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The Thing About Dying

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The worst thing about dying, Shepard decides, is how it takes no time at all.

“You lost, Shepard?”

It’s a teasing tone, but there’s a little more truth in it than she would like. Shepard turns on her heel, pretending she hasn’t been staring in confusion at the red-locked panel on Miranda’s door for the last half-minute, and cups her other hand around her steaming cup of coffee. “On my own ship? Please, Vakarian.”

His brow-plates say he doesn’t believe her, but he lets it drop as he moves to the cupboard where Gardner keeps the dextro supplies. He rummages around for a few minutes, assembling the filters and crushed pods he needs to make his own kava, and soon a sweet, roasted-earth smell begins to waft through the mess. Garrus leans back against the counter and crosses his arms. “Well, Gardner can’t make poutix without burning the fish to hell, but at least he stocks real kava pods. As long as I can find those and the cannon doesn’t try to run off in the middle of the night, we’ll be all right.”

Shepard hides her expression behind the rim of her cup. She’d like to laugh, but he’s rolling his head again, trying to stretch out the torn, healing muscles beneath Chakwas’s bandages. His mandibles aren’t moving evenly either, the right one clamped tight to his face and barely flicking with his words. Numb, she wonders, like a dentist, or just in too much pain to talk properly? “Are you supposed to be up?” she says instead. “It’s only been a few days.”

“Don’t worry, Shepard, I’ll get my beauty sleep.” The pot gives a quiet digital trill, and Garrus turns to pour the steaming brew into a mug very similar to Shepard’s own. “I may not have the shadowy leader of a mysterious multi-trillion-credit organization backing my reconstruction, but turians heal fast, and I heal faster than that. It’s fine.”

He’s laughing at her, she knows, and from him the barb doesn’t sting as much as it should. She quirks a smile, then gestures at the tables nearby. “You heading back immediately, or do you want some company? I wouldn’t mind putting off this report a bit longer.”

He looks mildly surprised, but he goes willingly to one of the empty tables with his cup and a packet of dextro protein bars. Shepard follows, then takes the seat across from him; it’s early enough in the cycle that they’re alone, the skeleton night shift nearly over, the morning shift not yet begun. For several minutes there’s no sound but the hum of machinery and the faint vibrating rumble of the Normandy’s drive core beneath their feet. The steam from their mugs rises, twisting into curls of white smoke, and is quietly filtered away by the ship’s air purification system.

Christ, Shepard thinks abruptly, it’s good to see him.

He’s flicking idly through his mail now, the orange glow of the omnitool reflecting off the table, his face, the curve of his visor. The hide around the edges of his bandages is swollen, blue-tinged and angry, but better than it was yesterday—better than the day before, and the night before that when the shriek of the rocket searing through Omega’s skyline kept playing itself over and over and over in her dreams, as if she might forget the way her heart had stopped otherwise. Archangel…

The silence is comfortable—more comfortable than most of the silences she’s had since waking up on Lawson’s table—and after a few minutes Garrus closes the tool and sighs into his kava. “So,” he drawls, leaning back in his chair. “Cerberus, huh?”

Shepard grimaces into her coffee. “Not by choice. He wants me to investigate…” but she trails off into silence. He knows all this already. Has known since the first hours he woke, once the bleary-eyed daze of the painkillers had cleared into reality. He’d stayed anyway. “I’m pissed as hell about it,” she says instead, forcing herself to meet his steady avian eyes. “But the threat to the colonists is real, and the Council won’t help. The Alliance is more interested in ramming their agenda down the councilors’ throats than providing support, and the longer we wait, the more humans are lost.”

“And the cutting-edge ship, with the full crew complement…”

She clears her throat at Garrus’s knowing expression. “I won’t lie, not having to worry about regs is…well.” Doesn’t change the fact that Toombs would tear her apart, and she wouldn’t even be able to blame him. “I just want to figure out where these colonists are going, Garrus.”

“There’s a reason you stepped in with Saleon,” he reminds her, but shakes his head before the moment can grow heavy. “Just treat it like a Spectre mission with less oversight.”

Shepard laughs. It’s a good feeling—a great feeling, with so little to laugh about for more than a month, and she wraps her fingers around the slowly cooling mug. “Easy, hotshot,” she teases, “keep talking like that and I’ll think you’re excited about getting to play with the giant guns.”

He flicks his mandible at her—the left one, she notes—and settles back in his chair. He’s thicker than he used to be, even in the new, damaged armor; she’d never thought of him as thin, but the turian in front of her is dense with muscle she doesn’t remember, his waist sturdier, his shoulders broader, slumped with old fatigue. His eyes harder than they used to be…

“Admiring the view?” Garrus says, his voice dry, and Shepard startles so hard her coffee splashes over the rim.

There’s a little silence while she fetches a rag from Gardner’s station and returns, and then Shepard says, “I thought Cerberus was lying to me when I woke up. About how long it had been.”

“Two years.”

“Two years,” she says, intent on wiping down the brushed steel of the table’s surface, tinted brown with the spill from her coffee. “They gave me an omnitool in the shuttle, on the way to Freedom’s Progress. It wasn’t keyed to Alliance security protocols, so I couldn’t access any of my mail, but it had extranet capabilities. I thought…”

Her rag pauses. The reflection of Garrus, bulky and distorted in the dim metal, leans back in his chair. The gleam from his visor stretches, faint, glowing, along the table’s surface. “You thought?”

“I don’t know what I thought,” she says, and the corner of her mouth turns up in a humorless smile. “A program, maybe, to turn all the threes to fives. Fabricated articles on a limited network. It seemed more likely than someone sinking an impossible amount of credits into rebuilding someone who’d been spaced. I’m a good soldier, Garrus. I wasn’t—I’m not that good.” 

Clean enough. She overhand tosses the stained rag into the tiny sink from her chair, then takes a larger swallow from her coffee cup than she means. Part of her wonders if she should be telling Garrus this—protocol on a Cerberus ship is murky at the best of times, and he’s not even Cerberus to begin with—but the rest of her is coming down after three and a half days of a vibrating tension that had started the moment he’d taken his helmet off in that shitty Omega apartment, and she’d realized she had something to lose after all.

