Chapter 1: Vacation
It was too easy.
Garrus didn’t like it. Easy made his plates itch.
It wasn’t even that they’d come expecting trouble—the mission brief had been straightforward enough. Land near an abandoned station. Recover some intel Hackett believed was important enough for Shepard herself to collect. (Garrus was of the rather insubordinate belief that the Admiral thought any number of ridiculous tasks required Shepard’s personal attention when they could just as easily have been handled by someone not attempting to oh, broker peace amongst Council races and gather fleets for war against the Reapers. Sure. Playing courier seemed like a perfectly worthwhile use of her time. On one hand? Cure the genophage. On the other? Run along out to the edge of the galaxy to pick up a datapad.)
Drop. Collect. Leave. No enemies reported. No trouble expected.
Right. Since when did the universe ever give them easy? Trouble was Shepard’s middle name, whether she wanted it to be or not. Everyone who served on her crew knew it, and expected complications even on the most routine runs. Refueling? Reapers. Swing by the Citadel? Cerberus. There was always something. Of course, the crew assumed she’d get them out of the trouble, but no one doubted the existence of it in the first place.
Really, it was a good thing Shepard’s impeccable timing made up for all the bullshit the galaxy threw her way. She had a hell of a knack for showing up just when she was needed, guns blazing, refusing to take no for an answer or to consider failure an option.
He rubbed absently at the scarred side of his face, and thought maybe the trade-off was equal after all. She’d arrived just in time to pull his ass out of the fire. More than once.
But this mission? Something wasn’t right.
He just couldn’t quite figure out why.
So even as they laughed about the mediocre encryption on the files they’d come for, and good-naturedly bemoaned the distinct lack of hostiles to take care of (“Not that either of you suffers from lack of action,” Tali said, just a little pointedly. Shepard replied, “Sorry there aren’t any husks, Tali. I know how you love husks.” Tali shuddered. Violently.) Garrus couldn’t help the uneasiness that crept along his spine. He had to stop himself from looking over his shoulder every two minutes, and his trigger-finger twitched relentlessly.
Nothing jumped out of the shadows. Each room they entered was as empty as the last, the silence broken only by the sound of their footsteps.
The feeling didn’t go away. Not even as they wound their way back through the abandoned station and out to the extraction point, where—wonder of wonders—the shuttle was still waiting, Cortez sitting in the front, finishing off a snack. He brushed the crumbs from his lap and sent a penitent smile over his shoulder. Garrus couldn’t figure out why he looked ashamed until he realized it probably went against regulations to eat on duty. Fair enough.
“What, no exploding buildings and last-minute daring escapes?” Cortez asked. “Nothing shooting at us from the sky?”
“Sorry to disappoint.” Shepard reached up to grab the edge of the open door frame, flipping herself gracefully into the hold. Garrus clambered in after her, followed by Tali. “Did you save some of that for the rest of the class? I’m starving.”
Cortez shrugged, an apologetic tilt to his brows. “Looks like it’s disappointment all around.”
Garrus chuckled. “All that doing nothing worked up an appetite?”
Shepard rolled her eyes before crouching beside one of the supply creates. “I skipped breakfast.” After a moment of rifling and muttered cursing, she rose, holding a bar of… something triumphantly aloft. The metallic wrapper gleamed in the dim light. Whatever it was, it had no smell he could detect. Alarming. He didn’t always appreciate the scent of her strange food, but usually it gave off some kind of odor. Garrus snatched it from her hand and knocked it against the wall. The metal panel clanged its annoyance at being so accosted. The… food remained entirely unaffected.
Cortez laughed as he turned back to the control console. “We’ll be back before you know it, Commander. You could always hold out for something a little less likely to break your teeth.”
Shepard scowled as she reached for the rations, but Garrus flung it over her head. Tali caught it, giggling, and then proceeded to examine it from every angle. “Shepard, this isn’t food. This is a weapon. You could kill someone with it.”
Tali tossed it back to him as soon as Shepard turned toward her, and Garrus deftly pulled it from the air. Even when he clenched his hand around it, the brick didn’t so much as budge. He couldn’t actually imagine Shepard’s blunt teeth managing to gnaw a piece off. Still, he sighed and held it out to her.
“Javik would tell you to throw it out the airlock.” Garrus adopted a poor imitation of the prothean’s accent. “In my cycle, our rations were superior, human. This is not fit for consumption. I would feed it to my enemies.”
Shepard barked a laugh, her mirth sudden and warm and enough to make his mandibles flare in pleased answer. “It’d hardly be a surprise. Javik tells me to throw everything out the airlock. You lot included. But you’re right about waiting. Maybe if I ask really nicely, Vega’ll take pity and cook huevos rancheros for me.”
Tali gave a theatrically exaggerated shudder. “I think I’d throw myself out the airlock before I could bring myself to eat that.”
Garrus agreed, but Shepard had such a look of longing on her face he couldn’t bring himself to say anything that might burst her wistful, disgusting-levo-food bubble.
She strapped herself into the seat next to him, bar of rations abandoned. Then, just loud enough for him to hear, she said, “I blame you for my missing breakfast, by the way.”
He grinned, brushing his shoulder against hers, and she laughed as her stomach gave a growling, hungry protest. “Worth it.”
On a scowl he felt pretty certain she didn’t mean, she said, “I don’t know. I’m really hungry.”
“I’ll make it up to you later. After you eat. Obviously.”
Tali sighed. Loudly. “You know you two are never actually as quiet as you think you’re being, right?”
From the cockpit, Cortez laughed, and the Kodiak began its ascent.
It was too easy.
For once, a simple intel-gathering side-trip was just that. Simple. No traps. No ambushes. No surprises. No guardian mechs. No rivers of lava. The abandoned station was actually abandoned, and between the three of them, decrypting the data was child’s play. They made a game of it. Tali won.
Too damned easy.
She should have known.
Nothing ever went according to plan.
This time the wrench in the gears came in the form of Joker’s crackling voice suddenly bleating over the comm. He sounded just a little breathless, and Shepard’s hackles rose. “Hey, Commander. So. Little hiccup.”
Strapped into the seat beside her, Garrus stiffened. Shepard couldn’t say she blamed him. She exhaled through her nose, preparing for whatever shit it was to hit the fan it would then become her responsibility to fix. “I don’t like the sound of that, Joker.”
“Would’ve told you earlier, but the planet’s atmosphere wasn’t letting me patch through. I did warn you that might happen. Anyway. We picked up a distress call.”
“Must’ve been an old one. The station was definitely empty.”
“Not from the station. From a ship. Turian. Came limping into range right after you landed. When we tried to scan it, we, uh, may have alerted some unwanted company. Running from Reapers doesn’t leave a lot of time for chit-chat, Commander.”
She pinched the bridge of her nose, even though the gesture was entirely futile and did nothing to soothe the headache building behind her eyes. “Report, Joker. Without the color commentary, if you please. And Cortez, keep an eye out as we break atmo.”
“Already on it, Commander. Not picking up Reaper signals. Think I’m catching that turian distress call, though.”
“We’ll look into it in a minute, Lieutenant. Joker?”
“We caught the Reapers’ attention, and they followed us. Gave ‘em the runaround. Think we’ve lost them now, and we didn’t have to go too far off course to do it, so ETA in a couple of hours, none the worse for wear. Didn’t want to push it, in case we hadn’t lost our tail.”
“Keep your eyes open. Thinking you’ve lost them won’t get you far if you’re wrong.” Shepard dragged her fingers through her hair, giving her scalp a squeeze. It didn’t help any more than pinching her nose had done. “And the turians?”
“Pretty sure we picked up life signs before we had to run. Don’t know if the Reapers were the reason for the distress call, but EDI says it seems likely. Probability high or something. Statistics were involved. Frankly, I was too busy getting us the hell out of there to pay much attention to the numbers. I think whatever the Reapers were doing, we interrupted them.”
“Why does this sound familiar?” Garrus’ tone was wry; his expression anything but. Tense mandibles and the too-rapid blinking of his eyes betrayed his concern. “It’s not like we’ve ever been lured into a trap by a false distress signal before. Oh. Wait. It just hasn’t happened yet this week.”
Tali’s omni-tool filled the small cabin with orange light as she called it up and began tapping furiously. It cast strange shadows across the purple of her mask. Shepard paid attention to Tali’s faint muttering, but didn’t interrupt; they were mostly quarian curse words she didn’t need to understand anyway. The feeling behind them was more than clear. “I don’t know, Shepard,” Tali said at last, as the omni-tool’s interface winked out. “I looked at it as many ways as I could. It seems legitimate. But the distress call that brought us to the Collectors seemed legitimate, too.”
For a moment, Shepard considered leaving the ship behind, distress call or not. Wouldn’t be the first or last crew sacrificed on the altar of necessity or expediency during this conflict. Questions of cost and risk and benefit tried to drive mercy from her head; her least favorite kind of pros and cons list. That ruthless calculus of war. Again.
Three years ago, she wouldn’t have hesitated to look for survivors. She wouldn’t have considered the alternative. It wouldn’t have occurred to her to consider the alternative. She’d already have given the order to intercept and board. She’d have been hoping for the best, and that hope might even have outweighed dread.
One more thing she hated this war for stealing. Life signs were life signs. The girl from Mindoir, shivering and in shock, remembered what rescue felt like when it arrived once all hope of rescue had passed. The girl from Mindoir would be sick to see her hesitating now. Hell, so would the Hero of the Blitz, for that matter. She’d held the line against all odds—but it wouldn’t have meant anything if the Agincourt had given them up for dead. If she didn’t have her compassion, what the hell was she left with? A fancy gun? What was she? A weapon?
Shepard didn’t want to be just a weapon.
“Dammit.” She drove a fist into her thigh and then shook out her hand. “Joker, rendezvous as soon as you’re able. For the love of God, don’t scan anything. Cortez, you know the drill. Bring us in quiet as you can. First sign of trouble, we bolt. Got it? No risks. From either of you.”
“By the time we get the first sign of trouble it’s usually too late,” Garrus muttered, but Shepard thought she detected the faintest hint of gratitude under the gloom and the worry—no one knew as well as he did how high a price the turians were paying in this war—so she only leaned back against the bulkhead and said, “Noted. I think we still owe it to them to check.”
Easy, Hackett had said. Practically a vacation, after some of the places you’ve been and things you’ve done.
Right. Abandoned planet with a side of distressed turian warship. All it was missing was the tropical drink complete with paper umbrella.
She didn’t like it. She didn’t like it one bit.
Chapter 2: Valiant
“Commander, I, uh… I think you’ll want to see this.”
The ship was huge.
Shepard leaned over Cortez’s head, trying to get a better look through the narrow window. The turian ship hung suspended against the backdrop of stars and planet, a vast, unnatural darkness. If she’d been an ocean-faring vessel, Shepard would have said the ship was listing. Not quite alive. Not quite dead, either.
Entirely out of place. Like waking up to find an elephant in the living room when you’d been anticipating a house cat.
She didn’t quite know what she’d been expecting. A frigate, maybe. Something small and fast that got caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. But the turian craft was enormous.
Also, it had the distinct look of something that had been dragged through hell, and hadn’t quite made it all back in one piece. She imagined bits of ceramic and metal and polymer sprinkled throughout every circle from first to ninth, testament to a desperate passage.
Then again, maybe a turian ship passed through a turian hell. She didn’t know how many circles it had.
She wondered how many lives had been lost navigating that flight, the headlong retreat into the middle of nowhere at the edge of the galaxy. She wondered if any had survived. She didn’t want to consider what the complement of such a vessel might be.
“Damn.” She felt Garrus step close to her shoulder; the cockpit was small, and already overcrowded. When she glanced back at him, she found his unblinking gaze fixed firmly on the tableau before them. Even if the subharmonics of his voice hadn’t revealed his shock, the strained, breathy quality of the expletive would have betrayed his distress. “Damn, Shepard, that’s not just a ship. That’s the Valiant.”
“The Vali—” She gaped up at him, not quite able to fathom what he was saying. “You’re not serious. What the hell is a turian dreadnought doing out here of all places? Where are the support ships?”
He shook his head, mandibles twitching in confused agitation. “I read the report. The Valiant was presumed lost weeks ago. No one’s been looking. Hell, they didn’t know there was anything to look for. We thought the Reapers took out that whole corner of the fleet.”
“Maybe it managed to hit a relay.” She sighed, peering at the damaged ship. Even a distance, she could see how wounded it was, scored and broken and bruised with all the evidence of an intense battle. One wing was hemorrhaging sparks. Still, it was flying. And sparks meant some kind of power was fueling some kind of internal system. “I guess we’re definitely investigating. If the Reapers fried their comms, it means someone’s alive to have gotten them back up again.”
“You sure about that, Commander?” Cortez asked, clearly hesitant about questioning her, but raising the concern all the same. “Anyone could’ve kickstarted that distress call. If the ship’s been compromised—”
“I need to take a look, Lieutenant. If she’s salvageable—and if there are survivors still aboard—I’d rather lay the claim for our side. God knows I don’t want to leave this for Reaper scavengers.”
“Or Cerberus ones,” Garrus added, finally pulling his gaze away from the foundering craft. Shepard nodded her agreement. She was good at reading Garrus; she’d made a point of learning to be good at reading Garrus. She couldn’t read him now.
When he spoke, however, it was all weary resignation, and those emotions she recognized easily enough, much as they pained her. “Shepard, I think we have to assume this is a trap.”
She frowned, but nodded again. “It’s all a little convenient, yes. The abandoned planet, the mysterious intel Hackett only just now found out about, the ship presumed lost suddenly reappearing complete with distress signal. All of it screams set-up.”
In the cramped confines of the cockpit, they were forced to stand nose to nose—eyes to mandibles, anyway—and she felt the subtle shift of his body language, caught somewhere between disbelief and dismay. “And you still want to spring it.”
She scraped a hand through her hair, but smashed her elbow against the back of Cortez’s chair as she lowered her arm to rub the back of her neck. The Kodiak swerved a little, and the pilot muttered an apology.
Wincing, Shepard breathed a curse under her breath. Cost. Benefit. Risk. Reward. Probabilities and statistics ran circles in her brain. “You’d better believe I’d want to disarm a bomb if I found one lying around, too. You and I both know I’m not one to run, hoping to avoid the blast radius.”
He tilted his head. “Right. You’re the one at the center of the action, hoping the pin you just pulled wasn’t the auto-destruct.”
She huffed a brief laugh, but her heart wasn’t in it. “Come on, Vakarian. We both know I’m better than that.”
That he didn’t reply in kind spoke volumes.
With one final glance out toward the looming spacecraft, Shepard squeezed past him and back into the hold. Tali was working furiously, and though Shepard didn’t have facial cues to go off of, every line of her body—curved shoulders, bent head, elbows tucked close, fingers moving with sharp precision over the display—spoke of determination. She didn’t so much as look up when Shepard and Garrus returned.
“Find anything useful, Tali?”
“It’s an omni-tool. There’s only so much I can do from here. But I—I’ve followed the distress signal back, and I can tell the ship’s life support is… functioning. Not sure how well.”
“Enough to support life? Survivors?”
Tali made an unhappy noise. “I think so, Shepard, but…”
“But you can’t be sure. I understand.”
“If we use the on-board scanners—”
Shepard shook her head and Tali faded into silence. “Can’t risk it. Piggy-backing a signal via omni-tool’s about as much of a risk as I’m prepared to take. The Reapers won’t need much coaxing to come out of the woodwork again.”
“They never do,” Garrus said.
“Okay.” Shepard ignored him, already running plans through her head and discarding them as rapidly as they formed. “So it’s a trap. Maybe even a trap meant for us—or for the Normandy, rather. Honestly, I think Joker might’ve done us a favor by luring the Reapers away. Chances are the intel was a plant—something to tempt us out here—but they’re expecting the SR-2, not a small boarding party on a Kodiak. I hope.”
Neither Tali nor Garrus echoed her sentiment, but they watched her, waiting. She was struck, in that moment, by the strangeness of their alien regard. Garrus’ predator gaze followed her every move, sharp and steady and perturbed. He looked poised to strike at the merest hint of a threat. Tali tilted her head, revealing the faint light of her eyes behind the purple glass of her mask. There weren’t two other people in the universe she considered closer friends than these, and here she stood, about to throw them into unknown danger on a hunch. And they’d let her. They’d follow her. Just like always.
The weight of responsibility made her pause, considering alternatives she mightn’t have considered otherwise.
“The way I see it, we’ve got a couple of options. Joker’s on his way; we could wait. I think that might blow the element of surprise, though. And I do appreciate a good element of surprise. I could drop in by myself—rely on my tactical cloak, get the lay of the land—”
“Not going to happen, Shepard,” Garrus retorted, with just enough resolve in his voice to keep the words supportive and not entirely insubordinate.
She nodded, letting his objection stand. “Or we all go.”
“We all go,” Tali insisted. “Of course we all go, Shepard.”
Shepard hid her gratitude—her gratitude and a touch of relief—behind a brisk nod. “I don't know for certain if it’s a trap meant for us, but we’re going to treat it like it is. Cortez, there’s got to be some gaping wound large enough to let us sneak in. I'd like to avoid the obvious boarding points. Chances are anyone waiting to ambush us would be waiting there.”
“No docking bays. No cargo holds. Got it.”
“Don’t scan. Visuals only. Garrus? I'm not sure turian-human relations have improved to the point of sharing dreadnought schematics. Ideas?”
He closed his eyes, and she could practically see him running access points and cross-referencing with what they’d been able to determine from the visual survey of the ship. After a moment, he called up his omni-tool interface and began typing. “Cortez? Did I see a hull breach on the starboard side?”
“I think access there might work. It’ll be a mess hall, near crew quarters. Should be evacuated, and is likely to be empty no matter who—or what—has control of the ship.”
The or what hung in the air like a warning, a premonition, but Shepard only tucked her ponytail into the neck of her hardsuit, reached for her helmet, and rechecked the weapons strapped to her back. “Slow and steady, Cortez,” she said. “And quiet as you can.”
“Like a mouse,” Cortez replied.
Shepard hoped they wouldn’t be as easy to kill. No one liked the odds when it was mouse versus mousetrap.
It was unsettling seeing the inside of a turian ship again, Garrus thought, as the cargo door opened and he surveyed their surroundings through the detachment of his scope. Familiar and unfamiliar at the same time. He’d done one tour on a dreadnought during his years with the military—not the Valiant but the Resolute, one of the dreadnoughts the fleet had sacrificed during the Battle of Palaven—but that service was years ago now, in a different life. Before the Reapers. Before Archangel. Before Saren. Before Shepard.
Familiar and unfamiliar.
Old memories fought their way up, reminding him the ruins of the mess hall they’d landed in had several hallways leading in and out. His visor picked up no life signs, no heat signatures or heartbeats except those of his squad-mates.
For all his experience on turian ships, he’d never been able to see the stars through a gaping gash in a mess hall wall before. That wasn’t familiar at all. Disconcerting as hell, though.
“Tali,” said Shepard, her voice strange and distant through the comm device in his helmet even though she was standing just behind him. “Take a look at that terminal. See what you can pull up. And…” Shepard paused here, the silence weighty. “I know you won’t like it, but I want you to stay with the shuttle. I want your gun protecting Cortez, so he can be focused on extraction. If something happens—if anything happens—you get on the Kodiak and you go.”
“If this goes pear-shaped, you retreat to the Normandy. Contact Hackett. They’ll need to know if this is some new tactic they need to prepare for.” Tali’s shoulders stiffened, and Garrus could tell she was about to protest, but Shepard slashed at the air with her hand and snapped, “This isn’t a request, Tali. It’s an order. Understood?”
After a tense moment, Tali bowed her head. “I understand.”
“Be ready to flee at a moment’s notice. No more snacks on the job.”
“Yes, ma’am. Wouldn’t dream of it.”
He cocked his head toward one of the exit doors and hoped it looked enough like agreement that she wouldn’t call him on it. “This way, I think, if the plans in my head are right.”
She tapped the side of her helmet, same side as his visor. “You picking something up?”
“Nothing. But that means nothing out of the ordinary, either, and its range isn’t infinite.”
“Where do we start?”
“Med bay. Crew quarters. From there to escape pods—at least the presence or lack thereof will give us some clues.”
Her sigh crackled over the comm. “Like finding a needle in a haystack.”
She shrugged off his question. Some human expression, then. He’d ask later. Or look it up.
She nodded, hand already moving in a series of the silent gestures they’d honed so well on the battlefield—moving out; follow at range; I’ll take low, you take high—and began moving in the direction he’d indicated. She didn’t look back.
Trust, he thought, shifting from sniper to assault rifle. The back of Shepard’s head was all the proof of trust he needed. He’d never known anything quite so absolute. I’ve got your six, he assured her. Silently. I’ve always got your six.
Into hell, if she was bound and determined to go. And back, if he had any say in the matter.
Before heading to the terminal, Tali gestured at Shepard’s retreating back, and he knew exactly what she meant.
Keep her safe.
But all that, too, went without saying.
Where Shepard was concerned, failure wasn’t an option.
Chapter 3: Infiltration
On one hand, moving through the turian ship didn’t feel all that different from any other standard infiltration mission. She had Garrus’ voice in her ear giving directions instead of EDI’s, and she wasn’t entirely certain what her end objective was, but otherwise it was gun in hand, senses sharp, business as usual. She moved as quietly as her armor—and her magnetic boots—would allow, engaging her tactical cloak before turning sudden corners or peering into empty rooms, pistol at the ready. Expecting the worst. Hoping for the best. Getting nothing whatsoever.
On the other, she felt acutely aware of the gap at her flank where Tali—or one of her other squad-mates—should have been. She didn’t remember the last time Garrus hadn’t been behind and to her right, but the left felt empty, and that emptiness prickled at her consciousness, like a scab she knew she shouldn’t scratch but couldn’t help rubbing at anyway, infection be damned. She was used to working with three. Too used to it, perhaps, and the adjustment necessary for two left her unbalanced and uneasy.
Of course, the faint prickle of apprehension borne of walking into the unknown without adequate backup wasn’t to be ignored, either.
Running around the galaxy for Hackett didn’t negate your Spectre status, she told herself firmly, keeping an eye on the hallway while Garrus fiddled with the encryption on yet another locked door. And something about this smells fishy. This is just… special reconnaissance.
Evidently whatever had happened during the battle—or the battle’s aftermath—had thrown the ship into lockdown, and lockdown meant every damned door was shut tight. In the twenty-two minutes since they’d left Tali and Cortez in the mess hall, Garrus had unlocked half a dozen doors. Half a dozen doors to half a dozen empty rooms and long, empty hallways.
The red light blinked green, but the room behind this door was just as barren as all the others had been. Everything clean and precise and cold and wrong.
Designed to make the most of all available space, the dreadnought’s halls were narrow—though the ceilings were higher than she was used to. She supposed human-average wouldn’t do for a race where six feet was the low end of the grown-adult height spectrum. Still, she kept expecting something to drop down from the ceiling above them. Kai Leng, maybe. The slippery bastard was everywhere else she looked these days.
It appeared whatever had messed with communications had left the majority of systems online. After the first air-locked door, gravity returned to normal. It was a subtle shift, but a welcome one.
She didn’t know if the lights were low to save energy, or because turians required less light than humans to see well. It seemed the wrong time to begin a conversation about turian physiology, though, so she kept the question to herself. Her eyes adjusted quickly enough, anyway. One of the strange, leftover oddities of her rebirth. Vastly improved low-light vision, courtesy of Cerberus. Her lips tightened into a firm line.
The wrong time for that train of thought, too.
At least the cybernetic eyes were useful.
“Nothing,” Garrus said, his voice low and echoing in the confines of her helmet.
Because of the bulk of the damned helmet—she vastly preferred the Kuwashii visor she’d left on the Normandy, but a visor was no help in the breathing department—she had to turn her head entirely to look at him. He was staring into the empty room, head tilted, gun ready.
“Do you think they all got away?”
She knew he’d heard the question, but he didn’t answer at once. He didn’t so much as twitch. Finally, on a sigh, he backed from the empty chamber and nodded toward the hallway they’d been following. “I don’t know. Something feels wrong. I don’t like it.”
Silently, she agreed. Neither of them had come this far without honing some damned sensitive instincts. She had two alarms going off full-blast: the one that said danger, and the one that said you need to do something about it.
After another fruitless half an hour—and a crackling message from Tali saying the terminal wasn’t telling her much because it seemed to have shorted around the same time the ship was involved in the Reaper attack—Shepard was of a mind to call the search off. Countless empty hallways led to countless empty rooms, without even bodies to attest to what had come before.
Without even bodies.
“That’s what’s wrong,” she said. “Huge ship. God knows how many turians on board—”
Garrus muttered a curse under his breath, but she could hardly blame him. She had quite a litany of her own running circles through her head.
“And a battle that left the ship staggering and half-dead,” he said. “We should’ve found bodies.”
His helmet hid his face, but she knew the set of his shoulders, and she saw his hands close tightly around his gun. “Maybe.”
The words maybe not sat on her tongue, but they tasted of lies, of the kind of old platitudes she and Garrus had an unspoken understanding not to use with one another, and so she swallowed them.
“Damned Reapers,” she spat.
“Bastards,” Garrus agreed.
For a moment, everything was as it should have been. Determination and rage and hate and a target to throw it all toward.
And then the moment passed. The too-silent, too-empty ship breathed around them, with the uncanny sensation of listening. “So I’m thinking maybe we stop checking behind every closed door. For now. How far are we from the command deck?”
“Under, by a couple of floors. Should be an elevator at the end of this hallway.”
She nodded, already moving. “That’s where I’d be.”
Or you’d be dragging your pilot from the cockpit toward an escape pod, she thought. That’s where you’d be. And then you’d be dying.
Funny, how often that memory came crashing back.
Not funny hilarious.
“Tali? Anything from Joker?”
The quarian’s voice came through a moment later, dropping every few words, and having to listen to make her out was enough to banish the last of the memories scraping away at the inside of Shepard’s skull. “Not yet, Shepa—everything quiet—when are you—?”
“You’re breaking up.”
“You too. Something—interference.”
Shepard grunted her displeasure. “We’ll be back soon. Want to check one more thing.”
“We’ll be rea—when you—Shepard.”
The corridor leading to the elevator was as empty as the rest of the ship. Garrus tapped the console, and Shepard found herself almost surprised when the elevator began effortlessly sliding upward. A mechanical turian voice identified the floors as they passed. It sounded tired.
Before, Shepard had been thinking about hell—human hell and turian hell and every kind of hell in between—but none of those musings prepared her for the reality of the hell she faced when the elevator door slid open.
They’d found the bodies.
Garrus, looking high to make certain they wouldn’t be ambushed from above as the elevator opened, heard Shepard’s sharp intake of breath before he saw what caused it.
They’d seen things before. Bad things. Horrible things. Ugly, messy, monstrous things. A Collector ship. That derelict Reaper. Horizon. Both times. But the command deck of the Valiant was something else entirely.
He’d thought husks were bad. Brutes made him furious, and banshees made his stomach turn.
And then there was this. A mass grave of twisted limbs and broken bodies. All turian, of course. The dead lay in haphazard piles, forms hardly recognizable. He blinked, taking an involuntary step forward, only to have Shepard’s arm shoot out to stop him.
Here, a fringe still proudly jutting from a—from something that had once been a face, a head. There, a hand curled against the floor, talons torn from scraping at the metal.
And through it all, the cold ugliness of Reaper technology winding through the organic remains like fingers. Pulling. Prodding. Making. Unmaking. Corrupting. Rebuilding. The worst kind of rebuilding.
Meat and tubes, he remembered Shepard telling him once. She’d been talking about herself, about her and Miranda and the lab that had brought her back from the dead. The imagery had horrified him then, but somehow, seeing this, it took on new meaning, new horror.
He wondered if it had been like this. And the silent query made his guts twist. Meat and tubes.
He was prevented following that path farther by Shepard edging out into the CIC, pistol first. With a silent gesture, she sent him to the right.
He didn’t look too closely at the fringes, for fear of recognizing the faces beneath. But he paid attention to the machinery, the sinuous lines of cable and wire and cord weaving through the shattered bodies.
“Shit,” Shepard breathed, low and rough. “Tell me you’re not seeing what I’m seeing, Garrus.”
He was seeing something that reminded him of Saren—of husks and brutes and banshees but worse—because it was hundreds of bodies, hundreds of turians, and it was the ship, and it was enough to make him want to throw up every damned meal he’d eaten in weeks.
“Wish I could, Shepard,” he managed to grind out, with some effort. “Looks like they’re trying to… shit, I don’t know. I don’t want to know.”
“Breed—make—construct some kind of synthetic-organic ship?”
He nodded, though she wasn’t looking at him to see it. She was gazing at the floor, and every line in her body screamed her outrage.
