So I know I said I wasn't planning on writing an epilogue to this piece, but... well. I was never really sure how I wanted to handle post-game logistics, and it took a long time for me to figure that out. After that... well, things happen. People drop hints. Inspiration hits. You know how it goes. ;)
(FYI: There are a few veiled - and not so veiled - references to another work I've finished in the meantime: The One That Got Away.)
When the Normandy lifts into the air, a sigh of relief goes through the crew. Repairs took less time than anticipated, since structural damage was minimal, but the internal workings were another story, and with EDI's programming scaled back — she once more appears as a pixellated blue globe, and once again calls him "Officer Vakarian"' — Adams, Daniels, Donnelly, and (once she was well enough to leave medbay) Tali all worked on the AI's backup restoration; the process didn't go near as smoothly as any of them would have liked. Oh, they managed getting the VI up and running, but the more time Tali spends with EDI's programming, the more she finds. She's told Garrus in confidence that she thinks EDI left enough parameters to eventually allow a full restoration of her program, but she hasn't figured it all out yet. She hasn't had the time.
But they're finally in the air, and now it's Garrus in the CIC talking with Adams over the comms, leaning on a damned crutch, because that's the only way he can get around without Chakwas threatening to sedate him with enough tranqs to take down a krogan. He's tried everything, up to and including hopping around on one foot to get from one console to another, because sitting still sure as hell wasn't an option. Chakwas is making noises about reconstructive surgery, but it's going to have to wait; the Normandy can't spare the extra power, and at least now he can hobble—sort of—from place to place. Once someone goes in and starts putting all the busted pieces back together again, it's going to mean a whole lot of down time he can't afford right now.
"Good thing the Commander found us that GX12 pipe," Adams says in his ear. "Damage would've been worse without it. Getting back in the air could have been a hell of a lot trickier."
"I'm gonna take that to mean operations are running like they should," he replies.
"A few glitches, a few hiccups," Adams answers. "Nothing too out of the ordinary, and nothing we can't handle."
True to Adams' word, the ship's moving nearly as smoothly as it ever had. With power diverted, some of the Normandy's fancier tech — and even some of the standard creature comforts — have been deemed unnecessary. Life support: necessary. Artificial gravity: also necessary. CIC course-charting interface: somewhat less necessary. So Garrus makes his way, slowly and with maddening clumsiness — if the damned crutch catches on his spur one more time he's gonna break something, and that something's probably going to be the crutch — to the cockpit where Joker's waiting.
The pilot looks like hell, and Garrus can't blame him. There's been a change in Joker, and Garrus not only sees it, he recognizes it and it resonates in him. The pilot's pushing everything else aside and focusing on what's in front of him. Joker'll deal, but he'll deal later. When it's safer. When there's time for the luxury of grief. For now, there's still work to be done. And however much he may be hurting, Garrus suspects Joker's grief is outweighed by the fact that he doesn't want to leave Shepard behind again.
He spins around in the chair and looks up at Garrus as he leans back against the cushions. "So, how 'bout I pretend I don't know you're going to tell me to head back to the Sol system, and I'll act all surprised when you do?" His voice is strained, and the lightness is so forced Garrus feels a wave of discomfort just hearing it, but Joker is trying.
"How 'bout we pretend you already knew?" Garrus asks just as lightly, wondering if he sounds just as strained. He can hear the evidence of it in his subharmonics, but he doubts Joker's that in tune with turian vocal cues.
"Yeah," Joker says with a shrug, "but we wouldn't be pretending then."
"Okay, then. Chart a course to the Sol system."
Joker spins back to face the display. "Holy crap, I did not see that coming."
"Yeah, well, I'm just full of surprises." Garrus shifts his weight and grimaces. He's been on his feet too damned long and he knows it. "You, ah… mind if I sit?"
Joker hesitates a fraction of a second too long. His hands falter a moment on the controls. "Nah. Go ahead," he finally says, giving himself a visible shake. Garrus' injury is bothering him too much to do otherwise, and so he lowers himself gingerly into the other unoccupied seat.
The Normandy is lifting higher and higher, the planet below fading into browns, greens, and blues as they pull further away from it. Pushing through the planet's atmosphere is a little dicey, and the ship shakes as it punches through. Gradually the sky darkens and stars start to appear, one by one. When the planet is little more than a swirl of color — when it looks like any number of other planets they've scanned or landed on or passed by entirely — Joker sets the course, and they leave their temporary port behind.
Garrus had been flat on his back in the medical bay when they took off, away from the Citadel as it was coming apart. From what he's been able to figure out in the days since they landed (other than to never use the word "crash" within earshot of Joker) is that Joker had engaged the Normandy's mass effect drive to get them the hell away from whatever was pursuing the ship. It was that same something that hit the mass relay system, the same something that EDI knew would leave her nonfunctional. The Normandy's mass effect drive got the crap kicked out of it, but the damage wasn't beyond repair — far as Adams and Tali's scans and tests said, anyway. And Garrus knew better than to ask Tali if she was sure she could fix something.
But even with the drive repaired, and even with FTL speeds — assuming both worked and both allowed for maintainable speeds — it was still a hell of a haul back to the Sol system.
"So what do you think?" Joker asks, fingers passing nimbly over the holodisplay. "Do we contact the Alliance, let 'em know we're flightworthy and risk being told to get our asses straight to Terra Nova, and then catch hell for disobeying orders because we so aren't going to Terra Nova, or do we just go straight to Shepard's last known location, and say to hell with orders completely? Maybe show up at the rendezvous point fashionably late, armed with a nice dip, maybe some of those little cocktail weenies? Dextro-weenies, in your case?"
Food chatter notwithstanding — and they're all tired of rations — Garrus considers. Contacting the Alliance — anyone — might give them intel. Much needed intel. Maybe. They'd find out about rescue and recovery efforts and…
But then he remembers the smooth nameplate in his hands. The Alliance has already counted her among the dead; there wouldn't be any rescue or recovery efforts. Just like goddamn Alchera. Again.
It's enough to make a man — hell, a turian — lose faith in the military. There's irony here, somewhere — he recalls a conversation between him and Shepard, pointing out the differences between a turian victory and a human one. For all that the humans want to save lives, for all they risk to save as many as they can, the Alliance's record for screwing over their own soldiers has been getting under his hide for a while now. They had a soldier like Shepard, with more damned integrity than was good for her, and they all but threw her away. Three times.
Maybe there were reasons the first time. Maybe the Alliance did look for her. Maybe they couldn't find her because she'd already been recovered.
Still. Your best soldier comes back from the damn dead, you don't toss her aside and just assume she's gone rogue. Hell, wearing Cerberus colors was the only thing she'd done that'd even implied "rogue." If the Alliance had half the brains they claimed to, they'd have gotten Cerberus intel off of Shepard; spirits knew she'd've been only too happy to hand it over. She gave them the ship in the end, and still that didn't garner any goodwill. By that point it was a bartering chip, a gesture of good faith on her part. And what the hell good had it ever done her? It got her locked up for six months while bureaucrats hung around with their heads up their asses until it was too damned late to do anything about it.
Not that he was bitter or anything.
Maybe that was why Hackett sent her to Aratoht to begin with; he knew he couldn't use official Alliance resources, so he went to Shepard. She helped, and he had to know she'd help — and, hey, that got her thrown away again. Imprisoned, because that's what you do with the people who save your ass, apparently.
Sometimes Garrus thought, in his darker, more cynical moments, the whole damned galaxy deserved to be leveled.
"Far as I'm concerned," Garrus says after too long a pause, "we don't know who else survived. Might not be an 'Alliance' left."
"Gotcha. Commencing Operation: Playing Dumb." He opens a comm channel. "Hey, Sam," Joker calls out.
Samantha Traynor's voice answers. "Yes, Joker?"
"Think we can use the comm connection we had with Shepard to triangulate her last known location?"
The comm specialist is silent for a few seconds. "I… should be able to manage that or something enough like it, yes," she answers, but the answer comes warily, one obvious, unasked question hanging so loudly in the silence. Why not ask EDI?
