I'm living for the day of reckoning, counting down the hours - Dave Carter, "Tanglewood Tree"
Shepard kept herself busy with work.
For good reason; there was a lot to do. Crew to get familiar with. Dossiers of future recruits to review. Combat missions to plan. If she got tired of all that, she had two years' worth of news to catch up on. Most of it was inconsequential crap. She didn't really need to know what the top musical, vid, and literary works of the last two years were. Still, she hated feeling out of the loop when she ran into the crew making small talk. She paid more attention to the political news, even though most of it made her want to throw her datapad against the wall. Different year, same old quarrels. One way in which not enough had changed.
All of it, even the busy work, beat the thoughts that crawled around in her head during the night cycle, when the ship was quiet except for the hum of the drive core.
When she'd first seen the fucking skylight someone had seen fit to put over her bed, she'd marched back down to Miranda's office and given her a piece of her mind. Maybe a mistake—if someone was trying to get to her, her reaction showed they'd succeeded—but Miranda had professed to know nothing about it. Shepard might even believe her, because she'd shown a moment of irritation, and Shepard had the feeling that Miranda Lawson was the kind of perfectionist who hated not knowing everything that was going on around her.
EDI had suggested that the viewport could be covered. Shepard hadn't made it a priority yet, though. Improving the ship's armaments and shielding, upgrading the guns and armor and omni-tools and amps, that was all a lot more important. It was on the list, the engineers knew about the issue, and they'd get to it eventually. When they upgraded the armor, maybe.
For now, on nights she couldn't sleep, she lay under the opening, looking up at the stars, hazed by the mass effect field surrounding the ship. She looked into the void and breathed carefully, slow and even, counting the length of her breaths. She managed her fear like a physical thing she could tame or subdue or squeeze down into nothingness. Sometimes panic rose up in her throat and she remembered: fire, screaming, stars shining through the rip in the hull, scrambling for air while the planet's white surface tilted below. Then her hands clenched in the sheets, and sometimes she flung herself out of bed and curled up on the couch, trying to distract herself with something to read.
It seemed like she shouldn't have been able to remember. Garrus had looked stricken when she told him, and she'd hastened to reassure him that it wasn't so bad.
It wasn't, most of the time. Most of the time she could put it behind her. After all, she felt like herself. She fit into her body the way she expected to; her intuition about herself was congruent with what she experienced.
Occasionally, though, when she was alone and didn't have something to distract her mind, she became all too aware that there was a new biotic implant in her skull and new, strange scars on her skin. The old ones she'd carried since Mindoir were gone, leaving her face smoother than it had been in half a lifetime. Once in a while, she wondered what the strange ache in her shoulder or the intermittent stiffness in her stride meant: were these new joints or old? lingering injuries from before, or parts not put together correctly? She shuttered these thoughts away. Miranda would tell her if she asked, or perhaps Dr. Chakwas could, but she didn't want to know any more of the details than she could help.
She was alive. She felt like herself. She could remember details of her childhood that she didn't think she'd ever told anyone: how she'd felt disappointed, and then guilty, when her mother's last pregnancy turned out to be her third brother instead of the sister she'd hoped for, how she used to fall asleep to the strains of her father's violin. She probed at her memories as if trying to find a loose tooth, but everything seemed to be in its place. That would have to be enough. She was used to acting on her gut, what an instructor way back had called "trained intuition." Her gut told her she was herself. How did anyone really know about life or death or who they were, anyway? Those were questions for philosophy class or religion or a bottle of something strong.
So she tried to avoid being alone. She would go down to the lab and ask Mordin questions until he shooed her away, or she'd coax someone into working out with her, or sparring, or even just talking. Something that set her blood racing or simply gave her something else to think about. She thought the others must notice that she sought company at odd hours, but nobody remarked on it.
"Garrus," she said, one night, after taking a couple of six-packs into the battery and plopping down with them until he stopped grumbling and put his work aside.
"Have I changed?"
He gave her a level look through his visor. "You look about the same as yesterday."
Shepard leaned over so she could punch him in the arm. "Ass. No. I mean... you know." The corner of the label on her beer bottle was loose; she worried at it with a fingernail. "Since... before."
Garrus pulled himself out of his slouch against the wall, his brow plates pulling down into a frown. "Are you still thinking about what Kaidan said?"
"No," she said, too quickly. She darted a look at him, his expression growing more severe, and sighed. "Not exactly. I'm just... thinking. You know." What had gotten into her? She wasn't drunk, not really, but somehow she'd gotten morose and inarticulate. "Never mind."
"You haven't changed much," said Garrus suddenly.