“Anderson came to see me,” Garrus says pensively, and Shepard chances a glance in his direction. He’s not looking at her, his eyes turned back towards the battery, but she suspects he’s seeing something else altogether, something far away and long ago. “Right after the reports started circulating that the Normandy had been destroyed. I didn’t believe them until two Alliance marines walked into my C-Sec office and escorted me to the briefing room where he was waiting.” Now it’s his turn for a laugh that sounds nothing like it, and he runs a taloned hand over his fringe. “Really, Shepard? I leave the crew for a few months and you blow up the damn ship and yourself with it.”

“The Collectors,” she says half-heartedly, and stops her hand halfway from reaching to the broken oxygen tube at the back of her neck. Breathing faster and faster, stars—space—the white curve of the planet below—stars again, and she’s sucking down air, sucking down—nothing— “If it matters, tell Joker—”

She cuts herself off. Tell Joker not to go down with the ship next time. But as comfortable as this is between—between friends, old friends, she won’t bring Joker’s part into this. “Never mind,” she says, her voice wry, and looks up at Garrus. “I’m sure you’ll keep this one better calibrated.”

“Hm.” Garrus watches her for a few moments, a piercing, alien blue that should be more uncomfortable than it is. She knows how her skin looks, cracked and gleaming an unholy red, tracing out new constellations that were never meant to exist, but she doesn’t feel half as much like a moth pinned to a slide as when Miranda had stared at her the same way in the shuttle. At last he relents, looking modestly at the table between them in a way that’s almost half-believable. “I’m sure I’ll find some way to exceed expectations.”

She snorts. “I’m sure.”

There’s another minute or two of stillness between them. Her cup has nothing but dregs now, cold; she drains even those, but doesn’t move to stand. “Garrus,” she says into the quiet, “I’m sorry about your team.”

She catches his flinch. It’s small enough she doesn’t know if she’d have seen it before the cybernetic enhancements, before spending seven months with him on a tight ship hunting down Saren. It’s big enough she won’t push this topic again, not any time soon.

“Yeah,” he says, eventually. “Me, too.”

Her cup is empty. So is his, the dull red streaks of the kava pods the only remnants left. A soft, shipwide tone sounds, signaling the end of the shift, and Shepard grips her mug until her knuckles whiten, just for a moment. The rumbling of the drive core beneath them…

“The door’s always open,” she says at last, and pushes to her feet. “Thanks for talking with me, Garrus.”

“The door’s always open,” he parrots, but his mandible flicks out in a crooked smile. “Commander.”

She smiles despite herself, and drops her mug into the sink, and goes.

Tali. Tali’Zorah nar Rayya, now Tali’Zorah vas Neema, new wraps over her armor and a new distance in the little space between them. Last week—just last week they’d been planning her return to the Flotilla together, and now when she takes an awkward step forward for a hug Tali backs away at the same pace, the cant of her head all shock and no joy.

“Shepard?” she says, as if it is a terrible thing, and for one bone-rattling moment her doubt bleeds into Shepard and makes her wonder, just for an instant, if she is alive after all.

“They’re saying two years, Tali,” she says, a little desperate, as if with one wrong word Miranda will wrap a perfect arm around her throat and drag her back into the drugged dark. “I didn’t—I’m sorry. I just—woke up.”

“Woke up,” she says doubtfully, but she doesn’t back further away. “Shepard, where have you been?”

“I don’t know.” Like stones in her throat, scraping her raw. “A station. Some station in the middle of nowhere. They’ve asked for my help.”

“And you’re helping them.”

Christ, she’s standing on the side of a sand dune, the world shifting just enough she can never quite catch her footing. The tone of Tali’s voice is so different. The body language—the way her hands hold back their gestures, just a little reserved, just a little cold. It feels like they’ve started all over again in that alley behind the Wards. “You could come with me.”

“Come with you? Shepard, you’re with Cerberus. How could you?”

I didn’t want to. I didn’t want to, Tali. I just want to figure out what’s going on—

I just wanted—

There’s always an instant of dull, stale terror when she wakes up, staring at empty space. Especially from dreams like that, when the painful truth merges with her own certainty everything ended above the white wasteland of Alchera and this is all nothing but—

But there are a thousand stars above her, glittering in the black, and the rush of terror fades as she returns to the world: expensive sheets on the Cerberus-issued bed, a few fish burbling sadly in the fish tank that makes no sense, her alarm clock softly thumping out something with a heavy bass line and synthetic violins. No silence. No harsh breathing echoing in her own ears.

The worst thing about dying, Shepard thinks, is what it does to her after.

“It was good to see Ash made it out,” Garrus says into the cramped shuttle. His voice is flat, no echo in the tight space; in the viewport Horizon grows smaller and smaller with distance, more peaceful, as if it hadn’t just had its heart ripped out and shot all to shit.

Oh, right. That had just been her.

Shepard doesn’t respond, her elbows on her knees and her fingers linked behind her neck. She shouldn’t have expected anything else. She shouldn’t have—Ashley has always been crystal clear about where she stands, and the shades of grey involved in a dead Alliance operative working under the flag of a terrorist organization were never going to fly. Should have known.

“Yeah,” she says at last, blank as she can make it, and straightens to lean her head back against the bulkhead.

The Cerberus agent piloting the shuttle leans around her chair. “Rendezvousing with the Normandy in less than ten minutes, ma’am.”

“Thanks, Parker.” She blows out a hard breath and closes her eyes. A moment passes, then two; she opens her eyes and cuts a glance at Miranda, conspicuously silent since they’d left the planet. “Did you have a dossier on Ash, too?”

Miranda lifts her chin, her gaze level. “Yes, Commander.”

“You didn’t give it to me.”

“The potential for recruitment seemed extremely low, even given your past ties. The Illusive Man felt it would not be the best use of resources.”

Shepard snorts without humor. Garrus shoots her a warning glance; she catches it out of the corner of her eye and, annoyed, crosses her arms. “Glad to see that decision was made for me.”

“Were we wrong?”

Her lip curls. She’d like to push up and pace around the shuttle, as irritable as Jack on the bad days, but she refuses to give her anger the satisfaction. “I’m sure you’re as thrilled as I am.”

“I forwarded every message you asked me to, Shepard,” Miranda says evenly. “To the best of my ability.”

