The smooth shape of the last stone fits perfectly in her hand, the sharp edges worn away by time. She squeezes, until the force of it bruises her palm. "I am so sorry."
When she turns off the water, she can hear the rain, still falling steadily outside. He's right. It never stops.
She doesn't bother with anything other than clean sweats. They're faded and worn, and the top has a hole in the sleeve where she burned it on a soldering iron. At this point, all she cares about is they're warm and comfortable. She thinks about looking for her slippers, gives up after one glance at her messy closet.
Garrus is sitting to one end of the couch when she walks into the living area. There are shot glasses and two bottles on the low table in front of him. The glass nearest him has a generous amount of pale green cervisia in it. He lifts it, eyes meeting hers as he gives a small salute with the glass and knocks back the shot. From the tension in his expression, she'd guess this is only his second.
She looks at him, thinks of making a smart-ass remark about how early it is, but instead crosses the room and sits down beside him. The floor is cold and she pulls her feet up under herself.
Neither of them say anything when he fills the extra glass with whiskey and pushes it toward her.
The first shot always burns. The rest will come easier. She sets the glass back down, uses her index finger to slide it back to him.
He refills it without comment, waiting until she empties it.
"Now we're caught up," he says. The next round he pours almost over-fills her glass; a bead of whiskey rolls down the side and wicks under the bottom rim. Any other day, she'd tell him to go easy. Now she's wishing he'd gone straight to the water tumblers.
She lifts her drink and it leaves a whiskey ring behind on the table top. She downs the drink easily, reaches for the bottle, and refills her own glass. In response to his raised browplates, she says, "Cerberus augmented liver. Now we're caught up."
This earns a dry laugh and a smile that fades all too quickly. He stares at the ring on the table, unblinking until the heating unit kicks on again.
"We need to talk," she says, then waves a hand at the table. "I guess you know that."
"I do." He looks up. "But we keep having the same conversation."
She can't deny it. Not when she's fed him the same lie over and over. So, she finds herself telling him the truth.
"It's not about the cold. It's not the people, not really. It's not the rain." She wraps her arm around her knees. "And I know I'm making you miserable."
He picks up his glass, with obvious care. He doesn't drink the entire shot this time, holding it up and tipping it so the remaining green liquid catches the light.
"I know it's none of those things, also damned sure I've done my share of making your life hell," he says. "You're not the only one with burdens."
The heat clicks off, fan in the ventilation shaft whirring to a stop, but the whiskey is doing its job and other than the quiet, Shepard doesn't notice.
"I thought that business with Sidonis..." she trails off. "You never mentioned it again."
"You never asked."
Though there's no malice behind the words and they're simply a statement of fact, the truth of it hurts. She starts to reply, and he shakes his head to stop her.
"I dealt with that. And you're behind." He pointedly finishes his cervisia. "This isn't about Sidonis."
Sometimes drinking and listening are the only available options. Even the best option. She drains her glass and says nothing, waiting for him to continue.
"Can I ask you something, Shepard?" he says. "Those files the Shadow Broker had on me." He snags her bottle, pours for her. "Beyond telling me you saw them, you never said a word."
"They weren't meant for me. I figured you'd ask if you needed help." She meets his eyes, drinks, and sets the glass down harder than she intends. "And that isn't a question."
"Fair enough," he says. "Did you ever wonder what kind of son doesn't go see his terminally ill mother once in two years?"
Another thing she hadn't known.
"I—You were doing good work on Omega."
"That's what I told myself." He picks up the cervisia bottle, pausing before he refills his glass. "As close as I can figure, while I was leading that second team on the Collector base, she was in the middle of a full cardiac arrest. Never came out of it."
She closes her eyes, takes a deep breath, opens them again. "Why didn't you tell me?"
"Why haven't you told me what's eating at you?"
Her head is buzzing a little. She remembers she hasn't eaten today. Cerberus upgrades or not, she's getting drunk fast. She picks up her whisky, staring at the circle the glass leaves behind on the table.
"Fair enough," she says. "There were costs during the war that I can accept as out of my control. Mordin. Thane. Anderson. But there are some I can't." She touches the edge of the ring of whiskey with her fingertip, dragging away a line. She takes a drink and then says, "Kaidan."
Garrus starts to interject and this time it's her turn to cut him off with a shake of her head.
"I should have talked him down."
"You don't know—"
"The geth." She draws another line, and then one more. Tally marks. "EDI.
"I made too many mistakes, Garrus." Another mark. "Those mistakes led to what happened to the quarians." One last line. "And Tali."
At the final name, Garrus' jaw tightens, mandibles flat to his face. He'd been there, of course. Garrus always had her six.
"Tali made that choice. Not you."
"That's what I tell myself," she says, repeating his words. "And people certainly don't care. I fill out my reports and tell Command what I've done and they congratulate me. For fuck's sake, Garrus, they're naming schools after me."
Her eyes start to burn and she wipes them. "Damn it."
Somehow he knows not to offer her platitudes. Instead he half-stands, moving to sit next to her.