She lifted her eyes from the floor and turned toward him. "Yeah?"
"You're... I don't know. You take bigger risks."
"Ilos was a major risk," she pointed out.
He shook his head. "You take risks more often, then. That charge thing."
She smiled. He was constantly complaining about her crossing his line of fire, but he'd never hit her, in spite of all the griping. "It's fun. And effective."
"And you're... maybe a bit more on edge. But then..." He twirled one hand in a loose circle, indicating the ship and the colors it bore. "Cerberus."
She nodded, acknowledging the truth of it. Cerberus had her where they wanted her, and she knew it. She'd worked out an accord with Miranda, but both of them were a little wary of the other, and Shepard still wasn't sure where things would go in the end. Garrus went on: "Could be I just didn't see that before. We weren't... we didn't talk quite as much."
Shepard glanced away, a sudden heat rising in her cheeks. "I didn't come bother you as much, you mean."
"Eh." He finished off his bottle. His fourth, if she wasn't mistaken. "I don't mind."
"Except when you're in the middle of some calibrations."
"Does kind of disrupt my line of thought, Shepard."
She bumped her shoulder against his. "Yeah, I know. I appreciate the work, Garrus, really." She did feel a little sheepish about pulling him away from what he was doing. She sure as hell didn't have a handle on the math he was working with.
There was a brief silence. Shepard contemplated her bottle. Garrus opened another. After a few minutes, he said, "Besides, it's been two years. You'd have changed in that time no matter what happened. I mean... I suppose I've changed."
His voice sounded odd. A little softer than usual, maybe, a little wistful. She stole a look at him. He was turning the bottle in his hands, idly gazing down at the deck, not at her. She was sitting on the wrong side to see his healing wounds, but she knew they were there. She might have outright died, but he'd come closer than most. His own stubborn will and the grace of Dr. Chakwas had kept him from crossing that hair-thin boundary. It wasn't a thing they talked about. He'd spent two years in places she hadn't gone, faced down things she'd never had to. He didn't talk much about those times, either. He kept it all close, letting out a story here or there, but sometimes, when he was quiet, she thought she could see the wear.
Being with Garrus was sometimes the easiest thing in the world, and sometimes made her heart ache.
"Not in the ways that count," she said.
He squinted at her. "No?"
"Nope. Shitty sense of humor, check; inability to duck, check; unhealthy attachment to your rifle, check—"
Garrus groaned and leaned back against the bulkhead. "Stop."
She laughed, but let it go. After a moment, she laid her hand on his wrist. "You're right. Everybody changes."
He looked into her eyes, then down at her hand spread out on the cool metal and ceramic that encased him. "I could stand to hear that more often."
He looked up with a grin. She'd known him long enough now that she had no trouble classifying it as "sly." "'You're right.'"
"Ass," she said again, smiling.
She worried about him, more than she thought he'd like. Somehow it had taken her death and resurrection, and his near-death, to make her realize what she felt for him. She hadn't figured out what to do with that—wasn't sure if her feelings were more for the man he'd been, or the one he was now. Moments like this let her see that the two weren't so different. If she hadn't died, if she'd been alive to keep him closer, he wouldn't have been through as much... but he wouldn't be who he was now.
If, if, if. What if this, what if that. They both might have taken a tangled trail to get from who they'd been once to who they were now, but... would she unravel them if she could?
"Shepard! You look well for dead."
She took Wrex's offered grip, a grin nearly splitting her face in two. Tali had been bewildered, Garrus, too beaten down to object, Kaidan, angry, Liara, oddly distant. Wrex acted as if nothing had changed. Sometimes you had to appreciate a krogan perspective.
Later, while Grunt was celebrating with the younger Urdnot males—or maybe the females, Shepard wasn't sure and didn't want to know—she sat with Wrex on a broken slab, with a bottle of some krogan rotgut in her hand (not ryncol, she desperately hoped), and said, "Wrex, did you ever come close to death?"
He grunted. Eventually, he said, "One time I had to regrow my primary heart." He took a swallow of his (she was pretty sure that was ryncol) and shuddered. It was like an earthquake rippled over his shoulders and hump. "And lungs. And an eye. And some other stuff." He swung his massive head toward her and pointed at the scars slashing across his face. "That's how that happened. Scarred over while I was regenning organs." He took another drink. "It was like crawling out of the void with my fingers. Cell by cell. I counted the hours until I was back in action."
"What did you do afterwards?" Shepard asked. Her voice seemed thin in comparison to the deep growl Wrex had sunk into.
He bared his teeth in a fierce grin. "Then I tracked them down and fed their livers to the carrion birds."