Garrus knows the answer.
It's not a short trip.
In fact, it's a long trip made longer by Chakwas' increased reminders that the longer he ignores the injury to his knee, the greater the chances she won't be able to fix the damage.
Garrus is in the cockpit as Earth comes into view. At least the planet isn't burning anymore; he wonders if the same can be said for Palaven, and what kind of shape the other planets and colonies are in. Earth may not be burning, but something about it still doesn't look… right. It's probably just his imagination filling in the smoke and fire and rubble he remembers so clearly from their push through London; aside from that, he hasn't seen Earth since their mission on Luna Station, and damned if that doesn't feel like a lifetime ago.
Against a backdrop like this, the Citadel wreckage looks even more broken, even more wrong. What's left of it is … ruined isn't even a good enough word. The arms were the largest pieces of the station that remained… more or less whole. They weren't completely intact, but broken into large chunks that hung disjointedly in space. He could piece together the way some of the larger sections would've fit, but detritus floated around those larger chunks like metal scavengers hovering around a corpse and Garrus knew he was looking at what remained of the Presidium. Of what remained of he Crucible. Garrus' gut clenched and his heart sank at the sight of it — this was worse than he'd thought, worse than he'd even let himself imagine. No one would have survived that. No one — not even Shepard. The explosion, hell, exposure alone would have—
"I'm reading atmo," Joker says, his words derailing Garrus' thoughts. Then he frowns, shakes his head and checks again. "What the— yeah, I am definitely reading atmo. What the hell?"
Garrus looks over with a jerk and glances at the holodisplay—nothing makes a damn bit of sense there—and then back at the wreckage. "What?"
"Atmosphere," he says slowly, then looks at Garrus. "There's air down there."
He doesn't dare let hope in, not yet. "Are you sure?"
"I just know what the scans tell me. And they're telling me there's breathable oxygen down there." Then Joker pauses and a puzzled frown creases his brow. "What the—" His mouth pressing into a hard, determined line, the pilot begins shifting back and forth between different control panels, slowly shaking his head. "No way. This doesn't make any—" He stops short with a jerk, turning to Garrus. "Air and life signs."
"Wait, you said—"
"I said life signs, yeah. Plural. As in more than one." Joker taps the comm, still shaking his head in disbelief that shows no signs whatsoever of abating. "Hey, Adams. There any reason the scanners might be acting up?"
The engineer is quiet a moment. "Acting up how?"
"Uh. Saying there's a breathable atmosphere when there isn't? You know. Just to start."
A short silence follows before Adams speaks again. "Scanners checked out right before takeoff and seem to be responding well now. Could send a shuttle closer in and see. It might be our distance from the wreckage is causing us pick up false readings?"
"Is that even possible?" Joker asks him.
"Sounds more possible than breathable air on the Citadel," Adams tells him. "Whatever's left of it."
Joker exhales a frustrated breath and shakes his head, still frowning and squinting at the readouts. "Looks… okay, it looks like it's maybe pockets of breathable air?"
"Okay, so how… plausible is that?" Garrus asks carefully. No. No. He's not getting his hopes up, not now — not yet. He's still a realist, and scans have been known to be wrong. Joker just shrugs and leans back in his seat, gesturing at the readout screens before him.
"I don't know. I mean. Hell, I'd say it wasn't possible or plausible at all, but what the hell do I know about the Citadel?" He taps the comm again. "Sam, you got anything on Shepard's last known location yet?"
"…Maybe. Here's what I've come up with." She reads coordinates off to Joker, who begins scanning the Citadel wreckage. Granted, if the scanners are reading life signs and breathable oxygen on the wreckage, Garrus isn't sure just how much stock he puts in those readings, but they don't have a whole hell of a lot of options at their fingertips. He stares hard at the wreckage, trying to piece it back together — or at least try to recognize which parts got pieced together where.
Several minutes later, Joker leans back in his seat again and rubs at his eyes. "Well, I think I found where her last known signal was. I don't think she's there anymore, but I think I found where she was when you had her on the comm."
That leaves too many unpleasant scenarios open, all of them filling Garrus' brain with thoughts and images he doesn't want to consider just then. Explosions and force enough to send a human body sprawling back, colliding into something solid and sharp, or worse, floating out into space. He definitely doesn't want to think in that direction right now. With a grunt, Garrus pushes to his feet, wedging the crutch beneath his arm. "That's gonna have to do."
"So what's the plan?" Joker asks, tipping his head back and regarding him. "I mean, I'm pretty sure the next step isn't give up and go home."
"It's not. Not until I get some damn answers."
"It's like you said — gotta get a shuttle in there and see what the hell's going on. If scans are reading breathable air and life signs…" He trails off, not wanting to even guess what might be out there. Shepard? Maybe. Probably not. But… maybe.
Hell, was there a more dangerous word than maybe? If there is, he can't think of it.
"And… you're going down there."
Garrus lifts a browplate at the pilot. "You got a problem with that?"
Joker's eyes go to the crutch, and it's a pointed sort of look that's eloquent as hell and lasts several seconds before he turns his attention back up to Garrus' face. "Nope. Not me."
If there's one thing Garrus learned after his last stint on the Normandy, going through mission after mission after mission with a set of gunship-blasted armor, it was the vital importance of backups. His backup armor isn't half as nice as the set that got fried to hell; it's not half as fancy, but it's got shields and kinetic barriers and a medigel dispenser. Most importantly: it's in one piece. He dons it, section by section; his knee is splinted and wrapped, but swollen despite that, stretching the skin smooth. He tells himself the armor will support most of his weight, will actually be good for the abused joint, as opposed to the half-assed hobbling he's been doing leaning on that damned crutch. But there's a very real possibility that the armor won't fit.
In the end, it's a snug fit — but a fit. He tests his weight on his injured leg; it's not comfortable, but it's tolerable. That's an improvement from the constant throbbing that shoots up to his hip and down to his feet and claws at the back of his skull because there's not a damned thing he can do about it yet. The hardsuit is supporting the joint. Good. He can almost see the look Shepard's giving him over this — he knows he's not a hundred percent, and he knows a team's only good as it's least-healthy member. He knows he's screwed if things go sideways and he's got to run or jump or pivot or do anything other than walk in a straight line at a sedate pace. He knows all of this, and there's still not a damn thing anyone can say to him to change his mind.
He's picked his team. Vega. Ash. Tali. He leaves Liara in charge of the ship. It doesn't please her, but she understands; if they manage to find Shepard, hell, if they manage to find enough of her to bring back, they'll need Vega. If the scans are right and they've got pockets of air on floating pieces of wreckage, there might be live tech to deal with — and if there is, they'll need Tali. And Ash… hell, Ash was the one who gave him the news when the Normandy went down over Alchera. Seems fitting to have her along now.
They're all waiting for him in the armory — all of them in armor vaguely different than he remembers seeing them in on routine missions. Is everyone's armor in such bad shape that they're all relying on backup hardsuits? It's a sharp reminder to him just how much has happened in this war from start to — spirits, he hopes — finish. Everyone's choosing their weapons with all the care and consideration he'd expect from anyone on Shepard's team. Granted, all that care and consideration is pretty much a formality, since all of them — himself included — know exactly what they're going to arm up with.
Tali wavers a moment between the Paladin and the Arc, finally deciding on the Arc and holstering it. "In case there's anything that needs a lot of blowing up," she says quietly, patting the gun. He can see her pulse rate — it's higher than normal, and he's pretty sure that's got nothing to do with the fever she claims she's no longer fighting, and he can see clear as day she's lying about that, too — and Garrus has a good idea of what she's not saying: the Reapers may be gone everywhere else, but still they don't know what they're walking into here. Best to be prepared, just in case: in case of brutes, in case of banshees, in case of maruaders, cannibals, husks, or any other damn thing that might be down there. In case it's Shepard herself they have to face down. He doesn't want to think about it, doesn't want to consider the possibility, but it's there. And they've all seen what the Reapers have done to other species. And the Reapers are gone, but… is everything else? The elated reports that came through on static-laden comms claimed as much, but Garrus isn't going to believe any thing he doesn't see for himself.
