Author's Note: For those following along with these one-shots of mine, I thought I'd mention that, in my head, they're all about the same Shepard and the same Garrus. I suppose that makes this a sequel, of sorts, to Talking Too Much, but they all stand alone. Forgive the out-of-order nature. I'm more or less writing as questions arise or inspiration hits. Thank you, as always, for reading and reviewing and favoriting. I appreciate you all so much.
Shepard should have been happy.
Part of her was, of course. They'd survived the unsurvivable. Part of her couldn't help rejoicing—and, honestly, feeling a bit smug—that she'd brought the entire crew through a suicide mission without casualties.
But the part that couldn't quite manage happiness was bigger, meaner, more dangerous. It didn't like that she'd been burying it for months. It reminded her that alive was not the same as unscathed. One look at Kelly Chambers was proof enough of that. The woman's eyes were inescapably haunted, even as her lips smiled and her tongue stumbled over brave words. The crew had their lives, but every single one of them had looked death in the eyes and death had looked back, laughing.
In the darkness behind her eyelids, Shepard saw the girl from Horizon, fighting to stay alive even as she disintegrated. The muffled sound of terrified screaming, fading into silence. Hands clawing, eyes pleading. Then pleading turned to understanding, and somehow that was the worst moment of all.
There. Gone. Alive. Dead. On time. Too late.
It was hard to get over something like that.
Shepard knew better than anyone.
Lungs burning, heart working too hard, no escape from this, Shepard, no escape this time, this is what dying feels like.
So it was impossible for her to be entirely happy.
She didn't want to bring the others down or begrudge them their euphoria. They deserved their elation. They deserved the adrenaline rush, the high after such an intense low.
Unsurprisingly, the bar in Kasumi's quarters was the eye of the celebratory storm. The hooded assassin was bartending, doubtless offering alcohol for secrets, and everyone seemed more than willing to pay if it meant their glasses never emptied.
Shepard stayed long enough to see Jack and Grunt challenge each other to some kind of drinking match (or fight; it was hard to make a distinction); long enough to see Miranda and Jacob smiling with heads bent close together over a bottle of champagne; long enough to speak and sip her drink with everyone, though she hardly tasted the liquor and she never needed to refill her glass. Tali gave her a hug—a too-careful hug, which made Shepard wonder how much Tali suspected—and Legion analyzed the gesture until the quarian told him to shut up. Then he analyzed that.
Thane, alone but somehow not lonely, looked at her with his strange drell eyes, called her siha, and breathed a prayer for peace that terrified her.
Shepard didn't know what to do with peace.
She lingered for a few moments at Samara's side, mostly because the justicar managed to look as sober as Shepard felt. Samara knew a thousand years of cost. The asari watched calmly, with reserve but without judgement, as crew members laughed and flirted and danced and drank with abandon.
"Did you ever feel that way?" Shepard asked abruptly, startled by her own question. She found, however, that she did not regret speaking it.
Samara's lips turned up ever so slightly, and if she was surprised by Shepard's bluntness, her expression did not betray it. "Yes. Did you?"
She thought of the Skyllian Blitz. Of Saren and Sovereign. Surely she'd celebrated with at least as much intensity then. More, maybe. Those memories were watercolored though, indistinct and blurred by time. The dark part tried to remind her of Mindoir, of the SR-1. "Yes."
Just not in this lifetime.
"Their happiness is honest. I wish I could join in it."
Shepard thought of stolen breath and stars, and of the girl from Horizon. Then she remembered the look on Samara's face when she'd stood over her dead daughter's body and said for now, show mercy on a broken, old warrior and let us leave. "Me too."
The justicar nodded, but said no more. Shepard was glad of it. She didn't think she could take more talk of peace.
When words had all been spoken and toasts drunk, Shepard slipped away from the party. Only Garrus saw her go. It would have made her smile at any other time, or if she'd been any less troubled. Garrus and his watchful gaze, missing nothing, always at her back, always looking out for her. This time, though, she only gave her head an almost imperceptible shake, knowing he'd take her meaning. Without missing a beat, he turned back to Zaeed, and she heard the low rumble of his voice as the door to the Port Observation Lounge slid shut behind her, talking about favored mods for favored guns.
She told herself she wasn't avoiding Garrus on purpose.
Told, but didn't quite believe.
Walking the quiet halls of her ship—her ship, now, not Cerberus'—Shepard thought about impossible odds.
A battle was not a war. One win, no matter how dramatic or unanticipated, was not a rout.
