Shepard's fingers moved over the jacket's buttons with focused determination. Steady. Almost steady enough for her to forget the way they'd shaken, the way she'd lost control, the way she'd almost—
No. She shook her head, finishing the last of the buttons and forcing herself to leave those thoughts behind. Where they belonged. Experience, learn, move on. She was good at that. She'd always been good at it.
Don't let the inevitable mistakes and missteps drag you down.
Though the fabric hung from her shoulders and wasn't nearly as snug to the curve of breast and waist and hip as it once had been, seeing the familiar blue of her uniform reflected back at her went a long way toward making her feel like herself again. She'd grown tired of hospital gowns two days into her medbay stay. It had only taken another three before she never wanted to see her hoodie again.
After running her hands down the front of the jacket to smooth nonexistent wrinkles, she scraped her hair back into its usual ponytail and then ran her fingertips lightly over the skin of her face. The bruises were gone now, vanished as completely as the Cerberus scars and the even older mark that had once bisected her left eyebrow. As soon as Doctor Chakwas had everything under control (calibrated, Shepard thought with dark amusement, good old cybernetics), the bruises had been the first to heal. The broken bones had taken the longest—irritatingly long, in Shepard's opinion—but a mere fraction of the usual time. The bones still ached a little, but even Chakwas had finally relented and agreed a return to duty was best for all parties concerned.
Shepard was pretty sure that meant she'd nearly driven the doctor insane.
Well. That made the both of them.
Narrowing her eyes, she tried to see echoes where the damage had been. Nothing. Maybe her cheekbones were more prominent and her face a bit gaunt, but otherwise she was almost back to normal.
On the surface, anyway. With a heavy sigh, she pushed herself away from the mirror and gave herself a little shake. It wasn't the first time she'd looked at death. Hell, it wasn't even the most successful time death had looked back at her. And yet sometimes she turned her head expecting to see Ashley in a little girl's white dress, or she woke from dreams somehow even more unsettling than those of the dead child and the shadows in the wood—dreams of battles and choices, things she couldn't undo—and couldn't catch her breath again. Sometimes she still needed Garrus to look at her and nod and corroborate what was real and what wasn't.
Experience, learn, move on. As soon as she'd been able to sit upright under her own power, she'd written her report and sent copies to Hackett and the Council, warning them about the potential danger even though the Valiant was gone. Trojan Horse. The gift from Grixos. She hoped they'd listen. For a change. Even before that, she started hounding EDI for regular updates. The medbay became a temporary CIC, a mobile War Room—at least for two or three hours a day. Chakwas grimaced at the increased traffic, but permitted the intrusion of various crew members. Within reason. And always only one a time.
That, too, was enough to make Shepard feel almost normal, almost herself. A close call, she told herself. Close, but no cigar. Like she'd said to Garrus. Nice try, death. Shepard wins again.
Only it didn't feel like winning. Winning usually felt good.
Winning didn't usually feel like surviving by the skin of your teeth and a dash of good luck. Winning didn't usually feel like cheating.
She didn't regret surviving, of course, but the knowledge that she'd given up—that she'd been so certain of her own death—hung on her, as ill-fitting as her dress blues.
So she buried herself in work, read reports until she fell asleep—or until the doctor forcibly removed datapads from her—and worked with her crew to plan the next mission. Kai Leng was still out there. A side of righteous revenge was just the ticket.
The first time she brought it up, Kaidan had tried to stop her, tried to tell her to leave it until she was well again, and she'd just shaken her head and said, "I need this, Alenko."
He'd nodded like he understood.
Hell, maybe he did.
When push came to shove, they were all hiding from something.
No one talked about the Valiant.
She was okay with that. Experience. Learn. Move on.
Don't forget. And don't make the same damned mistakes twice.
"Experience. Learn. Move on," she told her reflection firmly before straightening her shoulders, lifting her chin, and exiting her quarters.