“I know,” Shepard snaps, and now she does shove to her feet, though she restricts herself to the single step it takes her to reach the viewport. “The Alliance closed my account,” she tells Garrus without knowing why. He is a grey statue in the dimness of the shuttle; the only light comes from the glint of his plates where they reflect the planet’s glow and the blue glitter of his visor. “Wiped the archives, sealed my record. Six months after I—died. I couldn’t reach anyone. Some people whose codes I knew I could message directly, but there was no guarantee anything would make it past the filters, and even if it did no one—I knew no one would have believed me.”

“The Alliance has strict regulations regarding unsolicited contact from suspected terrorist organizations,” Miranda adds. Her eyes burn like embers in the dark. “As I said, I did what I could.”

Shepard’s voice drops, low. Ashamed. She forces herself to look him in the eye. “I did try to contact you, Garrus. Before Cerberus asked. Before—all this.” Only once, but—

A long handful of moments stretch by; then Garrus stands as well, grabbing at one of the overhead stability bars as the shuttle lurches through exterior atmosphere. The other hand he places on Shepard’s shoulder, gentler than it has any right to be given the inch-long talons she knows are hidden beneath the armored gloves. “I know, Shepard,” he says, and his voice is as soft as hers. “I know you wouldn’t quit just because you don’t like the way they do things.”

She huffs a laugh, absurdly grateful for the human contact (turian contact?) even through two layers of ablative ceramic. “Get the job done right, not fast, remember?”

“How could I forget? You lectured more than my father, sometimes.”

Ouch, Garrus.”

“Not to worry,” he says, and even in the dark she sees one blue eye wink at her. “I always liked your lectures, Shepard. Even when I disagreed with them.”

The shuttle pilot’s voice comes softly from the front of the shuttle. “Two minutes, Commander.”

She doesn’t look away from him. She’s not smiling, now. “Why did you come?”

“On this mission? Because you said if the plague hadn’t killed me on Omega a bunch of bugs probably couldn’t either, and you know how much I love proving you wrong.”

“Not to Horizon,” she says, and thumps his arm. He laughs, though his hand falls away from her shoulder, and even through the temperature-controlled hardsuit her skin feels colder without it. “In general. It’s a human colony problem. It’s a Cerberus crew.”

“I’m not part of Cerberus’s crew, Shepard. I’m part of your crew.”

“I’m wearing Cerberus colors.”

“By choice? No offense, Miranda.”

“None taken,” Miranda says. Her arms are crossed as she leans back against the shuttle’s wall, but there’s a faint smile playing over her lips that softens her severity. “Please, continue.”

Shepard shakes her head, and in the distance a white-and-black shape begins to resolve into the sleek silhouette of the Normandy. “A half-choice,” she mutters, then looks up into Garrus’s face. “Thanks, Garrus. For staying. It means a lot to have you here.”

“Anytime, Shepard.”

Sometimes, when she’s given up on trying to be professional in her reports, and she can’t sleep from the nightmares, Shepard browses the extranet for differences since she died. Some things are expected: politics, wars; others, minor enough to be unnoticeable, shake her more than she expects. An asari resort she remembers in early stages of construction in the Tayseri Ward has been open and seeing clients for six months. A new president of the United North American States has been elected, sworn in, and embroiled in a half-dozen political scandals. The fundraisers for the rebuilding of the Citadel lament the dwindling donations now that so much time has passed. The Shepard Memorial Scholarship has been established to send kids from rough Earth neighborhoods to military schools in other districts—

She slams the uplink closed with more force than she needs. The omnitool’s glow lingers a few moments before fading, a dim orange gleam thrown back from the glass of the fish tank and the white cotton of her sheets.

“No time at all,” Shepard says into the dark, and as the Normandy banks starboard the broad curve of a green planet rises silently out of the nothingness of space.

The worst part about dying, Shepard decides, is how many years she’s had to do it.

Fuck,” Shepard shouts, and throws herself back against the crumbling wall she’s using as tentative cover. The medigel dispensers in her armor pop and hiss in automatic response to her elevated heartbeat, the inflammatory proteins flooding her right shoulder, and an eternity’s second later the cool damp rush of the gel begins to seep through her skin. Not enough to stop the blood she’s already lost, or to repair the hole in her armor blown out like a banana peel, but enough to keep her arm functioning enough to squeeze the trigger. There’s another crackle, and her mass effect shields ripple in blue-green sparks as they reform over her shoulder.

Shep, status?” Kasumi’s voice in her ear, professional and calm. A crack from Garrus’s Mantis roars out over the battlefield, and one of the krogan staggers back, missing an eye, before falling to his knees with a shout.

“Fine,” she grunts, grasping her shotgun in a renewed grip. “Punched right through my shields. Gel’s already kicking in. Good to go in fifteen.”

Copy. Garrus?

Already on it,” says Garrus, and another crack drops an asari in commando gear from the dead man’s zone in the middle of their battlefield. “Take your time, Shepard. It’s just giving me a comfortable lead, anyway.”

“Cheap tactics,” she gasps, laughing, and closes her eyes as the bite of anesthesia reaches deep enough to numb her bones. “Play fair, Vakarian.”

Don’t get shot, Shepard,” he drawls, subharmonics dry enough through the tinny comms even she can pick up the inflection. “Two krogan on your eleven, five meters and closing.”

“I’m ready.” And she is, rolling to her toes, the shotgun held secure against her stomach as she peeks over the low cover. Three meters. She’s running low on heat sinks, but she’s as much a living gun anyway. “Cover me.”

Don’t even have to ask.”

That makes her smile, bright and dangerous, and as one of the krogan plants an armored fist on her wall and leans over to roar her death, she screams right back in his face, and the world lights a biotic blue as she charges head-first at him in answer.

Less than two hours later, she’s sitting in one of Chakwas’s medical bays, stripped down to the black tank she wears beneath her undersuit as Chakwas probes her shot shoulder with a variety of silver tools. “Fuck,” she says again, more plaintively, as Chakwas hits a particularly tender place and causes bones to rub together that certainly shouldn’t. “Ow.”

“I’ll guess you didn’t try to tear every muscle above the bicep.”

“I ducked,” Shepard says, defensive. “It was my head she was aiming for.”

Chakwas makes a doubtful noise and reaches into a drawer to fish out a rattling grey bottle. “Take four of these now,” she says, pouring them into Shepard’s hand and pressing a bottled water into the other. “And another every four hours until this time tomorrow. I need to do a few things here, now, but this will manage the pain.”

“I don’t need it.”

