It had been a long day. One of the longer ones in recent history, though by no means the longest. Still, definitely in the top five. Maybe even top three.
Thena Shepard sat at the foot of her bed, resting her head in her hands, fingers slowly massaging her forehead, as the scent of what she had a feeling was prohibitively expensive Illium perfume still lingered like a ghost. Liara, the new Shadow Broker, of all things. For all she'd fallen into the role — practically literally — Thena had to admit something about it… suited the asari. And as much as it was tempting to marvel just how much Liara had changed in two years — more than that, by now — she didn't really like thinking overmuch about… change. Partly because so damned much had changed.
Granted, change was unavoidable. Life was not static, after all. Events changed people — and death most especially changed people. It sure as hell had changed her. Thena could see it — how Liara was different, how she was different. Her death had changed them both.
But before she could think too deeply on that particular topic, the door chimed softly. For just the barest moment, Thena wondered if it was Liara. She found herself hoping it wasn't.
"Come on in," she called out.
The door opened, hissing, revealing, not Liara, but Garrus on the other side. And it wasn't until something inside her began to relax and release that she realized she'd grown tense in the first place.
"So," he said, sauntering in. "Good to see Liara again, isn't it?"
She almost said Just like old times, but they weren't like that at all. And, strangely, Thena couldn't find it in herself to feel more than passing nostalgia for the good old days. "She said the same thing, pretty much. Good to see some familiar faces."
But Garrus didn't reply. The time stretched out until Thena looked up at him — whatever that perfume had been, it was giving her a rotten headache — and saw Garrus watching her. His expression was inscrutable as ever — no huge surprise there. Then he nodded once, saying, with just the slightest hint of suggestion curling around the words, "Probably some faces she was a little gladder to see than others."
And although Thena had been looking, in that moment she saw him. Saw how his stance was… guarded. Almost expectant. Almost as if he were bracing himself for something. She'd seen that stance before, just never in a setting so… personal.
Perhaps it even made sense, in a way. The danger was over — for now — and perhaps it would have even made sense that… other things were over as well. No more tension to work off. No more steam needing to be blown. No more tests of flexibility against reach. And now… Liara was back. Sort of. All Thena had had to do was say the word, and things would have been… well, not the same as before — that was an impossible concept — but they would've been on a path to… somewhere, maybe.
It was a logical conclusion for him to make: Liara was in, Garrus was out. The wrong conclusion, but still the logical one.
He's been hurt. Betrayed. He deserves something better.
She thought about it — really thought about what it would mean if she — despite everything she'd told Liara about fighting this fight for Garrus — if she let him go. Garrus most certainly deserved something better, but was that "something better" her? Or would she be doing him a favor if she walked away now?
No. Not an option. Wrong. Not worth considering. No.
God. Her thought patterns were starting to resemble Mordin's speech patterns. Yeah. Gotta stop that.
But that willingness to consider all the options — and even if the options were distasteful, she still had to consider them — was something she and the salarian shared, but where Dr. Solus based his speculations on statistics and permutations, Thena relied on the voice of experience, and on her gut. Maybe it was primitive and human of her, but Shepard's gut instinct was hers, and it hadn't failed her yet. Unfortunately, those times she hadn't listened to her gut still haunted her. But, hey, live and learn. Or in her case, live and learn, die, live again, and learn some more.
And right now her gut was telling her, quite clearly, Don't let him go. Don't you dare let him go.
She still remembered the blinding, unmitigated relief she'd felt first seeing him in Omega — that moment when he'd pulled off his helmet and smirked at her (okay, no, it wasn't the same as a human smirk, but it was an expression so utterly at home on Garrus' face, and so utterly smirky anyway, so: smirk it was). She'd felt adrift until that moment, lost and frustrated and every bit as groundless as those memories she still tried so hard to keep out. But the moment she realized they'd be working together again, everything felt right.
But then that relief had vanished into an icy cold abyss of fear when Garrus lay bleeding and unresponsive on a filthy warehouse floor.
At the time, of course, she told herself it was because of other things — other reasons. She couldn't possibly think about Garrus that way. He was…Garrus. He was her friend. Her best friend. Her only friend, it seemed, in the whole of the galaxy. He was a lifesaver. He was her conscience — an annoying voice in the back of her head that muttered things like, I hope you know what you're doing, human, exactly when she needed to hear them. He was so many things, but beyond all that, he was her link, her connection back to herself. More than a battered helmet or even her old dog tags. Garrus was her touchstone. Her better nature. Her reminder that she was still herself and not some... thing grown in a lab.
