Rating: T. Contains limited canon-typical gore/violence and language.
Beta: As always, many thanks to anonymous_moose.
A/N: Summary quote attributed to José Narosky. Written for a prompt, see end notes.
"Sometimes it seems like the Alliance runs on paperwork." The whiskey is warm on the way down and her vision blurs as she looks at her empty glass. "None of the forms tell you how to get the blood out from under your nails."
Late winter in Vancouver is every bit as damp and cold and miserable as Shepard remembers, and the weather isn't helping her mood. It hasn't stopped raining in a month and this morning is no exception; it's forecast to become a downpour by mid-morning.
She pulls up her hood, then jams her hands into the pocket of her sweatshirt. After being grounded so long, if she never has to return to Alliance headquarters, it'll be too soon.
The streetlights buzz above her, the one directly overhead flickering on and off as she starts stretching out. She could run on one of the treadmills in the gym under HQ, but with the rain, there would be too many people there. Too many grins and handshakes and thank-yous she doesn't deserve.
She wonders how they'd react if they knew all the mistakes she's made.
Hackett's been giving her regular status reports on the Normandy, Liara slips her info that the Council is reviewing her evals, and they all keep saying it will be soon. They've been telling her soon for the last month and it's straining her patience.
She's not the only one who's having problems with the inactivity. Garrus has been on edge lately, too. Not his planet, not his people, and now with key relays repaired, she's the only thing holding him here.
The argument they'd had before she left their quarters had been stupid; even as they were shouting at each other, she knew it was stupid. Didn't stop her from acting like an idiot, smacking the control panel on her way out, slamming the door closed behind her.
It's not the first time it's occurred to her that he might be better off without her. Maybe he's starting to think the same thing.
She sighs, straightening from her stretch. She stands there, blinking away the rain, staring at the rows of ugly grey prefab buildings, squatting in the the rain.
She needs to go back. Apologize. Get out of these damp clothes. Probably end up in the shower with him. Or the couch. Or maybe they'd even make it to the bed this time. It's how they've come to solve a fair number of their disagreements. It's so much easier to fuck than it is to talk.
Her hands knot inside the sweatshirt, hard enough that her fingers ache.
"Goddamn it, Garrus," she says, wiping her face with her sleeve. Then she turns away, puts her ear buds in, and cranks the playlist Liara sent her.
She can't deal with lying to him right now. And it is lying, because she keeps feeding him the same line about the rain and the cold and the people when she sure as hell knows it isn't any of those things.
So she runs.
The route she usually takes is a straight out-and-back to the firing range; four miles. Today, she decides on a wider loop, through the rest of the temporary housing, past the commissary and then the grandstands of the parade fields.
It takes her a solid mile to warm up, before she starts to feel loose and can fall into her normal rhythm. Then she picks up her pace and tries in earnest to forget the reason she's out here; hard to think when her heart is hammering in her chest and every breath is torn from her lungs. Her feet strike the pavement and the music blasts in her ears and she runs.
It doesn't take long and she's sweating despite the temperature and the rain. It's coming down faster now, icy needles that soak her clothes and sting her face. Other than wiping her eyes occasionally, she ignores it.
The path turns at the security checkpoint for the tech buildings. She has the right clearances. If she wanted, she could make her way into the labs and talk to the engineers about the lack of progress on restoring the Normandy's AI. Her status means she could review the reports again on exactly what the Crucible—what she—had done to EDI.
She turns again when she reaches the planet-side dry dock gates, noting the sentry standing watch. A year after the war the Alliance has decided some of the ships are beyond repair. The Ain Jalut and the Leipzig are closest to the fence, carbon-darkened hulls listing into the muddy field.
She's almost sprinting as she puts the dry dock behind her. The music blots out the sound of rain and gasping for the next breath narrows her world to a single thought. Cybernetics or not, she'll only be able to push this hard for so long.
By the time she reaches the shipyard, the forecast heavy rain has arrived early. She lets her strides shorten into a slow jog and then a walk, heading for the viewing platform that overlooks the lower hangars.