She snorted in spite of herself. No need for existential questions for Wrex.
"You'll get the Collectors, Shepard." He snorted. "Only you would have the quad to bring a turian and a salarian to Tuchanka with you."
She shrugged. "They can behave themselves. And hold their own." Garrus had opted to stay with the shuttle, though, avoiding the possibility of provoking any of the krogan as they got increasingly drunk.
Wrex grunted. "Don't tell him I said so, but I'm glad you've got Garrus with you."
She grinned. "Me too."
She raised her eyebrows. "You think? What do you mean?"
"Less stupid, for one thing."
Shepard sighed, rubbing her forehead. "He was never stupid."
Wrex made a grumbling sound at that. "Less naive, then. He's learned a thing or two about the world."
She frowned, thinking about their chase after Harkin. "Not sure it's exactly been good for him," she muttered before she thought.
"You sure about that?" Wrex asked. "There's a reason we have the Rite, Shepard. Hardship makes strength."
"I know of a human philosopher who said more or less the same thing."
"It's gonna take strength to be equal to what's coming, Shepard. We both know that. So does he."
Her frown deepened. Her gut told her Wrex was right, but she wasn't sure she liked the conclusions that led her to. She made a noncommittal noise.
Wrex rolled one great red eye toward her. "Huh."
"What?" Shepard asked.
Wrex grinned. "You and him, huh?"
Shepard folded her arms, hoping Wrex wouldn't notice her cheeks turning red. She still couldn't quite believe the words that had come out of her mouth, only a few days ago. The worst come-on she'd ever uttered, bar none.
Garrus had said yes, though. Technically, he'd said yeah, definitely in a way that made her heart race. She hugged her arms around herself, unwilling to haul their uncertain new understanding into the open. "What are you getting at, Wrex?"
"You want Vakarian to warm your bed. Funny to change from soft and blue, but no accounting for taste, I suppose."
She groaned. "Fucking hell, Wrex, you are the worst gossip I've ever met."
The krogan chortled and slapped her shoulder with one meaty hand. Shepard staggered but managed to avoid falling off her seat. "Go after whatever you want, Shepard."
"Gee, thanks, Wrex."
"Even if it's bone-headed, stubborn, and thinks it's clever."
"Tell me the truth, Shepard, you had to pound it into him, didn't you?"
"I'm done talking about this," she declared, getting to her feet. She blinked a couple of times to settle her spinning head.
She paused and gave a wary look back.
"Give the Collectors hell," Wrex said. "And the Reapers, after that. Both of you. Don't tell him—"
"—don't tell him you said so, I get it." She smiled, a little wistful he couldn't come with them. "Thanks, Wrex."
It wasn't quite the moment she'd hoped for.
The Collectors had taken her crew. Their mission was now a rescue mission, on top of everything else.
Shepard stared at her face in the mirror. The glowing scars from her resurrection had faded, leaving no more than fine lines, barely visible at certain angles of the light. Part of her still missed her old scars, but her reflection no longer startled her. She hadn't woken struggling to breathe or spent hours staring down the stars in a few weeks.
Her hair was straggly, though. She needed a shower. She needed to put her anger aside until she had a useful, Collector-shaped target to take it out on. She needed...
She dropped her head, thinking for a moment, before stepping out to her desk. "EDI, could you get Garrus on the comm for me?"
It was only a moment before he answered. "Shepard. You, ah, need something? The cannon's ready to go."
She bit her lip to stop herself from snickering inappropriately. "I was wondering if you wanted to come up."
There was a short pause. "Oh. Yeah, if... are you sure? I mean, with what happened..."
"I know this isn't quite what we planned, but... I'd like to get my mind off things. And some company, if you don't mind." And, while she didn't want to say it, she knew—they both did—it might be their last and only chance. She rejected the thought almost immediately.
"Yeah. I can do that." Garrus sounded more relaxed. "I'll... be up in a few."
"Give me fifteen minutes or so to get cleaned up."
"We're supposed to be cleaned up for this?"
She grinned. "You know it."
They signed off. Shepard took one deep breath, but it didn't assuage the pounding of her heart. This was it, in more ways than one. The time for planning, for questioning, for reassessing, was over. It was time to move ahead.
She turned back toward the bathroom.
"Leave the door unlocked, please, and go to privacy mode once Garrus gets here."
"Of course, Shepard." There was a brief pause while Shepard reached for the shower controls. "Best wishes, Commander. Logging you out."
She might have been dragged back from the grave, reassembled in ways she didn't care to think about. But as long as she had her life... which, considering what she did, she could never take for granted... she might as well live it.
Written for a request by Selkit.