"You know," Shepard said, "they can hear me. They have the whole place bugged."
Garrus looked at her, nodded curtly, and he was gone.
That was that. Shepard stepped forward, out of the door frame she'd been leaning against, her hand dropping down to her side. She idly drummed her fingers on her hip.
Shepard turned on her heel abruptly and headed for the elevator. She felt restless. She didn't know what it was.
She did not felt like writing a report, as she summoned the lift to take her to the next floor up—she had been anæsthetized and her left shoulder had been stitched up, leaving the arm senseless and stiff as a board—and the strangeness of the ship still agitated her. She needed to see the bridge again, to know that everything was still functioning and under control.
Maybe she did know what it was. The past week or so had been… odd, to say the least, and this latest occurrence had pitched the oddness up a couple degrees. She was not expecting this to happen. She was not prepared for this. She had not been prepared for any of this, her dying least of all.
She had been unprepared for many things in her lifetime. Being promoted to spectre, the attack on elysium, the prothean beacon, basic training, countless ambushes, sovereign, her first brawl, the attack on her ship, her orphaning.
Her orphaning. What had happened to her now was most like that. The other times she had been unprepared it had never mattered, she had buckled down, took what she had, and done her best, but… now…
The first days after she woke up had been most like it, there was a constant, harrowing sense of bewilderment and loneliness that could not be repelled or attacked; it could not be treated or quarantined. There was nothing to look at, nothing to figure out. There was just the hard, crimped knuckle of panic and grief twisting your guts around as you struggled to make sense of the turn your life had just taken.
It had not been that bad this time, mostly because she was still not entirely sure she had come to terms with how her life had actually turned, and soon—very quickly, she met Chakwas and Joker again. There was corroboration and sympathy from people she knew and trusted, there was the confirmation that her crew were… alive, somewhere out in the galaxy. Probably. Mostly, anyway, and there was the constant presence of the reaper threat eating up her time and attention, so she had come to terms with her situation.
But the uneasy equilibrium she had reached with the universe—with the Other Normandy and the missing two years of her life—had been upset by this sudden addition to the crew. Garrus was back, everything had swivelled again, and Shepard needed to talk to someone. She needed to seek solace with a familiar face.
So it was that, approaching what could feasibly be considered Lunch-Time in the timeless space aboard the Normandy, Shepard could be found, stealing quietly into the cockpit of the craft, and sitting down a small distance aft of the pilot, Jeff Moreau.
He was busy tucking something into his face. He was picking pieces off some oblong slab of meat—maybe fish—covered in some red, peppery-looking sauce and nested in a makeshift bowl made out of crumpled foil, and eating them with intense relish, barely chewing his current mouthful before taking a new bite.
She wasn't sure what it was he was eating; she hadn't felt like lunch yet. Maybe it was the aftereffects of the anaesthetic.
She hadn't said anything, but Joker had leaned forward in his seat as she arrived, licking his fingers, craning his head around one side and then the other of the backrest to see who it was.
"Oh, Commander," he said and relaxed back into the cupped shape of the backrest. His thumb fiddled with a control on the arm rest and the chair turned slowly around to face where Shepard stood.
"How're we doing, Joker?" She said, her mouth saying the words as a matter of habit than out of any real interest.
Joker looked at her.
"Oh, we're doing fine, Captain," he said, blandly, "what with Archangel turning out to be Garrus and all; Grunt having to truck his Turian ass all the way up here minus a couple buckets of his own blood, you fainting in front of half the crew."
"I mean," he went on, "are you doing okay? Cause, I gotta tell you, I feel a little jumpy."
Shepard sat there for a few seconds, blankly, while her mind attempted to formulate a reply. She had come seeking solace in a familiar face. She had not come prepared to actually say anything meaningful.
"I'm doing well enough," she said, after some pause.
"It was a shock, though," she added, ineffectually, "and I could use some sleep."
"Passing out on the floor didn't cover you, huh?" Joker said, his face immobile.
"Yeah, well," Shepard said, feeling a tired smile pull at her cheeks, "passing out isn't as restful as you'd think."
"No shit," mused Joker, as his seat slowly began to drift back around, orienting itself towards the fore windows of the cockpit.
"I'm sure you have some experience with that," Shepard said, after a few seconds.
"Oh," Joker said, then: "Oh. Aha ha ha. Is this because of my charmingly lackadaisical attitude towards regulation? I like a drink every once in a while, but I'm not allowed to get fall-down drunk, Commander. It messes with my calcium levels."
