Thirty-eight days and one deferred promotion to General later, the Intrepid was on a repeat assignment out into the vast unknown expanse of space. Unknown, as far as everyone else knew. Not so very unknown to the Captain of the ship. He had a very specific piece of space in mind, and a hope that when he got there he wouldn't just find the nothingness that filled most of the universe.
When they arrived, his pulse jumped at the sight of the Reaper carcass, deceptively still and abandoned despite what he now knew was alive and beating at its very center. He boarded the ship once more, this time with a squad consisting only of himself and one very experienced, but slow other. The path was memorized, though even if it hadn't been, Nero wasn't greeted with the darkness of the ship's interior this time. Instead, floor lighting guided them the entire way. Shepard, he thought with a smile. She'd been waiting.
Nero looked back to the man with him, nodding his head as they approached the final door. He looked to his omni-tool, checking the readings for the air around them. Pressurized and breathable, just like the first visit. This time, he needn't even raise his hand to open the ship's door, but rather, it opened on its own, closing behind them as they entered. Once more, there was that familiar glow around them.
"This," the other man sighed, "isn't exactly something I ever wanted to be doing again. I was in one of these, you know, a long time ago." There were a million things he didn't say.
Nero prompted the other to take his helmet off just before removing his. "I know. But I think this… I think you need to see this, grandfather."
Garrus removed his helmet and simply set it to the floor. He'd been out of the military for a longtime, and at his age, the thought of being caught without his helmet nearby no longer worried him. He rocked his head from side to side, working out the kinks from being locked in so stiffly to that hard suit, the rest of him heavy and tired with the armor's weight. The plates of his face, greying and lacking the color they once had, as well as splintering with an increased roughness as he aged, shifted for good measure. He looked back to his grandson.
Nero led the way, stepping further into the room without his weapon drawn. Just like the first time, his eyes fell on the mass effect core, burning just like it had been, and the shape beneath it. Everything was identical, down to the way the image of the Commander sat facing away, unmoving, but looking just as real.
"You waited," Nero said.
Shepard nodded. "I said I would. Not sure why you wanted me to, but it's not like I had a full schedule."
Beside him, Nero heard his grandfather gasp and suddenly still. He turned to look towards Garrus, saw the rapid blinking of his eyelids, his jaw hanging slightly open. Nero, for all the wrongs he was committing against the military by pursuing this ship without their knowledge and for all the risks he was putting his aged grandfather in, couldn't care less about anything else. This was worth it.
"Spirits…" Garrus said.
Before his word had even finished, Shepard's neck craned just enough to catch a glimpse of Nero and the man he'd brought with him. But she knew who it was, just from the sound of his voice alone.
Nero touched his hand to the back of his grandfather's armor, and nudged him forward. Garrus took a few slow steps, almost afraid that if he got too close he'd lose the image of her at all.
Shepard stood from where she'd been sitting, the glimmer of tears over the holographic picture of her eyes, her lips pulled wide in the kind of smile she hadn't even worn when Nero had first found her and she'd believed the younger man to be the one she'd known and loved.
"I thought you'd died," Shepard said. She'd never asked, but then again, Nero had never offered the information that his grandfather, while he was no doubt in the last years of his life, was still breathing.
"You did die," Garrus said to her, still half of the room's distance between them. And then, suddenly, he took off at her, summoning the kind of energy and strength he'd had as a thirty year old, not a hundred and thirty year old.
They met somewhere in the middle, and despite the fact that he could have easily pushed right through her since she was nothing more than a projection, the two of them moved together like they were both solid, firm, bodies. Shepard's arms curled around the back of his neck, even rising onto the tips of her toes as she nuzzled her cheek against his, then her forehead to his as well. Garrus circled her body with his arms, calling back on sense memory of the familiar action.
"My God," she panted, soft cries leaving the back of her throat, as she dragged her translucent lips over the plates at his mouth, and Garrus returned the gesture in kind. "I missed you."
The moment was private, and Nero knew himself to be a voyeur, but he couldn't look away from the reunion, not at all. He saw the affectionate brushes of their bodies together, the obviously familiar hold they both had on one another, heard Shepard's cries and Garrus' own more strangled sounds that equated with a human's crying. He'd seen his grandfather grieve on the day his grandmother had died years ago, had seen Garrus mourn for the woman he'd spent almost a century with and raised children and grandchildren with, but this… he wondered if his grandmother had known that despite the love she received from Garrus, there was always someone else. Someone that had been ripped from him, that had sacrificed herself, so that all the rest of them could live.