"The brass keeps sending me to therapists. They keep wanting to talk. Talking doesn't help. Wish I could figure out something that did."
He wraps an arm around her shoulders. "They wanted to talk to me, too. Told them turians don't see the point. We have a ceremony to remember the fallen. Sometimes it helps."
She leans sideways, head on his cowl. She understands guilt. "You couldn't do it, though, could you? For your mom?"
"No. Couldn't work up the nerve." He clears his throat. "My dad and Solona went, but I couldn't. Now—now I need to."
"I could get you a spot out to Palaven tomorrow."
"Wouldn't be on the Normandy." He tilts his head to rest on hers. "Wouldn't be with you."
"They keep telling me soon," she says.
He's quiet for a long while. The heat cycles back on and then off again before he says anything, and then it's simply: "You could go with me."
The air is thick and hot, smoke burns her lungs as she activates her cloak again and breaks from cover. It's a long ten seconds through a maze of charred skycars and transports, between broken pieces of architecture and hasty barricades the city had put up when the Reapers came.
She's still thinking clearly enough to shout orders as she runs. "Joker! You there?"
"Shepard. What the shit, Vega patched an emergency override to the med-bay, the comms are going—"
"Garrus is down. If Chakwas hasn't ordered it, get the fucking shuttle in the air. Full med support."
"Shit. Shit," he says. "ETA three minutes. Best we can do. And that LZ is too hot, you need to do something about it."
Her cloak times out and shots clip the pavement behind her. She jerks to the side, behind a skycar, waiting for the cloak to reset. She can hear Vega's one-sided conversation with Chakwas and knows she's close to Garrus' position.
She leans her head back against the car's frame and comes to a decision. Command can get fucked. "Joker. You got a firing solution on these assholes?"
"Just give the word."
"Nothing left, you understand? Just a smoking hole."
She doesn't wait to listen to his answer; her cloak has reset and as it crackles to life around her, she makes the final dash.
One of the marines is standing watch behind the concrete slab, and jerks his rifle towards her when she turns the cloak off.
"Stand down, corporal," she tells him. His face is an off shade of white and she pushes by him without another word.
Of all the things she could have expected, all the things she's been trying not to imagine, this is worse.
There's a smudge of blue on the slab, three-fingered hand print, and another smear where a body slid down its face. At the end of the smear, Garrus lays in the dirt and rock, one leg folded under his body, his arm stretched limply in the dust. His eyes are closed, head tilted back, mandibles slack.
And there's so much blue. Staining the dirt, spattered on the rocks, covering Vega's hands and uniform and a pressure bandage that was once white.
Vega's on the far side of him, Miller closest, with the younger marine holding up a bag of IV fluids in one hand and the other pressing the bandage against Garrus' chest. His chestplate is off, and what underarmor Shepard can see is saturated to the point that it's black.
Vega looks up and his eyes meet hers and Shepard feels her entire body go numb and cold. "No," she tells him, taking a halting step forward.
He doesn't say anything, only nods at orders from the ship, pulls out an auto-injector, and jams it into a port in the IV line. When the stims hit his system, Garrus gasps. His mandibles flex and he makes a wet, choking noise and Shepard takes two more steps and goes to her knees beside him.
She grabs his hand and he turns his head, blinking at her.
"Shepard." He chokes again, breathing in raggedly. "Wait a bit—"
"Middle of a firefight, I know." She pulls his glove off, pressing his hand to her cheek. He's so very cold. There's a trail of blue leaking from the corner of his mouth and his breathing rattles.
"Ma'am," Miller says, holding out the IV set. "Need two hands for this."
She takes it and then Vega nods at the marine and when Miller pulls up the pad, Garrus' eyes flutter, grip relaxing as though he's losing consciousness.
"Vakarian! Stay with me," she says, as Vega squeezes out another pack of medi-gel. The wound runs from abdomen halfway up his sternum, and the medi-gel isn't slowing the bleeding enough. "I can make that an order, if I have to."
The marine replaces the pad and after another strained breath Garrus tightens his grip and opens his eyes again.
"Hurts. Spirits, Shepard. It hurts."
She looks up at Vega, but he shakes his head. Can't hit him with narcotics, not on top of the stims.
"I know it does, but we can't give you anything yet," she says. "Shuttle will be here in two minutes. I need you to hold on, okay?"
"Should have," he tries for a grin, "learned to duck."
"Didn't need new scars to impress me."
In her peripheral vision, Vega's pressing a yellow injector into the port, and there's still no sign of the shuttle and Shepard has never felt so absolutely helpless.
Garrus coughs, the sound thready and weak. "Hey. It's okay. Remember, what I said? London?"
She feels her chest constrict. "Retirement—"
"Not... no." He seems to relax, drift for a minute, then his eyes open and he focuses on her with a sniper's intensity. In that moment, his eyes and voice are shockingly clear. "I'm buying the first round, Shepard. When you catch up to me."
"Garrus. No. God, no. Don't—"
He takes a rattling breath and then his grip on her hand loosens and his eyes close again and the next breath doesn't come.