I'm going to do exactly what you brought me back to do. I'm going to win this war, and I'll do it without sacrificing the soul of our species.
Striking a blow against the enemy's vanguard wasn't going to stop the force behind it. Slow it, maybe. Buy them more time, hopefully.
The Reapers were still coming. It would be foolish to think otherwise. And Shepard wasn't foolish.
This hurts you. I know you feel this.
She hated that the Reaper bastard was right.
As her path brought her near the cockpit, she overheard EDI and Joker in conversation. When EDI asked if he didn't want to leave the helm for a while to join the others, he didn't shoot back a witty one-liner. Shepard was taken aback by the seriousness of his tone as he replied, "I'd rather stay here, actually. I feel better with the controls in my hands. I know who I am when I'm sitting in this chair."
Perhaps she wasn't the only one aboard who couldn't be entirely happy.
Somehow this realization only made her sad. Before EDI could alert Joker to her presence, Shepard turned and headed through the CIC toward the elevators.
Almost all her fish were dead. One lonely skald swam sluggish, lazy circles through the blue water. It stopped when she paused to look at it, fins flashing. She imagined resentment in its eyes. She hit the feeder button and it turned away, toward the promise of food.
She retreated to her bathroom because she didn't want to sit at her desk with its unanswered messages or lay on her bed under the stars that still reminded her of dying. She didn't want to see the N7 helmet or the Prothean relic. She didn't want to see empty wine glasses, or think about inevitable, unavoidable conversations.
The bathroom wasn't much better. Looking into the mirror, she thought she saw resentment in her eyes too. With sudden, angry determination, she dug her fingers into the fabric of her Cerberus uniform with its Cerberus colors and ripped the insignia away. Although momentarily satisfying, it wasn't enough. Cosmetic. She could scrape away the Cerberus paint and tear away the Cerberus symbols, but she couldn't change the Cerberus science that had raised her from the dead, or the Cerberus cybernetics under her skin.
Maybe it wasn't as obvious as it had once been—her skin was smooth and no hint of red lingered in her eyes—but she knew. She couldn't help knowing. It hadn't taken any effort at all to rip the sleeves from her uniform, and while her crew nursed visible wounds, broken bones and purpling bruises, she didn't. It's been a long journey, and no one's coming out without scars. Except her. Whether she liked it or not. She ought to have been black and blue after the beating she'd taken. She ought to be flat on her back in the medbay, chafing as Chakwas fussed.
She ought to be dead.
Without the constant threat of the Collectors looming over her head, she could no longer pretend it didn't bother her. There. Gone. Alive. Dead. On time. Too late. Two years. Too many missing pieces. Too many broken bits. She'd been running since the moment Miranda's voice cajoled her back to life. Shepard, do you hear me? Get out of that bed now. This facility is under attack.
Toward battle. Away from thought. Terrified of memory.
She was afraid if she started looking, really looking, she'd find things missing. They'd wanted Commander Shepard, the soldier. She knew how to fire a gun. She knew how to survive. She even knew how to lead a team. What if she couldn't recall the shade of her mother's eyes, or the color of the house on Mindoir? Worse, what if she couldn't remember why she'd want to know these things at all?
(Now that the red glow was gone, Shepard knew she had her mother's eyes. Her mother's eyes and her father's nose. And the house on Mindoir had been yellow with white trim. Relentlessly cheerful at her mother's insistence, even though paint was an unnecessary expense. Shepard remembered the paint curling and crackling in the heat of the fire, her parents dead in the doorway, already burning by the time she found them. Her father had taken out a pirate with a kitchen knife before they got him; she remembered the glint of metal in the firelight.)
She knew the face in the mirror, but it wasn't quite right either. Like the SR-2 wasn't quite the SR-1 even though they were both called Normandy. Like this life wasn't quite the old one. Too clean, too glossy, too perfect. Too confusing. Rough edges smoothed. Unruliness tamed. She still bore scars; they'd just made them invisible.
The trouble with the reflection in the mirror had something to do with her hair. It made her uneasy. She'd always had long hair, before. She remembered sitting on the porch of that yellow-and-white house, her mother's gentle fingers running through waist-length strands, deftly pulling chaos into plaits.
Childish braids had been abandoned in favor of tight twists and hard knots when Shepard joined the military, but she'd kept the length. It was a reminder. It was a warning. It was, in truth, just a touch of vanity. Something soft and pretty in a world of rules and regs and hard edges. Something of the innocent girl she'd been. Something she wanted to hold on to, even when they told her it was better to let it go.
