Author's Note: Another addition to the "if I'd had my way, I'd've done it like this" files. With a side of romance! (Thank you everyone who's been following and reading and reviewing and favoriting these stories of mine. I appreciate each and every one of you. You make this a lovely place to be.)
Shepard, there's a problem.
It was on the tip of her tongue to reply, "When isn't there a problem, EDI?" but instead she only took a deep breath and listened to EDI and Joker explain the issue. One entrance to the geth dreadnought. One torn-up entrance. She swallowed hard, already knowing what she had to do. Of course she'd walk the tube herself. Of course she'd secure the docking area.
"Everyone else can follow me over," she finished, pleased with the steadiness of her voice. Tali nodded, unperturbed.
Garrus held her gaze a moment too long, and even behind the mask of his helmet, she could read his concern loud and clear. Too loud and clear. He didn't say anything.
He didn't have to say anything.
She knew the tenor of Garrus' particular brand of worry.
Straightening her shoulders, she added, "Hang tight. It'll just be a minute."
They were Commander words. The kind of words everyone expected from her. In control. Amused. Light.
Tali accepted them. Joker and EDI accepted them. She didn't have to see Garrus with mandibles tight to his cheeks or eyes sharp to know he didn't.
As soon as she stepped out into the docking tube, her heavy mag-boots thunking against the metal, her breath caught and her heart began to pound. One step at a time, Shepard, she told herself sternly. Breathe. One step at a time.
Her legs, however, seemed primed to mutiny.
Torn up was a nice way—a Joker way—of saying barely holding together. And the problem with barely holding together was that she could see all too much through the lacerations in what once had been solid walls. Streaks of orange fire, lancing from ship to ship. Rannoch below. And all around them, stars.
More even than the firefights raging around her, the stars were the culprits behind her sudden stillness and her inability to move forward. The sight of them turned her knees to jelly and her stomach to lead. They were too close. Too close and too far. An eternity.
Before she died, Shepard loved the stars.
Not so much, anymore.
Her life hadn't flashed before her eyes when she'd floated, twisting and terrified and helpless, into her own death. There hadn't been time. She'd mostly been thinking no, not like this and what the hell's going on with my suit and I hope the rest of them made it out okay. She'd been preoccupied with reaching behind her, trying to stem the escaping flow of air. She'd been thinking about pain, and about how wrong it was to see empty space where the Normandy had been.
Just for a moment, before it all went black, she'd thought about failure. And peace. And she wondered if, just this once, they couldn't maybe be the same thing.
(She'd been wrong. Waking up in Miranda's lab taught her that much. Well, wrong about peace, anyway.)
Now, standing on the precipice of the stars with only a battle-scarred docking tube and her own magnetic boots to hold in her place, Shepard found herself reaching blindly toward her back, afraid she'd feel broken tubes, remembering things she'd thought long-forgotten.
She remembered being eight years old, sitting huddled under a blanket with a mug of hot cocoa, while her father pointed out constellations. Different stories for different stars. Different than Earth stars and Earth stories, he said, but still important. Settlers found new stars and made their own stories. Even though she had a good memory for such things, she always pretended to forget. She liked the cadence of her father's voice, warm and patient in her ear. She liked the blanket and the cold night and the cocoa.
The stars had been bright the night the slavers came to Mindoir. She remembered that. She remembered, because it had taken years for her to think those glittering lights beautiful again. She hadn't been learning constellations with her father that time. No, she'd crept out under cover of darkness—darkness and starlight—to kiss a boy her parents didn't approve of. Her house was on fire by the time they realized something was wrong, by the time she made it back. The boy—how strange that she couldn't remember his name, but it had been long ago, more than a lifetime ago—had run into the line of fire, made brave with terror.
She'd hid. Like a child. Like a coward. And counted stars, naming constellations until the Alliance found her.
They'd called her brave, afterward. Good girl. Brave girl. They brought her aboard their ship and wrapped her in a blanket and didn't understand why she threw up all over her cold bare feet when they pressed a mug of hot cocoa into her shaking hands.
One step at a time.
Shepard's right leg slid forward, and the magnets pulled it down again, heavily, jarring her leg to the hip. One. Two. Three. Not so bad.
Until, of course, her boot came down on the edge of a broken panel, heel clinging to the metal as her toe edged out over emptiness.
This time, she couldn't rein in her gasp. Tali came over the comm, asking if she was okay, and Shepard made some retort about gravity and mag-boots when what she wanted to say was no, Tali, no I'm not.
Edging around the tear, she pushed back the memory of floating—lungs burning, heart working too hard, no escape from this, Shepard, no escape this time, this is what dying feels like—and remembered instead when she'd come to love the stars again. They'd named her hero, after the battle of the Skyllian Blitz. They'd given her a Star of Terra. At the time, she hadn't been thinking of heroics. She'd been determined to save lives. She'd been thinking about everyone lost on Mindoir. The battle raged around her, smoke and dust filling the sky and blotting out the stars.
