A/N: A big thanks to Elenilote and EasternViolet for beta reading this beast. You guys are the best.
No diploma in xenopsychology was required to interpret the way Garrus stalked from the shadows of the parking lot with his shoulders set and his jaw pulled toward his chest. Shepard braced for impact, but he barely spared her a glance before marching to their hacked cab. After tossing the bag that held his rifle in the back, he slid into the pilot's seat.
Against more expectations, he didn't take off before she could hobble over to the X3M, nor did he tell her to get the hell out after she'd hauled herself inside. With his jaws clenched and eyes fixed forward, he closed the canopy, powered up and pulled out of the garage.
By now almost grateful for the distraction which the pain in her leg provided, Shepard considered her options, up to and including a jump out of the shuttle, a dozen floors above the thin, life-supporting layer of air and gravity on the Citadel's street level. But as tempting as sudden death felt, she waited instead for the confrontation she could sense in the air like the static tension of a ship in need of a discharge.
Garrus piloted the speeder to the airway in heavy silence.
He'd been vocal enough back at the plaza, after his initial shock.
He hadn't yelled. Of course he hadn't. The way he'd said her name through the comm had conveyed every ounce of his dismay and disbelief. "What the hell? This isn't what we agreed on!"
Shepard had spared Sidonis a glance she wouldn't have given a cockroach. "Look at him, Garrus. He's already paying for his crimes. Putting him out of his misery would be kindness, not a punishment."
"I'm warning you, Shepard. Move aside. Now."
"Or what? You're gonna pull that trigger with me in between?"
His heavily customized Viper was powerful enough to knock down her barriers with one shot and put a round through Sidonis with another. Her, too, if she continued to stand in the way. Not too long ago, the idea wouldn't even have crossed her mind. But now... she knew a thing or two about rage, and the way his eyes had burned her through the gunsight, she was relatively certain he'd considered something more substantial than willpower to shove her aside.
She'd kept herself in his sights and Sidonis talking, hoping Garrus would see what she did. The pathetic scum wasn't worth killing. Not like this. Not by him. It would be an honor the piece of shit didn't deserve.
"I don't care," Garrus had hissed. "I don't care about his goddamn honor, and I don't care what his reasons were. He screwed us. He deserves to die."
"I agree," she'd said. "But not by you."
"Dammit, Shepard. Don't do this!"
For a second, she'd stood again in that half-dark duplex with its view over the hollowed-out insides of Omega Station. Everything around her shot to hell and beyond, the floor littered with shattered safety glass and blood, the pockmarked walls and ceilings lit by searchlights from across the bridge. She'd never know what he'd gone through before she arrived, standing hours and hours of bloody vigil over his team's barely cold corpses, prepared to go out with them in one last blaze of glory fuelled by stims and hate... knowing that everything would burn to cinder when somebody stopped giving a shit and gave the heavies the go-ahead to start blasting into the building.
She'd dragged him from the jaws of death barely sane and standing, and now she wondered if some part of him would always remain there.
"Just... go," Garrus had capitulated at last. "Tell him to go."
"Get the fuck out of here," she'd said to Sidonis, not looking at him, no longer caring to pretend civility.
The idiot hadn't had the wits to run at once. "I — I can go?" he'd stammered. "Thank you! Thank you for speaking to him, Commander! I'll make it up to him, somehow —"
She'd turned toward him slowly.
"You'll make it up to him?" Her voice had been little but a growl over the backdrop of pedestrian traffic and the hum of shuttles.
Sidonis stumbled back. "Fuck. I just meant —"
She bared her teeth. Blue energy rippled over her fists. "He almost died, you piece of shit. And you think I'm doing this to give you a second chance? I wiped out three armies to get him back. What do you think I'd like to do to you?"
He raised his hands, as if they could prevent her biotics from shattering his bones and turning his flesh into bloody pulp.
In the end, she didn't kill him. She didn't send his sorry remains flying across the plaza. She didn't even knock him out with a stiff right hook. But she was pretty sure he'd need a new pair of pants.
After the miserable maggot was gone, she'd realized that the line was still open. But only the sound of Garrus' breathing had reached her through the comm.
She'd leaned against a railing, carefully turned away from his hiding place. After a moment, she'd taken her cigarettes from her pocket. Smoking drew the usual dirty glances from passers-by, but apparently the patrol drones had more important things to do and the civilians were too busy or timid to approach her. She'd waited, arms crossed, and allowed nicotine to flush the thrill of dark energy from her nerves.
A short burst of static told her that Garrus had killed the link. With a last look around, she'd crushed the half-finished fag under her heel and limped back to the garage.
Now, as they sat in the shuttle, she glanced at his stony profile, illuminated by the spastic flashes and gleams of the roadside.
In the waves of artificial light, the color of Garrus' clothes was the inky crimson of human blood. His large, three-fingered hands opened and closed against the wheel. His eyes looked sharper and more alien than usual in their dark sockets. But the thing Shepard liked least of all was the silence. Words or violence she could handle. It was the complete lack of reaction that unnerved her, as if nothing they could say would make things right. At the back of her head, the spot where she imagined he'd stared through the gunsight tingled.
Garrus took an interchange away from the Presidium and the docks, and drove on in silence, eyes boring holes in the hovertruck that lumbered along ahead of them at the same mind-numbing speed as all vehicles on the station.
She had to speak. If he didn't want to hear her reasons, why would he have come back?
