It was a good few minutes before she realized she wasn't dead. The pain was one thing, but it spiked and made her breath hitch, and once she became conscious of the fact that she was breathing there really wasn't any other possibility.
She couldn't really think, much. All she could do was breath, and occasionally wince or twitch. Distantly, she realized she should probably be taking account of herself, moving fingers and toes and cataloging all her various injuries, but she just couldn't. She was too far gone, too half-conscious and enveloped in hurt and darkness to think straight. So she simply laid there in the dark, breathing.
Her mind wandered, as much as it could at any rate, and she wondered if maybe she was dead, and this was hell. But she dismissed that after a moment's consideration. Hell would be less pleasant. The pain was bad, but it was dull and everywhere and she had felt worse.
Unable to stop herself, she thought of times when she had felt worse.
Ash, telling her she had no regrets.
Mordin, riding up that elevator.
Thane, praying for her as he died.
Garrus, saying goodbye.
She wondered if he was still alive. She didn't know.
Now it was hell. She quickly tried to move and the pain overwhelmed her, bringing her blissfully into unconsciousness.
Voices, heard from a great distance.
A sudden light. A weight lifted from her chest.
Hands, pulling her, lifting her up towards the light.
Ash. Thane. Legion. Mordin.
There were tears. The pain was gone.
Then there was nothing.
There was blood rushing through her ears. She couldn't see. There was something over her eyes.
She reached up, feeling something move inside the skin of her arm, and pulled off the blindfold.
they were everywhere, husks and metal and black and the impossible wrongness that she'd felt inside the derelict
she looked down and she saw blood and something going into her arm and she felt it inside her and she wouldn't be a tool for them she wouldn't
she grabbed and tore it out and there was red blood mixed with something else and she had to fight the urge to retch, the husks took notice and moved towards her and she heard his voice in her head:
"YOU CANNOT RESIST."
she shoved herself out of the blackened pod that held her and fell to the hard black metal floor, the floor that wasn't a floor, the floor that was inside him
"YOUR STRENGTH HAS FAILED YOU, SHEPARD."
she had to get away, she wouldn't give up, she shoved aside the husks that grabbed and clawed at her and she struggled, she wouldn't stop struggling, there was no giving up, not now, not ever
her legs gave out and she fell to the floor and crawled and kicked and she was naked and alone and she knew she had already lost but she wouldn't stop, couldn't stop, ever
she looked up and behind her and too many yellow eyes gleamed out of the darkness
"WE ARE THE HARBINGER OF YOUR SALVATION."
and the husks lifted her and she felt something pierce her skin and her vision darkened to a pinpoint of light before winking out
This time she was conscious of the pain before anything else. Searing bolts of lightning shot through her chest, her shoulders, her stomach, her head, and she felt herself tense and practically tore something out of her throat as she screamed.
She couldn't see anything and she didn't care, her eyes hurt almost as much as the rest of her and she had them slammed shut so tight she saw stars. Her back arched and her lungs burned and the agony was unbearable and she knew this must be hell, because there was no blackness enveloping her, just pain and suffering.
She felt straps and hands holding her down, pressing her back into the ground, or the floor, or whereever she was. It didn't matter. She saw only black, and was conscious of only pain.
She heard a voice over her screams, somehow.
"I told you to double the sedative! This is what happened last time!"
She knew that voice, but she didn't know how. She flexed her arms and bent her fingers and toes and felt her nails dig into her palms and it was nothing compared to what was happening to her chest.
"Shepard!" Her name. Wasn't it? "Shepard, hold still!"
Why did this seem so familiar?
"Shepard, the pain will stop if you can hold still!"
Lawson. Of course. It would be Lawson. This wasn't hell. This was worse.
She screamed out, cursed her name, cursed fate. And the last thing she remembered before the pain left her suddenly and she collapsed into an empty unconsciousness, was begging Miranda to let her die, just let her die, please.
Shepard woke slowly.
She became conscious of her breathing first, as before. But then she became conscious of the feel of her skin, the cotton sheets beneath her hand, the bandage around her head covering much of her hair, and the steady rhythm of her pulse.
She concentrated on the sounds next. A steady beeping. A dripping. A quiet rumble, somewhere next to her.
Then came the smells. Blood and antiseptic. And, very faintly, something else. Metallic and smoky.
She ran her tongue inside her mouth. It felt too large and thick, and her mouth was too dry and tasted like dust and ash. She could barely swallow, but she managed.
That left sight. Slowly, gradually, she opened her eyes a little at a time. They were sticky and hard, felt like she had slept for days, but they worked. She began to make out details as the light blindness faded.
