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Taking a Punch

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He hears Shepard before he sees her.

“Get us the hell out of here, Joker!” she’s shouting before the airlock even closes, and by the time Garrus gets around the corner of the CIC she’s already hunched over Joker’s shoulder in the cockpit, her hands tight on the leather chair, her shoulders high and hard as the relay looms imminently monstrous in the viewport.

“Where?”

Anywhere! Just get us out!”

The Normandy lurches as some swelling force off the asteroid hurtles towards them from behind. On Joker’s displays, the research facility’s pinpoint lights flicker wildly with electrical surges. His hands fly over the controls, his jaw set as EDI calls out a locked destination with her synthetic voice uncharacteristically strained; then the familiar humming hiss kicks through the air as the ship swerves alongside the relay and plunges into FTL.

The instant the viewport washes white and blue Shepard spins on her heel, pounding back down the corridor towards the CIC and nearly trampling Garrus in the process. She doesn’t acknowledge him; he doesn’t stop her, even with more than two days of radio-silent fear and dead relief at the back of his throat. Her armor is covered in scorch marks and flecked with divots where gunfire made it past her shields. He can see blood on her face even through the half-smoked helmet. Her eyes are wild and, he thinks, desperate—

She skids at the last corner and takes all the steps to the galaxy map at once. Her fingers skim over the stars almost as fast as Joker’s, scanning across systems, plucking the Viper Nebula from the rest and then diving deeper in, to Bahak, and—

The CIC is silent. The crew doesn’t even bother with the pretense of bustle, all eyes on Shepard as she watches Bahak’s relay explode without a sound. Aratoht flickers, goes out. Clogon is next, then Yunaca; the rest follow one by one, little spots of light blinking out into nothingness. In a matter of moments, the system is dark.

Shepard’s fingers are so tight around the guardrail the metal creaks. After a moment she drops her head, horrifying defeat in the gesture, and Garrus swallows. Something is wrong in his chest, something tight and hard to breathe through, and he can’t make himself move from the top of the steps to the CIC. Someone’s workstation beeps faintly behind him, plaintive and unattended.

Abruptly, Shepard kicks the low wall that separates her from the map. It’s a violent kick, the ablative ceramic on metal a shocking clang in the otherwise quiet deck, and more than one crewmember jumps. She rears back, kicks it again—Garrus hears a joint cleave this time—and then Shepard rips off her helmet and throws it so hard into the wall behind her it dents the metallic surface. It’s the most careless, unprofessional thing he’s ever seen her do, and the helmet bounces twice in a rattling roll down the walkway before its momentum dies at an aghast serviceman’s feet.

She grips the railing again with both hands, her elbows locked tight as magnetic seals as she stares down at the map. Blood runs freely from her right temple down her cheek and chin. A few drops gather together and fall before she straightens, spattering across the empty space where Bahak used to be.

A stilting, uneven step behind him tells him Joker has left the cockpit to join the carnage. He stops at Garrus’s elbow, the lines around his human eyes deep with worry and exhaustion. Garrus doesn’t know what to say. Doesn’t know if there’s something that can be said. Bahak is gone, and Shepard…

“Kelly.”

It’s as sharp as the kick, and some of the crew jumps again, but the tight thing in Garrus’s chest gives way, if just a little. There’s control in her voice again, even behind the cold anger, and when Shepard lifts her head her gaze on the yeoman is steady.

“Commander?” Kelly's voice wavers a little, but there’s no hesitation to it. Better than he’d expected.

“Tell Miranda I want to see her in her office. Now. And I want all senior officers in the comm room in five minutes.”

“Aye, Commander.” Kelly touches her console; Shepard shuts her eyes and lets out a long, shallow breath through her teeth. Slowly the crew resume their duties, faces pale as they turn back to their stations one by one, their whispers just on the edge of hearing as if Shepard’s attention might be a lethal thing. He can’t say he blames them.