When she'd woken on Miranda's table, scarred and shorn, she'd reached up and felt an inch or two of hair where there ought to have been feet.
I'm not myself, she'd thought, even as she stumbled for a gun and her instinct to kill—to survive—took over.
Only a few months ago now, but her hair was already long enough to scrape back into a short tail. It seemed impossible not to have noticed the change, but staring into the bathroom mirror, the truth was unavoidable. She healed too quickly. She needed less sleep, less sustenance. Her hair grew too fast.
She should have been happy, and wasn't.
I'm not myself.
Gripping the edges of the sink tightly, she leaned forward, resting her head against the mirror. After a moment of searching for a non-existent spark of red, she let her eyes drift shut.
Shepard jerked upright when the door swished open. She had no idea how long she'd been propped against the mirror, but she felt disoriented, and her forehead was pink. Her hands ached from clenching the counter. Garrus stood in the doorway, not quite crossing the threshold. Though others mightn't have seen it for what it was, Shepard knew him well enough to recognize discomfort. His usual ease and swagger was nowhere to be found, and neither was the more endearing tenderness she'd seen before their trip through the Omega 4.
"Shepard?" He didn't even pretend to hide his concern. It probably said something terrible about her that his worry only pissed her off. They'd survived, hadn't they? She'd brought everyone back, hadn't she? She'd done her damned job, just like they'd brought her back to do.
I'm not myself.
She glared at the mirror, even though the angle kept him almost entirely out of her range and he probably couldn't see her expression. She didn't need to see him to know he was looking at her with his head slightly tilted, his mandibles tight, his sharp eyes missing nothing.
Then again, he probably didn't need to see her to know she was glaring.
"I stood in the hallway for fifteen minutes, hitting the damned chime. EDI finally let me in because she said you hadn't moved for half an hour. You worried the AI, Shepard. That's not fine."
She shook her head, and the Shepard in the mirror shook her head too. Then, pushing herself away from the counter, she leaned against the wall, palms against the cool metal. She stared at him, unblinking, until the wall warmed beneath her hands. He stared back, somehow managing to give the impression of being unwilling to back down without making it a challenge.
Finally, lifting one hand, she drew a line bisecting the too-perfect curve of her left eyebrow. "I used to have a scar here."
Arching the once-scarred brow, she tilted a wry smile in his direction. "Of course you do."
"Once C-Sec, always C-Sec."
Garrus' mandibles twitched. It wasn't quite amusement, but at least it was a step away from worry. "Tell me you gave as good as you got."
Shepard snorted, and her annoyance vanished as quickly as it had come. "It was a rock. After falling out of a tree. When I was seven. Broke my arm and my face. Scared my mom half to death." Leaning her head back, the ends of her too-long, not-long-enough hair tickled her shoulders and the nape of her neck. "Kind of ironic, right? Considering. What's a little cut or a broken bone, compared to the things this body's gone through? Meat and tubes. That's what Jacob said. When he first saw me, I was nothing but meat and tubes."
Whatever reaction she'd been expecting—if she'd been expecting anything at all—it wasn't what she got. Garrus went unnaturally still, and then seemed to fold inward, his chin dipping toward his chest and his shoulders hunching forward. He looked wounded. It was startling enough a transformation that Shepard took two steps toward him before stopping again, uncertain.
Hell. She thought things were awkward before. Her empty hands opened and closed at her sides.
Swallowing hard, she tried for lightness, "But hey, Cerberus did good work. Bona fide refurbished human. Prick me and I bleed and all that."
She always forgot how quickly Garrus could move. Before she could do more than blink in surprise, he uncurled, whipping around and smashing a fist into the wall behind him. The panel dented, metal grating on metal.
It only took one of his long strides to close the distance between them, but he didn't touch her. Every instinct screamed at her to go on the offensive before he could, to straighten her shoulders and stiffen her spine, to push before she could be pushed. To be Commander. She fought it. Garrus was close, but he wasn't threatening. On the contrary, his breath came ragged and rough, and when he spoke, the thrum of his subharmonics was more audible than she'd ever heard it. Distress. "You had that scar on your brow. Your right shoulder was sometimes stiff, especially after a hard fight. Your right knee gave you trouble in the cold." She didn't flinch when he traced her left forearm lightly, the metal of his gauntlet cool against her bare skin. "You had a trio of scars, here. Defensive wounds. A knife, or a bayonet. Serrated; I'd guess injuries sustained during the Blitz. They looked old, and like they hadn't been properly treated right away. I think your neck bothered you, and you had headaches more often than you ever admitted."