"Garrus, look. I know you're pissed off —"
"Damn right I'm pissed off! God damn Citadel and their damn regulations!"
Stopping mid-sentence, Shepard turned to look at Garrus in shock.
He was squeezing the wheel so hard she was afraid it would break in half, and doing that turian equivalent of clenching his teeth which moved his mandibles up and down.
"It's like driving a motorized walker!" he continued. "Thousands of years of technology to keep us safe, and the idiots still think we need to be held by the hand? God damn it!"
Garrus waved a hand against the shuttle's haptic adaptive interface and brought up the admin access check. Shepard watched him bypass the authentication and press a few buttons. A panel in the dashboard lifted half an inch from the surface. He ran his talons down its side and yanked, and the piece of ceramic splintered.
Sure as bad breath, an alarm kicked in and the car's VI came online. "Warning," it announced in its familiar polite tone. "Structural damage detected. Pulling over."
"Override." Garrus rattled off a sequence of numbers and letters. No way in hell were his C-Sec credentials any good any more, but whatever he was doing, it worked, because the alarm tapered off and the VI fell silent.
Sparing no attention to Shepard, he leaned forward and picked through the maze of cables behind the dashboard. Deep inside, he found what he was looking for and gave it a sharp tug. Shepard heard plastic crack and saw sparks fly. Garrus straightened and tossed a small object over his shoulder. Then he sat back in his seat and put his hands back on the wheel.
This time when he stepped on the accelerator, the X3M purred like a giant feline. Shepard felt herself press against the seat.
Garrus wove around the truck in front of them, then another. The rows of glowing buoys marking the edges of the lane started to blur into smudges of orange and green. Ads flashed by: Armali, Precision Motors, the latest Blasto flick. Someplace called Sanctuary. Their colorful reflections gleamed against Garrus' plates.
"Why?" he growled, eyes fixed on the airway.
To her surprise, Shepard remembered how to speak. "I've seen what revenge does to people. You don't want that to happen to you."
"So now you suddenly care what I want?"
By now, he was driving more than twice the speed of any other vehicle and the speeder's automatics were starting to compensate. Shepard swayed as the inertial dampeners kicked in. Garrus was breaking at least four regulations with his piloting, and that was just the ones she knew of. With his background in the force, Garrus could probably tick off a dozen more in his head. It would only be a matter of time before the patrol drones came for them.
Undoubtedly aware of the same, Garrus cut through lanes and banked the rental down a side street. For a while, they sped between closely built high-rises, climbing and diving to dodge walkways and slower traffic. Then the X3M reached another lane and Garrus spun its nose back toward Zakera Point and revved up the engine.
Shepard scrambled for words, eyes on the airway that had suddenly turned into an obstacle course of barely moving targets.
"Stone-cold murder. Execution. Is that something you want on your conscience? That's what it would've been, Garrus. Murder."
"Do as I say, not as I do, huh, Shepard?"
"No! Shit, I don't know. But you're not a murderer, Garrus. You want closure, I get it, but killing Sidonis won't give you that. It's just one more cold corpse and the people you want back are still on the other side. Trust me, I know. Come on, big guy, hate me all you want, but I don't want you end up hating yourself."
His mandibles jerked, baring clenched fangs. "Spare me the pseudo-moral bullshit!" he yelled. "I got more than ten lifetimes' worth of that back in the C-Sec!"
Shepard stared at him in shock. He'd never raised his voice at her. Not ever. Actually, she couldn't remember him raising his voice at much of anything. Not even that night.
"I'm a big boy, Shepard," he said. "I can take the truth. Did Aria ask you to spare him?"
"Aria?" She blinked, astonished at the sudden change of topic. "I haven't spoken to Aria since we left Omega!"
"No? Well, I guess she'd prefer it the other way. He knows too much. The Illusive Man? He needs the intel. Everyone with access to the right channels can tell he's working against that cold-blooded bitch."
Shepard felt her head spin at his twisted guesswork. "Listen to yourself! You're paranoid."
"Really? It wouldn't be the first time you chose human interests over others'."
It took a second to realize what he was talking about.
The Destiny Ascension. The sacrifice of the Council. One of the larger than life decisions that Shepard had been forced to make, too big even to start analyzing without a couple of university degrees.
God, he must be furious.
"You think I made you spare Sidonis because of some human supremacy crap? That's nuts!"
Still not looking at her, he kept driving, now three times the legal speed. "Is it? Give me a better reason, then. Something I can believe. No bullshit about how you've turned good all of a sudden." He barked a mirthless laugh. In it, she could hear an echo of all the times he'd seen her gun, extort or plain bully her way to her goal. "You never do anything without a reason."
"I told you already. You're not like me. I know you've done things, and I know how it eats at you. I don't think you've ever killed somebody in cold blood like you planned to kill Sidonis. I have. And I remember every face. If it haunts me, what'll it do to you?"
He winced. "Stop handling me!"
"I'm not —! Jesus! We're friends and I don't want you to regret something you can't take back! That's the honest fucking truth. If you still don't believe me, I don't know what else to say."
"Friends? You don't have friends, pawns. No idea why it took me so long to realize that it also applied to me."
The words hurt. They hurt like a fucking bullet to the chest. I've never used you, Garrus. But would he believe it? She'd done her damndest to convince both of them otherwise.
He turned the wheel to steer them sharply around something. Shepard looked back and saw kids scramble to the windows of a bus to point and stare, their faces already disappearing in the distance.