Then Shepard looks up at him from across the CIC, just for an instant. It hurts, so full of anguish he can’t stand it; Joker makes a sound like he’s been punched, and Garrus grips the wall. She drops her gaze and the terrible weight passes, and then she turns back to the waiting elevator, wiping ineffectively at the blood on her cheek with the back of her gloved hand.

“You, uh…” Joker starts, still a little winded. “You better get to the comm room, I guess.”

The joke is flat, but it’s the only way to save what’s left. “If I die in there, make sure you take care of the cannon for me.”

Joker smirks, almost real, and briefly grips Garrus’s shoulder. He hadn’t had time to get into his armor before this all began; Joker’s hand is warm through his civilian shirt, unusually grounding. “If you die in there, I’m telling the Hierarchy you abandoned your post without leave.”

Garrus chuckles, and they both pretend they can’t feel the anxious pressure of the crew’s gaze bearing down on him as he heads for communications.

Shepard walks into the comm room with Miranda eight minutes later—not that he’s counting—with her face wiped mostly clean and a shiny bandage reeking of medigel taped to her temple. Her cheeks have a little more color than before, though her eyes are still cold, and she goes immediately to the head of the table without greeting any of them. Her armored boots are very loud on the metal floor.

“What I am about to tell you,” Shepard says without preamble, “violates multiple Alliance regulations and Council protocols. I’ll be compromising several classified mission parameters and putting most of you in a difficult political position. Admiral Hackett will be here within a matter of hours. He may have me arrested, so this might be the only chance I have to explain without surveillance.” She says it easily, but even without proper subharmonics Garrus doesn’t miss the flutter in her voice on the word arrested.  “If anyone wants to leave now, do it.”

No one leaves. Thane folds his hands together at his mouth, eyes black and unblinking; Jack lets out a gusty, irritated sigh before resuming her pace along the back wall. “Just spit it out, Shepard. Two days. Fuck you.”

Garrus bristles, but a corner of Shepard’s mouth flicks up before she braces her palms on the table and begins to explain.

He does listen, really. There’s too much soldier in him not to pay attention to his commanding officer’s debrief, especially as Shepard unfolds the story of Dr. Amanda Kenson and the Alpha Relay and an unshielded Reaper artifact in the middle of an asteroid’s scientific outpost. But it’s a clinical, detached concentration, the back of his mind filing the information away to be re-examined later when he’s less—less whatever-this-is, less caught up in the catalogue of injuries he can see and the ones he can only guess at from her stiffened gait; less worried about the fatigue in her face and the dipping cadence of her voice as she tries and fails to keep it level. She’s the best friend he’s got, one of the only ones he has left, and she’s been gone for two days on a top-secret mission she’d said wouldn’t take more than a few hours. Any soldier would be concerned at a commanding officer gone dark. Any friend.

It would be easier if he could fool himself into believing it.

EDI pipes in now and then, offering suggestions and clarifications based on her superficial first-pass analysis of Shepard’s helmet recordings. Mordin gives quick, sharp nods, his questions short and to the point; Samara closes her eyes and listens without a word. It doesn’t take long—Shepard is nothing if not economical in her reports—and in a matter of minutes, The Project is activated, Kenson dies, and an asteroid turns the relay into a bomb. Bahak is extinguished once more, simple as flicking off a light on the way out of a room.

“Damn,” says Jacob, and drags a hand down his face. “Damn, Shepard.”

She smiles without mirth. “Miranda is going to look into the possibility of batarian survivors. Evacuees, whatever you want to call them. It’s possible some ships were near enough to the relay to get out before it was destroyed.”

The tilt of Tali’s head across the table, the gleam of her eyes shifting just so, is enough Garrus can tell she’s looking at him. He gives a minute shake of his head in answer; her fingers twist together, but she doesn’t say what they’re all thinking. Zaeed snorts.

“Shepard-Commander.” Legion from its place in the corner, alien eye glowing white. “We request access to your recorded data logs for further analysis.”

“EDI is already running calculations on how this will affect when the Reapers arrive. Barring some other travel tech we don’t know about, she’s thinking—what did you tell me, EDI?”