She started her rounds in the CIC, moving down to engineering, and finishing on the crew deck. Same as always. And if she took a little extra time with each of her crew, she told herself it was because it had been such a long time; she never went more than a few days without checking in with her people. Mostly it was to remind herself what had almost been lost. Tali hugged her. Cortez and Vega teased each other and made her grin. Joker snarked about broken bones. Liara smiled the smile of the girl from Therum, the Shadow Broker's controlled mask momentarily lowered. Javik almost said it was good to see her—or at least she was pretty sure that's what he meant by, "You are unusually resilient, Shepard. For a human." By the end of it her legs ached and she was far more tired than she ought to have been—though, she was forced to admit, precisely as tired as the good doctor had warned she'd be.
She saved the main battery for last, also same as always, and was surprised when the door opened on an empty room. She peeked around the corner and even went so far as to call Garrus' name, but stopped herself from asking EDI where he was. He certainly hadn't been avoiding her during her convalescence—quite the opposite—but they didn't talk about their ordeal, either. They kept to safe topics, like guns and politics and bitching about the Council. Families and feelings were off-limits. They played endless rounds of Skyllian Five. Sometimes he even beat her.
And every once in a while she caught him looking at her the way he'd looked at her on the Valiant, like he was still afraid he was going to lose her.
She could hardly blame him for not wanting to be constantly reminded of that.
She wondered if he caught her looking at him the same way.
Chakwas emerged from the medbay as Shepard made her way back to the elevators and wordlessly pressed a handful of painkillers into her hand. The good kind. The kind that wouldn't be immediately processed and eliminated by her cybernetics. Shepard smiled her thanks and even swallowed them without complaint.
She was drowsy by the time the elevator ascended to her floor, but not so tired she didn't sense something off right away. She couldn't place it—music, maybe. She often left the music on in her cabin (she told herself the hamster liked it, but mostly it was because she found silence of her loft so far from the rest of the crew unnerving), but the current selection didn't sound quite right.
Trusting that EDI would have let her know if something or someone hostile was waiting in her room, Shepard tapped her palm to the door's opening mechanism.
Her room was dimly lit, the music was unfamiliar, and Garrus, startled, turned and raised his hands in surrender.
"What are you…" she began, before drifting into confused silence.
"You're not going to shoot me again, right?"
She chuckled, leaning against the doorframe, crossing her arms lightly over her chest, just slightly defensive as she tried to gather in her surprise. The room was dimly lit because there were candles—honest to God candles—providing the only illumination. The music was soft and pleasant and nothing at all like the abomination he'd selected before the Omega-4 Relay. And next to the fish tank, complete with white table cloth (it had to be one of her bedsheets, purloined), was a little table set for two. With silverware. And wine glasses. With wine in them.
"Let me guess," she mused, "you watched some vids."
"I'm wounded, Shepard."
"Fine," he admitted. "I watched some vids. I thought…" He paused and ducked his head, mandibles tight to his cheeks, and the hint of his old awkwardness was enough to bring her fully into the room. She crossed to him and didn't hesitate before taking one of his hands in both of hers. She squeezed. He squeezed back.
"It was… a big day. Back to work. Thought we'd celebrate."
She smiled, arching an eyebrow. "Dinner was supposed to be on me."
"Yeah, well. I've seen what you eat for dinner. I figured I'd do it right."
Hands still clasped around his, she leaned back and gave him a skeptical look. "You didn't… cook?"
His look wasn't quite a glare, wasn't quite a glower, and definitely had a hint of amusement trapped around the edges. He pulled out her chair for her and gestured for her to sit. "I did what needed to be done, Shepard. And it's getting cold."
She had no idea where he'd come up with ingredients, and she sure didn't want to know how he'd managed to make something levo-amino friendly for her without tasting, but somehow the plate of pasta he presented her with was edible. Even tasty. Hell, somehow he'd even managed to find real parmesan. And bread. With butter.