No matter the route she takes, she always ends up here.
It's not something she's ever kept secret. So she isn't really surprised when she climbs the second set of stairs and finds Garrus standing under the platform's awning.
He's half-turned away, leaning against the railing with his arms crossed over his chest as he stares at the Normandy. He looks tired, mandibles pressed against his jaw, eyes narrow on the ship. She's never really gotten used to seeing him in civvies day in and day out. Another reminder that this isn't where he belongs.
She reaches under her hood, slowly taking the earbuds out. The rain drumming on the awning replaces asari pop.
He turns towards her, uncrossing his arms and meets her eyes with the same unwavering steadiness that she's come to rely on. The difference now is he's completely worn out. She's fought beside him through countless firefights, against the worst of odds, and never seen fatigue like this in him.
Maybe she lets too much worry show because he shakes his head and raises a hand toward her face, brushing the backs of his talons along her jaw. When he cups her cheek, his hand is warm and solid, and her throat aches a little, because she's going to tell him the same lie she's told a dozen times.
His mandibles tighten a bit more and he lets his hand drop.
"Let's get out of the cold," he says.
She doesn't argue about letting him drive. Doesn't say a word as she takes the passenger seat. The ride to their quarters is silent, the steady rain on the windshield almost overwhelming the wipers. She's soaked through and cools off too quickly, trying not to shiver as she watches grey buildings slide by her window.
When the door to the prefab apartment closes behind Garrus, she turns and looks at him. He's standing just inside the entrance, face set in that same tired expression that says the last thing he wants to do is argue.
The cold and her run have knocked the fight out of her, too. She's not going to try to apologize again. "Thank you. For coming to get me."
"Welcome." He looks at the wet prints they've left on the floor. "It never stops raining here, does it."
She snorts at the humorless comment, shivering again, and he sighs, stepping forward to touch her hand. He frowns at the contact, slowly reaching up to push her hood off, watching as it slides from her hair.
"You're cold," he says, tips of his fingers on her temple, trailing warm lines to rest under her jawline, one on the pulse of her throat. "Should have said something. Would have turned on the heat."
"I'm fine," she tells him, swallowing when his thumb brushes the curve below her lower lip. "Just—" she picks at the hem of her sweatshirt, pulling it from her stomach, "need a shower and dry clothes."
"Right." He's still concerned, but there's an undercurrent to his subvocals she recognizes. She thinks he's going to kiss her, but he only steps back, letting her go. "I'll be here when you get out."
She doesn't look back on her way to the bathroom, peeling out of her sweats, turning the water up as hot as she can stand. She half-expects him to tap on the door, slip into the shower with her. It's happened often enough in the past.
Sorry, she'll tell him, and he'll echo it, before he presses her against the tiled wall, kissing her hard. There won't be anything gentle in the way he winds his talons in her hair, or the way she grips his cowl and waist. She knows ways to make him growl; he can reduce her to crying his name to a god she doesn't believe in.
It's so much easier to fuck than it is to talk.
She bows her head under the water, letting the heat bleed through her scalp, down her back. She wonders if she'll ever be warm again.
Shepard takes her time as she works her way up to the third floor of the shelled-out apartment building, stopping to make sure a damaged tread isn't going to fall out from under her. No way she's getting injured climbing a set of stairs, not after waiting so long to get back out here.
There's not much chatter over the comms, Vega and the rest of her team know their jobs. She pauses on the third floor to check her omni-tool, smiling before she wipes the sweat from her eyes. Despite the fact they could have solved this situation much more quickly with the Normandy's cannons, she can't stop smiling.
The schematics on her omni-tool tell her she's almost there, and she makes a left into a short hallway, then another to climb over a collapsed wall into what was once a living room. Across the room, the exterior balcony doors are long gone. A charred frame is all that's left, and the railing is pulled up and twisted in an arch over the landing.
She drops down and slides under the railing, getting comfortable as she assesses her position. It's better than she'd hoped. She has a clear vantage of where the slavers have entrenched themselves and will be able to monitor the operation without losing sight of her team on the street below.