“Our data regarding Reaper technological capabilities is limited, but based on historical documentation of the Battle of the Citadel and our own sub-FTL encounters, I believe they will reach the next inhabited system with relay capability within eight months.”

Miranda lifts an eyebrow. “And how certain are you of that, EDI?”

“My margin of error is unfortunately broad. Next contact may be as soon as six months, or as delayed as ten. I calculate the likelihood of another full galactic standard year without Reaper invasion to be near zero.”

Shepard pushes off the table, looking across the room to Legion. “So there we have it. Is that what you wanted?”

“Thank you, Shepard-Commander, but these were not our target data.” The body shifts, hydraulic gears within whirring almost silently, and if Garrus didn’t know better, he’d say it looked almost—uncomfortable. “We detect multiple runtime errors in your code. We would like to run diagnostics to identify the source of the error.”

“My code?”

The aperture over Legion’s optic lens constricts, then dilates again, wider than before. “Given the imminent threat of invasion, the destruction of the Bahak system and its relay appears to have been unavoidable. A necessary sacrifice. However, analysis of your software indicates you are…upset.”

Shepard’s jaw tightens, her lips pressed thin. “I am going to be court-martialed for genocide, Legion. The mission failed and I may have singlehandedly driven the batarian race to extinction. Not to mention the Reapers are within eight months of invasion of the entire galaxy. So. Yes. You might say I am upset.”

There’s a long silence. Legion watches Shepard, very still; at last it says in the same tone, “Inquiry withdrawn.”

She gives a tight-lipped smile and inclines her head. “I’ll have a full report for you all by this time tomorrow. If I’m not here to give it, Miranda will make sure you get a copy. She will also be in touch regarding offload plans for each of you. Dismissed.”

It’s as curt a goodbye as she’s delivered in some time, and it stings again when she strides out of the comm room without waiting for any of them. The rest of the crew follow after, not speaking, in slow singles and pairs; Garrus and Tali are the last by unspoken agreement, and Grunt, shifting uncomfortably, falls into step with them on the way out.

“Shepard is angry,” he says pensively. As pensive as Grunt can be, anyway. “I do not like it.”

Garrus rolls his head on his shoulders. The scars have tightened up again—from how long he’s been clenching his teeth, he’s sure—and the whole right half of his face burns at the stretch. “I thought you liked being angry.”

“Good battle-anger, yes. This is different. Impotent. If I could see Shepard’s enemy right now, fight it and defeat it, it would be better. I don’t like the idea of waiting. Talking.

“I don’t think there’s much of a choice,” Tali says, not ungently. “For what it’s worth, I don’t think she wants to wait either.”

“Nothing should stand between Shepard and her enemy. As clan, we should kill the humans if they try to take her from the battlefield.”

Garrus laughs, short and sharp. “I don’t think she would thank you for the help, Grunt. Sometimes you have to take a short-term loss to secure a victory later.”

Grunt sneers as they step into the elevator, hammering the down button with one fist. “Turians.”

There’s a gentle shift as the elevator drops, and the door hisses open to the familiar walls of the crew deck. Grunt paces off to the mess, grumbling to himself; Tali pauses when Garrus does not follow. “Are you coming, Garrus?”

He should. He really should. There’s not much classic turian instinct left in him after months on Omega and even less after two tours on Shepard’s ship—one to the end of the galaxy and back again—but everything he’s got left is screaming he should get off the elevator, leave his commanding officer to her private decompression after a bad mission, and find her another time once she’s able to grip herself together again. Keep her professionalism intact. Keep the world turning as it should, polite and composed, just a little longer.

Two days, and Shepard’s helmet ricocheting off the wall of the CIC—

“I’ll catch up with you later,” he says instead, and lets Tali’s worried, wringing hands disappear behind the closing elevator door.