They'd come more than two thirds through the ward, now. The speeding and vandalism tickets they'd been looking at had escalated into reckless endangerment and possibly attempted manslaughter. At least this deep into the residential district, the traffic grew less, with fewer vehicles for them to crash into.
She settled back into her seat.
"You don't really think so," she said. "You're just angry."
"Damn right I'm angry! For once I was trying to do something right — but you decided otherwise. And now you can't even give me a straight answer why!"
The appearance of two traffic control drones saved her from trying to do so once again.
There was no sound in the void — no sirens, no loudspeakers, just the flash of blue and red strobes. The rental should have decelerated and pulled over on its own, but without its control unit, the drones couldn't even hail them. Shitty design — but maybe nothing more sophisticated was needed? They were on a space station. Sooner or later, offenders had to expose themselves to the VI's that kept watch through the omnipresent surveillance network.
Instead of slowing down, Garrus tipped the speeder down between the lanes. The traffic on both sides switched from one direction to the other as they dove toward the station floor. Despite the dampeners, the feeling in the pit of Shepard's stomach resembled sinking toward a planet's surface in a drop shuttle.
They struck atmo with a bouncy jerk. The speeder rocked as Garrus steered it back into a lane, flying now just meters above the street. He punched a button in the dashboard. The X3M compensated for friction and gravity and became steady again.
Shepard knew they'd soon get the real police after them.
Shrouded in the deep shadow of the ward's ground level, Garrus continued to glower at the road, radiating heat and frustrated anger.
"What do you want from me, Shepard?" His gravelly voice was barely audible above the growl of the engine.
She swallowed. "This about Sidonis, any more?"
"You tell me."
They swerved around another truck. Shepard saw the shadow of the massive plast-concrete bank that marked the end of the Zakera Ward. Beyond it, the tail of the ward-arm reached up toward its terminus like an immense black blade visible against the glow of the nebula.
They were closing in on it nauseatingly fast.
"Slow down," Shepard said.
Garrus rumbled something that might have been a laugh. "No. Not a word you hear often, huh?"
The concrete bank climbed above them. It reminded Shepard of a great, yawning, black jaw. For a second, she considered wrestling Garrus for the controls — but her brain still resisted the insane possibility that he was planning to take them both out in some sort of flashy murder suicide.
"Pull up," she said in a voice that could stop a charging krogan. "Now!"
"Why," he purred. "You scared, Shepard?"
Too late. She was starting to glow — as if biotics could save her from being crushed between concrete and plast-steel, 140 clicks per hour to a full stop in the blink of an eye, velocity times mass released into the speeder's hull and everything inside. Not even a turian's bones could survive that equation.
Cursing, she groped for the door.
Garrus released the accelerator and spun the steering wheel. The dampeners released their hold and the speeder rotated neatly around its vertical axis. Garrus did something with the wheel and the breaks, and then his foot was on the pedal again. Like a ship decelerating from FTL, the X3M's main thruster started working against its own momentum. Instead of folding plastics and splintering ceramics, Shepard was flattened against the faux-leather seat by an emergency mass effect field that snapped up to keep them in place.
In about three seconds total, the speeder came to a full stop, its tail lights bumping against concrete. The engine's deep roar quieted into a murmur. After a few seconds more, the safety field faded away.
Shepard stared out through the windshield.
Traffic crawled by in the distance. People went about their lives, blessedly unaware that they might soon come to an end. The way the great city suddenly felt more alive was an illusion created by adrenaline — but like always, it felt very real. Over the ward, beyond the concave stretch of skyscrapers, the Presidium ring was turning dim as its circadian cycle rotated toward the night. The Tower beacon continued to shine in its center like a sleepless eye.
The drones were already making their way toward them, followed by a shuttle — an actual manned patrol vehicle with decals and everything.
"I didn't know," Shepard said. "I didn't know about the fucking inhibitor."
She sensed Garrus grow very still, but didn't dare to look. The words kept coming, every bit as eloquent as she might have dreamed in her worst nightmare.
"I screwed up. Who the fuck does something like that to a friend? I thought it better if you left. But it wasn't and — Jesus." She rubbed at her forehead. "I'm sorry. Alright? I'm sorry that I lied to you. But I'm not sorry about what we did. I'd wanted you for such a long time, I thought I was going fucking crazy and... there was an ad for that shit, I bought it on a whim, then I told myself I'd never use it, but something happened and — I don't know what the hell came over me. The stupidest thing I've ever done, and you know that's saying something, Garrus. That's it, that's the truth. Jesus fucking Christ. I'm gonna shut the fuck up now."
No merciful asteroid penetrated the Citadel's defenses to kill her on the spot. She swallowed and waited. Please say something. You can yell at me, big guy, just... say something.
She heard him shift in his seat and forced herself to look.
One hand on the steering wheel, he was watching her, face lit by the sideways blue and red gleam of the strobes. In their spastic glow, she saw a strange frown on his broad, tattooed features. It didn't look like anger. In fact, it looked remarkably little like anger. But the minutiae that signaled the specifics of his emotional state were lost on her.
"Shepard," he said. "Are you trying to tell me that you used the drug so I would unleash on you?"