She was in a bed. There was an IV in her arm. The room was clean and off-white. Too clean for Earth, especially London. She had been in a place like this before, when was it? She was fifteen, she'd broken something, or dislocated it. Her father had taken her in a shuttle to another ship in the small convoy they were escorting, eyes full of worry the whole way there.
A hospital ship. That was what this was. Had to be.
The quiet rumbling to her right shifted in pitch and tone. Her eyes were half-open and she very carefully turned her head. She wasn't far gone enough to be dizzy, but it certainly took her a moment to refocus her eyes after she moved.
He was sleeping in a chair next to her bed, digitigrade feet propped up against a metal bar on the side of it. He was wearing civvies, but they weren't his - he'd only ever owned the one set, long as she'd known him. One hand rested in his lap, fingers slowly moving, the other arm hung in a strange brace at his side, bent at the elbow and pointing outward. His head was bowed against his cowl as he rested his chin against his chest, and his eyes were closed, but the markings on his face were a cobalt blue. The fading scars on the right side of his face were still there.
Shepard would have reached out and touched him if she thought she could move that far. She opened her mouth instead and found she couldn't speak either. The dryness in her throat and the heaviness of her tongue were complicating matters. She thought about letting him sleep, wake on his own, but she knew he would want to know she was okay.
Was she okay? She realized she hadn't considered herself yet. She moved her fingers and her toes - all accounted for - and flexed her jaw and back and shoulder muscles and winced at the aches and pains. She wasn't paralyzed, and she didn't feel any of the characteristic numbness of nerve damage. She took a deep breath and felt her stomach twinge a bit as it stretched, but no burning or difficulty breathing.
She would live. After all that had happened, all the pain and suffering and death and weight of the entire galaxy pressing down on her shoulders for so long, she would live.
Shepard found she didn't quite know how to feel about that.
So she set it aside, and set back to the task of speaking. She licked at her lips and took a breath.
"G-rrus," she said, vowel catching in her too-dry throat. She swallowed again, with difficulty, and tried to speak louder.
She saw his eyelids twitch, heard the rumble of his turian snore stop suddenly. His mandibles twitched and his eyes flickered open, looked up, and found her.
"Shepard?" He managed to croak out, sounding almost as bad as she did.
She felt herself smile and hoped she didn't look too ghastly.
Shepard saw his eyes grow watery and quickly felt her own do the same. Garrus reached over with his good hand and gently but noticeably gripped her fingers.
Shepard didn't much like owing Miranda her life twice over, but she took it in stride. Lawson, for her part, acted as if it were nothing, and was extremely happy to see her awake and alert. She did her best to hide it, of course, wearing the mask of a well-trained operative. Anyone he didn't know her would think she was mildly pleased, at best. But Shepard saw through all the cracks. Miranda Lawson was more relieved than she'd ever seen her, and as a result, Shepard could only wonder at the state she'd been in when they brought her here.
Here being the SSV Argus, a hospital ship floating somewhere directly above London in geosynchronous orbit. They'd had to shuttle her here - it's not like there was a fully equipped hospital still standing in London, or most of England for that matter. And that was where she was, it turned out - buried beneath a small mountain of rubble in London, at the base of the Conduit. Apparently it hadn't gone offline before the explosion ripped through the Citadel, and she'd been thrown into the beam somehow. Or something. They weren't quite sure. They weren't quite show about any of what happened.
Shepard could barely remember what had happened on the Citadel herself. It was like a dream, a nightmare, none of what she'd witnessed seemed real, save for Anderson and the Illusive Man. They were both dead, she knew, and while her heart ached for Anderson, she couldn't remember exactly what happened after. It had seemed... necessary. She remembered that much. She had options, but... they didn't seem right. At least one had been in direct opposition to everything she was. She remembered feeling... angry, that she'd even been given the option. Whatever it was.
Only three things were certain, after the Crucible had fired - the Reapers were dead, the relays were destroyed, and the geth had gone offline. Most of them, anyway - a relative handful still existed, shielded backups embedded deep within their dreadnoughts. Enough to continue their species, hopefully.
Shepard tried not to think about it too much. She was afraid if she did, she'd remember too much, realize she'd fucked up and made the wrong choice and have to live with it for the rest of her life.
Dying would have been so much easier.
Thankfully, she wasn't alone.
She looked up. "Yeah?"
His blue eyes, dulled by painkillers, still shone with a subtle brilliance. "You okay?"
She thought about lying to him, but there wasn't any point. He'd know. "Could be better."
He squeezed her hand again, three fingers against five, so alien and yet so familiar. "We won."
She nodded, leaned back against the pillow. For the first time, she actually wished she was a turian. Turians didn't have a concept of 'pyrrhic victory.'
"Yeah," she said quietly. "We did."