And the fear she'd felt watching him bleed out on a dirty warehouse floor was eclipsed only by the anger that anyone would dare take all of these things away from her when she'd only just got them.
And here she was now, wondering if things would be better if she sent him away herself. The answer was still no. Resounding, deafening, unmistakable: No.
The task, of course, would be convincing him of this. "Pull up a seat and stay a while, Garrus. You make me nervous when you loom."
"I'm not looming," he replied mildly. "I'm standing."
"Standing and doing a good job impersonating a looming turian. Sit."
He hesitated, eyeing the bed for just a half second too long before taking the couch instead. He sat, resting elbows on his knees, his posture the absolute furthest thing from relaxed she'd ever seen. Several seconds ticked by before he spoke. "So. I've been thinking, Shepard. And listen. I just… I want you do know. I understand. And I know what Liara meant to you. I do. And I don't — I don't blame you."
He kept talking — babbling, if she were going to be honest about it — but only one phrase surfaced to the top of it all, like a single drop of oil in a pool of water: I know what Liara meant to you. He wasn't looking at her — not the best sign — but at that moment, Thena was pretty sure the master tactician had failed utterly to anticipate this particular outcome.
He cut her off with a swiping gesture and shook his head. "Just— just let me finish, Shepard. I need to say this."
"All right," she replied, nodding. "You speak your piece. But then I get to speak mine." Thena would have been the first to admit Garrus Vakarian knew quite a bit about a lot of things, but she was pretty certain he knew precisely squat about this particular subject. Was it a conversation she was ready for? Hell, no. Would she rather face down Harbinger, Sovereign, and a thresher maw than have a conversation like this right now? Absolutely.
Having been given the floor again, Garrus nodded and stood, unfolding his long limbs from the couch and walking the length of the room. It didn't take long. He stopped at the fish tank, taking a moment to admire the brightly colored school of fish that had — quite miraculously — not died in Thena's care. He watched them in silence as they flitted and shifted, sweeping effortlessly and as one through the water.
"I know what Liara meant to you," he said again, still watching the fish and not her. "And now, learning she was the one who recovered your body — and kept your armor… it's pretty obvious you still mean a lot to her, too." He turned, shifting his focus to her collection of mounted model ships. Reaching out, he ran one long talon over the turian cruiser. "Shepard, all I'm trying to say is… and I'm probably doing it badly, but… I get it. And it's okay." He picked up the fallen picture frame, its screen dark, and set it upright again, stepping away from the small workspace to face her again, closer to the door than when this conversation began. "So. That's it, really. I understand. And no hard feelings." He crossed his arms and tipped his head at her. "And that's pretty much all—"
"Oh, no way, Vakarian — you aren't getting off that easily." Thena was smaller and more nimble than Garrus, and in an instant had crossed the room, blocking him into her desk area, the only thing standing between him and the door. "I told you — you say your piece, and then I get to say mine."
He did look at her then, finally, and after a moment or two, said, "Okay, I'm… guessing you've got something to add?"
"Damned right I do." Thena reached across him and touched the picture frame, allowing the image within to awaken with a soft glow. "That, for starters."
Garrus stared in silence a moment. Several moments, in fact. Long ones.
He sounded positively poleaxed. She tried not to enjoy it too much. "Yes, Garrus?"
"What the hell is that?"
The image was not the one of Liara, but rather of him, bent studiously over the battery console, working intently. Calibrating.
She rocked back on her heels, narrowing her eyes at him. "You really need me to tell you?"
"I don't— I don't understand."
"Funny. I thought the whole point of this little visit was to tell me how much you do understand." That earned her a glare, which was scores better than all of the not-looking at her he'd done so far. "So. Where do you want me to start?"
With another glance in the picture's direction, Garrus said, "There might be a good place. And how in the hell did you get a picture of me, anyway?"
She shrugged. "Omni-tool. You weren't paying attention. Calibrations."
"Obviously. You never mentioned it."
She shrugged. "You would've made a fuss. And we were on our way to a suicide mission. I think we might've had other things on our minds."
"I absolutely would not have made a fuss. And if you — why was it face-down this whole time?"