Shepard blinked, uncertainly, and her momentary smile faded again.
"What? You mean you've never gotten drunk before?"
"That's kind of a weird thing to be judging me for," said Joker, though without much malice, "seeing as you're CO and all."
"Hah," Shepard said, more out of acknowledgement that Joker had made a joke, than out of any amusement. Her mind was still focused elsewhere.
"No, I've never been drunk," Joker went on, "at least not enough to count. One of the reasons I got so much done in flight school: no distractions. The little crippled kid couldn't go out and party with the cool guys, so he stayed in his room like a good little crippled kid and studied his brains out."
Shepard leaned back slowly in her chair.
"Huh," she said, "I never would've known that…"
"Sorry if I touched a nerve," she added, after a brief silence.
"Ah, nah," Joker shrugged in his seat, "it's nothing. I'm probably better off anyway, according to, you know," he said, "…science. Oh and let me tell you," he added, "I've seen a LOT of hangovers, and they're way uglier when you're seeing them from fifteen feet away and sober."
There was a period of pensive thought, after which Shepard rejoined:
"Yeah, well, they don't look so great when you're up close and still drunk. It's hard to keep your own hair out of the toilet when you can't find the back of your head with both hands."
It was to her surprise as much as his.
Joker snorted, a genuine laugh.
"Wow, Commander." Joker shook his head. They laughed awkwardly, in the silence of the cockpit.
Shepard rubbed her face with one hand and sighed.
"You are a reeeeeal class act," Joker enunciated carefully, after a few seconds had elapsed.
"Post-Basic Training," said Shepard, by way of apology, "some of us wanted to celebrate that we'd made it. We might've got a little over-excited."
"Yeah, I'll bet."
"At least I got back on base. A couple didn't, and most of the rest were brought up on disorderly charges. I wasn't used to drinking, though—so I headed back early. I actually made muster, except I was sick to my stomach and sweating like a pig. The drill sergeant was busy yelling at all of us about shameful conduct the night before, and being a disgrace to the unit, but hell, I was just trying not to throw up all over my shoes."
"Wait," Joker turned his seat around again, "so you weren't caught?"
"Oh, no. I was caught," Shepard said, drily. "After I got back from my ten days leave I got a month of confinement."
"Hah," Joker said, "and now you're humanity's finest, huh?"
"Yeah," said Shepard, passing a hand over her face again. "You know, I've never actually told anyone this before."
"Well, I mean, you'd want to hold onto a gem like that," said Joker, "keep that retell value up."
"Yes, I suppose so…" she said.
She wondered if there was something she should've been doing.
Miranda would be happy enough to write the report in Shepard's absence. There was nothing to tell that was especially unusual: found missing ex-cop friend on galactic crime homeworld, destroyed three entire mercenary fire teams.
She laughed to herself, a single, dry chuckle; It was an odd time you were living in when none of those events could be considered close to noteworthy.
"What's so funny, Commander?" Joker asked.
"Just… Life," Shepard said, "where we are now." She waved a hand helplessly at the ship around her.
"Two weeks ago, I remember we were flying past some… some planet at the edge of civilized space. Then the Normandy was destroyed, then… Two weeks later, I wake up, and it's two years later, and here we are again. You, me."
"Garrus," said, Joker, nodding his head pensively along to her monologue.
"Not Tali, though," said Shepard, "or Kaiden."
She took a deep breath, and let it out again. It came out shakier than she'd expected it to.
"Not Wrex, or Liara," she said. "Two weeks later, and the whole world has changed."
"I'm sorry I left you behind," she said.
"Well—I mean. Shit, commander," said Joker, an expression of mild discomfort haunting the edges of his face, "it's not your fault you died."
"Still," she said, "I guess… I'm sorry you left me behind, then," she laughed, "I feel like I could've been a lot better prepared to lead you if I'd been able to see some of the same things you have. To feel the state of the galaxy. I don't want to... let anyone down, here."
"Well," Joker said, and then:
"I mean, not much as actually changed, when you think about it," he went on. "The alliance are still assholes. You know. People are still acting like the reapers don't exist."
Shepard sat up.
"Still, huh?" she said, half to herself.