Unleash? A strange way of putting it, after all the clumsy ways she'd made certain that he was aware of her interest. The word was laden with something very turian, something with undertones of precedence, self control and consent, or the lack of them — something she'd sensed in their skin flicks, but never quite understood. For what she knew, it was as unsubtle for him as the concept of horny housewives were to her, but without the required cultural and biological makeup, it was difficult if not impossible to grasp.
"Yeah," she breathed, hoping that honesty meant more than perfect understanding.
Garrus shook his head and opened his mouth to say something, but was interrupted by a burst of static.
They turned to look through the windshield. A loudspeaker crackled and spat out the pissed-off voice of a turian.
"Citizens. This is Citadel Security. You are under arrest. I repeat, you are under arrest. Land the vehicle and step out with your hands in sight. Failure to co-operate is a criminal offense."
The loudspeaker emitted a tinny wail before going silent.
Tempting as it was to add 'cop killer' in her impressive list of bynames, Shepard just started silently counting to ten. Beside her, Garrus muttered something in his guttural native language before he punched a button to pop the canopy and started steering the rental to the ground.
The shuttle's VI came to life with a flicker.
"We hope you've had a pleasant flight, Commander Shepard," it said. "Citadel Rapid Transit wishes you a nice day and welcomes you on board again."
o o o
Shepard's ear implant chimed softly. She flushed down vat-grown pork and beans with some wine, sat back in her chair and activated her commlink, rigged to accept only incoming calls from the C-Sec patchboard.
"A call from Admiral Anderson, ma'am."
Shepard's omni-tool had been disabled during the committal procedure. She couldn't even check the time on it. Helpfully, a display for the very purpose had been provided on the otherwise blank wall of her cell. It read several hours after midnight Presidium time. Whoever ran the Zakera C-Sec HQ had taken their sweet time to find somebody high enough to contact Udina's advisor — but at least they'd done it. At times, Shepard wouldn't have bet on it.
She stood up. Walking wasn't going to improve the condition of her leg, but with some painkillers back in her system, her usual nervous energy was overwhelming her. Better to work it out with her feet than through her voice or choice of words.
"I'll take it," she said and started limping across her windowless seclusion.
"Patching through, ma'am."
In moments, Anderson's familiar rich voice greeted her through the comm.
"Hello, Shepard. Caught your arrival on CNN earlier today. I was wondering how long it would take to hear from you. I admit, this isn't the way I expected it to happen."
"Sorry to wake you, sir." Shepard reached a wall and turned to limp the other way.
"I wasn't sleeping. Bureaucracy-induced insomnia. Anyway. They tell me you've had a bit of a run-in with the C-Sec. What've you gotten yourself into this time, kid?"
Another wall and turn. "Just a small hiccup, sir. I, uh... could use some help. I have eight hours to get out of jail before shore leave's over. About four until all hell breaks loose."
A short, excruciating silence followed.
"Must've been one hell of a shore leave." Anderson kept his voice carefully neutral. "Before we get into the specifics — the media's going haywire about an old factory in the Zakera Ward. Got destroyed in some kind of mercenary face-off. You wouldn't happen to know anything about that, would you? They say rocket launchers and YMIR mechs were involved. And a few squads of Blue Suns, now out of commission."
She kept walking. "The first time I hear of this incident, sir."
"Hm. You sure they won't just let you go? You're the Savior of the Citadel, after all."
"Sir, aside from taking a joyride in a hacked shuttle, we were packing heat. Lots of it. For a reason, but the system doesn't care. They're gonna land us with criminal charges, my controversial good deeds notwithstanding. And I'm not sure the Council will stay out, once the Presidium comes online about this. We're damn lucky the time's what it is."
Anderson sighed. They both knew Udina wouldn't risk his position in the new Council to keep them from getting to her. "I see. Well. We can't have that happen, can we. I'll pull a few strings. The C-Sec's bound to to slap you with a hefty fine, though."
Shepard cut her restless limping. Suddenly she felt incredibly tired. She wasn't worried about money — in fact, she doubted the surprise bill was even going to register in her next debrief with the Illusive Man — but it felt like one time too many she'd needed to ask Anderson pull her ass out of a scrape. Perhaps you didn't have anybody to do it for you times enough when you were a kid, eh, Elena?
"I can handle a fine. Thank you, sir."
"I hope the party was worth the price tag. And try to remember that you no longer possess your Spectre get-free card, kid?"
After the call, Shepard had just about enough time to finish her meal, slick back her hair and pull her jacket straight before someone came for her.
The paperwork took its sweet time to process. Garrus was nowhere to be seen. Shepard wouldn't have been surprised to find he'd already left. After filling the forms on a private terminal and signing an old propaganda poster (a younger and much more scarred Elena Shepard standing in full Alliance regalia in front of the Normandy SR1, gazing toward the humanity's unknown but hopeful future), she was finally released into the wild, her array of implants once more fully enabled. At least they'd spared her the indignity of police escort.
She found him near the front doors, leaning against a wall with one long leg bent up to it and his arms crossed.
"Shepard," he rumbled, raising his head as she approached. "Might want to find another way out."
True enough, behind the plast-glass doors, a horde of reporters were camped on the plaza outside the HQ with their cambots and datapads. Apparently, half a night in jail had been more than enough to alert every news agency on the Citadel to the fact that Commander Shepard had been arrested for speeding and unlicensed carry.
"Fuck me sideways," Shepard groaned and doubled back inside. Garrus followed.
o o o
An officer took them down four floors and let them out through a staff door. After a silent walk along the too-crowded tunnels and a thirty-second elevator ride complete with muzak and news briefs, they were back out again, a safe distance away from the press-infested main doors.