After the third unanswered ping, Garrus hacks the door to Shepard’s cabin. It only works because EDI allows it—which, he thinks, is as much a mark of the AI’s concern as his own—and when it opens, it’s to the sound of running water and some terrible asari synthpop from Shepard’s nightstand clock. The dim blue glow of the enormous fishtank is the only illumination save a few twinkling datapad LEDs strewn across her desk and the dark of starlight through her overhead viewport, and for a few seconds he can’t find Shepard in the gloom. The bathroom, when he glances in, is empty—though he does take the opportunity to shut off the unattended shower—and then his visor helpfully locks to where she sits on the side of her bed, still in full kit, her elbows on her knees and her head drooped below her shoulders.

His side of the bed, whispers some traitorous voice in the back of his head. At least, the side he’s slept on the handful of times he’s stayed here since the suicide mission. Damn.

“Shepard,” he says instead, low. “Hey.”

She jerks, her eyes wide and glittering dangerously in the dark as her head swings up to meet him. “Garrus,” she says after a moment, as if trying to convince herself, but at least the look of hunted prey begins to ease. “I didn’t hear you come in.”

“Can’t imagine why.” He tosses her helmet towards her, one-handed. “You forgot this.”

She catches it with a dull clack. “Thanks,” she says flatly, then looks down at the muted reflection of herself in the visor. “Wish I hadn’t done that in front of the crew.”

“They’ll recover.”

“Shouldn’t have done it at all. Shitty way to treat good equipment.”

“You don’t have to beat yourself up for everything, Shepard. Jacob can take a look at it later.” She glares at him, unsmiling, and too late Garrus realizes what he’s said. “That’s… not what I meant.”

“Yeah.” She pushes off the bed and begins to strip her armor in rapid, efficient motions. The mag-seals sigh at every release. “You need something, Garrus, or you just here to look at the newest exhibit at the zoo?”

“Come on. Don’t do that.”

The chest-piece of her armor comes off with a stilting hiss, and she clamps one hand to her ribs as she sets it aside—almost a slam—on the worktable before clicking on its small overhead lamp. Her black undersuit is stained with sweat and dried red blood. “Look, I’m glad to see you, but I’ve got nothing to give you right now except a fight.”

“If that would make you feel better, I’m game.”

Now she does slam down the next piece of her armor, the greaves smashing violently against the table. “It’s not a game, goddammit! You think this is funny? You don’t just feel better after starting the slow death of an entire race, Garrus! After killing three hundred thousand—” She breaks herself off, ripping pieces of hardsuit from her shoulders. “We’re not talking about this.”

“You don’t have to, Shepard. But I don’t think you should be alone.”

Shepard laughs, brittle and loud, and Garrus winces. He’s only seen her like this once before, after Virmire, and he hadn’t liked it then, either. “Is that what this is?” she asks, whirling on him. Her cheeks blaze with anger. “You think you get to tell me what I need because we’re fucking?”

He knows she means it to hurt, even if she doesn’t mean it, and it does, as effective and precise as his rifle in the wounding. Still, he manages to keep his voice even. “How about because we’re friends?”

That staggers her. She takes a step or two back until she hits the side of the bed, eyes wide, then rakes her hands over her shaven head. The stubble is longer now, gone more than three days without maintenance, and even this is enough to make her look not quite like herself. Then again, the sallow skin and heavy bruising up one side of her throat don’t help either. “Screw you,” she says, unsteady and furious, but he knows her well enough to see the dangerous rage has begun to dwindle. “God, what I wouldn’t give for a fight right now.”

You’re a monster, he wants to say. It’s the automatic response, the old lighthearted teasing that’s slid all too well into battleground flirting with the advent of their—their whatever they have now. He always says it when she’s about to make some new foolhardy decision in a fight, flush with adrenaline and grinning ear to ear right before she charges headfirst into some krogan or Collector or thresher maw, whatever she’s dragged him along to fight that day.

She’s not grinning now.

Still. “I’m no Harbinger,” he says, rolling up one sleeve and then the other, peeling off his gloves and tossing them aside, “but if you can settle for a turian hand-to-hand combat specialist, I don’t mind obliging.”

“I’m not in the mood for teasing.”

“Neither am I,” Garrus says, and swings at her face.