"Yeah. The most popular argument is uh, 'no corroborating evidence,'" Joker said, adding the obligatory air-quotes with a grimace. "By the time the pieces of Sovereign hit Citadel, they were basically metal toothpicks, and after you, you know… went, the council just kinda writ you off as a… as a crank, you know? You weren't around to speak up for yourself anymore, so they just kinda acted like… like you went kinda batshit crazy out there in space. No-one else really saw what you did on Eden Prime, and almost no-one was around for Virmire, so…"
He trailed off, uncomfortably.
"No kidding," said Shepard. She frowned. She'd always had to fight with the council to keep her viewpoint alive and discussed. She didn't know what it was: if it was speciesism, classism, fear that she was right, a simple desire to maintain the status quo, what.
She stared at the space debris drifting past.
"We're going to have to go back to the Citadel," she said, aloud.
"Now, Commander?" said Joker, half-leaning back towards the Normandy's pilot console in the simple anticipation of the order.
"…No," Shepard said, shaking her head faintly, "not yet."
"'Cause I was just taking us to the fuel depot. We kinda spent our last tank flying around the Eagle Nebula. We have enough to make it to the mass relay though."
"It's alright," Shepard said, "I don't want to go back just yet… I don't know what I'd say, for one thing," she added.
"Well the council's been walking all over you ever since you, disappeared," said Joker, and did she hear a hint of hesitation before that last word? He went on, however, unfazed, "so I mean to start off with, you could say hi with a nice, big, 'fu—'"
"Shepard," intoned a voice right behind Shepard's ear. She resisted the urge to jump.
"Yes EDI?" Shepard replied. She looked around. There, by the door, was the little holographic blue sphere that represented the full capacity and undivided attention of the ship's artificial intelligence. It was projected from some holographic node embedded, unseen, near the doorway. There was one in every room and most of the hallways.
"The Illusive Man would like to speak to you in the Comm centre, regarding the outcome of your last mission," said the sphere. The little waveband visualizer on the front of the sphere pulsed in synchronization with AI's voice, but beside that remained it remained motionless.
"Didn't Miranda send a report?" Shepard asked, without any particular enthusiasm to hear the answer.
"Her report failed to include all the information the Illusive Man requires to declare the mission a success."
Shepard sighed. He knew Archangel was Garrus. This was a check-up; not on the mission, on her.
"Alright," she said aloud, allowing only the slightest trace of weariness into her voice. "Thanks EDI."
"Yes, Commander," said the sphere, and winked out of existence.
Shepard sank back into her chair, and closed her eyes.
She could feel the bead of Joker's gaze in the silence that followed. She lay, motionless, leaning back against the headrest.
"You gonna go see him?"
"In a bit," Shepard said.
"Right. Well, enjoy yourself."
She heard the microscopic whine of the motor in the base of his chair as it turned around, unseen, outside her vision, then:
"Yes, Joker?" she said, eyes still closed.
"You're not gonna let anyone down."
"…Thank you, Joker."
She felt her breath begin to slow down as her body began to relax. She didn't get to relax often, she reflected. At least, not in the past couple of weeks. She'd constantly felt like she was wound tighter than a drum.
No surprise, really.
She wondered if there was some way of inducing relaxation. She had never had much interest in... yoga—or being massaged. Maybe it was simply because she'd never been in any proximity to these things when she was young. The idea was incredibly foreign to her now, and seemed silly and embarrassing to do. Stretching slowly into arbitrary positions with twee, pseudo-mystical sounding names. Lying down half-naked, being prodded by strangers for hours at a time.
She sighed. Maybe she should try it anyway.
Her body was not really fit for duty, was what the other half of the problem was. Miranda said it was fit for duty. Miranda blustered and strutted and used phrases like 'therapeutic myostimulation' and 'carefully monitored steroid regime', and was hotly insistent that Shepard's body was as good as it always had been.
But it wasn't. Shepard could feel her body was slower than it used to be. Her reflexes were hampered, blurred at the edges by clouding forces she couldn't quite get come to grips with. Her muscles might have been the size they used to be, but they weren't hardened against the rigours of combat any more. Every ground mission she'd come back from had left her feeling as if she'd been attacked with a couple of hammers for an hour. The pains followed her every movement. The hardened, constricting ache went down into her joints and would not go away.
Shepard remembered the feeling, of course: basic training—when you were broken down and rebuilt into a new human being. Ready for combat.
A new human being.
She counted that this feeling would go away eventually. She'd get used to her own skin again; her nerves would recall the actions she'd trained them to; her spine would remember all the old reflexes.
Ready for combat.