“We need to let Command know about this. We need to let the Council know about this,” she said, in that sharp, angry tone he knew meant she was barely suppressing her disgust. And her rage. It meant someone was going to wake up with her pistol in their face and she wasn’t even going to hesitate before she pulled the trigger. Harbinger, maybe. Garrus snorted. If only the Reaper could be taken out by nothing more than Shepard’s gun and Shepard’s determination. “I’ve seen enough. The Normandy’s blowing this abomination out of the sky if it takes every damned gun in her arsenal.”
“Right behind you,” he replied. She slipped into the elevator, and without taking his eyes from the heaps of flesh and cord and machinery on the floor, he began backing toward the elevator to join her.
It all happened so fast. Something began to writhe and shift amidst the bodies, and a putrefying wave of stench somehow both synthetic and organic—and entirely nauseating—washed over him, stronger even than the filters in his helmet. A sound not entirely unlike the reaving screech of the Reapers filled the air.
The lights flickered. Once. Twice. Then died.
And Shepard, in the elevator, screamed.
He thought her scream held his name.
But when he turned to look, blinking as his eyes adjusted to the sudden shift to complete darkness, the blackness there was even more absolute.
The shaft was empty. The elevator was gone. And Shepard was gone with it.
Chapter 4: Pain
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
Garrus knew it was a death sentence to freeze on a battlefield. He might’ve considered himself a bad turian in any number of other ways, on any number of other occasions, but he wasn’t stupid, and the endless drills of his youth had honed in him the skills necessary, at the very least, to survive. He’d always been good at surviving. Hell, on more than one occasion he’d managed to do it against all odds.
But, standing on the command deck of the Valiant, staring in disbelief at the darkness that had swallowed Shepard, he froze. Completely. Utterly. Didn’t matter who was shooting at you, freeze like he froze and any idiot with a gun could’ve taken him out without bothering to aim.
He didn’t know how long he stood paralyzed and uncomprehending. Evidently whatever had caused the lights to go and the elevator to—no, Vakarian, don’t go there—wasn’t equipped with anything so brutally simple and effective as a bullet. Or they didn’t give a damn about the immobile turian standing in their midst. Or the whole thing had been some kind of horrible accident; a mechanical failure of epically horrifying proportions.
A voice, faint and broken and female, crackled in his ear, finally breaking through the endless imaginary echo of Shepard’s scream, and the voice was repeating his name.
“Shepard?” he barked, relief warring with disbelief. “Shepard? Talk to me, Shepard.”
Not Shepard. Tali’s desperation and his own disappointment were enough to wake him, though, and to bring him back from wherever he’d gone. Awareness of his idiocy hit him like a krogan headbutt, sudden and violent.
Dropping into a crouch, he scanned the CIC through his scope. His visor wasn’t registering life signs, but then Reaper-tech abominations hardly counted as Council races, no matter what organic life they were built from. Whatever they’d been before, they weren’t turian now. They weren’t moving, either. Nothing was moving.
Even with the static, Tali’s terror came through loud and clear.
She continued, “I can’t—Shepard.”
He bit down on his tongue. Hard. The pain was immediate. It was real. It was now. He tasted blood, and it made him focus. It made him step back, step away from thoughts like not again and elevator shaft and Shepard. “Tali,” he replied, trying to keep his voice even, calm, in control. “Tali, you need to go get help. Shepard’s in trouble. You need to get to the Normandy. You need to bring back the team. The whole team.”
And then we need to blow this abomination out of the sky.
Shepard’s words, but he understood the sentiment. He understood it all the way down to his bones.
The silence that followed was so absolute he felt certain they’d lost communications again. Slowly, carefully, he began edging his way around the mound of bodies toward the last place he’d seen Shepard. Every unintentional scrape of metal on metal reverberated in the silence, unbearably loud.
He didn’t let himself imagine what he might do if he looked down the shaft and his visor failed to pick up life signs there, too.
She’s Shepard. She’s fine.
“Where?” Tali finally said. The poor reception didn’t hide her emotion. Determination. Anxiety. Mostly determination. “I’ll come.”
“No,” he snapped back, instantly, and with more force than necessary. Inhaling sharply, he forced himself to think calm, calm, calm. How many times had Shepard warned him about going off half-cocked? He had to think. He had to think. He had to think the way she’d taught him to think. And he had to remain calm. Making snap decisions in the heat of anger or fear never went well. For anyone. Least of all for him. “No, Tali, listen. Listen carefully. The ship’s crawling with Reaper tech. You have to tell Admiral Hackett. The Council. It’s what Shepard would have wanted—would want. Wants.”
He didn’t catch himself quickly enough, and the poor connection didn’t do him the favor of fixing his mistake. Or hiding it.
No. She’s fine. She’s Shepard. She’s fine.
“Did you say—keelah! Would have wanted? Where is she? Is—hurt? Garr—? Is she—?”
She’s Shepard. She’s fine. I’m not leaving her.
“Shepard gave you an order, Tali.”
Defiant, Tali retorted, “She gave you an ord—too, Garrus. I was there!”
What he wanted was to roar his rage and fear and desperation. He wanted to shoot something. Anything. He wanted to pound his fist into the wall—the floor—someone’s face. But he was a good enough turian to know a sniper alone in a hostile environment didn’t give in to emotion when he had a mission to complete. Clarity. Focus. He reached desperately for the crystalline moment between breaths, where emotion disappeared and the world was no bigger than the view through his scope.
“Go,” he said. “Go.”
She’s Shepard. She’s fine. She’s survived worse.
And she’s died before.
The moment between breaths. This wasn’t Anderson saying I thought you should hear it from me. This wasn’t Omega. He crept forward a few more feet, listening to the silence, waiting for… something. Anything.
And on the other end of the comm-link, Tali breathed a broken prayer. “Garrus. Is she… Garrus. Don’t. She wouldn’t… she wouldn’t want you to.”
And damn the technology that suddenly let every word ring clear as a bell in the confines of his helmet.
“Incoming,” Cortez interrupted. “We’ve got hostiles approaching, and no sign of the Normandy.”
Tali and Garrus swore at the same time—different languages, equally harsh. “We’ll be back for you, Garrus.”
“And Shepard.” A pause. “Garrus? Keelah se’lai.”
“You too,” he said, though he wasn’t sure she heard it. The connection gave a high-pitched shriek then a cry like a medical machine flatlining. He tried not to imagine what that might mean as he switched channels and began trying to raise Shepard on any of the other frequencies she used. Every one was quiet.
He tried not to think the word dead, but the silence was heavy, different. Absolute. It felt like death.
Finally, without anything else happening—good or bad—he reached the lip of the elevator shaft. Nothing rose up behind him; nothing emerged from the shadows to push him over. Very carefully, he leaned out over the edge. The darkness was broken only by the light his visor cast, and the dim strips of emergency lighting lining the shaft itself.
And below, so far he couldn’t merely jump, too far for his biofeedback monitors to pick anything up, he thought he caught the faintest trace of a thermal signature. Warmth. Human warmth.
He only hoped it wasn’t his mind playing tricks on him.
Shepard woke choking on a scream.
She knew pain. Pain was her old companion. They had a long and troubled relationship. She might avoid it for a while, but it always found her. This? This wasn’t a fistfight or a bullet or a broken rib. It was every nerve expressing its displeasure at the same time. It was fire. It was the certainty that she should be dead.
Instinct kept her from loosing the cry hovering on her lips. She didn’t entirely know where she was or how she’d come to be there, but she knew pain usually came with hostiles, and any enemy worth their salt would hear a scream and come running to finish the death her current pain promised.
After several breaths as deep and steadying as her lungs would allow (at least one broken rib, she decided, maybe more), she’d wrestled the worst of the agony down, pushing it into the compartment her training had built for such things. The mission. The mission had to come first.
One thing at a time.
Slowly, methodically, she began taking stock of her situation.
Her mag-boots were still rooted to the floor of the elevator. They’d probably saved her life. Her legs were broken, though, along with that rib or two, but at least she could feel them. It meant her spine was probably still whole. Another thing she had to thank Cerberus for, she supposed. Any other body wouldn’t have fared quite so well in the epic battle of woman versus elevator versus gravity.
She was pretty sure the darkness was only darkness, and not blindness. She tasted blood in her mouth, and hoped it was because she’d bitten her tongue and not because she was in the process of bleeding to death via internal injury.
Moving her arms was possible, though once she ascertained their mobility, she lay still again, unwilling to further exacerbate the problem with her ribs. When she tried to activate her omni-tool, she was met with resounding failure. No flicker of orange light appeared at her wrist.
It took a hell of a fall to render an omni-tool inoperative.
She was pretty sure it wasn’t only the omni-tool, either. Her armor had to be malfunctioning; it hadn’t flooded her with medi-gel, and if ever she’d required a little help in the healing department, it was now. She couldn’t quite feel her cybernetics, but she knew they had to be working overtime in a desperate attempt to get her up and active.
Cerberus hadn’t wanted her falling down on the job, after all.
It was something of a relief to find she still had her sense of humor, even if it was muffled and black.
Other pains—aching head, aching spine, aching shoulders—she catalogued and disregarded. She’d have to watch for the possibility—probability—of concussion, but none of the rest was life-threatening.
All in all, she was pretty sure she wasn’t going to die in the next five minutes.
She could work with that.
A great shriek of metal above her gave her only a moment’s warning—time enough to grab her pistol and aim, broken ribs be damned—before something dropped down from the ceiling. Enemy, her instincts said. No, Garrus, the blue visor replied. Only pure reflex turned her shot aside at the last moment, sending the bullet through the open hatch to ricochet around the elevator shaft above.
“Damn, Vakarian. A little warning?”
“I tried,” he said, relief warring with strain in the tones of his voice. “Your comm’s busted.”
“Hell,” she groaned, letting her arm fall back to the floor. “Everything’s busted. But I’m alive, at least.”
He crouched beside her, and though the only light in the elevator car was the faint pale blue his visor gave off, it was enough to reveal his expression.
She wished it wasn’t.
She figured as bad as she felt, she must look worse. Because there was fear and there was fear. There was grief and there was grief. And then there was whatever Garrus was feeling. It had to be something intense, because he looked murderous and distressed, all mixed together with that particular brand of emotion she’d learned to recognize as his feelings for her.
He looked a little like he’d take on a Reaper with his bare hands if he thought it might help her.
“Nothing an extended vacation in the medbay can’t cure,” she managed, though pain and breathlessness stole something of the humor she’d intended. “Dr. Chakwas’ll probably be glad to see some action. She’ll finally get a chance to run all those tests she’s been threatening to run.”
Garrus didn’t laugh. If anything, his countenance darkened and turned more serious. “About that.”
She nodded, and then winced when her head reminded her to stop moving so damned much. Or at all. “They left.”
“You told them to.”
“I told you all to.”
He was silent a long time, and she wondered what his visor was telling him as he scanned the length of her injured body.
“I couldn’t have gotten back in time. Cortez said enemies were approaching.”
Shepard’s stomach twisted in a way that had nothing whatsoever to do with hunger or injury, but hurt nonetheless. “Did they make it?”
“Don’t know. Communications were bad.”
She swallowed, wishing the taste of blood would wash away. It didn’t. “You wouldn’t have gone anyway, would you? You could have been standing in that mess hall staring Tali down, twenty feet from the Kodiak and you still wouldn’t have gone.”
He said nothing. He didn’t have to.
“Garrus, I gave you an order.”
“What are you going to do about it?” he snapped. “Court-martial me?”
“This isn't funny.”
“Good thing I'm not joking.”
Furious, and heedless of the way it made her ribs ache, she shifted to face him. “I gave you an order.”
He met her ire for ire, the shadowy bulk of him huge. “And I disregarded it. Can we fight about it when we're not trapped in the belly of a ship that may or may not be partially alive? And may or may not be filled with an unknown number of hostiles?”
“As long as you’re aware we are going to fight about it.”
He reached down, unlatching her boots. She knew he was being careful—every movement was gentle and tentative—but still, the pain as he moved her legs was blinding. Grinding her teeth together, she exhaled loudly through her nose.
It felt good—as good as anything could feel—to be rid of the boots, though.
“Broken,” she hissed through her still-clenched teeth.
His head jerked to face her. “Medi-gel?”
“I have some. But the mechanism’s busted. Have to—oh, shit—have to do this the old-fashioned way. I need—goddamnit—I need something to bite down on.”
Of course, they were in an elevator without a lot of options. After a moment, she felt his hands at her feet, and he removed one of her socks. She watched him roll it into a tight tube, and she’d have laughed if she’d been in any less pain. “Beggars can’t be choosers,” she muttered, stuffing the fabric between her teeth. It tasted better than the blood, at least.
“This is going to hurt.”
“I know,” she replied, the words muffled.
He brushed his brow against hers, softly. Tenderly. And for a single moment, she felt fine. She felt like everything was going to be fine.
Then he set the bone in her right leg, and, sock or no sock, potential hostiles or no potential hostiles, she screamed.
I'm going to be away for about a week, starting tomorrow. I imagine I'll still get an update or two out during that time, but I can't promise when, exactly. So, should I happen to be silent, don't worry. I'll be back soon :)
Chapter 5: Belief
Shepard was on the storage deck of the SR-1. The dim light felt like coming home, in a way the shiny SR-2 had never quite managed, even after its Alliance retrofit. To the left was the bank of crew lockers, though Wrex was not standing in his customary place. Beyond them, the table where Ashley so often cleaned rifles with irreproachable attention to detail. And to the right was the Mako, in all her rugged, beat-up glory. Shepard almost wished for the brasher, younger, unscarred in so many unalterable ways version of Garrus, until she realized she liked her Garrus—her Garrus—more than any version of him from her past.
It had been a long time since her dreams took any form other than the wood where shadows played amongst the spindly trees, ghost-voices from her past whispered words she strained to hear but could never quite understand, and a dead child forever beckoned her onward.
Shepard didn’t realize she was dreaming until she squinted and saw Ashley herself perched on the forward hull of the Mako, feet dangling over the side. Strangely, the certainty she was dreaming didn’t wake her, or shift the dream into something else. She only thought too bad, walking’s nice and took a few steps toward her long-dead gunnery chief. Her long-dead friend.
Ashley turned her head and smiled. An incongruous bright pink ribbon held her dark hair away from her face, and instead of the ever-present white and pink armor, she wore the kind of ruffled confection usually sported by little girls headed to church on Sunday. Shepard had neither worn such a thing, nor had the occasion to. On Mindoir, her parents had subscribed to a live and let live but don’t try to force your beliefs down our throats brand of religious tolerance. The Shepards worshipped the god of adventure, of endurance, of testing boundaries and pushing limits. They needed land to work, not a man in a suit with a book telling them what to think or what to believe. Or so they’d said when she asked, in the curious way of children, about eternity.
Later, in those strange, strained years between rescue and enlistment, Shepard’s foster family had insisted on regular attendance at services. It was the appropriate thing to do, all their friends did it, and the political gossip after mass was second to none. Shepard had gone, reluctantly and out of a misplaced sense of obligation, although at the time she’d been rather viciously opposed to the idea of any god presented as benevolent. A vengeful one, maybe. One who let good people die in random slaver attacks for His own sport, perhaps.
Still, she’d sat with her fingers twined tightly together in her lap, watching those hopeful little girls in their frilly white dresses laughing behind their hands, and she’d envied them their innocence.
Leaning back on her hands, kicking the heels of her patent white Mary Janes against the side of the Mako, one knee sock pulled high and the other falling down, Ashley asked, “What do you believe in, Shepard?”
A gold cross glinted at Ashley’s throat, throwing back a disproportionate amount of light. Shepard didn’t think she believed in that. Though Garrus never spoke of it, she liked what she understood about the turian idea of spirits—not ghosts, but embodiments of unified purpose. She believed in the spirit of the Normandy, of her crew, of striving toward the improbable because she believed it was still possible to triumph.
Perhaps she believed in her parents’ god more than she knew.
She believed in perseverance. She believed in hope.
“That’s what I thought,” Ashley said, her smile brightening her countenance in a way Shepard thought she’d never seen when the woman was alive. “It’s a good thing to believe in.”
“I’m sorry, Ash,” Shepard said.
Ashley rolled her shoulders in a brief shrug, but her smile didn’t dim. If anything, it grew brighter. “Don’t be. It was a soldier’s death. It was clean, in its way. Besides. I’m still part of the spirit of the crew, right? I think that counts for something.” Ashley’s feet stilled, and she gazed toward the ceiling. When she spoke, her voice was a little whispery, like the ghosts in Shepard’s dreams of the wood. “There’s a kind of peace. When you know you’re going to die, but you also know it’s going to matter.”
“I didn’t feel that. When I died.”
When they met Shepard’s, Ashley’s were the eyes of the old woman she never got to be, terrifyingly wise. “You weren’t ready. It wasn’t right. Next time. You’ll know.”
“I’m not ready now.”
“Of course not.”
All around them, the old cargo hold of the Normandy began to fade. Tall, leafless branches sprouted from the metal floor, and colors began to bleed away, until only Ashley remained vivid against the pale backdrop of fog and shadows. Black shades reached toward Shepard, not quite touching her. She shuddered at their chill, but took a step down the path already spooling out beneath her feet.
“Hey,” Ashley snapped, and it was enough to stop Shepard in her tracks. “You shouldn’t even be sleeping.” The childishness of her attire was suddenly entirely at odds with the concern in her voice. Somewhere beyond them, Shepard thought she heard a child crying, always crying. He needed her. She wanted nothing more than to run after him, to offer silence and soothing arms. Whispers pulled at her, begging her to follow where they led. Ashley jumped down from her perch, standing between Shepard and the old nightmare. “You’re not supposed to be here. You have a concussion. Commander, wake up. Shepard, wake up.”
She woke to fragments of half-remembered poetry and the smell of oil and clean guns.
“Wake up, Shepard.”
Garrus repeated himself three times before she opened her eyes, but was relieved when they almost immediately regained their usual sharp focus, tracking to meet his gaze. Her lips, usually so full and rosy, were pinched and pale with pain, and heavy lines furrowed the skin at her brow and the corners of her eyes, but apart from a certain roughness, her voice was steady and even when she said, “How long was I out?”
“I’ve been waking you every hour. The first time I asked your name and rank and you answered fine, but last time I started to worry when I asked who you liked better, me or Alenko, and you said Alenko.”
Her lips twitched, and not in pain. A good sign, he thought. They needed a good sign. “Nah, that one’s true.”
Garrus feigned horror, even as he checked over the makeshift splints he’d bound her broken shins into. “Oh, that’s how it is. Is it his ass?” Shepard shuddered under his hands and took several ragged gulps of air, but didn’t cry out. “I swear to you, Shepard, the number of times I’ve walked in on crew discussions of the superlative properties of Alenko’s posterior—”
She wheezed a little laugh and then winced. “Laughing hurts.”
“From the one who used to do everything in her power to make me laugh while my face was held together with nothing sturdier than hope and medical tape. Payback’s a bitch.”
Her smile brightened her eyes, making her look momentarily healthier. “Jealous, Vakarian?”
“Of Alenko? Never.”
She arched a sly eyebrow. “Not even if I told you I sometimes drop stuff on the floor just to watch him bend over? Because he’s a gentleman, you know. He will always pick things up when they fall.”
Garrus blinked at her, mandibles flaring in surprise. With the tiniest side of jealousy. Microscopic. She chuckled, even though the sound was followed by a grimace. “You’re gullible as hell, Garrus. It’s almost adorable.”
“Almost, now. This conversation’s going downhill rapidly.”
“Oh, come here,” she said, beckoning him with one crooked finger. He bent his head close to hers, and she whispered, “Your ass is my favorite ass on the Citadel, Garrus Vakarian. Or anywhere else, for that matter. Okay?”
Pressing his mouth to her forehead, he said, “Don’t go getting all romantic on me, Shepard. It’s embarrassing.”
“Fine.” He was surprised by the strength in her hand when she reached out to squeeze his. Another good sign, maybe. He hoped. “Business then. Any word?”
Garrus shook his head once, firmly. No point pulling punches. “Nothing. Could be interference. Could be hardware problems. I’m… wary about trying to hack into the ship’s systems, given what we saw on the CIC.”
“We might need to, but yeah. Could be they’re just outrunning whatever it was Cortez saw and haven’t been able to circle back. Or they’re waiting for backup.” She sighed, her breath catching on the end of the exhale. “Can’t worry about that now. Out of our hands. They know where we are. We have to do the best we can on our end.”
“They’ll come soon,” Garrus said, with more hope than certainty. He saw in her eyes that Shepard caught the subtle pessimism, but she didn’t berate him for it. “How do you feel? I mean, all things considered?”
She closed her eyes, and for a moment he thought he’d lost her again to her uneasy sleep. Then she said, “On a scale of one to dead, better than I did. Not very well. Medi-gel’s only so much help when you break the computers and the self-healing system in your suit.”
He frowned. “We still have almost all of what you were carrying. You didn’t have anything external that needed patching up.”
“Thank goodness for small mercies. At least I was wearing my damned helmet. I don’t think medi-gel would’ve saved me from a bashed in skull.”
He glowered at her.
“Go on,” she needled. “I know you want to say it. It would take more than gravity and an elevator floor—”
“Shepard.” He ran the back of one taloned finger along the curve of her cheek, and for a moment—just a moment—he saw regret in her eyes. And he saw fear.
Joker wasn’t the only one who knew how to deflect via wisecrack.
“All right,” she said, humor gone, replaced by solemn, no-nonsense Commander Shepard. Bruised and battered and a bit broken, perhaps, but Commander nonetheless. “Full disclosure. My legs. I’ve got a couple of seriously cracked ribs, but they’re not detached. Breathing hurts, but isn’t impossible. Concussion; not the worst I’ve ever had. Everything else is cosmetic, more or less. I think. I’m going to be all manner of pretty shades of black and blue from head to heel for ages.”
She made it sound like nothing. He felt fairly certain it was a human thing—had she been turian, he’d have been able to read the subtle shift in the flanging of her voice. He didn’t know how she managed to do it, but he believed her. Believed in her.
“Also,” she added, her voice deepening slightly with concern, “I’m hungry. And unless there’s a stash of levo-friendly rations lying around…?”
Garrus bowed his head. “I looked when I went to get supplies from the med-bay, but… it’s a warship during wartime. Supplies were at a premium to begin with—”
“And you don’t waste space hauling rations for races you don’t intend to be carrying around with you. It’s not the Normandy.”
“I’ll keep looking.”
When her brow creased this time, he recognized determination under the discomfort. “I’ve gone without food before. It’s not an emergency.” The word yet hung in the air, unspoken, and it made his own stomach twist in sympathy. “What we need is to get the hell out of this elevator. You ever heard the saying ‘like shooting fish in a barrel?’”
He shook his head.
“Well, we’re the living embodiment right now.”
He growled, low and warning. “You can’t walk. No matter what Cerberus added, even your enhanced healing’s going to need time to deal with a pair of broken shins.”
“You’re a big, strong turian. You’ll figure something out.”
She sighed. “This protective thing you’ve got going right now is sweet and all, Garrus, but it’s not practical. Broken bones won’t kill me. Rotting away down here will. No one’s going to come looking for us at the bottom of elevator shafts. We have to keep moving, and we have to keep moving to locations where people will look.”
“And what, we just hope our people are the ones who show up first? That’s a dangerous game when you can’t count on speed or agility to save you, and you’re not even sure who the enemy is.”
“I’ll still have guns, Vakarian. It’s a damned warship. It’s not like we’re going to run out of ammo and heat sinks.” Her lips twisted. “I know you like tried and true, but we’ll just have to switch things up for a bit. I’ll play sniper, and you play pistol-to-the-face hotshot with more guts than good sense. It’ll be like role-play. Shame about the tactical cloak though. It’s as out of commission as the rest of my gear, I suppose.”
“Your gear kept you from ending up smeared all over the elevator floor.”
“More thoroughly smeared, anyway.”
Her grimace seemed to concur. “I need to get on that. Getting my armor fixed will go a long way toward solving any number of problems. Between the two of us and the resources on the ship, we should be able to jury-rig something adequate. So what do you say? New digs. Supplies. …Armor calibration?”
He snorted a laugh and was rewarded with a brief grin. “It’s going to take more than calibrating.”
“We’ll make a game of it. See who can fix things the best and the fastest.”
“It’s always a game with you, Shepard,” he said with fondness.
“Ha. How about ‘two peas in a pod’? Have you heard that one before?”
“You humans and your sayings. We’re peas now?”
She nodded. “In a pod. Help me sit.”
He hesitated until she glared at him. “It’s better for my lungs, anyway, and there’s nothing wrong with my spine.”
Thinking about her lungs struggling, slowly filling with fluid as she struggled to breathe, was enough to motivate him.
“I tell you what, though,” she muttered as Garrus helped her sit upright. He heard her breath catch. “Wish I’d eaten that damned bar of rations when I had a chance.”
“Not funny,” he repeated. “Not funny at all, Shepard.”
“No,” she said softly. “I suppose it isn’t.”
Chapter 6: Calculated Risk
Saying “We need to get out of the elevator” and actually getting out of the elevator were, unfortunately, two very different beasts, and in the end, Shepard knew determination could only take her so far. They needed a plan that didn’t involve her legs. Or her ribs. And, as it turned out, that kind of plan was bordering on impossible. Garrus could easily haul himself out the safety hatch in the ceiling and up the service ladders in the shaft itself as he’d done to get down in the first place, and to fetch supplies in the meantime. She and her broken bones were a dead weight that couldn’t be quite so easily maneuvered.
Garrus stood beneath the hatch, hands on his hips, head tilted. After a moment, he shifted his weight to his other hip, and his head tilted in the opposite direction. “We could do some kind of… pulley? But then we’d still have the problem of getting you out of the shaft. And something tells me running a pulley all the way from the CIC would be a very bad idea.”
She snorted. “I don’t know what you mean. Nothing says good idea like staging a rescue from the site of the attack.”
Grimacing, he grasped the edge of the opening above and pulled himself even with the lip. After a moment of observation, he dropped back down again, almost soundlessly. Then he shook his head. “Even if I could lift you…”
“Are we at the bottom of the ship?”
Garrus shook his head again. “Safeties kicked in. We’re basically back where we started, on the quarters floor.”
Shepard grimaced. “So you’re saying it could have been worse.”
“It wasn’t,” he retorted, in as terse and tight a tone as she’d ever heard out of him. He could have shouted I don’t want to consider the possibility at the top of his lungs, and it wouldn’t have been clearer than his stiff shoulders and lowered brow plate and mandibles flattened against his face.
“I wonder…” Shepard didn’t quite realize she’d faded into complete silence as her thoughts raced until Garrus turned and crouched down beside her.
“Any insight would be welcome,” he said, and she could hear him trying—trying and mostly failing—to pull away from whatever image it could have been worse had planted in his head.
“We didn’t meet any resistance when we came in and started opening all those doors. Tali didn’t seem to trip anything when she was rooting through the console in the mess hall. Nothing happened until we were actually on the command deck. Maybe whatever… process the Reapers were implementing… installing… whatever, isn’t finished.”
“Maybe the range is still limited, you think?”
She nodded, wincing as her neck protested the vehemence of the gesture. “What if it’s like a snakebite? Like… slow-spreading poison? The tech may be taking over the ship, but it’s still got to go through all the lockdown safeties and protocols. Maybe lashing out at the elevator was… instinct. Or as close to instinct as a synthetic can get.”
“Self-defense instead of intent to murder?”
“Something like that. Otherwise, why not chase us down? Why not finish what it started?” Sighing, she rolled her shoulder and tried to ignore the pain that burned down her ribs. “I’d give my left arm to have Legion here, deploying code to impede it.”
Garrus was silent, and Shepard closed her eyes, allowing herself a moment of that different pain, the pain of losing something that couldn’t be replaced. Keelah se’lai, she thought. Keelah se’lai, Legion.
“Yeah,” Garrus finally said. She heard him swallow hard. “He’d probably have enjoyed the challenge. His head-flaps would’ve gone all excited and fluttery. Though, frankly Shepard, I’m not sure you ought to be sacrificing more body parts at this point.”
He laugh was soft and a little broken. “True enough. And we’re no slouches in the tech department. If I’m right, and we can keep it busy fighting the ship…”
“It might buy us time for that rescue to show up.”
“But we still need to get out of the elevator.” Inhaling as deeply as her ribs would allow, she followed the long, slow exhale into clarity. “I think it may be time for a calculated risk.”
“I hate when you say that.” He scrubbed his hand along the length of his fringe. It was a gesture both resigned and tentatively hopeful. “You want to bypass the door?”
She raised her eyebrows. “Am I getting predictable in my old age?”
“I think I’ve just been indoctrinated by your brand of crazy.”
“My brand of taking calculated risks, you mean.”
He chuckled, shaking his head. “How does that one go? Six of something, half a dozen of something else?”
“Six of one, half a dozen of the other. Close, but no cigar.”
This time his head-tilt was all confusion. “No cigar?”
She grinned. “When we get out of this, I’m going to buy you the biggest book of human idioms I can find.”