There were many visitors, once word got around. First was the Admiral. Hackett had looked at Shepard with something approaching awe as he sat in the chair next to her bed, and it made her profoundly uncomfortable. Thankfully, he seemed to pick up on it and quickly quashed it underneath typical military congratulations - job well done, mission accomplished, you've done us proud. Before he left, he actually smiled, and it made him look ten years younger. He'd said that he'd keep the world at bay until she was herself again, and Shepard had believed him. He was a far better man than she'd realized, and she hoped she could know him better.
Next was Wrex. He had a brand new scar, dug into the plate on his forehead. He had walked in sat down in the chair (which creaked dangerously), looked at her with a brilliant glint in his eye, and laughed long and hard. Shepard had joined him, long enough for it to start to hurt anyway, and when they'd finished he'd reached over, and far more gently than she thought he was capable of, nudged her chin with his knuckle. He demanded that she recover quickly, since he was eager to both share some new war stories and return home to Tuchanka. He'd left quickly after that, convinced that his own presence would only slow her down, but before he did, he'd grinned wide and said that the void must have been terrified of her now.
Kaidan's visit wasn't nearly as awkward as she'd feared. He'd even brought a gift - her brown leather jacket with the N7 logo that she'd had to abandon in Vancouver when the Reapers attacked. She'd thanked him, they'd talked, reminisced, laughed, nearly wept, hugged, and he'd left with a smile and a promise to return in the future. When Garrus came back into the room, he'd almost looked uncomfortable, but it passed quickly. Shepard knew she'd have to get those two together at some point, clear the air properly - Kaidan and Garrus both knew how she felt, but not each other. That couldn't be allowed to fester forever.
Liara had been a wreck when she'd visited, more emotional than Shepard had ever seen her. Shepard was in a hospital bed, a physical ruin, and she was the one doing the comforting. Still, it was good to see her smile before she left. Liara said she'd felt like she'd almost lost a sister, and Shepard had stressed the 'almost' part of that sentence while her heart grew warm in her chest. Liara said she'd keep in touch, and Shepard told her not to send anymore flowers because it wasn't like she could smell them properly yet anyway.
Tali had showed up, wringing her hands and tearing up behind her helmet but keeping it together enough to hold a conversation. The Flotilla had taken some significant losses, including Admiral Han'Gerral's ship which suicided into a Reaper, but thanks to his sacrifice, as well as the leadership of Admiral Zaal'Koris, they hadn't lost any Liveships, which meant that they could provide for those that remained, as well as aid the turians, until they could get back home. Tali had hugged her tightly before she left, saying she would be back and she wasn't about to leave for Rannoch until she had made certain Shepard was okay. Shepard would have argued, but if she was honest, she didn't really want her to go yet either.
Her mother Hannah hadn't been nearly as overtly emotional as Liara, but she was still clearly a wreck, just a tightly controlled one. She'd walked in, wrapped her arms around her daughter, and they'd both silently wept until all the pent-up worry was gone. It had taken a while. Afterward they just sat together for a while, and Shepard couldn't help but feel just a little bit safer, somehow, with her mother by her side. It was hard to say goodbye again, but Shepard stressed that this time, she wasn't going anywhere.
Then came the rest - Grunt, who told her he was proud to have her as his battlemaster - Zaeed, who showed up to just to shake her hand and tell her if she needed anyone dead, he'd do it for free - Jack, who looked like she wanted to slug her but ended up fighting back tears at some point - Samara, who thanked her once more for her help with her daughter - Jacob, who'd said with an apology that his wife wasn't budging on naming the baby Shepard - and finally Joker, who apologized for not coming sooner, but he'd been on the Normandy with AI techs pretty much 24/7 since the war ended. EDI had gone offline and they were still trying to reboot her. He was sick with worry, but he took the time to crack wise about how she looked like he felt before gently placing his cap on her head and walking out the door.
The rest of the crew took their time, over the weeks of her recovery. She didn't even remember some of their names, but they remembered hers, and their own time aboard the Normandy, whether it was SR-1 or SR-2. They never stayed long, of course, and they rarely sat down, but they still came to see her and wish her well. Shepard knew her crew was loyal - she'd felt the same about them - but she was still touched that so many came. Donnelly and Daniels came together, as did Adams and Chakwas, who looked her over as unobtrusively as possible to make sure the doctors hadn't stitched her back together wrong.
Eventually, it was just her and Garrus, still recovering from a Mako pitching sideways and colliding with him. They didn't talk much, just sat together. Held hands. Nuzzled, occasionally. Somehow, even after time had passed and the whole crew had come to see her, it still hadn't quite sunk in that Garrus had made it out alive too. That they were still together.