They weren't all her nerves any more. There were wires in some places, bits of synthetic tissue. Would they ever ever learn the actions? Would they ever feel like part of her?
Broken down and rebuilt.
Garrus was back. That was good. For... for the past week and a half—during all the whirl and action, and the palaver and pomp of Shepard coming back to the galaxy, she'd been wondering what had happened to him. She'd wondered how he was doing. It wasn't all the time—she'd metered out her time for reflection into relatively small periods when absolutely nothing else was occupying her attention, but when the silence came back, so too did the emotion, the wondering, the worry.
That was what was happening now. It wasn't pleasant, but she let it happen anyway. It had to happen some time.
Garrus, Tali, Kaiden, Wrex, Liara. She had blinked out of consciousness for what seemed like two hours, and woke up to find it had been twenty-thousand. Her crew had been scattered to the stars and she had no certain hope of ever seeing them again.
Kaiden was somewhere she couldn't reach him. Tali had been happy to see her, but left almost immediately with the ill Quarian. Veetor was his name, she remembered after a few moments.
Joker's presence was comforting—she trusted him with her life—but he was prickly and self-consciously closed-lipped about most serious subjects, and his inability to vacate the ship—when she herself was so actively embarking on missions with her crew—made their relationship an even more distant one.
Dr. Chakwas was incredibly welcome. Good old Dr. Chakwas. It felt strange to refer to her by her first name, or really anything other than Doctor.
And now Garrus was back, but while seeing him safe and sound—as much as he was—was an incredible relief, Shepard could not help but feel there was something wrong. Not just different, she might've been okay with different, but there was something…
Something wrong. Something missing. Something in his eyes…
It was just an illusion, probably, Shepard thought to herself. Turian faces were not like human faces, and did not express nearly as much through their eyes as human faces did, but… What was it?
Something in his voice? His posture?
She wasn't sure. He'd disappeared almost as soon as he said hello to her. That wasn't usual. They could've talked for a solid hour a day, back in the day, with no pauses. Longer, if there wasn't a mission to embark on.
She felt her head loll sideways, rolling across the headrest, and she let it. She was incredibly tired, and the less effort she had to exert to keep herself upright, the better she felt.
Maybe Garrus was still just feeling the effects of nearly having his head blown off.
She smiled to herself, the dryness of the comment deflecting some of the horror she had lived through some twelve hours earlier.
Maybe things would even out in a couple days. He was safe now, and that was what mattered.
That… was… all… that…
And, very quietly, Shepard finally fell asleep.
'We're losing her!'
Once Shepard realized she was regaining consciousness, she began to storm rush it, grabbing for control of her body and forcing herself awake. She took deep, gasping breaths, fighting the leaden feeling of tiredness in her lungs and consciously working to keep her eyelids wide open.
'Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa!" she heard a voice yelling from outside the black, inky bubble of her own panic. She thought she recognized it, but she didn't care. She leapt up anyway—she couldn't give in now—she pushed frantically against the blackness, treading water in her own spasming body to keep herself—
to keep herself in the interior of the cockpit.
Her breath still racing, she stood, arms held out from her sides in an open crouch of defence, hair stuck to her cheeks and nose—her forehead was beaded with newly condensed sweat.
She stared forward, at the wide-eyed, stunned expression on the face of Jeff Moreau. His hands were held up in a urgently pacifying gesture.
"Calm down, commander, it's just a dream!"
Shepard sat down heavily, and immediately regretted it, as the warning feeling of Injury rippled through her side. She gingerly reached down and prodded the gunshot wound. She winced, and looked at her fingers, which were streaked with pink from where the wound had begun to leak again.
That was going to leave a mark.
"Sorry," she said, slumping down in the seat. She haphazardly searched for somewhere to wipe the bloody fluid off her fingers, before settling for her pant leg.
"You okay?" asked Jeff. Joker. His still-raised hands now slowly dropping down to his sides.
"No worse off than I was already," Shepard mumbled. She wiped the sweat off her forehead, peeling a few of the tangles of hair away from her eyes. Her hand slid down her face, and she felt the deep criss-cross of the scar on her cheek.
"Must've been some dream," Joker probed, cautiously.
Shepard fought to control her reflex, which was to tell him to mind his own damn business. She felt panicked and a little sick still, and in no mood to deal with being questioned about something she didn't yet understand herself.
It wasn't his fault. He was concerned, anyway.
"It was just a dream," she said, trying very hard to sound like she believed it, "don't worry, I'll be fine."
