"If a man could pass through Paradise in a dream, and have a flower presented to him as a pledge that his soul had really been there, and if he found that flower in his hand when he awoke - Aye! and what then?"
Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Previously: Shepard woke, briefly, only to be dragged back under by unknown forces who insisted on telling her the real story behind the Reapers and their business in the Milky Way.
Whether or not said forces can be trusted is still up for debate.
Miranda and Garrus came ever-closer to an accord as they waited for Shepard to truly awaken, both of them processing the latest events on Omega, and Joker had a horrifying encounter in the cockpit of the Normandy with something wearing his sister's shape.
And something still hides inside the slumbering Maril Kovalan, down in Port Cargo.
Onward…toward a reunion.
As it turned out, there was always a new low so far as exhaustion was concerned. Hierarchy military training routinely kept recruits awake for two, even three days at a time — you never knew when you'd need to be able to push just that much farther — but that was just physical exhaustion. Even at the worst times, Garrus knew he had a cot and a hot shower waiting for him at the end of a successful run. Everything had its breaking point, and the Hierarchy was careful with its tools.
Staring at the knife-thin shadow under the medical tent, Garrus wondered if anyone had ever considered that, with regards to Shepard. The Alliance, the Council, Cerberus — it didn't matter how far she went, or how much it took from her to come back, only that she did everything they asked of her. Again, and again, and again.
Look what you've done, he thought, rubbing the inside of his cowl, where the edge of his armor had started to chafe. Look, dammit.
He was too damn tired for the thought to have any real heat. If he wanted a cot and a hot shower, he was sure Mordin's clinic could provide them, but there was no way he'd leave this room until Shepard woke up. Until he knew Shepard was Shepard.
The way she'd screamed, like her lungs were about to burst — it was hard to believe anything alive could make that noise, let alone the woman he'd followed into hell, again, and again.
It'll be her, he told himself, for the thousandth time. The monitors beeped tonelessly, and nothing moved under the tent. She promised to come back.
And he'd keep following, wherever she led, because if no one else gave a damn about how far she had to go, she'd have someone there to watch her back.
So he told himself, another thousand times, while Miranda and Mordin kept their watch and ignored him completely. That suited Garrus just fine; he'd never been less in the mood for conversation. As long as they ignored him, he could be sure he wasn't in the way. Not that it mattered. Miranda could try to eject him, and he'd make sure to record her face for Jack's enjoyment later. He wasn't going anywhere.
Failed C-Sec officer. Failed Spectre candidate. Failed vigilante. Guard duty's all I'm good for now.
In the back of his mind, Shepard gave him an unimpressed look. Self-pity's a bad look on everyone, but especially you, Garrus.
Wake up and tell me so yourself, he thought at her, rubbing his neck again.
He wasn't just coasting up against nearly a week of bad or no sleep, on top of all the injuries he really hadn't been paying attention to since the Maril Kovalan incident in medbay. He was riding the raw edge of everything that had happened down in the base, and sooner or later he would have to sit down and really feel everything that had happened in the last twelve hours, and he wasn't sure when he'd be able to pick himself up afterwards —
But all he had to do now was watch. Watch, and listen, and be ready.
The medical tent hummed, endlessly. Garrus stopped watching the chronometer on his visor, and let his back rest against the wall behind him. Other than the occasional murmur, Miranda and Mordin were silent, and with nothing but the gold light of the tent to focus on, his mind came unmoored.
Garrus drifted, asleep on his feet, waiting for a change in the light that was still hours away.
But Shepard had always been precocious — annoyingly so — and the sound of someone coughing startled Garrus fully awake only moments later.
"Miranda." The shadow of a hand moved past the ribs of the tent, then pressed hard against its side. "Where am I? What the hell —"
Shepard's voice barely carried to Garrus' ears, but he was in motion before Shepard could finish her sentence. Miranda moved aside to make room for him without glancing in his direction.