She watches them for a moment, Vega's keeping an eye on the young marines, providing occasional wise-cracks to go with his direction.
It's all coming together like clockwork and she can almost pretend the war and the choices she made and the long months afterwards in Vancouver never happened.
She reaches behind her, pulling her rifle from its magnetic holds, unfolding it with practiced motions. A bead of sweat runs down her nose, dripping onto the stock. Saying it's hot at this latitude would be an understatement, but but she's not going to complain.
The entire left flank of their approach is blocked by a collapsed office building, the structure jumbled together in a heap of broken glass and composite panels. She scans it, finding what she's looking for at her nine o'clock, a spot of blue set against dull grey.
Garrus is using an upended panel as cover, leaned against it almost casually, waiting for Vega's team to get into position. He must have the optics on his visor maxed because when she focuses on his face, he grins and the private comm link between them clicks open.
"Thought you said you were taking me somewhere nice," he says. If he's not purposefully laying on the subvocals, she'll eat her rifle.
"There's nowhere you'd rather be and you know it."
Vega signals from the middle of the street. He and the marines are almost ready.
This draws Garrus' attention for a moment, but then he looks back and his smile widens, voice dropping a little lower and rougher still. "Oh. I don't know. This morning... I liked being there."
Then the smug bastard winks at her.
The flush of warmth that floods her cheeks has nothing to do with the sun. "Time and place, Vakarian. Time and place. Keep your head down."
The slavers open fire and Garrus gives a short wave as he hunkers down; all she can see of him as he sets up is the glow from his visor.
There are a few more bursts of gunfire that kick up dust in the middle of the street, the mercenaries targeting Vega and his squad. Listening in on the comms, she chuckles as he shouts at one of them. A few seconds later, he explains more quietly how she'd exposed herself to potential enemy snipers. Shepard can almost picture him clapping her on the shoulder. He makes a good teacher, but that doesn't surprise her.
"We're good to go, Lola," he says over the general channel.
"You heard him, people," she says. "Be smart and take your time. I want everyone coming home in one piece."
At Vega's command, the marines open fire, the uneven chatter of machine guns filling the street. Jack hadn't exaggerated about the biotics she'd recommended; one of them flings a shock wave into the blockade and blows a merc into the open; machine guns rip his shields and armor apart as he pinwheels through the air.
Shepard watches this repeat twice before some of the enemy troops attempt to run. What they don't know is she and Garrus are covering their only escape route. And they're both a little short on mercy today.
The butt of her rifle is solid and familiar against her shoulder, composite stock rough on her cheek as she targets an asari in mismatched armor. The asari is half-hidden by the remains of a skycar, but then she pivots from cover, sending a weak biotic pulse towards Vega.
Shepard breaths out, crosshairs settling on center mass. Sweat stings her eyes, but she barely notices as she tightens her index finger. She knows the shot will find its mark even before the asari crumples.
Garrus is on the comms again. "Feels good, doesn't it?"
One of the marines lifts a merc into the air. Vega's assault rifle fires. The salarian's dead before he slams to the ground.
"Damn good," she answers, finding her next target. This time it's a human. Male.
"Heads up! We got incoming!" Vega shouts.
Smoke canisters hit the buckled concrete, hissing as they discharge plumes of white, obscuring the battlefield. Rounds zing through the haze and Shepard frowns, flipping to biometrics on the scope. It's an improvement, but not by much.
"There," she mutters under her breath, finally getting a heat reading. "Vega, you've got movement on your two. Watch your ass."
"Don't see anything," he calls out. "Visibility's shit."
"Got him," she says, making out the lines of armor. Another salarian trying to get in close. She leads him, adds pressure to the trigger, and the rifle kicks back against her shoulder.
The round goes low, catching the salarian in the hip, spinning him to his knees, and she curses.
But if her team is working like the past months never happened, it's like she and Garrus didn't miss a beat, either. His Widow cracks a split-second later and the trooper's head disappears. No question she's going to hear about it later and that's just like old times, too.
"Scoped and dropped!" he laughs.