He didn’t quite smile, but hopeful definitely took the lead away from resigned, and she considered it a win. Close enough for a cigar, anyway.
It took a few long, very painful moments to move her near the door. She clutched her sock-gag in one hand hand, ready to stuff it between her teeth at a moment’s notice, though not quite ready to be preemptive about it. She forced her fingers to relax when she realized she was holding the sock tightly enough to make her ribs ache. The other hand felt steadier, closed around the familiar heft and weight of her pistol.
She hoped she didn’t have to use either.
What hurt more, somehow, was seeing how carefully Garrus concentrated on causing as little pain as possible, and how he flinched every time she did. She didn’t think he was even aware he was doing it.
Once she was settled on the far side of the car, he helped her into her armor again—or at least as much of it as they could manage. Her greaves were useless; they couldn’t close around her swollen, splinted shins, but they kept them, strapping them to Garrus’ armor. She flat out rejected the boots. “Too heavy,” she said. “They’ll only pull the bones out of alignment again, and I’m all about avoiding a repeat of the setting procedure, if it’s all the same to you.”
He shot her a glare that managed, somehow, to be horrified and fond all at once. In return, her smile was bolstering, and he shook his head as he turned toward the elevator console.
“Ready?” he asked.
“As I’ll ever be.”
Garrus took a steadying breath as he faced the console and brought up his omni-tool interface. One. Two. Three. He couldn’t think about Shepard, about the way her breath caught at the apex of every inhale, or wheezed as it slid out on the exhale. He couldn’t think about how the bruises under her eyes seemed a painful, mocking mimicry of his own clan markings. He couldn’t think about the CIC, or Shepard’s theories, or what they’d do if the hoped-for rescue never came. He breathed until it all faded away and he reached the sniper’s serenity, where time slowed to a crawl and nothing but the task at hand seemed important. One. Two. Three.
Not for the first time, he was glad of the time he’d spent back on Palaven before the outbreak of the war. If nothing else, it had given him time to reacquaint himself with turian tech, turian methods. Turian encryption. His fingers flew over the console, and even from his place of stillness, he could feel the creak of the elevator around him. He didn’t think he imagined the shudder beneath his feet, or the faint whine of metal straining against metal.
He hoped it was the door. He was afraid it wasn’t.
Shepard remained silent, but he heard the shift in her breathing and he was aware, through his visor, of the increase in her heart rate. He wasn’t imagining things, then. Damn.
The shudder began to creep up from the floor, vibrating the walls.
Something above them began to squeal, high-pitched enough to make his ears ring, and to steal a fraction of his calm. He gave his head a minute shake, and chased down another line of the decryption code.
The door slid wide as the high-pitched squeal became a higher-pitched scream and the floor dropped an inch. Two inches. A third.
Time slowed. Three breaths, he thought. Three shots. No mistakes.
One: his omni-tool interface flickered and vanished. Two: it took one long stride to cover the distance from console to Shepard. Three: without pausing, he swept one arm under Shepard’s thighs, cradled her back with the other, and launched himself through an exit growing narrower by the moment. The top of his head didn’t quite clear the opening and he cracked his forehead before he could duck. He blinked at the sudden shock of pain, but didn’t hesitate to curl himself around Shepard, so when they tumbled out into the hallway, he took the brunt of the fall.
“You okay?” she whispered, voice too high, too breathless.
“Fine,” he ground out. “You?”
“Fine,” she echoed. “But I think my legs are broken. And I dropped my sock.”
“Not your gun?”
“Hell no, not my gun.”
He couldn’t help it. He laughed. Then she laughed.
And for five minutes, they lay curled together outside the gaping door of the elevator shaft, laughing because somehow they’d managed yet again to cheat a death that always seemed to have them in its sights.
“Calculated risk,” she said.
“Crazy,” he insisted.
“I’m going to go out on a limb here and say I think it probably knows where we are. We should probably find a new hideout ASAP. A bunker, maybe. With thick walls and as little tech-interface as possible.”
Garrus nodded against her hair, still holding her as close and as tightly as her injured ribs would allow. “I love you,” he whispered into the top of her head, relief loosening his tongue.
She went still—utterly, completely, just-spotted-a-Reaper-at-two-o’clock still. It startled him until he realized that although she’d spoken the words before, high on the Presidium with the wind in her hair and her eyes shining and the words are you ready to be a one-turian kind of woman between them, he hadn’t actually returned them. Precisely.
“Hell, Vakarian.” Her voice sounded strained, oddly thick, and he wondered again what sub-tonals would tell him if she had them. “You must’ve hit your head harder than I thought.”
He huffed a laugh. “I have it on good authority that I’ve got a pretty thick skull.”
She pulled away from him just enough to look up and meet his eyes. Hers were shining, he thought, and perhaps even a bit oddly damp. Damper than usual; human eyes always tended a little toward the watery. He scoffed at himself for thinking maybe she was crying; Shepard never cried. “You too, Garrus.” She tapped her forehead to his chin, gently. “Now. Enough with the heroics. And the swooning princess crap. I can hear Jack making fun of me from the other side of the galaxy.”
Shepard snorted. “Don’t worry. I’m sure she could find half a dozen colorful ways to include you.”
“Definitely,” he repeated, and was rewarded by another of Shepard’s breathy, wheezing little laughs.
Chapter 7: Guilt
With Shepard in his arms, he found himself remembering the first time he’d seen her on the Citadel. Most humans seemed small to turians—the females especially so—and his first impression of her had been no different. She’d been relatively slight even in her armor, and Garrus had made the same mistake he’d witnessed so many others make in the time since: he’d underestimated her. He’d seen only her slim human limbs, her large human eyes with their fringe of dark lashes, the soft features that gave her the appearance of being younger than her years, and he’d believed her weak. Once he saw her in action—on the battlefield and off—her charisma and skill had all but erased the initial judgement. By the time she’d welcomed him aboard the Normandy, he’d almost forgotten his initial misguided assessment. Well. He remembered enough to be ashamed of that assessment, anyway. He hadn’t been able to meet her eyes for the first week.
Shepard was tall for a human woman, strong enough to handle her Black Widow—and him, for that matter—with deceptive ease, but the war hadn’t been kind, and she was thinner now than she’d been even when he first saw her silhouetted in the entrance to the Citadel Tower. Better than anyone, perhaps, he knew she’d been relying too heavily on her Cerberus upgrades to keep her going in lieu of proper sleep and sustenance since Earth. Perhaps even before. When he’d seen her on Menae he hadn’t made the mistake of thinking her frail, but he’d noticed a new gauntness in her cheeks to match the new ghosts in her eyes. Even in armor she felt too light, and he found himself wondering how depleted her resources truly were, and why he was only noticing now.
He knew the answer to the latter: because she hadn’t let on. Sometimes he thought even she didn’t realize how hard she was pushing herself. As vulnerable as she was with him—more vulnerable than she was with anyone—she couldn’t reveal what she herself was unaware of. He’d seen her weary, and he’d seen her strained, but he hadn’t seen the slow erosion of her health for what it was because she was Commander Shepard, with the fate of the galaxy on her shoulders. When a single woman was tasked with the impossible—brokering peace treaties and curing genophages and ending wars hundreds of years running—a proper dinner tended to get lost in the shuffle, no matter how carefully her resident turian was watching, or how willing he was to help shoulder the load.
And it was his damned fault she’d missed breakfast. (“Sure you don’t have another round of… sparring in you, Shepard?” She’d laughed, stretching her long, pale limbs enticingly against the sheets of her bed. “If you think you’ve got the reach, Vakarian, my flexibility’s more than up to the task.”) Hell, it was his fault she hadn’t choked down the rations aboard the Kodiak, too. Twelve hours that would have bought her. Twelve damned hours.
Even now she revealed little of her suffering, though she couldn’t be comfortable. He was being careful, and as gentle as he could, but he couldn’t entirely stop her legs from jostling, and splints could only give so much support when they were fighting gravity. In the brighter light of the hallway he couldn’t pretend her agony was just exaggeration borne of shadows and dimness. The damage was more evident, and so was her struggle to overcome it. He’d never seen her quite so wan, and the bruising against that paleness was downright alarming. Battles with Collectors and entire gangs of mercs and damned Reapers, and she’d never suffered so much as a black eye. Helmet or no helmet. Still, her eyes were sharp and steady above the bruises, scanning the hallway with their usual precision, and the pistol she held one-handed didn’t waver.
“I hate not having things to shoot.”
He snorted, startled out of his grim reverie not just by the words, but by how longingly she spoke them. “Only you, Shepard.”
She nudged him gently with the side of her head, eyes never leaving the hallway. “You know what I mean. All these flickering lights and disembodied threats? I get enough of that from Harbinger. Give me a target. Preferably one that’ll go down with one clean shot to the head. That’s the kind of assuming control I can live with.”
“If it’s all the same, I could live without the sudden appearance of the kinds of targets around us lately. I never liked husks, but brutes? Those damned Cerberus Phantoms? Banshees?”
“I don’t know, the turian-Reaper hybrid ship is making me nostalgic for a run-of-the-mill shrieking asari death-bitch.”
“Bullshit. You scream every time one of those things appears, and don’t think I don’t hear it.”
He glanced down at her in time to see her smile. Her full bottom lip was cracked, beading with a droplet of fresh blood. It took a great deal of resolve not to immediately put her down and start cleaning her up. A moment later her tongue darted out and though she scowled at the taste, she didn’t comment on it. A second drop of blood welled up almost immediately. “Couldn’t you go for a nice YMIR mech or something, though? Maybe with some of little LOKI and FENRIS buddies just for kicks?”
“Why not ask for an armature, while you’re at it?”
Shepard wrinkled her nose in a patented don’t be stupid, Garrus look. “Without the Mako? It would feel like cheating on the old girl. Remember that time I ran one over? To death?”
“In the kind of exquisite detail that regularly haunts my dreams.”
“It wasn’t that ba—”
“It really was. I think you made Wrex cry. Or as close as krogans get.”
He didn’t like how he could feel the pain in her body as she chuckled. He didn’t hold her closer though it was his instinct to do so; her ribs would hate him for it. He couldn’t protect her from the kind of agony she was suffering. “Wrex was always a baby about being in the Mako.” She sighed, a little wistfully. “I should have made Cerberus buy me a new one when I had the chance.”
“What, in place of your beloved Hammerhead?”
She left off her surveillance long enough to shoot him a horrified glare. “I hated the Hammerhead, Garrus. I’d’ve blown it up if the opportunity had ever arisen. Gladly. And then I’d’ve thrown a party around its smoking corpse.”
“Don’t hold back. Tell me how you really feel.”
“I almost wept tears of joy when Cortez told me the damned thing was still out for retrofit when the Reapers hit.”
“That’s my Shepard. Always finding the bright side.”
She rolled her eyes at him before turning her gaze toward the hallway again. “You have a destination in mind, smart-ass?”
“Far away from that elevator as possible?”
She nodded. He felt the subtle shift of her body as she tried to make herself more comfortable. He felt the less subtle spasm when the attempt failed.
“…Are we there yet?”
They weren’t quite as far as Garrus would have liked, but the undercurrent of strain in her voice couldn’t be masked by her attempt at humor, and that was enough to make it far enough. He had to put her down to open the door, and when he picked her up again, she gasped and turned an inhuman shade of green. “I’m okay,” she said, voice high and thin.
A little of the color returned to her cheeks as she squeezed her eyes shut and inhaled sharply through her nose. “Don’t argue with me, Garrus.”
“Don’t lie to me, Shepard.”
Her bloody lips parted, but instead of giving voice to whatever she’d been about to say, she only nodded. “I need to rest for a bit. I think this particular set of injuries has thrown the old cybernetics for a loop. Too much to fix, can’t do it all at once, but they want to.”
He almost regretted the request for honesty, then.
The room was small, bland, turian. He found himself glad of the anonymity. He didn’t want to see holos or personal effects. He didn’t want to think of what had become of the room’s previous occupant.
She sent him a grateful smile as he settled her on the bunk. “We need supplies. You up for a recon mission?”
He didn’t like leaving her. He’d only left the elevator the once, and then because he needed medical supplies. But she was right, of course.
“Have fun,” she said, head tilted back against the wall, eyes already closed. “I’ll be here when you get back. Bring me a present. Water, maybe. Or tools.”
“You and your tools.”
“Those who calibrate in glass houses shouldn’t cast stones.”
He hesitated in the doorway, giving her a skeptical look even though she wasn’t looking at him to see it. “That’s not a real one.”
She opened one eye and grinned. “Sure it is.” Then she lifted the hand still holding the pistol and waved him away. Her tone was not nearly as nonchalant as the gesture. “Be careful out there, Garrus. No unnecessary risks.”
“Right,” he said. “Only calculated ones.”
She didn’t have to say anything. He was well-versed in the many meanings of her eyebrow gestures and this one all but shouted don’t push your luck, wise-ass.
So he did as she bade, locking the door as he left.
As long as it’d been since his C-Sec days, the cop instinct still ran strong, and the first place Garrus went was the mess hall where they’d left Tali and Cortez and the Kodiak. Where was the victim last seen? He chastised himself for the word-choice, but kept his finger ready on the Mattock’s trigger. Comb the crime-scene for clues. No piece of evidence is too small.
The shuttle was gone, of course. That he’d been expecting. But he wasn’t prepared for the new scorch marks along the inner wall, or the broader gash in the dreadnought’s hull, or how the console Tali had used was no longer part of the wall because of said gash. He wasn’t prepared for the bits of metal floating aimlessly through the mess. They didn’t all belong to either hull or console. He recognized the paint job and wished he hadn’t. Denying the evidence doesn’t make the outcome better. For anyone. Stick to the facts.
There wasn’t enough debris to account for an entirely destroyed Kodiak, he told himself, aiming for a little of Shepard’s optimism. A glancing blow could’ve sheared a panel loose. A couple, even. Maybe even knock the comms for a loop. The little ship could take a beating—he knew that. He had evidence of that. And maybe Cortez wasn’t Joker, but he was good. Damned good.
Gun still readied, Garrus crept along the wall until he could peer out into the void beyond. The planet below shone, a deceptively beautiful jewel against the star-speckled velvet blackness of space. A beautiful jewel that screwed with communications and seemed likely to pose a problem if the ship drifted too close to orbit. He sent out a burst of frustrated gunfire and then regretted it. In his mind’s eye, he saw Shepard scowling at him. Keep it together, Vakarian. They’ll come for us soon.
Nothing happened. Evidently it wasn’t flare enough to alert either friend or foe. And if the Normandy was in range, she didn’t answer any of Garrus’ hails. Neither did the Kodiak.
“Fine,” he muttered into the deafening silence of his own helmet. “At least I can do water and tools.”
Ignoring those haunting, fresh signs of a firefight, Garrus turned his back on the darkness of space and began rooting through cupboards and what containers still remained bolted to the floor. One after another produced dextro-amino stores. Food. So much damned food. And not a single bit of it any use to her.
With a wordless cry of rage, he dashed a container of individually-wrapped packets to the floor. Or he would have, if gravity had been on his side. Instead, the silvery rectangles floated, mocking him.
Sinking down into a crouch, mag-boots heavy against the mess hall floor, Garrus lowered his head into his hands. Denying the evidence doesn’t change the outcome, either. He breathed deeply, released a shuddering exhale, and inhaled slow and steady once again. Water. And tools.
They’ll come for us soon.
When he was back in the safe gravity of the hallway, he swallowed a packet of rations without tasting them, and tried not to feel like he was betraying her by eating when she couldn’t.
She’d give him that don’t be stupid, Garrus look if she knew, but he still felt unaccountably guilty anyway.
Chapter 8: Tech
Her armor was a wreck. Her omni-tool was worse. Under any other circumstances, she’d have called it a loss and immediately bought a new one. Hell, she’d have traded it in for one of the half-dozen older models cluttering her desk drawer. Funny, the things one took for granted. A functioning omni-tool rated high on that list. She’d have laughed at her dependence if the situation were any less dire.
Trading banter with Garrus aside, she didn’t much feel like laughing.
Without her omni-tool, she had no idea what time it was. Or how long it’d been since they’d first set foot on the Valiant. Certainly long enough to wonder what had happened to the Normandy, because Joker’s window of ‘ETA in a couple of hours’ had to have closed ages ago.
And it had been long enough for the initial gnawing pangs of hunger to have faded to a dull, persistent throb it was somehow even more challenging to ignore. If the pain in her legs and ribs was the dominant melody, hunger was the driving bass-line, and she had a headache desperately trying to keep time. She didn’t know if the pounding in her skull was product of hunger, concussion, or lingering dehydration. All three, maybe. She blinked, and the omni-tool in her hands swam drunkenly before steadying again. Focus.
Reaching for another of the tools Garrus had returned with, she sent a surreptitious glance his way. He’d been quiet since his return, handing her what supplies he’d found with the anxious air of a supplicant before immediately retrieving her broken helmet, retreating to the other side of the room, and pulling up the diagnostics application on his functional omni-tool. He sat, hunched over his work, fiddling and tweaking and occasionally shaking his head, but he didn’t speak.
She didn’t want to push—Garrus never responded particularly well to obvious pressure anyway; much better to let him open up in his own time—so she set her omni-tool down for a moment, uncapping her bottle of water and taking a small sip. Warm as it was, the liquid felt good against the back of her throat. Less so by the time it reached her empty stomach, setting off a ripple of renewed hunger pangs. When the initial rolling pain and its accompanying bout of nausea passed, she drank down a bit more, trying to remember the lessons she’d learned in survival training so long ago. Too much? Too little? It was all a blur, memories faded and indistinct. A lifetime ago. Literally.
Hell, she had no idea how much of that training even applied to her anymore. She wished she’d paid a bit more attention when Chakwas tried—and failed—to explain the perks and limitations of what Cerberus had done, but it had never quite seemed like the right time. Shepard exhaled a sharp little breath. Bullshit. She hadn’t wanted to know. Not really. It was ironic. For years she’d picked apart every new piece of tech she could get her hands on just to see how it worked… except the tech she was made—remade—of. Too close to home. Too many unanswered questions.
Always a little afraid what she might find if she looked too hard.
The water felt good, though. She knew that much.
Garrus snarled a curse so vicious her sub-dermal (and thank God—and Cerberus—for that) translator glitched and sputtered. She glanced over in time to see his hands tighten around the helmet, the dulled tips of his talons pulling an ugly sound from the ceramic plating.
Frustration wasn’t a good look on him.
“So, why tech?” she asked.
It had the desired effect: he looked up, and his expression was confused instead of angry. “What?”
She took another sip of water, rolling it on her tongue before she swallowed. “When did the fascination with calibrating start?”
He blinked, and she could read his misgivings in the subtle shift of his plates and the stiffness of his mandibles. “I’m not sure what relevance—”
She tilted her head, regarding him calmly, evenly. “This isn’t a pass-fail test, Garrus. There’s no relevance. Just curiosity.”
She lifted her shoulders in a weak shrug. “Hell, Vakarian. You don’t have to answer if you don’t want to. It wasn’t an order.”
His expression settled; she thought he looked a little ashamed of himself. “Sorry. Sorry, I—you’ve got a busted coupler in here and I don’t know if I can fix it. To say nothing of the regulator, and—”
“I can live without a helmet. I’ve done it before.”
He nodded, but didn’t release his grip on the offending piece of armor. “My… my mom,” he said at last, just as she was about to give up on getting an answer—or drawing him out of his shell. She half-expected a can it wait for a bit, Shepard? “My dad had this… this old comm box. Antique. It was his grandfather’s. He loved that damned thing. Kept it in a glass case behind his desk. Mom walked in to find me fringe-deep in pieces. I’d taken it apart.” He shook his head, staring down at the helmet still clutched in his hands. “He wasn’t around much. I was always looking for some way to make an impression.”
“Breaking his prized possessions seems like one way to do it.”
“Ha. Well. Wasn’t the first time. Wouldn’t be the last. I don’t really remember what got into me—I think I wanted to fix it. Thought he’d be proud if I could. What I do remember is the look on Mom’s face: horrified and long-suffering and kind of impressed, all at the same time. I thought she was going to be mad. Dad would have been furious.”
He chuckled, finally setting the helmet aside. Cracking a bottle of his own, his raised the water in a brief salute before drinking. “Maybe I inherited the… tech curiosity from her. She sat down next to me, right there on the floor in the middle of my dad’s study, and said, ‘You know, I’ve always wanted a peek inside this thing.’”
Shepard smiled. “You fix it?”
Garrus snorted. “Not even close. And Dad was—as predicted—enraged. But after that, Mom brought me little mechanical problems. Like a game. Things to break apart and put back together. Programs to calibrate. Encryptions to hack.”
“No more antiques?”
Garrus’ mandibles flared in a quick grin. “I valued my life.” He took another long swig from the water bottle, and then leaned back to rest against the wall. “You?” he finally asked. “Kicking ass and taking names from the cradle? Blowing things up before you could crawl? Hacking into complicated systems on the first day of school?”
Shepard thought about deflecting, about turning aside the query with an anecdote or a joke, but instead she took as deep a breath as her lungs would allow, moistened her throat with a little more water, and said, “Not at all. We were basically farmers on Mindoir. Long days. Hard work. Not a lot of time for getting into trouble. My dad was a mechanic. He taught me the basics, I guess—enough to help him fix things that needed fixing.” She bit down on her bottom lip, ignoring the taste of blood. Even with the water, her lips kept cracking, kept bleeding. Kept reminding her how damaged she was. “I didn’t like it. It was boring and it was dirty and he’d get so excited. I thought he was embarrassing.” She swallowed again, but the knotted dryness in her throat had very little to do with moisture or water and wasn’t soothed. “I was different, then. A stupid kid. Took a lot of things for granted.”
The boy from her calculus class had his hand up her shirt when she first smelled the smoke. They’d crept to the edge of the colony-claimed land, because it was daring. Because that was what the brave kids did—pushed the envelope, tested the waters, laughed in the face of fate. Stood on the edge of the world and flipped off the unknown.
“Do you smell that?” she asked, her lips still damp and tingling from heavy kisses. The boy’s clumsy fingers reached for the clasp of her bra, but she pulled back, twisting away. He glared at her, hand still trapped between fabric and flesh. Then he inhaled. And his expression changed.
“Smoke,” he said. “But it’s not even cold. Why would someone light a fire?”
She staggered upright, and the boy’s useless hand fell heavily into his lap. He had a strange look on his face, wide-eyed and empty. “No,” she said. “The real question is why can we smell a fire from way out here?”
And then they were running.
They saw fire before they saw houses. She stopped in her tracks, frozen by the heat and by the sound of screaming. The boy turned, just once, and she saw tear tracks on his face and his teeth bared in a snarl. “Come on,” he shouted. “We have to do something!”
She shook her head, but he was already gone.
Her house was near the edge of the settlement, but it was burning when she got there, the yellow paint her mother loved so much bubbling and curling in long swathes all along the prefab walls. She got close enough to see the bodies in the doorway—they were bodies, she was sure they were bodies, they were her parents’ bodies—and she stuffed the back of her hand into her mouth and bit down as hard as she could to keep from screaming. A dead raider lay on his back, eyes fixed on the smoky, starry sky above. She thought about going for his gun, but she couldn’t move. She recognized the handle of the knife sticking out of his chest; it belonged to their kitchen set.
Stumbling forward, her foot caught, sending her to her knees. With one hand still at her mouth, she fell awkwardly, twisting her left wrist.
She’d tripped over her father’s toolbox. He’d left it outside, next to a combine he was working on. Earlier, he’d asked her to help. She’d said no. She’d said she was too busy.
“I have homework, Dad,” she’d said, rolling her eyes. But what she’d meant was I’m going to the edge of the world with the boy from my calculus class and you can’t stop me.
Lowering her hand, the pale skin was broken by teeth-marks and mottled with blood. Her fingers closed around an old-fashioned screwdriver with a pointed end. She clutched it so hard her bones hurt. Her lungs were full of smoke. Her eyes burned with tears. Her parents were dead and her house was burning down and all she could think was they’ll come for you next and there are worse things than dying.
So she ran. She ran and ran and ran. And in her head, she never stopped screaming.
“Shepard? You okay?”
She blinked at him, bleary and disoriented. She hadn’t seen him move, but suddenly he was at her side, one finger under her chin, tilting her head so he could meet her eyes. “Did I fall asleep?”
“You just… checked out.” Garrus moved his other hand, and she forced herself to track the finger he held up. Evidently she passed, because he breathed a sigh of relief. “And then your vitals flipped out. I thought you were seizing.”
She shook her head. “Just… remembering. I guess.”
“Must’ve been a hell of a memory.”
“Memory of hell,” she agreed. A shiver twisted her spine, and when she tried to stop it, she succeeded only in making her ribs ache sharply.
She nodded because she didn’t want to lie to him, and knew she couldn’t lie to his visor. Not about heat signatures or biofeedback. Cold went with the hunger. Protecting non-vital systems. Saving energy. Cutting corners.
Garrus didn’t say anything. He merely shifted her gently, until she lay with her back to his chest, cradled against his warm body. He curled his arms lightly around her, resting his hands on her belly.
“Anyway,” she said softly, “after Mindoir, I went to live with a foster family. On Earth. I… we didn’t always see eye to eye. They had some pretty grand political aspirations, and they wanted me to be something I wasn’t ready to be—a model citizen, a survivor, a shining example. Mostly I was just broken, and I guess the broken bits of me appreciated putting other broken things back together again, and that was when I really started to devote myself to the tech stuff. If I worked hard enough, I could always fix it. And I could always understand it. It made sense. They didn’t get it. They were trying to groom me for greatness, and I was doing my damnedest to hide from it. Literally. Started coming up with prototypes of my tactical cloak way back then, believe it or not.” Shepard closed her eyes, leaning her head back against him. His mandibles tickled her forehead as he bent over her, pressing a kiss to her brow. “I enlisted as soon as I was old enough. An Alliance patrol found me on Mindoir. Thought if I joined up I might end up saving some other kid somewhere the way I was saved. It was better than the life I saw unspooling before me if I stayed where I was, because no way I was going to let myself get pushed into politics.” His low laugh rumbled against her and she smiled. “I know. Given the course of my career, I’m aware of the damned irony.”
“Nothing quite like the weight of expectation to send you running in the other direction, right?”
Eyes still closed, she smiled again, sadly. “Like I said, Garrus. Two peas in a pod.”
They remained curled together for a few more moments before she asked, “What did you find? Nothing good, I take it.”
This time he didn’t try to deflect or retreat. She felt him inhale and exhale before he spoke, gathering himself together. “Nothing levo. And signs the Kodiak was in a struggle.”
“We knew that much.”
“Maybe. There was a firefight. The Kodiak didn’t get out unscathed.”
She nodded. “How long’s it been?”
“Eighteen hours since we boarded.”
“Damn.” She swallowed hard, and he passed her the water bottle again. “They’ll come for us soon.”
“Sure, Shepard. Sure they will.”
Maybe they were both little lies, but damn if they didn’t seem like the right words anyway.
Chapter 9: Failure
Shepard fell asleep again, suddenly, in the middle of a meandering conversation about favorite gun mods. He only realized she wasn’t just thinking hard about scopes when the handheld soldering iron she’d been using fell to the floor and bounced, rolling toward him. Startled, he glanced up. Her other hand still curled protectively around the recalcitrant omni-tool, but her head was lolling and her chin was tucked and she was most definitely sleeping.
Pushing himself silently to his feet, he stared down at her, letting himself gather information—evidence, came the traitorous thought—in a way he couldn’t when she was awake and would question his scrutiny. She didn’t look peaceful. Her brow was still furrowed and the fine lines at the corners of her eyes were too pronounced. A lock of red hair, dull with dirt and sweat, had fallen from her messy ponytail to lie across her face like a wound.
Twenty-four hours they’d been on the Valiant. Six on the planet. Twelve, give or take, before that since her last meal—whatever it had been. A cup of black coffee and three bites of whatever MRE Traynor or Chakwas or Tali managed to stuff into her hands? She’d been in a conference with Hackett during her usual dinner time; he’d missed her in the mess and knew it meant they’d be headed on a mission sooner rather than later.
Almost two days. He wished he understood human physiology better. He wished he understood Shepard’s physiology better. But if she knew why her body was reacting the way it was she hadn’t shared it with him, and he couldn’t begin to guess. He just hadn’t expected to see her brought so low so quickly, or so suddenly. Not Shepard.
Shepard was good at putting a brave face on things. She was good at holding the line. She was good at standing in the breach and daring enemies to try and shoot her before she shot them. Hell, he’d seen her taunt some of the ugliest, meanest forces in the universe and come out victorious. Laughing, usually.
She was the kind of person that could be referred to as indomitable without sarcasm.
But his visor didn’t lie. It couldn’t.
She was brave. She was strong. She was determined. But her body temperature was slowly dropping, her breath was labored, and her heart rate was abnormal. Much as he wanted to ignore the evidence right before his eyes, C-Sec training be damned, Garrus could see her dying by degrees in the stats scrolling across the little blue screen.