Cortez looks rough, but he's upright and reporting for duty, standing quietly by the Normandy's remaining Kodiak.
"You sure you're up to this, Cortez?" he asks, picking up the Widow and checking the clip before holstering it.
"Might ask you the same," he answers. "Figure the answer'd be the same, too."
These are Shepard's people, the people she fought with and fought for. They want to bring her home. One way or another, they want to do right by her, the same way she always did right by them.
"Hell," Vega says, ambling up to the shuttle, "even beat to shit, Esteban's better than the best." He claps the pilot on the shoulder and Cortez winces.
"Watch it, ham-hands," Ashley says, sidling past them and onto the shuttle. "Cortez's got to stay in one piece. I've seen what happens when you pilot a craft."
"Awesome, awesome things, Boomstick," he counters, hopping onto the shuttle after her.
"If by 'awesome things' you mean a crash landing," Cortez says, "you're right."
Vega snorts and settles down on a bench. "Man, you're tellin' it all wrong."
"No," Ashley retorts, shaking her head, "that's pretty much how I remember it too. Huge crash. Flames. Dented metal. Pretty spectacular, as crashes go, but no style."
"Back me up, Scars," Vega says, as Garrus and Tali board the shuttle. "I crashed with style."
For a moment it all feels incredibly normal. The banter, the back and forth — even Vega and his nicknames. They could have been heading down for a simple recon mission, or to retrieve an artifact, or extract a stranded black-ops team. But somewhere underneath the normality is a hole. A huge, Shepard-shaped hole. Shepard would've grinned as Vega insisted he hadn't simply totaled an Alliance shuttle. She might've said, Hell, if anyone's going to get style points for crashing a craft, it should be EDI and that trick she pulled with the fighter jet on the Cerberus base. But she's not there, and it's Garrus' turn to say something.
"Vega, only one of us here does anything with style, and you're lookin' at him." Yeah, that sounds close enough to what he'd say if they were just going on any ordinary mission. Tali tips her head and looks at him; he can see the glow of her eyes behind her visor, and he's pretty sure he's not imagining the sadness there.
Armed with Traynor's coordinates and Cortez behind the wheel, they ease out of the shuttle bay and enter a warzone of an entirely different kind. From a distance, the debris looked tiny, like dust motes. They're closer now, in the shuttle, and what looked like dust motes from the cockpit now bears a stronger resemblance to the twisted and broken metal that made up the Citadel.
"Might get a little bumpy," Cortez apologizes, swinging the shuttle to the right and then up to avoid one particularly large piece of debris. Nobody says anything, and the camaraderie from just a few minutes ago is gone, likely down into that Shepard-shaped hole that feels bigger and more oppressive the longer they sit in the craft.
"No telling what we're gonna find out there," Garrus tells the rest of his team, before the silence can grow too thick and too heavy. "Scans show pockets of atmosphere and life signs. Couldn't get much more than that, I'm afraid. And there's still a chance the atmo's just a glitch. Cortez'll fly us in closer, see if we can get a better read on things. If there's air, we land and look around. If there's not air…" he shrugs. "We land and look around anyway." It's just the difference between looking for a dead body instead of a living one. "We're not far from Shepard's last known location. If she's not here, we keep looking. As long as we can land, we'll look."
Everybody nods. There isn't even a breath of dissent, which doesn't surprise him, not really.
Luckily, the larger pieces of the Citadel are large enough and — as it happens — solid enough for a shuttle landing. The first location they land is a ruined chunk of the Meridian Marketplace. Everything is broken and desolate, cracked glass, chipped marble, twisted metal, all streaked with black.
"We've got atmo," Cortez announces a moment later. "Don't know how, but we do."
Though the air is supposedly breathable, everyone — except Tali, naturally — pulls on their helmets and they exit the shuttle. It's pitch black out, with only the stars for light; he and the rest of the team unholster their weapons and snap on the gun-mounted lights before spreading out, taking in the condition of the marketplace. First thing Garrus' visor readings tell him is that it's damned cold. Second is that there's at least one living thing on this section of the Citadel. Beyond that, the place is a damn ghost town. He wonders what happened to the thirteen million people living on the Citadel, and then decides he doesn't really want to know just yet.
"Keep an eye out," he says, and a chorus of metallic clicks and slides and the hums of thermal clips fill the silence. Fanning out, he and Tali on one side of the promenade, Vega and Ash on the other, they look around, searching for Shepard, even trying to figure out where in relation to the marketplace she might've been. But trying to visualize putting together a giant puzzle while standing on a piece of it is damn near impossible.
It's not long before whatever's giving off life signs starts coming closer, and Garrus alerts the team, signaling them to stop. They find cover and wait. Garrus is watching his readouts, trying to anticipate, trying to predict, holding his breath and waiting, waiting, waiting, until—
With a high-pitched noise, one of the Citadel Keepers comes tottering around a corner, insect legs clicking against the pockmarked stone. It hurries past, chittering to itself, huge black eyes seeing nothing but what's in front of it. Slowly, Garrus stands, sucking in a breath as his knee bitches—a lot—about the movement. Right. Crouching. Gotta stop doing that.
"I have a feeling we just saw the reason there's breathable air now," Tali says, fingers tapping restlessly against her thigh. "Do you really think they're trying to put the Citadel back together?"
"I think I'd believe it if they were," Garrus replies.
They search as much of the marketplace area as they can, but there are no signs of life in the area — other than the Keeper — and after a fruitless search they trudge back to the waiting shuttle. Garrus tries not to feel defeated, but he doesn't realize until that moment that he'd actually been hoping for a miracle. As they load back on to the shuttle, Tali's hand comes to rest on his arm.
"We'll find Shepard, Garrus. We will."
He wishes he could be so confident.
The second landing places them on a chunk of Presidium that includes, well, most of Huerta Memorial. The Keepers are more active here, and Garrus counts three as they climb down from the shuttle. He looks up at Huerta, no longer an imposing structure, gleaming white against a blue sky, but now broken, streaked black against a blacker sky, its windows shattered and dark. The walkways are littered with chunks of the hospital and other detritus. Hell, Huerta looks like it was broken clean in half. It probably was, if the broken bits of building piled around them's any indication. It's hard not to think about the force it would've taken to break this all apart, the kind of force that'd tear a human body to shreds, that would—
He turns off the thoughts with a sharp hand signal to move out, and they do, rubble crunching and grinding under their boots. Again, Tali lingers, never venturing too far from his six. She doesn't want to get too far away, in case something happens and he tries something stupid. He's sure of that much, at least. He's not so sure he wouldn't try something stupid, so he should be thankful to Tali for that.
Cortez's voice crackles in his ear, faint and tinny and broken with static. "Hey, Garrus?"
"Go ahead, Cortez."
"Don't know if you're picking this up — it's pretty weak — but… I'm reading a distress beacon."
Vega goes still, and Tali and Ash both turn to look at him. Ash's eyes are wide behind her visor, and though he can't see Tali's face, Garrus has a feeling he's wearing the same expression she is. "…Say that again, Cortez?" he asks, sure he heard the words wrong beneath the sudden — and deafening — pounding of his heart. He swallows hard. "You're breaking up."
"A distress beacon," the pilot says, louder and more clearly. "I'm picking one up. Faint, though."
"That… makes sense, doesn't it?" Ashley asks. "Maybe… maybe someone set off a distress signal when the Reapers started moving the Citadel to the Sol system."
It does make sense. Something like that, people would panic. A distress signal makes sense. It even makes a little sense that it'd still be putting out a signal; the damn things have power supplies that won't quit. "We'll check it out, Cortez. Hell, if nothing else, we'll shut it down."
"Roger that," Cortez replied. "I'll keep an ear out, let you know if I hear anything else."
"Probably coming from the hospital," Vega says, nodding at the dark, looming, burnt-out skeleton of Huerta Memorial.
