrance, and it would do nobody any good to bring up the fact that their grief was still so raw and bleeding. Garrus had been keeping half an eye on Tali all evening, and while she hadn't said anything herself, her body language had indicated that she was, at least, slightly more relaxed. No way was he about to jeopardise that.
So instead, he simply raised his glass, without a word, and nodded as each one of them in turn joined the salute. Nobody said anything, but then nobody really needed to.
Eventually, everyone was gone, and Garrus was alone. Staring out of the window at the alien moon, he shook his head, and slowly made to stand.
He cleared his throat.
"I didn't know what I was supposed to say, last time you left us like this. I think I hated you for a while, then. This was your fight- I know, I know, you wouldn't have seen it like that, you always hated people acting like you were the only one who could do it, but it was- and you'd gone and tapped out early. I guess I didn't know how much I relied on you until you were gone. But now? I've had a little time to think about it. So… here goes.
"Thanks, Ajax. I was just some burnt-out C-Sec officer before I met you, and look at me now. …Trapped on an alien world, with no hope of rescue. Okay, that's not the point. You were an inspiration, a hero, and the best damn friend I ever had. And I just know wherever the hell you are now, you're worried, so I'll say this. She'll be okay. I'll make sure of it. I can't say it'll be soon, but she'll make it through." And what about you, Vakarian? Who's going to make sure you're alright? (Shut up.) "As for me? Well, I'll see you again, sooner or later. Not right now, though. Think I might take some time off, see if anyone's interested in a book deal. Figure I could push to at least a trilogy."
He drained his cup, and raised it to the sky in a kind of salute, before placing it heavily on the bar and turning away.
He wasn't alright. But, finally, it seemed that one day, feeling alright might be on the cards again.
Shepard had died giving them all a chance to live, and what kind of friend would he be if he threw away that?