Shepard lit a cigarette that was among the meager amount of possessions returned to her directly and started down the street with Garrus in tow, toward the Presidium and the docks. It was a three-kilometer walk and her leg wasn't getting any better, but she would rather have strangled herself than step into another rapid transit shuttle again for about a week.
Compared to the lower ward, the outside was nearly deserted. Stationers seemed to prefer enclosed spaces, even if they were cramped and claustrophobic — and Shepard couldn't really blame them. A stroll down an open-air street in the wards never felt quite right. There was no sky, just a void with the great arms of the space station reaching into distance above. No skyline — the shape of the ward pushed the horizon up, not down, and due to the scantiness of atmosphere, Shepard knew she could have taken a pair of binoculars and seen people go about their lives upside-down twelve clicks from them. Aside from slight fluctuations in the dust and the ionized gas of the surrounding nebula, kept by an immense mass effect envelope from interfering with the station's electronics, there wasn't even any kind of weather. The temperature always remained at the same twenty-one degrees celsius, and the only thing that made the air move was the atmospheric recycling system and the respiration of certain species living within.
Artificial. Just like her. She should have felt right at home, but under the emptiness of space, the only comforting thing around her was the turian close by.
"What kept you?" Garrus asked. His tone was unreadable, but not hostile.
Shepard flicked away the butt of her smoke. She explained about Anderson's involvement and the paperwork, then, and even the damn propaganda poster. Garrus listened, humming now and again to signal his attention. Shepard had no idea how to interpret his quiet presence.
"Wasn't sure you'd be waiting for me," she concluded. "In fact, I'd have wagered you weren't."
"Well, we have to talk, Commander."
She let out a sullen chuckle, resigned by now. "Fair enough. But lemme ask first. Where'd you pick up speeder tricks like that?"
"Used to do some racing when I was a kid."
"Yeah? You any good?"
"Not really. I was just in it for the adrenaline." There was no word in the asari lingua franca for 'adrenaline', nor did turians possess the hormone, but the expression he used came down to the same thing.
"I had no idea an X3M could be piloted like that," she said.
He didn't grace her remark with a reply. She stole a look at him and knew that her attempts at small talk were over.
"Do you want to know why I left?" he asked.
"Yes." As much as she hated it, she'd do this right. She'd let him say his piece and allow him the dignity of his choice. She wouldn't break down, nor ask him to stay.
"Well, it's embarrassing, but... I got pissed. Bad enough to pass out. By the time I came around, the Normandy was gone. Just the way I'd planned, I suppose."
That's how. Not why. "Was it so horrible?" she asked before her brain caught up with her tongue. Well, so much for dignified.
"Sorry. Look, you don't have to soften it. I know why you left. I forced you to do something you didn't want. Even I can see that was wrong." There it was. Plain and ugly. Just say it, Garrus. I got over Akuze, I'll get over you telling me to piss off like I deserve. Somehow.
He stopped in his tracks.
She followed suit and turned. His gaze on her was strangely intent. Suddenly it occurred to her that it might have been as difficult for him to read her as it was the other way around.
"I don't understand," he said, clearly uncomfortable, but determined. "Shepard, I was confused, and a coward. I knew you'd expect things to continue like they always had, but... I couldn't. I couldn't do it."
Shepard felt a crooked smile pull at her mouth. This is it. No way would Cerberus manage to put back together what was breaking inside her, now — but he didn't deserve having her fall apart on him now.
"Okay. I can respect that, big guy." She kept breathing. I can do this. Back on the Normandy, I can go to as many pieces as I want. "You don't want to work with me any more, that's how we'll play it. Not your fault I'm the wrong species and fucked up in the head. You still have something put aside from your paychecks, don't you? Enough to tide you over? I can pull some strings, see what I can do to find you a job. Or I can just step back if you prefer, make it a clean break, and —"
The words died in her throat. Garrus was frowning at her, taken aback.
"What? No, Shepard, that's not what I meant at all! I apologize for speaking so plainly, but what you said in the cab, it, uh — well — I thought you said you wanted me?"
"I did." Was he trying to add insult to the injury? Not his style... least, not with her. Shepard suppressed a grimace and shifted her weight from one boot to the other. "Look, I'm already fucking gutted about this, alright? Asari commandos, flexible turian operatives — I get it. Like I said, I screwed up, and I'm sorry. Let's end this as clean as we can. I don't think it's in either of our —"
"Commander," Garrus growled. "With all due respect. Shut. The hell. Up."
Frowning in surprise, she did.
For a moment, Garrus just scratched his forehead. Then he seemed to brace himself to speak.
"Shepard. Listen. When I asked you about the inhibitor, I wanted you to say no because I needed it to meansomething. Again, I apologize for being blunt and inappropriate, but I left because I couldn't pretend any longer that it was all the same, not after what happened. The way you've mocked me about my attraction to you — all those wisecracks about calibrations and my fringe — I thought it was a damn joke. I admit I don't understand that much about human culture, but on a turian ship, my inability to rein it in would have been considered completely unacceptable. And now you're telling me that —"
His mandibles fluttered in confusion. "What?"
Shepard swallowed down another brilliant iteration of the what cycle."Uh, could you repeat that." She swiped the air with her fingers like going back in a datapad browsing history. "The attraction part."