“You will,” Chakwas says severely, and stares until Shepard guiltily swallows the pills. “I’m here on this ship for a reason, Commander. I’m trying to get you back into the fight as quickly as possible with minimal lasting damage. Let me work, please.”

“You got it, doc,” she says, twisting her mouth around the bitter. “Can I read while you do it?”

“That’s fine.”

They settle after that into silence, broken only by the humming of Chakwas’s tools, the faint hiss of a vacuum pen, and the buzzing of the sterilizing mass effect field that surrounds most of Shepard’s right arm. Still, it’s harder than she’d like to focus; the painkillers have kicked in, and the words from the Illusive Man’s latest report keep swimming into each other. She’s never been great at reading at the best of times, and this is… “Ugh,” she mutters, and rubs her eyes with her free hand.

A knock on the window above Chakwas’s desk causes them both to lift their heads. The transparent polymers are half-shadowed—not completely blacked out, as they had been when Garrus’s life had been on the line after Omega—but she can still make out the glowing blue visor and the sweep of his fringe. “Can I come in?” he asks, muffled through the glass, and waves a datapad.

“Sure,” Shepard says, gesturing at the door, and though Chakwas grimaces she keys the lock open in answer. The door sweeps open with the habitual metallic hiss, and Garrus strides in, all seven feet of him suddenly making the space feel surprisingly small. “What do you need? Come to gloat over the new tally?”

Please, Commander.” His voice is absolutely dripping condescension, and she can’t help but laugh. “Only people insecure in their lead come to gloat to the competition, especially when the competition is an invalid.”

“Say invalid one more time, and I’m recalibrating the scope on your rifle.”

“You wouldn’t.”

“Try me.”

“Officers,” Chakwas says, stern as Samara, “if a single stitch of this work is undone thanks to this—banter, I’m throwing Mr. Vakarian back into the battery and locking the door.” She lifts one pointed eyebrow, and Garrus, chastened, holds out the datapad for Shepard’s perusal.

“Tali has preliminary reports from the data we pulled on the last mission.”

“What, already?”

He grins, needle-teeth on full display, and something in Shepard’s stomach flips without warning. “She works fast, you know that. Anyway, it looks like we have some information on the Collector ship—a possible location. The Illusive Man will have more for us. Do you want—Shepard? You okay?”

“Fine,” she says shortly, and realizes too late she’s fisted one hand against her ribs as if that might stop the unsettled fluttering. “I’m sorry, what were you saying?”

“Hm.” His eyes track down her neck now to her shoulder, to the mass of bruises and lacerations Chakwas still works on. “It can wait. Spirits, Shepard, if you’re trying to compete with my scars you picked a painful way to do it.”

She barks a laugh, then groans at the jolt to her arm. Chakwas tsks and makes some adjustment to the floating mass effect field generators to better immobilize her right side. “Ouch,” she says again. “I’d prefer it didn’t scar, actually, since this shoulder already has Cerberus-grade issues. But hey, if it does, I know just the turian to ask on how to dress it up.”

“What, you need me to teach you how to swagger?”

“Not all of us are handsome enough to pull it off without trying.”

She’s trying to tease him. She’s trying to tease him, but it comes out fucking sincere, and it knocks the breath right out of her. Chakwas’s tools pause just an instant at her shoulder before resuming. She can’t look up from the datapad; she has no idea if Cerberus has left her the ability to blush, but her throat feels hot as fire. What the hell?

Garrus laughs. It’s a normal laugh. Very turian, she’s pretty sure. Not strained at all. “Well, hey, I’ll take it. I won’t hold out for the rugged adventurer issue of Fornax, but that’s good enough for me. But—let’s hope it won’t scar, and then it won’t be a problem.”

“You’re just saying that because you want to keep your lead,” Shepard manages, only a little throttled. The words on the screen are gibberish anyway. “Maybe I should reset your visor instead of your scope.”

“Good luck with that,” he says, and winks again as he taps the metal curve with a talon. “This baby doesn’t come off.”

Several responses tangle on the tip of her tongue, every single one inappropriate, every single one stunning her by being present at all. Is that a challenge? I can think of a few occasions. Let me see what I can do. “I’ll figure something else out, then,” she says at last, staggered and now completely adrift in the conversation. “Sorry, Garrus.”

“Sorry?” he echoes, bending a little closer, his brow-plates furrowed in obvious confusion. “Dr. Chakwas, how much did you give her?”

“Enough to keep her still,” Chakwas says tartly, and rests the heels of her hands on Shepard’s spine. “And I think you’ve stayed quite long enough.”

“Sure, sure,” he says, chuckling, both hands raised in surrender as he pushes back to his full height, then swipes the datapad from Shepard’s grasp. “Let me know when you want to look over that report again, Shepard.”

“Yeah,” she says, and buries her face in her other hand as the door hisses shut.

What the hell? What the hell? A side effect of the painkillers, obviously. Mouth run away with her, inhibitions lowered, whatever part of her brain responsible for restraint damn lobotomized. Not all of us are handsome enough to pull it off. Jesus Christ. Handsome? That needle-mouthed mandibled face? Might as well call a gun a work of art. Handsome, please.

Garrus, laughing at her, one mandible flicking out in amusement. Garrus leaning against the counter in the mess, arms casually crossed, shrugging one shoulder as he drawls something sarcastic about her habit of charging first, shooting later. Garrus’s hand on her shoulder in the shuttle, three long, strong fingers, taloned tips clicking gently on the ceramic armor through the steel-weave gloves. Anytime, Shepard.

She wants to ask Chakwas what was in the painkiller. She doesn’t say it, though, because to know would be worse, and instead drags her hand down her face until she can stare at the sanitized white wall across the medbay.

Chakwas opens her mouth to speak, but whatever she sees in Shepard’s eyes silences her, and she goes back to work on her shoulder without comment.

Thanks, Shepard thinks, and suppresses a wild urge to laugh. Handsome.

Christ.

The worst thing about the dying, Shepard thinks, stepping square into the sightline of one of the best snipers she’s ever known, is when they don’t—

Thane, blessedly, understands without her having to say a word. She drops him off at the transit station from their rented skycar, and before Garrus can even start to reach for his door she’s pulled away from the kiosk again. Thane folds his palms together and inclines his head, those black eyes holding hers, before turning and heading towards Bachjret Ward and the apartment Shepard knows Kolyat keeps there. Then it’s a swift turn back into traffic, cutting off an asari in a taxi, and—silence. 

