So, this was supposed to be a one-shot. However, thanks to my stubborn muse who wouldn't let go of this story, and to some wonderful reviews wanting to see more, the story goes on!
The air felt hot and heavy, even in the filtered area of the Cipritine spaceport. Every breath Shepard took assaulted her nose with strong smell of ashes, making her feel sick. It reminded her too much of London and that damn forest from her dreams.
It's been five years since the war ended. The Reapers were gone. The price had been paid. Shepard sighed and leaned on Garrus, who grasped her without a word and supported her as he made way through the crowd. Walking could be such effort without the Cerberus cybernetics and with God knows what other damage she suffered when the Citadel exploded around her.
"Even you are partly synthetic." She shook her head. Not here. Not now.
"The peace will not last." She bit on her lip. Not ever.
Shepard blinked several times and, still leaning on Garrus, focused on the spaceport around her. To focus on here and now was the only way to escape the memories.
To say that the huge arrival hall was crowded was an understatement; it was packed from wall to wall. It wasn't surprising, Shepard thought. The relays on the route between Earth and Palaven have been fixed barely a month ago. Many turians, stranded after the Battle of the Crucible, were rushing to return home.
While she was running away—
No. She was returning home, too. To her new home. She never had one after the raid on Mindoir. It surely wasn't wrong for a war hero to retire and enjoy domestic happiness with her bondmate, was it? Especially when said war hero was nearly reduced to a cripple and had ghosts whispering in her ears even during her waking hours.
Garrus spotted an empty seat and quickly took her to it. "I'll be right back, love," he said, and her heart fluttered despite the shame of being unstable on her feet. "Damn customs and their paperwork."
"I know," she nodded. "I'm sure they'll have understanding for the newly elected primarch and hurry things up." He chuckled, a little forced, and turned around.
Her eyes were glued to Garrus' back as he elbowed his way through the crowd. "Mommy, look, a human!" The tiny voice of a turian child made her flinch and bow her head, letting the long hair cover her face, but the damage was done. The girl was pointing her hand at Shepard, which was enough to draw attention of several adult turians around her. With a corner of her eye she saw surprise and recognition on their faces, followed by either pity or anger.
What? My face is nearly falling apart without the Cerberus implants? Yeah, I know. Your loved one starved on Earth? Someone you knew died because the red blast made a piece of tech explode in their face? What?! Go on, I've heard it all!
Shepard wanted so hard to say this, to look into their accusing eyes and yell at the top of her lungs. Instead, she kept her head down and let the storm pass. In the past few months, ever since she woke up, she saw such faces often. Too often. It didn't make it any easier to bear.
"I feel truly alive. That is your influence."
"Does this unit have a soul?"
She pressed her palms against her ears, as if the accusing voices didn't come from within her head. Then she saw Joker's eyes, burning with the same fury she saw a minute ago, followed with Garrus, somber and with stiff mandibles informing her that Tali didn't make it through the ordeal when the Normandy was stranded.
Shepard swallowed hard and closed her eyes. The blast damaged EDI irreversibly. Adams managed to get her functional again, but at the cost of her memories and personality. She wasn't the same person, the same AI anymore, and Joker was devastated. Tali's suit malfunctioned and she came down with fever from which she never recovered. How many more quarians died because of the same reason? How much more time will they need to re-adapt to their own planet now that the geth weren't around to help them?
What have I done? What have I do—
Someone laid a hand on her shoulder, gripping it firmly. She didn't have to open her eyes to know that it was Garrus. His stalwart presence, combined with his faith in her were the only things that kept her sane in the past four months. His hand moved from her shoulder to brush the hair off her face in a practiced, relaxed motion. She managed a small smile. Even in this situation he couldn't resist playing with her floppy fringe, as he usually called her hair.
"All set," he said, returning the smile. "They even got a skycar waiting for us."
"Privileges, huh?" She tried to chuckle, but it wasn't quite working.
"You wanted to be the primarch's bondmate." His attempt at chuckling went much better. "Get used to perks."
She stood up on her own and without wobbling. Whatever he did, it seemed to have an almost magical effect on her. "We aren't bonded yet. Officially," she said, feeling her smile deepening.