Instead of waking her, he gently freed the omni-tool from her grip. Running his own diagnostics over the machinery, he could tell several things at once: it was beyond fixing, and Shepard’s attempts to do so had failed entirely. The line of soldering was heavy and uneven, mangling necessary circuitry in a way that couldn’t be mended. Not like her at all.
It meant her hand had been shaking.
He resisted the urge to dash the omni-tool against the wall. To destroy it. What he wanted was to undo it, to erase what couldn’t be erased, to unsee what couldn’t be unseen.
Such a small thing, really. And yet it was a failure. A tangible failure. And he wasn’t accustomed to seeing Shepard fail. It was wrong.
He threw the broken omni-tool under the bunk, out of sight, and returned to his own desperate work.
When Shepard woke a little later she stared at her empty hand, then down at the empty bunk beside her, and then finally she raised her eyes to meet his. “How long was I out?”
“Couple of hours.”
He watched her calculating, knew she was counting time, and saw the moment realization struck. Too long. “And where’s my omni-tool?”
He didn’t falter. Didn’t blink. Didn’t hesitate. “Tried to work on it while you were sleeping. I screwed up.”
She flinched visibly, as though his words had reached out and struck her. “Don’t do that,” she said. It was his turn to wince; Shepard’s disappointment was sharp and sudden and cut deep. “Not even to protect me.”
He didn’t insult her by asking what she meant.
She bent her head, and he hated the defeat in the slope of her shoulders and the curve of her spine. That was wrong, too. As wrong as failure. Not as easy to hide under the bunk. “I was shaking.” She raised her offending hand and sure enough, he could see the tremor, even from several feet away. “Shit,” she said, all weariness, no vitriol. “I thought I’d have more time.”
She raised her face, and he immediately wished she hadn’t. The hollowness in her eyes was so much worse than fire, even when the fire was fueled by disappointment in him. “You and I both know I wasn’t at my best even before this mission started. Too few real meals. Too many sleepless nights. Burning the candle at both ends. I started to believe my own damned hype.” She brought her hand up to cover her eyes, but somehow this wasn’t a gesture of defeat. He watched as she gathered herself together again, slowly, carefully. Building fresh, subtle armor to replace the set in pieces all around her. “Report, Vakarian.”
He stood at attention because it was what she needed him to do. It was the role she needed him to play. Crisply, he said, “Twenty-six hours since last contact with the Normandy. Twenty-four since the Kodiak went silent. Estimate further ninety-two hours before the Valiant is pulled irreversibly into the atmosphere. Planetary interference to communication signals. Status of Valiant unstable. Engines appear to be offline, or under Reaper control. Ship itself may be hostile. Commander Shepard—”
“Yes,” she interrupted, favoring him with the faintest of smiles, “I’m aware of Commander Shepard’s current condition.”
“Are you?” Perhaps the question itself was even, but the belligerence of his subharmonics would have earned him the sharpest of reprimands from a turian commander. Shepard only regarded him with her usual calculating intensity. He was never entirely sure how much she picked up.
More than he wanted her to.
“Nothing comes for free.” She scrubbed one hand along her thigh, then shook her head. “My best guess is I’ve taxed Cerberus’ upgrades beyond their abilities. I don’t have a way of turning them off, or prioritizing. Basically I’ve crashed the system. So they’re drawing on stored energy—too much, too quickly—and hastening inanition.”
It was an ugly word. A Chakwas word. He wanted to make her take it back, but like the broken omni-tool it was already done, already said. “You’re starving to death? After two days?”
She didn’t flinch. She didn’t attempt to smile or minimize the significance of the words, either. She raised her chin and said, “The fall might’ve killed someone else. Hell, the shock might’ve. Maybe I’m running on fumes, Garrus, but I’m still running. Options?”
Right, he thought, wishing he could throw the word inanition under the bunk with the busted omni-tool. Options. “I want to check for escape pods. I know it’s not ideal, but the base on the planet was human. There may be supplies, and we might have better luck boosting a signal. Even with the interference.”
She nodded, thoughtful. “And at least down there we didn’t come across a bridge full of Reaper tech.”
“Permission to investigate, Commander?”
“Granted,” she said.
As he left, he saw her glance down at the spot where her omni-tool should have been.
Body temperature dropping, breathing labored, heart rate abnormal.
Almost, he thought. Almost, but not quite.
“I know,” she said. “You too.”
The sooner they could get off this damned ship, the better.
The pods were gone. All of them.
One one hand, it meant many had escaped the fate of the turians they’d found in the CIC. Couldn’t help feeling glad about that. On the other?
On the other, disappointment was hell.
This time, Garrus didn’t rage, or shoot at uncaring stars, or throw things. He only felt weary. He was on Omega, backed into a corner, tired and hungry and looking down the barrel at his own death, just before Shepard, his own personal archangel, returned to him.
Standing in the empty bay, surrounded by niches that should have contained escape pods, he began cycling through frequencies, trying once again to find the Kodiak or the Normandy. Alliance channels gave him nothing. Turian channels gave him nothing. Finally, desperate, he began checking any other signals he could possibly pick up.
Looking for another last-minute deliverance.
And, for a moment, everything seemed poised to turn for the better. A signal came through, eerily clear.
“You picking anything up?”
Vega, Garrus thought. Alenko, maybe. Their voices always sounded different filtered through the communicator’s mechanics.
“—What are we looking for, anyway?”
“No idea. Too good a prize, I guess, all this classified tech. The damned turians like to keep their cards close, and an entire dreadnought—”
Garrus was already moving, disappointment and frustration and even hope forgotten. Damned turians wasn’t a phrase allies would use, and if they weren’t allies, they were enemies.
“I’ve got something down here, Team Two. Life signs.”
“Roger, Team One. Turian?”
“Can’t tell. Interference.”
“Team Three, maintain coordinates.”
“Team Two, here. Think life signs might be human. Need to crack this door. Gimme a minute.”
The comm-link crackled and spat in Garrus’ ear, and he ran.
Chapter 10: Plan C
The room felt empty without Garrus in it, the silence heavy and thick. She kept wanting to shake her head, as though she could somehow clear the quiet out of her ears the way a swimmer cleared water. Without his conversation to distract her, she was all too aware of the lack of the sound the turian ship ought to have been making. A healthy ship was full of ambient noise—engines, machinery, voices, footsteps on metal, life. This one wasn’t. It was a floating coffin. Unnerving as hell.
Shepard did not like silence. In space, silence—complete silence—inevitably meant something was wrong. Systems failing. Complications ahead. Fix now or forever hold your peace.
She especially didn’t like the kind of silence that came punctuated only by the sound of her own ragged breath. Even now, so many months (two years and so many months) later, the memory of floating helpless above Alchera, back bowed as she frantically tried to stop her suit from venting, was enough to start her heart pounding and to make her own breath catch in her throat.
“You’re fine,” she said, to prove the quiet was not as absolute as she feared. The ship didn’t answer, but at least her throat no longer felt quite so tight.
Because she had no point of reference, she didn’t know if Garrus had been gone five minutes or five hours, and the inability to orient herself in time itched like a badly healing wound. She had the strange urge to count seconds and mark minutes on the wall as a prisoner marked days.
Deprived even of her futile efforts to save her omni-tool, she focused instead on testing the limits of her body, wiggling fingers and toes, rolling her shoulders, turning her head. Her ribs felt fractionally better—thanks, no doubt, to the nanites and cybernetics in her system. Keeping her torso as immobile as possible, she pushed herself up, shifted her hips a couple of inches to the right, and set herself down again. Her ribs complained, but didn’t scream. She made it all the way to the edge of the bunk, and though her sides protested and she had to manually move her legs, it wasn’t unmanageable pain. She was flooded by a disproportionate sense of triumph.
She wouldn’t be running races any time soon, but it was better than nothing.
Of course exertion—even the exertion of sliding her hips across three feet of bunk—brought exhaustion hard on its heels. She pinched the sensitive flesh on the back of her hand in an attempt to keep herself alert, but still sleep pressed in, relentless, begging her to let her eyelids drift shut. What’s the worst that could happen? But she knew that siren song, and ignored it. Falling back on old strategies she’d come up with when she pulled the worst watches and needed to stay awake when every fiber of her being wanted rest, she ran complicated math problems in her head, adding and multiplying and spinning sums. When even that tactic failed, she tried to remember every alien expletive she’d ever heard. It was funny, really, that she could think of more quarian obscenities than turian or krogan ones. She’d have to tease Tali about it later, if—when—
Hell. She was so tired she almost thought she heard voices cursing.
But they were human voices. And human expletives.
Shepard sat upright, ignoring the twinge the sudden motion provoked, already reaching for the pistol at her side as the weight of fatigue vanished in a rush of adrenaline.
Definitely human voices. Definitely human expletives.
With gritted teeth, she loosed a silent stream of rather potent invective of her own. Not all of it human. For such stoics, turians had such an unparalleled grasp of compelling curse words. And Garrus had taught her all the best ones.
Whoever was in the process of hacking her door, it sure as hell wasn’t Garrus. If he’d ever talked so much—or so loudly—during a mission, she’d have grounded him for weeks. Or delivered a well-deserved punch to the face as punishment. She couldn’t quite make out their words, but she was pretty damned sure they weren’t her people. Her people were smarter. Her people knew better.
So she prepared.
As the door hissed open, she counted at least three visible operatives, the yellow and black and white of their uniforms screaming their allegiance loud and clear. Because why just deal with Reapers when you can throw Cerberus into the mix? Her thumb reached automatically for the switch that would have activated her tactical cloak, but of course she wasn’t wearing her defective armor, and the cloak wouldn’t have worked even if she had been. She was so damned used to Plan A—hide, shoot, hide, blow shit up—it took half a heartbeat to adjust to the necessary change.
No more than that, though.
“Sh-shit.” The man in the doorway gaped, slack-jawed. Rookie mistake. “You’re—”
Plan B. She didn’t wait for him to finish. Before the word Shepard found his lips, her pistol was up, aimed, and fired. Her hand didn’t shake. Not this time. The bullet, discharged at such close range, shattered his face shield, went through the front of his forehead, and sent blood and brain matter spattering out over the men flanking him.
Shepard didn’t wait to see the aftermath; she knew he was dead. Two more heartbeats, two more shots. Another clean kill to the right, and a scream as the soldier on the left went to his knees. Not enough. She could hear others shouting in the hallway.
Plan C, then.
Shock—shock and bodies falling to block the doorway—bought her an instant, but she was already moving. She had to drop her pistol, but the gun wasn’t part of Plan C anyway. Using the strength of her arms, she gripped the edge of the bunk and hauled herself forward, ribs be damned. They protested, muscles screaming, but held as she heaved herself from the bed. Her shoulder took most of the fall, but she managed to roll well enough to keep it from buckling or breaking. What was another damned bruise at this point, anyway? The less mobile weight of her legs followed, and she couldn’t stop the growl of pain as the right twisted and hit the floor at a bad angle. She fought the black wave of pain that threatened to pull her under. Later. Later.
A bullet grazed her cheek, slamming against the wall just where her head had been a moment earlier. Slithering forward on her stomach, Shepard shouted, “Hold your fire! I’m Commander Shepard. Pretty sure your boss wants me alive!”
And the idiots listened.
Which was just enough time for her to reach the little pile of sticky grenades Garrus had earlier liberated from her armor, activate one, throw it at the lead trooper, and twist toward the scant cover offered by the bunk, curling herself into the smallest shape she could manage, arms over her head in lieu of any proper protection. Like armor. Or shields. Another burst of bullets whizzed past her, but none hit.
She heard one more expletive before the grenade detonated, and under her breath she muttered one of Tali’s quarian ones in answer.
And, just to be on the safe side, she followed it with a prayer.
Garrus rounded the corner, assault rifle ready, just in time to catch the backlash of the blast radius. The shriek of the feedback—he heard the explosion over the frequency in his ear and in person—deafened him for a moment, and he twisted away from the blast to avoid meeting shrapnel head-on. His shields caught the worst of it, though the faint ping of metal against metal alerted him to a few pieces that had made it as far as his armor.
Close, but no cigar, as Shepard would say. Whatever it meant.
One of the bodies twitched and moaned, and he saw the soot-streaked glint of Cerberus yellow in the instant before he shot, cutting off the groan at the source.
Six men down in the hallway. He thought it was six, anyway. At least two had been reduced to parts. All were dead. The doorway was a ragged hole, the opening torn like paper. Garrus felt the fist of fear close around his throat, but he didn’t freeze. He couldn’t afford to freeze.
The explosion had not been kind to the interior of the small space. The stench of blood and death and explosives was cloying, sickening. Smoke and debris still filled the air, but his visor found her thermal signature. And her heartbeat.
His own heart thumped back to life.
She was half-underneath the bunk, curled on her side, her right leg twisted at an ugly angle. Again.
Eyes on the door, gun ready, he edged forward. “It’s me, Shepard.”
Even her exhale sounded relieved. “Hostiles?”
“You, ah, were very thorough.”
“Hey, Vakarian,” she said, “is this my omni-tool under the bed?”
His own relief made him chuckle. “Well. It’s not like I expected you to be rolling around on the floor.”
She snorted a laugh, but when she rolled onto her back with a grunt, he saw only the sheet of blood drenching her face. She reached up, wincing, but she smiled—smiled—when her fingers came away red. “Just a scrape.”
“You took a shot to the face.”
Her eyebrows twitched. “Hardly a rocket. You still win. Probably won’t even scar. Where’d you put that medi-gel?”
The comm-link crackled again, and Garrus stopped, hand frozen halfway to the packet of salve.
At least three teams. That he knew of. Team Two might be out for the count, but…
“What is it?”
He shook his head, and gestured for silence. Then, swallowing hard, he grabbed one of the communicators belonging to a dead trooper, flipping the transmission signal on. He spoke brokenly, trying to downplay his subharmonics and hoping the interference would take care of the rest. “Team Two to Team One, copy?”
“What the hell happened down there? Sounded bad.”
“Hostiles neutralized. Hold position.”
“You hold position, Team Two,” the voice snapped. “We’ll rendezvous in fifteen.”
“Roger,” Garrus replied, muting the transmission once again. “We’ve got fifteen minutes, Shepard.”
She’d already pushed herself upright, pistol in hand. The blood on her face made her look dangerous, but as he treated it with medi-gel he could see the shallowness of the wound. It was already clotting, already healing. Another fraction of an inch, and it would have been an entirely different story. He tried not to wonder how many minutes or hours the healing of this wound was stealing from her. After a quick survey, he had to pluck a piece of shrapnel from her shoulder, but that wound wasn’t deep either. This, too, he treated with the dwindling supply of medical salve.
Shepard rolled her shoulder when he was finished and nodded her appreciation. “How many?”
“At least two more teams. Maybe more.”
“Guess we weren’t the only ones taken in by the distress call.”
She huffed a mirthless laugh. “Yeah. Well. Good to know I’m not the only gullible moron in the galaxy.” This she followed with an apologetic smile, so he didn’t bother arguing with her.
He gathered their things quickly, taking care to leave no clues—no evidence. A turian ship was one prize. Commander Shepard was quite another, and Garrus had no intention of seeing Cerberus collect. Glancing at the time ticking away, he took a moment to rifle through the corpses, but none of them was carrying rations. He thought about taking one of the omni-tools, but felt relatively certain they’d all have traces on them, and he didn’t have time to make certain they wouldn’t be followed.
If only one of the damned troopers was carrying food.
He growled a curse, and turned away. By the time he returned to her side, Shepard had sealed herself into her armor as best she could, and he noticed she’d taken extra care to collect every one of her remaining grenades.
“Any luck with the escape pods?”
Her face remained impassive, calculating, cool as ever. But because he knew her—knew where to look and how to interpret what he saw—the flicker of disappointment came through loud and clear. “Any idea where those other teams are?”
“Negative,” he repeated.
“Then I guess we hide. Again.” She grimaced. “Never did like hide-and-seek.”
“Hide-and seek?” he asked, bending to lift her once again in his arms.
“Children’s game,” she explained, turning to fix her gaze over his shoulder, at his six. “Turns out I like it even less when it’s life or death.”
“Maybe they have a ship we can steal.”
“Now who’s looking on the bright side?” she replied, but he heard the smile in her voice, and it was almost enough to give him hope.
Chapter 11: Armed and Dangerous
“I can do this, Shepard.”
Even haunted as it was by pain and hunger and exhaustion, the look Shepard shot him was sharp. Because he was pushing. Because she’d said no and he was refusing to take no for an answer. He could tell she hated having to crane her neck to stare up at him—hell, he knew she hated it even when she was fully mobile and they were going toe-to-toe in the battery or the War Room or her quarters over some point of contention. Instead of bringing himself down to her level, crouching at her side, he made himself big. Threatening, even.
Shepard’s eyes narrowed in a way that told him she knew exactly what he was doing and that she didn’t like it. He didn’t care.
“It’s too risky.”
He inhaled, spine stiffening, mandibles pulled tight to his cheeks. It took a great deal of effort to keep from shouting, but their position was by no means secure and self-preservation—Shepard’s preservation—trumped annoyance. He didn’t think Cerberus—or hell, the ship itself—would think to look for survivors in a janitorial supply closet, but, frustrated or not, he couldn’t afford to ask for attention. “It is risky. But no riskier than anything else we’ve attempted in an effort to get off this damned ship. There’s nothing wrong with my tactics on this and you know it. You just don’t like the plan because you’re not involved in it.”
“Damn straight,” she retorted. He watched her hand curl and uncurl into a fist at her side. “We’re a team, Vakarian.”
“Right. A team. You think I don’t know how a damned team works?” When she began to protest, he jabbed a finger in her direction. She glared but fell silent. “Bullshit, Shepard. If this, right here, right now, was happening to someone else? If Vega or Liara or I was the one laid up with two broken legs on the fast road to inanition—” he snarled the medical word because starvation still seemed impossible, too much like giving up, “—and we were trying to stop you from taking a necessary risk for the good of the team, what the hell would you do?” When she said nothing, he continued, “Fine. You want to play it like that? I’ll tell you what would happen. You’d turn around, walk out that door, and do whatever the hell you thought needed doing, the protests of your team be damned. You know it. I know it.”
He didn’t know if he felt gratified or sad as her expression slid toward acceptance. When she lowered her defiant gaze to stare down at her injured legs, he decided in favor of sad. It wasn’t the first time he’d questioned her judgment and had her relent, but somehow it was the worst. “I can do this, Shepard,” he repeated, more gently.
“I know you can. Of course you can. Can isn’t the issue.” She lifted her chin again, and he saw her acquiescence. And her regret. “I don’t like having to send you in alone.”
He ran a hand over his fringe and then lifted his shoulders in a shrug. “I don’t like it either. But I… this isn’t my first solo mission. Archangel did what he did for a long time before he collected a squad. And C-Sec Officer Vakarian had a hell of a time keeping partners. He worked on his own more often than not.”
She didn’t move—not so much as a twitch—so he had a hard time accounting for the sudden pain that furrowed her brow. Unless he was entirely mistaken, it seemed tinged with remorse. He just couldn’t figure out why.
“Shepard, are you—?”
“I’m fine,” she replied. “I’m fine. I only… maybe that damned dossier was right. Leadership potential overshadowed. I… dammit.”
He waited a moment to see if she’d elaborate, but she only tilted her head back and regarded the ceiling. The regret didn’t disappear. If anything, it only deepened the lines and darkened the shadows already bruising her expression.
“Think you lost me on that one,” he finally said.
She blinked several times and turned her head, wearily, almost as though she’d forgotten he was there. At any other time he’d have told himself he was imagining the lethargy in her eyes. It was wrong. It wasn’t like her.
I need more time. We need more time.
“What?” Shepard asked. The quality of her voice was too close to the quality of her gaze, indistinct and tired. Drowning.
“What damned dossier?” he snapped, and this, at least, made her blink and frown at him. “Right about what? What do you mean about leadership potential? Yours? I’m not trying to step on your toes here. I’m trying to help.”
It was the damnedest thing. He knew Shepard. He knew the language of her expressions. He knew the subtlety of her grammar. And in that instant he saw her hide a secret from him. She tucked it away behind her eyes, put on the mask of Commander, and said, “Nothing to concern you.”
“Right. And I believe you.”
Her cracked lips lifted in a faint smile, but it was a Commander Shepard smile and the secret still hid in her eyes, mocking him. “I think you’d have made a good Spectre after all, Vakarian.”
“Yeah. Well. Two Spectres on one ship’s unorthodox. Three’d just push it to ridiculous.”
He tilted his head in a silent question. Tell me? She replied by shaking hers in an equally silent response. Later. Or maybe: never. He couldn’t be entirely sure.
Here he did hunker down beside her, curling his long fingers around her balled-up fist. He felt some of the tension go out of her. Some. Not all. “Shepard, I wouldn’t give up a single minute of the time I’ve spent serving with you. The truth is, I’d’ve made a bad Spectre three years ago, and I wouldn’t have known it until I was in too deep. We don’t always have to agree for me to know you’re still the best damned thing that’s ever happened to me. For more reasons than the obvious.”
She closed her eyes, hiding the evidence, but it gnawed at him a little to know it was still there, lurking, whatever it was she wasn’t willing to share. “You were right to call me on this. Wasn’t looking at things with clear eyes.”
Later. He’d ask later, when they were safe. He forced a smile. “Even you need to be wrong once in a while. Keeps you humble.”
“Who, me? I am the picture of humility.” He thought her smiled seemed a little forced, too, and so did the lightness of her tone when she continued, “Well, at least if one of those teams comes looking for me, I still have plenty of grenades.”
“Try not to blow things up while I’m gone.”
“Come back in one piece,” she replied.
It was the most honest thing she’d said since she’d mentioned whatever damned dossier contained whatever damning information she didn’t want him to know. He ran one finger lightly down her unwounded cheek, and swallowed his grief when she leaned into it, eyes closed.
Once, on Omega, he’d spent three days tracking the slaver Kron Harga through the endless warrens and tunnels and vents of the station. Given time enough and space enough and a head start enough, it was astounding how long a person could elude even the best tracker.
Garrus was a good tracker. He’d been good in the military. He’d been better as a cop. Omega had made him smart. Omega had made him great.
And he still couldn’t find the Cerberus bastards on the Valiant.
Communications were proving less helpful this time out. For every broken sentence or muttered order that came through over Garrus’ comm-link, he listened to fifteen minutes of crackle and interference. He thought he understood that Team Three was going high—aiming, no doubt, for the CIC and control of the drifting vessel. Garrus silently wished them a heavily sarcastic dose of good luck. Team One, however, had found the bodies of their brethren, and were sweeping the deck looking for the owner of the grenade.
“Alliance-issue omni-tool found on the premises. Consider armed and dangerous,” said the team lead, before the connection hissed and spat and cut out once again.
Of course, Garrus thought bitterly. So much for cleaning up the evidence. Nice work, Vakarian.
Fine. He wasn’t going to make the same mistakes he’d made with Harga on Omega. He didn’t have the time to carefully comb through the endless corridors of the dreadnought. He didn’t have time to play Shepard’s human game of hide-and-seek. He didn’t have time.
Shepard didn’t have time.
When he’d been hunting the slaver on Omega, at some point on the third day just before the end, Garrus had almost given up. He’d imagined endless circling and cycling, always just missing his prey, always just around the wrong corner. Worse, he’d imagined Harga turning the tables, and coming up on him unawares.
So he changed the game.
It was time to change the damned game.
“You the one who’s been following me?” Harga spat. Garrus—still solo, then, and caught somewhere between Archangel and Vakarian—said nothing. He merely leaned forward on his crate, resting his arms on his knees. “What’d I ever do to you, turian?”
“Heard something about a colony on Drasta. Heard something about you being involved. Heard something about a bunch of human children you drugged and attempted to pass through Omega in crates labeled ‘rations.’ Heard most of them died.”
The four-eyed bastard didn’t so much as twitch. “You got a soft spot for pyjaks, turian?”
“You got something you’d like to get off your chest before you die, Harga?”
The batarian gave a little snarl and began to raise his hand—to signal an attack, presumably.
Half a dozen rigged crates exploded as Garrus lowered his foot onto the detonation plate it had been hovering above. He could hear Harga’s men shouting on the other side, but the doors were blocked. Harga backed up a step, and Garrus pushed himself to his feet, reaching for his rifle.
“Thought I told you to come alone, Harga.”
“You want a cut?” Harga offered, whining, hands held wide. “Whatever you want. Fifty percent. I got good credits for the ones who lived. Plenty. You’ll live like a king, turian. You can be a partner. Silent partner. I’ll get you more on the next run. Learned my lesson.”
Harga lifted his gun, and Garrus shot him in the hand. Then the other. He thought of the children torn from their families, terrified and hopeless, slowly suffocating in the boxes that would become their coffins. He thought of the ones who’d survived, who’d be scarred. Forever.
He remembered the woman Talitha on the Citadel calling herself animal. He remembered Shepard talking her down, desperate to help. Just plain desperate.
Garrus shot Harga in the knees.
Afterward, Shepard hid behind the Mako, putting together explosives and taking them apart again. Delicate work. Complicated work. Building and rebuilding. After a while, she asked if he wanted to help. He did. They sat in silence, building bombs, with the word Mindoir hanging between them unspoken.
With the butt of his rifle, Garrus snapped Harga’s head back.
When she was done, Shepard looked at him and said, “I’m a reasonable woman, Vakarian. Until it comes to slavers. Those bastards can fry.” Then she stood, brushed her filthy hands down the front of her uniform, and walked away without looking back.
Garrus dragged Harga—still alive, still clinging pathetically to his miserable life—to the crate. He flung the batarian over it, crossed to the far side of the room, aimed, fired.
The crate exploded, taking Harga with it in a roaring gout of flame.
Garrus shot the burned corpse several more times—heart, liver, lungs; once for every crate of little, dead bodies—and was gone before the bastard’s men broke the doors down.
When he found the first man, scouting out alone, he thanked the Spirits—whatever Spirits might be listening—and took him out with one swift and silent shot to the head. The trooper didn’t see it coming. His head shattered, and the body remained upright for a moment, as though it couldn’t believe the indignity visited upon it. Then it, too, crumpled, spilling out a garish and startling amount of red blood.
This time Garrus did take the dead man’s omni-tool. Then, retracing his steps, he returned to the empty bay of escape pods. The alcoves regarded him like unblinking eyes, judging his every movement. Instead of being disappointed, he only saw assets to be used. Potential cover. Shadow to hide in.
It didn’t take long to prepare; he’d been planning since the moment he saw Shepard amidst the ruin and rubble of their hiding place. Let the CIC take Team Three. He wasn’t going to let One have their way. Consider armed and dangerous.
Activating the emergency frequency on the dead trooper’s omni-tool, Garrus waited.
Chapter 12: Battle
Garrus wasn’t left waiting long.
He would never have called his opinion of Cerberus high, but had to admit they weren’t entirely stupid. Hit them hard enough, and they’d hit back.
Also, he didn’t think it was coincidence that less than a year after working with Shepard, Cerberus had filled its ranks with pale copies of operatives like the ones who’d served with her so effectively on the Collector mission. The Illusive Man could afford more than his fair share of cannon-fodder, but he’d also watched with his eerie eyes that saw too much as Shepard showed him exactly how well a team of tech specialists and biotics, assassins and soldiers could work together. On cynical days, Garrus was pretty sure the SR-2 had just been one damned giant science experiment. Oh, they’d defeated the Collectors, Shepard had destroyed the base and she’d considered the mission a success as she broke utterly with Cerberus, but it’d hardly stopped the Illusive Man from acquiring Reaper tech or putting into practice what he’d learned from watching Shepard’s methods. Garrus saw too much of Thane and Kasumi in the Phantoms for it to be coincidence. Engineers were all Tali. Hell, the first time he ducked out of the laser-sight of a Nemesis, Garrus thought son of a bitch and retaliated with a headshot of his own.
Given the end the first six troopers had met, he’d been expecting their numbers to swell somewhat. Eight, maybe. Ten. He got a dozen. And not just the assault troopers Shepard had dealt with. Three Guardians behind their shields fanned out around a Centurion, followed by half a dozen assault troopers. No Phantoms, thankfully, and no mechs.
He was most concerned about the pair of Combat Engineers. Their turrets were worth ten infantry.
Of course, he had no intention of seeing those turrets set up.
From his cover in the farthest alcove, peering through the scope of his rifle, Garrus watched them come. It wasn’t quite the perfect funnel he’d had back on Omega, but as he watched the Centurion wave his men into the chamber, issuing silent commands with unfamiliar hand gestures—another stolen Shepard technique—Garrus thought it would do. He saw their confusion as they failed to find their missing comrade. He saw the first hint of their fear as they realized their sensors were jammed.
He wondered how many of them had already realized they’d walked square into their deaths.