"…Uhuh," said Joker—not sarcastically, but she could tell his heart wasn't in it. He looked abstractly at a nearby console and prodded a holographic box with his finger. The console display flickered and changed, and he gazed at it without appearing to take in any of the information being presented.
"Maybe you should talk to the doc about that," he said, as his chair began to rotate away from her, back to the fore of the Normandy.
Shepard said nothing and stood up slowly, holding her side to mitigate the objection her body was raising to the movement. The debrided flesh around the outside of the gunshot wound twinged sharply, in spite of the painkillers.
She knew she was supposed to report to the Illusive man, but she was exhausted. She did not want to tell him how she felt. It rankled with her that he only wanted to talk to her so that he could poke at her psyche until she gave up enough of herself that he was satisfied she wouldn't fall apart.
"I'll be seeing you," she said.
"Yes ma'am," said the Joker, flatly.
"EDI, get the conference room ready. I'll be with the illusive man in a moment."
Shepard strode out of the cockpit, through the CIC, and down the corridor to the elevator. As she passed, a woman saluted her—Yeoman Chambers. Shepard returned the salute, but only barely. She did not like Yeoman Chambers, and in the crewman's manicured, flighty little hands, a salute felt like a mockery at the best of times.
She entered the elevator and directed the lift upwards, to her cabin in the loft of the ship.
It was the price the Illusive Man expected her to pay for her revival—this little check-up he was appointing—a piece of her. At great personal expense, he had brought Shepard back to life. He was an investor, with a controlling interest, and he wanted to make sure his investment wasn't going to go bad.
The lift door opened. She walked through the lift door into a small atrium, and through the door after that into her cabin. The room extended around her, alien and weird.
She stopped short for a moment, and then sighed. In her current, distracted state of mind, it had managed to surprised her again.
She was getting used to it, but of all the places on the Normandy SR-2 that did not feel like home, the Captain's Cabin was the most poignantly so.
Shepard's face felt crusty and unpleasant after the trip to Omega and she had taken very little effort to clean, up to this point. Her swear-drenched nightmare had left her even more disheveled, so before she went down to meet her overseer, she decided to wash her face.
As she did so—bringing the water up in cupped hands and scrubbing hastily—she took care not to press too hard against the hairline fissures in her face, where the cybernetic patches in her nervous system, the synthetic contractile tissue, the nano-strings and blood meshes, kept together the parts of her face that, logically, never should've functioned ever again.
She looked at her face in the mirror. A faint orange glow shone through where her skin was the thinnest above the cybernetics—A glimmering little knot of what she could only assume was some kind of fibre optic.
She took some soap, and worked up a thin lather, which she spread ineffectively around her cheeks and forehead.
She was told she didn't need to worry about whether or not water got in the scars, her flesh had healed underneath and above, and the cybernetics were water-proof—they would have to be—and she was just waiting for it to slowly close over, but…
Theoretically her face should've healed before she was woken up on the Lazarus station, but extenuating circumstances had prevented this; the doctor who had been responsible for so much of her rehabilitation had decided to kill her.
She rinsed. Water dripped from her chin and eyebrows, and gathered on her lips, where she blew it away hastily.
That knowledge still left her uneasy; the change of heart had been… confusing to assess, in hindsight. No-one had ever gotten to ask Wilson what made him decide she must die. Of course, in a group like Cerberus, any staff was a risk, a crapshoot. It was an organization that thrived on secrets, bottomless slush funds and raging xenophobia; it was bound to attract odd people.
Shepard took another look at her face in the mirror. As a thin, frown tugged at her mouth, the little knot of fibre-optic voodoo under her skin flared up a little and shifted, like an ember on a scrap of paper.
She breathed a careful sigh and rested her hand on her middle.
It had been a calming reflex once, a subconscious little tick that fell into her repertoire of subconscious little ticks—everyone had them—designed to settle and soothe, but now when she pressed her hand to her diaphragm, Shepard could feel her pulse under her fingers, and the fluttery little rhythm brought instantly to mind how much life could leave her body before she was officially declared dead. It brought to mind how many minutes her heart could suffer atrial fibrillation before it started to curdle the blood going through her arteries. How many neurones in her brain could fail to fire before her mind looked blank to a pattern scanner.
She whisked her hand down to her side.
She breathed another deliberate breath, let the sigh out. She stepped to the door of her cabin, through to the elevator, and went went downstairs.