"We will be. And soon. That's what's expected of a primarch." His smile turned into a grin. It looked like he was eagerly awaiting it. So did she, but the talk of bonding, marriage, still made her insides clench at the first thought. It wasn't something that could happen to Commander Shepard.
"Even when said primarch wasn't next in the line of succession after the death of the old one?" Shepard asked to cover up her nervousness and immediately regretted it. His expression turned grim for a moment before he managed to put up the usual smile again.
"Things change," he shrugged. "But some still stay the same."
Of course things changed, she thought. Thanks to me. The entire galaxy was in disarray. Very few things remained the same. So far the alliances she created during the war still held, but what would happen when everyone stopped licking the wounds and returned to the old ways eventually?
She shook her head again. Not here. Not now. Not ever.
"Let's go." She began walking. Garrus offered a hand. "I can still walk on my own sometimes," she drawled mockingly.
He took her hand anyway and dragged her gently towards the exit. "You don't know the way," he replied in the same manner. "And I can hold my love's hand whenever I want," he added, slightly more serious.
That word again. This time it made her heart melt, not flutter and she let out a sincere laugh. She could still laugh. Maybe there was hope yet.
Just before they reached the door, they were stopped by a spaceport official. "Excuse me, ma'am?" he said, holding out an environmental suit. "All non-turians need to wear this when exposed directly to Trebia's rays."
Right. She knew this was supposed to happen. And yet looking at the suit made her feel very unsettled for no apparent reason. "Do… do I have to wear it?" She frowned and swallowed hard. "There's a skycar waiting for us nearby."
"Is the vehicle shielded against radiation?" the official asked. Garrus and Shepard both shrugged. "Then I'd advise wearing it."
"What's wrong, Shepard?" Garrus looked at her quizzically.
"Nothing," she sighed and stepped into the suit, securing the mask over her face. It wasn't much different than wearing armor with a breather helmet, but the unsettling feeling she experienced earlier returned even stronger.
The official turned to Garrus and offered a breather mask suited to fit on a turian face. It was now his turn to frown and look uneasy. "It's windy today, sir," the official explained. "With all the ash and dust from the Reaper invasion still present in Palaven's atmosphere, you're guaranteed to have a coughing fit if you go out unprotected."
Garrus grunted and took the mask but didn't put it on.
"Garrus…" she tried, but he shook his head and began walking.
"Welcome to Palaven." The official waved them goodbye, apparently without irony.
They were both quiet as they walked to the skycar's parking spot. It didn't take longer than a few minutes before Garrus broke down with a coughing fit. He struggled for a moment with both the cough and the breather's strap, but succeeded in putting it on eventually. "I have to wear a mask on my own planet…" he muttered under his breath, but Shepard heard him.
That did remind her of something and, with a hot, burning feeling in her eyes, she realized where that unsettling feeling came from.
I'm sorry, Tali. I'm so sorry, she mouthed as they entered the skycar. There was a drop of water in a corner of her eye.
The life of a bonded woman wasn't so bad after all, Shepard thought as she watched over the two pans on the stove. One for her, one for Garrus. She was actually getting good at cooking. She was also getting used to see her scarred face in mirrors around their apartment, now decorated with blue markings. Not that anyone outside their home could see it, because—
She shook her head and focused on the stove again. There was no way in the world she'd let her mind wander and screw up another breakfast. She chanced a look at Garrus, laying sprawled on the couch, reading something on his omni-tool and enjoying the morning peace before the inevitable primarch's duties caught up with him.
He looked so much better ever since they lived together. She still shuddered inwardly when she remembered waking up in the hospital. Although she was happy out of her mind to see his face hovering over her, his tortured, starved look shocked her as soon as she was able to think straight and notice it properly.
How? How did he survive? Shepard had to ask herself this yet again as she removed the pans from the stove and searched for plates to serve the breakfast on. The planet that the Normandy ended up stranded on was a garden world, but the life on it was levo-based. The dextro supplies they had on the ship couldn't last for as long as they were there. What did Chakwas do to keep him alive? Or was it just his iron will and determination to see her again? Then, when they managed to return to Earth (the relay to that system was the first one fixed and she shuddered at the thought of how much effort was put into bringing the Normandy back), he spent months, years in the hospital, watching over her. Dextro food wasn't in high supply on Earth either, but he endured and his face was the first thing she saw after opening her eyes.