The weight of the gun in his hands felt solid, real. It was right now and right here. It wasn’t Shepard, broken beyond his ability to repair. It wasn’t the silent Normandy or the corpses on the CIC. It was a fact. It was black and white and nothing whatsoever to do with grey. It was the instrument with which he’d kill twelve men who worked for the wrong side, who’d happened to pull the wrong assignment, and who were in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Numbers were numbers. Odds were odds.
Even outgunned and outnumbered, Garrus liked his odds.
Soundlessly, he found the first Engineer in his sights and took the shot. Amidst the clatter of so many heavily booted feet, the man went down without a cry. He almost looked like he was bending down to set up his damned turret, except for the part where he definitely lacked almost the entirety of his head. One. Before he hit the ground, Garrus had another clip loaded. The second Engineer turned toward his compatriot, but before he could raise the alarm his head, too, disappeared in a mist of red. Two.
He looked to his left, instinctively seeking out the spot where normally Shepard would have been directing him.
Here. Now. Ten more kills. Ten more kills, and the galaxy would contain twelve fewer people trying to kill Shepard.
I can do this.
The Cerberus troops were milling, losing their cohesiveness in the face of the unknown. The tactician in Garrus suspected it was because they didn’t know each other well; it was obvious they weren’t an established team. The troopers were green; he could see it in the way they moved, the way they held their weapons. Too stiff. Too unsure. Too uncomfortable. They’d likely been thrown together for the purposes of this mission. Amateur. The Illusive Man should have known better. Throwing bodies at a problem rarely worked, and Shepard was a prime example. She could do with a team of three what whole armies had difficulty accomplishing.
Though the second Engineer’s death had been noticed, evidently no one was quite sure where the shots had come from. Garrus reloaded swiftly, automatically, drawing a clip from the pile at hand. Shepard had tried to get him to switch to the Spectre-grade model she favored, but he liked the old Widow better. Slow, maybe, but dependable. Powerful. Got the job done. Always felt like coming home.
And he waited.
His mandibles twitched into a pleased grin as the first assault trooper wandered into his trap. The man, searching for the hidden gunman, stepped too close to the shadows of an empty escape pod, triggering the proximity mine Garrus had already laid. The resulting explosion blew the soldier into his partner, minus his lower legs—three down—and the the second man’s gun went off in a spray of semi-automatic fire.
Chaos. All pretense of control disappeared, replaced by guns firing blindly into corners. Bullets ricocheted off the walls, and the rounded escape pods made the trajectory of the projectiles shift in unexpected ways. Another trooper went down as a particularly lucky—or unlucky—slug took him in the side of the head. Four.
A second proximity mine exploded as a Guardian shuffled away from the sudden burst of friendly fire. He fell forward onto his shield, unprotected back a mess of blood and meat and shrapnel. Five. At the same time, diving for cover in one of the escape pod niches, an assault trooper blew himself up on a third mine. Six.
“Stand down!” the Centurion shouted, abandoning silent hand gestures in favor of the Cerberus-frequency signal. His panic was palpable, and enough to make Garrus’ smile broaden into a grin. Centurions were clever, but they weren’t Shepard. Agitation from a leader was the surest path to team hysteria. Even in the worst circumstances, Shepard never betrayed that kind of panic.
Almost never, Garrus thought, remembering a gunship and an explosion and a woman’s voice screaming his name.
“The pods are rigged!”
Without the safety of the pod alcoves, the Cerberus troops had no cover. The Centurion deployed one of his smoke bombs, but Shepard had spared no expense on Garrus’ scope, so he merely watched the soldiers attempt—and fail—to organize themselves.
In the instant before he pulled the trigger, Garrus saw the Centurion’s vitals fluctuating wildly. And then they went quiet, and the man lay dead. Seven.
Taking advantage of the smoke, Garrus lobbed another proximity mine at the open doorway. A trooper ended himself on it as he tried to run. Eight. Coward. Then, at last, he edged out of his cover, creeping with Shepard-like silence toward the flank of one of the remaining Guardians. The man behind the shield made a surprised sound as he fell. Nine.
In the smoke and confusion, one of the two remaining troopers had managed to creep up behind him. Garrus heard the click of the man’s gun about to fire, and though he knew his armor was good and that he’d spent entirely too long calibrating his shields for maximum output, he still didn’t want to meet a bullet at point-blank range. Garrus sacrificed stability for speed, flinging himself sideways. His visor told him the shot had clipped his shields—not shutting them down entirely, but rendering him all too vulnerable to attack from another quarter.
The trooper glanced at Garrus and then at his own gun, as though he couldn’t believe he’d missed. Opponents rarely expected a sniper to be equally good hand-to-hand. It was something Garrus had used to his advantage on more than one occasion. With the trooper momentarily baffled by his failure, Garrus shifted his grip, slamming the butt of his rifle backward, into the armor at the other man’s throat. The trooper went down, but self-preservation kicked in.
Though the trooper’s tackle was weak, it was enough to bring Garrus down to one knee. The Widow dropped from his hands, spinning away sideways. Grappling for better purchase, the man tried to grab the spur on the back of Garrus’ leg, and settled instead for a tugging grip on his shin.
A bullet skimmed through the air above Garrus, just where his head had been a moment earlier.
On a battlefield, it doesn’t matter how many you’ve killed. If one’s left standing and you lose sight of him? You’ll be just as dead.
It was his own damned cardinal rule, the thing he’d drilled into the heads of his men over and over and over. Hell, the thing that had been drilled into his head, back when he was fifteen and cocky and thought he was invincible. He admonished himself even as he swiftly scanned the room. Trooper at his six. Guardian near the door. And the man at his feet. Ten. Eleven. Twelve.
The Cerberus trooper whose arms were wrapped around one of his legs had saved his life. He couldn’t afford to return the favor. The man scrabbled for his dropped gun, but Garrus got there first, grabbed it in one hand, wrapped his other arm around the trooper, and twisted just in time to let the human take the brunt of the shot that had been once again intended for him. Ten.
Still using the dying man as a shield, Garrus unloaded the rest of the Hornet’s clip into the trooper who’d been aiming at him. Even with its shoddy calibration, and even though Garrus was no fan of submachine guns, enough bullets hit the body to mean death several times over. Eleven.
The last of the Guardians, still safe and solid behind his giant shield, was slowly backing toward the door. Escape is not an option. Garrus faked a move to the right before dropping, sliding, and grabbing his fallen Widow. On one knee, he lifted the weapon, took a breath, aimed, and sent a perfect shot through the shield’s slot.
Alberts was whimpering.
Marine or not, training or not, a battlefield amputation was always going to be hell. A battlefield amputation with no sedatives, limited medi-gel, and a nervous civilian doctor not quite finished his training probably deserved a few tears. At a different time, in a different place, Shepard would have comforted the woman. Girl, really. First tour as a marine. First shore leave. The day before, they’d all been laughing and drinking and raising their glasses in increasingly raucous and maudlin toasts. To their favorite guns. To ships and planets they’d served on. To comrades. To the Alliance. To hopes and dreams and always having a cold beer waiting at the end of a long day.
Now Alberts would never walk without assistance again, the batarians were throwing everything they had at an increasingly desperate defense, and they were fighting for their damned lives.
Shepard felt for Alberts. Hard not to. But the marine had enlisted. She’d volunteered. She’d known what she was getting herself into. And understandable as it was, the noise was distracting as hell. Demoralizing, too. It played a strange, upsetting counterpoint to the heavy thump of whatever crude shells the batarians were using to attempt to break the defenses. Shepard pressed her fingers tight to her throbbing temples and paced to the other end of the room. The sounds followed her.
Shepard knew the Alliance had to be on their way. It had been hours. Reports were coming infrequently, mostly by word of mouth because the communications systems were shot to hell, but Elysium wasn’t a backwater colony in the middle of nowhere. It was Elysium. It was important. The Alliance wasn’t going to let the oldest human colony on the Skyllian Verge fall to a bunch of raiders.
Dammit, Shepard wasn’t going to let the oldest human colony in the Skyllian Verge fall to a bunch of raiders. They’d already lost too many in the initial onslaught. Commander Vale. Graves. Kho. Masaka. Both Smiths, Alex and Jillian. Too many civilians whose names she didn’t know and couldn’t add to her running memorial list.
And maybe it tasted a little like revenge, but she’d be damned if a bunch of batarian bastards were going cart off Elysian civilians the same way they’d stolen and slaughtered the people of Mindoir. Not on her watch.
She’d been helpless then. Now she wasn’t.
A girl with long hair and eyes glimmering with unshed tears moved around the room, offering water to the wounded. The hair was the wrong color and the eyes were dark instead of grey, but the age was about right. Shepard wished she’d been half so brave back then.
You’re not that coward anymore.
“Hey,” Shepard said, motioning the girl over. “You should be somewhere safer. With your family.”
The girl’s expression was mixed of equal parts terror and resolve. Determination won. The girl’s chin took on a defiant tilt. “I can help. My mom’s a nurse.”
“Everywhere’s dangerous. And I can help.”
Shepard clapped a hand to a too-thin shoulder, and the girl inflated under the attention. “You know how to shoot?”
“A little,” she said, clearly lying.
Shepard flipped the small sidearm pistol out of its holster at her hip and offered it grip-first. She felt the slim fingers tremble as they took the weapon, but the girl didn’t flinch, didn’t grip too hard, and held the gun at almost the right angle. “Don’t you need it?”
Shepard patted the heavier pistol on her other hip, cocked a thumb at the sniper rifle on her back, and shook her head. “Extras. Look, something comes at you, pull the trigger. Got it? Try not to think. Thinking takes too much time. Just do. Batarians have a lot of eyes. Aim for one of them.”
The girl’s brow furrowed in confusion and she glanced around the room. It made her look even younger, and Shepard glanced away. “Why me, though?”
Shepard said, “Just don’t hesitate. Now, can you bring Alberts—she’s the blonde one—can you bring her something to drink?”
The girl didn’t move at once. Her dark eyes, already too old, already seeing too much, lingered a moment longer on Shepard’s face. Then she nodded. Firmly.
Screw half. Shepard wished she’d been a quarter so brave.
The rhythmic sound of shelling grew louder. Too loud.
“They’re going to break through,” Alberts gasped, ignoring the water, hands clenching and unclenching around her uninjured thigh as though she already imagined losing it. “We have to fall back. We… we can’t hold this position, Shepard.”
“We can,” Shepard said. “We can and we will.” Glancing around, she took in the terrified, pale faces. The half-dozen marines watched her calmly, waiting for orders. It occurred to her, just for a moment, to wonder why they were looking to her, and then the moment passed and she said, “We can’t protect the whole damned planet, but we can protect this spot on it. The Alliance is coming. We know the Alliance is coming. All we need to do is hold the line. They’ll come for us.”
Shepard didn’t see who asked the question. It didn’t matter. Not really. “I need every bit of metal we can muster. Cutlery. Nails. Jewelry. Anything. Think shrapnel.” She looked to the marines. “And I need your grenades. Anything explosive. Fuel, if you can find it.”
“But—” Alberts began.
“They are going to break through,” Shepard said. “But they’re in for a hell of a surprise when they do.”
A little of the terror on the expectant faces was replaced by hope. Shepard straightened her shoulders, lifted her chin, and gave her people, military and civilian alike, a bolstering smile. Then she saluted them, her proud, brave warriors, her last line of defense. “We can do this.”
I can do this.
It was the girl who nodded first, and scurried away to find what metal she could, pistol still clutched protectively in one hand.
Shepard gathered the grenades, pulled out her omni-tool, and started making a bomb.
The batarians were going to rue the goddamned day.
The wall fell. A chunk of stone clipped Shepard’s head, sending a spray of stars across her vision and blood running down her face. A second, larger piece knocked her backward, and a third fell on her legs. She bit down on the inside of her cheek to keep from screaming.
Her pity for Alberts grew exponentially. But Alberts no longer needed pity.
Alberts wasn’t whimpering anymore.
The girl with the dark eyes and long hair lay silent and sightless at Shepard’s side, hand still clutching the Alliance-issue pistol.
No, she thought. No, this is all wrong. This isn’t the way it’s supposed to go.
The girl was supposed to survive. She was supposed to tell Shepard her name—Lily—and introduce her to her nurse mother. Shepard was supposed to tell Lily’s mother what a hero her daughter was. There was supposed to be cheering. The celebration was supposed to last three days. Shepard was supposed to eat dinner at Lily’s house. Ten years later, Lily was supposed to be an N7 graduate leading her own ground team against the Reapers.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this.
She tried to pull herself up, but her legs were pinned tight beneath the chunk of fallen masonry. A batarian, hate glittering in all four eyes, came scrabbling over the stones. His mouth opened and closed; she thought he was trying to speak to her. Shepard didn’t waste time grieving the loss of the girl or trying to decipher the hostile’s words or wondering why she knew things meant to happen in a future she hadn’t lived yet—in one smooth motion, she pried the gun from the dead girl’s fingers and shot.
“What the hell, Shepard,” said the batarian. In a voice with unmistakable turian flanging. A pained and irritated turian flanging. “That wasn’t a concussive round.”
Chapter 13: Wake Up
When the enemy didn’t go down at once, Shepard meant to shoot again—had her finger poised on the trigger to shoot again—every instinct drilled into her by time and experience screamed at her to shoot again—but the batarian’s words penetrated the fog of pain and exhaustion and something stayed her hand.
It was her name. He knew her name. He’d spoken her name. And his voice had been all wrong. Like the girl’s (Lily. Her name was Lily) death. Like her own immobility.
Her hands were shaking.
That was wrong too.
The batarian wasn’t even looking at her. Who am I to stand in the way of his death wish? But she still didn’t shoot. He was probing tenderly at his shoulder. She almost felt sorry for him. That was really, really wrong. “Damn. What do you have that thing modded with?”
“How the hell do you know who I am?”
The batarian remained in the doorway (doorway? Hadn’t it been rubble? But this was definitely a doorway, narrow and gleaming and untouched by the destruction her bomb had left in its wake—and there’d definitely been a bomb, she knew there’d been a bomb, she’d built it herself), head now turned toward her and tilted at a very unbatarianlike angle. It reminded her of something. A memory. I want something to go right. Just once. She couldn’t afford to chase that thought, though; where there was one batarian, there’d be fifty.
“Oh. No. Damn.” He raised his hands—or tried to; the left didn’t cooperate very well—and took a step toward her. “Shepard. It’s me. It’s Ga—”
“The Alliance is on their way,” she interjected. Shaking hands or not, she knew what kind of damage her gun could do at such short range, especially if she aimed for the hole she’d already made. “They’ll be here any minute. You four-eyed bastards will wish you’d never heard of Elysium when they’re through with you.”
“Shepard,” the batarian repeated. He wasn’t stupid enough to try and come closer, at least, and his hands were still empty, held out toward her in silent surrender. Strange. For a second she could have sworn he only had three fingers. She blinked and he had five again. “This isn’t the Blitz. You have to wake up.”
“I’m not sleeping,” she snarled. “So you know my name. You probably heard someone shout it. Give me one good reason not to blow you off the face of the planet right now.”
“Shepard, it’s Garrus. We’re not on Elysium. We’re on a ship. A turian ship. The Valiant. We’re stranded. We’ve been here for days. It’s Garrus, Shepard.”
Batarians have a lot of eyes. Aim for one of them. This batarian’s eyes were wrong, too. A peculiar shade of blue. A particular shade of blue. She glanced down at the dead girl, thinking you should have aimed for the eyes. We both should have.
The floor next to her was empty. No girl. No blood. No fallen stone.
And when she looked up again, of course it wasn’t a batarian in the doorway. It was a turian—her turian—and he had a fresh puncture in his armor. “Garrus,” she said, testing out the word, rolling the syllables on her tongue. It felt both familiar and unfamiliar, like the room she was in, like the gun in her hands, like the color of the turian’s eyes. “Garrus.” She shook her head, wishing it were as easy as that to clear the lingering doubts and dreams and cobwebs. Even though she could see the little room around her, empty except for her and the turian—Garrus—and the crates of cleaning supplies, she felt as though she was still fighting for her life on Elysium. She expected to hear Alberts whimpering and the endless pounding of shells against the defenses, but instead was met only by the ragged sound of her own breath.
She lowered her weapon slowly, setting it on the ground beside her. She didn’t lift her hand, though. She still half-expected to feel cold, dead fingers or to see a long fall of dark hair. Lily. Her name is Lily. Last I heard, she was still alive. Anderson would tell me if that changed.
Anderson, who was on Earth fighting the Reapers. She was supposed to be fighting the Reapers too. Not building bombs. Not fighting batarians. Hell, the batarians had been all but wiped out when the Reapers came. The ones left behind sure as hell weren’t a threat. But try as she might, she couldn’t make it fit. She could still smell the smoke of the explosion, could feel the burn of the blast radius against her cheeks. When she reached up, she felt a cut on her cheek and couldn’t remember if it was a bullet—a bullet grazed her cheek, slamming against the wall just where her head had been a moment earlier—or a piece of shrapnel that had done the damage.
“Tell me something true,” she said quietly, without raising her eyes from the empty spot on the floor, the gun, her own hand still resting on the grip.
“Elysium happened,” he replied. “That’s true. You were there. That’s true, too. But it was ten years ago. You don’t talk about it.” When he continued, she could hear the reluctance in his voice, his subharmonics strained and more obvious than usual. “Shepard, are you—?”
“Maybe this is what the Council felt like when I showed up rambling about beacons and dreams and visions like Chicken Little chanting about the sky falling,” she said. “I know about the Reapers. I know they’re a threat. But they don’t feel real. This feels real. Part of me still expects to turn and see Alberts crying. Part of me thinks I’m going to look up from this gun and see a batarian.”
“I’ll try not to take that personally.”
She didn’t laugh. She wanted to. Part of her wanted to, anyway. The part that remembered Garrus and the color of his eyes and the way his head tilted toward her when he was showing vulnerability he didn’t want to admit to. The part that knew he made jokes to deflect attention from that vulnerability. “What the hell’s happening to me, Garrus?”
He didn’t say anything. They both knew the question was a rhetorical one.
The damage to his shoulder was minimal. Nothing a little medi-gel wouldn’t cure. It would be stiff and sore—more an irritation than anything else—but medi-gel wasn’t going to fix whatever was wrong with Shepard. He should have noticed right away, but he’d just been glad to find her awake and alert. Now, looking closer, it was obvious how glazed and distant her eyes were, sunken in their sockets. He’d been gone a couple of hours, no more, and yet she looked thinner already. His visor filled in gaps he didn’t want filled: her temperature had dropped another degree, her heart-rate was faster, her breathing shallower.
It was speeding up.
He didn’t want to think about what it was.
“You going to shoot me again if I come sit down next to you?”
He couldn’t make the words sound as light as he wanted them to.
Finally, finally, she raised her eyes. She still wasn’t entirely herself—he didn’t let himself imagine this being the new normal—but at least she recognized him. He could tell that much. Her brow furrowed and she lifted a hand. He thought she was reaching toward him, but at the last minute she buried her face in it. The curve of her neck seemed too slender even to hold her head upright. He could see the knobs of her spine poking through the fragile skin. “Oh, God,” she said. “Garrus. I’m sorry.”
It was invitation enough, though he noticed her fingers still twitched against the grip of her abandoned weapon. Hunching down next to her, he bumped his uninjured shoulder against hers. “No, it’s fine,” he said. “Not at all embarrassing. Take out a squad of a dozen Cerberus troops solo only to be shot by your—by your commander.”
The ghost of a smile at her lips told him she knew exactly what he’d been about to say. He didn’t even know why it was so damned difficult. He knew. She knew. It just felt like… like tempting fate to speak such things aloud. And he didn’t want to tempt fate.
Lowering her hand, she laid her fingertips against his forearm and she leaned into him, and just like that it was enough. For now. “How bad is it?”
He glowered at her.
“Fine,” she said. “Are you downplaying?”
“Don’t make me order you to give a status report.”
His mandibles twitched. “You’re good, Shepard. You’re not that good. Heavy armor. Pistol. It’s a flesh wound. Not even bleeding anymore.”
Narrowing her eyes, she gestured for him to turn toward her. Reluctantly, he obliged. Her shot had been an annoyingly lucky one, catching him in the weak spot where his shoulder guard met his body. She ran one fingertip along the ragged edges, and even at the odd angle of looking down at her he could see the consternation on her face, and something like repentance. “So,” she said after too long a pause. “A dozen?”
He chuckled. “Thirteen, if you count the scout.”
She swallowed loud enough for him to hear it. “Cerberus,” she said, like she was trying to convince herself. “Not batarians. Cerberus.”
“Right. Two-eyed bastards in white, black, and yellow.”
Her voice went strange, like her gaze. “Like we were.”
“No, Shepard,” he said softly. “Like we pretended to be. We never gave the Illusive Man a single damned thing he wanted.”
She snorted, but at least when she spoke she sounded like herself again. “That we know of. Are they gone, then?”
“A third team is still out there. Think they were headed to the CIC, though.”
“My thoughts exactly.”
“And their ship?”
He shook his head. “Looked for a bit. Couldn’t find it. Wanted to come back here to—” Here he stumbled again over his words, and cursed himself for it. “I needed to stock up. Make sure I—”
With a wryly arched eyebrow she interrupted, “You can say you wanted to check up on me, Vakarian. At least that much I’d believe.”
“You say check up on, I say gloat. I mean, twelve. They walked right into it.”
She wheezed a laugh. Somehow the laugh felt like more of an accomplishment than the dozen dead soldiers he’d left in his wake. “You’re right. I’d believe gloat too.”
“You only got six.”
“Ha,” she scoffed. “Two broken legs. Six definitely counts double.”
“I’m still one up on you, then.”
“Stats don’t lie, Shepard.”
She rolled her eyes at him, that perfect human expression managing to convey so much with so little movement. He couldn’t count how many times he’d turned to find that particular expression leveled at him, but it was entirely her, and the Shepardness of it was reassuring in a way leaning and touching and even banter couldn’t be.
He reached up and began unclasping his armor. He settled the heavy pieces next to him, ignoring the way she watched him, intent and questioning. When he finished with his own, he reached for hers.
“Really?” she said, trying and failing to hide her confusion with a suggestive eyebrow waggle. “Now?”
“Shut up,” he replied. “I know you’re not going to be happy until you see I’m not stoically bleeding out in my suit.”
“Which explains why you’re undressing…”
He leveled a look her way that begged to be argued with. “I need to grab an hour of sleep.”
“Thanks for not making me order you to do it. Still doesn’t explain why we have to strip down.”
“I’m warm. You’re cold.”
She smirked at him, and because the smirk was almost as quintessentially Shepard an expression as the rolled eyes, he felt some knot unclench in his chest. A little more time. He didn’t want to consider what might happen if she drifted into a place he couldn’t call her back from.
“So…” she drawled, “You’re saying you want to cuddle?”
Before he could reply, the lights flickered and died, leaving them in complete darkness. He brought up the interface of his omni-tool, bathing the room in dim golden light. Shepard twisted her head, eyes glittering, and he could see she’d wrapped her fingers tight around her pistol once again.
It took another moment to realize he was hearing the sound of engines. Slow. Steady. Coming back to life.
“Shepard,” said a voice over the ship-wide intercom, dragging out the vowels until the word hardly sounded like a name at all. It wasn’t quite as deep and grating as Harbinger’s voice had been, but it had the same eerie, metallic quality that made a shiver run the length of Garrus’ spine. Not human. Not even AI. Something else. Something dark. “Shepard.”
“Well,” Garrus mused. Beside him, Shepard stiffened and then sagged as she exhaled a exasperated sigh. “That’s not good.”
Chapter 14: This Hurts You
An uneasy silence fell, broken only by the ragged, shallow sound of her breath in the dark.
“On a scale of one to ten, how flattered should I be? Baby’s first word. Think they’ll make me a godparent?” She tried for humor, but somehow the darkness only amplified the strain beneath. The look Garrus shot her was caught somewhere between pity and worry—neither of which she was particularly fond of seeing directed at her by anyone, let alone him—but apart from the expression, he drew no other attention to his misgivings. She found herself oddly grateful, like they were coconspirators. Perhaps they were. Shepard and Vakarian against the world. Shepard and Vakarian against the inevitable. They’d done it before.
He began fastening himself back into his armor. In light of a ship gaining sentience enough to speak her name, she supposed nap-time had been put on indefinite hold. And didn’t they make a hell of a pair. Busted up. Exhausted. Still fighting. He had to let his omni-tool interface fade, so it was too dark to see properly, but she’d watched him dress for battle enough times to know the precise order in which he was arming himself. They had races, sometimes. He usually let her win and then griped about her cheating. She ran her fingertips over her own hardsuit but left the pieces where they lay. Too late for that.
When she closed her eyes, she saw the Presidium in the sunlight, gleaming. The wind cooled her cheeks and pushed fingers through her hair. She heard Garrus laugh as she missed her shot. (On purpose, of course. No matter what he chose to crow about, arms spread wide.) She joined him, and it felt like the first time she’d laughed in months. Years. So much suffering. So many losses. And that single moment of perfection like a bright star. Bright enough to navigate by. Just for an instant, she hurt with the perfection of it, and wished—just a little—for the eidetic memory of a drell. Even if it meant having to relive Earth, Thessia, Horizon… Here I am, exactly where I want to be. Maybe she couldn’t remember all of it with flawless clarity, but she remembered the look on his face when she’d said she loved him, like she’d handed him a gift he treasured, but that he was so, so terrified of breaking. Or losing.
And look at them now.
Garrus’ voice pulled her back, rooted her in reality. She didn’t know if she loved or hated him for it. “You ever think they’re carrying a hell of a personal grudge for beings that claim they’re just here doing their job?”
She exhaled a derisive snort. Pushing back different images. A different time on the Citadel. One not quite so bright. One not quite so perfect. The Citadel Tower burning. A rain of ashes. Clawing her way out of the rubble. A victory with a heavy cost.
All her victories came with such heavy costs.
“Yeah. You take out one little Reaper vanguard…”
“And it’s all engraved invitations to battle? Complete with personalized taunting?”
“It even breathes ‘this hurts you’ and I swear I’m blowing this entire ship out of the sky.”
She heard the last of the seals locking his armor into place, and he brought up his omni-tool interface for light again. He flared his mandibles, but it wasn’t a real grin—not with such deep sadness in his eyes. Dryly, he said, “I know you feel this.”
“Oh, don’t you start.” You cannot escape your destiny, Shepard. “He—it?—always said it like I didn’t know what pain was. Sovereign was grim, but Harbinger is an insufferable bastard.”
If she knew anything, she knew pain.
What do you believe in, Shepard?
Her breath caught. They weren’t her words. They weren’t Garrus’ either. They belonged to a woman lost before her time. One of the many, many losses. Death closes all.
Something out of a dream. The mako. A girl in a white dress, golden cross glinting at her throat.
But something ere the end.
Something out of a poem.
“Shepard? You okay?”
“Fine,” Shepard said. “Status?”
She saw him tense before he spoke, and she found herself holding her own breath to prepare for what he might say. “They’ll come soon.”
She tried to smile like she believed him, but whatever he saw on her face made him look away. Suddenly the application he’d pulled up on his omni-tool absorbed every bit of his attention, and yet she was sure he wasn’t seeing a single word.
“Even if they don’t,” Shepard said, too lightly, aiming for comfort and failing miserably, “you can always ask Miranda to go through her notes. It’ll probably be easier the second time around.”
He flinched. “That’s not funny, Shepard.”
“I know,” she whispered. “I know.”
“Shepard,” the ship droned.
“Status,” she repeated, ignoring it.
“It’s going to take a while for systems to come back online,” Garrus said, voice deceptively calm, deceptively even. His distress couldn’t have been louder. Definitely not funny, she thought. “And even if the ship is somehow… alive, it doesn’t have hands. It doesn’t have anything to do the heavy lifting for it. The Valiant’s still been through hell, and there’s no one alive to fix it up. I… baby’s first word might not be far off. I don’t know how much control it has. I suspect not much. It might know you’re here, but I don’t think it knows where.”
“You picking up anything from that third Cerberus team?”
“Radio silence. The kind of radio silence that usually means there aren’t any more radios.”
“Maybe their arrival’s what woke up the ship. Adding new consciousness, or whatever it is the Reapers do to build their abominations.” Garrus grimaced. Shepard tried not to think too hard about the grotesque science of it. “And the shuttle?”
“We have to consider the possibility it might have left.”
“I know,” he snapped, too sudden, too sharp. “We have to consider all sorts of possibilities, don’t we?”
He clenched his fist, and for a moment she expected him to punch something. He didn’t. “You’re Commander Shepard. They’ll come for you. They need you.”
“Maybe. If they know we’re here. We also have to consider—”
“No! Listen, you’ve done everything they’ve ever asked of you. They’ve sent you from one end of the galaxy to the other on errands. They’ve ignored you or dismissed you when you said things they didn’t want to hear. They’ve chewed you out for doing your damned job, for doing every damned ugly thing they didn’t want to dirty their own hands doing. They owe you, Shepard. They’ll come for you. They have to.”