"What the hell is this," said Shepard, almost dreamily, then coughed again. "It's warm."
"It's a medical tent," Miranda said. The glassy edge of his own exhaustion echoed through her voice. Garrus sympathized, but her work was done; Shepard was awake, and she'd be able to rest soon enough. Garrus' work was just beginning. "You've been asleep for some time. Are you up for some questions, Shepard?"
"Am I…up." The hand pressed against the tent again. "I think so. But it was a long — is Garrus there?"
"I'm here." Garrus lifted his hand, pressed it to the side of the tent. A week earlier, he'd have hesitated. Not anymore. "Right here, Shepard."
Her hand was so damn cold against his.
The silence that followed wasn't long, but deep enough to make his palms itch. "It was a long way back," Shepard said, eventually, still in that dreamy voice. Garrus nearly bit through his tongue. "You remember, Garrus. After the mech. I was so angry, and — over the hills, and far away."
Garrus flinched. He recovered right away, didn't let himself look at Miranda when she glanced at him, eyebrows raised, but his stomach dropped. "I remember. But you made it back. You're here."
A light, considering pause. "I promised," said Shepard. "But it was a long way, Garrus — it felt longer than before. And it was loud."
At the other end of the room, Mordin stayed bent over his project, but his hums and mutters were gone. Garrus knew he hadn't missed a word.
"You're back now," he said, after a few silent beats too many.
Miranda cleared her throat, not even trying to hide how she watched him from the corner of her eye. "Shepard, are you ready for me to retract the tent?"
Another brief, weightless pause. He couldn't even hear Shepard breathing. "Ready." Her icy hand fell away from his, disappearing back into her body's shadow.
Miranda keyed a long code into her omnitool, then exhaled slowly as the tent folded into itself, taking the golden light with it.
He'd told himself to be ready for anything, dammit. But this — the white patches at Shepard's eyes and mouth, the way her skin hung slack on her cheeks — he could never be ready for this.
"Shepard," he said, the word so heavy it sank through the floor and disappeared.
Her head turned toward the sound, but she didn't open her eyes. Instead, a horrible, drunken smile twisted her lips. "Just like old times, right?" she whispered, her good hand coming up to touch her mouth. "I didn't miss this, but it's better than — better than —"
Shepard shuddered once, her entire body twisting. She stilled herself with an effort, breathing hard through her teeth. "I'm still blind." Her voice gained a little strength with each word. "How long this time?"
"A few hours," Miranda replied, running a quick diagnostic over Shepard's head. The patches of white skin glowed a sickly gold in the orange light. From what little Garrus could make out, nothing on the monitors hinted at anything out of the ordinary, but that was one word that had lost all meaning a long time ago. "How do you feel, Shepard?"
"Like I'm damn sick of being asked that," Shepard said, and started to sit up. She balanced well, considering the concussion, and the broken arm, and the several-stories-fall and near-drowning, and everything else she insisted on inflicting upon herself, but she only made it halfway before Garrus couldn't hold still any longer and wrapped an arm around her bare shoulders. If Shepard had a problem with it — well, she could take it out of his hide, later, and he'd be happy about it. She'd kept her promise, again, and that was worth a few rounds of Shepard's temper.
But she didn't say anything, not a damn thing. She just sighed, a sound so small and tired Garrus had to shut his eyes, and then she let her weight fall against him, her head lolling against his cowl.
"Miranda," he said, his own voice strangled. He could feel every shiver, right through his armor. "Give us a minute."
Allegiances and employers aside, Miranda was an intelligent woman, and she clearly knew this was a fight she didn't have a chance of winning. He felt her briefly gearing up for a token argument, and then he heard her bootheels clicking across the tiles, with Mordin's footsteps not far behind. The door hissed open, then closed. When the only sounds were the rush of blood in his ears and Shepard's quiet breathing, he pressed his face against the top of her head, not caring about the smell or the chemicals, and exhaled until his lungs ached.