The least she could do now, to somehow return what he did for her, was to erase the last trace of those gaunt cheeks next to her bed (she had no clue that turians could have gaunt cheeks, but that was the only way to describe how he looked back then). This is why she always cooked him the most nutritious or high-calorie food she could find.
Garrus was apparently drawn to the smell of the plates she carried in her hands because he already waited at the table where they usually ate their meals. His investigating look swept over the plates, eyeing her scrambled eggs suspiciously, but brightening at the sight of the other one. Shepard felt a tingle of pride. This life was something she could get used to.
They barely exchanged a few words while they ate, just enjoying each other's presence. It was definitely something she could get used to. No pressure of saving the galaxy for her. The worst thing that could happen today was that the meeting with various politicians scheduled for today dragged on for too long, and Garrus returned home grumpy. Not that his bad mood would last long, with her around.
Her gaze fell on the environmental suit hanging by the door, and she felt herself frown. "I have to go get the groceries today," she sighed. That thing still unnerved her. It brought back disembodied voices and images of the burned forest from her dreams.
Garrus' brow plates rose, but when he spoke his voice was perfectly normal. "I could get them on the way home."
"No, no!" she hurried with the answer. She wanted to do something that would get her outside, if only she didn't need to wear that damn suit. "It's just… Look, can I at least try and go out with that sunblock spray I bought two weeks ago?"
"That again?" His brow plates rose even more and he stopped eating. "There's a whole bunch of extranet sites claiming it's unreliable. I don't want…" He swallowed hard. "I don't want you to get hurt again."
She looked down and stopped eating as well. "I can't stand wearing the suit anymore," she shrugged. "Just can't. I'll put on the sunblock and go out like a normal human being. There's also a whole bunch of sites claiming it's reliable." There was something desperate in her voice now.
When she looked at him again, he returned her gaze calmly and nodded. Apparently, he realized that arguing any further would be futile. And he was probably right. She could be iron-willed and determined, too.
They ate the rest of the meal in near-silence like before, but this time it was somehow less pleasant. Shepard tried to pay no attention to it, soothing her mind with the exciting thought of going out without the damn suit.
After the breakfast there was still time before he had to go to his office, but Garrus' omni-tool started to get bombarded by messages. He went to his study so he could read them in peace. Shepard went to the bathroom, grabbed the sunblock spray, disrobed, and applied it all over her body. She changed into much nicer clothes than she usually wore (finally, someone would be able to see it), combed her hair, even put lipstick on, all while humming happily. When she was done, she nearly floated through the door, excited to breathe in some fresh air without any filters.
Walking without the suit was as exciting and invigorating as she expected. It was so good to walk without help most of the time. There was no wind today, so she didn't even need a breather. She decided to do some proper sightseeing of Cipritine, and do the shopping on the way back. The feeling of the sun on her skin was pleasantly warm, something she hadn't felt for a long time.
Garrus rubbed his forehead and sighed, struggling with the momentary temptation to smash the datapad he was reading against the nearest wall of his office. The sheer boredom of this part of his job nearly made the upcoming meeting look pleasant. And he hated those things normally. If it wasn't for Shepard supporting him (she insisted that "the Hierarchy needs someone to keep the peace" every time he tried to suggest that he's not the best person to make decisions that affect the entire galaxy), he'd be really tempted to quit it. Finally, he settled down for a break.
He set the datapad on the desk and stood up. Then he leaned on the window sill and, staring absentmindedly outside, let his mind wander to his love. His frustration and boredom evaporated in a second. Shepard looked so peaceful and content lately. He had his secret suspicions that the life of a housewife won't suit her, but she had adapted to it well. Mostly well, he corrected himself.
He was quite certain she had flashbacks and heard voices sometimes, although she hadn't told him a word about it herself. Whatever happened on the Crucible was off-limits even to him, and no matter how hard he tried to persuade or coax it out of her, he couldn't get her to talk about it. It was apparent she kept blaming herself for what happened after she had activated it. There was also the thing with the suit.