"Well, you could smell it, right? It's not like I've ever been able to hide it. Spirits, the way Liara kept teasing me about it —"
Shepard closed her eyes.
She was the Commander Shepard. Dissolving into a nervous breakdown, existential paroxysm or insane giggles was out of the question.
"Garrus." She drew in air and pushed it out, and opened her eyes. "Please tell me what you're smelling right now."
"Well..." He cocked his head in confusion. "There's a dextro food kiosk thirty meters down the road, and that guy who just drove by on a floater uses far too much cheap plate wax. Why?"
She stared at him, dumbfounded. His generation weren't taught about human physiology at all, were they?
"Garrus. Listen. All I can smell is that I really, really need a shower. Human olfaction sucks. Far worse than you seem to realize. Compared to you guys, we're smell blind. And how the hell do you think, even if I'd been able to — it's not like I was born with the damn turian smell chart!"
She controlled herself. You expected him to understand your horrible attempts at flirting, didn't you? Wait a minute. Liara knew? Bloody asari bitches. She should have nuked Illium from the galaxy map while she was at it.
Garrus frowned. "Uh, what do you mean, you couldn't smell the plate wax? You're kidding, right? That bozo was practically —" He gestured over his shoulder with his thumb. Then he fell silent.
"Wait," he said after a moment.
He lowered his hand. "Are you trying to say that — all this time, while I've been stewing in my humiliation —"
"I had no fucking idea, Garrus."
Air cars slid by. The great station hummed around them. The Tower beacon winked at Shepard from high above.
"We're both idiots, aren't we?" Garrus asked.
"So it seems," Shepard said.
He blinked and rubbed at the back of his neck, still looking a bit shocked. Then his mouth aligned itself into the turian equivalent of a grin. And just like that, the world started to right itself, like a starship coming out of a dive toward singularity.
o o o
For the first time in weeks, Shepard didn't feel like she needed a drink, a smoke or a stiff kick in the head. She'd slept without dreams for a blessed four hours and woken up to the pleasant knowledge that he was still there, somewhere, even if it wasn't in her bed.
She glanced at the bedside clock. Thirty-eight minutes until the end of shore leave. She lifted her head from the pillows, enhanced eyes perceiving easily even in the dim light of her quarters, and saw him sitting on the couch in his pants and shirt, omni-tool lit.
"Hey," she said, her voice husky from sleeping.
He looked up. His face seemed strangely naked without his visor.
"Hey there," he replied.
"A bit early for calibrations?"
He flicked his omni-tool off and leaned forward, spiky elbows on knees, six fingers pressed together. "Just had it from an old friend that Sidonis turned himself in. Confessed to ten murders."
"He did?" Shepard sat up and pulled the sheets around her.
"Well, after the way you so lovingly terrorized him, I'm not surprised he'd want to put a prison between you two. But they don't know what to do with him. Citadel authorities have no jurisdiction on Omega. And Omega has no official authorities at all. So it's not like the C-Sec can have him extradited and wash their hands off the case."
"Maybe Aria could handle it. You know, as a favor for the great Archangel." She scratched her temple. "Oh, I forget. The Archangel's not exactly in a position to ask for favors any more."
Her lame attempt to lighten up the mood was rewarded with a turian smile that was wan at best. But it was still better than an angry scowl. "There are no prisons on Omega, Shepard. They chop off thieves' hands there and call it justice. Sidonis... he'll probably just get a bullet in the head. Might as well have let me take the shot."
That was a discussion for another time.
"There space on that couch?" Shepard asked.
She grabbed her tank and shorts from the floor and pulled them on before going over. He raised his arm, and she sat beside him, her shoulder to his side, smooth leg pressed to his. He was not soft to snuggle against like a human, but it didn't matter. She'd never cared much for comfortable. Heat, now... she liked heat, and that he had plenty. Even without some synthetic sex pheromones to make him run on overdrive.
Right now, however, he seemed more lost in thought than anything. She could feel pain and grief from him as he watched the blue glow of the empty fish tank, arm around her shoulders.
"Just so we're perfectly clear, I never meant to mock you," she said. "I can't get my head around how you didn't realize I was trying to get into your pants."
He looked down at her, a little surprised. Then he chuckled. "Shepard, you only did it when you were so drunk you couldn't stand. And I'd grown used to being ignored. Ever since the SR1 —"
"Hell, the Citadel, even. On a turian ship I would've requested a transfer. But you didn't call me out on my inappropriate reaction and I was grateful, because I wanted to be on the Normandy and go after Saren."
She stifled a groan. "Setting aside the fact that I had no clue it was happening, I'm gonna ask you why you call it inappropriate? You weren't Alliance. The fraternization regs didn't apply to you."
"There are about a dozen others that did, Shepard. As you know, we turians have this thing called hierarchy. And you're a living legend." He shook his head. "Commander Shepard. I used to think you were about seven feet tall. No kidding. I even read the comics."
She thought of the way other turians tended to step out of Garrus' way, how they often avoided direct eye contact with him. How Black had called him high-caste. How respectfully even Executor Pallin had spoken of him, despite disliking his methods — and Garrus had been no more than twenty-seven at the time.
Another conversation for some other time.
It didn't escape her that he'd never mentioned her species. "I'm a human. I kind of thought that was the deal breaker."