He wasn't wrong. That he'd noticed any of it—let alone all of it—made her throat tight. "Garrus—"
In a strangely human gesture, Garrus covered his eyes with one hand. On anyone else, she'd have thought the gesture one of defeat. But it was Garrus. It seemed wrong to think of his name and the word defeat in the same sentence. She heard his sharp inhale, and the longer, steadier exhale. "You're you. I don't know how they did it. Honestly? I don't want to know. Maybe you're faster and stronger; maybe you heal like a krogan and maybe they buffed away all your old scars when they gave you that haircut, but you're you." Dropping his hand, he turned the full intensity of his gaze on her, and she found she didn't have the words to argue.
She didn't want to argue. She wanted his certainty. She wanted his belief.
"I thought I was hallucinating when I saw you crossing that bridge on Omega. I'd be lying if I said otherwise. Hell, I thought maybe I was already dead. Then I wondered why a hallucination didn't quite look like the Commander Shepard I knew, and I started to hope. Scary thing, hope. So I handed you my gun, up there on the parapet. I told myself if it fell clattering to the ground, I'd know you weren't real. It didn't fall. You gave me that look of yours, the one where you cock your brow, amused and wry and a little bit concerned all at the same time. I noticed the missing scar, then, but the look was all you. Still, that wasn't what convinced me. It was the reverence as you took the weapon from my hands. I thought, 'Damn, Vakarian, Shepard's the only one who holds a rifle like that' and I knew. I knew."
Very quietly, she said, "I was worried, actually. I'd never known you to voluntarily part with your weapon, not for anything. Or anyone."
"You're not just anything. Or anyone."
His hands twitched, like he wanted to reach for her but something was stopping him. He seemed to be watching, waiting. Throw me a line here, Shepard.
Throw me a line, Garrus.
She glanced down at her own empty hands, wishing they could give half so well as they took. It would comfort her to wrap her arms around Garrus' sturdy chest, his slender waist, but she wasn't sure it would comfort him. He deserved better. I'm not myself. And even if I am, I'm a mess.
"Look, Shepard, I don't know where we are here."
"My bathroom," she replied, the joke weak.
Instead of smiling, Garrus only gave a terse nod. "Things were… it was a suicide mission. Blowing off steam. I get that. If it's all the same to you, I think I'll go with 'night to treasure' even if it was just the once." She started to protest, but he spoke over her, saying, "I'll be there when you need me, Shepard. You know that. You don't ever have to doubt that. Rogue Spectres, Collectors, Reapers on a rampage; I've got your back. Always."
He turned as if to go, but she reached out and wrapped her fingers tightly around one wrist. Even though she could feel the tension thrumming through him, he didn't attempt to pull away from her grip. "Listen, that's… that's not what I meant. Your faith in me is—hell, Garrus. I don't know. It's easy when it's something like 'stop the Collectors from taking human colonies.' I'm a weapon. Point me at a target and shoot. But… this? I'm a mess. I've always been a mess. I don't do this. I… I don't have all the answers."
He glanced away, and something in the shift of his posture reminded her of the word research and I want something to go right. Just once. "I didn't come up here to… pressure you. I would never—shit, Shepard. I want to make things easier, not more complicated."
"I know. But that's—" She sighed, dropping her hand back to her side and bowing her head, letting it hang heavily. Her neck cracked, and she remembered those old headaches. She wondered if the weight of her own damned hair had been half the problem back then. "Garrus, what do you want?"
When he didn't answer right away—when his silence dragged on far too long—she lifted her head. She half-expected to find herself alone again, but no, he stood in the same spot. Too near. Not near enough. She couldn't quite put a finger on it, but he looked… deflated. Strained. Like someone had punched him in the turian equivalent of the solar plexus and he hadn't got his breath back after the blow.
"This is why the Alliance has fraternization regs," she said softly. "For the purposes of this conversation, I can't be your commanding officer. Hell, I don't know if that even applies anymore, anyway. I'm not Alliance, and I'm not Cerberus, and I'm not even sure I can rely on the weight of my Spectre status." She chuckled, but there was no mirth in it. Garrus didn't join her. He still looked about as traumatized as it was possible for a turian to look. "I don't know what's next. For now I have a ship. And a mission. As long as I can, I'm going to keep doing what I'm doing. Fighting the Reapers. I don't want you to feel obligated to stay because of… things. I'm sure as hell not going to order you to, I don't know, be my boyfriend. I already feel like maybe I… maybe I pushed too hard. Before."