It's not a good silence. Garrus is seething, angrier than she’s ever seen him, and he’s angry at her. His fists are tight on his thighs, the gloves straining at the seams, and he will not look at her. He doesn’t even pretend to look out the passenger window; just straight ahead, jaw set tight as stone, his mandibles pulled so hard to his face they’ll leave indents.

She’s sorry, and she isn’t. But either way, they’re not leaving this car until she knows he won’t do something profoundly idiotic when they land.

Like putting your skull between a sniper and his target? Who do you think you are, Irikah?

Shut up, Shepard tells herself, and drives.

It’s an aimless route. Long skyways course all over the Citadel, including Zakera Ward; she picks one without accident or slowdown warnings and lets it take them where it will. Nothing fancy, nothing fast. Just…motion. Just getting away from everything left behind, just for a minute.

My brother used to do this for me, she wants to tell him. When we were kids. When I was really, really, really pissed. Get the cycle from behind the bunkhouse and just—go. Anywhere we could, until the charge ran down or we ran out of road. I did it when he left, too. I drove for hours…

She’ll drive for hours, here, if it’ll help.

“I don’t want to talk about this,” Garrus says abruptly. Too sharp into the silence, too loud. She’s never been so grateful for the sound of his voice in her life. “I know you think you did the right thing, but—”

But he doesn’t think so. But it’d have been better if she hadn’t come. She knows him well enough to read between these lines.

“I’m sorry, Garrus.” And she is, sorry to the roots of her bones that he’s in this much pain and she’s done nothing but make it worse. “For what it’s worth, I don’t think you’ll regret this.”

Regret!” he explodes, and slams a fist so hard on the window she’s shocked it doesn’t crack. “There are ten people dead on Omega, Shepard, good people, who only wanted to make a difference for people who couldn’t protect themselves, because I trusted the wrong man. Don’t tell me what I’ll regret.”

She’s silent. Her adrenaline’s up, now, and she knows his visor will tell him so—if he’s even capable of paying attention to it—but she grew up around anger and this is, in many ways, a comforting familiarity. Besides, she knows Garrus. She knows Garrus, and she trusts him.

Soon enough, he bends forward in the passenger seat and rakes his talons over his fringe. The visor comes off in the downstroke, caught on a finger gripped too hard, and she glances over once to see it curled in a fist, his eyes wandering aimlessly over its metal curve. There’s writing inside it, she sees, and she doesn’t ask.

“Sorry about that,” he says at last, and she knows his subharmonics well enough to be relieved that the wild, violent edge is gone out of them. “I’d like to believe this was the right thing, but…”

She waits, merges into the faster lane. Someone down the line honks—not at her, for once—and they follow the skyway’s gradual turn into the Citadel’s artificial sunset.

He leans back, carefully enough that his fringe doesn’t catch on the headrest, and closes his eyes. “I think I just let my only chance for justice for my men walk out of that ward alive.”

“Give it time.”

He snorts. “Yeah. Maybe that’ll be enough.”

“Garrus…”

He looks at her. She can see it in her periphery, his strange scarred alien face turned in her direction, his shoulders still up defensively, his hands still tight on his knees. A turian from Palaven whom she knows better than most humans, whom she trusts more than anyone, whose grief right now is so palpably strong it’s seized around her heart like a stone vice. Her chest is so tight she can hardly speak.

“Anderson told me once,” she says, and the ache is in her throat now, too, damn, “that the lines of good and evil get blurry when we’re looking at people we know. You have good instincts. You always have. You made the right choice, Garrus. Trust yourself.”

He lets out a soft, noiseless laugh, more bitter than anything else, but the sigh he lets out after is more real. “Even if I don’t trust myself, I trust you. That’ll have to be enough for now.”

Like a flower from an asari hothouse, blossoming all at once behind her ribs. The hot coal of sorrow is still there, a burning root, but there’s something else grown inside her without her noticing, something strong enough to bear the pain. To cherish it even as it eases.

Her mouth opens and the joke falls out, graceless as a colt. “We can always kill him later, if you want.”

He snorts again, but there’s real humor in it now, and when he cuts a glance at her there’s hardly any tension at the corners of his eyes. “Let’s get back to the Normandy. I’m ready to be off the Citadel for a while.”

“You got it, big guy,” she says, and only runs one car off the skyway as she pulls off to the exit.

It’s not turians in general. She checks, surreptitiously flipping through issues of Fornax and—at EDI’s suggestion—Joker’s massive and inexplicable collection. Too alien, even after all this time. She can appreciate some things in an aesthetic way—a well-trimmed fringe, or the sharp curve of a waist posed just so behind an artful rockfall, but it doesn’t do a thing for her in the way of tingling fingers or her stomach flipping just by looking. There’s only one flanging voice that seems to matter in the slightest, and as far as she can tell, he doesn’t have the faintest idea.

Well. Probably best this way, she decides, and while Zaeed tells her about a krogan he once hunted through the caverns of a porous asteroid, she compacts the magazine issues into cubed trash and flings them into space.

I don’t know what to do with grey.

Watching Miranda and Mordin upgrade her cybernetics with new weave is the closest she’s come to throwing up without a stomach injury in years. The needles aren’t bad, really, even though they’re long as hell; it’s the syringes attached to them that really bother her, thin and slender and glittering with the microscopic weaves rolled tight as fists inside, attached to long tubes that feed into a machine larger than a varren. Mordin shows her the designs enthusiastically when she asks, muscle maps tagged with biometric markers to ensure a perfect fit, overlays upon overlays to enhance her strength, her durability, her stamina.

Leap one meter farther than before. Take one more bullet before falling. A little harder, a little stronger, a little less…

Too bad the weave burns like holy fire the first thirty-six hours as it adheres to her rebuilt muscle and bone. She lies in Chakwas’s medbay, sweating from every pore, the windows black as space as she tries not to scream. Not as bad as Alchera. Not as bad as the few times she woke into twilight consciousness on the Lazarus station. Not good, either.

The worst thing about dying, Shepard decides through gritted teeth, knuckling sweat out of her eyes, is the way it fucking hurts.

Breathe. In, out.

The crack of the Mantis splitting the air. A Collector drops, its head turned to pulp. She’s already turning: charge, armored fist to the chin, butt of the shotgun to the other’s forehead. Spin on the heel; shotgun slammed to the first’s stomach, muzzle past all its shields. Fire, braced for recoil.

