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In a World Kept Small

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It’s far from a necessary expense.


The fish tank—provided for her by the same Cerberus engineers who prioritized building a captain’s cabin bigger than the entirety of the crew quarters—is already kind of frivolous. It takes up a full wall of the cabin, its blue light suffusing the rest of the room in a cool glow.


Shepard tried, in the beginning, to keep some fish. They were pretty and languid, floating peacefully in a microcosm of oblivious safety, and watching them before she went to sleep was unexpectedly soothing.


Unsurprisingly, they all died.  


It turned out remembering to feed the fish was very low on her list of priorities. Scooping their dead bodies out of the tank was embarrassing, a flicker of hot guilt tickling at the base of her belly as she flushed them one by one down the toilet, vaguely relieved nobody could see her doing it.


An illusion abruptly shattered by EDI’s voice: “The waste disposal system in the medical bay would be a more appropriate location for venting dead organic matter, Shepard.”


“Thank you, EDI!” said Shepard loudly, leaping to her feet. She turned to the sink to wash her hands in a weak attempt to cover her discomfort. “If you wouldn’t mind, let’s just keep this between us, okay?”


There was a pause, longer than Shepard usually associated with EDI; she wondered briefly if Joker was listening in. “Of course, Commander.”


“Good,” sighed Shepard. She leaned over the sink, staring at herself in the mirror. Fish guilt. She shouldn’t have bought them if she couldn’t take care of them. Pets were a responsibility. The fate of the galaxy on her shoulders and she couldn’t remember to feed some helpless fish.


Needless to say, she didn’t buy more.


People asked about it, all the time, when they visited her quarters. The empty fish tank was hard to miss.


“You ever think about putting fish in it?” Garrus asked, sitting on her couch after they hit the collector base. His legs were crossed, arm spread over the back; he’d made himself comfortable, and there was a warmth in the pit of Shepard’s stomach. They were alive. She was going to get another chance to explore the unfamiliar landscape of his body.


As soon as he stopped deflecting her attention away from imminent sex and directing it at her (shameful, woeful) lack of fish.


“Is that really what you want to talk about?” she demanded, climbing into his lap and straddling his lean hips. Garrus’s entire body was sharp contrasting angles and bony protuberances, a challenging exercise in finding the human similarities in his turian body and exploiting them for the greater good. She wrapped her arms around his shoulders and pressed their foreheads together, noses just touching. Garrus’s hands settled tentatively on her waist and after a moment he took the opening, stroking the smooth curve of her hip.


“No,” he admitted. “I guess not.”


“Then shut up about the fish, Vakarian,” she said teasingly. She turned her face, the arch of her nose brushing his mandible.


“Tickles,” he rumbled, his voice resonating deep and pleasant within her chest.


Smiling, Shepard kissed his mouth. “Now you’re getting with the program.”


“You just want me for my body,” said Garrus. “Here I am, attempting to converse with you and show an interest in your life and all you’re focused on is—”


“—hot turian booty,” Shepard interrupted firmly. “This is victorious ‘we’re still alive’ sex, post-suicide mission. It takes precedence. We can talk about my fish guilt later.”


“Fish guilt?” said Garrus, helplessly confused.


Shepard distracted him with another kiss, sliding her hand down between his thighs.


“Right, okay,” he conceded hurriedly. “Later.”


The tank stayed empty for six months while the Normandy was impounded, Shepard herself detained.


Then the Reapers had come to Earth.


It’s entirely the wrong time to be thinking about fish. And yet here she stands at Elkoss Combine Arsenal Supplies, wondering how to possibly justify dropping 25,000 credits on an Aquarium VI.


“Why is it empty?” Diana Allers had asked, the first time Shepard had invited her up for an interview.


“Where are the fish?” wondered Liara after visiting Shepard to show her the time capsule. “There is ample room. I’m sure you can buy some the next time we visit the Citadel.”


“You know what this is, right, Lola?” That was James, arching an eyebrow at her and pointing over his shoulder. “It’s not just pretty and decorative wall space. Fish can live in it.”


Fish guilt. They died, she wanted to tell them. I tried, and they all died.


Sometimes thinking about those damn fish makes her wonder if the entire thing is some sort of deep, cosmic metaphor. Or a joke. Why is she so scared of a handful of fish? She’s Commander Shepard. She defeated Saren, she brought her crew back out of the Omega-4 relay alive, she went head-to-head with a goddamn Reaper on Tuchanka and threw the mother of all thresher maws in its face.


They’re just some stupid fish.


Cheeks burning, she stubbornly punches her order into the terminal, watching the balance drop on her credit chit.


Then she scours the Presidium, buying every single kind of fish she can find.


The fish are delivered before the Normandy leaves dry-dock, floating in temporary hermetically-sealed containers that she stacks on the floor of her cabin before turning her attention to unpacking the VI. She installs it in the tank herself with no small amount of anxiety and helpful unsolicited tips from EDI.


When the fish have all been transferred to the tank, she stands in front of the glass, bathed in that comforting cool blue light, and enjoys the unpredictable path of their movement.


“You’re going to live long and happy lives,” she tells the fish as they explore their new home.


She can tell by the charged nature of the silence that EDI wants to interject.


“Say nothing,” Shepard cautions her softly. “Just let it go.”


“...Yes, Shepard.”


“Hey, where’s Garrus?” she asks after a moment. “Can you tell him to come up?”


There’s a pause. “He’s on his way,” announces EDI. “I will give you some privacy.”


Shepard hasn’t moved from in front of the fish tank when the door to her cabin opens a few minutes later. “Shepard,” says Garrus, sounding just a little bit like he maybe ran up here. “EDI said you had something show me?”


“I guess,” she says, feeling a little self-conscious now. She gestures at the tank. “I may have done a thing.”


“Wow,” says Garrus, coming over to stand next to her, his arms crossed. “Look at them all in there. Swimming around. Don’t invite Wrex up here, he’d probably assume you were asking him for dinner and this was the buffet.” He hesitates. “Does this mean something? Because if it does, I’m not getting it.”


“The fish don’t mean anything,” says Shepard. “They’re just fish.”


“Right,” drawls Garrus. “Sure. You called me up here to look at your meaningless fish, then. You never thought fish were necessary before. This thing’s been empty since you got it.”


“No,” admits Shepard. “It hasn’t. But this time, they won’t die.”


For a long moment, Garrus is quiet. Then he steps in closer, sliding an arm around her back, fingers curling over her hip. “And why’s that?”


“I may have dropped 25,000 credits on an Aquarium VI.” Shepard pointedly doesn’t turn her head to look in Garrus’s direction, though she can tell he’s angled his head to look down at her. “It feeds them for me, so I won’t forget.” She clears her throat. “Stupid, right?”


“No,” says Garrus firmly. “Not stupid at all.”


Shepard doesn’t quite believe him, but she lets it slide anyway.


“It’s just nice,” she says. “Watching them. It’s...relaxing. I find them soothing.”


Garrus tightens his grip around her and she wonders what he’s thinking. “Yeah,” he says eventually. “It is nice. You’re allowed to be a little self-indulgent sometimes, Shepard.”


She closes her eyes and leans into him, letting out a breath. “You have some time?”


“For you? Always,” murmurs Garrus. “Hey. You okay?”


“Yeah,” she says. “I am. Let’s go to bed.”