"You disobeyed my order," Garrus said with tightly coiled laughter, even as he rubbed his worn mandible against the image of her hair, feeling the tingling of the hologram but also recalling deep in his memory on just how that sensation had actually felt. "You didn't come back."
Shepard gave an open, weak sob, shaking her head. "I wanted to. But I had to protect you. Everyone."
"Always sacrificing yourself for everyone else," he spoke quietly, eyes shutting as he held her to him. "You've got to stop doing that."
She laughed. "I wish I could, but it was worth it, if only because I know you were happy all these years." Her head lifted so she could fully regard him. "I heard you're a father."
His face crinkled in pain. "Shepard… I wanted that with you," he confessed, feeling guilty for the betrayal he'd committed against her, but also the betrayal against his late wife. He'd loved the Turian woman, he really had, but if Shepard had shown up twenty years into his marriage, Garrus knew he wouldn't have been a strong enough man not to just up and leave to be with the human he'd loved… and still did love. Would always. "I'm sorry."
Her head shook, and her fingers brushed over his cheek and the edge of his mouth as she took him in, all the ways that age had settled into his features and made him different from the Turian she'd known. "No, I don't want you to be. I would have loved for that to be me, but I'm happy you had it anyway."
The expression on his face was disbelieving, but Shepard forced a smile.
"Really," she whispered, "I am. You'll have to tell me about them." This time, her smile became genuine and alive with a hint of vicarious pride. "I want to hear about the first time you held your sons and daughter. I want you to tell me how beautiful they were."
Garrus' palm cupped her cheek, or the boundaries of her projection's cheek, and she leaned into it. "I will. I promise."
"You'll have to make it quick," she said reluctantly. "Condense a hundred years into a day. I'm not sure your grandson can keep his ship here while I get the extended version."
Garrus glanced back towards where Nero lingered by the closed door, watching him carefully for a moment. Then, his decision made, he turned to look back toward Shepard. She was a hologram, without the solidness he'd known and loved, but he could see the individual strands of her hair. The flutter of eyelashes. The curve to her nose. The cut of her clavicle beneath the image of clothing she wore. He could hear her voice, even watch the slow steadiness of her chest expanding with the habit of breathing she no longer needed. This was his Shepard. Of course it was.
"No," he said, a shake of his head. Shepard's eyes widened in agony at his refusal. "I'm staying."
"No, no, no," she repeated endlessly, and pulled away from him quickly, putting space between her and the Turian she'd dreamt about since they'd parted in London. The memories of him, in large part, were what she'd relied on for the last hundred years. "You have to go." It took all her strength to say.
"Do you know how many years I have left?" He asked, voice loud.
"Don't talk like that."
"It's not many, Shepard."
"It's something! You've got family and they need you. How will it feel for them to just never see you again?"
Garrus neared her, but let her keep enough personal space to not drive her further off as she agitatedly paced. It was so very Shepard, all of it. Her sense of right and wrong. Her need to prevent others from suffering along with her. "Make me like you," he requested. "Can you do that?"
Shepard stopped and looked at him once again, horror written across her skin. "You don't want to be what I am. Whatever the fuck this is. I can't die, Garrus. I'm not even real anymore. Until the end of time, I'll sit here, losing my mind as I try not to become the next Sovereign or Harbinger… reminding myself why I did what I did to protect the rest of the galaxy from the cycle ever starting over again."
"Which is why—" He interrupted.
"There's peace in death!" shouted Shepard. "Don't you understand? As much as I wanted you to have the life you did, I want you to get to have that peace, too. I don't know what comes after this world, Garrus…" Her hand raised, rubbing at her forehead and her eyes as they closed, "but you should get the chance to find out. So one of us knows."
"Stop," he said quietly, and finally took the chance to reach out towards her holographic body again, cupping her jaw in his palm. Shepard's hand returned to her side and she hesitantly looked up to him. "I spent a hundred years without you, everyday wondering what my life would have been like if you'd made it out alive. And now you're here, and I'm here…." He wrapped his other arm around her, nuzzled his face down into the crook of her image's neck. "I'm staying with you."
"Please," she whispered, breaking. "Don't ask me to do this, Garrus."
