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A Handful of Dust

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For the most part, Garrus kept to the battery. This wasn’t, in and of itself, strange. He’d kept to the battery as long as the Normandy’d had a battery to keep to. It was, by unspoken consensus, his domain, and everybody knew it. 

Once, and only once, he’d found a tech poking around the Thanix, trying to bring it back in line with Alliance regs. Never mind that Alliance regs would’ve had the guns running at five percent lower efficiency. He had no idea what memo Shepard sent out, or what words she’d spoken on her next tour of the ship, but no one ever showed up unannounced after that. Except Shepard herself, of course. And no one touched the gun. Ever.

During recent months, he’d made more of an effort to mingle. Tried to fit in. He shot the shit with Vega. Avoided looking too hard at the endless stream of information on Liara’s bank of screens while they chatted. Traded war stories with the Alliance crew. He played cards with Joker and Alenko, let Traynor teach him chess, shared the occasional drink with Doctor Chakwas, and visited Tali in engineering even when it inevitably meant a lecture about the inappropriateness of stealing power from one source to fuel another. (He pretended he didn’t know what she was talking about. She kicked him. Hard.) Hell, he’d even voluntarily spent time with Javik, endless talk of primitives and threats of airlock death aside. 

Partly he’d done it for Shepard’s sake. He figured if he was out there taking the pulse of her crew, he’d be better equipped to help and more likely to catch and divert at least some of the interminable, unnecessary crap inevitably attempting to make its way to her. It hadn’t taken long to see she was already drowning in it by the time she picked him up on Menae.

The other part of mingling with the crew was for his own benefit. To remember what it was to be part of a functional team. A good team. A solid team. The dark months after Omega weren’t far enough away to be forgotten, but the team Shepard built to take out the Collectors had won him over eventually, and his task force on Palaven had stolen the last of the bitter sting from that old wound. He didn’t want to slide backward. So he occasionally left the battery of his own accord. Played nice. Tried. Sometimes, he thought, even succeeded.

When they’d crashed, and after Chakwas had reluctantly released him from the medbay, he’d put in as much time as anyone—more, if Liara and Tali’s fretting was any indication—on repairs. The Thanix could wait; whatever had grounded them couldn’t. The sooner the Normandy was spaceworthy again, the sooner they could head back and pick up Shepard.

She’d obviously done something, after all. The ramifications weren’t entirely clear. Garrus had been out of commission at the time, though Joker spoke of some kind of wave of energy they’d been desperate to outrun. Ineffectually, as it turned out. The wave overtook them. EDI… stopped. The ship crashed. Nothing they tried could bring EDI back online, even though none of the damage the ship took seemed to indicate that kind of potential trauma to the resident AI.

Gently, carefully, Garrus moved EDI’s body—her mobile platform—from the bridge down to the AI core. Joker protested, but stopped looking quite so haunted. With everyone else, at least. He wouldn’t look Garrus in the eye. Of course, Garrus wasn’t sure how much of it was to do with moving EDI, and how much was due to Joker’s own feelings about leaving Shepard behind.

Hackett’s orders. Alenko’s insistence on those orders being followed. But Joker’s hands had been the ones on the console. They all knew it. No one said anything. Truth was, Garrus felt bad for him, and not just because of EDI. Running, leaving Shepard behind? It was all a far cry from the heroics of the Collector base.

Where Shepard would have died, if not for Joker. By the dark circles under his eyes, Garrus was certain this thought had also occurred to the pilot, and it was one that kept him up nights.

Then, after a week of tinkering and fighting and rerouting and no small amount of blunt force, Traynor got the comms up.

Garrus almost wished she hadn’t. He couldn’t blame her, though. He was pretty sure she wished she hadn’t been the bearer of that particular batch of intelligence either.

The Reapers were dead. Anderson was dead.

Shepard was presumed—

Shepard was missing.

Everyone looked haunted then. And Garrus kept to the battery. He switched his sleep cycle so there’d be less likelihood of running into the majority of the crew. He worked longer hours. He didn’t want to witness the lifeless slump of a crew already in mourning. He didn’t want to hear Alenko’s excuses or his apologies, or the way Liara’s breath hitched every time she looked at him; it was bad enough he couldn’t avoid the scrolling biofeedback that told him too much. His visor’s audio link blasted endless dance mixes. He skipped past anything slow. He nearly threw the visor across the room when it dared play a tango. His tango. Shepard’s tango. The dance mixes were better. Especially if he played them so loud he couldn’t think.

That’s what he told himself, anyway. Sometimes he almost believed it.

Once a day, he made the trek up to Shepard’s quarters and fed her hamster. The fish, cared for by the VI she’d paid such an astronomical sum for, swam on, indifferent to their owner’s absence.

Death, came the word, unbidden, taking root before he could push it away.

No.

He couldn’t afford that word. Not even in the privacy of his own thoughts.

And yet it always found him when he was alone in her room, surrounded by her things, like cold fingers trailing down his back. Like a persistent whisper no music could possibly drown out. Death, death, death.

He could have brought the rodent down to the battery with him and spared himself the daily dose of despair the empty room and soft music and faint scent of her caused him. He thought about it. Once he went so far as to lift the glass box and take three steps toward the door before immediately turning around and returning it to its proper place. The hamster squeaked at him and hid, as usual. He gave it a little extra food in mute apology.

After the memorial Alenko insisted on, Garrus took his usual trip up to Shepard’s cabin, and let himself linger a little longer than usual. He dropped food into the hamster’s cage, and the husk head—Yorick, Shepard called it, and told him he’d understand when they finally saw that Elcor production of Hamlet—screamed at him, just like every other day. The SR-1 model in the glass cabinet was crooked; he fixed it. He thought about smashing Sovereign, but stopped himself when he realized Shepard would perch his head next to Yorick’s if he dared.