"Nice shot. You can watch my back anytime," she says. So it comes out like bad pick-up line. Can't really help it, not feeling like this.
There's the whump-whump-whump of a series of rocket-propelled grenades launching and she ducks, shielding her head with an arm. One of them strikes the building, two floors up, and the balcony shakes. Rock chips and dirt rain down, bouncing off her armor, but before the dust has settled, she's knocking the spent clip out of her rifle and pressing the next in.
"You okay up there, Lola?"
"Yeah." She coughs, dropping another enemy soldier. Slugs strike the concrete wall above her head, showering her with another round of debris. "Vakarian? You still with us?"
She sights in on a trooper and this time she doesn't miss, her bullet shredding his shields and burying itself into his chest. Seconds tick by without an answer.
"Mr. Vega?" she says, voice even. She takes out another merc with a precise head shot. "Find out why Garrus isn't answering his comms."
"We're on it."
He orders three of the marines to follow, and Shepard tracks their progress as they start across the street. It takes effort to pull her focus back to the fight. She spots an asari running between positions, exhales, and puts the woman down with a carefully timed shot.
Her fingers shake a little with the next thermal clip, but she doesn't fumble it as she slips it into the chamber.
And then she hears Vega.
"Shepard, you need to get over here," he says. Too serious. Worried.
Shepard, instead of Lola, and Garrus still hasn't said a word.
"James?" She's already crawling backward, moving too fast, getting hung up on a handrail. She curses, twisting to the side until the metal gives. "What the hell's going on?"
"Vakarian—" he breaks off to shout at one of the marines. "No! Look, pendejo, his armor's jacked. Gotta apply the medi-gel yourself. You, keep your fuckin' eyes downrange. And you—Miller? Help me with this while I get Chakwas on the line."
She starts to run. The stairs will take too long; she heads for the side of the building where the exterior wall collapsed under shelling, not bothering to keep her head down, activating her tactical cloak.
"Vega, you'd better start talking to me!"
"He caught some shrapnel."
They've all taken hits in the past, but the way he says it tells her that this is different.
She reaches the sheared-off edge of the building and doesn't hesitate to jump to the mountain of concrete and steel left from the collapse. She lands hard, the force of impact sending her to her knees. She scrambles to her feet, half-sliding, half-falling down the heap of debris. A broken piece of rebar catches her waist, but she barely feels where the jagged steel slips between ceramic plates, tearing through ballistic cloth and into her skin.
Then she's running again, and all she hears is the roar of blood in her ears and Vega shouting for more stims.
The signal in the shower beeps at Shepard, letting her know she's hit her limit for resource use. Before, she might have used her override privileges, or at least muttered a few fitting quarian curses at it. Now she only grins as she turns off the water.
"God, I've missed this ship," she says toward the closed door. She deactivates the static curtain and grabs a towel from the rack, noticing that the Alliance-grey towels haven't changed either. They're coarse and scratchy and still smell like a mixture of chemical cleanser and long-term storage.
"What?" Garrus' voice is muffled. He was using her terminal when she went into the bathroom, a flick of his mandibles his only answer to her offer. There might have been a comment about the size of the shower and her taking up more than her share of the water.
"I missed—" she wraps the towel around herself and slides the door open, "—my ship."
"So you've mentioned," he says, tapping the keyboard. He sounds distracted and Shepard moves to read over his shoulder. Pictures of destroyed buildings and landscape that could have been taken on Earth, except it's turians rebuilding.
"Palaven?" she asks. He's back in armor, familiar blue accented with gold, but she can still rest her hand in the warm space between his cowl and neck.
"Yeah." He tilts his head and presses his cheek briefly against her hand, then zooms in on a coastline. "The silent houses haven't been rebuilt, but the Reapers couldn't take out an entire ocean."
She nods, crease forming on her forehead. "I didn't expect to get hit with orders on our way. Especially ones command won't let me solve with a Thanix cannon. Sorry we can't get you there any faster."
"Shepard. I could have taken a place on the Undaunted. Been back to Palaven months ago." He looks up at her, eyes blue and direct. "I'm exactly where I belong."