"I love you," he replied just as softly, and for a second he swore he could breathe in the scent of her just as fresh as he had the morning after he'd first laid in her bed, the taste of her still on his tongue, the feel of her skin still under the callouses of his fingertips. "I love you and I can't leave." His voice turned to pain, pleading in desperation. "Make me what you are, Shepard."
She cried, quiet but heavy, her body—as fake as it was—feeling wrecked.. "It hurts," she confided, "it'll hurt when it happens."
"I can take it. You know," he said, a sad attempt at lightening the mood, "I took a missile to the face once."
Shepard pulled back, wet cheeks and eyes finding his gaze. She held it. "Are you sure? Maybe you should think about it—"
She glanced beyond him to his grandson. Garrus got the hint, and still with his imaginary hold on her, he turned in his place to look back towards Nero.
"I know," Nero said, his own voice like a taut string. "I'm not sure what excuse I'll give, but I know you have to stay."
"I'm sorry," Garrus offered, but his grandson just shook his head.
"She needs you, and after everything she did for all of us… she deserves it." Nero moved towards his grandfather and the hologram of Shepard. The Turians, generations apart and with the same blue clan markings across their faces, embraced tightly for a moment, and finally, reluctantly, let go. Nero looked back towards Shepard. "I'm not sure what you're capable of, but if you could send a message to me every once in awhile, I'd appreciate it. Just to know you two are… okay."
Shepard nodded. If it was possible, she didn't yet know. She hadn't let herself attempt it before. "I'll try."
"Take care of him," and his attention back on his grandfather, he spoke again. "Take care of her."
"I will. Tell your father and everyone else that I love them, all right?" It wouldn't exactly have been proper for him to so outwardly confess such things, but he'd always been a bad Turian. And just this once… well, it was warranted. Garrus touched his hand to his grandson's cheek. The grandson he'd helped raise, the one he'd been closest to despite all the other grandchildren he had as a direct part of his lineage. "You're a good man, Nero," Garrus said as he watched him as he retreated towards the door, and began to put his helmet on. "Thank you."
The door opened, and Nero glanced back, offering his final piece of advice. "Be happy together. Finally." He disappeared through the doorway. It closed behind him.
Alone, Garrus' attention fell back on Shepard, who despite her indirect agreement to do what he'd asked, was looking wary on following it through.
"I want you to do it."
"Now?" She asked hesitantly.
"It's not too late," she said, but proceeded to seek out his hands with her own anyway. His fingers spread and interlocked with hers through the help of muscle memory alone.
Shepard shut her eyes despite the feel of tears, and drew their paired hands between their bodies. She thought back to so long ago, that impossible decision she hadn't wanted to make. Going into that beam, she'd expected to die. But faced with the reality of it, the final choice, and the realization that there was no way she could ever return to the people she loved, that had been unbearable. For even when she expected to die an honorable death, there had always been a glimmer of hope. Just this once, let me have it all, that hope had said to her quietly. In the Citadel, however, it had been snuffed out. So she'd looked towards that blue glow, taken a breath, and despite the pain, run towards the light and made herself part of the things she hated most.
"I'm sorry," she whispered, as that same crackling of color spread out between her and Garrus, except this time it wasn't from part of the Citadel into her, but from her into him. She couldn't open her eyes, couldn't bear to watch him be torn apart into particles of absolutely nothing as he bound himself to her and the Reapers, just as she'd done. She just felt the warmth, the electric lightning she'd felt a hundred years ago, and the pulse of energy pushing through her and outward. Then, at the end, nothing. Nothing… but peace.
Her eyes kept shut, and Shepard felt his hands disappear from her own. Oh God, she thought, it had gone wrong—and then there was the touch of his hand to her cheek. Not like before, the vague feeling she'd gotten earlier when his organic, real flesh had touched to her synthetic image. Now, it felt just like it always had. Real. Alive. Complete.
"I'm here," he said. "Open your eyes."
Eyelids remained clenched closed, but a touch of his cheek to hers, that reassurance and feeling of warmth convinced her otherwise. She took a steadying breath and opened them, and there he was before her, looking just as he had a hundred years ago. Young. Virile. Handsome. And like the man she'd dreamt of spending whatever remained of her life alongside.
He leaned in, touched his plated mouth to hers. Shepard could even taste him, smell him, feel him under her hands as she grasped greedily at his flesh. "I missed you," she said against his jaw, dragging her lips over him. Maybe this way, she thought, eternity wouldn't be such a burden.
"I missed you," Garrus said, and sighed contentedly. "You won't be alone anymore."