Crack, on her six. Charge in answer, biotics so hot she can feel the base of her skull sizzling. Duck under the assault rifle fire, backhand across the face with the shotgun, boot across the chittering throat and squeeze the trigger.

A clawed hand yanking hard on her shoulder—

Crack. The Collector’s body falls limp, headless, and the clawed fingers slide away. She doesn’t pause to look back. She’ll thank him later.

Why the hell not? There’s nobody in this galaxy I respect more than you.

Charge, punch. Duck under the Scion’s swinging arm and get the shotgun up into its twisted, elongated spine. Three shots and the shoulder’s screaming again at the recoil—later. Later.

We could test your reach…and my—

“Shepard! Behind!” Tali’s voice. Alarmed.

Don’t think. Turn, charge. Two on Garrus on his sniper’s perch, fiery red arms scrabbling at blue armor as he tries to shove them off; three more behind, abominations and warped husks crawling from vents they’d missed. Shotgun to the skull of the first, tear the second off. Boot to the chest, shotgun to the third behind them; charge over the hollow roar of Tali’s shotgun joining hers.

Done. Done, done. She extends a hand, helps him to his feet. They’re both breathing hard, and her skin is electric in a way that has nothing to do with the cybernetics.

“Thanks,” he says, rough and dark.

“Anytime,” she gasps, and wonders if he can see her pulse jackhammering with the fight. She can’t wipe the grin off her face. “What a rush, Garrus!”

“You’re a monster,” he says, and she doesn’t think she’s imagining the affection behind his tone. “Let’s go.”

There. More Collectors on the next level of the derelict Reaper, wings buzzing, fascinating, repulsive. Don’t think. Later. Charge—breathe—in, out—

This is about us.

He’s got her six. Has had it from the start, when no one else in the damned galaxy trusted her farther than they could throw her. More than any so-called family she’s ever had. She doesn’t have to look to know where his next shot will be; she’s already moving to account for it. She’s here in the front lines where she belongs, feet on the ground and gun in her hand, biotics screaming at her fingertips; and he’s on overwatch where he belongs, covering her blind side and calling her shots when she can’t see the target for the smoke.

Didn’t think you had a weakness for men with scars.

A pause at a door while Tali hacks their way through. Shepard throws her back against the alien metal jamb, swallowing down a wild laugh. Garrus leans on his rifle, watching their flank.

“Better or worse than the thresher maw?” he asks suddenly, his head tilted back over his shoulder.

Even through the opaque helmet, she can read the grin on his face. “Tough call,” she says, checking her own armor’s seals from habit. “Just had one big enemy then, something we could focus down between the klixen. This, neck-deep inside an undead Reaper—” she spreads her arms wide— “who knows! Could be certain death around every corner!”

“You sound overjoyed.” His voice is so dry. “Okay, one thresher-maw-sized Collector, or a hundred Collector-sized thresher maws—”

“Got it!” Tali proclaims, and the door obediently swishes open. “Also, you two are both idiots.”

Shepard laughs, following her through the door; Garrus’s hand rests on her shoulder, just for an instant, and Shepard allows herself to reach up and grip his wrist in answer. Then—gunfire, and the cracked-lava glow of Harbinger exploding through the shape of one of the Collectors, and the voice inside her skull screaming this hurts you, Shepard.

Shit, she thinks, blood thumping battle in her skin, and closes her eyes.

Breathe. In, out. Don’t think. Just—

Crack!

Yeah. Definitely.

—charge.

“So, what’s the kill count up to?”

“I checked this morning. I’ve been letting you catch up, you know, so it’s not really accurate. Don’t want to give you a false sense of hope.”

“Bullshit. Am I ahead?”

“Please, Shepard, who do you think I am?”

“Ha! I’m ahead. I knew it.”

“I’m still up by four.”

“Show me. Fine. I’ll get it on the next mission.”

“You’d better. Grunt is hard on your tail. Give me your cup and I’ll refill it. I’m getting up anyway.”

“Thanks, and he is not. Don’t lie to the poor kid.”

“That ‘poor kid’ asked me last week if he could peel off a turian’s fringe piece by piece, like peeling a—oh, what’s the human fruit. The yellow one with the stem that looks like a crescent moon.”

“Pineapple? Banana?”

“That one. You don’t take any of these little packets, right? The salt. Or sweetener. I forget which.”

“No, black is good. Besides, I’m sure he was only teasing.”

“Grunt is as likely to tease anyone as Legion is, and you know it. Just accept that the krogan teenager is not ‘cute’ and live with the consequences of keeping a living tank going through puberty in port cargo.”

“Well—thanks—he is cute, but don’t worry about the angry teenage tank. I’ll protect you.”

“I…hm.”

“Garrus? You okay?”

“Yeah. I…huh. That worked better on me than I thought.”

“Oh! I…well, all right, then. Good.”

“Interesting. Y’know, Joker told me about this. It’s not a thing turians do, blush. Our hide’s thick enough it doesn’t show easily, and besides, turian blood is blue. The closest thing we get is a purple tinge around the edges of our plates—”

“Shut up, Garrus. God. Stop laughing!”

“Hah! Sorry. Sorry! Don’t throw that mod, I need it.”

“There’s a human saying about glass houses and stones I need to teach you. Hey, Garrus?”

“Yeah?”

“I meant it.”

“I know, Shepard. Same.”

“Good.”

Shepard wakes with a start. The cabin is dark, her consoles off and silent for the night; a soft watery glow from the dimmed fish tank lights is the only relief, blue reflections broken here and there by her nightstand clock, by the glitter of stars through the viewport above her bed.

Her heart’s pounding. The dream’s already begun to fade, something terrible about the other side of the Omega-4 relay, something white and cold as Alchera and just as dispassionately fatal, and Shepard closes her eyes. Without prompting, the clock quietly begins to play a dance mix from an asari drum group, the bass line heavy and melodic.

“EDI?” Shepard says into the dark, and licks her dry, cracked lips. “Spying on me again?”

“I apologize, Commander.” Even the AI’s voice is low, just above a whisper in the dark. “I have observed that silence tends to exacerbate the elevated heart rate you often experience after interrupted sleep. In the absence of other alternatives, I thought you might find this music… soothing.”

“Well, I do. What a damn nightmare.”

“I do not experience dreams, but it appeared particularly unpleasant.”