She blinks, hard and fast, and clears her throat. After Vancouver, she wouldn't blame him for rethinking this, reconsidering them.
"I'm glad," she finally says. "If you're sure you're okay with this."
"Definitely," he says, flaring his mandibles. "How about you? You don't have to go with me."
"I think I do," she says, running a hand over her wet hair, looking at the terminal screen. "Maybe. I don't know. Maybe I'm just worried I'll screw something up."
"Hey," he says, catching her hand, threading his talons through her fingers. "You've gone through a krogan rite of passage, battlemaster."
Her laugh comes out as a snort. "Uh-huh. Difference is, I'm good at blowing up thresher maws. Had a bit of practice. Solemn turian ceremonies, not as much."
"I have no doubts," he tugs on her hand, gently, "that you'll be fine. I'll be right there and there are attendants who will answer any questions. With the unrest, they're armed. So, don't let that put you off."
"Comforting." She lets him pull her forward, until her legs bump his. "Is this a variation on your 'we'll get through this together' speech?"
"Well, we always do. Don't we?"
She bends down and kisses him, the lines of his mouth hard against hers. His hand tightens around hers and she squeezes back.
"Yeah. I guess we do," she says, before kissing him again.
He makes a rumbling purr of sound that she answers by gently nipping his upper mouthplate. He rests a hand on her waist and she's half-tempted to slide her hand around his fringe and dig her nails into the softer hide there. Instead she breaks the kiss off and presses her forehead to his.
He huffs out a short laugh. "Should have taken you up on that shower."
"Mhm. Should have." She kisses the top of his head and then lets go of his hand. "I need to get dressed. Expecting a vid call from Jack."
"Briefing about those marines we're picking up?"
"Yeah." She walks down the stairs, pulls open a drawer. At least she doesn't have to put on her dress blues for this. "She says they're some of the strongest biotics the academy is turning out right now, wants to put the best of them under stress, weed out the ones that aren't combat material."
"You letting Vega keep an eye on them?"
She hears him turn in the chair, and the ping of the terminal as he logs out. His armor creaks as he crosses the room.
"Think so," she says, rifling through the drawer. She's sure she packed extra padded socks. "Call me selfish, but the first time out, I want to do more than babysit."
"Can't blame you." He leans against the aquarium, head tilted to one side, smiling a little. "Check your duffel, bottom of the closet."
She opens the closet, kneeling down to dig through the duffel, only to find a small plastic case on top of her socks. She knows by touch that it's the case for a scope mod.
"Sneaky," she says, releasing the catch on the case, pushing the lid up. And stops. Not just any scope mod. "How'd you get this?"
"Called in some favors."
"Uh-huh." She glances at him, then runs her finger over the Rosenkov emblem. "This is a RM-88 prototype. Advanced biometric sensors, distortion dampeners... big favors."
"Not really," he shrugs.
"Just when I think I couldn't love you more—" She clicks the case closed, staring at the lid. It's not something they've said, words that haven't felt right after that final push to the beam.
"I do, you know," she says, turning the case in her hands. "I know I don't say it. But I do."
Silence stretches out, filled only by the far-off hum of the engine and the hiss of air from the vents. His armor creaks again. "Shepard..."
She turns the case in her hands again, sets it down next to her duffel. Finally looks up at him.
His expression too much like that day in the rain. Serious and so, so tired. He straightens from the aquarium, stepping forward to holding out his hand.
She lets him help her to her feet and he surprises her again, pulling her close and wrapping his arms around her as though he's anchoring himself. His armor is hard against her cheek and his breathing is uneven.
She'd ask if he is okay, but it's a pointless question. People like them, they carry things that can never really be okay. There's coping and surviving and the day to day struggle to pretend to be who they once were.
"I know—" He sighs. "I know Vancouver was... hard. But back in London..." Another long pause. "I meant what I said. Retirement. Kids."
She closes her eyes because right now that sounds too close to okay.
"Shepard," he mutters into her hair, "I love you."