That had surprised him, honestly. He hadn't expected that would be a problem at all. The fact that you needed protection against radiation on Palaven unless you were native to it was common knowledge across the galaxy. And yet, Shepard was avoiding getting out of their apartment because that would make her wear the suit. She couldn't hide it from him, no matter how hard she tried. Sometimes she looked downright afraid of the damn thing.
Then he remembered this morning and smiled. First, the breakfast. He had figured out what she's been doing with his food a long time ago, but hadn't said a word. It wasn't like he minded not looking like plates and bones anymore. Then, the sunblock. That got him a little worried, truth be told, but the look on her face and the happy humming he heard while she was inside the bathroom were more than enough to make up for his anxiety.
Garrus sighed again and sat down at the desk, reaching for the datapad. Those reports weren't going to read themselves. He was about to dig in, when a knock on the door interrupted him. Eirin, his secretary, peeked through the door with a worried expression on her face.
"Um, sir? I know you said no interruptions, but this is important."
"What is it, Eirin?" he replied, trying not to sound too irritated.
The secretary hesitated. Garrus felt an alarm going off in his head.
"I've just received a call from Cipritine Health Center…" Eirin began, and that alarm in Garrus' head started screaming louder than a dying banshee. That was Cipritine's largest hospital. "Your bondmate was taken there."
Garrus dropped the datapad and bolted for the door before she finished speaking. The rational part of his mind tried to make him pay attention to Eirin's words of protest behind him and to today's meeting, but he couldn't bring himself to care. The diplomats could go screw themselves. Shepard, his mate, his love was in hospital again. As he speeded away in the skycar, he made a panicked call to the hospital. Don't die now, he muttered to himself as he awaited the answer. Not now, when we can be together in peace.
The forest of ash and whispers. That's how she called it. It was a familiar place.
It seemed like no matter what path she decided to take, it would always take her here, so she could listen to the voices of various people that she might have known once and watch their images burn. To watch her own image burn alongside them. If only it would burn away completely already. Maybe then she'd finally pay the price and—
No. She shook her head. She was here to do something… To get something and bring it... where? Home? Where was her home? Wasn't it here? Didn't she belong here?
Through the fog of her mind, Shepard remembered pots and pans. Meals shared with a turian… Garrus? Garrus. Rolling around the bed with that guy Garrus and then making it nice and neat again in the morning. What was all that? She didn't belong there. This was the right place for her. The real place. All those other images that kept coming to her mind were wishful thinking. Dreams.
The whispers continued as she walked among the charred trees. There were too many of them to make out what each of them said, unless…
"You must act."
No. Not that one. Any voice but that one.
"I did!" she stopped frozen in spot and yelled towards the sky. "I acted!"
The tiny, hated voice didn't answer. In a way, she was glad.
She continued walking and stumbled over an object half-buried in the thick layer of ash. It was, she realized with disgust, a burned body of a young woman wearing an environmental suit – Tali, the foggy part of her mind reminded her.
No. Not Tali. Not her friend, her younger sister from the Normandy.
"All technology will be destroyed," the little voice reminded her.
"Not all," she growled. "Some things are still working."
It destroyed Tali's suit, the accusing voice inside her head spoke. It killed her. You killed so many with your "acting".
Shepard turned and ran away from that place. "I'm sorry! I'm so sorry, Tali," she screamed as she ran.
Garrus sat next to Shepard's bed and stared at her face intently. Her eyes were fluttering occasionally and she would mumble something incoherently from time to time.
She's not in a coma, he reassured himself yet again. The doctors say it's only fever caused by her little escapade. She'll be good as new in no time.
He took her warm – too warm – hand and squeezed it gently, careful not to mess up the IV stuck in her arm. Just to help her re-hydrate, the doctors said, nothing serious. He took a deep breath. It was nothing like before, he reminded himself. It was an adventure to approach her bed from all the medical devices around it while she recovered from whatever happened at the Crucible.
They also gave her painkillers to help her fight the sunburn, which meant she'll remain like this for a while. Garrus shrugged. He'll wait. His face will be the first thing she'll see when she wakes up. No matter how long it takes.
"Unh!" Shepard yelled and her eyes opened briefly, but they were unfocused and blank. Not yet, Garrus sighed again, disappointed.