He does pull the punch, just a little. As deadly as Shepard can be, she’s also been drugged into unconsciousness for almost two days and has had to fight for her life without backup—without his backup—for the rest of it, and he doesn’t trust her reflexes to keep her as safe as usual. The clock’s music has changed to a driving electronic beat, hard and pounding with deep drums.

She manages to duck out of the way at the last second with a shout. “Garrus,” she snaps, straightening, but he’s already coming again with another punch, and this time when she rolls to the side he catches her shoulder with his other palm and sweeps her legs out from beneath her with his foot. She hits the ground ass-first. “Goddammit!”

His turinex civilian wear has more than enough stretch for this—not as good as his armor, of course, but plenty for what this will become. She’s still in parts of her armor, both legs still encased in red ceramic from the thighs down, her belt hanging low on her waist. The mag-seal sockets dotting her black undersuit glare up at him like so many eyes. He asks, “Are you going to have me sent to the brig for assaulting a superior officer, Shepard, or are you going to do something about it?”

Shepard’s eyes narrow. He shifts his weight to his toes, wary, but she’s still too fast—so fast—and before he can back away she’s lunged up and wrapped both arms around his waist. As small as she is compared to him she’s dense with muscle and half-cybernetic besides, and he can’t stop her from barreling him backwards into the low table in front of her couch. One of the table’s legs gives way with a crunch; he staggers, catches himself, and brings down a sharp spurred elbow to the small of Shepard’s back. She yelps—not loud enough to be really hurt—and twists, almost flinging him into the side of the couch.

He surges to his feet and she backs away just for a second, breathing hard, eyes gleaming. His visor shouts alarms about her elevated heartrate, her skyrocketing threat assessment; one of his automatic battle music playlists starts up before he kills it with a shake of his head. They close the distance at the same time; he manages to block her first punch but not the second, her closed fist slamming under his chin to knock his head back on his neck. It rattles his teeth even through his plating; he gives a sharp grin and knees her in the stomach before she can retreat.

It's a sloppy blow, but her knee buckles at just the wrong point as she tries to dodge, and she doubles over, wheezing. Only for an instant does he fear he’s hit one of her obviously broken ribs, but before he can move she’s up again and in his face, biotics glowing an unholy blue around her edges as she smashes her shoulder into his chest.

No way to keep his feet this time; he goes down through the rest of the table, shattering it into splinters. She drops her whole weight onto his stomach knee-first, her armor painful in his unplated gut, and wraps one many-fingered hand around his throat where the flesh is softer. But even with the cybernetics augmenting her raw strength, she is human and he is not, and he manages to force her hand away with the brunt of his forearm. Not an easy blow—she’d almost knocked the wind from him in the fall—but enough to use the advantage of his weight to follow through and shove hers off.

Still, she’s fast—faster than he is, if he’s honest—and even as he scrambles into a crouch she somehow manages to slither behind him and kick out both his knees, sending him crashing right back to the ground. He swings his head back, trying to get at her with his fringe, but she’s anticipated this and ducks her head down between his shoulder-blades, one of her elbows coming around to crook hard around his throat and he can’t reach—can’t—

There. One lucky lunge closes his hand around her ankle, and he yanks forward as hard as he dares. She loses her grip on his neck with a whoosh of startled air; her fingernails scrape down his back in the awkward, graceless drag, painful even through his shirt, and more than once she gets a booted foot hooked around the bedpost for leverage in their scrap for every inch. But—in this kind of fight, a crude and ugly one-on-one where she can get no distance to pick her engagement, he has the edge, and they both know it. The light above her worktable swings wildly back and forth in the struggle, smashes against a wall, and flickers out to leave them in the blue-dim dark.

She does not yield. She elbows him in the side of the neck, kicks the spur on his left calf so hard the wrong way he sees stars; he seizes one of her wrists and slams it to the floor above her head in the remains of the low table. She scrabbles at him with the other, throwing her whole weight up against him; even as tired as she is she’s formidably hard to hold, and it takes him three tries to get her pinned at last.