His face was close to hers, close enough she could reach out and press her hands to his cheeks. His mandibles fluttered in agitation beneath her palms, but he didn’t attempt to pull away. She forced him to meet her gaze. She forced herself to be unflinching. “And if they don’t?”
“Come on, Garrus,” she said, trying to smile even as her eyes prickled with tears she refused to shed, “the ruthless calculus of war, right? You’re a realist.”
He bent his head without breaking her hold, pressing his forehead to hers. She could hear the subtle catch in his breathing. “Not when it comes to you.”
“Oh, Garrus Vakarian. My riddle wrapped in a mystery. A top-ranked hand-to-hand specialist who excels with long-range sniper rifles. A vigilante cop. A bad turian.” She brushed her hands over his face gently; he shuddered beneath the touch. “An idealistic realist.” She closed her eyes, pretending not to feel the slide of moisture down her cheeks. “A second-in-command who should have been a leader. And you could have been such a leader.” Here he did try to pull back, but she only shook her head, forehead still pressed to his. “You might still have to be. And you can be. I know it. So do you.”
“No.” He reached up and took her hands, folding his fingers around hers. “That’s enough.”
Words trembled on the tip of her tongue, words like hope and death and I believe in you, Garrus. Words she wanted to speak, but that she knew he didn’t want to hear. Finally, words left unspoken, she nodded. “Okay. You’re right. That’s enough. So find that shuttle.”
He said nothing else, tapping at his omni-tool with furious intent. She couldn’t tell if he was angry or upset or just hurt, and thought it was probably some horrible blend of all three. Like a gift, she thought, she remembered, like a gift he treasured, but that he was so, so terrified of breaking. Of losing.
She knew the moment he got bad news. He put one hand to his head and his face twisted—as much as a turian expression could twist—into pain. And this time he didn’t stop himself from punching. He slammed his closed fist into his armored thigh and spat a stream of turian invective she knew the meaning of even without a translation.
“The… I heard them. They shot at the side of the ship, the morons. A damned shuttle taking on a dreadnought? What the hell? What the hell did they think they could do? It was a damned suicide.”
“Shepard,” said the ship. “Shepard.”
“I know,” she muttered. “This hurts me.”
“We can still hold out,” Garrus insisted. “They’ll—”
“You know what you have to do, don’t you?” Ashley asked.
Shepard jumped, ribs aching, and said, “What are you—?” before she realized she couldn’t actually be talking to Ashley. Ashley was dead. Ashley had been dead for years. She knew it. She knew it. Still, when Shepard looked to her left, she saw the gunnery chief dressed in her little-girl Sunday best, arms wrapped around her knees, dark eyes both earnest and sad. “Hey, Commander. I’d say it’s good to see you, but I think we both know that’s not true.”
Something out of a dream.
Not real. Too real.
“What am I what?” Garrus asked. The light from his omni-tool cast strange shadows across his plates. Turian faces didn’t have the same tells as human ones for weariness or fear or heartbreak, but Shepard knew him well enough to see echoes of all three. She’d pushed him too far. She saw that now. Too far and not far enough. “There’s got to be something—”
“Tennyson,” Ashley said, gazing up at the ceiling. “It’s always Tennyson.”
Death closes all: but something ere the end—
“Some work of noble note, may yet be done,” said Ashley.
“Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods.” Shepard nodded. Swallowed. Understood. “You’re right, Ash. There is a kind of peace. When you know it’s going to matter.”
“Shepard? Did you just—?”
“I do know what I have to do,” she said, lifting her chin and straightening her shoulders. “Some work of noble note. I know exactly what I have to do.”
“Quote poetry?” She heard his unsaid, Talk to the dead?
She shook her head. “Blow this entire ship out of the sky.”
Chapter 15: You Feel This
Her words weren’t what alarmed him, not really. They were strange and they were startling, but he could almost understand her reasoning: from every possible angle, a dreadnought in the hands of alien consciousness was a very bad idea. He couldn’t begin to imagine the damage the Valiant could do if it was guided through a mass relay square into the middle of a firefight. The losses would be staggering—it would take too long for anyone to realize the vast turian vessel wasn’t on their side. He could imagine it all too clearly: the surge of hope—rescue! Relief! At last!—followed by absolute annihilation. If reclamation of the ship wasn’t possible, destruction was the next best option. He could see the need. He just didn’t think it was time to act on that need yet.
So her words were almost Shepard words, but her eyes definitely weren’t Shepard eyes. He’d never seen an expression like it. Not on her face. He’d seen Shepard angry and he’d seen her tired. He’d even seen her cry, though they both pretended he hadn’t. He’d seen her wake from sleep, gasping and clawing at her throat before she realized her nightmares weren’t reality. Through it all, there’d been an unshakeable core of resolve, of strength. Of control.
And then there was this. Her cheeks were flushed. Her hands twisted in her lap. And her eyes. Her eyes were manic.
“Yes,” Shepard muttered, half under her breath. She wasn’t looking at him; she was focused on some fixed spot to her left. Too fixed to be natural. It was the same look she’d worn when he walked in and found himself on the wrong end of her gun. His shoulder throbbed, as if to remind him how well that encounter had gone over. He ignored it. “If we rig the grenades and maybe some of Garrus’ proximity mines… no, no, it’d have to go somewhere vital. Blowing up a janitor’s closet isn’t enough, and blowing the CIC might just delay it. Engines, maybe. Drive core? You think?”
Garrus had faced countless enemies over the years. He’d done more than his fair share of surviving the unsurvivable. He’d stood toe-to-toe with killers and drug lords on the Citadel’s Wards. He’d fought geth and krogan and thresher maws. He’d taken on three bands of mercenaries, armed with little more than a sniper rifle and righteous indignation. Hell, he’d survived countless excursions in the Mako, and Shepard’s driving was terrifying enough to make a coalition of merc bands seem tame in comparison. He wasn’t afraid of danger or long odds or even facing his own damned death.
He was afraid of what he saw in Shepard’s eyes.
“No,” he said.
“I wonder if we could salvage—”
“No,” he repeated.
She flicked an annoyed look his way, even as she began collecting her remaining grenades. He let the light of his omni-tool go out, abruptly returning them to almost total darkness. Strips of emergency lighting indicated the edges of the doorway. Shepard swore, and because his eyesight was better than hers, he saw her raise her gun.
“You going tell me it’s because you see a batarian again, Shepard?” he asked. “Or are you just pissed I have an opinion that runs counter to yours?”
“No isn’t an opinion,” she retorted. “It’s one damned word. And when I want your opinion, I’ll ask for it.”
“So, what? You’re going to shoot me again?”
“Again,” she breathed, as though she’d forgotten. He heard the rustle of her hair as she shook her head. “Don’t be ridiculous, Vakarian.”
“I don’t know how ridiculous it is, really. You’re pointing a gun at me. Last time you did that, it went off. Got the hole in my armor to prove it.”
“I’m not going to shoot you.”
“Then what’s with the gun?”
On a curse, she lowered her hand. He noticed she didn’t release the grip. Even injured he knew she could have it up and unloaded in less time than it’d take for him to finish saying her name.
Her eyes were still feverish, even in the dark.
And he liked exactly nothing about the vitals his visor was indifferently spooling out for him to see.
“You ever hear the one about the Trojan Horse?” she asked abruptly. “Old Earth story. Big wooden horse. Trojans thought it was a present and pulled it inside their gates. It was filled with Greek infiltrators who crept out in the night, opened the gates for their fellows, and the city was sacked.”
“You ever hear the one about the gift from Grixos?” On her blank look, he continued, “Hell of a lot like your big wooden horse. So, yeah, Shepard, I get it. Everyone’s got the same damned story and I don’t want to hear a new one fifty years from now featuring the Valiant.”
She narrowed her eyes at him; he wondered how well her cybernetics were helping her acclimate to the darkness. He wondered if forcing her to use those cybernetics was costing her energy. And time.
He brought up his omni-tool interface again. If it startled her, nothing of it showed on her face. Then again, with so much disappointment and anger, he supposed surprise didn’t have a lot of room to maneuver.
“Then why are you fighting this?” she finally asked.
“I’m not fighting it. At least, not the way you think. I’m questioning the timing. And yeah, I’m questioning you. You’re talking to thin air and I think you think it’s talking back. You’re… you’re compromised, Shepard.”
He expected her to protest. Part of him even expected her to shoot him. He didn’t expect her to go even paler under her mask of bruises. He didn’t expect her to glance toward the empty spot on her left with such a look of heartbreaking despair. Her lips formed a word, but without the help of his translator he had no idea what it was. Then she said, “Shit,” and of course he knew exactly what she meant by that. “I thought you were a batarian. I thought it was the Blitz all over.”
“And now you think—”
At last she released the handle of the gun, raising her hand to cover her face. “I don’t know,” she said. “I… we need to do something. And we’re running out of options.”
“Shepard,” said the ship, almost as if to remind them what the stakes were. As if they could forget.
Garrus took a deep breath. Exhaled slowly. Thought about calm and wished he could find it. “Seems to me if you want this plan to work, you’re going to need my help. Can’t imagine you’ll make it down to engineering on your own. Even if you do manage to head in the right direction.” He ran one hand along his fringe. Her eyes followed the movement. “Properly applied, I think we have firepower enough to start a chain reaction that’ll kill the ship.”
“It only takes one match to start a fire,” she said, that strange distance in her voice again. She wasn’t looking into empty space at least, this time. Instead, her too-bright eyes were fixed on him.
He gazed back, unflinching. “You think I can be a leader, Shepard? Prove it. Let me call the shots on this.” He couldn’t quite swallow the pained growl in his subharmonics, and found himself hoping rather than believing Shepard wouldn’t hear them for what they were. “We’ll rig a detonator. I’ll… I’ll do it when it needs doing.”
“When I’m gone, you mean.”
It was the kind of phrase that begged for a deflection, and Garrus didn’t have one. Because she was right, of course. He’d lived with her death once, and that was… before. A different time. A different set of variables. And he’d still barely survived it.
“Is that what you were doing on Omega?” she asked, that question he’d always somehow expected and always somehow been so desperate never to hear.
“Anderson was the one who told me,” Garrus said, and dammit, there it was again, just under the same old scab. That moment. That memory. Vivid and awful and clear as if it had been yesterday. He’d been tired and hungry (and, looking at Shepard, what the hell did he know about hunger? Nothing. Nothing at all), at the end of a long workday. The single instant of joy when he’d thought he was going to see her; the crushing blow when he realized how wrong he was. “Found him outside my apartment. Took me about ten seconds to understand what he was doing there. Almost punched him before I realized I was grateful I didn’t have to hear about it from the vids or…”
She nodded, not looking at him. She was gazing fixedly at her hands. “I forget sometimes. Oh, not that it happened. Not that I was out. Just… that everyone lived it. Saw footage of my own funeral once. A lot more pretentious and grim than I would have liked.”
“Well,” Garrus said, “you didn’t see Wrex and I get drunk after. Takes a lot to get a lifetime ban from Chora’s Den.”
She smiled, though the sadness didn’t shift. “That sounds much more like it.”
“We broke… a lot of things. Half the bar. A few deserving heads. And the worst part? I think they let us. Because they knew who we were. They knew who you were. They knew why we were there in the first place.”
“Damn,” she said, with a ghost of her usual smirk. “They gave you a pity brawl.”
“They even felt sorry for banning us, I think. But they kind of had to.” He closed his hands into fists and then relaxed each finger one by one. “And then everything was just wrong after. The way they talked about you. The way they talked about Sovereign. So I left.” No fanfare. No warning. He remembered that, too. Closing the door to his apartment, knowing he wouldn’t return to it. “I didn’t go looking to… I don’t know, commit suicide by merc band. Not consciously, anyway. But I knew Omega’s rep. It was far away. And I didn’t have memories there. I figured I could do some good. And I guess I probably thought I’d get killed doing it. But it’d be worthwhile, at least. You… you made a hell of an impression. Even then.” He shook his head. “You know the worst part? I knew you’d have been pissed at me for doing it. I could practically hear you. ‘What the hell, Vakarian. You think I don’t know this is just a fancy way of giving up?’”
“I’m sure I’d have said it much more tactfully.”
He chuckled mirthlessly. “Yeah. Maybe. Or you’d’ve just punched me.”
He nodded. Then shook his head again. “Not that tough. That little Shepard voice was what convinced me to start taking on a team, too, I suppose. I didn’t want to. Didn’t want the connection. Didn’t want the responsibility. It was selfish as hell. Knew you’d have been pissed about that, too. Definitely would’ve earned a punch.”
“Good to know I’m not the only one who hears voices when under stress.”
And he couldn’t fault her there. He hadn’t even had her excuses. He’d just been… sad. Worn and sad and angry. So damned angry. It had been easier to talk to a dead Shepard than to his living family, his living crew.
“Is it Ashley?” he asked.
“Yeah,” she said. “She says hi.”
“I’m… glad it’s her.”
“Me too.” Shepard closed her eyes, and a moment of peacefulness stole across her features. He tried to commit it to memory.
“Okay,” she said, with a little of her old strength, a little of her old resolve. “I’ll let you do what you need to do. This mission’s yours now, Vakarian.”
“Thanks, Shepard,” he said, but what he really meant was don’t die.
Chapter 16: Run
Shepard had never liked the cold. She’d never particularly liked darkness, either. She kept finding herself trapped in a world of both. She almost wished for the damned trees and the damned whispers and the damned kid. At least they were something.
“Commander,” Ashley chided, “I told you. He needs you. Time to wake up.”
“Sleep… sleep when I’m… dead,” she mumbled in response. “Need… to fight…”
“Shepard,” said the other voice, the flanged turian voice, with that all-too-familiar undercurrent of urgency, “come on, Shepard.”
She blinked blearily up at him, head pounding. “Did I—?”
“In the middle of a sentence. And while holding the red wire.” He took her chin between his thumb and first finger, turning her face with a gentleness that somehow surprised her. Funny how she’d once thought turians emotionless and unreadable. His eyes tracked hers. She knew exactly what emotions lingered there. She just didn’t want to name them. “It’s okay. We didn’t blow up. But I need you to tell me where you are, Shepard.”
Elysium, she thought. The batarians are—No. Virmire. Ashley or Kaidan. We all know one of them’s not getting out of here alive. Kaidan’s got rank, but Ash—don’t make me choose. Don’t make me choose this again.
Her brow furrowed. Memories tumbled and scratched behind her eyes, each sharper and more vivid than the last. Something else. Also starts with V.
“The Valiant,” she said, embarrassed at the triumph in her tone.
He nodded, but didn’t quite seem appropriately impressed. “Who am I?”
She peered at his face, taking in the curve of the visor over his eye. Even in the dim light, the blue markings streaked across his plates were vivid. She knew them. She knew what they meant. She thought she knew, anyway. Something about how his father wouldn’t like her. Shepard. Spectre. Well, I’m almost a ghost, right? No. Not funny.
“Garrus,” said Ashley. “Garrus Vakarian.”
“Garrus,” Shepard repeated, trying and failing not to look slantwise toward the other woman. The turian—Garrus, yes, definitely Garrus—moved his face to keep her gaze fixed on him. “Garrus Vakarian. You’re…” There’s nobody in this galaxy I respect more than you. That memory she tried to hold on to. “I remember. I… how long?”
Five minutes was a minute and a half longer than the last time. Three minutes longer than the time before that. And her periods of wakefulness were growing shorter. Everything else might be going, but the math didn’t fail her. Numbers were steady and solid and real. Too real.
This was the first time she’d remembered their location on the first try. Once she’d thought she was on Mindoir. Once she’d thought Garrus was Nihlus, come to wake her before the mission on Eden Prime. The last time, she’d thought they were on the Citadel. She’d thought Garrus was Saren. He’d taken her pistol away after that. She’d let him.
She swallowed past the parched dryness no amount of water could ease and said, “You have to—”
“He knows,” said Ashley. “But he’s not going to leave you.”
“I know,” he said, dropping his hand away from her face after letting his fingers linger a moment on her cheek. “We have to go.”
Shepard shook her head, leaning backward even though she was held up by the wall and had nowhere to go. “We’ve reached the part in the program where I’ve officially become a burden, Garrus.”
He glared, tilting his head ever so slightly. “And if you think that’s going to convince me to leave you behind, you’ve got another thing coming, Shepard. Things have gone to hell every time I’ve left you. Not going to happen again.”
She wanted to argue. Intended to argue. But she was so damned tired. It took all her energy to keep her eyes open, to keep each reluctant blink from drifting once again into sleep. Garrus bent his forehead to hers, his words stirring the limp hair fallen from her ponytail. “We’re in this together, Shepard. Just like old times.”
“I think… I think this is definitely hell.”
“Always said I’d be right behind you.”
When he reached for her armor, however, she put out a hand to stop him. She couldn’t even pretend to stop the tremors anymore, and she knew if he challenged her she couldn’t possibly fight back. “No,” she said. “Too late for that.”
“It’s useless now. Too heavy.” She swallowed again, throat burning, stomach aching, and when she closed her eyes she saw stars. She put a hand to her throat, digging her nails into the fragile skin with as much force as she could muster. It wasn’t much. She still felt like she was choking, gasping for air she didn’t have. “And I don’t want to… not like that. Not again.”
He dropped her chest-plate with a too-loud clang.
But at least the sound made it possible for her to breathe again.
“Shepard?” asked the ship, almost certainly a question. That was new. And disturbing as all hell. She didn’t know if she was projecting the sound of satisfaction onto the eerie voice, or if it actually did sound pleased with itself. “Shepard?”
Garrus lifted her carefully. She felt him wince and then straighten, steeling himself against the pain she’d caused when she’d shot him. A good soldier. The best.
She tried not to look at the pile of abandoned armor at his feet. She didn’t thank him for conceding because she knew it was the last thing he wanted to hear. Hell, it was the last thing she’d have wanted to hear in his place. He returned her pistol. She hoped he wouldn’t regret it, because she knew she could no longer make promises. It took so much longer for the pieces of the world to fall together every time she repeated the cycle of sleeping and being abruptly woken again.
“I’ll scout. For batarians,” Ashley said, pushing herself to her feet and skipping ahead, the white skirts of her dress bouncing around her bare knees, the sound of her patent shoes against the floor almost as sharp as the report of gunshots.
“No, wait,” Shepard murmured against Garrus’ shoulder. “There are too many of them. Don’t you remember? I can only save one of you.”
Ashley glanced over her shoulder, eyes sad. “I know, Commander,” she said, disappearing through the still-closed door.
“Come on, Shepard,” Garrus urged, “remember the mission.”
“Right,” she said, pushing back against sleep with all she had. Shape up, Shepard! You’re better than this! You going to let those bastards win? Damned straight, you’re not! “The mission. The mission comes first. The mission always comes first.”
“The mission always comes first,” he echoed.
Without her armor, Shepard was too light. Frighteningly light. Even with his wounded shoulder, she was hardly a burden at all. Though he knew it was his imagination, the makeshift bomb strapped to his back felt nearly as heavy as she did.
Her waist was almost as slim as a turian’s, and it was so, so wrong.
She couldn’t hold her head up long enough to look over his shoulder. Not that it mattered. He was pretty sure they were the last two living things aboard. Still, she held the pistol clutched tight in her two shaking hands, defiant the only way she had the strength to be.
They were almost at engineering when Garrus heard the sound, and, turning his head abruptly, his visor caught the unexpected heat signature of a human. Or at least something mostly human. If the vitals were anything to go by, the newcomer should have been dead. There was something… wrong. Gut-churning wrong. He shifted Shepard’s weight as best he could, ignoring the wrenching pain as the movement reopened his wound. A moment later he felt his suit disperse another unit of medi-gel. He’d lost track, but he thought he had a couple left. A couple would be enough.
Shepard glanced at him, as if to confirm he’d heard the noise too. He nodded, gesturing with his chin, and her pistol followed the indicated path.
A moment later, a man—young, little older than a child—came crawling around the corner. His uniform marked him as Cerberus, but one leg dragged a coil of Reaper-tech wiring. It looked as though it had been visibly pulled from a larger piece, but it still trembled and writhed, digging its way deeper into the trooper’s flesh.
Somehow the synthetic tech wasn’t the most disturbing part of the scene, but it took Garrus a moment to place just what seemed so out of place. The man’s face was wet with blood. Just his face. It stained his teeth. It dripped from his chin. Above the red, his pale eyes were wide and crazed. Crazy.
“He wasn’t using it,” the kid mumbled. If he saw them—noticed them—he gave no indication of it. Shepard shot Garrus a concerned look. He replied with a shrug she could doubtless feel, and that was worth the pain in his shoulder if only to show his complete bafflement. “He wasn’t using it and I was so hungry. I was so hungry.”
It was only then Garrus noticed the human hand. Attached to a human arm. Neither of which belonged to the wild-eyed Cerberus operative, but which the kid clutched at with eerie possessiveness. In his arms, Shepard shuddered, and he saw the barrel of the gun waver before straightening even more fixedly on its target.
“They’re dead. They’re all dead. All dead but me. All the bodies. Oh, God. Oh, God, all the bodies. Piles. Everywhere. It was crawling up my leg. It was crawling up my leg but I ran, I ran and ran and I was so hungry.” His gaze turned pleading. Garrus wondered what—or who—the kid thought he saw. “It was this or die. Finch wouldn’t care. He’d have wanted me to have it. Shit. Shit. There’s something on my leg, isn’t there? There’s something crawling up my goddamned leg. Come on, Finch. You were dead. I needed it. It was this or die. It was this or die!”
The kid began to thrash, kicking wildly. The cable tightened and the trooper began to scream. It was an inhuman sound, more animal than human, laced with the faintest metallic undercurrent of Reaper.
Shepard’s first shot missed—proof she wasn’t herself. In other circumstances she’d never have botched a point-blank shot at such an easy target. Garrus shifted until he could settle his hand against hers—not gripping, but steadying. Her second shot took the trooper between the eyes. She emptied several more bullets into the twitching body even though he couldn’t possibly have survived the shot to the face. The dismembered hand fell to the ground. The Reaper wires continued to creep up the dead kid’s limb.
“I choose die,” Shepard said, her voice cold and commanding and brooking no argument. Commander Shepard.
“Shepard,” came the voice again. It was still filtered through the ship’s intercom, but somehow the coiling wires still twisting around the dead trooper’s body seemed to pulse along with it, echoing the frequency. “Shepard?”
Even though the trooper’s face had been all but blown off, his hand reached out, clawing at the floor, pulling his body forward. One inch. Another.
“Never seen a husk like that before.”
Shepard didn’t reply. She emptied her clip into the dead trooper until he was little more than meat. Garrus heard the firing mechanism clicking as she tried to shoot her empty gun. The wires and cables convulsed, but didn’t entirely stop moving.
“Shepard,” the ship said. “Cannot. Run.”
“Bullshit,” Garrus growled. And ran.
Chapter 17: Breathe
Shepard couldn’t stop herself from crying out as Garrus held her close and ran full-tilt toward engineering. Her broken bones screamed, and it took every ounce of willpower—seriously depleted willpower—to keep from blacking out.
The mission, she told herself, remember the mission.
He muttered apologies half under his breath, but he didn’t slow down. She didn’t blame him. Couldn’t blame him. She’d emptied a clip into that Cerberus soldier, and he’d kept coming. She remembered the piles of bodies in the CIC and wondered if they’d be on their way next.
And over the intercom, the goddamned ship was talking. Taunting them.
The mission, the mission, the mission.
They might not survive it, but damn, neither was the son of a bitch synthetic digging its ugly claws into the ship. No Trojan Horse here. Some work of noble note.
The red eye of the locked panel glared at them as Garrus turned the last corner. She knew he was trying to be gentle as he settled her on the floor, but her legs hit the ground hard, sending fire up every nerve. This time she did black out, only for an instant, and when she woke again it was to see Garrus furiously attempting to hack the door. Ashley stood behind him, peering over his shoulder with a troubled look on her face.
At least she remembered who he was.
The mechanism gave a beep and remained defiantly red. Garrus pounded a fist against the panel, once, hard. Ashley shook her head.
“It’s okay,” Shepard said.
“It’s really not.”
“Are you picking up life signs nearby? Hostiles?”
He shook his head once, sharply. “Nothing.”
“Then breathe,” she insisted. “And try again.”
For a heartbeat, she thought he was going to argue with her. He had that bullish, stubborn expression she recognized from her rare attempts to leave him behind on missions he deemed critical. (He deemed all missions critical, and was never pleased when she decided a squad rotation was in order. She was very familiar with this particular expression.) Then he bowed his head, inhaled deeply, and brought up his omni-tool again. He didn’t lose his temper after the second failure, and on the third attempt the light flashed green and the doors slid open.
“Told you,” she said.
Before he could reply, the doors whooshed shut, the panel once again red, leaving them still stranded in the hallway.
“No,” said the ship. “No, Shepard.”
“You know,” Garrus mused, with a hard edge to his subharmonics as he began attempting to hack the door again, “I’ve had just about enough of this bastard.”
This time when the doors opened, Garrus jammed himself between them before they could shut again, stretching out to tug her the rest of the way inside. She had to reach for him, and still his long fingers were barely able to close around her wrists. Her broken ribs shifted and dark spots skittered across her vision, but Ashley was at her side, urging her to stay awake, urging her to stay strong, and Shepard managed to hold unconsciousness at bay.
The mission. It’s almost time. Death closes all.
“No!” commanded the ship.
“You okay?” Garrus asked. Shepard nodded, not quite trusting her voice. The pain was already fading, already retreating back to numbness and exhaustion and shock, but exertion and agony had stolen her breath. And time. Of course it had stolen more time. She could see he didn’t believe her, but he only touched his gloved fingers to her cheek, rolled his shoulders, and headed immediately for one of the consoles against the wall. “You want to play dirty? Fine. No use pretending you don’t know where we are. You want to see what I’m capable of when I’m not trying to keep off the grid?”
“Is it really… the time for… calibrating?” Shepard managed.
Garrus glanced over his shoulder, eyes worried but mandibles flared in a brief grin. “Definitely.”
The ship grated, “Shepard.”
“Sorry,” Garrus growled, not sounding sorry in the least, all hint of mirth vanished. “She’s earned a bit of a rest. Time for you to deal with Vakarian. And let me tell you, he’s pissed as hell and is about to mess with every damned algorithm you thought you had under control.”
Ashley crossed her arms over her chest, eyebrows raised in pleased approval. “Didn’t know he had it in him.”
“I did,” Shepard said, and smiled, even as her chest began to burn with that familiar, panicky shortness of breath she remembered from the stars, and Alchera, and the end of the world.
No, she told herself, no, this is the Valiant. Alchera is a memory. Like Mindoir. Like Elysium. Like the Citadel. This isn’t that. Now isn’t then.
But still her lungs howled, and still her hand reached up, seeking, as though it might find a broken tube at the back of her neck.
“Breathe,” Ashley said.
I can’t, she tried to say.
Not like this. Not like this again.
Garrus didn’t realize something was terribly wrong until he heard Shepard gasping. He’d witnessed her panic attacks before—rare but debilitating, and usually borne of nightmares—and this wasn’t one of them. This was real. A quick analysis told him exactly what he needed to know: life support in his suit had kicked in because the oxygen was venting from the engineering chamber, much as it would have done had a sudden fire broken out. Shepard’s eyes were wide and horrified; she had no armor, of course, to act as backup, and her vitals were already off the charts.
He growled a particularly potent curse under his breath, even as he forced himself to look away, to turn all his focus and attention on the console in front of him. The ship was fast, but not yet clever. It certainly had nothing on Legion, and Garrus had been able to out-calibrate the geth on a good day. The Valiant’s parasite wasn’t nearly adaptive enough to keep up with him. Not with so much at stake. If things had been any less dire, Garrus would almost have been amused. Instead, he buckled down and sent the strange intelligence off on a wild deflective hunt before returning his attention to the problem at hand, locking down engineering behind as many firewalls and protocols as he could manage in such a short space of time.
“Hold on, Shepard,” he called, without turning. “Almost got it.”
She didn’t answer.
It took a bit more finagling before he managed to get the emergency system to stop recognizing them as a fire threat, but his suit told him when the room was once again safe to breathe in again. Oxygen-rich air flooded the room. “Shepard?”
He threw up several more layers of programming—dummies and dead ends and endless cycling loops of code—before turning around. Safe as they could be. For now. Safe as he could make them. Her. Shepard lay crumpled on the floor, too thin and too small, one hand still curled around her throat, her lips ever-so-faintly blue.
I’m going to lose her, he thought. And then, once the words were in his head, it was somehow impossible to shake them. He swallowed hard and took a deep breath that had nothing to do with limited amounts of oxygen.