Help would come from the stars this time, she knew, if only they could hold on long enough. If only she could hold on long enough.
So she held. Because help was coming, and she wanted the Alliance to find more survivors than a girl in a tree counting the constellations her father taught her. She wanted to see the stars again. She wanted them all to see the stars again.
And on the docking tube, Shepard took another half a dozen steps forward.
One step at a time.
She kept her eyes straight ahead, focused on the door, trying not to pay attention to the air venting from somewhere, spewing gouts of ghostly vapor, beautiful and deathly.
"Hey," drawled a dry, dual-toned voice through her comm-link, "I ever tell you about the time I took on three merc bands single-handed?"
She realized then she hadn't taken a step for a full minute, caught by the memory of air. Of losing it. Of not having enough. Lungs burning—
"I think I know that one," she replied, pushing the memories away. Heart working too hard. "I caught the ending."
"How about the one where I took on a rogue Spectre and saved the galaxy?"
She snorted, momentarily forgetting the venting air and the stars and the feeling of dying. No escape this time. "I heard you had help."
"A little, maybe. Did most of the legwork."
Another foot. The tube seemed endless, and she didn't dare look behind to see how far she'd come, for fear she'd see herself closer to the Normandy than the geth dreadnought. "Tell me one I don't know, Vakarian."
She said it like a joke.
She meant it like a plea.
Garrus' low laugh echoed in her ears, almost drowning out the sound of her own strained breathing. The mirth was tinnier and more distant than in person, but it was familiar and it was comforting and it was him. Looking out for her. At her six. Watching her back.
Just like old times.
Just like always.
"You want to hear about the time I seduced the great Commander Shepard?"
He laughed again. "Don't worry. Private channel. No way I'd let Joker listen in on this."
"EDI'll tell him later."
Garrus huffed a brief, affronted sigh. "Private, Shepard. You know I'm that good. No Joker. No EDI. Hell, even Tali's minding her own business, pretending not to eavesdrop, and she's standing right next to me."
"Fine, fine. You're very clever. Is that what you want me to say?"
"I wouldn't mind turning the public channel back on for that, actually. Care to repeat it for the crew?"
"Yeah, good luck with that." She took a few more steps, but stalled again when it came time to cross through the venting vapor. "You wanna tell me that other story, Vakarian?"
"Definitely," he said, his voice almost a purr in her ears. She felt her lips pull into a smile, even as she remembered the reality of well, why the hell not and I know you can find something a little closer to home and I want something to go right. Just once.
"First of all," Garrus began, "I'm sure you know how wild some women get for scars."
Shepard laughed. "The same women who are turned on by a turian who has terrible taste in mood music and who babbles endlessly about research?"
"What can I say? Smart is sexy."
"And stammering? That sexy, too?"
Garrus' snort came through loud and clear. "You want I should patch you back in to Joker? With typical sensitivity, he's wondering what's taking you so long. He's complaining. At length. You're missing a real show."
Shepard edged forward another step or two. Something had ripped through the paneling here as if the metal were no sturdier than a sheet of paper. She thought she felt it lurch beneath her weight. The mag-boots held. "Fine. You win. Tell me about your conquest."
"You make it sound so unremarkable. I'm not sure you understand just what a catch this Commander Shepard is."
"Hmm. Well. I hear she's very… flexible."
He chuckled again, but when he spoke his voice took on a husky sort of intimacy that made her forget the stars and the broken panels and even the venting air. "If you go for that sort of thing, maybe. Gotta say, I was drawn more to her courage and determination and kindness. She's the kind of person who does the good thing even when it's not the easy thing. First one into the line of fire, last onto the shuttle when the mission's done. That's sexy."
One step at a time.
She pictured Garrus standing at his console in the main battery, arms crossed, lounging against the railing. He always made it look a little like he'd invented lounging, and that anyone else who ever lounged was just a pale copycat of the unrivaled original. No matter how relaxed he looked, though, she knew he missed little. Made him a good cop, and a better sniper.
Even with an airlock door and a torn-up docking tube between them, she was pretty sure he wasn't missing anything now, either.
Made him a good friend. The best.
"She's also funny as hell and fills out a uniform like nobody's business. And she does this thing with her—"
She didn't scream when the docking tube broke away, but she flailed her arms wildly—no, no not again—and something in the sharp intake of breath—lungs burning, heart working too hard, no escape from this, Shepard, no escape this time, this is what dying feels like—made Garrus snap, "Shepard? What's going on? You okay?"
"Yeah," she gasped, lurching forward to press her hands against the airlock door. Every muscle trembled. But she was safe. Behind her, a sea of stars loomed, cold and unforgiving. Battles raged between geth and quarian ships, blooms of light like deadly golden flowers. But she was not floating. She was not dying. "Looks like you and Tali aren't using the docking tube to get over here, though."