But he does pin her, in the end. It’s an awkward grasp, his left hand still gripping hers above their heads, her back to his chest, held half in place by one of his legs hooked around—and between—her own, and half by his own weight atop her. Her other hand is trapped beneath her chest, partially by his design, but mostly to protect her ribs from the hard floor.

She’s breathing as hard as he is. He can feel it, every breath rapid as a river, and even without his visor’s helpful documentation he would be able to tell the plucked-string tension that has been vibrating in her skin since she came aboard has finally snapped. She struggles a little longer in short bursts—more for show, he thinks, than any real desire to prolong the battle—and then all at once she goes limp, relaxing down into the floor and turning her face to the side, away from him.

Garrus holds himself in place a moment or two longer, just in case it’s a ruse, but when the song changes again to some electric-stringed instrumental piece and Shepard still doesn’t move, he lets his own tension ease away in increments, shifting his weight from atop her to beside her. Even given the rocky context, they’ve done this enough by now that he knows how to fit behind her comfortably, his hips shifted to keep his back from aching later, one arm crooked to pillow his head against a human ship with no consideration for the weight of a turian fringe.

Damn, his chin hurts. And his stomach will definitely bruise, and she might really have cracked one of his spurs. A frightening thing, that even with no real sleep in almost three days she is still so deadly. No wonder Hackett had wanted her alone for this mission.

Three hundred thousand batarians…

Shepard says something into the floor that he doesn’t catch, jolting his attention away from his bitter, imagined remonstrances to the Alliance admiral.

“What?”

“You pulled your punches,” she says again, shifting her head a little higher without looking at him. Even in the dim blue light, he can tell her temple is bleeding again beneath the medigel patch. “I don’t like that.”

“You’re half-dead, Shepard. Only one of us got our beauty sleep last night, and there’s no reason to make more work for Dr. Chakwas.”

“I wasn’t talking about the fight. Not just about the fight.”

Garrus sighs. “I know.”

“You’re pissed I went without you.”

“Yeah. Well… I was, at first.” He shuts his eyes, closing away the visor’s display informing him Shepard’s heartbeat has begun to slow, that two of her ribs are broken and another two cracked, that the uneven crouch she’d had during the fight likely points to a torn tendon in her knee. “I didn’t like the idea of you going deep into batarian space alone. I still don’t think it was a good order.”

“You can’t come with me on every mission, Garrus.”

“It didn’t have to be me. Kasumi would have been fine. Maybe Tali—it doesn’t matter now.” He sighs again, and the back of Shepard’s neck prickles with—what had she called it last time? Gooseflesh. Humans. “I was angry up until the six-hour mark and we hadn’t heard from you. Then I just got worried.”

“You, big guy?”

There’s almost a smile in her voice, the first she’s had since she boarded, and Garrus carefully lets his right arm settle over her waist. She doesn’t object or push him off—another small victory, one that makes his breath catch a bit—and when she shifts to readjust her own weight back against him, she makes no move to untangle her legs from his own.

Damn.

“Yeah, yeah,” he says, only a little strangled. “Laugh it up, Shepard. I should have known that if an entire Collector hive couldn’t kill you, one mad scientist would have only just made you angry.”

She twists in his arms, then—and she is in his arms, somehow without either of them realizing, his grip on her left wrist long since turned into her too-many fingers intertwined with his own. She looks at him over her bad shoulder, grey-green eyes opaque, and runs the back of her free hand along his scarred cheek. Her face is shadowed in the dark of her cabin, one line of thin blue light marking the edge of her cheek. Not so long ago that the cybernetics still showed through her skin, scarlet red and glowing; now just a human cheek and a human mouth, downturned at the corners, and tired worry in her human eyes.

“I’m sorry,” she says softly into the dark. “I know the waiting must have been hard.”