He's right, of course. And damn it to hell for that. "Yeah," he says, still looking up at the structure. It won't be the first deserted — or maybe not entirely deserted — hospital he's fought through. And Garrus is prepared for there to be a fight. If they're lucky, it'll be as deserted as it looks, but luck feels like a foreign concept these days; it's been too damned long since he's had any of the good kind. He knows, though, that whatever they're lacking in luck, they more than make up for in ammo. He adjusts his grip on the Vindicator and gestures at the hospital's gaping doors. The lock is barely illuminated, its faint glow a pathetic, stuttering yellow. There's power, but it's dwindling. Back-up emergency generators, maybe. Or back-ups for the back-ups. Either way, everything is dark beyond those doors.
"Sooner we get in, the sooner we get out." And the sooner we can keep looking.
If it's dark outside, it's goddamn pitch black within; there aren't even stars to offer their faint illumination. Again, everyone switches on their lights. Garrus has never entered Huerta from the ground floor — hell, the rest of the team's as lost as he is, until Tali finds an Avina terminal flickering as weakly as the broken lock on the door. Crouching down, she tinkers with the base, prying off a control panel and working quickly, pulling and rearranging wires until the holographic interface smoothes out and light fills in the holes.
"How may I be of assistance?"
Vega looks from the interface back to Tali. "How the hell'd you do that, Sparks?"
Tali just shrugs. "I rerouted its power supply. This won't last more than a few seconds — a minute, tops — but it should be enough to tell us what we need." She looks to the glowing interface and asks, "Does the hospital have a distress beacon?"
"Yes," the VI answers in perfectly modulated tones. "The beacon is currently active."
The noise Tali utters is soft, but frustrated; they're running on borrowed time, and the VI's going to choose now to be picky about how Tali phrases questions? "Where is the hospital's distress beacon's physical location?" she asked.
The holograph flickers. "The official distr—rrress beacon can be located for activation on sublevel 1-A. The b—beaaaa—con is curr—rrrently activa—ated."
Garrus blinks. "The distress signal's coming from the morgue?"
"No," the VI corrects him calmly, before her vocals start jumping again. "The upp—errr level of the morgue is lo—loc—aaated on sublevels 3-F through 5-K."
"Is there a way to reach the beacon without using the elevators?" Tali asked.
"Yes." Flickering more erratically, the holograph extends one arm in invitation, gesturing down the unlit lobby. "Emergency access points can be lo-locat-t-ted in—nnnn the l-lo—bbby's southwest corrr—nner. Ple—ase speak to a ho—ital r-rep— represen—nntative for auth— author—rrrrized access to—"
The holograph gutters out, plunging them all into darkness once more.
"Let's shut the damn thing down and get the hell out of here," Vega mutters, lifting his gun and sweeping its light across the lobby. "I've about had it with this place."
"Can't believe I'm saying this," Ashley says, raising her gun as well, its light cutting a slender beam through the darkness as well. "but I'm with Vega. Shut the beacon off and—"
The glow from Garrus' Vindicator joins the rest. "Get the hell out so we can get back to looking what we came for. I hear you."
As they make their way through the ground-floor lobby, the beams of their gun-mounted lights illuminate dozens of fallen figures, lying still upon the floor. This much Garrus expected, and he tries not to look too hard at the fallen, at what he knows are likely expressions of terror, confusion, or surprise, forever frozen in death. But as he sweeps the Vindicator from side to side, the beam of light picking out bodies, he notices that not all of them are… organic. There are husks and banshees, lying dead on the floor. A marauder collapsed and toppled over a waiting room chair. The inorganic dead lie among the organic dead, and it's Tali who speaks just as he's latched on to what happened, speaking the words just as he thinks them.
"When the Reapers were destroyed, it… it must have destroyed everything else."
He remembers Harbinger's voice explaining to Shepard what would happen if she chose to destroy the Reapers — the destruction of all synthetic life. He doesn't realize until that moment that he hadn't truly believed Harbinger. Granted, what happened to EDI had left every last tech-specialist on the Normandy scratching their head — even Tali, which was saying something. But for some reason, Garrus hadn't quite believed that every last component of the Reapers' forces would just… fall down dead. Up until this very moment, he'd been expecting a trick or a gotcha or a loophole, something other than what Harbinger said would happen.
"So… so they're all… dead," Vega says, and he sounds as confused as Garrus feels at that moment. They've been fighting the damn things for so long, and maybe it's harder for them, having been on a planet that was out of the loop and far removed from the battle — they weren't there to see what happened when Shepard threw that switch, or whatever the hell it was she did.
"Yeah," Garrus finally says, pulling the flashlight beam away from a banshee's face, her black eyes sightless, her mouth open wide in a silent scream he doesn't have to hear — he'll remember it for years to come. "I guess they are."
"Should be a clearer path to the distress beacon," Ash says, turning her light toward the southwest corner. There are more bodies that way. Hell, it looks like the whole damned lobby was full when everything hit the fan. "Quicker in and out for us."
They start making their way toward the emergency stairwell, stepping over and around the dead — nonfunctional? — Reaper forces. Garrus hasn't given a lot of thought to the afterlives of different species — aside from times when death had seemed imminent, anyway — but he hopes the people these… things used to be, he hopes they're… at rest, somehow. Hoping that makes it a little less disturbing when he steps over a dead husk, its blank, expressionless face slack.
The emergency stairwell door is wedged open, held that way by a dead brute, and there's little choice but to climb one by one over the creature. Garrus holsters his gun and grabs either door, using his upper body to heft himself through and over the brute without putting too much strain on his knee. Tali follows, more carefully, and makes a low, dismayed sound, deep in her throat as the flesh gives spongily beneath her feet. Vega and Ash follow, and both of them look as if they expect the brute to revive at any moment. Unnerving as hell, but if that's the worst run-in they have with one of the things, Garrus isn't going to complain.
As they begin to navigate the stairwell, four beams of light illuminating the passage, Garrus notices something… odd.
"Huh," he mutters, taking the steps slowly, sweeping the light close, then further away. "They're all pushed to one side."
Silence follows as the rest of his team shine their lights down the stairwell. Sure enough, there are bodies up and down the stairs, but they're all to the right, leaving the left side of the stairwell… clear.
"Okay," Vega says, stepping forward and frowning. "That's weird. Either they were all coming down the stairs single-file, or…"
"Or they were moved," Ashley suggests.
Tali tips her head to the side. "And moved by what?"
"Keepers, probably," Garrus says, but he pulls the Vindicator free again. Just in case.
They stick to the left side of the stairwell, and though they're all on the alert for anything even the slightest bit unusual, the left side of the passage remains clear, but the bodies pushed to the side seems to be getting… higher. By the time they reach sublevel 1-A, the niche housing the console with the distress beacon is alarmingly full of bodies, most of them husks. What's even stranger is that down here, there are splatter patterns on the walls. A few of the husks are missing heads. Branching off from the niche is a narrow hallway, a sealed door closing it off. A sealed door, Garrus notices, that's glowing a bright, defiant red.
"What the hell?" Vega mutters.
"Don't know," Garrus answers. "Tali, get that beacon shut down." She nods and makes a beeline for the console.
Ash adjusts her grip on her Mattock. "So. Door," she says, nodding at it. "With an active lock."
"I'd noticed," Garrus answers. "Active lock means power source."
"Yeah. So we're… gonna see why it's got an active lock on it."
"Yeah," he echoes. But none of them move toward the door. They all cover Tali while she works, but everything is so still, so quiet that for a moment Garrus isn't sure what they're covering her from.
"Got it," Tali says, stepping away from the console, but the moment she does, the moment the beacon is shut off, the console starts emitting a painfully high-pitched electronic squeal, that sounds like it was formed from an unholy union of feedback and comm static. Seconds later, the lock on the sealed door turns yellow, graphics spinning as whatever is on the other side begins the unlocking sequence.