This time, he didn’t immediately attempt to wake her. She was breathing, and though her vitals were unstable, she was still alive, just sleeping. He unstrapped the bomb from his back, finished attaching the wires that needed attaching, and hooked it into the drive core system. He laid a few proximity mines for good measure; they’d add substance to the initial blast. Beneath another layer of firewalls and protocols and dummy code, he set up a detonation sequence and added the code to his omni-tool. Not yet. Soon. Then, in case the ship caught on to their plan, he ran a wire from the bomb. Backup. It wasn’t fancy, but it’d do, and if the worst happened, he’d still be able to overload his omni-tool to create enough power to set the whole chain reaction in motion.
It would be messy, but it would work.
By the time he was finished, she’d woken again and was looking at him with sad eyes. “You’re Garrus,” she said weakly, without prompting. “This is the Valiant. Ashley’s not really here. You are.”
He nodded, propping himself against the wall next to her, and lifting her gently into his arms. She curled against him, cheek pressed to his breastplate, eyes closed again. “My mother had a yellow dress,” she said, “instead of a white one. For her wedding. My parents married on Earth. By the sea. I always wanted to go. I never did. She wanted a yellow dress. Then, on Mindoir, she wanted a yellow house. Said it was cheerful. It was. I always liked yellow.”
Shepard’s voice was so quiet, too quiet, and Garrus had to strain to hear her even though she was so near. Removing his helmet, he bent his neck, resting his cheek against the top of her head. She felt cold against him. Shepard, who was usually all fire and fervor, defender of the defenseless. He’s always thought her so warm. And ever since the moment he looked through his scope on Omega and recognized her bright hair, her familiar features, she’d been life. Defeater of death. His and her own. He pulled off his glove, released her hair from its half-fallen tail, and ran his fingers through it.
“Sometimes, when I was supposed to be sleeping, I’d hear them laughing in the other room, and I’d creep down the hall quiet as I could. I was always good at being quiet. When I peered around the corner, I’d see them dancing, Mom in her yellow dress that was terribly out of fashion but still fit, Dad in his oil-streaked coveralls. They always looked so happy. I thought they were beautiful.” Her little wheeze was almost a laugh. “Much better dancers than I am. Was.”
“You’re not so bad.”
“Liar,” she whispered. “No comment, remember?”
“Fine,” he admitted. “You’re awful. But I’ve never seen anything more beautiful than the way you move on the battlefield. Different kind of dance.”
“You and I danced a good dance, didn’t we?” she asked, tilting her head back until he could see her eyes. Their expression broke his heart. Strange words, broken heart, but he suddenly knew them, and understood them more intimately than he’d ever understood anything. “We made a good pair.”
“Shepard and Vakarian.”
“Hell of a team.”
“Right,” she said, “the best.”
He was so damned glad the ship was silent. Leave her alone, he thought. Leave her in peace. Give her this.
“Garrus,” she said, and the words sounded torn from her, “I’m so tired. I don’t want to be. But I am.”
“It’s all right,” he said softly, “it’s okay, Shepard. You can go to sleep if you want. I’ll be right here.”
He pressed a kiss to her forehead, wishing for human tears because the grief he was so carefully holding at bay was all wrong. It was too loud, too angry. Frightening in its intensity. “You know it.”
She sighed, and he felt the last of the resistance leaving her. She sighed, and he didn’t try to hold her back. “Talk to me?” she asked. “Always did… like your voice.”
“Ha,” he replied. “Not a fondness for men with scars at all. Fondness for men with subharmonics.”
She sighed, and it was almost a laugh. Close enough. And then he wrapped her close in his arms and began to whisper stories into her ear. Good ones. Old times. Victories. Jokes. The time they almost got caught in the poker lounge. The time they did get caught in the men’s room. “Poor Alenko,” Garrus said, “I think he almost had a heart attack. Still. Worth it. His face.”
When she was sleeping—still sleeping. Just sleeping—he said, “My mother died, Shepard. Just after I made it back to Palaven. I... didn't have much time with her. But my father watched her go. Every day a little further. For years. I thought she had more time. I thought we all did.” He could feel her fading, the pattern of her breath changing, and he hoped her dreams—at last—were good ones. Take care of her, Williams. “I wish I’d told you about her. She’d have liked you. You’d have liked her. Hell. Even Dad would’ve come around eventually. Against his will.” Garrus listened to her breath, felt her heartbeat against his palm, and said, “How did he do it, Shepard? How could he stand it? He must be so damned strong.”
She didn’t answer, of course. So he kept talking. The time Jack helped Gardner in the kitchen and nearly killed them all. The unvarnished truth about the advice he’d once sought from Mordin—“It was his fault I brought the damned wine and chose that damned music, Shepard.” The party after returning through the Omega 4 Relay, where all difficulties and personal issues were set aside in favor of being so damned happy to be alive.
Because except for setting off the bomb when she was gone, talking—fulfilling her final request—was all that remained in his power to do. And damn if he wasn’t going to do it in style.
“Just like old times, Shepard,” he whispered. “Just like old times.”
Chapter 18: Hope
In the silence broken only by Shepard’s failing breath, without the constant adrenaline rush of fighting and running and hiding and protecting and even of worrying, Garrus was left with only his thoughts for company. None of which were comforting.
He thought about attempting to get one more message through to his family, even as he knew it would be impossible. He couldn’t even record something they might find later. Nothing would survive the blazing pyre he intended to make of the Valiant. They’d wonder, and then they’d worry, and then they’d look for the Normandy. Then they’d know. He wished—
But there was no room for wishes. If he were wishing for impossible things, he’d go bigger than a last message to his father and Solana.
Garrus ran the backs of his fingers across Shepard’s cheek. She didn’t react, and he could feel the hard edge of her cheekbone beneath the skin, nothing at all like the softness that usually met his touch. Days. It felt like weeks, like months. It felt like an eternity.
It felt like he’d been watching Shepard die as long as he’d known her, and he was only just realizing it now.
Garrus wasn’t afraid of dying. He was troubled by things left unsaid. He was afraid of things left undone.
Not unlike Omega after all.
Instead of a few wrongful deaths to avenge—Erash. Monteague. Mierin. Grundan Krul. Melanis. Ripper. Sensat. Vortash. Butler. Weaver—it was a galaxy. Instead of a battalion of mercenaries and one traitorous bastard left unpunished, it was the Reapers. He was all too certain they wouldn’t turn themselves in if they were allowed to escape their deaths. There would be no remorse, no realization of wrongdoing. They’d just continue their plague-like sweep through the galaxy, leaving nothing and no one in their wake.
He wondered who would rise to the occasion in Shepard’s absence.
He wondered if anyone could.
Hers was a hell of a mantle to take up.
He’d never quite managed it, even when he was trying.
If the Normandy had survived (and he had his doubts; they’d have come for her. He knew they’d have come for her), they’d try. If only to honor her memory, they’d try. Like he’d tried, on Omega. Every one of them would feel they owed her that much, after everything. Garrus had to believe Alenko would rally. With Shepard gone, he might remember he was a Major and a Spectre and that he owed it to the damned galaxy. Javik wouldn’t go down without a fight, though his vicious, single-minded focus on the goal—and willingness to condemn anyone he didn’t care for to death by airlock—probably wouldn’t endear him to anyone. Garrus suspected any grief the Prothean felt would be funneled directly into Reaper deaths and bloodthirsty vengeance. “In my cycle,” Garrus whispered with grim amusement, “we did not quit the war when one life was lost, no matter whose the life.”
Damn, he imagined Shepard saying in reply, he’s probably been waiting for something just like this. Biding his time. Mutiny without the messiness of having to overthrow me. In his cycle I’d have been too soft to lead. Or so he keeps inferring.
She’d have said it with a laugh, though, because she didn’t doubt Javik’s loyalty, not really. Shepard, with her uncanny ability to look to the heart of someone, something, and so very rarely be wrong. If she doubted, you weren’t on her ship. Garrus knew he didn’t have that gift. He’d never have opened the tank to release Grunt. He’d sure as hell never have dragged an active damned geth back to the Normandy because of the way it said Shepard-Commander and helped out with a little sniping. Hell, he’d let Sidonis join his squad. Shepard wouldn’t have.
So he knew if they were still out there, still alive, Shepard’s crew, her people, would try. To do what she would have done. To make her proud. But they’d feel the loss of her at every moment, and wonder why they felt empty when Alenko attempted a pep talk without much success, or why fighting suddenly felt like merely going through the motions.
Garrus remembered that from Omega, too. Certainly in the beginning, when he didn’t have a face to throw his hate and grief and rage at. No one knew who’d taken the Normandy out, and so no one knew whose hands were bloodied by Shepard’s death, otherwise he’d have started his own damned crusade to find and punish them. He went for batarian slave rings first, because he knew about Mindoir and thought Shepard might appreciate it, if she were still around to appreciate such things. He took out a particularly unpleasant drug ring because she’d once told him how it galled her to see good people lost to a bad drug. When he faltered or flagged or wondered if he was doing any good at all, he imagined her proud of him, like she’d been after Saren, after Sovereign, and he kept going.
Sometimes, when he took things too far, when his brand of justice was too severe, he envisioned her disappointment and it was enough—just enough—to keep him from turning into the kind of monster he was trying so hard to take off the streets.
He’d been looking down the barrel at death for a long time, but somehow he hadn’t quite believed its inevitability. Oh, his was the voice of practicality and caution and the ruthless calculus of war, but somehow he’d always let himself be affected, just a little, by Shepard’s conviction that if going through a problem wasn’t going to fix it, they could always go up, down, under, or around it. Almost as soon as he’d met her, and certainly as soon as he’d started to know her, he’d recognized the unfaltering determination in her, and even when he couldn’t throw himself wholeheartedly into her belief that things would work out, he’d admired it. He was already loyal—unwaveringly, dedicatedly loyal—to her before he realized why.
It was the real reason she was the better leader. It was the thing he’d found lacking in himself, on Omega. It was the thing he’d most attempted to emulate. Hope, that strange commodity everyone looked for in wartime, was in Shepard’s blood. A bolstering smile, a hand on the shoulder, a conversation just at the right time: these were Shepard’s tools. She employed them guilelessly, honestly. And in the end, every damned member of her crew was left thinking yes, yes of course we can do this, because Shepard says so.
And then they’d done it. The impossible. Over and over and over again.
Garrus had gotten used to doing the impossible with her.
In his arms, Shepard stopped breathing.
Garrus held his own breath, gazing down at her broken, familiar face. One second. Two. Five. On the count of seven, Shepard sighed and shifted and wheezed, eyelashes fluttering against her bruised cheeks.
Not yet, he thought. Not quite.
When he realized he wasn’t looking at her, wasn’t seeing her, was just desperately watching the stats and vitals scrolling on his visor, he reached up and flicked the display off. The screen darkened, and for the first time in a very long time, Garrus looked at the world without being told exactly what he was seeing.
He didn’t want to watch her die by the numbers. Too cold. Too impersonal. Too clinical.
She deserved a little warmth. Even if it was just having someone watch her, hold her, be there as she breathed her last.
At least it wouldn’t be like the last time.
In this last sleep, she sighed.
A moment later, his omni-tool beeped indignantly. He’d set it to alert him if something changed at the doorway. It beeped again, sharper. Someone—something—was trying to break through his defenses. He armed the bomb but didn’t activate the detonator, and then he raised his assault rifle. If the Cerberus bastards had sent another damned team, they’d be in for a surprise. And if the corpses on the CIC had risen to claw their way through their ship, he’d give them second deaths that wouldn’t be so easy to shake.
“What do you have to say about that?” he muttered at the ship, but it remained silent.
When the door hissed its displeasure and slid open reluctantly a moment later, Garrus sent a spray of warning shots over the heads of whoever stood on the other side.
“Hey, shit, Scars, it’s us. Hold your damned fire. We’ve been looking everywhere for you.”
Like when he’d looked down his scope on Omega and saw Shepard running toward him across the bridge, Garrus wondered if he was hallucinating. He didn’t lower his gun. He peered at his visor, expecting the regular deluge of information, but of course the screen was still dark and silent and it told him nothing. Vega and Liara stood silhouetted in the doorway, flanked by a pair of soldiers whose names Garrus couldn’t remember. They were blood-spattered enough for him to suspect they’d fought their way through… whatever the husk-creatures were.
“Vega,” he growled, “what the hell took you so long?”
The big soldier didn’t answer at once. His eyes were fixed on Shepard.
“Where have you been?” This, at least, was enough to pull Vega’s attention back to him, but Garrus didn’t think he was imagining the wideness in the soldier’s eyes. One of Liara’s delicate hands covered her mouth. Her eyes, too, were wide and disbelieving.
“It’s a hell of a story—”
Garrus stood swiftly, suddenly, Shepard still held close, her splinted legs dangling heavily.
“We don’t have time for stories,” Garrus snapped. “Not now. Later. Now we need to get back to the Normandy, we need to get Shepard to Chakwas, and we need to blow this ship out of the sky.”
Vega shook his head, brow furrowing. “No way. Admiral Hackett wants it brought in. Reclaiming a turian dreadnought? That’s a big damned deal.”
Garrus’ arms were full, so he didn’t slam Vega into a bulkhead or punch him or lash out in a way that would have dismayed Shepard had she been awake to see it. He only shook his head, swallowed his rage, and said, “I’ll take it up with Hackett. Shepard wants the ship gone, and it’s going.”
“Shepard?” groaned the ship.
Vega jumped, training his gun on the ceiling.
“Yeah,” Garrus said. “You starting to see my point?”
Neither of them rose their voices to question him again.
Shepard was on the storage deck of the SR-1, but the doors were open and bright light streamed in, illuminating the entire room, glinting on the Mako’s white paint. Ashley sat in the driver’s seat—my seat, Shepard thought—leaning on one arm and watching her with serious eyes.
“Coming?” Ashley asked.
Shepard took a step toward the vehicle, then paused, turning toward the light. Even when she raised her hand to shade her eyes, she couldn’t see what lay beyond. It bathed her skin in warmth, though, and it felt like an eternity since Shepard had been warm. When she glanced over her shoulder, the doorway back to the rest of the ship was dark, and a shiver of chill ran the length of her spine.
She took another step toward the Mako.
Ashley waited patiently.
The light grew warmer. Too warm, almost. Hot.
“I don’t know if I can,” she said. “I’m not finished.”
“You sure, Commander?”
“No.” Shepard crossed the distance, laying one hand on the Mako’s hull. It, too, was warm. “How long can you wait?”
“Not long,” Ashley replied. “It’s almost time.”
“What happens if I stay?”
Ashley shrugged, but her lips were still turned up in a sad little smile. “I don’t know, Commander. No one knows.”
Reaching out, Shepard took one of Ashley’s hands in both of hers. “I think I have to take my chances.”
Ashley chuckled. “You always do.”
Shepard squeezed Ashley’s hand once, gently, then turned away, toward the interior of her ship, coolness on her cheeks like a balm.
She didn’t look back.
Chapter 19: Go
It didn’t take long for Garrus to realize that, in spite of the rescue at hand, somewhere along the line things had gone terribly wrong. Even more terribly wrong. The initial overwhelming wave of hope crashed against reality and left him shuddering with barely-restrained disappointment, colored with a tinge of fear. While he’d sat in engineering, thinking the ship was distracted by his calibrations and his code, it had been up to something else entirely.
He’d gone complacent and underestimated the damned thing. He’d screwed up. Almost as bad a mistake as losing count of hostiles in a fight. He had the sinking feeling his antics had actually forced the ship to learn more quickly, to adapt. There was a kind of sick glee in the synthetic voice taunting them over the intercom now, and each door they passed took longer and longer to hack.
And of course they were hampered at every turn by the husk-like creatures. The sleeping monster in the CIC had woken with a vengeance, and it was hungry. Some abominable twist between marauders and husks, the creatures were twice as hard to kill. No matter how many bullets were pumped into their rotting bodies, they kept coming, scraping and dragging themselves along the floor even when their legs had been shot out from under them, animated by coils of writhing wire and cord. Vega shot three, and pulled a fourth off one of the other soldiers, dashing it into a wall. It lay shuddering, but didn’t die until Liara crushed it under the weight of her biotics. The soldier it had nearly taken emptied a clip into its head. It still twitched, but at least it no longer moved toward them or blocked their path forward.
Arms full of Shepard, Garrus was all but useless in the fighting. He turned his visor back on and attempted to provide early warning. The creatures didn’t give off proper vitals, and their heat signatures were all wrong, but they registered as something. Still, the waves of enemies kept coming. Dozens of them, from every direction. With a twist in his gut, Garrus thought about the complement of soldiers a dreadnought carried. Some had escaped. Too many hadn’t. What they lacked in finesse they more than made up for in sheer numbers. The damned definition of uphill battle.
Apart from muttered curses or groans of pain when one of the creatures got in under someone’s guard, fighting kept them all silent. No time for explanations. No time for stories. Garrus caught the occasional concerned look from Liara, and though he could see in her eyes the questions she was so obviously desperate to ask, she held her tongue.
Shepard stopped breathing twice more, each for longer periods of time. Ten seconds. Twenty. Her lips never quite lost the eerie blue cast. Her eyelashes lay still against her cheeks. He knew she couldn’t be comfortable, but no matter how he was forced to shift her, even when he pounded once on her chest to start her breath again, she didn’t so much as moan.
“Don’t you dare,” he whispered down at her after the second time. “You’re not doing this now, Shepard. I told you they’d come and they did. Now you have to give us a little more. We’ll get you out of this.”
And yet even with the end in sight, he knew Shepard was running out of time. The ship was too damned big. They were moving too damned slow.
Two hallways and three doorways away from engineering, Garrus’ omni-tool gave yet another unpleasant beep. The sound stopped him so suddenly Liara ran into his back, fingertips sparking with biotic energy. Garrus flinched, but it had nothing to do with the little burst of Liara’s power and everything to do with the steady sound his omni-tool emitted.
“Damn,” he murmured.
“What is it?” Liara asked, flinging a stasis field toward an oncoming pair of husks.
“The gift from Grixos,” he said. “The… Shepard’s Trojan Horse. It’s a damned trap.”
Vega reduced a couple of heads to pulp before adding, “Shit, Scars, we kinda figured that one.”
“No,” Garrus said. “You don’t understand. It’s been a trap the whole time. Tailored to snare Shepard. She can never pass up a distress call. Never. It was just waiting for the Normandy to show up before it snapped shut. The ship’s never been as distressed as we thought it was. And now it’s going to show us just how much power it has.”
Liara and Vega exchanged a glance that spoke volumes. Garrus’ gut twisted further as understanding settled on him. “When you mentioned Hackett, you meant he was here, didn’t you?”
“With half a dozen ships,” Vega agreed. “Sparks and Esteban were pretty intense when we finally found them. Said Shepard was in the shit and had insisted on backup. And because it was the commander, backup came in force.”
Even the pang of relief he felt at knowing Tali and Cortez has somehow managed to survive wasn’t enough to stop Garrus’ slide into grim certainty that they were all up to their damned necks in trouble. Bad trouble. Life-and-death-but-mostly-death trouble. “So chances are they’ll be able to take down the Valiant, but not without heavy losses. It’s just trying to slow us down. It’s been buying itself time, fixing problems, working things out, laying tripwire and proximity mines. It’s prepared to sacrifice itself to take us out. That’s why it’s here. Reaper-tech hiding in a turian ship.”
“The gift from Grixos. The Trojan Horse,” Liara repeated softly. “The asari have a story like that too.”
“Everyone does,” Garrus said.
“Can’t. Run,” said the ship. “Shepard.”
Vega took a shot at the ceiling, then trained his gun on one of the still-twitching creatures at his feet. Liara only frowned. “The ship’s been playing dead for days, though; it can’t power itself up all at once. There’s still time. We can warn the others… prepare—Normandy? Joker? This is Liara. Normandy, come in.”
Garrus didn’t need to ask if her attempt failed; disappointment colored the curves of her face and her hands curled into fists at her sides. He shifted Shepard until he could bring up his omni-tool interface. You took your eyes off the hostiles, Vakarian. When he attempted to remotely set the bomb’s detonator sequence, he was thwarted. “We’ve got maybe fifteen minutes before this ship blows ours away,” he said. “Unless… unless I stay to make things difficult. I can recalibrate the guns to buy some time, and I can set the bomb manually. You get back to the Normandy and make sure everyone gets the hell out of the blast radius.”
Garrus saw understanding—a soldier’s understanding; that ruthless calculus of war understanding—on Vega’s face, and the big man didn’t protest. Liara, on the other hand, shook her head and reached out to lay her fingers against his forearm. “You can’t. She’ll—”
Her eyes were huge and damp and Garrus couldn’t bring himself to look at them for longer than a moment. “She—she relies on you, Garrus, you know she does. Now more than ever. You more than anyone. She’ll be heartbroken.”
“But she’ll be alive.” He crossed the distance between himself and Vega, offering his too-light, too-thin burden to the big man. Vega slipped his arms around Shepard, and just for a moment, Garrus had trouble letting go. He took a deep breath, wrenching himself away. The wound in his shoulder reopened, and when no immediate soothing rush of medi-gel followed, he realized he must be out. Hardly mattered now.
Liara began to protest again, but Garrus spoke over her. “And she’ll know why I did it. She’d do the same in my place.” He pressed his fingertips to Shepard’s brow in a brief farewell, even though he knew she wasn’t alert enough to feel it. “Take her. And run. Don’t waste your time with the husks; they’re just a tactic. They’re slow and they’re stupid but they’ll bog you down if you let them. You get her to Chakwas, you make sure she survives. And tell her… no. She’ll know. Give the Reapers hell. Take her, Vega. Go.”
Somehow Shepard looked even smaller, even more broken in Vega’s huge arms.
Liara took a step toward him. Wrong direction. “We can wait for you.”
“No,” he said, “you can’t. Come on, Liara. You remember Virmire. You were there. I’m going to trigger a bomb. Waiting’ll only get you all killed.”
“Shepard had a choice on Virmire. We can make it a choice here. Maybe I don’t have your tech skill, but I know my way around a computer system. Enough to buy time. I’ll stay,” Liara said, drawing herself up and raising her chin defiantly. It was almost enough to make Garrus smile. He remembered his first glimpse of her, the frightened archaeologist trapped in her Prothean bubble as the world went to hell around her, desperate for a savior. He didn’t think that woman would have volunteered for this job.
He couldn’t let this one do it, either. “You may know information, but not like I know firing algorthyms. Shepard needs the Shadow Broker more than she needs another sniper.”
“You’re not just—”
“Go!” he repeated, giving Liara a little push. “We don’t have time to argue about this. I can give you half an hour. Maybe less. Make it count.”
“Come on, Doc,” Vega urged. “We’re losing her. We gotta get outta here.”
Even asari curse words sounded graceful, beautiful, but Garrus was familiar with the meaning of this one, and it was anything but. Vega gave him a last nod. It was almost like a salute. Shepard lolled against the marine’s chest, pale and still, but Garrus’ visor told him all he needed to know. She was alive. She was going to live.
That was enough. That was everything.
He didn’t watch them go. He reloaded his assault rifle, blasted his way through another obnoxious wave of husks, and followed the bodies back toward engineering at a run.
Chapter 20: Destroyed
Garrus wasn’t exactly seeing his life flash before his eyes, but standing in engineering alone, decidedly not looking at the spot where he’d been so certain just an hour earlier he was going to watch Shepard die, he couldn’t help the turn of his thoughts.
He tried not to think about her. It wasn’t easy. He’d been firmly pulled into orbit around Shepard the moment she said welcome aboard, Garrus all those years ago in Dr. Michel’s clinic, and he’d been circling around her ever since. Gladly, for the most part.
Turning his back on the bomb, he crossed to the main console and tried to remember the first time he’d set eyes on a dreadnought’s weapons system. Those were earlier thoughts, safer thoughts. Thoughts without Shepard in them. Some weren’t even sad.
Some things Garrus never forgot about his youth: the color of the sunset from the rooftop of his family home; the sound his sister made when she realized he’d taken apart all her guns and hid the pieces (or, for that matter, the revenge that came after. Solana was wily, threw a mean left hook, and was, apparently, even better than he at hiding things: his favorite scope had never turned up); the pride in his father’s eyes when he finished his basic military training and was assigned a tour on the Resolute. It meant something to be deployed on a dreadnought, even during peacetime, and on that one occasion Garrus and his father’s ideas of what constituted something to be proud of aligned and overlapped.
And he remembered when the Resolute’s Gunnery Chief took him aside and said, “You know, kid, you’re too good to just stick with the little guns. Come on. Let’s see if you’re half as clever as I think you are,” and taught him every damned thing there was to know about the way a ship’s armaments worked. It wasn’t the most prestigious job on board, but it was important and there was an art to it. Maybe because he’d been taking things apart and putting them back together again since childhood, maybe because it was exactly the kind of puzzle he liked best, and maybe—just a little—because it was something all about him and nothing whatsoever to do with his dad, Garrus excelled. By the time his tour finished, he knew the ins and outs of the battery better even than the long-standing crew. Even the captain said he’d never seen the Resolute’s guns so perfectly optimized.
His father hadn’t approved. On the next tour (and pretty sure his dad had something to do with it) Garrus was assigned to the XO to help with administration and personnel, and was all but banned from the battery. Not that he’d let it stop him: he’d been a bad turian even then. In the end he’d learned everything there was to learn about that ship’s weapons too.
Shepard teased him about the amount of time he spent calibrating the Normandy’s guns, sure, but Garrus knew what he was doing. Always had. He spared himself a pang of regret that he’d never get his hands on the Normandy’s system again, but then he let it go. Hell, the Normandy wouldn’t be around to have guns if he didn’t do what needed to be done.
From the console in engineering, Garrus hacked into the weapons systems. He’d cut his teeth on the guns of the Resolute, but the Valiant’s system wasn’t that different. Upgraded, but still as familiar as a favorite childhood story repeated over and over until remembering the words was as effortless as breathing. The ship protested, but Garrus had already managed to shut the system down again before he was thwarted by alien code.
Having bought at least another fifteen minutes—enough time for Liara and Vega to make it back to the Normandy if they managed to bully their way through the waves of husks—he shifted his attention to the firing algorithms, subtly shifting percentages until he felt certain any shot would miss its target and that the ship wouldn’t realize what was happening until it was too late. Another fifteen minutes, maybe. Time enough for the Normandy to clear the blast radius; time for the fleet to understand the seriousness of the situation at hand. Then he diverted power from the main grid, sending it into unnecessary systems. Garrus glanced at the timer he’d set running in his visor: forty minutes since he’d left Shepard with Vega and Liara. He cursed under his breath; he’d lost track of time. Losing track of time was almost as dangerous as losing track of hostiles. He imagined Shepard cracking a joke about calibrations. He didn’t laugh.
Still, when he checked the readouts, he found the ship struggling to power itself. Engines were online, but Garrus’ work on the guns held firm. And if they’d made it back to the Normandy—Spirits, let them have made it back to the Normandy—they had to be already on their way. Away from the doomed ship. Away from him. “All right,” he said. “Try coming back from this.”
“No,” said the ship.
“Yes,” Garrus replied. “And shut up.”
He shut down the guns a final time—fifteen more minutes, definitely enough time for the fleet to do what needs doing—before stepping away from the console. He was a little surprised they hadn’t fired on the Valiant already, though, and it made him doubt the Normandy’s safety all over again. Tension made his head ache. His spine creaked unpleasantly as he rolled his shoulders, and the wound Shepard had given him throbbed as soon as he was reminded of its presence.
A moment later, the doors exploded inward without so much as a beep of warning. Garrus dropped, whirling, throwing one arm up to protect his face and grabbing his gun with the other hand, turning it on the intruders in one swift, seamless motion. His shots, however, were thrown back by a kinetic barrier and ricocheted away from the target. A familiar target. A target he’d already shot at once earlier.
“Vega,” he growled, “what the hell—?”
The big marine’s expression was impassive—no shooting the shit or trading tales of oneupmanship now—as he took a step forward and said, “Yeah, no time for all that fancy hacking shit. Had to do things my way. ‘Cause if you think for one second I’m gonna let her wake up and find you gone, you got another thing coming, Scars. No damned way.”
“So you’re going to risk the entire ship—”
“Nope,” Vega interrupted. “Got the commander to the medbay. Asked for volunteers to come help drag your ass off this boat. Took the Kodiak that didn’t get shot to shit. And then I came back. The Normandy’s safe as houses now, and we will be too if we hurry our asses up. Sure, it’s noble to throw yourself in front of a bullet, but today’s not the day. Admiral Hackett gave us half an hour fifteen minutes ago.”
“Doesn’t change the fact that we have to set this bomb manually.”
Vega’s lips twitched, but he didn’t smile. Instead, he fished something out of his utility belt and raised it. “Sparks said you’d say that. And she says get your ass back to the ship and stop being a damned hero.”
Garrus crossed the distance between them in two long strides, snatching the device from Vega’s hand. It was a grenade affixed to a timed detonator. The counter wasn’t active yet, but he could see it was set for fifteen minutes. “Tali gave you this?”