"I'm sorry," Shepard said loud and clear, but didn't wake up.
Don't be, he thought. You did what had to be done.
"I'm so sorry, Tali!" Shepard yelled, her fists clenching. "I'm sorry!"
Garrus flinched, feeling like someone was trying to choke him. Of course she'd take Tali's death especially bad. She was almost like a younger sister to Shepard. Suddenly, he realized something else and slapped himself on the forehead.
Tali died because her suit malfunctioned. Her environmental suit. He should have made the connection earlier. That's why she didn't want to wear the suit, and the sunblock was her way of avoiding dealing with it.
Leaping from his chair, Garrus grabbed her shoulders and pressed his forehead against her scarred, sunburned face. The most beautiful face in this galaxy, as long as he was concerned.
Shepard seemed to calm down at this touch. She wasn't yelling or thrashing around anymore. In fact, he felt her arms going around him.
"Garrus?" she called and he pulled away a little. Her eyes were wide open and bright. "Garrus!"
Running blindly through the charred forest, Shepard nearly tumbled to the floor when she bumped into a solid object. No, into someone, she realized as two strong arms prevented her from falling to the ground. Looking at the person, she realized it was that tur—Garrus. He was alive. His cheeks weren't gaunt. She knew that was important for some reason.
"You went shopping for groceries this morning," he said calmly. There was something about his voice – she remembered loving listening to it – that made her believe him. "Without the environmental suit. It made you feel sick. Now you're having a feverish dream, but it's time to wake up."
Yes, that's what she was supposed to do. Groceries. And wake up. She could do that. Probably.
Suddenly, she realized that she wasn't in the forest anymore. She was… she didn't know where she was at first, but someone familiar was holding her. And that scent… she'd recognize it anywhere, anytime.
"Garrus?" she called, barely speaking through the dry throat. The figure holding her pulled away a little so she could make out his face. "Garrus!" she cried out in relief.
Garrus quickly poured a glass of water for her and helped her drink it up. Then he tentatively brushed his plated mouth against her forehead and she frowned. It hurt. He pulled away immediately.
"Right. Sunburn. Sorry," he apologized.
Sunburn. Yeah, she went out without the environmental suit and took a walk. It was pleasant at first, but soon her skin started to feel prickly. She ignored it, and continued walking. Then… she remembered nothing. She must have…
"You fainted while walking down the street," he said quietly as if reading her thoughts. "The ambulance brought you to this hospital. No permanent damage, just patches of irritated skin and…" He paused. "… And a bunch of bad dreams, I guess."
"I hope I wasn't swearing too much." She attempted a lame joke.
He remained dead serious. "Just kept saying you were sorry." Another pause. "About Tali. Is that why…"
"I don't like wearing the suit? Yeah." There, she finally admitted it.
"Shepard…" He grabbed her hands again. "You don't—"
"You don't understand!" she yelled at him, cutting him off. It felt awful to yell at him, but he really didn't understand. "There were other choices!"
Garrus stared at her blankly.
"At the Crucible," she explained. "There were other choices. To either control the Reapers, or turn us all into an organic-synthetic hybrid. Possibly, it could have been less painful than this one. I don't know. What I do know is that I didn't even consider them because they meant I won't come back." She took a deep, deep breath and looked him in the eye. "And I was ordered to come back, remember?"
What would he think now that he knew the truth? That all this death could be avoided, or at least lessened, but she chose his touch, voice and presence over it?
"The Reapers had to be destroyed," he said simply. She felt relief wash over her. Of course. He'd never doubt her. "And I don't know what I'd have done if you didn't come back," he added, pulling her gently into an embrace.
"Thank you," she whispered in his ear. "I should have told you earlier, but…"
"I understand," he whispered back. "I knew you'd tell me once you're ready."
Well. She hadn't planned on telling him, afraid of what she'd do if he judged her decision. He didn't need to know that, however, so she kept her mouth shut.
"So, when can I get out of this prison?" she asked. No more than ten minutes passed since she woke up and already she wanted to be back home. "Please tell me it's today. Or tomorrow."
"What? That eager to go out in the sun again?" he teased.
"I'll wear the damn suit," she growled and meant it. She didn't want the sunblock anymore.