"I'm so cold," she said into his chest. "It was so fucking cold, Garrus. Cold and dark. And they were so loud."
Who were? was the obvious question, but that — and every other question, no matter who was asking — could wait until Shepard wasn't a shaking, chemical-scented mess. Everything could wait until then, everything except —
"I know," he said, stroking her wet, tangled hair with his free hand. "But I've got you. Listen to me. Shepard, I've got you."
She let go of his armor and grabbed his hand. "Garrus," she said, still shaking. "The base. Was I there again? With you? I'm trying, but —"
"You were there. I've got you." Her fingers dug into his hand until he thought he heard the bones groaning, but her shaking had started to lessen, so he let her squeeze, and squeeze. Spirits, he'd let her pull his fingers off, so long as she believed what he was telling her. "If you don't remember, I will, for both of us."
Shepard almost laughed at that, her breath cool against his neck as she lifted her head. She didn't open her eyes, and the white patches still glowed against greyish skin, but the shaking was just a shiver now. "Seems like you've been doing that all along."
"Then you know I'm good at it." He smiled as she let out an actual laugh, a quiet cousin of the usual bright, stark noise. "You don't have to worry. You're back."
Her death-grip on his hand loosened, but she didn't let go. Shepard pulled back, with a long, weary sigh, and slumped against his keel. The part of his brain that always yelled Protect! Protect! as soon as she showed a flicker of vulnerability started to shrill when he looked down and saw the bones of her spine sticking out in stark relief. He could tell her she needed to take care of herself, that sleeping and eating were not, as she seemed to think, optional, but he'd only be a hypocrite. When was the last time he'd eaten more than ration bars, or allowed himself more than an hour's sleep at a time?
It was enough, he told himself, to be the quiet, steady place where she could rest for a little while. For as long as she let herself.
"Do you want to talk about it?" he asked, after the last shudder had moved through her.
Water dripped from Shepard's hair to the floor. The sound didn't quite echo, but Garrus heard every drop as it hit the tiles. That sound was all he heard unless he strained to hear Shepard's soft breathing.
Then Shepard laughed to herself, threw back her head, and opened her eyes. He tried not to cringe, dammit, but the white around her eyes and mouth, the dead grey of her eyes themselves — she looked dead, a thousand times less alive than she had in the base.
The line of her throat burned Garrus' gaze — he had touched her there, and on the curve of her jaw, but he couldn't think about that either, till they'd said everything that needed to be said.
He knew that, Shepard knew it, and neither of them had said a damn word.
Her laugh faded into a sigh, and she pressed her hand over her eyes. "God," Shepard said. "How the hell did we end up here, Garrus?"
The stark frustration in her voice matched his own, but he heard the wonder there too, just like he'd heard it on Ilos. The green world spread out in front of them, seeds and pollen drifting by in the humid air, Shepard's hand stretched out to catch a seed as it blew past — it came back to him with startling clarity, every edge sharp and fine as a razor. A moment later she tossed the seed away, pulled her shotgun from her holster, and took off at a jog, not looking back once to see if he was keeping up.
How clearly that memory blazed in his mind — the sense of finally being where he needed to be, of doing the work he was meant for. How far away it all felt now.
But it had been real. The woman in front of him was real. Everything that happened in between, everything that came next — they'd figure it out together.
"Damned if I know how." He decided to chance running his hand down her spine, smiling to himself as she pressed into his touch. "But I know it's going to make us a fortune when it hits the vids."
She burst out with a real laugh, hard enough to make the corners of her eyes crinkle. The sound filled the room, straight to the ceiling, and while she was distracted, Garrus took her good hand in his.
"We've got a lot to talk about," he said, and waited, running his thumb in circles on the inside of her wrist.