"No, I've..." He looked away. "I don't have a fetish for humans, but... turians are excited by contrasts. You're the least fragile person I've ever met, Shepard. But you're also soft." She was pretty sure that, had he possessed the ability, he would have blushed crimson right there.
Soft? On the human scale, she was a beast of sleek, hard muscle. Well, I guess everything's relative.
"But I remember what you said, that night — you were terrified of me being human."
"I was messed up. More than you probably realize. I could have harmed you. And I thought you were just... well, you said it yourself. Curious. In your usual ham-fisted way." He chuckled morosely. "Know why there's not much of a black market for the inhibitors? It's like blunting your claws or teeth. For a thousand years, our culture has tried to instill pride in the military tradition, but in the end, it still comes down to who's best at losing self control. Screwed up, huh?"
"Most cultures are, on some level. Just like people."
"Thinking of someone in particular?"
She looked up at him and let her mouth pull into a crooked smile. "More than one. For the record, I liked the way you lost self control."
"Uh huh. Well. I don't remember that much, truth be told."
"You were magnificent. Fucked me against the desk. And the goddamn fish tank. And tore up my bedclothes. The place looked like a warzone."
He blinked. "One-upped by myself," he murmured, then. "Way to go, Vakarian."
She swayed against him, laughing softly. "Fuck, Garrus, I don't deserve you."
Instead of the quip of agreement she expected, he merely looked away. "I'm not exactly close to home for you, either, Shepard."
Sounded like there was a question, somewhere down there. Shepard reached up to brush the backs of her fingers lightly over his scars. She already knew that touching them caused no pain.
"The thing is, I do have a fetish for you guys. I kinda thought you'd know that by now."
He turned back. Now she was certain that he would have blushed if he could. "'Course you do. Some of us are irresistibly handsome." He leaned a little to her touch. "Viewed from one side."
"Don't be silly. I like your scars. You're not a cub any more."
His forehead plates shifted. "Cub? Cub? You need to take that back, Commander."
"Cute and eager. Then you single-handedly fought off three merc companies. Hot."
"So, that's how it is. You just want me for my gun-handling skills."
The way she talked about his scars was merely talk, of course. The damage on his face was brutal. She'd suffered her share of injuries, too, but — nothing like that. Well, nothing that she'd survived, anyhow.
"Do they still hurt?" she asked.
He tilted his head in partial acknowledgement. "Sometimes."
Might have stood for anything from 'I have to take a painkiller now and then' to 'excruciating pain, all the time, everywhere.' She narrowed her eyes. "I hope that gunship suffered before it died."
He pushed his face to the side of hers, like a cat. "You're so bloodthirsty," he rumbled. The touch of purr in his lower voice box made her shiver.
"I'm also very flexible. I can kick a krogan in the head plate, you know."
There was no speaking for some time.
After a while, with his weight supported on top of her, he ran a talon down her arm, where an almost imperceptible line indicated an old, well healed incision across taut muscle.
"What about you?" he asked. "Do all those cybernetics give you grief?"
"Not really. Now that the scars are mostly gone, half the time I don't even remember I'm a damn cyborg, except when my eyes do that glowing thing in the bathroom mirror. I'm sure Chakwas can do something about yours, too, if you want."
He shook his head. "It's not the scars that hurt, it's the bone graft in my skull. The scars... well, I used to be too pretty, anyway. Hard to be taken seriously with that kind of face."
"Oh, so that's how you survived. Your nob's so big that it doesn't matter if you lose some of it."
"Well, like we established, it's not the only part in me that's —"
She already knew exactly what to do to silence him.
"I was right," he said after a moment, breathlessly, from where he was now lying beneath her. "You do just want me for my big gun, Shepard — why are you giggling? I'm completely serious."
"I don't —" Shepard gasped against his cowl. "Christ. I'm a living weapon of mass destruction, Vakarian, I do not giggle."
"Yes, you're absolutely terrifying. Back on the old bird, it took me two months to stop shaking in my boots every time you came below deck to make an inspection. You know, the first time you got drunk after coming back from the dead and asked if I wanted to learn something called 'human gland-to-gland combat', I was convinced you had brain damage. I even considered reporting it to Chakwas, but I still hadn't decided if she could be trusted after turning Cerberus."
It took a while before Shepard could speak again. "Jesus," she gasped. "I had no idea you're such an asshole."
"I don't know who this 'Jesus' is you keep calling me in bed. I'm starting to feel a bit hurt. And if you really don't remember, I'm willing to oblige and tell you all the rest of your ideas for pick-up lines. My all-time favorite has to be 'practicing close-quarter tactical insertion.'"
She pushed up to straddle his waist, hands on the armrest on both sides of his head. "You smug son of a bitch. Tell me you're coming back. I'm worthless without you."
He lifted his forehead plates. "You mean the Reapers might end up winning because you have an unrequited crush on me?"
"Right now, the Reapers can go fuck themselves for all I care."
"I have broken Commander Shepard."
"I mean it. And I'll continue to do so for the next —" She glanced at the time. "Three minutes. Shit. I won't lie to you, Garrus, I don't think I can change. I'm an ill-mannered, bad-tempered, nasty piece of work. All I can promise is to be honest with you from now on."
He sighed and grew more sober. "Shepard. You believed me about Saren. And Dr. Saleon. You saved me from a horrible fate in the C-Sec and came for me when everyone else wanted me dead. And now you're trying to save the galaxy. Of course I'm coming back. However." He raised a talon just as she was starting to feel a rather uncharacteristic grin spread on her face. "I am going to impose certain conditions."
