Sam sits by her side. The novel in her hands long forgotten. She sleeps still, just as she has the day before and the day before that, stretching back for months. Her eyes, resting on the woman’s scarred and emaciated body, blur with unshed tears.
The doctors say there is no reason she should be in a coma anymore. Brain damage is minimal, with only slight impairment expected. She would wake up. But she doesn’t, no matter how much Sam pleads with her.
Sam’s days pass by mechanically. She’s back at work – a surprising number of her team is still alive – but it doesn’t hold the same allure it once did. She spends her lunch breaks at the staff cafeteria by herself. Somehow she can’t join in with the small talk of her colleagues. Movies. Dates. The weather. She wants to scream at them. Instead, she keeps away.
Her supervisor catches her dozing on her workbench. Soon after, she is given a referral to the Welfare Officer. And she realises that, if she’s not careful, she’ll be taken off active duty. And then there will be nothing, nothing to distract her from everything that’s missing.
So she drinks more coffee, makes more small talk. Tries to act like everything’s okay. But her heart is in a coma. And her memories are crowded by war.
It is nine months before Shepard wakes. Then, one day, she walks in and Shepard is looking at herself in a small handheld mirror. Her fingers are running over the twisted and knotted flesh of her cheek, down to the distorted edge of her lips, then up to her forehead and scalp, where hair is still regrowing in uneven patches. Shepard’s eyes flick over the edge of the mirror, toward Sam, and then back to her reflection.
“Jane-” Sam breathes, and drops her books, flies to her side. She takes Shepard’s hand in her own, presses her forehead against it, and tears are falling on twisted scars.
Shepard pulls her hand away, and says – “Specialist Traynor?” And in that question are all Sam’s fears, brought to life.
That night, Sam stays awake while Shepard sleeps. Her fingers itch to touch her skin, to learn the new topography of her body, but she restrains herself, focusing on memorising it with her eyes instead.
She remembers finding her. Raw, weeping flesh leaking out of battered armour. Sam had fallen on her knees, hands hovering over the ruin of Shepard’s body.
At least they had found her and could give her a proper burial.
She thought she’d imagined that first, shaky breath. That her grief was driving her mad. But then, there was a second, and Garrus was shouldering her aside, lifting up Shepard’s body, and shouting at everyone, all of them, to get help, to contact the hospital – stat.
And now, here she is. Alive and awake.
For the first time in a long time, Sam gets down on her knees and prays on the hospital floor beside Shepard’s bed.
It is another two weeks before the doctors clear her for release. When Sam enters the room, Shepard is standing by the mirror, uncoordinated fingers fumbling with the buttons on her dress blues. When she drops her hands and sighs, Sam helps her, her own nimble fingers taking the place of those covered in thickened, misshapen skin. It is Sam’s hand that pins Shepard’s old medals on her breast, making sure to leave room for the honour she is due to receive later that day.
Shepard smiles at her in the mirror, but it is crooked, self-deprecating. “How do I look?” she asks.
“Like a hero,” Sam says, but Shepard drops her eyes and turns away.
It is some time before anyone mentions EDI, the Geth. Later, Sam wonders why she didn’t think of it sooner. But now, Shepard is just looking at her with those desolate eyes, her lips forming around the word – ‘why?’ and all Sam can do is shake her head.
Shepard closes her eyes.
She moves in with her. She doesn’t have anywhere else to go. Sam makes up the spare bedroom, and Shepard puts down her duffle bag – all her possessions in the world – and sits on the bed.
“I hope you’ll be comfortable,” Sam says, “I know it’s not very big-”
“It will be fine,” Shepard says, looking around, then turns to look at her properly, “Thank you, Sam.”
Sam swallows heavily, shakes her head, leaves the room.
For the first couple of weeks, all Shepard does is watch tv and eat take-away food. Sam leaves each morning for the lab, and returns to find Shepard in the same position, the same clothes as when she left. She doesn’t say anything. But, at night, when she’s laying in bed, and she hears Shepard eventually turn off the tv and get ready for bed, she permits a tear or two to wet her pillow.
Sam is surprised when Shepard comes to her.
She’s in bed, and the door opens, and Shepard is silhouetted against the hallway light.
“Sam,” she says, and Sam opens her blankets and her arms.
In the morning, Sam realises that something is still not quite right.
Shepard lies in her bed, staring at the ceiling. When she gets out of bed, she hunts through her pockets and draws out a cigarette. She crosses to the window, lights it, and blows smoke out through the gap.
Sam sits up, a frown creasing her forehead. “Shepard,” she says, and when she’s caught her attention – “You smoke?”
Shepard takes another drag in response.
Sam cooks her breakfast. She’s making eggs, and Shepard is sitting there on the breakfast stool, leaning against the kitchen bench. Yet another cigarette is dangling from between her fingers.
Shepard still hasn’t talked.
So Sam serves her eggs and baked beans, and sits across the bench from her and watches her eat.
In the mornings, before Shepard is awake, Sam can pretend – for a moment – that everything is okay. She watches the woman breathing beside her, brushes a stray lock of hair away, and bathes in the peace of her expression.
But she always wakes.
It isn’t for months that they hear about Joker.
“Dishonourable discharge?” Shepard is pacing up and down Sam’s tiny apartment, the glass in her hand clinking with the ice in it. “For what, surviving the war?”
“Drinking on duty,” Sam says quietly, but she knows it’s not what Shepard wants to hear. Shepard turns on her, and her face is set in a snarl.
“Doing what he has to,” she says, “to survive.” She drains her own glass, picks up the bottle. “How else is he going to sleep at night?” She abruptly sits down on the couch and stares at the floor, the bottling dangling, forgotten, in her grip.
Sam doesn’t tell her about Steve.
That night, Sam makes love to her with everything she has. Shepard barely responds.
And when Sam looks up from between her legs, she sees tears glinting in the light of the window.
But when she moves to hold her, Shepard turns over and buries her face in the pillows.
Garrus calls one day.
Sam is vacuuming the apartment. Shepard is on the couch, watching a game of clawball. When the terminal beeps, she flicks it on.
“Shepard,” says that familiar two-toned voice, “Glad to see you’re still alive.”
Shepard organises dinner.
To say Sam’s shocked would be an understatement.
Garrus, James, and Liara turn up at 7 o’clock. They sit around the table, eat, drink, and play cards.
Then the reminiscences start.
And they’re laughing, they’re crying, Sam can’t tell the difference. It’s all one and the same, really.
And Shepard looks up at her – catches her eye – and although there are tears, she’s smiling.
Everything’s going to be all right.