Shepard shook off the rest of her laugh, her face going cool in a heartbeat. Garrus had expected it, but no amount of bracing himself could fully prepare him for the chilly weight of her dead gaze. Not that he wasn't thankful for her being around to stare, but spirits, the way she still seemed to see straight to his bones. Someday, he'd figure out how to do that himself. Never knew when it might be useful.
"We do," she agreed. "We should have a long time ago — as soon as I had a clue, I should have said something, instead of dancing around. So much wasted time."
"Yeah," he said, and caught himself before he could flinch as her face went from cool to frozen steel. Expecting me to let you off the hook, Shepard? he thought, almost wistfully. Fair's fair. If I don't go easy on myself, I can't go easy on you. "You should have."
Her hand went taut in his. Then the corner of her mouth twitched, and the the hell you say look faded.
"We could go around like this for days," she said, in her cracked-ice voice. "I should have said something. You were — you needed me to say something, and I didn't. It was easier not to at first, and by the time I was sure, it was habit to stay quiet. That's on me." Her throat worked as she swallowed, but she gave him a sad, small smile that didn't waver. "I'm sorry. I let you down."
Garrus had seen Shepard use her vulnerability as ruthlessly as her biotics, over and over. It had tricked too many pirate crews to count, but she'd used it as a prize, too, for those who earned her trust: Congratulations, you made it inside, now you get to see me.
It had been a long time since he felt rewarded whenever he caught a glimpse of that quiet side of Shepard. He saw her watching him with red-rimmed eyes, with tears that never quite fell, and heard her say Who am I if I can't fight? , and knew she hadn't been rewarding him at all then. She'd shown him her pain and confusion because there was nothing else left for him to see. He'd seen everything, and he saw it again now.
"It wasn't just you," he said. Not to comfort her, but because they'd been in it together, and he had never refused to take his share of the blame. "I could have talked."
"Yeah, well, you had other things on your mind." Shepard started to rub her eyes, then grimaced and let her hand fall on top of his. "I remember them now," she said. "All of them. They were —"
"Not now," he said. I barely stopped the bleeding. If you say anything, I'll never stop.
Shepard didn't question him. Didn't even let a spark of curiosity into her face, just inched closer and wove her fingers through his. "So," she said. "Are we calling it? No more holding back, no more games, no more dancing around…what happened?"
"Sounds good to me," he said. If he'd ever meant something more, he couldn't remember. "We've got enough on our radar, as Joker would say."
Shepard slumped down, nodding slowly. "There's just one thing I want to be sure of," she said. "And I'm not going to pretend I'm not going to be gutted if you say no, but the least I can do is give you the choice. What you do want, Garrus?"
No need to ask what she meant. He could get up, head back to the battery and stay there. She'd still take him on missions, still trust him. He could let the rest of the Omega years die, and focus on moving forward. He could live with that.
He just didn't want to.
"Because what I remember - what I want to say, whatever comes next...of all that time, as fucked up as this is — I was happy. We were happy, weren't we?" She waited, calm and almost defiant, fortified against a possible refusal.
Garrus thought of the base, the scorch marks and the smell of smoke, the unending silence, and he thought of oil and sand, and Shepard watching him as he briefed the squad, and his mouth went sour. It hadn't been sustainable. He should have listened when she said so, but she had still stayed.
He couldn't make himself regret it. Any of it. If he had known how it would end, and balanced that against the work the squad had done, and the love he still felt for them — and yes, all the quiet moments with Shepard, too — he wouldn't have changed a damn thing. Denying that those two years had been some of the best times of his life would be a special kind of betrayal.
Good job, boss, said Weaver. You're learning.
He let go of Shepard's hand to cradle her chin, and pressed his forehead to hers. Her sigh shivered in the air between them. "We were," he said.
She pressed closer, until her chin bumped his mandible, and when he bent his head on reflex, she kissed him, her mouth cold and firm against his.