"Crap," he breathes, taking a quick look around. Instinct screams at him to give the order to fall back, but there's no goddamn place to fall back to. But they've all fought in enough tight spots with Shepard to know just what role each of them play in moments like this one. Moving purely on instinct, Garrus moves back and switches the Vindicator out for the Widow as they fall into a staggered formation; Tali's got the Arc in one hand and a grenade in the other, and Ash and Vega with assault rifles aloft are ready to push back whatever the hell is getting ready to come through that door.
If the last thing any of them expect to see when the door finally opens is a shimmering biotic shield wide and tall enough to fill the whole of the doorway, then that leaves Garrus with exactly no goddamn idea what to make of the five figures — three turians in C-Sec hardsuits and one human, all armed, with an asari behind them all, holding the shield steady — facing them down from behind the wavering shield. The click-and-hum of thermal clips fills the tiny space, and everyone's got a gun raised, it seems like. The following seconds tick by, tense as hell, but nobody drops their weapon. Not yet.
But then Garrus realizes that the grizzled human face filling his scope is Commander Bailey and he lowers the rifle. "Stand down!" he shouts. Ash, Vega, and Tali all comply. The turians do, too, though partly out of shock, he suspects. Well, a combination of shock and an ingrained reaction to turian subharmonics.
Bailey's the last to lower his gun and squints at the four of them standing armed and armored to teeth and talon. "Vakarian?"
His visor reassures him it's pressurized down here, and so he pulls his helmet off slowly, still keeping the Widow lowered. "Bailey, you are the last damn person I expected to find down here."
That seems to do it — the tension cracks and falls away as everyone holsters their weapon. One of the C-Sec officers stride to the console and soon the ear-splitting wail stops. The biotic shield wavers and dissipates as the asari holding it says, in a voice that sounds like its met more than its fair share of ryncol and Palaven cigars over the centuries, "It's about damn time you guys got here."
This time it's Ash who pulls off her helmet and looks at the asari. "Matriarch Aethyta?" Garrus sends her a look and she shrugs. "Aethyta pours—poured— the best drinks at Apollo's Cafe."
Garrus nods, though he remembers her better back when she tended a bar on Illium. There's also the small matter of her being Liara's father, but he doubts if anyone else is privy to that info.
"Tell you the truth, son," Bailey says, holstering his rifle and stepping aside, "the feeling's mutual." He beckons them in and the C-Sec officers step aside. A ripple of uncertainty runs through the team, but it's one that Garrus shoves aside as he follows Bailey through the doorway.
"How the hell did…" But the words trail off as he steps over the threshold and takes in what he can only call a survivor camp, because that's exactly what it is.
There are only a dozen, maybe two dozen people. Garrus recognizes some of them — Dr. Michel, several different C-Sec officers, Septimus Oraka, the teenager from the refugee camp — Amanda, he recalls — and a small handful of marketplace shopkeepers. There are others he doesn't recognize, but guesses by their dress they're doctors, nurses, and patients — he assumes they're patients; some of them are wounded, but at this point it's anyone's guess when they could've been wounded. The room is warm and well-stocked with provisions, clean water, oxygen masks. There's a makeshift curtain hanging toward the back of the room with that look like hospital beds behind it.
Vega, Ash, and Tali file in behind him. Their reactions are nearly identical to his.
"How the hell'd you do all this?" Vega asks, pulling his helmet free.
Bailey chuckles as he seals the door again, and it's a tired, rueful, almost humorless sound. "That's a good damned question."
"And the answer's pure, dumb luck," Aethlyta chimes in, folding her arms and shaking her head. "We're talkin' pyjak-up-the-ass-dumb luck here, kids."
"But how…" And then he notices Bailey and Aethyta exchanging a look. No, not a look. A look. He doesn't know what the significance is, but there's no doubt something's going on. And he doesn't like it. "So what happened?" he asks, looking around the room, casually — he hopes. He's definitely going for casual, even though he's calculating how long it'll take for Tali to reopen the sealed door and whether he, Vega, and Ash can hold everyone off—
Cripes, Vakarian, you're getting paranoid, he thinks, giving himself a little shake. A quieter, further-away voice whispers, Getting?
"Listen, Vakarian," Bailey says, squaring his shoulders and inclining his head, and if Garrus ever thought for a moment Bailey wasn't C-Sec through and through, he knows it well enough now just by the way he's carrying himself. "I'm more than happy to answer your questions — can't imagine how many you've got — but before I do, there's something you need to see." And before Garrus can ask, before he can do anything but exchange a puzzled glance with his team, Bailey's waving over Dr. Michel.
The doctor looks like hell — there isn't a person in that room who doesn't look like hell — but beneath the rumpled, dirty uniform, she's a crisp, composed professional. Bailey doesn't say a word; he just waves her over and gives her a nod. The doctor opens her mouth to say something, then snaps it closed again, taking a deep breath before saying, "This way, please." She turns, gesturing for them to follow, and starts walking toward the back of the room. The area closed off by the makeshift curtain.
"Doesn't take a genius to figure it out," Bailey says, he and Aethyta walking alongside Garrus. "I could tell by the looks on your faces you weren't expectin' to find survivors," he adds in an undertone. "And if you weren't here looking for survivors, only one thing you could be looking for."
It takes a moment for Garrus to hear, to understand what Bailey's saying, and when he does, when it finally clicks, the words and their meaning hit him with all the force of a sledgehammer. He stops short, and a sharp pain shoots up from his knee as he turns to face Bailey, but before the words have a chance to make it from his brain to his mouth, Doctor Michel is pulling the curtain — it's a bedsheet, he can see now — aside. There are three hospital beds, but only one of them is occupied.
Her face is a mottled patchwork of bruises and clotted blood and gauze covering the left side her neck. Her right arm is immobilized from the shoulder down to her fingertips. The other arm has a needle taped in place and there's a bag dripping clear fluid down a and tube into her. Her eyes are closed, but her chest is rising and falling. With breath. Spirits, she's breathing. She looks like hell. Hell, she looks like death. But she's breathing and she's there and she's alive.
And Garrus has absolutely no idea what to say. There are too many words, too many damn emotions all battling for dominance, but relief is the one that climbs to the top of the pile. The depths of his fear, of his worry, of his certainty he'd never see her again and definitely not like this — all of these things hit him ten times as hard when they're reflected in that relief.
"It's… how. I don't— how?" That's the only word he can manage, and Garrus can't make himself give a damn that there are other turians in the room who can hear what he's really saying. There's more he wants to know — has she woken? What's the extent of her injuries? What the hell happened? But he can't make those words form just yet.
"Reapers turned up on long-range scanners — once that happened, people started panicking. Any ship already in dock hauled out of there quick as it could. What I hear from Agent Vexius, half the refugees made it out, half of 'em got trampled in the rush off the docks. There're safe spots — defensible spots, shelters, panic rooms, whatever you wanna call 'em. Had 'em throughout the station. People I happened to be with at the time, we headed to Huerta from the embassy offices. Took as many as we could." Bailey looked at the people in the room. "Can't believe we only got this many."
"So there might be… other survivors?" asks Ashley.
Bailey shrugs, and with the gesture, he looks old. Old and tired. "Could be." He runs a hand over his close-cropped hair and lets out a weary sigh. "Anyway, people were still panicking by the time the arms were closed. By that point, Reapers were here, and the station started moving."
"To the Sol system," Tali adds.
"We picked up that much on comms," he says with a nod. "Closest I'd been to Earth in a while. Didn't figure it'd be under those circumstances. Didn't much matter; by that point we were up to our ears in husks and every other damn thing the bastards could throw at us."
"But the stairwell," interjects Vega. "You made it a kill-chute. Easily defensible — like you said."
"Easier to defend with Aethyta here, but yeah. We held our own. Few of the folks what came over from Meridian Marketplace brought weapons and ammo and that was a hell of a help, let me tell you."
Tali looks from the hospital bed and back to Bailey again. "How did Shepard fit into all this?"