Swagger and teasing disappeared in a heartbeat, replaced by concern. And a hint of panic she only knew was panic because she knew him. "What? Shepard—"
"Garrus, I'm fine." She smiled, and then added a breathy little laugh, mostly out of pure relief. "Patch me back through to Joker? We'll figure something out. And, uh… Garrus? Thanks. Really. I hope this Commander of yours knows how lucky she is to have you."
He was silent a moment before replying, "Hell, Shepard. I'm the lucky one." Then he chuckled, though the faint edge of anxiety remained. "Don't suppose you want to broadcast that one across the public channel?"
"Sure," she retorted. "And then I'll tell them about that thing you do with your—"
At any other time, the distressed choking noise he uttered would have made her laugh. "Stop. Patching you through to Joker. Right now."
Joker asked why she was laughing, given that, you know, their plan had just been shot to hell by a broken docking tube.
She didn't tell him.
She didn't stop laughing, either.
Unless it was being put to its very specific purpose, Shepard avoided her bed. She'd never needed much sleep—had never slept particularly well or particularly easily—even before Cerberus got ahold of her. She needed less sleep now. And slept even less easily. More than once she'd woken on her couch, curled into an uncomfortable ball, neck a mess of knots, a datapad fallen from her sleeping fingers. And she'd thought the pain a small price to pay.
Even now, more than a year after she'd woken up in a Cerberus lab, automated by Cerberus implants and brought back to life by Cerberus science, Shepard wondered if her quarters on the SR-2 weren't some sick joke.
"Put her under the stars," she could imagine the Illusive Man saying, lips twisted in a smirk around his ever-present cigarette, "it'll feel like coming home every time she wakes up."
Waking on the couch was better than waking screaming in her bed, dreaming of death and stars. EDI occasionally overreacted to screaming.
On this occasion, however, she was exhausted enough to collapse on the bed, and she even forced herself to roll onto her back, staring up into the dark beyond the vast overhead windows. The ships were no longer firing, but she could see them. And stars. Always stars.
Lungs burning, heart working too hard—
Reaching out, she felt for the edges of the bed, clenching her hands into the sheets.
One step at a time.
She didn't sit up when the door chimed. For one moment, she thought about sending him away.
—No escape from this, Shepard, no escape this time—
"Come in, Garrus," she said, instead.
"Long day?" he asked, too quietly and too carefully for it to be dismissed as a joke.
"Long life," she replied without thinking. Then she shook her head, pushing herself onto one elbow. "Wow. Sorry. Heavy."
Unsmiling, he crossed the room. She couldn't quite read him, which startled her; she was used to understanding the strange grammar of head-tilts and mandible-flares. Maybe it was overconfident, but she'd thought herself fluent in the language Garrus Vakarian's body spoke. He stopped at the end of her bed, staring down at her. Then he glanced past, up, toward the stars.
"Not bad," she added, to soothe him. To soothe herself. "Just long."
He returned his gaze to her, sharp and steady. "You brokered an end to a three-hundred-year war today, Shepard. Without alienating either side. I think you're allowed to feel wrung out. I'd worry if you didn't."
Inscrutability disappeared, replaced by a scowl. "Plenty of time. The Citadel's not exactly around the corner from Rannoch. Give yourself a minute."
"Fine," she said, scooting over and patting the bed next to her. "But you were behind me the whole time on this very long day. I rest, you rest. Pull up a pillow."
Surprisingly, he did. Without comment.
The lack of smart remark unnerved her even more than her inability to read his expression had done. After a moment, however, he settled his hand on the bed between them, palm up. You scared me today, he said, without having to speak anything at all.
I know, she replied just as silently, wrapping her fingers tight around his.
Leaning back, hand clasped in his, she thought about her father's stories and the joy of seeing the sky again after Elysium. She thought about things going right, more than once. Often, even. Breath and life and laughter.
She thought about peace.
"If there's such a thing as turian chocolate, is there turian hot cocoa?"
He tilted his head, giving her a look she knew very well. It was the fond, I don't know why you say half the things you say look. "Something similar, yeah."
"I used to really like hot cocoa."
She shrugged, squeezing his hand. "Maybe will again." She turned her gaze toward the stars above, and edged closer, until she could rest against his side, her cheek against his shoulder. "Stranger things have happened."
She felt his laugh. "Sure, Shepard. Not sure if you've noticed, but you tend to walk around at the center of a shitstorm of strange things happening. Still. If you want cocoa, we'll get cocoa."
"Good," she replied. "I think I'd like that. We'll go stargazing."
"Right. Because we… don't get enough of that."
She nudged him lightly with her elbow. "You'll like it."
"Of course I will, Shepard. I mean, usually it's shooting things or running for our lives, but you do know how to show a guy a good time."
She smirked. "Yeah? Well, maybe if you're lucky I'll do that thing you seem so fond of. You know, with my—"
He bent and kissed her then, and she smiled against him. Pressing her forehead to his as she pulled away, she said, "I thought that was my trick."
"What can I say? I learned from the master."
Leaning against her turian, hand in his, listening to the soft rumble of his laugh, the stars were beautiful again.
One step at a time.
This is what living feels like.