"It seemed too… soon." She coughed. "After we…"
He grinned, and things felt right again. Until he spoke, at least. "Blew off steam?"
She grimaced and turned, walking back to the fish tank. "I'm really starting to hate that phrase, you know."
"Oh, I don't know," he replied, that damnably confident note creeping back into his voice. "I think it's apt. Things did get pretty… steamy in here."
She let out a soft laugh, then crossed her arms and looked at the floor. "Anyway. Liara said it, and she's right. Two years. We're both different people now. She's… she's the damned Shadow Broker, and I'm still Cerberus' favorite science project."
The warmth in his tone did something strange and altogether pleasant as he spoke. "Oh, you're a lot more than that, Shepard."
She sent him a weak smile over her shoulder, though it was only for his benefit. "Right. I forgot about the part where I'm a glorified thorn in certain people's asses."
"More than that, too."
"All kidding aside, Garrus—" she turned away from the tank and leaned against it, letting the cool glass press against her back a moment before pushing away. "— I… for a long time I didn't know what I was. Didn't know my purpose beyond being a tool for an organization I don't like and don't trust. Nothing more. But having you here this whole time… it was more than just reliving the good old days. Having you here… gave me —gives me a reason. You give me… strength. You. Not Liara. You're my reason. You asked me before if I didn't want something closer to home, but… don't you get it? You are home."
By the time she'd finished talking, Thena's heart was practically pounding its way out of her chest. She felt uncomfortably hot all over, heat prickling at the base of her scalp, every instinct in her rebuilt body thrown into overdrive. Blood pounded in her ears. A trickle of cold sweat slid down between her shoulder blades. And the whole time, Garrus watched her, and by this point she didn't give a good goddamn if he was watching all of those fascinating fluctuations in body heat and breathing patterns through his visor.
He looked down at the picture frame again, then back at her. "Say… say that— run that one by me again, Shepard?"
Now she was wondering if she'd miscalculated. She took a step closer and swallowed hard. "Home. It's… it's the place you come from, sure, but it's also… the place you want to be more than anywhere else." She paused, certain of what she wanted to say, just uncertain on how she went about saying it. "I never…" she swallowed hard — it had been easier — far easier — saying these words to Liara. Less was at stake, then. "I never thought I'd find peace in the arms of a turian." She gnawed hard on her lower lip until the pain of it forced the rest of the truth out. "Or anyone. I didn't think I could…"
And there it was.
Her throat was closing, but the important words were already out. She hadn't thought peace — any sort of inward peace — was even possible any longer. For too long Thena had stumbled along, no longer sure of what or who she was, but hiding that uncertainty, those doubts — and, oh, how she hated doubt — behind cool confidence and certainty she wasn't sure she really felt any longer. The whole thing had wreaked holy hell on her prized gut instinct, that's for sure. But Garrus…his presence alone had somehow managed to remind her of things she'd believed lost and forgotten. With him at her back, Thena didn't feel as if she were pretending to be Commander Shepard — she simply was. And sometimes those reminders were annoying, which was all right, because it reminded her to question everything — herself included. She was steadier, she was moreherself with Garrus at her six, literally as well as figuratively.
Maybe it was time to make him aware of it, too.
He was still watching her, everything about him guarded. Careful. "But Liara..."
"It's you, Garrus. Been you for a while."
Suddenly his hand was on her arm. "Time's a funny thing, Shepard," he said, huskiness only serving to further emphasize the subharmonics in his voice. "You said two years changed the two of you. Same thing could happen to us."
"No." The word ejected itself with a ferocity she hadn't even thought to anticipate — it even seemed to take him by surprise.
"Sound pretty sure of yourself there," he drawled, giving her a long, measuring look.
And again, she found herself floundering. How could she tell him? How could she make him understand? Use your words, for God's sake, Shepard. "The Thanix cannon," she blurted out finally. "It was for you."
"...Well, I've got to say, that's even better than flowers."
She grimaced, hating she was doing this so badly. But even now there was an undercurrent of relief under her frustration, because she knew she'dnever been much of a wordsmith, had never been overly fond of talking about things that were so damned hard to articulate. There was something almost reassuring about it now - she had to be herself if she was having this much trouble with this particular conversation. "Okay. Just… just for a second, just… stop talking." She raked her hands through her hair, tugging hard at the strands. "The cannon was for you. Every… every damned armor upgrade, tech upgrade, weapons upgrade… was because I wanted to make sure we came back. I lost my home once — twice if you count the first Normandy. I couldn't lose this — I couldn't lose you, too." In the darkest corner of her soul, she knew that was a loss she wouldn't come back from, regardless of how many times and ways Cerberus rebuilt her. "I know nothing's ever certain, but… I was going to tip the scales any way I could."