"That part's sketchier," Aethyta says, coming to stand by Bailey's elbow. "We were down here tryin' to keep those bastards back. Not a whole lot of time for sight-seeing, if you know what I mean. Far as we could tell from the comm chatter, that Crucible thing? Probably could've seen it out our damn window, if we had any windows."
"And that's… where we think Shepard was," Garrus says slowly, nodding.
"Next damn thing we know," Aethyta says with a shrug, "the Citadel's shaking all to hell, power's going out, and those damn husks and banshees are dropping left and right."
"So you sealed up and hunkered down," Ash murmurs. Aethyta barks a laugh and nods.
"Ain't gonna lie; me and the Goddess don't really talk regularly, but I mighta had a few words with her at the time, too."
"Anyway," Bailey said, picking up the thread again, "no way to tell how long it lasted. This room's got seals, independent generators, oxygen masks — everything anyone might need if they're on a space station that's just gone to tell."
"Sounds like you had," Garrus says quietly. He looks again at Thena. Bailey catches the look and clears his throat.
"Once everything got quiet, a few of us suited up — comms were completely down, no way to tell what the hell was going on outside — and we saw…" he gestured to the ceiling and shook his head. "Well, I think you saw what we saw."
"The Keepers were already working on things by that point," adds Aetheta. "Creepy little bastards. So we're suited up and we're outside, and there's just debris and shit everywhere. Then Armando here sees a boot poking out from a pile of rubble." She turns and looks at Shepard, and an unreadable expression chases quickly across her face, far too quickly for Garrus to tell what it is, exactly. "And that boot was attached to Commander Shepard. Best we can figure, if the Crucible was docked up at this end of things, whenever she did… whatever the hell she did, and shit started breaking apart, she — and everything else — fell down around here. Artificial gravity hadn't failed yet, so she did actually… fall down. We think. Or gravity was out and she fell up—"
Garrus' stomach lurches and clenches hard; that scenario is one that's already too familiar for comfort.
"—Either way, she wound up in a debris pile here."
A heavy silence settles over them all as one question pulses hard in the back of Garrus' skull, like the beacon they disabled. In the end, though, it's Vega who asks it:
"How the hell did she survive that?"
Doctor Michel shifts her weight from foot to foot and bites down on her bottom lip, glancing against at Shepard. "I… don't know. Her injuries were commensurate with a fall, but she had no signs of internal bleeding, which is nothing short of—"
A damn miracle, Garrus thinks.
"So what are her injuries?" Garrus asks, but he knows — he knows if she survived a fall like that, if she survived any time at all before the Keepers restored the atmosphere, the credit goes to her cybernetic implants. And with this knowledge comes a wave of smugness, because he remembers the way Harbinger reminded Shepard she was part synthetic too; he remembers that implied threat — if she chose to destroy the Reapers, she would destroy herself, too.
"The equipment I have available right now is limited," Michel explained. "I have no idea the extent of any spinal or cerebral damage, or if there is any such damage. She has roused, but only briefly — never long enough for me to determine much. Scans would tell me more about ligament, muscle, or tissue damage, but…" she trailed off. "Even my omni-tool is… less than dependable right now. As it is, antibiotics are warding off infection, she is hydrated, and anti-inflammatory medication is keeping her… comfortable. I do not want to depend on painkillers until I know more about her state."
"You said she… roused," Garrus said quietly. "So, she's… she's woken up."
Doctor Michel nods. "Briefly. Only for seconds at a time, I'm afraid."
"So what the hell are we waiting for?" Vega asks. "Let's get this thing started, get these people moved!"
"Can Shepard be moved?" Tali asks suddenly. The question startles Garrus; he hadn't even thought of it before, but it's a good one. His mind had already jumped ahead with James' — get Shepard in the medbay, let Doc Chakwas run as many scans as she can, and then… and then…
Rendezvous point. Right. Medical attention, rendezvous point, debriefing from hell.
It's all worth it: Shepard's alive.
Doctor Michel looks at Shepard a moment, then up at him, and back at Tali. "Normally I would be hesitant to move any patient in her shape, but, as I said, my supplies are limited here. If there is an option to transfer her to a proper medical bay, moving her is the best option. But it must be done carefully."
"I think we can do it, Scars," Vega tells him, sidling up to his other side. "We get Esteban to park the shuttle closer to this place's front doors, then me, Boomstick, and a couple of these other guys can move the commander, bed and all, into the shuttle. Might take a few trips, but we can get all these folks on the Normandy."
He knows they're looking at him; this is his op, after all. "Yeah," he says, finally, nodding once. "Yeah. Let's do it."
The sooner they get the hell out of here, the better.
The undertaking's successful, but it's not without complications. The first, of course, is the shuttle — shuttle, singular. It's a lot of trips for one craft to make, and while Shepard goes on the first trip with Ash and Vega, every trip afterward the shuttle is loaded with as many people as it can comfortably carry. And through it all, Garrus stays behind, seeing the op to its end, making sure no one's left behind. He sends Tali back to the Normandy ahead of him, and the final trip carries Garrus, Commander Bailey, and Aethyta.
As the shuttle lifts off and pulls further and further away from the blackened hospital, Cortez glances over his shoulder at Garrus, hands never leaving the craft's controls. "You think there might be other survivors on other pieces of the Citadel?" he asks, and Cortez asks the question in a very general sort of way, inviting anyone to answer it.
It's Bailey who steps up to answer. "I think if we managed it, others could've."
Irritation flares to life again in Garrus' chest, at the Alliance who left them all for dead, who never looked for survivors, who recovered Anderson and the goddamn Illusive Man, and didn't stop to wonder whether mystery air-pockets on the wreckage was a glitch or a fluke or something more. He's not going to leave this system until he knows there aren't any more life signs stranded in some basement somewhere, waiting and damn hoping for a distress signal to be heard.
"Once we get back aboard the Normandy," he says, "let's see if we can figure out a way to pick out any more beacon signals. See what we can find."
He wonders a moment if the ship can spare the time and resources — the Normandy's as repaired as it's going to get for now, but it's nowhere near full-strength — but he decides to hell with it. Unless Adams and Joker can give damn good reasons why they can't look for survivors, then looking for survivors is exactly what they're going to do.
He doesn't want to have to tell Shepard otherwise when she wakes up.
Everybody knows Doctor Chakwas isn't a shrinking violet, but Garrus doesn't appreciate just what a ruthless, formidable force the woman is until she corners him in the mess hall, Tali and Ash flanking her.
"You haven't any more excuses, Garrus." The doctor's arms are folded tightly over her chest and she's glaring up at him with eyes like chips of green ice. Hell, that glare makes Serrice Ice Brandy seem warm in comparison. "Commander Shepard is not only aboard, she is safe, stable, and if I have anything to say about it, recovering. You assured me you would submit to surgery once our… operation at the Citadel was taken care of. It is."
He grimaces. "Doc…"
"You're walking worse on it every day, Garrus," Tali points out in that… way she has, that rational and reasonable way that makes him — anyone — feel like an ass for disagreeing with her. That I know you're not a bosh'tet so don't act like one way. Damn. Never figured her for a traitor.
"Can the Normandy afford that kind of power draw? I'll be fine until we reach Terra—"
"I have been reassured the ship will be fine. And now," Chakwas interrupts, "you're being insufferably foolish. You have no reason to be up and around like you've been since we left the Sol system. Put the ship in Lieutenant Commander Williams' hands; she'll see us to Terra Nova." She waits a beat, still glaring. "Or is your grand plan to retire a war hero and have the lifelong limp to prove it?"
His knee flares in pain, and he barely remembers to stop himself from reaching down and rubbing the joint. "No…"
"Then let me fix your bloody leg or you'll be walking with a cane the rest of your bloody stubborn life."
Heaving a sigh, he almost— almost manages another excuse to put off the procedure until they're safe at the rendezvous site. But then Ash has to put her two credits in, dark eyes steady and earnest.
"Skipper won't be happy to see you let yourself fall to crap while she was out of commission, Garrus. Don't figure you'd want to be the one to explain that to her when she wakes up."
Damn it. Damn it.