She frowned. "Conditions?"
"Oh, you'll see."
He pulled her down to him for those three minutes of shore leave that remained, silencing further questions.
o o o
Afterlife, Omega, four weeks later
"Let me see if I got this right," Aria said. "One of my bartenders tried to poison you, and you wish me to handle it officially?"
"The name's Forvan." The way Shepard was grinding her teeth, she was pretty sure it could be heard all the way down the stairs. "I —" my cyber-warfare suite — "did some digging, and his digital footprint is as twisted as they come. Connections to at least three different extremist anti-everything groups. You don't want him around. The chip you're holding contains the evidence."
"It was the official part I was curious about, Shepard." Aria lifted her eyebrow-esque tattoos and pocketed the aforementioned chip. "Wouldn't a bullet between the eyes be closer to your usual style?"
Yes. "You said everyone on Omega makes their own laws. That's not strictly true, is it? No place this size can operate on pure anarchy. You make the laws. Maybe you can make a new one. Or at least an example of this guy. I don't really give a shit, one way or the other."
"Please enlighten me why. I shouldn't care, but... you've made me curious. If your reasons are entertaining enough, I might grant you your wish. For free, even."
Shepard thrummed her fingers against her thigh holster. She decided to go with the truth. "I promised somebody I'd handle this without either throwing the bastard against every piece of furniture in this joint, shooting him through the kneecaps and then his face, or making him drink his own nerve toxin. Or all three." Her eyes flickered toward a tall, heavily armed figure standing just out of earshot, perfectly relaxed among Aria's uncomfortable looking turian goons.
'Learning experience' my ass. 'Payback' would have been closer to the truth, but... Shepard was willing to admit that it wasn't entirely undeserved.
Aria eyed her from head to toe and all the inelegantly sprawled parts in between. "Well, well. The things we do for love."
Shepard's expression would have made most sane people reconsider their life choices, but then, most people weren't all-powerful asari matriarchs. Aria smirked. "How is he?"
"How is who?"
Aria leaned over to whisper dramatically. "Archangel."
"Of course he is." Aria straightened and draped herself over the black leather, one leg propped on the other, arms arranged on one knee and the back of the couch. Stunning and lethal, as always. "We asari can smell them, you know. Turian pheromone signals. Either he's addicted to watching some very interesting porn on that eyepiece of his, or he's scent-bonded to you."
"Scent-bonded?" Fuck, she had to stop this, she'd worked hard to gain Aria's respect and this idiotic parroting was going to undermine her efforts.
"Oh, he didn't tell you? I wonder why. Turians don't allow themselves to bond with just anybody's old stink. He has to really like you. But then, I guess he would be the kind to be turned on by ridiculously overpowered weapons... and know how to use them. You're not the type to want the markings, are you?"
Markings? Shepard's teeth were in danger of requiring enameloplasty. "Are you going to do something about that batarian nutjob or not? Because if you aren't, I get to shoot him."
"Do you want me to say no?"
Shepard hesitated for a full five seconds. "No." I gave him my word.
"Very well. I'll throw him in the same cell with that Sidonis creature." Aria's eyes narrowed. "Maintaining galactic relations can be so tedious. Who knows, if I get lucky, they'll strangle each other."
Shepard grunted. "Thanks."
"Save your gratitude. I'm doing this because you have proved yourself useful and amusing." Aria's mouth pulled into an evil smile. "If you decide to get the markings, do tell me. I'll throw a party."
"Over my dead body." Shepard stood up.
"A tempting challenge, but I urge you to reconsider. I throw excellent parties."
"This conversation's over."
Aria's smile widened to reveal perfect teeth. The sight was blood-curdling and strangely arousing. "Suit yourself, Elena Yekaterina."
Shepard descended the stairs without sparing a glance at Garrus, who peeled himself from the shadows to follow her out.
"So, how did it go?" he asked once they'd entered the street and were pacing toward the nearest shuttle terminal.
"Fine," Shepard said through her teeth. "What the fuck is scent bonding and why did I have to hear about it from Aria T'Loak?"
He made a noise somewhere between a croak, a choke and a wheeze of pain.
o o o
Half a year later, a Cerberus invasion solved Aria's little prisoner situation for her. By then Shepard had gotten over the knowledge that anybody with a sharp enough nose could tell that she was having sex with her turian man-at-arms. Viewed with the twenty/twenty vision of hindsight, it seemed like a rather small and happy problem to have.
Whatever the hell it was that Aria had meant with her babbling about 'markings', Garrus never mentioned them.
Shepard was half relieved, half guilty about being spared from talking about the future. She was fully prepared to admit that she wasn't the easiest person to... well, be anything with. Her bad temper was of a galactic renown and as things really started going to hell in a handbasket, it got only worse. And since Garrus was always there, often it was him caught in the line of fire.
But she kept her promise. She never lied to him again. At least, not about anything important. And perhaps every once in a while she did something right, too, because despite everything, he didn't quit her. Not by his own choice. He didn't always silently accept her decisions, either, but... well, even if it wasn't a match made in heaven, she didn't screw it up too badly, did she?
And in the end, wasn't that all that mattered? Doing what needed to be done, and not banging things up in the process beyond what could be repaired by those who came after. That was the only way she knew how to save anything.
At times, she was even willing to argue that she might have succeeded.
~ FIN ~