She snorts indelicately, then rubs a palm over her mouth, eyes, up to the crown of her head. Her skin is slick with sweat. “EDI. Can you choose what goes to the Illusive Man?”

“I have some limited discretion in recording selection, yes. Conversations deemed irrelevant to mission success may be stored locally and later deleted if found to be unnecessary. Does that answer your question, Commander?”

“Can you deem this conversation irrelevant?”

There’s a long pause—especially long, given the speed of EDI’s processing. The asari’s drumming finishes, then moves into a pulsing synthpop record that features electronic loops of krogan battle cries.

“Yes, Commander,” EDI says at last, and if she didn’t know better she’d say the AI sounds almost pleased. “This recording has been quarantined and will be scrubbed at conclusion.”

“Thanks,” Shepard says into the quiet, blue-dim room, and stares up at the infinite dark. “Thanks, EDI.”

The worst part about dying, she thinks, is that it’s the loneliest thing she’s ever done.

“Of course, Commander.”

“Hey,” Shepard says into the silence. A comfortable quiet, for once. She’s not used to them in her cabin.

Garrus’s voice is dry, but she can feel the anxious flick of his mandible against her cheek. “Hey.”

“You know…” She licks her lips, then sighs. To hell with it. “You know you’re not the only one who has no idea what they’re doing, here.”

“To be honest, your accelerated pulse is the only thing keeping me from throwing myself out the airlock right now.”

Shepard laughs, short and real. “Whatever works. Do you want the wine?”

“No. It’s levo, anyway.”

“Garrus! How are we supposed to do this, then? Sober?”

Now he pulls himself away, but the grin on his face is enough to keep her from turning tail herself. “I guess we’ll have to talk it through, one step at a time. I know how much you love to talk, Shepard.”

She settles her arms on his shoulders carefully, linking her fingers together behind his head, just under his fringe. Her elbows rest snug inside his cowl, a better fit than she could have expected; more to the point, he doesn’t flinch away. Instead he leans forward, just enough into her space she can tell it’s deliberate, and that thing behind her ribs warms and swells. She smiles, almost giddy. “That’s a dangerous line you’re walking, Vakarian.”

“You know how I feel about playing fair.”

“Hm.” Well, she’s never been one to think before charging in headfirst. “I want to kiss you, Garrus. I don’t think it does much for turians—at least, based on my own, uh, research—but to be honest, it’s going to do a hell of a lot for me.”

“Yeah, okay,” he says, so she does. 

His mouth is rougher than a human’s and significantly less flexible, but he’s warm as hell and her sheer fucking satisfaction that they’re here at all does a lot to make up for it. One of his arms snakes around her waist, a three-fingered hand splaying over the small of her back, and she gives an encouraging hum into his mouth. He laughs, a soft thing that makes her skin tingle like a teenager’s; she laughs herself, and untangles one hand to run her nails down the back of his skull.

He shudders. Garrus Vakarian shudders under her hands, and she’s felt less powerful standing on the other side of a battlefield with her shotgun still smoking.

“Spirits, Shepard.”

She’s pretty confident she can read him by now, but she might as well check. “Good?” she murmurs against his mouth. “Bad? …Horrible interspecies awkwardness thing?”

“Now, now,” he says, rolling his shoulders like a krogan going into a fighting ring. The hand on the small of her back tightens. “Let’s not stroke anyone’s ego.”

“No?” she says, smirking, and as she runs her fingernails back up the back of his head, he bites her.

He bites her bottom lip, more of a nip than anything—certainly not enough to draw blood—but it’s a bolt of lightning that zips right down her spine to make her excruciatingly aware of every inch of her own skin. She can’t help the gasp, can’t help either that her knees are suddenly rubber.

“Good? Bad?” His mouth is at her ear, now, teasing and entirely too pleased with himself—but she can hear the uncertainty still flanging behind it. Oh, Garrus.

“Vakarian,” she says, bringing his other hand up to her waist, “you keep that up, and this is gonna become a habit.”

He gives a startled, pleased laugh, and before she can start thinking Shepard pulls him over to the bed. She’d even made it up earlier, tucking in box creases like she hasn’t since basic, propping up the pillows, clearing the nightstand of her endless stack of datapads and unfinished mods. Not that either of them cares, as she pushes Garrus to a seated position on the edge of the mattress and carefully, watching his face, settles herself in his lap, her bent knees on either side of his hips.

His hands come back to her waist automatically, which fucking delights her, and she cups his unscarred jaw in one hand. After a moment, she does the same to his other side, her fingertips resting carefully on the bandage that still covers half his face; she knows the swelling is gone, the tenderness minimal, but there’s enough wrapped up in turian culture and Garrus’s own history here that she’s not going to push her luck. Not yet.

He's watching her, those alien blue eyes fixed on hers like she’s the last thermal clip between him and a horde of husks. Shepard strokes her thumb down the seam of his bandage; he mirrors the motion along her side. “The biting thing really works for me,” she says plainly, and has the pleasure of watching his eyelids flutter in surprise before he smiles.

“That so?”

“Mm. I don’t like bleeding, and I don’t want to be gnawed like a varren leg, but a little here and there is, uh. Good.”

“Well, if there’s one thing turians are good at, it’s biting.” His eyelids flutter again, though this time it’s in response to her warning squeeze with her thighs, pressed to either side of his waist. His mandibles flick against her palms, both sides even, strong. “Getting, uh, disarmed by that is another, I guess.”

Shepard laughs, squeezing again, and lets go of his face to grasp the hem of her shirt instead. She pulls it off, tosses it to a corner; just a sports bra now, simple and black, and she stifles a snort that his eyes drop to her ribs and the curve of her waist before working back up, almost as an afterthought, to her breasts. Turians. Still, the vids could only teach so much; his plated skin’s not nearly as hard as she’d feared, his thighs muscled and warm under her ass, and his hips have enough callus-like give to them under his civvies she’s significantly less worried about chafing.

“Shepard,” Garrus says, and drags in a breath.

Shit. “You want to stop?”

“No!” he says, startled, and his eyes fly to hers. “Spirits, no. It’s just…”

She swallows, hard. “You say the word, and we’ll call it quits. Everything back to normal, just like it was.”

He lets out a shaky laugh and presses his forehead to hers. “I don’t think ‘normal’ is on the table for us anymore, Shepard.”

“Well. As close as we get.”