Chakwas' smile is too damn satisfied by half. "Report to medbay once Lieutenant Commander Williams has taken the ship."
"Hey Garrus," Ash says airily, as if the thought's just occurred to her. "How 'bout you head on down to medbay now? I've got the ship."
"Gotta hand it to you, Chakwas," Garrus says, shaking his head and pushing to his feet, readjusting the crutch beneath his arm and making his slow way to the medbay. "You know your way around a bloodless coup, that's for damn sure."
"Decades of practice, young man. Decades."
Garrus wakes up on his back, propped against pillows and feeling no pain.
This isn't the first, it won't be the last, and it's actually not one of the worst times this has happened; his face is still in one piece, after all. He blinks once, twice at the ceiling, then at his leg. The leg that doesn't quite feel like it's actually there, except for the fact that it is. He can see it. It's immobilized just about from hip to heel, but it's his leg. Still attached. Good.
Chakwas obviously knows her painkillers. Also good.
A few more blinks and then he looks to his right, finding a Tali-shaped blur of purple parked in a chair. Another blink sharpens his vision further and he sees that Tali's reading a datapad. Whatever she's reading, it's got her full attention, and so he peers past her to the bed on her other side. Shepard's bed. He squints, looking at Shepard's bed, then at Shepard. Her black hair is stark against the white pillow, like a streak of ink. She's lying on her side, watching him. He can see her blue eyes from here.
She's awake? She's awake. Garrus lifts his head, and attempting to sit up seems like a good idea to his drug-addled brain, right up until his definitely attached leg moves, immobilizer and all, and a bright burst of pain zings through the anesthetic haze. Either the movement or his hissed curse alerts Tali, and she sets the datapad aside with a clatter as she twists around in the chair and then pushes to her feet.
"Garrus?" She gets him settled back against the pillows and steadies his leg. What's left is a deep, muffled sort of ache. "Garrus, what in Keelah's name are you trying to—"
"She's awake?" And, hell, his mouth is dry. "When did she—" but Tali cuts off his words, pressing a cold cup into his hand.
"Drink," she tells him, and damned if it doesn't sound like an order. "Slowly."
It's a damn lot to process, but having cold water wash away the dryness helps. He sinks back against the pillows, spent. It's a bad day when sitting up kicks your ass like that.
"Woke up while you were out," Shepard tells him, her voice soft and husky with disuse. The bruises are fading to purple and yellow, the cuts are healing to dark red lines, and her hair is hanging lankly against the pillow — in short, she looks like hell, and she's still the most beautiful sight he's seen in longer than he can remember. She's obviously exhausted, but when she sends him one of her crooked grins, he's damned grateful and relieved and there is no way in hell he's losing her, not again, not ever. The war's over. Shepard's alive, awake, and smiling at him. Everything that had felt broken to hell before, now feels as if it might slowly start piecing back together again.
"I told Shepard that a certain stubborn bosh'tet wouldn't let Doctor Chakwas operate on his knee until he'd found her. I didn't name any names, of course."
"Of course," he says on a tired chuckle, taking another sip of the cold water.
"She didn't have to."
He shoots her a grin of his own, and damn these beds are too far away. He wants to touch her hand, her cheek; the urge to gather Shepard close, press his forehead to hers and just feel her breathe is overwhelming. He shrugs instead. It's all he can do at the moment. "I guess the words 'stubborn bosh'tet' gave it away, huh?"
"Something like that." Her eyes slide to Tali, who's still facing him, and the expression there is enough to tell him she wishes they were alone, too. There are things they both want to say, and thought Tali is… well, Tali, there are still some things best said in private.
"Say, uh, Tali?" He clears his throat, but before he can say anything, she shakes her head.
"Let me guess. You want me to shove your beds closer together and then make myself scarce so you two can—"
"Hey," he says, mildly insulted at what Tali's implying as he waves at his immobilized limb, "I've got a busted leg, here."
"Talk," she finishes, smugly. It's strange — really strange — to be making jokes under the circumstances. Especially when the circumstances involve Shepard looking so beat to hell. Feels like they should be more solemn about everything, but the tenor of the ship lately has strained "solemn" to damn near its breaking point. He'll take whatever this is, this… tentative levity — tentative, but not strained, at least — over what they've had since London.
"You set yourself up, Vakarian," Shepard tells him quietly, her voice soft and husky and sounding too thin and nothing like herself, but he's okay with that. She's carefully shifting and adjusting herself against her pillows; her arm is still immobile — something wrong with her shoulder, Doctor Chakwas explained to him — and as she moves her expression grows taut, like that of someone in pain.
"And speaking of stubborn bosh'tets," Tali mutters, moving the chair she'd been sitting in and turning to Shepard's bed, releasing one set of clamps and engaging another, until the bed shifts and lowers, no longer docked and anchored.
"Our esteemed commander, huh?"
Shepard shakes her head, rolling her eyes at Tali. "I wasn't being—"
"Refusing painkillers so you'd be awake by the time Garrus came out of surgery? Stubborn."
Shepard grimaces. "Kinda got tired of sleeping all the time, Tali."
"Hmph. You're still stubborn."
Once the beds are as close as they'll go — close enough for him to reach out and clasp Shepard's hand, which he does — Tali re-anchors both beds, then regards them both a long moment. For someone whose face is obscured, that little tilt of her head is emotive as hell.
"I… should probably go tell Doctor Chakwas Garrus is awake," she says, her tone light as she turns and leaves the medical bay.
It occurs to him that of all the ways he imagined this moment, the reality of it is so far off the map there might as well not be a map anymore. He sure as hell didn't expect to miss Shepard waking up — actually waking up and not just forcing her eyes open for a few blurry moments at a time before sliding back to sleep again — and in none of his scenarios was he laid up like this. And he doesn't have the first damn idea what the hell he's going to say.
"Shepard…" Not bad. Seems like a good start, far as these things go.
"The Mako got you good, huh?" she asks suddenly, her voice a little too tight, a little too high, a little too wrong and even if she doesn't have turian vocal patterns, he can hear so much in her voice, even without her fingers twitching tightly, desperately around his. "Tali told me Chakwas got her and Ash to corner you and—"
"Thena," he breaks in, and she sucks in a sudden, sharp breath. "Don't."
She closes her eyes and the breath she blows out sounds too much like a sob. "Sorry. I just— I don't…"
"Don't know what to say?"
Her broken laugh turns his heart over in his chest. "Yeah."
"Then let me start."
She inhales, shakily, then nods. "All right."
"Don't ever pull anything like that ever again. Not sure I could take it."
"I was pissed off, you know. That you took me out like that. Pissed off and scared to hell."
"I know." She's meeting his gaze steadily, and though she's obviously tired — for all the sleeping she's done, there are still shadows under her eyes — there's no regret or apology there. "I knew you'd be pissed, Garrus. It was my call to make, and I'm not sorry I made it. Doesn't mean I was happy about it, doesn't mean I didn't want you backing me up in there. And I know you'd've made the same call in my shoes." He scowls at that, but can't argue the point; she's right, damn her.
"I should've been there," he insists. "I should've had your damn six." He's not blaming her; he can't blame her — the Mako that sent him going ass over spurs, that gets all of his blame. Or the Reaper that sent the Mako flying his way in the first place.
She breathes another broken laugh and shakes her head. "Don't go digging up 'should haves,' Garrus. Once you start, it's impossible to stop." Then she pulls his hand to her mouth, kissing the flat of his palm before pressing it against her cheek, and he realizes this isn't what he wants to say to her at all. His throat tightens as she nuzzles his palm and he thinks about the things he'd rather be saying.
I love you. You scared me. Don't leave me behind again, damn it. Shepard and Vakarian means Shepard and Vakarian. It's over. You're here. You're mine— hell, I'm yours. We start fresh, we start new, right damn here.
"But never again," she whispers.
Another kiss against his palm. "You're stuck with me, Vakarian. We're not doing that ever again."