Shepard figured it would become real soon enough. Soon as she was strong enough to walk, first thing she was doing was climbing out of bed and into his arms.
Right now, though, she'd settle for listening to him rumble as he slept, hand laced together with his.
"You okay, Commander?"
Shepard slowly, gingerly, pulled on her N7 jacket. "Yeah," she said, breathing out as the ache in her shoulder settled. "I'm good."
The marine nodded, standing at parade rest. "Your shuttle's in bay two. I'm to escort you there."
"Not necessary," Shepard said, working out a kink in her neck.
"Of course not, ma'am," the marine said knowingly, making no move to leave.
Shepard sighed. Honors and formalities. She'd have to get used to being treated this way, she supposed - savior of the galaxy and all.
"Alright," she said. "Lead the way."
He did, right out the door. Shepard followed, and Garrus, who had been leaning against the wall just outside her room, fell into step beside her.
"Looking forward to tomorrow?" He asked mildly. She scoffed.
"Another goddamn ceremony," she said under her breath. "I wouldn't refuse a medal, but all this pomp and circumstance-"
"Yeah," he said, smiling. "Wouldn't want you to think too much of yourself, after saving the galaxy."
Shepard slapped him on the chest with the back of her hand.
"Ow," he winced.
"Sorry," she said instantly.
"That was the one spot that wasn't bruised."
"If it makes you feel any better, my hand hurts."
He reached over as they walked and took it in his own.
"Any better?" He asked.
She smiled. "Yeah."
When they reached bay two, they were in for a surprise.
"Lookin' good, Lola," Vega said, pushing himself away from the shuttle. "Sorry I didn't make it earlier. Shit was loco while you were laid up."
"James," Shepard said with a big smile on her face as she reached over and clapped him on the shoulder. "I'm just glad you're alive."
"Hey, it's gonna take a lot more than Reapers to put me down. Especially when I've got these," he said, flexing his arms in a strongman pose. Shepard laughed and shoved him lightly.
"God, it's good to see you." She grinned. "Still as hopeless as ever."
"Speaking of hopeless." Vega reached back and knocked on the hatch. It popped open.
"Steve!" Shepard all but ran over and threw her arms around his neck. "Christ, Steve!"
"Who else did you think would chauffer you around?" He said as he patted her gently on the back. "Vega?"
"I do alright," he shot back, shrugging his broad shoulders. "On takeoffs, anyway."
"Come on," Steve said, breaking himself free of Shepard's bear hug. "Let's get you home."
Shepard's prefab quarters had been set down just outside the current Alliance HQ, a ways away from the base itself, near a rocky cliff down to the sea. Hackett's orders, they'd said. Figured she'd want some privacy.
She appreciated it. As she pulled off her jacket, stared at the dress uniform wrapped in plastic and laid out on her bed, she realized she could really stand to be alone for a while.
Well. Not alone.
Shepard collapsed onto the bed, waited as Garrus carefully set aside the uniform, then laid beside her.
"Need anything?" He asked.
Shepard groaned a negative. There was a pause.
"Do you..." He cleared his throat. "You want to be alone?"
Shepard's eyes opened and she reached over, grabbed his collar and yanked. He rolled onto his side, and she closed the distance between them.
"Absolutely not," she said, resting her forehead against his. She felt his hand come to rest on the jut of her hip. She lifted her leg and hooked it around his own, pulling him closer. They lay there, fully clothed and tangled in each other's limbs, and she sighed.
"Sorry," she said wearily.
He sounded as tired as her, voice thrumming quietly. "For what?"
"Keeping you here."
"Oh come on, Shepard," he admonished, lightly slapping her hip. She felt herself smile.
"Wish I felt up to more than just laying here." She worked to kick off her shoes.
"I don't know," he said, nuzzling the side of her face. God, it had been too long since they were like this. "This is fine by me."
Garrus looked down once he heard her shoes hit the floor.
"You can do that?" He asked incredulously, and she laughed, stomach aching just a bit.
"The sorrows of having backwards feet," she chuckled as he sat up and reached down to remove his boots.
Once they were back where they were, Shepard felt herself begin to doze. It was mid-afternoon, England time, she'd probably wake up in the middle of the night, hungry and sore. She had to be ready for the twice-damned ceremony tomorrow, and then she planned to go see Joker and the Normandy. God knows how hard it would be to look him in the eye, knowing that she was somehow responsible for what had happened to EDI. But there was still hope. There was always hope.
After all, they were both still here.
"Garrus," she said sleepily, forcing out the words. She hadn't said them in a long time, and now that they were alone, really alone, she needed to. Before she passed out for another nine hours.
She felt his hand travel from her hip to her waist, and he settled himself just a bit closer.
"Love you too."