"This… isn't terrible."
"Thanks. Your confidence is heartening."
She kicked him under the table and winced at the reminder of her injury as her shin protested the abuse. "Come on. Who helped you?"
He smirked at her over his own plate—something unfamiliar and dextro, but a step above nutrient paste. "Collaborative effort. What the crew of the Normandy does best. There's some kind of betting pool to see if you can figure out who's responsible for what, I think."
"Gambling with their lives," Shepard groused. "That's what the crew of the Normandy does best."
The silence was sudden and heavy and not even the pleasant music (Traynor, she thought) could drown it out. Her breath caught, and her fingers tightened into a fist around her fork.
"Shepard," he said, his subharmonics more pronounced than usual, "we don't have to talk about it if you don't want to. Not now. Not ever. But… but if you do? I'm here. Always. Right behind you."
Leaning over the table, Shepard took his face between her hands. She felt the twitch and flutter of his mandibles beneath her palms. She lowered her forehead to his and closed her eyes. Breathed deeply.
She was suddenly and ferociously glad to be alive.
Experience. Learn. Move on.
There were things she wanted to talk to him about… but not now. Not so soon. And not when words might ruin all the work he'd so obviously put into the evening. There would be time enough for words, time enough to tell him how wrong the Shadow Broker had been. Time enough. And until then, they had this. And this counted for a great deal.
"Beside," she said. "Beside works better."
"I can do that," he replied. "Except, of course, when I need to watch your six."
She nodded and pressed a series of kisses from his browplate to his mouth. This time his was the breath that caught. "Eat your dinner," he said, voice gone gravelly. "Or no dessert."
She sat back down obediently, and then flashed him a teasing smirk. "I don't know. Is dessert going to be worth my while?"
"Isn't it always?"
She grinned, and jammed a vast forkful of food into her mouth.
And felt like herself—just herself, instead of commander or cripple or convalescent—for the first time in weeks.
"So?" Garrus asked later, when they'd moved from table to couch. "What's next?"
Shepard leaned back, propping her feet on the table and folding her hands over her pleasantly-full stomach. Experience, she thought. Learn. Move on. "Dessert?"
Garrus snorted. "I was talking more long-term than that, but yeah, dessert'll do."
"I figure we stick to what we're good at. Kicking ass and taking names. Kai Leng's, for example."
Garrus looked thoughtful for a moment before his mandibles flared into a brief smile. "If it ain't broke, don't fix it?"
Shepard laughed—really laughed. Laughed until her cheeks and her throat and her stomach ached, and her eyes prickled with tears. Happy ones. Garrus lowered an arm across her shoulders and she curled herself against his side, still shaking with the aftershocks of amusement. He was warm, and it was comfortable, and she let her eyes drift shut, listening to the even pulse of his heartbeat beneath her cheek. "So you did find that book of idioms I sent you, then."
"The book of idioms you had Joker send me, you mean? Thanks for that. He quizzes me. At all hours of the day. 'Rise and shine, Garrus! The early bird catches the worm! Idle hands are the Devil's tools! Up and at 'em!'"
"Ooh," Shepard said, wincing. "Thanks for not killing him."
"Might still happen. No promises."
"Fair enough. If Joker's going to play with fire—"
"He might get burned! I know that one! Seems accurate."
She hummed a pleased sound beneath her breath. A moment later Garrus' fingers pulled her hair loose from its binding and carded gently through the strands. "Sleep, Shepard," he said. "I'll be here when you wake up."
"You always are."
He pressed a kiss to the top of her head. "Damned straight. Always will be."
She slipped her arm around his waist and felt him shiver under the touch.
"You know I'm here for you too, right?"
"'Course," he said. "That's what beside means, isn't it? Peas in a pod. Like you said. And like Joker has made sure I now understand. We're in this together, Shepard."
Stomach full, body healed, aches mending, curled into the warmth of her turian, Shepard slept peacefully, without dreaming.