Thena held a hand up, stopping him. "No, wait. I'm not… I'm not done. I've lost people, Garrus. I've lost more damned people than I can even count." It wasn't true. She knew exactly how many, and every name. At the top of the list, her parents. Two brothers. Friends. Teachers. Neighbors. Everyone she'd ever known during her short life on Mindoir. Other names followed — the men and women under her command on Akuze. Even after the crash, after she'd been brought back, Thena then learned every name of every lost crew member, committed them to memory after scavenging the Normandy wreckage for dog tags, determined not to set one foot off that planet until she had every single tag. She knew that number all too well, and it haunted her. But she plunged on, adding, "And maybe I should be used to it by now — I don't know — but I'm not." Her voice was growing hoarse, ragged — usually she guarded herself more carefully from emotions this raw, and always had. There. Another thing to remind her she was still normal. Annoying, but reassuring all the same.
Garrus took a step closer and she tamped down hard upon an old urge to step back — don't let him get too close, don't let anybody get too close. It hurts too badly when they go.
But he was already too close. So close he was under her skin. If he ever left… it didn't bear thinking about.
"You keep me honest," she said again. "Every single godforsaken mission, you've kept me honest. After every decision I made, I knew I had to look you in the eye afterward. You've been my conscience, Garrus. I can't lose you."
The silence expanded around them until it seemed to fill every corner of the room — as if the silence itself were the thing holding them in place like insects caught in amber. Garrus drew in a deep breath and let it out slowly. "…Are you done?"
She nodded, realizing only then her hands were clenched into fists, nails digging into her palms. He took another step closer then, running one hand up her arm to her shoulder, pausing momentarily when she shivered, then letting it continue its path up her neck, until, slowly, his talons rested beneath her chin, gently tipping her face up until her eyes met his. Gradually, fingers aching, Thena's hands unclenched.
"You know," he began, and there was the barest breath of a waver beneath his words, hidden almost too well under the gently ribbing tone, "I'm not sure a wanted vigilante's the best choice for the voice of your conscience."
"Yeah, well. It's all I've got." She reached up, grasping his hand.
"I know how that goes. I have to tell you, mine sounds a little like this Spectre I ran into a few years ago. First human Spectre, in fact. Kind of a big deal. I think she knew it, too. Bet you'd like her."
Thena shrugged, closing her eyes and tugging his hand to rest against her cheek. "I knew her once. I heard she died."
He moved closer still. An arm slid about her waist, holding her close. Holding her up. He was doing something at the small of her back that relaxed her further, making her lean more heavily against him. "Rumors and hearsay," he said softly, his mouth just below her ear before nuzzling the spot, then chuckling when she drew in a sharp breath. "She's hard to kill."
"You think she'd even recognize me now?"
"What," he murmured, his roving hand never ceasing its movements — into her hair, up her back, down her arm, along the curve of her waist, the swell of her hip, "because of a few cybernetic implants? Hey, welcome to the club."
Thena turned her head and pressed a kiss against his hand, still by her cheek. "There's a club?"
That hand was now slowly trailing its way back into her hair — he always seemed so strangely fascinated by her hair — and he let out a low, approving hum. "Sure is. Very exclusive."
He pulled back, then, and looked down at her, soberly. "You aren't getting rid of me, Shepard. Not easily, at any rate."
There was no more room for arguing. There was only Garrus, pulling her closer again, touching her skin, kissing her neck, and doing that thing he did to her earlobe and chuckling in maddening satisfaction when she gasped. As she let herself be pulled in, the soft breath of a two-toned whisper passed her ear. "Thing is, you're my home, too."
The words, the simple reciprocation of a sentiment, made something settle within her. A puzzle piece clicking perfectly into place. "Guess that means we're stuck with each other."
Home smelled vaguely of gun oil. Felt like smooth plates against her skin. Sounded like a deep, reverberating chuckle that spun its way down her spine with the words, "Wouldn't have it any other way."