“Rigged it up in less time than it takes me to tie my shoes. She also told me to knock you out, throw you over my shoulder, and carry you back if you gave me trouble.”
Dryly, Garrus said, “Yeah, good luck with that.”
“Was hoping I wouldn’t need luck. Pretty much thought you’d see sense, Vakarian.”
More quickly than Vega was anticipating if the look on his face was anything to go by, Garrus swept his arm up and threw his forearm against Vega’s throat, pinning him to the wall. His injury protested the violence, and he knew Vega could easily have broken the hold, but instead the man just watched him with unwavering steadiness in his dark gaze.
“I gave you an order, Vega.”
“You wanted me to get her back to the ship. You didn’t order me not to come back for your bony hide.” Garrus tightened his grip, pushing harder with his arm. His shoulder burned with the effort. Vega didn’t flinch. A little choked, he continued, “We all know damned well the commander respects the hell out of you, and that’s more than enough for us, but you’re not actually Alliance. Not sure I have to listen to you if I don’t want. If you’re pissed, you can take it up with the commander later. I’m okay with that. Means you’ll both be alive to do it.”
Garrus closed his eyes. Inhaled. Nodded. “Fifteen minutes?”
“Probably more like thirteen now. Twelve and a half.”
“Then I guess we run.”
“Guess we do. Esteban’ll be waiting.”
Garrus heard Vega swallow hard when he drew back his arm. Then he set Tali’s timer, dropped the grenade on the makeshift bomb, and let himself hope they might actually make it out of the whole damned mess alive.
Funny thing, hope. Addictive. Maybe Shepard knew what she was doing after all, putting all that faith in it.
Shepard woke slowly. Inhaling, she found her ribs no longer hurt quite so sharply. More than that, she was certain—certain to her bones—that the air she breathed was Normandy air. A surge of disappointment followed hard on the heels of relief: another dream, another memory. Another ghost.
At least it wasn’t Miranda’s voice shouting at her to wake up. At least it wasn’t a revisit of Virmire or Elysium or Mindoir. Again. Even if it wasn’t real, it was a kindness. Familiarity washed over her, calming her pounding heart.
A moment later, she forced herself to open her eyes. She didn’t know what she expected to see—Ashley, the Mako, the hell of Elysium or Earth, Garrus frowning down at her—but it was only the Normandy’s medbay, all dimmed lights and the incomprehensible murmurs and beeps of machines. The tone of the nearest machine changed as she tried to push herself upright, only to realize she was swathed in bandages and hooked into machines from head to toe.
“Don’t even think about it.”
It sounded exactly like Dr. Chakwas, and Shepard smiled. Still, Ashley had sounded like Ashley, and she still remembered the sound of Alberts crying like Elysium was yesterday and not a decade ago. Relaxing back down, she turned her head. Garrus sat in the chair beside her, leaning forward, elbows resting on his knees.
“Hey,” he said softly.
“This one’s a good dream,” she replied. “We’re back on the Normandy. It smells right. Chakwas is bitching at me for trying to move. As she does.”
“You say bitching,” the doctor said, “I prefer keeping you from doing yet more damage. Oh, stay still, Shepard. You shouldn’t even be awake.”
“How long was I out this time?”
Instead of Garrus answering, Chakwas moved between them and began poking and prodding and waving bright lights at her. Shepard groaned, raising her hand to ward off the medical attack, trailing tubes. She tried not to think about the turians, the CIC, the Cerberus kid. The doctor made a tsking sound under her breath and nudged the arm away. “Not nearly long enough.”
“You’re pushy for a hallucination,” Shepard said.
Chakwas shook her head, referring to the machines Shepard couldn’t see at the head of her bed. “I’m entirely real, I assure you. Though it’s no surprise you doubt it, after all you’ve been through. You really would be better off sleeping, Shepard. I very nearly induced a coma, but didn’t know how your system would take it. I’ve never seen you so…”
“Close to death?” Shepard poked Chakwas in the leg and the doctor rolled her eyes. “Well. Except for that other time, right? And I came out of that okay. Mostly.” Craning her neck, she tried to peer around Chakwas to see Garrus. She couldn’t quite put a finger on it, but her instincts were screaming. “Hey, Garrus? Tell me something true.”
“She’s telling the truth, Shepard,” Garrus replied, but something—the look on his face, the tone of his voice—made the wrong feeling worse. Her stomach crawled with it. She tried to push herself upright again, but then saw Chakwas’ face and stopped.
The doctor’s brow was furrowed, her gaze as troubled as Shepard had ever seen it, and if she was attempting to hide her concern she was failing miserably. She’d gone unnaturally pale. “What exactly are you seeing, Commander?”
“The medbay. Like I said. You. Garrus.”
Chakwas’ lips compressed into a thin line, and Shepard could see the woman deciding what, if anything, to say. Shepard was tired and she was sick and she’d never felt more run-down in her life, but she knew attempted prevarication when she saw it. The sudden shift and twist of pain was something different than broken bones or hunger. “He’s not here, is he?”
Chakwas bowed her head. “You ought to rest, Commander. Hallucinations are a natural response to—”
“Where is he?” Shepard imagined wrapping her hand around her panic’s throat and tossing it bodily away. It didn’t work. Her throat felt too tight, and her words came out strained. “He didn’t… tell me he didn’t do something—”
“Doctor,” came EDI’s voice, abrupt and sudden and enough to freeze Shepard’s words in her throat. “Commander. It is good you’re awake. We have received a transmission from the Kodiak. Some damage was sustained in the escape, but they have rendezvoused with the SSV Buenos Aires. Evidently Officer Vakarian was injured, but Mr. Vega assures us it is not life-threatening.”
“And the Valiant?”
“Destroyed, Commander. Admiral Hackett has requested a debrief. When you’re well enough.”
Shepard nodded. “Can you put me through to Garrus?”
She didn't want to admit it, but she knew the feeling in her gut wouldn't be placated until she heard him. Until she knew they weren't trying to ease her into bad news.
“One moment, Shepard.”
Chakwas was still frowning, still had that medical-professional-with-a-frustrating-patient look on her face, but Shepard didn’t care. The incessant beeping was faster—doubtless echoing her heart-rate. She found herself holding her breath.
When she looked to the chair again, Garrus was gone.
“Shepard? You okay?”
She breathed again. “Yeah. But you sound like shit, Vakarian.”
His chuckle was tinny, broken by distance and mechanics. “You too, Shepard. Still, good to hear your voice.”
“It’ll be better to hear it in person.”
“It will be better when you’ve both had some rest,” Chakwas interjected.
“Listen to the good doctor, Shepard,” Garrus replied. “Get some sleep. I’ll be there when you wake up.”
“Yes,” Chakwas said. “In the next bed over until I’m sufficiently convinced you’ve both recovered.”
Shepard smiled, and for once chose not to protest. “Joker? Set a course.”
“Sure thing, Commander. And… and Commander? Good to have you back.”
“Yeah,” she replied. “Talk to me after I eat my weight in MREs and sleep for twenty-four hours.”
“At least,” Chakwas said.
Chapter 21: Sleep
Shepard wasn’t awake when Garrus burst into the medbay. Chakwas glared mightily at the disturbance, and her annoyance told him Shepard was merely sleeping and not— He stumbled and reached out to lay a bracing hand against the wall, breathing deeply. Blood loss, he told himself.
Relief, he replied.
The doctor’s scowl shifted to concern, but this he shrugged off, pushing himself away from the wall and crossing immediately to Shepard’s bedside. He was simultaneously relieved and horrified to find her encumbered by equipment. Still better than meat and tubes, he thought, shuddering. He tried to see improvement even though the difference of a couple of hours’ medical attention was hardly enough to erase bruises or replace lost weight or rebuild broken bones. Even for Shepard.
Reaching down, he pushed a lock of hair back from her brow. His visor told him her temperature was back to normal, and the machines were helping regulate her heart-rate. He thought her color was better. Now’s the time to do that regenerating like a krogan thing we joke about, he thought at her, not quite willing to speak with an audience. Fast enough to make Wrex proud. Set a new record or something.
Alenko arrived a few minutes later, questions spilling from his lips even before the doors closed behind him. Garrus stood between Shepard and Alenko, as though to protect her from the unwelcome intrusion, but his bravado was unnecessary. Shepard slept on, and Chakwas rose from her desk, laid a restraining hand on Alenko’s forearm and said pointedly, “Time enough for a debrief later, Kaidan.”
Garrus could hardly blame him—he understood all too well the harried expression and the bruised look of too many sleepless nights. Garrus didn’t envy the man the necessity of having been forced to step into Shepard’s shoes. Shepard’s wasn’t an easy path to walk. Alenko scraped a hand through his hair, leaving it in uncharacteristic disarray before casting a troubled glance in Shepard’s direction. Garrus didn’t want to know what the other man was thinking. Nothing good, by the set of his shoulders or the furrowed brow. “The Admiral wants a word before they retreat, Garrus.”
“The Admiral can read the report,” Chakwas said.
Garrus and Alenko turned and regarded her with equal measures of incredulity. Chakwas met their gazes with a steady one of her own, arms firmly crossed over her chest. “Steven Hackett has nearly cost Shepard her life more times than I can count, and those are just the missions I knew about. He’ll not be bullying patients of mine so soon after such an ordeal. He has a war to fight, and will even have his top operative back to fight for him sooner rather than later. Thank him for his help, Kaidan, but the rest will have to come later. Much later.”
Alenko glanced up at him, eyes wide and cheeks ever so faintly flushed. “I, uh—”
“‘Yes, Karin’ will do nicely. ‘Yes, ma’am’ if you’re feeling formal.”
She reached for Alenko’s arm again, but this time only to give it a reassuring pat. “Deal with the admiral, Kaidan, and then please go get some sleep. We’ve all been run a little ragged these past days, but you’ll give yourself another headache if you push yourself much further. And then you will be of use to precisely no one.”
Alenko covered the doctor’s hand with one of his own and gave her a weary smile. “Yes, Karin.”
Shepard turned her head and murmured in her sleep, and that was enough to have Chakwas shoo Alenko away and banish Garrus to one of the empty beds until she could look him over. He began stripping away his armor, already knowing what she’d find and how easily she’d deal with it. A single bullet wound was nothing to a woman who could mend a face that took a rocket.
Knowing this, he tried not to imagine the worst as he watched her tend to Shepard. The doctor moved with certainty and precision, but Garrus remembered the feel of Shepard dying in his arms, the rattle of her wheezing breath, and wasn’t comforted.
And, though he hated hospitals—more often than not they were all desperation and dying and hopelessness, or they were pain and the certainty that a mistake had been made in a fight—he invented reasons to remain in the medbay even after Chakwas had taken a look at his shoulder and patched him up. To her credit, she didn’t so much as blink when he asked if she minded him sleeping in the next bed over.
He worded it like he was worried about himself, worried about the possibility of lingering complications, but he knew he wasn’t fooling the doctor. He suspected few could. She had an uncanny ability to recognize more than physical illness. Still, she didn’t call attention to his little lie. She merely hunted down a fresh set of bedding and told him she’d wake him if he was needed.
Garrus couldn’t sleep. He tried. He’d been tired for days, running beyond capacity for days, but the moment he closed his eyes, sleep eluded him. Instead, he lay still and silent, listening to the machines monitoring Shepard’s vitals. Keeping her alive. Helping her heal. Every time Chakwas moved to Shepard’s side, checking numbers or replenishing fluids or adjusting machinery, she explained her actions aloud. And somehow managed to sound as though she wasn’t doing so purely for his benefit.
“I know it’s hard to see her like this, Garrus,” Chakwas said, glancing up from her datapad after the sixth or seventh time she’d caught him staring and decidedly not sleeping. Garrus ducked his head, even though the doctor’s tone held no judgment. “But this is good sleep.”
“You weren’t there.”
She nodded, and when she passed by she reached out and patted the scarred side of his face lightly. “I do know what I’m doing. And she’s not the only one who could use a good sleep.”
“Later,” he replied. Chakwas dipped her head in a brief shake, but didn’t push.
He was grateful for that.
When Tali poked her head into the medbay a few hours later, Garrus assumed it was to check on Shepard—very nearly everyone had attempted to visit, only to be chased away by the doctor—but instead of banishing her as she’d banished the others, Chakwas waved Tali in. “How are you feeling, Tali’Zorah?”
“How are you feeling?” Garrus echoed, tilting his head. “Are you okay?”
Tali patted at her side and shrugged. He noticed the fresh patch on her suit immediately. “I’ve been better. It was… a very bad landing, and it took them… a long time to find us. The infection’s under control, though.” For a face behind a mask, it always astonished him how emotive Tali could be. And right now she was very clearly disappointed. With a side of frustrated irritation. “Otherwise I hope you know I’d’ve been on the Valiant to yell at you myself. Staying behind? Really, Garrus?”
Garrus stiffened, mandibles fluttering into a grimace. “I was doing—”
Tali cut him off with a sigh. “What you thought to had to, I know. I’m just… I’m just glad to see you, okay?”
“Yes,” he replied dryly, “glad is exactly how you sound. How could I have mistaken it for anything else?”
Tali chuckled, crossing the room to hoist herself up onto the bed next to him. He gave her a moment to take in Shepard’s condition, and he could read in the set of her shoulders how upsetting she found it. “She’ll be fine,” Garrus said, nudging her lightly with his unwounded shoulder. “She always is.”
Chakwas leveled a steady gaze at him and lifted one brow pointedly. It very, very clearly said and what have I been telling you all along?
At least she didn’t say it aloud.
He waited until the doctor administered Tali’s antibiotics before asking, “What happened?”
“Pretty much what you think. We ran into a Cerberus ship… or a Cerberus ship ran into us. It tried to take us out; we escaped. But the Kodiak was pretty hurt; we barely made it through the atmosphere. And then, because of the communications interference, it took forever for the Normandy to find us. I don’t remember much about the rescue—I was pretty out of it. But I told Kaidan he needed to contact Admiral Hackett because Shepard said so. And then the admiral didn’t want to let anyone board the ship—he thought it was too dangerous.”
“I imagine that went over well.”
Tali breathed a laugh and shook her head. “Kaidan came storming out of the War Room saying they shouldn’t have bothered in the first place if this was the way Shepard was going to be treated after everything she’s done for the Alliance and the galaxy, Liara disappeared into her office, and five minutes later clearance for the boarding mission came through.”
Tali tilted her head back, staring at the ceiling. “You ever wonder what she knows?”
Garrus leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees, staring hard at the ground between his feet. The sound of Shepard’s machines was oddly reassuring, the rhythm of beeps and whirs even and regular. “Shepard spent some time with the old Shadow Broker’s files. She never talks about it, but every once in a while she’ll get this strange look on her face and it’s the same damned look she had when she came back from the Shadow Broker’s base that first time. Liara looks that way, too, sometimes. Burdened. So no. I guess I don’t want to know. The price is too high.”
Tali nodded, echoing his hunched posture. “It… it was bad?”
Even with the mask between them, he could sense her sorrow. Her regret. “I’m sorry it took so long.”
“Not your fault, Tali. Hell, it wasn’t anyone’s fault. Except maybe the Reapers. Bastards.”
They sat together in silence a while longer, shoulder to shoulder. Finally, Tali said, “Seems like a long time since the beginning of all this, doesn’t it?”
“A long time and no time at all.”
Tali nodded, pushing herself upright again. She moved a little slowly, a little stiffly. “I know you’ll brush it off, but if you want to talk…”
She gave a weary chuckle. “But no thanks. You’re a predictable bosh’tet, Garrus. I’ll give you that.”
He echoed her laugh. “I prefer reliable?”
He turned away when Tali bent close to Shepard’s ear, to give her a moment of privacy. And turning away somehow became lying down, and lying down became his first sleep in days.
He woke to a subtle change in the tenor of Shepard’s machines, opening his eyes to see Shepard gazing back at him.
“Hey,” she said, blinking, lids still heavy, lips parted in a sleepy smile.
“Hey yourself,” he replied, pushing himself upright, crossing the narrow distance between their beds in one long step. Chakwas nodded, hovering at Shepard’s other side, checking numbers and screens and readouts. After a moment, she retreated back to her desk, leaving the two of them in relative privacy.
Her hand inched toward him—just a little, an inch, maybe two—before stopping. Her fingers closed into a loose fist and a shadow of something like doubt drifted across her face, stealing the drowsy happiness and replacing it with confusion. He closed the rest of the distance himself, clasping his hand around hers. A moment later, he covered both their hands with his other one, an echo of his double-handed grip when he’d seen her again on Menae.
Back then, he’d held onto her with both hands because he was half-afraid he was imagining her.
This time, he was proving with both his hands that he was as real as she.
Shepard’s tongue darted out to moisten her lips, and then she broke into as unfettered a smile as he’d seen in days—weeks. Maybe since their time on the roof of the Presidium.
“We made it,” she said.
“Was there any doubt?” He tried to speak with some of his usual easy confidence, the cockiness she so often teased him about, but the tone of his subharmonics was all wrong.
“Of course not,” she replied, and the lilt in her voice wasn’t right either. “Have you seen how badass we are?”
He squeezed her hand gently. A moment later she shifted her grip so she could squeeze back.
“So,” she said, “what do you think about dinner, when I’m up on my own two feet again? It’s on me.”
“Definitely, Shepard,” he replied.
“Good,” she said, with a crooked smile, weathered but almost like her old self. “It’s a date.”
Chapter 22: Healing
Shepard’s fingers moved over the jacket’s buttons with focused determination. Steady. Almost steady enough for her to forget the way they’d shaken, the way she’d lost control, the way she’d almost—
No. She shook her head, finishing the last of the buttons and forcing herself to leave those thoughts behind. Where they belonged. Experience, learn, move on. She was good at that. She’d always been good at it.
Don’t let the inevitable mistakes and missteps drag you down.
Though the fabric hung from her shoulders and wasn’t nearly as snug to the curve of breast and waist and hip as it once had been, seeing the familiar blue of her uniform reflected back at her went a long way toward making her feel like herself again. She’d grown tired of hospital gowns two days into her medbay stay. It had only taken another three before she never wanted to see her hoodie again.
After running her hands down the front of the jacket to smooth nonexistent wrinkles, she scraped her hair back into its usual ponytail and then ran her fingertips lightly over the skin of her face. The bruises were gone now, vanished as completely as the Cerberus scars and the even older mark that had once bisected her left eyebrow. As soon as Doctor Chakwas had everything under control (calibrated, Shepard thought with dark amusement, good old cybernetics), the bruises had been the first to heal. The broken bones had taken the longest—irritatingly long, in Shepard’s opinion—but a mere fraction of the usual time. The bones still ached a little, but even Chakwas had finally relented and agreed a return to duty was best for all parties concerned.
Shepard was pretty sure that meant she’d nearly driven the doctor insane.
Well. That made the both of them.
Narrowing her eyes, she tried to see echoes where the damage had been. Nothing. Maybe her cheekbones were more prominent and her face a bit gaunt, but otherwise she was almost back to normal.
On the surface, anyway. With a heavy sigh, she pushed herself away from the mirror and gave herself a little shake. It wasn’t the first time she’d looked at death. Hell, it wasn’t even the most successful time death had looked back at her. And yet sometimes she turned her head expecting to see Ashley in a little girl’s white dress, or she woke from dreams somehow even more unsettling than those of the dead child and the shadows in the wood—dreams of battles and choices, things she couldn’t undo—and couldn’t catch her breath again. Sometimes she still needed Garrus to look at her and nod and corroborate what was real and what wasn’t.
Experience, learn, move on. As soon as she’d been able to sit upright under her own power, she’d written her report and sent copies to Hackett and the Council, warning them about the potential danger even though the Valiant was gone. Trojan Horse. The gift from Grixos. She hoped they’d listen. For a change. Even before that, she started hounding EDI for regular updates. The medbay became a temporary CIC, a mobile War Room—at least for two or three hours a day. Chakwas grimaced at the increased traffic, but permitted the intrusion of various crew members. Within reason. And always only one a time.
That, too, was enough to make Shepard feel almost normal, almost herself. A close call, she told herself. Close, but no cigar. Like she’d said to Garrus. Nice try, death. Shepard wins again.
Only it didn’t feel like winning. Winning usually felt good.
Winning didn’t usually feel like surviving by the skin of your teeth and a dash of good luck. Winning didn’t usually feel like cheating.
She didn’t regret surviving, of course, but the knowledge that she’d given up—that she’d been so certain of her own death—hung on her, as ill-fitting as her dress blues.
So she buried herself in work, read reports until she fell asleep—or until the doctor forcibly removed datapads from her—and worked with her crew to plan the next mission. Kai Leng was still out there. A side of righteous revenge was just the ticket.
The first time she brought it up, Kaidan had tried to stop her, tried to tell her to leave it until she was well again, and she’d just shaken her head and said, “I need this, Alenko.”
He’d nodded like he understood.
Hell, maybe he did.
When push came to shove, they were all hiding from something.
No one talked about the Valiant.
She was okay with that. Experience. Learn. Move on.
Don’t forget. And don’t make the same damned mistakes twice.
“Experience. Learn. Move on,” she told her reflection firmly before straightening her shoulders, lifting her chin, and exiting her quarters.
She started her rounds in the CIC, moving down to engineering, and finishing on the crew deck. Same as always. And if she took a little extra time with each of her crew, she told herself it was because it had been such a long time; she never went more than a few days without checking in with her people. Mostly it was to remind herself what had almost been lost. Tali hugged her. Cortez and Vega teased each other and made her grin. Joker snarked about broken bones. Liara smiled the smile of the girl from Therum, the Shadow Broker’s controlled mask momentarily lowered. Javik almost said it was good to see her—or at least she was pretty sure that’s what he meant by, “You are unusually resilient, Shepard. For a human.” By the end of it her legs ached and she was far more tired than she ought to have been—though, she was forced to admit, precisely as tired as the good doctor had warned she’d be.
She saved the main battery for last, also same as always, and was surprised when the door opened on an empty room. She peeked around the corner and even went so far as to call Garrus’ name, but stopped herself from asking EDI where he was. He certainly hadn’t been avoiding her during her convalescence—quite the opposite—but they didn’t talk about their ordeal, either. They kept to safe topics, like guns and politics and bitching about the Council. Families and feelings were off-limits. They played endless rounds of Skyllian Five. Sometimes he even beat her.
And every once in a while she caught him looking at her the way he’d looked at her on the Valiant, like he was still afraid he was going to lose her.
She could hardly blame him for not wanting to be constantly reminded of that.
She wondered if he caught her looking at him the same way.
Chakwas emerged from the medbay as Shepard made her way back to the elevators and wordlessly pressed a handful of painkillers into her hand. The good kind. The kind that wouldn’t be immediately processed and eliminated by her cybernetics. Shepard smiled her thanks and even swallowed them without complaint.
She was drowsy by the time the elevator ascended to her floor, but not so tired she didn’t sense something off right away. She couldn’t place it—music, maybe. She often left the music on in her cabin (she told herself the hamster liked it, but mostly it was because she found silence of her loft so far from the rest of the crew unnerving), but the current selection didn’t sound quite right.
Trusting that EDI would have let her know if something or someone hostile was waiting in her room, Shepard tapped her palm to the door’s opening mechanism.
Her room was dimly lit, the music was unfamiliar, and Garrus, startled, turned and raised his hands in surrender.
“What are you…” she began, before drifting into confused silence.
“You’re not going to shoot me again, right?”
She chuckled, leaning against the doorframe, crossing her arms lightly over her chest, just slightly defensive as she tried to gather in her surprise. The room was dimly lit because there were candles—honest to God candles—providing the only illumination. The music was soft and pleasant and nothing at all like the abomination he’d selected before the Omega-4 Relay. And next to the fish tank, complete with white table cloth (it had to be one of her bedsheets, purloined), was a little table set for two. With silverware. And wine glasses. With wine in them.
“Let me guess,” she mused, “you watched some vids.”
“I’m wounded, Shepard.”
“Fine,” he admitted. “I watched some vids. I thought…” He paused and ducked his head, mandibles tight to his cheeks, and the hint of his old awkwardness was enough to bring her fully into the room. She crossed to him and didn’t hesitate before taking one of his hands in both of hers. She squeezed. He squeezed back.
“It was… a big day. Back to work. Thought we’d celebrate.”
She smiled, arching an eyebrow. “Dinner was supposed to be on me.”
“Yeah, well. I’ve seen what you eat for dinner. I figured I’d do it right.”
Hands still clasped around his, she leaned back and gave him a skeptical look. “You didn’t… cook?”
His look wasn’t quite a glare, wasn’t quite a glower, and definitely had a hint of amusement trapped around the edges. He pulled out her chair for her and gestured for her to sit. “I did what needed to be done, Shepard. And it’s getting cold.”
She had no idea where he’d come up with ingredients, and she sure didn’t want to know how he’d managed to make something levo-amino friendly for her without tasting, but somehow the plate of pasta he presented her with was edible. Even tasty. Hell, somehow he’d even managed to find real parmesan. And bread. With butter.
“This… isn’t terrible.”
“Thanks. Your confidence is heartening.”
She kicked him under the table and winced at the reminder of her injury as her shin protested the abuse. “Come on. Who helped you?”
He smirked at her over his own plate—something unfamiliar and dextro, but a step above nutrient paste. “Collaborative effort. What the crew of the Normandy does best. There’s some kind of betting pool to see if you can figure out who’s responsible for what, I think.”
“Gambling with their lives,” Shepard groused. “That’s what the crew of the Normandy does best.”
The silence was sudden and heavy and not even the pleasant music (Traynor, she thought) could drown it out. Her breath caught, and her fingers tightened into a fist around her fork.
“Shepard,” he said, his subharmonics more pronounced than usual, “we don’t have to talk about it if you don’t want to. Not now. Not ever. But… but if you do? I’m here. Always. Right behind you.”
Leaning over the table, Shepard took his face between her hands. She felt the twitch and flutter of his mandibles beneath her palms. She lowered her forehead to his and closed her eyes. Breathed deeply.
She was suddenly and ferociously glad to be alive.
Experience. Learn. Move on.
There were things she wanted to talk to him about... but not now. Not so soon. And not when words might ruin all the work he'd so obviously put into the evening. There would be time enough for words, time enough to tell him how wrong the Shadow Broker had been. Time enough. And until then, they had this. And this counted for a great deal.
“Beside,” she said. “Beside works better.”
“I can do that,” he replied. “Except, of course, when I need to watch your six.”
She nodded and pressed a series of kisses from his browplate to his mouth. This time his was the breath that caught. “Eat your dinner,” he said, voice gone gravelly. “Or no dessert.”
She sat back down obediently, and then flashed him a teasing smirk. “I don’t know. Is dessert going to be worth my while?”
“Isn’t it always?”
She grinned, and jammed a vast forkful of food into her mouth.
And felt like herself—just herself, instead of commander or cripple or convalescent—for the first time in weeks.
“So?” Garrus asked later, when they’d moved from table to couch. “What’s next?”
Shepard leaned back, propping her feet on the table and folding her hands over her pleasantly-full stomach. Experience, she thought. Learn. Move on. “Dessert?”
Garrus snorted. “I was talking more long-term than that, but yeah, dessert’ll do.”
“I figure we stick to what we’re good at. Kicking ass and taking names. Kai Leng’s, for example.”
Garrus looked thoughtful for a moment before his mandibles flared into a brief smile. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it?”
Shepard laughed—really laughed. Laughed until her cheeks and her throat and her stomach ached, and her eyes prickled with tears. Happy ones. Garrus lowered an arm across her shoulders and she curled herself against his side, still shaking with the aftershocks of amusement. He was warm, and it was comfortable, and she let her eyes drift shut, listening to the even pulse of his heartbeat beneath her cheek. “So you did find that book of idioms I sent you, then.”
“The book of idioms you had Joker send me, you mean? Thanks for that. He quizzes me. At all hours of the day. ‘Rise and shine, Garrus! The early bird catches the worm! Idle hands are the Devil’s tools! Up and at ‘em!’”
“Ooh,” Shepard said, wincing. “Thanks for not killing him.”
“Might still happen. No promises.”
“Fair enough. If Joker’s going to play with fire—”
“He might get burned! I know that one! Seems accurate.”
She hummed a pleased sound beneath her breath. A moment later Garrus’ fingers pulled her hair loose from its binding and carded gently through the strands. “Sleep, Shepard,” he said. “I’ll be here when you wake up.”
“You always are.”
He pressed a kiss to the top of her head. “Damned straight. Always will be.”
She slipped her arm around his waist and felt him shiver under the touch.
“You know I’m here for you too, right?”
“‘Course,” he said. “That’s what beside means, isn’t it? Peas in a pod. Like you said. And like Joker has made sure I now understand. We’re in this together, Shepard.”
Stomach full, body healed, aches mending, curled into the warmth of her turian, Shepard slept peacefully, without dreaming.