Then he took the stairs down to her bedroom for the first time since—since, and straightened the pillows that had fallen when the ship crashed. The smell of her was stronger here, still clinging to the sheets. He turned away before he could think about how long that scent would last. Another week? A month? He reset Petrovsky’s chess board, and then bent to retrieve several pieces of broken glass from the floor. Water he’d left on the table before everything went to hell? One of her ever-present but rarely-used wineglasses? He wasn’t sure.

A particularly sharp edge cut deep into the pad of his forefinger, and he stared down, uncomprehending, at the bead of blue blood welling up. He felt pain, but distantly, almost unwillingly. Like an afterthought. Like his body was saying, oh, this again.

Mostly he just felt angry. Suddenly. Sharply. Not at the little wound. Not even at the glass that’d cut him. He thought he was angry with himself. At that damned Mako for taking him out during the final push. At everyone who dared turn their hopeless eyes on him, silently begging him to give up. At the nameplate he’d refused to mount on the crew deck’s wall of bitter losses.

He was angry with Shepard. And he was angry with himself for being angry at her.

Forget his finger. That was pain.

For all his talk of ruthless calculus, somehow he hadn’t expected this loss. Everyone else, maybe. He’d always believed, no matter what, Shepard would be the survivor left standing at the end. He’d have died to see that made reality. And instead, here he was. Bleeding in her empty room, angry with ghosts.

The door swished open, the sound like an insult. If he’d had a weapon, he might’ve pointed it at the intruder; he was that angry. Through the glass case of model ships, he saw a flash of purple. 

“Garrus?” Tali asked, “Are you in here?”

He dropped his handful of glass on the table and moved into her line of sight. Tali hovered in the doorway, keeping the door open with her presence as if she couldn’t bear to step all the way inside.

“I keep asking EDI things like, ‘Can you tell me where Garrus is?’ and, ‘If we recalibrate the capacitor input can we improve drive core functionality by at least .6%?’” Tali admitted, her voice breaking on the final word. She wrapped her arms tight across her chest, almost a hug. “And she doesn’t answer. I was so opposed to her, in the beginning. So offended. Now I’d give anything to hear her say, ‘That course of action would be unwise, Tali’Zorah.’”

“Best part of working with Shepard,” he said, trying for humor and failing miserably. “Having to eat your own words a dozen times a day.”

Finally entering the room so the door could close behind her, Tali bowed her head, the lights of her eyes momentarily lost to the shadow of her hood. “We’re leaving,” she said. “I wanted to be the one to tell you.”

His mandibles flicked. Not a smile, but a little of his irrational anger ebbed. “You say that like it’s not the best news I’ve had in weeks.”

Three weeks and two days since they crashed. Three weeks and two days since no matter what happens here…

Almost a month of this, a different kind of hell. One without Shepard to follow.

Tali didn’t look up. If anything, her posture shifted into something more miserable. “We’re not going to the Citadel.”

He blinked. His cut finger throbbed. “What?”

“Sam got Admiral Hackett on the comm, right after—you know. The service. He’s ordered the Normandy back to Earth. Planetside. Immediately.”

Garrus swallowed, mouth suddenly dry, gut suddenly churning. His own voice sounded as broken and sharp and cutting as the glass when he said, “They found her.”

“I don’t know, Garrus. Kaidan spoke to the admiral. He… didn’t look good, after. Then Engineer Adams said the ship was as good to fly as he could tell without EDI to verify it.” Tali shivered slightly, and then turned her head to gaze at the lazily swimming fish. “She had so many backups. There… don’t you think there must be a way?”

“I’m not giving up.”

Tali nodded, the light from the aquarium throwing strange shadows over the faceplate of her helmet. “The admiral said the relays aren’t working. We have to travel FTL.”

So slow, he thought. Too slow. Out loud, he mused, “The relays. EDI. The Reapers.”

“And the geth,” Tali added, so quietly he almost missed it. “Admiral Hackett said the geth were affected the same way EDI was. Turned off like a switch was flipped.” She paused, then took a step toward him, tilting her face up so he could see the flicker of the lights of her eyes. “What did she do, Garrus?”

“Saved us,” he said, each word weighty as a million lives.

“At what cost?”

“Ten billion people over here die, so twenty billion over there can live.” He put a hand to his head, realizing too late it was the one still bleeding. The angle of Tali’s head was the equivalent of a quarian frown; he’d learned that much over the years. She didn’t say anything, though. He guessed she’d learned that much about him. “Dammit, Shepard. Dammit.”

For the space of several long minutes, Shepard’s soft music was the only sound in the room.

Finally, Tali said, “I’ve been feeding her pets.”

Sheer force of will let him pull himself together enough to reply, “That’s why the little guy’s looking so fat. So have I.”

“I should have known,” she said. “I should have asked.” So suddenly he almost jerked away before he realized what she was doing, she reached out and grabbed his hand. It felt wrong to feel only three long fingers curled around his instead of five shorter, slenderer ones. “Garrus, I’m so—”

“Don’t,” he said, unable to keep the low note of keening from his subharmonics. “Not yet.” He squeezed her hand. “But thank you.”

“A few more days,” she said. “That’s all.”

It’s an eternity, he thought, but out loud he said nothing.

“We should—”

“Go?” he interrupted, wanting to smile. His mandibles gave a sick little flutter. “Yeah.”

“Maybe—”

“Yeah,” he repeated. “I know. Maybe.”

He left Shepard’s music on, as always. He didn’t look back. Forward. They were in the elevator, decidedly not talking about the histories of their people, when he felt the ship begin to shudder and move around them, lifting skyward after its long rest.

Forward was the way to go.