Keep it together, he told himself. Then Shepard gasped, her chilly hand sliding around his neck and pulling him closer, and every thought except kissing her evaporated. He tried to make the kiss say what he should have the moment she walked in on his suicide-by-merc attempt: that he would keep her here, keep her close, even if it killed him, that wherever she went he would follow, that he loved her —
But what he said, in the end, when she pulled back to catch her breath, was just, "I've got you."
Her lips, flushed warm pink from the kiss, curved in a smile. "I know," she said. "Garrus —"
He kissed her again, because he was done wasting time and if they were going to live, they would do so gloriously, messily, defiantly, and he was going to keep kissing her until she made him stop.
"Easier to find the way," he said against her mouth, barely hearing his own words. Just having her awake and aware — awake and remembering — was enough to turn the rest of the galaxy into background noise — and he might have stayed that oblivious until Miranda's re-entry, if Shepard hadn't hummed a quiet agreement.
It was nothing like the sound a turian would make, but it sounded like home. His neck went warm, then hot, and he buried one hand in her hair and brought his forehead down to meet hers.
No more half-measures, no more games. If they owned it, they owned all of it. They had been so damn happy. And who knew, maybe they would be again. With Shepard spitting in the face of death one more time, it was hard to believe anything was impossible.
A pretty dangerous attitude to take, as slippery as thinking he had stopped bleeding under all that invisible armor. Still — he deserved a few minutes of reckless optimism, before the next crisis arrived and squashed it flat.
"I should shower," Shepard said a few moments later. She shifted restlessly, letting go of Garrus long enough to tug her blanket up around her shoulders. "You're being very sweet about how awful I must look. And smell."
She wasn't wrong — cryo-pod chemicals managed to smell cloying and metallic, and now that he wasn't so consumed with Shepard's here Shepard's alive Shepard remembers, Garrus felt a truly enormous sneeze building in the back of his nose. That would've been a hell of a moment-killer, if Shepard hadn't spoken up when she did.
"You're fine," he said, taking a step back just in case he couldn't hold in the sneeze. "All things considered."
In spite of her eyes being closed again and the blanket tugged up around her chin, Shepard managed to give him a look that would have knocked out the Normandy's drive core. "All things considered, I should still be a Shepsicle." She carded her hand through her hair, then grimaced as her fingers caught in a sticky tangle. "One more thing to thank Miranda for. And Mordin. Have we heard anything from the Normandy?"
Back to business already. Garrus readied himself for a surge of disappointment, but what arrived was far mellower than he expected. Of course Shepard would want, need, to know; she'd been out of the fight long enough. And if she hadn't asked — well, she wouldn't have been herself.
"Status reports every thirty minutes — nothing new to report. The injured are still recovering in medbay. Jacob got the worst of it, after you — a distant second, as you humans would say — but he's on the mend."
Shepard nodded, a faint line forming between her brows. The hurry-up signal. "And Kovalan? How's she doing?"
Garrus hesitated for a split second, caught by the memory of Kovalan's empty smile as she bore down on him. "She's one of them," he said. No point in dancing around. "Whatever happened to her on the Collector ship, it stuck. She's in a cryo-pod now, but — it's not good." He considered getting a bit more specific — the way the Normandy had decayed while he watched, Kovalan's attack — and left it alone for the moment. Miranda could handle the full debrief, once they were secure back on the Normandy.
Aria would keep the channels into the clinic clear of any other eavesdroppers, but if she didn't have an ear on the clinic herself, Garrus would eat his spare thermal clips. Besides, he liked the idea of Aria trying to piece together the entire story from a few scraps of information. The Queen of Omega wasn't frustrated nearly often enough. It'd be good for her health.
Shepard's mouth thinned. "Ballpark it for me."
"Let's say it's somewhere below Sovereign —"
"Most things are, Vakarian."
"— but above Haestrom." Let Aria try that one out.
"Haestrom," she said, after a long silence. Amazing how he could see the calculations in her head, without being able to see her eyes. "Right. You know, our sense of scale is utterly fucked."