He nodded. Then shook his head. Then closed his eyes. She reached for his shoulder, but before her fingertips landed she stopped herself. I want to make things easier, not more complicated. She didn't know if there was anything sadder than an empty hand that wanted to touch, but didn't know whether touch would be welcome.
"But you'd let me?"
She blinked, not understanding his question. "Let you what?"
"I don't know," he said, clearly mimicking her, "be your boyfriend?" His tone changed, slipping into seriousness, "If… if it was what I wanted?"
Her laugh caught on something almost like a sob. Almost but not quite; she was Commander Shepard after all, and Commander Shepard didn't sob. "I don't know if you're brave or crazy, Vakarian. You sure about this? I suspect I might be more than a little bit broken."
"I'd say we're both a little broken." He tilted the scarred side of his face toward her. "Maybe I'm a little more obvious about it. I, uh, I don't know. Maybe we fit together better this way. I think maybe our jagged edges end up meeting just right."
She lifted both brows, unable to stop the smirking smile from spreading over her face.
"Shut up," he growled. "It's been a long day."
"Garrus Vakarian. Badass vigilante. Closet romantic."
His glower would have been terrifying if she'd believed it was genuine. This time when her hand twitched, she let herself reach for him, laying her palm gently against his scarred cheek. "I won't tell anyone."
"Okay," he said. "Then as long as you promise to be honest with me, I won't tell anyone else when you're not fine."
Fight or flight was such an overwhelming thing. She didn't fly. Wanted to, but didn't. It took everything she had to stay. But she did it. And it felt like a victory. After a moment, Garrus' hand came up to cover hers. Meeting his eyes, she said, "I'm not fine."
"Once C-Sec, always C-Sec?"
He shook his head before pressing his face into her palm more firmly. The scars felt strange, but she could tell the wounds were healed. Cosmetic. "No. I just know you. You've been going full-throttle for months. Makes sense you'd crash." He snorted a brief laugh. "I've seen the way you drive, remember?"
"You're funny, for a closet romantic."
Gently, so gently, he pressed his forehead to hers. She told herself the prickle at her eyes was only exhaustion. Relief, maybe. Commander Shepard sure as hell wasn't going to go over all weepy because a turian gesture of affection made her feel like she was coming home.
"I'm glad you're not fine," Garrus admitted. "It's a real thing, a feeling thing. Means you're you, and not some kind of clever, cold program wearing a Shepard face."
"I… hadn't thought of it that way."
He chuckled. "Just another reason why you need me around. To do all the heavy thinking for you."
She smiled, and though she was still troubled and still not quite happy, she was happier, and that was enough. For now. "I guess you're okay with a rifle, too."
"Is that a challenge?"
"You know it, Vakarian. You've got ground to make up, after that last mission."
"Just because you got the kill shot on that baby Reaper…"
"Baby Reapers are worth at least a dozen Collectors. Maybe two dozen."
"I thought so."
He pressed a kiss to the top of her head. "I'll give it to you, but only this once."
Wrapping her arm around his waist, she let him hold her, just for a minute. She let herself be not fine, because he was there to help shoulder the weight.
"Okay," she said. "Let's go shoot concussive rounds in the hold. Then we'll swipe something good from Kasumi. She still owes me for making me wear those heels."
"It's a date," he replied. "But I'm still going to hand you your ass."
"Winner chooses the vids, later."
Stepping out of his arms, but only enough to rise on her toes and press a kiss to his mouth, she said, "All right. I'm… maybe not fine, but I'm better now. A bit better."
"I know," he replied, shooting a smirk of his own her way before returning the kiss and adding a few gentle nips to the side of her neck for good measure. "I can tell."
"Insufferable," she groaned, even as she knew she wouldn't have it any other way. "Oh. Do that again. That thing with your tongue."
He laughed against her neck, and the rumble of it sent a delicious shiver of heat through her. "I thought you weren't going to order me around. For the purposes of this conversation. Not your commanding officer. Wasn't that how it went?"
"Sometimes I might—God, Garrus—sometimes I might order you around. A little bit. Like now. Do that again."
"Good," he said, doing the thing with his tongue and following it with a different, even more delightful thing with his teeth. "I like it."
Instead of retorting with the smart remark he deserved, she only laughed a breathy laugh and dragged him from the bathroom, because for the first time in months the unread messages on her terminal and the stars over her bed didn't seem quite so daunting.
Perhaps Shepard didn't know what to do with peace, but she decided then and there she'd take it, at least for the space of an evening, if only to remind herself what the hell she was fighting for.
It would be good for her. Maybe, just maybe, it would be good for them all.