Sixteen hours in—staring at star chart after star chart, trying to plot a path from the bare mentions she’d dropped in pre-mission conversation. Twenty-eight hours in, watching the shadows flicker in the battery with each power cycle because Tali kept hounding him to sleep every time he ventured out. Forty-two hours in and replaying the conversation from C-Sec in his head over and over again, unwilling loops of memory, Anderson’s voice saying sit down, son, and his own violent recoiling back through the door because it couldn’t be true—not like this—not again—

Forty-six hours after she left, his light, erratic doze interrupted by a staticky voice crackling through the uplink he’d hooked into the shipwide comms. A woman’s voice: —ention—Normandyyou hear me? —ker, can you—? Joker! I need —ergency pickup now!

“You know me,” he says. “We turians are a tough bunch. Plating and all that.”

“Yeah,” she says, her knuckles lingering on his scars. “I know.”

They’re going to arrest her.

The thought of it strikes like a hammer, knocking all his breath out at once. He doesn’t know exactly how Alliance military tribunals work, but if it’s anything like the Hierarchy there will be a highly publicized trial, and given their history with political powers she will almost certainly go to prison, or whatever passes for it on Earth. It’s so unfair he can’t stand it, but if he dwells on the idea he’ll crack a mandible clenching his jaw, and Shepard’s got enough weight on her shoulders as it is.

“You should go take a shower,” he says instead, and is absurdly pleased at the little laugh she huffs in answer.

“If I didn’t know better, I’d think you didn’t like the smell of heatsinks and blood.”

“I don’t mind it on you,” he says honestly, “but if Hackett’s coming…”

“Oh,” she says in a very different voice, and though it kills him to let go, he doesn’t resist when she pulls out of his arms and gingerly sits up. “Oh,” she says again, her face turned away from him, and then she pushes to her feet, wobbling only once as she clutches at her ribs. She sheds the rest of her armor at the workstation, the motions long familiar even in the dark, and then she heads for the bathroom. The door closes behind her, opens again long enough for her to toss out her bloodied undersuit, and then he hears the shower run once more.

Garrus sits up, rubs the back of his neck. Not what he’d intended, not exactly, but if she doesn’t want him to pull his punches, he won’t. Even if…

Two days.

He’s just finished fixing her worktable lamp by the time she emerges from the shower, white towel around her neck. The limp is worse, he notices, though the blood on her cheek is gone at last, and now that she’s in nothing but black shorts and a sports bra he can see the patchwork of bruises and angry red starbursts peppered up and down her olive skin, marks where gunfire must have broken through her shields. He’s still not entirely versed in human biology despite his recent and vigorous interest in the topic, but he’s pretty sure the bad knee is dislocated as well. She gives a wan smile when he demonstrates the functioning light, flicking it on and off and on again, and then she slumps gracelessly to sit on the foot of the bed.

He's swept most of the table’s shrapnel to the side, out of the way of the ludicrous fragility of her bare human feet, but he still moves cautiously as he comes to sit beside her, trying not to jostle her ribs more than he can help.

The band of her omnitool dangles from one finger. She activates it without putting it on, the circles under her eyes darkened further by the harsh orange glow. “Joker,” she says into the quiet, “ETA on the admiral?”

“A little over thirty minutes, Commander. We just got word from the Perugia.”

“Thanks.”

She tosses the ‘tool to her nightstand and drops her elbows on her knees once more. “Well,” she says. “Half an hour, then.”

“You should get some rest.”

“Not a chance,” she says, almost smiling. “I can already feel the weaves working overdrive. If I let myself fall asleep, they’ll wipe me out for hours. It’ll have to wait until Hackett leaves.”

“Huh.”

“Yeah.” Shepard eases to lean against him, her temple against his shoulder. It can’t be comfortable—he’s not nearly as fleshy as human men—but when he carefully wraps his arm around her she sighs and relaxes further into his side. “I don’t think he’s going to arrest me,” she says, tone conversational, her eyes on the middle distance. “Not immediately, anyway. There are still a few things he’ll want me to take care of with the Normandy first. But when all’s said and done, I don’t think he’ll have a choice.”

“Well, we’ll figure it out together when the time comes.”

“Will we?”

She lifts her head to look at him, then, her eyes grey-green and a little nervous, and he lets out a startled breath. He hadn’t quite meant to bring it up so soon, and certainly not like this, but if nothing else the last few days have taught him the value of getting the important things said while he can.