"Do you hear me arguing?"
A razor-thin smile curved her mouth. "Smart turian. Now — I'm serious about this shower. Is there something here I can use?"
A little investigation — C-Sec skills, always handy — turned up a jury-rigged shower in one corner, far away from the monitors' light but with actual hot water, if no water pressure. Setting up his omni-tool to light up the stall took seconds, but when he turned back to Shepard with the good news, she just scowled.
"What?" he asked, dread curling through his gut. What now? "What do you need?"
"Help," she said, so curtly he nearly missed her reply. The line between her brows deepened. "I need help. I can't — I can't wash my hair with this thing —" She freed her broken arm from the blanket and lifted it high as she could. "Shit."
Garrus bit down, hard, on the relieved urge to burst out laughing. After everything, Shepard was going to be pissed off about needing help with showering?
Of course she was. Showing weakness of any kind, when she couldn't twist that to her purposes, went against her entire personality. "Do you need me to get Miranda?" he asked, still holding the laugh in his teeth.
Shepard huffed. "No, I don't." Each word clipped, precise, formed for maximum scorn. Garrus allowed himself another smirk. "I need your help, unless you're suddenly above helping me stop smelling like a high school chem lab."
"I think I can handle that," he said, hurrying forward when Shepard started easing herself down from the pod. She managed to get her feet on the floor without tripping over the blanket, but it was clear her legs wouldn't hold her weight. He caught her just before she fell back against the pod, and after a half-second of thought lifted her in both arms.
Shepard was a tall woman by human standards, but she'd always been lean, as sleek and long-limbed as the predators that haunted Palaven's few forests. Now she was nearly skeletal, her body pushed to the breaking point and then forced to cannibalize itself, even as Miranda worked to rebuild it. Again.
Garrus remembered her, naked and spread on his desk, and the words she whispered in the dark. Clavicle. Femur. Metatarsal. He ignored the heat of the memory, and the guilt that followed close behind, and headed for the shower. Shepard's expected snarking never materialized; she just let out another quiet, weary sigh, and let her head rest on his shoulder.
He eased her into the stall, waited till she had her good hand braced against the side and her feet planted firmly on the floor, then lifted away the blanket and tossed it aside. She was shivering a little in the cool air, but gasped with honest, unmistakable pleasure when the first stream of hot water hit her back. Garrus swallowed — this was not the time, or the place, but Shepard had no right to make that noise, even under the best of circumstances — then hunted around for something soap-like.
What he found barely smelled better than the chemicals, but at least it would wash away, too. Without a word, without waiting, he started to lather her shoulder blades.
Shepard leaned her head against the stall, and just breathed. Her shadowed ribs belled outward with each inhale, then slowly collapsed inward as her breath left her in long, flat sighs. The water ran on and on, faint steam misted his visor, and neither of them spoke. There was nothing that needed to be said.
There was a great deal to remember — almost too much, especially when he saw the three bright spots of white on her shoulders, and nearly choked — but what he thought of most was the oil, and the sand, and Shepard's own hands moving over him. He'd called it a marriage, in his head, in that other life.
"Do you remember —" Shepard asked abruptly, lifting her head. Then she laughed, her face turned to him in profile. "Stupid. You remember everything."
I had to, he thought, moving his hands into her hair.
Shepard sighed again, turned to face the stream. Water sluiced over her face and neck to pool in the hollows of her collarbone. "I'm sorry," she said, and then fell silent.
Neither of them spoke, until the water ran cold and Shepard started to shiver again. Garrus had another blanket ready for her when she stepped out of the stall, and when he wrapped her in it, he didn't let go. He just rested his head on top of hers, breathing her in, until the door opened.
"Shepard," Miranda asked. "Are you ready?"
Garrus felt Shepard's smile, slow and finally, finally warm, against his neck. "Damn right I am," Shepard replied.