He shakes his head without pulling back, then draws one blunted talon up her spine to the nape of her neck and down again. “Nah. This is good.”

“This is us,” she offers, though she feels like an idiot as soon as the words leave her mouth.

Still, his eyes soften, and before she can second-guess herself Garrus leans in to kiss her. She likes it even more the second time around; now she’s learning to navigate his mandibles, to test his control of those teeth, figuring out how to get her tongue next to his in a way that satisfies them both. Her fingers slide up under his fringe again, and this time she’s rewarded with an open-mouthed groan.

“I’ll tell you,” she says against his mouth. Her heart is racing; she hopes he can see it through that damned visor. It’s important, somehow, that he knows what he’s doing to her. “What feels good. What works for me. If you’ll do the same.”

“I can do that.” He closes his eyes, then opens them again to look at her, and he’s smirking in a way that has her stomach flipping as hard as it had that day in the medbay. One thumb comes up, tracing her bare shoulder-blade with a delicate talon: unscarred, thanks to Chakwas’s expertise. “For the record, you should compliment my fringe. Very important in turian culture.”

“Your fringe is goddamn magnificent. Never seen a better one in my life. What else should I know?”

He laughs, and his voice is dripping with that same half-serious swagger as when he first told her the story of the recon scout. “I trimmed my talons for you. It’s considered polite with a non-turian partner, but hey. I’m very considerate that way.”

“Most considerate turian I’ve ever met.” Shepard toys with the clasps of his shirt, unable to repress her smile. “Friendliest, too.”

“I should have known when you called me ‘handsome’ you were just trying to seduce me.”

“Did it work?”

Garrus smiles. Not a smirk, this time, no swagger, no style. It’s bare and honest and as genuine a smile as she’s ever seen from him, and that thing behind her ribs bursts like a silent star. “Yeah,” he says, and curls his fingers around her jaw. “It works, Shepard.”

And somehow, against all odds, it does.

The thing about dying, Shepard thinks later, staring at the silent spread of space from the pillow of Garrus’s arm, is that there’s a thousand ways to do it, but only a few that matter.

“Thought you might be down here.”

Shepard turns to see Garrus emerge from the elevator, a bottle in one hand and a datapad in the other. He’s freshly showered, as is she; more than that, he’s donned the turinex shirt that says Cipritine down one sleeve, too, the action of setting aside his armor for the evening itself a nod to their victory. “Hey.”

“Mind if I join you?”

“Never,” she says with a half-smile, and gestures from her perch atop the Hammerhead’s nose plating. “Cargo bay’s a free country.”

Garrus comes over—and she thinks if anyone could pull off a relaxed swagger, it’s him—and leans against the tank by her dangling right foot. “Not interested in joining the revelry?”

She holds up his forgotten bottle of champagne with a rueful smile. “Brought my own.”

“So did I,” Garrus admits, and pulls out the stopper of his horosk with his teeth. He takes a long swallow, and Shepard watches the side of his throat shift with the motion.

“I was there long enough,” she says after a minute or two. “At some point, it’s better for morale if the commanding officer steps out.”

“You’re only saying that because Daniels is running a poker game and fleecing every crew member on the ship, and you don’t want to ruin it.”

“It was just Donnelly and Tali when I left.”

Garrus laughs, and a lazy ripple of pleasure trembles up her spine at the sound. “You could have put them through their paces.”

“Nah, let them have fun.” She takes another deep swallow from the bottle, then rakes a hand over her head and stares across the bay at the transport shuttle, quiet and still, the Cerberus insignia dully reflecting the bay’s running lights. “You scared the shit out of me, Garrus. At that last gate. Thought I’d made a bad call, gotten you killed.”

“Well, it wasn’t fun watching you leap an impossible gap with the base exploding behind you, either.”

His voice is mild, but she can sense the edge in the dual tones. Their lives are nothing but close calls, after all, and dwelling on them is a quick way to drive them both insane. Or maybe it’s just the champagne talking. “Fine,” she says after another drink. “I’m glad you’re not dead.”

“Admit it. You only want me for my body.”

Two can play at that game. “I don’t know. It might be nice to see what happens when there isn’t a timer for a suicide jump hanging over our heads.”

His turn to drink, but there’s laughter in his voice when he’s done. “Don’t make promises you can’t keep, Shepard.”

“You’re doubting me, Vakarian?”

“Never.”

No teasing, there. Frank and sincere, just like his face when he looks up at her over his shoulder. Her throat tightens and, inexplicably, tears prickle at the backs of her eyes. “Smooth talker. Christ.”

“What can I say? It’s a gift.”

Shepard snorts, and a companionable silence falls over the cargo bay. Every now and then they spy crew passing by the windows overlooking the bay: a pair of Cerberus—ex-Cerberus?—soldiers tiptoe into starboard cargo, holding hands; Jacob passes by as he tries to rein in an obviously inebriated Jack, while Kasumi sneaks exaggeratedly after them both. Someone flips a switch somewhere and the bank of overheads on the cargo bay flicker out, leaving them both in the dimness of the blue light strips that run the center aisle and a handful of diagnostic panels, gleaming orange in the dark.

The bottle’s empty. Ah, well.

“Hey, Garrus?”

“Yeah?”

“Remember that time right after you came on board, where you found me standing outside Miranda’s office?”

“Yeah.”

“I was lost. You were right. I kept trying to go to that door out of habit. My old cabin.”

“Yeah, I figured. Well, you weren’t the only one.”

Not lost now, though. For once she’s surer of her next steps than she’s ever been in her life.

“Hey, Garrus.”

“Mm.”

“You want to come up? Doesn’t have to be for another tiebreaker. But if we want to keep talking, I’ve at least got a couple couches that are more comfortable than this tank.”

One mandible flicks out as he grins up at her, blue eyes gleaming with promise, and the image prints itself perfectly in her mind. Stylish as hell. “Definitely.”

He reaches up a hand and she takes it, letting him take a part of her weight as she slides off the Hammerhead’s nose, and she doesn’t stop the grin as his grip lingers on her waist a little longer than necessary. So she pushes to her toes and kisses him, quick, because she can, and turns towards the elevator. “You coming, Vakarian?”

“Lead the way, Shepard.”

So she does, and he follows: on her six, as always.

The thing about dying, Shepard thinks, is that no one ever mentions that it’s worth it, sometimes, to get to the living that comes after.