“Yeah.” He runs a blunted talon down her cheek in a burst of boldness. “You. Me. Together. However it turns out. If, uh, if you want.”

Her hand goes to her stomach like it hurts; then Shepard smiles, and for a moment she looks so strangely, painfully young. “Oh, Garrus,” she says, and laughs, soft and a little shocked.

His heart drops into his taloned feet. “No? Well, don’t worry about it. I hear hunting Reapers is fun as friends, too, and I—”

Shepard kisses him.

It’s a little worrying, he thinks distantly, how quickly these kisses have become important to him. More than important—vital, and in a way his visor will never be able to chart. The rest of him is caught up in the way her soft human lips move over his mouth, the texture of her skin against his palm as he curls his fingers around the back of her neck. He tries to be careful given her injuries, tries to be—but she’s making a noise into his mouth that’s rapidly shattering the last of his higher processes, and when she finally pulls back he has to blink more than once to chase away the dazzle.

“Uh—”

“I’m sorry,” she says, still smiling, and cups a hand to his good cheek. “You just surprised me. I didn’t know I could still get butterflies.”

“Still get—” he starts, shakes his head, starts again before trailing off. “Shepard, I hate to admit it, but I’m drowning here.”

“Sorry,” she says again, punctuating this one with another brief kiss, and Garrus finds suddenly he’s willing to tolerate all the Earth insects he knows. “It’s an expression. For that—that fluttering in your stomach you get when you’re a kid with a crush. When a girl finds out that the guy she likes actually likes her back. Y’know, teenager stuff.”

Ahh. Good. Very, very good. “Butterflies, hmm?” Garrus drawls, as if it might hide his abrupt and potent relief. “The great Commander Shepard, laid out with stomach butterflies for her turian officer.”

“Don’t say it like that. You make it sound awful.”

Garrus chuckles, runs his thumb along the line of her neck again, then leans forward to press his forehead soberly against hers. She lets him, eyes closed.

“I’m sorry,” she says quietly, barely audible over the gentle bubbling of the fish tank. “For what I said earlier. I didn’t mean it.”

“I know.”

“I wanted to hurt you. Well, anyone I could reach, really. You were the closest target.”

“I know,” he says again, and pulls back to look into her eyes properly. The lines around them are deep again, exhaustion pulling hard at the corners of her mouth. “I know how to take a punch, Shepard. And in this war, somehow I think we’re going to have to take a lot of them.”

A corner of her mouth lifts tiredly. “I’ll try to keep it from becoming a habit.”

“Yeah, okay.” His mandibles flutter as she leans into him again—speaking of embarrassing teenage reactions—and he lets out a long, slow sigh as she wraps one arm around his waist. Better that she can’t hear his subharmonics properly after all; better that she doesn’t know yet exactly how deep and fast he’s falling. He’s a little afraid of it himself. Easier to hide like this, when he can pretend friendship is still a strong-enough word for what he feels.

She shifts restlessly. “I should get dressed. Go see Chakwas.”

“Mm.”

“Or I could stay here a little longer.”

“I like that one better.”

She smiles against his shoulder and shuts her eyes. You did the best you could, he wants to tell her, and doesn’t. Don’t carry this with you into the fight ahead. Just for a day, Shepard, set down the weight and let the world move on without you.

But she wouldn’t be Shepard if she did. Wouldn’t be the best friend he has left in this mess of a galaxy, for better or worse, sticking by him through every one of his own failures, dragging him with her in turn through all the hells the stars can hold. Wouldn’t be herself if she weren’t always there on the other side after they’d fought their way through at last, laughing wildly, waiting for him to call out her next shot from his place at her six.

So. So he’ll give her what he can instead, just for a little while, until Earth calls her home at last: a fight when she needs it, and a hard turian shoulder, and the comfort of the quiet dark. It’s all he can offer her now.

“Right beside you, Shepard,” he murmurs, a promise, and hopes like hell he can keep it.

end.