Vega loads yet another injector and the Normandy screams in overhead and she doesn't flinch at the sound of the main guns turning a city block to ash.
She steps from the shuttle, into the wind, and the radiation monitor in her omni-tool pings softly. She won't be here long enough to turn on the filters in her armor.
Palaven was brutalized in the war. Little was spared, including the buildings near this rocky coastline, where nothing but scrub grass and the occasional stunted tree ever grew. All that's left behind is a line of black, washed clean to the high-tide line, and a well-worn trail to the sea.
There aren't many people here, gathering their stones, making the long walk to where the houses once stood. The loss was too great. There are few left to mourn.
She starts down the trail, winding her way between boulders. It's winter here, or what passes for it. A storm is brewing on the horizon, orange clouds rolling over one another. She'll be gone before that hits, too. She's seen enough rain to last the rest of her life.
The stone beach sits in a cove, a long arc of smooth grey rocks that turn silver when the water washes over them. They shift with the waves, rolling against each other and making a sound like bones. Shepard stops at the end of the trail, where an armed attendant stands. His plates are worn and peeling, as though he's spent his life in this place, as weathered by the sea as the shore itself.
He recognizes her, of course, and nods politely, but says nothing, as she steps out onto the beach.
A thousand times, Garrus told her. Scholars thought that each stones had made the long journey—shore to river to ocean—no less than a thousand times. It was a ritual from in their past, to remember and forget and make some sense of the senseless.
The wind howls off the water and Shepard lowers her head and walks, understanding now why the turians would have called the buildings near the memorial sites 'silent houses.' Practical as always: they weren't holy buildings, but literally a place to escape the wind.
Most of the figures she passes are turian, but an asari looks up as she walks by, blue eyes blood-shot and puffy, one hand clutched to her chest, fingers around a stone.
The stones furthest from the ocean are the only ones that are suitable, and Shepard trudges away from the water, toward another attendant.
He stays silent as well, only tips his head toward the lightest-colored section of stones. She'd wonder at this lack of conversation, but that's practical as well. The grieving wouldn't want to shout over the wind.
It takes longer than it should, to pick up the stones. They're heavier in her hands than they have a right to be. Smooth and unseamed, worn featureless. And then she starts walking again.
Another path leads away from the shore, at a tangent toward a slow-moving river that feeds into the cove. There were shuttles, Garrus explained, for the elderly or infirm, but most tried to walk if they could.
It's two miles, and after the first half, she understands the reason for walking, because as she follows the course of the river, all she can think about is the small rocks and who each represents. The wind whips her hair into her eyes and she blames that for the stinging in her eyes.
Two miles is usually only warm up, but by the time she reaches the floating bridge, she's worn out. A third turian, armed and stoic, stands at one end of the bridge, inside of the protective fields of a small shelter.
As Shepard approaches, he motions to her, and she steps through the barrier.
The stillness within is startling.
The turian peers at her from pale blue eyes; the edges of his fringe are fraying worse than the first guard she'd met.
"Commander. I was told to expect you," he says, quietly. His voice is as worn as his plates, dual-harmonics roughened by time. "Set the stones in gently. The water will carry them."
She says nothing and looks away, out at the bridge, where the river laps at the sides.
"And," he continues, "there is no shame if you cannot let them go."
There are more people on the bridge. Turians and a few asari, but none of them give her a second glance as she makes her way to the center, where no one else kneels at the low railing.
The river itself is shallow, slow-moving, and as clear as glass. She kneels down and stares at the stones. The first is the hardest, but she's dry-eyed when she says Kaidan Alenko and sets the stone on the river's smooth surface.
It sinks only part-way, air-filled microscopic pores buoying it up, then it floats away, carried by the current. She watches it until it's out of sight, then looks at the next stone.
Tali'Zorah nar Rayya.
She repeats this for each stone, although she is crying by the final one. They'll stay afloat for a time, until the river takes them well out into the cove. Then sea water will saturate them and gravity and density will eventually have their due and the stones will sink.
But, someday, they'll wash up on the shore again.
The Kodiak settles gently on the floor of the Normandy's hangar and when the door swings up, she's not surprised to see Garrus, leaning against a storage container, arms crossed over his chest. Turians don't pale when they're stressed and weak, but Shepard can see it in the set of his mandibles and the way his shoulders droop.
"Chakwas know you're down here?" she asks.
He nods, smiling. "Y—No. Not a clue."
She laughs before she can stop herself. "Cute. You look like shit and I'm positive you're still high. Let's get you back upstairs."
He lets her take his wrist and pull his arm over her shoulder, supporting some of his weight on the way to the elevator.
"Just wanted to make sure you got back," he says as the door closes. The arm over her shoulders squeezes. "You... okay?"
She watches the indicator move slowly toward the crew deck.
"No. Not really." She looks at him and sees his concern. "But I think I will be."
Several months ago, I did a fic giveaway on Tumblr. Servantofclio requested (paraphrasing) that instead of Garrus being introduced to a human ceremony or ritual, that Shepard be the one learning about turian culture. Apologies this took so long to finish, Clio.