His heart's pounding so hard he's sure she can hear it. Yes. This— this is right. This is where they belong. A beginning, together. No Reapers, no Illusive Man, no galactic survival depending on their every move. Just them. Leave the galaxy-saving to the up-and-comers like Vega and Ash. "So… you're saying I should start looking into tropical islands."
"I do like a view."
"It'll be the best damn view you ever saw."
Shepard's Widow is gone. Wherever it is, it met the same fate as her Graal and her Paladin. But Garrus knows it's the Widow she really misses; her modded-to-perfection, cleaned-until-shining Black Widow V.
It's not easy to find one, but of all the feelers he's sent out through the Terra Nova installation, Cortez is the one who comes through first. He's also the one who helps Garrus set up the bottles in an empty field; he's a bit more mobile these days—thank spirits one of the turian ships had a set of crutches for him, and now if he hooks his spur on the damn things, it's his own fault—but setting up something of this scope is a little beyond him right now. He's not sure whether to mod the rifle for her or not; he knows how she likes it, but it's a very personal thing, modding someone else's gun. He also knows since getting the use of her right arm back, her dexterity in her dominant hand isn't what it used to be — he doesn't want to come off like he doesn't think she can mod her own gun, but he also knows how frustrated she gets when he motor skills aren't what they used to be — or where she thinks they ought to be.
In the end, he mods the gun. He wants her to be able to start shooting with it right away; if she wants to re-mod it, she will, later.
Cortez sends her out to meet him in the field. There's a gun case at his feet, and each and every one of the glass bottles he and Cortez set up (mostly Cortez) catches the light and splits it into arcs of color. It's a damn beautiful day for what he's got planned, too; the sky is cloudless and blue, and there's a breeze whipping through the grass that makes it seem to ripple. And Shepard's basking in it. She's wearing a plain white t-shirt and workout pants — straight from physical therapy with Chakwas, then. According to the doc's scans, Shepard's cybernetics are still functional. But even functioning cybernetic implants won't help atrophied muscles — especially cybernetics working at seventy percent instead of a hundred. Chakwas wonders if it's got something to do with Shepard being at ground-zero for that red energy wave that knocked the Normandy out of commission. The why doesn't matter so much. Shepard has work to do, and Shepard, being Shepard, is doing it.
Right now, she's beautiful. Her step is lighter than he ever remembers seeing it, and though her face is flushed with exertion — and probably frustration; he hates how slowly her right arm is recuperating — she's smiling at him.
Garrus Vakarian, you are one lucky son of a bitch, he thinks, taking in the view.
"Steve said you were looking for me," she says once she's a few meters away.
"Eh. Close enough," he replies, and nudges the case with one foot. She arches a dark eyebrow first at the gift, then at him.
"Presents? What's the occasion?"
He grins and keeps his voice light. It's harder to shrug on crutches, but he lifts one shoulder. "Didn't realize I needed a reason to do something nice."
Her lips twist into a smirk as she narrows her eyes in false suspicion. "Okay, so then what do you want?'
That's a short list these days. "I want you to open your damn gift."
"Fair enough." And she drops to the ground, fingers going to the clasps on the case. But before she opens the case, she peers up at him through the fall of her hair, blue eyes glinting. "Let me guess. It's a puppy."
Garrus can't help but laugh at that. He can hardly remember a time when the two of them weren't mired down with worry and fear over not just their lives, but the state of the whole damn galaxy. If Shepard smiles a little more, jokes a little more, he's going to be the last one to complain. "Do you want a puppy, Shepard?"
She considers this, and he realizes this may be the first time in her life she actually has the freedom to make a choice like that — to have a pet, or not. He doesn't think the hamster counts, for all that she's damned attached to the rodent. "You know, Garrus. I think I do."
"All right, then you get a puppy. But not today."
With a snap, she opens the case and in a split second the smirk is gone, replaced only by shock.
"Oh, my God, Garrus…"
"Better than a puppy?" he asks, watching as she ghosts reverent fingers over the weapon.
"You modded it? You modded it." A flare of panic runs through his chest right until he sees the brilliance of her smile. All right, so modding the gun was a good call.
"You don't have to keep it that way. I just figured…" The way she's absently flexing her right hand tells him she knows exactly what he figured.
"I know. It's perfect. Thank you."
"Well. I don't know about perfect. You'll have to shoot it first."
Her smile's enough to tell him that was exactly the right thing to say as she assembles the rifle. He notices, and it pains him a little to notice, that she fumbles some with the smaller parts, and though she doesn't do it in her usual record time, soon the gun is assembled, and she's standing, hefting its weight in her arms and bringing her eye to the scope.
"How is it?"
She shrugs one shoulder. "Fine. Better than fine. You? Kind of the best boyfriend ever right now."
"If you're worried about the recoil, I can—"
"Garrus." She looks up from the scope. "Quit worrying. It's perfect."
"Perfect, huh? So if you miss any of those bottles, it's your own damn fault, right?"
"I am not missing any of those bottles." She tilts her head at them. "That the last of Vega's mezcal?"
"You know, I got the bottles from Cortez. So…"
"Could be Vega's mezcal."
"You should probably destroy the evidence," he says, sagely.
She lifts the gun and puts her eye to the scope. "My thoughts exactly." And with that, she breathes in, aims, exhales, and squeezes the trigger. The bottle explodes with a satisfying noise.
"So? How are the mods?"
"Perfect." She shoots him another smile and then goes back to the scope, pulling the next target into view.
"So. I finally got word from my dad and my sister." He pauses, huffs a laugh. "Or I should say they finally got word from me. I was the one MIA this time. They were the ones worried."
"That's good — I know you were worried." Again, she breathes in deeply and out again, squeezing the trigger on the exhale. Another bottle shatters into splinters of glass. "Where are they?"
"They were staying on a temporary installment on Horizon— far, far away from Sanctuary," he adds when Shepard stiffens, her head jerking up to look at him, eyes sharp with alarm. "They're… trying to book passage to Palaven," he explains. "They want to see… what's left." He knows what the reports are saying is left, and it's not much. He also knows that's not going to stop his father.
"Can't really blame them for that," she says quietly. Her eye is to the scope, but despite this, Shepard seems far away just at that moment. "Lots of people wanting to get back to their homeworlds."
"Yeah, well. They can't get direct passage to Palaven. Everything stops in Terra Nova right now."
There's a tiny hesitation in Shepard's movements, but she recovers. "Oh. So you'll… get to see them." She lifts the gun again, inhales, aims, exhales, and shoots. Another bottle, gone. "That's good." There's that note in her voice again, and it's followed by a blatant, graceless attempt at changing the subject. "Say, how's your sister's leg?"
"Healing, but she's pissed about being hurt to begin with. Hell, she's worse than I am at being out of commission." He looks down at his leg. "Haven't had a chance to trade injury stories yet. No idea how she got hurt, but I did get hit with a tank — figure I'll win that one?"
"Sibling one-upmanship, huh?" She smiles, but there's something… off about it, something distant, something still raw. "I understand, Garrus. You want to spend some time with your family." She shrugs again and lines up another shot. "It's okay. I want you to, too."
Her shoulders and her back are tense, and he knows — he knows it's got nothing to do with the gun, or atrophied muscles, or anything like that. She's not looking at him — of course, if she's not looking at him, she can't see the way he narrows his eyes at her, seeing through every damn last one of her defenses. She's too tense by half, but she lines up another shot and blows the next bottle apart.
"Not sure you do understand, Thena." He draws out her name slowly, arching a browplate at her as he watches her line up the shot again. Eye to the scope. Inhale. Aim. Exhale… He clears his throat, hides his grin. "See, thing is, Dad's really looking forward to meeting you. We all figure it's high time you met the family."
The gun goes off, but the bottle doesn't explode. The huge tree far to their right, ten, maybe fifteen meters away, on the other hand, shakes like hell when the bullet slams unforgivingly into the trunk. A few leaves are shaken free, dropping in tiny, controlled spirals to the ground.
This time he doesn't bother trying to hide the grin. "Forgot to breathe, sweetheart."